The story isn’t over yet…

Rob Boffard’s Outer Earth series thrilled readers with its no-holds-barred action and adrenaline, as it follows the story of Riley Hale’s attempts to save both humanity’s last refuge – and humanity itself. Yet Riley has friends helping her in her efforts, and their backstories are every bit as messy and intricate as her own.

This new collection, comprising four action-packed short stories, reveals the secret histories of Riley’s closest friends and allies, as they try to make their way in the dangerous, vibrant world of Outer Earth.

(US/Canada preorder link coming soon)

Outer Earth Stories: Amira Al-Hassan

She’s the leader of the Devil Dancers, but Amira is struggling to hang on…

Read the whole story below, or read offline using one of the following links:

Download all available formats

Download for desktop/smartphone (.pdf)

Download for Nook, Kobo and most eReaders (.ePub)

Download for Kindle (.mobi)

The following takes place two years before the events of TRACER.

I jerk awake, feet lashing out, sending the blanket bunched around them skidding towards the far end of the Nest.

My right hand flies to my left, rubbing the stumps of my fingers. I can feel the burn of the frostbite. I know it isn’t real, but it doesn’t stop me from touching the rough flesh, fingers exploring the place where my middle and index digits used to be.

I make myself control my breathing. I take longer breaths, forcing the air into my lungs, fully exhaling each time. The mattress underneath me is soaked in my sweat. I’ll have to flip it over. Pray that none of the others notice the smell.

The others. I look around the Nest, but I’m alone. Not even Carver is here: at this time of night, he’s usually tinkering away at his workbench. I envy him, in a way – he doesn’t like sleep, but when he wishes to, he can drift off in a few minutes, and wake refreshed. I’m different. Sleep welcomes me in, pulls me into its warm embrace, and then betrays me.

I’m shivering. I scrabble for the blanket, drawing it around me and tucking it under my chin like a child’s swaddling. After a few minutes, my body stops shaking. Sometimes, I’m able to slide back into the darkness. That won’t happen tonight.

Sighing, I reach back over my shoulder, pulling my braid around. Not a lot of people keep their hair long anymore, not when it’s so hard to keep it clean, but I like it this way. I use an old piece of rubber band for a tie, and as I pull my black hair into a ponytail and slip the band over it, I find myself thinking about the dream that dragged me from sleep.

It’s been over ten years. And I can’t shake it. It’ll disappear, sometimes for months at a time, but then it always creeps back. Slowly at first, but then faster and faster, breaking my sleep in two, then three, then into shards.

My throat is parched. I reach out for a nearby canteen, fingers hunting across the floor until I find it, and take a swig. The water is freezing cold, but this time, it’s a good cold. In the quiet of the Nest, I can hear the rumble of machinery seeping through the walls. Air pumps and power lines and water points, all dedicated to keeping us alive.

The station we live on, Outer Earth, is a single metal ring. Six miles wide, spinning to generate artificial gravity. Every last human in the universe lives on the inside the ring, spread out over six main levels. The Nest is sandwiched between two of them: a couple of old storage rooms, forgotten, until we found them and made them home. Low ceilings, very little heating, minimal lights. A few blankets and mattresses. Carver’s workbench.

The place is only barely connected to the grid, like a constructor on a spacewalk, tethered to Outer Earth with a single thin cable. But that’s how we like it. It’s ours. Messy, cold and streaked with dirt, but ours

It’s the only place on this station that really is. Sure, we run jobs everywhere, transporting packages and messages for the million or so people onboard in exchange for supplies, but I’d be lying if I said we were truly welcome. I know enough about Earth’s history to know that messengers were tolerated more than respected: the lowest rung on humanity’s ladder. Nobody’s set foot on the planet for a hundred years, and that particular fact of life hasn’t changed one bit.

I get to my feet. My legs are stiff, the muscles aching. I use the toilet in the other room, then the air shower, trying to decide what to do. That’s the problem with being a tracer – when you’re not on a job, when you’re not running, when you can’t sleep, boredom tends to creep in. Carver has his gadgets. The Twins have each other. The name of our tracer crew is The Devil Dancers, and of the five of us, only Riley really knows what it’s like, and even then she seems to have an energy inside her that keeps her going, pulling her through the quiet times. Who do you have, Amira?

Tayta.

I have Tayta.

