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By Rob Boffard
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Format:ebook (Combined volume) $11.99 $15.99 CAD
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Outer Earth is a huge space station orbiting the ruins of our planet. Dirty, overcrowded and inescapable, it’s humanity’s last refuge . . . and possibly its final resting place.
For there are dark forces at work on the station: forces that seek to unleash chaos. If they succeed, there will be nowhere left to run.
Seven years ago
The ship is breaking up around them.
The hull is twisting and creaking, like it’s trying to tear away from the heat of re-entry. The outer panels are snapping off, hurtling past the cockpit viewports, black blurs against a dull orange glow.
The ship’s second-in-command, Singh, is tearing at her seat straps, as if getting loose will be enough to save her. She’s yelling at the captain, seated beside her, but he pays her no attention. The flight deck below them is a sea of flashing red, the crew spinning in their chairs, hunting for something, anything they can use.
They have checklists for these situations. But there’s no checklist for when a ship, plunging belly-down through Earth’s atmosphere to maximise the drag, gets flipped over by an explosion deep in the guts of the engine, sending it first into a spin and then into a screaming nosedive. Now it’s spearing through the atmosphere, the friction tearing it to pieces.
The captain doesn’t raise his voice. “We have to eject the rear module,” he says.
Singh’s eyes go wide. “Captain—”
He ignores her, reaching up to touch the communicator in his ear. “Officer Yamamoto,” he says, speaking as clearly as he can. “Cut the rear module loose.”
Koji Yamamoto stares up at him. His eyes are huge, his mouth slightly open. He’s the youngest crew member, barely eighteen. The captain has to say his name again before he turns and hammers on the touch-screens.
The loudest bang of all shudders through the ship as its entire rear third explodes away. Now the ship and its crew are tumbling end over end, the movement forcing them back in their seats. The captain’s stomach feels like it’s broken free of its moorings. He waits for the tumbling to stop, for the ship to right itself. Three seconds. Five.
He sees his wife’s face, his daughter’s. No, don’t think about them. Think about the ship.
“Guidance systems are gone,” McCallister shouts, her voice distorting over the comms. “The core’s down. I got nothing.”
“Command’s heard our mayday,” Dominguez says. “They—”
McCallister’s straps snap. She’s hurled out of her chair, thudding off the control panel, leaving a dark red spatter of blood across a screen. Yamamoto reaches for her, forgetting that he’s still strapped in. Singh is screaming.
“Dominguez,” says the captain. “Patch me through.”
Dominguez tears his eyes away from the injured McCallister. A second later, his hands are flying across the controls. A burst of static sounds in the captain’s comms unit, followed by two quick beeps.
He doesn’t bother with radio protocol. “Ship is on a collision path. We’re going to try to crash-land. If we—”
Foster doesn’t have to identify himself. His voice is etched into the captain’s memory from dozens of flight briefings and planning sessions and quiet conversations in the pilots’ bar.
The captain doesn’t know if the rest of flight command are listening in, and he doesn’t care. “Marshall,” he says. “I think I can bring the ship down. We’ll activate our emergency beacon; sit tight until you can get to us.”
“I’m sorry, John. There’s nothing I can do.”
“What are you talking about?”
There’s another bang, and then a roar, as if the ship is caught in the jaws of an enormous beast. The captain turns to look at Singh, but she’s gone. So is the side of the ship. There’s nothing but a jagged gash, the edges a mess of torn metal and sputtering wires. The awful orange glow is coming in, its fingers reaching for him, and he can feel the heat baking on his skin.
“Marshall, listen to me,” the captain says, but Marshall is gone too. The captain can see the sky beyond the ship, beyond the flames. It’s blue, clearer than he could have ever imagined. It fades to black where it reaches the upper atmosphere, and the space beyond that is pinpricked with stars.
One of those stars is Outer Earth.
Maybe I can find it, the captain thinks, if I look hard enough. He can feel the anger, the disbelief at Marshall’s words, but he refuses to let it take hold. He tells himself that Outer Earth will send help. They have to. He tries to picture the faces of his family, tries to hold them uppermost in his mind, but the roaring and the heat are everywhere and he can’t—
My name is Riley Hale, and when I run, the world disappears.
Feet pounding. Heart thudding. Steel plates thundering under my feet as I run, high up on Level 6, keeping a good momentum as I move through the darkened corridors. I focus on the next step, on the in–out, push–pull of my breathing. Stride, land, cushion, spring, repeat. The station is a tight warren of crawlspaces and vents around me, every surface metal etched with ancient graffiti.
