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I Can’t Believe It’s Not March!

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Jopson ran.

The corridors of the ship were deserted. The walls were splattered with blood. In the distance, he could hear screaming. He turned a corner. There was a body slumped on the ground. He aimed his AK-47 at it.

It wouldn’t have been the first corpse to get to his feet and attack him today.

Growling. Gunshots.

“Come on, hurry up!” Armitage called out for them. “I’m out of ammo and the zombies keep coming.”

“I can’t find you,” Jopson calmly told him as he climbed up a ladder. “Where are you?”

“I don’t know! A Boomer got me,” Armitage replied. “I can’t see anything!”

“You’re the only one to blame, Tom,” Des Voeux's bored voice came through the headphones. “We told you not to get separated from the party.”

Jopson reached Armitage just in time to see his character get killed by a Hunter. ”Damn.”

“Great.” Armitage sighed. “I got killed. Stupid useless AI.”

“We do need a fourth player,” Jopson admitted as he made short work of the zombies around Armitage’s—or, rather, Nick’s—corpse. He had Rochelle take her defibrillator out to revive his partner.

“Don’t bother,” Des Voeux said, his character having shown up at last. “Let’s play a different campaign. This one is too buggy.”

“Yeah, and I’m tired of being in a ship, anyway,” Armitage agreed.

“We can download another one, if you like,” Jopson suggested, pressing Alt+Tab to switch to his browser and opening Steam’s workshop.

“Nah. It’ll take forever to choose one,” Des Voeux said.

It did take them too long to decide on a campaign last time. Even picking a game had been difficult. Jopson’s beat-up laptop couldn’t play any games made after 2010, and both Des Voeux and Armitage had strong opinions about which first-person shooter games counted as real games. Eventually, they had learned that all three of them had Left 4 Dead 2 installed in their computers, and had been playing that game ever since.

He took a sip from the cup of tea waiting for him on the bedside table. He was playing from the privacy of his cabin today, as these days Doctor Crozier was prone to spending most of his free time in Fitzjames’ office. There weren’t any desks in the tiny room, so Jopson was sitting on his bed, his computer balanced on his lap, using a copy of Sagan’s Cosmos as a makeshift mousepad. It was hardly the ideal set up, and his neck and back were already protesting his mistreatment, but unlike Des Voeux, he didn’t feel comfortable gaming in one of the meeting rooms. He’d rather leave those to people who were actually working.

Even if everyone aboard seemed to have given up on work after this morning’s news.

“Let’s do one of the official campaigns,” Jopson switched back to the game, where his character had gotten killed. With a sigh, he went back to the intro menu. “How about Dead Center?”

“The ending at the mall is okay.” Coming from Des Voeux, that was high praise.

As Jopson created a new room, he heard Armitage say, “But let’s skip the Hotel and go directly to the second chapter. I want to get a combat shotgun in the gun shop.”

While Armitage and Des Voeux bickered about which of the games’ shotguns was the best, Jopson sent the invitations. After a couple of seconds, his two companions joined him in the waiting room and chose their usual characters. Jopson started the level and the loading screen appeared on his laptop.

Image Description: A wooden wall. In the centre of it is a movie poster that shows four armed people surrounded by zombies. The title of the movie is “Dead Center”, with the subtitle “Prices Aren’t the Only Things Getting Slashed” under it. To the sides of the movie poster are informative posters with recommendations to stay safe during an epidemic, such as “Maintain a Healthy State of Mind” o “Clean hands save lives”. Someone has graffitied “Not a flu” over them.

As they waited for the game to load, Jopson couldn’t help but read the posters.

Clean hands save lives. Maintain a healthy state of mind. Not a flu.

Inevitably, he thought of what had happened at breakfast. That morning, Bridgens had run into the mess hall to announce that Morfin was showing strange symptoms. Goodsir and McDonald had rushed back to the infirmary, a very reluctant Doctor Stanley in tow. They hadn’t had any news from the ship’s medical doctors since then.

With no proof that whatever Morfin had was COVID-19--nor any proof that it wasn’t--Doctor Crozier had recommended to Thomas to act normally until they had more information. At a loss for anything productive to do, he had accepted Des Voeux’ invitation to play.

“Not a flu,” Armitage murmured. “Too fucking real.”

Jopson was inclined to agree.

“Do you think he has it,” Des Voeux said, his tone too flat for it to sound like a proper question.

“Who knows,” Jopson replied.

“I heard he got the shits,” Armitage told them.

“I wouldn’t want to be him, then,” Des Voeux said. “There isn’t a single square of TP left in the ship.”

Right. The issue with the toilet paper. Jopson had his own theory about that.

The level finished loading. Jopson grabbed a firearm and a medkit, opened the door of the shelter, and took aim.

*

The three doctors looked through the window of the infirmary’s observation room. Bridgens and Morfin were on the other side of that door, sitting on a stretcher. Bridgens was rubbing the other man’s back. Morfin never looked particularly healthy, but today his complexion had even more of a greenish tint than usual.

“Doctor Stanley, Morfin has been coming to you for medical advice, hasn’t he?” MacDonald asked.

“Yes.” Stanley sighed. “The first week he learned that apart from having a PhD I was also a medical doctor, and he’s been bothering me ever since.”

MacDonald clenched his jaw. He had met doctors like Stanley before. Any symptom that they couldn’t explain was fictitious; any patient who didn’t meekly submit to their negligence was labelled as hostile. “Would you say he’s in a worse state than usual?”

Stanley snorted. “If you ask me, there’s never been anything wrong with him. It’s a classic case of Munchausen syndrome. He pretends to be ill to get people’s attention.”

Stanley and Goodsir peered through the window once again. Morfin was kneeling on the ground now, bent over a bin as he retched. Next to him, Bridgens was holding Morfin’s hair back.

“I wouldn’t say that *that’s* nothing,” MacDonald deadpanned.

Stanley lifted his chin to look at Morfin. “Mere seasickness.”

MacDonald stared at him. “Seasickness.”

“Yes.”

 

“A sailor with decades of experience. In a ship at anchor.” MacDonald crossed his arms. “Seasick.”

Stanley sniffed. “It’s not unusual for people with Munchausen to choose professions that make it easier to keep up their pretence.”

MacDonald tapped his fingers on his elbow. “I assume you also believe the diarrhoea is caused by seasickness.”

“Merely a case of Delhi belly. I told the cook he should stop making those ethnic dishes.” Stanley snorted disdainfully. “They’re the entire reason we’ve run out of toilet paper.”

MacDonald took a deep breath and released it slowly.

“I see no reason why we should take up any more of your time, Doctor Stanley. I can treat Mister Morfin myself,” he said.

“He’s all yours,” Doctor Stanley said, already making to leave. “But I’d act fast if you don’t want him to dehydrate.”

First do no harm, MacDonald reminded himself as he watched Stanley leave. It was that or strangling him. He turned around and opened a box of latex gloves.

“If you don’t mind, Doctor Stanley,” Goodsir said, “I’d like to be present as you examine Morfin.”

“Are you sure?” MacDonald asked him. “It’s unlikely that Morfin has COVID-19, but we can’t rule it out yet, and we don’t have much in the way of protective equipment.”

Goodsir nodded. “I’m aware of the risks. I’d like to help anyway, if that’s okay.”

There were two types of medical doctors, MacDonald knew. On the one hand, you had those who had chosen their profession for the social status and pay, rather than because they had any talent for caring for others. On the other, you had truly compassionate people who only wanted to help others. It was a tragic fact of life that the former tended to fare better than the latter. There was a reason for it. In a profession that exposed one to so much pain, you had to learn how to compartmentalize. Find an equilibrium between remaining sympathetic and being destroyed by your own empathy; between keeping a professional distance and becoming cold and heartless.

Not everyone managed it. Stanley, MacDonald suspected, had started as a compassionate man, but hadn’t been able to strike the right balance. At one point he’d had to choose, and had chosen to preserve his own sanity.

Goodsir, on the other hand… it was obvious that the man would rather destroy himself than stop caring, even in a world as cruel as this one. Even now that he had left his practice he’d done it only to take on an even more impossible challenge: curing the world. Ending climate change. It was a wonder that he hadn’t burnt out yet, with the way he wore his heart on his sleeve.

MacDonald admired him, but he wouldn’t switch places with him.

“Alright.” MacDonald passed the man the box of latex gloves. “But there’s something we should do first. Say, Goodsir,” he smiled, “are you a crafty man?”

Goodsir blinked. “I’m decent at drawing. Why do you ask?”

MacDonald tossed him a roll of trash bags.

*

“So this is the official inventory,” Hickey murmured as he scrolled.

“Yeah. I made it myself.” Gibson pillowed his head on his arms.

The two of them were laying in Gibson’s tiny bed. Hickey was on his stomach, scrolling through the inventory on his phone. Billy himself was on his back, watching him. He had tried to start something earlier, kissing at that spot behind Cornelius' ear that usually got him going, but the man had shrugged him off.

“Focus, Gibson,” he had said, and had gone back to scrolling.

Gibson had never had a lover like Cornelius. Hickey was shameless, completely guilt-free in his pursuit of pleasure, and utterly selfish. Not that he didn’t make Billy come, mind you. If anything, he seemed to take pride in driving him desperate. But there was always something showy about it. As if he was performing for an audience or, rather, as if he was scoring himself. As if the way Gibson felt mattered only in as much as it said something about Hickey himself.

Frankly, it wasn’t the worst deal. He’d gotten his dick sucked more times in the last few weeks than in his entire life.

Still, there was something about the way Hickey held himself when they were together. Even balls-deep inside Gibson, Cornelius kept… Observing him. As if he was merely a witness to the proceedings, untouched by them, save for some vague amusement. Even when Hickey came, there was something distant about him. It was unnerving.

But then… every once in a while Hickey would do something. Lace their fingers together. Smile fondly at him. Bring him smuggled sweets. It was the sort of lovey-dovey, touchy-feely crap that Gibson wouldn’t have tolerated in other lovers, and yet with Hickey he found himself starved for that sort of contact. He had never felt like this before. Gibson was always the distant one. The one who rolled his eyes at other people’s love confessions. And yet, when Hickey wrapped one of those long-fingered hands around his throat and squeezed, that feral glint in his eyes--Billy wanted to moan ‘yours, yours, yours’ until he ran out of breath.

At least he was getting blown for his troubles.

“You didn’t do a very good job,” Hickey said. “There’s a lot of information missing in this inventory. For example, it says here that the coastguards brought us two boxes of gauze rolls, but not how many rolls there were in each box.”

Billy bristled. “Excuse you.”

“Oh, that’s a good thing, don’t worry.” Hickey patted his chest distractedly. “We can skim off the top. The toilet paper is only the beginning. You have to think big. A roll of gauze can so easily be displaced, but once it’s the only one left in the ship… it becomes invaluable.”

“Wait, gauze?” Gibson sat up. “We’re not stealing medical supplies, are we?”

Hickey regarded him in silence. Gibson felt like a child waiting to be scolded by their teacher, which was ridiculous, because Billy had never been a teacher’s pet. Still, he couldn’t help but sigh in relief when Cornelius smiled.

“Aww, Billy,” he said, setting the phone aside. “You’re not coming down with a case of scruples, are you?”

Gibson snorted. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course not. But gauze? You don’t know what maritime accidents are like. They can get ugly.”

“That they can.” Hickey’s grin widened. He rolled on top of him. When he leaned down to kiss him, Billy was helpless to resist, groaning under his mouth. “Imagine that something happened to you.” He rocked down against him. Gibson grunted, the stimulation a little bit too much this early in the proceedings. “A nasty fall… a cut… a little accident becoming a big deal, because that MacDonald fellow wasted all the gauze on an ingrown toenail.” His voice became low, intimate, as he said, “You’d be left bleeding out on the deck, your guts spilling out all over the place.”

“Does that…” Gibson managed, scandalized, his breath catching as Hickey undid the zipper of his uniform from his collar to his groin. “Does that turn you on?”

Hickey laughed. His mouth latched itself to Gibson’s throat, teeth digging in to leave an angry red mark. Gibson groaned, whether in pain or pleasure—he couldn’t have said.

