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 8. Storm
"What the hell was that?" I asked, as the echoes of what sounded like thunder on steroids faded away.
"I don't know. Let me check," Jim asked. I heard him stand up but I couldn't see anything.
There was a sound of Jim's boots on the floor, a chair being scraped back, then the tapping of keys. I tried to go sit on the nearest bunkbed but ended up tripping and falling on my face.
"You okay, Kyle?"
"Fine," I said, rubbing my chin. For some reason, not being able to see made Tantalus' gravity more apparent to me and the fall had hurt a lot. I made my way to the bed much more carefully and sat on the creaking mattress.
Lights flickered, then stayed on. I had to blink quickly to shield myself from the sudden glare.
"What happened?" I asked.
"It's a storm," Jim said, standing up from his chair. "Thankfully. I thought they were dropping more scrambler charges on top of us."
"Did the computer tell you that?"
Jim glanced at the monitor set against the wall. "All I have from that are passive sensor readings from our immediate vicinity. We have no link to anything."
"Right. Scramblers," I said, feeling slightly stupid.
"Exactly. This is just a storm, though."
Another thunderclap made the floor shake. "Wow. Must be quite a storm."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Didn't you read the meteorology reports on Tantalus?"
"I did, but it's one thing to know that storms here have hurricane strength and another one to actually be here when one comes."
"At least we're not on the surface anymore. Even the domes have a hard time withstanding the storms. Tantalus-III was almost ripped from the ground as it was being constructed, several years ago. It's not only the wind, either. The high levels of suspended particles and the trace ferromagnetic elements scattered over the planet's surface make lightning here particularly deadly. Here, have a look."
Jim tapped something on the monitor and a video feed appeared. I glanced at the time stamp and noticed that it was live.
"We still have a working camera to outside?" I asked.
"Yes, but it's the only one. It's the one furthest from the compound, and it's hardwired to this room, so we can still get video from it."
I looked at the screen. I saw masses of gray and orange clouds shifting, churning, occasionally showing little bits of Argos up in the sky.
"The camera is pointed up?" I asked Jim.
"Not originally, but the impact must have destabilized it. Watch for a moment, you'll see."
We didn't have long to wait. Just a few seconds after I started watching, I saw a sudden jagged bolt of yellow lightning streak through the sky. It must have hit something, because I saw shower of sparks being flung to the air to be instantly extinguished by the buffeting winds.
Lights flickered again but stayed on, thankfully.
"Looks like we're in for a long one," Jim commented, leaning back on his chair. Here on both hands through his hair and linked them together behind his neck, closing his eyes while facing up. "I suppose we better get comfortable."
"But there must be something we can do," I protested.
Jim shook his head without even opening his eyes. "Not from here."
"But… But…" I stuttered, looking around the bunker as if an answer would jump out at me. "What about emergency evacuation procedures? Aren't there any escape vehicles? How far to the next dome?"
Jim sat up straighter and opened his eyes, meeting mine. "I think you know the answer to all of those questions, Kyle."
I did, but I didn't want to admit it. Tantalus-V was so isolated that we had no chance of reaching the next dome on foot. There were only five research outposts on the entire planet, and we had no way of walking thousands of kilometers to get to the next one. We would suffocate in the atmosphere within minutes.
"This isn't happening," I heard myself say. I walked out of the sleeping quarters, towards the heavy metal hatch that led to the outside. I punched it, hard enough to make the metal ring. "This isn't happening! I want to die here! I was just – no! I was just getting started with my life!"
I glanced everywhere, breathing hard, suddenly feeling that the bunker was too small. There was no room to move. No sky.
I couldn't breathe.
I sank to the floor, panting, gripping one of the metal tubes protruding from the floor with my right hand. We had very little air in here. Every breath we took saturated it with more CO2, getting us closer and closer to the moment of our deaths.
I would never see Cora again. I would never see my mother.
I would let down my father. He had worked so hard to give me a chance of becoming someone, and now it was over in my life hadn't even begun!
"I need to get out," I muttered. "I can't do here. I need to get out."
