I am not whole for I am split in two. There is a girl in a cage and a girl in the shadows. One plays a part and the other never makes the stage. One hides while the other denies. I am two because I can no longer be one.
A week had passed since last Thursday. I was sure because I marked the bottom side of a loose floorboard in my cage. There were one thousand four hundred sixty-three tiny marks carved on that board. I had been here just over four years...and now it seemed I was the only one left.
But Master will come back for me. She will return.
I knew it was Thursday without my self-made calendar though. Major events in my life saw fit to occur on that day without rhyme or reason.
I came into the world on the fourth day, some twenty years ago, in the Woodland Calm of Mugend 7. The Calms were sacred focusing grounds for the major elements of the world - fire, water, wood, metal, earth, the sun, and the moon. A small tribe of people attuned to a particular facet of nature lived within a Calm to nurture and protect the element so it would be healthy and plentiful for the rest of the world.
"Come," an elderly gentleman in the darkest of tribal green robes requested with temperance.
I leaned my forehead onto the bars of my cage, trying to reach out to a far off place but it was blocked and distorted by the self containment systems of my Master's fortress. I sometimes wondered what it was like out there. I hadn't seen the truth since I entered this world.
I sighed quietly, trying to wash those thoughts out to the sea with meditation. My mind refused to settle. I no longer heard the voices of my elders echo. I tried to clutch their teachings tight but they blew away in the wind like a silken web.
Blurry faces were what remained of my tribe. I knew they all had green eyes...it was the way of Woodland. They must have had green eyes, but I couldn't recall any one exact shade.
I couldn't recall the names either...much is forgotten when it is not spoken. It shamed me. I knew my true name, though. It had been given to me the day I turned seven - a Thursday to be exact.
The grove was filled with fireflies as an age old rhythm thumped on a steel drum. There was a light dusk mist that clung lightly to the leaves of the oldest and strongest trees in the center of the grove. Redwoods, pines, cypress, firs, and so many uncountable others stood tall and strong as she walked the path towards the small circular clearing in the center. Three elders stood in a semi circle, each holding an item of the ceremony - a small journal, writing tool, inkwell, and a circlet.
Again, I shook away the memory...they were remnants of a life that happened to someone else. Why were they assailing me with such force today? I hadn't spoken that name in years. It was still inside though. Master never liked it and opted to call me Red, if a name was necessary at all. So that was who I was. Red.
Where are you, Master?
I sipped an insubstantial amount of water from a hand carved sycamore bowl and pinched a small bit of dried fruit from a box I kept under the loose floorboard. Smaller and smaller my reserve was now. It had been a week since the disturbance. The most recent one. Not like when those others came the first time.
Some High Priestess I had been then...I didn't sense a thing. The mystery attackers (I learned later that they were called the Blight) struck me with my own red oak walking staff as I roused from sleep in the midst of the melee. The next thing I knew I was being sold to my Master, in the company of some other captives I didn't recognize. Master had saved each of them from the life that my peers were subjected to...the life they likely died from on some fateful day.
Sometimes, at night, I could hear my tribe members crying out just as knives pierced their skin. I tried to save them but it never mattered.
I was always too late.
What had I really protected? How many had I failed? The elders always told me of a grand prophesy and how I would play a key role.
I just never knew my destiny, to rule as the High Priestess, would be the portent for the demise of our civilization.
I stood in the small cell gingerly...carefully before returning to my knees. It spanned six foot from end to end - a perfect little square to contain me when I had no duties to perform...when I wasn't playing the game.
That was a rare occasion as Master kept me by her side often.
Master often called me the best servant she ever owned. She reveled in how I could sense what she wanted without asking. She called my brain divine. Master used my abilities to read people in business negotiations, both in a capacity to discover their true intent and shield her own.
She had quite the business, even on that solitary planet at the edge of cosmic oblivion. There were always deals to be struck. Master liked to think of herself as an independent contractor. She bought and solid scarce medicines, weapons, and flesh with a casual stroke of her hand. Master dealt with the highest bidder in all instances, no matter the affiliation.
The last negotiation went astray...she had been dealing with the Initiative, a brigade of experimental half human, half robotic soldiers, to attain supplies for the fortress. They were equipped with technology stronger than my abilities. They discovered Master's less than reputable trade plans easily.
It was the first time anything like that had ever happened. The suppliers were in the sector...forceful retaliation was a given.
Master could do little but defend her compound and accuse me of purposefully disobeying, intentionally revealing her plans to the enemy.
I had never intentionally disobeyed her. Never.
That was not part of the rules.
Sure, I made mistakes, particularly at first when I was na´ve to such things. She corrected me with a cane or paddle or birch rod. Those were her favorites with me...she was aware of my Woodland origins. That's also why my quarters were built the way they were built.
Her treatment of me was different than with the rest of her servants...she was not as harsh. She said I was special. When she punished her men, she preferred a tawse or one of her whips.
Master liked to tell me about those times. It was her whim. Sometimes she requested that I watch. She knew of my desires for women...my desire for her, but Master never wanted me that way. She had the men for those requirements...and that was just the way it had to be.
How could she believe that I would ever hurt her...ever betray her? It was unfathomable in my eyes.
Yet somehow she thought otherwise.
It was the first time I ever felt her anger, her true anger, directed at me...at my failures. I thought if I was hers and I gave my performance, followed the rules, I could never err. I should have known better though...I fail everyone eventually.
She sent me to the courtyard to make a birch rod. I chose thick twigs from where they hung in rows to dry and tied them in a bundle of five, knowing that this way made it an easy to wield but effective nonetheless. It was just as she liked. I found her in a flurry of activity in her bedroom upon the finishing of my task.
She continued to surprise me when she used the birch rod on my hands. She slashed at the tattoos on my palms, damaging the purple rose on my right, the symbol of her house, and the round gold coin symbol on my left, a document of my servitude. They were both ruined.
I sobbed only once as my eyes cast upon the dripping red lines marring the beautiful designs she had given me. My eyes went wide at the mistake. There was never to be any unnecessary noise.
I moved expediently, remorsefully to the mantle and retrieved the rattan cane. I balanced it on the tips of my fingers, careful not to get my blood on its shaft.
My mind went to a tiny pocket of space as the smacks rained down upon me.
When I woke, I found a note that ordered me to my cage. And so I went.
I stiffly moved to the door on my knees. I wanted Master to return...being alone gave my mind time to drift to places it didn't belong. I needed my routine. I needed to show her my worth.
But this was of little consequence as it now seemed she was testing my loyalty. Or my penance.
Yes, it had to be a test.
So I stayed in my place.
I could wait. I could wait for her return.
Tara checked the scouting plans for the day with a tap of her finger on the console. Mugend 7. It had been a small outer planet with little industrialization. A society of pacifists that used natural magic to sustain the balance in their way of life. Tara sighed...it was unlikely anything would be left of a society that had few defenses for war.
The Blight attacked her birth home, Varna 4, six years ago. They were ruthless, poisoning or capturing everyone in sight and draining the meager resources of the small planet. Only two teenagers remained when the attack truly ceased - Tara and her brother Donnie. They were rescued by a Coalition scouting ship a few weeks later. Just in time.
She joined the military almost immediately, following in the footsteps of her brother and lying to cover up that she was only sixteen. She chose to join the medical response team after basic training because she wanted to help people. It didn't matter that it took her nearly five years to complete the training. That was twice as long as most of her peers, mostly due to the fact that her education was far less advanced than most since she came from a 'rural' world. Still, she stubbornly pressed forward and did what she had to do.
After all, she knew her motivations. Fate had given them to her. The powerlessness she felt in those weeks after the attack...watching her father slowly die from a poison with no name...wondering where they took her mother. It left a mark on her that wouldn't fade away. It left a different sort of mark on Donnie - he became a pilot with a temper to kill every last damned one of the monsters...even though they were just as human as everyone else.
As a recent graduate, she was now assigned to a scouting unit. It wasn't a surprise considering most new officers had to pay their dues on lowly posts and missions unless they had money to buy better. The trick for the blonde had been getting assigned to this one in particular, with these particular mates. She sacrificed a good chunk of her pay to be here...but it was worth it.
Her first mission as lead medical officer...she was equal parts nervous and excited. She hadn't been on solid ground since she was rescued, her training days spent on carriers and outposts. She expected to land planet side quickly after they started their mission a month ago, but, as she soon found out, that was not how these things worked. The reality of a real time space explorer was much less exciting; they probed planets and sent results to HQ. Even amidst the routine, she kept her spirit, something her shipmates were lacking at times.
The doors to the front cabin opened with a nearly silent swoosh.
"Good morning Captain," Tara greeted as her superior officer entered.
"Geez, lower the enthusiasm, T.," Faith grimaced, rubbing her eyes warily. One of these days she would have to cut back on the booze. Just not today...or tomorrow, for that matter. "How did I get stuck on these crappy scouting jobs anyway?" she asked rhetorically.
