Triumph of the Skies

By Josh Pearce | November, 2019


Artwork by Jose Baetas.

It's a big galaxy. There's always a war going on in it somewhere.

And in this war there was a coffin floating in space.

The shuttlecraft drifted, dark and unpowered except for the autobeacon that screamed through irradiated debris and across half a billion kilometers to draw the attention of a passing resupply freighter. The freighter grappled and locked with the shuttle. Its crew undogged the hatch and floated in. The shuttle's engines were cold. Out of fuel.

In the cramped cargo section they found only a self-powered solar storm shelter, the LEDs on its panel telling them there was something inside.

*****

But, before that happened, Lieutenant Longbow docked at Metacomet, one of the forward missile platforms in this war that had been in effect since before her grandparents, and felt its gravity warp around her. The station's commander--Heller, she read from his tag--made no move to catch her when she stumbled over the lip, or tripped over her introduction. "Longbow, Judge Advocate's."

"First time on the outs, Advocate?" he said.

"No." But very nearly. It had been a long solitary burn from Ceres, which had been the nearest celestial body to the missile site when she left but was no longer by the time she arrived. "Let's get started. I have a lot of work to do."

"And I suspect you'll want to see the body first."

A blur of images followed, a sequence of faces and names from the rest of the crew: Marcino, Lau, Jackson, Thorpe, Oxford. Four men and one woman, plus Heller the commander and, of course, plus the dead man. The blur stopped and came into relief as they rolled the body out of a meat locker. She read his toe tag: Pharynge, the station's spotter and astrophysicist. Cause of death--

"Which of you is the station medic, again?" she asked. Lau. She took his initial report. They were so hard to tell apart, so...uniform. Gray from a lifetime of service under fluorescent lighting, skin no different from this dead man's. Heller's command bars glittered out from the background noise, the only distinguishing feature. Well, that and Oxford's long hair, bound up in a knot. The force of the shuttle acceleration had flattened Longbow's eyeballs into strange shapes and they were still blurrily recovering.

Lau's medical report didn't tell her much--Pharynge had been stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife and bled out at the end of a long, empty hallway. "Can't you even tell if the killer was left-handed or anything? By looking at the angle?"

"Nope." Lau made a sliding-stabbing motion with his fingers. "Went straight in, right down the middle." No fingerprints, either. "Wouldn't matter, anyway. Everyone on the station's right-handed."

Less and less to distinguish one suspect from another. But which one would be stupid enough to do it? There were only seven people in the crew, and nowhere to go until the next resupply ship made its delivery. Longbow couldn't leave, either. Her shuttle had used up all its fuel getting her out to Metacomet quickly as possible.

*****

She slept in her empty shuttle. It was either that or take the only vacant rack on the station, Pharynge's bed in the bunkroom. Apart from sleeping in a dead man's sheets, Longbow wanted to maintain distance from the rest of the crew. She ate alone from the freeze-dried stores in her cargo hold. The entire missile platform was a crime scene, and the less she spent trampling it, the better. The entire remaining crew were suspect, and the less she trusted them, the better.

They were messing with her already, Longbow thought. The gravity felt heavier than regulation. She would drop objects and time their fall--faster or slower than expected. Their attempt to throw her off-balance. Their abrupt silence around the pool table when she walked into the wardroom. Their insistent ignorance about all events surrounding the murder. Understandably, a tight-knit crew, just the few of them stuck out here for so long together. Although--

"Who would want to kill Pharynge?" she asked Heller during one of their interviews. "Any grudges?" No. "Performance problems, from anyone?" No. "Any suspicious behavior? Or system anomalies?" No and no.

She passed him the writ giving her access to all of the station's data. "I need all the security camera video downloaded to my book."

"I already checked," the commander said. "The cameras didn't catch anything."

"Were they turned off during the murder?"

He paused. "No. They simply didn't see anything." Perfectly blank boot camp face.

