With the drill set, chewing away at the one-and-a-half metre hole appearing in the ground, vacuum hose sucking out the debris and spewing it out into a pile on the opposite side, all Sophia and I could do was wait for Emily to show up with our first stasis tube. We’d been going about fifteen minutes now, and were a good metre down already, which I was pleased with—although I did not look forward to collapsing the drill and moving it to the next spot, or the other ten or so we had to do.
Taking a seat in the dirt far away enough to hear each other clearly, we had little else to do but talk. It was hard at first—the feeling between us was still a little tempered—but with nothing else to keep us occupied we both soon got over it.
‘Did you know?’ I asked somewhat cryptically, although I had no doubt that Sophia would understand what I’d asked in its entirety.
‘No. I knew nothing. As far as I was aware this was exactly as Planexus had told us it would be.’
‘You didn’t know Jason was GA military?’
‘Not until he told me. When James died I freaked out, and he took me to one side and said he was here for our protection, just in case. I wasn’t exactly reassured, but he told me in confidence, and based on what I knew back then it seemed best for the crew that I keep quiet.’
Of course it did. That’s why he said it. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at how deeply wrapped up in the lie we’d all become. I didn’t know what to believe anymore, but somehow I just kept on going, kept on doing what I was told. If you’d asked me before the mission to do what I was doing now, I’d have vehemently refused, yet here I was, doing it. By this point, burying criminals on a faraway planet seemed almost like what we’d come here to do in the first place. I suppose it was; we just hadn’t been told about it.
‘What’s so funny?’ Sophia said, twisting in her suit to look at me.
‘Oh, nothing,’ I said, picking up a small pebble and rolling it around between my fingers. ‘It’s just—don’t you get the impression that we’ve only been told what we’ve been told on a—on a need-to-know basis?’
‘That’s exactly what it is,’ Sophia said, stiffening up and looking away.
‘You think that’s a good thing?’ I asked, trying to read what I could of her body language. The suits didn’t make it easy, but her discontentment wasn’t hard to pick up on.
‘I think it’s the best of what we’ve got,’ she said firmly, although her inability to look at me while she said it told me otherwise. ‘On a ship like that, we need all the stability we can get.’
That was true, I wasn’t going to argue with that. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what Jason had done, he’d done in at all the right junctures, in all the right places, all to keep us on the fine line between panic and mutiny. In my head it seemed like we’d been wronged, like we’d been strung up for some ulterior motive, but spoken aloud it seemed . . . well, the best anyone could’ve done in the situation. Caring, or clever? Protecting us, or protecting himself? I expect Jason’s capital gain had some pretty stringent caveats applied to it—he wouldn’t want to mess anything up, not even slightly, for risk of forfeiting his prize.
‘It just seems odd, doesn’t it?’ I said after a long bout of silence (or as near as possible within fifty metres of an active mining drill).
‘Did you know Jason took money to let Byron on board?’
‘I did. Jason told me just before Byron admitted to the murders. I wasn’t happy about it, but what’s done is done. He didn’t know Byron was capable of doing what he did.’
‘And that’s the funny thing—neither did I. Just knowing that Peter Ash, Byron’s father, is paying Jason to get Byron on board—it doesn’t add up to me. What Byron did—those murders—it just doesn’t make sense.’
Saying that made me wince. I still wasn’t sure if I could believe it. I suspected even cold, hard evidence would still leave me in doubt. My pride was probably what stood in my way, my lack of judgement, my blindness . . . but still, why did Peter Ash go to such lengths to get him on board?
‘It’s one of those things we’ll probably never know,’ Sophia said. She stretched her legs out, leaning back on locked arms. ‘Like you said, need-to-know. And who has any idea what goes through the mind of mega wealthy individual. These are people who pay a typical years’ salary to park a bit closer to the country club entrance. There’s no understanding that.’
‘But to pay to get your own son taken so damn far away? Is it worth it?’
‘He must really hate his son.’
That could be true. Peter Ash probably sees Planexus as a plaything, and Byron as a nuisance that needed taking care of. There was plenty of historical evidence to show that powerful people had a habit of treating fellow humans as commodities. ‘Maybe he knew Byron would do something,’ I wondered aloud, ‘maybe he knew he’d do something so bad he’d get left behind here. Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe that’s part of the deal. Maybe he had Simeon Jones killed just to get Byron a space on board.’
Sophia shrugged. ‘Maybe.’
I was a little taken aback by Sophia’s indifference. ‘Maybe? Is that all you have to say? There’s a life at stake here, you know that.’
‘Yeah?’ Sophia snapped, sitting forward to look at me face on. ‘Don’t you think I know that? All our lives are at stake for crying out loud. Or did you miss the memo? What Peter Ash gets up to with his money and his family is none of my business, and I’ll thank you to leave me out of it. And even if what you were saying was true, then what? You think you can take him on?’