She’ll help. And she’ll be up, surely – she must be the only person on the whole station who sleeps even less than I do. I pull on my shoes, tightening the straps. Then I grab the scarf from the hook on the wall, wrapping it around my neck. It’s a faded red, the geometric pattern almost gone. The fabric is worn thin with use, but I don’t care. It’s Tayta’s old scarf, and it’s always warm, no matter how cold the station might be.

I step out the Nest, locking the main door behind me and dropping down into the corridor below. Tayta’s in New Germany sector – I could take it at a run, get there in twenty minutes, but I know from the stiffness in legs that I have to take it easy.

In one of the corridors, someone has started a fire. Out of what, I have no idea, but it gives off a warm glow. Rust speckles the corridor walls, and the fire turns each fleck into a shimmering point of gold. A cluster of people is huddled around it. One of them, a young man, gives me a friendly nod as I pass, gesturing to the fire.

I look them over. No weapons that I can see. Most of them don’t even notice I’m there. From what I can tell, they’re around the same age as the young man, same tattered clothes and slouching postures. A gang? Impossible to tell. But I pride myself on knowing when I’m in danger, and I detect none here. Just a group of tired people looking for a place to get warm. I slip into the circle, raising my hands to the fire.

“You want some tea?” says the man who nodded to me. He’s barely out of his teens. His dark eyes flicker with firelight. “It’s mushroom. Anything you can trade’ll get you a cup.”

I shake my head. “No, thank you.”

He smiles, showing discoloured teeth. “Enjoy the fire while it lasts, then. I try to make it burn smokeless, but it’s only a matter of time before it sets off the detectors and the stompers come running.” He has one of those voices where every sentence is a question, raising at the end like a curling piece of frayed rope. He turns back to the flames, taking a sip from his own cup. The smell is rank, but I don’t mind too much.

“You’re a tracer, yeah?”

It takes me a moment to realise that the young man is speaking to me. “That’s right.”

“Can I hire you? I just, I mean, I have a package that needs delivering. It sort of has to get there fast, and in one piece.”

It hurts me to turn down work, but I can’t face taking a job right now. Not with the dream still burning my fingers. 

“I’m on a job already,” I lie. “Message work,” I add, when he glances at the spot where my backpack should be.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” he says. His breath wafts over me, and I wrinkle my nose at the smell of mushrooms

I’m about to refuse again when I hear someone approaching from the other side of the corridor, coming at a run. I don’t have to look up to know it’s another tracer, but when I do, I see it’s someone I know. Anna Beck. She’s even younger than the man with the mushroom tea, barely a teen, but she’s good. She runs with a crew up in Tzevya sector, and if I know her, she’ll take any work that comes her way.

I flag her down, and she slows to a jog, breathing hard. Her cargo is in a loose cloth bag slung around her left shoulder, and I’m suddenly filled with a burst of pride at the custom backpacks Carver made for us.

“Amira,” says Anna, nodding at me and glancing at the group around the fire. Her blond hair spills out from underneath a woollen beanie. “This going to take long? I’m on a job.”

“I can see,” I say. “How’d you like another one? Call it a bonus.”

She frowns. It’s unlike any tracer to turn down work. “What’s the catch?” she says, speaking with the smooth twang you get from being brought up in Tzevya sector.

“No catch. I’m just…busy. Right now.”

I gesture to the man with the mushroom tea. Anna wrinkles her nose as he leans in. “Hey there, Jenner,” she says. “Don’t you have anything better to do than take up my valuable time?”

I nod at Jenner. “You know each other?”

“Oh yes,” Anna says.

Jenner grins. “I need something taken up the ring to Gardens, yeah? I can give you some mushroom tea for it.”

Anna actually laughs.

“Fair enough,” Jenner says, embarrassed. “How about some spices then? Grew ’em myself.” Out of nowhere, he produces a cloth bag, tiny in his palm. Another scent joins the party – cinnamon, I think.

Anna thinks for a moment, then shrugs, making the tiny bag vanish. Jenner passes her another package, one wrapped in dirty cloth.

Anna drops it into her pouch. “Where’s it going?” she asks.

“You know Oren Darnell’s place? Just give it to the guard outside. Tell him who it’s from. Jackie Jenner. That’s me.”

Anna meets my eyes. Officially, Darnell runs the Air Lab, responsible for keeping us breathing. Unofficially, he’s in charge of every scam and racket in his sector. I’m guessing there’s tribute money in that package – taxes that Darnell levies for other crews to operate. That means Jenner and his friends are gang members.

