Reaching Past the Sky

by Amy L. Hull amilynh at comcast dot net

for Jill in the LJ Sam Carter Ficathon

Author's notes: Thanks to Heidi, Yahtzee, Tricia, Constance, A.j., and Merlin Missy for betas, read-throughs, and assurances that this was working and fulfilling the request.

ooo

It had all been for nothing.

Sam leaned her elbows on her knees, breathing hard from her run. She stared out at the expanse of rocks jutting up from the collision of tectonic plates, deliberately turning her back on the Academy. The enormity of the Rocky Mountains could usually place her problems in perspective, especially with the canopy of a galaxy of suns shining above it.

The only sun she could see now was the setting one glaring in her eyes, mocking her, erasing any glimpse of the vastness of space.

She fingered a rough stone, just the right size to grip in her fist until it pressed painfully into her palm and fingers, then threw the rock as far as she could and watched it fall in a slow arc as gravity pulled on its momentum. She was high enough that she couldn't hear the stone hit ground.

The next rock flew its perfect crash course equally silently.

So did the next. And the next.

When she threw two together upwards they arced apart, mimicking the smoke trails that had ended seven lives and her hopes and plans.

She disgusted herself. Seven lives lost, millions if not billions of dollars of research down the drain, dozens of careers--or more--in the balance, the whole future of the program Sam had idolized her whole life in peril, and she was sulking about childhood daydreams.

Perspective. That was what she needed.

She was just a tiny cog in the system, not any more likely to be accepted into the elite world of NASA--if it was still around in another few years--than any of the other highly competitive Air Force Academy cadets and civilian applicants. Her awards, accomplishments, each counter-balanced with a failure or weakness sure to disqualify her. No matter how hard she worked, her dream was a long shot at best, and now it was fading like the smoke from Challenger burning.

She had done her very best, pushed past obstacles, withstood assaults to her patience, her strength, and her ethics, and it was simply not enough.

ooo

First there had been the rumors.

She started with too many advantages; she knew the Air Force, the routine, the rules. She'd memorized them all by a lifetime of observation and then by reading them to master the nuances. She'd had years on various bases to practice imitating regulation hairstyles, years of watching the details of her father's stance and wearing of the uniform, years of being expected to keep her drawers and the house in regulation order, especially after her mother's death, years of schooling her emotions. The Air Force was home, even if it wasn't as warm as watching The Sound of Music with her mother. She pretended not to miss that yearly ritual, pretended that it simply wasn't worth the trouble of watching rather than that it hit a little too close to home.

Rules were Samantha Carter's safe zone, and she entered the Academy knowing the rules, and knowing how to adhere to them. She did her work with obsessive precision and simply didn't get demerits or score poorly on coursework and tests. She knew the rules, the stakes. Every assignment, every instructor's respect, every piece of knowledge were just building blocks, additions to the qualifications and resume she would submit to NASA.

She steadfastly ignored the churning and sinking in her stomach, the way her jaw tightened with indignation, the pinch of rejection between her shoulder blades at the occasional whispers.

"She works too hard."

"I wonder how many of the instructors Carter's screwing."

"She's awfully pretty; too bad she's no fun at all."

"She thinks she's such hot stuff. Just wait. Something will show her."

"She'll screw up. It's only a matter of time."

NASA was worth the hassles, she told herself as she studied, took notes, went above and beyond assignments for the sake of the knowledge. She recognized the jealousy and frustration of those working so much harder, and quietly held herself to her own expectations. They could think what they wanted. She focused on her goal: she was going to fly in space; she was going to touch the stars.

ooo

Glares from a particular handful of cadets increased as she won award after award, blew curves in class after class. She asked the questions no one else asked (or sometimes even understood), often bringing awed looks from classmates, and a number of times someone thanked her after class for asking in a way that finally made the subject make sense to them. Though much of the resentment shifted to grudging congratulations and some sincere or adoring praise, a number of the cadets glowered at her every time she spoke, particularly as she surpassed their abilities and understanding.

