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...

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Tantalus

by Albert Nothlit

Chapter 5. Betrayal


My pad beeped way too early. Groggy, I pawed around the room until I remembered that I had changed the position of my bed, so I was too far from the insistent source of the noise. I decided to wait it out, covering my ears with my hands until finally the beeping stopped. I had forgotten that I no longer had to get up early, since technically I had already been fired.

Right. Jim was going to send me away, and yesterday that incident in the lab...

I tried to go back to sleep but it was already too late. My mind was fully engaged with too many things now and I knew that I wouldn't be able to doze off again. With a sigh, I kicked off the sheets and dragged the bed away from the door so I would be able to open it. After stretching for a bit I went out into the hallway.

I felt restless, and it was too early for me to be hungry so I decided to go work out instead. I hadn't used the gym since I'd arrived and I never let more than a couple of days go by without exercising in some way. I liked being fit, but what I appreciated more was the strength that came with it. It had come in handy that time when Norbert and his cronies had ganged up on me; that and a few lucky hits with a random loose brick from the street. During the trial I'd heard that one of them had needed to get his jaw wired shut. I remember having been extremely happy to hear that.

I walked down the lonely corridors, occasionally catching a glimpse of the early morning sky. It was early, and a heavy cloud cover prevented most of the light from the sun from reaching the surface. There was only a dull sort of orange glow which I assumed came from Argos. It was dark inside the compound, since most of the lights were still off and they refused to turn on as the motion sensors picked me up on my way to the gym. Once again, I had the distinct impression that I was walking through an abandoned ruin instead of a state-of-the-art research outpost. Everything was too quiet, and I had the weirdest déj vu about this place.

In the distance, like an echo in my mind, I felt a faint stirring of awareness. The furry alien knew I was awake. I forced myself to ignore that, telling myself in a low voice that I was only imagining it.

"It's only in your head," I told myself. "It's probably exhaustion. It's only in your head..."

I was still repeating my mantra when I got to the gym. I blundered in, not really paying attention.

Jim was sitting on a bench, a dumbbell in each hand. Shirtless.

He stopped the curls he was doing and looked up at me, obviously surprised. I wondered if he had heard what I had been muttering and found myself hoping he hadn't. I didn't want him thinking I was crazy on top of everything else.

"Kyle," he said. Not friendly, but not hostile either.

I knew it was my turn to say something, but my tongue appeared to be stuck along with my brain while I did nothing but stare at the hotness in front of me. If I'd thought Jim look good in the shower, it was nothing compared to seeing him all pumped up from exercise. His skin had a light sheen of sweat in the warm glow of the overhead lights. I could see clearly each vein crisscrossing his arms, the rise and fall of his muscled chest as he breathed, and the easy strength in his hands as he held the dumbbells in mid-lift. They were fifteen kilos each -- I could barely lift half that with good form. I noticed how Jim's big hands gripped the weight handles, and I found myself wondering whether his palms would be soft to my touch or rough from handling heavy metal objects like they weighed nothing.

Jim frowned slightly. I mentally kicked myself.

"Uh..." was all I could come up with.

Jim resumed his lifting without another word, still looking at me. It took him almost a full minute to finish his biceps curls and I stood right there, rooted to the spot even though the situation was getting more awkward by the second. The only sound was the faint clinking of metal and Jim's controlled breathing. I caught a whiff of his scent: sweat and something sharp, like lab chemicals. And I still didn't know what to do with myself.

Just when I was about to escape from the gym in shame, Jim finished his set and dropped the dumbbells on the padded floor. They made a surprisingly deep thump and I realized that Jim was probably lifting even more weight than I had realized. Even the slight difference in gravity would be enough to make those things impossible for me to lift unless I used both hands. I felt my admiration for Jim's strength grow even more.

"It's fine if you work out," Jim said suddenly.

I jumped just a little bit. I had been staring again. "What?"

"You still have full access to the facilities on this level. Go ahead; I could use the company. You won't be leaving for a few days yet and you might as well make use of the time."

I nodded jerkily. "Thanks. Um... okay. I'll, uh, go over there."

Jim dismissed me with a nod and I fled to the squat rack. The temptation to look at him was almost overwhelming, but I made myself start stretching while looking out one of the tiny windows that had a view of outside, at the swirling cloud cover of the wild planet.

A fleeting yearning. I pushed it away.

Thankfully, the more I got into my usual routine the less nervous I became. I did all my stretching and then started out with some light calisthenics to get me going. I wanted to take it easy because I didn't know how hard it would be for my body to adjust to exercising in this gravity, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I barely felt the change, at least as long as I was only doing sit-ups and push-ups. Jim moved about, occasionally crossing my path. He didn't start a conversation, and I didn't want to be annoying so I didn't either. Nevertheless, it was nice to know he was there. Even after only one day of being essentially alone, I was already a bit desperate for human contact. I wondered again how Jim managed to live here on his own without going insane.

I decided to do arms and shoulders that morning and got started with light motions using a pulley machine that stood next to the mirror-covered wall. I looked at myself as I worked out, comparing my body to Jim's. He was much bigger than me, obviously, but I was trim and slender, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. I wasn't one of those guys who loved to skip leg day, either, so I looked good in shorts like I was wearing now. Maybe they were a little too small for me, but I liked the way they made my package stand out clearly. I'd yet to meet a guy my age who had a dick bigger than mine, and I'd been told a couple of times that I had a great ass. All in all I had nothing to complain about, but standing in the same room with Jim made me feel a little scrawny.

