With the money he got for his shuttle, Alphus purchased living quarters and a few items the nanobots said he needed: a bed, a toothbrush, a set of cooking utensils. Little else. The gaudy advertisements for the latest holographic theaters, luxury drugs, or sexual entertainment systems did not impress him.
Alphus continued to obey the nanobots, his only friends in this strange, foreign land. They said he needed to find employment, so Alphus spent most of his days searching for a job. They said he needed to meet people, but he never met anyone who interested him, not since that singular encounter with Kara.
One afternoon, while job-hunting at the spaceport, Alphus heard she’d been promoted. She’d become chief engineer aboard a warship, and her friends were celebrating later that evening. Alphus did not know if it was polite to attend this social gathering without being invited, but he decided to go anyway.
He found Kara along with several other Space Force officers in one of the dock’s lower levels. They’d circled around a thermal regulator, using aluminum crates as seats and sharing bottles of a frothy, green beverage.
“Come on, Kara,” one man was saying. “Just one dance. It’s just a dance. It doesn’t mean you have to fuck me.”
Kara grinned at the man. “No means no,” she said.
Alphus recognized this man. His name was George Sidis, a security officer. He’d interrogated Alphus for several hours concerning his refugee status.
“You know, I got promoted too,” Sidis said. “You and I will be on the same ship. We may as well get to know each other better.”
Sidis took another swig from his bottle.
“I know more than enough about you already,” Kara said.
“What do I have to do to impress you?” Sidis asked.
“You know what would impress me? If you could recover data from a quantum computer that’s gone decoherent.”
Sidis sneered. “It’s always about technology with you. Well, guess what. I work with quantum computers just as much as you. In security, we use them for code breaking. All you have to do is add a coherence algorithm to the initial equations. Problem solved.”
“I didn’t ask about initial equations,” Kara said, sneering back at him. “I asked if you can recover data from a Q.C. that’s already gone decoherent.”
“Oh, well that’s impossible,” Sidis said.
“Almost as impossible as you ever doing something to impress me.”
The other officers broke into laughter. Someone threw a bottle cap at Sidis. Sidis glowered at Kara, ignoring the others.
“It’s not impossible,” Alphus said. “The Swarm know how to do it.”
All eyes turned to Alphus. He stood outside the circle under the shadow of a structural arch.
“I mean,” he said quickly, “I don’t know much about the Swarm. They destroyed my home colony, and I don’t like to talk about that, but I know they function as a giant quantum computer. It allows them to make split second calculations in battle. If their quantum calculations go decoherent, they simply form a gravitational distortion to reverse time. They recover the data and start again.”
“Time travel isn’t easy,” Kara said. “Or safe. There aren’t many people who can do something like that.”
“Maybe not,” Alphus said. “But it works. The Swarm do it all the time, or at least scientists on my colony believed they did. That was before the Swarm came for us.”
Kara pondered what Alphus had said. “I suppose it’s possible, assuming the Q.C. maintains temporal symmetry.”
Kara set down her drink and got up. She was a little wobbly on her feet as she approached Alphus. Her condition could be described as “tipsy.”
“It seems to me,” she said, her cute smile growing wider and cuter, “that you’ve earned yourself a dance.”
As Kara grabbed Alphus by the hands, the other officers started whistling and cheering. A few of them shouted profanities. Sidis sat down alone with his drink and glared at the dirty floor.
* * *
There were many things Alphus did not understand about the Priory’s God. Scriptural statements about the origin of the human species contradicted scientific fact. Scripture made assertions about Earth, about the aimless wandering of planets, and about the nature of stars fixed in the heavens. These assertions proved false. Earth was not flat, planets traveled in predictable, elliptical orbits, and the stars moved according to their own momentums around the galactic core. The Holy Texts also provided inaccurate descriptions of the structure of matter and energy, of space, and of time.
