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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 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.

Chapter 22

‘He’s under a lot of stress,’ Sophia said as we walked back to the rec room together. Her tone did not match the sympathy of her sentiment.

‘We all are,’ I said.

Sophia didn’t respond. As we reached the rec room, I sat down with Emily, who was still looking shaken. Sophia marched on—to the bunk or to Byron, I didn’t know.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked, rubbing her back to soothe her. It seemed to have no effect; she continued staring vaguely at the far wall. Clip and Grant—Grant was conscious now, and looking much more normal—leaned in. Presumably they’d had no luck getting anything out of her.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, her voice watery and thin. ‘I’ll be okay.’

‘Okay,’ I said, still smoothing her back. She leaned into me, and I held her. Then I turned to Grant, who leaned away against my stare, eyes wide. He’d not heard what Byron had said, and I think he was unsure if I knew what he’d been doing or not. He licked his lips, waiting for me to choose the path we’d both be going down. I held back, waiting to see if he’d crack first. He didn’t. ‘What’s going on?’ I said, unable to bear the awkward tension any longer. Clip looked at Grant somewhat accusingly, and Grant’s breathing visibly sped up.

‘It’s nothing, I swear,’ he said, holding his hands up. ‘I—I just had to tell Emily how I felt . . .’ He looked to Emily pleadingly, but she wasn’t looking at him. When he turned back to me, the pleading had reached new levels of desperation.

‘Is this true?’ I said quietly to Emily, whose head was under my chin.

‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘It’s true.’

It took a moment for me to process what I wanted to do next. On one hand I was furious with Grant and wanted to finish what Byron had started, but on the other I saw the desperate man that he was in front of me, hunched over and ashamed, sad and lonely. He’d confided with me about his love; I should have expected this. After all, it was my fault in a way—I’d broken the rules where he’d studiously kept them, I’d slipped in where he’d refused to for respect for his fellow crew. I’d cheated, played the game my own way, and he quite rightly resented me for it. If this situation was an explosive chemical reaction, I had been the catalyst. ‘Alright, alright, I understand,’ I said. ‘It’s not your fault, it’s mine. I’m sorry I put you in this position, Grant.’ Grant watched me carefully—he seemed sure I was trying to trick him. ‘I mean it,’ I said. ‘Water under the bridge. You had to do what you had to do. As long as this is it between you and Emily,’ I added.

He considered me for a while, lips twisting with thought, and then he nodded. ‘It’s over. I’ve done what I needed to do.’

‘Okay then.’

From that point the feeling in the room relaxed with almost immediate alacrity. Grant blew out a breath of air he must have been holding since I’d returned from the cockpit, and Clip made himself more comfortable in his seat. Emily sat up, wiped her eyes and gave me the beginnings of a smile. It said so much to me, but mainly it showed gratitude, and I felt like a false hero for it. I kept that thought to myself and smiled back.

‘So what are we going to do about Byron?’ Clip said.

What were we going to do about Byron? I’d decided what we weren’t going to do, but what we were going to do? I didn’t have the first clue. ‘What’s the protocol for a situation like this?’ I asked, unsure.

Clip, rolling his eyes back to think, made a sucking sound. ‘No idea. What did Jason say? And, more to the point, what was that about with Sophia? I’ve never seen her look so angry.’

‘Ahh . . .’ I began. I didn’t know whether it was something I should say or not, but then it dawned on me that we, as a crew, had moved beyond the secrecy of rank and uncover ops and all that crap. We were out here defending our own lives, looking out for each other. There was no room for any more secrets. If I was asked, I would tell. ‘Jason wants to leave Byron behind.’

‘What?’ Clip said. ‘Like, on board the Athena while we work?’ I could feel the blood run into my head, and become conscious of the fast bobbing of my knee. I didn’t need to say anything to correct Clip—he figured it out all on his own. ‘Wait,’ he said, ‘you mean leave him behind on the planet, don’t you?’

I nodded. My head felt extremely heavy. Clip didn’t have anything further to say, but like he’d read my face, I could read his: it was struck with horror.

‘I think it’s the right thing to do,’ Grant said, sniffing. ‘The little shit deserves far worse.’

‘Grant!’ Emily snapped, making me jump. She was sat up straight, eyes burning fire.

‘He’s been nothing but trouble,’ Grant said, backing down in his tone, but not on his point. ‘I’ve had my suspicions from the start.’

‘The start of what?’ Emily said sharply. ‘The start of the mission? The start of the deaths? What?’

Grant folded his arms, tipping his head back with defiance. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘Wait a minute,’ I said, before Emily, her mouth hanging open in furious disbelief, could lash out again, ‘aren’t we all jumping to conclusions here? What proof do we have that he has anything to do with the deaths? That’s another thing entirely.’

Grant laughed. I didn’t like it, and somehow I knew we were heading into a conversation I wished we’d stayed well away from. ‘That’s rich coming from you, Jake. I suppose you think you’re the impartial one, the non-bias hero who’s so selflessly looking out for everyone’s well-being.’

I felt sick. I don’t know why, but I did. The rising bile in my throat rose higher with each jolting heartbeat.

‘I know what you did, Jake. I know you’ve ratted me out as being the murderer. You did the same with Brendan, too, before he died. Oh, and one other thing I should probably mention: you even pointed the finger at Emily.’

Now I felt like I was going to vomit. Emily’s attention had turned to me, and the look she gave me broke my heart. I’d betrayed her, broken her trust, and she knew it.

‘Did you really do that . . .?’ she whispered, so quietly I could barely hear it.

My mind raced with reasons, excuses, distractions, but no matter how hard I thought, the process came back to the same conclusion: I was done for. This was it. I had no way out. I could no longer look at Emily, her shattered heart bare and open for me to see. I turned my attention to the floor, and I nodded. A gentle squeak issued from Emily’s lips. I kept my eyes fixed on the floor, rage and upset filling my eyes with tears. They were hot and they stung, and I had to blink. I felt the water leave me, and when I opened my eyes I did so in time to see them land in darkened droplets on the floor. I shivered. My skin surged with electric energy, my mind overloaded with all the things I wanted to say and do, but I could only say one thing: ‘I was scared.’

‘We’re all scared,’ Grant said. From the tone of his voice, he seemed to be lapping his new-found power over me up, quenching his thirst on my shame. ‘But that doesn’t mean we went around accusing each other. Murder, Jake. Murder. I find it interesting, Jake, that one of the only people you didn’t accuse was Byron. What does that mean, I wonder?’ It almost sounded like Grant was enjoying himself, enjoying this opportunity to smear me into the ground with his boot heel. ‘Do you know something, Jake? Is there something you want to tell us? Are you hiding anything else—’

‘That’s enough,’ Clip said, his voice firm. When I looked at him, I could see that, although he wanted Grant to stop talking, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with what he’d just found out about me. ‘Is all this—these accusations—are these true, Jake?’

The corner I was wedged in was getting tighter and tighter. ‘Those were private conversations I had with Jason and Sophia where I presented my thoughts and findings for their information, and had nothing to do with anyone else. I did what I did for the wellbeing of the crew, that’s all.’ I sounded silly in my head; it sounded downright pathetic out loud, but it was all I had to say.

‘If they were private conversations,’ Clip said, turning his attention to Grant, ‘how do you know about them?’

It was Grant’s turn to squirm. ‘It’s all in Jason’s log. All of it.’ A chill raced down my spine. What else did Grant know? ‘Any conversation he’d had with the crew regarding the deaths—they’re all in there.’

Everything now seemed to rest on what Clip had to say next. I could see he was torn, and I could understand why: he was faced with both my overzealous detective work and Grant’s aggressive behaviour. After a while, his expression seemed to neutralise. He cleared his throat, then addressed me. ‘Jake, am I right in saying that you did what you did because you had good reason to do so?’

I opened my mouth to speak, then I closed it again. I turned to Emily—her eyes were blotchy and she’d sunk into a resigned slump. ‘I admit I was perhaps a little too hasty, but there was no malice in my actions. Of that I swear.’

‘Okay,’ Clip said. He moved on to Grant. ‘Grant, I need you to also answer me honestly and openly. Did you illegally access Jason’s log for the protection of the crew as a whole?’

Grant pulled a face. ‘I didn’t like Jason from the start and, look, I was right not to. So yeah, I did it for the benefit of the crew.’

‘Did you share any of the information pertaining to the safety of the crew with anyone—Sophia for example—before now?’

‘Well, I didn’t think it would be useful at this point—’

‘So you chose to use this ill-gotten information for your own gain?’

‘I only said about Emily—’

‘Grant, I think you should come with me.’

‘But I—’

‘That’s an order. As your ranking officer, I am commanding you to accompany me to the cockpit. We’re going to have a very frank conversation with Jason about the matter.’

Grant looked like he was going to say something further, but he decided against it. Clip may have been short, but he was stocky, and he’d swelled into a burly posture that put Grant’s well-sculpted but ultimately superficial frame into contention. ‘Alright, alright . . .’ he said, resigning himself to his fate.

