I dreamed the dream again. I was on the beach, but this time I didn’t meet anyone, my body stayed intact, and I didn’t wander into the forest. Instead I sat down, looking out to the infinite sea, and I felt alone. There was no one out there, not for miles, lightyears, nothing, and I was on my own on this barren island with nothing but my nightmares for company.
The dream morphed into darkness, and I sensed the world around me changing unseen. I was in the tow dock, and I was no longer alone.
You came close today.
‘I didn’t say anything, I promise.’
‘You can still trust me.’
‘I will do as you instruct.’
The lingering dream lay as a sticky film on my skin when I awoke, and I took the first opportunity to wash it off. Despite the tiny volume of the Athena, the sanitation room seemed like a cavernous tomb, loud and hollow, every last move reverberating around it in a spiralling loop of skin-crawling noise. The tow dock at the end was what set my hair on end, the doorway a gaping maw, the cool air moving through from the ventilation units the breath of the dead. When I looked into it, the cavern shrunk around me until I could almost feel the pressure against my skin, and when I looked away, I could swear that in my peripheral James’ rigid corpse lay on the floor, frozen and still. I snatched back to look, but all that was there was steel. What was happening to me?
‘Hi Jake—don’t mind if I join you?’
The voice made my insides go cold, but I managed not to jump.
‘Sure, Emily, go right ahead. I’m almost done, anyway.’
As I wiped myself over, hurrying the process as fast as I was able, Emily slid out of her jump suit and fed it into the laundry machine. I turned away when she faced me, catching only a glimpse of her naked body.
‘What were you chatting to Jason and Sophia about yesterday, anything interesting?’ she said. I could hear her approach, then rummage in the dispenser for a body wipe. I didn’t dare look at her, as if her very appearance would turn me to stone.
‘Oh, this and that, nothing important,’ I said, my voice coming out unnaturally high.
‘If it’s personal, just tell me to mind my own business,’ she trilled, as cheerfully as you like.
‘Mainly about the, errr . . . the drilling stuff, you know. You probably heard that I’ve taken on the role since—since what happened.’
I stole a glance at her, and she caught me, her smiling mouth widening to a grin. I looked away again immediately, but she said nothing of it.
‘I did hear that. I was impressed that you know how to do it. It’s a difficult job.’
‘Yeah, well, I’ll be limited in what I can do. I’m not quite the guy James and Brendan were.’
Nothing but the slippery sound of skin being wiped bridged the gap between us for a moment.
‘They were two of the finest . . .’ Emily said after a moment, her voice a dreamy sing-song. ‘What a shame that was.’
I said nothing. Just my legs and feet to go. Hurry up and get out of there.
‘They probably had it coming, though,’ Emily added after another uncomfortable silence. Balanced on one leg, I nearly collapsed when she said that. ‘Because of their health, I mean. They weren’t the healthiest people I’ve ever met.’
‘Oh, no . . . right,’ I said, my balance regained, by my composure still just out of reach.
‘Working with all those fumes and dust . . . they’re all the same, these drillers, never bothering to fit the filters to their re-breathers, goodness knows why. I suppose it’s been that way for decades: the hard-working types never listen to what the academic types like me have to say. I suppose that makes it an if rather than a when.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Just my feet left to go. Wipe, wipe, wipe.
‘You’ll make sure you wear the filter with your re-breather, won’t you?’
‘Sure, of course.’ Wipe in the disposal, grab a towel from the rack.
‘I’d hate for something bad to happen to you.’
That was it. I practically ran out of the sanitation room, the air rushing past my damp skin pulling goosebumps up in their dozens. I towelled myself down, shaking, threw my coveralls on still semi-damp, and left the towel on my bed. There was no way I was going back into that room with her.
‘Ready in five?’ Sadie said as I rushed by her in the rec room. I didn’t respond. I marched right past, through the briefing room and into the cockpit, where I was greeted by the three surprised expressions of Jason, Sophia and Clip. Added to Jason and Sophia’s expressions was the gaunt hollowness of exhaustion, the pair still working double shifts at the conn.
‘Are you okay?’ Jason asked. His concern was obvious, and I gathered I must have looked a state. I caught a glimpse of my terrified reflection only to realise that one of the legs of my coverall was rolled halfway up my shin. I left it that way: I had more important things to talk about.
