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By Rob Boffard
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A signal has been picked up from Earth.
The planet was supposed to be uninhabitable. But it seems there are survivors down there — with supplies, shelter and running water. Perhaps there could be a future for humanity on Earth after all.
Riley Hale will find out soon enough. She’s stuck on a spaceship with the group of terrorists that is planning to brave the planet’s atmosphere and crash-land on the surface.
But when the re-entry goes wrong, Riley ends up hundreds of miles from her companions Prakesh and Carver, alone in a barren wilderness. She’ll have to use everything she knows to survive.
And all of them are about to find out that nothing on Earth is what it seems . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Corporation Wars: Dissidence
A Preview of War Dogs
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The alarm starts blaring a split second before the shaking starts.
Aaron Carver is floating in the centre of the ship's medical bay, and Prakesh Kumar and I get thrown right into him. Everything else in the room is strapped down, but I can see the instruments and the bottles shaking, threatening to tear loose.
"What the hell?" Carver rolls away from us, putting his arms out to stop himself from crashing into the wall. The ship is rattling hard now, the metal bending and creaking, caught in the fist of an angry giant.
"It's re-entry," Prakesh says. He's holding onto the ceiling, and his body is swinging back and forth as the pull of gravity increases.
"Can't be," I say, my words almost swallowed by the noise. "It's too soon!"
But it isn't. We've been in Earth orbit for a week. Normally the ship would be spinning to generate gravity, but we've spent the past day in zero-G as we prepare to plunge through the atmosphere. There was supposed to be plenty of warning before we actually started re-entry–enough time for everyone to get into the escape pods. It shouldn't be happening this fast. The G-forces were supposed to come back gradually.
My stomach is doing sickening barrel rolls, and my hands feel heavy, like my fingers are weighed down with rings. "I thought this was supposed to be a smooth ride," I say, trying to keep my voice calm. "The asteroid—"
"No good," Carver says. He grabs hold of a strut on the ceiling, the muscles standing out on his powerful upper arms. His hair is almost as long as mine now, although he doesn't bother to tie it back, letting the blond strands float freely.
"I told them," he says. "You can shape the damn asteroid as much as you want but if you're using it as a heat shield, things are going to get–shit!"
He spins sideways as the ship jerks and kicks, flinging him against one of the cots bolted to the floor.
"It's OK," says Prakesh, sweat pouring down his dark skin. Neither he nor Carver have shaved, and bristly stubble covers their faces. "We just sit tight. They'll come get us."
We all stare at the door. The alarm is still blaring, and the hull of the ship is screeching now, like it's being torn in two.
"They're not coming, are they?" says Carver.
"Just hang on," says Prakesh. "Let's not—"
"They would have been here by now," says Carver, horror and anger flashing across his face. "They're not coming, man."
I close my eyes, trying not to let frustration overtake me. He's right. The Earthers–the group who took control of this ship to get back to our planet–don't trust us. Not surprising, given that I tried to destroy the ship's reactor in an attempt to prevent them from leaving.
There's no way of stopping the ship. It'll be travelling at 18,000 miles an hour, even after it's passed through the upper atmosphere and burned off the asteroid it's tethered to, acting as its makeshift heat shield. Getting off the ship means being in one of the two escape pods, and it's easy to picture the chaos as the Earthers rush to get inside them. They've either forgotten us, or decided that we aren't worth saving.
I scan the walls and the ceiling, looking for an escape route that we missed the previous dozen times we tried to find one. Not that we tried that hard–after all, if we got out of the medical bay where else would we go?
Carver half swims, half crawls his way over to the door, pushing Prakesh aside and twisting the release catch up and down. When that doesn't work, he kicks at it, but only succeeds in pushing himself away.
Prakesh stares at him. "What are you doing?"
"What do you think?" Carver makes his way back to the door, kicks it a second time. It shudders but stays firmly shut.
"It's locked, Aaron."