“She’s over there!”
The shout comes from behind me, down the other end of the corridor. The skittering footsteps that follow it echo off the walls. I thought I’d lost these idiots back at the sector border—now I have to outrun them all over again. I got lost in the rhythm of running—always dangerous when someone’s trying to jack your cargo. I refuse to waste a breath on cursing, but one of my exhales turns into a growl of frustration.
The Lieren might not be as fast as I am, but they obviously don’t give up.
I go from a jog to a sprint, my pack juddering on my spine as I pump my arms even harder. A tiny bead of sweat touches my eye, sizzling and stinging. I ignore it. No tracer in my crew has ever failed to deliver their cargo, and I am not going to be the first.
I round the corner—and nearly slam into a crush of people. There are five of them, sauntering down the corridor, talking among themselves. But I’m already reacting, pushing off with my right foot, springing in the direction of the wall. I bring my other foot up to meet it, flattening it against the metal and tucking my left knee up to my chest. The momentum keeps me going forwards even as I’m pushing off, exhaling with a whoop as I squeeze through the space between the people and the wall. My right foot comes down, and I’m instantly in motion again. Full momentum. A perfect tic-tac.
The Lieren are close behind, colliding with the group, bowling them over in a mess of confused shouts. But I’ve got the edge now. Their cries fade into the distance.
There’s not a lot you can move between sectors without paying off the gangs. Not unless you know where and how to cross. Tracers do. And that’s why we exist. If you need to get something to someone, or if you’ve got a little package you don’t want any gangs knowing about, you come find us. We’ll get it there—for a price, of course—and if you come to my crew, the Devil Dancers, we’ll get it there fast.
The corridor exit looms, and then I’m out, into the gallery. After the corridors, the giant lights illuminating the massive open area are blinding. Corridor becomes catwalk, bordered with rusted metal railings, and the sound of my footfalls fades away, whirling off into the open space.
I catch a glimpse of the diagram on the far wall, still legible a hundred years after it was painted. A scale picture of the station. The Core at the centre, a giant sphere which houses the main fusion reactor. Shooting out from it on either side, two spokes, connected to an enormous ring, the main body. And under it, faded to almost nothing after over a century: Outer Earth Orbit Preservation Module, Founded A.D. 2234.
Ahead of me, more people emerge from the far entrance to the catwalk. A group of teenage girls, packed tight, talking loudly among themselves. I count ten, fifteen—no. They haven’t seen me. I’m heading full tilt towards them.
Without breaking stride, I grab the right-hand railing of the catwalk and launch myself up and over, into space.
For a second, there’s no noise but the air rushing past me. The sound of the girls’ conversation vanishes, like someone turned down a volume knob. I can see all the way down to the bottom of the gallery, a hundred feet below, picking out details snatched from the gaps in the web of criss-crossing catwalks.
The floor is a mess of broken benches and circular flowerbeds with nothing in them. There are two young girls, skipping back and forth over a line they’ve drawn on the floor. One is wearing a faded smock. I can just make out the word Astro on the back as it twirls around her. A light above them is flickering off–on–off, and their shadows flit in and out on the wall behind them, dancing off metal plates. My own shadow is spread out before me, split by the catwalks; a black shape broken on rusted railings. On one of the catwalks lower down, two men are arguing, pushing each other. One man throws a punch, his target dodging back as the group around them scream dull threats.
I jumped off the catwalk without checking my landing zone. I don’t even want to think what Amira would do if she found out. Explode, probably. Because if there’s someone under me and I hit them from above, it’s not just a broken ankle I’m looking at.
Time seems frozen. I flick my eyes towards the Level 5 catwalk rushing towards me.
It’s empty. Not a person in sight, not even further along. I pull my legs up, lift my arms and brace for the landing.
Contact. The noise returns, a bang that snaps my head back even as I’m rolling forwards. On instinct, I twist sideways, so the impact can travel across, rather than up, my spine. My right hand hits the ground, the sharp edges of the steel bevelling scraping my palm, and I push upwards, arching my back so my pack can fit into the roll.
Then I’m up and running, heading for the dark catwalk exit on the far side. I can hear the Lieren reach the catwalk above. They’ve spotted me, but I can tell by their angry howls that it’s too late. There’s no way they’re making that jump. To get to where I am, they’ll have to fight their way through the stairwells on the far side. By then, I’ll be long gone.
“Never try to outrun a Devil Dancer, boys,” I mutter between breaths.
