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

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason nodded. ‘Sure, I appreciate that.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hi,’ she said, a short return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ignored the offer. ‘What about hallucinations?’

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

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

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

‘I’m not sure . . .’

‘Did you see anything, hear anything?’

‘Yes.’

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

‘I . . . no . . .’

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

‘Grant didn’t tell me anything.’

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

‘I’m sure.’

‘And you—you’ve seen it too?’

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

‘And did you hear it?’

‘I heard it.’

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

‘I’m scared . . .’

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

‘Have you told anyone?’

‘No,’ I lied.

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

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

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

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

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

‘But we can still protect ourselves.’

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

Emily sniffed. ‘How?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure,’ Sadie said, and off he went.

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

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

‘You don’t think he will?’

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

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

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

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

‘Help him? How?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why would I know?’

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

‘Shall we continue?’ he suggested, grinning.

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you cold?’ Sadie asked.

‘Bit,’ I replied.

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

I’m not going to kill you.

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

Because I don’t need to.

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

You know it’s true.

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

It was there, within my grasp, waiting.

I could see it.

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

I grasped.

I retracted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped the sentence there, leaving the rest unspoken.

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

‘What other choice did we ha—’

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

‘Jake, I—’

Tell me!’ I screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But necessary.’

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

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

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

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

In their thousands?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So you don’t think it’s Byron then?’

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

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

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

‘I don’t believe this . . .’

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

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

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

‘Wait a minute—’ I began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 14

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

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

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

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I . . . I can’t say.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So did they find anything?’

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

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

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

‘It wasn’t him.’

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

‘But I’m telling you, it wasn’t him.’

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

‘Not Byron.’

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

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

‘Well, that’s a start.’

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

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

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

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

‘Seems likely.’

‘Does it? Based on what?’

I had no response.

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

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

‘Of course I did.’

‘So he doesn’t know?’

‘He doesn’t know.’

‘Will he still be working with me?’

‘What? On New Dawn?’

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Jake, are you—’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

‘Have you been threatened?’ Sophia asked.

‘No—I dreamed it.’

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

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

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

‘No . . .’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And we appreciate it.’

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

‘I’d rather not.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13

I dreamed the dream again. I was on the beach, but this time I didn’t meet anyone, my body stayed intact, and I didn’t wander into the forest. Instead I sat down, looking out to the infinite sea, and I felt alone. There was no one out there, not for miles, lightyears, nothing, and I was on my own on this barren island with nothing but my nightmares for company.

The dream morphed into darkness, and I sensed the world around me changing unseen. I was in the tow dock, and I was no longer alone.

You came close today.

‘I didn’t say anything, I promise.’

Too close.

‘You can still trust me.’

Can I?

‘I will do as you instruct.’

The lingering dream lay as a sticky film on my skin when I awoke, and I took the first opportunity to wash it off. Despite the tiny volume of the Athena, the sanitation room seemed like a cavernous tomb, loud and hollow, every last move reverberating around it in a spiralling loop of skin-crawling noise. The tow dock at the end was what set my hair on end, the doorway a gaping maw, the cool air moving through from the ventilation units the breath of the dead. When I looked into it, the cavern shrunk around me until I could almost feel the pressure against my skin, and when I looked away, I could swear that in my peripheral James’ rigid corpse lay on the floor, frozen and still. I snatched back to look, but all that was there was steel. What was happening to me?

‘Hi Jake—don’t mind if I join you?’

The voice made my insides go cold, but I managed not to jump.

‘Sure, Emily, go right ahead. I’m almost done, anyway.’

As I wiped myself over, hurrying the process as fast as I was able, Emily slid out of her jump suit and fed it into the laundry machine. I turned away when she faced me, catching only a glimpse of her naked body.

‘What were you chatting to Jason and Sophia about yesterday, anything interesting?’ she said. I could hear her approach, then rummage in the dispenser for a body wipe. I didn’t dare look at her, as if her very appearance would turn me to stone.

‘Oh, this and that, nothing important,’ I said, my voice coming out unnaturally high.

‘If it’s personal, just tell me to mind my own business,’ she trilled, as cheerfully as you like.

‘Mainly about the, errr . . . the drilling stuff, you know. You probably heard that I’ve taken on the role since—since what happened.’

