Dex sat anxiously at his desk. This was his one chance each day. The new girl sat right beside him in Mr. Fillmore’s homeroom—the only class they shared together. He just needed to strike up a conversation with her in the precious minutes before the bell rang.
He’d rehearsed what to say and how to say it a thousand times, but he’d never found the nerve. In fact, he’d never spoken to the new girl in school at all. For weeks, they’d sat just an arm’s length apart, but no matter how fiercely Dex wrestled with his cowardice, he’d never even managed to say hi. To a timid, quiet kid, just opening his mouth felt like a terrifying leap. But he was determined that today would be the day everything changed!
When she walked in the room, Dex’s heart started thundering. She had a sharp, exotic appearance, like a serrated blade. Jet-black hair swept from an ear-length crown to a stiletto point beside her left chin. Vivid red highlights graced each temple. Off-world makeup accented precociously attractive features, and among the colony’s pale natives, her olive complexion stood out like a fly in a milk pail. Tabitha Tempest was impossible to ignore.
Her parents were new converts to Pleiades Catholicism and recent immigrants to the colony on Gamma Ceti, in the Electra star system. Such newcomers were rare enough, but Tabitha was something truly exceptional. With insouciant poise and a fuck-off strut, she stood out—a defiant thorn in the otherwise prim campus flowerbed. Her early maturity also produced a gravitational effect on the male gaze.
Just by walking through the doors on her first day she’d inspired dozens of crushes. Subsequently, she’d earned resentment from dozens of jealous girls. The faculty disapproved of what they considered her provocative example. Tabitha herself appeared indifferent to all the unsolicited attention.
Since she didn’t fit in at Saint McIntyre’s Academy, Dex had dared to hope he and Tabitha might have something in common. He’d never fit in with his peers either. The remote colony on Gamma Ceti presented all the drawbacks of small-town life, but with less hope of escape. Each generation started school together as toddlers and stayed together until teenagers. Under those circumstances, most colonial natives built lifelong friendships. Dex, however, had a much different experience.
Most of his classmates admired the charismatic and effortlessly handsome star athlete, Travis Bannon. Yet Travis had always treated Dex with special malice. Over the years, his chronic bullying had influenced their peers and condemned Dex to the lowest social margin of the class. He became a target anyone could tease and everyone could ignore.
Dex was bright enough to recognize what that most likely meant for his future. Pleiades Catholics weren’t spacefarers, so he’d probably spend the rest of his life marooned on Gamma Ceti. Unless something monumental changed, he could expect the same treatment from his peers until the day he died. That prospect didn’t exactly give him much to look forward to.
But if he could find just one other person—one other outsider—to share his isolation, it might make that bleak future bearable. In his wildest fantasies, Dex liked to dream he and Tabitha might someday, somehow, actually be together. In reality, he’d be content just to make a real friend. That’s why he’d planned what to say to her so carefully. That’s why he’d struggled for weeks to summon the courage to say it. That’s why the fear of failure made him so nervous right now that his hands trembled. Dex knew with crystal clarity that what happened today could change his life.
Soon Tabitha turned down the aisle toward her desk. As usual, she wore black stockings beneath her plaid uniform skirt, along with a pair of black leather boots that Dex found distinctly intimidating. When she reached her desk, she swung her backpack from her shoulder. Dex caught the scent of her perfume in the air between them. He wanted to speak up right away, and he almost did. But Tabitha turned away from him as she dropped her backpack on her chair and opened it to collect her books for class.
Dex couldn’t bring himself to interrupt, so he waited for her to finish. As he sat, facing her, doubts and nerves jangled his thoughts. He was simultaneously excited and terrified. Time didn’t seem to flow normally. Heartbeats felt like eons. Part of him wanted to rush through this, blurt out what he had to say, and get the whole thing over with. Another part of him wanted to keep quiet, kick the can down the road one more day, and avoid risking his hope of a happy ending.
Then Travis Bannon suddenly took the matter out of Dex’s hands. From behind Dex’s seat, Travis reached toward Tabitha, who still stood leaning over her backpack. With a quick lunge, Travis grabbed the hem of Tabitha’s skirt and flung it up over her hips, exposing a slender triangle of apple-red underwear. Tabitha jumped with wide-eyed alarm. She immediately pulled her skirt back down, but not before half the room had glimpsed her upended modesty.
When she spun around to face the culprit, she found Dex staring at her with an anxious expression. Anger darkened her features. Shock froze Dex in place. This couldn’t be happening. Not with Tabitha. Not today. Not now!
Before Dex could say anything, Travis spoke up with a loud, accusatory tone. “Dex, why did you do that?”
Dex gawked. “What? It wasn’t me. You did it!”
