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

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 6

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

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

‘Yeah. Me too.’

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

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

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

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

‘It was. Look, Jake.’

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

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

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

‘Like you have style,’ she rebuked.

‘Charming!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey!’

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

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

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

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

‘What is it?’ Sadie asked from behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So you didn’t see how he died?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, just Emily as she described.’

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

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

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

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

Emily nodded.

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

‘I can do it now.’

‘Are you sure? That’s not too soon?’

‘It’s fine. No point delaying it.’

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

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

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

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

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

So she had noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No.’

‘Any bones sticking out?’

‘No.’

‘Any—’

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

‘Sorry . . .’

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

‘Are you okay, Jake?’

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

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

‘That’s understandable.’

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

‘Are you ready to make a statement?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What tests?’

‘You know—the ones from James.’

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

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

‘No, no it isn’t.’

‘So what did you find?’

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

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

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

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

‘Are you alright?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I wonder if Sophia knows?’

‘I’m sure she does. She’s very good.’

I went to speak, then paused.

‘What is it?’ Sadie asked.

‘It’s . . . nothing.’

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

‘I think he did it.’

What?

‘Shh! Keep your voice down.’

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

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

‘That’s not nothing . . .!’

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

‘You can’t base a hunch on nothing.’

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

‘That’s the same thing.’

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

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

‘Are you winning?’ he asked.

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

‘I’m okay. Can’t get to sleep.’

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

‘Half one.’

‘In the morning?’

‘Yeah—didn’t you know?’

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

I looked up, but Sadie had gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We laughed.

‘Do you like King?’ he asked.

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

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

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

‘Thanks. I’d like that.’

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

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

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

‘Thanks.’

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

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

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

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

‘What’s he done now . . . ?’ I said.

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

‘Me? What? What have I done?’

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

‘Gone. All gone.’

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

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

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

‘Wha . . .?

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

‘But I—’

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

‘James, look, I’m sorry—’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A voice came from the corridor.

‘Did what?’

It was Byron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Exactly,’ Sadie said. She was beaming.

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

Sadie nodded. ‘Uh-huh.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So how do you know?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I suppose so, yes.’

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

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

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

‘You would think so—’

‘No you wouldn’t,’ I butted in.

That look.

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

‘Less,’ I added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.’

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

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

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

‘I think someone else did it.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not even . . .?’

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

He was gone before I had a chance to respond.

Chapter 4

During our trip, all the planetary experts are able to wander around the ship as they please, but the flight crew, who man the cockpit as watchmen of sorts, work around a strict shift rotation. They alternate shifts in pairs with the fifth shift off, so each member of the flight crew gets a break every now and then that doesn’t just get spent just sleeping. This meant that it was a while before I’d become properly acquainted with most of them, but as it turned out, they were pretty much all decent people. Sadie, Byron and I shared a dinner with the captain, Sophia Mendes, and my bunkmate, Emily Porter, for the first time on our eighth day, and it was a relief to discover that the fiery little Latino running this boat was a stand-up lady. I’d spoken to Emily in passing on occasion, and she had been surprisingly quiet for flight crew; she also blossomed as we ate rehydrated steak and mash together.

‘I’m sure I’ve seen you before from somewhere,’ she said to me, narrowing her eyes in thought.

‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Maybe I’ve just got one of those memorable faces.’

‘Memorable for its slapability,’ Sadie said, and stuck her tongue out at me.

The others laughed, including Sophia, who had a surprisingly feminine giggle for someone as intense as her. ‘I see it too,’ she said, jabbing her food packet in my direction.

‘Hey!’ I said. ‘What’s all this picking on me about? What have I done to deserve this?’

Sadie rolled her eyes, grinning. ‘Lighten up, grumpy.’

‘How about we all go round and say what we miss most about Earth? Emily chimed in.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes—it’s supposed to be good for moral and bonding. Give it a try while I think about where I’ve seen you before.’

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘but we’ve never met, so you’re wasting your time.’

I thought about her question for a bit, but coming to an answer wasn’t as easy as it first seemed. I enjoyed the company of the people on board more than the ‘friends’ I’d amassed during my studies.

‘I guess I’d have to say I miss my old mother the most.’ This was met with a chorus of ‘awwws’. ‘She’s a hell of a lady.’

‘What about you, Sadie?’ Emily asked.

‘That’s easy. Coffee. And chocolate. And a proper bath.’ We all laughed.

‘Byron?’

‘I don’t know . . .’

‘Come on, there must be something?’

I could see that awkward smile coming back to Byron as he fidgeted in his seat, but Emily didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps it was because I knew, and she didn’t.

‘What about your friends?’

‘I don’t really have any friends.’

‘You must have some?’

Byron shook his head, embarrassed. The laughter died, replaced by thick silence.

‘Not to worry,’ Sadie said, squeezing his arm.

I’d told Sadie about what Byron had said to me the first chance I’d got, and she took it surprisingly well. Then again, I suppose I had, too. Truth be told, I felt a little sorry for him.

The conversation drifted away from a much-relieved Byron, and we carried on chatting long into the night. It occurred to me as a I caught Sadie giving Byron a reassuring smile and another squeeze of the arm, that he’d become something of a surrogate child to us both, and I wondered how that was going to pan out for us as time ticked past—and if it was a healthy relationship for us to have at all. I resented Byron’s father for doing to this to us—and to him—but it was useless dwelling on the matter for too long. I re-joined the conversation and soon I’d forgotten about it completely.

As you’d expect, living in close quarters with such a diverse group of people is bound to generate friction. We’re told to expect it, we’re trained to deal with it, and we can all usually read the signs. There’s a lot of psychoanalysis that goes on deep in the brain of Planexus HQ, and the work they scientists do there limits the possibilities of rifts occurring between crew members, but still it happens. It’s human, it’s expected. What wasn’t expected, however, was the addition of a certain Byron Ash. He’s a nice kid and no mistake, but he’s also young, inexperienced, unqualified and sometimes—on a cramped ship—a pain in the ass. As the days wore on, I became more and more aware that I was responsible for our unexpected addition; maybe it was because I knew something about him the others didn’t, and somehow made myself answer for his actions. What I didn’t expect, as the second week begun, was that the first bust-up was going to have me in its centre.

It started when I heard shouting from the rec room. I was on my bunk, snoozing (the lights were dimmer here; I had a headache), but even with the length of the galley between me and the noise, I could tell it was Byron. As time passed and the shell of uncertainty peeled away from him, he became more animated, and with it came a high-pitched note that jarred even the most patient person. Now that note was jarring me, and I wasn’t even in the room with him. I rolled over to face the wall, trying to ignore the sound, hoping it would go away, but it didn’t. I endured it for a while, but it was becoming more intense, and another voice, a deeper one, had begun to fill in the gaps where the squalling left off.

‘For God’s sake . . .’ I muttered, extracting myself from my bunk, feeling the marble of pain rolling around my head as I fumbled my way along to the rec room. Byron was in a seat, backed up as far as he could go, with James, the driller, towering over him, hands on hips. Brendan was, of course, right by James’ side, and Sadie was there too, trying and failing to squeeze a word in the tight gap between Byron and James.

‘It was you, I know it!’ James bellowed, jabbing a thick finger into Byron’s chest. Byron winced, pushing himself flatter against the chair and the wall behind it.

‘I didn’t, I swear! Why would I do that?’ His wide, fearful eyes searched for help, first to Sadie, who was now covering her mouth with her hand, then to me. ‘Jake! Tell him, Jake! Tell him I didn’t do it!’

