“What on Earth are you talking about?” Some small part of me took a perverse pleasure in the hitch of uncertainty in his voice. He was the one holding the gun, we were the ones under arrest. He was the one in control, we were the ones at a distinct disadvantage. Yet he had none of the power.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Vert replied. To be honest, I’m not sure if I did. MY thoughts kept swinging from one extreme to another, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to help Vert or hurt him. All I knew was that I really hated Dean. I wanted nothing more than to be out of this whole thing but there was no way to fast forward. The next few moments were tension filled and testosterone fuelled; Dean kept his gun trained despite the stubborn shaking that refused to abate. Vert held his gaze, refusing to back down, refusing to submit. Their own mini-battle waged, neither realising just how unimportant it was. Vert oblivious of how inconsequential his actions were. Whatever the outcome of this particular stand-off he was still a prisoner of war and I was still discharged from the military, my position filtered down to the man who’d contested my leadership from the very beginning.
“Why’s that? Because I’m stupid?” Dean enunciated each word carefully, trying his hardest to provoke a reaction from the stoic wall in front of him.
“Well, I didn’t like to say,” Vert replied, and smirk playing on his lips.
Dean snapped first, his temper was always a lot more flammable than anyone else’s and patience was an art he’d never been able to master. Of course it was a mixture that meant he was easy to manipulate and Vert was always able to play him so well. Forgetting the deadly weapon in his hand Dean charged the Martian, drawing back his free fist to punch him in the stomach; not even thinking of using the gun despite all his focus being on it just moments before. Vert only took one punch to the gut before he managed to duck out of the way, stripping the gun from his hand in the process. In the ensuing tumult it clattered to the floor. The only sound in the deadened atmosphere aside from the two men struggling with each other.
Another player came in and brought them literally to their knees. In fact, brought us all to our knees. There was an almighty crash, it resounded throughout the entire ship and shook the whole place. Every time we tried to regain our footing an aftershock sent us tumbling again. Balance impossible, unreachable.
The mysterious shaking died down, giving us all a chance to recover. Vert and Dean, now separated, only looked at each other; both weary of resuming their fight. Then there was a noise. Distant at first, barely noticeable but within seconds the ferocity and volume of it ratcheted up as it spread throughout the Aegis. When it was our turn it was deafening, the alarm screeched at all of us. The lights flashed red and the effect was disorientating, it was as if the shaking had thrown us into another world. One full of danger and panic.
“What’s going on?” Marcus shouted, struggling to be heard over the noise.
“We’re under attack,” Dean yelled back.
I looked sharply at Vert and he kept his eyes away from mine knowing that if I looked into them I’d see guilt. It seemed a bit of an overreaction to send a force capable of bringing down a ship to bring back one man. Yet that very well could be what was happening. Looking out the window into the hangar some of the crafts hadn’t fared very well. A few had lost balance, leaning on their wings; one was completely on its side, one wing smashed completely. A few others were ok and it was no surprise to see Cara, Kyle and Marcus sneaking out of the room while Dean’s back was turned to fire the engines up. They wanted to defend the ship.
Dean, however, was distracted. His anger was always his biggest weakness and right now it told him to ignore the big issue and focus on the smaller one. Instead of channelling his anger towards the Martian force outside he opted for the single one just a couple of feet away from him.
“That’s your people, isn’t it?” He growled. “Your sneaky, cowardly people attacking us.” He advanced slowly, menace shadowing every step, flowing into his body and enveloping his eyes. He looked deranged as he targeted Vert. The latter stayed still, preparing himself for whatever was about to come. I noticed his stance gave him ample opportunity to dash in any direction, hands raised to fend off an attack. Or launch one of his own. Dean leapt, the slowness of his approach disguised a litheness that had him covering the remaining distance in one fell swoop. To my disappointment Vert opted to meet him and struck first.
Sickening crunch when knuckles met cheek. A grunt of pain. A gasp of breath when fist met stomach in retaliation. Gun still on the floor, glinting in the lights as if trying to get their attention. Another tremour had them seeking balance again. Vert fell.
I took advantage and grappled Dean, using my momentum I knocked Dean to the ground, leaving Vert behind us. In his shock he was defenceless, a few punches were landed and I took full pleasure in each one. He fought back, far too quickly. Grabbing my wrist he threw me off balance and in one swift movement threw me off of him. I was on the floor now, scrabbling to get up, he was quicker. A sharp pain in my ribs when his foot connected. Snapping when he crushed my hand, several shards of pain flying up my nerves.
Being on the floor wasn’t the best place to defend myself from, he was able to overpower any attempt I made. I tried to knock him down again but he saw it coming. Physical fighting was not my strength, it was scrappy and desperate and had much more of an effect on me than it did him. I smashed my foot into his knee, hoping to set him stumbling back. The heel of my boot connected heavily and the was a sound from him as the attack set him off kilter. Despite that the most it did was infuriate him. He stepped forward and swung his hand, it caught my cheek, setting off an explosion of pain in my broken and barely recovering nose, which had previously receded to as dull ache.
