‘What are you going to do when you get back to Earth?’
Emily’s eyes lingered on mine while she waited for me to answer. I knew the question held more meaning to me than it would have appeared to others, and it took me a little by surprise. Fortunately, the only other person with us was Byron. Sophia and Jason were sleeping (for the first time in a long time, it seemed) and Grant and Clip were manning the cockpit together, despite their differences. Although they didn’t see eye to eye, they were at least able to maintain a level of professionalism enough to do their duty.
She was smiling, a cheeky glint catching in her eyes.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I haven’t really thought about it?’
‘Ok,’ Emily said, putting on an exaggerated pout. ‘If you’re going to be Mr. Grumpy Pants then I’ll ask Byron instead. Byron? What are you going to do when you get back to Earth?’
Byron shrugged, and said nothing.
‘Do you want to carry on with deep space missions? Normal ones, I mean?’ Emily added, giggling.
He shrugged again.
‘You two are useless!’ Emily said in shrill mockery.
I could see she was trying to cheer us all up, but I just didn’t have the energy to respond. The flame in her flickered then; I could see it in her eyes. I was being selfish, I realised, letting my own depressed state get in the way of my responsibilities as a crew member and a friend. Emily needed my attention—Byron too—and I was letting them both down. I tried again.
‘Ok, ok, I’ll answer. When I get back to Earth I’m going to quit the industry and start a farm.’ That seemed to get Byron’s attention, if only by the twitch of a hair.
‘A farm?’ Emily said, playing along. ‘What kind of farm?’
‘A pig farm. I’m going to raise pigs.’
I could see the beginnings of a smile at the corners of Byron’s mouth.
‘And how many pigs would you have?’
‘Yep. Goats, too.’
That was too much for Byron. He laughed explosively, clapping a hand to his mouth. ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’ he said, once his laughter had abated enough.
I pulled a face, pretending I was hurt. ‘Why? Every man has a right to a little farm of his own, especially ones full of elephants.’
‘And pigs,’ Emily added.
‘And goats,’ I said. ‘I might even have a tiger.’
‘A tiger?’ Emily shrieked. ‘It sounds like you want to open a zoo, not a farm!’
‘No,’ I said, ‘no, no, no. Because the difference is, you don’t eat the animals at a zoo. Fresh elephant burgers for everyone!’
We all laughed, and we were still laughing when Jason and Sophia wandered through from the bunks. They looked a lot better, fresher, although a latent fatigue still hung about them.
‘Afternoon,’ Jason said. ‘Good to hear you all laughing.’
Sophia smiled—although clearly without humour—and they walked on through to relieve Clip and Grant. Byron watched them, and as they left I could see the fun draining from him, and fast.
‘So what are you going to do, Byron?’ I said quickly, trying to snatch his attention back.
He looked at his hands as he fiddled with them, and shrugged again. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess find some kind of work planet-side.’ He stroked his wrists absently, fingers playing over the lines of pink scar tissue. ‘I don’t think I’d be able to come back to space, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t,’ he added.
‘Why don’t you want to come back to space?’ Emily asked. ‘It’s beautiful.’
Still looking down, Byron pulled a face. ‘I’m not cut out for it I guess.’
‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘You’ve been an asset to the team. Don’t let what’s happened here make you think otherwise. These have been exceptional circumstances, and you’ve dealt with them very well, I have to say.’
‘Not as well as you two.’
I took a moment before I spoke next. I wanted to phrase my words carefully. ‘We all have our different ways of coping. It’s been hard for all of us, and just because you don’t see anything happening on the outside of us doesn’t mean there isn’t anything happening on the inside.’
At that moment I felt Emily’s hand on mine. I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me the most heart-warming smile. I squeezed her hand gently, and she squeezed back. If Byron had noticed, he didn’t show it.
‘We’re all doing well because we work as a team,’ I added. ‘And that includes you, Byron.’
He allowed himself a grin, and he pulled his knees to his chest. ‘Do you mean that?’
‘I mean it.’
There was shuffling in the corridor, and we turned to see Clip and Grant ambling in. They seemed a bit more relaxed—albeit tired—a good sign, considering. Perhaps the time together had been a good opportunity for them to work things through. I went to pull my hand from Emily’s but she gripped tight, and I relaxed. She was probably right—who, in this situation, would have means to complain? I saw Grant’s attention drawn and his body stiffen—but only for a moment. Clip didn’t seem to care, if he noticed at all. He flopped clumsily into a seat and Grant placed himself down next to him.
