The first thing I really noticed was the pain in my nose. Then it was the anger. It flared up inside of me before I figured out what it was about. It was consuming and although I tried to swallow it every nerve was on edge. The urge to yell was strong, so strong. Instead I moved my hand to wipe what felt like blood from my face. Deliberate movements so as not to set off my temper. Or at least I tried to. My hands were still bound together, unable to part and do anything. The anger swelled again.
Eventually I opened my eyes, the throbbing was joined by the searing light, so bright I had to close my eyes again. Rather than rushing to see my situation I took the time to think through what had happened. There was blood and yelling and fighting and insults and a whole lot of confusion.
The blood was mine. The confusion wasn’t.
Gingerly I tried opening my eyes once more and while I struggled with the light, fighting a wave of nausea, it became bearable. Soon I took in my surroundings and realised it was a cell. My hands were tied and my freedom was cut off. Of course the other two were here. Vert and Terra.
They were awake, neither talking, neither looking anywhere but at the floor. Deflated and disheartened there was nothing to say. They’d attempted to break for it but failed. One thing didn’t quite make sense though.
“Why were you going to use that craft?” I said swinging myself round to a sitting position and regretting the effect it had on the battle I was waging against the nausea. “Isn’t it damaged?”
“Always so logical,” Vert muttered, “as soon as you regain consciousness you’re looking for answers.”
“Better than upbraiding us for getting her caught up in this,” Terra mumbled quietly. “I spent all night fixing it.”
Now she said it she did look tired. There was a gaunt, sallow look to her that didn’t fit with her usual energised self. A scrape on her cheek said she didn’t come out of the confrontation unscathed and a quiver to her lip hinted at the emotion thundering through her.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to avoid this,” she laughed ironically and a couple of tears jumped from her eyes as if waiting for just such an opportunity to escape.
This was it then. The journey I’d started on that shuttle with her all those years ago was finally coming to an end. Something was about to change, we could all sense it. To be fair you had to be pretty obtuse not to notice. Punishment was on its way and once it was delivered life would be different. Who could say what it would be?
We didn’t find out for two days. There was all the opportunity to talk to one another, to catch up or to argue or to strategise about escape but we didn’t take it. The chatter was idle and very little. There was nothing left to say. Of all the words in the world we’d said every one we wanted to each other. We were right at the end of our journey together and the words between us were exhausted. So time passed in mostly silence and nothing meaningful passed our lips despite being the most appropriate time to do so. Silence was the only thing we had left to give each other, so we gave it.
When the second day ticked past we thought we’d be left here. Action was usually swift and it certainly crossed my mind that we were to rot away down here for as long as the war went on, or as long as the ship survived. So when we heard footsteps making their way to us, knocking at the doors of our isolation, we were a little taken aback. Terra was asleep and I daren’t wake her, not when such peaceful moments were now exceptionally rare. Anyway, it sounded like a single person, it wasn’t a stampede of footsteps – just traipsing ones. And there were no voices. Whoever it was was getting louder.
Vert looked up and met my eyes with his in a moment of sheer vulnerability. He looked hollow and devoid of anything, just a shell, a husk. For the first time I didn’t see the man I once knew, rather the man he’d become. It was a strangely intimate moment. I looked right back at him and tried to understand why Terra was helping this person I didn’t know, she was so desperate to help. Maybe she had it in her head that if she saved one Martian when she was supposed to be killing them she wouldn’t lose herself completely, that somehow and in some way she had control.
“Here goes,” he croaked, snapping me back to the present.
My heart was beating an irregular tattoo against my chest, not even trying to be normal. And it didn’t calm when the doors slid open to reveal the Captain. We might’ve been on friendly terms but to have the highest ranking officer on board the ship pay a visit in this situation was never a good sign. In fact, my heart started to list like the Martian training station we’d destroyed. With a swipe of his access card and a scan of his fingerprints he found himself in the cell with us, the door closed swiftly behind him before we could even entertain the thought of slipping out. He brandished a knife and edged towards us.
