EXPANSION CH. 12: LEW
Lors was in motion at the very moment the shuttle door was. Maybe even a fraction of a second before so.
He knew Amara’s reaction time would be significantly less fine-tuned. So, too, would that of any armed guards awaiting their arrival on the other side. It was imperative he use that inhuman ability to his advantage and be in place, ready to act, before anything and everything else short of another robot.
As the chunky metal door began to lift upwards, Lors dipped his shoulders and fell into a tightly controlled somersault along the milled shuttle floor. With perfect balance and no wasted motion, he tumbled forward through the opening. His exit was timely flawlessly. Had he accelerated a nanosecond sooner, he would have clipped the rising door panel. And he waited a nanosecond longer, well, that would have been a nanosecond wasted.
To a viewer watching in extreme slow motion, it would have been as impressive a move a bipedal, humanoid being could have made in such short a span of time. To Amara, it was mostly just a blur.
Lors cleared the doorway at the exact moment he came through on the landing of his roll. As he did, he seamlessly brought his blaster to bear, ready to fire on the first target deemed necessary. His limbs, despite the earlier blow to his shoulder, were primed for immediate hand-to-hand combat, if required, as well. He was utterly prepared for whatever Dorvik had waiting for them.
Lors saw no uncovered soldiers waiting in the open expanse of the room. His peripheral vision told him the anticipated threat wouldn’t be coming via hidden ambush from the sides of the entryway, either. Nor would it come from anyone stationed inside any of the auxiliary doorways located along the far walls. In fact, the attack wouldn’t be coming from anywhere.
There was no one there. The staging room was deserted.
Lors lifted out of his prepared crouch. He was finished standing before the door behind him finished opening. When it did, Amara came charging out with a full head of steam.
“Jeez, some trap this is,” she said, skidding to a halt. Unconvinced, she spun wildly looking for someone ready to start shooting at them. “What gives?”
“Perhaps we have overestimated the extent of Dorvik’s preparation,” Lors said. “We must remain vigilant. Come, our route is this way.”
They sprinted to the other side of the hollow staging area. The lighting in the room was brighter now than it had been when Dorvik’s men first came aboard. They may not have cracked into ship’s computer entirely, but someone had managed to feed power into the main lighting arrays.
They pulled up at one of exitways where Lors quickly punched a command into the door panel. It slid open and he peer around into the silent corridor. He gave Amara an “all clear” sign. They were off again, busting down the silver-shining hall as fast as Amara could keep up. Lors adjusted his speed as necessary.
“How far are we from Lew’s pod?” Amara puffed.
“Unencumbered, we will arrive in approximately four minutes,” he said, again without the slightest hint of struggle. “I directed the shuttle to place us at a docking station on the nearest possible level to the Cryogenics Lab containing Lewis.”
“And your shortcut?”
Lors came to a sudden stop. He threw out his left arm signaling Amara to stop. She did in just barely enough time to keep her face from slamming full speed into what surely would have felt like an iron tree limb. She ducked under his elbow and swung herself around in an about-face. “A warning next time,” she said, gasping for breath, “would be nice.”
“My apologies, Amara.” He gestured with the same arm to a single-width door against the wall. It was unmarked and appeared to have no corresponding controls on or around its exterior. “This is our stop.”
Amara looked annoyed. “What are we waiting for then? Open it up and let’s go.”
“This door is not meant to be opened from the corridor,” Lors said. “One moment, please.” He reached for the the power toggle on the side of his blaster and nudged it forward. “Please shield your eyes.”
Amara did. She heard the shot, too. When she pulled her forearm down again, there was a fist-sized blast hole smoldering in the otherwise-pristine metal surface. It was located about where you’d expect a doorknob to be. Lors shoved his hand through it, causing Amara to crinkle her face into a pained cringe. Seeing his skin, no matter how fake it may be, rub up against the scalding, glowing metal shards forced a visceral reaction.
