I’m not scared of flying, or heights. What I am scared of is situations that have an inherent whiff of imminent death about them. A tin-pot shuttle rattling like a paint mixer as it hurtles through the thick soup of our planet’s atmosphere is one of those situations. I swallowed down the clammy sweat on the back of my throat, gripping onto the armrests of my seat hard enough to keep me from wailing, but not so hard that Sadie—who seemed fine—would notice. It was too loud to talk, so I kept my eyes front and centre, and my mouth shut. Brendan, the driller who’d been asleep in the waiting room, was sleeping again. I had no idea how he did it, but right then he was, I believed, the most envied person on board.
The shaking soothed as the sky faded to black, and the unlit interior of the craft fell into shadow. This made the starshine of the many brilliant pinpricks I could see through the porthole even brighter. There was something mystical about seeing space that never got old, almost as though my brain was never built to venture this far from the safety of terra firma. Sadie was looking too, her face bathed in soft starlight. I could tell, even seeing her side on, that she was thinking the same thing I was. She shook her head ever so slightly, as if in disbelief at the view. I was about to say something when the view took a turn for the better: as we rounded the curve of the Earth, the magnificence of our own star crept up from behind the thin blue horizon. Silhouetted in front of it was a nest of beams and pylons, with small dots of light winking from its extremities. It was the dock, or to be more precise, Orbital Shipyard 6. It was the floating partner to the groundside shipyards, the final assembly and maintenance place for many a spacefaring craft. Ours, the Athena, was hunkered down inside the nest, being lovingly prepared for its next voyage.
Deep space ships always struck me as beautiful in an odd sort of way. They weren’t sleek, graceful or anything like that, but they weren’t industrial hunks of budget engineering like our shuttle was, either. Everything was there for a reason, every dip, crevice, protrusion and bump designed for a purpose. The Athena looked so incredibly fragile, and not for the first time I wished I’d brought a camera to keep this scene fresh in my mind for the rest of my life. As bizarre as it sounds, the only time I’d get to see the outside of the Athena was during our trips to and from Earth: the Athena was flown by instruments and was as such windowless.
Our shuttled tipped down and swept underneath the dock, pulling it from view. We made a jerky right, slowing quickly, than raised up into the bird’s nest. Our connection with the mating adaptor was rough, but no rougher than I remembered.
‘We’re here,’ I said for some reason. It seemed the right thing to say.
‘I hope we’re not overnighting,’ Sadie said, looking out the porthole at the underside of the Athena. ‘The cabins here are awful.’
She wasn’t wrong; the dock was like a bus stop: it was dirty and smelled funny. Tight space we could cope with, but grimy sheets—not so much.
‘Please stay fastened in while we get the AG online. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to disembark,’ the intercom hissed.
I waited for the odd humpback bridge feeling that happened when the artificial gravity kicked in, but it didn’t come. Sadie looked at me, eyebrows raised. I shrugged.
‘I’m sorry folks,’ the intercom said. ‘We seem to be having trouble with the AG. We’re going to have to disembark without it.’
Piece of junk shuttle.
Sadie tutted. ‘Every—single—time . . .’
Under the direction of the docking staff, we filed out row-by-row, personal bags slung over our shoulders, clumsily hooking our hands and feet into the rails on the floor and ceiling. As I approached the dock, I could feel the AG pulling me in, drawing my legs out in front of me until—clump—my feet met floor and I was able to step off. Sadie was right behind me, and I couldn’t help but laugh as she swung about like a drunken monkey, too short to comfortably reach each proceeding handhold.
‘Laugh it, chump,’ she said, glaring at me between stretched-out swings.
‘Believe me, I am.’ And I was still bubbling as she also found solid ground and proceeded to jab me in the ribs. ‘Ow!’
‘You deserve that. Come on, I’m hungry.’ She stomped off towards the cafeteria, and I followed. Soon she was back to her chatty self once again, and we shared a bench as we talked, I with a coffee that tasted like dishwater, Sadie picking at a ham and egg sandwich that—well, I wouldn’t really like to say what it looked like. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, but any appetite I had put up little protest.
‘Trust me to get assigned a rookie last minute,’ Sadie said as she took a bite of her sandwich. I wasn’t sure if it was the sentiment or the sandwich making her pull a face, but either way she wasn’t pleased.
‘I’m sure he’ll be fine. Besides, the payload’s quite small on this one, so we might not even need him.’
‘I suppose.’ Sadie slopped the sandwich back on the plate, giving it a rueful look. She pushed the plate towards me. ‘You want this?’