“Bloody hell!” Vert cried out, “you lot are worse than I thought.”
“You lot?” My questioning eyebrow shot up.
“Seriously?” He shot back.
“Well then, step away from the conclusion you just jumped to. We’re not that barbaric.” I stood up and went over to the Captain, bound wrists out in front. He slipped the knife between them and the plastic and cut it away. Once free I massaged my hands, while he sheathed the knife. A red line around both of my wrists was the only evidence they’d been tied.
“I need to understand what’s going on.” His usually confident voice was deflated and he too had bags under his eyes indicating sleepless nights. Terra was still asleep so he kept his voice low, she didn’t show any signs of waking up and something told me that’s what the Captain wanted.
“They just want to be independent, it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, all throughout history. Who are we to get in the way of that?”
“We’re the people they’re threatening.”
“Are they really?”
He stopped and thought for a long moment and I knew he wouldn’t find a single moment in the start of the war where they threatened us without provocation.
“That might be true but we can’t help them.”
“But why should we fight them? What right do we have?”
“We fight because we have to, there’s no choice in that. It’s a matter of safety, to protect our planet. A matter of…” He trailed off.
“Pride?” I asked. That single word hung there as he contemplated it’s meaning and everything it implied.
“None of us wanted this war, Scarlett.”
“Someone did. Otherwise it wouldn’t be here.”
“We shouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he hissed, the frustration finally getting too much, “this is the situation we’ve been dealt and we have to play it out, we have no control.” He unknowingly echoed my thoughts about Terra earlier, there was some consolation in knowing someone as senior as him had similar views.
“Then I think you do understand,” I said plainly, hoping I wasn’t pushing my luck. He sighed.
“Were you helping them to escape the ship?”
“No,” I answered, confused by the sudden change and the blunt question.
“Did you know what was happening?”
“Did you know Terra was helping the Martian to escape?”
I finally twigged what he was doing; backing me into a corner where my innocence was proven but Terra received all the blame.
“Only answer what I’m asking you,” he snapped.
“But I have more to say.”
Before I knew what was happening he’d pushed me against the wall, collar in his hands as he held fast. I hit my head and gasped. He was too strong to fight back against so I had no choice but to listen to his whispered words.
“I can save you. There’s nothing I can do about Terra, and we both know what’ll happen to Vert, but I can save you.”
I pushed him back once his grip loosened, disgusted at the thought. The nausea from earlier tried to make a reappearance but it was suppressed by the anger that’d always been there.
“So they’ve already decided,” I growled.
“How dare you. How dare you come in here acting like it doesn’t matter. Like this whole thing doesn’t matter. She’s a good person and you know it, her heart is in the right place. Why doesn’t that matter to you?”
“Scarlett…” He started.
Unable to look at him I turned my back and rested my head against the wall, thankful for its strong and steady coolness fighting against the volatile warmth of my anger. I took deep breaths knowing that anything I did now would be held against all of us. Someone shuffled up to me.
“The evidence is stacked pretty high against her,” Vert whispered, “you know there’s nothing to be done.”
“Get away from me.”
I tried to walk away from him but there was nowhere to go. I looked around for any sort of refuge only for my eyes to land on Terra.
“What’s going to happen?” I finally asked, voice broken.
“You’re the only unknown,” the Captain said. “We arrested you on Dean’s word but there’s no evidence.”
“Well, I’m sure if you…”
“That’s because there isn’t any,” Vert jumped in, “she really has nothing to do with this.”
“How noble,” the Captain sneered,” defending your former commanding officer. You’re still going to Earth as a prisoner of war.”
“I’d expect nothing less. And Terra?”
“Excommunicated. No matter how you dress it up she betrayed her planet.”
“Don’t,” there was a pleading note in my voice.
“It’s not up to me Scarlett.”
