“This seems like an unnecessary precaution,” Clod said.
“Yeah, well, if you hadn't rebuffed my sexual advances, I would have probably given you an STD, and then you'd have nothing to worry about,” Rica said with a grin, before locking the cabin behind her. Paul raised an eyebrow at her. “Hey. A girl gets lonely in space.”
“Not judging,” Paul said. “Just curious as to why I never heard about it. From either of you.”
“Girls don't talk about everything with guys. Especially when it's about the only other girl on a spaceship.”
“We should do this,” Paul said, and stepped out of the Perseus. It had been their home for years, and stepping out into the port reminded him of moving into his first apartment at college, because the Station was going to be their new home. He sealed the hatch behind him, with Clod on the other side.
“Do we really think we're likely to get territorial?” Rica asked.
“It's certainly possible. I think that's a part of what happened with Alisa- that, and a... a reaction I think her mind had to her body telling her she wasn't fulfilling her genetic mandate.”
“The parasite wants to breed. But Alisa wasn't a breeder. So she was at odds with it- and I think that made her scared- and that fear made her feral.”
“I'm not saying the science doesn't check out, Paul- I just want to know what you think. I mean- do you think when we open this door we're going to have the entire crew of the Station trying to murder us for entering their territory?”
“Well,” Paul said, “they didn't kill Ken or Laura- but they were uninfected, so that may not mean much of anything. Maria and I have talked, once or twice, and there didn't seem to be any extra antagonism. If I'm caught up on my wolf group dynamics, it's possible she and I will just split pack leadership.”
“And where would that leave Laura?”
“No place good,” Paul said. “But I'm assuming that unlike wolves we'd have the... wherewithal to choose our own mates, and not just stick with the caste system.”
“I think what I'm more worried about is if they see us as a threat,” Rica said. “I've kind of made my peace with being hairy, even for a Brazilian girl, but I'm having a bit more difficulty cozying up to the idea that I might very shortly be torn limb from limb by my colleagues. And that would happen, wouldn't it?” she asked. “If they are hostile, that's pretty much it for us, though, right? I mean, it's two on what, eight?”
“But that's not likely to happen.”
“Likelihood is meaningless,” Rica said. “No matter how many times you flip a coin, no matter how many times it comes up heads in a row, the odds are always fifty fifty.”
“I think we're going to be okay,” Paul said. “And if not, you should concentrate on getting back to the ship. If there's any logic to an attack, I'll have a target on my back. I can draw them away while you and Clod cut loose.”
“And go where?” Rica asked.
“Anywhere you can,” Paul said. “Hell, the Perseus is designed to be self-sustaining. With a little care, you could both probably live out your days floating in a stable orbit onboard.”
“But that's not going to happen,” Rica said. “Because we're going to be fine. We're going to greet them, and it'll be like old times.”
“Right,” Paul said. He unbolted the hatch. He was surprised to see Ken waiting on the other side of the door. “You’re supposed to be locked safely away,” Paul said.
“And you’re supposed to be a scary fucking werewolf, marking his territory up and down the decks. Besides, I’m in space. I couldn’t die a happier man smothered by Olson Twins. Pre-menopausal, of course.”
“I don’t think they’re menopausal, yet.”
“Then there's still time.” But there was something wrong with Ken. Paul smelled at the air. He smelled differently. “It's creepy,” Ken said. “Bill did the same thing to me. And Colleen's been walking around with her tail between her legs since- metaphorically speaking.”
“Colleen?” Paul asked.
“She was lonesome. And voluptuous.”
“Ken...” Paul said in his best dad voice.
“And she's an astronaut, and shares my love of space.”
“I thought you don't fuck astronauts.”
“I'm not Ground Control anymore,” Ken said. “And priorities change.”
“You like her,” Paul said with a smile.
“I'm not dignifying that with a response, as I'm no longer an eighth grade boy.”
“She making an honest man of you, then?”
“It's still fledgling,” Ken said, “but less dishonest, we'll call it. But obviously we're to the point of passing STDs.”
“STDs?” Paul asked. “As in plural?”
“As in the theoretical passing of them.”
Paul smelled the air. “But the actual passing of at least one.”
“When in Rome,” Ken said, and shrugged. “Besides- I kind of got the feeling that I was always going to be an outsider looking in otherwise. Tolerated, on account of human beings pretending we're not fairly closely related to cave folk, but not really a part of the group.”
“I never thought I'd hear you complain about solitude.”
“Me? I'm a fucking social butterfly-”
“With an emphasis on the butt?”
“I value solitude,” Ken continued, ignoring him, “but past a certain degree, solitude's just too fucking lonesome.”
“Hmm,” Paul shrugged. “How's Laura?” he asked.
Ken smiled. “You did pretty well, there,” he said, “holding off on asking, letting me get through my bullshit. I'm impressed by your restraint.”
“Then why are you stalling?” Paul asked.
“If you met a man who claimed he hadn't flatulated in thirty years, could you keep yourself from poking him in the belly, just because?”
“Yes,” Paul said, “because that much compressed gas built up could make him a walking thermonuclear device.”
