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

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 34

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

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

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

‘Is it a big storm?’

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

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

‘I’m fine.’

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

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

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

‘Then what is it? What can I do?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why?’ Sophia asked, sounding puzzled.

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

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

‘Take a look up and see.’

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

‘It’s quite something, huh?’

‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

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

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

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

‘Makes you feel small, huh?’

‘Like a grain of sand in an ocean.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s pretty bleak.’

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

I laughed sarcastically. ‘How?’

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

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

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

‘That’s some pretty deep shit.’

Sophia mock-curtseyed. ‘Thanks.’

‘Where’d you learn all that?’

‘Minored in philosophy.’

‘What made you take philosophy?’

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

‘What happened?’

‘I grew up and became cynical.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I was just kidding, Jesus . . .’

‘Just don’t.’

‘Fine.’

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

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

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

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

Chapter 33

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).

‘What’s that?’

‘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?’

‘Well, I—’

‘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.’

‘Me neither.’

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?’

‘Sure.’

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.

Chapter 32

After the cramped airlock in the Athena, the larger one in basecamp was something of a relief. With shining white walls it seemed a little surreal, almost ethereal, us group of shining white people gathered together inside. The larger chamber took longer to fill, and did so with none of the hissing urgency of the Athena’s. Red light went green, and we filed through and into basecamp.

It was a big, open space, glowing with translucence, and was pretty much empty right now. Usually the lab equipment would have been set up inside (it was still in the trailer, unused), so the open space felt bigger than it would have usually done. Over to one side, a table was set up, and we all took our places, unclipping our helmets and laying them down it.

‘I’m beat,’ Grant said, leaning heavily onto the tabletop.

‘Me too,’ Clip said. ‘And I’m famished.’

‘I’ll get us some food,’ I said, heaving myself up. I had done the least work, really, so I figured it would only be fair. I lumbered over the Athena, whose main door was now open, and stepped in. The artificial gravity inside had remained on and at a usual Earthly weight, a pleasant relief from the planet’s tiresome drag. In the kitchen I loaded up a tray with five ready meals and five nutridrinks, then tottered back out with them, minding my step out into the unassisted gravity. The others were talking among themselves, some draped over the table, exhausted, like some sort of mock Shakespearian execution. Grant was actually flat out on his back on the bench, taking advantage of the extra space.

‘I’ll be damn glad when this is all over,’ Clip said as I passed him his meal. ‘Byron’s giving me the creeps.’

‘You can say that again,’ Sophia said. ‘It’ll be a much more pleasant journey back home without him.’

I didn’t say anything, keeping my lips pursed. I still couldn’t shake that guilty feeling of responsibility for him, even as if I was blaming myself for his attempt on my own life. It was infuriating but nevertheless relenting.

‘I wonder why he killed them?’ Clip said, tearing open his meal. ‘I mean, what’s the point?’

‘Because he’s batshit crazy,’ Sophia said, taking her meal. ‘That’s why.’

The others laughed, but it wasn’t without a trace of despair. ‘He’s pretty troubled,’ I said, passing Clip his food as he sat up. ‘Nothing excuses what he’s done, but he’s certainly not thinking about all this like a normal—like we would.’

‘You’ve got that right,’ Sophia said between slurps of her drink. ‘If I’ve learned one thing from this disaster of a mission, it’s that being the boss’s kid is no alternative to proper training and evaluation.’

‘Hear, hear,’ Clip said, raising his cup.

I felt uncomfortable with talking about Byron in this way, almost as though he could tell that we were and that it would anger him. Silly, yes, but I decided the change the subject anyway, broaching something that’d had me wondering. ‘Grant, you never said who it was that told you about the other ship, the decoy. Did you hear about that back at Planexus?’

Grant was still lying down on the bench, even though he had started eating. He shook his head. ‘Byron told me,’ he said through a mouthful. He swallowed, an awkward-looking procedure from that angle, but it didn’t seem to bother him. ‘He let it spill by accident, then he made me promise not to say. I didn’t really believe him myself, not until I asked Jason and he confirmed it.’

‘Then why did you bring it up at all?’ Clip said. ‘You know, ages ago in the rec room.’

‘Dunno,’ Grant said, shrugging. ‘Bored, I suppose.’

It seemed like that thread was drawing to a close, but I still had questions. ‘How would Byron know something like that?’

Grant had taken another mouthful, and I watched him chew with agonising impatience until he had enough room in his mouth to talk again. ‘Yeah, I asked him that. He said he overheard his dad saying it.’

Sophia tutted and rolled her eyes. ‘Figures. These fat cats never see the damage they cause when they toy with people’s lives like this. This whole mission’s been one political disaster. Shows how seriously the man takes it when he sends his own son along for the ride . . .’

Murmurs of agreement turned to silent chewing. We were all tired, and the ache was beginning to set in. Another ten minutes and we’d all have to be up and out again. I still had questions, but I was so exhausted that I could barely piece them together in my head. So I joined the others in quietly eating and finished my lunch. Once we were done, Sophia helped me gather up the empty packets and carry them back to the Athena while the others made their way out to the trailer.

‘Thanks,’ I said, as she held the waste receptacle open for me to dispose of the precariously balanced wrappings.

‘No problem,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to come in here and take a load off, right?’

‘You’re not wrong.’

Sophia opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again, eye contact lingering.

‘What?’ I asked. ‘Go on, you looked like you were about to say something.’

‘I still don’t think you should be with her,’ Sophia said slowly and quietly, as if the very words could conjure disaster.

‘Emily? Why not?’

Sophia pulled an I’m not sure face. ‘I just get a bad feeling, you know?’ She turned to leave, but I put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. After my little chat with Jason, I was a little—okay, a lot—concerned, so I needed to hear what she had to say. She turned back to face me, looking a little flustered.

‘I trust your judgement,’ I said. ‘Please—tell me what you think.’

Sophia sighed. ‘This is my first mission with her. Usually I get a rapport with my crew, but her—she’s closed down, completely shut off. I did some digging after we spoke the other day, just to ease my mind, but instead of finding what I expected, I found something different.’

‘Different? Like what?’

‘Her records show she’s been out before, but I don’t recognise the ship, or its captain. It’s like it’s just been made up.’

While Sophia was talking, I began to feel a burning annoyance in my stomach. I fidgeted from foot to foot as she spoke. I knew she was only saying what she was saying because she wanted to help, but still, it frustrated me no end. There was no proof here, only conjecture. It was like Jason, earlier; people didn’t seem to like seeing other people happy if they couldn’t get some themselves. ‘And you know every ship and its captain, do you? I snapped.

‘Well, no—’

‘And because you and Emily aren’t best of friends immediately, there must be something wrong with her instead of you, right?’

‘No, Jake, that’s not what I’m saying—’

‘Let’s go,’ I said, pushing past and heading out to basecamp. ‘We’ve got work to do.’ I walked off, leaving Sophia behind. I felt like an idiot for doing it, but on the other hand I was sick of people picking on Emily. They didn’t understand her like I did. I clipped on my helmet, not waiting for Sophia to buddy check me, and went through the airlock alone. As I exited onto the planet’s surface, I could hear the airlock hissing quietly as it refilled behind me for Sophia.

The others were crowding around the rear of the trailer, and soon I mingled among them, waiting for Jason, Emily and Byron to return. Sophia joined us before they did, and for now I kept my distance. We generally waited in silence, save for the odd glib remark, and soon we spotted trail of dust on the horizon. Remembering the crash site of the decoy ship from earlier, I looked out in front of the Athena, but that dust cloud had long since dissipated. We watched the transport vehicle quickly come into view, scooting along at full throttle, jiggling over the flattened dunes between us and it. Soon we could make out two figures in the cockpit, with one other sitting on the outrigger bench.

‘Sorry we’re running behind,’ Jason’s voice came over wide broadcast coms to all of us. ‘The routes weren’t set in the transport vehicle.’

Shit, I thought. That’s my fault. I forgot because I was too busy thinking about what Jason had said. I stayed quiet as they pulled around in front of us, Jason hopping out before the vehicle had even stopped. Once he was clear, Emily swung round, heading off to my cube farm to load up the first stasis tube.

‘Right,’ Jason said, clapping his hands together. ‘Jake and Sophia will get dropped off first, then Grant and Clip, then myself and Byron. The borehole spacing is all laid out for you on Emily’s map, so she’ll be able to deliver each tube where it needs to be buried. Grant, you’ve had the drilling training before, am I right?’

