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Hello, and welcome to Work in Progress, my blog about the books I write. If you’re looking for Noah’s Ark, you can get that for free here, and if you want to read Vessel, you can download it from Amazon here. If you want to read chapters of my next book, New Dawn, you can do so below or you can pick a chapter from the contents on the right (or at the bottom on mobile).

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 37

I hated Jason. I hated Emily. But most of all I hated myself for letting it get to me so much. After all, hadn’t I said to myself that I had no idea what it was that attracted me to Emily in the first place, that it was probably some kind of defensive mechanism, some need for companionship and protection in this time of need? After all, Emily was a medical professional, a typical caring type who could look after and mother me until I was safely back home, where the infatuation would probably end. Yuck. Despite the centuries that had passed since Freud’s theories had been debunked, he still knew how to make a man feel disgusting.

But I couldn’t let go. Emily was like a drug to me, a high that came with its lows, and right now was a real low, a rock-bottom low. I could feel the weight of HD 85512 B’s gravity before I even stepped off the ship, pulling me down into a pile of mush. I joined my fellow crewmembers in our big, white tent, where we all kitted up in silence. There wasn’t a pair of eyes in sight not ringed with purple, and by the time Emily and Jason—who had Byron with them—joined us, not a single word had been uttered. Byron looked just as tired as the rest of us, but I suspected his night had been significantly longer than ours, since today was going to be his last day in this life. Or maybe he’d slept well? The last time I’d spoken to him, he’d seemed resigned to his destiny, almost looking forward to it.

Yet despite Byron’s alternate realities, his deceitful way of masking the truth to protect himself, his indifference to his crimes, it wasn’t he who had fooled me most, it was Jason. There he was, leading Byron by the arm on one side, Emily on the other, face as expressionless as a mannequin’s. He hadn’t just fooled me, he’d fooled us all—but it was me he’d made the biggest fool of. His eyes flicked to mine, then flicked away again, but in that instant I knew—he’d got me. My need to survive was greater than my need for revenge, and as long as that was true then I’d be his slave and he’d be my master. He could reach down my throat and rip out my tongue if he liked, and all I’d be able to do is smile and nod my thanks. My whole life I’d harboured a deep-seated understanding that I was a coward, but I’d hoped it was a sign I’d managed to mask with knowledge, facts, education, quiet intellect. But Jason saw right through me, saw my cowardice and knew that he could have whatever he wanted from me.

Yet he was smart enough to string me along, make me think I had the upper hand, let my ego trick me into thinking that I was leading this game. But he’d had the better of me all along, and I fallen for his bluff. He’d won. I’d lost. I’d lost big time, let down by a hand of blind selfishness, inflated self-worth and a need to be right, no matter whether I really was or not. I’d let my father’s death, my hatred for Istanbul Angel and my cynicism against the world shape who I’d become, and he’d seen that and taken advantage of it. Where Byron, despite everything he’d done, revealed the best in me, Jason brought out the side I wish I could amputate.

‘Leaving in five,’ Jason called out to all of us. ‘Do your buddy checks and we’ll get going. Storm’s on it’s way—we need to move fast.’

At the mention of the storm, a murmuring grew among us. No one really said anything specific or intelligible, but the feeling of anxious trepidation was made known with unmistakable precision. I partnered with Sophia and we did our buddy checks, patting and slapping each other in turn until we were convinced of each other’s safety. After I’d done Sophia and she’d done me, I wasn’t sure if I’d really checked or if I’d just gone through the motions. She’d probably done the same.

We filed into the airlock and awaited the new dawn to be revealed to us. It was bleak; the purple glow of yesterday morning absent for a thick blanket of smoky brown fog in the distance. As the hatch reached its zenith, I realised the fog was pulsing and writhing, that it was not fog at all­—it was dust, a huge, horizon-hugging wall of dust. The storm was indeed coming, and it was coming our way.

‘We’ve got seven hours until it hits,’ Jason said, ‘it should be plenty. Keep focus, work carefully, and we’ll be alright. Grant, Clip—you’ve got one less stasis tube than us, so when you’re done Emily will take you back to the ship and you can begin deconstructing basecamp. Okay—let’s do this.’

We followed Jason out into the open, walked to the transport vehicle and all took our places. There was no point talking; I needed to conserve my energy, however slight that saving, and I suspected from the lack of chatter that I wasn’t the only one that felt that way. We ground our way along into the dust, the Athena falling to shadow quicker thanks to the dust-dulled sunlight. For the first time since we arrived on this planet I felt scared—scared by how isolated and powerful this place was. I was merely another grain of dust to be tossed about with all the others. As we headed towards our destination, the wind started whipping up around us, mini-cyclones nipping at our heels. A howling came with it, low at first, building to a harrowing wail. We were consumed by the wall of dust.

Emily dropped Sophia and I off first, heading off immediately into the gloom, and we set off immediately in placing the drill for the first hole of the day. Muscles aching and strength waning already—and in no small part due to fighting the blast of the rising gale as well—we set the drill going, it’s usual noise absent against the thundering shriek of the planet’s weather system. We must have both had the same idea at the same time, because we trudged over to where the first hole was, marked out by the leftover pile of debris, and sat down against the pile, away from the wind. It didn’t get quiet, but it got quieter, enough to talk by.

‘He did it,’ I said, the first thing to come out of my mouth since my run in with Jason and Emily in the cockpit. ‘He and Emily.’

It was enough. Sophia understood. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I’m such an idiot. And I ignored you. I should’ve listened.’

Sophia leaned over and gave my knee a squeeze. ‘Don’t be silly. This isn’t your fault.’

‘I just feel like there was something I could’ve done . . .’

‘There’s nothing you could’ve done. This isn’t on you.’

I knew Sophia was right, but admitting it seemed tantamount to admitting defeat. ‘I think I loved her,’ I said. I wasn’t sure why I said it; perhaps I needed to hear it spoken aloud to see what kind of a reaction I’d have. Did I really love her? Was it infatuation motivated by some other means? Either way, Sophia said nothing. Probably for the best. It was a dead-end conversation anyway, a path I should probably avoid, at least for now. ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to Byron?’

‘I’d rather not think about it.’

‘Hasn’t Jason told you what he’s doing?’

‘I declined to be involved.’

‘You don’t think Byron’s guilty?’

‘It doesn’t matter what I think.’

Sophia didn’t seem like she wanted to talk about it, so I dropped that conversation, too. But then she sighed, dropping her head back against the pile of dirt behind us.

‘Jason did tell me how he was going to do it. He said it was going to be quick and painless.’

‘How was he going to do it?’

‘I—I don’t remember. All I remember is that he said he was going to be painless. I was very angry at the time, the whole thing was a bit of a blur—’

My heart gave a sickening jolt in my chest. ‘Did he mention anything about a—a hallucinogen?’

Sophia sat forward, turning to me. I could just about make out the anxious puzzlement on her face behind her helmet. ‘Yes, that’s right, he did. How did you know that?’

‘Because that’s what Byron used to kill James, Brendan and Sadie.’

‘What? Why don’t I know about this?’

‘I only know because it’s what Byron used to try and kill me.’

Sophia, stunned, leaned slowly back against the mound. She was mouthing something, but I couldn’t hear what. Then she sat upright again quite suddenly, making me flinch. ‘He tried to kill you, too?’

‘Yes.’

‘How—how did you survive?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

‘And Jason’s using the same stuff to kill Byron?’

‘A taste of his own medicine,’ I said, nodding. ‘How poetic.’

We sat back and listened to the oncoming storm, waiting for it to arrive or the drill to finish, whichever came first. When Emily arrived with the first tube, we all pretended the wind was too loud to communicate over, and we went about the usual routine with hand signals like nothing had happened. Sophia and I worked hard, the hardest we’d done since we’d arrived here, and I found myself gritting my teeth and grunting to haul the drill into place. The routine went on and on, and the day got darker as the storm moved in closer. I could feel the clamminess of my under layer as it chaffed, rough and sweaty, a humid, putrid heat rising up into my helmet despite the dropping temperature outside. Still we worked, leaning harder into the wind, shouting louder over the noise. It would be all over soon. It was so close I could feel it.

When the long-range call came over the intercom, I jumped so hard my feet nearly left the floor.

‘Sophia—it’s Jake.’

It was Jason, shouting to be heard.

‘Clip and Grant are done, they’re going back to the Athena now with Emily. Byron and I have one more tube. How are you guys doing?’

Sophia was quick with the response. ‘One more to go here,’ Sophia yelled. ‘Then we’re done.’

I hadn’t realised we’d only got one left. A swarm of butterflies gathered in my stomach; I was excited to be nearly done, nervous to be back on the ship and facing a long trip home with Jason and Emily.

‘Okay, excellent. Emily will be with you shortly with your last tube. See you soon.’

It staggered me how quickly the time had passed. Thinking back, it seemed like an eternity since that heated conversation of this morning, but here we were, moving the drill into place for the last tube, mere hours away from dusting off this maniacal world and on our way back home. ‘Nearly there,’ I said to myself. Sophia didn’t hear.

Chapter 36

We sank into a routine that was more akin to a stupor, shifting, drilling, placing, filling, rinse, repeat. When Emily brought our next stasis tube, we spoke little, except for an urgent reminder from her that we needed to make up for the time eaten up by the fast-moving storm, which seemed to be growing hourly. She seemed genuinely concerned, and very keen to hurry back to the Athena to get the next tube. I thought perhaps she might be acting like that to avoid me, but given our situation, it was a stupid, selfish thought to have. So we kept drilling.

By midday, with the second hole filled and the drill skimming into the surface for the third, Emily, her transport vehicle laden with crew, collected us to return to basecamp for some lunch. I could feel myself nodding off to the rhythmic jiggling of the transport vehicle’s tracks over the granular surface of the planet, the heat of its sun warming my suit regardless of the temperature I set. We had an hour’s rest, enough time to get some food in us and cool off, and we all needed it. Not a word was spoken until we arrived back at the Athena.

‘Grab some food, then we’ll be back on the drills,’ Jason instructed, his usual pep deflated by fatigue. ‘Keep up the good work.’

The only sound as we ate was the sound of slow chewing, the group of us sat around the long bench in basecamp with our suits half taken off and lolling around our middles, helmets scattered on the floor, forgotten. Eyelids were heavy and half open, shoulder slumped—we were a picture of exhaustion. Emily, who hadn’t worked up quite as much of a sweat as the rest of us, served us our food and cleared it away again, and we each mumbled our thanks as she did so. I tried to make eye contact with her when she took my tray, but she stayed focussed on it and not me. I was too tired to feel anything.

When Jason rallied us back to the transport vehicle, it seemed like we had only just disembarked. Groans, the loudest noise anyone had made the whole time we’d been back, sang a deflated chorus of lethargy—but we got up, got suited, and got out. The journey back to our holes—pockmarked into the landscape as they were, a mysterious sequence of dirty mounds that would baffle any scientist who discovered them long after we were gone—was as hypnotic as the journey in, but with a belly full of food and a heart full of desperation, it was more dread that snared my attention rather than tiredness. By the time Sophia and I were back, the vehicle and crew gone, it was as though lunch was just a dream, the past hour only a faded uncertainty. It was as though we’d never left.

‘I feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life digging,’ I said listlessly, picking up a pebble and lobbing it into the half-finished hole. It was such a despondent task; I wondered if hell was like this, toiling hard against mundanity, destined to be lashed down by boredom and weariness for eternity. It was a horrible thought I wished I hadn’t had, and I shivered.

‘We’re nearly halfway through,’ Sophia reassured me, though perhaps not with as much enthusiasm as she had intended.

‘We could just lay down here and sleep until Emily returns,’ I half thought, half said aloud. ‘We don’t need to do anything until then.’

‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ Sophia replied. ‘You’ll feel worse than you do now when you wake up.’

Sophia was probably right, and I accepted with a begrudging grunt. I picked up another pebble and sent it down the hole, watching it disappear into the noise and dust kicked up by the drill.

‘Save your energy,’ Sophia said.

‘I’m already spent.’

Sophia laughed. ‘Think you’re done now? We’ve got all of tomorrow to go yet.’

I whimpered. I had intended it for comic effect, but it came out to real enough. ‘Don’t remind me . . .’

