Infinity Afterglow / Episode 19: Alien Assault

Alien Assault

An epic Space Opera by Mark Laporta

In this episode of Infinity Afterglow (Book 3 of Mark Laporta’s sci-fi trilogy Against the Glare of Darkness), an alien assault on a distant planet in the turning point in an all-out battle for control of the sentient universe. From here on out, the murderous Quishiks will risk everything on a final battle with the Terran Protectorate and its allies. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

Though the Terran Protectorate was, for the most part, phenomenally well organized, the immensity of spacetime continually played havoc with its dreams of absolute authority. As centuries of expansionism, interstellar dominance and the occasional trade war rolled by, Reality intervened. By Ungent’s time, the secret whispered in government offices high and low was that a few of the Protectorate’s more far-flung colonies had, in the words of a curious archaic saying, “fallen off the radar.” The fact that the majority of these were worlds that had never turned a profit for the human empire was no coincidence. 

The colonies in the Haldor system were a prime example of this trend. At first, the settlement on Haldor 4 showed every sign of becoming a vibrant center for mining, chemical refining and quantum chips of extraordinary quality. Yet within its first hundred cycles it was already in decline. The culture and economy of its twin colony, on the icy moon of the farther of the system’s two rocky planets, soon took a similar downturn — and for the same reason. 

An unknown species, from farther out in deep space than human ships had ventured, arrived with a particularly comforting brand of meditative philosophy. At first no more than a curiosity, the Jorleen’s free lectures on “The Helical Path” initially drew only a modest audience. The Jorleen themselves, a species of sentient ruminants, had a gentle demeanor and, in a show of humility, asked the colonists for nothing more than a landing strip large enough to accommodate their strangely outsized landers. 

In time, however, the popularity of the lectures grew, as attendees enthusiastically encouraged friends and family to experience the Exquisite Peace of Helical Meditation. The objections of skeptics, who were quick to point out how meaningless the phrase was, were ignored. In fact, in a matter of months, the Jorleen oh-so-respectfully requested a larger assembly hall. To the alarm of the small percentage of the population who’d stayed away from the lectures, construction on two new massive domes began immediately. 

Never mind that the projects put a significant strain on the colony’s still limited resources, the majority of the colonists would have it no other way. Leaders of the local scientific community made an all-out attempt to investigate this disturbing phenomenon. Too late, they discovered a simple truth: the Jorleen were telepathic. They had, through their lectures, exerted a powerful form of mind control on a large swath of the human population across the Haldor system. 

Before long, with the exception of a small pocket of resistance at Haldor 4’s frozen North Pole substation, everything the hapless humans did was at the behest of the interlopers. And once the majority of the planetary population was “under,” the Jorleen put them to work building and maintaining a planet-wide agricultural community.

Inhabitants of an ecologically eroded world, the Jorleen had developed this singular method of transforming any developed world in their path into their personal bread basket. In less than two generations, the inhabitants of the Haldor system had converted every physical resource, as well as all their time and attention, to meeting the Jorleen’s demands. 

In fact, by the time the Quishiks’ light-cancelling ships first entered the system, the humans were no longer in any position to defend themselves. As for the Jorleen, the moment their placid minds detected the voracious malevolence of the new arrivals, they fled to their landers, retreated to their base ships and blasted away from the Haldor system as fast as their somewhat archaic space-folding engines could take them. 

The resistance movement at the polar substation departed their home world in a pair of woefully inadequate freight haulers, but the other colonists thought nothing of it. The Jorleen made sure of that, with a final burst of mind control. The last thing they needed was a panicky uprising to impede their departure. So effective had they been that when Plaandrur Quishik Hlalkuhr, the Supreme Leader of the Quishik Cohort, allowed her ravenous hoards to feed on these docile human minds, she was bitterly disappointed. 

Such feebleness! her thoughts railed. It is as if another had drained their minds already. But who? Who could match our glory? I would give the order to retreat, were we not so ravenous! Imagine, a time-bound machine mind has altered our genome. Its effects outstrip every attempt to correct it. As if our bodies were at war with themselves. It is to lament!

Despite her misgivings, all mental energy in the Haldor system was quickly drained. Temporarily restored to normal — in an era when the word “temporary” defined an ever-shorter stretch of time — Plaandrur forced herself to consider a tactical shift. 