Carver swings round, staring daggers at Prakesh. "You think I don't know that?"
"Then why are you still doing it?"
"Because it's better than doing nothing, like some of us!"
"I'm trying to—"
"Both of you! Shut up!" I shout. I can't afford to have them bickering now. They've been sniping at each other ever since we were locked in here–Carver has feelings for me, and he's still furious that I turned down his advances to stay with Prakesh. It's something I've tried not to think about, a problem I've pushed to the back of my mind again and again, not wanting to make a choice, not even knowing how to start.
"We kick together," I say. "All at once."
I don't have to explain. I see Carver's eyes light up. He moves next to me, bracing himself against the wall.
"Aim for just above the lock," I say, as Prakesh gets into position on my left. "Hit it on zero. Three! Two! One! Zero!"
The door bangs as our feet slam into the space above the handle, but remains stubbornly shut. The force pushes us backwards, nearly knocking us over. Somehow we manage to stay upright.
"Again," I say. There's a hold on the wall, and I grab onto it with an outstretched arm, bracing us.
"Three! Two! One! Zero!"
The door explodes outwards, the lock ripping off the wall, and we tumble into the corridor. The alarm is piercing now, ear-splitting. Carver pumps the air in triumph.
The ship jerks sideways. For a second, the wall is the floor, and everything is a nightmare jumble of limbs and noise. Prakesh falls badly, his head slamming into the metal surface with a clang that I feel in my bones. In the moment before the ship flips back, I see his face. His blank, uncomprehending eyes. A trickle of blood runs down his forehead.
The ship's movement knocks Janice Okwembu onto all fours.
She staggers to her feet, leaning against the wall, trying to control the nausea. There's a blur of movement on her right, and one of the Earthers shoves past her, pushing her out of the way.
Okwembu tries to stay calm, but she can't stop her hands from shaking. She barely makes it to the corridor hub before she stumbles again. Her green flight jacket is bulky, but she can feel the frigid floor plates through the thin fabric of her pants.
The asteroid was supposed to have held up, dissipating the massive heat and shock wave of re-entry. Every calculation they did showed that the vibrations wouldn't start until they were deep into the atmosphere. But they got it wrong–a missing variable, something they didn't take into account. The asteroid is fracturing, leaving everyone on board the ship to scramble for the escape pods.
She looks up. Mikhail Yeremin, the leader of the Earthers, is at the other end of the corridor. His greasy hair frames a face locked into deep panic. In that moment, it's as if he doesn't even recognise her.
He vanishes, ducking out of sight. Okwembu curses, tries to get to her feet, but the ship lurches again. The back of her head smacks into the wall, and bright stars glimmer in her vision.
There's a hand reaching for her. It's another Earther, a young woman–one of those who went outside the ship, using plasma cutters to shape the asteroid. She's wearing a ship jumpsuit two sizes too big for her, and her eyes are bright with fear. Okwembu grabs her hand, lets the woman haul her up.
The movement of the ship stops, just for moment, then becomes more violent than ever. Okwembu goes over backwards. The Earther reaches out for her, misses, her fingers brushing the front of the fleece she wears under her jacket.
They snag on the lanyard around her neck.
It pulls tight, the cord pinching against Okwembu's spine. The hold keeps her upright–just–but it's stretched to breaking point. The woman's hand is wrapped around the green plastic data stick at the end of the lanyard, her knuckles white. Any second now, it's going to snap right off.
With an effort of will, Okwembu balances herself, planting her back foot on the floor. The pressure on her neck drops, and the woman lets go of the data stick. It bounces against Okwembu's chest.
"You OK?" the woman says, trying to hustle her along, holding her by the shoulder. She shakes loose. She's got her balance back now, and she's feeling calmer, more focused. "I'll be fine. Just go."
The woman wavers, then bolts. Okwembu's hands find the data stick, holding it tight.
