Servant of the Siphen: Parts 1-12

 

This is the combined draft of Servant of the Siphen. As each part is completed it will be added here.

Caroline slept fitfully in Isamura’s embrace much as she had the previous night. It seemed to her that Caroline was as embattled in dreams as she was in the waking world.

“Isamura?” said Caroline as she roused. She waved a hand at the bedside, and a soft glow illuminated the room.

“You were expecting someone else?”

“No. I mean yes. I-” Caroline started, then cut herself off with a resigned sigh. “I’m not going to get used to sharing my bed with you any time soon,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

“Well I could always go,” Isamura teased, her eyes lighting up mischievously.

“I don’t want you to go,” Caroline replied, brushing her cheek affectionately. “But… I keep thinking about Wilma. I feel like I’ve made a horrible mistake, one I will never be able to fix.”

“No matter what mistakes you feel you have made, you are not a horrible person, Caroline,” Isamura reassured her. “I don’t regret having been here to comfort you, to hold you, make love to you. Wilma is lucky to have taken a woman such as yourself to be hers. You will be hers again when you find a way home.”

“I hope so,” Caroline said, doubt clouding her eyes. “I hope there is a way home after all that we’ve endured.”

Isamura hugged her tightly and whispered reassurances in her ear. “Whatever we endure, I will always love you.”

Abruptly the lights in Caroline’s quarters died. “Now what’s gone wrong?” she muttered, blindly groping for the comm unit. Though she was sure she thumbed it on, there was nothing, not even an error beep about being unable to establish communications.

Even if she’d had tools and some light, she didn’t think she could make the comm unit work anyway. The Orion’s internal communications system relied on signal processors and repeaters designed to overcome interference from the artificial gravity grid, which ran under almost every deck. Without power, it was impossible to get a comm signal even to the next compartment.

“Great, just great,” she sighed, “I swear this ship hates me or something.”

Caroline slid out of bed and cautiously edged toward the dressing table, her toes rustling discarded clothing on the way. She found it when her knee thumped into a drawer handle, and cursed under her breath.

Opening the top drawer and raking inside, she pulled out an emergency light and clicked it on, blinking her eyes for a few moments as it cast an orange glow around the room.

Isamura smiled at her, eyes lit with amusement. “You look wonderful like that, Caroline.”

“Like… oh,” Caroline said, realising that the light was illuminating her naked form like a fiercely orange sunset. “Thanks, Isamura. I’m glad you approve,” she said with a smirk and a hand on her hip.

She turned and walked over to the connecting door, checking the panel to see if they could leave. It was dead, and no amount of prodding would coax the door to open.

Caroline sighed and padded back, meeting Isamura’s sympathetic gaze with a half-smile. She set the emergency light on the bedside and slipped back under the covers. “Looks like we’re stuck here for a while,” she remarked, thinking at the moment that being stuck here was not so bad.

“I can think of worse places to be.” Isamura smiled and tugged Caroline closer, kissing her lips.

Caroline reveled again in the sensation of those lips pressed to hers. She caressed Isamura’s cheek and her fingertips were tickled by strands of hair falling onto Isamura’s face.

Isamura filled an aching hole in her life. When the dimensional portal to her own universe had been damaged in the Siphen attack, Caroline had feared that she would never again return home, to Earth and her family. She had felt despair after the battle had been won and the adrenaline wore off, leaving her tired and depressed.

Isamura had comforted her, listened sympathetically as Caroline confided her fear, and had given her lots of reasons to keep going. She had inspired Caroline to rise to the challenge and seek out the knowledge they needed to return home.

Caroline’s fondness for Isamura had grown as they spent more time together. Their impulsive first kiss had not been too much of a surprise, although it had been a revelation of sorts for Caroline.

Now, even though those lips felt familiar against hers, Caroline was excited by them. Her skin tingled as Isamura’s fingers stroked her in return.

“I’m glad I have you next to me,” she said, smiling between kisses. “It feels like it’s getting cold in here.”

“I will just have to warm you up then,” Isamura replied with a smirk, wrapping her arms around Caroline and planting unhurried kisses on her cheek, neck and shoulder.

Caroline liked the feeling of Isamura’s lips grazing and then pressing against her skin. After so much time staying faithful and abstaining from sex, she savoured even the smallest sensation and her appetite seemed insatiable.

She supposed that in a way, she was afraid of going back to a life without sex. Functioning as a normal human being without it seemed ridiculous.

So in a shaky voice she said three little words to Isamura: “I need you.”

Erica held up a lamp as she trudged through Orion’s darkened corridors. Behind her she heard the faint scuffing of boots as her team of engineers emerged from the access tube to begin work and evacuate people to unaffected parts of the ship.

It had been thirty minutes since the failure of the crystal processor which distributed power through this section. Without it, internal lighting and door controls, as well as any other crew conveniences that needed power, would not function. Life support was running on backup power.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, power for the ship’s main systems was usually routed through this section. Power had been re-routed to those systems through the remaining two crystal processors, but with only two-thirds of the usual power available, and none of it in the section Erica was moving through.

The exception to this was the artificial gravity, which had its own power distribution systems. Erica was glad of this, since trooping through the ship in an environment suit and magnetic boots would have made her progress even slower.

Finally, she reached the captain’s quarters. She removed an access panel next to the door and plugged in a portable power unit to manually cycle the doors open.

“Hello?” she called out as she stepped inside. The lamp illuminated a wide cone of the living area as Erica searched methodically, but Caroline was nowhere to be found. So she walked through to the study, calling out again, but the captain had apparently finished her administrative tasks early and tidied her desk.

Erica tried the fresher (the nickname for a shipboard bathroom) but only found fresh towels and a faint scent of shampoo. So it was likely that the captain had taken a shower, replaced the towels, and turned in for the night.

Upon activating the controls for the bedroom door, Erica hesitated for a moment at the prospect of waking the captain and telling her the bad news. She figured though that it was best to get a gruff lecture now rather than later on, and opened the door.

The orange glow of an emergency light illuminated the bedroom. Caroline and Isamura were sitting up on the bed, tenderly kissing. The bed covers were loosely gathered at waist height. As the door opened, they turned to look at Erica.

Erica averted her eyes. “Sorry,” she apologised.

She hadn’t realised this – that Caroline and Isamura were involved. It hadn’t crossed her mind when she had seen them together, so it came as a surprise.

She managed to regain enough of her wits to add, “You had better get dressed and come with me. The severity of the power outage means this whole section is being evacuated.” The light was still spilling out through the door into the living area, casting a long shadow of Erica as she turned and stood in the doorway.

“What happened?” Caroline asked.

“One of the crystal processors failed. I’ve been able to reroute power for weapons and shields but I wouldn’t like to test them in battle,” Erica reported.

“So we’ve no replacements or spares then?”

“No, Captain.”

“This ship does hate me,” Caroline muttered behind her.

Confused by that statement, Erica prompted her. “Captain?”

