"An object at rest tends to
stay at rest...until acted upon by an outside force."
--Mechanics, Book of Newton 1:1
Lieutenant Murphy stood at
attention. It was typical of Colonel Osborne to summon her to his office and
then leave her waiting. Another way to
show the floater her place. Despite six
years planetside and her excellent record, that’s still how he thought of her.
Her eyes fixed straight ahead,
resting on a Topping model of a Avocet 457 Destroyer. The stellar-class ship was depicted with Bussard-Jeans scoops
extended, circling a tiny Jovian planet.
The office door sheathed open
Murphy snapped to tighter
Colonel Osborne walked in with a
man she didn't recognize. The stranger
was dressed like a civilian: his suit was black synth-silk, cut in smoothly
tailored lines. Murphy's stomach
tightened. Military intelligence? If so, this was trouble. If Osborne had fabricated a link between her
and the floater insurrection at Cago-chi station, he could get her expelled, or
worse, convicted of terrorism.
The stranger stopped in front of
Murphy. He was good-looking in a
prosperous way. His golden-brown skin
glowed with health. Shiny auburn hair
slicked back from widows peaks at his temples.
There were hard, uncompromising secrets in his gray eyes.
He leaned forward and studied
Murphy's face. Murphy knew what he was
seeing: wide-set brown eyes, thin lips perched over a too-square jaw. His eyes lingered over the tattooed
equations that peeked out of her bangs: the delicate script of Heisenberg's
uncertainty principle, the bold lines of Newton's laws, the cuneiform of
relativistic mass-acceleration. Her
"You don't want
Murphy," Osborne said. "She’s
a floater. Her father was
anti-corporation agitator. With the
current revival of the rebellion, you can’t trust her with any sensitive
missions. And all that time in
weightlessness, exposure to floater diseases; she's not in top physical
“Lieutenant Haverfield, on the
other hand, is an excellent prospect. A
man you can trust, and his piloting scores are virtually the same."
The stranger flipped open a
palmtop and consulted it without looking up.
"We are aware of Murphy's background. In fact, that is why we are interested in her."
Oh Gods. Murphy's lips compressed. He was going to question her about the
rebellion. Seventy disenfranchised
floaters capture a manufacturing station and suddenly her loyalties were
suspect. Why couldn't the floaters have
waited another six weeks, until she graduated?
"At ease," the
Murphy swung into a wide
The man reached into his inner
jacket pocket and removed a small plastic disk. "Has Colonel Osbourne told you who I am?" he asked.
Murphy met his eyes, "No,
"My name is Williams, Sean
Williams. I'm here to evaluate
you." He took her left hand and
thumped the disk against her middle finger.
When he pulled it away, a dark spot of blood welled up. The disk changed color to a pinky-red. He set it on the corner of Osborne's desk
and tapped it. The disk spun.
Osborne said, "I tell you
The blood-unit beeped. Williams picked up the disk and pushed it
into the palmtop computer. His eyes
scanned the screen. As he read, his
mouth spread into satisfied smugness.
"Haverfield may also be tested," he said, "but Lieutenant
Murphy must go through the simulation."
Williams tucked the palmtop into his jacket pocket. "My employer insists."
Employer, not commander? Murphy's chest loosened. Williams wasn't
Osborne's mouth worked. He scowled and said, "As you
Murphy's eyebrows rose. Osborne backing down? Williams’s employer must have authority over
the military. A chill prickled the back
of her neck. That meant a major
corporate-political interest, one that sat on the Council governing
inter-stellar trade and traffic. The
kind that considered people like her expendable.
Murphy saluted and exited the
Colonel's office. As she turned, she
snuck another glance at Williams. He
was watching her. Their eyes met and he
smiled--like an alligator.
Murphy returned to the barracks
and found Talibah Hamadi lounging on the top bunk of their shared
quarters. She wore cadet uniform pants
and a crisp white shirt unbuttoned to show off a long strand of non-regulation
gold and titanium beads. Tali’s right
foot dangled off the edge. She listened
to a recording, her foot tapping a jazz rhythm against air.
Murphy closed the door behind
her and threw her jacket over one of the chairs in front of the fold-down
desks. Then she flopped onto the lower
Tali popped the speakers out of
her ears and leaned down over the edge of the bunk to look at Murphy. "What did Osborne call you in for? To make sure you got your day's allotment of
grief?" She wrinkled her pert
nose. "What is it with him?"
Murphy shrugged. "Since they've taken him off active
duty, I'm the closest thing to a revolutionary he's got to fight."
Pulling black braids out of her
face, Tali said. "A few dozen
floaters take over one station and it's a revolution? Right. It's like the
Companies being afraid of an uprising of janitors." She broke off. "I didn't mean--"
The corner of Murphy's mouth
twisted into a half-smile. "I
know. Some of your best friends are
floaters." She waved away Tali's
apology. "That’s all right. It’s a horrible life. That’s why I joined the CEA to better
Tali bit her lower lip. "So what did Osborne want?"
Murphy pulled off her cap and
dropped it on the table. "A
civilian's on-planet." She
scratched her scalp, fluffing her brown chin-length hair. "He wants to test me in a
"Oh?" Tali's eyebrows shot up. "And?"
