Welcome to my World

Vessel is now available on Amazon here

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).

Don’t forget to subscribe for all the latest chapters and updates straight to your email inbox; you can do that on the right, too (or at the bottom on mobile).

Thanks for stopping by!


Chapter 40

It was like I was in a dream, dream that had reached it waking peak and had come tumbling down around me. I had realised the dream was reality, and now that dream could no longer sustain itself. I was in my cave, but I was no longer alone; the cry of billions of voices landed at my ears, each one more powerful than the last, each one an individual that had something to say. I knew I was responsible, I knew that somehow what I had to do would not only change me but would change everything with it. This wasn’t about my father, or my mother, or even about Istanbul Angel—this was about me. I could see now what Sophia had been trying to tell me, see through the confliction of hate and fear so deep-rooted inside me, realise the one truth about me that mattered most: I had a choice.

This was wrong. What Jason and Emily were doing was wrong. What Peter Ash was doing was wrong. It was me in that cave, and that cave was the barrier I had to overcome. I had to step out of its protection, I had to venture out, and I had to face my demons. I had to look them in the eye and tell them it was over.

With both Jason and Emily pulling together at the drill, they were able to lift the opposite legs from the floor. It’s balance was poised, with just a little more force needed to send it tumbling over. When it did, they would be able to pull the drill head clear, protect the stasis tube, and the Athena. They would be going home, mission successful. I looked at Byron, who had since fallen backwards into the sand, lying awkwardly with one arm up and the other down. He hadn’t done what he’d done for pride, recognition or money. He’d done it for love. In his own twisted way, he’d shown me yet again the power of the purest heart, the ability of even the most bruised and damaged soul the yearning for that one thing that makes us who we are and not just another species drifting through the vast inconsequentiality of space. Would his father really love him for what he had done? I believe he would. His love may be an oil-slicked version of the one Byron felt in return, run through with greed, but it would be there, whenever he checked his account and remembered what Byron had done for him. I could only admire the innocence of Byron’s intentions, despite the dirt with which it had become clouded. He thought he could help set me free, too, but as tempting as it was, I couldn’t use my hatred to control my decisions. I had to have that choice. I had to let go.

I stood. Jason and Emily had their backs to me, heels dug into the sand, arms taught against the drill. I took the depleted stunner from my pocket, holding it at one end like a baton. Making sure they didn’t see me, I approached Jason from the left, raising the stunner and bring it down onto his shoulder as hard as I could. He yelped, the distortion crackling in my headset, and he immediately let go of the drill, sending it tipping back to the ground where it landed back upright with a ground-shaking thump. While Emily grasped at the drill to try and lift it off the ground again, Jason wheeled around, but the stunner was already up again and I swung it round into his ribcage. He bent double, sinking to his knees, and I gave him another blow to the back to send him completely to the ground. Emily, who was torn between pulling at the drill and launching herself at me, screamed. Then she let go of the drill, lunging at me and crashing into my chest. We both fell, the stunner slipping from my grasp. I tried to grab it, but Emily had it first and, straddled over my chest, she swung it against my helmet.

My ears rang and my vision was blurred. A pain struck light lightening in my head. My vision came too just enough to see the next impact, my helmet ringing like a bell, with me right in the middle. When the blur faded next, I could see that a distinct dark line had appeared across my helmet, one I was sure would get bigger if I didn’t do something right that second. I rolled, heaving Emily’s weight off me, sending her next swing into the dirt. I was able to get an arm free from underneath her and I pushed her, toppling her off me. I rolled onto my front, scratching at the loose rocks and sand to pull myself away, digging my needs up underneath to find purchase, but Emily was on me before I could get myself up. With my arms pinned by my sides, all I could do was thrash weakly. I saw her hands appear in my periphery, and felt them lift my helmet up and away from the ground. Then, with all the weight on me, she slammed my helmet down onto the loose rocks below. The dark line grew and my head felt like it was going to split as well. As she lifted my helmet up again, I saw the stunner tube lying ahead of me, and I tried to pull an arm free to reach for it, but before I could Emily slammed my head into the ground again. The dark line had become forked, with many smaller forks sprouting from each end. It wouldn’t last much more of this, and neither would I. I pulled hard at my arm until it slipped free, and I reached out to grab the stunner.

But it was too far. I couldn’t reach. It was almost with a limp sigh of relief that I let Emily clang my helmet against the rock once more, my arms stretched out and lying limp on the floor. At least I’d done the right thing, I thought to myself. At least I’d been able to crawl from that cave and out into the real world, even if it turned out that I wasn’t able to protect myself from it. Like Byron, I could die in peace.

