“Here’s to three whole years of pointless war and another mission well done,” Terra said as we tapped drinks bottles together. We were alone hidden in the depths of an Earthling ship, taking solace in the exceptionally quiet engine room. I think the ship was called Aegis or some other piece of dog crap chosen to convince the general public we were just defending ourselves.
Three years later and the Government of Earth, formally known as the ESA (at least the scientists’ protests worked on one front before they were all arrested and either excommunicated for treason or imprisoned and forced to work in a classified lab), still struggled with public opinion.
Squadron 14 had just completed a successful and uneventful scouting mission ahead of an important attack tomorrow. The data was being analysed by the powers that be and soon we’d be formulating a plan about the best way to go about it. At the moment Terra and I were respectively drowning ourselves in orange juice and water. She was ripping the label off hers, rhythmically tearing it into strips the occasional tuft of white paper caught under her nails. Her feet tapped against one another. I held the bottle of water in my hands, mesmerised by the patterns it made when I shook it.
We were resting in a small alcove just out of sight of the entrance to the room. Ahead of us the engines worked autonomously, taking what fuel they needed and storing the rest until the time came to restock. It was economical and there was enough to last several months. A vast difference to where we’d come from.
Of about fifteen training stations between the two planets only five were left. Two belonged to Earth, both fully functional but the constant targets of Martian aggression. Three were still in Martian possession, but they were disadvantaged in that two were badly damaged and only one was capable of working at capacity. We had been out scouting the last one. Nothing untoward happened. Either they didn’t have the resources to protect it, in which case we had nothing to worry about, or they didn’t want to give us any sort of inkling as to what they had at their disposal, and that meant we were outgunned.
My gut told me it was the latter.
“What do you reckon’s gonna happen tomorrow? Terra asked in hushed tones, deferring to the pressing silence from the great machine all around us.
“Something tells me we’re in for it,” I sighed.
“Candid as always,” she smiled, “but I agree. Why else would they be sending out their best pilot?”
“I hope you don’t mean Dean, I can think of a fair few people who’re better than him.”
She meant me but I preferred to dodge that particular conversation. It came with an expectation I just wasn’t comfortable with, and it definitely wouldn’t have been lobbed my way if it wasn’t for the rest of the squadron. Rather than answer she lapsed into silence. War had matured her, unsurprisingly. Her optimism was still unparalleled but she was more prone to slip into contemplative thought. It happened to a person when they were asked to go out and kill people in the most unforgiving of environments.
“We’re supposed to be going back to Earth,” I said, “it’ll be strange heading back there.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, “I think my parents want me to visit, they probably want to say how my career choice is shaming them.”
Her parents were against the war, obviously they weren’t the only ones, but they spent their time campaigning for better environmental policies adamant that the war being waged above them was adding to the pollution on the planet. From what I heard they were a constant thorn in the side of the Government and were risking a lot to protest.
“Surely they’ll just be glad to see you?”
“I doubt it. Every time I get a video message they like to remind me just how much of a disappointment I am. They think I’m rebelling and I’ve joined just to prove something. You know, I think they’d be much happier on Mars than Earth. At least people there care about the environment.”
“They just want to protect their home. You can understand that otherwise you wouldn’t be up here.”
“I do. They don’t.”
Other than the general outline of her relationship with them she never really spoke about her parents, they were hardly ever anything more than a passing reference in another conversation. But from the small things she did let slip there was a definite rift there, one neither party intended to happen and didn’t know how to fix.
“Visit them. You might not get the chance to again,” I nudged her shoulder with mine, she didn’t pay it any mind. “I can make it an order if I need to.”
“If we’re even given leave,” she said, “they’re dragging their feet.”
They really were. The Government spent the last six months promising a break for its front line soldiers and I had yet to meet anyone gifted with the mythical time off. Everyone knew someone who knew someone. I was beginning to think they were using it as the carrot to motivate us to keep going out there and doing a good job. Given how technologically advanced we were in comparison to Mars we should have won the war by now but they were holding their own. That, mixed with our general reluctance to fight, gave them time to catch up. Now we were locked in a stalemate, and I was pretty sure sometime soon it was going to tip in their favour. Earth was getting frustrated. Our victory was long overdue but I suspected we’d missed our chance.
