EV/EVO Chronicles: The Artifact - an EVO short story

The Artifact

Chapter 1

"I have a bad feeling about this."

Micah glanced across the cramped, angular control room of their newly christened arada, the Stainless Steel Rat. Ryan always had been the cautious one, but he really did look worried this time.

"You're probably just hungry," said Micah. They had traded in their battered old scoutship only two weeks before, and while Micah felt much safer in the Rat, he had to admit that the inscrutable Miranu food synthesizer had so far produced fare that was, well, less than appetizing.

Ryan scowled at his friend and partner from his seat near the sensor console. "Yeah, I can still taste those boiled grubs, but you know it's more than that." He sat back and ran fingers through his hair. "I went along with your plan to work for the Miranu the first time - that was just trading and we made a bundle of credits. Those nebula exploration missions made me nervous, but we never saw anyone or anything unusual, so I kept my mouth shut. I even let you talk me into buying this ship, despite the fact that neither one of us knows how half of these systems work." He gestured in frustration at a computer interface. " But something about this new mission smells wrong. Theorama was always square with us before. Did you notice how weird he was this time?"

Micah recalled how their friend, the Miranu scanner specialist, had shifted uncomfortably and avoided their questions regarding this latest excursion into the Ji nebula. Ryan was right - it was unlike Theo. Still, he did ask them to go, and Micah wouldn't miss out on an adventure for anything. "He was probably worried about telling us something classified and getting in trouble with his boss. The improvements they made to the Nebula Penetration Device must be a pretty high-level project."

"Maybe," said Ryan, "but I still think we're being followed, too."

" And I think it's just a sensor ghost. Like you said, we're not familiar with these Miranu systems yet. The image only appears just before and after hyperjumps, right? Maybe it's a glitch in the new sensor array. We just don't know."

"That's what worries me. If somebody does come after us, we may not realize it until too late. Neither of us is a combat pilot, you know."

Micah didn't need to be reminded that what little combat experience they had was mostly limited to running away. If they were attacked, they would rely on the arada's speed and toughness, not its weapons systems.

"Most importantly," Ryan went on, "we don't even know what we're supposed to be looking for! Theo kept hinting that we were expected to bring something back, but he never told us what! Something's not right and I . . ."

"Okay, okay, I know. You want to head back. Look. We've already checked six new systems and found zilch. From the look of it, this new hyperlink-" he pointed to the scanner map diplay " heads back toward Miranu space. Let's go back by a different route, so we can scan a few more systems on the way. Then we'll take a break. Maybe try to pin down Theorama and get him to talk. You know how he likes synthale."

That got a small smile from Ryan; he seemed placated. "Well, alright. We might as well go out a different way than we came in."

Micah turned to the controls, and the Stainless Steel Rat leapt into hyperspace.

Chapter 2

The Miranu Circle of Elders had been the supreme ruling body of the Miranu race for over a thousand generations. "Another wasted day," thought Musapi as he strode briskly back to his office from the venerable Circle Chamber. "Those old fossils deliberate endlessly, but never ACT on anything!"

As the newest and youngest member of the Circle, Musapi had already gained some notoriety with his decisive temperament and persuasive manner; this despite the obvious mistrust that the Senior Elder felt towards him. "That old fool - he SHOULD be wary of me. It won't be too long before I'll be sitting in his seat." Musapi took pleasure in recalling the events of the past few weeks - the invaluable information his operatives had provided to him. "Soon, my plan will come to fruition, and my place in the ruling elite will be assured..."

Like all Miranu, Musapi had always believed the tales and legends of the mysterious ancient race to the galactic northwest were just that - superstitious nonsense. But just weeks ago, a scout vessel under his command had brought evidence of an unknown power source deep in the Ji nebula. An intercepted Emalgha transmission revealed a scan of the strange anomaly, but apparently the Emalgha were too technologically backward, or too busy with their futile war against the Voinians, to understand what they had seen. What was just another stray reading to them, however, was the opportunity of a lifetime to Musapi. He quickly took control of a small research group he had been monitoring, and provided them with incentives to expand and refine their nebula scanning techniques. And when the Human mercenaries they associated with showed up, Musapi made sure they were dispatched to the scene as quickly as possible.