A hand reached down and picked up the stunner. I watched almost with disinterest as the crack spread wider and the ringing in my ears became distant. The hand lifted the stunner away, and the feet behind it stumbled forward. I waited for the next blow to my helmet, but it didn’t come. Instead, the hands gripping either side flopped down, ad the full weight of Emily’s body pressed against me. I wriggled and, Emily’s loose body sunk from me, rolling to one side enough for me to free myself and stand up. Sophia, who had since sunk back to the floor, stunner forgotten at her side, looked up at me. ‘I thought I told you not to die,’ she said.

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was a laugh filled with relief and disbelief, a laugh that shrugged the weight of three decades from my shoulders. ‘I chose,’ I said.

‘I know you did.’

A deep rumble filled the ground beneath us, rolling through for several seconds before fading to nothing. ‘I guess that’s our ride home gone.’

‘There’s the others,’ Sophia said. I could barely hear her now.

‘What others?’

‘The other ship. The decoy. There’s still hope yet.’

It was a long shot, but it was worth a try. ‘Wait there a second.’

‘I’m not going anywhere.’

I sprinted over to Byron, nearly falling a couple of times, the crack in my helmet looming close and reminding me just how immediate and delicate my situation was. For all I knew, the gentlest tap would be enough to punch it through. ‘Byron,’ I said, ducking down to try and shield myself from the ravaging wind. ‘Byron, can you hear me?’

At first I thought he was already gone. His eyes were shut, and he was motionless. Then he turned his head to face me, opening his eyes and smiling as if he’d just woke from a wonderful dream. ‘Did I do it?’ he asked, with all the wonder and excitement of a child.

‘You did it.’

His smile lingered, then faded. He looked away from me. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t be.’


‘I’m going to the other ship. The decoy.’ Byron did his best to nod and smile. He looked gaunt, frail; it was no wonder the pill had gone to work so fast on him. His skinny frame was no match for its potency. ‘I’m going to take you with me,’ I added.

‘Leave me here,’ he wheezed. ‘I want to stay here.’

I thought about disagreeing, but I could tell from Byron’s look that he was at peace. ‘Okay. I’ll leave you here.’

‘Thank you. Go. Get to the ship.’

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I bent down and hugged Byron. I could feel a weak arm draw me in, and when I lifted away, there were tears in his great blue eyes. I stood and I turned away. I didn’t look back. That was the last time I ever saw Byron Ash.

I struggled, but I managed to lift Sophia to her feet, and together we hobbled over to the transport vehicle. My head still pounded from the attack, and every move was an effort I thought could well be my last. I wanted to stop and rest, despite the inevitability of succumbing to the storm, but somehow the burden of Sophia’s weakened state acted to remind me of her dogged insistence of my survival. Even in the last five minutes the storm had become noticeably more powerful; much longer and it would be deadly.

Wiping the dust from the navigation computer, I found the Athena, or at least where it had been. I thought back to that first day, the view to the horizon and the cloud of dust I had seen. I placed a waypoint on the map where I thought the ship was and I headed for it, knowing full well I was driving completely blind, and that the chances of finding it were slim to none. But still I had hope, and the whole while I had Sophia, I had a responsibility, too. She hadn’t given up on me, and I wasn’t going to give up on her.

I drove carefully, studying the terrain as I could see it, the view mere metres ahead. It probably would have been just as quick to walk, but at least I had the map. The fuel cell still had months of life in it; I would drive until I either found the ship or the storm swallowed me. I kept driving, driving for an eternity, feeling the weight of sleep crushing down on me. Time had all but stood still, and I was a figurine in a sand-coloured snow globe, staring out into nothing for all my unending existence. It was almost existential; I had let go and given control to my subconscious, driven forward by my distant, physical self. I believed it would never end, and it almost never did.

But there, ahead, a shape. Another shape in the torrent of dust? No, it couldn’t be, it was too angular. I slowed to a stop, trepidation holding me back. Trepidation of what? That the mirage gave me a false sense of hope that would leave me crushed when I came out the other side to nothing. I looked over to Sophia, slumped in the passenger seat. Her eyes were still open, but they were glazed. She wasn’t dead, not yet. The wind was too loud to shout over by now, so I pushed forward, guiding the little vehicle towards the misty shape. As I drew closer, the shape grew darker, fading out of the sand as the distance between us vanished. It was there, alright. It was a ship.

Chapter 39

For every step I took forward, the great writhing wall of dust tried to push me back two. Jason, fuelled by whatever frenetic energy that powered him, forced his way onwards, leaving me trailing but just about able to keep up. Sophia had dropped back from me, but I could still just about see her. The Athena, however, was long gone.

