Infinity Afterglow / Episode 20: Biotech Gambit

A star ship captain launches a risky biotech gambit to meet the mounting threat of the Quishiks

An Epic Space Opera by Mark Laporta

In this epidode of Infinity Afterglow, interstellar civilization trembles as the Quishiks return to the center of the settled universe to renew their assault on senient life. Desperate, a small band of resisters launch a risky biotech gambit to strike at the heart of the enemy’s power. Read this intriguing sci-fi adventure from the beginning.

As had happened twice before, a wisp of hope entered Gillian’s heart the moment the Bledraun system appeared on the Jericho’smain viewscreen. From her eternally stoic demeanor, her crew would never have realized how troubling the developments of the last few weeks had been. 

In spite of the unconfirmed evidence that Harlan might still be alive, there was no telling whether he could ever return from the remote region of spacetime where her ship’s AI had found him. On top of that, the latest intel on the Quishik fleet showed it veering off from the outer fringes of the settled universe and in toward the more densely populated areas.

They’ll be on our necks, soon, she thought. 

Despite this crisis in the making, no one was any closer to developing a fool-proof defense against the mind-sucking mutants. The total-stasis strategy adopted by Yfeftriadrur on Aytronja, by the scholarly Skryntali on Zyffer 3 or by Mlelodrur on Rayzhul Prime had merely isolated their inhabitants from the outside world. The eternally patient Quishiks needed only to wait them out — until their desperation for essential supplies led a few brave souls make a run for it.

Besides, out of the millions of inhabited worlds, only a fraction could meet either the technological or energy requirements to erect and maintain the necessary security measures.

Can’t leave them to die, thought the dedicated soldier

In any case, even the most self-centered beings knew that interstellar society would never survive the slaughter of so many trillions. Though Brad Christiansen, the head of Terran Protectorate Admin, wasn’t overly concerned about ethics, he surely knew his self-interest when he saw it.

Why then, Gillian wondered, hadn’t he convened the top minds from every technologically advanced species and pooled their resources to find a bold new defense strategy? Of course, that would have meant admitting publicly to “lesser species” that he didn’t have the answer himself. The thought of Christiansen’s arrogance rankled Gillian so much that she was still stewing over him when she entered the Jericho’s officer’s mess for breakfast. 

A glance around the secluded facility told her that the ergonomically proportioned, pastel-colored room was blessedly empty. She filled a liter carafe of coffee at a nearby beverage replicator — a daily ritual that usually dispelled her early morning jitters. But Christiansen’s smug comments continued to replay in her mind, and she couldn’t stop herself from muttering into the mug that Harlan had given her on her birthday.

“Bigoted little bugger, isn’t he, then?” she said.

Too late, she looked up to see Astrid Nielsen, her Chief Science Officer, standing next to her, tray in hand. Though Gillian had initially been skeptical of Astrid’s competence, her estimation of the diminutive woman had improved as the looming Quishik crisis deepened. 

In an earlier era, Astrid might have been considered “mousy.” Yet ever since the extinction of terrestrial rodents, centuries before, snippy minds had been forced to look elsewhere for their self-satisfied slurs.

“Anybody I know, Captain?” she asked.

“Only by reputation,” said Gillian. “Sit, please. It’s past time we got serious about the Quishiks. No use waiting for Admin to think of something clever.”

“I gather that’s why we’re headed back to Seldra,” said Astrid.

Gillian nodded and motioned for Astrid to join her.

“Exactly,” she said. “The question is, what do we do when we get there? Putting ourselves in the hands of the Seldrans still doesn’t qualify as a plan of action.”

“Well, Captain,” said Astrid, “as things stand, I know of only two experts on the enemy. One must be the Ootray AI that Ambassador Draaf ran into on Bledraun.”

“Under Bledraun, you mean,” said Gillian. “I don’t fancy a trip into those tunnels and I doubt very much the Dralein want us mucking about in them either. Besides, it appears that the AI stationed under Bledraun is rather reluctant to do more than give the Quishiks a slap on the wrist.”

“You may be right, Captain,” said Astrid. “The best that AI could give us was a temporary solution. So that leaves the child.”

Gillian’s eyes bulged.

“You mean Drashna’s daughter?” she asked. “I heard she’s at least as powerful as the Quishiks themselves. What are you thinking?”

“I spoke to her once,” said Astrid. “In an eerie way, she’s still a seven-year-old. If I’m right, we might still be able to influence her.”

