Infinity Afterglow / Episode 6: Nanites

Alien nanites flood the central nervous system of a mutant teenager

an epic space opera BY Mark Laporta

A teenage mutant is infused with alien nanites when he dons an ancient ring in this episode of Mark Laporta’s Infinity Afterglow.. His 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,

Alone in his quarters on Quarfor, Shol held the pkaholul ring in the palm of his slightly curved left hand. It had been more than eight months since he purchased the ring from an antiques dealer on that planet. For what felt like the hundredth time, he tried to reach a fateful decision. Once again, the usually impulsive teenager hesitated.

Could swear this thing’s trying to talk me into it, he thought.

That was enough to make Shol close his fingers around the ring and glance up at the ceiling. Before he allowed the ring to fully integrate itself with his central nervous system, he wanted to know that he’d chosen freely. Unfortunately, between the impossibly delicate inscriptions around its solid platinum band and the swirling veins of its red onyx stone, the Ootray ring seemed to have undeniable traces of sentience. What was it trying to tell him?

The eighteen-year-old inheritor of a galaxy-spanning mission shook his head. Even if he were open to the ring’s message, he figured his odds of understanding it were nil. Nor could he confide in anyone. Whether he mentioned the millennia-old object to Kunal Mishra, his host on this Terran Protectorate colony, or to Challendrur, the ethereal Ootray survivor, he heard the same mantra:

“Wait! We need time to study the risks!”

Yet Shol was convinced that every day the Quishik rampage continued, no greater risk existed in the entire universe. Time was, he could talk out almost any topic with Ungent. But the distinguished crustacean was completely out of reach.

Have to be my own Oldster now, he decided.

In spite of himself, Shol giggled at the thought of being transmuted into a Grashardi. That is, until he remembered what was at stake. That thought had led him back to the same quandary every day for the past week. No matter how hard he tried to mimic his elders’ patience, Shol’s determination was unshakable: He must defeat the Quishiks before another cycle passed!

If I was smarter, I could build Yfeftriadrur’s robots, he thought, or program the Odela to build ‘em.

The latter option had occurred to him early on. Trouble was, the Odela’s systems were assembled a good five or six thousand years before the Ootray developed the technology behind the warrior-androids. The ship was incapable of processing the android’s schematics, which Shol had received from Yfeftriadrur only minutes before the ancient Ootray survivor had ushered the distinguished crustacean into the large, blue swirling orb that would transport him to the Ootray refuge in the nebulous interstices.

Despite hours spent in the Odela’s robotics lab, during which Shol had absorbed the basics of Ootray robotic tech, the upper reaches of artificial intelligence development and programming still eluded him. Besides, though Yfeftriadrur’s design templates spelled out every component required to build a functioning, independent android, they were only an outline. The skills and experience needed to bring the templates to life went far beyond the mechanics of design and implementation.

For starters, the task demanded a coherent mathematical model of intelligence itself. It also required a clear understanding of the complex quantum interactions that made self-awareness possible. After all, Yfeftriadrur’s android soldiers were no mere “mechanical men.” Properly executed, they’d be capable of independent thought and would, over time, develop distinct personalities based on their experience of the external world.

“Just like Yaldrint,” Shol muttered into the silence of his bedroom.

As had occurred to him more than once, Yaldrint’s strong grasp of the ethical and social nuances of every situation were likely the direct result of her life-long relationship with Ungent. But that, he realized was hardly an expedient way to develop a workable android army. By the time his soldiers’ psychological development was complete, the Quishiks could have decimated the entire sentient population of the settled universe.

Gotta figure out what I’m missing, Shol realized.

That brought to mind his recent conversation with San-ju nana, the AI beacon ship that, either through luck or manic insouciance, had survived the millennia since its Ootray masters fled Shol’s universe.

Said the ring would give me the smarts to handle the templates, thought Shol. Challendrur says the ring could kill me. But what about that biomechanoid … Enos? He laid it on the line. Why not me?

Shol knew Ungent would object. Yet, if Ungent were with him, he’d have fresh ideas of his own that might make building the robots unnecessary.

“Guess what?” said Shol. He pulled himself up off his bed and shuffled over to the gleaming kitchenette that a servicebot had cleaned down to the last molecule that very afternoon. Maybe a favorite snack would clear his head enough to let him see the problem from a different angle.

