I didn’t realise I’d said it until I awoke. I don’t know how long I’d been asleep for, but Emily was propped up on one arm, reading, while I rested on her lap with her other arm draped over me. I sat upright so suddenly it startled her, but I barely noticed.
‘I’m sorry I said that,’ I said, almost breathless.
‘Said what?’ she said, holding her chest, a flustered grin on her face. She didn’t remember? She must do . . . Now I wasn’t even sure if I’d said it all. I remembered a response, but had I dreamed it? I can’t have done—since Emily had given me those pills, I hadn’t dreamed a thing.
‘Never mind,’ I said.
‘No, what? That you told me you love me?’
I could feel my face flush red in an instant. My collar seemed tight. I nodded.
She smiled and ran her hand down my arm. ‘It’s fine.’
‘Are you sure?’
She nodded quickly, grinning. I dropped the subject fast and moved on to something else, but the topic never quite left my thoughts entirely. Did I really love her, or had I been swept up by the raging emotions inside me? Post-sleep, my talk with Byron seemed almost as dreamlike as my slipped words, but I was certain that it had happened. But no, I wasn’t sure if that had affected my judgement or not. So why did I say it? Did I even know what love felt like? Sure, as in the love for a family member or a close friend, but a romantic kind of love? I looked at Emily, who was watching me, her eyes trying to read mine. My chest tightened as though I believed she really could see into me, and the beginnings of a laugh bubbled in my chest.
‘What?’ Emily said, reacting in kind to my chuckling.
‘Oh . . . nothing. I’m just being silly.’
Emily shoved me away, putting on an exaggerated pout. ‘Don’t be mean!’
We continued chatting between then and the awakening of Clip and Grant. How long exactly, I don’t know, but I knew it had been a long time. It passed in a flash, but it left a residual wake that told me we’d been talking and joking and laughing for hours. It was like a bath for the soul, easing tension I didn’t know I had and allowing me a comfort I never thought I’d experience again. Emily was a fun person to spend time with, and I appreciated every moment of it. Maybe I was in love?
‘Morning guys,’ Clip mumbled through a yawn as he shuffled into the rec room.
‘Morning,’ I said, untwining myself from Emily. ‘Where’s Grant?’
‘He’ll be along in a minute, he’s just getting something to eat. Don’t worry about him; he won’t bother you two any more. He’s been told.’
‘Okay,’ I said, still feeling some trepidation about the Emily-Grant situation. When Grant finally arrived, he smiled politely—if forcefully—and sat down next to Clip, cup and food in hand.
‘I’m sorry about Byron,’ he said after swallowing a mouthful. ‘That’s awful to hear.’ He continued eating, watching me as if expecting a response. I supposed I could give him one.
‘It’s okay. I should have known better.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ Clip said in an overly sympathetic way. ‘You’ve just been showing the lad a kindness. It’s more than he deserved.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’ All this talk of Byron as the bad guy still didn’t sit right me, despite the contradictory nature of my feelings. I decided I’d rather not talk about it at all, so I changed the subject. ‘How’s preparation coming for the final approach?’
Clip grinned, presumably seeing my departure from the subject of Byron as some kind of healthy progress. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘it’s going well. Grant and I reckon we’ll have this one covered no problem. Open terrain, solid ground—it’ll be easy as pie. How about you? Ready to do some digging?’
‘I guess so.’
‘It’s a lot of work . . .’
‘I think I’ll be able to manage.’
‘And Byron’s going to help?’
Grant snorted. ‘I don’t see why we can’t do it without him. I don’t trust him.’
‘We don’t really have any other choice,’ Clip responded.
‘But who knows what he’ll do? He might go on some crazy killing spree.’
Clip shook his head in a wise, knowing way. ‘He’ll be with Jason. It’ll be fine.’
No one knew we were still leaving Byron behind. Not even Emily. Another secret I’d held back from her. I thought of the threat Jason had given me at the bunks, as if I needed any more reason to keep my mouth shut. ‘I hope so,’ I said.
‘Why don’t we play a game?’ Emily suggested. ‘Take our mind off things?’
Reluctantly, we all agreed. And it was fun. We played cards like we used to, and even though the group was smaller and the cards more tatty, it still felt a little bit like home. It gave me the opportunity to stop thinking about that the fact that, by the time the mission was over, Byron and I would have one more thing in common: we would both be murderers. I tried to put the mission ahead to the back of my mind.
