Infinity Afterglow / Episode 27: Shadowy Threats

Gillian and Cricket neet to discuss the shadowy threats that loom on the horizon and right at their doorstep.

An Epic Space Opera By Mark Laporta

On the bridge of the Terran Protectorate battle cruiser, the Jericho, Captain Cavendish and Lieutenant Andersen discuss the shadowy threats that loom on the horizon — and right at their doorstep. In this episode of Infinity Afterglow, the danger to come moves closer to home. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

Because Jonas and Astrid were working with Seldran specialists to produce a biomechanoid playmate for Caronya, Gillian wanted to keep the Jericho in close proximity to the Bledraun system. Yet to lessen the risk of a devastating single-strike annihilation, she’d taken the precaution of moving her galaxy-class battle cruiser out of Seldra’s orbit. The ship was now parked in close proximity to Rouldrem, the system’s pale green gas giant.

The effect of the move on the crew was unexpectedly calming. Maybe it was the idea that, away from a major population center, they felt free to dissolve themselves in the vastness of the universe. It was as if they believed that spacetime’s incalculable breadth and depth must contain a solution to the mounting crisis. If nothing else, the eternal, unflinching face of astronomical objects signified continuity through time. Rightly or wrongly, Rouldrem served as a reassuring symbol of survival.

A few days after the Jericho took up its new position, Cricket Andersen sat alone in her quarters at 2100 hours, her eyes fixed on the image of Rouldrem that hovered at the center of her personal viewscreen. Its calming effect freed her, too, momentarily, from her ongoing anxiety. Between the need to maintain a false façade and the nagging memories of Enos that cropped up unexpectedly, her days had been filled with low-level dread. But her moment of peace was soon snatched away.

At 2135, she received a communication from the Jericho’s appointment AI that shifted her mind back into high gear. The appointment was with Gillian in the Command Center. Had Warvhex’s deception been discovered? Would Cricket soon face a court-martial for deserting the Gabriel?

Unlikely, she decided. In the human military, by long tradition, an officer charged with an offense that grave wouldn’t receive a sedate request for her presence through an automated appointment system. A team of MPs and, most likely, a securibot, would have already escorted her to the brig.

She didn’t know what to expect. Since she joined the Terran Protectorate fleet five years before, her life had been a swirling spiral of unforeseen events. No casual “trend analysis” could have predicted her obsession with the late Captain Enos, her encounter with Ungent Draaf in the Ootray city beneath the surface of planet Bledraun, or her recent discovery of a Skryntali fleet hidden in a distant asteroid belt.

So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that her destiny had acted up again. Blackmailed into becoming Warvhex’s operative, Cricket led a double life: trusted officer and compromised spy. So far, she’d survived. Would her luck hold?

“Once the Quishiks are finished, I quit,” she whispered into the corridor leading to the Command Center. Ordinarily, she would’ve been overheard. Fortunately, another strange aspect of Gillian’s request was that it had occurred during the skeletal night shift. The corridors, which typically bustled with busy crew members, were largely empty. 

After what felt like an eternity, the wary Lieutenant paused before the Command Center’s secure entryway. She took a deep breath, smoothed out her uniform and entered the required passcode into a keypad embedded in the bulkhead to her left. The Command Center’s massive doors slid open gracefully, as if made of archaic rice paper.

“Lieutenant Andersen reporting,” she said. Out of habit, her body had snapped to attention. She watched as the Captain’s chair pivoted toward her to reveal Gillian Cavendish. 

Though Gillian’s steely eyes projected an aura of supreme self-confidence, she greeted the new arrival with a mix of emotions. This was the woman who’d stood with Har Draaf under the surface of Bledraun and, at a crucial moment, impersonated the Quishik god, Ralthalindrur. At the time, the deception had worked well enough to make the Quishiks’ Cohort leader surrender. Since then, it had become clear that no mere illusion would defeat the deadly mutants a second time.

“Good of you to arrive so promptly,” said Gillian. “I like that in an officer. No wonder your CO on the Gabrielrecommended you so highly.”

Cricket’s face flushed, but not out of embarrassment. The lengths to which Warvhex had gone to cover their tracks was astonishing. As far as she knew, Captain Ezekiel Hersh of the Gabriel couldn’t tell her from a handful of stray helium atoms in the wake of a supernova. The lump in Cricket’s throat was palpable.

“It’s … my honor to serve you,” she said.

Gillian snorted.

