Welcome to my World

Vessel is now available on Amazon here

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).

Don’t forget to subscribe for all the latest chapters and updates straight to your email inbox; you can do that on the right, too (or at the bottom on mobile).

Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

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.’

Chapter 17

Later on in my bunk I got back around to thinking over Sadie’s reaction. The rest of the briefing had continued as if we’d said nothing, and dinner and the proceeding evening was spent as normal, with plenty of laughter and jokery, mainly thanks to Clip’s wicked sense of humour. Sadie was sleeping now, as soundly as you like, but me—I couldn’t let go.

I tried not to talk much to Emily during the evening, and thankfully a shift change took care of the problem for me as the evening rolled on. I felt guilty as we spoke, not just because of Sadie, but because of everything: company policy, her feelings, my own state of mind. Talking to her, even though I could feel my heart rise in my chest and an animal lust build in my stomach, it seemed wrong. I had to break it off with her . . . whatever it was. Hell, who am I kidding—I had to get over her. But how? That was when my conscious gave up on me and I finally fell into a—thankfully—dreamless sleep.

I awoke next morning to a lingering memory of driving down a cobbled road through the back streets of one of the remaining villages in the outer limits. I hadn’t been there since I was a child, when the sun beams rode with us through the early morning, warming the car. An elation as pure anything warmed me too, an untainted, child-like joy at the pleasure of the here and now. Nothing yesterday or tomorrow could spoil it.

‘Jake, are you awake?’ my mothers voice came to me, wafting over as if carried on the sweet breeze that also filled the car.

‘I’m awake,’ I said, although my own voice sounded distant, slow, as if it were coming from somewhere far away.

‘Wake up, Jake . . .’ mother said dreamily.

‘I am awake . . .’

‘Jake, wake up.’

I was awake, in my bunk, on board the Athena. Sadie was squatting beside me. She was pale, her hair loose and hanging to one side, her brow dotted with fine perspiration. Now I was really awake. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

Her cheek twitched. She moved as if to get up, but stayed where she was. Her eyes focused on me, then dropped away again, hunting the distance. ‘It’s too late,’ she whispered from her throat. Then, suddenly, she bucked forward. She reached to her chest, clawing at her heart as though she was trying to dig it out from within her.

‘Sadie!’ I yelled, throwing myself out from under my blanket to help her. But before I could do anything, before I even had my arms around her, she was collapsed on the floor, laying still. I blinked, then blinked again, my body rendered to ice as my mind, stuck in a low, sleepy gear, struggled to contain everything being asked of it. ‘Sadie,’ I croaked, kneeling beside her, holding my hands away from her as though she was made of a delicate and paper-thin china. ‘Sadie . . .’

When the adrenalin finally kicked in it felt like an age had already passed, but when it hit, I knew what to do. ‘Emily!’ I screamed as I launched myself from the bunks, slamming through the rubber curtains, into the galley. ‘Emily!’

I rushed through into the rec room, barely taking the time to register the shocked expressions on the faces of those there, after realising that Emily wasn’t. I sprinted on, darting through the briefing room in a single breath and crashing into the cockpit, slamming against a console to slow myself down. ‘Emily,’ I panted, pointing back over my shoulder with my thumb. ‘It’s Sadie . . . she . . . come quick.’

‘What’s wrong?’ Sophia said.

‘She . . . her heart . . .’

Confusion blinked only for a second on Emily’s face before she rushed past me, Jason and Sophia following close by. I took a breath and tagged on behind, our chorus of thumping boots clanging through the ship like warning bells. Emily reached Sadie first, then Jason and Sophia, filling the narrow isle such that I could only see flashes of Sadie through the gaps between limbs and torsos. I watched what I could in silence, vaguely aware of the bodies gathering behind me, and as the minutes passed the concrete lump in the pit of my bowels hardened until I could ignore it no longer. In that moment I became very aware of myself, of my surroundings, almost as if my soul had taken a step back and I was outside of my own body, watching down on this horrid snapshot of my life. The room was still, silent, and I watched, my legs flexed for nothing, my hands reaching out to no one. Then, in a flash of colour as vivid as the brightest sunshine, I saw Sadie and me on board the Astronomus, part way through our first six-monther. Sadie was crying, but I couldn’t remember why. What I could remember, though, with clarity so vivid it hurt, was what she said next.

You’re the only person here that cares about me.

‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. ‘Everyone here cares about you.’

‘What’s that?’ Emily said, looking at me over Jason’s turned back.

I was back in my body, back in the room, back in the huddle of bodies around Sadie’s motionless one. I stayed quiet. Emily, somehow, seemed to understand.

‘Can you give us a bit of room while we secure the body, please?’ she said, softly and kindly.

I blinked. Two hot lines coursed down my cheeks. ‘Sure. Sorry.’ I stood up, sniffing, and backed away with the others.

‘Thank you,’ Emily said, her voice barely above a whisper.

After that everything became a blur. I found myself sitting in the rec room with Clip, Grant and Byron, with only the vaguest recollection of getting there, smattered with a brief glimpse of a quarantine bag having been brought into the bunks from the tow dock and . . . maybe it was for the best that I didn’t really remember. I pushed the thoughts from my mind as best I could.

The rec room was the quietest it had ever been. There where whirrs, hums, clicks and beeps I’d never heard before, and would likely never hear again. Clip was motionless and whiter than snow, Grant was scratching at something on the back of his head—and had been for as long as he’d been sat there—and Byron’s face was a mess of blotched redness. His eyes peered at nothing from behind puffed lids, glistening like two blue jewels. He lifted a weak hand to his nose to wipe, and he sniffed, loud and watery. When he lowered his hand again, I could see it was shaking. We’d all stepped through a door into a different world, and we weren’t ever going back.

‘Right then . . .’ Jason’s voice came from my left. I turned to look; he was standing there with Sophia, and Emily followed up behind them. ‘I think we all need to talk.’

It seemed to take Byron and Grant a moment to register Jason’s presence let alone what he said, and Clip didn’t seem to register anything at all. Jason, Sophia and Emily sat with us, Jason perched on the end of his seat, hands clasped together, eyes on the floor. It was easy to tell that his mind was an indecipherable mulch to him right now, that he was trying very quickly to work out what he needed to say and what he didn’t.

‘I’m going to be honest with you all,’ he began. He flashed a look at me, a piercing look that made my heart rate spike. The message was almost telepathic: stay quiet. ‘I’ve not been entirely truthful from the start. But let me tell you now that everything I’ve done, I’ve done for your own wellbeing.’ He wasn’t met with any kind of response, so he continued. ‘We are treating Sadie’s death as suspicious, the same as we’ve treated James and Brendan’s deaths.’ Grant blinked as if coming out of a daze. Byron sniffed again. ‘The man Sadie replaced,’ Jason continued, ‘Simeon Jones, is another death we are treating as suspicious.’ Clip’s distant look crept into focus, flicking to Jason. ‘His death, and all the others, have been the result of the same scenarios, exhibiting the same symptoms, and we think they share a common source.’

Clip sat up slowly, hugging himself as if the temperature had dropped ten degrees. ‘Who?’

Jason could do nothing but shrug. He offered up his empty hands and said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘Could it be someone here?’

‘Well, it’s not me,’ said Grant in an outburst that seemed to surprise even him. ‘It’s not,’ he added in a more subdued tone.

Jason took a moment before he continued. ‘Whoever it is, we don’t know. I’m not saying it is, but it could be one of us here. Or it might not be. All I know is that, whatever happens, we need to stay close, keep our heads together, and’—he flashed another look at me—’not lose focus.’

He let that sink in, time we all needed to properly hear what he’d said. When that time had passed, Grant’s brow furrowed. ‘You mean we’re not going back?’

