A LIFE FOR A LIFE”
LUCIUS and LARS
“Freakin’ showoff,” Lucius whispered to himself while nervously running his hand through his hair. He gazed out through the space station’s expansive curved windows, long fingers combing between each matted rope of black dreads. And as he watched the hover-boarder float on the atmosphere’s crimson waves, he wondered how many fell.
Behind Lucius, a swarm of roaming drones, each no larger than a bee, buzzed down the corridor. In search of trouble, he thought, and ignored them. In the climate-controlled comfort of the galaxy’s headquarters, he watched the solitary space-boarder weave an invisible pattern in the blistering cold sky and imagined what it would be like to tumble forever in an infinite space. It wasn’t a fate he’d wish on his worst enemy, but he’d bet the boarder had asked the same question before and must’ve thought it worth the risk if he could get jacked-up with the endorphin high all hover-boarders seemed to crave.
With all their dare-devil antics, Lucius thought space-surfers got more attention than they deserved. For that matter, so did the Swat team, the space station’s elite paramilitary group. Still, he didn’t want either job. A boarder’s work was exhausting, required spray-on superalloy clothing that was hot and smelly, and like the military, they never knew if they’d come home alive.
There’d been recent rumors about the Swat Team signing up new recruits, and that a lineup of torture addicts was sabotaging each other with muscle retardants for the few open jobs. Lucius wanted none of it. He had convinced himself that boring stuff, like deciphering algorithms, had its merits even if the girls never gave him a second look after he opened his mouth. Who cared? He had his droid sidekick, Zoop. What more could a sixteen-year-old guy need?
Reina, he thought. He shifted in his seat, impatient with the long wait outside the lab, anxious to see the moon-faced technician. He weighed the fantasy of stroking her supple pale cheek down her neck as far as he could go against patting Zoop’s polycarbonate casing then sighed. What he’d do to have her in his life.
The first time he’d seen Reina was at the 2615 Cyclotron Boarding Cup race. They had materialized at the entrance to the thirty-thousand-seat space arena at the same time. After pocketing his IMAG transporter, a device that allowed travel through air waves by ionizing molecules then re-materializing the atoms with electrostatic glue, he surveyed the landing platform. The solar system’s largest sports coliseum had swarmed with more flag-waving rowdies than he could count. Giving the crowd a nonchalant once-over, he wondered how many new planets were competing in the race. He really didn’t care. Long ago he had convinced himself he wasn’t the competitive type.
“This sucks,” the bleached-white blonde in front of him had complained in a heartbreaking drawl. She’d finger-swiped the miniature crystal implant on her wrist. Looking impossibly helpless, she pouted, “My ticket isn’t in my P.A.” Shake as she may, her Personal Attendant’s case remained empty. Her eyes, the faint blue of a distant star, teared up.
Lucius had shoved his hands in his side pockets and watched her. He’d waited for a superhero to step up and give her an extra ticket, one bought with the hopes of hooking up with a rad-looking babe like this slammin’ long-legged starlet. But no one took the cue until she’d lifted her head, pushed back a loose swirl of silver highlighted hair, and their eyes connected.
He’d known right away she was playing him. But wasn’t that what he expected? So he’d taken the bait.
“Hey, sweet nothing, my buddy couldn’t make it. Got an extra ticket if you need one,” he’d said, and with a single tap on his P.A., a suspended hologram with the Boarding Cup logo shimmered in front of him. “Take it.”
“Aww, thanks, tall dark and handsome,” she’d said. “I’m Reina.” She’d given him a leisurely hug, kissed him on the lips, then pinching the holo, it dissolved into her PA. “Catch you inside,” she’d purred, disappearing before he could ask where.
“The name’s 2600-4-27 Lucius,” he’d yelled after her into a crowd of thousands.
He’d seen several other girls on the far side of the landing eyeing him with interest. He knew he wasn’t hard to look at, and they were everything a guy should want: fresh as a spring breeze and sporting styli like himself—sister dweebs. He should’ve tried to connect with them. But he hadn’t. For some reason, his gut told him the blonde, Reina, was his type, and he’d hoped they’d hook up later.
It wasn’t until after the race that he saw the lunar face girl again, wrapping herself around the lanky victor of the games: 2600-4-27 Lars, Lucius’s brother. Lars’s orange, dragon-tail buzz-cut hung lopsided on his head, an after effect of the race that made all the girls, including Reina, want to smoother him with caresses—and Lars let them. Lars knows how to play people to get what he wants, Lucius thought. He did it to me.
