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 9 - Air
The first night I spent in the bunker with Jim was horrible. The storm still raged outside, and Jim hadn't been joking when he'd said that even the domes had a hard time withstanding the fury of the elements on Tantalus. Our own dome had been dashed to pieces by the bombs, and I got to hear every groaning wrench, snap, and rumble as the debris outside was bent and twisted by the storm. The lights were off to conserve power, and as the incredibly long night progressed, I found myself listening for the faint but constant sound of Jim's deep breathing in the bunk above me. Judging by it, the storm did not bother him in the least. I didn't fare so well. I kept dozing in and out of sleep, for hours. It was almost a relief when Jim finally stirred, climbing down from his bunk to go to the tiny bathroom nearby.
I considered pretending to sleep for some time, but my watch said that seven hours had gone by since we had gone to bed. It was still completely dark, but at least the storm was dying down.
I heard the sound of flushing from the left and decided to stand up. A few seconds later, the door to the bathroom opened and Jim was visible in the faint light coming from it. He was only wearing a pair of shorts, and despite my grogginess and overall foul mood, seeing him shirtless like that was like a shot of caffeine, jolting me to full awareness.
"Good half-night," Jim said, flicking the main light switch on. It flickered, glaringly bright.
"What?" I asked, shielding my eyes.
Jim grinned, scratching the back of his head with one hand. I couldn't help but follow the graceful curve of his biceps as it contracted with the motion. His skin was smooth and pale, very different to the men I was used to seeing. Bent like that, the graceful play of muscles in Jim's upper arm led to down to the inviting cleft of his armpit, which offset the hard bulk of his pectoral muscles very nicely.
"It's just a joke we use to have around here," Jim explained.
"Huh?" I asked, lost.
"Good half-night," Jim repeated, sitting on the chair by the console. "Because night here lasts for so long that you get to sleep and wake up, and still dark."
"Oh. Right. Forty-seven hour day. Yes."
Jim smiled. He was doing that more often now, and I could not complain. "Sleep well, Kyle?"
"You're joking, right?"
"Why? You had the storm to lull you."
I raised an eyebrow. "Yes. Sweetest lullaby in the world."
Jim chuckled. "To me it is. I love rain, and storms. They remind me of home."
I thought back on Cora, a planet which was mostly desert except for the two narrow bands of green around the planet's poles. We seldom got rain, if at all.
"You're not from Cora," I said, feeling particularly stupid now that it finally dawned on me.
"Correct. Care to guess where I'm from?"
I thought of all the settled planets in the cluster. Some place with high rainfall, where people looked like Jim, with fiery red hair…
"You're from New Éire," I guessed, knowing I was correct.
Another grin from him. I didn't think I could get tired of them. "That's right."
I quickly reviewed what I knew of the planet. "Wait. Wasn't that the place where the weather regulator network caused a huge catastrophe? I think I had a penpal from New Éire once. He told me a little about it."
Jim nodded somberly. "It's the reason why weather regulation is forbidden in the cluster now. Planetary Government scientists attempted to make the planet less arid, to add more rainfall to farming-intensive regions. It backfired completely. The program worked too well, and changed the natural cycles of the world. The most heavily-settled places became areas of perpetual cloud cover, with no direct sunlight, and rain, yes. Rain every single day.
"If you've studied ancient history, you can probably appreciate the irony of the event," Jim continued. "Our fields aren't emerald green, though. The storms are too violent for much of anything to really grow."
"It sounds bad," I said.
"Yes. My home isn't what it used to be two or three generations ago. Such a drastic change in the weather has made atmospheric flight extremely hazardous. The rich leave to other worlds, and tourism is almost nonexistent. I am the envy of my entire hometown simply because I was assigned to this post, on another planet."
"Kind of like me," I said, thinking on Cora. "Not everyone can afford to visit other worlds."
"True, but most of us are a little more thankful that we get the chance."
Ouch. The remark had hit straight home, and I found that I couldn't meet Jim's eyes.
"I didn't want to come…" I started, but I stopped myself. Sure, I hadn't wanted this, but was it really that bad? I mean, if things had worked out normally and I wasn't trapped in a bunker about to suffocate in six days, what would I be doing now?