The noise had disturbed some of the flight crew who had been sleeping in the bunks with me, as well as the captain, who was on shift. They all looked cross—and with good reason— but it was Sophia who looked most angry. ‘What’s going on?’ she said.

Byron ignored her, still looking to me with wide, pleading eyes. ‘Tell him, Jake!’

‘What did you do?’ I said, and James rounded on me.

‘I’ll tell you what he did. The little runt went in my locker and stuffed his face with my chocolate. My personal chocolate.’ He switched back to Byron, who was shaking his head vigorously.

‘I didn’t, I swear!’

‘I caught you red-handed!’

I didn’t know what to do. There was no way I could push James away (he must’ve weighed twice what I did), and I couldn’t think of anything to say to diffuse the situation. I’m a geologist, not a mediator, and I’d never been particularly good in confrontations. Nevertheless, I felt that annoying sense of guilt about protecting Byron, so I blurted out something without really thinking.

‘Leave him alone, James.’

This was probably the worst thing I could’ve said. Although it meant that James turned his attention away from Byron, it was redirected at me, and I felt small as his shadow filled my view.

‘I see. You’re going to side with the little runt because he’s one of you.’

‘That’s not what I meant—’

‘And you’re gonna let him roam around and do as he pleases?’

‘No—’

‘Well maybe you ought to teach your little runt some manners if he wants to last the mission.’

Sophia pushed past James and stood in between us. ‘Alright, that’s enough!’ she snapped.

Fortunately, James’ respect for Sophia meant he decided to back away, but it didn’t stop him issuing a last warning:

‘Keep that little runt away from me, y’hear, Jake? Because if you don’t, I’m not responsible for my actions.’ He glared at Byron as he headed off towards the cockpit, Sophia marching behind him, talking to him in a low voice that was complimented with accusatory hand gestures. Brendan clenched his fists, snarled at Byron, then followed James and Sophia. Those that had been asleep returned to their bunks. It was me, Sadie and Byron left behind.

‘What the hell, Byron?’ I said. I could still feel the quiver of adrenaline twitching in my arms and chest.

‘I didn’t do it, Jake, you’ve got to believe me! That big idiot’s nothing but a liar. And it’s just a bit of chocolate anyway, so what’s he getting so angry about? It’s just a stupid bit of chocolate . . .’

Byron looked like he was about to cry, and suddenly I realised: he had eaten it. And Sadie knew it too; that’s why she hadn’t tried harder to intervene. I scraped my fingers though my hair, pacing in a directionless pattern. I knew I was in deep with this kid and I wanted out, but I also knew I couldn’t get out. Even if I could, I probably couldn’t physically bring myself do it. A lingering sense of entrapment far greater than the confines of the Athena settled upon me, and in a sudden outburst, I kicked a chair. It was fixed to the floor and immovable, and the pain in my foot didn’t really seem to register.

‘Goddammit . . .’ I muttered.

Byron must have realised that the game was up, because he writhed awkwardly in his seat. ‘I’m sorry Jake. And Sadie, too. I’m sorry.’

Sadie sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘What you’ve done is very serious,’ she said in a low, soothing voice. ‘We survive out here on the basis of trust, and you’ve broken that.’

Byron hugged his legs, curling into a ball, head down. ‘I know . . .’ he said, his voice muffled by his knees.

‘And that mistrust rubs off onto us, too,’ I said, my own words lacking the comforting tone of Sadie’s.

‘I know . . .’ Byron repeated.

‘God’s sake. I know things haven’t been great for you, and I’m sorry about that, but you just can’t go about doing whatever the hell you want on a mission like this.’

Byron looked up at me. His cheeks were shiny with tears and his eyes were red. His mouth wore a bitter scowl.

‘I know, alright? Why don’t you just leave me alone.’

He got up and stormed off to the bunks. I half expected him to make a fuss in there, too, waking those off shift again, but he didn’t. I sighed, and slumped down next to Sadie.

‘What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘But we’re going to have to do something.’

‘But why? Why do I feel so responsible for the kid?’

Sadie leaned her head against my arm. ‘Because you’ve got a conscience, that’s why. Because you’re a loving, caring person.’

Right now I wished I wasn’t.

I didn’t see or speak to Byron until the following morning. While Sadie was showering (I still wasn’t used to her doing it in front of me), I went to get breakfast ready for us both; Byron was already in the galley, making himself scrambled eggs. He didn’t turn when I approached him, so I coughed in that way people do when they’re trying to catch someone’s attention. He didn’t react, so I said, ‘Morning, Byron.’ I knew he’d heard me, because he pursed his lips, but he still pretended he hadn’t.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘about yesterday. I didn’t mean to have a go at you. I was pumped up from the confrontation, I had a headache, and it was all a bit too much for me.’

Byron stopped what he was doing and looked at the floor. ‘I’m sorry, too. I was out of line. You’re only trying to look out for me and I threw it back in your face.’ He looked at me; his eyes were ringed with purple. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Where were you? I didn’t see you in your bunk last night.’

‘I was in the tow dock. I thought it would be best if I laid low for a while, let everyone calm down.’ He shuffled on the spot. ‘You don’t . . . you don’t hate me, do you?’

His eyes were big and wide, and yet again he stared into me in that vulnerable, childlike way that caught my throat. I gave his shoulder a squeeze.

‘Of course I don’t hate you. No-one hates you. Don’t be silly.’

He returned a thankful smile, but I could see in his expression that he knew someone hated him—the very person that had dumped him here in the first place.

That afternoon, Sadie and I decided we needed to right the bad blood between Byron and James. The ship was so small and the space so confined that the situation would only fester if it was left to its own natural fermentation. Before we did that, however, we went to the cockpit to check with Sophia that we were doing the right thing. Emily was working the shift with her, which made the conversation easier.

‘I think that’s the best thing you can do right now,’ Sophia said. She was in work mode, and that friendly aura she’d had when we’d dined with her was absent. ‘But you need to keep on top of him, Sadie. He’s your crew, he’s your responsibility. I understand it was a last minute change of plan, but you need to step up.’

Sadie nodded.

‘If you need any mediation from me,’ Emily added, ‘just let me know. I’m here for another five hours before I’m off shift.’

‘Thank you,’ Sadie said, ‘but we should be okay.’

‘Good,’ Sophia said. ‘Let’s keep it that way.’

We left—with Emily giving us a sympathetic smile—and I could tell from Sadie’s stomp that Sophia had rattled her cage.

‘She’s just doing her job,’ I said.

‘Sometimes she can be such an arrogant . . . oh, I don’t know!’

I stopped her in the briefing room where we could talk out of earshot.

‘This rides on her as much as it does you, but you know she’s got to keep things tight around here, don’t you? She knows this isn’t your fault.’

Sadie sighed. ‘I suppose.’

‘Don’t let it get to you. Come on, let’s go speak to James.’

We’d told Byron to stay in his bunk so we could talk with James alone first, but when we found James in the rec room, Byron was already with him. They were laughing, as if nothing had ever happened.

‘I thought I—’ I started to say, but James interrupted me.

‘He’s alright, this kid. We’ve had a chat, and he was brave enough to admit he’d done wrong. I might have overreacted too—after all, it was just a bit of chocolate.’

He gave Byron a friendly thump, and they both laughed. But although I was happy the rift had mended itself, I couldn’t help but be annoyed that Byron hadn’t done what we’d asked him to. The situation could easily have gone a lot worse. I looked at Sadie to see if I could read what she was thinking, but instead of the forced smile I expected, her face was flush with a genuine one. Perhaps it was just me, then.

