Kyle does not want to leave his home behind, but he has no choice. He is assigned to a remote scientific outpost on the planet Tantalus where he meets Jim, the xenobiologist in charge of researching the indigenous species. Almost as soon as he arrives, though, strange things start happening. Things that could compromise Kyle's future, or even his life...
Somebody was shaking me. My head snapped forward and I hit myself with something. I groaned faintly, struggling to open my eyes.
Jim's face was inches away.
"What the HELL were you thinking?!" he demanded loudly. He had both his hands on either side of me, grabbing my shoulders. His fingers were digging into my skin.
"What were you doing outside? Why did you leave without any protection? And explain to me what the fuck you think you’re playing at!"
I focused on his face. He was flushed with anger, his green eyes burning twin holes straight through me. I moved a bit and he let go of me immediately with a grunt of annoyance. I realized I was lying on the floor with him kneeling over me. Looking around I saw I was just inside the exit hatch, in the decontamination chamber.
I was not dead.
I felt relief flood through me. I tried to stand up, failed. It took me almost a full minute to get back on my feet and I was shaking all over from the shocking realization that I had almost died.
Jim waited. He stood at the far end of the room, leaning against the wall with his huge arms crossed over his chest. He looked like he was thinking about murder.
"I…" I started, but my voice sounded hoarse. I cleared my throat and tried again. "You carried me back in?"
"And revived you. You were already unconscious; a couple of more minutes out in that atmosphere and you would have suffered brain damage. I had no idea you were outside, Kyle. You could have died out there!"
He snorted. "Sorry. This is a game to you, isn't it? You thought it would be cool to go out exploring an unfamiliar alien environment just to see what it was like? If the alarm hadn't started blasting through the compound when it did, I would've never even known where you had gone. You're damn lucky it triggered."
"One of the sensors outside the door detected increased concentrations of vegetable particles in the air. Turned out to be temporary, but it got me looking at the monitors. And I saw you, fainted right outside the door! Why did you do it? What on Cora made you do that?"
"Well, I…" But what could I say? In hindsight, the urgency with which I had gone out to check the stuff outside was strange. I had no idea what had possessed me. "I don't know."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I begin to see why you were kicked out of college. You lack discipline of any kind."
I had a brief flashback. Four guys coming out of the shadows, cracking their knuckles. Norbert in the lead, taunting me. Throwing my one moment of trust in my face.
"Don't," I said, surprising even me. Jim blinked, taken aback. "You don't know what happened, so don't."
We glared at each other for a couple of seconds. Finally Jim turned around and said, "Follow me."
"To the comm room. I'm placing a call to have you taken away as soon as possible."
He slammed his fist on the open button for the inside hatch. I hurried after him, weaving through the corridors at a brisk pace. I had a pounding headache.
"Taken away?" I asked. "You mean reassigned?"
"I mean taken away. To one of the mining colonies. You're obviously not apprentice material and I won't inflict you on any of my colleagues."
I climbed a ladder after him. He stopped in front of an imposing-looking door and pressed his palm to a scanner. The door opened and I was immediately greeted by the smell of disinfectant and something else, something animal. We were walking through a lab of some kind, full of shelves and medical equipment. Everything was glass and chrome.
"You're kicking me out?" I asked. "For good?"
"You heard me. I should have never agreed to this. The hard physical work on the mining colonies should do you good. Work five years and you will save enough for your ticket back to Cora."
No way. This wasn't happening.
"Wait!" I said, and I grabbed Jim's shoulder and yanked back to make him stop.
It was a mistake. Jim halted, whirling around to face me. He was livid.
"I don't believe this," he growled, shaking off my hand. "Are you out of your mind?"
I didn't even know what I was going to tell him. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I realized that this guy could probably snap me in half if he wanted to.
Then I spotted movement, behind him. Something was stirring in a tank.
Jim was saying something else, sounding angry… but his voice faded away. My attention was forcefully diverted away from him. I stepped around Jim and approached the huge transparent tank that occupied the very center of the lab. One of the aliens was inside, and it was calling to me.
It was standing right next one of the walls, pressing its body to the plastic. I felt… I couldn't really name it. Something like a suggestion, a fainter version of the pull I had experienced outside. It seemed to tug at the back of my mind, whispering without words. It was like a flickering yearning, like when you're on a diet and smell something really good you're not supposed to eat, or when you catch the first notes of a song you really like but can’t hear the rest.
I was standing next to the tank now. I pressed one of my hands to the plastic and the sensation sharpened.
The alien was standing very still. It stood only a few centimeters off the ground, its flat, roughly octagonal body about twice as big as my hand. It looked vaguely similar to a plump eight-pointed starfish, and when I looked closer I saw that it had a small paw at each of the eight ends where the starfish’s points would be. The top of it was completely covered in short tan fur, or something that looked a lot like it.
I knelt down so I would be at eye level with it. I saw its eyes, dark and beady, one between each pair of paws. Seven eyes in total facing out in every direction. At the moment I could see three of them. They were fixed on me.
The yearning intensified, suggesting…
But the impulse was suddenly gone, cut off as if somebody had thrown a switch in my mind. The small furry alien skittered away to the far end of its fake habitat, hiding behind a couple of mossy rocks. It made a keening sound, halfway between a puppy’s whine and a rodent’s squeak.
I stood up and saw that Jim was watching me with his mouth hanging slightly open. He moved closer to me so suddenly that I flinched, thinking he was going to shove me away and tell me to get the hell out of his lab.
He didn't touch me, but he was seething.
I stayed in my bunk for a long time. Jim didn't come to see me in one hour. Or two, or three. My headache faded, I got hungry, grabbed something to eat, then went back to my room and read for a little while on my pad. I tried to get a Net connection but the only thing I got was a bunch of month-old passive updates to the local network. I looked out at the sky from time to time, and even so many hours later it still looked like early morning. Weird, but it was to be expected because of the insanely long day on this planet.