By the time I caught myself yawning for the fifth time, I said my goodnights and took myself to bed. Emily, looking surprised, threw her goodnights into the mix as well and joined me. With Clip and Grant in the rec room and Jason and Sophia in the cockpit, we had the bunks to ourselves. We sat together in the gloom, hand in hand.
‘I don’t know what to do, Emily,’ I said. ‘I keep thinking it all over and I just don’t know what to do.’
‘It’ll be alright,’ Emily cooed, stroking my cheek with the back of her hand. ‘Once we’re done and we head back to Earth, everything will be just fine. And who knows—perhaps one day we’ll be hailed as heroes?’
I tried to laugh, but it wouldn’t come. I had to tell her. ‘Look, please don’t breath a word of this to anyone, but I have to tell you something or I’m going to explode.’
‘Okay,’ she said, humour fading.
‘I—I have another thing I’ve not told you. I said I hadn’t but I have, and I need to get it out there so I know things are alright between us.’
‘Go on . . .’
‘I don’t trust Jason. I think he’s crooked, and I think there’s something he’s not telling us.’
At first Emily didn’t react, and then she sat back slightly, withdrawing her hands to her lap. I watched her process the information, figure out what to do with it. ‘Okay,’ she said at last. ‘I understand.’
‘I understand why you feel that way.’
I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I figured it would be best not to pursue it, at least not for now. ‘So you’re not mad?’
She shook her head and smiled. ‘I’m not mad.’
I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness. That’s a weight off my mind. Promise you’ll keep it to yourself?’
‘I promise,’ she said, crossing her heart with her finger. Then she giggled and pushed herself towards me. ‘You’ve had a tough day,’ she said in a low, seductive voice. ‘Let me help you take your mind off of it.’
I’d forgotten to take my pill that night, but still I didn’t dream. Instead I floated on the ether between deep sleep and the dream state, where I wafted among indiscernible colours and shapes that gave me peace and rest. It was a cavernous space, an open world that I could relax in and fill out into. I unwound myself, a tight coil flexing for the first time, expanding in size and releasing a pent-up energy that had kept me rigid for as long as I could remember. I was aware of myself, fully, and I experienced serenity unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was bliss.
Just before I awoke, my mood turned more thoughtful and the abstract took on a more definable quality. Each thought, fleeting as it was, was plain and clear with explicit simplicity. It was a show reel played before me of my innermost feelings, and I could do little but watch them play out before me.
I like her.
It was true, I really did.
She likes me.
That much was clear.
We’re going to get through this together.
A hope among hopes.
We’re going to make it.
When I awoke, I was alone. I checked the time; it was much later than I’d usually get up. When I stretched the ache I’d become so accustomed to out of my limbs, I was surprised to find that I had none, and, standing, I was also surprised to feel that the artificial gravity seemed to have been turned down a point or two. I grinned to myself. I knew why. I felt silly, standing there, grinning, but I couldn’t help myself. It seemed arrogant—selfish even—to be enjoying such an intimate moment during a time like this, but I relished it anyway. So what? We’d all been having a hard time and I’d had the foresight to do something about it. If no one else had anything to clear their heads and take their minds of things, then, well—that was their problem.
Even as that thought entered my mind I felt bad. Bad for Clip, bad for Sophia, bad for Grant. Bad for Emily for dragging her into this, because after all I still didn’t quite believe—with all the cynicism and diffidence of my waking conscious—that she really liked me. Bad for Byron because . . . it gave me a lump in my throat and a bitter taste in my mouth just to think about.
With my post-waking euphoria suitably subdued and the old aches and pains settling in fast, I wandered out to the galley to make myself something to eat. The echoes of the night’s pondering returned to me at last, and I cringed at how readily I had accepted them in my childlike state of sleep. I do like her. Does she like me? I don’t know. Even with the evidence stacked as it was, I didn’t know. Were we going to get through this together? I doubted we were going to get through it at all.
‘Morning, Jake,’ Jason said as he swooped into the galley like a shadow, making me twitch with an unexpected dose of adrenaline.
‘I wondered if I could speak with you?’
I looked around, saw we were most definitely alone. ‘Sure.’
Jason hovered for a moment, stuck on his first word. At last he perched his hands on his hips, nodded to me as if we had agreed something unspoken together, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘For what?’ I knew, he knew; I just wanted to hear him say it.
‘For this, for everything. For getting you tangled up in my mess.’ He sighed; he was bringing me to his level, or at least coming down to mine. I could see in his face that, at last, he was going to address me as an equal. ‘I’m not cut out for this. I’m a protester, an anarchist—I’m not a military man.’
