Chapter 1 - 2 weeks after
This is the truth about what happened. I wish we could have shared it with everyone sooner. Or that it had never happened. We didn’t want to risk putting it online and then the Council arresting us again or worse but… I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late anyway. The Council is lying to you. They always have been. We were too dumb to realise or do anything about it before but, maybe this will help people see what’s actually happening.
I’m not sure how to do this. How to write it and have it make sense. Everything feels so jumbled in my head. We spent too long in that Council prison. Time really dragged there so it screwed everything up.
I guess we’ll just split this into before and after everything happened? That way I don’t need to write about what happened until later. I don’t think I can yet. It still feels too fresh. Every time I think about it, my hands shake and I feel sick.
I guess this is a good place to start. This is when Peggy first suggested we tell our side of the story. You know, give people a chance to know more than just the lies the Council spread. We didn’t know how important it would be then or that it would be our only chance. Maybe if we had, things would have gone differently? We could have done things differently. Ran before it was too late maybe. I don’t know.
2 weeks after
“Hey! Can you pass a burger? Oh, my Gods! It’s Crew 761! Captain Aries! I didn’t even see you there!” some kid exclaimed, clearly pretending he hadn’t come into the kitchen just to gawk at us.
I barely suppressed a sigh. I’d been dreading this moment all week but I knew it would happen sooner or later. Far too many children signed up to be trainees since our trial. Parents and orphanages were pushing kids into the service and hoping they’d be chosen to join the Space Corps. They wanted them to be heroes just like us, to bring fame to their families and orphanages. The thought made me queasy.
The boy was still staring at me and I knew, as Captain, I needed to answer him for my crew.
“Yup. It’s us,” I answered flatly, trying to ignore my rising anxiety.
I tiredly glanced around the small, off-duty kitchen we were sitting in to avoid being in the main canteen. We’d barely entered that room before we realised we couldn’t cope with how many people had stopped talking and started pointing at us. The whispers that followed were worse. We just grabbed our food from the buffet and slipped into the kitchen no one used during the day. At least in there, we could pretend we couldn’t see them staring.
It was the first time we’d been around other people since we’d been released back to the base and the sheer noise was overwhelming. We’d been locked in our dorm before then, tending to our wounds and trying to stop flinching every time we heard footsteps along the corridor outside. It was more difficult than it sounded. Even now, the sound of footsteps outside makes my heart thump.
I glanced at the kid before looking back around the room, trying to ignore what was happening and focus on where we were. Focus on believing that we were safe. I looked around at my crew to avoid looking at the kid and his awe-filled expression. We were all sitting on one side of the table so that we could see the door at all times. None of us felt comfortable risking it just yet. My gaze landed on Peggy who was sitting on the other end of the rectangular table.
She was trying to smile kindly at the boy but her eyes were tired. The months of near-starvation that we had been subjected too was painfully obvious just by looking at her. Peggy’s pale skin was stretched tautly over her cheekbones. Her blonde hair lay limply on her head, so devoid of the normal bounce it used to have. I knew I looked as exhausted too. My skin had become unnaturally pale and no matter what I did to it, my mousey brown hair was thin. That was never the case before. I looked away from Peggy before I could see the tremble in her hands that she got any time people were too close to her. I focused on Cas next.
He was inspecting his burger in great detail before taking careful bites. His nose twitched slightly as he double-checked that it wasn’t drugged. I knew how he felt, I did the same every time I ate too, despite knowing we were safe on the base. His dark skin was paler than it had been in years due to the months we’d spent unable to go outside. Hells, we still hadn’t been outside but at least we’d been able to open the window in our dorm. There was a crease between his eyebrows at all times now. It was a testament to our torture. His face had spent so long screwed up in worry or pain that it marked him permanently. His rich brown eyes had lost some of their cheeky glean but it had started to come back slowly. I was glad it had. It was one of my favourite things about him.
My eyes compulsive moved on to Cory who was sitting next to Cas. I’d been doing that a lot since I returned to the base. I’d find myself staring intently at my crew, trying to convince myself that they were still there. That we were all still alive. Cory looked the same as he always had really. His light hair was pushed back off his face and his gaze strayed to Gem constantly. The only thing that betrayed the anxiety he was feeling was the way his thumb rubbed over the skin where his missing index and little finger should have been.
