Infinity Afterglow / Episode 22: Alien Think Tank

Three Terran Protectorate offices arrive on Seldra to participate in an alien think tank.

An epic space opera by Mark Laporta

An alien think tank, consisting of human, Dralein and symbiote consultants meet at the Seldran lunar colony to map out logistics and strategy for a final battle with the deadly Quishisks. Discover the risky concensus they reach as Infinity Afterglow continues. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

For the third time in the past two years, Gillian stepped out of her lander and onto the polyslate tiles of the Seldran Science Center’s landing bay. Twice before, in the midst of a crisis, she’d found important clues here to its resolution. Though completely irrational, her mind was dominated by a comforting thought.

Feels like a homecoming, she thought. 

Her serene mood dissipated soon afterward. Between Ensign Frey clomping down the short exit ramp and Lieutenant Nielsen’s nervous cough, Reality stormed back into Gillian’s consciousness. 

“Any last-minute scanner readings to report?” she asked. “Jonas? Astrid?”

Her two subordinates stared at the landing bay floor and shook their heads. To Gillian, that was the surest sign yet that her obsession with Harlan was now out in the open. It was time, she realized, to get a grip. Though the holovid unspooling near the spent Quishik towers was shrouded in mystery, its tactical implications must take precedence over what it might reveal about two lost crew members. 

If it were true that the transmission had been sent an unknown distance in Time, there was a slim chance that this new technology could be weaponized against the Quishiks. What would the Probability Reader know of this phenomenon or the device that created it? Gillian had taken a career-damaging risk by rerouting her ship to the Bledraun system. If the risk paid off, she’d be praised for her vision. If not….

“Captain,” said a deep, resonant voice on her left. “I’m sorry to say I associate your presence with trouble. You always arrive when the universe appears to be breaking apart.”

The voice that had accosted her belonged to Verohme, Dver-Chaudron of Seldra and Treluhne’s sometime sparring partner over matters of state. Yet he was a typical Dralein in most respects, whose evolutionary ancestors had been a species of tunneling rodent. Though Seldran geneticists had tinkered with the colonists’ genome over the previous five hundred years, it would take a practiced eye to notice the difference, in most cases, between Seldrans and their unaltered cousins on Bledraun.

“I’m counting on the fact that appearances won’t be borne out,” said Gillian. 

 Verohme nodded. 

 “Yet appearances are all we have,” he said. 

 “I rather think Treluhne would disagree with you,” said Gillian. “Is he about?” 

 “He’s with the djorcrelul now,” said Verohme. “I know better than to disturb him when he’s in deep concentration.” 

“Has he spent a lot of time with the Probability Reader lately?” asked Astrid. 

 Verohme clapped a large, furry hand against his equally furry forehead. 

“Ever since his disturbing conversation with Dadren two rotations ago,” he said. 

 The tall, blazing white Dralein paused to adjust the rawhide belt that held his silken lavender robes together, before pointing to a small waiting room to their right. His three guests followed him into a cozy nook, faced with slick, black obsidian. 

Tall polyglass flower vases filled with a riot of hydroponically grown blossoms in several varieties fit neatly into wall niches to their left and right. At Verohme’s invitation, they sank into velvety, overstuffed forest green cushions, which were encased in frames of swirling, dark bentwood. Overstuffed that is, from a human perspective. The Dralein’s larger proportions made a necessity out of furniture that Gillian and her crewmates saw as quite luxurious.

Once they were seated, Verohme continued. Treluhne, he explained, had become unusually agitated after a conversation with Dadren. As the current world leader of Bledraun, Dadren had taken over from Drashna when the latter was offworld, following the upheaval on Bledraun a year earlier. Like the rest of the Dralein natives on Bledraun, Dadren had emerged from the sceraun with new telepathic powers. Not merely confined to the perception of planet-bound mentalities, Dadren now found he could sense the pulse of sentient life in the vicinity of the Bledraun planetary system and beyond. 