Lors, of course, was fine. The half-molten metal singed his tunic cuff, but left no mark on his hand or wrist. Without hesitating, he used the handhold to rip the rest of the door from its track. He tossed it casually to the floor with a clank that echoed down the corridor. “This way.”
“So that’s your thing now, huh?” Amara said, sneaking a glimpse of the wreckage as she followed him through the opening. She probably should have been watching where she was going heading into the darkness of an unfamiliar room, though. Amara got barely step a in before tripping over something laying on the floor. With a yelp, it sent her flailing forward onto her stomach. She hit the ground hard. Her blaster accidentally fired, splashing the room in blinding whiteness, almost like lightning had struck. A few inches to the right and the bolt would have hit Lors square in the back of the neck.
A light came on. Lors was looking down at her.
“Thank you for not shooting me, Amara,” he said, helping her to stand. Amara gave him a look that said “Yeah, don’t mention it” without actually saying so.
Amara brushed herself off, more out of nervousness than anything else, and took a quick glance around the tiny space. She noticed the robots first. At least a dozen of them, powered down and lined up against the walls in individual charging stalls. Some were short and squat with rollers, others were taller with legs and rod-like in appearance. Along the back wall were larger units six feet or so in height. Non were humanoid. A little spooked, she looked to see what had caused her to trip and almost kill Lors. It was a bundle of what looked suspiciously like… cleaning equipment? She took another spin around the room — which was actually quite cluttered with similar supplies, she realized — with a fresh perspective.
Amara looked at Lors in confusion. “Wait, is this… is this a closet?”
“Indeed, it is,” he said. “A storage facility housing this deck’s maintenance robots. Hold this, please.” He handed his blaster to Amara and moved to the back wall, where he lifted clear one of the heavier-looking bots. It revealed a hidden door.
“Well, at least it has a working control panel,” Amara said.
The remark was lost on Lors. “The Truman’s robots use these passages to move between sections of the ship and keep from uncessarily dirtying that which they exist to keep clean,” he said, dropping the bot across the room to help seal up the empty door frame. In a flash, he was back and opening the secret hatch. Behind it was nothing but pitch blackness. “It is possible, if not probable, Dorvik is aware of their existence. However, I suspect he and his men will overlook their intended usage.”
Amara peered around Lors into the darkness without a real sense of which direction it led. “Why’s that?”
“I do not believe Dorvik is concerned with robots. Fortunately, that also means he will suspect little of my own existence. We must continue to use this to our advantage,” Lors said. He joined Amara staring into the abyss. “These passageways are clear of obstructions, but they are unlit. Visibility for you will be zero. Keep close.”
Amara was thoroughly disoriented.
The absolute blackness of Lors’ hidden tunnel through the Truman’s twisting intestines threw her brain into a terrible tizzy. She racked her memory, but couldn’t recall ever being somewhere this dark. Growing up in a city, it was never truly dark out. There were always lights and sounds coming from somewhere. She’d learned to live in fear of quite a few of them, yet not really ever notice any of them either.
But what she was experiencing now was making basic movement difficult, even with Lors’ constant aid. The emotional urgency of the situation coupled with the suffocating darkness of their route — around corners that might as well have been spiral staircases, down straightaways that seemed to last for miles and miles — made her lose all sense of time and space. She felt her feet slapping the cold metal flooring as she ran, but struggled to contextualize what her various body parts were actually doing. It was like swimming, well, in space. She tried to make vocal contact with Lors regularly to fight back the irrational fear that she’d been left behind and lost in the unrelenting darkness.
The first and only time Lors initiated contact took Amara for surprise. He slowed up gradually, allowing his trailing companion, whose hand rested gingerly on his back as they ran, to stop safely.
“Amara, I must leave you momentarily,” he said. “I have factored my absence into our projected arrival time. You will be safe here alone.”
She knew because he’d warned her, but she was still confused. And annoyed. “Tell me where you’re going.”
