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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.

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 11

Somehow I felt that everyone knew it was my fault the electronics had been confiscated. My suspicions fell with Clip, the ship blabber mouth, but the feelings I had were probably founded more on guilt than reality. I got that sensation that people were talking about me when I wasn’t there, abruptly finishing conversations about me when I was. I tried to convince myself it was all in my head, but I was sure, from the corner of my eye, I was catching the sly glances and bitter sneers of a crew put out. It took me about a week for me (or them) to get over it, which coincided with the return of our belongings and a crew meeting in the briefing room.

‘My name is Major Jason Pritchard’—a revelation that should have drawn gasps, but didn’t because everyone already knew—’and I want to set the record straight on where we stand on the deaths of James Gray and Brendan Hughes. First of all, let me assure you that our investigation in to the Futurproof matter is operational in an entirely separate capacity to the investigation into the deaths of these two crew, and I can further assure you that everything we have so far come to understand has lead us to believe that their deaths were nothing more than unfortunate coincidences.

‘Furthermore, I would appreciate the cooperation of the entire crew’—a stare was thrown my way at that point—’in our ongoing investigations, and that includes the prohibition of any personal endeavours into these matters. Our sources indicate that we are on the lookout for a device of some sort that might be able to disable parts of the ship, so please, if you have any information that you think might help, bring it to me or Sophia immediately and do nothing—I repeat, nothing—else with it.’

Jason looked about the room, watching as though he wanted to be sure his message had sunk in. When he was sure it had he said, ‘Thank you. Dismissed. Jake, can I see you in the cockpit for a moment, please?’

It was like I was back at school again, waiting in the doorway of the cockpit while Jason and Sophia shared a few quiet words.

‘Jake,’ Jason said, finally looking up, ‘I’ve got something I need you to do.’

‘Okay . . .’ I said, not moving.

‘Jake—come over here, I’m not going to bite you.’

I did as I was told, albeit with caution.

‘Jake, let’s put the past behind us. What’s done is done. I can understand that you only did what you did for the betterment of the ship, and I appreciate that.’

I said nothing. A trap was being set for me, I was sure of it.

‘So lets now put your enthusiasm to good use and see if we can’t do something about this possible Futureproofer of ours.’

‘But I thought you said—’

‘I know what I said, Jake. That’s the first step: make sure the perpetrator thinks they’re in the clear.’

‘Oh, right. So you do think there’s a murderer on board?’

‘I’m not ruling it out, that would be naïve and very, very stupid. Second step—that’s where you come in. I want you to use that big mouth of yours to spread a rumour that will force our tricky little friend to come out of hiding. If indeed the deaths of James and Brendan were in defence of this person’s cover, then we can be sure that they will do it again.’

‘Wait—you want me to put myself in the line of fire?’

‘Don’t worry,’ Sophia said, clamping down on my shoulder with claw-like fingers, ‘we’ll be keeping a close eye on you to make sure nothing bad happens.’

‘But what about Clip? He’s a bigger blabber mouth than I am . . . he’d get your rumour across the ship faster than I could take the breath to say it.’

Sophia shook her head. ‘No—he’s all wrong, it would be too obvious. You’re the one that’s been on the pulse of this thing since day one, you’re the one that leaked the information in the first place, so you’re going to be the one the deliver our little message.’

I swallowed. My throat was dry and sticky. ‘What’s the message?’

It was worse than I imagined.

 

‘Are you okay, Jake?’

I wasn’t.

‘I’m fine, Sadie,’ I lied.

‘Okay . . .’ she said, ‘but you’re not concentrating, and I need to you to pay attention to these numbers or we’re going to miss our spot.’

‘I’ve got them,’ Byron said excitedly, waving his pad over his head.

‘Good, thank you Byron. Jake, take a look at Byron’s pad and tell me what you think.’

‘Ah, sure,’ I heard myself say.

I took the pad and looked at the numbers, but instead of seeing coordinates, depths, triangulation numbers or whatever they were, I saw a sneaky, curly six slithering over to the innocent eight, speared tail poised and ready to lash out and take eight down without even the slightest sound—

‘Jake! For goodness’ sake, give the pad back to Byron and go and take five.’

I did as I was told.

Although Jason and Sophia had relinquished my games, I hadn’t yet played them. I found it hard to concentrate on anything, let alone the intensity of a three-dimensional world of inevitable and repeated death, and the thought of playing them made my stomach turn. You’ll know when the time is right, Jason had said. You’ll know.

The time hadn’t felt right in over three days, and the message lay over me like a suffocating blanket of thick rubber. I needed to throw it off, but if I did I would no longer be protected by it; I would be exposed, naked, vulnerable. Out of the frying pan and into the fryer, as my mother occasionally had the need to say.

When the moment came, I tried to ignore it, but I would have had better luck ignoring a catastrophic hull breach. Do it now! my brain screamed.

The rec room had never felt so claustrophobic.

‘Hey Clip’—it was just me and him, and it was about three in the morning—’you been wondering about what Jason said the other day?’

Clip looked up from his e-reader with a quizzical expression. ‘No. Why? Should I be?’

‘Well, it’s just that was thinking about it, and it doesn’t make sense to me.’

Clip put the e-reader down and crossed his arms. ‘You heard what he said. Just leave it to him and Sophia, they’re on it.’

He stared at me for a while, as if forcing his point to sink in, then picked up his e-reader and resumed reading.

‘It’s just . . .’ I said, to which Clip tipped his head back in exasperation.

‘It’s just what?’ he said. ‘You’ve got some other ridiculous idea that’ll likely end up with the whole crew getting their stuff confiscated again? Or worse, something that will put us all at risk? Save it.’

‘I know who it is.’

That caught Clip’s attention. Again he put his e-reader down, but this time he did it slowly, considering me as he did. ‘Oh yeah?’ he said. ‘Who?’

I feigned anxiousness, although I didn’t have to for long because it came naturally with almost frightening immediacy. What I was about to say could well be the verbal signature of my own death warrant. It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine . . . I repeated over and over in my head.

‘You’re right. I—I probably shouldn’t tell you. Let’s just say that I have enough evidence to put a member of this crew at the scene of both crimes within about eighty percent certainty.’

Clip folded his arms. ‘Oh right? How can you be so sure.’

I shrugged. ‘I just am.’

‘And you’re taking this to Jason and Sophia, I presume?’

‘You think I should?’

Clip’s tongue flicked out and licked his bottom lip. ‘Yes. Yes I do.’

‘Then it’s settled. I’ll speak to them first thing tomorrow morning.’ I stood, yawned and stretched. ‘Wow, that is a load off my mind, thanks Clip. I reckon I can sleep easy now.’

Clip watched me as I made my way out the rec room. ‘Not too easy, mind,’ he said slowly. ‘You watch your back.’

‘You too,’ I called back over my shoulder.

Truth was, that conversation put a whole load more on my mind. I lay awake for as long as I could, but soon exhaustion overcame me.

The beach was cold, the sky starless and the moon full. There was a breeze that lifted the hairs from my skin. I turned around quickly, the foreboding sensation of being watched too much to ignore. Nothing but dense forest stared back. I didn’t want to go in, but my legs took me anyway, as if powered by an unseen force. As I ventured in deeper, the cold intensified until I was shivering uncontrollably. Still I saw nothing.

When I reached the other side and stepped out on to the beach, my worry turned to dread as I knew what I would see next. With it came a strange and lucid awareness of knowing I was in a dream, as well as the suffocation of knowing I was trapped there. I faced the horizon, waiting for the sound of movement behind me, the hot, rancid breath upon the back of my neck—but it did not come. I whipped about, yelling, ‘Show yourself!’, but nothing did. I was alone.

Something had caught in my mouth when I’d yelled, and I poked my tongue about to feel an unusual lump against my gum. I reached in, and with a gentle pull I was able to release it. I inspected it in the moonlight, only to realise what I was holding was a tooth. I turned it over in my hand, watching it twinkle, then dropped it onto the sand. I reached into my mouth again, picking another tooth at random, and gave it a gentle tug. It too came out. I did it again and again, until they were coming out in twos and threes with each pass. Soon I was left with nothing but a pile of teeth on the sand at my feet.

I awoke the next morning with a strange numbness in my jaw, and I instinctively reacted—with some panic, I might add—by checking to see if my teeth were still intact. They were. I was inwardly ashamed at the immense relief that gave me, but relieved nonetheless. I shuddered off the dream as best I could, not wanting to give it any more thought than I could bear, and got up. The flotsam of the evening’s conversation with Clip washed back ashore, and as I undressed to shower, my skin prickled with that same uneasy sensation of being watched. In the real world, however, I found that feeling easier to dismiss. Clip probably hadn’t even mentioned it yet.

After breakfast, I made a point of staying away from Jason and Sophia (who seemed to be working double shifts these days) to keep up the illusion that my ‘knowledge’ could still be contained before it reached the ship’s authorities. Clip was still sleeping, but aside from him, Jason and Sophia, the rec room was in full attendance.

‘Morning, sleepy head,’ Sadie trilled as I wandered in. ‘Sleep well?’

I shook my head, then yawned. ‘No. Bad dream.’

‘I thought so. You were murmuring in your sleep.’

I sat down next to her, with Byron on the other side, his mouth too full of breakfast to comment. ‘Really? That’s embarrassing.’

‘If you need anything to help you sleep,’ Emily chimed in, ‘just let me know. I’ve got just the stuff.’

I almost said yes, but then I thought it would be better for me right now to stay at maximum alertness. ‘I’ll be okay. Thanks, though.’

Emily smiled. ‘Let me know if you change your mind.’

I sat in silence for a minute, watching each person as they talked among each other. Did they know already? Did they know? Did they even exist? I felt sure I was going to find out sooner rather than later. Everyone here seemed at ease and no one tried probing me on the matter, so I assumed that the overlap between Clip going to bed and them waking up had been minimal, if anything.

‘Have you seen Clip today?’ I said to no one in particular, hoping I sounded mildly ponderous rather than overly concerned.

‘He’s in his bunk,’ Grant replied. ‘You must have seen him?’

I shook my head, probably too vigorously. ‘Must have been too whacked to notice.’

Grant nodded, and went back to chatting with Emily.

‘He’s a funny kind guy,’ I said, wondering in my head what the hell I was talking about.

Grant, assuming I was still talking to him, turned back to me. ‘I suppose so. Good as gold, though.’

‘Couldn’t meet nicer,’ Emily added, which seemed to irk Grant a little.

‘You think?’ he said, his pitch a little too high for someone with a vague interest in a light topic.

‘Yeah, sure—don’t you?’

‘Sure, sure. It’s just when you say you couldn’t meet nicer, it makes me worry that you think I’m an asshole, that’s all.’

Emily laughed and gave him a push. ‘Don’t be silly! You’re just as nice.’

The tension on Grant’s face broke, and he allowed himself a smile. ‘Well that’s okay then. Couldn’t have him beating me on the mister-nice-guy front.’

It seemed the conversation had secluded me from its meandering again, so I left them to it, thinking to myself that Grant probably needed to wind his neck in a bit and remember where he was and what he was doing here. Which then got me thinking further: perhaps I was being naïve in assuming that Grant’s issue was with Emily liking Clip more than him? After all, Clip wasn’t what you’d call dashing, where Grant had that defined jaw and all-year-round tan that had been sure to please the eye of many of the fairer sex. Perhaps—just perhaps—he was gauging his position in the social structure to see how entrenched he was, to see if any of his true colours were shining through—Futureproof colours, to be precise. I made a mental note to be extra-vigilant around him.

I saw the rest of the day through with briefings and planning, and the intensity of the work (and Byron’s particular brand of irritation) took my mind off the whole Futureproof thing with little difficulty. Having afforded Sadie a little respect in her leadership—I was now coming to terms with her authority over me, which, lets face it, had bugged me since the beginning—she was actually proving herself to be extremely competent in the role, and we were making strong headway into the calculations. At this rate, we’d be done with a few weeks—maybe even a month—to spare. Even Byron was becoming a help.

‘Could you perhaps relocate site thirty-two a few degrees due north to avoid the plate boundary?’ he suggested, causing Sadie and I to glance at one another.

‘Go on . . .’ Sadie said. I was thinking the same thing, intrigued to hear what Byron had to say.

‘Well,’ he mumbled, flushing slightly, ‘if we moved it two, maybe three degrees north we’d be closer to site thirty-one enough to only need the one fuel cell, which would give us more room to store the complete harvest. And we’d avoid data corruption from the mantle of the eastern equatorial plate.’

‘The kid’s a genius,’ I said, gesturing to the man himself. He flushed deeper.

‘Thanks . . .’ he said.

‘How did you spot that?’ Sadie asked. She seemed borderline gobsmacked. ‘That level of detail is all in the hard numbers; you’d never see it on the diagrams . . .’

‘I did it in my head, I guess.’

‘Really? Does that kind of thing come easy to you?’

‘I suppose so. I just need to understand what the numbers mean and then they sort of . . . come together.’

Sadie and I glanced at each other again, equally as stunned, and much less subtle about it.

‘Is that how you got into flight school?’ I asked.

Byron nodded.

‘And I’ll bet you got bored even there, right? Lessons too easy for you?’

He nodded again. ‘All except the physical training classes: those were difficult for me.’

‘Are you good with memory, like remembering long numbers and thing like that?’

A third nod.

‘Jesus, I wish we’d had you on board a long time ago, right Sadie?’

Sadie didn’t seem so sure, but she agreed anyway. ‘Yes, definitely . . .’ she said. It was almost as if she was faintly intimidated by Byron’s ability.

‘How come you’ve not mentioned it before?’ I asked, ignoring Sadie’s odd behaviour.

‘I didn’t know enough about the subject for it to be any use, really.’

‘How much do you know now?’

‘Enough.’

I extended my hand. ‘Welcome aboard,’ I said, grinning.

He took it and we shook.

‘Alright, shall we get back to work?’ Sadie said in a breathy way that sounded like she’d just woken from a daydream.

‘Sure—sorry.’