‘Yes—a long while ago, but it’s not really valid any more—’

‘That’s the best we’ve got right now, so you can lead your pair. Jake, you’ve had recent training, so you’re in charge of your drill. We have an hour-and-a-half per cube, so we don’t want to rush, but we do need to be efficient. We need to drill a one-and-a-half metre diameter hole three metres down, so don’t go any further down than that. Use the probe winch on the drill to lower the stasis tubes in safely, refill the hole, then move on to the next one. Any questions?’

Clip had one. ‘When do we get to call it a day?’

‘We need to bury at least four stasis tubes each by the end of today,’ Jason said. ‘We can finish then.’

Clip grunted. He wasn’t happy, but he knew—like the rest of us—that we had no choice.

‘Right, let’s get to work. Drillers, find a space on the transport vehicle. Emily will drop us all off, then she’ll return with a tube for each of us to bury. If we time this right your first hole will be halfway dug by the time she delivers the first tube. Once you’ve dug your holes, use the drill’s crane to lower the tube in. Emily, you’ll need to use the transport vehicle’s nose plough to fill the hole back in again when they’re done. Don’t take too long. They can be loosely filled—they just need to be covered. Is everything understood?’

We all agreed in chorus, with little enthusiasm. Emily climbed into the driver’s seat of the transport vehicle, Jason into the passenger seat, and the rest of us onto the outrigger seats, hung like benches from the outside. Without hesitation, we set off across the desert, watching the Athena shrink into the distance. The sites were around a kilometre away (we never dug closer than a kilometre to the ship for obvious reasons), and by the time we began to slow, only the cube-like trailer was still—and only just—visible. When the transport vehicle came to a stop, I came out of what I realised had been something of a trance. I blinked, taking in our alien surroundings anew while I awaited command.

‘Jake, Sophia, this is you,’ Jason said over the intercom. We both hopped off by way of an answer, and I turned to see the drill already set up. ‘Borehole one is right underneath the drill, so you can start right away. Emily will mark out borehole two from the coordinates when she returns to fill the first in. If you need anything, we’ll be on long range comms. Good luck.’

And with that, the vehicle buzzed away, off into the never-ending distance. I watched the little tracked buggy shrink as I had the Athena, the loneliness and desolation of the place pulling in close around me. The flatness of this planet, the vastness of open space, it held a strange power over me; I loved it and hated it at the same time, a rush of adrenaline pricking my heartbeat as I watched the transport vehicle blink out of view, only the tell-tale plume of dust coming from behind it hinting at its existence.

‘Shall we get started?’ Sophia said from out of view. I turned to her; she was standing by the drill, waiting. ‘Better not waste any time.’

I wanted to still be cross with her, but the scale of our surroundings made my annoyance seem petty and pathetic. Probably because it was petty and pathetic. I sighed, letting the stale, old breath wash from me. ‘Let’s do it.’

Planexus drills are supplied by Montgrand Industries, an Earth-based mining company that turned its hand to inter-planetary drilling alongside Planexus when it no longer became cost-effective to mine on Earth. Planexus, then a travel company for tourists who wanted to tour the solar system, formed a partnership which became a merger, taking what was an industrial giant of older times out of Earth’s orbit and into the front line once again. Montgrand’s engineers knew a hell of a lot about drilling, and Planexus’ ability to leave the solar system created something of a monopoly for interstellar ore trading. There were a handful of smaller companies that attempted to compete, but the secrecy of Planexus gave other companies only one option, and that was to lease Planexus and Montgrand equipment at rates that barely made the endeavour worthwhile. As such, the Montgrand Industries PX-D was the drill every driller knew how to use, the drill every driller was trained on, myself included. I hadn’t done the full nine-month course for my licence, but I knew enough to get us through a situation like this one.

‘So what do we do?’ Sophia asked, leaning against one of the drill’s legs.

I thought back to training. It was there, but it was in pieces, fragmented. I studied the control panel, scratched and flaking but still readable, and thumbed the button that felt right. A cool glow illuminated on the screen, followed by the Montgrand mountain logo. It dissolved, and a menu took its place, filled with words that gave no clue as to their functions. ‘First thing we need to do is set the diameter,’ I said, sounding more confident than I felt. I pressed the button corresponding with the menu command marked Metrics, and was prompted with a familiar screen asking for diameter in metres. I thumbed it in and hit return.

‘Does it set itself up?’ Sophia asked. Of course, she had never experienced this end of the mission before. By now she would be in basecamp, getting some well-earned rest.

‘Nope. These are simple machines built for hard work and reliability. We’ve got to do it. See those laser dots?’ I pointed and Sophia nodded. ‘Those are the diameter guides. We have to place the drill ourselves.’

There were three legs on a Montgrand PX-D, and three corresponding laser dots to signify placement. The legs themselves, folded up against the drill’s body, required manual lifting and setting, and once I’d shown Sophia on the first leg, she did the second. By the time I started on the third I could already feel my heart racing and my lungs burning. The dust filters had a habit of restricting heavy breathing, leading to a horrible feeling of suffocation—I could see why drillers left them out. I sucked hard to draw in oxygen between lifts, humping the leg along a few steps at a time. Once in place, I tapped my suit’s temperature down a few degrees and caught my breath.

‘What now?’ Sophia said, panting in the same long, forced breaths as I was. ‘Is that it?’

I shook my head, a strange-feeling manoeuvre from within my helmet. ‘No,’ I added, panting. ‘We have to lock the legs in place. Then we raise the drill and set the depth.’

Sophia gave me a thumbs up, and I showed her how to use the long spanner chained to each leg to lock them down. Then we approached the central body of the drill so I could demonstrate her how to raise it.

‘There are two crank handles,’ I said, touching mine and pointing to hers on the other side. It’s a fine gearing, so you have to crank fast until it stops. Ready?’

‘Ready.’

We cranked. We cranked some more. We cranked until our breathing was so loud it was being picked up and broadcast by our suits. My arms burned, my lungs burned and everything else in between was fizzy and numb. I had no idea how much more we had left, other than it felt like it was an age away. I tried swapping hands, but my left was no good, and I had trouble catching up with the freely spinning crank, whizzing around under Sophia’s power. Then, out of nowhere, the crank stopped dead.

‘Done?’ Sophia asked tentatively.

I gave the crank handle a push; it was jammed solid. ‘Done.’

The body was now hovering off the ground, and I could see the drill head burrowed into the base of the steel shell. The drill head itself consisted of three retractable arms, lined with spinning, chewing teeth. Ours had been freshly sharpened, the gleaming steel bright against the dust-worn paint. I pulled one down and out to meet the inside leg, and Sophia, watching, did the same for the second. I did the third. ‘It’s a pretty wide hole, this,’ I said checking over the arms to ensure they were locked back in place. ‘They’re usually a fraction of the size, but very, very deep. They take a lot less time to drill, so the drillers have to collapse, move and reset this thing at least once every half-hour.’

Sophia groaned. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘That sounds horrible.’

‘I’m just glad we’ve got an hour and a half between each hole.’

‘I wish we didn’t have any holes at all.’

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Sophia gave me a smile. ‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ she said. ‘It’s not my place to say. Well, it is, being Captain, but—well, you know. I’m only looking out for you.’

She was right—she was only looking out for me, even if I had been too blinded by impotent rage to appreciate it. ‘Thank you, Sophia, I appreciate that. It’s fine though. We’re both very happy.’

Sophia considered me for a moment. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you’re happy.’

‘Me too. Now let’s get this thing up and running.’ I punched in the depth, hit return and stood back. The drill emitted a sharp horn sound, a warning, an orange flashing light ignited and then the teeth on the drill head buzzed into life. Lastly, the drill assembly itself began to spin around, slowly at first, building to a fast-sweeping movement blurred by speed and dust. The plume rose with the noise, and we stood back away from the thundering sound. Even through the thin atmosphere and through our helmets it was loud. In the distance first one plume, and then a second plume, began to rise. The other two drills had started, too. A felt a small seed of hope warm me—there was a chance this could all work out yet.

Chapter 31

The door slid open without so much as a squeak of metal on metal. All was silent. Only the subtle hiss of my intercom kept me from being completely disassociated from sound, and in a way, I appreciated its presence. It was bright outside, and I let my eyes adjust before I stepped out. The Athena was a relatively dark place, and months of being in a twilight state gave my eyes more of a workout when exposed to the radiance of Gliese 370, burning bright and big (about three times as big) in the pale blue, almost yellow morning sky. I surveyed my surroundings from the airlock, limited to a picture frame made by the doorway, and what I saw was desert, flat, barren desert as far as the eye could see. A peppering of mountains dotted the horizon to the left, but other than that the only features I could see were the occasionally rocky outcrop or dip.

