Early access! 4k short story set in the Queenships universe. This will be published wide in a few days, but you get it first 😀
Early in her day-cycle, Catlali maneuvered her cargo ship neatly in line at Crane Central Warp Station. Her hold was full today, mostly of super-shielded mech exosuits that could tolerate the intense stellar winds common at her destination. The remainder had been packed with specialized holding tanks.
Her crew all agreed, this opportunity for themselves, and for Crane, was worth the risk. If successful, Crane family will have gained a rare and powerful stock of fuel to sell at an unreasonable markup. Catlali was banking on a very large payout.
A sensor picked up the warp station activation. On Catlali’s dashboard, a notification blinked as her hologlass glowed blue. The warp ring produced an intense light and shed massive amounts of heat into space, which easily overran the cameras on the ship. Catlali ran cargo, not a Queenship. She didn’t need great resolution. She just needed to steer clear of other ships.
As the warp ring stabilized Catlali’s view on the hologlass cleared. Then the drone ship first in line fired rear boosters and washed her screen out again. Shortly after, Esha’s key pinged on Catlali’s link dashboard. CCWS was controlled and managed by one woman: Esha Kalluri. It was always her voice that greeted travelers leaving and coming home. Crane family had so few members, there were often irreplaceable people in important positions. Only the warp station kept them independent of other, more powerful families. Catlali tried to stay out of politics, but even she knew Dhar continued to try and buy out the station, or Crane entirely.
Catlali accepted the audio link. ”Morning, Esha.”
”Greetings, Catlali! Early for you today.” Catlali heard clicking, Esha’s nails on the hologlass. ”Looks like Mx. Adila has paid your warp today. Going on an adventure?”
”We’re going to box up some hydrogen-seven.”
”What makes it seven?” Esha laughed.
”You’d have to ask my scientist,” Catlali agreed. ”It’s unstable, apparently. I just drive the bus.”
”Well good luck. You’re cleared for warp as soon as your turn comes up.”
Catlali hung up with Esha and called Idir through the personal link on her ear. The scientist answered the call with video, allowing Catlali to see the inside of her own cargo hold.
”The mechs are in standby, Captain. Just checking on the last row of tanks.”
From off-screen, Feray yelled, ”Her name is Catlali, not captain.”
”Your lack of respect is appalling, Mechanist Sunter, and I am under no obligation to–”
”Oh my god, you make it sound like I’m forty.”
”Forty is hardly an age of feebleness. It’s common for–”
Catlali hung up quickly. Once Idir and Feray got going neither refused to back down and the critical nature of this project hadn’t changed that. The familiar bickering usually made her smile, but it was too early today. Catlali hadn’t finished her coffee yet.
The next ship in line, a Tsui drone by the colors, activated rear thrusters and disappeared into the blue wormhole ahead. Watching a ship warp threatened to give Catlali nausea despite her twenty-plus years as a pilot herself. They seemed to twist into the wormhole, stretching into impossible shapes before the entire thing snapped forward and vanished. Shortly after, the wormhole itself evaporated into space, burning out into nothing when the Crane station cut power.
From inside, warping felt like little more than a dip of gravity and a sudden change of scenery. Some people got warpsick their first few times. Catlali thought it was great fun as long as she didn’t focus on twisting like a pretzel through space-time.
Esha pinged the cargoship when it was their turn. And Catlali confirmed the coordinates–deep into the center of the galaxy where stars burned so closely their gravity tore material from each other. It was hot, dangerous, and the only place where they might find the specialty nitrogen they were looking for.
”Prep for warp,” Catlali said over the link. If her crew didn’t buckle down for the ride, that was their own fault.
The gate activated with a burst of blue light that washed out Catlali’s screen. She flew by wire, checking her positioning against the Central Warp tower and ring itself. With all systems green, she pressed forward on thrusters.
The cargoship was not small. It often dwarfed Kingships that darted through the gate on recon or diplomatic missions. However, gas-collection drones often pushed the limits of the warpgate, but Catlali specialized in running manufactured goods out of Central Warp, not collecting gas, so her ship passed into the wormhole with kilometers to spare in every direction.
The g‑thrust of warp dropped Catlali’s stomach. Then every warning light on her dashboard lit up in unison. The ship rattled and shook. Orientation sensors spun wildly. Catlali scrambled to stabilize their crazed flight and struggled against the controls. Something was pushing them hard.