I watched him but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t helping him out here. He silently pleaded with me to throw him a lifeline, but it wasn’t going to happen.
‘Do you know how I ended up at Futureproof?’ he asked. I shook my head. No. ‘I skipped school, that’s how. I skipped school because my parents were riding me to get my grades up. I grew up in a good home, you know, but it was stifling. My mother, she wanted me to be something big, something important, a judge or a senator or something like that, and father, well, he was the same—when he actually spoke to me. I’m not looking for a sympathy vote here, I know I had a chance offered to very few people in this world and I blew it, I’m just explaining how I saw it from my young, stupid mind.
‘So anyway, I skip class with a friend of mine who tells me about this organisation they’d heard about, Futureproof. They were saving the world, I mean really saving it. They were going out into the unprotected zones to meet with the growing factions out there, and then they’d meet with leaders in the GA to bring terms and form agreements. They spoke up for the everyman, defended those without a voice. It was truly inspiring stuff. And there it was: an opportunity to not only make a difference in this life, but also to become the anti-establishment figurehead my mother and father so despised. They wanted me to be a judge; I’d be the guy sat across the table from him, telling him what I thought of his stupid oppression.’
Jason stopped his story to consider me for a moment, as I considered him. I wasn’t sure why he was telling me this—sympathy perhaps, despite him saying otherwise; to connect with me on a human level was another reason; or maybe he just wanted to unload—and I got the impression that he wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it. For some reason, I did. I was intrigued. ‘Go on,’ I said. He smiled briefly, and continued.
‘I joined Futureproof the same day—we both did, my friend and I. Mother was livid. Father was too, probably on mother’s behalf. But it was done, settled. I moved out, and they refused to speak to me again. After I’d cooled off and spent some time away from them, I wrote to them, but they never responded. Not even a line to see how I was. I mean, nothing.’
Was that an extra layer of gloss forming in Jason’s eyes, or had I imagined it?
‘Anyway,’ he continued, clearing his throat. ‘I rose through the ranks of Futureproof, working hard in the hope that one day I’d find myself in a position my parents couldn’t ignore, and sure enough, I did. It was some fifteen years after I’d moved out, but I finally made it. I was there, in a real meeting with real GA officials discussing real problems. And I was good at it, too. I had realised that diplomacy was a far greater weapon than aggression, and my ability to express myself earned me a seat on the GA sub-council, the first time any activist movement had ever received any kind of official commendation like that. But it was clear why; the rising unrest in the unprotected zones was growing out of control, and war was clearly on the horizon. We had the trust of the factions, and the GA had control of modern civilisation. We, the mediators for a previously ignorable rabble of rag-tag thieves and villains had become the spokesmen for an army poised for battle.
‘Father visited me after chambers one time, completely by surprise. He was old, but I recognised him, and him me. He said he’d seen me on television, and that he was proud of me. He also told me that mother had died in a traffic accident a year-and-a-half ago. It was so stupid, he kept saying, over and over. It was so stupid how she died. I felt strangely empty when he’d told me, as if he’d taken something from me when he’d said it, but didn’t tell me what. He hugged me, and told me again that he was proud of me. That was the last time I saw him. To this day I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. I can’t face finding out. Seeing him there, looking so frail and hollow, I’m not sure I want to know.’
Jason’s eyes were definitely glistening now, but no tears had fallen. I looked at the floor to allow him a moment to gather himself.
‘It was then I began to realise that I needed to do something,’ he said, his composure regained. ‘Up to then I’d been playing political ping pong, batting issues back and forth, not really achieving anything other than upsetting the apple cart in the way Futureproof was known for. You know how it is—they say one thing, we say the other, just for sake of being anti-establishment. But I’d had an idea: we knew and the GA knew that the leaders of the factions, who we knew had begun to put their own differences aside in the pursuit of larger matters, would never make jail; once the media had it out that they had been incarcerated, the resulting civil unrest would result in untold chaos, germinating the perfect storm for the merged factions to strike within. GA ruling was already heavily contested thanks to tightening taxes and increasingly heavy policing, both repercussions of the rising populace and the imminent unprotected zone threat, and the dissatisfied rumblings coming from the people had the council on edge. It had almost become fashionable to romanticise the idea of the factions living out in the unprotected zones; many middle-class citizens viewed them as revolutionary nomads and, of course, with things becoming tougher and tougher for everyone, the idea of change and an escape from what could be none other than a bleak future appealed to many. News that faction leaders had been incarcerated? It was a catalyst for trouble. We knew it, and the factions knew it, too. They had us cornered.
