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FIRST PLACE WINNER — Submission by Hans Grohmann   [ Part 1 of 5 ]

Alkyne studied the ATLAC shuttle through the trioptic scanner as it descended through Denev's upper atmosphere. Wide wings and high rounded stabilizers surrounded the spherical body, providing stability as it maneuvered. The hull was dark and smooth, concealing several plasma cannon ports strong enough to challenge even a cruiser's shields. Fleet Command had sent a swift and potent response to his questions. He hoped it would be enough.

He heard movement behind him, and looked over as Malthos approached. The older construction foreman was built like a wall; thirty cycles working in construction had left its mark on him. He stomped toward Alkyne, his fiery orange eyes locked in a deep scowl that was firmly directed at the young engineer, who instinctively shifted a step backwards.

"Are they coming?" Malthos' voice was as rough as stone. Much like his manner.

"Looks like another five minutes before they touch down. Those new ATLAC's are fast."

"Hmph." Alkyne sometimes thought Malthos grunted more than he spoke. "Took them long enough. You'd think they were coming from Sol itself."

"They reacted almost instantly to our request, Malthos. We only spoke to ConForm a week ago, and PMRD contacted us a day later and said they were en route."

"Psilon Military Research and Development." Malthos spoke each word like a curse. "Just what this place needs. Probably turn the whole planet into an outpost by the time they're through."

"But if there is unknown technology here... think of the benefits it could bring to us."

"And the harm it could bring to others." Malthos finished for him. "The Meklars, the Bulrathi... even the Humans."

Alkyne could not answer. The wonders of genetic engineering, discovered under a century ago during the Second Orion Civil War, had led to many biological and medical breakthroughs for the Psilons- cures to many diseases, increased life expectancy, and improvements in food production, among others. And in a cooperative endeavor with the Human Empire, both races' knowledge of genetic manipulation allowed them to experiment with inter-species breeding. The project was successful, and Malthos was one of a handful of half-Human half-Psilon citizens, a living testament to inter-species cooperation.

"Denev is a beautiful planet, kid. This is where I'll retire. I'll work these yards a few more cycles- make this a better colony for me and my family- and then I'm done. But not if PMRD turns it into a Fleet outpost."

"No one else is qualified to study something like this."

"Bah. You don't have to be in the Fleet to do research. University researchers can do just as well, if not better. They just lack organization and funding that the military can provide. PMRD wants weapons. That's why they're really here. You'll see."

Alkyne could not respond to that either, so he resumed his study of the approaching shuttle. The ATLAC (All Terrain Landing Capable) shuttles had been newly commissioned by Fleet Command for tactical and surveillance missions. Heavily armed and capable of carrying a sizeable complement of crew and cargo, they could set up modular bases, drop off strike teams, and even board and capture capital ships.

"It's almost here, Malthos. We should meet them."

"Hm. Let's get this over with, kid." They walked together to the landing pad as the shuttle gently touched down. The engines powered down seconds later, and the shuttle's main hatch opened. A squad of Psilons in military uniforms emerged and quickly took up formation around the shuttle. Simultaneously, the cargo elevator dropped to the ground, and a dozen more soldiers began moving heavy equipment off the ship. Malthos and Alkyne watched as the troops started setting up defense grids, a jamming field, a hyper-comm link, and a dozen armed perimeter drones. They then spread out and began scouting through the construction yard.

"They'd better not mess up my camp," Malthos grumbled. "No soldier's getting in the way of our people here. We're still being paid to work, and we're not finished yet."

"I'm sure they'll finish their analysis quickly and let us move on." Alkyne replied uneasily, noting that the systems the soldiers were setting up did not seem very temporary at all.

Finally, three officers disembarked from the shuttle, a captain and two commanders. The captain surveyed the area, nodded curtly to a sergeant reporting to him, and then led the other two to where Malthos and Alkyne were waiting. "Mr. Malthos, construction foreman? Mr. Alkyne, chief engineer?" Alkyne nodded; Malthos grunted softly. "Captain Jenoon, PMRD. These are my associates, Dr. Therian, Biomedical division, and Commander Irain, Telepathic division. We have been assigned to investigate your discovery. You should be advised that as of this moment, your crew and facilities are under direct control of Psilon Fleet Command. This operation is now classified under statute A15 of the Secrecy Mandate. No one is to leave the perimeter that we have established until the operation is complete. All non-Psilons are to be secured until thorough background checks have been completed. Understood?"

"Absolutely not," Malthos stated bluntly, his scowl deepening. "You can't hold my men here indefinitely! We all have homes and families to go to! We need-"

"Your needs will be accounted for. Temporary lodgings will be set up for your personnel on site. Supplies will be brought in by shuttle."

"And our contract? Denev and ConForm are both paying for-"

"Your contract has been renegotiated by PMRD. Standard salaries will be paid to your men for the duration of this operation in exchange for your assistance in our efforts."

"Assistance? You have no idea what's going on here! Our efforts have cost five people their lives. We're not risking anyone else. Not for you, not for money, not for anything!"

"You will not risk anything. That is why we're here." Jenoon turned to Alkyne. "I want to see the reports you have on the object. Measurements, scans, and any analyses you have come up with. Tomorrow morning, after our command center is set up, the two of you will report to me."

A sergeant jogged up to Captain Jenoon. "Sir, perimeter is secure, sir!"

"Launch all drones, activate both defense grids, and raise the shield. Deploy all mobile structures now. Integrate them into the main construction yard. Have all civilian personnel accounted for."

"Yes, sir!" The sergeant saluted, and returned to the soldiers unloading equipment from the ATLAC shuttle.

Jenoon focused his attention on Malthos. "We are taking these actions for all our benefit and protection. We do not want anyone else harmed. We do not want to inconvenience you. But we do want to get this done, and the more you cooperate, the sooner that will be. Do you understand?"

"This is my yard, Captain. My crew. My job. The sooner you can get your job done, the sooner I can go back to doing mine. You slow me down, and I'll throw every one of your soldier boys off planet. Do you understand?"

Anger unnecessary. Alacrity intended.

Malthos and Alkyne both whipped their heads around to stare at the young woman Jenoon had introduced as Commander Irain. Neither man had ever met a telepath before; all psychically aware Psilons were immediately registered with the Psilon Telepathic Division and assigned to public service. The strongest ones inevitably ended up with the military.

Assistance facilitates. Provide.

Alkyne was studying her intently, and then caught himself, embarrassed. "Is it... is it true about her- them- umm, that they can'tů" He paused, looking from Irain to Jenoon and back again, hesitantly.

Jenoon's lips curled up slightly, amused. "No, telepaths cannot speak. The speech and telepathic centers of the brain apparently function mutually exclusive of each other."

Greetings, Alkyne. Curiosity understood. Offense nonexistent.

"Umm, thank you, commander. Ma'am."

Jenoon looked back at Malthos. "If you could show us around the yard so that we can get familiar with the area, we can get started tomorrow morning."

"The sooner, the better, Captain."


[ CONTINUED...   Part 2 ]

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