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

Chapter 5

Every adrenaline gland in his body heaved; Micah felt like his heart was going to explode. He jerked around, leaping sideways, and groped awkardly for the unfamiliar weapon at his side. It seemed like much too long a time before his fingers found the grip and trigger, but finally he had the Phase pistol shakily pointed at the mysterious figure who had spoken.

The small, slender alien looked steadily at Micah from behind strange triangular spectacles.

"Karrde does not recognize your species," the figure said mildly, "but welcomes you nonetheless. May Karrde interest you in combat?"

Micah's shock was quickly giving way to confusion. This weird old man apparently took no notice of the pistol pointed at him; either he did not realize it WAS a weapon, or he had nerves of steel. Now he issues a bland challenge to fight? Against an opponent easily thirty centimeters taller and fifteen kilos heavier? Micah was beginning to wonder if he was dreaming.

Ryan's voice snapped his train of thought. "What's going on? I can't hear what you're saying!"

"I found . . . uh . . . something. Just wait a minute - I'll call you right back." Micah switched off the commlink.

He stared again at the bizarre figure facing him. "What?" was all he could think to say.

The stranger gestured at the holographic display overhead. "Karrde is adept at providing a variety of strategic scenarios," he said, as a dizzying view of sleek spacecraft flew by, then was replaced with what looked like some sort of a star chart. "But tactical combat is considered by most to be his best feature." The view shifted again, showing what was unmistakably two groups of warships in a fierce space battle. "Karrde is familiar with every known configuration of space vessel." The display now flicked through some kind of schematics - ship designs, some totally alien, some tantalizingly familiar. Micah thought he saw a Miranu freighter, but the image was gone before he could be sure. Then the display dimmed, and the wizened face turned to him again. "What would your preference be?"

Micah's brain was reeling, but some pieces were beginning to fall into place. He reholstered his pistol.

"You are Karrde?" he asked carefully.

The figure bowed at the waist, and also gestured at the electronic device which projected the holodisplay. "Karrde, version three point zero," he said matter-of-factly.

"So the image I see - your body - is just a hologram?"

The figure again bowed. "Correct."

"And you are some kind of . . . tactical simulation program?"

"Karrde's software is the most sophisticated code ever devoloped for space combat style interactive entertainment."

"Wait. Entertainment . . . you mean you're a . . . video game?"

"Mere games do not even approach Karrde's abilities. His tactical and strategic database rivals that of the military computers used by several major galactic powers."

"Hmm . . . do you know how long you've been here?" Micah asked.

"Karrde's memory indicates a long period of inactivity," was apparently all the little man could say.

An idea was forming in Micah's mind. He wasn't sure if it would work, but . . . why not try? He flicked the commlink back on. "Ryan? What's going on up there?"

"Why did you turn your commlink off?!? Are you trying to drive me crazy? Of all the selfish, irresponsible . . . "

"Okay!" Micah cut him off. "I'm sorry. Now what's going on?"

"The cruiser has launched its heavy fighters. ETA about ten minutes. You'd better get back here, now!"

"Okay." Micah turned to Karrde. "How much memory do you need?"

"Karrde requires sixteen gigabytes minimum, and prefers twenty. But his data file occupies six point four terabytes."

Micah whistled. "Some database, huh? Well, I don't think that will be a problem. Our shipboard computer is brand new - I'm pretty sure we can accommodate you, Karrde. Can you upload to our ship over this voice commumication unit?"

"The hardware available can perform audio transfers at a rate of twelve gigabytes per second."

Micah did a quick mental calculation. "It's gonna be close. Let's get started." He spoke quickly into the commlink as he unclipped it from his collar. "Ryan - data upload. Get ready." He placed the unit on top of the alien casing that had been Karrde's electronic home for uncounted centuries.

"Karrde, begin transfer. If this works, I'll see you on the ship."

Micah turned and ran for his life.

On the bridge of the Domination, Yarrum watched the viewscreen intently. The Miranu vessel had not yet launched from the surface, but when it did, it would be difficult to disable. The fighters were spread out in a blockade formation, and had orders to prevent the arada from escaping at all costs. But Yarrum knew that these Miranu ships were fast and maneuverable. Combined with the fact that they were also very fragile, it might prove impossible to capture it without destroying it.

