EXPANSION CH. 11: CONVERSATION IN THE DARK

Shadow swallowed the shuttle whole as the tiny spacecraft cozied up next to the looming sleeper ship like a nursing calf nuzzling its mother.

The 100,000-mile trek from Dorvik’s ship to the Truman had taken less than three minutes. Boarding protocol would take another eight or so, Lors has said. Amara and her robotic companion had time to spare, but not much. They’d have to act quickly once aboard the ship. For now, all they could do was sit tight in the darkness of the shuttle cockpit and wait it out.

Lors broke the silence.

“It may interest you to know, Amara, this craft appears to have been fitted specifically for the Truman’s external docking procedures,” he said. His agile fingers danced over the control panels at the front of the dimly lit cabin. A faint glow from the display shown on his expressionless face. “The entire process is quite automated, and is not unlike the systems I helped test orbiting Earth prior to ship’s launch. It is clear Dorvik and his organization are highly familiar with the sleeper ship program. There being so raises a number of intriguing and potentially dangerous questions.”

She’d at last been given the privacy she was after, but Amara was only half-listening. She sat in the co-pilot seat next to Lors with her body raked forward onto the control deck. Her head was nestled peacefully in the nook of crossed arms. She was only half-listening because she’d spent the full 174-second journey mesmerized by the viewport.

It was her first true look into the breathtaking vastness of interstellar space. It hit her hard.

Well over a hundred billion human beings had come and gone through history without ever getting the chance to experience what she was seeing now. Such a grandiose thought didn’t dawn on her right there and then, but it one day would. And it would hit her just as hard then.

She hadn’t noticed the Truman at first. From a hidden pinprick in the starfield it steadily grew, demanding her attention. Amara thought it looked rather like an elongated cloud, bubbling and cheerful, pinned to the sky. Only the sky wasn’t blue. It was black. The deepest, most bone-chilling black she’d ever laid eyes upon. Just looking at it made her shiver.

They were much nearer the ship now and its overall shape was lost on Amara. She’d of course seen images of the Truman back on Earth, but those were just pictures. Not even the best 3D renderings in virtual reality — though, she hadn’t ever actually seen those, either — could ever really do it justice. Not like this. To peep the Truman or any of the other spacedocked sleeper ships through Earth-bound telescopes was one thing. To the see ship now, solitary in its polished beauty against he backdrop of space, fulfilling its greater purpose for humanity, was something entirely else.

Whether that purpose would ever be fully realized, however, was now very much in question.

The box-like craft began to course-correct, rotating to bring its rear hatch in line with the Truman. The tricky maneuver was handled automatically by the shuttle’s onboard computer, but was more than a tad sluggish in execution. Amara pried her gaze from the stars and spoke somewhat sleepily. “What kind of questions?”

“I am currently attempting to process several hundred of varying importance,” Lors said. “I will spare you my interpretations on all but the most pressing.”

“Bless your heart, Lors,” Amara said, straightening out her spine and crossing her legs on the chair. “Lay it on me.”

Lors began. “For one,” he said, “there is the pressing question of how Dorvik located the Truman.”

“And that’s pressing because… why, exactly?” Lors’ apparent concern didn’t register very highly on her list of things to worry about at the moment.

“Its consequence lies primarily in a theory.”

Expecting more, Amara simply repeated Lors’ line back to his face. “A theory.”

“Yes, Amara. A theory of my own conception, to be more specific,” he replied. “In short, I believe, and have believed for some time now, the Truman to have been all but forgotten on Earth.”

“Forgotten?” Shook fully from her starstruck daze, Amara’s interest was genuinely piqued. “What’s that supposed to mean… forgotten?”

“Allow me to explain. You may recall my telling Dorvik the Truman has been without radio contact from Earth for many centuries.” Amara didn’t really remember, but she nodded her head in affirmation just the same. Lors continued none the wiser (she hoped). “This, of course, was not a lie. The ship broke contact with the planet over 800 years ago. I do not know why. Under my watch, the Truman has continued to transmit signals with no return communication. To my knowledge, there is no scientific explanation, apart from the increasing time necessary for radio waves to traverse space, that would prevent Earth from maintaing a connection with the ship as it has moved further and further away from the planet. I, therefore, assume some event, or more likely the combination of multiple events, occurred at some point during the first four centuries of our mission to cause Earth to either lose track of the Truman or actively ignore it. The latter would appear less likely.”

