By Thursday morning of that same week, Geoffrey was so preoccupied with the unknown ship he’d seen through Guneel’s eyes that he almost left Mom’s dome without his pressure suit.
“Where’s your head?” she scolded him. “Not in your helmet, that’s for sure. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were in love.”
“Gross, Mom,” said Geoffrey. “In love with a Doltalyi?”
“You know what I mean, just get into your suit or you’ll be late,” said Mom. “I have enough to do on this planet without worrying about you every second.”
Geoffrey’s chest tightened as he watched Mom stalk out of the living room. There was so much he wanted to say, but she was always busy. And, by the way, what if he did love Guneel? It would’ve helped to talk out that impossible situation with someone.
Still, he’d promised to accept the premise of their trip to Doltal: Mom would be up to her eyeballs in government research and he would be understanding and obedient.
“We’ll have time for ice cream and cake when we get home,” she’d told him more than once.
Geoffrey sighed. When had there ever been time?
The Doltalyi sun rose in the yellowish smog of a sky he now took for granted. He hustled himself into his encounter suit, checked his gauges and trudged out of the dome. No sense saying “goodbye.” Mom would already have her head stuck into her VR data interface and would never hear him.
Despite this gloomy start, Geoffrey’s mood lifted as soon as he ran into Guneel. Funny, he thought, how his breathing changed and his posture improved whenever he saw her crawling toward him.
Geoffrey didn’t want to think about how freaked out Mom would be, if she found out how right she’d been. Though Geoffrey and Guneel weren’t “technically” going out, it sure felt like it.
Finally, on Saturday morning, right after breakfast:
“Hey,” Guneel’s voice echoed in his mind.
“Guneel?” he answered.
“You ready to investigate?” thought Guneel. “Sending ‘video’ this way takes lots of concentration, so let’s talk after I’m done, OK?”
“Right,” Geoffrey responded. He hurried into his room so Mom would think he was studying and sat down at his work station in case she barged in. At the moment, the coast was clear; he could empty his head and receive Guneel’s vivid real-time transmission in peace.
By now his brain had adjusted to seeing images skewed toward the infrared end of the spectrum. The scene at the nearby lake spread out in front of him and … there … the rounded Tractari lander. It was partially buried in a mesh of reeds at the shoreline. Had it crash landed, or had the occupants simply made a half-hearted attempt to hide it?
The best part were the boot prints, not far from the ship, leading off to the southwest. Their roughly triangular shape told the whole story: three broad toes in front, balanced by a fourth, which took the place of a human heel. But what crazy Doltalyi would want to do business with the scheming Tractari?
Wait … what was that? Guneel’s telepathic video had begun to shake, like a camera being knocked about in the wind. “Guneel!” he called out. Now Guneel’s transmission zoomed down to the ground, focused momentarily on a distinctively triangular boot and went dead.
Frantic, Geoffrey ran straight into Mom’s office, nearly knocking her over as she stood immersed in her VR data feed.
“Mom!” he yelled. “The Tractari! They’re here on Doltal!”
Mom tore off her VR interface and glared at him.
“What?” she snapped. “Why, of course they are. They’re helping us survey and map out the terrain. Very efficient. They’ve changed a lot since the old days. But how did you know the Tractari are here? That information is classified. Don’t tell me you’ve been snooping in my office.”
“Mom, no!” Geoffrey shouted. “My friend at school told me she saw one of their ships down by the lake on the edge of Doltal City. I think they’ve kidnapped her.”
“Kidnapped?” said Mom. “What did I tell you about playing your video games so much? You’re so far gone you can’t tell what’s real anymore.”
Geoffrey shut his eyes tight.
“I’m not hallucinating,” he said. “My friend is telepathic. I saw the whole thing through her mind.”
Mom’s eyes darkened and she cupped Geoffrey’s forehead with the palm of her hand.
“Oh my poor baby,” she said. “There’s something wrong with the oxygen-nitrogen mix in your encounter suit. It’s addled your brain. I’ll get Dr. Alcott on the comlink right away.”
(To be continued)
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