Infinity Afterglow / Episode 5: hidden fleet

An EPIC SPACE OPERA By mark laporta

A weary pilot discovers a hidden fleet of ancient starships. 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,

Accompanied by her ship’s AI, which had uploaded itself into a holographic human avatar, Lieutenant Cricket Anderson stepped out of her sleek fighter. The avatar was a generic female form, whose face was as indistinct as any shop mannequin from centuries before. Yet instead of the latest fashions, it appeared to be modeling a standard Terran Protectorate flight suit.

A few meters to their left, a rectangular panel slid open at ground level that, as they approached it, began to glow with a pale blue light. As they reached its edge, Cricket saw a graceful escalator come to life in a cascade of black, skid-proof steps. Soon the intrepid pilot and her state-of-the-art AI were gliding down into the immense starship hangar that she’d discovered by accident. In the surprisingly soft light that suffused the hangar, she could make out a vast interior complex, marked off at regular intervals by incomprehensible signage. Despite that, once the AI had adapted its translation grid to the obsolete form of Skryntali used by the facility, it had opened the nearest access point to the asteroid’s interior with ease. Recent tech upgrades to every Fleet AI in the Terran Protectorate, courtesy of the symbiotes of the Kaldhex Assembly, had made the operation seamless.

Bright colors dominated the interior’s patterned walls and floor surfaces. In an abstract sort of way, they suggested the Earthly rain forests that Cricket knew only through holovid reconstructions. In the near distance and stretching farther back than she could make out, was a magnificent array of menacing warships. Each one, she couldn’t help thinking, looked as if it had enough firepower to pulverize a small planet. And to think this “used car lot” of advanced weaponry had remained hidden for so many centuries. Cricket gasped.

To think I almost missed seeing this, she thought. Good thing the symbies finally coughed up their tech.

Up until a few months before, the symbiotes had hoarded teraflops of data, which they’d scavenged from thousands of worlds. But recently, the Kaldhex Assembly had opened its databanks to the rest of the sentient population. It was part of a good-faith appeal to gain full diplomatic status, under an amendment to interstellar law championed by Ungent himself. Once in effect, the amendment would outlaw the wide-spread discrimination the symbiotes had faced for centuries. There was, however, one strict proviso: The symbiotes would end the practice of involuntary assimilation.

Now, instead of inhabiting a host body, they would live inside newly designed mobile tanks, which included a biomechanical cortex, developed by Grashardi engineers. Intended to take the place of a host mind, the cortex would provide essential intellectual stimulus and emotional support. The slate-gray tanks also delivered real-time sensory and tactile data. Balanced on four lower limbs, they included two strong upper arms, which ended in dexterous mechanical hands. Each unit was also equipped with a realistic, gender-specific machine voice for fluent conversation. True to form, Warvhex demanded that her mobile unit include a retractable lase pistol that could lash out in the blink of an eye.

Cricket clicked her tongue. Was it right, she wondered, to take advantage of tech stolen by a parasitical species from thousands of unwilling minds?

“Worry about it after it saves your neck,” she muttered into her helmet.

“What was that, Lieutenant?” her ship’s avatar had asked.

“Never mind,” said Cricket. “Help me figure out what’s going on inside this … rock.”

“The designation ‘rock’ is inaccurate,” said the avatar. “We stand inside a structure composed of a dense, composite material, consisting primarily of….”

“I get the picture, Ava,” said the Lieutenant.

“The appellation ‘Ava’ is inaccurate,” said the AI. “My correct call sign is….”

Cricket sighed. How much more sophisticated was her former captain, whose official designation had been Captain/27/Enos/ Exploratory. Yet Enos had been more than a superior officer to Cricket. He’d also been the Terran Protectorate biomechanoid she was foolish enough to fall in love with.

The effect of her emotions on Enos’ orderly mind had, effectively, deranged him. After a brief flirtation with emulated human passion, the strain on his central processors had caused him to lash out in harrowing mood swings. The moments lovers cherish most were replaced by extended bouts of paranoia and jealousy. A few violent altercations later, a security detail relieved him of duty.

And now he was gone forever, destroyed by a blast from a Quishik ship, in a valiant attempt to infect the enemy with a novel genetic pathogen. Life, she decided, was as inscrutable as it was cruel. Despite months of intensive psychotherapy, she’d only recently reconciled herself to that thought.

Though the past was over and done with, the present was chock full of its own brand of trouble — and demanded immediate attention. Cricket stared at her ship’s avatar and crafted a reply that would shut down its obsessive spiral over “appropriate nomenclature.”

“Fine,” she said. “I won’t call you anything. How old would you say this structure is?”

