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Murphy's Law

Written by Douglas Smith
Illustrated by Richmont Gan

Dex hadn't planned to save the entire human race. Mostly, he'd been trying not to die, while still keeping his job in the process—two goals that, Dex had learned, were often mutually exclusive. However, since humanity remained unobliterated, from Earth to the outer ring colonies, while Jack Dexter—Dex to his friends—remained broke, he figured that his fellow humans at the House Limit could at least buy him a beer.

The Limit was the only spacer bar on Station Beta One, making it the perfect destination for two things: cheap beer and a good yarn. More importantly, Dex knew that the second could serve as payment for the first.

Crash Carswell was lovingly polishing the long strip of white heat shielding that formed the top of the bar when Dex walked in. The shielding came from Crash's old tug ship, a vessel that had provided both Crash's nickname and much of the décor of the Limit. The big bartender scowled when he saw Dex.

"No credit, Dex."

"Nice to see you too, Crash," Dex said. Tossing his last pay chip on the bar with a sigh, he ordered a beer then made his way to where a crowd of regulars was sitting at the back.

Long, dark, and narrow, the Limit wasn't like the spacious, comfy watering holes that catered to tourists and business types. Everything in the Limit was salvaged from real ships, from the gray plasteel hull plates covering the walls and low curved ceiling to the viewports welded onto deck struts that served as tables. The place had the close, cramped feel of a ship and the smell of too many spacers in too small a space. Dex felt right at home.

Nodding to some familiar faces in the circle, he slipped into an empty chair that had once been a crew seat from Crash's tug. Sly Silverstein was in the middle of a story about transporting Fanarucci viper eggs that had hatched in transit. Dex sat for an hour, nursing his beer and listening to others tell their tales, waiting for exactly the right moment.

It came as Stumpy Burgess finished a rambling and—in Dex's view—uninspired story of how a string of improbable accidents had left his ore freighter drifting towards a black hole.

"Murphy's Law," Stumpy declared. " 'If anything can go wrong, it will.' That's what happened to us."

"Aye," Sly Silverstein agreed. "And it'll pick the worst time and place to do it. Murphy's Law is right."

Like any good pilot—and storyteller—Dex knew an opening when he saw it. "I knew him," he said.

All eyes turned towards him. "Knew who, Dex?" Sly asked.

"Murphy," Dex replied quietly.

Stumpy snorted. "Whaddya mean? There's no real Murphy."

"I heard there was," Sly said. "Some fly-boy on Earth, before the Fall. They say . . ."

"Ah, that's a load of moon dust," Stumpy interrupted.

Dex stood up, both to cut off Sly's retort and to move his chair into the center. "Nevertheless, gentlemen and ladies—and using such terms to describe this audience will be the last time I stretch the truth today—" Dex paused for some good-natured guffaws. "—nevertheless, I knew Murphy. Or rather a 'Murphy.' For ever since our ancestors crawled from the primordial muck, we've had Murphies among us—sad souls who attract more than their fair share of calamity." Noting that he had everyone's undivided attention, Dex glanced at his empty glass.

"Ah, jeez, all right," Stumpy groaned and called to the bar. "Crash, bring Dex a brew on my tab. Just this one, mind you. Some other sucker can spring for the next."

Crash brought the beer and joined the group himself. Dex took a swallow. "Not to denigrate in any way the risks faced by Mr. Burgess in his fine tale, but my encounter with the vagaries of Murphy's Law placed not merely myself and our ship in danger, but also—and I rely on my reputation for veracity here to escape your disbelief—the entire human race."

"Veracity, my ass," Stumpy growled. "Just earn your beer."

Dex grinned and continued.

* * *

I first met Murphy serving on the MCES Fiscal Restraint, a freighter in the Merged Corporate Entity's fleet. I was first officer. Or chief cook. Or security chief. Take your pick. It kind of depended on the day.

