Infinity Afterglow / Episode 7: Temporal Anomaly

A university on a world trapped in a temporal anomaly

an epic space opera by mark laporta

In her quest for power, an avian grifter gets trapped in a temporal anomaly. 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,

As the sun on Antrea-Drolacti stretched up into the noon sky, Eldrinaj pushed herself up the slight hill leading to the university’s imposing dome. Despite the last few months on Zyffer 3, years of nearly continuous ship-life had left her leg muscles a shade too rubbery for the sidewalk ahead.

Yet she pressed on. If she returned from this jaunt too late, she realized, she’d fall out of favor at the Skryntali Archive and jeopardize her entire operation. That was the last thing she needed. Between Nevruleth and Warvhex, she was caught in a matrix of dangerous, conflicting loyalties. And that was aside from Brad Christiansen, Senior Advisor of Terran Protectorate Admin, who’d recently offered her an obscene amount of money to locate the rumored Skryntali fleet.

Lunatics love me, she thought, as she approached the entrance to the university’s main dome, Erected, apparently, before the planet’s terraforming was complete, it looked as if its occupants still feared a life-threatening breach. Even more out of step with the times was the university’s lax security, which enabled her to waltz onto the campus unchallenged.

Though the dome’s interior was surprisingly spacious, the buildings arranged around its central courtyard were a dizzying array of contrasting architectural styles. At first, this hodgepodge made Eldrinaj unsure how to proceed. That is, until she caught sight of one of the larger buildings. Over its entryway, carved into a band of stone, was the phrase:

DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS

The gold-leaf-encrusted letters, a good sixty centimeters tall, were easily the most primitive signage that the Olfdranyi had seen outside of a fictionalized historical holodrama. But despite their comical grandeur, Eldrinaj met no opposition from the waxing and waning foot traffic of Zolanaide students, staff and faculty. She simply climbed the building’s shallow steps and clomped her tired feet down its polished corridors.

Soon enough, by taking a cue from her own three-year stint at a university, she managed to locate the Department’s central offices. Once inside, she hoped to find a distinguished “proofoozer” she could seduce into revealing the secret of the Kadervax. Or, as she feared, had it been dismantled centuries before?

Out of long habit, as she neared the Department office, her grifter’s instincts kicked in. A smile appeared unbidden, her stride shrank to a sedate cadence and her eyes flashed with unquenchable disdain for everything within spitting distance. Armed with this pitch-perfect imitation of an over-empowered academic, and with enough gall for two dozen ordinary sales reps, Eldrinaj stepped up to the reception desk that was tucked inside an arched sandstone entryway.

“Eldrinaj Kaklyadar, The Transidereal Chronicle.” she said. “I’m investigating rumors of a temporal anomaly in this region.”

The receptionist, a vaguely conical android, appeared to study her in silence, before speaking in an ethereal, high tenor voice.

“You have arrived under false pretenses,” it said. “The Transidereal Chronicle ceased publication last cycle. Nor was one E. Kaklyadar ever listed on its masthead. You are asked to leave.”

The Olfdranyi’s thin, feathery eyebrows arched high.

“Oh, well done,” she said. “I see you must be the advanced model receptionbot I’ve been hearing about.”

“Irrelevant,” said the android.

“That’s how you were able to see through me so quickly,” said Eldrinaj. “Still, there’s one thing I don’t get.”

“You have been asked to leave,” said the android.

“How is it that such an advanced model didn’t recognize an ANN Commission Inspector?” asked the Olfdranyi. “Although I shouldn’t be surprised. It has been several cycles since we made it out to this remote sector.”

“Protocol demands I contact security,” said the android, “unless you depart in the next sixty blinks.”

“Good work,” said Eldrinaj. “That’s the exact right response and it will improve your score. A little late, though, I have to say. Tell you what, let me into see the Department Chair and I’ll delete that from my report.”

“Correction,” said the android. “The ANN Commission has no authority in this….”

“Oh my,” said Eldrinaj. “Now that’s a clear sign of malfunction. Here, let me have a look at your control panel and we’ll see if we can’t set things right before I have to call in a Decom/17T-4. You wouldn’t want to be taken offline, would you? Maybe I overestimated you. A real advanced model runs diagnostics on itself.”

For the first time, the android hesitated.