"I believe it was when you punched Captain Summers while you were both teaching the new recruits how to jump through hoops." A man with dirty blonde hair replied as he winked at Tara.
"And this is coming from the man who told Commander Giles to stick his regulations where the sun don't shine after he missed curfew...again."
"Just because he doesn't remember how long a good fuck..."
"Donnie," Tara responded, rubbing her temples. Some days she just had to remind herself that joining her two best friends and her brother was where she wanted to be. They were all a group of loveable hotheads who had managed to get in trouble to the point where crewing a scout was their penalty.
"Sorry," he smiled sheepishly, taking a seat next to his sister. He began looking over the schedule.
"Where's Xander?" Tara asked, realizing that he didn't appear in tow with the others.
"I'm here," he answered, entering the cabin and flopping into a chair of his own. His hands were stained black and he had a small smudge on his cheek. "This crapbox is barely floating. After today, we have to go back so I can fix the damn thing with more than a toothpick and a piece of gum."
"Where are we headed anyway?" Faith asked.
"Mugend 7. Small, primitive, and naturalistic. Planetary history reads that no scouts have assessed the planet in five years. There are traces of movement in the area in the last few weeks but no other vessels are currently present. I sent out the usual probes."
"Five years," Faith frowned. The sector was desolate and destroyed the whole way so far. Finding a planet with a happy, healthy populous would be like finding a load of presents under the tree for Winter Holiday.
Since she grew up in an orphanage on one of the skuzzier Metropolitan moons...that was a pretty darn unlikely scenario indeed.
Tara's eyes blinked hard as she read the incoming readings from the probe. The results continued to flash on the monitor in her disbelief. "Captain, there is a life form present on the surface. It seems to be a young human female."
"Well, I'll be damned," Faith and Xander simultaneously replied.
"How does the environment look?" Faith asked with interest.
"Air, water, and soil quality are just slightly above sustainable human levels. Most precious minerals and metals are depleted. Plant and animal life are minimal. Sensors indicate dust storms so dense that they dramatically block out natural light. I would recommend us suiting up for potentially problematic situations."
"Damn...I hate those envirosuits. They don't show off my rack and make my butt look big," Faith whined.
"No worries Faith...every life form in the universe has had a look at your goods by now," Xander remarked as he opened a panel and inspected the chips and processors within. She hit him in the back of the head with a heavily practiced motion designed for just this purpose.
"Owww...and by owww I mean owww," he complained.
"Stop being such a baby," Faith responded.
"Yeah, he is a big baby. Maybe he's just lookin' for a little nourishment," Donnie replied with a leer directed at her tightly fitted top." He put his hands up to block the expected blow.
"You both wish," Faith replied as she walked over to Tara and put an arm around her shoulders. "Sometimes I think you've got the right idea, Tara. Whaddya say we get together?"
Tara twitched her lips, looking to be in deep thought, and finally leaned her head on Faith's shoulder. "Well, it is pretty lonely out here in the yonder and you are hot."
Donnie chuckled as he rolled his eyes. "Will you two quit before Xander dies of a lack of oxygen. We don't have anyone else to fix this damn deathtrap when it inevitably breaks again."
They both turned to Xander, who did indeed look about two seconds from passing out from a lack of oxygen and blood flow in the upper region. "I'm gonna go check the equipment in the engine room," he replied with a slight squeak, leaving the cabin in a far less than leisurely pace.
"So that's what you call it these days," Faith yelled down the corridor with a laugh.
"Anyway...how are we doin'?" she asked when her expression leveled to just a smirk.
"Current course and speed puts us there in less than three hours. Any changes requested?" Donnie replied as he began his morning check of the navigation system.
"Nope...prep for a rescue mission." Faith replied as she took some pain relievers from her pocket and swallowed them whole with no liquid chaser. "To the hell and back we merrily go," she muttered under her breath.
In a facility lined with rows of glass containment chambers, a small hissing breached the silence as an access door opened. A muscular black operative equipped with green proto armor stepped from his resting place, removing a hard line to the facility's system from a port in his robotically engineered eye. His steps fell hard and measured as he marched to the docking bay and retrieved a flash ship, a small one person speedster, which had been prepared for his assigned operation. As he climbed into the cockpit, a small viewing screen illuminated with the familiar face.
"Agent Forrest Gates. Your down time was pleasant?"
"Yes, sir. Who is the next target?"
"Her profile is being sent. Orders are to capture her alive and remove anyone else from the area."
"Orders received. Have a nice day, Adam."
"It is a nice day."
Tara looked out a port window at the planet and slowly felt her nauseous stomach settle. Once they were in the planet's atmosphere, it had been a bumpy ride through a dust storm. As they landed, it became calm and sort of clear. But what she saw made her frown.
Scanner analysis and training pictures were an injustice to the way Blight destroyed planets appeared to the eyes of weary space travelers. Or to anyone for that matter. There was an efficient manner to their destruction.
Mountains were always nearly leveled, hollowed and flattened from the strip mining of mineral acquisitions ships. All remained were piles of nearly symmetrical rubble that mocked the once natural stature.
The rubble, the very soil across the horizon in any direction, had a bland, uniform color. Their advanced technology sucked the trace amounts of precious metals, flecks of gold being a particular commodity, straight from the ground. The water was removed also, dry creeks and lake remnants left in their wake.
The absence of color was what struck Tara most. The lack of plants. The lack of trees that reached the skies to remind them of how small and infantile they truly were. There was morbidity in one endless color, even more so as that color was dimmed by the dusty air that blocked out a fair amount of sunlight.
Tara thought that was what she missed most about Varna 4.
Tara's daddy told her about the good harvest as they hovered over the farm one cool, dewy morning. This time of year the colors were vibrant as the trees began to shed their superfluous leaves.
Tara side glanced at her brother. Her parents always thought he would be a pilot - he had such a knack. She wondered if they knew they were right.
She turned her attention back to the landscape, a barren desert of quiet emptiness. Tara thought it managed to appear lonelier than the dark expanses of space where they now lived their lives.
"What a dump," Donnie commented as he popped open the hatch.
"Yup and thank you for not crashing us face first into it," Faith replied as she tried to adjust her suit. She sighed at the uselessness.
"Fix the damn electrical...not to mention the damn navigational, so I don't steer through dust storms it says aren't there, and maybe you'll get a smooth ride next time," he grumped, not liking anyone chiding him on his flying skills.
"I workin' on it, bud," Xander responded in their ears. He elected to stay on the ship and try to patch up the flickering systems.
"Besides, I landed you right next to the place you wanted to explore - that's ship to the door of unknown anomaly service."
"And the uppers will give you a medal of honor for your valor in not killing us all...no matter how much they would've preferred if you had." Faith went first from the ramp to the gritty landscape, the sound of dead twigs grinding under her boots as she walked towards what the ship's sensors, on an odd frequency, had registered as a cloaked environment.
"So anything there or just another blunder brought to us by the cheap asses at Coalition, Inc.?" Donnie asked, approaching from behind.
Faith glanced at the readings on the handheld device and nodded. "Seems the barrier took some long range fire but didn't collapse. Darn close though." She started an automatic sequence to break the barrier defenses and set the device in close proximity. She drew her gun, motioning for the others to do the same. "Weapons people...just in case."
Tara drew her weapon reluctantly while Donnie and Faith flourished theirs with more vigor. She didn't like weapons, particularly guns. But since it had been a requirement of basic training, she had managed to learn...with a little help.
Tara couldn't get her hands to stop shaking. She knew she would never be able to fire at this rate. She felt like she was about to cry...she HAD to pass this component in a week.
A smile crept on Tara's face. At that point, she had been a little too shell shocked and na´ve to interpret his flirting intentions. Of course it only took one moment with his friend for everyone to put the pieces together.
"Xan...why should I teach your new girl to shoot?" Faith asked from her bunk, shuffling a deck of cards with a clean snap.
The defensive barrier came down with a small hiss and all three crew members unconsciously stepped back as the grand structure came into view.
It was a temple...it was a fortress.
It was nothing like they had ever seen before.
The complex was a giant square, encompassing a far greater area than any of them would have ventured to guess. It was surrounded by a moat of crystal clear water. Tara assumed a deep, hidden aquifer...or, well, someone this wealthy could have it brought on site.
Just inside the moat was a low wall that could easily be scaled, though the only true opening was a footbridge front and center. It was easily large enough for motorized equipment to pass through. To the inside of that was the structure of the fortress itself. Also square shaped, broad and expansive, with a pagoda standing tall at each corner. They were each decorated with a large purple rose, fully detailed with a thorny stem that circled down the levels towards the base.
The most captivating part was the orchard and gardens spread around the fortress. From her days on her daddy's farm, Tara could identify a multitude of trees and free standing crops in the short distance. And since the Coalition supplied only processed goods, it had been a very long time since any of them had seen fresh food, let alone figured it would be literally within grasp. Their mouths watered at the prospect.
"Hot damn," Donnie uttered as he lowered his gun and took a step forward, a familiar blur passed over him as he entered the climate control system. He looked at the detector on his wrist. Air and temperature levels were well within acceptable limits and stable.
