23 years before the Battle of Skelez
Walking normally and acting natural were really hard when you were about to commit treason and betray your best friend, Braeden realized after the third time Leo told him to relax and stop fiddling with his computerized cuff. Braeden huffed and turned off the holographic projection of their solar system and wished he hadn’t listened to Leo and had worn the military cap. His red hair was very noticeable. The Colony should have removed red hair as an option from the genetic database considering that it was in no way evolutionarily helpful to have flaming red hair, no matter how short it was. Completely caught up in these musings, Braeden lost track of where they were going and ran into Leo as he was getting scanned into the main computer hub.
“Careful, Brae,” Leo said quietly, his DNA sequence flashing on the screen before he leaned in for the retina scan.
“You be careful,” Braeden muttered back, resentful of how calm his friend was, while his underwear was soaked with sweat and his heart was pounding.
“It is not weird for us to come down to the hub and work late hours, you know this,” Leo chided him. “We do this all the time. Me because I am a workaholic, and you because being left alone is the deepest torture for you.”
“You just had to call me an attention whore didn’t you?” Braeden scowled. Leo laughed softly and pushed the button to open the door.
“If the circuits connect…” Leo teased, striding confidently into the room, heading straight to his favorite computer at the front of the hub.
Braeden pulled a face and peeked into the room, searching for a hidden guard detail that would arrest them pre-emptively. Even though there was no one there, Braeden edged into the room carefully, picking at the cuff on his left wrist again. The hub was quintessentially Colony – sterile and homogenous. Everything had a place and nothing was individualized.
“Are we really doing this?” Braeden asked as he moved to the fifth computer in the back row of desks. “Are we really going to give up everything to help people we have never met, and who will never even know who we are?” He glanced down at the inside of his bare wrist, squinting at the near illegible code Leo had scrawled onto his light brown skin. He tapped the insubstantial keys, gaining access to the system.
“Not everything, Brae,” Leo murmured.
Braeden smiled fondly and shook his head. Leo never believed Braeden when he (Braeden) insisted that Leo talked to technology like a lover, and Braeden straight-up ignored Vaal when he said that Leo talked to Braeden the same way he, Leo, talked to technology.
Braeden pulled out a data chip from a hidden compartment in his cuff, and inserted it into the appropriate port on his computer. He set the computer to download all the files from the program he and Leo had been working on, and then moved to the first computer in the row. He inserted a different chip, one that had the emergency erasure code, into that computer. The screen flashed a light blue with a message in bold, black text: Standby. Awaiting Activation. He popped the chip out and moved on, repeating the process.
“We will still have our honor, and we’ll be able to sleep easy at night,” Leo said from the front row.
Braeden’s head snapped up at that, his hazel-green eyes widening slightly before narrowing. His fingers stilled in their work for a moment, though he set back to his task without having to look away from the back of Leo’s head. He watched his friend brush his brown hair out of his face, the bright lights bringing out the deeper red tones.
“I know you did not just say that to me. You know all that makes me want to do is vomit,” Braeden said, finishing on the second computer and moving to the third computer.
Leo glanced back over his shoulder at Braeden, grinning that cheeky fucking smile he always did when he knew he was irritating Braeden. “What?”
“We’ll have our honor,” Braeden muttered, ducking his head back down as he finished and moved on. “Insufferable cross-spec breeder.”
Leo laughed softly and shook his head, returning his attention to the computer on which he was working.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I like being able to sleep without Narc-Out pills,” Leo said after a few minutes of silence. “This -” he glanced down along his row of computers and nodded at the expanse of light blue screens. “This will ensure that we sleep peacefully, that no one else will be hurt because of our research.” He moved into the middle row of computers.
“I always sleep peacefully,” Braeden retorted, quickly withdrawing the erasure chip and moving to the last computer – the data chip was fully loaded and he ejected it. “And Narc-Out pills get a bad rap, I find them quite pleasant, and the dreams they inspire as adventurous.”
He tucked the chip back into his cuff and put the erasure code chip in, fingers moving rapidly over the keyboard. His heart was pounding harder than before and he felt vaguely ill. He was doing the right thing. Yes, this information was dangerous in the hands of the Colony, but he could do something good with it. He could do something great, fix everything that had gone wrong.
“Look, you have to believe in this, otherwise you wouldn’t be here with me.” Leo started the sentence strong and certain, but by the last five words the pauses between his words gave away his anxiety.
Braeden looked up from his computer and froze. Leo looked uncertain, his dark eyes searching Brae’s face, flickering back and forth like he was trying to read computer code, one hand gripping the edge of his current desk. His eyes met Braeden’s and he seemed to be trying to bore his way into Braeden’s brain and see what he really thought behind all his pretenses. Braeden hated seeing that look on his face. They had been in this together since they were six years old.
“Doesn’t mean that it’s not painful to destroy almost a decade of my research,” Braeden said, his tone gentle as he shook his head and smiled wryly.
“Our research, Brae, we both had a hand in this atrocity,” Leo reminded him, though he still sounded unsure, his voice shaky. “And it will still be in your head, you’ll know that you did it, that you accomplished the biomechatronic feats that you did.”
Braeden sighed, and grumbled, “My head is insufficient and incapable of storing this kind of data properly, but yes, yes, we are doing the right thing.” He was saying it as much to Leo as he was to himself.
