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THIRD PLACE WINNER — Submission by Richard Papp

Darwin Denied — Part 1 of 3

Varja stared out the viewing portal into the darkness of space. For three weeks now she had been traveling on this godforsaken Mrshann cruiser. For reasons unknown, her superiors had chosen her to be the human representative for this secret mission. The trouble was that she had no idea why she was here. A set of coordinates had been entrusted to her, followed by orders to investigate anything "interesting". She could tell the Mrshann captain Tkar did not like it any better than she, but like good soldiers they both obeyed their orders. There was no love lost between the Mrshann and Human empires. Were it not for the current crisis with the self appointed "New Orions", Varja might very well have found herself facing off against Tkar in another war. The real question now though was whether the Mrshann Empire would even exist for much longer. The self proclaimed "New Orions", former members of the Antaran Hegemony, had systematically declared war on any race that dared to publicly criticize them. The first race to do so had been the Mrshann. That their empire still existed at all was a testament to the ruthlessness of the Mrshann armed forces. Many Mrshann publicly stated that the New Orions would never openly attack the Mrshann Empire since it would mean certain defeat. Varja doubted it. Already reports had been coming in with tales of border clashes between the Mrshann and New Orions. Human intelligence sources predicted a major conflict between the two parties was imminent, weeks if not days away.

"I'm only seventy two cycles old. Why would they send me on a mission of such importance and secrecy?" Varja wondered.

"Perhaps because I'm so young, no one would suspect anything," She thought. The implication was sobering. What could possibly be important enough to send her half way across the sector into Mrshann space of all places? Meanwhile, war raged across the sector and she was stuck here on this Mrshann battlewagon traipsing across space looking forů"for what?" she thought. "I should be home planning the Commonwealth's defenses in case the Antarans shift their aggressions." Her superiors had assured her that would not occur, but it was difficult to share their optimism. She had not climbed so high and so fast by trusting the opinions of others.

Tough and reliable, Varja Patel had made a name for herself early in her career. During the collapse of the Antaran Hegemony's grip on this sector, humanity had hastily begun to reconstruct its long dormant military. At only 50 cycles old, Varja had been assigned command of an early Human Commonwealth light cruiser. Within a span of 15 cycles she won a string of victories against sizable pirate forces and even managed to thwart a Sakkra surprise attack on the Sol system. Rising through the ranks at an amazing rate, she was at 72 the youngest human to hold the rank of commander in recent human history.

Catching her reflection in the portal, she noticed the scar on her chin. Its sallow features were a contrast to her otherwise perfect caramel complexion. An oddity among humans in these days of bioengineering, Varja kept her scar as a medal of honor. She had received it several years ago fighting off an attempted Sakkra boarding action on her command ship. It was a constant reminder to her self about the sacrifices made by those who served under her. Straightening upright she noticed with pride that at six feet tall she was still in excellent physical shape. Her hair was still a solid jet black, cropped short for space duty. She vaguely remembered her parents telling her once that her genetic heritage could be traced back to some ancient earth tribe called India. But that name meant little to her or anyone else these days.

"Yes," she thought, "I could still have an effect on a man."

Not that there was ever time for that. Being ambitious and young definitely had a deleterious effect on one's dating habits.

"Still, it's nice to know I've got it if I need it," she thought.

Just then the door monitor hissed. Varja hated the sound Mrshann devices made. Without the hearing augmentation she had installed for this trip, she would have been unable to even hear half of the sounds aboard this ship. She wasn't sure if that would have been entirely bad.

"Please enter," she said.

The door slid open to reveal the Mrshann captain Tkar. At 5'8" he was very large for his species. Varja noted the feline features. The same features that led every Human to assume the Mrshann were just smart "cats". The fact was though, that the Mrshann were nothing like human felines. Varja recalled a professor once commenting that they would actually be closer to Terran bats than any feline. Most Mrshann stood about five feet tall and had a golden skin color that could be mottled black or red depending on the clan the individual belonged to. Very little hair covered their bodies, despite what the popular vids at home showed. Mrshann eyes were binocular like humans but swept wider, further increasing the feline perception. Varja noticed those eyes staring at her expectantly now.

"We have reached the section of space your superiors indicated," Captain Tkar growled.

"Our scans show nothing here but a lifeless system, four planets in all, surrounding a rather pathetic red dwarf star. So what do we look for now Commander?"

The last word was a sneer even for a Mrshann. That Tkar grated at being under the authority of a human was obvious, that he might actually become violent about it was an altogether different problem for Varja.

"Captain, to be honest I have no idea." Varja replied. "I know as much or as little as you do right now. All I can tell you is that whatever it is we are looking for must be very important indeed." She hoped he would believe her.

Tkar looked at her sidelong as if forming a reply. "Yes, I suppose that is true." He said at last. "Still, I would prefer to know the nature of the prey I seek before setting out upon a hunt."

Varja noted that Tkar's ears flattened out as he spoke. The Mrshann equivalent of a human shrug or sigh. "As would I captain. Still, shall we begin to scan this system more thoroughly?"

"Indeed," Tkar responded. "I've come to request your presence on the bridge."

