Caroline and Erica were almost out of time.
The shuttle was sliding deeper and pitching forward as the ground loosened and gave way. Each sickening lurch seemed to bring them closer to doom.
There were tears tracking down Erica’s cheeks. She turned to Caroline and with a quavering voice, she said, “I don’t wanna die!”
“Take my hand!” Caroline said, extending her right hand towards Erica.
Erica took her hand, still looking frightened.
Caroline gave Erica’s hand a squeeze. “We’re not going to die. We’re going to make it through this, somehow. I’m not giving up, so neither should you. Now get strapped in.”
They both secured themselves in the seats and Caroline closed her eyes again, not concentrating on a command or a feeling but on communicating with the shuttle on a primal, instinctual level, some sort of reflex action that would save their hides.
She pictured herself falling from a cliff, feeling the air rush through her hair and the ground rushing up to meet her. She needed to fly, to soar.
The engines roared to life, lifting the shuttle out of its precarious position and hurtling up through the collapsing hole. It was a bumpy ride, and they were jostled in their seats, but eventually the rough shuddering gave way to smooth ascent.
As Caroline gazed out of the cockpit she saw clouds and blue sky. She gave a triumphant grin. “Yes! We’re alive!”
“Maybe we should put this thing down though, just in case,” Erica said, remaining doubtful of the shuttle’s flight status.
Caroline thumbed the comm. “Trueman to Brown, we’re still here.”
“Yes, we saw. Had us all worried, though.”
“We’re going to find somewhere safer to put down, is everyone down there all right?”
“We’re fine for the most part. Isamura is all worn out from the magic show, though.”
Caroline used the shuttle’s sensors to locate a landing site and relayed the co-ordinates over the comm. “We’ll see you there. Trueman out.”
She glanced over at Erica, who was studying the console in front of her intently. “You look like you’ve found something interesting.”
“Hmm? Oh, I was looking for some sign of the override command in the shuttle’s computer. But I can’t find anything.”
“I don’t think you will. There are some things which you can’t record, you just have to imagine.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
The shuttle touched down at the landing site and Caroline powered down the engines again. She let out a relieved sigh and unfastened the seat straps. “I don’t know about you but I could really use some fresh air,” she said.
“Sounds good to me!”
They headed back to the rear of the shuttle and opened the hatch. Outside was a grassy clearing with bright flowers growing on tall stems, swaying slightly in the breeze.
“You sure can pick a good spot to land,” Erica said, skipping ahead of Caroline and looking around at the natural beauty that surrounded them.
“I just went for the nearest flat strip of land,” Caroline replied with a shrug, “but I’m glad you like it.”
Erica turned around and grinned at her. “It’s lovely!”
Caroline’s eyes were taking in a different kind of beauty. The sun shone down and illuminated Erica’s fair hair and her bright smile. Her relaxed posture was a contrast to the scared woman from the cockpit.
“You look like you find something about me interesting,” Erica interrupted.
“Sorry. My mind is wandering again,” Caroline said, resting her hands on her hips and smiling.
“Aha, I see,” Erica said, still smiling. “You know, you never did tell me how Amber managed to get between you and Vanessa.”
“Well, I guess now is as good a time as any. But first…”
Caroline fetched the water bottles and ration packs, and they sat propped up against the side of the shuttle.
“Like I said before, things went back to normal for a while, almost two years in fact. Amber, who had before just been Vanessa’s friend who hung out at her place occasionally, became my friend as well. She made regular appearances at home, offering to cook and help out with assembling new furniture and other things that friends do. We played board games and cards together.”
“At the time, Vanessa and I didn’t really think it odd that Amber didn’t bring a girlfriend of her own round. Maybe we should have, considering what Vanessa knew about her. I guess we were both willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“But then, she tried to get rid of Vanessa with a convenient accident!” Erica interrupted.
“Seriously, are you going to let me tell the story, or not?”
“Okay, I’ll shut up.”
Caroline shook her bemusedly and continued. “No, Amber didn’t try to have Vanessa meet an unfortunate end. Instead, from what I can gather after the fact, she talked me up a bit with the expedition leader, suggesting that I should go with them to an off-world dig.”
“If the argument that Vanessa and I had a couple of years before was furious, then we had a major falling out over this new offer to go off-world. Because of course, she heard about it through rumour before I had an actual offer extended to me.”
“Even though I said to her that I needed more time to think about it, that I didn’t want to leave her, the suspicion and paranoia was such that she didn’t believe me.”
“I spent the next three weeks trying to reconcile with her while staying over at Amber’s place. Amber, the ever-faithful friend, appeared to be interested in resolving our differences, but really she just wanted me to be close to her and away from Vanessa. In those three weeks she clouded my judgement with lies, erased messages from Vanessa begging for me to come back, whatever she could to sabotage our relationship without giving away her true motives.”
“And then one night I came back to Amber’s and there were lots of boxes. Boxes full of my things. She sighed and said, ‘It’ll be all right, Caroline.’ I cried on her shoulder and she held me that night until I couldn’t cry any more.”
“The next morning, Vanessa called me after I had gone to work, to say that there had been a break-in but again, Amber erased the message before I could hear it. I kept on thinking the worst of her, so when she showed up in person, we had another argument and I told her that I had nothing more to say to her, that we were done, finished.”
“Even after I had closed the door on her, I could hear Vanessa sobbing, begging me for another chance, but I ignored her.”
