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Hello, and welcome to Work in Progress, my blog about the books I write. If you’re looking for Noah’s Ark, you can get that for free here, and if you want to read Vessel, you can download it from Amazon here. If you want to read chapters of my next book, New Dawn, you can do so below or you can pick a chapter from the contents on the right (or at the bottom on mobile).

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 29

Why? Why did Byron try to kill me?

It was a question etched on my brain, and it wouldn’t rub off. Jason surmised that perhaps Byron was a member of a terrorist cell working for the gathering armies in the unprotected zones; after all, he had the ins through his father, and we’d seen how precise his mind could be when he applied it. In the wrong hands, he could be a deadly weapon. Another option was that he was a renegade, masterminding a destructive plan simply to get back at the father that scorned him all these years. They were perfectly reasonable explanations, but they weren’t enough; I wanted to confront Byron himself, ask him the questions, but aside from Jason’s advice to stay away from him, I knew I would not get the answers I sought.

Still the question irked me, gnawing like a buried tick. Thanks to Emily’s sleeping pills I was able to sleep—with just a week to go until we landed I needed the energy—but the sleep was restless, dreamless and ultimately unfulfilling. Even through the numbing effects of the pills, the question plagued me. It grew roots, sprouting further questions, turning me rotten with its probing tendrils. Why did he try to kill me? Why hadn’t I died? Why was I the lucky one where the other three had paid the ultimate price? Even though I knew these questions, if presented to Byron, would get no response worth the effort, I still wanted to do it. But I resisted. I resisted because of one simple fact: Byron had never told me a single truth.

Well, maybe he had, but I could never know. So thick and fast were his lies that the truth became muddied by them, making even the most stark and plain truth stained with the putridity of his deceit. I thought back to the day we’d first met, our early conversations on board; what a fool he’d made of us, of me. If I was asked to describe his character, to write a sheet picking up on his key traits, you’d have one of two things: a list of contradictions or a blank page. There were times when I’d felt touched by Byron’s candour, angered by his suffering, and it made me feel ashamed to have been so gullible. I could see myself now, being led by the stories, the lies, and I wanted to scream at myself to stop and see what was being done to me. I’d stood by him when he’d got in trouble with James when I should have seen the truth for what it was. Perhaps, then, I was responsible for his death with my actions; perhaps I was responsible for all their deaths for my inaction. It was a train of thought I didn’t want to be aboard, one that I knew would soon derail with catastrophic consequences. I tried to console myself, convince myself that I could have had no way of knowing, that the chocolate bar and the e-reader could well have been part of the plan in the beginning, a ruse to determine who would side with him and who wouldn’t, who he could trust, and who he couldn’t, who was gullible enough to fall for his tricks and who wasn’t . . . but it was no use—the thought still haunted me.

I counted down the days until our descent, trying to busy myself with menial tasks and light-hearted conversation, but the tick continued to burrow, the roots continued to unfurl, and I realised that I was committed to only one thing: leaving Byron behind. And what of Istanbul Angel? Sure, even thinking the name brought a chill to my blood, but what was done was done. Unlike Byron, he posed no threat to me. I still secretly revelled at the fact that we would be leaving Angel out here on a godforsaken planet, but I feared that there might be a chance of bringing Byron back again. Even if I thought there was a modicum of a chance that it wasn’t true, it made me feel sick to my stomach to even contemplate the risk. Eight months had got us this far, and three people had died—I could only imagine what another eight months would bring.

Six nights became five, which then become four, three, two and finally, one, but I still hadn’t faced him. The planet HD 85512 B and its star Gliese 370, loomed large on our computer screens; soon we would see them with our own eyes. None of us could sleep on that last night, even though we ought to have been. In just fourteen hours we would be setting foot on the planet’s surface, the first beings ever to do so, but still it felt so distant. We’d been here on the Athena for a long time, and the prospect of a change of scenery seemed almost unbelievable, no matter how inhospitable. We gathered in the rec room—apart from Byron, who was still detained in the tow dock, and Jason and Sophia, who were manning the cockpit, presumably as fired up and jittery as we were. Where usually we would be distracting ourselves with games, books or whatever other hobbies we had to keep ourselves entertained, we all sat in near silence, the same contemplative look mirrored on our faces. The usual appearance of smuggled alcohol and the whooping and high-fiving that accompanied it on the final night before landing was nowhere to be seen. This was no time for celebrating.

‘Do you think what we’re doing’s right?’ Clip said, speaking as though he were thinking out loud. It took a while for someone to respond. Grant.

‘What choice do we have?’

I shifted. The phrase tugged at my ear whenever I heard it, and I seemed to be hearing it way too often. ‘We don’t,’ I said, saying it and thinking it as Clip had presumably done. ‘We have no choice.’

‘There’s always a choice,’ Emily said. She said it firmly, but not without feeling. ‘But some choices are easier than others.’

‘Are you saying this choice is easy?’ Clip asked, a mild hint of irritation to his question.

‘The easy choice isn’t necessarily the wrong choice.’

We all thought about that for a while, or at least, I tried, then fell into a thoughtless stupor.

‘There’s still time, you know,’ Clip added eventually, continuing the conversation like the long pause had never happened. ‘To stop it, I mean.’

‘Why would we stop it?’ Grant said. He turned to Clip, the first attempt at eye contact in a long time. He wore an expression of suspicion. ‘What difference does it make to you?’

Clip dusted some imaginary crumb from his thigh with the back of his hand, watching it fall rather than maintaining Grant’s stare. ‘A guilt-free conscience, I suppose.’

‘Guilt free?’ said Grant, now leaning forward to grip an imaginary ball tight between his hands. ‘We’re doing the world a favour!’

‘Maybe,’ Clip said, shrugging. ‘Maybe not.’

Grant flopped back, exasperated.

‘Have you ever heard of the expression, don’t shoot the messenger?’ Emily asked casually.

‘Sure,’ Clip said, nodding. I nodded too. Grant smiled a smug smile—he already knew where this was going.

‘Would you say the messenger that delivered a death warrant was a guilty of murder as the man who decreed it? What about the man who swings the axe? Is he the most guilty of all?’

Clip digested the question, chewing his lips as he thought. ‘They all play a part,’ he said finally.

‘Then what about the messenger’s wife, who gives the messenger his breakfast before he goes to work? What about the man with the axe? Does the person who sells him his axe have a guilty conscience, too? Their actions all partake in the eventual death of somebody.’

‘I—’ Clip started, then stopped. He sighed. ‘I suppose not.’

‘How far down the chain do you have to be before the guilt washes away?’

Clip didn’t have to answer. I could tell by his face that he knew he was beaten. ‘What about Byron?’ he said, a last attempt at swinging the conversation his way.

‘He’s ready to right his wrongs,’ I found myself saying. The others all looked at me, and I could feel my cheeks flushing. ‘He knows what’s going to happen.’

A tap from the doorway turned our attention to Jason, who was leaning against the open arch between the rec room and the briefing room. ‘Initial approach is in six hours,’ he said softly. ‘You should probably all get some rest.’ He waited until we stood, one by one, and just before he left he caught my eye and gave me a sad, sympathetic smile. He looked as tired as I felt, and I realised that he wanted what I wanted most of all: to go home. I smiled back.

I took a couple of Emily’s pills before I went to bed. I was tired, yes, but my mind was racing, and I knew a night without them would be worse than not sleeping at all. Nevertheless, I lay awake for what felt like hours, staring at the sagging underside of Emily’s bunk above. The more I stared, the clearer it became, night vision settling in fuzzy and colourless. ‘Emily,’ I whispered.

‘Uhhh?’ Emily drawled back.

‘Are you still awake?’

‘Uh-huh. Are you?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. Then it was quiet again, at least for a moment. ‘Emily?’

‘Uh-huh?’

‘What are you going to do when you get back to Earth?’

At first, there was no response, but then I heard her shifting across the bunk, the drooping base springing up and down. Her face appeared over the edge, dimly lit by the low lighting in the room. Her hair, tied up in a bun above her head, had spilled out over one side, leaving long strands hanging across her face.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘What are you going to do?’

I shrugged. I could barely even remember what being at home was like. What memories I could conjure felt like someone else’s, forgeries that had no place in my head. ‘Look for more work I guess . . .’

‘With Planexus?’

‘If they’ll have me.’ What else was I supposed to do? Jobs weren’t exactly flowing at the moment, after all.

‘Do you think they’ll make us keep all this a secret?’

I hadn’t really thought about it, but now I did, I wondered why it hadn’t already occurred to me. ‘I guess so.’

‘Do you think you can keep it a secret? I mean, it’s pretty big stuff, pretty sensitive.’

‘I—I suppose so. I presume I’ll have to sign something.’

Emily sighed. ‘This would have been a lot easier if we didn’t know.’

She wasn’t wrong. ‘Things would have been a lot different if Byron wasn’t on board,’ I said. ‘He started all this.’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right. Shoulda woulda coulda.’

Oh, what we could have done with the benefit of hindsight. Sadie would be alive, for one thing. ‘What are you going to do when we get back?’ I asked, trying to steer my mind from Sadie.

‘I really don’t know. My medical training’s quite flexible. Perhaps I’ll do some work with one of those charities that helps people who can’t afford insurance.’

‘The pay won’t be as good.’

Emily grinned. ‘I know, but it’ll help ease my conscience.’

I snorted a quiet laugh. ‘Tell me about it.’ I could feel my smile fade as another thought, one I wanted to keep to myself yet simultaneously shout out, crept to the surface. ‘Do you still want to, you know . . . date when we get back?’

Emily’s grin spread further. I’m not sure, but it almost seemed forced, like her eyes weren’t matching it. ‘Sure,’ she said. She held the grin, but still her eyes betrayed her. It wasn’t dread or disappointment they held—it was sadness. I chose to ignore it. For now, at least. I changed the subject.

‘I’m looking forward to leaving New Dawn behind, that’s for certain.’

Emily’s mile faded, and her eyes became distant, as the idea were only every going to be a purely theoretical concept. ‘Amen to that.’

We lingered for a little while, watching each other, and I could feel my eyelids getting heavy. ‘I’m going to get some sleep now,’ I whispered, half awake, half asleep. ‘I love you.’

‘I love you, too.’

That was the last thing I heard that night.

The next morning when I awoke, I could already sense a hum of activity aboard the ship. I had overslept, the two pills knocking me out cold once I’d finally managed to drop off. I scrambled up, hurriedly got washed and dressed, and lumbered into the rec room, which was empty. Voices up ahead told me the briefing room housed my companions, so I wandered on further.

‘Ah, Jake,’ Jason said. He was standing at the opposite end, addressing the others, who were sat around him. Byron was there too, unshackled, paying attention. No one was sat next to him. ‘Come join us.’

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I mumbled, stifling a yawn.

‘That’s fine, don’t worry about it. Let’s sit down so we can get started.’

I chose a spot a seat away from Byron, giving him a hasty glance. He wasn’t looking at me; his gaze was fixed on Jason.

‘Okay,’ Jason continued. ‘We’ve begun initial landing procedures, which will bring us to the five-hour mark of the approach. From there, I’ll need Emily and Sophia manning the cockpit with Grant and Clip. I’ll be with Byron’—the name made a few of us shuffle nervously—’and Jake, hang back until we’re down. We should put metal on rock in about eight hours’ time. Any questions?’

Grant had one. He spoke quickly, as if he thought he would get in trouble for asking. ‘I heard there was another ship on this mission—is that true, and will we be rendezvousing with it at any point?’

I had forgotten about that. I recalled Grant mentioning it ages ago in the rec room to a group of us and how I had dismissed it as his usual nonsense. I expected Jason to do the same, but instead he looked surprised. How do you know that? his eyes seemed to say, but after a moment the look was gone. ‘No. It’s a decoy. A drone-piloted craft. It probably won’t survive the landing.’

‘Okay—thanks,’ Grant said. He looked almost as surprised as Jason did; he probably hadn’t believed the information either. None of us had. The revelation left us all quietly blank.

‘No more questions?’ Jason asked the group. ‘No? Great. Once we’re down, we’ll reconvene here for a ground ops brief, and then we’ll get cracking. Thank you all, and good luck.’

With that sign-off, everyone stood—with the exception of Byron and myself—and headed to their relevant stations. Once the movement had settled, just myself, Byron and Jason remained in the briefing room. It was strange; this was the room I’d spent so much time in with Sadie and Byron, yet now it seemed like a completely different place. I had trouble picturing us sitting around, doing calculations, laughing and joking, Sadie getting wound up with Byron and me mucking around. I longed to be back there, not just because Sadie would still be alive, but because my heart and my mind felt lighter, less weighed down with the intensity that clogged them up now. I was almost naive back then, but I didn’t resent feeling like that—I missed it.

‘Jake, feel free to get yourself some breakfast if you want,’ Jason said, sitting himself down near Byron. ‘I’ve got this.’

I nodded thanks, and stood. ‘Can I get you anything?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ Jason said. Byron said nothing.

I wandered back to the galley, through the empty rec room. It had been tidied, the old cups and e-readers and other bits that had become a familiar part of the furniture all packed away ready for the mission to truly begin. I had a strange pang in my chest that told me—even though I knew this would continue to be my home for a very long time yet—that nothing would quite be the same again. I stopped for a minute, looking around, imagining each person sat in the seat that had become theirs. James and Brendan, they would sit together in the corner nearest to me, talking together in low voices or snoring like buzzsaws. Byron, he would be curled up in the opposite corner, either listening to one of Clip’s ridiculous tales or burying his nose into a computer game, tongue poking out the corner of his mouth. Clip and Grant, the friends who would never admit that they were friends, would be sat one seat apart just to my right, arguing, and Sadie, she split them and Byron up, one eye on her needlepoint darting up and down, the other on Byron, keeping him out of mischief. Emily, she sat the other side of Grant and Clip, occasionally wading into their arguments when they got too ridiculous, and Sophia, when she was here she sat a seat down from me, keeping herself to herself. I couldn’t really place Jason—he always seemed to stand when he was in here with us.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and walked on, the ghosts of our journey here melting back into the steel plate of the Athena’s hull. Could it be, when we returned, that I would actually miss this place? I realised it would be hard not to. Despite everything, I’d made some good friends—and beyond—and we’d done more than just complete the mission—we’d survived it. It was a bond unbreakable. I’d heard of military platoons that had formed a similar bond in warfare, and it was something time could not weather away.