The two men stood, and as Clip ushered Grant towards the cockpit, he stopped in front of me. ‘Don’t make me regret this decision,’ he said. I looked down and nodded.

Once they were gone, I took my chance to explain myself to Emily. My head was clearer, and I was sure I could convince her that I was acting selflessly, albeit hastily. If I tried hard enough, I almost believed it myself. ‘Look, I—’ I began, but Emily cut me short.

‘I don’t want to hear it,’ she said. Her voice had lost the wobbliness of her saddened state; now it was flat, cold. I took the hint and stayed quiet, and we sat like that for minutes on end. By the time Emily spoke again, it seemed like hours had passed. ‘When I first met you,’ she said, ‘I thought there was something different about you. And when I saw you stand up to James to defend Byron, I knew it was true. You’re not like the others. They’re arrogant, abrasive, selfish—sure, they’re great people, as friends, but you . . .’ she sighed a broken sigh, her emotion rushing out on a long, sad breath. ‘You’ve made things very hard for me.’

‘Emily,’ I said, ‘it’s not like that . . .’

‘It’s not?’ she said, turning to me, defiant. ‘What is it like, then? You tell me.’

The look in her eyes flushed away all the excuses I had, all the lies. No more, I decided. No more. ‘You’re right. I’m not what you thought I was. I’m a sad loser who lives with his mum. I’m a scared little boy that runs to teacher and points fingers. I’m a stupid idiot who took the best thing that ever happened to him and threw it away.’ I had to stop, because my voice had started to tremble. I let the heat behind my eyes dissipate before I said anything more. ‘And I’m sorry.’

Something changed in Emily. The hardened glare softened, the arched-back shoulders drooped forward, and the pencil-thin lips filled out with colour. ‘Do you really think it’s me?’ she asked.

‘No. It could never be you.’

She nodded, then she smiled, and then she sighed. It was like something inside had flicked the light back on again, and the spark in her eyes reignited. She shook her head, smiling to herself. ‘God, it’s been a rough day.’

I took her in my arms, and she let me. Her hair smelled so sweet, her flesh so warm and soft to the touch, the sensations the most intense they’d ever been before. The relief that came with it flowed in great tidal waves. ‘You’re telling me.’

 

From then on, the staying in pairs rule seemed to fall by the wayside. It was almost like we didn’t care anymore; if it was going to happen, it was going to happen. Jason and Sophia divided up their time between manning the cockpit and guarding Byron, who’d remained secured in the tow dock ever since the incident. I wasn’t told I couldn’t see him but, in a way, I didn’t want to. I felt bad for even thinking like that, but something had changed between us, and I didn’t want to find out what that something was. For now, at least, it was a problem best left gnawing quietly at my conscience rather than at full volume in my face; I didn’t like burying it away, but the alternative seemed far worse to me, and I didn’t want to face that, not yet. Clip and Grant had smoothed things over, and even Grant and I managed to remain civil. Sometimes it was easier to live a lie than it was to face the truth, a fact I was settling into with more and more ease as the months passed us slowly by. Lying was almost part of brief now, and it no longer burned me with the same infectious urgency it used to. Now all it took was a little self-assurance to mask what was left of the nausea it left behind.

I spent most of my time going forward with Emily, and we chatted and laughed as though we were on a retreat all of our own. We’d found a world we could escape to together, a lone bubble of sanity that kept us from tipping over the edge. I’d even stopped dreaming, sleeping through the nights in an undisturbed, comatose state. Emily had recommended me some pills, and they were doing the trick nicely.

We neared our goal. There was only one month left.

Chapter 21

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

Emily’s eyes lingered on mine while she waited for me to answer. I knew the question held more meaning to me than it would have appeared to others, and it took me a little by surprise. Fortunately, the only other person with us was Byron. Sophia and Jason were sleeping (for the first time in a long time, it seemed) and Grant and Clip were manning the cockpit together, despite their differences. Although they didn’t see eye to eye, they were at least able to maintain a level of professionalism enough to do their duty.

‘Well?’

She was smiling, a cheeky glint catching in her eyes.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I haven’t really thought about it?’

‘Ok,’ Emily said, putting on an exaggerated pout. ‘If you’re going to be Mr. Grumpy Pants then I’ll ask Byron instead. Byron? What are you going to do when you get back to Earth?’

Byron shrugged, and said nothing.

‘Do you want to carry on with deep space missions? Normal ones, I mean?’ Emily added, giggling.

He shrugged again.

‘You two are useless!’ Emily said in shrill mockery.

I could see she was trying to cheer us all up, but I just didn’t have the energy to respond. The flame in her flickered then; I could see it in her eyes. I was being selfish, I realised, letting my own depressed state get in the way of my responsibilities as a crew member and a friend. Emily needed my attention­­—Byron too—and I was letting them both down. I tried again.

‘Ok, ok, I’ll answer. When I get back to Earth I’m going to quit the industry and start a farm.’ That seemed to get Byron’s attention, if only by the twitch of a hair.

‘A farm?’ Emily said, playing along. ‘What kind of farm?’

‘A pig farm. I’m going to raise pigs.’

I could see the beginnings of a smile at the corners of Byron’s mouth.

‘And how many pigs would you have?’

‘A hundred.’

A hundred?’

‘Yep. Goats, too.’

‘Goats?’

‘And elephants.’

That was too much for Byron. He laughed explosively, clapping a hand to his mouth. ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,’ he said, once his laughter had abated enough.

I pulled a face, pretending I was hurt. ‘Why? Every man has a right to a little farm of his own, especially ones full of elephants.’

‘And pigs,’ Emily added.

‘And goats,’ I said. ‘I might even have a tiger.’

‘A tiger?’ Emily shrieked. ‘It sounds like you want to open a zoo, not a farm!’

‘No,’ I said, ‘no, no, no. Because the difference is, you don’t eat the animals at a zoo. Fresh elephant burgers for everyone!’

We all laughed, and we were still laughing when Jason and Sophia wandered through from the bunks. They looked a lot better, fresher, although a latent fatigue still hung about them.

‘Afternoon,’ Jason said. ‘Good to hear you all laughing.’

Sophia smiled—although clearly without humour—and they walked on through to relieve Clip and Grant. Byron watched them, and as they left I could see the fun draining from him, and fast.

‘So what are you going to do, Byron?’ I said quickly, trying to snatch his attention back.

He looked at his hands as he fiddled with them, and shrugged again. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess find some kind of work planet-side.’ He stroked his wrists absently, fingers playing over the lines of pink scar tissue. ‘I don’t think I’d be able to come back to space, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t,’ he added.

‘Why don’t you want to come back to space?’ Emily asked. ‘It’s beautiful.’

Still looking down, Byron pulled a face. ‘I’m not cut out for it I guess.’

‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘You’ve been an asset to the team. Don’t let what’s happened here make you think otherwise. These have been exceptional circumstances, and you’ve dealt with them very well, I have to say.’

‘Not as well as you two.’

I took a moment before I spoke next. I wanted to phrase my words carefully. ‘We all have our different ways of coping. It’s been hard for all of us, and just because you don’t see anything happening on the outside of us doesn’t mean there isn’t anything happening on the inside.’

At that moment I felt Emily’s hand on mine. I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me the most heart-warming smile. I squeezed her hand gently, and she squeezed back. If Byron had noticed, he didn’t show it.

‘We’re all doing well because we work as a team,’ I added. ‘And that includes you, Byron.’

He allowed himself a grin, and he pulled his knees to his chest. ‘Do you mean that?’

‘I mean it.’

There was shuffling in the corridor, and we turned to see Clip and Grant ambling in. They seemed a bit more relaxed—albeit tired—a good sign, considering. Perhaps the time together had been a good opportunity for them to work things through. I went to pull my hand from Emily’s but she gripped tight, and I relaxed. She was probably right—who, in this situation, would have means to complain? I saw Grant’s attention drawn and his body stiffen—but only for a moment. Clip didn’t seem to care, if he noticed at all. He flopped clumsily into a seat and Grant placed himself down next to him.

‘I see you two have kissed and made up,’ Emily said.

‘We’re actually engaged now,’ Clip said, unmoving from his ridiculous slouch.

‘We’ve been planning the wedding,’ Grant added. ‘I’ve chosen lilies for the decoration. Traditionally a funeral flower, I’ll admit, but they smell so fragrant I simply have to have them.’ He laughed, we laughed. He laughed a little harder and a little longer than was comfortable. When he was done, he pointed to our interlinked hands and said, ‘So how long has this being going on for?’

‘Long enough,’ Emily said, her grip tightening further.

Grant nodded. ‘Does Jason know? Sophia?’

‘We—’ I began, but Grant cut in almost immediately.

‘Relationships on board are prohibited; you know that.’ His face had hardened, his head pulled back into his neck in a way that made him look like an agitated tortoise.

‘It’s none of your business,’ Clip said, sitting up. ‘Don’t you even worry about it. Besides, with everything that’s happened, I’m sure we could all do with a bit of romance.’ He stroked Grant’s arm, and Grant laughed, pulling away from him.