The smell of her lemon-scented shampoo, sharp yet tangy, had lingered in his mind. Lucius had shaken his head, disgusted with himself for being such an easy read. You sucker. He’d clenched his fist. A ripple of adrenaline had coursed up his onyx black arm. Pulling out his programming stylus, he’d released short, even bursts of electric rage and tagged the wall with one of his graffiti signatures: UROT, expressing how he felt about everyone around him and himself.
Staring out the bowed pane of glass in the base station, Lucius brought his mind back to the present. Through ribbons of flame-colored methane clouds, at the gateway to the solar system’s most lucrative mining pit, the hover-boarder that was flipping and skimming was Lars. After the 2615 Games and his twenty-four hours of fame, Lars had returned to the mines as a simple robot shepherd.
Lucius watched as the surfer extended an arm to herd a flock of wing-shaped robots. One after another, they flew out of the planet’s hostile gas interior. Most of the time, Lars rode the asphyxiating waves on the nose of his board. Every now and then he dropped to the tail and slowed his speed before making a looping turn to snag a stray robot’s fishhook feather and guide it along.
Lucius cringed. It wasn’t that he wanted Lars to stumble then float away in zero-gravity space. It was just that having inherited the gene for watching, Lucius couldn’t imagine why anyone would expose themselves to drifting in perpetual space, forever; on a never ending ride.
Lucius had been waiting for fifteen minutes to be let into the lab to fix a software glitch. One of the bots that harvested human zygotes from the base station’s incubator was on the fritz. In his frustration, he twisted his body too abruptly and caught his finger in his chair’s matting. Embarrassed, he frantically worked to unsnag it then leaned over to see if Reina had noticed what a dumbass he was. The tech was nowhere in sight. Relieved, he extended his arms in front of him in a long stretch, arched his back, cracked his knuckles, and stared back out at the infinite haze of star-studded space.
Although Lucius and Lars came from the same zygote vat, they were as much like brothers as a deer mouse is to a camel. Lars was colorless, like white granite with icicle-sharp features always edging into the picture, while Lucius was dark-skinned, a shadow that molded into the background. The two lived in the base station on the planet Tirap, along with another hundred thousand inhabitants. Still, Lucius made sure they rarely crossed paths, as he had since they were ten. This past year, he particularly had not wanted to be reminded of what a fool he had been the day of the cyclotron race. Or give Lars a chance to push one of his ballistic buttons, something his brother had a knack of doing. It hadn’t always been that way, Lucius thought, remembering a holo taken when they were younger and no taller than hip-high to a headmaster droid. Holding dinner plates spilling over with food and smirking as though they’d just pocketed a couple of elf bots, Lucius had looked like a lumpy teddy bear and Lars a squirrelly puppy. Having no parents on Tirap, they’d learned to lean on each other at an early age. Right before someone snapped the holo, they had been sitting in bed together, reading, until Lars fell asleep on Lucius’s bigger shoulder. Then the dinner bell rang and they had raced to the dining hall. With Lars always the winner, they were the first in line and got the largest mounds of mashed potatoes. That’s when the holo was taken, when they were still the best of friends. Until one day when the two brothers went to try out for the planet’s hover-boarding team. That’s when Lars had showed Lucius his other side.
They were ten-year-olds. There was only one spot on the boarding team.
“You’re gonna win,” Lucius conceded, defeat already in his voice. “You’re always the fastest.”
Fidgeting with his board and jumpy with excitement Lars avoided Lucius’s gaze. “No way. You’re bigger and smarter than me.”
When the signal to take off came, Lucius had popped-up on his board, expecting an electrostatic lift. Nothing happened, except that Lars zoomed away.
Lucius jumped off his hovercraft, turned it over, and peeled away a millimeter-thick, metal shielding someone had planted there to block the magnetic thrusters. The board hadn’t been out of his sight except to sign in, when he’d left it under Lars watch.
He kicked the board until it was nothing but splinters.
“Lars, you didn’t have to cheat,” he yelled after the vibrating airwaves. Lars was no Tesla, but he had everything going for him when it came to air boarding.
Later, Lars swore he had nothing to do with the fix. But they both knew the truth. Since then, Lucius had made it a habit to avoid Lars. It had hurt too much to be betrayed. But he knew he couldn’t shield himself forever.
A few months after the cyclotron race, Lucius had been called to Reina’s lab to re-program the sanitizing station. Having lost the last of his baby fat, he’d looked totally buff in a tight, short-sleeve shirt that his droid had made him change into so he didn’t look like such a dork. He was hot and he knew it. The only problem was convincing Reina to see him that way.
