Author: Chris Cook
Willow was excited and horrified at the same time. She had watched, patiently and silently from her hiding place in the belt, as a gigantic war vessel steadily approached from outside the system. As it neared Willow saw it was a Peacekeeper Command Carrier, and an uncomfortable shiver ran down her spine. She had never seen a Command Carrier before, but she had learned about them and the militaristic Peacekeepers who built them. And she knew for a fact that the Nebari Establishment would never contract Peacekeepers to perform any service for them, which meant only one thing: the Carrier was scouting for invasion, and the Interdictor was waiting not for rendezvous, but in ambush. Suddenly aware that she was on the edge of a potential war zone, Willow cut all her systems to minimum, praying she wouldn't get hit by a stray blast when the two ships locked horns. The Interdictor waited until its prey was almost past it, on the verge of breaching Nebari territory, before it leapt out of hiding and opened fire.
Seen from Willow's distant vantage point, the battle was slow, almost elegant. The Interdictor powered straight ahead, presenting its bow to its enemy, its smallest possible target outline. The Command Carrier took the first salvo on its flank, suffering catastrophic damage as whole decks depressurised and collapsed. It began to bank towards the Interdictor, rolling to bring both port and starboard guns to bear, leaving a trail of debris and fluids in space behind it, like blood in the water. Three of the gigantic frag cannons mounted on its perimeter rings swivelled and thudded out a salvo of return fire - the fourth had been reduced to scrap already.
Willow watched, fascinated despite her fear. She couldn't risk engaging active sensors, but the passive receptors on the Red Witch's hull fed her what information they could. Energy readings from the Interdictor's blasters, all off the scale her tiny flyer was calibrated to record. Mass and velocity readings from the frag bursts tearing into the Nebari cruiser's armoured bow. Spectral readings on the debris leaking from the Command Carrier: alloys, mechanical debris, hull fragments, organic residue. Bodies.
Willow switched off the sensors entirely and shivered. She knew the Interdictor must have hundreds of crew aboard, but the Command Carrier was massive compared to it. There must be thousands - tens of thousands - of crew manning it. How many left? No way to tell. The Peacekeeper ship was taking a brutal beating from the ambush. When it began to turn away from the engagement, Willow guessed its master had had enough, and was retreating. But the Interdictor didn't let up, rolling over to bring its broadside guns to bear on the Carrier's avenue of escape. The Carrier veered away, covering its vulnerable flank with further frag bursts. It abandoned its direct retreat, and turned instead for the asteroids.
Willow froze as the huge ship began to turn towards her. Were they going to go through the belt? Could they do that and survive? No, she saw at once, the Carrier was continuing its turn, coming close and using the unnavigable asteroid belt to shield its flank from its pursuer. It came so close that Willow could make out, by eye, the individual rows of lights that marked the decks of the huge ship. She sat in stunned silence, watching the giant wall of metal pass her by. It had almost passed, and Willow had looked away to avoid the intense glow of the ship's hetch drive outlets, when a sudden violent burst of light lit up space.
Willow's eyes snapped back to the Command Carrier. The Interdictor had fired again, all its blasters in a single salvo, tearing a jagged gash from the rear section of the Carrier. Dozens of decks were open to space, bleeding atmosphere until the plumes of gas cut off, one by one, as pressure doors sealed off the damaged section. The debris from the blast, tonnes of jagged, spinning metal, was hurtling into the belt, straight at Willow.
"Frell!" she screamed, kicking the Red Witch into action. She spun herself around and shot away from the bombardment, seconds before a huge fragment of the Carrier's hull split the asteroid she had been hiding behind in two. The enormous energy the Interdictor had hit the Carrier with had thrown the debris away faster than Willow's light flyer could move. She switched on every avoidance system the ship had, ducking inadvertently as torn shards of metal shot over her head. With one eye on her in-flight display, one on the turmoil outside her cockpit canopy, she steered herself through the storm.
Finally the faster fragments passed her, and her drive had accelerated enough to avoid the larger, slower debris. Finding a patch of open space she turned her ship around to check the duelling battleships. The Command Carrier was far away, with the Interdictor giving chase, hammering it with blaster fire, but slowly losing ground. Willow sighed with relief - not that either ship would have been bothering, or able, to scan for ships among the hell-storm of debris they had thrown into the belt, but Willow hadn't wanted to survive only to get impounded later on. Joyriding in a restricted area she could get away with, but joyriding in a hostile encounter zone was a lot more than her father's influence would be able to pay for.