We all laughed, if anything to clear the air of the awkwardness fogging it up. The laughter was overtly bright, but it seemed to do the trick. I realised I had been squeezing Emily’s hand quite hard in return, and I relaxed. Emily stroked me with her thumb, and I relaxed a little more. Evidently, the whole back and forth had made me pretty tense.

That being said, the rest of the evening was fairly pleasant, making a change from the sombre, quiet affairs we’d become used to. By the time we went to bed, Emily had her arm around me and mine around her; even the warmth of her body against mine staved away the chill of death from my soul, a feat that a week ago seemed impossible. As we retired to our bunks, I realised I hadn’t answered her question from earlier. What was I going to do when we got back to Earth? Would Emily be a part of it? At this stage, I honestly didn’t know if we were simply seeking each other’s comfort during a difficult time or if we were genuinely falling for one another. I found it hard to believe—from her perspective at least—in the latter, but the thought of spending time with her after our return to Earth made my heart flutter. I smiled to myself in the dark. I couldn’t help it.

I awoke later to a cold chill. The faint linger of a dream almost forgotten teased my eyes in the black, and as reality overcame it I realised I had kicked my blanket off. I drew it back over myself, and as I did, I was hit suddenly and annoyingly with a strong urge to pee. At first I tried to ignore it, giving my warming body a chance to reconsider, but it was no use. I had to go. According to Jason and his pairs ruling I would need to wake someone to come with me, but that—that seemed unnecessary. I was only going to sanitary room, one room along. What’s the worst that could happen?

The thought of the worse that could happen gave me a chill, which exacerbated my need to go, so I slipped out of bed before I changed my mind. The floor was cold and hard on my bare soles, the slap of skin on metal unnecessarily loud, even though I did my best to mute it. I hated the sound: it was too visceral, too primeval, and it reminded me too much of the delicacy of the fleshy sac of my body. Already I wished I’d brought that stunner with me, but for some reason I found the idea of going back harder than moving on. So I moved on. I arrived and did my business without incident, and was cleansing my hands with a wipe when I heard the tell-tale slap-slap-slap of another pair of feet approaching. I froze, skin tingling, pulse rhythmically thudding in my ears. I was trapped, I knew it; there was nothing I could do. The slap-slap-slap grew louder and the curtains into the room separated. First one foot emerged, then a leg, then a torso, and finally—Grant. Under the dimmed night-time lights, his features cast shadows that made him a distorted caricature of himself, and the purpose in his eyes told me with gut-wrenching immediacy that his presence here was not merely a coincidence.

He stopped just inside the room, playing with his hands like he didn’t know what to do with them. ‘Can we talk?’ he said.

I struggled to find my voice, and when I did it emerged hoarse and strangled. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘You gave me quite a fright.’

He smiled apologetically, looking down as he prodded at the floor with his toes. He reminded me of Byron when we’d had our first one-to-one chat together in this very room. ‘Sorry,’ he said, almost sheepishly. ‘I was awake anyway, and figured this would be the only chance to talk to you alone. Besides,’ he said, looking up at me, ‘were supposed to stay in pairs, right?’

‘Right,’ I said.

‘So,’ he said, ‘I was really hoping we could talk about, ah . . . you know . . .’ He gave the floor a kick, tipped his head back and screwed his eyes shut, blinking when he opened them again. There was some kind of inward struggle going on in there, about what I was sure I was about to find out. ‘God, why is this so hard?’ he said, finally.

‘Is this about Emily?’

Her name seemed to make him flinch. He nodded.

‘I’m betting this isn’t about ship rules, is it?’ My thrumming pulse hadn’t yet abated; if anything it was beating steadily faster.

‘No.’

‘So tell me.’

He sighed, ambling in a nonsensical pattern until he sat himself down on one of the toilet units. Elbows on knees, he dropped his head into his hands. ‘She’s really wonderful,’ he said, and sighed again. ‘I—I’ve known her a while.’

‘You’ve served with her before?’

He nodded, a clumsy feat with his head nestled in his palms. ‘I met her at medical training a half-year before we left Earth.’

‘What happened?’

Suddenly he sat bolt upright. ‘Well, that’s just it. Nothing happened.’

I didn’t quite follow. ‘Nothing? You mean she—she rejected you?’

‘I wish. I didn’t even have the courage to ask. I kept telling myself that relationships were against the rules, and at the end of the training I’d ask her out to dinner. But when the last day came, I bottled up. Now you come along and it’s all over.’

‘I don’t really know what to tell you,’ I said. I didn’t.

‘I guess so. It’s just’—he clenched, then relaxed—’it’s just I don’t know what to do, you know?’

‘Sure, I know.’

He stood and wiped his nose, sniffing. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.’

‘It’s okay.’

‘Thank you. Well, we should probably get some sleep. Are you coming?’ He gestured to the curtain.

‘Yeah, I’m coming.’

We went back to bed. I’m not sure either of us slept. The conversation came back to me the next morning when I found Grant in the rec room with the others. He was sat opposite rather than next to Emily, and he gave me a pursed-lipped nod as I entered. I returned it, my face probably as tight as his. He said little as the rest of us chatted, settling in for a day of boredom and nothing to do. It struck me that, as I remembered the feeling of being trapped by the death of Sadie, that we had managed to achieve, as a group, a level of contentment in our situation, and the resilience of the human psyche astounded me once again. I just hoped Grant’s psyche had the same capability for acceptance and adaptation when it came to Emily.

We stayed in our group for the rest of the morning, and as early afternoon rolled in, I found myself yawning with greater and greater frequency.

‘Tired?’ Clip asked, as I stifled another deep yawn.

‘Yeah. Didn’t get much sleep last night.’

‘I’m pretty tired, too,’ Clip said. ‘If you want to catch up on some rest I’m happy to pair with you in the bunks.’

I was about to tell him not to worry about it when another great yawn swept over me, leaving me woozy and heavy-lidded. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘That’d be good.’

We said our see-you-laters and made our way to the bunks. I was so tired I flopped in as I was, shoes and all, and Clip, from last I remember, was propped up reading his e-reader. Before long he had faded into black, and time stood still.

I awoke with a start, a deep-seated feeling of dread gurgling in the pit of my stomach. Clip was already up, in his underwear, staring down the corridor towards the galley.

‘Did you just hear something?’ I said, still disorientated from interrupted sleep.

‘Someone—someone screamed.’

I sat upright in an instant, any last trace of drowsiness gone. ‘Are you sure?’

He nodded, cold stare fixed on the curtains. I was about to leap up and run out of the room, when I realised what it was that was keeping Clip pinned to the spot, because it hit me, too. I knew what had happened already. I knew what it was, and I didn’t want to see it. The whole while we stayed here, it wasn’t true, wasn’t confirmed; as soon as we left, reality would kick us down with a cold, hard boot.

‘We need to go,’ Clip said, as though he’d read my mind. ‘We really need to go.’ He was right—there was no point delaying the inevitable. I got up and we walked, rather than ran, and as the curtains separated we heard more yelling. That struck me as odd—why was there still yelling?

‘This is something else,’ I muttered to myself, and picked up into a jog. Clip, behind me, followed suit. As we entered the rec room, the sight stopped me in my tracks. On the floor was Grant, struggling against Byron who was on top of him, fingers wrapped around his neck. Grant’s eyes bulged and his face was a deep red, rippling with thick veins. Emily stood over Byron, slapping him as hard as she could, although he didn’t seem to notice.

‘Get off him!’ she screamed, thumping him on the back over and over.

Jason and Sophia arrived from the other direction, looking grim. The look turned to horror as they saw what was happening. We all in that instant—and it was an instant, mere seconds having passed since we’d got here—leaped on Byron to try and pull him off. His strength was shocking, doubling with every effort we took to free him from Grant. Eventually he gave, and he yelled, clawing at Grant as we rolled backwards. Immediately Jason was on top of him, slamming his flailing limbs onto the deck to restrain him. ‘Emily,’ he grunted under the strain of keeping Byron still, who was bucking and thrashing beneath him, ‘tend to Grant. Sophia, get the restraints.’

They did as they were told with urgent immediacy. Clip and I, now off and away from Byron, stood back, catching our breath, dumbed by the prevailing scene in front of us. Grant was unconscious, and Emily worked quickly over him, checking and poking and listening with frantic movements. His colour had already returned almost to normal, but the veins in his temple and forehead still protruded in a most grotesque way. Byron had finished struggling under Jason’s weight; the heavy sound of his restricted breathing was the only noise in the room.

Sophia returned with wrist clamps, and together she and Jason bound him up. He didn’t struggle, and without a word they walked him out and towards to the tow dock. I stood back to let them past, and when I did, Byron spoke to me, eyes wide and red.

‘He was trying to take Emily from you,’ he said in a frantic whisper. ‘I wanted to stop him.’

And that was it. I watched them walk away until they had disappeared between the flaps of the curtains into the bunks, and then I watched the curtains sway until they stopped. ‘Will he be ok?’ I said to no one, looking at no one.