Murphy shrugged “That’s all he
said.” Then she grinned and looked
askance at the terminal on Tali's side of the desk, "I was hoping you’d
tell me. You mean with your creative
networking, there’s something you don’t know?"
"Ha!" Tali leapt off of the bunk in a fluid motion
and danced to her side of their shared desk.
She tapped on the screen. Her
brown hands flew over the panel.
"Not for long. Just watch
Murphy tugged on her roommate's
shoulder, suddenly worried.
"No. Forget it. Commandant Harbrolt threatened to cut off
your financial aid after your last hack."
The security logon screen
reflected in Tali's black eyes. She
flicked her hand dismissively.
"Only if I get caught."
Bands of guilt tightened around
Murphy's chest. She hadn’t mean for
Tali to take her joke about hacking seriously--or had she? Had some small part of her been hoping Tali
would take up the challenge? Murphy
shouldn't have said anything.
Murphy said, “Don’t do
that. I’ll know what he wants tomorrow
Tali didn’t answer. Her eyes were locked on the flat screen,
hands twitching in manipulation of the virtual controls.
Murphy grabbed Tali’s shoulder
and shook it. “Stop it. Whatever’s going on, it’s not worth the risk
of you getting caught.”
Tali shrugged her hand off.
Murphy knew from long
association that once set on a problem, Tali was relentless. Nothing short of a nuclear blast could keep
Tali away from a puzzle.
With a last uneasy glance at her
friend, Murphy put on her jacket and slipped out the barracks door.
Reddish-gray sky shone through
the high-impact plastic of the tunnel between the barracks and mess hall
domes. The landscape beyond the domes
was barren. To the east, the hills
bordering Jagg’s canyon looked like a row of giant knuckles, the rock worn
smooth by millennia of atmospheric turbulence.
Wind swept the powdery dust that
covered the planet into cirrus streaks, streaming out between the hills. Looked like another dome-thumper swirling
out of the canyon. Murphy's eyes
flicked nervously towards the emergency breathing equipment. Stupid reflex. A left-over from her floater childhood. Ares had an atmosphere. A
person could breathe it for hours with only minor bronchial irritation. But that knowledge couldn't shake the fears
she'd been raised with.
Looking to see that no one was
around, Murphy opened the emergency pack and checked the filters and air tanks.
When she was done, she walked to
the mess hall. It was filled with
students getting trays, ordering food, and gossiping. At one table, engineering students fight-tested flavored gelatin,
measuring the inclination at which the cubes fell from their palms.
Murphy's skin tensed as she
entered the room, she'd been at the University six years, and still--
Murphy glanced in the direction
of the voice. A group of seated
freshmen goggled innocently at her.
Murphy exhaled to calm herself.
You’d think the students would have gotten over her floater background
by now--but no, each first-year class had to hassle her all over again. It made no sense. She’d been here six years; the only thing floater about her were
her marks. Murphy turned towards the
The same mocking voice said,
"Been to any floater orgies lately, Jellyfish?"
"Why?" Murphy shouted back over her shoulder. "You can't get any on the
"So how was your
fa-ther?" The voice jeered
back. Then in a stage-whisper to his
companions, "Small floater communities, you know...like to keep it in the
Murphy turned on them. The innocent looks devolved into smirks,
then concern as she strode up to the table and grabbed the nearest freshman by
the lapels of his flightsuit.
"My father's lost,
rocketing past the galactic rim. Want
to join him?" Murphy leaned in
until her face was three inches from his nose.
"For six years I've endured punks like you. Why?
Are your lives so small and pathetic the only way to can feel big is to
put someone else down?" She wanted
to jerk him out of the seat and shake him, but her body wasn't up to it. Six years on Ares hadn't made up for her
weightless childhood. If this turned
into a real fight--she'd get pounded.
His pals were getting out of
The boy she'd gripped
muttered, "No--no, Sir. It wasn't me."
But Murphy wasn't
listening. "I'm three times the
pilot you'll ever be. All your taunts
and insults don't change that. I've
made something of my life. In six weeks
I'll be an officer of the Collective Enforcement Agency. I'm not a floater--not anymore."
A leather-gloved hand settled on
Murphy's shoulder. "Lieutenant
Murphy, release Cadet Wolford."
tightened. She recognized the
voice. In the six years she'd been
here. Cadet taunts, and her temper, had
made her all too familiar with the University's MPs. She released the young man, turned, and saluted.
The black-uniformed MP was
Taniguchi, no admirer of hers, but no enemy either.
"Is it too much to ask that
you get through one lunch without pummeling a first-year student?"
"You are the senior
classman. It is your duty to display an
example of decorum and self-control.
You've been listening to the same inane cat-calls for six years now, I'd
think you'd be immune to them by now."
Murphy flushed, angry at his
one-sided reprimand. "Yes. Sir."
The MP extracted her promise
that she'd try to get through he next six weeks until graduation without
further incident. Murphy saluted and
turned back towards the food machines.
She grabbed two packets of food
and left the cafeteria, eating her burrito as she walked.
When Murphy returned to the
barracks, Tali was still working. She
leaned forward, elbows on the desk, her forehead pressed against the top of the
screen. She whispered commands
Murphy laid a packaged
cabbage-and-cheddar pirozhki next to the screen. "Luck?"