Even though I knew that this would be what HD 85512 B would look like, I was vaguely disappointed that it didn’t look like I had dreamed it to be. I realised this with a sudden bought of embarrassment—as if the planet was ever going to have plant life on it, or flowing water. I almost laughed at how silly I’d been to let the dreams affect me as they had when, standing here, seeing the planet for real, I knew in no uncertain terms how everything that had gone on up in my head had been a creation of my own making. Heck, I’d even started to fear the candles’ predictive powers.

Shaking my head, I stepped down from the Athena, letting my body switch from the artificial gravity to the boosted gravity of the planet. It was a little over Earth’s gravity—about a third, I seemed to recall—and it felt every bit of it as my foot sunk into the powdery sand. This was going to be hard work.

Out to the right, there was the front of the ship and then nothing but horizon. I panned left, and a plume of dust in the distance caught my eye. In the windless climate we had today, it lifted straight up in a ribbon, as if kicked up by something large that had been dragged across the ground. That must have been the decoy. It had landed quite close—almost too close in planetary terms—what seemed about five or so kilometres away. I looked on to the left, giving my balance time to come to terms with the extra gravitational workload, skimmed past the barren scenery I’d already seen and turned my attention to the rear of the Athena. Silver-white bodies were already hard at work, pairing up to unload the trailer hanging from the back of the spindly Athena like a bulbous abdomen. Like the Athena, it was of functional design, but its size relative to the ship was almost comical, measuring a good two or three storeys high and as much again in every other direction.

I closed the airlock, then, tentatively at first, walked over towards the rest of the crew, following the line of dimpled footprints. As I drew closer, my intercom clicked faintly, and voices began to come through, growing in volume as I approached.

‘—get the front right out onto the transport vehicle, then slide it under.’

‘Okay, let me just reverse up here—’

‘I’m positioning the crane just above when you’re ready.’

‘Ready.’

‘Lowering.’

‘Okay, stop there.’

I rounded the back of the trailer to see the first section of basecamp being reversed out of the trailer and onto the dirt. I watched the first vehicle tracks being formed as the caterpillars bit into the sandy powder, hauling the first section out. I stood back as it trundled past, the noise of the whining motor just about audible through the thin atmosphere. It bumbled away, jiggling oddly under the strong gravity, and then I turned my attention back to the trailer. While most of the remaining bodies worked to manoeuvre the next section of basecamp up into place with the crane, two others stood a little deeper in, hard to make out among the shadows. I approached them, my footsteps ­crunching then clanking as I boarded the trailer—no artificial gravity in here—and I could feel the heaviness of my footsteps shudder up through my joints.

‘—to be careful we don’t drop of knock any of these, do you understand?’

‘I understand.’

One of the heads nodded as Byron said he understood, so I turned to the other. ‘When do we get started?’ I asked.

Both suited bodies turned to me, the little light that got in this far into the trailer and the dim lamps on the walls catching their faces beneath the distortion of the helmets. ‘Ah, Jake,’ Jason said, his lips moving but his voice beaming directly into my head. ‘You’re here. Once the others have finished unloading basecamp, I’ll need you in the transport vehicle, unloading the stasis tubes. Take them a little out west there away from the camp so you’ve got a bit of space to lay them out.’

‘Will they be okay exposed?’ I asked, nervous about the thought of one getting caught up in a passing weather front and blowing us all to kingdom come. I shivered. I hoped Jason didn’t notice.

Jason laughed a short, humourless laugh. ‘They’re protected with a thin layer of shielding,’ he said. ‘If something comes along that’ll damage that, then it’s too late for us anyway.’ He patted one of the metre-and-a-half tall cubes stacked up behind him. It was only then I realised what they were.

‘Are they . . .?’ I asked, gazing up at them.

Jason nodded. Where he had patted the tube, he now stroked, looking at it longingly. ‘Here they all are. The world’s problems all in the back of one trailer.’ It struck me just how sorrowful Jason’s tone was—was he sad about doing what he was doing? No, that wasn’t quite right. He was sad that what he was doing was coming to an end. It was his legacy, for which he’d never be known. I could see why he’d taken Peter Ash’s money, because after all, when he got back to Earth he’d still be the same nobody he was when he left. Perhaps all these years of fighting causes people didn’t understand or care about (no matter how much of an impact they actually had on their lives) for zero recognition or recompense had taken its toll. He was cashing his chips in, calling it a day, but I could tell he was going to miss the thrill of it all. Jason’s stroke turned back into a pat. ‘Long may their absence bring us peace.’ He turned to me, a sad glimmer in his eye. ‘Am I right, Jake?’

‘Sure . . .’ I said, not really sure how deep the question really went.

‘Right then,’ Jason said in a chirpy tone that sat poorly with the previous conversation, ‘let’s get to work. Jake, get that crane over here. Byron, help me attach it to that topmost tube when Jake’s got it over.’

I did as I was told, and slowly, one by one, we brought the stack of tubes down to ground level, filling the space the others left as they took out the components for basecamp. The tubes were not as I expected them to be (much like the rest of the planet), the name being a complete misnomer for a start. The smooth alloy shells revealed little of the contents, and it took me longer than I’d care to admit to realise that the occupants were curled up inside, in the foetal position. Ironic, I thought, that the womb that entombed them was be the place they had come to die.

I watched Byron and Jason work together, uneasily at first; I thought Byron might perhaps try to sabotage the mission by dropping a tube on purpose, but he did not. He hadn’t said a word, but he did his duty as he was told, when he was told. He worked hard, as he had done in our long briefings, putting his back into it both physically and figuratively. Despite everything, I still couldn’t help but admire his determination, like a person would admire a tiger’s power or an elephant’s strength, even if the animal in question would, given a chance, kill said person without a word of notice. And that was how I viewed Byron: as an animal. To try and comprehend him as a human filled me with too many conflicting emotions—fear, pity, anger, guilt—but to view him as something else not quite human—an abomination, perhaps—gave me enough of a sense of detachment to be able to look at him at all. I felt I had the measure of the rest of the crew, but Byron—Byron was a tamed beast, one that would let you stroke it, but one you would never, ever turn your back on. Jason, I noticed, never did, not once.

This toiling ran on for hours, and the morning wore on with it. The line of shadow creeping into the trailer reached its zenith, and soon it would begin creeping back out again. The last of the basecamp components had been ferried out not ten minutes ago, and we were in the process of lowering the last stack of three tubes to the floor.

‘Easy does it,’ Jason said for the millionth time, flicking a cupped hand repeatedly my way. I nudged the crane down a bit, left a bit, back a bit—and it was in. Then it was up, up, up, across, down—’Easy does it’—and onto the floor.

A now familiar distant crunching sound came from behind me, and I turned to see the transport vehicle coming to a stop just outside. ‘All yours,’ Emily said from behind her helmet, tossing me an imaginary set of keys. ‘Don’t prang it.’

I pretended to catch the keys, then gave her a funny sort of salute. ‘I won’t. I’ll bring it home by midnight.’ We laughed, albeit a little humourlessly, and Emily strode off back to where basecamp was being set up. It was strange—with us all outside, wearing these ridiculous suits, it was like were a different group, a different crew. Memory had a funny way of associating what we see with what we feel, and this change of scenery was a welcome relief, at least for now. We all seemed different, somehow.

‘You’ve got a thing for her, eh?’ Jason said once Emily had cleared out of range. The question was unexpected, leaving me somewhat on the spot.

‘Uh, yeah . . . I guess so.’

‘You guess so?,’ Jason said, chuckling. ‘That’s not how she puts it.’

‘And how does she put it?’

I could see a big grin stretching out from behind Jason’s helmet. ‘It doesn’t matter, forget I said anything.’

I wanted to forget, but I couldn’t. ‘No, go on—what did Emily say?’

‘It’s nothing, don’t worry about it—’

‘Tell me,’ I said. I could feel the air in my suit getting warmer.

Jason held up his hands. ‘Take it easy, I’m just messing you around.’ He looked silly, standing there it that shiny white suit, hands raised as thought I was pointing a six-shooter at him. He lowered them, slowly. ‘She’s just—she’s a live wire, that one.’

I’d decided I’d had enough of the conversation, so I strolled out to the transport vehicle and climbed aboard. It felt like forever since I’d last driven one, but everything fell to hand in that old, familiar way. ‘What do you mean?’ I found myself saying, kicking myself mentally as I did it.

‘Just, you know, she’s got a habit for—’

‘For what?’

