For every step I took forward, the great writhing wall of dust tried to push me back two. Jason, fuelled by whatever frenetic energy that powered him, forced his way onwards, leaving me trailing but just about able to keep up. Sophia had dropped back from me, but I could still just about see her. The Athena, however, was long gone.
The wind roared louder, yet still Jason marched confidently on. We could’ve been walking in circles and I’d have been none the wiser, the strain of the blast and the volume in my ears too much for me to even think. I knew I wanted to think about something, had to think about something, but every ounce of my already depleted being was forced into keeping me moving forward. I felt like I was marching to my death, and so exhausted was my mind and my body that I simply let myself trudge on, in a strange way looking forward to the relief death would bring. Better yet, I could just stop here, lie down on the floor, curl up and wait for the storm to pass. The sand, once moulded to the shape of my body, would probably be pretty comfortable.
No. I must keep on going. The thought came clear, even if just for a second: I had to protect Byron, if not from himself then from Jason. I pushed on. So thick were the veins of dust writhing around me that it felt like I was standing still, walking but not moving. It was like a horrible dream, a foreboding sense of entrapment snaring me and making my heart thump in my throat.
Ahead, a glow. At least, I thought it was a glow. Then it was gone as the wind changed direction, whipping the fine particulate cloud up even thicker than before. Perhaps there was no glow? But then I saw it again. Jason must have seen it, too, because he had picked up his pace yet again. I dragged air into my lungs and pushed against the burn in my legs to keep up, the soft ground beneath my feet swallowing each footstep deeper as I walked faster. I checked over my shoulder; Sophia was flagging, but she would catch up.
The glow became brighter, until it was distinct. The transport vehicle.
‘Byron!’ Jason yelled over the intercom, so suddenly it made my entire body jerk. ‘Byron, I know you’re here! Show yourself!’
There was no response, but a flash of movement caught my eye—Jason’s, too. It came from over by the drill, which was still set up where we’d left it over the filled-in final hole. I squinted as my walk broke into a jog to see Byron working at the drill head. What was he doing? Adjusting it?
‘Byron,’ Jason said as calmly as he could while still being heard. ‘It’s okay, Byron. Stop what you’re doing and let’s talk about it.’
Byron continued ignoring Jason, working away at the drill head. He was adjusting it, I could see that now, setting it for a much smaller hole. Jason, who had stopped a little ways from Byron, started to walk towards him again, taking easy steps, fluid and unthreatening. All of a sudden I wanted to yell out to warn Byron, who didn’t seemed to notice or care that Jason was approaching him, but my horror at what Byron was up to kept my mouth shut. He couldn’t be doing what I thought he was doing, surely?
‘Byron, I don’t know what you think you’re going to achieve by doing this,’ Jason said, ‘but there are lives at risk here.’ He was still slowly approaching Byron, who was completely disinterested.
‘I know what you’ve done,’ Byron said at last, without looking up. ‘I know who you are and what you’ve done. My father told me.’
Jason wavered for a second, then carried on his slow approach. He was no more than five metres away now, hands out in an offering of surrender, treading as the though the sand beneath his feet might crack and send him tumbling to the planet’s core. ‘Whatever you think you know, Byron,’ Jason said, still maintaining calm, ‘whatever you’ve been told, it was a lie, Byron. A lie.’
Byron had set the drill to it’s smallest, quickest bore. I guessed it would be down the stasis tube in a matter of minutes at that size, and through the metal casing in even less than that.
‘I know the truth, Jason,’ Byron said, punching at the drill’s keypad. ‘I know who I am, I know what I’m doing. I know that he will love me for this.’
I felt a weight against my shoulder, and turned to see that Sophia had caught up. She was resting herself against me, leaning to take the force of the wind from her body. I leaned back, welcome for the support off my aching body.
‘Who will love you?’ Sophia shouted just above the whirling din. ‘Your father?’
At Sophia’s voice, Byron stopped and looked over. ‘Yes,’ he said simply and rather dolefully, as if it was an idea he’d forced himself to accept. He remained still for a moment, staring at the ground, then continued what he was doing.
