Infinity Afterglow / Episode 15: Time Warp

A orimitive lodge, caught in a time warp

an epic space opera by Mark laporta

Two lost souls discover their fate is even more tortured than they imagined, when they realize that the Quishik breakthrough has hurled them into a twisted time warp. It’s one more link in a chain of intrigue that begins in Probability Shadow and continues in Entropy Refraction, Books 1 & 2 of Mark Laporta’s Against the Glare of Darkness trilogy. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning,

After a frustrating month, during which the two stranded members of the Terran Protectorate fleet uncovered only a few scraps of information about their curious hosts, the day arrived when the so-called Jection was scheduled to appear. 

Unable to sleep, for reasons that had everything and nothing to do with the mysterious event, Harlan and Meiji rose shortly after dawn. With hours to go before “show time,” they both had a desperate need to distract themselves and kill the anticipation. 

By now, they’d mapped every possible, improbable, unlikely and utterly unimaginable outcome of the Jection. So it was only natural that their accumulated nervous energy drove them to take an unscheduled tour, through the ruins of Valkrudesh. Here again, the sour taste of redundancy spoiled the moment. What more could they see that their previous five visits hadn’t shown them? 

According to legend, the Rings of Light at Valkrudesh were erected by unknowable ancestors shrouded in the mists of Time. Aldruleth, voice trembling, had told Harlan and Meiji that Valkrudesh was once the site of a large interdimensional portal. At least, that’s what it sounded like, after the two soldiers filtered the atavistic chatter out of his account. But by the look of things, Aldruleth and the rest of Saffra’s Elders were seriously deluded. 

True, the odd-looking structures that lined the main chamber did vaguely resemble key components of transmat tech. Yet even if what they saw were actually the crumbling remnants of high-tech machinery, the ruins lacked an apparent power source. Still, Meiji wondered if the large five-meter-high slab, fashioned out of solid galena crystal, which rose from the floor of the central chamber, might house an array of complex circuitry. 

“Wishful thinking,” she whispered. 

“What’s that?” asked Harlan. “Is this place playin’ tricks on you, too?”

Meiji looked up at him and felt some of the tension drain out of her body. At least, for now, Harlan’s perpetual grumpiness appeared to have lightened. 

“Well, Sir,” she said. “I can’t stop speculating. If we ever did get the ship running again, I could charge up a battery plate or two and probe that slab with a routine scanner array. You know, see if we could do some deep imaging.”

“Might explain a few things,” said Harlan, “for curiosity’s sake. But I can’t see what good it will do. Not with those particle generators all busted up on the far wall.”

“We won’t know until we can run an analysis, Captain,” said Meiji. “If the generators are embedded in the rock wall, these shards could simply be from an external control panel. The ship’s AI could help us replicate a replacement unit.”

“Maybe,” said Harlan. “But if this tech dates from our time, it would take a Hell of a lot to bust it up like this. And if those wall units were from the Ootray generation, they would already be taking our lunch order.”

“Unless we’re even further into our future than we realize,” said Meiji. “But I doubt these fragments are the result of age-related decay.”

“Right,” said Harlan. “Could have been all-out war. If we ever escape, and the Protectorate develops time travel, you can come back and film a documentary about it. Until then, what would we do with a cracked-up old transmat device anyway? Can you think of anywhere on this ricky-ticky planet you’d like to go? And it sure doesn’t seem like these elder folks have had any contact with nearby worlds.”

“We don’t even know,” said Meiji, “if any other settled worlds survived the disaster that created these conditions,” 

“Not putting a lot of stock in the word ‘if’ right now, Lieutenant,” said Harlan. “IF the Quishiks hadn’t built that blame contraption, IF I hadn’t been so damn stupid as to investigate it right before it was gonna blow, IF you hadn’t distracted me with your nonsense, we wouldn’t be here now. But none of those ifs is anything like a solution. You got me?”

Meiji cast her eyes down to the floor of the shattered structure, whose purpose was still frustratingly ambiguous. 

“Yes, Sir,” she said. “For the record, you were easily distracted. But what I meant was….”

“Got it,” said Harlan. “Now, for the last time, do you see any, you know, inscriptions, or the ‘runes’ that old Aldruleth keeps goin’ on about? Anything that might help us make an ounce of sense out of this place?” 

A shuffling of sandaled feet in the passageway outside the chamber made the two anxious survivors turn their heads to see Aldruleth, once again in the humanoid shape he adopted whenever he spoke to his two off-world guests. 