For the past week, while they prepared for re-entry, all Okwembu has done is scrape data, putting every scrap of information she could onto this one little stick. None of them know what's down there, what it's really like on the planet's surface–all they have is a garbled radio message, talking about how part of the planet has somehow become habitable again. So Okwembu spent her time downloading everything off the ship's antiquated operating system–water filtration methods, studies on the best soil for growing food in, atmospheric data, reactor blueprints. Maps and charts and graphs, petabytes of information. She doesn't know if any of it will be useful, or if she'll even be able to access it on the ground, but she's not going down without it. The Shinso Maru is worth nothing now, but its data is a price beyond jewels.
The lights in the ceiling are flickering, and the few Earthers she does see are panicked, moving like mindless insects. Contempt boils inside her, but she tells herself to stay focused. Contempt can become anger, which can mutate into panic. She can't afford that. Especially not now.
The escape pods are a short distance away, and Okwembu moves as fast as she can.
No matter how hard I shake Prakesh, I can't make him open his eyes.
Carver crouches down, shoving his head under Prakesh's left arm, hoisting him upwards. I do the same on the other side, heart pounding in my chest. Prakesh is amazingly heavy even in low gravity, his feet dragging on the ground between us as we try to keep our balance in the shaking passage.
There are shelves along the walls, with small plastic crates strapped onto them. One of them comes loose as we walk past it, slipping out of its fabric straps, and we have to pull to the side as it bounces off the walls and floor. The ship's jagged motion turns it into a pinball.
I pull Carver's head down as it flies towards us. Not fast enough. The crate just scrapes across his forehead, and he hisses in surprise, staggering into the wall. His hiss turns into a growl as his shoulder takes the hit.
Somehow, we manage to get moving again. I'm getting better at it now, bending my legs, anticipating the ship's movements. Carver is doing it, too. The screeching of the Shinso's hull has been replaced by a crunching, grinding noise, as if bits of the ship are being ripped off by the friction of re-entry. I don't even want to think how fast we're going. I don't want to think at all. If those escape pods leave without us…
Just keep going.
We pass a window in the corridor, looking into what appears to be a gym. The treadmills and weight machines are straining against their brackets, slowly working loose. I catch our reflection in the window. We're a mess. All of us are wearing badly fitting flight gear–grey jackets and T-shirts that are too big for us. Stray strands of hair stick to my face in greasy lines. Prakesh's face is ash-grey, blood still dripping from his head wound. Carver's arms are straining, his face contorted as we pull Prakesh along.
I tear my gaze away, focusing on the passage ahead. "How long do we have?" I ask.
"Not nearly long enough," says Carver. I flash back to when we first came aboard the Shinso, when he asked me to use his first name: Aaron. I still haven't been able to shake the habit of using his last name.
We reach the junction. There's a sign on the wall, grubby with age: Mining, Astronautics, Engines. I jab a finger at the corridor on the left. "Astronautics. Let's go."
Prakesh groans again. It's like he's trying to fight his way back. I put a hand on his chest to steady him—
I try to catch myself, but my legs get tangled underneath me. I go down on one knee, struggling with Prakesh, Carver grunting in surprise.
Fire rolls out from the back of my knee, travelling up my leg and down into my ankle. I wait for it to pass, gritting my teeth.
Back on the station, a psychotic doctor named Morgan Knox implanted explosive charges in the muscles behind my kneecaps, blackmailing me so I would break Janice Okwembu out of prison. I cut one of the explosives out of me when I tried to destroy the Shinso's fusion reactor, tried to stop the Earthers abandoning Outer Earth. It didn't work. And after we were captured, I had to beg the Earthers to take the second explosive out of me. It took a few days, but they finally did it, numbing my leg with anaesthetic and slicing me open. I'm slowly healing, but there are bandages on the backs of my knees. Both the wounds hurt like hell.
Everything that happened on Outer Earth feels like a distant dream. We still don't know if anybody on the station survived. Even if they're did, we're much too far away for them to reach us.