“Never mind.” Finished dressing, Caroline prodded Erica forward. “Let’s go. Oh and Erica?”

“Yes, Captain?” Erica half-turned as she walked, making eye contact with Caroline and Isamura.

“I’m not quite ready for everyone to know… about us,” Caroline said, smiling at Isamura and holding her hand. “Can you keep quiet about it for now?”

“Sure,” Erica said, smirking a little as she appraised them, “but if you keep holding hands like that, tongues are going to wag.”

“I like being your mystery lover,” Isamura put in with a grin, “but she has a point. One little display of affection from you and the secret is out.”

“All right,” Caroline conceded with a shrug. “After this power outage is dealt with, I’ll make it known. But I don’t expect everyone to be happy about it.”

Erica escorted them to the access tube and gave them directions to reach the next section.

“Erica, when you’re finished with the evacuation, come to the briefing room and we’ll get started figuring out how to fix this,” Caroline said as she climbed into the tube.

“Aye, Captain.”

There was someone in particular that she wanted to evacuate next, although strictly speaking they were in the next occupied quarters on this level. Erica raised her lamp and started down the corridor again, shivering as the cold started to bite.

Erica stopped outside the door to Tegan’s quarters and mentally prepared herself.

Since coming aboard the Orion, the chief security officer had tended to spend many of her off-duty hours alone, having no friends to speak of. Erica had worried about her, and even requested time off specifically so that she could keep Tegan company, usually over dinner. Before meeting Tegan, Erica had spent much of her downtime reading, hadn’t known what she was missing.

Erica enjoyed the time they spent together and had never laughed with anyone as much as she did when she was with Tegan. As much as she tried to control her feelings and keep things platonic, she felt wonderful when she was in the same room. She was undeniably attracted to her friend, but their dinners together hadn’t resulted in anything more than friendship, because she was afraid that her feelings wouldn’t be returned.

Tegan was difficult to read.

Not that Erica was any kind of expert at reading people, but she had noticed that when Tegan let her guard down, she was flirty and sometimes suggestive.  But when Erica read it as a signal and responded, Tegan seemed to withdraw back behind her wall.

It felt little weird to be breaking into Tegan’s quarters, but technically Erica was rescuing her from freezing and suffocating, so that thought spurred her on.

Tegan was asleep in bed, and it took some yelling and poking to rouse her.

“All right, Erica, all right. What’s the big emergency?” Tegan asked, rubbing her eyes and squinting in the light of Erica’s lamp.

“The power’s out in this section. Lights, life support, everything.  Got to move everyone out of here.  Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“It’s freezing!” Tegan said as she slid out of bed.  She padded over to the wardrobe, her eyes still trying to accustom themselves to the light. “So, where can I get under a working fresher then?” she asked.

“Uh… you’ll just have to use one in someone else’s quarters where there’s power. Sorry,” Erica said, averting her gaze for the second time that day.  “Just throw on some clothes and I’ll show you the quickest way out of here.”

Tegan pulled a fresh uniform from the wardrobe and changed swiftly.  “I’m not that hideous, surely,” she remarked to Erica.

“No no, I just think I’ve reached my quota of naked people for one day,” Erica said.

“Well, not naked now.”  Tegan smiled at Erica as she straightened out the uniform jacket.  She thought that the chief engineer was cute, turning her head away to avoid staring.

“Your hair is still a little…” Erica started, pointing with a finger, then she shrugged.

Tegan’s hair didn’t really respond to being brushed down.  It laughed in the face of hair spray.  It rebelled against all attempts to style it into something other than sticking up proudly.  So to avoid having it look like an ever-growing brush, she kept it fairly short.

In response to Erica’s half-suggestion, Tegan casually ran a hand over her head, resulting in a sort of uniform direction to her hair, but that was the limit of its co-operation today.

“Looking good,” Erica said, grinning.  “Come on, let’s go before we catch cold.”

They left Tegan’s quarters and hurried back.  By now, the evacuation was fully underway and people were lined up to exit using the access ladders.

“So who else was sleeping naked then?” Tegan asked curiously as they waited their turn.

“I can’t tell you.  They asked me not to talk about it.”  Actually, that wasn’t strictly true, but if Erica said any more, Tegan would be able to put two and two together, if she hadn’t done so already.

“Fine.  I’ll just pick someone at random and use my imagination.”

“You do that.  I’m trying hard not to.”

“Well it’s got to be someone older then.  Older but still looking good.”

“I’m not telling you.”

“I’m warm, aren’t I?  Ha!”  Tegan rubbed her hands, which were most decidedly cold.

“Let’s just say, you wouldn’t guess in a hundred tries, and leave it at that,” Erica suggested.

“Okay.  Well, here I go,” Tegan said, climbing down the ladder.

Erica checked with the other engineers.  They had made considerably better time than she had, so everyone in this section was accounted for.

Just to be safe, they re-checked the tally before joining the evacuees and closing the hatches.

Erica got to the briefing just as it was starting. Caroline had apparently invited Isamura along to observe, as she was seated with the senior staff. The captain was talking with Dr. Andrea MacNeil, who was on the viewer.

“Dr. MacNeil, have you been able to find anything in the city records on crystal processors?”

“Aye, Captain, I have,” Andrea responded. “The crystals can be grown to specification in a laboratory here in the city. Unfortunately there are none on hand, we’ll have to make them from scratch.”

“How long will that take?”

“Six weeks, Captain.”

“Is there any way the process can be accelerated?”

“I can’t say for certain, but the records indicate a specific time scale for this process. If I were to interfere with it, who knows what damage it might do to the equipment. On the plus side, we can make several of them at once, that will keep the ship going with replacements as long as we’re here.”

“Then you had better get started. Call me if you run into any problems.”

“Aye Captain.”

Caroline turned her gaze to the new arrival. “Erica, good job with the evacuation. Is there anything else you can tell us about the crystals?”

“They’re complex and organised structures designed to harness the raw energy of the ship’s reactor, and process it into a safe form that can be fed into the conduits. Over a long period of time or under frequent stress, the passage of energy damages the crystals. They have a certain amount of internal redundancy, but they don’t last forever.”

“So this happened as a result of the battle?”

“Possibly. We don’t know how long the ship was in service before it was abandoned.  The dampening beam used by the Siphen caused a lot of power bleeding before we got it under control. Whatever the cause, we can’t afford to put too much stress on the remaining two crystals, and who knows what could happen in the next six weeks. We have to find a replacement.”

“I know a trader who deals in precious crystals,” Isamura suggested, “she might be able to find one.”

“This trader, is she reliable?”

“Yes, but she’s not going to just give us what we need. We’ll need to bring something equally valuable in trade. A collection of your medicines might be acceptable, for instance.”

“Dr. Macaude, can we spare any medicines to make this trade happen?”

“Yes, Captain. It will leave us with a diminished stock for future use, though. We will need to resupply in six months to a year, depending on how much we trade away.”