To appreciate how Murphy came to have the impact that he did, you need to understand that the MCE in its corporate wisdom had recently made cost-saving "improvements" across all of its fleet. Most of these savings had taken the form of smaller crews, resulting in double or even triple roles for those of us "lucky" enough to have made the cut. So one day, you might be supervising a jump through a wormhole, and the next cleaning the latrine.

We were refueling at the jump station on Devon II, and I was trolling spacer bars desperately trying to replace the most recent member of our crew to decide that unemployment beat working for the MCE. You see, the MCE's HR policy memo number 1394-A stated that any MCE vessel must maintain a minimum crew complement, to remain compliant with corporate insurance policies. We were currently one short of that minimum, so we'd be stuck at the jump station until I found a replacement. My sales pitch emphasized the "variety" of experience available on the Restraint. But so far, I'd failed to find anyone sufficiently uninformed or desperate enough to sign on with an MCE ship.

Then I met Murphy.

I found him in the Jack High Flush, a bar that makes our present surroundings look classy. Or rather, he found me. I'd run out of candidates and was trying to drink down enough courage to tell Captain Henshaw that we'd have to delay our jump. Henshaw didn't like bad news, and I still was at least three drinks away from not caring.

"Excuse me, but I hear you're hiring," a voice said.

I looked up, expecting to see one of my crew, pulling my leg. Instead, I saw Murphy. Or rather, I didn't see Murphy. You see, he had one of those faces that is so plain that it makes its owner seem insignificant and inconsequential, almost invisible and easy to overlook. Which is what I did. I looked at him, past him, and then back to an intense study of my empty glass, blaming its former contents for my imagining voices.

"Excuse me, but are you hiring?"

I looked up again, forcing myself to focus on him this time, focus on lonely puppy-dog eyes in a round face that sat under black, tousled hair and on top of a small, lean frame.

"Uh, yes. Yes, I am," I said, collecting my inebriated thoughts just enough to grasp at this last straw I now saw before me. I launched into my spiel. "The Fiscal Restraint is the finest ship in the MCE fleet. It boasts—"

"I'll take it," he said.

"—unblemished record of under-budget . . . What?"

"I'll take it. The position. I'd like to sign on to the Restraint."

"You will? You don't want to hear about the medical plan?"

"Not especially."

"Good, cuz it's lousy, and I'm tired of reciting it." I stuck out my hand. "Jack Dexter, First Officer."

"Orville Sod, but most people call me 'Murphy.'" He shook my hand and sat down beside me.

"Why Murphy?"

"It beats Orville," he said, which made sense at the time. Ah, the benefit of hindsight.

"You sure you want to sign on?"

"You're not much of a recruiter, are you?" he said with a sad smile.

I grinned. "I am drunk, Murph, and when drunk, my sense of guilt outweighs my sense of duty. The Restraint is not much of an opportunity. It's an MCE ship, so the pay's crap, but they make up for that by overworking you in lousy jobs."

"You're going to the outer colonies, aren't you?"

"Next jump. As soon as we're at full complement."

"Then I'll sign on."

"I should shut up, but I need to know your experience."

When I heard his background, I figured that I was still out of luck. He had the creds for a senior engineer, having worked on a dozen ships plus a generating plant on a middle ring world.

"Shit, Murph. We aren't looking for an engineer, just a Class III crewman for a bunch of sh— uh, low level jobs."

He shrugged. "I'll still sign on. I want to get to the outer colonies, and I don't mind doing menial work to get there."

I wondered about that, as well as the number of times he'd moved and his short stints with each employer, but he seemed bright, sincere, and likeable enough. And hell, at the time and in that place, I couldn't be picky.

So I signed Murphy on and felt very pleased with myself as we made the jump to Sector Seven . . .

* * *

"Sector Seven?" Stumpy interrupted. "Where we made first contact with the Gorunds?"

Dexter took a swig, noting that his audience had grown and that mention of the Gorunds had won him everyone's undivided attention. "Yep. If you describe making contact as them T-beaming most of our colonies from orbit." He took another swallow. "Now, where was I? Oh, right. Sector Seven . . ."