‘He’ll be ok,’ Emily said. ‘No permanent damage thankfully.’

‘Good,’ I said, although I’m not sure if I meant it. I’m not sure what I meant. The others—besides Jason and Sophia—hadn’t heard what he’d said to me, and when Jason and Sophia returned, Jason asked me to come with them to the cockpit. I followed without protest. Emily looked worried.

None of us sat in the cockpit, and none of us even spoke for a while. I could sense that neither Jason nor Sophia really knew what to do, and the first sound any of us made was Sophia sighing. ‘What’s all this about you and Emily?’ she asked, hands on hips.

I shrugged. ‘It’s nothing.’

Sophia cocked her head. She didn’t believe it. I didn’t expect her to.

‘Ok—it’s something. Nothing serious, though.’

‘It shouldn’t be anything at all, serious or otherwise.’

I hung my head. Sophia was, after all, right. She turned away from me and rubbed her forehead, then smoothed her hair before turning back to me.

‘This isn’t your fault,’ she said. ‘I want you to know that.’

That took me by surprise. I didn’t know what to say, and I don’t think Sophia wanted me to say anything.

‘We’ve known—we’ve all known—that Byron’s a live wire, but this . . .’ She shook her head disbelievingly. ‘This is the last thing we expected.’

‘What do we do now?’ I asked.

‘What is there to do but survive?’ she whispered despondently.

Jason, who’d been staring absent-mindedly at a console of dimly-lit buttons, turned to us both. ‘There’s still a chance we can make this,’ he said, although he didn’t sound convinced.

‘What chance?’ I said.

His mouth twitched, and he took a deep breath. ‘Enough.’

‘Enough?’

Jason sat, swinging himself back and forth as he stared into the distance. ‘We’ve just got to make it to HD 85512 B and then we’ll be okay.’

I wasn’t sure I really followed, and judging from Sophia’s frown, she didn’t either. ‘What do you mean?’ she said, putting our simultaneous thoughts into words.

‘I mean we leave him.’ The distant look had grown hazy, almost dream-like.

Leave him?’

Jason nodded.

‘Sure, something should be done,’ I spluttered, ‘but this? This is madness!’

Sophia’s frown had become an angry glare. ‘Why would you even suggest that, Jason?’

Jason looked between us, his expression frank and sincere. I realised at once what he was thinking. ‘You believe it was Byron, don’t you?’ I whispered. ‘You think Byron killed the others.’

He nodded.

‘That’s ridiculous!’ Sophia shouted from between gritted teeth. ‘You’ve got no proof! You can’t . . . you can’t simply leave him behind!’

‘What other choice do we have?’ Jason snapped, taking both Sophia and me by surprise. ‘You think it’s one of the others? Really? You think it could be anyone else but Byron?’

‘I don’t know who it is,’ Sophia said quietly. ‘But I don’t know that it is Byron, either, and we can’t punish him for what we can’t prove.’

‘You need more proof than what happened out there?’ Jason hissed, leaning forward, clawing his hands in frustration. ‘Don’t you see that we have no other choice?’

‘I get that you’re scared,’ Sophia said. ‘We’re all scared. Byron is scared. And even if Byron did do . . . all that, that’s no reason to leave him behind to die.’

Jason sat back, pouting, and sniffed. ‘Fine. If that’s what you think. Jake? I take it you feel the same?’

‘I do.’

‘Okay then. So be it. Jake—you can go. Leave. Now. You too, Sophia.’

‘But—’ Sophia started.

‘Go!’

We went.

Chapter 20

Among the many things playing on my mind (playing seems far too light a word—torturing is much more apt), potential death was not as high as I would have thought. Perhaps the immediacy and unexpectedness of the deaths of James, Brendan and Sadie came as something of a comfort, a release from the pent up agony of being stuck on board the Athena. Whatever it was, it played second fiddle—or third, fourth, or perhaps it was just at the back on the triangle—to the other things that ate away at me like maggots through rotten flesh. The third biggest thing on my mind was Emily; she and I hadn’t shared more than the odd sentence in passing conversation in the few days proceeding our intimate moment, and the unknowing of where that was headed, what could possibly become of it and whether I thought it was a particularly good idea or not duly ticked over like an idling combustion engine of old in the back part of my subconscious brain. The occasional cough and splutter kept me aware of its presence, but the shadow cast by thoughts one and two made it pale into insignificance.

The second brain noose I was contending with was Byron; he was a fragile being that I had become somehow responsible for, and although I didn’t resent that, it made it no less difficult to comprehend. My unexpected promotion to head geo hammered home that responsibility, somehow weighing upon me the short- and long-term wellbeing of this delicate and unkempt genius. His abilities further added to the selfish side of my desire to look after him, as I knew he could prove useful on future missions . . . now there’s a thought I didn’t expect to have. After all of this, after everything that had gone on in this tin-pot ship, and I still couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else but serve as a geologist in deep space. That made me realise two things which further compounded this particular conundrum into being ranked second on my list of important and incessant thought trails: the first was the unavoidable conclusion that I was a boring and predictable individual with no ability to think beyond what I know; I suppose I already knew it, but having it presented to me on a silver platter made it hard to ignore. This fact lead to my second unavoidable conclusion, which was that ultimately I wanted to protect Byron for my own selfish reasons, not for his own best interests. I wanted to break the mould, show people I was different, special; I wanted to do that through Byron. Byron was extraordinary, Byron had a gift—all I had was the ability to blend in a way that would leave even a chameleon bamboozled. It seemed my desire to see Byron live happily ever after was only driven by my own desire to feel good about myself.

The first and most brain-real-estate–intensive struggle I was faced with, however, was my confliction about the mission. The mission as it stood now, that is. In my mind I knew what we were doing was wrong, but in my heart . . . in my heart I festered with an old, bitter anger that consumed everything else I thought about; the minute chance of the piece-of-shit shooter that tore up my life and my family with his blasé, trigger-happy attitude being in one of those tubes was too much to bear. It seems stupid that I would concern myself so much either way with the fate of—let’s face it—complete strangers, but I just could not get it to balance in my head. When I thought about trying to fight for them, to bring them back to Earth and do what I believed was the right thing, the flames simply rose higher and singed the notion until it was charred all over, and if I let the flames rise too high, a nausea followed at the hard reality of what we were doing. As a result, the physical see-sawing of angry to sick and back again took centre stage in my mind, with everything else waiting in the wings. Death, love, fear, guilt—all consumed by a foul and narcissistic hate that swelled like a bubble of putrid acid in my gut. It was too much. I had to do something about it.

‘Jason, can I have a quick word?’

Jason turned in his seat; Sophia, too.

‘In private,’ I added.

‘Captain Mendes stays,’ Jason said. I hadn’t heard him call her that before.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Sure. Whatever you want. Can I speak?’

‘You can speak.’

I let out a long, deflating sigh to begin. Even the thought of verbalising my inner battle seemed like a relief, no matter how momentary. ‘I’m having a bit of a moral dilemma,’ I said, at which the corner of Jason’s mouth turned up.

‘Aren’t we all?’

‘Well, yes, but I more so. You see—there’s a very real possibility that one of the tubes contains the person that . . . that shot my father.’

I expected Jason to react to that, and he did, but not as much as I thought he would. He shifted position in his seat, leaning from one arm to the other. ‘I see,’ he said, watching me carefully. ‘And who would that be?’

‘Istanbul Angel.’

Jason nodded, thinking. He looked back at Sophia, who had her hands on her hips. The exchange of expressions between them was either minimal, or didn’t happen at all. Jason pivoted back round to look at me, returning with a raised eyebrow and something of a pout. ‘I thought as much,’ he said, clasping his hands together and aiming his forefingers at me like a gun. ‘So let me guess: you’re stuck between a rock and hard place, right? Don’t know whether to listen to your conscience and let him live, or give in to your hatred and see him die? Am I right?’

I nodded silently, anxiously aware that the conversation was taking a route that didn’t seem to be working out well for me, yet still unsure where that particular route was going.

Jason retracted the finger gun to tap it against his lips. Then he made a clucking sound, and shifted again quite suddenly to lean back in the seat, his piercing stare not leaving me for a second. ‘So let me get this straight: if, and that’s if Angel is in one of those tubes, you feel that compromises you as part of this mission?’

Again I nodded. Again I stayed silent.

‘Hmm, yeah—a tricky one. And it’s probably likely that he is in there, in one of those tubes—almost certain, in fact. Although he doesn’t know it.’

‘What—what do you mean?’

‘I mean that if he did know, he’d probably be thanking his lucky stars. Chances are his life would’ve turned out a lot worse if he wasn’t, because there’s no way in hell it would’ve ended up any better. The man is a murderer. A cold-blooded killer. He takes lives as though they were apples from a tree, as though he has been ordained by the highest power with the ability to judge whose term has come to an early end and whose hasn’t. He’s killed children, Jake, children­—and you’re worried because he’s going to spend the rest of his life in peace and quiet, in safety, away from the terrors of life in the unprotected zones. I think you’re being a coward, Jake. I don’t think you want to protect him; I think you want to protect yourself. Sure, your daddy died—I saw your file—and I’m sorry for that, but I’m willing to bet that wouldn’t weigh on you anywhere near as much as the thought of you being responsible for leaving a human being behind on some desolate ball of rock light years away from home.’

