Caroline was about to continue her story when the shuttle suddenly shook a little and shifted.
“What was that?”
“Subsidence, I think.”
Erica picked up her scanner and created a holo-rendering of the hole they were trapped in. “Uh, I think we may have done a bit of damage when we made impact. See here, underneath and behind the shuttle? There’s a weak point in the rock and we just put a big ol’ crack in it.”
“So what’s that… beyond the rock?” Caroline said, pointing to a cavernous blackness that lay beyond.
“Oh, you know, just an underground crevasse? It was probably carved out by water or seismic activity a long time ago.”
“And we’re sliding into that?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” said Erica, with a gloomy frown.
“We’ll be rescued soon. But, maybe we should speed up the whole power flushing cycle.”
“Hmm. I guess we don’t have much choice.”
They got to work, removing panels and scanning the power conduits for traces of disruption still present in the system. There was no more time for stories, just enough to save themselves.
The ground team halted as they approached a grassy clearing. Tegan swept the scanner left and right in front of her, looking for the crashed shuttle.
“They’re over there,” she said, finally pointing towards a dark opening in the ground, “about twenty metres down and sixty-five in that direction. Two life signs.”
“Let’s go check it out,” said Isamura, starting towards the opening.
“I don’t think we should all go. The ground looks unstable,” Tegan added, caution in her voice.
“We’ll hold this area then,” Rhona agreed, shouldering her weapon and standing ready.
Tegan followed Isamura down into the darkness, stumbling a few times as the soil gave way under her feet.
As they neared the shuttle they could see a faint orange glow ahead of them, then the faint metallic outline of the shuttle itself, and then Caroline and Erica waving excitedly at them. Their portable comm unit crackled to life as the shuttle powered up.
“You’re just in time, we’re doing a test power up,” Caroline told them. “I don’t know if we can fly out of here though.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it either, there’s a lot of ground disturbance, loose soil,” Tegan replied.
“Worse than that. There’s a bigger hole than this underneath and we’re sliding in.”
“You could go straight up though, right?” Isamura asked.
“Sure, if we had a clear path. Doesn’t look like we do, though.”
“I’ll make one.”
“How are you going to do that?” Tegan asked with a puzzled stare.
“I have my ways. Let’s go back, I need to find the place that’s right above the shuttle.”
Tegan shared a nervous glance with Caroline. “Well it looks like we have a plan to get you out of there. We’ll let you know when we’re ready.”
They walked back up to the surface, Isamura helping Tegan up in a couple of places where the ground was beginning to settle.
When they were back up in the open air again, Tegan guided her over to the location using the scanner.
“All right, we’re here, now what?”
“Now I’m going to make a big hole. Don’t worry, it should be safe, as long as we’re not right on top of it.”
“Doesn’t sound very safe to me.”
Isamura took a few large steps backward and raised her arms. “Stay behind me, then.”
Tegan warily stood several paces behind her, looking about with her weapon raised in readiness.
The ground started to tremble slightly as Isamura chanted in an unfamiliar tongue. Then, as she gently swept her arms out to the sides, a narrow cyclone sucked the soil off the ground, depositing it far away in a heap.
“Shit! You weren’t kidding about making a big hole!” Tegan yelled over the howling wind.
As she continued to cast her spell, Isamura’s red hair was buffeted by the twisting vortex. The ground beneath her was becoming dangerously eroded.
“Brown to Trueman! Brown to Trueman! Get ready!” Tegan yelled into the comm unit.
“What the hell is she doing up there?” Caroline wondered out loud.
Erica looked up at the metal ceiling of the shuttle which thrummed loudly with the increasing vibrations. “If I had to guess, I’d say she’s moving the earth.”
“Well she better do it faster then. We seem to be sinking.”
Erica felt that familiar rush of panic return as the distant light in the forward view was obscured and they were slowly swallowed up by the ground. Averting her gaze from their doom, she checked the readouts in front of her. “Power systems are nominal. Start the engines.”
“Believe me, I’m trying.”
“Controls aren’t responsive, and the neural interface doesn’t seem to be working either.”
As the shuttle lurched and slipped lower, Erica frantically examined the onboard system status. “It looks like the command system is stuck in diagnostic mode. You’re sending the right signal, it just isn’t being accepted.”
“Bloody hell, that’s inconvenient. Isn’t there an emergency override?”
“I have no idea. Maybe. Um, thinking out loud. Perhaps whoever built this thing realised that the command system could malfunction. The neural interface has a command interpreter that turns what you think into specific actions. It’s designed to filter out a lot of unwanted input which have nothing to do with flying or weapons.”
“So how does that help? I don’t know what they would have used as an emergency override signal.”
“That’s just it, it can’t be a signal that would be processed or quantified as a command. Don’t think, Caroline, feel. You’re in a metal can about to sink under tons of dirt and earth, feel afraid – no, frightened. Petrified.”
Caroline closed her eyes and let herself be taken by the feelings of helplessness and dread that she had been suppressing. She felt the shuttle move, but it wasn’t the engines starting. “It’s no good! That’s not it!”
“Are you sure you’re really feeling it? Caroline, it has to be a genuine feeling or it won’t work!”
With a frown, Caroline shook her head. “We’re missing something. I have to feel afraid but, feelings have context too. I’m afraid that I won’t get us home, I’m afraid that I’m going to start turning grey, I’m afraid that we’re going to sink into the ground and never be seen again, I’m afraid that I won’t be able to think of any last words to say.”
She paused, expecting to feel the reassuring thrum of power.
After an ominous pause with no engines, Erica replied, “We’re so screwed?”
Isamura sank to the ground exhausted, the cyclone ebbing in strength until it was just a whistling of wind, and then not even that. Tegan pulled her back from the edge and dragged her away as the ground started to collapse.
She thumbed the comm unit again. “Brown to Trueman! You’re all clear, get out of there!”
The comm unit crackled but there was no answer.