”The hell?” Feray complained over the link. ”What did we just jump into?”
”It’s the solar wind,” Idir said. ”The sheer mass of it is moving us.”
Catlali managed to slow the ship’s tumble, orient herself, and powered all thrusters full toward their destination. Central Warp had dropped them right in the middle of a distant planetary system whose sun was expanding into a red giant. Several gas giants were being stripped of their mass, and that matter was circling the star at rapid speeds. What had once been a flat disk of planets was now a messy yarnball and among the tangles, Catlali found her target: a bare moon.
If the rock had atmosphere at one point, it was long gone now. Likely stripped by the sun to feed its growth. It orbited the system’s final gas giant in tidal lock, which left one half boiling as it faced the growing star, and the other freezing, exposed to the depths of space.
Catlali’s instruments gave her a landing zone, and as the ship passed behind the gas giant, they were relieved of the solar pressure and wind. No more rattling. After that, landing on the moon was as textbook as Catlali had ever seen.
She selected a destination in the twilight-zone of the satellite. Not boiling, but not freezing. From here, the team could spacewalk safely, as long as the orbital period of this gas giant remained steady.
Catlali established their anchors and said over the link, ”Touchdown.”
Exli said flatly, ”Go team.”
By the time Catlali jogged down the spine of her cargoship and looked over the railing edge, all three of her team were climbing into their suits. At some point, Feray had painted a fat purple stripe across hers. At least it made her easy to identify.
Feray waved a blocky controller up at Catlali. ”In or out, Cap,” she said over the link. ”Gonna open this can of worms.”
”In,” Catlali said. ”Definitely in.” She backed out of the cargo area and hit a button in the hall to seal it airtight. A moment later, the cargo vented atmosphere back into the hall. There was a very small window in the middle of the door, useless for watching the proceedings, but it caught the light as the cargoship’s entire back end cracked open.
Catlali gasped. From their protected lee in the shadow of the gas giant, they weren’t bombarded with solar wind, but the sky flew with color. Streaks of orange and yellow whipped across the heavens, bursting into pockets of turbulence and smoothing again. The gas giant was losing its mass in a thick laminar flow of greens and purples so deep they blotted out the sun in a heavy stripe across the sky.
Whoever said it was right. Even if this experiment for Mx. Crane didn’t work out, the view itself was worth it.
Catlali reluctantly cleared her throat. ”Take a photo,” she said. ”Then get to work. We need to meet our rendezvous with Central in four hours.
She turned away from the view slowly. There were few moments so impressive in space. It was largely black and empty. But they were on a deadline and the consequences of missing it were critical.
From the bridge, Catlali captured video and audio streams from each of her crew and the exosuits they needed to tolerate the extreme environment outside. Feray’s interior camera showed her face alight with the solar storm, while Exli’s face was blue-cast from her mech’s screens. She had the shutters closed and was navigating by sonar and radar. Idir brought up the rear, their shutters also closed.
External video feeds from the mechs were grainy thanks to the millimeters of protective plexiglass around them, but the location tracking remained strong and steady, so Catlali didn’t stress about it.
Each of the exosuits carried a massive tank. While Catlali had set them down in the twilight zone in the shadow of the gas giant, the hydrogen-seven they needed was streaming by in that solar storm all around them. Feray, Exli, and Idir marched steadily toward the sun-edge of the protective shadow.
A countdown in a corner screen reminded Catlali they were on deadline. Central had warped them far, far into the center of the galaxy. Into a region mostly unexplored and entirely uninhabited. The physics forces at play here were powerful, and there were far safer sectors to settle a colony or sweep for standard hydrogen. Consequently there was no communications relay or a local Queenship that could send a message back to Central.
The cargoship carried a warp ring tether to get them back into civilization. It was a small thing, no larger than a basketball, but when Central pointed their wormhole into the area in four hours, the tether would catch the signal and open the way home. Without it a wormhole would still open, but it could be anywhere in local space and at this distance, keeping the path open was both expensive and required massive amounts of power.
If the team wasn’t ready to go at that scheduled time, Central would close the wormhole for twelve standard hours before they tried again. Catlali didn’t want to unlock her emergency procedures tasklist if she could avoid it. Stuck in the center of the galaxy was not on her bucket-list.
