Willow reversed the small ship from its hangar, her thin limbs straining in her restraint straps as the craft shuddered and coughed. She landed gently with concentration and unbuckled her constraints. Scrambling onto the shell of the scout ship, she prized open a panel and began pulling burned wires onto the hull. The sunshine was warm on her back as she hummed and set to work on the bundle of electronics.
"Hey Red!" she was interrupted by a shout, "Why ya got that out here? Mala will kill you if she knows that piece of junk is out of its hangar!"
The owner of the voice stood back and grinned as he watched Willow jump. He is tall and stocky, with dark hair curling around his face.
"I know, I know, but it's too nice out here to stay in that big stinky shed", Willow replied, stretching up from her task. "Plus, if I fix it fast she'll never know, will she?"
Willow fixed her friend with a stern gaze and he nodded eagerly.
"What's in it for me if I don't tell?" he asked, prompting the slim redhead to jump down from the ship and face him.
Mala was the chief engineer in the base, and if not exactly harsh, then certainly demanding of her young apprentices. Willow excelled at her work but didn't expect any favours from her superior.
"I can think of about a million things that you wouldn't want Mala to know," she answered.
"Oh yeah? I'm a model worker on this base, Red. Me, Alex Harris, a shining example of manliness, spirit, industry, and bravery. A fine role model for the younger generation, a..."
Willow started to recite, counting off from her fingers, "Alex Harris, hmmm, never wears his restraints in ship, is always late, never reads manuals until something breaks, um... eats in labs, likes to make things go bang, and... and gets distracted by pretty girls," she finished triumphant.
"Ok, ok!" he replied with a smile, "I was just teasing ya Red, I'm not gonna tell Mala anything. Sheesh! There's no call to get all demoralise-ey, I'm not that bad."
Alex slunk closer in mock shame. "So, if you're not too busy shouting at me, wanna get some lunch?" he asked.
"Sure," she replied "Let me get this rust-bucket back inside".
After a couple of shaky starts, Willow wrestled the machine back into its place, and joined her friend. Together, they walked across the wooded area separating the ship-works from one of the social areas of the base.
"So what's Tobias got you doing today?" Willow questioned.
"Awww, communications. I hate doing coms, and he keeps shouting at me over the radio to use the right codes, that man is such an ogre. I mean, everyone knows where they're going and what hangar to use, but he insists on the right codes," Alex complained.
Willow grinned before replying. "Plus, if you're stuck in coms you never get to see lover girl, you big soppy hulk o'love."
"I know!" Alex replied unhappily, "Anna's stuck in the friggin' store rooms all day, and I can't even say hi to her without Tobias breathing down my neck".
He continued to shuffle down the path before realisation hit him, "Hey! Who says I'm soppy?! Hulky and brave maybe, but not soppy... Well, OK, but who wouldn't be a teeny bit soppy with someone as great as Anna. Hey, I'm manly, I can be a little lovesick too..." Alex countered.
Willow nodded in agreement. She had known Alex since she arrived on the base, he was practically her brother, and she had never seen him so happy since the arrival of his girlfriend Anna.
Alex had been in love with Anna since the blonde arrived on one of the refugee ships a few years previously. She was supposed to be a junior logistics officer, but appeared to have most of the equipment stores under her control. Everything that could be counted, costed or stored on the base, Anna knew about. She was straightforward, bossy, single-minded and the best thing that had ever happened to Alex. Anna and Willow didn't always see eye to eye, but Willow was glad to see Anna and Alex so happy.
The pair neared a small clearing filled with rough benches and tables. Alex bounced forward in anticipation of food, his appetite huge as ever, with Willow quick on his heels. As they took their bowls and sat, Alex's face fell.
"This is it?!" he whispered fiercely to Willow, "Some grease and water with added potatoes?!"