Stupid idea, he scolded himself. People are dying.

It was time, the teenage Krezovic decided, to accept the burden that Ungent’s absence had placed on his angular shoulders. He cast hesitation aside, put the pkaholul ring back on his right ring finger and twisted its intricately calibrated platinum band. That was the way the Olfdranyi, Eldrinaj Kaklyadar, had shown him to activate the device, during her brief stay on the Odela, several months earlier. Her knowledge of ancient Ootravian tech had stemmed from the university studies she abandoned to become a consummate grifter.

Within seconds, Shol’s memory of the past receded into the back alleys of his mind. He experienced a rush of neural activity that no other sentient in normal space had felt for at least five thousand years. It began as a slight shift, a heightened color perception. On the heels of that, Shol’s head whipped to the right as, for the first time, he heard the sound of Quarfor’s life support system, as it pushed recycled air through the ceiling vents. Instead of the quiet whirring sound he’d learned to ignore, he heard air molecules themselves collide with the ceiling vent louvres as they entered his quarters.

One by one, a host of other normally inaudible processes flooded his consciousness — everything from the sound of his heart to the flow of blood in his veins. The effect would have been deafening, if he hadn’t quickly discovered that he could will the ring to ratchet his perceptions down to a more manageable level.

Almost immediately, Shol detected a slight murmur he’d never noticed before. He squeezed his eyes shut and realized it wasn’t a sound at all, but a stream of data flowing into his mind from Quarfor’s central AI. Fascinated, he took a moment to steady his breathing. Gradually, a panoramic view of the entire colony appeared in front of him. He had the sense that … yes … he could zoom in on any sector of the colony including his own quarters. In fact, he was startled to see an aerial view of himself, seated on the edge of his bed.

Shol’s face broke into a devilish grin, as it occurred to him that he could look in on anyone he chose.

The Oldster would kill me, he reminded himself, and he quickly put such thoughts out of his mind. There had to be better uses for the Ootray ring than….

“Quishiks,” he whispered. In a flash, the exact position of the Quishik fleet entered his consciousness. At first, he was tempted to zoom in on each individual ship. Then it occurred to him that, with their unfathomable mental strength, any Quishik he saw with the ring might be able to see him, too.

Not ready for that, he thought.

Better to change the subject altogether. What about Yfeftriadrur’s templates? At first, he thought he’d have to transmat to the Odela to examine them. That is, until he remembered….

“Odela,” he whispered, and saw the ship’s a-dimensional interior spread out in vivid detail. His heart raced as the templates, tucked away in the Odela’s robotics lab, floated up to greet his black eyes. Though he’d pored over them for hours at a time during the last eight months, it was as if he’d never seen them before. Every last detail made complete sense, so much so that he was soon overwhelmed by fatigue.

Too much … too fast, he thought, like a mob of crazies screaming at me.

Though, in fact, the ring was activated only by his will, Shol wiped the air in front of him with his right hand and the image of the templates seemed to dissolve. His forehead broke into a sweat, and he let himself flop back on his bed. Were these new sensations exhilarating or terrifying? He needed time to adjust. More to the point, it was clear that his friends and colleagues in the colony would notice his elevated state of mind.

“Power down,” he whispered, and after a split-second delay, the effects of the ring lessened, until he felt like his familiar self again. The only remnant was a slight tingle at the back of his mind that told him the ring’s potential was at his command at any time. The tingle, however, was accompanied by a faint murmur which, when Shol opened his mind to listen, sounded like the voices of a distant chorus:

Adapting to non-standard genome.

The voices spoke with a strange, lilting tone, as if making this adjustment was a pleasurable experience.

Like having a second brain, he thought.

Based on what that brain had shown him, he knew it was time to rally his forces. Challendrur, of course, would not approve. Their disagreement on this topic had started almost as soon as Shol had settled back into Quarfor, following the Quishiks’ latest prison break. Though the timeless Ootray female saw the issue at hand in purely ethical terms, to Shol, resolving the Quishik crisis came down to a binary choice between survival and death.

“I realize how difficult this is for you,” Challendrur had told him, more than once. “Your time-bound perspective leads you to see everything in cause-and-effect terms. You must understand that the Ootray have a different view….”

“The Quishiks destroy everything,” Shol had argued. “Every … mind or culture or … I dunno what you call it. We can’t let that happen.”

