Despite the worry we were doing well as a team. No one else in the team seemed to have heard how serious the tensions between the two planets were getting, they carried on entirely unaware of the unease carried around by the three of us. Terra was still annoyed at me, completely incapable of getting her mind round the fact that it wasn’t up to me, and poor Vert was stuck in the middle trying to bridge the gap growing between us.
Ever since Vert broke the news to us I kept an eye on the other Martians. They weren’t paying attention anymore. Dragging themselves around the Centre and barely taking in their training. A nervousness dogged everything they did, as if they thought the station would turn on them at any moment. Unfortunately they had good reason to think that. Animosity from the civilian staff was scaling unprecedented heights and the gossip from Earth was getting more and more vicious.
Time carried on sneaking forward since our conversation down in the farm, Vert tried to withdraw himself and even had some success. We never went down to the farm again, with his slow detachment stemming from that talk it became a painful place. We all avoided the serious conversation, none of us deciding on any action we could take – limited though it may have been. At some point along the way Terra stopped calling him ‘little green man’ and the affectionate nickname started to drift, forgotten, into the recesses of our memories. We never stopped being friends though, all these little bits might have come off but the core was still intact.
By this time I’d been at the station for nine months. Three quarters of a year away from Earth, away from my family and my home. When I walked up to the shuttle nine months ago I might’ve been taking my last steps on Earth, because who knew what was going to happen up here. Who knew if we’d be victims of some sort of pre-emptive strike by the Martians? Maybe even one by Earth so they could drum up some really convincing propaganda. Nine months was a long time to go without seeing your family. Contact with Earth used to be regular, but we weren’t getting a single letter, email or call.
I missed home. I never realised it more than when war was looming on the horizon. I wish I spent more time taking in the sights of the planet rather than walking around with my head in the stars. Space had blinded me, like it did so many others. Being out in the infinite blackness it was easy to nurture a desire to go back to a single point in the solar system, after feeling so insignificant I just wanted to head back somewhere and feel in control, feel like my existence had a point, that I wasn’t just being blown hither and thither according to the whims of the universe. I wanted to be a part of something rather than floating on the sidelines.
It all sounds rather ungrateful I know. Being up in space at a pivotal moment in history with the most extraordinary view, and I was longing to go back to the ordinary. But anyone who’s spent so long up here and so far away from home will understand. Some things our minds just couldn’t comprehend.
Anyway, I do believe I went off on a bit of a tangent. While nine months is a long time away from home it wasn’t long enough to learn everything we needed. So a lot of us were woefully underprepared for what was about to happen. We’d kept our bodies fit and our minds sharp, while this was very important it didn’t help when it came to flying. Building engines and memorising the theory was all well and good, but it’s not why we were here.
Yet, admin decided to carry on as usual. They must have felt the pressure to switch things up and get recruits doing the more hands on training, but they maintained that we needed to stick with the basics. I’m glad they did. I think we all were.
One morning we were completing an assault course, another one to prove our stamina, and surprisingly our reflexes. The physical exertion expected from us kept going up so there was a fair bit of struggling from everyone. I wasn’t exempt, I was so tired and just wanted some time to catch up on sleep. Gradually lights out kept getting pushed back and back until we were dismissed in the early hours and still asked to get up at 05:00.
Grunts and moans filled the air as we continued on. Terra was up ahead with Vert in front of everyone else. They took the obstacles first, acting as a demonstration for those behind them and a motivator to continue. Terra’s natural enthusiasm was contagious and often rubbed off on the others.
Soon our efforts were drowned out by a claxon. High pitched and insistent it wormed itself into our heads so we couldn’t think, couldn’t even put one foot in front of the other. Everyone came to a stop and looked about them. Officer Thompson was the only one unaffected, he stayed by the door still as anything and surveying us with his analytical eyes. They rested ever so lightly on Vert, spent barely more than second before flitting away again. In that moment I knew what was coming and despair came knocking, forcing its way through and settled in without an invitation.
The speakers crackled as they came to life, much like on the shuttle that brought me here, but the words were much more damning. “All recruits from Mars report to room 002 immediately,” there was a pause, breaths held waiting for more. It just repeated itself: “All recruits from Mars report to room 002 immediately.”
It wasn’t a declaration of war but I didn’t expect it to be. Instead it was a declaration of intent. Preparations had to be made, the war effort was about to get underway and nothing must stop it. Especially not those who were about to become our enemy. They were clearing the Martians out, they were setting the stage and soon blood would be shed amongst friends.
Terra tried to snatch at Vert’s arm but he dodged, studiously avoiding her eyes and instead looking over at me. I managed to get my legs working again and for a small moment it was just the three of us.
“Remember what I said, don’t do anything stupid,” this time he did meet Terra’s eyes and she had the decency to look abashed. We all knew she’d been furiously planning ways to avoid this very scenario, each plan was scrapped in a scrunching of paper. “Don’t risk yourselves for me.”
