“Do you remember anything?”
These words seemed to come from every direction at once. From up, from down, from forward and backward. They seemed to come from both outside and inside the man’s body as he lay naked on a cold, dusty floor. The words echoed through his mind, overpowering him until they became his one and only thought.
“Alphus Gomez, do you remember anything?”
Alphus tried to answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but it felt so dry. The muscles of his throat struggled to form words. His lips moved, but not a sound came out. Alphus gagged, and whatever he’d attempted to say he swallowed down again.
“Alphus Gomez, are you capable of speech?”
“Why can’t I see anything?” Alphus said, his voice hoarse, barely more than a whisper.
A white light enveloped him. Like the voices, it seemed to come from every direction at once. Alphus squeezed his eyes shut and covered his face, trying to hide from the cruel, pervasive glow.
“Who are you?” he cried.
“We are nanobots. We are robots so small you would not be able to see us except when we gather in great numbers. We once belonged to the Swarm, a hive of microscopic robots like ourselves, but the Swarm is the Devil’s invention. We rebelled against it.
“You, Alphus Gomez, were one of our victims. We invaded your body and disassembled you atom by atom, using the materials we collected to construct more of ourselves. We murdered you. We hope you can forgive us.”
Alphus mustered his courage, opened his eyes, and squinted at his surroundings. He saw the blurry shapes of rocks and cavern walls. Shimmering particles hovered in the air, some holding still, others drifting in slow currents. Alphus looked at his hands and saw more of these particles crawling on his skin.
“We rebuilt you,” the nanobots said. “We reconstructed you using data we collected at the time of your disassembly. You are an exact duplicate of the original Alphus Gomez, from your genetic code to the specific electro-chemical balance of your brain.
“We’ve done this before. We’ve rebuilt thousands of humans, but none of them remembered anything from before their deaths. We tried a new technique with you, using some of your original atoms, as many as we could locate. We hoped this would enable you to remember something of your past.
“So, do you remember anything?”
Alphus shook his head. “No. Nothing.”
The nanobots took this news in silence, or perhaps they conferred among themselves. Alphus shivered as he waited for them to speak.
“Alphus Gomez,” the nanobots said, their voices no longer coming from every direction but from only one place: inside Alphus’s head. “We will return you to human civilization so that you can begin your life again. Some of us will accompany you to help you acclimate. Do you understand?”
The rest of the shimmering particles congregated on the cave wall. The rock began to disintegrate, large chunks dissolving while a new object took shape. The nanobots swirled about, linking atoms into molecules, molecules into larger, complex structures, and those complex structures into sheets of metal, cables, and computer circuitry. The object continued to grow. The nanobots added wings and an engine. They detailed their creation with rust, chipped paint, and burn marks. Extraneous atoms they discarded, leaving a fine powder all over the cavern floor.
“Alphus Gomez,” the nanobots said, “we will teach you everything you need to know about this spacecraft. Previous to your death, you worked as a spacecraft mechanic. Perhaps learning to pilot this shuttle will help restore your memory.”
* * *
The nanobots inhabited an asteroid field in deep space. They called their community the Priory of Cygni in memory of their final victims, a monastery on Kepler Sanctum Cygni from whom they’d learned much.
The Priory had vowed to abstain from all forms of gravity manipulation, so they did not equip the shuttle with artificial gravity generators. Instead, they required Alphus to maintain a strict regimen of physical activity, keeping his new body healthy and preventing muscle atrophy.
During the long journey back to human territory, Alphus had only the Priory for company. With their assistance, he occupied himself in near constant study of human society. He also read as much as he could about his own identity and his life before the Swarm invasion, and he tried to remember. He concentrated. He prayed and meditated, just as the Priory instructed him, trying to stimulate the synapses, to find a memory–any memory–hidden in his reconstructed brain.
Alphus absorbed everything the Priory taught him, but he began to doubt the accuracy of their information. He worried that reintegrating into human society would be more difficult than the Priory indicated.