“I only want to protect you, Billy,” Hickey said, sweetly, like razor blades dipped in honey. His blue eyes peered down at him and he stroked his face with the back of his fingers. “Don’t you want me to take care of you?”

Please, Gibson thought. Luckily, he was not stupid enough to do say it out loud. Instead, he grabbed at Hickey’s shirt and pulled him down for a hungry kiss.

They were rutting against each other, Hickey’s hand halfway down the front of his unzipped uniform, when there was a knock on the door.

“Gibson, open the door!” Tozer’s voice came through it.

Hickey groaned and rested his forehead on Gibson’s shoulder. “I hoped he’d stop doing that after he started working for us,” he hissed. They heard the door being unlocked. Cornelius blinked. “Since when does he have the key to your bedroom?” he asked, his tone reproachful.

“The captain has the master key,” Gibson pushed Hickey off him and sat up. “He probably lent it to him.”

“Huh.” Hickey twisted his neck from side to side, seeming to consider this.

The door opened. As it turned out, Peglar had been using his own key to unlock it. Tozer was with him, of course, as well as Armitage.

“Can we help you?” Hickey asked. He had produced his vape pen from somewhere and was sucking on it, regarding them with his best ‘Paint me like one of your French girls’ posture.

“Yeah,” Tozer said gruffly. “You need to go to the infirmary.”

“Why?” Hickey said. “I’m feeling fine. How about you, Billy?”

“You’ve been in close contact with Peglar, who has been in close contact with Bridgens, who rooms with Morfin,” Tozer explained. “We’re isolating all of you.”

“Seems sensible.” Hickey got off the bed and stretched his arms above his head. “Alright, Gibson, see you when you’re released.”

Hickey was already making to leave the cabin, but Tozer stopped him with a hand on his chest. “We’re isolating you, too. You’ve been in close contact with Gibson.”

“Have I?” Hickey looked at him as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

Tozer arched an eyebrow. Hickey’s expression didn’t change.

Cornelious took a drag from his pen and exhaled a mouthful of liquorice-scented smoke. “You can’t just lock us up.”

“We can. Admiralty law.” Tozer rolled his shoulders. “What the captain says goes.”

Hickey tilted his head. “Is that an actual law, or are you paraphrasing?”

“Hickey,” Tozer said, “I’m serious. You have to come to the infirmary. It has nothing to do with…” Tozer glanced at Peglar next to him and cleared his throat. “What we discussed yesterday.”

“No, I get it.” Hickey nodded with mock solemnity. “It’s only, Morfin to Bridgens to Peglar to Gibson to me. How many degrees of separation are you going for? Because at this rate we’ll be reaching Kevin Bacon by tomorrow.” He grinned. “Will they have to isolate you too if I kiss you?”

Tozer, Billy noticed, seemed intrigued by the idea. Gibson’s fists clenched at his sides.

But intrigued or not, Tozer shook his head. “Armitage,” he snapped his fingers. “Deal with him.”

“With pleasure, sir,” Armitage said, and before Hickey could react he had slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. He was only ever so slightly taller than Hickey, but he had enough muscle on him that Cornelius couldn’t fight him off.

“Don’t bother complaining,” Tozer said. “He’s deaf in that ear. Won’t hear you.”

His voice strained from the position, Hickey said, “Touché, Tozer. Touché.”

“Gibson, are you coming with us or what?” Tozer asked him.

“Let me grab my charger.” Gibson did just that before following them outside the cabin.

“Sorry, Billy,” Peglar said.

Gibson rolled his eyes, and the five of them headed for the infirmary.

*

“Of course,” Hodgson said, “there’s no reason to believe it’s COVID-19.”

After breakfast, Little, Irving and Hodgson had headed for the outer deck. They had been planning on having a meeting that day, but none of them could imagine working after what had happened. Des Voeux had disappeared to go play a video game for a while, but had returned a couple hours later, saying only that Armitage had work to do and that playing with two bots in your team was pointless.

Now the four of them laid on deck chairs. Officially, they were relaxing and sunbathing. In reality, Edward suspected they were feeding off each other’s anxiety.

“Isn’t there?” Des Voeux said, as tonelessly as ever.

“Well, no, of course.” Hodgson frowned behind his sunglasses. His pale complexion wasn’t made for the Caribbean weather. He was sunburnt already, his skin quickly going from salmon-pink to lobster-red. “According to Lauer et al. 1, the median incubation period is five days and less than two-point-five percent of patients develop symptoms in two days. He talked with those coast guards yesterday. It's been less than twenty-four hours.”

“Morfin might be an outlier,” Des Voeux pointed out. “They exist.”

“They do indeed,” Irving agreed.

Although Edward knew his labmate was only agreeing with the mathematical reality of outliers, he still felt his anxiety heightening. “Can we talk about something else?”

Hodgson shook his head, whether at Des Voeux or Edward, it was hard to say. “No, it’s impossible. Mister Morfin is simply a very sickly man. I remember him mentioning that he was ill several times during the trip.”

“True,” Des Voeux conceded. Hodgson beamed, no doubt sure that he had convinced him. But Charles turned to the side to face him. “So what if he’s immunocompromised, and that’s why he was so quick to get the symptoms?”

“Mmh.” Hodgson pursed his lips. “The paper did not mention what was the incubation period for immunocompromised adults.”

“Please,” Edward insisted. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“No matter how immunocompromised he is, the incubation period would be the same,” Irving said, his tone cutting.

“Would it?” Des Voeux asked, his voice neutral.

All three doctors considered this and came to the conclusion that they were not, in fact, positive of that. As one, they took their phones out.

“Mmh,” Hodgson said, sitting up. “Apparently, there’s a stealth period during which respiratory viruses suppress the symptoms by inhibiting the immune system, but that would all happen a posteriori.”

“Mmh, this one is interesting,” Edward clicked on a link. “They’re debating using corticosteroid immunosuppression to treat the hyperinflammation caused by the virus, but fear the side effects.”

“I’m finding a lot of information about the incubation period of HIV,” Irving scrolled through his phone. “Do you want me to send the paper to you, Little?”

Edward clenched his teeth. “Why would I?”

“Oh, you know,” Irving said vaguely.

Edward couldn’t usually muster enough authority to glare, but he did his best attempt at it now. “I really don’t.”

“Well,” Irving shrugged, avoiding Edward’s eyes. “I was just thinking it might be helpful for you, since your lifestyle--”

“Found it!” Hodgson raised his voice, for once seeming to notice the tension between his labmates. “The duration of the incubation period does vary depending on the host’s immunological fitness. There you go.”

“So it might be corona.” Des Voeux watched them, head pillowed on his folded arm. Unlike them, he hadn’t even taken his phone out.

“Well, it’s still unlikely,” Hodgson said. “I don’t think he has a fever, after all.”

Des Voeux got comfortable on the deck chair. “He does.”

Irving scoffed. “Yeah, right. Who told you that?”

“Your boyfriend.”

Irving blushed. “Doctor Hickey is not my boyfriend!2

Des Voeux’s expression somehow managed to convey both boredom and interest. “Then how come you knew exactly who I meant?”

“Because you keep calling him my--” Irving inhaled and exhaled, the gesture practised. He must have downloaded that Christian meditation app he was always talking about. “Nevermind. I’m going to turn the other cheek.”

Des Voeux arched an eyebrow. “Is that slang for spanking?”

“What!?” Irving’s skin was now redder than Hodgson’s. Des Voeux smirked. Irving crossed his arms “No. I refuse to rise to the bait.”

Hodgson cleared his throat. “Back to the topic at hand...”

Little groaned. “Do we have to keep talking about this?”

Hodgson continued as if Little hadn’t said anything, as he was wont to do. “Short incubation period or not, it’s extremely unlikely that Morfin has the virus.”

“Really,” said Des Voeux.

Hodgson nodded. “Yes.”

“Are you positive about that?” Des Voeux insisted with the same dispassionate tone of voice with which he was capable of talking about anything, from the weather to amazing life accomplishments.

Hodgson raised his chin proudly. “Absolutely.”

Des Voeux gestured at something behind him. “So you don’t care that Morfin is standing right behind you.”

Hodgson jumped to his feet and looked around.

Of course, Morfin was not anywhere in sight.

Des Voeux chuckled.

Cheeks pink, and not just from his worrying sunburn now, Hodgson sat back down. “There was no need for that.”

Des Voeux only laughed harder, a shit-eating grin on his lips.

“Remind me again why we brought him along on this trip,” Little murmured.

“He was the only undergrad who could pay for the trip’s fee,” Irving replied.

“Oh, right.” For the millionth time, Edward cursed the grant application system.

“Nevertheless,” Hodgson said, undeterred. “I’m certain that Mister Morfin simply has colitis. Speaking of which,” he cleared his throat, “have any of you found a way to manage the loo paper shortage?”

There was no way Edward was going to answer that one. He pretended he hadn’t heard him.

Hodfson insisted, “I ask only because I’m running out of monogrammed handkerchiefs, and--” Hodgson sat up. “What are those gentlemen doing?”

One of the ship’s officers was walking toward them, nearly a dozen people following him like a bunch of ducklings. One of the crewmen was carrying Irving’s boyf--Doctor Hickey over his shoulder. Hickey was hanging limply, as if his current situation had nothing to do with him.

“Good morning,” the officer--Tozer--said, and stopped to stand next to them. “Have you been in close contact with Morfin since yesterday?”

The four of them looked at each other. Edward was the one to answer. “No.”

The officer took his phone out of his pocket and began reading off a list, “How about John Hartnell? Bridgens? Peglar? Gibson?”

“Who the hell are those people,” Des Voeux murmured.

“Hickey? Armitage? Le Vesconte? Collins? Manson?” As Tozer continued listing names, Edward noticed that they corresponded with the people following him.

“I’m afraid not,” Edward said, frowning, and then, in a hesitating tone, added, “unless talking with you right now counts?”

Tozer paused, seeming to consider this.

“Told you,” Hickey said, raising his head from where it hung upside down somewhere in the vicinity of Armitage’s belly. “Kevin Bacon.”

Tozer huffed. “Alright. Up you go, you’re coming with us.”

FOOTNOTES:

1 Hodgson was the only person Little knew who was capable of speaking in italics. He was not, however, the only person in the ship who had read Lauer et al.’s paper right after breakfast, just to confirm that it was indeed impossible for Morfin to have fallen ill so fast.

Because scientists are, regrettably, humans, knowing this had comforted exactly zero of the inhabitants of the Terror.

And if you were wondering, yes, Lauer et al.'s paper is real. But since it's from all the way back in March, take it with a grain of salt. [ ▲ ]

2 Hickey had not, in fact, told Des Voeux this.

He was also not Irving’s boyfriend. If he was, John would have had a chance to get laid at least once before the decade was over. [ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

Silna sat cross-legged on the bed. She tapped the little camera icon next to her father’s name. Her face appeared on her phone’s screen. People always took it upon themselves to tell Silna what they thought of her appearance. When she was younger, she had tried telling them that their opinions were unwelcome. Now, at 41, she mostly told them to shove those opinions up their ass. It did little to stop people, but it felt good.

Still, by now she was used to being told she was ‘aloof’ and ‘distant,’ and had lost count of how many times she had been called a bitch. She didn’t mind that one. It was better than when people felt like being clever and called her an ice queen. At the end of the day, all this vitriol said more about other people’s expectations of how a woman should behave than about her. Silna took it as a point of pride that her face conveyed exactly how she felt at all times. If people wanted her to stop looking bored and unimpressed, they should try harder. Silna suffered no fools and smiled only when she felt like it.

Now, as her father’s face appeared on screen, she did smile.

She propped up her phone against the lamp on the bedside table to free her hands for signing. ‘Hello, ataata.’

The signs felt unfamiliar in her hands. They always were, at the beginning of their calls. She had gotten so used to talking in ASL with Harry that talking in Inuit Sign Language now felt odd.

All the more reason to practice her IUR1.

‘Hello, Silna,’ his father greeted her. ‘It’s good to see you.’

‘You seem well,’ she told him.

‘The virus hasn’t reached our town yet.’ Her father answered her unspoken question. Silna let out a sigh of relief. Ever since she had read about the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nunavik, she’d been worrying. ‘You also seem healthy.’

