Pauline found Maria where she often was: lounging in one of the cargo holds with the door open.

“You know I don’t like it when you do this,” said Pauline.

“And you know that I don’t like being interrupted when I’m doing this,” said Maria in turn. “Alas, we are at an impasse.”

Pauline planted herself in front of her shipmate, blocking the latter’s view. “It’s dangerous. What if you fall out?”

“Then I will lazily swim back,” replied Maria. “I know how to do it.” Dressed only in what was required to avoid slipping beneath the dress code, Maria held a smouldering cigarette in one hand. The intricate tattoos with which she had gradually been covering every inch of her body that didn’t ordinarily show in uniform were on full display, including the in-progress ink that had been interrupted at the outline stage by their sudden departure.

“Sunburn or worse, then,” Pauline said. “Your Scandinavian skin burns easily no matter how much you scratch it up. And solar radiation doesn’t screw around.”

“It is the closest thing to excitement that I get on this tub,” Maria said languidly. She walked the cigarette between her knuckles, unflinching at the pain when it left a trail of second-degree burns. “It makes me feel alive, knowing that all it will take is a slip of the ship to give me a fatal dose.”

“Is this about your contract? About Jessie?” Pauline took a kinder tone, or the best imitation of one she could manage with her naturally strident voice. “We can talk about that, we can get a psychologist on the line, a grief counselor, a lawyer-”

“No,” Maria said. “You don’t get the luxury of an answer that simple. People are complicated, they act in counterintuitive ways, and often the things they want, the things they need, the things that bring them the most pleasure…often, those are the things that hurt and kill them.”

“But I don’t want you hurt or killed, and neither does the skipper, and neither does the company.”

“Well, if I am I am, and if I’m not I’m not. At this point, hassling me about it is only going to lower my quality of work. And I think the skipper and the company and you want that even less. So buzz off. This is my off-duty time and I’ll spend it as I please.”

Pauline seemed about to pursue the matter, but instead sighed. “This isn’t over,” she said, moving away.

“It is from where I’m sitting.”

Walking through the cargo bay airlock, Pauline cycled it and removed her helmet. She looked back through the bay window at Maria: sitting on a deck chair wearing only her unmentionables and an emergency helmet, the kind that sealed around the neck and relied on the human body’s natural skin tension for the body integrity of anything below the neck.

It couldn’t have been a pleasant feeling, sitting out there in a raw and raging vacuum with just a helmet and 15 seconds of useful consciousness in the way of death by decompression. But maybe unpleasant was what Maria, for whatever reason, needed right now.

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