Challendrur’s reply had been startling:

“And would you prevent a hurricane?”  

What?” Shol had asked. “Doesn’t matter if some quelx is unstoppable. You still gotta … handle it somehow. If you don’t want to kill the Quishiks, you could still help us build … defenses, shields, anything besides telling whole worlds they gotta wait around to die. If we blocked enough Quishiks from feeding, they’d starve, right?”

“My Shol, listen,” the boy remembered Challendrur saying. “That, too, in a roundabout way, is asking me to accept the genocide of an entire species. Whether you blast them with energy weapons, fill them with pathogens or, as you suggest, leave them to die of malnutrition, the effect is the same. Now, that’s enough. I cannot speak to you about this any further until you show me that you respect the Quishiks’ desire to live.”

There the matter stood. For though Shol’s emotions rebelled against the Ootray’s icy, objectivist analysis of the ongoing crisis, he saw how fixated Challendrur was on her principles. It was exactly as his former crime boss, the wiry middle-aged Ulandroz had told him, the night he was double-crossed in the Djarnicla system.

Somebody got a belief stuck in their head? Arguin’ just makes it stronger. Walk away fast, before their hard eyes make you crazy.

Shol nodded to himself. His break with Challendrur wouldn’t be easy to accept. Up to that point, the young Krezovic had looked on Challendrur as the one being who could take the place of Ungent and Yaldrint, both of whom he’d lost touch with. Despite the pkaholul ring, which had expanded his mind and enabled him to build his case more forcefully, he was still riddled with doubt, partly for her sake.

Maybe the Oldster can, like … talk to them, he thought.

Come to think of it, where was Ungent? And if he’d arrived safely in the interstices, as San-ju nana had suggested, why hadn’t the former Grashardi ambassador tried to reach Shol? Couldn’t he access the Ootray tablet on the bridge of the Odela?

All at once, the buzzing in the back of his mind intensified and he could no longer resist the urge to engage with the ring on his finger. He now heard a sound reminiscent of the door chime on his old quarters in the Grashardi embassy on Bledraun, home world of the enigmatic Dralein.

But that made no sense. The embassy had been destroyed soon after Shol met Ungent the previous year. The partisan fighting, which had just broken out, was the first wave of a battle between the Terran Protectorate and the ANN Commission androids for control of Bledraun’s vast rare minerals deposits,

Yet no matter how lost Shol became in his memory of that time, the insistent ring of the “door chime” was impossible to ignore. He opened his mind and imagined he was answering his old door. What greeted him in the “threshold” was both welcome and perplexing.

He saw an image of Dlalamphrur, the female, beta-level AI that the Ootray had left behind on Bledraun thousands of years before. It was Dlalamphrur who, at the urging of Ungent, had devised a scheme to re-incarcerate the Quishiks in an all-too-temporary prison of interlocking event horizons. Fearing the prison wouldn’t hold, Dlalamphrur had given Ungent the star ship Odela so he could search the stars for a more permanent solution.

 Now she appeared again, for the first time, outside of her underground lair on Bledraun. Shol’s black eyes opened wide.

“You … you’re here?” he asked.

“As always,” said Dlalamphrur, “I am not here in the usual sense. Hurry, join me in the hall where Har Draaf and I spoke during your first visit to Quarfor. I cannot sustain my connection to this world much longer.”

Shol’s first thought was to get dressed, rush out of his quarters and up the steps of the remodeled Ootray manufacturing plant that contained his quarters. It was a building that Quarfor’s human colonists had taken over when the colony was founded two centuries before. Panicked, he wondered how he could possibly reach Dlalamphrur in time. That is, until the ring’s quiet voice piped up with a surprising solution.

After a wave of his hand, Shol found himself outside, fully dressed for the cold Quarfor night air.

Dlalamphrur, he thought.

And in less time than he could count, the pkaholul ring had engulfed him in a transmat field and deposited him within five meters of the Ootray structure that Ungent had visited months before. What was it about the building’s interlocking geometric shapes that filled the young Krezovic with awe? Yet, he had barely enough time to take the building in, before an insistent voice echoed in his mind. Startled, he realized that it did not belong to Dlalamphrur.

“Hurry, friend Shol,” said the voice. “Time, in your sense, runs short!”

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 7 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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