In the galley I made myself some porridge, something warm and filling to keep me going through what was likely to be a long day. I didn’t want to go back into the rec room, and I certainly didn’t want to go into the briefing room, so I headed towards the bunks. Once I reached them, I continued through and into the sanitation room and on into the tow dock. I was unsurprised to see all Byron’s blankets and things tidied up, although I could still smell a hint of the muskiness that had formed here with his constant presence. I turned back, changing my mind, and went to sit in the rec room, alone.

Chapter 28

Talking with Byron usually had a habit of leaving me emotionally roiled, but this time more so than any other. I sat on my bunk for a while, careful not to wake Clip and Grant (although Clip’s snoring probably would’ve woken them if they were going to be woken), thinking over what had just been said. Was I doing this purely for selfish reasons? Should I let Byron take the punishment expected of him? He seemed to want it, that much was sure, but I couldn’t convince myself he wanted it for the right reasons. Poor kid—all he ever wanted to do was be loved, and here he was, trying to get it by giving his father what he always wanted: his own death. I clenched my fists, feeling my nails dig into my palms as I stymied my outrage. Why couldn’t he see? Why couldn’t Byron understand that he didn’t need to do this to himself? He and Jason, they were two completely different people, but formed from very similar circumstances. Perhaps, I wondered, there would be some common ground to approach Jason on, make him see sense? But Jason was set, this was part of the plan, and to change it was unthinkable. I would have to resort to a different method of retaliation.

Suddenly, the days we had left until landing seemed very short indeed. I was only drawing blanks, unable to see a solution where we could all go home and everyone could live. If Jason came back, Byron would have stay behind; if Byron came back, I saw no way for Jason to as well. It was a stalemate, so stale I could taste the stench on the back of my tongue.

Emily was probably alone in the rec room, so I made my way over to talk with her about it. She was a sensible, level-headed person, perhaps she might have an answer. I was surprised to find Sophia instead, alone and reading a book, legs hooked up underneath herself as she scanned the page.

‘Where’s Emily?’ I asked.

Sophia looked up from her e-reader. ‘She’s running through some landing drills with Jason,’ she said, then returned to her reading.

I sat down, rubbed my hands together, started to whistle then stopped when Sophia flashed me a glare. I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do and I needed to speak with Emily. ‘Do you know when she’ll be done?’

Sophia dropped the e-reader to her lap. ‘Another hour or so I expect.’ She waited for a second, presumably seeing if I had any follow-up questions, then raised the e-reader again. A couple of hours. A couple of hours to kill until I could talk with Emily. It was going to be agony. I considered making myself something to eat, but the thought of eating made me nauseated. I drummed my fingers on my knees, alternating from left to right, and right to left, and sometimes with no pattern at all.

‘You shouldn’t be in a relationship, you know,’ Sophia said out of the blue. I stopped tapping and looked up to see her e-reader on the seat next to her, her arms folded and her legs crossed.

‘I know,’ I said simply, nothing else I wanted to add.

‘It’s against company policy.’

‘I know.’

‘You should end it.’

I didn’t respond. Sophia watched my for a while, considered me, and I felt exposed, vulnerable. Then she returned to her book and I was free of her x-ray stare.

The two hours came and went quicker than I had anticipated, and I was dozing in front of my own e-reader when a familiar voice greeted me alongside a thwack on the arm that jolted me awake. ‘Hey, stranger.’

‘Oh, hey.’ I rubbed the bleariness from my eyes and set the e-reader aside, sitting up properly so Emily could sit beside me. I could feel Sophia’s burning gaze from the other side of the room, but I chose to ignore it, and Emily didn’t seem to notice. ‘Drills go well?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. She was grinning ear to ear and her cheeks were flushed pink, as if she’d been out in the cold. ‘It was really good fun.’

‘Good fun?’ I said sarcastically. ‘Wow, that’s a pair of words I haven’t heard together for a long while.’

‘You’re forgetting the other night,’ Emily said in a low voice, then winked. I could feel myself flushing, and I looked to Sophia only to see that she had already gone.

‘You’re embarrassing me,’ I mumbled, sounding stupid even to me.

‘Good,’ Emily said, poking her tongue out. ‘And I’ll bet this makes you even more embarrassed.’ She cupped her breasts through her coverall, lifting them one at a time while humming a tune to the rhythm of her movements.

‘Emily, I—’ I began, but she pushed herself on me, trying to kiss me. I held her back, craning my head out of the way.

‘No need to be embarrassed,’ she said grinning, trying to move forward again. I resisted.

‘Emily, please, we need to talk.’

She sat back, her grin extinguished. ‘About what?’

‘About Byron.’

She folded her arms, sighing. ‘Why do we have to talk about Byron again?’

‘You know why,’ I said, trying to impress the importance of the situation with my tone without raising my voice.

‘Look, I spoke to Jason about it—’

‘You did what?’

‘I spoke to Jason about it, and he’s okay about it all.’

‘I can’t believe—’

‘He said he thought something like this would happen. Jake, Byron’s a compulsive liar, you know that. He feeds, he manipulates. That’s what he does. He can spin any lie on the spot and have you hook, line and sinker in a minute or less.’

‘But, his brother, he—’

‘Jason thought Byron might try that one on you. He doesn’t have a brother, he never has.’

‘But—’

‘I checked, Jake. Jason told me.’

I was stunned. I didn’t—couldn’t—find any words to say. Instead, mouth hanging open, I made a long, wheezing breathy sound that made it seem like I was deflating. Probably because I was. ‘I don’t know what to do anymore,’ I said after I had finished deflating. ‘I . . . I just don’t know . . .’

‘Hey, it’s alright,’ Emily said, wrapping her arms around me. ‘It’s alright . . .’

She held me while I gathered my thoughts until I knew what I needed to do. ‘I have to speak to Jason.’

‘Okay,’ Emily said, letting me go. ‘If that’s what you need to do.’

I did. I headed towards the cockpit, the long, narrow corridor swirling in front of me. How I made it there I don’t know—it was as though I had begun the journey and ended it, but I didn’t remember the middle. ‘Jason,’ I said. ‘We need to talk. Just you and me.’

Jason, who was mid-sentence with Sophia, turned to face me. ‘Sure, Jake, we can talk. Sophia?’ Sophia nodded and headed out of the cockpit. She didn’t look at me as she passed, and when she was gone, Jason spoke again. ‘Emily told me you’ve been talking to Byron.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Probably best you don’t do that anymore.’

‘How can I trust you?’

‘Did Emily tell you about Byron’s brother?’

‘She did.’

Jason slapped his hands against his sides. ‘Let me show you something.’ He approached a cabinet and dug out a tablet from the back. ‘Crew logs,’ he said, waving it at me. ‘Got Byron’s right here. He did have a brother, one Daniel Ash, but he died during childbirth. So did his mother.’

Jason handed me the tablet, and I took it, hands trembling a little. On the screen was a GA docket, a government form assigned to every member of the Administration. Sure enough, under siblings, was the comment, Brother, 1, Daniel J. Ash, and the date of his birth and death. The date of the death corresponded with the date of his mother’s death, too. I stared at the docket until Jason held out a hand for its return, which I did without resistance. The whole world had stopped, everything outside of this little room waiting for whatever was going to happen next. A screaming whine filled my ears, flushing my mind of thought. ‘I . . .’ I began, but did not finish.

‘You’re a good guy,’ Jason said, setting the tablet down. ‘And I need you. I need your head in the game. We’ve got a mission to fulfil and lives to save. Can I count on you?’

I found myself nodding.

‘Good,’ Jason said, smiling. ‘That’s good.’

‘Can I count on you?’ I said, almost taking myself by surprise. Jason’s smile dropped for a second, as if the question needed extra willpower to compute, then it returned, brighter than before.

‘Of course you can. That’s what I’m here for.’

‘And Byron? He really did what he said he did?’

The smile saddened. ‘He says he did. He insists he did. And I’m afraid all the evidence points that way as well.’

‘Evidence?’

For a moment Jason looked as though he was about to cry. He wiped his mouth, then smoothed his hair back, his eyes going distant. Then focus came back to him, bringing him back to the room. ‘Before I say anything further, I want to let you know that everything I’ve held back from you I’ve done for your own good. We have a delicate situation on board, you know that more than any of us, and I have to make difficult decisions on how to manage problems as they arise. I may not have made the right decision every time, but you can be damn well sure I did it with the best interests of the crew in my heart. You’re a bright man, Jake, a bright man, and you haven’t half given me some headaches with that keen intellect of yours.’ Jason shook his head slowly, chuckling to himself, as if digging up some old, fond memory. ‘You sure have been a pain in my backside.’ He touched my arm gently. ‘And I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

‘What evidence have you found?’

The light humour faded and Jason nodded. ‘Always on it, never giving up. You’d have made a good soldier, Jake.’

‘Jason,’ I said firmly, ‘tell me.’

Jason placed his hands on his hips. His expression had become serious. ‘Okay. You deserve to know. It’s the book, Jake. The book.’

I was perplexed. ‘The book?’

‘The book. The pages, to be precise. Emily ran a test on the pages. They showed deposits of a chemically-pure lysergic acid diethylamide like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Highly concentrated, slow released; this stuff is lethal with even a small dose, and probably caused what looked like heart attacks in James, Brendan and Sophia.’

My own heart was going two to the dozen. ‘Emily knows?’

Jason shook his head. ‘No. She ran the tests, but the results are confidential. She doesn’t know.’

My legs, suddenly weak, began to give way, and I had to sit down. As I stumbled, Jason helped me to a chair. ‘But . . .’I started, trying to think over the sound of my thrumming chest, ‘but . . . LSD?’

Jason nodded. ‘It’s been on board in plain site this whole time and we missed it. If you hadn’t looked in Byron’s locker, I never would have thought to test it.’

‘But . . . why?’ I managed to say.

‘When I spoke to him to apologise for your invasion of his privacy, I asked him about the book, and do you know who he said had given it to him?’

All at once the thrumming stopped and my blood went cold. ‘His mother . . .’

‘Exactly. The one who died during childbirth.’

I couldn’t say anything, I could only groan softly.

‘I didn’t think anything of it,’ Jason continued, ‘until I dug out his crew records to do some routine paperwork. When I saw the history, something didn’t feel right. It sat awkwardly with me for a while until I realised, and that’s when I had Emily have the book tested. I didn’t tell her why—she must’ve thought I was going mad.’

In among the clouded mess of thought fumigating my head, a clear pinpoint began to form. It was cold, harsh and it brought a sudden chill to my very core when I realised what it was. ‘LSD,’ I said, repeating myself like a drunken madman, ‘you said it’s LSD?’

‘That’s right, but much, much more potent.’

‘What would happen if you only got a small dose, like, a really small dose?’

‘I don’t know . . .’ Jason said, frowning. ‘Why?’

‘Would you . . . would you hallucinate?’

The frown slowly turned into a look of cold realisation. ‘Well, yes . . . I suppose you would . . .’

‘We never did find that clockwork toy, did we?’

Jason shook his head, his face pallid. ‘No, no we did not . . .’

We both knew what I was talking about, but somehow I needed to hear it spoken aloud. I don’t know why I did—perhaps it was because I needed to detach from Byron once and for all, leave him behind and cut myself loose. Or perhaps I couldn’t believe it until I said it. ‘He tried to kill me,’ I whispered. It was the best I could manage. ‘Byron tried to kill me.’

Chapter 27

We were all making sacrifices. Some more than others, but we were all doing it. I wondered if I would have been able to make the ultimate sacrifice, but I wasn’t sure of it. If I decided yes, I began to doubt myself, if I decided no, an unpleasant sense of guilt began to set in. I came to the conclusion that it would have to be something I was presented with, and only then would I know. I hoped it never came to that.

To ease my conscience I made it a priority to see Byron at least once a day since there wasn’t much else to do in terms of preparation. At first our brief get-togethers were little more than a handful of meaningless sentences passed back and forth across a great, open void, but soon I think Byron realised that I wanted to help—or perhaps he was just grateful for the company, because he began to open up to me and talk a bit more.

‘It was funny that time when Sadie had wind,’ he said, a grin appearing slowly under his distant eyes, ‘and she kept farting when we were trying to plot out the borehole depths. Do you remember?’

I remembered. ‘And every time she did she went a deeper shade of red,’ I added, smiling myself.

Byron sniggered. ‘Yeah. That made me laugh so hard.’

It seemed a long, long time ago, and I found it hard to share the memory with Byron knowing he had admitted being responsible for her death. Yet it seemed somehow easier than it should have been, almost as if I still didn’t quite believe it. It was a decision I hadn’t yet come to a conclusion on. Didn’t I believe Byron? Or did I think he’d done it but there was something else clouding the issue, something not quite so clear cut as guilt and innocence? I found it an easier paradox to ignore than to confront, and perhaps that was my reasoning for being able to share a memory about a person I cared for with the man who, supposedly, killed her. But that sounded stupid, even as a wisp of a thought that would never be spoken out loud. Maybe when thought in the rec room, or in the bunks, alone or with he others I would have allowed myself to let it slide, but sitting here with Byron, it was too big and too sore a splinter to ignore. My even being here with Byron told me that I didn’t believe it, as though my body was taking a stand against my mind.

