As they left the shop and rejoined the others Erica suggested, “Captain, I was thinking that we could cover more ground if you return to the shuttle and do a flyby of the caves.”
“Hmm. As much as I hate to split the team up, you’ve got a point, Erica,” Caroline agreed. “Time is a critical factor here.”
Caroline quickly brought the rest of her team up to speed, delegating command of the ground search to Tegan.
“Erica, you’ll be joining me on the shuttle. Isamura, you know the terrain better than anyone, so I’d appreciate it if you could help the ground team.”
“That’s it then. Let’s get to it before nightfall, we’ve a lot of ground to cover.”
They walked back briskly to the town gates to pick up their weapons. Isamura mentioned to the sentry that they were going to look for the missing woman, and he wished them good luck.
“Did I hear we’re going on search and rescue?” Rhona asked as she formed up with the search team.
“That’s right,” Tegan said. “Local woman by the name of Julienne. She’s the sort that ventures into dark caves and finds lost treasures. It’s the only lead we’ve got so we’re following it up.”
“It beats standing around here on guard,” Rhona muttered, out of earshot of the sentries. “It’s not the duty so much as the staring,” she added by way of explanation.
“Better get used to it. We could be visiting worlds much like these for a while to come.”
“It’s not so bad. The air’s fresher than on that flying death trap.”
Tegan laughed. “Yes. I wish we could bottle it up and take it back with us.”
Caroline opened the rear hatch on the shuttle using her remote, taking a step back for a moment as it swung down revealing the interior. Then she entered and made her way to the cockpit with Erica following.
During the walk back, they had discussed the best flight path for the search, Erica manipulating the holographic map and finding good sight lines for a visual search. While the shuttle could detect life signs on the ground, it couldn’t magically tell them what they looked like.
“So what’s Isamura like?” Erica asked curiously.
“You know. Why does she make you happy?” Erica prompted.
Caroline leaned back in the pilot’s chair, thinking. Eventually she replied, “Let’s get this bird in the air first and then I’ll tell you about her.”
“Great. Can’t wait.” Erica strapped herself in and gave a thumbs-up.
Caroline settled into the pilot’s seat and closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating on starting up the shuttle. The control panels lit up and the heads-up display plotted a flight path around the town and out to the caves in the north. Resting her hands on the controls, Caroline watched the ground and the surrounding trees fall away as the shuttle slowly lifted off.
“And we’re away,” she said with a breath of relief and confidence.
Seated in the co-pilot’s chair, Erica scrutinised the display and the controls without daring to touch anything. “This looks really complicated,” she remarked.
“It isn’t. Well, not for me, the neural link makes it almost effortless to fly. If Isamura can learn the controls of this thing, I’m pretty sure you can too.”
“About Isamura… why did you get entangled with her?”
“Loneliness. Despair. Constantly thinking about never seeing my wife again. Isamura was there to comfort me when I was feeling really low. She makes me feel alive again. Which is great – if I’m depressed I’m no good to anyone.”
“You love her, I can tell.”
“I do. But I can’t get too attached to having her around. Let’s say we do find another way home, it’s not like I can take her with me. She has her own life to lead, and I have mine.”
“Suppose, just for talking’s sake, that we don’t find a way home. Would you like her to be around in the long-term?” Erica asked.
“I’m not sure. I hadn’t really thought about it. I’m not sure that Isamura would be content to settle down in the long-term. She seems like the type to move on and find someone new in her travels.”
“Well then, in that situation maybe you’d just have to find someone else.”
“Funny that you mention it. On the way here, Isamura seemed sure that I should explore a relationship with Rhona. I said it would be weird.”
“Well it would. The two of you are so close you’re practically sisters.”
“So do you have a more suitable choice in mind then?”
“Oh. Well I would volunteer in a heartbeat but I have my sights set on someone else.”
Caroline laughed. “Well, thanks for thinking about me at least. You know, you remind me of someone I used to date.”
“Oh really? Who’s that then?”
“Her name was Vanessa,” Caroline recalled fondly. “She was my roommate, back when I was a student. She had hair just like yours, and she also had a bit of knack for holographics.”
“What sort of holos?”
“Manipulations. You know, a holo of me if I was a freckled redhead, for instance.”
“Very artistic. So what ever happened to Vanessa?”
“I… messed up. I felt tied down and took her for granted. Then I slept with her friend. She was really disappointed in me.”