When he’d arrived, he had found Lars in the middle of a cozy conversation with Reina. One arm braced against the access to the ozone supply closet, and Reina’s back against the red door. She’d swirled her foot on the sterile tiled floor, with that sweet helpless look, and readied herself to lasso Lars into her trap.
At first they didn’t hear Lucius enter, so their game continued, until Lucius bumped into a lab counter, jostling the instruments on the edge.
“Hey,” Lars had said, a butt-head grin on his face, nodding at Lucius as he’d re-adjusted the equipment.
“Got an emergency repair call,” Lucius had answered, cracking his knuckles at the sight of Lars. “But it looks like I’m intruding. I can come back later.” He turned to leave.
“Good timing, boyo.” Reina had frowned then pushed herself off the door and sashayed over to the lab bench, ass swaying from side to side so that even a droid couldn’t ignore her. “Here,” she’d pointed at a control panel. “I know you can fix it.” Then she’d eyed Lucius up and down. “Looking cute today. Get a little help from that hipster droid of yours?”
Lucius had wrinkled his forehead, unsure if Reina was insulting or complimenting him. Why do I like her? He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and walked to the stainless steel counter, where he’d retrieved a hologram of the lab’s programming code.
“That’s way cool how you can control what a droid thinks,” Lars had said, a hint of respect bleeding through the unmasked sarcasm. He playfully slung an arm around Reina’s neck. “When that droid started acting weird, I told doll face here she should fetch her techie right away to make sure she’s taken care of.”
“I see you’ve got that under control,” Lucius had answered as he circled the holo to check out the code.
Reina had wrapped her arms around Lars body like a white spider spinning its web. Lars is nothing but a liar, a cheat, and a thief. He can have any girl. Why Reina?
“I’m just a simple boarder, but I do my best with what I got. All the high IQ genes in my zygote batch got dished out before they got to me,” Lars goaded with an insincere smile.
Lucius had noticed the teasing glint in Lars’s prominent triangular eyes. Biting his lower lip, he’d turned his attention back to the programming language suspended in midair. “You do your thing and I’ll do mine.” Just don’t bust my balls, he’d thought, pissed that Lars always had to win. Then he zipped the programming holo shut and flipped the switch. The motor purred.
Lucius pulled himself out of his mind talk and focused again on the scenery outside the curved window. He had to admire the surfer’s agility as Lars snared each mining robot by its feathers, prodded the robots with his staff and led them to the discharge station. When they safely landed, the bird bots unwound the hooked ends of their silver quills and latched them onto enormous industrial cylinders. With a loud swoosh, each bird released close to one-hundred kilograms of Xenon superconductor: liquid gold.
Once the day’s take was unloaded, Lars cautiously drove his flock back to the maintenance platform. He hesitated here and there when blinded by unpredictable bursts of ice vapor from the planet’s inner core. Then as the gaseous squalls settled down, he corralled the mining robots onto the dock, lined up his flock, gently patted down their barbed plumage, then deactivated them and left. The cleaning crew would arrive soon to buff the frozen spikes of the Xenon off their veneers. In the glowing, frigid afternoon winds that swirled around the desolate flock, they looked like a piece of crude artwork.
“Ready for Programming Tech 2600-4-27 in the zygote lab,” announced a raspy drawl through the sound system.
Lucius jumped from his seat. His dreads fell down the back of his black t-shirt, which was only a shade darker than his skin. He purposely took his time walking to the sanitizing booth. Once inside, an ozone flash zapped him clean. The airlock opened into the zygote laboratory, a high security compartment, where the base station’s work forces were grown. After being harvested, the children who survived in the harsh environment of Tirap until they were twenty-years-old were rewarded and sent to live in perpetual ecstasy on a space station less than a thousand kilometers beyond the planet’s stratosphere. There they lived out their mortal days as whomever or whatever they wanted.
Having wasted a quarter of an hour watching his brother show off, Lucius was ready for alone time with the zygote tech. In a low, melodic voice he asked, “Hey, angel, what ya got for me?” He hoped he sounded more at ease than he felt.
Reina was three years his senior and never let him forget it. “Most likely more than you can handle, little dipper,” she answered, walking to the incubator.
For all Reina’s wild ways when she was away from work, once she donned her white lab coat, she was queen of the genetics world and there was no messing with her. She halted next to a cactus droid and stood ramrod straight.
“Now, stop your astro-turd flirting and fix this piece of junk.” She pointed at the multi-appendaged droid, contempt dripping from the delicate curve in her lips.