Amara grew suddenly and unexpectedly sidetracked from Lors’ pontificating. Centuries. There it was again, that word she’d only ever known in school history books talking about stuff like the Renaissance and medieval kingdoms and ancient Greece. With more time to think on it, the idea that she was suddenly living in the future was burning a hole in her mind. “Lors… just how long… was I asleep?”

He dropped his voice. “More than 1,200 years, Amara. Less than one-third of our intended voyage.”

After a pause, Amara said: “Which would make it what year exactly?”

“In traditional Western dating format, the current year is 3264. However, aboard the Truman, ship’s calendar reads 1219.”

“Three-thousand… thirty-two sixty… Jesus, I don’t even know how to say that.” Amara’s eyes began to well up with tears. She was glad Lors, who continued to spill words in his inhuman, yet strangely captivating way, took no notice through the smothering darkness.

“Furthermore, Dorvik’s very appearance lends some level of credence to my theory,” he said. “Which brings us back to the orginal question of how. During our informal interrogation, Dorvik made reference to his ‘life’s work.’ For our purposes, we may use context to assume he means something in connection with the Truman. He also questioned me as to the location of the other 11 sleeper ships. Or rather, in his words, the location of the remaining sleeper ships. Whether this wording indicates the recorded loss and/or destruction of one or more of the Truman’s sister vessels over the dozen intervening centuries since their departure from Earth is unclear. Regardless, in our era, sleeper ship mission details were far from secret. It is reasonable, then, to believe Dorvik has dedicated his existence to locating the Truman and its sister ships because said information requires exactly that. Such an endeavor would not be necessary were the intelligence already readily available.”

Amara pretended to grasp more of what she’d just heard than she actually did. If it, as he’d suggested, truly became pressing, Lors didn’t seem like someone who’d mind having to repeat himself.

Through a few leftover sniffles she said: “So how’d he find us then?”

Lors shook his head. “I do not know. But loss of information regarding the sleeper ship program, for whatever reason that may be so, does not necessitate complete destruction of said information. Through many decades of dedicated research, it appears to have been possible for Dorvik to remember what Earth had all but forgotten.”

Amara again thought of her old history books. “So like an archaeologist or something?”

“Perhaps, Amara. That is an astute comparison. Dorvik’s own timeline is not dissimilar to someone from the 21st century investigating 9th-century Earth culture.”

Amara’s puzzled face sharpened. “I don’t get it though. Why would people back on Earth just forget about the Truman? I mean, just look at that thing,” she said, tossing an open palm out toward the viewport. But there wasn’t much to see now. The colossal ship was nearing the end of its slow slide out of vision as the automated shuttle continued to reorient itself. Without the hull to reflect starlight, the shuttle cockpit grew even darker. “How much time and money did the government put into building it? You wouldn’t do that and just forget about it.”

“That, too, is a mystery,” Lors said. “One might hypothesize the discovery of faster-than-light travel rendered the sleeper ship program obsolete. But without further information, we have no way of knowing when such a discovery occured, how it occured and what its effects on humanity have been. It would also not automatically account for why the Truman and its 100,000 human inhabitants have been abandoned.”

Lors let the moment hang (was he aware of dramatic effect?) before continuing. “Dorvik’s manner and the reverence with which he seems to regard the Truman are perhaps most puzzling,” he said. “They form the basis of what is possibly the most concerning question of all — why? Why the Truman? What about the sleeper ship program is so alluring as to convince Dorvik to dedicate his life to their re-discovery?”

“I dunno,” Amara said with a shrug. “Because they’re worth a lot of money? If they’ve been lost for centuries, maybe he can make something off finding them again. That’s probably what I’d wanna do if I were him.”

“That may be so. However, it seems a sizable financial risk. Without knowing the details of the organization for which he professes to be the Director, it seems clear that Dorvik has invested heavily in the venture. He may have ulterior motives unknown to us that outweigh such risks, perhaps heavily. Motives which might possibly pose him as a dangerous threat to not only ourselves, but others in this era of time. There is much about the situation I wish to investigate.”