‘For . . . for changing her mind.’

I backed the transport vehicle into the trailer, flatbed first, aiming for the nearest tube. ‘Changing her mind?’

I was concentrating on the tube rather than watching Jason, but still I heard him sigh. ‘You know what I mean, right? Like, she means well,’ he said, his voice overly thick with sincerity, ‘she just—she doesn’t know what she wants. I’ve known her longer than you have, and I’m just giving you a fair warning.’

I aligned with the tube and lowered the bed. The tubes’ armoured case had been built to a specific size used by the transport vehicle, so picking them up and depositing them was pretty straightforward now they were unstacked. ‘You sound like you speak from experience, Jason,’ I said, and before Jason could respond, I slid the transport vehicle back so the flatbed slotted under the tube. Once it was fully on, I raised it back to transport height. Jason, as procedure dictated, approached the tube to secure it.

‘Byron,’ he said, waving him over. ‘Every tube needs to be attached like so’—he demonstrated as he spoke—’so they remain in place during transportation. I’ll need you to do the other side, like this.’ Jason finished securing his side, and watched Byron do the other. ‘Good, perfect. We’ll need to do that for every one.’

Before Jason could restart the conversation about Emily again, I drove forward and out the trailer. Looking at the transport vehicle’s dash, I saw that west took me out left from the Athena, and I drove out a few hundred metres before coming to a stop. I jumped out, plodded through the harsh gravity, the soft, powdery ground slipping under my feet, around to the back of the vehicle. I wanted to ditch the last ten minutes from my memory for ever, but as I unstrapped the tube I found myself playing it over and over. What did Jason mean? And where had this come from all of a sudden? Did he want Emily for himself? Just how long had he known her for?

By the time I’d lowered the tube down and returned, the pressure inside my suit was so high I thought it was going to pop. ‘Look,’ Jason said as soon as I got in range. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Just ignore me. I’ve done enough damage already.’

‘Fine,’ I said, and that was the last of that. We spoke very little into the afternoon, save for some instruction from Jason to me, or Jason to Byron. I responded in grunts and mm-hmms, and did my job with little else to say. As the end of hour five came and the last of the tubes was deposited in the distinctly creepy outcrop of cubes I’d created, I saw the rest of the crew marching back to the trailer from the completed basecamp. It was a funny looking thing, all bulbous and shining white, like a big, blubber-filled whale cast up on this beach-like desert. Even the slowly filling pressure that expanded against the walls gave it the impression of a last dying breath.

I met with the others back at the rear of the trailer, and we all gathered around Jason to be reminded of what we were doing next. ‘Okay,’ he said, waving his arms to gather everyone in, ‘listen up everybody. I know it’s been a long day so far, and you’ve all been working hard, but we need to keep this going. We’ll have a half-hour break now, and then we’ll get back to work. We have an hour-and-a-half to bury each stasis tube; that may seem like enough, but it’ll be very easy to slip behind schedule if we fall out of rhythm. Remember: Byron and I will be at site nineteen, Jake and Sophia at site thirteen, Grant and Clip at site twelve and Emily will load and drive. Emily, we need to get both drills and the backup to each site, so I’m afraid you’ll have to skip lunch. I hope that’s okay—we just don’t have the time to spare.’

‘That’s fine,’ Emily confirmed.

‘Thank you. Byron, you’ll stay with me, too. Everyone, make sure that each tube is handled carefully. They do have some protection, but let’s not take any risks. Is that understood?’ We all acknowledged our understanding with nods and grunts. ‘Excellent,’ Jason continued. ‘Half-an-hour for lunch it is then. After that, we dig.’

Chapter 30

I tried to read, play computer games and even sleep to pass the day, but none of it really seemed to work. I stopped checking the time after I realised only five minutes was passing between glances, and considered moving up to the briefing room with Jason and Byron, but dismissed that thought almost soon as it occurred. So I stayed put, cycling between thinking about going home (and the soft buzz of elation that came with it), followed by the sinking feeling that home was a long way away, followed again by the sudden, sickening recollection that we had to land first and that meant facing leaving Byron behind.

Occasionally that cycle was distracted by the mild satisfaction of Istanbul Angel’s eternal incarceration, but the more I thought about that, the more I realised it wasn’t really punishment at all. An everlasting sleep, disturbed by nothing, something I would have traded my current situation for any day of the week. All I could hope was that his dreams were tormented by the horrific things he had done, but it was only a slim hope.

All I really wanted was to be with Emily. She had a way of grounding my spiralling thoughts and feelings, bringing my out of my self-destructive loops, even if she didn’t realise it (although I suspect she did). I was sat in her seat, hugging my knees to my chest, breathing through my nose in the hope that I got even a hint of her fragrance. The silence was unbearable.

When the announcement came over the intercom, I almost jumped right up out of the chair. I wasn’t asleep but I wasn’t awake—I was dozing, really, stuck in a semi-conscious world that needed a good knock to upset, and the announcement did just that.

‘Final approach,’ the intercom crackled. I wasn’t sure whose voice it was—it could have been either Grant’s or Clip’s—but the message was clear. We had seven hours remaining until touchdown. Gentle, occasional shudders confirmed this remaining portion of the descent, the tell-tale sign of the puncturing of the planet’s upper atmosphere. The tremors reminded me how small and delicate the Athena was, and how big the universe outside of it was, too. Blindly drifting down through the predominantly nitrogen-based air, we were a spec against the planet’s surface, one that could easily be blown, crushed, flooded and generally destroyed by whatever natural disasters awaited us down there. It didn’t bear thinking about, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop.

And the other ship—fancy that turning out to be real. Grant, who was usually full of hot air, actually knew something of truth. Sure, it was of no real importance to the mission, but how did he know? Who was his informant? Given that the other craft turned out to be a decoy—a good idea, really, considering the sensitivity of the mission—it could well have been information that was supposed to be known. A double bluff. Maybe he had learned it because he was supposed to. But, as Jason had said, the craft probably hadn’t survived the landing, so there was no point bothering with it now. We’d made it made it. Well, some of us.

With the adrenaline spurred by the rude interruption of the intercom dying down, I began to feel sluggish and sleepy. With just over six-and-a-half hours left to go, I figured I’d get some proper sleep, so I ambled back to the bunks and flopped down. I was asleep in minutes.

 

The beach was cold. A soft mist lay in a blanket above the sand. Early morning shades of purple stained the base of the sky, and I shivered against the breeze. I sat down on a rock, feeling its smooth, hard surface with the palm of my hand. It felt dry, very dry, almost as though it had lived many, many lifetimes. The sun peaked above the horizon, filling the sky with light. Even as it appeared I could feel it chase the cold away, warming me through. The light was a bright, clean white, and I had to shield me eyes from it even before it had fully emerged. I turned away, looking to the jungle behind me, letting my eyes readjust. Above, a smear of long, low clouds tracked across the sky, swirling and globular, like nothing I had seen before. I looked down into the thick plant life to see long, smooth trunks, wide, hanging leaves and a smattering of colour. With the light glowing through the heavy underbrush, I realised something I hadn’t understood before: this was not Earth.

I entered the jungle, and before long the light had faded almost to nothing save for the twinkling through branches high overhead. It was hot already, and sweat was making my skin sticky. Warms beads trickled down my scalp, and I blinked them from my eyes. I continued walking, endlessly onwards.

When I arrived at the cave, I was unsurprised to see it. It had formed in a rocky outcrop, which had been smoothed into an almost fluid shape. The teardrop opening fell back over its elongated profile, which was defined around its based with fine channels. I entered the cave, running my fingertips along the smooth walls, feeling my way in the dark. It spiralled around and down, first cooling, then warming, and soon the familiar flicker of lights grew ahead. I entered the cavern; standing in the middle was a figure. He held a candle—the only candle—in his hands, cupping it with the care of a mother. The candle stood tall and bright, its light flickering in distorted and confusing glimmers upon the figure’s face.

‘Who are you?’ I called out, my voice echoing around the chamber. He did not respond. I walked towards him, and as I did I could see him hunch forward. As he hunched, the candle burned bright and I had to stop and squint. When the brightness had died down, I looked again, and I realised that it had burned down about a quarter of its length. ‘Who are you?’ I said again. No answer.

I continued forward, trying to get closer to the person—a man, it seemed—and again the candle burned brightly. I stopped, and when the light had dimmed, the candle was burning at half its height and with half the brightness. I still could not make out the man’s face. ‘Tell me who you are!’ I yelled across the cavern. ‘Tell me!’