* * *

We made the jump and set course at sub-light for our first colony stop. I assigned Murphy to general maintenance, which included assisting our passengers.

You see, the Restraint was an old freighter converted by MCE, like its crew, to do double-duty. The cabins of my now-redundant former shipmates now served as passenger suites. I guess MCE figured to add some revenue as well as cutting costs, the greedy bastards. We were hauling dome field generators and nano-bot miners to MCE Colony 7-27, one of the few outposts that the Gorund attack had spared.

In our passenger section was Mr. Jackson Thorburn, the new governor of that colony, his wife Millicent, and their ten-year-old son, James. The governor was a little withdrawn, but not a bad sort, and I wondered what past peccadillo had prompted MCE to exile him to a Sector Seven colony. I put his demeanor down to him ruminating on his bleak future—and Mrs. Thorburn.

Millicent Thorburn had the haughty bearing of dowager empress and the personality of a rabid skunk, which is perhaps speaking too harshly of both royalty and skunks. She did not walk around the ship so much as parade through it, commandeering any unwary crewmember she encountered to accompany her to perform one chore after another. These jobs usually involved addressing perceived deficiencies in her "stateroom" or in the conglomeration of medical equipment that constantly surrounded young James.

James Thorburn was the exception to the rule that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. In fact, as I got to know him, I couldn't believe he was from the Thorburn tree at all. He was friendly and bright, with a hunger for any and all information about the ship. He was supposedly, however, in the words of Mrs. Thorburn, "on the very brink of death." The boy lived his life cocooned in a personal force field, to "keep out all the dreadful germs" and accompanied by an array of bio-monitors that floated beside him wherever he went.

Now, to my eye, James was the healthiest-looking resident of death's doorstep I'd ever encountered.

I raised this question with Mrs. Thorburn shortly after they had boarded the Restraint. Mrs. Thorburn had just delivered a litany of instructions for keeping the boy isolated from unnecessary contact with lower life forms such as the crew.

"Mrs. Thorburn, what exactly is young James suffering from?" I asked.

She sniffed. Mrs. Thorburn always sniffed. She seemed incapable of speech without sniffing. I wondered if skunks sniffed too.

"James has a severely diminished immune system. He is susceptible to a wide range of infections and therefore must be protected from contamination—" She fixed me with an icy stare as she emphasized that word, and I had a feeling that if Millicent Thorburn looked up "contamination" in the ship's computer, she'd expect to see my picture. "—at all times. At all times! Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

As clear as a skunk's perfume, I thought. "I've informed the crew that contact with James must be kept to a minimum, Mrs. Thorburn."

Another sniff. "See that they comply. Meanwhile, send someone to our stateroom. One of James' monitors is acting up." With that, she turned on her heel and sailed down the hallway.

Now before anything comes aboard an MCE ship, be it animal, vegetable or mineral, it is scanned, poked, prodded and generally examined five ways from Sunday to determine its exact nature and condition. The Entity wants to know what it's transporting, and most importantly, if any goods are dangerous or illegal. Do not mistake this for a concern by MCE for either the crew's safety or the law. Identifying dangerous or illegal cargo simply allows MCE to charge an even more exorbitant fee for such items.

This screening now extended to our latest class of cargo, our passengers. As a result, young James had likewise been scanned, poked, prodded and generally examined five ways from Sunday before we left by our ship's doctor, Hajib Fasil.

"There's nothing wrong with that kid's immune system, Dex," Haj confided over a bottle of Andusian ale, from a case that had somehow been damaged on loading. We had dutifully inspected the case's contents and found that several bottles needed to be consumed immediately to prevent spoilage. "If you ask me, it's just something that old cow—"

"Skunk," I corrected. "After extensive research, I have determined that her closest zoological relation is a skunk."

"—just something she's invented to keep the boy under her thumb. She's certainly a control freak."