"No." Tali leaned back and rubbed her eyes. "There was a shuttle up from
Gottsdamerung station yesterday but the logs are sealed as tight as Osborne's
Murphy sat on the bottom bunk,
across from the desk. She leaned
forward, "You weren’t able to crack the shuttle logs? You never had trouble before."
Tali tore open the pirozhki's
wrapper with her teeth. The smell of
cabbage filled the dorm room.
"There's some serious corporate moves going on." She took a bite.
"I couldn't decipher that,
they're using sophisticated encryption.
But it looks like a founding company.
One of the big twelve."
Why would one of the twelve
companies on the ruling council of the Collective be interested in her? The Collective governed inter-stellar trade
and traffic, and passed the laws the CEA existed to enforce. But they never interfered with the CEA
directly. Not until now.
Murphy kicked off her
boots. Curiouser and curiouser.
Murphy reported to the flight
simulation hanger the next day at six hundred hours. The dimly lit hanger was filled with cockpits from all makes of
ships in the fleet. Lieutenant
Haverfield was waiting with Colonel Osborne and Williams. Murphy recognized Haverfield from flight
training. A stocky, red-haired student,
he was the second-highest rated pilot in the University. Murphy had edged him out for first place.
As she approached, Haverfield's
pale gaze sized her up.
The four of them walked through
the cavernous room, boots echoing in the early morning silence. Which ship would the civilian test her
on? What skills was he looking for? As they walked past each machine, the list
At the end of the hanger,
Osborne palmed a door. The closet
normally held maintenance equipment.
Murphy knew the room from hours of repair duty.
The stale air smelled of
aluminum shavings and axle grease.
Osborne touched a wall panel and the lights came on. The welders and lubrication bots were gone. They'd been replaced by a matte-gray
cube. Four meters square, it was twice
the size of most simulators and took up most of the space in the maintenance
closet. The cube was featureless except
for six metal steps that led to a airlock hatch.
Murphy glanced at
Haverfield. He raised his red-blonde
eyebrows, mirroring her surprise. She looked
back at the cube. A new simulator?
Williams, lounging against the simulator.
"You two are the best pilots at the University. This simulation, however, will tax the
limits of your ability. If you perform
well certain...opportunities will be available to you." He tapped the simulator with his palm. "Who wants to go first?"
Murphy stepped forward. "Sir?"
Osborne said, "What is your
"Sir, you haven’t briefed
us on the craft. How are we supposed to
fly a ship we know nothing about?
"Information about the
simulator," Williams said, "is proprietary. All I can say is: in addition to your reflexes and piloting
skills, we are examining how quickly you interpret and adapt to unfamiliar
Murphy's lips compressed. It didn't make any sense, even a test pilot
would be briefed on operations, know how the ship was supposed to work. She said nothing.
"Sir!" Haverfield said. "I'm ready to fly this thing, Sir!"
Osborne grinned. To Williams he said, "That's why I
recommended Lieutenant Haverfield. His
uncompromising respect for authority."
Osborne glanced sidelong at Murphy.
"Haverfield's a pilot you can trust."
Williams's right eyebrow
rose. "We shall see Colonel. We shall see."
Haverfield squared his shoulders
and marched up the stairs, spun open the hatch and opened the inner airlock
Inside, the simulator was dimly
lit. The screens, if any, were
off. Murphy saw nothing but the twinkle
of yellow status lights. Then Haverfield
crawled into the pilot's seat and disappeared into the simulator’s dark
Williams closed the hatch behind
Haverfield. He pulled a portable screen
out of an inner jacket pocket and spoke: "Begin simulation."
"That's all?" Osborne asked.
Murphy shared the Colonel's
confusion. A simulation was
interactive: a team of technicians and instructors monitored and responded to
the pilot's state.
Williams smiled without
warmth. "Automated. AIs control his environment and monitor
progress. The simulation is also proprietary;
the fewer people involved, the better."
For long minutes, the trainer
rocked and swiveled. Then a low sound,
like stressed metal emanated from inside--No, a man's scream. The cube shuddered and the airlock and hatch
A blast of hot air hit Murphy in
the face. The smell of burnt hair and
urine. She lunged forward to help.
Osborne shoved her aside and
dove into the trainer.
Murphy tumbled to the concrete
floor. Damn her weakness. She gritted her teeth against both pain and
humiliation. Female and floater. Six years planetside hadn't made up for her
first sixteen years of life spent in microgravity. Stiffly, Murphy pushed herself off the ground. She felt her arms and legs for injury. There'd be bruises tomorrow, but nothing
Osborne carried Haverfield over
his shoulder. He lowered the lieutenant
to the floor. "You all right,
Haverfield croaked, "Sir,
yes, Sir." He sat up and
coughed. The hair on the left side of
his head was singed and his face was blistered. His eyes were at the same level as Murphy's. They were wide open and terrified.
Williams turned to his
simulation." The hatches closed
automatically and the cube heated until it glowed a dull red. The maintenance room became warm.
The red faded. A minute later, it was gone. The civilian placed his palm against the
trainer. "Ready for our next
Murphy glanced at the simulator,
uneasily. What had Haverfield faced in
the simulation? His burns were
serious. If she screwed up in
there--could she die? Panic fluttered
in her stomach. Was this Osborne's plan
to get rid of her? He had opposed her
career every step of the way. Now she
was only weeks away from graduation, how far would he go to prevent her from
commanding a CEA vessel?