“My … model line is fully capable of self-monitoring and self-repair,” it said. “Please stand by while I reboot for complete system analysis. During that time, access to this office is denied.”

The Olfdranyi barely suppressed a giggle as the outdated android powered itself down. She glanced at the display screen affixed to the nearest wall, where the words “Thorean Quentri, Chair” were emblazoned in shocking pink letters against a navy-blue background. Eldrinaj tapped a lemon-yellow circle next to his name, which called up a holographic map and indicated the fastest route to his office. The Olfdranyi passed through the archway with quiet nonchalance.

Soon after, she stood in the office threshold of a middle-aged Zolanaide male, dressed in the planet’s unstated academic uniform: a wine-red, long-sleeve tunic, embroidered in lavender thread at the neck and cuffs, over a pair of black, three-quarter length canvas pants that fit neatly into black neo-leather boots. In the local community, this outfit, combined with the intelligence that flashed in his dark red eyes, conferred on him an air of quiet dignity. Eldrinaj, of course, was as undeterred by his personal authority and symbols of office as she was by common courtesy.

“Excuse me, Professor Quentri,” she said. “Eldrinaj Kaklyadar, reporter-at-large for Interstellar Newsnet One. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions about the temporal anomaly in your region that everyone’s talking about.”

Thorean looked up from his unusually large metadigital tablet and stared at her with a mix of amusement and contempt.

“Everyone?” he said. “Why would ‘everyone’ be talking about a phenomenon that’s a thousand cycles old? I doubt I’ve seen a file on that topic written in the last three hundred cycles. And that, Ms. Kaklyadar, was merely a correction of earlier statistical studies of temporal flux. Mind explaining yourself?”

Eldrinaj smiled.

“Well, I do understand your reluctance,” she said. “It’s not easy to sit on the biggest story in the entire quadrant. Don’t worry, I’ll be discreet. You have the perfect defense against the Quishiks, don’t you?”

“The what?” asked Thorean. “Ms. Kaklyadar, before you expend any more of your evident ingenuity — which I assume you used to incapacitate our receptionbot — take a seat. There’s something you need to know about our quadrant.”

The Olfdranyi’s smile faded. She wasn’t used to being so transparent. With a shrug of her narrow shoulders, she parked herself on one of the professor’s two side chairs, each of which looked as if it had been carved from a single tree stump.

“First of all,” said Thorean, “unless you enjoy being encased in plastic, feel free to remove those revolting overalls. I’m sure a local merchant sold you a whole lot of nonsense with that garment — about its ability to protect you from the anomaly.”

“I preferred not to stand out,” said Eldrinaj. “All the locals were wearing them.”

“And you, I see,” said Thorean, “are not local. So tell me, do you notice anything … unusual … about our little world?”

The Olfdranyi glanced down at her delicate fingers.

“Honestly?” she said. “You seem a bit behind the times.”

“There’s a good reason for that,” said Thorean. “Antrea-Drolacti is at the extreme edge of the temporal anomaly — which I’m curious to know how you discovered. The point is, Time moves more slowly here. Whatever broadcasts we receive from other parts of the universe are often tens or hundreds of cycles old. Most of those need to be run through special filters to bring them up to an audible speed.”

 “You … no, that can’t be,” said Eldrinaj. “I didn’t experience any … what is it … time dilation when my ship entered orbit.”

Thorean stood up and closed the door to his office, then sat on the edge of his imposing desk.

“That’s how it would appear,” said Thorean. “Organic life in this universe can’t perceive the flow of Time objectively. We adapt to the baseline flow in any sector of spacetime. You’ll see what I mean when you return to your ship. Once you break free of our system, your chronometers will likely synch themselves with the data they receive from the closest center of civilization.”

Eldrinaj gulped.

“How … how great is the lag?” she asked.

“The evidence is in full view,” said Thorean. “At least to one such as you, who has lived her whole life in normal space. Our latest estimate is that local time moves at less than ten percent of the cosmological standard.”

“So I might have been here years already?” asked Eldrinaj.

Thorean chuckled.

“Hardly,” he said. “For one thing, the anomaly is unstable. The rate of delay varies. For another, your arrival has caused the physical laws of normal space to merge, temporarily, with our own. You will experience a brief grace period and we will edge closer to normal for a short time. However, the longer you stay, the less likely your craft will achieve escape velocity.”

The Olfdranyi’s heart raced.

