It was the perfect scene. Birds flew across the blue sky where white, slightly grey, clouds idled lazily, the only thing to mar the otherwise spotless sky.
There were trees with vivid green leaves, in them more of my winged friends were perched. They sung to themselves, twittering a song to express whatever needed expressing. A gentle breeze played with the loose tresses of my hair, the brown strands floated about my face – tickling cheeks and nose. I breathed deeply expecting fresh air to fill my lungs and it was almost believable. The slight staleness at the end of each inhalation took away the fantasy. Yes, I saw the birds, the azure sky and felt the breeze. But they weren’t there. Not really.
The air was recycled. Each breath that came before mine was stripped of everything bad for a person and turned into something beneficial again. Someone else would breathe in the air I’d just exhaled. It was about as disturbing as drinking water originally sourced from urine.
I sighed. A longing filled me with an ache that could not be shifted. It couldn’t be broken. It was a permanent feature. A loneliness that would never abate.
I came to this park hoping it would ease. Each time I convinced myself it would work, would make me feel better. Each time I was wrong. I felt worse rather than filling in the gap torn in my life it threw salt into the gaping wound and laughed hysterically.
It was serene here. At least, it was supposed to be and probably was for anyone else. It made me anxious.
Each time I took another step towards the realisation that there was no fixing this. Something was broken and it was destined to stay that way.
“Hey,” someone said to my right. A voice I recognised well but didn’t like hearing. It was always full of pity. Never apology though. It would never apologise for what it’s owner had done. The word went floating away on the breeze and I closed my eyes against it, blocking the speaker out. It would’ve worked if not for the stale tang in the air.
“Don’t ignore me,” it nudged gently, a faint hint of a smile was audible. My eyes snapped open angrily and met his. Full of worry. He looked down on me, his hands crammed into his pockets, shoulders hunched. The picture of uncertainty. “I’m your only friend.”
“And whose fault is that?”
“Yours,” he shrugged. I checked to see if he was joking, but there was no trace of humour as he sat down on the bench next to me.
“I’m just dying to know how you figured that one out.”
“This is your home and you’re refusing to talk to anyone, keeping everyone at bay. You can’t expect anyone to get to know you when you’re acting like that.”
“This isn’t my home. And I had friends, they died because of you.”
The birds flew across the sky again. The same formation, the same direction. Those in the tree started their song again. Even the breeze had a familiar routine it danced. The only difference this time was Vert. He made it impossible to concentrate on any of these things. Having him here increased the anxiety I carried around as an ever present companion. He was a reminder of so much I wish could be forgotten.
“I want to go back to my real home,” I said quietly, letting the breeze toy with each word, letting it take the pain of the sentence and whisk it away to the nearest filter to twist and shape into breathable air.
There were other people around, walking the path and taking in the sights. They revelled in the blue skies and gentle sunshine, not used to such luxuries. Even the green grass was an uncommon sight. Such was life on Mars.
Nature here was much more ferocious than on Earth, a day in the park was considered a family vacation. There were three like this in the city and I had free access to all of them. I had free access to anything inspired by the culture of Earth.
A kindness that was more of a torture.
“You can’t go back,” Vert sighed.
“Because I’m your prisoner?”
“Because going back would be your death. We deem it better for your health to refuse your travel requests,” his words were well worn. This was the only conversation I was willing to have with him, hoping it would change one day. When it didn’t I swiftly lost interest.
“How can you deny it?”
“You’re a ward of the state. You’re our responsibility. If returning to Earth would likely lead to your death then we exercise that responsibility to keep you safe.”
“I don’t care.”
“Why?” I wanted to yell but it was so tranquil I couldn’t bring myself to break it. “You had no problem killing everyone else. You were fine sending Captain Rowan back to Earth. You let all those prisoners you had from the ships and stations go back. Why not me?”
“They were never facing treason charges.”
Vert tried to take my hand but I pulled away, stood up from the bench and walked away, the packed dirt unyielding beneath my feet. It all felt so real, but it was just hyper realistic virtual reality. A Martian specialty.
After the Martians stormed the Aegis, and brought down our offensive force in one extremely well executed swoop, I woke up in a Martian hospital aching all over. A protective detail was posted outside my room and I spent the next few days in solitude without any answers, alone with memories that would undoubtedly haunt me for the rest of my life. It gave me time to think back on everything, from the very first time I stepped aboard the shuttle going to the Carlson Development Centre. And time to record it when my request for writing material was approved.
Eventually Vert came to visit, barely any words were exchanged but there was a comfort in his presence. Something familiar in a world I didn’t understand. Earth kept on fighting, plenty of earthbound facilities were armed enough to keep on defending the planet. Realising how much more life would be lost on both sides I told Vert everything I knew, which wasn’t much.
