Children of the Swarm, Page 3

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“According to Space Force regulation nine, paragraph one,” the Captain said, “we are to cooperate with members of the media no matter how unusual or unexpected their visits may be.  This is Talie Tappler from the Tomorrow News Network.  She has presented her credentials to me, and I have authenticated them.  Ms. Tappler has full access to all areas of the ship, and I expect each of you to answer her questions as honestly and completely as you are able.  Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” the assembled crew replied.

Talie smirked.  She had a dainty face with a perky, upturned nose.  Her curly, blonde hair fell to her shoulders, and the skirt of her royal blue dress fell far short of her knees.  She walked with military curtness, her back straight, hands clasped behind her–a parody of the Captain and his officers.  Her high heels clicked on the floor, her jewelry sparkled, and her eyes burned with unnatural inner light.

“Oh, you brave souls,” she said.  “You brave, brave souls out here on the frontier of space, defending humanity from the unknown.  I’ve been aboard many Earth warships, Captain, but I’ve never seen such a disciplined crew.”

“Discipline is our strength,” the Captain said.  “Discipline has brought us through many battles.  It has saved us from defeat time and again.  I know the discipline of my crew will bring us victory, whatever the future may hold.”

Talie rolled her eyes.  She walked along the rows of crewmen, giving each a cursory glance.  Not a sound could be heard except her high heeled steps.

Alphus turned his thoughts inward, addressing the Priory.  “Why is everyone so frightened of this woman?” he asked.

“We have collected substantial data on Talie Tappler,” the nanobots answered.  “The exact date and location of her birth are uncertain, but oracles predict her death will take place in the late 300th Century.  She is a time traveler and journalist employed by the Tomorrow News Network.  She has spent the majority of her career covering wars, plagues, and natural disasters.  We theorize that your crewmates are not afraid of her but rather what her presence may signify.”

Talie stopped to interview Yorik.  She spoke to him in a mild, congenial tone which only seemed to increase the poor man’s panic.  She asked about Yorik’s duties, about his opinion of the Captain–“Come on, you can be honest!” she laughed–and about his family back on Terminus.

Meanwhile, Talie’s cybernetic companion adjusted the focus of his prosthetic camera eye, recording every minute detail of Yorik’s sweaty and terrified face.

“You said you have a little sister,” Talie commented.

“Yes, ma’am,” Yorik answered, close to tears.  “I love her very much.  I just hope I get to see her again.”

Talie smiled sympathetically.

“Our data indicates that the majority of Ms. Tappler’s interview subjects meet some disastrous fate within a twenty-four hour period,” the nanobots reported.  “The most likely explanation is that, being a time traveler, she already knows who is supposed to suffer the most and singles those individuals out for special attention.  However, given the quantum nature of time travel, Ms. Tappler’s news coverage may change a probable future into a definite future.”

Talie interviewed another crewman, leaving him a shell-shocked husk of a man, then she sauntered back toward the Captain.  The Captain stiffened.  Like a cornered animal, he watched Talie approach, but he faced this threat like any other: with grim determination.

Talie’s pace faltered.  She sniffed the air, and her bright, violet eyes flashed to Alphus.

“Who are you?” she demanded.

“Alphus Gomez, technician third-class.”

Talie glared at Alphus.  She didn’t move.  She didn’t say anything.  It was as though something Alphus said or did had gravely offended her.

Before journeying to Terminus, Alphus had researched human customs and social interactions.  On some occasions, humans would shake hands upon meeting.  It was considered polite.  The practice dated back to ancient times when knights wished to demonstrate that they bore no ill will toward one another.  Uncertain what he’d done to upset her, Alphus timidly offered Talie his hand.

“Don’t touch me!” Talie shouted, jumping back.  The cyborg stepped in to protect her.  “Who are you?  What are you doing aboard this ship?”

“Technician Gomez,” Alphus answered.  “I’m assigned to work detail seven.  My duties include basic maintenance and repair of the ship’s sensors and communication systems.”

“Ms. Tappler,” the cyborg said, “I am unable to determine the chronological resistance factor associated with this individual.  He is a temporal anomaly.”

“I can see that, Mr. Cognis,” Talie muttered.

“We should inform the News Director,” Cognis said.

Inside his head, Alphus could hear the nanobots’ rapid chatter as they evaluated their options.  They urged Alphus to escape.  They were afraid, more so than the Captain or Yorik or the rest of the crew.  Machine or not, they were afraid.

