Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Voyages of the Earthship Horus:

Alice

by Michael Joseph


For a shortcut, the route through the nebula seemed endless.

Molly, my seven-foot-something tall navigator, and Betty, my holographic computer interface, came up with the bright idea to go through the Scorpion's Claw nebula as a quicker way to the nearest dark matter corridor. We'd been dog paddling for hours through a murky sea of ionized gas as thick as curdled kleemash milk. A straight run would have risked fouling our systems or worse, colliding with something solid enough to crack the hull; sensor signals were bounced and refracted by the varying density of the clouds, confusing our nav programs and leaving us all but blind.

Somehow, though, the girls managed to keep us from getting lost. Even Opus Capesius, my engineer, and Xao, his second, couldn't do as well, although they are experts at keeping the ship dancing through the twists and turns ordered by the bridge. As we were blindly feeling our way through this glorified fog bank, we received an odd distress signal.

Me? I'm Plato Zhoth, captain of the Earthship Horus.

"Where's that signal coming from?" I asked Lilliph, one of the "kitty sisters", cloned female human/cheetah twins on duty at the com.

"Hard to say," she said. "Can you get a fix on it, Betty?"

"Not really. It is definitely a distress signal of some sort, but in a code not recognized by my internal data banks. It seems to be similar to the alien Grey telepathic communications that only they understand."

I hit the com. "Opus, Xao, we need you on the bridge." Opus was half-human, half-alien Grey. Xao was full Grey and the telepath of the crew.

Xao knew exactly what it was.

"It is a distress signal. I cannot get an exact fix on it, but maybe, if I send a response, I will find out more about the direction."

Xao did some alien magic on the com. There was a modulated white noise rising and falling in volume and pitch for no more than a few seconds. The signal came back sounding the same to me, but not to Xao. My first reaction was to just keep going and let them take care of their own. We could send a com to the nearest Interplan outpost with instructions to the nebula. The Greys are a secretive race who shunned my crewman, Xao, simply because he decided to become a part of my crew. I guess he thought that he could, maybe, get back in their good graces by helping one of his own.

"One of the Greys' ships is lost. The signal comes from no more than 300,000 kilometers along this direction." He pointed to a position on the nav screen, then traced a course with bends and turns to a point that would be almost right next to where we were. Problem was, we could not simply turn and travel in the direction of the lost ship. Not through clouds opaque to sensors that could be hiding other ships, asteroids...

Just relaying the distress call to Interplan would have fulfilled our legal obligations, but I always try to do more when I can. That habit has gotten me in lots of jams, but I believe in karma. There might be a time when I need help, and I like to think that if I'm more likely to get it if I deserve it. Besides, grateful captains sometimes offer rewards for a little assistance...

Molly went to work, and within a few hours of dead slow flight, we reached the place Xao indicated.

"Where is it?" I asked.

"It is scared. It has cloaked itself," said Xao.

"I don't understand. What do you mean by saying 'itself'?" I asked.

"This is a living ship," said Xao. "The Greys experimented with such things many years ago. This one must have been through some trauma, judging from her current state. I have surmised that her crew was sick or injured because there was no reply from anyone, only from the ship itself."

"Can we fly it, maybe tow it or something?" asked Molly.

"She will not go unless piloted by at least one Grey crewman."

"Can you do it?" I asked.

Xao inaudibly communicated with the vessel invisible to us. The forward view screen cleared of the viscous nebula cloud as a wall of silver materialized off our starboard bow. It was large enough to swallow the Horus and not even burp.

"Woah! Lucky we didn't plow into that thing," said Opus.

"It has a self preservation command ingrained into its semi-sentient brain. It would have moved to avoid collision, but will not willingly go anywhere until the pilot returns."

"Opus, go with Xao and see if you can get it going. Maybe we can tow it out and set it free to return to its home planet."

Dr. Ail-Mer entered the bridge with Dolphie, Lilliph's sister, in tow.

"Did I hear right?" asked the doctor. "Are you sending our two engineers into a ship with who-knows-what inside?"

"She has given me her assurance that there is no disease aboard," said Xao.

"She?" asked Dolphie.

"Long story. I'll fill you in later. I just want to see if we can find out more about it... I mean her. I never leave a pretty lady in the lurch. Call it a hunch," I said.

"Yeah, like the lady you met on Peseus IV. She took you on, what did you call it, a 'beer run'? You had to stay within ten paces of the commode for days," said Dolphie.

