Alphus had become an instant shipboard celebrity not for anything he’d done but for something he was going to do, something serious enough to disrupt Talie’s story. The nanobots warned Alphus to avoid Talie at all costs, but he didn’t listen. He preferred to fantasize about how he’d deal with the time traveler when next they met. He planned to trick her into revealing the future, giving him the clues he needed to save the ship.
Then Alphus fantasized about the party that would follow. More chanting. More singing. The Captain would promote him. Sidis would grudgingly compliment his ingenuity. The crew would cheer, they’d drink more green beer, and Kara would dance with him again.
Forget everything else. Just one dance with Kara would be enough. One dance, a cute smile, and maybe another kiss.
Alphus frowned. He stood up to leave.
“Alphus,” Yorik said, “you barely touched your rations.”
“You require additional nutrients,” the nanobots added.
“I’m not hungry,” Alphus said, a little confused about who he was replying to.
Alphus went out into the corridor, heading toward the engineering bay. Another young, female officer bumped into him, a female officer with her uniform top half unzipped contrary to the Space Force dress code. She pretended the collision was an accident. “Hi,” she said, toying with her hair.
“Hello,” Alphus said, continuing on his way.
* * *
Alphus found Kara in one of the maintenance pits, her hands deep inside the machinery, her tools scattered on the floor around her. Alphus climbed down to join her.
“Kara,” he said.
Kara’s head whipped around. “Technician Gomez,” she said, “I expect you to maintain protocol with me. You will address me as either lieutenant or sir. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Alphus answered.
“What do you want?”
“I’m just checking to see if you need help. What are you doing?”
Kara grunted. She yanked out a piece of corroded metal and flicked it away.
“I’m adjusting the hydrogen coolant valves,” she said.
Alphus glanced at the status panel. “The evaporation rate is less than 0.05%. That’s within safety margins.”
“I think I can get it down to 0.02,” Kara said. “Technician, I’ve assigned you to calibrate the lateral navigation sensor. That’s on the other side of the ship.”
“Yes, sir,” Alphus said. “I’ll go grab my equipment.”
Kara nodded and continued her work. Alphus started climbing back up the ladder.
“I heard the Bridge Bunnies talking about you,” Kara said.
“Bridge Bunnies?” Alphus asked.
“Meg and Sophie. Every man on the ship wants to bunk with them for the night. You’re a lucky guy.”
Alphus paused to reflect on this. He pictured the two women from the mess hall with their long legs, short hair, and uniforms that were a little more form-fitting than regulations required.
“I don’t think they’re my type,” Alphus said.
Kara raised an eyebrow at that.
Several other technicians had returned from their lunch breaks and were reading the duty roster. Alphus walked to his locker and changed into his utility vest. He opened his toolkit, checking that everything was in its place. He was looking for his molecular stambler when he heard an explosion and felt the deck shake.
For a split second, Alphus thought this was it, the moment the ship was in danger, the moment when he had to save everyone. Then he saw the gas billowing from the maintenance pit and heard Kara screaming.
Alphus ran back to her, dropping his tools. The gas quickly dissipated, and he saw what had happened. The valve, partly corroded, had ruptured, spraying Kara with a mixture of liquid hydrogen and other super cooled fluids. Most of her body had flash frozen. Her arm and lower leg had shattered when she fell.
“Medical emergency!” someone shouted into the ship’s intercom. “Medical team to engineering bay one!”
Alphus jumped into the pit. The remaining coolant skittered around the floor, rapidly evaporating in the room temperature environment. Kara lay on her side, no longer shivering, no longer moving at all. A thin layer of frost coated her face and torso.
“Alphus,” the nanobots said, “please return to a safe location. The containment system is unstable. A second rupture could occur at any moment.”
“She’s dying!” Alphus said, rolling Kara onto her back. Her lips moved feebly for a moment then stopped. She wasn’t breathing. Her heart wasn’t beating.
“A medical team has already been summoned,” the nanobots reminded him.
“What’s the probability that they can revive her?” Alphus asked.
The nanobots did some calculations. They didn’t share the results with Alphus.
