Infinity Afterglow / EPISODE 21: Warrior Drones

In search of the programming code needed to complete his army of warrior drones, Shol arrives on Rayhul Prime.

An epic space opera by Mark Laporta

To complete his army of warrior drones, Shol seeks a cache ancient Ootray programming code. Will he find it amoung the musty records of a 5,000-year-old space base? And what of Yaldrint, his gynoid mentor? Find out now as Infinity Afterglow continues. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

Shol gazed out of the starboard portal of his lander and shook his head. When he first visited Rayzhul Prime nearly a year before, it was with Ungent and Yaldrint’s expert guidance. Now, as his automated ship spiraled down from the Odela to the planet’s surface, he felt more alone that at any time in his past. Even during his street-dwelling days, he’d lived in the embrace of the Protectorate’s bustling, second-tier cities. When he was at loose ends, he could also rely on his crime boss, Ulandroz.

So much had changed since then.  Now that the pkaholul ring had induced an enormous expansion of his consciousness, he felt like his own person for the first time. 

The obscure Ootray device had impacted his mind in countless ways. For starters, it enabled him to grasp the immensity of Mlelodrur’s planet-sized fortress and assess its military potential as never before. True to form, the ring’s quiet, yet crystalline voice delivered its assessment of the current situation unbidden. 

Capabilities limited to defensive maneuvers,” it told him.

“Has to be a way to change that,” Shol whispered into the lander’s command center. Maybe Mlelodrur knew more about her warrior drones than she let on. In fact, as he scoured his memory, he realized how evasive she’d been. The world-weary sigh with which she’d expressed almost every thought, had lent her words an authenticity they didn’t necessarily deserve. 

But that was old news, he decided. He must push memory aside and let the Pardalshik know he was about to obtain orbit. No sense triggering her defenses, as he and the others had done on their previous visit. The automated response he received cast a shadow over his mind. 

“Check for, you know, life signs,” he said.

“One life form, one biomechanoid,” said his lander’s AI. “Plus planetary flora and fauna. The latter appear in a state of….”

“Got it,” said Shol.

By now, his lander had alit, only five meters to the south of the Odela probe ship that Yaldrint had arrived in, months before. It was the same vessel she’d used to reach the Bledraun system only days in advance of the latest Quishik outbreak. 

Tried to help Captain Enos develop his bio-weapon, thought the young Krezovic while he waited for the lander’s airlock to open. Maybe better if she hadn’t.

Strange to say, the damage the bio-weapon had inflicted on the Quishiks had only made them hungrier, more aggressive, and more energized by their desperate fight for life.

But as Shol stepped out onto Rayzhul Prime’s gray, desolate surface, he reminded himself for the second time that dwelling on the past was the fastest route to failure. Whereas on his last visit, he was forced to rely on Yaldrint’s sensors, this time a topographical map of the surrounding area appeared in his mind like a waking dream. It was one of many new ring-related phenomena he was still adapting to. A week ago, the map would have made him dizzy. Now, calling it up felt as natural as wriggling his genomically remapped Krezovic toes. 

Soon, the sliding doors of thick titanium, which separated Mlelodrur and Yaldrint from an increasingly perilous universe, appeared straight ahead. The last step was to comlink Yaldrint through the personal scanner embedded in his right forearm. 

And yet, he hesitated.

Exactly how much should he tell them about his plan to confront the Quishik threat head on? The ever-cautious Yaldrint would certainly not approve. As for Mlelodrur, her millennia of isolation had apparently convinced her that the situation was hopeless. Yet considering how much Shol needed their help, he decided that his best option was to entrust them with his plans. A second later, the door opened abruptly and took the matter out of his hands. The young Krezovic flinched at the sound of Mlelodrur’s cackling laugh.

“Don’t loiter there, Boy,” her voice rang out of the com system. “You’re letting the flies in.” 

Shol scuffed his neo-leather boots over the threshold and, in a flood of warm light, was greeted by the Ootray Pardalshik and the Grashardi android he’d despaired of seeing again.

“Greetings, friend Shol,” said Yaldrint. “Har Draaf, I am sure, would be pleased that you have taken decisive action.”

“Actually, like, spoke to him,” said Shol. The young Krezovic recounted his meeting with his disembodied former mentor to two very different pairs of raised eyebrows,

“Can’t believe that stuffy old Grashardi actually did it,” said Mlelodrur. “I thought he’d be home by now, sipping his soup.”

“If I may,” said Yaldrint, “you badly underestimated Har Draaf. While his devotion to fine dining is quite … palpable … his devotion to his ideals surpasses it.”

“No other way he could’ve made such an impression on the two of you,” said the Pardalshik.

Shol kicked the compound’s intricately tiled floor with his right boot.

“You forgot the … orders … he tried to give you,” said Shol. “You know, about helping the … like, the universe.”

“No, I didn’t forget,” said Mlelodrur. “I simply didn’t agree with him. You can’t command somebody to be a hero. Besides, if he’d given me a chance, I would’ve told him my androids are only good for defense.”

Shol felt an increasingly familiar buzz at the back of his head and instinctively rubbed his neck.

“The Ootray never gave you a Commander Android?” he said.

Mlelodrur’s yellow eyes bulged.