The man spoke, his voice old and ragged, as if death were closing upon him. ‘You’ve almost found me,’ he said. ‘I am who you’ve been looking for.’

 

When I awoke, it took me a minute to realise that the lingering echo in my head was actually the resonance of an intercom message broadcast across the ship.

‘Repeat, one hour until touchdown,’ the intercom confirmed, its abrupt volume making my chest tight. I blinked the last of my sleepiness away and sat up, feeling strangely refreshed. I’d needed that. Sleep on those pills wasn’t the right kind of sleep, and dream or no dream, it felt good to have a proper rest. I stretched out, yawning. Not long to go before we would be heading back home.

Once I’d freshened myself up, had some lunch and wandered back to the briefing room, we were only fifteen minutes away from our scheduled landing. Jason was reading, and Byron was curled up, asleep. His mouth was hanging open, and he made a soft whistling sound every time he breathed in. He seemed so innocent, so young; it was easy to see how he could get away with being as manipulative as he was. I stopped looking at him when a pang of guilt started forming in my throat, and I sat down on the other side of Jason.

‘Nearly there,’ I said.

‘Nearly there,’ Jason repeated, without looking up from his e-reader.

‘Please make it painless.’

Jason nodded. ‘It will be.’

We sat in silence until a final shudder rumbled through the ship. The intercom buzzed with excitement as a female voice—Emily’s, I think—cried, ‘We’re here!’

Jason put his e-reader away and stood up, awaiting the gathering of the rest of the crew. Byron stirred, stretched, yawned, then sat up. One by one, Sophia, Emily, Grant and Clip all filed in, faces mixed between excitement, tiredness and apprehension. It had been a long stint for them, and the concentration had clearly worn them down.

‘Hello all,’ Jason said, once everyone had found their seats. ‘This is the first day of a three-day mission. We need to be quick and clean, in and out. The ship now registers the storm approaching towards the end of day three, so we need to be done and gone by then. It’s going to be hard work, but as you all know, the mission depends on it. I’m sure you all want to get home safe and sound—let’s not let this be the decider.

‘To recap: Sophia, Clip, Grant and Emily, you’re on construction detail. I want basecamp set up by hour five. Do you think you can do that?’

Nods from the four confirmed they could. ‘Weather’s fine now,’ Sophia said. ‘We should have no problem.’

‘Good,’ Jason said. ‘Jake, you’re with me and Byron until basecamp’s set up. We’ll be unloading the stasis tubes from the trailer and logging the routes into the transport vehicle. Check and double check those, make sure we’re doing this efficiently. That should take the best part of five hours; once the others are done with basecamp, we can start drilling. You and Sophia will take site thirteen, Byron and I will take site nineteen. Clip and Grant, you’ll be on site twelve. Emily, I want you to load and drive the transport vehicle. Remember, cycle through locations to keep us all stocked up. We don’t want any hang time. These are going to be long, twelve-hour days, but we can’t afford to lose a moment due to a lapse in concentration. Is that all clear?’

‘We haven’t calculated for twenty-five boreholes in just one location,’ I said. ‘How do we know the ground’s stable enough?’

‘I’ve looked at the three sites,’ Jason said, unperturbed by the question, ‘and the bedrock is stable, and there aren’t any signs of tectonic slippage. We should be more than okay to drill to that extent so long as we keep to the minimum borehole clearances. It’s okay, I checked.’

I was a little taken aback by Jason’s understanding of geology. At least he’d thought of it. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘That should be okay.’

‘Good,’ Jason said, smiling. ‘Then shall we get to it?’

We did. Egress from the ship to atmosphere as it was would be tricky, which was why Sophia, Clip, Grant and Emily got straight to work constructing an external structure that allows for a larger concentration of people to move through the airlock at one time, as well as providing an increased volume of covered area to store the samples they were brought back, plus a lab to study them. Nothing more than a glorified inflatable tent with a flimsy alloy frame, it expanded the ship’s volume by five times, a strange and rare luxury on a mission like this. We all suited up for the slow, two-at-a-time airlock transition to the outside, listening again and again to the whumph-shuck as air was sucked out then blasted back into the small chamber. Each time the inner door opened to reveal the empty space, my heart skipped up a gear, and we all shuffled forwards one. I was last in line, behind Jason and Byron; the people out front had more important work to get going with at this stage. Sophia and Clip, who’d exited first, we’re probably already opening up the trailer and wheeling out the transport vehicle.

Jason and Byron were next. They gave each other a buddy check on their suits before the door light went green. Jason palmed it and it slid open, revealing the empty box where Grant and Emily had been standing only minutes before.

‘Buddy check, Jake,’ Jason said over the intercom. He approached me and I lifted my arms to the side, as per procedure. He patted me over, pulling seams, tugging hoses. ‘You got your filter in?’ I nodded. ‘Good.’ A slap on the shoulder confirmed all was well. ‘Looking good.’

Now it was my turn to check Jason. Like me, he held out his arms, and I ran my covered hands over his suit from head to toe in the weird frisk that was the buddy check. The suit—a thin alloy membrane—had only two seams: around the neck and down the back, a bit like the coveralls we wore on board. The helmet, a clear, flexible custom moulding of the suit owner’s own head, sat close to the skin, but not quite touching. It was a strange experience to wear the suit for the first time, but as insubstantial as it seemed, it provided an uninhibited environment to work in as we did our jobs.

I moved around Jason’s back, aware that my own was now facing Byron. I could feel him watching as I wiggled the compressed air canisters and tugged the hoses that connected them to the suit, but he said and did nothing. Following on from Jason’s waist, I inspected the legs of the suit for damage and found none. ‘You’re good,’ I said, standing.

‘Then I’ll see you on the other side,’ Jason said, grinning. I forced a grin back, feeling the same rush of adrenaline he presumably felt, too. Despite everything that had happened, the thrill of stepping out onto a new planet for the first time still revived my childhood desire to explore, to discover. Byron, with Jason close behind, stepped into the airlock. It was cramped with two people in, and Jason barely had enough room to give me a wave from the hip as he slapped the button to shut the door with the other hand. All at once I was alone. The green light turned red. Whumph-shuck. The air had been sucked out. The thrill of the adrenaline turned cold and slow, as if the chemical had frozen in my veins. I watched the light burning red, it’s glow leaving imprints on my eyes. The radios, which activated on proximity (with a wide broadcast override button just in case) were blinded by the solidity of the door, so the slushing of blood around my head became the only thing I could hear. I considered pressing the wide broadcast button just to hear a human voice, but I thought better of it. Whump-shuck. The light turned green.

I hesitated, then prodded the door button. It slid open quite suddenly, the noise making me jump. It definitely seemed louder than it had before—or was I just more focussed on it now? It was probably that. I took a breath and stepped in, pretty certain I could feel something strange and alien about this space that had just been open to an unexplored world. Of course, the air filters would have flushed the airlock before recompression, and my logical brain knew what I was feeling was nothing but an over-active imagination, but still I felt it. Button pressed, and the door slid shut behind me. The space was cold, quiet, alone. I dialled the temperature of my suit up a degree, waiting for the inevitable blast of air being sucked out around me. I waited and waited, but it did not seem to come. I held my breath, waiting.

A blast of moving air jerked me from my stupor, my chest pulsating with fright. The noise was over as quick as it started, but the volume was what got me, as it did every time. It sounded so muffled from inside the ship, but in here, in the middle of it, it was like the tornado that swept Dorothy away. And I was about to join her, in another time, another space, in an unknown world that held any kind of mystery. It was a place I could hide away from everything, somewhere I could never be found, somewhere I could escape my problems. When I’d heard that my father had died, I was too young to really comprehend what had happened, and even as the days passed and he hadn’t returned, it hadn’t really bothered me. It was only as I’d grown up, as reality began to seep into my maturing conscious and the outside began making sense did I realise what had happened. That slow-brewed theft of my youthful innocence was what made me who I was today: on the outside, I was quite, reserved, shy, but on the inside I grew fetid with hate for Istanbul Angel. Yes, I signed up to be a geologist because it paid well, and yes I went on deep space missions because that’s what geologists did, but I also did it because it gave me a place far enough away that I could suspend my anger and my confusion for a while. On an alien planet, looking out onto an alien sun, my life seemed so far away that I felt peace. Only, this time, I was the closest to my tormentor I’d ever been. The light went green. I pressed the button.

Chapter 29

Why? Why did Byron try to kill me?

