Infinity Afterglow / Episode 28: Frame-Shift

Meiji and Harlan excavate a long-buried frame-shift device, which offers their one hope of returning home.

An Epic Space Opera By Mark Laporta

When they learn of the powerful frame-shift device that lies buried on their feet, Meiji and Harlan recognize it as their one hope of escaping the pocket universe where they have been trapped for months. In this episode of Infinity Afterglow, a significant change in frame of reference occurs, but not one Harlan could have predicted. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning.

After months of mind-numbing boredom, punctuated by hunger, remorse, self-recrimination and his nagging attraction to Meiji, Harlan was finally aboard his crashed probe ship.

When he’d last stepped onto the ship’s compact bridge, he was an established member of the most efficient and feared space fleet in the settled universe. The only cloud on his horizon was a recent spat with Gillian. Her sudden loss of perspective, he’d told himself, had been an artifact of the Quishiks’ imminent return. 

Or was she just done with him? 

Can’t sort that out now, he thought. There was enough to do with assessing the probe ship’s status. The first step was to power it up.

The results were mixed. Only some systems appeared operative. One of these was the central AI, and he wasted no time calling for a system-wide diagnostic. After a quick scan of the diagnostic readout, he ordered the self-repair system to focus on critical systems. If there were any hope that Eldrinaj was right about the Kadervax, he wanted to be ready.

“Least if we can get her air-borne,” he whispered into the command console before him. Unfortunately, his plan for excavating the frame-shift device also required controlled bursts of lase fire. On that score, the AI offered little hope.

“Primary optical array at fifty percent capacity,” it said. 

“So do I have fifty percent lase capacity,” asked Harlan, “or zero?”

“In its present condition,” said the AI, “engaging the optical array risks damage to primary circuits, including central processing.”

Harlan leaned all the way back in the command chair and clapped his head with both hands.

“Guess I’ll be shoveling, then,” he said.

“Not if we reroute the optical array through the replicator circuits,” said a female voice to his right.

Harlan looked up to see Meiji standing in the command center’s entryway, her left hand flush against the arched bulkhead. He took a deep breath and turned back to his console.

“How about that, AI?” he asked. “Reroute optical array, as indicated by Lieutenant Tanaka?”

“Analyzing,” said the AI. “Replicator circuitry at optimal capacity. Such rerouting, however, cannot be effected by the self-repair system. Manual reroute possible.”

“Sir, I….” said Meiji.

“You know how to handle this … reroute … Lieutenant?” asked Harlan.

Meiji nodded, her face pale, her eyes red. Harlan stood up, as if he intended to walk over to her, then didn’t budge.

“I’ll need help, Sir,” she said.

“Don’t we all, Lieutenant?” said Harlan. “Don’t we all? What makes you think you can….”

“Did a degree in Electrical Engineering before joining the Fleet,” said Meiji.

“Lab work too boring?” asked Harlan.

“Sort of,” said Meiji. “Can we get started, Sir?”

Harlan put his hands on his hips and stared down at the Command Center’s tiled floor.

“Best idea,” he said. “Tell the AI what schematics you need. And see if you can maybe spare us one replicator unit.”

Meiji breathed gently into her clasped hands, then tapped into the probe ship’s maintenance console. A spherical array of holographic schematics floated up before her eyes. She sifted through them like items on a Lazy Susan — a device she might only have seen in a niche museum of the most obscure ancient history.

“Captain, should I assume you want to keep the ship space-worthy?” she asked.

“Not my top priority,” said Harlan. “Way I figure it, if that crazy Olfdranyi is right, we ought to be able to transmat direct to the coordinates she sent. If she’s wrong, I can’t see how there’s anywhere to go in this timeline.”

“And if we were stuck here forever?” asked Meiji.

“Times like this, Lieutenant,” said Harlan. “I focus on the here and now. I suggest you do the same.”

Meiji’s face went blank, and she gazed back at the schematic array in front of her. 

“Sir, recommend commencing reroute of optical system at juncture 7/T09.” she said. “Awaiting orders.”

Harlan waved her on, and Meiji walked back toward the probe ship’s compact engineering bay. 

“We’ll have to crawl partway into the primary maintenance shaft, Sir,” she called out. “It’s pretty narrow. You may want to wear a hazmat suit.”

Harlan let her mournful sarcasm die on the air, then joined her in Engineering. 

They worked in sullen silence, speaking only the bare minimum. Under the Lieutenant’s surprisingly deft hands, the work went smoothly, with Harlan squarely in the role of tool caddy. A few minutes in, his gregarious nature was starved for conversation.