And according to Dadren’s most recent telepathic impressions, the Quishiks had shifted the focus of their ongoing assault. 

“When we heard rumors that the Dralein were telepathic,” said Astrid. “we didn’t think it was more than a local phenomenon. Are you saying they receive mentallic signals from deep space?”

Verohme shook his broad head. The enormous expansion of Dadren’s mind — and that of every inhabitant of Bledraun — had been an unexpected consequence of the brutal war waged months earlier to gain control of Bledraun’s priceless mineral wealth. To incapacitate the Dralein, ANN Commission androids had blasted the entire population with Theta radiation. 

In doing so, the androids had inadvertently triggered the sceraun, a naturally occurring process that periodically reshaped the Dralein mind. Like the rest of the inhabitants of Bledraun, Dadren had gone into hiding, in Bledraun’s mysterious network of underground tunnels, only to emerge with a wide range of new perceptions. Since then, his insights had proven too cogent to be ignored.

“When Dadren told us what he’d sensed about the Quishiks’ attack plan,” said Verohme, “Treluhne became more agitated than I’ve ever seen him. ‘This keeps coming up on the Reader,’ he told me. ‘And when it does, less than two percent of the potential outcomes are positive.’ ”

“What’s this about?” asked Jonas. “Do the Quishiks have more new tech, like the towers that freed them?”

Verohme pursed his lips.

“Dadren sensed a shift in the Cohort Leader’s thinking,” he said. “She has given up on total domination. She has even given up on trying to ride out their illness. The Quishiks are resigned to death — and determined to take the rest of the sentient universe with them.”

“Surely we can turn their desperation to our advantage,” said Gillian. “Bait them in some way.”

“Maybe,” said Verohme. “If enough soldiers are willing to sign up for a suicide mission. Realistically, there’s no permutation of ‘Quishik’ and ‘desperate’ that doesn’t spell disaster.”

“Especially if we ourselves become desperate,” said a voice.

The four of them looked up to see Treluhne, who stood in the threshold of the waiting room. Unusual among Dralein, even by comparison with other Seldran colonists, his wraith-like frame and bright yellow fur cut a distinctive figure in the waiting room’s subdued light. Unlike Verohme, his own robes were a bright vermillion 

“Come along to my stateroom, everyone,” he said. “Can’t believe Verohme neglected to offer you some tea.”

“Don’t know how you drink that,” said Verohme. “Follow the Chaudron. I have some agricultural statistics to review.”

He clomped off down a side corridor that led off from the waiting room.

“He’s really a charming fellow in his own way,” said Trehlune. “Though he does get into sulks.”

Soon the three humans were standing in the Seldran leader’s impressive stateroom, which was busy enough with video displays, digital readouts and his extraordinary art collection to qualify as a museum installation. 

“Completely aside from the tactical decisions that brought you here,” said Treluhne, “let me say I’m glad to see you. Though I expected to see Captain Mars as well.”

Though Gillian’s throat tightened, she forced herself to stay calm.

“Harlan is missing,” she said. “Part of the reason for our visit involves finding a way to retrieve him.”

“Interesting choice of words,” said Treluhne. “It implies you have some idea where he might be.”

Might is the word for it, I’m afraid,” said Gillian. “Let me introduce Ensign Frey, my Chief Engineer.”

“You’re the fellow,” said Treluhne, “who developed the nano-drones that delivered Captain Enos’ bio-weapon.”

“Yes … Chaudron.…” said Jonas. “Just wish they’d made more of a difference.”

“They may yet,” said Treluhne. “The djorcrelul has been obsessing over them lately — though I have no idea what it’s getting at.”

“Perhaps, then, it or you can help us with another matter,” said Gillian. “Lieutenant, give the Chaudron an overview of our pet project.”