Jason chewed his lip, sighing; I couldn’t tell if he was anxious or frustrated. Probably both. ‘We have to go on,’ he said, not looking at Grant.

‘But that’s ridiculous—’

‘We don’t have a choice,’ Jason interrupted, his voice rising to overpower Grant’s.

‘But—’

‘He’s right,’ I said. Both Jason and Grant froze, chests mid-inflation, ready to argue. The sideways looks they both gave me would have been, in any other situation, comical, but here they were nothing less than harrowing. The thin bonds of social order were stretched taught, and nothing was going to break them faster than a big disagreement.

Why is he right?’ Grant asked sarcastically.

Jason tried to give me that look again, but it seemed he couldn’t quite muster it. He knew he had to give up, and I could see him deflate as he did. As he backed down, Grant did too, a treaty of body language that lowered the tension from a steaming hot red to a cooler yellow. Jason sighed again, nerves juddering the otherwise smooth flow of breath, and he told the story, as he’d told me, about our payload, our mission, and our ultimatum. Grant was left speechless, but Byron had something to say.

‘We’re not going back,’ he whispered, his voice barely audible.

‘Going back where?’ Jason asked.

‘Home.’

Jason swallowed. ‘Possibly not.’

The mood, which I thought unable to sink any lower, did. Somehow we had gone from a crew of experts to a band of survivors, and I felt that I was going to become much closer to all of the remaining six crew over the next three months before we reached New Dawn. HD 85512 B. Whatever.

Clip shifted in his seat. ‘Were you ever going to tell us?’

Jason didn’t answer right away. He looked like he didn’t want to answer at all. ‘No.’

‘And just how did you think you were going to get away with that?’

‘It was supposed to straightforward. We would proceed as planned, load the trailer with the borehole material, pack the stasis tubes into the holes and bury them. That was James and Brendan’s job. They were under the impression the stasis tubes were devices used for terraforming purposes. No one would have ever known.’

‘So we won’t ever be relocating to New Dawn?

‘No. Terraforming is a long way off ready.’

Clip laughed sarcastically. ‘So until then we’ll be dumping our prisoners off world, leaving them to die?’

‘They’ll live a full and wholesome life, free of pain and disease. It’s the best way.’

‘Doesn’t seem right. I don’t care what those people have done, it doesn’t seem right.’

The room fell into silence before Grant spoke again. ‘Seems like a good idea to me. Besides, we have no other choice but to do it.’

‘How would you like it,’ Clip growled, ‘if you were left to rot on some godforsaken ball of rock?’

‘I wouldn’t do anything wrong in the first place, then it wouldn’t even be an issue,’ he spat back, his expression hardening.

‘What, do you think some people who’ve been forced to live a life because they have no other choice should be treated as criminals?’

‘Well they’re breaking the law aren’t they—’

‘Enough!’ Sophia yelled, launching up out of her seat. She slashed at the air with her hands. ‘Enough. This isn’t going to solve anything. Grant’s right, and I hate to say it, but we really have no other choice. Clip, I’m as angry as you are about this, but really, look at this from a neutral perspective—what else can we do?’

Clip opened his mouth, about to speak, his brows angled and his forehead lined with rage, but then he softened. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.

Sophia sat slowly back down again. ‘Exactly.’

‘We need to make this work,’ Jason said, ‘for all of us. If we don’t work as a team, then none of us make it. If we don’t make it, they’—he pointed to the tow dock and the trailer beyond—’don’t make it. Let’s not make the deaths we’ve had so far be in vain.’

Clip’s chest rose and fell, and we all watched him silently. ‘Ok,’ he said finally. ‘But when we get back, I’m not letting this be. I don’t care about my contract—I’m talking to every journalist I can find the moment my feet hit terra firma. Unless you plan to arrest me?’

‘I’m not going to arrest you. I need you.’

‘Fine. Whatever gets you to sleep at night.’

The uneasy truce held, and Jason turned his attention to me. ‘Jake, can you and Byron still manage the dig without Sadie?’ The name was raw in my mind, and its utterance was like ice in my veins. ‘There’s no need to transport the borehole material to the trailer—it can stay on site.’

‘That should be fine.’

‘And you’ll have no problems getting the stasis tubes to the boreholes?’

‘With some extra help I think it’s manageable.’

‘I’ll help,’ Grant said.

‘Good, thank you,’ Jason said, nodding. ‘I’ll help as well. We need to make sure they’re sheltered nice and deep, or they’ll crack in the storms.’ No one could argue with that. ‘We’ll also need to stay in pairs from now on,’ he added. ‘No one is to be alone for any reason whatsoever. Do you all understand?’ Nods and murmurs followed. ‘Ok, good. Look, I’m sorry this is where we are right now, but there’s nothing we can do about what’s happened except to prepare ourselves for what’s going to happen. When we arrive at HD 85512 B, we can rendezvous with the other ships if we need to. We’ve got three more months now; lets see if we can make it.’

That night I found myself wandering into the cave again. It was cool and fresh, as if a recent storm had blown through. I felt I was not alone, but the presence was not ominous—it was comforting.

‘What am I going to do now?’ I said to the darkness.

‘What can you do?’

‘I don’t think I can go on.’

‘Do you have any other choice?’

‘I have one other choice.’

‘But do you want answers?’

I thought about it for a while. ‘I do. I do want answers.’

‘Then you have only one choice.’

‘Where will I find these answers?’

‘They will come to you.’

Then I felt the presence leave. I was alone. In the cavern, which danced in flame light, was the row of candles. The seven left still burned brightly.

Chapter 16

My mind was so numb, all I could manage was a quiet, ‘What?’

Jason shrugged, as though what he’d said was nothing more than a passing comment. ‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘But . . .’ I managed, choking on my own disbelief, ‘but you’d be killing all of us . . . you’d be killing yourself . . .’

Jason stiffened, and Sophia folded her arms. She had gone an odd shade of grey and her cheeks were blotchy.

‘That’s a risk I’m willing to take,’ Jason said at a whisper.

I was shaking my head. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. I was just a geologist, on a straightforward mission, with nothing that could go wrong. How did I end up here, stuck in this mess? ‘No . . .’ I said, still shaking my head. ‘No.’

Jason moved towards me, hands clasped together. There was a bright fear in his eyes, a mortal fear. He wasn’t approaching me as Major Jason Pritchard, commander of operation New Dawn, he was approaching me as Jason Pritchard, human being. Human living. Human not wanting to die. ‘Please,’ he stuttered. ‘We don’t have any other choice . . .’

I looked into that bright fear, and something caught in my chest. For the first time I really did see him as another person, afraid and vulnerable. After all, what choice did he have? What choice did I have? My emotional brain gave me many; my logical brain gave me one. ‘What do you need me to do?’

The relief in Jason’s face was palpable. His body sank, his outward breath long and audible. ‘Thank you,’ he said, grasping me by both shoulders. ‘I appreciate your understanding, and I’m sorry you’ve had to be a part of this. You’re just like me—we both drew the short straw.’ He looked around at Sophia, who remained rigid and locked down. ‘We all drew the short straw. But it’s not for nought. We’re saving our families and friends, people who don’t deserve to suffer. Don’t forget, those people we’re towing are bad people. Really, really bad people.

‘So what I need you to do is this: go about your business as you have been. Say nothing of this to anyone. Say what you will about the locker incident, but please, whatever you do, try to bring things back to the status quo as soon as you can. And don’t breath a word of your incident in the tow dock. That has to stay between the three of us.’

‘And what about me?’ I said. ‘My safety? It may not have been an outright death threat, but it certainly wasn’t a hero’s welcome, that’s for sure.’