”Getting windy,” Feray said over the link. ”Are we far enough in, Idir?”
”This should do it,” they agreed. ”Sensors are reading high. Gentle with your housing. These crates are sensitive.”
Muffled impacts followed the warning.
”Okay…” Feray’s face scrunched in Catlali’s view. ”Big lever opens the valve?”
”Push it all the way over until it locks,” Idir confirmed. ”That will start collection.”
”Do we know this will work?” Exli’s camera showed her doubt.
”Eh,” Feray laughed.
Idir said, ”They were lab-tested, but this is the first field deployment.”
Catlali had been briefed, but Idir was the expert. They had met with Mx. Crane and the developers when this project first started. If this worked or didn’t, Idir would be taking notes and reporting back to Mx. Crane for future work. Catlali was happy being the busdriver. Someone had to. Catlali was in charge of the cargo–her crew included–and the warp tether. That was more than enough for her.
”So this stuff is more powerful than standard hydrogen, right? Seven times better?” Exli took a step away from her collection container and crouched. The exosuit went into a lower power mode.
”It’s called hydrogen-seven because of the number of nucleotides,” Idir corrected.
Feray snorted. ”It’s much more betterer.”
Idir sighed. ”Yes.”
Catlali watched Idir pinch the bridge of their nose and stifled a laugh. None of her crew were at the scientist’s level of understanding, but Feray was particularly snarky about it.
But Idir couldn’t let it go without at least trying to explain. ”You can think of it as highly concentrated at the molecular level. It only develops naturally in this kind of extreme environment and decays instantaneously.”
”Then how does the box catch it?”
Idir set their exosuit into the crouched low-power mode. ”Magic,” they said flatly.
Feray blinked. ”Wait, really?”
”No, I just don’t think you care.”
”I care!” Feray gasped with mock-offense.
”You care about dinner,” Idir said. ”And playing that horrific monster collection game live over the link at full volume.”
”I’ll have you know, Pogo is a far more complex system than a simple game.”
Catlali turned the volume down on her link before the two of them could really get going. She needed to stay connected, but Idir and Feray would continue like this for the next hour, running over the same complaints and callbacks they had established over two years ago.
Instead, Catlali monitored the three tanks set out to capture h‑seven and turned several of the ship’s external cameras on the stellar show overhead. Waiting was the hard part of any mission, but this one certainly had the most impressive view of them all. Yellow and red streaks of matter, highly charged by the sun’s electric field and heated by the gravity tearing it from the gas giant’s storms, swirled like an impressionist painting from one screen to another. Catlali took screenshots to set new desktop backgrounds on all the displays.
If this worked, the project would expand and evolve. There was probably a way to mount collection tanks externally on a ship or even convert an entire cargohold to h‑seven collection. Catlali’s crew would probably come back only once or twice before the custom solutions were deployed. It was important to enjoy the view while she could.
It took several hours to fill each of the tanks stacked in cargo. Feray, Idir, and Exli hauled them out of the twilight zone into the exposed solar winds, then back into the ship with their levers locked at their status lights green. If they remained stable for the return trip, this entire project would put the four of them in history records.
And wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?
Catlali grinned as she made final flight checks and locked down the ship. The exosuits were crouched in the hold and everything had been strapped tight. ”Prepare for liftoff,” she said over the link, broadcasting to the crew in the hold. ”We should be home in no time at all.”
Flight assistance indicated the best path off the airless moon and into the solar storm. Catlali followed the projected lines with building excitement. When her timer indicated just seconds before Central’s expected warp, she released the gate tether from the roof of the ship.
The tether flew alongside them. Catlali maintained a median distance in preparation for the jump. But when the gate flowered open, it all went wrong. Blue rings of light flared out from the tether, a telltale sign of a successful connection. But the warp gate didn’t conform to material physics, which meant the established gate anchored in space and appeared to shoot off rapidly behind them. Relativity was a bitch.
”Shit.” Catlali hauled back on the controls, but sustained solar winds swept the cargoship further away and within moments she had lost visual on the tether and the warp gate entirely. She could still fly by wire, but with every shudder and shake, the ship protested. At least their cargo wasn’t volatile. She couldn’t imagine dealing with all of this while a bomb waited in the hold.