“Very well. Put together a collection to take with us to this trader. With luck, we’ll find a way to get back home before we run out of medicine. Tegan, meet me in the shuttle bay with a security team. Erica, Doctor, you’ll accompany us,” Caroline ordered. “Isamura… you know where we’re going, I’d like to ask you along as our guide.”

“Very well, I accept.”

“Captain, shouldn’t I be leading the away team?” Paul asked.

“You should. But one of us has to stay with the ship, and you can’t fly the shuttle.”

“If you don’t make it back, what are you orders?”

“Evacuate the city and then take the ship through one of the gates to search for a way home.”

“Aye, Captain. Good luck on your mission.”

The team met in the shuttle bay and loaded supplies onto the shuttle. Caroline and Isamura sat in the cockpit doing preflight checks, while everyone else occupied the rear compartment.

Concentrating for a moment, Caroline brought the shuttle’s engines online and ran through the final checklist, activating the comm when she was done.

“Trueman to bridge, requesting clearance to depart.”

“You’re clear to depart, Captain. Opening shuttle bay doors.”

The doors slid open, the ship’s atmosphere now held in just by a forcefield, and Caroline eased the shuttle off the deck and through the opening, setting a course for the planet below.

She stole a glance at Isamura, who was sitting in the co-pilot seat.  She loved that stylish two-piece outfit of hers, practical for an away mission yet sexy. It left the shoulders and arms free from constraint.

“I hope you don’t think it’s weird, me not wanting people to know about us.” Caroline said as they descended through the atmosphere.

“No, of course not,” Isamura said with a shrug, “unless you think it is.”

“No.  Like I said, people may not be thrilled to find out.  I think Rhona may take it the hardest.”

“Why would she?”

Caroline shrugged.  “Rhona and I go way back.  We’re best friends.  For me to not tell her about something like this, well I think she will be offended that I couldn’t come and talk to her.”

“So why don’t you tell her?”

“Oh.  Well it would be weird for a start.  Rhona has actually met my wife.  She likes her.  If I tell her about us, I don’t even know that she would understand or forgive me.”

“But she wants you to be happy, doesn’t she?”

“Of course!  But it’s not that simple.  We’ve both given up time with our loved ones so that we could do what we do best – explore strange new worlds.  And now, strange new universes.”

“She is still your friend though, isn’t she?  Suppose that she was seeing someone, wouldn’t you want her to tell you about it?” Isamura asked.

“I don’t know.  I would want her to be able to confide in me, but I’m not sure what I would think about it,” Caroline said.  “I’d understand why, at least.”

“Perhaps she too will be an understanding friend,” Isamura suggested.

“I hope so.”

“She might be even more understanding if you set her up with someone.”

Caroline stared at Isamura, surprised by the boldness of that suggestion.  “You can’t actually be serious,” she said.

“Why not?”

With a sigh, Caroline explained, “I’m not really any good at matchmaking.”

“Well, maybe you don’t have to look very far to find a suitable match,” Isamura said cryptically.

“What does that mean?”

Isamura laughed and shook her head slowly.  “You said it yourself, Caroline, you and Rhona are best friends.  It is not much of a leap from there to a more amorous relationship.”

“I don’t feel that way about Rhona.”

“Until recently though, you have considered her to be just a friend because you would not entertain the thought of any romantic entanglements.  Perhaps you have got used to suppressing the feelings.”

“I think you’re seeing something that isn’t there,” Caroline answered with a shrug.

The shuttle descended through the ceiling hatch into the city’s portal room and hovered there, waiting.

“All right we’re here, now what?”

Isamura rested her hand on the dimensional portal interface and punched in the sequence that would open a portal to her own world. It had been some time since she’d been there and she wondered how things might have changed.

In front of them, the alien machinery engaged and a dimensional rift formed in front of them, large enough to accomodate the shuttle and its occupants.

“Here we go then,” Caroline muttered, easing the shuttle forward into the portal, bracing herself for the jarring sensation of finding herself in another place.

The enveloping glow of the portal was replaced by a grassy clearing and sunny skies. Caroline breathed easy as she took the shuttle into a short climb.

“I’m engaging stealth mode,” she said. The shuttle vanished from sight as they reached a comfortable altitude and levelled off.

“Here, I’ll show you where we need to go,” Isamura said, operating the navigation console and overlaying their destination on the heads-up display.

As she gazed at the blinking red dot, Caroline felt their shuttle turn and accelerate, anticipating her desire to fly there. She glanced sideways at Isamura and smiled uneasily. Even though she had flown it before, Caroline found the neural interface a bit unsettling. That nagging feeling of not being in complete control made her palms sweaty, even though she was barely gripping the control sticks. She tried to calm herself with a few cleansing breaths as she watched the green hills and trees pass under her.

“You seem to know those controls better than me,” she commented.

“They are similar to the controls in the city.  I learned those quite literally in my sleep.”

“Right. That… of course that makes sense,” Caroline said hesitantly.

Isamura smiled faintly. Caroline had a way of stumbling over her words when the two of them were close and she found it to be an endearing quirk.

“Caroline, am I making you nervous?”

“No, not really.”  Caroline glanced at Isamura and smiled.  “The neural interface is weird.  It doesn’t seem to require much conscious effort, but sometimes it’s like I’m off in a world of my own,” she added by way of explanation.

“Mm, it sounds like an intriguing paradox.”

“Not really.  If I actually had to consciously think of every step or check required to fly this shuttle, I wouldn’t be able to fly more than a couple of feet before crashing.  Dr. MacNeil says that while I’m piloting, those little things are handled by some clever feedback and adjustment, so all I have to consciously do is pick a direction to go in.”

“Well, she would know.”

“Looks like we’re almost there,” Caroline noted, changing the subject. “Shall I set her down somewhere nearby?”

“We should land in one of the clearings in the woods near the town. Some of the people here have the means to detect things which are hidden,” Isamura suggested, referring to the invisibility screen.  “Best not to get too close.”

“All right.”

Isamura’s gaze was drawn to Caroline’s hands as the dexterous fingers flexed around the controls. She recalled fondly how when they made love, it was her shoulders and arms that were first to feel the caress of those hands. She was excited by the thought of feeling their touch again.

The shuttle’s course adjusted as Caroline brought it in for a landing.

“So when are you going to teach me how to fly one of these?” Isamura asked.

“Soon. Really, now that I’m the only one who knows how to fly it, I haven’t had much time to teach anyone else,” Caroline said. “It might take a few hours to get you to the point where you can actually pilot with some skill. But it’s a very forgiving craft.”

“The only craft I have ever steered rode over the waves, not through the air.”

“It’s not so different, except you have to worry about steering towards the sky or the ground,” Caroline said half-smiling.

Isamura watched closely as Caroline landed the shuttle, but even with Caroline explaining the procedure she wasn’t convinced that she could learn to fly the shuttle in a few hours, never mind land it.  There were some things that even a dream state linked to an alien city’s computer could not teach her.