"Control skunk," I corrected. But if Haj was right, then Mrs. Thorburn was needlessly limiting James' ability to enjoy life. Regrettable, but not my problem. At least, it wasn't until Murphy got involved.

We were two weeks out from the jump point and a month from our first colony stop. I was passing through the passenger section when I heard Mrs. Thorburn scream. Now I say "scream" but that word, worthy a verb though it is, conveys neither the volume nor the nerve-grating pitch of that sound. I froze as Mrs. Thorburn exploded from their compartment into the hallway. She set her eyes on me like a Fanarucci viper spying a rodent far from its burrow, grabbed me by a lapel and pulled me inside.

"He's killing my son!" she screamed, shaking a bony finger towards the scene at the end of the room.

James was sitting on the floor—the "disgustingly dirty, germ-covered floor" as Mrs. Thorburn later related to Henshaw—surrounded by his ubiquitous array of hovering bio-monitors. A very worried-looking Murphy sat beside him. Between them lay the small cylinder of James' personal force field generator. I didn't know much about those devices, but I guessed that the sparks and smoke it was spewing out weren't a normal selling feature. I realized then why James looked different—I'd never before seen the boy without the shimmer of his protective force field between us.

"Murph? What happened?" I asked.

"Stop breathing on my son!" Mrs. Thorburn shouted. "Get out! Both of you!" Throwing herself between us and James, she herded us out of the room. "Send someone to fix that generator immediately, someone who doesn't break everything he touches—"

"I didn't break—" Murphy began.

"And make sure you send them in a sealed suit. I don't want another lummox contaminating my son. Now get out!"

She slid the door shut with a slam, almost taking my arm with it. I turned to Murphy. "What happened?"

He reddened. "I don't know, sir. I was trying to fix one of the kid's bio-monitors, like Mrs. Thorburn asked." He shot a look back at the compartment. "She wouldn't let the kid out of there until it was fixed. Not much of a life for him, is it?"

"Murphy, what happened?" I repeated.

He didn't meet my eyes. "I don't know, sir. Suddenly that force field thing just shut down."

He seemed less surprised at the situation than I'd have expected. But part of me was secretly pleased with Murphy for causing Mrs. Thorburn so much grief, so I just clapped him on the back. "Forget it. I'll reassign you to the mess hall. That'll keep you out of trouble and away from Mrs. Thorburn."

Wrong. And wrong.

I was on my way to the mess hall later to grab dinner when I heard a high-pitched whining. Thinking it an alarm, I sped up, rounding a corner only to find the hallway blocked by crew and passengers. It was then I recognized the sound. Mrs. Thorburn. I pushed my way through the crowd and into the mess where I confronted a scene of culinary devastation.

The walls, floor, and even the ceiling were coated in what I assumed were selections from today's menu. Beside each table, the serving apertures that delivered the diner's requested meal continued to spew out food, projecting each helping at high speed across the room. Alone in the middle of this bombardment stood my favorite passenger.

Mrs. Thorburn normally left a visual impression that spoke of hours of obsessive primping. At the moment, however, a gooey yellow liquid plastered her mousy brown hair to her head and face, and long white noodles drooped all over her. On spying me, she stomped her foot, causing the end of a noodle currently dangling from her nose to do a perfect loop around her face and settle on her left ear.

"He's done it again!" she screamed at me, pointing to the far corner. There stood Murphy, trying very hard to look invisible as usual. It wasn't working.

I ordered two crew members to help Mrs. Thorburn back to her room. She began screaming something as I hauled Murphy out, but her no doubt valuable advice was cut off when a white mushy blob from an aperture hit her squarely in the mouth.

Alone in a hallway, I confronted Murphy. "What the hell was that?" I asked.

"Mashed potatoes, I think. On top of chicken soup."

"I mean what happened? Jeez, Murph. And with Mrs. Thorburn again?"