A distorted (and very loud) BING BONG made both Sadie and I wince, and we waited for the inevitable message.
‘Would the crew of the Athena please report to briefing room three in five minutes.’
‘That’s us,’ I said, and we both headed for briefing room three, leaving the sorry-looking sandwich behind. We were joined by most of the others as we wandered past the rec room, and had became a full compliment by the time we took our seats in briefing room three. It was small, and I shuffled up next to one of the flight crew—Grant Jameson, I think—who gave me a cursory frown before returning to his conversation. Sadie and I had somehow been separated in the kerfuffle, so she was sat a few rows ahead of me. She turned and smiled, then faced forwards again. I picked at a piece of foam poking out of a hole in my seat until the door opened and a portly man in his fifties walked in. His size betrayed the duration of his stay up here and his disgruntled expression did nothing to hide his feelings about it. The room’s attention turned to him.
‘Good afternoon,’ he said in a matter-of-fact way that suggested he’d done this bit a thousand times over and more. ‘I’m Jonah Stone, the station manager. Your flight has been scheduled for tomorrow morning’—this was met by a chorus of groans—’so feel free to use the facilities, but do try to keep them tidy. There is no alcohol allowed on the station’—another round of groaning—’and that includes the stuff I know you’ve all stashed in your personal bags.’
I drew my bag closer, even though I knew I didn’t have any.
‘Please report to the main docking bay tomorrow morning at oh-eight-hundred for final checks and launch brief. Until then, keep yourselves out of trouble. Oh, and one more thing that’s probably most pertinent to the geologist team: Simeon Jones is unable to join you on this mission. I suggest you make yourself acquainted with his replacement.’
Stone left the room to a murmuring of dissatisfaction, and Sadie turned to me to roll her eyes. I tipped my head towards the new geo. She looked at him, then back at me, and nodded. As the room emptied—hearty laughter echoing down the corridor—Sadie and I rounded on the new boy. He didn’t notice us approach as he was too busy looking in his personal bag.
‘Hi, I’m Sadie,’ Sadie said, holding out her hand. This made the kid jump, and he pulled the drawstrings of his bag tight shut. He smiled weakly and shook with Sadie, then with me. His timid grin made him look incredibly young—no more than twenty-one, twenty-two—and his pale skin glimmered with nervous perspiration under his shock of pale blonde hair.
‘I’m Byron,’ he said. ‘Byron Ash.’
‘I’m Jake,’ I said.
Sadie took a seat on one side of him and I took the other. When Sadie began her interrogation I had to turn away, the intense look on her face making me want to laugh. I struggled to keep it in, but I managed it.
‘Where are you from?’ Sadie asked him. I looked back briefly to see what she must have thought were cold, challenging eyes, locking on to Byron’s own. I almost lost it, so I turned away again.
‘I—I’m from Newport, the South-West quarter,’ Byron responded, his voice thin.
‘No, I mean what ship? What ship were you on last?’
‘Oh, sorry. I was on the Bounty.’
I’d regained control of myself enough for this information to register as a concern. ‘The Bounty?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a fleet vessel?’
Byron looked from Sadie to me. ‘Yessir—inter-dock ferry.’
Sadie clapped a hand over her eyes and slumped back in her seat. I felt like doing the same, but I had more questions to ask. ‘How long have you served on the Bounty?’
‘Almost three years.’
‘So you’ve never left the system?’
Sadie returned from her slump, and we shared an exasperated look. ‘How did you end up here?’ she asked him.
‘I requested a transfer to deep space about a month ago, but no one would have me.’ He was right—getting himself into dockyard fleet was a guaranteed dead end before it had even started. ‘Anyway, I got a message out of the blue yesterday telling me I was transferring to the Athena.’
‘Have you had any geology training whatsoever?’
Now it was my turn to clap my hand over my eyes and slump back into the chair. ‘Jesus Christ . . .’ I murmured. ‘Do you have even have a deep space license? Tell me you have a deep space license at least.’
Byron shook his head. He looked sad, maybe a bit nervous, as if he knew he’d done something wrong. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to be nuisance.’
There must have been something about Byron’s pathetic expression that finally won Sadie over, because I could see her faux-hardened shell melting into her usual warmth. ‘I’m sure we can work around it,’ she said. ‘It’s an easy job this one, so don’t worry.’ That didn’t seem to lift Byron’s mood at all, so she chirped, ‘why don’t the three of us go back to the cafeteria and have a drink and a chat? What do you think?’ She grinned expectantly at Byron, who returned it with his own weak smile.
