“I don’t like the idea of you risking your life on the strength of that one’s grip,” Lurol told Ranar when Thomas had strutted off to entertain himself, “let alone his good intentions. He’s a dozen trips shy of a medical discharge.”
“I know,” said Ranar. “But he won’t be psych profiled or evaluated.”
“Part of your agreement,” Lurol muttered. She thrust her big hands in the pockets of her silly lab coat.
“It is my life to risk,” Ranar said. He turned to Ann, “And yours.”
Creamy hot chocolate, Ann thought, gazing appreciatively at Ranar. Well, maybe a little cooled off, but still rich and warm.
“Let’s find somewhere more congenial to talk,” Ranar said, suddenly, to Ann.
Ann thought, I’m all yours!
They picked up refreshments from a self-serve bar on Second Contact’s promenade and sat down together at a table with morph seating that conformed to their respective preferences. Ranar talked about Gelackology’s unfortunate tendency to be dramatised in shoddy synthdramas. He blamed romanticised ideas about Sevolites, in particular, for the dismissal of his work by serious-minded Reetions.
“Whereas real, ordinary, human Gelacks,” he insisted, “must be what’s left of Earth’s population. A beta colony that explored in another direction after our jump to Earth collapsed a thousand years ago.”
“I thought Earth got trashed in the collapse,” Ann said, hoping to sound knowledgeable.
“We don’t really know for sure,” said Ranar. “In the absence of reliable observations it is impossible to know which maths apply, let alone compute the range of the space-time disturbance on the other side.” He went on about the difficulties while Ann listened with her chin propped in her palms.
“I thought you were an anthropologist,” she said, during a pause. “You sound more like you study space science.”
“I did.” He smiled, self-consciously. “When I was a boy.”
Ann scowled. “If you are so smart, how come you took up a subject as obscure as Gelackology?”
“Ah.” He sat back, loosening up for the first time since she had met him, as if he was laughing at himself now. “If you really must know, I think I had a crush on Ameron, the Gelack’s Ava.”
“Ameron?” cried Ann. “But he’s a man!”
“Is something wrong?” asked Ranar.
“No! No, I, uh — are you homosexual?” Ann asked.
“Is that a problem?” Ranar asked, puzzled.
“No. I, uh, no! Of course not.” She scowled. “Do you think I’m some sort of retro nut case or something?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You just seemed…” he lifted a hand in a gesture of uncertainty, “upset,” he concluded.
“You’re the genius,” she told him narrowly. “You figure it out.”
He did, but it took a moment. Then he said, blandly, “Oh. I’m sorry. I hope a, uh, romantic interest in me wasn’t a factor in your acceptance of the mission.”
“Hell, no! You think meeting sword-wielding Sevolites isn’t more exciting than doing time in a group home?”
“Swords?” Ranar echoed, in a disappointed tone. And pinched his nose. “We know Gelack politics are — or at least were — neo-feudal,” he admitted. “Fencing might be an elite sport, or swords may be religious symbols. There are ample explanations that fall well short of dueling from horseback in hard vacuum!”
Ann blinked at his vehemence.
He exhaled with force. “I am sorry. But I am sick of people fixating on the damned swords. If the Gelacks are a threat to us, it won’t be because of the swords.”
“I don’t know!” Ranar lost his temper, which upset him more than it did Ann. “If I knew,” Ranar told her stiffly, “I could write it up for the record and go home.” He excused himself.
Ann sat alone a moment, then went back to her quarters to brood.