FIRST PLACE WINNER Submission by Hans Grohmann [ PART 3 of 5 ]
Two days later, Jenoon had set up a miniature construction yard of his own on top of the vault, using grav lifters, robodrills, and other equipment borrowed from Malthos' yard above. The grav lifters, designed to create small fields of zero-gravity and then lift and move objects using electromagnetic pulses, had been used to recover the bodies and equipment near the aperture without risking further casualties. One of them was holding a robodrill, a small treaded vehicle with a monofilament drill bit, half a meter above the surface of the vault, motionless.
Jenoon directed the soldier running the grav lifter. "Steady... good. On my mark, move it forward, ten centimeters per second. Mark."
Alkyne watched Jenoon's crew work. Since the PMRD team had first seen the vault and begun their studies, they had come up with hundreds of details that he had not. He granted that they had resources he lacked in this basic construction yard, but even so, the entire outfit moved with a speed and energy that revealed vast experience. Therian's medical knowledge extended even to Bulrathi physiology, and he seemed competent in several fields of science and engineering as well. Irain's very presence seemed to motivate the soldiers, though Alkyne was never quite sure whether she was giving orders or merely inspiring through fear. And Jenoon himself was swift and efficient, moving the soldiers and the work crews with a force that implied urgency, or need, or-
Drive. Sorrow. Revenge.
Only Alkyne turned to face the silent Irain, who had not moved from her spot since the crews had begun work atop the vault that morning. "What drive? What revenge?"
Antarans. Loss. Grief. Transformation.
The simple thoughts Irain offered blended to paint an image in Alkyne's mind. "He... he fought against the Antarans? And loss... his friends? Fellow soldiers?"
"So then he transformed... changed his grief into a drive for revenge. Against the Antarans. And now he works with PMRD, looking for new technology to use in the war."
"No wonder he arrived so quickly. He's done this before, hasn't he? Many times?"
"And you? Do you interrogate people? Can you predict events? Do you fight?"
"Sorry. I just- no one knows what telepaths can do- the military keeps it pretty bottled up, so all we hear are rumors and guesses and-"
Correct. She studied Alkyne for a moment. Ignorance. Impossibilities. Unaccountable.
"What? I don't- Okay, so I'm a bit ignorant about what you can do, but-"
"Wait. You said impossibilities? You do things that are... no, not impossible. Unaccountable... things no one can prove? Things no one can be held accountable for?" She turned away again. "Well?"
And suddenly the grav lifter shut itself down.
Alkyne watched the events unfold before him as if in slow motion. The mobile drill had been circling the aperture at higher and higher altitudes, and when the grav lifter shut down, it was hanging ten meters up in the air. It fell on the aperture itself, and the monofilament drill bit folded and ruptured the drill's power core. It exploded, spraying metallic fragments and fiery plasma all over the area around the aperture.
Jenoon wasted no time issuing orders. "Fire control! Stop that blaze! Medics, get the wounded out of here stat! Withdraw all machinery. What happened to that lifter?"
The soldiers responded quickly, with three battling the fire and several others moving the equipment back to a safer distance. Two combat medics worked on the injured, and a tech started opening up the lifter.
As the fire team got the blaze under control, Alkyne saw one soldier lose her footing and fall forward, landing too close to the aperture. She suddenly froze, eyes staring straight ahead at nothing, body rigid and trembling. Alkyne heard Irain inhale sharply, and Jenoon, who was helping to pull back the scanning equipment, looked up at her, then over at the fire team. He glanced back at Irain, and Alkyne sensed that the two were sharing a mental conversation. Jenoon said something into his comlink, and Alkyne watched again as one of the perimeter defense guns fired on the aperture. As before, a blinding white energy stream fired from the aperture and struck the perimeter gun, destroying it. Two more guns fired an instant later, and were destroyed as quickly. It all happened so fast that Alkyne didn't have a chance to blink, and his vision went black as the sound of the beam impacts assaulted his ears. When he finally looked up again, long moments later, he noticed that he had fallen to his knees, his vision was still dim, and Irain had not moved a millimeter. "What... what happened?" Irain faced the young engineer again, and this time her gaze was chilling in its serenity.
"All units fall back!" Jenoon shouted, and the soldiers scrambled to withdraw from the aperture.
Alkyne could see yet another black scorch mark on the aperture where the perimeter guns had struck. Did Jenoon think that military weapons could actually breach the vault? Would they really get to see what was inside?
Three days later, Jenoon met with his senior officers, Malthos, and Alkyne in the PMRD command center.
