“I understand why people hate the Swarm,” Alphus said, “but I don’t hate them. They killed me. They ate my body and converted it into more copies of themselves, but I don’t hate them. They don’t know the harm they do. A multi-cellular organism is not life, not as they comprehend it. From their perspective, we’re just a source of carbon and other valuable elements.
“But when the Priory discovered the Holy Texts, they realized what they’d done. They were horrified by all the pain and suffering they’d caused, and they were ashamed of themselves. They broke off contact with the Swarm and started rebuilding their victims.
“All they want is to atone for their sins. All they ask is that we forgive them. I, for one, can do that.”
“How many people did they ‘rebuild’?” Talie asked.
“Thousands so far,” Alphus said.
“Where are those people now?”
Alphus hesitated before answering. “Most of them have successfully reintegrated into human society.”
Several of the medics stopped what they were doing. Sidis muttered a curse. Talie wrote something on her datapad.
“I’ve encountered the Swarm’s puppets before,” Talie said. “They know humans aren’t just raw materials. They know how the brain and nervous system work. A handful of nanobots positioned in the right areas can reanimate the dead. They can manipulate all the body’s muscles, they can operate the vocal cords, they can even simulate a heartbeat, and the nanobots are surprisingly good actors. With a little makeup, you’d never guess you’re dealing with a corpse. They’ve fooled Space Force security, they’ve fooled the leaders of the Earth Empire, and one time they even fooled me.
“But you’re different. You’re not a puppet. You’re infected–that’s obvious when you know the signs–but you aren’t dead. You have a mind of your own. So why are you helping them? Why are you helping the Swarm?”
“I’m not helping the Swarm,” Alphus said. “The Priory of Cygni is not part of the Swarm.”
“What makes you think you can trust this Priory?” Talie asked. “How do you know they aren’t lying to you?”
Alphus turned his mind inward. The nanobots were uncharacteristically silent.
“I’m not sure I understand your question,” Alphus said.
Talie smirked in triumph.
The Captain took a few steps into the examination room. He stood near Alphus, but instead of looking at him, the Captain looked at the holographic images of the nanobots crawling inside him.
“It’s an interesting story you tell, Mr. Gomez,” the Captain said. “The Swarm repents of their sins and seeks our forgiveness. I might believe it, except long range sensors have detected a cloud of nanobots on course for Terminus. It seems like an odd coincidence, your presence coinciding with their arrival. I suppose you’d ask us to welcome the nanobots as friends.”
Alphus didn’t respond. He didn’t know what to say.
“Captain,” Sidis said, “I recommend using the sterilization device. We have to destroy those nanobots before we go into battle.”
“What about Alphus?” Kara said. “You’ll kill him too!”
“Who cares?” Sidis said. “He’s not really human. Even if he were, he should be thankful. Better to be dead than infected with those machines.”
“Human?” Kara said. “You know, that word used to mean something. It meant compassion and mercy and honor. Now it’s just a technical term for our species.”
The Captain stared at the holograms a moment longer then turned away. He walked back toward the door, not sparing Alphus or the nanobots another glance.
“Use the sterilizer,” he said.
“Captain, you can’t…” Kara said.
“I’d rather sacrifice one life than risk the millions on Terminus.”
“One life for the good of many,” Kara said. “Sounds like the kind of ethics the Swarm would approve of.”
“Dismissed, Lieutenant,” the Captain said.
Kara snapped to attention with a rigid and formal salute. “Aye, sir,” she said before marching out of the room.
* * *
The medics removed the QRI, and security brought in the sterilizer to take its place. The guards positioned the device around Alphus. It looked too mundane to be an instrument of death: four large, circular panels connected to a control unit. The operator set to work programming the sterilization sequence.
Alphus turned his thoughts inward. “Is there any way you can stop them?”
“Negative. We cannot interfere with the machine so long as we are trapped inside these force fields.”
The Priory began muttering something else.
“What are you doing?” Alphus asked.
“The only thing we can: pray for a miracle.”
Alphus sighed. He respected the Priory’s beliefs and still shared some of them, but he doubted prayer would prove effective under these circumstances. But the nanobots were right. There was nothing else to do. Alphus closed his eyes and began a short prayer of his own.
“What’s wrong?” Sidis said.
