Big transport hubs were a necessity in the largest resort town on the planet. The vast majority of visitors to Aeriaumi III were tourists coming to enjoy the world’s natural delights, and while these stretched from snowy diversions on the highest northern peaks, to thick and inviting wilderness along the mountainous ranges, down to these golden coastlines of sun and sand, it was at this last, where flat land was bounteous and infrastructure plentiful, that visitors began any trip.
This was the excuse Thawn had used for why she wasn’t yet at the Yorviken Range with her fiancé and his friends. It was only appropriate, she said, to take a day or so at the beach-front hotel, make sure her department was settled, have a little time to herself. But she’d known that excuse wouldn’t last long, so now she approached the bustling transport hub, a structure that both towered and sprawled and bore all the beauty of any industrial hulk.
Restrictions on surface transport meant only large shuttles and transports left at set periods, crossing the continent or heading for orbit. This kept the skies of Aeriaumi as free and blue as possible. Larger hover transports hummed mere metres above the ground, rushing past and over her to take travellers much shorter distances – but here, along the hundred-kilometre stretches of coast by the sapphire seas, was where most people wanted to be.
She was booked on an atmospheric transport and thus, bag slung over her shoulder, consulted signs and shouldered through the crowds to find her departure gate. Within a half hour she’d be on her way to Yorviken.
Or she might have been had she not spotted a familiar face in a different queue – and only one familiar face. Thawn detached from the crowd to approach the passengers waiting to board a transport, and had to reach out to touch an arm to be noticed in the hustle and bustle. ‘Elsa?’
Elsa Lindgren looked near-incognito, blonde hair tied back, dressed down in drab colours, shoulders slumped and head down. From the guilty look on her face as she looked up, Thawn realised this was intentional. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’
‘What’re you doing? Waiting on a transport for…’ Thawn’s eyes flickered up. ‘Nalvark? What in Great Fire’s there?’ At Lindgren’s hesitation, she sighed. ‘Nothing. That’s the point, isn’t it?’
‘I’m sure I can find a quiet room in a quiet town and get some time to myself,’ Lindgren said, but she looked like she knew the jig was up. ‘Shouldn’t you be off in Yorviken with Adamant?’
Thawn’s grip on her sleeve tightened. ‘I should be pulling you out of this queue for a coffee. Yorviken can wait.’
It was plain Lindgren had relied on secrecy to slip away, as she didn’t fight any further. Thawn knew she’d miss her transport by pulling her from the queue, and committed even more when she took one look at the bustling cafés of the hub and said, ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’
There was not much more peace and quiet at a café just outside of the transport hub, with passengers walking past their outside table and vehicles racing along and overhead. But it was away from the claustrophobic crowds, the hustle and bustle of a hundred people crammed in close as they tried to get far, far apart.
‘So,’ said Thawn once they’d sat down with disposable cups of coffee on plastic chairs on a tarmacked sidewalk, ‘are we going to ask each other questions, or are we just… not doing that?’
‘Do you want to answer questions?’ Lindgren said with a raised eyebrow.
‘I’m the one who’s still in therapy, so I have a little more of a get-out.’
‘Are you talking to your therapist about how you just jumped on an excuse to not join Adamant in Yorviken?’
Thawn fiddled with the lid on her coffee, eyes drifting to the street. They were not on the main road to the hub, the throbbing vein linking it to the city, but a quiet if wide route between hub and the resort housing most of Endeavour’s crew. But the majority of their colleagues who were going anywhere else had long left. Only strangers walked or drove these streets.
‘Concern for you,’ she said at last, ‘isn’t an excuse. I know I’ve been a bit… busy, lately.’
‘I’m not upset with you about that,’ said Lindgren, shrugging. ‘You’ve been through some awful things. I can’t imagine what you experienced on that ship. And everyone’s reeling at least a little bit about Dathan, and it must have been terrible for Adamant…’
‘I don’t know what it was for Adamant,’ said Thawn before she could stop herself. ‘Because he won’t talk about it.’
Lindgren clicked her tongue gently. ‘Did you ask?’
‘I’m not going to push…’ Then Thawn stopped and glared at her. ‘This isn’t fair, I brought you here to talk about you.’
‘And yet here we are,’ mused Lindgren.