So be it, Yarrum thought to himself. If I cannot have the ancient technology, then no one will.

"Message to all fighter pilots," he growled. "If you cannot disable the prey, be sure to destroy it. Fail me, and you will be killed."

The blocky, powerful Voinian ships closed on their target.

Chapter 6

Jude still wasn't sure what she was going to do.

The Glorious Destiny cruised easily, keeping pace with one of the the stubby, sluggish Voinian heavy fighters. Still cloaked, Jude watched and waited, and wondered.

It would be risky indeed to try to engage the Voinians in combat. Jude knew she was a good pilot, one of the best, but the odds were not in her favor. She also knew that the weapons on her Arada - Phase cannons and Dispersal rockets - were not very effective against the heavy armor the Voinians used. She might be able to cause a distraction, give the Humans a chance to get away; after all, Musapi was using them just as he was using Jude. Didn't she owe them at least a chance?

But Voinian heavy rockets packed quite a punch. She might also get herself killed - all it would take is one or two lucky shots, and lights out. She had seen it happen, many times, to friends and comrades. Pilots better than she.

Maybe it would be safer to just destroy the Humans and leave. She had specific orders to make sure the object was not taken by alien powers, and whatever they were looking for, the Voinians obviously thought it was important. If Musapi could be believed, all Miranu would be in grave danger if this technology fell into Voinian hands. Yes, she thought, it makes more sense to just eliminate the problem. When they are disabled by the Voinians, I'll finish them and escape before the Voinians even realize I'm here. Those hapless Humans just got in the middle of the wrong scuffle, and they were bound to pay the price sooner or later.

She locked her weapons onto the Humans' ship as it accelerated upward from the surface.

"The Voinian fighters have us boxed in." Ryan's voice was strained; he stared desperately at the radar display as he piloted the ship. "I don't see how we're going to get past them without catching five rockets up our nose." He turned and looked bleakly at Micah, who was strapping himself into the other seat, jacket still on, Phase pistol still at his hip.

"We'll think of something - we always do," was Micah's distracted reply. He seemed to be paying more attention to the comm console than to the tactical viewscreen. "How long until they are in firing range?"

"About two minutes if we maintain course. A bit longer if we go back, but then we're cornered on the ground." Ryan was appalled at his friend's apparent lack of concern for their situation, but he knew there was no point in arguing about it now. He searched for a way through the pattern of oncoming ships.

Just then a short beep signalled the end of the communications task. "Looks like Karrde is done uploading," Micah said. "Let's see if he works." He entered a command to run the program in memory.

Almost immediately, a mild voice came from hidden speakers somewhere. "Karrde three point zero, loading configuration files."

"What the . . ." started Ryan.

Micah cut him off. "You'll see." He looked around. "I don't see him - oh! Right. We don't have any holoprojectors here for him to use."

"Correct," came the alien voice. "Karrde can interface using audio only. Karrde is scanning current system configuration . . . active weapons systems detected . . . accessing sensor array . . ."

"Micah!! We don't really have, like, time right now to preview software, you know?" Ryan's voice was beginning to edge toward hysterical. "Firing range in thirty seconds!"

A quiet but unmistakable warning klaxon came from the small speakers. "Karrde has detected a serious tactical situation. Shall Karrde engage the enemy?"

"What?!?" Ryan screamed. "What the hell is going on..."

"Yes!" yelled Micah. A sudden inspiration struck, as everything he had seen and heard down on the planet came back in a rush. The ship schematics, the animated battle sequences, the bizarre conversation about combat tactics and databases, it all made sense now! "Karrde, engage the enemy and use all your resources! Get us out of here!"

"Command acknowledged," replied the voice, and the Stainless Steel Rat immediately twisted and bucked, accelerating wildly. Both men would have been hurled to the deck, had they not been strapped into their seats with harnesses. As it was, Ryan lost all contact with the controls, not that it mattered. The ship was posessed - under the control of the alien computer program Micah had brought on board. Ryan prepared to die.

