Author: Chris Cook
Tara woke up slowly to find Willow sitting beside her, softly nudging her shoulder to rouse her. The room was comfortingly cooler.
"Do you feel better?" asked Willow. Tara nodded. "I figured the cold would help," Willow went on, "so I went outside and made a couple of adjustments."
"Outside?" asked Tara.
"In my ship," said Willow brightly, "I hooked a tow cable onto the station's core and burned the engines a bit, just enough to spin us around. We're facing away from the sun now, so less heat, so easier to cool the place down."
"Oh," said Tara, sitting up, "thank you, that's... you have your own ship?"
"Just a little one," said Willow, grinning, "but yeah, it's pretty cool! The Red Witch. She's a nippy little thing, built for planet-hopping, but I had a real hetch drive installed so she can travel inter-system- oh, I forgot! I got you this." Willow reached down to the floor and handed Tara a flask that had a pair of alien symbols embossed on it.
"W-what is it?"
"Universal regulator, I found it in the medical cabinet. It levels out all your biological functions, it's supposed to help healing from extreme conditions. According to the label it's safe for any carbon-species, do you think it might help?"
"Can't hurt, I guess," Tara shrugged. She unscrewed the lid from the flask and took a sip. It was very sweet, but not quite enough to be sickly-sweet. She gulped down a mouthful and paused. The liquid felt cool inside her, and between that and the cooler temperature around her she was feeling much better.
"Thanks," she said. Willow immediately broke into a wide smile. The pair sat silently for a moment. Willow fidgeted a bit, and Tara searched for something to talk about.
"So," she said at last, "how did you get a ship? I mean, is it usual for Nebari your age to have a- you are young, right? I mean, I figured from the way you looked, you're not a hundred cycles old or anything?"
"Twenty-six cycles," said Willow proudly, "not a kid anymore! Just, anyway. Are you the same? I mean, do you look younger than you are, because I was thinking you look young to be on a Carrier."
"Twenty-four cycles," answered Tara, "I'm young for a qualified tech, normally you wouldn't get a tech commission until thirty cycles, until then you're just a rating."
"Ah," said Willow, not really understanding the distinction, but intrigued anyway. "So did you get drafted, or something? I just mean, you don't seem like the military type, you know? I expected, I don't know, all 'grrr!' and so on." Tara was silent for a moment.
"You're right," she said then, "I didn't volunteer for service. I didn't have a choice, it's just the life I was born to."
"You were born to be a tech on a Carrier?" asked Willow.
"I was born on the Carrier," said Tara with a sigh. "Every cycle the command division runs loss projections for the next twenty cycles, and female officers are taken off active duty long enough to bear children. To make sure there are enough people to take over when crewmen are killed in battle. I got this when I was born." Tara held out her arm to Willow, and she was a tiny mark on her inner wrist, a symbol like a stylised bird.
"What is it?" Willow asked.
"The Hentac Tech-regiment," Tara answered bitterly. "My parents were probably both techs, so that's where I was placed."
"You... never met them?" asked Willow. She didn't miss her own father during his frequent absences on Establishment business, and she hadn't been on the same planet as her mother in over a cycle, but still, she had to admit she was glad to at least know she could send a comms to them and have them answer.
"I don't think so," said Tara, "I don't know. I wasn't told who they were. They wouldn't have been told who I was. That's how it works."
"That's-" Willow stopped herself, and started again. "Well, I don't mean to sound all 'your way of life is so primitive because youíre alien', but it seems kind of, well..."
"Horrible," finished Tara, "you're right. It is. It's not really a difficult life to live day by day, I don't mind fixing things and I'm good at it, but... it's hard knowing you were born just to fill a quota. I remember the first time I was old enough to get lessons on alien customs, and I found out that other races have children because they want to. The officer giving the lesson called it weakness, but I- I just wished someone had wanted me."
Tara's gaze had dropped to the floor, so she hadn't seen the tears form in Willow's eyes as she talked. She took a deep breath and was half-way through a sigh when she suddenly found herself wrapped in Willow's arms, with her head held comfortingly against Willow's shoulder, and Willow's hand stroking her hair lovingly.
"I'm so sorry," Willow said, her voice choked by tears. Tara sat still, in stunned amazement. Then, slowly, her arms went around Willow and she began to cry.
Willow woke up, much later, to find herself curled up on her side, with Tara's body pressed up against her back, one arm draped around her waist. For a little while she lay still, thinking about Tara. Her body, slightly cooler than Willow's, was giving Willow a feeling of perfect contentment. Even as tightly as Tara was wrapped around her, she wasn't uncomfortably warm, and Tara was holding her just right, the arm around her, her quiet breath on the back of Willow's neck. Willow only wanted to stay there. And then she remembered the course of action she had decided on, while she had been outside in her ship, weighing up all the options and finding a way they could both be safe. Tara's presence, even deep in sleep, threatened to make her regret it.
Willow gently lifted Tara's arm and slid out from underneath her. Tara stirred slightly, clutching the rough sheet beneath her. Searching for Willow. Willow sighed and gently stroked Tara's cheek, trying to ignore her feelings as she saw the young woman slowly regain her calm. As soon as she could drag herself away, she left and headed towards the docking bay.
"Red Witch, this is Trawler. Answer. Willow?"
Willow slammed the canopy of her ship closed with more force than she needed and slumped in her flight seat. After a moment she reached out and slapped the comms control.
"Trawler, Red Witch," she said in a level voice, "receiving."
"Frell damn it Willow, where have you been?" said Lexa's voice at once. "Where are you? Are you alright? Why haven't you come back in-"
"I'm fine," interrupted Willow, "I just needed to make repairs. I'll be back soon."
"Willow listen," said Lexa urgently, "Establishment is looking for you. Your father called, he knows we were in the same sector as that Interdictor, he said he can cover for us but we've got to get back! Where are you anyway?"
"Lexa, listen," said Willow, "there's something I need to do. I'll meet you at our usual staging area in one day. Okay?"
"Okay but... Will, what happened out there?" Willow took a deep breath and fixed her eyes on the inactive flight display, staring at the blank screen.
"Nothing," she said, "nothing happened." There was a long silence from the other end of the comms.
"Okay," said Lexa at last, "whatever. Just don't be late, the Establishment has got a scanner crew going through the asteroids. They know someone was there, but they don't know it was you, and if we get back quick enough your father can make it look like you were never out there. This is serious, Will, if they catch you they'll- well, you know."
"Yes, I know," answered Willow bitterly. "Red Witch out."
Willow sat in her ship for a while, trying to be angry. She knew if she cried she wouldn't stop, and she didn't have much time. Eventually she mustered enough control over herself to grab her toolkit and open the canopy, clamber down to the deck and head over to the other ship in the bay, a disused but sturdy old transport pod. She plugged a comp into the pod's external diagnostics port and watched as its systems checked out one by one.
Willow spun around in shock. Tara was standing in the doorway, watching her.
"Willow, what's going on? What's wrong with your ship?" she asked, glancing at the sleek craft across the bay.
"Nothing's wrong with it," said Willow flatly, trying not to meet Tara's gaze. Gods, she prayed, donít make this more difficult.
"Then why?" Tara asked, indicating the transport pod. Willow shut her comp down and stood to face Tara, summoning her resolve. Do it, she told herself, it's not like you have a choice.
"It's for you," she said, her voice high as she tried to stop it from breaking, "so you can get away from here. Back to... wherever you want to go." Tara frowned.
"Willow?" she said, confused. "I thought... why do you want me to leave?"
"Just- trust me," Willow said haltingly, "this is best. Take the ship and go. Just go."