“So, where are we going?”
It took all of my effort not to yell at him. I’d missed him, yes, but right now I absolutely and utterly detested him. Hatred swirled through my gut and I wished I’d let him float away into the darkness. Instead I was here, risking my career and life for him and there was no sensible way out.
“Thanks…” Terra tried to say.
“I can’t hear you,” I snapped, “right now that’s a good thing.”
The line didn’t crackle again and I imagined her falling back into her seat feeling chastised. I felt Vert’s eyes settle on the back of my head and sensed he was on the verge of saying something. He was always good at judging when he should speak and used that now to keep his mouth shut.
“Scarlett,” Marcus started again.
“We’re fine,” I cut in. Covering the mic I turned to Vert. “Stay down or I’ll put you right back out there.” He saluted mockingly.
“Why weren’t you answering?” Marcus asked.
“Comms were down. I’ve fixed it now.”
“I never knew lying came so easy to you,” Vert made the snide remark from the safety of the back seat once I’d clicked the mic off.
“Shut the hell up.”
What an absolutely impossible situation. My brain was working overtime trying to consider every possibility. When we arrived back at the Aegis we’d have to dock and alight, sometimes crafts were inspected. If he was undetected by that point then we needed to smuggle him somewhere safe and that meant dragging the Martian out into the open to walk amongst Earthlings. No matter where we hid him onboard the ship someone was eventually bound to stumble across his hiding place. How the hell would we get out of that one?
“Can you hear me now?” Terra’s voice was crisp.
“I wish I couldn’t.”
Usually she would’ve chosen to ignore such a comment but she stuttered to a halt, unsure of where to go from there. I stared straight ahead making no effort to make it easier for her. My jaw worked as the seconds of silence ran out before she tried again.
“No, Terra, you’re not. You’re not sorry at all.”
She took a breath, I sensed she was getting ready to argue. But she let it out in a long sigh. I looked over at her craft and the damage looked worse than it did before.
“How’s your oxygen?”
“It’s ok,” she replied far too enthusiastically, “I have just enough to get me back but not enough to support two people.”
“You might want to stop sighing then.”
The rest of the squad joined us and we flew in formation. They left a gap where Anastasia’s craft should’ve been. A knife of emotion stabbed into my gut and twisted. She was probably the most liked person on the squad. If the others found out about Vert they’d lynch him.
“Where’s Anastasia?” Terra asked.
“Are you really that oblivious?”
Hands tightened on controls. Knuckles white, vision red. Kyle’s voice rang through my head; telling everyone she’d died.
“She was killed when we were occupied by a certain Martian. When he was shooting at you.”
Vert didn’t pipe up, if he had I was liable to turn round and punch him. He just watched steadily and I wondered if he remembered Anastasia. I flipped the controls and kept us steady, still a long way to go until we made it back to the ship.
“He’s our friend,” Terra whispered.
“A friend we’ll be excommunicated for. What we’ve just done is illegal. Oh no, wait a minute, you haven’t done anything. Just got me to do it.” I was being unfair, she wouldn’t have involved me if her oxygen wasn’t low. She didn’t say anything after that but was very imposing in her silence. But someone else saw it as an opportunity.
“You never answered my question. Where are we going?”
I ignored him. He didn’t get the hint.
“You know you could’ve shot me back there but you didn’t. You hesitated.”
He still went unanswered while I tried to ignore the familiarity that came with his questions. His voice travelled over the years like they never happened.
“You’re a better person than me,” he said. There was no self deprecation or sorrow involved, he was just stating something he believed to be fact. No apologies for what he would’ve done, no sentimentality, just an acknowledgement of his different conclusion, his ability to be logical and do what needed to be done.
“No,” conceding the need to speak, “she’s a better person than both of us.”
I lay in bed, the tap in my adjoined bathroom dripped solemnly and echoed in the recesses of my mind, thinking of the day. The mission was a success despite its unexpected turn, the debrief was a bit rocky but otherwise hitchless and it sounded like we took minimal casualties. We managed to hide Vert and judging from the silence creeping through the ship no one had found him. Yet, I couldn’t sleep.
An uneasiness kept snagging at my attention, like the dripping tap. My mind would wander, drifting in drowsiness.
Random thoughts. About home. About Vert. About peace.
The hydroponics farm.
The journey back. Frostiness. Barbed words.
Standing up for Vert in the rec room.
The debrief. Dean. The Captain.
His unwavering trust.
