I couldn’t keep this fresh information inside me and not tell someone. After swearing Sadie to secrecy, which she did freely after I had taken her to one side and explained the situation to her, I found Jason. He was at his bunk, folding his clothes.
‘Jason, I need to speak with you. It’s important.’
Jason looked around to make sure we were alone. ‘Make it brief.’
‘It’s not Byron.’ I’d thought long and hard about it, and I was sure of it. ‘I don’t want you thinking it was Byron that did it.’
Jason continued to fold his clothes not looking at me. ‘That did what?’
‘That—that killed James.’
‘And why would I think that?’
‘Well, you know—he’s unpredictable. He told me yesterday that he stole James’ chocolate and wiped his e-reader, and I wanted you to find out from me before you found out some other way and pinned the blame on him. But that doesn’t mean he’s capable of murder, not by a long shot.’
‘And I suppose you want me to think that it was Brendan?’
‘I—I don’t know.’
Jason stopped folding and turned to face me. ‘Jake, I appreciate what you’re doing, but what you think and feel are not evidence enough. Byron has put himself in a situation that warrants extreme suspicion, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Well, yes, but—’
‘Then until we have solid proof that he’s innocent, we can’t under any circumstances treat him as such. Byron told me all about the chocolate and the e-reader yesterday, and he was very apologetic, but that does not excuse him from any investigation we care to operate on this ship.’
That seemed fair, and I knew it was, but I couldn’t accept it.
‘But Brendan is the murderer, not Byron!’
I sounded almost like I was pleading.
‘Why? Because he had an argument with James? You’ve had an argument with James, too—should we count you as a suspect as well?’
I had no answer for that.
‘No, of course not. But we aren’t discounting anyone either, at least not yet. We’re on a knife-edge here, and we’re walking it blindfolded. We’ve got nothing to go on except a clean body.’
He was right of course, even if I couldn’t accept it. A few eventless weeks passed by where I didn’t really speak to either him or Sophia beyond polite small talk, and as more of the day became dedicated to work as the halfway point of our journey approached, I welcomed the distraction from the unsettling thoughts that gnawed at the back of my brain. We had completed our draft site selection, narrowing down fifty locations for sampling, and now we needed to refine that selection down to just twenty, the maximum sample capacity of the trailer.
‘Site sixteen shows a lot of similar rock formations to site eleven,’ I said, pointing at the spectrograph analysis. ‘Plus its three hundred miles out of our way. We can probably scrap that one.’
‘Agreed,’ Sadie said, crossing it off the list. ‘Do you see the similar rock formations in the graph, Byron?’
Since our conversation, Byron had become quite subdued, like he was when we first met him. He wasn’t being rude, or sulking, or anything like that, he had simply retreated back into his shell, and I felt bad for him. I pointed to a jagged line on the graph for site sixteen. ‘See this line? This shows the chemical make-up of the area. Compare it to site eleven. See the similarities?’ Byron nodded, but I had no idea if he understood what I was saying or if he was stuck in the attic of his mind, trapped with the dust and the cobwebs. ‘You’ll get it,’ I said, hoping to sound reassuring, but probably sounding overly sympathetic in that way people do when they feel sorry for someone.
The rest of the meeting went on like that, and although it was productive, there was a part of my mind I couldn’t tear away from Byron’s predicament. Once we were done, I sent Byron off to get us all lunch, hoping to catch Sadie alone.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ she said, folding away the screen.
‘Do you agree with me?’
She sighed. She didn’t sound depressed, more . . . lost. ‘I just wish I didn’t know as much as I did. The others, they’re blissfully unaware of all this, happy in the knowledge that James’ death was just one of those things.’
‘But you do know it wasn’t just one of those things, don’t you?’
Sadie raised her eyebrows at me and said nothing.
‘You don’t think it was a murder?’
‘I’m not sure that I do,’ Sadie said, shrugging. ‘I’m not sure what to believe.’
Hearing Sadie say that made me feel like I was losing my grasp on something—my sanity, perhaps. ‘But I thought you . . . I’ve told you it was Brendan . . . you do think it was Brendan, right?’
