It was like someone had swapped our flight crew out for a different one: they looked the same, but there was no joking or messing about. They were lined up, smartly turned out, without a glimmer of a smile on any of their faces. They meant business. The reality of it was that the next few days would be pretty much all they’d have to do for the best part of a year before we arrived at HD 85512 B (still not calling it New Dawn). Sure, they’d be keeping an eye on things along the way, but everything on board was pretty much automated from departure. So here they were, rank and file, ready to do their duty with chests out and chins up.
Sadie and I joined them, and the rest of the crew followed soon after. Byron spotted us at the end of the corridor, and he beamed his nervous smile and jogged over to us. ‘Morning,’ he said, rubbing his hands together in the way you would if you were out in the cold.
‘Morning, Byron,’ I said, and Sadie said something similar, but with more feeling.
‘Are you guys looking forward to the launch?’ he asked.
There was no doubt that he was—he was shifting from foot to foot, bobbing up and down with the excitement of a puppy. I couldn’t say I shared his enthusiasm. In fact, I was never particularly enthusiastic about launch day. I’m one of those people where everything comes to a nervous head moments before whatever big situation I’m in gets going, but once it’s started, I’m fine. It’s the waiting around that gets to me, which made it all the more frustrating to see the two drillers coming from the direction of the canteen with crumbs down their jackets. James was still eating a slice of buttered toast. I envied their rock steady calm.
‘I’m not really looking forward to it, no,’ I said. I could have given Byron more detail, but I didn’t want to ruin his first proper launch.
The station manager showed up five or so minutes later to give us our final safety briefing, with no word as to our conversation of yesterday. The briefing was the usual don’t do this, don’t do that nannying Planexus is contractually obliged to undertake, and for the most of us the horror-story warnings of failed airlocks and depressurisation was water off a duck’s back. Not for Byron though—he was ogling Stone, rapt by every last word. God, this really was his first time. I gave Sadie a jab with my elbow, but she’d already seen it, and gave me an I know, but what am I supposed to do about it look.
Briefing over (and already forgotten), we filed on, personal bags in hand. As I said, the next few days belonged to the flight crew, and to be honest, that’s pretty much exclusively so. The rest of us are dead weight until we reach New Dawn—dammit, I mean HD 85512 B. Stone must’ve mentioned the name, and now it was starting to stick in my brain.
The flight crew turned left as they boarded the Athena, and the rest of us turned right. As I stooped to enter, a familiar feeling hit me in a wave of oil, grease and metal. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia per se, but I wouldn’t say it was an unpleasant feeling, either. I followed Sadie down the narrow corridor, through the briefing room, through the galley and to our bunks. If you imagine the Athena as a long tube, everything is laid out open plan either side of the main corridor, similar to those old war submarines they teach you about in school, only less cramped. Just.
‘Ten minutes,’ Sophia—our captain—said over the ship’s intercom. A klaxon sounded in the dock, then suddenly fell quiet as the hatch was sealed.
This was it. This was our new home for eight months until we reached New Dawn (I’ve given up on that one). The light was low thanks to the rubber curtains each end of the bunk space, but as my eyes adjusted I could just about see what I was doing as I tipped my personal bag out onto my bunk and tucked the contents into my assigned locker. I say locker—it’s not really locked, it’s just a place to store the few things I’m allowed to take with me. We’re each assigned one rigidly enforced kilo of personal belongings, and I’d chosen to bring my e-reader and my hand-held console, packed as full as I could get it with games. They do devices that play games and have books, but I don’t think they’re as good. But who cares, because it’s all under a kilo anyway.
Sadie was in the bunk opposite me on the other side of the narrow corridor, and Byron was above her. My bunkmate was, according to the label, Emily Porter, the ship’s comms officer and physician. Hopefully she didn’t snore. I sat down, feeling drained by the tension of the imminent launch. I watched Sadie pack her things away for a bit, then I turned to Byron who was also sat on his bunk, ducking slightly to fit under the sloping ceiling.
‘Don’t you have anything?’ I asked him.