Donald Mercer (the guy everyone in the flight crew called ‘Clip’), who was sitting opposite James and Byron (and Brendan, who was smirking over the top of his e-reader), shook his head, grinning.

‘You two should just damn well kiss and make up,’ he said, and at that James pulled Byron close to him and air-kissed both his cheeks in a ridiculously exaggerated fashion, and then they all fell about laughing. I laughed, too—after all, it was pretty funny.

That evening we had the biggest turn out for dinner yet. The atmosphere was electric, with jokes and laughter zinging from person to person like a static charge. Everyone was up; only Grant and Jason were absent, as they were manning the cockpit. Sophia, now off duty, was back to her usual friendly self, and when I caught Sadie giggling at one of her anecdotes, I gave her a jab in the ribs and whispered, ‘See?’

She didn’t take the comment with much grace.

It was a relief to see the organic components of the Athena begin to meld as they should, and with that relief came a sense of happiness as well. I was doing what I loved, and I was glad to be doing it with these people. Things were well, and I hoped they would stay that way.

Chapter 3

It was like someone had swapped our flight crew out for a different one: they looked the same, but there was no joking or messing about. They were lined up, smartly turned out, without a glimmer of a smile on any of their faces. They meant business. The reality of it was that the next few days would be pretty much all they’d have to do for the best part of a year before we arrived at HD 85512 B (still not calling it New Dawn). Sure, they’d be keeping an eye on things along the way, but everything on board was pretty much automated from departure. So here they were, rank and file, ready to do their duty with chests out and chins up.

Sadie and I joined them, and the rest of the crew followed soon after. Byron spotted us at the end of the corridor, and he beamed his nervous smile and jogged over to us. ‘Morning,’ he said, rubbing his hands together in the way you would if you were out in the cold.

‘Morning, Byron,’ I said, and Sadie said something similar, but with more feeling.

‘Are you guys looking forward to the launch?’ he asked.

There was no doubt that he was—he was shifting from foot to foot, bobbing up and down with the excitement of a puppy. I couldn’t say I shared his enthusiasm. In fact, I was never particularly enthusiastic about launch day. I’m one of those people where everything comes to a nervous head moments before whatever big situation I’m in gets going, but once it’s started, I’m fine. It’s the waiting around that gets to me, which made it all the more frustrating to see the two drillers coming from the direction of the canteen with crumbs down their jackets. James was still eating a slice of buttered toast. I envied their rock steady calm.

‘I’m not really looking forward to it, no,’ I said. I could have given Byron more detail, but I didn’t want to ruin his first proper launch.

The station manager showed up five or so minutes later to give us our final safety briefing, with no word as to our conversation of yesterday. The briefing was the usual don’t do this, don’t do that nannying Planexus is contractually obliged to undertake, and for the most of us the horror-story warnings of failed airlocks and depressurisation was water off a duck’s back. Not for Byron though—he was ogling Stone, rapt by every last word. God, this really was his first time. I gave Sadie a jab with my elbow, but she’d already seen it, and gave me an I know, but what am I supposed to do about it look.

Briefing over (and already forgotten), we filed on, personal bags in hand. As I said, the next few days belonged to the flight crew, and to be honest, that’s pretty much exclusively so. The rest of us are dead weight until we reach New Dawn—dammit, I mean HD 85512 B. Stone must’ve mentioned the name, and now it was starting to stick in my brain.

The flight crew turned left as they boarded the Athena, and the rest of us turned right. As I stooped to enter, a familiar feeling hit me in a wave of oil, grease and metal. I wouldn’t call it nostalgia per se, but I wouldn’t say it was an unpleasant feeling, either. I followed Sadie down the narrow corridor, through the briefing room, through the galley and to our bunks. If you imagine the Athena as a long tube, everything is laid out open plan either side of the main corridor, similar to those old war submarines they teach you about in school, only less cramped. Just.

‘Ten minutes,’ Sophia—our captain—said over the ship’s intercom. A klaxon sounded in the dock, then suddenly fell quiet as the hatch was sealed.

This was it. This was our new home for eight months until we reached New Dawn (I’ve given up on that one). The light was low thanks to the rubber curtains each end of the bunk space, but as my eyes adjusted I could just about see what I was doing as I tipped my personal bag out onto my bunk and tucked the contents into my assigned locker. I say locker—it’s not really locked, it’s just a place to store the few things I’m allowed to take with me. We’re each assigned one rigidly enforced kilo of personal belongings, and I’d chosen to bring my e-reader and my hand-held console, packed as full as I could get it with games. They do devices that play games and have books, but I don’t think they’re as good. But who cares, because it’s all under a kilo anyway.

Sadie was in the bunk opposite me on the other side of the narrow corridor, and Byron was above her. My bunkmate was, according to the label, Emily Porter, the ship’s comms officer and physician. Hopefully she didn’t snore. I sat down, feeling drained by the tension of the imminent launch. I watched Sadie pack her things away for a bit, then I turned to Byron who was also sat on his bunk, ducking slightly to fit under the sloping ceiling.

‘Don’t you have anything?’ I asked him.

He shook his head. ‘Not really. But it’s ok. There’s nothing I’d want to bring anyway.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that.’

He seemed embarrassed, so I moved on. ‘What do your parents think of you coming along?’

He smiled a smile that overcompensated for something else—something sad. ‘Oh, I’m not sure they’d be interested.’

With the conversation cut awkwardly short, and Sadie still emptying out her personal bag (what on Earth did she have in there?), I thought I’d go for a wander. I was about to head up towards the cockpit when I had an idea.

‘Hey, Byron—do you want to come for a tour of the Athena with me?’

Byron smiled again, but a proper, wholesome smile this time. ‘I’d like that,’ he said, and hopped down.

‘You boys have fun,’ Sadie called after us.

There isn’t really enough room for two people to walk comfortably side by side down the central corridor, so Byron followed just behind, staggered to the right so he could still talk to me. ‘It’s very quiet,’ he said as we passed through the galley. ‘The runabout I was on before was always rattling and grinding. I thought it was going to fall apart.’

I chuckled, reminded of yesterday’s shuttle flight and the same paranoia I’d felt. ‘I know what you mean. But this thing’s built to last, so you won’t hear so much as a squeak. She’s a long-range tug, one of twenty or so in Planexus’ fleet, and she’s as strong as they come.’

We passed through the rec room, which was basically two longs rows of seats, one either side of the corridor, every pair separated with a small table. The two drillers were sat in there; one was snoozing, the other listening to some music.

‘This is where we eat and relax. There’s a few TVs and headphones, and even a games console, but its pretty dated. The movie collection isn’t bad though.’

‘I’m not really into computer games.’

‘Oh, you will be. You’ll need to be.’

We entered the next space. It was similar to the rec room, except the pairs of seats all faced the front like they would in a coach, with small tables on the backs of the seats in front. ‘This is the briefing room, where we’ll be going through the mission and planning what we need to do in more detail. There’s a fold down screen at the front’—I tapped it as we passed under it—’we’ll be using that a lot.’ The sealed hatch went by on our left, and we entered the cockpit. The lighting was dim in here and I stopped just inside. Byron did the same. Being at the nose of the Athena, the cockpit didn’t need to be arranged so rigidly around the central corridor. There were instrument panels all over the place, most with a member of the flight crew at them. Sophia spotted me and gave me a stern look, and I nodded my understanding. We would go no further today. She turned away, continuing to distributing her orders with all the calmness of a frozen lake.

‘There’s no window,’ Byron whispered.

‘No,’ I whispered back. ‘It’s all instruments from here. In fact there’s not a single window on the ship. Lowers the chances of pressure failure.’

