"I am tired of being trailed by Alexander!" fumed Aurora. "Who does he think he is? We can not even go to the bathroom without him walking in on us!"
"Ya," agreed Sunrise, "I am getting tired of it too, but what can we do? We have nowhere to go! This is a space-ship, and everything is monitored. Some days, I wonder if they do not measure the volume of pee we make!"
"And I am tired of magical training!" added Sunset. "It has been six months since our fight with him and he has been relentless."
"You hate doing Magic, and I hate doing Maths. If the Dragon Master that teaches Maths was not impervious to it, I would blow his arse off! Who gives a damn about the topology of hyper-dimensions?" asked a furious-sounding Aurora.
"We bonded with a Dragon, for what good it gave us, and now what? We can shift shape, and what for? So the Empire is better bonded? Enslaved, yes!" added Sunset.
"I want to go far away from here!" said Aurora, kicking the wall of a rather quiet and empty hallway, making a dull sound.
"We tried! We went to hide in just about every tessaract there is, and we found ourselves in the training hall on time wherever we hid! I still do not understand how he manages to find us every time."
"I know Sunset. I have an idea, but given I am sure we are being listened in, I shall keep quiet until the time is right."
Alexander had been tracking his three brothers relentlessly, and was not surprised at hearing their exchange from the tip of an eyebrow hair. If only poor Aurora knew he carried Alexander on his body as a Mite, he would have known there was just no escaping the monitoring of Big Brother.
"We might as well report to the training ground, Aurora. You know how he is! If we come in late he adds an hour to training for each minute we miss!"
"Do you need to remind me of that slave-driver, Sunset? But you are right. Let us translocate to the training ground."
Barely had the three Boys popped into training ground 255 that Alexander appeared in front of them.
"Barely on time, Boys. Maybe you will learn that being on time is the politeness of Kings. Today, you train in the use of a blow-gun or sarbacane, but the tiny ones, no longer than a straw. They are a lot harder to get a precise shot out of than the long, cumbersome sarbacanes. Let me show you what I expect out of this."
"I thought it was the responsibility of Sitar to teach us weapons?"
"Sitar is busy with a herd of Centaurs today. It is the first selection of weapons for their Colts. Okay. Get in line, and watch. The Bees have gracefully accepted to sacrifice a number of their Workers to help train you, so be grateful, you little Brats!"
The three Boys watched Alexander take out of his pocket a narrow tube of about six inches in length and about one inch in diameter.
"This is a straw."
"That is huge!" commented Aurora, looking at the object.
"Yes, it looks like it is huge, but it is a lot smaller than the standard blow-gun. Now, the object of this exercise is to blow this dart into a target. Notice it has a number of hairs at one end and a needle at the other. The needle tip for training is blunt, but the ones used during war are diamond and very sharp. They never grow dull, and can penetrate in tiny cracks found in any armour."
"Any? Even Dragons?"
"But that does not seem to be very dangerous, even for me."
"Danger is not in size, Sunrise, but in what is contained at the tip. Training darts, like these ones, will not kill a Fly, but the real ones, with a varying type of additive, can paralyse and kill."
"How do we know what the tip contains?" asked Aurora.
"The feathers are colour-coded. I shall teach you the colour codes for each type of product. For now, as you see, all are green, indicating they are safe, or poison-less. One thing you have to remember is that it is good policy to recover the darts, and I shall show you how to do so without Magic. The Spiders are supplying what we need for that."
"Okay, can we get a demo?"
"Sure, Aurora. Now, notice there are quite a few insects flying around us, including a Drone. It knows its days are numbered, and wants to mate desperately so it is looking for a Queen. Unfortunately, there are none around as it came out of the nest dead last."
The three Boys saw the Drone fly around haphazardly, searching for its mate. Alexander took a red dart out of a box hidden in a pectoral pocket, tied an almost invisible strand of Spider web to the tail and dropped it in the straw tail-first.
"First, Brothers, notice I selected a red-feathered dart. This means it is tipped with a poison that can kill just about anything on a mere scratch. Second, I knotted the spider web near the feathered end of the dart, as close as I dared, but not on the feathers themselves so as not to affect their dynamics. Third, I dropped the dart tail-first in the straw."
Getting nods from all Boys at each element, Alexander searched for his target in the forest and pointed it out.
"Watch the Drone!"
The three Boys eyed the Drone attentively and suddenly a red flare appeared on its body, to immediately disappear. The Drone fell down on the earth, dead.
"Wow! Where is the dart? I do not want to be scratched by it!" exclaimed Aurora.
"You are using your brain for once! It is here!" replied Alexander, showing the dart dangling from an invisible string of silk.
"Can we touch the Drone?"
"Yes, Sunset. The Drone is dead, and is not poisonous... unless you eat it that is."
The three Boys examined the Drone carefully using a magnifying glass. They could not find where the dart had penetrated the Insect's exoskeleton, but they knew it had to do so to kill.
"Does the poison work for all life?" asked Sunrise.