I push upwards, straining against Prakesh's weight. The corridor is even narrower here, and at one point Carver and I have to turn sideways to get him through a door.
The escape pods are right ahead, three sets of airlock doors built into the corridor, with big letters stencilled on either side in black. EMERGENCY USE ONLY.
While some Earthers worked on the asteroid, others worked on the escape pods. They turned them from space-going vessels into something that might actually be able to land on Earth, creating makeshift parachutes from material found on board the Shinso.
The pods themselves are too small to have their own fusion reactors, so they run off conventional liquid fuel. They're housed inside specially designed airlocks. There are Earthers everywhere, helping each other inside the first pod's open door, stumbling, panicked. An orange light above each airlock door blinks on-off, on-off. The floor of the airlock is slightly lower than the floor in the corridor, and I feel my knees jarring as we step through.
Carver and I pull Prakesh into the pod. There's a cockpit at the front with rows of seats along each side. Each one is a mess of thick straps, with a neck guard protruding from the seat back. Oxygen masks hang from the ceiling, swinging wildly as the Shinso bucks and writhes. I badly want to see outside, but the only thing visible through the cockpit glass is the outer airlock door.
The pods can take twelve people each, plus a pilot. All but three of the chairs are full. Mikhail Yeremin is there–he's checking his straps, his long hair hanging down over his face. There's lettering above his head: ESCAPE VESSEL 1. Underneath it, in smaller black letters, is a vessel name: Furor.
Carver perches on the edge of an empty seat, pulling Prakesh onto the one next to him. I lean in to help, yanking the straps down and buckling them tight. Carver does the same with his own straps, snapping himself in. We made it.
I stand up, intending to take the one remaining chair in the escape pod, opposite Prakesh. Any second now, they'll shut the door and we can—
Carver's eyes go wide.
Two hands grasp my shoulders, pulling me backwards. I cry out, my feet tangling up in each other, catching the edge of the pod's entrance. I land on my coccyx, cracking it against the floor plates in the airlock.
Janice Okwembu is looking down at me.
I haven't seen her since the day we came aboard. She's a former Outer Earth council leader who went rogue, joining up with the Earthers. The expression on her face is completely blank.
"No!" Carver shouts, fighting with the straps holding him to the chair. "Leave her alone!"
I scramble to my feet, moving as fast as I can. Not fast enough.
Okwembu looks down at me, reaching over to one side of the frame for the control panel. "Goodbye, Ms Hale," she says.
And the door closes in front of me.
Aaron Carver finally gets loose.
He shoves Okwembu out of the way. She collides with one of the seats, almost falling on top of its occupant, a man with tangled black hair and an acne-speckled face. Okwembu ignores him. She lifts herself into a seat, grabbing the straps, concentrating on buckling herself in.
Carver hammers at the control pad, but the door doesn't open. Of course it doesn't. Okwembu made sure to twist the rotary to the Eject position. It shuts the pod down in preparation for launch, to ensure that the door has a good pressure seal. It can't be opened again. Behind it, the inner airlock doors will be closing.
She hopes that Riley Hale has the good sense to get out while she still can.
Mikhail Yeremin is staring at her, and she doesn't like the expression on his face. She turns away, ignoring him, busying herself with her straps. She's still looking down at her buckle, and so isn't prepared when Aaron Carver slams her back against the seat. His face is inches from hers.
"Open it up," he says. When she doesn't respond, he barks the words in her face. "Do you hear me? Open it up."
"You should sit down, Mr Carver," Okwembu says.
He rips her straps away, lifts her up, throws her out of her seat. She hits the floor, wincing in pain as her right hand takes the impact, bending at the wrist.
Carver grabs the back of her jacket, dragging her to the door. Mikhail is almost out of his seat, huge fingers fighting with the catch on his chest. The other Earthers watch without saying a word.
Okwembu attempts to spin away, trying to get her arms out of her jacket. Carver sees the move, stops her, pulling her up so her face is level with the lock. "Open the door," he yells, right in her ear.