This was enough to give him the upper hand entirely. He’d forgotten about Vert, I barely had enough brain space to acknowledge that he wasn’t there before Dean was upon me. There was murder in his eyes and they were aimed at me.
I backed up, hit a wall, glanced around for an escape but the door was behind him. I finally found Vert, kneeling on the ground feeling the back of his head, hand coming away red. I steadily got my feet beneath me and stood before him, death wasn’t going to find me cowering, a sentimental thought but an effective one.
A metallic hissing sound reverberated in my skull as Dean pulled a knife from his belt. Before I’d even registered that he’d moved he was up close, laughing as something slipped into my flesh. Pain roared, I roared and pushed him away. He still had hold of the handle so the knife went with him. My blood senses freedom and went running towards it, staining my uniform crimson. I had enough basic knowledge of anatomy no long lasting damage was caused. Done on purpose of course, there was no doubt in my mind he wanted to cause as much pain as possible before delivering a killing blow.
Clutching at the wound my hands were red, sticky with the blood.
He came at me again, a look of pure satisfaction enveloping his whole face.
It was still there when the bullet entered his brain. His foot was mid-step, it paused when the messages his nerves were carrying came to a halt, unsure of what to do next. Blood blossomed outwards, jettisoned in a beautiful arc. It froze there, pausing like the foot. Hanging around, making a point. Perhaps the worst of it was the light in his eyes. One moment maliciously playful, greedily absorbing the pain before him, the next second it elegantly faded away. Seeping from his eyes just as the life trickled out of his body.
For one horrid moment his lifeless, fleshy shell stood there – foot off the floor, hand raised with bloody knife – like a deranged puppet.
Then he collapsed.
Everything caught up with time, speeding through the intervening moments as if on fast forward. The uncertain foot fell with the rest of the body, destination forgotten in the moment of his demise. Blood, so morbid, so pretty, splattered across everything in its path like impressionist art. When everything settled Dean was nothing but a mound of flesh on the floor, Vert was stood behind him holding the gun.
I got to my feet tentatively, half expected Dean to attack – such was his stubborn nature. Vert couldn’t tear his eyes away from the man he just murdered. I thought maybe he was in shock but once I approached him he snapped his eyes away and dropped the gun, hurriedly separating himself from the offending weapon. I was all ready to take charge of the situation but he grabbed my arm.
“We need to take advantage of this and get out of here,” he said, voice entirely detached. He started heading out but I pulled my from his grasp, enough to make him pause.
“It’s all a bit convenient isn’t it? They aren’t just here to rescue a single Martian,” my brain was finally working and I sensed he’d tried to put wool over my eyes.
“No is not the time,” he snapped.
“I think it’s the perfect time.”
Before he could answer the others came in, judging by their complaints the hangar door wasn’t working. A serious problem, no matter how many pilots we had on board if the hangar wouldn’t open to let them out our defences were seriously hindered. It wasn’t until Marcus suggested we find the Captain that they noticed the dead body.
“What the hell?” Kyle yelled, more with surprise than anything. “We leave you alone for five minutes.”
“Come off it Kyle,” Cara jumped in, “one of us was bound to shoot him eventually.”
The ship shook again and another alarm went off, it shrieked until it gave me a headache then carried on happily ignoring the discomfort it was causing. I saw Marcus groaning as it went on and Kyle mouth a question to Cara: what does it mean. Again Vert took my arm but instead of heading towards the door he surprised me by stopping in front of a control panel. He shouldn’t have known where it was, disguised with the body of the ship.
I knew what the alarm meant, remembering clearly from my induction to the Aegis. There was a breach. Somewhere on the ship a someone had breached our defences, made it past everything in a matter of minutes and boarded without resistance. How many were there? Where were they? Was there any stopping them?
I brushed the metal with my hand, seeking the telltale dints. Reading my DNA it opened up at my touch and showed me a map of the Aegis. It was lit up red just to let me know it was under attack in case I hadn’t figured it out already. There was one section highlighted in green with several green dots moving away from it. Three floors up, the Martians were flooding in.
The others had gathered around me by this point, each taking in the what the map represented. I could almost hear them reaching the same conclusion. I’d arrived there just seconds earlier.
“No,” Vert said forcefully, close to my ear otherwise I wouldn’t have heard.
“I just saved your life, that’s why.”
“And now your people are going to try and kill me,” I hissed at him. “You can’t expect me to just sit back and let this happen.”
He looked taken aback as if he had expected just that, as if he couldn’t comprehend why we’d carry on fighting.
“But none of you even want this war.”
