He stood as if in a trance, reliving memory after memory of the times they had spent together. All the adventures they'd had, all the flights and missions and training runs they'd shared, all the times he'd dropped by her cabin on the Searcher and they'd simply talked or laughed together - the way he naturally seemed to gravitate to her and she to him.
For the first time, Buck realized just how deeply woven into the fabric of his life Wilma had become. And yet, he had never analyzed the exact nature of their relationship. They were more than comrades, less than lovers. Friends, certainly, but more than that. Not quite a couple, yet in many ways partners. The rapport they shared was like nothing else he'd experienced in his life.
She was desperately afraid of losing him - despite her heroic effort to hide it, he'd seen it in her eyes. Yet she had asked nothing for herself, only that he do what would make him happy. Her unselfish concern for him took his breath away.
But that was all in the past...he tried to project his mind ahead. How did he envision his life in ten or twenty years? Who did he want to share it with?
All at once it dawned on him: the choice he'd been given wasn't about going back, but about going forward. And he knew then and there his decision had already been made.
Wilma stared out into the desert, her heart in her throat. It had been happening for some time now, an almost imperceptible brightening of the bleak landscape until she could clearly pick out every rock and sand dune. Sunrise was almost here. There were surely no more than a few minutes left before...
Beside her, Dr. Huer ground the heel of his boot into the sand with as much intensity as he would bring to a negotiation with their Draconian foes. She watched him sadly for a moment, and then looked up. The sun was striking the mouth of the cavern.
Wilma put a hand to her mouth. She must have made an involuntary cry, because Dr. Huer suddenly raised his head, following her gaze. She saw the hopeful look on his face crumble as he realized there was no movement, nothing at all.
For an eternity they sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb the reality. He was gone. Buck was gone. A wave of anguish swept over Wilma and she bit her lip until she tasted blood to keep from crying out with pain.
At last Dr. Huer stood. "I suppose - we should...be getting back..." he murmured in a voice as worn and cracked as ancient paper.
Wilma nodded, not trusting herself to speak. There would be time for sorrow, but not just now. Not until Dr. Huer was safely back in New Chicago. He was still Earth's leader, her commander, and she had her duty to fulfill. She would have the rest of her life to grieve for what she had lost.
She stood stiffly and, with a leaden heart, moved to lead him towards the shuttle door. Then over her shoulder, out of the corner of her eye, she saw - something, there, back towards the cavern - Wilma quickly reversed direction, dodging around her companion to get a better look.
A figure was emerging from the entrance, striding slowly towards them.
Suddenly Wilma was running, sprinting as fast as she could. She raced down the dune and without breaking stride threw herself into Buck's arms.
Buck gathered her to him gratefully, inhaling her sweet scent, feeling her slim body trembling against him like a leaf in the wind.
Over her shoulder he saw Dr. Huer approaching and read the unspoken question in his eyes. He let go of Wilma with one arm, keeping the other wrapped tightly and possessively around her waist.
"I finally realized that I had a choice between the past and the future," he explained. He gazed directly at Wilma. Her eyes were glowing - she was radiant with beauty in the morning light. "I chose the future."