The last projectile was still gaining on the shuttle, and as Erica attempted to fire she noticed that the weapon panels were flashing red. She shot an alarmed look at Caroline. “Rear weapons unresponsive!”
“They must have been damaged by one of the explosions. I’m going to flip the shuttle and transfer control to forward weapons. You won’t have much time so don’t hesitate. Ready?”
Erica steeled herself, fingers poised over the controls. “Ready.”
The shuttle abruptly lurched as if it had been kicked by an invisible boot, turning end over front so that the they were pointing straight at the oncoming projectile.
Erica fired the weapons and obliterated it.
For several seconds she saw nothing but the white of the explosion and heard a ringing in her ears from the concussive force. Then as her eyes adjusted she saw the blue sky out of the cockpit.
She dimly heard an alarm.
Glancing to the side she saw Caroline clutching the flight controls, deep in concentration, her words indistinct through the din.
Erica could feel that they were falling, and gripped her seatrests in panic as she realised that the last blast had knocked out their flight controls.
Tegan stopped and listened as Caroline’s voice came in over the crackling comm. “Trueman to Brown, we’re going in, I repeat, we’re going in.”
“What does that mean?” Isamura asked.
“It means they’re going to crash. I’m tracking their location and likely trajectory,” Tegan explained, examining the readout on her scanner. “All right, it looks like they’ll go down near here,” she said, indicating a region beyond the caves where the shuttle had been attacked.
Isamura studied the image on the scanner. “Then we should try to use the cover of trees and avoid the caves. We are no good to them if we fall foul of the same ambush.”
“All right. Everyone else, fall in on our left and watch for my signals. As we pass the caves I don’t want to give our position away with chatter.”
Inside the crashed shuttle, Caroline regained consciousness and opened her eyes to find Erica kneeling at her side and applying pressure to her head.
“We’re in one piece, it looks like. A few panels came loose, I think you caught a glancing blow from one.”
“Ouch.” Caroline winced and put a hand to her head, her fingers brushing against the gauze pad. “It stings a bit.”
“I washed it and applied antiseptic. You’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
“That’s good to hear.” Caroline rested her hand on Erica’s giving it a gentle squeeze. “What about you, are you hurt?”
“Little sore from my seat straps. Other than that, I’m fine.” Erica removed the gauze pad from Caroline’s head and examined the wound. Satisfied that the bleeding had stopped for now, she tore open the wrapper on a sticky plaster and planted it neatly on the cut.
“Well, let’s see where we’ve crashed,” Caroline said. “Give me a hand up?”
Erica graciously helped Caroline to her feet, and they peered out the front of the cockpit. They seemed to be in some sort of a tunnel, light filtering in faintly from the other end.
“Well that’s helpful. We’re in a big hole. Let’s check the rear hatch.”
They ventured into the rear section and opened the hatch. Unfortunately, it only opened a little bit. It seemed that the shuttle was lodged against the back of the tunnel, and they were greeted by roots and compacted dirt tumbling in.
“Well this isn’t good.”
Caroline thumbed the hatch control and it slid shut again. “Why don’t you see if you can restore power. I’ll look at the flight controls.”
“All right.” Erica had a look around and found the toolkit, palming a scanner. She opened one of the panels in the rear section and ran a diagnostic of the power systems.
Caroline paused at the entrance to the cockpit, watching Erica working for a moment. The resemblance to Vanessa was uncanny. She smiled to herself and shook her head. Memories had a funny way of sneaking up on you.
When she was in the cockpit, Caroline ran a check of the flight controls, finding that the control systems were still scrambled from the blast. She shut those down and tried to re-initialise them.
Frustratingly, once the controls were shut down they had no inclination to come back on. “Damn it!” She hopped out of the pilot seat and poked her head into the rear compartment. “I think I managed to make things worse,” she told Erica.
“It seems that power transfer throughout the shuttle was disrupted by the blasts.” Erica pushed a few controls and suddenly the shuttle was plunged into darkness, replaced shortly by the glow of an emergency light. “As you found out, just resetting the controls isn’t going to work. So I’ve shut it all down.”
“How long before we can power up again?”
Erica shrugged. “I’d say at least a few hours.”
“I guess we’ll have to sit tight and wait for a rescue.” Caroline sat down in the rear compartment and sighed.