‘About ten days ago I was cornered in the tow dock and verbally threatened with death. It happened, it was real. Is that enough evidence for you?’ The forcefulness of my response took a while to sink in to the three shocked recipients. The first person to speak was Clip.
‘I’m going to go . . .’ he said, looking around anxiously as if waiting for permission. He didn’t get so much as a twitch in response, so he left anyway, knocking a memopad onto the floor as he pushed by.
‘Why don’t we take this down a notch,’ Jason said, slowly lifting his hands up to me in a gesture of calm. ‘Take a seat, start from the beginning.’ His gesture fluidly moved to point towards the nearest seat, and he awaited my next move. As I calculated his intentions, I noticed that I was breathing heavily, and that my fists were clenched. I released them, shut my eyes and took a slow breath, blowing it out, and with it, my frustration. I took a seat. Jason and Sophia stood around me, manoeuvring, I noticed, between me and the door; whether this was intentional I don’t know, but I noticed it nonetheless.
‘Well, I was in the sanitation room,’ I began, studying the snapshots that remained of my recollections, ‘when I heard a noise.’
‘What kind of noise?’ Sophia asked.
‘A scratching noise, like something dragging. So I went to look, and there was a toy in there, a clockwork one, and it was moving around, making that noise.’
‘Do you remember what the toy looked like?’
‘I . . . I’m not sure.’
‘Okay, never mind. Carry on.’
‘I bent down to pick it up, and that’s when all the lights shut off.’
Jason looked at Sophia, and she returned the glance.
‘Like—off, off?’ Grant asked, his questioning tone clearly sceptical.
‘Yes, completely off. Pitch black.’
‘So what happened next?’
‘I heard a voice.’
‘A man’s voice? Or a woman’s voice?’
‘I . . . don’t know . . .’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘It was all muffled. It was hard to tell.’
‘Okay, fine. What did the voice say?’
I dug deep to remember the words. It wasn’t hard.
I’m not going to kill you.
‘It said, “I’m not going to kill you.”‘
Because I don’t need to.
‘Then it said, “Because I don’t need to.”‘
I nodded. ‘”You know it’s true.”‘
‘And then it was gone. The lights came on, and I was alone.’
‘And the toy?’
‘How close did the voice get?’ Sophia asked.
‘Erm, I’m not sure—a few metres away I guess.’
‘Did you hear it come close to pick up the toy?’
This part was all such a blur. ‘Not that I remember . . .’
‘So where do you think the toy went?’
Now I felt like I was the one on trial. ‘I—don’t know . . .’ I mumbled.
‘You don’t know?’
I shook my head. I could feel red heat burning my cheeks.
‘Can you step outside for a moment, please?’ Jason said after a long pause, and, without really thinking, I got up and left in rather a hurry. I seated myself in the empty briefing room, bobbing my knee and thinking without hearing what my thoughts had to say. What were they talking about? Was I in trouble? Had I gone too far? Was there something wrong with me? What were they talking about? Was I in trouble? Had I gone too far? Was there something wrong with me? WHAT WERE THEY—
‘Huh?’ I said, bringing myself back round to the present. It was Jason.
‘Can you come back into the cockpit, please?’
I followed him in.
‘Jake, we want to thank you for taking the time to come to us with this information,’ Jason said, and Sophia nodded. ‘We know things haven’t been easy on board since James and Brendan’s deaths, and we know it must be hard to put yourself on the line like this.’
I didn’t react in any way at all, keeping my cards close to my chest, revealing nothing. I awaited the but.
‘We want to help you,’ Sophia said, ‘investigate further.’
‘That’s right,’ Jason added. ‘What we want to do is search the ship from front to back, see if we can find the toy you saw. If we can find it, then we’ve got a starting platform for our investigation—’
‘And if you can’t?’ I said, perhaps a little too suddenly and a little too desperately.
‘If we can’t,’ Sophia said, ‘then I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend you from the mission.’
A sudden pain reared in my chest. ‘Suspend me? Why?’
Jason put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. ‘Jake, look—I don’t mean to be insensitive, but you’ve just come to us with a far-fetched story that we’ve only got three ways of interpreting. You’re either lying to us, which I don’t believe for a second, you’re telling the truth, or . . .’
