Infinity Afterglow / Episode 16: Cosmic Data Feed

Access point to a cosmic data feed

An epic Space Opera BY Mark Laporta

Frustrated by his inability to grasp the scope of the unfolding crisis, Ungent despairs of quashing the deadly Quishik onslaught. That is, until a hermetic stranger gives him access to a vast cosmic data feed. In this episode of Mark Laporta’s Infinity Afterglow (Book 3 of his Against the Glare of Darkness trilogy), interstellar civilization gains a new measure of hope. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning

From the vantage point of the universe that Ungent Draaf had left behind, nearly a year of subjective time had passed. But by now, the former Grashardi Ambassador was as oblivious to linear chronology as any member of the Ootray diaspora. The advantages of his new perspective were real. Free of the constraints of organic life, the scope of his understanding had increased immensely. 

As if I can feel the universe breathing, he thought. 

Between his ability to survey spacetime in overview or “zoom in” to a nearly infinite array of subatomic particles, he’d taken the human phrase “seen it all, done it all” to unheard of levels. Naturally, after thousands of years, the Ootray, who’d lived outside of Time since before they left for the interstices, were rather blasé on the subject. 

Even Challendrur showed little inclination to discuss much of anything with him — unless, that is, he encountered a problem. Like the rest of her clan, she was preoccupied with concocting a unified theory of the cosmos, a task whose end was never realistically in sight. After answering a few of Ungent’s questions rather breezily, a few more somewhat sketchily and the rest with a hint of impatience, Challendrur suggested he seek out the Ootray’s gilaarjlul or Chief Archivist. 

“If you can find him,” said Challendrur. “I am sad to say, he is more hermetic than is typical for my people.”

The golden-haired female jogged off to catch up with a few of her companions who had walked by while she spoke. 

More hermetic, Ungent wondered, than hiding in an inaccessibly obscure corner of the universe?

The distinguished crustacean shrugged his exoplated shoulders. Challendrur’s indifference, though disappointing, was ultimately liberating. He could pursue his own agenda and she’d barely notice. Immediately, he set out to answer a critical question: Was it possible to monitor every remaining interface between the interstices and normal space?

Though he’d already stumbled across the access point to Dlalamphrur’s pedestal on Quarfor, he knew the situation was too dire to rely on happy accidents. To motivate and encourage his allies, he needed to swoop in and out discretely. Besides wishing to escape the notice of the Quishiks, Ungent also wanted to avoid alerting the Ootray. 

Can’t let their “lofty ideals” spell the death of everything I love, he thought

Yet he had no idea where to begin. Was there an Ootray database of every orb transfer point or similar interface? With nothing to lose, he sent out a telepathic message to the gilaarjlul, whom Challendrur had been too preoccupied even to name. Moments later, a tall, wraithlike figure in a hooded cloak of gray wool appeared a meter or two in front of him. 

“I am Kolenthantrur,” said the figure. “You have, so I’ve heard, an unusual interest in some rather arcane data. I believe I can help, though it will come at a price.”

Ungent’s incorporeal eyestalks stiffened. 

“Go on,” he said. “I’d be grateful for….”

“You must agree not to reveal the manner in which I guide you to the answers you seek,” said Kolenthantrur. “That, I’m proud to say, is my trade secret.”

Ungent shifted his webbed feet on the polyslate tiles that seemed to appear beneath what seemed to be his feet. What was he getting himself into? But the stranger’s gaze was oddly reassuring, and he plunged into a stuttering explanation of his “research project.”

“Har Draaf,” said Kolenthantrur. “You have no need to explain yourself. The thirst for knowledge is universal. Lucky for you, I have a complete catalogue of the access points you seek. It is quite old and dates from a time when a small minority of the Ootray still hoped to return to your universe.”

“Would that they had,” said Ungent. “but please, where can I find the catalogue?”

Kolenthantrur smiled. 

“You must set aside your time-bound, corporeal orientation,” he said. “Here, everything is composed of information. You need only know the quantum signature of what you seek. Allow me.”

Ungent felt a peculiar buzzing sensation at his disembodied temples. He shut his eyes and saw a vast digital database, as if projected on a screen.

“Astonishing,” he said. 

“Once you are more accustomed to your new way of life,” said Kolenthantrur, “you will perceive information directly, without reference to the physical world you left. For now, envision a holographic screen and you will find my catalogue much easier to grasp.”

Ungent complied and saw the catalogue float before him, formatted like a typical Grashardi database. He anticipated the archivist’s next instruction and focused on the spatiotemporal coordinates of the access points he was seeking. For good measure, he added a mental filter that limited the data display to the era that he lived in when he stepped into Yfeftriadrur’s large blue orb on planet Aytronja. 

“It’s all here,” he said. “Thank you, friend Kolenthantrur.”

“Interesting concept, friendship” said the Ootray. “I only wish it had survived among my people. It was already on the wane before the Quishik crisis overwhelmed them. But since moving to the interstices, I fear that their social interactions have become entirely transactional.”

Ungent looked up from his holographic screen. 

“A terrible loss,” he said. “If it matters, I am happy to consider you my friend.”

“It matters more than you realize,” said Kolenthantrur. 