Gem glanced at it often even though I knew she was trying not to. She still blamed herself for what happened. She looked the best out of all of us. In a way, she’d gotten lucky by almost dying. That meant she got to stay in a hospital where she got enough food and water unlike the rest of us who’d been locked in the Council building. But still, dark bags decorated the skin under her blue eyes. She pushed back some of the dark hair that has escaped her ponytail and raised her eyebrows at me with a quiet sigh.
My lips raised in a gentle smile as my gaze swept our surroundings and landed on the shiny metal fridge that was stained with fingerprints, before moving on to the industrial ovens. They were always on the brink of breaking, but that was part of their charm. You just had to smack them in the right place and tighten their valves and they normal spluttered back to life before we inhaled too much gas.
The kitchen felt so much safer than the vast, white-walled canteen. It was closed on all side apart from where the door was. None of us had to have our back to the unknown. Shelves, fridges and ovens were shoved into the small room giving it a cramped but comfortable feel. We’d spent so many nights cooking in there when we’d coming back too late from a mission and missing the cut off time for food from the canteen chefs. I smiled at the memories before my eyes flitted to the doorway where that kid was still standing and the smile died.
I didn’t even need the mods that were in my eyes to see how many other kids were staring at us from the other room.
“You’re my heroes!” he squealed.
His voice was too loud and he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, staring at us with wide eyes.
My stomach rebelled at his words and I forced myself to take another bite of my burger so I didn’t need to answer him straight away. The anxiety coursing through me and making my hands shake told me I wouldn’t be able to answer him well. The burger caught in my throat and I swallowed desperately to push it down. I refused to let myself choke in front of all the people watching through the door and waste the food. The starched collar of the dark blue dress uniform we’d been ordered to wear wasn’t helping either. It cut into my neck every time I swallowed and felt like a noose. We’d been wearing those flimsy prison scrubs for months so we weren’t used to real clothes yet. Even when we first got back to the base, we had to stay in scrubs because they’d confiscated all of our other clothes.
I forced some water down and examined the kid. He looked young, maybe four years younger than us, so twelve, and he continued to rock back and forth as he stared at us in wonder. The careful styling of his light brown hair and crisp clothes he was wearing told me he was a Volunteer, not a Draft like we were.
He looked like one of those crazed fans we saw on recordings of concerts. His eyes were huge and he was grinning excitedly. I hoped he wasn’t about to ask for us to sign his wrist monitor. That would have truly pissed the Council off. I didn’t really care about the consequences though, I almost wanted him to. The self-destructive urge to annoy the Council and Councillor Harvey warred against my nausea but still, I couldn’t bring myself to talk.
“We shouldn’t be, we’re traitors and war criminals,” Cas answered simply before shoving another burger into his mouth.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Peggy flinch at his words. That wasn’t technically true. Well, I guess it is. I don’t know. It depends on who you listen to. That wasn’t the official verdict but… It was still true.
“No, you’re heroes! The way you leapt into action and stole a ship and then saved everyone? It was incredible! You inspired me to sign up!” he was almost shouting, waving his arms as his eyes shined with excitement.
I cringed as I noticed that his volume was making even more faces cluster around the doorframe to peek in at us. My heart hammered in my chest as I fought to meet the eyes of the new trainees staring at us like they were waiting for us to do something. I wasn’t sure if they were looking at us adoringly like that kid was or accusatorially like the Council had.
I need them to leave. Him too, I thought to my crew, feeling icy panic rising within my chest but also a hint of gratitude towards the mods we’d had fitted into our skulls a few years back that allowed us to communicate through thought.
Me too, Peggy thought back grimly.
He was still staring at us earnestly, the grin fixed on his face as he waited for a response. I carefully placed my burger back on my plate before my hands could start trembling even harder and cause me to drop it.
I tried to be kind but I wasn’t. It came out far more cold and harsh than I meant it to. I do feel bad about that. It wasn’t the kid’s fault.
“It’s not all flying through space and saving people. We made bad decisions and people died or were badly injured because of us. We’ll have to live with that forever. Half the kids who signed up only did it because they don’t understand what we actually did, and they think they’ll be doing the same in a couple of months. Bunch of idiots, at least the Drafts had no choice.”
The kid’s face fell and he stared at me with wide eyes. A wave of guilt hit me in the stomach as his shoulders slumped and he looked sadly at the floor.
I felt like a monster.
I know I shouldn’t have been so cruel but, honestly? Prison was less stressful than this. At least they mostly left us alone there. I justified to my crew but mostly to myself, trying to placate the almost overwhelming feeling of shame.
I get it and this is horrible but he is just a kid. Maybe we should be nicer? Cas thought at me, smiling supportively.