For the next hour, Astrid Nielsen spelled out what she, Jonas and the rest of the Jericho’s science and technical teams had parsed from the mysterious data feed they’d received from Gillian. Though there was precious little certainty in their conclusions, their combined years of experience encouraged a faint, intuitive hope that a new form of transmat tech was almost in their grasp.

“Intriguing,” said Treluhne. “And more than interesting enough to pass on to my technical teams, if you’ll let me. I’m too much of a humanist to see more than the vague outlines of what you propose. All the same, I do have a suggestion — which you may not like.”

“We don’t have the luxury of taking offense, do we?” said Gillian. “Please, speak your mind.”

Treluhne stood up and walked stiffly to a small side table, where a pot of tea and some delicate Dralein honey cakes rested cozily.

“First, do me the honor of sharing some tea with me,” he said. “Cosmic crises always seem more manageable after a snack.”

Jonas Frey shifted his large frame uncomfortably in his chair but, after a stern look from Gillian, held his tongue. Thankfully, Astrid finally found her voice.

“Let me help you with that,” she said. Whether it was the soothing aroma of tea or the sight of delicate, flakey pastries that no Terran Protectorate replicator could produce, by the time everyone was served, the tension level was noticeably lower.

“Much better,” said Treluhne. “I always find it easier to talk about difficult matters in a civilized environment.”

“Thank you, Chaudron,” said Gillian. “Now, what is the advice you’re afraid we won’t like?”

Treluhne set his teacup down. 

“It’s this,” he said. “I believe you must involve the symbiotes in your strategic plan.”

“With respect,” said Jonas, “I’m not sure they’re reliable.”

“Maybe not in the sense you mean it,” said Treluhne. “But you can rely on the fact that their self-interest is as much bound up with eliminating the Quishik threat as yours is … and ours in the Bledraun system, for that matter.”

“I can’t say I’m opposed to working with the Kaldhex Assembly,” said Gillian. “Though perhaps not overtly. I’m afraid Admin takes a dim view of interspecies collaboration.”

“What else can be expected from bigots?” asked the Seldran leader. “Yet there’s no reason any … collaboration … you begin must become public knowledge. Anyway, here’s the real reason you should take my advice. The symbiotes, I’m sure, have not been completely forthcoming with every scrap of advanced technology they’ve compiled over the years. I have it on good authority that the transmat data they shared with us is a mere fraction of what they possess.”

“Authority?” said Gillian. “Who have you been speaking to?”

Treluhne raised his right forearm and spoke into the personal scanner embedded beneath his furry pelt.

“Send in our earlier guest,” he said. 

A slight rumbling sound reached the humans’ ears from outside Treluhne’s stateroom. A moment later, the door slid open to reveal Warvhex. who stalked in on the composite metal legs of her mobile brain case.

“He’s right,” she said. “We weren’t foolish enough to turn over everything at once. Why should we throw away every bargaining chip? From the way the Protectorate, the Grashardi and the rest of the non-entities on the Interstellar Council have dragged their feet, I’d say we were justified.”

“No one loves Brad Christensen less than I do,” said Gillian. “But we have to get past that, or soon there won’t be a universe to fight over anymore.”

“Very noble,” said Warvhex. “Lucky for you, I agree. I’ll just ask you to remember that, in a pinch, the symbiotes could merge with those mutants and at least have a chance for survival.”

“Let’s be honest, shall we?” said Treluhne. “If that were a viable strategy, you’d have tried it already. So I have to conclude that you’d find the prospect … distasteful.”

Warvhex stalked farther into the room, glanced at the tea table and turned back to Treluhne.

“Much rather be them than be consumed by them,” she said. “Oh, let’s get on with it. The only reason you’re here is because you’ve stumbled over the same transmission I did an arc ago, out by the remains of the Quishiks’ gravity/time tower.”

“Getting on with it,” said Jonas, “means finding out if that device can transfer objects through time as well as space, and whether we can duplicate it.”

