Caroline leaned by the viewport in her quarters and stared out at the stars, clutching an unopened book.
She wanted to escape into its pages and shut out reality. In a sense, reading Tara Morgan and the Incantations of Unreality was the perfect escape. It was an adventure story with familiar characters, their world of magic, and the love Tara and May had for each other.
Rebecca, her second-in-command, lay in a coma in the Orion’s infirmary. There was no telling when or if she would ever regain consciousness. Though she and Caroline weren’t exactly friends, she was an invaluable part of a crew and a decent human being.
Now was the sort of time that Rebecca would be shoring up the crew’s low morale. Her absence would make that far more difficult.
The dimensional portal which the Orion had passed through to reach the nexus was badly damaged. Dr. MacNeil and Erica had assured her that with time they might be able to repair it, but then they had doused that hope by admitting that they needed more time to study the technology.
The Orion itself was undergoing repairs as it held position near the centre of the nexus. The battle damage from the engagement with the Siphen was still being assessed.
In a nutshell, she and her crew weren’t going anywhere. Even after repairing the ships’ damaged systems, the chances of them returning home were, for the moment, slim to none.
Caroline turned away from the view and crossed the room to dejectedly sit on the sofa, rubbing her face and blinking away tears. She was back on her feet as she realised she needed to talk to someone, and thumbed the comm unit.
For whatever reason, be it a system malfunction or because Rhona was helping with the repair efforts or sound asleep, she couldn’t raise her best friend.
Caroline frowned and attempted to contact Erica instead, and was relieved to hear the chief engineer’s voice.
“Reed here, go ahead.”
“Erica, what’s the status of the comm system?” Caroline asked.
“Working on it, Captain. The system itself is fine, but power isn’t getting through in some sections, which at the moment you won’t be able to reach. The ship itself is responding to perceived system damage by reducing power flow, but we’ve been checking each system deck by deck and, apart from the sections with damage to the hull, we can’t find any damaged energy conduits.”
“Alright, Erica, thanks for bringing me up to speed. I’ll let you get back to work.”
Caroline flicked the comm panel off and reluctantly placed her book back on the shelf, resolving to read it later, when she didn’t feel so emotional.
Then, she retreated to the fresher to splash some cold water on her face. It was some small comfort that the water was still running.
Caroline looked in the mirror as she dabbed her cheeks and mouth with a towel. Her skin seemed pale and a lock of hair had escaped from the clip behind her ear.
But on a positive note, at least she didn’t look like she was about to burst into tears. She gave a small, tired smile and set about fixing her hair.
Still anxious and feeling the need to talk, she gathered her composure and straightened her posture, leaving her quarters to see if she could find Rhona.
Descending several decks, she stopped by Rhona’s quarters and pushed the entry chime. Once again, there was no answer.
With a sigh, Caroline started back towards her quarters, but stopped in mid-step, realising that Rhona wasn’t the only friend she could talk to, just the one who knew her best. Mustering her composure again, she set off for the guest quarters, where she would likely find Isamura.
She didn’t feel as though she knew Isamura very well, but she was approachable, friendly, and had proven herself to be trustworthy. More than that, Caroline enjoyed spending time with her. Isamura had confidence and a serene calm that was enviable, and at times it felt as though that rubbed off on others.
By the time she was standing outside the quarters that had been set aside for Isamura, Caroline felt more at ease. Still, she had come here for a reason, and she decided that now was as good a time as any to spend more time in the woman’s charming company.
Isamura responded to the entry chime, calling out, “You may enter.”
“You know, you really should ask who’s at your door before telling them to come in,” Caroline said as she let herself in.
“What a quaint idea. I shall certainly consider doing so in future,” Isamura said, with a hint of a smile on her lips.
Casually sitting back on a sofa, Isamura looked strangely different in the casual off-duty outfit that had been provided for her when she had arrived on the Orion. If someone passed her in the corridor, she might easily pass for any other member of the crew. Especially with her hair down.