Murphy forced herself to
breathe. It couldn't be a trap. Osborne hadn’t wanted her to be tested. He'd recommended Haverfield. Enough paranoia. She wasn't a floater anymore.
She’d plied her piloting talents into a respectable career. She couldn't be made to disappear without
questions being asked. Relax.
Murphy straightened her
shoulders and said. "Sir, I am
ready to begin the simulation."
Osborne waved her in.
She walked up the stairs and
paused. "Sir, is there a
Williams's attention focused on
her. "Why do you ask?"
"Sir, this airlock. I thought the simulation might include suit
training, for verisimilitude, Sir."
In truth, she had a hard time
walking through an airlock, even a simulation, without double-checking her
helmet seals. Aunt Maisie's training.
Williams said, making a note on his hand-held, "but a suit is not
Murphy nodded and continued up
the stairs. Inside, she closed the
hatch. It was a relief to shut Osborne
and the others out. The opposite wall
of the closet-sized room contained a panel.
It was similar to airlock controls she had used as a child, but the
screen was labeled in unfamiliar black characters. They were hollow shapes: triangles, polygons, and circles. The inner and outer edges of each shape were
embellished with organic-looking spikes and spirals. Strange. Why would a
Company build a prototype and label its controls in an unreadable script?
She cycled the airlock and
stepped into the room beyond.
The dim flicker of status lights
lit up a spherical room a meter and a half in diameter. The walls were inlaid with mosaic
touchpads. Murphy hadn't seen anything
like this. The controls were arranged
in all directions with no regard for up or down.
In the center of the cramped
room was an enormous crash couch. The
seat was attached by a steel bar that ran through the pivot of seat and back
and into the curving walls, allowing the couch to swing in the direction of
Murphy strapped herself in and
leaned forward to examine the ship's controls.
Some, like the velocity strip, were standard, others completely
alien. There seemed to be two sets of
engine panels. Murphy stared at the
text underneath each one. The delicate black script was gibberish.
She noticed a repeating pattern
in some of the icons. Tiny triangles
arranged in designs like those on playing cards. One. Two. Three.
Numbers. Had to be. But why not use the Arabic characters? She examined the tiles closer. The most number of triangles on any one
control was seven. Octal? Sweat prickled on Murphy's back. There was something eerie about this
ship. What kind of game was Williams
In front of the pilot's ergo,
pie-shaped fiber optic screens framed a hemispherical depression. Was it also a screen?
Murphy touched what she hoped
were the integrated fiber optic controls.
IFO screens were simplicity in design, fiber optic threads that ran from
the hull of the ship to flat-panel displays in the cabin. They worked even when power went out,
funneling in light from all sides of the ship.
Views of space filled the IFO
screens. Hard untwinkling stars behind
and to her sides, a red hydrogen nebula ahead.
The central concave illuminated.
If as through a distorted fish-eye lens, it showed her a 360 degree
view. The point directly behind her
stretched along the circumference of the display.
If this was a prototype, it was
light-years beyond anything Murphy had ever seen.
A silver point glittered in the
Murphy fumbled with the
controls, searching for magnification.
There. Three ships approaching
The hulls were old Avocet 34CX
mining trawlers--hulking rectangular ships with fission engines. Old brute-force Orion types. The top half of each ship had been cut away,
mining cranes replaced by ion cannons and ship piercers.
Revolutionaries. Had to be.
A test of her politics?
Osborne must have told them
about her father. Damn. How long would she have to live to escape
his dissident shadow?
The ships were at twenty-five
hundred meters and closing fast.
Murphy scanned the tiled
controls for communications. How was
she supposed to run a simulation when she didn't know where or what anything
was? She found it. Murphy tapped in the universal ship-to-ship
frequency and said, "This is..."
What were her call letters? Fake
it. "This is CEA test ship to the
three trawlers. Stand down your weapons
and transmit identification codes."
A salvo of ions hit her ship
The simulator slammed Murphy
So much for protocol.
Murphy scanned the unfamiliar
controls. She didn't see anything that
looked like a weapon.
Ship piercers launched from two
of the trawlers.
But two piercers only defined a
plane, and Murphy had grown up thinking in volumes. She touched the throttle strip--that at least was familiar--the
strange craft darted away, perpendicular to the incoming piercers.
Simulated acceleration made her
sway on the ergo.
She cork-screwed down and back,
to get behind the trawlers and--what?
There weren't any weapons. At
least none that she recognized. She had
the drop on both ships, and no idea how to attack. Bluff it out. Murphy
spoke into the com, "Surrender, or I will be forced to fire."
No reply. The ion cannons glowed as they heated for
Murphy increased engine
power. Something was different. These weren't the controls she'd used last
time. She'd activated the second set.
A stream of white-hot ions fired
in slow motion towards her ship. Then
the IFOs filled with reddish-orange hell.
The cannon impact Murphy had
braced herself for never came. The red
glare didn't fade. The stars were
gone. In their place were tangerine-colored
convection cells, hot gases that rose and fell, cycling against the IFOs.
The cabin temperature leaped ten
degrees. What was going on? This simulation didn't make any
sense--hadn't from the beginning.
Murphy touched the engine controls again, reversing her actions. The red-orange atmosphere displayed by the
IFOs undulated, but Murphy remained trapped.
