2616 C.E.




“Freakin showoff,” Lucius whispered to himself, then ran his hand through his hair. His long fingers combed between each matted rope of black dreads. He gazed out through the space station’s expansive curved windows and watched the hover boarder float on the atmosphere’s crimson waves.

Behind Lucius, a swarm of roaming drones, each no larger than a bee, buzzed down the corridor. 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 wondered how many fell.

It seemed to Lucius that space-surfers, like the Swat Team, got more attention than they deserved. 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.

For a moment his mind wandered to recent rumors about the space station’s elite para-military group. He’d heard the Swat Team was signing up new recruits and 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 side kick, Zoop. What more could a sixteen-year-old guy need?

Reina, he thought. Then shifted in his seat, impatient with the long wait, anxious to see the moon-face technician. He weighed the fantasy of stroking her supple pale cheek, down her neck and 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.  The landing platform to the solar system’s largest sports coliseum had swarmed with more flag-waving rowdies than he could count. Pocketing his IMAG transporter in his back pocket, he had given the crowd a nonchalant ‘once-over’ and wondered how many new planets were competing in the race.

“This sucks,” the silver blonde in front of him complained in a heartbreaking drawl. She finger-swiped the implant on her wrist. “My ticket isn’t in my P.A,” she pouted, looking impossibly helpless at her Personal Attendant. Her eyes, the faint crystal blue of a distant star, teared up.

Lucius shoved his hands in his side pockets and watched her. He waited for a superhero to step up and give her their extra ticket, the one they’d 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 lifted her head, pushed back a loose swirl of bleached-white hair, and their eyes connected.

He knew she was playing him. But wasn’t that what he expected? So he took the bait.

“Hey Sweet Nothing, my buddy couldn’t make it. Got an extra ticket if you need one,” he said, and with a single tap on his P.A., a suspended hologram with the Boarding Cup logo, shimmered in front of Lucius. “Take it.”

“Aww, thanks Apple Cheeks,” she said. “I’m Reina.” She gave him a leisurely hug, kissed him on the lips then pinched the holo. “Catch you inside,” she purred, disappearing before he could ask where.

“The name’s 2600-4-27 Lucius,” he yelled after her, into a crowd of thousands.

He saw several 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 stylus like himself—sister dweebs. He should’ve tried to connect with them. But he didn’t. For some reason, his gut told him the blonde, Reina, was his type, and he had hopes 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, his brother. Lars’s orange, dragon-tail buzz-cut hung lopsided on his head, an after-effect of the race, a look that made all the girls, including Reina, want to smoother him with caresses—and Lars let them.

The smell of her lemon-scented shampoo, sharp yet tangy, had lingered in his mind. Lucius shook his head, disgusted with himself for being such an easy read. You sucker. He clenched his fist. A ripple of adrenaline coursed up his onyx black arm. Then pulling out his programming stylus, he released short even bursts of electric rage and tagged the wall with one of his graffiti signatures: UROT.

Staring out the bowed pane of glass in the base station, Lucius brought his mind back to the present. Absorbed by the surfer’s flips then spins, he watched Lars, who after his twenty-four-hours of fame had returned to the mines as a simple droid shepherd.  It wasn’t that Lucius 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 taking a risk that could leave him drifting in perpetual space forever.

At the gateway to the solar system’s most lucrative mining pit, Lars skimmed through ribbons of flame-colored methane clouds. 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 the shepherd 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.

Lucius had been waiting for fifteen minutes to fix a software glitch on one of the bots that harvested human zygotes from the base station’s incubator.  In his frustration, he twisted his body too abruptly and caught his finger in the chair’s matting. Unsnagging it, he leaned over to see if the lunar-faced lab technician saw what a dumb ass he was or if she was ready for him to enter the restricted zone. The tech was nowhere in sight, so he extended his arms in front of him in a long stretch, arched his back, cracked his knuckles, then turned back to stare 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, a shadow that molded into the background.  The two lived on the planet of Tirap’s base station along with another hundred-thousand inhabitants. Still, Lucius made sure they rarely crossed paths, not wanting to be reminded what a fool he had been the day of the cyclotron race or give Lars a chance to push one of his ballistic buttons. It hadn’t always been that way.