He shook his head. ‘Not really. But it’s ok. There’s nothing I’d want to bring anyway.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
He seemed embarrassed, so I moved on. ‘What do your parents think of you coming along?’
He smiled a smile that overcompensated for something else—something sad. ‘Oh, I’m not sure they’d be interested.’
With the conversation cut awkwardly short, and Sadie still emptying out her personal bag (what on Earth did she have in there?), I thought I’d go for a wander. I was about to head up towards the cockpit when I had an idea.
‘Hey, Byron—do you want to come for a tour of the Athena with me?’
Byron smiled again, but a proper, wholesome smile this time. ‘I’d like that,’ he said, and hopped down.
‘You boys have fun,’ Sadie called after us.
There isn’t really enough room for two people to walk comfortably side by side down the central corridor, so Byron followed just behind, staggered to the right so he could still talk to me. ‘It’s very quiet,’ he said as we passed through the galley. ‘The runabout I was on before was always rattling and grinding. I thought it was going to fall apart.’
I chuckled, reminded of yesterday’s shuttle flight and the same paranoia I’d felt. ‘I know what you mean. But this thing’s built to last, so you won’t hear so much as a squeak. She’s a long-range tug, one of twenty or so in Planexus’ fleet, and she’s as strong as they come.’
We passed through the rec room, which was basically two longs rows of seats, one either side of the corridor, every pair separated with a small table. The two drillers were sat in there; one was snoozing, the other listening to some music.
‘This is where we eat and relax. There’s a few TVs and headphones, and even a games console, but its pretty dated. The movie collection isn’t bad though.’
‘I’m not really into computer games.’
‘Oh, you will be. You’ll need to be.’
We entered the next space. It was similar to the rec room, except the pairs of seats all faced the front like they would in a coach, with small tables on the backs of the seats in front. ‘This is the briefing room, where we’ll be going through the mission and planning what we need to do in more detail. There’s a fold down screen at the front’—I tapped it as we passed under it—’we’ll be using that a lot.’ The sealed hatch went by on our left, and we entered the cockpit. The lighting was dim in here and I stopped just inside. Byron did the same. Being at the nose of the Athena, the cockpit didn’t need to be arranged so rigidly around the central corridor. There were instrument panels all over the place, most with a member of the flight crew at them. Sophia spotted me and gave me a stern look, and I nodded my understanding. We would go no further today. She turned away, continuing to distributing her orders with all the calmness of a frozen lake.
‘There’s no window,’ Byron whispered.
‘No,’ I whispered back. ‘It’s all instruments from here. In fact there’s not a single window on the ship. Lowers the chances of pressure failure.’
Byron nodded. He looked a tad nervous under the dim light as he watched the crew work.
‘Let’s go,’ I said. We walked back through the ship, and I showed him the sanitary room beyond the bunks, where the toilets and showers were.
‘I see toilets, but I don’t see showers,’ he said, bemused.
I extracted a packet of wipes from an overhead hatch and presented them to him. ‘Here’s your shower.’
He gave me an incredulous look that made me laugh.
‘Wow,’ I said, still bubbling with mirth. ‘They really didn’t tell you anything, did they?’
He looked disdainfully at the wipes as I put them back. ‘Apparently not.’
‘You’ll get used to them. They’re surprisingly refreshing, and get you statistically cleaner than a traditional shower.’
‘You sound like an advert.’
‘Am I selling them well?’
He grinned, but his grin quickly faded. He sighed a long, deflating sigh. ‘Look, I know I’ve been dumped on you,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a burden.’
His humour had gone, and standing there as he was I could see now more than ever that he was just a kid—a lost one at that. I remembered Stone telling us about the license he denied having. Could he really be that naïve?
‘I’m sure you’ll be no trouble as long as you’re as honest with us as we are with you,’ I said, and I let the words linger with him, watching carefully to see if they twinged a nerve. They did, and I could see the inward battle he was having to hold down some piece of information that wanted out.
‘What is it?’
He ruffled his messy hair, not looking at me. ‘Promise you won’t be cross?’
Now we were getting somewhere. ‘I can’t promise something like that, but I can promise I’ll be fair and understanding.’
