The days dragged. We were only two months and fourteen days in. Usually I would be enjoying the free time, consuming entertainment in its various forms in that solitary way my mother always used to be concerned about. But on board the Athena, time seemed to have been stretched paper thin, weak and transparent, and that was how I felt. Weak and transparent. I would play my games, but I would lose focus in minutes. I would read books, but I’d read the same page over and over and over. It was as if I was waiting for something, something bad, and on the second month, fourteen days in, it happened. Well actually, come to think of it, it started happening the day before, but it wasn’t until afterwards that put the pieces together.
It was evening, and I was trying—and failing—to read a book. It was one of those I’d copied over from James’ now defunct e-reader, and although it was good, a mixture of unease and noisy distraction stopped the words from going in. They seemed to ping off my eyeballs as I fell into a glassy stare, looking but not seeing, tossing the same festering thoughts around in my head on some logic-loop autopilot. The unease I couldn’t control, but the noisy distraction I could; Clip, Grant and Emily were playing cards, and the raging competitiveness was driving the volume up a notch with each hand. I hadn’t really got to know Clip and Grant that well so far, so I figured I would do the simple thing and vacate to my bunk, where I could read (or not) in peace. It was kind of an unwritten rule that the bunk space was kept quiet, so it made sense for me to retreat there and leave the others playing undisturbed.
On my way through the galley—which always seemed to smell of coffee at this time of day, even though we didn’t have any—I passed Brendan, James’ friend and colleague, who was wearing a disgruntled expression and was without his usual companion. We exchanged nods, and the curtness of his and sheer curiosity made me stop and ask him where James was.
‘He’s not feeling so good,’ Brendan said. ‘He’s having a lie-down.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Yeah. Me too.’
But something about his tone made me think he wasn’t telling the truth. If anything, he was behaving as though they’d had a falling out, and the way he stomped off made the idea seem even more plausible. But what could they possibly have to fight about? Sure, people spoke of drilling teams as though they were old married couples, but did that include the arguments as well? The thought didn’t hang around long, because when I entered the bunk space, James wasn’t there. Perhaps he was having a shower, cooling off so to speak. The part of me that didn’t fancy the idea of slogging through a pass-the-parcel of ship-wide infection hoped that he was. I didn’t see whether or not he did come back out the shower because after a handful of pages I’d slipped into a dreamless, restless sleep.
The next day, my mind fresh—or as fresh as it could be—I rendezvoused with Sadie and Byron to have breakfast. Somehow it seemed like ages since I’d last spent any time with them, and it was probably because I hadn’t. It was nice to laugh again, and I could feel the hands of anxiousness release their clammy grip from my shoulders. Byron was being pleasant, Sadie even more so, and my concerns finally seemed to slip away.
‘Sadie was teaching me how to sew yesterday,’ Byron said proudly. ‘I stitched a picture of a dog, although it came out looking like a rat.’
Sadie let out an involuntary, staccato laugh. ‘It wasn’t that bad.’
‘It was. Look, Jake.’
He handed me a grubby piece of cloth. I held it up, and sure enough, there was a rat on it. ‘It’s not that bad . . .’ I tried to say without breaking into open laughter, right in the poor kid’s face. I just about managed to stifle the giggles by clenching my stomach. It was quite painful.
Byron didn’t seem convinced by my attempt at sincerity, but he thanked me anyway. ‘You should have a go,’ he said. ‘See what you can do.’
‘No thanks,’ I said, the corners of my mouth aching from keeping a straight face. ‘Sadie’s tried that one on me before, but sewing just isn’t my style.’
‘Like you have style,’ she rebuked.
‘She’s right, you know. You don’t have any style.’
‘What are you even talking about? We’re all wearing the same issue jumpsuits for goodness’ sake!’
‘Yeah, but you don’t wear yours with style.’
Where I had held in my laughter, Sadie made no attempt to do that same, guffawing point blank in my face.
‘I’ve got plenty of style,’ I said, folding my arms indignantly. ‘You two just don’t know it when you see it.’
‘Oh, lay off . . .’ Sadie said, wiping her eyes. (You lay off, I wanted to say, but then I remembered I wasn’t ten years old.) ‘If you don’t want to sew, you don’t want to sew. But if you ever want to learn how to stitch a picture of a rat, Byron’s your man.’