“Irrelevant and you know it,” I challenged, “and speaking of things you know, you need to explain about the control panel. Most people on here don’t even know where they are. How did you?”
His eyes widened but he refused to answer, or at least couldn’t bring himself to. He was saved by Kyle who hadn’t heard what we were talking about.
“We should get going, they’re going to need help and four of us might not be much but it’s something,” he jogged out to a supply closet and brought back basic armours and a gun for each of us. An offering for Vert was conspicuously missing, perhaps he had heard after all.
So I found myself travelling along a corridor I’d last graced as a prisoner, not even that long ago. Guns raised, nerves stretched. Vert travelled behind myself and Kyle, but in front of Cara and Marcus. The alarms still didn’t cease, the noise became a steady, headache-inducing thrum. Every urge in my body told me to hurry, people were in trouble and for every second we delayed more people would be dead. But we had no way of knowing how fast they were travelling, we could turn a corner and find them shooting at us – exposed in our haste. And that’s pretty much almost what happened.
As we approached the solid metal door to the ladderway we heard shooting and shouting. Yells and yelps echoed downwards. When the door started to swing outward we all aimed our guns, concentrating on the one spot. The seconds tensed and sidled past in the most painful manner, it felt like eons until the Captain came tumbling out, followed by a couple of officers. They swung the door shut behind them, desperate and grateful to have another barrier in place.
“What, oh. You gave me a fright,” he exclaimed weakly as he turned around, resting the back of his head against the metal wall in a brief respite.
“What’s going on sir,” Cara asked.
“It’s all lost,” he muttered in disbelief. “It’s all lost.”
“What do you mean?” Marcus.
“What are you doing here,” I spoke over him.
“The door needs fixing,” he said, “I need to fix it otherwise no one is getting out of here.”
“That’s not true,” Vert said darkly.
“Oh, and what do you know of it?” The Captain snapped.
“You could surrender. They won’t kill you then.”
“There’s still fight left in us.”
I could see they were all in the same frame of mind as the Captain, they might be on board and they might be numerous and it might be futile fighting them but if we were going down we were going to take as many of them as we could with us. It was a heroic and tempting proposition.
“As Captain your job is to keep everyone alive, not throw their lives away,” I said quietly, barely believing the words coming out of my mouth. As soon as they flew free I wanted to take them back. He shifted position slightly to emphasise his bulk and height, reminding me he was the one in charge. “You just need to get the doors open and everyone can join the other ships or the stations.”
He deflated a little, almost turned in on himself and dropped his gaze to the floor. The others were waiting for an answer but I’d already guessed it. His body language was absolutely screaming.
“They’re all under attack too,” he muttered, “everything’s lost.”
Shouting could be heard behind the door the Captain just clambered through. The ship shook again but not enough to throw us off our feet, or our course. Rather than be the forerunner of despair his revelation hardened our resolve. Even I, reluctant just a few seconds before, was thirsty for a last stand. And Vert, ever the accomplished reader of moods, tensed as he noticed the shift in attitude.
“Ok then,” I said, my tone flat. Cara looked at me, so did Kyle and so did Marcus. Despite the accusations rightly launched my way I was still their leader, they looked to me and that wasn’t an easy habit to break after three years of serving together. Just over three and half if you included training. It felt like an eternity, it felt like life well spent.
Spinning on my heel I lead the way back to the hangar, the three of them followed. When he finally understood where the four of us were heading the Captain did too, ushering his officers along.
“Scarlett, wait,” Vert tried to stop me, once again going for my arm but I dodged him. He scrambled to stay ahead of the officers, afraid this taste of freedom might be just that; a taste. “Scarlett.”
“Are you about to remind me again that you saved my life?”
“No,” he said, keeping stride with me, “but I was serious earlier when I said surrender. If you threaten them these guys will kill you, no questions asked. Don’t fight them.”
“And give up? Be meek? Go home and be labelled cowards?”
“Well, you’re already going to be called a traitor,” he joked. I ignored him and walked fast through the door into the hangar and continued leading the way to the other end. There was another panel there, this time when it opened it revealed a bunch of wires. The Captain gave orders to the others, they pulled metal crates into place, giving themselves some protection; a vantage point from which to make their stand. Vert hovered like an awkward fly between the makeshift barrier and the control panel, unsure of what to do.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” the Captain murmured to me.
I envisioned the future, the one I wanted to see. It’s not something I practised often but whenever I did it soothed those jittery nerves. Even as my fingers moved nimbly across the wires in front of me I imagined success, I saw the lights surrounding the door turn orange, indicating they were about to open. The Captain yelled out in triumph and contacted his second in command to inform the rest of the crew. There was an escape, there was a way to carry on this battle without being sitting ducks. The opportunity to end it on our own terms, however that may be.
