Excerpt: Tantalus

I didn’t make a scene when my mother finally kicked me off the planet. I sat in the shuttle, arms crossed, ignoring the other passengers, and looking out the window. I wondered if she was glad to see me go, relieved that she would finally be left alone to mourn my father in peace. She hadn’t said much, the last time we spoke. She essentially told me not to screw up like I did everything else.

“This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” she’d said at the spaceport. “Dr. O’Brien is the best xenobiologist in his field. This apprenticeship is a guaranteed ticket to a professional certification, even without a college degree.”

“You mean it’s my only chance at getting a job now that they kicked me out of college,” I answered.

She sighed. “Kyle, please. Let’s not do this again. You are officially an adult now. Act like one.”

“Oh, right. Because I turned eighteen yesterday. And what better birthday present than to waste all the money we got from the settlement on this stupid ticket to nowhere?”

“Dr. O’Brien’s research station is isolated, but—”

“But expenses don’t matter when it comes to the opportunity to finally get rid of me, isn’t that right? I saw you during the trial, Mother. I saw your shame when you spoke of me. You couldn’t even bring yourself to say the word ‘homosexual’.”

Her eyes clouded over, like they did every single time I brought that up. “Kyle… You sent one of your classmates to the hospital.”

“After he and three others jumped me!”

Another sigh. “It’s almost time for you to leave. Promise me you will do your best. Maybe you don’t appreciate it now, but I’ve done everything I can to help you on your way. This assignment to Tantalus was obtained as a great personal favor, but there won’t be another one. This is your future now, son. It’s up to you whether you succeed or not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Of course. Change the subject like you usually do. You’ll do anything but acknowledge who I really am.”

“Kyle…”

“Forget it. The shuttle’s leaving. Bye.”

Okay, so maybe I lied. I did make a scene when my mother kicked me off the planet.

*~*~*

The trip was boring and uneventful. I got to see Cora, my home, receding in the window in a blur of clouds and oceans. I was a little surprised to feel nothing at all, seeing everything I had ever known getting smaller and smaller until it was just a little orb of reflected light. I was relieved in a way. I hadn’t known anything down there but rejection. Maybe it would be different where I was going.

They gave us something to sleep then, and when I woke up all groggy an entire month had passed. I took a few pills and a few hours later I was feeling like myself again. I looked out the window and I saw the gigantic bulk of planet Argos filling up the view. It was a massive swirl of orange-and-tan clouds that gave the creepy impression of wanting to swallow everything around it.

Passengers, prepare for atmospheric entry in thirty minutes.

People around me began gathering up their stuff, some of them talking amongst themselves in incomprehensible scientific gibberish. I continued to stare out the window until I saw the tiny bright speck that was Tantalus, our final destination. It rattled my sense of scale. Tantalus was larger than my home planet, but compared to Argos, the gas giant it orbited, Tantalus was nothing. A white-and-green marble. A negligible dot. The information would not fit into my brain.

The shuttle disengaged from the transport ship and dropped us off at the spaceport. From there I used my ticket to board the only plane that made a full circuit of Tantalus, visiting the widely-spaced research stations on its surface. I got on and discovered that there were only four people on the plane with me. I caught all four of them eyeing me suspiciously at one point or another, probably wondering how a random teenager with ratty-looking clothes could afford interplanetary travel to a planet that only scientists visited. I stared right back until they stopped looking.

The plane was really fast, a sleek barely-subsonic machine, but it still took me eighteen hours and five stops to get to where I was going. By the time I finally got out of the damn plane I was literally dragging my feet through a pressurized tunnel to the research station that was going to be my home now. I had never felt so exhausted in my life.

“You forgot your stuff on the plane,” a deep voice said behind me.

I turned around. The tunnel I was walking through was transparent plastic, and we were high above the ground, so the effect was vertigo inducing, like walking on a tightrope set too far up. It took me a moment to focus on the man who was walking towards me, carrying my large rucksack on one shoulder.

He was tall. I’m 1.90 and fit, but next to that guy I felt small and wimpy. He had to be over two meters tall, and he was built like a pro wrestler. He was wearing a simple white T-shirt that looked about two seconds away from bursting open at the seams, hugging his muscular torso and flat belly tightly. He had cargo pants that were full of pockets and a utility belt that was crammed with stuff. His heavy black boots echoed in the silence of the tunnel. When he got closer, I could see that his hair was a bright shade of red, although he wore it buzzed short. Darker stubble shaded his cheeks, and his eyes were a piercing shade of green that I had not seen often in Cora.

It took me a couple of seconds to remember I could speak.

“Thanks,” I said. He held out the rucksack like it weighed nothing, but I knew it weighed half as much as I did.

I took it from him as casually as possible, but the second he let go the weight of the rucksack hit me and I stumbled. Hard. I barely kept my footing; it felt as if he had suddenly dropped a rock on top of me.

He laughed. “Nice reflexes. I’m surprised you didn’t fall on your face.”

I bristled. I swear the backpack felt heavier than when I’d left home. Maybe he’d stashed something in it just to make his little prank. “Heh. Real funny.”

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