‘So I proposed a plan: using our knowledge and relationships with the faction leaders, we launch an operation to capture their top people and take them off-world. They remain alive and well in stasis for the remainder of their days, protecting their rights as people, and the slow and confused revelation of their disappearance would give GA military enough time to swoop in and demobilise faction troops. At first, the GA wouldn’t listen, but as the situation became clearer, it was obvious that we had no other choice, and operation New Dawn was given the green light.’
After Jason had finished, he sighed. He looked contented, relieved, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I still didn’t know if he had a point to telling me his story or if he had done it just to get it off his chest, but whatever his reasons, he seemed to have got what he came for. Then he blinked, the contentment faded, and he looked at me. ‘Jake, I’m sorry.’
‘No, I mean I’m sorry for using you to get to Byron. I’ve become very focussed on what we’ve got to do, and I’ve neglected to see the bigger picture. This isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us, and I forget that sometimes. It’s my biggest strength and my biggest weakness: I am so focussed I often neglect those I care about. And I’m sorry.’
He didn’t give me a chance to respond, turning and wandering out of the galley towards the cockpit before I had a chance to say anything. So you know what you’re doing, I thought to myself. You know what you’re doing, but we’re still doing it.
I took my nutridrink and my pancakes (they were called pancakes but they neither looked nor tasted like pancakes) into the rec room and sat down next to Emily. She was reading, but smiled at me when I passed by, giving me a peck on the cheek when I plonked myself down in the seat beside her. I ate my food, she read her book. Clip and Grant were both reading, too, and I realised that the rec room had, since Sadie’s death, become something of a library. It was a place of quiet contemplation where it once been a room for conversation, a quiet commemoration of the now silent voice that once chirped and trilled here. It seem apt, if sad.
After I’d finished my food, I disposed of the containers in the galley and decided then that I was going to talk to Byron. It seemed like the right thing to do; I’d neglected him already and I felt I at least owed him the chance to have a little company. A flutter of wings in my stomach became a swarm as I neared the tow dock, the scene of my inexplicable hallucination. The sight of Byron hanging limply from the wall filled my mouth with a pungent taste.
He looked up at me, surprised. ‘Hey.’
I sat down next to him as I had done before, and we sat together for a while. I think he was pleased just to be with someone, because his breathing took on a slower, more relaxed rhythm, but after a while the silence became too much for me to bear. ‘It’s creepy in here,’ I said. I don’t know why I said it, but I did—it just came out.
‘Yeah, it is.’
I then almost told Byron about my hallucination, but I stopped the sentence before it even began. I wondered if he knew about it already. ‘It’s cold in here, too.’
‘I asked Jason to turn up the temperature but I don’t think he has.’
‘How are you coping, other than the cold?’
‘Okay, I guess.’
‘That’s good. Not that it’s good that you’re here, but it’s good that you’re okay.’ Byron didn’t respond, and the quiet held until I couldn’t help myself but ask the question I needed the answer to: ‘Why did you do it?’
Byron looked away and shrugged.
‘Come on, Byron,’ I said, hearing frustration in my voice, ‘it’s not like you to do something like that.’
‘You don’t know me,’ Byron said, almost distractedly. ‘You don’t know what I’m capable of.’
Byron fell back into silence as quickly as he had risen from it. My pulse tingled with the lack of remorse that shrouded his statement. It didn’t seem . . . right. ‘I never got to apologise to you for looking in your personal bag,’ I said, keeping my voice low and calm. ‘I’m sorry I did that.’
Byron sniffed, then wiped his nose on the back of his dirty sleeve. ‘You don’t have to apologise,’ he said. ‘I understand.’
‘That’s very kind of you, but it was still wrong of me to go looking in your personal things.’
‘Seems like you were right to.’
For some reason, Byron’s resignation began to irritate me. I’d have expected him to put up at least some kind of a fight, like I’d seen him do before over matters much more trivial than this. I wanted to say something on it, but I let it drop. I was trying to keep Byron calm, and I wanted to keep myself calm, too. ‘It’s a good book though, a classic.’
‘Was it a gift? You don’t see many paper books any more.’
‘My mum gave it to me.’
‘When you were young?’
‘It’s in excellent condition, probably worth quite a bit now.’