“All will be revealed when Time is in alignment,” he said. “Until then, your impatience has brought you to the brink of blasphemy again, as it has several times before. We have been tolerant, given your straitened circumstances. But today, when the Jection is nigh, we must observe all due pieties. Please, come away. I will bring you refreshments to cheer your hearts and tell you more about the blessed event you are about to experience. I pray that will quiet your souls, if only for a short time.”

Harlan closed his eyes and counted to ten, while he forced a thousand sarcastic replies from his mind. Like it or not, he realized that he and Meiji were totally dependent on the shape-shifter’s good graces.

“Thank you, Elder,” he said. “Your wisdom is probably what we need most right now.”

“It is no wisdom,” said Aldruleth. “Just a simple truth that age revealed to my poor excuse for a mind in the nick of time. This way, please.”

Though frustrated at being “caught,” by Aldruleth, Harlan was also relieved to abandon his futile search for clues at Valdruleth. That was aside from the constant tension of being alone with Meiji, whose unselfconscious allure taunted him day and night. To think he’d lost both his place in the universe and his connection to the woman he’d thought would be his companion for the rest of his life, only to be stuck halfway between love and lust for what felt like eternity. 

As they walked out of the ruins and into the sunlight, Harlan was grateful for the feel of the cool morning air on his brow and the scent of wildflowers on either side of the gravelly trail they followed. Nevertheless, his heart sank, as the scenery reminded him a little too much of the blissful holiday he’d spent with Gillian Cavendish, his XO — both a year of subjective time and also an unknown number of centuries ago. What had happened to her, and what would become of their love, considering that her last words to him had been said in a jealous rage? 

Not fair, he thought. 

For though his eye had wandered in Meiji’s direction, his heart hadn’t. That is, except for the fact that, like Gillian, Meiji had every quality of mind he could want from in a lover — and every quality of….

“You see, our ancestors had only our best interests at heart,” said Aldruleth. “Life in the old times had become too complex. So when the Era of Tears was over and the enemy vanquished, they realized that all of their troubles had emanated from their own degenerate wizardry.”

“You mean they destroyed their own … devices?” asked Meiji.

“That is the tradition,” said the shape-shifting elder. “Though some believe that the devices’ own evil energies caused them to implode from within. Personally, I consider that somewhat fanciful.”

“But you still have this Jection thing?” asked Harlan.

Aldruleth stopped and stared at him a moment. 

“Only that,” he said, “has survived. But I caution you not to call the holy Jection a ‘thing,’ at least not in earshot of my people. And it is more than unwise to do so. It is also inaccurate. The Jection is no less alive than either of us, even though it appears in a form we can sense, but not touch.”

Meiji’s eyebrows arched. If Harlan noticed the shift in her mood, it didn’t show in the wistful look on his face, as the three of them approached the entrance to a large, oblong building of logs, mud and thatch that neither of the humans had seen before. Aldruleth spread his arms out in front of its planked, wooden door. 

“This, friends, is the Hall of Zyffer, a place of contemplation and peace,” he said. “Please, remove your boots and enter.”

Harlan glanced at his former Lieutenant, complied with his host’s request and stepped through a threshold of rough-hewn logs. He was soon followed by Meiji, who found him staring wide-eyed, and with good reason. The interior of this dank lodge resembled nothing so much as the bridge of a space-faring vessel from their own era. Every item in front of them mimicked, in wood, stone, pottery or crystal, a component of a typical, starship command center. Equally startling, this detailed mock-up was of a ship from no culture either of the two pilots recognized. 

When their awkward silence had stretched to a full minute, Meiji grasped at the nearest straw to fill the void. 

“Beautiful,” she said. 

“Yes,” said Aldruleth. “Your silence was the perfect expression of the Hall’s mesmerizing effect. Even now, I cannot resist its influence. I nearly revert involuntarily to our ancestral shape each time I enter.”

“Where … where did the … inspiration come from,” said Harlan, “for the design of this room?”

“Our ancestors, of course,” said the elder. “This is the exact replica of an image, captured in glass, of what we believe was a vast ceremonial hall. The glass itself is the oldest artifact known to survive the before times. It is Here, I will show you.”

Aldruleth tiptoed to a small, locked cabinet on the far wall. From inside his robes, he pulled out a metal key, crudely hammered from iron. Hands trembling, he opened the cabinet, reached in and returned with a mostly shattered digital picture frame that, miraculously, still had enough power to display the image in question. It was the image of a Skryntali Command Center, nearly identical to the one that Cricket Andersen had stumbled into not that long before, in a different timeline. 