A pool of gelatinous mass, infused with microscopic ova, lay inches from the stainless steel surgical table. “The moron keeps dumping all the eggs on the ground instead of into the zipper machine,” she explained. Her rose-petal-smooth skin clashed with her callous treatment of the droid.
Lucius walked over to the droid, wondering how Reina could be so unforgiving when it wasn’t the machine’s fault. He held one of its grey branches between his fingertips as though taking a pulse and extracted a virtual screen that listed its operational code. A series of letters, numbers, and punctuations hung in the air for several minutes. With his stylus, he changed one of the numbers on the display before releasing his grip.
“OK. Give it a try, lunar lips.” He smirked, hoping maybe now she would see who he was beyond his job description.
She gave him a sidelong glance for barely a heartbeat, then she obeyed and activated the droid.
The machine swiveled to the incubation box, pulled out a fresh tray of eggs, returned to the operating table where it poured the gooey liquid into the zygote-splicing dish, and stepped back. Repair accomplished.
Reina groaned. “What’d you do, baby geek?”
“Changed the drop-off point two centimeters closer to the table. Poor droid was releasing the goo too soon. And I’m not a baby, I’ll be nineteen next month.”
“Sure. Next month plus three years,” she clarified, physically pushing the droid to move faster.
He looked up at the ceiling in defeat. How could he get Reina to see him as more than just a toy for her to tease? Wasn’t there more to life than being hot and good at playing games? Before he let his disappointment show, he dished out the dirt she expected. “Now, lava cakes, if you don’t mind, I got a shard game starting in five minutes. Are we done here?”
“Ya, and don’t call me lava cakes. I’m not your dessert,” she smirked. As the airlock opened and he stepped inside it, she added, “Lucky punk.”
He turned back to say something but the door swooshed shut and all he could do was grin. Would he ever be able to tell her how he felt?
Waiting outside the laboratory was his sidekick Zoop, a box-shaped paramedic droid that levitated no higher than Lucius’s thigh. Zoop scooted over. The android had just returned from a search and rescue mission and its energizer was all but drained. Yet it had enough charge left for a game of shards.
“Hey buddy, done for the day,” he sighed, and looking back at the lab wondered why it was so hard for Reina to let loose and get beyond that badass, tougher than invincible shell. “Ready for a game of shards?” Lucius reached down to pet the soft fur on the droid’s square top. Zoop’s rigid form dissolved into a soft, squeezable pillow. “Not here, pal. Gotta be tough.” His sidekick straightened up into a metallic cube and probably would’ve saluted if it had arms.
Lucius led Zoop down a neighborhood corridor of the space station’s master planned village. Immersed in bubbles of their favorite sensory settings, off-duty residents strolled through the brushed-chrome passage. A contingent of alien representatives, shaped like a green glob of photosynthesizing fish eggs, swirled past, ignoring Lucius and Zoop.
After they were out of earshot Lucius whispered, “Life hacks!” He guided Zoop forward at a fast pace, the palm of his hand on the back of the droid’s head.
Zoop’s eye probes went crisscross.
Lucius recognized the perplexed look. “Reina treats me like I’m a joke,” he explained. “There’s no respect!”
Zoop pushed out its polycarbonate chest.
“Yeah, next time I’ll stand up to her . . . Maybe you should come along. She likes you.” Lucius paused for a moment.
“And hey, no tricks at the shard game. I know you’re smarter than me . . . on some things. But don’t be spookin’ the others into thinking you’re playing my hand for me. They’ve already asked why I always bring you along. I don’t want to go agro again when they call me a cheater then get kicked out of the game because you think you know what’s best. You’re not helping.”
As smart as droids were, they couldn’t grasp right from wrong. They were programmed to use their logic to outsmart others. And at that moment, still stinging from Reina’s dismissal, Lucius was in no shape to take heat and get booted from a shard game just so Zoop could show off its intelligence.
Zoop sagged at the hurt in Lucius’s voice. It checked the corridor in both directions, then slipped back into its pillow form long enough to nuzzle Lucius’s calf. Lucius stroked the droid’s top.
That’s when the station’s alarm system blared. Within seconds, Swat Team soldiers filled the gleaming-silver corridor. Viper-shaped eye-slits in the black mechanical uniforms worn by humans was the only way of identifying whether a droid or a person was pushing past. With the butt ends of their laser swords, the squad of elite teens elbowed their way down the hall through the mindless crowd zoned into their personal radio waves, oblivious of the emergency alert.
Lucius grabbed Zoop, certain they were under attack.
