Infinity Afterglow / Episode 10: Pocket Universe

A primitive hut inside a pocket universe

an epic space opera by mark laporta

Two human fleet officers, trapped in a pocket universe, must come to terms with realities they were never trained to face. 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,

In the midst of a quiet dawn, a female voice echoed through the fog of a sleeping mind.

“Captain,” it said. “Captain Mars!”

A shaking sensation followed, which had nothing to do with a dream about facing down an angry mob of Krezovic survivors on planet Bledraun. A second, male voice murmured in a dry, cotton-mouth.

“Gabriel’s trumpet,” it said. “Give me a chance to explain,”

“Harlan!” the female voice shouted.

Captain Harlan Mars, formerly of the Terran Protectorate battle cruiser Jericho, sat bolt upright on a scratchy mat made of dried straw and barely covered by a tattered, hand-spun cotton sheet. Though he was tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, he looked for the moment more like a startled child than a battle-hardened soldier. But as he brushed a shock of jet-black hair off his brow, he began to regain his composure.

“What?” he said. “What is it … Lieutenant?”

“They’re back,” said Lieutenant Meiji Tanaka, a slender young woman, with somewhat elfin features whose dark brown eyes flashed with intelligence. Worse, for Harlan’s peace of mind, was her soft, melodious voice, which gave even her simplest comments an ethereal air. She was the last sight Harlan had seen before the blast of a pair of massive, spacetime-bending towers had sent their probe ship rotating head-over-heels toward a matched pair of white dwarfs. Months later, he was still a bit disoriented.

“You woke me up for that?” asked Harlan.

“Sir, they saved our lives,” said Meiji.

Harlan ran his hands through his hair, rolled off the mat and pulled himself to his feet. The “they” in question were the village elders of a decidedly backward planet. As to how the pilot of a Terran Protectorate probe ship and his mission second had crash landed on “Siffra,” as the locals called it — that was a story the villagers would one day enter into their holy books.

Or rather, their account would be a version of events that conformed to their understanding of the universe. As it was, the story the two humans still hoped to tell their own descendants also had a little too much in common with pre-scientific legends than they would have liked.

Viewed in the unsentimental light of scientific data, however, their journey to this quiet world was a direct product of the interaction between the physical laws of the universe and beings with uncanny control over Time and Space. It began when Harlan made the ill-considered decision to run a last-minute reconnaissance mission to a Quishik device of immeasurable power.

The device was one of a pair of thousand-meter towers, each of which orbited binary white dwarfs. As the design specs for the towers had revealed, they’d amounted to interlocking chains of standard gravity modulators and temporal transponders, of which the latter had previously existed only in theory. As a result, they were flung into an unknown pocket universe.

“All right, Lieutenant,” said Harlan. “Before the Elders arrive, run those figures back to me again.”

Meiji’s dark brown eyes blinked back at him, and she shifted the weight on her slim frame to her left foot. Like Harlan, she wore the tattered remains of a Terran Protectorate flight suit, stitched up with thin hemp rope. Here and there, patches of coarse, woven wool, dyed with a rust red iron pigment, held the remaining synthetic fabric together.

“Sir,” said Meiji, “I’ve told you it must be the instruments. I can’t vouch for their accuracy. It’s enough of a surprise that they still have power.”

An accurate reading would have required recalibration, a time-consuming process that was not an option for someone sneaking out of camp in the middle of the night. Though the Elders had forbidden Meiji and Harlan to return to their ship, pending consultation with the local sky-deity, Meiji had found the temptation of a occasional, quick status check irresistible.

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Lieutenant,” said Harlan. “That probe ship was built with triple redundancy. And even the third back up system is shielded against nucleonics. So I’d be mighty surprised if a little nose dive that a theta-class service bot could fix in a few blinks would knock every system out of wack.”

“Let’s hope, Sir,” said the Lieutenant. “Either way, the news isn’t good. The instruments say we’ve been time-shifted forward.”

Harlan’s eyes narrowed.

“What do you mean … forward?” he asked. “The way these folks are living? I figure, if we were shifted, it was toward the past. You know, way back. Seems to me, the Protectorate set up what you’d call a minimum standard a couple-three hundred cycles ago.”

“Unless … and this is conjecture….” said Meiji. “Unless the Quishiks’ towers disrupted this species’ development and … made it regress to a pre-industrial society.”

“Could be,” said Harlan, “though one thing I learned from old Ungy is, you can’t go around thinking somebody’s ‘regressed’ if they don’t have the same level of tech you do.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Meiji. “I meant there’s no reason to believe this population would have these … characteristics … unless something altered their natural timeline. According to the probe ship’s sensors, we’ve jumped about twelve-hundred cycles ahead of our previous spatiotemporal coordinates.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

“Hang on to that thought,” said Harlan. “And for God’s sake don’t look at me like that. We’re about to get ourselves grilled again.”