“OK,” she said “I’ll leave right after you answer a few questions. If I can get a few leads, I might even be able to help your planet out of this trap. I’m trying to track down Alkader Vaxioleth’s frame-shift device.”

“How did you hear about it?” asked Thorean. “That topic has been under seal since … well I have no way of knowing how long ago it was.”

“Look here,” said Eldrinaj. Thorean’s eyebrows shot up as she called up a holographic display from the personal scanner embedded in her forearm.

“Remarkable,” he said.

“Never mind that,” snapped Eldrinaj. “Look at this article.”

The text of Vaxioleth’s original research paper floated before the professor’s red eyes.

“Sidereal Saints!” Thorean exclaimed. “We’ve been searching for that text since before I was born. Where did you find it?”

“On Zyffer 3,” said Eldrinaj. “It was hidden in the Skryntali Archive of the Ancients.”

“Oh dear,” said Thorean. “I see you’ve come all this way for nothing. If you were already on Zyffer3, you should have stayed there. Shortly after the accident that caused the anomaly, the Skryntali government confiscated the Kadervax. If it still exists, it’s somewhere on their home world. As far as we know, none of their original colony worlds have survived.”

The Olfdranyi smacked her yellowish forehead.

“Can’t believe this,” she said. “Do you have any idea what the device looks like? It must be huge.”

“Can you keep a secret?” asked Thorean. The dowdy Zolanaide scholar stood and waddled over to a section of the room’s paneled wall that ran perpendicular to its large casement window. He pressed his pale green fingers into the paneling, which unlatched the door to a hidden, rectangular compartment. When the door swung open, he reached in and pulled out an elaborate contraption about the size of a large rabbit.

“Of course, this is merely a scale model,” he said. “One of my ancestors worked with Doctor Vaxioleth on the actual device. That’s the reason her laboratory was stationed out here, instead of closer to her home world. It appears my distant relative was quite wealthy and willing to defray a large portion of the cost, in exchange for involvement in the project.”

“So when the experiment went wrong,” said Eldrinaj, “he hid the model? What good would that do?”

Thorean winked at her, his bright red eyes flashing.

“My theory,” he said, “is that this may actually be a small-scale working prototype of the Kadervax. Though under the circumstances, I dare not even reveal its existence, let alone test it.”

Eldrinaj stood up.

“I should go,” she said. “But tell me, if Doctor Vaxioleth was so brilliant, what could have gone wrong with her experiments?”

“The most likely answer is sabotage,” said Thorean. “Yet I can’t think who would have gained from doing so. The Kadervax would have revolutionized interstellar communication, commerce and travel.

Imagine being able to ship goods, even personnel, to any set of spatiotemporal coordinates, past, present or future, and communicate with operatives at any one of those points in Time.”

“A mystery,” said the Olfdranyi. And before the self-assured professor knew what was happening, she snatched the prototype out of his hands, knocked him to the floor and ran for all she was worth out of his office. Soon she’d raced out of the university dome, down the narrow street leading to the spaceport and down the maglev lift to her waiting lander. Would it start up as usual, or had she lingered too long with Thorean?

After a few shouted voice commands, her ship’s compact lander lifted off and, within minutes, she was back onboard her olive-green trading vessel. With no regard for standard protocol, she pushed the ship’s engines for all they were worth. Her breath stuck in her throat at first, when it seemed her vessel wasn’t accelerating as usual.

“Dump all nonessential cargo,” she screamed at her ship’s AI.

“Cargo bay was empty at launch,” said the AI. “Breaking orbit now.”

With a deep sigh, Eldrinaj felt the change in inertia push her back into her flight chair — a sure sign that her ship was free of the planet.

“Time since departure from Zyffer 3,” she said.

The AI’s response was deliciously comforting. With any luck at all, she’d be back at the Archive with time to spare. And now, with Thorean’s prototype as a guide, she had a fighting chance of locating the dread device at the center of so much controversy. Who, she wondered, would have sabotaged Vaxioleth’s work? A thousand cycles ago, only the Terran Protectorate or the symbiotes of the Kaldhex Assembly would have had the know-how. Yet considering how carefully the Skryntali had isolated themselves from the rest of the settled universe, the question practically answered itself.Warvhex would be so proud, she sneered to herself — and shuddered at the thought that her symbiote client might be older than she seemed.

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 8 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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