He hung his head. "I don't know, sir. I'd programmed in today's menu, but then she arrived, looked at the choices, and demanded something else. I was reprogramming her unit when it started. I guess I hit a wrong sequence."

"I hope you remember that sequence, Murph. We'll add it to our weapons system."

He grinned. "She did look pretty funny, though, didn't she, Mr. Dexter?"

I grinned back at him. "Dex. Call me Dex. Yeah, she looked pretty funny." I sighed. "Okay, we need another duty for you. One with no possible contact with Mrs. T."

I settled on having him assist our navigator. Navigation was off-limits to passengers, and Murphy's background included interfacing engineering systems with navigation computers. Murphy wasn't too keen on the idea, saying he'd never worked on the particular system we had, but I explained that he wouldn't need to do much since our course was already programmed.

I was awakened in the middle of my sleep shift by my door buzzer. I opened the door to find our chief engineer, Roberta Fallon, glaring at me, and Murphy trying again to look invisible. With our smaller crew, navigation now fell under Fallon. I had a sinking feeling she wasn't reporting Murphy for a dress code violation.

"Problem?" I asked.

"Only if you count having no navigation computer," Fallon said, pushing past me into my quarters with Murphy in tow. "Mr. Murphy says he can explain, but only to you."

We sat down. Well, Fallon and I sat. Murphy assumed more of a head-down huddle.

"Murph?" I asked.

"I thought I had it under control, Dex. Then she—" Murphy stopped. He wore the saddest expression I'd seen since Near-sighted Ned Turner, after betting a month's pay on a straight flush, realized that the seven of spades he thought he'd drawn was really the seven of clubs.

"Had what under control?"

"Things . . . happen around me," he whispered.

I felt something very cold and unpleasant growing in my gut. I swallowed. "Uh, what kinds of things?"

He shrugged. "Stuff breaks. Or stops working. Or starts working at the wrong time."

All those jobs he'd had. The frequent moves. The short stints in each place. His nickname. I groaned as everything fell into place. "Murphy's Law."

"What?" Fallon asked.

Murphy then told us his sad history, of the years of causing havoc in machines, equipment, and computers wherever he went. "I don't know how or why it happens, I just know it does. I have a lifetime of proof."

"God, Murph. Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.

"I wanted to get to a new colony, a place with fewer machines and computers and technology." He looked at me. "A place where I could help not hurt, Dex, where I could belong."

"You could have got us killed," Fallon said. "Isn't a space ship a dumb place for you to work?"

Murphy shook his head. "I've had it under control for years. I learned how to focus whatever's inside me, to keep it damped down, quiet. I thought I could control it for the trip."

"So what happened to change that?" I asked.

His face clouded. "Mrs. Thorburn."


Murphy sighed. "My problem first appeared when I was about James' age. My parents—" His voice got harder. "My parents decided that the best solution was to keep me isolated, away from other kids, from people, from machines. From the world. They kept a normal life by taking mine away from me."

"Like Mrs. Thorburn is doing to James," I said.

"Seeing what she's doing to that kid brought back all my old anger, made me remember what it was like being cut off from the world."

"Well, that explains the incidents with her. But what happened in navigation?"

Murphy shook his head. "This thing inside me has got stirred up too much. I can't control it right now. I will eventually, but it could take weeks of meditation."

I sighed and turned to Fallon. "How bad is it?"

She shrugged. "The navigation computer's toast. But our course was set, so we'll make the colony. We can fix it there if they have parts, else we'll have to wait for a supply ship."

I groaned. "I'd better tell Henshaw."

Fallon brightened. "Can I come? That should be very entertaining."

After confining Murphy to his quarters, I went to Henshaw's cabin, accompanied by Fallon despite my protests. Henshaw was working at his desk. We sat down, and I cleared my throat.

Henshaw looked up at me and swore. "Oh, crap."


"You always clear your throat before telling me something I don't want to hear, Dex. So what's wrong?"