"Well, how did I know it was tainted?"

"It was probably her and not the beer," said the doctor.

I let it rest after that. They probably were right. Silence shrouded the bridge as we watched the small shuttle as it neared the craft. A hole opened in the side. We saw an empty bay beyond, and then my two crewmen disappeared. Word of the ship's condition from Opus finally came over the computer interface instead of the com.

"They are fine," said Betty as her Old Earth pin-up image shimmered into view. "Opus wants to talk to you. It is complicated, but I think we can do it."

An ear-shattering squelch modulated into a hiss, and then became recognizable as the voice of Opus -- more or less. An image, like a foggy view of the living ship's interior, came into view on the forward screen.

"Captain, can you hear me?" The words came from Opus's lips, but the tone was more like Xao, and the voice had a feminine quality that was normal for neither.

"Yes, I think I see you, but it is not clear."

"Everything is coming from Xao's mind through the ship's com," said Betty. "Sight and sound must be translated and transmitted through an organic com there. I must use my resources here to put it through. It seems there are three minds acting as one."

"Xao is mentally linked to the ship's systems. He is acting as the pilot, calming her. He says that she is very frightened. Her pilot is missing. It causes her much pain. She is worried that she will not find him again. He says she will die if she does not."

"Can I speak with Xao?"

"In a sense, you are. You are also speaking to the ship. She likes you because of the memories in Xao's mind. I also share the link," said Betty.

"Okay, okay, can we get her to follow us?"

"Yes, in fact she is eager, if you can define it in human terms. Now, she has a reason to live. She will gladly follow you until reunited with her pilot."

"Molly, take us out of here. Betty, monitor Xao throughout this ordeal. Let me know of any change no matter how trivial. Opus, I need you here."

My engineer returned with the shuttle and we resumed the trip. I named the ship Alice. I hate talking about a ship without a name. She followed the Horus like a puppy looking for a bone, I swore I almost could see her smile in the rearview screen.

The trajectory through the nebula was quick and direct.

"Now, that's what I call navigation. Molly, you outdid yourself this time," I said.

"It wasn't me. It's Betty. I just flew the ship."

"I have been following the nav pattern relayed by Xao," Molly said. "The ship..."

"Let's call her Alice."

"Alice has an extensive data base covering everything in this sector including vector trajectories through the nebula."

I knew that would be valuable. I had Betty upload most of her files. Eventually, we emerged into open space where the dark matter corridor, where we "surf" the flux waves into hyperspace, lay directly ahead.

"Alice is in some sort of distress," said Betty.

"About what this time?" I asked. This ship was beginning to act like certain females.

"Her long range sensors detect a vessel on an intercept course. She says they are lower life forms," said Betty. "That's all. I cannot obtain more information. She is... scared!"

Crap! I knew that this thing could not go smooth. "Put me in touch with Xao."

"Captain," said the melded voices of my second engineer and the living ship.

"What's happening to the ship? Betty told me it's scared." Even the thought of a ship having emotions was mind-boggling.

"We are preparing to enter defensive mode. The vessel hid in the nebula many years ago to avoid this ship. She says they want her... as food!"

A light went off in my head. It had to be the Mantizoids, a species with absolutely no sense of morality. They obey no rules except their own. They prey on the living for food. And they eat anything living, even their own. Their voracious appetite is never satiated. Luckily, they are few because of their cannibalistic tendencies. Greys are a peaceful race, preferring to talk out any aggression. Usually their impeccable logic and telepathic abilities are enough. The Mantizoids probably took the crew from Alice and tried to take her. They wouldn't be able to fly her without the pilot so she hid in the nebula.

"Com coming in, captain," said Dolphie.

"No visual out. Put their incoming audio and visual on the bridge com."

The Mantizoids communicate using series of clicks, screeches and scratches. It made my head hurt. Betty had no trouble translating. The image of a tall preying mantis-like insectoid being appeared on the view screen. The ship was located some distance away and heading in our direction fast.

"Captain, we cannot see you.You have problem?" said the bug as his triangular head swiveled and his beady, multi-faceted eyes scanned around his exoskeleton-plated body.

"Our com broke. What do you want?" I didn't want him to see how many crewmen I had on the ship. No sense in giving him hunger pangs. I only wished I had kept some of that tainted beer. I would have sent him a case. I wondered if a bug can get the squirts.