This was precisely why she had called him. ‘One of the men who talked yesterday with the men from the island has fallen ill.’

His father’s eyes widened. ‘Was it the captain’s brother or the other man?’

‘No, the other one. Morfin,’ she replied.
The sign she had chosen for the man meant ‘sickly and gaunt’, appropriately enough, but her delivery of it lacked the hatred of Franklin’s sign.

The man seemed nice enough. She wasn’t in the habit of insulting those who were kind.

His father tilted his head. ‘Is it the virus?”

Silna hesitated. ‘We don’t know yet. Harry must be examining him now.’

His father frowned and looked at something above Silna.

Something touched her shoulder.

Silna shrieked and drew her elbow back. It collided with something soft. She turned around.

Goodsir was bent over, arms held protectively over his stomach. Silna got off the bed.

‘What are you doing here?’ she asked him.

Goodsir shook his head, expression confused.

Right. ASL, not IUR. She switched languages. ‘What are you doing here?’

Goodsir straightened, his expression still pained. ‘I came to get something from my luggage. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you had seen me come in.’

Silna felt her face grow hot. ‘You didn’t startle me,’ she told Goodsir. ‘I was having a private conversation with ataata.’

‘That’s ‘father’ in Inuit Sign Language, isn’t it?’ Goodsir tilted his head, his expression curious. As if her language was just another mollusc to dissect and inspect under his microscope.

‘What did you need from your luggage?’ she asked, the movements of her hands sharp.

Goodsir paused, seeming to understand that he had overstepped. ‘Doctor McDonald’s infirmary doesn’t have the proper protective equipment to examine COVID-19 patients, so I want to see if there’s anything in my bag we can use to improvise something.’

Of course. The tiny infirmary wouldn’t be equipped to handle a situation like this one. None of them were. Silna felt a pang of guilt for having gone off at Harry, given what was happening.

She didn’t let it show on her face.

‘I hope Morfin isn’t too ill,’ she said. The words felt awkward. This was why she hated switching between two languages. She felt caught between IUR and ASL, not fully able to express herself in either. She tried again. ‘Morfin seems like an okay man.’

Goodsir smiled at her. ‘He’d be glad that you approve of him.’

Silna arched an eyebrow at him. ‘Approve of him? I said that he’s *okay*’

Goodsir laughed. ‘I’m not used to you not hating people. Anyway, I should hurry up. Please apologize to your--’ here he tried to imitate the sign for ‘ataata’. It made Silna feel sick in her stomach. ‘--for interrupting your call.’

Silna nodded.

She sat back down on the bed, watching Goodsir out of the corner of her eye until he left the cabin with a couple of empty plastic bags. Only once the door was closed she turned to face her father. His calm eyes regarded her with a knowing expression she didn’t like at all.

‘His ASL has improved a lot,’ he said. ‘But his IUR needs work.’

Silna knew what was coming. ‘I haven’t taught him IUR yet.’

Her father considered this. ‘You know, yesterday I told my students a story I think you’d like. It’s about a caribou who didn’t want to show the rest of the pack the path to fresh grass.’

Silna rolled her eyes, but her expression softened. ‘There’s no need for tales. You can speak plainly to me. I am not a child anymore, ataata. ’

Her father lowered his head in acquiescence. ‘I wonder why you won’t teach this man your language, when I know you think highly of him.’

Silna tucked behind her ear a lock of hair that had escaped one of her braids. This time, she didn’t answer. Instead, she said, ‘Caubvick told me that they have cancelled classes in Nunavut.’

Her father nodded, accepting that she didn’t want to talk about this. ‘Yes, they thought it’d be best for the children to stay home. I’ve been teaching more classes to help keep them entertained while their parents work.’

Her father started explaining the activities he had prepared for his students. If he had been born a couple of generations earlier, Silna was sure he would have been a shaman. As it was, their people still relied on his wisdom. For a few years now he had been teaming up with Caubvick to teach Inuit Sign Language to deaf Inuit children, their families, and anyone who wanted to learn. Caubvick managed the technical side of things, editing videos and setting everything up for streaming lectures, while Silna’s father was the teacher.

Silna was proud of her father. She knew how important it was to him that IUR didn’t disappear. Especially after what had happened to her.

And yet--she couldn’t bring herself to teach the language to Harry. She told herself that it would be impractical. There were so few speakers of Inuit Sign Language, after all. Why waste time teaching him something he’d never get to use with anyone but her?

There were parts of yourself that weren’t meant to be shared, Silna thought.

Her ataata was now telling her a story about a prank two brothers had played on him during his last class.

‘...and then the second twin appeared behind him, holding the box of crayons!’ he finished his story, and Silna burst into laughter. Her father smiled. ‘It’s good to see you so happy. You’ve been in a more somber mood than usual.’

Silna sighed. ‘There isn’t much to be happy about. I’m trapped here with a bunch of kabloonas with no way to get home and no toilet paper.’

He raised his eyebrows. ‘Didn’t the coast guards bring you any?’

She shook her head. ‘No, and let me tell you, it’s so annoying to have to hop in the shower every time you--Stop laughing!’

Her father’s shoulders were still shaking with laughter. ‘I’m sorry, I was thinking of how little you would have liked living in an igloo.’

‘That would have been different! I would have gotten used to it,’ she said. Her father nodded, his expression saying that he didn’t believe her but was willing to humour her. ‘I would have!’ she insisted, and then, after a pause, ‘Why? How did you do it?’

He explained.

Her horrified expression only made him laugh harder.

*

“I explained the situation to them, and still nothing,” James sighed. “They refuse to give me their phone numbers.”

Francis handed him a mug of coffee. They were in James’ office. They had spent the entire morning calling the coast guard headquarters, trying to get in touch with the men who had interacted with Morfin yesterday. They wanted to make sure that none of them had shown any signs of having the virus. Of course, Francis knew that all this was unnecessary. There were no recorded cases of people incubating the virus in under 48 hours. Morfin probably had indigestion.

Still, it would be nice to have some kind of confirmation.

Just in case.

“It’s probably against regulation,” Francis said as he sat down on the couch next to him. He snorted. “Typical. The university *makes us* put our office’s phone numbers on the department website.”

“The academic world has different rules.” James took a sip from his coffee. “Not that these people are any faster than university bureaucracy.”

“They must be busy,” Crozier said. “I’m surprised they even picked up the phone.”

“I still remember how much red tape I had to go through when I volunteered in the Amazon rainforest.” James leaned against the backrest. “Why, this one government official told me--” James seemed to catch himself. “Nevermind, it’s a boring story. You don’t want to hear it.”

“Of course I want to hear it. How often does one get a behind-scenes-look at the boring side of James Fitzjames, influencer extraordinaire?” Francis said in a teasing tone. “I’d love to hear about the time you filed the wrong form.”

James laughed. Francis felt the tension in his shoulders lessen. It was hard to hold onto his worries when James laughed, Francis found. Especially when you were lucky enough to be the reason for that laughter.

“Oh, trust me, you wouldn’t say that if you had heard the entire story,” James said. “There’s no way to spice it up or make it anything but what it is: a tedious example of how petty admin workers can be if you anger them.”

“I’m serious.” Francis bumped their shoulders together. “I’d love to hear it. I want to know all of you, James. Even the boring bits.”

For once James seemed at a loss of what to say. Those warm brown eyes travelled down, as if drawn to Francis’ lips. It could happen now, Francis thought. They’d been dancing around this for weeks now, sending and receiving messages like captains of different ships waving their semaphore flags at each other. Even Francis, used as he was to rejection and disappointment, knew exactly what would happen if he crossed the space between their mouths. All it would take was leaning forward and--

James looked away, and the moment disappeared. “If you insist…”

“I do,” Francis said.

“Alright. Then I’ll tell you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he joked. “It all started when I went to Manaus to get a permit to import some medical supplies…”

As promised, the story turned out to be fabulously boring.

Francis listened raptly.

*

When Bridgens was a child, he and his sister used to love playing dress-up. Their mother had never made enough as a cleaning lady to buy them proper costumes, but that hadn’t stopped them. The two siblings had used whatever household items they could get their hands on to build elaborate homemade costumes for themselves.

One time, after reading The Martian Chronicles and becoming fascinated with space exploration, they had set out to make two astronaut uniforms. The resulting costumes had been a thing of beauty: they had taped together bin liners and Saran wrap to make the outer layer of the uniform. Two pairs of yellow rubber gloves had been repurposed to become astronaut gloves. They had also glued bottle caps to the plastic sheets over their chests, to make them look like the buttons of a console. But the best part had been the helmets: Bridgens had found an old fishbowl, from a failed attempt at keeping a goldfish, while his sister had used the casing of an old television set they had found in the trash heap behind their flat2.

As Doctor McDonald and Doctor Goodsir walked into the infirmary with their DIY PPE, Bridgens was reminded of those astronaut costumes.

The two doctors were using twin 5-litre bottles for helmets. Their faces were partially obscured by two layers of surgical masks. They were wearing two sets of latex gloves each. Bin liners had been taped together to cover the men from neck to ankles. Their feet were inside plastic bags held around their legs with rubber bands.

“...as I was saying,” Bridgens continued telling Morfin, his voice far less confident than a few seconds ago, “the doctors think it’s unlikely you have the virus.”

Doctor Goodsir winced, seeming to realize that their appearances were hardly reassuring. “Yes, this is all merely a precaution. There’s no need to worry.”

“How are you feeling, Mister Morfin?” MacDonald asked. With his head inside the bottle, his voice sounded as if it was coming from the bottom of a well.

“Been alright, I guess.” Morfin rubbed his nose. “Stopped puking once my stomach was empty.”

“That’s reassuring,” Doctor Goodsir’s kind expression was obscured by the mask. “Any signs of fever?”

Bridgens shook his head. “We took his temperature ten minutes ago. 36.4ºC3.”

“Sore throat? Headache? Difficulty breathing?” MacDonald asked.

Morfin shook his head. “Only vomit and diarrhea, doctor.”

“Loss of smell?” Goodsir chimed in. “Some hospitals have found it’s a common symptom.”

“I can smell that just fine,” Morfin gestured at the paper bin next to the stretcher.

It was the one Morfin had vomited into earlier. Bridgens had no trouble smelling its contents, either.

“Mmh.” MacDonald crossed his arms. He seemed either relieved or concerned. It was hard to tell; the front of the plastic bottle was covered in condensation. “It doesn’t sound like COVID. I’d say it’s gastroenteritis.”

“Yes,” Goodsir agreed. “That seems the most likely explanation.”

“We’ll keep you two quarantined as a precaution, but it’s unlikely to be the virus,” MacDonald said. “I’d recommend drinking plenty of fluids and a soft diet until you feel better.”

MacDonald turned around to write something in his prescription pad. His plastic bottle bumped against the cabinets over him. He took a couple of steps back, disoriented, while Goodsir held his arm to steady him.

“We’ll ask Mister Diggle to prepare some plain white rice for you,” Goodsir said as he helped MacDonald straighten out his helmet.

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” MacDonald said.

The door opened to reveal two dozen people, one of them slung over Armitage’s shoulder. Bridgens smiled at Peglar, who seemed just as happy to see him.

“Good afternoon, doctors,” Tozer said. “I’m here with the people that need to be isolated.”

“Isolated?” MacDonald said.

“Peglar and Bridgens have been in close contact,” Tozer gestured at them. Bridgens felt himself blush. “Gibson is Peglar’s roommate, and Gibson and Hickey were found--”

“Fucking,” the man over Armitage’s shoulder said. “And you can let me down now, thank you.”

“We can’t isolate all of you here,” MacDonald said, looking around. “There isn’t enough space.”

It was true. The infirmary hadn’t been built to house more than four people at once. Between the two doctors, Morfin, Bridgens, Tozer, Armitage and Hickey there were seven people inside it now, and a crowd outside waiting to come in.

“What do we say to the people who are coming over, then?” Tozer asked.

“There are more people?” MacDonald looked like he was getting a headache.

While Armitage lowered Hickey to the ground, Tozer said, “On our way here we told them where we were going, and they said that they were also having some odd symptoms.”

“Oh, Jesus.” MacDonald pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright. We’ll have to establish a protocol to determine how many degrees of separation are between the patients.”