And now we were laughing at Byron again, and I fully appreciated joining in this time. But we weren’t laughing for long, because a scream cut us off.
‘What was that?’ Sadie said, her eyes wide.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, getting up. The sound had come from the bunk end of the ship. ‘But I’m going to find out.’
As I made my way through the galley I felt something inside me that slowed my pace.
‘What is it?’ Sadie asked from behind.
I couldn’t well tell her that I felt scared, so I said nothing, trying my best to ignore the flutter in my chest and the hum in my fingers as I moved on. The scream had woken Clip and Grant who were standing by their bunks, obviously going through the same inward battle I was.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked them, and they both jumped. Grant looked at me then back towards the sanitary room, even though nothing could be seen through the rubber curtain between it and the bunks.
Clip turned to me and said, ‘I dunno, I was just getting some shut-eye when I heard this scream. I think it came from the showers.’ His face was pale with fear under the dim light, which didn’t help the strength of my own courage, which was dwindling as it was.
‘Let’s go check it out,’ I said. He nodded quickly, as if accepting his fate. I lead the party, blinking as I pushed through the curtains and into the bright sanitary room. It was empty. Further ahead, a shadow moved in the tow dock, so there I headed, heart bouncing against my ears. I balled my fists ready, not really having any clue what to expect, all sorts of gruesome images playing out behind my eyes. The first thing I saw was Emily, who was wrapped up in a towel, hand clapped over her mouth, her bulging eyes staring at the far corner of the rearmost room of the ship. I followed her eyeline, and there, in the corner, was James Gray, and he was dead.
Once we had separated Emily’s stare from James’ corpse, she seemed okay. Shaken, but okay. Word had gotten to the bridge (I think Sadie sent Byron), and soon Sophia and her first officer, Jason Pritchard, were here with us.
‘What happened, Emily?’ Sophia asked once we had retreated to the sanitary room, the tow dock now off-limits to everyone except Jason, who was taking pictures.
‘I . . . I don’t know,’ Emily said, her look still as distant as when we’d found her. ‘I was having a shower, when I saw something out the corner of my eye, and I went to look. As soon as I saw him—James, I mean—well, that’s when I screamed.’
‘So you didn’t see how he died?’
Emily shook her head. ‘No. Not a thing.’
I suppose, as a physician, she’s seen a dead body before. I was impressed by how well she was handling herself; I know full well if it had been me in her shoes (or towel), I would’ve been a damn sight less communicative. Sophia gave her a comforting squeeze of the arm. ‘Are you going to be okay?’
Emily smiled a thin smile. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Good.’ Sophia turned to me. ‘You were the second person on the scene—did you see anything?’
I felt that hot prickle I always got behind my ears when I felt subconsciously guilty for something I hadn’t done, but I don’t think Sophia picked up on it. She had enough on her plate containing what was every captain’s worst nightmare.
‘No, just Emily as she described.’
Now I thought about it, it worried me just how little I did remember. If Sophia had asked me where Emily had been standing when I found her, I’m not sure I would have been able to say with full certainty.
‘Okay, that’s no problem. If you do remember anything, please let me know. That goes for you too, Emily.’
Sophia left to join Jason in the tow dock, where they spoke in low voices. It was then I remembered the brief conversation I’d had with Brendan the afternoon before, the weird way he’d looked at me when I asked about James. I wanted to call Sophia, but Brendan was standing right beside me, quietly consoling Emily. He must have come down just after Sophia did. With Clip and Grant manning the cockpit and Sadie keeping Byron clear of the scene, it left an uncomfortable threesome in the sanitary room that I wanted to run from, and fast. Eventually, Sophia and Jason returned, both looking solemn.
‘Emily,’ Sophia said. ‘We’ll need you to run some samples on James to determine the cause of death. Will you be okay to do that?’
‘Good. If you don’t mind I’d like to get that underway as soon as you feel up to it.’
‘I can do it now.’
‘Are you sure? That’s not too soon?’
‘It’s fine. No point delaying it.’
‘Thank you, Emily, that’s . . . that’s really good of you.’
Emily smiled humourlessly. ‘I’m just doing my job.’
‘Okay. I’ll leave you with Jason and you can get started. Jake, Brendan—let’s give them some space.’