After being cooped up in the shuttle for an hour, everyone on the team was glad to get out and stretch their legs.

“We’re going to check out the town up ahead and try to find a trader who deals in precious crystals, the kind the ship’s power distribution system uses,” Caroline explained for the benefit of anyone who hadn’t caught the gist of the briefing. “We don’t know for sure if this trader has what we’re looking for. In case she doesn’t we might be here a while, so try not to piss off the natives.”

“Be assured, they will not threaten you so long as I’m at your side,” Isamura added.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Around these parts, I am known for my heroic deeds and accomplishments.”

“So, should we expect a crowd of well-wishers then?”

“It has been a while since I passed through. Maybe not.”

They all continued on foot, reaching the town’s outskirts. Isamura stopped to converse with one the sentries, and after a minute of earnest discussion she waved Caroline over.

“Greetings,” the sentry said as she approached, “I’m told that you’re the leader of this group.”

“That’s right.”

“I would rather that you didn’t walk around with armed guards,” he said frankly, indicating Tegan and her security team. “We’re short of men, and we don’t have enough to watch you and protect the gates. You can go in, but they have to disarm before I’ll let them past.”

“At least one of them needs to remain armed and on watch near this gate. If there’s trouble coming to this town, I want some advance warning.”

“Very well. Welcome to Dezhac.”

“Rhona. Stay here and hold the gate,” Caroline ordered. “Rest of you, with me, but leave your weapons. We’ll pick them up on our way out.”

As the security detail reluctantly turned over their weapons, the rest of the team advanced into the town itself. There were no people on the main street, but from several windows frightened faces could be seen peering out at the outsiders.

“It is not us they are fearful of,” Isamura told the others as they continued along the thoroughfare. “Several days ago, a party of orcs waylaid a caravan, and staged a surprise attack on the town. Ten of the guardsmen were killed and more were injured before they could be driven off.”

“Should we expect another attack?” Tegan asked.

“Yes. But the other town gates have been closed and sentries are watching every approach. There is little chance of another assault going unnoticed.”

“All the same, I’d rather have my weapon close at hand than locked away.”

“I understand your concerns and I will keep an eye out for trouble,” Isamura assured her, patting the sheathed blade at her side.

“I noticed that you didn’t have to turn your weapons in. Why’s that?”

“I told you, I am known around these parts. In fact the sentry at the gate is someone I know well.”

“How do you know him?” Caroline asked curiously.

“I rescued him from captivity, along with a number of other townspeople. Such deeds are not quickly forgotten.”

“I’m going to be hearing that answer a lot, aren’t I?”

“I have a lot of experience with daring rescues, yes,” Isamura remarked.

At last they arrived at the trader’s shop. It was a well-kept establishment in the centre of town, with a sign that simply read, Seeble’s Goods. Written in white chalk by the door was a notice that read, Missing person! Inquire within.

“This the place?” Caroline asked.

“Yes. It’s just how I remember it,” Isamura said.

“Well, we don’t all need to go in,” Caroline said, peering in the window and thinking that it would get rather crowded if they all trooped inside. “Erica, Isamura, you’re with me, everyone else, take five minutes and… sun yourselves or something.”

Caroline pushed the door open and a tinkling bell announced them to a young woman standing behind the counter, who seemed pleased to see them.

“Good afternoon!” she greeted them. “What can I get for you fine people?”

Caroline cleared her throat and glanced at Isamura. “We’re looking for a trader.”

“I deal in all sorts of goods. What you see here on display is just a selection.”

Isamura gazed at her curiously then asked, “We’re actually looking for a trader by the name of Varah Seeble. This is her shop, or I suppose it used to be.”

The woman looked crestfallen. “I’m terribly sorry. The woman you’re looking for, she passed away a few years ago. She was my mother.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Isamura replied. “Then you must be… Meg?”

“Yes I am… do I know you? You look somewhat familiar.”

“It’s Isamura,” she filled in helpfully, then added, “I’m afraid you might not remember, you were just a young girl then. You’ve really grown up!”

“I remember!” Meg said, her eyes lighting up with recognition. “There was one night, oh it was so long ago… you told a story at my bedside. You know, the one about the princess locked away in the tower?”

Isamura smiled. “Meg, I hate to cut short the reminiscing, but these friends of mine need some help acquiring a rare crystal. They’ve brought some medicines to trade with, if you have what they’re looking for.”

Erica produced an image of the crystal on the slim tablet she’d brought with her. “It looks like this,” she said, tapping at the display.

“I would love to help,” Meg said as she studied the image. She frowned and directed her gaze back at Isamura. “I know someone who usually comes by with rare finds like this, but I haven’t heard from her since the orc attack. She’s usually in here every other day and I’m worried she may have been kidnapped.”

“Is that the missing person from your notice out front?”

“Yes it is.”

“Do you have any idea where she might have been headed?” Caroline asked.

“Last time that Julienne was in, she said she was going to explore some caves to the north. I warned her against it, because apart from the chance of being waylaid by orcs along the way, there’s a rumour that the caves are haunted. Or maybe something terrible makes its lair there.”

“And you still let her go?”

“Oh, she wouldn’t listen. She said that if I wasn’t so tied down by the shop, she would ask me to come along. Imagine it, really, me going off to some caves! Anyway, I had a word with the city guards after she left, but they can’t spare anyone to go looking for her.”

“How many days ago did you see her?” Caroline asked.

“Five days now.”

“Do you know if she had enough food and supplies to last that long?”

“If she still has her pack, then I think so. She may be pig-headed but in all the time I’ve known her she always heads out prepared for these escapades.”

“We will find her,” Isamura promised.

As they left the shop and rejoined the others Erica suggested, “Captain, I was thinking that we could cover more ground if you return to the shuttle and do a flyby of the caves.”

“Hmm. As much as I hate to split the team up, you’ve got a point, Erica,” Caroline agreed. “Time is a critical factor here.”

Caroline quickly brought the rest of her team up to speed, delegating command of the ground search to Tegan.

“Erica, you’ll be joining me on the shuttle. Isamura, you know the terrain better than anyone, so I’d appreciate it if you could help the ground team.”

“Of course.”

“That’s it then. Let’s get to it before nightfall, we’ve a lot of ground to cover.”

They walked back briskly to the town gates to pick up their weapons. Isamura mentioned to the sentry that they were going to look for the missing woman, and he wished them good luck.

“Did I hear we’re going on search and rescue?” Rhona asked as she formed up with the search team.

“That’s right,” Tegan said. “Local woman by the name of Julienne. She’s the sort that ventures into dark caves and finds lost treasures. It’s the only lead we’ve got so we’re following it up.”

“It beats standing around here on guard,” Rhona muttered, out of earshot of the sentries. “It’s not the duty so much as the staring,” she added by way of explanation.

“Better get used to it. We could be visiting worlds much like these for a while to come.”