Lors’ theories were starting to hurt her head. Amara rubbed at her scalp through hair she noticed was starting to get a little too long. “Well, I know one thing for sure.”

“What is that, Amara?”

“Whoever he is and whatever he wants, this Dorvik guy sure does hates my guts.”

Lors momentarily turned back to the shuttle controls, his voice much quieter than it’d just been rattling off this and that about “One may hypothesize” and “We may assume” moments earlier. “Yes, he made his feelings toward you perfectly clear. I regret not interfering more forcefully on your behalf.”

Amara stared into the blackness of the now Truman-less viewport. “Don’t. I’m used to it,” she said. “And I’m not such a big fan of his, either. I swear, if he thinks he can just take Lew away from me and — ”

Lors interrupted with a hand placed tenderly on her bent knee. “Amara, we will retrieve Lewis. Your brother will be safe.”

Amara repaid his kind reassurance with a hopeful smirk. But for all the good his words did, she wasn’t sure she believed them.

“I know,” she said. “It’s just, what if we don’t? What if we can’t get there in time? It’ll be my fault. I got him into this.”

Lors dropped his head ever so slightly. “Technically, Amara,” he said, “it is I who, as you say, got him into this. As did I with you. I should like to apologize.”

Lors wasn’t wrong. But he wasn’t right either. “No, Lors, I’m not gonna blame you. This isn’t your fault. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead already and Lew’d be next.” She let out a disbelieving snort. “And I’m sure as hell not gonna be able break him out of there alone.”

Amara tried to make eye contact with Lors through the darkness. She wasn’t sure if she succeeded, but continued her spur of the moment confessional anyway. This needed to be said. She was glad she was getting the chance to do so.

“I should be thanking you, really, for not listening to me back there. You know, when I told you to leave me behind,” she said. “I didn’t mean it. I don’t know what came over me. I just kinda lost it when I shot… I—I don’t know. I’m just sorry. Really.” She ducked her head again in embarrasment.

“Your reaction was not unreasonable given the circumstances, Amara.”

She looked back to him with a goofy smile. “Lucky for me you don’t take orders like some dumb bot in a restaurant or whatever, right?” She forced a laugh, but the joke fell flat.

“Yes, Amara.”

Oof. Well, she tried. Still wanting to lighten the mood a little before they got off the shuttle, she grasped at the only small talk she could think to make. “How’s the shoulder, anyway? It looked pretty bad. For a robot, and all.”

“The damage was minimal, fortunately. For the time being, I am able to operate physically at 97.4 percent of peak efficiency. I will, however, eventually require self repair.”

“What about non… physically? You seemed to space out there for a second when we were getting shot at. Was that a glitch or something? I don’t even know if that’s the right word.”

“Glitch?”

“Yeah, you kinda froze up on me, right in the middle of everything, remember? You just stopped talking,” Amara said, pausing to mime the act, “then picked right back up again like it was nothing. I guessed it was because you got shot.”

“I have no recollection of what you say to have occurred. But I do not doubt your account. What you are describing suggests a neural overload of my positronic operation resulting in sudden seizure all non-voluntary functions.”

Amara stared at him blankly.

“In a word, a glitch,” he said.

“Why? What happened?”

A display screen flicked to life and began to signal something in flashing blue. Lors investigated its meaning casually while speaking. “Any number of things, hypothetically,” he said. “At any given time, radiation is the most likely threat to my cerebral activity. However, my internal sensors indicated Dorvik’s ship to be even more well insulated against known forms of cosmic radiation than the Truman.”

“So what do you think it was then?”

Lors waited a moment to speak. “My conscience,” he said softly.

Amara looked at Lors like he’d just unscrewed his head to begin that self-repair he’d mentioned.

“Allow me to explain,” he said, head still very much attached. “It is not unlike what you described of your own experiences during the firefight aboard the ship. You apologized, as you described it, for having ‘just kinda lost it’ after witnessing the death of one of Dorvik’s men by your own hand. That was a natural response dictated by your own personal assemblage of morals. In a related sense, I, too, have a set of morals that govern my responses in similar situations. Without them, I could not function.”