“Told you.” Hickey, who had been straightening up his clothes, elbowed Tozer. “Kevin Bacon.”

“We could use the conference room,” Goodsir proposed.

MacDonald shook his head. “The mess hall, I’d say. Better ventilation.” He clapped his hands. “Officer Tozer, please escort the patients there. We’ll grab some supplies and follow you.”

“Yes, doctor.” Tozer turned toward his entourage. “Alright, you heard him. Everyone head for the mess hall. No going back to your cabins, and no dithering.”

Bridgens helped Morfin off the stretcher.

“Remember to stay two meters away from each other!” Goodsir called out to them. He turned toward MacDonald. “There’s going to be a lot of patients to examine. Should we call Doctor Stanley?”

After a pregnant pause, Doctor MacDonald replied, “That won’t be necessary.”

*

In stops and starts, the group advanced toward the mess hall. Irving glared at the two crewmen four meters ahead of him, Bridgens and Peglar. The two men were holding hands and whispering to each other.

Not that there was anything wrong with that. Irving was a modern guy. He was hardly going to be shocked by two men holding hands. It was only that it was very irresponsible, given the circumstances. Hadn’t they heard MacDonald? They were supposed to social distance!

Although, of course, said a small voice inside his head, it was a moot point. If Tozer was to be believed, the two men had been... intimate, the night before. Irving wouldn’t be surprised if they were both infected already, and with their weakened immune systems, who knew how long they’d last.

Just one more proof that it was best for one’s health to avoid that sort of relationship, he thought, shaking his head.

Someone tapped his shoulder. “Doctor Irving.”

John tensed. He knew those unctuous tones. He turned around. “Doctor Hickey.”

The redheaded man grinned. He had an expressive face. When he smiled like that, he resembled one of the claymation characters from the cartoons Irving used to watch as a child. It was unnerving, straight out of the uncanny valley, and yet John couldn’t look away.

A curly-haired man stood by Hickey, watching them with a bored expression on his angular face. “Cornelius…”

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Hickey told him dismissively, not taking his eyes off Irving. “Go ahead.”

The curly-haired man hesitated. Finally, with a dejected sigh, he left without saying goodbye.

“We are supposed to stay two meters apart,” Irving reminded Hickey.

“Not so easy, with what’s ahead of us.” Hickey jerked his head toward something behind Irving.

John looked back over his shoulder. There was a jam at the end of the corridor, where someone was struggling to open a door and five people were standing much too close together.

“Might as well stay where we are,” Hickey said with a little shrug. “I did want to have a chat with you.”

Irving felt his stomach drop. “Did you?”

“Yes.” Hickey smiled. “Did you have the chance to review that graph?”

Oh. So that was what this was about. Some of the tension left Irving’s shoulders. “I did, yes.” He had been reviewing Hickey’s e-mail all night, sitting in the toilet peering at his smartphone. “Your model seems solid. A bit over-engineered, but correct.”

Hickey’s blue eyes widened with mock earnestness. “Over-engineered?”

“Yes. Personally, I think using a neural network4 was overkill,” Irving explained. “A simple linear regression would have sufficed, and would have been much more straightforward.”

Hickey tilted his head, like a rat peering at a block of wax and trying to decide if it might taste like cheese. “Do you always prefer straightforward approaches?”

Somehow, Irving felt like there was more to that question than met the eye.

Flustered, John murmured, “Well, yes. Kiss.”

Hickey rocked forward on his heels, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “Why, doctor, that’s very forward of you.”

“What?” Irving said, and then froze as he reviewed his words. He took a step back. “N-no, I meant, KISS. As in the acronym. ‘Keep It Simple and Short’. It’s a good design practice.”

Irving liked good practices. They provided certainty in areas on which religion remained stubbornly silent.

Hickey nodded slowly. “Less is more.”

“Exactly!” Irving said, relieved that the man seemed to get it.

Hickey stepped closer to him. Social distancing had gone out of the window. Irving’s breath hitched in his throat. He told himself that he was merely holding his breath, to avoid being infected by Cornelius.

A long-fingered hand stroked the collar of John’s button-down shirt. “I’d love to explore this principle with you in private, Doctor Irving.”

Irving gaped at him. In that moment he couldn’t have said a word if someone had held a weapon to his forehead and had ordered him to speak.

“You see,” Hickey grinned, something both coy and lewd in the gesture. “I have something that you need.”

“D-do…” Irving stammered. “Do you?”

“Yes. Have you ever felt… dirty?” Hickey arched an eyebrow.

Irving’s face had become a heat beacon. “Dirty?” he croaked.

“Well, yes.” Hickey fluttered his eyelashes, like the edgelord-slash-Hot Topic version of Bambi. “It’s not so easy to feel clean without toilet paper, is it?”

“Oh. Oh!” Irving let out a sigh of relief. “Ah, I’ve been having to shower a lot more often, yes.”

Hickey looked at him up and down. “Mmh. I bet you have.”

“You two in the back! Hickey! Doctor!” Officer’s Tozer called out for them. “Move it along. Two meters, remember!”

Hickey beamed. “Perhaps we can continue discussing that later.” He patted Irving’s arm.

And just like that, he sidestepped Irving and followed the others out of the door, a queer little saunter to his step. Irving watched him go.

It wasn’t until later, when he looked at himself in the mirror, that he realized that Hickey had undone the top button of his shirt.

---

1 A few non-humorous notes on Inuit Language Sign language and Inuit deaf culture:

Disclaimer: Even though I did a shitton of research for this chapter, I’m a white, hearing person, so take all this with a grain of salt.

  • Inuit Sign Language (IUR) is believed to have evolved from the signs used by hunters who needed to be quiet as they stalked their prey. It was also common for people of different tribes to use it to communicate and trade goods as a sort of lingua franca. Then colonialism came along and ruined everything. More on that in future chapters.
  • Deafness is about six times more common among Inuit than among people from other cultures, both due to genetic reasons and because the cold weather makes people more vulnerable to ear infections and meningitis. Partly due to that, being deaf doesn’t have quite the same stigma as in other cultures.
  • I used ‘deaf’ rather than capital-D ‘Deaf’ in this chapter because all my research showed that most deaf Inuit people feel more kinship with Inuit people (hearing or not) than with white Deaf people. Silna herself doesn’t feel too connected to white Deaf people (See: Colonialism) so it felt IC of her to think of herself as lower-case-d deaf.
  • Ataata: father.
  • Kabloona: a white person, someone who is not Inuit.

Source: too many to count, but this one is a good start if you want to learn more. I might make a tumblr post at some point with all the sources I checked if people are interested idk [ ▲ ]

2 Harriet made a career out of her passion, and even landed a gig as one of the costume designers of Black Mirror. Last season she re-used the idea of the TV-set helmet for a heavy-handed episode about the dangers of watching too much television. The critics called it “groundbreaking.” Harriet called it “this month’s rent.” [ ▲ ]

3 For the people that use Fahrenheit: He was fine. [ ▲ ]

4 You might be disappointed to learn that neural networks have nothing to do with cyberpunk-style artificial brains, but are instead a system that uses algorithms and fancy statistics to find correlations between data sets. This is also why we should never allow computational neuroscientists to name anything. [ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

 

Dr Cornelius Hickey @DrHickey · ██████

I used a linear regression to predict how the pandemic will affect London's homeless. The situation is dire. Now more than ever they need our help. You can donate in this link: https://tinyurl.com/y3sres4w

Graph with a exponential growth curve

 

 

"How long are we going to have to wait for?" Irving asked, arms crossed.

 

"It's only been thirty minutes," Little pointed out.

 

They were in the mess hall. Goodsir and McDonald were examining a line of patients by the buffet table, the latter taking people's temperature while the former wrote them down on a clipboard. Irving and his labmates had been among the first to be examined. Afterward, they found a spot by the wall and were now standing in a socially-distanced square. Most of the quarantined people were doing the same, although Irving saw that Doctor Hickey was not staying two metres away from his friends. Typical.

 

Hodgson cleared his throat. "The word ‘quarantine' comes from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni‘, after the Venetian policy of isolating ships from countries that had been stricken by the plague for-"

 

"Forty days," Des Voeux finished for him, his tone curt. "Tell me something I don't know."

 

Hodgson frowned, lips pursed. "It's been discovered that tribes that engage in cannibalism are immune to mad cow disease."

 

Irving, who had been busy glaring at Doctor Hickey, startled. "What?"

 

Hodgson perked up. "You see, there is this tribe who used to develop kuru due to their ritualistic consumption of-"

 

"They can't keep us here for forty days," Des Voeux interrupted him. "I don't even have my laptop to keep myself busy."

 

Irving arched his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised to see their student so eager to work for once. Feeling magnanimous, he said: "You know, Charlie, given the circumstances, I'd be happy to give you an extension to work on the outline of your thesis."

 

"Who cares about that." Des Voeux waved him off. "I'm in the Platinum tier. I'm going to lose LP if I can't play tonight."

 

Irving-who had some vague sense that video games were one of the Devil's temptations-had absolutely no idea what this meant, and didn't want to ask.

 

A phone rang. Little took it out of his pocket and looked at the screen. "Oh, crap."

 

"Your mother?" Irving guessed.

 

"Yes." Little sighed. "Be right back."

 

Irving watched how Edward passed by several groups of people before settling down on one secluded corner of the room, his phone to his ear and a pinched expression on his face. 

 

"Can you not ask the company to put your ranking on hold?" Hodgson was asking Des Voeux. "It is an emergency, after all. It's hardly your fault."

 

"Sure," Des Voeux replied, his tone as flat as a smooth function. "I'm sure Riot Games has nothing better to do with their developers' time."

 

Hodgson smiled proudly, the sarcasm having flown over his head as usual. "See, Des Voeux? There was no need to worry."

 

Their student stared at Hodgson in silence for a few seconds before finally saying, "I'm going to see what Armitage is up to."

 

Des Voeux walked off to join Hickey's group. By the look of it, Cornelius was completely unconcerned by the virus. The redhead had sat down at the table, his booted feet on the tablecloth. He was smoking from his vape pen again. Even from this distance, Irving could smell the faint scent of it: strawberry cheesecake. That couldn't possibly be safe, Irving thought. After all, if he could smell it, didn't that mean that he was essentially inhaling Hickey's breath? John could imagine it, as vividly as a computer-generated simulation: particles of Cornelious entering his mouth, filling his lungs, permeating every crevice of his body. First would come the fever, then, the delirium; and before he knew it, it would be too late. He'd be unclean. Dirty. Corrupted by Hickey, bare and vulnerable before him, helpless to resist him-

 

Hickey winked an eye at John.

 

Realizing he'd been caught staring at him, Irving went pale.

 

"I'm going to use the bathroom," Irving muttered.

 

"I don't think there's any loo paper left in that water closet," Hodgson said. "I still have a couple of monogrammed handkerchiefs, if you'd like one."

 

"That won't be necessary," Irving replied, already heading for the mess hall's bathrooms, and desperately wishing for a cold shower.

 

*

 

"Mom, I know that Boris Johnson said that," Edward said, "but listen-" 

 

Little caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye and turned around. It was Jopson, standing two very respectful metres away from him. 

 

Noticing the phone, Thomas mouthed, "would you like me to give you some privacy?"

 

Edward shook his head. "-listen," he repeated, "it's serious. We have two doctors here. Three, actually, and they all say-no, they're proper doctors. Yes, I know that you think having a doctorate doesn't make you a proper doctor, you've told me a thousand times, I meant that they all went to med school-mom, wait-"

 

Jopson winced, his expression sympathetic. He gave him a thumbs up and mouthed, "hang in there."

 

"No," Little said. "I know he said-Well, he was wrong about Brexit too, wasn't he? No, wait, wait, listen, this is important. We might have the virus. No, I'm not speaking hypothetically. We're being quarantined, right now."

 

Little glanced at McDonald and Goodsir, still clad in their rudimentary protective equipment. Goodsir was now disinfecting the thermometer with rubbing alcohol while Le Vesconte waited for their temperature to be taken.

 

He tuned back in. "Mom, more than a hundred thousand people have died already. It's not a hoax by the Chinese. It's real, it's happening, and dad and you are both over sixty... What?" Edward rubbed his face. "Mom, you've been celebrating your fifty-fifth birthday for ten years now. This is serious-Mom!"