Neither of us agreed with him. As much as I mocked Terra for her scribbles I hadn’t given up hope either. There had to be something we could do, I was just more aware of the fact that our hope was slim. He started walking away.
“You have to come back,” she called after him just as I opened my mouth to say something, he turned and offered a smile. It was genuine and warm and small, so very small. What it wasn’t was a promise to come back. “You need to let us know what it is,” she clutched at her straws. He looked at me and I nodded back at him. He walked out the door and made his way to room 002.
No one pointed out to Terra that it was fairly obvious what was going on, well Dean tried to but I saw Anastasia kick him in the shin and elbow him in the gut. The appetite for training dwindled and the rest of the station was noticeably lighter on recruits. The cafeteria was less crowded at lunch and fewer people shuffled along the corridors. And throughout the rest of the day my eyes kept seeking out Vert only to fall on nothing, an emptiness where he usually stood.
Finally the long an dreary day came to an end. It was the earliest finish we’d seen for a long time and I wondered if it was to keep moral up. Terra and I made our way to dinner, swapping idle sentences with one another and doing our utmost to avoid saying anything significant. In the background of both our minds floated the same idea. We would grab our food, smuggle it out of the cafeteria and make our way down to the hydroponics farm; the sanctuary we abandoned.
It was entirely possible that Vert would bid us a proper goodbye, that he would find a way out of the room and know where we’d wait for him. No ship had left the station today so they were still on board.
The farm was empty when we arrived, our usual clearing conspicuous in the lack of activity. The two of us had talked ourselves into silence, but it was amicable and we sat down side by side; her head venturing on my shoulder, seeking comfort. The seconds dragged by, taking us closer and closer to lights out and further away from the certainty of him appearing.
Terra heaved a sigh, even that rush of air sounded melancholy. “He has to come,” she mumbled.
“If he can then he will,” was the only response I could muster. Thankfully it was enough to tide the both of us over until we heard footsteps. They stumbled, caught themselves and carried on and brought Vert into to view. We both jumped up and Terra couldn’t refrain from hugging him.
“We’re not supposed to leave the room,” he took a few deep breaths, he’d obviously rushed here. Whatever time he had it was limited. He looked ok, about as weary as he was that morning. At least it didn’t look like we’d turned on them. “It’s finally happening. They’re sending all of us back to Mars.”
“Why?” Terra asked, “They haven’t said anything about a war.”
“I know, but it’s coming otherwise they wouldn’t be sending us home,” he paused, still shakily taking in more oxygen, “I’m actually really grateful for it. They could’ve just waited and taken us as prisoners of war. Instead they’re giving us every chance possible. If I was here and war broke out then I’d be imprisoned or excommunicated. Now, I don’t know about the two of you but I don’t much fancy either of those options.”
He had a point. The station was extending a courtesy, one that probably wasn’t very popular with the political arm of the ESA.
“Speaking of excommunication,” he said, “I’ve heard that the ESA has made an unprecedented change. Everyone from the caterers to the astrophysicists tried to oust the political arm, saying they’ve forgotten what the ESA is supposed to be about. The politicians used their sizable contacts book to get them to acquiesce, threatening loss of jobs, injured family and excommunication.
“Even though they lost it’s nice to know people in the ESA are still trying to stop it.”
We were all silent as we digested the thought. It was just incomprehensible that so few could control so many. The ESA was a good company and always has been at its core. Their vision led us into the future and we followed willingly. Now it was trying to steer us into something we didn’t like and the really scary thought was that there was no stopping them.
“There’s a ship leaving at 00:00, it’s taking all of us home. I managed to get out because they let us collect our belongings, I don’t have long before I need to be back. Just wanted to let you know I was safe, and to say thank you.
“You’ve been good friends to me and that was more than I could ask for.”
I realised I hadn’t said anything just stood by. The only thing I could think to do was put his mind at ease, make him think we’d heed his warning.
“See you on the battlefield,” my mouth said while my mind hoped and prayed and wished that it would never come to that. Because, as much as I despaired at his going the thing that upset me most was knowing that if we did find each other out in battle I wouldn’t back down. I was certain that my loyalty to my planet would overcome a nine month old friendship. I would pull that trigger, and so would he. We didn’t expect anything else form each other.
“See you on the battlefield,” he agreed.
The lights had already gone out by the time I made it back to my quarters. Bidding farewell to our friend was worth any punishment for being caught roaming the Centre after lights out without permission. In all fairness, the would-be punishment paled in comparison to saying goodbye to Vert.
All the way back to my sleeping quarters I replayed him turning to us with a small shrug before getting in the lift, going down while Terra and I waited to go up. It was such a normal moment and was absolutely unremarkable. At least it would’ve been if I didn’t keep wondering if it was the last time I would see him.
The following days were numbing. We went through them automatically until I was surprised to find a whole week had gone by. A week since we bid farewell to the Martians, a week we spent waiting for the claxon to go off again, this time with the inevitable news of war.