‘If it’s ok, I was just going to go to my bunk. I was on GMT until the transfer, so I’m a bit lagged. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘No, of course not.’
Byron got up, shouldered his personal bag and left the room.
‘Well that was weird,’ I said, and Sadie nodded.
The rest of the afternoon was spent killing time. The rec room had a TV and a games console, but the flight crew were hogging that (and were enjoying it at quite the volume thanks to the unlabelled bottle being passed around) so there was no chance at getting a go. I had my own portable console in my personal bag, but thought it rude to play it and leave Sadie bored, so we wandered the corridors, following the C-shape of the dock to one end, turning around and coming back again, chatting. Occasionally we would stop at the viewing gallery, the only window on the station. It was a pretty big window, and was a great vantage point to watch the Athena being prepared. Long hoses trailed out to it like umbilical chords, while small, remotely piloted vehicles performed last-minute checks of the external shell. Most of the work was being done inside the Athena via the main docking bay. This close it looked like quite a big ship but, as we would all become acutely aware as the mission progressed, it was pretty tiny inside.
‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ Sadie said as she watched through the window.
‘I don’t know. I hope so.’
‘He seems a bit—weak.’
No kidding. ‘Yeah, he does.’
‘I hope he can cope with the journey.’
Double no kidding. ‘Me too.’
‘Do you think we should report it?’
I didn’t have to think about it for long.
We headed to the station manager’s office, where Jonah Stone was working at his computer, looking flustered. ‘Mr Stone?’ I said, tapping the open door with my knuckles.
He shut his eyes for a second as if he was regrouping his thoughts, and when he opened them again they fell into a frown. ‘Whaddya want?’
‘Sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you. We just wanted to ask you a few questions about the new geo.’
‘Look, I know what you know. He’s here filling in for whosisface. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for you, but it’s nothing to do with me. Now if you don’t min—’
‘He doesn’t have a deep space license,’ Sadie butted in.
Stone’s frown escalated to a snarl, but that didn’t seem to deter Sadie, who held him in a staring deadlock.
‘Fine,’ Stone said, raising his hands up. ‘I’ll check his file.’ He bashed his keyboard in an exaggerated fashion, then turned the monitor to us. ‘There, see? He has papers.’
‘But he told us—’
‘I don’t care. The paperwork is there, and that’s all that matters. Now please excuse me, I have a lot of work to do to make sure your ship leaves on time tomorrow.’ He stood up and waved us to the door.
I took the hint and, begrudgingly, Sadie followed. Once we were clear of earshot, she pulled me in by my sleeve and hissed, ‘what the hell was that about?’
I only shrugged. I couldn’t figure it out.
‘This must be some mistake, surely. Something’s not right, and it seems like poor Byron has got caught up in the middle of it all.’
I stopped and turned to her. ‘Look, it’s like Stone said. The paperwork is there. He got the transfer. This is out of our hands. So either we carry on and do the mission, or we quit. Which do you want to do?’
Sadie’s already small form shrunk slightly as the question deflated her anger. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said.
There wasn’t really much else to say about it, so the conversation turned back to the more casual topic of what we were going to have for dinner. There was a choice between the cafeteria or a bar quaintly named Dock of the Bay. All we could do was cross our fingers and wait for tomorrow.
I awoke the next day to the sound of laughing, and the realisation of where I was and what I was doing hit me in the most nauseating way it could at six-thirty in the morning. That horrible early morning taste gummed my mouth together, and I slid out of my sticky bunk and found myself drifting towards the communal showers. Sadie was already in there, rinsing her hair through. Now I was awake. It was something that caught me off guard on every mission: everything was communal. Given how tight for space it was on board, protocol did away with gender divides, and everyone mucked in together. I suppose it was good for moral, and everyone was so close together that only the very stupid would attempt a romantic relationship during the mission, but still, at six-thirty in the morning, after a long sexual drought back on Earth, it was a bit of surprise to see Sadie’s flesh bare and shining. I turned a shower on quickly, making sure it blasted me with ice-cold water. The water really was ice-cold, and I yelped.
Sadie laughed. ‘Cold enough for you, Jake?’
‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ She wandered out, winking at me over her shoulder as she plucked a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her wet, naked body.
‘Thanks,’ I somehow managed to say, and then she was gone.
Back in my flight suit, I was able to look Sadie in the eye a little easier. Fortunately, she broke the tension before I had to.
‘It’ll become normal soon enough,’ she said, although not without a hint of humour. ‘You’ll get over it.’
I didn’t really say anything. I just grunted.