I don’t have any other choice. It reverberated around my mind, a fly I could hear but I couldn’t for the life of me see. I would never be able to swat it away with a single thought or an easily dismissible conclusion; I had to face it head on, with the full force of my conscience.

‘I don’t think you did it.’

‘That’s what I’m saying, it was Sadie that kept farting—’

‘You know what I mean.’

Byron stopped talking, and found something invisible on the floor to poke at instead. He twisted his lips back and forth, pushing them tight together as though he wanted to keep something from leaking out. After a while, knowing I was staring at him still, he shrugged, but that was all he gave me.

‘Byron, I’m not going to let this drop.’

He shrugged again.

‘Byron!’ I shouted, and he jumped, flinching away from me.

‘Please don’t,’ he said quietly, pleadingly.

‘Why?’

‘I don’t want any trouble.’

‘Trouble? You don’t think you’re already in trouble enough as it is? Do you—’ I stopped, taking a breath, contemplating my words. ‘You’re fine with what Jason means to do to you?’

‘It’s none of your business,’ Byron said thickly, turning to look at me. His eyes were tearful and bloodshot. ‘You could get in trouble—you. You shouldn’t be talking to me about this. I shouldn’t be talking about it with you.’ He turned away again, resuming his poking of the floor.

‘But, Byron, I want to help.’

‘I don’t need your help.’

‘I don’t think you did it.’

‘Stop saying that.’

‘Well, I don’t.’

Byron didn’t respond. I could see glistening drops on the floor below his downturned head.

‘Byron, I care for you. I mean that. I know you’ve had a hard time of it, but you don’t need to do this. If there’s something else going on here, I need you to tell me. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself like this.’

More silence.

‘Byron, please. Please don’t do this.’

‘It was me,’ he said solemnly, stubbornly. ‘I did it.’

The urge to get up and walk out came upon me like déjà vu, but this time I didn’t follow through in it. I sat, resolute, determined to dig out whatever secret Byron was keeping so wrapped up tight inside him. ‘How?’

It took Byron a second to comprehend what I’d asked him. ‘What do you mean?’

‘How did you do it? Like, how did you kill them?’

‘I don’t want to talk about it.’

‘Well, I do,’ I said firmly, leaning forward to catch the corner of Byron’s eye with my own. He flinched again, turning away.

‘I—’ he began, but I was already on top of him.

‘You did what? You poisoned them? You strangled them? Tell me, Byron, what did you do?’

The only sound that came from Byron was his sobs.

‘You’ve never killed a person in your life,’ I said, almost with disgust. ‘You couldn’t do it if your own life depended on it.’ Byron’s sobs increased, his shoulders jerking up and down. He mumbled something, something I couldn’t quite hear. I leaned forwards to listen. ‘What did you say?’ I asked, lowering my voice.

‘I . . . I killed someone . . .’ Byron whispered between sobs. He was crying properly now, and his words were hard to understand. I was take aback—this was not the response I had expected, yet this was the response I was getting.

‘Who—who did you kill?’ I asked, my throat cold and dry.

‘D—Danny,’ he sobbed, ‘I k—killed Danny . . .’

My mind buzzed and my stomach churned. ‘Who’s Danny?’

Byron sniffed a long, wet sniff. At first I thought he wasn’t going to say anything more, but he did. ‘Danny is my . . . my . . . my brother . . .’

A knot in my stomach tightened to fast and so hard that it verged on cramp, and I had to sit up to ease it. ‘Your brother?’ I repeated. It was all I could manage.

Byron nodded. ‘He . . . he was bringing mum her drugs,’ he said, almost choking on his tears, ‘he was buying them from these gang members from the unprotected zones, selling them to mum to make himself some money . . . I found out . . . I swapped his notes with fakes . . . I never meant . . . they killed him . . .’

A shuddering, choking sound came from him, violently jerking his body forward. He was dry retching. Tentatively, I put my hand on his back, rubbing along his spine to calm him. I was at a loss for words, and it was all I could think of doing. I soothed him until he stopped retching, and he sat up gingerly, wiped the spittle from his mouth, his sobbing gentle again.

‘Dad always knew it was me,’ he whispered, voice hoarse as though the words were hard to push out. ‘We made up a story to protect us, to protect him. A lot of rich housewives passed the time with recreational drugs, he didn’t really care about that, but his son, his favourite son, a pusher on his own mother . . . he couldn’t believe it, wouldn’t believe it, and he didn’t want anyone else to, either. He lied to protect us. I’m doing this for us, he said, for you. I’m doing this to protect us because you couldn’t. I’ll never forget those words. It shocked me, that he could lie like that. To the press, to the world, and to his family. But he knew the truth, he knew it was me. I was never his favourite, but from then on he despised me.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ I said, but Byron didn’t seem to hear.

‘I’ve can’t ever forget what I did,’ he continued, ‘and I shouldn’t be allowed to. I can’t make things right, but I can make things better.’

‘But not like this,’ I said, pleaded. ‘You don’t have to do it like this.’

‘It’s already decided. There’s no other choice.’

Hearing those words, I already knew who was behind this. ‘Jason . . .’ I whispered, and before Byron was able to call out after me, I was up, heading for the cockpit. How could he do this? How could he use someone like that, someone as naïve and impressionable as Byron? And if it wasn’t Byron who’d murdered, then who was it? Him? Was it Jason that had murdered James, Brendan and Sophia? As I marched through the sanitary room, my mind tumbled with thoughtless emotions, processing with such dizzying ferocity that it made my head hurt.

But if Jason was in control of all this, then what could I actually do? If I confront him, will I simply end up like the others, wrapped in a bag and shot out of the airlock? He said he needed me to fulfil the mission, but if I trap him in a corner, is that likely to matter? I slowed, entering the bunks, my eyes adjusting to the reduced light.

What could I do? Could I make hints and see how he responds? Could I rally the crew against him? Would they even care? Byron was, after all, Jason’s scapegoat; he could just as easily be the same for everyone else. It was conveniently believable, after all, particularly since even Byron himself seemed to be in on it. I came to a stop, sat down on my bunk. It was hopeless. I felt hopeless. A child, lost, unable to do anything but sit there and cry. It was like Jason had said, to me, to the others, to Byron. It was like I’d said to myself: I had no other choice.

But I did. I may not have many choices, but I at least had a choice. Maybe it wouldn’t work, maybe I would end up dead, but that didn’t matter. I had a choice, and it was about time I made a decision.

 

Emily frowned, not in annoyance but confusion, as she propped herself against the galley wall. ‘I . . . I don’t understand,’ she said slowly. ‘What exactly are you trying to do?’

I had one chance at this. Either Emily got on board with the plan and helped me, or she took it straight to Jason and I spent my last days playing sip the oxygen with Byron. ‘Byron, he—he’s innocent,’ I wheezed, trying hard to stop the whole sentence falling out of my mouth at once in one incomprehensible jumble. Jangling nerves and a discordant sense of excitement had me fizzing like an electric eel. ‘We’ve got to stop Jason from leaving him behind.’

The frown deepened and a gentle shake of the head joined it. ‘Wait a minute—start from the beginning. How do you know for sure? Jason seems pretty convinced. Didn’t Byron actually admit to it?’

‘He did, but that’s not important. He only did it because Jason and his father have forced him into doing it. He feels that somehow it’s his responsibility to take the fall, his punishment for something he’s done in a past life.’

‘What something?’

‘That doesn’t matter either.’ I was beginning to think that I was losing Emily—I had to try a different tact. ‘All that matters right now is that Byron isn’t a killer and in a couple of weeks we’re going to be leaving him for dead thirty-seven lightyears from home. Can you live with that? Because I know I can’t.’ Hearing myself say those words out loud brought a fresh sense of hope to me, a confirmation—or at least, for now, a pre-confirmation—that I was able to do some good after all. The hope faded slightly when I went on to wonder, however briefly, if that same selfless urge would steady me when it counted most.

‘So,’ Emily said, the frown ever-present, ‘if you’re saying Byron didn’t kill James, Brendan and Sadie, who are you saying did?’

‘I think it was Jason.’

Emily stiffened, eyes wide. ‘Why do you think that?’

‘It’s the only reasonable explanation.’

‘Do—do you think he’ll do it again?’

‘I don’t know. I hope not.’ Then I added, ‘Byron. He’s going to kill Byron.’

Emily hugged herself, wary. She looked up and down the galley, as if expecting to find someone watching us, listening in. ‘That’s quite an accusation to make,’ she said, ‘the whole thing, I mean. Killing James and Brendan? And Sadie? Why? It makes no sense. He needed them.’

‘But does he?’

‘That doesn’t explain why he’d kill them, though.’

‘Maybe they knew something they shouldn’t?’

‘Like what?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

Emily sighed, exasperated. I could see her thinking, weighing up each side, piecing together the evidence against the conjecture. ‘Ok,’ she said at last, and I released the breath I’d not realised I’d been holding. ‘I’m not saying you’re right, but I’m not saying you’re wrong, either. What can we do to find out which?’

‘I can talk to Byron.’

‘I thought you already talked to him.’

‘He knows more, I’m certain of it.’

‘Certain?’

‘Pretty certain.’

‘Let’s go talk to him, then.’

‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I’ll go. I’ve been seeing him every day for a while, so it won’t rouse suspicion. And he trusts me.’

She pulled a face, then leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. When she pulled back, she was a picture of concern. ‘Okay then. Be safe.’

I waited until the next day to speak to Byron. My heart near enough choked me as I tried to make small talk at first, but it was clear to Byron that something was up.

‘You seem agitated,’ he said, as astute and blunt as ever.

‘You could say that.’

‘I hope it’s not because of yesterday.’

‘Well—’

‘Don’t try to stop this, Jake. I need it.’

Hearing Byron use my name took me aback. He was watching me, his face hard and his blue eyes piercing. ‘I don’t think it’s right,’ I mumbled. ‘You don’t deserve it.’

Byron broke the eye contact and looked down at his lap. His trousers were dirty and stained, and he picked at a raised scab of dried food on the thigh. ‘I do.’

I wanted to shout sense into the boy, shake him until he backed down, but I knew that would do no good if even to ease my frustration. I settled for leaning in towards and speaking with a hard tone. ‘Byron,’ I hissed, trying to make myself sound as authoritative as I could. ‘This is not your fault. None of it is. You may think it is, your twisted father may have you believing it is, but I’m telling you, it’s not. You’re a flawed person, yes, but aren’t we all? In comparison to most you’re a kind, thoughtful caring individual—not to mention talented—and certainly not one that deserves to die.’

Byron looked up at me for a moment, a radiance about his face, but it faded fast and he let his head slump forward again. ‘You’re just saying that.’

‘I’m not, I swear.’

‘I’ve met people like you before. They think they’re doing good, but all they’re doing is stroking their conscience until it backs down again. Once it has, it’s bye-bye do-gooder.’

I felt hurt by that, but not because Byron was being nasty, but because Byron was being truthful. It was such a razor-sharp truth that it cut me to hear it. ‘You’re right,’ I said, a lump forming in my throat. ‘You’re absolutely right. And the fact that you recognise that proves why you don’t deserve to die.’

‘How?’

‘You see good in this world, and you see bad. The rest of us? We only see ourselves, and we paint the rest to fit with what we want, what we believe. We construct our worlds around our own agendas, lie to ourselves so we can sleep at night. You—you see everything for how it truly is. And that’s a curse as well as a blessing. You torture yourself because you see the bad in what you did as well as the good, and you won’t paint over that bad to make yourself feel better, you live with it, its rawness, because you are a good person.’

Byron sniffed, but it was dry. He drew his legs to his chest, shoes hissing along the floor as he pulled them close. ‘I’ve made my decision.’

‘I’m not letting him do this to you.’

‘Do whatever you feel you need to do.’

Chapter 26

I didn’t realise I’d said it until I awoke. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep for, but Emily was propped up on one arm, reading, while I rested on her lap with her other arm draped over me. I sat upright so suddenly it startled her, but I barely noticed.

‘I’m sorry I said that,’ I said, almost breathless.

‘Said what?’ she said, holding her chest, a flustered grin on her face. She didn’t remember? She must do . . . Now I wasn’t even sure if I’d said it all. I remembered a response, but had I dreamed it? I can’t have done—since Emily had given me those pills, I hadn’t dreamed a thing.

‘Never mind,’ I said.

‘No, what? That you told me you love me?’

I could feel my face flush red in an instant. My collar seemed tight. I nodded.

She smiled and ran her hand down my arm. ‘It’s fine.’

‘Are you sure?’

She nodded quickly, grinning. I dropped the subject fast and moved on to something else, but the topic never quite left my thoughts entirely. Did I really love her, or had I been swept up by the raging emotions inside me? Post-sleep, my talk with Byron seemed almost as dreamlike as my slipped words, but I was certain that it had happened. But no, I wasn’t sure if that had affected my judgement or not. So why did I say it? Did I even know what love felt like? Sure, as in the love for a family member or a close friend, but a romantic kind of love? I looked at Emily, who was watching me, her eyes trying to read mine. My chest tightened as though I believed she really could see into me, and the beginnings of a laugh bubbled in my chest.

‘What?’ Emily said, reacting in kind to my chuckling.

‘Oh . . . nothing. I’m just being silly.’

Emily shoved me away, putting on an exaggerated pout. ‘Don’t be mean!’