“I think you're lying,” Ken said, “but I don't have the medical training to know for sure. But Laura's great. She's been working basically as Mai and Maria's intern since she got up here- while she finishes her correspondence coursework. She's even been talking to a few schools about the prospect of remotely pursuing her doctorate- which it sounds may be easier than I' d have thought, since awarding the first interorbital doctorate seems to get some administrators wet.”
“And her and Maria?”
“No catfight. Though I've been picturing them saving up their pent up hostilities to turn loose on you in tandem- the naked kind of tandem.”
“Purely on your behalf,” Ken said. “But speaking of your behalf...” Paul recognized Ang, walking slowly towards them. “I arranged to have Ang come out first. Everybody else is crammed into the control room. I wanted to give you and Ang a chance to sniff each other first- see if there was any hostility between the least hostile specimens we've got.”
“Makes sense,” Paul said. “I thought we were all just going to end up in a room together.”
“I occasionally make good administrative judgment calls.”
Ang stopped several steps away from him. “You okay?” Ang asked.
“Fine. Never better, really.”
“I don't mean physically,” Ang said. “I just- I know you've been through a lot. So I wanted to know if you were okay.”
“I'm fine, Ang,” he said. “And thanks for asking.”
“How’s everybody coping?”
“It’s been rough,” he said, “and rougher on some than others. Skot slit his wrists and bled out- but he didn’t die. Colleen may never see her kids again- but she’s… coping,” he looked awkwardly in Ken’s direction, and Paul smiled.
“How you boys doing?” Ken asked. “Any overpowering urges to assert your dominance? Or maybe to tear out each others’ tummies?”
“Other than a weird desire to try and figure out what you both have been eating...” Paul said awkwardly.
“Oh, thank God,” Ang said, “I worried that was just me. And I think I’m too old to get used to having a butt-sniffing fetish.”
“Yeah,” Paul laughed, “butt-sniffing is a young man’s game.”
“Eventually,” Ken said, “you get to be an old enough man you realize you don’t have enough time left to be picky, and if that involves ass-sniffing, then by God you’re going to be up to your nose hairs in colon.”
Ang and Paul made a face together in unison. “Prudes,” Ken said. “The rest of you can come out,” he bellowed through the comms.
Maria was the first one through the door. The sight of her made his heart beat a little faster. Despite herself, she walked right up to him, and went for his neck. Paul wondered if she was attacking his throat, but let it happen, anyway. She inhaled his smell deeply, and in doing so, knocked her hair into his nose. He breathed her scent in, smiled wistfully, and exhaled.
“Missed you,” he said.
“Me, too,” she said. Mai visibly shrank behind her.
They all stared at Paul, breathless from anticipation. He froze, terrified at the prospect of being confronted for visiting this horror on all of them. But his eyes stopped on Bill, who clearly had a question. At the acknowledgement, Bill stood up a little straighter.
“What was Mars like?” Bill asked.
“Red,” Paul said, and laughed. “But empty, and hostile. It didn’t want us there. It clogged our exhaust ports with dust, broke everything it possibly could. I’ll take the Lunar Station, any day.” He paused to swallow, and center himself. “I’m so happy to see all of you.”
Paul’s eyes fell on the one person whose eyes weren’t on him. Skot was standing apart from the group, looking away. Paul walked towards him, and people made room for him to move.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Skot. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.” Behind him, Mai’s eyes became tight balls of rage. “I’m sorry to all of you, for the pain I caused. But Skot-”
“It’s not you,” Skot interrupted, and turned towards him. “I’d love to hate you. I would. I’d love to blame you- and when I’m feeling particularly self-pitying, maybe I do. But you didn’t infect us. And even Maria- you didn’t hurt me because you wanted to. And you didn’t put the gun in Vince’s hand. Very Romeo and Julian; he’d still be alive if he weren’t such a romantic dick.” He sniffled, and wiped his eyes.
“I’m going to be a sullen prick,” he continued, “at least for a while. But there isn’t bad blood. This tragedy happened to all of us. Just- the weight of it hit some of us harder, is all.”
“But if there’s anything I can do,” Paul said, “shoulder to cry on, ear to listen, a deserving jaw for punching, whatever might ease-”
He didn’t get to finish the thought as Skot’s fist landed on the right side of his jaw. Paul flew backward, landing on his backside, and skidding. Tense silence filled the group as they expected they were moments from two wolves tearing at each other.
Paul laughed from the floor. He was smiling. Ang helped him to his feet. “Hell of a punch,” Paul said, touching his lip, but merely smearing the steady stream of blood dribbling from his lip. “Feel better?”
“Marginally,” Skot said. “But it helps.”
“Just do me a favor, next time. A little warning.”
Ang sighed, relieved. “I’m glad that’s resolved. Because it’s a loooong trip down on the Elevator, and you’d be surprised how much more awkward awkward situations can be with that kind of downtime.”
“Mai?” Bill asked.
“Yeah,” Ang said, turning a little red. “I learned my lesson. When asking a girl out for the first time, it’s best not to be on the first leg of a thirty-some hour round-trip trek where you’re going to be trapped with her in an enclosed space.”