Half an hour of sporadic chatting passed us by, until the familiar sight of a growing dust trail picked up our attention. Emily was on her way here with another tube. I stumbled up to my feet, groggy and imbalanced, and wandered to the drill to inspect the hole. ‘Almost done,’ I said. ‘Another few minutes I reckon.’ As I finished my sentence, the vacuum pump shut off and the drill ground to a stop. ‘Or now,’ I added, feeling a stupid resentment towards the drill for showing me up. Sophia clambered up and helped me wind the drill back in, ready for Emily’s arrival. Emily must have really been carrying some speed, because she came to a clattering, skidding stop that I didn’t think was going to happen in time. Both Sophia and I stood back, and my guts shrank up into my chest for a moment until I was sure Emily had stopped.

‘Sorry,’ Emily panted. Apparently her speed had required a lot of physical stamina to maintain. ‘Storm’s moving in fast. The computer reckons it’ll be here early afternoon tomorrow. It’s going to be huge. We’ve got to hurry.’

I could see the fear in her eyes, which reflected back into me, turning my throat dry and my fingers numb. It was clearly all that was on her mind, despite us and everything that had happened, and that scared me. She had receded to a more primeval state, the kind humans generally have no need for in this day and age. She was scared for her life. ‘We’re going as fast as we can,’ I said, almost pleaded.

‘Go faster,’ Emily retorted, then snapped backwards in the vehicle, skidded round, then plunged forward into the cloud of dust she’d brought with her before it had even settled.

‘Shit,’ Sophia said. ‘I’ve never seen her like that before.’

‘I’m not surprised,’ I said, still watching the space where Emily and the transport vehicle had been sat only moments ago. ‘Sounds like we’re cutting it fine.’

‘Wait a minute . . . she’s forgotten to drop off the tube and fill in the hole. Jesus . . . I’ll call her on wide band.’ Sophia thumbed a button on her arm pad. ‘Emily, turn around. You still have the stasis tube, repeat, you still have the stasis tube.’

The response was immediate. ‘I, uh . . . of course. Sorry. I’ll be back right away.’

Another voice added to the fray: Jason’s. ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Fine,’ Emily said quickly. ‘Fine. Nothing to worry about.’

‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help,’ Jason said.

‘Sure—will do.’

Emily returned a few minutes later. ‘Sorry,’ she said as she approached, coming to a more gentle halt beside us. ‘I don’t know—I don’t know what happened.’

‘It’s alright,’ Sophia said as I helped her unload the tube from the vehicle. ‘No harm done.’

‘I hope not,’ Emily said, her voice strained. Then she added, ‘I don’t want to die . . .’

Sophia looked at me, and even through the distortion of her helmet I could see the concern on her face. I shrugged in return.

We hauled the tube into the pit as fast as we dared, and with weary autonomy we heaved the drill over and dragged it to the spot marked out by Emily, who then filled the old hole back in. Once she was done she sped off without so much as a goodbye, and I only became aware of her absence when I looked over to ask if everything was okay because she seemed to be taking so long. ‘She’s gone,’ I said, scanning the distance to see if I could find any clues as to how recently. There were none. ‘Long gone.’

‘She’s scared,’ Sophia said. ‘It’s not surprising.’

Emily was scared, I could understand that, but something didn’t sit quite right with me about it. Perhaps I’d been harrowed by the animalistic rawness of her fear, the in-your-face reminder of how close our situation had become. In my weakened state, I had found it easy to dismiss tomorrow as another lifetime, winding my attention in to the here-and-now to avoid the unsettling depression of the enormity of our task. Emily’s display was a slap in the face that sent my mind spinning. ‘I try not to think about it,’ I said, voicing the thought in my head.

‘Probably for the best.’

It was a relief to watch the blazing sun sink back towards the horizon; with it came the refreshment of the cool evening air. We worked hard, we worked long, we worked silently. I wasn’t sure how long it had been dark for by the time I realised I was getting cold, but I knew it had been a while. We flicked on our lamps and continued.

Time passed even more slowly at night, and what little enthusiasm we had yesterday was gone. No star gazing, not philosophical conversations, just the occasional reminder to stay awake, a feat that was proving harder and harder to maintain. It wasn’t until the bright lights of the transport vehicle snatched me awake that I realised I’d succumbed after all. I sat up, turned to Sophia who too was startled by the sudden awakening, and then to the transport vehicle that sat in a blaze of light, metres away. A voice came over the intercom—Jason’s. ‘Come on. Let’s get you two back.’

The relief was palpable. I heaved myself up, almost forgetting about the extra weight of the planet’s gravity, and stumbled over to Sophia to heave her up, too. She still wore the same startled impression, as though it had been frozen onto her face, and together, our arms about each other, we wearily hobbled to the vehicle for the ride back to the Athena, back to our beds. We ate quickly, took a muscle relaxant pill each, then hit the bunks. It was like a waking dream. Sleep, however, was more like blinking. I jerked awake with the sensation that I’d only just fallen unconscious, but a quick check of the time showed me I’d slept the whole night through. It was a horrible, gutting sensation that made me want to crawl under my bed and die.

It looked like I was one of the first up, so I slipped quietly out to the sanitary room to wash myself. I’d dropped straight into bed last night without so much as stripping off, and so removing the stiff, sweat-dried under layer was like shedding a second skin, a not entirely unpleasant experience I savoured with a guilty indulgence. How I wished I could step into a hot, steaming shower right about now, let the water cascade down on to my head and round to my shoulders, the flow washing the filth this ship seemed to leave on me now matter how hard I scrubbed with the wipes. But there was no shower, and so I had to make do with the cold, slippery sheen of our chemical equivalent, smoothing them over every bump and crevice of my body. Yuck.

Cleaned (but not refreshed), I headed back through the bunks, grabbed a fresh under layer and slipped back out to the galley. I made some breakfast, a hot portion of porridge, and I made my way to the rec room to recline in a seat and try to forget what the day held for me. Just one more day left, that was the saving grace of it all. One, long, agonisingly tedious day of mind-numbing, muscle-aching, torturous work. The porridge tasted of nothing.

A muffled shout, gone as quick as I’d realised it’d come, sent a jolt through my chest. I stopped chewing to listen, certain the noise had come from the direction of the cockpit. I strained my ears, cursing the rising thump in my head that drowned out the quiet details I tried but hoped not to hear. Nothing more came, and I realised I needed to breathe. I did, and colour came washing back to my vision, spotted with blotches of yellow and red. I knew what I had to do, even though I didn’t want to do it. I had to go to the cockpit. I had to. Breaking myself from my frozen state, I put my breakfast down and crept, one carefully placed foot after another, towards the cockpit. My mind raced with terrifying possibilities: had Byron broken free? Had he killed again? I had to fight each step from returning back on me and pointing me the way I had come. The briefing room was empty. Ahead, from the darkness of the cockpit, came flashes of movement and the mutterings of conversation. I crept quieter still, mouth agape, eyes wide, absorbing every nuance of every sense.

‘I think he knows about us,’ a female voice whispered. Emily’s.

‘Knows?’ Jason. ‘How much?’

‘I—I don’t know. How could you let this happen?’

I didn’t let this happen, you let this happen—’

‘Don’t give me that bullshit!’

‘This is as much your problem as it is mine—’

‘Then what can we do? There must be something else we can do?’

‘You know what we have to do. It’s not my fault you’re feeling bad about it now, you knew what you were doing—’

‘Emily,’ I said, making them both whirl round, faces alive and frightened. I was at the door, my getting here a lost detail in my mind, so hard was I concentrating on their conversation. I barely remembered saying Emily’s name, with only the echo of my own voice in my head to convince me it had really happened, along with the two startled crewmates twisted towards me.

‘Jake,’ Jason said, his voice falsetto with surprise, ‘how long have you been there?’

Emily was frozen still, her expression contorted with worry. Only now did I notice the fresh tears bulging and ready to drop on the bottoms of her eyelids. ‘Emily,’ I said again, ignoring Jason, ‘what’s going on?’

It took Emily a while to respond. First, she made a gurgling, choking noise, as if she was trying to swallow but couldn’t remember how. Then, a low groan came from the back of her throat. At last she was able to speak, a guttural grunt that seemed to require all of her effort. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. Her expression remained as limpid as it had when I’d first said her name.

‘How long has this been going on for?’ I said. ‘You and him?’

Emily blinked, looked at Jason, then back at me. Jason swallowed, shifting his weight to his back foot.

‘I’m sorry . . .’ Emily repeated.

‘Look, Jake,’ Jason began, but his voice swam distant against the tidal rage building within me. I could feel the pressure against my temples and the backs of my eyes, the heat radiating through my skin.

‘How could you?’ I said to Jason, my chest rising and falling. Jason said nothing. ‘How could you do this to me? The other day—you said to be wary of Emily. I see why now. Because the whole time you’ve been—you’ve been—’ I couldn’t say it. ‘How could you do this to me?’

‘Jake, I’m sorry,’ Jason said, holding up his hands in surrender. ‘We’re both sorry. It’s been hard, and—’

‘It’s been hard, has it? It’s been hard? You string us all along on your secret mission, invite a murderer on board this ship so you can collect your little pay-out, put all our lives at risk and you tell me that it’s hard?’ I looked to Emily, whose face, even under the blinking red lights of the dimmed cockpit, was ashen. ‘That’s right,’ I said to her. ‘Mister do-gooder here is cashing in, doing our good friend Peter Ash a bit of a, let’s say, personal favour. He knew this would happen. He knew what Byron would was capable of. So did Peter Ash. So they arranged this whole thing to get rid of Byron on the side, just like that. You remember those old films, the ones where people get other people to kill for them? Thought that was all over? Not for the richest people on the planet it’s not. No, all he has to do is bribe some washed-up old hippy to take him out where the law can’t reach and do away with his no-good son for him.’

My chest was so tight by this point it hurt, and I could feel the ground spinning beneath me. Emily and Jason watched over me, faces mirrored with goodness knows what kinds of twisted, competing emotions, as the red and yellow blobs pulsed in front of me, absorbing my vision until the real world felt distant.

‘You need to sit down,’ I heard Jason say, and then several hands guided me as I staggered to a chair. I sat, fighting the rising bile in my throat and the dipping consciousness in my head, and waited until the episode passed. When all was normal again, I saw Emily and Jason standing in front of me, Jason holding out a cup of water. I took it and drank greedily. ‘You’re exhausted,’ Jason continued. ‘We all are. You need to save your energy for today.’

‘What makes you think I’m going to do anything more for you?’ I gasped, short of breath from drinking the water down in one.

Jason’s mouth twitched. ‘You know why, Jake. I know you don’t like me very much right now and probably wish I was staying behind myself, but if we don’t get those stasis tubes buried, none of us are going home.’

I knew it before Jason even spoke it, and the realisation was an emotional impotence to me. I was bound, forced to do what he wanted. Everything went his way. He always got what he wanted. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘But I’m not doing this for you.’ I looked at Emily as I spoke, and she looked down. I couldn’t believe it. I stood, ignoring the faint remnants of dizziness, pushing away Jason’s attempt to steady me. ‘I’m going to get ready,’ I said. ‘I’ll see you in basecamp.’

Chapter 35

I awoke with a start, with the strangest feeling that someone had been near me, close enough for my skin to still feel warm from their breath. I sat up, expecting to feel groggy, but I didn’t. As I stood, I realised I didn’t actually feel that bad at all and, pleasantly surprised, I wandered out to the galley to fix myself up some breakfast. From the galley, it looked like the rec room was empty, so I forewent food for the time being and went to see where everybody was. I couldn’t have overslept, they wouldn’t have let me—so where was everyone? I wandered up the ship to the airlock, which was already open into basecamp.

‘Hello?’ I called out, but I knew as soon as I spoke that I would get no response. I knew because I had spotted that, somehow, the airlock at the other end, the one that opened onto the planet’s surface, was open. I half-expected to be filled with terror at the sight, but instead it piqued my curiosity, and I stepped down from the ship and wandered expectantly across basecamp. Everything was neat and tidy, all the suits were hung up on their pegs (I wondered who’d done that after we’d tossed them all on the floor and over the table last night) and still there was no one to be seen.

Judging from the bright white glow beaming in through the open airlock, it was at least mid-morning, way, way after I should have been up and working. Maybe, I thought, maybe they’d figured out a way to dig quicker, more easily, or maybe the storm had passed in the night and our deadline had been extended? Both thoughts cheered me up no end, and so elated was I by these assumptions that I believed at least one had to be true. Stopping at the threshold of the open airlock, I bathed myself in the glow of Gliese 370 and felt its warming richness penetrate me immediately, a soothing bath that rung any last memory of yesterday’s aches from my body. I blinked, let my eyes adjust, and saw what was in front of me. A world, surrounded by hissing sea, enriched with thick vegetation, blanketed with swooping clouds that darted high above like an ethereal expressway.

