Infinity Afterglow / Episode 11: Space Base

An alien space base

an epic space opera by mark laporta

A space base debate between a gynoid and a product of genome manipulation? In the far future, the possibilitys are infinite. 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,

At coordinates distant in time and space from Harlan and Meiji, two wildly different beings chatted politely as they had for months, inside a vast, above-ground space base. This massive structure was the only one of its kind on what appeared to be a desolate world, known to the Ootray as “Rayzhul Prime.”

Yet this was no world at all. Built as a Quishik defense station thousands of years earlier, it was actually a planet-sized ship. The complex, which housed dozens of computer workstations, was replete with industrial-grade replicators. It was also home to an impressive array of tactical fighters, a battle-ready cruise ship and dozens of lethal warrior-androids. Though these forces had lain dormant, they were as ready to meet any incoming threat as they had been millennia ago.

Set off from an interlocking suite of living quarters, the lounge where the two beings sat was appointed with comfortable furniture, upholstered in black neo-leather. On the walls, holographic images depicted scenes of idyllic, natural settings. The holographs contributed to a mood of ethereal calm that permeated every corner of the lounge. But even given such a welcoming environment, what could have preoccupied these two for so long?

It was nothing less than the Ootray’s ill-fated creation of the Quishiks, the most seminal event in the history of that civilization. From the Quishiks’ first brutal assault on a defenseless colonial outpost, the Ootray had tasted guilt and shame in every breath. Driving the conversation were two equally redoubtable minds, one biomechanoid, the other organic.

The biomechanoid was Yaldrint, the Grashardi AI who’d assisted Ungent Draaf for the last eighty years, and whose biomechanoid body mimicked that of a Grashardi crustacean. True to her logical mind, she’d chosen an outfit in line with the latest Grashardi fashions. Her pale blue cottony tunic overlapped a pair of beige trousers of fine silk from the Thanalish system. Light brown neo-leather clogs hugged her webbed, biomechanical feet. Only a few days before Ungent joined the Ootray diaspora in the interstices, Yaldrint had taken it on herself to revisit Rayzhul Prime to seek help with the Quishik crisis.

The organic being was Mlelodrur, the sole occupant of Rayzhul Prime ever since the Ootray abandoned normal space. Diminutive of stature and dressed in a black body suit, topped by a loose, purple jacket embroidered in gold thread, she carried an orb of swirling blue plasma, cupped in her hands wherever she went. Thousands of years in the past, she’d been a faithful assistant to the Ootray — who’d nevertheless left her behind when they departed.

In their eyes, she’d been merely a Pardalshik, the result of the Ootray’s second, more successful, attempt to create a new species, virtually from scratch. According to Mlelodrur, the Pardalshiks had served the Ootray for centuries. Their forgotten descendants lived on in deep space, where neither the Terran Protectorate’s political wrangling, nor the benign commercialism of the Grashard Sidereal Caucus had yet reached.

Despite her lonely existence, Mlelodrur had no desire to seek a cozy family life with her distant cousins. Her dedication to Rayzhul Prime’s mission — to defend against successive Quishik outbreaks — had never wavered. All the same, having survived the last five thousand years or so, thanks to the Ootray’s miraculous longevity treatments, Mlelodrur’s determination was as much a function of bitterness as of duty. Isolated for so long, she was reluctant to engage with the universe outside Rayzhul Prime. Ironically, that was exactly what Yaldrint wanted from her: a commitment to a higher cause than her own survival. And it was here that the mask of civility slipped.

“I’ve done just fine, thank you,” said Mlelodrur. “Kept myself and this outpost in top shape since before your operating system left the simulators.”

“And, if I may,” said Yaldrint, “you are an example to every conscientious sentient being. The Quishik crisis, however….”

“There you go again!” Mlelodrur shouted. “I thought we agreed the situation was hopeless when you arrived eight arcs ago.”

The biomechanoid waved her webbed hands slowly back and forth.

“I merely chose,” she said, “not to contradict you. You were generous enough to take me in at the moment the Quishiks escaped, and I believed….”

