Infinity Afterglow / Episode 9: Shape-Shifter

An avian grifter meets a conniving shape-shifter in a local cafe

an epic space opera By mark Laporta

A sentient avian’s encounter with a shape-shifter launches dark conspiracy. 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,

Eldrinaj Kaklyadar returned to her post at the Skryntali Archive of the Ancients, two days of subjective time after her adventure on Antrea-Drolacti. Consummate dissembler, she cooed about her “vacation” to anyone who’d listen.

“Galiaris,” she said. “Lovely. Of course, you have to hit the southern hemisphere in season. The beaches are spectacular!”

She rattled on breezily and disarmed everyone around her. It didn’t take much. The Archives’ bookish recluses were eager to hear her carefully researched phony story. Little by little, the Olfdranyi’s engaging banter enabled her to steer the conversation toward “a rumor” she’d heard.

“Some of the guests at my hotel,” she said, “were talking about a fancy piece of Skryntali tech that caused a big spatiotemporal anomaly. You know anything about that?”

Most of the archivists believed the Kadervax was a myth and assumed that Eldrinaj was only joking.

“Did you stop by Antrea-Drolacti on your way home?” asked one female, before dissolving into laughter.

Those who took Eldrinaj seriously insisted that all documentation relating to the device had been lost in a server crash. Out of the corner of her deep-set eyes, Eldrinaj saw Deputy Archivist Caligreth step out of his glassed-in office. Slightly above average Skryntali height, Caligreth’s piercing glare, perpetually arched eyebrows and angular nose created the impression that he viewed nearly everything around him with suspicion. He asked what all the fuss was about and sneered at the Olfdranyi’s explanation.

“Not much was lost,” said Caligreth. “A few diagrams nobody understood. You’d be better off looking into ancient Skryntali gravity modulators. Some experts believe they were several times more efficient than the version we use today.”

Discouraged, Eldrinaj settled back into her work station and reminded herself of her real reason for visiting Zyffer 3. She’d arrived on an assignment from Nevruleth, a wealthy Skryntali trader given to fits of violent rage. Nevruleth’s sole interest was in acquiring the Flight Shape files needed to pilot the lost Skryntali fleet. By now, she assumed, her client had already used the sucherch, which she’d stolen for him, to locate the hollowed-out asteroid where the ships lay hidden.

The black sucherch, a specialized Ootray tablet, was actually a miniature Probability Reader. Like the much larger devices that the Ootray had left behind on two other worlds, it weighed the likelihood of millions of possible realities in seconds. Unlike its larger cousins, however, the sucherch guided its users’ decisions with purely subliminal cues — a process quite frustrating to inexperienced users. This particular device had been Dlalamphrur’s other gift to Ungent and Shol, which Eldrinaj had been only to eager to steal during her brief stay on the Odela.

A sly smile snaked across the Olfdranyi’s delicate face as she imagined her gruff, belligerent client attempting to work the recalcitrant device. Slightly less amusing was the thought of his hot temper at the helm of a fearsome Skryntali battle cruiser. No matter his stated mission, she wondered, how long before he used its terrifying weapons array to settle personal scores?

Focus! she scolded herself.

Nevruleth could wait, Eldrinaj decided. The Kadervax was a bigger prize. The ability to position herself anywhere in space or time would give her power rivaling the Quishiks’ control of Probability. But she was getting ahead of herself. Not a single Skryntali archivist even had a theory about the location of the Kadervax. Her best shot, she figured, was to get out among the locals and ask a few leading questions.

So a few minutes after mid-day, she slipped out of the grandiose building that housed the Archive and mingled among the passersby on the street. On a hunch, she walked a few blocks east to “Strings,” a restaurant that she’d heard was popular with students of the Zyffer Science Academy. Among a crowd of brainy and loose-lipped young people, she hoped to find a few clues.

In a restaurant filled almost entirely with Skryntali, aside from a few visiting off-world scholars, Eldrinaj had no trouble getting noticed. A few gregarious male students stopped by her table immediately. One student who walked by went so far as to shape-shift until he was indistinguishable from an Olfdranyi male. A loud murmur welled up from the restaurant’s other patrons. Shape-shifting in public was, by long-standing tradition, strictly forbidden.

The student, who’d already introduced himself as “Sheglaruth,” shrugged his new Olfdranyi shoulders and let his shape revert to ainvacil, a nearly featureless configuration that Eldrinaj had never seen before — with good reason. For a Skryntali, shifting to ainvacil in public was an even greater taboo. Yet Sheglaruth seemed as unperturbed as pond water on a windless day. He leaned toward Eldrinaj with a conspiratorial grin.

“Looks like I’m about to be thrown out,” he said. “You want to join me? I can show you all around town and answer all your questions.”

Startled, Eldrinaj nodded. Something about Sheglaruth’s self-confidence made her suspect there was more to his comment than a cheesy come-on. They stood and exited to the street, escorted by a chorus of catcalls loud enough to make her worry that word of this incident might get back to the Archive. And the moment they were out of the restaurant, Sheglaruth surprised her again. He grabbed her left arm, led her into a narrow alley, and shifted his shape a third time.

“Caligreth!” Eldrinaj whispered. “How .…”

“Oh please,” said the middle-aged scholar. “Do you think you’re the only clever one? Your sudden request for time off made me suspicious, so I checked into your computer logs. That’s when I realized you’d stumbled on the file I’d hidden in that recipe book. Don’t look so shocked. I am your supervisor.”

Eldrinaj forced herself to stay calm.

“That still doesn’t explain….” she said.

