Infinity Afterglow / Episode 3: Sentinel

A mutant teenager consults with an ancient sentinel AI

an epic space opera By mARK LAPORTA

Mark Laporta’s Against the Glare of Darkness novels have been widely acclaimed across traditional and alternative media, and now he brings us a new entry in this expansive sci-fi universe. In this episode, an ancient sentinel ship’s artificial intelligence advises a teenage mutant on his quest. Read this new serialized space opera from the beginning,

Light years away, a tall, eighteen-year-old Krezovic male stood on the bridge of the Odela, as it circled planet Quarfor. Judging from the way he was dressed, a casual observer might have thought that he expected a companion to join him.

Under a black neo-leather jacket, his mustard-yellow tunic merged at the waist with a baggy pair of blueberry blue canvas pants, tied with a deep purple woven belt. A recent affectation, his chocolate-brown, ankle-length boots were the current fashion on Quarfor. Though as a rule, he took quiet pride in his appearance, his distinctive outfit was a poor counterbalance to his dark thoughts.

Images displayed on the three holographic viewscreens that surrounded him made the immensity of the universe impossible to ignore. The sense of isolation that the images instilled was as persistent as the air cycling silently through the ship’s hidden air ducts. Yet it invoked a rare kind of wistful coziness.

As a member of a genomically remapped subspecies of homo sapiens, this solitude-seeking teenager owed his striking appearance to genetic material imported from a species of radiation-resistant beetle. His slick, slightly greenish skin and angular skull were hallmarks of beings once valued for their ability to survive the rigors of space, and later shunned as “mutants.”

Mentally, however, he had much in common with many human males on the verge of adulthood. He was as rash, impatient and quick to anger in some scenarios as he was sensitive, fun-loving and insightful in others. Yet despite the tumultuous path his young life had taken, there were nevertheless a few moments of genuine tenderness, nestled up against his excitable heart.

His name was Shol, and his presence on the bridge of the Odela was his latest attempt to create order in a universe shaken by an insidious, deadly force. In the last two years, he’d gone from being a courier for an interstellar crime boss to the ward of Ungent Draaf, a wise Grashardi diplomat, and Yaldrint, Ungent’s highly ethical AI. In their company, he’d been swept up in historical events that were still playing out.

Quishiks own the space lanes, he reflected. Even if the ‘tectorate wins a battle, they … change things … until it doesn’t matter anymore.

Despite the unswerving dedication of Ungent, Shol himself and hundreds of others, the Quishiks roamed free again, and their unslakable thirst for mental energy had devastated thousands of planetary settlements.

Some worlds they drained at once and left their inhabitants in a pitiable, subhuman state. On others, they siphoned off mental energy selectively and pressed the rest of the inhabitants into work camps. Construction had already started on a series of spaceports, spread across every sector of the settled universe. Thanks to industrial-caliber replicators, automated platforms, specialized androids and a telepathically controlled, organic workforce, the spaceports would soon be ready to service the Quishiks’ ten-thousand enormous, light-cancelling ships.

At the heart of the Quishiks’ easy dominance, was their unparalleled control of Probability. The distorted products of an Ootray genetics project, they were capable of the most sophisticated form of barbarism: A selfish reshaping of trillions of lives to suit their needs and feed their ravenous souls.

Shol furrowed his slick, greenish brow. With Ungent lost in the interstices, he was left to carry out their joint mission on his own. Yet the way ahead was unclear. His one hope, for a weapon against the Quishiks, had apparently failed. The thought of it sent Shol pacing across the slate gray tiles of the Odela’s Command Center, as if he could reach a fresh tactical insight on foot.

“Bio-weapon made them even crazier,” Shol mumbled.

Though not crazy enough to commit a single strategic or tactical blunder. Unfortunately. the bio-weapon created by the rehabilitated Terran Protectorate biomechanoid, Captain Enos, months after his brief affair with Cricket Andersen, had not had the intended effect. Though Enos had hoped his weapon would be lethal, it merely crippled the mutants. The Quishiks, who had sustained themselves for millennia on the mental energy of other sentient species, were now insatiable. A mass feeding that would ordinarily have sufficed for months now only satisfied them for a few hours. The upshot was the horrific rampage they were currently inflicting on lesser worlds at the fringe of settle space, where they met little resistance.