“So what brings you here, Caroline? Oh, perhaps you have come to hear more of my heroic exploits, mm?” she suggested with an amused smile.
“I thought not. You look as if you need someone to listen to you for a change, am I right?”
“I suppose I do, yes.” Caroline sat down and made herself comfortable in the armchair, glancing over at Isamura, who was sitting forward and turned towards her.
“It’s strange. As an explorer I spend a lot of time away from home. You would think that I could just get used to the idea that I might not be going home for a long time.”
“Tell me why you want to go home. Do you have family, friends waiting for you?”
“Almost everyone on the crew does.”
“Tell me about your family, then.”
“I have a wife. Her name is Wilma and we’ve been together for ten years, married for nine of those. We have two daughters, both grown up.”
“And when did you anticipate seeing them again?”
“In about a year, if we could use the portal to go home. Which we can’t.”
“And if you have to wait another year to see them again, are you able to stand being parted from them that long?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Why are you unsure?”
“I think two years would test the limit of my sanity,” Caroline answered with a shrug.
“Indeed, it probably would,” Isamura said. “Unless you had a distraction. Something to maintain your sanity. Perhaps even someone,” she added, with a suggestive smile.
“What? No, that’s out of the question.”
“Think about it, Caroline. Your crew is having much the same crisis as you, are they not? Do you think they will continue to do their duty if, forsaking hope of an immediate return home, they do not have some comfort?”
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe not.”
“And there would be no shame in that. Except that now more than ever, you need your crew to play their roles. As do you.”
“I’m their captain. I don’t know if I can command their respect if I choose one of them to be my distraction for two years.”
“Perhaps not, but they will understand all too well the dilemma you face.”
Caroline sighed. “I don’t know if I can. Go looking for comfort, I mean.”
“You are too shy to ask for a cuddle and a kiss?”
“I don’t think I could endure the humiliation of being rejected.”
Isamura smiled and shook her head. “Caroline, you have nothing to worry about. Do you not know that you are an attractive woman, with many endearing qualities?”
“Uh, kind of, yes. It’s the first time I’ve heard you mention it, though.”
“Perhaps, I too was afraid of being rejected,” Isamura said, twirling a lock of her hair.
Caroline laughed. “And that’s the first time you’ve said anything about being afraid.”
“Well? Do I have reason to be afraid?”
Caroline stood from her seat, pacing the guest room and thinking. Their conversation was quickly moving from idle speculation to confession, and she didn’t want to hurt Isamura’s feelings. Neither did she want to start something right here and now.
She stopped pacing, and stood facing Isamura, having decided that she wanted to be honest about what she felt.
“No, Isamura, you have nothing to be afraid of. Come here,” she said.
Isamura got up and skipped the few paces to warmly embrace her. Wrapping her arms around Isamura as well, Caroline felt joy and relief from the burden she had been carrying.
“Thank you, ” she said, gently pulling back and kissing Isamura on the cheek.
“You are welcome, Caroline. However that is not exactly the sort of kiss I had in mind.”
Isamura leaned in again and captured her lips, caressing the side of Caroline’s face and tousling her hair.
Despite her intention not to start anything, Caroline kissed Isamura back and slipped her arm around to gingerly stroke her neck and back.
Isamura eventually stopped them, drawing back with a wide smile on her lips and placing a forefinger against Caroline’s lips. “Are you comforted, Caroline?” she asked.
Planting a little kiss against her finger, Caroline said, “Yes. And you?”
“I’m thrilled. It’s not every day I kiss a beautiful captain of a starship.”
“Well thanks,” Caroline replied, blushing at the compliment. “Uh, look Isamura, I don’t think I’m ready to take this further yet.”
“As disappointed as I am that I cannot tempt you, I think I can wait for you to be ready, Caroline.” Isamura briefly hugged her again. “Now go, your ship and crew need you.”