We continued chatting between then and the awakening of Clip and Grant. How long exactly, I don’t know, but I knew it had been a long time. It passed in a flash, but it left a residual wake that told me we’d been talking and joking and laughing for hours. It was like a bath for the soul, easing tension I didn’t know I had and allowing me a comfort I never thought I’d experience again. Emily was a fun person to spend time with, and I appreciated every moment of it. Maybe I was in love?

‘Morning guys,’ Clip mumbled through a yawn as he shuffled into the rec room.

‘Morning,’ I said, untwining myself from Emily. ‘Where’s Grant?’

‘He’ll be along in a minute, he’s just getting something to eat. Don’t worry about him; he won’t bother you two any more. He’s been told.’

‘Okay,’ I said, still feeling some trepidation about the Emily-Grant situation. When Grant finally arrived, he smiled politely—if forcefully—and sat down next to Clip, cup and food in hand.

‘I’m sorry about Byron,’ he said after swallowing a mouthful. ‘That’s awful to hear.’ He continued eating, watching me as if expecting a response. I supposed I could give him one.

‘It’s okay. I should have known better.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ Clip said in an overly sympathetic way. ‘You’ve just been showing the lad a kindness. It’s more than he deserved.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’ All this talk of Byron as the bad guy still didn’t sit right me, despite the contradictory nature of my feelings. I decided I’d rather not talk about it at all, so I changed the subject. ‘How’s preparation coming for the final approach?’

Clip grinned, presumably seeing my departure from the subject of Byron as some kind of healthy progress. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘it’s going well. Grant and I reckon we’ll have this one covered no problem. Open terrain, solid ground—it’ll be easy as pie. How about you? Ready to do some digging?’

‘I guess so.’

‘It’s a lot of work . . .’

‘I think I’ll be able to manage.’

‘And Byron’s going to help?’

I nodded.

Grant snorted. ‘I don’t see why we can’t do it without him. I don’t trust him.’

‘We don’t really have any other choice,’ Clip responded.

‘But who knows what he’ll do? He might go on some crazy killing spree.’

Clip shook his head in a wise, knowing way. ‘He’ll be with Jason. It’ll be fine.’

No one knew we were still leaving Byron behind. Not even Emily. Another secret I’d held back from her. I thought of the threat Jason had given me at the bunks, as if I needed any more reason to keep my mouth shut. ‘I hope so,’ I said.

‘Why don’t we play a game?’ Emily suggested. ‘Take our mind off things?’

Reluctantly, we all agreed. And it was fun. We played cards like we used to, and even though the group was smaller and the cards more tatty, it still felt a little bit like home. It gave me the opportunity to stop thinking about that the fact that, by the time the mission was over, Byron and I would have one more thing in common: we would both be murderers. I tried to put the mission ahead to the back of my mind.

By the time I caught myself yawning for the fifth time, I said my goodnights and took myself to bed. Emily, looking surprised, threw her goodnights into the mix as well and joined me. With Clip and Grant in the rec room and Jason and Sophia in the cockpit, we had the bunks to ourselves. We sat together in the gloom, hand in hand.

‘I don’t know what to do, Emily,’ I said. ‘I keep thinking it all over and I just don’t know what to do.’

‘It’ll be alright,’ Emily cooed, stroking my cheek with the back of her hand. ‘Once we’re done and we head back to Earth, everything will be just fine. And who knows—perhaps one day we’ll be hailed as heroes?’

I tried to laugh, but it wouldn’t come. I had to tell her. ‘Look, please don’t breath a word of this to anyone, but I have to tell you something or I’m going to explode.’

‘Okay,’ she said, humour fading.

‘I—I have another thing I’ve not told you. I said I hadn’t but I have, and I need to get it out there so I know things are alright between us.’

‘Go on . . .’

‘I don’t trust Jason. I think he’s crooked, and I think there’s something he’s not telling us.’

At first Emily didn’t react, and then she sat back slightly, withdrawing her hands to her lap. I watched her process the information, figure out what to do with it. ‘Okay,’ she said at last. ‘I understand.’

‘You understand?’

‘I understand why you feel that way.’

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I figured it would be best not to pursue it, at least not for now. ‘So you’re not mad?’

She shook her head and smiled. ‘I’m not mad.’

I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness. That’s a weight off my mind. Promise you’ll keep it to yourself?’

‘I promise,’ she said, crossing her heart with her finger. Then she giggled and pushed herself towards me. ‘You’ve had a tough day,’ she said in a low, seductive voice. ‘Let me help you take your mind off of it.’

 

I’d forgotten to take my pill that night, but still I didn’t dream. Instead I floated on the ether between deep sleep and the dream state, where I wafted among indiscernible colours and shapes that gave me peace and rest. It was a cavernous space, an open world that I could relax in and fill out into. I unwound myself, a tight coil flexing for the first time, expanding in size and releasing a pent-up energy that had kept me rigid for as long as I could remember. I was aware of myself, fully, and I experienced serenity unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was bliss.

Just before I awoke, my mood turned more thoughtful and the abstract took on a more definable quality. Each thought, fleeting as it was, was plain and clear with explicit simplicity. It was a show reel played before me of my innermost feelings, and I could do little but watch them play out before me.

I like her.

It was true, I really did.

She likes me.

That much was clear.

We’re going to get through this together.

A hope among hopes.

We’re going to make it.

When I awoke, I was alone. I checked the time; it was much later than I’d usually get up. When I stretched the ache I’d become so accustomed to out of my limbs, I was surprised to find that I had none, and, standing, I was also surprised to feel that the artificial gravity seemed to have been turned down a point or two. I grinned to myself. I knew why. I felt silly, standing there, grinning, but I couldn’t help myself. It seemed arrogant—selfish even—to be enjoying such an intimate moment during a time like this, but I relished it anyway. So what? We’d all been having a hard time and I’d had the foresight to do something about it. If no one else had anything to clear their heads and take their minds of things, then, well—that was their problem.

Even as that thought entered my mind I felt bad. Bad for Clip, bad for Sophia, bad for Grant. Bad for Emily for dragging her into this, because after all I still didn’t quite believe—with all the cynicism and diffidence of my waking conscious—that she really liked me. Bad for Byron because . . . it gave me a lump in my throat and a bitter taste in my mouth just to think about.

With my post-waking euphoria suitably subdued and the old aches and pains settling in fast, I wandered out to the galley to make myself something to eat. The echoes of the night’s pondering returned to me at last, and I cringed at how readily I had accepted them in my childlike state of sleep. I do like her. Does she like me? I don’t know. Even with the evidence stacked as it was, I didn’t know. Were we going to get through this together? I doubted we were going to get through it at all.

‘Morning, Jake,’ Jason said as he swooped into the galley like a shadow, making me twitch with an unexpected dose of adrenaline.

‘Morning.’

‘I wondered if I could speak with you?’

I looked around, saw we were most definitely alone. ‘Sure.’

Jason hovered for a moment, stuck on his first word. At last he perched his hands on his hips, nodded to me as if we had agreed something unspoken together, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘For what?’ I knew, he knew; I just wanted to hear him say it.

‘For this, for everything. For getting you tangled up in my mess.’ He sighed; he was bringing me to his level, or at least coming down to mine. I could see in his face that, at last, he was going to address me as an equal. ‘I’m not cut out for this. I’m a protester, an anarchist—I’m not a military man.’

I watched him but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t helping him out here. He silently pleaded with me to throw him a lifeline, but it wasn’t going to happen.

‘Do you know how I ended up at Futureproof?’ he asked. I shook my head. No. ‘I skipped school, that’s how. I skipped school because my parents were riding me to get my grades up. I grew up in a good home, you know, but it was stifling. My mother, she wanted me to be something big, something important, a judge or a senator or something like that, and father, well, he was the same—when he actually spoke to me. I’m not looking for a sympathy vote here, I know I had a chance offered to very few people in this world and I blew it, I’m just explaining how I saw it from my young, stupid mind.

‘So anyway, I skip class with a friend of mine who tells me about this organisation they’d heard about, Futureproof. They were saving the world, I mean really saving it. They were going out into the unprotected zones to meet with the growing factions out there, and then they’d meet with leaders in the GA to bring terms and form agreements. They spoke up for the everyman, defended those without a voice. It was truly inspiring stuff. And there it was: an opportunity to not only make a difference in this life, but also to become the anti-establishment figurehead my mother and father so despised. They wanted me to be a judge; I’d be the guy sat across the table from him, telling him what I thought of his stupid oppression.’

Jason stopped his story to consider me for a moment, as I considered him. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this—sympathy perhaps, despite him saying otherwise; to connect with me on a human level was another reason; or maybe he just wanted to unload—and I got the impression that he wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it. For some reason, I did. I was intrigued. ‘Go on,’ I said. He smiled briefly, and continued.

‘I joined Futureproof the same day—we both did, my friend and I. Mother was livid. Father was too, probably on mother’s behalf. But it was done, settled. I moved out, and they refused to speak to me again. After I’d cooled off and spent some time away from them, I wrote to them, but they never responded. Not even a line to see how I was. I mean, nothing.’

Was that an extra layer of gloss forming in Jason’s eyes, or had I imagined it?

‘Anyway,’ he continued, clearing his throat. ‘I rose through the ranks of Futureproof, working hard in the hope that one day I’d find myself in a position my parents couldn’t ignore, and sure enough, I did. It was some fifteen years after I’d moved out, but I finally made it. I was there, in a real meeting with real GA officials discussing real problems. And I was good at it, too. I had realised that diplomacy was a far greater weapon than aggression, and my ability to express myself earned me a seat on the GA sub-council, the first time any activist movement had ever received any kind of official commendation like that. But it was clear why; the rising unrest in the unprotected zones was growing out of control, and war was clearly on the horizon. We had the trust of the factions, and the GA had control of modern civilisation. We, the mediators for a previously ignorable rabble of rag-tag thieves and villains had become the spokesmen for an army poised for battle.

‘Father visited me after chambers one time, completely by surprise. He was old, but I recognised him, and him me. He said he’d seen me on television, and that he was proud of me. He also told me that mother had died in a traffic accident a year-and-a-half ago. It was so stupid, he kept saying, over and over. It was so stupid how she died. I felt strangely empty when he’d told me, as if he’d taken something from me when he’d said it, but didn’t tell me what. He hugged me, and told me again that he was proud of me. That was the last time I saw him. To this day I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. I can’t face finding out. Seeing him there, looking so frail and hollow, I’m not sure I want to know.’

Jason’s eyes were definitely glistening now, but no tears had fallen. I looked at the floor to allow him a moment to gather himself.

‘It was then I began to realise that I needed to do something,’ he said, his composure regained. ‘Up to then I’d been playing political ping pong, batting issues back and forth, not really achieving anything other than upsetting the apple cart in the way Futureproof was known for. You know how it is—they say one thing, we say the other, just for sake of being anti-establishment. But I’d had an idea: we knew and the GA knew that the leaders of the factions, who we knew had begun to put their own differences aside in the pursuit of larger matters, would never make jail; once the media had it out that they had been incarcerated, the resulting civil unrest would result in untold chaos, germinating the perfect storm for the merged factions to strike within. GA ruling was already heavily contested thanks to tightening taxes and increasingly heavy policing, both repercussions of the rising populace and the imminent unprotected zone threat, and the dissatisfied rumblings coming from the people had the council on edge. It had almost become fashionable to romanticise the idea of the factions living out in the unprotected zones; many middle-class citizens viewed them as revolutionary nomads and, of course, with things becoming tougher and tougher for everyone, the idea of change and an escape from what could be none other than a bleak future appealed to many. News that faction leaders had been incarcerated? It was a catalyst for trouble. We knew it, and the factions knew it, too. They had us cornered.

‘So I proposed a plan: using our knowledge and relationships with the faction leaders, we launch an operation to capture their top people and take them off-world. They remain alive and well in stasis for the remainder of their days, protecting their rights as people, and the slow and confused revelation of their disappearance would give GA military enough time to swoop in and demobilise faction troops. At first, the GA wouldn’t listen, but as the situation became clearer, it was obvious that we had no other choice, and operation New Dawn was given the green light.’

After Jason had finished, he sighed. He looked contented, relieved, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I still didn’t know if he had a point to telling me his story or if he had done it just to get it off his chest, but whatever his reasons, he seemed to have got what he came for. Then he blinked, the contentment faded, and he looked at me. ‘Jake, I’m sorry.’

‘You said—’

‘No, I mean I’m sorry for using you to get to Byron. I’ve become very focussed on what we’ve got to do, and I’ve neglected to see the bigger picture. This isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us, and I forget that sometimes. It’s my biggest strength and my biggest weakness: I am so focussed I often neglect those I care about. And I’m sorry.’

He didn’t give me a chance to respond, turning and wandering out of the galley towards the cockpit before I had a chance to say anything. So you know what you’re doing, I thought to myself. You know what you’re doing, but we’re still doing it.

Chapter 26

 

I took my nutridrink and my pancakes (they were called pancakes but they neither looked nor tasted like pancakes) into the rec room and sat down next to Emily. She was reading, but smiled at me when I passed by, giving me a peck on the cheek when I plonked myself down in the seat beside her. I ate my food, she read her book. Clip and Grant were both reading, too, and I realised that the rec room had, since Sadie’s death, become something of a library. It was a place of quiet contemplation where it once been a room for conversation, a quiet commemoration of the now silent voice that once chirped and trilled here. It seem apt, if sad.

After I’d finished my food, I disposed of the containers in the galley and decided then that I was going to talk to Byron. It seemed like the right thing to do; I’d neglected him already and I felt I at least owed him the chance to have a little company. A flutter of wings in my stomach became a swarm as I neared the tow dock, the scene of my inexplicable hallucination. The sight of Byron hanging limply from the wall filled my mouth with a pungent taste.

‘Hey, Byron.’