“How would you know about…?” she said. “Pulsars on parade! You’ve activated that ring you’re wearing.”

“Seemed like the only way,” said Shol. “Can’t let … everybody … get killed.”

“My sensors tell me the ring hasn’t damaged your system,” said Yaldrint. “However, I know Har Draaf would wonder if it had its own aims.”

“Doesn’t feel that way,” said Shol. “And if the Quishiks win, nothing matters, anyhow. Don’t see how I have much to lose.”

“You should still keep an eye out,” said Mlelodrur. “Anything that gets control of that ring gets control of you.”

“Have to chance it,” said Shol. “Being … what is it? … sensible, is what got the Ootray into this mess. Only now, we’re in it too. Let me, like, show you something.”

Shol closed his eyes and, with a functionally useless wave of his hand, called up a massive holographic image. It was as if Mlelodrur’s lush, neo-leather furniture and the workstations abandoned by the Ootray millennia before had been utterly displaced by the surface of a distant planet. In a flash, the view zoomed in so realistically that Mlelodrur instinctively grabbed hold of Yaldrint’s steady right arm. 

“We are viewing a projection, friend Mlelodrur,” said the Grashardi AI.

“Tell that to my stomach,” said the Pardalshik. “What’re you up to, Boy?”

“Look, this is what’s left after the Quishiks attack,” said Shol.

The evidence was heartbreakingly clear. Everywhere the three of them looked, the sentients who weren’t dead were in a pitiable state.

“Worse off than animals,” said Shol. “No mind and no, like, instinct either. Nothing the ring can do is worse than that.”

“We must ensure the risk you face is put to good use,” said Yaldrint. “My analysis of your speech rhythms when you mentioned the Commander Android makes me think you already have a solution.”

“Got maybe Step One,” said Shol. “Thing is, Yfeftriadrur didn’t give me the template for that android. Can’t figure it out on my own and I can’t wait for the ring to figure it out. Don’t know if there’s enough time.”

Shol waved a slightly curved hand and the holographic image he’d called up faded out — more slowly than it had appeared. Mlelodrur blinked furiously and wiped her eyes with the edge of her elaborately brocaded sleeve. 

“Yfeftriadrur!” she said. “He was Challendrur’s brother. Never liked him. Too rigid. And he obviously didn’t want you to build an army of your own. But you’re in luck — if you can call it that. The Ootray who used to run this base had a huge library of military design templates. Let’s see what the orb says.”

The cat-like female held the swirling blue sphere in front of her yellow eyes, and spun it deftly with her delicate fingers. 

“Here’s something,” she said. “Though it looks more like a block of programming code than an engineering diagram. Hard to tell with the Ootray. They had a funny way of integrating every scientific discipline into one.”

“An intriguing thought,” said Yaldrint, “considering the complexity of detail that each discipline commands.”

“Can … can I just see it?” asked Shol. “We don’t have time to think about the Ootray anymore.”

“Boy, have you got it wrong,” said Mlelodrur. “Their science came right out of their worldview. If you don’t understand that, you’ll never figure out how to build your Android army.”

“Thought Science was supposed to be, you know, objective,” said Shol.

“So it is,” said Yaldrint, “but it’s still a cultural artifact. Every society’s assumptions about the universe are colored by its deepest beliefs. Even the artificial intelligences they develop are influenced by it.”

“Maybe,” said Shol, “but can’t we, like, learn as we go? Don’t know about Prob … Probability…. Only, I have a feeling the Quishiks are moving in closer.”

“If they’re anywhere,” said Mlelodrur, ”they’re too close. There, I sent this data straight to the Odela. So Dear, I suppose you’ll be leaving now.”

“It appears friend Shol may need my help,” said Yaldrint. 

“Need you to talk to the humans,” said Shol. “Even if I build an army, I can’t use it if the ‘tectorate’s gonna get in the way.” 

“If I may,” said Yaldrint, “the humans won’t be your only concern. I am certain Sector Advisor Warvhex will follow your every move.”

The young Krezovic shrugged his shoulders.

“Don’t like her much,” he said, “but she’s strong and, you know, kinda fierce. Could probably use some of that. Plus she knows … what do you call it?”

“Tactics, perhaps?” asked Yaldrint.

Shol nodded.

“Can we get out of here?” he asked. “No offense, Mlel …. Mlelodrur.”

“Go,” said the Pardalshik, “and good luck to both of you. Only, let me give you some advice, Boy. You may have a powerful ring, and you’re pretty sharp, but you’re no Ootray. The Quishiks are poison to any mind that gets close, so don’t risk it. Make sure there’s always an obstacle between you and them.”

“I’ll be careful,” said Shol. 

“You better be,” said Mlelodrur. “I’d bet my left foot they’ve already detected that ring. Once they find you, they won’t stop until you’re crushed.”

Shol’s eyes squeezed shut.

“Gotta go,” he said. 

With a wave of his slick greenish hand, he shuffled out of the compound with Yaldrint right behind him. Within minutes, they’d both taken their respective craft up into Rayzhul Prime’s dreary night sky.

Mlelodrur closed the compound’s thick, titanium doors after them, then fell to her knees on the dark pseudo-cotta tiles.

“Alone again,” she sobbed. 

This concludes Episode 21: Warrior Drones. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 22 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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