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FIRST PLACE WINNER — Submission by Hans Grohmann   [ PART 4 of 5 ]

Jenoon set up his final assault a day later.

Two soldiers were suited up in powered armor and set just outside of the aperture's defensive screen. Irain, from the edge of the pit, was waiting to establish a shield on each soldier; Jenoon's last experiment had shown that she could maintain two shields, and no more. The perimeter defense grid was set to target the aperture, although Alkyne doubted that even the twenty guns they had would make a dent before being annihilated in return. Malthos voiced Alkyne's questions openly.

"Captain, you don't think your defense grid will cut through the vault, do you? These guns won't last a second if they fire."

"No, they won't. They're not supposed to."

"So where will you get the firepower to open the door?"

Jenoon activated his comlink. "ATLAC-7, report."

"Standing by, sir."

"ATLAC-22, report."

"Standing by, sir." Alkyne started in surprise at the presence of a second ATLAC shuttle.

"ATLAC-7, establish firing lock on the homing transmitter. Lowest power. Narrowest beam possible. I want minimum splash damage."

"Target locked. Narrow beam set. Maximum splash radius of point five meters."

"Raise forward shields to maximum. Brace for possible high-energy impact. Use fire-and-evade tactics."

"Confirmed, sir."

"ATLAC-22, prepare to initiate rescue operations on ATLAC-7 if necessary."

"Rescue operations on line, sir."

"Stand by."

Alkyne's eyes had widened as the conversation progressed. "Gods above, you're going to fire from orbit. From the shuttle!"

"Only a starship has the kind of firepower needed here. Our gamble is that the counter-blast, weakened by holding two people in telepathic assault, will lack the range needed to strike back at a space-based attacker. If not, the sixty milliseconds that the perimeter defense grid will buy with its sacrificial attack might be enough to allow ATLAC-7 to evade the counter-blast." Jenoon turned to the surrounding troops. "All units, assume defensive positions. Prepare for orbital strike."

As the soldiers fell to the ground at the rim of the pit, Alkyne noticed that they all had drawn their rifles and taken aim at the aperture. "Why shoot at the vault?" he asked Malthos. "If they fire, they'll be killed."

"What if something comes out of the vault, kid?"

Before Alkyne could consider that, Jenoon shouted, "Stand by for impact. Irain, shield Heric and Gawrel... mark."


"Heric, Gawrel, advance one meter from your current positions... mark." The two soldiers in powered armor near the aperture took a few small steps forward, pausing slightly as they entered the effect of the telepathic weapon.

"Perimeter grid, fire on my mark. ATLAC-7, fire one millisecond after my mark. All units stand by… mark!"

And with his command, twenty plasma blasts struck the aperture as a green needle of light fell from the sky on the target. Twenty-one all-too-familiar white beams fired out in response. The air thundered around the camp, and a shockwave scoured the troops with hot dust and rocks. Heric and Gawrel were knocked off the vault and into the soft dirt of the pit, where they lay motionless.

There was a long moment of silence, and then Jenoon's comlink crackled. "ATLAC-22 to ground control. ATLAC-7 has taken damage from unidentified source. Shields down. Some hull damage."

"Life signs on Heric and Gawrel are weak but steady, Captain," Therian advised. "We should recover them immediately."

Jenoon looked up, studied the vault with his trioptic scanner and smiled for the first time since arriving on Denev. Alkyne peered over the pit's edge to see what the captain had seen.

The aperture was broken.


Unsurprisingly, both the telepathic weapon and the energy counter-weapon were disabled with the destruction of the aperture. A squad of troops set up a scanner grid and a comm enhancer at its rim, and then deployed a smaller defense grid on the surface of the vault itself, directing all the guns inward.

"The atmosphere appears to be stable, Captain," Therian was saying as Alkyne approached. "The sensor you placed indicates that the atmosphere inside the vault was over seventeen thousand cycles old, but it's still the same breathable air we have around us."

"Seventeen thousand cycles? That's older than our recorded history. Incredible."

"That's not all. There's something else that came up during the neurological analysis of everyone injured or killed by the telepathic weapon. It was odd that the Bulrathi was affected the same way we were; there should have been too many differences between our physiological structures to allow for that. But the part of the brain that was affected was identical in each subject."

"Yes, the dream and imagination part, you said that in-"

"No. Not just that. They are genetically identical. We haven't autopsied a Bulrathi in over a century, and since then our knowledge of studies in genetic engineering has increased by light years. There is similarity on the genetic level between us and the Bulrathi, at least in this part of the brain."

Alkyne, who had been following their conversation, frowned. "The theory of evolutionary diversion suggests that what you're saying is almost impossible, Doctor."

"Impossible without tampering, yes. That's what makes me wonder."

Their discussion was interrupted as Sergeant Charisz marched up and saluted. "Sir, all equipment is in place. Defense grid activated."

"Get the first team ready. We're going in." Jenoon looked up at Alkyne. "Coming?"

"Me, sir? But I'm not part of the squad."

"You're a good engineer. Maybe better than anybody we have. We might need you inside."

"Thank you, sir. I'll do what I can."

Six soldiers in heavy armor and carrying phasor rifles took up positions around the entrance. One by one they dropped inside. Alkyne could hear them moving about, and then someone called, "All clear." Jenoon nodded to Irain and Alkyne, and the three of them climbed down into the vault.

They arrived in the center of a corridor made of the same bluish-gray metal as the rest of the vault. A faint light emanated from translucent tubing that ran along the ceiling. The armored soldiers led the group forward slowly, weapons hot, while a second group fell in behind Jenoon, set up another comm relay, and covered their rear flank. A third group followed the corridor in the opposite direction.

"Is all of that really necessary?" Alkyne asked Jenoon. "Could anything still be alive in here?"

"Alive? Probably not. But automated systems might still work, and they could be dangerous."

"Ah." Alkyne studied the walls of the corridor, thinking out loud. "There must be an incredible power source in here somewhere, if the lights and the defense guns still work after seventeen thousand cycles. And if we can get samples of this metal…"

"You're beginning to understand now, Mr. Alkyne. Everything in this vault is valuable. The weapons have power beyond our ability to measure. The power source is older than our history. The very walls contain secrets that we lack. We've encountered technology like this only twice in our time."

"The Antarans?"

Jenoon nodded grimly. "Their race has technology far superior to our own. They operate from another dimension, and we cannot follow them there. They are probably far older than any race in this sector."

"And the second?"


[ CONTINUED...   Part 5 ]

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