"Yes, yes, com broke. We like humans, but will leave you. We want ship. Ship keep us busy hatching eggs and feeding young. You can be gone."

"No humans, no ship." I didn't like the sound of him saying he wanted to bring more of those cockroaches into this sector. Alice cloaked and I knew Xao would take her to a safe distance from us.

The Horus shivered as a huge triangular shaped vessel met up with us as easily as a solar flare wraps a planet with its radiation. The ship used a gravitational propulsion system creating a slight wake. They were here and ready to destroy or disable us. Their powerful ships were the fastest in the sector. Few lived to report of their encounter with the insectoids. It's the reason these bugs weren't wiped out centuries ago. The thought that they were going to use Alice as an incubator upped the ante.

"We take all," said captain Bug.

The stars winked out. The image of the Mantizoid captain disappeared from my screen, as did the ship. Total darkness surrounded the Horus, no sound, no light, only black space in front and rear. Alice decloaked off our port bow.

"Betty, what just happened?" I asked.

"We seem to be in some sort of a cover... like a blanket thrown over us," said Lilliph.

"Xao, I know you can hear me. What is happening?" I said calling out to the Grey's telepathic mind through the com.

"We are safe, captain," said the melded voices of the Alice and Xao. The air shivered in front of me and a holo image of Xao appeared. He radiated a ghostly aura. His lips never moved, like when he communicated telepathically, only the sound came over the bridge com.

"Betty, how is this happening?"

No answer.

"Betty...Betty? Xao, what happened?"

"She likes the name Alice. Yes, she is now Alice."

"Who likes Alice? Betty?"

"We like Alice." The voice was distinctly feminine without the overlay of Xao's alien grey tone.

"Betty is fine. She is with us now."

"What do you mean? I want to get on our way now. Xao, return to the ship. I'll send Opus to get you."

"That will not be necessary," said Alice. "We are one now. One ship, one crew."

"One captain!" I growled. "That's me, and I said to let my ship, my computer and my crewman, Xao, go free."

"We are free. We can go anywhere."

The stars reappeared and the beautiful blue orb of Earth filled the forward screen. There were theories about movement from one place to another instantly. It has something to do with folding space or some crap. I never got into theoretical, only practical.

"Whoa! How'd you do that?" asked Molly.

"It is beyond your understanding. Only know that it is. Only know that we can do it," said Alice.

Once again, the view screen went black. There was a Grey base on the dark side of the Moon and another on Mars. We could have left Alice with them, but it seemed like she had other plans. My plan was to take control of this situation right away.

Opus and I shuttled through the murky darkness of the inter-dimensional void to Alice's open bay door. Once inside, it was totally unlike anything I'd ever seen on movie vids or even news feeds from a dozen different planets. Most ships have something mechanical, something electronic, something like bulkheads, ladders, hatches. None of that stuff inside Alice. The few panels separating one space from another were semi-transparent. One simply walked to where he wanted to exit and a hole opened into the next compartment. I saw cabins that were obviously for the Greys; low ceilings, small rooms. When I entered one of these, it seemed to grow larger, just right for a person of my size. The walls and ceiling expanded as needed as if Alice could change to accommodate my size. I would be willing to bet, Molly would have rooms resized for her giant stature.

Opus led me to the bridge, if that's what you'd call it. Glowing phosphorescent lights surrounded a central platform. There was nothing else. There was Xao, eerie glow around him and a small smile! I've never seen a Grey smile. Eyes closed, he motioned to the holo image projection of the sector, complete with the position of hundreds of vessels. A section of space lit inside a golden bubble. That expanded, then again and again until I saw what looked like ship chasing another and catching it with ease.

"It is the Mantizoids," said Xao. This time it came from him, no feminine overtones. "We must stop them. They took Alice's crew and used them for food. Now, she wants revenge. She knows you and the crew. She wants us to follow them and do something."

"Do something? What, exactly, does she want me to do?" I asked. "Why didn't she do something before they were captured? I mean, we might be good at getting out of scrapes and tough spots where our lives depended on quick thinking, but insectoids..."

"We have the means to rid the universe of one of its worst predators. They plan to incubate and release thousands of offspring. We need one of your famous plans," said Alice.

Crap! Cornered again by a female. I figured maybe I'd just turn them in to Interplan enforcement. Betty appeared next to Xao and an image of the storybook Alice in Wonderland, like in the vids, appeared next to her. She must have found it in one of my memories. Alice smiled and looked so child-like I just had to wince.

