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THIRD PLACE WINNER — Submission by Richard Papp

Darwin Denied — Part 2 of 3

..Once again Mrshann forces have proven to be easily manipulated by their thirst for quick revenge. A feigned surprise attack on the Mrshann Home world by the Great White Fleet resulted in the Mrshann recalling the bulk of their forces back for defense. Admiral Karsh then struck at the unprotected Mrshann colony worlds, destroying all resistance. The Mrshann Home world is now under siege and is expected to fall within the month. It is the edict of the High Council that all remaining Mrshann are to be exterminated. This edict is in accordance with those given concerning the Gnolam, Bulrathi and Elerians. All citizens of the New Orion Republic are ordered to destroy any vestige of these civilizations no matter what the cost.

Had it been possible, Prax would have blinked. "An amazing stroke of tactical genius by Karsh yet again," Prax thought. "It's almost scary how well Karsh can think like these primitives. One wonders how that will serve him once the fighting is concluded."

"Computer, scan the Yarin system again for signs of enemy craft. Perhaps we might find something to entertain us after all."

"Indeed Ship Lord. Current scans show one Mrshann ship in system with ten more entering via a connecting star lane. Elements of the White Fleet are in pursuit, but are not expected to overtake the Mrshann craft before they arrive at Yarin."

"What is the nature of these ships?" Prax inquired.

"It appears, Lord, that the current ship in system is a Mrshann cruiser. One of their newer models I believe. The approaching craft all appear to be transports. No doubt they are carrying escaped settlers from the ruined Mrshann colony worlds. Armament is minimal."

For the first time in a cycle Prax felt like his old self. "Prepare an intercept for the Mrshann cruiser. Once we have destroyed it we can pick apart the incoming transports."

"Course laid in Lord"

"Perhaps, just perhaps, this trip was not such a waste of my time after all," Prax mused.

"Doom star," said Varja again, but louder this time. "That's a damn Doom star!

How in the world has that thing gone unnoticed all this time?"

Every society in the Orion Sector had myths and histories concerning the time before the Antaran invasion. Almost all shared stories of fantastic battles between planetoid sized ships with immense firepower and destructive capacity. Varja had always been skeptical of such stories, but now right before her eyes was the proof. "Just how much did the Antarans take away from us?" she wondered. Had her ancestors been capable of constructing such a ship?

"As to how this ship has remained here undetected, I have no idea" Tkar responded. Varja could see the curiosity on his face. No doubt he was wondering if it still worked.

Varja too was wondering if the Doom star still functioned. If so it could shift the balance of power in this sector rapidly. With one Doom star the Mrshann could stand against the Great White Fleet of the Antarans and perhaps go on to dominate the entire sector. "Yes," she thought. "Tkar has to realize this. How long before he decides it's better to kill me so I can't tell my superiors?" She noticed Tkar's hand resting lightly on his personal sidearm. He looked deep in thought. Varja could only wonder what thoughts were running through his brain. Tkar rose from his chair and turned to face her.

"This is it," thought Varja. "He's going to kill me right here."

Tkar stared at her, but before either of them could speak, a flash of intense, burning white light illuminated the control deck. Varja was blinded and she momentarily lost her balance. When she recovered she noticed that the Mrshann crew had not fared any better. Tkar was still curled up on the floor in front of her and several other crewmembers were stumbling about as if drunk. The white light had diminished to a single spot resting at the front of the command bridge. As her eyes continued to adjust, Varja could just begin to make out the form of a woman within the light. The woman appeared to be bathed in the glowing light and was wearing a robe composed of a shimmering, silver material.

"She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," thought Varja. She glanced around at the Mrshann to gauge their reaction. Several of the crew sat still with their mouths hanging open. Their ears were pinned back and their eyes were wide with amazement.

"What is this?" she heard Tkar whisper.

The figure stared at them all with a slight smile. "Greetings children. It has been too long since I last looked upon you."

Varja noted that the words had not actually been spoken, but that she had heard them in her head.

"Tkar," she said. "What do you see?"

"II see the vision of a great female Mrshann huntress, Fflorran," Tkar replied.

Varja noticed his speech was still slurred. The effects of the initial contact were still gripping him. "Tkar, I see a Human female, not a mrshann huntress. I think this must be some kind of telepathic device. It might even be a weapon from the doom star."

"You speak well my child," the figure said looking directly at Varja. "It is indeed nice to see you are capable of such rational thought. Worry not though, as I am no weapon." The figure seemed to smile wider at the thought.

"Do you emanate from the ship we have just discovered?" Varja asked

"Again, yes. But I fear there is little time for questions." The figure replied.

"Time enough for you tell us what you are and how you came to be in this section of Mrshann space." Tkar grumbled. Having recovered his bearings he was attempting to reassert his control over the situation.

"Very well Captain," the figure said as it bowed slightly in Tkar's direction. "What I am is, I am afraid, beyond your current comprehension. Suffice it to say that I am something of an artificial intelligence that operates the ship you see before you. I, and others like me, have waited throughout this sector for countless cycles. We have watched and recorded your progress."