“Very succinct,” said Warvhex. “I like that. The problem is that the news is mixed. Everything points to the possibility of building such a multidimensional transmat device. The power requirements, on the other hand … Well, does anyone have a spare sun to deplete?”

Astrid reached for another of Treluhne’s pastries, which earned her a wink of approval from the Chaudron. 

“I agree,” she said. “That aspect of the problem is daunting, Still, if we’re right and the signal originates in the Zyffer system, doesn’t that mean the Skryntali have already worked that out?”

“Maybe,” said Warvhex. “But which Skryntali? Neither of the two existing groups are up to it. That leaves the ancientSkryntali or some of their immediate descendants. I doubt we can reach them by comlink.”

Gillian stood up and paced the stateroom’s intricately patterned tile floor.

“The point the Lieutenant is making,” she said, “is that the device already exists in some form and is fully operational. Otherwise, neither you nor my ship would have detected its unusual transmission. Especially, as I shouldn’t have to point out, because they’re being sent by your operative, Ms. Kaklyadar.”

“Still doesn’t explain the power supply,” said Warvhex. “And so far, ‘my’ operative — who’s also working for you humans and a slimy Skryntali trader — hasn’t been able to answer that question.”

“That’s rich,” said Jonas. “You calling somebody else slimy. And your operative is irrelevant. We could send over a probe and run a complete analysis, if you knew the exact location of the device.”

“Yes,” said Warvhex, “and win the interstellar lottery if we knew the winning number.”

Treluhne brushed a strand of golden-yellow fur out of his eyes.

“I see I should have made the tea stronger,” he said. “You’re all still more interested in scoring points than saving lives. Trillions of lives, I might add.”

“Does the … does the Probability Reader have anything to say about the device?” asked Astrid. 

“Not so far,” said the Seldran leader. “All I know from the latest displays is that some new element, something looms on the horizon. It could be this device … or not.”

Gillian stamped the heel of her right regulation boot into the stateroom floor.

“Could we please stop speculating,” she said, “and speak more pragmatically? Warvhex, the past is the past. I rather think the question is whether we have a future. You’ve seen the same data we have, apparently. Assuming Ms. Kaklyadar or … someone … can determine how the Skryntali power the device she’s using, can your engineers build a comparable one?”

Warvhex walked over to the plate of pastries, took one in her nanotube composite hand and placed it gently into a receptacle at the front of her mobile tank.

“Delicious,” she said.

“Thank you,” said Treluhne. “We take a modest pride in our lunar cuisine.”

“I was referring to the sensation of hearing a Protectorate captain ask for my help,” said Warvhex. “That doesn’t happen every day.”

“Yes,” said Gillian, “I suppose we deserve that. However, I’m not asking on behalf of the human government. I’m asking you on behalf of sentient life, to stop licking old wounds and get on with the business at hand.”

“Ha!” snapped the symbiote. “The ignoble beasts ask me to be noble. Tell me: If we destroy the Quishiks — and destruction is what it will take — can you guarantee the Protectorate will finally move on the revised Statement of Sentient Rights?”

Jonas bolted out of his chair and rattled Treluhne’s desk in the process. 

“Damn it, you parasite,” he yelled. “You know she can’t guarantee that. She’s risked her career coming here, we all have, because we know….”

“Spare me that unbearable human loftiness,” said Warvhex. “My point is that if I cooperate, it will only be for my own reasons, not because a band of ‘brave humans’ finally found their spines.”

A peculiar clanging sound rang up in the corridor outside Treluhne’s stateroom.

“That’s the djorcrelul,” said Treluhne. “It hasn’t chimed like that since the Quishiks returned.”

At Treluhne’s insistence, the three humans and Warvhex followed him through a sliding door on the opposite side of his stateroom. There sat the large tier of odd ovoid structures that made up the Probability Reader. The Seldran leader rushed his rail-thin frame to the Reader’s main console where an unexpected holographic image greeted him and the others.