“Yes!” snapped Mlelodrur. “Gratitude! Yet as soon as those disgusting mutants veer off to threaten some other part of the universe, your gratitude dissipates. You’re even making demands.”

Distracted by an unusual fluctuation in her orb’s swirling white bands, the Pardalshik turned away to give the device her full attention. Meanwhile, if the direct expression of emotion had been part of Yaldrint’s operating parameters, she might easily have been expected to throw her exoplated hands in the air. Instead, as a confirmed rationalist, she merely paused a moment and tried to make her case from a different angle.

“Do you remember, friend Mlelodrur,” she said, “when you showed Har Draaf, Shol and me….”

The Pardalshik spun around.

“Have you heard from either of them?” she asked.

“You would know if I had,” said Yaldrint. “The Odela’s probe ship, whose protection I am also grateful to you for, is still in orbit around this world. One of her landers still rests outside the locked entrance to this fortification. If they had tried to reach me, I would not have known. My own internal communication system does not have sufficient range.”

Mlelodrur stroked the vestigial whiskers on either side of her delicate face before settling down onto a small, neo-leather couch to Yaldrint’s left.

“Yes, yes, of course,” she said. “Still, I’ve been worried ever since the three of you left on your pointless search for the Ootray. Har Draaf is so idealistic, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d perished while trying to talk sense into a nearby event horizon. ‘Don’t you see how unreasonable you’re being?’ he’d say. And the boy….”

“Shol has lived nearly on his own since his ninth cycle,” said Yaldrint. “I believe his survival instincts are well honed.”

“Even against the Quishiks?” asked the Pardalshik.

“In that regard,” said Yaldrint. “I believe all sentient life is equally vulnerable. Now, if I may, please show me again the holomap that the Ootray left behind.”

Though the Grashardi AI could easily have found the map on her own, she reasoned that deferring to Mlelodrur’s proprietary nature might ease the Pardalshik into a change of heart. Mlelodrur gazed at the biomechanoid a moment and shuffled her soft feet back into her equally soft felt slippers. With a wave of her lightly clawed right hand, she encouraged Yaldrint to follow her to the far corner of Rayzhul Prime’s main hall. There, with a tap on a side wall panel, she made a door appear, which slid open to reveal an immense chamber.

Yaldrint followed and, as she gazed up at the holomap, there was no denying the spike in her baseline energy output. Imagine! An enormous, black globe whose surface displayed a diagrammatic view of the entire universe. As on previous occasions, Yaldrint’s precision optics strained to take in the globe, which rose out of a seemingly bottomless floor.

Mlelodrur glanced at her orb, which continued to swirl erratically.

“I don’t know where you’re going with this, Dear,” she said. “But I’m grateful for the excuse to visit this room. Remind … reminds me … of a time when there was still hope. Know what I mean?”

“I’m afraid that both aspiration and longing are outside my operating parameters,” said Yaldrint, “Yet I am certain we can bring this abhorrent chapter of history to a satisfactory close.”

“How nice for you!” said Mlelodrur. “And will the millions of Quishik victims be satisfied, too?

“Not in the least,” said Yaldrint. “Yet by making excuses for millennia of inaction, the Ootray condemn even more innocents to death. I have even explored the possibility of acquiring control of Probability myself. If it were simply a matter of mental discipline, I would have already brought back as many victims as possible.”

“Really Dear,” asked the small, catlike creature, “is your ‘satisfactory close’ more than speculation? What do you have in mind?”

“A hypothesis,” said Yaldrint, “which deserves to be tested.”

Mlelodrur shrugged.

“Spoken like a true AI,” she said. “but go on. I for one, have an unlimited supply of time.”

“My hypothesis,” said Yaldrint, “is that you care more about life in this universe than you let on. After my years with Har Draaf, I have observed emotional states similar to yours many times. You feel neglected — a wound you cannot heal without forgiving the Ootray. Instead, you continue to wound yourself with the false assertion that the universe means ‘nothing’ to you.”

“Ridiculous,” said Mlelodrur.