The wind roared louder, yet still Jason marched confidently on. We could’ve been walking in circles and I’d have been none the wiser, the strain of the blast and the volume in my ears too much for me to even think. I knew I wanted to think about something, had to think about something, but every ounce of my already depleted being was forced into keeping me moving forward. I felt like I was marching to my death, and so exhausted was my mind and my body that I simply let myself trudge on, in a strange way looking forward to the relief death would bring. Better yet, I could just stop here, lie down on the floor, curl up and wait for the storm to pass. The sand, once moulded to the shape of my body, would probably be pretty comfortable.

No. I must keep on going. The thought came clear, even if just for a second: I had to protect Byron, if not from himself then from Jason. I pushed on. So thick were the veins of dust writhing around me that it felt like I was standing still, walking but not moving. It was like a horrible dream, a foreboding sense of entrapment snaring me and making my heart thump in my throat.

Ahead, a glow. At least, I thought it was a glow. Then it was gone as the wind changed direction, whipping the fine particulate cloud up even thicker than before. Perhaps there was no glow? But then I saw it again. Jason must have seen it, too, because he had picked up his pace yet again. I dragged air into my lungs and pushed against the burn in my legs to keep up, the soft ground beneath my feet swallowing each footstep deeper as I walked faster. I checked over my shoulder; Sophia was flagging, but she would catch up.

The glow became brighter, until it was distinct. The transport vehicle.

‘Byron!’ Jason yelled over the intercom, so suddenly it made my entire body jerk. ‘Byron, I know you’re here! Show yourself!’

There was no response, but a flash of movement caught my eye—Jason’s, too. It came from over by the drill, which was still set up where we’d left it over the filled-in final hole. I squinted as my walk broke into a jog to see Byron working at the drill head. What was he doing? Adjusting it?

‘Byron,’ Jason said as calmly as he could while still being heard. ‘It’s okay, Byron. Stop what you’re doing and let’s talk about it.’

Byron continued ignoring Jason, working away at the drill head. He was adjusting it, I could see that now, setting it for a much smaller hole. Jason, who had stopped a little ways from Byron, started to walk towards him again, taking easy steps, fluid and unthreatening. All of a sudden I wanted to yell out to warn Byron, who didn’t seemed to notice or care that Jason was approaching him, but my horror at what Byron was up to kept my mouth shut. He couldn’t be doing what I thought he was doing, surely?

‘Byron, I don’t know what you think you’re going to achieve by doing this,’ Jason said, ‘but there are lives at risk here.’ He was still slowly approaching Byron, who was completely disinterested.

‘I know what you’ve done,’ Byron said at last, without looking up. ‘I know who you are and what you’ve done. My father told me.’

Jason wavered for a second, then carried on his slow approach. He was no more than five metres away now, hands out in an offering of surrender, treading as the though the sand beneath his feet might crack and send him tumbling to the planet’s core. ‘Whatever you think you know, Byron,’ Jason said, still maintaining calm, ‘whatever you’ve been told, it was a lie, Byron. A lie.’

Byron had set the drill to it’s smallest, quickest bore. I guessed it would be down the stasis tube in a matter of minutes at that size, and through the metal casing in even less than that.

‘I know the truth, Jason,’ Byron said, punching at the drill’s keypad. ‘I know who I am, I know what I’m doing. I know that he will love me for this.’

I felt a weight against my shoulder, and turned to see that Sophia had caught up. She was resting herself against me, leaning to take the force of the wind from her body. I leaned back, welcome for the support off my aching body.

‘Who will love you?’ Sophia shouted just above the whirling din. ‘Your father?’

At Sophia’s voice, Byron stopped and looked over. ‘Yes,’ he said simply and rather dolefully, as if it was an idea he’d forced himself to accept. He remained still for a moment, staring at the ground, then continued what he was doing.

‘We all love you,’ Jason said, his tone carrying nothing of the sort. ‘So why don’t you stop what you’re doing and step back from the drill.’ He sounded uneasy. ‘You do know what’ll happen if you do that, right?’

‘I know exactly what’ll happen.’

‘And you’re happy to do that to your friends here? Leave them stranded here on this rock to die?’

Byron twitched. Even through the dust cloud I could see it. It was obviously a part of his plan that troubled him. ‘It’s a sacrifice that needs to be made,’ he said. ‘An inevitability.’