Her sensors beeped at her. One of the chunks of debris was giving off a reading - faint, faltering, but definitely a reading. She moved in for a closer look. It was some sort of contained section, sealed with pressure doors such that it had held its tiny atmosphere, even when torn right out of the ship it had once been a part of. And there was someone inside.
Willow tried to do two things at once, stopped herself, and did nothing for a moment while she thought. Rationally, she should get the hezmana away from the belt and get home. But there was someone alive down there, and no way for them to survive more than a few arns. If she left, that person would die. That person is a Peacekeeper, she reminded herself. They hate the Establishment. So do I, she admitted, they're a bunch of stuck-up greebols. And it's not like that's a fighter, or a troop carrier - it's a piece of wreckage, for Cholok's sake, it's hardly likely to contain shock troops waiting to ambush any innocent Nebari who might be passing by. They're Peacekeepers, her cautious voice insisted, you know what the Establishment say about them!
"Yeah, well, the Establishment can shove it up their eema," Willow finally muttered to herself, manoeuvring into place for a tow cable lock.
It was more than four arns later that Willow finally was ready to open the wrecked module and see who was inside. The Red Witch was not a hauler, and had been slow with the added mess of the debris trailing behind it. And it had taken time to find a place to hide - she could hardly bring a shipwrecked alien home, or in fact anywhere near an inhabited world or outpost. Finally she had homed in on the old beacon of an abandoned mining post, a tiny station built in the side of a relatively stationary rock, far away from the violent X-Nexus. It had taken the better part of an arn to gently shove the module into the station's cargo bay, seal it off, power up the old reactor and bring the environmental systems up to normal. Now she stood in front of it, regarding the only undamaged pressure door in its walls with apprehension, and a pulse pistol gingerly held in one hand.
Summoning up her courage - and walking lightly on her toes, ready to leap aside at the first hint of danger - Willow reached out and touched the manual override on the door. A tiny panel slid open, revealing a miniscule sensor package, complete with its own power pack. When the tiny machine had satisfied itself that the outside environment was acceptable, the pressure door swung open half-way, and stuck.
Tara heard a sound, and opened her eyes. She was lying on her side, in the tiny store room she had gone to in order to find a flux capacitor that worked. It was completely dark. She was terribly hot, and hurt all over. She tried to remember what had happened. She had come in here, and - something had hit her. Or had she hit the floor? She couldn't remember. The heat was oppressive, more than she had ever felt in her whole life. A fault in environmentals? She had to get out, report it. Had the heat made her pass out? No, she'd be dead by now, surely.
The door in front of her swung open half-way. She blinked in the sudden light, and stared up at the figure who slowly moved into her view. She reached out, trying to ask for help. The heat was unbearable.
Willow instinctively took the woman's hands and helped pull her out of the module and into the derelict cargo bay. The air inside the module was blistering, and she seemed less agitated now that she was in the cool. Willow stared at her, her fear diminishing as her curiosity increased. The woman wasn't armed, or armoured. She wore sweat-stained work overalls, a muted grey colour, much like Willow's skin. The woman's own skin was pink, pale but definitely coloured, and her hair was golden. Willow tentatively touched the woman's face, and then ran her fingers through her hair. She had never seen anything like it before. Willow cradled her head, gazing at her face. The skin around her eyes was exactly the same shade as the rest of her face, and the eyes themselves - lighter than any she had ever seen, blue like the sky. Bizarre, yet Willow found her fascinating. Even beautiful.
Tara tried to focus. Someone had found her, helped her. She didn't recognise this place, or the face that was staring at her. She concentrated on the face. Young, attractive... worried? It wasn't right - was something wrong with her sight? She couldn't see in colour anymore. No, her eyes were coloured, deep green. But the rest of the woman's face was a pale grey, tinged with blue like steel, except where her skin faded to a darker shade just above her deep, sparkling eyes. Even her lips were a strange, glittering silver. And the hair that was framing her face was pure white.
"Um, h-hello?" she risked.