He looked up at me, surprised. ‘Hey.’

I sat down next to him as I had done before, and we sat together for a while. I think he was pleased just to be with someone, because his breathing took on a slower, more relaxed rhythm, but after a while the silence became too much for me to bear. ‘It’s creepy in here,’ I said. I don’t know why I said it, but I did—it just came out.

‘Yeah, it is.’

I then almost told Byron about my hallucination, but I stopped the sentence before it even began. I wondered if he knew about it already. ‘It’s cold in here, too.’

‘I asked Jason to turn up the temperature but I don’t think he has.’

‘How are you coping, other than the cold?’

‘Okay, I guess.’

‘That’s good. Not that it’s good that you’re here, but it’s good that you’re okay.’ Byron didn’t respond, and the quiet held until I couldn’t help myself but ask the question I needed the answer to: ‘Why did you do it?’

Byron looked away and shrugged.

‘Come on, Byron,’ I said, hearing frustration in my voice, ‘it’s not like you to do something like that.’

‘You don’t know me,’ Byron said, almost distractedly. ‘You don’t know what I’m capable of.’

Byron fell back into silence as quickly as he had risen from it. My pulse tingled with the lack of remorse that shrouded his statement. It didn’t seem . . . right. ‘I never got to apologise to you for looking in your personal bag,’ I said, keeping my voice low and calm. ‘I’m sorry I did that.’

Byron sniffed, then wiped his nose on the back of his dirty sleeve. ‘You don’t have to apologise,’ he said. ‘I understand.’

‘That’s very kind of you, but it was still wrong of me to go looking in your personal things.’

‘Seems like you were right to.’

For some reason, Byron’s resignation began to irritate me. I’d have expected him to put up at least some kind of a fight, like I’d seen him do before over matters much more trivial than this. I wanted to say something on it, but I let it drop. I was trying to keep Byron calm, and I wanted to keep myself calm, too. ‘It’s a good book though, a classic.’

Byron shrugged.

‘Was it a gift? You don’t see many paper books any more.’

‘My mum gave it to me.’

‘When you were young?’

Byron nodded.

‘It’s in excellent condition, probably worth quite a bit now.’

Another shrug.

‘Did you ever read it?’ A shake of the head. I figured this line of conversation was going nowhere fast, so I tried something else. ‘Are you looking forward to getting to HD 85512 B and getting to work?’

Looking forward was a bit of an odd choice of words, but Byron didn’t seem to care. ‘I guess,’ he said. ‘It’ll be nice to be able to walk about a bit.’

‘You’ll be paired with Jason and not me, you know that?’

A nod.

‘I won’t be able to keep an eye out on you, so you’ll need to watch out for yourself, do you understand?’ I hoped my message would sink in.

‘I understand.’

I wasn’t sure he did; in fact I was almost certain he didn’t, but—and I felt bad for it—I didn’t want to risk my own neck by being too unsubtle. My guilt rendered me silent, and we sat again like that for minutes gone by. It wasn’t until Clip poked his head into the room that anything else was said.

‘Jake, Jason’s calling a meeting in the briefing room. You need to be there.’

Clip disappeared as quick as he’d come. His tone had been serious and his face showed no signs of humour, so I hoisted myself up and left without another word. I hovered briefly at the doorway, but when I turned to Byron and saw that he had not looked up at me, I kept my silence.

This was the second time the cockpit had been left unmanned, and we all (Byron excluded) gathered in the briefing room, awaiting Jason’s news. I was the last to arrive, and I took my seat, allowing Jason to begin.

‘As you’re all probably aware,’ Jason began, ‘there’s just a week left until touchdown. It’s time to get ready.’

No one reacted, but the tension I the air thickened noticeably. We all knew it was coming but, if everyone felt the same way I did, none of us really considered its arrival. And now it was here.

‘Please begin the standard landing procedures: Clip, Grant: you’ll be bringing us down for the initial approach . . .’ The briefing rolled on, and my attention slid in and out. Clip was also staring into space, and Grant was fiddling with his trouser leg—only Sophia and Emily were showing any signs of paying attention.

‘. . . and I hope that’s all clear,’ Jason finished. ‘Any questions?’

We shook our heads. Jason looked a little disappointed. I suppose in his head he had expected something different when we’d left Earth, but it was what it was, and a celebration it was not.

‘Okay then. Let’s get cracking.’ He clapped his hands together to emphasise the point, and we stood, bumbling out into the rec room where we all sat back down again.

‘There’s not really an awful lot to do until we land,’ Grant said, pulling a face. He vocalised what we were all thinking, justifying our lack of enthusiasm for the job at hand.

‘Sounds like it’s going to be a real slog when we do land,’ Clip added, ‘so we probably want to maintain ourselves until we do, give ourselves at least a fighting chance of getting this done.’

A room full of nodding heads confirmed agreement.

‘And Jason’s going to have his hands full working with Byron,’ Grant said.

‘Do you think so?’ I replied.

Grant snorted. ‘I know you’ve got a soft spot for the lad, but come on—even you’ve got to acknowledge what he’s done.’

‘I have,’ I forced myself to say, ‘I just think he’s going to work his penance, no trouble.’

‘No trouble?’ Clip said, bemused. ‘You really believe that? You saw what he did to Grant, here, right? Knocked him clean out! Would’ve killed him too if we’d not been there to step in.’

‘Alright, alright,’ Grant said, looking peeved. ‘He took me by surprise. I could’ve had him easily otherwise.’

Clip sniggered, making Grant’s frown deeper.

‘He took us all by surprise . . .’ Emily said to no one in particular.

I nodded. She’d hit the nail on the head: I knew Byron had a wild streak, I knew he wasn’t what anyone in their right mind would call normal, but a murderer? Like Clip had said—I had seen it with my own eyes. I’d seen it, yet I still couldn’t believe it.

‘I still don’t think we should be leaving him behind,’ I said, and was greeted by weary looks that lingered, then dropped. As I made eye contact with each of them, only to have it broken away, my stomach fell. ‘What, you think it’s a good idea to . . .?’ I began, but was unable to finish. To my surprise, it was Emily that responded first.

‘Jake, look, I know it’s not the best thing we could do—’

‘You’re damn right it isn’t,’ I huffed, sitting upright and moving myself away from her. She reached out tentatively and put her hand on my knee.

‘But I don’t see what other choice we have,’ Emily finished.

It was like I was seeing her through different eyes. ‘I didn’t realise that’s how you felt,’ I said, folding my arms to block myself from her. ‘Do you all feel this way? That we should just—leave him behind?’

Grant nodded, and Clip spoke: ‘Now he’s admitted to . . . well, you know, now he’s admitted it, I’m with Emily—I don’t see that we have any other choice.’

The conversation was like a ball rolling down a hill: it was moving faster than I could keep up with, skating out of my control. I felt sick. ‘But he’s—he’s just a kid . . .’

Emily squeezed my leg. ‘He was just a kid. He’s not a kid anymore.’

I could feel a tsunami of emotion frothing up in me, the familiar and embarrassing swell of heat in the back of my head, the pressure against the backs of my eyeballs. ‘But this is Jason we’re talking about,’ I said, voice strangled, in a last-ditch attempt to get the ball back under control. ‘He lied to us. He lied to us!’ Tears welled, then fell, one after another. They were coming now, and there was no point trying to hold them back. ‘And you trust him?’

I already knew what I was going to hear next. It was like a mantra built on a foundation of fear and a need to survive. I knew it was going to be said next because it’s what I was saying to myself, what I’d said to myself this whole journey long— hell, I’d said it my whole life. It didn’t matter who was saying it, because we were all thinking it, and we all believed it: ‘What other choice do we have?’

I stood and rushed out of the room, stumbling to the bunks, sobbing like a child. I dropped onto a mattress—maybe mine, I didn’t know—and slapped myself, hard, making me yell out in pain and frustration. I slapped myself again, my cheek and my palm hot and tingling, pulsing with energy. I focussed on the swell of heat from my head to my hand, the hypnotic motion of it, and it calmed me down. I could feel my heart beating to its rhythm, and as the rhythm slowed, I drifted down from the teetering platform of anger and fear, being swallowed up into a all-encompassing numbness of exhaustion and acceptance. There, in that hypnotic trance I stayed for a period unmarked by time, a frozen moment that lacked any kind of tangibility or understanding. I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad, or angry or scared, either. I was nothing. I was in a bubble that protected me from everything I needed to do or decide upon, safely retracted into a mental shell that enclosed me with its numbing docility. I wanted to stay this way forever.

‘Jake?’ a voice came to me, muffled and slowed by the protection of my bubble. It was like a distant echo from another time and space, a hollow crumb of something that was for someone else, but never would be for me. ‘Jake?’ it said again. ‘Are you alright?’

‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. I was back, in an instant. My utopia was gone.

‘I’m worried about you,’ Emily said, sitting down next to me and drawing me close. I let her lean me against, and she kissed my forehead. ‘I need you to be strong.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Then I can’t, either.’

I sat up, and looked at her. She looked back, her face long in the dim light. She seemed nervous.

‘I need you,’ she said. A tiny flicker of calming warmth among the emptiness inside me gave me a vague sense of hope that seemed almost an impossibility to feel—but it was there. Sadie had been my mother away from home, watching over me, protecting me, but she had gone, and I was left to protect myself. Now I was needed to protect another, and that gave a sense of purpose, however small. Emily needed me. She needed me. And I couldn’t let her down. She drew me back in, stroking my hair back over my head. It felt nice, soothing, and I let her continue. ‘If we don’t do what we have to do,’ she said softly, ‘we won’t get to go back, to be together.’

My mind screamed, But Byron! What about Byron! We can’t leave him behind! but my mouth said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it. What other choice do we have?’

We said little to each other after that, the warm entanglement of our bodies doing all the communication that was needed. I was tired—exhausted—and as I relaxed I felt knots in my body a mile long slowly unwind, pooling me out onto the bed in a warm, shapeless blob. The world swum, the lights dimmed, and I faded into unconsciousness.

The cave was dark, but warm. Underfoot, the smooth stone radiated heat, as though we were deep down, close to the core. I stood and basked in it for a while, enjoying the soothing calm, until finally I opened my eyes. The lights, flickering faintly ahead, drew me, and I followed the gentle padding of my own footsteps towards them, around the corner and into to cathedral-like cavern. There, the candles burned, but there wasn’t just one, or two, or six—there were hundreds, thousands, millions—more than I could count, as far as I could see. It was a sight to behold, the irregular patterns the candles formed on the ground, the mismatched heights that stepped one to the next. If there were candles burned out among them, I couldn’t see them, but the enormity of it removed from me the desire to look. The warmth—which I realised was radiating from this display—kept me rooted, its power overwhelming me. This was what I was responsible for, now. Not just me, not just the crew—all of them. What Jason was doing—what we were doing—was for everyone. Did I want to be a part of it? As I basked in the gentle heat, it came to me with a realisation as fresh as a summer morning’s breeze: I had no other choice.

The candle closest to me hissed out.

Chapter 25

I didn’t realise I’d said it until I awoke. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep for, but Emily was propped up on one arm, reading, while I rested on her lap with her other arm draped over me. I sat upright so suddenly it startled her, but I barely noticed.

‘I’m sorry I said that,’ I said, almost breathless.

‘Said what?’ she said, holding her chest, a flustered grin on her face. She didn’t remember? She must do . . . Now I wasn’t even sure if I’d said it all. I remembered a response, but had I dreamed it? I can’t have done—since Emily had given me those pills, I hadn’t dreamed a thing.

‘Never mind,’ I said.

‘No, what? That you told me you love me?’

I could feel my face flush red in an instant. My collar seemed tight. I nodded.

She smiled and ran her hand down my arm. ‘It’s fine.’

‘Are you sure?’

She nodded quickly, grinning. I dropped the subject fast and moved on to something else, but the topic never quite left my thoughts entirely. Did I really love her, or had I been swept up by the raging emotions inside me? Post-sleep, my talk with Byron seemed almost as dreamlike as my slipped words, but I was certain that it had happened. But no, I wasn’t sure if that had affected my judgement or not. So why did I say it? Did I even know what love felt like? Sure, as in the love for a family member or a close friend, but a romantic kind of love? I looked at Emily, who was watching me, her eyes trying to read mine. My chest tightened as though I believed she really could see into me, and the beginnings of a laugh bubbled in my chest.

‘What?’ Emily said, reacting in kind to my chuckling.

‘Oh . . . nothing. I’m just being silly.’

Emily shoved me away, putting on an exaggerated pout. ‘Don’t be mean!’

We continued chatting between then and the awakening of Clip and Grant. How long exactly, I don’t know, but I knew it had been a long time. It passed in a flash, but it left a residual wake that told me we’d been talking and joking and laughing for hours. It was like a bath for the soul, easing tension I didn’t know I had and allowing me a comfort I never thought I’d experience again. Emily was a fun person to spend time with, and I appreciated every moment of it. Maybe I was in love?

‘Morning guys,’ Clip mumbled through a yawn as he shuffled into the rec room.

‘Morning,’ I said, untwining myself from Emily. ‘Where’s Grant?’

‘He’ll be along in a minute, he’s just getting something to eat. Don’t worry about him; he won’t bother you two any more. He’s been told.’

‘Okay,’ I said, still feeling some trepidation about the Emily-Grant situation. When Grant finally arrived, he smiled politely—if forcefully—and sat down next to Clip, cup and food in hand.

‘I’m sorry about Byron,’ he said after swallowing a mouthful. ‘That’s awful to hear.’ He continued eating, watching me as if expecting a response. I supposed I could give him one.