"Most non-magical life forms die. Magical life-forms, like us, are not affected. After all, we can detect infinitesimal quantities of matter penetrating our body and change their molecular structure so they are no longer toxic. That is why none of us can get drunk, stone, or otherwise disabled by chemical products. It is also why we can anaesthetise pain locally instantly until we fix the issue. There are many advantages to being Mages, Boys, and this is why we teach you all those things about Biology, Biochemistry and organic Chemistry. I would like to also remind you that shape-shifting also presents defensive and offensive advantages, as you learned during your Ordeal."
"How does this poison work?"
"It blocks neural influxes, Aurora. All life we have met use Potassium-Sodium influx to transmit neural signals. We paralyse and kill by blocking the recovery of the Sodium ion. It is a perfected curare. It has been the same for all species we have met except Silicon-based ones, which are rare. In this case it is another poison we use."
"Why not use Magic?"
"We could, Sunset. However, we believe in having more than one weapon in our arsenal. It is better to be safe than sorry. One day, we may meet other magical life-forms and they might be able to fight Magic with Magic."
"Who says they will not be able to neutralise the poison as well?"
"That is a valid question, Sunrise, a very valid question. That is why we are training you in classic warfare as well. Now you understand why we keep pushing you to excel in swordsmanship, firearms, even archery. Magic is not the solution to all problems."
"You are trying to scare us, right?"
"No, Aurora, I am trying to make you realise the world is a much more dangerous place than what you think. Why do you think anyone that has a leadership position in Thebes underwent the Ordeal?"
"I thought it was to piss us off!" said Sunset.
"I do not need to put you through the Ordeal to piss you off, as you say. I know my mere presence succeeds in that endeavour. Now, little Brothers, you will start practising the dart game. Initially, you will try to hit static objects. But we start by knotting the silk strand to your practice dart without getting nicked. You have to learn to do this eyes closed, because you might have to do it in darkness."
The next few days were spent in intensive training with training darts. The boys were frustrated at their lack of progress, and made a considerable number of errors due to negligence, much to the dismay of Alexander.
"Why can we not use Magic?" asked Sunset, after nicking his finger the hundredth time.
"For two reasons: you might find yourself in an area where ambient Magic is absent; and it might be a good idea to hide that you are magical to your opponent. Remember what Sitar told you when he put you through hand fighting: overestimate your enemy and make him underestimate you."
"I thought being the top Dog of the pond was an advantage?"
"It is, but who will win in the end? The top Dog that makes the opponent underestimate his capacity or the yard bully? The best Dog is the underdog, who comes out in a critical battle, surprising his opponent. What matters is victory, not bravado. Remember your Uncle the Runt! He was the underdog of his litter. Now, who would dare face him in a battle, except one wishing to lose hair and life?"
"I can barely feel my fingers!" complained Aurora. "They look like someone played pin cushion with them!"
"I know. I had the same issue when I began this. Maybe it is time to get on to the next step. I will replace the dark green darts with these light green ones."
The training resumed, and the Boys quickly realised they had to pay more attention: each time they pricked themselves produced a powerful burning sensation.
"Oww! This is an improvement?" asked Sunrise at his first pricking.
"I can guarantee you will pay more attention to your fingers!"
And, indeed, the number of accidents dropped, completely disappearing within an hour. Alexander then had them practice speed and improved that by tenfold within the next two hours.
"Okay, Brothers. We are done for the day. Tomorrow, we begin practising at sunrise with the real darts. I had Enron prepare counter-poisons, but do not become sloppy. We still need to teach you the internal molecular control required to counter the poison without this and you lack focus. You Boys really, and I mean it, do need to learn magical control at that level."
"Why? We shall always wear a FSS in battle."
"Do you wear one now, Sunset?"
"No, I am in Thebes!"
"What happens if we get invaded and you have to fight in Thebes? Or you get bitten by a toxic Fish, Scorpion, Snake, or any other life-form we have rescued? We have kept you safe by barring you, and others, from dangerous Tessaracts, but eventually, you will find yourself in a situation where you will be considered an enemy, food, or piss off some of our exotic passengers. Remember the beautiful flowers you so wanted to get close to we rescued a dozen years ago? Their perfume would have put you to sleep and you would have ended up as food source."
"Wait a minute! You rescued dangerous animals and plants?"
"We rescue ecosystems, not individuals. And Ecosystems include dangerous life-forms. We have in store enough planetary ecosystems to put you through tests you have no idea are possible. Wait until you have gained biochemical control and we shall visit some rather exotic Tessaract segments where you will learn to breath oxygen out of Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide, and Nitrogen Dioxide, or from distilled water. Danger is part of life, and we are trying to make you as resilient as possible. You Boys only have two genetic maps as of yet: your Dragon Bonded and yourself. I have billions and I add more every day. My motto is if it lives I want a map. And that motto is the rule by which we all live. Now, let us go eat. I am starved."
The mention of food made the Boys' stomach growl and they realised they too felt hunger pangs like they had not eaten for days.
"Bashar, we are completely encircled! What do we do?"
"We wait. And do not wake up that Telecommunication Officer under any circumstance!"
"Not that it would be possible! I have been keeping his cabin flooded in sleeping gas," replied the Medical Officer.