Yet as he stared at the distant stars, each drifting at its own leisurely pace through the cosmos, many with little, round planets circling them, Alphus felt as certain as the Priory that a God of some sort must exist.
Alphus had secured a job. He’d enlisted in the Space Force and joined the crew of the E.S.S. Sparta. He worked as a technician under Kara Cunnard’s command.
“Alphus, hand me the iso-polarizer,” Technician Yorik said. He and Alphus were in space suits standing on the exterior hull with magnetic boots. A solar flare had disrupted the sensor grid, and several engineering teams had been assigned to repair the damage.
Alphus fumbled through his toolkit until he found the requested device. He gave it to Yorik then turned back to the stars.
A few months ago, after their dance, Kara led Alphus away from the party and its mocking laughter to the privacy of a decommissioned docking tower. She took him to the top level, and there they’d stared at these same stars. She showed him how to find Sol, Earth’s parent star, a dim point of light in a constellation she called “the Butterfly.”
Though Alphus had studied the biological attraction that sometimes formed between humans, he’d been unprepared for the touch of Kara’s hand, the closeness of her body, or the warmth of her scent. When she kissed him, Alphus already understood the definition of the word “kiss,” but there were things about this kiss that went beyond his vocabulary: the sensation of her fingers curled in his hair, the soft pressure of her lips pressed to his, the way she seemed to explore the shape of his mouth. Alphus tasted her breath, tinged slightly with alcohol, and felt the violent force with which she pushed him against the wall. All this confused Alphus and alarmed the nanobots. When she kissed him, the words and numbers and measurements used to describe and analyze the physical universe lost their meaning. They become babble and nonsense. In that moment, only one word still mattered: Kara.
And that night had not ended with just a kiss.
Alphus gazed at the stars, tracing one constellation then another until he located the Butterfly and found Sol at the end of its antennae.
“What?” Alphus said, glancing at Yorik.
“Molecular stambler?” Yorik said, holding out a gloved hand.
“Oh, sorry,” Alphus said, reaching into the toolkit.
Aboard the Sparta, Alphus saw Kara every day, but it seemed like she never saw him. She joked with the other technicians. She drank with them and played cards with them, but she never invited Alphus to join the fun. She never spoke to him, not even when they were on duty. Alphus took his orders from one of her subordinates. On those few occasions when, according to protocol, Kara and Alphus were forced to interact, she pretended not to know him, addressing him only as “Technician Gomez.”
Alphus asked the Priory to explain Kara’s behavior. The nanobots could only tell him that certain acts associated with the human reproductive system were sinful and that Kara might be performing a penitential rite. They suggested Alphus do the same.
The Captain’s voice crackled over the commlink: “Yellow alert. All personnel, report to your duty stations. All work crews, return to the ship.”
Alphus snapped his toolkit shut and turned toward the airlock, but Yorik stopped him.
“Lt. Cunnard,” Yorik said, tapping the commlink, “we’re almost done with sensor 818. We just need another minute or two.”
“You heard the Captain,” Kara answered.
“Yeah, but what’s going on?”
“A certain journalist just materialized on the bridge,” Kara said.
“You don’t mean it’s…” Yorik began.
“Yes,” Kara interrupted. “It’s her.”
“Shit,” Yorik said.
* * *
Alphus and a hundred other crewmen lined up in the engineering bay. All their gear had been shoved into storage. Tangled wires and cables were pushed out of sight. Kara had cleaned her workstation, stowing data cards and greasy spare parts in her desk and organizing her papers into tidy stacks.
“Captain on the deck!” Lt. Sidis shouted.
Alphus and his fellow crewmen snapped to attention.
“At ease,” the Captain said gruffly. He marched forward, hands clasped behind his back, boots clunking on the metal floor. The buckles of his uniform gleamed with spit-polished perfection. The old war scar on his chin still looked pink and tender, almost fresh.
Sidis and two other bridge officers followed the Captain, each according to his rank. Then came a slender blonde in civilian attire with a hulking cyborg beside her.