"Yeah...and it looks like somebody forgot to lock their poor little gate." Faith grinned like a Cheshire cat.
Donnie popped the helmet off of his suit and went running towards the ruelberries, grabbing them from the prickly bushes with gloved hands that became stained a purplish blue.
Faith followed suit, a little less messy but just as enthusiastic, retrieving an apple from a low hanging branch.
"So...it's safety first, then?" Tara called out to the pair with a playful shake of her head. Faith flashed the large, crisp fruit at her friend. "Awww...nothing bad has ever happened in a garden with a little ole piece of fruit." She took a bite with her trademark naughty smile and a raised eyebrow.
Tara laughed outright as she stepped into this new world.
After a short but filling session in the orchard, the group split up to search the grounds. Tara was a little unsure about breaking up the search party, but Faith insisted due to the 'vast amount of legging around'. Plus, she assured her that they were only a comm call away.
Tara sighed as she walked with her weapon tight in hand. They had given her the remainder of the outdoors to search while they checked the different parts of the huge structure. She assumed they expected to find whoever was alive, good or bad, in the building.
As the minutes accumulated and she breathed in sweet familiar like smells, she couldn't help but stroll a little bit more leisurely than probably advisable. She peered out past the trees to the horizon. A holographic program showed a soft blue sky and a clear sunset...there was no trace of the true harshness outside. She felt a strange sort of peace, perhaps an artificial product like the sun.
Certainly enough food to salvage, Tara idly thought as she came upon row after row of trellises filled with berries. She ran her fingers down a delicate vine. Someone had gone through a lot of work to plan this...certainly they wouldn't have abandoned it with out a good reason. Donnie and Faith were probably stumbling across some rich recluse that would shake their fists (and, quite possibly, a sawed off shotgun) at their intrusion. Tara chuckled at the thought.
So orderly, she again mused as she circled to the rear of the building. Everything seems to have a place except...
Tara cast her eyes on a large, peculiar tree. It was well over seventy feet tall and at least 20 feet around. It had pale greenish brown bark that was gnarled and weathered, unlike the cultivated plants of the grounds. The leaves were long and thin with a silky, grayish white tint. It seemed as if it had been there for an eternity.
"A willow tree," Tara said aloud as the name graced her memory. It made her feel warm for some reason.
Still, Tara would have probably overlooked the tree if not for the large white archway stripped of bark. It almost looks like a door.
She moved to the strange arch and placed her hand on the richly patterned grain, expecting it to be unyielding. To her surprise it swung inwards. It was a door.
The new opening revealed a spiral staircase made of the same material. There was no artificial light she could see, rather the white lumber seem to be giving off a dim glow.
Tara's curiosity drew her inside, her steps light and cautious as she explored the strange structure. It led to a small underground room, the floor, walls, and ceiling constructed with the same enchanted material. It was sectioned into two areas - the section towards the door was a parlor with a table and chairs made entirely of wood. At the far end of the room, there was a cage where the only change in color appeared. There was a thin green blanket slowly rising and falling due to the contents it covered. The only other color was stains of red on the blanket and flooring where the person slept. Blood.
Tara went into action, moving to the cage door and swinging it open. She knelt and placed her hand on the shoulder of the swathed person. The blanket shifted and she realized her patient was a young, beautiful redhead, who continued to heavily sleep on her side.
Tara lightly pressed on the shoulder and said, "Hey sweetie...I'm a medic...are you injured?"
The body lying just under her suddenly shot awake and the room pulsed a bright light as a desperate leg kicked sharply at the air, hitting Tara squarely in the middle. In her already off balanced position, Tara fell to the side and hit her lip on one of the crosswise bars. Her hands squeezed in reflex. She felt her gun fire a tranquillizer against her will.
Turning back around quickly, Tara's eyes went wide as she saw the slumped over wisp of a girl. Tara's feet shakily stumbled backwards until she was out of the cage.
"Faith...I found her," Tara weakly reported into her communicator.
"Tracking your coordinates," Donnie replied. "You okay?"
Tara wasn't sure how to answer that. "She's hurt."
Within a minute, it seemed, Tara could hear Donnie's laughter as they came down the staircase. It abruptly stopped when they saw her standing just outside the open cage door with a quickly swelling cut on her bottom lip.
"Shit...she hit you?" Faith asked, ignoring the redhead for the moment to tilt the blonde's chin at an angle to take a look.
"Accident...I frightened her," Tara replied miserably.
Donnie walked in the cage and nudged her foot...she was out cold. "Well...I'd say you got her with a good shot of sedatives."
Tara tried to reply but her lip stung. She held her jaw and tried not to get any more shaken up. She hadn't meant to fire. The part of her brain not freaking out told her to do a preliminary examination of the patient's wounds. Within a moment, she calmed enough so she could.
"Donnie, get a spare suit from the gear...let's bag her and haul her on the ship. We'll take some of the fruits for us and the salvage boys can come clean off the rest." He nodded and set himself to work.
Looking at the scene again, Faith pondered a question. "There was no lock on that cage...why didn't she just get out?"
"I think she's some sort of servant here. Maybe she's in shock. Maybe she's too weak...she has some injuries."
Faith could tell what her friend was leaving blank. She knew the signs, saw the scars as Tara removed the blanket. There was no polite way to say that someone had beaten the hell out of the woman.
"We can't reach HQ, ladies. The damn long distance communications are busted...and sensors are reading that the dust storms are picking up," Xander interrupted as he threw the headset down in defeat. He picked it back up and spoke. "Got that, Captain?"
"Yeah...we'll have to go back to base pronto then. We don't have time to spare...one more problem we'll be coasting in dead air." Faith replied. "Can we move her?"
Tara nodded hesitantly. Her first full look at the woman in a tattered mid thigh white robe wasn't as bad as she feared. There was heaving bruising and cuts, mostly confined to her lower back and thighs. Someone had inflicted injuries in such a way that they didn't break her bones or seem to cause internal injuries. Her small hands were heavily sliced and beginning to show signs of infection. Tara's biggest worry for her well-being though was dehydration and malnutrition.
Tara, with her brother's help, quickly suited the patient and checked oxygen levels. With a nod, they hoisted her up, each taking a shoulder. Faith thought of taking Tara's place in the lifting, as she was stronger, but the determination and guilt swirling around in her friend's eyes suggested that hanging back was a better idea.
They moved over the grounds quickly, now taking no notice of its wonder. They stepped back into the wasteland between the fortress and their ship and found themselves in the center of a very powerful dust storm.
Visibility was nil as the grit savagely blew in their faces, grinding on the clear protectant of their helmets. Donnie lost his grip on the woman he was carrying and she fell into Tara hard, aided by the wind. They both stumbled and flew quickly out of his sight.
"Help with the door, Donnie," Faith ordered, unaware of the situation, as she tried to unfasten the latches of the ship, the wind pressing hard to keep the hatch closed.
"You okay, Tara?"
"I got her...go...go," was the strained response.
Between the pair of them, the hatch gave way, but would only stay open for a moment. They climbed inside and held it open, expecting Tara to be right behind them.
But she wasn't.
"Tara? Tara...can you hear me?" Faith yelled into her comm, finding no comfort in the silence that followed.
"Tara!" Donnie called out to his unresponsive sister.
The opening quickly shut as a gust of wind bombarded them head on. Donnie and Faith tried to get the hatch open again, but the force against it was too much.
"We're getting buried in debris," Xander informed from the bridge, unable to tell if everyone was onboard from the comm link transmissions.
"Pull us up now, Xan...we can't get stuck."
"So, we wait it out and go back down?" Donnie asked as they unhooked their helmets and envirosuits, throwing them into a pile as they headed from the cargo bay to the bridge.
Faith stopped on the stairs in front of him, briefly, before passing the crew quarters and entering the bridge. She knew what she was going to have to do, though it killed her to even think it.
"We're in dead air...and I'm not sure the ship will hold on another high risk landing," Xander announced as they took their seats.
"We're not leaving her down there?" Donnie questioned with an angry, unbelieving tone.
"We have to," Faith growled, her own anger not directed at Donnie but at the choice she had to make. "Get us going as fast as you can back to base...we can be back in ten days with a full team and better ship if we hurry."
His eyes were like fire, meeting Faith's brown eyes that were steely and resolute. He gritted his teeth loud enough for all to hear as he pulled on the controls. If something happened to his sister while they ran like chickens, there would be hell to pay.
Tara's head felt inordinately large and her eyes seemed to roll haphazardly in the sockets of her closed lids.
"Oh, not again Tara," she mumbled, triggering a wince caused by a cranky, puffy lip. She tried to recollect what must have been one hell of a night.
She reached over to the space next to her in the bed and found it cold and empty.
Like they would spend the night, Tara sighed internally.
She tried to remember whether it was Faith or Xander who set her up.