“It’s not so bad. The air’s fresher than on that flying death trap.”

Tegan laughed. “Yes. I wish we could bottle it up and take it back with us.”

Caroline opened the rear hatch on the shuttle using her remote, taking a step back for a moment as it swung down revealing the interior. Then she entered and made her way to the cockpit with Erica following.

During the walk back, they had discussed the best flight path for the search, Erica manipulating the holographic map and finding good sight lines for a visual search.  While the shuttle could detect life signs on the ground, it couldn’t magically tell them what they looked like.

“So what’s Isamura like?” Erica asked curiously.

“Um, what?”

“You know.  Why does she make you happy?” Erica prompted.

Caroline leaned back in the pilot’s chair, thinking.  Eventually she replied, “Let’s get this bird in the air first and then I’ll tell you about her.”

“Great.  Can’t wait.”  Erica strapped herself in and gave a thumbs-up.

Caroline settled into the pilot’s seat and closed her eyes for a moment, concentrating on starting up the shuttle. The control panels lit up and the heads-up display plotted a flight path around the town and out to the caves in the north. Resting her hands on the controls, Caroline watched the ground and the surrounding trees fall away as the shuttle slowly lifted off.

“And we’re away,” she said with a breath of relief and confidence.

Seated in the co-pilot’s chair, Erica scrutinised the display and the controls without daring to touch anything. “This looks really complicated,” she remarked.

“It isn’t. Well, not for me, the neural link makes it almost effortless to fly.  If Isamura can learn the controls of this thing, I’m pretty sure you can too.”

“About Isamura… why did you get entangled with her?”

“Loneliness.  Despair.  Constantly thinking about never seeing my wife again.  Isamura was there to comfort me when I was feeling really low.  She makes me feel alive again.  Which is great – if I’m depressed I’m no good to anyone.”

“You love her, I can tell.”

“I do. But I can’t get too attached to having her around. Let’s say we do find another way home, it’s not like I can take her with me.  She has her own life to lead, and I have mine.”

“Suppose, just for talking’s sake, that we don’t find a way home. Would you like her to be around in the long-term?” Erica asked.

“I’m not sure.  I hadn’t really thought about it.  I’m not sure that Isamura would be content to settle down in the long-term.  She seems like the type to move on and find someone new in her travels.”

“Well then, in that situation maybe you’d just have to find someone else.”

“Funny that you mention it.  On the way here, Isamura seemed sure that I should explore a relationship with Rhona.  I said it would be weird.”

“Well it would.  The two of you are so close you’re practically sisters.”

“So do you have a more suitable choice in mind then?”

“Oh.  Well I would volunteer in a heartbeat but I have my sights set on someone else.”

Caroline laughed.  “Well, thanks for thinking about me at least.  You know, you remind me of someone I used to date.”

“Oh really?  Who’s that then?”

“Her name was Vanessa,” Caroline recalled fondly.  “She was my roommate, back when I was a student.  She had hair just like yours, and she also had a bit of knack for holographics.”

“What sort of holos?”

“Manipulations.  You know, a holo of me if I was a freckled redhead, for instance.”

“Very artistic.  So what ever happened to Vanessa?”

“I… messed up.  I felt tied down and took her for granted.  Then I slept with her friend.  She was really disappointed in me.”

Erica frowned.  “That was not the happy ending I had envisioned.  Oh well.  You live and learn, right?”

“You would think so, wouldn’t you?”

“Wait… what do you mean?  You didn’t learn anything from that?”

“Sure I did.  I vowed to myself never to do it again.  I met someone a few months after that, her name was Miranda.  I thought I had finally met someone on my wavelength, but instead it turns out that we drove each other crazy, arguing and fighting over… well, trivial things.  So then you can guess what happened to end that relationship.”

“So how long have you been married then?”

“About ten years now.”

“You must really love your wife, then.  I mean, to go without seeing her for months at a time.”

“I do.  But if I do manage to find my way back to her, I’m not sure she will take me back.”

“Does she know about your past relationships and how they ended.”

“Of course.  She was one of my flings.”

“Well if she knew that and still married you, don’t you think she has it in her heart to forgive you?”

“That’s the part I’m not sure about.”

“Oh.  Maybe you should have someone with you when you go.  You know, so you don’t screw it up.”

Caroline glanced at Erica and rolled her eyes.  “Thanks for the pep talk.”

“No, really.  You’re not good at being alone, Caroline.  You should have someone to stick up for you.  I mean it.”

“Well, thanks.  If and when we ever get back home, I may just do that.  So, why the questions all of a sudden, anyway?”

“You could say that I have my own tangle to sort out,” Erica admitted.

Caroline laughed and shook her head slowly. “Is it Tegan then?”

Erica cringed, putting a hand to her head. “Is it that obvious?”

“Everyone knows that you’ve been having dinner with her. Some have suggested that you two are more than just good friends.”

“Well we are just good friends.  For now, at least.”

“What’s the hold-up there, then?”

“I like Tegan a lot, and I enjoy spending time with her. And I am really crazy about her. I’m just… every time I feel like I’m getting close, she backs off and I feel sort of stupid.”

“Just tell her how you feel.”

“That’s just it, I don’t know if I’m just crushing on her or if it’s something more.  I’ve never dated anyone before.  I’m too scared to tell her in case she laughs at me.”

“Let me get this straight.  You’ve made it all the way to Lieutenant Commander in the Expeditionary Fleet and you’ve never been on a date?”

“Nope.”

“Do you want me to ask her for you?”

“No!  Really, I just… I need some kind of sign that she’s into me too.”

“Well, maybe she doesn’t want to give you a sign.  Did you ever think maybe she has her own problems to deal with before she can get romantic?”

“Um, I guess not.  I should have thought of that.”

“Oh, Erica.  You said it yourself, you’re a novice at dating.  So don’t blame yourself for things you couldn’t possibly have imagined could be wrong.”

“So what do I do?” Erica asked.

“Erica, you’re in a far better position than anyone to do this.  You’ve won her friendship, but you need to build some trust between you before she will confide something that, from the sound of it, makes her afraid of opening her heart to someone.”

“That does make sense.  I mean, I keep trying to move things to the next level but I think she really has to be the one to do that.  When she’s ready.”

“See?  Not so hard after all.”

“It looks like we’re coming up on the caves,” Erica said, pointing ahead.

“All right I’m going to circle around, get a good look at the terrain,” Caroline said, slowing their approach and banking the shuttle to port.

An overlay on the heads-up display appeared, showing a collection of white blobs superimposed on the terrain below them. “Life signs on the ground, inside and outside the caves,” Caroline noted as she glanced at the display.

“I don’t like this,” Erica said, also studying the display, watching as they slowly moved around.

“Don’t worry, so long as we’re in stealth mode-” Caroline started to say, interrupted by a warning beep. “Oh shit… invisibility screen just went down.  Going evasive!”

