Infinity Afterglow / Episode 1: incorporeal

A newly incorporeal being explores a universe made of pure information

An Epic Space Opera by Mark Laporta

In Against the Glare of Darkness, Mark Laporta’s expansive space opera, imperious humans have dominated interstellar civilization; but now their military, political and commercial empire faces opposition, both from sentient crustaceans and a vast network of mind-controlling symbiotes. Unseen by every major player, an ancient clan has emerged from its multi-dimensional prison to seek the doom of sentient life across the universe. To meet this threat and shield the Cosmos from the blinding glare of darkness, Ambassador Ungent Draaf of the Grashard Sidereal Caucus must galvanize a misfit team of allies — arrogant  humans, back biting symbiotes, a scheming avian and a shape-shifting curmudgeon with a huge fleet of ancient warships at his command. In this episode, Ungent is now incorporeal and living in a parallel universe.

^^^

A rarefied consciousness, trapped in an unmapped region of spacetime, looked on in terror as every physical landmark disappeared before its eyes. A menacing roar rumbled in the distance and gradually intensified until it ripped through the prevailing silence. A mere meter away, it seemed, a fiery rocket hurtled down at an oblique angle. Frantic, the consciousness flitted back and forth, seeking shelter or even a single, stable reference point.

Is there a war on?

The nebulous entity’s thoughts raced faster. What was a war? Shrieks of dying souls that seemed to break the air in two were his only answer.

But, what air?

Wherever the consciousness turned its attention, it found nothing but nothingness itself. Again, it made a frantic search for a fixed point of reference. Did these disturbing perceptions exist in the here and now or were they….

A memory, the consciousness decided. Of a place  where a war rages, where a dark evil threatens … threatens what? How did this evil arise?

Once more, a loud blast seemed to shake everything to bits, as if a second rocket had landed just a few, just a few…

But what  if, the nebulous entity wondered, these sounds were mere memories, and there was no immediate danger?

With great effort, it stilled itself and listened. The explosions and pitiable wailing became more distant, more attenuated. It was as if they were simply echoes from another, inaccessible region. And yet a nagging feeling persisted that the source of the conflict was familiar, even if its name evaded retrieval.

As if the name were on the tip of my … of my

Now the consciousness, lost in a vain search for a missing word, discovered that the horrific visions from a distant world, had faded into the general, inky-black nothingness that surrounded everything. Overwhelmed by the feeling that it should know where those hallucinations came from, the consciousness tried to bring them back voluntarily.

There! Another rocket attack rained down and a large vessel landed, its hull scarred and fractured. A hatch opened and a throng of misshapen, blood-red creatures struggled to escape. Soon a larger, gleaming war ship hovered above it, raining particle beams with relentless force until the grounded, damaged vessel exploded in a blinding fireball that spared none of its desperate crew.

This is a vision from the past, thought the consciousness.

Yet it had no idea how it had reached that conclusion, except that the vision had the texture of an earlier … Time. How was that possible? Was this a world where Time was meaningless, where past and present and future were joined in a tortured Mobius strip?

Its experiment concluded, the consciousness wiped its mind clear of the horrific hallucination that it had just called up. For the first time, the nebulous entity came to rest and entered a state of quiet contemplation.

Under different circumstances, this would be fascinating, the consciousness reflected. Though amnesia rather spoils the effect.

Nearly invisible, and built from a maddeningly ambiguous combination of bariatric matter and pure energy, the consciousness identified itself as male. Yet that was solely based on further hazy memories, including a voice, a contour, a coloring and a thousand other physical attributes. Over an unknowable period of subjective time, a glowing image hovered in his mind that burned brighter and brighter, until it fueled a blaze of self-realization.

From that moment on, the consciousness took on a well-defined shape. It resembled a purplish, un-Earthly crustacean, whose graceful eyestalks topped a rounded head balanced on a stocky neck. The neck, in turn, was an extension of a bulbous torso, from which emerged a symmetrical arrangement of extremities. Hence, two arms, which ended in webbed hands, and two legs, which ended in webbed feet. Each of these components was encased in a well-articulated exoskeleton — and the image as a whole was associated with a name

Har Ungent Draaf, the consciousness told itself.

Now the sluice gates of memory opened in earnest, and the largely invisible entity took on a deceptively solid appearance, as his consciousness blossomed in the soothing warmth of self-awareness:

Har Ungent Draaf, former ambassador for the Grashard Sidereal Caucus

It was a reassuring affirmation of his existence. But he was left to wonder if he could actually interact with this sidelined region of spacetime.