Jason thought for a moment, then he looked back to me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘take this.’ He fished a small, weighty tube, about five centimetres long and as thick as a pole from his coveralls and handed it to me. ‘That’s a neural stunner, good for three blasts. It’s not much, but it should keep you safe against one other person.’

I hefted its weight in my hand before pocketing it. The lump against my hip felt immediately reassuring. ‘Thanks, but don’t think for a minute that I’m happy about any of this.’

Jason nodded. ‘Sure, I appreciate that.’

The walk back the rec room was a long one, the longest its ever taken me to travel ten or so metres. I could already feel the conversations about me, the burning accusations and wandering speculation. He’s a thief, they said, a scoundrel. A scoundrel? I don’t even know where that word came from. It’s a silly word; nobody says scoundrel. I dismissed my concerns as stupidity, took a deep breath and strode boldly into the rec room. Grant was there, Sadie was there and Emily was there. None of them looked at me when I entered, and although I hadn’t heard any voices on my approach, I felt sure I could sense the wake of a recent conversation stopped abruptly. The vacant looks at e-readers, computer games and sewing needles were too hard and too focussed to be genuine. Or was I over-reading the situation? I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, and so I sat down. At that moment, Grant stood, stretched, and said, ‘Well, I’d better catch some sleep before my next shift. See you all later.’

A murmur of farewell followed him out of the room, and I was left with Sadie and Byron. I slapped my knees, drumming a pattern that went nowhere, hoping to break the silence and draw out a reaction. None came. So, against the tingling in my hands and the ringing in my ears, I forced myself to start a dialogue. ‘Look, Byron . . .’

He lifted his head from his game, and his mouth broke into a distant smile. ‘It’s ok,’ he said. ‘Sophia explained the whole thing to me. Jason as well. I understand.’

Then his head dropped and he went back to his game. Sadie continued to stare through her sewing, repeating a pattern over and over.

The next week of silent treatment gave me plenty of time to think about what had happened to me and everything that had been said. I thought about it from every angle, approached it glass half full and glass half empty and came to the same conclusion: Jason was right. With it came another thought, and something that Jason had managed to skim over, even though his thoughts were obviously laid out in his behaviour towards me: had I really seen the toy? Was the voice I’d heard real? I’d been having those dreams, and the time I’d heard the voice I’d been alone . . . bad dreams and hallucinations—that sounded like the onset of cabin fever, isolation sickness, claustrophobia . . . the ‘space crazies.’ The realisation that I may have imagined that whole scenario made my stomach lurch every time I thought of it, and although I was following Jason’s word to not speak about the mission or its jeopardy, my own health and well-being seemed fair game.

Although the atmosphere between me and the others was still clouded, a week of breathing space had made conversation more bearable, so I broached the subject with Emily one morning when we were both in the galley.

‘Hi,’ I said, in that awkward way someone does when they want to bring up a sensitive topic.

‘Hi,’ she said, a short return.

‘I, ahhh . . . I was wondering if I could ask you something?’

She was making herself a nutridrink, and hadn’t yet made eye contact with me. She seemed pre-occupied with her slow transition from being asleep to being fully awake and alert. ‘Sure.’

With the words ready to be spilled from my mouth, I could feel the back of my neck getting hot. It was now or never, I decided, and I wasn’t going to let it be never. ‘I’ve been having some, erm . . . bad dreams lately. Do you think that’s normal?’

‘Bad dreams?’ she said, clamping the cap of the nutridrink vendor in place ready for it to whizz powder and water into a tasty and nutritious beverage. ‘What kind of bad dreams?’

‘Repetitive ones. Ones where I feel I’m being watched. Ones where I am being watched.’

Emily thumbed a button and the nutridrink machine buzzed, then whirred. ‘I don’t think bad dreams are anything to worry about so long as you’re still getting enough sleep. We’re all feeling pretty anxious and stressed, so that would be as good a reason as any for your subconscious to be suffering. I can get you some sleeping meds if you want?’

I ignored the offer. ‘What about hallucinations?’

Emily, who was withdrawing her finished drink from its recessed cubby, paused, turned and looked me, then narrowed her eyes. ‘Hallucinations? What kind of hallucinations?’

‘I . . . I wasn’t sure if I was ready to share that much detail yet. I’d rather not say.’

Emily’s piercing stare refused to weaken, keeping me frozen where I stood and feeling very much under the spotlight. ‘Fair enough,’ she said, ‘but you can you tell me this at least: was a full sensory hallucination, or just a moment of heightened sensory stimulus?’

‘I’m not sure . . .’

‘Did you see anything, hear anything?’

‘Yes.’

I moved from nervousness to puzzlement as Emily’s razor-sharp stare became a scowl. ‘Did Grant put you up to this?’ she said, almost bitterly.

‘I . . . no . . .’

‘I’m going to kill that weasely little bastard . . .’ she muttered, finally breaking her eyes from me to let them snap in the direction of the rec room. I felt relief, but it was curiosity that pervaded and filled its place. I touched her gently on the arm.

‘Grant didn’t tell me anything.’

It was if I’d poured a bucket of ice-cold water over her. She withdrew, hugging herself, and her expression changed once again to something closer to fear. ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure.’

‘And you—you’ve seen it too?’

I clenched my jaw. We were at a stalemate. ‘I’ve seen something.’

‘And did you hear it?’

‘I heard it.’

She looked about, eyes darting back and forth up the corridor, then leaned into me, speaking in a whisper. What she said next froze my blood.

‘I’m scared . . .’

The fear radiating from her ashen cheeks, her wide, watery eyes and her narrow lips squeezed together tight enough to burst was palpable. ‘Me too.’

‘Have you told anyone?’

‘No,’ I lied.

‘Me neither,’ she said. ‘Well, except Grant. And now you.’ Tears welled, and she looked upwards, nose crinkling, trying to contain herself. ‘God,’ she said in a strained voice, ‘what are we going to do?’

I put an arm around her, and she let me draw her in. Her sobs were silent, but she moved against me and I knew she was crying. It made me even more nervous, my body encompassing hers left vulnerable to the world outside our embrace, and the hairs on my neck stood on end. I was glad when she moved away, although the transformation on her face was almost nauseating. Her eyelids had swollen to big red blisters, her cheeks were streaked and blotchy, and her mouth was twisted into the rictus of emotional torture. Inside I felt the same, but outside, at least, I managed to maintain my calm. That Emily couldn’t, being the formidable person she was, gave me the worst feeling of all. I didn’t know who was going to talk first, but despite feeling that our friendship had crossed some sort of immeasurable boundary, I had nothing left to say. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

‘Do you think we should go to Sophia? And Jason?’ Emily asked, her voice wavering through the last of her tears.

That couldn’t happen, not until I’d managed to speak to them myself first at least. I’d told the lie, and I didn’t want it to muddy things up. ‘Probably best we keep this to ourselves for now. You understand.’

She nodded, wiping her cheeks with the palms of her hands. ‘Yeah.’

‘But we can still protect ourselves.’

The stunner felt heavy in my pocket, pressing against my leg.

Emily sniffed. ‘How?’

‘I’m not sure, but stay on guard. I’ll think of something.’

She smiled weakly, but with a hint of warmth. ‘Thank you,’ she said.

After that, my bad dreams stopped, at least temporarily. I slipped into something of a waking coma, a routine of waking, working, playing, sleeping, ad infinitum, almost as if my conversation with Emily had wrapped me in a numbing shield that kept me distanced and safe from all that was going on aboard the Athena. With the dulled worry came a loss in other emotional sensitivity; I didn’t laugh as hard or as long when someone told or joke, or get as intensely worked up when I was button-mashing away at my games. But there was one thing that had become stronger, brighter—the warmth in my chest when Emily smiled at me. She did it more often than she had done before—or more than I had previously realised—and now it came with meaning and heartfelt reality. It left me with a buzzing in my fingers and toes when we shared a knowing exchange, hidden from the others, prefaced with a flick of the eyes to the left and the right to make sure no one else saw. I realised, after about a week and a half, that I was falling for her.