The shuttle shot away to the north.  Now that it was visible, the life forms on the ground took notice and attacked.  The arrows were too slow to catch it, but several brilliant fireballs rose and pursued. Despite several evasive manoeuvres, they kept gaining on the shuttle.

“Weapons active. Erica, you should see two flashing panels,” Caroline said as she tried to throw the missiles off with another sharp turn. “I need you to lay down point defence fire behind us.”

“I see them,” Erica replied in a shaky voice, fingers touching the controls, eyes glued to the heads-up display.

The shuttle’s rear weapons rapidly spat out bright bolts of plasma into the path of of the projectiles. They exploded when struck, each time with enough force to jolt the shuttle.

Caroline thumbed the comm on. “Brown, this is Trueman, we’re taking fire here, I repeat we’re taking fire.”

“We can see the light show over here. On our way.”

“Watch yourself down there,” Caroline warned her, frowning as she realised that they were still not out of trouble.

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.

“Erica?”

“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.”

“Who, Vanessa?”

“Yup.”

“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.”

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.”

“What?”

“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.

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.

Rhona retrieved some ration bars from inside the shuttle and passed them out to the rest of the team.  She stopped by Isamura’s side and pressed one of the nutritious snacks into her hand.

Isamura looked at her and waved the bar from side to side without opening it.  “What’s this?” she asked.

“Ration bar.  You look like you could use something to get your strength back.”

Isamura tore open the wrapper, sniffed at the bar and bit into it.  After chewing for a few moments she commented sourly, “I cannot seem to taste this… whatever it is.”

“It has all the nutrients a grown woman needs to survive,” Caroline said with a glance to the side and a half-smile.

“It lacks flavour,” Isamura complained.

“It’s not like I can just wave my hands and conjure up some pheasant and blueberry sauce.”  Caroline laughed and shook her head.  “How did you think we were going to eat while we were out here, trap wild game, fish in a river, that sort of thing?”

“I enjoy fishing.”

“Well maybe when we’re not pressed for time we’ll go fishing,” Caroline suggested.

When everyone had finished eating, Caroline stood up, brushed herself off and addressed the group.

“Something’s been bugging me ever since the shuttle was attacked.  Isamura, you said that it’s possible for the invisibility screen to be breached, right?”

“If the proper magic is used, it is possible to see the unseen, yes.”

“Fair enough.  How would they have known to use it though?  In advance of us arriving, I mean.”

Isamura shook her head slowly.  “There are those who can see events that have yet to transpire, but they are few in number.  I have never heard of an orc who possessed such a gift.”

“So someone told these orcs that we would be coming,” Caroline concluded, folding her arms and frowning.

“You believe that we were sent into this ambush by Meg?”

Caroline nodded.  “It had crossed my mind, yes.”

Rhona put her hands on her hips and gave a low sigh of frustration.  “If what she told us is all made up to get us killed, then we’ll be no closer to finding a crystal than when we first came here.”

“If that is the case then I am truly sorry,” Isamura replied.  “Many things have changed since I last visited this place.  It may be that we cannot trust Meg, or any of the town’s inhabitants.”

“It was odd that we hardly saw any of them, except behind the windows.  The streets were… deserted,” Rhona said, feeling annoyed with herself for not pointing out the strangeness sooner.

“I suppose that we were too focused on what we wanted, to see what was really going on,” Caroline admitted.  “But at least we’re still alive.  We can find out what Meg’s involvement is in all of this.”

“Sure, let’s go walk into the nest of vipers and see how else they can lead us to our doom,” Macaude said sarcastically.

“I do not believe that would be wise,” Isamura said.

“I was thinking more along the lines of sneaking in when the watch changes,” Caroline suggested.

“It’s possible,” Rhona said with a nod.  “When I was standing watch, I noticed there were a few blind spots that could be used to get past the guards.  Caroline, what if Meg proves to be uncooperative?”

Caroline thought about it, her eyebrows drawing together worriedly as she considered that possibility.  “If it becomes necessary, we’ll secure her and try to make our way out of the town without drawing too much attention.”

Isamura seemed to disapprove of kidnapping her friend’s daughter, but she could not deny that Meg could have lied to them, if indeed that was who she was.  “Very well,” she agreed grudgingly.

“Well, we have some time until sunset so I suggest everyone get a little rest,” Caroline said.

The away team broke out some of the blankets and ration packs and prepared to bed down until nightfall.  Caroline slouched on a seat inside the shuttle, stretching her legs out in front of her.

Isamura sat next to her, affording a smile and a reassuring pat on the arm.

Caroline turned to Isamura, taking the woman’s hands in her own and giving them an affectionate squeeze as she gazed longingly into those brilliant green irises that were like mirrors of her own, with subtle differences in pigmentation.

“I love you,” she breathed, and leaned in to softly capture Isamura’s lips with her own, feeling a passion rekindled, her heart racing like a lovesick teenager.  She felt Isamura respond, with lips caressing and her body inclining toward Caroline so that their joined hands were squashed in between.

There was no hurried rush to have Isamura’s tongue in her mouth, no frantic stroking or sucking of lips, no hands rumpling or pulling at clothes, there was time for a slow and sensual build-up.  At least it seemed to Caroline that they were taking the time.

When their lips had teased and caressed each other they sought out new places to arouse, not too far mind you, just as far as the chin and jaw.  If Caroline’s heart was racing before, now it surely ached as they danced around the inevitable embrace.

But as Caroline tried to intensify the kiss, she found instead that Isamura pushed her away.  No wait… not away, just back.  Backward, and down onto the seat, with Isamura slowly following her down until Caroline’s head was cushioned against the seat and Isamura was sprawled somewhat atop her.  Then Isamura kissed her warm and willing mouth, and she was glad of the support.

Caroline felt faint at the blistering sensation of their coupling mouths, and her body yearned for more than just contact with her lover.  She enfolded Isamura with one of her arms, rubbing at the firm back muscles that lay hidden under a layer of clothing.  There was nothing quite like the warm embrace of a beautiful woman.

So she was a little disorientated and disappointed when Isamura broke the passionate embrace and pulled her back up to a sitting position, giving her a wide smile.

Erica cleared her throat.  “Again?  Really?  I could be anyone, you know.”

Self-consciously, Caroline glanced over to the shuttle’s entry hatch, where Erica stood with a little smile.

“Sorry.  I thought everyone was going to sleep.”

“Ah, don’t worry about it.  You make kissing look beautiful,” Erica added.

Isamura wrapped an arm around and cuddled Caroline.

“So, not tired yet then?” Caroline asked.

“Not yet.”

“Well, there’s cards and board games stashed somewhere on board,” Caroline suggested.

“Thanks.”

Tegan appeared at the hatch shortly.  “Oh, there you are,” she said to Erica, who was rummaging through the supplies looking for something to pass the time.  Then she glanced over at Isamura and Caroline, who were still cuddling.

“What’s all this then?” she asked with a faint smirk.