Anna winks at Jenner and takes off at a run, tapping me on the shoulder as she zips by. I raise my own hand back. Suddenly I want to be out of there as well, more than anything, and I give Jenner a nod before jogging away down the corridor.

Tayta’s real name is Alicia Nouri – it always takes me a second to remember it, because she’s always been my Tayta and nothing more. She lives in one of the hab units on the top level of Chengshi. A long time ago, my whole family lived there. Now it’s just her, and so far she’s done her best to keep everybody else out of her space.

She’s up, as I thought she would be, and when she opens the door her whole face brightens. The endless lines around her eyes stretch and contort as she smiles. I see myself in her: same thin face, same full lips.

“Mira!”

“How are you, Tayta?”

She throws her hands up. “If you’re going to speak to me like that, you can keep running.”

I smile. “Marhabaa tayta, keef halek il youm?”

“I’m well, thank you, my child,” she replies in Arabic much better than mine. “Come in, come in.”

Every time I walk into this hab, I feel like I’m entering a secret world. Colourful fabrics hang from the ceiling, diffusing the light above them. An old table runs along the left-hand wall, its surface scarred and pitted from old knife cuts. Piles of dried herbs lie on the table, nudging up against small pot-plants, and the room smells of coriander and cardamom. Tayta’s blade, an enormous cleaver, lies wrapped in an oilcloth on the small bed.

“I wish I’d known you were coming, Mira,” Tayta says. She’s been doing something at the far end of the table, but she swings round and holds out a steaming cup, the liquid dancing up the side, sending a few drops splashing onto her fingers. She doesn’t flinch. “Here. Drink.”

The tea is made with a herb I can’t place – something rich and bitter, a million miles from the nasty stuff Jenner was drinking. I sit cross-legged on the floor, holding the cup with both hands, my eyes closed. I’m in my own world when Tayta says, “But you haven’t just come for conversation with an old woman, have you?”

She’s still speaking in Arabic, which means she isn’t going to let me off easily. I take a sip of the tea, inhaling the herb’s scent, buying time to search my memory for the correct words.

“I had the dream again,” I say.

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t mean anything, Mira. It happened years ago. Reliving it in your head like this…old memories like that are best left alone.”

“It’s a dream,” I say. “Not like I have a choice in the matter.”

She’s staring at me. I take my right hand off my left, where it was massaging the stumps. I hadn’t even realised I was doing it, or that I’d put the cup on the floor.

Tayta sits down awkwardly, pulling a stool over with her foot and then turning this way and that, until she’s perfectly comfortable. “Do you know how the Islam used to interpret dreams?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve gotten religion.”

“You know me better than that, child. But my mother – your great grandmother – she believed. She was born on Earth, you know, in what they used to call the United Arab Emirates, where they launched the first shuttles from. Came here when she fourteen.”

“I know Tayta. You’ve told me.”

“Well, now I’m telling you again, so be still.” She raises a bony finger.  “She once told me that there are three types of dreams.”

I take another sip of tea. “Alright, Tayta,” I say in a sing-song voice. It’s the kind of thing I could only do around her. “What are the three types of dreams?”

“There is the truthful dream, the rahmani.” she says, ignoring my tone of voice. “The dream stemming from personal desire – they called it nafsani. And finally, the dream coming from the devil. Shaytani.”

“So what’s my dream?” All at once, my missing fingers are burning again. I ignore it.

“Excellent question. I don’t believe in the devil, and I certainly don’t imagine that someone as young as you has developed the gift of prophecy. So that leads me to think that your dream is a nafsani. You dream it because you desire – ” she grunts the word, and coughs gently before continuing. “You desire to change it. To go back and undo it. Why?”

The words Because I’d still have my fingers are an instant away from being uttered. I bite it back. I know what she means. And this isn’t just about my fingers.

Tayta leans forward and takes my hand. “If you hadn’t taken that bomb through the Core, my child, if you hadn’t taken it from those fi dahya anarchists and thrown it out of the airlock, I wouldn’t be here. None of us would.”

Her words bring it all back. The lower sector riots. The death of my crew leader. The bomb I found, powerful enough to rip a giant hole in the station. I couldn’t get near any of the airlocks in the adjoining sectors – anarchists had closed them off. So I took it through the frozen hell of the Core, the central passage that runs from one side of the ring to the other. I took it all the way, through the fusion reactor at the centre and out the other side, holding it close as the cold took my fingers from me.