“What about you?” Terra asked, “What would you do?”
“Go walking in the rain.” She gave me a strange look. “There’s no weather here. No rain. No wind. The heat is artificial. I miss the sound of it, the smell of it, even the feel of it hitting my skin or my hair.”
It was easy to forget about such things when you were up here, I saw her eyes go distant and knew she was trying to remember something like the wind blowing through her hair. Even the sun on my face had become a distant memory, filed alongside walking barefooted through grass or running my hand over the tree in my parent’s back garden; taking note of every dip, every knot, every contour. At least the training station had the hydroponics farm with something natural, on the Aegis everything was artificial. It took joy out of the small things, so much so I was even missing those annoying summer flies that always made their way through your door just so they could incessantly bang their heads against the window.
“What are we even still doing here,” I said aloud, exasperated and frustrated, “we should have won this already.”
“Are we sure we want to win this?” Terra answered, each word was sharp and chipped away at a self-constructed armour I’d put up. “Are we the right people?”
For all her contemplativeness she still hadn’t learned that some things were better left unsaid. As her commanding officer I had a duty to report her treasonous talk, but as her friend my ears were sympathetic. Rather than answering I nudged her shoulder again, a small non-committal gesture reflecting and understating the complex web of emotions I had for this topic. Loyalty clashed with logic and it was painful.
I asked myself that question a lot and struggled with the answer constantly. I could only argue that the right people were the stronger people. War was a test of strength and the strongest would be the rightful winners. Talking broke down, intelligence and politics failed and strength was the only thing left. But the same old doubts often crept back.
“I hate this war,” she whispered, “they’ve done nothing wrong.”
“So why are you fighting them?” Devil’s advocate.
“I want to see Vert again,” she turned her head so she was looking at me, there was fear in her eyes as if she thought she’d finally said too much. I squeezed her hand and she continued, “I don’t want to fight him or anything. I just want to know he’s alive, that he’s out there.”
“Even though he’ll be out there killing Earthlings?”
“I can’t imagine him doing that.”
“I’m sure he can’t imagine us killing Martians.”
Although we were close I never really had the chance to talk to Terra like this, despite the vastness of the ship there was rarely somewhere you could go to and have no one else there. Terra did find a way of hijacking the linked comms in the crafts so that we could speak one-on-one but neither of us were particularly sure how secure that was, and when we weren’t deployed we had different shifts on the Aegis. Post-mission was the best time to find somewhere to talk candidly.
When we did manage to find somewhere to hide from the rest of the ship we spent a lot of it in silence. Not because we had nothing to say but because it was a rare opportunity to sit and not hear any voices. They were everywhere, if it wasn’t a hectic conversation in the crafts then it was announcements echoing throughout the ship. Voices overlapping other voices, creating an unsavoury clamour that wouldn’t stop ringing. It was heaven to find a slice of silence and felt blasphemous to break it.
But with silence comes reflection and there were two people I couldn’t help but think about; Jess and Fredrick. Squadron 14 was successful but we hadn’t made it through the years unscathed. There was a point where we thought we were untouchable, no matter what happened we always thought and fought our way through it. As a team we worked exceptionally well but after two years of escaping any loss a startling reminder of our mortality shocked us all.
We were scouting the perimeter of one of the Earth stations, arrogantly unsuspecting, content in our thoughts that nothing was changing our end so of course nothing was changing theirs. Jess was running point, ahead of everyone else she’d be the first to identify any potential problems. The other side of that, which no one really thought about until hindsight crept up on us all, meant she was the first one in the crosshairs. One minute she was telling us everything was clear, joking that she wasn’t needed, and the next she was nothing but a cloud of smoke and fire.