I stole a glance at her, and she caught me, her smiling mouth widening to a grin. I looked away again immediately, but she said nothing of it.

‘I did hear that. I was impressed that you know how to do it. It’s a difficult job.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ll be limited in what I can do. I’m not quite the guy James and Brendan were.’

Nothing but the slippery sound of skin being wiped bridged the gap between us for a moment.

‘They were two of the finest . . .’ Emily said after a moment, her voice a dreamy sing-song. ‘What a shame that was.’

I said nothing. Just my legs and feet to go. Hurry up and get out of there.

‘They probably had it coming, though,’ Emily added after another uncomfortable silence. Balanced on one leg, I nearly collapsed when she said that. ‘Because of their health, I mean. They weren’t the healthiest people I’ve ever met.’

‘Oh, no . . . right,’ I said, my balance regained, by my composure still just out of reach.

‘Working with all those fumes and dust . . . they’re all the same, these drillers, never bothering to fit the filters to their re-breathers, goodness knows why. I suppose it’s been that way for decades: the hard-working types never listen to what the academic types like me have to say. I suppose that makes it an if rather than a when.’

‘Uh-huh.’ Just my feet left to go. Wipe, wipe, wipe.

‘You’ll make sure you wear the filter with your re-breather, won’t you?’

‘Sure, of course.’ Wipe in the disposal, grab a towel from the rack.

‘I’d hate for something bad to happen to you.’

That was it. I practically ran out of the sanitation room, the air rushing past my damp skin pulling goosebumps up in their dozens. I towelled myself down, shaking, threw my coveralls on still semi-damp, and left the towel on my bed. There was no way I was going back into that room with her.

‘Ready in five?’ Sadie said as I rushed by her in the rec room. I didn’t respond. I marched right past, through the briefing room and into the cockpit, where I was greeted by the three surprised expressions of Jason, Sophia and Clip. Added to Jason and Sophia’s expressions was the gaunt hollowness of exhaustion, the pair still working double shifts at the conn.

‘Are you okay?’ Jason asked. His concern was obvious, and I gathered I must have looked a state. I caught a glimpse of my terrified reflection only to realise that one of the legs of my coverall was rolled halfway up my shin. I left it that way: I had more important things to talk about.

‘About ten days ago I was cornered in the tow dock and verbally threatened with death. It happened, it was real. Is that enough evidence for you?’ The forcefulness of my response took a while to sink in to the three shocked recipients. The first person to speak was Clip.

‘I’m going to go . . .’ he said, looking around anxiously as if waiting for permission. He didn’t get so much as a twitch in response, so he left anyway, knocking a memopad onto the floor as he pushed by.

‘Why don’t we take this down a notch,’ Jason said, slowly lifting his hands up to me in a gesture of calm. ‘Take a seat, start from the beginning.’ His gesture fluidly moved to point towards the nearest seat, and he awaited my next move. As I calculated his intentions, I noticed that I was breathing heavily, and that my fists were clenched. I released them, shut my eyes and took a slow breath, blowing it out, and with it, my frustration. I took a seat. Jason and Sophia stood around me, manoeuvring, I noticed, between me and the door; whether this was intentional I don’t know, but I noticed it nonetheless.

‘Well, I was in the sanitation room,’ I began, studying the snapshots that remained of my recollections, ‘when I heard a noise.’

‘What kind of noise?’ Sophia asked.

‘A scratching noise, like something dragging. So I went to look, and there was a toy in there, a clockwork one, and it was moving around, making that noise.’

‘Do you remember what the toy looked like?’

‘I . . . I’m not sure.’

‘Okay, never mind. Carry on.’

‘I bent down to pick it up, and that’s when all the lights shut off.’

Jason looked at Sophia, and she returned the glance.

‘Like—off, off?’ Grant asked, his questioning tone clearly sceptical.

‘Yes, completely off. Pitch black.’

‘So what happened next?’

‘I heard a voice.’

‘A man’s voice? Or a woman’s voice?’

‘I . . . don’t know . . .’

‘What do you mean you don’t know?’

‘It was all muffled. It was hard to tell.’

‘Okay, fine. What did the voice say?’

I dug deep to remember the words. It wasn’t hard.

I’m not going to kill you.

‘It said, “I’m not going to kill you.”‘

Because I don’t need to.