Lunch. Hesitant conversation. Not-quite smiles.
Each time I thought sleep might finally take over it was wrenched from my grasp. The body was exhausted but the mind was too busy to listen.
So I let it snag.
Casting my mind over the day’s events I gently sifted through them, patiently waiting for something to catch in the net. One by one each moment went by, thoroughly examined then flippantly tossed aside into a growing discarded pile. Nothing really jumped out.
I was cruel to Terra and that sent icy tendrils through my gut, the thought that I could so easily utter harsh words in her direction. But I knew I would apologise tomorrow and she would accept without hesitation.
Getting Vert to a hiding spot was tricky but I knew we hadn’t been seen. We’d exchanged words as the squadron docked back onto the Aegis, cold and factual.
“I should register you as a prisoner of war.”
“But they’ll just execute you.”
“They will,” he said calmly, “we wouldn’t on Mars.”
Again, words I regretted. I hadn’t seen him for so long and all I could do was treat him as the enemy. Even as we snuck through the ladderways and along corridors to the engine room I barely spared him a glance. When we left him at the hidden alcove at the back of the engine room he grabbed my arm.
“Thank you for this,” he was earnest.
I could only stare, my mouth worked to say something but words refused to come. I looked at his hand clasped on my arm and he let go. I left him looking around, saying nothing.
The tap continued its monotonous song. I contemplated getting up to tighten it, but only briefly; too wrapped up in examining the day to be serious about it. Instead I used it as a timer, if I hadn’t found anything odd by the time another drop fell then I shuffled on to another memory. It wasn’t until I finally landed on the debrief that something grabbed at me. I didn’t know what though, so gently retraced my steps.
We were walking down a corridor, Captain Rowan’s office the goal at the end of it. A silence ensued between us, anger having blossomed within me and taken root. She sensed it and kept quiet, even falling out of step with me so she was just behind.
When we reached the door she finally spoke up, her voice broke ever so slightly with emotion. Anyone listening in wouldn’t have noticed.
“Scarlett,” she ventured.
“Don’t,” I warned.
Her apology rang in my ears as we entered the room. The Captain, his second and the remnants of Squadron 14 were there. We gave an account of the mission, broken up as we recounted our own experiences. It was always surreal talking about a mission after the fact, we detached ourselves. Took out the emotion, made it factual. I considered it a coping mechanism, something we all shared.
Throughout I dreaded Vert’s name being mentioned, the possibility of someone else seeing the wings of his craft. Fate was cruel though. It lulled me, a sense of security yanked away right at the last second, a thrill of excited victory at getting away with it.
I should have guessed.
Dean, usually so vocal, so opinionated, so thoughtless. Every response was considered, every point planned. He took the meeting in his stride, biding his time. Eyes tracked the conversation while his ears absorbed it. He left it right to the end before piping up.
“I saw something there,” he began, pretending to be nervous about cutting in, voice faltering to start with. He cleared his throat putting on a show. I rolled my eyes and as good as heard Terra do the same. “There was a craft, same as the others but you could tell the pilot was more skilled than the rest. I think it was this legendary Martian pilot everyone keeps talking about. They seemed pretty intent on Terra.”
The beginnings of a trap was being stitched together, alarm bells tinkled as they were gently brushed by his moving into position.
“I believe I’ve already mentioned that,” Terra responded. To me she sounded terse.
“But didn’t you see the wings?” He asked, raising an eyebrow in feigned questioning.
“What about the wings?” The Captain broke in
“They had a little green man painted on them,” he said, cockiness finally unfurling in his voice, “it must’ve been Vert.”
The alarm bells rang more steadily now, still quiet but definitely persistant.
Just the memory of his revelation made me angry. He knew, or at the very least he suspected and he was testing us. I’m not sure we passed. But it did have one good outcome, it lead to my most civilised conversation with Terra that day.
After the debrief we listened to our stomachs and headed to the cafeteria. I might’ve been miffed at her but would rather sit in angry silence than dismiss her completely. Once we sat down she started hissing.
“I don’t trust Dean. What is he doing? What does he know?”
“Me neither,” I grunted to her original statement, aggressively tearing bread to pieces.
“I could punch him,” she jabbed at her food with a fork, missing everything.
“Be careful,” I warned, “he’s suspicious and observant. Not the best mixture. You’re his target so you need to watch out.”
The words sidled right through her skull without settling in, her nodding happened absentmindedly and her thoughts were elsewhere.
“Terra,” I snapped.