In the dream, I get halfway through the Core run, and stop. I know what’s going to happen. I know the bomb will go off. And I can’t move. Sometimes I wake up right away – more often, like tonight, I wake at the moment of the bomb’s detonation, when the world goes white.

Tayta’s words don’t calm me. I hold up my hand, letting the stumps of my missing fingers catch the light. It might be my imagination, but they seem to be glowing, flaring with a dull heat the colour of my scarf.

“You see these?” I say. “I keep thinking they’re still there. That the whole of the last decade just didn’t happen, and I’m going to wake up with my old crew and have everything be just like it was.”

“Amira – “

“It didn’t make a single bit of difference. What I did. People still kill each other. They still rape, and lie, and murder. My Dancers still have to scrape a living and hide between the levels.”

“You can’t change human nature,” Tayta says, reaching for my hand again. This time, she takes my ruined one, and holds it tight. “This is how we live now, and our only mission is to survive until we can get back home. The world is dark, but it does not mean that we have to be.”

I pull my hand back. “Maybe we shouldn’t try,” I mutter. “Maybe we should scrap it and start all over.”

Tayta slaps me. A front hand strike, right across the cheek.

Her eyes glitter with anger. It strips decades from her. I put a hand to my cheek, the skin underneath my palm beginning to throb.

Tayta stares hard into my eyes. “What you went through was awful. But when you did it, you wanted to save the station, and being angry for doing it is a betrayal, my child, do you hear me? A betrayal. If that is what you believe, then your dream is not nafsani. It is shaytani, and nothing more.”

The room is silent, save for the long, slow sound of the station turning over in its sleep.

I pull my hand away from my cheek, and Tayta puts her own hand on it. There’s still anger in her eyes, but it’s joined by sorrow as well.

“Please tell me you’ll try and forget what happened,” she says.

I know I can’t. But I nod anyway. “I’ll try.”

She smiles. We sit in silence for a while, sipping our tea. Eventually, she says, “You can sleep here tonight. I’ll make up a place for you on the floor. You’ll forgive me for not offering the bed, but my bones are older than yours.”

“Tayta, that’s alright.”

“No. I’m not having you running back to that smelly room you call home. Not tonight. You stay here with me.”

She arranges the blankets on the floor, turning it into a nest of its own. Without another word, she dims the lights in the hab. I curl up in the blankets, drawing one up to my chin. This time, the dream doesn’t return.

#

“I don’t care who shot a flaming arrow into your pack,” Carver says. “I’m not making you another one. That’s the second this year.”

He’s behind his workbench, gesturing at something black and burned. Yao Shen, one of my Dancers, is staring up at Carver as if she’s imagining their heights reversed. They don’t see me come in.

“Like you’re so busy,” Yao says. “You know, if you went out and hunted jobs like the rest of us – ”

“Don’t give me that. In case you didn’t notice, the things I build make your life easier.”

“So build me a pack that doesn’t catch fire.”

“Sure. And while I’m at it, why don’t I just design a teleporter and render the concept of tracers completely obsolete? Who the hell uses bows and arrows, anyway?”

I drop my pack with a gentle thump, and Yao turns. “Amira, please tell him to make me a new pack.”

“She’s not the boss of me,” says Carver.

“She sort of is, you know.”

I lean back against the wall. As much as I pretend this kind of bickering irritates me, it’s as much a part of the Nest as the mattresses and the workbench, as the brightly-coloured mural Yao is slowly developing on the wall I’m leaning against. It feels good to be back, and I smile when I think of Tayta calling it a smelly room.

“Aaron, just do it,” I say, but I can’t summon up a serious tone. I look at Yao. “Please tell me you didn’t lose the cargo.”

She shrugs. “Outside of the flaming arrow part, things went OK. I just took the pack off and jumped on it.”

I stare at her. “You jumped on the cargo?”

“Would you relax? Please? Whatever the cargo was, it was in a hard case. The fire didn’t get it.”

Carver stares unhappily at Yao’s destroyed pack, muttering to himself. I take a swig of water, soothing my parched throat. I feel better than I have in days, and my muscles are still crackling with energy.