Erica frowned. “That was not the happy ending I had envisioned. Oh well. You live and learn, right?”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?”
“Wait… what do you mean? You didn’t learn anything from that?”
“Sure I did. I vowed to myself never to do it again. I met someone a few months after that, her name was Miranda. I thought I had finally met someone on my wavelength, but instead it turns out that we drove each other crazy, arguing and fighting over… well, trivial things. So then you can guess what happened to end that relationship.”
“So how long have you been married then?”
“About ten years now.”
“You must really love your wife, then. I mean, to go without seeing her for months at a time.”
“I do. But if I do manage to find my way back to her, I’m not sure she will take me back.”
“Does she know about your past relationships and how they ended.”
“Of course. She was one of my flings.”
“Well if she knew that and still married you, don’t you think she has it in her heart to forgive you?”
“That’s the part I’m not sure about.”
“Oh. Maybe you should have someone with you when you go. You know, so you don’t screw it up.”
Caroline glanced at Erica and rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the pep talk.”
“No, really. You’re not good at being alone, Caroline. You should have someone to stick up for you. I mean it.”
“Well, thanks. If and when we ever get back home, I may just do that. So, why the questions all of a sudden, anyway?”
“You could say that I have my own tangle to sort out,” Erica admitted.
Caroline laughed and shook her head slowly. “Is it Tegan then?”
Erica cringed, putting a hand to her head. “Is it that obvious?”
“Everyone knows that you’ve been having dinner with her. Some have suggested that you two are more than just good friends.”
“Well we are just good friends. For now, at least.”
“What’s the hold-up there, then?”
“I like Tegan a lot, and I enjoy spending time with her. And I am really crazy about her. I’m just… every time I feel like I’m getting close, she backs off and I feel sort of stupid.”
“Just tell her how you feel.”
“That’s just it, I don’t know if I’m just crushing on her or if it’s something more. I’ve never dated anyone before. I’m too scared to tell her in case she laughs at me.”
“Let me get this straight. You’ve made it all the way to Lieutenant Commander in the Expeditionary Fleet and you’ve never been on a date?”
“Do you want me to ask her for you?”
“No! Really, I just… I need some kind of sign that she’s into me too.”
“Well, maybe she doesn’t want to give you a sign. Did you ever think maybe she has her own problems to deal with before she can get romantic?”
“Um, I guess not. I should have thought of that.”
“Oh, Erica. You said it yourself, you’re a novice at dating. So don’t blame yourself for things you couldn’t possibly have imagined could be wrong.”
“So what do I do?” Erica asked.
“Erica, you’re in a far better position than anyone to do this. You’ve won her friendship, but you need to build some trust between you before she will confide something that, from the sound of it, makes her afraid of opening her heart to someone.”
“That does make sense. I mean, I keep trying to move things to the next level but I think she really has to be the one to do that. When she’s ready.”
“See? Not so hard after all.”
“It looks like we’re coming up on the caves,” Erica said, pointing ahead.
“All right I’m going to circle around, get a good look at the terrain,” Caroline said, slowing their approach and banking the shuttle to port.
An overlay on the heads-up display appeared, showing a collection of white blobs superimposed on the terrain below them. “Life signs on the ground, inside and outside the caves,” Caroline noted as she glanced at the display.
“I don’t like this,” Erica said, also studying the display, watching as they slowly moved around.
“Don’t worry, so long as we’re in stealth mode-” Caroline started to say, interrupted by a warning beep. “Oh shit… invisibility screen just went down. Going evasive!”
The shuttle shot away to the north. Now that it was visible, the life forms on the ground took notice and attacked. The arrows were too slow to catch it, but several brilliant fireballs rose and pursued. Despite several evasive manoeuvres, they kept gaining on the shuttle.
“Weapons active. Erica, you should see two flashing panels,” Caroline said as she tried to throw the missiles off with another sharp turn. “I need you to lay down point defence fire behind us.”
“I see them,” Erica replied in a shaky voice, fingers touching the controls, eyes glued to the heads-up display.
The shuttle’s rear weapons rapidly spat out bright bolts of plasma into the path of of the projectiles. They exploded when struck, each time with enough force to jolt the shuttle.
Caroline thumbed the comm on. “Brown, this is Trueman, we’re taking fire here, I repeat we’re taking fire.”
“We can see the light show over here. On our way.”
“Watch yourself down there,” Caroline warned her, frowning as she realised that they were still not out of trouble.