"Sir, we are detecting a change in the nature of the objects coming from the origin of these ships. There are thousands, no, millions of tiny objects moving toward us at transwarp speed."
"Do you think they are missiles?"
"If they are, they will hit the bigger objects before hitting us."
"Should we try evasive manoeuvres?"
"How? We are encircled, and we have nowhere to go! If these are missiles, as you think, we shall know shortly. Monitor their trajectory."
Several minutes passed without any apparent changes until the Science Officer noticed something.
"The biggest ships are dropping out of transwarp, Bashar. They are matching our trajectory and speed."
"What do you make of this?"
"Either they are positioning themselves to defend us from the smaller objects or the smaller objects are not threats."
"I am growing impatient. Have we found how they communicate?"
"Science Officer, where are we in getting around the damn spy's control of telecommunications?"
"We only need to test it. For now, we are listening passively, and nothing seems to be directed our way."
"Could it be they use a totally different means of communication?"
"If so, we have no idea how they do it."
"Sir, the missiles are dropping out of warp as well!" noted the Science Officer.
"That is so not the normal behaviour of missiles!" exclaimed the Tactical Officer.
"I know! What is going on?"
"I wish I knew Bashar!" said the Engineer.
"Go from passive to active monitoring!"
The Science officer looked sideways at the Bashar while executing the order.
"Are you not afraid we could be seen as activating weapons?"
"If they wanted us dead, we would be by now. I am sure they can differentiate between monitoring and weapon target acquisition."
"Bashar, these missiles carry life-forms!" exclaimed the Science Officer. "They are not warheads but ships!"
"That is impossible! They are too small!"
"What can I say? The sensors are formal: Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, a plethora of carbon molecules. The signature is clear as day. And now, silicon-based life forms have been added to the mix! This is incredible!"
"Is that even possible? Calibrate your sensors!"
"I have been doing that and all I get back is mostly Carbon-based life-forms, followed by Silicon-based forms. And now, I detect a dozen Germanium and a couple of Tin-based forms! Holy Pincers! And a Lead-based one at the far range! What is going on?"
"I wish I knew!" breathed out the Bashar.
Way behind Thebes and its Armada, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand monitored reports with ever more frenzy. Something big was up, and he could not put his pincer on it. As the Armada moved deeper within the galaxy, reports flowed in, all more outlandish than the previous one. The First Fleet kept reporting an immense turbulence in what should have been a rather quiet field of Magic, and more of its ships suddenly lost power due to voids in the field. To add to the misery, some ships collided explosively because they lost control at a different rate. The explosive rupture of Magic engines added to the overall mayhem.
Meanwhile, another question haunted Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand: Where were the Mages that should have been waiting on his fleet or, better still, have begun putting the fight to the invader? He decided to take a risk and divert a vessel from the Second Fleet to the nearest cistern along their path. It should have supplied a few thousand Mages and yet, none had emerged from the Methane cloud yet.
"Scan the surface for any sign of life, or activation of structures. Do not, under any circumstances, send a landing party. You would be killed instantly and I need a report, not cadavers."
"At your command, Mage."
"Estimate your arrival time once you are on your way and tell me using priority channel one!"
The Bashar of the ship was surprised. It was the first time ever that a priority channel was open to a communication from the exterior.
"I do not have the clearance, your Highness."
"You do now. I have sent the encryption key to your computer as we spoke."
"Acknowledged. Should I send my report the same way?"
Less than ten minutes later, the Bashar of the Corvette sent by Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand came back on channel one and informed him it would take two clicks to reach the target star system at maximum warp. It did not please the Mage, but he had no other ship at his disposal that did nor harbour a Mage in its crew, and he was not willing to give one of his lower brethren the chance to accumulate more Magic and confront him at a later date.
Meanwhile, the Mage Guard ships framing Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand and his Admiral ship made haste to move back whence they came so as to compensate for lost time. The Imperial Mage was furious at being led on a false trail by incomplete information, and quite a few high-ranking Officers paid their misjudgement with their life. The old adage stating that promotions came easier during war than at peace was proven right once again.
The two clicks passed agonisingly slow for the Mage and his temper resented the effect. Had he been able to push his Armada with a thought, he would have tried it. Finally, the report of arrival to the star system reached him and he told the Corvette to move to the ninth planet and look at the biggest Moon of the group of 14 found there.
Half a click later, the Bashar came on-line and requested a higher encryption level from the Mage, surprising the Andromedan. The Mage obliged, worried at the contents of the report.
"There are only 13 moons around the planet. Yet there is a ring of debris in formation. It is still very much concentrated in a cluster. There is a lot of Methane snow on the rocks, and some structures remind me of what could be interpreted as liquid canisters shredded by powerful explosions. We have found tiny bits of electronics and a control panel with wiring dangling from everywhere. There are also bits and pieces of what once used to be life-forms. It is a carnage. There is also egg shells and even one that seems to be whole but its contents is gone due to a microscopic perforation, as if it had been targeted. The explosions are recent because the edges are extremely sharp and there is no pockmark due to meteorite collisions."