Turned out I didn’t need to. By the time the Martians reached Earth half of the facilities were attacked and destroyed by civilians and active service men and women who’d had enough of fighting a war that should never have been fought. Somehow word reached home that I blabbed, which was perfect because they were looking for a scapegoat. It didn’t matter that others turned their back on the Government, it didn’t matter that these acts of defiance happened much closer to home. My follies were on record, they knew I’d been arrested helping a Martian, had sympathy for someone who was excommunicated and had a Martian desperately trying to keep me alive.
I was too perfect to pass up. Before long the blame was placed squarely at my feet.
I was a household name, and that name was a curse, an insult, something to be spat. When children played good guys and villains I was always attached to the latter.
I could never go home. No longer welcome, no longer wanted. Stuck on a planet I’d never been to but fought fiercely against. They accepted me though.
That was the difference between my planet and theirs, they were much more welcoming. Again, my exploits were well known on Mars. As far as the people were concerned I’d saved one of their own and was trying to save many more Earthlings and Martians when I shared information with Vert. To them I was a hero, one Earth should be proud of. It didn’t matter that I fought for the enemy. All that mattered was the values I held, similar to their own. Still, I remained a bone of contention between the two planets whenever they held political talks. Earth wanted me extradited to face punishment but Mars refused to comply. My feelings in this matter were decidedly mixed. There was nothing I wanted more than to go home, but I didn’t much fancy the commotion that would come with it.
Not that there wasn’t any commotion in staying here. Fearful Earth would try to bypass the red tape and have me killed, the Martians offloaded me into Vert’s care. As a respected and much celebrated member of the military he came with his own security. He was now my gaoler as much as my protector.
It came in handy though, for I’d also become a bit of a tourist attraction. Since winning the war Mars took complete control of its own governance, rather than close itself off it welcomed travellers with open arms; arms with rigorous security checks and border control. Holiday makers were positively encouraged to travel to Mars.
It was just a shame that some of them came looking for me. There were plenty of rumours suggesting where I might be and a lot of people set aside a day or two trying to track down the infamous traitor. Often, whenever I ventured outside Earthling visitors pointed, stared and hurled their insults. I swore some people came to Mars just for that reason.
Perhaps that was why they refused to give me up, I was too good for the tourism trade.
It was a lonely life. Living in a land I didn’t know, surrounded by faces I didn’t recognise, feeling the hate of an entire planet many light-years away. Even my parents were a part of that. The only message they sent was when I first awoke in the hospital. I was a disappointment, they were despairing. They were in mourning. For as far as they were concerned their daughter died in the war.
The fragile relationship I had with Vert was the only thing with some light to it, the only thing that bought levity to life. Then I learned the truth. Already in his care, already offered the information about Earth. He sickened me.
He’d manipulated us.
We played into his hands.
He’d orchestrated much of our demise.
The Martians were studying the Aegis, it was the focus of their attention for quite some time. A team was dedicated to figuring out a way to take down Earth’s greatest defender. At some point Vert realised Terra and I were part of the crew, members of the ship’s most flown squadron. That was when his plan started to form.
From their close monitoring they found out about the attack on their training station. So they swapped it out for a weaker one and stationed their most elite pilots there. Vert was instructed to target us.
They knew they’d lose the station and they also knew that if Vert was in trouble Terra and I would help him. They knew this because he told them. So it was decided, he would infiltrate the Aegis, using us as his way in. The rest of the Martians took their places, shadowing Earth’s other ships and stations, a time for the attack previously agreed upon. Apparently, during the small amount of time we left him alone he was able to hack our system and pass on information to his comrades about our entire fleet, filling in the gaps in their knowledge.
He’d taken advantage of our friendship to kill my squadron, defeat my planet and send my friend into the depths of space. Of course, it didn’t matter that he used to be part of my squadron, that the Terra was his friend. When he was evacuated from the Development Centre all those years ago he as good as said something like this would happen.
Everything was taken away because one day I ended up taking the same ride in a lift as him.
“I’m worried about you Scarlett,” he’d followed me from the bench, keeping a respectful distance as if he thought I might turn around and attack him. To give him his due it had happened in the past.
“You didn’t seem all that worried when you tricked us,” I was bitter. It was all I knew how to be.
“There was a lot at stake then. More important than friendship.”
There was a strange stab in my gut at his words, almost as painful as Dean’s knife in my gut.
He thought his actions were forgivable. Perhaps to another person they were. Someone like Terra. But if it was forgiveness he was after then he saved the wrong person.
With a start I realised I was crying. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Before I could react his arms were around me, offering support I did not want to need.
Images of Kyle and Cara dying flashed through my mind, the last time his arms were around me. I pushed him away, fighting revulsion. The sorrow was so deep in me I didn’t know where it came from. Somewhere along the way it had all congealed into one solid lump and as long as I had no way of solving it, it was not going to move. As long as Vert was around he would always remind me of the pain, of the impossible sadness that was impossible to lose. So I laughed bitterly at him.
“We aren’t friends, Vert. I saved you once just like you saved me. I saved you and you weren’t worth it.”
A pause, the length of a heartbeat. He answered.