‘Why do you think your father will love you for doing this?’ Sophia asked. She kept her distance, but the warmth in her voice brought her closer to Byron than Jason could ever be. For a moment she reminded me of Sadie, the one person who could really connect with Byron. Dead Sadie. My Sadie. Oh, how we needed her now.

‘He needs me to do this,’ Byron said, a hint of petulance in his voice. ‘He told me, do this and I will forgive you for what you did to your mother. I—I don’t have any other choice.’

Hearing that phrase coming from Byron left my heart cold. ‘You always have a choice,’ I said, surprising myself with my own words. ‘There’s always another choice.’

Byron looked at me, and through the haze of dust, through the curves of his helmet, I could see those two big sad eyes that had looked jus as lost and lonely as when I’d seen them first back home. I’d known then that something haunted this kid; I hadn’t quite known how big a burden it was going to be.

‘Not this time,’ Byron said. He spoke through tears. ‘This is my only choice. I have to do it. I need him to love me.’

Jason had stopped where he was, frozen in an awkward semi-squat that seemed to be some kind of indecision between keeping a safe distance and wanting to move forward and pounce. ‘He’s using you,’ Jason said, ‘he doesn’t love you. He never loved you. He wanted me to kill you.’

‘That may be,’ Byron said wetly, ‘but it’s the closest I’m going to get. You know as well as I do that we’ve got to take what we can.’ With that he thumbed the control panel and the drill head whizzed into life, accelerating far faster than it had done at full bore width. Jason exploded into a sprint, covering the last few metres in a matter of strides, just as Byron one of the leg-locking spanners and smashed it down on the control panel. Jason rounded the drill at full speed and slammed into Byron, knocking him to the ground. Sophia and I reacted instantly, running over to Byron. Jason climbed off Byron and turned to the drill control panel, which he looked at in horror.

‘What have you done?’ he screeched in an almost animalistic way. ‘What did you do this?’ He turned back to Byron and leapt at him as he was trying to clamber up, holding his stomach. I reached the pair just as Jason went to grab Byron, pulling out my neural stunner and giving Jason the full charge, mashing away at the button until it was depleted. Jason bucked backwards, tumbling to the floor, where he lay, twitching. Once I was sure he wasn’t getting up again, I helped Sophia lift Byron to his feet.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked, helping him to stay standing against the wind. ‘Don’t worry about Jason—he should be out a few minutes. I emptied the entire battery on him.’

Byron nodded. ‘I’m fine,’ he wheezed.

‘What’s happening, Byron?’ I asked him. ‘What’s going on?’

Byron eased himself from my support, and I let him stand for himself. ‘My father,’ he said, ‘he stands to benefit hugely if this mission goes public. All I need to do is sabotage one of tubes and he’ll become a very, very rich man. I can do that for him. Then he’ll love me.’

‘But . . . but you’ll be dead . . .’ Sophia said.

Byron looked at the ground. ‘I know. But at least I’ll die happy.’

I glanced at the hole; the drill head was long gone, feeding its way deep into the ground. When I turned back to Byron, he was staring squarely at me.

‘Don’t you want this, too, Jake? To be released from your anger? Stay here with me and you’ll be able to rest in peace rather than suffer a life of hate. I know what torture that can be, Jake, to hate so passionately that it consumes you, becomes you. You can be free of that.’

I felt an uncertainty inside me, a nervous splinter that I knew no matter how hard I tried would never leave me. Was Byron right? Could I ever truly let go? Did I really want to let go?

‘Don’t let Jason get what he wants,’ Byron continued. ‘For once in your life, take what you want. It’s like you said—you have a choice. Let this be your choice, Jake. Choose to do what’s best for you and not for him.’

Byron’s words were like a siren song to me. The freedom, the release of death; I had dreamed of it before, thought about it in fancy, but I had never really considered it properly before. And here it was, easy. All I had to do was sit down and wait. I licked my lips, tasting the salty beads gathering atop.

‘Jake,’ Sophia said. She sounded worried. ‘Jake, don’t do this.’

I almost didn’t hear her, her voice a faint echo that barely made it to my ears. ‘I have no other choice . . .’ I whispered. My legs went weak, and I lowered myself to the floor before I collapsed.

Sophia stumbled over to me, slipping on the soft dirt, dropping to her knees, her expression imploring. ‘Jake, you don’t need to do this to yourself. You’re better than this. You can be better than this.’ She held my shoulders, turning me to look at her, her eyes pleading. I shrugged her off.

‘I know what I want,’ I said. And I did. Byron’s offer was a white light to me, the first real offer that made any sense. Everything else was paper over cracks, a temporary fix that allowed to bury my eternal suffering deeper so I could continue functioning as a normal human being—at least for a little while longer. This—this would let me be free, feel the warm relief I’d longed for as long as I could remember.