“A proper analysis would require several arcs, Lieutenant,” said the AI. “Right now, my best estimate is between five thousand and eight thousand cycles old.”

“And still operational?” asked Cricket. “How about we crack one of these ships open?”

“I can access any of the two thousand vessels in this hangar,” said the AI.

“Two … check your figures,” said Cricket. “Your original analysis described a structure much too small to house so many ships.”

“My original analysis, Lieutenant Anderson, was of the structure’s exterior dimensions,” said the AI. “Its interior, however, appears to be a-dimensional.”

“Like I wasn’t curious enough already,” said Cricket. “OK. Let’s have a look at the red one on my right.”

The Terran Protectorate avatar lifted her virtual right hand, palm out, and made a gentle wiping motion in the air. At once, a crack appeared in the ship’s polished surface. It spread out and down until it described a rectangle about four meters tall and one-point-five meters wide. A second, graceful sweep of the avatar’s hand made the rectangle lurch forward slightly, then float down to floor level. A silent, black escalator rose from the rectangle’s inner surface, and the interior of the ship was bathed in a warm blue light.

“You first,” said the Lieutenant.

The AI’s avatar nodded and started up the ramp. Inside, the millennia-old ship had a distinctly foreign air. While many aspects of its interior design bespoke technologies no one in the settled universe could match, there was an undeniable quaintness about its ornate, biomorphic luxury. It was as if the ship’s makers had decided that, to comfortably endure the rigors of space, the crew required a complete artificial ecosystem.

Straight ahead, an acre or so of what appeared to be parkland stretched into the distance. Though her AI informed her it was mostly a holographic construct, the effect on Cricket’s psyche was no less calming. To their left, incongruously, was an alcove, infused with light, whose soft hues cycled through a narrow band of the blue-green spectrum. Satiny, pastel throw pillows in many different sizes and shapes, from circular, to ovoid, to square, were scattered about, with the pseudo-random nonchalance of a clever theatrical set-designer.

The scale of this first alcove contrasted sharply with its companion to their right, whose proportions were distinctly humanoid. It was furnished in a gracefully spare, rectilinear fashion that might have reminded Cricket of a centuries-old Japanese household, if her education had included more than a smattering of old Earth lore.

Trouble was, by the time Capernaum, her home world, was colonized, it had been a good two thousand years since the majority of humans had lived on Earth. Besides, as part of its sweeping political agenda, the Protectorate had never actively encouraged its citizens’ natural curiosity about their origins. Keeping the deep past remote and irrelevant made controlling perception of the current regime that much easier.

“These must be crew lounges,” said Cricket. “But they … they make no sense together. You think this ship was used for diplomatic missions … you know, to house different species?”

“Based on available data,” said her AI, “that appears unlikely. The size of the vessel is more commensurate with a battle cruiser, as is its extensive weapons array. However, as the Skryntali are reputed to be shape-shifters, I might deduce that these contrasting environments were intended to serve the needs of Skryntali in a variety of external configurations.”

Cricket smacked her forehead. At a time of deep military crisis she’d stumbled on ship endowed with a massive trove of weapons, and her first response was to obsess about the size of its pillows?

“Let’s find the Command Center,” she said. “I want to see if we can get this thing moving. Looks like any one of these ships would make the Quishiks sweat. Tell me if I’m wrong. How do you think this ship would stand up to a Quishik assault?”

“Insufficient data for a meaningful conclusion,” said the AI. “While this ship is formidable — significantly more so than any human vessel — it is also thousands of cycles out of date, compared to our latest scans of the Quishik fleet.”

“Maybe,” said the Lieutenant. “But the Skryntali still might have tech we can build on. Can’t hurt to look.”

The route to the red ship’s bridge led the two Terran Protectorate operatives through a network of interlaced corridors on several levels. Cricket was surprised at the relatively small number of maglev lifts that they ran into along the way. In their place were a series of ladders and, even more unexpected, slides.

“I assume that the ship’s configuration is a response to the Skryntalis’ essential fluidity,” said the avatar. “While elevators are useful for hauling freight, a being that can, as needed, flow like lava, might find it more convenient to slide down or snake up between levels.”

Or were they, Cricket wondered, disturbed by electromagnetic fields? As her ship’s avatar made a sharp right onto the bridge of the massive battle cruiser, all thought of Skryntali anatomy left her mind. The Terran Protectorate officer, who’d logged hundreds of hours in space and was completely at ease on the bridge of any galaxy-class ship in the Fleet, felt her breath stick stubbornly in her throat.

For here was an array of instrumentation she doubted that any team of human minds could master. And though she would never have said so to the avatar of her ship’s AI, it seemed likely that only an entirely new class of android would be able to operate the ship.