‘Ok . . .’ He paced the corridor kicking his boots along the floor. Then he stopped, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and took a deep breath. ‘Ok. Here it is. My dad’s on the board of directors at Planexus.’
Then it clicked. ‘Your dad is Peter Ash?’
‘Uh-huh. But it’s not what you think. When I finished college, I told him I wanted to do proper deep space missions, and what does he do? He tells me I’ll never make it as deep space crew, that I’m too stupid, and he sticks me on that grotty rust-bucket just far enough out of the way that he doesn’t have to deal with me anymore. Fine, I say to myself, I’ll do this without him. So with a few years of orbital under my belt, I apply for deep space, hoping to do my licenses—but everyone rejects me. Then next thing I know I’m being whisked away to join the crew of the Athena.’
‘Do you think your dad arranged that? He must have forged your licenses.’
‘My licenses? I don’t have any licenses.’
‘I checked with the station manager and somehow you’re a fully qualified deep space geologist. Is that something your dad could have sorted?’
‘Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, he must’ve done. What else could it be? He’s got the power to do it after all. It’s the only explanation. He probably saw an opportunity when that other geologist posted sick or whatever was wrong with him and fixed it so I took his place. Who else would’ve done it?’
‘But why would he do it?’
Byron laughed sardonically. ‘He’s never liked me. I’m not the same as my brothers. They’re achievers, winners, they make him happy. I . . . I’m just a mistake he’s being trying to put right ever since I took my first breath. I haven’t even seen him since he had me posted off-planet nearly three years ago, not even once. Maybe he saw I was applying for jobs off the Bounty and he thought there was a chance I’d come back planet-side.’
Byron laughed again, but this time it was a deflated, defeated laugh. ‘And now he’s got what he always wanted. He must have pulled some serious strings to do it, but I’ll be as far away from him as it’s physically possible to be.’
‘And what about your mother? What does she think about all this?’
Byron stuck his bottom lip out like a sulking child, making him look even younger. ‘She’s never really had time for me. She’s very busy with her clubs and everything, so I don’t really get to see her.’
‘I’m sure she still cares about you though, right?’
Byron looked at the floor. ‘Once, when I was a baby, she left me in a department store out of town. It wasn’t until she picked up the phone message from the store at home that she realised I was missing.’
I had nothing to say to that.
‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m here now, and there’s not a lot I or anyone else can do about it.’
I gave him a pat on the shoulder, not really sure what else to do. ‘You’ll be alright. You’ve got a new family now.’
He nodded. ‘I suppose I got what I always wanted, didn’t I?
For the second time in that conversation I had nothing left to say. I’d only known Byron for the best part of a day, but already he’d left me heartbroken. We joined Sadie, who’d finally finished packing the contents of her personal bag into her locker, and then we went and sat in the rec room with the drillers. I could tell that Sadie knew something had happened between me and Byron, but she let it be. The three of us sat and chatted as the ship disembarked from the dock with a barely noticeable shudder. I’m not even sure Byron, who was engaged in a lively debate with Sadie about the merits of candles on birthday cakes, did notice. I let my eyes wander over the dark steel of the Athena as he rattled on enthusiastically, telling a tale of how he’d had the biggest birthday cake ever on his sixteenth birthday, and my eyes met those of James Gray. He was still listening to his music as his compadre slept, and he gave me a single, knowing nod. I nodded back, and I realised then that the tension had gone from my shoulders. I allowed myself to sink into the foam padding of my seat, letting Sadie’s trilling laughter wash over me. I was back. I was home.
Before we left orbit and set off on our journey to that planet, we first had to run a quick errand. Deep space tugs have no cargo storage of their own, relying on hulking great containers to do the dirty work instead. We needed to make our way to the service yard, an orbital drop off zone for the returned plunders of the universe, to collect what crews affectionately dubbed trailers. Within an hour we had arrived, and Grant and Emily jogged by to the rear of the Athena to undertake the tow docking procedures. It was easy to feel like a bit of a fifth wheel being sat on my backside doing diddly squat, but in the time it took me to consume a glass of the nutritious and tasty vitamin drink the physicians at Planexus encouraged us to have once daily, Grant and Emily finished and jogged back again. I’m pretty certain they only jogged to make themselves feel important, or make us feel bad. Or both.