“So you don’t have it?”
The technician is doing his best not to look at Oren Darnell. He frowns down at the tab screen in his hands, flicking through the menu with one trembling finger.
Darnell’s nose twitches, and he takes a delicate sniff, tasting the air. He’s always had a good sense of smell. He can identify plants by their scent, stripping them down into their component notes. The smell of the bags of fertiliser stacked along the walls is powerful, pungent even, but he can still smell the technician’s sweat, hot and tangy with fear. Good.
“I know it was here,” the tech says, shaking his head. He’s a short man, with a closely shorn head and a barely visible mask of stubble on his face. “Someone must have signed it out.”
He glances up at Darnell, just for a second, then looks down again. “But it doesn’t make sense. That shipment was marked for your use only.”
Darnell says nothing. He reaches up to scratch his neck, glancing back towards the door of the storeroom. His guard Reece is lounging against the frame, looking bored. He catches Darnell’s eye, and shrugs.
“Don’t worry though, Mr. Darnell,” the tech says, snapping the tab screen off and slipping it under his arm. He pushes it too far, and has to catch it before it falls. “I’ll find it. Have it sent right up to your office. Bring it myself, actually. You leave it with me.”
Darnell smiles at him. It’s a warm smile, almost paternal. “That’s all right,” he says. “It happens.”
“I know what you mean, Sir,” the tech says, meeting Darnell’s smile with one of his own. “But we’ll get to the bottom of—”
“Do me a favour,” Darnell says. He points to the back of the storeroom. “Grab me a bag of micronutrient, would you?”
The tech’s smile gets wider, relieved to have a purpose, a job he can easily accomplish. “You got it,” he says, and scampers across the room, already scanning the shelves for the dull orange bag of fertiliser he needs. He sees it on the top shelf, just out of reach, and is standing on his toes to snag the edge when something whistles past his head. The knife bounces off the wall, spinning wildly before coming to a stop on the floor. The tech can see his own expression in the highly polished blade. A thin whine is coming out of his mouth. The tab screen falls, shattering, spraying shimmering fragments.
“I always pull to the right,” Darnell says as he strolls towards the tech. “Don’t hold it against me, though. Throwing a knife is hard—and that’s with a blade that’s perfectly balanced.”
The tech can’t speak. Can’t move. Can’t even take his eyes off the knife, the one that passed an inch from the back of his neck. The handle is hardwood, shiny with oil, the grain smooth with age.
“It’s all in the arm,” Darnell says. “You can’t release it until your arm is straight. I know, I know, I need to get better. But hey, you don’t have anything to do at the moment, right? Why don’t you stay and help me out? It’s easy. You just have to stand real still.”
He points at the knife. “Pick it up.”
When the tech still doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything except stand there shaking, Darnell gives his shoulder a push. It’s a light touch, gentle even, but the tech nearly falls over. He squeaks, his hands clenching and unclenching.
“Pick it up.”
“Boss.” Reece is striding towards them, his hands in his pockets. Darnell glances up, and Reece jerks his head at the door.
Darnell looks back at the tech, flashing him that warm smile again. “Duty calls,” he says. “Truth be told, it’s hard to find the time to practise. But don’t worry—when I get a moment, I’ll let you know.”
The tech is nodding furiously. He doesn’t know what else to do.
Darnell turns to go, but then looks back over his shoulder. “The blade hit the wall pretty hard. Probably blunted it up good. Would you make yourself useful? Get it sharpened for me?”
“Sure,” the tech says, in a voice that doesn’t seem like his own. “Sure. I can do that.”
“Kind of you,” Darnell says, striding away. He exchanges a few whispered words with Reece, then raises his voice so the tech can hear. “Good and sharp, remember. You should be able to draw blood if you put a little bit of pressure on the edge.”
He sweeps out of the room, Reece trailing a few steps behind.
I slow down slightly as I enter the Level 5 corridor. Drop-off is way up the ring, at the Air Lab in Gardens sector. With each sector in the ring three miles long—and with six sectors in all—it’s a long way to go. Unless you’re a tracer, with the stamina and skill to get things where they need to be. I don’t mind the distance—heading to the Air Lab means I get to see Prakesh.
I smile at the thought, before remembering that he’s not there today. It’s a rare day off for him, one he was boasting about when I saw him a couple of weeks ago.
