If it was possible for the subsequent silence to be awkward, after all their years in absurd situations together, it somehow was. The Captain felt the silence descend again, so complete that she thought she could make out the subtle sound of deep water draining out of the cave.
She was starting to hear drips, presumably as the cave walls were exposed, and whatever slime grew in an unlit lake shed its water. She could even, she was absolutely certain, hear the Navigatrix breathing, as if the tunnel magnified it into intimacy across the distance.
It was awful, absolutely unbearable. Silence was not an option.
“How, uh, how is everyone?”
“At camp?” The Navigatrix sounded as sulking in a cave was a perfectly normal thing for the Captain to do.
“Yes at camp! Did the Engineer’s cipher work?”
“Oh, her cipher. She revved it up, yes. She was able to start the engines from shore to power it.”
“But did it work, Navigatrix! Could you talk to the Stowaway?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Not even remotely.” The Navigatrix paused as if in respect. “The Engineer said that she may have to do a hard reset on the computer tonight after the shit she put it through today.”
Silence again, with definite audible drips now, torturously echoey.
“What, uh-” Topic, Captain, find a topic, what did they normally talk about? “-what made worried about the Stowaway?”
“Oh, well, I’d be delighted to tell you. Just a moment.”
Scrabbling noises again, the sandy crunch of footsteps receding, footsteps returning, and a flap of what had to be the Navigatrix’s cape, and then.
“Just checking that we’re actually alone, Captain.”
“If it’s this big, why am I only hearing about it now?”
“Well, I did warn you-”
The Captain felt the comfortable irritation returning finally.
“You gave me a cryptic warning and then never mentioned it again! How worried could you really be?”
The drips echoed in the silence.
“Well, my Captain, I wouldn’t like anyone to think I worry.” She sighed, audibly. “But-” she continued, “it was hard to put my finger on for a few days. Hard to be certain without being able to check. I didn’t have any further information for you at the time.”
“Why are you so infuriatingly cryptic!” The Captain returned the audible sigh as loudly as she could.
The Navigatrix did not snap back with some glib remark immediately. The Captain let herself breathe out some of her frustration, however helpful she found it. Then, gently, calmly:
“Feet back on the ground, Navigatrix, and tell me what’s wrong.”
Drips, breathing, a distant glug as some natural drain continued pulling the water away. Gravel skittering down the tunnel and falling into the water as the Navigatrix moved around up there for some reason. This was so much worse than face to face conversations.
“I’m going to need you to let me get cryptic, Captain.” The Captain kept her thoughts about that to herself this time. “It’s been strange times for us, quite literally. And I didn’t pay much attention to our … guest… when they arrived.”
“You were always in the Orb.”
“Yes.” A huff, echoing into the cavern from the tunnel. “Yes, I was always in the Orb. And if I could, now, I think I would still be in there. Time is beautiful, and I miss looking at it.”
That was a strangely vulnerable statement, and it sounded like it cost her to say it aloud.
“But since I am forced out of the Orb, trapped here, I have been paying more attention to the Stowaway.”
“We all have,” the Captain grumbled up the tunnel. “Have you seen them use a knife?”
“Yes, but that’s not it. Their voice – or whatever it is we hear -”
“No. Well. I don’t know. But Captain – they sound like the Orb.”
“They- what?” The Navigatrix did not repeat herself. “The Orb. Navigatrix, do you think the Orb speaks to you?”
“Well I didn’t, but now I’m worried that it might be trying, the same as them!”
“You told me it was inert! Are you saying it’s conscious?”
“No, but…” She sighed. “…what if it’s relaying someone else’s voice?”
That gave the Captain a shiver. She’d gotten so used to weaving in and out of time, she had forgotten how little they really knew about the Orb. The idea of someone eavesdropping on them through it was surprisingly credible.
“We need to get at it. I need you to figure this out, Nav.”
“I know.” The Navigatrix did sound worried, which was actually really worrying. “I know, I know, I know, but if I hold it again it will be very, very hard for me to look away.”
The Captain let that sink in.
“If I have to climb in it and drag you out so you can tell me if we were sabotaged, so be it.”