 

Thomas found a seat nearby and was studiously watching something on his phone, doing a very good job of pretending he wasn't listening to the conversation. Edward appreciated it.

 

"Look, just… Stay away from the city, okay? How about…" An idea occurred to him. "How about you and dad spend some time in the country? I'm sure Empress misses you, and you're always saying you'd like to ride more. And dad hates how London's weather gets in █████. Why not get away from it all while you can?

 

"Yes… yes, I agree, that'd be best. It doesn't even have to be because of the virus. Just take a vacation. Check on the rosebuds. Alright. Yes. Bye, mom. Bye." Feeling like a soldier putting down his weapons after a hard-won battle, Edward lowered his phone. "My God."

 

"Intense conversation?" Thomas asked from his position on the chair.

 

Edward nodded. "Yeah."

 

Thomas pointed at a chair two meters away from him. "Tell me about it."

 

Little sat down heavily and rested his elbows on his knees. "My parents-well, they believed that nonsense about herd immunity. They think there's nothing to be afraid of."

 

"Oh, no," Thomas said.

 

"Oh, yes," Edward sat back. "How about your parents?"

 

"Oh." Jopson looked out the nearest porthole and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. "I don't need to worry about them."

 

"You have no idea how much I envy you," Edward said.

 

"Mmh." Jopson shrugged. "Are you feeling better now?"

 

Edward bit his bottom lip. The sunlight fell on Thomas' face, turning those improbable eyes of his a clearer shade of blue. 

 

"Yes. Yes, I am." Edward shook his head. "But what are you doing here? You weren't in the original quarantined group."

 

"Armitage told Tozer that I had been playing Left for Dead with Des Voeux and him, and Tozer thought that we had been in the same room. By the time Armitage cleared things up, Manson had already, ah, invited me to come," Thomas explained, his tone mild.

 

"Ah. Yes." Edward winced. "I saw Armitage inviting Doctor Hickey to come, too. He was very persuasive."

 

"I suspect Armitage and Manson used similar methods." Jopson's cheeks were now faintly pink.

 

"I don't blame you. Manson is built like a brick house." Edward offered a tentative smile to him.

 

Thomas returned it. "How likely do you think it is that any of us actually has the virus?"

 

"Mmh." Edward crossed his arms. "We reviewed a paper earlier…"

 

"Lauer et al?" Jopson asked.

 

"That one." Edward nodded. "According to that paper, it seems unlikely. Maybe if Morfin had gotten the symptoms tomorrow, or the day after that, but today… I don't think so."

 

"Are you still worried about it?" Thomas asked with that disarming perceptiveness of his.

 

"...yes," Edward reluctantly admitted. "How about you?"

 

"Not really," Jopson said. "But it got me thinking. What if there *was* a virus on the ship? What if we were doomed to stay two metres apart for the rest of the trip, just in case? What would you do, then?"

 

"Mmh. I'd listen to McDonald and Goodsir," Edward said after a Little pause to think. "They know more than us about this. How about you?"

 

Thomas leaned forward. "I'd regret not having kissed you while we had the chance."

 

"I," Edward cleared his throat. "I'd regret it too."

 

Thomas seemed surprised by Edward's boldness, but it only lasted a second before he smoothed his expression over. "Of course, I don't want to pressure you. I understand you need time. But if you like, when the quarantine is over, we could revisit our situation."

 

"Yes," someone said.

It took Edward a few seconds to realize it had been him. He froze, perplexed by his own reaction. Edward was about to apologize and take it back, but then he looked around him, at the two doctors clad in trash bags and plastic bottles, at the concerned faces around him. Hadn't he just said to his mother that he might be infected with some deathly virus? What use was there putting off this conversation?

 

"Really?" Thomas said, seemingly as surprised as him.

 

"Yes. Really," Edward said, more confidently. What the hell. With any luck, they'd both die before he was forced to live up to his momentary bravery. "I can't wait."

 

"Me neither" Thomas laughed softly. "I've never in my life resented two meters of space so much." 

 

"God, me too," Little said. "I feel like a teenager. What if... No, that's stupid."

 

"No," Thomas shook his head. "Tell me."

 

"What if…" Edward bit his bottom lip. "What if you described how you're going to kiss me?"

 

Thomas' gaze turned darker. "I can do that."

 

*

 

"We have an in with Des Voeux," Hickey was saying, much too loudly for Tozer's tastes.

 

"Lower your voice, will you." Tozer hissed, arms crossed behind his back. "The mess hall is not that big."

 

Tozer, Armitage, Gibson and Manson were all standing around Hickey's chair, trying to shield him from view.

 

"Armitage, you plays video games with him, don't you?" Hickey continued as if he hadn't heard him.

 

Armitage nodded. "Yes. He'd buy it. I've been hinting at it."

 

"Good lad. You would have done well in the army." Hickey folded an arm behind his head, stretching back to look at Armitage's body with appreciation.

 

Something about the gesture made Solomon's skin crawl. He had to resist the urge to stand protectively in front of Tommy to shield him from those hungry eyes.

 

"Can we focus?" Gibson snapped. Tozer was grateful for it.

 

Hickey looked at his boyfriend. Assuming, of course, that the trainwreck going between the two men had space for that label.   "Sure. Irving." Hickey turned to face John Irving. The man was standing across the room, glaring at them. "He might be interested in our product, too." He winked at John.

 

"That guy? Please." Gibson rolled his eyes. "He's too much of a goody-two-shoes. I bet he doesn't even wipe because he thinks touching your arse is sinful."

 

"Oh, I don't know about that." Hickey licked his vape pen's mouthpiece. "I bet his ass is fine."

 

"I agree with Gibson," Tozer said, because someone had to say something before Gibson punched either Hickey or Irving. "The man doesn't strike me as the type who can keep a secret."

 

"I disagree. I can assure you that John Irving is very skilled at hiding things from others… and from himself." Hickey straightened up on his seat, lowering his feet to the ground. "But it's true there are easier marks."

 

"Marks?" Tozer arched an eyebrow.

 

Hickey shrugged, his bony shoulders rising and falling. "Clients. Allies. Whatever you want to call them. And speaking of the devil…" 

 

Des Voeux had approached their table. "You look more entertaining than my labmates," he said. "What are you talking about?"

 

Hickey's grin widened until he looked like an especially demented Bugs Bunny. "Business, Mister Des Voeux. Will you sit with me?"

 

*

 

"...and then I would lift your chin," Jopson whispered. Edward leaned closer in his seat, wanting desperately to hear that low voice. "You would try to look away." Thomas smiled. "But I wouldn't let you. I would wait until you met my eyes, stay still for as long as I needed to, until I was certain I had your attention."

 

"Christ," Edward murmured, hands clenched into fists over his thighs.

 

"And you would look at me, wouldn't you?" Thomas' voice was gentle but firm. A shiver ran down Edward's spine. "Even though I know it'd be so hard for you. You'd do it because you love that I can do that for you. You love that I can get you so desperate that you forget how to be shy."

 

"Thomas," Edward breathed.

 

"Look at me, Edward," Thomas said. 

 

Edward gulped, his throat bobbing, and raised his eyes.

 

"You love it, don't you?" Thomas said.

 

Cheeks red, Edward nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do."

 

*

 

Goodsir sat on the edge of the buffet table, McDonald next to him. Through the condensation obscuring the front of the bottle he was using as a helmet, Harry could barely see the other doctor's face.

 

"Not one of them has a fever," Goodsir said, pointing the obvious. "Nor any other symptoms, either, apart from Mister Morfin's diarrhoea."

 

"It's incredible. I've been working as a cruise doctor for ten years. You can always count on about five per cent of the passengers to be ill." McDonald shook his head, his bottle-helmet bobbling precariously over his shoulders. "This might be the healthiest ship I've ever worked on."

 

Goodsir peered at the men-and Le Vesconte-in the mess hall. They were all chatting among themselves. Collins had even gotten bored and was taking a nap, curled up on one the tables like a hibernating bear. Everyone seemed fine.

 

"What now?" Goodsir said.

 

"There has to be another explanation for Morfin's symptoms." McDonald leaned back on his hands-and winced as he accidentally put his hand inside a bowl of lukewarm orange slices.

 

McDonald was still wiping his hand with a napkin when Morfin stood up and approached them. The two doctor straightened up.

 

"Everything alright, Mister Morfin?" Goodsir asked him.

 

"Yes, doctor," Morfin said. "Just one of my tension headaches. I have them all the time. Could I get something for it?"

 

"Of course." McDonald hopped off the buffet table and went for the bag full of medical equipment they had brought with them. "What do you usually take for them?"

 

"Oh, anything that doesn't have lactose in it will do," Morfin said.

 

The two doctors paused and looked at each other.

 

*

 

"...and as I unbuttoned your jeans, I would kiss your chest, your belly. I bet that by then you'd be hard for me," Thomas continued. "I would feel the heat of your skin through your underwear." He grinned devilishly. "Boxers or briefs, Edward?"

 

Edward looked to the side, at the nearest people around them, but Bridgens and Peglar seemed to be too busy chatting among themselves to notice how Thomas was torturing him. "...boxers," he said at last.

 

"Mmh," Thomas practically purred. "I like that. Would you like to know what I'm wearing under these slacks?"

 

Edward nodded. "Yes. Yes."

 

Thomas' eyes twinkled with mischief. "Nothing at all."

 

"Fuck." Edward squirmed on his seat, trying to subtly adjust himself before anyone could notice the erection forming between his legs.

 

There was no hiding it from Thomas, however. Not from two metres away. Thomas' expression softened as he saw the mortification in Edward's face. "Is that too much?"

 

"I…" Edward hesitated. "I don't know."

 

"I will stop if you need me to," Thomas said, with that kindergarten-teacher gentleness that always undid Edward. "I'm never going to push you to do anything you don't want to do, Edward."

 

"I know." Edward took a deep breath and released it slowly. He let go. "Don't stop."

 

Thomas smiled.

 

*

 

"John and I have sailed together for years, Doctor Goodsir," Diggle said as he ushered Goodsir into his kitchen. "I always make sure my food is properly labelled. I know how John gets when he eats anything with lactose."

 

The doctor had appeared at his door a few minutes ago, clad in an odd costume. Through the surgical mask and the fog obscuring the front of the bottle he was wearing over his head, the cook saw the doctor's conciliatory expression.

 

"I'm sure that you're very careful," Goodsir said. "I just want to make sure we have considered every option."

 

"I'm also very careful about never breaking the cold chain," Diggle said, anticipating another one of Goodsir's possible suggestions. "Even these past few days, when they were rationing electricity. I have a system to tell if anything has defrozen overnight."

 

"Really?" Goodsir perked up. "Fascinating! How does it work?"

 

"You freeze a cup of water and then you place a penny on top of the ice," Diggle explained, mollified by Goodsir's willingness to listen. "If one morning the penny is at the bottom of the cup..."

 

"The ice melted. Very clever!" Goodsir nodded thoughtfully, his head moving up and down inside its plastic prison.  "It's clear that you take very good care of your kitchen. But I want to do a little experiment so we can rule this out. Could I have a glass of milk?"

 

"What sort of milk?" The cook asked, grabbing a glass.

 

"The same brand that Morfin has been drinking," Goodsir said.

 

Diggle took the can of powdered milk from the shelf. "It's lactose-free. It says so right there." He tapped the sign on the can where the words 'Lactose-free' were printed in cursive.

 

"Still, it doesn't hurt to try," Goodsir said.

 

With a sigh, Diggle went through the business of filling a mug with water and heating it in the microwave. To say that he resented having to go through this would be putting it too mildly. Diggle had it up to his eyebrows with passengers trying to stick their noses into his pantry. But Diggle came from a generation that venerated physicians. He had a hard time saying no to one. 

 

Plus, this Goodsir fellow was the only doctor so far to take Morfin's health seriously. Diggle had been worried about John. He'd put up with a bit of nosiness if it meant helping his friend.

 

"What do you know about lactose intolerance, Mister Diggle?" Goodsir asked as they waited for the water to boil.