"How is it possible that you've remained hidden here all these cycles?" Varja demanded. Somehow she was getting over the initial shock of seeing this stranger appear on the mrshann command deck.

"Anything is possible child. How is it possible that you travel the stars now? Your primitive ancestors would have thought it equally impossible. Is my being here now any less improbable than a lone human traveling aboard a Mrshann vessel on a secret mission to the farthest reaches of the sector?" The figure's eyes seemed to show the slightest hint of laughter.

"So, you can read our minds too?" asked Varja.

"Yes my child."

"Why do you refer to us as children?" asked Tkar suddenly.

"Ah. a good question for which you deserve an equally good answer." The figure seemed to collect herself before continuing. "Ages ago by your standards a brotherhood of races existed among the stars. Though outwardly different in many ways, these races all shared a fundamental heritage that bound them together no matter where they went in the galaxy. Eventually, that which binds can also be used to divide. Emotions common to you today were common even back in the ancient times. Envy, jealousy, and greed began to rear their ugly heads. The brotherhood of the stars collapsed into a conflict that you can only imagine."

Tkar looked over at Varja. His look said it all, "Are you believing this?"

Varja jut nodded back to him and continued to listen.

". Weapons were constructed that ripped apart stars. Planets were laid barren or destroyed outright. Entire species with sentient potential were being obliterated in the crossfire, species similar to your ancestors. Some of the ancient races sought to purify the galaxy or reduce the threat of future competition. Others of us desired to watch you grow and flourish. And so a great project was put under way to guide and protect your ancestors. Members of your species were collected, modified and placed on suitable worlds throughout the sector away from the great conflict. I was sent to watch and record your progress until it was time."

"You modified us!" exclaimed Tkar. "How dare you!"

The figure laughed. "Worry not child. Nothing was changed in you. We simply accelerated that which was already occurring. We gave you a boost to sentience. That is all. The rest you did on your own." Her face formed a deep scowl suddenly. "Know though, that other ancient forces seek to undo what has already been done and to replace the natural order with that of their own devising."

"The Antarans you mean?" queried Varja.

"Yes, the Antarans are one group who seek this," the figure replied.

Tkar shook his head as if trying to make sense of all he had heard. "So if your people protected us and nurtured us, then why did you let the Antarans come back and massacre us again?"

"Unfortunately that is something else you can not yet begin to comprehend. I am sorry, but one day your descendents will understand." The figure said.

"Tell that to the Gnolam and the Bulrathi!" Tkar retorted.

"Worry not for them child. Just because they cease to exist to you here, does not mean the essence of what they are is extinguished."

"All of this is amazing and surprising," said Varja, "but why reveal yourself to us now if you have been hiding for countless cycles as you said?"

The figure suddenly grew very serious. "As I mentioned earlier, the time is short. Already the Antarans have attacked several Mrshann worlds and destroyed them."

"WHAT!" Tkar and the entire bridge crew roared at once. Pandemonium filled the bridge. "We must turn back to the home world at once," called Tkar.

"NO," boomed the voice of the figure. The words rung in her head and Varja suddenly felt light headed again. "Not a weapon indeed," she thought.

"You can not change the outcome of the battle already taking place," said the figure in a calmer tone, "You must stay here and help me complete my mission."

"I care not for your mission meddler," Tkar growled with contempt. "My duty lies to my kindred, butchered in battle by the insane Antaran oppressors of this sector."

"Your duty lies to defend your people, does it not?" asked the figure. "Then that is what I ask of you."

"What? You speak in riddles creature. How can one ship help you defend the Mrshann Empire?" Tkar asked.

"I can not defend your empire Tkar," the figure replied, "but I can preserve your race."

Varja noticed the stunned look in Tkar's eyes. "Explain yourself then!" Tkar ordered.

The figure nodded and continued. "Already the majority of your fleet has been eliminated and your outlying colony worlds are in ruins." The figure paused to give this news time to sink in. "All that will shortly remain of your people is traveling here on ten fragile transport ships. They are being pursued by the Antaran fleet and will perish soon after arriving in this sector if you do not help me. I have placed the current sensor data into your computers. You may verify my information now if you wish."

Tkar stared at his console with wide eyes. Varja watched, wondering what torment must be gripping Tkar inside.

With a heavy sigh Tkar looked up from his control monitor. "What is your plan then? Will you help us fight these Antarans?"

"It is not possible for me to do so. I must in fact remain as hidden from them as possible. You must direct your transports to my current location. I will bring them aboard and transport them to safety." The figure said.

"Where will you take them?" Tkar asked.

"I can not say," the figure replied. "I am sorry, but the alternative is to watch them be destroyed by the pursuing Antarans."

"You leave me with little choice then," said Tkar. "I accept your plan."

The figure smiled widely and the glow around her seemed, if possible, to intensify at Tkar's words.

" Ship Lord," we have just entered the Yarin system and are decelerating towards the enemy cruiser as you requested."