“How long do you think it’ll take?” Erica asked her, sitting beside her.
“For them to find us? About half an hour. Probably more though. I expect they’ll want to avoid being ambushed like we were.”
“You couldn’t have known that they would be able to detect us.”
“Isamura warned me that the shuttle’s stealth mode might not be infallible. actually.”
“Oh. Any idea how we’re going to get near those caves now?” Erica sat next to her and placed the light down.
“When we join up with the ground team we’ll arm up and devise an ambush of our own.” Caroline glanced over, smiling a little as she saw Erica highlighted by the orange glow. She didn’t realise that she was staring until Erica turned her head and smiled back bemusedly.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Erica said, giggling softly.
“Oh I’m sorry. You’re just really nice to look at,” Caroline apologised, averting her gaze.
“Oh, I get it. I look like Vanessa, your long-lost love. Don’t apologise. It’s not your fault.” Erica touched a lock of hair that had fallen into her face. “It gets this way after a day of crazy flying.”
“I know, I just feel weird. You’re smitten with Tegan, and I’m in love with Isamura and Wilma, so you’d think that I would stop thinking about old girlfriends.”
Erica laughed. “Sorry Caroline, brains don’t work the way you want them to.”
“I suppose not.”
“So tell me more about her.”
“All right.” Caroline smiled and canted her head a bit as she reminisced. “Well, like I said, she and I shared a room. I was studying history and ancient languages, she had already finished her studies and was working in fashion and design.”
“How did you end up sharing to begin with?”
“Just luck really. She was looking for a new roomie and I was looking for somewhere in the middle of campus.”
“So what else did you like about her?”
“I liked the way her lips poked out when she wasn’t talking,” Caroline said, “like when she was really engrossed in her work.”
“So when did she notice that you were noticing her?”
“All the time. She was really flattered and she would give me a bright smile. But she didn’t seem too interested in me. So, despondently, I assumed that she thought I was too immature or something.”
“I’m guessing that was a mistake.”
“Oh yes. I finally found out when I graduated, that she felt the same way about me. She had been afraid that, when I graduated, I would move on and she would be alone again.” Caroline sniffed and wiped her eyes a moment. “That was the first night I kissed her and told her, that those smiles of hers gave me butterflies. That I loved her and wanted to stay with her.”
“And you did, for a while, right?”
“Yes. She was a wonderful girlfriend. We would spend hours together. Sometimes we would both be working on things at home, and we’d gaze at each other over the tops of books and smile. We seemed to thoroughly energise each other with our affection.”
“So how did it all go wrong?”
“It didn’t. Not to begin with. We were happy, ecstatic together. For years. But then I started getting offers of field work. On other planets, naturally.”
“You turned them down. Right?”
“Oh, you bet I did. I wrote back and politely refused them all. I was settled. I didn’t want to leave. And then one day I came home to find a woman talking with Vanessa. Her name was Amber and as she was a friend of my girlfriend, she’d heard about my work countless times.
“She told me that she could get me into an expedition that had recently unearthed some quite interesting finds and needed someone with my language skills. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere far away, they had a workspace in town.”
“It seemed like a great opportunity, so I accepted and Amber said she would set it up and call me.”
“When Amber had left, Vanessa gave me a little heads-up about her friend. She was convinced that Amber would try to seduce me, and she knew because it had happened before. I shrugged and said that I loved Vanessa and that nothing could ever come between us.”
“Looking back, I think I should have taken her warning a bit more seriously.”
“So I’m guessing that Amber did try to seduce you then?” Erica asked.
“Oh, not at first. She was friendly when she came by work to check on my progress, but not flirtatious. She was patient and conniving and waited for the right opportunity.”
“A year after I started working for the expedition, Vanessa landed a new client and increasingly spent her time at work rather than at home. I would come home and have no-one to smile at, nobody to talk to, and likely as not no warm body to snuggle with at night.”
“I tried to talk to Vanessa about it and we got into such a furious argument about boundaries between work and home that we didn’t even notice Amber until she was standing in between us.”
“Amber graciously offered to talk to the expedition leader to make my schedule more flexible, which seemed to calm Vanessa and I down a lot. We all hugged and then things seemed to go back to normal, for a while at least.”