"You are not going to keep making us look bad," a few of the guys said, circling her and trying to stand over her and pressure by size and proximity. It had taken only a couple of attempts before they realized that all 5'9" of her and a deadly cold stare--modeled after her father's--could not be intimidated.

"Ice queen bitch," a few muttered at her quietly, and the most vindictive couple resorted to brushing past her lewdly, keeping their actions understated enough to prevent anything that could be reported as a clear Honor Code breach.

She accepted the label and the space their assumption of her coldness bought her; numbers and space could be cold for all their glittering beauty, and she had a plan in which their interest played no part.

ooo

Her first jump had her quivering with excitement for weeks, along with many of her peers. The nervous cadets spent the days leading up to their first jumps picking at food, looking a bit green during training films and exercises, and generally being very quiet. Sam, along with several dozen other adrenaline junkies, could not contain her enthusiasm. She calculated and recalculated acceleration, velocity, gravitational forces, and wind resistance for the various altitudes from which they would be jumping, mentally rehearsing landings from various angles and at various speeds.

The plane reached altitude and they opened the door, air rushing into the plane at a rate faster than Sam could have imagined. Even riding her motorcycle down the mountain with an open-faced helmet didn't begin to compare. She blinked her eyes instinctively against the gusting winds in spite of her protective goggles. The flurry of wind and speed was intoxicating, just as she'd expected.

She hadn't expected to be afraid.

The first several cadets jumped on command, plummeting to earth. Sam automatically calculated their altitude, descent rate, time to parachute release, her mind racing along the equations rather than noticing that she was next at the door. The tap on her shoulder from the cadet jumpmaster made her stiffen. Her shoulders tightened and her stomach clenched. She was going to step out of an airplane 4,500 feet above the ground. In moments she would be far behind the plane, falling toward the earth as fast as 120 miles an hour. The fastest she'd ever ridden her motorcycle was 90 miles per hour, a speed she'd maintained for less than a half mile. Every muscle stiffened at the thought, and she couldn't catch her breath. The jumpmaster signaled for her to go now and she forced herself to step forward into nothing.

The speed was like terror and ecstasy at the same time, like death and being more alive than ever. Goosebumps covered every inch of her, but she couldn't tell if she was shaking or if that was just the effect of the wind buffeting her like a rag doll. At the same moment she was flying, floating, falling, out of control and more powerful than she had ever felt in the rush of wind and adrenaline that consumed her as the earth grew closer. Sam realized that she had lost count of the seconds and pulled her ripcord.

Nothing happened.

There should have been a flutter like the beating of wings on the air, a jerk as the resistance slowed her, but there was just more of the divine, terrible falling.

She fumbled with the mechanisms, the primary ripcord, the connections in the rig. Three attempts meant it was time to pull her backup chute, and she had no idea of her altitude. Eyes closed, she pulled the backup, and thought her heart might stop as abruptly as the deployed chute had jerked her into a slower descent pattern. She could only remember that a secondary chute was not as maneuverable but her mind would not retrieve any details on how the chutes differed, and her numbed, mechanical tugging at cords seemed to make no difference in her trajectory.

The earth approached confusingly quickly and she hit the ground like a sack of rocks, rolling with the momentum and lying there trying to catch her breath, amazed still to be alive and able to see the clouds interspersed above her with the chutes of the last few cadets.

She was sitting up, still winded, when the jumpmaster got to her, ordered her to attention, and demanded a report of any injuries then chewed her out for scaring him to death. The entire squadron collected their chutes and packs and ran back to campus. For Sam it was three miles on shaky legs with a mind oddly empty even of equations and an occasional twinge from an ankle that she thought might have turned slightly when she'd landed. She'd managed to return to her dorm room before collapsing on her bed, still trembling behind the safe veil of her door where the further weakness wouldn't expose her to worse ridicule. She might not have been graceful and confident, but she'd done it. Every step toward her goal had a purpose. The next time she would be more prepared, more decisive, she promised herself.