With Byron’s additional help, we thundered through the rest of the day’s work and ate into most of the next as well. That month of extra time was looking more and more likely. We continued this way for the next few weeks, when death’s looming shadow had all but disappeared. The plan was obviously a failure, and I had pretty much convinced myself that James and Brendan’s deaths were just grisly coincidences. With the memories of the drillers faded enough for me to not even be able to recall their faces, it was easier now to believe in nature’s truth; the alternative felt almost ridiculous by comparison. Grant had shown no further signs of suspicion, and I hadn’t really bothered to follow up on his comings and goings for at least a week. Most convincing of all was the simple fact that I was still alive.

Sat on my bunk, I pulled on my socks, stopping to flex my hand. I hadn’t done as Emily had asked with the suggested physio, and I was regretting it, because it still felt stiff. It was probably going to be like that for ages, if not forever. Oh well.

I pulled my coveralls on and zipped them up tight, then picked up my damp towel to drop into the sanitation room laundry processor. As I fed it into the slot, amused by the suction as the machine pulled the towel from my hand with a sudden slurp, I heard a shuffle from the tow dock. I turned to look, but I couldn’t see anything. The shuffle came again, from around the corner of the dividing wall, from just inside the doorway. Suddenly it seemed as if the temperature had dropped a few degrees, and I hesitated, then shuffled slowly over to find the source of the noise. I quickly poked my head around the corner, my mind already filling with the horrors I expected to see, only to find a child’s toy, an old antique wind-up walking toy that had fallen on its side. The clockwork legs were driving it round in a circle, and every time the legs met the wall again, they made that shuffling sound I’d heard from the sanitation room.

I frowned, my mind unable to comprehend what I was seeing or why I was seeing it, and I bent down to pick the toy up. As I did, the lights flicked off in both the tow dock and the sanitation room, leaving me crouched in utter darkness. Perhaps it was a power surge? Don’t be silly, I thought. These ships have failsafes for their failsafes, and if they failed, the last thing the occupants would need to worry about was light. No—a sinking feeling of dread inside me told me that this was something else, something deliberate. The blackness of the space stretched out to infinity, leaving me an insignificant dot in the middle, alone, vulnerable. I could almost hear the emptiness, feel the closeness of the velvety black that consumed me. But despite that I knew I wasn’t alone, and the click-clack of footsteps coming towards me told me the same. I could barely hear them over the thumping of my own heart, which pulsated in the backs of my eyes as kaleidoscopic colour. When the footsteps stopped a few metres from me, my chest was pounding so hard with adrenaline it hurt. In that whole time I hadn’t moved an inch, locked into a rigid and uncomfortable crouch, my limbs distant and vague.

The voice, when it spoke, was muffled, yet intense. ‘You’ve been looking for me,’ it said.

I said nothing in reply.

‘And you claim to have found me. Is this true?’

I maintained my silence. Whoever it was must have bent down to my level, because when they spoke again, their voice was closer, much closer.

‘Is—this—true?’

‘Y—yes . . .’ I whispered. ‘I m—mean no . . . I don’t know who you are . . . please don’t kill me . . .’

The voice laughed softly, returning to an upright position. ‘I’m not going to kill you. Do you want to know why?’

I didn’t, and I didn’t want to say so, either.

‘I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t need to.’

‘W—what?’ I managed, the words like hot coals in my mouth.

‘You know it’s true.’

Then the footsteps receded, and I was left in the dark, moaning softly. When the lights finally turned back on, I found myself curled up in the corner of the tow dock. The child’s toy was gone.

Chapter 10

From then on, Byron became an active part in our planning meetings once again. It seemed like he’d slipped back into his old character, the naïve boy that only saw things through innocent eyes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this—was this the real Byron, or was the Byron I’d had the conversation with in the bunks the real Byron? There was no way of telling, and perhaps that’s the deal you get with compulsive liars. If indeed he was a compulsive liar; if he wasn’t, it was one hell of a lie in itself, revitalising the idea that he was telling the truth, which only led me back to me original conclusion . . .

But he seemed happy, genuinely happy, so that at least was a small load off of my mind. As the deaths of James and Brendan became the stains on the wall that we learned to ignore, so too did the near-death of our strange blonde compadre. With four months, two weeks and a handful of days left to spare, our minds were turning more to business anyway, a welcome relief that could be sensed among the crew. The atmosphere aboard a deep-space ship has been likened on more than one occasion to the pull of the moon on the tides on Earth: change is slow, but there’s no resisting it. Attitude is like a disease, and a bad one can be even more damaging to a crew than the spread of bacteria. This has a compound effect, because the worse or better it gets, the worse or better it will become. Fortunately for us, the tide was low and getting lower, we were feeling free and relaxed, and the word ‘Futureproof’ hadn’t crossed my mind in a long enough time to feel like forever.

‘Can we get back to task at hand, please?’ Sadie snapped, hands on hips. She jabbed a finger at the schematic floating in front of her. ‘This is important.’

I regained control of my mirth as best I could, but seeing Byron’s shoulders bobbing up and down from the corner of my eye was making it hard.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘please—what were you saying?’

Sadie dropped her arms to her sides and rolled her eyes, sighing in a forceful, frustrated way. ‘I wish you’d listen. Drilling is dangerous work, and I don’t want you getting hurt.’

‘Okay, okay, I’m sorry. I’m all ears now.’ Byron was still snickering. ‘You too, Byron.’

Byron took a deep, shuddering breath, shut his eyes, and when he opened them again, he was calm. For maybe three seconds. Sadie rolled her eyes again and turned away from us, muttering something inaudible but obviously uncomplimentary.

‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ Byron squeaked between bouts of hysteria. Eventually they wound down, the rictus of laughter fading from his flushed pink face. ‘I’m done now, I promise.’

‘Good,’ Sadie said. ‘Now, can we continue?’

I did feel bad for Sadie. I don’t think she wanted to be the head geologist, and was probably expecting that mantle to fall to me or Simeon. Yeesh, I hadn’t thought about Simeon Jones since we’d first left Earth all those months ago . . . I don’t know why it didn’t strike me as odd then, but now the question hit me like it had been written in fifteen-foot high letters in front of me this whole time: what actually happened to him?

‘Oh, for crying out loud,’ Sadie whined. ‘Are you still not listening?’

I snapped from my thoughts, which washed away with the same immediacy with which they came. ‘Sorry. All ears now. For real this time.’

‘You’d better be.’

I made more effort to pay attention, although I couldn’t say my mind was one hundred percent on task. That last few percent writhed like a fistful of maggots, burrowing and hunting to retrieve the thought that had come to me and left me again with such sudden alacrity. The more I thought, the harder it became, until the niggle was just a white noise playing behind my eyes.

I was actually looking forward to our time on New Dawn. The kid in me loved to play astronaut, and the time we spent working on a planet’s surface was almost exclusively spent in a space suit. Normally, I would be bouncing around, never tiring of the freedom of low gravity, stopping on occasion to actually do some work.

‘. . . point nine G, so you’ll have your work cut out hauling the sample trays back to the trailer.’

Ack, Sadie was right. Mostly our expeditions would be to small, dead planets, cool to the core, where the plunder was richest. But this mission was different; we were looking for a home away from home, and that meant gravity in the ballpark of what our squishy little bodies were used to.

‘We can park up a little closer to the survey stations,’ I said. ‘Less effort then.’

‘You’re a lazy man, Jake Brooks.’

‘I prefer to call myself efficient.’

‘That’s a big word for a lazy man.’

‘Ha ha. Please continue. And shut up, Byron.’

Byron clapped a hand over his mouth to restrain the beginnings of another giggling fit.

Planning was now taking up a good seven to ten hours per day as we assessed the survey sites, narrowed them down, assessed them more closely, dismissed them or approved them. A lot of it was math-based, but much of it was guesswork. Well, not guesswork, per se, more intuition. Based on education, experience and that little extra something, you get a feel for what’s what.

‘I’m bored.’

I couldn’t say I blamed him.

‘You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to, Byron,’ Sadie said. ‘You can go to the rec room if you’d prefer?’

Byron, who had his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, sat up and leaned back. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to be interested, I do, but I just can’t follow what you’re talking about. I don’t know enough about it.’

Sadie looked at me, face blank, as if unable to think of something to say.

‘We could try harder to explain what we’re talking about,’ I suggested, ‘but you have to understand that we have a long educational background that helps us know what we know.’

‘I know,’ Byron said, sounding dejected. ‘It just makes me feel like a useless waste of space sitting here not doing anything.’

At that, Sadie melted, and she sat down next to him and put an arm about his shoulders. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘You’re as important as any of us here. You’ll be especially important when we reach New Dawn and you help us drill and collect samples.’

Byron shrugged, saying nothing.

‘Look, why don’t we break for lunch,’ I said, ‘gather our thoughts and come back fresh this afternoon. Then Sadie and I will try harder to explain what we mean. You never know, it may help us figure out some of the issues we’ve been having with spectrographs on site’s fourteen through twenty-eight.’

Blonde hair wagged up and down, and that was that.

I don’t know why, but when I was preparing our lunches (Byron and Sadie were sat in the rec room chatting to Clip and Grant) I thought back to that first meeting with Byron on board the orbital shipyard. It felt like such a long time ago; of course, it was a long time ago, months back, but it felt to me like years. I thought how unfazed I’d been about the whole thing, and wondered how I would have treated Byron’s unexpected arrival on the Athena had I known more about him. Who was he, really? He was the problem nobody wanted to have, the fly people swatted away with the back of their hands. Despite his youthful appearance and eye-catching hair, his slumped shoulders and baleful expression made any prolonged eye contact awkward; even I found myself sometimes wishing I could brush him aside. But that feeling, that selfish, dismissive feeling, made me all the more determined to see Byron’s mission through to the end, a success that would show the world that the underdog they’d all trodden on to get to where they were going, with no more concern than the discomfort his bones gave them underfoot, what he was capable of. And it made me hate myself, hate those that treated him worse than badly: like he was nothing. When you’re the shadow of a shadow, you can slip by without being noticed. Anyone that does notice you pretends they didn’t. And that was how Byron was here with us, because he was the man who saw the backs of everybody’s heads.

Clip was telling one of his usual tall tales when I brought the food in (he and Grant had already eaten), and I passed the containers over to Byron and Sadie. It took some doing breaking Byron’s attention from Clip’s story, but eventually he fumbled his lunch from my hands without breaking eye contact with Clip. Clip wound the farcical anecdote up—I think he could see that Byron’s food was going cold and he wasn’t eating it, causing Byron’s eyebrows to drop into a frown.

‘That’s not it, is it?’ Byron grumbled.

‘Yep, that’s it,’ Clip said, shrugging.

‘That can’t be it. That makes no sense.’

Clip repeated his shrug, holding it for longer at its peak. ‘Don’t know what to tell you kid. That’s it.’

‘But why? Why would the janitor kill him? Why, if the janitor’s daughter was out of town and the janitor was thinking of going out for the night, would the janitor kill old man Brady? It makes no sense!’

There was a curious edge to Byron’s voice, as if he was unable to skip past the unwound thread that had found its way out of Clip’s narrative without resolving it first.

‘Life’s a bitch sometimes, ain’t that right,’ Clip said.

This seemed to appease Byron for a second, and his eyebrows began to rise again, before dropping into an even deeper frown. ‘No, that’s still not right. Just because the janitor had the keys to old man Brady’s house, that doesn’t make him the killer . . . besides, you said that old man Brady had his cousin round for dinner, so what happened to her?’

‘Look, kid, it’s just a story . . .’

‘And if the cousin was there, did old man Brady kill her, too?’

‘Seriously, Byron, don’t get so uptight—’

‘It just doesn’t make any sense!’ Byron shrieked.

The room fell quiet, shock turning us all dumb. Sadie’s face had flushed pink and Clip was staring, eyebrow cocked at Byron. Grant was looking at the floor. Even Byron himself looked surprised by his outburst.

‘I’m sorry . . .’ he squeaked, them jumped up out his seat, food container spilling everywhere, and ran off in the direction of the bunks.

A moment past, which Clip broke with a cracked whisper.

‘What in the hell was that all about?’

None of us had any idea.

I left Byron a while before I went to speak to him. Sadie wanted to do it, but I thought it better that we had one of our man-to-mans. I found him sat on his bunk, rooting in his personal bag like he had done when Sadie and I had first met him. Also like our first encounter, he pulled the bag tight shut as soon as he realised I was there, revealing only an abstract glimpse of what was inside.

‘Oh!’ he said. ‘I didn’t know you were there. You made me jump.’

‘Are you okay, Byron?’

Byron looked to the floor and nodded, as if acknowledging the response he expected to hear. ‘I’m okay. Just—tired.’

I sat down on my own bunk and looked over at him. It had only been a handful of months, but I could swear that he looked younger than ever. Maybe in the context of this bonding crew (or what was left of it), his innocence was standing out even more. ‘What have you got in there?’

‘In the bag?’ Byron said, lifting it up. Whatever it was, it filled the entire bottom with its bulk. ‘Nothing interesting. Just a little keepsake to remind me of home.’

That amazed me and saddened me: whatever hardships he’d faced at home, it was still home to him. Home would always be home. I thought of my mother, so frail-looking yet so full of vigour, and my chest tightened. ‘Can I see?’

For a moment, I thought he was going to let me see. He draw the bag up, as if to pull its constricted opening apart, but then he hugged it to his chest. ‘I’d rather not,’ he said.

‘That’s okay. It’s your personal bag after all.’

Byron was looking distant, still holding the bag close to his chest, rocking slightly. ‘I had a brother once,’ he muttered dreamily. ‘He was my best friend.’

I could sense an ominous outcome to this story. ‘Oh yeah? What happened to your brother?’

‘He was older than me.’ I had no idea if this was going to be an answer to my question, or if Byron’s vocalised thoughts were simply ambling in their own direction. ‘We had so much fun together.’ A smile flickered on the corners of his mouth. ‘Once, we climbed the fence into the school, broke into the kitchens and took a whole tray of dessert cups.’ The smile was broad now. ‘By the time we’d finished them, we were so sick. He was able to keep it down; I barfed the lot up. We laughed so hard.’

I watched the smile fade again, and the distant eyes mist over. I said nothing.

‘He told me once, he said: “Byron, I’m going to help mom. She needs help to stop taking those bad drugs. I’ve got to go and see some people now, and I need you to stay here and look after her for me. Can you do that for me?”‘

The mist was condensing; tears were beginning to form. The tightening in my own chest became hot and spread into my skull, prickling the backs of my eyes.