The succinct report sent shivers down the back spine of the Mage. It was not that he cried the loss of competitors, but he knew, deep inside, that all those missing Mages that should have reported once the alert spread were now dead. That was unheard of. He nonetheless decided to validate the report by sending the Corvette to more storage sites and forwarded to the Bashar ten more sites.
"Explore all sites. I have included the location of what you must look for. Use the same channel. Limit your report to a terse 'Identical' or 'Different'."
"Acknowledged. Do you need to have time-frame reference?"
"No. Give me the number when you report. Keep radio silence otherwise."
"At your command. We leave now."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had sounded okay to the Bashar, but inside, he felt abashed. What power could destroy a storage site so thoroughly without warning and leave the area without even a trace of its passage? It had left nothing, not even a nest or an egg intact.
"Admiral, what is the emergency sustainable speed we can hold and for how long?" he asked through the internal communication system.
"We can hold the speed of the slowest ship in the Armada."
"Warp 9.1, your Highness. For six clicks."
"And if we were not slowed down by the slowest?"
"Speed-wise, it would be 9.5, as for sustained, it drops to three clicks. However, your Highness, we would lose half of the Armada."
"What would be the situation in the two scenarios once we emerge of sustained emergency?"
"Indefensible for half the Fleet, in the first scenario, and we would be left without an support whatsoever in the second scenario."
"Why is that?"
"In both cases, engines would need a cool-down period to prevent a catastrophic meltdown. This would leave us immobile targets, something not sustainable during a war situation."
"What would you suggest?"
The Admiral was surprised by the request, and gave it some thought.
"I suggest a 2:1 stratagem. Two clicks sustained maximum speed of the slowest of the Armada, a click at normal cruise speed, followed by another two clicks at maximum and so forth. That way, we make the hastiest progress without becoming targets."
"At your command, your Highness."
On Thebes' Bridge, Ian watched the flow of reports from the advanced Scouts and Sitar's use of them to encircle the ship that they had come across.
"Sitar, what are your plans?"
"First, prevent it from making a run. Second, send the FSS and board the ship."
"That seems reasonable. When do you plan to board the ship exactly?"
"Before we come within range of its sensors. Our size is enough to make anyone panic."
"I admit seeing a star-sized ship make its way toward me would make me a bit nervous."
"I thought so too."
"Who will command the boarding party?"
"Our Brother, Prince Viola. He has been training in diplomacy with all those species we rescued, and has an innate sense of military strategy and situations."
"Fine. I approve of the choice. He also has the proper mental flexibility to establish communications in the language of those people. Do we have an idea of their sensor capabilities?"
"Somewhat. They stopped moving when they were well within our own range," Samson explained. "If this is an indication, it means their sensitivity is half ours, assuming they were using passive sensors. Their active sensing is also half of our power levels."
"If they used maximum power..." noted Enron.
"Yes, Son, if they used maximum power."
"I see Viola is still on-board," noted Greywolf. "Should I dispatch him to his mission?"
"I shall," said Ian, noticing the arrival of Harold-Ian on the bridge to take over the Helm. "Primus Marshallis Viola! Report to FSS boarding deck 23 with your Swarm. The mission parameters are being transferred on the deck."
A quick acknowledgement came over the speakers of the Bridge.
"Activate the recall of Timor's Swarm as soon as Viola begins movement, using simultaneous translocation. I do not want the observers on that ships to notice the change."
"In-phase translocation is activated," reported AI-6.
Quite soon, the 122,111,111 members of Viola's Swarm replaced those of Timor's. The only indication of the rotation was the change in size of the individual FSS members, as Timor's Swarm contained a considerable number of Trolls, Centaurs, Pegasuses, Unicorns and Horses, while Viola's was made of Elves, Fairies, Miniature Orcs, Atlanteans, Dogs, and Goblins.
"We are in position, Ian."
"Good. Converge toward the space-ship. Establish contact by any means necessary."
"Okay. I will keep you updated."
By then, a freshened up Timor walked in on the Bridge and signalled his arrival, as if a 15-foot tall biped needed to signal anything. He looked at Ian significantly, and the Heir nodded toward the Captain's Ready Room. Once the door was closed, the two sat down.
"Is there anything that needs to be talked about, Timor?"
"Mission-wise, no. All I want to know is why we were recalled half-way through our shift?"
"I figured we need a diplomat for the next part of the mission. You are good militarily but have proven over and over you are as diplomatic as a tank in a porcelain shop. Remember Eridani-VI?"
Timor did indeed remember the Eridani-VI fiasco with a burning sensation in his throat. What should have been an easy first contact turned out into a bloodbath based on a total misunderstanding of mutual customs. He needed not remember the name the natives of the star system put on his fine troops but it was not flattering. All that disaster because a left-to-right head movement meant yes, an up-down movement meant no, and he had jumped to bloody conclusions.
On the Bridge of the Andromedan Scout ship, the sudden shrinking of the already microscopic ships took everyone by surprise.
"Are they moving away?" asked the Bashar, alarmed.
"No, active sensors indicate they just shrank in size and changed shape, but that they are at the same distance," replied the Science Officer, trying to make sense of the sensor array results.