It wasn't until the next morning that the ache in her right ankle manifested in blue and red splotches along the outer ankle bone and across the top of her foot with swelling that made her boot impossible to put on.

ooo

Three weeks off of parachute training. Three weeks until the sprain healed and she could go back to the exercise regimen required of everyone else, before the crutches that labeled her as special while tiring her out could be set aside. Three weeks of feeling stupid and incompetent because she allowed herself to get hurt. Three weeks of amused smirks from the cadets who'd been none-too-quiet about their belief that she needed to be "taken down a few pegs."

A week of regaining strength and mobility added up to four weeks of reassuring herself that flukes like her near-miss rarely happened, that her next jump would be fine. Four weeks of more mental calculations now including the impact speed and damage from hitting the ground at terminal velocity.

Finally, another jump. She landed that one cleanly, but not before losing her breakfast at the door of the plane, leaving the rest of her squadron and the jumpmaster awash in undigested eggs, toast, and orange juice.

She wouldn't be living that down any time soon, but she had made an otherwise clean jump, and that was what mattered.

ooo

"Her father's a general?"

"He is now; the promotion notice is in the paper."

"No wonder it seemed like it all just came easily to her; she'd been doing it all along and just let us look like fools as we tried to memorize details she's known since she was walking."

"And all this time she's thought she was so much better than us...what a bitch."

"Wonder if she even qualified to get in or just got put into one of the 'officer's relatives' spots."

"Oh, come on, you've seen how brilliant she is."

"Maybe the instructors were just scared not to give her high grades with her big-shot father."

She listened to the whispers with disgust while she got her dinner. Information she'd kept quiet for two and a half years was the day's lead gossip item.

"Seriously? Well, at least that makes it less likely that she's been sleeping with half the faculty."

"Who says she's not doing that too?"

Sam set her tray on the table next to the two cadets. "Mind if I join you?" She smirked into her Diet Coke as they fumbled to find an academic topic. "I'm sorry, was I interrupting something?" she asked sweetly.

These rumors died down relatively quickly. General Carter's existence didn't change the fact that Sam's own qualifications and competence were clear every day in her participation, comments and successes and she continued to be noticed and rewarded. She might not be everyone's best friend, but many came to her for help and, anyway, her eye was still on her goal.

ooo

Helen, Sam's roommate from first year, showed up at her door at oh-one-hundred in their third year, sobbing and shaking.

Sam, immediately awake, spent the next hour calming Helen and listening to a fragmented story of fourth-year cadets backing Helen into a quiet, dark corner of the campus and taking turns kissing her and reaching under her clothes.

It took Sam another hour to convince Helen to report the incident. After Helen fell into an exhausted sleep in Sam's bed, Sam took the hottest shower she could and punched her pillow for over half an hour.

At ten hundred hours she stood from the uncomfortable Air Force issue plastic chair and watched Helen exit the office, shoulders sagging and red eyes not meeting Sam's gaze. Her, "It'll be okay," felt entirely inadequate as she walked with Helen, who remained silent.

Around sixteen hundred hours the next day, Sam found a note slipped under her door with Helen's apology for not saying goodbye in person and explaining that she had been encouraged to leave the Academy and was going home.

Sam ran ten miles through the mountainside that night, flung dozens of rocks as hard as she could out into the air above campus, then spent quality minutes with a punching bag. She couldn't resign in protest; she needed Academy graduation on her record, even as she questioned the value of the Academy's sanction given what she'd just seen them approve of by evasion.

As she lay awake seething, she considered the cold comfort that Susan Helms would be speaking to the Third Years the following week. She had decided first year that she would be Susan Helms. She would be the 1987 graduate to make it to NASA like Susan had in 1980 from the group of the first graduating women from the Academy. Perhaps she could turn even the injustice of Helen's departure into motivation.

ooo

It was less than six weeks after Susan Helms' visit that Sam sat in class, eagerly watching one of the rare live feeds of the Challenger launch on January 28, 1986. Her excitement built as the countdown signaled the beginning of the launch. One day she would be on missions like this, reaching for the stars, exploring as much space as humans could get to, stretching against the limits of current technology.