‘The next time I saw him, I barely even recognised him. He’d been beaten to death so badly there was nothing left of his face but a few flaps of skin among a raw pulp of flesh. The dealers didn’t care, they just left him naked in the street, robbed of his dignity and his life.’ The tears were falling, and Byron’s words were becoming difficult to make out. ‘And my dad blamed me for it.’

He could manage no more. His face crinkled up, and he hid it behind his personal bag, shoulders jerking with every muffled sob. I had to blink a few times, catching a hot, wet drop that escaped the corner of my eye. I felt physically stunned, knocked stupid, unable to get up. So there we both sat until Byron spoke again. When it came, it was quiet, but still it cut through me like the screech of metal on metal.

‘I’m sorry . . .’ he said.

For some reason, the numb void in me filled with anger. Sorry? Sorry? What on Earth did Byron have to be sorry about? All the pain and suffering he had experienced, the constant dismissal as he was dashed into the gutter, a life cursed to be treated as a second-rate citizen better off dead than alive . . . I yelled out, thrashing my fist into the plate wall beside me. It clanged for a second before falling mute at the same instant a blossoming pain sparked and then ignited up my arm. It built with such intensity that the pain stopped being pain and became only heat, a heat that seared right through my body and overwhelmed me into darkness.

 

‘Are you okay? Jake? Can you hear me?’

‘Wha . . . ?’

I blinked away the smear on my eyes to see Byron, Emily and Sadie hovering over me. I was in my bunk, but I was stretched out over it as if I’d climbed in to go to sleep.

‘He’s awake,’ Emily said. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’m okay,’ I said, as I tried to sit up. Immediately the white-hot agony slashed up my arm, and I collapsed back down again. Then I remembered punching the wall. ‘God, I’m so stupid.’

‘You’re telling me,’ Sadie said, although her motherly tones were betrayed by the worry on her face. ‘You’ve broken two fingers and your wrist you great big oaf.’

Wow. That was quite some damage. I must have been really outraged. I wasn’t sure if the lingering fuzz in my head was a remnant of that or just the pain in my arm. ‘Will it be okay?’ I asked. ‘I’ve got to operate the drill and—’

‘It’ll be fine,’ Emily said, smiling sweetly. ‘I’ll set it and then we can repair the bone. It’ll be back to normal in a month.’

‘Thanks. And I’m sorry to cause you hassle. I feel very stupid right now.’

‘That’s no problem at all. It gives me something to do.’

I let Emily bandage me up under Sadie’s watchful glare. Once it was set, as promised, Emily repaired the bone. The process felt warm and tingly, with a hint of something unpleasant as bone stitched to bone. When it was done, the pain was almost gone, although my hand felt stiff.

‘Gently flex your wrist at least four times a day around the full range of motion,’ Emily advised. ‘The more you do that the quicker you’ll be better.’ She winked at me. ‘And watch where you’re swinging that thing around next time. This isn’t a baseball field.’

She took her kit back to the medical store, leaving me alone with Sadie and Byron. Sadie’s glare had broken into a sympathetic smile, and she stroked my hair as she watched over me. ‘Oh, Jake,’ she said. ‘Jake, Jake, Jake . . .’

She didn’t say anything else.

I awoke feeling fresher and more invigorated than I had in a long time. There was a pent-up excitement in me that made me want to shout aloud, but looking about to see Sadie, Byron, Emily and Clip fast asleep, I thought better of it. I got washed and changed, and took myself to the rec room to satiate my rumbling stomach. Grant was there with Jason, and they were talking quietly.

‘Morning’ I said, in a tone that could have easily been accompanied with a hop and a skip.

‘Morning,’ Grant said. Jason just nodded.

Neither of them were smiling, but the two men shared different expressions. Jason’s was serious and slightly disgruntled, as if he’d been forced to do something he didn’t want to do, and Grants eyes were wide, as if he’d just heard something that he was still struggling to comprehend. I knew immediately what it was.

‘I’ve just being telling Grant here,’ said Jason in a matter-of-fact way, ‘about our little Futureproof problem. Apparently there have been rumours, and I wanted to set the record straight.’

I nodded, not saying anything in case I said the wrong thing entirely.

‘So I’m telling you as well,’ Jason continued. ‘We had an alert before launch to stay on the lookout for any kind of equipment or electronics that look like they don’t belong. The alert specified that Futureproof will have tried to smuggle a device on board that could sabotage the entire mission.’

For some reason, my mind immediately jumped to Byron’s personal bag. I tried to wipe the memory away, as though it being there made it visible to Jason.

‘It could be big or it could be small, we have no way of knowing. To that effect we will start by confiscating all personal electronic devices and keeping them in quarantine until we can be assured that they pose no risk.’

‘But, my games—’

‘Your games are now my games, Brooks. Please have them brought to me by the end of the morning.’

With that, Jason stood and left the room, heading for the cockpit and, presumably, Sophia.

‘God damn it . . .’ I muttered to myself. This was obviously a parry to my blow when I revealed the involvement of Futurproof in our mission to Clip. The guy couldn’t keep a secret for toffee.

‘Can you believe it?’ Grant said, slumping back in his chair, the look—of disbelief I realised—still spread about his face. ‘My e-reader, my god damn e-reader . . . what am I supposed to do with myself now?’

He looked at me at the end of the question, as if expecting a response—or accusing me of his predicament. My throat went dry in an instant as I wracked my brains trying to think of something to say that would cover me off if he was accusing me, but not stick myself in it if he wasn’t. Fortunately, he looked away again, settling back into a head-shaking look of incredulity. The question had merely been rhetorical.

‘I’m going to speak to Jason,’ I said and decided at about the same time, and headed off after him.

Jason was alone on the bridge with Sophia, and they had their backs to me, talking in low voices. My footsteps alerted them of my presence, which I purposely made loud so there was no way I could hear what I shouldn’t.

‘Jake,’ Sophia said. That was it.

‘Look,’ I began, ‘I’m sorry about letting slip—’

‘Save it, Jake,’ Sophia snapped. ‘I’ve had quite enough of your input. You’re lucky I’m not writing up your behaviour into my captain’s report for the board.’

‘But I’ve only been trying to help . . .’

‘Well, don’t. We’ve had quite enough of your help.’

‘Is there any way I can make it up to you?’

It was Jason’s turn to spear me with his words. ‘Did you bring your personal electronic devices?’

‘No . . .’

‘Then you can start by getting those.’

And that was that.

Chapter 9

Jason and Sophia hung on to Brendan’s body for as long as they could, but, even with Emily’s expertise, they were unable to find any traces of wrongdoing. When they weren’t studying the body, it remained in the only place it could: the tow dock, wrapped in a quarantine bag. Although the quarantine bags were good for keeping illnesses from spreading around the ship, they were no good for slowing the process of rigor mortis, and so the body had to be evacuated into the vast and hollow grave of space.

As well as the heightened sense of unease, Brendan’s untimely death caused a problem more practical in nature—he was the last drill operator. I recalled what Jason had said about the sabotaging of the mission (and also felt more than a little guilt about suspecting Brendan for its administration), but I had a plan up my sleeve which I was able to reveal in a meeting with Sadie and Sophia.

‘I can do it.’ To my surprise, I told them this with some pride.

Sophia eyed me up and down with doubt. ‘You? You can drill?’

I nodded. ‘I did a week’s training between semesters at the shipyards. I actually met James and Brendan there.’ James and Brendan, who are now both dead. My insides tightened.

Sophia looked at Sadie, and they shared a look. Sophia shrugged. ‘Okay, if you think you’re up to it. Byron can assist, that way you can keep an eye on him. We continue to New Dawn.’

Sophia left, and before I could properly explore the feelings of self-doubt panging in my stomach, Sadie had drawn close. She looked concerned.

‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I can do it. I won’t be as quick, but I can do it. You’ll see.’

‘It’s not that,’ she said. ‘It’s Byron. I’m worried about him.’

‘He’s fine,’ I said. I was sort of telling the truth—he was fine—but I knew that wasn’t really what Sadie was asking. She was asking if he was going to stay fine, and to be honest, I was worried about it as she was, but I didn’t want her to know that. ‘You’ll see.’

I hoped she did.

Where the innocent, playful, mischievous Byron would have been following me or Sadie around, asking questions, getting in the way and generally making a nuisance of himself, new quiet, introvert, junky mother Byron kept himself to himself. Occasionally I’d bump into him in the galley, but most of the time he was in his bunk, staring at nothing. I tried to keep track of him, but in a space like this, following someone around gets you noticed. I kept my interference at a state of occasional comings together, enough at least to make sure he wasn’t getting any worse. ‘At least he’s not causing any trouble,’ Clip had said to me on the matter. I laughed with him, but inside I wasn’t laughing at all.

He was okay though, was Clip. It was easy to pigeonhole him into the brainless, gung-ho squad of flyboys, but behind the stereotypical knee-slapping, pseudo-military exterior was a kind, quiet man with a gentle sense of humour. Truth be told, the same could probably be said of all the flight crew—the show was after all, just that: a show. I found myself becoming quite fond of Clip, and we shared more time together playing two-player on the computer, playing cards, or just chatting. Sadie would always be there, too, sewing in hand, throwing in the occasional nugget of wisdom or spanner of stupidity. I enjoyed my time with Sadie, too, and I came to realise how much I was relying on the strength of my friends to maintain my own inner stability. I got the feeling that we all felt the same way, even if it wasn’t spoken aloud, and it seemed that the warming of our friendships was a defence against the unknown danger lurking aboard the Athena, a pack mentality that looked after the whole group for mutual selfish gain. It was only after a conversation between me, Sadie and Clip that I realised how true this was.

Sadie was sewing, Clip was reading and I was playing a game. It was an adventure game, where the main character and hero Orlack Warr was shot down over the Amazon rainforest, only to find that the forest had been taken over by a demon queen. The game bore an uncanny resemblance to the dream I kept having, and I had to think for a moment which had come first. To my concern, I was almost certain it was the dream.

I’d just been beaten on a particularly hard part of the game where Warr was expected to traverse a canyon (were there even canyons in the Amazon? The developers didn’t seem to care if there was or not) with a length of rope and a thousand demonic monkeys hot on my heels. I was doing something wrong, because it wasn’t the first time this section had got me, or the second—it was the fifth. The rage was bubbling inside me, so I put the game down for a minute to let it (and me) cool off and to give my brain the chance it needed to figure it out. I looked around; Sadie was still sewing and Clip was still reading. I needed a subject-changer before my brain popped.

‘Sadie,’ I said, ‘do you think we’ll ever live on New Dawn?’

She looked up from her sewing with a face that said, what an odd question. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Do you?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know that I’d want to, either.’

‘I’m sure it’d be different to living here,’ Sadie said. ‘I assume they’d do that thing where they make the atmosphere breathable first. You know what I mean, ermm . . .’

I did know, but I couldn’t think what it was called. The best I could manage was a slack-jawed ‘Err . . .’

‘Terraforming,’ Clip said, glancing over the top of his e-reader. ‘That’s what you’re looking for.’

‘Terraforming,’ Sadie said. ‘That’s right.’

‘Far as I know,’ Clip continued, ‘they’re nearly there on that tech. I seen it myself.’

I couldn’t speak for Sadie, but I for one was genuinely interested in this revelation. ‘Really? How much longer do they reckon it’ll take?’

‘Year or two. Current tests on microclimates show full atmospheric stabilisation in six months, sometimes even less.’

‘God . . .’ I whispered. ‘No wonder Futureproof were so interested in the mission.’ I knew as soon as I’d said it that I’d made a mistake, but the words were too far out to suck back in again. I’d already told Sadie about Jason’s hypothesis, but Clip was none the wiser. Until now.

‘Futureproof?’ he said. ‘What do those lentil-eating, unwashed sons-of-bitches want with us?’

I considered telling him it was all just a crazy idea I’d had, but he wouldn’t have bought it. I sighed—I was going to have to finish what I’d started. ‘They reckon there’s a stowaway on board trying to sabotage the mission. Apparently they’re trying to stop the colonisation of other planets.’

‘Figures,’ Clip said. He lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘You know who it is?’

‘Well, it’s just a theory,’ I said, hoping he’d drop the subject.

‘Exactly,’ Sadie said. ‘It’s probably nothing.’

Clip looked between Sadie and I, bemused. ‘Are you kidding? Or did you two miss those deaths we had on board recently?’

‘Natural deaths,’ I said, probably a little too quickly.

Clip raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Now you’re starting to make me think you’re the Futureproofer.’

I went to speak in my defence, but Clip dropped the eyebrow and laughed. ‘Like you two eggheads could ever kill someone . . .’ He went back to his book, still chuckling to himself.

But it made me think: what if it came to it, them and me, life or death? Both James and Brendan had been faced with the same dilemma, and they’d gone down like old trees with rotten cores. Perhaps they’d had no idea it was going to happen? Or maybe they didn’t have the stomach to kill when their lives depended on it? Where a thousand unanswered questions dwelled, I knew of one with a solid answer: who had taken over from the two drillers that had both somehow died within a few weeks of each other with no apparent cause? The answer, of course, was me. On top of that, I came to the conclusion that, faced with the unthinkable situation of them versus me, it wouldn’t be me doing the killing.

Later, I asked Clip to keep the Futureproof thing under his hat, and he agreed. The knowing look he gave me suggested he understood why, and I trusted him enough as a friend not to get me in trouble with Sophia over it. Chances are that everybody knew already (certainly one of us did—the Futureproof member themselves), but I’d already sidestepped Sophia and Jason one too many times, and didn’t think it wise to get caught doing it again.

As we breached the halfway point of our eight-and-a-half-month journey, The mood seemed to have returned more or less to normal. It’s an incredible thing, the human psyche: as much as you would expect panic and delirium after two unexplained deaths, the ability of a group of people to find a rhythm and routine and settle back down again was astonishing. Sure, we all had our wits about us more than ever, but the ability to smile and joke remained as strong as ever.

Adapt and survive.

