Infinity Afterglow / Episode 14: Symbiote Blackmail

An AWOL human fighter pilot experiences symbiote blackmail

an ePIC sPACE OPERA BY mARK lAPORTA

What is symbiote blackmail? You won’t know until you meet a symbiote, like Warvhex, in Infinity Afterglow., Book 3 of Mark Laporta’s Against the Glare of Darkness trilogy, which has been widely acclaimed across traditional and alternative media. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning,

Startled out of a deep sleep by an excessively chirpy alert system, Cricket Anderson felt her back muscles stretch and shiver. Life inside a standard-issue fighter, designed for short reconnaissance or rapid sorties, was nobody’s idea of paradise. Especially, that is, after two weeks of nerve-wracking space-fold maneuvers.

A battle cruiser like the Gabriel, to which she’d been assigned, took space-folding in stride. The size of its engine, its back-up processors and the ongoing adjustments made by its savvy engineering team, took the pressure off navigator and pilot alike. By contrast, Cricket had to sweat over every short-range hop she made — and in a fighter, they were all short-range hops. A cruiser could have made the trip from the asteroid belt, where she’d discovered the lost Skryntali fleet, to Zyffer 3 in a fraction of the time it had taken her.

All of which, of course, was as irrelevant as it was true. To accomplish her goal, the only way forward was the hard way. And that thought was what finally forced her eyes open.

“What is it?” she asked.

“You wished to be alerted the moment we entered the Zyffer system,” said the ship’s AI. “Awaiting orders.”

“Full stop,” said the Lieutenant.

No way she wanted to approach the local government with a head full of cobwebs. Besides, during the entire flight over, she’d wrestled with the best way to make her case to the Skryntali. Unfortunately, she was no better off than when she started. She’d located ships that didn’t belong to her and now here she was, effectively claiming them for the Terran Protectorate. That was aside from demanding both the secret of Flight Shape, and a force of two thousand Skryntali pilots to fly the ships. How in the world, she wondered, to begin that delicate negotiation? On the Gabriel, she might have found a crash course in diplomacy within the ship’s immense archives. As it was….

“Lieutenant,” the ship’s AI broke in. “I’ve detected a craft approaching at top speed.”

“Can’t you be more specific?” asked Cricket.

But the incoming ship had turned off its legally mandated registry beacon.

“Energy patterns indicate symbiote engine design,” said the AI.

Out of nowhere, an unfamiliar voice chimed in on their conversation.

“How’d you program your AI to sneer like that?” asked the voice.

“Excuse me?” said Cricket. “Surveilling a Terran Protectorate ship in interstellar space is a breach of….”

“Can it, Lieutenant,” said the voice. “A lone fighter registered to the battle cruiser Gabriel a dozen parsecs off course? You’re AWOL — and it’s about time somebody reported you.”

Cricket sat tall in her flight chair for the first time since the AI’s blaring alarm.

“I don’t recognize your authority to confront me in this way,” she said.

“Wait ‘til my zoologist friends hear about this,” said the voice. “A human with a backbone. Too bad for you, but The Kaldhex Assembly has more than enough authority to enforce intergalactic law — which you, my insubordinate puppy, have violated with all four feet.”

“Can you at least try to make sense?” asked Cricket. “Who the spinning pulsar are you?”

“A member of the enforcement wing,” said the voice. “Your former Captain knew me as Warvhex.”

Cricket gulped. The idea that someone who’d known Enos had caught her defying orders was unnerving.

“Fascinating,” said Cricket. “I still don’t see how that gives you the right to….”

“Interstellar law,” said Warvhex. “Try to keep up. The point is, the Zyffer system is off limits to Terran Protectorate ships.”

“Since when?” asked Cricket.

“Since rumors started circulating about a newly discovered stockpile of Skryntali warships,” said Warvhex. “Really, Lieutenant, you should know better than to leave your entire data base unshielded.”

“Just following Fleet protocol,” said Cricket.

“Please, stop, before the irony melts my hull,” said Warvhex.

“I don’t get it,” said Cricket. “Sure, I don’t have my data under security lockdown. That’s because nobody can intercept it from farther away than a few hundred kilometers. Craters, you must have been following me since before I left the Gabriel on my last sortie. Makes no sense.”

“It would, if you knew anything about statistics,” said Warvhex. “Typical human. You’re fighting an enemy with complete control over Probability, and you don’t know the first thing about extrapolation.”

To the Lieutenant’s exasperated question, the symbiote replied that her prior misadventures had put her in a special category.

“A human who falls in love with her biomechanoid captain,” said Warvhex, “then deserts her post on the Mighty Fortress because she hears voices? That is a human to watch. I knew you’d do something outrageous again and I was right, wasn’t I?”

Cricket sighed into her helmet, which, by the way, was beginning to feel like it was permanently attached to her head. A flood of submerged memories broke through to her conscious mind.

“I don’t know why I was attracted to Enos,” she said, “except maybe that he was gorgeous, admirable and brilliant. But the Ootray AI — Dlalamphrur — gave me hallucinations. I had to fly down to Bledraun. And a good thing, too. She needed me to help Har Draaf stop the Quishiks, at least for a little while.”