Learning a lot, probably. Getting the chance to study things nobody had ever studied before.
"I'm hungry," I said quickly. I had been about to view myself through Jim's eyes and I didn't like what I saw.
Jim said nothing. He only watched me.
The last days of my life started to follow a predictable routine. Jim would always wake up before I did, and he would do some light calisthenics in what little room there was in the bunker. I would pretend to be sleeping and watch him, unable to bring myself to tell him that he was wasting his time since we were going to be dead when our air ran out. Not to mention that exercising would saturate whatever air we did have much quicker with CO2. After a while, I would pretend to wake up, then a quick bathroom break, and a meal from the surprisingly good survival packages that had been stashed inside the bunker.
After that, Jim and I would spend a few hours trying to get a message out, or running some diagnostics in the wired systems we still had access to, but we made very little progress and I was secretly sure that our efforts were in vain. They would not come rescue us. They wanted us to be dead.
We would have lunch then, and after that some more work. Then dinner, and then we would pretend to be off-duty, free to do whatever we wanted. Jim insisted that keeping a structured routine would help us, and I was mostly too depressed to contradict him. He might have been right, though, because after the first three days I found myself looking forward more and more to our free time together. We would watch one of the videos in the system's computer sometimes, or play one of the several hundred preloaded strategy games, but mostly we just talked.
I liked it when we talked.
Jim told me about his hometown, about his favorite places and all about his academic career. I was personally used to always being top of the class without even trying, but Jim was as smart if not smarter than me and he actually tried. Hard. He had been in regional championships, worldwide competitions, and he had even represented his entire planet for one of the yearly robotics contests organized by the United Worlds. He did not come from a rich family or anything, but scholarships had gotten him to where he was now. It seemed to me that he'd always had a plan for everything, and under any other circumstances I would have doubted that someone could be so damn perfect. He was a good son, supporting his family by sending most of his salary back. He was a brilliant scientist, with already more publications than many of my old professors at the University in Cora would ever have. He loved poetry, exercising, animals of all kinds… Oh, and he could sing.
The first time he mentioned that I think I laughed, but I brought it up the next day during our time off. Jim was hesitant at first, even a little shy, but I kept on bugging him until he accepted to sing an incredibly ancient traditional song, about hills and cliffs and an island. He had a beautiful voice.
I didn't tell him too much about myself, more out of shame than anything else, I guess. Compared to him, I had lived a pampered life up until the day my father had died. I was good at a lot of things, but I had never applied myself to one. I sort of knew a second language but not really, I could kind of play the piano but only really simple tunes, I had dabbled in painting during my early teens but left my last project unfinished for several years now, and I had made half a summer's worth of an internship with an emergency rescue organization before starting college, back when I had still thought I wanted to be a doctor. That was when I had met Norbert.
I ended up mentioning him by mistake, and immediately changed the subject. Jim didn't press me, but after that I found that I didn't feel like talking anymore and we went to bed. It was day five. We had two more days to live.
Maybe it was because of that, but the next day we barely talked to each other. We each kept to our unofficial personal territories within the tiny bunker, Jim at the console and me over by the hatch. I ran diagnostics for most of the day, but there was nothing new. The real horror of scrambler charges is that they can disturb the physical properties of the environment after they explode, rendering it useless for electromagnetic transmission for weeks after impact. They are forbidden on most worlds, or supposed to be, after the devastating effects of the payloads were witnessed during the Cluster Wars. It wasn't only the physical impact of the detonations, but the sudden obliteration of all forms of electromagnetic communication that ended up destroying entire countries, and once, an entire planet. Non-shielded computer systems would fail, and a growing metropolis could be reverted to a bloodthirsty primitive state in a terrifyingly short amount of time.
Jim and I weren't a metropolis, but the isolation was starting to get to us just the same. The entire day, I don't think we spoke more than a few minutes even though we were literally in the same room. We ate separately, and I began to have dark thoughts again. Somehow, a week had seemed like plenty of time to maybe be rescued. Sure, I have known that it was not likely, but deep down I had thought that it would all work out in the end. I was the protagonist of the world, after all. You can't have a world if the protagonist dies.
Except the world, or worlds, would keep on spinning even without me. Nobody would miss me when I was gone except for my mother.
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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