I related the navigation situation and the story of Murphy, with Fallon happily adding any embarrassing details I omitted. Henshaw shook his head. "You're telling me that you hired a crew member for a space ship who cannot come in contact—"

"Or even close proximity," Fallon added in a helpful tone.

"—with anything mechanical, electrical, or computerized," Henshaw finished, glaring at Fallon.

I swallowed. "'Fraid so, Cap."

"Jeez, Dex. Good move."

"Well," Fallon offered, "at least Dex didn't stick him in Engineering. We'd have blown up by now."

Henshaw glared at her again. "Thank you, Chief Engineer, for that perspective." He rubbed a hand through his thinning hair and sighed. "All right, Dex, see that Murphy stays in his cabin and away from anything we don't want going perflooie."

"Is that a technical term, sir?"

"Shut up, Fallon."

I cleared my throat again. Henshaw groaned. "What else?"

"Well, there's MCE's HR policy memo number 1394-A," I replied.

Henshaw frowned. "Number 1394-A says we must maintain a minimum crew complement. So? Murphy brought us up to minimum, and he's still part of the crew on our records."

"Ah, but there's also the more recent and much beloved memo number 2405-E. The Min-Max Memo," Fallon added with a smile. She was enjoying this far too much.

"The Min-Max Memo?" Henshaw repeated.

I sighed. "Memo number 2405-E requires that crew members log a minimum number of hours in order to count in our complement, and that no crew member's hours exceed the safety maximum in our insurance policy. Murphy won't meet that minimum sitting in his cabin, and those of us covering for him with extra duty will exceed the max."

"So whoever covers for Murphy logs some hours against his I.D.," Henshaw replied.

I shook my head. "Time logging works automatically. The system scans our biometrics at whatever station we're working at to positively I.D. us and then logs the time we spend there. We can't fake being Murphy."

"Who would want to be Murphy, anyway?" Fallon said.

"Shut up, Fallon." Henshaw banged his fist down on the desk. "Damn it, Dex! You brought this albatross onboard. You fix it! And I mean now!"

I looked at Fallon. She shrugged and bit her lip, any trace of a grin now gone. This was serious.

* * *

Dex paused to drain his glass, and then considered the circle of faces surrounding him in rapt attention like a ring of human moons captured by the gravity of his tale.

"So there I was," Dex continued. "My back to the proverbial wall, and a wall containing a roaring fireplace since my ass was getting well roasted. It was then, gentlemen and ladies of this dubious and overpriced establishment, that I came up with the most brilliant and surprising solution to our predicament, an idea that not only saved my career and our ship, but also quite possibly our entire species."

"That must have been some solution," Silverstein said. "So you gonna tell us what it was?"

Dex raised an eyebrow at his empty glass, and Crash leapt up to refill it. Once Crash returned, Dex took another long swig. "Ah, that's better. Now, where was I?"

"Your brilliant freaking solution," Stumpy growled.

"Right. Yes, friends, it was a solution destined to become renowned not only for its sagacity, but also, like many of you present, for its simplicity . . ."

* * *

"What?!" Henshaw roared.

"Dex, that's brilliant!" Fallon cried.

"Brilliant? It's bloody insane! Are you totally spaced?" Henshaw said.

I shrugged. "It works, Cap."

Henshaw glared at me. "You want to make Murphy . . . captain?"

"Captain is the only position not required to log time," I replied. "So the computer wouldn't need to scan Murphy's biometrics. And you'll be available to help the rest of us out so nobody exceeds the maximum hour limit."

"You don't do anything important anyway," Fallon offered.

"Chief Engineer, you aren't helping," Henshaw said. He turned to me. "Do you really think that this ship can function without a real captain?"

I bit back my first thought, as Fallon covered a smirk. "Only because you've done such a great job of building your team, Cap," I said.

"Ass kisser," he replied.

"And we'd still rely on you for direction, sir," I said.

"As we always have, Captain," Fallon added with a straight face.

"Shut up, Fallon," Henshaw snapped. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "But what jobs would I do? I mean, my technical skills are a little . . . rusty."