It was simply amazing, the way he hit those weights. I quickly confirmed what I had already suspected: Jim was serious about working out. He exercised at each station methodically, at the moment focusing on very low-rep, heavy lifts. When I saw the amount he could deadlift I abandoned all pretense at subtlety and simply stared. The muscles in his entire body tensed up as he grunted and pulled. He didn't even shake. He lifted the weight until it was level with his knees and then set it back down with perfect control. If I tried to lift that much, my back would probably break in two. I found myself admiring that sweaty, strong man even more. And getting a bit too worked up about it.

"What's up?" Jim snapped when he saw me looking.

"Uh, nothing."

I drifted over to the incline bench and loaded up what I thought was a reasonable weight. I quickly got in position and grabbed the barbell with both hands. I tried to appear as busy as possible so Jim wouldn't think that I had been ogling him, but it turned out to be the wrong thing to do. I pushed upwards and did five reps easily, but then I lowered them way too far down and I realized I was in trouble. I had forgotten to account for the stupid gravitational multiplier and forty kilos were suddenly forty-three.

I grunted a bit loudly and managed to lift the weight ever so slowly. Then the barbell started to lean towards the left since I was favoring my right arm. And my damn hands started to shake. Just... a few... more...

"Hey," Jim said from behind me. A pair of strong hands grabbed the barbell and helped me push it up all the way. When I finally hit the grooves where the thing rested I let go with a sigh of relief.

"Thanks," I said, turning around, panting a little. Jim was still there, very close to me. I could see his chest rise and fall with his breathing, and I followed a drop of sweat as it ran down the side of his neck to get lost beneath his workout tank top.

"You should take it easy the first few days. The differences in weight will make you misjudge how much you can lift -- trust me, when I first got here that's what happened to me."

"I know. Sorry."

"Good."

Jim walked over to some other machine to finish up his set. Then he took a long drink of water from a bottle, grabbed the small towel he carried around and left the gym without saying anything else. I was almost done with my own routine, but I decided against following him out. I didn't want another awkward shower scene, appealing though the prospect might be. I dragged out the remainder of my exercise and only left when I was sure that Jim would be done.

As I showered and later ate breakfast, I tried to decide whether I was still angry at Jim or whether I liked him. Probably both.

When I finished eating I left for my room again. I was feeling really tired and I guessed that all the changes in sleep cycles, food and even gravity were finally catching up to me. Without really deciding, I lay down on my bed and drifted off into sleep.

I woke up after a few hours, but it felt as if I had slept for much longer. I looked at the alarm clock and couldn't make sense of the time. I had a slight headache, and when I tried getting up I realized I was already sore from the exercise. I yawned until my jaw cracked a little and then I shuffled out of my room in search of something to eat.

I made it to the kitchen, but my headache was progressing fast. I realized that Jim's warning hadn't just been idle talk. My body felt sluggish, and when I looked at the food in the refrigerator I had to choke back a bit of nausea. Instead I drank some water and looked around for the first aid kit. Maybe if I took a painkiller the headache would go away.

The morning light coming through the narrow windows was way too bright; it hurt my eyes. I did not find any medicine there and I realized I would probably have to go and ask Jim where to find it. The prospect didn't seem very appealing, but I got back out into the hallways so I could go to the lab. The corridors appeared longer than I remembered, and I kept on tripping so much that in the end I simply leaned lightly against one of the walls for support while I made my way to the ladder leading to the upper levels. I reached it, but when I grabbed onto the first rung I paused. What was I doing, again?

Climb. Yeah, right. Need to get something for the pain.

The effort of making my way up the ladder was titanic. I felt as if the gravity were dragging me down even harder although I knew that was impossible. I was also feeling nauseous again, and twice I had to stop on the ladder just so I wouldn't throw up. I finally made it to the laboratory level, panting and feeling cold. I wiped sweat from my brow and realized I felt as if I had a fever.

It was right then that the obvious conclusion penetrated my addled mind: something was wrong with me. Maybe I was sick, or maybe it had been something I ate. Maybe a consequence of my unauthorized, unprotected excursion outside that first day?

It was weird, though. I had researched this planet thoroughly; there weren't any viruses or microorganisms which were dangerous to humans. And all the food in these places was sterilized and safer to eat than anything I'd had back home on Cora.

I suddenly heaved, violently, and spewed the contents of my breakfast all over the floor. Disgusted, I backed away from the mess. I had to get Jim. Something was really wrong.

I started walking down what I thought was the way to the main lab. I had to lean more heavily on the wall now, and I was afraid I wouldn't make it. The more I walked, though, the sharper the sensation became. Concern, for... me. Not coming from my mind. Agitation, urgency. I hurried up as much as I could.

The small compound became a maze. I got lost more than twice, and my headache was now pounding in my temples. When I finally glimpsed the heavy door that led to the laboratory I nearly fainted with relief. I managed to get a hold of myself and half-lunge, half-collapse against the door.

It swung open under my weight and I stumbled inside, to be greeted by bright white lights that hurt me, a sharp screeching noise coming from the creature in the tank, and Jim, his back to me, in the middle of a videoconference with someone with way too many medals on her uniform.

"...to tell you how important the results are. If he can get us the information, then --"

Jim cut off the woman who had been speaking. "Commander; he is here."

"Jim?" I asked. Only my voice didn't even leave my lips.

"How is this possible?" the Commander asked. "Didn't you administer the drug?"

"I did! He shouldn't --"

He stood up suddenly. I wavered on my feet. Drug...?

Jim was coming, the other person was speaking, but the room was swaying to the side. The last thing I heard before I blacked out was the anxious keening of the caged alien.

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Thank you for reading! I will be uploading one chapter every two days, so stay tuned. You can also check out some of my other free stories and published books at my website:

http://www.albertnothlit.com

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