FIRST PLACE WINNER Submission by Hans Grohmann [ PART 2 of 5 ]
Early the next day, Jenoon and his officers met with Alkyne and Malthos to discuss the situation. Alkyne began with the briefing.
"As we had explained in our report to PMRD Command, we're here on Denev working for ConForm Industries to install eight subterranean research modules. While excavating the fourth site, we encountered a section of an object, which we've termed the vault, seventy-two meters below ground. Further blasting revealed that the vault was a large square object, fifty-three meters to a side. Its depth is currently unknown; we've only excavated about five meters below its upper edge. Our scans were completely void- standard radar, sonar, and EM scans were blocked by something in or around the vault. Our explosives did not visibly damage the vault's surface, and we were using kerite blasting cubes to clear the rock and dirt in the pit. Whatever it's made of, it's something that we've never seen before. We couldn't even chip off a sample to study.
"There was only one apparent way inside the vault, and that was through a closed circular aperture on top, about four meters in diameter and close to the northern edge. There were no other markings or seams that we've discovered so far. We suspected that perhaps this was a subterranean structure, just like the lab we were planning to build here, and that an access shaft, like an elevator, would have led from the planet's surface to this circular space. We found no trace of any such shaft, however.
"Three of our machine operators thought that they could drill into the seams in the aperture. They brought some heavy equipment down to the top of the vault and approached the aperture. We're still not sure what happened, but they stopped about five meters away and remained there, motionless. Someone went in to try and drag one of them away, and was trapped by whatever effect held them in place. No one else went in, and the four of them are still there now, dead from starvation. The only successful scan we got was from that moment when they were held there, and we picked up some kind of heightened energy surge in the area. Once they were dead, the energy surge vanished.
"The last casualty was from another crew member who fired on the aperture from the edge of the pit with a proton cutter. The cutter did make contact, although we still don't know if any damage was done. A visible beam of energy fired from the rim of the aperture and struck the crew member, disintegrating him."
"Has anyone else approached the vault since then?"
"No one," replied Malthos. "After we sent word to ConForm about our problem, they put us in touch with PMRD. They told us they would send a research team, and ordered that no one was to approach the object until the team arrived. The crew member with the proton cutter ignored those orders to get close enough to fire. No one else has disobeyed."
"Any other attempts to breach the vault wall?" Malthos shook his head. "Any other requests for assistance or information?"
"We contacted ConForm Operations just before we lost the first crew. PMRD insisted that we contact no one else until you arrived."
"Good." Jenoon stood up and motioned for everyone else to follow him. "Let's go see what we're working with."
The five of them left the command center and headed for the excavation pit. They passed through the construction yard, now bustling with soldiers rather than the usual crew. Malthos unlocked the gate that separated the yard from the excavation pit, and the others followed him inside.
Most of the pit was circular, structured to accommodate the cylindrical subterranean research labs that ConForm manufactured. A section to the north had been expanded beyond the circular radius to expose upper surface of the vault. Malthos led the group down a ramp to the bottom of the pit, and then inward where several lifts had been set up on the vault's southern face. They took one of the lifts to the top of the vault, and after Jenoon took a moment to feel the bluish-gray metal beneath his feet, they continued toward the northern rim. Moments later, they stood near the circular aperture. Jenoon studied the corpses and the equipment of the ill-fated drilling crew critically.
"Mr. Malthos, you didn't mention a Bulrathi was one of the first casualties."
"You a bigot, Captain? We have free hiring policies for citizens of all races."
Jenoon ignored Malthos' slight. "Doctor? Anything?"
Therian frowned. "Something is causing a lot of interference with our scanning systems, Captain. But they're definitely dead of dehydration and starvation, nothing else. No energy burns, no skin penetration, no cellular disruption, no internal damage, nothing."
Incorrect. Mental damage.
Jenoon tilted his head. "Mental damage? Specify."
Subconscious assault. Neural paralysis. Fear.
"Can we move the bodies?"
"What about the Bulrathi?"
Jenoon activated his comlink. "Sergeant Charisz, get some men down here with a grav lifter right away."
"Doctor, if we can extract these bodies, I want a full autopsy and a neural analysis performed on all four. Give me similarities between what happened to the Bulrathi and the Psilons."
"I'll have the medlab stand by, Captain."
"Good. Everyone, back up." The group took several steps backwards until Jenoon motioned for them to stop. He spoke into his comlink. "Perimeter grid control, respond."
"Grid control here, sir."
"Have unit 17 lock on the aperture. Do not fire. Lock, but do not fire."
"Unit 17 standing by... locked on, sir."
"Anything on sensors?"
"No counter-lock detected, sir. No energy spike or weapons activation cycle detected."
At Jenoon's command, one of the plasma guns on the rim of the excavation pit fired. The blue plasma beam struck the aperture, and a searing white lance of energy instantly emerged from the aperture's rim and struck the gun, disintegrating it utterly. Alkyne winced as the brightness of the energy beams and the sound of impact assailed his senses. Therian shielded his eyes with his arm, and even Malthos took an instinctive half step backwards. Jenoon and Irain remained unfazed.
"Unit 17 destroyed, sir. Target is intact. Minimal plasma scoring on target."
"And the counter-strike?"
"Energy readings are unidentifiable, sir. Not any form of energy beam we use, nor anything we've seen in our records on other races' weaponry."
"Have Units 8 and 16 lock on the aperture."
"Locked on, sir."
"Simultaneous fire on my mark... mark."
Two of the plasma guns fired, and two more of the powerful white energy beams fired back. Alkyne's vision was spotty from the repeated blasts, but he was so enthralled by the operation that he couldn't look away. He studied the data in his hand receiver, linked to a secured scanner on the edge of the pit. "Captain?"
Jenoon faced the young engineer. "Mr. Alkyne, you have something?"
"I think... there may only be one defensive gun on the aperture."
"Why do you say that?"
"When the defensive beams fired, both beams emerged from the exact same location, but they fired three milliseconds apart. That could indicate one gun with an extremely rapid rate of fire. If there had been multiple guns under some kind of automated control, they would probably have responded simultaneously, in synch with the firing of the plasma guns."
Jenoon nodded. "Interesting, Mr. Alkyne. Very observant. Still, one gun with a three-millisecond recharge rate will fire over three hundred responses a second. Not ideal odds. We will have to experiment further." He paused. "After we get some replacement grid units, that is."
[ CONTINUED... Part 3 ]