“Report,” he said.

“It’s a slow process, Sir,” said Meiji. “I may need another half rotation. Might I suggest you go for a stroll?”

“You mean, ‘take a hike,’ don’t you Lieutenant?” said Harlan. “Fact is, I find this fascinating.”

Given their conversation from late afternoon yesterday, Harlan knew he had every reason to suspect that Meiji might be a flight risk. That is, the kind of flight that smashed the now-fragile probe ship into the side of the high cliffs to the south.

“Now tell me,” he said, “is there anything in your training that makes you think this … Kadervax … can transmat us across Time?”

Meiji’s eyes lit up momentarily.

“Didn’t get that far in theoretical physics,” she said. “What I do know is that space-fold tech itself is a kind of controlled temporal distortion.”

“So maybe we have a chance,” said Harlan. 

“Sir, that depends,” said Meiji, “on what shape the frame-shift device is in. The Visitor … Ms. Kaklyadar … said it was already a thousand cycles old in her timeframe. And according to ship’s AI, because we’re stuck in a temporally anomalous metaverse, we might be as much as twelve hundred cycles further into her future.”

“Can’t hurt to try,” said Harlan.

“Unless the device only works well enough to transmat us into the core of the nearest star,” said Meiji.

“If it does, we’ll never know it,” said Harlan. “So I see no risk here. The alternative is forty years of Skryntali mythology. I suggest you get back to work.”

And after an hour more of detailed calibrations, the Lieutenant laid down her tools.

“Ready for preliminary testing, Sir,” she said.

Harlan’s heart raced as he squeezed out of the maintenance conduit and jogged back to the command center on stiff legs. After a few inquiries and a series of voice commands, he initiated the probe ship’s launch sequence.

The noise of the engine drew Meiji to the acceleration chair next to Harlan’s.

“All hands ready for takeoff?” he said quietly.

“Sir,” said Meiji. “About what I said yesterday.”

“Don’t take it back, Lieutenant,” he said. “That’s an order. Feel whatever you need to feel. But we have a mission, and I need you to focus on that alone.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Meiji.

“Great work on the optical array,” said Harlan. “Now let’s go blast us some rocks.”

While the probe ship responded to standard flight commands with reassuring ease, there were still considerable challenges ahead. It would take pinpoint precision to blast away over a thousand years of accumulated soil, rock and debris without damaging the Kadervax.

The only saving grace was the database of schematics that Eldrinaj had directed her prototype to send to Harlan’s personal scanner. That data, uploaded to the probe ship’s AI, made precise targeting a matter of a few simple, repetitive commands. Here again, Meiji’s steady temperament was an asset that filled Harlan with a nameless guilt. Yet, as he reminded himself, whether he’d led Meiji on intentionally or only by virtue of his undeniable attraction to her, returning to their home universe with the Kadervax was critical to defeating the Quishiks.

“I reckon this device is the only new hope we have against those monsters,” he told her.

“If it works,” said Meiji. “Besides, we have no idea what countermeasures the Quishiks might have developed. Not to mention their control of Probability.”

“Way I figure it,” said Harlan, “if Probability were the answer to everything, they wouldn’t have been stopped so many times before. We still have a chance — but only if we believe we do.”

“As you say, Sir,” said Meiji. 

Though Harlan took Meiji’s curt assent as a small victory, in his battle to bring her around to his point of view, it merely masked her deep misgivings. 

Over the past few months, Meiji had concluded that belief was no more a guarantee of success than wishing on a star — a game she’d played more often than she could count. By contrast, as her careful manipulation of the probe ship’s lasers began to revel the top of the Kadervax’s spidery framework, a sliver of hope worked its way back into her weary heart. If she could unearth the device unscathed, without compromising the ship, would Harlan finally realize what she meant to him?

Meiji clung tight to that thin thread of hope during pass after pass, until the sleek, cerulean blue core of the Skryntali frame-shift device emerged, surrounded by a network of thin stainless-steel rods that were arranged in a tight, spherical lattice.

From behind a long row of stubby chrinthalesh bushes, not twenty yards to the south, the three Skryntali Elders came out of hiding to marvel at the device. Though it was stuck in a deep pit, it still managed to cut a fascinating figure. The probe ship landed three meters to the north of the excavation site. Harlan rushed out of the vessel as soon as its hatch opened and stared admiringly at the odd-looking remnant of an ancient civilization. 