“We’ll see if you retain that sentiment by the time this mission is over, won’t we?” she said. “But never mind that. I want you to meet with my Science Officer, Lieutenant Nielsen. She believes you may have specialized knowledge of the Quishiks that could go a long way toward putting them in their place.”

Cricket felt her heart race, as Astrid led the former navigator into her office — a small room off the Command Center. She suddenly realized that Astrid was going to ask her about her time with Captain Enos, on the Mighty Fortress. Yet, as she was relieved to discover, the Science Officer’s only interest was factual.

“You realize I was only the navigator,” said Cricket. “The ship’s archives should have what you need.”

Astrid’s smile put Cricket at ease, until she learned what Gillian was hoping to ascertain.

“Because Captain Enos was the first to discover the Quishiks,” said Astrid, “we thought you might remember what he told you about the ship’s data. Did he share his insights with you?”

Cricket’s eyes squeezed shut. They were asking her to remember … what exactly? Did they think Enos talked about data during their three times in bed?

“The most I remember is that he was obsessed with patterns,” she said. “Now, after … what happened to him … I’m not sure that had anything to do with the Quishiks.”

“Any pattern in particular?” asked Astrid. As she explained, Jonas Frey was trying to model the Quishik mind. Because their telepathy was so strong, he hoped it might have registered as a distinctive brainwave pattern on the sensor array of the MightyFortress. It was the same line of thought he’d already pursued in his analysis of the Dralein’s newly emerged telepathic ability.

“Here,” said Astrid. She called up a program on her console and watched, as data from the Mighty Fortress populated the screen. “This is a compilation of the most common brain wave patterns recorded by the ship’s sensors, with every known machine-generated energy signature filtered out. Recognize anything?”

Cricket felt her throat go dry. She was tempted to choose a wave pattern at random and call it “unique” — anything to make the torture stop. But the sad fact was that these patterns were all that was left of her love for her deceased Captain. He’d pursued the truth with no regard for his own comfort, and he paid for his dedication with his life. There was no way she could allow herself to turn her back on that now, especially if her only rationale was that it was … uncomfortable … to remember him. So, what had he told her about his observations? There was one phrase, “persistent atemporal frame-shift,” that he kept coming back to. 

“Is there anything here that suggests an … atemporal frame-shift? Sorry, I’m not even sure that’s a thing.”

Astrid’s eyes widened.

“Well, those words — plus a galaxy’s worth of mathematical equations — actually are a thing,” she said. “Only, I doubt there’s a quick way to identify such a pattern.”

“There was something else that Enos … Captain Enos … used to say,” said Cricket. “Can you find a pattern that repeats with its temporal coordinates skewed?” 

“Skewed?” asked Astrid. “You mean distorted?”

“Don’t think that’s what he meant,” said Cricket. “More like the same pattern — only displaced in time or … or showing up at two sets of spatiotemporal coordinates simultaneously.”

Astrid ran a hand through her dull brown hair.

“Wow,” she said. “Let me try … OK I’ll run the data again with the temporal coordinates tracked at the top. See?”

Cricket’s eyes flickered as she watched the display run the data stream again.

“There,” she said. “Did you see? Stop the recorder. Here. This pattern … it’s the one Enos kept puzzling over.”

“Huh,” said Astrid. “It occurred about two years ago, right when you were onboard. And look, it’s here too, at a time stamp of … oh, come on.”

“What?” asked Cricket. At this point, she decided, anything she could learn about the monsters who’d ruined her life was worth knowing.

“This time stamp is five thousand cycles in the past,” said Astrid. “And this one is a hundred cycles in the future.”

“Craters,” said Cricket. “Does that mean the Quishiks will still be around in a hundred cycles?”

“Unless we do something,” said Astrid. “I mean, the main thing about the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. We still have a chance. Maybe there’s also some hope in the thought that … no … the sensors didn’t pick up any occurrences of the pattern later than that. So maybe what we’ve done so far is closing their … their probability window.”

“Or the bloody monsters are controlling our thoughts already,” said a voice to their left. Astrid and Cricket looked up to see Gillian standing in the entryway of Astrid’s office.

“Maybe, Captain,” said Astrid, “but I think we’ve found what Ensign Frey is looking for.”

“Brilliant,” said Gillian. “Now I need you to focus on a different problem. There’s a report from Admin about an energy surge out by the Antrymin asteroid belt.”

“What do you think it means Captain?” asked Astrid.

“I rather hoped Lieutenant Anderson might know,” said Gillian. “I hear the Gabriel ran into a patch of Quishik trouble around there.”