Leo visibly relaxed, his shoulders dropping as he gave Braeden a minute nod in thanks. Braeden knew that his friend would never admit it, but those words were just what Leo needed to hear, and he had needed to hear them from Braeden. With the furrow between his eyebrows gone, Leo turned back to the computer he was at and both of them resumed their work, meeting in the middle of the center row, every computer but the one in front of them showing a light blue screen. The screen in front of them was a pale orange with a text cursor flashing underneath a warning message, awaiting a command.
“Alarms will sound as soon as you key in the command, and we’ll only have five minutes before the planet’s shields reactivate,” Leo warned, laying his hand against Braeden’s for a moment as Braeden reached out to type in the final code, holding him still. “We’re going to have to dash, think you can keep up?”
Braeden glanced up at his friend as he smirked, fingers hovering over the input key.
“You might want to go stand by the door, then, so you have a sufficient lead,” Braeden said. “Because we both know I am the only one who actually worked out when he logged time in the training facilities, not you.”
Leo parted his lips to retort, an indignant look on his face, but Braeden hit the key, and all of the holographic screens disappeared at once. Instant erasure.
As predicted, a high-pitched, shrill alarm sounded through the room. Braeden winced as the sound cut through his sinuses and made his eyeballs ache, but he didn’t hesitate in running flat out for the door of the hub. They skidded into the hallway and Leo, being the taller of the two of them by a good margin, pushed a ceiling panel up and jumped, pulling himself up into the ceiling. He immediately reached down and Braeden grabbed his wrists and trusted him to pull him up into the cramped service space above the hallway. Below them the hallway sealed off on either end.
Braeden took the lead then, his hand tightly gripping Leo’s wrist, forcing him to fall behind him, but also keep up with him as he navigated the tricky space. They dropped out of the ceiling three corridors over and bolted for the stairs, feet pounding on the smooth floors. Braeden stayed in the lead, only letting go of Leo when they reached the stairs. They both jumped down whole flights so as to not waste time. After the stairs there was one more corridor and then they were at the doors to one of the minor ship bays. A small cruiser was primed and ready for them. Leo scrambled up into the ship first and pulled Braeden up after him, throwing himself into the captain’s seat as soon as he knew Braeden was clear.
“How long until the shields reactivate?” Leo asked, gasping for breath as his hands and fingers flew over the controls, setting the ship into gear, the entire craft trembling as it rose up into the air.
“Two minutes,” Braeden told him, as he consulted the blinking timer on his wrist cuff and strapped himself in.
“I’ll have us out in a minute forty-five,” Leo promised, glancing over with a brief smirk that would have covered up his anxiety perfectly for anyone, but Braeden. He pushed a lever forward and the ship rocketed out through the bay opening.
The plan had been to take the quickest, most straightforward route past the force-field generators that orbited the artificial planet. Earlier that day, Braeden had bugged the force-field system so that when the erasure happened the shield would be unable to close for five minutes, and then, once it was closed, it would seal shut until they figured out the virus he had planted. But luck wasn’t quite on their side in this case. The guard satellites had already been alerted, and each time they passed within range, the turrets locked onto them and fired. The ship shuddered and shook violently with each impact, and Braeden swore loudly, squeezing his eyes shut. The energy levels for the small craft’s shields were depleting at an alarming rate, but Leo didn’t dare divert any power away from the engines. Both men’s faces were bloodless as Leo navigated them through the onslaught, piloting on instinct.
And then, it all stopped.
Braeden slowly opened his eyes, his hands still clutching his seat’s armrests in a death grip, heart pounding so hard he could barely breathe. He looked down at the monitor displaying their rear view. He was silent for a second, then two, before comprehension sank in and he whooped in triumph and jammed both arms up into the air, flinging himself against the straps securing him to his seat.
“That was fucking amazing!” Braeden crowed, reaching out to smack Leo’s shoulder.
Leo was stiff, tense in his seat, and he jerked when Braeden’s hand made impact, causing the ship to veer abruptly to the right, tilting to a sharp angle. Leo’s eyes widened as the ship tipped closer to forty-five degrees and he overcompensated in bringing the ship level, sending it to the same angle, just in the opposite direction. After a few more tries, and a shaky exhale, Leo righted their flight trajectory, and engaged autopilot via the small button on his hand controls.
“Yeah. I guess. Just never make me have to do that again,” Leo mumbled, shaking his head some and pushing his hair back out of his face. His skin was slicked in swear, from the run and the heart-stopping race to beat the shields, and he sagged back into his seat some. Eyes closed, he mumbled a few words softly to himself, though Braeden couldn’t hear what he was saying.
Prying his fingers off the ship’s controls, Leo pushed a few buttons to bring up the rear view feed on all the monitors. The silvery planet shrunk behind them, the light of one of its two suns shining off its surface, making it almost shimmer.
“You know,” Leo said, when the planet was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the stars. “We may never see SK13152 again.” As much as this had been his plan, as gung-ho and dedicated as Leo had been, as convinced that this was the right thing that they were doing, Leo sounded sad, and a little regretful about the whole ordeal. After all, this had been his home for most of his life, where the foundation of everything between them had been made.
Braeden snorted and rolled his eyes, turning his head in the same motion so he could make eye contact with his friend and now fellow fugitive.
“That’s the price you pay for honor.”