"But not alone, no, that would be unwise. I'll not trust the fate of this mission to Humans!" The Miranu trading empire had watched the Human race for years now, and, of course, had befriended them when they at last achieved spacefaring civilization. But they were unreliable, dangerously unpredictable and foolhardy. "If they find what I seek, so be it. If they are destroyed in their haste - my loyal Miranu operative will bring back the technological find of the millenium. And I will lead the Miranu race into a new era of galactic influence and power."

Musapi chuckled softly to himself as he closed the door to his inner office.

The Glorious Destiny floated, motionless and invisible in the nebula. The lone pilot hummed tunelessly to herself, idly watching the Humans' ship on the sensor display. So far, this mission was almost as exciting as watching munb leaves dry. But not quite.

Jude was not surprised that the Humans were unaware of her presence. Her arada's cloaking device was working perfectly, and from what she had heard about them, Humans were not bright enough to detect her during the brief periods she was forced to decloak. What surprised her was that the Elder, Musapi, had sent Humans at all. Why not just send her to investigate this, well, whatever it was? Just like him, she thought. Keep everybody in the dark. She had long ago seen the annoying pattern in his actions.

She had started as a young pilot in the militia of her homeworld, fighting off renegade attacks. When the renowned Zachit had offered her membership, she had jumped at the chance. She had been even more honored to be approached by a representative of the newest elder, with promises of lucrative "special" missions, vitally important to the welfare of the Miranu people. But as she got to know Musapi, even through his flunkies, she came to realize that he was more manipulator than leader, grasping for power for his own sake. She wished she knew what he was up to this time, but was pretty sure she wouldn't like it even if she did.

The Humans' arada seemed to be powering up for another hyperjump. As she had every time before, she waited until the last moment to decloak, in order to get a clear fix on their destination and program her own navicomputer. As her ship followed its prey into hyperspace, she muttered under her breath: "That arrogant bastard. Someday I'm going to tell him off."

Theorama was too worried to work. He felt badly about deceiving his friends, but, well, Micah and Ryan were explorers, brave adventurers who could look after themselves, right? And they had that new ship, after all. What could happen?

Not knowing what else to do, he wandered aimlessly around the lab, hoping for some distraction.

Why had the Elder forbid him to tell the Humans what they were seeking? That seemed both unnecessary and foolish. But who was he, a mere junior scanner tech researcher, to second guess the motives of an Elder? Theorama's head was beginning to hurt, and his stomach didn't feel so well, either.

If they really did find a relic of technology from the Ancients, wouldn't that be dangerous? Some Miranu believed that the half-forgotten, mystical race were the progenitors of all modern species, and others claimed that they had destroyed themselves with horrifying weapons, but no one really KNEW anything. Ryan and Micah had no idea what they were getting into! Theorama knew little more, only that he might never see his friends again, and it would somehow be his fault.

Chapter 3

"Well, we've definitely found something." Ryan peered at the sensor console. "The nebular interference isn't as bad as I've seen in the other systems we've been through . . . but it's still hard to make out. It's certainly an artificial energy source."

The Stainless Steel Rat had assumed a close orbit around a non-descript, apparently lifeless world. From the look of it, no one had ever been here before; yet the signal that had led them here was now unmistakably implying intelligent inhabitants, or, at least, visitors.

Ryan knew what was going to happen next - Micah would insist on going down, despite the obvious danger. Hell, I want to know what's down there, too, he thought. There was really no chance of talking him out of it, and Ryan didn't feel much like trying. He just hoped he could convince Micah to be reasonably cautious.

"We can't tell anything else from up here," Micah was saying. "If we land within walking distance of the source, we can check it out up close."

"What if it's a trap? A bomb, or a mine, or something? I don't want to get blown to atoms."

"A trap for who? Us? You're getting paranoid, Ryan. Only three or four Miranu knew we were coming here, and we have the only ship in the galaxy that can make it this far into the nebula."

Ryan wondered briefly just how true that might be, but he decided to try a different tack. "What if there's somebody down there? What if they don't want visitors?"

"If they don't want company," Micah retorted, "then they shouldn't be sending out signals and attracting attention. Look, it's obvious this planet's been dead for a zillion years or so - if there IS anybody alive down there, they need help, not privacy."

Ryan admitted to himself that he lacked the enthusiasm to continue the pointless argument. "Alright, we'll do it your way. But if we get killed, I'm never speaking to you again."