When Sadie looked at me, she had a sympathetic sadness on her face. I knew what that meant, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want her sympathy—I wanted her faith. ‘Jake,’ she said. ‘You need to let go of this. I know you saw Brendan that night, but you didn’t see the argument, and you certainly didn’t see the murder, if there even was one. I can see this eating you up inside, and you’re hurting yourself with it.’ She put a warm hand on my face. ‘I care about you,’ she whispered. ‘And I can’t see you do this to yourself.’
We shared a moment of silence and then she left, leaving me standing on my own, stunned. Perhaps she was right. So I did what I didn’t think I could do, and I went to speak to Brendan.
He was in the rec room, reading, minding his own business. He was a quiet sort of guy anyway, but since James’ passing I hadn’t really seen him speak much to anyone at all. With Sadie’s words ringing in my ears, I found it hard to remind myself of the passion that filled my certainty before, and seeing him sat there reading, seemingly free of guilty conscience, I felt sure I was doing the right thing. I sat down next to him and he looked at me, smiled, then returned to his book.
‘What’re you reading?’ I asked.
‘Just a trashy sci-fi,’ he said, not taking his eyes from the screen.
‘Is it good?’
A pause. ‘How are you holding up?’
This seemed to provoke something in him. He put the e-reader down, and looked at me with a quizzical expression that seemed to be questioning my motives. ‘Fine, thanks. That’s not what you came here to ask me, is it?’
He wasn’t wrong.
‘Yes and no,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’m glad to hear you’re okay, but I also wanted to ask you about something else.’
‘Go on then,’ he said. The quizzical expression remained unchanged.
‘Well, I don’t quite know how to put this, but—do you think James was murdered?’
Brendan blinked, blindsided by the question. I tried hard to study the minute twitches of his eyes, cheeks and lips, but it was all over in a flash. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ he said. ‘It hadn’t even crossed my mind.’
‘Really? It didn’t occur to you, even once?’
He shook his head. The look he was carrying now seemed like one of an innocent man having a genuinely unsettling thought, but I couldn’t be sure.
‘So, what do you think happened?’
He shrugged, dismissing the question. ‘But who?’
‘That’s what I’m asking you.’ That’s when I saw the cogs whirr and click, falling into place. His eyes narrowed.
‘You think it was me, don’t you?’
‘I don’t think it was anyone.’
‘Then why are you asking?’
‘Just . . . making conversation.’
‘You think because I had an argument with him the night before that I killed him?’
‘I said nothing of the sort—’
‘Listen to me,’ he said, leaning in close. ‘I had an argument with him because he was losing his mind, getting paranoid about all sorts of crazy shit. Do you know what he told me? He thought—’
‘Jake?’ Brendan and I looked up; it was Emily. She looked worried.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s Byron. You’d better come quickly.’
As Emily came over I could see that what I thought was worry was actually something closer to terror. ‘Shit,’ I said, and ran off past her down the way she had come. Byron was in the bunks, on the floor, and Sadie and some others were crowding around him.
Clip noticed me. ‘Jake,’ he said. ‘He was asking for you.’
I pushed through, and the others gave me some room. I hadn’t seen it before, but with a clear view I could now see the blood running down his shirt and pooling around him. ‘Jesus, Byron—what happened?’
Emily squeezed in, bandages in hand, and she began wrapping them around his wrists. ‘He cut himself,’ she said. ‘Used one of the bed springs.’
‘Oh God . . .’
I drew myself closer to him, enough to hear his weak, shallow breathing. His eyelids were half-closed, but he was still conscious. Just. He whispered something; I couldn’t hear it, so I put my ear close to his mouth.
‘I’m sorry . . .’
It was like he’d grabbed my throat and twisted. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision.
‘Okay, I’m going to need some room now,’ I heard Emily say. Her voice was urgent. I stumbled back, and someone helped take my weight, which was probably a good thing because my legs had all but vanished beneath me. I don’t really remember much of the next few hours, save for a few crystal-clear snapshots of Emily running back and forth, taking shining red bandages away and bring fresh ones back with her. She was a saint, calmly working on Byron while I sat on my bunk and watched, stuck in some hell between my conscious and my subconscious. After what seemed like hours, with the flow stemmed, Byron’s wrists freshly wrapped and him unconscious on his bunk, Emily gave me a reassuring smile that finally let my heart beat at something close to a normal rhythm again.