I stepped onto the planet, feeling the hot sand burn at the soles of my feet, and I walked quickly to the shade of a great, leafy tree to cool off. Its leaves hung long and drooping, deep green and waxy to the touch. I wandered in further, the wash of the gentle waves fading among the rustling of the foliage above. The air was warm and moist, clinging to me in a way that was not unpleasant at all—it was refreshing, a natural sauna draining my skin of the dirt ingrained deep within.

By the arrow-straight beams of light that made it down from the canopies, I could see a footpath marked out on the ground. Its weaving, uneven line looked almost coincidental, worn by the passage of many feet rather than through any deliberate means. Either side of it sprouted short grasses, kept neat by whichever mysterious travellers had wandered a little wide of the path, where the middle was scored lifeless down to the dirt. Intrigued, I followed it deep in the forest, turning left as it swooped left, turning right as it swooped right. Sometimes it appeared to fade, the fight between it and nature falling in nature’s favour, but soon it arose victorious again, marking its route to whatever destination awaited me.

I saw the rocky outcrop through the trees before I the path arrived there. The path darted quite suddenly right, and I followed it, taking me around the rocks and to the far side where an opening awaited me. Polished and smooth, the rocks had suffered millions of years of weather-wear, its organic shape almost sexual. In the wet warmth of the forest, I could feel cool, dry air funnelling from the entrance, a refreshing breath against the sticky heat. I followed it in, and as I ventured deeper past the point where the last of the outside light could reach, I succumbed to the darkness, closing my eyes to allow my other senses to take over. There was an energy here; I could sense that my entering the cave was my absorption by the cave, and as I wound deeper into it I could almost hear the voices of its many travellers speaking directly into my being. I paused to listen, but the words were distant and fleeting, memories of whispers once spoken here. I wanted to speak myself, but I had no words. I walked on.

With my eyes still shut, I could feel the walls around me spreading, the slap-slap of my feet growing in size, echoing back to me with greater and greater intervals. Once I felt I was in the middle of the room, I opened my eyes to see a vast cavern, glowing with the light of a flickering candle. I looked down to see that I myself was holding the candle, and it was standing tall and bright within my clasped hands. It did not burn me; if anything its warmth felt like all that was keeping me from succumbing to the cold of the cavern. I embraced the warmth, let it fill me, until a voice called out.

‘Who are you?’ it came from every direction at once. I could not be sure of its origin until he walked forward towards me, his movement caught by the light of the candle. As he walked, a sudden chill ran through me, pricking my fingertips numb. The candle became icy to the touch and glowed with a blue-white brightness, and I wanted to drop it, to throw it away, but it was affixed to me. I huddled down to try and retain some warmth, the cold of the cavern seeping into my skin, draining me of life-force.

‘Who are you?’ the voice cried out again. Before I could answer he walked further towards me, and again the candle burned brightly, its chill painful and sharp. I ached with crippling agony, and this time I hunched forwards against my own will, dragged down by the torturous cold, the remaining warmth inside me dimming. The voice called again: ‘Tell me who you are! Tell me!’

I could not bear him to come any closer, and so I forced myself to speak. My voice was as old and tired as I felt, and took all the energy I had. ‘You’ve almost found me. I am who you’ve been looking for.’

 

‘Get up, Jake, we’ve got work to do.’

‘Go away,’ I slurred. ‘Sleeping . . .’

‘Come on, you’ve got to get up. We’ve got work to do.’

I buried my face in my pillow, trying to drown out the mosquito-like voice buzzing in my ear. A pointed jab to my ribs jerked me fully awake, and I sat up, rubbing my chest. Sophia, already dressed, stood over me, hands on hips.

‘Come on,’ she said, exasperated. ‘Everyone else is up and ready. We’re going in ten, so get a move on.’

Dressed and in basecamp (a rushed preparation if ever there was one, and I was feeling a little dishevelled for it) I joined the others, who had already started—and in some cases, finished—breakfast. The atmosphere was one of quiet dread, a group of people awaiting their fate. In less than an hour we would be back at the drill site, digging. It made my joints thud with dull ache just thinking about it.

Thanks to Emily’s pills, my body seemed nowhere near as useless as I thought it was going to be. I could feel a deep twinge as I stretched my arms and legs to shake off some of the sleepiness that still weighed them down, but other than that I was okay.

‘That’s miracle stuff, those pills,’ I said to her, holding up my drink to toast her achievement.

‘A light muscle relaxant,’ Emily said between bites. ‘Nothing more.’

‘Did the trick for me,’ Clip said, jiggling an arm to prove it. ‘I feel right as rain and ready to go.’

We all acknowledged and confirmed our own rightness and readiness, but what I really wanted was to speak to Emily alone. I rushed my food to time it so we both went back to the galley to dispose of our packaging together, but she walked fast despite the gravity and I had to trot to keep up.

‘Emily,’ I called out once we were beyond hearing distance of the others. She didn’t turn, so I presumed she must not have heard me. ‘Emily?’ I called again as she stepped onto the Athena and turned the corner, with me following soon after. When I rounded the corner after her, expecting to see her back already halfway down the briefing room, I was taken aback to find her waiting for me, facing me, eyes reddened and glistening.

‘I—’ I began, then stopped. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘We can’t do this any more,’ she mumbled wetly. I was expecting her to say more, but that was it. She folded her arms and stared at my chest, face contorted into a frozen sob.

‘What—what do you mean?’

‘I mean this!’ she snapped, gesturing to me, and then her. I leaned back to see if anyone outside had heard Emily’s outburst, but no one had.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said, feeling that horrible hotness creeping up my face, that unease in my stomach that left me unsure whether I was going to vomit or not. ‘Have I done something wrong?’

Face still contorted and now bright red, Emily shook her head. Then, abruptly, she turned, marching on to the galley. It took me a moment to react, my mind slowed by this sudden sledgehammer blow. I followed after her, catching up as we reached the galley. She kept her back to me, so I took her tray and put it down with mine, then wrapped my arms around her. At first she was motionless, leaning into my embrace, but then she pushed forward, wriggling free and turning to face me, a gap formed between us.

‘It won’t work any more,’ she said, voice almost recomposed. ‘It can’t work any more.’

From the way Emily had forced composure onto herself, I knew that was it. The end. I didn’t know the reason, I didn’t know if it was my fault, I didn’t know if Emily had done something herself, but I knew one thing: this was over. Her expression, her voice, tainted by the sogginess of her tears as they were, had such finality to it that the sickness in my stomach ceased instantly, replaced by a great hunk of stone. My mind, which had been racing, stopped in its tracks. I stared at her, her puffy eyes, her streaked cheeks, her trembling lip, taking in the moment, bookmarking it without realising it to dig up again in my darkest moments. ‘Can I ask just one thing?’ I said, keeping my voice calm.

Emily nodded.

‘Can I ask why?’

Emily’s lip twitched, and she looked into the distance, thinking. Was she thinking of whether or not to say something to me, or was she thinking of a lie? With each passing moment, I became more convinced of the latter, but still I wanted to hear it.

Her composure wavered, and her face began to crumple up again, fresh tears brimming in her eyes. ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said at last, so quietly I almost couldn’t hear it, and before I had a chance to respond she rushed past me, wiping her eyes as she went.

I stayed where I was for a bit, trying to think about what happened, but getting stuck on that one scene, of Emily pushing by and rushing out, playing it over and over again. I couldn’t stretch my mind further than that for some reason, couldn’t grasp hold of a solid thought in my head. It seemed almost like some kind of failsafe, protecting me from crumbling on the spot, because still I stood, calm, composed.

‘Are you coming?’

The sudden breach of silence made me jump, and I turned to see Sophia standing in the galley entrance. I nodded, and we made our way out.

We didn’t say much to each other on the vehicle ride to our spot, and I said nothing at all to Emily. The blue-purple light before sunrise cast over the form of her helmet made it hard to tell if she was still upset, and I didn’t want to stare long enough to find out. Barely had mine and Sophia’s feet touched the ground as we jumped off did Emily scoot away, carrying the rest of the crew to their own destinations. I watched them get smaller against the horizon, lost again in my fragment of thought.

‘Let’s get the first drill going,’ Sophia said, ‘and then we can talk about it, yeah?’

‘Yeah,’ I said.

Even with only the first few rays of Gliese 370 to guide us, setting up the drill was a lot easier than by lamplight alone. We weren’t really set up for night working (it was frowned upon for obvious reasons), but the muscle memory we’d developed setting up the drill over and over yesterday made the first hole of the day a relatively straightforward affair. Sophia and I worked well; she was a grafter, one of those people with something to prove, doing so by giving it her all and getting stuck in. I was glad to be working with her, and I could only imagine what a nightmare it would’ve been doing this with Sadie instead. It’s heavy! I need a rest! Are we doing this all day? How many is that, then? Is that all? Can’t you do it? I could feel myself grinning as I thought about her, her pit-bull attitude and her fiery temper. Contrasted against her diminutive frame and her kindly, soft face, her outbursts never failed to make me smile. All of sudden, I realised with an aching heart that I still missed her, and badly.

‘What are you grinning about over there?’ Sophia asked as we spread the legs of the drill out.

The last wisp of memory floated away, disturbed by Sophia’s call back to reality. ‘I was just thinking about Sadie,’ I said. ‘I still can’t believe she’s gone.’

‘Me neither. I can’t believe any of them are gone. It’s surreal.’

I set the drill head and punched in the depth. We walked back as the drill began its thing, burrowing into the ground like a determined robotic dog. ‘The hardest thing,’ I said, once we were clear enough to talk again, ‘are the moments when you think about them, just before you remember that they’re gone. It’s like—it’s like waking from a bad dream to realise it was only a dream, but the reverse. It’s like waking from a wonderful dream only to realise you’re living the nightmare.’ My throat went dry as I said this, and I struggled to finish the sentence. A vivid flash of Emily pushing past trampled all over my mind’s eye.

‘It’s hard,’ Sophia said, ‘but it’ll all be over before you know it. It may not feel like it now, but when this is all done and dusted, you’ll look back and realise how fast it all went by. You’ll heal, you’ll move on. That’s not much comfort to you now, but at least when you’re looking back when you’re old and grey, you’ll be able to remind yourself that things are better, that life is still worth living.’

‘You sound very sure.’

Sophia repositioned herself on the ground. She looked awkward, embarrassed—I’d never seen her like that before. ‘I had a lover once,’ she said, her voice sounding different to usual, tighter. ‘It’s hard, you know, because I’m out here at a lot, but he said that was no problem. We were due to be married when I returned from a mission—oh, where was it? Alpha Centuri I think—but when I returned, he’d gone. He’d moved out, taken his clothes and a few other little bits, but left the rest behind. Pictures of us, mementos we’d collected, our treasures from the times we’d spent together—he’d left all of it. That was the hardest thing for me, not that he’d gone, but that he’d left everything special between us behind. It was like he didn’t care about that time we’d spent together, like it was worthless to him. That he could move away and leave it all nearly crushed me.

‘But now, I feel a lot better about it. I don’t know how long he’d been contemplating leaving me, and I don’t know how hard it was for him. I realised then that those keepsakes were me, that in my absence that was all he had. For him to let go of me, he had to let go of them, because that was all he had of me. If he ever stood a chance of moving on, he needed to leave them behind. Once I realised that, I was able to move on and begin to feel better about myself. What I’m trying to say is that with hindsight it’s easier to see why things have happened, and failing that, what we need to do to let go. In the thick of it, it’s not so easy.’

The quietness after Sophia finished speaking pressed against my ears. The distant whirr of the drill suddenly seemed so loud, and I licked my dry lips to do something to break the moment. ‘What made you say what you said about Emily the other day?’ I asked, almost catching myself by surprise.

Sophia shuffled again—I don’t think she had been expecting the question, either. ‘Well—’ she started, then sighed abruptly. ‘There’s something about her. Something distant. Something not right.’

‘You think she’s, what, mad or something?’

‘No, not that. It’s—gah, it’s hard to explain. I feel it so clearly, yet voicing it is so damn hard.’

‘Please try. Please . . .’

‘It’s like she’s committed to something else, like her mind isn’t focussed one hundred percent on the task at hand. She’s not lazy, or stupid or anything like that, it’s just like she can’t fully dedicate herself to something because she’s already dedicated to another . . . thing.’

My mind immediately went to Grant, and then Jason. ‘You mean, like another guy?’