‘I see you two have kissed and made up,’ Emily said.
‘We’re actually engaged now,’ Clip said, unmoving from his ridiculous slouch.
‘We’ve been planning the wedding,’ Grant added. ‘I’ve chosen lilies for the decoration. Traditionally a funeral flower, I’ll admit, but they smell so fragrant I simply have to have them.’ He laughed, we laughed. He laughed a little harder and a little longer than was comfortable. When he was done, he pointed to our interlinked hands and said, ‘So how long has this being going on for?’
‘Long enough,’ Emily said, her grip tightening further.
Grant nodded. ‘Does Jason know? Sophia?’
‘We—’ I began, but Grant cut in almost immediately.
‘Relationships on board are prohibited; you know that.’ His face had hardened, his head pulled back into his neck in a way that made him look like an agitated tortoise.
‘It’s none of your business,’ Clip said, sitting up. ‘Don’t you even worry about it. Besides, with everything that’s happened, I’m sure we could all do with a bit of romance.’ He stroked Grant’s arm, and Grant laughed, pulling away from him.
We all laughed, if anything to clear the air of the awkwardness fogging it up. The laughter was overtly bright, but it seemed to do the trick. I realised I had been squeezing Emily’s hand quite hard in return, and I relaxed. Emily stroked me with her thumb, and I relaxed a little more. Evidently, the whole back and forth had made me pretty tense.
That being said, the rest of the evening was fairly pleasant, making a change from the sombre, quiet affairs we’d become used to. By the time we went to bed, Emily had her arm around me and mine around her; even the warmth of her body against mine staved away the chill of death from my soul, a feat that a week ago seemed impossible. As we retired to our bunks, I realised I hadn’t answered her question from earlier. What was I going to do when we got back to Earth? Would Emily be a part of it? At this stage, I honestly didn’t know if we were simply seeking each other’s comfort during a difficult time or if we were genuinely falling for one another. I found it hard to believe—from her perspective at least—in the latter, but the thought of spending time with her after our return to Earth made my heart flutter. I smiled to myself in the dark. I couldn’t help it.
I awoke later to a cold chill. The faint linger of a dream almost forgotten teased my eyes in the black, and as reality overcame it I realised I had kicked my blanket off. I drew it back over myself, and as I did, I was hit suddenly and annoyingly with a strong urge to pee. At first I tried to ignore it, giving my warming body a chance to reconsider, but it was no use. I had to go. According to Jason and his pairs ruling I would need to wake someone to come with me, but that—that seemed unnecessary. I was only going to sanitary room, one room along. What’s the worst that could happen?
The thought of the worse that could happen gave me a chill, which exacerbated my need to go, so I slipped out of bed before I changed my mind. The floor was cold and hard on my bare soles, the slap of skin on metal unnecessarily loud, even though I did my best to mute it. I hated the sound: it was too visceral, too primeval, and it reminded me too much of the delicacy of the fleshy sac of my body. Already I wished I’d brought that stunner with me, but for some reason I found the idea of going back harder than moving on. So I moved on. I arrived and did my business without incident, and was cleansing my hands with a wipe when I heard the tell-tale slap-slap-slap of another pair of feet approaching. I froze, skin tingling, pulse rhythmically thudding in my ears. I was trapped, I knew it; there was nothing I could do. The slap-slap-slap grew louder and the curtains into the room separated. First one foot emerged, then a leg, then a torso, and finally—Grant. Under the dimmed night-time lights, his features cast shadows that made him a distorted caricature of himself, and the purpose in his eyes told me with gut-wrenching immediacy that his presence here was not merely a coincidence.
He stopped just inside the room, playing with his hands like he didn’t know what to do with them. ‘Can we talk?’ he said.
I struggled to find my voice, and when I did it emerged hoarse and strangled. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘You gave me quite a fright.’
He smiled apologetically, looking down as he prodded at the floor with his toes. He reminded me of Byron when we’d had our first one-to-one chat together in this very room. ‘Sorry,’ he said, almost sheepishly. ‘I was awake anyway, and figured this would be the only chance to talk to you alone. Besides,’ he said, looking up at me, ‘were supposed to stay in pairs, right?’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘So,’ he said, ‘I was really hoping we could talk about, ah . . . you know . . .’ He gave the floor a kick, tipped his head back and screwed his eyes shut, blinking when he opened them again. There was some kind of inward struggle going on in there, about what I was sure I was about to find out. ‘God, why is this so hard?’ he said, finally.