“What kind of spy are you?” asked Caligreth. “You obviously did no research before coming here. On Zyffer 3, the spaceport’s logs are a matter of public record. You left on a trajectory consistent with a trip to a region affected by the temporal anomaly and you returned full of questions about the Kadervax.”

“You looked up my trajectory?” asked Eldrinaj. “What made you do that?”

“For the same reason,” said Caligreth, “that I followed you out of the Archive and into Strings. No Olfdranyi has been anywhere near this system in hundreds of cycles. It’s almost completely unknown except for a few historians who like to think they have expertise in ‘Skryntali social history’.”

“I don’t see how….” said Eldrinaj.

“Hilarious,” said the Skryntali. “Little Miss Evasive wants me to get to the point. Well, here it is. If you came here looking for Vaxioleth’s frame-shift device, I’m one of maybe ten who know how to find it. In a generation, it will be lost forever.”

As Caligreth explained, for the past thousand years, the Kadervax had been concealed deep in a government facility so secret that few members of government even knew it existed. By now, the two accidental conspirators had walked out of the alley and were headed down a side street off from the main square of Delathrian, the planet’s capital city.

“Getting inside would take a crack special ops team,” said Caligreth. “And I don’t like the odds of getting out alive again — not past those robotic defenses.”

“So there’s no point,” said Eldrinaj.

“Not true,” said the Deputy Archivist, “but I’d need an accomplice. Someone skilled in … in whatever you call the game you’re playing.”

At that, the Olfdranyi spun around and grabbed the startled Skryntali by the throat.

“Not a game,” she said. “And let’s be clear. You know enough about me to be a threat to some very powerful operatives. Trust me. You do not want to anger the Kaldhex Assembly.”

Caligreth shifted his shape and oozed out of her tight grip with ease. A second later he looked solid again. Though the sight of it made her stomach churn, Eldrinaj kept her composure.

“You don’t frighten me,” he said. “And get this straight: If you ever want to see that device, I’m your only hope. You continue blabbing about it and the Zyffer WorldCircle will see it you suffer a ‘tragic accident.’”

“My whole life is tragic,” said Eldrinaj. “Really, I don’t get it. So this device created an anomaly. My nav-AI warns me about them all the time. What’s one more?”

Caligreth shook his head.

“You know too much to be so ignorant,” he said. “That’s a dangerous combination.”

Though the Olfdranyi’s mind flooded with an ocean of snappy comebacks, she held her narrow tongue and listened. As Caligreth explained, the anomaly was not the result of honest mistakes, made in pursuit of Science. As Thorean Quentri had suggested to Eldrinaj, it was the product of sabotage by a cadre of ultra-conservative government operatives.

Their goal was to suppress any development that might draw undue attention to the Zyffer system. In their minds, the secrets of the old Skryntali tech were theirs alone and not to be shared with the wider universe at any cost. In fact, the reasons for the cover-up went deeper still — to the name of the high government official who was murdered on her way to exposing the plot, at a meeting of the Zyffer WorldCircle.

“There’s nothing a certain sector of the current administration wouldn’t do,” said Caligreth, “to keep the Kadervax under wraps forever.”

Eldrinaj stopped and squeezed her deep-set eyes shut.

“This happened a thousand cycles ago,” she said. “Why does anybody care now?”

 Time, apparently, had done nothing to soften the conservative stance on isolationism. And that was aside from the Skryntali’s natural longevity.

“The youngest of the original conspirators died only a hundred cycles ago,” said Caligreth. “Our memory is relentless.”

Eldrinaj stopped at a nearby park bench and plopped down hard.

“All right,” she said. “Sorry I asked. Tell me how any of that helps us get control of the Kadervax.”

“That depends,” said the Deputy Archivist, “on whether you managed to steal the prototype from Thorean Quentri.”

The Olfdranyi’s eyes bulged.

“How.….” she said. “How could you possibly have known….”

The Skryntali answered by shifting his shape for a fourth time that afternoon, until he was the perfect likeness of the Zolanaide professor that Eldrinaj had recently assaulted.

“Oh, Ms. Kaklyadar,” he said. “You are so far out of your league.”

“You mean you’re leading a double life?” asked the startled Olfdranyi.

“Of course not.” said Caligreth. “But I knew all about his connection to Vaxioleth’s financial backer. Once I saw where you were heading, I took a shortcut and arrived a rotation ahead of you. The Skryntali may have fallen far, but even now, no one has faster ships, The real professor Quentri is resting comfortably under a mild sedative. The drug will leave him muddled enough to doubt his own memory. I preceded that with a classic truth serum, which is how I found out where Quentri had hidden the prototype.”

“If you already knew about the prototype, why did you need me to steal it?” asked Eldrinaj.

“As I told you,” Caligreth continued, “I need an accomplice. I had to find out if you were ruthless enough for the job.”

Eldrinaj smoothed out the creases in her poncho and stared at him.

“And I have the prototype,” she said. “Which I’ll bet anything you need to get through government security. Pretty dumb move.”

Caligreth’s grin was nearly as irritating as the chuckle that followed it.

“So lacking in imagination,” said the Skryntali. “I’d already retrieved the real prototype. What you brought back is a non-working model, which I replicated in my ship. Now that you’ve proven yourself, you’re about to become intimately familiar with frame-shift technology.”

Eldrinaj pulled herself up to her full height and stared into the shape-shifter’s bright green eyes. “The only thing proven,” she said, “is this: You deceive me one more time and whatever shape you’re in will be your last.”

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 10 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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