Even Byron had started making a reappearance at dinner, one of them the first in a long time where most of the (remaining) crew had sat down together. Clip was telling a delightfully crude joke that had the rec room roaring. Even Sophia allowed herself a smile, something I hadn’t seen since James’ body had been discovered. ‘You’re too much,’ she said, wiping her eyes.

‘That’s not the half of it,’ Clip said, winking at her. ‘There’s plenty more where that came from if you want to meet me at my bunk later on this evening.’

‘I’d rather jump out the airlock,’ Sophia said, and we all roared again.

Although quiet, Byron was grinning from ear to ear. It made me happy to see him in a good mood. I’d been harbouring an uneasy feeling in my gut over him since his near-miss suicide attempt, and it pained me—and worried me—to think he was stuck in such a dark place. But now the light was flooding in, and he was coming out the other side of the shadowed valley he’d been wandering in. I got up to make myself a nutridrink and he followed me to the galley.

‘You seem to be doing much better,’ I said to him as I slotted my cup into the machine.

He nodded.

‘Jake,’ he said, his hands in his pockets and his eyes anywhere but me, ‘I want to apologise for the way I spoke to you before.’

‘That’s okay—’

‘It’s not okay. I know it’s not. You were trying to help, as you always do, and I threw it all back at you. I’m sorry.’

I almost told him it was okay again, but stopped myself. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘That takes guts.’

‘Thanks for understanding.’

‘No problem.’

The nutridrink machine buzzed, and I retrieved my beverage.

‘Say,’ I added, ‘you don’t want to help me with the drilling when we get to New Dawn, do you? It’s pretty easy, but I need an extra pair of strong hands to help me.’

‘Sure,’ he said, grinning. The mischievous twinkle was back. ‘I’d love to.’

Crude jokes turned to horror stories as the evening wore on. All we were short on was a log fire and marshmallows on sticks. Clip, who had become something of a bard for the evening, was telling to most horrific, disgusting story yet, eyes comically wide, hands whipping his words up into a frenzy. Sadie had one eyebrow raised and a crooked grin, Emily was wiping a tear brought on by the fits of laughter she’d been struck by from her eye, Grant was shaking his head, seemingly enrapture by the whole thing, and Byron—Byron was being Byron. His jaw was hanging agape, his eyes where bulging even wide than Clip’s, and he was sucking in every last word like he needed them to live. It was just as well Sophia and Jason were manning the cockpit, because the story then took a turn for the worse that probably breached at least three laws.

‘That’s awesome . . .’ Byron whispered after Clip had finished. His expression, out of context, could have been placed as someone achieving the zen state of enlightenment. He leaned back, a single breath leaving him, his eye unblinking eyes unfocussed. Then his face snapped to a grin. ‘Tell another one!”

‘I think that’s quite enough of those,’ Sadie said, full mother mode kicking in. ‘Why don’t we play a round of cards?’

Byron groaned, but Clip agreed to the game. He’d probably had enough of the two holes Sadie had been boring into him ever since the female protagonist of his story had been attacked by the tentacle monster and—I don’t even want to say. The image is too vivid even now.

‘I’ll deal,’ Emily offered, and Sadie passed the deck to her. She cut it dead middle with one hand, fanned both halves out in a single move and flicked both together like they’d been one all along.

‘Wow,’ Grant said. ‘I’m going to hazard a guess and say you’ve done that before.’

Emily grinned. ‘And you’d be guessing right. I worked as a blackjack dealer in the City Square casino in eighth district.’

‘That’s a pretty exclusive joint,’ I said.

Grant nodded. ‘Yeah. You don’t get in there without a member’s recommendation. I know—I’ve tried.’

‘They didn’t let you in?’ Sadie asked.

‘Didn’t let me in? They damn near threw me out!’ Grant took a sip of his drink. ‘Probably didn’t help that I’d been out all night and I had my own vomit down my t-shirt.’

Byron snorted.

‘That’s disgusting,’ Sadie said, wrinkling her nose. ‘Byron, don’t laugh at that.’

‘But it’s funny,’ Byron said.

‘It is,’ I said, to which I earned a pair of burn holes myself.

‘You may think it’s funny, ‘ Sadie grumbled, ‘but think about the poor saps that have to clean that mess up. Emily, deal the cards will you?’

Emily dealt, struggling to contain an errant laugh.

‘It’s okay,’ Grant said. ‘Much worse goes on behind the doors of that place. Some of the stories I’ve heard . . . Jesus. Emily would probably know more about that than I would.’

‘The game’s blackjack,’ Emily declared. ‘Dealer will stand on seventeen and over. We don’t have any chips, but we do have this set of checkers. Pass them around. Yes, Grant, I sure would.’

‘Well I think we’ve had enough horror stories for one night,’ Sadie said folding her arms.

I checked my cards. Terrible. ‘Don’t be such a prude.’

Sadie huffed. ‘I’m not. I’m just looking out for Byron.’

‘Aww,’ Emily said, making Byron blush.

‘It’s okay,’ he said, squirming. ‘You don’t need to look after me.’

‘He’s right,’ Clip said. ‘He’s not a kid anymore. You need to let go of your baby boy.’

‘Oh, shut up,’ Sadie said, throwing a checker at Clip. It missed and pinged off the wall. Clip grabbed it off the floor.

‘Looks like I’m winning already,’ he said.

Sadie couldn’t help but laugh.

I was out of the first game, but I won the second and drew on the third. Sadie was winning so far, Byron wasn’t really sure what he was doing, and Clip was almost out of chips. We played a few more hands until it was clear Sadie was wiping the floor with us, and then the game petered out. Emily gathered the cards back up (with one last flourish as she shuffled the deck and put it back in its box) while Sadie put the checkers away.

‘Did you like being a blackjack dealer?’ Byron asked.

‘I suppose so, yes,’ Emily said.

‘What did you like about it?’

‘I don’t know . . .’ she said, stopping to think. ‘The people, probably. I liked talking with the people.’

‘Do you wish you were still doing it?’

‘Sometimes I do. I miss the extravagance of it all.’ She sighed wistfully. ‘But as long as I’ve got my friends around me, I don’t really mind where I am.’

Unknowingly, Emily summarised my exact feeling at that point. I was pretty certain she did the same for the others, too, because we shared a silence that was neither awkward nor uncomfortable. It was pretty close to bliss, actually, and it was the closest I’d come in a while to letting go of the underlying unease that floated like a mist around out feet. If we could see out the rest of the mission like this, then I think we’d pull through. If only we could have such mercies.

Chapter 8

I couldn’t keep this fresh information inside me and not tell someone. After swearing Sadie to secrecy, which she did freely after I had taken her to one side and explained the situation to her, I found Jason. He was at his bunk, folding his clothes.

‘Jason, I need to speak with you. It’s important.’

Jason looked around to make sure we were alone. ‘Make it brief.’

‘It’s not Byron.’ I’d thought long and hard about it, and I was sure of it. ‘I don’t want you thinking it was Byron that did it.’

Jason continued to fold his clothes not looking at me. ‘That did what?’

‘That—that killed James.’

‘And why would I think that?’

‘Well, you know—he’s unpredictable. He told me yesterday that he stole James’ chocolate and wiped his e-reader, and I wanted you to find out from me before you found out some other way and pinned the blame on him. But that doesn’t mean he’s capable of murder, not by a long shot.’

‘And I suppose you want me to think that it was Brendan?’

‘I—I don’t know.’

Jason stopped folding and turned to face me. ‘Jake, I appreciate what you’re doing, but what you think and feel are not evidence enough. Byron has put himself in a situation that warrants extreme suspicion, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Well, yes, but—’

‘Then until we have solid proof that he’s innocent, we can’t under any circumstances treat him as such. Byron told me all about the chocolate and the e-reader yesterday, and he was very apologetic, but that does not excuse him from any investigation we care to operate on this ship.’

That seemed fair, and I knew it was, but I couldn’t accept it.

‘But Brendan is the murderer, not Byron!’

I sounded almost like I was pleading.

‘Why? Because he had an argument with James? You’ve had an argument with James, too—should we count you as a suspect as well?’

I had no answer for that.

‘No, of course not. But we aren’t discounting anyone either, at least not yet. We’re on a knife-edge here, and we’re walking it blindfolded. We’ve got nothing to go on except a clean body.’

He was right of course, even if I couldn’t accept it. A few eventless weeks passed by where I didn’t really speak to either him or Sophia beyond polite small talk, and as more of the day became dedicated to work as the halfway point of our journey approached, I welcomed the distraction from the unsettling thoughts that gnawed at the back of my brain. We had completed our draft site selection, narrowing down fifty locations for sampling, and now we needed to refine that selection down to just twenty, the maximum sample capacity of the trailer.

‘Site sixteen shows a lot of similar rock formations to site eleven,’ I said, pointing at the spectrograph analysis. ‘Plus its three hundred miles out of our way. We can probably scrap that one.’

‘Agreed,’ Sadie said, crossing it off the list. ‘Do you see the similar rock formations in the graph, Byron?’

‘I guess.’

Since our conversation, Byron had become quite subdued, like he was when we first met him. He wasn’t being rude, or sulking, or anything like that, he had simply retreated back into his shell, and I felt bad for him. I pointed to a jagged line on the graph for site sixteen. ‘See this line? This shows the chemical make-up of the area. Compare it to site eleven. See the similarities?’ Byron nodded, but I had no idea if he understood what I was saying or if he was stuck in the attic of his mind, trapped with the dust and the cobwebs. ‘You’ll get it,’ I said, hoping to sound reassuring, but probably sounding overly sympathetic in that way people do when they feel sorry for someone.

The rest of the meeting went on like that, and although it was productive, there was a part of my mind I couldn’t tear away from Byron’s predicament. Once we were done, I sent Byron off to get us all lunch, hoping to catch Sadie alone.

‘I know what you’re going to say,’ she said, folding away the screen.

‘Do you agree with me?’

She sighed. She didn’t sound depressed, more . . . lost. ‘I just wish I didn’t know as much as I did. The others, they’re blissfully unaware of all this, happy in the knowledge that James’ death was just one of those things.’

‘But you do know it wasn’t just one of those things, don’t you?’

Sadie raised her eyebrows at me and said nothing.

‘You don’t think it was a murder?’

‘I’m not sure that I do,’ Sadie said, shrugging. ‘I’m not sure what to believe.’

Hearing Sadie say that made me feel like I was losing my grasp on something—my sanity, perhaps. ‘But I thought you . . . I’ve told you it was Brendan . . . you do think it was Brendan, right?’

When Sadie looked at me, she had a sympathetic sadness on her face. I knew what that meant, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want her sympathy—I wanted her faith. ‘Jake,’ she said. ‘You need to let go of this. I know you saw Brendan that night, but you didn’t see the argument, and you certainly didn’t see the murder, if there even was one. I can see this eating you up inside, and you’re hurting yourself with it.’ She put a warm hand on my face. ‘I care about you,’ she whispered. ‘And I can’t see you do this to yourself.’

We shared a moment of silence and then she left, leaving me standing on my own, stunned. Perhaps she was right. So I did what I didn’t think I could do, and I went to speak to Brendan.

He was in the rec room, reading, minding his own business. He was a quiet sort of guy anyway, but since James’ passing I hadn’t really seen him speak much to anyone at all. With Sadie’s words ringing in my ears, I found it hard to remind myself of the passion that filled my certainty before, and seeing him sat there reading, seemingly free of guilty conscience, I felt sure I was doing the right thing. I sat down next to him and he looked at me, smiled, then returned to his book.

‘What’re you reading?’ I asked.

‘Just a trashy sci-fi,’ he said, not taking his eyes from the screen.

‘Is it good?’

‘Sure.’

A pause. ‘How are you holding up?’

This seemed to provoke something in him. He put the e-reader down, and looked at me with a quizzical expression that seemed to be questioning my motives. ‘Fine, thanks. That’s not what you came here to ask me, is it?’

He wasn’t wrong.

‘Yes and no,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’m glad to hear you’re okay, but I also wanted to ask you about something else.’

‘Go on then,’ he said. The quizzical expression remained unchanged.

‘Well, I don’t quite know how to put this, but—do you think James was murdered?’

Brendan blinked, blindsided by the question. I tried hard to study the minute twitches of his eyes, cheeks and lips, but it was all over in a flash. ‘Wow, Jesus,’ he said. ‘It hadn’t even crossed my mind.’

‘Really? It didn’t occur to you, even once?’

He shook his head. The look he was carrying now seemed like one of an innocent man having a genuinely unsettling thought, but I couldn’t be sure.

‘So, what do you think happened?’

He shrugged, dismissing the question. ‘But who?’

‘That’s what I’m asking you.’ That’s when I saw the cogs whirr and click, falling into place. His eyes narrowed.

‘You think it was me, don’t you?’

‘I don’t think it was anyone.’

‘Then why are you asking?’

‘Just . . . making conversation.’

‘You think because I had an argument with him the night before that I killed him?’

‘I said nothing of the sort—’

‘Listen to me,’ he said, leaning in close. ‘I had an argument with him because he was losing his mind, getting paranoid about all sorts of crazy shit. Do you know what he told me? He thought—’

‘Jake?’ Brendan and I looked up; it was Emily. She looked worried.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s Byron. You’d better come quickly.’

As Emily came over I could see that what I thought was worry was actually something closer to terror. ‘Shit,’ I said, and ran off past her down the way she had come. Byron was in the bunks, on the floor, and Sadie and some others were crowding around him.

Clip noticed me. ‘Jake,’ he said. ‘He was asking for you.’

I pushed through, and the others gave me some room. I hadn’t seen it before, but with a clear view I could now see the blood running down his shirt and pooling around him. ‘Jesus, Byron—what happened?’

Emily squeezed in, bandages in hand, and she began wrapping them around his wrists. ‘He cut himself,’ she said. ‘Used one of the bed springs.’

‘Oh God . . .’

I drew myself closer to him, enough to hear his weak, shallow breathing. His eyelids were half-closed, but he was still conscious. Just. He whispered something; I couldn’t hear it, so I put my ear close to his mouth.

‘I’m sorry . . .’

It was like he’d grabbed my throat and twisted. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision.