Byron nodded. He looked a tad nervous under the dim light as he watched the crew work.

‘Let’s go,’ I said. We walked back through the ship, and I showed him the sanitary room beyond the bunks, where the toilets and showers were.

‘I see toilets, but I don’t see showers,’ he said, bemused.

I extracted a packet of wipes from an overhead hatch and presented them to him. ‘Here’s your shower.’

He gave me an incredulous look that made me laugh.

‘Wet wipes?’

‘Wow,’ I said, still bubbling with mirth. ‘They really didn’t tell you anything, did they?’

He looked disdainfully at the wipes as I put them back. ‘Apparently not.’

‘You’ll get used to them. They’re surprisingly refreshing, and get you statistically cleaner than a traditional shower.’

‘You sound like an advert.’

‘Am I selling them well?’

He grinned, but his grin quickly faded. He sighed a long, deflating sigh. ‘Look, I know I’ve been dumped on you,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to be a burden.’

His humour had gone, and standing there as he was I could see now more than ever that he was just a kid—a lost one at that. I remembered Stone telling us about the license he denied having. Could he really be that naïve?

‘I’m sure you’ll be no trouble as long as you’re as honest with us as we are with you,’ I said, and I let the words linger with him, watching carefully to see if they twinged a nerve. They did, and I could see the inward battle he was having to hold down some piece of information that wanted out.

‘What is it?’

He ruffled his messy hair, not looking at me. ‘Promise you won’t be cross?’

Now we were getting somewhere. ‘I can’t promise something like that, but I can promise I’ll be fair and understanding.’

‘Ok . . .’ He paced the corridor kicking his boots along the floor. Then he stopped, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and took a deep breath. ‘Ok. Here it is. My dad’s on the board of directors at Planexus.’

Then it clicked. ‘Your dad is Peter Ash?’

‘Uh-huh. But it’s not what you think. When I finished college, I told him I wanted to do proper deep space missions, and what does he do? He tells me I’ll never make it as deep space crew, that I’m too stupid, and he sticks me on that grotty rust-bucket just far enough out of the way that he doesn’t have to deal with me anymore. Fine, I say to myself, I’ll do this without him. So with a few years of orbital under my belt, I apply for deep space, hoping to do my licenses—but everyone rejects me. Then next thing I know I’m being whisked away to join the crew of the Athena.’

‘Do you think your dad arranged that? He must have forged your licenses.’

‘My licenses? I don’t have any licenses.’

‘I checked with the station manager and somehow you’re a fully qualified deep space geologist. Is that something your dad could have sorted?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, he must’ve done. What else could it be? He’s got the power to do it after all. It’s the only explanation. He probably saw an opportunity when that other geologist posted sick or whatever was wrong with him and fixed it so I took his place. Who else would’ve done it?’

‘But why would he do it?’

Byron laughed sardonically. ‘He’s never liked me. I’m not the same as my brothers. They’re achievers, winners, they make him happy. I . . . I’m just a mistake he’s being trying to put right ever since I took my first breath. I haven’t even seen him since he had me posted off-planet nearly three years ago, not even once. Maybe he saw I was applying for jobs off the Bounty and he thought there was a chance I’d come back planet-side.’

Byron laughed again, but this time it was a deflated, defeated laugh. ‘And now he’s got what he always wanted. He must have pulled some serious strings to do it, but I’ll be as far away from him as it’s physically possible to be.’

‘And what about your mother? What does she think about all this?’

Byron stuck his bottom lip out like a sulking child, making him look even younger. ‘She’s never really had time for me. She’s very busy with her clubs and everything, so I don’t really get to see her.’

‘I’m sure she still cares about you though, right?’

Byron looked at the floor. ‘Once, when I was a baby, she left me in a department store out of town. It wasn’t until she picked up the phone message from the store at home that she realised I was missing.’

I had nothing to say to that.

‘Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’m here now, and there’s not a lot I or anyone else can do about it.’

I gave him a pat on the shoulder, not really sure what else to do. ‘You’ll be alright. You’ve got a new family now.’

He nodded. ‘I suppose I got what I always wanted, didn’t I?

For the second time in that conversation I had nothing left to say. I’d only known Byron for the best part of a day, but already he’d left me heartbroken. We joined Sadie, who’d finally finished packing the contents of her personal bag into her locker, and then we went and sat in the rec room with the drillers. I could tell that Sadie knew something had happened between me and Byron, but she let it be. The three of us sat and chatted as the ship disembarked from the dock with a barely noticeable shudder. I’m not even sure Byron, who was engaged in a lively debate with Sadie about the merits of candles on birthday cakes, did notice. I let my eyes wander over the dark steel of the Athena as he rattled on enthusiastically, telling a tale of how he’d had the biggest birthday cake ever on his sixteenth birthday, and my eyes met those of James Gray. He was still listening to his music as his compadre slept, and he gave me a single, knowing nod. I nodded back, and I realised then that the tension had gone from my shoulders. I allowed myself to sink into the foam padding of my seat, letting Sadie’s trilling laughter wash over me. I was back. I was home.

Before we left orbit and set off on our journey to that planet, we first had to run a quick errand. Deep space tugs have no cargo storage of their own, relying on hulking great containers to do the dirty work instead. We needed to make our way to the service yard, an orbital drop off zone for the returned plunders of the universe, to collect what crews affectionately dubbed trailers. Within an hour we had arrived, and Grant and Emily jogged by to the rear of the Athena to undertake the tow docking procedures. It was easy to feel like a bit of a fifth wheel being sat on my backside doing diddly squat, but in the time it took me to consume a glass of the nutritious and tasty vitamin drink the physicians at Planexus encouraged us to have once daily, Grant and Emily finished and jogged back again. I’m pretty certain they only jogged to make themselves feel important, or make us feel bad. Or both.

Now, remember me saying how we’re going to travel thirty-seven lightyears in eight months, two weeks and a day? The more perceptive of you will realise that this is faster than light. I also said I have no idea how this works, but I can tell you this: acceleration to top speed takes about two months. Planexus may be a money-hungry conglomerate, but they aren’t in the business of snapping the necks off their crewmembers to save a few bucks, so we build the pace up slowly until we reach our cruising velocity. The deceleration at the other end is the same. In terms of our habitat, it means that there is pretty much no reference for movement at all, beyond the instruments in the cockpit. It’s pretty much like living in a long tube underground with nothing to do but eat, drink and play computer games.

The first night’s always a bit weird. And the second. In fact it takes on average (according the exam papers we have to pass to earn the first stage of our deep space licence) thirteen days, unlucky for some. I was never a great sleeper anyway so it didn’t bother me too much, but Byron seemed to be struggling.

Hello,’ I said when he wandered into the rec room at about half-past ten on the morning of our seventh day. ‘Did you get any sleep?’

‘Not really.’ He yawned, rubbing his eyes. ‘But I definitely drifted off a few times, which is an improvement.’

‘Let me get you something to eat.’

‘Thanks.’ He flopped down on a seat as I went to make us both something. James, the driller, was already in the galley, heating up a couple of sausage and egg packs.

‘Morning,’ he said, scratching his chin through his beard. He was a stout man, although he spoke quietly.

‘Good morning. Sleep well?’

I needn’t have asked. Drillers could sleep through the apocalypse.

‘Yeah, not so bad. You?’

‘Alright. Getting used to it.’

‘What about that kid?’

‘Byron? Not so well. But he’ll get through it. It’s his fi—’ I stopped myself from saying first time—it probably wasn’t a good idea to let the rest of the crew know there was a potential liability on board such a long mission. ‘It’s his first unlimited duration. Mine too.’