Now, remember me saying how we’re going to travel thirty-seven lightyears in eight months, two weeks and a day? The more perceptive of you will realise that this is faster than light. I also said I have no idea how this works, but I can tell you this: acceleration to top speed takes about two months. Planexus may be a money-hungry conglomerate, but they aren’t in the business of snapping the necks off their crewmembers to save a few bucks, so we build the pace up slowly until we reach our cruising velocity. The deceleration at the other end is the same. In terms of our habitat, it means that there is pretty much no reference for movement at all, beyond the instruments in the cockpit. It’s pretty much like living in a long tube underground with nothing to do but eat, drink and play computer games.
The first night’s always a bit weird. And the second. In fact it takes on average (according the exam papers we have to pass to earn the first stage of our deep space licence) thirteen days, unlucky for some. I was never a great sleeper anyway so it didn’t bother me too much, but Byron seemed to be struggling.
Hello,’ I said when he wandered into the rec room at about half-past ten on the morning of our seventh day. ‘Did you get any sleep?’
‘Not really.’ He yawned, rubbing his eyes. ‘But I definitely drifted off a few times, which is an improvement.’
‘Let me get you something to eat.’
‘Thanks.’ He flopped down on a seat as I went to make us both something. James, the driller, was already in the galley, heating up a couple of sausage and egg packs.
‘Morning,’ he said, scratching his chin through his beard. He was a stout man, although he spoke quietly.
‘Good morning. Sleep well?’
I needn’t have asked. Drillers could sleep through the apocalypse.
‘Yeah, not so bad. You?’
‘Alright. Getting used to it.’
‘What about that kid?’
‘Byron? Not so well. But he’ll get through it. It’s his fi—’ I stopped myself from saying first time—it probably wasn’t a good idea to let the rest of the crew know there was a potential liability on board such a long mission. ‘It’s his first unlimited duration. Mine too.’
‘You seem to be holding up alright.’
‘I suppose I’m just a morning person.’
The oven pinged, and James retrieved his and—presumably—Brendan’s breakfast.
‘See you back in the rec room,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘see you in there.’
I made Byron and I a sausage and egg pack each, stacking the two packets into the oven and setting it to the time suggested on the box. Once cooked, I took them back to him, where I found him chatting with James and Brendan. What ever it was he was telling them, he was doing it with real animation.
‘. . . and it took me about an hour to get it back out again!’ he said, and the two drillers laughed.
‘He’s quite the storyteller this one,’ James said to me as I handed Byron his breakfast.
‘He sure is,’ I said, tearing off the corner of my breakfast. I watched as Byron looked away from me, understanding the veiled meaning of my words. He tried the tear the corner of his own packet off as I did, but he couldn’t seem to do it.
‘Here,’ I said, handing him my open packet and taking his.
‘Thanks,’ he said, holding it like he didn’t know what to do with it. I made a tipping gesture towards my mouth, and he seemed to understand. I tore off the corner of my own packet and we ate in silence. I was nearly finished when Sadie shuffled in, wrapped up in a fluffy dressing gown with her eyes barely open.
‘Morning, ‘ she croaked. She dragged herself to a seat and flopped down.
‘Not sleeping well?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’
Mental note: crabby in the morning. I’d forgotten about that.
‘I’m just being polite.’
I finished my breakfast and took the packets from the other three as they finished theirs.
‘I’m going to the galley, Sadie, do you want anything?’
‘You know we don’t have any coffee. There’s water, fruit squash, or nutridrink.’
‘I want coffee.’
I took this as my cue to leave, and deposited my rubbish in the galley waste container. As I waited for the dispenser to fill a cup with nutridrink (which I found surprisingly tasty in a refreshing sort of way), I wondered about the following days, months and years ahead of me. It’s one thing to know what you’re getting yourself into, but another thing entirely to have no idea. The future was a blank canvas, and right now Byron was holding the brush.