"I need my computer. I need my second engineer and I need my crew back! Remember, I am the captain. You hear me...Alice? Xao? Betty? I am captain!"

Alice smiled. "I knew you would say that. I am your ship also Captain Plato. I am at your command. I cannot give you Xao or I will not have a pilot. That is why I could not do anything before." I realized, again, that my thoughts were not private. I've got to watch that. "I need him and he needs you. Therefore, we are one."

Betty cooed. "Captain Plato, what is your command?"

"I just want to think...On my own bridge! Betty, meet me there. I need your interface with Alice."

####

Before entering the bridge, I pulled Molly aside.

"Where are we? Is there anything that you know to help us get out of this... this... whatever it is?"

"I queried discretely through a nav program I wrote. The obscure data looks random to the computer, but to me, there are thousands of readings not normally a part of other nav systems. Opus helped set it up and I'm not sure Xao was a part of it. If he was, Alice knows. I don't trust her. She has too much power for a machine in need."

"Alice knows anything in our minds. We've got to get her back to her people. Where are we? Can you get us out?"

"That's what I was getting to. I have searched through the database for directional parameters. There are none. Before entering this nowhere space, I could find the stars located behind a blazing sun. I could tell you the temp within the core of an ice planet. Here, I can't find any reference points. We seem to be nowhere and everywhere at once."

"Do you know how we got here?"

"There was an unusual force displacing normal space before the stars blinked out. Sort of a temporal energy release while we were contained in some energy bubble. The chronometers went crazy for a nanosecond."

"Could we be outside of time?"

"Could be? Hell if I know! Anything could be. It's what is that I'm trying to find out. Give me a little time. Try to get us in and out another time or two. I've got my program running continuously. With a few little tweeks, maybe I can find out more about this temporal void."

Time. It stuck in my mind like a Spiruoli stripper sticks to a trick's wallet. I hoped to find more from Alice, but I had to be tricky when digging for info.

I wanted to get out. Just out. I had no dog in this fight and only wanted my second engineer and my friend back. An ancient Earth saying came to mind: "No good deed goes unpunished."

After briefing the crew citing reasons why we should be putting our lives in danger to save the universe again... blah, blah, blah. Kitty sisters hissed and Doc shook his head, Opus looked worried. He told us that Xao actually liked the link. He could tell that it would be hard to get him back, if at all. Molly quietly came up with a plan to appear and disappear over and over, trying to lure the Mantizoids to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. It was just her way to get Alice to show her more about the temporal dimensional shift.

"Alice says that the plan is not a good one. It will take many jumps and even at the speeds used by the insectoid ships, many years would pass before we reached the boundary," said Betty.

"I'm captain! I decide! She will do what I say on my command," I said knowing that she was right.

"I am at your command," said the unemotional voice of Alice/Xao.

She made it obvious that she was monitoring everything on the Horus. No doubt, she was aware of what Molly and I talked about earlier. I figured that maybe she might be actually submitting to my command. After all, Xao was my crewman and the pilot.

####

On the bridge, my mind raced, trying to figure some way to get back to Earth. That's where we could find help for the living ship. I told Betty that I wanted more control, Alice would answer my command when and where to jump from my bridge. Molly found the interface simple, Betty and Alice working together as one.

First, a jump to ordinary space, far from any ships or habited planets, worked without a problem. Molly nodded. I did it again, this time near a colony planet light years from our last position. This was really pretty cool, I mean, I could go wherever, whenever. I looked at Molly after the last jump, no dice. She needed more info.

"Okay, we will jump within sensor range of the Mantizoids, then cloak."

"Yes, captain," said the linked computers and Xao.

When we popped into normal space, a fleet of Mantizoid ships flooded the Horus with probes. It was a time in the future where the bugs got some place, probably a planet, to incubate their young. Ships of all sizes raced to us, as I called for the cloak.

There was none for the Horus and only Alice disappeared. I called my computer.

"Betty, Betty!"

"Yes, Captain Plato."

"I need Alice, pronto!"

"Alice is not here, Captain Plato."

"Where is she?"

"Yes, yes, captain. Ship gone like before. Still you are here," said the modulated voice of the universal translator. Captain Bug wouldn't be so forgiving the second time.

I gave Lilliph the "cut" sign for the com. She shrugged her shoulders indicating she had not put the com through.

"Captain should have given ship to us. Now we look for it and need you for incubator. Once on Earth, no more need to steal food, all will be provided."