"Oh, we're so under-crewed that there'll be plenty of ways to help out, sir," Fallon offered with a grin. I knew she was imagining Henshaw on latrine duty.

"You could assist Mrs. Thorburn," I offered.

Henshaw glared at me. "I'd rather clean the latrines," he said. Fallon's grin broadened.

I got the task of telling Murphy. I sat him down on my bunk, far from my computer console, com link, and coffee maker. Especially the coffee maker. I considered some technology more crucial than others.

"Captain?" he said. "Me? I don't know anything about being a leader." Murphy sat hunched over, looking even more insignificant and inconsequential than when we'd first met.

"Neither does Henshaw. Murph, it's the only solution. Don't worry. You won't have to make any decisions. We'll still take everything to Henshaw. It's just for the ship's records."

Well, Murphy wasn't very happy about it, but by then I'd decided that he was never really happy about most events in his life. So on the ship's roster database, Murphy became captain of the Restraint, the rest of us returned to being overworked, and I returned to feeling pleased with myself.

Wrong again.

We were a week out from the colony when the entire ship shook like a die in some cosmic crap game. I was on the bridge, and my first thought was Murphy. My second was that we were going to die. Then I looked at the view plate to where a Gorund destroyer the size of a small moon had just materialized. My first thought disappeared, but the second one stuck around.

The Gorund boarding party herded everyone on the Restraint into one of our empty cargo bays, empty because the Gorunds had appropriated its former contents and transferred them to their ship. I was trying to figure out why we were still alive.

Now for those of you who have never seen a Gorund, and I wish I was included in that group, I'll try to describe one. There is ugly. There is butt ugly. Then there is a Gorund. They look like God tried to build the rear end of a Seroptian slime beast using nothing but the product from the rear end of a Seroptian slime beast, then He decided it was a bad idea and tried to rub out the whole mess but that didn't work so He just kind of left it unfinished.



And they smell bad.

And they are really, really big.

Their captain was also, in that moment, really, really angry and was directing that anger at a half-naked human they'd brought with them. I guessed that he was a prisoner from one of our colonies that the Gorunds had trained as a translator. The translator listened and cowered, cowered and listened, then shuffled over to where we were being kept in a tight little knot surrounded by Gorund troopers. The poor soul explained that the Gorunds had scanned our ship's computers and were a little miffed to find that the navigation database had been erased. Unless we restored the database, we would all be killed.

"And if we do restore the database?" Henshaw asked.

"You'll all be killed," the translator replied. "But with less pain."

"Really?" I asked.

"No," the translator admitted. "Actually, it'll hurt just as much."

"They want the location of our colonies. And Earth," I whispered to Henshaw.

"I figured that out, Dex," Henshaw rasped back.

"We can't give it to them, sir."

Henshaw stared at me. "I'm proud of you, Dex. Take one for the human race, eh? Sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. The needs of the many—"

"Actually, I meant we can't give it to them. Murphy toasted the entire navigation system and the backups."

"Oh." Henshaw actually seemed disappointed.

"Don't worry, sir. There's still the opportunity of resisting under torture," Fallon offered.

"Shut up, Fallon," Henshaw said, but his heart wasn't in it.

"They won't need to torture us."

We turned to see who spoke. It was Murphy. He stood there, still looking insignificant and inconsequential, still almost invisible and easy to overlook, but the sadness in those eyes seemed even deeper than ever.

"What do you mean, Murph?" I asked.

"They'll figure it out. Our ship has no FTL drive, and the only colony within range of our fuel is the one ahead of us."

I saw what he was driving at. "They'll know we used a worm hole. And all they'll have to do is back-track along the vector we were on to find the hole."

Henshaw swore. "And once they're through that hole, they're in the middle ring colonies."

"And two jumps away from Earth," I finished.

"Anybody got an idea?" Fallon whispered.