It was a question etched on my brain, and it wouldn’t rub off. Jason surmised that perhaps Byron was a member of a terrorist cell working for the gathering armies in the unprotected zones; after all, he had the ins through his father, and we’d seen how precise his mind could be when he applied it. In the wrong hands, he could be a deadly weapon. Another option was that he was a renegade, masterminding a destructive plan simply to get back at the father that scorned him all these years. They were perfectly reasonable explanations, but they weren’t enough; I wanted to confront Byron himself, ask him the questions, but aside from Jason’s advice to stay away from him, I knew I would not get the answers I sought.

Still the question irked me, gnawing like a buried tick. Thanks to Emily’s sleeping pills I was able to sleep—with just a week to go until we landed I needed the energy—but the sleep was restless, dreamless and ultimately unfulfilling. Even through the numbing effects of the pills, the question plagued me. It grew roots, sprouting further questions, turning me rotten with its probing tendrils. Why did he try to kill me? Why hadn’t I died? Why was I the lucky one where the other three had paid the ultimate price? Even though I knew these questions, if presented to Byron, would get no response worth the effort, I still wanted to do it. But I resisted. I resisted because of one simple fact: Byron had never told me a single truth.

Well, maybe he had, but I could never know. So thick and fast were his lies that the truth became muddied by them, making even the most stark and plain truth stained with the putridity of his deceit. I thought back to the day we’d first met, our early conversations on board; what a fool he’d made of us, of me. If I was asked to describe his character, to write a sheet picking up on his key traits, you’d have one of two things: a list of contradictions or a blank page. There were times when I’d felt touched by Byron’s candour, angered by his suffering, and it made me feel ashamed to have been so gullible. I could see myself now, being led by the stories, the lies, and I wanted to scream at myself to stop and see what was being done to me. I’d stood by him when he’d got in trouble with James when I should have seen the truth for what it was. Perhaps, then, I was responsible for his death with my actions; perhaps I was responsible for all their deaths for my inaction. It was a train of thought I didn’t want to be aboard, one that I knew would soon derail with catastrophic consequences. I tried to console myself, convince myself that I could have had no way of knowing, that the chocolate bar and the e-reader could well have been part of the plan in the beginning, a ruse to determine who would side with him and who wouldn’t, who he could trust, and who he couldn’t, who was gullible enough to fall for his tricks and who wasn’t . . . but it was no use—the thought still haunted me.

I counted down the days until our descent, trying to busy myself with menial tasks and light-hearted conversation, but the tick continued to burrow, the roots continued to unfurl, and I realised that I was committed to only one thing: leaving Byron behind. And what of Istanbul Angel? Sure, even thinking the name brought a chill to my blood, but what was done was done. Unlike Byron, he posed no threat to me. I still secretly revelled at the fact that we would be leaving Angel out here on a godforsaken planet, but I feared that there might be a chance of bringing Byron back again. Even if I thought there was a modicum of a chance that it wasn’t true, it made me feel sick to my stomach to even contemplate the risk. Eight months had got us this far, and three people had died—I could only imagine what another eight months would bring.

Six nights became five, which then become four, three, two and finally, one, but I still hadn’t faced him. The planet HD 85512 B and its star Gliese 370, loomed large on our computer screens; soon we would see them with our own eyes. None of us could sleep on that last night, even though we ought to have been. In just fourteen hours we would be setting foot on the planet’s surface, the first beings ever to do so, but still it felt so distant. We’d been here on the Athena for a long time, and the prospect of a change of scenery seemed almost unbelievable, no matter how inhospitable. We gathered in the rec room—apart from Byron, who was still detained in the tow dock, and Jason and Sophia, who were manning the cockpit, presumably as fired up and jittery as we were. Where usually we would be distracting ourselves with games, books or whatever other hobbies we had to keep ourselves entertained, we all sat in near silence, the same contemplative look mirrored on our faces. The usual appearance of smuggled alcohol and the whooping and high-fiving that accompanied it on the final night before landing was nowhere to be seen. This was no time for celebrating.

‘Do you think what we’re doing’s right?’ Clip said, speaking as though he were thinking out loud. It took a while for someone to respond. Grant.

‘What choice do we have?’

I shifted. The phrase tugged at my ear whenever I heard it, and I seemed to be hearing it way too often. ‘We don’t,’ I said, saying it and thinking it as Clip had presumably done. ‘We have no choice.’

‘There’s always a choice,’ Emily said. She said it firmly, but not without feeling. ‘But some choices are easier than others.’

‘Are you saying this choice is easy?’ Clip asked, a mild hint of irritation to his question.

‘The easy choice isn’t necessarily the wrong choice.’

We all thought about that for a while, or at least, I tried, then fell into a thoughtless stupor.

‘There’s still time, you know,’ Clip added eventually, continuing the conversation like the long pause had never happened. ‘To stop it, I mean.’

‘Why would we stop it?’ Grant said. He turned to Clip, the first attempt at eye contact in a long time. He wore an expression of suspicion. ‘What difference does it make to you?’

Clip dusted some imaginary crumb from his thigh with the back of his hand, watching it fall rather than maintaining Grant’s stare. ‘A guilt-free conscience, I suppose.’

‘Guilt free?’ said Grant, now leaning forward to grip an imaginary ball tight between his hands. ‘We’re doing the world a favour!’

‘Maybe,’ Clip said, shrugging. ‘Maybe not.’

Grant flopped back, exasperated.

‘Have you ever heard of the expression, don’t shoot the messenger?’ Emily asked casually.

‘Sure,’ Clip said, nodding. I nodded too. Grant smiled a smug smile—he already knew where this was going.

‘Would you say the messenger that delivered a death warrant was a guilty of murder as the man who decreed it? What about the man who swings the axe? Is he the most guilty of all?’

Clip digested the question, chewing his lips as he thought. ‘They all play a part,’ he said finally.

‘Then what about the messenger’s wife, who gives the messenger his breakfast before he goes to work? What about the man with the axe? Does the person who sells him his axe have a guilty conscience, too? Their actions all partake in the eventual death of somebody.’

‘I—’ Clip started, then stopped. He sighed. ‘I suppose not.’

‘How far down the chain do you have to be before the guilt washes away?’

Clip didn’t have to answer. I could tell by his face that he knew he was beaten. ‘What about Byron?’ he said, a last attempt at swinging the conversation his way.

‘He’s ready to right his wrongs,’ I found myself saying. The others all looked at me, and I could feel my cheeks flushing. ‘He knows what’s going to happen.’

A tap from the doorway turned our attention to Jason, who was leaning against the open arch between the rec room and the briefing room. ‘Initial approach is in six hours,’ he said softly. ‘You should probably all get some rest.’ He waited until we stood, one by one, and just before he left he caught my eye and gave me a sad, sympathetic smile. He looked as tired as I felt, and I realised that he wanted what I wanted most of all: to go home. I smiled back.

I took a couple of Emily’s pills before I went to bed. I was tired, yes, but my mind was racing, and I knew a night without them would be worse than not sleeping at all. Nevertheless, I lay awake for what felt like hours, staring at the sagging underside of Emily’s bunk above. The more I stared, the clearer it became, night vision settling in fuzzy and colourless. ‘Emily,’ I whispered.

‘Uhhh?’ Emily drawled back.

‘Are you still awake?’

‘Uh-huh. Are you?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. Then it was quiet again, at least for a moment. ‘Emily?’

‘Uh-huh?’

‘What are you going to do when you get back to Earth?’

At first, there was no response, but then I heard her shifting across the bunk, the drooping base springing up and down. Her face appeared over the edge, dimly lit by the low lighting in the room. Her hair, tied up in a bun above her head, had spilled out over one side, leaving long strands hanging across her face.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘What are you going to do?’

I shrugged. I could barely even remember what being at home was like. What memories I could conjure felt like someone else’s, forgeries that had no place in my head. ‘Look for more work I guess . . .’

‘With Planexus?’

‘If they’ll have me.’ What else was I supposed to do? Jobs weren’t exactly flowing at the moment, after all.

‘Do you think they’ll make us keep all this a secret?’

I hadn’t really thought about it, but now I did, I wondered why it hadn’t already occurred to me. ‘I guess so.’

‘Do you think you can keep it a secret? I mean, it’s pretty big stuff, pretty sensitive.’

‘I—I suppose so. I presume I’ll have to sign something.’

Emily sighed. ‘This would have been a lot easier if we didn’t know.’

She wasn’t wrong. ‘Things would have been a lot different if Byron wasn’t on board,’ I said. ‘He started all this.’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right. Shoulda woulda coulda.’