 

The microwave pinged. Diggle opened it and took the glass out. "I heard humans are the only animals that can drink milk as adults," he said.

 

"That's true," Goodsir confirmed. "All other animals stop being able to digest milk as they age. But humans had a very good reason to evolve the gene for lactose tolerance. You see, as homo sapiens left Africa and migrated to the North of Europe, they had to adapt to a colder climate. Suddenly they could no longer rely on sunlight to metabolize vitamin D. But milk is an acceptable source of that vitamin."

 

"So they evolved to drink milk." Diggle added three spoons of powdered milk into the water and stirred it.

 

"Yes! Exactly!" Goodsir said. "In fact, people of European descent are far more likely to tolerate lactose than people from other continents. But there's an exception… Thank you, Mister Diggle." He took the glass being offered to him.

 

"You're welcome," Diggle said.

 

"Anyway," Goodsir continued, "Some nomadic pastoralist tribes in Africa also evolved to be able to digest milk. They were people who lived in environments with very little vegetation, who traditionally depended on their cattle's milk as their main source of food. So of course it was advantageous for them to be able to digest it. But here's the interesting thing: both groups, the Europeans and these African tribes, evolved completely different genes to digest milk. Which is a great example of convergent evolution!"

 

Diggle crossed his arms. "You can drink the milk now, if you like."

 

"In a moment. Do you know how they make lactose-free milk?" Goodsir asked.

 

Diggle checked his watch. "They add lactase to it."

 

Goodsir took off his improvised helmet and placed it on table next to him. He lowered his surgical mask. There was a mark on the bridge of his nose, where the metal edge of the mask had been digging. "Exactly. It's as simple as adding to it the very enzyme that lactose-intolerant people lack." At last Goodsir took a sip of the glass. "Mmh. It's as I thought. This has lactose."

 

"What?" Diggle's eyes widened.

 

Goodsir lowered the glass. "Yes. You can taste the difference. Lactase turns lactose into a monosaccharide, which makes lactose-free milk sweeter. This tastes like regular milk."

 

"And you can tell that just from the taste?" Diggle frowned. That sounded pretty far-fetched.

 

"With some level of confidence," Goodsir admitted. "But I'll have definite proof soon."

 

"Why is that?" Diggle asked.

 

"Because I'm also lactose intolerant," Goodsir said.

 

And with those words, the doctor downed the entire glass.

 

*

 

"...and you'd feel so full, open and ready for me, taking me so well," Thomas said, his eyes all pupil, now.

 

"Fuck. Fuck." Edward had taken his jacket off earlier to cover his lap with it. "Keep going."

 

Thomas smiled teasingly. "Is that what you'll say when I do it?" 

 

Edward swallowed. "M-Maybe."

 

Thomas licked his lips. "Good boy."

 

Feeling like he was going crazy, Edward managed to say, "Am I?"

 

Thomas' laughter made Edward throb. "Yes, you are. Keep listening. You won't believe what comes next."

 

*

 

"I see," James said to the person on the phone. "Are you certain?"

 

Francis gestured at him to share whatever had been said, but James lifted a hand, wordlessly asking him to be patient. Francis took a deep breath and tried not to stare at him too obviously as the phone call continued. He squirmed on his seat across from James and tapped nervously on the man's desk.  The last few hours hadn't been easy. Jopson had texted him a few minutes ago to tell him that he was in quarantine, too.

 

"How about your spouse? Roommates?" James insisted. 

 

James was good at hounding people. It had surprised Francis when they had first started calling their former sponsor: the man could project an air of authority fit for a war general. Francis was so used to seeing him use his charm to get his way that he hadn't expected him to be able to assert himself like that.

 

"Thank you. Yes, of course, we'll keep you updated. Take care." James finally hung up.

 

"So?" Francis asked, sitting straighter.

 

James left his phone on his desk. "None of the coast guards are feeling even remotely ill."

 

Francis wasn't quite as reassured by this news as he ought to be. He got the feeling that neither was James.

 

Still, as a scientist, it was time to accept the evidence. "Right. Ockham's razor. Morfin must simply have a mean case of indigestion."

 

"Yes, he must be. I shouldn't be surprised. Doctor Stanley told me he's been having them the entire trip. I should have known it'd be nothing but that." James rubbed the back of his neck. He appeared to have a backache.

 

Francis caught himself thinking of offering him a massage. He shook his head. Christ, Francis, he thought, get a grip. "The situation is getting to us. It's perfectly normal."

 

"Yes, I suppose." James seemed to have found the point of his neck that was giving him trouble. As he rubbed at it, his face relaxed minutely.

 

No wonder James was the media's darling, Francis thought. He was absurdly handsome. His masculine features were softened by his curling hair. His eyes were warm and expressive; the sort of eyes that invited one to trust him. And Francis had seen enough pictures of him doing yoga in his underpants on the man's Twitter account to know how fit and strong he was. Someone like Francis, with his soft belly and a beard that barely managed to hide the lines in his face, couldn't compete with that. If he'd had to choose someone to play the role of environmental influencer, he would have picked James, too.

 

The absurdity of their flirtation struck him. What could an old man like Francis offer to a young pretty thing like James? Would James have looked at him if they weren't trapped in a ship? It was like Sophia all over again: the two of them stuck in that platypus reservoir, watching those strange animals' odd mating habits until even Francis had to look like a suitable match to Sophia.

 

A lopsided little grin appeared on James' face. "Though I suppose it's not all bad. Did you see those threads with pictures of wild animals returning to places occupied by humans?1"

 

Crozier snorted. "Christ, yes. Nature healing itself. Hah. My entire family won't stop sending me those pictures."

 

"Come on." James' smile widened. "Even a curmudgeon like you must admit they're nice. They've certainly filled me with hope for the future of the planet."

 

"Hah! Now that's a good one!" Francis laughed. 

 

To his surprise, James didn't join him. Instead, the man looked confused by his reaction. 

 

Francis blinked, perplexed. "Oh. Were you serious?"

 

"Yes, of course." James' brow furrowed. "Why are you laughing?"

 

Feeling awkward, Francis squirmed in his seat. "Isn't it obvious?" By the look of it, it wasn't to James, who kept peering at him with a disconcerted expression that now bordered on annoyed. "The pollution levels might have decreased somewhat, but the moment the lockdown ends they'll go back to normal."

 

"Do you really think after the pandemic everything will go back to normal?" James seemed bewildered by the concept.

 

"Don't you?" Francis said.

 

"No, of course not." James replied. "This pandemic will change everything. Don't you see it? We're finally united by something greater than ourselves."

 

"United?" Francis sputtered. "Have you been following the news? Countries are squabbling over the handful of respirators and masks left like children left unattended!"

 

"And people will realize they don't want people like that running their countries!" James said. "They'll demand a better class of leader, more international cooperation-"

 

"Like they have for climate change?" Francis asked in disbelief.

 

"They were going to, eventually!" James said defensively.

 

"Are you kidding?" Francis shook his head. "Do you know anything about people?"

 

"I know that you don't give them enough credit!" James stood up.

 

Francis pushed himself to his feet. "I give them exactly as much credit as they deserve, which is none at all. I've been researching climate change since the nineties-"

 

James rolled his eyes. "Don't you try to use the seniority card with me!"

 

Francis felt his cheeks grow hot at the reminder of the distance between their ages. "Fine, then I'll use evidence!" he snapped. "Can you point to a single sign that the average person cares about anything but their personal comfort?"

 

"Are you blind?" James said. "People are greener now than ever!"

 

This time, Francis couldn't stop his surprised laugh. "Are they, now?"

 

James' face turned red. "Yes! Yes, they are! If you talked with people instead of locking yourself in your ivory tower, you'll see the lifestyle changes they-"

 

"Lifestyle changes!" Francis interrupted him. "Is that your evidence?"

 

"What other evidence do you want?" James said, frustrated.

 

"Organized action!" Francis hit the desk with the flat of his hand. "Systemic change! You can't stop global warming by eating kale and using bamboo toothbrushes!"

 

James' shoulders rose up defensively. "Changing your consuming habits is the first step to-"

 

"You can't solve systemic problems with individual actions!" Francis insisted. "That's… neoliberal propaganda!"

 

James gaped at him. "Are you calling me…" His face twisted in disgust. "Neoliberal?"

 

"Oh, come on." Francis rolled his eyes. "I'm sorry you didn't seem to realize it until now, but I can't possibly be the first one to tell you. Your solution to climate change was organizing a very contaminating *cruise* sponsored by the world's *biggest plastic polluter*!" Francis exclaimed. "You brag about having met a man who staged a coup against Bolivia to steal their lithium! Your entire… personal brand, or whatever you want to call it, is empty feel-good quotes and corporate-friendly ecologism! You enable lobbyists and whitewash capitalism's crimes! If I had to choose the face of neoliberal environmentalism, it'd be yours!"

 

In the silence that followed, even Francis realized that he had gone too far.

 

James looked devastated. For a few long moments, neither man did anything. In the background, Francis could hear the sound of the ship's engines.

 

When James finally spoke, he sounded suspiciously calm. "Is that what you think of me?"

 

Francis stuck his hands in his pockets. He tapped his shoe on the ground. "Perhaps I was too harsh," he muttered.

 

"But it *is* what you think," James pressed on.

 

Francis couldn't bring himself to deny it. Because the thing was, it was true. It was what Francis thought of him. James was iron-willed and principled, hard-working and honourable. These past few weeks, Francis had been lucky to know the best parts of him. 

 

But when it came down to it, James was complicit with the very environmental crimes Francis had spent his entire career fighting.

 

It hadn't always been like that.

 

Francis still remembered reading James' blog nearly a decade ago and being struck by how passionately he talked about global warming.

 

But now, more than ten years later…

 

Francis couldn't deny a word of what he had said.

 

"I see," James said eventually. He took a deep breath and straightened up, his chin raised proudly. "Get out of my office."

 

"Wait, please," Francis begged. "Let's discuss this first-"

 

There was a knock on the door.

 

After some hesitation, James said, "Come in."

 

Goodsir walked through the door. "Good afternoon. I'm afraid I have some bad news." Seeming to sense the tension in the cabin, he hesitated at the door. "I can come back later."

 

James sat down. "No, it's fine. What is it?"

 

Goodsir walked into the office. He squirmed, uncomfortable. "I have reasons to believe that the food in our pantry is mislabeled. The lactose-free milk contains lactose, and other products likely contain other allergens as well."

 

"What?" Francis cast his memory back, remembering a half-forgotten conversation that they had during the cruise's inaugural dinner. "The caterer. Who hired them?"

 

"Franklin did," James replied, a bit more sharply than was warranted. "Are you sure of that, Goodsir?"

 

"Positive. In fact," he rocked in his heels, "if you'll excuse me, I have to go tend to some urgent matters."

 

And after those last words, he fled the room.

 

"What the-" Francis followed him out of the office, concerned.

 

He was quick enough to see Goodsir disappear past the bathroom door at the end of the corridor.

 

Well, Francis thought, this was no good.

 

There was no toilet paper in the bathroom.

---

FOOTNOTE:

1 Later, it would be discovered that many of these pictures were hoaxes, and either doctored or from a different time and place. Experts called this "a total bummer." [ ▲ ]

Chapter Text

"Alright, everyone, you heard the doctors," Tozer said as he ushered everyone out of the mess hall. "We can leave."

He and Armitage were by the door, Goodsir and McDonald standing next to them as they supervised the eviction. The doctors had taken out their DIY protection equipment at least, but they hadn't done a very job of it. They still had pieces of tape stuck to their clothes.

Little overheard Des Voeux murmuring, "I knew the virus was a Chinese hoax."

"Actually," Goodsir cleared his throat, "The virus is not a hoax."

"Should we send everyone back into the mess hall, then?" Armitage said, stopping Little with a hand on his chest just as he was leaving.

"No, no, I meant that there *is* a virus, but no one on this ship is infected," Goodsir explained.

"That we know of," Armitage chimed in.

"That we--, well, it's highly unlikely that anyone got infected," Goodsir protested.

The entire conversation had the makings of one of those Abbot and Costello skits that always gave Edward an anxiety-induced headache, so he chose to stand back while they sorted that out. Eventually, the last few stragglers left the room. Tozer and Armitage closed the door behind themselves.