“Come on now,” Travis taunted. “I was sitting right here and saw the whole thing.”
“I didn’t do it!” Dex insisted. “You did!” He turned to Tabitha, desperately sincere, and spoke to her for the very first time. “I would never do anything like that.”
Tabitha looked at him for a long moment. Travis continued accusing Dex, but Tabitha ignored him. Instead, she studied Dex, searching his eyes. Her expression remained stormy. Eventually, she spared a glance at Travis. Then she grabbed her backpack and stalked away to find a new seat. Her boots clacked sharply across the linoleum as she departed.
Devastated, Dex spun around. “Why did you do that?”
Travis sneered. “Shut up, loser.”
“You lied to her,” Dex accused.
“I said shut up!” Travis replied. Then he kicked the foot of Dex’s desk, causing it to spin halfway into the aisle. The jolt simultaneously knocked Dex’s books to the floor. Amid laughter and stares, Dex blushed and scrambled to pick up his things. Before he could collect everything, Travis stepped on a brightly colored paperback.
“What’s this?” Travis asked, looking down at the book under his foot.
“A book,” Dex answered.
“Let’s see it.” Travis picked it up and read the title aloud. “Dirk Dasher versus the Perilous Plot on Planet Polaris,” he scoffed. “What’s this about?”
Painfully aware of the attention of his peers, Dex answered quietly, “A guy who goes on adventures in space.”
Travis smirked, enjoying Dex’s humiliation. “It sounds stupid. Why are you reading it?”
“For fun? What kind of idiot reads books for fun?”
“Do you like this kind of crap?”
Dex didn’t answer.
“Do you want to be some kind of space adventurer when you grow up or something?”
Dex looked at his shoes and said nothing.
Travis gloated over his victim for a moment. Then he asked, “This isn’t contraband, is it?”
“No!” Dex answered emphatically. Church censors maintained a strict list of items permitted in Pleiadic society, and getting caught with unlisted goods was grounds for serious punishment. “I got it from the school library, so it can’t be contraband,” he added.
Travis frowned, disappointed. “Well, it looks dumb anyway,” he decided. “Next time, try to keep it off the floor, numb-nuts.” Then he tossed the book so that it bounced off Dex’s forehead and landed back on the ground with a thump.
As Dex collected his scattered belongings, the bell rang, announcing the start of homeroom. Dex slumped in his seat, shattered. Not only had he lost his chance to befriend Tabitha, but now she probably hated him. He’d truly needed the casual circumstances of sitting right beside her in class to break the ice; he was far too shy to even consider approaching her in the halls. Now that she’d changed seats, he had no idea how he could ever talk to her, let alone explain what had really happened that morning.
He couldn’t concentrate on that day’s homeroom announcements. Shame, guilt, anger, and despair tormented him. Eventually the period bell rang. Along with the rest of his class, Dex shuffled morosely into the hall and headed toward the chapel for Morning Mass.
Tradition inflicted this ritual service on the entire student body and faculty every morning—one of many ways in which Pleiades theology diverged from traditional Roman Catholicism. The most significant difference between the faiths lay in the Pleiadic rejection of modern technology. Pleiades colonies maintained an idealized version of twentieth-century society, believing that to be the last pure age before the human condition strayed too far from God’s plan.
Of course, the laws of the Colonial Administration required every colonial settlement to maintain at least one facility with a modern medical clinic and access to the Interstellar Data Network—the Net—for supply orders, communications, and periodic monitoring. The outpost on Gamma Ceti was staffed by a few diligent but mostly bored Federal agents. They received little contact from the Pleiades colonials, who shunned them as conduits to the temptations of modern society. Every kid on Gamma Ceti knew the Federal outpost was off-limits, but a few troublemakers often snuck in to peruse contraband trinkets or to make a brief, daring connection to the Net for “personal recreation.”
As he sat in chapel, Dex remained tormented. Nothing could stop his anxious thoughts. Not the discomfort of his rigidly starched uniform. Not the solemn Gothic architecture sim-painted on the walls. Not even the somber organ music reverberating from the titanium rafters. Only the drone of Morning Mass successfully erased his mind for a while.
As usual, the hours following the service blurred into a foggy-headed lethargy. Dex drifted through his morning classes, unable to focus on much of anything. Tabitha didn’t return to his thoughts until he glimpsed her in the cafeteria at lunch.
Like him, she sat alone. Like him, she also used books as a substitute for company at her small, empty table. Those facts, along with a dozen others he’d quietly observed, convinced him they might truly have something in common. He believed she’d want someone to sit with and talk to as badly as he did. But after what happened in homeroom that morning, he now had no idea how he could ever let her know.