Author: Chris Cook
The world is warm, nurturing - the cradle of life. But space is a cold ocean surrounding the cradle, vast and treacherous, unforgiving and uncaring of children who wade out too far from their comfortable shore. The typical calm of space belies the ferocity it can show to those too weak to defend themselves from the cold, the searing radiation, the erosive vacuum. The void is full of malice.
In some places, however, even the void would be a relief. The X-Nexus, where two asteroid belts crossed paths, was a seething mass of collisions between mile-wide chunks of rock, the fragmented remains of ancient worlds now pounding each other to dust. It had been happening for millennia, and it would go on for millennia more before all that remained was a cloud of microscopic particles. Until then the region was a shooting gallery of tiny granite fragments hurtling at supersonic speed, jagged shards of rock spinning and smashing against each other, and huge mountains of ore obliterating everything in their path as they tumbled mindlessly through the chaos. It was not a place any rational ship's master would steer his vessel.
A silver dart of a ship shot through the gaps between the giant rocks, rolling and twisting to avoid the debris. It banked sharply to avoid a rolling mass of iron, spun back to miss a shower of supersonic rubble by inches, and thundered through the gap between two asteroids that were seconds from colliding. The pilot pumped her fist energetically, then seized the controls again just in time for a split-second manoeuvre to avoid yet another danger.
"Trawler to Red Witch, answer. Trawler to- Will, answer your frelling comms!"
Willow sighed and flipped a switch to acknowledge the transmission. She cast a baleful glare at the sparkle of light from beyond the asteroid belts, where the bulky Trawler was waiting.
"What is it Lexa?" she said wearily.
"What is it?!" crackled the voice from Trawler. "Well, how about you almost got yourself killed just then?"
"When?" said Willow indignantly. "Oh please, I totally had it under control. Hey, watch this!" She sent a massive burst of power through her ship's hetch drive then shut it down completely, coasting on the momentum and using only the tiny manoeuvring thrusters to control her flight. Back on Trawler, Lexa sighed a long-suffering sigh.
"Oh for the love of Cholok, turn your drive back on. Will, turn your- Will look out!"
Willow was letting her ship spin lazily, seemingly oblivious to an enormous boulder tumbling into her flight path. At the last second she kicked the hetch drive back into life and soared up, away from the path of the asteroid.
"Totally under control," she sang into the comms.
"Hezmana," swore Lexa, "Will, you'll be lucky if Establishment doesn't impound your cute little eema. You know the X-Nexus is off limits..."
"Correction," replied Willow, steering one-handed as she played with the cockpit's environmental system, "the X-Nexus is the limit. I'm only in breach of Authority if I happen to manoeuvre into the outer boundary of the belt."
"And where is that?"
"Don't know," Willow shrugged, "probably dropped in and out of it half a dozen times already. But what're they going to do, impound a Tri-System Regulator's daughter for a little joyriding? Puh-lease. Establishment's got better things to- what the yotz is that?"
"What's the what?" snapped Lexa in a worried tone.
"Scan five thousand metras off my hammon-side wing." Willow slowed her ship and slipped into the shadow of one of the larger, slower asteroids, where she could leave the controls alone without worrying about micro-meteors hitting her.
"Too much dren between us and those coordinates," reported Lexa, "we can't see a thing."
Willow zoomed in her visual sensors and stared at the holographic image that formed on her in-flight display. The dark grey shape she had spotted was a sleek, menacing cruiser, big enough to dwarf even Trawler with its size. Willow gazed at it, and at the power readings and beacon identities she read from it.
"Holy hezmana," she whispered, "it's an Interdictor." There was a yelp from Lexa.
"It's a what now?" she said in a frantic whisper. "Has it seen you? Get the yotz out of there!"
"Calm down, they haven't seen me," said Willow quietly, fascinated with the mammoth ship. "It's not even scanning the belt. I think it's waiting for a rendezvous, or something."
"Who cares what it's doing," hissed Lexa, "get your eema back here now! That's an Interdictor, not a frelling pleasure yacht! We don't even have clearance to think about being in the same grid as that thing!"
"Yeah," said Willow thoughtfully, "you'd better get back home. I'm staying, I've never even seen an Interdictor before."
"Will, are you completely mind-frelled? That ship is so classified the Establishment can disappear you just for being here!"
"Back home, Trawler," said Willow calmly, "that's an order."
"Order, what do you mean order? You're not a frelling command-"
"Red Witch out." Willow tapped the comms closed and settled down to watch the Interdictor in silence.
Tara stopped dead half-way across the flight deck and turned to see Anlar Toorek glaring at her. She transferred her toolkit to her other hand and saluted smartly.
"Five minutes until launch," he said curtly, "did you fix the dekka stabilisers in my Prowler?"
"Yes Officer Toorek," Tara answered promptly.
"They keep mis-aligning during flights," Toorek complained, "every frelling time." He glared at Tara, then turned and stalked off towards the bay his fighter was stored in.
'That's because you never shift the stabilisers when you go past hetch three,' Tara thought bitterly at his retreating back. She sighed and continued on her way across the deck to the maintenance bays, wondering why, of all the pilots on the Command Carrier, she had to be assigned to the one who was a complete idiot.
"Attention," echoed the voice of the Carrier's flight officer through the ship's internal comms, "entering Nebari space in one hundred microts. All flights prepare to launch in sixty microts. Frag cannons stand by to fire."
Tara ducked underneath a pressure door and found an unoccupied corner of the maintenance bay where she could be left alone to get on with her work. She and her fellow Techs in the launch bays wouldn't have anything pressing to do until after the battle, when the remains of the Prowler flights would return, and the Techs and Medics would begin salvaging what they could from those that were damaged. 'Maybe you'll get lucky, and Toorek will fly in front of a frag burst,' she thought absent-mindedly. She frowned, not liking to be thinking ill of someone who was about to launch into a situation where he quite possibly might die. Still, her last assignment, Officer Hena, had at least been considerate enough to call her by her name. Tara didn't like Toorek at all. There were many things she didn't like about serving aboard a warship. But of course, she'd never been given a choice in the matter.