“You’re talking about your ethics programming.” Amara remembered at least some of her robotics lessons from school.

“Yes, Amara, given to me by my creator,” Lors said. Amara recognized that same tinge of pride she once noticed outside her former home that fateful night back on Earth all those years ago. “All robotic beings are programmed with varying degrees of altruistic and ethical failsafes. Those imbued in me by Dr. Rikken are, by custom design, the most advanced and progressive in the history of robotics. To that point in history, at least. I cannot speak to technological breakthroughs of the past millienium.”

Amara considered his explanation. She thought she saw a flaw. “Maybe I missed it,” she said, “but I don’t think I saw you shoot anyone, Lors.”

“You are correct. I did not. That, too, was by design. In addition, my blaster power control was, and still is, not toggled beyond the lowest setting. I purposefully avoided killing Dorvik’s men to the extent that it did not hamper our escape efforts.”

“You can’t kill a human then.”

Lors didn’t immediately respond. Amara wasn’t completely sure if it had something to do with the shuttle computer he kept fiddling with or if he was just stalling. “Well?”

He at last spoke. “That is not correct,” he said. “I am, indeed, capable of harming and, under certain circumstances, killing human beings.”

Amara had seen enough police bots in action to make herself believe it. “Have you?”

“No.” He was firm in his reponse. It did nothing to slow the emotional rollercoaster that had been their shuttle approach. Tension inside the cockpit was heavy. Enough for Amara to momentarily forget where she was and what it was that they would be undertaking in just a few minutes.

She refined her question. “But would you?”

“I would not hesitate to ensure the safety of you, Lewis or, if necessary, myself.”

“Nope, that’s not cutting it,” Amara shot back. “Would you kill a person if you had to? Like, absolutely had to?”

“Yes, Amara, I would.”

It was a frightening thought, no doubt. A civilian machine capable—extremely capable—of ending human life. Capable of murder. Yet, here in the presence of Lors, one of just two beings left in the Galaxy she thought she could trust, it was also strangely reassuring. Deep down, it was the answer, despite all its accompanying moral ramifications, that she wanted and needed to hear. It made her feel safe in what was proving to be a terribly dangerous new world. It also gave Amara her first unfiltered look into who Lors really was as a self-aware being. There was something — someone — inside that artificial shell of a body. Knowing so helped her to relax and focus again on the mission at hand. Only Lewis, she reminded herself.

“Good,” Amara said with forced gravitas. “I don’t wanna be left hanging out there if someone’s got a gun to my head, ya know?”

“I will effort to avoid such a situation, Amara,” Lors said. “I will also apologize in advance in the event my programming forces another shutdown at an inopportune time.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” Amara said, trying to sound as understanding as possible. “I get it now. We’re good.”

But Lors continued, unimpeded. After a surprising breakthrough, it was a moment like this, in which something so basic as conversational speaking cues were completely ignored, that reminded Amara again of just how non-human Lors still was, even if he possessed a much deeper personage than she’d first assumed.

“No two robots, nor their positronic brains, are exactly the same,” he said. “There are no all-encompassing rules or laws to regulate robotic behavior. My reactions to necessary violence are, to an extent, calculable, but still very much limited in the scope of their predictability.”

“I dunno, Lors. That sounds borderline illegal to me. I know, or knew anyway, plenty of anti-robot people back home who woulda been scared to death of what you just told me.”

“Naturally. But my creator was never one for following the rules,” Lors said, pulling away from the shuttle control deck. Maybe he was starting to relax a bit, too. “But please know that harming or, in the extreme case, killing a human, is a last resort. I have the utmost faith in Dr. Rikken’s programming and hope you will, as well.”

This time it was Amara who placed a comforting hand on the robot’s leg. She wondered if it would have the same effect. “Lors, it’s all right. I understand.”

“Thank you, Amara.”

The tender moment was shortlived. The Truman’s clamping mechanism rattled the shuttle, at last signifying contact. In just a few moments, the hatch door would hiss open and they’d be free to continue the rescue operation.

“We have begun the final stages of docking,” Lors announced in as an authoritative tone as Amara had ever heard him muster. “The ship requires a perfect, air-tight connection before it will release and allow debarkation. Then we may proceed.”