I did. I looked at Murphy, but even though it was just one life in exchange for trillions of human lives everywhere, it still wasn't my life. I couldn't bring myself to say it.

I didn't have to. Murphy met my eyes. And nodded. He drew himself up tall and stepped forward.

"Murphy, where are you going?" Henshaw snapped.

Murphy ignored him. He stopped beside me and put out his hand. "Thanks, Dex. For understanding. For being a friend."

I swallowed. "You sure about this, Murph?"

He smiled. "All my life, I've been searching for a place where I belonged, where I could do some good instead of just messing things up. Looks like I finally found it."

I couldn't think of anything to say, so I just shook his hand and watched as he approached the huge bloated figure of the Gorund commander. And as Murphy walked away from us, suddenly very visible and impossible to overlook, I wondered how I ever could have considered him inconsequential and insignificant.

He stopped in front of the towering alien. "I am Captain Murphy. I can give you what you need."

* * *

Henshaw, Fallon and I stood staring at the image on the view plate. A small dot, insignificant and inconsequential, almost invisible and easily overlooked, moved slowly away from the Restraint towards the Gorund ship.

Murphy's shuttle.

The ship's records, supported by a biometric scan, verified for the Gorunds that Murphy was indeed the captain of the Restraint. The records also showed that he worked in navigation and was the last person to have contact with the navigation computer. Murphy then convinced the Gorunds that as captain he would provide them with the locations of all human colonies. He'd even accompany them on their ship to assist in that navigation. But he'd only do so in exchange for our lives and freedom. We knew that the Gorunds would just destroy the Restraint—and us—once they had what they needed. But they didn't know about Murphy.

Murphy's shuttle was almost at the Gorund ship.

The intercom buzzed. Henshaw answered it. The shrill voice of Mrs. Thorburn filled the bridge, her words incoherent but her tone frantic. Henshaw killed the intercom.

"We could have sent Mrs. Thorburn, too," I said. "To ensure Murphy was at full power, just to be on the safe side."

"Tempting. So tempting," Henshaw mused.

"That ship is the size of Earth's moon," muttered Fallon.

Henshaw nodded. "Just one of their docking bays could swallow Earth's entire fleet."

"And their smallest scout ship is ten times the size of our largest destroyer," I said.

"Each of them carrying a million of their warrior class, any one of whom could take on twenty humans without breaking a sweat. Assuming they sweat," Fallon said.

"Not to mention their weapon technology that can take out entire planets," I added.

Fallon shook her head. "And all we've got is . . ."

"Murphy," I finished.

We watched as Murphy's shuttle disappeared into a docking bay on the Gorund ship, like a tiny fly being swallowed by a huge bloated toad.

I shook my head and sighed. "Those poor slimy bastards don't stand a chance."

* * *

Dex looked at his listeners. "And they didn't, either. We waited there on the bridge, expecting to be blasted to our constituent molecules any second, when suddenly . . ." Dex paused, and the crowd leaned forward.

"BOOM!" Dex said, opening his hands up. "No more Gorund ship. It gave us quite a little blast wave to ride out, but that was the last we saw of the Gorunds." He sighed. "And the last I ever saw of Murphy." Dex looked up. People were sitting quietly, looking thoughtful. Silverstein was wiping his eyes.

Dex raised his glass. "To Murphy."

"To Murphy," they murmured, glasses raised.

They fell silent. Then Stumpy looked up. "Say, Dex. What was Mrs. Thorburn so frantic about, there at the end?"

Dex grinned. "Before leaving, Murphy had paid a visit to the Thorburn's cabin."

Sly raised an eyebrow. "Did he try to do the old bird in?"

Dex shook his head. "Nah, but he got up close and personal with every bit of equipment hooked up to young James. He left the field generator and every bio-monitor a smoking molten slag. Mrs. Thorburn was fit to be tied, but James was free and happier than I imagine he'd ever been in his life."

Dex drained his glass and thumped it down on the table. "Sometimes, folks, it's good to have things go wrong."

* * *

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