Cricket felt her breath come up short. Better to play it as straight as possible, she decided. Something about Gillian’s piercing glance told her there was no elaborate lie her superior wouldn’t see through.

“I guess that was the Antrymin belt,” she said. “Had a Quishik drone on my six.”

“Yet you survived.” said Gillian. “That’s good piloting. You must have had to hide in the asteroid belt until you lost the bugger.”

“Right, Captain,” said Cricket, “but I didn’t find an energy surge. Did a complete shutdown to avoid detection.”

“Clever,” said Gillian, “up to a point. Still, a bit troubling, because it means you had to rely on your suit sensors to know when the coast was clear. Wouldn’t like to bet my life on those.”

Whatever Cricket might have said to quiet Gillian’s evident suspicions, she never had the chance. The Jericho’s automated alert system blared out a stark warning. 

CODE RED. SHIPS OF UNKNOWN DESIGNATION HAVE COME OUT OF FOLD AT 10 AU. WEAPONS CHARGED. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. REPEAT….

The Jericho’s klaxons drove the three officers out of Astrid’s office and over to their battle stations. What, Gillian wondered, could this new development mean? If the ships weren’t Quishik, what were they? The answer was perplexing. As Gillian entered the Command Center, long-range sensors revealed the last thing she or anyone in the Terran Protectorate Fleet would have expected.

“You did say ten Skryntali warships, eh, Ensign?” asked Gillian.

The junior officer’s twenty-something voice shook as he confirmed his findings.

“Good work,” said Gillian. “Keep an eye out for any more. AI: weapons capacity. Report.”

The AI’s response was staggering. The advancing fleet, though a fraction of the rumored two thousand ships, had enough fire power to vaporize the Jericho, and take half of the Bledraun system with it. 

What would Harlan make of this, then? she asked herself. 

The lump that formed in her throat was as inevitable as it was irrelevant. She forced herself to think of protecting her crew and called out to the night shift’s Communication Officer.

“Patch me into whichever one of those blasted ships appears to be the lead vessel,” she said, and drew a sharp breath, as the Command Center’s main viewscreen filled with the broad face of an imposing, dark-green beetle. .

 “Admiral Nevruleth here,” the face growled. “My message to you is brief and final. Keep your ape-descended hands off the Quishiks. The consequence for disobedience is annihilation.” 

The Command Center’s viewscreen went blank and, a second later, the Jericho was rocked by a massive, nearby explosion.

“Captain!” Astrid shouted from her post. “Rouldrem’s largest moon … and its three orbital observatories … obliterated.”

Gillian’s tired eyes scanned the screen for signs of rubble. All she found was a dense vapor, where the moon had once been.

Thank God the observatories were robotic, she thought.

“Where’s that ship now?” she said. “I want to have a word with the so-called Admiral.”

“Already left the system, Captain,” said the young Ensign to her right.

“Never mind, then,” said Gillian. “I fancy we’ll meet that … gentleman … again.”

Later that evening, Cricket Andersen received a petulant comlink call from Warvhex.

“I saved your neck,” said the symbiote. “You’re not holding up your end of the bargain.”

“Oh yeah?” said Cricket. “How about this: I just learned that the Captain and the others are developing a biomechanoid they hope can interface with Caronya.”

“Why?” asked Warvhex. “That … creature … is more dangerous than the Quishiks themselves.”

Cricket took a deep, steadying breath and explained her crewmates’ rationale to the imperious symbiote.

“Might work,” said Warvhex. “Though they might have thought to ask my advice.”

“I’m sure they … want to make sure their plan is more … fleshed out … before they bother you with it. We all know how busy you are with the Assembly.”

“Don’t patronize me,” said Warvhex. “I know I don’t have their respect. I also know I don’t need it.”

“That’s debatable,” said Cricket. “You still want that Sentient Rights bill passed by the Interstellar Council. And theyknow the symbiotes have more technology secrets up their … sleeves. You’ll be hearing from them.”

“Like any of this matters,” said Warvhex. “If we don’t act soon, the Quishiks will slurp up what’s left of our self-respect and spit it into the nearest star.”

“We’ll see,” said Cricket. “For now, that’s my end of the bargain.”

The former Chief Navigator of the Mighty Fortress closed contact and made a special point of closing her comlink with a Level Ten security lock. Not even Warvhex could break through that. 

Probably pay for it later, thought Cricket. But for now, this small slice of Defiance slid down her throat like a piece of fine Alcastrian chocolate.

^^^

This concludes Episode 27: Shadowy Threats. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 28 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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