‘Then it said, “Because I don’t need to.”‘

‘Anything else?’

I nodded. ‘”You know it’s true.”‘

‘Then what?’

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

‘And the toy?’

‘Gone.’

‘How close did the voice get?’ Sophia asked.

‘Erm, I’m not sure—a few metres away I guess.’

‘Did you hear it come close to pick up the toy?’

This part was all such a blur. ‘Not that I remember . . .’

‘So where do you think the toy went?’

Now I felt like I was the one on trial. ‘I—don’t know . . .’ I mumbled.

‘You don’t know?’

I shook my head. I could feel red heat burning my cheeks.

‘Can you step outside for a moment, please?’ Jason said after a long pause, and, without really thinking, I got up and left in rather a hurry. I seated myself in the empty briefing room, bobbing my knee and thinking without hearing what my thoughts had to say. What were they talking about? Was I in trouble? Had I gone too far? Was there something wrong with me? What were they talking about? Was I in trouble? Had I gone too far? Was there something wrong with me? WHAT WERE THEY—

‘Jake?’

‘Huh?’ I said, bringing myself back round to the present. It was Jason.

‘Can you come back into the cockpit, please?’

I followed him in.

‘Jake, we want to thank you for taking the time to come to us with this information,’ Jason said, and Sophia nodded. ‘We know things haven’t been easy on board since James and Brendan’s deaths, and we know it must be hard to put yourself on the line like this.’

I didn’t react in any way at all, keeping my cards close to my chest, revealing nothing. I awaited the but.

‘We want to help you,’ Sophia said, ‘investigate further.’

‘That’s right,’ Jason added. ‘What we want to do is search the ship from front to back, see if we can find the toy you saw. If we can find it, then we’ve got a starting platform for our investigation—’

‘And if you can’t?’ I said, perhaps a little too suddenly and a little too desperately.

‘If we can’t,’ Sophia said, ‘then I’m afraid we’re going to have to suspend you from the mission.’

A sudden pain reared in my chest. ‘Suspend me? Why?’

Jason put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. ‘Jake, look—I don’t mean to be insensitive, but you’ve just come to us with a far-fetched story that we’ve only got three ways of interpreting. You’re either lying to us, which I don’t believe for a second, you’re telling the truth, or . . .’

He shrugged.

‘Or what?’ I said, backing away from his grasp.

‘Or you’re telling the truth about what you saw, but what you saw didn’t really happen.’

The pain in my chest turned to nausea. ‘What are you saying?’

‘Jake please,’ Sophia said, low and soothing. ‘Whatever happens, we’re here to protect the crew—you—that’s what we’re saying. If you need help, we’ll give you the help you need.’

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. ‘I saw what I saw!’ I snapped. ‘You weren’t there!’

‘I know, I know,’ Jason said, ‘and that’s why we’re going to search the ship. Believe me, I want to find this toy as much as you do. Without you, the mission’s—well, it’ll be difficult without you. You get what I’m saying.’

I could feel my simmering anger coming off the boil as quickly as it had come. ‘I—I’m sorry. I suppose you’re right. You do what you have to do.’

Jason nodded, and for a second, looked relieved. ‘Good. That’s good, thank you. We’ll search the ship first thing tomorrow. Until then, please keep this to yourself.’

‘I will.’

True to his word, Jason gathered the crew in the rec room the next morning to explain what was going to happen.

‘To eliminate the possibility of any foreign objects being smuggled on board, we’ve come to the conclusion that we need to perform a ship-wide search.’ A chorus of groans came in return. I added mine as best I could. ‘With your cooperation this will only take a day. The search will include personal belongings—I hope that isn’t a problem for anyone.’ Silence. ‘Good. We will begin in half an hour. I will need you all to remain in the rec room for the remainder of the search, so if you have anything you’d like to get to keep yourself entertained for the duration, please get it now.’

We all gathered what we wanted from our bunks and assembled—minus Grant, who was manning the cockpit—in the rec room. Even though there were only five of us, the conversation seemed buzz as it would in a much larger crowd. Perhaps it was the rising anxiety in my throat, or perhaps it was the buzzing adrenaline in my temples, but I found it hard to pin down one conversation and focus.

‘What’s all this about?’

‘I’ve been expecting this to happen.’

‘How long’s it going to take? Will we get lunch?’