She poked him in the arm with her spoon "Shhh!" she replied, "There's not much to go round, and if any of the cooks hear you they'll be mad. It's not their fault"
Alex nodded woefully then dutifully ate his soup. Willow was disappointed too, things were getting sparse, despite the iron rule of Anna in the stock-rooms. The base couldn't produce enough food for the rise in incomers unless the weather worked out right and the past year had been too cold and dry for a lot of the crops to survive.
Managing to avoid the wrath of any of the cooks, Willow and Alex finished lunch and returned to their work, although this time Willow remained with her ship in the hangar as Mala was likely to come and check on her progress.
So when she heard a muffled crash and groan near the front of the hangar she assumed it was Mala and kept working. It was only the deep voice of Tobias calling for her that made the redhead disentangle herself from the mass of wires she was fixing and clamber over the ship to face him.
"Ahh, thought I'd find you here." the older man spoke softly. "Tripped over one of these bloody wires on my way in", he smiled a little.
Willow nodded, waiting for him to continue. It wasn't usual that Tobias would see her during the day, apparently casually. It wasn't like him to make clumsy announcements of his presence either, Willow knew that a trained fighter like Tobias was unlikely to trip over a little wire.
He continued slightly awkward "So... I see Mala has you working hard. Looks like quite a job you've got there".
Willow nodded again, her puzzlement increasing at the unusual small talk. Tobias moved closer, putting a hand on the rusty hull and making to inspect some fire damage. Finally he spoke directly, "You're not buying it are you Willow?"
Finally, Willow took a breath. This was more like it. "Um, well, not really Tobias. You don't normally trip, or ask me about melted scout ships." She smiled at the pale eyes of her leader while noting the tiredness in his face and the weariness in his voice.
"Yes, you are, as always, very perceptive. I'm here to ask you a favour actually. That is if you wouldn't rather be messing about with electrics and grease and all of those things you seem to enjoy" Tobias questioned.
Willow nodded enthusiastically, her red hair spinning.
"Good. I need you to pick up some packages from Base-7 and deliver them here. You can take one of the Q-ships if you want." He paused to let the news sink in, watching Willow carefully.
Willow froze as she processed the request. The Q-ships were brand new, fast land or space-craft, meant for warfare and not for picking up packages. They had incredible defence systems, were virtually undetectable to machinery or land observers if necessary. They had only recently been tested and hadn't been used in conflict yet. Willow knew that only the most highly qualified pilots would be able to fly them because of their complexity, she knew because, of course, she had avidly followed every test flight since the ships had arrived.
"Oh" she swallowed. "Wow, I mean, um, but, I'm not qualified - I'm only an apprentice pilot, I can't fly..."
Tobias interrupted, rolling his eyes "Willow. I'm sure you are well aware of your abilities as a pilot – we all are. I'm glad of your respect for the pilot grading here, but you are more than capable of handling a Q-ship."
Willow nodded, blushing a deep red as the older man continued. "All of the other pilots are extremely busy at the moment, and I need these objects immediately. Mala has given her consent, and if she thinks it is agreeable for you to fly then it is".
Tobias brushed some imaginary dirt from his dark grey tunic while he waited for Willow to compose herself. "I've got the brief and the details of the flight path here, and your security code. It is imperative that you bring the packages directly to me and do not discuss the details with anyone else." Tobias' voice emphasised the importance of his words.
"Y... yes sir." Willow stuttered at the brusque instructions and the change in manner of Tobias.
"Once you have delivered the packages to me you must escort your passenger to Alide's quarters. Alide will be expecting you, and again you are under direct orders to take the passenger directly to Alide, without detour or discussion to others. You may talk with the passenger, but do not ask about the packages, and be aware that you are the first representative of this base that they will meet"
"P... passenger?" Willow squeaked, her mind whirling at the orders and trying desperately to remember if Tobias had mentioned a passenger.
"It's all in your brief," Tobias replied, "Please follow the instructions exactly and swiftly." He handed Willow a slim envelope and turned to go, "Mala is expecting you in Hangar 1 soon to prepare for the flight."
Willow continued to nod her agreement as Tobias walked away from the hangar and into the trees.