“I require usage of the computer access terminal located nearby the means of egress at which we have stopped. It is critical I communicate with the ship’s remaining robots to implement emergency protocol and provide long-term instructions in the event we are again removed the ship and unable to return.”
“You can’t do that automatically?” Amara was flustered for words. “With your own robot… stuff?”
“I can communicate locally, but not shipwide. Not to the extent I require,” he said. “I must, therefore, connect with the Truman’s encrypted network.”
She begrudgingly accepted his answer with a sigh. “You’re sure no one will find me?”
“They will not. If we were being followed, I would have heard it.” He left her side for the hidden door panel leading to yet another maintenance closet. “Do not worry, Amara. I will return to you soon.”
Like that, Lors was gone. Amara shuffled her way to the far side of the corridor and walked her back down the wall. Her muscles and bones ached. She set her blaster in her lap and pulled her knees in close. She needed the time to rest and to think.
Of course she was worried, she thought, butting the back of her head up against the hard surface. Why shouldn’t she be? Her brother was minutes from death. She might be dead even sooner than that. They hadn’t run up against any of Dorvik’s blaster-wielding troops yet, but she knew they were out there, waiting. Waiting for them to emerge at the other end of this interminable darkness.
She found herself simultaneously wishing Lors hadn’t left and wishing she hadn’t come to rely on him so profoundly. The conflict stuck pins in her heart, shredded her soul. She’d felt its effects more and more throughout their ordeal, but it was only now, left alone with her own deafening thoughts, that it had really snuck up and overwhelmed her.
Lew was her responsibility and she was responsible for herself. That’s how it worked. That’s how she liked it. It’d always been that way, even before their mother had given them away to the world. Before their father had died.
Now she couldn’t take one measly step without stumbling unless Lors, a robot, was guiding the way.
Amara felt even more ashamed of her breakdown on Dorvik’s ship in front of Lors. She’d begged him to rescue Lew for her. To save her. She’d felt so helpless. It crushed her.
She wouldn’t have it. Couldn’t have it. That wasn’t how this was going to work. This was her struggle. Lors was an ally, but he wasn’t in control of her fate. Amara wondered, in direct contradiction of her previous breakdown, if she might pick herself up and continue onward without Lo—
“Thank you for your patience, Amara,” A voice said, interrupting her inner monologue. Lors was standing as a dimly-lit silhouette in the doorway. “My work is complete. Thankfully, Dorvik’s soldiers have made no further progress in their attempts to override ship’s security systems. We may continue.”
Amara snapped out of it, and they were off again. But she didn’t forget.
“Something’s wrong. Something’s not right,” Amara said, pulling up to the latest — and last — door blocking their way. Large, stylized letters above the frame read “C-LAB 1.” She vaguely remembered seeing the sign the first time she and Lew had been brought aboard the ship back at Earth and not registering what it’d meant. How different, in every conceivable way, their circumstances now.
It felt like ancient history now, but it had been less than an hour since Lors had led Dorvik and his scientist, Prennex, into the facility to conduct their resurrection tests. The site of the doctor’s final failure lay over 300 rows of cryostasis chambers, stacked six high along the corridor, away.
“Where the hell is everyone?” Amara said, trying to disguise the mounting panic in her voice.
“I do not know,” Lors said. “Ship’s computer confirmed the presence of Dorvik’s forces still aboard the Truman. It seems unlikely that we should have avoided them entirely unless it was was by design.”
Trap or not, Amara wasn’t about to complain. They had only a dead sprint ahead of them now. She knew what had to be done, and on her terms.
“Lors, forget about what you said before,” she said, waiting for him to enter the code clearance for the translucent door to the lab. “You can get to him faster than I can, so do it. I’ll be right behind you.”