‘You seem to be holding up alright.’

‘I suppose I’m just a morning person.’

The oven pinged, and James retrieved his and—presumably—Brendan’s breakfast.

‘See you back in the rec room,’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘see you in there.’

I made Byron and I a sausage and egg pack each, stacking the two packets into the oven and setting it to the time suggested on the box. Once cooked, I took them back to him, where I found him chatting with James and Brendan. What ever it was he was telling them, he was doing it with real animation.

‘. . . and it took me about an hour to get it back out again!’ he said, and the two drillers laughed.

‘He’s quite the storyteller this one,’ James said to me as I handed Byron his breakfast.

‘He sure is,’ I said, tearing off the corner of my breakfast. I watched as Byron looked away from me, understanding the veiled meaning of my words. He tried the tear the corner of his own packet off as I did, but he couldn’t seem to do it.

‘Here,’ I said, handing him my open packet and taking his.

‘Thanks,’ he said, holding it like he didn’t know what to do with it. I made a tipping gesture towards my mouth, and he seemed to understand. I tore off the corner of my own packet and we ate in silence. I was nearly finished when Sadie shuffled in, wrapped up in a fluffy dressing gown with her eyes barely open.

‘Morning, ‘ she croaked. She dragged herself to a seat and flopped down.

‘Not sleeping well?’ I asked.

‘What do you think?’

Mental note: crabby in the morning. I’d forgotten about that.

‘I’m just being polite.’

I finished my breakfast and took the packets from the other three as they finished theirs.

‘I’m going to the galley, Sadie, do you want anything?’

‘A coffee.’

‘You know we don’t have any coffee. There’s water, fruit squash, or nutridrink.’

‘I want coffee.’

I took this as my cue to leave, and deposited my rubbish in the galley waste container. As I waited for the dispenser to fill a cup with nutridrink (which I found surprisingly tasty in a refreshing sort of way), I wondered about the following days, months and years ahead of me. It’s one thing to know what you’re getting yourself into, but another thing entirely to have no idea. The future was a blank canvas, and right now Byron was holding the brush.

Chapter 2

I’m not scared of flying, or heights. What I am scared of is situations that have an inherent whiff of imminent death about them. A tin-pot shuttle rattling like a paint mixer as it hurtles through the thick soup of our planet’s atmosphere is one of those situations. I swallowed down the clammy sweat on the back of my throat, gripping onto the armrests of my seat hard enough to keep me from wailing, but not so hard that Sadie—who seemed fine—would notice. It was too loud to talk, so I kept my eyes front and centre, and my mouth shut. Brendan, the driller who’d been asleep in the waiting room, was sleeping again. I had no idea how he did it, but right then he was, I believed, the most envied person on board.

The shaking soothed as the sky faded to black, and the unlit interior of the craft fell into shadow. This made the starshine of the many brilliant pinpricks I could see through the porthole even brighter. There was something mystical about seeing space that never got old, almost as though my brain was never built to venture this far from the safety of terra firma. Sadie was looking too, her face bathed in soft starlight. I could tell, even seeing her side on, that she was thinking the same thing I was. She shook her head ever so slightly, as if in disbelief at the view. I was about to say something when the view took a turn for the better: as we rounded the curve of the Earth, the magnificence of our own star crept up from behind the thin blue horizon. Silhouetted in front of it was a nest of beams and pylons, with small dots of light winking from its extremities. It was the dock, or to be more precise, Orbital Shipyard 6. It was the floating partner to the groundside shipyards, the final assembly and maintenance place for many a spacefaring craft. Ours, the Athena, was hunkered down inside the nest, being lovingly prepared for its next voyage.

Deep space ships always struck me as beautiful in an odd sort of way. They weren’t sleek, graceful or anything like that, but they weren’t industrial hunks of budget engineering like our shuttle was, either. Everything was there for a reason, every dip, crevice, protrusion and bump designed for a purpose. The Athena looked so incredibly fragile, and not for the first time I wished I’d brought a camera to keep this scene fresh in my mind for the rest of my life. As bizarre as it sounds, the only time I’d get to see the outside of the Athena was during our trips to and from Earth: the Athena was flown by instruments and was as such windowless.

Our shuttled tipped down and swept underneath the dock, pulling it from view. We made a jerky right, slowing quickly, than raised up into the bird’s nest. Our connection with the mating adaptor was rough, but no rougher than I remembered.

‘We’re here,’ I said for some reason. It seemed the right thing to say.

‘I hope we’re not overnighting,’ Sadie said, looking out the porthole at the underside of the Athena. ‘The cabins here are awful.’

She wasn’t wrong; the dock was like a bus stop: it was dirty and smelled funny. Tight space we could cope with, but grimy sheets—not so much.

‘Please stay fastened in while we get the AG online. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to disembark,’ the intercom hissed.

I waited for the odd humpback bridge feeling that happened when the artificial gravity kicked in, but it didn’t come. Sadie looked at me, eyebrows raised. I shrugged.

I’m sorry folks,’ the intercom said. ‘We seem to be having trouble with the AG. We’re going to have to disembark without it.’

Piece of junk shuttle.

Sadie tutted. ‘Every—single—time . . .’

Under the direction of the docking staff, we filed out row-by-row, personal bags slung over our shoulders, clumsily hooking our hands and feet into the rails on the floor and ceiling. As I approached the dock, I could feel the AG pulling me in, drawing my legs out in front of me until—clump—my feet met floor and I was able to step off. Sadie was right behind me, and I couldn’t help but laugh as she swung about like a drunken monkey, too short to comfortably reach each proceeding handhold.

‘Laugh it, chump,’ she said, glaring at me between stretched-out swings.

‘Believe me, I am.’ And I was still bubbling as she also found solid ground and proceeded to jab me in the ribs. ‘Ow!’

‘You deserve that. Come on, I’m hungry.’ She stomped off towards the cafeteria, and I followed. Soon she was back to her chatty self once again, and we shared a bench as we talked, I with a coffee that tasted like dishwater, Sadie picking at a ham and egg sandwich that—well, I wouldn’t really like to say what it looked like. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, but any appetite I had put up little protest.

‘Trust me to get assigned a rookie last minute,’ Sadie said as she took a bite of her sandwich. I wasn’t sure if it was the sentiment or the sandwich making her pull a face, but either way she wasn’t pleased.

‘I’m sure he’ll be fine. Besides, the payload’s quite small on this one, so we might not even need him.’

‘I suppose.’ Sadie slopped the sandwich back on the plate, giving it a rueful look. She pushed the plate towards me. ‘You want this?’

‘No thanks.’

A distorted (and very loud) BING BONG made both Sadie and I wince, and we waited for the inevitable message.

Would the crew of the Athena please report to briefing room three in five minutes.’

‘That’s us,’ I said, and we both headed for briefing room three, leaving the sorry-looking sandwich behind. We were joined by most of the others as we wandered past the rec room, and had became a full compliment by the time we took our seats in briefing room three. It was small, and I shuffled up next to one of the flight crew—Grant Jameson, I think—who gave me a cursory frown before returning to his conversation. Sadie and I had somehow been separated in the kerfuffle, so she was sat a few rows ahead of me. She turned and smiled, then faced forwards again. I picked at a piece of foam poking out of a hole in my seat until the door opened and a portly man in his fifties walked in. His size betrayed the duration of his stay up here and his disgruntled expression did nothing to hide his feelings about it. The room’s attention turned to him.