The shots came from nowhere and for a few seconds we all thought we were back in the VR simulators, that Jess was climbing out of the unit and massaging the cramp out of her legs. When it dawned on us Marcus swore profusely, and everyone else started yelling. I had to shout to calm them down and when I spotted a shimmer fly by the wreckage ordered them to shoot.
Turned out the Martians had created cloaked crafts and were sending them out to attack scouting parties, undoubtedly getting the idea from our virtual reality training. Her death was flung across the media, her name and photo popped up everywhere as they claimed she was murdered in a cold-hearted ambush, they even insinuated the Martians broke some sort of truce. I can assure you they did no such thing. The Government wanted popular opinion on their side and were employing every type of propaganda they could think of.
That was a year ago. We still hadn’t replaced her and I wasn’t sure we were going to. Our numbers might be lower but we were still functioning. The only dysfunctional member was Frederick, but that was nothing new. In the months since war was declared I kept remembering walking into that room, leadership of the squadron thrust upon me, and the look he gave me. I never really knew what it was, could never place it. But the closest I think I came was contempt.
He expected to be in charge, I’d guessed as much, but what I didn’t have a clue about was how much he detested answering to someone else. He deferred to me in training because he told himself it was just that, training. He considered putting up with it as another test, but when we were put out in the battlefield and I was still in charge of Squadron 14 he wasn’t having it. He lodged complaint after complaint about my leadership, just because I was suitable to lead them in a theoretical position didn’t mean I was good enough to lead in real life.
Before all of this he was favourite to be second-in-command, the Captain liked him and even I had to admit he had the right head on his shoulders. Afterwards no one wanted to go near him, his name was poison and no other squadron would take him. Funnily enough he got on with Dean really well.
After Jess died he became worse, more abusive and ignored direct orders. One of these incidents kept Anastasia out of action for three weeks. Cara almost came to blows with him. I lodged my own complaint to have him removed from duty, claiming he was disruptive and detrimental to the war effort. It was ‘under consideration’ when he died.
Entirely his own fault, I just couldn’t drum up any sympathy for him. I gave an order and he did the opposite, breaking formation and putting all of us at risk. The worst part was we could have got away without any conflict if he hadn’t engaged. In the end we destroyed an entire Martian squadron because he provoked them and wasn’t skilled enough to live through it. The media grabbed hold of the story once again, painting him as the innocent victim. The squad were seething, I forbade them from speaking to the media who wanted interviews. Frederick was not missed, but it was still a waste of life.
“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed a reply so long after I spoke I had to wrack my brain to remember what was last said. There were whole collections of conversations we started but didn’t quite finish. They just hung there in the air between us, occasionally nudging to be brought up again only to be hung up once more just a tiny bit more finished than before. Vert was the most discussed yet least complete.
“I don’t like to think that he’s dead I wish this was over.”
“I suppose one day it will be, we just have to hope we’re around to see it,” she said matter-of-factly. “Anyway, I better get going. My taskmaster of a commanding officer wants me to report for duty at 04:00.” She pushed herself up and started walking for the door.
“Don’t be late,” I called after her, she waved her hand in acknowledgement before heading into the corridor beyond. Footsteps rang out as she made her way down it, humming as she went. Doors whirred open and shut as more people walked about the ship. There were less people on here than in the Carlson Development Centre but sound carried more. Every time I heard someone walking by I thought ‘I never would’ve heard that on the Centre.’ Not that I would ever hear anything on there again, it was one of the first to be destroyed in the outbreak. My squadron and I were two days off it when it blew up. Hundreds of Earthlings were killed, many of them civilians. It was a good piece of propaganda but still didn’t quite manage to turn public opinion.
I stayed a little while longer, feeling the silence pour into the space she’d vacated. There were twelve hours until the meeting, I wanted to finalise the plans and make sure everyone knew their role. Passionate debate sprung up within the team already and I’d taken some time to think about the best course, I still wasn’t entirely sure and hoped the three hours before we flew out would solidify the choice I was leaning towards.
But first there was a conversation I needed to have.