Lucius thought of the holo taken when they were younger; no taller than hip-high to a head-master, holding hands and smirking as though they’d just pocketed a couple of elf bots. Lucius 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. Sitting in bed together, they’d read until Lars fell asleep on Lucius’s bigger shoulder. Racing to the dining hall, with Lars always the winner, they’d be the first in line and get the largest mounds of mashed potatoes. Until one day when the two brothers went to hover boarding try-outs. That’s when Lars showed Lucius his other side. Since then, Lucius made it a habit to avoid Lars. It had hurt too much to be betrayed. But he couldn’t always shield himself.

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 looked totally buff in a tight short-sleeve shirt that his droid had made him change into. He looked hot and he knew if. He just had to convince Reina to see him that way.

When he arrived, he had found Lars in the middle of a cozy conversation with Reina, one arm braced against the door to the ozone supply closet. With her back against the red door, she swirled her foot on the tiled sterile floor, readying herself to lasso Lars and drag him inside for some fun.

“Hey,” Lars had said, a dorky grin on his face, nodding at Lucius as he entered the room.

“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 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 pointed at a control panel. “I know you can fix it.” Then she eyed Lucius up and down. “Looking cute today. Get a little help from that hipster droid of yours?”

Lucius’ wrinkled his forehead, not sure if Reina was insulting or complimenting him. Why do I like her? He had questioned himself, then without another word shoved his hands in his pockets and walked to the stainless steel counter, where he retrieved a hologram of the lab’s programming code.

“Heard you were the brainiac around here. 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 nerd right away to make sure she gets taken care of.”

“I see you’ve got that under control,” Lucius answered then circled the holo to check out the code. He noticed Reina, had wrapped her arms around Lars body, like a white spider spinning its web.

“I do my best with what I got. Since all the high IQ genes in my zygote batch got dished out before they got to me, I’m just a simple boarder,” Lars taunted with an insincere smile

Lucius noticed the teasing glint in Lars’s almond shaped eyes. Biting his lower lip, he 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 Lucius thought and wondered why Lars always had to win.

It reminded Lucius of when they were ten-year-old. The time when he and Lars were pitted against each other for the only spot on the boarding team. When the signal to take off came, Lucius popped-up on his board, expecting a lift. Nothing happened, except Lars zoomed away. So Lucius jumped off his hover craft, turned it over then carefully peeled away the millimeter-thick, metal shielding that someone had planted there to block the magnetic thrusters. Lars swore he had nothing to do with the fix. But they both knew the truth.

Lucius had kicked the board until it was nothing but splinters. He knew Lars didn’t have to cheat when it came to boarding. Lars was no Einstein but he had so much going for him when it came to air boarding. It seemed Lars hadn’t know that.

Lars is nothing but a liar, a cheat, and a thief. He can have any girl. Why Reina? Lucius had thought as he zipped the holo shut and flipped the switch on the sanitizing station. The engine 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 droid by their feathers, prodded them with his staff then led them to the discharge station. When they were safe on the landing, the bots unwound the hooked-ends of their silver quills then latched 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, the shepherd cautiously drove his flock back to the maintenance platform. He hesitated here and there when blinded by unpredictable bursts of icy vapor from the planet’s inner core. As the gaseous squalls settled down, he corralled the mining droids 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 Xenon off their veneer.  In the glowing, frigid afternoon winds that swirled around the boarder’s desolate flock, they looked like a piece of art.

“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 long dreads fell down the back of his black t-shirt, only a shade darker than his skin. He purposely took his time walking to the sanitizing booth. Unrushed, he stepped inside. An ozone flash zapped him clean. Then the airlock opened into the Zygote laboratory, a high security compartment, where the children who worked on the planet were harvested.  Those who survived in the harsh environment of Tirap until adulthood were rewarded and sent to live in perpetual ecstasy on a space station less than 1000 kilometers beyond the planet’s stratosphere. There they lived out their mortal days as whomever or whatever they wanted.

After wasting a quarter of an hour wasting watching the hover boarder, Lucius was ready to be alone 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, three years his senior, never let him forget it. “Most likely more than you can handle, Little Dipper,” the cell technician answered and walked 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 then stood ram-rod-straight.

“Now, stop your astro-turd flirting and fix this piece of junk.” She pointed at the multi-appendage 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 in the zipper machine.” Her petal smooth skin clashed with her callous treatment of the robot.

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.  He studied the programming then with his stylus changed one of the numbers on the display before releasing his grip.

“Give it a try now, Lunar Lips.” He smirked, hoping maybe now she would see who he was beyond his job description.

