It took a couple of weeks to settle into the station properly. Everything there was so different to Earth, you thought you finally had a handle on it and then something else was thrown at you. After the initial induction day we were thrown straight into the deep end, my training back on Earth was enough to keep me afloat.
On the first day we were divided into squadrons of ten. Just to give you an idea of how vast the Development Centre was; four shuttles (including my own) arrived together and each shuttle carried one hundred recruits. So that was four hundred new recruits in one day and we were split into forty squadrons. On top of this, there were still the second and third year recruits. While their numbers dwindled over time there was still about a hundred and fifty of them all together. And the Development Centre had enough room to accommodate each individual squadron’s training needs comfortably and have the civilian side running without a problem. It was one massive manmade structure floating around in space.
Anyway, Terra and I ended up in the same squadron and we didn’t recognise the rest of the people. There were two Americans called Marcus and Jess, Frederick who’s German, Kyle from Ireland, Cara hailed from Canada, Anastasia who had Russian roots but had never lived there, Dean came from New Zealand and Vert, the squadron’s only Martian. Terra, who I quickly found out lacked the capacity to think before she spoke, swiftly dubbed him ‘little green man’.
These were the people I’d spend the better part of a year with, there was a highly likely chance not all of us would progress further, but if we all did then we’d continue onwards as a team. It seemed easy, but those damn psychologists were involved again. Each person here was chosen because we should be able to work well together, however, because they wanted a bit of a laugh I assume, there were personality clashes. It was down to us to sort this out, to work through any differences we might encounter and still function successfully as a team. Yet another test we had to pass.
On the first day we were all tested, because everyone knows that’s the best way to settle your nerves. The Centre made no secret of the fact that it was to choose the squadron’s leader. The results would be sent straight to administration where they’d get the night to analyse them and choose whoever displayed the best qualities. We didn’t get a say in the matter.
After the squadrons were created we were assigned a superior officer, they had no other role than to oversee us. Our time on the Centre was to see how we organised ourselves, how we worked as a team and to see how we would handle ‘real life’ situations. Officer Thompson would be responsible for us, he wouldn’t get too involved and we would only see him for important events like team drills and military ceremonies.
He took us on a tour of the station, walking stiffly and commenting rarely. We followed behind in neat fashion. The rear of the group was taken up by Terra, Vert and I. It’d been fifteen minutes and the scenery was pretty much the same everywhere.
“Oh good,” Vert sighed, “another corridor.”
Terra smothered a laugh and a couple of the others smiled. Thompson didn’t hear and carried on, unaware of what was going on.
“And on our right we have another door,” Vert muttered in an undertone, “if you go through it you’ll find yet another passageway.”
He kept up his alternative commentary for the rest of the tour, the other members of the squadron caught snatches of it but Terra and I were there for the whole show. When we were left in the cafeteria to grab our lunch we were already deep in conversation about ourselves. That was the beginning of a steady friendship between the three of us, and the sowing of much future strife.
The next day I woke up to an email from the administration team, I and the rest of the squadron were to report to room 317 by 05:30. My heart stuttered as I realised it was 04:59, thirty-one minutes to shower, look for the room, get lost and finally find it.
I needn’t have worried. When I dashed into the lift (once again reluctant to get in because of the outside view) Vert was there.
“Running a bit late, aren’t you?” He asked.
“I’m not the only one,” I replied, looking at him pointedly.
He shrugged; “Ah, but I’m not in charge.”
A couple of seconds flew by before my brain caught up with and assimilated his words. It was a couple more seconds before the meaning of them began to sink in and even then the natural reaction was to explain it away as another of his jokes. But I have a need to know things.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Didn’t you read the email? It says it clearly,” he was so nonchalant the desire to shake something out of him was almost overwhelming.
I grabbed my comms device and looked at the email from admin again. “It says we’re in room 317…oh.” Below the room allocation was a short and concise sentence, tacked on like an afterthought:
Recruit Preston has been given leadership of Squadron 14.
Admin obviously weren’t ones for making announcements. I wondered if anyone else didn’t read it properly and would be arriving unarmed to find out they were in charge.
“Looks like you aced the test,” he smiled, “at least I know I can make the boss laugh.”