‘How comes Grant doesn’t have to be here?’

‘Are we going to get searched?’

As it turned out, yes, we were going to get searched. Jason and Sophia made it their first port of call to return to our gathering and perform a search of our coveralls and then the rec room itself. We took it in turns, watching each other have our arms, legs and torsos patted down, out pockets rifled in, our shoes turned upside down and shaken. When it came to my turn, Sophia’s business-like expression and disinterested silence almost convinced me she had forgotten that it was me that had come to them in the first place. When she had finished, she gave me a look for the briefest of brief seconds that told me otherwise, which sent my cheeks flaring red. I hoped no one noticed.

Finished, Jason and Sophia left the room to continue their search in the cockpit, Jason carrying a service tool kit to check in all the cubbyholes and panels dotted around the place. Once they were gone, it took a while for conversation to break out again, but when it did I was able to get a handle on it this time around.

‘Do you think they’ll find anything?’ Clip asked the room. When he received no answer, he said, ‘I don’t think they will. I just think they’re bugged out by James and Brendan dying and they’re overreacting to it. Isn’t that right, Emily?’

At first I wasn’t sure if Emily was going to answer at all. She was looking at the floor, twiddling her thumbs. At last, she spoke. ‘Sure, their deaths seemed natural. That’s not to say they were, but it would have to take something pretty potent to do that to them without leaving a trace. And besides, someone here would have had to administer it to them. How would they do that unnoticed?’

I watched Emily a little longer after she’d finished speaking, to see if her candid revelation made her anxious. She caught me looking and I turned away, but not before I saw her smile.

‘Maybe that’s what they’re really looking for,’ Clip said. ‘The poison or whatever it is?’

‘I don’t believe anyone here would do such a thing, would they?’ Sadie said. She looked a little pale, and her mouth twitched as if she’d had trouble saying what she’d said.

Emily shrugged. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘What about Grant?’ Clip suggested. ‘Could he do it?’

‘Grant’s nice,’ Sadie said, looking at the backs of her hands. ‘He wouldn’t do something so unthinkably horrible.’

‘And what about Jason? Or Sophia?’ Clip added, his voice low. The question didn’t inherit a response.

‘I think they won’t find anything,’ said Emily. ‘I think this is just a precautionary measure that goes by the book. They’ve got paperwork to fill out when they get back, and this’ll probably get a mention.’

‘That’s what I think,’ Sadie said, her indignant tone trying to draw some kind of conclusion to the conversation. Clip had other ideas.

‘Say, though, for argument’s sake, that they did find something . . . what then?’

‘I guess they’d secure it and either destroy it or contain it, depending on what it was,’ Emily suggested, shrugging.

‘No, but what if it was traceable to one of us?’

‘Then that’s mutiny at the very best. Out here that’s means execution.’

The word cut into me as it must have done the others, because the thick air became even thicker, and I even flinched. Byron, who hadn’t said anything, shuffled in his seat.

‘I want to go home,’ he said quietly.

‘We all do, kid,’ Chip said. ‘We all do.’

The conversation after that turned lighter in tone as we waiting for Jason and Sophia to finish their search. After several hours, and nearing lunchtime, they came back into the rec room to begin their investigation of the rear of the Athena. Before they did, however, they brought us some food, which they ate with us in silence. I tried to catch Sophia’s eye, but she avoided it with casual dismissal. Once lunch was done and Jason and Sophia had left the rec room to continue the search, our conversation returned, passed about in hushed voices.

‘I don’t think they’ve found anything,’ Sadie said, sounding hopeful.

‘I wouldn’t have thought the cockpit or briefing room would make a very good hiding place,’ I said, trying this time to appear less suspicious and actually join in the talking.

‘Precisely what makes them such good places to hide something,’ Clip said, a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘The last place anyone would expect something is the last place they’d look.’

‘But they’d still look there eventually,’ Emily said. ‘In fact they looked there first and they didn’t find anything there.’

‘That’s only speculation, though. They could have found something.’

‘Then why would they still be searching?’

‘Well, there’s no reason there couldn’t be more of whatever it is they’ve found, or something else entirely.’

Emily shook her head, her expression incredulous. ‘Now you’re just being silly.’

‘Maybe, maybe not. We’ll soon see.’