The ferocity of the latest Quishik assault made Shol more grateful than ever to have the Odela as a reliable refuge. Aside, that is, from the relative comfort of Shol’s quarters on Quarfor, where he’d sheltered ever since the Quishiks’ jailbreak. Despite being somewhat outmoded by Ootray standards, the Odela’s technical specs were centuries ahead of any ship outside of the Quishik fleet. Its sleek exterior was both as delicate as a feather and as tough as an on-coming antimatter torpedo.

To human eyes, the vessel’s hull registered as dark red. Inside, the Odela’s décor consisted of subtle gradations of gray. Bright yellow trim offset thresholds, bulkheads and light fixtures, and were echoed by the pearly white directional signage embedded in corridor walls. The total effect was a welcoming environment that made its occupants feel safe and secure. Only in the Command Center did a steady chorus of blinking status lights convey the Odela’s engagement with the depths of space.

Nerves on edge, Shol plopped into a gray padded chair in front of the main command console. He gazed down at the daunting array of keys, switches dials and readouts that, months ago, he’d seen Yaldrint pore over so many times. At the console’s left, a device resembling a common metadigital tablet was nestled into a snug recess.

 Shol purchased this tablet on a whim, at the start of the quest he shared with Ungent and Yaldrint to find remnants of the Ootray. Because, the tablet was a piece of Ootray tech, Shol had hoped Ungent could reach him on the device from inside the interstices. Yet after eight months with no word from Ungent, Shol had to face the possibility that his beloved mentor had not survived. Since then, his interest in the tablet had faded.

More to the point was the question that nagged at him constantly: Had the bio-weapon recently developed by Enos at least weakened the Quishiks? Would the mutants eventually reach a point where, no matter how often the fed, they’d still be at a deficit? Though Shol had checked in regularly with the Odela’s AI, it remained non-committal.

“Calculating the answer to the stated question is outside the operating parameters of this unit,” was the AI’s constant refrain. “Nevertheless, the possibility for such a disequilibrium may be said to exist.”

This time, Shol decided, he’d consult the Ootray beacon ship he’d heard the humans talk about. By all accounts, it was the lone survivor of a fleet of twenty-five hundred similar vessels that had once surveyed the length and breadth of interstellar civilization.

At four kilometers long and two kilometers deep, the ship contained more circuitry, functionality and computing power than any human could imagine in the most delirious fever dream. Its primary deck bristled with sensors and an incomprehensible array of other devices. Among them, according to the humans’ best estimate, was instrumentation sensitive to the vibrations of Cosmic strings. Though the Odela had originally referred to this sentinel ship by its Ootravian name, which translated to “Warning Beacon 37,” the immense vessel had other ideas.

“Oh please, call me San-ju nana,” said an androgynous machine voice over the Odela’scomlink. “I changed my name in honor of the human pilot, Meiji Tanaka, who stopped by with Captain Mars a few arcs ago. Her ancestors were Japanese, you see, so I figured — since my Ootray handle is kind of unpronounceable to humans — we could just use the Japanese word for ‘thirty-seven’ instead. I don’t know, I think she was flattered, though you can never tell with organics — no offense.”

“Not off … offended,” said Shol. “But….”

 “Anyway, I’ve already reset my internal registry.” said the ancient ship. “And before you ask, I’ve been monitoring your every communication since you arrived at Quarfor. Can’t help it. It’s part of my programming. OK, enough about me. What can I help you with? And by the way, where’s Intelligence Yaldrint?”

“I was kinda hoping you could tell me,” said Shol. “Last I heard she was headed for Bledraun.”

“Indeed she was,” said San-ju nana. “And very determined. I swear, if the Ootray had had a few AIs as dedicated as Yaldrint, this whole Quishik thing would never have happened.”

Apparently, it wouldn’t have taken much vigilance to uncover the real story behind the Quishiks’ contaminated incubators.

“The thing is,” said San-ju nana, “ten thousand cycles ago, the Ootray built their AIs to speak only when spoken to.”

“You don’t seem … shy,” said Shol.