Sophia shook her head. ‘No . . .’ she said sounding pained. ‘Maybe. I don’t know . . .’

‘You don’t know?’ I was beginning to get frustrated and doing a bad job of hiding it. ‘What do you mean you don’t know?’

‘I mean I don’t know. This is just a feeling, remember, I’ve not caught her doing anything or saying anything that would make me suspicious, it’s just . . . a feeling.’

‘So what’s happened to make you feel like that?’ The frustration was still rising. It wasn’t aimed directly at Sophia, but it was partly; even though Emily had made it clear that we were over, I still couldn’t help but want to defend her in her absence. It was stupid of me and I knew it, and it only frustrated me further.

‘Nothing specific,’ Sophia said. ‘Just the way she loiters on her own sometimes, the distant concentration on her face she often gets, the way she goes silent when she’s talking to Jason and I come into the room, things like that.’

‘So it is Jason?’

‘I said I don’t know.’

And neither did I. Only a couple more days, I consoled myself. Only a couple more days and we’ll be on our way home.

Chapter 34

With the second hole coming along nicely, Emily returned with our second stasis tube, depositing it nearby. Rather than scooting off as she had done before, Emily had to shovel the pile of debris from the first hole back in again to protect its contents against the impending weather. This gave me a chance to talk with her as she shunted back and forth, using the small plough on the front of the transport vehicle to push small mound after small mound into the pit.

‘So the storm’s coming in a little sooner than we thought, huh?’ I said, watching, hands on hips, as another bucket-load pinged off the stasis tube three metres below.

‘That’s right,’ Emily responded in a distracted, matter-of-fact way. ‘We’ll lose a few hours on the third day, so we need to get at least one extra tube buried per day today and tomorrow. That way we should have just enough time to pack up and leave before the storm hits.’

‘Is it a big storm?’

‘Huge. We don’t want to get caught out.’

I continued watching, looking but not looking, my vision swamped by the hysterical paranoia bouncing around my brain. Had I done something wrong? Was Emily cross with me? Was that tight-lipped expression because of the strict deadline or because of something I’d said? I checked behind me, and saw that Sophia had been kind enough to put some distance between us so we could talk privately, although finding the words to put comprehension to my muddled thoughts proved harder than I realised. ‘I—’ I began. ‘I hope you’re okay,’ I said, phrasing the sentence not quite as a statement, not quite as a question. It was whatever Emily wanted it to be.

‘I’m fine.’

‘Okay, that’s good.’ I’m not sure I believed that short but potent response. ‘Because if there’s something up, just let me know and we can chat it through, yeah?’

Emily said nothing. I was pretty sure she was ramming the transport vehicle harder into the mound, kicking up more dirt as she accelerated with increased venom. Or I could have been imagining it. ‘I hope I haven’t done anything wrong,’ I added. And that was it, the last straw. Emily stopped the vehicle in a stuttering skid of pinging stones and slammed her fists down on the console. At first I thought she was going to get out and hit me, a realisation that froze me to the spot, but the she collapsed forward into her own arms, a muffled sob broadcasting from her helmet. I hesitated, standing somewhere between concern and wariness, but when I saw that Emily was genuinely distraught I went over and put my arm around her. When she arose, her face was red underneath her helmet, glowing pink on one side under the late afternoon sun. ‘What is it?’ I asked, all too aware that this reaction had come about from me asking if I’d done something wrong.

‘I—It’s not you,’ she said between wheezing sobs. ‘It’s n—not you . . .’

‘Then what is it? What can I do?’

That seemed to make things worse, not better. ‘There’s n—nothing you c—can do . . .’

Was she talking about the storm? Did she think we couldn’t make it in time? ‘Hey,’ I said, trying to be as soothing as possible without sounding confused and worried at the same time. I’m not sure if I achieved it. ‘We’ll be alright, we’ll make it. You’ll see.’

That seemed to calm Emily down, if at least a little bit. She smiled, her bleary, purple eyes glimmering through the moulded clear visor like big saucers. ‘I hope so,’ she said. ‘I don’t see how, but I hope so.’

‘There’s always a chance,’ I said, and hugged her. She hugged me back. That made me feel a whole lot better.

With hole number two coming to an end, and Emily having finishing filling in hole number one and zipping off back to the Athena, we continued working. The big, bright sun, as it had appeared that morning (and such a long time ago that felt), disappeared with the same immediacy, leaving us working in a haze of blue-purple gloom. We both ignited our suit lamps, and the drill’s spread lamp too so we didn’t fall down the hole. With the darkness came silence, something hard to describe when you’re already in a desolate world with little noise to hear in the first place, even over the grinding and clanking of the drill. It’s beyond silence; it’s more like a heightened sense of things exaggerated by just how quiet and empty this world really was. We worked without speaking, save the occasional instruction and grunt, both feeling the onset of exhaustion in our minds and in our muscles.

I worked, however, with more of a spring in my step. Although it would be unfair—and slightly morbid—to say that Emily’s condition made me happy, I could at least admit that discovering I was not the source of her tinted mood was a fresh relief to me. As someone who takes some kind of twisted and overbearing interest in how I come across to others, especially the fairer sex, it was a rare and rewarding feeling to know I was in the clear. That makes me sound horrible, I know, but it’s not something I do on purpose, it just sort of—happens.

With that said, the unwinding of the worrisome knot in my chest gave me a fresh burst of energy, allowing me to push through the third hole and onto the fourth. By the time Emily had finished filling the third in, night had set in proper, smothering me and Sophia in a blanket of stars that were beyond imagination.

‘Let’s turn off our lights for a sec,’ I said, extinguishing the drill light and my suit light as I spoke.

‘Why?’ Sophia asked, sounding puzzled.

‘You’ll see.’ I watched Sophia hesitate, shrug, then click off her own light as well. ‘Now, whatever you do,’ I said, ‘don’t take a single step. I don’t want you falling down that hole.’

‘I’m not an idiot, Jake. What’s this all about?’

‘Take a look up and see.’

There was silence, then a gasp of breath. ‘Oh my goodness . . .’ Sophia breathed, her words obviously spoken with open-mouthed awe.

‘It’s quite something, huh?’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

With the Athena and its sister ships reliant solely on instruments, and a normal limitation of work to daylight hours, this was a sight seen by few. Well, to be precise, we were that few; no one else before us had ever taken in the majesty of this alien sky like we were doing now. And it wasn’t just the strangeness of the constellations, it was how brightly they glowed—the sky was patchwork quilt of white dust, dappled with red, greens and blues. As our eyes adjusted, the light became bright enough almost to work by. I looked down to see Sophia gawping upwards, her mouth—as I had suspected—indeed hanging open. I looked out onto the horizon behind us where a few pinpricks of hazy light marked our fellow explorers. With the pale white starlight washing over the blackness with a deep navy blue, I could almost convince myself that we were on an island in the middle of the ocean, looking out to see the distant glow of passing ships. With a strange, fluttering reminiscence, I hoped that they would see me and come and rescue me from this world of isolation. I blinked, and the sea became dust and the ships just beacons from our faraway colleagues.

A cloud, swooping in from behind, dimmed my vision. I turned my light back on again, and the drill’s too. Sophia’s followed. I peered down the hole; only a few more feet to go, and we’d be done.

‘That was amazing,’ Sophia said, still occasionally looking up and squinting.

‘Makes you feel small, huh?’

‘Like a grain of sand in an ocean.’

My mind flashed to that island, hope making my heart palpitate. I pushed the feeling back down. Not yet—there was too still long to go. ‘If only we could truly comprehend how small we are in the universe, we could properly put side our pettiness and live in peace.’

Sophia snorted. ‘What’s that, something you read on a poster? People justify the bad things they do by how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. Tell someone without a moral fibre in their body that we’re pieces of space dust floating around the attic of the universe and they’ll fill their boots!’

She had a point. I felt hurt by her jab at my attempt at philosophy, but that didn’t stop her being right. ‘Maybe we’ve been doing it wrong all these years,’ I said, trying to peer through a hole in a fast-moving cloud. ‘Maybe the only way to really make the most of your life is to do whatever the hell you want.’

‘It’s all relative, I think. Sure, we’re nothing compared to the scale of our universe, but that doesn’t mean we’re nothing to our neighbours. To the people we interact with—the people we hurt—what we do matters a great deal indeed.’

Again, Sophia was right, but this time I couldn’t feel bad about it. Was it really possible to find that balance of understanding, to know who we were in this vast universe and yet still comprehend the lives of others? It seemed like an impossibility, a choice between one or the other. All the greatest people in history, all those that had made their mark in the eternal pages, they had all been bad people. They knew their place in the world and they took what they wanted, unafraid of the consequences, because the consequences were insignificant in the universal eye. We were doing a great thing ourselves, taking these people and transporting them to another world, away from the people they’d hurt. Where we bad? Was I bad? I hoped not, but I didn’t feel positive about it.

‘Greater men than you have done themselves a bad turn by thinking over these kinds of philosophical issues,’ Sophia said, as though my mind were readable upon my face. ‘Turned themselves mad, driven themselves to suicide. You think too hard about it and there’s only one real conclusion you can come to.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked, not sure if I really wanted to know.

‘It’s all irrelevant. All of it. Everything.’ Everything. That was a pretty all-encompassing word. ‘That’s why we fill our time with friends and family, love and hate. It gives purpose to purposeless lives. If you don’t have those things, can’t find those things, what else do you have to turn to? You either do what you want, take what you want, or you accept the inevitable and take yourself out on the spot.’

‘That’s pretty bleak.’

‘You bet it is. But it’s also a source of hope.’

I laughed sarcastically. ‘How?’

‘Well, think about it. If we all felt like that, like we were insignificant, then we’d have done ourselves in as a species millennia ago. When we evolved enough to go beyond survival and begin to question our role as humans, we had two paths: the dead end and emotional growth. We took our newfound ability to think without boundaries and we used it to form complex bonds we still don’t understand, bonds that tie people together over time and distance. Before, we wanted to survive to procreate. It was hardwired. And we wanted our pack to survive, too, because that benefitted our survival and procreation as well. But you know what? As soon as we learned that we could make ourselves happier by making other people happier, that was the path that gave our superior genetics the ability to survive. We were no longer threatened by nature; our biggest threat was ourselves.

‘The moment we began to look after our sick, or elderly and our infirm, that was when we breached into what we are today. Why protect a member of the species that serves no survival or procreational purpose? What’s the point? There’s no logical reason, is there? But that’s how we’ve done it, how we’ve survived. We’ve found purpose where there was none, created meaning for ourselves in a universe that has no need for us.

‘But you’ll always find with one contrast, you get another. Expanding our minds to these concepts leaves them vulnerable to the bleak, emotionless, logical side that can break a person down to nothing. Old religion called it the Tree of Knowledge; with the understanding of the world and everything in it came a responsibility to control what we couldn’t comprehend. And some people can’t handle the knowledge. Some people choose to ignore it. A few people manipulate it to get what they want.’ Sophia gestured to the mouth of the hole, to the stasis tube within.

‘That’s some pretty deep shit.’

Sophia mock-curtseyed. ‘Thanks.’

‘Where’d you learn all that?’

‘Minored in philosophy.’

‘What made you take philosophy?’

Sophia shrugged. ‘Don’t know, really. As a kid, you always think you can change the world with your mind. I thought I’d be that person.’

‘What happened?’

‘I grew up and became cynical.’

‘That’s unfair—you probably mean realistic.’

Sophia made a high-pitched humming sound. ‘Maybe, maybe not. All I know after everything I’ve studied and everything I’ve seen is that trusting people can be hard. Everyone has a piece of Istanbul Angel in them, no matter how small. It comes with the balance.’

‘I hope you don’t think I’m like that.’

Sophia looked at me, eyes flicking up and down. ‘I think you’re struggling to work out who you are. You’ve not found yourself yet. You’re a late bloomer.’

‘So what you’re saying is I have the potential to become the next Istanbul Angel?’

A laugh. ‘No, I don’t think so. People like that, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s pretty obvious from a young age when someone has that mentality.’

Sophia may not have realised it, but this was as reassuring a compliment as I’d ever had. To be judged as normal, not a criminal mastermind of psychopathic megalomania may seem a strange thing to be pleased with, and I’m pretty certain I knew I wasn’t a psycho anyway, but there’s always that doubt, that nagging wonder that other people see a madness in you that you yourself don’t, that they simply keep to themselves for fear of rousing a dormant beast. It was a compliment I took great pleasure in hearing.

