Infinity Afterglow / Episode 4: Ancient Archive

An avian grifter searches an ancient archive

an epic space opera By Mark laporta

In this episode of Infinity Afterglow a sentient avian explores an ancient archive for clues to a mysterious puzzle. 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. Read this new serialized space opera from the beginning,

Seated in her cubicle in the Skryntali Archive of the Ancients on Zyffer 3, Eldrinaj Kaklyadar broke out into a self-satisfied grin. An Olfdranyi in her late twenties, Eldrinaj was typical of a sentient species whose evolutionary ancestors were similar to terrestrial avians. Her face, which was distended enough to suggest a conical contour, was adorned at the sides with downy, vestigial feathers. Piercing blue eyes, arranged stereoscopically, were slightly recessed, while her wide mouth seemed to endow her with a perpetual smile

It was Eldrinaj’s first day as an Associate Archivist, a position she’d fought hard for, with one thing in mind. She’d been promised a fat payout by Nevruleth, the dyspeptic, shape-shifting Skryntali, whom she’d stumbled on years earlier. An aging trader and influence peddler, Nevruleth had caught the Olfdranyi grifter attempting to blackmail a member of the Interstellar Council, who was already in his back pocket. He pulled her aside and explained that the Council’s investigative arm would eventually find her and press charges.

“You’ve got guts,” he told her, “but you’re playing a losing game. Drop this amateur scam and I’ll let you in on a little secret that’ll make you some real money.”

From there, they began a partnership that had spanned the last five years. In fact, it was her latest assignment from Nevruleth that led Eldrinaj to Zyffer 3. Her mission? To uncover a long-buried secret guaranteed to help him fulfill a lifelong quest.

Trouble was, it had taken Eldrinaj more than six months to arrive at “square one.” Within minutes of securing her lander at the planet’s main spaceport, news of the Quishik’s most recent breakout had spread across the settled universe. The Zyffer 3 WorldCircle immediately initiated a defensive lockdown.

Eldrinaj was shut tight in her ship and had to make do with basic supplies provided by an automated delivery system. For a hedonist of her caliber, this level of deprivation was unbearable. But her internment ended abruptly, with reports that the Quishiks had abandoned the center of interstellar civilization for its more defenseless fringes.

Once Zyffer 3 reopened, Eldrinaj began her campaign to snag a position in the Archives and unearth the “Flight Shape” security protocols needed to pilot a hidden fleet of Skryntali warships. These were the same warships that Cricket Andersen would stumble on a few months later. For his part, Nevruleth dreamed of using the fleet to restore Skryntali civilization to its former glory.

Eldrinaj’s first step had been the hardest. To many upper-echelon Skryntali, the idea of an Olfdranyi gaining access to the Archives of the Ancients was unthinkable. Due to her unusual appearance, she was, regrettably, an easy target for such closeted snobs. But as Eldrinaj had learned, the way around ingrained bias was with inside information.

A little research on the local newsnets gave her the key to the shape-shifters’ psyche. Evolved as a survival mechanism, shape-shifting was originally controlled by the Skryntali autonomic nervous system. Later, as the species attained sentience, shifts in shape were also triggered by changes in emotional state. Starting at the time of their earliest settlements, the Skryntali developed prescribed shapes for every aspect of domestic, religious and public life.

By Eldrinaj’s time, the Skryntali had adopted generic humanoid contours with only minor variations in phenotype. While young adults might indulge themselves with distinctive features, by mid-life, most Skryntali had settled down into one of a handful of standard configurations. Another hallmark of the basic Skryntali “look” was an unadventuresome wardrobe, consisting of a bland, one-piece coverall, lightly accessorized. Anything, that is, to put their most lucrative trading partners at ease.

Nevertheless, moment-to-moment fluctuations in shape still occurred. By taking full advantage of her species’ natural empathic ability, Eldrinaj quickly detected the shifts in emotional state underlying these minor changes in appearance, and acted accordingly. Yet to finally win the trust of this haughty population, she relied on a set of well-honed social skills.

For instance, her flirtatious chatter had a way of making corporate executives and government officials of any gender divulge their place of origin, line of work and even their financial and real estate holdings. From there, through a combination of theft, intimidation and blackmail, there was practically nothing of value she couldn’t obtain.

Another weapon in her arsenal was an uncanny knack for languages. She had once been so fascinated with Linguistics that she’d even enrolled in a university program to study ancient Ootravian language and culture. It was a pursuit she’d initially enjoyed, until she realized she’d signed up for a life of relative poverty as an underpaid academic.

Though Eldrinaj abandoned her studies in the third year to launch a lucrative financial scam, she’d never lost her ability to slide into almost any conversation. With a natural facility for assimilating the local patois, she quickly gained access to privileges usually reserved for the “in crowd.” In this case, the similarity of the ancient Ootravian she’d studied in school to the High Skryntali spoken on Zyffer 3 made her task even easier

On top of this, she easily anticipated the desires of everyone she met. One of the Olfdranyi’s specialties was making lonely people in high positions feel attractive, desirable and, if need be, physically gratified.

