As they flew closer, it was clear that the damage to the portal was confined to one location. Unfortunately, that damage seemed to be rather severe, with the exterior surface missing in places. This revealed the sensitive equipment which generated and stabilised the traversable rift between universes.
“Taking readings now,” Erica said, studying the field of debris around the damaged section of the portal.
Caroline slowed the shuttle to cautiously sweep around the portal while Erica conducted her initial scans.
“Hmm, good and bad news. There’s no sign of radioactivity or other hazards. But the damage in the exposed section seems quite extensive. If I could get some scans of an undamaged section I might have a better idea of what we need to get it working again.”
“I knew you were going to say that,” Caroline said. “Alright, go suit up, I’m going to park as close to this thing as I can.”
In the rear compartment of the shuttle, Erica tugged off her boots and uniform jacket, and slipped into one of the EVA suits with practised ease. When the helmet was in place and she had an airtight seal, she activated the suit’s comm.
“All set back here. Go ahead and depressurise.”
Caroline similarly checked that the cockpit had a good air seal before confirming. “Depressurisation commencing.”
When the air in the rear compartment had been completely vented, Erica toggled the artificial gravity off, activated the rear hatch and secured herself to the shuttle with a line.
Her objective was dead ahead. She activated the thrusters on her suit for a little push in that direction.
As she neared the portal, Erica gazed around her. There were no stars here, but there was a diffuse glow from the edge of the pocket universe, something which they still didn’t fully understand.
Of course, where there was light, there was energy, but what kind of energy, and how did it come to be converted into visible wavelengths of light?
Erica slowed her forward momentum with thrusters and finally made contact with the portal itself. “I’m here,” she said, magnetising her boots and unclipping a scanner from her belt. “Continuing to take readings.”
She trudged into one of the undamaged sections, occasionally checking her line to make sure it wasn’t snagged on something sharp. It was dark, so she flipped her helmet light on to see.
The portal technology was quite remarkable, she thought, judging from the readings. It was a shame that the only chance to study it up close was through a hole punched in it with weapons fire.
As she passed through the undamaged section, she realised that for the most part, the portal was a modular structure. She couldn’t even begin to identify all of the equipment, but knowing what it did, she could make some reasonable assumptions. Each module of the portal played a part in generating the dimensional rift. In order to repair the portal, it would be necessary to retro-engineer and produce equipment to replace what had been damaged.
As for how it was all powered, she had never seen anything like the power conduits which snaked along the internal structure. Her scans revealed that the circuit was not broken, despite the damage in the exposed section, but power was on standby. Possibly, this could be a safety feature to prevent the formation of an unstable rift if the portal was damaged.
She made a thorough sweep, even opening some panels to examine and admire the control circuitry. Then she returned the way she’d come, going over the readings she had obtained.
“I’m coming back,” she said into the suit comm as she began the return trip to the shuttle.
“Have fun down there?”
“Not really. I mean, yes, I took some good readings that will help us get started, but…”
“If I can find or manufacture the parts, then given enough time we can replace what’s broken. Whether it will work afterwards, I have no idea. This is a highly-advanced piece of tech, and there’s no instruction manual included.”
“Perhaps we can have a look for ‘How to service your dimensional portal’ when we get back,” Caroline suggested.
“Knowing our luck, it will be filed under ‘DNFW’ or whatever that translates as.”
“Do Not… Fiddle With?”
Erica smirked. “Sure. That’s the exact acronym I was thinking of. Okay, I’m in. Sealing rear hatch.”
“Air seal confirmed, repressurising.”
Erica rejoined Caroline in the cockpit a couple of minutes later, her uniform jacket still unfastened.
“In a hurry to get back to work?” Caroline asked.
“I was thinking of catching a meal, actually.” Erica raked a hand through her hair and took the co-pilot’s seat again. “And then maybe a half hour of rest.”
“You and me both.”
The shuttle ceased forward motion as they finally reached the Orion. Caroline frowned. “That’s odd. The bay doors aren’t opening.”
