Author: Chris Cook
Willow raised her eyebrows and smiled without meaning to. The Peacekeeper woman's voice was not at all what she had expected - soft, melodic, and let's face it, downright cute. She'd been imagining something more, well, alien.
"Hi," she said brightly, trying to figure out what to say. "Um... are you okay? You don't look so good - I mean, you do look good, what am I saying, I just mean... are you okay?"
"I'm..." said the woman, "I d-don't know. The heat, it might have... I'm not sure. Where am I?"
"Um, you're safe?" ventured Willow.
"Safe," repeated the woman slowly.
"Yeah," said Willow, smiling in what she hoped was a reassuring manner - oh Cholok, she thought, please don't let there be any weird Sebacean customs like smiling when you're about to attack someone, she's weak as a kitten and I don't need her panicking as well, cause it's not like I'm Miss Calm at the moment either. "Um," she said aloud, "who are you?"
"Tara," said the woman. "Sorry," she corrected herself, "I mean, tech specialist first class Tara Maclay, assigned Nova wing, second battalion... wait, you're... a-are you," she hesitated. "Who are you?"
"Willow," said Willow at once, "I'm Willow. Yep. Oh, I'm not, like, a soldier or anything, I was just hanging around, you know, and I kind of rescued you."
"You're Nebari," said Tara dreamily, before stopping and considering what she'd been told. "Rescued? What happened, where's the Boralus? M-my ship?"
"Um, they left," said Willow hesitantly, "there was a battle. You remember? Your Command Carrier and one of our- well, not my, because like I said I'm not a soldier, but anyway, a Nebari Interdictor. They hit your ship pretty hard, and you were in a bit of wreckage that got thrown clear." Tara seemed to grow agitated as she listened.
"Wreckage? Did they- I mean, w-what happened?" Willow hastened to reassure her.
"Oh, no, they're fine. Well, not fine, because taking damage, like I said, but they pulled around and got out of the system, they weren't destroyed or anything."
"They left?" said Tara in a small voice.
"Yep," said Willow softly, "but you're okay. I mean, you're not in any danger here."
"But y-you're Nebari," insisted Tara, her initial confusion clearing as her body cooled down, "you're not allowed to- I mean, I'm... th-they said that the Nebari don't allow outsiders on their worlds?"
"Um, yeah, about that," said Willow, "the Establishment, that's the people in charge, you know, they don't exactly know you're here. Or me, for that matter. And also, we're not exactly on a Nebari world, although you're right about the thing with outsiders, they're pretty uptight about the whole thing. Not that I am, I'm just- well, you needed help, so here I am."
"Who are you?" asked Tara again.
"Willow. Um, that's about it, so far as relevant details go. I'm not Establishment or military or anything official, I'm just, you know, me. Um, hey, if you don't mind me asking," Willow looked around and glanced at Tara sidelong, "are you military? Cause, you're not going to try to capture me or anything, are you?"
"I-I'm a tech," said Tara, "I just fix things. I'm not really a Peacekeeper, or anything, I'm just- well, a tech. Um, why would I try to capture you?"
"Well," said Willow quickly, before she could think about it, "because I'm cute." Tara frowned to herself, trying to work this out. "Sorry," continued Willow, "joke. It's just what I do, you know, mess around, have fun. I'm new to all this serious stuff."
To her surprise, Tara giggled. It was the most adorable thing Willow had ever seen or heard. "So," she asked, "you do think I'm cute then?"
Tara laughed some more, but was overcome by a coughing fit. Willow held her until her coughs subsided, stroking her hair to calm her.
"Thanks," Tara said at last, when she had regained her breath, "I'm okay. I mean, I will be. I t-took a lot of heat for a bit, b-but you got me out in time." Willow glanced over Tara, checking all the skin that was available.
"I don't think you're burned," she offered.
"N-no," explained Tara, "but if we- I mean, Sebaceans, if our bodies heat up too much it can be dangerous." She and Willow both glanced over at the scarred wreckage that Tara had emerged from.
"Well, it was pretty hot in there," said Willow, "are you sure you'll be okay? Cause, if you need anything, I could go get it. Or maybe, hey I know, you should probably rest, right? I mean, if that'd help. There's some crew quarters here, I bet we could get you nice and comfy?" Tara nodded weakly, and with Willow supporting her stood and left the cargo bay.
Tara stirred. She woke slowly, from a dream where her familiar world of barracks, maintenance bay and recreation deck dissolved under a blazing sun, beating her down with its relentless heat. As the white-hot desert faded her skin cooled, and she felt something softly stroking her hair, calming her. Her eyes fluttered open. Willow was sitting next to her, cradling her head and soothing her.
"H-how long was I asleep," she whispered.
"Twelve arns," said Willow. She smiled and tilted her head to one side, watching Tara.
"Didn't you sleep?" Tara asked, feeling that she should get up, but succumbing to weakness and the comfort of Willow's caress.
"For a while," answered Willow, "on and off. You had nightmares, I think. I stayed up to make sure you were alright."
"Oh, I..." began Tara, faltering when she realised she didn't know what she wanted to say. She had often had nightmares on the Command Carrier - mostly composed of the glimpses of destruction she had seen through portholes when her ship was in battle - but she had always woken alone, and had to calm herself before she could sleep again. Very early on she had been taught to deal with her feelings alone, inside her own mind - not to make her problems anyone else's. No-one had ever watched over her before.
"Um, thank you," she said at last. She found the words inadequate to express the gratitude she felt for this strange woman who cared for her, but her feelings were in too much disarray for her to manage them.
"Hey, any time," said Willow brightly. Her hand shifted a fraction as she strokes Tara's hair, and her fingertips tickled the tip of Tara's ear, provoking a giggle.
"Ah, ticklish," Willow crowed with an expression of delight. "You know, if you weren't an invalid I'd have some fun with you!" Tara laughed, then coughed for a moment.
"Oops, that didn't sound good," said Willow with a frown, "are you feeling any better?"
"I don't feel too bad," said Tara when her chest had stilled, "I think I just picked up a bit too much heat."
"I remember you said heat was bad. You mean like a fever?" asked Willow, confused. Tara shook her head.
"I'm Sebacean," she explained, keeping her voice soft to avoid agitating her sore throat, "we don't regulate heat as well as some species. Inside that module I was in, the air must have been flash-heated when I got thrown clear of my Carrier."
"But you’re going to be okay, right?"
"I think so," said Tara, "I-I mean, I'm almost certain, yes. If it had been too much... well, if there's too much heat in our bodies, it starts breaking down our brain tissue. But I was unconscious, so I g-guess maybe my paraphoral nerve was more relaxed - that's the part that regulates heat - and there wasn't any damage. My nerve's probably just a bit exhausted."
"Oh, okay," said Willow, forcing a smile. She thought for a moment. "So, keeping you cool would be good?" she asked. Tara nodded. "Right," went on Willow, gently letting Tara's head down to the bunk she was resting on and standing up, "wait right here. I mean, obviously you will, but just... well, get some rest, I'll be right back!" With a grin and a wave she vanished through the open doorway.
Tara lay back on the bunk and closed her eyes. She did feel a little uncomfortable, from the heat still inside her, but as she relaxed she felt calmer, and the slight nausea she felt eased. She concentrated on her breathing, keeping it steady and slow, timed to match the slow strokes she imagined she could still feel through her hair.