‘Okay, I’m going to need some room now,’ I heard Emily say. Her voice was urgent. I stumbled back, and someone helped take my weight, which was probably a good thing because my legs had all but vanished beneath me. I don’t really remember much of the next few hours, save for a few crystal-clear snapshots of Emily running back and forth, taking shining red bandages away and bring fresh ones back with her. She was a saint, calmly working on Byron while I sat on my bunk and watched, stuck in some hell between my conscious and my subconscious. After what seemed like hours, with the flow stemmed, Byron’s wrists freshly wrapped and him unconscious on his bunk, Emily gave me a reassuring smile that finally let my heart beat at something close to a normal rhythm again.

‘He’s going to be okay,’ she said, wiping her stained hands on a towel. She left to dispose of it, leaving me with Byron and the mirror-like pool of dark blood on the floor. I heard her returning, but when I looked up, I saw Sadie. She sat down next to me and put an arm around me.

‘It’s my fault . . .’ I said. I don’t know where the words came from, but I felt like I needed to say them, like they opened a pressure relief valve that was fit to burst.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s not. Don’t you dare think that.’

‘But,’ I said, my eyes filling anew, ‘but if I hadn’t asked him so many questions—’

‘Stop right there. I’ll hear no more of it. Byron cares for you and respects you, because you cared for him. This isn’t because of you, and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it. What Byron did is because of his own demons.’

I nodded, wiping my eyes. I don’t know if I believed what Sadie was saying, but I believed without a doubt that she wouldn’t let the matter drop if I didn’t.

‘Okay,’ I said, but it wasn’t okay. If Sadie was right, and Byron was battling with his demons, what was the battle about? Stealing a bar of chocolate? Wiping an e-reader? Compulsive lying? Murder? The thoughts were as fire to my brain, so I flushed them from my mind as best I could, concentrating on Sadie’s warm embrace. But I couldn’t appreciate it for long, because the still air broke with a colossal, ‘Fuck!’

Sadie and I both jerked upwards, looking to where the profanity had come from, and even before I’d had time enough to think about what happened, a hard knot of knowing anxiety welded my stomach up tight. We bolted from the room, storming through the galley and into the rec room, where most of the others were gathered. There was a body on the floor, and everyone was crowded around it, except this time Emily was on her hands and knees, thumping the body hard.

‘What’s going on?’ I said to Jason, who was standing closest to me.

‘It’s Brendan,’ he said. ‘We were all just sat here when he jumped up all of a sudden, clutching his chest, and collapsed on the floor.’

Emily had stopped thumping. She was hung low over Brendan, blocking him from view, her shoulders drooped and her breathing heavy. When she sat back her brow was dappled with sweat, and as she moved I was able to see Brendan. His eyes were stuck open, like some horrid doll, glassy and amused, frozen with death. Nothing more was said.

Byron healed well over the following week, although the quiet lull he had sunk into before he’d cut himself seemed to wear into an even deeper rut afterwards. Most of the time he was either lying on his bunk dozing, or playing computer games. He occasionally shared a joke, and came to most of Sadie’s mission briefings, but it was as though only part of him was there with us. The other part—who knows where that was. Sadie and I did our best to keep him in sight at all times, a routine I fell into with strict determination, partly because I cared for the kid, but mostly because I felt guilty. As he lay on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, I lay on mine, staring through a book. I could hear each breath enter and leave his body, and every time there was a pause, my heart paused with it. It was agonising, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

‘You don’t have to watch me all the time,’ he said.

That came as quite a surprise—I don’t know how long we’d been there together, but it had been a long time, all in silence.

‘I don’t mind,’ I said.

‘Why are you doing it?’

‘Well—’

‘I mean, I know why, but why? Why don’t you just leave me alone?’

I could sense the hurt in his voice. I don’t think it was directed at me—at least I hoped it wasn’t. ‘Because I care about you, Byron.’

Byron didn’t speak for a while, but I could hear a muffled sniffling, like he was trying to subdue sobs.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked.

‘Sure,’ he said, his voice thin and watery. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘You don’t have to feel alone anymore,’ I said. ‘I’m going to take care of you.’

This seemed to generate more muted sobbing.

‘How do I know you’re not lying?’ Byron said after a while. ‘How do I know you’re not going to ditch me like everyone always does?’

It was a good question. ‘I guess you just have to trust me. Can you trust me?’

‘I guess . . .’

I licked my lips. They had gone very dry. ‘Can I trust you?’

No answer.

‘Byron . . .?’

‘I don’t know . . .’ he said.

‘Well, why don’t you tell me something about yourself, something true. That’s a good start.’

‘Okay . . . but what?’

‘Why don’t you tell me where you’re from?’

Byron stayed silent for a while, and I thought he’d given up on the conversation. But then he sighed, and began to speak. ‘District seventeen, originally. That’s where I grew up before dad got the Planexus job.’

‘Is that the truth?’

‘Yes.’

‘What was it like growing up there?’

‘I hated it. I got beat up all the time by the other kids.’

‘Didn’t your mum try to stop it?’

‘Naw. She was usually high on that rich people drug, or out with her friends, so she didn’t have much time for me.’

‘And what about your dad?’

‘He was never around, either, always at work.’

‘Do you miss them?’

‘No. Well, I guess. But I don’t want to.’

I thought of my own mother, the dear, sweet person that she was, and it stuck in my throat to think what my life would have been like without her own brand of overbearing compassion to guide me. I suddenly felt very far from home, so I changed the subject. ‘So what made you want to fly deep space?’

‘I just wanted to get away I guess, go as far away as possible. I’ve always dreamed of visiting faraway planets, being the first to set foot on new worlds away from the all the stuff back home. I did pretty good on my finals at school, and I got a grant to go to flight school, which is just as well, because dad wasn’t going to pay for me to go. It’s one of the only times I can remember my being happy. Mum had opened the envelope by accident, and she was waiting for me when I got home. “I’m so proud of you,” she’d said. I remember it clear as day.’

‘It’s an impressive achievement.’

‘Yeah, but I fucked it up, didn’t I?’

It stung me to hear Byron talk like that, and all at once I realised that despite appearances, he was no boy. He wasn’t a man either, he was . . . something in between. A boy that’d never had the chance to properly grow up. An emotional drifter. I could imagine him coming home from school to find his mother spaced out on the couch, curtains closed, television on. He’d check and make sure she was still breathing, as he did every time he got back from school, then make himself dinner from whatever there was in the house—usually nothing. ‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘I told the Principle that this other kid was dealing drugs on campus. I took some of my mum’s pills and hid them in his bag. He was going to get expelled, but then I got found out. Some other kid had seen me do it, and they had CCTV footage to back him up.’

‘Why did you do it?’

Byron sighed weakly. ‘He called my mum a whore. Then he beat me up.’

I could see his reasoning. I was also starting to wonder if the whole naivety thing that Byron had going on was all an act. This conversation seemed to be bringing out more of the man than the boy that he’d been before; there was a cynicism that couldn’t have possibly festered in the mind of an innocent. Perhaps that was it: the lying, the acting naive, it was all a shield against the damage and destruction that had been thrown his way all his life. He was protecting who he really was by being someone else. To his credit, I couldn’t blame him. Hell, I’d have probably done the same. ‘Well, you’ve got what you wanted now at least, and I’ll make sure you don’t need to worry about people bullying you any more.’

‘Jake’—he rarely if ever called me by my name—’I’m sorry I got you wrapped up in all this, but really, you don’t have to help me. I’m not a charity case you need to feel sorry for. I know they tell you not to walk on past someone in need, but in this case feel free to stroll on by. I don’t mind, really.’

Then, from the back of my mind, a single thought cried out. ‘What did you apologise to me for?’

‘I was just saying I’m sorry for getting you involved—’

‘No, not now. Last week, when—when you cut yourself.’

‘When I cut myself? I don’t remember.’

‘You must do. You told me you were sorry. You whispered it to me before you fell unconscious. What were you sorry for?’

‘I told you, I don’t remember.’

‘I think you do.’

‘So what? Even if I do, it doesn’t matter.’

‘Why?’

‘Because . . . I don’t know, I wasn’t thinking straight. I had a lot of blood loss.’

‘Tell me what you apologised to me for.’

I heard Byron shuffle in his bunk, but he didn’t respond.

‘Byron?’

‘We’re done,’ he said.

And, for the first time, he was true to his word. I couldn’t get him to speak, so I lay there with him in the peace of the ship, listening to the faint hum of its electrical organs. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because I found myself again on the shore of the beach. This time I didn’t go into the forest, or even look for the twinkling eyes. I stayed on the beach.

‘What do you want?’ I bellowed. My voice carried to the horizon, falling away with the impenetrable distance. My cry stayed unanswered, until a prickle on my back told me that someone was standing behind me. I didn’t turn around. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ they said.

‘Why did you do it?’ I said.

‘Why are you asking?’ they said.

‘Because it’s wrong, and you shouldn’t have done it,’ I said.

‘And who are you to judge what’s right and wrong?’ they said.

I whipped around, hoping to catch them off guard, but they were gone.

Chapter 7

I should have known better. Once you put a tick in Sadie’s ear, there it stays, growing fatter and greedier. I kept Byron in earshot for as long as I could to avoid talking to her any further about my hypothesis, but I could only do it for so long. The place she chose to pounce on me was in the shower, taking me by surprise and embarrassment as she strolled in, fully clothed to my stark naked.

‘Sadie,’ I whimpered. ‘What are you doing in here?’

I knew full well.

‘Get over it, Jake,’ she said. ‘Nothing I haven’t been disappointed by before.’

‘Very funny.’

‘Tell me why you said that.’

‘Said what?’

‘Don’t play dumb with me.’

This was starting to feel like a good ole’ western standoff. Except I was naked, and Sadie was blocking the exit. ‘Look, it was just a stupid idea that doesn’t even make sense, so can we please drop it.’ I hooked a towel around my waist and cinched it up tight.

‘Jake, you think I don’t know you, but I do. I know you’re an intelligent person, that you don’t have stupid thoughts’—not strictly true, I thought—’and I know you believe what you told me.’

‘Nice try, but you can’t flatter me into doing what you want.’

I tried to push past her, but she bolstered her stance by gripping the doorframe in front of the rubber curtains.

‘Come on, Sadie, let me through. I’m cold.’

‘Not as cold as you will be,’ she said, snatching at my towel and yanking it off me. I tried to grab for it, but she held it behind her back. The only way could get it was to press myself against her and reach around, and that wasn’t going to happen. Nor did she expect it to, because her face was deadly serious.

‘Tell me,’ she said.

I sighed. ‘Fine. Can I at least have my towel back first?’

‘After.’

‘Okay, okay. Basically, I bumped into Brendan the night before, and he seemed to have had some sort of argument with James. He said that James was unwell, but I know for a fact that isn’t true because I asked Emily.’

‘How do you know they argued? Did you see it happen?’

‘No, but the way Brendan was acting was classic post-argument stress. He was coiled up tight, ready to explode.’

‘Have you told Sophia about this?’

‘Of course I have.’

‘Fine.’ She shoved the towel into my chest; I took it and hastily wrapped it around myself. ‘That wasn’t hard now, was it?’

Later on that day I tried talking with Sophia about it again, but she wasn’t having any of it. She’d had her captain’s hat on pretty much permanently since James had been found, and spent her entire time either on the bridge or in her bunk. Jason wasn’t much help either, although he at least showed me a drop of compassion when he told me he’d let me know if anything changed, anything at all, although I didn’t believe him.

I thought a lot about the conversation I’d had with Brendan, trying hard to extract more detail from it than I already had. It was extremely frustrating knowing now how important that brief exchange had been, when I could have asked more questions, paid more attention. I wondered if Sophia thought the same as I did, if she’d even had the same idea. I was certain it had crossed her mind, but she hadn’t seen Brendan that afternoon, seen how on-edge he’d been. But then, what if she did believe that he’d had something to do with it? What exactly could she do about it? There was nowhere to hold him, no guards to keep watch over him. Perhaps she was biding her time, maintaining the status quo while keeping a close eye on things so he could be dealt with when we got home in over a year’s time. No, she couldn’t possibly do that—that was much too long of a time to pretend nothing was up. What if he did it again?

I realised that for all my thinking, I wasn’t achieving anything short of a headache, so I took my e-reader to my bunk for a read. I read a few chapters, stuttering here and there as my brain chimed in with irrelevant thoughts (How did he do it? Why did he do it?), but I made fair progress nonetheless. It was a good book—not a great one, but a good one—about a band of teenagers who survived a shipwreck and landed on a desert island. They had formed two separate groups, and they fought over the land, partly for food, partly for pride. So quickly they had deteriorated from sensible young men to animal-like predators, inflicting the kind of brutality on each other they’d never dream of doing back home. I slipped into an uneasy rest, and the story continued on into the dream world with me. I was on a desert island, and it was night, the stars above pricking holes in the blackness. Although, for some reason that didn’t seem to concern me at the time, the island wasn’t in the sea; the sky met the horizon and continued down and out of sight. So I turned back into the jungle, exploring its dense, humid pathways where the night sky was completely hidden from view—all except two stars, which winked at me ahead, then disappeared. I followed them, calm and easy, occasionally seeing them wink again until I re-emerged on the other side of the island. The inky distance peered back at me, but there was no sign of the two stars. Then a finger tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around; standing there was James, his eyes twinkling with gleeful malice like the two stars I’d been following. ‘Looking for me?’ he said.

The dream had almost faded when I awoke, and I let it disappear, laying there and enjoying the empty thoughtlessness it left behind in my head. In that space I began to form a plan, one that would settle the mystery once and for all. I considered the risk, but it was balanced with the risk of doing nothing. It was an easy enough plan to execute, so I got up and set to it.

I found Byron in the rec room, and thankfully Sadie wasn’t with him. He was playing on one of the ship’s games consoles, and looked to be getting rather into it judging by the amount of tongue poking out in concentration.

‘I told you so,’ I said to him.

He didn’t look up at me, but his tongue momentarily retracted into his mouth long enough for him to say, ‘Told me what?’

‘I told you you’d be enjoying the computer games.’

A crashing sound emanated from the speakers, and Byron frowned. ‘Damn thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t like it at all, it’s a piece of rubbish.’

‘Can’t stop playing though, huh?’

‘Nope.’

‘That’s how it starts. Anyway, I’ve got some information that might be of interest to you.’

‘Really? What about?’