‘He’s going to be okay,’ she said, wiping her stained hands on a towel. She left to dispose of it, leaving me with Byron and the mirror-like pool of dark blood on the floor. I heard her returning, but when I looked up, I saw Sadie. She sat down next to me and put an arm around me.
‘It’s my fault . . .’ I said. I don’t know where the words came from, but I felt like I needed to say them, like they opened a pressure relief valve that was fit to burst.
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s not. Don’t you dare think that.’
‘But,’ I said, my eyes filling anew, ‘but if I hadn’t asked him so many questions—’
‘Stop right there. I’ll hear no more of it. Byron cares for you and respects you, because you cared for him. This isn’t because of you, and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it. What Byron did is because of his own demons.’
I nodded, wiping my eyes. I don’t know if I believed what Sadie was saying, but I believed without a doubt that she wouldn’t let the matter drop if I didn’t.
‘Okay,’ I said, but it wasn’t okay. If Sadie was right, and Byron was battling with his demons, what was the battle about? Stealing a bar of chocolate? Wiping an e-reader? Compulsive lying? Murder? The thoughts were as fire to my brain, so I flushed them from my mind as best I could, concentrating on Sadie’s warm embrace. But I couldn’t appreciate it for long, because the still air broke with a colossal, ‘Fuck!’
Sadie and I both jerked upwards, looking to where the profanity had come from, and even before I’d had time enough to think about what happened, a hard knot of knowing anxiety welded my stomach up tight. We bolted from the room, storming through the galley and into the rec room, where most of the others were gathered. There was a body on the floor, and everyone was crowded around it, except this time Emily was on her hands and knees, thumping the body hard.
‘What’s going on?’ I said to Jason, who was standing closest to me.
‘It’s Brendan,’ he said. ‘We were all just sat here when he jumped up all of a sudden, clutching his chest, and collapsed on the floor.’
Emily had stopped thumping. She was hung low over Brendan, blocking him from view, her shoulders drooped and her breathing heavy. When she sat back her brow was dappled with sweat, and as she moved I was able to see Brendan. His eyes were stuck open, like some horrid doll, glassy and amused, frozen with death. Nothing more was said.
Byron healed well over the following week, although the quiet lull he had sunk into before he’d cut himself seemed to wear into an even deeper rut afterwards. Most of the time he was either lying on his bunk dozing, or playing computer games. He occasionally shared a joke, and came to most of Sadie’s mission briefings, but it was as though only part of him was there with us. The other part—who knows where that was. Sadie and I did our best to keep him in sight at all times, a routine I fell into with strict determination, partly because I cared for the kid, but mostly because I felt guilty. As he lay on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, I lay on mine, staring through a book. I could hear each breath enter and leave his body, and every time there was a pause, my heart paused with it. It was agonising, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
‘You don’t have to watch me all the time,’ he said.
That came as quite a surprise—I don’t know how long we’d been there together, but it had been a long time, all in silence.
‘I don’t mind,’ I said.
‘Why are you doing it?’
‘I mean, I know why, but why? Why don’t you just leave me alone?’
I could sense the hurt in his voice. I don’t think it was directed at me—at least I hoped it wasn’t. ‘Because I care about you, Byron.’
Byron didn’t speak for a while, but I could hear a muffled sniffling, like he was trying to subdue sobs.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
‘Sure,’ he said, his voice thin and watery. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘You don’t have to feel alone anymore,’ I said. ‘I’m going to take care of you.’
This seemed to generate more muted sobbing.
‘How do I know you’re not lying?’ Byron said after a while. ‘How do I know you’re not going to ditch me like everyone always does?’
It was a good question. ‘I guess you just have to trust me. Can you trust me?’
‘I guess . . .’
I licked my lips. They had gone very dry. ‘Can I trust you?’
‘Byron . . .?’
‘I don’t know . . .’ he said.
‘Well, why don’t you tell me something about yourself, something true. That’s a good start.’
‘Okay . . . but what?’
‘Why don’t you tell me where you’re from?’
Byron stayed silent for a while, and I thought he’d given up on the conversation. But then he sighed, and began to speak. ‘District seventeen, originally. That’s where I grew up before dad got the Planexus job.’
‘Is that the truth?’