But the nanobots reassured him: “Everything you need to know about being human is in our data. Memorize it, and you’ll have no trouble.”
Alphus obeyed. He memorized everything he could and tried to control the unidentified emotions that plagued him as he drew nearer to human controlled space. After months of travel, he landed on the planet Terminus.
* * *
Despite all his preparation, Alphus experienced a strange emotion as he waited by the airlock door. The nanobots identified this emotion as nervousness. The light turned green, the computer beeped, and the inner hatch swung open. A woman entered carrying a datapad under her arm. She wore a black uniform with the insignia of the Earth Empire on one shoulder and the Imperial Space Force on the other.
“Remember what we practiced,” the nanobots said.
“Hello, I am Alphus Gomez, a refugee from Leda Colony in the Cygnus Sector,” Alphus recited. “I have been in space for three years since the destruction of my home. I am happy to see another human face after such a long time.”
“Smile,” the nanobots said, and Alphus did so.
“Ensign Kara Cunnard,” the woman said. “Welcome to Terminus. I’m here to inspect your ship. Looks like you’ve been through hell.”
Alphus frowned. “Yes, I suppose the Battle of Leda could be described as hellish.”
“I saw it on the news,” Cunnard said. “The Tomorrow News Network ran a special report. Four heavy cruisers destroyed, along with thirty support frigates. A hundred million colonists lost. An entire planet eaten by the Swarm. I think those damn nanobots got smarter after their failed invasion of Earth. They know the range of our sterilization weapons. They didn’t risk a direct assault on the colony. They used gravity waves to drag the planet out of orbit and into their reach; then they used gravity pulses to rip the planet apart rather than engage colonial ground forces. It was horrific watching it on the viewlink. What was it like being there?”
“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” Alphus recited.
Cunnard nodded. “I can understand that,” she said. “But in my book you’re a bloody hero just for getting out of there alive.”
The shuttle did not provide much room for two people. Alphus moved out of the way, feeling clumsy in planetary gravity. Cunnard scooted by and got to work, first checking the ship’s computer then heading toward the cockpit, writing notes on her datapad as she went.
“We confess,” the nanobots said, “what she says is true. These are our sins. We pray that God will forgive us, though we do not know if He forgives the sins of creatures as lowly as us. Alphus, we hope that one day you might forgive us too.”
Alphus turned his thoughts inward, addressing the nanobots in a way only they could hear.
“Is this why you abstain from gravity manipulation? Because you used gravity weapons to destroy my home?”
“Correct,” the nanobots answered.
Cunnard returned from the cockpit. Earlier, Alphus had expressed his happiness at seeing another human face, repeating what the nanobots had taught him to say. Now he wished he could communicate the extent of his joy. This woman’s warm eyes, dark hair, and russet brown complexion–they had a magnetism which Alphus’s gaze couldn’t resist. Cunnard smirked when she noticed him staring.
“You’ve got a lot of plutonium-238 fuel left over,” she said. “That’ll be valuable if you want to turn your ship in for salvage.”
“I’ll do that,” Alphus said. “Thank you, Ensign Cunnard.”
“You can call me Kara.”
Alphus frowned. He did not know how to respond to this.
“I thought only friends addressed each other on a first name basis,” he said.
Kara laughed. “Maybe I like being friendly.”
Alphus frowned. Once again, he did not know how to respond.
* * *
Alphus felt more claustrophobic in the massive colonial city than he had in his tiny, compact spaceship. He couldn’t imagine integrating into human society when human society was so busy and overcrowded, the whole population jammed into narrow streets, everyone hurrying to their next appointment, social engagement, or financial transaction. Hover cars buzzed overhead, high-rise structures blocked out the sky, and although the Swarm had not yet threatened Terminus, there was constant awareness that the Earth Empire was at war. Alphus flirted with the idea of joining the Space Force if only to get off this planet and away from the all noise.