When Emily finally arrived to fill in the last hole, Sophia and I were beat. Not just phew, what a hard day beat, more like I’m not sure if I could spell my own name beat. No thanks to the extra strength of the planet’s gravity, I held myself like my hands and feet were made of solid steel, dragging and swinging them along as if each step were a marathon. To sit down on the transport vehicle for the ride back was luxurious, but to take off the suit and step back on board the Athena, back onto artificially gravitated home turf—that was heaven-sent. With us all back on board and the airlock shut for the night, we all had pretty much the same idea, which was to retire to the rec room and collapse into a chair. The relief was palpable; from audible sighs to contented faces listing away into daydream, we were the happiest we’d been in a very long time. Even Byron, who sat with us—with Jason, of course, he was taking no risks—had a look of serenity about him.

I don’t think the thought of the next day’s work crossed anyone’s mind at that point—it certainly didn’t cross mine—such was the exhaustion and inability to think. I expect, had we all been more alert, that Byron’s presence would have been cause for complaint, but as we were, we had nothing to say about it. Sitting there, letting my vision grow soft and dim, it was Emily’s voice that brought me back to reality.

‘Sorry, guys, but we’re all going to need to have something to eat before we go off to sleep. We need to be energised for tomorrow.’

Being the least worked of all of us, Emily was still in a fit state to see beyond the immediacy of the situation. She brought in meals for all of us, despite much groaning and complaining, and she made sure we ate. As I picked at my chicken pasta, I realised how hungry I was, and soon I was gobbling it down like my life depended on it. Which I suppose it did.

Having eaten, I felt much more awake, and the effect was similar all round. Conversations began to sprout, and anxious glances at Byron also became noticeable. Jason took his cue to return him to his makeshift cell in the towing dock, to which Byron shuffled along to without protest.

‘Well, thank goodness that’s over,’ Grant said after swallowing his last mouthful. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired in my entire life. My arms, my legs—I think I’ve worn them down to nubs.’

‘I don’t know how the drillers do it,’ Clip added, shaking his head in disbelief. He looked almost traumatised by the idea of this day’s work being a full time role. ‘It’s—it’s killer.’

‘Two more days though, don’t forget,’ Sophia said, looking up from her meal. She watched as we all groaned as if we’d been gut-punched, then she returned to eating.

‘How can we forget,’ Grant simpered. ‘It’s going to be what finally lays me to rest, I’m sure of it . . .’

Clip jabbed Grant with his elbow. ‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘I was just kidding, Jesus . . .’

‘Just don’t.’

‘Fine.’

They bickered for a little bit, but neither really had the energy to do it properly, and none of us could be bothered to intervene. It was eventually disrupted by the return of Jason with Emily, who was carrying what looked like a pill bottle.

‘Muscle relaxants,’ Jason said, reading our bafflement. ‘The drillers take these to stop them getting stiff the next day. I suggest you each take one if you want a fighting chance of making it through tomorrow. Don’t be too late up—we’ve got another couple of hard day’s work yet.’

We each took one straight away, and I tried to read for a bit. I fought my leaden eyelids as long as I could, but soon I gave in, having read the same page three times over. ‘I’m off to bed,’ I said, yawning for the umpteenth time. ‘See you all in the morning.’

Grant and Clip took that as their cue to retire to bed as well, and I don’t expect Sophia and the others stayed up much longer. I didn’t wash, or even take of my coveralls—I flopped onto my bunk, asleep before I hit the pillow.

Chapter 33

With the drill set, chewing away at the one-and-a-half metre hole appearing in the ground, vacuum hose sucking out the debris and spewing it out into a pile on the opposite side, all Sophia and I could do was wait for Emily to show up with our first stasis tube. We’d been going about fifteen minutes now, and were a good metre down already, which I was pleased with—although I did not look forward to collapsing the drill and moving it to the next spot, or the other ten or so we had to do.

Taking a seat in the dirt far away enough to hear each other clearly, we had little else to do but talk. It was hard at first—the feeling between us was still a little tempered—but with nothing else to keep us occupied we both soon got over it.

‘Did you know?’ I asked somewhat cryptically, although I had no doubt that Sophia would understand what I’d asked in its entirety.

‘No. I knew nothing. As far as I was aware this was exactly as Planexus had told us it would be.’

‘You didn’t know Jason was GA military?’

‘Not until he told me. When James died I freaked out, and he took me to one side and said he was here for our protection, just in case. I wasn’t exactly reassured, but he told me in confidence, and based on what I knew back then it seemed best for the crew that I keep quiet.’

Of course it did. That’s why he said it. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at how deeply wrapped up in the lie we’d all become. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but somehow I just kept on going, kept on doing what I was told. If you’d asked me before the mission to do what I was doing now, I’d have vehemently refused, yet here I was, doing it. By this point, burying criminals on a faraway planet seemed almost like what we’d come here to do in the first place. I suppose it was; we just hadn’t been told about it.

‘What’s so funny?’ Sophia said, twisting in her suit to look at me.

‘Oh, nothing,’ I said, picking up a small pebble and rolling it around between my fingers. ‘It’s just—don’t you get the impression that we’ve only been told what we’ve been told on a—on a need-to-know basis?’

‘That’s exactly what it is,’ Sophia said, stiffening up and looking away.

‘You think that’s a good thing?’ I asked, trying to read what I could of her body language. The suits didn’t make it easy, but her discontentment wasn’t hard to pick up on.

‘I think it’s the best of what we’ve got,’ she said firmly, although her inability to look at me while she said it told me otherwise. ‘On a ship like that, we need all the stability we can get.’

That was true, I wasn’t going to argue with that. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what Jason had done, he’d done in at all the right junctures, in all the right places, all to keep us on the fine line between panic and mutiny. In my head it seemed like we’d been wronged, like we’d been strung up for some ulterior motive, but spoken aloud it seemed . . . well, the best anyone could’ve done in the situation. Caring, or clever? Protecting us, or protecting himself? I expect Jason’s capital gain had some pretty stringent caveats applied to it—he wouldn’t want to mess anything up, not even slightly, for risk of forfeiting his prize.

‘It just seems odd, doesn’t it?’ I said after a long bout of silence (or as near as possible within fifty metres of an active mining drill).

‘What’s that?’

‘Did you know Jason took money to let Byron on board?’

‘I did. Jason told me just before Byron admitted to the murders. I wasn’t happy about it, but what’s done is done. He didn’t know Byron was capable of doing what he did.’

‘And that’s the funny thing—neither did I. Just knowing that Peter Ash, Byron’s father, is paying Jason to get Byron on board—it doesn’t add up to me. What Byron did—those murders—it just doesn’t make sense.’

Saying that made me wince. I still wasn’t sure if I could believe it. I suspected even cold, hard evidence would still leave me in doubt. My pride was probably what stood in my way, my lack of judgement, my blindness . . . but still, why did Peter Ash go to such lengths to get him on board?

‘It’s one of those things we’ll probably never know,’ Sophia said. She stretched her legs out, leaning back on locked arms. ‘Like you said, need-to-know. And who has any idea what goes through the mind of mega wealthy individual. These are people who pay a typical years’ salary to park a bit closer to the country club entrance. There’s no understanding that.’

‘But to pay to get your own son taken so damn far away? Is it worth it?’

‘He must really hate his son.’

That could be true. Peter Ash probably sees Planexus as a plaything, and Byron as a nuisance that needed taking care of. There was plenty of historical evidence to show that powerful people had a habit of treating fellow humans as commodities. ‘Maybe he knew Byron would do something,’ I wondered aloud, ‘maybe he knew he’d do something so bad he’d get left behind here. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe that’s part of the deal. Maybe he had Simeon Jones killed just to get Byron a space on board.’

Sophia shrugged. ‘Maybe.’

I was a little taken aback by Sophia’s indifference. ‘Maybe? Is that all you have to say? There’s a life at stake here, you know that.’

‘Yeah?’ Sophia snapped, sitting forward to look at me face on. ‘Don’t you think I know that? All our lives are at stake for crying out loud. Or did you miss the memo? What Peter Ash gets up to with his money and his family is none of my business, and I’ll thank you to leave me out of it. And even if what you were saying was true, then what? You think you can take him on?’

‘Well, I—’

‘Of course not. You’re a drop in the ocean, Jake. Sorry to reveal that to you, but your difference is just not different enough.’

I was stunned. I had nothing to say to that. It was my worst fear—being a nobody—and it was being served up to me fresh out of the oven, garnish and all. She was right of course, I was a nobody. In the face of someone like Peter Ash, I was even less of a nobody. I was a shadow of a nobody. I went unnoticed through life like the gathering of dust behind furniture, the quiet rusting of an abandoned vehicle. My voice was a quiet hum amidst a storm, never to be heard by anyone. It was a chilling thought, that my cog in the machine spun with no purpose, that there were millions—billions, even—of other cogs just like me waiting to take my place before my last breath had even finished escaping me.

‘I’m sorry . . .’ Sophia said, leaning over and putting a hand on my knee. ‘It’s just that I think it’s time you let go of all this. You’ve spent the entire mission so far digging and poking and stirring things up, and it’s only ever led to problems. You need to take a back seat, focus on what it is you need to do. The world’s a big place—keep your eyes down and you won’t ever have to feel its weight on your shoulders.’

I put my hand on Sophia’s and squeezed. ‘Thanks,’ I said. She squeezed back.

‘That’s okay. I’m only saying this because I want you to be safe. Same as why I said what I said about Emily earlier. As my dad used to say to me, keep it simple, stupid. Got me through a lot of tough times, that.’

We both sat back and watched the funnel of dust and debris belch from the drill’s exhaust. While the larger pieces collected in a pile a few metres back, the finer particles were taken by the whisper-light breeze up into the sky, a thick column of brown-red mist that spread lazily into the upper atmosphere. ‘It’s incredible, isn’t it,’ I said, watching a swirl grow way up above, ‘how insignificant we all really are. You really feel it when you’re out somewhere like this.’

Sophia grunted agreement. ‘You’re not wrong, Jake, you’re not wrong.’

‘Sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a play, part of a great big prank everyone knows about except me. I like to think that when I step out of a room, all the people in it take five and wait for me to return.’ I laughed at the stupidity of what I was saying. ‘But when you’re on a faraway planet in a faraway system, looking out over a desolate landscape that dwarfs even the largest capacity of your imagination, and then you realise that the distance between here and Earth, despite its enormity, is only an infinitesimally small fraction of the scale of the universe . . . I feel pretty small and pretty useless.’

‘Don’t we all.’

‘I’ve often wondered if ants are capable of comprehending us. Do they understand who were are? Do they see us at all? So they think of us as a god?’

Sophia snorted. ‘I think you’re getting a little carried away there.’

‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe not. Who knows.’

‘I certainly don’t.’

‘Me neither.’

Back towards the Athena, a tell-tale mist began to grow through the heat-haze of the afternoon. I watched it get bigger, thicker and soon it was close enough to visibly pick out as the transport vehicle.

‘Emily’s going to be here soon,’ I said. ‘Looks like we’ll have to get back to work. I’ll see how the drill’s doing.’ I heaved myself up, fighting gravity, then gave Sophia a hand up too. My joints ached and my muscles bordered on cramp, and I jogged on the spot to get the blood flowing again.

‘Only loads of work left to do,’ Sophia said in a sarcastic tone, and I laughed involuntarily.

‘By this time in two days, if we haven’t been swept away by the storm, we’ll be all packed up and ready to make our way home.’

‘I can hardly wait,’ Sophia said, zero sarcasm this time.

I wandered over to the drill, careful not to let the blood rush from my head, and peered past the whirling teeth and thick dust down into the hole. Looked like there was a half-metre left to go. I’d hoped it was already done, and judging by the pile of uncompacted material on the opposite side of the drill, it looked like it had been dug three times over. By the time Emily had deposited the first stasis tube and marked out the location of the next hole, it should be finished. Emily would be able to fill it in on her next journey over.

She was travelling quickly, and we stood back as she thundered up to the drill, skidding slightly as she brought the transport vehicle to a stop. Immediately she was lowering the stasis tube to the ground. ‘Can you get those harnesses off, please?’ she asked with urgency, not looking away from the tube as she lowered it to the ground.

‘Sure,’ I said, and I unfastened one side as Sophia unfastened the other. ‘What’s the big rush?’

‘Storm’s moving a little quicker than we’d hoped,’ Emily said, pulling forwards just as I’d finished unfastening the tube. ‘We’re getting pretty tight for time.’ She drove forward, turned right past the first hole and parked a few metres away. ‘Here’s the location of the second borehole.’ She spun the transport vehicle on the spot, leaving a rough circle of tracks emblazoned on the ground. ‘I’ve got to go now. See you in an hour or so.’

