Geoffrey’s frustrating appointment with Dr. Alcott, an EarthGov psychologist, droned on and on. Worse, no matter what he tried to say, the doctor would interrupt with an irrelevant question. Unfortunately, Geoffrey was experiencing a form of ritual humiliation that still lingered on — despite two thousand years of “enlightening” interstellar exploration.
“Guy’s a control freak,” Geoffrey told himself. Clearly, his only option was to let the fifty-something, know-it-all doctor do most of the talking. But, truth be told, Geoffrey would rather have asphyxiated in the planet’s ammonia-laden atmosphere, than listen to any more of Dr. Alcott’s condescending chatter.
“Son, have you ever wondered why you’re so resentful of your mother’s work?” the doctor asked.
Geoffrey knew it was a classic trick question. If he said “no” he was liable to hear:
“I can’t help you if you won’t face your feelings.”
But saying “yes,” just to make peace, would have led to disaster. Though Geoffrey was desperate to end the session, he dared not pretend he’d made up a story about Guneel, just to get attention. If Mom believed that, she might ditch her career out of guilt.
Besides, there was no simple answer to the doctor’s question.
Sure, it bugged him that Mom was obsessed with exo-geology. She never had much time for him, even on weekends. Wait for Mom to surprise him with fresh-baked brownies? He might as well wait for Guneel to turn human.
But there was more to the picture. if the doctor would only listen. Geoffrey was proud of his space-oriented family. Even Dad — disoriented, tormented Dad — would sometimes brighten up when the topic was interstellar travel.
“You see the whole thing, right in front of you,” he’d say “All those galaxies and gas clouds and asteroids! Then a super nova registers on the sensor array and everybody goes nuts. It’s fabulous, G-man.”
Then Dad would launch into a tirade about the price of peanut butter and Geoffrey would lose him again. But nothing about his session with Dr. Alcott disturbed Geoffrey nearly as much as the thought of Guneel, lying unconscious, exposed to the weather.
“Are you listening, Son?” said Dr. Alcott. “No wonder you do so poorly in school if all you do is daydream.”
Geoffrey stood up, walked out of the doctor’s office and into the waiting room. In the far corner sat Mom, huddled over a metadigital tablet.
“Session’s over,” he said. “Now can you ask for an updated scan of Doltal City?”
“Can’t talk about that here,” said Mom. “Come on.”
Out in the common area of the EarthSector dome, Geoffrey followed Mom to a row of dull gray benches that ringed a large planter, filled with lush flowering plants.
“I didn’t believe you,” said Mom, “but figured if the data proved you wrong, you’d calm down and tell me what was really bothering you.”
Geoffrey’s pulse quickened.
“And?” he asked.
“I should have known you wouldn’t make up a story like that,” said Mom. “EarthGov Security did find a Tractari ship that landed undetected — not far from where you said it would be.”
“What about….” Geoffrey started.
“There’s no sign of your friend … Guneel, is it?” said Mom. “But the planet’s best telepaths are searching for her mind 24/7.”
“Mom!” Geoffrey shouted. “Maybe they can’t find her ‘cause she’s in a coma or … or something. Can’t we get a police investigation?”
But as Mom explained, Doltal was not like a human world.
“Things move more slowly here,” she said. “And … well, your friend is a … a Chotaarese.”
“What?” said Geoffrey. “You’re gonna let them treat Guneel like Earth used to treat our ancestors?”
Mom hung her head.
“It’s out of my hands,” she said.
“Well, it’s not out of mine,” said Geoffrey.
He ran back to Mom’s dome, threw on his encounter suit, snapped on his helmet and ran out into the alien landscape. Frantic, he typed “lake at edge of Doltal City” into a small keypad on the left forearm of his suit and held his breath.
A few seconds later, the directional scanner on his helmet visor projected a map to the lake. An insistent red marker blinked to indicate his position.
Though Geoffrey wanted to run, he knew the locals might get suspicious and flag him down. Maybe by taking it slow and stopping once in a while, everyone would think he was just sight-seeing.
As far as it went, Geoffrey’s strategy worked. But would he reach Guneel in time to save her — and before his oxygen ran out?
(To be continued)
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