When she doesn't move, he wrenches at the rotary switch alongside it, trying to get it back to Doors Manual. Okwembu wants to tell him not to bother. The most he'll be able to do is tear the switch itself off the control panel.
"We need to launch now," shouts the pilot from the front of the craft. "Everybody better strap in."
"We're not leaving," Carver says. "Not until—"
Mikhail grabs him around the shoulders, shoving him backwards into his seat. Carver tries to get back up, but Mikhail won't let him, holding him in place as he clicks the catch shut.
"You don't strap in, you die," he says.
Okwembu takes the gap. She staggers back to her seat, heart pounding, strapping herself in. She looks up to see that Carver has stopped fighting. He's gripping his straps tight, his fingers bloodless. Mikhail is making his way back to his own seat, grabbing at the straps.
"She'd better make it," Carver says, looking Okwembu right in the eyes. "Or I'm going to end you."
In the moment before the pilot launches the pod, she wonders about Carver. She shouldn't be surprised at his actions. He doesn't have any sort of vision or understanding of the wider consequences of what's happening here. What he has are mechanical skills, and Prakesh Kumar, sitting next to him, has agricultural ones. The moment she saw the make-up of this pod, she knew it was the one she needed to be in.
The people inside it–Carver, Kumar, the other Earthers–all have skills that can be used on the planet below. Hale doesn't. She can run, and she can fight, and as far as Okwembu is concerned neither one is particularly useful.
It's more than that, she thinks. You wanted to do it. You wanted to put her in her place.
Okwembu closes her eyes, and the pod explodes away from the ship.
I lose control.
If the pod's door wasn't made of metal, if it wasn't completely beyond human strength to do anything to it, then my fingers would be digging long channels in the surface. I kick and hit and hammer and try to wedge my fingers into the whisper-thin gap. I scream Okwembu's name, but the only thing that comes back at me are the waves of vibrations tearing through the Shinso.
"What are you doing?"
It comes from beyond the inner airlock door. Syria is standing there, staring at me like I've gone crazy.
He was a community leader from Outer Earth, from a place known as the Caves. He fought hard to stop the Earthers from taking the ship, but ended up here with them. Like Okwembu, I haven't seen him since the day we boarded the Shinso. He must have been locked up somewhere else–there's no way he would have helped Okwembu and Mikhail. He's tough and wiry, wearing a bright red flight jacket, and his dirty hair is thick with knots.
He works his way into the airlock and grabs me, then has to do it again when I tear my way out of his grip.
"Hey!" he says, grabbing my arm. "Are you crazy? There's a second pod."
"My friends are in there," I shout back. At that moment, the word doesn't seem adequate enough. Carver and Prakesh aren't just friends. They're everything. They're all I've got left.
Syria pulls me through the outer airlock door. It's starting to shut, the mechanisms sliding the door closed. "And we'll be right behind them," he says. "Guaranteed."
The second pod is twenty yards down the corridor. Before I can blink, Syria hustles us inside, shoving me into a seat and buckling me in. I don't have the energy left to fight back. The seat straps are tight around my chest and stomach. The shaking is getting very bad now.
"Release in ten seconds," shouts the pilot from the front of our pod.
"We have to go now!" another voice says.
"Negative. We need to give the other pod time to get clear, or we'll smash into it," the pilot says. I can't see his face, just the back of his head. A woman opposite me is muttering something that sounds like a prayer, her eyes shut tight. The name of the pod is above her on the wall: Lyssa.
I think back to Prakesh and Carver, tight on either side of me, our legs raised to kick down the locked door. All of us together, acting as one. I try to hold onto it, but it sends an unexpected spasm of anger through me–and this time I'm angry at myself.