Jason was now leaning forward in his seat, his tendons standing out like cords in his neck. His eye contact with me had held fast until now, when he looked at the floor. When he spoke again, he spoke more quietly, looking back up at me with eyes that searched for understanding. ‘Listen, Jake. You don’t need to feel like that. You don’t need to think of Istanbul Angel as a man. I am a man, you are a man; he is a monster, and monsters belong in cages. At least he’ll be able to see his life through to its natural end—chances are he wouldn’t have made it through the next decade with the way things are going in the unprotected zones. And think of this: although your father died, which I am truly sorry for, he won’t have died in vain. Doing this, protecting the world from Angel and others like him—it’s the right thing to do. It will save thousands, if not millions of lives. He’s the fuse in a ticking time bomb ready to blow up humanity as we know it, and with him out of the picture—well, the benefits are obvious.’

He sighed, slicking his fingers through his hair. He let himself slouch. ‘I’m sorry I called you coward. I didn’t mean to be so patronising. It just frustrates me how many bleeding-heart politicians who live in big private estates away from the reality of it all have something say about it, something based on absolutely nothing but electoral merit. Nobody wants to do the dirty work, but somebody has to. That somebody is us.’

I felt like I hadn’t breathed in minutes, and taking one sent a tingling to my numb body. ‘You knew all along, didn’t you?’ I whispered.

‘Well, yes, I knew about your father since just before I got on board—’

‘No, you knew about the cargo. About the people. You’ve known for a long time. You—you helped plan all this, didn’t you?’

Jason looked at me for a while, face like that of a naughty child’s. At last he resigned himself to the question, giving in to its answer. ‘Yes. You’re right. But it’s why I’m here. I didn’t want to give the say-so and let someone else take all the risks. I’m putting my money where my mouth is, I’m taking a stand that needs taking. I’m not hiding behind a desk like all the others, I’m not delegating orders from the safety of Earth, I’m out here getting my hands dirty. I won’t be thanked for it, not by this generation, but maybe—just maybe—future generations will learn of what we did here and send us prayers of thanks, because we gave them their future back.’

We stared at each other in silence, Sophia unmoving at the back of the cockpit. Jason was right; I was being selfish, thinking about the things that affected me in lieu of thinking of the bigger picture. It still didn’t feel right to me what we were doing, but, like Jason said, we were doing what we were doing for the betterment of mankind. It was work that would never make the history books—he knew that and I knew that—but we all knew the history books didn’t have to mention these sorts of things for them to have the impact they did. And the inescapable truth, the fact that glowed clearest in my mind was this: if we didn’t do it, someone else would. There was always someone else. But there was still something more, something that nagged at the tip of my brain, a knowing sensation that had taken hold and wouldn’t let go.

‘So you were involved in setting this mission up, right?’ I asked.

Jason nodded.

‘And you said you came along because you wanted to do what was right, to stand by your beliefs or whatever.’

‘That’s right.’

‘But you’re a General, and they don’t let Generals do grunt work. It doesn’t make sense; it’s just not something they do.’

‘In this case they made an exception,’ Jason said. His words were firm, but his wavering stare wasn’t.

‘I don’t think they did. I don’t think they had to, because I don’t think this is a military operation.’

Jason swallowed.

‘General—you never did tell us which GA department you served in? Could you refresh my memory?’

Jason stayed silent. Sophia folded her arms, turning look at him, rather than me.

‘That’s ok,’ I said, ‘you don’t need to answer, because I have a sneaking suspicion I already know who you work for.’

‘Jake,’ Jason said, ‘don’t do this . . .’

‘You’re Futureproof, aren’t you?’

Jason took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. Then he relaxed, leaning back in his chair, taking a look around the cockpit as if it were to be his last day on board.

‘Is this true?’ Sophia asked, making me jump a little with its unexpectedness. The question seemed to have no effect on Jason, who’d gone into something of a trance.

‘Yes . . .’ he said slowly. ‘It’s true.’

‘Why?’ I said.

Jason’s lips twitched. His sagging shoulders and drawn expression gave him the look of a man who’d given up. ‘It was the only way. GA wouldn’t approve the mission on government spend. The defence committee met with us a long time ago under something of a ceasefire—I’m sure you’re aware of our previous involvements—to talk about the bigger problem facing mankind’s future: the warring factions in the unprotected zones. We could both see it coming, and we agreed to work together for our—and the people of the GA’s—wellbeing.’

‘Why all the secrecy?’

‘Come on,’ Jason said throwing his hands out, ‘you think we’d get something like this through the general council? The government working hand in hand with activists?’

He had a point. ‘So what you’re doing is illegal after all?’

‘I didn’t say that. The evacuation was approved, just not the budget.’

‘So you—Futureproof—you’re doing this for free?’

‘We’re not in this for the money.’

‘That’s very noble,’ I said, not without some degree of sarcasm. ‘So you rounded up our payload, did you? And who paid for the Athena? You?’

He shook his head. ‘We captured the prisoners, but we didn’t find the mission. Planexus did as part of securing a GA contract.’

‘So you’re in everyone’s pocket, right? But I suppose you still expect me to believe that you—they—had nothing to do with what’s been happening on board?’

Jason seemed affronted. ‘Like I said, Jake, Futureproof are activists, not terrorists.’

I believe him. The alternative didn’t make any sense. After all, what purpose would the deaths of crew members serve? Yet because I knew so little about Jason, about who he was, about how deep his layers of deceit went, I felt it needed asking. I still couldn’t be sure he was telling the truth about his involvement with Futureproof, even now. ‘So why did you tell me—tell all of us—that the murders were possible being done by Futureproof?’

A shrug. ‘I didn’t intend on telling any of you anything. If the mission had gone to plan, we’d have buried the tubes, brought back our rock samples and you would’ve all been paid as usual and been none the wiser. When James died, things changed. I needed a scapegoat. Seeding the Futureproof idea seemed like the best and most believable way of keeping the mission on track.’

‘But you didn’t bank on two more people dying, did you?’

Jason shook his head, dispirited. ‘I genuinely hoped it had been of natural causes. I prayed it was. I still held on to that hope when Brendan died, too. You know what drillers are like. I’d even had Emily check the water supply, stuff like that, but it all came back clean. When Sadie died, that was when I knew this was sabotage.’ The exasperation turned into worry, creasing Jason’s face and making him look ten years older. ‘But I don’t know who or what or how any of this is happening. It’s a mystery.’

‘You don’t think it’s one of us?’

‘I ran background checks on everyone. Nothing doing.’

‘Even Byron? He joined us last minute, didn’t he?

‘Do you know his father messaged me personally to have him put on board? Peter Ash messaged me. The man’s a multi-trillionaire.’

‘You weren’t working closely with him anyway?’

‘I wasn’t—there’s no way the defence committee would let a member of Futureproof talk directly with the CEO of Planexus. Not after everything we’d done to them in the past.’

‘And you let him put Byron on board?’

‘I wasn’t going to tell him no, was I?’

Silence. Then Sophia spoke.

‘How are we supposed to believe a word you’re saying?’

Jason turned to her. She was standing, arms folded, expression cold as space itself, waiting for him to respond, daring him to respond. ‘I . . . I don’t. How can you? I appreciate I haven’t been open and honest with you before, but I had my reasons, and they were all to protect you, to protect this ship. That’s something you have to believe.’

Sophia snorted. ‘You’ve not done that great a job of protecting us so far.’

‘I know, and I’m sorry, but I don’t know what else there is to do. Whatever’s happening, it’s happening outside of my control.’

‘So what do you suggest we do now? At this rate we’ll probably end up a ghost ship before we even reach the Gliese system.’

Jason could hold Sophia’s gaze no longer, and it wandered to an imaginary distance. ‘I don’t know . . .’ he said slowly. ‘I don’t know.’

 

I agreed, after some persuasion, to keep all that had been said to myself, and Sophia did too. I could see there was no benefit in the others knowing, and with Clip’s strong displeasure with the mission as it stood in his mind, knowing Futureproof were involved would only aggravate things further, maybe even cause a mutiny. Perhaps that was what whoever was pulling the strings from the shadows wanted; true or not, nothing good could come of it.

Nevertheless, what the others did know was enough to make them edgy, and the tension could be felt in the air like frost. Grant and Clip, formerly friends, now only shared icy words in short grunted sentences at a time, and Byron barely said anything at all. Jason and Sophia never seemed to be outside of the cockpit except to sleep, which left only Emily behaving anything close to normally. Emily still held some cheer inside her, a small, flickering flame on the verge of dying. That little flame, in the darkness of everything that surrounded us, still seemed to me to be very bright indeed.