“Sorry kid, it’s been a long day.” I tried to smile.
His wide grin reappeared immediately and he seemed to forget that I’d snapped at him.
“Also, we didn’t really sign up. We’re all technically Drafts so we didn’t have a choice.” Gem added in a light tone, breaking the tension with a smile.
I glanced at her gratefully, taking another careful bite.
“You’re Drafts?” the kid paused, looking thoughtful. “You still saved the world though! That’s amazing! Even my older brother signed up too!”
“That’s cool. Which one’s he?” Peggy asked kindly.
Peg, really? Cas teased, rolling his eyes. Little early in the term for you to be eyeing people up.
I’m trying to be nice, asshole. She thought as she glared at him.
She tried to kick him under the table but he was too far away. The small intake of air from Cory told me that she’d caught his shin instead.
“He’s sitting alone out there, kinda looks like me but older?” The kid pointed vaguely through the door.
Cory looked up and scanned the canteen through the doorway, his nose twitching slightly.
“He’s the one that smells like cinnamon, parents probably bake,” he muttered.
“My dad does! So, it’s true? You’re modded? I thought that was just a rumour? It’s illegal, you know! What have you had done?” The kid looked around at us with a huge grin, his voice hushed as he leaned in conspiratorially.
What happened to keeping our mods low profile?
If the Council couldn’t find them no one can, we’re fine, Cas shot back.
“Kid, I’m sorry. We’re just trying to get some food before the assembly, can you give us five minutes?” Cas asked, smiling kindly.
“Oh, yeah… Sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you or anything. I just… I wanted you to know that not everyone thinks you’re war criminals or that you messed up or anything… Some of us know you did the right thing even though it was hard…”
The kid left, looking crestfallen.
“Ah, I feel like a dick. I know it wasn’t his fault but I’m just so done with the looks and whispers already.” Cas winced, rubbing the back of his neck.
“Well, you are a dick, Cas. But it is good to know that not everyone hates us? Just most of them,” Peggy replied matter-of-factly as she checked her wrist monitor.
I rubbed my wrist around the clunky metal cuff and screen subconsciously. We’d only just started wearing them again and it felt weird. We’d not worn them for the whole time we were in jail and the Council had taken their time in getting them back to us once we were released. Even though we’d had them for almost sixteen years before that, it was hard to get used to them again. The urge to rip it off my arm was too much sometimes. The tight, constant pressure felt too much like a handcuff. I suppressed a shudder and dropped my wrist to my lap, not wanting to continue that thought.
“You know… maybe you had a good point, Aries.”
I looked at her, confusion written on my face. Her light blue eyes were distant and moving constantly as if she was trying hard to piece something together.
“What was my point?” I asked finally.
She answered slowly, as if trying to make sense of her racing thoughts.
“They don’t know what happened. Not really. I mean, you’ve all read the Council bulletins too, right?”
I nodded, the other three doing the same.
We’d tried not to read them at first but we’d been stuck in our dorm with very little else to do for the last two weeks ever since we were released from the Council prison. They were… Well, I don’t need to tell you, you’ve probably read them.
“Exactly, they’re just lies. What if we told them what happened? Like… the truth?”
Peggy’s eyes flittered around the room as if looking for signs of Council cameras or spies listening in on our conversation. My heart felt like it slowed as I tried to wrap my head around what she had asked.
“We could do that…” Cas said slowly, mulling the idea over.
I bit the inside of my lip. We could… The Council would hate it though. We might be arrested again, probably would be arrested again. I truly thought that was the worst they could do. I was dumb. Now, I know better.
“We couldn’t publish it. Not properly. All media has to be approved by the Council before it’s released to the public,” I said quietly, my mind already made up.
“But what if we leaked it online… On the back channels? The Council would take it down but… I think enough people would share it and read it. It could work.”
“It could…” I confirmed, biting my lip.
“And then, at least people would know the truth. They’d know what the Council did… Things could be different.”
My heart leapt in fear as Peggy’s wrist monitor buzzed and she jumped, almost knocking over her drink as she read the message quickly with one hand placed over her racing heart.
“Oh no, Andy wants us in the main room before the assembly starts. I think he has something planned…”
I groaned loudly and dropped my head back. It was never good when the Director of our base had something planned, but it was better than I was worried about. For a minute there, I’d thought it was the Council issuing another warrant for our arrest.
“Right, let’s do this crew,” I ordered reluctantly, wanting to avoid what was about to happen but knowing that we couldn’t for long.