The realisation was like a punch to the stomach. I thought immediately of my training, endless briefings telling us to leave our physical needs at the door when we boarded, and how, up to now, that had been an easy enough task to accomplish. It was the logical thing to do, it made sense—until this. Now the rule seemed as stupid as telling a tiger to leave its stripes behind. And the strangest thing for me was how I noticed her from then on. I had seen her before as a colleague, and my disinterest kept her as a formless entity in my mind, but now I saw her whole in a clarity that had become printed onto my brain. Her shape, her form, whatever you want to call it, it was my drug, and I found it harder and harder to fight the intense itch to see my desire through. It shamed me, my lust, but that did nothing to stop it. I had seen her the way most others never would during our overlapping moments in the sanitary room, and as much as I wanted those mental pictures out of my head, I clung onto them with a desperate strength I didn’t even know I had.

In the haze of emotions (and hormones) surging through my body, there was one bitter emotion whose tang I could taste in the back of my mouth: fear. The control I had lost over myself was becoming more than a concern, the inability to switch my previously inactive libido back to standby leaving me feeling like a passenger in an out-of-control car. I did my best to avoid her, especially in the sanitary room, but when we did inevitably pass, I cherished every fraction of every moment. Even the most hardcore of drug highs had nothing on this. I’d had a taste and now I was addicted. I was ashamed to be addicted, and that only made the addiction stronger.

And hanging over it all? I had no idea if she felt the same. It was stupid, I know that it was—I had no logical desire to see any of the mental images through in real life, and yet it twisted me up inside to know that—through all that had built up inside me—it could all be in vain.

So the anxiety of fear became the anxiety of attraction. I felt like a stupid teenager. I had bigger, more important things to worry about, yet I couldn’t get her out of my head. A month ago, had I been asked what I thought of Emily, I would’ve said something like, she’s ok. Now I’d be on my knees begging to find out what she thought of me. This was the inward battle I faced even when I sat in the briefing room with Sadie and Byron. We were closing in on the last three months of the journey, and we had almost finished our calculations.

‘A record by my reckoning,’ Sadie said, thumbing through her notepad. ‘I don’t think any mission has gone from brief to final calcs with less than a month to spare. Well done, Byron.’

It was true, it was Byron whose genius-like abilities had spearheaded this race to the finish line. He grinned, looked down at his lap, and flushed a little.

‘What’s up?’ I said. ‘You’re not embarrassed are you?’

He shrugged, his grin widening. ‘It’s just . . . I never knew I’d ever actually achieve something, you know—useful.’

I could see Sadie beaming from the corner of my eye, the mother Byron never had and proud of it. ‘You’ve come a long way,’ she said.

And she was right—he had. I couldn’t help but feel the tiniest bit—hell, a lot—jealous. His skills were nigh-on wizardry, his computer-like brain a wondrous piece of natural selection and evolution. Oh for a slice of it now, to remove the burned-in silhouette of Emily . . .

‘Do you think I can help with the dig?’ Byron asked suddenly, looking between Sadie and me with eager anticipation.

‘You’re helping me with the drilling, sure.’ I said.

‘No, I mean—can I help with the cataloguing and interpretation of the data?’

My stomach tightened. Byron’s innocent eyes held no trace of knowing the horrors that awaited him. ‘It’s ok,’ I said. ‘We can manage.’

Sadie frowned. ‘I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve contributed so much I think it’s only fair.’

‘But it’s not interesting,’ I said, trying my best to dissuade Byron. ‘It’s all forms and lists and boring stuff like that. Why would you even want to do that?’

Byron sighed, his eyes wandering to dreamy place. ‘Because then I’ve done it. I’ve achieved my goal. I’ve seen something I can be proud of through to the end.’

I have to admit, that hit home pretty hard. Despite my jealousy, I was tremendously proud of what Byron had done, and a flash from an old memory of him sitting there in the briefing room on the station orbiting Earth, it was like we’d seen the maturation of something truly special. There’d been some pretty hilly bumps on the way, but the outcome was worth it. ‘We’ll see,’ I said, as finally as I could. Sadie gave me a this isn’t over look that I knew would have later repercussions, but at least not ones right here, right now.

‘Shall we carry on?’ I suggested, putting a final full stop at the end of our previous discussion.

‘Ok,’ she said. ‘Let’s see if we can’t finish this site today.’

‘Can I quickly go to the bathroom first?’ Byron asked.

‘Sure,’ Sadie said, and off he went.

I expected the tenth degree, but, strangely I got none.

‘He’s a good kid,’ Sadie said, trailing the sentence out with a sigh. ‘It’s such a shame he won’t be able to continue using his talents once we get back.’

‘You don’t think he will?’

‘You know he won’t as well as I do.’ She sat down leaning back and shutting her eyes. She yawned. ‘He won’t set foot on another ship. Such a shame.’

It was a shame, and although I didn’t want to admit it out loud, I didn’t think the chances were very high that even Peter Ash could wangle Byron onto another deep space vessel, not after the psych report he’d get in debriefing. ‘The hardest part for me,’ I said, partly to Sadie, partly to myself, ‘is what he has to go home to. His drugged-up mother, his absent father . . .’ I could feel my throat tightening and the backs of my eyes getting hot as I spoke. ‘He deserves better than that.’

Sadie leaned her head up and looked at me through the slits of her eyes. ‘What are you saying?’

What was I saying? ‘I’m saying I think I want to help him.’

‘Help him? How?’

How indeed. ‘I want to . . . help him. You know. Get him on track.’

‘You can’t adopt someone in their twenties you know.’

‘I didn’t say I wanted to adopt him,’ I said, with some degree of feigned offence. Maybe she was right though, maybe that was what I wanted to do. But she was also right in telling me I couldn’t. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I just can’t bear the thought of leaving him on his own when we get back to Earth. It doesn’t seem—right.’

Sadie sat up, eyeing me with a strange curiosity. A feint grin curled the corners of her mouth. It was as if she was amused by me. ‘Well, I never,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think I’d live to see that day that Jake Brooks became emotionally mature.’

My feigned offence became genuine. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

The grin broke into a smile. ‘Calm down, silly. I’m saying you’re a wonderful person. A grown-up.’

Emily’s pert behind flashed behind my eyes. I immediately felt like a teenager defrauding people in an adult’s body. ‘Can I tell you a secret?’ I said.

The smile faded a little. Concern shone in her eyes. ‘Sure, anything.’

This wasn’t going to be easy. I sighed, grateful for even the smallest delay before letting my heart leak out my mouth. ‘I . . . I’ve got a crush on Emily.’

I watched Sadie, the sensitivity of my social perception suddenly turned up to the maximum. Was that a twitch? Was Sadie annoyed at what I’d said? Disgusted? Upset? Jealous . . .? The way her lips thinned, the way she slumped down and folded her arms . . . each guess left me even more in the dark.

‘It’s against company policy to have a relationship on board. You know that.’

‘Of course I know that, I didn’t say I’d actually done anything. Besides, I’ve got no idea if she feels the same way.’

Sadie shrugged, a sudden movement that made her cheeks judder. ‘Then what are you going to do about it?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I was hoping you’d know what to do.’

‘Why would I know?’

I opened my mouth to speak, but I had nothing to say. Nothing I wanted to say. And it was clear that Sadie was closing up on me. Her words had become snapped syllables, her face had become a pout, and I was strangely repulsed by it. The realisation shocked me. Why was I so repulsed by it? I didn’t have time to pursue that line of thought any further because Byron returned, his hands glistening from the wipes. He sat down.

