"How is our best girl today?" he asks.
"Stubborn. She's bruising more than usual, tell her to pay attention to it." Dell glares over her shoulder. "She might actually listen to you."
"I assure you, she ignores us both equally," he says, and Dell walks away.
I've finished uploading the information packet under my username, so I log out and log back in with my superior's credentials. I use the stolen access to send a copy of the light data packet to my cuff so I can read through it later.
Jean has pulled over an empty traverser's chair.
"Dell is tense. You need to stop teasing her when you're off-world."
"But then how will she know I like her?" I say.
"You've been flirting with her for five years. She knows." He leans forward, setting down a steaming cup, and adjusts his glasses to look at my progress screen. "Am I witnessing company theft in my name? My wounded heart."
"Come now, old man. It can't really be theft if I'm just reading. You can't steal something that's still there when you've taken it."
"You'll find a large portion of the judicial system here disagrees with you."
I wave my hand. Judicial is a Wiley City word if I've ever heard one, and it has no place between us.
Jean knows what I'm doing. Not only was it his idea, but it's his credentials I use to send myself the info. He thinks if I study the figures and look for patterns the way analysts do, I'll be valuable to the company for more than my mortality rate. He thinks I can be more than a traverser, that I can be like him. With the number of desks sitting empty around me, I am desperate to believe he's right.
Jean was in the first group of surviving traversers. Before that, he lived through a rebel army's ten-year border war on the Ivory Coast. As a traverser, he could visit more than 250 Earths. He used to walk the worlds with us, but now he sits in a room and makes the policies surrounding traversing. When he goes out in public, people repeat his famous quote—I have seen two worlds now and the space between. We are a wonder—from the moment he landed safely on a new world. They shake his hand and take his picture, but he is quick to remind me that he was once worthless too.
Jean is the one who told me about Nyame, just like he tells every new traverser. It's the name of a goddess where he comes from, one who sits in the dark holding the planets in her palm. He says the first time he traveled to another world, he could feel her hand guiding him. I've never had much use for religion, but I respect him too much to disagree.
"This is 197, yes?" he asks, nodding to the screen showing the info I've just pulled. "The sky scientists were braying over it."
"They're called astronomers, Jean. And yeah, they put a rush on it. They want pictures of some asteroid that's too far away and they didn't want to wait a week for." I try to rotate my arm and wince at the ache.
"They paid a premium to rush a few pictures?" Jean makes a dismissive clucking sound. "Too much money, not enough purpose."
Jean's dislike of astronomers is an occupational hazard, and the dislike is mutual. Those working strictly in the field of space exploration haven't been fond of interuniversal travel, the new frontier that came along and snatched up a chunk of their funding. In return, those who work at Eldridge treat space exploration the way a young male lion looks at an older, sickly male lion—no outright violence, but maybe showing too much excitement in anticipation of the death.
Jean nudges the mug I'm ignoring toward me again. Sighing, I take a sip and barely keep from spitting.
"I was really hoping for coffee," I say, forcing myself to down the dark mixture of vitamin D, zinc, and too many other not-quite- dissolved nutrients.
"Coffee is not what you need," he says in the accent my limited world experience first thought of as French. "Nyame kissed you hard this time."
"So I see. Dell marked you for observation."
Of course she did. "I've only been scheduling pulls close together so I can take a few days off. I told her that."
"A vacation? I should think staying in place would have more appeal for you."
"Not a vacation. It's...it's a family thing."
At the mention of 'family' he smiles, which just goes to show what he knows. In the worlds where he survived—where he wasn't a child soldier, where he didn't die trying to stow away into Europe—he did so because of the strength of his father and the bravery of his mother. From the worlds I've studied, his deaths are usually despite their best efforts.
Most of my deaths can be linked directly to my mother. "Enjoy this time off. Don't do too much studying."
But not very hard.