Fine, she'd double-check the footage herself, then. Longbow was getting sick of the stonewalling. She twisted the knife. "You're certain? Maybe you're out of touch with the situation, Commander. Clearly you missed something, because one of your crew is dead. Killed when you weren't looking. Were you distracted? Has discipline broken down because your support for the war effort has lessened?"

She saw him tauten internally, and withdrew the sting just a bit. "If not your devotion, then perhaps someone else in your crew is tired of battle and is trying to sabotage this station?"

"Everyone on my station is loyal to the War Department. Read their files and you'll see."

"Fine, fine," she said, waving him down. "What about Pharynge? Any dissent in his past? Perhaps one of your zealous crew thought he wasn't giving enough to the cause and took battlefield justice into their own hands."

"If anything, Pharynge was the best of the bunch. Could always pick out the suspicious gravity wobble of an enemy position halfway across the galaxy. Painted numerous targets for me to destroy. You're aware that Metacomet is one of the top-scoring emplacements on the entire firing line?"

She did know. Read their personnel files, he said? She did that, too, but it was slow reading with the constant enemy attacks. The klaxon would sound three or four times a shift, minimum. Crew to battlestations: Heller to the fire control table; Marcino and Oxford to the missile silos down in the engineering decks; Lau preparing the medical bay; Jackson at the radio telescopes; Thorpe on lockdown and fire-suppression duty, closing hatches, securing any loose objects. At first, Longbow would scurry to seal herself in her cockpit whenever there was an alert. But as she grew used to almost every strike being a miss--drawn to the fat hot target of the Sun, where the particle blast did little more than splash up solar flares--she now hardly moved from her reading spot except to lift her feet out of someone's way.

She could listen to Heller shouting out coordinates, the engineers replying from the other end of the station, as they tried to backtrace the incoming missiles before the enemy launch sites were carried out of range by the cold clockwork of celestial mechanics. Longbow reviewed the station's hit/miss ratio, noted Heller's record. He was one of the best shots in the service. "Target lock!" came the cry from forward and Longbow pushed for the nearest window to watch the answering, "Missile away!" Her stomach lurched as one of the sleek Alcubierre missiles rode off its rails. A flicker of energy when it warped a bubble of spacetime around itself and disappeared from sight, surpassing the speed of light itself. They were the only weapons that could make this interstellar combat possible.

Between fire drills, the crew had little to do but scan the star charts for fresh targets and play gravity pool on their game table. She stood casually in a corner while the off-shift played a round so she could observe behavior and team dynamics. Jackson made the break, sending the metal cue ball in a figure-eight around the magnetic pegs. It struck the racked cluster from the side and split it like a black hole moving through a star nursery. He was playing Oxford, and she sank two stripes on her first shot. "Care to join?" she asked Longbow.

Longbow looked away quickly like she hadn't been watching the sub-engineer bend over the table for proper angles. Her eyes had improved enough that she could pick out personal details. Jackson's bald head gleamed with thin sweat in the overhead lights like one of the polished pool balls. The cue stick held delicately in his heavy hands like a toothpick he could break in half without trying very hard.

Oxford had her coverall stripped to the waist so that Longbow could see the corded muscles of her arms. Grease stains under her fingernails, on her undershirt, on her chin.

"No fair," Jackson said, "two against one. The only shooter better than Ox here is Commander Heller."

"Is that right?" Longbow asked. Who of them seemed to be having too much fun while their comrade took up space in the meat locker?

"He's the best shot in the whole system," Oxford said and Jackson said, "That's right."

Marcino came in and said, "I'll be on your team."

Longbow swallowed heavily. "I need a walk, or something." She excused herself from the lounge, nauseated and unsteady on her feet. The gravity was definitely different in there. She could feel it as soon as she stepped through the door. Someone, one of the six suspects, was doing their best to impair her judgment. Maybe spiking her water, maybe just shifting the gravity slightly wherever she went, or varying the oxygen levels.