“Oh.  Caroline and Isamura are in love,” Erica replied, looking up briefly at Tegan and then at what she was gazing at.  “Congratulations, you’re the second person to know.”

“I’m honoured,” Tegan replied dryly.

“Caroline wants to keep it a secret for now, but she took one look at me and just had to kiss me,” Isamura explained.

“It’s not going to be much of a secret for long then,” Tegan said, shaking her head with amusement.  Then she looked down again,   “Hey Erica, whatcha looking for?”

“A game or something.  Hey Caroline, would you mind if we hang out with you?” Erica asked.

“An excellent idea,” Isamura enthused.  ”We’re great company.  We could talk for a while, play games, oh and you could watch us make love, that would be a good way to pass the time.”

Caroline poked her with an elbow and cleared her throat.  “She’s joking.”

“That’s too bad, I’m not a big fan of board games,” said Tegan.

The four of them had eventually settled on a game called Star Tycoon to play until they were tired enough to close their eyes.

“Come on, Isamura, it’s your turn.”

“Indeed it is.  I’m thinking.”

Tegan laughed.  ”Thinking how to use your considerable wealth, I bet.”

“I was considering building a healing centre at each one of these outposts.”

Erica narrowed her eyes as she considered the state of play, particularly the three outposts labelled in red, owned by Isamura.  ”I see what you’re doing there.  If we stop at one of those outposts with an illness you get to charge us more credits for curing it.  Very crafty.”

“There’s nothing crafty about it,” Isamura said with a shrug.  ”Do you want to crawl around the board with one dice roll for movement because there isn’t any healing available?”

“No, I suppose not.”  Erica tapped her fingers on the board impatiently as Isamura set up the healing centres and paid the credits for them.  ”So what’s your motivation for having them then?”

“It is surprisingly simple.  If you move further each turn then you reach the start square and collect your earnings sooner.  And then you can pay them to me when you stop at one of my outposts.”

“You’ve created a monster, Caroline,” said Erica.

“It was you who suggested that we play Star Tycoon, I just explained the rules.”

“But you’ve been whispering in her ear the whole time!”

“I wasn’t helping her out, if that’s what you were implying,” Caroline said defensively.

Erica raised an eyebrow and turned her gaze on Isamura.  “What’s she been saying then?”

“Actually she was saying to watch you two closely for signs of sneaky co-operation.”

“But we haven’t been whispering at all,” Erica insisted.

“That’s what Caroline was warning me about.  You two have an unspoken bond,” Isamura said.

“Can we get back to the game?” Tegan asked.

Caroline looked around at them.  “It’s my turn, isn’t it?”

“All night,” Erica said, referring to both how long it took for Caroline to realise it was her turn to play, and for her to take her turns.

Caroline set up some new facilities on her outposts, which would increase her income and have other useful effects.  On the board, this simply meant placing coloured blocks.

As the game progressed Erica and Tegan traded in some of their armoury and factory buildings for research labs.  Their moves ended on outposts under Caroline’s control, but neither of them had any buildings so they paid only a basic landing fee.

Isamura spent a fair amount upgrading her outposts.  The others looked worried at this obvious build-up then they smirked as Isamura’s move landed her on one of Tegan’s prime outposts.

“It seems I have just enough to cover the landing fee,” Isamura said, handing over the credit slips with a smile.

Caroline and Erica took their turns, each of them coming into some fortune for a change instead of having to pay an exorbitant landing fee.

Tegan was not so lucky.  Her move ended on one of Erica’s most expensive outposts.

“Damn it.  Easy come, easy go.”  She handed over her slips to Erica.

“That’s just how the game goes,” Erica said with a smile, accepting the landing fee.

As soon as Erica had the credit slips in her hand, she slumped back heavily in her seat, head rolling a little to the side, her eyes closed.

“Erica?”  Tegan poked the engineer in the side, but she didn’t stir.  “I think that’s her until nightfall.”

Right after those words left her mouth, Tegan’s eyes fluttered closed and she fell asleep as well.

Caroline turned around and stared at Isamura.  “What’s going on?”

“It seems as though we’re being influenced by some sort of spell.”

Sighing in frustration, and beginning to feel to effects of this sleep-inducing spell, Caroline asked, “Can you counteract it?”

“One moment.”  Isamura chanted the words to a general warding spell, bathing herself and Caroline in a faint purple glow, which faded from view as it took effect.

“That should hold until I can determine exactly what’s causing it,” she explained as Caroline felt the sleepiness recede.

“Who could be responsible for casting such a spell?”

Not orcs.  Not their style, sending people to sleep.  No, there’s someone or something else at work here,” Isamura said thoughtfully.  She rose to her feet and chanted a simple detection spell, which stained the air a nebulous pink as it emanated from her fingertips.

“Ah, there we are.  It’s a magical field designed to send people to sleep.  Very powerful, I don’t think anyone at the centre of the field could resist the effects.  But we’re at the very edge of the field, so it was just weak enough for us to not be affected immediately.”

“So how are we supposed to get closer?”

“I can cast a spell to ward off the effects of the magical field,” Isamura explained, “but I can’t possibly keep all of your companions awake long enough to neutralise the source.”

Isamura stepped out of the shuttle, getting a good look at the extent of the field, which extended outward from the town of Dezhac.  “It looks like the centre of the field, the place where it is being projected from, is within the town walls.”

“How can we fight someone like that, if they’re so powerful?”

Isamura mused out loud, “A spell of this magnitude is very taxing. Which causes me to wonder why it is necessary in the first place.  What purpose could it possibly serve?  Hopefully, if it is a person or creature behind this, we can take them by surprise and disrupt the spell.”

“Hopefully?  You mean maybe.”

“Maybe we’ll get close enough before the spell completely overwhelms us, yes.  Of course, if you like we could just retreat from the magical field and leave the town at their mercy.”

“No.  It’s not a coincidence that this magic suddenly appears and prevents us from returning to the town.  Someone is keeping us away from it, and they know why we came here.”

“So who will you wake, to take with us?  I can ward just us two and four others.”

“I suppose we should leave Erica and Dr. Macaude here.  Tegan and some of the security detail will be our best bet, I think.”

Isamura cast her warding spell on Caroline, Tegan and herself before venturing out of the shuttle to find the others.

“What… what happened?” Tegan asked, rousing with a yawn and looking at Erica, who was still sleeping soundly.

“We were whammied by some kind of powerful magical spell coming from the town,” Caroline explained.  “We’re going to head back there and put a stop to it.”

“So what’s the plan then?”.

“I’ll fly the shuttle in to the town square, we go on foot from there and get in close very quickly, take out the spell caster and that’s it – mission accomplished.”

“And if you fall asleep while you’re flying?”

“I’m not going to fall asleep.  Isamura’s put a warding spell on us.”

“Fair enough.”

Isamura returned shortly with the rest of the team and the unconscious doctor.  Tegan strapped him into his seat along with Erica.