She saw the plume of smoke where it shouldn't have been, and even before she could frown, the smoke plume forked, spinning wildly on one end. Sam blinked, a numbing cold settling over her. That couldn't be right. Five replays later, the shuttle was still clearly destroyed, all seven astronauts lost.

She sat absolutely still, her face and voice kept silent out of years of practice at control. She could not feel her chest rise with her breathing, though her heart was racing. Her throat was tightening and she bit her lip, reflecting the way she was suppressing the thoughts of her life going up in the smoke of the shuttle. It could be her dying like that, could be her colleagues and friends.

Ten hours later Sam had seen the footage hundreds of times, and the emptiness in the pit of her stomach still insisted that it couldn't be right. She had watched President Reagan delay his State of the Union address, had heard him say, "We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews..." Even as she heard the pronouncement, she knew that if and when manned space flight resumed after the inevitable review, it would be too late for her. She might get to work Mission Control or prep equipment for flights or on-board experiments, but she would never get to go into space.

As much as Sam wanted to mourn and, in some ways did mourn, the seven lives lost and the families affected, the children left without mothers and fathers, she could only see the incineration of her dream, her chance to fly out toward the stars.

ooo

For two months she went through the motions at the Academy, still doing everything she was supposed to, still instinctively preparing her resume for the job she would never have.

A plan. That was what she needed. There would be no NASA. In spite of the president's empty commitment to the "quest in space," she knew, as did most of the country; there would be a long investigation, there would no expansion of the program, no positions even for someone with the credentials she had so carefully and painstakingly built for her application.

Even so, she could not accept having done this for nothing, could not accept failing after coming so far. She needed a plan. A new plan that could satisfy her.

She'd been offered a position in the F-16 training program. She'd accepted it, of course; air time would boost the NASA application she would still submit even in its futility. Soon she would face intensive training to fly a fighter jet in combat she might never see, to prepare for space travel she would never be a part of, even if the program gave clearance for manned missions again. Training to be a warrior, to kill from a distance. Training to use physics against itself to go faster than the speed of sound less than 100 years after humans first took to the air.

If that was the closest she could get to the stars, it was certainly closer than most ever had the chance to reach. It would have to do. Perhaps she could reach past the sky with the mathematics and physics that commanded her flights. Perhaps she could describe in her dissertation the dances of the numbers and stars that played out like music in her head with each banking of her fighter jet.

After all, if NASA ever resumed flights, she needed to be ready, if only to work backup. And if it didn't, perhaps she could lay some of the bricks to pave the way for another generation's dreams so the work wouldn't be entirely for nothing.

A plan. It was a plan. A few last thrills, years of further study and theory. Maybe she'd even stay with the Air Force where she could run her own experiments, do her own research, possibly improve conditions for pilots, tinker toward the beginnings of the real space travel that was sure to be generations away yet. The plan rang a bit empty, but it would have to do.

Her shoulder was tired from the stones she'd thrown for her anger, frustration, and loss, all stones that had traveled as silently as they would in the vastness of space that she would never explore.

She looked at the darkening sky, the first stars appearing as she jogged back down the mountain toward the Academy. The flicker of the stars blurred for a brief moment through the tears she blinked back as she ran. She knew their names already, their histories, could predict their futures. Maybe she'd be able to see evidence of other planets, be among those to prove that Sol was not the only star with a system of orbiting bodies.

The sounds of night insects joined the rhythmic beat of her shoes on the pavement. Each step echoed with the sound of the endings and her breath seemed to whisper "less" with each exhale. Maybe flight and study and research would be enough to satisfy her need to reach past this small planet. If that was all there was for her, it would have to be, and maybe, just maybe, she'd at least contribute to space exploration in some small way.

ooo