“I’ll give Amber some credit, she knew better than to throw her hat in the ring so soon after I had broken up with Vanessa. She waited patiently for six weeks, hugging me when I was feeling down and even playing wingman when I felt the urge to go out and try to meet someone new. She was the perfect friend except for all the lying to my face.”
“So you can imagine that at the end of six weeks, a lot of it spent on my work trying to put Vanessa out of my mind, I was really frustrated. Amber gave me a hug to comfort me, and smiled a little bit like Vanessa had, and I kissed her. And she kissed me back.”
“And then, then Amber… I don’t know, I think she pretended to be freaked out about the kiss. She told me that it wasn’t too late, that I might still be able to get back with Vanessa if I really tried to talk to her.”
“But all that time apart from Vanessa – believing the worst about her – had clouded my judgement. I said something that I had been holding in for weeks: ‘There is no more Vanessa. I want someone who loves me back, Amber. And I think it’s you.’ I didn’t know what I was saying.”
“Amber still played it cool, but that night for the first time she snuggled up to me like I was her girlfriend. And I let her, because I desperately wanted the affection.”
“Over the next month I became closer to her. We went out on a couple of dates together. Amber told me that I made her feel so happy. I suppose that in a twisted sense that was true.”
“So in a sense, Amber didn’t have to seduce me. I was only too willing to forget Vanessa and move on. I should have had some nagging doubt at the back of my mind, but I didn’t. By the end of that month we were girlfriends in every sense of the word.”
“However, as I was going through my boxes of things unpacking them, I finally noticed something very wrong. I found that holo of me with red hair and freckles that Vanessa had made back when I was studying history.”
“I thought to myself, that even at her angriest, Vanessa would never pack that away in a box to give back to me. She would hold onto it, treasure that memory from before we were lovers.”
“In the other boxes I found all sorts of things that simply didn’t belong to me in the sense that Vanessa would want to or feel obligated to return them. It suddenly dawned on me that things were not as they appeared.”
“I told Amber that I was going out to pick up some supplies. She said to me, ‘Don’t be long, sweetie. I love you.’ Vanessa used to call me sweetie. I loved it when she called me that. But hearing it from Amber, with the suspicions I had, gave me the creeps.”
“I went to see Vanessa at work. She was both overjoyed and furious to see me there, but I calmly gave her the holo and asked her what it meant.”
“Vanessa played the holo and with a strained voice asked me, ‘Caroline, sweetie, where did you get this? This has been missing since a break-in over two months ago.’ And that confirmed my worst fears.”
“She told me about the messages she had sent but had no reply from. I told her. I told her everything, and it just devastated her.”
“When Vanessa eventually stopped crying she told me that she understood why I had done what I had done, that Amber had been playing us against each other, but she was so disappointed that I had believed the worst about her. She said that maybe we weren’t meant to love each other any more, that it would hurt us both too much.”
“I cried, and she hugged me and begged me to stop, that she would still be my friend, if I wanted to make that much work.”
“Amber? She was eventually arrested on charges of theft and misrepresentation. I never got that off-world expedition, but I still dreamed about leaving Earth to explore a galaxy filled with cultures. It sounds crazy, but without Amber I might never have joined the Expeditionary Fleet.”
“I did live with Vanessa for a while longer, just as friends. We never got back together.”
“Oh. That’s so sad, Caroline,” Erica said, patting her arm gently. “I think I understand now why trust is so important in a relationship.”
“Yes. Yes it is, Erica.”
By the time the rest of the team had arrived, Caroline and Erica were trading jokes to lighten the mood a bit. Erica looked up as she heard them approaching and gave an excited cheer, waving enthusiastically.
As they got closer, it was easier to hear what they were saying to each other.
“Feels like I’ve been walking all day,” Rhona complained.
“Not as long as I have,” Tegan said over her shoulder.
“I am more exhausted than both of you,” Isamura commented, walking several paces behind them.
“If I’d known we were going hiking I would have dressed for the occasion,” said Macaude, taking off one of his boots to shake loose small stones.
“I told everyone to dress for rough terrain. You were the only one to show up wearing dress boots,” Tegan reminded him.
“I wanted to make a good first impression,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Congratulations. Your first impression was digging a stone out of one of your boots.” Tegan said.
“Hi,” Erica interrupted, standing in Tegan’s path.
“Hello,” Tegan said with a smile. “Glad to see you’re in one piece. Well, apart from that hair of yours.”
“We were upside-down at one point. So it was hanging in the wrong direction.”
“You could tie it back. No wait, don’t. It looks fine.”
“Tegan…” Erica started, and then drew a little closer, lowering her voice. “This isn’t exactly the time I wanted say something but, Caroline was telling me a story and it made me think. About you.”
“What about me?”
Erica stumbled a little over the words but sounded very heartfelt. “Tegan, I’m not going to put any pressure on, because I like you, a lot, and… I just want you to know, if you want to talk, or even if you don’t, then I’m here for you, as a friend.”
Tegan considered her words and the intent behind them, then nodded and smiled. “I know, Erica. I’m sorry if I um, seem a bit stand-offish. We will talk, I promise. Soon.”
“All right.” Erica gave her an affectionate hug and they turned to join the others.
For her part, Caroline was content to smile as she watched Erica take the first steps. She didn’t know what the future held in store for Tegan and Erica, but hopefully she had given Erica some insights, the seed of doubting the worst rather than assuming it, trusting someone rather than expecting betrayal.