I’m about ask Yao where Kev is – we don’t call them The Twins for nothing – but there’s a noise at the door, and I see Riley step through. Like always, she has on her father’s old flight jacket. Her dark hair brushes her shoulders, and her pack dangles from one hand. She must have been on a job.

“Good run?” I ask, but then I see the expression on her face – sorrow and fear and anger mixed into one.

“What is it?” I ask.

But somewhere, deep in my bones, I know.

#

The fabrics that hung from the ceiling have been torn down. They lie, ripped and shredded, spattered with blood. The herbs on the workbench lie scattered across the floor, green flecks spread out like a miniature constellation. The plant pots have been overturned, soil dribbling off the edge of the shelf. The bed is on its side, showing its ancient, rusted guts.

Riley stands to one side. She knows better than to touch me.

“I was on the way back when I heard,” she says, her voice curiously dry. “I took a package to the top level, and then someone was saying there was a gang raid. I knew she lived in the area so I went and looked and…”

She trails off. After a moment, she says “I never met her.”

She had so little. And they took it all. Her cleaver. Her potplants – ripped up by the roots. Even her clothing. The body has already been taken away, joining four others down in the furnace room, ready to be burned. Another old woman, and a whole family – mother, father, young son. Three habs in total that were hit before the gang got bored or had enough.

I expect to feel sadness. I don’t. I feel anger. Clear, cold, logical anger.

“What are we going to do?” Riley asks.

We aren’t going to do anything,” I say. My fists are clenched, and when I force myself to open them and look down, I see deep marks from my nails. “You’re going back to the Nest. You’re going to see that everyone has jobs, and that our supplies stay stocked. You’re taking command.”

“Not going anywhere.”

“That’s an order.”

“Let the stompers handle it, then. Please. We can walk away.”

“Riley.”

She closes her mouth, holding my gaze. With one last look, she steps out the door. I hear her jogging back towards Apogee sector, to the Nest, her footsteps fading into the hum of the station. When I know she’s gone, I raise my head, and inhale slowly through my nose, tasting the air. I need to be sure. Absolutely sure. There can be no room for mistakes, not with what I’m about to do. If I get this wrong…

Yes. It’s hiding behind the smell of the herbs and the earthy musk of the soil, but it’s there.

Mushroom tea.

#

Anna Beck comes running around the corner and falls flat on her face.

Then again, that’s what’ll happen if you aren’t paying attention and someone puts a tripwire along the length of the corridor.

It’s another Carver gadget, twisted cord thin enough to be almost invisible, but very difficult to break. Her bag flies from her shoulder, bouncing across the floor, ripping down the side with a sound like old paper tearing.

I’m on her in a second, slamming my knee into her back. She howls in pain, but quits when I jab a hand into the back of her neck.

“Be still,” I say.

“Amira? What the hell?”

There’s a crowd forming further down the corridor – people looking out of their habs to see what’s going on. They see the look on my face, and duck back inside.

“Jenner and his friends,” I say, grinding my knuckles in deeper. “Where do they live?”

“What?”

I jab harder, and she cries out. Her body bucks under me, trying to throw me off, but I’ve got her pinned.

“I don’t get it,” Anna huffs out. “They’re kids, Amira. What did they do?”

In answer, I slam her head against the ground. Her howl of pain bounces off the corridor walls, turning it into an echo chamber. “I’ve looked, and I can’t find them,” I say, my voice nothing more than a hiss now. “But I found you. And you’re going to tell me where they are.”

Through gritted teeth, she says, “New Germany. They all live on Level 3.”

Where on Level 3?”

“They’re in different habs. I don’t know. Jenner lives in the one nearest the mess hall.”

I’m up and running even before she’s finished the sentence. Behind me, Anna’s words devolve into curses, sending promises of bloody death in my direction. I barely notice.

#

Jenner is first.

He saunters out of his filthy hab, ducking under a line of washing hanging over the door. It takes every ounce of control I have not to run from the power box I’m hiding behind and rip his throat out right there, but I manage.

He can’t see me, even though he walks so close to my hiding place that I have to stop breathing in case he picks it up. When he’s far enough down the corridor, I slip out from behind the power box, and follow.

Jenner is heading back towards the New Germany gallery. I keep him just in my line of sight. I’ve got people in this sector who know me, and the last thing I want is for someone to say hello when I’m right on his tail.