Suddenly, Edward and Thomas were the only two people left in the mess hall.

"It looks like we live to fight another day," Thomas said, arms crossed behind his back. His eyes were playful, as if he was holding back a smile.

God, he was so handsome.

"It seems that way," Edward agreed. "So…"

"So," Thomas rocked on his heels, "we no longer have to stand two metres apart."

"Oh," Edward said. "*Oh.*"

"Yes." Thomas grinned, not even making an effort to hide it this time. "May I?"

"Yes!" Edward said, and then blushed, realizing how needy he must have sounded.

However, Thomas didn't seem put off by it. He crossed the space between them with two measured steps. "Hello."

Oh, Lord, Thomas was taller than him. Not by much, but a few centimetres seemed like a lot when they were standing so close together. Edward definitely could work with those centimetres.

"Hi," Edward greeted him back.

"I'm going to kiss you now, Edward," Thomas said.

Edward swallowed. "Please."

"So polite," Thomas said, channelling once again that kindergarten-teacher charm. "I like it."

Oh, God, Edward would do anything to hear him call him a good boy again. Edward would use his hard-learn manners, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, say anything, anything at all. Edward wanted to tell this to Thomas, but the words died in his throat as the other man leaned down. Gentle fingers tipped his chin up--oh, fuck, it was exactly as Thomas had described it--and at last, their lips touched. For a few seconds, Edward’s mile-a-minute thoughts quieted down. There were no fears, no worries, no thoughts about conferences and missed deadlines and unanswered emails. All those things were wiped away. Only Thomas' mouth remained, scorching-hot and breathtakingly confident. Thomas licked at the seams of his lips and Edward gave himself over to it, letting Thomas in, meeting his tongue with his own.

This was it. Non plus ultra. There could be nothing more than this: Thomas, kissing him like Edward had never dared to admit he wanted to be kissed. 

Edward moaned. He reached up to grasp at Thomas’ shoulders. He wanted to tangle his finger in that thick hair. Edward was so eager for anything Thomas wanted, anything at all, and--

"Ahem."

Thomas broke the kiss and looked at something behind Edward. "May I help you?"

The words were delivered with such steel that Edward could only shiver. Still, he should probably find out who had interrupted them. Edward turned around to face them.

It was that curly-haired member of the crew--Gibson. He was carrying a bucket and a mop, and his expression was surly with a chance of wrathful.

"Yeah. You can leave," Gibson said, his tone snappish. "I have to tidy up the mess hall. Again."

"Of course," Thomas said.

Thomas released him. Edward nearly stumbled and fell, as he'd been relying solely on Thomas body--his strong, tall body--to hold him up. Fortunately, Thomas took his hand and guided him out of the mess hall. The two of them passed by Gibson, who looked either peevish or jealous.

Edward chose to believe that he was jealous. Edward would be jealous of himself, too, if he had caught himself getting snogged silly by someone as dreamy as Jopson.

Thomas led him out of the mess hall, marching through the corridors and down the stairs that led to the passenger's cabins. Edward had to jog to keep up with his long, unhurried strides.

"Where are we going?" Edward asked. An odd mixture of trepidation and excitement bubbled low in his stomach. He didn't know if he wanted to tear off his hair or his clothes.

"Your cabin. It’s closer than mine," Thomas shot back over his shoulders.

Okay, definitely his clothes.

They passed by rows of doors identical except for the number above them until finally, finally, they reached the cabin he shared with Des Voeux. Edward was rummaging inside his pockets for the keycard when Thomas spun him and pressed him against the wall. Edward gasped as Thomas' mouth captured his. The kiss was relentless, as if Thomas was determined to claim back everything he'd been forced to give up when Gibson had interrupted them. Edward groaned and tugged at him, trying to get him even closer.

As Thomas pulled back, Edward made a pitiful sound of protest. He tried to chase Thomas’ mouth, but Jopson pinned him against the wall.

Edward was going to *explode*.

"Wait," Thomas said, all soft smiles and easy dominance. "Let me look at you. I've been thinking of this ever since the first time I saw you at the inaugural dinner."

Edward's throat went dry. "I've been thinking of this ever since I saw you at the harbour," he confessed.

Thomas grinned and leaned closer--

"Oh, hullo."

Thomas paused. Hodgson was standing next to them.

"Uh. Hello?" Edward said.

Thomas took a couple of steps back to allow them to talk. Only then Hodgson seemed to notice him. "Oh, hello, Jopson."

"Doctor Hodgson." Thomas nodded his head at him in greeting. "Is everything alright?"

"Oh, yes, yes," Hodgson nodded, but he was staring into the middle distance, as if lost in thought.

Come to think of it, Hodgson did seem preoccupied, Edward noticed. He could relate. Edward had also been preoccupied before Hodgson interrupted them. Still, he didn't want to seem rude. Edward did like George when his labmate wasn't cockblocking him.

Edward pushed himself off the wall. "George, come on. What's wrong?"

Hodgson took a deep breath and released it all at once in a way that made him look like a deflating balloon. Edward half expected to see him flying down the corridor, propelled by the air stream. 

"Are you certain you’d like to know?" Hodgson said. “I’d hate to be a bother."

"Err," Edward looked back at Thomas, who was typing something on his phone. "Don’t worry about it. What is it, George?"

Hodgson sniffed sharply, his nostrils widening. "If you must know, It's only that someone made an unexpected proposal to me."

Edward frowned. "Do you mean like a… sex proposal?"

"No, no." Hodgson got a pinched look. "It wasn’t that sort of proposal. I don't think so, at least. It was more of a… collaboration proposal. You see, someone has access to…" The usually verbose man seemed to grope for a word. "Data."

"Data," Edward repeated, feeling like he had lost the thread of the conversation.

"Yes. Data," Hodgson confirmed. "He has... offered to share his data with me. The problem is that he's made it clear that it will come at a cost, you understand."

"That's usually how it works. Is it one of those data brokers who sell datasets?" Edward guessed, since Hodgson wasn't volunteering much information.

"In a manner of speaking," Hodgson said.

"Well, you know what I think about that, George.” Edward shrugged. “There is no shame in using other people's datasets," 

"Yes. I suppose that's true." Hodgson didn't seem convinced.

"I know it's not how you usually do things, but Irving and I do it all the time. If your instincts and your training tell you that the data is good enough, go for it." Edward patted his arm. "Remember what Doctor Barrow used to say: publish or perish."

"Yes. Yes, you're right." Hodgson nodded slowly, as if coming to a decision. "Thank you, Edward. That was very helpful. Jopson, it was nice to see you."

With a vaguely haunted look and murmuring to himself something about handkerchiefs, Hodgson finally opened the door to the cabin he shared with Irving and disappeared inside.

"That was touching," Thomas said once Hodgson was well and truly gone.

"Touching?" Edward asked.

Thomas tucked a stray lock of his own hair behind his ear. "I knew you were the head of your lab team, but I hadn't gotten the chance to see you mentoring the others before."

"I don’t do much mentoring,” Edward admitted. “The others usually do their own thing. We don't even come from the same field. Irving does Math, I come from Statistics…"

"The science of uncertainty," Thomas noted, leaning closer.

Edward's train of thought was so lost it might as well careened off a cliff. "Yes."

"Are you feeling uncertain right now, Edward?" Thomas' body covered his.

"I…" Edward looked up at him.

"There are no wrong answers," Thomas said, sounding once again like a kindergarten teacher.

Fuck, Edward was so gone for him. "Please kiss me."

Thomas grinned. "In a minute. Open the door, first."

Edward nodded. He stuck his right hand in his pocket. The only thing inside it was his phone. "Oh, no." He checked the other one. Then he checked his back ones. "Uh…"

Thomas stepped back. "What's wrong?"

"Shit. I remember now." With a groan, Edward covered his face with his hands. "I gave my keycard to Des Voeux. He forgot his this morning."

"That's unfortunate," Thomas said with a calmness Edward would have killed to feel at least once in his life. "Alright, let's see what our options are. We could knock on the door. If he's inside, we might be able to convince him to leave."

Edward could think of nothing worse than having that conversation with his student.

On the other hand: Sex with Thomas.

"We can try." With a sigh, Edward turned around and knocked.

For a few moments, nothing happened. Edwards passed the time thinking of all the things he'd prefer to having to convince Charlie to leave the room, such as eating his shoes or skinny-dipping in the Arctic Ocean. He was about to suggest that they find somewhere else to go when the door finally opened.

"Hey, Jopson,” Des Voeux said, ignoring his advisor, “Armitage and I were wondering why you were not accepting our invitation."

"I'm afraid I'm a bit busy right now," Thomas said. "Would it be possible for you to play in one of the meeting rooms instead? Edward and I were hoping to have the cabin for ourselves."

Des Voeux looked from Edward's face--flushed, a mess--to Thomas--relaxed, friendly. Edward came to terms with his student knowing more about his sex life than he'd ever wanted to share with him.

"Pass," Charles said at last. "The internet is terrible there."

"That's the best part." A sunny smile appeared on Jopson's face. "I took the liberty of booking the one with the good wifi for you."

"Really?" Des Voeux arched an eyebrow. "That one is never free."

"I have my methods." Thomas' smile didn't falter.

Des Voeux hummed. It seemed like the one cabin in the ship with a half-decent internet connection was not incentive enough for him to give up cockblocking his mentor.

"Of course, I can always play a game with you and Armitage, instead. Oh, by the way, did I tell you?" An innocent smile appeared on Thomas' lips. "Doctor Fitzjames agreed to allow me to use his spare laptop so I can install Call of Duty on it."

Des Voeux's eyes narrowed. "Bastard."

Thomas' smile only widened.

With a sigh, Des Voeux turned around. "Alright. Let me grab my things. But you better never tell Armitage that we can play Call of Duty now."

"Deal," Thomas said.

Edward and Thomas waited while Des Voeux took his sweet time grabbing his laptop, charger, mouse, keyboard and headphones. Then they waited some more as Des Voeux put his shoes on. Then they continued to wait as Des Voeux remembered that he wanted to use the toilet before leaving.

Finally, Des Voeux left. Edward followed Thomas inside the cabin and closed the door behind them. 

Thomas sat at the edge of Edward's bed. "So this is your bed." He bounced a bit on it. "Very comfortable."

"All the cabins are identical. It can't be too different from yours," Edward pointed out.

"It is." Thomas made a come-hither gesture. "Come here."

Palms sweaty, knees weak, Edward stepped closer. Thomas tugged him down until Edward was straddling his hips.

"See? Big difference," Thomas said. Their mouths were a fraction of a centimetre apart, so close that Edward could feel the heat radiating from him at this distance. "My bed doesn't have *you* in it."

Edward gulped. "Yet."

"Let's change that as soon as we can, then," Thomas said, and kissed him.

It shouldn't be possible to forget how good it felt to kiss Thomas after only a few short minutes. And yet it was as if he was discovering it for the very first time. Edward groaned and scrambled to get closer. All the longing, all the impatient waiting caught up with him all at once. Edward wrapped his arms around him and tugged at his shirt to reveal soft skin. Edward's finger slid lower, under the waistband of his trousers, and he touched--

Edward broke the kiss. "You're wearing underwear," he said, and immediately felt stupid.

"What?" Thomas blinked up at him. His pupils were so wide that his blue eyes were nearly black. It was good to see that for all his calm confidence, he was affected by Edward, too.

"Earlier at the mess hall you said you weren't wearing any underwear," Edward reminded him, cheeks red.

"Oh, right." Thomas chuckled. "Sorry about that. Just a little white lie to make everything more exciting. I promise that everything else was true."

Edward thought of all Thomas had described, of being pinned down, teased to the point of desperation, and then filled to the brim. "Really?" he breathed.

"Yes," Thomas nosed his neck, his mouth finding that sensitive spot behind Edward's ear. "Do you want me to show you?"

"Yes, yes, yes, ye--" Someone knocked on the door.

Thomas paused. "Should we open the door?"

Edward hesitated. “I don’t know.”

"Let’s not." Thomas caught Edward's earlobe between his teeth and--

Edward's thigh started to vibrate.

"Is that your phone?" Thomas asked, pulling back.

"Yeah." Edward took it out of his pocket. Irving's name appeared on the screen. God, Edward was going to kill him.