‘We all love you,’ Jason said, his tone carrying nothing of the sort. ‘So why don’t you stop what you’re doing and step back from the drill.’ He sounded uneasy. ‘You do know what’ll happen if you do that, right?’
‘I know exactly what’ll happen.’
‘And you’re happy to do that to your friends here? Leave them stranded here on this rock to die?’
Byron twitched. Even through the dust cloud I could see it. It was obviously a part of his plan that troubled him. ‘It’s a sacrifice that needs to be made,’ he said. ‘An inevitability.’
‘Why do you think your father will love you for doing this?’ Sophia asked. She kept her distance, but the warmth in her voice brought her closer to Byron than Jason could ever be. For a moment she reminded me of Sadie, the one person who could really connect with Byron. Dead Sadie. My Sadie. Oh, how we needed her now.
‘He needs me to do this,’ Byron said, a hint of petulance in his voice. ‘He told me, do this and I will forgive you for what you did to your mother. I—I don’t have any other choice.’
Hearing that phrase coming from Byron left my heart cold. ‘You always have a choice,’ I said, surprising myself with my own words. ‘There’s always another choice.’
Byron looked at me, and through the haze of dust, through the curves of his helmet, I could see those two big sad eyes that had looked jus as lost and lonely as when I’d seen them first back home. I’d known then that something haunted this kid; I hadn’t quite known how big a burden it was going to be.
‘Not this time,’ Byron said. He spoke through tears. ‘This is my only choice. I have to do it. I need him to love me.’
Jason had stopped where he was, frozen in an awkward semi-squat that seemed to be some kind of indecision between keeping a safe distance and wanting to move forward and pounce. ‘He’s using you,’ Jason said, ‘he doesn’t love you. He never loved you. He wanted me to kill you.’
‘That may be,’ Byron said wetly, ‘but it’s the closest I’m going to get. You know as well as I do that we’ve got to take what we can.’ With that he thumbed the control panel and the drill head whizzed into life, accelerating far faster than it had done at full bore width. Jason exploded into a sprint, covering the last few metres in a matter of strides, just as Byron one of the leg-locking spanners and smashed it down on the control panel. Jason rounded the drill at full speed and slammed into Byron, knocking him to the ground. Sophia and I reacted instantly, running over to Byron. Jason climbed off Byron and turned to the drill control panel, which he looked at in horror.
‘What have you done?’ he screeched in an almost animalistic way. ‘What did you do this?’ He turned back to Byron and leapt at him as he was trying to clamber up, holding his stomach. I reached the pair just as Jason went to grab Byron, pulling out my neural stunner and giving Jason the full charge, mashing away at the button until it was depleted. Jason bucked backwards, tumbling to the floor, where he lay, twitching. Once I was sure he wasn’t getting up again, I helped Sophia lift Byron to his feet.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked, helping him to stay standing against the wind. ‘Don’t worry about Jason—he should be out a few minutes. I emptied the entire battery on him.’
Byron nodded. ‘I’m fine,’ he wheezed.
‘What’s happening, Byron?’ I asked him. ‘What’s going on?’
Byron eased himself from my support, and I let him stand for himself. ‘My father,’ he said, ‘he stands to benefit hugely if this mission goes public. All I need to do is sabotage one of tubes and he’ll become a very, very rich man. I can do that for him. Then he’ll love me.’
‘But . . . but you’ll be dead . . .’ Sophia said.
Byron looked at the ground. ‘I know. But at least I’ll die happy.’
I glanced at the hole; the drill head was long gone, feeding its way deep into the ground. When I turned back to Byron, he was staring squarely at me.
‘Don’t you want this, too, Jake? To be released from your anger? Stay here with me and you’ll be able to rest in peace rather than suffer a life of hate. I know what torture that can be, Jake, to hate so passionately that it consumes you, becomes you. You can be free of that.’
I felt an uncertainty inside me, a nervous splinter that I knew no matter how hard I tried would never leave me. Was Byron right? Could I ever truly let go? Did I really want to let go?