And with that, Emily was off, tracks kicking up dust behind her as she drove back in the direction of the Athena. I watched her whizz away, wondering to myself whether she’d avoided talking to me because of the change in deadline, or for some other personal reason. It was the kind of paranoid thought that had likely driven many a lady from my getting-to-know-you inner circle. Stop being silly, I internally reprimanded myself.

‘Drill’s done, Jake, let’s get going.’

‘Okay,’ I said, calling back over my shoulder. Emily’s dust cloud could have been a smear on my helmet by now. I turned to Sophia, who was standing by the drill waiting for me. Sure enough, it had finished, and as I peered over the edge and into our first pit, the reality of the situation hit home: we were really doing it. We were burying people. That could be Istanbul Angel in that tube right there. My stomach flip-flopped about at the thought, so I tried to push it from my mind by busying myself with the drill’s extraction. Fortunately, the raising and lowering of the drill head was one of the only powered mechanisms on the PX-D, and I held the worn, rubber-sleeved button down to retract it almost fully. Then, holding a leg, I carefully leaned in to grab the dangling drill head and pulled it over to the safety of the hole’s edge.

‘Sophia, I’m going to attached this to the mounting point on the top of the stasis tube,’ I said, locking the drill head’s teeth back in place, leaving just the dangling ball joint with it’s industrial grade hook attachment protruding, ‘could you press this button here and wind me out some slack, please?’

‘Sure.’

We attached the tube (it felt weird to touch it, almost like a strange spiritual moment), and then I got Sophia to pull the slack back in, dragging the tube over to the hole. Empty, it looked very deep and rather ominous, so I kept one foot planted on the drill’s leg as I eased my weight against the tube to stop it swinging into the far wall as it was pulled above the hole. My arms flashed with fire, my gut about to tear across the middle, but we managed it. I was hot, sweaty and exhausted, but we managed it. Sophia lowered the tube down to the bottom, gave it some slack; I jiggled the hook loose and then it was done. Whoever was in it was now in their new, everlasting home.

‘So how do we get the drill over to the next site?’ Sophia asked as she wound the drill head back up again.

I gave her a look; she got it immediately.

‘Oh, really?’ she groaned, rolling her eyes. ‘More brute strength?’

‘You didn’t think those drillers were built like that for show, did you?’

An irritated grunt was all I got in return. I grabbed the drill head again as it came up and signalled for a bit of slack, enough for me and Sophia to comfortably grab from the hole’s edge. Sophia already seemed to understand what we were doing, and she lined up behind me to take her place in this tug-of-war between man and machine.

‘Usually, the diameter of the hole is a lot smaller,’ I said between gritted teeth as we leaned our weight back. The furthest foot of the drill—we were standing in between two of the three—began to lift. ‘So it’s usually a bit more laterally unstable.’ We heaved harder, digging in our heels and giving it our all. ‘This bastard, on the other hand’—I could feel sweat actually trickling down my face now, no thanks to the restrictive filter forcing me to draw every breath like it was my last—’is as stable as a—’

‘Just pull, will you?’ Sophia snapped, and I did as I was told, shutting up and pulling. At that moment, the far leg lifted clear by about a metre, and from there gravity took over. We stood back as the drill teetered, then toppled towards us, landing with a solid thump on the dirt that I felt in my feet. ‘Now what?’ Sophia asked between hoarse gasps for breath.

Now, protocol dictated that we right the drill, collapse the legs, move it to the new location and start over, but my pounding heart (and my equally pounding head) told me to screw protocol and do it the easy (less hard?) way. ‘We drag it.’

I didn’t need an intercom to know Sophia was groaning again.

Between us we managed to drag the PX-D, legs still akimbo, along the dusty ground. By pulling it along by the drill head, which I assumed was more than capable of putting up with such abuse despite the training telling us otherwise, we only had the resistance of two of the foot pads to contend with, the main body of the drill suspended taught between them and us. Once we’d dragged it to the next location, we pulled it upright, landing it more or less onto the marker Emily had left for us. That was the real reason we shouldn’t have done it like we’d done, I was pretty sure of it—in a real borehole test, we wanted our holes millimetre perfect, and this was no way to do it. Nevertheless, I checked the drill head over, checked the cable mounting points and the cable itself, and all seemed well. Then we set it off to drill the second hole of what may as well have been an infinite number of holes. At least, that’s how it felt right at that moment.

With a fresh column of fine debris floating towards space, Sophia and I collapsed on the slight incline we’d found before to rest awhile. Where we’d lowered ourselves down last time, we dropped like stones this time, the planet’s unforgiving gravity sucking us down with bone-jarring force. Despite that, and despite the ground being nothing more than compacted dirt, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable had there been a well-placed mattress here. To take the weight off my feet was heaven.

‘If we can get three or four of these done by the end of today,’ Sophia said, looking at her wrist readout, ‘we’ll be on or ahead of schedule.’ The thought of drilling two more holes made me want to shrivel up and die. ‘Then tomorrow,’ Sophia continued, if we can get seven or eight done, that’ll leave us with between five and seven to do on the third day. Hopefully we’ll be able to miss the storm.’

I hoped so, too. Or else . . . or else we weren’t going home. ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine,’ I said, sounding entirely unconvincing. I’m not even sure why I said it. It was probably the most insincere thing I’d ever said.

‘Fingers crossed,’ Sophia added, an equally meaningless platitude. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. ‘What?’ Sophia asked, sitting up a little to look at me, a puzzled expression on her face.

‘I’m just being silly,’ I said, the dying rumble of laughter in my belly still turning the corners of my mouth upwards. ‘It’s just it all seems so—superficial. When I found out that Istanbul Angel was on board, I was almost consumed with this cocktail of emotions—rage, fear, sadness, you name it, and now—now it’s almost like I don’t actually care. Sure, he’s a bad person, he’s done terrible things—to me especially—but I’m finding it hard to hold on to that with quite as much conviction as before. Do you think that’s bad? Am I so cynical and miserable that I can’t even be bothered to be passionate about something anymore?’

Sophia leaned back down again, and we both lay there, watching the dust funnel rise. ‘That depends, I suppose,’ she said. ‘We’ve been through so much that perhaps it’s become less of a priority for you. After all, what’s done is done, and while it’s good for people like Angel to be where they can no longer do people harm, that isn’t necessarily equal to exacting your . . . revenge, I suppose you would call it.’

Revenge. It sounded like something out of a child’s story. The big bad man does something bad, the hero gets his revenge. But those children’s stories neglected to encompass the full depth of the human psyche, explore what makes us who we are, do what we do. Well, I mean they are stories for children, let’s not forget that, but I think that in its essence was my problem: I often looked at myself as if were in a child’s story, with right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. But, I had to remind myself, it just wasn’t that simple.

‘Do you think I’m letting my father down?’ I asked tentatively. It felt like I’d rolled onto my back figuratively as well as physically, my soft, delicate underbelly exposed and vulnerable.

‘No, I don’t think so. I think it’s good for you to let go, healthy, even. It takes a braver man to forgive than it does to punish.’

I wasn’t sure I really understood what Sophia meant by that, not at first. Surely punishment was a necessary requirement of a functioning civilisation? But then I realised that she didn’t mean for those two things to be mutually exclusive—here we were, punishing Angel by burying him in stasis nearly forty lightyears from home, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t forgive him as well. Thinking about leaving the whole thing behind after letting it fester in my mind for so damn long made me tense.

‘I’m not sure if I could forgive him.’

‘I think you’ve already begun.’

‘You don’t think there’s a difference between forgiveness and not caring?’

Sophia rolled towards me, leaning on one arm. She had this air of authority about her, she had since I’d met her, but now I realised how much I respected her as well. I felt bad for snapping at her earlier about Emily, but I swallowed that back down again and awaited her response. ‘Of course there is,’ she said, ‘but between not caring and malevolent rage, I’d say one was closer on the path to forgiveness than the other.’

‘I suppose . . .’

‘Jake, what do you think forgiveness means?’

‘I don’t know.’ I genuinely didn’t. ‘Isn’t it where you have to come to terms with what someone has done and pretend it didn’t happen?’

I could tell by the flash in Sophia’s eyes that I was way off. ‘No! Haven’t you been listening? Forgiving someone for something doesn’t mean letting them get away with it. Someone who does something wrong still has a moral and social responsibility for their actions, that is an absolute whether they’re forgiven or not. To forgive someone is to let go of your anger, your resentment. They’ve faced their punishment, be it a scolding or life imprisonment, the score is settled, you write it off. That’s forgiveness.’

Now it all seemed so clear, so obvious. Angel was facing his punishment and I had to accept that. It dawned on me then that my hesitance to leave Angel behind on this planet had never been about my disagreement with the punishment for being too severe—no punishment was too severe for this man—it was because I knew in my heart that his incarceration here on HD 85512 would be it, would be the score settled, the debt written off. It would mean I had to let go, to give up the only thing that made me different, unique, and what would be left over? Nothing. The whole while Angel continued to be free, I didn’t have to face forgiving him, didn’t have to let go. This moment forced me to make that choice, to become just another person. It was a choice I knew my mother had made a long time ago, and even though she still shed a tear for her husband even now, her warmth and her love and everything that was wonderful about her had come from her ability to forgive. What made it hardest of all was that she had forgiven Angel even before he faced the penance for his crime. I sniffed deep and sat up, hugging my knees. I looked out over this world, this bleak, barren place that felt so appealing to me because it matched my bleak, barren heart. I missed my mum.

Chapter 32

After the cramped airlock in the Athena, the larger one in basecamp was something of a relief. With shining white walls it seemed a little surreal, almost ethereal, us group of shining white people gathered together inside. The larger chamber took longer to fill, and did so with none of the hissing urgency of the Athena’s. Red light went green, and we filed through and into basecamp.

It was a big, open space, glowing with translucence, and was pretty much empty right now. Usually the lab equipment would have been set up inside (it was still in the trailer, unused), so the open space felt bigger than it would have usually done. Over to one side, a table was set up, and we all took our places, unclipping our helmets and laying them down it.

‘I’m beat,’ Grant said, leaning heavily onto the tabletop.

‘Me too,’ Clip said. ‘And I’m famished.’

‘I’ll get us some food,’ I said, heaving myself up. I had done the least work, really, so I figured it would only be fair. I lumbered over the Athena, whose main door was now open, and stepped in. The artificial gravity inside had remained on and at a usual Earthly weight, a pleasant relief from the planet’s tiresome drag. In the kitchen I loaded up a tray with five ready meals and five nutridrinks, then tottered back out with them, minding my step out into the unassisted gravity. The others were talking among themselves, some draped over the table, exhausted, like some sort of mock Shakespearian execution. Grant was actually flat out on his back on the bench, taking advantage of the extra space.

‘I’ll be damn glad when this is all over,’ Clip said as I passed him his meal. ‘Byron’s giving me the creeps.’

‘You can say that again,’ Sophia said. ‘It’ll be a much more pleasant journey back home without him.’

I didn’t say anything, keeping my lips pursed. I still couldn’t shake that guilty feeling of responsibility for him, even as if I was blaming myself for his attempt on my own life. It was infuriating but nevertheless relenting.

‘I wonder why he killed them?’ Clip said, tearing open his meal. ‘I mean, what’s the point?’

‘Because he’s batshit crazy,’ Sophia said, taking her meal. ‘That’s why.’

The others laughed, but it wasn’t without a trace of despair. ‘He’s pretty troubled,’ I said, passing Clip his food as he sat up. ‘Nothing excuses what he’s done, but he’s certainly not thinking about all this like a normal—like we would.’

‘You’ve got that right,’ Sophia said between slurps of her drink. ‘If I’ve learned one thing from this disaster of a mission, it’s that being the boss’s kid is no alternative to proper training and evaluation.’

‘Hear, hear,’ Clip said, raising his cup.

I felt uncomfortable with talking about Byron in this way, almost as though he could tell that we were and that it would anger him. Silly, yes, but I decided the change the subject anyway, broaching something that’d had me wondering. ‘Grant, you never said who it was that told you about the other ship, the decoy. Did you hear about that back at Planexus?’

Grant was still lying down on the bench, even though he had started eating. He shook his head. ‘Byron told me,’ he said through a mouthful. He swallowed, an awkward-looking procedure from that angle, but it didn’t seem to bother him. ‘He let it spill by accident, then he made me promise not to say. I didn’t really believe him myself, not until I asked Jason and he confirmed it.’

