Erica got to the briefing just as it was starting. Caroline had apparently invited Isamura along to observe, as she was seated with the senior staff. The captain was talking with Dr. Andrea MacNeil, who was on the viewer.
“Dr. MacNeil, have you been able to find anything in the city records on crystal processors?”
“Aye, Captain, I have,” Andrea responded. “The crystals can be grown to specification in a laboratory here in the city. Unfortunately there are none on hand, we’ll have to make them from scratch.”
“How long will that take?”
“Six weeks, Captain.”
“Is there any way the process can be accelerated?”
“I can’t say for certain, but the records indicate a specific time scale for this process. If I were to interfere with it, who knows what damage it might do to the equipment. On the plus side, we can make several of them at once, that will keep the ship going with replacements as long as we’re here.”
“Then you had better get started. Call me if you run into any problems.”
Caroline turned her gaze to the new arrival. “Erica, good job with the evacuation. Is there anything else you can tell us about the crystals?”
“They’re complex and organised structures designed to harness the raw energy of the ship’s reactor, and process it into a safe form that can be fed into the conduits. Over a long period of time or under frequent stress, the passage of energy damages the crystals. They have a certain amount of internal redundancy, but they don’t last forever.”
“So this happened as a result of the battle?”
“Possibly. We don’t know how long the ship was in service before it was abandoned. The dampening beam used by the Siphen caused a lot of power bleeding before we got it under control. Whatever the cause, we can’t afford to put too much stress on the remaining two crystals, and who knows what could happen in the next six weeks. We have to find a replacement.”
“I know a trader who deals in precious crystals,” Isamura suggested, “she might be able to find one.”
“This trader, is she reliable?”
“Yes, but she’s not going to just give us what we need. We’ll need to bring something equally valuable in trade. A collection of your medicines might be acceptable, for instance.”
“Dr. Macaude, can we spare any medicines to make this trade happen?”
“Yes, Captain. It will leave us with a diminished stock for future use, though. We will need to resupply in six months to a year, depending on how much we trade away.”
“Very well. Put together a collection to take with us to this trader. With luck, we’ll find a way to get back home before we run out of medicine. Tegan, meet me in the shuttle bay with a security team. Erica, Doctor, you’ll accompany us,” Caroline ordered. “Isamura… you know where we’re going, I’d like to ask you along as our guide.”
“Very well, I accept.”
“Captain, shouldn’t I be leading the away team?” Paul asked.
“You should. But one of us has to stay with the ship, and you can’t fly the shuttle.”
“If you don’t make it back, what are you orders?”
“Evacuate the city and then take the ship through one of the gates to search for a way home.”
“Aye, Captain. Good luck on your mission.”
The team met in the shuttle bay and loaded supplies onto the shuttle. Caroline and Isamura sat in the cockpit doing preflight checks, while everyone else occupied the rear compartment.
Concentrating for a moment, Caroline brought the shuttle’s engines online and ran through the final checklist, activating the comm when she was done.
“Trueman to bridge, requesting clearance to depart.”
“You’re clear to depart, Captain. Opening shuttle bay doors.”
The doors slid open, the ship’s atmosphere now held in just by a forcefield, and Caroline eased the shuttle off the deck and through the opening, setting a course for the planet below.
She stole a glance at Isamura, who was sitting in the co-pilot seat. She loved that stylish two-piece outfit of hers, practical for an away mission yet sexy. It left the shoulders and arms free from constraint.
“I hope you don’t think it’s weird, me not wanting people to know about us.” Caroline said as they descended through the atmosphere.
“No, of course not,” Isamura said with a shrug, “unless you think it is.”
“No. Like I said, people may not be thrilled to find out. I think Rhona may take it the hardest.”
“Why would she?”
Caroline shrugged. “Rhona and I go way back. We’re best friends. For me to not tell her about something like this, well I think she will be offended that I couldn’t come and talk to her.”
“So why don’t you tell her?”
“Oh. Well it would be weird for a start. Rhona has actually met my wife. She likes her. If I tell her about us, I don’t even know that she would understand or forgive me.”
“But she wants you to be happy, doesn’t she?”
“Of course! But it’s not that simple. We’ve both given up time with our loved ones so that we could do what we do best – explore strange new worlds. And now, strange new universes.”
“She is still your friend though, isn’t she? Suppose that she was seeing someone, wouldn’t you want her to tell you about it?” Isamura asked.
“I don’t know. I would want her to be able to confide in me, but I’m not sure what I would think about it,” Caroline said. “I’d understand why, at least.”
“Perhaps she too will be an understanding friend,” Isamura suggested.
“I hope so.”
“She might be even more understanding if you set her up with someone.”
Caroline stared at Isamura, surprised by the boldness of that suggestion. “You can’t actually be serious,” she said.
With a sigh, Caroline explained, “I’m not really any good at matchmaking.”
“Well, maybe you don’t have to look very far to find a suitable match,” Isamura said cryptically.
“What does that mean?”
Isamura laughed and shook her head slowly. “You said it yourself, Caroline, you and Rhona are best friends. It is not much of a leap from there to a more amorous relationship.”
“I don’t feel that way about Rhona.”
“Until recently though, you have considered her to be just a friend because you would not entertain the thought of any romantic entanglements. Perhaps you have got used to suppressing the feelings.”
“I think you’re seeing something that isn’t there,” Caroline answered with a shrug.