Heavy footsteps approached. I jumped back on my feet. "Kyle, calm down."
"Shut up! Don't tell me what to do, you – you knew! You kept me here, you drugged me, and now we can't get out and it's your fault! You could have sent me back. You couldnhave said something when you saw me at the beginning. You didn't! You treated me like a guinea pig, without my consent, and now I'm going to die and it's your fucking fault!"
"Kyle, you're having a panic attack," Jim said, closing the gap between us. He reached out to try and hold my shoulders.
I punched him.
I got him square in the jaw, with every ounce of strength I could fit into the blow. His head swung sharply right under the impact, but he didn't back down. After a momentary pause, he kept coming and grabbed me.
"Kyle. Calm down."
I struggled, but he was too strong for me. He pinned me against the wall, both of us so close together that I could feel Jim's breath on my face.
"Let me go," I grunted.
"Not until you are calmer. You're going to hurt yourself."
His grip was as unyielding as iron. I tried struggling again, but ended up looking at him, at those piercing green eyes that appeared to see right through me. I stopped fighting him little by little, and I saw a single drop of bright red blood appear on the corner of his lips, on the left, and run down his chin until it was gone.
"I hit you," I said quietly. The more I stared at the track the blood had left, the, I felt.
The pressure around my upper arms lessened. A few moments later, Jim stepped back, letting me go.
"Damn right you did," he agreed, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. He looked at it, raising his eyebrows slightly when he saw the blood. "You got a wicked right hook."
"I… I'm sorry," I said, feeling like I was just waking up from some really bad nightmare.
"It's fine," Jim answered with a little sigh. "You're right, you know. I am to blame for the fact that you are here. When you arrived I knew that staying on this outpost had suddenly become much more dangerous, but I also found myself welcoming the company. Then, when you left to explore the planet surface on your own, I found I suddenly had a perfect excuse to kick you out and get you out of harm's way."
I flashed back to that state, remembering how mad he had been. "You had been trying to protect me?"
"Nothing as selfless as that. I was just mad you had messed up my data. I knew that Planetary Government was scrutinizing everything I did, and I thought that they were just looking for an excuse to have me reassigned to some other place so they could put one of their own people in charge of things here. I thought that your mistake might rob me of the chance to complete my studies here on Tantalus. I'm not sure if you can understand this, but I've dedicated the last five years of my life only to this. I have put everything in the back burner, and I left everything behind back home just to get the chance to research here. The second I saw it jeopardized, I think I overreacted. That's why wanted to send you away as soon as possible."
"So you were going to get rid of me," I said, feeling a little calmer now.
"Of course I was. That was a plan right until you had that first significant interaction with the Furball in the tank. It changed everything. Suddenly you were a high-priority test subject, and I was forced to do nothing except watch you, give you opportunities to link even more deeply with the alien. I was furious, at Planetary Government, of course, but more at myself. I couldn't stand the sight of you because you were a constant reminder that I was just a helpless puppet in the game the military was playing. Nobody cared about my research anymore. All they wanted was information on how to better destroy the creatures we have spent years trying to understand."
I nodded, remembering how hostile Jim had been with me, how different he had behaved from the friendly way he had received me, that first day.
"Well, I was kind of an ass, too," I admitted. "If we're being honest and all. I was pissed that I got sent here, and…"
"What is it?" Jim asked me.
I looked right at him. "It kind of felt good to punch you just now. Even if my knuckles hurt like crazy."
Jim held my gaze for a full second. Then he cracked a smile. It was the first time I had seen him do that for days, and it set my heart right back to beating faster. His ruggedly handsome looks return to the forefront of my awareness of him.
"I think that's fair," Jim conceded. "What do you say if we start over? No bullshit, no secrets. We are on the same boat, after all."
Jim glanced around and his smile faded. It reminded me of why I had started panicking the first place, but now I didn't want to seem like a coward in front of Jim so I pushed the fear away and managed to nod in his direction. "Sounds good to me."
"Great. What do you say we open up some of these cans? I'm starving."
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:
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