But she wouldn't break focus. The JAG's office and the War Department were counting on her. Focus on the mystery: the kitchen knife made Thorpe, the steward, the obvious suspect, though he claimed to have been in the galley at the time and that the knife was already missing. Longbow had it in an evidence bag, still rusty with Pharynge's blood. There was a short length of ribbon tied to the handle which no one had an explanation for, dangling loosely off the end.

Longbow walked to the murder scene, getting turned around in the connecting passageways like a hamster in a tube maze. Directions kept changing, coming into a familiar capsule from an entirely unexpected hatchway as though the floors were revolving and tilting beneath her. Just as she was thoroughly lost, she turned the corner and found Pharynge's observation bubble. His chair and telescope faced the deep black and the faceless enemy. The seat was at the end of a long corridor, far enough from the nearest intersection that it would be impossible for someone to sneak up on him unheard, unfelt, to get close enough to stab him in the back. And the observatory was about as far as possible from the galley. Longbow couldn't think of a way for Thorpe to go all that way, creep up, kill Pharynge, and make it back without anyone seeing him.

Couldn't think of a way didn't mean there wasn't one. She dropped into Pharynge's seat because she felt most ill standing right at the spot of the murder. Pharynge's computer booted up for her, and JAG software got her in past the lockscreen. She copied the files to her own book for later reading. Lots of formulae and star plots that went far beyond her own rudimentary physics. For a long while, Longbow sat in Pharynge's seat and tried to imagine staring into such an abyss every day and knowing that, because of the distances and timescales involved, even when his tour of duty was up his place on the firing line would simply be taken by his children, grandchildren, and beyond.

Longbow took her questions to the medic, Lau, next. "Any animosities between Pharynge and the rest of the crew? Jealousies? Rivalries?"

Lau was shorter than the rest of the crew, shorter even than Oxford, almost short as Longbow. But military fit, confident carriage. Seemed to add a few inches to him. He paused in his inventory and said, "Why would you ask that?"

She pointed to the half-empty box of prophylactics on one of his shelves. "Fraternization is common in close quarters."

"I couldn't tell you about personal relations among the crew. That's confidential and," his face bent like a warp bubble, "rude."

"How about just an estimate of Pharynge's mood? Did he seem nervous, like he was afraid of someone?"

Lau seemed to weigh her before answering. "You'll probably find this in his effects anyway--I prescribed him a sleeping aid for his anxiety. He was paranoid, couldn't sleep, would roam the station all night, ranting about the sins of the past." Lau smiled ruefully. "It was for our good as much as his. No one else could sleep through all that."

"He was always like this? Or that behavior had a noticeable onset?" Heller hadn't mentioned anything about paranoia when she'd asked.

Lau simply had to flip through his prescription pad to find the date. "Two weeks ago, after a particularly close strike." The klaxon suddenly blared, interrupting them. "Here we go again."

There was never any warning. The flash of an Alcubierre bubble collapsing and releasing its bow wave outraced the image of an incoming missile, like WW2 V2 rockets that exploded before the sound of their approach could catch up. Longbow ran to the command module, proud that it only took her five minutes of dead ends and tripped ankles to find it this time.

"Impact," Heller was saying, staring at his firing plot board, which was awash with radiation static.

"Where?" Jackson shouted from the radio station.

"Direct hit on Jupiter." On Heller's board, the big orange disc was being eclipsed by black. "It's got a firestorm bigger than the Great Red Spot, and it'll burn for a billion years. Evacuation of the Galilean moons is underway."

"No chance that's in time," Jackson muttered. Longbow tried to remember how many people lived on the Jovian moons, and the lifting capacity of the local fleet.

"Response missile ready," Oxford called from engineering.

"Backtrace complete," said Jackson. Heller's model of the Solar System lit up with a red line that showed where the enemy's missile had come from, a ribbon-thread path that twisted in a grand tour around the sun, two planets, and out of the system at a sharp angle. "Neolin and Touch the Clouds are returning fire."

