Following Tracer comes Zero-G – the second heart-stopping thriller in the Outer Earth series
A huge ring, six miles in diameter, its cooling fins slicing through the vacuum. The Core at the centre of the ring, the sphere containing the station’s fusion reactor, shines in the glowing sunlight. Three hundred miles below it, the Earth is dark and silent.
To generate gravity for the million people who live on board, Outer Earth spins – just fast enough to keep everything inside Earth-Normal. The spin is almost imperceptible, the rockets on the station firing at intervals to maintain it. It has been in orbit for over a hundred years.
The side of the station explodes.
A great wound opens up in the hull, like skin parting under a knife. The hole expands faster than the human eye can register, ripping apart until the gash is half a mile long. The pressure loss rips out everything inside, forming a cloud of glittering debris. Shreds of metal collide, bouncing off one other.
And there are bodies. Dozens of them. They tumble through the wreckage, crashing into the larger chunks of debris as they hurtle away from the station. Some of them are still moving, limbs clutching at nothing, fingers hooked into claws. One by one, they go still.
All of this happens in the purest silence.
Two days earlier
“We’ve got hostages.”
Royo’s voice echoes around the narrow entrance corridor. The big double doors to the Recycler Plant are behind him, shut tight. A rotating light spins above them, casting flickering shadows on the assembled stompers.
“Roster says twenty sewerage workers were on duty today when it happened,” Royo says, jerking his thumb at the double doors. “It’s our job to get ’em out.”
“How many hostiles?” I say.
A few of the stompers look round at me, as if they can’t quite believe I’m actually wearing one of their uniforms. I can’t quite believe I am either. Six months ago, I’d be doing my best to get as far away from the stompers as I could. I’ve never liked cops.
Royo glances at me. His bald head reflects the spinning light perfectly. “We don’t have any intel on the situation inside. That’s the problem.”
“What about the cameras?” says a voice from behind me.
I turn to see Aaron Carver jogging up, the top half of his black stomper jumpsuit tied around his waist, his perfectly styled blond hair swept back. He’s wearing a bright red vest, exposing his toned upper arms. Behind him is Kevin O’Connell, a head taller than any other stomper here, with a closely shorn head and dark stubble across his cheeks.
All three of us used to be tracers – couriers who took packages and messages across the station. That was before Royo got us onto the stomper corps.
Royo shakes his head. “Nice of you to join us, Carver.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Cap.”
Royo turns back to the group. “There were two working cams on the floor, but whoever did this shot ’em to pieces the second they got in there. Locked down all the exits, too.”
Carver comes to a stop alongside me, breathing hard. “Was over on the sector border when I got the call,” he says to me between breaths.
“Worried about us starting without you?” I say, out of the corner of my mouth.
He puts a hand on my shoulder, uses it to pull himself upright. “Only worried you’d make us look bad. Lucky I got here when I did.”
“You got something you want to say, Carver?” Royo shouts. Heads turn to look at us. My stomper jumpsuit is made of thin fabric, but right then it feels too tight around my shoulders. Carver gives a huge smile. “Not at all, Cap. Carry on.”
“What are their demands?” says one of the other stompers, a heavily muscled woman named Jordan, leaning up against the corridor wall. Her ponytail is pulled back so tightly that it looks like her hairline is going to tear her face apart.
“Before they killed the camera,” Royo says, “they held up a tab screen with a name written on it.”
“A name?” says Jordan, her eyes narrowing.
But I know already. We all do. I grit my teeth, without really meaning to.
“Okwembu,” says Kev. His voice is quiet, but it cuts across the hubbub in the corridor.
Royo gives him a crooked smile. “Big man gets it in one.”
Janice Okwembu. Our former council leader, who nearly destroyed the station in a twisted attempt to gain more control for herself. A lot of people want her dead. More than a few have tried to break into her maximum security prison to do just that. I guess whoever took the plant got tired of waiting.
Royo raises his voice. “We don’t negotiate with hostage takers. Never have, never will. But, right now, what we don’t have is – hey! Get those people out of here!”
I look back towards the entrance. The corridor leading to the Recycler Plant backs out onto the main Apogee sector gallery, an enormous space with multi-level catwalks running all the way up the station levels. This much stomper activity has attracted a crowd, blocking up the entrance to the corridor. They’re craning their necks, looking for action. I see workers in mess kitchen uniforms, tech jumpsuits, a few people with tattoos who look like they run with a tracer crew. One man on the side is covered in filthy rags, holding on tight to a pushcart full of gods know what. Three stompers break away from our group, shouting at the crowd to fall back.
“As I was saying,” Royo says. “We need intel. That means we need people inside. So while Jordan here takes point on the assault, I need our new tracer unit—” he points at us, and I feel a nervous prickle shoot up my spine “—to get inside, and see what we’re dealing with.”
“All right,” says Carver, rolling his shoulders. “About time we had some action.”
“Wait, hold on,” I say, raising my hand. “You said they locked down the exits, right? So how do we get inside?”
Royo smiles that crooked smile again. A few of the other stompers are sniggering.
“That means the only way in . . .” I trail off, and, as one, Carver, Kev and I look down at the floor. The metal plating is perforated, and just then I realise what’s below it. Pipes. Conveying human waste from every hab in the sector to the plant. Pipes which we’re now going to have to pull ourselves through.
Carver raises his eyes to Royo. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Morgan Knox stands on the edge of the crowd, watching Riley Hale.
Everybody gives him space. Nobody wants to go near the man with the crippled leg, the man wrapped in filthy, stinking rags. Knox barely notices the sideways glances, the muttered insults. He just stands and watches Hale, with his hands on the handle of his cart, his knuckles bloodless and white beneath the dirt.
It’s not the first time he’s seen her – he’s been thinking about her for months now – but it’s the first time he’s had such a long look. He’d gone out to get supplies, and was surprised to see Hale running across the gallery in front of him, sprinting for the Recycler Plant, where the rest of the stompers were assembling.
She’s got her back to him. Her dark hair falls to her shoulders in ringlets. Her black stomper uniform is a little too small for her, like it was made for someone else, and he can see the tight contours of her toned shoulders and upper arms. The bottoms of the pants show a flash of ankle above her off-white tracer shoes.
She turns to say something to one of her companions. For a moment, he sees her in profile, caught in the corridor’s flashing light. Not for the first time, he catches himself thinking that she’s quite beautiful.
No, he thinks, and squeezes the cart handle even harder, as if he can pulverise the thought itself. You’re not beautiful. And you never will be.
He spits, a giant gob of saliva spattering across the ground. He feels the crowd moving further away from him, as if he’s infectious. Fine by him.
He hears shouting. He looks away from Hale, to see stompers pushing the crowd back, ordering them to move along. It jerks him back to reality, and he spins his cart, using his good leg as a pivot. The cart’s wheels are old and rusted, and they squeak as he pushes it across the gallery floor. He glances upwards, at the catwalks silhouetted by the vast banks of ceiling lights, and keeps moving. He can’t get distracted. There’s still a lot of work to do.