In a flat, emotionless tone, the base station’s speaker system announced, “Incident in the troposphere. High readings of shredded superalloy clothing.”
Lucius and Zoop rushed back to the window outside the lab, facing the mine shaft. Beyond the glass barrier, a winged mining robot was ensnared on the discharge platform and Lars was freeing it. Even at that distance, Lucius could see Lars’s clothing flake off.
Why’s Lars risking his life for a bot? Then Zoop snuggled against his leg. Immediately he realized it was a dumb question. If it was Zoop out there, he’d be doing the same thing.
“Hey, is that paramedic droid yours?” a Swat Team youth asked from behind. He pushed Lucius aside and reached out to grab Zoop.
“What’s it to you?” Lucius answered, planting his body in front of his buddy.
Lucius straightened his posture so he towered over the other teen. The intimidation worked, for the moment. He knew Zoop’s energy was drained and it wasn’t ready for another assignment, especially one where he’d have to fight that raging storm.
Reina came racing down the hall, her close-cut hair sticking out in all directions. “What’s going on?”
The paramilitary youth pointed out the window. The turbulent afternoon winds swirled pink and orange, enough asphyxiating gas to suffocate the whole station. “Some galactic bozo’s out there trying to save a robot. He’s going to crystalize into black char.”
Reina’s face froze. She stared out at Lars fighting to free his robot, disregarding the fact that his own life was on its final countdown.
She grabbed the officer’s sleeve. “Do something.”
“Without an EMS droid, I can’t do anything. Besides, we got a thousand more shepherds waiting to take his place.” The soldier responded, disinterested in Reina’s panic.
“It would look pretty bogus if the solar system’s current boarding champion died because someone was too lazy to get help.” Her eyes let him know who that someone was and their name would not stay secret.
“Don’t blame me,” the guard whined. “What you need is over there.” He pointed at Zoop, who floated trustingly behind Lucius.
Reina shot a glance in Lucius’s direction then looked back at the officer, puzzled. “He’s a nerd!”
When she did, she saw Lucius and Zoop, a boy and his droid.
Reina closed her eyes, pressed her lips together tightly, and let her impossibly helpless guise wash over her face. When she opened her luminescent blue eyes, they were aglow with a plan. Lucius knew what he was in for as soon as she walked over to him and wrapped her arm around his broad shoulders.
“Your EMS droid’s the best around. Indestructible. If you let this soldier use it to help Lars, you’d get a lot of attention from the right people.”
Zoop doesn’t stand a chance out there, he thought. Almost out of juice, it doesn’t have the energy to fight that storm. But in Reina’s desperate eyes, he saw she’d never understand how he felt. To her, it was Lars out there and Zoop was just another droid
Reina fingered the cuff of his sleeve, giving him time to decide. How could he sentence Zoop to obliteration even if that was Lars out there…Lars, his brother, once his best pal now his nemesis…but also a human being. At that moment the sharp edge of Zoop’s polycarbonate box stabbed his thigh. The plastic hurt.
She’s right. My droid is tough. He dare not look at Zoop. And Reina needs me. He saw it in her eyes, the promises he wanted to hear.
“Ok, my droid can go, but no longer than ten minutes,” Lucius answered while nudging his little buddy out from hiding. He bent down and peered into Zoop’s optical light sensors. “You can do this pal—for me.” Then he ruffled his droid’s floppy mop but had to look away.
Zoop straightened so every corner of its metallic box creased perfectly. Even the soft fur on its head became rigid.
The young officer pushed the EMS droid toward the exterior doors. “If that surfer was a nobody, he’d be a goner,” the guard told Reina, and before Lucius could say goodbye, the button for the airlock hissed. From the curved window, Lucius watched his android float away from Home Base.
“You did the right thing.” Reina leaned her head against Lucius’s chest, practically melting with relief. “Your droid’s a machine. Lars is not.”
Are you sure, Lucius wondered, feeling her cold hand on his neck.
Beyond the safety of the base station, Lars struggled in the strong longitudinal winds, his mining robot clutched in his arms as Xenon gas leaked from its tank. All around them, swirling yellow and red gases swelled into violent squalls.
Without warning, a gust of wind caught one of the winged robot’s feathers. It hooked into the shepherd’s cloth and ripped off Lars’s mask. The robot froze. Lucius gasped as the suffocating vapors engulfed Lars and the frigid gas burned the flesh on his face.