The package snuggled next to my spine—the one the Lieren want to jack in the hope it’s something good—is going to Oren Darnell, the man who runs the Air Lab. It was given to me by a merchant in the Apogee sector market. The merchant—Gray, I think his name was—paid with six fresh batteries, slapping them down on the rusty countertop of his stall, barely looking at me. Totally fine with that; pay is good, so your package gets delivered.
As I enter the corridor I reach back over my shoulder for the thin plastic nozzle protruding from the top of my pack, jamming it into my mouth and sucking down water from the reservoir. It’s warm, and feels viscous in my mouth. There’s not much, but it’ll keep me going.
I’m in Chengshi sector, between Apogee and Gardens—just over halfway to the drop-off. I’ll have to stop to refill somewhere in Gardens, because there’s no chance of getting any water from Darnell. I might be bringing him a package, but asking that guy for water is almost as deadly as jumping off a catwalk blindfolded.
The corridors here are darker than before. I have to pay more attention to the surface as I run towards the next turn, watching for the places where the steel plates are twisted and bent. Surprisingly, there’s a working screen here, grimy with dust but still showing a cheery recruitment ad for the space construction corps. A smiling spaceman, clad in a sleek black suit with the visor up, wielding a plasma cutter as he manoeuvres himself around a construction ship’s arm. The video fills the corridor with soft blue light, and as I turn the corner, I close my eyes for a split second. The light filters through my lids, flickering a warm orange.
I’ve never been there, but sometimes I like to imagine myself on Earth, running across fields of grass, under a sky so blue that it hurts to look at it. The sun, warm on the back of my neck as I go faster, and faster, and faster. Until I’m no longer running. I’m airborne.
I open my eyes.
Just in time to see the metal pole swing out from behind the corner and slam into my chest.
For a second I really am airborne, lying prone in mid-air. I crash to the ground, my bones feeling like they’re going to vibrate out of my skin. I try to scream, but all I can manage are thick, wheezing gasps.
The one with the pole is just a fuzzy black blur; he twirls the weapon in his hand, like he’s out for a stroll. Another spasm of pain crackles across my chest, and I begin to cough: a deep, hacking, groaning noise that causes the pain to spread to my abdomen.
“Good hit,” says a voice from the left. There’s laughter from somewhere else, behind him.
Then there are six of them looking down on me. More Lieren—different from the ones who were chasing me. I cough again, even worse this time, like there’s a dagger in my chest.
The one that hit me looks around nervously. I glimpse a dark red wolf tattoo on his neck. “Come on,” he says, looking back down the passage. “Get her pack.”
Someone wedges a boot under the small of my back and flips me over, forcing another cough out of my body. A foot on the back of my neck slams me into the floor before two others take my arms, yanking them backwards and sliding my backpack off.
My mind is racing. There should have been other people in this corridor by now. I can’t be the only person here. Even if they didn’t intervene, they might be the distraction I need to get away. And how did the Lieren set this ambush in the first place? They were behind me. I only came this way because the catwalk was blocked, and I had to …
Oh. Oh, that’s clever. The group of girls on the catwalk. They were sent directly into my path, either paid or forced to do what the Lieren wanted. They knew they weren’t fast enough to catch me, so they funnelled me right to them. I’ve run cargo to the Air Lab before—they’d know the routes I take, where I’d go and what I’d do when I was chased. Played like a fool, Riley.
“Anything else we can get? Her jacket?” I hear one of them say. Anger shoots through me; if they take my dad’s jacket, I’ll kill them. Every one of them.
“Nah, it’s a piece of shit. The cargo’ll be enough.”
They yank the pack off and force me back down. Someone reaches into my jacket pockets and grabs the batteries. The boot is lifted off my back. I raise my head and see the kid with the pole tossing a battery up and down, a weird little grin on his face. He has my pack dangling from his other hand, and he and the other five are already moving away.
I push myself to my feet, chest aching with the effort, forcing myself to stay silent. I gain my balance, then start towards them, shifting onto the balls of my feet to lower the noise in the cramped corridor. Quick steps.
It’s the one with my pack I’m after, and at the very moment he realises I’m behind him, I bring my right hand up in a lunging strike. I’ve balled my hand into a fist, with the knuckle of my index finger protruding slightly, and I’m aiming right for the base of his skull. Amira’s tried to teach me about pressure points before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had to put it into practice.
My strike is true, hitting the tiny pocket of flesh where the skull joins the spine, and I feel something under my fist crack. He makes a strangled sound, and flies forward, my pack falling from his hand.
I have about half a second to appreciate my victory. Then one of his friends steps forward and socks me in the eye so hard that I just go somewhere else for a while.