Everyone got up, Cas grabbing another burger and Gem grabbing a handful of chips for the walk.
“Pig,” I smirked at Cas, nudging him as he shoved half the burger into his mouth in one bite.
“What? I’ve only had three. Everyone knows intake day has the best food!” he managed around his mouthful.
I smiled at him, love and gratefulness that we were all still together racing through me. I’d missed them so much.
“We’ve been out of that Council prison for like two weeks and I still can’t get over how good the food here is. So much better than that mush we were living on. Has it always been this good?”
“Uhuh,” Cas grunted, the rest of his burger disappearing in his mouth.
I nudged him with my hip again, my hand brushing against his. I fought the urge to grab hold and not let go.
We should have gone through the hatches rather than through here, shouldn’t we? Gem asked, glancing around the room.
Probably, Cas thought back with a slight smirk.
The giant canteen was lined with tables, all filled with new recruits and older trainees and almost every single person was looking at us. I kept my eyes pointing forwards, feeling the weight of everyone’s eyes on us but not wanting to look around and confirm it. My hands began trembling again and I closed them into fists. I hated the attention, it made my skin itchy.
So, how many would you say think we’re evil like all the people who keep messaging us? Peggy asked.
Eh, I don’t think they think we’re evil. Idiots, maybe? Traitors definitely. Cory paused, looking around us. 50/50?
That is way too optimistic. 60/40? Gem replied her eyes scanning the canteen as we navigated the tables. I don’t think they think we’re idiots, look at how they’re staring. They absolutely think we’re bad people, maybe evil.
A kid turned in his chair to glare at us as we walked past, proving Gem’s point.
I smiled ruefully back at Gem. 80/20.
She threw her head back and laughed loudly, scaring some of the people sitting nearby. They whipped around and watched us with wide, fearful eyes.
Come on, let’s get to Andy before he does anything too terrible.
We travelled the rest of the way with Gem and Cas keeping up a steady stream of dumb jokes whilst the rest of us listened and avoided the boxy, silver servBots speeding between rooms, dropping off the new intake’s belongings into their various dorms. It relaxed me, somehow. Seeing the Bot speeding through the airy corridors and beeping loudly at each other made me feel like things were getting back to normal.
Shortcut? Cas asked, stopping outside a service hatch and gesturing with his head.
Always, I replied, placing my hand over the pad to unlock it. You would think the Council would’ve had Andy change the codes by now?
The hatch was barely noticeable from the outside. Just a keypad on the wall with the faint outline of a door but as soon as it was activated the door swept up into the ceiling and revealed the service corridors behind. They were much less light and spacious than the main corridors. The walls were mostly unpainted and thick pipes lines them but at least we rarely ran into people there. A few other trainees and tutors used them but it was mostly Bots. As long as you learnt to jump onto the pipes when a Bot rocketed towards you, it was fine.
Nah, you know he supports us. He wouldn’t change them, he knows how much we use them. Plus, we’d need them if anything happens again… Peggy replied, chewing her lip.
I felt my heart squeeze at the thought of us having to do it all again and my hands became slick with sweat. We wouldn’t be as lucky as we were last time, I knew that even then. We’d managed to convince the Council that we just made a mistake last time. They wouldn’t believe it again. Hells, they barely believed it the first time.
I took a deep breath, trying to keep myself from shuddering as the hatch shut behind us. Every time we went through a hatch now, I had flashbacks of sneaking through them towards our ship to try and save Irision, the weight of our decision to disregard the Council’s orders dragging us back. I breathed out another shaking breath, trying to keep my fear under control.
Everything will be fine, Arie. We won’t be ignored next time. Cas thought softly, his arm brushing purposefully against mine. Plus, I’d just hack another servBot to get the codes and then redo our chips.
He smiled at me reassuringly and I tried to smile back, wiping my damp hands on my dress uniform, trying to wipe off the oncoming panic attack too.
I looked around the faces of my crew, still noticeably haggard and exhausted after our experience with the Council and felt my face stretch into a true smile. Cas might have the crease between his eyebrows now and Gem might have constant bags under her eyes from not sleeping but at least we were together and back on base. The Council had no power there.
We’re together, nothing bad can happen, I thought dumbly to myself.
“No retreat,” I said, holding my fist out to the others.
They placed the corners of their knuckles against mine in a rough circle.
“No surrender!” they chorused back, their eyes shining with happiness.
“Okay, brace yourselves,” I warned as Peggy opened the hatch into the back of the Main Assembly Hall.