I looked at Sophia, repulsed by the fear on her, clinging like sweat, a basic need to live that transcended anything greater, the protection of one among many that did nothing to serve the greater good. With Istanbul Angel dead and gone, I will have served not only myself, but all of mankind. They will be free as I will be free. ‘I understand that you want to protect yourself,’ I said to her, almost as is I was trying to reassure her, ‘but think of this as a sacrifice, a way to pay the world back for everything it’s given to you. Let yourself go.’

For a moment Sophia said nothing, and I thought she was going to strike me. But she didn’t. She slumped a little at the shoulders, eyes tearing up. ‘Jake, I swallowed it,’ she said.

‘Swallowed what?’

‘The pill, Jake, I swallowed the pill.’

But if she’d swallowed the pill, then she already knew she was going to die. Panic punched me in the gut, a sudden rush that set my hands shaking. ‘There must be something we can do, something to stop it, surely?’ I said, pivoting to me knees.

‘There’s nothing you can do,’ Byron said, almost dreamily. ‘I swallowed mine, too.’

‘You knew?’

‘My father told me it would be the easiest way out once I was done. Better than to suffocate, he told me. The kindest thing he’s ever said.’

‘But—’ I said, whipping back and forth from Byron, to Sophia and back to Byron. ‘But I don’t understand?’

‘Jake,’ Sophia said, grasping hold of me and pulling me to face her. ‘You don’t need to die. You’re a good person. Don’t give up.’ Then she slumped forward, her torso collapsing onto me. I turned her to lay her down. She was still conscious, but she was weak. Byron was rocking next to me, a glazed look in his eyes. I looked over to Jason; he was still out cold.

‘Sophia,’ I said, leaning close to her. ‘I need this. I need all this to be over. Please understand. Please.’ It was as though I was begging permission to give up.

‘You’re capable of great things, Jake, I’ve seen it. Don’t take the easy way out. Live. Fight.’

‘But . . . I can’t . . .’

‘There’s always a choice.’

‘What other choice do I have?’ I said, the glass of my helmet almost touching hers. She didn’t respond. Her lips moved faintly, but no sound came out.

‘Jason!’ a new voice came over the intercom. Emily’s. I looked up to see her leaning against the wind, holding an arm up to shield herself.

‘Emily!’ I called back. ‘Over here!’

‘Jake, you’re alive,’ she said, jogging over to us as best she could. ‘I thought I’d lost you all for sure. Where’s Jason?’

I pointed to his unconscious torso. ‘Over there. I had to stun him’

Emily changed direction to go over to Jason, climbing to her knees to look over him. ‘Why did you stun him?’

‘The pills, Emily. He tried to kill us all to keep the mission secret.’

Emily looked over to me, and then she noticed the drill. The wind was so loud it was barely noticeable, the only tell-tale sign it was on the spinning of the tube going into the hole. She leapt up and ran over to it, to the control panel, prodding buttons frantically. ‘Why won’t it stop?’ she said, frustrated at first and then panicked. ‘Why won’t it stop!’

‘Byron,’ I said. ‘He did it.’ Byron was struggling to keep himself sat upright, lolling a little to one side. Emily bounded over to him in two leaps, crashing down beside him. ‘Byron!’ she yelled. ‘What have you done!’ He didn’t respond, so she shook him violently. His head flopped back and forth, the weight of his helmet throwing it around with uncomfortable force.

‘Hey,’ I said, scrambling over to Emily to stop her shaking him. ‘He’s been poisoned, too. So has Sophia. They’re both dying.’

‘Shit,’ Emily said to herself, barely audible above the roaring wind. She stood and hurried back to the control panel, pressing at it at first, then smacking it with her fist. Then she tried to pull at the body to try and topple it over, heaving against it with her might, but despite the cable tightening and the far leg going light, it would not budge.

‘Leave it,’ I said, still sat on the floor next to Sophia. ‘Jason was going to kill us anyway. We may as well die on our on terms.’

‘No,’ Emily said, straining against the drill once more, without success. ‘I’ve worked too long and too hard for it to all be over now.’ She heaved again, a long, whining grunt being picked up by the intercom. Watching, unmoving, I looked over to where Jason was, but with a sudden skip of the heart I realised he was gone. I looked back to Emily to see that he was right behind her, but before I could even get up, he was on her.

‘Emily, watch out!’ I yelled, and Emily turned in time to see Jason coming at her. But she didn’t move. Jason didn’t attack. They embraced.