"We're ready to start the next phase of the operation. Mr. Malthos, we will be releasing all non-Psilon personnel that you have at this facility. They will be free to return to their homes here and may return to work when our operation is complete."
"I'm not leaving, Captain," Malthos stated bluntly. "This is still my yard, and my people are still here. Your bigotry won't clear me out."
"There is no bigotry here, Mr. Malthos. Just security. Protecting our interests."
"Protecting our interests is the first step to xenocide."
"I'm not here to debate with you. I'm here to tell you what is going to happen." Jenoon's normally calm voice cooled a notch. "Your non-Psilon crew will be released. You will stay. End of discussion."
Malthos ground his teeth, but said nothing. "Good. Our experiments have provided useful data. We are almost ready to try and crack the aperture."
"With what? Robodrills? We already used them on the sides of the vault. Couldn't make a scratch."
"Not robodrills. We're ready to break through in a different fashion. No drilling will be needed."
"And then what? Even if you crack the aperture, you can't go inside. There's still something stopping everyone from getting too close."
Before Alkyne could inquire into Irain's comment, Jenoon continued. "Doctor, your report please."
Dr. Therian began. "We were fortunate to have a grav lifter retrieve Private Ganem from whatever was holding her in place near the aperture before it did serious damage. She will recover with some rest. I believe there is a field or beam weapon in place around the aperture, and that any living thing entering its radius experiences a telepathic assault on the area of the brain responsible for dreams and imagination. Based on Commander Irain's analysis and my autopsies of the deceased construction crew, it's my opinion that the field creates for the target a nightmare that loops upon itself, preventing the mind from returning to normal conscious operations. The nightmare is so realistic that the target is paralyzed with fear and eventually dies of either shock or starvation and dehydration."
"A telepathic attack? From an automated defense system? How?"
"That's what we intend to find out, Mr. Alkyne. But now that we know what it is, we have a method to work against it. Commander Irain has devised a telepathic shield that should protect someone who enters the radius of the weapon. We will test it tomorrow."
"And what lucky volunteer will test your shield?" Malthos inquired.
Jenoon met his cynical gaze calmly. "I will."
Early the following morning, Jenoon set up his next test at the aperture. Alkyne operated a grav lifter, targeting Jenoon in case the telepathic shield failed and he needed to be removed from the area. Dr. Therian placed several medical sensors on Jenoon's head and chest, connecting them to a portable medi-console he had set up. "Ready to go, Captain."
"Good work, Doctor. Commander?"
Jenoon nodded. "Record log. Proceeding into the radius covered by the telepathic weapon. Should be within range any mom-"
Jenoon stiffened, and Irain flinched. Therian studied the medi-console worriedly. "Accelerated heartbeat... erratic breathing... brainwave pattern fluctuating... I don't think it's working! Mr. Alkyne, get him out of there!"
The telepathic command was so forceful that Alkyne froze in place, unable to move as he reached for the lifter's controls. He could only watch as Irain ground her teeth and shuddered, her forehead throbbing with the effort. Ahead, Jenoon took another step forward. Then another. Finally he spoke again, his voice strained and halting.
"Pain... incredible. Telepathic shield... seems to be letting me continue... moving." He took another step, and another. He was almost at the edge of the aperture. "A few... more steps... There." He stopped as he stepped onto the aperture's outer seam. "Not dead... Good start." He took a few more unsteady paces, then knelt down and placed an object at the center of the aperture. Then he stumbled backwards, staggered to his feet, and walked back. The moment he crossed the invisible line that marked the range of the telepathic weapon, he straightened and exhaled deeply. "That was intense," he remarked.
Therian quickly ran a med scanner over Jenoon's body. "Looks like your systems are returning to normal. No permanent damage. Still, I wouldn't recommend doing that too often."
"Neither would I. Is the sensor working?"
Therian checked his console. "Yes. The homing signal is on line, and all the data recorders are transmitting."
"Good. Commander, can you improve the shield? Do you think you could support more people?"
"Do your best. I think we're ready for the next step. Withdraw to the edge of the pit. Get that grav lifter back to the camp."
"Do you think you can get inside?" Alkyne inquired as he activated the grav lifter's motion controls.
Jenoon nodded. "The perimeter guns showed that our firepower could cause limited damage to the aperture. Scans during the accident with the grav lifter showed that the power of the unidentified energy beam was diminished when holding another target with the telepathic weapon. We will do one last experiment, and then we will break open the vault and see what is inside."
[ CONTINUED... Part 4 ]