‘Don’t let Jason get what he wants,’ Byron continued. ‘For once in your life, take what you want. It’s like you said—you have a choice. Let this be your choice, Jake. Choose to do what’s best for you and not for him.’
Byron’s words were like a siren song to me. The freedom, the release of death; I had dreamed of it before, thought about it in fancy, but I had never really considered it properly before. And here it was, easy. All I had to do was sit down and wait. I licked my lips, tasting the salty beads gathering atop.
‘Jake,’ Sophia said. She sounded worried. ‘Jake, don’t do this.’
I almost didn’t hear her, her voice a faint echo that barely made it to my ears. ‘I have no other choice . . .’ I whispered. My legs went weak, and I lowered myself to the floor before I collapsed.
Sophia stumbled over to me, slipping on the soft dirt, dropping to her knees, her expression imploring. ‘Jake, you don’t need to do this to yourself. You’re better than this. You can be better than this.’ She held my shoulders, turning me to look at her, her eyes pleading. I shrugged her off.
‘I know what I want,’ I said. And I did. Byron’s offer was a white light to me, the first real offer that made any sense. Everything else was paper over cracks, a temporary fix that allowed to bury my eternal suffering deeper so I could continue functioning as a normal human being—at least for a little while longer. This—this would let me be free, feel the warm relief I’d longed for as long as I could remember.
I looked at Sophia, repulsed by the fear on her, clinging like sweat, a basic need to live that transcended anything greater, the protection of one among many that did nothing to serve the greater good. With Istanbul Angel dead and gone, I will have served not only myself, but all of mankind. They will be free as I will be free. ‘I understand that you want to protect yourself,’ I said to her, almost as is I was trying to reassure her, ‘but think of this as a sacrifice, a way to pay the world back for everything it’s given to you. Let yourself go.’
For a moment Sophia said nothing, and I thought she was going to strike me. But she didn’t. She slumped a little at the shoulders, eyes tearing up. ‘Jake, I swallowed it,’ she said.
‘The pill, Jake, I swallowed the pill.’
But if she’d swallowed the pill, then she already knew she was going to die. Panic punched me in the gut, a sudden rush that set my hands shaking. ‘There must be something we can do, something to stop it, surely?’ I said, pivoting to me knees.
‘There’s nothing you can do,’ Byron said, almost dreamily. ‘I swallowed mine, too.’
‘My father told me it would be the easiest way out once I was done. Better than to suffocate, he told me. The kindest thing he’s ever said.’
‘But—’ I said, whipping back and forth from Byron, to Sophia and back to Byron. ‘But I don’t understand?’
‘Jake,’ Sophia said, grasping hold of me and pulling me to face her. ‘You don’t need to die. You’re a good person. Don’t give up.’ Then she slumped forward, her torso collapsing onto me. I turned her to lay her down. She was still conscious, but she was weak. Byron was rocking next to me, a glazed look in his eyes. I looked over to Jason; he was still out cold.
‘Sophia,’ I said, leaning close to her. ‘I need this. I need all this to be over. Please understand. Please.’ It was as though I was begging permission to give up.
‘You’re capable of great things, Jake, I’ve seen it. Don’t take the easy way out. Live. Fight.’
‘But . . . I can’t . . .’
‘There’s always a choice.’
‘What other choice do I have?’ I said, the glass of my helmet almost touching hers. She didn’t respond. Her lips moved faintly, but no sound came out.
‘Jason!’ a new voice came over the intercom. Emily’s. I looked up to see her leaning against the wind, holding an arm up to shield herself.
‘Emily!’ I called back. ‘Over here!’
‘Jake, you’re alive,’ she said, jogging over to us as best she could. ‘I thought I’d lost you all for sure. Where’s Jason?’
I pointed to his unconscious torso. ‘Over there. I had to stun him’
Emily changed direction to go over to Jason, climbing to her knees to look over him. ‘Why did you stun him?’
‘The pills, Emily. He tried to kill us all to keep the mission secret.’
Emily looked over to me, and then she noticed the drill. The wind was so loud it was barely noticeable, the only tell-tale sign it was on the spinning of the tube going into the hole. She leapt up and ran over to it, to the control panel, prodding buttons frantically. ‘Why won’t it stop?’ she said, frustrated at first and then panicked. ‘Why won’t it stop!’