A moment later, the hooded figure was gone. Ungent returned to his virtual database with a sigh. He’d become lonely amongst the oddly asocial Ootray and had welcomed a chance to chat about … anything. Worse, his chagrin at being alone again was compounded by the data in Kolenthantrur’s catalogue. He discovered that the majority of the Ootray’s original access points to normal space no longer functioned. Whether a result of war, meteorological catastrophe, seismic activity — or sheer neglect — the number of working transfer points was down from several thousand to no more than six. 

One of these was the facility on Aytronja that had transported him to the interstices. But ever since the latest Quishik outbreak, Aytronja had been suspended in a protective stasis field by Yfeftriadrur, the planet’s Ootray guardian. That orb station was off limits for the foreseeable future. 

Another orb station was aboard San-ju nana, the millennia-old beacon ship, which was recently consulted by Shol. Ungent was sure that station might come in handy, if only because of its proximity to the Bledraun system. Both planet Bledraun and Seldra, one of its two remaining moons, had real strategic significance. 

While Bledraun contained the underground headquarters of Dlalamphrur, Seldra housed a millennia-old, subterranean Probability Reader. The Reader, or djorcrelul, an Ootray device from centuries gone by, delivered veiled predictions that had previously guided Ungent and his allies to a temporary victory over the Quishiks. 

But the status of the other four surviving orb stations was less encouraging. When Ungent had visited the planet-ship, Rayzhul Prime, the planet’s caretaker, Mlelodrur, had failed to mention the orb station there. Though at first, Ungent wondered if Mlelodrur’s distain for the Ootray had led her to neglect the facility, his expanded perceptions told a different story.

Still fully functional, if powered down,” he concluded.

As for the last three orb stations, two were located at the farthest extremes of the settled universe. One was at the heart of the Quishiks’ relentless feeding frenzy, in a sector of space that had lost touch with its nearest neighbors and experienced a steep decline. Some of these worlds had even lapsed into pre-industrial societies. Essentially defenseless, they were an easy target for the ancient mutants’ unquenchable hunger. 

A temporary diversion, Ungent concluded. 

Once the Quishiks had decimated those settlements, no matter how numerous, they’d return to the more developed sectors of interstellar civilization. Ungent paused, as a sad realization sank in. Neither the Terran Protectorate nor any of the other major players had rushed to the defense of these worlds. Instead, the great powers were using them as an organic shield against a Quishik assault on their own populations. 

If only it were feasible, he reasoned, he’d return to his home universe immediately and try to reset its moral compass. Yet, as his years in diplomacy had taught him, it was next to impossible to move heads of state with a direct appeal to their “sense of decency.” Until he could demonstrate an immediate financial advantage that would accrue from a direct assault on the Quishiks, world governments would continue to hide behind “respect for individual world sovereignty.” He could easily imagine these self-centered leaders saying:

Who are we to meddle, uninvited, in their affairs? 

They’ll let us know if they need our assistance.

The fact that the worlds targeted by the Quishiks had long ago lost the capacity for interstellar communication, would be conveniently ignored. Yet there was no time to mourn for their losses. Ungent pressed on and discovered that the third of the four remaining orb stations was at the edge of an artificially induced temporal anomaly that, as Ungent was surprised to discover, Eldrinaj had recently visited. 

Curious, he thought. What’s she after?

But, he decided, this was no time to puzzle over potentially meaningless details. As it happened, the case of the fourth surviving orb station was different from the rest. According to the database Ungent had consulted, its coordinates had been artfully encrypted. Its existence was noted only by a single, one-line entry: “Ahnenanz.”

Suddenly, Ungent’s memory called up a conversation he’d had with the human colonist Kunal Mishra on Quarfor, several months earlier. Ahnenanz, Kunal had told him, appeared in an epic Ootray poem of great antiquity. If Ahnenanz were a planet that the Ootray had gone to great lengths to conceal, it would only make sense to encrypt its coordinates in the database. The distinguished crustacean clenched his now-ethereal mandibles.

Has to be a way to unlock the information, he thought.

After all, hadn’t Kolenthantrur reminded him that everything he perceived in the interstices was merely an arbitrary “remapping of Information Space?” A subtle adjustment in that remapping might be enough, he realized, to decrypt the entry and reveal the hidden coordinates. But how could he do so without being discovered? When he’d first arrived and attempted his own, independent remapping, an android enforcer had accosted him within seconds.

No, he would have to take a more round-about approach. As he’d already discovered, from the moment each member of the Ootray diaspora adopted the same Information conventions, their minds were inextricably linked. If he concentrated on the name “Ahnenanz” long enough, he was bound to hear its echo in a host of other minds throughout the interstices. 

Eventually, Ungent reasoned, that echo would bounce off the consciousness of the handful of citizens that, logic dictated, must have the planet’s coordinates committed to memory. Otherwise, those values could never have been entered into the database in the first place.

With all of Time at his disposal, Ungent set about the delicate task of making continuous passive observation of billions of Ootray minds. Lucky for him, it was a task he could “run” in the back of his consciousness while nominally preoccupied with other things. When, weeks of subjective time later, the answer he sought appeared in the thoughts of a former Ootray government official, it was all he could do to suppress his shock — the very thing that would have revealed his illegal snooping.Incredible, he reflected, and quickly shielded his mind, to cover every trace of his meddling.

^^^

A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 17 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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