Many people assumed a Betazoid to be good with social skills, naturally empathic even if it was socially unacceptable to use telepathy outside their own culture. But in Thawn’s case, it meant she could feel only the knot of guilt and grief and doubt twisting inside Lindgren, one of her closest friends. She didn’t know where one feeling ended or another began, she didn’t know the root of any of it, and because she was expected to use her words rather than her telepathy, she had absolutely no idea how to begin untangling any of it.
Salvation came from the most unexpected and unwelcome of corners as there was a screeching of wheels, and the shadow of a vehicle pulling up by the café fell over them. Thawn looked up with indignation at the sight of a hulking camper jeep, an all-terrain vehicle with a sturdy and extendable compartment on the back to provide basic living amenities. It looked deeply out of place on the road to a beach-side leisure resort, but her heart sank with realisation as the driver’s window slid down and out stuck the head of Nate Beckett.
‘The hub’s that way,’ he called, jerking a thumb back the way he came, before tilting down his mirrored sunglasses and peering at them. ‘Hell are you two doing here?’
‘Stopping on our way, Beckett,’ Thawn said quickly, irritably. ‘What’s that?’
‘What does it look like? Everything you need to live off-road in comfort.’ He glanced between them, then shrugged. ‘So there was an indigenous culture on Aeriaumi, but they died out, oh, ten thousand years ago. The old capital’s ruins are about one and a half thousand k away, right in the hinterlands before you hit the mountain ranges. Studied all to hell, but apparently pretty impressive.’
‘This doesn’t explain that… contraption.’
‘Sure, I could beam up there in a day, walk around, take notes. Or there’s a whole colonial culture and beautiful planet between here and there. Live a little, Thawn. I’m going to see it all from the ground.’ He arched an eyebrow. ‘What were you gonna do? Go see…’
But he audibly stopped himself halfway through a gibe, and she could almost hear the end of it echoing in the silence. Go see Captain Federation and spend a week doing your damndest to not talk about anything of substance?
Thawn clicked her tongue. ‘We were making plans,’ she lied.
‘Bad plans,’ said Lindgren, and got to her feet. Her eyes swept up and down the camper jeep. ‘How many fit in that?’
A slow smile tugged at Beckett’s lips. ‘If I pop the top compartment, double bed over the driver’s cabin, a third on the seats on the back. Bit of a squeeze for all of us. How about it? You want to see the real Aeriaumi?’
‘It doesn’t need to fit all of us,’ said Lindgren, shouldering her bag.
Lindgren expected she could manipulate Beckett much more easily than Thawn, she knew, because while Beckett was socially canny, she was blunt. In one heartbeat, Thawn could see the next week spilling out before her: Lindgren slipping out from her grasp to evade all her problems, and her headed to Yorviken and Rhade and everything she didn’t want to face.
‘Fine,’ she said, with a somewhat cultivated irritation. ‘I’m not convinced this is a way to see a world in the “real” way any more than flying is, but you’re not going to shut up about it when we get back to Endeavour if I don’t see for myself how wrong you are, am I?’
Beckett leaned back, his grin turning more surprised – then sincere. ‘Alright, ladies,’ he drawled at last. ‘Hop aboard, and get ready for a bump ride halfway across the continent. I warn you, we’ve got roads and towns and hills and tracks to go before we’re done.’
They tossed their bags into the back, which was indeed a tight arrangement, before clambering up to join Beckett in the driver’s cabin. A wide bench accommodated all three of them, and the moment the door was shut behind Thawn, he gunned the engine and pulled out back into the road.
‘Okay!’ he called, guiding the vehicle into traffic. ‘First stop tonight is the town of Borean; not the most direct route between here and the hinterlands, but the night market is apparently something. We can camp up at the periphery and head in to see it for ourselves. ETA about six hours.’
He reached to tap the dash controls, and Thawn’s eyebrow raised as the map on the holo-display shifted to show their route. It was at least, for now, taking them along main roads and still in Aeriaumi’s bustling hub of civilisation, though she could see they were heading further and further from the centres of habitation.
Then Beckett turned on the music, and her eyebrow raised only more at the thumping rock that pounded through the compartment as he knocked his sunglasses back down. As Thawn rolled her eyes, both he and Lindgren began to sing.
She pursed her lips. This was going to be the longest favour she’d ever done for her best friend.