“Har Ungent Draaf!” he shouted.

That is, in spite of not knowing how he could have made a sound, and still be so … nebulous. He tested his voice again at a lower volume.

“Maybe I’m as real as I believe I am,” he said.

He felt his body solidify further, though if any resident of normal space could have seen him, they would also have seen through him. But that was impossible. The newly reconstituted, sentient crustacean inhabited a region of spacetime utterly unlike normal space. In fact, the crustacean’s memory told him there was more to the story. He had awakened inside the “interstices.”

Where in Haldrinahl’s Grotto have I heard that term? Ungent Draaf asked himself.

Panic set in, as the answer remained stubbornly out of reach within his still-dissociated consciousness. That is, until the information wafted down into the playing fields of memory like autumn leaves.

From the Ootray, he told himself, and all at once, the fearsome memories that had tormented him moments before slid into their proper frame of reference, like papers in a file cabinet.

The Ootray — the progenitors of the crisis looming where I used to live.

Used to.

Ungent Draaf had been transported into a region outside of Time, where the Ootray, a humanoid species known for unparalleled advances in science and technology, had fled to this same region of spacetime thousands of years before, unwilling to face the consequences of their actions.

 “Fools!” Ungent shouted.

In his former configuration, as a carbon-based life form, he’d strained to withhold judgment of the Ootray. Even now, after all that had happened, his newly critical attitude toward them made him uneasy. In the past year, he’d explored Ootray ruins on his travels, seen their many technical marvels first hand and found much to admire. Somewhat reluctantly, Ungent decided that it wasn’t fair to demand perfection from the Ootray — simply because he and trillions of his peers across Time had yearned for a “sage mentor.” If anything his current, isolated state dictated that further spiritual enlightenment would only come from within.

Yet for the moment, he realized, he had more pressing problems.

“Where is everyone?” he asked the dark, frigid silence of space.

The emptiness around him was not at all what he’d anticipated. He’d entered the interstices, he now recalled, with the expectation that he would meet the Ootray diaspora immediately.

But as far as the distinguished crustacean could tell, the Ootray had either perished, or migrated to yet another unreachable realm. If so, the former Grashardi ambassador had sacrificed everything to gain mere nothingness. His heart rebelled against that thought.

If I believe there’s a path to the Ootray, he thought, maybe I can follow it.

Accordingly, he stumbled forward on his newly reconstituted feet until his memory supplied the necessary shifts of weight and the tug of gravity. Because he could imagine any surface he chose the now-disembodied crustacean chose to walk on the slate blue tiles of the Grashardi capital city.

“Air, light, fragrance,” he whispered.

Soon his imagined environment took on a more robust feeling of reality. Familiar shops popped up on all sides including the venerable towers of the Grashard Sidereal Caucus.

 “Stop right there,” said a commanding voice, dead ahead.

Trembling, Ungent nearly tripped over his webbed feet. A fiery cage rose up around him from below and he came to an abrupt halt, narrowly avoiding its singeing flames. The voice bellowed again.

“Your unauthorized remapping of Information Space will not be tolerated,” it said.

Ungent’s comforting mental construct vanished, and he was surrounded once again by the inky depths of spacetime. True to his life-long habit in the diplomatic corps, Ungent delivered a deep, ceremonial bow in the direction of the voice.

“Please accept my humblest apology,” he said. “I’ve only just arrived and thought I was alone. I meant no offense and would be grateful for your guidance in revising my conduct.”

At that, the fiery cage, as nebulous as everything else in this new world, dissipated into so much smoldering ash.

“Just arrived?” said the voice. “Unlikely. The last transfer was … checking … By the elemental particles, a transfer was made quite recently! How is it you stayed behind when the others left?”

Ungent did his best to explain that he’d entered the interstices with the help of Yfeftriadrur, the Ootray that he’d met on Aytronja, one of only two remaining Ootray outposts in normal space. Tall, elegant and severe, Yfeftriadrur had stayed behind when the rest of the rest of his species fled. On learning that Ungent wished to contact the Ootray diaspora, Yfeftriadrur led him to a large, swirling blue “transfer orb,” the gateway to the interstices.

 “Yfeftriadrur?” asked the voice. “That is a legendary name. I doubt anyone remembers it.”

“Excuse me,” said Ungent. “I have it on his authority that he is the brother of Challendrur, whom I know to be alive. In fact, she may be communicating with my former student right now through one of your tablets. If you could find her, she could identify me.”