‘Did you ever read it?’ A shake of the head. I figured this line of conversation was going nowhere fast, so I tried something else. ‘Are you looking forward to getting to HD 85512 B and getting to work?’
Looking forward was a bit of an odd choice of words, but Byron didn’t seem to care. ‘I guess,’ he said. ‘It’ll be nice to be able to walk about a bit.’
‘You’ll be paired with Jason and not me, you know that?’
‘I won’t be able to keep an eye out on you, so you’ll need to watch out for yourself, do you understand?’ I hoped my message would sink in.
I wasn’t sure he did; in fact I was almost certain he didn’t, but—and I felt bad for it—I didn’t want to risk my own neck by being too unsubtle. My guilt rendered me silent, and we sat again like that for minutes gone by. It wasn’t until Clip poked his head into the room that anything else was said.
‘Jake, Jason’s calling a meeting in the briefing room. You need to be there.’
Clip disappeared as quick as he’d come. His tone had been serious and his face showed no signs of humour, so I hoisted myself up and left without another word. I hovered briefly at the doorway, but when I turned to Byron and saw that he had not looked up at me, I kept my silence.
This was the second time the cockpit had been left unmanned, and we all (Byron excluded) gathered in the briefing room, awaiting Jason’s news. I was the last to arrive, and I took my seat, allowing Jason to begin.
‘As you’re all probably aware,’ Jason began, ‘there’s just a week left until touchdown. It’s time to get ready.’
No one reacted, but the tension I the air thickened noticeably. We all knew it was coming but, if everyone felt the same way I did, none of us really considered its arrival. And now it was here.
‘Please begin the standard landing procedures: Clip, Grant: you’ll be bringing us down for the initial approach . . .’ The briefing rolled on, and my attention slid in and out. Clip was also staring into space, and Grant was fiddling with his trouser leg—only Sophia and Emily were showing any signs of paying attention.
‘. . . and I hope that’s all clear,’ Jason finished. ‘Any questions?’
We shook our heads. Jason looked a little disappointed. I suppose in his head he had expected something different when we’d left Earth, but it was what it was, and a celebration it was not.
‘Okay then. Let’s get cracking.’ He clapped his hands together to emphasise the point, and we stood, bumbling out into the rec room where we all sat back down again.
‘There’s not really an awful lot to do until we land,’ Grant said, pulling a face. He vocalised what we were all thinking, justifying our lack of enthusiasm for the job at hand.
‘Sounds like it’s going to be a real slog when we do land,’ Clip added, ‘so we probably want to maintain ourselves until we do, give ourselves at least a fighting chance of getting this done.’
A room full of nodding heads confirmed agreement.
‘And Jason’s going to have his hands full working with Byron,’ Grant said.
‘Do you think so?’ I replied.
Grant snorted. ‘I know you’ve got a soft spot for the lad, but come on—even you’ve got to acknowledge what he’s done.’
‘I have,’ I forced myself to say, ‘I just think he’s going to work his penance, no trouble.’
‘No trouble?’ Clip said, bemused. ‘You really believe that? You saw what he did to Grant, here, right? Knocked him clean out! Would’ve killed him too if we’d not been there to step in.’
‘Alright, alright,’ Grant said, looking peeved. ‘He took me by surprise. I could’ve had him easily otherwise.’
Clip sniggered, making Grant’s frown deeper.
‘He took us all by surprise . . .’ Emily said to no one in particular.
I nodded. She’d hit the nail on the head: I knew Byron had a wild streak, I knew he wasn’t what anyone in their right mind would call normal, but a murderer? Like Clip had said—I had seen it with my own eyes. I’d seen it, yet I still couldn’t believe it.
‘I still don’t think we should be leaving him behind,’ I said, and was greeted by weary looks that lingered, then dropped. As I made eye contact with each of them, only to have it broken away, my stomach fell. ‘What, you think it’s a good idea to . . .?’ I began, but was unable to finish. To my surprise, it was Emily that responded first.
‘Jake, look, I know it’s not the best thing we could do—’
‘You’re damn right it isn’t,’ I huffed, sitting upright and moving myself away from her. She reached out tentatively and put her hand on my knee.
‘But I don’t see what other choice we have,’ Emily finished.
It was like I was seeing her through different eyes. ‘I didn’t realise that’s how you felt,’ I said, folding my arms to block myself from her. ‘Do you all feel this way? That we should just—leave him behind?’
Grant nodded, and Clip spoke: ‘Now he’s admitted to . . . well, you know, now he’s admitted it, I’m with Emily—I don’t see that we have any other choice.’