"Betty, Molly, find a way to get us out of here."

The Mantizoid ship closed in and a bay door opened.

Space, the fleet of ships and the huge bug ship trying to swallow us disappeared. We were in the temporal void once again.

The voice of Xao through the bridge com came through.

"I am sorry, captain. Alice fled when she saw the Mantizoids. She's still afraid. I made her return. It won't happen again."

"I don't know if I can trust her again! We need to get back to Earth. Betty, get us back. We need to talk to someone about the bug invasion."

"Captain," said Molly, "I found out some info on their systems once the Mantizoids linked with Betty. It seems that they communicated with us by taking control of our systems. In that short period, I was able to download some of their files. Betty is a pro at backdoor data mining. It seems that we were seeing the future fleet of this particular battle ship. The fleet didn't exist in our time."

"Backdoor Betty. It sounds like and ancient Rock-and-Roll song."

Lilliph and Molly looked like I was losing it. I forgot, no one listened to "Rock and Roll" -- or even knew it existed -- unless they were students of ancient music, or an old guy like me, longing for simpler times. Well, I'd bet they were simpler than these times, anyway.

"Okay, now let's get back to Earth."

"Captain Plato," said the child-like voice of Alice. "I am truly sorry. I let my self-preservation programs overrule my control. I have reprogrammed them to include you, your crew, and the Horus."

"I understand. Now, I want to see Earth."

####

At the planetary defense station on the Moon, they took a report! A report! Like we just ran into a ship with a blown turbo thruster! There was no rush, no urgency because there was no Mantizoid fleet within sensor range. I tried to impress upon them the fact that there were little bugs on their way to devour their children sometime in the near future. All I got was, "If we chase every bad guy in this sector, we will be stretched past our budget within a month." So there it was, money. Money rules the universe, all except the Mantizoids, that is.

Alice hid somewhere in the Asteroid belt. I was so disappointed; I just went to my cabin to think. She refused to go near Earth. She said she wanted to stop the bug fleet and did not want to go near the Grey bases in this system. I got the feeling that she liked Xao, maybe even the rest of us. Xao's people shunned him because he fraternized with humans. That would be us. I didn't want anything to do with this stuff, but how could I turn my back on Earth? It's the only place in the universe that you could get a decent beer with your pizza. Hell, ninety percent of the universe never even heard of pizza or beer, probably ninety-nine percent!

####

In my bunk, I looked at the ceiling shadows dancing around as I dozed lazily. My eyes mere slits, the walls called my name. Whispers echoed in my blank mind. In my dreams, dead aliens called from the dimension between here and there. Out of time, out of space, their echoes rang over and over.

"Plato, Plato, time and time again. The time for action is before. Before this time. Before now." The phantoms whispered into my mind, time is before. How in the fire of hell am I supposed to know what that is supposed to mean?

"Captain Plato, Captain Plato, sorry to disturb your sleep, but there is and urgent com from Xao. Dolphie said to get your butt to the bridge." Betty's sweet voice could make any terse insult sound seductive. Well, it did stop the shadows and whispers.

"Well, what's the urgent message?" I said as I entered the bridge.

"You won't believe this, but Xao is on the com. He's alone, I mean, Alice isn't in his mind. He has a message."

"Well, put it through!"

Xao's holo image appeared shimmering, ghost-like on the bridge.

"Captain, my telepathic link was severed from the ship for what reason, I do not know. An impression that I received moments before the link terminated was of many voices, Grey telepath whispers. Alice wants to return to the nebula. She wants to return to temporal space out of time and then..."

"Then, return to before."

"Before, yes, before. Do you know what it means?" asked Xao.

"Can you get here?" I asked.

"I believe so. Alice is preparing to exit normal space, but it will take some time without a pilot."

I rushed the Horus to the coordinates relayed to the nav computer by Xao. She winked out of normal space shortly after. Xao was gone.

"Molly, if you've got anything to help, now is the time to bring it out," I said.

"That's what I needed, the outside readings. Now my data is complete," said Molly. "I don't know if we can do it, but I will need a little time and maybe..."

"Opus, on the bridge!" I said as I put the com through to the engine room. "Lilliph, help Dolphie. I want to find out how those voices came through to our ship."

"I heard no voices and I have been at the com for hours," said Dolphie.

"Check your logs. Anything out of the ordinary, telepathic, hidden on a random carrier com, anything," I said.