Instead the only news was the fast-tracking of VR training. Rather than create a buzz of excitement this only added to the layer of worry clinging to everyone. It was the first break from schedule we’d seen from admin, which suggested extreme circumstances. In fact, as soon as we sat for the very first time in one of those VR units the schedule was completely torn apart. All effort was now aimed at getting everyone trained in the basics at the very least. All our time was spent plugged into the virtual world learning this manoeuvre and aiming for that target.
We all struggled at first, a disconnect with everything we learned and putting it into practice, not helped by the rush, the ever looming pressure that raised the hairs on the back of our necks and settled a disquiet deep into our guts.
Two weeks later and I was soaring across the infinite horizon, Mars a distant figure but large enough to make out. The beautiful sea of stars spread out and turned into a blur as I picked up speed. The craft glided beautifully, it thrummed happily as it turned back on itself and readied the lasers. Up ahead were flashes, bright lights that gave away conflict. There was nowhere to hide out here. Much like lighting a cigarette at night in the middle of a war was a giveaway for the ancient warriors of Earth, firing on your enemy could be seen for miles around.
I honed in on the lights and saw Cara in distress, the starboard wing was on fire and she struggled to maintain control while dodging her attacker.
“Steady now and follow my lead,” I spoke over our comms system. Dean and Frederick flanked either side of me. I held my nerve until the last possible minute, wishing to be nothing less than certain before shooting. “Fire.”
All three ships shot at the enemy as they flew past. It blew up in a beautiful explosion, orange and black dancing and entangled in a weird dance. The other two cheered loudly and Cara started thanking us. It was cut off by another explosion, Cara was gone.
“What the f-” Dean began before he too was cut off. The debris of his ship flew about at high velocity, mixing with Cara’s.
“There’s another ship,” Frederick yelled.
“Where? I can’t see it,” I was looking around frantically and couldn’t see anything. Nothing disturbed the stillness of space. Although, what was that? A small wrinkle suggesting that something wasn’t quite right. Lights came from nowhere.
“Frederick, look out, to your port.”
He didn’t react quick enough, the lasers hit his craft and he joined the others. A part of his ship smashed into mine, sending me whirling and twirling until everything became one big blur and the absolute necessity of not throwing up was the only thing I could think about. The craft was just righting itself when it was hit by lasers. The last thing I saw was a bright light before it all went pitch black.
“Bloody hell,” growling as I pulled off the headset. “What was that thing?” I paused, thought back, “where was it?”
The others were littered all around, Frederick was just climbing out of his unit and Terra was stretching her legs. Both of them shrugged.
“This is impossible,” Dean snapped, “What more can we do?”
The entire squadron was obliterated in less than thirty minutes. We were all doing our best but there was just no progressing.
“Well, maybe if Terra hadn’t gone tearing off at the first sign of a Martian ship things wouldn’t have fallen apart so quickly.”
“It shot Ana out of the sky,” she defended herself, “plus, I knew it wouldn’t kill me.”
“You can’t think like that,” I said, “you can’t keep thinking you’re just going to come back to life. It’s supposed to prepare us for out there,” a vague gesture towards a wall. “If we die out there then we’re dead. It shot Ana out of the sky because she wasn’t in position, she presented a weakness in our formation and the Martians exploited it.”
“That’s true,” Ana said, the good thing about her was her lack of pride, she freely admitted when she was at fault.
“And when Terra went out seeking revenge that weakened us further. Marcus couldn’t cover her position and Kyle couldn’t make up for Ana. Start thinking like a team, remember that your actions affect the rest of your squad. We all need to remember that,” I emphasised the ‘all’ to make sure they knew I was included. There were some kinks to work out, communication issues to plough through.
“You never know, maybe it’ll just click,” Terra offered. I gave her a weary smile, appreciative of her optimism.
We carried on, forsaking rest and sanity for training. It always ended the same way, sometimes we made it a little further, but most of the time the unseen assailant destroyed us.
We were on about the sixth play through, Cara was out, so were Marcus and Kyle. I flew alongside Terra and Dean shooting at a couple of enemy crafts. Ana, Frederick and Jess flew ahead to try and detect this bloody elusive ship. None of them spotted it. I saw a shimmer heading towards them, it was faint but it was there.
“It’s coming up behind you,” I yelled.
They started to react; Ana turning to port, Jess starboard while Frederick attempted to fly over and behind. Without any warning it went black. The sound of the Centre filled our ears and it was that damn claxon again, this time screeching.
I clambered out of the unit, disorientated and blinded by the sudden light. Everyone else was out too, looking around and echoing the scene of when Vert left us. It wouldn’t stop, it rang and rang and rang, the echoes making it worse and doubling the cacophony.
Officer Thompson was here, as were the other senior officers looking after the squadrons. Something serious, even more so than the loss of the Martians. It could only be one thing.
We were at war. Vert was our enemy and we were at war.