"Far too soon," said Heller. "No way they got an accurate bearing already." He took up his joysticks and manipulated Metacomet's reticule to aim at the far-off enemy star system, the tiny white speck that could have been a planet, an asteroid, an alien space station where the missile had come from. There was no direct shot because their line of sight was blocked by dark matter nebulae, other stars, and even black holes in the intervening space. Heller bent his projected missile path this way and that like a pool shark, trying to bank his missile around the gravitational lensing of astronomical bodies and strike his target from an unexpected angle.

But no amount of maneuvering would get him close enough for a killshot. The enemy had timed their shot to the last available second to prevent retaliation. Heller's star map was zoomed so far out, to such low resolution, that it was just a scatter plot of data points. He struggled to line up the columns of numbers. "Hurry up," Jackson warned. "If that bastard orbits out of sight, he won't cycle back into range for another," he checked, "three thousand years."

Heller gave up and swung the gunsight 180 degrees to plot a missile trajectory past the sun, into Saturn's gravity shadow, around the curve of the heliopause, and on. Farther out in the galaxy, the red aiming line orbited around a pulsar, made a 90 degree turn, and struck the target. "Locked," Heller called and pressed a button. "Fire!"

"Missile away!" the engineers shouted. The Alcubierre missile left the station and leapt to warp. Heller slumped back in his station. Fire and forget.

Some other observatory with a better view would one day verify if Metacomet had just racked up another kill. The target would never see the missile coming, would never know they had even been aimed at unless Heller missed.

The crew wearily congratulated itself on another battle survived, shaking the adrenaline out of their limbs like dogs stretching after a long dream of a fast hunt. Without their spotter, Metacomet was on the defensive, only able to retaliate, never able to preempt.

Longbow found Marcino crawling around the missile silos, stripped down to his shorts to fit in the small gaps. "Isn't that dangerous?" she said to his backside.

"What?"

She gestured vaguely, unseen. "I dunno. Explosives? Radiation?"

He came up for air. "Nothing dangerous about it. Each missile's inert when it's stationary. No warheads, no propellant." He was a squat, stocky man. Almost everything about him was perfectly square-shaped--his shoulders, his chest, his head. Even his teeth. He had a broad, friendly face and was the only one of the crew to ever give her a genuine smile.

"What do you mean no warheads? I've seen the damage they can do. I was on clean-up and containment when Black Elk got hit."

"Why waste weight on a payload when the transit energy is weapon enough? The Alcubierre drive bends space so the missile thinks it's always falling. That old adage--'the enemy is down.' The warp bubble scoops up particles along the way and then when the missile decelerates those particles keep going, powerful enough to shred a planet." The engineer slipped back into his coveralls. "'Course, the vessel--the body of the missile--is destroyed when the bubble collapses, too. That's why every colony's been planted by cryo ship, the hard way."

Longbow looked down the vast forest of missile tubes and did a Drake's equation of maximum kill count. "Our colony ships didn't get too far. Just as well, I suppose, if the only other known intelligence out there goes by 'shoot-on-sight.'"

"So you're of the mind that the enemy shot first?" he asked casually.

"Are you not, Mr. Marcino? It's what the official histories say."

"Of course they do, ma'am. Even after a thousand years of fighting, many governments would be slow to admit fault."

"That sounds surprisingly unorthodox for someone in the armed services."

"Well, we're far away from any civic centers, aren't we? Living with the knowledge that Military Intelligence is watching you every minute gets to a man. Pharynge was acting paranoid. Stopped taking his meals with us."

Before she could answer, another alarm rang through the hull, up into her teeth. Fear when she recognized it as a radiation alert.

"No danger, huh?"

Marcino looked surprised for only a second. He relaxed. "That's not internal. Jupiter must be trying to fry us even way out here. Get to your action station."