We wouldn’t soon see, because it took an age for Jason and Sophia to finish. By the time they returned to the rec room, Emily and Clip were asleep, Sadie was stitching, I was playing a computer game and Byron was watching. We’d all said everything there was to say several times over, and now we were whiling away the time. Not for the first time on this mission, it astounded me how—myself included—humans could adapt to a situation, make it feel normal. It was a survival mechanism that had exceptionally good results.

‘Thank you all for your time,’ Jason said. He looked exhausted, Sophia, too. ‘You can return to your stations now.’

And that was that. Although I didn’t expect them to walk up to me there and then and tell me everything, the whirlpool in my stomach expected something. As Jason and Sophia headed towards the bunks, presumably for a good night’s rest, I caught up with them after muttering to Sadie that I was off to get a nutridrink.

‘Did you find anything?’ I asked before they’d even had a chance to turn around. I sounded almost breathless with anticipation, even to me.

They both staggered about to face me. Even Sophia’s tanned skin couldn’t hide the purple bags forming under her eyes. ‘We’ll talk about it tomorrow,’ she said, and they both began to turn back again when I grabbed Sophia by the shoulder and pulled her back to me. Immediately she was awake, and she threw my hand from her shoulder, eyes that were misty only a moment ago pin sharp and bright.

‘I—I’m sorry . . .’ I said, taking a step back. ‘I didn’t mean . . .’

The fire in Sohia’s eyes faded again. ‘It’s okay. I get it.’ She sighed, then looked to Jason nervously. He shrugged, as if to say, yeah, might as well. Sophia turned back at me. ‘We can’t say much now, but we did find something.’

My heart palpitated. ‘Really? What did you find?’

‘Please keep this to yourself for now,’ Jason muttered. I nodded vigorously. ‘We found your toy.’

I swear that my heart, beating like a war drum only moments ago, stopped. My fingers and toes fizzed with horrible pinpricks. A flash in my mind, of the tow dock, of the toy, the voice in my ears—they were memories that had faded like a poster in the sun, but now they were back to the full clarity of the original experience. ‘Where . . .’ I whispered, my throat so dry my words seemed to stick, ‘where did you find it?’

Jason looked at Sophia, and she at him. He looked worried. ‘In Byron’s personal bag,’ he said.

Chapter 12

I stayed rigid until my legs could hold me no longer, and I collapsed backwards to the floor, barely feeling the pain. My head swum with dizzying nausea, trying to understand what just happened to me. Even now it felt like it had happened such a long time ago, and only for a fraction of a second—it almost didn’t feel real.

But it was real. The ache in my chest from my palpitating heart was real, the itchy slick on my forehead was real. The words whispered in my ears—they were real.

When I could manage it, I gathered myself together and took myself to the rec room, sitting carefully so as not to inflame my now tender behind. I played the scene over and over, the darkness in which the words were spoken to me etching them as lucid images on the backs of my eyes. I’m not going to kill you. Because I don’t need to.

The echo of the soft laughter scraped down my spine. Because I don’t need to. But why? You know it’s true.

I knew what I had to do. I knew I had to find Jason and Sophia immediately and tell them what had happened. I urged myself to do it, insisted—but I could not make myself stand and walk. The voice had been right. It didn’t need to kill me. The threat of death was enough to neuter me on the spot. It was then I realised something that I had always somehow known about myself, but never really acknowledged: I am a coward.

‘Everything alright there?’

I don’t know how many times Clip had said that, but it was the first time I heard it. ‘Sure—fine,’ I said, dismissing him with a wave.

‘Okay,’ he said, eyes lingering on me before returning to his e-reader.

You know it’s true. And I did. I knew I would be fine so long as I kept my mouth shut.

The next week went by as something of a blur. I had the same dream where my teeth fell out a few more times, and I had that horrible sensation of being stuck in time between two events I didn’t want to happen. My existence felt like a freeze-frame before a big accident, my silence being the only thing stopping the finger hovering over the play button from pressing down. Working helped me through it, although I know Sadie could tell something was up. She frequently asked me if I was alright, and I frequently told her I was. Borrowed time, I think they call it. That’s what I was on.

There wasn’t an hour that went by without my mind wandering to the tow dock and what happened there. I tried to stop it, not so much because I was afraid of reliving the memory—although I was—but more because it seemed that, somehow, if I were to think about it, they would know. But who? I didn’t want to find out. Because I don’t need to. They were talking to me still, even now.