“Challendrur?” said the voice. “Searching … Yes, there is such a being. Forgive me, as I am a late-model AI, constructed many cycles after the Makers arrived here. I will attempt to establish communication. Did the tablet look like this?”

A replica of a familiar device appeared out of the void and floated before Ungent.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s just like the tablet purchased by my student, Shol, on Quarfor.”

 “Quarfor?” said the voice. “That, too, is a legendary … yet the database confirms you are correct. I will attempt to contact Maker Challendrur.”

Ungent watched as the tablet emitted a flash of yellowish light, which resolved itself to an image of Challendrur herself, a young female Ootray with cascading platinum blonde hair.

“Har Draaf!” she exclaimed. “I’m so relieved that one of our sentinels has found you. Shol will be overjoyed.”

“How is the boy?” asked Ungent. “And what of the Quishiks?”

“Shol is safe, Har Draaf,” said Challendrur. “But otherwise, the news is not good. Our ancient foe has escaped and has already decimated sentient life in several planetary systems.”

Ungent’s ethereal eyestalks drooped. To think that a careless lab error had set the stage for galaxy-wide murder and mayhem. Once the pride of the Ootray, as the fruit of their first experiments in genomic remapping, the Quishiks’ twisted, blood-red bodies bore little resemblance to the tame equine species they once were.

“So there was no recourse?” asked Ungent.

“None,” said Challendrur. “Though your companions did try. However, I regret to say that the bio-weapon developed by Intelligence Enos may yet prove effective.”

“And what of Yaldrint?” asked Ungent. His AI assistant had been at his side throughout his entire adult life, first enclosed in a carrying case and, more recently, in a biomechanoid body modeled on his own species.

“Her coordinates are unknown,” said Challendrur. “Though our analysis of local Probability suggests she may have taken refuge at our former outpost, on Rayzhul Prime.”

 “I’m relieved to think she has survived,” said Ungent. “In the meantime, your sentinel tells me I breached some sort of information protocol.”

“Understandable,” said Challendrur. “My brother would know nothing of our life here. I will transmit our Information Space coordinates now.”

Ungent felt an odd vibration at the spot where, by analogy, his temples had once been. He closed his eyes and let the sensation flow through his entire body. When he opened his eyes, he saw a cityscape reminiscent of the Ootray ruins he’d visited on Quarfor, as if they’d been fully restored.

“Marvelous,” he said. “If I may ask … where are you? We have much to discuss about the current situation.”

“Current?” asked Challendrur. “I see you still have not adjusted to the interstices. Know that, relative to your life in normal space, eight arcs of subjective time have passed.”

“Eight … I assume I was … suspended?” asked Ungent.

“You experienced a transition period, during which your consciousness reassembled itself,” said Challendrur. “I can explain in a moment. First, you will receive a set of coordinates. Concentrate on them and you will be at them. You’ll join me and the other members of the Ootray family.”

“But … I was told you left normal space thousands of cycles ago,” said Ungent.

“This, Har Draaf, is life outside of Time,” said Challendrur. “We do not live in cycles. Here are the coordinates.”

Once more, Ungent’s thoughts were awash in vibrations. As instructed, he opened his mind and the Ootray female he’d known only as a talking head appeared before him, inside an Ootray meeting hall. Once again, he was struck by Challendrur’s features. Though essentially humanoid, her slightly extended neck and her abundance of resplendent, shimmering tresses, lent her an oddly ethereal beauty.

Both she and her companions favored colorful clothing made from sumptuous materials and accessorized with delicate jewelry.

“Thank you,” said Ungent. “Now please, I must ask….”

An Ootray male to Challendrur’s right, held his hand up for silence.

“We will tell you, Har Draaf,” he said, “everything you want to know — though you may wish you had not asked.”

As Ungent listened to a concise recitation of recent events, it dawned on him how far removed he was from his former life. The “us vs them” mentality that shone through the Ootray’s remarks made the contrast even more stark. In the universe he’d left behind, inhabitants were bound by their physical limitations. By contrast, as a resident of the interstices, he now lived in a realm of pure information outside of Time and in spite of the evolutionary processes that had shaped his consciousness.

I can become anything I can imagine, he realized. The thought was at once heartening and terrifying.

^^^

A new episode will appear each Saturday. Read Episode 2 now.

Read Ungent Draf’s earlier adventures in Mark Laporta’s novels Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. Mark Laporta is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.

Image by Kalyee Srithnam.

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