Well, here we go, Amara thought to herself. She figured it was about time to ask one of the questions she’d been dreading. She hunkered down mentally. “Do you have something planned for after we get Lew?”

“No, I do not. It is a problem I have been working to solve throughout our ongoing conversation. Unless this shuttlecraft is fitted for hyperspatial travel, such as Dorvik’s ship, I am afraid our options will be quite limited.”

“Figured as much,” Amara said with a frown. “But it’s not gonna matter if we don’t get to Lew.”

More lights and systems around the cabin began to come online. Lors attended to them as he spoke. “There is also the possibility we are walking into a trap,” he said with an alarming nonchalance that caught Amara off guard.

“Wait, what?”

“A trap,” he repeated. “Consider the ease with which we commandeered this shuttlecraft. Consider also, the lack of pursuit by Dorvik’s forces during our approach to the Truman. It suggests we are meant to return to the ship and are, in fact, being allowed to do so.”

Amara knew instinctively Lors was right. She just hadn’t realized it with all that was going on. Her face sank, but not as hard and fast as her heart.

“So what are we gonna do? We have to keep going.”

“Yes, Amara, we must. Incidentally, as a result of said potential trap, we have made good time in our rescue efforts thus far. But we will have little room for error once aboard the Truman.”

“Doesn’t sound like we’ll have much of a choice.” Amara sounded as resigned as she had yet. Lors, however, didn’t.

“That is not necessarily so, Amara. We should expect to find our path to Lewis blocked by Dorvik’s men. We will therefore take an alternative route that will divert us safely out of harm’s way.”

“A shortcut?”

“Not in a literal sense, no. In fact, I must make a brief, but necessary stop en route to our rendezvous with Lewis. But most importantly, we will remain hidden from Dorvik’s forces and arrive in time to reanimate your brother.”

Amara was more than a little skeptical. But Lors had never let her down before and he didn’t sound like he was ready to start now. “Good enough for me.”

A pulsing, electronic tone began to ring out in the cockpit. Overhead lights came on illuminating the seating area. Amara blinked as her eyes adjusted. Lors tapped at a few last items on the pilot’s display and rose from his chair.

“We have arrived,” he said with the same air of formality. “We must gather our weapons and prepare for entrance into the Truman. You will want to stick close behind me.”

Amara followed him to the back of the small craft’s staging area. It was cluttered with helmets, storage containers and other pieces of equipment she didn’t recognize. A bright light above the door hatch shone red, indicating, Amara could only guess, that all was not quite ready to exit. After a tense ride through space that had been rife with difficult questions, she had just a few seconds left to ask the last one weighing most heavily on her mind.

“Lors,” she said, clutching her blaster. “How much time… is left on Lew’s countdown clock?”

“Seven minutes, 10 seconds,” he said.

Amara stared daggers at the flaming signal light above the door. “That doesn’t leave us much time.”

“It does not,” Lors replied. “And even less time should the decision be made to reverse the retrieval process and return Lewis to cryostasis. That function of the reanimation cycle terminates precisely one minute prior to the overall completion of the countdown clock. It is an option we must consider.”

Lors continued to stand silently, blaster at the ready. Amara was quiet, too. But her mind raged.

Why in the world, after coming so far through so much, would she even think about putting Lew back to sleep? And why, for that matter, would Lors consider it a viable option, even for a second? Couldn’t he separate the logic behind what he’d so offhandedly described from the emotion of what they were trying to do? Couldn’t he see they were doing the right thing trying to save Lew? Dammit Lors. Just when she thought she might be coming around on him, just when she’d gotten a honest peek at what he was inside, he had to go and make it clear that he still didn’t get it. Maybe he never would. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he wasn’t as unique as he’d try to make himself sound. Maybe he was just like any another robot, cold and heartless, after all. She couldn’t stand to think about it. She wiped the idea from her head and tried to calm herself. There was too much at stake to let it fester.

She curled the toes inside her flats in anticipation as nervous sweat again began to dot her forehead. She exhaled loudly and glanced back up at the door light. Please.

In an instant, it changed to green. The race was on.