‘Then why did you bring it up at all?’ Clip said. ‘You know, ages ago in the rec room.’

‘Dunno,’ Grant said, shrugging. ‘Bored, I suppose.’

It seemed like that thread was drawing to a close, but I still had questions. ‘How would Byron know something like that?’

Grant had taken another mouthful, and I watched him chew with agonising impatience until he had enough room in his mouth to talk again. ‘Yeah, I asked him that. He said he overheard his dad saying it.’

Sophia tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘Figures. These fat cats never see the damage they cause when they toy with people’s lives like this. This whole mission’s been one political disaster. Shows how seriously the man takes it when he sends his own son along for the ride . . .’

Murmurs of agreement turned to silent chewing. We were all tired, and the ache was beginning to set in. Another ten minutes and we’d all have to be up and out again. I still had questions, but I was so exhausted that I could barely piece them together in my head. So I joined the others in quietly eating and finished my lunch. Once we were done, Sophia helped me gather up the empty packets and carry them back to the Athena while the others made their way out to the trailer.

‘Thanks,’ I said, as she held the waste receptacle open for me to dispose of the precariously balanced wrappings.

‘No problem,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to come in here and take a load off, right?’

‘You’re not wrong.’

Sophia opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again, eye contact lingering.

‘What?’ I asked. ‘Go on, you looked like you were about to say something.’

‘I still don’t think you should be with her,’ Sophia said slowly and quietly, as if the very words could conjure disaster.

‘Emily? Why not?’

Sophia pulled an I’m not sure face. ‘I just get a bad feeling, you know?’ She turned to leave, but I put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. After my little chat with Jason, I was a little—okay, a lot—concerned, so I needed to hear what she had to say. She turned back to face me, looking a little flustered.

‘I trust your judgement,’ I said. ‘Please—tell me what you think.’

Sophia sighed. ‘This is my first mission with her. Usually I get a rapport with my crew, but her—she’s closed down, completely shut off. I did some digging after we spoke the other day, just to ease my mind, but instead of finding what I expected, I found something different.’

‘Different? Like what?’

‘Her records show she’s been out before, but I don’t recognise the ship, or its captain. It’s like it’s just been made up.’

While Sophia was talking, I began to feel a burning annoyance in my stomach. I fidgeted from foot to foot as she spoke. I knew she was only saying what she was saying because she wanted to help, but still, it frustrated me no end. There was no proof here, only conjecture. It was like Jason, earlier; people didn’t seem to like seeing other people happy if they couldn’t get some themselves. ‘And you know every ship and its captain, do you? I snapped.

‘Well, no—’

‘And because you and Emily aren’t best of friends immediately, there must be something wrong with her instead of you, right?’

‘No, Jake, that’s not what I’m saying—’

‘Let’s go,’ I said, pushing past and heading out to basecamp. ‘We’ve got work to do.’ I walked off, leaving Sophia behind. I felt like an idiot for doing it, but on the other hand I was sick of people picking on Emily. They didn’t understand her like I did. I clipped on my helmet, not waiting for Sophia to buddy check me, and went through the airlock alone. As I exited onto the planet’s surface, I could hear the airlock hissing quietly as it refilled behind me for Sophia.

The others were crowding around the rear of the trailer, and soon I mingled among them, waiting for Jason, Emily and Byron to return. Sophia joined us before they did, and for now I kept my distance. We generally waited in silence, save for the odd glib remark, and soon we spotted trail of dust on the horizon. Remembering the crash site of the decoy ship from earlier, I looked out in front of the Athena, but that dust cloud had long since dissipated. We watched the transport vehicle quickly come into view, scooting along at full throttle, jiggling over the flattened dunes between us and it. Soon we could make out two figures in the cockpit, with one other sitting on the outrigger bench.

‘Sorry we’re running behind,’ Jason’s voice came over wide broadcast coms to all of us. ‘The routes weren’t set in the transport vehicle.’

Shit, I thought. That’s my fault. I forgot because I was too busy thinking about what Jason had said. I stayed quiet as they pulled around in front of us, Jason hopping out before the vehicle had even stopped. Once he was clear, Emily swung round, heading off to my cube farm to load up the first stasis tube.

‘Right,’ Jason said, clapping his hands together. ‘Jake and Sophia will get dropped off first, then Grant and Clip, then myself and Byron. The borehole spacing is all laid out for you on Emily’s map, so she’ll be able to deliver each tube where it needs to be buried. Grant, you’ve had the drilling training before, am I right?’

‘Yes—a long while ago, but it’s not really valid any more—’

‘That’s the best we’ve got right now, so you can lead your pair. Jake, you’ve had recent training, so you’re in charge of your drill. We have an hour-and-a-half per cube, so we don’t want to rush, but we do need to be efficient. We need to drill a one-and-a-half metre diameter hole three metres down, so don’t go any further down than that. Use the probe winch on the drill to lower the stasis tubes in safely, refill the hole, then move on to the next one. Any questions?’

Clip had one. ‘When do we get to call it a day?’

‘We need to bury at least four stasis tubes each by the end of today,’ Jason said. ‘We can finish then.’

Clip grunted. He wasn’t happy, but he knew—like the rest of us—that we had no choice.

‘Right, let’s get to work. Drillers, find a space on the transport vehicle. Emily will drop us all off, then she’ll return with a tube for each of us to bury. If we time this right your first hole will be halfway dug by the time she delivers the first tube. Once you’ve dug your holes, use the drill’s crane to lower the tube in. Emily, you’ll need to use the transport vehicle’s nose plough to fill the hole back in again when they’re done. Don’t take too long. They can be loosely filled—they just need to be covered. Is everything understood?’

We all agreed in chorus, with little enthusiasm. Emily climbed into the driver’s seat of the transport vehicle, Jason into the passenger seat, and the rest of us onto the outrigger seats, hung like benches from the outside. Without hesitation, we set off across the desert, watching the Athena shrink into the distance. The sites were around a kilometre away (we never dug closer than a kilometre to the ship for obvious reasons), and by the time we began to slow, only the cube-like trailer was still—and only just—visible. When the transport vehicle came to a stop, I came out of what I realised had been something of a trance. I blinked, taking in our alien surroundings anew while I awaited command.

‘Jake, Sophia, this is you,’ Jason said over the intercom. We both hopped off by way of an answer, and I turned to see the drill already set up. ‘Borehole one is right underneath the drill, so you can start right away. Emily will mark out borehole two from the coordinates when she returns to fill the first in. If you need anything, we’ll be on long range comms. Good luck.’

And with that, the vehicle buzzed away, off into the never-ending distance. I watched the little tracked buggy shrink as I had the Athena, the loneliness and desolation of the place pulling in close around me. The flatness of this planet, the vastness of open space, it held a strange power over me; I loved it and hated it at the same time, a rush of adrenaline pricking my heartbeat as I watched the transport vehicle blink out of view, only the tell-tale plume of dust coming from behind it hinting at its existence.

‘Shall we get started?’ Sophia said from out of view. I turned to her; she was standing by the drill, waiting. ‘Better not waste any time.’

I wanted to still be cross with her, but the scale of our surroundings made my annoyance seem petty and pathetic. Probably because it was petty and pathetic. I sighed, letting the stale, old breath wash from me. ‘Let’s do it.’

Planexus drills are supplied by Montgrand Industries, an Earth-based mining company that turned its hand to inter-planetary drilling alongside Planexus when it no longer became cost-effective to mine on Earth. Planexus, then a travel company for tourists who wanted to tour the solar system, formed a partnership which became a merger, taking what was an industrial giant of older times out of Earth’s orbit and into the front line once again. Montgrand’s engineers knew a hell of a lot about drilling, and Planexus’ ability to leave the solar system created something of a monopoly for interstellar ore trading. There were a handful of smaller companies that attempted to compete, but the secrecy of Planexus gave other companies only one option, and that was to lease Planexus and Montgrand equipment at rates that barely made the endeavour worthwhile. As such, the Montgrand Industries PX-D was the drill every driller knew how to use, the drill every driller was trained on, myself included. I hadn’t done the full nine-month course for my licence, but I knew enough to get us through a situation like this one.

‘So what do we do?’ Sophia asked, leaning against one of the drill’s legs.

I thought back to training. It was there, but it was in pieces, fragmented. I studied the control panel, scratched and flaking but still readable, and thumbed the button that felt right. A cool glow illuminated on the screen, followed by the Montgrand mountain logo. It dissolved, and a menu took its place, filled with words that gave no clue as to their functions. ‘First thing we need to do is set the diameter,’ I said, sounding more confident than I felt. I pressed the button corresponding with the menu command marked Metrics, and was prompted with a familiar screen asking for diameter in metres. I thumbed it in and hit return.

‘Does it set itself up?’ Sophia asked. Of course, she had never experienced this end of the mission before. By now she would be in basecamp, getting some well-earned rest.

‘Nope. These are simple machines built for hard work and reliability. We’ve got to do it. See those laser dots?’ I pointed and Sophia nodded. ‘Those are the diameter guides. We have to place the drill ourselves.’

There were three legs on a Montgrand PX-D, and three corresponding laser dots to signify placement. The legs themselves, folded up against the drill’s body, required manual lifting and setting, and once I’d shown Sophia on the first leg, she did the second. By the time I started on the third I could already feel my heart racing and my lungs burning. The dust filters had a habit of restricting heavy breathing, leading to a horrible feeling of suffocation—I could see why drillers left them out. I sucked hard to draw in oxygen between lifts, humping the leg along a few steps at a time. Once in place, I tapped my suit’s temperature down a few degrees and caught my breath.

‘What now?’ Sophia said, panting in the same long, forced breaths as I was. ‘Is that it?’

I shook my head, a strange-feeling manoeuvre from within my helmet. ‘No,’ I added, panting. ‘We have to lock the legs in place. Then we raise the drill and set the depth.’

Sophia gave me a thumbs up, and I showed her how to use the long spanner chained to each leg to lock them down. Then we approached the central body of the drill so I could demonstrate her how to raise it.

‘There are two crank handles,’ I said, touching mine and pointing to hers on the other side. It’s a fine gearing, so you have to crank fast until it stops. Ready?’

‘Ready.’

We cranked. We cranked some more. We cranked until our breathing was so loud it was being picked up and broadcast by our suits. My arms burned, my lungs burned and everything else in between was fizzy and numb. I had no idea how much more we had left, other than it felt like it was an age away. I tried swapping hands, but my left was no good, and I had trouble catching up with the freely spinning crank, whizzing around under Sophia’s power. Then, out of nowhere, the crank stopped dead.

‘Done?’ Sophia asked tentatively.

I gave the crank handle a push; it was jammed solid. ‘Done.’

The body was now hovering off the ground, and I could see the drill head burrowed into the base of the steel shell. The drill head itself consisted of three retractable arms, lined with spinning, chewing teeth. Ours had been freshly sharpened, the gleaming steel bright against the dust-worn paint. I pulled one down and out to meet the inside leg, and Sophia, watching, did the same for the second. I did the third. ‘It’s a pretty wide hole, this,’ I said checking over the arms to ensure they were locked back in place. ‘They’re usually a fraction of the size, but very, very deep. They take a lot less time to drill, so the drillers have to collapse, move and reset this thing at least once every half-hour.’

Sophia groaned. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘That sounds horrible.’

‘I’m just glad we’ve got an hour and a half between each hole.’

‘I wish we didn’t have any holes at all.’

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Sophia gave me a smile. ‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ she said. ‘It’s not my place to say. Well, it is, being Captain, but—well, you know. I’m only looking out for you.’

She was right—she was only looking out for me, even if I had been too blinded by impotent rage to appreciate it. ‘Thank you, Sophia, I appreciate that. It’s fine though. We’re both very happy.’

Sophia considered me for a moment. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you’re happy.’

‘Me too. Now let’s get this thing up and running.’ I punched in the depth, hit return and stood back. The drill emitted a sharp horn sound, a warning, an orange flashing light ignited and then the teeth on the drill head buzzed into life. Lastly, the drill assembly itself began to spin around, slowly at first, building to a fast-sweeping movement blurred by speed and dust. The plume rose with the noise, and we stood back away from the thundering sound. Even through the thin atmosphere and through our helmets it was loud. In the distance first one plume, and then a second plume, began to rise. The other two drills had started, too. A felt a small seed of hope warm me—there was a chance this could all work out yet.