"Betty, see if you can get through to the Greys. Tell them about Alice. We're going after her."

"Captain," said Lilliph, "I found a carrier com through a temporal rift that lasted only a millisecond. It seems like it came from Alice, but not from this time-space. It must be from the temporal void."

"Replay."

Before, before, before,... That's all it said, before.

"Captain, I think we can jump," said Molly. "It'll be a rough ride, but Opus made a few modifications and he can adapt the Tuaoi power source to emit tachyons once within the nearest dark matter corridor."

We left the Earth solar system for the nearest dark matter highway. The grey central command was unresponsive, saying that there was no such ship ever on record coming from them. I had an idea why Alice wanted to stay clear of Earth. They were looking for her, no doubt. Why, then, were they denying her existence?

Opus was ready. Molly was at the helm while I sat in the captain's chair unsure that we would even be able to find Alice and Xao. Whispers echoed through the com. Shadows danced across the view screen as we entered the corridor.

"All is ready, captain," said Molly.

We were harnessed in and hanging on for the ride. Molly punched up the sequence that surrounded the ship in a cocoon on tachyons. The ship lurched and spun without inertial dampeners. We shook and surged. Smoke poured from the panels behind me and in front, sparks flew. The stars winked out, then reappeared.

Coughing up a lung first, I asked Molly, "What happened?"

A flash of light, then, a wink of darkness, as she slowly turned her head. Everything, including me, moved at a snail's pace. Colors drained from the smoky bridge, grav stabilizers failed. Anything not secured floated around the compartment. Phantom shapes swirled, whispering in that grey telepathic screeching, hissing, head splitting noise. For the first time, I could see that they were actually the dead grey crewmen, ghostlike, eyes white where they would normally be black. My vision blurred, then all went black. Power failure. The Horus drifted in darkness, in the temporal void.

Opus got emergency power up and I sent a general com throughout the ship.

"Are we all right?"

One by one, they all checked in, all okay. Opus, though, had bad news. I hustled to engineering. It had the odor of scorched metal, like ozone mixed with fried plastic, like fused crystal.

"I don't think that we will be returning, captain," said Opus. "We have power generators and sub-light propulsion, but it is useless, since there is nowhere to go. The Tuaoi crystal has been destroyed."

"Great! Can we get back without it?"

"No. We have no way to generate the tachyons for the portal."

I went back to the bridge. Molly didn't have much good to say either.

"I found out some interesting info once we passed the threshold of normal space. There is..."

"Hold it one minute! We are stranded in nowhere and you are analyzing data?"

"Well, it's the only thing I can do that might help. Like I said, before I was so rudely interrupted, the data helped me pick a possible location of Alice. There came through info tracking a path of tachyons here before we entered this space/time continuum. I laid in a course, even if there are no markers, following the trail."

"Crumbs." I said to myself.

"What?" asked Molly.

"Oh, just something from my childhood. My great-grandmother used to read fairy tales. One was about some girl and boy who left crumbs for a trail to mark their path," I said.

"Yeah?" asked Lilliph.

"They got lost when the birds ate the crumbs."

"Great! Now what?" said Molly.

"Follow the crumbs."

####

The trail ended abruptly. Where? Hell if I know. It all looks the same, no sense of movement no sense of passing anything. Molly used the program she set up to guide us onward. Then, the crumbs ran out. What was next?

"Captain Plato," said Betty. "I have the signal sent by Second Engineer, Xao to the ship when we first encountered it. Shall I resend?"

"Sure, what the hell. Couldn't hurt, could it?" I answered but to tell the truth, I figured we were screwed.

To my total amazement, Alice de-cloaked off our starboard aft side.

"Captain Plato," came the call over the com, Alice and Xao's combined voices sounding positively elated.

"You took my crewman. If we are going to do this thing, you must trust me. I am the captain. I give the commands. I do not want you to disappear again. Get me?" I'm sure by now my face was crimson with the rage I felt. "Do you know what these phantoms are running around my ship? They look like Greys, only dead."

"Captain," said Xao alone, "I am the one who took Alice into temporal space. She wanted to stay with you -- for security. She thinks that you can do anything. What phantoms are you talking about?"

Betty replayed the A/V record of our passing through the temporal rift, the whispers, the ghost-like apparitions were, oddly enough, there on the log.

"Alice, do you know these spirits?"

