Infinity Afterglow / Episode 24: Heartless Hologram

A heartless hologram taunts two Terran Protectorate Fleet officers, who are trapped in a remote pocket universe.

An epic space opera by Mark Laporta

Two soldiers, trapped in a remote pocket universe, endure the taunts of a heartless hologram posing as a space goddess. In exchange for groveling before her sham divinity, she offers them their one last hope to return home. In this episode of Infinity Afterglow, Harlan and Meiji make an epic decision. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

The astonished Harlan Mars had a hard time deciding what was more disturbing. As if being flung into an alternative future weren’t enough, he was constantly tormented by the music of Meiji’s voice. And now it looked as if his only hope of salvation was to strike a deal with a scheming Olfdranyi female. Though it was one more crushing blow to his pride, he knew he must keep Eldrinaj’s hovering image talking. What cards did she have in her hand?

“You’re gonna have to give me … us … a little more to go on,” he said.

Unfortunately, the second time around, what he heard from Eldrinaj was only slightly less disturbing. In the first place, she expected him to believe that a piece of exotic tech lay buried on this backward world. Yet its exact location made the Olfdranyi’s demand even more untenable. The only saving grace was the Elders’ unswerving belief that Eldrinaj Kaklyadar, the conniving accomplice of the devious Warvhex, was a beneficent demigod, sent by Nature itself to enlighten them. Though Harlan couldn’t fathom how the Elders had been so thoroughly taken in, the answer was simple, in a round about sort of way. 

Eldrinaj, as it happened, had been especially wily. After her first accidental meeting with Elder Aldruleth, she’d used the time-bending properties of the Kadervax prototype to accost him at what seemed to him as five-year intervals.

During each successive, scripted appearance, she’d added more to her own mythology. By the time Harlan and Meiji arrived, Aldruleth and the rest of the Elders had subscribed to an entirely fabricated lore of the Sacred Jection. Better yet, her “long con” had made an indelible effect on the local timeline. In Aldruleth’s terms, after so many years, he had no memory of their original, accidental encounter.

Can’t believe they’ve bought into this … reactor slime, thought Harlan.

But despite his mistrust of Eldrinaj, he knew there was no way to talk Aldruleth out of his devotion to the Olfdranyi grifter. Reluctantly, he turned his head to the awestruck Elder standing at his side.

“The Visitor has spoken,” said Aldruleth. “We will begin excavation of the Hall of Zyffer immediately. I believe we should need only an arc or so to complete the process.”

“Sir, the ship,” whispered Meiji.

It took every ounce of self-control in Harlan’s battered psyche to keep his voice from dripping with sarcasm.

“Wise Visitor,” he said. “If you allow us access to our probe ship, we could complete your sacred task much faster.”

Though the twinkle in her deep-set eyes betrayed her enjoyment of Harlan’s humiliation, Eldrinaj played her part to perfection. 

“Such a request carries with it great responsibility,” she said. “Yet your arrival is the fulfillment of a sacred prophesy, which cannot be denied. Swear only that you will use the powers you receive from your flying ship for the benefit of all.”

Harlan gulped. If this kept up, he was sure to lash out at the Olfdranyi’s ludicrous charade. And yet, as he couldn’t fail to realize, this was his one chance to return to Gillian. The alternative was too depressing to contemplate.

“I swear,” said Harlan. Eldrinaj’s eyes glistened as she nodded toward Meiji.

“And you, his spouse,” she said. “Do you also swear?”

Harlan’s fists clenched as Meiji blushed deep red.

“Yes, Revered One,” she whispered.

“Permission granted,” said Eldrinaj. “And now, my dear ones, I must leave you. The Cosmos beckons.”

“Hold on a nanosecond, will ya?” said Harlan. “How will we know how run to this freaking Kadervax of yours?”

Eldrinaj pulled herself up to her full height in the command chair of her trading ship and informed the “impudent human” that the Kadervax AI was voice-activated and would explain itself on request.

“Detain me no further,” she said. “I serve only Destiny itself.”

Aldruleth gasped as the spatiotemporal window created by the Kadervax prototype collapsed and was replaced by the bare walls of the Valkrudesh ruins.

“We are honored to serve you,” he said. “The entire village is at your disposal.”

Harlan slapped his forehead and stared at Meiji.

“Right about now,” he said, “all we need is access to our ship and a whole lot of luck.” 

“I will send a courier to the guards minding your landing site,” said Aldruleth.

“Thank you, Elder,” said Harlan. With Eldrinaj gone, he felt his equilibrium return. “Lieutenant, walk with me.”

Meiji followed him out of the ruins and into the brisk morning air of early autumn.

“I reckon we’ve been stuck here long enough,” he said. “Let’s get the self-repair circuits up and running as fast as possible. Then we’ll see where we are.” 

Meiji looked down at her scuffed neo-leather boots.

“Not sure I can comply Captain,” she said.

“Mind explaining yourself?” said Harlan.

“It’s pretty simple, Sir,” said Meiji. “Here I have you all to myself. Back on the Jericho, I’d have to share you with Commander Cavendish and I don’t know who else….”

Harlan leaned up against a nearby tree, whose bright white bark might have reminded him of an Earthly beech tree, if the original colonists of New Dallas had bothered to import a few representative saplings. His voice was a dull monotone

“This is crazy,” he said. “Have I ever given you any encouragement?”

“Only every time you look at me,” said Meiji. 

“You know, Lieutenant,” said Harlan, “one of the things I like about you is that you’re so damn smart. So why the Hell are you so stupid that you can’t figure me out? You’re right, my imagination does go crazy every time you walk past. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. Craters, my heart is … well I don’t know how many universes gone it is from here.”

Meiji’s face streamed with tears. She turned and ran off toward the Skryntali village where her hopes had grown so strong over a period of three months

“Request permission to call you a cold-hearted liar!” she yelled over her shoulder.

“Granted,” whispered Harlan. He watched her disappear behind a copse in the near distance. For the first time, he realized how deeply his fate was entwined with a woman whose desperate love might tip the balance of history.

“Have to get out of here,” he told himself. Yet how far, he wondered, would he have to defy his principles, let alone common sense, to escape?

This concludes Episode 24: Heartless Hologram. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 25 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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