It must have been one of the two; they spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get her dates. Faith because she wanted Tara to 'live a little' and Xander because he wanted to imagine the possibilities. Tara shook her head slightly and instantly regretted it as a wave of pain seemed to roll from the base of her skull.
Geez...how much alcohol did it take to get through that date? She kept her eyes closed...not wanting to know...well, anything.
In the beginning, as a newcomer to both the world of starships and the military, Tara had been appreciative but cautious of Faith and Xander's efforts; it was not against regulations to date crewmates, same sex or otherwise, but it was frowned upon by some of the stricter superior officers. Particularly the same sex part.
Not to mention it was hard enough to get through her rigorous studies without having to worry about some close minded jerk rejecting her for some reason other than ability.
There was another part too...the one she learned with experience. Tara didn't like dating. She always felt like the women on the other side of the table were just placating her attempts at small talk. When Tara asked questions, they were evasive but polite. They didn't want to get to know her; they just wanted a release.
Even the times that she had given way to her own desire for release, once due to curiosity and a couple times aided more by slight inebriation, she had been disappointed. It had been just sex - empty, carnal, meaningless sex. Those nights ended, not tightly held in someone's arms, but with the fumbling of clothes and the utterance of promises and excuses that rung dead to both parties as soon as they were spoken.
A void, as all-encompassing as a black hole, had so filled her after her last one night stand that she firmly decided against this routine. She wanted something more even if she didn't know what that might be.
That had been a year ago and she had followed her internal decree to the detail.
Until now, a groggy brain reminded her.
She groaned and reached for the water she kept on the nightstand. As her hand met empty air, she opened her eyes...and promptly realized she wasn't in her bunk aboard the Coalition military base.
"Oh." The noise sounded scratchy in her throat and signaled understanding as pieces of her memory stacked into place. The mission. The planet. The redhead.
She grimaced, her hand mimicking the shot earlier. It sent an uncomfortable, numb chill down her spine. Logically, she knew that the whole incident was an accident but her mind was so weary of violence and war that it was hard to accept that logic. When Tara saw a gun, she saw the one against her mother's temple as she was taken away. She could still feel the tears that came as one of the two teenagers that watched from a drainage tunnel. Donnie had held her back with his hand over her mouth.
She thought being a medic positioned her away from the cause of that malice and made her part of the solution for the effects. Perhaps not...especially if she froze every time something bad happened.
Her mind drifted away from such thoughts. The last thing she remembered was her airborne departure into the swirling winds and landing heavily on her back, the sound of her cracking helmet reverberating in her ears.
Yeah...that would be the headache, she thought sardonically.
She decided to brave sitting up - at least it gave her a chance to take in the environment with a kind of awe.
Ever thought of living in glass houses?
Except she was sure it wasn't glass...the walls were too translucent and seamless for that. Purple rose vines inexplicably clung to the walls from the outside, their thorny fingers slanting in various directions as they grew upward. Peering out beyond them, Tara could see a courtyard of fountains and rock. As she oriented herself, she realized she was in the center of the fortress; she could trace what she recognized of it when she saw it from the outside.
The inside adornment of the room was a strange combination of a conservatory and a garden tea room. On the opposite side of the room, there was a formal tea table with four settings. There was also a smaller table a few steps away for someone else to kneel.
Like a servant.
Tara herself was resting atop a nestled daybed framed by two small tables. There was little else in eyesight other than two deep purple and black woven rugs resting over top the smooth stone floor.
Carefully tilting her head skyward, Tara found a swirl of white clouds that looked like the tops of ice cream cones and a blazing ball of false fire that met her cheerily. She stuck her head between the two pillows on the bed and asked her new fluffy friends for some sympathy. Pretty was pretty...but bright was too bright.
A clear, crisp bell rung and Tara heard the wisp of a quietly opened door. She turned to find the redhead from before entering the room with a tray. Her footsteps were elegant and noiseless. She had cleaned up to look presentable, her short red hair wispy and straight, with two braids that circled around and formed a halo on the crown of her head. She wore a spotless white silk robe, much like the one she was in when she found her. It could just barely be called decent now that the redhead was standing, it's mid thigh length and almost sheerness quite noticeable. The blonde was transfixed by the way it shimmered as the woman moved. When the hem went a little higher as she set the tray on the side table, Tara politely averted her eyes.
"Yes?" Tara questioned. The redhead lifted her head and lovely green eyes met her directly for the first time. Those eyes were not at all tentative the way Tara would have expected.
"Herbal tea to ease your head." Tara saw the servant's hands for the first time as they turned over from releasing the tray and she wondered how she had been able to carry it at all. Tara also questioned how she got to this room. Did her friends bring her here or did this woman...what...drag her from outside? Yet the redhead hadn't attended to any of her own injuries but was obviously capable. It was confusing.
"I have prepared a bath and attire for you to use at your leisure. I will show you to your quarters when you are ready." The redhead moved to the opposite side of the room, sitting inauspiciously on her heels with an uncommon ease and flexibility. The posture was clearly a customary, almost irreverent position that didn't seem learned in captivity. The deep gash midway down on her thigh had to be painful in that form though, pulling apart the edges of skin that naturally wanted to come together.
"Oh...you didn't have to do all that."
"I must care for a guest of my Master." Again with those eyes...there was resolution and sincerity there.
"Ummm...I don't know your Master. My name's Tara. I forgot to mention that before because you were with the kicking and I was with the bang-bang."
You're so not funny, Tara.
"What's your name?"
"Lady Tara, it is Red."
That doesn't seem like her real name...wait...Lady Tara?
"Oh...you don't have to properly address me," she responded, realizing that she would need to alleviate, if not remove, some of the formalities a servant would be accustomed to experiencing. "It's just Tara anyway. Way out in space it's hard to be much of a lady," she replied with a casual snicker.
Okay, still not funny.
"Interesting place," Tara commented with an ill advised bobbing of her head. She took a sip of the offered tea; it was surprisingly soothing and nicely flavored. She was met with silence again.
But she answers questions?
"How are my friends?"
"There is no one else here."
Tara's brow furrowed as she hunted the area for her headset. A moment later, Red glided to the side table and handed her exactly what she was looking for from the contents inside. The blonde tried to make contact - there was no signal though an emergency beacon was broadcasting from the device...it meant that they had left but were coming back as soon as possible. Tara thought she should be worried at being marooned on an unknown planet with an unknown woman, but she found herself surprisingly calm on that front.
"How...how did I get here?"
"I brought you inside when I woke." Red's eyes darted nervously around the floor before looking back up. "Is this not to your liking?"
Tara could see the anxiety on her face. "No, no...it's very nice. Thank you." Red visibly relaxed as her head lowered.
"What is your title here?"
"I am a servant of my Master."
"And where is your Master?"
"Master will come soon. She is testing me."
"There's no one else on the planet...no one else in the area." Tara blurted out before considering her words. She sipped her tea and frowned in thought.
Why was she left behind in the first place? If someone was going to return, wouldn't there be more than one person here?
The thoughts drew to a point in Tara's mind - no one was coming back. They left her alone because they didn't care whether she lived or died.
And Red seemed oblivious...or in denial.
Tara sighed and began to think she wasn't cut out for this line of work. This was far more complex than a few bumps and scratches.
"Your breakfast is ready," Red announced some time later...almost as if it had just finished. "Will you take it in here?"
Tara shook her head, noting how the dull throb was sliding further and further away. "How about I take a look at those cuts you have? I'm a medic...I...I can do that."
Okay...now try it with your more reassuring voice, Tara.
"I-I am not sure that would be allowed," Red quietly replied...and for the first time she didn't lift her head when she spoke.
"But you're injured."
"Master cares for me. She takes care of..." Willow motioned at her cuts. "Master cares for me."
No she doesn't, Tara's mind retorted. Who has the right to own someone? Who deserves to be stripped of any thought of self preservation?
Maybe it was her simple upbringing, but she didn't understand. Life had been hard on her but she had never lost her...
Tara wanted more than anything to give it back to someone she didn't know. That gave her confidence...and a place to start.
"Would your..." Tara grimaced and couldn't say the word again. "Would she be upset if you prevented a guest from accomplishing her business?"
"What if I said my business is to fix those cuts? What would you do then?"
Red's eyebrow lifted in surprise, her head tilted slightly as she paused to look at Tara and consider the question.
"I would have to allow it."
"Okay, then let's take a seat and have a look at your hands."
I sat waiting for a command that would not come from the woman before me. I was trying to make my steps along side an unknowing dance partner.
It was strange to think that someone could be mad, not mad at me, but for me. Most people that visited my Master didn't see me as anything at all. Their minds were empty and unconcerned with my presence. The few that did take notice had eyes that made me shudder inside.
Tara's words were ringing in my head.
No one in the area.
I knew that Master wasn't on planet, but how far had she gone? Tara had to be mistaken. She just had to be.
I felt off balanced just thinking about not having a routine or orders. My mind ran from that thought and returned to Tara. She was different; she seemed to care about matters of little consequence to herself. That was indeed a rarity...and maybe just a little refreshing.