“It’s your ship…”
“That doesn’t mean anything and you know it. It’s a ship that belongs to Earth and she was caught helping a Martian. You can’t argue with that,” he was getting angrier with each word he spoke, in hindsight I think it was because he didn’t like the situation any better than I did. “Now, she’s told me over and over again that you had nothing to do with it. If I find out she’s lying her sentence will be bumped up to execution.”
That was left hanging in the air for some time. As much as I wanted to admit to helping I refused to sign Terra’s death warrant. At least with excommunication there was a small chance of her survival.
“Of course I’m not lying,” her voice wafted over from the corner she’d been sleeping in. Its strength suggested she’d been awake for some time. I looked over at her and defiance was the first word that sprang to mind. She might be scraped and bruised and beaten but she was never going to stop defending Vert because she wouldn’t be true to herself. And that’s something she’s always been, no matter what we’ve been asked to do, no matter the situation she’s always found a way to be herself. She wasn’t going to change that just because she was faced with a fate no one wanted. Defiantly authentic. Defiantly unique. Defiantly Terra.
“What about me? You can’t just expect me to go back and lead Squadron 14.”
“No. We didn’t expect that. With no evidence to support Dean’s claims you’ll be discharged from the military. Your second in command is guilty of helping the enemy and you had no idea. You’ve lost control of your squad and displayed a grossly negligent attitude towards your role as leader, as such you’re no longer fit to be in charge.”
“You sound like Dean.”
“They are his words. In your absence he’ll be elected to command the squad.”
“You should promote Kyle. He’s a much better fit.”
The Captain nodded as if he was listening. No one would listen to me ever again, my name a disgrace. The thought of having to hide in the shadows back home was almost enough to make me wish I was being excommunicated.
“I’ll be back in a few hours, once the craft for Terra is ready. The two of you,” he pointed to Vert and I, “will be taken to Earth on the same shuttle.” With that he left the room and the true countdown began.
I slid down the wall and sat next to Terra. Her eyes were distraught, face pale and knees clutched to her chest. Our shoulders bumped. I grabbed her hand, hers still tied up, the only support I could offer.
“I’m sorry Terra.”
We were out of the cell and walking to the hangar in a procession. I imagined it was like walking prisoners to the gallows way back when. The corridors were still and silent as if everyone on the ship knew what was happening but didn’t want to take part. They’d disappeared and it was strangely soothing. In fact we didn’t come across anyone else until we stepped off the lift on the hangar floor.
Lining the last corridor to the hangar were the remains of Squadron 14, minus Dean who was part of the party leading us. They watched us approach and each step was nervy. As I drew level with the first of them, Cara, they all saluted and a sudden rush of affection overwhelmed me. No matter what happened from here on out these guys supported us. They didn’t care what our previous actions were, only that we were a team.
“Would you look at that,” Dean sneered, “they’re already saluting me.”
“We’ll never salute you Dean,” Marcus spat his name like it was a curse. “Good to see you again Vert.”
“I’d be careful if I were you Marcus,” Kyle said, “otherwise Dean will throw you on that craft with Terra.” Terra actually laughed, well it was more of a bark but it was still good to hear.
Once we entered the hangar it was difficult to miss the craft waiting to head out on its only adventure. It gleamed as if brand new, which it probably was. It looked naked though, obvious features missing from the outside making it clear this was a one way trip. She had no weapons or even a steering system.
We gathered round the craft as if in some perverse ceremony and the Captain gave a small speech basically outlining Terra’s crimes and why she had to be punished this way. It was incredibly difficult to listen to because all I could think of was that there had to be a way out of this I hadn’t thought of yet. As soon as the Captain was finished Dean grabbed Terra’s arm and dragged her to her final prison.
“Hey, wait a minute,” she yelled. She struggled and managed to break free of his grip, her hands were no longer bound like they had been in the cell. Without even realising it I’d taken a few steps forward, not even hesitating she launched herself at me and caught me in a hug. She held on as if I was the last solid thing left in the world. Her breath caught and I knew her brave face was moments away from crumbling. So I tried to comfort her.