‘James.’

Byron’s forlorn expression turned to one of mischievous intrigue. ‘What is it?’

I looked around, obviously checking a room I already knew was otherwise empty, leaned close to Byron and whispered, ‘James was murdered.’ When I stood tall again, the expression I had expected to see on Byron’s face was not there, in its place a rather worried one instead.

‘How do you know?’ Byron said, his voice very small.

‘I remembered something from when I found Emily.’

‘What do you remember?’

‘I’m not at liberty to say. Captain’s ears only you understand.’

Byron nodded quickly, making his wide eyes look even wider. ‘I understand.’

‘What are you boys up to?’ Sadie said from in the galley.

‘Remember,’ I said to Byron, leaning in close again, ‘this is between you, me and the captain.’ I put my finger to my lips, then called out to Sadie. ‘We’re not up to anything!’

‘That’s a likely story,’ she said, returning with a drink for herself and for Byron.

‘It’s true,’ Byron said. ‘We were just chatting about . . . er . . .’ he looked around, then spotted his games console ‘. . . games! Computer games. We were talking about computer games. Really, we were.’

Nice one, Byron, I thought. You’ve got this one covered. My plan would be in action quicker than I thought.

Sadie, Byron and I were poring over planetary mapping in the briefing room when Sophia emerged from the cockpit, her expression grim. ‘Can I have a word with you please, Byron,’ she said. Byron looked haplessly between Sadie and I, and I nodded my head towards Sophia.

‘Go on,’ I said. He went.

They were gone for a while, and I found it hard to concentrate on what Sadie was saying as I tumbled what they might be discussing over in my head. With any luck Byron had done what I’d hoped he’d do and let slip to the others that James had been murdered, forcing a proper investigation to commence.

‘Are you even listening?’

Sadie had her fists balled on her hips and a sour look on her face.

‘Uh, yeah—of course I am.’

‘Then what are the coordinates of site twenty-three?’

‘Errrmm . . .’

‘I thought as much.’

I was ready to launch into a defensive statement-cum-apology, but I didn’t have to because Sophia re-emerged with Byron. His pale skin was flushed bright red and his eyes were fixed to the floor.

‘Jake,’ Sophia said. ‘A word.’

She was not happy.

I followed her into the cockpit where Jason waited for us, leaning against a console, arms folded. It was just us three. ‘About Byron . . .’ I began, but Sophia cut in straight away.

‘Look,’ she said, her voice low, ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but we’re trying to manage a situation that doesn’t need your bullshit muddying it up.’

I stayed silent, feeling my skin flush with heat.

‘Why did you do it? Why did you tell Byron that James’ death was suspicious?’

‘Well, I—’

‘I’ve got a ship to run,’ Sophia said, stepping closer to me, ‘and the last thing I need is a rumour like that going around and making everyone on edge.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Fortunately, Byron came straight to me. He says he didn’t tell anyone else. You know I could have you stripped of your license for this, don’t you?’

I nodded.

‘So why did you do it?’

A good question indeed, one that made my best intentions seem little more than playground shenanigans. ‘I thought you’d dismissed the idea of a suspicious death, so I—I . . .’

All of a sudden I really didn’t know why I’d done it.

‘. . . I wanted to make sure you looked into it properly.’

I hated myself more with each word that came out.

‘And you didn’t stop to think that perhaps we might be investigating it on a low level to try and keep the moral of ship up while we worked it through?’

‘So you have no idea what’s going on, then?’

‘Never mind that. We’re talking about you here.’

‘Do you or don’t you?’

‘I said never you mind—’

‘We don’t,’ Jason said from across the cockpit. Sophia looked at him, shocked rather than angry, but she didn’t interrupt. He stood and wandered over to stand next to Sophia. ‘Major Jason Pritchard,’ he said, holding out a hand. I shook it. ‘I think we should sit down and talk properly.’

A little stunned, a sat where he gestured, and he sat beside me. Sophia stayed standing, but remained focussed on the pair of us.

‘We’ve been tracking the activities of an organization that calls itself Futureproof. Have you heard of Futureproof, Jake?’

I had. ‘The environmental activists?’

‘Yes. We’ve known for a while that they’ve been hoping to sabotage Planexus’ attempts to colonise offworld. We believe this has happened.’

I felt physically winded by this revelation. ‘And you think James’ death has something to do with this?’

‘Yes, we believe so.’

‘But—why? Why haven’t you said anything?’

‘At this stage it is crucial that we keep the crew in as good a mental place as we possibly can. And we mustn’t forget that we have no concrete proof of anything—there’s a chance James’ death may be entirely natural. After all, Futurproof are activists, not terrorists.’

The weird conversation I’d had with James flooded back. It was no accident, he’d said to me. ‘And what if it was murder?’

‘Well, it’s going to be hard, but I want you to carry on as you are, as though this conversation never happened. It’s for the good of the crew, and the mission. If James’ death is the result of foul play—whether it’s Brendan or whoever—and we can prove it, can detain them as best we can until we return from the mission, when they will be prosecuted accordingly.’

‘We wouldn’t turn the ship around and go back?’

Jason shook his head. ‘We can’t. The cost would be too great for Planexus. It’s not ideal, but it’s our only option.’

‘So Planexus would rather see people die than have their mission sabotaged?’

‘It’s not as simple as that, but yes. We’re in a very tricky situation here.’

We talked a little longer, then Jason and Sophia let me leave, and I stumbled in a daze to my bunk. I think Sadie said something to me as I passed through the briefing room, but I didn’t really hear what it was. There was no room in my head for her right now. I felt sick, and as I lay on my bunk the room span around me, as I couldn’t get the thought of what Jason had said to me out my mind. The thought of being trapped here for months on end with a killer made the walls shrink close and the air thick. I could see why Jason didn’t want the rest of the crew to know; if they all felt what I was feeling now, Jason could end up with a mutiny on his hands. Should I tell the others or should I do as Jason asked and keep this information to myself? He had told me in confidence of course, but only because I was causing more problems otherwise. I lay there for what seemed like hours, and the weight of it all eventually gave way to that of slumber, which I passed into with uneasy fever.

I was on the sea-less beach again and I turned to look for the pair of twinkling stars, but they were gone. I wandered into the forest anyway, and unlike last time, I felt a deep sense of foreboding as I plunged into the thick brush. Although I couldn’t see the stars, I could feel them watching me, and I was relieved to breach the other side of the island and find myself back on the beach. A cold wind blew against my back, and a shiver followed it, pinching the nape of my neck right down to the base of my spine. I turned, and there was James, but this time he was almost unrecognisable for the rot that had consumed his flesh. The twinkling stars were indeed dead.

A night’s sleep always helped me think things through, however distorted with dreams it may have been, and as I made myself an early morning nutridrink, I was able to run over my conversation with Jason with more clarity than I’d done the day before. I could see know why Jason was keen to keep the crew from knowing about Futureproof, even if we were able to turn the ship around. And if the crew wasn’t to know, then the mission may as well continue. In the sobering state of morning, I could also see that, if I did utter a word, I too would be facing prosecution upon my return, and I did not want that.

I did, however, want to clear up one thing: did Byron wipe the e-reader or not? It seemed almost trivial now, but it still played on my mind, and I felt that I needed to keep it as clear as possible right now. I went to rec room, grabbing some breakfast along the way, and waited for him there. I was alone—it was a lot earlier than I thought because I’d gone to sleep so early, so most of the crew were still in bed—but soon the others would get up, and that’s when I’d spring my round of questioning. The disorientation of recent sleep would do the rest.

The minutes ticked by long and slow, but eventually people emerged. Sophia and Jason switched shifts with Emily and Clip, Grant was making himself an omelette and Sadie shuffled into the rec room with Byron in tow.

‘Morning,’ she said, her voice gruff with post-sleep fatigue.

‘Morning,’ I replied. ‘Morning, Byron.’

He smiled oddly, but didn’t say anything. He knew something was up, but I didn’t know if he knew what. Again I wondered what he, Sophia and Jason had spoken about.

‘Did you sleep well?’ I asked.

‘Not really,’ Sadie said. ‘Brendan’s been snoring like a chainsaw. He’s still going at it in there. I have no idea how he doesn’t wake himself up.’

‘How about you, Byron.’

‘Mm-hmm.’

It was now or never. ‘Say, Byron—did you wipe James’ e-reader?’

‘Jake!’ Sadie said, scowling. ‘That’s not an appropriate thing to ask.’

‘I was just wondering is all,’ I said, trying to feign innocence.

‘Well, wonder in your head,’ Sadie snapped.

‘It’s okay,’ Byron said. ‘I understand you asking.’

Sadie shuffled in her seat, her nutridrink slopping in its cup. ‘Well, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It’s gone and done.’ She directed the last sentence at me.

Byron was staring at the floor, rubbing the toe of his shoe over a scratch in the metal. ‘I lied,’ he said. My stomach jolted.

‘You lied?’ Sadie said, her surprise apparent in the squeak of her voice.

Byron nodded. ‘I can’t help it.’

‘What do you mean, you can’t help it?’ I said, anxious that my own investigation was getting too close to Jason and Sophia’s again.

Byron took a deep breath, which he released in a slow stuttering puff. ‘I’m a compulsive liar,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I do it, but I just do. Sometimes I do it when I’m provoked, sometimes I do it to impress people, sometimes—sometimes it just happens.’

‘So you did wipe the e-reader,’ I said.

He nodded his head.

‘Why did you do it?’

Byron sniffed. He was still looking down, so I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t crying. ‘I wanted to get him back for being nasty to me, and you.’

‘But you must have known he’d blame me for it?’

‘I did realise afterwards, but I couldn’t say anything. I was too scared. I was only trying to help, but when he got really mad at you I knew I’d done wrong.’ He allowed himself a weak smile, as if the confession was a load off his mind.

I looked at Sadie, but she was too stunned to say anything.

‘So what about the chocolate?’ I asked. ‘Was that you?’

All my previous expectations of this conversation were left abandoned, lying forgotten by the wayside. I felt now more than ever that Byron needed me to protect him.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I mean no. I don’t know . . .’

‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’

He shrugged, ashamed. ‘Sometimes my lies get caught up in my truths. It can be hard for me to tell which one is which.’ He shrugged again, his puffy red eyes glinting with fresh tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

Chapter 6

The days dragged. We were only two months and fourteen days in. Usually I would be enjoying the free time, consuming entertainment in its various forms in that solitary way my mother always used to be concerned about. But on board the Athena, time seemed to have been stretched paper thin, weak and transparent, and that was how I felt. Weak and transparent. I would play my games, but I would lose focus in minutes. I would read books, but I’d read the same page over and over and over. It was as if I was waiting for something, something bad, and on the second month, fourteen days in, it happened. Well actually, come to think of it, it started happening the day before, but it wasn’t until afterwards that put the pieces together.

It was evening, and I was trying—and failing—to read a book. It was one of those I’d copied over from James’ now defunct e-reader, and although it was good, a mixture of unease and noisy distraction stopped the words from going in. They seemed to ping off my eyeballs as I fell into a glassy stare, looking but not seeing, tossing the same festering thoughts around in my head on some logic-loop autopilot. The unease I couldn’t control, but the noisy distraction I could; Clip, Grant and Emily were playing cards, and the raging competitiveness was driving the volume up a notch with each hand. I hadn’t really got to know Clip and Grant that well so far, so I figured I would do the simple thing and vacate to my bunk, where I could read (or not) in peace. It was kind of an unwritten rule that the bunk space was kept quiet, so it made sense for me to retreat there and leave the others playing undisturbed.

On my way through the galley—which always seemed to smell of coffee at this time of day, even though we didn’t have any—I passed Brendan, James’ friend and colleague, who was wearing a disgruntled expression and was without his usual companion. We exchanged nods, and the curtness of his and sheer curiosity made me stop and ask him where James was.

‘He’s not feeling so good,’ Brendan said. ‘He’s having a lie-down.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

But something about his tone made me think he wasn’t telling the truth. If anything, he was behaving as though they’d had a falling out, and the way he stomped off made the idea seem even more plausible. But what could they possibly have to fight about? Sure, people spoke of drilling teams as though they were old married couples, but did that include the arguments as well? The thought didn’t hang around long, because when I entered the bunk space, James wasn’t there. Perhaps he was having a shower, cooling off so to speak. The part of me that didn’t fancy the idea of slogging through a pass-the-parcel of ship-wide infection hoped that he was. I didn’t see whether or not he did come back out the shower because after a handful of pages I’d slipped into a dreamless, restless sleep.

The next day, my mind fresh—or as fresh as it could be—I rendezvoused with Sadie and Byron to have breakfast. Somehow it seemed like ages since I’d last spent any time with them, and it was probably because I hadn’t. It was nice to laugh again, and I could feel the hands of anxiousness release their clammy grip from my shoulders. Byron was being pleasant, Sadie even more so, and my concerns finally seemed to slip away.

‘Sadie was teaching me how to sew yesterday,’ Byron said proudly. ‘I stitched a picture of a dog, although it came out looking like a rat.’

Sadie let out an involuntary, staccato laugh. ‘It wasn’t that bad.’

‘It was. Look, Jake.’

He handed me a grubby piece of cloth. I held it up, and sure enough, there was a rat on it. ‘It’s not that bad . . .’ I tried to say without breaking into open laughter, right in the poor kid’s face. I just about managed to stifle the giggles by clenching my stomach. It was quite painful.

Byron didn’t seem convinced by my attempt at sincerity, but he thanked me anyway. ‘You should have a go,’ he said. ‘See what you can do.’

‘No thanks,’ I said, the corners of my mouth aching from keeping a straight face. ‘Sadie’s tried that one on me before, but sewing just isn’t my style.’

‘Like you have style,’ she rebuked.

‘Charming!’

‘She’s right, you know. You don’t have any style.’

‘What are you even talking about? We’re all wearing the same issue jumpsuits for goodness’ sake!’

‘Yeah, but you don’t wear yours with style.’

Where I had held in my laughter, Sadie made no attempt to do that same, guffawing point blank in my face.

‘I’ve got plenty of style,’ I said, folding my arms indignantly. ‘You two just don’t know it when you see it.’