The pale-faced girl gave him a sidelong glance, barely long enough to skip a beat, then she obeyed and activated the droid.

The cactus-shaped 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 then 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 shook his head in defeat. How could he get Reina to see him as more than just a toy for her to tease? 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 in, 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 side kick Zoop, a box-shape robot that levitated no higher than Lucius’s thigh. Zoop scooted over to him.

“Hey buddy, 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.” The android straightened up into a metallic cube and probably would’ve saluted if it had arms.

Lucius looked up and down the hallway then they turned down a neighborhood corridor. Off-duty residents strolled through the brushed-chrome passage, immersed in hologram bubbles of their favorite sensory settings.  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 saw the perplexed look on his droid’s face. “Reina treats me like I’m a joke. 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.”

“Gotta hurry to that shard game. And no cheating this time.  I know you’re smarter than me…on some things. But don’t be spookin the others into thinking you’re playing the game for me. They’ve already asked why I always bring you along. And I don’t want to go agro when they call me a cheater then get kicked out of the game again 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, Lucius’s pride was still stinging from Reina’s dismissal. He 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 the droid let its pillow form slip back long enough to nuzzle Lucius’s calf. Lucius bent over and stroked the droid’s top.

Just then the station’s alarm system blared. Within seconds, Swat Team soldiers filled the gleaming-white corridor. Viper shaped eye-slits in the black uniforms worn by humans was the only way of identifying whether a robot 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, who were too zoned into their personal radio waves to notice the emergency.

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 facing the mine shaft. Outside, a winged mining droid was ensnared on the discharge platform and Lars was freeing it. Even at that distance Lucius could see that the shepherd’s clothing was flaking off.

Why’s Lars risking his life? Lucius wondered, then looked down at Zoop snuggled against his leg and realized it was a dumb question.

“Hey, is that paramedic droid yours?” a Swat Team youth asked from behind, and pushed past Lucius, reaching out to grab Zoop.

“What’s it to you?” Lucius answered and stepped in front of his buddy.

Zoop had just returned from a search and rescue mission and its energizer was all but drained. It wasn’t ready for another assignment. Knowing his rights, Lucius straightened his posture so he towered over the other teen. The intimidation worked, for the moment.

Reina came racing down the hall, her close-cut bleached hair strewn in all directions. “What’s going on?”

The para-military 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 is trying to save a droid. He’s going to crystalize into black char.”

Reina’s lunar face froze. She stared out at Lars fighting to free his droid, disregarding the fact that his own life was on its final count down.

She grabbed the paramilitary 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 solider yawned, disinterested.

“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 that someone’s name would not stay secret.

“Don’t blame me,” he 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!”

“Look again.”

When she did, she saw Lucius and Zoop, a boy and his droid.

Reina closed her eyes, pressed her lips together tightly, then relaxed, letting a soft composure wash over her pale face. When she opened her luminescent blue eyes, they were aglow with a plan. She walked over to Lucius and wrapped her arm around his broad black shoulders.

“Your EMS robot’s the best around. Indestructible. If you let this soldier use it to help Lars, it would be back in minutes.”

Zoop wouldn’t stand a chance out there: almost out of juice and it doesn’t have the energy to fight that storm, Lucius thought. But in Reina’s desperate eyes he saw she’d never understand how he felt. Zoop was just a droid to her.

Reina fingered the cuff of his sleeve, giving him time to decide. Then the sharp edge of Zoop’s polycarbonate box stabbed his thigh.

She’s right. My droid is tough and will do whatever I say. Still, why risk Zoop to save Lars?

Because Reina needed him. In her eyes he saw 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 looked into Zoop’s optical light sensors, “You can do this buddy—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 robot towards the exterior doors. “If that surfer was a nobody, he’d be a goner,” the guard told Reina. Before Lucius could say goodbye, the button for the airlock hissed. From the curved window Lucius silently watched his droid float away from Home Base.

“You did the right thing,” Reina leaned her head against his chest. A sigh of relief softened her round face. “Your robot’s a machine. We’re not.”

Are you sure? Lucius wondered, feeling her cold hand on his neck.

Beyond the safety of the base station, the boarder struggled in the strong longitudinal winds, his mining-droid 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-droid’s feathers. It hooked into the shepherd’s cloth then ripped off his mask. Lucius gasped as the suffocating vapors engulfed Lars and the frigid gas burned the flesh on his face. Then Lucius saw Zoop glide to within an arms-reach of the shepherd.