‘Good afternoon,’ he said in a matter-of-fact way that suggested he’d done this bit a thousand times over and more. ‘I’m Jonah Stone, the station manager. Your flight has been scheduled for tomorrow morning’—this was met by a chorus of groans—’so feel free to use the facilities, but do try to keep them tidy. There is no alcohol allowed on the station’—another round of groaning—’and that includes the stuff I know you’ve all stashed in your personal bags.’

I drew my bag closer, even though I knew I didn’t have any.

‘Please report to the main docking bay tomorrow morning at oh-eight-hundred for final checks and launch brief. Until then, keep yourselves out of trouble. Oh, and one more thing that’s probably most pertinent to the geologist team: Simeon Jones is unable to join you on this mission. I suggest you make yourself acquainted with his replacement.’

Stone left the room to a murmuring of dissatisfaction, and Sadie turned to me to roll her eyes. I tipped my head towards the new geo. She looked at him, then back at me, and nodded. As the room emptied—hearty laughter echoing down the corridor—Sadie and I rounded on the new boy. He didn’t notice us approach as he was too busy looking in his personal bag.

‘Hi, I’m Sadie,’ Sadie said, holding out her hand. This made the kid jump, and he pulled the drawstrings of his bag tight shut. He smiled weakly and shook with Sadie, then with me. His timid grin made him look incredibly young—no more than twenty-one, twenty-two—and his pale skin glimmered with nervous perspiration under his shock of pale blonde hair.

‘I’m Byron,’ he said. ‘Byron Ash.’

‘I’m Jake,’ I said.

Sadie took a seat on one side of him and I took the other. When Sadie began her interrogation I had to turn away, the intense look on her face making me want to laugh. I struggled to keep it in, but I managed it.

‘Where are you from?’ Sadie asked him. I looked back briefly to see what she must have thought were cold, challenging eyes, locking on to Byron’s own. I almost lost it, so I turned away again.

‘I—I’m from Newport, the South-West quarter,’ Byron responded, his voice thin.

‘No, I mean what ship? What ship were you on last?’

‘Oh, sorry. I was on the Bounty.’

I’d regained control of myself enough for this information to register as a concern. ‘The Bounty?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a fleet vessel?’

Byron looked from Sadie to me. ‘Yessir—inter-dock ferry.’

Sadie clapped a hand over her eyes and slumped back in her seat. I felt like doing the same, but I had more questions to ask. ‘How long have you served on the Bounty?’

‘Almost three years.’

Three years?’

‘Yessir.’

‘So you’ve never left the system?’

‘Nossir.’

Sadie returned from her slump, and we shared an exasperated look. ‘How did you end up here?’ she asked him.

‘I requested a transfer to deep space about a month ago, but no one would have me.’ He was right—getting himself into dockyard fleet was a guaranteed dead end before it had even started. ‘Anyway, I got a message out of the blue yesterday telling me I was transferring to the Athena.’

‘Have you had any geology training whatsoever?’

‘No.’

Now it was my turn to clap my hand over my eyes and slump back into the chair. ‘Jesus Christ . . .’ I murmured. ‘Do you have even have a deep space license? Tell me you have a deep space license at least.’

Byron shook his head. He looked sad, maybe a bit nervous, as if he knew he’d done something wrong. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to be nuisance.’

There must have been something about Byron’s pathetic expression that finally won Sadie over, because I could see her faux-hardened shell melting into her usual warmth. ‘I’m sure we can work around it,’ she said. ‘It’s an easy job this one, so don’t worry.’ That didn’t seem to lift Byron’s mood at all, so she chirped, ‘why don’t the three of us go back to the cafeteria and have a drink and a chat? What do you think?’ She grinned expectantly at Byron, who returned it with his own weak smile.

‘If it’s ok, I was just going to go to my bunk. I was on GMT until the transfer, so I’m a bit lagged. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘No, of course not.’

Byron got up, shouldered his personal bag and left the room.

‘Well that was weird,’ I said, and Sadie nodded.

The rest of the afternoon was spent killing time. The rec room had a TV and a games console, but the flight crew were hogging that (and were enjoying it at quite the volume thanks to the unlabelled bottle being passed around) so there was no chance at getting a go. I had my own portable console in my personal bag, but thought it rude to play it and leave Sadie bored, so we wandered the corridors, following the C-shape of the dock to one end, turning around and coming back again, chatting. Occasionally we would stop at the viewing gallery, the only window on the station. It was a pretty big window, and was a great vantage point to watch the Athena being prepared. Long hoses trailed out to it like umbilical chords, while small, remotely piloted vehicles performed last-minute checks of the external shell. Most of the work was being done inside the Athena via the main docking bay. This close it looked like quite a big ship but, as we would all become acutely aware as the mission progressed, it was pretty tiny inside.

‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ Sadie said as she watched through the window.

‘Who? Byron?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I don’t know. I hope so.’

‘He seems a bit—weak.’

No kidding. ‘Yeah, he does.’

‘I hope he can cope with the journey.’

Double no kidding. ‘Me too.’

‘Do you think we should report it?’

I didn’t have to think about it for long.

We headed to the station manager’s office, where Jonah Stone was working at his computer, looking flustered. ‘Mr Stone?’ I said, tapping the open door with my knuckles.

He shut his eyes for a second as if he was regrouping his thoughts, and when he opened them again they fell into a frown. ‘Whaddya want?’

‘Sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you. We just wanted to ask you a few questions about the new geo.’

‘Look, I know what you know. He’s here filling in for whosisface. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for you, but it’s nothing to do with me. Now if you don’t min—’

‘He doesn’t have a deep space license,’ Sadie butted in.

Stone’s frown escalated to a snarl, but that didn’t seem to deter Sadie, who held him in a staring deadlock.

‘Fine,’ Stone said, raising his hands up. ‘I’ll check his file.’ He bashed his keyboard in an exaggerated fashion, then turned the monitor to us. ‘There, see? He has papers.’

‘But he told us—’

‘I don’t care. The paperwork is there, and that’s all that matters. Now please excuse me, I have a lot of work to do to make sure your ship leaves on time tomorrow.’ He stood up and waved us to the door.

I took the hint and, begrudgingly, Sadie followed. Once we were clear of earshot, she pulled me in by my sleeve and hissed, ‘what the hell was that about?’

I only shrugged. I couldn’t figure it out.

‘This must be some mistake, surely. Something’s not right, and it seems like poor Byron has got caught up in the middle of it all.’

I stopped and turned to her. ‘Look, it’s like Stone said. The paperwork is there. He got the transfer. This is out of our hands. So either we carry on and do the mission, or we quit. Which do you want to do?’

Sadie’s already small form shrunk slightly as the question deflated her anger. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said.

There wasn’t really much else to say about it, so the conversation turned back to the more casual topic of what we were going to have for dinner. There was a choice between the cafeteria or a bar quaintly named Dock of the Bay. All we could do was cross our fingers and wait for tomorrow.

I awoke the next day to the sound of laughing, and the realisation of where I was and what I was doing hit me in the most nauseating way it could at six-thirty in the morning. That horrible early morning taste gummed my mouth together, and I slid out of my sticky bunk and found myself drifting towards the communal showers. Sadie was already in there, rinsing her hair through. Now I was awake. It was something that caught me off guard on every mission: everything was communal. Given how tight for space it was on board, protocol did away with gender divides, and everyone mucked in together. I suppose it was good for moral, and everyone was so close together that only the very stupid would attempt a romantic relationship during the mission, but still, at six-thirty in the morning, after a long sexual drought back on Earth, it was a bit of surprise to see Sadie’s flesh bare and shining. I turned a shower on quickly, making sure it blasted me with ice-cold water. The water really was ice-cold, and I yelped.