Sweat dripped between Murphy's
shoulder blades and from under her small breasts. It was getting hard to breathe.
She tried the first set of engine controls--no response. Her eyes blurred. She
estimated the cabin temperature at over fifty degrees centigrade.
If she didn't get out of here
soon, she'd broil. And she had no
illusions about Osborne leaping to her rescue.
Murphy tried every control. She slid her fingers along touchpads, spoke
to computer screens, tapped icons.
Holographic displays popped up and disappeared at random. Their green and blue gridlines overlapped in
a chaotic display.
The heat was unbearable. It was hard to think. She bit back an urge to scream. No.
Won't give Osborne the satisfaction.
What kind of training was this?
No instructions. No
explanation. Can't even read the
Murphy swung her fist through
the holographic displays and pounded the controls.
The simulator shuddered. Pinpoints of light in ebony velvet. The plasma hell was gone, replaced by
Everything went black.
A cold wave of air hit Murphy's
face, evaporating the sweat and chilling her.
The blue-white fluorescents of the maintenance room glared through the
Williams reached in and offered
his hand. Murphy grasped it and he
pulled her out.
"Excellent," he said,
clasping her wrist. "That was
It was? She wasn't sure what she'd done. Murphy shivered in the relative cold of the
maintenance room. The sudden change in
temperature nauseated her.
Haverfield stood against the
wall, wrapped in a blanket from one of the medipaks in the simulator room. Shivering.
The civilian beamed. "What did I tell you, Osborne? She performed as well as
predicted." He clapped Murphy on
the shoulder. "We have great
things in store for you."
Osborne's face was stone. "What about Haverfield?"
Williams turned and regarded the
junior officer. "He may go. Murphy's the pilot we want. We have no need of him."
Haverfield's eyes narrowed. But he didn't look at Williams; he glared at
The civilian held out a blanket
to Murphy. "Get cleaned up, eat
breakfast, and meet me in Osborne's office at eight hundred hours."
"Sir, I have class
Osborne brushed aside her
argument. "This is more important."
Murphy ran into Haverfield as he
was coming out of the infirmary. She’d
taken the long way back to the barracks after her post-quantum theory class to
check on him.
His face was red and puffy. A pink sim-skin patch engulfed his right
cheek. His jacket was slung loosely
over shoulder bandages. When he caught
sight of her, he stopped and stared.
Murphy held out her hand. "No hard feelings?" She hoped he wouldn't hold a grudge against
her for outperforming him. Haverfield
was a good pilot, and they might have to work together in their military
He stared at her hand a moment,
his eyes focusing on the too-thin palm and delicate fingers. Then he took it in a firm shake. "No hard feelings. You got lucky this morning, and I won't hold
that against you."
Murphy frowned. "It wasn't luck."
"What was it,
Murphy shook her head in disgust
and turned to leave.
He grabbed Murphy's
shoulder. "I didn't mean that as
an insult.” His face was earnest. “I want to know. What did you do in that simulation that I didn't? Why did you pass and I fail?"
Murphy relaxed. She understood needing to know--and being
too proud to ask for help. She leaned
against the wall and studied her fingertips, remembering. "I'm not sure. The interior of the ship was strange--but
also familiar. Ships attacked me,
"Haverfield, this the
floater who beat you in that flight sim?"
A trio of young men, dressed in fatigues sauntered down the hall towards
them. The one in front stared at the
tattoos peeking out from her hairline.
Slicked-back brown hair topped the long angular features of his
face. The label on his flightsuit read:
"Shut up," said
Jenks cocked his head, studying
Murphy's form, "There isn't much to her.
Looks like a bag of sticks. She
a pilot? How does she take the
Murphy's lips curled back. "Better than a flaccid button-pusher
like you. I heard you peed your
flightsuit during the Möbius course."
Haverfield's arm checked Jenks's
lunge towards Murphy. "She's a
fine pilot," he grumbled.
"One of the best at the University."
you?" Jenks asked with mock
disbelief. "Better than the
Haverfield's face darkened. "I didn't say that."
"Then why'd she pound your
butt like a gong in that sim?"
A second classman chimed in,
"I've heard the University's token floater is some kind of piloting
prodigy. A real freak. Apparently it runs in her family."
The conversation was going
downhill fast. She remembered her
promise to Taniguchi. There were only
six weeks to graduation, and she didn't want any further disciplinary actions
added to her record; they might influence her commission. "Be seeing you," she told
Haverfield and backed away down the hall.
He was still arguing with his
companions when she turned the corner.
When Murphy entered Osborne's
office, Williams rose from the desk and shook her hand. He'd exchanged his gray suit for one of
shimmering navy. His hand was warm and
rich-man's soft. He smelled of
They were alone in the
room. Osborne, apparently, hadn’t been
Williams said, "I am a
recruiting agent." He gestured to
a chair. "Please. Sit."
Murphy folded her lanky body
onto the molded plastic.
Williams walked to her side of
the desk and sat on the edge of the tempered glass. "Your performance in the simulation was exemplary. My employers wish to hire you. A permanent position as a pilot. The terms are most generous."
Murphy wondered who offered
those terms. She’d enlisted with the military
as a way to better herself without working for a company that exploited
floaters. She didn’t want to live as a
floater, but she didn’t want to have a hand in oppressing them either. "Thank you," she said. "But I already have a career with the
Williams ran his hands through
his auburn hair, slicking it back.