‘Of course not. You’re a drop in the ocean, Jake. Sorry to reveal that to you, but your difference is just not different enough.’
I was stunned. I had nothing to say to that. It was my worst fear—being a nobody—and it was being served up to me fresh out of the oven, garnish and all. She was right of course, I was a nobody. In the face of someone like Peter Ash, I was even less of a nobody. I was a shadow of a nobody. I went unnoticed through life like the gathering of dust behind furniture, the quiet rusting of an abandoned vehicle. My voice was a quiet hum amidst a storm, never to be heard by anyone. It was a chilling thought, that my cog in the machine spun with no purpose, that there were millions—billions, even—of other cogs just like me waiting to take my place before my last breath had even finished escaping me.
‘I’m sorry . . .’ Sophia said, leaning over and putting a hand on my knee. ‘It’s just that I think it’s time you let go of all this. You’ve spent the entire mission so far digging and poking and stirring things up, and it’s only ever led to problems. You need to take a back seat, focus on what it is you need to do. The world’s a big place—keep your eyes down and you won’t ever have to feel its weight on your shoulders.’
I put my hand on Sophia’s and squeezed. ‘Thanks,’ I said. She squeezed back.
‘That’s okay. I’m only saying this because I want you to be safe. Same as why I said what I said about Emily earlier. As my dad used to say to me, keep it simple, stupid. Got me through a lot of tough times, that.’
We both sat back and watched the funnel of dust and debris belch from the drill’s exhaust. While the larger pieces collected in a pile a few metres back, the finer particles were taken by the whisper-light breeze up into the sky, a thick column of brown-red mist that spread lazily into the upper atmosphere. ‘It’s incredible, isn’t it,’ I said, watching a swirl grow way up above, ‘how insignificant we all really are. You really feel it when you’re out somewhere like this.’
Sophia grunted agreement. ‘You’re not wrong, Jake, you’re not wrong.’
‘Sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a play, part of a great big prank everyone knows about except me. I like to think that when I step out of a room, all the people in it take five and wait for me to return.’ I laughed at the stupidity of what I was saying. ‘But when you’re on a faraway planet in a faraway system, looking out over a desolate landscape that dwarfs even the largest capacity of your imagination, and then you realise that the distance between here and Earth, despite its enormity, is only an infinitesimally small fraction of the scale of the universe . . . I feel pretty small and pretty useless.’
‘Don’t we all.’
‘I’ve often wondered if ants are capable of comprehending us. Do they understand who were are? Do they see us at all? So they think of us as a god?’
Sophia snorted. ‘I think you’re getting a little carried away there.’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘Maybe not. Who knows.’
‘I certainly don’t.’
Back towards the Athena, a tell-tale mist began to grow through the heat-haze of the afternoon. I watched it get bigger, thicker and soon it was close enough to visibly pick out as the transport vehicle.
‘Emily’s going to be here soon,’ I said. ‘Looks like we’ll have to get back to work. I’ll see how the drill’s doing.’ I heaved myself up, fighting gravity, then gave Sophia a hand up too. My joints ached and my muscles bordered on cramp, and I jogged on the spot to get the blood flowing again.
‘Only loads of work left to do,’ Sophia said in a sarcastic tone, and I laughed involuntarily.
‘By this time in two days, if we haven’t been swept away by the storm, we’ll be all packed up and ready to make our way home.’
‘I can hardly wait,’ Sophia said, zero sarcasm this time.
I wandered over to the drill, careful not to let the blood rush from my head, and peered past the whirling teeth and thick dust down into the hole. Looked like there was a half-metre left to go. I’d hoped it was already done, and judging by the pile of uncompacted material on the opposite side of the drill, it looked like it had been dug three times over. By the time Emily had deposited the first stasis tube and marked out the location of the next hole, it should be finished. Emily would be able to fill it in on her next journey over.
She was travelling quickly, and we stood back as she thundered up to the drill, skidding slightly as she brought the transport vehicle to a stop. Immediately she was lowering the stasis tube to the ground. ‘Can you get those harnesses off, please?’ she asked with urgency, not looking away from the tube as she lowered it to the ground.
‘Sure,’ I said, and I unfastened one side as Sophia unfastened the other. ‘What’s the big rush?’
‘Storm’s moving a little quicker than we’d hoped,’ Emily said, pulling forwards just as I’d finished unfastening the tube. ‘We’re getting pretty tight for time.’ She drove forward, turned right past the first hole and parked a few metres away. ‘Here’s the location of the second borehole.’ She spun the transport vehicle on the spot, leaving a rough circle of tracks emblazoned on the ground. ‘I’ve got to go now. See you in an hour or so.’