That is, aside from — perish the thought — a new class of cyborg, whose design would break the Protectorate’s strict legal limitations on the creation of human-machine hybrids. And yet, with the Quishik threat so virulent, Cricket had to wonder if such ethical considerations had become a frivolous luxury.

“You up to flying this ship?” she asked.

The avatar turned to look at her, then froze, as if experiencing a massive system overload. A surprisingly human voice emanated from the ship’s comsystem.

“Access denied,” it said. “Pilot must assume and verify Flight Shape. Recurrent attempts to bypass this system will result in system lockdown. All secondary systems still online.”

No sooner had the voice on the comlink faded than the avatar came back to life.

“It appears….”

“So I heard,” said Cricket. “Does this mean that only a Skryntali can fly this ship?”

“Analyzing,” said the AI. “Confirmed. While I can access the algorithm that generates the Flight Shape pattern, only a shape-shifter could execute it in real time.”

“No wonder they didn’t bother to lock up this asteroid,” said Cricket. “The ships are useless without the algorithm. Looks like we’re stuck. What are the odds we could find a present-day Skryntali to initialize this ship?”

“Your question, Lieutenant, may need to be rephrased,” said the AI. “Given the way the Quishik crisis has reshaped the political landscape, you may want to ask why any Skryntali military commanders, given the opportunity, wouldn’t seek to fulfill their original mission.”

Cricket rested her exhausted frame against the asteroid hangar’s nearest support beam.

“And what, do we think, was the Skryntali mission?” she asked.

“Based on data I have accessed since we arrived, it appears their mission was the subject of a divisive debate,” said the avatar. “One faction wanted to destroy the Quishiks. The other wanted to use the Quishiks to destroy the Ootray.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Cricket.

“I am not programmed to be anything else,” said the avatar. “At the same time, this new data has forced me to reroute some of my cognitive functions in response to a massive energy surge in my ethics subroutines.”

Cricket squeezed her eyes shut. What, she wondered, was this universe made of? Here was a species that had attained unimagined heights of scientific achievement and — judging from the striking design of the ship’s interior — a deep appreciation for aesthetics. And yet none of that had enabled it to rise a single centimeter above the animal impulses that drove its evolutionary ancestors. What was lost on Cricket’s AI was depressingly clear to Cricket herself. When it was all said and done, the Skryntali had been motivated by greed, envy and fear of being eclipsed by the Ootray.

“Any connection between that debate and the breakup of the Skryntali fleet?” she asked.

“Unknown,” said the avatar. “However, there is, at present, a schism in the Skryntali population. One group is made up of scavengers, traders and lobbyists with considerable influence over the Interstellar Council. A second population is composed of archivists and scholars, who live in isolation in the Zyffer system.”

“Scholars?” said Cricket. “Of what?”

“Recent Terran Protectorate intel,” said the avatar, “suggests that the residents of Zyffer 3 preside over a repository of arcane Skryntali scientific knowledge. Yet the source of that intel is of questionable reliability.”

In answer to Cricket’s impatient questioning, the avatar revealed that the source was a Protectorate informant — an Olfdranyi female with suspected ties to both the symbiotes and a known Skryntali smuggler.

Cricket shrugged. In a dangerous universe, where life could be cut short in seconds by a cohort of mentally unstable mutants, the warships she’d stumbled on were the first ray of hope she’d seen on the horizon. Though a side trip to Zyffer 3, for whatever reason, amounted to going AWOL, she realized she’d have to risk it.

For one thing, if she merely rejoined the Gabriel and reported her findings, she knew she couldn’t count on Terran Protectorate Admin to take decisive action. Or rather, to take the right action. After the way they treated Enos.…

“Come on, we’re going to Zyffer 3,” she said.

“Lieutenant,” said the avatar, “I cannot comply. You have received no such orders from Command.”

“And you, Ava,” said Cricket, “received no orders from Command to investigate this Skryntali ship. Shall I report your insubordination to ANN Commission MIS?”

“I … I would be subject to a total reformat,” said the avatar.

“Strangely,” said Cricket, “I don’t care. Besides, I can order you to reformat at any time, myself.”

The AI’s holographic image flickered wildly before settling down.

“That would be against protocol….” it said.

“That doesn’t count for a credit’s worth of sweat in a black hole,” said Cricket, “especially when initiated in response to ‘apparent danger.’ So tell me this: Will you plot a course or do I have to do it myself?”

The avatar’s personality vector crashed under pressure and its voice reverted to machine speech. “ALREADY LAID IN AS ORDERED, LIEUTENANT ANDERSEN.”

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 6 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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