Chapter 19

I think, in delicate situations like this, the word is compromised. I was compromised. The mission was compromised. I hadn’t spoke to anyone about my father for decades; perhaps not even since it had happened. My mother, bless her, was a strong woman and had kept her tears to the times when I could not see her. I had heard her crying through the walls, but somehow, even at that age, I knew she was trying to protect me. We had been close—are close—and what happened on that unassuming November evening probably had a lot to do with it. Strange, now, how long I had kept my father’s death pent up inside me. Like my mother, I kept my feelings to myself; I felt uncomfortable burdening other people with them. Except Byron. I don’t know why, there was just something about him, a trusting naiveté. For all his flaws, his soul was—somehow—pure. I knew it now, like I’d known it when I met him. In a strange way he was almost ethereal, angelic, as if his presence here, in a human body, was some kind of universal mistake.

In the prevailing weeks, Byron and I often got to chatting, sometimes about things profound, but most times about nonsense. Even with the looming burden of our mission, we found a way to laugh, to be happy, even if the doses were small and far between. We both mourned Sadie—it was prominent in Byron’s every move—but we carried on, as good humans do. Our mutual bridging of the immediacy of her mortality brought us closer together, and I was pleased for the companionship.

The effect was twofold: not only did Byron and I form a tighter bond, I was also able to flush myself through of my infatuation with Emily. It seemed silly, now, to look back on, the infantile speed of the progression of my attraction, but I was also able, through the clear light of sense, to realise that it had been almost a reflex action to our shared experiences in the shadow of a very real danger. My need for her I had wrongly interpreted as passion when it was nothing more than protective feedback. Years of being single quite clearly coloured that particular experience.

Yet, somehow, I still saw Emily in a different light than I had before. Although the loin-warming obsession had gone, the being she had morphed into had remained changed, almost as though I was seeing her through different eyes. Had she changed? Had I changed? I thought the latter most likely. Or perhaps we had both changed?

It occurred to me that our singularity had gone unspoken for some time and, with a head free of hormonal fuzz, I was able to make the decision to raise the topic once more. A well-timed medical briefing was the ideal stage (I had told Byron he need not attend), and I waited for the end of the briefing to relay my message. Once Emily had covered everything she needed to, the way was free.

‘Is there anything else you’re not quite sure about?’ she asked me, matter-of-factly.

‘No, thank you, I think I’m all there.’

‘I appreciate you’ve heard this brief a thousand times, but as acting head geologist, your responsibilities carry more severe repercussions.’

‘Understood.’

Her face broke into a desperate smile and she looked up at the ceiling. ‘It feels like I’m playing doctor,’ she groaned. ‘Everything, all of it—it’s like some kind of . . . game.’ When she looked down again, her expression was sombre. She clearly knew there was something unsaid between us and she seemed as anxious as I to get it out in the open. Her lingering gaze was a prompt for me to speak, and I took it without question.

‘Listen, I need to ask you something,’ I said, sounding to me as awkward as I felt. I don’t know why I felt so awkward—perhaps the borderline insanity of the situation made verbalising it some admission of mental breakdown. Still, better out than in.

‘Yes?’ she said slowly, breath heavy with anticipation.

‘I, ah . . . I wanted to ask you about what you saw. What we saw. We never said anything more about it.’

I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I detected a hint of disappointment about the way Emily’s shoulders sagged and her eyes lost focus, but she snapped back so quickly it was hard to tell. ‘Oh, yes. You’re right. What do you think we should do?’

‘Well,’ I said, then sighed. ‘I told Jason and Sophia.’

‘And?’

‘And I don’t think they believed me.’

‘That’s not hard to believe . . . it does come across as a hallucination, perhaps a symptom of isolation sickness. Our conditions, our situation—it’s almost a given.’

I got the impression that Emily had already resigned herself to that opinion. She was, after all, the medical professional on board; she should know better than anyone about these sorts of things. Maybe she was right. ‘They did search the ship, but they couldn’t find the toy.’

Emily frowned. ‘What toy?’

‘The . . . the toy. Didn’t you see a toy?’

The frown was forged into confusion. ‘No . . .’

‘No toy?’ It was all I could think to say.

‘No toy.’

‘But what about the . . . the voice?’

‘I didn’t hear a voice, either.’

I wasn’t sure I understood what Emily was saying. It was like we were having two different conversations. ‘What happened to you, then?’

Emily looked about, as if embarrassed to tell me. She sat down, hunching forward. ‘Well . . . you’ll probably think I’m just being silly, but I was in the cockpit when I saw a shadow move in the corner of my eye. I turned to look but it was gone. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was I saw, but I definitely saw something. What did you see?’

That’s when I realised that our shared experience was nothing more than a coincidence. What Emily had experienced was a true hallucination, a visage of a tired brain and a long shift. My belief in what I saw being reality hardened. ‘Nothing, really. Nothing like what you saw.’

Emily seemed affronted by this. ‘No, tell me. I told you.’

There was obviously no backing out. The only way was forwards. ‘I, erm . . . I saw a child’s toy, out of the corner of my eye—like you—and when I went to see what it was it disappeared around the corner. I followed after it but it had disappeared.’

This seemed to satisfy Emily. Her hardened glare softened, and she relaxed in her chair once again. ‘Freaky, huh?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Amazing what the brain can do to you, isn’t it?’

‘And terrifying.’

Emily nodded. ‘Yep. And do you know what?’

‘What?’

‘I’m glad it happened.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because it got us talking.’

A short silence followed. I wasn’t sure if I felt awkward, embarrassed or what. Emily seemed to take it in her stride, bobbing her knees while she examined a strand of her own hair. She tossed it back behind her, shaking her head and letting it fall back with the rest.

‘Emily?’ I said.

‘Yes?’

I stayed quiet. I had a hundred, a thousand things I could say, but I couldn’t actually say any of them. Emily grinned sweetly, looking down at her fingers as she twiddled them together. ‘You’re a funny guy,’ she said.

‘Thanks.’

She laughed. ‘No, really. I like that.’ She looked at me, then back at her fingers, and her grin faded. She sniffed. ‘I hope everything’s okay between us. You’ve been a bit distant recently. I figured it was because of Sadie.’

The mere mention of Sadie’s name right now made me, for some inexplicable reason, feel guilty.

‘I hope I haven’t done anything to upset you,’ Emily added.

‘No, no—of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.’

The grin was back, the knee-bobbing quickened. ‘Good. I’m glad.’

‘Emily—’ I cut myself off, my voice once again stuck in my throat.

‘Yes?’ she said, looking at me expectantly, innocently, her pale skin and rounded cheeks framing those wide, searching eyes.

‘Emily, I think we need to talk.’ About what? My heart was racing. I hadn’t even noticed until it had become so strong I could hear it in my ears. In her silence, I was sure she could hear it, too. I had the sudden urge to swallow, so I did, but the feeling wouldn’t go. My mouth was filling with saliva faster than I could dispose of it.

‘We are talking . . .’ she said, an apprehensive note underlying her tone.

‘I . . . we . . .’ I swallowed, then swallowed again. I nearly choked, but somehow managed to recover it quickly. ‘We need to, uhm . . .’

Emily stood and, without breaking eye contact, approached me. The next thing I knew of her was her hand sliding up my back to rest on my shoulder. The sudden and unexpected contact left a tingling trail behind that made me shiver, the warmth soaking in like rain into a parched riverbed. Her hand retracted, fingertips gliding back along the fading trail to reignite the warm fuzz under my skin. My eyes, I realised, were shut, and I opened them. She was there, close, impossibly close, filling my vision, drawing me in.

I opened my mouth to say something, but all that came out was a whisper. Emily laughed, but not unkindly; she drew closer still and did not stop, until I could no longer see her, I could only smell her, feel her—taste her. We separated almost immediately it seemed, but I knew it had been longer. Time jerked as erratically as my heart, and my comprehension had become limited to snapshots of moments. I was a passenger in my mind, unable to regain control. I was filled in an instant with the problems, the possibilities, the eventualities, every possible scenario that could lead on from here, and Emily seemed to sense it immediately. She laughed, gently, still close enough for the heat of her breath to dampen my skin.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘We’ll be okay.’

We unceremoniously returned to our routines as if nothing had happened. The gathering in the rec room didn’t react to our return—although I was sure they would immediately know every last detail—and we sat on opposite sides of the corridor. Emily slipped easily into a conversation shared between Grant and Clip, while I sat in something of a daze, with Byron talking to me about something I didn’t quite take in, too busy thinking over what had just happened.

I don’t think anyone would be much surprised to find out I wasn’t really the ladies’ man. I’m not ugly, I don’t think—I’m more what you’d describe as neutral. Bland. Boring. I blend well in crowds. People get that funny feeling they’ve met me before, or seen me at so-and-so’s party (I can assure them that, no, they didn’t see me at so-and-so’s party because so-and-so and all their friends don’t invite me to parties); it’s just who I am. Top that with a personality that could bore drying paint and I’ve got that killer combination of dull and inoffensive. Sure, people liked me well enough, those who I made an effort to speak to, but I don’t think anyone really knew me, or had any inclination to. And that was fine with me, that was how I liked it. I had resigned myself to the fact that, until I met a suitable middle-aged woman who had decided her best option in life was to settle for sensible having exhausted all the other options, the only woman in my life would be my mother. So when Emily kissed me (and don’t get me wrong, I’ve kissed girls before—they just weren’t the kinds of kisses that meant anything, they were merely the pressing together of two squidgy, slippery bits of flesh between two people who knew the whole process was futile), it was like someone had unlocked the door to a secret garden in my brain, full of wondrous things I’d never imagined existed before. I recognised the mild euphoria—I’d experienced that before—but it was the other sensations that came with it that locked me into a state of catatonic semi-consciousness.