“No one says ‘aced’ anymore.”
“Well, I do. So I guess you’re wrong there. Wow, I hope your leadership skills are better than your knowledge of Martian dialect, otherwise we’re pretty much going to suck.”
“A leader’s only as good as her followers,” I countered, “Speaking of which, do you know where 317 is?”
“Yep, I shall show you the way esteemed leader.”
Of course he knew, it was along one of the many corridors we’d walked down yesterday. He might have been making fun but he made an effort to remember each place Thompson took us too. I definitely wouldn’t have found it as easily, so instead of walking in late I showed up with ten minutes to spare. The only other people there were Thompson and Frederick. The latter gave us both a bit of a nod, he didn’t meet my eyes. Perhaps he thought he’d be given the leadership role.
“Recruit Preston,” Thompson said in his clipped tones, “you’ve read the email this morning?” He waited for me to nod before continuing. “Very good, take a seat at the front. I’ll talk everyone through the schedule and outline what’s expected of you. If you could say a few words once I’m done it would be appreciated.”
I took the seat directly in front of him and Vert decided to take the one next to mine. Over the next ten minutes people filtered in until there was only Terra left to show up. Thompson, who’d been completely still since talking to me, stirred in his spot and opened his mouth to say something when the door burst open and she came flailing through it. She made her way to the only empty chair in the room with all the silence and grace of a walrus. Oblivious of all the stares she finally perched herself on the edge of the chair and looked expectantly up at Thompson.
A shake of the head and he was up and going over a few last minute things. It was difficult to pay attention to him, he seemed deathly afraid of letting any personality into his voice. He droned on and I suspected there were quite a few drooping eyelids. Although, Vert was my only reference point and he was sitting straight and to attention. All traces of the mocking Martian from yesterday had disappeared.
“I wanted to go through your schedule,” Thompson finally said after minutes of entirely uninteresting yet undoubtedly useful notices, “these will stay the same for your entire first year here, unless otherwise stated in an email from either myself or administration. It has been developed to test and grow your strength, stamina, reactions, speed and intelligence. If you plan on progressing further with us you will need to focus on each of these aspects and work on them until they are perfectly honed. Anything less and you’re simply not good enough to be here.
“Your performance in your training reflects on your team as much as it does on you. Remember, an inability to keep up lets your team members down.” He handed me some papers, a look said it was a week-long timetable. I took mine and passed the rest to Vert. “Hold the paper to your comms device and it will be downloaded. Lateness,” a sharp look at Terra, “and forgetfulness will not be forgiven. Your timetable begins from today, as soon as we’re done here you’re expected to report to the gym where we can get a base level of your fitness.
“Before that though, I’m sure all of you read your email this morning. Recruit Preston will be in command of this squad.”
He stopped abruptly and gave me a look. I guessed this was my cue to say something, words weren’t exactly my forte but I figured it didn’t really matter much what I said now. They weren’t going to be permanently recorded. I stood up and faced everyone.
I was right about the drooping eyelids.
And that’s pretty much how Squadron 14 started. Every week was the same, an hour of gym each morning (we didn’t really mind this, it was the only place with a wide panoramic view of space), followed by swimming. On Mondays we spent the rest of the morning after that studying, there was so much theory to learn before we ever got to think about sitting in a craft. The library session was the same on Wednesday afternoons. The rest of the mornings on Tuesday through to Saturday were packed with various activities from assault courses to running laps around one of the floors. We were given half an hour for lunch and a shower before heading into an increasingly active afternoon. These sessions were usually spent bettering our reactions and getting us to trust our instincts. Sometimes it didn’t matter how much knowledge we had, instinct could very well be thing to keep us alive. Saturdays were reserved for practising what we’d learned throughout the week. Sundays were more restful, we were still expected to head to the gym but we could go whenever, the rest of the day was leisure time. This was something encouraged throughout the rest of the week as well, each evening 20:00 to 20:30 was social time. We could use that for anything we wanted, but it was assumed we’d spend it getting to know our comrades outside of a military basis.