"That does not make sense! A ship is of a specific shape and size!"
"I know, but if you can do better, you are welcomed, Tactical Officer!" replied the Science Officer, flustered by the tone of said Tactical Officer.
"Anything else?" asked the Bashar, trying to avert an exchange of words between two vital components of his crew.
"Not yet. Correction! They have begun moving closer to us!"
"Who the big ones or the small ones?"
"The small ones, Bashar. They are flowing around the static position of the big ships, clearly demonstrating that these tiny ones are effectively ships!"
"And that they are allies," added the Tactical Officer grumpily.
"What is their current speed?"
"Half the speed of light, Bashar. They are less than half a click away."
"Stay put! No aggressive move whatsoever!"
"Even if we did have such a dim-witted intention, Bashar," said the Tactical Officer, "we are in no position to fire anything. Their mobility outstrips our target acquisition effectiveness, and our weapons would have to fire blindly."
"I would not be surprised if they could even dance around our output," added the Science Officer. "I saw them evade a meteor trail as if it was nothing, and from the sensors, the big ones simply vapourised the biggest pieces, including one that was 12 times our own size."
"Continue monitoring their progress."
"Should we wake up the Communications Officer?"
"Are you out of your mind, Science Officer? The response would be a direct order to attack, and damn the consequences."
"What do you mean the area is a big hole filled with Methane and nothing else?" thundered Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, as the last report came in from the Corvette.
"It is as I say, Do you wish a visual, paired with sensor readings?"
"No, I have to accept what you are saying at face value. You have no reason to lie to me, knowing the consequences. Have you seen any Guard Fleets?"
"What fleet, your Highness? They are in pretty bad shape. Their Admiral ships are mostly hulls torn to shreds by explosions. We have yet to determine if the explosions were internal or external in origins. However, one Scout ship survived relatively intact except for the Bridge, that killed the primary crew. We woke up the secondary crew, but they are unknowing of what caused the situation and are now working to repair their ship to bring it to the nearest shipyard."
"Look into it and determine how these explosions occurred. Have you any idea off the cuff?"
"If it was an attack, it occurred so fast they did not even have the time to arm their shields or their weapons. It is a genocide, your Highness. The cryogenic chambers were torn out so fast the contents never thawed to explode. We saw corpses floating around ensconced in Methane blocks matching the shape of the containers with the heating rods still in place."
"Did you see any near the bases?"
"Corpses? No, but it does not mean anything. These bases were in gravity wells and the corpses probably sank to the bottom of the artificial Methane lakes left by the explosions. We would need to go down on the surface to assess what really happened, your Highness."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand hesitated. Should he send them down and let them discover the true nature of these bases? Or let his previous order stand? If they discovered that all the corpses were Mages, the consequences might be disastrous. Finally, caution won out and he reinstated his previous orders.
"Just focus on the ships for now. Visit a fleet and see what you can come up with."
"At your command, your Highness."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand made his way to the Bridge slowly, deep in thought. He had no doubt from all the information that their Empire was being invaded by a force to be reckoned with, but he was sure they would prevail. After all, this was only a narrow band that had been damaged, a needle in the heart of their vast Empire. The Mage figured that knowing of the enemy would give his forces the necessary fighting chance. After all, they were not taken by surprise as the others had been!
"How are we progressing?" he asked the Admiral.
"We are doing as quickly as possible, your Highness. We have picked up a few of the First Fleet on our way back that had been stranded, and gave them the boost of Magic to start them on their way toward the Enemy. We lost a few as well, due to collisions with undetected First Fleet ships, mostly Scouts."
"How is that possible?"
"Disabled ships stop emitting significant amount of energy, your Highness. At our speed, we have very little time to adjust trajectory to evade a collision."
"Oh. I understand. Have we lost any big ships?"
"No. Most collisions were between Scouts of our Fleet and Scouts of the First Fleet. Big ships still have enough reserves to be detected on time. We send rescue vessels ahead, pick up the crews and add them to our complement. We may need them in the upcoming battles."
That did not please Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand but he had to admit training crews might become problematic if the number of lost Mage Guard Fleets continued to rise, so he ignored the Admiral's orders.
"What about the Second Fleet? Where are they?"
"They seem to have taken a different, but parallel path to ours. They have had less trouble, less loss of power. But they still experience the issue, mainly on their left flank."
"Mainly on their left flank? That means the target is between us and their left flank!"
"Yes, but it is still way out of sensor range and the turbulence is increasing in width as we move forward. That tells me we are moving closer in a way."
"Your Highness, the turbulence is produced by a moving object. The thing is, its width is relative to the distance separating us from it. As a ship moves through space, like ours, we create this turbulence, that fans out, until the gases settle down to a new low-energy state. We are heading toward the maximum turbulence point, clearly detected by the ever increasing number of Magic Engine failures. When we reach the maximum we shall probably have lost half of our Fleet due to power-outs. Then we need to continue and catch up with the objects, but the width will diminish until we reach the ship itself. We can not expect to catch up to them from behind, given the information we managed to get from rescued Scouts. Nothing flies behind the invading Armada because there is just no Magic to drive our engines."