‘What was it like growing up there?’
‘I hated it. I got beat up all the time by the other kids.’
‘Didn’t your mum try to stop it?’
‘Naw. She was usually high on that rich people drug, or out with her friends, so she didn’t have much time for me.’
‘And what about your dad?’
‘He was never around, either, always at work.’
‘Do you miss them?’
‘No. Well, I guess. But I don’t want to.’
I thought of my own mother, the dear, sweet person that she was, and it stuck in my throat to think what my life would have been like without her own brand of overbearing compassion to guide me. I suddenly felt very far from home, so I changed the subject. ‘So what made you want to fly deep space?’
‘I just wanted to get away I guess, go as far away as possible. I’ve always dreamed of visiting faraway planets, being the first to set foot on new worlds away from the all the stuff back home. I did pretty good on my finals at school, and I got a grant to go to flight school, which is just as well, because dad wasn’t going to pay for me to go. It’s one of the only times I can remember my being happy. Mum had opened the envelope by accident, and she was waiting for me when I got home. “I’m so proud of you,” she’d said. I remember it clear as day.’
‘It’s an impressive achievement.’
‘Yeah, but I fucked it up, didn’t I?’
It stung me to hear Byron talk like that, and all at once I realised that despite appearances, he was no boy. He wasn’t a man either, he was . . . something in between. A boy that’d never had the chance to properly grow up. An emotional drifter. I could imagine him coming home from school to find his mother spaced out on the couch, curtains closed, television on. He’d check and make sure she was still breathing, as he did every time he got back from school, then make himself dinner from whatever there was in the house—usually nothing. ‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘I told the Principle that this other kid was dealing drugs on campus. I took some of my mum’s pills and hid them in his bag. He was going to get expelled, but then I got found out. Some other kid had seen me do it, and they had CCTV footage to back him up.’
‘Why did you do it?’
Byron sighed weakly. ‘He called my mum a whore. Then he beat me up.’
I could see his reasoning. I was also starting to wonder if the whole naivety thing that Byron had going on was all an act. This conversation seemed to be bringing out more of the man than the boy that he’d been before; there was a cynicism that couldn’t have possibly festered in the mind of an innocent. Perhaps that was it: the lying, the acting naive, it was all a shield against the damage and destruction that had been thrown his way all his life. He was protecting who he really was by being someone else. To his credit, I couldn’t blame him. Hell, I’d have probably done the same. ‘Well, you’ve got what you wanted now at least, and I’ll make sure you don’t need to worry about people bullying you any more.’
‘Jake’—he rarely if ever called me by my name—’I’m sorry I got you wrapped up in all this, but really, you don’t have to help me. I’m not a charity case you need to feel sorry for. I know they tell you not to walk on past someone in need, but in this case feel free to stroll on by. I don’t mind, really.’
Then, from the back of my mind, a single thought cried out. ‘What did you apologise to me for?’
‘I was just saying I’m sorry for getting you involved—’
‘No, not now. Last week, when—when you cut yourself.’
‘When I cut myself? I don’t remember.’
‘You must do. You told me you were sorry. You whispered it to me before you fell unconscious. What were you sorry for?’
‘I told you, I don’t remember.’
‘I think you do.’
‘So what? Even if I do, it doesn’t matter.’
‘Because . . . I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking straight. I had a lot of blood loss.’
‘Tell me what you apologised to me for.’
I heard Byron shuffle in his bunk, but he didn’t respond.
‘We’re done,’ he said.
And, for the first time, he was true to his word. I couldn’t get him to speak, so I lay there with him in the peace of the ship, listening to the faint hum of its electrical organs. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because I found myself again on the shore of the beach. This time I didn’t go into the forest, or even look for the twinkling eyes. I stayed on the beach.
‘What do you want?’ I bellowed. My voice carried to the horizon, falling away with the impenetrable distance. My cry stayed unanswered, until a prickle on my back told me that someone was standing behind me. I didn’t turn around. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ they said.
‘Why did you do it?’ I said.
‘Why are you asking?’ they said.
‘Because it’s wrong, and you shouldn’t have done it,’ I said.
‘And who are you to judge what’s right and wrong?’ they said.
I whipped around, hoping to catch them off guard, but they were gone.