That’s how it went for a few weeks, we settled into our schedule and pretty soon we each had our favourites sessions. I adored the gym simply for the view it gave, I spent the entire time imagining what was going on out there, wishing I could fly through it all now. Terra was the same, for someone who couldn’t help but look around wherever she went, no matter if she’d been there before, she was surprisingly tranquil. The focus in her eyes was unprecedented, she never took them away from the blackness outside and was always reluctant to leave at the end of each session.
It put all of our problems into perspective. Feeling tired? Take a look out the window and try to conceive exactly how vast space was, you’d be tired then. Didn’t do as well as you thought you might in a test? It doesn’t matter. This ever-present almost war? Even that couldn’t compare. When you look at everything out there and imagine what’s untouched by the human eye how can it make sense for members of the same species to go to war on the word of only a few people? It was absolute nonsense. Yet no one was questioning the logic of it. Far from it, we were starting to get news from back home. At first it was coming through in drips and drabs and recruits all over the Centre resorted to stitching their snatches of news to other peoples’. The result was a muddled mess, the gossip equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster.
One minute we were hearing that a group of Martians had taken hostages in one of Earth’s interplanetary airports, the next it was Earthling crafts conducting a threatening flyby of one of the Martian training stations; similar to this one. Martians on Earth were becoming the victims of hate crimes and this was reflected in how Earthlings on Mars were being treated. Attacks led to severe casualties and even fatalities. It was difficult to know where it started and that only allowed for rumour to swell and grow.
I suspected that if we actually looked into each separate story at the end we would find some decrepit, peace-hating ESA politician with nothing better to do. But the news was beginning to have the desired effect. While most of us paid it no mind there were a few, most noticeably hidden in the civilian side, who treated the Martians with suspicion. I was witness to more than one incident involving Vert. Luckily he was laid back in his views and didn’t rise to the bait. It was Terra who had the problem being silent. She was fiercely protective.
A sadness settled deep into my being, it seeped into my bones and saturated every part of my body. It was unjust for Vert to be treated the way he was for no other reason than propaganda. Nervousness and nausea were constant feelings, with every stride we made to better ourselves we were pushing back one dreadful truth, doing our best to never let it see the light at the front of our minds. Learning to fight and fly, increasing our strength and stamina, adding to our ever expanding pool of knowledge was all well and good when you couldn’t see the enemy. But we could see them. They were with us every day, by our sides, learning what we learned, following the same orders we followed. The motto for the Carlson Training Centre was : Earthlings and Martians side by side. But it never said for how long.
My Martian friend took it all in his stride, a trait he shared with the other Martians on board. While there were whispers following them around like nasty echoes, they all knew it was only the minority and that most of us, given the chance, would step in to defend them. And I was given the chance.
As leader of Squadron 14 I never had the chance to switch off. Even in social time I needed to be in charge. Terra watched as Vert and I played chess, none of us particularly liked it but we’d somehow become addicted. Terra was the worst person to have watching, sharp intakes of breath and the occasional ‘oh’s’ told us someone had a good move to take. It also betrayed an intelligence she liked to keep hidden behind her twitchy nature and well-judged aloofness. Dean had made his way into the rec room with a friend from another squad, she had a pinched face, suspicious eyes and a hitch in her walk. Those beady little eyes of hers landed on the three of us, I could feel them crawling over my skin before doing the same to Vert. I could’ve sworn he flinched. She smirked and it did no favours for her already sullen appearance, leaning to Dean’s ear she spoke to him in a whisper that was supposed to carry over to us.
“Look at him, that savage. Bet it’s not long before he flips out and attacks us, like those monsters on Earth,” a sickening smugness flavoured every word. Vert didn’t even have time to react before Terra was on her feet, I was close behind. Dean was too busy laughing to notice our reaction and I knew he was on the verge of replying when he did actually spot us. His friend tracked every move we made.
“You better take that back,” Terra hissed, “you take that back or I’ll – ”
“Terra,” I warned, “no threats.”
She took a steadying breath and used all her willpower not to say what was on the tip of her tongue. I knew I’d won when her shoulders sagged and the anger seeped away.
“Shame,” the girl sighed, “I was so looking forward to what you had to say.”