But part of my brain, the underdeveloped collection of neurons that would give most people the strength and courage to do the right thing, still fought back, its collective voice settling for nothing other than the truth. Was it Byron? Was it Grant, or Clip? Was it . . . Sadie? No, it couldn’t be. How about Emily, or Sophia or . . . Jason. My heart stopped at the thought. Even though I knew it was simply a passing wonder, a thought grown from nothing but dust, it filled me with a horror so deep it set my legs to jelly. A ship and its captain, domineered by an agent of anarchy. The chances of making it back to Earth seemed impossibly slim.

It wasn’t until the second week after that I had recovered suitably to think about it long enough and with enough rationality to question what to do next. I began to have the urge to discuss it with Sadie, but even though I knew I could trust her with my life, I wasn’t so sure I could trust the creaks and rumbles of the ship not to pass my message along to the wrong ears. I found myself having to hold back, catching my tongue when the topic rose in my throat, and it was difficult. But I managed it. What I could not stop was the conversation inside my head, a brew that grew thicker and stronger with every passing moment.

I tried to remember how tall the person had seemed. Sadie and Sophia were both short, and I was certain that, when standing tall, the voice had come from above the heads of those two ladies. But then the other half of my brain countered with the notion that my perception could not only have been distorted by the sudden impact of the situation, but also by my crouching position. So I tried to find out what the crew sounded like when I was crouched next to them, but there weren’t many opportunities to replicate that situation. When Emily raised an eyebrow at me during a daring attempt to pick up a dropped utensil, I gave up on the plan. Either way, I was finding it too hard to tell.

But what about the toy? It must be on board, surely. I can’t have imagined it—or could I? No, surely not. I heard it, I saw it . . . but I didn’t touch it. And it made me think, could I really remember what the toy looked like? It had been reduced in my mind to a generic blur, a flash of memory scored by the intensity of the happenings straight after. So that was it: if I could find the toy, I could find the person. Or my marbles, at least.

The prospect of a conclusion (that didn’t endanger my being) brought mild relief to me, but it didn’t really answer the detailed questions, such as how would I find it? And how would I do it discreetly? But then maybe I didn’t want to answer these questions at all. I’d grown comfortable in this purgatory, and although I was a long way adrift from the shores of safety, I knew the sharks circling beneath me would not come up to feed, not like they had with James and Brendan.

But the status quo is never meant to be prolonged, and the inevitable happened sooner than I’d hoped (which was sooner than never).

‘Jake, can I have a word with you please?’

I followed Jason into the cockpit, passing Emily by as she exited. She gave me a sideways glance, her lips pursed. A hard knot in my stomach writhed.

‘Jake,’ Jason said as we settled into the privacy of the cockpit, ‘it’s been a few weeks since our last discussion. Have you made any progress?’

‘Where’s Sophia?’

‘She’s using the facilities.’

‘Can we wait until she comes back?’

Jason peered at me, as if trying to read an underlying message in my what I’d said. Finally, he responded. ‘Sure.’

We stood (well, he was leaning) in silence, him never breaking his stare with the side of my head, me trying to find interest in the switches and displays of the cockpit. Most of them were off, leaving the cockpit dim and intimidating. It was Jason that broke our uneasy truce.

‘How have you been, Jake?’

My eyes met his; they were unblinking, hard. ‘Okay I guess.’

‘Getting on with your calcs okay?’

‘Sure, yeah. We’re ahead of schedule, actually.’

Jason smiled. ‘Glad to hear it.’

A blip of silence.

‘And what about the drilling?’ Jason continued. ‘Okay to go ahead with that?’

I nodded.

‘Fantastic. So we’re all good to go, then?’

I nodded again.

‘Well, that’s some fine work from you and your team. You’ll be sure to get a generous mention in the mission report.’

I tried to give Jason a grateful smile, but I don’t think it was convincing. He didn’t seem to care anyway, and at that point Sophia returned, so it didn’t matter.

‘Sophia,’ I said, more than a little relief in my voice.

‘Jake,’ she said, giving me a curt nod. She turned to Jason. ‘Where are we?’

‘We were waiting for you. Jake insisted.’

Sophia frowned. ‘Fine, whatever,’ she said. ‘Lets hear it, Jake. What have you got for us?’