‘Is this about Emily?’
Her name seemed to make him flinch. He nodded.
‘I’m betting this isn’t about ship rules, is it?’ My thrumming pulse hadn’t yet abated; if anything it was beating steadily faster.
‘So tell me.’
He sighed, ambling in a nonsensical pattern until he sat himself down on one of the toilet units. Elbows on knees, he dropped his head into his hands. ‘She’s really wonderful,’ he said, and sighed again. ‘I—I’ve known her a while.’
‘You’ve served with her before?’
He nodded, a clumsy feat with his head nestled in his palms. ‘I met her at medical training a half-year before we left Earth.’
Suddenly he sat bolt upright. ‘Well, that’s just it. Nothing happened.’
I didn’t quite follow. ‘Nothing? You mean she—she rejected you?’
‘I wish. I didn’t even have the courage to ask. I kept telling myself that relationships were against the rules, and at the end of the training I’d ask her out to dinner. But when the last day came, I bottled up. Now you come along and it’s all over.’
‘I don’t really know what to tell you,’ I said. I didn’t.
‘I guess so. It’s just’—he clenched, then relaxed—’it’s just I don’t know what to do, you know?’
‘Sure, I know.’
He stood and wiped his nose, sniffing. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.’
‘Thank you. Well, we should probably get some sleep. Are you coming?’ He gestured to the curtain.
‘Yeah, I’m coming.’
We went back to bed. I’m not sure either of us slept. The conversation came back to me the next morning when I found Grant in the rec room with the others. He was sat opposite rather than next to Emily, and he gave me a pursed-lipped nod as I entered. I returned it, my face probably as tight as his. He said little as the rest of us chatted, settling in for a day of boredom and nothing to do. It struck me that, as I remembered the feeling of being trapped by the death of Sadie, that we had managed to achieve, as a group, a level of contentment in our situation, and the resilience of the human psyche astounded me once again. I just hoped Grant’s psyche had the same capability for acceptance and adaptation when it came to Emily.
We stayed in our group for the rest of the morning, and as early afternoon rolled in, I found myself yawning with greater and greater frequency.
‘Tired?’ Clip asked, as I stifled another deep yawn.
‘Yeah. Didn’t get much sleep last night.’
‘I’m pretty tired, too,’ Clip said. ‘If you want to catch up on some rest I’m happy to pair with you in the bunks.’
I was about to tell him not to worry about it when another great yawn swept over me, leaving me woozy and heavy-lidded. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘That’d be good.’
We said our see-you-laters and made our way to the bunks. I was so tired I flopped in as I was, shoes and all, and Clip, from last I remember, was propped up reading his e-reader. Before long he had faded into black, and time stood still.
I awoke with a start, a deep-seated feeling of dread gurgling in the pit of my stomach. Clip was already up, in his underwear, staring down the corridor towards the galley.
‘Did you just hear something?’ I said, still disorientated from interrupted sleep.
I sat upright in an instant, any last trace of drowsiness gone. ‘Are you sure?’
He nodded, cold stare fixed on the curtains. I was about to leap up and run out of the room, when I realised what it was that was keeping Clip pinned to the spot, because it hit me, too. I knew what had happened already. I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to see it. The whole while we stayed here, it wasn’t true, wasn’t confirmed; as soon as we left, reality would kick us down with a cold, hard boot.
‘We need to go,’ Clip said, as though he’d read my mind. ‘We really need to go.’ He was right—there was no point delaying the inevitable. I got up and we walked, rather than ran, and as the curtains separated we heard more yelling. That struck me as odd—why was there still yelling?
‘This is something else,’ I muttered to myself, and picked up into a jog. Clip, behind me, followed suit. As we entered the rec room, the sight stopped me in my tracks. On the floor was Grant, struggling against Byron who was on top of him, fingers wrapped around his neck. Grant’s eyes bulged and his face was a deep red, rippling with thick veins. Emily stood over Byron, slapping him as hard as she could, although he didn’t seem to notice.
‘Get off him!’ she screamed, thumping him on the back over and over.
Jason and Sophia arrived from the other direction, looking grim. The look turned to horror as they saw what was happening. We all in that instant—and it was an instant, mere seconds having passed since we’d got here—leaped on Byron to try and pull him off. His strength was shocking, doubling with every effort we took to free him from Grant. Eventually he gave, and he yelled, clawing at Grant as we rolled backwards. Immediately Jason was on top of him, slamming his flailing limbs onto the deck to restrain him. ‘Emily,’ he grunted under the strain of keeping Byron still, who was bucking and thrashing beneath him, ‘tend to Grant. Sophia, get the restraints.’