‘Jason, are you okay?’ Emily asked, up on tiptoes to hold Jason close. They separated, hands still interlocked.

‘I’m fine. That little prick Jake stunned me.’ He turned to me and I froze, watching the scene unfold in disbelief.

‘Why did you do that, Jake?’

‘He’s—’ I said, stumbling over my words in my confusion. ‘He’s a murderer. He killed Grant and Clip with those pills. He was going to kill us, too.’

Jason laughed. ‘I’m not a murderer,’ he said. ‘No, no. no. Not me.’

‘Stop trying to blame this on Byron!’ I yelled, overwhelmed with rage. I hoisted myself up, standing tall, and I jabbed a finger at Jason. ‘You did it. You.’

‘That’s where you’re wrong, Jake. Once again, you’re wrong.’

The temperature in my suit seemed to has risen ten degrees. The air was thick and difficult to breath. ‘Then who did it? It was no accident. None of the deaths were.’

I did it,’ Emily said. She sounded proud. ‘I killed all of them.’

It was like I’d been hit by a car. Where there was air in my lungs before, now there was none. I felt faint. ‘You?’ I whispered. I don’t think they heard, but they knew that’s what I was thinking.

‘James, he was the first,’ Emily said, as thought listing through her weekly shopping, or discussing previous boyfriends. ‘James knew me. He’d seen my before, at a protest. He had his suspicions, and he shared them Jason. Then he told Brendan, so he had to go. They both had to go.’

I found what I was hearing so hard to believe that it actually hurt to hear. I wanted to scream, I wanted to vomit, I wanted to punch and kick and I wanted to collapse all at the same time. I did none of those things; I did nothing at all.

‘Sadie, now she was an unexpected one,’ Emily continued. ‘She was entirely your fault, Jake.’

‘My . . . fault?’ I managed. I was collapsing inside, a ruin crumbling to dust.

‘You kept asking questions, kept poking your nose where it wouldn’t belong. We tried putting you off the trail with a light dose of the hallucinogen, you know, shit you up a bit, but that didn’t work. That’s when I became interested in you, or so you thought, to become a distraction, to turn your attention away from it all before you found out too much. But Sadie, she’s a jealous one, isn’t she? She wouldn’t let it be. She needed to be silenced before she filled your head with even more ideas.

‘And now, because of you, everyone must die. They have to. You all know too much. Jason and I have been together since the beginning, when we first joined Futureproof, fighting together side by side for this, all for this. You think we’re going to let you stop us? This is your fault, Jake. Your fault.’

Chapter 38

When Emily arrived with our last tube, I almost cried with happiness. The lights, useless as they were in the storm, only appeared a few metres from us, Emily presumably driving more from the screens than from looking forwards. I’d been sat with Sophia against the mound, still enough to let a film of dust gather on my helmet. I wiped it off and stood waving like a madman to the oncoming vehicle. I was so relieved that I’d forgotten the tension between me, Jason and Emily, a relief that wavered slightly when I saw that Byron was also with them, still alive.

‘Need a hand with the last tube?’ Jason yelled, pointing.

‘Uh—no thanks,’ I yelled back, still looking at Byron. ‘We can manage.’

‘We sure can,’ Sophia added.

Between us we hooked the tube up and dragged it across the ground, hoisting it up in the air ready to be deposited into its final resting place. The last tube. In a symbolic way, this tube to me was Istanbul Angel’s. Once it was buried, they were all buried, and that meant Angel was finally facing his punishment for what he did. I realised as I lowered the tube that the morbid satisfaction I was expecting was not present. Instead I felt a calming sense of liberation. I’d done it. I’d beaten my hate, shrugged off my burden and been able to let go of Istanbul Angel by forgiving him for what he’d done to me, to my family. At last, I was at peace. It was like someone had wiped the dust from my eyes and I could see things clearly for the first time. No more excuses. No more backing down. The future was my future, dictated by no-one but me. Somehow, Sophia knew, and she patted my shoulder and gave me a thumbs up and a grin.

Once Emily had filled in the hole—we left the drill in place, quicker that way—we rode back to the Athena. None of us spoke. Lack of energy, lack of anything to say, the screaming wind—whatever it was, it resulted in silence. It had become the way of our journey to and from the ship. I was still giddy from my newfound sense of being, and I smiled quietly to myself the whole way back. It was all over. I’d be leaving more than just Istanbul Angel here on HD 85512 B.

When we returned, we disembarked from the transport vehicle and trudged over to the basecamp airlock, fighting against the gale as it threatened to bowl us all over. Clip and Grant didn’t seem to have made much progress deconstructing it.