Lors paused the operation. “That will not be necessary, Amara,” he said. “We have arrived at our destination with time to spare. Additionally, I thought you might wish to be the one to revive Lewis, as I presume yours is the face he will most want to see. As I left it, the retrieval process is all but complete. You need only press and hold the green button adjacent the timer display to cancel the countdown. Once stopped, the screen will prompt you to — ”
“No, Lors.” The gesture struck Amara. There was an unmistakeable note of thoughtfulness in his voice. But it wasn’t enough to change her mind. There’d be plenty of time over the rest of their lives for Lew to see her face. It was kind of Lors, but she wasn’t worried about that now. “We’re not through with this yet. Stick with my plan.”
Lors relented without protestation. “A fine idea, Amara.” He turned back to the door, which shifted to transparency and slid open. The robot began his accelerated movement. He didn’t get far.
They both froze. The voice from behind reverberated through the acoustic metal canyon of a hallway. It was Thoren Jo.
The weighty commander, flanked on either side by a heavily-armed pair of Dorvik’s men, had his weapon up and pointed directly at them. His helmet visor was raised, too, showing off a fiendish grin as he swaggered towards them.
“Lower your blasters,” he growled. “The Director’s not here to protect you this time. And you’re outnumbered.”
Another solider came up the other side of the hallway from Lew’s direction. Jo for signaled for him to join their ranks. “Take the girl into custody and bring her to Dorvik,” he said. He motioned the long barrel of his rifle at Lors. “That one’s mine.”
Amara felt the blunt muzzle of a blaster dig into her shoulder blades, pressing her to walk. Her own weapon was snatched from her hands. This was it, she thought. They’d failed. She didn’t know how or why this guy knew Lors’ name, but it didn’t really matter now. It was over. Lew was dead. They were all dead.
She fixed her gaze ahead on Lors, who was being marched back to the group. Why didn’t he just keep going? Why had he stopped in his tracks, as she had, when they’d heard his name called? He could have easily made it to Lew, taking out the hidden guard further down the hall in the process, without being stopped. But she already knew why. It was her. He wouldn’t leave her in danger alone. The human nuances of risk management were lost on him. Even under the most dire of circumstances, he couldn’t override his programming.
Thoren Jo poked his blaster rifle into Lors’ chest. “I was hoping I’d run into you again, Lors. You and I have some, ahem, unfinished business.”
“You are quite correct, commander,” Lors replied with typical calmness. But what came next was quite out of character. He shifted his eyes from the blustering officer to Amara and continued speaking. “I do have unfinished business. But it is not with you.”
With blinding quickness, Lors dropped to the ground. He fell in a three-point crouched position, extending his right leg as he landed. Twisting his torso and hips with vicious force, he swept his body around a full 360-degree arc. Like a sledgehammer, his metal shin swiped through the legs of both Jo and the hapless grunt standing behind his back with a sickening crunch of bone. The soldier behind Lors crumpled into a moaning heap. Jo stumbled on one leg backwards into Amara and the guard keeping her in place. She lowered her shoulder and thrust it into his gut. He fired off a couple blaster bolts in random directions as Amara grabbed him and slung him around into the disoriented soldier behind her.
From his back, Lors spoke through robotic debilitation to Amara: “G—o!”
Amara put her head down and ran, ran as hard as she could. She didn’t want to look back. She knew Lors could take care of himself. Well, she hoped he could take care of himself. He couldn’t help her now anyway. She was on her own, master of her own fate and of Lew’s, just like she’d wanted.
Gulp. Only Lewis.
She came around the gently rolling turn of the cryostasis chamber ward at peak velocity. Bank after bank whizzed past on the left-hand side. Life after life, all frozen for centuries with the same hopes and dreams, flying by at light speed. They’d have their moment, too. One day.
Amara’s eyes widened as her target came into view. Sweat stung them as it poured from her forehead. She could see her own chamber was one of two still open with platforms extended. She was getting closer, closer, closer. The instructions from Lors ran through her mind as she flew. Green button. Press and hold. The screen would prompt her to—
Four more soldiers. Closing fast from the other direction. She’d make it to Lew before they would, but she was dead if they started to fire at her. She thought she couldn’t run any faster, but somehow did.