A restraining grasp of her shoulder was the only thing to stop Terra from launching herself at the stranger. Dean stepped forward, protectively covering his friend from any harm that might otherwise have befallen her. Eventually Terra consented to my silent order and stood behind me, where she wouldn’t easily be able to disgrace herself.
“You had better watch your language,” I said to the girl, “we don’t take racism lightly in my squadron. As for you, Dean, stand down.”
Despite the weeks of running drills and completing the orders I gave him, I don’t think he realised that I was fully in charge. He seemed to inflate himself to get an advantage over me, as if size was really what mattered here. I didn’t mind, the more inflated he was the easier he would be to pop.
“Stand down this instant or I’ll revoke your down time privileges,” he went down quicker than a burst balloon. “For your indiscretion here today your social time for next week is cancelled and instead you’ll be running laps around floor thirteen.”
He tried to stare me down to win back some sort of dignity, maybe to prove he was the dominant one, but the longer he tried the more embarrassing it became. Soon enough he realised he’d lost and diverted his eyes to look at his shuffling feet.
“Yes recruit Preston,” he responded before turning and stalking out of the room. The girl followed. The small gathering of people we’d disturbed got back to their tasks and picked up conversations in hushed tones.
“Thank you,” Vert said when we both took our seats again.
“Don’t mention it,” Terra said while I stayed silent.
After that public display of animosity we started hanging out in the hydroponics farm on the same floor as the medical wing. It was a nice, easy place to go and because the machines were mostly automated and the plants were very dense, there wasn’t much chance of someone coming across us accidently. Always a bonus when you were somewhere you weren’t supposed to be. It became our little sanctuary if a day was particularly trying or if other people just became too much to cope with. Terra said it was the closest thing we could get to a countryside getaway.
It also became a useful tool for getting Terra to concentrate. She excelled at the physical side of training, but get her to answer a simple question about the mechanics of a deep space engine with high speed flight capacity and she didn’t know where to begin. Vert and I tutored her in our spare time, about as challenging as babysitting three hyperactive toddlers, to get her up to speed. I’m not going to lie, being in charge of the squad I had more than a personal interest in getting her to study, if she didn’t perform well it brought the rest of the squad down. Given the tension between Vert and Dean I wasn’t keen for there to be anymore strife.
We were probably about five months into our training when Vert grew truly worried. It’s hard to tell the passing of time when there was no weather to comment on or seasons to greet and bid farewell to. Space was constant and constantly devoid of detail. Rather than admiring the sea of stars we were shoved in a room dubbed the basement. It was at the very bottom of the station and littered with the carcasses of formerly glorious space crafts. Empty and beautiful in their destruction it was always chilling to be amongst the remains, a reminder that sometimes no matter what you did these fragile things just couldn’t escape damage. It was best not to think about what happened to the pilots.
Our task for the day was to continue putting together a perfectly working engine. Theoretically this gave us a working knowledge of the engine and if anything were to happen we should be able to fix it. As it was a team effort we were all there, I had Vert measuring the components for a detailed diagram while Dean was rummaging through the detritus looking for anything usable. Focus reigned supreme and silence was its right hand man, the only time it was broken was when we needed to consult one another.
In the corner of my eye I saw Vert shuffle almost inconspicuously over to Terra, they exchanged looks and a few muffled words before parting again. I was too busy fixing together two fuel chambers to really take any notice. But less than a minute later Vert was at my side, his scruffy notebook in hand with numbers scrawled all over it under various headings. There was one bit of handwriting noticeably neater than the rest and set slightly apart. As I was analysing it Terra appeared at my shoulder, she didn’t say anything which immediately set alarms to ringing. Vert tapped his pen against the tiny paragraph I’d been looking at. It said:
Need to meet tonight.
See you in ‘ponics farm before lights out?
Out of character and very intriguing. In a world full of timetables and scheduled social time there wasn’t much excitement, the note was offering a change from that so how could I possibly refuse? I nodded my agreement, he sidled away and Terra disappeared into the thin air she first came from.
Lights out happened half an hour after social time, if any recruits were caught outside of their quarters afterwards they were disciplined. Wandering the corridors, unless otherwise given permission, displayed a flagrant disregard for authority as well as an arrogance that had no place here. Repeat offences could lead to dismissal from the programme. Now, despite his mocking humour Vert wasn’t one to disobey rules and challenge his superiors, and suggesting a time with such a short window was risky.