Longbow backed out of the narrow engineering space and nearly ran into Oxford coming the other way. That familiar, sickening sink in her stomach. "Hey," Oxford said, "you're supposed to--"

"Yes, I heard," Longbow said, a little more brusquely than she'd intended, and found a way to slide past without touching her. Still on shaky legs when she reached the open hatch to her shuttle, Longbow leaped back, surprised. Thorpe was standing inside, holding a clump of her vacuum rations. "What are you doing in here?"

He just looked dumbly at the food. "You know most of these are expired? You'll make yourself sick eating this crap."

"Get out!" she shrieked. The radiation alarm cycled through another sequence. Thorpe shrugged and shoved the ration packets into her arms and left her alone. Longbow pulled the lid of her shuttle's storm shelter down around her and huddled with her food cradled in her arms. She examined the packets for needle marks or other tampering. The expiry dates were too faded to reliably make out. Well, the resupply would be here within a month. If she could find and secure the killer before then, Longbow could trust food again.

*****

Later, when the supply ship cracked open the storm shelter, the person inside screamed and ranted, straining against the feed tubes and catheters like a webbed bug. Driven mad by a month of isolation and claustrophobia, they said, "They're trying to kill me. They'll kill you, too!"

"Who?" Nobody else on the shuttle, far as they could see.

"The missile crew!"

*****

But none of that had happened yet. Longbow was still trapped on the station, her sleep cycle out of synch with the others'. She scrounged meals from the commissary when no one was looking and spent most of her time going through Pharynge's computer files. She ran his observational data through the simple pattern recognition software on her shuttle, but whatever he'd found in those numbers was too complex for it.

According to Lau and Marcino, Pharynge's odd behavior had begun two weeks before his murder. Longbow focused on the observatory data from that point. Something must have been there--the timestamps showed that Pharynge kept coming back to those particular files, and the margins were filled with cryptic notes. But none of it meant anything to her. She'd have to send it back to the JAG's office for better analysis once she got Heller to let her access the big radio dish.

She found Heller and Jackson in the wardroom. Longbow hesitated at the edge of the hatch, checking the room for something. For Thorpe, lurking around again. Or, worse, Oxford, stealing the oxygen out of her lungs. The coast was clear, so she approached the two men and asked about the radio.

Was it her imagination, or did they trade glances before answering? Jackson said, "The radiation's died down but there's still enough static from the Jupiter fire to limit our long-range comms. It'll take a while before it's clear."

"How long is a while?" Longbow had the what and the where of the case, and a rough when. But no why nor a full idea of how, any of which could point her toward who. There was a footfall on the decks outside of the wardroom. Longbow rushed to the hatch and looked out--a figure disappeared around the corner just before she could catch them. "Enough!" she shouted after, and had to brace herself on the doorframe as a wave of lightheadedness gripped her for a second. "Enough," she said weakly as she turned back to Heller. "No more interference in my investigation. No more comm delays, no more withholding evidence. No more messing with my food or this sickening gravity you have going on."

"What?" said Jackson, looking up just as he made his shot. The cue ball popped off the felt and rolled in a long curve to Heller's boots.

"Perhaps you'd better let me handle this, Jackson." Heller picked up the ball. When he and Longbow were alone, he said, "All right, let's take this one at a time. The comms really are spotty. I'll let you try all you want if you don't believe me."

"Well, then." A deep breath, and her head cleared. She checked the corridor outside again.

"Who are you afraid of?" The commander tossed the cue ball easily from hand to hand.

Longbow lowered her voice, in case Military Intelligence had the wardroom bugged. "The steward. I caught him lurking in my shuttle, tampering with the food. That, and the murder weapon was from his kitchen. Thorpe's the obvious suspect."

"And his motive?" Heller paced around the pool table with an odd lilt to his step.

"He has to be M.I. Pharynge must have done something subversive, because I can't find any evidence of a personal motive to kill him." She was gambling that Heller wasn't the undercover intelligence agent on this station, but that wasn't really a dangerous bet. The political officer was usually in place to police the commanders.

"Three flaws with your theory, Advocate. Pharynge was a dutiful party member. Had to be, to go through the proper academies. Never spoke out. Second, Thorpe? A spy?"