And with that, Emily was off, tracks kicking up dust behind her as she drove back in the direction of the Athena. I watched her whizz away, wondering to myself whether she’d avoided talking to me because of the change in deadline, or for some other personal reason. It was the kind of paranoid thought that had likely driven many a lady from my getting-to-know-you inner circle. Stop being silly, I internally reprimanded myself.
‘Drill’s done, Jake, let’s get going.’
‘Okay,’ I said, calling back over my shoulder. Emily’s dust cloud could have been a smear on my helmet by now. I turned to Sophia, who was standing by the drill waiting for me. Sure enough, it had finished, and as I peered over the edge and into our first pit, the reality of the situation hit home: we were really doing it. We were burying people. That could be Istanbul Angel in that tube right there. My stomach flip-flopped about at the thought, so I tried to push it from my mind by busying myself with the drill’s extraction. Fortunately, the raising and lowering of the drill head was one of the only powered mechanisms on the PX-D, and I held the worn, rubber-sleeved button down to retract it almost fully. Then, holding a leg, I carefully leaned in to grab the dangling drill head and pulled it over to the safety of the hole’s edge.
‘Sophia, I’m going to attached this to the mounting point on the top of the stasis tube,’ I said, locking the drill head’s teeth back in place, leaving just the dangling ball joint with it’s industrial grade hook attachment protruding, ‘could you press this button here and wind me out some slack, please?’
We attached the tube (it felt weird to touch it, almost like a strange spiritual moment), and then I got Sophia to pull the slack back in, dragging the tube over to the hole. Empty, it looked very deep and rather ominous, so I kept one foot planted on the drill’s leg as I eased my weight against the tube to stop it swinging into the far wall as it was pulled above the hole. My arms flashed with fire, my gut about to tear across the middle, but we managed it. I was hot, sweaty and exhausted, but we managed it. Sophia lowered the tube down to the bottom, gave it some slack; I jiggled the hook loose and then it was done. Whoever was in it was now in their new, everlasting home.
‘So how do we get the drill over to the next site?’ Sophia asked as she wound the drill head back up again.
I gave her a look; she got it immediately.
‘Oh, really?’ she groaned, rolling her eyes. ‘More brute strength?’
‘You didn’t think those drillers were built like that for show, did you?’
An irritated grunt was all I got in return. I grabbed the drill head again as it came up and signalled for a bit of slack, enough for me and Sophia to comfortably grab from the hole’s edge. Sophia already seemed to understand what we were doing, and she lined up behind me to take her place in this tug-of-war between man and machine.
‘Usually, the diameter of the hole is a lot smaller,’ I said between gritted teeth as we leaned our weight back. The furthest foot of the drill—we were standing in between two of the three—began to lift. ‘So it’s usually a bit more laterally unstable.’ We heaved harder, digging in our heels and giving it our all. ‘This bastard, on the other hand’—I could feel sweat actually trickling down my face now, no thanks to the restrictive filter forcing me to draw every breath like it was my last—’is as stable as a—’
‘Just pull, will you?’ Sophia snapped, and I did as I was told, shutting up and pulling. At that moment, the far leg lifted clear by about a metre, and from there gravity took over. We stood back as the drill teetered, then toppled towards us, landing with a solid thump on the dirt that I felt in my feet. ‘Now what?’ Sophia asked between hoarse gasps for breath.
Now, protocol dictated that we right the drill, collapse the legs, move it to the new location and start over, but my pounding heart (and my equally pounding head) told me to screw protocol and do it the easy (less hard?) way. ‘We drag it.’
I didn’t need an intercom to know Sophia was groaning again.
Between us we managed to drag the PX-D, legs still akimbo, along the dusty ground. By pulling it along by the drill head, which I assumed was more than capable of putting up with such abuse despite the training telling us otherwise, we only had the resistance of two of the foot pads to contend with, the main body of the drill suspended taught between them and us. Once we’d dragged it to the next location, we pulled it upright, landing it more or less onto the marker Emily had left for us. That was the real reason we shouldn’t have done it like we’d done, I was pretty sure of it—in a real borehole test, we wanted our holes millimetre perfect, and this was no way to do it. Nevertheless, I checked the drill head over, checked the cable mounting points and the cable itself, and all seemed well. Then we set it off to drill the second hole of what may as well have been an infinite number of holes. At least, that’s how it felt right at that moment.
With a fresh column of fine debris floating towards space, Sophia and I collapsed on the slight incline we’d found before to rest awhile. Where we’d lowered ourselves down last time, we dropped like stones this time, the planet’s unforgiving gravity sucking us down with bone-jarring force. Despite that, and despite the ground being nothing more than compacted dirt, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable had there been a well-placed mattress here. To take the weight off my feet was heaven.