Like a spider spinning its prey in a web, Zoop morphed into a blanket and enfolded Lars and the mining droid until they were engulfed in a protective womb. With no time for take-off, they were pounded again and again by an onslaught of relentless gusts of glacial cold gas, and couldn’t move forward. The blanketed mass twisted and rotated in painful contortions; 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 there was nothing else he could do.

After an hour of endless minutes, the lashing winds settled down. The EMS robot set its ion propulsion in gear, aimed towards the base station and then glided home.

Lucius knew the droid’s exoskeleton was weakened by the brutal squalls and if pushed beyond a safe speed it would crumble. “Zoop shouldn’t go that fast.” Anger rose in his voice.

“Your robot has to or Lars will die.” Reina reached out to Lucius’s unresponsive hand.

Lucius watched the blanket unravel, particle by particle, shedding bits of debris until they reached the landing. By then there was only a shell left of his droid.

Reina pulled Lucius away from the blistering glass, his face red with frost bite. Every neuron in his brain fired, unrestrained, ricocheting memories…fears…anger, until he felt numb.

“Be proud.” Reina patted Lucius on the back. “Your droid did its duty.”

He was barely aware Reina was there, He no longer cared.

The young man with the long dreads stared out the window at the disintegrating remains of his Zoop, his best friend. 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 and smashed it against the window. The sky 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 towards the infirmary. Barely turning his head, Lucius got a glimpse of the shepherd as the paramedics swathed him in an air-tight wrap. The frigid air had burned his face black from his scalp to his neck. Lars’s 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. Now! Somebody find a match.”

Reina turned to Lucius, fright showing in her stiff movements. “This may be the wrong time,” she began, then hesitated. “If I’m right, 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. An empty feeling welled up inside, threatening to suffocate him. His heart raced so fast, every pulse in his body throbbed.

“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-blooded world. His face twisted in regret.

Like an echo in his mind, Lucius heard himself say, 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,” Reina cooed. The sincerity in her voice sounded so real.

“Fuck him. Let him die.” The wrath inside exploded. Lucius yanked his arm away. “He’s gettin’ nothin’ from me. He already took more than I could give.” He stepped back, his thoughts spinning out of control.

He dropped his head and whispered to himself, “I had to let Zoop go—it was his job.” But the words felt hollow. He couldn’t even convince himself of his innocence.

With every thought of Zoop, tears of red rage burned in his eyes. Confused, he refused to face the truth, so he let his mind wander.

Gotta get to that shard game. But that bounced his thoughts back to reality. He couldn’t go without Zoop. He looked up at the ceiling to hold in the pain and his eyes swelled with unspent grief. Everything went out of focus. Why the fuck did they paint the walls white, he wondered.

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 straight ahead, resolute.

Let him die, he repeated. Zoop wouldn’t be gone if Lars hadn’t been so stupid. What did he think he could do out there? Lucius replayed the incident in his mind from the moment the droid’s hooked feather ripped off Lars’s mask.

It was as if the mining droid knew it had done something wrong, something that could not be undone. And the droid…Lucius closed his eyes to a ridiculous thought…was sad. 

Lucius let time slip. His anger slipped into a grief deeper than words. He found a place in his subconscious where he could suffer, lash himself again and again, run-away from the real pain. Until the memory of Zoop’s square pointy face refused to be pushed out of his mind.

Hi droid was more than a little buddy. More than metal and machine code. Lucius had trusted Zoop with a part of himself, a part that he liked about himself that he knew would always be there when he needed it.

Finally Lucius let the hum of the outside world in. The Swat Team yelled orders to fall back. Curious on-lookers elbowed each other and closed in on Reina and Lucius, asking for the whole story. Reina knelt by Lucius, gently coaxing again and again. “He 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 be fulfilling 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 sucked his thumb and snuck into bed with him came to mind. That was long ago. He had never asked why Lars had changed. Only, how could Lars betray him. That was easy to answer, because Lars always had to win.

She 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. Closing his eyes, 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 sterile walls remained real.  Eventually, he let his feet take him to where he had to get an answer. In the next room lay Lars.

Lucius stood in the doorway, 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 the surfer once sported an orange dragon-tail buzz cut, smooth grafted skin covered his head. Lucius grimaced at the sight of the translucent skin on Lars face and the 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. Both young men eyed the other with suspicion. Throwing back his dreads, Lucius finally 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 folded his arms across his chest, clutching them tightly to stop himself from ripping off Lars’s head. When he regained control, he carefully explained in a slow, calculated voice, “You screwed up. Someone—that is something—had to save your sorry ass. That thing was my droid.” It hurt so bad every time Lucius thought of Zoop that he felt like he couldn’t breathe. “You owe me big time.”