‘Shall we continue?’ he suggested, grinning.

Chapter 15

It seemed easier in my head than it turned out to be. Sure, the ship was small, but the crew was too, which in theory left me with several windows wide enough to make my move. The first window was the morning shift change. Grant and Emily were coming off shift, Jason and Sophia were going on. Clip would likely be asleep or in the rec room, and Sadie and Byron would most certainly be in the rec room, eating breakfast. The uncertainty of Clip’s doings (and my sudden wariness of what I was about to do myself) made me dismiss that window and look to the next: the evening shift change. Jason and Sophia would grab a bite to eat before retiring to their bunks, Emily and Clip would take over, Grant, Sadie and Byron would be in the rec room. Perfect. The only flaw was the hours between then and now that I needed to kill, each moment passed adding another butterfly to the swarm in my stomach. I struggled to focus during our day’s planning, and even during light conversation, but no-one seemed to pay too much attention to that. We all had our own problems.

‘Site sixteen seems pretty well wrapped up and ready to go,’ Sadie said, reading from her notes. ‘Let’s see if we can’t wrap up site seventeen before the end of today.’

‘Site seventeen has evidence of recent seismic activity, correct?’ Byron said, poring over his own notes.

‘Yes, that’s right—a best estimate suggests between fifty and a hundred years ago.’

‘So within a sixty-percent chance of non-reoccurrence in the next thousand?’

Sadie, even now, couldn’t help but show surprise and admiration in her expression. ‘Yes, exactly. Well done.’

I have to admit, even in my distracted state I was also impressed. Byron was an enigma to me, an alien in human skin, a product of an experiment to see what happened if humans were made using a slightly different approach. He looked human, he sounded like a human, he walked like a human, but that brain—it worked like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was almost as though someone had scooped out the part that dealt with social interaction and filled it in with sheer processing power. Perhaps the compulsive lying was a trigger mechanism, a protection loop to misdirect attention away from him and keep him in the shadows. It’s funny—I hadn’t thought about Byron’s lying for a long time, and occurred to me then that—as far as I was aware—he hadn’t done it since Brendan’s death. He’d had his ups and downs, but now he seemed to have found his calling, a use for his deviant intellect, all under the protective wing of Sadie. I’d seen what he was capable of when the pressure got too much (and I knew he sure as hell wouldn’t pass a medical for deep space missions), and, watching him, face beaming, tongue rattling off coordinates and facts and stuff that challenged even me, an uneasy sense of guilt began to creep over me at the thought of prying through his personal, sacred things.

‘We’d need to compensate for tectonic shift to get a consistent bore log,’ I said, adding to the conversation enough to keep Sadie’s concerns unruffled. Truth was, between Sadie and Byron I wasn’t really needed any more.

‘Yes,’ Byron said, nodding. ‘We’d need a twelve degree offset on a bearing of two-two-six magnetic for fourteen point oh eight metres, then a return offset of ten-and-a-half degrees. By my reckoning,’ he added.

Sadie noted his thoughts into the log and sure enough the calculations were right and the software agreed. It was like watching a blonde, fleshy computer at work. But it had to be done. I couldn’t back out. I thought of the tow dock, the darkness and the voice, and a chill shook me in my seat.

‘Are you cold?’ Sadie asked.

‘Bit,’ I replied.

I watched him talking, his animated hands whirling as his lips struggled to keep up with his equally whirling brain. It was almost as if he was limited by his humanity, that his physical environment—own body included—crippled him, stopped him from reaching his full potential. I wondered what he’d be capable of if he was able to wire himself up to the fastest computer there was, free of the bounds of physical space and let loose on an infinite plane of reality. How far would his talents go? Would that badness in him grow with it? A terrifying thought.

I’m not going to kill you.

Would his mind be so strong that it had more power than even death?

Because I don’t need to.

Was it strong enough already? Could he control the way people thought, felt, behaved, all through his words? Was he stringing us—me—along in some morbid game, playing with our minds and playing us like puppets merely with the sounds he uttered from his mouth? Such a power would be beyond the simplicity of killing, and much, much more dangerous.

You know it’s true.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, getting up so suddenly it made Sadie jump. ‘I have to pee.’ I left them mouths agape, watching me rush out and down towards the sanitation room. I had to do it now. I couldn’t wait a moment longer. I tore through the rec room too fast for anyone there to have a chance to say anything, through the galley and into the bunks, pushing through the rubber curtains so hard they slapped back together again behind me. Fortunately, I didn’t wake either Emily or Clip, and I took a second to be sure while I let me breathing slow and the pounding in my head calm. Once my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I carefully opened Byron’s locker. There it was, sitting in the far corner like a scared, malnourished animal: Byron’s personal bag. I could see the ball of mass settled in its belly, indistinct among the folds, and for a moment it seemed as though my heart had stopped along with time itself as I made my decision, balanced the weight of the guilt and distrust and all the other negative feelings against the burning urge to open the bag and end my misery.

It was there, within my grasp, waiting.

I could see it.

The tips of my fingers tingled—I could already feel the rough canvas against them.

I grasped.

I retracted.

It was in my hands, weighty and solid, a real thing.

I wanted to vomit, but my throat was constricted too tightly. Entering another crew member’s locker was not only a breach of the ship’s rules, but also of personal trust, and it made me feel like dirt to be holding Byron’s bag, the only place he had to be private, all of him that retained dignity against the mountain of abandoned shame left at the ship’s door on the way in. For a second I considered putting it back, but the rising pulse behind my eyes beat harder and held me still. There was no going back—only forward. I held the drawstrings one in each hand about the knotted opening, pried my fingers into its mouth and spread it apart, unable to break my eyes away from the gradually expanding opening. It was perverse, disgusting, and I swallowed a retch, but still I kept spreading the gaping hole apart, my view into the shadowy belly unbroken. In the poor light all I could make out was a dark shape, so I reached in, let my electrically charged fingers wrap around it and retrieve it. I held it aloft, turning it under the light. It was a book, old and worn, the gilt writing on the hardback cover only just legible: The Prince and the Pauper. My stomach sank.

‘What are you doing?’ a voice said, making me jump. I turned; it was Sadie. She was standing part way through the curtains, hands on hips.

‘Uh—nothing,’ I said, forcing the book back into the back, and the back into the locker. I pushed the door shut and leaned against it. ‘Just checking . . . something.’

Sadie’s confused expression hardened into a frown. ‘What’re you doing in Byron’s locker?’ she said, her tone as hard as her face.

‘Shh . . .’ I said. ‘Don’t wake these two . . .’

‘What were doing?’ she repeated, ignoring my advice to keep quiet.

A shuffling from Emily’s bunk made me realised that bad had become worse. ‘What’s going on?’ she mumbled sleepily.

‘Funnily enough, I’m wondering the same thing,’ Sadie snapped, he voice even higher and shriller.

Emily rubbed her eyes, and saw me leaning up against Byron’s locker with a look of what was probably a tangible mix of horror, guilt and surprise all smeared into one. ‘What’re you doing, Jake?’

I had no answer. My mouth hung open in preparation for the words that wouldn’t come, my body tensed ready for the escape that wasn’t going to happen. A timeless era passed, after which I realised I had no way out. That realisation settled my shoulders, shut my mouth and let me breathe freely once more. I stood as tall as I could, took a fresh lungful of air, let it wash through me and then out of me again. ‘I don’t know.’

 

‘What in the hell are you playing at?’ Sophia growled at me. She resumed pacing, leaving Jason to stare at me, shaking his head.

‘I—I needed to be sure . . .’ I said, trailing off at the end.