Zoop glided to within an arm’s reach of Lars. Once there, it morphed into a cover and enfolded Lars and the mining robot, rolling them deeper within its soft inner core, until they were engulfed in a protective womb. They couldn’t push off with the onslaught of glacial-cold gusts of gas. So they waited. As Lucius watched, the blanketed mass twisted and rotated in painful contortions, pieces of outer fiber was sheared off in the wind, but its passengers were safe and snug inside.
“No!” Lucius shouted. He pushed Reina away and pressed his forehead and palms against the frigid window. “Zoop can’t take any more.” But it was too late to do anything about it.
After endless minutes, the lashing winds settled down. Zoop automatically set its ion propulsion in gear, aimed toward the base station, and glided home.
Lucius knew the droid’s exoskeleton had been weakened by the brutal squalls and if it pushed beyond a safe speed, it would crumble. “Zoop don’t go that fast,” Lucius yelled, fear more than anger in his voice. Yet they all knew Zoop could not hear him.
“At least Lars has a chance to live, now.” Reina reached out to Lucius’s unresponsive hand.
Lucius watched the blanket unravel, particle by particle, shedding bits of fiber in the never ending space, until they reached the landing. By then there was only a thin shell left of his droid.
Reina pulled Lucius away from the blistering glass, his face red with frost bite. With anger building inside, he couldn’t face her. Unable to control his thoughts, every neuron in his brain fired unrestrained, ricocheting liberated emotions, until he felt numb.
“You should be proud.” Reina patted Lucius on the back. “Your droid did its duty.”
He was barely aware Reina was there. He no longer cared. His best friend was disintegrating into cosmic debris and it was because of him. For the first time, Lucius was not afraid to show what it meant to care, even if it was for a droid. And if Reina thought him weak, it no longer mattered.
He clenched his fist, and with futile rage, smashed it against the window. The cruel exosphere ignored his outburst. Instead, a show of asteroids fell beyond the orange horizon.
He heard rather than saw the emergency squad rush Lars out of the airlock toward the infirmary. Barely turning his head, Lucius glimpsed the paramedics swathing Lars in an airtight wrap. The frigid air had burned his face black from his scalp to his neck. HIs eyes, nose, and mouth were a blur of char.
A medic, one of the older teens, shouted, “His lungs got hit with methane. We need a stem cell transplant to kill all cancer cells. Somebody find a match. Now!”
Reina turned to Lucius, reluctance showing in her stiff movements. “This may be the wrong time,” she began, then hesitated, “but if the two of you are from the same zygote batch.”
He heard her but she was only noise in his head, like a static charge, buzzing, drilling.
“I’m going to need some of your stem cells,” she continued, putting up a pretense of calm. “The methane will soon metastasize any dormant cancer cells in his lungs.”
But all Lucius could think was that they had destroyed—no—he had let them obliterate Zoop, his only link to sanity in this cold-hearted world. An empty feeling welled up within, threatening to suffocate him. He betrayed his best friend.
In answer to Reina, an echo in his mind repeated: Lars is not getting my DNA. Lars is not getting my DNA. Lars is not getting my DNA.
“Give me the P.A. on your wrist and I’ll get the data transfer started. It won’t hurt,” Reina cooed. The sincerity in her voice sounded so real, but now he knew was a lie.
“Fuck him. Let him die.” The wrath inside Lucius exploded. He yanked his arm away. “He’s gettin’ nothin’ from me. He already took more than I could give.” He stepped back, dizzy with thoughts spinning out of control.
He walked in circles, his head lowered, whispering to himself, “I had to let Zoop go—that was its job.” But the words felt hollow. “Its job,” he repeated again and again. But Lucius couldn’t convince himself of his innocence.
With every thought of Zoop, tears of rage burned within, so he closed his eyes, the brushed chrome hallway, ceiling, walls and floor blinked silver on his retina. Why the fuck was everything so sterile, he wondered, and opened his eyes again.
He saw Reina, data probe in hand. Waiting.
“You want me to give Lars my DNA? Fuck no. Find someone else’s stem cells. Or let him die.” Lucius looked up, his whole body heaved with unspent grief.
Let him die, his thoughts repeated. If Lars wasn’t so stupid, Zoop would still be here.
Lucius replayed the incident in his mind from the moment the robot’s hooked feather ripped off Lars’s mask. It was as if the mining bot knew from the beginning something had gone terribly wrong. In his mind Lucius saw the feathered robot’s optic probes helplessly watch Lars, as though it knew good from bad, then it curled inward.
Time slipped away. His anger sunk into a grief beyond words. Lucius found a place in his subconscious where he could suffer, lash himself again and again. Admit to himself that his droid was more than a little buddy. More than a box or machine code. Lucius had trusted Zoop with who he was. But Zoop was gone now, and he had no one.