As a consequence, over a period of several weeks, through a combination of fawning diplomacy and menacing innuendo, Eldrinaj achieved her goal. She was firmly ensconced in one of the Skryntali’s most hallowed institutions. The library complex shared the same archaic, ornate design palette as the planet’s main spaceport, including a tendency to trim any available surface in a bead of opalescent droplets. Built several thousand years earlier, and lovingly maintained, it exemplified values its creators had assumed would endure for all time.

Eldrinaj now had access to information esoteric enough to make even the most tech-savvy symbiote drool. One symbiote in particular, whom she hoped to appease, was Warvhex. The former head of symbiote StealthOps, Warvhex was now a powerful member of the Kaldhex Assembly — and the one being in the settled universe that Eldrinaj genuinely feared. Because Warvhex had lived a lifetime of behind-the-scenes political machinations, it was no surprise that Eldrinaj’s reputation for skirting the law had eventually reached the symbiote’s ears. In Eldrinaj’s clever evasiveness, Warvhex had seen the makings of the perfect informant. It was on just such an information-gathering mission that Eldrinaj had “accidentally” encountered Ungent, Shol and Yaldrint, as they combed spacetime in the Odela.

But since then, Nevruleth’s demands had become so dangerously insistent that Eldrinaj had failed to “report in” as often as Warvhex expected. Worse, the Olfdranyi had also been recruited as an informant by the humans of the Terran Protectorate, whose interests frequently clashed with Warvhex’s ambitions.

For that reason alone, Eldrinaj was exhilarated when she made an astonishing discovery, buried deep in the Zyffer 3 Archives.

Let’s see that bossy slug complain now, she thought.

For although Eldrinaj had yet to unlock the secret of Flight Shape, she’d stumbled on a major breakthrough in particle physics. Ironically, the peer-reviewed article that described this discovery appeared in the most unlikely place: It was attached to the interior pages of a Skryntali cookbook.

Because Eldrinaj, like most other Olfdranyi, was a voracious eater, the cookbook had become her favorite distraction. She turned to it several times a day, whenever she wearied of reading recondite scientific papers in a dead language. It was on one such mini-vacation from work that a detailed article appeared on her screen, between a recipe for Brothlusian carrot soup and instructions for baking a ritual paliathrou casserole, suitable for a formal engagement dinner:

The theory and implementation of interdimensional

frame-shifting for communication and travel

by Alkader Vaxioleth

The title stared out at the perplexed Olfdranyi and, despite her indifference to anything outside of financial gain, made her heart race. The file’s location was so haphazard, it was clear that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to hide it.

Eldrinaj couldn’t help wondering why. She was used to seeing every new technological advance rolled out with deafening fanfare.

 And here, this invention, which the author fancifully referred to as the “Kadervax,” was revolutionary on two counts. While crude teleportation devices were just coming online in Eldrinaj’s time, the Kadervax could send all forms of matter to any set of spatiotemporal coordinates, past, present or future. If that weren’t enough, the device could also facilitate direct, “frame-adjusted” communication with any sentient being anywhere in the universe, at any point in Time.

Curious, Eldrinaj searched for past news items that might mention Vaxioleth’s discovery and found nothing. That is, excluding a tiny column on one of the major newsnets, which announced that the author’s research had been deemed “unreproducible” by the Skryntali Academy of Science.

Eldrinaj’s tight yellow brow furrowed. Other than that one news item, it was as if Dr. Vaxioleth had never existed. No mention of her appeared in any database, with the exception of the civil registry of her birth, one thousand twenty-six years earlier. The blackout on Vaxioleth and her work had been carried out with unrelenting zeal.

“What were they afraid of?” Eldrinaj mumbled into the mausoleum quiet of the Main Reading Room.

She switched tactics and searched for indirect references to Vaxioleth. Because the original article had mentioned temporal coordinates, she looked for accounts of temporal disruption, in that general vicinity. Eventually, she came across an intriguing news report. It described a temporal anomaly that had opened up only ten AU from the research facility where Professor Vaxioleth had perfected the Kadervax. The incident report was dated only six months after Vaxioleth’s ground-breaking article was published.

The news item made no mention of either the brilliant physicist or her astonishing device. Yet a single sentence buried in the article identified an ‘unaccredited experimental research center’ as the most likely cause for the anomaly.

Eldrinaj gazed out across the cavernous Skryntali archive room. Did anyone there, she wondered, know about the anomaly? Was it still influencing everything from local gravity to mid-range Probability? Surely, a trip to the coordinates given in the news report should put her within spitting distance of Vaxioleth’s abandoned research center — and perhaps even the forbidden device.