“All right.  New plan everyone.  Assuming this sleep field affects everyone in town apart from whoever’s casting it, we’ll fly in right now and deal with them.  Everyone check your weapons and get ready to deploy on my mark.”

Nielle and Marie, their plasma rifles at the ready, took point as the shuttle set down and the rear hatch opened.  Behind them were Tegan and Rhona, and then Isamura, with Caroline picking up a weapon and jogging after them once the shuttle was powered down.

The town square was not busy but here and there people were slumped over awkwardly, having obviously fallen asleep in mid-step.

Isamura could sense that they were near the centre of the magical field.  In fact, they all felt an odd sense of familiarity as they stopped at the door to Meg’s shop.

The front of the shop was unlit but a faint glow seeped through the edges of an interior door.

“Rhona, Nielle – go around and cover any other exits,” Tegan ordered.

While those two turned and circled around to the back of the shop, Isamura quietly applied a bit of magical coercion to the lock, allowing the rest of the team to slip inside.

Suddenly the front of the shop was flooded with an unearthly bright light as the door behind the counter flew open and a silhouetted female figure stepped out.

It was not Meg, but behind her they could see the trader sprawled on the floor, unmoving.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you back here so soon,” the woman said.  ”You’re supposed to be out looking for someone.”

“It was you that sent us into that ambush,” Caroline stated.

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

“Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Talestra, enchantress of darkness and servant of those you call, Siphen.  I underestimated you once, I won’t be doing that again.”  Without warning the woman hurled herself across the counter, knocking Caroline to the ground in a blur of motion and immediately turning to attack Isamura.

As the others scrambled to bring their weapons to bear, Isamura cast a crackling discharge of energy at the enchantress.

Talestra barely flinched.  The spell burned a neat round hole in her shirt, but it barely left a welt on the skin underneath.

“Is that all you’ve got?” said Talestra, glancing down at the hole with an unimpressed expression, and taunting, “Show me some real magic!”

“You asked for it!” Isamura said with a smirk, casting another spell into the fray.  To her horror, the spell seemed to rebound, darkening her vision.  Muttering curses, Isamura dispelled the curse, but Talestra had already moved on.

Tegan fired a burst of plasma from her rifle at close range but incredibly the energy seemed to refract away as if hitting some sort of barrier.  Talestra snatched the rifle away and tossed it out of a window.  Glass tinkled noisily to the ground.

“Your toys won’t work on me,” she said with a sinister smile.

Marie charged in with a scream, landing a fierce blow to the mid-section.  The woman grunted at the force of the blow, then cast a dark spell which knocked Marie back so hard that she spun into the frame of the front door.

Caroline and Tegan pulled Talestra to the ground and attempted to subdue her, but were similarly knocked away by a blast of dark energy.  The enchantress got up and gave a sigh of mild irritation.  “I’m not even warmed up yet here, come on, who’s next?”

Isamura hit her with another, stronger blast of energy at the same time as Rhona and Nielle fired their weapons from the back of the shop.  The combined streams of magic and plasma seared at Talestra’s clothes, setting them alight.

Talestra staggered for a moment or two under the onslaught then repelled the energy outwards in a powerful burst which brought shelves crashing down and sent everyone to their feet.

All was quiet for a few moments as the team from the Orion caught or painfully sucked in their breath.

Talestra surveyed the damage, both to her clothing and the shop.  “Well, maybe you do pose a threat after all.  I wonder how many rounds it will take for me destroy you all.”

“Everyone, get down,” said an unfamiliar voice.

Although almost all of the team was on the deck anyway, they instinctively flattened against the floor of the shop.  Talestra turned her head to see who the newcomer was, but was unable to evade their attack.

A concussive bolt of plasma thundered into the shop and disintegrated the dark enchantress in mid-step.  Mostly.  The charred remains fell forward onto the shop floor.

Isamura gazed at the woman standing outside the shop toting Tegan’s plasma rifle.  She was dressed in an Orion jumpsuit but wasn’t one of the team that had joined them in the shuttle.  Flowing red hair cascaded down to her shoulders.

“Not that we aren’t grateful for the rescue but who exactly are you?” Caroline asked as she unsteadily got to her feet.

“The answer to your question is simple.  The explanation will take considerably longer,” the woman said.  ”I am Orion.”

“What do you mean, you’re Orion?”

“The starship which you used to travel into the Nexus, you call it Orion.  I am an avatar, a representation of the artificial consciousness stored within the Orion’s computer.”

“Well, when you put it like that, it does sound pretty simple,” Caroline said with a hint of sarcasm.  “But how did you know how to take out this… Talestra?”

“The Siphen have employed minions and given them special abilities to further their cause in the past.  I am familiar with those abilities.  So I made a simple adjustment to this crude plasma weapon and now Talestra is no more.”

She gestured to the pile of ash on the floor.  “A pity.  I would have liked to take her alive and answer some questions, but I judged the risk to you and the away team to be too great.”

“Why didn’t you just warn us about her earlier?  For that matter, why haven’t we seen you up until now?”

“When the Orion suffered a critical loss of power, I decided that the mission to retrieve a replacment crystal would have the best chance of success if I accompanied you.  However, I did not want my presence to raise questions or distract you from the task.  So I employed a low-level neural block which affected your short-term memory.  You quite literally forgot about me as soon as you saw me.”

“All right, I think that’s enough questions for now.”  Caroline indicated Rhona, who was holding up the crystal that they had come for with a triumphant smile.  “We’ve completed the mission.  But we can’t call you Orion.  That will just get confusing.”

“Very well, Captain.  Perhaps you could call me by the other name by which you know me.”

“What other name would that be?”

The woman who had called herself Orion smiled.  It was a very human-seeming smile for someone who claimed to be a computer avatar.

“Oh.  Of course.  It was some time ago for you.  I am… I was Princess Irena.”

“Who’s Princess Irena?” Tegan asked.

“A character from a virtual reality,” Rhona explained.  “Caroline and I were a little bored so we decided to go on an adventure together.”

“So you’re really her?” Caroline asked.

“In the flesh,” said Irena with a grin.  “Come on, we can talk all about when we get back to the ship.”

“Oh, you bet we will.  Right everyone, let’s move out.”

“I will be there momentarily,” Isamura said.  She was tending to Meg, who seemed to stll be alive.

“All right,” Caroline said, helping Marie to her feet and handing her back her rifle.

“I’m glad you came back,” Meg said to Isamura, “and I’m sorry I sent you into that ambush.”

“Few can resist the magic of an enchantress, Meg.  I am glad that you are alive and well.”

“Will I ever see you again?” she asked.

“I’ll try to come back and see you sometime,” Isamura promised her.  As an afterthought she added, “I am sorry about your shop.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  I don’t keep the valuable stuff out in front anyway.”

Isamura laughed.  “Be well, Meg.”

“You too, Isamura.”

And now, a scary text entry box looms before you. What do you do?