I watched Tara organize her medical supplies, a nervous wave coming off of her despite the bravado of her suggestion and its implied subversion of the rules. Intensity ran through my connection - her emotions churning in my bloodstream with an overwhelming clarity and strength that made my heart pound. Her energy was far stronger than I had ever sensed from another person. It was like I had been cut off all these years, numb on some deserted island, and suddenly the world came rushing back. She was a beautiful world to cast my eyes upon with her crystal blue eyes and hair the color of straw and honey.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, a fruitless attempt to center myself. Surely this jumble of emotions was a folly of my imagination - there was nothing else to explain it.
Tara became more poised as she prepared. She approached and gingerly turned over my hands that were resting in my lap. Her own hands were cool and soft; her eyes and mind focused. She was in her element.
I looked at my own hands as Tara did - she was commenting on a minor infection while all I saw were the broken pictures.
Those were the symbols my Master bestowed on me...the costume that said I am hers. Except...they didn't say that anymore, did they?
Instead, they said I'd failed her.
They said I was hers...but she didn't want me.
They said I'm alone.
I'm nothing if I'm alone.
I heard a sob...and then another. Was that my voice? Were those my tears?
Suddenly, there was a strong arm around me...holding me up? Could I not sit upright? Or stand? Or walk? Why was I so dizzy?
Then there was softness...a bed? My eyelids were so heavy...weary.
There was this voice...repeating, echoing in my mind.
"Red, you're gonna be okay."
It was the same thing over and over.
I felt Tara's compassion blaze over me as I began to slip away. It was a warm blanket...she was the warm things. That blanket wrapped around me, bringing safety and comfort all at once.
"Red, you're gonna be okay." Her voice was a melody, gentle and calm, lulling me to the place of dreams. I was almost there...I wanted to be there...but something would not let me pass.
"Red, you're gonna be okay." And then I knew.
"My name is Willow." I heard myself whisper before succumbing to sleep.
Tara carefully balanced a tray overflowing with food as she opened the door and entered the room. She smiled sheepishly; her injured lip was a fleeting mark.
"I kinda got carried away...it's been a while since I've been able to cook."
I sat up, feeling strangely revitalized, and tried to help.
"No...stay...I got it."
"Oh, okay," fell out of my mouth as I noticed my cuts didn't sting or itch...mostly because they had been transformed into smooth, painless scars. I pushed down the covers drawn over me, noticing the same result on my legs. I tilted my hands back and forth and they shined in the late day sun. I met her blue eyes in surprise, though I think she mistook it for worry or fear.
"Does anything hurt, Willow? I mended your wounds and adjusted your hydration and nutrient levels while you were sleeping."
"No, no...I mean...how did you..." I ran my hand over the healing mark on my thigh, pushing up my robe to trace it to my hip.
"W-with this," she stuttered, embarrassment and something else I couldn't quite detect flashing over her. She showed me a small handheld device, two small lights flashed as she pressed a button to presumably turn it on. I looked at it as she placed it in my hands, not really knowing how this fixed my injuries, but nodding just the same. There was the faint curiosity inside me...wondering about Tara and her world.
But mostly there was numbness. I was no longer drained, physically, but I felt empty. I was supposed to be a servant...but I had no purpose. I knew the tasks that I should perform...my mind reached out and there they were...reset the barrier...replenish the tree. Did I continue with these tasks? Was there a reason to?
My eyes shifted to Tara as she pointed out various dishes and explained them with delight. Such a normal thing and she seemed so happy. I was sure I lingered too long in silence when she stopped talking and looked at me intently. She was enchanting me with her ease and simplicity.
"So do you want anything to eat?"
My stomach grumbled in response.
"Well, that sounds like a yes...what would you like?"
"Whatever you desire me to have is acceptable."
I could feel her mood falter slightly...she was displeased? I found it stung me hard and I struggled with my vocal cords to say something to restore that brightness again.
"I'll have what tastes good."
"Eees all good at Chez Tara," she replied with a funny accent, a silly sort of glee restored. She handed me a bowl of fruit and meal.
I sat up more fully and took a small, cautious bite. "Mmmm."
A small half grin appeared on her face. "See all good."
And strangely enough it was...because, so quickly, I had found a new purpose.
I could make her want me. I would do everything in my power to convince her to take me into servitude. I would have the game once more.
Night settled over the unusual sphere, stars twinkling in merry, undefined intervals.
Tara rested in the slumber of the troubled mind, which was to say, not at all. She stretched in the large cushy bed, trying to remove the ill comfort of the high backed chair she spent most of the day occupying. It had been a day watching Willow.
The blonde had checked her vitals on the scanner countless times...rolling her eyes at the psuedo-obsessive habit. Willow was stable - her blood sugar and hydration were vastly improved and she didn't have any reason to be overly worried. Yet she had hardly left her side at any point in the day other than to search the grounds for a bath, change clothes, and cook a meal that she barely touched...instead excited to see the redhead eat a fair share.
Tara had first chalked it up to how this was her first unsupervised patient and she wanted everything to go perfectly.
She couldn't say the same now.
Instead she had a stack of excuses:
Willow was a pretty woman...it wasn't the first time someone had caught her eye.
Yes, others have caught my eye...but just for a brief moment. How long will this one stay there? It already seems so long and yet not long enough.
Willow's been through a terrible ordeal and needs a friend...comfort.
Yes, but I want to cross a line.
Because I know she's special. I'm sad and frustrated that she doesn't get that. I want to be the one to show her.
Show her what?
But this was about the work...helping people.
Yes, I want her to be better. I'm just not sure I want to let her go when she is...that's not a patient. That's something I've never had. Is it wrong for me to want that?
The hours ticked by though Tara didn't notice. She was too busy remembering the way Willow's bright red hair fanned over her face as she slept...the way her firm muscles felt under soft skin as she mended her cuts. Then there was the surprise of hearing her mumble about dream butterflies in a cute, soft voice.
Tara...no, no no...you're heading right towards a bad idea here.
But her mind was helpless. It couldn't do anything except follow the path her heart had already taken.
I feigned sleep, and after Tara retreated to the quarters I had prepared before my collapse, I set about making a world for her. I reset the barrier and inspected the climate settings by hand - as they were one of the few things that I could not control on my own.
My heart pounded at the idea of being hers. I tempered my own excitement to open my mind to her and only her.
Reading what Tara wanted was surprisingly simple. It was a strong memory of something she once had...something that had been taken away. There was love and happiness in the swirls around the pictures. I retreated to my cage so I could meditate on them...and then create what she most desired.
"I'll be in the sector by morning," Forrest informed Adam, one of his eyes hardwired, literally, into the scanners. "I'm picking up the traces of a Coalition scout recently flying in the area."
"Interesting," came the reply from the base, Adam's voice was deep and thoughtful.
"Do you think the psychic is still on the planet?" Forrest asked.
"Our trade associate may have escaped but she likes to have options. The girl will be there...and now she'll be part of our plans." he responded, cold and calculating.
Tara was lured from a restless sleep by the smell of buttermilk angel biscuits...she could see them in her mind...golden brown on the bottom and top...soft and fluffy in the middle. Mamma made them on mornings when they didn't have to go to school. Her mind was buzzing like a fly, reminding her that she had to be still dreaming. She was finally pulled into a state of alertness by that internal caterwauling.
Except...if I'm awake, how can I still be here?
She rose quickly from a brass bed with light blue covers in her childhood room. The same old cantankerous floorboard creaked as her feet hit the flooring. Daddy had tried to fix it one weekend, but somehow that had only made it louder.
She pulled on her uniform pants and weapon holster as her stomach began to twist and turn. Something was most definitely wrong.
A dark cherry antique bureau and her grandmother's dressing table sat against the far wall as she made her way across the room and out the door. In the hallway, she could see the sliver of her brother's messy room filled with posters of the latest racing speedsters. She held back all the noises in her throat as she ran down the stairs.
It was still and quiet; no dogs sleeping in the family room...no cats perched upon the window sill making noises at the hummingbirds eating on the porch feeder. Mamma wasn't in the kitchen, but a small plate of biscuits, eggs, and corned beef hash were. She breathed the familiar smell in as she ran her hand over the dish with pink and gold trim - she found it warm. Tara pushed the plate away and stumbled outside.
The farm was bright and green as it was in the spring when new life would grow full and happy. The sun was slowly rising from a mountain range on the horizon, burning away the mist and bringing the land into a sharp, almost blinding, clarity. The fields were carefully manicured just the way daddy liked. The grass looked as if Donnie had trimmed it the night before and was damp to Tara's barefeet as she walked across the front yard and headed left.
How is this possible? her mind marveled, both intrigued and scared.
Tara peeked into the barn but neither her father nor any of the animals were residing there. In her head, she knew he wouldn't be...but she had to check. She shut the door and pulled the latch. It still stuck and she had to pull it twice to get it to close.