Yet the truth about seven-year-old Caronya was nothing to be glib about. Once a normal Dralein child, Caronya was the daughter of Drashna, the former head of Bledraun’s world government. At age six, she’d contracted a rare wasting disease that offered little hope of cure. Warvhex, always eager to bend planetary leaders to her will, told Drashna of the one available treatment, which was the exclusive property of the symbiotes. In exchange for “special services,” Warvhex offered to deliver the cure.

Desperate, Drashna agreed and Caronya was put into a stasis chamber. Yet when Drashna had finally fulfilled her end of the bargain, which had included securing the release of Shol from prison, she learned that Caronya had been stolen from the symbiote’s stasis chamber by the Quishiks. 

In her ravings, Plaandrur Quishik Haalkfur, the Quishik leader, had seen Caronya as the perfect candidate for a sinister form of bioengineering. In a period of months, the Dralein child was first cured of her disease then subjected to a peculiar transformation. Her mind, expanded beyond measure now contained the sum total of Quishik science and mathematics. Caronya was further endowed with the telepathic powers of a Quishik and her childish skull was remodeled into an a-dimensional casing for her enlarged brain.

Yet, in many essential ways, Caronya’s mind had retained the contours of a typical child: self-centered, quick to anger when denied her will and subject to sweeping mood swings as she wrestled with the restrictions of the so-called “adult world.” 

Gillian’s pale brow furrowed as Astrid, despite these significant misgivings, sketched out a bold initiative. A biomechanoid playmate? Would that really be enough, she wondered, to make Caronya turn against her masters? According to reports, the contempt that the bizarrely modified Dralein girl had for “the time-bound” was bottomless. 

“Might work,” she said. “But assuming we or the symbiotes could build a little friend smart enough to interest Caronya, how do we know our android would be persuasive enough?”

Astrid smiled and tugged a stray strand of brown hair behind her ear.

“Captain, excuse me,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the intense peer pressure most children feel, even at her age.” 

“Not in the least,” said Gillian. “Now get on with it, Lieutenant. We’ll be orbiting Seldra in less than point-two-five rotation. Wasted trip if we haven’t got a proposal.”

Gillian poured herself a second mug of coffee. 

“I’ll work with Ensign Frey,” said Astrid. “Before Caronya went into stasis on Seldra, Treluhne’s medpods ran extensive brain scans. We also have security footage from the girl’s school.”

“Let’s hope we find more than that to work with,” said Gillian. 

“It’s only a proposal at this point,” said Astrid. “But done right, a playmate who mirrors Caronya’s speech rhythms, gestures and mindset could win her trust and become her ‘new best friend.’ ” 

“Still rather risky,” said Gillian. “A mind that powerful, and undisciplined, could lash out in a blink.”

“About that,” said Astrid. “There’s a rumor that the Dralein have become telepathic somehow. If so, Frey thinks we could model the biomechanoid child’s brain on Chaudron Dadren’s mind. That way, we might achieve a degree of mind control.”

Gillian set her mug down with a thud.

“More of your speculative thinking I see,” she said. “Well, if Ensign Frey thinks there’s something to it, I’ll give you that much latitude. Still, mind control or no, the girl is practically a Quishik. I expect the two of you to remember that at all times.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Astrid. “And I understand the need for caution. It’s just that the Quishiks are one problem that caution can never solve.”

Gillian shut her eyes and nodded. That, she knew, was exactly what Harlan would have said. And that made bringing him back feel more urgent than ever.

“Agreed,” she said. “In the interim, we may gain a tad more insight about the enemy from our new crew member, Lieutenant Andersen.”

“She was originally assigned to Captain Enos, right?” asked Astrid.

“There’s a long story there,” said Gillian. “The relevant part is, she was on the bridge when he discovered the first Quishik outbreak at the Fremdel event horizon. And later, she was down in the Dralein tunnels with Har Draaf and that Ootray AI, whose name escapes me. In any case, she must have picked up something we can use.”

“What do you think, Captain?” asked Astrid. “Is it true what they say about Ambassador Draaf, that he … disappeared?”“Don’t count on it,” said Gillian. “There’s nobody shrewder that I know of. If he’s out of touch, it’s for a good reason, and we’ll have to make do without him. Pity. But that’s enough jabbering, Lieutenant. Let’s crack on, shall we?”

This concludes Episode 20: Biotech Gambit. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 21 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.

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