‘If we can get three or four of these done by the end of today,’ Sophia said, looking at her wrist readout, ‘we’ll be on or ahead of schedule.’ The thought of drilling two more holes made me want to shrivel up and die. ‘Then tomorrow,’ Sophia continued, if we can get seven or eight done, that’ll leave us with between five and seven to do on the third day. Hopefully we’ll be able to miss the storm.’
I hoped so, too. Or else . . . or else we weren’t going home. ‘I’m sure we’ll be fine,’ I said, sounding entirely unconvincing. I’m not even sure why I said it. It was probably the most insincere thing I’d ever said.
‘Fingers crossed,’ Sophia added, an equally meaningless platitude. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. ‘What?’ Sophia asked, sitting up a little to look at me, a puzzled expression on her face.
‘I’m just being silly,’ I said, the dying rumble of laughter in my belly still turning the corners of my mouth upwards. ‘It’s just it all seems so—superficial. When I found out that Istanbul Angel was on board, I was almost consumed with this cocktail of emotions—rage, fear, sadness, you name it, and now—now it’s almost like I don’t actually care. Sure, he’s a bad person, he’s done terrible things—to me especially—but I’m finding it hard to hold on to that with quite as much conviction as before. Do you think that’s bad? Am I so cynical and miserable that I can’t even be bothered to be passionate about something anymore?’
Sophia leaned back down again, and we both lay there, watching the dust funnel rise. ‘That depends, I suppose,’ she said. ‘We’ve been through so much that perhaps it’s become less of a priority for you. After all, what’s done is done, and while it’s good for people like Angel to be where they can no longer do people harm, that isn’t necessarily equal to exacting your . . . revenge, I suppose you would call it.’
Revenge. It sounded like something out of a child’s story. The big bad man does something bad, the hero gets his revenge. But those children’s stories neglected to encompass the full depth of the human psyche, explore what makes us who we are, do what we do. Well, I mean they are stories for children, let’s not forget that, but I think that in its essence was my problem: I often looked at myself as if were in a child’s story, with right and wrong, good and bad, heroes and villains. But, I had to remind myself, it just wasn’t that simple.
‘Do you think I’m letting my father down?’ I asked tentatively. It felt like I’d rolled onto my back figuratively as well as physically, my soft, delicate underbelly exposed and vulnerable.
‘No, I don’t think so. I think it’s good for you to let go, healthy, even. It takes a braver man to forgive than it does to punish.’
I wasn’t sure I really understood what Sophia meant by that, not at first. Surely punishment was a necessary requirement of a functioning civilisation? But then I realised that she didn’t mean for those two things to be mutually exclusive—here we were, punishing Angel by burying him in stasis nearly forty lightyears from home, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t forgive him as well. Thinking about leaving the whole thing behind after letting it fester in my mind for so damn long made me tense.
‘I’m not sure if I could forgive him.’
‘I think you’ve already begun.’
‘You don’t think there’s a difference between forgiveness and not caring?’
Sophia rolled towards me, leaning on one arm. She had this air of authority about her, she had since I’d met her, but now I realised how much I respected her as well. I felt bad for snapping at her earlier about Emily, but I swallowed that back down again and awaited her response. ‘Of course there is,’ she said, ‘but between not caring and malevolent rage, I’d say one was closer on the path to forgiveness than the other.’
‘I suppose . . .’
‘Jake, what do you think forgiveness means?’
‘I don’t know.’ I genuinely didn’t. ‘Isn’t it where you have to come to terms with what someone has done and pretend it didn’t happen?’
I could tell by the flash in Sophia’s eyes that I was way off. ‘No! Haven’t you been listening? Forgiving someone for something doesn’t mean letting them get away with it. Someone who does something wrong still has a moral and social responsibility for their actions, that is an absolute whether they’re forgiven or not. To forgive someone is to let go of your anger, your resentment. They’ve faced their punishment, be it a scolding or life imprisonment, the score is settled, you write it off. That’s forgiveness.’
Now it all seemed so clear, so obvious. Angel was facing his punishment and I had to accept that. It dawned on me then that my hesitance to leave Angel behind on this planet had never been about my disagreement with the punishment for being too severe—no punishment was too severe for this man—it was because I knew in my heart that his incarceration here on HD 85512 would be it, would be the score settled, the debt written off. It would mean I had to let go, to give up the only thing that made me different, unique, and what would be left over? Nothing. The whole while Angel continued to be free, I didn’t have to face forgiving him, didn’t have to let go. This moment forced me to make that choice, to become just another person. It was a choice I knew my mother had made a long time ago, and even though she still shed a tear for her husband even now, her warmth and her love and everything that was wonderful about her had come from her ability to forgive. What made it hardest of all was that she had forgiven Angel even before he faced the penance for his crime. I sniffed deep and sat up, hugging my knees. I looked out over this world, this bleak, barren place that felt so appealing to me because it matched my bleak, barren heart. I missed my mum.