He was in the kitchen picking out food, he turned his nose up at a packet before putting it down and picking up another. Not that there was any point, all dehydrated food looked the same before it was cooked. There was a lot of clashing and crashing about us, the kitchen staff getting ready for the dinner rush and failing to hide their annoyance at the Captain getting in the way. When he turned back he crashed into someone, starting pandemonium. Grabbing my upper arm he led me out of the kitchen.
“Quick,” he whispered, “before I cause any more damage.” The stricken look on his face made me smile and it grew wider as he tripped over his feet getting out of the door.
He was Captain Rowan, there was a slight accent to his voice but I couldn’t place and no one really knew anything about him so there wasn’t even rumour to estimate where he was from. He’d been the Captain of the Aegis since it launched, under his command it’d successfully lead the defence of the remaining Earthling training stations for a year and a half and was our best chance of victory in this war. To be placed on this ship under his command was an honour. Despite his jovial personality he had very high standards and only the best were accepted to his command.
“I was just looking for you Preston,” he called everyone by their last name, always forgoing titles and positions, something very few people reciprocated.
“And you expected to find me with the dehydrated foods, sir?” Eyebrow raised.
“Aha, some humour. I knew you had it in you Preston. It suits you.”
“I’m afraid I need to talk to you about something.”
“Then I’m all ears. But perhaps we should go to my office, the tone of your voice tells me we shouldn’t be chatting about this in the middle of the corridor.”
His office had a fantastic view of the outside, it reminded me of the gym. Usually you could see the two training stations hanging in the distance on the port and starboard sides. At the moment everything was going by in a blur as we travelled discretely towards our target.
“What is it?” He asked once he was settled in his chair, food discarded on his desk as he gestured for me to take a seat in the one opposite.
“I think the Martians are going to attack us tomorrow.”
“Straight to the point, no preamble. I do like that about you.” He sat back and looked up at the ceiling, ignoring the view outside. I got the impression it made him queasy.
“They’re luring us out so our defence is weaker. They’ve never been able to break through, but with the Aegis gone there’s a gap they can exploit.”
“Do you have any evidence?”
“Did you overhear this from any Martians?”
“Is there anything the slightest bit substantial, you know, something to support your claim?”
“Then what do you think I can do?”
He sighed and span round, looked out the window for all of two seconds before turning gingerly round to face me again, looking pale.
“If I warn them without any evidence they’ll think I’m wasting their time. What makes you think they’ll do this anyway?”
“It makes sense. It’s a completely logical thing for them to do. Their biggest trouble is our two stations and everyone knows the Aegis is largely responsible for their survival. Take this ship and her pilots away and the defence is weaker by a third – more if you’re considering quality and not numbers.”
“We can’t cancel the attack.”
“I’m not suggesting that sir. We need this victory. We’re stuck, and if this is where the attacks keep coming from then it would be a major coup.”
“And more media limelight for you and your squadron,” he smiled knowing how much we hated it.
“A necessary evil.”
“Forgive me, but what are you suggesting?” He sounded tired. Most people sounded tired nowadays. It seemed to be the default mood.
“I’m not really sure, sir,” I shrugged my shoulders, feeling a little sheepish. “All I know is Earth can’t afford for this ship to be away from the training stations. Even if they have considered it there’s no plugging that hole in the defence.”
“I will warn them, Preston, but we have to offer a solution. I can’t just contact them and say ‘oh hey, I just wanted to let you know we think you’re screwed. Anyway, see you after the mission if you’re still about.’ It’s not exactly constructive.”
“Perhaps as soon as you’ve dropped us off you can head back. The Martians won’t expect that and you can travel much faster on the way back because you won’t be trying to stay undetected.”
“And abandon Squadron 14?”
“My squad know the way back. We have the coordinates,” I said intentionally ignoring his actual point. If one of our crafts was damaged there’d be nowhere to dock and repair it. If oxygen was compromised the backup supply wasn’t enough to get us back to the Aegis if it wasn’t at the designated meeting point.
“That’s a big decision. Have you spoken to your squadron about it yet?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“I suggest you do,” his face was entirely serious and there was a hardness in his gaze. He understood my argument and was calculating what might happen depending on his decision, “it’s not something to be taken lightly.”