Without hesitation, the wily Olfdranyi comlinked the head Archivist and put in for vacation time. Two days later, after gathering basic supplies and receiving a routine maintenance check from Skryntali Interstellar Spaceport mechanics, Eldrinaj fired up her olive-green trading vessel and zoomed out toward the coordinates she’d recently discovered. Thankfully, her destination was close enough to Zyffer 3 to be still within its defense perimeter. Should the Quishiks’ double back her way, it was reasonable to assume she could return to safety in time.

All the same, the trip was long enough to make the stimulus-starved female edgy. After several months of being cooped up on the Skryntali home world, the lure of a relaxing side excursion was too much to resist. That’s why, only three days out, she swerved off course about eight light years, toward a mid-tier commerce planet.

“Antrea-Drolacti” was the planet’s quaint name — a holdover from the distant past, when astronomical bodies were named after the astronomers who discovered them. Most such worlds had since been renamed. The fact that this one retained its original nomenclature was a source of genuine intrigue to Eldrinaj. As had happened many times before, her sensitivity to language and culture brought her to the brink of empathy. Unfortunately, that was a threshold she had yet to cross.

Soon her tiny ship’s lander glided down to the planet’s cramped spaceport. A few minutes later, her newly acquired Skryntali credentials enabled her to zip through the planet’s minimal interstellar customs station and achieve a graceful landing.

Before stepping out onto the spaceport’s reinforced concrete floor, the experienced con-artist paused to replicate a wardrobe change. Based on her ship’s AI-driven cultural analysis and her own keen eye for what she considered “provincialism,” she quickly shucked off the form-fitting jumpsuit and shiny neo-leather poncho she’d arrived in.

In their place, she selected a shirt of tightly woven, gray machined cotton, flecked with slivers of amber. To that, she added a pair of calf-length pants of the same material, in forest green. Shiny glazed ceramic buttons in a riot of colors decorated every closure. Ankle-length boots of dark brown neo-leather completed her new look.

The glance she caught of herself in the lander’s compact sensor array made her snarl. But, she realized, if she could encourage the indigenous population to accept her, despite her obvious “foreignness,” she’d be well rewarded for this concession. And what a population: the sentient residents of Antrea-Drolacti, who called themselves “Zolanaide,” tended toward the lacertilian end of the spectrum.

The average human, at seeing a Zolanaide for the first time, would have found the word “lizard” irresistible. For the world the Olfdranyi had stumbled on was inhabited by a genetic offshoot of the Zelinoids familiar throughout the settled universe. One such being had even sold Shol the Ootray ring that would soon rewrite his life story.

Satisfied with her appearance, Eldrinaj stepped out into a quaint relic of an earlier time. The spaceport’s signage, though nominally in Planetary Standard, was actually written in a local patois. It was paralleled by the voice that called out to her as she was about to enter the nearest maglev lift to street level.

“Ho theer miz,” the voice said. “Yeel not wanter goin surface wout yeer sheeldin an.”

Eldrinaj spun around to see a tall, thin being with a decidedly orange cast to his skin, dressed up to his long neck in a shiny black uniform.

“Shielding?” she asked. The apparent station official pointed to a small kiosk to his right that displayed several rows of brightly colored, translucent plastic overalls.

“Coorsa, coorsa,” said the station official. “Sheeldin egaan dra hanohamalye. Yeel naw wanter faal en an dizpeer ter sumtime otter.”

The Olfdranyi’s eyebrows arched. When she’d read about the anomaly in the Skryntali archives, she never dreamed she’d find a reference to it in quite this way. Her heart racing, she favored the young official with her most radiant smile.

“Thanks for the tip,” she said, and proceeded to rummage through the kiosk for a pair of overalls in her size. “Can’t help noticing that you’re not wearing one, though, are you?”

“Naw miz,” said the official. “Underthegrounds iz safiness. Wonly ouside yeel wanter wear.”

Eldrinaj nodded and looked back at the clothes rack. Soon she was suited up in bright orange splendor.

“Where could I get more information about the anomaly?” she asked. The official’s outsized jaws clacked.

“Mar wud yee noe?” he asked. “Yeel wanter goe ter dra ooniverst. Iz oop dra straat. Dra ferst domin yeel seer. Ahr miz, yeel wanter care takin. Sum sez dra profoozers er sorzers wid majikal poowerz.”

Anomalies. A university full of sorcerers, thought the bemused Olfdranyi. Even if her side excursion ultimately shed no light on the Kadervax, it was bound to provide hours of unfettered amusement. Nevertheless, a feeling of dread came over her as the spaceport’s maglev lift opened out onto the street above. “Yeel wanter care takin,” she whispered into the faint breeze that wafted past her face.

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 5 now.

Read Ungent Draaf’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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