‘Damn it, Jake,’ Jason said, folding his arms. He sighed heavily, as if pondering what to with me next. ‘We already told you we found it, why wasn’t that enough for you?’

‘I needed to be sure,’ I said again, feeling stupid for parroting myself.

‘I need you to trust me. How else can Sophia and I keep this ship together?’

‘That’s not my problem,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to look out for myself. You haven’t had a threat on your life.’

‘If I recall,’ Sophia snapped, taking a pause from her pacing, ‘neither have you.’

I was shocked by that, but had nothing to say in response except, ‘I suppose not, not technically.’

‘So why didn’t you just take what we said and leave all else alone?’ Jason said. Contrasted against Sophia’s animal rage, he almost sounded as if he was pleading with me.

‘It’s just as well I didn’t. The toy wasn’t even there.’

Sophia stopped pacing, but didn’t look at me. Jason looked at the floor. Neither seemed surprised.

‘Wait a minute,’ I said, ‘you knew that toy wasn’t there, didn’t you? You lied to me!’

Jason sighed again, but this time it was more dejected. ‘Jake,’ he said, looking me in the eye with his imploring own, ‘what other choice did you leave us? We tell you we find nothing, you think you’ve gone mad or something, or . . .’

He stopped the sentence there, leaving the rest unspoken.

‘Or what? Or you frame Byron to keep me from losing my marbles for the benefit of the mission? And then what? You ask me to keep quiet about the whole thing? Tell me you’ll deal with it once we’ve got to New Dawn? Not the best plan, is it?’

‘What other choice did we ha—’

‘What else is there you’ve been lying to me about? What’s really going on? Why are people dying on board this ship?’

‘Jake, I—’

Tell me!’ I screamed.

Jason leaned back, his eyes wide and mouth open. Even Sophia looked scared. I looked down and saw that my balled-up fists were quivering with the fury channelling through me. We remained that way for a few long minutes, until at last Jason broke the silence with whisper. ‘I can’t tell you.’

I drew air in through my nose, shut my eyes and let it slowly out from my mouth again. It was a ritual I needed to partake in before I spoke to keep my cool enough not to scream for a second time. ‘If you don’t tell me,’ I said, ‘I can’t promise that everything I already know won’t be kept a secret. And I mean everything. Simeon Jones’s death, the Futureproof connection—everything.’

Jason looked to Sophia, and she back at him. In that split second they said enough between each other in looks alone to decide their next play. Jason turned back to me, opened his mouth, shut it again, nodded to himself, then spoke.

‘Ok,’ he said. ‘But this is classified information that you must under no circumstances repeat to anyone. This isn’t just my job on the line—this is worth a whole lot more than that.’

I kept quiet, not wanting to do anything to change Jason’s mind. I didn’t dare blink, in case I missed something.

‘This isn’t a Planexus operation,’ Jason began, shuffling up onto the workstation to make himself comfortable. ‘This is military. Government command. Planexus have been contracted to mobilise a mission to HD 85512 B to investigate the possibility of sustaining life. That much you know. But there’s more to it than that: back on Earth, things aren’t that great. Natural resources are all but nil, renewable energies are struggling to meet the requirements of an overgrown population and crime is on the rise at a level that will soon overwhelm our security forces. Our prisons are full and are getting fuller, our criminals are hardening and become worse. Factions are mobilising on a scale that could very easily cause a global unrest that . . . that could end everything as we know it.

‘So top-level ops green-flagged operation New Dawn. We were tasked with the containment and relocation of guerrilla leaders from around the world, from the outer limits, the deserts and the unprotected zones. We’ve extracted fifty leaders and their operational commanders, stored them in stasis tubes and brought them out here to HD 85512 B across three ships. We don’t intend to bring them back again.’

My mind reeled with questions, and Jason looked as though he was expecting them. ‘But . . . stasis?’ I stuttered. ‘I thought that was irreversible?’

Jason nodded. ‘It is. The occupants won’t be revived. You see, politics is a strange beast. It rules everything, from the time you can start work, to what you can eat for your lunch, to when you can stay out to at night. It also restricts the way you can treat convicted criminals. The Global Administration—and they were extremely clear on this—would not allow capital punishment, despite the severity and magnitude of the crimes committed by these people. The prisoners must, upon condemnation, be kept in a healthy, living state under the rules set out by the Lawful Treatment of Prisoners Act. But the act only specifies the what; it does not specify the where. So we take the prisoners, in stasis condition, to a planet far enough for none but Planexus’ ships to be able to reach, and we store them until such a time comes that each one dies of natural causes.’

‘But . . .’ I whispered, ‘that’s insane . . .’

‘But necessary.’

‘You’re telling me that politics decided this?’

‘Almost. Politics could not disagree with it—none of us can. We’re talking about a problem that can and will destroy civilisation. Believe me, this isn’t a decision that’s been made lightly.’

‘But what then? What after we’ve dropped off these fifty? Surely more will rise in their places and you’re back to square one? We have an estimated population of eleven billion—probably more—so fifty is just a drop in the ocean.’

‘If we can make a big enough dent where it matters most then the unrest between the outer factions will dissipate. It will at least buy us some time to mobilise and take out the factions. The intention is, eventually, to capture every member of these militia groups and transport them out in their thousands.’

In their thousands?’

Jason nodded. I couldn’t think what else to say. My words had left me.

‘It’s a humane way of dealing with a very serious issue.’

I shook my head slowly. ‘I can’t be a part of this. It’s not right.’

Jason stood, and the imploring look from before returned. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘We need you to do this. We need all of you to do this. The stasis tubes need to be buried or they’ll be smashed to pieces in the winter storms. You have no other choice. If you leave them unburied, you’ll kill them.’

‘Then we take them back. We turn around and we take them all right back.’

‘If we take them back, there’s no telling what might happen. If this gets out, or the tubes are captured, we’re talking all-out global war. Everything and everyone you know will be gone.’

Like a light switch, an image of my mother flicked on in my head. It made me feel sick to think of her being evaporated by the wake of a crude fusion bomb. ‘So what about Futureproof?’ I said. ‘I assume it’s them who’re trying to stop the mission?’

Jason nodded. ‘As far as we know, but it’s a best guess. At the very least, we believe all they know is that we’re looking to repopulate on HD 85512 B. They don’t know anything else.’

‘And how do you think what’s happening is—happening?’

Jason shrugged. He looked not only forlorn, but exhausted. Sophia, who had been silent this whole time, was chewing her lip and staring off into space. You could almost hear her thoughts aloud, repeating over and over, I didn’t sign up for this shit . . .

‘So you have no idea who or what is causing these deaths?’

‘None whatsoever. It may be one of us here, it may be something automated, it may be something natural. Who knows. All we can be sure of is that whatever’s happening isn’t being done remotely, because there’s no signal fast enough to catch up with the Athena. Other than that, we’re stumped. But we’ve got to keep going, and to do that we need to keep the crew together.’

‘So you don’t think it’s Byron then?’

‘Could be. Again, it might not be. But I can’t go detaining crew based on hunches, or we’d have no crew left. Believe me, the GA are watching this mission like hawks, and they will take any reason to shut it down firmly with both hands. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place here, and my absolute number-one priority is to get a crew capable of fulfilling this mission to HD 85512 B safely, and I can’t do anything that might jeopardise that.’

‘Even if it means the deaths of more of your crew?’

‘So long as the mission is still able to continue and it’s all by the book, yes.’

‘I don’t believe this . . .’

‘No one wishes this was easier than I do.’

‘And where do we go from here? Assuming that I play along with all this, what am I supposed to do now? There will be a room full of disgruntled crew—Byron included—waiting to hear why I broke the golden rule and invaded the privacy of another crew member. What do I say to that?’