I made it to the farm before anyone else. I was entirely alone and surrounded by nature, a surreal moment to have in the middle of space. Suddenly a wave of homesickness overwhelmed me and I wanted nothing more than to wake up in my childhood home. I missed the bustle of London streets, there was much more variety.
A hand grabbed my shoulder, making me jump. I swung round ready to punch whoever was there only to come face-to-face with Vert.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you this jumpy before,” his lips twitched into an almost smile, his eyes just not managing to conform. His voice was deep and I could imagine it echoing effortlessly along the underground passages on his home planet.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Unusual, you’re normally so observant,” he raised his eyebrows as if he was teasing me. The playfulness jarred with the written note from earlier. Was he nervous? “Terra’s supposed to be here too, but you know her, she’ll probably find her way to an entirely different station before she turns up here.”
We laughed and listened to it sink into the background noise. When she wasn’t on a schedule she had a surprising knack for losing track of time as well as her bearings. In her defence, it wasn’t long before she came crashing through the foliage like a jungle explorer.
“So what’s all this about then, little green man?” She asked as soon as she spotted us, “It’s not long until lights out you know? We’ll be in a hell of a lot of trouble if we’re found.”
“I’ll be quick,” the worry in his eyes engulfed the rest of his face, “it’s getting worse. My brother sent me a letter and the planets are all but at war. All trade has ceased, a few Martian merchants are being held captive on Earth. The government’s claiming they’re part of some sort of interplanetary smuggling group. Mars is retaliating and doing the same.
“It’s only a matter of time until fighting breaks out and war’s declared.”
Whatever we were expecting it wasn’t that. We knew the gossip was growing but not once did we think Vert was listening. Deep in my mind I knew what was coming was inevitable. Terra, however, firmly decided denial was where she wanted to make her stand.
“But that doesn’t matter, right? We’re teammates, they can’t just change that.”
“They won’t care,” I said, “what we are now has no impact on what’s going to happen in the future. Once the two planets are at war we’re enemies and you know anyone caught helping the ‘enemy’ is excommunicated.
“The Centre has records of everyone, they know Vert is here and they know we’re friends with him. There’s nothing we can do.”
“Are you seriously rolling over as easy as that?”
“She’s right,” Vert interrupted, “they’ll excommunicate anyone who tries to help me or any other Martians. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Whatever happens do not risk yourselves for me.”
Once he said his piece he looked anywhere but at us, content to leave us in our dumbfounded state. The uncertain and slightly timid man we’d grown to know, despite his humour, was hidden behind one of a subtle confidence and steely determination. I hated that his request was so logical, if we defended him we’d be branded enemies of the planet and it wouldn’t help anyone. Terra swelled with indignation.
“Of course we’re gonna help you. I couldn’t care less if we’re punished, there’s no way we’re going to hurt you, or let anyone else,” she paused as a sudden thought popped into her head. You could almost see the ‘ping’ moment, “at least, not knowingly. You know. I mean, you might be in a craft or ship and we won’t necessarily know. Mind you, it’s not like you’d know it’s us either.”
Vert was nonplussed, her mind worked in strange ways and we were used to it. But there were times when it was impossible to keep up with the way words came tumbling out of her mouth. It was disconcerting to think we were likely to end up on opposite sides of the battlefield and we could easily shoot each other down without knowing.
“We’ll just have to see what happens,” I offered with an apologetic shrug.
“That’s all you have to say? We need a bloody plan, we need to be able to help. Not just shrug our shoulders and accept what’s happening,” she looked so angry she was almost unrecognisable.
“What’s the point in worrying about something that might not even happen,” Vert interrupted again to cut off a potential argument and faltered when we turned on him, “all I’m saying is we don’t need to cross that bridge until it’s right in front of us.”
He bowed his head, hiding tears. He was right. It wasn’t certain, not yet, and it’s not like we could do anything. We had no power, no influence and we were stuck following rules set by other people. And who knows, maybe there won’t even be a war.
Of course, I was wrong.