The cold light and polished steel surfaces of the sanitary room had started to look too much like a morgue for my liking, and I was pleased to be out of there. I followed Sophia back to the rec room where Sadie and Byron were waiting, and before Sophia continued to the cockpit, she asked me to take a seat and wait for her to come back.
‘I’ll need to take an official statement from you,’ she said, ‘the others as well. Just a formality, so you don’t need to look quite so guilty.’
So she had noticed.
Once Sophia was out of earshot, I collapsed in a seat next to Sadie and sighed a sigh I actually believed for a moment was going to deflate me.
‘What happened?’ Byron hissed. His eyes were electric.
‘It’s best you don’t know, Byron,’ Sadie said matter-of-factly.
‘I’m twenty-three, not twelve! I deserve to know!’
‘Nobody knows what happened,’ I said. ‘Emily found James dead in the tow dock. That’s it.’
Byron’s face lit up, as though we were simply talking about some movie I’d seen. He was leaning towards me in his seat. ‘Was there blood?’ he said in a low whisper.
‘Any bones sticking out?’
‘Byron!’ Sadie snapped, and Byron retreated back into his seat.
‘Sorry . . .’
The morbidity of Byron’s fascination may have been odd, but I admit to sharing an element of his curiosity. I played the scene over and over in my mind, talking to Brendan, seeing Emily, talking to Brendan, seeing Emily . . . talking to James himself when he’d apologised about the e-reader. My god . . . something was up even then. He’d seemed horribly distracted—nervous even—but perhaps I was reading too much into it, painting the past with a tainted mind. It was all such a mess now. I had evidence to give, but my lucid brain had turned it into something it wasn’t. Should I keep it to myself? Should I tell Sophia?
‘Are you okay, Jake?’
I broke from my thoughts to see Sadie looking at me apprehensively.
‘Yeah, fine. Just a bit stunned by it all really.’
Approaching footsteps alerted me of Sophia’s return, and the burning behind my ears came back tenfold.
‘Are you ready to make a statement?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, as Sophia positioned herself to sit down next to me. ‘But can we go somewhere private?’
‘Oh,’ Sophia said, stopping. ‘Sure, of course.’
‘I just don’t think Byron needs to hear all the graphic details.’
Byron looked at me with the same look that had accompanied his I’m twenty-three not twelve speech, but in front of Sophia he kept his mouth shut. I could tell Sadie approved.
‘Yes, absolutely. Shall we go to the briefing room?’
I agreed and we did. We sat down, and before I could open my mouth, Sophia said: ‘You know something, don’t you? Let me give you some advice. Don’t try to make the pieces fit. Tell me what you saw, not what you think happened. Don’t fill in any missing gaps. You let me take care of that.’
She spoke sense, and her words gave me a welcoming bloom of relief. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Here’s what I saw.’ And I told her everything.
Not an awful lot was said about James’ death after that—mainly because there was nothing else to say. The next day, Sophia called a crew meeting to announce that they had not learned of any foul play, and that the facts attributed James’ death to nothing more than an unfortunate roll of the dice. As there was nowhere to adequately store his body for the remainder of the long flight, a funeral service was to be held for him that evening where his body would be ejected out the waste dump.
The service wasn’t what you would call moving, but the air was still thick with emotion—just not the emotion you’d expect. It was stilted, like the momentary realisation a group of kids have when a game of throw-rocks-at-a-squirrel turns into a lesson on mortality. Nobody cried, nobody said anything—not even Brendan. The only person to speak was Sophia, who kept her words short. Fifteen minutes and it was all over. James, the man who’d raged at Byron for eating his chocolate then air-kissed him on both cheeks when they made up again, was gone. James, who loaned me his e-reader, then apologised for accusing me of wiping it in a way that sent shivers of fear down my spine, was gone. James, who had supposedly gotten ill despite no mention of it from Emily after his autopsy, was forever silent.
Surprisingly, the mood on the Athena didn’t stay low for long. Just a couple of days after the funeral, and the thought of James’ death was a mere whisper of a previous lifetime. Perhaps it was because he was a difficult person to be around, or perhaps it was because it was just easier that way. Emily’s smiles had found their humour once again, and I found the opportunity, having heard nothing more from Sophia on the matter, to ask her about her findings. We were in the galley; I was preparing some food for Sadie and Byron, she was making herself a nutridrink.
‘So the tests all came out normal then?’ I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.