Oh, what we could have done with the benefit of hindsight. Sadie would be alive, for one thing. ‘What are you going to do when we get back?’ I asked, trying to steer my mind from Sadie.

‘I really don’t know. My medical training’s quite flexible. Perhaps I’ll do some work with one of those charities that helps people who can’t afford insurance.’

‘The pay won’t be as good.’

Emily grinned. ‘I know, but it’ll help ease my conscience.’

I snorted a quiet laugh. ‘Tell me about it.’ I could feel my smile fade as another thought, one I wanted to keep to myself yet simultaneously shout out, crept to the surface. ‘Do you still want to, you know . . . date when we get back?’

Emily’s grin spread further. I’m not sure, but it almost seemed forced, like her eyes weren’t matching it. ‘Sure,’ she said. She held the grin, but still her eyes betrayed her. It wasn’t dread or disappointment they held—it was sadness. I chose to ignore it. For now, at least. I changed the subject.

‘I’m looking forward to leaving New Dawn behind, that’s for certain.’

Emily’s mile faded, and her eyes became distant, as the idea were only every going to be a purely theoretical concept. ‘Amen to that.’

We lingered for a little while, watching each other, and I could feel my eyelids getting heavy. ‘I’m going to get some sleep now,’ I whispered, half awake, half asleep. ‘I love you.’

‘I love you, too.’

That was the last thing I heard that night.

The next morning when I awoke, I could already sense a hum of activity aboard the ship. I had overslept, the two pills knocking me out cold once I’d finally managed to drop off. I scrambled up, hurriedly got washed and dressed, and lumbered into the rec room, which was empty. Voices up ahead told me the briefing room housed my companions, so I wandered on further.

‘Ah, Jake,’ Jason said. He was standing at the opposite end, addressing the others, who were sat around him. Byron was there too, unshackled, paying attention. No one was sat next to him. ‘Come join us.’

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I mumbled, stifling a yawn.

‘That’s fine, don’t worry about it. Let’s sit down so we can get started.’

I chose a spot a seat away from Byron, giving him a hasty glance. He wasn’t looking at me; his gaze was fixed on Jason.

‘Okay,’ Jason continued. ‘We’ve begun initial landing procedures, which will bring us to the five-hour mark of the approach. From there, I’ll need Emily and Sophia manning the cockpit with Grant and Clip. I’ll be with Byron’—the name made a few of us shuffle nervously—’and Jake, hang back until we’re down. We should put metal on rock in about eight hours’ time. Any questions?’

Grant had one. He spoke quickly, as if he thought he would get in trouble for asking. ‘I heard there was another ship on this mission—is that true, and will we be rendezvousing with it at any point?’

I had forgotten about that. I recalled Grant mentioning it ages ago in the rec room to a group of us and how I had dismissed it as his usual nonsense. I expected Jason to do the same, but instead he looked surprised. How do you know that? his eyes seemed to say, but after a moment the look was gone. ‘No. It’s a decoy. A drone-piloted craft. It probably won’t survive the landing.’

‘Okay—thanks,’ Grant said. He looked almost as surprised as Jason did; he probably hadn’t believed the information either. None of us had. The revelation left us all quietly blank.

‘No more questions?’ Jason asked the group. ‘No? Great. Once we’re down, we’ll reconvene here for a ground ops brief, and then we’ll get cracking. Thank you all, and good luck.’

With that sign-off, everyone stood—with the exception of Byron and myself—and headed to their relevant stations. Once the movement had settled, just myself, Byron and Jason remained in the briefing room. It was strange; this was the room I’d spent so much time in with Sadie and Byron, yet now it seemed like a completely different place. I had trouble picturing us sitting around, doing calculations, laughing and joking, Sadie getting wound up with Byron and me mucking around. I longed to be back there, not just because Sadie would still be alive, but because my heart and my mind felt lighter, less weighed down with the intensity that clogged them up now. I was almost naive back then, but I didn’t resent feeling like that—I missed it.

‘Jake, feel free to get yourself some breakfast if you want,’ Jason said, sitting himself down near Byron. ‘I’ve got this.’

I nodded thanks, and stood. ‘Can I get you anything?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ Jason said. Byron said nothing.

I wandered back to the galley, through the empty rec room. It had been tidied, the old cups and e-readers and other bits that had become a familiar part of the furniture all packed away ready for the mission to truly begin. I had a strange pang in my chest that told me—even though I knew this would continue to be my home for a very long time yet—that nothing would quite be the same again. I stopped for a minute, looking around, imagining each person sat in the seat that had become theirs. James and Brendan, they would sit together in the corner nearest to me, talking together in low voices or snoring like buzzsaws. Byron, he would be curled up in the opposite corner, either listening to one of Clip’s ridiculous tales or burying his nose into a computer game, tongue poking out the corner of his mouth. Clip and Grant, the friends who would never admit that they were friends, would be sat one seat apart just to my right, arguing, and Sadie, she split them and Byron up, one eye on her needlepoint darting up and down, the other on Byron, keeping him out of mischief. Emily, she sat the other side of Grant and Clip, occasionally wading into their arguments when they got too ridiculous, and Sophia, when she was here she sat a seat down from me, keeping herself to herself. I couldn’t really place Jason—he always seemed to stand when he was in here with us.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and walked on, the ghosts of our journey here melting back into the steel plate of the Athena’s hull. Could it be, when we returned, that I would actually miss this place? I realised it would be hard not to. Despite everything, I’d made some good friends—and beyond—and we’d done more than just complete the mission—we’d survived it. It was a bond unbreakable. I’d heard of military platoons that had formed a similar bond in warfare, and it was something time could not weather away.

In the galley I made myself some porridge, something warm and filling to keep me going through what was likely to be a long day. I didn’t want to go back into the rec room, and I certainly didn’t want to go into the briefing room, so I headed towards the bunks. Once I reached them, I continued through and into the sanitation room and on into the tow dock. I was unsurprised to see all Byron’s blankets and things tidied up, although I could still smell a hint of the muskiness that had formed here with his constant presence. I turned back, changing my mind, and went to sit in the rec room, alone.

Chapter 28

Talking with Byron usually had a habit of leaving me emotionally roiled, but this time more so than any other. I sat on my bunk for a while, careful not to wake Clip and Grant (although Clip’s snoring probably would’ve woken them if they were going to be woken), thinking over what had just been said. Was I doing this purely for selfish reasons? Should I let Byron take the punishment expected of him? He seemed to want it, that much was sure, but I couldn’t convince myself he wanted it for the right reasons. Poor kid—all he ever wanted to do was be loved, and here he was, trying to get it by giving his father what he always wanted: his own death. I clenched my fists, feeling my nails dig into my palms as I stymied my outrage. Why couldn’t he see? Why couldn’t Byron understand that he didn’t need to do this to himself? He and Jason, they were two completely different people, but formed from very similar circumstances. Perhaps, I wondered, there would be some common ground to approach Jason on, make him see sense? But Jason was set, this was part of the plan, and to change it was unthinkable. I would have to resort to a different method of retaliation.

Suddenly, the days we had left until landing seemed very short indeed. I was only drawing blanks, unable to see a solution where we could all go home and everyone could live. If Jason came back, Byron would have stay behind; if Byron came back, I saw no way for Jason to as well. It was a stalemate, so stale I could taste the stench on the back of my tongue.

Emily was probably alone in the rec room, so I made my way over to talk with her about it. She was a sensible, level-headed person, perhaps she might have an answer. I was surprised to find Sophia instead, alone and reading a book, legs hooked up underneath herself as she scanned the page.

‘Where’s Emily?’ I asked.

Sophia looked up from her e-reader. ‘She’s running through some landing drills with Jason,’ she said, then returned to her reading.

I sat down, rubbed my hands together, started to whistle then stopped when Sophia flashed me a glare. I was stuck. I didn’t know what to do and I needed to speak with Emily. ‘Do you know when she’ll be done?’

Sophia dropped the e-reader to her lap. ‘Another hour or so I expect.’ She waited for a second, presumably seeing if I had any follow-up questions, then raised the e-reader again. A couple of hours. A couple of hours to kill until I could talk with Emily. It was going to be agony. I considered making myself something to eat, but the thought of eating made me nauseated. I drummed my fingers on my knees, alternating from left to right, and right to left, and sometimes with no pattern at all.

‘You shouldn’t be in a relationship, you know,’ Sophia said out of the blue. I stopped tapping and looked up to see her e-reader on the seat next to her, her arms folded and her legs crossed.

‘I know,’ I said simply, nothing else I wanted to add.

‘It’s against company policy.’

‘I know.’