Finally, Lucius let the hum of the outside world in. Even though the Swat Team yelled orders to fall back, curious onlookers elbowed each other and closed in on Reina and Lucius, asking for the whole story. Reina knelt by Lucius, gently coaxing again and again. “Lars needs your stem cells.”
This time he didn’t resist. Lucius extended his wrist for Reina to activate his P.A. implant. “I’m doing this for Zoop, not Lars.” Nothing would bring his droid back, but by saving Lars, he’d fulfill Zoop’s last wish.
Reina tapped into his vitals and read the code from his DNA database. She scrolled to his birth date and time. “Yup, same zygote batch. Not twins but still brothers.”
Brothers, Lucius thought, and memories of the little icicle-pale boy who’d sucked his thumb and snuck into bed with him came to mind. That was long ago. He had never asked why Lars had tricked him. He didn’t have to—Lars always had to win.
Reina slapped a bracelet on his wrist. “Nerd face, time to get you ready for surgery.” Needles from the band quickly numbed his body and soon he blacked out. The next thing Lucius knew, he was waking up, flat on his back. Blank infirmary walls surrounded him. He laid there, not thinking, until his mind refused to close out the truth.
He sat up, dressed slowly: pulling on one sock, waiting, then pulling on the other, wishing the nightmare would go away. But the white walls remained real. Without realizing what he was doing, he let his feet take him where he could get the answer to end this hell. In the next room lay Lars.
At the doorway to Lars’s room, Lucius stood unmoving, arms pressed against his sides, fists clenched, chin defiantly pulled back, wondering whether this was what brothers always did to each other. How could Lars have known what would hurt most?
Where Lars had once sported his orange dragon-tail buzz cut, smooth, grafted skin covered his head. Lucius grimaced at the sight of the translucent skin on Lars face—veins and muscles exposed—and IV needles dangling from his chest. Other than a flurry of remotely controlled surgical mice zooming about to adjust bandages and monitor the flow of liquid in the tubes, they were alone.
As though sensing Lucius’s presence, Lars opened his eyes.
That first awkward moment hung in the air. Each young man eyed the other with suspicion.
Throwing back his dreads, Lucius exploded. “Why the fuck did you do it?”
“Do what?” Lars answered, too weak to fight back but stubborn enough to show no remorse.
Lucius marched into the room to within inches of Lars’s face, folded his arms across his chest, clutching them to stop himself from ripping off Lars’s head. When he regained control, he explained in a slow, calculated voice, “You screwed up—and someone—that is something—had to save your sorry ass.” Spit and tears went flying everywhere. “That thing was my droid.” Lucius felt like he couldn’t breathe. It hurt so bad every time he thought of Zoop. “You owe me big time.”
“I lost my robot too,” Lars shot back. “You got your revenge. A death for a death.”
That wasn’t the way Lucius saw it. He didn’t want to get even. That was competition stuff, where only the winning or losing counts. That equation would never bring Zoop back.
“Don’t you ever think before you do something and stick your self-important foot up your puny butt?” Lucius grabbed a glass of water from the bed stand and flung against the spotless wall.
“Dude, that’s all you ever do,” Lars’s eyes showed no fear. “Always thinkin’ you’re better than everybody else”
Surprised by Lars’s sharp tongue, Lucius was speechless. He knew he was a klutz, tripping over his own words, always lost in thought, wondering rather than asking. It seemed others had noticed too, but they thought it arrogance rather than self-doubt.
Having left Lucius stunned, Lars pushed himself up further in the bed and let loose with the straight talk. “Stop bein’ a victim. You don’t play the part well.”
Lucius ignored him and bottled the fury inside, just like he always did.
“What I did out there was for my robot.” Lars tried to explain in a gentler tone. Getting no answer, he added under his breath, “I’m sorry . . . okay? Now I said it.”
With a blank face, Lucius watched the mechanical mice click as they readjusted the bandages on Lars’s face. Pale-pink skin bubbled up then shone as the charred flesh healed in fast motion. But Lars’s words pierced Lucius’s mind like a bull charging a red flag, and he hardened his jaw. Sorry? That’s all?
Lars went on, “Years ago, you knew it was me. I was sure you’d never talk. Yet in a way, I’d hoped you would.”
Lucius’s mind flashed back to that day when they were full of dreams and friendship. That day it all stopped because Lars betrayed him.
“Hey, I was always better at boarding than you . . . And you were better at everything else. Can’t you understand surfing is the only thing I can do?” Lars tried to scratch his weeping skin. A mouse slapped his hand away. “What’d it get me? Reina.”