‘It’s okay. I should have known better.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ Clip said in an overly sympathetic way. ‘You’ve just been showing the lad a kindness. It’s more than he deserved.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’ All this talk of Byron as the bad guy still didn’t sit right me, despite the contradictory nature of my feelings. I decided I’d rather not talk about it at all, so I changed the subject. ‘How’s preparation coming for the final approach?’

Clip grinned, presumably seeing my departure from the subject of Byron as some kind of healthy progress. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘it’s going well. Grant and I reckon we’ll have this one covered no problem. Open terrain, solid ground—it’ll be easy as pie. How about you? Ready to do some digging?’

‘I guess so.’

‘It’s a lot of work . . .’

‘I think I’ll be able to manage.’

‘And Byron’s going to help?’

I nodded.

Grant snorted. ‘I don’t see why we can’t do it without him. I don’t trust him.’

‘We don’t really have any other choice,’ Clip responded.

‘But who knows what he’ll do? He might go on some crazy killing spree.’

Clip shook his head in a wise, knowing way. ‘He’ll be with Jason. It’ll be fine.’

No one knew we were still leaving Byron behind. Not even Emily. Another secret I’d held back from her. I thought of the threat Jason had given me at the bunks, as if I needed any more reason to keep my mouth shut. ‘I hope so,’ I said.

‘Why don’t we play a game?’ Emily suggested. ‘Take our mind off things?’

Reluctantly, we all agreed. And it was fun. We played cards like we used to, and even though the group was smaller and the cards more tatty, it still felt a little bit like home. It gave me the opportunity to stop thinking about that the fact that, by the time the mission was over, Byron and I would have one more thing in common: we would both be murderers. I tried to put the mission ahead to the back of my mind.

By the time I caught myself yawning for the fifth time, I said my goodnights and took myself to bed. Emily, looking surprised, threw her goodnights into the mix as well and joined me. With Clip and Grant in the rec room and Jason and Sophia in the cockpit, we had the bunks to ourselves. We sat together in the gloom, hand in hand.

‘I don’t know what to do, Emily,’ I said. ‘I keep thinking it all over and I just don’t know what to do.’

‘It’ll be alright,’ Emily cooed, stroking my cheek with the back of her hand. ‘Once we’re done and we head back to Earth, everything will be just fine. And who knows—perhaps one day we’ll be hailed as heroes?’

I tried to laugh, but it wouldn’t come. I had to tell her. ‘Look, please don’t breath a word of this to anyone, but I have to tell you something or I’m going to explode.’

‘Okay,’ she said, humour fading.

‘I—I have another thing I’ve not told you. I said I hadn’t but I have, and I need to get it out there so I know things are alright between us.’

‘Go on . . .’

‘I don’t trust Jason. I think he’s crooked, and I think there’s something he’s not telling us.’

At first Emily didn’t react, and then she sat back slightly, withdrawing her hands to her lap. I watched her process the information, figure out what to do with it. ‘Okay,’ she said at last. ‘I understand.’

‘You understand?’

‘I understand why you feel that way.’

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I figured it would be best not to pursue it, at least not for now. ‘So you’re not mad?’

She shook her head and smiled. ‘I’m not mad.’

I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness. That’s a weight off my mind. Promise you’ll keep it to yourself?’

‘I promise,’ she said, crossing her heart with her finger. Then she giggled and pushed herself towards me. ‘You’ve had a tough day,’ she said in a low, seductive voice. ‘Let me help you take your mind off of it.’

 

I’d forgotten to take my pill that night, but still I didn’t dream. Instead I floated on the ether between deep sleep and the dream state, where I wafted among indiscernible colours and shapes that gave me peace and rest. It was a cavernous space, an open world that I could relax in and fill out into. I unwound myself, a tight coil flexing for the first time, expanding in size and releasing a pent-up energy that had kept me rigid for as long as I could remember. I was aware of myself, fully, and I experienced serenity unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was bliss.

Just before I awoke, my mood turned more thoughtful and the abstract took on a more definable quality. Each thought, fleeting as it was, was plain and clear with explicit simplicity. It was a show reel played before me of my innermost feelings, and I could do little but watch them play out before me.

I like her.

It was true, I really did.

She likes me.

That much was clear.

We’re going to get through this together.

A hope among hopes.

We’re going to make it.

When I awoke, I was alone. I checked the time; it was much later than I’d usually get up. When I stretched the ache I’d become so accustomed to out of my limbs, I was surprised to find that I had none, and, standing, I was also surprised to feel that the artificial gravity seemed to have been turned down a point or two. I grinned to myself. I knew why. I felt silly, standing there, grinning, but I couldn’t help myself. It seemed arrogant—selfish even—to be enjoying such an intimate moment during a time like this, but I relished it anyway. So what? We’d all been having a hard time and I’d had the foresight to do something about it. If no one else had anything to clear their heads and take their minds of things, then, well—that was their problem.

Even as that thought entered my mind I felt bad. Bad for Clip, bad for Sophia, bad for Grant. Bad for Emily for dragging her into this, because after all I still didn’t quite believe—with all the cynicism and diffidence of my waking conscious—that she really liked me. Bad for Byron because . . . it gave me a lump in my throat and a bitter taste in my mouth just to think about.

With my post-waking euphoria suitably subdued and the old aches and pains settling in fast, I wandered out to the galley to make myself something to eat. The echoes of the night’s pondering returned to me at last, and I cringed at how readily I had accepted them in my childlike state of sleep. I do like her. Does she like me? I don’t know. Even with the evidence stacked as it was, I didn’t know. Were we going to get through this together? I doubted we were going to get through it at all.

‘Morning, Jake,’ Jason said as he swooped into the galley like a shadow, making me twitch with an unexpected dose of adrenaline.

‘Morning.’

‘I wondered if I could speak with you?’

I looked around, saw we were most definitely alone. ‘Sure.’

Jason hovered for a moment, stuck on his first word. At last he perched his hands on his hips, nodded to me as if we had agreed something unspoken together, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘For what?’ I knew, he knew; I just wanted to hear him say it.

‘For this, for everything. For getting you tangled up in my mess.’ He sighed; he was bringing me to his level, or at least coming down to mine. I could see in his face that, at last, he was going to address me as an equal. ‘I’m not cut out for this. I’m a protester, an anarchist—I’m not a military man.’

I watched him but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t helping him out here. He silently pleaded with me to throw him a lifeline, but it wasn’t going to happen.

‘Do you know how I ended up at Futureproof?’ he asked. I shook my head. No. ‘I skipped school, that’s how. I skipped school because my parents were riding me to get my grades up. I grew up in a good home, you know, but it was stifling. My mother, she wanted me to be something big, something important, a judge or a senator or something like that, and father, well, he was the same—when he actually spoke to me. I’m not looking for a sympathy vote here, I know I had a chance offered to very few people in this world and I blew it, I’m just explaining how I saw it from my young, stupid mind.

‘So anyway, I skip class with a friend of mine who tells me about this organisation they’d heard about, Futureproof. They were saving the world, I mean really saving it. They were going out into the unprotected zones to meet with the growing factions out there, and then they’d meet with leaders in the GA to bring terms and form agreements. They spoke up for the everyman, defended those without a voice. It was truly inspiring stuff. And there it was: an opportunity to not only make a difference in this life, but also to become the anti-establishment figurehead my mother and father so despised. They wanted me to be a judge; I’d be the guy sat across the table from him, telling him what I thought of his stupid oppression.’

Jason stopped his story to consider me for a moment, as I considered him. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this—sympathy perhaps, despite him saying otherwise; to connect with me on a human level was another reason; or maybe he just wanted to unload—and I got the impression that he wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it. For some reason, I did. I was intrigued. ‘Go on,’ I said. He smiled briefly, and continued.

‘I joined Futureproof the same day—we both did, my friend and I. Mother was livid. Father was too, probably on mother’s behalf. But it was done, settled. I moved out, and they refused to speak to me again. After I’d cooled off and spent some time away from them, I wrote to them, but they never responded. Not even a line to see how I was. I mean, nothing.’

Was that an extra layer of gloss forming in Jason’s eyes, or had I imagined it?

‘Anyway,’ he continued, clearing his throat. ‘I rose through the ranks of Futureproof, working hard in the hope that one day I’d find myself in a position my parents couldn’t ignore, and sure enough, I did. It was some fifteen years after I’d moved out, but I finally made it. I was there, in a real meeting with real GA officials discussing real problems. And I was good at it, too. I had realised that diplomacy was a far greater weapon than aggression, and my ability to express myself earned me a seat on the GA sub-council, the first time any activist movement had ever received any kind of official commendation like that. But it was clear why; the rising unrest in the unprotected zones was growing out of control, and war was clearly on the horizon. We had the trust of the factions, and the GA had control of modern civilisation. We, the mediators for a previously ignorable rabble of rag-tag thieves and villains had become the spokesmen for an army poised for battle.

‘Father visited me after chambers one time, completely by surprise. He was old, but I recognised him, and him me. He said he’d seen me on television, and that he was proud of me. He also told me that mother had died in a traffic accident a year-and-a-half ago. It was so stupid, he kept saying, over and over. It was so stupid how she died. I felt strangely empty when he’d told me, as if he’d taken something from me when he’d said it, but didn’t tell me what. He hugged me, and told me again that he was proud of me. That was the last time I saw him. To this day I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. I can’t face finding out. Seeing him there, looking so frail and hollow, I’m not sure I want to know.’

Jason’s eyes were definitely glistening now, but no tears had fallen. I looked at the floor to allow him a moment to gather himself.

‘It was then I began to realise that I needed to do something,’ he said, his composure regained. ‘Up to then I’d been playing political ping pong, batting issues back and forth, not really achieving anything other than upsetting the apple cart in the way Futureproof was known for. You know how it is—they say one thing, we say the other, just for sake of being anti-establishment. But I’d had an idea: we knew and the GA knew that the leaders of the factions, who we knew had begun to put their own differences aside in the pursuit of larger matters, would never make jail; once the media had it out that they had been incarcerated, the resulting civil unrest would result in untold chaos, germinating the perfect storm for the merged factions to strike within. GA ruling was already heavily contested thanks to tightening taxes and increasingly heavy policing, both repercussions of the rising populace and the imminent unprotected zone threat, and the dissatisfied rumblings coming from the people had the council on edge. It had almost become fashionable to romanticise the idea of the factions living out in the unprotected zones; many middle-class citizens viewed them as revolutionary nomads and, of course, with things becoming tougher and tougher for everyone, the idea of change and an escape from what could be none other than a bleak future appealed to many. News that faction leaders had been incarcerated? It was a catalyst for trouble. We knew it, and the factions knew it, too. They had us cornered.

‘So I proposed a plan: using our knowledge and relationships with the faction leaders, we launch an operation to capture their top people and take them off-world. They remain alive and well in stasis for the remainder of their days, protecting their rights as people, and the slow and confused revelation of their disappearance would give GA military enough time to swoop in and demobilise faction troops. At first, the GA wouldn’t listen, but as the situation became clearer, it was obvious that we had no other choice, and operation New Dawn was given the green light.’

After Jason had finished, he sighed. He looked contented, relieved, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I still didn’t know if he had a point to telling me his story or if he had done it just to get it off his chest, but whatever his reasons, he seemed to have got what he came for. Then he blinked, the contentment faded, and he looked at me. ‘Jake, I’m sorry.’

‘You said—’

‘No, I mean I’m sorry for using you to get to Byron. I’ve become very focussed on what we’ve got to do, and I’ve neglected to see the bigger picture. This isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us, and I forget that sometimes. It’s my biggest strength and my biggest weakness: I am so focussed I often neglect those I care about. And I’m sorry.’

He didn’t give me a chance to respond, turning and wandering out of the galley towards the cockpit before I had a chance to say anything. So you know what you’re doing, I thought to myself. You know what you’re doing, but we’re still doing it.

Chapter 24

I sat motionless for a long time after Jason departed. Semi-comatose in a state of self-pity and self-loathing, I aggregated my situation, took a breath and stood. The room teetered, a dizzy haze washing it vague, and then my mind was made up. It had already been made up for me buy Jason’s ultimatum, but at least now I felt I had some control over what I was doing. I had to do it. I needed to do it. For the others. For everyone. In my head, the lies sounded almost plausible.

He was strapped to the wall, hands behind his back, tied together by unseen bonds. He didn’t look at me when I approached.

‘Hello, Byron,’ I said as casually as I could muster. Too casually. He said nothing. I squatted down beside him, two friends meeting for a chit-chat between shifts. ‘I know I haven’t come to see you,’ I said, and then I paused. I wanted to tell him I hadn’t been allowed, or I was busy, or something like that, but I couldn’t. I knew it wasn’t true, he’d know it wasn’t true—it would just be insulting. I looked quickly at him, his dirty blonde hair a puff on the top of his downturned head. ‘I’m sorry.’

He looked up at me, his icy-blue eyes cold but for the hint of sadness. ‘Why did you leave me?’ he said. He sounded as bleak as he looked.

I shrugged a complacent, idiotic shrug. It’ll be okay, the shrug said, no need to overreact. There it was again, the selfishness that protected me above all else. Once it’s pointed out there’s no ignoring it. ‘Because I’m a bad person,’ I said. ‘And I’m sorry.’

Byron, quietly, laughed. The soft giggles faded quickly, but the look of wry humour lingered on. ‘We’re all bad people,’ he said. ‘Every one of us. There’s not a person here on this ship that wouldn’t push the others off a cliff to save themselves.’ He pulled a face that dismissed the thought as if it were a silly rumination. ‘That’s human nature I suppose.’

I felt I was being let off the hook. At first I was grateful, then I was suspicious, and finally I was concerned. The change took place in a moment, too quick for Byron to notice. ‘Aren’t you angry?’ I asked.