The conversation was like a ball rolling down a hill: it was moving faster than I could keep up with, skating out of my control. I felt sick. ‘But he’s—he’s just a kid . . .’
Emily squeezed my leg. ‘He was just a kid. He’s not a kid anymore.’
I could feel a tsunami of emotion frothing up in me, the familiar and embarrassing swell of heat in the back of my head, the pressure against the backs of my eyeballs. ‘But this is Jason we’re talking about,’ I said, voice strangled, in a last-ditch attempt to get the ball back under control. ‘He lied to us. He lied to us!’ Tears welled, then fell, one after another. They were coming now, and there was no point trying to hold them back. ‘And you trust him?’
I already knew what I was going to hear next. It was like a mantra built on a foundation of fear and a need to survive. I knew it was going to be said next because it’s what I was saying to myself, what I’d said to myself this whole journey long— hell, I’d said it my whole life. It didn’t matter who was saying it, because we were all thinking it, and we all believed it: ‘What other choice do we have?’
I stood and rushed out of the room, stumbling to the bunks, sobbing like a child. I dropped onto a mattress—maybe mine, I didn’t know—and slapped myself, hard, making me yell out in pain and frustration. I slapped myself again, my cheek and my palm hot and tingling, pulsing with energy. I focussed on the swell of heat from my head to my hand, the hypnotic motion of it, and it calmed me down. I could feel my heart beating to its rhythm, and as the rhythm slowed, I drifted down from the teetering platform of anger and fear, being swallowed up into a all-encompassing numbness of exhaustion and acceptance. There, in that hypnotic trance I stayed for a period unmarked by time, a frozen moment that lacked any kind of tangibility or understanding. I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad, or angry or scared, either. I was nothing. I was in a bubble that protected me from everything I needed to do or decide upon, safely retracted into a mental shell that enclosed me with its numbing docility. I wanted to stay this way forever.
‘Jake?’ a voice came to me, muffled and slowed by the protection of my bubble. It was like a distant echo from another time and space, a hollow crumb of something that was for someone else, but never would be for me. ‘Jake?’ it said again. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’ll be okay,’ I said. I was back, in an instant. My utopia was gone.
‘I’m worried about you,’ Emily said, sitting down next to me and drawing me close. I let her lean me against, and she kissed my forehead. ‘I need you to be strong.’
‘Then I can’t, either.’
I sat up, and looked at her. She looked back, her face long in the dim light. She seemed nervous.
‘I need you,’ she said. A tiny flicker of calming warmth among the emptiness inside me gave me a vague sense of hope that seemed almost an impossibility to feel—but it was there. Sadie had been my mother away from home, watching over me, protecting me, but she had gone, and I was left to protect myself. Now I was needed to protect another, and that gave a sense of purpose, however small. Emily needed me. She needed me. And I couldn’t let her down. She drew me back in, stroking my hair back over my head. It felt nice, soothing, and I let her continue. ‘If we don’t do what we have to do,’ she said softly, ‘we won’t get to go back, to be together.’
My mind screamed, But Byron! What about Byron! We can’t leave him behind! but my mouth said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it. What other choice do we have?’
We said little to each other after that, the warm entanglement of our bodies doing all the communication that was needed. I was tired—exhausted—and as I relaxed I felt knots in my body a mile long slowly unwind, pooling me out onto the bed in a warm, shapeless blob. The world swum, the lights dimmed, and I faded into unconsciousness.
The cave was dark, but warm. Underfoot, the smooth stone radiated heat, as though we were deep down, close to the core. I stood and basked in it for a while, enjoying the soothing calm, until finally I opened my eyes. The lights, flickering faintly ahead, drew me, and I followed the gentle padding of my own footsteps towards them, around the corner and into to cathedral-like cavern. There, the candles burned, but there wasn’t just one, or two, or six—there were hundreds, thousands, millions—more than I could count, as far as I could see. It was a sight to behold, the irregular patterns the candles formed on the ground, the mismatched heights that stepped one to the next. If there were candles burned out among them, I couldn’t see them, but the enormity of it removed from me the desire to look. The warmth—which I realised was radiating from this display—kept me rooted, its power overwhelming me. This was what I was responsible for, now. Not just me, not just the crew—all of them. What Jason was doing—what we were doing—was for everyone. Did I want to be a part of it? As I basked in the gentle heat, it came to me with a realisation as fresh as a summer morning’s breeze: I had no other choice.
The candle closest to me hissed out.