“Reina,” Lucius repeated, no longer sensing a thrill in saying her name. Instead he felt deflated, cheated. She had meant everything to him but was nothing to Lars.
“Yeah,” Lars answered and self-consciously looked at the foot of his bed rather than Lucius. “I’m nothing but a mining shepherd, doing something a million other guys can do. Do you know what it feels like when snobs like you look right past me as though I’m invisible? Reina wants a poster boy to brag about, not me.”
Lucius shook his head. “She doesn’t know what she wants. But I know what I want.” After all those years of waiting for revenge and getting a pathetic story, he punched his fist against the wall. “You owe me a life.”
“You mean a droid.”
Lucius kicked the leg of the only chair in the room. “I lost my best friend because of you.” He booted the chair again and leveled his gaze at Lars. “A life for a life.”
Lars sat up, wincing in pain. “What do you want?” He grabbed a cleaning scalpel, “Here, cut my throat. Or better yet, take my stem cells. You wanna be like me? Does the thought of surfing all over this methane-stinking space light your fire?”
Lucius knew that wasn’t what he wanted. He searched for the right words but only saw the mice and pulsating monitoring equipment. What did he want?
He realized Lars hadn’t really wanted to sabotage him. Lars had just hoped to show everyone there was something he could do better than Lucius. But why did he have to do it that way? Things could have been so different if they’d stuck together.
With no forewarning, the door swooshed open. A Swat Team officer burst into the room, his protective face mask off. His neck bulged out of his skintight uniform. Eyeing Lucius, then Lars, then Lucius, he asked, “Which of you is 2600-4-27 Lucius?”
Although the officer could be no more than nineteen, his forehead was deeply furrowed with age. “Answer or you’ll be charged with insubordination.”
“Tell us what you want first.” Lars flicked a mouse to the floor.
“Top secret for 2600-4-27 only.” He held up an official-looking contract as evidence.
Lars stretched out a bandaged arm. “Over here. I’m 2600-4-27. Where do I sign?”
Lucius’s and Lars’ eyes connected. Why is Lars doing this, Lucius wondered.
The officer handed Lars a hologram marked with the National Defense seal for his signature and fingerprints. Lars signed and extended his thumb, but the officer snatched the holo and transmitted it, not waiting for security clearance.
“OK, tell me about this assignment. Don’t worry about him.” Lars pointed at Lucius. “He’s proven he’s no snitch.”
“All I can say is the mission’s destination is Earth.” The officer snapped his mouth shut.
Why Earth? Lucius wondered but remained silent. The bully’s body language suggested these were not questions the officer would not answer.
Lars caught Lucius’s attention. A broad smirk broke through his mask of bandages. “A life for a life, bro.”
Lucius wasn’t satisfied. This wasn’t the deal he wanted. He’d never find another Zoop, but he didn’t want Lars to fail. If it was him they were looking to send to earth, it was because he was a techie.
He wrapped his arms in a self-hug, struggling with his confusion. Should he say something or not? Was he willing to go or should he stay? The only way out of his pain was the answer to his lifelong question. So he asked again, What do I want? His head dropped and dreads dangled. This time, his heart gave the answer. I want to be Number One at something. But to win, he knew he’d have to play the game—and sometimes it costs.
The officer turned to leave. “You’ll receive your orders—”
Lucius interrupted, “Excuse me, sir, but there’s been a mistake.”
Impatience on the face of the stocky guard warned Lucius the guy didn’t like being jerked around.
“I’m 2600-4-27 Lucius.” He bit back a laugh at the swat leader’s quivering lip.
“What the hell?” he cursed. “This shithead already signed.”
“Yes. He’s 2600-4-27 but he never said he was Lucius, and you didn’t wait for his fingerprints.” Lucius extended his hand. “The contract?”
This time, the officer waited for the security clearance. He left, but the door swooshed open again as he re-entered, laughing. “Joke’s on the two of you. I’m taking you both.” Then he left.
Lars shouted after him, “You’re gettin’’ double the trouble, pal.” He plopped against his pillow and moaned. “Cyberwarrior, looks like we’re stuck with each other—again.”
The brothers eyed each other. This would not be like learning to read together. It would be more.
Lucius grinned at Lars. For the first time feeling hope, he picked up a mouse, turned it over in the palm of his hand, opened its program code, and sent it chasing down the hall after the officer. Then with one fist clenched in a ball, he jabbed his elbow to his waist and growled, “Booyah!”