“Exactly,” said Warvhex. “You’re a walking Venn diagram of probable outcomes. Time and space want a piece of you and that makes you worth following. Now, let’s get serious. We both know how that fleet of ships could impact the Quishik fight. You weren’t thinking of turning them over to the Protectorate, were you?”

“Fat lot of good it would do,” said Cricket. “If you’ve really been listening, you know that only a Skryntali can fly those ships. By our count there were — how many?”

“Two thousand, Lieutenant,” said her AI.

“Far cry from Enos, isn’t she?” said Warvhex.

“Shut up,” said Cricket. “None of this matters unless you know two thousand trustworthy Skryntali.”

“I might,” said Warvhex. “I might also know the one operative who could steal the information about Flight Shape. Her mission on Zyffer 3 will come to nothing if you blunder in. Besides, if you think the Skryntali — especially those Skryntali — will let you get away without revealing the location of their fleet, you’re more naïve than I realized.”

“It doesn’t work that way, Madame Sector Advisor,” said Cricket. “See? I can read your data, too. Very sloppy. The fact is, I’ve already stuck my neck out to bring these ships to Fleet Admiral Orkan, right under the nose of Terran Protectorate Admin. If I don’t follow through, I’ll be tending soybeans on a rehab farm in the Metonia system for the rest of my life.”

Warvhex’s surprisingly nasal chuckle grated on Cricket’s ears.

“Funny thought,” she said. “But not so implausible. Lucky for you, I have a counteroffer. Better take your AI offline for this, Lieutenant.”

A few seconds later, Cricket’s jaw dropped as Warvhex spun out her plan to exonerate Cricket of wrongdoing and protect the secret of the lost Skryntali fleet from both the government on Zyffer 3 and Terran Protectorate Admin.

“I used my connections,” the wily symbiote said, “and created an airtight data trail. Say the word and I can get you assigned as an undercover operative on loan to the Kaldhex Assembly.”

“What the blazing comet tails are you talking about?” asked Cricket.

“Your mission, my fate-tossed little puppet,” said Warvhex, “will be to investigate systematic trafficking in contraband neuro-disruptive nanobots by the crew of the Jericho.

Cricket’s mouth went dry.

“You … you have to be kidding,” she whispered.

“And you what’s the icing on the cake?” asked the symbiote. “We’ll allege that the humans were using said technology to target key members of the Kaldhex Assembly.”

 “Neuro-disruptive nanobots?” asked Cricket. “Those were outlawed five hundred cycles ago. Who’s gonna believe that?”

“You really don’t understand human nature,” said Warvhex. “Or much about most other sentient species, as far as that goes. Fact is, the average mind is much more likely to believe that their neighbor is a crook than a saint. And it doesn’t hurt that the Jericho’s engineering team is on record as having developed an array of specialty nano-drones to assist your old boyfriend’s biological assault on the Quishiks.”

“Maybe,” said Cricket. “But….”

“And if you think you’re betraying a trust,” said Warvhex, “by not turning your information over to the Protectorate, it’s time you got your head on straight. Once Brad Christiansen gets his hands on that fleet, you can forget about beating the Quishiks. He’ll take his chances with dominating the rest of the settled universe himself — then hope he can divide his spoils with the Quishiks in exchange for a peace treaty.”

“Hard to believe anyone could be that stupid,” said Cricket. And yet, as was common knowledge among the Fleet’s commissioned officers, Christiansen, the head of Terran Protectorate Admin, was more than capable of such a reckless gamble

“That’s what arrogance does to the organic mind,” said Warvhex. “And it’s what you humans do best. You have that expression … what is it? … ‘drunk with power.’ I’m afraid it’s redundant. Give a human that much clout and.…”

“Point taken,” said Cricket. “Almost. You don’t strike me as immune to the disease yourself. Never mind, I’m not going to argue with you. If I don’t get out of this ship soon I’ll be as crazy as the Quishik leader herself. You do not want that.”

Warvhex chuckled again.

“So we’re agreed,” she said.

Though Cricket’s desperate assent solved her immediate problem, it also enmeshed her in the symbiote’s stealthy agenda for months to come. Imagine, she thought, getting transferred to the Jericho to keep an eye on Captain Gillian Cavendish, against whom she had no grudge. Yet as soon as Warvhex transmitted the masking program that would hide her recent sortie from both the Terran Protectorate and her own fighter’s AI, she didn’t hesitate to plug it in. Once the program was activated and she’d rebooted her AI, Cricket found it hard to decide which was worse. If the truth came out, she could either be known as “the schemer who betrayed a Fleet captain’s trust,” or “the deserter who amassed a large personal fleet of immensely powerful battle cruisers.”

It was hard to believe that she’d once been eager to enlist in the Terran Protectorate Exploratory Fleet, to experience the wonders of spacetime. “Wonders of corruption,” she muttered into her helmet’s stale, recycled air.

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 15 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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