“It’s your big adventure,” I said, “it’s what you’ve always wanted. Here’s your chance to see space like no one else has before, it’s your chance to explore and discover and set your eyes on things no human eye has seen before. And they’ll be all yours, no one else’s. So don’t you worry, don’t you dare worry. You’re better than all of us so think of it as the treat it should be, the once in a lifetime opportunity to be a deep space explorer, the chance to turn your dream into reality.”
I held her back so I could look at her and there were tears in her eyes but she refused to let them fall.
“It’s your chance to do what you’ve always wanted and you don’t even have to answer to anyone. Treat it like one last mission, your swan song. Relish it and make the most of it and know that we’ll be OK. We’ll miss you but we’ll be OK.”
I hugged her again and we clung onto each other, friends saying goodbye. She took the time to compose herself, there was no way in hell she was going to have us remember her as a blubbering wreck. When she was ready she pulled back and I let go.
“Thank you,” she whispered to me, then more loudly so everyone heard, “right then, let’s go and explore.”
She clambered up into the craft and closed the cockpit behind her without ever looking back. We were ushered into an air locked room and I whispered one final goodbye to her. As soon as we were safe the craft fired up and the hangar doors rolled open. It was flying on its own but from my vantage point I could see she was pretending to fly it herself, her hands were planted firmly on the dummy steering controls and she had a look of concentration that only came with the beginning of a mission. She pretended to say something and I imagined she was talking to me over our private link. It occurred to me that she was going through our usual routine, just like any other fly out. Just before the craft left the ship she gave one last look around, found me and gave me the thumbs up.
Then she was gone.
I looked around and Vert was crying, tears softly tracking their way down his cheeks. With a start I realised I was too. No one quite knew what to say or do now. The main event was over and it was just a matter of waiting for a shuttle to get rid of the remaining two. Eventually the Captain left, muttering something about readying our transport.
Squadron 14 started talking amongst themselves, occasionally trying to rope Vert into the conversation. He didn’t do much to keep them amused.
“Don’t even bother talking to him.”
Everyone kept quiet as I paced the room with one hand on my hip and the other lodged in my hair, keeping it from falling into my eyes.
“I’m sorry Scarlett,” he tried to say to me.
“No you’re not,” I yelled. The anger had won so I kept on yelling. “I wish people would stop apologising when they don’t mean it. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t get her to listen to me. I’m sorry she’s the one out there and not you. I’m sorry she ever helped you and I wish we’d never met you.”
I yelled so hard it hurt my throat but I couldn’t help it. There was blame floating around and I wanted so desperately to pin it to Vert, to make him hurt because without him this situation would never have arose. Without him Terra and I would be going about business as usual instead of one of us floating around in space while the other drowned in emotions she didn’t like feeling. The anger grew so strong I hit him, I did it not even knowing I was going to do it and he had a bleeding nose to rival the one I had only a few days before. “Any sympathy I had for you and your kind went out of the hangar door with Terra,” I spat at him.
“You don’t mean that,” he whispered.
Dean was between us now, in my sight, a new target. All my anger redirected at him. I went to hit him too, he tried to defend himself and it was noticeable no one went to defend him. My strikes were wild and erratic and he soon got the upper hand, pointing a gun at me.
“I can kill you right now and no one will care,” he said calmly.
“They will,” I sounded more confident that I actually was, but had to believe my reputation wasn’t in complete tatters.
“The Captain might, yes. And the idiots here,” he gestured to everyone in the room, “but back home they’ll be on my side.” Blood dripped from a cut just above his eyebrow and trickled down, just missing his eye, to land on his uniform. The gun was still aimed at me and I saw the resolve in his eyes harden. I swore he was about to pull the trigger when Vert stepped in front of me.
“What are you doing?”
“Terra’s already gone because of me, I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
It took me by surprise, but I guess I was the one who’d been hostile. He’d never really said a bad word aimed at me. I’d acted shamefully but he’d been pretty friendly considering the situation. So I asked him the question that was bothering me.
“Are you worth saving.”