An unfamiliar sound reverberated through the wildly tilting cabin; then there came a series of bone crushing impacts. "Neutron fire hitting the starboard shields," yelled Ryan, who had managed to grab the console with both hands, and was steadying himself the best he could. "We can't take too much of that!" It was Micah who was the first to realize what the strange noise was when it occurred again. "It's the Phase cannons! We never did know what they sounded like!" He shouted at the ceiling. "Karrde! Report!"

"One enemy vessel has been disabled. Shields at 52 percent. Other enemy vessels moving to pursue. Additional commands?"

"Get us out of here! Set course out of the system and prepare . . " He trailed off, and his face went white. "No, wait," he said slowly. "We have to go back to the planet."

"What? Why?" Ryan gestured at the radar screen. "We have an open lane out of here . . ."

"There's still a copy of Karrde down there! Don't you see? Karrde is more sophistcated than any computer pilot or tactical software we have now! What would happen if the Voinians got him too?" Micah's face was grim. "We have to destroy that wreck."

Ryan looked torn for a moment, then took a deep breath. "You're right. Karrde, lock onto the signal coming from the planet below, and take us there, best speed."

Chapter 7

The Glorious Destiny drifted slowly toward the planet, still cloaked; Jude, however, neither noticed or cared. She was staring in disbelief at the scene before her, trying to comprehend what she had just seen. A Voinian heavy fighter sat motionless, disabled. And the humans' arada, instead of escaping, was now headed back down toward the source of the mysterious signal. The other five fighers were closing in.

Jude still wasn't sure how it was possible for this to have happened. She had always heard that Humans were clumsy, ignorant, and uncivilized. But THESE Humans piloted an arada in battle like no Miranu could hope to match! She had seen hundreds of space battles, and some of the best pilots the Zachit had ever known, but she had never seen anything like this. Six Voinian fighters against a single arada? And the Humans' ship was barely even touched! Could humans be naturally gifted fighter pilots? She thought she would have heard about something as bizarre as that. And WHY were they heading back down? Had they not yet found what they were looking for? If not, she didn't see how they could spend much more time searching, with five Voinians after them. She HAD to know what wasgoing on!

Rousing from her stupor, she turned her ship to follow the string of alien fighters. She reached for the cloaking controls with one hand, and the weapons console with the other. "Musapi can go to hell," she said to herself. "It's time for me to make my own orders."

Strafing the alien wreck with Phase cannons was the easiest thing in the world. It exploded quite nicely, and the signal which had called them here across light years abruptly stopped. The ship which had been Karrde's home for so long was reduced to scraps in seconds.

The hard part, thought Ryan, was going to be getting out alive.

The Voinian fighters were closing in, forming a tightening net through which escape seemed extremely unlikely, even with Karrde piloting the ship. Micah asked the obvious question: "Karrde, what are our chances of making it out?"

"The enemy ships are using simple but effective tactics," came the computer voice. "After analyzing the capabilities of our opponents, and considering our shields have been weakened, Karrde estimates the odds of escaping intact to be twenty eight percent or less."

"Well, we don't have much choice. I'll take your odds - it's better than we would have with either one of us at the controls." Micah glanced at Ryan, who nodded. "OK, Karrde, take your best shot - get us out of here."

They were ready for the abrupt maneuvering this time; Ryan kept his eyes glued to radar display as he braced himself against the console. Suddenly something new on the screen caught his eye. Another arada? It seemed to come from nowhere, behind one of the Voinian fighters. Ryan's mind suddenly connected - the sensor ghost! They HAD been followed! A cloaked arada! Simultaneously, Phase cannon fire and a dispersal rocket flared from the new ship, obliterating the fighter's weak shielding and chewing into its armor. In seconds, before it could turn around to face its new enemy, the fighter was disabled, falling helplessly toward the planet.

"The tactical situation has improved," remarked Karrde blandly. "Adjusting course to take advantage."

The communications console beeped - an incoming hail. Micah responded.

"Humans!" A Miranu voice barked tersely. "I will engage another fighter! Set course one six two mark seven five!"

"Do it, Karrde!" yelled Micah.