‘We’ve already spoken to Byron,’ Sophia said, taking me somewhat by surprise after her long period of silence, ‘and he’s willing to not press any charges. We explained that you had become anxious about the deaths and, over time, had built up an urge to investigate everyone on board for yourself. It’s not uncommon—in a state of vulnerability, the need to protect oneself becomes a priority. So you took it upon yourself to check everyone’s personal belongings to see if you could uncover any evidence.’

‘Wait a minute—’ I began.

‘You got caught when you looked in Byron’s,’ Sophia continued, ‘but you’ve since admitted everything and are extremely apologetic.’

Although I could see that this story was the only clean way out, I couldn’t—didn’t—want to believe it. ‘They’ll hang me out to dry . . .’

‘You’ve got no one to blame but yourself,’ Sophia said, a stubborn tone creeping into her voice.

‘You could’ve been more supportive from the start rather than forcing me into a corner.’

‘We’ve got more than just you to look out for here,’ Sophia snapped, ‘this is beyond you, or me, or even the whole crew. Stop worrying about yourself and start being part of the team, or none of us are going to make it.’

At first I thought it was just me, but then I realised from the look of surprise on Jason’s face and the sudden disappearance of the anger on Sophia’s that I’d stumbled across something more than just an empty threat. ‘What do you mean . . .?’ I said slowly, almost not wanting to hear the answer.

Jason gave Sophia a hard look, and she pursed her lips, face apologetic. Then he looked to me, his own lips thin, as if he was fighting what was about to come from between them. ‘I’ve been instructed,’ he said slowly, ‘that in the instance of a mission failure, the ship will self-detonate. Each tube reports back on short-range comms; if a negative report is received while we’re still in range, we’re done for. Whatever happens, Jake, we’re not going back with that payload.’

Chapter 14

The rest of the conversation went by as a blur, and soon I found myself alone in the galley, listening to echoes of what had been said. I couldn’t even remember what I’d asked after they’d told me, but I know they’d had to calm me down to avoid being overheard. I felt stuck; I couldn’t go to the bunks where Jason and Sophia were, and I didn’t think I could go into the rec room where Byron was. In the end, I didn’t have to do either, because Sadie entered the galley looking concerned.

‘Are you okay? You’ve been out here a while.’

I tried to feign levelheadedness, but it was obvious from Sadie’s growing worry that I wasn’t doing a good job of it. ‘No,’ I said after a moment. I could feel tears burning the backs of my eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I . . . I can’t say.’

Sadie nodded and stroked my arm. Somehow, she understood. ‘It’s okay. When you’re able to talk, you just let me know.’ Then she hugged me, and I found myself hugging her back tightly. I prayed the hot liquid behind my eyes wouldn’t spill, but it did, if only for a drop or two. When we pulled apart, I tried my best to wipe them away quick, but no matter, because Sadie said nothing of it. She smiled, and returned to the rec room where, after I’d gathered myself together, I joined her. It couldn’t be Byron, I told myself. It couldn’t. It just couldn’t.

Telling myself that worked surprisingly well, and I eventually managed to settle into an evening of cards with the others with relative ease. With Clip and Emily in the cockpit, it was just me, Byron, Sadie and Grant playing, and Grant was keen to catch up on the day’s goings on.

‘So you were all in here for the whole day?’

‘Yeah,’ Byron said, ‘It was so boooring . . .’

‘It was a definitely a slow day,’ Sadie said, slipping a card from her hand and laying it on the pack. ‘I’m just glad it’s over.’

‘So did they find anything?’

For a split second, Sadie looked from her cards to me, her face questioning, but her eyes dropped before I’d even registered. ‘It doesn’t look that way,’ she said. ‘We think it was more a formality than anything else. You know, for paperwork.’

Grant clucked his tongue. ‘Tell me about it. The bods at Planexus don’t mind a bit of paperwork.’ He laid a card down, slapped the top of the deck and bellowed, ‘Snap! I win!’

I watched Byron through the evening, but he showed no signs of worry. He was his usual cheerful self, unencumbered by the burden of guilt, as free and easy as he’d ever been. It was this scene I had in my mind when I next spoke to Jason and Sophia once they’d recovered from their long ordeal.

‘It wasn’t him.’

‘Jake, I don’t really want to make this a discussion of who this was or wasn’t—’

‘But I’m telling you, it wasn’t him.’

Jason sighed. ‘Ok, fine, it wasn’t him. Right now, neither of us can prove otherwise. But we know the toy exists, we know you’ve been threatened by someone, and the question now is who.’

‘Not Byron.’

‘Ok, I get it. Let’s talk about what you do know. Have you received any more threats?’

I thought about it for a second, although I shouldn’t have had to. There had been nothing since that day, and my visits to see Jason and Sophia weren’t exactly top secret. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I suppose not.’

‘Well, that’s a start.’

I grew anxious, an old fear risen anew within me. ‘Should I be worried?’

‘I’d say you shouldn’t be careless. Look out for yourself.’

‘I expect James and Brendan were probably looking out for themselves, too.’

Jason raised his hands, palms up. ‘We don’t know if those deaths are connected, or even suspicious.’

‘Seems likely.’

‘Does it? Based on what?’

I had no response.

‘The thing is, I can’t do anything based on guesswork and hunches, so there’s no point having them. What I need is hard evidence, and all I have right now is a little clockwork toy.’

‘Did you leave it in Byron’s personal bag?’

‘Of course I did.’

‘So he doesn’t know?’

‘He doesn’t know.’

‘Will he still be working with me?’

‘What? On New Dawn?’

‘Yeah.’

Jason looked startled, then confused. ‘Jake, he tried to commit suicide. He’s our prime Futureproof suspect. He transferred over last minute after the death of Simeon Jones.’

I blinked. Did he say death? ‘Simeon Jones, the geologist who was supposed to be here . . . he—he died?’ I said slowly.

Jason didn’t say anything. Sophia looked at him, eyes wide and guilty-looking.

‘Wait . . .’ I said. ‘What aren’t you telling me?’

Jason, who was now staring at the floor, looked up at me. His lips were thin. ‘Jones was poisoned. Or at least he was believed to be. Doctors said it looked like a heart attack, but his last medical showed him to be completely clean. It’s why I’m here.’

I’d tripped over a mental roadblock, and it took me a few seconds of silence to gather my thoughts again. ‘So . . . wait . . . you’re saying Futureproof did this? But you said they’re activists, not terrorists, remember? No murders, right?

Jason’s lips were pursed even harder, and they stayed that way.

‘Jason, talk to me,’ I said. ‘What are you not telling me?’

‘The Futureproof thing is at best a guess,’ Sophia said finally, as though the sentence had been a coiled snake trying to spring out of her mouth. She looked almost relieved to release it. ‘Truth is, we don’t know who killed Simeon. And we don’t know who’s doing it now.’

I shook my head. None of this made sense. ‘So why this cover story?’

‘Come on, Jake,’ Jason said. He sounded like he was pleading with me. ‘You know what it’s like. Small ship, close-knit team—secrets get out. We needed a secret to release that wouldn’t leave the whole crew in hysterics.’

I laughed sarcastically. I meant every molecule of it. ‘No shit this’d leave the crew in hysterics. For days I’ve been wondering if I’ve gone mad, hearing voices and seeing toys for god’s sake . . . and all this time you’ve known this?’

‘Jake, please, keep your voice down . . .’

‘Why? So no one else knows? So you can keep your secrets?’

Jason and Sophia both gave me the look of a child caught stealing.

‘People’s lives are at risk here!’ I bellowed. ‘My life is at risk!’

My chest heaved in and out as I stared, frantic, at the Major and the Captain. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and still the echo of the revelation pounded off the inside of my head, drumming a beat that could keep the devil up at night.