"Edward, please, open the door!" Irving's voice came from the other side of the door. "It's important!"

He was going to kill him. With a groan he got off Thomas' lap. He adjusted himself--and had to ignore the heated look in Thomas' eyes as he did it--and went to open the door.

"Yes?" he asked, opening it just a crack.

To Irving's credit, he did look like whatever was bothering him was urgent. His hair was a mess, standing on end as if he had spent the last hour tugging on it. He had the same deranged look that he always got on his face when someone claimed that the existence of irrational numbers proved that Math was an inexact science.

"Edward, thank god. You have to see this." Irving tapped his phone and shoved it at him. "See?"

Edward peered at the screen and groaned as he saw it showed one of Hickey's tweets. "John, don't tell me this is about your conspiracy theories about Doctor Hickey."

"This time it's serious! Read it!" Irving insisted.

Edward did. "Alright. So he predicted that London's homeless are going to be affected by the pandemic. Very tragic, of course, but I'm not sure about how we can help them all the way from this ship."

"He used a neural network to make that model!" Irving explained.

Edward sighed. "I know that you're against overusing neural networks, but I promise it's not a crime to do it."

"You're not listening!" Irving was practically screaming by now. "Yesterday, he sent me a model that he had developed using a neural network. This morning I told him that he should have used a linear regression. And now he posts the same graph, only claiming he used a linear regression to get it!"

Edward was running out of patience. "Maybe he re-did it using your method and got the same results. It's not that weird."

"Hey," Thomas said from behind him. "Is everything okay?"

Irving looked at Thomas' over Edward's shoulder. He was making that face that everyone in Edward's lab group knew only as ‘John Irving Gay Panic'. Edward braced himself.

"I see how it is," Irving bared his teeth in a sneer. "You're too busy to listen."

Edward sighed, really losing his patience now. "Since you mention it, I *am* a little busy."

"It's always like this." Irving gave him a disgusted look. "You are always defending your… type."

Edward felt his hackles go up. Normally, Edward would have tolerated Irving's casual homophobia. He would have bitten his tongue, counted to ten, and ignored all his snide remarks, because a) he wanted to keep the peace, and b) a lifetime of mediating between his parents1 had made him really, really, conflict-averse. In any other circumstances, Edward would have apologized to Irving, found the way to mollify him, and gone back to whatever he was doing.

This time was different.

So help him, Edward was going to slap Irving so hard his ears would still be ringing come 2021.

"I beg your pardon," Thomas said behind him, but there was no need for it.

For once, Edward was ready to defend himself.

"Fuck off," Edward said.

"What?" Irving frowned, surprised that Edward hadn't yet rolled around and shown him his belly.

"I said fuck. Off." Edward spat, carried along by a tidal wave of fury. "We've known each other for ten years, John. Ten years! And all this time I've let you insult me to my face, all because I told myself that you were working through something!"

Irving narrowed his eyes. "What are you implying, Little?"

"I'm not implying anything!" Edward snapped. "I'm *saying* it!"

Irving sputtered. "I beg your pardon!"

"You are gay!" Edward screamed. 

Irving recoiled as if he'd been struck. Edward took some sadistic pleasure in it. Edward took a step closer, and then another, watching in delight as Irving retreated until his back hit the opposite wall, his eyes wide with fear.

Well, it was time for Irving to finally face those fears. 

"You, John Hay Irving, are gay!” Edward told him, prodding his chest with a finger. 

"I'm not--" John began. 

“Stop denying it!" Edward cut him off. "I've seen the way you look at men. Hell, I've seen the way you look at *me*!"

Irving floundered. "I--I'm an artist. I admire beauty in all its--"

Edward kissed him.

It was nothing like the kisses he had been trading with Thomas. There was no desire, no lust behind it. Not from Edward's part, at least. There was only a simmering anger forged by years of holding back every time Irving said something horrible. Edward's tongue invaded Irving's mouth as if ready to fight its way in, but there was no need for it: the moment their lips touched, John melted against him, a whimpering whine leaving his throat.

Edward pulled apart. John leaned in as if seeking a second kiss before catching himself.

"Wow," Thomas said behind Edward.

John touched his own lips and looked at Edward, his expression frightened. 

As if he was terrified at him.

Oh, shit, Edward thought, the world crashing down on him.

"John," Edward said, pulling back. "John, I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have--"

"Don't," Irving interrupted him. His voice was shaky. He looked as if a light breeze could have knocked him out. "Don't say anything."

Dejected and lost, Irving turned around. Edward watched him walk away until he disappeared around a corner.

"Crap," Edward murmured. He ran a hand through his hair. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Normally, I'd agree," Thomas said, "but given how many homophobic things I've heard him say since I met him, I'd say it was either that or punching him."

Edward cringed. "Sorry."

"Don't be. I'm not mad," Thomas told him. "However, we have a problem."

Edward's stomach dropped. He didn't know if he had it in him to face another problem. Not today. "What is it?"

Thomas pointed back at the door of the cabin with his thumb. It was closed. "We're locked out of your room."

Edward had forgotten to ask Des Voeux to return his keycard. "Crap," he repeated. Exhausted, he leaned back against the wall and covered his face with his hands. "Oh, fuck. I've ruined everything."

"Hey, hey, look at me," Thomas whispered. He took his wrists in his soft hands and gently lowered them. "It's fine. We can go back to mine. Doctor Crozier is always at Fitzjames' office, anyway."

Oh, God. Edward's teacher had used that same voice to calm him down when he had a meltdown. A Pavlovian reflex made him want to snuggle against his side and ask for a hug. A far more adult instinct made him crave for his tongue down his throat. 

Edward ignored both desires for now and nodded. "Good idea."

"There you go." Thomas pecked him on the lips, soft and chaste. It was enough to reassure Edward that Thomas was indeed okay with him having kissed John. 

Thomas interlaced their fingers. They walked the ten metres that separated them from Jopson and Crozier's bedroom together.

"I hope you have your keycard," Edward joked weakly.

"I do." Thomas held the card up. He released Edward's hand and unlocked the door.

As it turned out, Crozier was not in Fitzjames' office. Crozier was sitting on his bed, Doctor Blanky and Doctor Silna sitting at both sides of him.

"Oh, no," Thomas said, in a tone that suggested that something that he had been secretly fearing had happened. He crossed the room to crouch in front of his advisor. "Are you okay, doctor?"

"He's not, lad," Blanky said, signing as he spoke orally.

"What's wrong?" Thomas asked.

Silna signed something. Edward had only learnt a handful2 of signs since the beginning of the expedition, but it didn't take a genius to figure out her meaning: ‘he fucked up.'

"Fitzjames?" Thomas whispered.

Crozier nodded.

"Ah," Edward said, and regretted it as four sets of eyes on him. "Should I go?"

"Oh, no, no, it's fine. I'll be with you in a minute," Thomas said, but it was clear that he was focused on his advisor.

"Right." Edward cleared his throat. "May I use your bathroom?"

"Be my guests," Crozier murmured. He sounded like he had been crying. He *looked* like he was about to start weeping all over again. Edward could think of nothing more mortifying than that, and so he made a quick escape to the bathroom. He locked the door behind himself.

Christ.

What a day.

He spent some time adjusting himself. Luckily, the past few minutes had been enough of a rollercoaster that by now his erection had died and early death. He turned the faucet on and splashed some water on his face. Edward wondered for how long he could stay in here before someone came looking for him. Probably around twenty minutes, but by then they'd think that he'd been dropping anchor, so to speak. It was not the sort of impression he wanted to give.

Which meant that Edward would have to go back to that room sooner rather than later.

Fuck.

Edward had heard the rumours about Doctor Crozier. Everyone back at Cambridge knew that he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Doctor Cracroft, from the Geography department. Just like everyone had heard about how prone to drinking Crozier was when his relationships ended. If Fitzjames had broken up with him, things could get ugly. Being stuck on a ship was difficult enough without having a relapsing alcoholic aboard. 

Edward checked his watch. With a sigh, he unlocked the door and joined the others in the main cabin.

"...and then he asked me to leave his office," Crozier was saying while Blanky translated for Silna.

"And that was it?" Thomas asked. He had dragged a chair close to the bed to talk with his mentor.

"Yes. Well, no," Crozier waved a hand. "Doctor Goodsir told us about the food. I'm going to throttle Franklin next time I see him, by the way. But then I left."

Silna said something. Edward only recognized the sign for ‘sorry.'

"I didn't have the chance!" Crozier said defensively. "He kicked me out of his office before I could say anything."

"Yes, but did you try, doctor?" Thomas asked patiently. Edward was peeved to find that Thomas didn't save his teacher-voice just for him.

Crozier ran a hand through his face. "...no. I couldn't bring myself to."

"Why?" Edward asked. The other four looked at him. Crap. "If you don't mind me asking."

Crozier rested his elbows on his knees. "Because I meant it. I meant everything I said."

Silna hit him upside the head. ‘Dumbass.'

Edward did know that sign. It was her nickname for Des Voeux.

"I know. I know." Crozier murmured even as he rubbed the back of his head. "But… come on. He brags about having met E**n Musk. He makes a living off convincing the public that some of the worst polluters on Earth are eco-friendly. No matter how you slice it, he *is* part of the problem."

"His politics are a little suspect," Thomas admitted.

"Exactly! So," Crozier cringed, "I might have called him a neoliberal."

The other four gasped.

"Feh!" Blanky shook his head. "You fucked up, Francis. There's no coming back from that."

"I know." Crozier sighed. "But it's the truth. We all have thought it!" 

None of them denied it.

"But doctor," Thomas said, his voice very soft, "you love him."

Crozier looked like he had swallowed a phone battery and was trying to estimate how likely it was to kill him.

"I know I fucked up," Crozier said eventually. "But it's not something I can overlook. Not when my life's work has been dedicated to undoing the damage people like him do. The personal is political. If I had ignored that, it would only have become… a repeat of Sophia."

Sophia. That was Doctor Cracroft. Coincidently, it was also Edward's cue to leave. He cleared his throat. "I should probably get going. This seems like a private matter."

Thomas stood up. "Yes. I’m sorry, Edward. We will have to shelf this for another time."

"It's okay. I don't mind waiting," Edward said.

The white lie was worth it for Thomas' smile. He kissed Edward on the lips and opened the door of the cabin for him. The last thing Edward saw before the door closed was Thomas sitting down in front of Crozier once again, Silna and Blanky both huddling closer to the man, like penguins nestling for warmth.

It was only once the door had closed that Edward remembered that he still didn't have the keycard to his room. "Fuck."

He'd have to ask for another one. He hated doing that. Especially as Gibson was the one to hand them out, and Edward was sure that the man would be mad at him after catching him kissing Thomas in the mess hall. There was no way around it, however--or, at least, no way that didn't involve finding Des Voeux and asking for his card back.

Hands stuffed inside his pockets, Edward headed for the janitor’s closet where Gibson could usually be found.

And that was how he caught Tozer and Hickey selling toilet paper to Des Voeux.

Edward froze in place. For a few seconds, his mind struggled to find an alternative explanation for what his eyes were seeing, but he could think of no other reason why Des Voeux would be handing them a wad of bills in exchange for a roll of TP.

“Oh, hello,” Hickey said, noticing him. Cornelius’ smile was so wide he looked like a theatrical mask.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Des Voeux said in a perfect deadpan that suggested that he did not, in fact, give a crap if Edward believed him.

“Edward.” Tozer passed Des Voeux the roll he had been holding and turned to face him. “That’s your name, isn’t it? Edward?"  Tozer said, approaching him like one did a wild animal. Almost as if he was afraid of him. Edward privately found it ridiculous. Didn’t Tozer know that Edward had spent his yearly reserves of assertiveness on Irving? “They have failed us. The captain, the cruise line, our sponsor... They have left us a big losing hand.” He reached out as if to touch him. “But you can join us. No one needs to know.”

Then everything went black.

---

FOOTNOTE:

1 Some couples stay together for the kids. Edward was under no illusion that his parents were one of them. His best guess as to why they hadn’t divorced was that neither party was willing to risk losing the horses. [ ▲ ]

2 Pun, regrettably, intended. [ ▲ ]