‘There’s not enough time to properly take basecamp down,’ Jason said once we were in the airlock, reading my mind. ‘I’m going to jettison the clamps and leave basecamp here. Clip and Grant have secured the trailer so we can go straight away.’

I didn’t really care. I expect the basecamp module was expensive—eye wateringly so—but it wasn’t my problem. We kept our suits on to board the Athena, basecamp itself flapping violently and threatening to detach itself of its own accord, and once inside we filed into the briefing room and removed our helmets. We were an odd group; we had been through so much, done so much wrong to each other, yet here we were. We’d fought the odds and won, even Byron. I half wondered if Jason had perhaps had a change of heart and couldn’t face doing to Byron what he had done to the others.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ Jason said, an exhausted grin plastering his face, ‘I could sure go for one of those muscle relaxants right now.’ He clicked his neck, wincing. ‘I’m as stiff as a board.’

‘I’ll get some,’ Emily said, darting off quickly.

‘Well,’ Jason continued. ‘It’s been a tough few days, but we’ve made it. Thank you, all of you. Sophia, thank you for putting up with my temper. Jason, thank you for sticking by me, no matter what kind of an idiot I’ve been. And Byron—Byron, despite what’s happened, you’ve earned my respect, and you’ve earned the right to come home and face a jury of your peers. That’s not exactly much of a reassurance for you, I know, but it’s the best I can do, considering. Anyway, thank you for all your hard work, all of you. Now, let’s get this ship off this miserable ball of rock so we can all go get some well-deserved sleep.’

None of us said anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say. All I could stretch my mind to right now was a muscle relaxant and a comfortable bed. Emily returned, and she handed us each a pill, small and blue. I held it for a moment, turning it over in my fingers, trying to remember a time when I didn’t feel as drained as I did right now. I looked up to say something to her, but as I caught Emily’s eye, she turned away and marched off. I glanced at Sophia, and she gave an almost imperceptible shrug, looking from me to Emily.

‘Hey, Emily,’ I called after her. ‘Can we talk?’ I went to follow, but Jason grabbed my arm. I tried to yank it free, but he gripped hard. ‘What’s the big deal—’ I started to say, but the deathly stare he gave me choked my words in mid flow.

‘Leave her.’

No. Not this time. Jason had got his way before, oh yes he had, but those days were over. I yanked my arm from his grasp, and stepped back as he tried to grab me again.

‘Jason—’ Sophia said, attempting to stop him, but he pushed her back, not even looking at her. Byron watched on silently.

‘Look,’ Jason said, his voice oddly calm. ‘Why don’t you take your pill, get a good night’s sleep and we can talk about this in the morning, okay?’

‘Why don’t you leave me alone and stop telling me what to do?’ I said definitely. I could still feel the pressure on my arm from his grasp, but I wasn’t going to let that deter me.

‘That’s an order,’ Jason said between gritted teeth, still trying to maintain his calm.

‘I only take orders from the captain of the ship,’ I said, stepping closer to Sophia.

‘Do as you’re damn well told!’ Jason yelled, lunging for me.

I pivoted out the way, leaving Jason clutching at nothing. ‘You want me to take the pill? I’ll show you where you can stick it!’

I launched the thing at him. He leaned out the way, letting it dart past and tinkle on the floor somewhere behind him. He brushed his hair back, his cheeks flushed.

‘You don’t tell me what to do ever again,’ I said quietly, pointing at him. ‘You got a problem with that?’

Jason said nothing, eyes bulging, wiry veins in his temples throbbing.

‘Didn’t think so,’ I said. I turned away, confident Jason wouldn’t grab for me again, and marched to the back of the ship to find Emily. She was in the bunks with Clip and Grant, who were sleeping. She was sat on my bunk, her head buried in her hands. I sat next to her.

‘Hey,’ I said quietly, ‘what’s the matter?’

She shook her head, leaning into me to push me away.

I held firm. ‘Whatever he’s doing, I’m going to stop him, you hear? I’m going to stop Jason.’

Emily emerged from her hands, her face expressionless and pale. She shook her head again, opening her mouth to speak, but no words came out. I tried to pull her close, but she pushed back. I wanted her to look at me, but her eyes were distant. She tried to speak again, but all I could hear was the faintest whisper. I leaned in closer, and this time she did not stop me. ‘They’re . . .’ she said, barely audible. ‘They’re . . .’