‘Oh, lay off . . .’ Sadie said, wiping her eyes. (You lay off, I wanted to say, but then I remembered I wasn’t ten years old.) ‘If you don’t want to sew, you don’t want to sew. But if you ever want to learn how to stitch a picture of a rat, Byron’s your man.’

‘Hey!’

And now we were laughing at Byron again, and I fully appreciated joining in this time. But we weren’t laughing for long, because a scream cut us off.

‘What was that?’ Sadie said, her eyes wide.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, getting up. The sound had come from the bunk end of the ship. ‘But I’m going to find out.’

As I made my way through the galley I felt something inside me that slowed my pace.

‘What is it?’ Sadie asked from behind.

I couldn’t well tell her that I felt scared, so I said nothing, trying my best to ignore the flutter in my chest and the hum in my fingers as I moved on. The scream had woken Clip and Grant who were standing by their bunks, obviously going through the same inward battle I was.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked them, and they both jumped. Grant looked at me then back towards the sanitation room, even though nothing could be seen through the rubber curtain between it and the bunks.

Clip turned to me and said, ‘I dunno, I was just getting some shut-eye when I heard this scream. I think it came from the showers.’ His face was pale with fear under the dim light, which didn’t help the strength of my own courage, which was dwindling as it was.

‘Let’s go check it out,’ I said. He nodded quickly, as if accepting his fate. I lead the party, blinking as I pushed through the curtains and into the bright sanitation room. It was empty. Further ahead, a shadow moved in the tow dock, so there I headed, heart bouncing against my ears. I balled my fists ready, not really having any clue what to expect, all sorts of gruesome images playing out behind my eyes. The first thing I saw was Emily, who was wrapped up in a towel, hand clapped over her mouth, her bulging eyes staring at the far corner of the rearmost room of the ship. I followed her eyeline, and there, in the corner, was James Gray, and he was dead.

Once we had separated Emily’s stare from James’ corpse, she seemed okay. Shaken, but okay. Word had gotten to the bridge (I think Sadie sent Byron), and soon Sophia and her first officer, Jason Pritchard, were here with us.

‘What happened, Emily?’ Sophia asked once we had retreated to the sanitation room, the tow dock now off-limits to everyone except Jason, who was taking pictures.

‘I . . . I don’t know,’ Emily said, her look still as distant as when we’d found her. ‘I was having a shower, when I saw something out the corner of my eye, and I went to look. As soon as I saw him—James, I mean—well, that’s when I screamed.’

‘So you didn’t see how he died?’

Emily shook her head. ‘No. Not a thing.’

I suppose, as a physician, she’s seen a dead body before. I was impressed by how well she was handling herself; I know full well if it had been me in her shoes (or towel), I would’ve been a damn sight less communicative. Sophia gave her a comforting squeeze of the arm. ‘Are you going to be okay?’

Emily smiled a thin smile. ‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Good.’ Sophia turned to me. ‘You were the second person on the scene—did you see anything?’

I felt that hot prickle I always got behind my ears when I felt subconsciously guilty for something I hadn’t done, but I don’t think Sophia picked up on it. She had enough on her plate containing what was every captain’s worst nightmare.

‘No, just Emily as she described.’

Now I thought about it, it worried me just how little I did remember. If Sophia had asked me where Emily had been standing when I found her, I’m not sure I would have been able to say with full certainty.

‘Okay, that’s no problem. If you do remember anything, please let me know. That goes for you too, Emily.’

Sophia left to join Jason in the tow dock, where they spoke in low voices. It was then I remembered the brief conversation I’d had with Brendan the afternoon before, the weird way he’d looked at me when I asked about James. I wanted to call Sophia, but Brendan was standing right beside me, quietly consoling Emily. He must have come down just after Sophia did. With Clip and Grant manning the cockpit and Sadie keeping Byron clear of the scene, it left an uncomfortable threesome in the sanitation room that I wanted to run from, and fast. Eventually, Sophia and Jason returned, both looking solemn.

‘Emily,’ Sophia said. ‘We’ll need you to run some samples on James to determine the cause of death. Will you be okay to do that?’

Emily nodded.

‘Good. If you don’t mind I’d like to get that underway as soon as you feel up to it.’

‘I can do it now.’

‘Are you sure? That’s not too soon?’

‘It’s fine. No point delaying it.’

‘Thank you, Emily, that’s . . . that’s really good of you.’

Emily smiled humourlessly. ‘I’m just doing my job.’

‘Okay. I’ll leave you with Jason and you can get started. Jake, Brendan—let’s give them some space.’

The cold light and polished steel surfaces of the sanitation room had started to look too much like a morgue for my liking, and I was pleased to be out of there. I followed Sophia back to the rec room where Sadie and Byron were waiting, and before Sophia continued to the cockpit, she asked me to take a seat and wait for her to come back.

‘I’ll need to take an official statement from you,’ she said, ‘the others as well. Just a formality, so you don’t need to look quite so guilty.’

So she had noticed.

Once Sophia was out of earshot, I collapsed in a seat next to Sadie and sighed a sigh I actually believed for a moment was going to deflate me.

‘What happened?’ Byron hissed. His eyes were electric.

‘It’s best you don’t know, Byron,’ Sadie said matter-of-factly.

‘I’m twenty-three, not twelve! I deserve to know!’

‘Nobody knows what happened,’ I said. ‘Emily found James dead in the tow dock. That’s it.’

Byron’s face lit up, as though we were simply talking about some movie I’d seen. He was leaning towards me in his seat. ‘Was there blood?’ he said in a low whisper.

‘No.’

‘Any bones sticking out?’

‘No.’

‘Any—’

‘Byron!’ Sadie snapped, and Byron retreated back into his seat.

‘Sorry . . .’

The morbidity of Byron’s fascination may have been odd, but I admit to sharing an element of his curiosity. I played the scene over and over in my mind, talking to Brendan, seeing Emily, talking to Brendan, seeing Emily . . . talking to James himself when he’d apologised about the e-reader. My god . . . something was up even then. He’d seemed horribly distracted—nervous even—but perhaps I was reading too much into it, painting the past with a tainted mind. It was all such a mess now. I had evidence to give, but my lucid brain had turned it into something it wasn’t. Should I keep it to myself? Should I tell Sophia?

‘Are you okay, Jake?’

I broke from my thoughts to see Sadie looking at me apprehensively.

‘Yeah, fine. Just a bit stunned by it all really.’

‘That’s understandable.’

Approaching footsteps alerted me of Sophia’s return, and the burning behind my ears came back tenfold.

‘Are you ready to make a statement?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, as Sophia positioned herself to sit down next to me. ‘But can we go somewhere private?’

‘Oh,’ Sophia said, stopping. ‘Sure, of course.’

‘I just don’t think Byron needs to hear all the graphic details.’

Byron looked at me with the same look that had accompanied his I’m twenty-three not twelve speech, but in front of Sophia he kept his mouth shut. I could tell Sadie approved.

‘Yes, absolutely. Shall we go to the briefing room?’

I agreed and we did. We sat down, and before I could open my mouth, Sophia said: ‘You know something, don’t you? Let me give you some advice. Don’t try to make the pieces fit. Tell me what you saw, not what you think happened. Don’t fill in any missing gaps. You let me take care of that.’

She spoke sense, and her words gave me a welcoming bloom of relief. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Here’s what I saw.’ And I told her everything.

Not an awful lot was said about James’ death after that—mainly because there was nothing else to say. The next day, Sophia called a crew meeting to announce that they had not learned of any foul play, and that the facts attributed James’ death to nothing more than an unfortunate roll of the dice. As there was nowhere to adequately store his body for the remainder of the long flight, a funeral service was to be held for him that evening where his body would be ejected out the waste dump.

The service wasn’t what you would call moving, but the air was still thick with emotion—just not the emotion you’d expect. It was stilted, like the momentary realisation a group of kids have when a game of throw-rocks-at-a-squirrel turns into a lesson on mortality. Nobody cried, nobody said anything—not even Brendan. The only person to speak was Sophia, who kept her words short. Fifteen minutes and it was all over. James, the man who’d raged at Byron for eating his chocolate then air-kissed him on both cheeks when they made up again, was gone. James, who loaned me his e-reader, then apologised for accusing me of wiping it in a way that sent shivers of fear down my spine, was gone. James, who had supposedly gotten ill despite no mention of it from Emily after his autopsy, was forever silent.

Surprisingly, the mood on the Athena didn’t stay low for long. Just a couple of days after the funeral, and the thought of James’ death was a mere whisper of a previous lifetime. Perhaps it was because he was a difficult person to be around, or perhaps it was because it was just easier that way. Emily’s smiles had found their humour once again, and I found the opportunity, having heard nothing more from Sophia on the matter, to ask her about her findings. We were in the galley; I was preparing some food for Sadie and Byron, she was making herself a nutridrink.

‘So the tests all came out normal then?’ I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.

‘What tests?’

‘You know—the ones from James.’

This seemed to take her aback, as if it had jarred a stuck memory. ‘Oh, yes, of course—sorry. My mind just hasn’t quite been in the same place since I—well, you know.’

‘I understand. Not the sort of thing you want to wake up to.’

‘No, no it isn’t.’

‘So what did you find?’

‘Oh, well, nothing really. Blood was normal, throat was normal. No obvious signs of a struggle or anything like that. Internals felt normal. Everything I could do without cutting him open came back clean.’

‘So you’re pretty certain it was a natural death, then?’

‘Seems that way. Besides, who’d want to kill him?’

I hadn’t expected that. The words, said out loud, cut into me so sharply I flinched.

‘Are you alright?’

‘I’m fine,’ I lied. ‘Just burned myself on this hot packet.’ I sucked my finger, pretending I really had burned it. But the truth was something different, and it scared me. When Emily had said who’d want to kill him?, the face that flashed in my mind wasn’t Brendan’s—it was Byron’s. ‘Anyway, I meant that he hadn’t died of illness or food poisoning or something like that.’

Emily rolled her eyes and shook her head. ‘Oh I see . . .’ she said, elongating the word see. ‘I get you now. No, there was nothing in the toxicity report or any of the cultures. He was as clean as a surgeon’s operating table.’

‘Thanks,’ I said, and we both went our separate ways, exchanging it’s a mystery to me glances as we left each other. When I re-entered the rec room, Clip was being grilled by Byron, who was still after every gruesome detail he could get his macabre little imagination on. Clip seemed to be enjoying the attention, while Sadie was stitching away, looking like she’d given up trying to stop Byron talking about it, her lips pursed in a clear indication of her displeasure at the conversation. I remembered the flash of Byron’s face I’d had and inwardly laughed it off. It was a stupid thought. Eating chocolate is one thing, killing a man another. A whole other ‘nother.

In a funny sort of way, the situation had brought us closer together as a crew. Clip had suddenly opened to up to me, giving me smiles and Hi! How are you?s when we passed along the ship. We’d even chatted awhile, and he’d told me about his struggle with drugs during school, how he’d beaten them to rise to the top of his class and go to flight training school. He was proud of himself, and now he was friendly enough with me for me to be proud with him. He’d even told me why he was called Clip: not because he was a good shot or because he carried money clip or anything, but because during flight training he would make incredible sculptures out of paperclips. ‘Where did you even get paperclips?’ I’d said. ‘I haven’t seen one of those since school.’ At that he laughed, and tapped his nose knowingly.

Grant, who’d looked at me but hadn’t said anything in the moments before we’d found James, was less amiable, but still more so than before. I don’t think he’d taken the whole thing particularly well; not because he was good friends with James or anything, more because of the impact of it all. But he was putting on a brave face at least, which was more than could be said for Brendan. He was sat on his own, staring at his e-reader. I handed the food out, sat down and watched him, and not once did he flick to the next page.

‘Is he alright?’ I said in a low voice to Sadie, nodding towards Brendan. Clip was still regaling Byron with the terrors of James’ zombie corpse—it was in extremely bad taste, but it was keeping Byron entertained, and I had other concerns on my mind.

‘I’m not sure,’ she muttered back. ‘He’s just been sat there this whole time, like he’s in a coma or something.’

‘I wonder if Sophia knows?’

‘I’m sure she does. She’s very good.’

I went to speak, then paused.

‘What is it?’ Sadie asked.

‘It’s . . . nothing.’

She shifted round to get a better look at me. ‘No, go on—what?’

‘I think he did it.’

What?

‘Shh! Keep your voice down.’

‘Sorry, but really? You think Brendan killed James?’

I glared at her, simultaneously willing her to shut up and wishing I hadn’t said anything. ‘I said it’s nothing.’

‘That’s not nothing . . .!’

‘I mean it’s based on nothing. Just a hunch.’

‘You can’t base a hunch on nothing.’

‘Then it’s not a hunch. It’s a feeling.’

‘That’s the same thing.’

‘What’s the same thing?’ Byron said, looking between us. Clip had gone to get some food himself, leaving Byron’s attention to wander.

‘Nothing,’ I said. Sadie, thank god, kept quiet.

‘Oh, not this again,’ Byron grumbled. ‘Keep Byron in the dark, don’t tell Byron anything . . .’

And I didn’t. At least, not just then.

Chapter 5

Once the first month is out of the way, it’s pretty much plain sailing from there. Everyone has their routines, everyone’s used to one another, everyone’s seen everyone else naked and gotten used to the grossness of it. Here on in, it’s rinse and repeat. We all had our hobbies, and while Sadie was sewing (one of the many things she’d brought in her personal bag was a sewing kit, some thread and some blank sheets of material), I played computer games. Because Sadie needed a bit of elbow room—and I suppose so did I when the games got a bit tricky—she was sat on the opposite side of the rec room, and we shared a mutual silence while we concentrated on our respective boredom-killers. It so happened that I was appreciating the extra elbow room right at that moment, because I was at a tricky stage of the game that required me to jump from one rolling boulder to another, a feat that had so far alluded me. As I died for the seventh time in five minutes, James wandered into the room and sat down a few seats along from me. He must have seen the frustration in my face, because when he looked at me, he laughed.

‘Are you winning?’ he asked.

‘A variation of that I suppose. How are you?’

‘I’m okay. Can’t get to sleep.’

‘Can’t get to sleep? What time is it?’

‘Half one.’

‘In the morning?’

‘Yeah—didn’t you know?’