Byron leaned back against the wall, tipping his head back to gaze at the ceiling. ‘No, I’m not angry. I learned not to be angry a long time ago. I want to be angry, sure, but for what?’

‘You seemed pretty angry at Grant.’

A laugh again, but this time with embarrassment. ‘I said I learned not to be angry. I didn’t say I was any good at it.’

I shifted from the squat to sitting proper. We both stared at the far wall together, our breathing in sync, our silence mutual. It was an odd moment of peace, one I realised I’d sorely missed. Reflective, meditative—whatever you want to call it, it came as a welcome respite, something I needed to give myself a chance to wind down and reflect. Maybe Byron was right; maybe we were all bad. Not the saving grace I hoped for, but better than nothing at all.

‘Jason plans to leave you behind,’ I said, breaking the silence. My voice seemed loud and abrasive.

‘I know.’

‘You know?’

‘It’s not really a secret how he feels.’

How long had Byron sat here, alone, with that knowledge tumbling about in his head, rotting him from the inside out? ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Why?’

‘Because . . . because it’s unfair. Not to mention that it’s morally obscene.’

Byron smiled. He had an absent happiness on his face, as though he was thinking back to a fond memory. ‘It’s why I’m here,’ he said.

I heard what Byron said, and at first I let it pass over me as I did with much of what he said. But something in my head, some filter or alarm, urged me to reconsider reviewing it again before I let it wash in obscurity. It’s why I’m here. I felt the weight of the neural stunner shift in my pocket as I turned to face Byron head on.

‘What do you mean . . .? I asked, cautious. I edged back as Byron adjusted his position, grimacing as he moved against his restraints.

‘That’s who I am. It’s who I’ve always been. I’m a baseline, a zero measure, a calibration tool for the opportunistic. It started out with my brother, who I was always being compared to, and it’s been that way ever since. I exist to make others feel better about themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a wonderful time on board with you guys, and for a while I got to appreciate what it’s like to be an equal part of a team, but it wasn’t going to last. It never does. People need something to kick, something to blame, and that something is me.’

It hit me hard the way Byron referred to himself as a something. Comforting phrases like that’s not true and you don’t mean that came immediately to mind, but they seemed borderline insulting to even think, let alone say. He was right, entirely. Even I was guilty of using Byron to feel better about myself. I began to feel hot and fidgety, and all at once I wanted to get up and be gone, but I forced myself to sit, to stay, and to listen. ‘You don’t have to accept that,’ I said in a muffled stutter.

‘You’re right, I don’t. But if I don’t, someone else will. And that someone else could be someone capable of something great, and what a waste that would be. At least with me there’s nothing missed out on.’

‘You have a great gift, with numbers—’

‘Nothing more than the most ordinary computer is capable of.’

‘But you’re a person, a life, a—a human that deserves something better than this . . .’

‘I’m a burden.’

‘But you showed great promise before. You’ve been a real asset to the team, I mean that.’

Byron shook his head slowly. ‘And that’s just it. Before. It’s always before. Never now. It’s because I can’t help myself. It just happens. And then I’m back to square one, and that’s where I’ll stay. At least with this I’ll actually be doing something right for a change.’

It took me a second, but I realised he was talking about being left behind on HD 85512 B. He’d already accepted it as if it were fate, an unchangeable fact that he was heading for completely out of his control. ‘But it doesn’t have to be this way . . .’ I pleaded.

Byron was looking distant again, but this time he must have been looking to the future, because his face was grim. ‘Yes, it does.’

I could see there was no convincing him otherwise, and I remembered I was here after all for a reason. ‘So you’ll drill with us?’

He nodded. I didn’t have the stomach to thank him for what was ultimately accepting a death warrant, so I stood, making my way to leave. The air had become stifling in there, choking me.

‘Jake?’ Byron said, just as I was about to cross the threshold of the tow dock.

‘Yes?’

Byron froze for a moment, his face hard, emotionless, then he blinked, as if regaining consciousness. ‘I did it.’

I turned back properly, walking slowly back towards Byron, treading as if the floor might give way beneath me. ‘Did what?’

‘I killed them.’ He said it like it was nothing, but it was something enough to stop me where I stood.

‘You . . . you killed them?’ Dumbstruck repetition was all I could manage.

‘Yes.’

I lowered myself to the ground again, but not to get comfortable, but to stop it from spinning. A weak fuzz took the energy away from my legs at the last minute, dropping me unexpectedly to the floor. Byron didn’t seem to notice, or care. He studied the floor. ‘You killed Sadie?’

He nodded.

‘And the others? You did that?’

Another nod.

‘But . . .’ I could feel the words forming on my mouth, a distant sensation that came in globular pulses stretched thin by the distortion of time. ‘. . . why?’

Byron didn’t speak, or move. He continued to look at the floor, his eyes growing increasingly red. I couldn’t watch him any longer, my own head filling with hot oil that threatened to explode out of me at any second. A driving pulse knurled my brain, hitting the backs of my eyes with an agonising pain. ‘I have to—’ I started, but I said nothing more as I clambered up and staggered my way out of there. I don’t remember going through the bunks or the galley, but I found myself in the rec room with all but Grant and Clip looking back at me, faces ashen.

‘Jason,’ I spluttered, ‘what have—what have you done to him?’

Jason did not seem surprised by my fitful state, and he approached me with the open arms of a father welcoming his returning son. ‘Jake, Jake, Jake . . . it was inevitable . . .’

‘Get off me!’ I yelled, pushing Jason away. ‘Get off me!’

‘Easy . . . easy . . .’ he said, holding up his hands. ‘I understand that you’re upset . . .’

I looked to Emily, and I saw that her expression was grim.

‘He told me himself not an hour ago,’ Jason continued, maintaining his distance. ‘I’m so sorry.’

I wanted to run forward and pile my fists into him, but I had little more energy than I needed to stand, and it was fading fast. I stumbled back against a chair and dropped into it. My eyes were streaming, and I wiped them against my sleeve. ‘I don’t believe it . . .’ I said in a voice as broken as I was.

‘None of us do,’ Jason said solemnly. ‘But it’s true.’

There was nothing more I could say.

 

When Jason and Sophia switched shifts with Grant and Clip, I had regained enough control of myself to follow after them to the cockpit. I had questions, and I wanted answers. They were waiting for me.

‘I understand you’re angry,’ Jason said, pre-empting my tirade, ‘and I deserve that. I should have told you before you spoke to him, but I needed you to hear it from his own mouth.’

‘What did you do to him to make him say that?’ I hissed, tensing to keep myself from yelling. Sophia, who stood back from Jason, had her arms tightly folded and wore an expression of deep concern.

‘Jake—I did nothing. Come on, you must have seen this coming. Byron is an unstable man—I mean, who else did you think this could have been? He’s been harbouring this for a long time, and I think Sadie—’

‘Don’t you dare say her name!’

‘—I think she was just too much for him. In fact I think this whole mission was too much for him. This environment, these confines—they’re enough to turn a perfectly reasonable person mad, let alone someone like him.’

The more Jason spoke, the more my hatred of him flowed through me. I could feel it surging, a physical entity that thundered through my veins. ‘It’s your fault he’s here at all . . .’ I said through gritted teeth.

‘And I hold my hands up to that,’ Jason said, holding his hands up. ‘I was wrong to do that. It was the wrong thing to do. I naively assumed that Peter Ash wouldn’t do something that would jeopardise his own mission. But I was wrong, and I admit that.’ He lowered his hands slowly. ‘There’s nothing I can do about that now.’

‘You can bring Byron back to Earth, for a proper trial.’

Jason shook his head in a slow, damning way. ‘I’m afraid I can’t risk that. Who knows what could happen if we have him on board for another eight months.’

‘It’s not right—’

‘It’s the law,’ Jason snapped. He approached me aggressively, stopping inches away. I could see a fire in his eyes . . . or was it fear? ‘And he’s crossed the line. He’s not coming back.’

With Jason standing so close I couldn’t maintain my anger. His presence was intimidating and he knew it; I was frail by comparison, and I knew it. ‘Do you agree with this, Sophia?’ I said, more quietly this time. Jason, sensing my defeat, backed up a little. Sophia half nodded, half shrugged.

‘Right now I’m not quite sure what to think . . .’ she began. She didn’t finish.

‘There’s no other way,’ Jason continued. ‘When we leave he will eventually run out of oxygen. He’ll fall unconscious and die in his sleep. It will be peaceful, painless.’

That wasn’t any kind of comfort, but it compounded the inevitability of it. ‘This isn’t the last of this,’ I said. ‘I’m going to go talk to him again.’

‘I don’t recommend it.’

‘I’m doing it.’

Jason frowned, then nodded. ‘Okay then. Fine. Whatever you want.’ He stood, waiting for me to leave, hands on hips. I took the hint, and turned to go.

‘One more thing,’ I said, before I left. ‘Will you be able to live with yourself after this?’

Jason, unmoving, said, ‘I’d rather live with it than die with it.’

I turned and left, disgusted.

Emily’s expression was still staid when I returned to the rec room. ‘Are you okay?’ she whispered to me as I sat down beside her.

‘I’ll be alright,’ I said. ‘Where’s Grant and Clip?’

‘They’re catching up on some rest.’

‘Do they know?’

Emily nodded solemnly.

‘Gah . . .’ I said, resting my head in my hands, ‘I can’t believe this.’

Emily smoothed my back. It felt nice, but it could do nothing to relax me. ‘None of us can.’

‘Tell that to Jason. He’s been gunning for Byron this whole time.’

Emily stopped stroking. ‘How do you know that?’

‘He told me.’

‘When? Recently?’

‘No, a while back.’

‘And you didn’t say anything?’

‘It’s—it’s complicated. He made me promise.’

Emily folded her arms and leaned away from me. She didn’t look happy. ‘How many other things am I going to find out you knew and kept to yourself?’

‘Nothing else, that’s it . . .’

‘You should tell me these things, Jake. I could have helped Sadie if I’d known.’

‘Okay!’ I barked. ‘I get it! I should have said something! I realise I made a mistake, but this is a lot more complicated than you’re making it out to be. I was . . . scared. I didn’t realise . . .’ I trailed off, my voice catching in my throat. I felt Emily’s hand on my back again, tracing gentle circles up and down.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’

‘The terrible thing is that you’re right.’ And she was; hindsight was twisting me up inside to the point where I felt something was going to twang in two.

‘You can’t blame yourself. You weren’t to know. Jason shouldn’t have got you involved. It wasn’t your responsibility.’

‘I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.’

Emily’s hand paused, then restarted. ‘How were you to know he was a killer?’

Hearing Emily say that made my guts writhe like a barrel full of snakes. I didn’t want to believe it, but I had no other choice. He’d told me, he’d admitted it. It was him, no question. ‘But . . . why? And how?’ I said, as if trying convince myself of the impossibility.

‘Who knows? Who knows why Byron does what he does. He’s not well, Jake, he’s—unsettled, I suppose. But that doesn’t give him an excusable reason to kill.’

And she was right. There was no excuse that could save him. I shivered, my lingering responsibility, my mental oath to protect Byron clinging to me like a wet towel. Again I realised that my desire to see him survive, to see him succeed was little more than carefully placed selfishness. I wanted to feel good about myself, and right now I couldn’t feel any worse. ‘I’ve fucked up,’ I said, my voice wavering. ‘I’ve really fucked up . . .’

Emily took my head in her arms, and I rested against her warm bosom as she rocked gently, running her fingers over my hair. I shut my eyes, and all at once I was at home, fifteen years ago, held by my mother as she caressed my sadness away in the maternal way only a mother can offer. At first I was horrified and I wanted to pull away, but then I realised I needed it, and relaxed fully into the embrace.

‘Do you think I’m a bad person?’ I said, muffled from between the warm folds of Emily’s arms and chest.

‘Don’t say that,’ she whispered, leaning close such that I could feel her warm breath against my ear and cheek. ‘You’re not a bad person.’

‘I love you,’ I said.

‘I love you, too.’

Chapter 23

Usually, at the one month stage, we would begin countdown preparations for the landing and subsequent planetary operations. We would work to a drill, laid out almost step by step, but this time our mission had changed. It was also customary for the beginning of the final month to be marked with a celebration—another activity we would forego. Instead we assembled together—minus Byron, of course—after what felt like forever since our last gathering, and the animosity in the room seemed almost like we were meeting for the first time. There was no casual banter, no laughing or joking­—we sat still and silent, wide-eyed and nervous.

‘Okay,’ Jason said, reading from his notes. ‘We have fifty stasis tubes to secure, and we have three days to do it. Ship reads a storm coming in, a big one.’

‘We’re never going to make that with what we have left,’ Grant said, folding his arms. ‘Can’t we leave the tubes on the planet’s surface?’

Clip gave Grant a reprehensive look, but when Grant didn’t notice, he turned back again.

‘Absolutely not,’ Jason said. ‘Each tube reports back to the Athena. If one of the tubes is damaged in a storm while we’re there—which is very likely—the whole mission will be automatically . . . aborted. I don’t think I need to explain myself any further.’

Grant’s silence confirmed that he didn’t.

‘We’re all going to have to get involved in this one,’ Jason continued. ‘The ship’s predicting a month-long storm to hit three to four days after we land, so we’ve got to work fast. I don’t think any of us wants to wait it out that long to continue work.’ Shaking heads. ‘I didn’t think so. Clip, Grant, Emily: you’ll be on construction detail as normal, but I’ll need you, Clip and Grant, assisting Jake in the drilling and the insertion of the tubes. I—’ he stopped talking, took a breath and paused before continuing. ‘I’ve run the plan over and over, and there’s no way we can meet the deadline without Byron.’ Looks were exchanged at that comment. ‘It’s going to be tight even with him.’