‘Or what?’ I said, backing away from his grasp.
‘Or you’re telling the truth about what you saw, but what you saw didn’t really happen.’
The pain in my chest turned to nausea. ‘What are you saying?’
‘Jake please,’ Sophia said, low and soothing. ‘Whatever happens, we’re here to protect the crew—you—that’s what we’re saying. If you need help, we’ll give you the help you need.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘I saw what I saw!’ I snapped. ‘You weren’t there!’
‘I know, I know,’ Jason said, ‘and that’s why we’re going to search the ship. Believe me, I want to find this toy as much as you do. Without you, the mission’s—well, it’ll be difficult without you. You get what I’m saying.’
I could feel my simmering anger coming off the boil as quickly as it had come. ‘I—I’m sorry. I suppose you’re right. You do what you have to do.’
Jason nodded, and for a second, looked relieved. ‘Good. That’s good, thank you. We’ll search the ship first thing tomorrow. Until then, please keep this to yourself.’
True to his word, Jason gathered the crew in the rec room the next morning to explain what was going to happen.
‘To eliminate the possibility of any foreign objects being smuggled on board, we’ve come to the conclusion that we need to perform a ship-wide search.’ A chorus of groans came in return. I added mine as best I could. ‘With your cooperation this will only take a day. The search will include personal belongings—I hope that isn’t a problem for anyone.’ Silence. ‘Good. We will begin in half an hour. I will need you all to remain in the rec room for the remainder of the search, so if you have anything you’d like to get to keep yourself entertained for the duration, please get it now.’
We all gathered what we wanted from our bunks and assembled—minus Grant, who was manning the cockpit—in the rec room. Even though there were only five of us, the conversation seemed buzz as it would in a much larger crowd. Perhaps it was the rising anxiety in my throat, or perhaps it was the buzzing adrenaline in my temples, but I found it hard to pin down one conversation and focus.
‘What’s all this about?’
‘I’ve been expecting this to happen.’
‘How long’s it going to take? Will we get lunch?’
‘How comes Grant doesn’t have to be here?’
‘Are we going to get searched?’
As it turned out, yes, we were going to get searched. Jason and Sophia made it their first port of call to return to our gathering and perform a search of our coveralls and then the rec room itself. We took it in turns, watching each other have our arms, legs and torsos patted down, out pockets rifled in, our shoes turned upside down and shaken. When it came to my turn, Sophia’s business-like expression and disinterested silence almost convinced me she had forgotten that it was me that had come to them in the first place. When she had finished, she gave me a look for the briefest of brief seconds that told me otherwise, which sent my cheeks flaring red. I hoped no one noticed.
Finished, Jason and Sophia left the room to continue their search in the cockpit, Jason carrying a service tool kit to check in all the cubbyholes and panels dotted around the place. Once they were gone, it took a while for conversation to break out again, but when it did I was able to get a handle on it this time around.
‘Do you think they’ll find anything?’ Clip asked the room. When he received no answer, he said, ‘I don’t think they will. I just think they’re bugged out by James and Brendan dying and they’re overreacting to it. Isn’t that right, Emily?’
At first I wasn’t sure if Emily was going to answer at all. She was looking at the floor, twiddling her thumbs. At last, she spoke. ‘Sure, their deaths seemed natural. That’s not to say they were, but it would have to take something pretty potent to do that to them without leaving a trace. And besides, someone here would have had to administer it to them. How would they do that unnoticed?’
I watched Emily a little longer after she’d finished speaking, to see if her candid revelation made her anxious. She caught me looking and I turned away, but not before I saw her smile.
‘Maybe that’s what they’re really looking for,’ Clip said. ‘The poison or whatever it is?’
‘I don’t believe anyone here would do such a thing, would they?’ Sadie said. She looked a little pale, and her mouth twitched as if she’d had trouble saying what she’d said.
Emily shrugged. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘What about Grant?’ Clip suggested. ‘Could he do it?’
‘Grant’s nice,’ Sadie said, looking at the backs of her hands. ‘He wouldn’t do something so unthinkably horrible.’
‘And what about Jason? Or Sophia?’ Clip added, his voice low. The question didn’t inherit a response.