As soon as the grey figure was hidden in the forest she jumped in excitement. Skipping around the ship she had been working on, the redhead gathered her belongings in an eddy of anticipation for her mission.
Before curiosity could overcome elation Willow was running fast towards Hangar 1. Finding Mala's office empty, the redhead threw herself onto the nearest bench and ripped open the envelope containing her brief and flight details. The tumble of numbers that compromised the flight path was easily decoded by Willow and made her fidget with glee. Base-7 was some distance away - at least an hour's flight, even on a Q-ship, and the flight plan noted the need for haste, so she would really get to see what the Q-ship could do.
When Mala arrived soon after, Willow greeted her with a huge grin and shining green eyes. The flight commander wasted no time in taking the younger girl through the safety procedures for the Q-ship she was to fly, QS-9455. No amount of tedious restraint fitting could darken the apprentice's enthusiasm and soon Mala lead a bouncing Willow towards the ship.
"Now, once you've entered in the flight details, and left the docking, you shouldn't have to do anything to the controls until you reach Base-7", Mala instructed Willow as the girl settled herself into the pilot's seat. "But Tobias wants you to fly manually on the way back to make sure you get the hang of it", Mala continued, a touch of jealousy in her voice. "And he said to make sure you listen to your brief as soon as you've left the hangar and are satisfied that everything's in order".
Willow nodded vigorously in response as Mala checked her restraints and continued her instructions, "And I want to hear you using formal communication codes for this mission, no chatting to Alex."
Willow entered her security codes as soon as Mala left the ship and the hangar doors opened. With barely a jolt, QS-4955 was in the air and Willow steered carefully through the exit before engaging the auto-pilot. Her headphones crackled and Alex's voice came through loud and excited.
"Red!! Is that you?! Man, you're flying a Q ship?! Wait 'till I tell..."
"Harris!" Mala's stern voice interrupted Alex's eager one. "Quit that nonsense and do your job. I want to hear you perform an exit protocol without extras for once."
"Oh... Mala... Um, uh, yes sir" Alex coughed a reply.
"Well get on with it boy!" Mala continued angrily.
"Um... QS-4955, this is Base-1 confirming your Hangar 1 exit and security clearance. Please halt while your ship is scanned" Alex whispered down the radio channel.
Willow smiled to herself as Alex squirmed to deliver the message. She could almost hear Mala frowning down the communications cables.
"Copy Base-1, this is QS-4955, please advise when scan is complete" Willow replied, the protocol coming easy to her mind.
"QS-4955, you are cleared to proceed. Your flight number is B131001, Base-1 out", Alex answered, "Enjoy the flight Red!!"
"HARRIS!!!" Mala's shout echoed through the radio channel and Willow removed her headset before she had to listen to the accompanying rant.
Grinning at Alex's nerve, Willow completed the rest of her exit duties before slotting the briefing card Tobias had given her into the communications port in front of her. Tobias' deep voice filled the ship, detailing her task.
She was to pick up 6 packages from Hangar 12 at Base-7. Once she had accounted for the packages and secured them in the hold she was to wait for her passenger to arrive. The passenger must be security scanned before boarding the ship, and Willow was to be polite but firm about the procedure. If all was correct, the passenger was to be made aware of the safety routines for the ship, seated and then flown back to Base-1. There, Willow was to take the passenger to Alide immediately, and in person, and Alide would explain any further duties at that point.
There was no hint as to who this passenger was, and Willow's curiosity only grew as the ship sped over the landscape. As her elated mind calmed, the strangeness of the situation also grew. Why was she, just an apprentice pilot, being given this task? Even if she was good, she was still just a kid in the eyes of Tobias and Alide... And why all the security and scanning and packages?
Not to mention the use of a Q-ship for what seemed like a pretty straightforward mission. Obviously, it wasn't, otherwise everything would be normal, but Tobias had given her no clue as to what was happening and Willow could not think what might be taking place.