"Fair enough." Micah's eyes roved over the instrument panel. "Now which one of these works the landing gear again? The green one? Or was it brown?" But Ryan was not listening to Micah's latest attempt at humor; his attention had been captured by a small beep from the sensor display.

"Looks like a ship jumping in, Micah . . . a big one."

"Your shadow again?"

"No . . . it's a Voinian Cruiser."

The terrible scream of rage still echoed through the cavernous bridge of the Voinian Northern Forces flagship, Domination. The Executive Officer staggered, half blind, toward the exit, clutching the stump where his left eyestalk had formerly been. His Captain's venomous words followed him to the monstrous hatchway. "Were it not for your incompetence in managing our fuel supply, I would have the prize already! Now, I find that the cursed trickster-demon Miranu have beaten us to it!"

As the wounded officer made his way off the bridge and stumbled in search of medical aid, Captain Yarrum, Supreme Commander of the Voinian Northern Forces, returned to his command throne. The other bridge crew slowly returned to their normal duties, carefully failing to notice the severed member leaking greenish blood onto the shining deck plates. Considering the reputation of their captain, Executive Officer Skunko had gotten off fairly lightly for his failure. His eyestalk would grow back in a few months. Others in the past had suffered fates more grim.

"Sensor operator - report!" snapped Yarrum.

"One Miranu vessel, sir, descending toward the planet. A small ship - Arada class. A heavy fighter
or. . ."

"I am familiar with the class of vessel! What about the alien signal? Have you detected it?"

The sensor officer gulped, not wishing to displease his captain - for obvious reasons. "Yes, sir! Definitely emanating from the planet, sir."

If only I had been able to wring the information more quickly out of those Emalgha scum we captured, thought Yarrum bitterly. Now I am forced to confront the Miranu, too close to their space, and in this blasted nebula! Visibility and scanner effectiveness will be greatly reduced.

"Pilot! How long until we intercept the enemy?"

"Just over two hours at maximum speed, captain."

"Very well. Order all fighter pilots to ready their craft. This one tiny ship is no match for our might! We will crush the interfering Miranu and take the prize for Voinia!"

Well, thought Jude, this certainly has become more interesting.

She considered her options as she watched the Voinian Cruiser advance slowly toward the planet. The Humans' arada was already on the surface. If the Voinians sent a landing party down before the Humans were able to escape, then her task would be considerably more difficult. She was not dismayed by the prospect of fighting the Voinians - she knew her Zachit arada could run circles around any Voinian vessel. But she had something more important to worry about. The Elder, Musapi, while being typically vague about the object of this bizarre quest, had been very clear on one point: under no circumstances could the item be allowed to fall into non-Miranu hands. As long as the Humans retrieved it and returned to Miranu space, she was not to interfere. If they appeared to break their bargain, however, she was authorized to take any action, including disabling and boarding their ship, to recover the unnamed treasure. Jude interpreted this to mean that the destruction of the item would be preferable to its capture by aliens; she weighed the option of simply destroying the Humans' ship before the Voinians could take it.

But even if the the Humans were as pitifully stupid as some said, they had to know that the Voinians were coming, and that they had less than two hours to find the artifact and get away. Musapi had seemed to think that its recovery was worth any risk, as long as the risk was not his own.

The cloaking device hummed steadily; what a neat toy! She would wait a bit longer, watching from her hidden vantage point, and see what happened next.

Chapter 4

Ryan wasn't sure exactly what had happened.

Instead of leaving, like any sensible pilot confronted with a hostile Voinian Cruiser would, they had grounded on the planet, and were now watching the Voinian ship get closer with each passing moment. Micah had landed the Rat quickly and efficiently (despite his earlier claims of ignorance), about a hundred meters from what appeared to be a large, wrecked spacecraft of unfamiliar design.

"Well," mused Micah, swiveling his chair to glance at the radar display, "chances are they know we're down here. If they made it this far into the nebula, they must have some kind of Nebular Penetration technology of their own." He looked at Ryan pointedly. "We have to see what's in that ship. We have about ninety minutes before the Cruiser reaches us, but if it launches fighters, they'll arrive sooner. One of us should stay here to keep an eye on the situation in space, and to have the ship ready for a quick takeoff."

"I suppose that would be me, then," muttered Ryan.