‘Jake, please,’ Sophia said. ‘We’ve got yours and everybody else’s best interests at heart here.’

‘And Byron’s? Have you got his interests at heart? Or is he a scapegoat for your little cover-up story? I bet you couldn’t believe your luck when he walked onto the scene—or do you really think he’s a mass murderer?’

Sophia shrugged. Jason said simply, ‘We don’t know.’

I had nothing left to say to either of them. I marched out of the cockpit and headed straight to the bunks, storming through the rec room where the others (who weren’t sleeping) were gathered. Sadie looked up as I blew past.

‘Jake, are you—’

But I was already gone. I threw myself onto my bunk, mindless of Emily and Clip who were fast asleep in theirs, and stared at the base of the bunk above.

‘What’re they thinking?’ I half thought, half muttered.

The rubber curtain ruffled, and I looked over to see Sadie brush through. She crept over and sat on the end of my bunk. ‘What’s going on?’ she whispered, concern in her eyes. As I looked over her soft, rounded face, wrinkles of worry creasing her brow, suddenly what Jason had said made sense to me, even if it did make me angry. If I told Sadie what’d happened to me, what’d happened to Simeon Jones, I don’t know she could’ve taken it. She survived day to day on here convinced that James and Brendan had died naturally—all of us had, in fact—and to find out otherwise would likely do untold psychological damage. I thought back to college, to training, the lecture we’d had introducing us to the perils of long-distance space travel. The mind is a balance of chemicals, the lecturer, a woman named Cathy Stanford had told our young, eager selves. It’s a soup that relies on having the right ingredients to function properly. Too much of this, too much of that and the soup’s ruined. I wondered if my own soup was ruined. It was certainly too salty at least.

‘Nothing’s going on,’ I said. ‘Nothing at all.’

Sadie gave a half-hearted smile. ‘Okay.’

The dream was different that night. I was no longer on the beach—or at least, I didn’t know if I was on the beach, because it was dark. More than just pitch black: it was as though someone had taken my eyes from me. As I walked, still confidently and assuredly, I could feel the sand between my toes and hear the wind rustling through the forest. Then the wind died down, the air became closer and the ground became grassy underfoot, and I knew I was venturing into the centre of the island. But this time I didn’t re-emerge on the other side, no—I felt the temperature drop, the ground harden, and the whistle fade. I reached out, and fingers met cold stone. I was at the entrance to a cave, I deduced, and I had no choice but to go in.

Carefully I felt with my hands and feet, the smooth stone guiding me into the gullet of the cave. I could feel the ground sloping downwards and turning slowly to the right, coiling into the belly of the island. I walked for hours, days, never getting tired or hungry. Ahead, from the blackness, a light glowed, flickering softly as if catching a reflection on the cave walls. I headed towards it and it grew brighter, and soon I realised it was a candle. As the cavern opened up, I saw the candle; it was on the floor, wax trickling down it as it burned. Next to it were eight more candles, spaced equally apart, and they too were burning. They had burned different amounts, leaving them in a staggered fashion that seemed to have no real pattern to them. One of them was low, almost burned to the ground, and as I drew closer I realised there were two more candles—or, at least, what was left of them. They had smouldered and died a long time ago, their remains charred on the stone underneath. Then, as I was looking closely at the two snuffed candles, something happened that took me by surprise: the lowest candle still lit went out.

 

‘It’s going to happen again,’ I said. They looked unsure.

‘Have you been threatened?’ Sophia asked.

‘No—I dreamed it.’

‘You dreamed it?’ Jason repeated, but with added cynicism.

‘I know it sounds stupid’—it did—’but it was like a—a premonition or something.’

Sophia raised an eyebrow. ‘You know who it’s going to be?’

‘No . . .’

‘And you want us to believe that your dream is going to predict the future?’

‘No, not at all—I simply think that my subconscious has picked up on something my conscious hasn’t and it’s trying to warn me.’

Jason folded his arms. Even his body was closed to the idea. ‘Rather than it being a bad dream because some people died in suspicious circumstances leaving everyone else at risk?’

‘I . . . why haven’t I dreamed it before, then?’

A shrug. ‘Because you’ve only just found out about Simeon Jones?’

That did make sense, and now I felt foolish. ‘I suppose . . .’ I said. ‘I just thought you might like to know.’

‘And we appreciate it.’

I nodded and turned to go, but I had one last question. ‘Are you going to tell the others about this?’

‘I’d rather not.’

I nodded again. ‘Okay. Just so we’re clear.’

Jason narrowed his eyes. ‘See that we are.’

I had never felt more alone than when I left the cockpit that day. Could I trust anyone? I didn’t feel that I could. Jason and Sophia—they were up to something, something more than they were telling me, I just couldn’t put my finger on what. Had they really found the toy in Byron’s personal bag? Or were they telling me to shut me up or misguide my thoughts or for some other nefarious reason? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. They might not have even found the toy at all.

But the seed had been sown. Worst of all, I didn’t know if I could trust Byron, either. I had seen flashes of a different person in him, I couldn’t forget that, and his presence here aboard the Athena was suspicious at best. Was his being here a coincidence, or was he playing a more pivotal part in whatever was going on than I wanted to admit? No matter which way I thought of it, I struggled to believe that this naïve young man had any part to play in the murder of two, maybe even three, people. The death of James Grey: Byron had motive, maybe even for the death of Brendan Hughes, too . . . but for Simeon Jones? Had Byron ever even been in the same room as the man? I doubted it.

What about Donald ‘Clip’ Mercer? The class clown. The funny guy. Maybe the second closest person to me on the ship. He seemed innocent enough, yet with my mind clouded as it was, even his seemingly normal behaviour conjured thoughts of cover-up and espionage. Was his persona all an act? And was he devious enough and malicious to take three lives? I couldn’t tell.

Then there was the ever-quiet Grant Jameson. Clip’s yang, the one that got things done without so much of a fuss. Normally, his brand of sparse conversation and efficient work ethic was welcome aboard such a vessel, but now all I could think of was its effectiveness as a countermeasure to questioning. It’s easier to keep track of lies when you say very little at all. Perhaps that streak I’d seen in him when he’d been talking with Emily was more than just a streak: perhaps it was a crack in an otherwise perfect camouflage.

And Emily. Oh, Emily. As nice as you’d ever want. Or was she? She’d been in all the right places, had access to all the right tools; if anyone was able to kill as silent as a predator in confines such as these, it was her. But could she really do something like that? Really? If she could, she wasn’t letting on.

Which leaves me with Sadie. My friend and colleague, Sadie was the last person on board that fit the persona of the secret killer. She had a heart of gold, a temperament to match, and wouldn’t harm a soul. The perfect disguise, my mind said to me. I was disgusted with myself.

So what was it going to be? Three more months until we reached New Dawn, waiting to see who, if anyone, was next? Counting down the days before we reached the dusty surface of mankind’s possible future home, fearing each and every one? I’m not sure I could make it without going insane. And once we were there, then what? There were other ships, yes, but where were they landing? They could be days away on the other side of a previously unvisited planet.

No. I had to do something now. I had been marked, and I had little faith that Brendan was the last person to befall whatever curse was embedded in these steel walls. The place I needed to start was obvious, the only place I could begin: Byron’s personal bag.

Chapter 13

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.’

Too close.

‘You can still trust me.’

Can I?

‘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.”‘

‘Anything else?’

I nodded. ‘”You know it’s true.”‘

‘Then what?’

‘And then it was gone. The lights came on, and I was alone.’

‘And the toy?’

‘Gone.’

‘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—

‘Jake?’

‘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 . . .’

He shrugged.

‘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.’

‘I will.’

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.