My cheek twitched as my mind raced to generate a response that would simultaneously protect me and convince them. Nothing sprung to mind, so I, in a state of mild panic, opened my mouth to see what words came out. ‘I did what you asked. Nothing happened.’

‘Nothing?’ Sophia asked, hands on hips. ‘Nothing at all?’

‘Nope.’

Jason shifted his weight from the console to stand tall. ‘Not even a change in behaviour, a difference in routine, nothing subtle like that?’

I shook my head. Jason folded his arms and took a few slow, deliberate steps towards me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Positive. I haven’t noticed anything.’

Jason stopped so close I struggled to focus on him. I could feel his breath on my face, smell its slight odour. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘If you’ve not seen anything, you’ve not seen anything.’ He took a step back. ‘But if you do see something, you come and tell me, understand?’

‘I understand.’

It was afterwards that I kicked myself, thinking I should have given him something to go on. Given the reaction of the crew to the temporary confiscation of their electronics, it seemed unlikely that I wouldn’t have noticed attitudes change, even slightly, when people got wind of me putting us all at risk of severe boredom—or worse—again. Even if I’d told him about the conversation I’d had with Grant and Emily, it would have been something. Right now, I wasn’t sure if Jason believed me or not. I wasn’t even sure if I could trust him. It was a horrible feeling that made the ship feel very small and very far away from home—very far away indeed.

I’m not sure what scared me most: those brief seconds in the pitch black or the thought of having no one to go to if the threat became real. This secondary problem almost underlined the first for me, switched up the definition to pin sharp reality. It was as though it had taken me a week to realise that I had been threatened with murder, somehow tucked the seriousness of the situation away in the back of my head where it couldn’t hurt me. But now it was front and centre, vivid and real, and I wasn’t able to tell anyone about it. Earth didn’t just feel far away—it felt like it didn’t even exist.

This new high-resolution reality kicked in with such an impact that I almost jumped out of my skin when Sadie asked me if everything was alright. Every noise, every squeak, every rustle and shimmy was amplified to such sensitivity that my own breathing had became a source of annoyance. Compared to that, Sadie’s voice was like the second coming.

‘I—I’m fine. All good. Just a quick catch-up, that’s all.’

Sadie narrowed her eyes. She didn’t believe me. She knew I knew she didn’t believe me, too. ‘Okay . . .’ she said slowly. ‘But if there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m always here for you.’

‘Thanks,’ I said stiffly.

‘We don’t start for another hour,’ Sadie added. ‘Why don’t you sit down and relax a while before we get to work?’

I did as I was told in some sort of effort to appear normal. It was as though I could feel the person in the darkness watching me, waiting for me to give any sign that things weren’t all peaches and ice cream—and then they’d strike. Would they wait for me to go to sleep, or would they get me when I was alone, reading or playing a game? It made me shudder to think. I couldn’t be alone anymore. I had to be with someone at all times. But would that look suspicious? my inner voice asked me in pained tones. It would. I was trapped.

‘Hi guys,’ Grant said as he entered the room, making me jump for a second time. ‘Whoa, aren’t you mister twitchy today?’ he added, sniggering at my involuntary movement.

‘Sorry, I was just thinking about something. You caught me off guard.’

Clip followed in behind him, and with him came the fruity aroma of a nutridrink. They both sat down, Clip slurping at his drink, Grant chatting his usual nonsense. I tried to return to my thoughts, as if being buried in my own mind was some kind of defence from the real world, but I kept catching bits of what Grant was saying that made it hard to ignore him.

‘Yeah, I heard we were one of three ships making this run,’ he said. ‘The company wanted to better our chances of getting what we need on New Dawn.’

Better our chances?

‘Grant,’ I said, ‘I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying—who told you that?’

Grant looked at me, his face blank. ‘Just a friend.’

‘A reliable friend?’

‘I guess so. What does it matter?’

‘Doesn’t that make you in the least bit suspicious?’

‘No . . . should it?’

Clip stopped slurping his drink and leaned forward, one eyebrow raised. ‘What are you getting at, Jake? Spit it out.’

How could they not see it? ‘They’re sending three ships, right? To better our chances? To better our chances of what, exactly?’

Grant shrugged. ‘Covering more ground I guess?’