“Yet whenever we talk about your past life or walk into this room,” said Yaldrint, “your cardiopulmonary activity mimics data curves associated with deep emotional attachment. You, friend Mlelodrur, cannot be said to despise the worlds outside this compound.”

The Pardalshik’s eyes misted over, and she gave her biomechanoid companion a wan smile.

“Keep going like this,” she said, “and you’ll be a dead ringer for a character in a classic detective holovid. You’re wrong. I gave up long ago. What you see is a pathetic shadow of my former self.”

“If I may,” said Yaldrint, “I would argue that, should we revive your former self, you could ‘strike out on a new path,’ as Har Draaf would say.”

Mlelodrur’s body shook, and she broke out into cackling laughter.

“Flaming Galaxies!” she shouted. “What an impression that crustaceous old codger has made on you! Never have I seen an AI so steeped in psychobabble.”

“What I am proposing, friend Mlelodrur,” said the AI, “is only babble if it is incorrect. Do you assert that it is?”

Though Yaldrint was nominally incapable of surprise, the surge in her logic circuits that occurred when her host stomped out of the room was, from a statistical perspective, a reasonable facsimile of that emotion. What might not have surprised her, if she’d been as fully “organic” as she sometimes sounded, was the sight of Mlelodrur sobbing her yellow eyes out on the same couch she’d settled down to a moment earlier.

“Friend Mlelodrur?” she asked.

“Leave me alone,” said the Pardalshik. “I hope you’re happy. I’ve spent five thousand cycles telling myself you were wrong. You’ve ruined everything. Go ahead, use my forces against the latest Quishik outbreak. Take the androids, the fighters — there’s even a base ship battle cruiser somewhere, though I can’t remember at the moment. Take them all, but spare me any more of your … your annoying decency!

“If I may,” said Yaldrint, “I would never take what is not mine. I had merely hoped you would assist me in my mission, Har Draaf’s mission, to save sentient life from this threat. Release my ship from your defense perimeter. I believe you have already established that the Quishiks have veered off from the center of civilization. I should be safe enough to find the others.”

Mlelodrur sat up, wiped her eyes with the edges of her sleeves and took hold of Yaldrint’s webbed hands.

“No,” she said. “Stay, and I will help you as much as I can. You’re right, of course. The fact that I was abandoned by the Ootray is no excuse for abandoning everyone else. Especially you, Dear. I do have bad news for you, though. There’s a critical element missing, if we have any hope of using my over-eager androids anywhere off this planet.”

“How so?” asked Yaldrint. “If there is repair work to be done, the Odela’s probe ship may contain appropriate schematics and tools.”

“Wish it were that simple,” said Mlelodrur. “But, you see, the Ootray were a caution to Caution itself. To keep their robotic armies from deciding that they knew what was best for their masters, the Ootray required the presence of a specially programmed Commander Android.”

Yaldrint’s stored memory immediately replayed a scene from their first encounter months earlier.

“Yet I have seen you command them with your orb,” said Yaldrint.

“Ha!” said Mlelodrur. “Basic commands only: ‘Come here!’ ‘Defend!’ ‘Disperse!’ That’s nothing like leading an army into battle. Without the Commander Android, we’re sunk. I need it to relay my orders in the most logical machine-language equivalents.”

“So they would appear rational,” said Yaldrint, “and not motivated by emotion.”

Mlelodrur smiled.

“You sure figured that out fast,” she said. “You must be sick of our organic stupidity.”

Yaldrint’s exoplates appeared to stiffen.

“I look to the organics I serve,” she said, “particularly Har Draaf, for qualities other than precise, quantitative analysis, eidetic memory or scientific prowess. Yet there have been many occasions when he has surprised me on all three counts. Besides, through him, I have learned that logic alone cannot solve an entire range of problems, especially those requiring critical decisions based on limited data.”

“Crater’s Dear, you sound like his wife,” said the Pardalshik. “You do see what we’re up against, though, don’t you?”

“I do,” said Yaldrint. “But we must find a ‘work around.’ If you will allow me to visit my….” “Hold on,” said Mlelodrur. “The orb says somebody’s calling in. Quarks in a box … it’s the Odela!

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 12 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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