How can I describe it? How does someone describe things they’ve got no reference for? In simple terms, I felt lost. Not scared—well, maybe a little—but not excited, either. Where my path had been straightforward, both literally and metaphorically, it had reached a fork—no, a clearing, and that clearing looked impossibly tempting, if not overwhelmingly daunting. The only possible comparison I can conjure is a childhood memory, a birthday treat to a factory that made all things sweet, from boiled to chewy to chocolaty. I was presented with the mother lode, the thing my infantile brain had always desired but didn’t yet have the capability to comprehend—and I panicked. Stuck in a logic loop, I couldn’t fathom my way any further into the factory, process all the questions I had, decide what I wanted to do; so in the end, all I did was break down into tears. Eight-year-old me, confused and ecstatic and impossibly lonely in a frightening new world had now resurfaced, and even armed with the additional twenty or so years I had of life experience on top yielded nothing that could help me move forward.

I didn’t cry this time, of course, that would be silly—but I did feel that same paralysing state of realisation where it occurred to me that everything I’d thought, felt and experienced up to now, was wrong. Actually, not wrong, just diminished. My universal measure of relativity, my mortal compass, the thing in my head that told how much or how little of something I was experiencing—be it pain, happiness, hunger, whatever—was in a process of major recalibration, and that would take time. How long? Well, it took me a good ten minutes for mum to calm me down before I was able to continue my tour of the sweet factory, so it would be at least that.

And funnily enough, that wasn’t far from the truth. Byron’s voice came into sharp detail like the clearing of static from a radio signal, and I was able to leave to my contemplative stupor unscathed. Fortunately, Byron was pretty good at having one-sided conversations, and he had become locked in a battle of the wits against himself over the possibility of computer gaming becoming an entirely virtual experience—and the moral implications it would have, of course.

‘The thing I wouldn’t like,’ he said, speaking each word slowly and deliberately at no one but himself, ‘is the never knowing if I’d ever really got out or not. What if in the virtual reality there were more virtual reality computer games, then what? How deep could you go? Could you ever get out? You could spend your whole life never knowing—’ He froze, eyes so wide the lids were almost as white as the whites themselves. ‘Oh my goodness . . .’ he whispered, ‘what if we’re in a virtual reality right now?’

That made me chuckle, a noise which, evidently, Byron hadn’t expected to hear. He snapped from his open-mouthed look of disbelief to one of disgruntled impotence. I felt I owed him an explanation. ‘Virtual reality—believably virtual, I mean—doesn’t exist, and probably never will,’ I said. ‘The computing power alone is far beyond anything even the best scientists are anywhere near developing, let alone the software itself to act and react to stimulus in a believable fashion.’

Byron wrinkled his nose, thinking. I wanted to laugh again but I held it, even though the juxtaposition of his incredible mathematical ability and his tragic common sense fought me every second of the way. ‘But what about the stasis tubes?’ he said. ‘The people on those are living in a virtual reality, aren’t they?’

That did it. The humour was gone. Even the diminishing sensation in my cheek muscles from the recent smile seemed crass. ‘Not really . . . they’re more . . . dreaming.’

‘What do they dream about?’

A good question, one I hadn’t thought about. ‘I don’t know. Anything, I guess.’

‘What if they have a nightmare?’

Another good question, one that made me feel uncomfortable. ‘I don’t know.’

‘They wouldn’t be able to wake up.’

‘No.’

‘I’d hate that—being in a nightmare and not being able to wake up.’

‘Me too.’

Even worse was the creeping realisation that what he described wasn’t far from the truth for all of us: we all in something of a nightmare, trapped, unable to wake up. God, how I wished I could wake up.

Chapter 18

The next week was very quiet. The ship, for the loss of one person, seemed disproportionately empty. Conversations sorely missed Sadie’s trill, her laugh and her wit, and the air missed her sweet joy that brightened up any space she cared to be in. Something more than just a person had gone out, been extinguished—something in all of us had. Byron took it especially hard, his reflexive introversion kicking in almost immediately. We finished the calcs in record time, still, but the achievement was hollow. He barely managed a smile when I told him.

Sadie’s funeral was brief. It was more than we could stand. Her ejection into space was like amputating a limb, without anaesthetic. The raw stump still itched afterwards, making me want to vomit. The last memory, her ashen face behind thick, clear plastic, distorted with its creases and waves, would be stuck in my mind forever. I wish I could be rid of it, a cruel impression left on my brain of a person who I cared about immensely but now could not disassociate from a lifeless arrangement of flesh and bone. Her face as it had been when she was alive seemed an almost faded memory compared to the definition of her pale, lifeless one.

Emily’s autopsy had been, by this stage, almost a formality. She knew the outcome—we all did—without it even needing to be done. She was fit and healthy, besides massive heart failure and no other traces besides.

We stayed in our pairs, I usually with Byron, but more often we stayed as a group, gathering in silence in the rec room. A limit had been breached; where before we had been able to adapt, progress and move forward, this time we were pushed too far. We spoke quietly, a person at a time, and our conversations stayed almost ignorantly away from the topic foremost on all of our minds, wandering instead to bland subjects such as the weather systems on HD 85512 B, or the drilling equipment specifications and how we were to operate it, or even run-downs of the landing and disembarking procedure itself. It was talk to conversation as clotting was to a wound, but despite our best efforts in keeping the words no one wanted to hear unspoken, they flowed in silence without any sign of stopping.

What I didn’t expect was how my feelings for Emily changed. With Sadie gone, my bedrock maternal figure was gone with her, and my teenage lust for Emily switched up a gear to a deep yearning. When I saw her, when our eyes caught as we looked across a room at each other, my heart still beat uncontrollably, but instead of drawing with it an insatiable urge to procreate, it had become something more . . . a longing. I wanted her warmth, her presence, her soothing comfort. I wasn’t sure which was worse: my feelings for her now, or my feelings for her before, and I was disgusted with myself for feeling anything for her at all at this time. She showed no signs of reciprocation, but then our small group showed little sign of emotion at all. We were like a room full of daydreamers, all looking distant and tired, an occasional sentence fluttering unanswered into the ether. A few weeks ago, three months seemed like nothing at all. Now three months seemed like a cursed eternity.

The way Clip twitched as we sat about in silence together in the rec room forewarned me that he had something on his mind. That went without saying of course, but it was clear to me that something really was eating him up. Since Sadie’s death, his humour had completely left him, and he had become an autonomous human shell where once a person dwelled. In the time that had passed, some of that person had returned, but not the funny, silly person, the agitated person, the person with something to say.

‘It’s not right,’ he said. It was a simple sentence, but we all understood it with biting clarity. This was a subject not breached since we’d all sat down together and Jason had delivered his verbal blow, one I wished had simultaneously stayed unspoken and mentioned sooner than it had.

‘Don’t start this,’ Grant groaned. He sat back, rubbing his eyes in tired frustration. He, like the rest of us, found sleeping an unbearable chore now.

Visibly affronted, Clip said, ‘It needs saying.’

‘What more is there to say?’

Emily, who had been gazing through her e-reader, switched into focus. ‘Is this really something you want to talk about right now?’ she said.

Grant gestured to Emily. ‘Thank you. Exactly.’

‘When else should we talk about it?’ Clip said, looking between Grant and Emily as though they were stupid. ‘Byron, what do you think? Jake?’

Byron sunk deeper into his seat, shrugging.

‘I don’t know what to think,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what good it would do to think about it.’

Clip threw up his hands and a guttural noise of frustration gurgled in his throat. ‘What is wrong with you people? You all just want to sit here and let this happen?’

‘Well, what do you suggest we do about it, then?’ Grant said, his tone sardonic.

Clip turned his attention to the floor, cupping his head in his hands. The frustration in him was palpable; he quite obviously had a thought that was so clear in his head, but the disconnect between his brain and his mouth and his ability to articulate it and make the rest of us see sense was tightening him into knots. ‘I don’t know, do I?’ He sat up and folded his arms, almost as if in defeat. ‘But we’ve got to do something, surely?’

He was met with an empty silence. It stayed that way until Emily finally said what burned in my mind also. ‘I don’t want to die. Not like the others. That’s not right. I’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘None of us have done anything wrong,’ I said, ‘not you, not me, not Sadie, or James, or Brendan.’ I could feel the warmed steel of the stunner in my pocket intensify as I spoke. I wondered what the others would think if they knew I had it. ‘We can’t be too careful.’