"Ah, good. Very well done computer. Now initiate our attack procedures and instruct the Orlu to their battle stations. I do hope this vessel presents more of a challenge than the usual riff-raff we face in this sector."

"Should I hail them Lord?" the computer inquired.

"No. Their species is in violation of the Senate's charter. As such they are not entitled to the rights accorded in civilized warfare. We will continue our assault. If they detect us then so be it."

"Five minutes until we enter effective firing range Lord."

"Oh, I can't wait to see the looks from the Ship Lords of the White Fleet when they come through the star lane and find their prey already beaten." Ship Lord Prax chuckled to himself. Had he the capacity, he would have almost felt sorry for the Mrshann he descended upon.

"Is the Antaran ship still on a direct intercept course for us Glirron?" Tkar inquired.

"He is captain. Should I raise our shields now?" Glirron answered, an edge of concern creeping into his voice.

"Not yet. Wait until he has just entered into his effective weapons range. Then he will have to follow through with his attack. It will be our best chance to hurt him."

Varja waited until Tkar had finished giving out his last orders and at last turned to greet her.

"You are ready then Commander?" he asked.

"Yes, though it gives me no pleasure to leave you here alone in this fight," Varja replied.

"I am not alone," said Tkar a rare smile spreading across his face. "Today we strike the only blow we can against these Antarans. Someone must remain to tell the survivors what happened here today."

"Knowing the truth and liking it are two different things Tkar," Varja replied.

"You need not tell me of this human. I thank you for your desire to stay and fight for my people, but it is after all our fight. Go and perhaps someday you may avenge us."

With that Tkar turned his back on her and Varja knew her time was up. Slowly she headed off the bridge.

"We are within optimal firing range now Ship Lord. Shall I begin the assault?" Prax's computer asked.

"Yes begin firing and construct a return pass in case they survive our first run," Prax said.

"Yes Lord," came the cold reply. "Lord. The enemy has raised shields and is powering weapons."

"Ah good, they will give us a show after all," exclaimed Prax. "Fire then"

"Enemy closing. Shields activated and weapon systems standing by Captain."

"Very good Glirron. Let us see if our new shields will offer us more protection against the accursed Antaran particle beams than our previous versions," said Tkar. For years now the Antaran vessels had possessed a lethal weapon of massive destructive power that the fledgling races of the sector could not match. Antaran particle weapons not only punched through normal shielding, but caused mysterious radiation deaths as well. So far Mrshann scientists had had little luck in thwarting the rays' penetrating power.

"Enemy firing!" shouted the weapons officer. Almost immediately the ship rocked from the concussion of the hit. "Shields weakened but holding on the pass Captain. No casualties reported from the particle beams!" the weapons Officer exclaimed.

"Good. For once we may have a crew that lives long enough to fight. Return fire and let that Antaran bastard know what a mistake he made in coming here today!" commanded Tkar.

"Lord, our attack did not breach the enemy shields as we had anticipated. In fact I am detecting no major damage to any subsystems or reports of casualties on board the enemy vessel," the Antaran computer reported.

"What?! How is that possible?" retorted Prax. "Prepare for another run. I want these creatures obliterated! How dare they defy the will of the senate."

"Lord the enemy is firing,"

Prax felt his ship lurch as if it hit by a massive club. "I am detecting damage to our primary intra-system drives and minor life support systems. Weapons are still operational. Beginning our second run now Lord," the computer intoned.

"Antaran vessel closing again Captain," shouted the helmsman.

A colossal thunder smashed the ship and Tkar felt himself thrown against his restraining harness. Two of the bridge crew were not so lucky. Their harnesses had failed and the occupants now lay broken and battered across the deck. "Time enough to mourn them later," thought Tkar.

"Captain, the last enemy attack penetrated our shields. We have reports of crewmen dead on several decks. Primary life support is failing and our drive systems have received minor damage as well," Glirron reported.

"At least we are still alive," thought Tkar. A major accomplishment given that most Mrshann ships would have been destroyed in a one on one pass with an Antaran destroyer like the one he faced. "Have the transports entered the system yet?" Tkar asked.

"Yes sir. They have just entered and have responded to our message. They are setting course for the alien doom star," replied Glirron.

"Good," said Tkar," now let's see if we can get in a few more shots on this Antaran."

"Our last attack had a more damaging effect on the target Lord. We have penetrated their shields in several sectors and inflicted moderate internal damage. I am happy to report that there is also evidence of several crew deaths," stated the Antaran computer.

"This is still taking too long!" exclaimed Prax. "The transports have already arrived in system. The Fleet will be here soon and with it my chance for glorious recognition." The Antaran ship reverberated with the shock of the Mrshann barrage. Warning klaxons rang out. Orlu responded by racing to their various stations throughout the ship.

"The enemy attack has penetrated our hull in the drive sector. Engine efficiency is reduced to sixty percent. Another successful attack in that sector will result in a quantum detonation cascade. I am modifying our attack protocol to minimize our exposure."


[ CONTINUED...   Part 3 ]

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