“Help her,” Alphus said.
The nanobots didn’t respond.
“Help her!” Alphus commanded.
After a moment, silvery particles appeared on his skin, crawling out through his pores. They rose into the air, slowly gathering around Kara, circling her. The shimmering dust cloud grew thicker and swirled faster. Shattered flesh dissolved and reassembled. Kara’s body began to thaw. Color returned to her cheeks. Life returned to her eyes. She blinked, staring at Alphus in confusion as the nanobots rushed back into his body.
“Security to engineering bay one!” someone yelled into the intercom. “The Swarm have infiltrated the ship. Repeat: the Swarm have infiltrated the ship!”
* * *
Alphus lay naked on a table, his body fully enveloped by force fields. A quantum resonance imager swiveled overhead while a team of medics fussed over computer consoles.
“We’re detecting at least three million artificial microbes in the patient’s body,” one of the medics reported. “The largest concentrations are in the brain and spinal cord.”
“Captain,” Sidis said, “we’ve conducted a thorough scan of Technician Gomez’s quarters. We found no evidence of nanobot infestation. We’re continuing to scan the surrounding sections of the ship as well as the engineering bay.”
“Scan his quarters again,” the Captain said. “I want every deck checked and double checked. Leave no atom or molecule unturned.”
“What about Lt. Cunnard?” Sidis asked.
“I’m clean,” Kara answered.
Alphus turned his head. The force fields provided him only minimal freedom of movement. He could see the Captain and Sidis in the doorway of the medical examination room. Kara joined them, zipping up her uniform.
“I’m sure you understand our concerns,” Sidis said. “You more than anyone else had close, personal contact with the infiltrator.”
“Fuck you, Sidis,” Kara replied.
“Lt. Cunnard,” the Captain said, “you do not have permission to speak freely.”
Kara snapped to attention. “Aye, sir,” she said.
Sidis smiled and winked at her as soon as the Captain wasn’t looking.
Alphus turned his gaze back to the quantum resonance imager. The QRI rotated clockwise and counterclockwise. With a series of muted beeps, it performed another subatomic scan of Alphus’s brain.
Inside his head, Alphus listened to the nanobots bemoan their failure. “Lord, we tried to correct our mistakes. We rebuilt this man that we killed and gave him his life back, but now Alphus will die a second time. We failed to protect him. Lord, forgive us!”
“Shut up,” Alphus mumbled.
Alphus had told the Captain and Sidis about the Priory. He explained how they’d discovered the Holy Scriptures in the monastery, how they’d separated from the Swarm, and how they’d pledged to undo all the damage they’d done. He assured the Captain that the nanobots had no hostile intentions, that their only purpose was to help Alphus adjust to human society. But no one believed him.
“Warning,” the nanobots said. “Chronomagnetic fluctuations detected.”
Alphus turned his head. Talie and her cameraman were interviewing Sidis.
“The infiltrator mentioned something called the Priory of Cygni,” Sidis said. “We assume he’s referring to recent Swarm activity near 61 Cygni. We lost contact with both colonies in that system three years ago, and the Space Force has had a hard time regaining control of the sector ever since.”
Talie nodded. “What will the Space Force do about this so-called Priory?”
“We’re going to hunt it down and destroy it,” Sidis said. “During questioning, the infiltrator described an asteroid field. He wouldn’t provide exact coordinates, but we sent as much information as we could on these asteroids to sector command. They’ve already begun a search.”
“Ms. Tappler,” Alphus said. “Why don’t you interview me?”
Talie glared at Alphus then turned back to Sidis.
“You’re a journalist,” Alphus said. “Aren’t you supposed to get both sides of the story?”
Talie clenched her fists and took a long, seething breath. “All right, Technician Gomez,” she said. “Let’s hear what you have to say. Why shouldn’t the Earth Empire wipe out this special Priory of yours?”
With heavy, metallic steps, the cyborg approached Alphus where he lay and set up his shot. Talie, however, kept her distance despite the safety of the force fields. She barely deigned to even look at Alphus as he spoke.