They did as they were told with urgent immediacy. Clip and I, now off and away from Byron, stood back, catching our breath, dumbed by the prevailing scene in front of us. Grant was unconscious, and Emily worked quickly over him, checking and poking and listening with frantic movements. His colour had already returned almost to normal, but the veins in his temple and forehead still protruded in a most grotesque way. Byron had finished struggling under Jason’s weight; the heavy sound of his restricted breathing was the only noise in the room.
Sophia returned with wrist clamps, and together she and Jason bound him up. He didn’t struggle, and without a word they walked him out and towards to the tow dock. I stood back to let them past, and when I did, Byron spoke to me, eyes wide and red.
‘He was trying to take Emily from you,’ he said in a frantic whisper. ‘I wanted to stop him.’
And that was it. I watched them walk away until they had disappeared between the flaps of the curtains into the bunks, and then I watched the curtains sway until they stopped. ‘Will he be ok?’ I said to no one, looking at no one.
‘He’ll be ok,’ Emily said. ‘No permanent damage thankfully.’
‘Good,’ I said, although I’m not sure if I meant it. I’m not sure what I meant. The others—besides Jason and Sophia—hadn’t heard what he’d said to me, and when Jason and Sophia returned, Jason asked me to come with them to the cockpit. I followed without protest. Emily looked worried.
None of us sat in the cockpit, and none of us even spoke for a while. I could sense that neither Jason nor Sophia really knew what to do, and the first sound any of us made was Sophia sighing. ‘What’s all this about you and Emily?’ she asked, hands on hips.
I shrugged. ‘It’s nothing.’
Sophia cocked her head. She didn’t believe it. I didn’t expect her to.
‘Ok—it’s something. Nothing serious, though.’
‘It shouldn’t be anything at all, serious or otherwise.’
I hung my head. Sophia was, after all, right. She turned away from me and rubbed her forehead, then smoothed her hair before turning back to me.
‘This isn’t your fault,’ she said. ‘I want you to know that.’
That took me by surprise. I didn’t know what to say, and I don’t think Sophia wanted me to say anything.
‘We’ve known—we’ve all known—that Byron’s a live wire, but this . . .’ She shook her head disbelievingly. ‘This is the last thing we expected.’
‘What do we do now?’ I asked.
‘What is there to do but survive?’ she whispered despondently.
Jason, who’d been staring absent-mindedly at a console of dimly-lit buttons, turned to us both. ‘There’s still a chance we can make this,’ he said, although he didn’t sound convinced.
‘What chance?’ I said.
His mouth twitched, and he took a deep breath. ‘Enough.’
Jason sat, swinging himself back and forth as he stared into the distance. ‘We’ve just got to make it to HD 85512 B and then we’ll be okay.’
I wasn’t sure I really followed, and judging from Sophia’s frown, she didn’t either. ‘What do you mean?’ she said, putting our simultaneous thoughts into words.
‘I mean we leave him.’ The distant look had grown hazy, almost dream-like.
‘Sure, something should be done,’ I spluttered, ‘but this? This is madness!’
Sophia’s frown had become an angry glare. ‘Why would you even suggest that, Jason?’
Jason looked between us, his expression frank and sincere. I realised at once what he was thinking. ‘You believe it was Byron, don’t you?’ I whispered. ‘You think Byron killed the others.’
‘That’s ridiculous!’ Sophia shouted from between gritted teeth. ‘You’ve got no proof! You can’t . . . you can’t simply leave him behind!’
‘What other choice do we have?’ Jason snapped, taking both Sophia and me by surprise. ‘You think it’s one of the others? Really? You think it could be anyone else but Byron?’
‘I don’t know who it is,’ Sophia said quietly. ‘But I don’t know that it is Byron, either, and we can’t punish him for what we can’t prove.’
‘You need more proof than what happened out there?’ Jason hissed, leaning forward, clawing his hands in frustration. ‘Don’t you see that we have no other choice?’
‘I get that you’re scared,’ Sophia said. ‘We’re all scared. Byron is scared. And even if Byron did do . . . all that, that’s no reason to leave him behind to die.’
Jason sat back, pouting, and sniffed. ‘Fine. If that’s what you think. Jake? I take it you feel the same?’
‘Okay then. So be it. Jake—you can go. Leave. Now. You too, Sophia.’
‘But—’ Sophia started.