“I know sir.”
There were still several hours until the briefing, I tracked everyone down and gathered them in a semi-secluded spot in the cafeteria. A couple looked a little miffed, having been roused from sleep. Dean just looked perpetually perturbed, scowling at anyone.
He was the only one to vote against it.
Captain Rowan wasn’t surprised. His desk was covered in crumpled bits of paper, the beginnings of a document detailing the decision to leave us behind. He’d anticipated the answer but his insight to his team members didn’t make it any easier.
It made the most sense, numbers were needed back at the stations and a squadron our size should be enough to wipe out their Centre. Depending on how accurate our scouting report was. It was better to lose seven people than hundreds.
I made my way to my quarters with some naive notion of getting some sleep, aware at the back of my mind it wasn’t going to happen.
With only three hours until we deployed we were cutting it fine. So many details needed to decide and where we were now it seemed an impossible task. We thought we were ready, we thought we knew the basics of what we were going to do but a couple of valid questions obliterated our plans. Everything we’d put forward was dependant on having the Aegis there to support us.
Terra and Dean were having a heated argument; he believed a single-pronged attack with all seven of us would be enough to take the Centre down. We knew the weakness we had to target, but only a vague idea of defences. Which was why Terra thought splitting up was best. Rather than provide a single target we attack them from the front and from the right, splitting our firepower but also splitting theirs. The others were murmuring amongst themselves, none of them brave enough to interrupt.
“We’ve lost two people, we can’t split up. One flank would be too low on numbers,” Dean spat at her.
“And a single head on attack would kill us all,” Terra stood her ground.
“I think you’re just trying to make it easier for them, Martian lover.”
“Enough,” I yelled. Everyone was silent. The argument stopped. The murmuring stopped. All eyes shifted to me. “That helps no one, Dean. And you’re forgetting if we split up it gives them more targets to chase, and that’s good. We’ll surprise them and they’ll hesitate while they choose who to attack. We know how to destroy the Centre so we just need one of us to go for it.
“We will split up. All of us. We’ll arrive in two groups from two different directions and then we’ll all attack different areas, cause confusion. They won’t know where to strike and by the time they think to mobilise their crafts it’ll be too late.”
They were still looking, Dean was furious and Terra wasn’t best pleased. He opened his mouth again, eyes directed at her.
“When I said ‘enough’ I can promise you I meant it,” I cut him off before he started. Voice steely, eyes dangerous. He balked at the look, condescending words never escaping his mouth. “I will only say this once because I expect you all to be mature enough to understand.
“We are at war. We do not have time for you to squabble. There is no room here for petty differences. You’re a team, we’re a team. Let anything get in the way of that and we’re dead.” I was talking slowly so I could wade through my anger without exploding. For some reason their focus and attention was making it harder. “You shouldn’t have to be told this. You should know. The person next to you may be the only thing between you and death. Or maybe it’s the person behind you. When that decision needs to be made there’s no time for hesitation, saving your teammate needs to be your instinct. Second guess yourself and you’ll both die.”
All heads were lowered, some of them were fidgeting with their hands and feet. No one made a noise.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Good. Now, Cara, tell me how we’re going to destroy it.”
She pressed a button on the table and a hologram flickered into being. Before us floated a perfect image of our target, every inch of the chaotic layout jutted here and there. The corridors, windows and even the gaps between the core of the structure and it’s appendages were measured to scale. Prodding at one area it zoomed in and highlighted one section. The detail was so fine it was like looking at a hi-res photo. If you looked closely you could see the dents and scratches in the metal.
“Our scans identified a weakness here,” she pointed at the highlighted area, two corridors were joining, one attached to the bulky centre, “if we break through here it’ll create enough pressure to tear the rest of the Centre apart. The scans also showed a skeleton crew is functioning on it. Attacking now means casualties will be at a minimum.”
“And why should that matter?” Dean challenged.
I banged my fist on the table, shaking the hologram. “Because we want to win not kill. Victory doesn’t have to mean death.”