As time went anxiously by, I realized I was more shaken up by the incident outside than by the fight with Jim. And pretty badly, too. The initial shock was wearing off, but it was dawning on me that I had almost died. It felt unreal but the memory was there. Ironically, it made my situation seem more immediate to me now than when I had arrived. Somehow I had been treating all of this like some kind of a bad dream, or an adventure I could opt out of anytime I liked. I had been grumbling about coming, thinking that this was not the kind of future I deserved. But today I had almost lost even that. My entire future.
I realized my hands were shaking a little bit. I sat on them to make them stop.
I was nervous. I wondered about what I was going to do now if Jim did fire me. It hit me now, what Mother had said, what Jim had said. I was an adult, and my errors would be my own. The consequences too. Jim didn't owe me anything, and if he decided to get rid of me… My mother would be disappointed, devastated even. Her son, a lowly extrasolar miner. And after all she’d done.
I felt a stab of regret. Jim was right; what the hell had I been playing at?
I’d read reports of the mining colonies. They were little more than prisons. You became an indentured servant the minute you were dropped off in there. The work was hard, too, and dangerous. You would think that since all the actual underground mining was done remotely with machines it wouldn’t be that awful, but it is. The operators have to stand outside the mines, controlling several machines at once. You're basically stuck inside the tiny remote control booth for days on end. Anything can go wrong, and since the mining worlds are about ten times as deadly as Tantalus, even the slightest distraction can mean your booth’s structural integrity is compromised. And you die.
There was also the fact that most of the men who end up as miners are convicts of some kind or another. If I were sent there, they would eventually find out I was different. That I liked guys. And I was certain they would gang up on me like Norbert and his buddies had done. Only this time, I wouldn’t get lucky. I didn't even want to think about what they might do to me.
No. I couldn't be sent out. I resolved that when Jim came back I would beg him if needed to let me stay. I could make up for my mistakes. I hadn't wanted to come here, but now here I was and the only alternative to this place was somewhere even worse.
I waited some more. Patiently. Maybe Jim was doing this on purpose; maybe he was deliberately delaying our talk so I would have time to think about what I had done. If so, then it was working just fine.
Or maybe he was calling Planetary Government like he'd said. Maybe he was just making all the necessary arrangements to have me shipped off world.
Time was passing. I was getting hungry again. I read for a bit, and I was just thinking of going for a snack when Jim came in.
"Your shuttle leaves in one week," he said without preamble. He was still angry, I could see it, and the change in his face from the friendly guy who had greeted me yesterday to this disappointed angry glare got to me more than it should have. He was looking at me differently now, I realized. I had probably lost his respect.
"Please," I blurted, wishing my voice wouldn't shake. "Don't send me to the mines. I'm sorry, I really am, about everything and –"
"Save it," he interrupted, raising his hand palm up. "I made my decision and it's final."
No way. Oh, God, I don't want to end up like that.
"Jim, I messed up; I know, but –"
"It's Dr. O'Brien," he said, not an ounce of sympathy in his voice. "I tried to tell you yesterday how important the work we do here is. I stressed the fact that it has recently been classified by Planetary Government. Tantalus is a newly discovered planet, and the few of us who work here represent the best in our fields. You have great potential, Kyle, and it was partly because of that that I accepted to take you on at your mother's request. I now see that you have a lot of growing up to do still. I think a few years in the mines will do you good. You lack discipline."
I couldn't believe this. I was starting to feel panicky, but for some reason also really angry. He couldn't do this to me. Not after everything else that had happened.
"Ji – Dr. O'Brien, please. Give me another chance. I can do better."
He shook his head. The look of disappointment he gave me reminded me too much of the look I had gotten from my mother when they had kicked me out of college. I couldn't take it. Something in my head just snapped.
"Come ON!" I yelled, getting too close to him. "You can't send me off to the mines, you can't! You said it yourself, I'm smart; I'll work hard here or in any other of the planetary stations to send me to. I'll swear I'll never go out like that again without permission. I don't even know why it happened! It was like one minute I was fine and the next this idea was inside my head, pulling at me, and I –"
Jim pushed me back, slowly but firmly. I saw him take several deep breaths and from the look he gave me it was obvious that I had made him even angrier.
"Let me spell this out for you," he told me, his voice quiet. "You left a classified planetary research station without authorization, had unsupervised and possibly disastrous interactions in the carefully-monitored environment just outside of said station, and ruined nearly five weeks of statistical data by introducing your damn variable into the mix. You endangered your own life, as well as mine, since your forced rescue might have triggered the security lockdown given the circumstances and the anomalous sensor readings we registered. Anyone of those transgressions carries a penalty of imprisonment for up to twenty years given the new classified status of our investigations. I am choosing not to press charges against you because I don't want to ruin your life because of one stupid mistake.
"Your shuttle will leave in one week. All expenses incurred in your transport to the Ryla-II Mining Colony will be charged to you, to be paid at the end of your employment contract with Extrasolar MiningCorp. At the end of your term you will be free to do as you please, without the permanent stigma attached to ex-convicts. We will not discuss this matter further, and while your transport arrives you will be confined to the living area of the compound. If for some reason you choose not to obey my instructions, then I will have you sent to prison. It is understood, Kyle?"
I looked at the floor. I didn't know if I felt more ashamed at what I'd done or angry at Jim for talking to me like that. Probably both.
"Is it understood?" he repeated.
"Whatever," I mumbled.
Jim stormed out of there, slamming the door as he left.
I was glad because then he couldn't see me break down and start crying over my lost future.