"Acknowledged." The Stainless Steel Rat fired its Phase cannons at the nearest Voinian ship as it streaked through the opening left by their mysterious ally's assault. Heavy rockets sailed over and under, but miraculously, just missed their target. Neutron fire pelted the shields and boiled away layers of armor plating, but shortly they were through the blockade.

"Miranu pilot - we're clear! Get out of there!" Micah spoke urgently into the comm console, but through the heavy static of weapons fire and explosions, a reply could not be made out. "Miranu pilot! Respond!" Nothing.

"Karrde, report. What's our status? Can we go back to help?" Ryan's voice was tight. "That Miranu saved our lives!"

"Shields down. Armor at thirty one percent. Karrde strongly recommends against further engagements with the enemy."

"There's nothing we can do, Ryan," Micah said sadly, "except to get out of here." He looked at the radar console, and saw nothing but Voinian ships trailing them, falling behind. "Our unknown friend's sacrifice won't be for nothing; we got what we came for. Let's go home."

The Stainless Steel Rat jumped out of the system, toward safety.

Chapter 8

The Miranu typically eat their largest meal of the day at midafternoon; the restaurant was starting to fill up as Ryan and Micah finished telling Theorama the story of the past few days. The alien wreck, the Voinian Cruiser, the bizarre reality of Karrde, and the timely appearance, and loss, of the mysterious Miranu pilot - as each new twist had been described, Theorama's eyes had gotten bigger and bigger. Now he just sat, staring, trying to absorb it all.

Finally he spoke. "So, this combat program - Karrde? - is running on your ship's computer now?"

"Yah," said Micah, chuckling. "We left him hooked up to Station Pybin's main outfit database, with instructions to analyze ship configurations. I think he's about as happy as he can be, and hopefully he'll recommend some good upgrades to buy."

Theorama continued, "and you haven't reported this to the Elder, Musapi, yet? What are you going to do?"

"Well," Ryan drawled, leaning back casually, "we wanted to talk to you about that first. We were hoping we could, mmm, persuade you to tell us a little more about what's going on than you did last time, if you get my meaning."

Both Ryan and Micah stared steadily at the Miranu scientist. Theorama looked nervously from one to the other, cleared his throat, and looked miserable. "Yes, well, I can explain that. You see he told me . . ." He trailed off as a figure moved through the thickening crowd and approached their table. She wore the well-known uniform of the Zachit.

"Excuse me, but I have some information you may be interested in." Her tone was formal, but not unfriendly. Ryan was the first to recognize her voice.

"You - you're the pilot who saved us! We thought you were dead!"

The Zachit pilot nodded slightly. "Leiutenant Commander Jude. After I knew you had reached safety, I evaded and cloaked before the Voinian fighters could converge on me."

Micah stood up. "Please, join us. We owe you our lives."

At this, Jude shook her head. "I just want you to know, the Elder who sent you, Musapi, is not to be trusted. He has . . . his own agenda. Be careful. Clear skies to you both." She gave a quick, precise Zachit salute, turned, and disappeared into the crowd.

Micah watched her go, then sat down and looked once again at his Miranu friend. "Well, Theo? What do you say?"

"I . . . I expect she is correct. If I were you, I would stay clear of Miranu space for a while."

Micah stood up, and looked toward the exit. "In that case, the sooner, the better." He looked back at Theo. "Can you just forget that we were here?"

Theo smiled wryly. "Forget WHO was here?"

"Right. Good. Thanks, Theo. For everything." He turned to his partner. "Ryan? Do you think Karrde would be interested in meeting some United Earth admirals?"

Ryan chuckled. "Probably not as much as they would like to meet him." He gave Theorama a quick pat on the shoulder, and followed Micah toward the exit.

As Theorama watched his friends hurry toward their ship, he could hear Ryan's voice: ". . . gonna take two double bacon cheeseburgers to get the taste of boiled grubs out of my mouth . . ."

The end

I didn't realize I was such a mysterious type! Cool. Write some more stories, Aqua, okay? Just think of it this way:
What's more important: real life and sleeping, or dreaming up and writing stories? 😉

It's all right. Could have been better, but it wrapped the story up pretty well. Keep it up!


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