I spent a week with them in that damn medical bay, a week where I could have talked to them, a week where we could have straightened out where we stood with each other. I wanted to be with Prakesh, told Carver as much, but it didn't stop the choice gnawing at me, making me wonder if I'd made the right decision. It didn't stop me thinking about how I kissed Carver while we were dealing with the last few hours of insanity on Outer Earth. I had all the time in the world to say something, and I didn't, and now I might never see them again.
And on the tail of that thought comes another. Janice Okwembu took them away from me. When I see her again, I'm going to make her pay.
I'll find you, I say, willing the thought to reach Prakesh and Carver, knowing it won't and not caring. I don't care what happens. I'll find you.
"Release!" says the pilot.
But there's no bang. No shuddering explosion. Nothing happens.
The pilot hammers on the control panel, each hit more and more frantic. But no matter what he does, our pod refuses to launch.
Prakesh is back in the Air Lab on Outer Earth.
He can see the ceiling lights through the canopies of the enormous oak trees towering above him. He can smell the damp scent of the algae pools, the thick musk of soil.
His parents are there, his father's arm around his mother. He can see every detail–his father's prosthetic leg, his mother's scarf, the earrings she wears. He tries to say their names, but when he moves his lips, no sound comes out. And they're not smiling–they're just looking at him, sadness lining their faces.
Then they're gone, and Riley Hale is there, standing before him. The woman he loves. He doesn't want her to speak. He knows what she's going to say.
Resin, Prakesh. The words come in her voice, even though she hasn't opened her mouth. Resin. It came from you.
He doesn't want it to be true. The virus that tore through Outer Earth can't have come from him. It's a dream, that's all. A bad dream. Any moment now, he's going to wake up in bed with Riley, in their hab in Chengshi.
The Air Lab is shaking. The tree branches are swinging back and forth, groaning, as if caught in a hurricane. Riley is gone.
There's a bang. It explodes through Prakesh's body, filling every cell, blotting out the world. His eyes snap open. For a moment, he doesn't know where he is. Then he sees Aaron Carver next to him, his eyes squeezed shut, G-forces rippling his cheeks.
Prakesh remembers everything. His gaze darts around the packed escape pod. Janice Okwembu is near the front, her eyes closed, her head tilted back. Mikhail is a few seats down from her.
They're in-flight. They have to be. That means the escape pod jettisoned from the Shinso. Prakesh tries to turn his head, pushing against the Gs, and gets a brief look out of the cockpit glass. It's a mess of black and red, matted with a dull grey. Clouds, he thinks.
The headache comes suddenly, flaring at the base of his skull. It's like a red-hot needle, jamming upwards into his brain. There's blood on his face–where did it come from? The last thing he remembers is kicking the door down, holding tight onto…
Riley. Where's Riley?
At that moment, the shaking stops. The escape pod stabilises, and the roaring from outside vanishes, replaced by the gentle hum of the engines. The G-forces holding Prakesh against his seat disappear, although the headache remains. An audible sigh of relief rises from the cabin and someone gives a weak cheer.
Carver still has his eyes closed, his head tilted back.
"Everybody sit tight," says the pilot. "Parachute's out."
- "Tracer is the literary equivalent of a base jump: fast, exhilarating and unforgettable, and once you start it you can't stop. I loved it."—Sarah Lotz, author of The Three, on Tracer
- "Ludicrously fast-paced, with a brilliant sci-fi setting, Tracer is an absolute blast of a read."—David Owen on Tracer
- "Reading Tracer is like being on a rocket-propelled roller coaster and trapped in a supersonic pinball machine at one and the same time. The action flies by in a blur and leaves you as breathless and reeling as the protagonists. Riley Hale battles to save the last remnants of humanity from a homicidal maniac and a secretive suicide cult in the claustrophobic, brilliantly evoked world of a crumbling space station where danger lies around every corner. A stunning debut by Rob Boffard that never lets up, from the nerve-jangling beginning to the explosive end."—James Douglas on Tracer
- On Sale
- Aug 30, 2016
- Page Count
- 496 pages