‘I had no idea! No wonder I’m all fingers. Sadie, did you know—’

I looked up, but Sadie had gone.

‘Oh. Never mind.’ Thinking back, she probably said something when she left, but I’d been too engrossed in the game to hear it.

‘So why are you up so late then?’ James asked.

‘No reason. Time just slipped past me unnoticed, I suppose. How about you? Why can’t you sleep?’

He shrugged and rubbed his eyes. ‘Sometimes happens. I’ll get over it soon enough.’

I saw he had an e-reader in his hand. ‘What are you reading?’

‘I’ve got a load of Stephen King on here. I’m reading The Shining at the moment. Probably why I can’t sleep to be honest.’

We laughed.

‘Do you like King?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, love him. Not read anything from him in a long while though.’

‘You wanna borrow some stuff? Transfer something over?’

I was going to say no, but then I realised that, yeah, I did fancy reading one of his books. They’d gotten a little out-of-date since he wrote them way back when, but the intensity of the stories was perfect for whittling away the hours.

‘Thanks. I’d like that.’

I played my game a little while longer as James read, and soon the late hour started tugging at my eyelids.

‘I’m off to bed,’ I said through a yawn.

‘Night. I’ll leave the e-reader with you when I’m done.’

‘Thanks.’

I was asleep before I’d even hit the mattress, and the following morning I awoke to find that James had been true to his word: his e-reader was on the pillow next to me. A bit of a foolish place to leave it, I thought, and I was glad I hadn’t knocked it off in my sleep—I didn’t think I could face another run-in with his angry side.

I flicked through the menu and found a few other authors I liked the look of, so I synced James’ e-reader with mine, and left them transferring data while I took a shower. Because I was the only one in there, I snuck an extra wipe for that added feeling of freshness that didn’t quite match up to that of using real water and real soap.

Once air-dried (the wipes leave a residue that evaporates quickly so towels aren’t needed), I returned to my bunk to see how the transfer was getting on. To my surprise, James’ e-reader was gone, and mine was still on the bed. I checked the menu, and sure enough the data had transferred fine. James must’ve seen it was done and taken it back, I thought. He was probably bored, after all. I had a quick flick through the first few pages of a novel I particularly fancied reading, and one thing led to another and soon I was lying on my bunk, reading through to chapter six. It was only when the growls from my stomach got too loud that I decided I should probably get up. I put my e-reader back in my locker, got dressed and headed for the galley, where I fixed myself up a nutridrink and a hot pocket. Those were one of the few meals on board that tasted the same as back home; it was a welcome slice of nostalgia.

I took my meal through to the rec room, where a few of the crew mingled, talking in groups of two or three. James and Brendan sat alone at the far end, deep in conversation. Brendan saw me and nudged James, who picked up his e-reader—it was on the empty chair next to him—and got up to march over to me. He looked cross, and my appetite vanished.

‘What’s he done now . . . ?’ I said.

‘Not him,’ James snapped. He jabbed a finger at me as he walked, one from the hand he held the e-reader in. ‘You.’

‘Me? What? What have I done?’

I got the feeling that the others in the room had stopped talking and were looking at us, but I didn’t break my eyes away from the approaching mass of flesh and bone to confirm it. James stopped mere feet away and held his e-reader to my face.

‘Gone. All gone.’

I tried to think back to what I’d done.

‘I must’ve pressed “cut” instead of “copy”—I can copy the stuff back again, don’t worry—’

James closed the gap between us even more. I could feel his furious heat against me. ‘No, all gone. Everything. Wiped. Dead.’

‘Wha . . .?

‘You heard me. This thing is a useless brick now.’

‘But I—’

‘First it’s my chocolate, now it’s my books. Are you geologists purposely trying to upset me? Have I done something wrong to warrant this? Because as far as I can tell, I’ve been nothing but courteous to all of you.’

‘James, look, I’m sorry—’

James threw his hand up for silence. ‘I don’t want to hear it. Just leave me alone.’

He snatched around and stomped back to his seat. If the others in the room had been looking at me, they weren’t now.

‘Have you seen Sadie about?’ I asked Emily, who at first pretended she hadn’t heard me. Then she looked at James, as if concerned he might see her conversing with me.

‘I think she’s in the cockpit with Byron,’ she said in a low voice.

‘Thanks,’ I said, and wandered to the cockpit, careful to give James some space on the way past. I must have been visibly shaken by my run-in with James, because Sophia’s joviality as she shared a conversation with Byron and Sophia disappeared almost instantly. She took it as her cue to move back to her station, leaving Byron standing there with his usual neutral but slightly mischievous expression and Sadie who addressed me in a low whisper.

‘Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

I got that unsettling feeling of déjà vu again, the same I’d had before the launch, although this time it felt more than just the jangling of anxious nerves. This felt worse, much worse.

‘I . . .’ I started to say, but all I could do was hang my jaw open—the words just couldn’t come out. Sadie ushered me away from the cockpit, where sideways eyes watched us, and into the briefing room. She held up a finger to Byron to keep him where he stood. We sat down, or rather, Sadie sat me down. I must have been taking this worse than I realised, because it felt almost as if I’d teleported from the cockpit to that seat. Everything felt distant.

‘What happened?’ Sadie said. Her soothing voice was tainted with a hint of something, something that caught in her throat.

‘I . . . James . . . his e-reader . . .’

Why was this so hard? I shut my eyes, took a breath, held it—and relaxed. My head felt a little clearer. ‘James loaned his e-reader to me to copy some stuff from. I gave it back to him, and he thinks I’ve wiped everything from it. He thinks I did it maliciously.’

‘Well, it must be some misunderstanding,’ Sadie cooed. ‘I know you wouldn’t do a thing like that. These electronic devices have always been a little—you know—temperamental at times.’

It all seemed so simple and so obvious, yet something in my mind held me back from letting it all go as a garden-variety mix-up.

‘And besides, Jake, if you gave it back to him intact, surely it was James that wiped it? Right? Maybe he didn’t realise he’d done it?’

Then it hit me. It was like my insides had been pulled into a vacuum, leaving me hollow and nauseated. ‘I . . . I didn’t give it back to him . . .’

Sadie leaned back a bit, confused. ‘What? I don’t—’

‘I didn’t do it. James didn’t do it. But I think I know who did.’

A voice came from the corridor.

‘Did what?’

It was Byron.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Sadie told him. ‘Anyway, I told you to wait in the cockpit.’ She shooed him away with her hand, but he didn’t budge. He wore that same neutral expression, but the mischievousness had gone.

‘They told me I was getting in the way,’ he said quietly.

Sadie turned to me and asked me if I was okay. I nodded.

‘Fine,’ she said, her attention back on Byron. ‘Come and sit down. Since we’re all here in the briefing room, we might as well get started on some of the mission planning.’

And that we did, and it took my mind off the situation—at least partially. When the thought had first come to me, it had burned so fiercely I was sure nothing else could be the truth, but as it cooled to an ember, I felt silly. Byron wouldn’t do something like that. Why would he? Sure, the bar of chocolate was a black mark against his name, but there’s giving into temptation and devouring a tasty snack that doesn’t belong to you, and then there’s this, a seemingly malicious attempt to cause a rift between two people for no apparent reason whatsoever. As the ember died, disappearing like the last wisp of a nonsensical dream, I was sure of it. The e-reader had wiped itself.

The first mission plan went well. Sadie was in control, she knew what she was doing, and Byron seemed to take a keen interest in it as well. I’d half-expected (okay, half is a lie—I’d fully expected) him to kick back and roll his eyes at the whole thing, but he was enraptured in a way I’d never seen in him before. I suppose after all, for everything he had been through he had finally got what he wanted: he was here, with us, in deep space.

‘So when we find a spot with the surface make-up that matches the brief,’ Byron repeated back from his notes, ‘we mark it with a geode, the drillers drill a short borehole, we analyse, then proceed with the full-depth borehole?’

‘Exactly,’ Sadie said. She was beaming.

‘And the full-depth borehole sampling is collected and stored in the trailer?’

Sadie nodded. ‘Uh-huh.’

Byron laughed a single cocky laugh. ‘This is easy! I don’t know what you geos need so much training for.’

I rolled my eyes. ‘It’s not as simple as that . . .’

Sadie, proud of her new student, gave me that look mothers do when you tell them their child lit a bag of dog leavings on your doorstep. ‘Now now, Jake. He’s learning. No need to take that tone.’

I held my hand up, surrendering to Sadie’s indignant cosseting. Or should that be smothering?

‘Fine. Whatever.’ That seemed to appease her.

‘What you don’t understand,’ Sadie said to her over-eager pupil, ‘is that understanding where to dig and what to look for is more than just guesswork.’

‘So how do you know?’

‘Experience, and lots of it. You learn the feel of the land, see what’s underneath it by the skin that hides it. There’s a lot that a few dusty rocks and a dried-up seabed can tell you about the world below. It’s even possible to see back in time through a slice taken from the rock, see what lived and died millions of years ago, and even how and why it died.’

‘That’s amazing . . .’ Byron said, and he meant it, truly. He looked at his notepad, then at me, his face long. ‘I’m sorry, Jake. I didn’t mean to be rude.’

‘That’s okay,’ I said, and it was. It didn’t take much thinking back to remember how much of a know-it-all I thought I was when I first started my studies. Youth does that to you.

‘That sounds really quite fascinating, actually,’ Byron went on. ‘To see all that past frozen in rock, like a photo timeline of a planet’s history. Is that what we’re going to be doing? Looking at the past?’

He may be annoying, but he wasn’t dumb—not this one

‘That’s right,’ Sadie said. ‘Normally we’d be looking for traces of the formation of certain minerals, which can be a real detective-hunt across a world, but this is different. We aren’t looking for anything in particular—more trying to unravel the secrets of New Dawn’—I winced at the name—’to find out whether it would make an appropriate host for the future of civilisation.’

‘So we’re sort of pioneers, a bit like Christopher Columbus finding the New World?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘But without the driving out of the indigenous peoples,’ I added.

That seemed to light something up in Byron’s eyes. ‘Do you think there’ll be . . . aliens?’

I laughed, and Sadie gave me that look again, which made me stop mid laugh in a most unsatisfying way.

‘You would think so—’

‘No you wouldn’t,’ I butted in.

That look.

‘You would think so,’ Sadie continued, ‘but the reality of it is that yes, there are a lot of planets out there, but there’s also a vast amount of time that has gone before us. The probability of a planet existing that has the capability of supporting life is very high—why we’re visiting New Dawn, in fact—but the probability of life forming in the same infinitesimally small window as our own is next to nothing.’

‘Less,’ I added.

Byron seemed disappointed, but it didn’t last long. He was back to being a young know-it-all in no time. The similarity to my twenty-year-old self was uncanny.

After we finished the briefing, which drew to a close as my stomach made audible protests that made Byron laugh and Sadie frown, we ate together, just the three of us, in the briefing room. Although I’d never been shunned on a mission by any of the crew (well, not until this one), there was always that unspoken understanding among the other crew that the geos were the nerds of the mission. The drillers were of course the furthest thing from nerd-like, and the flight crew, although highly-skilled and heavily trained, managed to pull off an I’m-smart-but-so-what sort of mentality that didn’t require the same level of bookishness being a geo did. So the geos were always a team apart, the outsiders that were sometimes let in when it was cold and wet outside. To a viewer looking in it probably wasn’t even noticeable, but the subtleties of the hierarchical social scale on board a deep-space mission were as clear as day by the time a few weeks or so had been notched up. Little things like conversations dying and smiles wilting when you joined in, or finding your bunkmates belongings left strewn on your bed. Not always, but sometimes. I don’t think it’s malevolent, or even intentional—hell, some of the people on board were the nicest I could ever hope to meet—but ever since school, I’ve known it was simply the way of things. So when James approached me the next day, his face white as ash, I was quite taken aback.

I’d seen him apologise to Byron, but that was a show, a song and dance in front of the others for the benefit of mending Sophia’s stern expression. But this . . . I didn’t like this. I’d not seen James all morning, which was a relief, but mid-afternoon he’d cornered me at the bunks on my way back from the bathroom. At first I mistook his hollow expression for seething rage, and half-expected him to lash out at me with his fists, but as he drew close to me I could see in his eyes that I had misjudged his feelings completely.

‘We need to talk,’ he said in a cracked voice, looking about to make sure he hadn’t woken any of the flight crew on their off shift.

I didn’t say anything—I just swallowed the billiard ball in my throat and sat down on my bunk as instructed by James’ gesture.

‘First of all I want to apologise.’ He rubbed the back of his neck. This was hard for him, I could tell, but I also sensed it wasn’t the apology that was the problem. ‘I hope you can forgive me. I was out of line.’

‘It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.’

He sat down next to me on my bunk, his colossal size sagging the mattress down underneath him. Sat this close, his presence was incredibly intimidating. But he sat with hunched shoulders, looking at the floor.

‘Thanks, I appreciate that. But I had something else I wanted to talk to you about.’

This was getting more odd by the minute. The flutter in my heart faded as I became sure a pounding was off the cards, and I waited to see what James had to say next.

‘I think someone else did it.’

‘Did what?’ I said for some reason, even though I knew exactly what he meant. Perhaps I was still feeling guilty, still trying to defend.

James looked at me, and from this proximity I could see the weathered skin of a man who’d worked hard all his life, which made the anxious expression he was wearing seem almost comically out of place. Although it wasn’t comical, because it was terrifying.

‘Someone wiped my e-reader. It was no accident, I know it. Someone took it from you and wiped it.’

The billiard ball was back. I felt trapped, like I needed to either swallow it and stay quiet for Byron’s sake, or spit it out and tell James I thought the same thing. But did I think the same thing? The conversation with Sadie was still fresh in my mind—the e-reader had wiped itself. I hoped I still believed that, because I swallowed hard and opened my mouth. ‘That’s silly. Why would anyone do that?’

James nodded, as if the balance teetering in his mind had been nudged one way or the other. ‘You’re right. I’m being stupid. No one would do something like that on purpose. Not even—’ He stopped himself, shaking his head like a man trying to dislodge a thought.

‘Not even . . .?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ He slapped me on the leg and stood up. ‘Sorry to waste your time, and sorry about before.’

He was gone before I had a chance to respond.