"He's perfect for it. Beneath your notice, access to the whole station during battle stations. As for Pharynge, often the fiercest zealotry masks the deepest dissent."

"Maybe. Maybe not. Thirdly--" He led Longbow to the empty command capsule and brought up the station's computer on his firing table. Tapped a few keys. Heller found the video recordings and threw them up in the holographic tank. "I've already been through the footage," he said. "There's not much to it." The video in the tank was grainy and jerky. "The cameras run at one frame per second but even at that rate, there, see?" said the commander. "Thorpe was in the galley during the murder. Impossible for him to have made it to the observatory." The camera showed the steward clearly, wiping down tables. There was no coverage of the back of house, where the knives were kept.

"God damn it," Longbow muttered, scrolling through the data. There were cameras in all the main modules of the station. She could see that Marcino had been in the bunkroom, Oxford in the missile bay. Lau in the medical freezer, Heller and Jackson in the command module. And there, at the end of the long empty corridor, the astrophysicist all alone at his station, staring at the stars, unaware of what was coming. Nobody could have killed Pharynge, according to this. "You've just handed me an alibi for each crewmember." She checked the galley again. Each crewmember had gone into the back, where the freezers and knives were, at least once that day. Any one of them could have lifted the murder weapon.

"My apologies."

"Maybe the killer falsified something."

Heller shrugged. "Forensics would be able to verify the data integrity for you, if you sent it back to JAG."

She gave him a look. "And when would that be?"

He frowned. "A bit longer, I'm afraid."

Longbow jogged the video still frames back and forth across the time of death. In one frame Pharynge was seated upright at his telescope. Next frame he slumped forward, the knife magically appearing hilt-deep buried in his back. She skipped back in time even farther, hoping to catch an image of the killer coming down the corridor but of course it remained empty. Except, there, a blurred line, a streak of something on the screen. Was that light reflecting off of metal?

There it was again, ten seconds earlier, in another part of the station. And again, in the middle of an empty capsule. Heller squinted at the images. "What in the hell is that?"

Longbow paused the video. There, hovering suspended in midair, was the knife. She could tell it was the murder weapon from the long ribbon stretched out behind it. "That's the killer."

"An invisible killer?"

"Who knows what M.I. has been working on in their black ops labs. Cloaking devices, maybe. Or telekinesis?"

"You think that's likely?"

She scrubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. "I don't know what to think. If M.I. is involved, they're not going to want JAG getting too close to the answer."

Sweat ran down her neck and into her collar. Heller asked, "Are you ill?"

"The murderer has been trying to throw me off. Altering the gravity wherever I go. Poisoning my food. Making me sick to my stomach."

"No one's altering the gravity. You're just not used to station fields. Watch." Heller tossed the cue ball a few feet in front of him, but it curved slightly and landed to the left of where he'd aimed. "The station has an Alcubierre generator in the lower decks that bends our space enough to keep us falling to the floor. But not even the best engineers can flatten a field out completely, so the pull will be heavier in some parts, lighter in others. Stick to the centerline of the station. The gravity will be most consistent there. Should help with your stomach."

She felt such a fool, and tried to hide it. "What about the food? Can you explain that?"

Spread his hands. "You could have Lau give you a blood test for toxicology."

"No thanks. I'd rather not have any of your people come at me with needles."

Heller stooped to pick up the pool ball from where it had dropped and she thought it had dropped and she froze in place. "Oh my god."

The commander looked up. "What?"

"But then why?"

"What is it?" Heller looked down at the white sphere in his hand.

Coming from unexpected angles. She plucked the ball from him and reset the holographic table to show the Solar System and all available firing lines radiating out from it. Longbow set the cue ball down at Metacomet's current position. The lines of data from Pharynge's computer scrolled through her memory when she examined the setup, and everything made sense. Even in her sickness, a new horror blanketed her face and she turned to Heller. "I know how. And why." She grabbed the edge of the table as her knees nearly buckled. "I know everything."