“Who sent you?” Talie snapped.

“I came here of my own free will,” Alphus insisted.  “My home colony was destroyed.  I don’t like to talk about that.  I thought my skills would be useful to the Space Force, so I enlisted.  I am good at working with machines.”

Talie laughed.  “I bet you are.”

“Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said, “we should return to the newsroom and alert the News Director.”

But Talie turned away from the cyborg, grabbed a security officer by the belt, and yanked his blaster pistol from its holster.  She aimed the weapon at Alphus.

“Mr. Cognis,” she said, “you remember what happened the last time we met someone like him.”

“Yes, Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said, moving aside.

The security officer glanced at the Captain.  The Captain shook his head no.  Regulations concerning the media–especially the Tomorrow News Network–were clear: do not interfere.

Alphus closed his eyes and silently recited one of the prayers the nanobots had taught him.  After a moment, the nanobots joined him.

“No,” Talie said bitterly.  “I can’t predict the consequences of killing you.  Not until I know more about you.”

Alphus opened his eyes and saw Talie toss the blaster back to its original owner.  The security officer caught it awkwardly.

Talie pulled a pocket watch from the folds of her dress and twisted the dial.  In a burst of multi-spectral energy, she and the cyborg vanished.

Alphus took a deep breath and noticed for the first time his racing heartbeat.  In his mind, he could hear the nanobots analyzing and calculating, their fears still palpable in their complex language of numbers and computer code.  “She’ll return,” they warned.  “We must prepare.  We are scanning for fluctuations in the chronomagnetic field.”

Alphus took another deep breath, savoring the sterile chill of the ship’s recycled air.  His own thoughts could be expressed with a few simplistic words: I’m alive!  I’m still alive!

Sidis whispered something to the Captain.  The two of them watched Alphus, their expressions as stern and impersonal as ever.

* * *

Once the bridge officers left, the other technicians gathered around Alphus.  Two of them lifted him on their shoulders while the rest chanted:

He scared off the witch,
The time traveler bitch!
She said, “Goodbye!”
Now we won’t die
’Cause Alphus scared off the witch!

Alphus tried to interpret this behavior.  His fellow technicians were treating him like a key player in a sporting event.  They celebrated him like he’d performed some heroic feat of athleticism.  This confused Alphus–all he’d done was not get shot–but despite his confusion, Alphus realized he was smiling.

“I have a theory,” Yorik announced.  “Alphus always seemed a little weird.  Maybe that’s because he’s not supposed to be here.  You heard what the cyborg called him: a temporal anomaly.  I think my buddy Alphus is going to alter the timeline.  He’s going to save us from whatever terrible fate Talie Tappler came here to cover.”

“That’s about the only thing that would piss off a time traveler like her,” another technician said.

“One thing’s for sure,” someone else added.  “We’re not letting that Tappler woman anywhere near Alphus again.”

The technicians cheered and began singing:

Talie Tappler, go away!
No one’s going to die today!

Alphus looked around, searching for Kara.  She tended to participate in this sort of rowdiness, but he found her far across the engineering bay.  He caught her staring at him, but as soon as their eyes met she turned and went back to her workstation.

* * *

In the mess hall, Alphus got a text on his wrist communicator: “Stop by our quarters after your duty shift.  Maybe we can have some fun.  Kisses from Meg and Sophie.”

Alphus looked up and saw a pair of young, female officers on the far side of the room.  One of them winked.  The other smiled and waved.

“This is atypical courtship behavior,” the nanobots informed Alphus.  “We lack sufficient data…”

“It’s okay,” Alphus said.  “I think I understand.  I’ll explain it to you later.”

Alphus turned his attention back to his meal.  In the twenty-four hours since the incident with Talie, Alphus had discovered how much he enjoyed human culture and society.  He’d learned to sing a raunchy song called “Boldly Going Where No Man’s Gone Before.”  He’d won eighty credits in a game called triple-card stud.  He’d tried that frothy, green drink his crewmates seemed to love (it tasted vile and contained chemicals which impaired brain functions–chemicals the nanobots swiftly neutralized).  He’d made dozens of new friends and received offers for romantic encounters with six (now eight) women and two men.  In each case, he told these potential love interests as politely as he could that he’d consider their proposals.  The nanobots had their own opinion about how he should proceed, but Alphus ignored them.  He no longer relied on their guidance.

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