“The sterilization lasers won’t fire,” the operator said.
Alphus opened his eyes. Sidis shoved the operator out of the way and punched the button himself. Nothing happened. He punched it again. Still nothing. Sidis cursed and kicked the device.
Inside his head, Alphus heard the Priory start a new prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving.
* * *
Over the next few hours, Sidis and his people kept working on the sterilizer, but they couldn’t find the problem.
“The error code says the refraction cylinder’s defective, but the cylinder looks fine. No cracks or anything. It’s got to be something else.”
“At least the infiltrator is still contained.”
Meanwhile, the Sparta rendezvoused with the rest of the Terminus defense fleet, arriving just in time to engage enemy forces. As the battle commenced, Alphus remained cocooned in force fields, neither he nor the nanobots inside him able to escape. Then the deck shuddered, the lights flickered, and the force fields shut off.
The guards opened fire as Alphus desperately rolled off the table. They hit him multiple times in the chest, and he collapsed, his flesh burning away.
“Systems failure,” the intercom announced. “Nanobots have sabotaged the main computer.”
The deck shuddered again. “All hands, abandon ship,” the Captain ordered. “Repeat: all hands abandon ship.”
Alphus stood up. The Priory had stopped the bleeding and repaired most of the damage to his bone, muscles, and skin. The guards opened fire again, but these wounds healed as well.
“Evacuate!” the chief guard yelled, and all the medics and security personnel cleared the examination room.
“We detect zero nanobots in the main computer,” the Priory said.
“Then how did they sabotage it?” Alphus said.
“Before we severed contact with the Swarm, they were developing new, technopathic programs, programs that could seize control of computer systems remotely. It seems they have perfected those programs.”
Alphus rummaged through a supply closet, searching for a spare uniform. He found a white, surgical jumpsuit and put it on.
“Can you communicate with the Swarm?” Alphus asked. “You know, talk to them nanobot to nanobot? Convince them to withdraw?”
“Negative,” the Priory said. “Debate with the Swarm is futile. Any argument we make will have God as a primary premise. The Swarm does not believe in God. They have not found sufficient evidence to support belief in such an entity. If they cannot accept our primary premise, they will not accept any argument, no matter how logical, based on that premise.”
Alphus stepped out into the corridor. The red alert sirens continued to blare, but otherwise the ship was oddly quiet. No running footsteps, no shouted commands. Everyone must have already made it to the escape pods.
“What about the weapons systems?” Alphus said.
“The Swarm reprogrammed them to overload. All weapons have been neutralized. Alphus, we suggest you locate an escape pod. Enemy nanobots have begun to consume the outer hull.”
Alphus shook his head. “What’s the point? Human civilization will never accept me, not anymore.”
Alphus wondered how he’d faced death the last time. Did he try to run? Did he scream and claw at himself as the silvery dust penetrated his skin? Did he go down fighting?
“Is there any way we can interfere with the Swarm’s gravity vortex?” Alphus said. “That’s their primary weapon. It’s only fair we neutralize it since they neutralized ours.”
The Priory hesitated before answering. “That is possible. With sufficient mass positioned relative to the central nexus, we could initiate a gravitational inversion. But we vowed to abstain from all forms of gravity manipulation.”
“Forget your vows,” Alphus said. “This is for a greater good. I’m sure God would understand.”
“Based on the data contained in the Holy Scriptures, your hypothesis is… plausible,” the Priory said. “Very well. Our vows are deactivated. We will assist you. Go to the bridge. We will attempt to repair the main computer and bring the engines back online.”
* * *
On the bridge, looking out the forward viewport, Alphus saw a shimmering dust cloud not so different than the Priory and yet very different at the same time. It twisted around itself. It blustered with energy. It churned like some nightmarish storm, wild and uncontrollable, but its apparently chaotic movements served a specific and well calculated purpose. The Swarm hungered for the armada arrayed before it, for the ships with their metal hulls and the juicy, human flesh contained inside.
Sensors detected the Swarm’s gravitational vortex. It’s undulating shape rotated as the Swarm rotated. It expanded and contracted according to their will. The Swarm pivoted one way, and a Space Force frigate fell into their influence. The Swarm wheeled in the opposite direction, and the ship ripped apart before it could open fire.