“That there’s a starship,” said Harlan, “or I’m a brass monkey.”

His host’s jaw dropped. With great care, he returned the frame to its shelf in the cabinet, which he locked tight — all the while mumbling a quiet prayer. 

“You astonish me,” said Aldruleth. “Though I was taught to say ‘Stershap’ by my own Elders, long ago. And yet, I am not so surprised. The Visitor warned us that you would seem to know many things beyond your ken.”

“Mind if I ask you a question?” said Harlan. “Do you think the … the Visitor … is a shape-shifter too?”

Aldruleth’s eyes narrowed. 

“Why yes,” he said. “The Visitor is said to come from the before times to advise us. Yet she takes pity on our simple souls and retains one consistent shape each time she appears.”

“So, let me ask you,” said Harlan. “Does the word ‘Skryntali’ mean anything to you?”

The elder shrank back, held out one arm and braced himself against one of the eight-inch-thick posts that held up the lodge’s roof beams. He spoke in a hoarse rasp. 

“Demon!” he said. “How easily you defile our holiest worship word!”

“Captain, where are you going with this?” asked Meiji. Was her impulsive superior about to get them cast out into the wilds of a pre-industrial world?

“Just playing a hunch is all,” said Harlan. “Elder Aldruleth, I mean no disrespect. But where we come from, the … the beings I was referring to … were once great warriors. The talk was they were shape-shifters, like yourselves. Your Hall here makes me wonder if the Visitor talks to you from one of their ships.”

The Elder’s stiff spine relaxed a bit, and for a moment, it seemed as if his humanoid shape and coloring would dissolve into an amorphous blob of bio-matter. Though the moment passed, he still kept his distance. 

“Ships?” he asked. “Like the air ship you arrived in? Are you suggesting … no, it cannot be. The Visitor addresses us from a place of peace beyond Time.”

Meiji took a step forward, bowed her head, and spoke softly. 

“Elder,” she said, “we seek only the truth, as you do. What can you tell us about the Hall of Zyffer that we may learn? Where does the name come from?”

Aldruleth breathed deep. 

“Forgive me,” he said. “Your words were those of Innocents and I … I am forgetting my manners yet again. Here, sit.” He pointed to a row of brightly embroidered cushions in many different shapes along the far wall that were decidedly out of keeping with the Hall’s starship motif. “I will bring the refreshments I promised and tell you the story of this place.”

Harlan watched as their contrite host shuffled off to an adjoining room, before leaning his head to whisper to Meiji.

“What in the bogs of Scondita 3 do you make of that?” he asked.

“Sir, you touched a nerve,” said Meiji. “Even though you may be right, I don’t think Aldruleth or the others are ready for a history lesson. Not our kind of history. This is the only world they know.”

“Agreed,” said Harlan. “So you think this Visitor is a, you know, a pre-recorded hologram?”

“Too bad if she is,” said Meiji, “because we won’t be able to ask questions. Still might get some useful information.”

“The thing is, without her … blessing … the Elders will never let us near our ship,” said Harlan. 

“Depends on how they interpret….” said Meiji. 

Just then, Aldruleth wheeled a serving rack of polished, inlaid wood, loaded down with an assortment of glazed pastries and a pitcher filled with a dark red liquid. 

“Help yourselves,” he said. “Again, I apologize for my outburst. Now, where to begin? The Visitor, as we call her, actually has a name, which, I warn you, we use only during our sacrificial offerings.” 

Meiji’s throat tightened. Might they themselves become “offerings” if the Elder’s customs required it? 

“The name, my friends,” said Aldruleth, “is a curious one that matches none of our other lore. But we embrace it, as we embrace the Visitor’s wisdom.”

“Well, now, we’re flattered that you’re willing to share it with us,” said Harlan. “What is it?”

“The Visitor,” said Aldruleth, “who graces the Jection in the ruins of Valkrudesh is known as Eldrinaj Kaklyadar.”

Without wasting a second, Harlan grabbed for one of the pastries from Aldruleth’s cart and stuffed it unceremoniously into his mouth. It was the only way he could think of to keep from swearing. 

Once again, Meiji jumped in to fill a void in the conversation.

“Lovely name,” she said. “And what does the Visitor look like?”

“I doubt I can find the words,” said her host. “But based on the shape in which she chooses to appear, you might think her lineage had descended from a species of bird.”

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 16 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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