Today's Reading

Dell touches the clear screen that's been delivered to me. It looks like a blank sheet of plastic, but once I activate it I'll know the basics of the world that's just been assigned to me. I learned quickly after moving here that the city loves plastic the way my town loves metal. Everything here is plastic. And it's all the same kind. When a plastic thing stops working, they put it down a chute and turn it into another plastic thing, or the same thing but fixed. Plastic here is like water everywhere else; there's never any more or less of it, just the same amount in an endless cycle.

"Do you know what your new world is?" she asks.

"You haven't given it to me yet."

"Can you guess?"

I should say no, because I resent being asked to do parlor tricks, but instead I answer, because I want to impress her.

"One Seventy-Five," I say. "If I had to guess."

I know I'm right by the way she refocuses on me. Like I'm interesting. Like I'm a bug.

"Lucky guess," she says, sliding the screen to me.

"Not really. There's only seven options."

I sit and pull out the drive that contains the payload from my last job. As soon as I plug it in, the dark data will upload to persons unknown and delete itself. I send the light data to the analysts who will interpret and package it for the scientists.

Eldridge thinks we traversers don't know about the first package of intel. Like the organizations responsible for space exploration in the past, Eldridge is technically an independent company, though it's heavily funded by the government of Wiley City. There is an industrial hatch outside the city walls, in the empty strip of desert between here and Ashtown, which brings in resources from other worlds. Taxpayers, government officials, and especially Eldridge's lesser employees are supposed to believe that is how the company supplements the income it gets from research grants. Sure, bringing in resources from another world so we don't have to harm ours is probably worth a mint. But that doesn't add up to tenth-richest-man-in-the-city money, which is what our CEO and founder has.

Because no traverser has ever made a report to enforcement or asked questions, they think they've pulled this elaborate ruse on lower-level employees. But really, we just don't care. A job's a job, and people edging out other people to make money buying and selling something invisible just sounds like rich-people problems.

I look up at Dell, still standing beside me. She's a rich person, but the kind who's always going to be rich. Rich so far back it'd take two generations of fuckups for her family to go broke. There's a lot of this up here in the city. Not new-money rich people, like Adam Bosch, but whole rich families where the wealth is spread out among the members so it doesn't attract attention.

"Something else?"

"Saeed is gone," she says.

"Star? They fired her?" When she nods, I ask, "Did she mess up?"

I hope she did. Starla Saeed is one of the last traversers remaining from before I started. She was born in what they call a civil war but was really just a ruler systematically killing his subjects. When she was twelve she took a journey across the sea that drowned more people than it delivered. She could travel to over two hundred worlds.

If she screwed up, it's just a firing, only interesting because we have the same job and were close once. If she was downsized, she's a canary in the mine.

"One Seventy-Five was the last world only she had access to. When your death on that world registered... Why pay two salaries and benefits when they can just put 175 in your rotation?"

What she doesn't say, but thinks: 'Why pay a decent salary at all for a glorified courier?'

"One Seventy-Five won't be scheduled for at least a week, but it wouldn't hurt for you to familiarize yourself over your long weekend. And pay attention to the bruising. I want to make sure it's clearing before your next pull."

Again, I can interpret her fear over a wasted asset however I want, and I choose to pretend it's affection. The long look she takes at my arms and chest makes me shiver, and for a second I wonder if I am just pretending. But then she sees my reaction and backs away, nearly running into Jean.

"Ms. Ikari," he says, formally, the way she likes.

"Mr. Sanogo," she says, also formally, the way he doesn't like.

The famous Jean Sanogo has always just been called Jean, or Papa Jean by the papers.

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