‘I think they won’t find anything,’ said Emily. ‘I think this is just a precautionary measure that goes by the book. They’ve got paperwork to fill out when they get back, and this’ll probably get a mention.’
‘That’s what I think,’ Sadie said, her indignant tone trying to draw some kind of conclusion to the conversation. Clip had other ideas.
‘Say, though, for argument’s sake, that they did find something . . . what then?’
‘I guess they’d secure it and either destroy it or contain it, depending on what it was,’ Emily suggested, shrugging.
‘No, but what if it was traceable to one of us?’
‘Then that’s mutiny at the very best. Out here that’s means execution.’
The word cut into me as it must have done the others, because the thick air became even thicker, and I even flinched. Byron, who hadn’t said anything, shuffled in his seat.
‘I want to go home,’ he said quietly.
‘We all do, kid,’ Chip said. ‘We all do.’
The conversation after that turned lighter in tone as we waiting for Jason and Sophia to finish their search. After several hours, and nearing lunchtime, they came back into the rec room to begin their investigation of the rear of the Athena. Before they did, however, they brought us some food, which they ate with us in silence. I tried to catch Sophia’s eye, but she avoided it with casual dismissal. Once lunch was done and Jason and Sophia had left the rec room to continue the search, our conversation returned, passed about in hushed voices.
‘I don’t think they’ve found anything,’ Sadie said, sounding hopeful.
‘I wouldn’t have thought the cockpit or briefing room would make a very good hiding place,’ I said, trying this time to appear less suspicious and actually join in the talking.
‘Precisely what makes them such good places to hide something,’ Clip said, a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘The last place anyone would expect something is the last place they’d look.’
‘But they’d still look there eventually,’ Emily said. ‘In fact they looked there first and they didn’t find anything there.’
‘That’s only speculation, though. They could have found something.’
‘Then why would they still be searching?’
‘Well, there’s no reason there couldn’t be more of whatever it is they’ve found, or something else entirely.’
Emily shook her head, her expression incredulous. ‘Now you’re just being silly.’
‘Maybe, maybe not. We’ll soon see.’
We wouldn’t soon see, because it took an age for Jason and Sophia to finish. By the time they returned to the rec room, Emily and Clip were asleep, Sadie was stitching, I was playing a computer game and Byron was watching. We’d all said everything there was to say several times over, and now we were whiling away the time. Not for the first time on this mission, it astounded me how—myself included—humans could adapt to a situation, make it feel normal. It was a survival mechanism that had exceptionally good results.
‘Thank you all for your time,’ Jason said. He looked exhausted, Sophia, too. ‘You can return to your stations now.’
And that was that. Although I didn’t expect them to walk up to me there and then and tell me everything, the whirlpool in my stomach expected something. As Jason and Sophia headed towards the bunks, presumably for a good night’s rest, I caught up with them after muttering to Sadie that I was off to get a nutridrink.
‘Did you find anything?’ I asked before they’d even had a chance to turn around. I sounded almost breathless with anticipation, even to me.
They both staggered about to face me. Even Sophia’s tanned skin couldn’t hide the purple bags forming under her eyes. ‘We’ll talk about it tomorrow,’ she said, and they both began to turn back again when I grabbed Sophia by the shoulder and pulled her back to me. Immediately she was awake, and she threw my hand from her shoulder, eyes that were misty only a moment ago pin sharp and bright.
‘I—I’m sorry . . .’ I said, taking a step back. ‘I didn’t mean . . .’
The fire in Sohia’s eyes faded again. ‘It’s okay. I get it.’ She sighed, then looked to Jason nervously. He shrugged, as if to say, yeah, might as well. Sophia turned back at me. ‘We can’t say much now, but we did find something.’
My heart palpitated. ‘Really? What did you find?’
‘Please keep this to yourself for now,’ Jason muttered. I nodded vigorously. ‘We found your toy.’
I swear that my heart, beating like a war drum only moments ago, stopped. My fingers and toes fizzed with horrible pinpricks. A flash in my mind, of the tow dock, of the toy, the voice in my ears—they were memories that had faded like a poster in the sun, but now they were back to the full clarity of the original experience. ‘Where . . .’ I whispered, my throat so dry my words seemed to stick, ‘where did you find it?’
Jason looked at Sophia, and she at him. He looked worried. ‘In Byron’s personal bag,’ he said.