"I don't think you understand the magnitude of this
offer." He pulled a portable
screen out of his jacket pocket and tapped open a file. He held the reader out to her.
Murphy glanced at the
contract. The employer was listed as
"a member corporation of the collective." So it was one of the big twelve, the mega-corporations
that ran the galactic government.
Seventy-five years ago, the Plutocrat wars had ended in a settlement:
Local governments handled planetary matters, but space habitations and
inter-stellar issues came under the purview of the Collective.
But she was still on-planet, in
training for the CEA. William’s company
was stepping outside of its authority by contacting her. Murphy asked, "Which Company would I be
Williams brushed imaginary lint
off his shoulder. "That's tactical
information and will be revealed after you have signed. The employer is not important. Read the terms of the agreement."
The money was amazing--but she'd
be working for a Company. Her mind
flashed back to the sixteen-hour workdays, leaking reactors, and slave wages
she had fought so hard to escape. Even
though she would be skilled labor, it didn't sit well. She couldn't see herself working for an
entity that treated her people as a disposable resource. "That's quite generous but--"
accept." He laughed
nervously. "You'd be crazy to turn
down this offer. There would be
repercussions." He met her
eyes. "For both of us."
Murphy cocked her head,
"Are you threatening me?"
"No, no. Merely making you aware of all pertinent
facts." He held forth a portable
screen. "May I have your palm
"No. The CEA gave me a scholarship; they lifted
me out of floater life. The military
gave me hope when I most needed it, something to strive for. I won’t work for a Company, no matter how
well paid. I want to enforce the law,
to serve justice.”
William's left eyebrow arched
sardonically, "And you think working for the CEA will accomplish
"Yes.” She gestured at her too-thin arms and
under-muscled legs. "It wasn't
easy being the first, the only, floater to attend the University. I suffered ten months of centrifugal
conditioning just to be able to stand on this planet. The last six years I've endured prejudice, instructor's low
expectations, and hazing." She
stood. "I am about to graduate
with honors. I don't know if you can
understand how much that means to me, but I'm not going to walk away from
His brow wrinkled with
concern. "You won't
Murphy's tone softened. "I'm sorry, but my decision is
She turned to leave.
"Wait!" Williams pressed a datacube into her
hand. "If you change your mind, or
discover that military service is not all you believe it to be, contact
Murphy pressed her lips
together. Never, she wanted to
say. She wouldn't be bought back into
Company service. Not after fighting her
whole life to be free. She wasn't a
floater anymore, so poor she had to trust fate and Company promises for the
food she ate and the air she breathed.
With a military career, she'd pay her own way...and bring to justice any
Company that dared break the law in her jurisdiction.
She wanted to tell Williams
this, to throw the datacube in his face.
But to avoid further argument, she nodded and slipped it into her
Murphy huddled in the lower
bunk, the crisp white sheets pulled up to her chin. The storm she'd seen brewing yesterday had fulfilled its
promise. She wished Tali didn't have night
watch. Another clang rattled the
University's dome and she shivered.
Intellectually, Murphy knew
there was atmosphere outside the dome.
Ares's gravitational pull held a thin covering of sulfur-tainted
air. When a breach occurred, students
and staff collected in the main hall and waited for the repair crew to patch
She knew she wasn't in danger,
but her gut didn't buy it. A floater
childhood had taught her how fragile life could be. Murphy didn't share her fellow students faith in an atmosphere.
Another clang. Murphy's heart clenched. She wrapped the sheets tighter around
herself. If she closed her eyes, she
could pretend it was a pressure suit.
Someone pounded on the door.
Murphy jumped. She panted a moment before answering, "Come
Jenks rushed in. His dark hair was tousled, his eyes were
wild. He fell on his knees beside her
bunk. "You've got to save him--it's
my fault, if anything happens to him."
Murphy drew back against the
wall. "What's happened?"
"Haverfield's stolen a
shuttle and taken it into the storm."
Murphy's voice rose. "This storm? Is he insane?"
"The storm's why he
went. To prove himself," Jenks
said. "Me and some of the guys
were ribbing him about the sim--we didn't mean any harm by it--we were talking
about your piloting record, and I laughed and said that you could've flown
through a class-V storm like this. I
dared him to. I didn't expect him to
take me seriously--but he did. He's
flying to Jagg's Canyon to prove he's better than you."
Jagg's canyon shot straight out
of the planetoid's crust, the result of a grazing blow from the rock that used
to be Ares's moon. The walls were gray
stone, a kilometer high and half a kilometer wide. High pressure shears blasted up from the canyon wall, crushing
atmospheric craft against the dense cliffs.
In the time she had been here, it had killed four cadets.
Jagg's was dangerous in clear
weather, in a class-V storm--lethal.
"I lost radio contact eight
minutes ago," Jenks said.
In the silence that followed,
the storm roared against the station's dome.
"Then he's dead," she
said. "Jagg's smashed him
flat." Her throat tightened with
remorse. What part, however passive,
had she played in the impulse that led to Haverfield's doom?
"No. He made it down. His leg's broken, but he's alive."
"What?" Murphy leapt to the com. "Then we have to notify ground
Jenks's hand came down on hers,
stopping her from placing the call.