‘So why didn’t they say so in the mission briefings?’

‘Need-to-know,’ Clip said, ‘and we don’t.’

I folded my arms, shaking my head. ‘No. Uh-uh. We don’t need to know, but three teams working on the same planet? What’s to stop us trying to dig the same sites?’

Now it was Sadie’s turn to chime in. I couldn’t tell if it was the reading light, or if her face was paler than usual. ‘They gave us a set area to work in.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘I thought you’d picked that?’

Sadie shook her head.

I turned back to Clip and Grant. ‘See?’

They both stared back, bewildered.

‘Really? You don’t see?’

‘Just say it already,’ Clip groaned.

‘Three crews, one planet, for a better chance . . . of what? Of one of us actually making it there alive.’

Before I’d even finished the sentence, I could see the reaction on all three faces doing the same thing at once.

‘Don’t start this again,’ Clip said. ‘I don’t want to lose my stuff.’

‘Don’t you believe me?’

Clip said nothing. It was Grant that spoke. ‘Look, don’t you think you’re getting a bit—I don’t know—foil-hattish about all this? We’ve had it pretty bad so far, but there’s been nothing, nothing at all, that links what happened on board here with foul play. Emily said so herself.’

Emily. The name made my throat go dry. Why hadn’t I seen it before? She’d been alone with James when he’d died, she’d been the last person to see Brendan alive . . . and she was the one that worked the autopsies, giving both deaths a clean bill of natural causes . . .

‘I have to go.’

I jumped up and rushed to the cockpit, leaving all three of them behind with expressions even more quizzical than before. In the cockpit, Jason and Sophia were still there, and Emily had returned.

‘I need to speak with you both,’ I said, panting.

Jason and Sophia looked at me standing there in the doorway; Emily, too.

‘Alone,’ I added.

Jason nodded to Emily, and again she left the cockpit, making eye-contact with me briefly before looking down as she passed. I stepped back out of her way, my heart thumping with dangerous abandon as I watched her make her way down through the briefing room.

‘What can we do for you?’ Jason said, and I span back around, lost in my thoughts for a moment.

‘What? Oh, right—I need to speak with you both. It’s important.’

‘I’m listening.’

I’m not going to kill you.

‘I, uhhh . . .’

Because I don’t need to.

‘Come on, Jake, what do you want?’

You know it’s true.

No. It’s not true. I had to say something. ‘Emily killed James and Brendan,’ I said, ‘and she threatened to kill me as well if I didn’t stay quiet.’

Jason blinked, and Sophia shifted from one foot to other. ‘How can you be sure?’ she said.

‘It’s the only explanation . . .’

Jason sighed and looked at the ceiling. When he lowered his head, he had an expression that was as much exhaustion as it was exasperation. ‘That’s one hell of an accusation,’ he said. ‘You’d better be sure you’ve got the evidence to back it up. Do you?’

We watched each other intently, but I had to break away before my stinging eyes began to tear up. ‘No . . .’

I expected Jason to scold me or something, but instead he took a step towards me and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘I understand you’re scared. We all are. But pointing fingers isn’t going to get us anywhere, you know that. So please, if you’ve got something for us to go on, anything at all, even the slightest thing, please tell me. But if all you’ve got are unfounded accusations, it would probably be for the best if you kept them to yourself. We let you test the water to see if any potential Futureproofer would bite, and we’ve got nothing. You said it yourself.’

I wanted to tell him about the tow dock, the toy, the darkness and the voice, but there was nothing to back it up, nothing at all. I knew the terror in my head would just sound stupid spoken aloud, and besides, I had no idea who it was that had been there with me and I had no way of finding out. Should I say anyway? Jason was throwing me a lifeline here and I didn’t want to piss him off any more than I already had done. But then, if I didn’t tell him and it turned out he knew something about it all along? I could be withholding important evidence without even realising it. I—

‘Captain, Major—are you ready to swap shifts?’

It was Grant, who had Clip in tow with him. Jason gave me a nod as if to confirm the end of the conversation. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I’m beat. You have command, Jameson.’

Grant nodded, and took his place at the forward console. Jason and Sophia made to leave, but just before they did, Jason turned to me and said, ‘Come find me if you need me.’ Then he left.

‘What was that about?’ Clip said, as he manoeuvred his way to his station.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Nothing at all.’

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.