“Har Draaf!” said Gillian. “Everyone’s been asking what the Devil became of you.”

The image, though remarkably lifelike, flickered a bit, as the distinguished crustacean appeared to smile.

“I’m not sure I still know the answer myself,” he said. “I must hurry. My Ootray companions would frown on my interference.”

“Yes,” said Warvhex, “they’re opposed to doing anything except hide from their own guilt.”

“As I remember from my time in your universe,” said Ungent, “there’s an equal share of guilt to go around. But listen. Dadren’s perception is correct. The Quishiks know they’re finished, and they have no desire to let the rest of you off the hook for their destruction.”

“So what should we do?” asked Treluhne.

“The Skryntali device you’ve discovered is only part of the answer,” said the former Grashardi ambassador. “Once you get control of it, you must still lure the Quishiks into the past on the optimum trajectory.”

“Excuse me, Har Draaf,” said Astrid. “Even if we could transmat the Quishiks to the distant past, what does that do beside postpone the problem?”

“Yes,” said Jonas, “how does it help anything to stick a future generation, I don’t care how far in the future, with the same problem. They exist ouside of Time, so they would simply live on to murder future generations” 

The holographic image flickered again, and it seemed as if Ungent’s eye-stalks had drooped.

“I’m pleased to see that ethical considerations are still on your mind,” he said, “despite the risks. And you’d be right to be concerned, except that I don’t mean to send the Quishiks to any old past. I propose to send them to a past where our forces will be waiting for them — at a distance in time that ensures no sentient populations will be harmed.”

“With respect, Har Draaf, we can’t best them in combat now,” said Gillian. “I daresay I don’t see how transposing them to the past will make a particle of difference.”

Ungent counted off his answer on his webbed fingers.

“In the first place,” he said, “you are about to gain possession of a powerful fleet — provided someone doesn’t beat you to it.”

“You’re talking about the Skryntali fleet everybody’s been looking for,” said Warvhex. “Until someone finds it….”

“I would hope that the … someone,” said Ungent, “would understand the value of sharing the find with the rest of civilization. But enough speculation. Captain, I see Lieutenant Anderson has been assigned to your ship. She was a great asset when we stopped the Quishiks the first time. Wish her well for me.”

“Craters,” said Jonas, “do you see everything from where you are?”

“The interstices give me a radically different view of your universe than I had when I was there. Yet I’m not all-knowing, if for no other reason than that Probability is always poised on a knife’s edge. Captain, I must go. I cannot suspend causality much longer.”

“Wait, Har Draaf,” said Gillian. “Even the best ships are no match for the Quishiks’ mind control. The Ootray mind blocker is only so effective, especially under stress, if you see what I mean.”

Ungent’s image began to fade.

“Androids … Shol … trust … patience….” said the image and it was gone.

“What was that last bit about Shol?” asked Astrid.

“The Krezovic boy?” asked Warvhex. “I’d be surprised if he could run a replicator, let alone build androids.”

“Dadren speaks highly of Har Draaf,” said Treluhne. “I’d think twice before doubting his judgment.”

“Question is,” said Jonas, “whether judgment is ever enough. We need solutions.”

“Spoken like a dedicated engineer,” said Treluhne. “If I understand the djorcrelul, any solution we find requires a change of perception. For that, we may need to turn to an unusual source.”

“You mean … have you discovered another abandoned Ootray device?” asked Astrid.

“Not a device,” said the Seldran leader, “a being.”

Warvhex reared up suddenly with a ferocity that rattled even Gillian’s steely nerve.

“Craters!” she yelled. “You’re talking about the child, Caronya.”

“Actually, Lieutenant Nielsen and I had the same thought before we left for this system,” said Gillian.

“She’d kill us all,” said Warvhex.“I rather think that depends,” said Gillian, “on how we enlist her.

This concludes Episode 22: Alien Think Tank. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 23 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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