"Ground rescue won't fly in this.
The winds are at three hundred kilometers per hour and all atmospheric
craft have been grounded. Jenks drew a
long breath. "His ship is split in
half, there's no life support. His
lungs will be parboiled by the time ground rescue could reach him by
crawler. You're his only hope. No one can fly through those winds. No one but you."
Murphy pulled her hand away from
his and backed up a step. "You
want me to attempt a rescue that ground control, with all their training and
"You're the only one who
can help him. Ground control has the
equipment, but they don't have your skill.
You fly better than most people breathe."
Murphy considered his
words. She was good--but good enough to
fly Jagg's through a class-V storm? A
thrill of fear and challenge fluttered in her stomach. For a moment she wanted to make the attempt,
for the same stupid reason that had sent Haverfield out there, to see if she
could. Then sense reasserted itself. Murphy shook her head. "I can't go against regulations. Not this close to graduation. There're enough people around here who want
to see me bumped as it is."
Jenks's expression sobered. "Prichett told me you wouldn't
help. But you have to--you're the only
pilot at the University with the skill to save him."
Murphy was torn in two
directions. Part of her was afraid of
the storm and the potential consequences to her career, and part of her was
gratified by the compliment.
Jenks pressed on, "You've
flow in high-wind conditions before--the records say that you flew through a
class-IV storm last winter. The weather
turned bad during a training exercise and you were the only one who could get
through the storm to summon ground rescue.
"Yes, but that was
different. My instructor ordered me to
go for help. Here, I don't have any
authority to attempt a rescue. I'd have
to contact the control tower. Ask them
"They won't let you
fly--it's too dangerous." He
frowned. "You're going to let a
man die because you're afraid of regulations?
I'd think anyone who'd fight the system and become the first floater to
attend CMU would have the courage to bend a few rules. Especially when a man's life is at
Murphy Jenks’s accusation like a
blow. He was right. She wouldn’t have been the first floater to
attend the University if she hadn’t been willing to break with convention. Could she now turn away from saving a man's
life because she was afraid of a reprimand?"
"I don't have a ship,"
"Yes you do," Jenks
said. "My father gave me a
sportster as an early graduation present.
Take it. It's a solid ship, fast
and maneuverable, an Avocet Phaeton."
Murphy thought long and hard,
weighing her options.
"You've got to do it,
Murphy," Jenks said. "His
life is in your hands."
Murphy listened to the wind
screaming against the dome. She'd
turned her back on floater life to make something of herself in the grounder
world. Why should she risk that to help
a smart-ass pilot she didn’t even like?
Jenks stretched his hands out to
her, imploring. "This is a life or
death situation. You're the only one
who can save him."
His words got to her. If she saved Haverfield, she wouldn't be
lower class, a floater, a throw-away worker, a shadow of her father's
legend. Just this once, she could do
something Colonel Osborne would have to respect. Just this once, she’d be a hero.
"He's running out of
air. Murphy, please."
"Shit. This is the stupidest stunt..." She sighed.
"I'll do it."
"That's great!" Jenks grinned and he pumped her hand. "That's really great of you. I knew you wouldn't let us down."
Murphy smiled, but
halfheartedly. She was doing what
needed to be done. She was the only
person who could save Haverfield, but that didn't stop a pang of misgiving--and
fear. She'd never flown a class-V
storm, no one had, without crashing, especially not in a rich man's toy
car. But wasn't doing what had to be
done--in spite of fear--what courage was all about?
The private garage was empty,
illuminated only by amber safety lights set into the wall at chest height. The roar of the storm was deafening against
the bay doors. Murphy smelled fuel and
The Avocet Phaeton was a sweet
atmospheric vehicle. Sleek wings swept
back from a wasp-shaped body. A nest of
sliver exhaust pipes swarmed around the wheels and back of the car. Its detailing gleamed black and silver.
"Rich," she said, as
she climbed into its velvet upholstery.
Jenks leaned in with a scrap of
paper. "These are the coordinates
Haverfield gave when he crashed."
He swallowed. "Thanks for
doing this, Murphy. I know he's
unbearably proud, but he doesn't deserve to die for it."
"So why didn't you stop
He reddened. "I didn't think he really meant to do
it. I didn't know he was gone until he
called in." After a pause, Jenks reached
in the cockpit and grasped her shoulder.
"You'll never know how much this means to me, Murphy."
"I haven't brought him back
yet." She shrugged his hand off,
The ship eased up to the bay
doors on low power. She wouldn't apply
full thrust until she taxied. She
wanted to put as much of the storm between her and the control tower before she
powered up. Jenks opened the bay door
from the wall panel controls.
Chaos waited outside. Tan and gray whorls of dust limited
visibility to ten meters. Balls of
sulfur-laden water the size and shape of Murphy's thumb cut streaks through the
The ship pitched and yawed when
the winds hit the open bay. She applied
forward thrust to keep the Phaeton from flipping back onto its left wing. The ship vibrated as its engines fought the
blast. It crept out of the hanger.
A high-velocity crosswind tilted
the craft onto two wheels. Murphy
angled into the wind and revved the engine.
She fought to stay upright. The wind grabbed the Phaeton and lifted it
into the air. Turbulence tossed the
ship down and she opened the throttle further to gain altitude.
