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Through the Forest Nebula and Into the Belly of the Beast

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Lieutenant Garnet looked out her viewscreen at the Forest Nebula, and frowned. There was a ship there, and not the one she’d been expecting. Her mission was to guide her small supply ship Basket through the nebula, and rendezvous with the hospital ship Matriarch. She was carrying urgently needed food and medical supplies.

But now, halfway through the nebula she was being hailed by a Lupan ship with all guns ready. Garnet gulped. The Lupans usually only reacted like that when defending their territory.

Lupans were touchy, and Garnet wasn’t sure her hastily memorized etiquette lessons were going to be enough to avoid an incident. She reached for her comm button, and hesitated.

No one had realized the Lupans had claimed the Forest Nebula until now. She certainly hadn’t been briefed about it before she’d left her home ship Village Green. Garnet made a mental note to put it into her report.

The comm beeped again. Garnet took a deep breath and hit her comm button.

“This is Lupan warship Vulpe. You are encroaching on Lupan space. Identify yourself.”

No picture; Terrans and Lupans found each other repellent looking. The voice was growly, low, and somewhat impatient. Garnet had the impression of a ship captain who would rather blow her out of the sky than talk to her, but the peace between their respective governments was too fragile for that. Even the loss of such a small ship as hers could spark off the war no one was confident of winning.

“This is Lieutenant Garnet Hood of the Terran Consortium, in the supply ship Basket,” she said. “Our hospital ship Matriarch is on the far side of the Forest Nebula, in urgent need of supplies. No encroachment on your space was intended.”

There was a long moment of silence. Garnet stared at the comm speaker, her heart pounding. What were they thinking, those strange alien minds on the other end of the line?

“Hospital ship past the Forest?” the voice repeated slowly. “Do you mean there are sick people nearby?”

Garnet frowned again. “Sick Terrans, yes,” she said. “As far as I understand, our diseases are not communicable across species.”

The voice was suddenly cheerful and almost friendly. “No, I understand the same. Pardon our enthusiasm before, we thought this was a deliberate incursion. Feel free to continue on your journey.”

Then, without so much as signing off, the ship leapt away, hurrying off on a course known only to its pilot. Garnet let out a long sigh of relief and resumed her former course, the only safe path known through the Forest Nebula.

It wasn’t a long trip, but it gave her time to think over her encounter. The Lupans had behaved oddly, hadn’t they? Garnet had never heard they were particularly altruistic, but their position had certainly changed after she’d mentioned the Matriarch.

Still, even a strange encounter didn’t change her mission. She composed a short report out loud while she flew along the twisted path, careful to avoid the spiraling, swirling gases.

Garnet sent the report back to the Village Green just before the final set of curves took her out of the nebula to where the Matriarch awaited her.

Once free of the nebula, she signaled the ship. “Matriarch, this is Basket from the Village Green, with supplies. Permission to come aboard?”

The comm crackled, voice only. “Permission granted, Basket. Proceed to docking bay two.”

It was a little odd that Matriarch wasn’t responding by video, but Garnet shrugged it off and flew into the assigned docking bay. She set her ship down lightly and unstrapped herself from the pilot’s chair, moving to the cargo hold.

The pressurization lights blinked green, and Garnet hit the cargo hatch. The half dozen people waiting for her were in isolation suits. She blinked at the reflective screens covering their faces.

“Isn’t this a little bit overkill?” she asked. “I promise, I’ve had all my shots.”

“Just a precaution,” the nearest figure said. The isolation suits covered everything: even the voices were filtered and difficult to identify.

A chill ran down Garnet’s spine, but she tried to shake it off. Her earlier meeting with the Lupans was making her jumpy, that was all. And this was only her third solo mission.

Nerves, that was all she was feeling.

“You know best,” she said. “The food is over on that side. This is all medication. We couldn’t get you everything you asked for, there’s a shortage of plasma treatment all over. I guess there was some sort of fire at the main refinery? I don’t really know.”

She was babbling, she realized, and firmly shut her mouth. The shrouded figures moved through the cargo hold, picking up the crates she indicated. Garnet hefted a crate herself and started to follow them back into the ship.

One of them stepped in front of her despite the crate they were already holding. “That’s not necessary,” they said.

“I don’t mind helping,” Garnet replied with a smile. “Many hands make light work and all that.”

A second figure joined them, having already dropped off their first load.

“We don’t need you to help, pilot. There isn’t another isolation suit available, and we must avoid bringing potential outside infections into the main parts of the hospital.”

That was reasonable. Garnet handed over her crate and went back to the ship, making sure none of the cargo was missed by mistake. Everyone on Village Green had heard the story of poor George, who had dropped off everything except the most vitally needed vaccine, carefully shipped in cold storage. Twelve people had died during the time it took for him to realize his mistake. Garnet wasn’t going to be that sort of infamous if she could help it.

Basket was nearly empty when she glanced up from her manifest and saw, just for a second, the face of a Lupan behind the isolation shield. The figure straightened and Garnet could only see herself again, but still, the hairs on the back of her neck went up.

It couldn’t be, could it? The Lupans couldn’t possibly have gotten through the nebula first and what- killed everyone on board the Matriarch, then set up a trap for her?

Or could it?

Casually, Garnet checked off the next crate and smiled sunnily at the next figure in line. “How long have you been stationed out here?” she asked, trying to act like she was just making conversation.

The figure grunted as they hefted the crate. “I’m new. Just assigned.”

Alarm klaxons sounded in Garnet’s head. All of the Matriarch’s crew had signed on her for three years, and they were only a third of the way through that now. “Oh, were you a patient?”

“Yeah,” the figure said. They turned away faster than they had been moving before she’d started asking questions.

Garnet followed them to the ramp, still talking. “Wow, how did you end up hauling cargo? That doesn’t seem fair.”

“I volunteered,” they said, and hurried off. Garnet clutched her inventory tablet a little tighter.

She had no proof, but her instincts were screaming something wasn’t right. Just the same, if she kept pushing, she’d likely get caught up in whatever chicanery the Lupans were up to on the ship.

Garnet took a deep breath and went back to her inventory as the next figure came in for a load. All she had to do was finish the unload and head out.

The Village Green was on the far side of the nebula, hours away, but there was a slight chance that their sister warship, Huntsman, was closer than that. Garnet just had to be patient.

Then all six figures entered the newly empty cargo hold, and Garnet’s heart sank. Still, she clung to her hopes and held out the tablet.

“That’s all of it,” she chirped, overly cheerful, and the figures hesitated. She pointed the tablet at the isolation suit with red striping, the one who had spoken to her first. “If I could just get a signature that you agree you received it all?”

The figure took the tablet, and for a moment, Garnet thought her ploy had worked.

Then the tablet went flying, and the figure reached instead for her. Over their shoulder, Garnet saw one of the isolation hoods come off, then another.

Lupans. Six of them, and one of her.

My, what big teeth they had.