"They are the spirits from my crew. They are calling us to action. I thought that you would not want to help me, so implanted them inside your computer core. They will not leave. Once the Mantazoid vessel has been destroyed, the spirits of my crew will be able to come back again."

"Now I've heard it all. Alien Grey reincarnation, ghosts spirits, hell, what if the bugs eat us? Ever thought of that? We have no firepower, no armada."

"You are not exactly unarmed. We do not have firepower. We have brainpower, captain," said Molly, "You have us."

She looked at me, burning with suppressed rage at the bug fleet of the future. Lilliph and Dolphie's big doe eyes stared at me looking for an answer, Dr. Ail-Mer standing next to Opus. They knew we were dead here if we couldn't get Alice to bring us out.

I walked to my cabin to think. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I stared into space. Space, time, before they said.

####

I had Alice jump into normal space at a place of my choosing. Within sensor range of the bug ship, we presented a worm for them to bite. The battlebug ship rushed to our position with the usual warning.

"You will be food for our young. You cannot escape."

The Mantizoids boarding ships flew from the mother ship thick as locusts.

"Yeah?" I asked. "Follow me now."

We jumped in and out of temporal space, only at a position directly behind the ship. Alice spread her bubble around only half of the ship, and jumped. The bug ship split and disappeared into the void between now and later.

I thought that would finish it, but the remaining half didn't blow, wasn't destroyed, and wasn't disabled. Once in the bubble and in the darkness of the temporal void, it shot an exceptionally strong EMF pulse shutting down the Horus and whatever systems still remained after the crystal burnout. We still had computer and com systems that were, luckily, hardened against EMF pulses.

"Xao, what did it do to Alice?"

"We are all right, Captain Plato," answered the Grey vessel. "You seem to have put yourself in a problematic situation. I sense there are Mantizoid boarding vessels headed your way."

"Alice, take us to normal space. Leave them here, now!"

The stars appeared outside the porthole, as usual, only this time we had no power, and Alice, our only lifeline.

"Captain, prepare to be taken into our hanger bay," said Xao.

The hold of the ship opened, and, like the cabins we saw when we walked through the interior, it changed to make room for the Horus. Once inside, we brought the Mantizoid vessel into view. It had been disabled. We just took the half that is able to survive on its own. This half had no power, no boarding vessels.

One jump into and out of the void, we were face to face with the crippled monster.

"Grab it. Take it into the void," I said. Once there, we jumped to normal space in the past shortly before it took Alice's crew. The bug ship that it had been in the past saw it as an easy target. They were looking at themselves. Disabled, the Mantizoids quickly jumped on its prey.

"Okay, back to my time, my space, within Earth's easy reach."

I had Xao and the rest of the crew join me in the Horus inside the belly of Alice. We were in and out in a flash. Just as quickly, Alice disappeared. She didn't jump; she actually vanished, leaving us within com range of Earth. A distress call and we headed to space dock for repairs. Where we were going to get the money to pay for them, the space gods only know.

Xao, once separated from the ship's computer, suffered a type of anxiety like a drug addict going cold turkey. I knew he'd be all right, though. Hell, the kitty sisters and the doc can take care of just about anything.

"So what happened to Alice," Molly asked once we met in the mess hall.

"I kept hearing the whispers saying 'before'. We needed to get to the bug ship before they came upon Alice and her crew. Leaving the disabled bug ship in its sights presented too much of an easy target for the Mantizoid vessel."

"They ate themselves?" asked Molly.

"Well, they tried. Once they came in contact with it, it created a temporal inconsistency. They imploded. That meant there was no abduction and Alice was reinstated in her previous time as if it never happened."

"Why do we remember, though?" asked Lilliph.

"Hell if I know. Maybe because we were in and out of time while it happened. You ask the university temporal theoreticians and I'll get a decent beer and see if we can rustle-up a job to pay for the repairs."

THE END


© 2008 Michael Joseph

Bio: Michael Joseph is a 59-year-old novice writer living in Long Beach, CA, Belmont Shore area and working as a Longshore Clerk at the harbor near his home. Married, an empty-nester, he and his wife enjoy travel and spending time with their families. Michael writes and creates pastel pictures, paintings and drawings of just about anything. This story continues the adventures of the meddlesome (in a noble sort of way) crew of the Horus, last seen in "Voyages of the Earthship Horus: Gangsters" (Aphelion, December 2007).

E-mail: Michael Joseph

Website: Michael Sparacino

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