Amara was on skates as she slid to a halt. The metal flooring she drifted over still shown faint stains of blood. She reflexively grabbed at the soft padding of the bed that had cradled her body for well over a thousand years to help kill her momentum. She used it to swing around and face up with Lew’s chamber. She was finally here. Deep down, Amara thought she’d never get back. But there it was, just as it’d been in her mind’s eye.
The ticking countdown clock read 1:27 and counting.
A distant shout from down the corridor raked at her attention. “Hey, you! You girl! Get away from there!”
But it wasn’t coming from her right, where the four onrushing troops were still very much in pursuit and getting closer every second. It was three more from the other side. They’d gotten to Lors. There was no way they could have sent reinforcements after her without subduing him first. Or worse. Probably worse, knowing what she did about Dorvik.
She was alone again. Frighteningly alone in an unknown and unforgiving Galaxy that was about to destroy her body. She sized up the task in front of her.
One of the soldiers fired a warning shot, sending her reeling for cover that wasn’t to be had. The bolt missed, though, and clipped the far end of her cryobed, disintegrating the hard metal in a flash of white-hot fire. The burning sparks singed the exposed skin on her neck and cheek as she regained her footing.
Amara placed her thumb on the green button as Lors had intructed. She pressed and held. A circle ring of metal below the clock screen sprung to life, making her jump as it began to revolve counterclockwise. A second, inner circle spun the other way around and retracted deeper into the door. A section of the outer ring thrust itself forward and twisted into what was intuitively meant as a handle. Its sides, previously hidden by the inner cylinder, were done in yellow and were adorned with black arrows instructing the user to twist clockwise. Its beveled metal edges sparkled in the Truman’s corridor lighting. From both sides, the shouting grew louder, closer. Another shot was fired from the other direction, barely missing Amara’s outstretched arm as it crossed in front of her face.
The countdown clock above the handle cleared itself. Scrolling words appeared on the screen. Amara followed the prompt as it crawled past: GRAB AND TWIST HANDLE TO RETRIEVE OCCUPANT … PRESS AND HOLD BUTTON TO REBOOT HIBERNATION … GRAB AND TW….
Amara had mere seconds left, yet her hand wasn’t moving from the green button to grab hold of the retrieval handle like she thought it would. She was in suspended animation once more — but in body only. Her mind exploded in a thousand directions at once. Lors’ words, the words that had forced such a pained reaction, bulldozed her thoughts.
… decision be made to reverse… terminates precisely one minute prior … It is an option we must consider.
No! This was Lewis. This was her brother, her only family left anywhere in the Galaxy. This was why she was out there, beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt in search of new worlds to build. This was everything.
And yet, in a way that tore at her conscience every bit as much as it ripped at her heart, that was the very reason she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
In a moment, she’d be dead, reduced to the same molten mess as the ruined slab of metal and fabric beside her. Even if Dorvik’s men didn’t kill her, Dorvik would surely see to it him himself. If she revived Lewis now, birthing him into a cold and empty Galaxy, she would only be dooming him to the same fate. She, for the first time in her life, would be helpless to protect him. Their lives would be shattered together, right here in the very place that had preserved them side by side for so very long. Lewis didn’t deserve that destiny. Not Lew, the sweet, brainy kid from the broken streets of Washington D.C. with so much of a future to live for. Those streets hadn’t taken him and they never would. He would live for that future. That’s all she could give him now.
Amara did what only she could do. The only thing she could do. She pulled back and smashed her trembling palm onto flat greenness. She leaned in with all her weight, pressing her body against the chilled metal exterior.
The retrieval handle retreated as smoothly as it had emerged. The clock digits reappeared, too, blinking steadily over Amara’s fallen head as her tearful goodbye dripped onto the chamber door.