Exli sing-songed over the link, ”Why aren’t we jumpi–ing?” A sure sign her anxiety was climbing. Catlali’s was too. Her boat wasn’t meant to take a beating like this.
”Minor delay, not a problem,” Catlali said quickly. Then to herself, ”No, not a problem, just lost the gate is all. Nothing to worry about.”
”You lost the gate?” Exli shouted.
Whoops. Guess that muttering hadn’t been to herself.
”We are twenty thousand light years from home and you lost the gate?!”
Catlali groused, ”There’s a goddammed hurricane out here, give me a break. I’ve got it pinged, I just need to get back to the anchor point.”
Central Warp had dropped them off in the middle of this storm and the cargo hauler barely had enough thrust to counteract so much explosive solar energy. Since their landing and subsequent takeoff, the winds had only increased, leaving Catlali fighting a desperate battle. Even with the engines at full burn, she was losing ground.
She linked privately to Feray. ”I need a stupid idea asap.”
”We need more thrust. A lot more.”
In her small crew of four, Feray was the biggest pain in the ass. She was mouthy, moody, and frequently the source of avoidable trouble. But she was also a mad genius.
”Let’s take one of these tanks of H‑seven and hook it up to the generator, pop a valve open.”
”Have you lost your mind?” Idir interrupted the secure link with a public broadcast. ”Captain, we are not running a combustion engine, sudden introduction would cause an immeasurable explosion–”
”Wait,” Catlali said, ”You told me it wasn’t volatile.”
”It’s still unstable! Every isotope in the container will decay instantly by quadruple neutron emission into N‑three. The half life has twenty three zeros after the decimal!”
The sound of metal scraping on metal screeched through the link. Someone was moving a collection tank. Feray said, ”Sounds like a noss boost to me.”
There was a moment of silence before Idir said quietly, ”I don’t know what that means.” Then with rising alarm, they shouted, ”Captain, what does that mean?”
”It means you and Exli need to strap down.”
”You cannot be serious about this.”
”Unless you have a better idea, sit down, Officer Idir. That’s an order from your captain.” Catlali wasn’t used to throwing her rank around but the ping on their tether was taking almost three full seconds to return, now. If this N‑seven didn’t seriously overclock their thrusters, all four of them would be stuck adrift in the center of the galaxy. The hauler only had a few days worth of food and water. Some Kingship would find their dead husk in a thousand years if they didn’t fall into a sun first.
”Okay, hooked up and sealed.” Feray reported. ”On your mark, Cap.”
”Strap in Feray. This sounds like it’s going to be bumpy.”
”Then mark.” Catlali braced herself.
”Wait, she’s not–”
A rocking volcano of noise drowned Idir’s warning. Catlali was thrown back in her seat even though she’d already been leaning into it. The flesh of her body pressed against her bones, popping blood vessels from head to toe. She wasn’t prepared for the mind-numbing pressure or a sound so large it was like a physical thing. Her entire world quickly reduced to a single point: the tether.
She could see the glow of the warp ring again, though at this speed it had shifted further into the purple and ultraviolet range. Thankfully they were on approach fairly straight. There was no way for Catlali to correct their course if she needed to.
They hit the gate at a speed too fast for the cargo ship to calculate.
And when they fell out of the exit-side of Central Station’s wormhole it was at a sedate and gentle tumble.
Catlali immediately vomited. Her ship broadcast an SOS automatically. Just before Catlali passed out, she saw Esha’s key asking for a link on her dashboard.
Catlali lurched awkwardly upright out of a vat of goo. Her throat spasmed around a thick tube and she was tangled in wires or something. She couldn’t open her eyes. Several warm hands grabbed her bare shoulders and arms, a pair stabilized her head and Catlali relaxed fractionally. They were gentle hands, and they carefully removed the intubation. Her throat protested every centimeter and when it was done she coughed raggedly, but she could breathe.
Someone wiped her face. Catlali opened her sticky eyes to the unfamiliar sight of the medbay. She had always made a point of flying safely to avoid this exact scenario. A white-robed doctor, her face covered with a mask, crinkled her eyes at Catlali. ”Don’t try to talk yet. Sip this.”
A water bulb. The doctor held it while Catlali sucked on the straw. Technicians buzzed around them, removing wires, IVs, and all manner of sensors that fed data into the biotank that had probably saved her life. She didn’t remember anything after punching the cargoship up to speeds it was never designed to reach. Clearly she had brought it back through the gate, though. Thank god.