Chapter 31

The door slid open without so much as a squeak of metal on metal. All was silent. Only the subtle hiss of my intercom kept me from being completely disassociated from sound, and in a way, I appreciated its presence. It was bright outside, and I let my eyes adjust before I stepped out. The Athena was a relatively dark place, and months of being in a twilight state gave my eyes more of a workout when exposed to the radiance of Gliese 370, burning bright and big (about three times as big) in the pale blue, almost yellow morning sky. I surveyed my surroundings from the airlock, limited to a picture frame made by the doorway, and what I saw was desert, flat, barren desert as far as the eye could see. A peppering of mountains dotted the horizon to the left, but other than that the only features I could see were the occasionally rocky outcrop or dip.

Even though I knew that this would be what HD 85512 B would look like, I was vaguely disappointed that it didn’t look like I had dreamed it to be. I realised this with a sudden bought of embarrassment—as if the planet was ever going to have plant life on it, or flowing water. I almost laughed at how silly I’d been to let the dreams affect me as they had when, standing here, seeing the planet for real, I knew in no uncertain terms how everything that had gone on up in my head had been a creation of my own making. Heck, I’d even started to fear the candles’ predictive powers.

Shaking my head, I stepped down from the Athena, letting my body switch from the artificial gravity to the boosted gravity of the planet. It was a little over Earth’s gravity—about a third, I seemed to recall—and it felt every bit of it as my foot sunk into the powdery sand. This was going to be hard work.

Out to the right, there was the front of the ship and then nothing but horizon. I panned left, and a plume of dust in the distance caught my eye. In the windless climate we had today, it lifted straight up in a ribbon, as if kicked up by something large that had been dragged across the ground. That must have been the decoy. It had landed quite close—almost too close in planetary terms—what seemed about five or so kilometres away. I looked on to the left, giving my balance time to come to terms with the extra gravitational workload, skimmed past the barren scenery I’d already seen and turned my attention to the rear of the Athena. Silver-white bodies were already hard at work, pairing up to unload the trailer hanging from the back of the spindly Athena like a bulbous abdomen. Like the Athena, it was of functional design, but its size relative to the ship was almost comical, measuring a good two or three storeys high and as much again in every other direction.

I closed the airlock, then, tentatively at first, walked over towards the rest of the crew, following the line of dimpled footprints. As I drew closer, my intercom clicked faintly, and voices began to come through, growing in volume as I approached.

‘—get the front right out onto the transport vehicle, then slide it under.’

‘Okay, let me just reverse up here—’

‘I’m positioning the crane just above when you’re ready.’

‘Ready.’

‘Lowering.’

‘Okay, stop there.’

I rounded the back of the trailer to see the first section of basecamp being reversed out of the trailer and onto the dirt. I watched the first vehicle tracks being formed as the caterpillars bit into the sandy powder, hauling the first section out. I stood back as it trundled past, the noise of the whining motor just about audible through the thin atmosphere. It bumbled away, jiggling oddly under the strong gravity, and then I turned my attention back to the trailer. While most of the remaining bodies worked to manoeuvre the next section of basecamp up into place with the crane, two others stood a little deeper in, hard to make out among the shadows. I approached them, my footsteps ­crunching then clanking as I boarded the trailer—no artificial gravity in here—and I could feel the heaviness of my footsteps shudder up through my joints.

‘—to be careful we don’t drop of knock any of these, do you understand?’

‘I understand.’

One of the heads nodded as Byron said he understood, so I turned to the other. ‘When do we get started?’ I asked.

Both suited bodies turned to me, the little light that got in this far into the trailer and the dim lamps on the walls catching their faces beneath the distortion of the helmets. ‘Ah, Jake,’ Jason said, his lips moving but his voice beaming directly into my head. ‘You’re here. Once the others have finished unloading basecamp, I’ll need you in the transport vehicle, unloading the stasis tubes. Take them a little out west there away from the camp so you’ve got a bit of space to lay them out.’

‘Will they be okay exposed?’ I asked, nervous about the thought of one getting caught up in a passing weather front and blowing us all to kingdom come. I shivered. I hoped Jason didn’t notice.

Jason laughed a short, humourless laugh. ‘They’re protected with a thin layer of shielding,’ he said. ‘If something comes along that’ll damage that, then it’s too late for us anyway.’ He patted one of the metre-and-a-half tall cubes stacked up behind him. It was only then I realised what they were.

‘Are they . . .?’ I asked, gazing up at them.

Jason nodded. Where he had patted the tube, he now stroked, looking at it longingly. ‘Here they all are. The world’s problems all in the back of one trailer.’ It struck me just how sorrowful Jason’s tone was—was he sad about doing what he was doing? No, that wasn’t quite right. He was sad that what he was doing was coming to an end. It was his legacy, for which he’d never be known. I could see why he’d taken Peter Ash’s money, because after all, when he got back to Earth he’d still be the same nobody he was when he left. Perhaps all these years of fighting causes people didn’t understand or care about (no matter how much of an impact they actually had on their lives) for zero recognition or recompense had taken its toll. He was cashing his chips in, calling it a day, but I could tell he was going to miss the thrill of it all. Jason’s stroke turned back into a pat. ‘Long may their absence bring us peace.’ He turned to me, a sad glimmer in his eye. ‘Am I right, Jake?’

‘Sure . . .’ I said, not really sure how deep the question really went.

‘Right then,’ Jason said in a chirpy tone that sat poorly with the previous conversation, ‘let’s get to work. Jake, get that crane over here. Byron, help me attach it to that topmost tube when Jake’s got it over.’

I did as I was told, and slowly, one by one, we brought the stack of tubes down to ground level, filling the space the others left as they took out the components for basecamp. The tubes were not as I expected them to be (much like the rest of the planet), the name being a complete misnomer for a start. The smooth alloy shells revealed little of the contents, and it took me longer than I’d care to admit to realise that the occupants were curled up inside, in the foetal position. Ironic, I thought, that the womb that entombed them was be the place they had come to die.

I watched Byron and Jason work together, uneasily at first; I thought Byron might perhaps try to sabotage the mission by dropping a tube on purpose, but he did not. He hadn’t said a word, but he did his duty as he was told, when he was told. He worked hard, as he had done in our long briefings, putting his back into it both physically and figuratively. Despite everything, I still couldn’t help but admire his determination, like a person would admire a tiger’s power or an elephant’s strength, even if the animal in question would, given a chance, kill said person without a word of notice. And that was how I viewed Byron: as an animal. To try and comprehend him as a human filled me with too many conflicting emotions—fear, pity, anger, guilt—but to view him as something else not quite human—an abomination, perhaps—gave me enough of a sense of detachment to be able to look at him at all. I felt I had the measure of the rest of the crew, but Byron—Byron was a tamed beast, one that would let you stroke it, but one you would never, ever turn your back on. Jason, I noticed, never did, not once.

This toiling ran on for hours, and the morning wore on with it. The line of shadow creeping into the trailer reached its zenith, and soon it would begin creeping back out again. The last of the basecamp components had been ferried out not ten minutes ago, and we were in the process of lowering the last stack of three tubes to the floor.

‘Easy does it,’ Jason said for the millionth time, flicking a cupped hand repeatedly my way. I nudged the crane down a bit, left a bit, back a bit—and it was in. Then it was up, up, up, across, down—’Easy does it’—and onto the floor.

A now familiar distant crunching sound came from behind me, and I turned to see the transport vehicle coming to a stop just outside. ‘All yours,’ Emily said from behind her helmet, tossing me an imaginary set of keys. ‘Don’t prang it.’

I pretended to catch the keys, then gave her a funny sort of salute. ‘I won’t. I’ll bring it home by midnight.’ We laughed, albeit a little humourlessly, and Emily strode off back to where basecamp was being set up. It was strange—with us all outside, wearing these ridiculous suits, it was like were a different group, a different crew. Memory had a funny way of associating what we see with what we feel, and this change of scenery was a welcome relief, at least for now. We all seemed different, somehow.

‘You’ve got a thing for her, eh?’ Jason said once Emily had cleared out of range. The question was unexpected, leaving me somewhat on the spot.

‘Uh, yeah . . . I guess so.’

‘You guess so?,’ Jason said, chuckling. ‘That’s not how she puts it.’

‘And how does she put it?’

I could see a big grin stretching out from behind Jason’s helmet. ‘It doesn’t matter, forget I said anything.’

I wanted to forget, but I couldn’t. ‘No, go on—what did Emily say?’

‘It’s nothing, don’t worry about it—’

‘Tell me,’ I said. I could feel the air in my suit getting warmer.

Jason held up his hands. ‘Take it easy, I’m just messing you around.’ He looked silly, standing there it that shiny white suit, hands raised as thought I was pointing a six-shooter at him. He lowered them, slowly. ‘She’s just—she’s a live wire, that one.’

I’d decided I’d had enough of the conversation, so I strolled out to the transport vehicle and climbed aboard. It felt like forever since I’d last driven one, but everything fell to hand in that old, familiar way. ‘What do you mean?’ I found myself saying, kicking myself mentally as I did it.

‘Just, you know, she’s got a habit for—’

‘For what?’

‘For . . . for changing her mind.’

I backed the transport vehicle into the trailer, flatbed first, aiming for the nearest tube. ‘Changing her mind?’

I was concentrating on the tube rather than watching Jason, but still I heard him sigh. ‘You know what I mean, right? Like, she means well,’ he said, his voice overly thick with sincerity, ‘she just—she doesn’t know what she wants. I’ve known her longer than you have, and I’m just giving you a fair warning.’

I aligned with the tube and lowered the bed. The tubes’ armoured case had been built to a specific size used by the transport vehicle, so picking them up and depositing them was pretty straightforward now they were unstacked. ‘You sound like you speak from experience, Jason,’ I said, and before Jason could respond, I slid the transport vehicle back so the flatbed slotted under the tube. Once it was fully on, I raised it back to transport height. Jason, as procedure dictated, approached the tube to secure it.

‘Byron,’ he said, waving him over. ‘Every tube needs to be attached like so’—he demonstrated as he spoke—’so they remain in place during transportation. I’ll need you to do the other side, like this.’ Jason finished securing his side, and watched Byron do the other. ‘Good, perfect. We’ll need to do that for every one.’

Before Jason could restart the conversation about Emily again, I drove forward and out the trailer. Looking at the transport vehicle’s dash, I saw that west took me out left from the Athena, and I drove out a few hundred metres before coming to a stop. I jumped out, plodded through the harsh gravity, the soft, powdery ground slipping under my feet, around to the back of the vehicle. I wanted to ditch the last ten minutes from my memory for ever, but as I unstrapped the tube I found myself playing it over and over. What did Jason mean? And where had this come from all of a sudden? Did he want Emily for himself? Just how long had he known her for?

By the time I’d lowered the tube down and returned, the pressure inside my suit was so high I thought it was going to pop. ‘Look,’ Jason said as soon as I got in range. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just ignore me. I’ve done enough damage already.’

‘Fine,’ I said, and that was the last of that. We spoke very little into the afternoon, save for some instruction from Jason to me, or Jason to Byron. I responded in grunts and mm-hmms, and did my job with little else to say. As the end of hour five came and the last of the tubes was deposited in the distinctly creepy outcrop of cubes I’d created, I saw the rest of the crew marching back to the trailer from the completed basecamp. It was a funny looking thing, all bulbous and shining white, like a big, blubber-filled whale cast up on this beach-like desert. Even the slowly filling pressure that expanded against the walls gave it the impression of a last dying breath.

I met with the others back at the rear of the trailer, and we all gathered around Jason to be reminded of what we were doing next. ‘Okay,’ he said, waving his arms to gather everyone in, ‘listen up everybody. I know it’s been a long day so far, and you’ve all been working hard, but we need to keep this going. We’ll have a half-hour break now, and then we’ll get back to work. We have an hour-and-a-half to bury each stasis tube; that may seem like enough, but it’ll be very easy to slip behind schedule if we fall out of rhythm. Remember: Byron and I will be at site nineteen, Jake and Sophia at site thirteen, Grant and Clip at site twelve and Emily will load and drive. Emily, we need to get both drills and the backup to each site, so I’m afraid you’ll have to skip lunch. I hope that’s okay—we just don’t have the time to spare.’

‘That’s fine,’ Emily confirmed.

‘Thank you. Byron, you’ll stay with me, too. Everyone, make sure that each tube is handled carefully. They do have some protection, but let’s not take any risks. Is that understood?’ We all acknowledged our understanding with nods and grunts. ‘Excellent,’ Jason continued. ‘Half-an-hour for lunch it is then. After that, we dig.’