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...
Chapter 7. Flight
"O'Brien to orbital, come in! Hello? Hello!"
I heard the sound of Jim furiously hitting different consoles over the laboratory. He tripped once and swore loudly. In the meantime, I managed to stand up and groped blindly about until I found what appeared to be a wall. The lab was pitch black; I could see nothing, but I could feel. The ground was still shaking.
"Anybody out there? Lisa? Donald? Dammit, anybody from the other stations!"
Nobody answered. The tremors were dying down, and I stayed right where I was until they finally stopped. The awful calm that followed was even worse.
"What happened?" I asked aloud, although I could guess.
I heard Jim sigh somewhere to my left. "Nobody. All the communications are down and that's not supposed to be possible."
"It would be, if the bombarders used scrambling charges."
"How the hell do you know about scramblers?"
"I read about it somewhere. That could explain the total blackout."
"Or it could simply be that all the transceiver antennas on our end have been destroyed," Jim suggested glumly.
As if to confirm his hypothesis, a new dull impact shook the entire place. Things quieted down, but then an even harder one came and I heard a horrible wrenching noise traveling through the walls, as if something really big was giving way.
"Shit!" Jim exclaimed. "Come on, we need to get to the bunker!"
"Where are you?" I said, trying not to panic.
I heard heavy footsteps approaching and then a big hand hit me on the back.
"Sorry," Jim said.
"It's okay. Let's go."
He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me forward without hesitation. At first I held back, but he only yanked me harder.
"Come on!" he said irritably. "I have the entire layout of this place memorized, in total darkness, many times over. Just shuffle your feet so you don't trip on anything."
"Okay," I answered, trying my best to hurry in total darkness, fighting off the echoes of the mind link. It was hard.
Jim dragged me on quickly until he stopped to wrench the door open. I strained my eyes to see beyond the open threshold, but everything was still black. We stepped on through, with me tripping on a loose cable, just as the ground began shaking again. The deep wrenching became a sudden snap.
"Go go go!" Jim exclaimed.
We sped on out of there. As we left the lab, though, I heard the distinct shuffling sound of something moving, escaping the room.
Jim grabbed my hand tightly and led me in an insane race through the dark. Even after we dropped down to the lower level, where a little natural light should have been visible through the windows, I still couldn't see anything.
"What happened to the windows?" I asked, hurrying along.
"Emergency shutdown. The protective shell must have deployed around the dome, but I don't think it's going to hold. It all depends on –"
A sudden loud groan heralded the biggest crash yet. The floor underneath us shook so badly that we both went sprawling down yet again. I landed on Jim's back and rolled away, stumbling up right only to be thrown against the wall.
"Hurry!" he said, a new note of urgency in his voice. "That was the dome cracking!"
I reached for him, but as I was flailing around there was a sudden whoosh and a whirlwind of air surged past me, almost spinning me around.
"We're losing the atmosphere!" Jim shouted, his voice muffled by the roar of the wind. I felt him grab me by the shirt and yanked me forward. I followed him, deaf now as well as blind, and we rushed through three twisting passageways and two safety doors before the rush of our precious air stopped. I immediately felt the change; there was a different smell, and my breaths began to be labored.
Jim stopped so suddenly that I crashed into him, but he managed to keep his footing. He let go of my hand and I heard him doing something on the floor, so I knelt down and felt with my fingertips. There was a hatch underneath us, heavy and metallic.
"Got to… override… safety lock…" Jim wheezed.
I took enormous breaths but it felt as if I wasn't getting enough air. Cold sweat started dripping down my forehead. I waited as calmly as I could physically do nothing to help, slowly counting until I reached eighty-seven, running out of air. Then something clanked very loudly and I felt the hatch begin to move.
"Get down!" Jim said, whispering now, sounding strained.
I obeyed immediately. I jumped down the hatch without even grabbing anything and hit the floor awkwardly. I rolled out of the way and a second later I heard Jim land next to me.
Red emergency lights flashed on, blinding. I blinked tears out of my eyes and a couple of seconds later I was able to make out Jim's shape punching numbers on a panel set on the wall. He was blinking rapidly, shaking his head to seemingly make himself keep focus. When he hit the last key he dropped to one knee. Overhead there was another loud clank followed by complete, isolated silence.
Five seconds went by. I was gasping, mouth open wide as if that would help me stop choking when a sudden hiss coming from the right blasted me with cool, precious air. As the emergency bunker became pressurized, the coolness washed over my body and I gulped lungful after lungful of my normal, blessed oxygen-nitrogen mix.
At some point I became aware of Jim, who was also lying on the floor next to me. I rolled over so I would be facing him.
"You okay?" he asked, wiping sweat from his brow.