“I heard, I heard,” she said defensively, “I do listen, you know.”
“It would be nice if you actually showed it.”
After that we didn’t really say anything more. We ate our food, drank our drinks and siphoned any extra food we could into a bag for Vert. After all the risk of bringing him here we weren’t about to let thirst and hunger kill him.
I met her eyes without meaning to, handing her some dried fruit. Her expression caught me off guard. It was a smile, but broken. So broken. It existed for a fraction of a second but I never knew her better than in that fraction. It summed her up more succinctly than any words could. A brave face painted over something jagged and jarring. A not-quite smile that stubbornly refused to reach her eyes.
A suffocating sense of guilt smothered all other emotions floating freely in my being and I opened my mouth to apologise to her there and then. Prepared to beg forgiveness for the way I’d acted.
“I’ll take this,” she said, gesturing to the bag. The expression was gone, thrown into the abyss of Terra mysteries. It was replaced with her usual one, eyes bright with life and mischief playing on her lips, always ready for a smile or a laugh.
The moment passed.
“If you’re sure.”
Throughout the day I’d battled against yawns until they became too aggressive to ignore. Terra finally told me to go to bed and get some rest. I wanted to protest but was in no mood to ignore the call of my bed. I took her advice. As I stood she pilfered anything I hadn’t eaten.
“See you tomorrow,” I offered.
“See you tomorrow,” she smiled and saluted, “and thanks again for your help. I’d be nothing but space debris right about now.”
“You know I need my second in command to make me look good, it was an entirely selfish move.”
“Even so, the gesture is appreciated.”
“I’ll always have your back, Terra.” I don’t know if she heard. Her eyes took on the far away gleam they usually pick up when she’s tuning into whatever thoughts she’s having at the time. She smiled again.
And there was the snag.
It was slight. Almost unnoticeable. Snag.
The power of hindsight was an incredible thing.
The smile trembled, ever so slightly but it belied a weakness somewhere, as if she couldn’t keep it up. The gleam faded and her eyes flickered to the table.
I walked away, unaware. I already regretted what seemed like an abrupt goodbye, but had no idea how much more I would come to do so.
Now that the snag was identified the drip was unbearable. Too loud and too often and causing my bladder to tell me it was full. I dragged myself out of bed, feet shocked by the coldness of the floor. I tightened the tap up before sitting on the toilet, probably counter-intuitive since I’d be washing my hands anyway.
When I went to bed sleep finally claimed me for its own. Visions of Terra’s troubled expression followed me into slumber. The night was not restful.
When I woke something didn’t seem right. There was nothing out of the ordinary to tell me why I felt that way. I hadn’t really dreamt, just glimpses of this and that, so it wasn’t because I was coming from an unsettling dream. As soon as my eyes opened unease became my companion.
I forced my cramping limbs from beneath my covers and sought refuge in the shower. When the aches were finally held at bay and I felt sufficiently clean I turned it off and it continued to drip out, echoing flatly.
I sighed, remembering the struggles of sleep last night.
In my head I had it that I was going to check up on Vert and apologise to Terra. We were in this together after all. The corridors were quiet, almost muted.
My footsteps bounced monotonously in the deadened atmosphere and I walked on as if in a dream. Prophesising what was about to happen before I was even aware of it.
Although it seemed empty there were people around, none of them were concerned. Their business was conducted as always. Slowly, every day sounds leaked back into existence and by the time I was in the lift it was back to normal. I smiled at the other people there automatically, they smiled back.
With a beep I arrived at my floor and alighted when the doors opened. The engine room was up ahead. The faded feelings came swimming back. Swirling and contorting in my stomach, behind my eyes, affecting my limbs. I searched for what brought it on and found a wrapper. Green and ripped, I’d last seen it on our table in the cafeteria the day before, disappearing into a bag of stolen food.
A weird half-walk half-run saw me through the doors to the engine room and propelled me to Vert’s alcove. He wasn’t there. No sign of him.
Everything came back in full force, rather than anything being muted I grew hypersensitive. Breathing was difficult but I pushed on through. A panic attack would not help.
Please don’t let Terra have done something stupid. Please let her have had a moment of moral ambiguity to stop her from feeling obliged to help.
Alarms went off and I flinched at their harsh and accusing sound. As if they were screaming her name. Pausing a moment I mentally liberated her of her shoes and imagined what she might’ve done. She’d obviously been here, what else explained the wrapper? Conversations came back to mind and I easily saw her tracing the path back to her quarters, with a Martian shadow in tow. Adamant her way was the right way.