"I was hoping you'd say that." Micah jumped up, grabbed his coat, and pulled it on; as he spoke he equipped himself with small items from a locker near the airlock. "I'll keep a commline open at all times - let me know as soon as something happens up there. I won't be any longer than an hour." The last of his preparations involved buckling something around his waist - a belt and holster holding a shiny gold Phase pistol.

"Do you think you're going to need that? You were the one who said there's nobody down here."

"Well, I guess I'll have it and not need it, rather than the other way around."

Ryan's thoughts were sour as he watched Micah go out the airlock and make his way toward the alien wreck. "He always did push me around, ever since we were kids." He turned his eyes to the radar screen, and listened to Micah's breathing over the commline.

Within the ancient, abandoned vessel, a shadowy figure waited.

Just waited.

The entity had waited, with infinite patience, in perfect silence, for uncounted centuries.

But now its attention was roused. Its senses tingled. Someone was coming.

Soon, perhaps, its mission could be fulfilled. Maybe now the waiting would end.

Perhaps. It could wait a little longer.

"What a mess."

Micah realized that wasn't very descriptive, but there really wasn't much to see. The derelict lay in a rocky cleft, broken open in a dozen places. It was fairly large, at least the size of a frieght courier, but it was hard to get any picture of the overall design. Micah didn't think this ship had been built by any species he had ever heard of; and judging by the layers of sediment covering the lower portions, it had been here for a long, long time.

Using a small hand held scanner, he followed the readings of the power source into a wide gash on the side of the wreck. Picking his way carefully over twisted metal deck plates and fallen wall supports, he noticed with relief that the space inside seemed to be arranged in hallways and compartments, separated by doorways. Apparently such things were universal. The lower decks, especially toward the bow, were smashed and tangled in a dense mass, consistent with the other evidence of a crash. Luckily, the signal was now coming from above, apparently in a higher and less damaged level.

"I'm looking for a way up. The signal is above me. How much time do I have?"

"Fifty seven minutes," came Ryan's reply, tinny through the small speaker.

The interior of the ship was as black as night; the only light came from the small lamp at the front of his scanner. Micah searched until he found a shaft, probably from some kind of elevator or lift. There was a perfectly ordinary ladder running up one side. He only had to climb about five meters before the scanner indicated that he was at the same level as the source of the emmision. He cautiously made his way out of the ruined lift shaft and looked around.

The hallways here were in a bit better shape. He checked the scanner again, and moved carefully down a featureless corridor, broken by an occasional archway. Many of the openings were partially blocked with sliding doors, hanging loosely by their now useless mechanisms, but a few seemed still closed tight. Micah gave his full attention to locating the source of the mysterious signal.

Finally, after a few minutes of wandering the gloomy halls, he stood before the door which must lead him to his goal. It was closed. He could see no handle, so he decided to try pushing it first. As soon as his hand touched it, however, it began to fall awkwardly from its frame. Micah jumped back and yelped as it toppled heavily and crashed at his feet. He was momentarily blinded by the light shining through the open archway; was it some kind of energy field? No, as his eyes adjusted, he realized he was simply seeing daylight for the first time in over a half an hour.

"Are you all right?" Ryan's tense voice crackled over the commlink.

"Yes, and I think I've finally found the place." Micah looked into the chamber beyond the defunct door. "It's a small room with no roof. It looks as if a hull plate slid off recently." All of the exposed metal Micah had seen from outside the ship was dull gray in color; the upper half of this room, however, showed bright silver conduits and struts, twisted and torn at the top. "I think some disturbance opened this part of the ship to the sky just a short while ago. That would explain why nobody's ever picked up this signal before."

"You've only got thirty minutes left - less if they launch their fighters. Hurry up and get back here!"

Micah's eye caught what looked like a compact collection of electronic equipment, recessed in a shelf of some kind. He glaced at his scanner, then put it away. That was it, all right.

He walked over and inspected the device. No telling what it was; he couldn't even see any controls. He reached out to touch it, but before his hand got more than halfway to the surface, there was a quiet chirp and some sort of glowing images began forming in the air above his head. Micah backed away hastily, but quickly realized it was only some kind of holographic display. He was still trying to decipher the ghostly images and alien script when a voice spoke from close behind him.


More, Please! I like the storyline so far, and would like to read more please!


Thanks for reposting this story, Aqua. I was hoping you would.

Pretty cool! Nice plot, characters, suitably mysterious. Good suspense. Keep it up!


AIM: Jukar5