He sat up and backed against the wall. I imitated him. "Yeah. We barely made it. A few more minutes out in that atmosphere and we would have blacked out." He grinned very slightly. "You should know."
I was surprised he was making a joke but I couldn't smile in return. It was a bit reassuring, though.
We sat together in silence for a while, just breathing. I looked around our surroundings with tired curiosity.
Under the red emergency lights the bunker looked somewhat threatening, all sharp angles and protruding utility pipes and what could possibly have been cable strands. Nevertheless, the area we had fallen into was only a portion of the entire thing. A heavy-looking hatch on the wall to my right had opened up, and through the threshold I could see what looked like a small room with three beds on one side of the wall. Overhead there were many blinking lights, and on the wall opposite me a small console array was already powering up.
"Lights on," Jim said suddenly, making me jump. The red emergency lights gave way to more normal illumination, so bright it made me squint.
He stood up and walked over to the console, where five monitors were showing streams of data. The topmost was a video feed, and it was that which Jim touched first, toggling the display.
"Let's see what we're up against," he muttered.
It was bad. I stood up to watch beside Jim, and we saw the feed coming from cameras scattered throughout the compound. The first image showed the hydroponics section, a neat arrangement of cylinders glowing with light from within. Various plants grew around the lights, but all the readouts in the cylinders showed red warning signs, alerting us to an excessive concentration of carbon dioxide. Every single plant would die within hours; there was nothing we could do.
"Why are there lights on in that section?" I asked Jim. "Didn't we lose power completely?"
"Hydroponics, the emergency monitoring system and this bunker have redundant generators in case of an emergency. Not that it matters for the plants; that lab isn't sealed like we are in here."
Jim flicked his hand and the display changed to an inside view of what the label stated was the main laboratory. Everything in that image was black.
The next two screens were black as well, but the third one was obviously being transmitted by a camera set in the observatory section up top. Natural light streamed in through an unseen section of the ceiling, and I could see gigantic slabs of an opaque, metallic material lying broken on the floor. Debris coated everything, and a light wind was making swirls of dust in the sunlight.
Jim sighed and flicked to the last image. It showed the entire compound from the outside and I gasped when I saw.
"No way," I said.
"It's a miracle we survived at all."
A thick and supposedly impregnable dome covered the research compound: its protective coating, like Jim had told me. Nearly one third of that was destroyed, however. Something had blasted away the top portion of the protective dome, exposing our entire compound to the elements. Big sections of the shell had fallen in, and they must have been the dull wrenching impacts I had heard as we were escaping. On the side of the blast, the damage stretched down to the ground in the tumbled chaos of blackened fragments of our habitat.
Jim flicked the images off. He switched his attention to another monitor and began keying in commands to check the status of our power, air and food supplies.
"I'll try the comms again," I told him, noticing I could be useful.
"Fine. Let me unblock the access so you can use the system."
I tried to reach someone, but nobody answered any of my urgent messages. I sent everything to the highest priority available, tried radio waves, microwave link, satellite uplink and even Morse but I could see clearly that we weren't transmitting. It shouldn't have possible, but one of the properties of scrambler charges was precisely the fact that they rendered communications useless for the affected target.
Nearly half an hour later I finally gave up. Jim looked up from his console.
"We are stocked for several weeks in terms of food and water," Jim told me. "The generator will keep the temperature stable and we don't need to worry about running out of energy anytime soon…"
"But the real issue is the air. Even with the automatic seal we have a finite amount, and the CO2 scrubbers were not built for this kind of circumstance. There is supposed to be a link between here and hydroponics even in the event of total failure for easier oxygen recycling, but that link was destroyed in the explosion."
"How long?" I asked.
"If there are no leaks in the system, maybe one week. At most."
I felt the reality of what Jim was saying hit me slowly. One week. "And rescue…"
"Probably shouldn't count on it, given what happened."
"But they can't do this to us! They can't leave us here!"
Jim ignored me and walked into the adjoining room. I followed him, if only to see what the rest of my prison looked like.
It was small. The ceiling felt disturbingly close to my head, the light was flickery and bad, and the beds didn't look too comfortable. There were three of them, set like bunk beds against the wall.
"I call the top bunk," I said quickly.
Jim didn't even glance at me as he replied. "Not a chance."
I walked over to the shelf on the opposite wall were stacks of cans were clearly labeled as emergency food.
"Hey, some of these sound good," I commented, reading the labels on a couple of them. "Refried beans with chili, potato cream, hey, is that a frozen pizza? How did they even –"
"I'll be running diagnostics to make sure we are sealed tight," Jim announced, ignoring me and sitting down at a tiny workstation that was set in the corner of the room furthest from the door. "I need to check the extent of the damage to the compound's systems and see whether we can get a distress signal out."
I turned around to face him and saw that he had already activated a computer monitor which began displaying complicated-looking charts and schematics.