"Our only solution is to run around the ships and lay in wait for them to come to us. The problem is we have no idea of that Armada's trajectory. The few Scouts we did rescue lost all power, and only managed to hold on to minimal survival conditions. The rest was wiped."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand noticed the reference to plural.
"You expect this to be an Armada. Why?"
"Nothing measuring five light-years in diameter can fly. It has to be a dense concentration of smaller ships."
"That remains to be seen, but I shall give you this, you have proved your worth so far so I shall not dismiss your idea."
The three little Devils worked hard to master the darts and the small blow guns. Days passed and Alexander kept the pressure on them relentlessly. Within 15 days, he had them ready to shoot at mobile targets, in this case, Hornets. A few stings later focussed their attention to what they were doing.
"How do you always manage to get your target?" asked Aurora after his fifth sting.
"Look at the Hornet's behaviour. It has a flight pattern due to its anatomy. Every flier has a specific pattern imposed on it by the interaction of its anatomy and a set of constants: gravity and air resistance. You need to take into account what varies from one specie to the next: body size, body length, body width, wingspan, number of wings, wing-beat that you can hear, and what it is interested in."
"Yes, it is interested in my butt!"
"Very unlikely, your friend on the other hand!" said Sunset.
"You have something to talk about! All you want is to see Sunrise's rear!"
"It is not my fault I am so beautiful there!" replied Sunrise with a smirk.
Alexander could not help but laugh at the exchange, but he had some training to continue.
"Okay Boys. Each of you has been stung several times. We will focus on extracting the genetic material left behind, err, on your behind, by the Hornets. You will then learn to incorporate the differential information into your genome and I shall bring you to your first transformation to a Hornet and then back to your form. I know you can, since you have bonded with a Dragon."
"What do we do with these?" asked Aurora, looking at his blow gun warily.
"Put then in a parallel dimension. I suggest the sixth dimension, since it is where we usually store the Imperial stuff."
"Such as?" questioned Sunset.
"Such as our personal weapons, our private diary, emergency food and water supply, and Imperial Archives that should never be made public."
"How can that dimension keep things private for each of us?"
"Sometimes, I wonder if you slept during the lesson on multi-dimensional structures, Sunset."
"Well, were we not asleep during these lessons at the end of each stage of the Ordeal?"
"Only so the contents could be written in your memory more quickly and without too much hassle. It does not mean your dream is devoid of valid contents."
Alexander looked at the three Boys in the eyes, wondering if the ease of learning had not been detrimental to these three. After a minute, he ordered them to access their knowledge about inter-dimensional storage.
"Notice that each of you creates his own private space, and that this space is totally private and protected from any other Mage, whatever his power level. Each of you has a unique way of doing Magic that constitutes your signature, all but insuring that your private space is just that, private."
"Yes, Aurora, way cool, as you say. The thing is, you can invite someone to share your space, and even key in their Magic so they can enter your private space. The only exception to the exclusion rule is Harp. This is because if you get hurt in your private space, someone must be able to come to your help."
"We understand!" said the three Boys in tandem.
"Now get to work. Put these darts and blow guns where you can find them safely. I put my private weapons in a weapon chest with hundreds of drawers clearly labelled so I do not have to look all over the place. There is a tent, water, oxygen canisters, a series of tools from a string to a lighter. Everything to survive without Magic, should the condition arise."
After some trials and errors, the Boys had their own locker.
"What happens if there is suddenly no Magic and everything is locked in that dimension? We shall not be able to access it!" noted Sunset.
"The only time when Magic can vanish without warning is when we do dimensional jumps. By then, I expect you guys to have reached our level, and not need external Magic do do anything."
After taking a sip of lemonade, Alexander had the Boys sit on chairs he materialised for them.
"The chairs are there so your samples do not get contaminated by external factors. Sit."
The three Boys sat gingerly on their sensitised butts, cringing at every move.
"Now, focus on where the pain is. That should not be too hard!"
The Boys pouted but did as asked.
"Now, use Magic to study your blood flow in the area. See all these things flowing around: the big white cells are there to protect you from infection; the flat disks carry Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide; there are proteins carrying fatty acids, others carry insulin, and others carry sugar in the form of complex Carbon chains."
The Boys were fascinated by what their Magic revealed. Then they realised they had seen all of that during their Ordeal but had disregarded the information as irrelevant to their immediate misery. Alexander noted their change of attitude immediately. After asking some questions, the Boys realised they knew what was going on.
"Okay. Have a look at the structure of a cell. Notice you have a nucleus where the genetic material is concentrated. Ask Magic to pull out the genetic maps. Each of you will have different genetic maps. The only exception are mono-zygote twins. Sunrise, Sunset, you are such twins. We shall get to proving that to you later."
After a nod from all three Boys, Alexander continued.
"Okay. Now, notice there are thirty-two pairs of chromosomes, much more than we should have. The additional pairs come from the Dragon you bonded with and are responsible for controlling shape-shifting and a lot more."
"A lot more?" asked Sunset.