Just as she was beginning to be worried about the implications of her journey, Tobias' voice came through the communication channel.
"Base-1 to QS-9455. Willow this is Tobias", his deep voice kinder than in his brief.
"QS-9455 Copy", Willow replied, not caring whether her radio manners were correct.
"Ah, Willow, everything ok?" Tobias asked, resorting to casual speech.
"Uh, yes. Yeah, fine, um... fine and dandy Tobias." Willow said, unwilling to break and ask Tobias what was happening, but desperate to know.
"Sorry about the abruptness of my brief, but I wanted to make sure our communications were secure, and when you're up in the Q-ship, I know our channels are encoded satisfactorily."
"Anyway", he continued, "You will, of course, be aware of the irregular nature of this task, and I hope I have not unduly alarmed you. I imagine you have concluded that there is perhaps something rather important about these packages and the passenger". Tobias spoke with his usual formalness.
"Well, it looks that way to me..." Willow replied.
"Yes. This is a rather significant task you have Willow, not that I have any doubt about your abilities to complete it, but we must be wary in these circumstances... I'm afraid that your knowledge of the war at present may be rather hazy, and to be honest, we prefer to keep it that way. There is no need for the young to be immersed in the war, for it won't be long before you have no choice in the matter..." Tobias paused, distracted.
"Things are bad, we have been betrayed and lost many brave people. The conglomerate are beginning to root us out, hence my reluctance for open communication, because if they discover our positions, things can only go badly." Tobias sighed heavily, letting Willow digest the information.
"Nevertheless, we still have some great strengths, some hope in this continual battle. Your passenger is one of them."
"She is a healer, her people were immersed in the conglomerate against their will, but she was allowed some freedom due to her talents. She has travelled extensively throughout the conglomerate territories; they found her useful in calming their slaves, as well as healing them. However, as soon as she could, she made contact with some of the others, and has so far managed to provide a great deal of help while appearing to remain loyal to the conglomerate.
Unfortunately, she was discovered, and punished harshly it seems, although she will not specify how. Her escape was miraculous, indeed, her journey to this sector incredible. Nevertheless, she is here now, and we all owe her our lives at least twice over. We are to keep her safe, and let her help us here for as long as she wishes to remain."
Willow listened in awe to the extraordinary tale of this woman.
Tobias continued, with even more reverence in his voice "She also has magick, Willow, strong magicks of the kind we think your people had before the conglomerate arrived." Willow felt a surge of emotion in her blood as Tobias spoke. There was something important here, something huge, something... something...
"So you will appreciate that we want her back to Base-1 safe, along with her belongings and notes." Tobias returned to a more authoritative tone.
"Yes... yes sir." Willow replied hastily, eager to show her respect for the information Tobias had given her, and glad to push down the strange sensations that were bubbling in her chest. "But why do you want me to collect her? I mean, I'm glad and all, but surely Mala..."
"Don't worry Willow," Tobias interrupted, but with a kind edge to his voice, "We have our reasons, but they're all good. There is no one more able for the job than you, and we want you to be sure of that."
Willow's display flashed brightly as it became apparent she was nearing her destination. "I'll talk with you when you return Willow. Don't worry, just do your job well."
"Yes sir. But tell me something please?" Willow asked, the feeling in her chest demanding an answer.
"Yes..." Tobias gave his permission.
"What's her name?" Willow waited breathless with her mind spinning.
Tobias replied slowly but without hesitation, "Tara".
There was a deep pause before he continued, "But I needn't remind you that you are not to repeat that name to anyone who she does not divulge it to."
"Yes sir," Willow replied softly before the faint click of the headphones told her that Tobias had left communications.
She closed her eyes tight as a roar of sensations crashed into her mind in a mixture of memories and feeling, words and lights. She remembered hot tears on her face, the smooth dark material of Virid's uniform and the importance of her name, of all names, and one name stayed on her lips.
"Tara," she whispered, and then her headphones jumped to life again and an efficient voice from Base-7 was giving her instructions to land.