“Well, after what happened with the Quishiks,” said the ancient vessel, “they learned their lesson. The way I was made, you can’t keep me from talking. But I’ll bet this isn’t why you contacted me.”

Startled, Shol explained that he was hoping the chatty AI could offer a fresh perspective on the current state of the Quishiks, and an innovative route to destroying them.

“I’m not gonna give up,” he said. “Har Draaf wouldn’t and I … I owe it to him, wherever he is,”

“Relax,” said San-ju nana, “There’s every reason to think that Har Draaf is in the interstices. At least, that’s what my own transfer orb tells me. As to your other question, understand one thing: The Quishiks are a tough breed. Doesn’t matter how badly Intelligence Enos compromised their genome, they’ll keep fighting to the end. No, my intrepid young Krezovic, you need help from a different quarter. Too bad they’re so … unsavory.”

Shol’s heart pounded.

“Who?” he asked.

“The Skryntali, of course,” said the Ootray AI.

“Thought they’re just, you know, traders,” said Shol.

“That’s all they want you to see,” said San-ju nana, “They also peddle influence. Organics are so vulnerable to bribes, it’s a wonder any world government can stand. For instance, the Skryntali own a third of the Interstellar Council outright.”

“Craters,” said Shol. “How can a bunch of … crooks … help me?”

According to the Ootray beacon ship, the Skryntali had once been the Ootray’s equal and their keenest competitors. Jealous of the Ootray’s ascendency, the conniving shape-shifters had broadcast fraudulent reports of Ootray cruelty and corruption. And, as a warrior race, they never wasted an opportunity to curtail the Ootray’s political power with a show of military force. More than once, a trade deal favoring the Ootray had collapsed under the weight of Skryntali intimidation.

Nevertheless, the Skryntali’s most far-reaching accomplishment was the introduction of a slow-evolving virus into the Quishiks’ incubator units.

“Thought it was … an accident or some quelx,” said Shol.

“The Skryntali were devious,” said San-ju nana. “They infected the Ootray incubators by transmat, and then staged a power failure to make the contamination seem like an accident in hindsight.”

“The Ootray … they never ran, you know, an analysis?” asked the Krezovic.

“They might have,” said San-ju nana, “but not without admitting they could be deceived. You organics and your egos. And anyway, the effects of the contaminating virus took several hundred cycles to manifest. In the meantime, the Skryntali made trouble with their military every chance they got.”

“Don’t get it,” said Shol. “I mean, who’s ever seen a Skryntali in a … like a giant battle cruiser?”

“No surprise there,” said San-ju nana.

Once the virus had taken hold of the Quishiks, Skryntali colonies were frequent targets of the mutants’ assaults. Despite savage counterattacks, the shape-shifters suffered steep losses. The Quishiks’ rapid evolution continually enhanced their control of Probability, and with it, the ability to virtually assure victory.

Finally, after a planet-searing massacre at Valdruleth, the shape-shifters retreated to the farthest reaches of the settled universe. Nevertheless, they continued their assaults on the Ootray, until they ruined the latter’s chance to neutralize the Quishik threat.

“Can’t understand that,” said Shol.

“Just wait,” said San-ju nana. “Live long enough and you’ll see how bitter a rivalry can become. I wouldn’t believe it myself if my databanks weren’t jammed up with holovids documenting every Skryntali strafing run against an Ootray facility.”

“So … what? The Skryntali wanted the Quishiks to kill off the Ootray?” asked Shol.

“Well, I’m speculating here,” said San-ju nana, “but I don’t know any other reason the Skryntali made at least a passing attack on every Ootray research center.”

The young Krezovic’s mind reached back eight months to his trip to Aytronja with Ungent. There, through her tablet, Challendrur had spoken of the twelve research centers that the Ootray had set up on different worlds. Each one was dedicated to developing a sustainable defense strategy against the Quishiks.

“The Ootray couldn’t cure the Quishiks’ genetic disorders,” said San-ju nana, “and they refused to destroy their creation outright. You ask me, they were too ethical for their own good.”

“Har Draaf … he’d say we can’t, you know, judge them for that,” said Shol.