*****

The resupply captain couldn't raise Metacomet on the radio, or get any radar returns through the debris field that surrounded them. "Of course you can't," the castaway sobbed, "because I destroyed it and killed them all. But their ghosts are still chasing me."

*****

Longbow suddenly found herself deaf, bleeding from the nose, flung up against one wall of the capsule while the station shook itself apart. It looked like Heller was screaming but she could hear nothing, could only feel the station's air whip her face.

Just as abruptly, everything was still. Heller pushed her away to get to the computer. Longbow's hearing gradually returned. "Was that decompression?"

Heller ignored her as he shouted into the intercom. All the station's alarms ringing, all the lights flickering red, signaling a critical emergency that could destroy the entire missile platform. Heller got the alarms shut off and shouted, "Damage report!"

Longbow, standing by the window, saw it first.

"Pressure hatches all sealed," one of the men answered, voice unrecognizable to her damaged ears. "The explosion came from--"

"My shuttle," Longbow whispered as she saw it tumble by, broken free of its mooring.

"Someone undocked it without sealing the station-side hatch so the air would blow it clear," Heller said. "Get up here," he told the intercom. "We need a full status update."

Marcino arrived only a few seconds later with Lau right behind him. "Everything's sealed back up," the engineer said, "and stationkeeping thrusters are online. Can't find Oxford anywhere.

"Did she get blown out the airlock?" Heller asked.

Jackson came in from the radio room. "Long-range dish is completely down. Main trunk was severed. Deliberately. Can't fix it until the resupply brings new parts."

"She sabotaged us," said Longbow, "and then escaped in my shuttle."

Heller took a quick second to analyze the situation. "Jackson, get me communications, any communications. Lau, find Thorpe, make sure he's alive. Marcino, check the missiles, make sure we still have firepower." When they were alone, he demanded of Longbow: "Tell me everything you saw, before the explosion. Why did Oxford kill Pharynge? It was her, right?"

"Yes. Well, I wasn't certain at first, but. Process of elimination. It's all a coverup. A Military Intelligence operation. Something bigger than one combat astrophysicist, bigger than one missile platform. Something that involves the entire war machine." Heller waited for her to go on but she said, "I'm not sure you're going to want to hear this."

From the radio room Jackson said, "I can get us short range burst comms in a few minutes, maybe."

"Just spit it out, Longbow. What about the war?"

"There is no war." Simple as that. A shot for which he had no defense prepared. No defense possible.

"I've seen our missiles launch. I've seen the enemy's missile strikes. I've walked through their radiation fields and counted the ashes of their victims. Jupiter is burning, right this very second--"

Longbow held up her hands. "There is no enemy. There are no aliens. Pharynge figured it out from the missile plots. We're firing at ghost targets thousands of lightyears away, beyond the visual range of our telescopes, shooting blindly at reflections."

"Then who's shooting back? Who blew up Jupiter?"

Longbow opened the firing data from several weeks ago, the numbers Pharynge had obsessed over before they got him killed. In the holographic tank, the red line corkscrewed and slingshot between a thousand blazing stars and deep dark wells before coming to rest delicately on a faint orange thumbprint. Longbow manipulated the image, folding up the kinks like a protein into a tight cat's-cradle knot. The orange spot was their dead gas giant. And the other end of the tangle was, quite clearly, Metacomet. "The missile trajectories are so twisted by gravitational lensing that they've become gravitational mirrors. Flight paths double back on themselves, or we think a target is in one direction but the light has actually been pinballed so much around the galaxy that we don't know where it really is. We're blowing up our own missile platforms, killing ourselves by shooting back."

Heller curled up on the deck like one of his own trick shots. Catatonic. Jackson stood at the hatch, having overheard. "Pharynge didn't try to warn anybody?"

"I'm guessing that's why Oxford killed him, to shut him up." Longbow pointed at the handheld he carried. "Radio working?"

Jackson gave it to her. "Extremely limited range."