“Ho there,” a voice called out. It came from outside the rounded, collapsible structure where Harlan and Meiji had lived for the last two months — or was it four? Harlan rested a muscular hand on the structure’s central, hard wood shaft. Not for the first time, he gazed up in wonder at the folds of patterned, hand-loomed cloth that was gathered at the tip of the shaft. How, he wondered, had it come to this?

“Ho,” he called out. “Come on in.”

A triangular entrance flap flipped up and over. The two former soldiers watched as three humanoids of advanced age shuffled into the spare living space. The two males and one female were dressed in nearly matching robes of a coarse cottony material, dyed a dark purple — though the female’s outfit was augmented by a double-stringed necklace of turquoise polished stone and a light cloth shawl in yellow ochre. To Harlan’s surprise, the visitors looked significantly different than at their last meeting.

“Mind explaining…?” Harlan said.

“We do not wish to startle you,” said the tallest of the three visitors. “However, shape is relative to us. And because you appear to pose no danger, we saw no reason not to adopt a form you would find familiar.”

“Run that by me again?” said Harlan. “You mean you can change … everything?”

The female visitor laughed into her slender hands.

“Nature imposes some limits on us,” she said. “Though not many. Does this trouble you?”

Meiji cast Harlan a quick glance.

“We appreciate the effort you’ve taken to put us at ease,” she said. “May I ask … which of you is which?”

Though their hosts had introduced themselves the first time, when they arrived at the probe ship’s crash site, they’d originally appeared as a trio of menacing insectoids.

“Please,” said the third visitor, “forgive our lack of manners. I am Aldruleth, that is Belcarresh and this is the lovely Hadrealot.”

Hadrealot blushed.

“Uncle, do not embarrass me,” she said. “There is no need to bore the newcomers with your doting rubbish.”

“I promise you, you are quite … appealing … to us,” said Meiji. “Have you given any thought to….”

“Concerning your ship,” said Aldruleth, “there is nothing in either our sacred texts or our laws that forbids you from examining your own property. However, we would need proof you have no hostile intent and would not use your numerous devices to our detriment.”

Harlan shook his head.

“Elder Aldruleth,” he said. “Did you notice we crashed on your planet? The Lieutenant and I have been totally dependent on your generosity for the last few arcs, and we’re grateful. Yet if we’d wanted to, we could have sneaked out to what’s left of our ship and caused a passel of mayhem by now. Fact is, we don’t know what end’s up. It kind of looks like we’re even in the wrong time.”

“Your words are reassuring, if somewhat confusing,” said Belcarresh. “What is this ‘time’ you speak of? We know only the passing of the days and the changing of the seasons.”

“Captain, may I?” said Meiji. “Imagine, Belcarresh, that you could suddenly enter the era of your unborn descendants. We believe this has happened to us.”

Hadrealot glanced at her male companions and smiled.

“It appears we really do have nothing to fear from the strangers,” she said. “For they are too deluded to be harmful. Still, it is a fanciful notion that their weary minds have conjured. And it reminds me of the ruins at Valkrudesh.”

“You speak of the Rings of Light?” asked Aldruleth. “Every child knows that is a myth.”

“Their power may be mythical,” said Hadrealot. “But they exist, plain and simple. Perhaps the strangers may find enlightenment there. What is it the runes say?”

“They speak of a threshold,” said Belcarresh. “A gateway, perhaps, to a magical realm of flying ships like the one our visitors arrived in.”

“Really?” asked Meiji.

“Oh, my child, how your heart races with hope,” said Hadrealot. “Heed my warning: The runes also speak of a great evil that resides on the other side.”

“Sounds like home to me,” said Harlan. “We were on our way to fight that … evil … when we landed here.”

“Perhaps it was the evil ones themselves who sent you here,” said Aldruleth. “You must have been a formidable opponent.”

“Or perhaps a higher power sent us this pair with their strange talk?” asked Belcarresh. “Might there be something on our humble world that would be of use to our new friends — to aid their quest?”

“Either way,” said Hadrealot, “the runes may hold the answer.”

Harlan glanced at Meiji and shrugged.

“When can we see them?” he asked his hosts.

“That is difficult to say, with certainty,” said Belcarresh. “You will have to make your case to the Jection, when it appears at the next moon.”

Harlan and Meiji fought hard not to let their disappointment show, and almost succeeded. According to their hosts, the “Jection,” referred a visit by a mystical advisor or goddess, whom they relied on for guidance in all things.

Crushed, the two lost souls resigned themselves to another month of depressing isolation. The Elders, wishing to prevent “contamination,” had kept Harlan and Meiji away from the villages they oversaw, let alone the wider population. The tent, and perhaps a square meter around it, had nearly become their entire world. In every way that mattered, it was a prison of self-recrimination and tormented mutual attraction that no amount of happy talk could mask.

“I could sneak off later to check the ship’s radio, Sir,” said Meiji. “Do that, Lieutenant,” said Harlan. “And see if you can raise God on the line while you’re at it. I got me a bone to pick with Him.”


A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 11 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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