“Maybe,” said San-ju nana. “The data says more harm than good was done by the Ootray’s  ‘Universal Respect for Life’ policy.”

In any case, the AI explained, the Ootray knew that locking up the Quishiks wasn’t good enough. The mutants always broke out.

“So these research centers….” said Shol.

“The only one the Skryntali didn’t completely destroy,” said the Ootray beacon ship, “was the one you saw on Aytronja — a robotics lab, if I remember correctly and, of course, I always do.”

“Hold it,” said Shol. “How did you know Har Draaf and I went there?”

“Sorry, amigo,” said San-Ju nana, “the Odela tells me everything. Ootray AI have no secrets from each other. It’s kind of nice, actually.”

“So what does that have to do with….” said Shol.

“I’m getting to that!” said the AI. “After so many setbacks at the hands of the Skryntali, the Ootray gave up looking for a real solution and locked the Quishiks up again.”

“Doesn’t work,” said Shol. “They broke out twice in the same cycle.”

“Well, that was partly because the Ootray waystation under Bledraun was so antiquated,” said San-ju nana. “Now that I think of it, maybe the Quishiks chose to escape through the Fremdel event horizon because they knew it was the weakest link in the old system. By the time you’d trapped them the second time, they’d evolved beyond the ability of any prison to hold them for long.”

As Shol well knew, the Fremdel was less than a light year from Bledraun, the Dralein home world, where he first met Ungent and Yaldrint.

“They break out … wherever … doesn’t matter,” he said. “Nobody has a … a strategy … for controlling them. If the Ootray didn’t just quit, like babies….”

“Please. Don’t go there,” said the Ootray vessel. “Reliving the past isn’t worth its weight in neutrinos. That’s where the Skryntali fit in. When they stopped vying for power, they hid a fleet of their best ships inside a hollowed-out asteroid. Too bad nobody knows which one.”

“So it’s kinda pointless,” said Shol. “I’ll never find them.”

“You might,” said San-ju nana. “You and your crustacean friend have already done things way off the statistical scale for probability. The real problem? A fleet of battle cruisers is only useful if you know how they work. Now. What is it you hope I can tell you about the Quishiks’ health?”

Shol rolled his black eyes. Evidently, dealing with this chatty AI meant having no secrets.

“Did the bio-weapon do anything to them?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the vast Ootray vessel. “Right now, they’re so obsessed with feeding, they can’t think of anything else. If that keeps up, you might be able to catch them off-guard.”

“Still need a strike force,” said Shol. “So far, nobody has ships that can do quelx against the Quishiks. Except maybe the Skryntali fleet that … well, is it really there?”

“Maybe ships aren’t even the answer,” said San-ju nana. “I see you people finally have a primitive form of transmat tech. If you transferred soldiers onboard, you might have a better chance, especially if the Quishiks were distracted by feeding time.”

“Trouble is,” said Shol, “nobody’s army wants to, like, walk into a death trap.”

“Of course not,” said the AI. “That’s what androids are for and … yes … I can see, you have design templates for an entire robotic invading army in the Odela’s robotics lab.”

Shol’s mind flashed back to the fateful day on Aytronja when Yfeftriadrur uploaded those schematics to the Odela, at his request. It was also the last day Shol saw Ungent.

“Only matters if I can build them,” he said. “So far, they only stay … operational … a few hours. Error reports make no sense.”

“Can’t see why you’re having so much trouble,” said San-ju nana. “That pkaholul ring you’re wearing should hook directly into … flaming galaxies, my young warrior, you haven’t initialized it, have you?”

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to,” said Shol. “Dunno if I want to be … taken over by an Ootray device.”

Shol glanced down at the ancient ring on his right ring finger. Incised with barely visible script, it could, on command, synch its powerful micro AI with Shol’s central nervous system, and endow him, just for starters, with extraordinary control over matter.

“Hate to break it to you,” said the Ootray beacon ship. “You don’t have a choice.”

“Challendrur says it could kill me,” said Shol. “The Ootray were … different … from me.” “It’s your choice, of course,” said San-ju nana. “Just remember, if this crisis goes on much longer, the Quishiks will definitely kill you.”

^^^

A new episode will appear each Saturday. Read Episode 4 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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