Gunfire shattered the illusion. My ideal future shattered in front of my eyes, crashing into oblivion as my hands stuttered over the wires, forgetting for one moment what they were going to do. Long enough for everything to fall apart. Long enough to push that future entirely out of reach.
The bullets ricocheted against the door as they tried to make their way through. One of the officers must’ve locked it shut.
“C’mon, c’mon. We need to figure this out.” He was talking to himself but I listened and absorbed his words, synthesising them into motivation. My eyes darted over the confusing mess trying to figure out how to bypass the automatic system and manually open the door. But I could hear everything in the background, every bullet, every yell. I fancied I could hear every time one of our guys flinched. But most of all it was Vert. He was pacing and he made no efforts to be subtle.
My eyes flickered between wires and the different ports. My mind flickered between the pages of a manual I remember reading from a while back. My heart flickered. Not the conventional way to describe it but it seemed to fit. Panic was slowly rising throughout my body and it was just now reaching critical level. It was flooding my muscles and my brain and stopping anything from working.
Then I had it.
The second the Martians broke into the room I had the solution. But that was the second a lot of decisions were made. As soon as the corridor entrance opened one of the officers opened fire, giving the Martians an aggressive welcome. That same time Vert came to a stop, pacing ceased and I felt his eyes settle on me as whatever decision he’d struggled with was settled.
“We need to hurry,” I whispered to the Captain. I was going to say something more to him but didn’t get the chance. While bullets flew by and instructions shouted out by both sides Vert wrapped his arms around my waist, dragging me away from the panel. The Captain didn’t notice until it was too late. Vert kicked him, getting him to drop his gun.
“I’m sorry, I really am,” he whispered, “but you know there’s no chance of winning. I can’t let you die.”
“Let go of her,” The Captain said. I was trying to say the same thing but since grabbing my waist one Vert’s hands had travelled to my face, covering my mouth completely.
“No,” his voice was stronger this time despite my struggles. “Tell her why, captain.” The last word dripped with sarcasm, mock respect. There was a hesitation and the Captain looked away. He looked anywhere but at me. My stomach sank and the will to struggle failed.
“There’s nowhere to go,” he mumbled, “they’re attacking everywhere. The other two ships are like us, one training station is completely taken over and the other has gone silent. We’ve been tricked and we’ve lost.”
“He might have a suicide wish,” Vert hissed, “but I know you don’t. I’m not going to let you die because he didn’t have the good sense to surrender.” He continued to pull me away from the panel but I refused to make it easy for him. I fought every single step, kicking whenever I could – my feet my only weapon. He had to adjust his grip on me, loosening the hold over my mouth. I took the opportunity to bite him. Salty sweat and coppery blood made me gag as it dripped into my mouth. In getting me to unclamp my teeth he turned around and I saw the scene playing out in front of me.
They were at the makeshift barricade already, swarming through the door. Two officers and Marcus lay dead on the floor. Two pairs of glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling, the third nowhere to be seen amongst the debris of the obliterated skull. Blood everywhere. Blood painted the floor. Blood painted people. Blood painted the crates.
Overcoming my gag reflex I clamped down harder and he howled. Arms finally let go as the need for survival took over the need to protect. Cara had a flesh wound on her arm, passing gun fire. I ran forward, spotting a gun to take up. Fingers grazed my back as he tried to bring me back.
I stooped down, reaching for weapon.
More gunfire and another death.
An arm snaked under one armpit, pulling me back.
“No,” I yelled, continuing my fight. The gun was out of reach. So tantalisingly close but still too far. I sent an elbow flying back and felt it connect with something, never sure what it was. But there was a grunt.
I managed two more steps forward and finally got a grip in the weapon. Vert was right behind me so I swung round. He stumbled backwards and grunted. Blood streamed down his face, a grisly scene. Just as I thought I might be in the position to win my own fight a searing pain ripped through my shoulder, to join my other hurts. I could only think I must be extremely unlucky to be stabbed and shot all in one hour.
I think Vert called my name, but I didn’t really hear. The only thing I was certain of was that I was losing quite a bit of blood, not good considering I’d lost some thanks to Dean.
I turned, once again surveying the fight. All the officers except one were down. Cara and Kyle were side by side.
There was another blossom of blood and Cara collapsed, her heart shredded. Kyle forgot his position to catch her. To cradle her in his arms.
I was falling to the ground as well. My knee bashed the metal grating and I felt Vert there, grabbing me. Supporting me. He repeated my name as my vision darkened. I was feebly repeating the same word.
Kyle was no longer cradling Cara. He was collapsed next to her, arm flung over her body as if protecting her. His cold, dark eyes stared right at me.
I kept saying ‘no’ as the darkness encroached further and I finally succumbed. Martians approaching and Vert doing his best to stop the bleeding. Just one more thought before I slipped into whatever unconsciousness waited to claim me.
The war was lost.