It was everything exactly where it belonged...exactly the way she remembered it. Yet Tara's arms just naturally folded over and shielded herself as a slow, dull ache infected her heart. It was a heart that recognized the reality as not her own. She squeezed her eyes tight, willing herself not to cry. When she looked up, she noticed a large willow tree in the short distance in front of her...the same one from the previous days.
"Oh, Willow...what did you do?"
"Tut-tut...I'll be asking the questions," a deep male voice responded from behind.
Tara suddenly found herself pinned against the barn door, a hand gripped around her neck and two feet of empty space below her feet.
"Where is Willow?"
Tara knew she would never tell as she felt the air to reply slowly slip away.
Willow felt a haze of weariness lingering over her as she tried to rest in her cage. Instinctively, she knew that she should try to recharge but part of her mind was spinning with curiosity.
She scrounged at the floorboard, lifting it to reveal her thick red oak walking staff. It was a relic of days passed but it carried power she was currently lacking. Her hands molded into the rough, gnarled texture and it began to glow as she opened her mind.
The pieces of the puzzle, the house and outlying farmland, seemed to be settled and their shape and texture were holding. It had been four years since she had performed a construction and, even then, Master had been instrumental in giving her advice as to what she needed to build. Willow wasn't even sure exactly why she had been so sure she could make this for Tara. She had never been particularly powerful at reading thoughts unless they were very strong...much less sensing such a vivid memory from someone unknown to her and recreating it. Willow assumed it was a force of nature beyond her experience.
She internally focused and found Tara walking across a green, peaceful landscape. She wore a sleeveless shirt and uniform pants, showing off far more of her soft, smooth skin than Willow had ever seen. Her heart skipped a beat and she had trouble swallowing as she watched the graceful way she moved to the large red barn and investigated.
Willow further concentrated, carefully grazing the surface of the blonde's mind. There was a stilted coldness and a helpless sense of being lost. It hurt so much. Before Willow could process what was happening, she felt a second presence and a wave of fear that sent the redhead running without a thought.
A sickly terror combined with a torrent of anger assaulted Willow as she saw the large robotic operative choking Tara. A flash of blinding red ran from her hand into the staff she was still holding and across the landscape, ripping the barn from its foundation like a tornado. Tara fell from Forrest's hand as the support blew away. He let her stay on the ground in a heap as he turned with an amused smile.
"You're just the one I was looking for...High Priestess Willow," Forrest responded unaffected by the display. His white, glistening teeth looked prominent against the shiny, silver metal portion of his jaw.
He began to walk towards Willow, one step methodically placed in front of the other. He barely paid attention to the thick pine walls that were building on all four sides of him and slowly began to close inward. The wall encased the operative in a coffin like formation just a couple of feet from the redhead. A rhythmic thumping began, as if he was beating a hand against the lid.
Tara had black spots in front of her eyes as she regained her breath. She tried to speak but only a low croaking noise bubbled from her sore throat. The dizziness began to dissipate as her forehead rested on the dirt. She pawed at her belt line and pulled her gun.
Willow slipped to her knees as she tried to hold the barrier. Fatigue combined with the unfamiliarity of this type of battle transformation was making her unable to hold the barrier.
"Tara...run!" She called out to the blonde. She lost her concentration with the action and the coffin faded away. Forrest took the final step forward and backhanded her sharply, driving Willow flat into the ground.
"Hey!" Tara yelled, the traces of pain overridden in the immediacy.
As Forrest turned around, she lifted her gun and fired a round of plasma shots. His eyes were struck in the melee and he fell instantly -both the man and the robot were dead.
"Thanks Faith," Tara mumbled as she pushed herself up from the bare dirt and rubbed her throat. Willow was likewise trying to gather herself and Tara moved to her side and extended a hand. "Are you okay?"
Willow nodded but couldn't meet Tara's probing and curious eyes. "I'm sorry about all this." She only looked up to grab the offered hand.
Tara lifted her upright, wrapping an arm around her for balance as they walk towards the willow tree.
"Just tell me what is going on."
The dim glow of the wood flashed to a bright pulse before tapering off to a proper seeing level as they entered the cage. Willow looked paler than Tara had ever seen as she moved to her scant bed inside the cage and sat down.
"I-I'm sorry...it wasn't supposed to be like that. He...it wasn't supposed to be here. I should've sensed it. I should've stopped that."
"Sensed it? What are you?" Tara internally winced at both the forcefulness of the question and the almost imperceptible way it made Willow uncomfortable.
"This was the environment I sensed from you. I'm projecting the place I thought you most wanted to see. Was I wrong?"
"You're a telepath?" Tara questioned incredulously, pacing outside the cage door. "You're projecting this?"
"Yes...I'm different," Willow replied in a flat tone that sounded as if she gave in to that fact long ago. "Sometimes...sometimes I can see pictures. Or hear or smell things...but I am really more of an empath by nature."
"And you thought it was okay to just run through my mind and not ask me?" Tara asked equal parts hurt and mad.
Willow's face was empty and remorseful, her eyes further and further away from the harsh stare she was receiving. "I thought you would want to be comfortable. I thought you wanted your home. I...I thought this was what you wanted."
Tara knew she should feel angry and used, but a louder part of her mind told her to calm down. After a moment, and with a sigh, she took the weight off her feet and leaned her head back against the wall. It pulsed strangely in response.
"Some deep part of my mind might want this...but not me. This isn't real. What I miss? It isn't here."
Tara looked at her directly and in a small voice asked, "Can you just make it go away?"
"Yes...but I'm too weak to try yet." Willow paused in thought. "If not this world...then what?"
"Then what...what?" Tara asked with a furrow.
"What do you wish it to look like?" Willow motioned at the door to the outside beyond.
"I don't understand how it looks like it does now," Tara replied, avoiding the question to hint at one of her own.
Willow seemed to go far away for a moment before opening her hand widely and running it across the floor. A trail of light and energy followed her movement. "This land was once my home...it is an ancient, sacred woodland. This tree is my source; all my powers originate from it." Willow touched the grainy swirl patterns with reverence. "I can create any world over the Calm."
Tara frowned as she looked at her hands. How could someone have so much power and...
"Why did you pretend to be a servant?"
"That's what I am...That's what I..."
Tara got the distinct impression that the word 'deserve' was what she had stopped herself from saying. The blonde wondered what had happened to her to make her this is where she belonged. Don't you know how special you are?
Tara moved into the cage and took a seat next to Willow, unconsciously running her hand over the one resting on the floor.
"You don't have to c-change it...outside I mean...I'm okay," Tara offered sincerely.
"No you're not," Willow responded with a raised eyebrow.
Tara internally rolled her eyes. Yes, Tara, lie to the telepath...that's a good idea.
She missed the mile wide grin that snuck onto the redhead's face.
"Okay...so, um...what do you want it to be?" Tara asked as she changed topics.
"I want the Calm to live and grow in its natural form."
"Then let it...and maybe then you can tell me a little about this Calm?"
"I guess it's the least I can do after all this," Willow responded with some reservation. She was clearly not comfortable talking about her past but willing to try. "Does this hurt?" she asked as she traced the small bruising around Tara's neck.
"Only a little," Tara replied, tapping down every thought and feeling in her mind as a shiver ran over her body.
Willow moved to lay down, her exhaustion clearly present as she curled into her blankets...facing away from the blonde. Just as Tara thought she had fallen asleep, she began speaking.
"When I was six months old, I was left at the doorstep of the Calm, so to speak. My parents brought me here from some outlying land because I was marked by the Powers." Without turning around, Willow lowered the top of her robe slightly, showing a birthmark on the lower part of her neck that looked like a foreign character that Tara almost recognized.
"It means wood. It meant I belonged here," Willow continued with a visible separation from the words.. "I began training with the other children brought here when I was four. Right away the elders could tell I was different. I was moved to advanced training and assigned a mentor...my sensei. He was the first one that told me it was my destiny to become High Priestess for the tribe. They gave me that title when I was thirteen."
"Wow...that's young." Tara commented as she moved closer and rested her hand on top of a bare ankle peeking out from the covers.
"I guess, but that's just the way it was," Willow replied as she turned over and met blue eyes.
It was harder to speak when she faced who she was baring herself to so she stared at the ceiling. That...and the rhythmic way Tara was caressing her skin took allowed her to form the words that didn't want to come out.
"I killed them three years later." The movement on her foot stopped. "I mean I didn't gut them...but I didn't warn them about...about the monsters who did.
"The Blight?" Tara whispered, as if she was afraid that a normal pitched voice would cause them discover her whereabouts. The redhead nodded mutely as she sat up, resting her hands in her lap. Tara covered those hands with her own.
"It's not your fault, you know..." Tara began, not knowing how to finish such a statement. Then, she had a thought that but might help Willow...though her own mind was begging for an alternative.
"Come with me."
Tara led Willow over to large farmhouse and they retrieved the supply pack from her room in the farmhouse. The redhead couldn't help but notice the warmth and care shown across the land and house. Even though she had created the false reality, to Willow, it had been on a more subconscious level and now she was seeing the true beauty for the first time.
