Early access! 4k short sto­ry set in the Queenships uni­verse. This will be pub­lished wide in a few days, but you get it first 😀

Working cov­er art. May see some minor changes.

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.”

”Thanks, E.”

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.”

Feray snort­ed.

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.

”Ho–oly shit.”

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.”

”Problem?”

”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.”

”Already ready.”

”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.