“I can see that,” Erica remarked dryly, looking ahead of them.
Caroline activated the comm. “Orion, this is Trueman. Shuttle bay doors not operational. Please advise.”
“Captain, we just noticed the problem and engineers are investigating,” Paul answered. “Did you have any success with your mission?”
“Perhaps. Erica went EVA and had a look up close. She seems to think it will take a while.”
“So you have EVA suits on board?” he said.
“Caroline,” Erica said, “if you fly us close to an airlock, we could leave the shuttle and get back on board that way.”
Caroline tensed up at the thought of abandoning the shuttle. “I’m not exactly sure if I can do that,” she said. “I’m connected to the shuttle via the neural interface.”
“And well, my training didn’t exactly cover disconnecting from the shuttle before safely landing,” Caroline explained with an apologetic glance at Erica. “I mean, if I absolutely have to put on a suit and leave to save my life, I will. But as long as I’m still breathing I’d rather not abandon ship.”
“Captain, I’m not sure that I heard you correctly,” Paul said over the comm. “Are you saying that you’re being compelled to remain on board?”
“You know the old nautical saying, the captain goes down with the ship? It seems to apply here,” Caroline replied wryly. “But I will fly around to an airlock so Erica can return to the Orion. You could probably use her help right now, am I correct?”
“That would be an accurate assessment, yes, Captain.”
“Stand by, I’ll have her over in a minute.” Aside, Caroline said to Erica, “Better go suit up again.”
Erica grumbled but returned to the rear compartment to climb back into the EVA suit.
Caroline flew the shuttle around the Orion. She located an airlock which was ready to receive Erica, and took up position so that the rear hatch of the shuttle faced it.
“Caroline,” Erica said over the comm, “is there someone you want to talk to while I’m gone?”
“How long is this going to take?” Caroline asked.
“Not long, I don’t think. See, I’m on board already, just waiting on the airlock pressurising.”
“Neatly deflected. Minutes? Hours? Days?”
“If it’s anything like the power problems I’ve already tried to deal with today, it’s going to be an hour or two.”
“There you are then. A couple of hours. No need to bother anyone on my account.”
Erica sighed. “Caroline, just pick a name already so I don’t have to feel so guilty about leaving you behind.”
“Right. We wouldn’t want that,” Caroline said. “I pick Isamura. I tried Rhona earlier today, couldn’t reach her. Might want to look into that.”
“I did. She’s not feeling well. Nothing serious, though. I’ll get Isamura on for you in a little bit.”
After that conversation, Caroline was alone with her thoughts in the shuttle.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to hear that Rhona was feeling poorly. Cooped up on a starship with enough people to rival a small town, and exposed to alien microbes during away missions, it wasn’t uncommon for the crew to suffer from illness.
Still, Caroline wished that she could be there to comfort her friend. In fact, now that she thought about it, she wondered why she hadn’t asked Erica to get Rhona on the comm, to wish her well.
The answer, staring her right in the face, was that from the moment she’d met Isamura, things had started to change.
After that, Caroline had someone in her life who wasn’t part of the ship’s complement, but was now an important ally. Like her first officer Rebecca – and now Paul, she supposed – Isamura presented alternatives. As much as Caroline might disagree with each of them, she needed to hear them out so that she didn’t lose her perspective.
She also happened to enjoy Isamura’s company. So much so that she felt guilty about the time they spent together. But as Erica had said, there was no guarantee that the dimensional portal could be made operational even after being repaired.
With no way home, Caroline could never return to her wife, Wilma. She knew that after years of waiting, Wilma would eventually move on and find someone else. It was something that they discussed each time Caroline had a long-term assignment.
Wilma provided stability for their family. It was something she was happy to do while Caroline was away from home. Their love for one another had endured and grown strong over the years and despite separation. Caroline knew that even if she pursued a relationship with Isamura, she would never stop loving Wilma.
She wanted to hear Isamura’s voice because she could imagine a new life at her side.