"Well, Dragons are Silicon-based and we are Carbon-based. That is a huge structural change. Thus we added their chromosome set to our and they added ours to theirs, thus gaining Magic and shape-shifting as well."
"Shall we add a complete chromosome set for each animal we merge?" wondered worriedly Aurora. "It seems awfully crowded in there!"
"No, we add only those changes that separate us from the species we incorporate. Adding the Hornet will add a considerable amount, since we are quite far from the Insects, but once this is done, you will only add those changes separating the Hornet from the other Insects."
"Whew! I was getting worried! I do not want to burst!"
After a good laugh at Aurora's expense, Alexander resumed his explanations.
"Focus on where the hurt is. Notice the liquid that got injected under your skin, the venom of the Hornet. Extract the genetic signature."
The Boys did as asked and observed the number of genes was not the same nor were they of the same length as those of their current structure.
"Overlay the two gene sets. Notice anything?"
"There is no match from the Dragon except in a very small segment," said Aurora.
"But there are more in the Carbon-based chromosomes," added Sunset.
"Discard the information that is common between your current structure and the Hornet. That will give you what you must add to the Carbon-based set, since the Dragon set is too different and you would overload in the long run."
"How do we merge the two sets?"
"Ask Magic to merge the two. When it does, the only things that will be added are the differences, including the control set of the Hornet's genome."
"Okay. Will change occur immediately?" asked Sunrise.
"No more than it did when you incorporated the Dragon genes."
After a minute, all three Boys let out a breath of relief.
"Now what?" asked Aurora.
"Now, you will learn how to activate the control set for the Dragon, then we shall activate the control set for the Hornet, and finally the control set for Atlantean Humanoid, your current shape.
"Is that difficult?"
"Not really, because Magic handles most of the work, including changing your energy signature. Ask Magic to go slowly at first, so you can feel the transition."
"I am afraid it will be painful!"
"Sunset, does water feel pain when you change it from one bottle to the next?"
"No, it is not alive!"
"So you say. But assume it is?"
"No, I do not think so."
"Well, you will not feel pain either. When you change shape, you change container for your life energy. Nothing more."
The Boys nodded and under Alexander's guidance, triggered their conversion to Dragon form, The three Princes, overjoyed by their success, took to flying, accompanied by Alexander.
«Let us go fishing. The first change requires a lot of energy and the day is not over.»
An impressive train of Dragons moved out over the far edge of the island that had been chosen for the training, and Alexander spotted a school of Barracudas.
«Here is the lunch, Boys. Drop from about a mile high, maw wide open, and pull up when you reach a depth of two thousand feet. Slam the trap close on the pull-up, spit the water and swallow the rest. You can then reopen the maw and fish on the up-climb and repeat the process, but the upward movement is usually less satisfactory, as the Fishes can feel you coming and only the slow ones stay in your path.»
Twenty minutes later, a few lucky Barracudas made their escape and Alexander led the Princes back to the island.
«Drop to the ground and trigger the Hornet genome.»
«Are we not vulnerable during that form?» asked Sunset.
«Yes, but remember, if you get swallowed, you can just convert back to Atlantean, or Dragon. I doubt the predator would survive you blowing up in size to either one. Just do not wait until you are digested!»
The three Boys and Alexander took the plunge and changed into Hornets. Alexander took the time they were in that form to bring to their attention the differences between Dragon flight and Hornet flight.
«Now you know how a Hornet flies, you will have less trouble hitting one with your blow guns. Back to Atlantean Humanoid shape, Boys. We have some practice to do."
The Boys retrieved their blow guns and resumed practice. The result was spectacular: the number of successful hits climbed steadily until they each managed a perfect shot from 50 yards.
"Okay. Training over for today."
"I wish I could remove the itch from all those stings!" moaned Sunrise.
"That is a simple job. Focus on the toxin and see how it is built. Notice the hole that looks like a six-sided star? If you insert a molecule of similar shape, it prevents the protein from bonding with your body and if that molecule you use has a pair of chloro-methylene attached to it, the allergen fractures and loses its capacity to irritate you. The chlorine binds to the protein cutting it in there pieces and then releases the three parts to the blood flow, where they get digested by the white blood cells. Bye-bye allergic reaction."
The Boys applied the suggestion much to their relief.
"Off to dinner, Boys. It is almost time to go to see Dad. I wonder what is up with the outside world."
"What could be up with the outside world? We are in nowhere land!"
"Only you, Aurora, can say that. Have you not been keeping track of things? We are in Andromeda, and are now exploring that galaxy."
Aurora smirked, clearly indicating his lack of interest. His two side-kick Brothers followed suit, much to Alexander's dismay. The Boys made a stop at the Bridge to pick up Ian and Harp; Colibri was taking his shift as acting Captain as they walked in.
"Hello Timor. I though you were on Scout duty until Vespers?"
"We got recalled early, Alexander. So, the three little Devils are working hard, I heard?"
"Uncle Timor, we are too tired to put up with your misplaced humour!"
Timor grabbed Aurora by the legs in the blink of an eye and began tickling his soles.
"Stop it, Uncle Timor! I am too old for that!" whined Aurora.