‘You should end it.’

I didn’t respond. Sophia watched my for a while, considered me, and I felt exposed, vulnerable. Then she returned to her book and I was free of her x-ray stare.

The two hours came and went quicker than I had anticipated, and I was dozing in front of my own e-reader when a familiar voice greeted me alongside a thwack on the arm that jolted me awake. ‘Hey, stranger.’

‘Oh, hey.’ I rubbed the bleariness from my eyes and set the e-reader aside, sitting up properly so Emily could sit beside me. I could feel Sophia’s burning gaze from the other side of the room, but I chose to ignore it, and Emily didn’t seem to notice. ‘Drills go well?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. She was grinning ear to ear and her cheeks were flushed pink, as if she’d been out in the cold. ‘It was really good fun.’

‘Good fun?’ I said sarcastically. ‘Wow, that’s a pair of words I haven’t heard together for a long while.’

‘You’re forgetting the other night,’ Emily said in a low voice, then winked. I could feel myself flushing, and I looked to Sophia only to see that she had already gone.

‘You’re embarrassing me,’ I mumbled, sounding stupid even to me.

‘Good,’ Emily said, poking her tongue out. ‘And I’ll bet this makes you even more embarrassed.’ She cupped her breasts through her coverall, lifting them one at a time while humming a tune to the rhythm of her movements.

‘Emily, I—’ I began, but she pushed herself on me, trying to kiss me. I held her back, craning my head out of the way.

‘No need to be embarrassed,’ she said grinning, trying to move forward again. I resisted.

‘Emily, please, we need to talk.’

She sat back, her grin extinguished. ‘About what?’

‘About Byron.’

She folded her arms, sighing. ‘Why do we have to talk about Byron again?’

‘You know why,’ I said, trying to impress the importance of the situation with my tone without raising my voice.

‘Look, I spoke to Jason about it—’

‘You did what?’

‘I spoke to Jason about it, and he’s okay about it all.’

‘I can’t believe—’

‘He said he thought something like this would happen. Jake, Byron’s a compulsive liar, you know that. He feeds, he manipulates. That’s what he does. He can spin any lie on the spot and have you hook, line and sinker in a minute or less.’

‘But, his brother, he—’

‘Jason thought Byron might try that one on you. He doesn’t have a brother, he never has.’

‘But—’

‘I checked, Jake. Jason told me.’

I was stunned. I didn’t—couldn’t—find any words to say. Instead, mouth hanging open, I made a long, wheezing breathy sound that made it seem like I was deflating. Probably because I was. ‘I don’t know what to do anymore,’ I said after I had finished deflating. ‘I . . . I just don’t know . . .’

‘Hey, it’s alright,’ Emily said, wrapping her arms around me. ‘It’s alright . . .’

She held me while I gathered my thoughts until I knew what I needed to do. ‘I have to speak to Jason.’

‘Okay,’ Emily said, letting me go. ‘If that’s what you need to do.’

I did. I headed towards the cockpit, the long, narrow corridor swirling in front of me. How I made it there I don’t know—it was as though I had begun the journey and ended it, but I didn’t remember the middle. ‘Jason,’ I said. ‘We need to talk. Just you and me.’

Jason, who was mid-sentence with Sophia, turned to face me. ‘Sure, Jake, we can talk. Sophia?’ Sophia nodded and headed out of the cockpit. She didn’t look at me as she passed, and when she was gone, Jason spoke again. ‘Emily told me you’ve been talking to Byron.’

‘That’s right.’

‘Probably best you don’t do that anymore.’

‘How can I trust you?’

‘Did Emily tell you about Byron’s brother?’

‘She did.’

Jason slapped his hands against his sides. ‘Let me show you something.’ He approached a cabinet and dug out a tablet from the back. ‘Crew logs,’ he said, waving it at me. ‘Got Byron’s right here. He did have a brother, one Daniel Ash, but he died during childbirth. So did his mother.’

Jason handed me the tablet, and I took it, hands trembling a little. On the screen was a GA docket, a government form assigned to every member of the Administration. Sure enough, under siblings, was the comment, Brother, 1, Daniel J. Ash, and the date of his birth and death. The date of the death corresponded with the date of his mother’s death, too. I stared at the docket until Jason held out a hand for its return, which I did without resistance. The whole world had stopped, everything outside of this little room waiting for whatever was going to happen next. A screaming whine filled my ears, flushing my mind of thought. ‘I . . .’ I began, but did not finish.

‘You’re a good guy,’ Jason said, setting the tablet down. ‘And I need you. I need your head in the game. We’ve got a mission to fulfil and lives to save. Can I count on you?’

I found myself nodding.

‘Good,’ Jason said, smiling. ‘That’s good.’

‘Can I count on you?’ I said, almost taking myself by surprise. Jason’s smile dropped for a second, as if the question needed extra willpower to compute, then it returned, brighter than before.

‘Of course you can. That’s what I’m here for.’

‘And Byron? He really did what he said he did?’

The smile saddened. ‘He says he did. He insists he did. And I’m afraid all the evidence points that way as well.’

‘Evidence?’

For a moment Jason looked as though he was about to cry. He wiped his mouth, then smoothed his hair back, his eyes going distant. Then focus came back to him, bringing him back to the room. ‘Before I say anything further, I want to let you know that everything I’ve held back from you I’ve done for your own good. We have a delicate situation on board, you know that more than any of us, and I have to make difficult decisions on how to manage problems as they arise. I may not have made the right decision every time, but you can be damn well sure I did it with the best interests of the crew in my heart. You’re a bright man, Jake, a bright man, and you haven’t half given me some headaches with that keen intellect of yours.’ Jason shook his head slowly, chuckling to himself, as if digging up some old, fond memory. ‘You sure have been a pain in my backside.’ He touched my arm gently. ‘And I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

‘What evidence have you found?’

The light humour faded and Jason nodded. ‘Always on it, never giving up. You’d have made a good soldier, Jake.’

‘Jason,’ I said firmly, ‘tell me.’

Jason placed his hands on his hips. His expression had become serious. ‘Okay. You deserve to know. It’s the book, Jake. The book.’

I was perplexed. ‘The book?’

‘The book. The pages, to be precise. Emily ran a test on the pages. They showed deposits of a chemically-pure lysergic acid diethylamide like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Highly concentrated, slow released; this stuff is lethal with even a small dose, and probably caused what looked like heart attacks in James, Brendan and Sophia.’

My own heart was going two to the dozen. ‘Emily knows?’

Jason shook his head. ‘No. She ran the tests, but the results are confidential. She doesn’t know.’

My legs, suddenly weak, began to give way, and I had to sit down. As I stumbled, Jason helped me to a chair. ‘But . . .’I started, trying to think over the sound of my thrumming chest, ‘but . . . LSD?’

Jason nodded. ‘It’s been on board in plain site this whole time and we missed it. If you hadn’t looked in Byron’s locker, I never would have thought to test it.’

‘But . . . why?’ I managed to say.

‘When I spoke to him to apologise for your invasion of his privacy, I asked him about the book, and do you know who he said had given it to him?’

All at once the thrumming stopped and my blood went cold. ‘His mother . . .’

‘Exactly. The one who died during childbirth.’

I couldn’t say anything, I could only groan softly.

‘I didn’t think anything of it,’ Jason continued, ‘until I dug out his crew records to do some routine paperwork. When I saw the history, something didn’t feel right. It sat awkwardly with me for a while until I realised, and that’s when I had Emily have the book tested. I didn’t tell her why—she must’ve thought I was going mad.’

In among the clouded mess of thought fumigating my head, a clear pinpoint began to form. It was cold, harsh and it brought a sudden chill to my very core when I realised what it was. ‘LSD,’ I said, repeating myself like a drunken madman, ‘you said it’s LSD?’

‘That’s right, but much, much more potent.’

‘What would happen if you only got a small dose, like, a really small dose?’

‘I don’t know . . .’ Jason said, frowning. ‘Why?’

‘Would you . . . would you hallucinate?’

The frown slowly turned into a look of cold realisation. ‘Well, yes . . . I suppose you would . . .’

‘We never did find that clockwork toy, did we?’

Jason shook his head, his face pallid. ‘No, no we did not . . .’

We both knew what I was talking about, but somehow I needed to hear it spoken aloud. I don’t know why I did—perhaps it was because I needed to detach from Byron once and for all, leave him behind and cut myself loose. Or perhaps I couldn’t believe it until I said it. ‘He tried to kill me,’ I whispered. It was the best I could manage. ‘Byron tried to kill me.’