Infinity Afterglow / Episode 18: Temporal Transfer

A Starship Captain Sees a Temporal Transfer in Progress

an epic space opera by Mark laporta

Even in the far future, advanced tech continues to transform society and offer unheard of capabilities to sentient life. In this apisode of Infinity Afterglow, a splash of data from a deep space temporal transfer gives hope to a heartsick starship captain. It’s another stage of the unfolding drama in Book 3 of Mark Laporta’s Against the Glare of Darkness trilogy. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

During the hours arbitrarily designated as “evening” on the Terran Protectorate battle cruiser Jericho,

Captain Gillian Cavendish piloted a regulation probe ship to a destination that filled her heart with dread. A tall Fleet officer in her early thirties with impossibly blond hair, Gillian could trace her ancestry to a part of Earth once known, for reasons understood only to a dwindling set of human historians, as “Great Britain.”

Before setting out, Gillian had briefed her XO with the unflappable confidence of a seasoned soldier. Yet in her all-too-human heart, retracing Harlan and Meiji’s last-known trajectory was simultaneously an act of dedication and self-torment. As Harlan’s former XO, Gillian had been onboard the Jericho when he and the young female pilot had disappeared. Against her advice, Harlan had decided impulsively to make a scouting run to the site of the closer of the Quishik’s two massive towers, just a few light years from the Jericho’s position. Given the massive, cosmos-rending explosion the towers generated, there was little reason to think Harlan and Meiji would ever return.

Gillian’s Chief Engineer, the unruly Jonas Frey, had argued vigorously against her mission. A friend of Harlan from “the old days,” his empathy for Gillian’s loss came to him as easily as a glance in the mirror. He understood her impulse to discover Harlan’s fate, and he knew how destructive that impulse could be. Perpetually out of uniform, Jonas’ enormous frame was, as usual, swathed in an untucked “Hawaiian” shirt and a pair of canvas pants that, in another life, might have served as a sail for a small dinghy. So far, only his unsurpassed expertise in engineering, combined with a dogged devotion to Harlan Mars, had kept him from being court-martial for insubordination. 

That same devotion made his encounters with Gillian especially difficult at this time. By every principle of the scientific worldview on which Frey had based his entire adult life, Harlan was lost. As surely as dry cellulose burns away to cinders in a fire, Harlan and Lieutenant Tanaka could never return. His former drinking buddy had been utterly annihilated by the titanic cosmic forces that the Quishiks had unleashed. The energy required to rend the barrier between their multi-dimensional prison and normal space was enough to guarantee that Harlan’s probe ship had been vaporized. 

To Jonas, this was irrefutable. Yet he knew that any argument based on mere facts would mean nothing to Gillian. Her quest to find Harlan was driven by guilt and guilt alone. 

Too busy being an idiot to talk him out of it, he could imagine her thinking even now. 

Unfortunately, eight months after Harlan’s disappearance, Gillian was still on the fence about her suspicions. Were they based in reality, or a sickening fear that she could never be enough for him? A final conclusion remained elusive. Anxiety told her there was concrete evidence of betrayal. Take, for example, the way Harlan had responded to every mention of Meiji’s name, the sound of her voice or news of her return from a mission. Or did this “evidence” reveal more about Gillian’s deep fixation on Harlan’s erratic, impulsive, thoughtful, insightful nature, not to mention….

From the rational side of her mind had come the constant rejoinder that the only thing she’d actually observed was Harlan and Meiji’s mutual attraction. 

Not a jot of proof that anything … important … happened, she reminded herself again. 

It was no use. Even if Harlan had betrayed her in thought only … or was that even the real issue? The point, she decided, and the only point, was that at a critical moment, she’d allowed jealousy to cloud her judgment.

If I hadn’t stormed out, she thought. Could have knocked him unconscious and sent a drone ship. But I … I had to be a bloody fool and lose him.

Through her cockpit glass, a faint glimmer in the near distance distracted her long enough to reset her focus to the task at hand. Lucky for Gillian’s shattered heart, this sudden shift in perspective reminded her that Harlan had chosen to make a last-minute recon mission to the bizarre Quishik device. No matter what perverse psychological benefit she derived from tormenting herself over his disappearance, the responsibility was his alone. She called out to her ship’s AI.

“Computer, analysis,” she said. 

The result was surprising. Why would anyone project a 3D holo-image to this precise location, only a fraction of a light year from the fragmentary remains of the Quishik tower?

“Source,” she demanded.

Again, a surprise, as the AI had calculated that the holojection originated in the Zyffer system, thousands of parsecs away on an oblique trajectory. It had been sent to these coordinates wrapped in an e-mag shield, from which it was slowly unspooling itself. More startling still, was the way the signal was being deflected from that point on.

“Preliminary analysis suggests an unknown form of temporal transference,” said the AI.

“What?” said Gillian. “You mean someone sent the holovid across Time?”

“Extrapolating.…” said the AI. “Secondary transference to a recently unfolded dimension may have occurred.”

For what, Gillian wondered, movie night in a parallel universe?

“Capture,” Gillian ordered.

“Encryption protocols inhibit….” said the AI.

“Override!” Gillian shouted. If someone had gone to this much trouble to hide a holojection, she decided, it was either extravagantly valuable or extremely dangerous. At that thought, the most tech-savvy officer in the Terran Protectorate’s Third Fleet arranged to patch the Jericho’s AI into the more limited system on her probe ship, to speed the analysis. In less time than she expected, her dashboard lit up with a confirmation that the decryption process was complete. Yet what did she discover?