“What say we see if our AI can connect with the Kadervax,” said Harlan. “Maybe the old girl can transmat herself out of the ground.”

No sooner had the Terran Protectorate probe ship established communication with the Skryntali device than a mellow, male voice emerged from the ship’s comsystem. 

“You’ll have to specify your coordinates,” it said. “Telepathy circuits not yet online.”

“Is that a joke?” asked Harlan. 

“Unfortunately, no,” said the Kadervax AI. “Circuits have now engaged, and I see your mind is a seething mass of contradictions.”

Harlan smiled. The startlingly insightful device didn’t know the half of it. 

“Transmitting coordinates now,” he said. 

The speed and ineffable grace with which the Kadervax disappeared from its trench and reappeared precisely five meters to the south was astonishing. The Elder gasped; even Harlan and Meiji, who’d seen transmat in action shortly before their accident, were impressed. The transmat platforms that the Terran Protectorate had developed, based on data they’d obtained from the symbiotes, were crude by comparison. Yet with the prospect of returning home so near, Harlan cut his amazement short.

“Now listen, AI…” he said.

“Intelligence Kadervax,” said the frame-shift engine.

Harlan held his breath a moment.

“Intelligence Kadervax,” he said. “Please be so kind as to inform me if you recognize the coordinates I will transmit now.”

“No need,” said the AI, “I see them in your mind. Though the coordinate system is unfamiliar, the relationships between the figures allow only one meaningful interpretation. You would like to make a spatiotemporal shift on a scale of approximately 1256 cycles, combined with a transfer of approximately 43.011 light years.”

Harlan’s throat went dry.

“Gotta say, those ‘approximatelys’ don’t sit well with me,” he said.

“Remain calm,” said Intelligence Kadervax. “Your concerns are based on a misapprehension. Time, space and all else in the universe are in constant flux. Any set of spatiotemporal coordinates have only relative value.”

“You’ll make adjustments as you go?” asked Meiji.

“Rather space and time will adjust,” said the device, “as we arrive, until it achieves the appropriate metaversal equivalent to accommodate us.”

To Harlan’s startled question, the Kadervax replied that every action a living entity took landed it in a different universe than if it had taken a different action.

“Your recent temporal dislocation aside,” it said, “you left the universe you were born to, at the moment you took your first breath. This moment and the moment after I complete the requested transfer are no different than phenomena you have experienced your entire life.”

Harlan squeezed his eyes shut.

“If you say so,” he said. “Lieutenant, I’ll let you have the honor of being the first human to enter this device.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Meiji.

“You’re … Lieutenant, that’s an order,” said Harlan.

Meiji backed away, her face wet with tears.

“No, I can’t,” she said. “Can’t live in a universe where you don’t love me!” 

Her backward pace quickened. As she turned to run, Harlan grabbed her left forearm in his muscular hands.

“Don’t,” he said softly. “You don’t have to do this. I can get you a transfer or an honorable discharge if you want as soon as we’re back.”

Meiji tore her arm free.

“No!” she yelled. “I want nothing from you — and definitely no kindness that will make me love you more.”

Before Harlan’s next breath, the miserable young woman dashed away to the south and disappeared behind a graceless knoll in the near distance. Harlan opened his mouth to call after her, then thought better of it. He looked back at the Kadervax to see Aldruleth trudging up to meet him.

“We’ll make sure to look after her,” the gray-haired elder said. “But you must go, and fulfill the destiny the Visitor has carved out for you.”

The former captain of the Jericho and the Sweet Chariot stared at the elderly Skryntali and clenched his jaw shut. No use, he realized, in trying to explain how abysmally wrong Aldruleth was — about everything that had happened. At the same time, he knew that no matter the risk, he couldn’t leave Gillian to fight the Quishiks alone.

“Once … my destiny … works out,” he said, “I’ll ask the Visitor to send someone back for Meiji. Meanwhile, we owe you….”

“Pardon, the interruption,” said Intelligence Kadervax. “Since the time you stated your intentions, the probability of a successful transfer has begun to decay. There are, apparently, forces at work that would prevent your return.”

“Damn mutants,” Harlan whispered. He hurried onto the circular platform at the center of the little-used device and looked up at the deceptively peaceful azure sky.

“Let’s go,” he said. 

The Skryntali Elders trembled as the strange artifact appeared to shift out of phase with its surroundings. In less time than it took for a dangling leaf to fall from its low-lying branch, Harlan Mars, destiny and all, was gone.

^^^

This concludes Episode 28: Frame-shift. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday. Read Episode 29 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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