Jason stopped talking at that point, as if opening up the floor for discussion on this controversial statement. I expect the same thought was going through everyone’s minds—if we have to, we have to.

‘And there’s no way we can do it without him?’ Grant asked slowly.

Jason shook his head. ‘None that I can see. Believe me, I’m not happy about it, but I don’t see what else we can do.’

‘I agree,’ Sophia said. ‘I’ve looked over it a thousand times and it wouldn’t work.’ She flashed Jason a sour look that I think only I saw. It was so slight, so subtle, that I think I saw it only because I was expecting it. If Sophia, who disagreed with Byron being left behind, couldn’t think of an alternative, there wasn’t an alternative.

But I wasn’t the only person to have seen the look—Jason saw it, too, and he knew what it meant. He must also have thought he needed to address it, because he did. ‘I understand it has been revealed that my intention was to leave Byron on the surface when we departed.’ I shifted in my seat, an uncomfortable cramp settling in my calf. ‘But I can assure you all that what I said was based on a moment of unclear thinking, and I have since changed my mind. We will be leaving no one behind.’ Except the fifty souls in stasis tubes we were dragging along behind us. I knew it, he knew it, we all knew it, and that’s why the air had become thick with awkward silence. Jason cleared his throat and continued. ‘So, do we have any volunteers to man the third drill with Byron?’ He looked about, ignoring the unflinching stoicism with which no one volunteered. ‘Ok,’ he said, resigning himself to the lack of response. ‘I’ll do it. So, Jake, you’ll partner with Sophia, Grant, you’re with Clip. I’ll partner with Byron. Emily, you load and transport the tubes. Is that clear to everyone?’ A murmured grunt was the response. ‘Okay, good. I’ll draw out a more detailed schedule based on that and forward it to everyone when it’s complete. Carry on.’

The meeting disbanded and the cockpit, which had been left unmanned for the first time in the mission’s history, was repopulated by Grant and Clip. Jason and Sophia shared a glance, and Jason nodded.

‘Jake,’ he said, ‘can you come with me a moment, please?’ For a moment, despite the obvious use of my name, I wasn’t sure if Jason was talking to me. All of a sudden I felt the singling nausea of accusation in the pit of my stomach, and my face must have shown the same. ‘It’s okay,’ Jason said, ‘I just need to ask you a favour.’

‘But what about Emily? I don’t want to leave her here by herself.’

‘Sophia will stay with Emily.’

I turned to Emily, silently pleading. She shrugged: I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.

Jason, who was already standing, gestured me to follow him into the galley. Since his outburst in the cockpit where he’d sent me and Sophia packing, I’d had a wary sense of unease about him lodged in my gut. I’d seen another side to him, a side without reason and control. Sure, he’d said he wasn’t really going to leave Byron behind, that his decision was one taken in haste, but how many other decisions had he made like that that had flown through unnoticed? How many more would there be? Would this, whatever this was going to be, be one of them?

Wearily I stood, knees cracking, and I followed Jason out into the cold galley. He didn’t stop there—he continued through to the bunks. He rounded on me and I stepped back, waiting for sudden pain that comes with the impact of lashed fist. It never came.

‘Jake, I need your help.’

Jason was pleading. His tone said it, his posture said it, his glowing white eyes said it.

‘What do you need?’ My offer was tentative, but I suppose it was sincere. After all, Jason still wanted to live, and so did I—we still had that much in common.

‘I need you to speak to Byron,’ he said. ‘He won’t speak to me. I need you to persuade him to come on this mission with us.’

I snorted a laugh that came as much to my surprise as it did to Jason’s. ‘You want me to persuade Byron? To do you a favour? He’s not going to buy that.’

‘Jake, please . . .’

‘Why should I? It’s your fault he’s locked up in there. You slapped the cuffs on him, not me.’

Jason shifted and the cowl of innocence left him, leaving his imploring stance a more forward demand. ‘If we’re apportioning blame, Jake, I would say that a great deal of that lies with you. A relationship on board during a mission? I could write you up for that. You’d never set foot on so much as an orbital taxi again.’

I swallowed. He had me there.

‘And you know what?’ Jason continued. ‘I’ve had to deal with the fallout from your interstellar fling in more ways than one. Grant, Jake. Grant. The man was in tears when I spoke to him. Heartbroken.’

‘How’s that my fault—’

‘It’s why we don’t get into relationships on board. You know that, I know that. You’re a smart man, Jake. A smart man. Don’t insult yourself by pretending you’re not.’

Again he had me. Whichever way I looked at it, the fingers pointed at me. ‘Alright,’ I said, defeated. ‘I’ll do it.’ I had no other choice.

Jason relaxed and slapped me on the arm. ‘Thank you. It’s for the good of the crew.’

‘But answer me one thing.’

Jason’s fresh smile wavered. ‘What’s that?’

‘Why did you lie to me?’

He took a step back, folded his arms. ‘Lie to you? About what? I didn’t—’

‘About Byron’s personal bag. About what was in it.’

The smile grew, but it was one of guilt. ‘Alright,’ he said. ‘Alright. I’ll level with you. There was no toy. Never has been. But what was I supposed to do? All this stuff gets logged, it has to, especially on such a critical mission as this. If I write you up as having wild visual and auditory hallucinations, you’re as good as useless to me. I can’t take you out on the surface with that on your record. I needed you, Jake, we all did. So I lied about the toy. I didn’t expect for you to go looking for it.’

The words were sincere, but something didn’t add up. ‘But what about Byron?’

Jason shrugged dismissively. ‘What about Byron?’

‘Are you writing him up, too? He’s restrained in the tow dock and you’re planning on taking him onto the surface.’

Again Jason’s body language changed. It was subtle, but I noticed it, even under the gloomy light. He was being backed into a corner, and he was looking for a way to escape. ‘That’s different.’

‘How is it different? His participation is mission critical, my participation is mission critical. You write me up, you write him up.’

‘I’ve left all this out of the mission log.’

‘Then why couldn’t you leave my hallucination—or whatever the hell it was—out of the mission log? What aren’t you telling me, Jason? What are you lying about?’

Jason didn’t say anything. He had become still, the only movement the nervous chewing of his lip. He was waiting for me to figure it out.

‘Just tell me, Jason. Please. We need to be honest with each other.’

I could see Jason’s chest rising and falling. He was taught, tense. He was afraid of being edged into the corner, and now he found himself in there, pressed tight against the right angle formed of two very solid walls. The options left open to him had become very thin on the ground, very thin indeed, and he knew it.

‘Jason, answer me.’

And in an instant he backed down. His rigid body went limp, and he flopped onto one of the bunks. I sat opposite, never taking my eyes off him.

‘I don’t have any other choice,’ he said, his voice small. ‘I have to do it.’

‘Do what?’ My own voice had become quiet, matching the delicate intensity of Jason’s own. ‘What do you have to do?’

‘I have to leave him. I have to leave him behind.’

The emotion I felt then was so overwhelming and confusing, I almost felt nothing at all. ‘Why do you have to leave him behind? We have no proof that he’s—’

‘But don’t you see?’ Jason hissed, in a flash turning a shade of the crazy I’d seen before. His eyes were red, and his twisted expression startled me. ‘Don’t you see?’

‘See what . . .?’ I said, venturing where I felt I didn’t want to go. Jason’s maddened features dulled, and he settled back into a limp neutrality.

‘I can’t bring him back,’ he said, as much to himself as to me. ‘They wouldn’t have it.’

Who wouldn’t have it? Jason, you aren’t making any sense.’

‘If I bring him back,’ he said, rambling on to himself, ‘that’s the end. The end of me. The end of this. He’s the only way out.’

The tunnel, black and long, flickered. ‘You . . . you’re using Byron? As a scapegoat?’

‘What other choice do I have?’

‘You have a hundred other choices. And what would Peter Ash say?’

Jason sniggered. ‘Peter Ash doesn’t care.’

‘What—how do you know that?’

‘He called, me remember? Asked me to take Byron with us. I told him it was a dangerous mission and do you know what he said to me? He said, I couldn’t give more of a shit. In fact I’ll double whatever it is you’re paid to make sure he doesn’t come back.

My heart skipped a beat. ‘What . . .?’ I whispered. I was almost sure I hadn’t heard what I’d heard, or I’d heard more than I should of. But Jason didn’t seem shocked or surprised that he’d revealed this nugget to me—if anything, he looked relieved.

‘Do you know how hard it is for me?’ he said slowly. He sniffed, then wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve. ‘I’m not so young as I used to be. Living out in the unprotected zones when you’re young is fine, but when you’ve got a family, a child . . . they deserve more than that. All this Futureproof stuff . . . I was young, naïve. I thought then I could take on the world, and now I realise the world is bigger than I am. Too big. All I want now is a way out. I’ve been made that offer, and I’m not going to turn it down.’ He blew a long breath from between puckered lips, then shook his head, smiling. ‘You know what a load off it is to tell someone that?’

I was appalled. He was contending with someone’s life and he was smirking like it was some dirty joke. ‘How can you live with yourself?’ I said. It was all I could manage.

He laughed again, still under the pretence that we were sharing a joke. ‘I don’t know that just yet. What I do know is that his life will protect that of my wife and my child.’ He looked me in the eye, that piercing, penetrating look I’d seen before, leaving me cold. ‘One life for two,’ he said. ‘That’s not bad, eh?’

‘That’s not your decision to make.’

‘Come on!’ he said, slapping his knees and sitting up with sudden frustration. ‘You think anyone cares about Byron? His own father doesn’t care—if he doesn’t care about him, who the hell does?’

‘I care about him.’

Jason shook his head slowly, a look of disgust creeping onto his face. ‘You don’t care for him. You just feel guilty. You carry it around like a load on your back, all the guilt you feel for everything that’s bad in the world. Well guess what—bad stuff happens. Sometimes it happens to good people. But I don’t see you doing anything about it.’

‘I do care, I told you—I care about Byron very much.’ I could hear the tremble in my own voice.

‘Then why haven’t you been to see him? It’s been a month and you haven’t once set foot into the tow dock to see him.’

‘I thought I wasn’t allowed—’

‘When did I say that? And when have the rules ever stopped you doing something you wanted to do? Face it—you care about Byron just as much as everyone else does. The person you really care about is yourself.’

I was flustered by what Jason was saying, and I wanted to retort, but something else inside me held me back. A deeper conscience, perhaps, a voice confirming everything I’ve always known but never believed. He was right.

‘I risked my life to help others,’ Jason continued. ‘I served with Futureproof to better the world, to make a difference. I gave so much without ever expecting anything in return. What did you ever do?’

I could feel hot tears pricking the backs of my eyes, and with them the searing shade of embarrassment on my cheeks. I wanted to fight back, defend myself, but all I could give was my silence.

‘That’s what I thought. So don’t tell me about right and wrong. Don’t you dare tell me about right and wrong. If saving the lives of two innocent people means leaving Byron behind, then so be it.’

‘Is Sophia in on this?’ I said, my throat choking my words into hoarse whispers.

‘No. She’s not. She’s . . . innocent. But that doesn’t change anything. If we don’t get those tubes offloaded and buried properly, none of us are coming back. You still need to talk to Byron.’

All I wanted to do was vomit. How easily the hunter became the hunted. These two walls pressed close behind me, and I saw no way of escape. ‘Fine.’

Jason slapped his knees. In a moment he had become normal again, as if we’d whiled away the time taking about books and movies. ‘That’s great, thank you. I appreciate it.’ He stood, stretched, and made his way back towards the galley, stopping at the curtains. ‘By the way, if anything about this gets out, and I mean anything at all, you’re not going back, either. That’s a promise.’

And then he was gone. I sat on the bed for a long time after his portentous message and subsequent exit, and at some point I actually cried. I hated him, I hated Planexus, I hated the mission—but above all, I hated myself. As much as it pained me to admit, Jason was right. I had touched upon it before in passing moments of easily dismissible glimpses into my own psyche, but to hear it spoken aloud really etched it into my brain, front and centre, never to be time-worn away from its biting, immediate clarity. I was drawn back to a school report card, a teacher-parent evening from my younger years of school. It was one of my earliest memories and one of my most shameful, even if it had taken over twenty years to fully realise that shame.

Jake is a spiteful boy at times, Mrs Pritchard. He is capable of kindness on a superficial level, that much is obvious, but he has an underlying streak that guides him to behaving in a manner that serves only himself, even at the detriment of the others.

At first I hadn’t known what it had meant and, a little later, when the words took on meaning and left their formless cocoons behind, I had taken affront to the teacher, Mr Jefferson, who had said them. He was wrong. He was the one who was spiteful, not me. But then, later still, the flashes had come, the blurred snapshots of snatching and hitting and biting. Normal child behaviour, mother had told me when I’d asked her about it, many years on, but I knew it was more than that. But I was satisfied—and the school too had been satisfied—that the streak was gone, had been weathered away by discipline and maturity. But now I knew that it had been no more than masked, had evolved into a more subtle form that dug deeper and lasted longer. I was just as selfish and spiteful as I ever was—I was just better at hiding it.

I thought about the man who had killed my father. I had never actually seen him, save for the odd blurred image salvaged from a photo taken from a long way away, but I had a picture of him in my mind: handsome, tanned, long golden-brown hair, lightly curled, tousled in an unkempt but attractive way. I despised him; I had fashioned his appearance in my mind to make me despise him even more. The streak reared whenever I thought about him.

I knew I was going to talk to Byron. I knew why, and I hated myself for it. I genuinely didn’t want Byron to die, genuinely believed he deserved more than that, but my need to survive outweighed his need, I couldn’t deny it. Worse still, I knew without him we would never complete our mission and bury our payload, and I wanted to personally see to it that Istanbul Angel never saw daylight again.