The holovid featured an image of an Olfdranyi trader. 

“It’s the female that IntelCorps warned us about,” Gillian muttered into her helmet. “The rogue informant.”

According to official reports, nearly a year after she was recruited by IntelCorps, the agency discovered that the Olfdranyi was already working for the symbiotes of the Kaldhex Assembly. Recently, she’d even turned up on a list of suspects associated with a ring of shady Skryntali traders, about which little was known. How in the rings of Saturn, Gillian wondered, had this shadowy character mastered the intricacies of a technology this sophisticated? Yet as perplexing as the broadcaster’s identity was, the content of the holovid was even more startling.

Have to haul this data in for further work, thought Gillian. Must be another layer of encryption that Ensign Frey can remove.

Though logic told her that was the inevitable conclusion, as she slumped back in her command chair and told the nav-AI to plot a course back to the Jericho, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he might find nothing to peel away. And if not?

“Sounds like she’s talking to bloody Harlan,” Gillian whispered. 

And though the faint glimmer of hope that this thought created made her voice tremble, the harsh reality of the situation seemed to press down on her chest with relentless force. What good did it do, she wondered, to know that Harlan and Meiji might still be alive if they existed in an inaccessible parallel universe? With her frustration mounting by the second, she was forced to consider whether she would prefer the certainty of Harlan’s death to the nebulous possibility that he was alive.

Worse, even if she did get him back, it wasn’t at all clear whether she’d hold him close for dear life or smack him hard against the chops.

“Probably both, I’ll wager,” she whispered again through a teary smile. 

It was time, she realized, to get a fresh perspective. Not, that is, about her relationship with Harlan. Instead, she needed to account for his mystifying appearance in this long distance holo conference. There were abundant analytical resources available to her. Between the powerful long-range sensors onboard the Jericho and the vast, if bureaucratically hobbled, data analysis branch of Terran Protectorate Admin, she could probably gain a wealth of insight into this strange phenomenon in a matter of weeks. 

What she could not gain in such abundance, however, was wisdom. And the more she pondered the forces at work here, the more she thought of the one being besides Ungent Draaf who’d introduced her to the other side of intelligence. For he too, in her experience, also had the ability to look deep into the data at hand and see its full ramifications. 

She was thinking of Treluhne, the serene philosophical head of the former Dralein colony on Seldra. 

Five centuries earlier, the Dralein, never particularly adventurous in space exploration, had nevertheless managed to establish an underground colony on Seldra, their second of three moons. Over the preceding five hundred years, the colony had grown in size and scope to the point that it had developed its own offshoot of traditional Dralein culture. In this time of crisis, however, the two Dralein factions had set aside their differences to fight a common enemy.

But how, Gillian wondered, could she justify a side trip to the Bledraun system, which would take her several thousand light years off from her mission’s official trajectory? It was time, she realized, to take a page from Harlan’s playbook — a thought that brought a lump to her throat she would have to ignore.

“Ensign Frey,” she said into her ship-to-ship comlink. “Was it you who was telling me about the Seldran’s superior transmat tech?”

The Jericho’s Chief Engineer knew perfectly well that the XO was never this chatty with him. He decided to play it safe.

“Was I?” he asked. 

“Oh, come now, Mr. Frey,” said Gillian. “You were rhapsodizing about it at the Officer’s Fancy Dress ball last weekend.”

Jonas’ eyebrows shot up. At an imaginary costume party, where nothing would be as it seemed, any question Gillian asked might easily “mask” her real reason for asking it.

“Yes … yes,” he said. “Sorry, Commander, too much punch that night. Come to think of it, the Seldrans did get in on the ground floor with transmat design, as soon as the symbiotes released their findings. They have a six arcs head start on everybody else, and, from what I’ve heard….”

“That’ll do, Mr. Frey,” said Gillian. “No need to rehash every detail. But would you agree that a more robust transmat system would give us a bit of an edge against the Quishiks?”

Jonas gulped. Anything he said from here on out, he knew, would become part of the official record. Fortunately, all he needed to do was ensure his next statement was literally correct. 

“Yes, Captain,” he said. “With a stronger signal, we’d have better luck getting our torpedoes through Quishik shielding.“

“I thought so,” said Gillian. “I fancy that once you had a look at the Seldran’s design you could make a few improvements, couldn’t you?”

“I … fancy so,” said Jonas, hoarsely. He was in deep, and he knew it. He also knew Harlan would have wanted him to play along. Lucky for him, the Bledraun system was six weeks away, even with the riskiest space-folding maneuvers. He’d have time to flesh out his story with real scientific data, starting with a feature-for-feature comparison of the current Terran Protectorate transmat device with the Seldran model.

“Very good,” said Gillian. “By the way, Mr. Frey, I thought your Dralein costume was smashing.”

“Thanks, Captain,” said Jonas. And strange to say, he meant it. Gillian was so sparing with her praise, that even an imaginary pat on the back was welcome. 

“Right,” said Gillian. “I’m coming in. Get the engines ready. I want to make the Bledraun system in record time.”

She closed contact, slammed her helmet visor shut and punched the coordinates for the Jericho’s current position into her probe ship’s nav-AI. No arbitrary set of military protocols, she decided then and there, would ever keep her from saving Harlan — whether he deserved it or not. 


That concludes Episode 18: Temporal Transfer. A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 19 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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