‘They’re what?’ I said, but as I did I realised something that made my blood run cold, made me release Emily and back away in shock. Clip, Grant—they were both very . . . still. Too still. ‘Grant?’ I called out tentatively. ‘Clip? Are you . . . are you awake?’ I got no response, so I stood, took a breath, and approached the bunks. They were both turned away from me, two knots of hair sprouting from beneath the covers. ‘Grant?’ I said again, already knowing it was worthless. ‘Clip?’ Their stillness was absolute.

A yell snatched my attention away. I knew at once where it had come from. Leaving Emily behind, I sprinted down the corridor to find Jason sprawled on the floor, with Sophia standing next to him, arms folded, doing little to help.

‘He . . . he hit me!’ Jason was saying, touching his cheek gingerly. ‘The little fuck hit me!’

‘Why should I care?’ I said, feeling like adding a few kicks in myself while Jason was down.

‘Because he’s escaped,’ Jason said, talking to me as though I was stupid. ‘He’s gone to the airlock.’ He scrambled to his feet, and I took a step back. His eye was red and swelling up already, his cheek split in an inch-long red line.

‘Why’s Byron gone to the airlock?’ I asked, wary of Jason’s fired up temper.

‘Why do you think?’ Jason said. He spat, a gob of blood hitting the deck, then he grabbed his helmet, fitting it in place as he hurried to the airlock. I followed, snatching up my own helmet.

‘You coming?’ I yelled over my shoulder to Sophia.

‘Sure,’ was her response.

We three crammed ourselves into the airlock, awaiting the hiss of air and the reveal of the basecamp. When it came it felt like a different world outside, dark and empty, the walls flapping like sails. I tried to make out where Byron was in the gloom.

‘Byron?’ Jason yelled out. There was no response. ‘Shit,’ he said to himself, setting off at a sprint to the basecamp airlock. I followed with Sophia, and we piled into the larger basecamp airlock and waited another age to be expelled out into the fury of the planet. When the door opened, it was like someone had built a wall in front of it, a swirling, violent wall of dust and wind. Jason switched on his suit lamp and Sophia and I did the same, our beams falling short against the writhing storm. We stepped out, pushing hard against it, holding our arms up in front of us for what little protection it afforded.

‘He’s taken the transport vehicle!’ Jason yelled. I was barely able to make him out over the howl. He pointed to where the vehicle had been to make his point clear, staggering over to the space it once occupied. He looked around, panning the possible directions Byron could have driven, then stopped, looking at his wrist-top readout. ‘This way!’ he shouted waving us after him.

I looked at where he was heading, but could see nothing by imminent death. It seemed to be the direction of the site Sophia and I had been working at. ‘He’s mad,’ I shouted to Sophia. ‘There’s no way he’s going to survive this.’

‘What other choice do we have?’ Sophia shouted back.

Still, after all this, still Jason held that power over me. I cursed in my helmet and set off after him, fighting each step forward to catch up before he disappeared into the dust forever.

Chapter 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’d rather not think about it.’

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

‘I declined to be involved.’

‘You don’t think Byron’s guilty?’

‘It doesn’t matter what I think.’

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

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

‘How was he going to do it?’

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

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

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

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

‘What? Why don’t I know about this?’

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

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


‘How—how did you survive?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’

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

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

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

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

‘Sophia—it’s Jake.’

It was Jason, shouting to be heard.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Save your energy,’ Sophia said.

‘I’m already spent.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sure—will do.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Probably for the best.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Knows?’ Jason. ‘How much?’

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

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

‘Don’t give me that bullshit!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry . . .’ Emily repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Get up, Jake, we’ve got work to do.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What—what do you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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

Emily nodded.

‘Can I ask why?’

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

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

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

‘Are you coming?’

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

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

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

‘Yeah,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You sound very sure.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Please try. Please . . .’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So it is Jason?’

‘I said I don’t know.’

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

Chapter 34

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

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

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

‘Is it a big storm?’

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

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

‘I’m fine.’

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

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

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

‘Then what is it? What can I do?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’ Sophia asked, sounding puzzled.

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

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

‘Take a look up and see.’

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

‘It’s quite something, huh?’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

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

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

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

‘Makes you feel small, huh?’

‘Like a grain of sand in an ocean.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s pretty bleak.’

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

I laughed sarcastically. ‘How?’

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

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

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

‘That’s some pretty deep shit.’

Sophia mock-curtseyed. ‘Thanks.’

‘Where’d you learn all that?’

‘Minored in philosophy.’

‘What made you take philosophy?’

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

‘What happened?’

‘I grew up and became cynical.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was just kidding, Jesus . . .’

‘Just don’t.’


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

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

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

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