Sadie laughed. ‘Cold enough for you, Jake?’

How embarrassing.

‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ She wandered out, winking at me over her shoulder as she plucked a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her wet, naked body.

‘Thanks,’ I somehow managed to say, and then she was gone.

Back in my flight suit, I was able to look Sadie in the eye a little easier. Fortunately, she broke the tension before I had to.

‘It’ll become normal soon enough,’ she said, although not without a hint of humour. ‘You’ll get over it.’

I didn’t really say anything. I just grunted.

Chapter 1

I guess you could say I have an interesting job. At least, when people ask me what I do they say ‘Wow! That sounds really interesting, Jake.’ And parts of it are indeed very interesting, but a lot of it is sheer monotony like you wouldn’t believe (‘No way!’ people say. ‘I bet it is interesting really’). What do I do? I’m a planetary geologist. I go to faraway systems to investigate barren balls of rock to see if there’s anything worth taking. I have two degrees (a masters and a doctorate), I can speak three languages—but the thing I spend most of my time doing is playing computer games. You may think that I am an idle fool, but I can assure you, I’m not. There’s just nothing else to do on board during the many months it takes to reach our terminus.

I studied geology through school, and took an interest in interplanetary geology, because, well, that’s what we all do. The money’s good (hell, it’s fantastic), the work is easy, and I have nothing else to do at home except spend the money I make, which I’m no good at anyway. My mother always worries when I go on these missions, but she’s of an older generation, bless her. I try to tell her that statistically speaking I’m more likely to get injured driving to the shops than I am travelling through space, but she won’t listen. Oh well. I suppose that’s what mothers do.

I’ve been off planet three times now, once for a two-month slot and twice for a six-monther. You have to do a two-month trip first just in case you have what some astronauts like to call the ‘space crazies’. Not a pleasant thing to get when you’re trapped in a small space, lightyears away from home. Do you know, I’ve just realised—the space in space crazies is kind of a play on words: space as in outer space, and space as in stuck in this tight space and I want to scream my lungs raw. Ha.

After two successful six-monthers, an accreditation is added to your licence and you’re then certified to travel for any length of time. The longest trip ever made was—I think—two years and three months there and back again, but my next trip isn’t going to be anywhere near that long. We’re going to HD 85512 B, a rocky planet orbiting Gliese 370, which is a K-type star if you’re interested. It’s about thirty-seven lightyears away, and will take eight months, two weeks and a day to get there by fusion drive (don’t ask me how—I study rocks, not rockets) and from there we’ll set up base camp, drill, take samples, move camp, drill, take samples, etcetera, etcetera. This is usually the part where people say, ‘Oh . . . your job did sound interesting, but it actually seems pretty boring.’ I tried to tell you.

So it’s a new assignment for me and a new crew for the mission. From what I’ve heard, the captain and her five crew have transferred over from the Amadeus, and I will be joining a couple of other geologists and two drill operators. A few of them I already know: I’d met the drill operators during a training event at the shipyards a few—no, maybe five or six—years ago, and I’d served with Sadie Bryston not my last trip but the one before. She’s the only person on the crew I’ve flown with previously, and she’s nice enough, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.

On the morning of mission briefing, I parked up outside Planexus headquarters and made my way inside, squinting at the glare radiating off the vicious glass-and-steel architecture. I don’t know when they built this place, but it looks patently old-fashioned lined up between the more modern Stratos towers, and a lot less inconspicuous, too. A hangover from the oil days I suppose. Thank goodness all that died out long before I was born—the last few decades sounded like hell.

A smiling receptionist with teeth and eyes as bright as the building pointed me to the fifth floor (‘Twelfth on your left, you can’t miss it’) to the briefing room assigned for our mission. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pioneering hero: I’m simply one of many geologists in many crews flying many missions, and every trip to Planexus headquarters reminds me just how big a business this is. I wasn’t the first in the room, but I most certainly wasn’t the last. Sadie had already arrived, and she gave me a wave. I went over to say hello.

‘You’re looking good,’ I said. ‘How have you been?’

‘Fine, just fine.’ She grinned, stretching her gums thin over her teeth, like she was containing the urge to squeal excitedly. ‘I was really happy to hear you were joining me on the Athena crew.’

‘Yeah, me too. Always good to have a familiar face on board.’

She nodded agreement. ‘Have you ever met the other geo before? I heard he’d done the big one before this.’

The big one was the trip to CFBDSIR2149, a rogue planet with an abundant amount of noble gasses in its cloudy atmosphere. ‘I haven’t met him, and I didn’t know that. Wow. So I guess he’ll be Head Geo then?’

‘They asked me to do it.’

‘Really? How come?’

Sadie frowned.

‘Sorry, I don’t mean it like that. I mean, how come they didn’t ask him if he has more experience?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t want it, so they asked me to do it instead.’

‘And you’ll do a wonderful job, no doubt.’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ she said, drawing out the sarcasm.

I was about to rebuke her prod at my misunderstood sentiment when the door opened and five crew filed in. They were obviously the flight crew because they jabbered loudly all at once, occasionally splitting the air with a squawk of laughter in the way only flight crews could. They were the jocks of the cosmos, boldly going where no man has ever made fart jokes before. The volume of the room got exponentially louder as the last of them took a seat, and I leaned in closer to Sadie to whisper to her.

‘What a ragtag bunch of arrogant so-and-sos.’

‘Stop being such a sourpuss. It’s just a bit of camaraderie. You make it sound like they’re a gang of adolescent chimps.’

‘Might as well be.’

‘They’ve had just as much education as we have.’

‘Yeah, in eating bananas and throwing faeces . . .’

Sadie laughed. It was a trill of a laugh, golden and sweet. ‘You’re a bad man. I’m glad we’re on this one together.’

‘Me too, Sadie, me too.’

The drill operators slid in quietly and took their seats. The flight crew didn’t seem to notice, but when the suits entered the room it was like someone hit the mute button. They all faced forward in their seats (Sadie and I took ours toward the back) and sat upright in an orderly, militaristic fashion. Suit A set about trying to work the big screen while Suit B wrinkled his nut brown tanned skin into a welcoming smile.

‘It’s good to have you all here,’ he said, opening up his arms like a vicar would to his flock. ‘This is going to be a special one.’

‘Special, my butt,’ I whispered to Sadie. She giggled.

Suit A managed to turn on the big screen, and a ball leapt out of it, slowly turning in mid air. A few streaks of cloud wandered around the southern hemisphere, but other than that it looked barren.

‘HD 85512 B,’ Suit B said, ‘or as we’ve designated it, New Dawn. It’s one of two planets we believe fulfil the requirements for extended human habitation, and you’re all going to go see if we’re right.’ He paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, but it was received with a cynical hush. As if he’d expected such a response, he chuckled in a knowing way. One of the flight crew shifted their weight in their seat as we all waited for Suit B to continue. ‘This isn’t any old chicken-shit ghost hunt,’ he said, lowering his voice to a more serious tone. ‘This is the real deal.’

As far as I was concerned, the rest of the brief rolled on more or less as I’d expected. Planexus may be sending us out with big dreams and high hopes, but my job was the same: dig, analyse, repeat. I expressed the same to Sadie, and she agreed.

‘Did you notice that Simeon wasn’t there?’ she added.

‘Simeon? Who’s Simeon?’

‘Simeon Jones. The other geo.’

‘Oh. No, I didn’t.’