When we reach the gallery, I let Jenner walk out into the space, watching him from the shadows of the corridor. He’s heading towards the benches that ring one of the flower beds, now with nothing inside it but an empty hole. They must have taken the soil away, found use for it elsewhere when the vessel that held it failed to sustain life.

Jenner sits down on one of the benches, his hands deep in the pockets of his hoodie. I don’t have long to wait. Another one joins him, a kid with a weird, spiky hairstyle – I can’t tell if he was around the fire that night, but the way he greets Jenner, with a quick nod of the head, makes me he think he might have been. Then two others, sauntering in slowly from the other side. A woman and a man. They’re holding hands, and at first I think they’re not part of it, but then they join Jenner and his companion on the bench.

I reach into my pocket, and wrap my fingers around the blade. No. Too soon. Too public. The last thing I need are witnesses.

It takes me a second to notice that Jenner’s group are on their feet, heading back in my direction. I duck further into the tunnel, casting around for another place to hide. Nothing. No power boxes, no vents I can slip into, not even any doors. As quietly as I can, running on the balls of my feet, I slip further down the corridor.

The stairwell. Perfect. I drop into a crouch, slipping under the first flight of stairs, back against the wall. When Jenner and his gang come round the corner, I’ll be ready.

I take the blade out of my pocket. It’s short and sharp, the handle made of worn plastic. It’s not the prettiest knife I’ve seen, but it’ll be just fine for what I’m about to do.

Footsteps. Not from the corridor, but from the stairs above me. Whoever they are, they meet Jenner at the bottom of the stairwell, and I hear them talking in low voices. The rumble of the station is louder under here, amplified, and I have to strain to hear what they’re saying.

“…got some food stashed for you later, you want some.” I hear Jenner say. Whoever he’s speaking to laughs, and when she replies, her voice is young.

“I’m OK, but come round later anyway,” she says.

I hear them say goodbye, and then Jenner’s group are climbing the stairs. I slip out and follow, keeping them in sight, moving as quietly as I can.

There’s still that tiny shred of doubt. Can I kill them based purely on the smell of that tea? Am I absolutely sure that Tayta didn’t have some brewing? Or a bag of dried mushrooms stashed away somewhere?

It doesn’t matter. Jenner did it. Him and his friends. He’s like everyone else on this station: stupid, violent, taking what they want. They’re not worth saving. I can’t escape Outer Earth – no-one can – but I’m going to make them pay for what they did.

They’ve stopped on the landing, gathered in a loose circle. There’s no-one else around. I go onto automatic, not even realising that I’ve taken the blade out. Exhaling, I dart up the stairs three at a time. My old crew leader, Paolo, was the one who taught me how to fight. And the best advice he ever gave me was to end one before it begins. Before whoever you’re fighting even realises you’re there.

Jenner is just looking over his shoulder when I whip the blade out, slicing through the achilles tendon on his left ankle.

His scream pierces the air, ricocheting around the tight space. His friends just stare, open-mouthed, and the next one I reach – the kid with the spikes in his hair – is only just starting to raise his hands when I slash his throat. Blood spatters the wall. Jenner is still screaming.

The lovers are next. They actually try to fight, the woman sending a punch towards my midsection. I keep coming, moving my head to the side, dodging the punch and using my momentum to bury the blade in her chest. It comes out with a sound like someone cutting a melon in half. She collapses back on her partner, knocking him off balance. When I finish him off in the same way, the knife goes through his heart, and I feel it judder as it scrapes past one of his ribs.

I stand up, controlling my breathing. There’s only a tiny bit of blood on my shirt – I seem to have dodged most of it, and I step back as the growing puddle of it on the floor threatens to touch one of my shoes. Jenner has stopped screaming. Behind me, I hear nothing but his ragged breaths.

I walk over and put a foot on his chest. He tries to lash out at me, but I push his hands away, and he stops when I hold the blade to his throat. For the first time, I can really see his eyes. There’s pain in there, and something more. Regret? Anger? Not that it matters.

“Please,” he says. He spits the word out, his throat ragged from screaming. “Please don’t.”

“I have a message for you. It comes from the five people in Chengshi you murdered.”

His eyes go wide. “I don’t – “

His words turn to a strangled scream as I bury the blade in his eye socket. I lean on it, pushing past the bone into the soft brain behind.