Tara led her to an irrigation tunnel that ducked underneath the ground and stopped abruptly. "This is where Donnie and I hid when the Blight came." Tara pointed at the large porch that ran all the way around the house. "That's where they led my mother away from. She had been weeding a window sill flowerbed." Tara pointed at a well in front of the house. "They lifted a bucket of water out and dumped a vial in it...then they made my father drink. It was poison...but a slow acting one. He died a week later." She pointed at a spot next to a small workshop. "We buried him there...cause that was his favorite place to be."
Tara began to walk toward the driveway. Just as she was about to gesture at something in the distance, Willow placed a hand on her shoulder and whispered, "Stop...you don't have to..."
"Don't you see, Willow? None of this is my fault. Whatever they did to your tribe...that's not your fault. What they did...what they took...I don't have the words to describe. But I do know who to blame."
Willow linked her arm with Tara's and wordlessly led her back to the tree. She wondered how Tara could be so strong and courageous when Willow felt tears forming just at the thought of what she had been through. Willow guided her to one of the chairs just outside her cage before ducking into her structure and sitting in a bowing posture with her hands opened wide and pressed flat against the gleaming boards.
"Close your eyes...it's about to get really bright in here."
A blinding flash passed over the odd little underground room for a moment and Tara shielded her shut lids with her hand until it dissipated. When she opened her eyes and could see Willow again, it almost seemed as if she was outlined in a white light that made Tara think of what an angel would look like.
"Do you want to show me your world?" Tara asked, totally enamored at the glowing beauty in her vision.
There was a ghost in my mind...it cast a shadow over my village as we moved. It showed me where the huts should be standing tall and proud in the great trees. It showed me where the swing bridges that connected them should be. It showed me the kitchens, communal areas, temple and so on. I suddenly remembered everything, but I wished it would stop.
I felt that I might splinter and fall at any moment. Tara would have to cry out the warning...but only if she saw in time.
Through the fallen trees, filled with rot and disease and pestilence.
Through death itself.
Back to my source...the only boughs with any life at all.
My world was truly gone.
Willow's a lot faster than I would've thought. Tara's mind processed as she tried in vain to catch up with her.
It was obvious that Willow didn't know her world had turned into this...and Tara cursed herself for asking her to invoke something that could be so potentially catastrophic. The blonde knew all too well what it was like to revisit her own world just as she remembered it but empty. At least that was better than seeing it decayed and ruined.
Tara didn't catch up with her until she had already returned to the tree. Willow was clawing and punching at the bark with desperate scrapes and clutches. She finally huddled into a ball against the bark, a mixture of sobs and wheezes erupting from her throat. Willow's noises seemed particularly loud against the tiny one of Tara's own heart breaking.
Tentatively, Tara embraced Willow from behind, hearing her nearly silent whispers as she laid her ear against the lithe's girl back.
"I'm alone. I'm a mistake."
Tara felt a protectiveness that caused her to turn the woman in her arms almost forcefully. But there was nothing but gentleness in the way she drew her fingers through the red locks covering Willow's face and lifted her chin so she could look deep into her eyes. "How can you say that?"
"It's what I've always been. What else can I be?" Willow posed weakly through her tears.
"A beautiful, kind, powerful woman," Tara responded, without even a thought to how very direct it sounded.
"There's nothing left. I have no one."
"You've got me."
"You aren't mine."
"But I am..." Tara whispered. A deep gulp followed as she realized the gravity of the conversation. The blonde felt a weight of self-incrimination fall on her, forcing her eyes to look away and quickly become obscured by blonde locks. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have..."
Tara's words were taken away by lips that pressed into her own. Those lips were not forceful by any means; there was a question and innocence in the action.
Willow curled into Tara's willing arms, her eyes still leaking tears in a slow drip. Tara scooted them to the rough surface of the bark and held the body next to her with gentleness not present in the harsh surroundings.
They moved into the cage a short tome later. The redhead seemed almost embarrassed by her behavior. Tara rifled through her equipment, unpacking a place to sleep in a deliberate fashion in attempt to give Willow as much privacy as could be afforded in such a small space. It was only when she began making a strange smelling food did a question break the silence.
"Gruel," Tara responded as she turned and stirred the self heating containers.
"Is that supposed to sound appetizing?" Willow asked impishly, moving to peek her head over the crouched blonde and look at the stew like mixture.
"It's supposed to keep soldiers alive in emergencies because it's chock full of vitaminy content and small enough to carry around."
"So...it tastes bad, then?"
"Um, I've never had this - we eat different stuff on the base and ship. It's um...something." She handed Willow a bowl as the redhead sat beside her closely. Very close in fact.
Willow lifted a spoon to her nose and tentatively sniffed it. "This isn't going to be good."
"Close your eyes and open your mouth."
"What?" she asked even as she closed her green orbs. "Is this...mmmphh..."
Willow chewed and swallowed before opening her eyes to a mock sheepish looking blonde.
"That was not good." The redhead stated plaintively.
Tara shrugged lightly. "It'll be better on the second bite." She tried to shove a second spoonful of the distasteful food into Willow's mouth but she kept it resolutely shut and ended up with most of it plastered down the side of her cheek.
Tara almost started to apologize with a bit of a giggle until Willow threw a spoonful dead on onto her face. Thus, the call was sounded and a food fight began.
After cleaning up the impromptu fight...and managing to actually eat some of the food, taste be damned, Willow sat behind Tara slowly braiding her hair as they talked. Willow seemed to be avoiding what had happened and Tara obliged a silent request by not bringing it to the surface of conversation. Plus, the blonde had to concentrate and take measured breaths as those fingers ran over her scalp.
"What's it like out there...in space?" Willow asked suddenly.
Tara tilted her head up partially. "You've never been off the planet?"
Willow shook her head. "So, what it's like?"
The redhead giggled. "Is that all?"
Tara gave a mock serious nod. "Yup."
The both laughed a little at the silliness...but as the moment passed, Willow turned quite serious once more.
"Will you take me with you...when you go?"
"Always." Tara responded, just as serious, without a heartbeat between the question and answer.
The next three days passed with a mix of random conversation and poorly manufactured cuisine.
It should have been uncomfortable to be in such close quarters with someone else. I had never known it before...even as I child, I never shared a room.
The only time I felt uncomfortable is when Tara went outside to wash up and change her clothes. I worried when she was alone because I couldn't go out there. Not with...everything. I offered to create any world she wanted...one that would make her accommodations less primitive.
She told me that we could both face reality for a short while. Except this was as close as I could get to it...for now.
Tara didn't seem to mind though...she spent most of time by my side. She taught me card games from a deck in her side bag. She said it was against regulation to have them, but that some rules were meant to broken. She gave much weight to that statement for some reason.
"Faith showed me everything I know about cards." Tara had said as they shuffled into a pile with a snap.
She began filling me in on the people in her life. It was hard to keep attention with the thought that she wanted me to be her girl. Still, I managed to listen to stories of how her crewmates met. Her open nature was infectious and I began telling stories that had been on roads long less traveled.
"When I was eight, on our tribal new year, I tried to grow some ivy up the side of my sensei's quarters that was located high in the trees above the temple. It was traditional to give a gift that represented growth and new life on that day. The problem was I waited until the night before so it would be a surprise and I picked a species of plant that was pretty but not really useful for such a task. So, there I was, after two hours in the dark of night, with only about six foot of vines sprouting up a tree that was at least ten times that size. I was pretty frustrated and somehow I convinced myself that if I climbed to the tip of the ivy I could make it grow faster. So I started to climb up the bark, but slipped about two steps into the process and fell back into a puddle of mud, no less. I stood up, covered in mud, and cursed as I kicked at the trunk of the tree. The moment my foot touched the bark, a thick overhanging branch shot upward in a spurt of growth and careened through the bottom of my sensei's quarters."
When I spoke those memories, they became alive again...yet they didn't hurt. For a moment, there was more than just pain. I had recovered sequences of time that filled the entire spectrum of emotions. The person kept in the dark didn't have to hide anymore.
Who was I?
I didn't know...but I felt closer than ever before to finding out.
Still, there were places I...we couldn't venture. Tara didn't speak of her world again and I didn't speak about the woman who had been my world to serve. In fact, I hardly thought of her at all.
I only thought of Tara...it seemed like every single minute.
I woke up covered in sweat and panting, a low moan coming from just outside my cage where Tara had made her bedroll. My body burned like never before; a need within me screamed and demanded. As I focused, I saw perhaps the most amazing sight I had ever cast my eyes upon. Tara was lying on her back, her legs parted, with her hand down the front of her sleeping shorts...a hand that made rapid movements across her center causing her to jerk and spasm.
My breath caught in my throat, unable to expel or inhale. And then she mumbled something that made my heart stop.
I crawled to the edge of my cage without even registering it until I bumped it and was within reach of her through the bars. I could smell her - a musk that pleasurably tickled my nose. Her moans were getting progressively louder...she was climbing towards an inevitable release.