If the minds at the edge of the sentient worlds have grown weak, she thought, We must move closer to the centers of population. There we should find more vibrant minds to drain — yet without wasting too many precious resources on defense.

Yet Plaandrur’s blood-red spine writhed pitiably at the thought of the difficulties they’d recently encountered while attempting an all-out assault on the Terran Protectorate battle cruiser Gabriel

The time-bound, she reminded herself, have grown stronger. Some fight like real warriors. And curse the stars, they have made a crude copy of the Maker’s mind-blocking field. Praise Rhaltholinarur, it is only partially effective. But as long as our new bases languish, incomplete, we cannot afford any casualties. For the moment, we must hunt at the fringes, until we have amassed enough energy for self-repair.

Though confident in her decision, she suddenly became aware of a disturbing phenomenon. In the vicinity of one of the Makers’ defunct command centers, someone had activated a pkaholul ring. Had the Old Ones returned?

What if they have? asked Plaandrur. Even weakened, we are the stronger.

Whether it was the effect of the novel pathogen that the late Captain Enos had introduced into her system or whether the curve of Probability had taken a disturbing twist, the Cohort Leader’s words rang hollow in her ears. They also proved unconvincing to the thousands of her previous incarnations with which she was linked across the eons. The reason? For the first time in millennia, a change in the sacred Baseline Assumption had occurred. 

As disturbing as the presence of the pkaholul ring was, in principle, the exact circumstance of its activation was terrifying. For it resulted from an unusually large number of statistical anomalies. In subtle ways, the laws of Probability seemed to have been turned on their head. Plaandrur’s spindly neck cramped. The Unlikely was on the verge of swapping places with the Likely! The accumulation of small shifts in the underlying data stream had, unexpectedly, made it so.

Yet the Quishiks were still the Quishiks. The time-bound were still the perfect prey: pathetic creatures trapped by their physical and psychological limitations. And the Makers, the Old Ones, the self-styled upholders of moral law, they still held themselves aloof, in the spaces between this universe and its closest parallel. Yet still the curve of Probability continued to deform, despite a thousand years of rigorous plotting. And now, so soon after feeding, the pull of the nearest star system to support sentient life was irresistible. Seconds later, every ship in the fleet received its orders.

“To the designated coordinates!” Plaandrur croaked into her ship-to-ship comlink. “We will drink up our enemies until their power to disrupt our calculations is utterly destroyed!”

At that point, anyone foolish enough to have followed the Quishiks’ dark ships into the Haldor system would have seen the mutants’ fleet fire up in a show of tremendous force, before disappearing from view like the wink of a dying ember. 

Anyone, that is, like Warvhex, who’d taken it on herself to monitor the Quishiks’ comings and goings from the moment they’d emerged from their multidimensional prison. After a sufficiently long pause, she directed her own nav-AI to follow a similar trajectory. Though she had no hope of outpacing the Quishik fleet, she knew she had plenty of time to reach a Terran Protectorate substation. From there, she could relay a warning beacon to every star system in the Quishiks’ path

Some of them might get out, she thought.

Others, like the worlds under the aegis of the Kaldhex Assembly, would initiate a total stasis lockdown that would make most sentient minds completely inaccessible to the ancient mutants. Working in their favor was the fact that the Quishiks had yet to demonstrate the ability to be in two places at once. Working against them were the Quishiks themselves. 

My birdbrain of an operative had better find the Skryntali fleet fast, she realized. What’s taking so long?

Given her experience with Eldrinaj’s fecklessness and divided loyalties, Warvhex decided to pay a visit to Seldra, for the same reason that Gillian was heading there with the crew of the Jericho.

“The Probability Reader might be my only chance to find the Quishiks’ weak spot,” she recorded in her log. “Except for that obnoxious Dralein child.”

Unfortunately, Caronya, the child in question, was adrift on a random trajectory, in the stasis chamber that the Seldrans had confined her to, nearly a year before. Warvhex was one of the few who knew anything of Caronya’s extraordinary history, which had led to her transformation into a Quishik-Dralein hybrid. Warvhex was also one of the few who knew of the child’s unfathomable mental prowess. 

Yet no less unfathomable was how anyone could hope to bend the girl’s powerful mind to their will. 

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That concludes Episode 19: Alien Assault. A new episode will appear next Saturday, and each Saturday until the story is done. Read Episode 20 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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