When his body stops jerking, I stand, wiping off the knife on my shirt. Both items are going into the furnace – I’ve got a spare shirt in my pack. Nobody saw me come up here, of that I’m certain. Maybe the stompers will connect me to their deaths, but it’ll only ever be circumstantial. I hear their forensic team isn’t so hot these days. And in any case, nobody’s going to be bothered about the deaths of four gang members. What are a few more deaths on Outer Earth?

#

I’m in Tayta’s old hab when Riley finds me.

They’ve cleared it out. I don’t know who they are – the stompers, her neighbours, the sector leaders. Doesn’t matter. No point having a hab sitting empty when it could be put to good use. Her personal effects – a few shreds of cloth, a tiny jar of spices, a few clothes – lie piled on the empty cot.

Riley approaches cautiously, like I’ll lunge forward and take a bite. I half-smile, nodding to the bed. She sits down next to me. For a moment, I think she’s going to put her arm around my shoulders, but she doesn’t. Her fingers knot together in her lap, her hands almost buried in the sleeves of the flight jacket.

“What did you do?” she asks, after a little while.

I hear a noise from the door, and look up to see Carver. He’s standing there with the Twins: tiny Yao and hulking Kevin. They’re all looking at me, hesitant, just like Riley.

My Devil Dancers. I built them, brought them together, using them to stay sane, used them to form the fastest tracer crew on the whole damn station. I owe them an explanation. They should know what happened.

I close my eyes.

“Nothing,” I say. “I didn’t find anyone yet.”

Riley stirs next to me. I clear my throat, looking between her and Carver. “Talked to a contact in the Chengshi stompers, though,” I say. “He’s going to keep me posted. They’ve got more resources than I do. Let them do the legwork, and when they find something…”

I trail off, eyes on the floor. I wait for them to contradict me, to accuse me of lying.

Carver steps into the room, hands jammed in his pockets. He looks around him and sighs, as if he isn’t quite sure what to say. Then he makes his way over to the bed, sitting down so I’m between him and Riley. “I’ll – “ he says, and clears his throat, starting again. “I’ll bet she was something. Your gran, I mean.”

I say nothing. I’ve started to rub at my missing fingers again, tracing the scar tissue.

Yao’s partner Kev is so big he has to bend his head to get through the doorway. He leans against the wall, smiling gently. “Sorry,” he says, so softly that I barely hear him.

“I’ll paint her,” Yao says, skipping into the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of us. “On the mural in the Nest. She can be part of it.”

Her eyes drop suddenly. “If you want, that is. You don’t have to. I just thought that – “

“Yes,” I say. “I’d like that.”

Yao smiles. “It’ll be awesome,” she says, spreading her hands. “I’ll do it really big, too. You can tell me what she looked like, and I can get some more colours and it’ll be awesome.”

“I’ll help,” Riley says.

“Me too,” says Carver.

Yao snorts. “No offence, Ry, but you can’t paint for shit. And that goes double for you, Carver…”

I drift off, their voices fading into the background. They let me.

I’m thinking about what I just did. About the lie I just told.

What happened to Tayta made me realise what I need to do next. Because she was only half right. My dream is a nafsani: a strong, personal desire, but I don’t want to undo it. I want to redo it.

If I’d let that bomb go off, if I’d let Outer Earth be wiped from the universe, none of this would have happened. People like Jackie Jenner would simply cease to exist. Tayta would have been spared her pain. I would have been spared mine.

I could have easily told the Devil Dancers the truth. But I don’t want to – not yet. Now that I know what the dream really means, I need to decide what I’m going to do next.

I don’t know how I’ll make my dream a reality. I don’t even know if I’ll have the strength to see it through. But when I know how, when the time comes, then I’ll see if they’re ready to help me. If they feel the same way as I do. And why wouldn’t they? Every one of them has been through hardship. Every one of them has known pain.

I don’t want to think about what I’ll do if they won’t help me.

I see Tayta’s face. She’s looking at me, a small smile on her lips, the lines around her eyes wrinkling. She wouldn’t want me to think this way. She would want to keep my crew safe, to live my life.

I shake my head. Tayta is gone. She can’t help me.

I feel a hand on my thigh. Riley. “Ready to go when you are,” she says. “Take as long as you need.” I put my hand on hers, squeezing briefly.

For the first time, I’m scared that I’ve done the wrong thing. That telling Riley these lies is worse than anything I’ve done. But then I see her eyes, see the same look on the faces of the other Devil Dancers, and I relax. They believe me.

They always do.