”You’re the first one of your crew to wake up so we have a lot of questions. I’m sure you do, too.”
Catlali took a breath to start in on those questions and suffered a coughing attack instead.
”Easy. Easy…” The doctor rubbed her bare back. ”Sorry, but you’re going to have to type it out for a few days. Let’s get you cleaned up and I’ll tell you what I know. I’m Doctor Peta.”
Her muscles were weak and shaky, but with the doctor’s help, Catlali climbed out of the biotank and navigated getting clean in near-zero g. She was bruised everywhere. Not just a series of spots, but as if her entire body had been poorly dyed purple and it was now fading into yellows. Her skin felt tight, as if it were a size too small. Bending her fingers was noticeably difficult.
”The swelling will ease,” the doctor said as she helped Catlali into a generic Crane-branded shirt. ”Your soft tissues sustained incredible damage.”
That doctor summarized for her: the moment the cargoship had returned to Crane-space, emergency services had sprung into action. They found all four of the crew unconscious and badly injured. Three were taken to the hospital.
Only three. They were a crew of four and with a sinking heart, Catlali knew who had been lost. She took a deeper breath, trying to calm herself, and triggered another coughing fit.
An alarm suddenly buzzed on the doctor’s wrist. She hardly glanced at it before pushing off for the neighboring medbay in a rush. Catlali followed awkwardly. She hugged the doorway to cough up a lung and found Idir struggling to remove their own breathing tube. They coughed harshly, eyes still glued shut with goop. When it cleared, they croaked. ”Feray!
Several technicians had to hold them in place while sensors and IVs were removed. The doctor quickly wiped Idir’s face and eyes. ”Easy. Just breathe. You’re safe here.”
”No, Feray!” They fought the hands trying to help them.
Catlali drifted into the room by handholds in the roof. Inverted above the biotank, she grabbed Idir’s face and stilled them. ”Look at me,” she said raggedly. She had to fight a reflexive cough. ”Idir, focus.”
Their forehead wrinkled. Catlali knew her outfit didn’t match with the moment Idir was still reliving. Hopefully it would ease them out of it. ”It’s over. Take a breath. You’re in the hospital at Central Warp.”
”Hospital?” Idir glanced about and Catlali let them lean back. ”What?”
The doctor held Idir’s hand to ground them. ”You are safe,” she repeated. ”You have been in the medbay ICU for almost three weeks.”
Idir nodded, but the motion seemed automatic. ”Feray?”
Catlali had to turned away. She couldn’t imagine what Idir had seen the moment she had confirmed the N‑seven dump.
”I’m sorry.” The doctor touched Catlali’s arm to comfort her, but her eyes were on Idir. ”She was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Idir squeezed their eyes shut for a moment. When they opened them, they shoved suddenly out of the biotank toward the doorway. Catlali had left her towel floating just beyond and they snatched it.
A technician made to follow, but the doctor shook her head to forestall them. ”Let them get clean. Pull some clothes, please.”
Catlali blinked, but her eyes didn’t seem to work anymore. She couldn’t move them from the empty tank where Idir had been. Was that trauma perhaps? Shock? She had known Feray wouldn’t make it… but maybe something inside had held onto the hope anyway.
”I knew she wasn’t strapped in,” Catlali said softly. Her voice scratched, but the words came anyway. ”There’s no seat by the generator. She had to dump the N‑seven…” She looked up at the doctor and found kind eyes. Catlali wasn’t sure she should be admitting to this, but she needed to tell someone.
The doctor inverted to match Catlali’s orientation and pulled her close. It wasn’t until she was enclosed and safe that Catlali coughed her next breath.
”I knew she lied to me and I let it go. We were going to lose the gate. I didn’t have a choice–”
”Shh, shh. It’s okay.”
Was it? Was it okay to sacrifice a crew-member, someone Catlali had trained herself, in order to save the rest? She hadn’t hesitated. What did that mean? Did it make her a killer?
The cargoship’s link probably had their whole conversation on record. It was policy. And Feray had confirmed she was strapped in. Catlali had plausible deniability, but she didn’t want it. She knew the truth.
Exli rested in a third tank and Catlali saw the system’s light turn green. Three of the four had come home.
But Feray never had a chance.
It wasn’t going to be okay.