The knuckles of my left hand turned white as I gripped the thin crosswise bar tightly.
My other hand went under my robe, mimicking her movements. My mind's eye picturing that it my motions were drawing those noises from her throat...imagining that Tara's hand was rubbing against my own sex.
My head tilted against the bars; my teeth dug into my lip to keep me from making a sound as we began to move faster, grinding into our hands feverishly.
I couldn't tell where my emotions ended and hers began. I was overwhelmed with the sense of being one with her, inside her own body. I was her heart, pumping full and strong...her lungs, breathing jagged and sharp. I was the fingers that entered Tara and the sex that took those fingers deeper before squeezing them in a crushing grip.
That was when my own body exploded; my head spiraling and overwhelmed as a sticky substance ran down my hand. I fell forward completely, the wall of the cage was the only thing holding me upright. When I moved to balance myself, I noticed the bar under my hand had splintered and cracked under the force of my grip. That is also when I realized that Tara was screaming her own release...one that drew her from sleep.
I somehow fled to my blanket and turned the other way, still shuddering inside. My lip was bleeding - at some point I had bit it too hard.
Her panic was immediately present as I heard her scoot around. It retreated quickly, as did her panting, when she began to think I was asleep.
There was no hope for that sort of rest for me now.
I heard her rustle back into place fitfully. I opened my mind to her and I felt her desire still blazing. For me.
But I also felt something else, like a shadow blanketing her soul. Loneliness. Even in her world, with ships filled with hundreds of fellow crewmates, Tara felt alone...a singularness of being on the outside looking in. Yes, we were from different worlds, but we shared something that was a constant across the stars. It was, perhaps, far more similar than either of us could understand.
Courage filled my initiative to move. When I wrapped my arm over Tara's body, resting it on her flat stomach, a quick intake of breath was her response. After a moment she began brushing her thumb over the back of my hand.
I expected her emotions to close off to me now that she was more fully awake. Instead, she turned in the low, muted light of the room and cupped my face gently. I mirrored her actions, but my hand wouldn't stop shaking as I tried to hold her face.
Her mouth moved to my trembling hand, her tongue tracing the scars on my palm before she took each of my fingers into her mouth. I fell onto my back with another round of shivers. She placed my hand back at my side and stared deep into my eyes.
"What do you want?" Tara asked in a low, husky tone.
"I want you," I whispered in a voice I hardly recognized.
Her hand was confident as she removed the tie from my robe and peeled it off of me. I became her canvas as she moved her tongue against my body, painting me with slow deliberate strokes. She spent extra moments over the slashes on my stomach as if she was anointing me...cleansing me.
She moved between my legs to finish her masterpiece upon my body. Her fingers parted my folds and her tongue moved at a languid pace. As if she was trying to savor and memorize every moment.
Eventually, I found it all too much and I began clutching at her shoulder...wishing for more but wordless to express such a request. Tara's lips soon covered a particularly sensitive spot and sucked...my body thrashed and released. She granted my wish.
She drifted back to my face, smelling and tasting of my body as she kissed me just once more with a slow, thorough pace. It only fully punctuated the completeness I felt.
When my senses returned, in the strong embrace of her arms, I could sense that her body was still humming and I tried to move to give her a fraction of what she just gave me. She held me tight, though, and didn't push for anything more. I then realized we both had plenty of time yet.
Tara woke to something that had never happened before. The warmth of someone's body resting in time with her own.
It was even better than she imagined.
She curled her arms a little tighter, hearing the redhead sprawled over her body sigh contentedly.
Tara decided she never wanted to move again.
It would have been a prudent decision if a series of thunderous whooshing noises hadn't arrived at that exact moment to bounce them both awake in a muddled state.
"What's going on?" Willow asked in what sounded like a cute, sleepy whine.
"Ship's here...are you ready?"
Willow took a deep breath, gathering her strength, and nodded.
Tara kissed her forehead tenderly and whispered, "Just don't look back."
They arrived at the corridor between the now deactivated cloaking barrier and the outside world moments later and ran into a three haggard but happy souls.
"Well, whew, I thought we had tripped into the wrong place," Faith commented, her easy going nature almost covering up the worry she had felt as the opened a barrier to some decayed forest.
Donnie was much more enthusiastic, throwing off his helmet and rushing to meet his sister, lifting her off the ground and spinning her in a circle. Tara giggled loudly before finally slapping her brother to put her down before she got dizzy.
"I would hug you but these two would claim I was trying to cop a feel," Xander spoke with a friendly wave as she returned to her feet.
"That's because you would cop a feel, you perv," Faith replied with a raised eyebrow that just begged him to deny that. He didn't.
"How in the hell did you get back here in a week?" Tara asked.
Xander, Faith, and Donnie looked at each other nervously.
"Yeah about that..." Faith began as she unhooked her helmet and fluffed out her wavy brown hair. "We sorta stole a new ship."
"What now?" Tara responded with a gape.
"Some skirmish out in a nearby sector to the base...they said a search and rescue was a lower priority and gave us orders to get in the attack line. We didn't agree, took their new fangled flying machine, and hauled ass here." Donnie replied with a shrug.
"Oh...my..." Tara reacted as she processed that nugget of information. She turned slightly and saw that Willow looked uncomfortable - her eyes were firmly planted towards the ground. The blonde's first response was to move to her side and interweave their hands once more. A small, sheepish smile was her reward.
"Gang...this is Willow," Tara introduced, breaking one hand of their grasp so that the redhead could face the group. Tara squeezed the hand in hers in a show of comfort.
When Willow found the power to look up, she noticed that they were inspecting Tara with far more curiosity.
"This is Faith...that's my brother Donnie...and the other guy is Xander," Tara spoke as she pointed them out.
"I'm the other guy? Thanks so much for the generic title, Tara." Xander responded as he walked up and put his hand out. Willow placed her own in his and he shook in a thoroughly goofy sort of gesture.
"Geez...are you trying to rip her arm off her shoulder?" Faith asked as she pushed him aside with a small heave. Faith patted the afore mentioned shoulder and smiled far more politely than usual. Tara sent her questioning look that went unanswered.
Donnie just sized them both up with a nod of his head and a small grin that showed his teeth.
"So can we get moving?" Xander questioned innocently enough.
Faith waved her crewmates back to the ship, noticing the looks rolling off Tara and her new companion.
"How come she finds a hot chick on her first mission, anyway?" Donnie half-murmured, half-complained as they reequipped and departed for the ship.
Willow decided she had to look back one last time at her dying world. It was the place where she was always one above many. Events beyond her choice had built her destiny...she wanted a new chance...the first choice in her life that was her own.
Tara touched her shoulder and Willow turned to her, knowing her eyes were tinged with sadness...but also with something else.
"I can go now," the redhead said with the tiniest of nods.
No other words were spoken as they walked towards the barrier. Two suits were waiting and Tara helped Willow into one before slipping one over her own clothes.
The metal grate like ramp felt strange under Willow's feet as she ascended into the strange vessel. Inside Faith and Xander had been waiting by playing a few hands of the never-ending game of cards on a large storage trunk. The captain nudged him with her foot as their passengers loaded aboard and de-equipped. He turned around, watching how tenderly they interacted.
"Damn, Faith...I owe you fifty scritmars." Xander mumbled as he dropped his cards and headed off towards the engine room.
"We set?" Faith asked carefully.
"Take us up." Tara replied with a glow in her eyes that her friend had never seen before. The captain climbed the metal stairway and catwalk to the bridge with a whisper under her breath, "Good for you, T."
The ship jolted into movement shortly thereafter, Tara balancing Willow as they made their way to the now unoccupied seats next to a porthole.
Willow looked down at the world with a head contemplating the inevitable. "You are free," she spoke softly, shutting her eyes as the ship lifted into the air. Slowly in the distance, Tara could see an immaculate light growing brighter and brighter. She suddenly realized it was the willow tree.
The Calm began to disintegrate, tiny particles of light broke off and scattered in every direction, finding the places where they belonged. They moved to the bland colored soil, deep down to the tiny metal flecks so far under the surface that no machine could mine. They journeyed to the empty lake basins and streams...to the grit filled sky to find the sun and the moon. Something very old was happening...but it was starting something very new. There was a flash of fire - removing the last of the giant willow...removing the last of the ghosts and starting the rebirth.
That was the last thing Tara saw as the ship pulled out of the atmosphere. Willow's eyes were still closed, but the blonde knew she saw it nevertheless.
"I'm sorry," Tara whispered solemnly.
Green eyes opened at her words. "It takes both destruction and creation to find balance."
"Still, I'm sorry your world is gone."
"It's not," Willow replied absolutely. "This world will be strong once more, Nothing is truly dead because everything moves in circles. It'll just have to do it without me...and my destiny."
Tara wrapped her arms around the brave woman, feeling reassured when she sunk into the gesture.
Together...no longer alone. It was no ending...only a beginning. And little did either of them know that destiny was already waiting just ahead.