Simeon’s absence didn’t really bother me at the time. Perhaps it should have. I walked Sadie to her car, we said our goodbyes (‘For now!’ she said with her usual contagious glee), and I took myself home. As I drove, I recited he crew list back to myself. It was a good idea to remember the names of the people I was about to spend such a long time with; getting a name wrong was a sure-fire way to alienate myself all too soon. There was Sophia Mendes, the captain; Jason Pritchard, her first officer; pilot Donald Mercer (who I’d noticed the other flight crew calling ‘Clip’); navigator Grant Jameson and communications officer Emily Porter, who also doubled up as the ship’s physician. That was the flight crew. Then of course there was Sadie, the head geologist; Simeon Jones, our workmate; and myself, Jake Brooks. The drill operators for the mission were James Gray and Brendan Hughes, the two guys I’d met before at training. They’re good people from what I remember, and they have to be: drilling is a dangerous job that requires a lot of trust. Drilling teams usually get partnered for life, and in Planexus’ world, the partnership between drillers is more sacrosanct than marriage.

I whiled away the last few weeks before the mission with a little research about the planet (I refused to call it ‘New Dawn’) and a lot of exercise. After the briefing we’d had a medical examination where the physician told me I’d gained too much—in his words—’comfort padding’. If I were to meet the weight criteria for my role, I needed to be in a fitter state than I was. In all honesty it was something I already knew, but I’d had my fingers crossed that the physician wouldn’t notice. But he did, and so I worked my hardest to get trim over the last few weeks before the launch. I even skipped breakfast the morning we departed, but nevertheless I could feel the nerves building as I queued up with the rest of the crew for our final pre-flight medical. I was convinced I wouldn’t make the cut, but I did. Just.

‘Jake, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Sadie said as she bundled over to me, personal bag swung over her shoulder. It was weird seeing her in a launch suit again after so long, and I got an unsettling sense of déjà vu.

‘I almost did. I made the weight by mere ounces.’

She laughed, but not offensively. It was her way of glossing over an awkward situation, and it worked, because the nauseous heat that had built up in my stomach as I stood on the weighing scales (which made me feel twice as heavy as I was), melted away.

‘I’m sure they wouldn’t have stopped you coming on board for just a few ounces,’ she said.

I wasn’t so sure, but it didn’t really matter anymore. With the pre-flight medical done, we filed out of the building and onto the waiting coach, all wearing our flight suits and carrying our personal bags as instructed. A short drive later, and we were at the port. It was a small but busy place, an industrial contrast to the Planexus building we’d just come from. And there was a lot more security. Chain-link fences three storeys high topped with vicious snarls of razor wire stood between us and orbit, and we navigated the checkpoints in cautious silence. It wasn’t a place for joking around, and even the usually rowdy flight crew were stony-faced and thin-lipped. I presented my passport to a sour-looking man in a grey camo uniform through inch thick glass, and after an intimidating stare-off, he waved me through. It was only after stepping onto the breezy pan that I realised how fast my heart was beating. Sadie followed soon after, wearing mock shock on her face.

‘Well he was a cheerful one, wasn’t he?’ she whispered. She looked back at the camo man’s next stare-off victim. ‘I thought he was going to pull me to one side for sure. He was looking at my passport for ages.’

‘It’s just what they do, I suppose, waiting to see if you crack.’

‘I can’t imagine how hard-minded you’d have to be to look him in the eye knowing you’re not supposed to be here. I’m sure he could see into my soul.’

I laughed, and we walked, following the dotted trail of people making their way over to the waiting room. Like they did, we walked slowly, dragging and kicking our feet on the concrete. It was a few hours before the launch, so we had plenty of time to kill.

‘Simeon still hasn’t shown up,’ Sadie said. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

‘Are you sure? I was so nervous I don’t know if I could tell who was here and who wasn’t.’

Sadie looked over her shoulder at the trail that followed on behind. ‘He’s definitely not here. God damn it, how am I supposed to do my job a man light?’

I don’t know why, but as much as Sadie made me laugh when she was being silly, she made me laugh even more when she was being serious. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I said, supressing giggles. ‘We’re the dream team!’ I held up my hand for a high five, but she ignored it. I lowered it again, adjusting the waist of my flight suit to make some kind of recovery of my hanging gesture.

‘I just wish they’d told me about this earlier. In fact, I wish they’d told me at all.’

‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’

The next two hours wore slowly by, punctuated by the occasional smattering of conversation between Sadie and I. The flight crew were back to their jovial old selves, but as soon as the half-hour warning siren sounded, they put their game faces on. The drillers had pretty much sat in silence the whole time; James was reading a home improvement magazine and Brendan was sleeping. Cool as cucumbers are drillers. They may not be social magnets, but they sure know how to keep it together.

The ten minute siren hooted across the pan, and a camo-uniformed man popped his head in the door to ask us to make our over to bay four. We duly did as we were told, following along behind him to our launch craft. Bays one and two were empty; three was a shower of sparks as overall-wearing mechanics put a craft back into service. Bay four hummed with energy, both from the ground crew preparing our vehicle and from the vehicle itself, which droned in an idle state. Like the place it was launching from, the craft wasn’t particularly elegant: after all, its only job is to shuttle people up to the dock and back again. We climbed steel steps butted up against it—which wobbled under our collective weight—fed into the small door and each picked a seat. Inside, it didn’t really feel much bigger than the average coach, and the cylindrical fuselage made it feel even smaller. Me being quite tall, Sadie let me sit in the aisle so I could stretch my legs out.

‘Please fasten your harnesses as tight as you can,’ a voice said over the intercom. A well used intercom at that, because it rattled and growled the pilot’s words instead of broadcasting them clearly. ‘We’ll be departing in just over half an hour.’

A flurry of groans came from the flight crew, and I shut my eyes and tipped my head back against the headrest. The seat was hot and cramped and uncomfortable, and an itch had already begun to form at the small of my back.

‘What’s the holdup?’ Sadie asked, looking through the tiny porthole out into the bay. I looked past her shoulder; there didn’t seem to be anyone in sight.

‘God knows,’ I said, shutting my eyes and leaning back again. ‘Probably something stupid.’

The itch on my back eventually faded, much to my relief. It felt like an hour had passed already, but I had no way of knowing. I could feel sweat beading under my hair, tickling my scalp, but I didn’t scratch it. It felt kind of nice, refreshing in a way.

‘Jake, look!’ Sadie whispered urgently. I looked. There was a man in a flight suit being escorted by someone in uniform, and they were heading our way. They disappeared from view, and soon after I heard the clank clank of footsteps up the stairs. A young, flustered looking man with pale blonde hair appeared in the doorway. ‘Sorry to keep you all waiting,’ he said, his smile rising and falling almost in the same instant. He sat down at the first empty chair and buckled in.

‘Ladies and gents,‘ the intercom rattled, ‘we will begin our departure shortly.’

‘Was that Simeon?’ I asked.

‘No. I don’t know who that was.’

We would find out soon enough.

New Dawn—My Next Novel

Hello all! First of all I’d like to thank you for your overwhelming support of Vessel—it’s doing well thanks to your early purchases and reviews, so thank you very much.

Further to that, I’d like to show you my thanks by inviting you to read the first chapter of my next novel, New Dawn. The premise (as it stands) revolves around a planetary geologist called Jake Brooks who sets off on a long voyage to New Dawn, a planet with possible suitability for terraforming. Everything is by the book, and should go according to plan, except for a last-minute change in crew who’s not who he seems to be.

The first chapter will go live in a moment. As with Vessel, it’s a first draft with a quick proofread, so any comments, suggestions, criticisms or whatever are all welcome. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy New Dawn.