I had a sassy remark ready to go, but for maybe the first time since I arrived on Tantalus I actually thought about whether it would be good to open my mouth. In the end, I decided to tone it down a little, but I wasn't going to let it slide.
"Doctor O'Brien, why don't you give me a fucking break?"
Uh-oh. Well, I had tried.
Jim swiveled in his seat slowly.
"What did you say?"
Even sitting down, he was a bear of a man and his heavyset eyebrows were intimidating. I didn't care. I had already started, might as well pick my mind.
"Yeah. A break," I said, crossing my arms over my chest. "In case you didn't notice, we almost died. I almost died. Oh, and it happened just after you kidnapped me to run illegal experiments on me, breaking several thousand laws in the process and in general being a total prick. You have been watching me from the beginning, haven't you?"
Jim didn't answer, but he looked down fleetingly. That was as loud as a yes.
"See? No wonder I found the door to the lab always conveniently unlocked. And what a coincidence that I found the exact journal entries in the computer, which you probably planted there just to tease me with enough information to make me want to investigate the aliens more. And now, I'm trying to be civil, maybe make a bit of small talk since we are stuck together in this can for a week at most before our air runs out and we die suffocated, and you are just ignoring me! We're in the same boat now, in case you didn't notice. You know as well as I do that if the military ordered this preemptive strike while knowingly risking the lives of those of us on the planet, then we're as good as dead. They won't ever admit fault; they are probably thinking about how to play this off to make it seem like they acted in self-defense. We'll probably end up being the brave casualties in their lightning war against the defenseless furry aliens, and nobody will ever know the fucking truth!"
Jim glared at me with a gaze that could have melted steel. I held it, staring right back.
"Not from the beginning," he said at last.
I blinked. "What?"
"I was not watching you from the beginning. I did not even know you had psionic latency until the first time you entered the lab. Do you remember?"
I thought back quickly. "Yeah, I tagged along while you were threatening to have me shipped off world. Then I saw the creature in the tank… Oh."
"Exactly. Your brief interaction with the Furball sent several dozen sensors spinning with the sudden spike in psionic activity in the room. I have been trying for weeks to get that one captive specimen to communicate with me, with no results. You entered the room and in the same minute it was a great time to establish a link."
"But you kicked me out."
"Of course I kicked you out. Planetary Government has a direct feed to my sensor readings, and it hadn't been five seconds after you left the room when I got a call from Commander Wylon herself. She demanded to know what had happened and I had to tell her. It was useless to lie anyway, since they had access to all the files from security surveillance, audio, video, biometric. They told me to keep an eye on you, to make certain information available, and to see what happened. So I did."
"And then you kidnapped me and injected me with a dangerous chemical. You even drugged me!" I added, remembering the last bit. "When did you even do that?"
An expression passed over Jim's features that I never would have thought I would see.
"I am so sorry, Kyle," he said, keeping his eyes trained on mine. "They essentially forced me to do it. At first I saw no harm in observing your interactions with the Furbal passively, and to be honest with you I was also thrilled at the easy way you established a mental link with it. You began sharing its emotions almost from the beginning, and it was fascinating to watch. I am a scientist, and I like to share information. I like to see where it leads, to establish links and work with others to come to understanding of new things. When they told me that I could share some of my journal entries with you, I carefully selected those that would give you the maximum amount of information without infringing on the classified restraints that limited my work.
"You cannot believe what it's been like, ever since the military stepped in. Our entire communications network here on Tantalus is now closely monitored. I can't even take a shit without knowing that there's someone aboard a worship or another watching me, orbiting the planet, poised to strike. What used to be a haven for discovery has turned into a paranoid network of people second-guessing each other, and we at the bottom have it the worst. Ever since my team left this outpost I had been working alone, and they wanted to keep it that way. It's easier to monitor just one person. I accepted to take you on as an apprentice before the military lockdown, and by the time it came into effect you were already in transit so Planetary Government tolerated your arrival. I was under a lot of stress when you came. And then you decided to disobey my orders."
I flinched; I couldn't help it. "Yeah. When I left on my own to explore the surface of the planet and nearly choked to death. Although –"
Jim nodded. "Now I know that the impulse to go out wasn't entirely your own. You must have already been under the influence of the greater Mind of the Furballs then, to make you do something so risky and so stupid."
"Well, I didn't exactly need a lot of encouragement," I admitted.
Jim cracked a smile. Then his face turns serious again. "When they told me to drug you and restrain you I said no at first, Kyle. Then the Commander herself talked to me and essentially implied that if I didn't cooperate she could not guarantee my safety, or yours, should a military strike on the planet be necessary."
"She sounds like a bitch," I blurted.