‘Byron,’ I said. ‘He did it.’ Byron was struggling to keep himself sat upright, lolling a little to one side. Emily bounded over to him in two leaps, crashing down beside him. ‘Byron!’ she yelled. ‘What have you done!’ He didn’t respond, so she shook him violently. His head flopped back and forth, the weight of his helmet throwing it around with uncomfortable force.
‘Hey,’ I said, scrambling over to Emily to stop her shaking him. ‘He’s been poisoned, too. So has Sophia. They’re both dying.’
‘Shit,’ Emily said to herself, barely audible above the roaring wind. She stood and hurried back to the control panel, pressing at it at first, then smacking it with her fist. Then she tried to pull at the body to try and topple it over, heaving against it with her might, but despite the cable tightening and the far leg going light, it would not budge.
‘Leave it,’ I said, still sat on the floor next to Sophia. ‘Jason was going to kill us anyway. We may as well die on our on terms.’
‘No,’ Emily said, straining against the drill once more, without success. ‘I’ve worked too long and too hard for it to all be over now.’ She heaved again, a long, whining grunt being picked up by the intercom. Watching, unmoving, I looked over to where Jason was, but with a sudden skip of the heart I realised he was gone. I looked back to Emily to see that he was right behind her, but before I could even get up, he was on her.
‘Emily, watch out!’ I yelled, and Emily turned in time to see Jason coming at her. But she didn’t move. Jason didn’t attack. They embraced.
‘Jason, are you okay?’ Emily asked, up on tiptoes to hold Jason close. They separated, hands still interlocked.
‘I’m fine. That little prick Jake stunned me.’ He turned to me and I froze, watching the scene unfold in disbelief.
‘Why did you do that, Jake?’
‘He’s—’ I said, stumbling over my words in my confusion. ‘He’s a murderer. He killed Grant and Clip with those pills. He was going to kill us, too.’
Jason laughed. ‘I’m not a murderer,’ he said. ‘No, no. no. Not me.’
‘Stop trying to blame this on Byron!’ I yelled, overwhelmed with rage. I hoisted myself up, standing tall, and I jabbed a finger at Jason. ‘You did it. You.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Jake. Once again, you’re wrong.’
The temperature in my suit seemed to has risen ten degrees. The air was thick and difficult to breath. ‘Then who did it? It was no accident. None of the deaths were.’
‘I did it,’ Emily said. She sounded proud. ‘I killed all of them.’
It was like I’d been hit by a car. Where there was air in my lungs before, now there was none. I felt faint. ‘You?’ I whispered. I don’t think they heard, but they knew that’s what I was thinking.
‘James, he was the first,’ Emily said, as thought listing through her weekly shopping, or discussing previous boyfriends. ‘James knew me. He’d seen my before, at a protest. He had his suspicions, and he shared them Jason. Then he told Brendan, so he had to go. They both had to go.’
I found what I was hearing so hard to believe that it actually hurt to hear. I wanted to scream, I wanted to vomit, I wanted to punch and kick and I wanted to collapse all at the same time. I did none of those things; I did nothing at all.
‘Sadie, now she was an unexpected one,’ Emily continued. ‘She was entirely your fault, Jake.’
‘My . . . fault?’ I managed. I was collapsing inside, a ruin crumbling to dust.
‘You kept asking questions, kept poking your nose where it wouldn’t belong. We tried putting you off the trail with a light dose of the hallucinogen, you know, shit you up a bit, but that didn’t work. That’s when I became interested in you, or so you thought, to become a distraction, to turn your attention away from it all before you found out too much. But Sadie, she’s a jealous one, isn’t she? She wouldn’t let it be. She needed to be silenced before she filled your head with even more ideas.
‘And now, because of you, everyone must die. They have to. You all know too much. Jason and I have been together since the beginning, when we first joined Futureproof, fighting together side by side for this, all for this. You think we’re going to let you stop us? This is your fault, Jake. Your fault.’