“It should take two or three well aimed blasts,” Cara continued, “t-to make the breach.”
Afterwards we discussed flight paths, the different teams and what each individual would do to distract the Martians. There wasn’t much time for anything else. On paper it was straightforward, but since when do things ever go to plan?
It was always good sliding back into the seat of my craft. Aside from the linked comms I was entirely alone and there was no chance of someone stumbling into my solitude. I breathed deeply as I lead my team out of the ship and towards our target. The Captain dropped us off fifteen minutes away from the target before starting the journey back. We were alone.
There were occasional bursts of chatter over the comms, Marcus kept us apprised of our direction while I double-checked all my systems were working perfectly.
It was Terra.
“I didn’t get a chance to speak to you before we headed out. I’m sorry for causing a scene back there with Dean.” Her voice crackled out.
“That’s ok,” I said, making sure I was replying via our private link, “just don’t let him provoke you.”
“He’s just so good at it.” I could tell she was pouting.
“I can tell,” I laughed.
A couple of minutes went by and our crafts ate up the distance. We split up; Terra and Marcus came with me while Dean, Cara, Anastasia and Kyle went their way.
“You know,” she started up again, “I never before realised how much pressure you must be under. You’re responsible for keeping us alive.”
The silence reigned for so long it was becoming awkward to reply. I sensed there was more hanging in the air between us, but it just couldn’t make it through.
“Thank you,” she said.
“All right everyone, we’re here,” Marcus broke in. Still at a distance but only a couple of minutes away was the fragile form of the Martian training centre. It hung there in the most taunting of ways, daring us to attack it. The lights were shining brightly and started separating out into different floors as we grew closer.
“Good luck everyone,” I said before we fell upon the structure.
Beams of light lit up the sky as we opened fire, the three of us coming up in front of the control room on the top floor while the other four came from the right. The light would have been blinding if not for our specially equipped windows. Our shots barely made a dent in the initial blast, but damage wasn’t the aim now, distraction was.
“And split now,” I ordered. As one entity they went in different directions. “Remember to make it look random, don’t let them figure out what we’re doing.”
I aimed again at the command room. Pointless. I flew over the top, landing a few errant shots. Kyle passed by and went for the weak spot. He got the perfect shot in. Nothing really happened but I shrugged it off, it could take a few tries.
I sped past the floors, shot at the airlocks and narrowly avoided enemy fire. One of their defensive guns was tracking me.
“They’re mobilising defensive weapons,” I shouted, “take every opportunity you can.” I shot it to pieces, scraps of metal floating in every direction.
“I’ve just hit the target,” Dean crackled over the comms, “no effect.”
Still ignoring the uneasiness I dodged fire from another defensive gun and flew around the different corridors before arriving at my target. Locked onto where it should be weak I fired continuously.
“Nothing happening,” I responded. “This is the right one, right?”
“It is,” Terra confirmed.
“Then what the hell is wrong,” Dean yelled.
As I whizzed past, my eyes snagged on little details. Floors were closed off and windows blown in. Exterior panels were gone. This was not the fully functional station we were supposed to be targeting.
“The sneaky buggers swapped it,” I snarled, “it’s one of the damaged stations.”
“Fuck,” Dean spat.
“Can that even be done?” Cara.
“Obviously,” the sarcasm in Dean’s voice was heavy.
“What do we do?” Anastasia.
“We fight our way out of here.” Terra.
“Fight?” We all thought it but Kyle was the only one to put incredulous voice to it.
“Yeah, look,” was Terra’s unhelpful reply. Positioning themselves around the Centre was a group of ten crafts. All were in pristine condition.
“That’s not a skeleton crew,” Dean pointed out.
“It’s about to be,” I growled, “we need to bring the Centre down, use their crafts to do it.”
“Kill two birds with one stone?” Kyle.
“Ten birds and a whale with seven stones.” Cara.
“We’ll do it.” Me.
I soon came to regret my words. As we swooped in for the fight one craft grabbed my attention. It was just like every Martian ship but painted on each wing was a little green man.