"You have no idea. I had no choice, then. I didn't want to do it, didn't want to hurt you, but if I said no then both of us would have died anyway when they bombed the planet. Not that it mattered, in the end. They bombed anyway, attacking without asking first. And now here we are. You are right in your assessment: rescue will not come. We know too much, and it will be a PR nightmare to try and justify the xenocidal actions of Planetary Government when the people here about this. There will be indignant protests, but by then it won't matter. We'll be dead, and so will the Furballs."
Neither of us said anything for a while after that. I was letting all the information sink in, and although I only had Jim's word to go by when he said he hadn't wanted to experiment on me, I found myself believing him. After all, he was right here with me. We were both going to die in one week and he had no reason to lie.
I glanced at him, sitting on his chair nearby. His hair was matted to his forehead with sweat and there was dust on his hair, almost making it appear silver. His clothes were rumpled and his shirt was torn on one side, a dark stain around the tear.
"You're bleeding," I said, noticing that the stain was actually dried blood.
"Where's the first-aid kit?"
"Really, Kyle, it's nothing."
I was already on my feet, though, rummaging around until I found disinfectant and a gauze.
"Lift your shirt," I told Jim, kneeling by his side to inspect the wound.
"It's not necessary."
"Jim, I know that according to the virology reports there's nothing to be afraid of in this planet, but you cut yourself while exposed to the atmosphere and I don't want to turning into some sort of ailing zombie with me trapped in here with you. All right? Take off your shirt."
Jim chuckled. I noticed that he didn't correct me when I used his first name or tell me to call him Doctor O'Brien. He lifted his shirt obediently and I tried my best to ignore the sudden flash of arousal that I felt when I saw his bare skin up close.
"You have a shallow cut here," I said instead, touching the side of the wound tentatively.
Jim grunted. It must have hurt.
"Let me clean that," I told him. "Stay still."
I used the disinfectant quickly, and wiped away some of the grime to revealed a jagged cut at the end of the wound, reaching around Jim's side at the height of his last rib.
"That's going to need stitches," I told Jim.
"You know how to do that?"
"I was a field medic during my military service," I answered. "Of course I know how to do that."
"I was a pilot," Jim commented while I hunted around for the surgical thread and the curved needle.
"I had a couple of friends who were pilots. Well, not friends, really. Just… Never mind."
Jim gave me a long look and grimaced slightly when I started stitching the gash closed.
"I liked my military service," he said. "Flying spacecraft is mostly done with computers, but for atmospheric flight you still need reflexes and instincts. It's an interesting challenge, and one I sometimes miss to this day. Just remembering the obstacle courses and how we zoomed through the holographic rakes at several times the speed of sound… There's nothing quite like it. No virtual game even comes close."
"How come you came a scientist, then?" I asked, working my way up the gash. Jim gave no indication whatsoever that it hurt, and I felt my respect for him grow. I had stitched many wounds, and you'd be surprised at how often big grown men turn into crying babies the second they see you with a sharp needle near their precious body.
"It was a hard choice, actually," Jim admitted. With my fingertips touching his skin, I could feel how his voice resonated in his chest, deep and full. "At least at the beginning. Then certain things happened, and I decided to become a xenobiologist to gets to travel the stars. It was a good choice, in hindsight."
I concentrated on what I was doing, and resisted the urge to ask just what 'certain things' meant. Reading between the lines, it was obvious that it had been something negative. The one major drawback of xenobiology was precisely the fact that you could spend years away from your home planet, investigating. It was one of the reasons why the field had a certain reputation for attracting only certain types of people. Those who wanted to get away. Those who never wanted to go back.
"Done," I announced, snipping the thread when I was finished.
Jim lifted his arm and looked down. "Nice work. Very neat and thorough."
I tried not to blush with the praise, but it was the first positive thing Jim had said about my work since I had met him and for some reason it meant a lot.
"You have a good eye for this kind of work," Jim continued, touching the sutures over the wound with care. "The cleanup was thorough, the stitches equally spaced. You would make a good dissector."
We could have been talking about a nondescript specimen in a laboratory instead of about Jim's actual body, judging only by the dispassionate and professional way he spoke.
"I always liked Biology," I admitted. "Ever since the Great Expansion we have discovered so many new worlds that it's hard to keep up with how many different kinds of life we are discovering every year. It's –"
"Fascinating," Jim finished for me.
I looked up at him, meeting his eyes. We both smiled.
Suddenly I was very much aware of the fact that another man was sitting just a few centimeters away, shirtless.
Jim held my gaze. I noticed that his eyes had flecks of gold amid the emerald green. They were really very beautiful.
I inched closer. Jim did not move away.
Then every single light in the compound went off. A deep tremor shook the earth, followed by a wrenching sound so loud I had to cover my ears.
"What's happening?" I shouted.
The sound of the explosion rattled the floor beneath my feet.