And the further she travelled towards her destination in my mind the more certain I was of what had happened. Judging by the alarms she’d been spotted.
But where would she go now?
That was also obvious. As a pilot trapped with a life threatening problem she’d head straight towards her life raft, the only thing she could depend on. Her craft. Thing is, being on a ship full of pilots meant I wouldn’t be the only one to figure it out.
For the second time in two days I took to the ladderways again, this time towards the hangar instead of away from it. As I came out onto the right floor there was a lot of commotion. Guards went running by, guns in hand. The Captain was shouting in the distance. It sounded like they didn’t know where she was.
As soon as I slipped into the hangar I saw the two of them. Her craft was open but someone had beaten me. Their hands were raised in the air as three figures trained their weapons on them. Two were guards and I didn’t recognise the third until I heard his smug voice.
“You’re not getting out of here Martian lover,” Dean snarled, vicious and joyous.
“I really don’t see how that’s an insult,” she spat back at him.
Sprinting over, panic my only fuel, I yelled out and they looked at me. Fear flashed across Terra’s face, Vert looked mildly amused. I tried to dash past them but one of the guards grabbed me around the waist, keeping me from approaching any further. I let out an undignified yelp.
“What’s going on?” My voice kept hold of its authority, about the only thing to do so. Terra’s mouth just flapped open and shut, at a loss for words for once.
“She’s been caught committing treason,” Dean smiled, sheer and unadulterated glee playing in his eyes.
“Scarlett,” the Captain’s voice boomed. He’d finally figured it out, “what on earth are you doing?”
I shoved the guard away, he very nearly aimed his gun at me but Captain Rowan shot him a look. “Explain.”
But Terra’s speechlessness was contagious and nothing came out. Words abandoned me. I stood there with nothing to say, neither condemning nor defending my friend. The only person able to talk was Dean and he was hell to listen to.
“I told you,” he gloated, “I told you she couldn’t be trusted. Defending the Martian and coming out as the traitor she truly is.”
“Of course I’m defending him,” she yelled as she hammered the nails into her own coffin, “he’s my friend and I’m not going to let you murder him.”
Dean actually cackled and I couldn’t hide my dismay. She was standing by her morals and it was going to kill her.
“Terra?” I said as calmly as I could, using her name as a question to give her a chance to back down. I didn’t care if she threw Vert to the wolves, I just didn’t want her to be the one devoured.
“I’m sorry Scarlett. I really am.” Tears streamed down her face. “I can’t let him die.”
“Stupid,” I muttered, meaning her moving him. It was the only word I could say so I kept repeating it. I tried to get past the guards again but they pushed me back.
“I bet she helped,” Dean’s finger was pointed at me now and I was just taking in a breath to scream. Yes. Yes I helped and whatever they were going to do to Terra they’d better do to me too. But she beat me to the punch. The most decisive she’d ever been. And it really was like a punch.
“No. She had nothing to with it. Scarlett had nothing to do with this,” her words were so forceful they were followed by a deafening silence. The amused look was finally wiped off Vert’s face. Terra was looking at me with apologies filling her eyes. They shined so brightly they were fierce. “She had nothing to do with this.”
The Captain mumbled something about arrest and excommunication.
A scuffle broke out.
I wasn’t sure how it started. Terra and Vert took advantage and I willed them on as I held a guard back by pretending to trip. It was futile though. I was just one person and there were three others. Terra and Vert weren’t even able to scramble to the cockpit before they were accosted.
They were brought crashing back to the ground, there was a crack as a leg connected with the metal floor. They continued to fight though. The butt of a gun bashed into my nose, breaking it. Blood poured into my mouth and I choked.
My head was smashed to the floor but I could still see. The same was being done to Terra, a bruise forming on her forehead. Dean dug his knee into her back as he happily bound her hands together behind her back. He whispered something into her ear. Her eyes focused and she saw me.
“No. Scarlett. Why are you arresting Scarlett?” She thrashed against her bonds, stricken. I hadn’t even realised the grabbing of my arms and pinching of my wrists was me being arrested.
“She didn’t do anything.”
I was lifted to my feet, leaving a pool of blood behind.The Captain looked at me and shook his head sorrowfully.
“It’s just until we sort this out,” he said.
I just looked at him, uncomprehending. The three of us were escorted to the holding cells. Each battered, bruised and uncertain.