‘I can’t figure it out,’ Emily said, a worried look shading her features. ‘What have they done to deserve such a fate? And who did it? And how?’

‘Sounds like Futureproof to me,’ Grant said. ‘That’s the kind of ridiculous overreaction they’d have to something like this.’

Emily shot him a look. ‘Grant! Don’t say things like that. They could be listening in for all you know.’

Grant laughed without humour. ‘You heard Jason. There’s no signal fast enough to get here. Whatever’s happening is premeditated, or it’s someone or something on board doing it.’

‘But who?’ Emily said. ‘Who here would do such a thing?’

That simple question intensified the tension in the room tenfold in an instant. I could feel my body tighten up, trying to shrink back from the others with an omnipotent guilt that came to me whether it was deserved or not. As we were, sat around in this room together, we were all that stood in between ourselves and an untimely end, but we were also all each other’s worst enemies. It was a paradox of a most unnerving nature: we were, each and every one of us, Schrödinger’s cat, awaiting a fate as yet undecided.

‘Well, it’s not me,’ Clip huffed,’ but the way I’m sat about here letting all this go ahead without so much as a whimper of protest, I can see why I’d deserve to be next.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Emily said quickly, as if Clip’s words were precognitive, ‘you’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘Haven’t I?’ Clip bellowed, making me and Emily jump. ‘There are fifty people not a stone’s throw from where I’m sitting, and in three months we’re going to be dumping them on a planet nearly forty lightyears from home. And that’s doing nothing wrong?’

‘Their fate is already decided,’ Grant said pointedly.

‘Doesn’t mean we have to be a part of it. What do you think, Jake?’

I had the advantage of knowing this revelation longer than the others had, but any premeditated thought escaped me. ‘I genuinely don’t know,’ I said, try hard to think. ‘At first I agreed with you, Clip, but now I’m not so sure. That’s not to say I agree—I’m just not sure. I—I don’t know. Sorry.’

Clip sagged in his chair. He could see he was outnumbered. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘But don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

With that ominous note, we all resumed our silent time-wasting. An hour passed, and then another; it was almost time for Byron and me to begin our morning’s work, even though we’d already finished it. In a way, I regretted our speedy completion of the calcs; it was a nice distraction, good exercise for the brain to keep it fighting fit and free from boredom. Sitting in the rec room, waiting, a cloud hanging over us, was going to turn us rotten.

I slapped my knees. ‘Say, Byron, why don’t we go over some of those calcs again?’

He looked up at me from his games console, the whites of eyes betraying his surprise. ‘But—they’re all done, aren’t they?’

I shrugged. ‘Can’t hurt to check them over. We need to make sure they’re perfect.’

Byron looked as though he was going to protest, then thought better of it. His face brightened a shade. It was barely noticeable, but it was there. ‘Ok,’ he said.

We made our way to the briefing room, and as I pulled down the screen I had a sudden pain in my chest. My pulse raced before my brain had a second to react, but I realised almost straight away that the pain was nothing more than a pang of painful longing for Sadie. I stood where she stood, I did what she did. It felt wrong.

‘Where shall we start?’ Byron said, bringing my attention back to reality. I had no idea how long I’d been stood like that for, hands clasped on my chest. I let them drop as casually as I could. Byron smiled sadly. He knew.

‘Ahhm, from the beginning, I suppose?’ I said. I switched on the projector and the familiar three-dimensional globe sprung from the white space in front of the screen. ‘Site one.’

‘Seventy per cent iron oxide from three metres down,’ Byron reeled off from the top of his head.

I looked at the notes as they flashed up, the globe spinning to draw site one into view. Sure enough, he was right. ‘Yep, there’s iron oxide alright. Well remembered.’

Byron’s memory was flawless, and I’m sure he knew as well as I did that this was a futile exercise. But it was good to get away from the rec room, away from the poisonous fug that hung between us all, turning our minds to something else to give them a chance for repair. I could see in Byron that, although a simplistic task, it freed him from the lockdown of the aftermath of Sadie’s death, where everything seemed to remind us of her.

We trundled through each site plan in no time at all, and once we were finished (it had only taken an hour an a half), I could sense that Byron didn’t want to leave. In a way it was comforting being here, as if we were bathing ourselves in a welcome wash of Sadie’s memory. Her spirit still lingered, and I could almost smell her pleasant fragrance on the air. If I tried, I could also still see here in my periphery, but when I could no longer resist temptation and I turned to look, she wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. But still it left me disappointed.

‘Jake, can I ask you something?’ Byron said looking up from his notes. He spoke quietly, as though he didn’t want to offend me.

‘Sure.’

‘What’re you going to do when we get back home?’

If we get back home. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t though much about it.’

Byron sighed, his eyes searching, deliberating. ‘I’m not sure I want to go home.’

‘Because of your father?’

Byron nodded. ‘I’ve got nothing worth going back for.’

I wanted to say something in response, but my mind had gone blank. I had nothing.

‘I feel so at home with you and with . . .’ Byron paused. ‘I don’t lie anymore, I don’t feel alone . . . I feel like I’ve finally got a . . . a . . .’ The last word struggled to come out, as though Byron feared that saying it would destroy the illusion.

‘Family?’ I suggested. Byron nodded. I remembered what I’d said to Sadie, about adopting Byron, taking him in. It had seemed a silly, romanticised idea then, but now it was almost imperative. I dreaded to think what Byron would do to himself if he was left alone in the world; an image of the dark blood pooling around his limp, ashen body flashed behind my eyes. I shuddered. ‘Perhaps we can come to some sort of arrangement.’

Byron’s face lit up immediately. ‘You mean it?’

Did I mean it? I hoped so. ‘Sure. I don’t know exactly what, but I’m sure we can do something.’

Byron made to stand up, then sat back down again. Then he grinned. ‘Thank you.’

I returned his grin. It didn’t feel convincing. ‘That’s okay.’

‘Where do you live?’

‘East Metro, third district. Around Grimwald.’

Byron nodded knowingly. ‘That’s a nice area.’

‘Probably not as nice as where you’ve been brought up.’

Byron wrinkled his nose. ‘I don’t care about that. What’s money and luxury if you’re miserable?’

I chuckled. ‘What’s misery without money and luxury?’

That brought a smile to Byron’s face. He looked down, and when he looked up it was gone, replaced by a kind of sincere inquisitiveness. ‘What’s your family like?’

There’s a question, I thought. ‘My mum, she’s lovely. I miss her a lot. She’s your typical biscuit-tin, grey-haired charming old lady. She still treats me like I’m nine, though.’

Byron laughed. ‘And your dad?’

An unease bubbled in my stomach. ‘He died. Got shot outside the city in the wastelands. He was a police officer.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘No, no need to be sorry. I didn’t really know him. This was during the time when the uprising started happening and the street gangs of the outer districts migrated to the unprotected zones. The start of the war, I suppose.’

‘What war?’

It didn’t surprise me that Byron was unaware. Most people, sat at home in their cosy front rooms, watching the television or whatever it was they were doing, weren’t aware. And those that weren’t aware viewed the war as something faraway and unimportant, a storm in a teacup way out where it wouldn’t affect them. ‘There are several factions fighting for power in the unprotected zones, street gangs that had grown too large to remain within the walls of the Global Administration. There’s a lot of poverty in the city you see, but the city’s become so big that most of us just don’t see it. The city used to be divided up, you know, into separate territories, way before the GA was formed. So the gangs moved to the unprotected zones and began fighting among each other for power. Some called a truce and merged; others continue fighting to this day. There will come a time when their internal struggles are resolved and they turn their attention to the city.

‘Anyway, back when the gangs were making their move to the unprotected zones beyond the wall, that’s when my dad got shot.’ I laughed, although I didn’t know why. ‘It was the silliest thing. He was on his way back from patrol, and he took a call to check up on a domestic in nineteenth district, just on the inside of the wall. Rough neighbourhood. So, the report says, he goes in to investigate, finds two people, a guy and his wife, having an argument. It’s over dinner or something—she burned it. Something stupid like that. So dad tries to calm the situation down and the guy pulls a pistol, shoots him right between the eyes. Turns out—although no one knew at the time—that the guy who shot my dad was one of the generals of the biggest gang of the time, what’s now become the leading faction in the war for the unprotected zones.’

Byron sat motionless for a few seconds, stunned. ‘Is that why you know so much about it? The war, I mean? Because of your dad?’

I nodded.

‘Do you think the man that shot him could be in the trailer?’

I twitched. Hearing that thought out loud was like a punch to the gut. It was a thought I’d ignored on a subconscious level since I’d found out about our cargo. I didn’t want to let it influence my decision, but hearing Byron say the words, make them real, made me realised that my ignorance was not protecting me. I’d made my decision long ago. I knew what I wanted. ‘He could be. It’s very likely he is.’

‘Do you want him to die? For what he did?’

I didn’t twitch this time. It was like a floodgate had been opened, and a rushing waterfall of relief was filling me up. This taboo, this secret that made me unable to decide upon the fate of our cargo without bias, had been released, and now I was free of its shackles. ‘Yes. Yes I do.’