“I lost my droid too,” Lars spit 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 picked up a glass of water and flung it against the spotless wall.

“Dude, that’s all you ever do. Thinkin’ you’re better than everybody else…’cept nobody agrees.”

Lars’s sharp tongue took Lucius by surprise. He knew he was a klutz. Tripping over his own words. Always lost in thought, wondering rather than being up front and asking. Seems others had noticed too, but they thought it was arrogance rather than self-doubt.

Having left Lucius stunned, Lars pushed himself up further in the bed and let loose with the straight. “Stop bein’ a victim. You don’t play the part well.”

Lucius ignored him and bottled the fury inside, just like he always did. He wished he had his electric stylus in his pocket so he could graffiti blast the bleached white walls. All he could think was UROT, IROT, LIFEROTS.

“What I did out there was for my droid.”  Lars tried to explain. 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 the shepherd’s face. He noticed pale-pink skin bubble then shine, as the black charred flesh healed in fast motion. Then like waving a red flag at a bull, Lars’s words registered in Lucius’s mind and he hardened his jaw. He’s sorry? That’s all?

Lars went on, “Years ago you knew it was me. I was sure you’d never talk. In a way I hoped you would.”

Lucius’s mind flashed back to the day when they were both ten, full of hope and friendship. The 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 it was the only thing I could do?” Lars tried to scratch his weeping skin. A mouse slapped his hand away. “What’d it get me? Some bitch.”

“Reina?” Lucius asked, 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,” the surfer answered, and self-consciously looked at the foot of his bed rather than Lucius.  “She doesn’t want me. She wants a poster boy.”

Lucius shook his head, “She doesn’t know what she wants. But I know what I want.” After all the years of waiting for revenge and getting a pathetic ‘sorry,’ a surge of emotion erupted from Lucius. He turned and 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.” Then he booted the chair again before he leveled his gaze at Lars.  “A life for a life.”

Lars sat up further, 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. There’d never be another Zoop. So what did he expect from Lars? Was it an apology for what happened when they were ten-years-old?

Lars hadn’t really wanted to sabotage him. He just wanted 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.  With his protective face mask off, his neck bulged from his skin tight uniform. Eyeing Lucius then Lars then back to Lucius again he asked, “Which if you is 2600-4-27 Lucius?”

Neither answered.

Although the officer could be no more than nineteen, his forehead was deeply furrowed with age. “Answer or you’ll be charged with insubordination.”

“We don’t know what you want,” Lars flicked one of the mice 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?”

The hologram with the National Defense seal was handed to Lars for his signature and fingerprints. Lars signed then 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.

“The mission’s destination is Earth. That’s all I can say,” the officer answered then snapped his mouth shut.

Lucius wondered, Why Earth? The officer’s bully body language suggested these were not questions he’d answer, so Lucius remained silent.

Lars caught Lucius’s attention. A broad smirk broke through his mask of bandages. “A life for a life, Bro.”

Lucius still wasn’t satisfied. If they wanted him, it was because he was a techie. Lars would fail. He wrapped his arms in a self-hug, struggling to hold in his confusion. He dropped his head and let his dreads dangle. He knew the only way out of his pain was the answer to his life-long question. So he asked again, what do I want? This time his heart gave the answer. I want a reason to live.

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 youth warned Lucius the guy didn’t like being jerked around.

“I’m 2600-4-27 Lucius.” Lucius bit back a laugh at the swat leaders quivering lip.

“What the hell?” The military youth cursed, “This shithead already signed,”

“Yes. But he never said he was Lucius and you didn’t wait for his fingerprints.” Lucius extended his palm, “The contract?”

This time the officer waited for the security clearance. As the door swooshed open for the officer to leave, he turned around then laughed. “Joke’s on you. I’m taking you both.”

Lars shouted after the officer. “You got double the trouble, pal.” He plopped back on his pillow and moaned. “Looks like we’ll be stuck with each other again.”

Lucius and Lars eyed each other. This would not be like learning to read together. It would be more.

Lucius smirked then picked up a mouse. He turned it over in the palm of his hand, opened its program code then sent it chasing down the hall after the officer and yelled.