"You will be too old the day you act your age rather than like a little, well, not so little, prick!" replied the giant Troll, look between Aurora's legs while continuing his ministrations.
"Continue like this and you get a golden shower!"
The Troll simply turned the Boy so he faced his two accomplice in trouble-making,
"Self-control plays a big part in leadership training!" replied the Troll King.
"I shall get back to you!"
"Before getting back to me, you have to get away from me first!"
"Let me go, you big prick!"
"Ah, you noticed? You took your time!"
"Who would miss that log? I wonder how your Fairy wife survives when you have sex! Let go I say!"
"No! And do not involve Iridia in this little roughing-out we are having if you know what is good for you!"
Aurora let go of a powerful stream that flooded his two side-kicks before they could jump out of the way. Finally empty the Boy shifted to a Hornet and flew out of the Bridge.
«Finally, you used your brains to escape. That was the test!» thundered Timor much to the laughter of those on the Bridge, as Harp vapourised the yellow pool dripping at the feet of the two remaining members of the terrible trio.
"What are you waiting for? You could remove the residue off your body if you bothered trying to use your Magic!" said Harp as he saw the Boys continue to drip on the Bridge floor.
«Who is tailing Aurora?» asked Ian. «In his foul mood, I do not expect him to be rational.»
«Iridia is doing so. That is why I tried to distract him of any idea about her or he would have noticed she was not in residence on my shoulder. She took position in one of his ears. He did not notice the noise produced by the Mosquito as she flew in. Now she is in another form to hold to his outer ear.»
«Poor Aurora! If only he knew we can read him like an open book and that any really stupid Magic he might even try will be blocked! Assign two more watchers to Sunrise and Sunset. They may lack the disposition of Aurora, but they are not above doing something stupid on their own.»
«It is done, Ian. Greywolf and the Runt are on them, literally. You have two Flea-infested Brothers!»
«I prefer them infested with Fleas than dead.»
«I just hope she will not be taken by surprise if he changes shape.»
«Do not worry about Iridia. She probably took the form of a very small parasite that survives on just about any shape Aurora is able to take. And knowing Aurora, he will take the big Dragon form before considering that a Hornet hides more easily. He is all for show.»
«What if he collects more maps?»
«For now, he is too furious to think and collecting maps is way down his priority list.»
«Let us get to the Mess Hall. Aurora may be pissed out, but his stomach still manages to get through the fog of his rage. Port, I do not want him alone in there venting his rage left and right.»
"Port to the Mess Hall," said Ian out loud for the benefit of Sunrise and Sunset more than for the others invited to dinner. "I feel like making a mess of food! I could eat a Pig."
"Or like a Pig, you mean?" asked Sunset irreverently.
"Continue like that, little Brother, and you will be on my diet!"
"Oh, kinky tonight?" replied Sunrise, as Ian ignored the reply and ported to the Mess Hall, followed by the others. Just in time, it seems, as Aurora made a stormy walk down the hall to the Imperial table.
"How in Hell did you manage to pass me? I ran all the way! Even you two?"
"Have you heard of a five-letter word that starts with M and ends in C, Aurora?" asked Sunrise.
"I am in no mood to fill in crosswords!"
"You have not been in the mood for anything but being a jerk, Aurora," replied Sunset. "Even to us, and you used to be fun and think of pranks. Now all you think is about some perceived slights of hand we can not even perceive. You are not fun anymore! I was going to say grow up, but if growing up means your temper worsens, I say get back to diapers!"
The members of the Imperial Family that heard the exchange were stunned. Could a crack be appearing in the monolith these three pranksters had presented over the years?
Aurora tried to storm out of the Mess Hall, but his stomach called him back in line with a resounding grumble. He sat down on his chair, slamming down more than sitting, and waited for his food.
Harold watched his Son disapprovingly, and eyed Alexander questioningly.
«He only learns from his failures Dad. So I am letting him learn his way. He will one day have to think thing out. As for the other two, they may be less set in their ways, but still have a lot to unlearn from Aurora's bad influence. Do not worry, they are always trailed, even in bed.»
That last comment had Harold rise his left eyebrow slightly.
«They still sleep in the nest, so nothing escapes us. And they are being monitored telepathically all the time. Aurora is so easy to read it is a shame. He thinks his inner thoughts are his alone and even experiencing telepathy on a daily basis, he believes he has privacy. I do not get that mental set, but it is to our advantage. The other two are beginning to realise the illusion privacy is, but Aurora never listens to them, so their warnings fall on deaf ears.»
"Timor? I heard you had another Chimera born?"
"Yes. I mated with a female of the Ithlem we rescued 22 years ago. They are now ready to be added to the Atlantean family."
"Yes. Remember the Centurie we have that surprise you by having eight limbs and four fingers, including an opposing thumb?"
"Yes, I remember now. They made me think of a Hindu Goddess, Mahishasuramardini, I think."
"Yes, those ones."
"How was the birth?"
"It went fine. The little Female has eight limbs but five fingers per hand. That gives her the look of a big Spider, cuddly and all."
"Do not forget to bring her to the Throne for Recognition. We still are looking for a replacement to Sekhmet."