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CHapter one: Malek

Fire.
Explosions.
The breeching alarms.
I feel like I’m running up a hill of shifting sands instead of familiar corridors, each step taking a million years as smoke pours in from everywhere. I’m running away from my room, my bunk, all the things that have defined me for fourteen years.
So many fights expertly fought in the darkness of space, so many careful plans and calculated risks only for it all to end here. With an attack we didn’t see coming. I’m running against the current, screaming for amma, scared as my entire world goes up in flames, rocked time and time again by the missiles battering the shields, rending the hull.
The smoke would blind us if not for the red emergency lights piercing through. Red like fear. Red like blood.
The evacuation order has been given, but I can’t find amma and she is the only thing that matters. Captain Sabra Sidana, who is probably still on the command deck, standing proud amongst the chaos, head held high even as the Farikhar goes up in flames around her. I need her right now more than I ever have. More than I need to breathe.
I scream for her, pushing against the faceless crew making for the escape pods, tearing myself from someone’s grip. I’m trying to get through to her, but she doesn’t answer the coms and all I can do is keep running, for the lift—no, the stairs—and up towards her.
The ship is too large, too small, put together all wrong. These stairs shouldn’t lead me to where I arrive, the corridor to the command deck an endless stretch, the door always too far for me to reach.
I scream for amma again, a cry cut short as a wall panel explodes, sending me flying. I smash into the wall and I’m no longer on the upper decks, but further down, closer to my room, far from everyone.
The fire is in my limbs now, my leg twisted under me. I can’t move. Everything hurts so much. Everything is numb. Something sharp drips on my face. A sharpness that burns. A leak. I try to move an arm to shield my face, using the other to drag myself away, and suddenly the explosion is happening again and again in quick bursts, and I’m watching myself caught in an endless wave of flames.
I try to move but every nerve is out of sync, refusing to cooperate. I don’t know what’s up or down anymore.
The dripping leak becomes a torrent that engulfs me.
The pain is a new level of agony. My vision goes red. Then white. And finally, it all fades to black.

Helios 2

I wake with a start, gasping the stale recycled air as though I’d been drowning. The darkness of my cell is almost enough to make me think I’m still blind. But beneath my fingers there are no traces of mangled flesh. Only skin grafts and cybernetic eyes.
I take another deep breath, trying to put the images from the nightmare back to where they belong: to four years ago, when the attack that destroyed amma’s ship nearly killed me in the process. Four years since a fire tried to eat me alive but only claimed two of my limbs.
In waking moments I’ve got little more than flashes and hazy memories of the whole incident, aside from the fire that burns bright to this day. Only today, I could swear that instead of haunting my heart, it’s taken residence inside my soul, reminding me that I’m alive.
Sitting on top of my prison bunk, Akim snoring softly beneath me, I feel more than I have done in years. I feel so alive, so bright, that I could laugh. The darkness that had swallowed me whole is gone. I smile, for real, for the first time in too long, and I know that today is the day.
Today, we make history.
Today, we escape Helios 2.

“I know exactly what we need to do,” I attempt to whisper to my friends as we slide into our customary seats in the refectory, the lights overhead flickering ominously.
“You’re going to get us in trouble,” Nooma hisses, deep brown eyes hard. “Keep your voice down!”
“The whole point is to get into trouble,” I reply, receiving three concerned looks as a response.
“Getting in trouble is not a plan, Mal,” Alta says, so quiet I can barely hear them over the din of breakfast.
I’m about to respond when something casts a shadow over me. I glance sideways at the bulk of a six-foot something bald man glaring down at me.
“Not today,” I mutter under my breath, slipping my fork up the sleeve of my overalls as I turn to him.
“You said something?” he asks, getting so close that I have to strain my neck to look up at him—I really should be owed another growth spurt by now.
Behind me I can feel Akim almost wrapping his arms around his tray, whilst I know Alta will be shovelling as much in their mouth as they can fit. This isn’t the first time we’ve danced this dance with Baldy and his friends.
“Yeah.” There is a smirk on my lips. “I said, not today.”
There is a sharp moment of surprise. We’ve always given in; handed over our trays to escape the beating. But the fire in my heart is saying no. Enough.
“What are you doing?” Nooma hisses, but at the corner of my eye I catch her hands becoming fists.
Enough.
“You feel like a beating?” Baldy cracks his knuckles.
“Nah, I feel like dishing one out.”
He slams his hand on the table next to my tray and I stab the back of it with the fork, my movement so fast I almost startle myself.
He howls in pain, and I stand, punching him in the face hard enough for him to crumple, the fork still in his hand. His cronies step forward, but Nooma stands up next to me. She’s tall and muscular, and her strength is legendary amongst the inmates. Nooma doesn’t pick fights, ever, but she’ll always finish them.
“You’re gonna pay for that, you little shit,” Baldy snarls as he staggers to his feet, his nose bleeding.
Around us the refectory carries on as normal, pretending nothing is happening, the faceless androids still patrolling the edges of the room. Their only purpose to make sure we don’t escape. Everything else we deal with ourselves.
“You want to go again?” I ask, all but bouncing on the balls of my feet. “Because I’m game if you are!”
“Malek,” Nooma hisses. “Can you not make this worse?”
I ignore her, watching the men with their narrowed eyes and their faces twisted in anger.
“You better sleep with one eye open,” Baldy says, pulling the fork out of his hand and throwing it at my feet. Then he turns away without another word, his cronies in tow.
“What was that about?” Alta asks, their olive skin gone ashen. “Hadn’t we agreed it was better to just give them our stuff once in a while?”
“Not anymore,” I reply, the fire dancing in my soul as I turn back to my friends. “I’m done not fighting back. I’m too alive to spend the rest of my days bowing to other people.”
My friends exchange a look, part worry, part surprise, part something I can’t quite read, and then all but Akim are looking straight at me.
“Have you lost your mind? This could have ended really badly,” Nooma chastises me, running a hand through the tight coils of her hair, her dark black skin a little gaunt.
I shrug. “But it didn’t. Now, do you wanna hear my plan or not?”

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