As for the Sparta, the Swarm had incapacitated it. The first waves of nanobots were feeding on the hull, but the main focus of the battle had shifted elsewhere.
Alphus headed for navigation, but he found Talie Tappler sitting in the pilot’s seat, her feet kicked up on the console. She smiled at Alphus. Her cyborg emerged from the shadows adjusting his camera eye.
“You died,” Talie said. “You died in the most thorough manner possible. You died, and your body was completely disintegrated. Yet here you are. I suppose that’s enough to make you a temporal anomaly, or perhaps the Swarm’s reliance on time travel in their quantum computations caused this… problem that you are.”
Alphus glanced at the cyborg then back at Talie. “No gun?” he asked.
“It looks like I don’t need one,” Talie said, gesturing toward the open door.
Alphus turned and saw Kara armed with a blaster pistol. She kept it level, aimed straight at Alphus’s head.
“Enjoying the view?” she said. “Those are your buddies out there, right? Looks like they’re having fun.”
Outside, the Swarm shredded another Earth warship.
“I have one question,” Kara said. “Should I regret helping you?”
“What do you mean?” Alphus said.
Kara shrugged. “Someone installed the wrong refraction cylinder in the sterilization unit. I ‘forgot’ to assign anyone to replace it.”
“Oh,” Alphus said.
“Should I regret that?” Kara asked, waving her gun.
“I did not sabotage the computer,” Alphus said. “The Priory is trying to repair the computer right now. We have a plan. We can use the ship’s mass to disrupt the Swarm’s gravity vortex, causing a gravitational inversion.”
“Gravitational inversion?” Kara said. “You mean a black hole?”
“Yes. The resulting black hole should destroy the enemy nanobots.”
“You’d destroy the Sparta too,” Kara said.
“The crew abandoned ship.”
“What about you? You’d die.”
Alphus nodded. “Lt. Cunnard, you should get to an escape pod.”
Kara lowered her weapon. “I’m not leaving without you.”
“Lieutenant,” Alphus said, “we, the Priory and I, are the only ones who know how the Swarm’s gravity vortex works. We’re the only ones who can stop them from reaching Terminus.”
Kara nodded. She walked over to the engineering station and tapped the controls. “They’ve already eaten 12% of the exterior hull. If we’re going to do this, we have to hurry.”
“Kara,” Alphus said, “get to an escape pod. I do not want you to die.”
“I’m the ship’s chief engineer,” Kara answered. “You need my help if you’re going to pull this off.”
Alphus approached the engineering station, but Kara grabbed her gun and pointed it at him before he could reach her.
“Kara,” Alphus said, “the Priory has access to the Sparta’s schematics. They know every detail of this vessel. We don’t require your assistance.”
“There are things about this ship that aren’t in the schematics,” Kara said. “Thrusters 101 to 606 are sluggish. The port side heat shields can withstand higher stress than the starboard. The Higgs displacement generator glitches at negative seven million electron volts.
“Besides, I said I’m not leaving without you.”
Kara glared at Alphus, her finger resting against the trigger. Alphus glared right back at her.
“We are confused,” the Priory said. “Are we doing this or not?”
* * *
As the engines of the E.S.S. Sparta fired up, the Swarm immediately realigned its gravity vortex, preparing to face this new threat. The nanobots already crawling on the hull redoubled their efforts to eat their way through. On the bridge, the deck vibrated, and the computer reported multiple hull breaches.
“We need to shift the gravitational balance 20 degrees away from the central nexus,” the Priory said.
“Kara!” Alphus yelled. “I need the starboard thrusters!”
“I’m diverting power from the secondary reactors,” Kara said.
Through the viewport, Alphus saw the Swarm falter in its movements. They’d expected another round of laser fire or the sterilization weapon. They knew the tactics of the Earth Empire, but they didn’t know what to think of a warship driving straight for them on purpose.
“Mr. Cognis,” Talie said, checking her pocket watch, “get as much footage as you can before the black hole forms.”
“Yes, Ms. Tappler,” Cognis said.
Talie turned to Alphus. She leaned over the pilot seat and whispered in his ear.
“I still think I should have killed you when we first met. The last time the Swarm changed history, they made the galaxy a darker, more dangerous place. I’m taking a gamble that this time you will change history for the better, and if you do, I promise I will make sure everyone knows about your sacrifice.”
Alphus had died once before, though he still couldn’t remember it. Now, rather than being taken apart atom by atom, all his atoms would be crushed into a single point somewhere at the heart of a black hole.
The Swarm converged on the Sparta. They ate through the hull, but they couldn’t eat fast enough. The gravity vortex collapsed around them. Space and time tangled together. Talie and Cognis vanished at the last possible moment, and with a surreal crunching sound, Alphus died again.
* * *
“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. “No…” he whispered.
A white light enveloped him. Like the voices, it seemed to come from every direction at once. Alphus squeezed his eyes shut.
“What about you, Kara Cunnard?” the voices said. “Do you remember anything?”
Alphus forced his eyes open. He could see the vague shapes of rocks and a cavern wall. Shimmering dust particles hung suspended in the air, some drifting in currents, others holding perfectly still. And beside him, Alphus saw a woman, naked like himself, with russet brown skin and a frightened expression on her face.
“Do you remember the E.S.S. Sparta? Do you remember the battle with the Swarm?”
The woman huddled herself against the cold. She squinted into the light.
“Do you remember your accident, when you were sprayed with hydrogen coolant? We healed you, but we also gathered sufficient information about your DNA and multi-cellular structure to rebuild you after you died. Do you remember anything?”
Kara didn’t appear to understand. She shivered and tried to hide her face, curling into a tighter ball. But then she saw Alphus.
“Kara Cunnard, are you capable of speech?” the voices asked.
Kara reached out for Alphus, touching his arm. She poked him as if checking to see if he were real. “Do I…” she said. “Do I know you?”