Longbow cleared her throat and keyed the mike. "Oxford, can you hear me?"

The shuttle had drifted out of sight since the decompression. Maybe she was far enough away that there was a time delay, or maybe she just didn't care, but Oxford took a minute to answer. "I'm here. Not going anywhere fast."

"She's adrift, with no fuel," said Jackson. "She'll starve to death long before she reaches any other dock."

"Let her," said Heller, slowly regaining his feet. He put his hand on Longbow's shoulder. "I have to say good job to you, Lieutenant. What pointed you to her?"

Longbow thought about every time Oxford walked into the same room or tucked her feet up on her bunk. "I had a gut feeling."

"And how did she do it? The cameras show her in engineering the whole time."

Longbow picked the cue ball from the table and threw it at Heller. Jackson caught it. "Unflat Alcubierre fields, right? If someone bent the field in the right spots, they could drop an object down the length of the station." She recalled the image of the kitchen knife, ribbon on its handle stabilizing it point-first as it fell around corners and horizontally down the long corridor into Pharynge's back. "Who's the best pool shot on the station, Commander?"

"I am."

"Who's second-best?"

He sighed. "Oxford."

"And who was belowdecks near the Alcubierre generator when Pharynge was killed?"

He sighed again. With a finger, he summoned up Marcino on the intercom. "Chief, how's it look down there?"

"All clear, Commander. No signs of further damage."

"Oxford," the advocate said into her handset, "there's a pressure suit in the escape locker." She closed her eyes and pictured it. The image of her shuttlecraft tumbling farther away. "It's got limited maneuvering but if you evacuate now, within the next, uh, ten minutes, you can make it back to the station."

Heller made an unsure hiss through his teeth. He had the solar map open in the tank and calculated how far away the shuttle was by signal strength. He didn't think she could make it.

Oxford's voice crackled with laughter and interference. "I'll take my chances out here, thanks. Not gonna go back to die on Metacomet."

Longbow looked at the men in the room and, yes, there was murder on their faces. "Listen to me. The resupply crew will turn you over to JAG without question. If you think you can just run silent and evade them, the radiation will fry you or you'll starve."

Oxford's voice was fading. She was getting out of range. "I'll last a lot longer than you all will, in this storm shelter. And I have my orders. You can't be allowed to let anyone else know the truth."

Heller called to Marcino. "Can she kill us?"

"Still don't see anything, boss."

"Command figured it out almost as soon as the 'war' started but they're terrified to admit it. They thought they were firing at a faint speck on the other side of the abyss but those first shots are still on the way back to us, crossing vast, intergalactic distances. Someday they'll come home to roost. Every casualty in this war has been friendly fire."

"If we could figure it out, someone else can, also. Someone else will. You can't keep running around the galaxy, putting out fires."

She could almost hear Oxford shrug. "It's getting easier as the war goes on. You might be one of the last trouble spots. The computers are getting better at predicting enemy positions. Soon we won't even need spotters and gunners, it'll just be swarms of fire-and-forget missiles passing each other in the endless night. They'll write your deaths off as an enemy attack and take me away from your scattered atoms."

Longbow felt a chill travel through her body, starting from her fingers holding the radio. "What does that mean?"

"I reprogrammed Metacomet's last shot with new target coordinates. Heller thought he was firing back at an enemy that had destroyed Jupiter but the missile is out there right now, swinging around a star, coming back to its origin. I give it a few weeks, maybe less, to close the loop."

There was no evasive maneuver, no shielding, no countermeasure that could defend against it.

Heller stared out at the sky. "Have we been looking at this so wrong this whole time? Maybe the galaxy is smaller than we think it is."

Longbow began slamming the consoles in front of her, grabbed the firing controls. She lined up one last shot, a flight path that twined around the stars of the Centauri system and terminated back somewhere between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, where a tiny, lonely speck was drifting without power. She knew that Oxford would detect the missile launch, but she didn't know if the traitor could hear her final radio message: "Bitch!"