When I come back—seconds later? Minutes?—I’m pushed up against the corridor wall, two of the Lieren holding me in place. My face is numb, and there’s blood in my mouth; I can taste the metallic edge, sharp and nasty. The one I attacked is still out on the ground. As I watch, he groans, twitching under the flickering lights.
The Lieren with the wolf tattoo is standing in front of me, rearing back for another hit. If this one connects, it’s goodbye Riley.
He throws the punch. I wrench my head to the side, and his fist slams into the metal wall, sending a resonant clang rattling around the corner. He pulls it back with a cry of pain. A flap of skin hangs off his middle finger, blood already welling up around the edges of the wound. His buddies relaxed their grip in surprise for a moment when I dodged, but not enough for me to break free, and now they force me back against the wall. “She’s got some fight in her,” growls one.
Tattoo is holding his wrist and shaking his hand back and forth. “You missed,” I say. “Can’t even hit someone standing still, can you?”
“Is that right?” he says, wiping his mouth with his uninjured hand.
“Yeah. Maybe you have these guys let me loose, and we go a few rounds. You and me. See who’s faster.”
“Think so? You’re kind of small for a tracer. What are you, fifteen?”
“Twenty,” I spit back, instantly regretting it.
“She’s ugly, too,” says one of the Lieren holding me. “Like some nuke mutant from back on Earth.”
“Maybe she’s got some cousins down there right now. New life forms.”
There’s laughter, cruel and sharp. I try to keep my voice calm. “Listen to me,” I say. “That cargo is going to Oren Darnell. I’m under his protection in Gardens. If you take my cargo, you’ll have to answer to him.”
“The hell is Oren Darnell?” says the one holding my left shoulder.
“Don’t you know anything?” says the Lieren with the tattoo. “He’s in charge of the Air Lab.” But no fear crosses his face—instead, he looks amused, still flicking his wrecked hand. Not good.
“He’s got gang connections,” I say. “Death’s Head. Black Hole Crew. You sure Zhao would want you to jack cargo going in their direction?”
I’m half hoping that mentioning the name of Zhao Zheng, the leader of the Lieren, would have some effect. But Tattoo just laughs. “Rumours, honey. That’s all there is to it.”
“It’s the truth. I …”
And then Tattoo pulls out a knife, and the words die on my lips.
Darnell marches across the Air Lab, his heavy footfalls ringing out across the metal walkways. He doesn’t need to check that Reece is following him; the guard is always close by, always there when Darnell needs him. His footsteps are as silent as his boss’s are loud.
There are algae pools lined up along the walkway, each one thirty square feet, with surfaces like murky glass. Darnell leans over one of them, idly running a finger along the slime.
“So what’s so urgent you had to pull me away?” he says.
Reece stops a short distance away, his arms folded. He glances left and right. There are plenty of other techs on the floor of the cavernous Air Lab, tending to trees or crossing the floor in tight groups, but there’s nobody close to where he and Darnell are.
“Well?” Darnell says, staring intently at the viscous water.
“What’s going on, boss?” Reece says.
Darnell says nothing.
Reece unfolds his arms, hooks his thumbs in his belt. “This isn’t some gangster who hasn’t paid us his water tax,” he says. “That was one of your employees. I can cover for you on most things, but even I might struggle to square that one.”
Darnell swings himself upright, pointing a finger at Reece. A tiny thread of algae comes with it, swinging back and forth. “You getting scared, Reece?” he says, stepping away from the tank. “You think I’m going too far?”
The guard doesn’t flinch, just refolds his arms.
“If I’m going too far,” Darnell says, “then maybe you should stop me. How about it, Reece? Want to try?”
Reece’s cool eyes look back at him. Despite his anger at the insubordination, a part of Darnell marvels at Reece’s refusal to get scared. It’s why he’s kept him around so long.
“You’ve been distracted, boss,” Reece says. “For like a month now. And I’ve never seen you flip out on one of your own techs before, not like that. Whatever’s going on, you should tell me so I can—”
Reece stops dead.
“You just make sure that shipment gets here,” Darnell says. He sweeps his arm around to indicate the rest of the hangar. “Isn’t that what you do? I’m in charge of the Air Lab, Reece. I’m responsible for every molecule of oxygen that you suck into your lungs and every molecule of CO2 that comes out of them. You need to make sure I have everything I need to do it. That’s what you need to do.”
“I’ll handle it,” Reece says.
- On Sale
- Feb 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 1024 pages