Murphy watched the instruments
as she fought the driving headwind. The
She breathed out, centering
herself. She relaxed into an alternate
perspective, the one she had grown up in.
To a floater there was no up, no down; just close and far away. Floaters thought in three dimensions. The ground was just another wall.
The craft dipped towards the
She pulled back. Gravity.
Murphy balanced the two perspectives: a floater's ability to intuit
three dimensions, and a grounder's constant awareness of the gravitational
field. Her talent navigated that
edge. Her edge.
She angled towards Jagg's
A sizzling pop spattered off her
right wing. Lightning strike. The air exploded. Deafened, Murphy fought to keep the ship level.
"Praise Faraday," she
prayed automatically. Farther off, a
second boom of thunder reverberated in her stomach.
A high wind cut across her left
wing. The pressure dropped on that side
and suddenly the craft inverted. A
loose stylus fell towards the ceiling.
There was a clatter from the back of the ship as items shifted in the
Murphy rolled the Phaeton. The altimeter dropped to two hundred meters,
one hundred, fifty.
A stone outcropping jutted out
of the haze. Murphy banked hard to the
right and poured on the throttle to gain altitude. Another stone spike cut the dust, sixty meters high. Murphy fought the stick and dodged
left. The Phaeton clipped the rock. Sparks flew from the right wing tip.
it," Murphy swore.
The Phaeton wobbled and
caught. With the wingtip gone, it
listed to the right.
The slate-colored cliffs of
Jagg's canyon bisected the horizon in front of her. She corrected her velocity vector and headed for Haverfield's
High pressure shears threw dust
and debris from the canyon floor. It
crashed over the rim in a opaque wave.
She was going to need more momentum than the sportster's small engine
could supply to break through those winds.
Murphy inverted the craft. The ground rolled crazily in the
window. For a second, she lost her
floater's perspective. She nearly panicked. Then it was just a wall again.
Inverted, the airfoils sucked
the Phaeton towards the ground. It
dove, trading altitude for speed. Her
attention flicked back and forth between the altimeter and the velocity
shuddered when she hit the wall of dust.
Her window turned brown, all visibility gone. She had only the altimeter and the transponder to keep her from
crashing into the ground or the canyon walls.
When the transponder said she
was directly over the canyon she rolled the Phaeton into a straight dive. Her vision tunneled as the acceleration
slammed her back into the seat. A rock
spanged off her left wing. Murphy's
heart nearly stopped. She wasn't
dead. It wasn't the canyon wall. Not yet.
Suddenly the canyon floor burst
into view. She was below the wind
Her Phaeton dropped down below
the canyon rim, seconds before the updrafts plowed it towards the cliff
face. It shuddered as wind shear off
the canyon walls threatened to flip the craft.
Murphy fought to right the ship.
The engine stalled.
The sportster dropped like a
stone. One-one-thousand, Two-one-thousand. The ground rushed up. Three-one-thousand. Murphy flicked the starter. Four-one-thousand. The engine sputtered. Five one-thousand. Caught.
Murphy pushed the throttle full in and pulled the craft out of its dive. The ground rushed by thirty meters
The air was calm inside the
canyon. Murphy turned the sportster in
a tight spiral over Haverfield's coordinates.
The ground was empty.
Did Jenks miscalculate? She widened her search pattern. Was Haverfield's transponder faulty? Unrelieved gray stone met the horizon. A cold dread filtered in from the back of
her mind. It dripped down her spine.
She pushed the thought
away. Jenks must given her the wrong
coordinates. He'd been scared. He must have transposed digits. Hand shaking, she flipped open the com.
There was no connection. Only static. The signal couldn't get through the storm and the canyon walls.
The winds above the canyon rim
howled with increasing velocity. No one
else could make it through the storm.
If she turned back now and Haverfield was...in the canyon, he would
And she'd be a failure. Again.
Murphy made a decision. She would find him. Going against search-and-rescue protocol,
she put her own life in jeopardy to find Haverfield. She searched up and down the canyon floor, scanning every meter
Nothing. He wasn’t there.
She ran the Phaeton down to the
shallow entrance of the canyon and back into the storm. The winds were picking up speed. This was no time for stealth. She drove the ship higher, trying to rise
above the storm.
The Phaeton broke out of the
soot-colored haze into clear sky. The
storm below her looked like a solid horizon.
The clouds roiled beneath her like a restless landscape.
Two gnats broke out of a cloud
on her left. They moved fast, cutting
the vapor into streamers behind them.
Murphy swallowed. Even at this
distance she recognized the green and black markings of the University police.
N9UDSEW3," a man's voice called over the hailing frequency, "You are
flying a stolen vehicle in an unauthorized airspace. Identify your pilot."
Murphy's heart stopped. She closed her eyes and inhaled. "Lieutenant Thiadora Murphy. I commandeered this vessel for a rescue mission."
"There is no record of a
rescue attempt. Who is in danger?"
There was a pause. "The tower says Haverfield reported for
watch duty thirty minutes ago."
The police scouters followed the
Phaeton down. Murphy taxied it to the
hangar through puddles of sulfurous water.
A heavy rain spattered against the windshield, leaving tan streaks
across the glass. She turned into the
Two MPs were questioning
Jenks. When she taxied in and opened
the cockpit, Jenks turned and pointed.
"That's her," Jenks
said. "That's the woman who stole