NovelsSyne Mitchell Science Fiction and Fantasy Author

Murphy's Gambit

Part 1

 

"An object at rest tends to stay at rest...until acted upon by an outside force."

                                     

--Mechanics, Book of Newton 1:1


 

Chapter 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 behind her.

Murphy snapped to tighter attention.

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 floater's marks.

"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 condition.

“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 stranger said.

Murphy swung into a wide stance. 

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, Sir."

"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 that Haverfield--"

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 military intelligence. 

Osborne's mouth worked.  He scowled and said, "As you wish."

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.

"Dismissed," Osborne barked.

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 bunk.

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 myself."

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 simulation."

"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 me."

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 morning.”

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--

"Hey Jellyfish!"

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 food trays.

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 ground?" 

"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 family."

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 their seats.

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."

Murphy's shoulders 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?"

"Sir, he--"

"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 furtively. 

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 sphincter."

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. 

"Which company’s involved?"

"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 narrowed. 

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?

"Welcome," said 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 problem, Lieutenant?"

"Sir, you haven’t briefed us on the craft.  How are we supposed to fly a ship we know nothing about?  Sir."

"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 controls."

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 door. 

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 interior. 

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 popped open.

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 felt broken.

Osborne carried Haverfield over his shoulder.  He lowered the lieutenant to the floor.  "You all right, Boy?"

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 screen.  "Reset 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 candidate."

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 suit?"

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.

"Excellent question," Williams said, making a note on his hand-held, "but a suit is not required."

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 acceleration.

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 playing?

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 IFOs. 

Murphy fumbled with the controls, searching for magnification.  There.  Three ships approaching fast. 

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 broadside. 

The simulator slammed Murphy left.

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 another salvo.

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 Gods-damned script!

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 unfamiliar stars. 

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 airlock.

Williams reached in and offered his hand.  Murphy grasped it and he pulled her out. 

"Excellent," he said, clasping her wrist.  "That was excellent."

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 Murphy.

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 at--"

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 careers. 

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, then?" 

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, then--"

"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: Jenks. 

"Shut up," said Haverfield. 

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 gees?"

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."

"Better than you?"  Jenks asked with mock disbelief.  "Better than the incomparable Haverfield?"

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 expensive cologne.

They were alone in the room.  Osborne, apparently, hadn’t been invited.

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 CEA."

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 working for?"

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--"

"You must 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 print?"

"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 that?"

"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 it." 

His brow wrinkled with concern.  "You won't reconsider?" 

Murphy's tone softened.  "I'm sorry, but my decision is final." 

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 me."

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 jacket.

 

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 the dome.

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 in."

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."

"Oh Gods."

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 rescue."

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 equipment won't?"

"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 for clearance."

"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 stake."

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," she protested. 

"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 lubricants.

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 him?"

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, embarrassed.

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 dust.

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 ship stabilized. 

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 horizon.

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 canyon.

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 stow-boxes.

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. 

"Stabilize, goddamn 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 coordinates. 

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 readouts. 

The ship 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 shear.

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.  Six one-thousand.  Murphy pushed the throttle full in and pulled the craft out of its dive.  The ground rushed by thirty meters below. 

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 die. 

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 of ground.

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.

"Private craft, 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?"

"Lieutenant Haverfield, Sir."

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 private hangar. 

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 my Phaeton."

 


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