During the walk to the bridge, Varja was continually ducking beneath the lower Mrshann bulkheads. Other crewmembers scurried past with an occasional astonished glance in her direction. The Mrshann were quick, no doubt about that. Several times Tkar had to wait impatiently for her to catch up with him. He seemed to enjoy it enough though, and with all the strain she was placing upon him already, Varja saw no reason to comment on it otherwise.

"He needs to feel superior to me in some way during this situation," she thought.

The Mrshann bridge was cramped like all the space on this vessel. Fifteen or so Mrshann scurried about in a space that would have seemed small for seven humans.

"Captain on the bridge," called Glirron, first officer on board the Vengeance. Mrshann stood tall and called their greetings as Tkar took his place at the command deck.

"As you were," Tkar said and immediately the crew returned to their incessant scurrying.

"Your chair is ready Commander," Glirron said to Varja.

"Thank you Glirron," she replied. The Mrshann had constructed a special seat from which Varja could observe, but obviously not interfere in bridge operations.

"What do our latest scans show?" Tkar inquired.

"Captain, we have detected no life signs yet in this system. However, the second planet possesses a large moon which seems to be giving off slightly anomalous graviton readings," the mrshann science officer reported.

"Nothing else?" asked Tkar.

"Nothing at this time sir."

"Very well, plot a course to the second planet's moon. We'll see if the humans' concerns about this sector are warranted."

Varja didn't react to the gentle barb, but she heard the subtle hiss of laughter from the Mrshann crew. The Mrshann, like many species, desired to repay humanity for the years of domination over a thousand cycles ago. Fortunately for humanity, the New Orions had kept everyone on their toes. For three years now the New Orion White Fleet had been raining death upon civilization after civilization. First they had annihilated the Gnolam, then the Bulrathi. Currently it was the Elerians who were locked in a futile struggle to survive. All reports indicated that the Antaran Admiral Karsh and his fleet would reach the Elerian home world within the week. The Mrshann were the next most likely target and there was no denying the tension felt throughout the ship about that point. Already the White Fleet had sent ships to probe the outer Mrshann defenses. Varja could only wonder if the fleet would ever stop before it reached Sol.

The Vengeance settled into orbit around the second planet of the system. A world the Mrshann called Sharra. Sharra was a blistered planet. Perhaps at one time there had been a noticeable atmosphere that could support life, but now all that remained were numerous craters and a toxic shroud, which hid the surface from view.

"Has anyone ever studied this planet Captain?" Varja inquired.

"Not to any great degree. We have no remaining records of it from before the Antarans arrived. Even now we are on the edge of Mrshann space. Perhaps a science team will land here in the future." He did his best to sound optimistic but Varja could tell Tkar wondered if there would indeed be a future at all for his people. "Unlike you hum-"

"Sir!" the Mrshann science officer's shout cut off whatever insult Tkar had been preparing to deliver. "I am detecting an object orbiting on the far side of Sharra's moon! Sensors are vague but it appears to be a large construct of some kind."

"Take us to battle status and steer us to within visual of this object," Tkar ordered.

"Why did you not detect this object earlier?" Tkar inquired.

"I do not know sir. Sensors seem to be more receptive the closer we are to it. It seems as if there is some sort of dampening field surrounding it," the science officer replied.

"Captain, object is coming into view," the helmsman said.

"Give me a visual readout," Tkar called.

Suddenly a large image appeared to float in front of Varja's view monitor. At first she thought the system was acting up. It looked as if it was trying to display two moons instead of the one she knew was there. Then realization set in.

"Doom star," she whispered. And for once Tkar had no reply.

Ship Lord Atha'HeptaPrax scanned his command display yet again. Never in all his cycles had he ever expected becoming a member of the Antaran Crimson Fleet to be boring. Yet here he was being sent on a scouting mission. Prax cursed his luck. True he was only three hundred cycles old and still young compared to his fellow Ship Lords, but scouting missions were best left to drones.

"A waste of my valuable nature," he said to a nearby Orlu. The Orlu stared at him with its baleful single eye before scampering away to complete some unknown task. "What a fine creation the Orlu are," thought Prax. Generations ago the finest Antaran minds had genetically crafted a species designed to operate on Antaran war ships. The Orlu were small creatures, usually no bigger than two feet tall. They possessed a single eye perched above a sturdy yet flexible stalk rising from the center of their body. Locomotion occurred with the help of six spider like legs. Two of these legs possessed digitized appendages to allow tool use. Each Orlu could be programmed to perform specific tasks when ordered. Antaran ships now operated with greater efficiency than ever before.

"Bring up the display of this system we are approaching," Prax ordered.

"As you wish Ship Lord," the computer responded. An image appeared in front of Prax. A lonely red dwarf star hung in space surrounded by four fairly non-descript planets. "What can you tell me about this system," Prax inquired.

"This system is known to the Antaran Hegemony as Yarin. It has been the sight of numerous military engagements and at one time was home to 20 billion members of the original Orion Empire before being defeated in a battle by the Hegemony. Currently there are no indigenous life forms. The system has recently been unofficially claimed by the so called Mrshann Empire."

"Claimed you say? By the Mrshann? How dare they," Prax exclaimed. "These fledgling races are positively more trouble than they are worth. Well, that shall end soon enough."

"Ship Lord I have just received news concerning our war with the dissidents," the computer said.

"Ah, finally some entertainment. Display it at once."

"Certainly Ship Lord."


[ CONTINUED...   Part 2 ]

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