Infinity Afterglow / Episode 29: Playing With Fire

Chief Engineer Jonas Frey wonders if developiong a new type of biomechanoid is playing with fire.

An Epic Space Opera By Mark Laporta

As Terran Protectorate Fleet officers confer with the symbiote Warvhex and a team of Dralein engineers, it dawns on Chief Engineer Jonas Frey that their plan to develop a new type of biomechanoid is playing with fire. In this episode of Infinity Afterglow, they make a crucial decision that could set the stage for victory — or defeat. Read Infinity Afterglow from the beginning,

The mood at the Seldran Science Center was grim. After weeks of concerted work, Jonas Frey and a combined team of human and Seldran engineers had made little progress. As Jonas reviewed the state of the project for the larger team in a capacious conference room, he barely noticed the efforts the Seldrans had made to create a restful, contemplative environment. Neither the spare, geometric contours of the furniture, nor the room’s color scheme in varying shades of cool blues and earthy browns had any effect on him. And it was easy to see why.

The task of building a child-like gynoid capable of bonding emotionally with Caronya had proven even more challenging than anticipated. Over time, the difficulties had only deepened, as the added complexity of including telepathic functionality required a paradigm shift in their thinking. In simplest terms, it was a question of balance. If they programmed a step-by-step mission into “Galwendren,” she’d lack both the independence and the mental agility to keep up with Caronya’s powerful mind. By contrast, if they built her personality strictly from the perspective of pure intellect, she might be too susceptible to Caronya’s corrupting influence.

“Be like having two little monsters instead of one,” said Jonas.

That thought made every spine tingle in the Jericho’s situation room. After abducting the once-normal seven-year-old Caronya, the Quishiks had utterly transformed her. Expanded by a combination of advanced genetics and subtle manipulations of local Probability, her mind acted as a rapid, interdimensional transmitter. And that was aside from her encyclopedic assimilation of Quishik science and technology.

For several months, Caronya had been an essential component of the Quishik’s escape plan, until, with the help of Drashna, her mother, and a team of Seldran securitybots, the child had been subdued. Encased in a stasis chamber and cast adrift on a random trajectory through deep space, she was unaware of the machinations underway to wake her. Would the influence of a specially adapted biomechanoid “BFF” be enough to turn the deadly creature into a trusted ally? It was a slim hope that Gillian and the others had grabbed at greedily, as the Quishiks drew near and there was no meaningful defensive strategy in sight.

Yet even their willingness to take bold action would come to nothing if they stayed stuck at Step One. Adding to the tension of the moment, Warvhex, whom they’d invited to join them, showed a suspicious lack of surprise when they informed her of their plan to build a biomechanoid companion for Caronya. But they were reluctant to confront the symbiote, on the off chance that her seemingly limitless store of little-known technologies might offer a partial solution.

Cricket Anderson, who’d been brought into this discussion because of her fleeting encounter with the Quishiks months before, thought she might have part of the answer. Not, that is, based on her assessment of the work in progress. To her, there was one model that Jonas and the others had overlooked — of a superior intellect guided by a strong moral compass. 

“Can you access the schematics for … for the biomechanoid I knew as Captain Enos?”

Jonas nodded. An experimental model, Captain/27/Enos/Exploratory, had been touted as the next generation of biomechanical intelligence. Despite his eventual recovery, his disastrous descent into obsession and madness had seemed proof enough that his unique combination of intellect and free will was a dangerous mix.

“Can’t risk it,” said Jonas.

“We may have to,” said Warvhex. “You must have learned something in the meantime. When I spoke to him, he was fully functional. He had therapy, right? Should be some useful data there.”

But as Jonas explained, Enos’s “therapy” included some neural remapping that slowed his central processor.

“We can call them ‘biological’ all we want,” he said, “but a biomechanoid is still a machine. In his case, the tension between the organic and the machine model of intelligence was too great. If there hadn’t been the incident with the Lieutenant here, there would have been something else.”

Gillian frowned and rested a hand on Cricket’s forearm. 

“Let’s not be too quick to call the Lieutenant’s experience an ‘incident,’ shall we?” she said. “You’ll have to forgive his ‘engineering mouth,’ I’m afraid.”

Cricket shrugged.

“It’s still a good point,” she said. “And it made me remember something that might be important. When Enos was losing his grip, he kept saying ‘the circle cannot close,’ over and over again. It makes me wonder if a mind like his needed a … how should I put it? … a release valve.”

“You mean for times when the psychological pressure was too hard to handle with conventional logic circuits,” said Astrid.

Warvhex pounded the conference table they’d gathered around, with a composite nanotube fist. 

“Durlebrodese overflow subroutines,” she said. “They started using them in the cyborgs that piloted their ships through long sublight flights.”

“Sublight?” asked Gillian. “Who the bloody Hell is still flying sublight?”

As it happened, the subroutines Warvhex was referring to dated back nearly five hundred years, to a time when space-folding engines were not yet nearly as universal. The subroutine was one of millions of bits of scientific data that the symbiotes had still not shared with the rest of the settled universe. Yet as startling as that was, the members of Gillian’s desperate research team were more alarmed at Warvhex’s ready command of such arcane details. For her part, the symbiote was entirely matter-of-fact.

“Retrieved them myself,” she said. 

“I had no idea that symbiotes were so long-lived,” said Astrid. 

The fluid in the symbiote’s mobile tank flashed yellow.

“When I was free to take hosts,” said Warvhex, “I had constant access to every available variety of stem cell. Ever since I shut myself into this tank, there’s no telling how much longer I have.”

Gillian glanced at the others.

“We sympathize,” she said. “I hope what you eventually gain through normalization of interstellar relations will make up for your loss.”

“Pretty words, Captain,” said Warvhex. “Yet if I had any breath, I wouldn’t hold it.”

“How about we get back to our real problem?” asked Jonas. “If that subroutine is of any use, we should implement it yesterday.”

So it was that a few hours later, the humans and the Seldrans saw the first glimmer of hope that their mission might succeed. Yet never far from their minds was the persistent fear that enlisting Caronya to defeat the Quishiks was playing with fire on an intergalactic scale.

^^^

This concludes Episode 29: Playing With Fire. A new episode of Infinity Afterglow appears every Saturday.

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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