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There was always a bit of junk code attached to mass mail downloads. It was common occurrence with interstellar packets of data; having to be relayed through hundreds of beacons to get to their destination, generation loss was a possibility if any one of the beacons were faulty. The junk code was tagalong leftovers from programs that helped weed out which beacons needed repair. After the mail was safely delivered to their intended servers, the junk code was purged.

Thace knew better.

The junk code wasn’t automatically deleted once the bulk data it was attached to arrived at its destination. It was moved to a hidden folder to be deleted whenever that terminal’s trash can was emptied. Hide a very small encrypted file within the junk code and it was the safest way to pass long distance messages back and forth undetected. The Blades of Mamora had been using this method to pass along messages since the beginning of their formation.

The communications hub was needed to transmit and receive messages across the vastness of space but Thace could decrypt the Blade’s orders from the safety of his habsuit. With the ease of long practice, he downloaded and erased the code from the console, and slipped the tiny memory card under his nail. It burned against his skin.

Drone patrols were the only ones walking the hallways at this time. Thace made the long walk to his habsuite undisturbed but his heart still thumped hard against his ribs all along the way.

In his room, behind a closed, locked door, Thace breathed a sigh of relief. He grabbed his datapad, inserted the chip as he sat down and started the lengthy decryption process. His foot impatiently tapped despite attempts to keep it flat as the progress bar slowly stretched across the screen. A cheery completion ping had him straightening to attention and hastily reading the words highlighted throughout the mess of junk code.

The orders were easy enough to memorize: hold position. Relay troop deployments in [X] systems. Continue updates on Voltron sightings. Next message in two weeks.

Protocol dictated that he should immediately wiped the memory card’s data once he was through reading. But there was a few pixels out of place, something that could be easily mistaken as slight data corruption to someone only glancing through the text. After years of searching for it in every message, Thace recognized the deliberate positioning of the pixels at once.

Hidden in the source code of the secret message was something else.

He activated another decryption key, his heart pounding again for an entirely different reason. The glyphs jittered across the screen and quickly rearranged themselves into a beloved face. Thace’s breath caught as he hungrily took in his love’s severe features.

Thace had had to destroy all his pictures of Ulaz after Ulaz had broken cover. It wouldn’t do to be discovered with images of himself wrapped in the arms of a traitor after all, no matter how much it had wounded him to get rid of every image. The low quality text art was a poor substitute for an actual photo, but photos were too big, too risky to try to send. This was better than nothing.

He traced the text making up the delightfully sharp angle of Ulaz’s cheek with a claw-tip.

‘i miss you,’ the cheek read.

‘i love you,’ his lips curved.

‘stay safe,’ said the worried crinkle of his eyes.

“You too,” Thace whispered. He briefly pressed his fingertips against his lips and covered the picture’s own. The image remained impassive under them. Thace tried to remember how kissing Ulaz physically felt.

It had been so long. Even before Ulaz had compromised himself they hadn’t had many opportunities to meet in person. The months apart had turned into a year that crawled by and every day it was a little bit harder to remember how Ulaz’s hands felt against his body. Memories of nights long past were the only thing that kept him company now.

He went back to tracing the text. ‘Lonely without you’ and ‘thinking of you’ followed the points of Ulaz’s ears. ‘I want to see you’ flowed down the arch of his nose. ‘I yearn for your voice’ wrapped around his neck. Words of love and longing suffused every glyph that made up the image and Thace’s heart felt fit to burst with his own love.

Thace would compose a reply when he wasn’t due on shift soon. He didn’t quite have the same skill in making text art as Ulaz did but poems had always been easier for him to create than pictures.

He read and reread all the little love notes and took another long moment to just look, recommit Ulaz’s features to memory.

No chances.

He wiped the memory card.