‘You know—the ones from James.’
This seemed to take her aback, as if it had jarred a stuck memory. ‘Oh, yes, of course—sorry. My mind just hasn’t quite been in the same place since I—well, you know.’
‘I understand. Not the sort of thing you want to wake up to.’
‘No, no it isn’t.’
‘So what did you find?’
‘Oh, well, nothing really. Blood was normal, throat was normal. No obvious signs of a struggle or anything like that. Internals felt normal. Everything I could do without cutting him open came back clean.’
‘So you’re pretty certain it was a natural death, then?’
‘Seems that way. Besides, who’d want to kill him?’
I hadn’t expected that. The words, said out loud, cut into me so sharply I flinched.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine,’ I lied. ‘Just burned myself on this hot packet.’ I sucked my finger, pretending I really had burned it. But the truth was something different, and it scared me. When Emily had said who’d want to kill him?, the face that flashed in my mind wasn’t Brendan’s—it was Byron’s. ‘Anyway, I meant that he hadn’t died of illness or food poisoning or something like that.’
Emily rolled her eyes and shook her head. ‘Oh I see . . .’ she said, elongating the word see. ‘I get you now. No, there was nothing in the toxicity report or any of the cultures. He was as clean as a surgeon’s operating table.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, and we both went our separate ways, exchanging it’s a mystery to me glances as we left each other. When I re-entered the rec room, Clip was being grilled by Byron, who was still after every gruesome detail he could get his macabre little imagination on. Clip seemed to be enjoying the attention, while Sadie was stitching away, looking like she’d given up trying to stop Byron talking about it, her lips pursed in a clear indication of her displeasure at the conversation. I remembered the flash of Byron’s face I’d had and inwardly laughed it off. It was a stupid thought. Eating chocolate is one thing, killing a man another. A whole other ‘nother.
In a funny sort of way, the situation had brought us closer together as a crew. Clip had suddenly opened to up to me, giving me smiles and Hi! How are you?s when we passed along the ship. We’d even chatted awhile, and he’d told me about his struggle with drugs during school, how he’d beaten them to rise to the top of his class and go to flight training school. He was proud of himself, and now he was friendly enough with me for me to be proud with him. He’d even told me why he was called Clip: not because he was a good shot or because he carried money clip or anything, but because during flight training he would make incredible sculptures out of paperclips. ‘Where did you even get paperclips?’ I’d said. ‘I haven’t seen one of those since school.’ At that he laughed, and tapped his nose knowingly.
Grant, who’d looked at me but hadn’t said anything in the moments before we’d found James, was less amiable, but still more so than before. I don’t think he’d taken the whole thing particularly well; not because he was good friends with James or anything, more because of the impact of it all. But he was putting on a brave face at least, which was more than could be said for Brendan. He was sat on his own, staring at his e-reader. I handed the food out, sat down and watched him, and not once did he flick to the next page.
‘Is he alright?’ I said in a low voice to Sadie, nodding towards Brendan. Clip was still regaling Byron with the terrors of James’ zombie corpse—it was in extremely bad taste, but it was keeping Byron entertained, and I had other concerns on my mind.
‘I’m not sure,’ she muttered back. ‘He’s just been sat there this whole time, like he’s in a coma or something.’
‘I wonder if Sophia knows?’
‘I’m sure she does. She’s very good.’
I went to speak, then paused.
‘What is it?’ Sadie asked.
‘It’s . . . nothing.’
She shifted round to get a better look at me. ‘No, go on—what?’
‘I think he did it.’
‘Shh! Keep your voice down.’
‘Sorry, but really? You think Brendan killed James?’
I glared at her, simultaneously willing her to shut up and wishing I hadn’t said anything. ‘I said it’s nothing.’
‘That’s not nothing . . .!’
‘I mean it’s based on nothing. Just a hunch.’
‘You can’t base a hunch on nothing.’
‘Then it’s not a hunch. It’s a feeling.’
‘That’s the same thing.’
‘What’s the same thing?’ Byron said, looking between us. Clip had gone to get some food himself, leaving Byron’s attention to wander.
‘Nothing,’ I said. Sadie, thank god, kept quiet.
‘Oh, not this again,’ Byron grumbled. ‘Keep Byron in the dark, don’t tell Byron anything . . .’
And I didn’t. At least, not just then.