Virgil lurched out of improbable space so sharply that I felt as if all my internal organs had been crumpled, dissolved into sandy grains and then boiled like a thick, syrupy liquid; falling out of improbable space and into probable space felt like shit even in the most normal of procedures, and it was far worse without any form of warning.
When probable space resolved itself around me, all neat three-dimensional lines, I pressed a hand to my side where I'd developed a stitch, took a deep breath and said, "What the fuck, Virgil?!"
"Sorry," Virgil said, an agitated quality to the normally smooth timbre. "Sorry about that, San Taomo."
I swallowed hard; I could hear the click in my throat. "What's going on?"
"Er," Virgil said. I had never heard him say er before. It was so surprising that I stared up at the translucent shell of my pod for a long moment, navigational information scrolling unheeded past my vision. Finally, I pressed my right elbow into a depression on the inner surface of the pod, and the top half slid back so I could sit up.
"We've picked up someone," Virgil said. He sounded grimly uncomfortable, as if he was being forced to consume Rovian insects for energy. "I couldn't help it, you see."
"What do you mean, you couldn't help it?" I slung my feet over the edge of the pod, clambered out and peered through the narrow viewscreen. Probable space slid past serenely, an endless carpet of space dotted with galaxies.
Virgil sighed."Well...they utilized the signal for emergency assistance and retrieval. I couldn't refuse that, it's been programmed into all of us to stop for it."
"Even in improbable space?" I scowled. "You could have killed me!"
"That's not true," Virgil said, deeply affronted. "I know you could have handled it. Don't be so childish."
"It still hurt like a bitch, though."
"I said I couldn't help it and I said I was sorry." Virgil took a moment to compose himself, and then sighed. "Besides, a nearby ship in improbable space is best for that signal. The odds of being picked up are greatly enhanced."
"And it was just our luck to be the closest." I let out a sigh as well, and then slumped against the control panel. "So. We have a hitchhiker."
"They're in the airlock!" Virgil called out helpfully as I staggered out into the main corridor. "Please be polite, Taomo!"
"Oh, go jump in a gravity well."
The person in the airlock was tall and skinny, with skin so pale I could see the veins in their arms, mapped clearly. They were female and of a line of Terran that wasn't familiar to me at all; the tattoos and ridges on her cheekbones were of no help. I couldn't read them, at least.
She was also insanely cheerful.
"Hi!" she said, getting up from where she had been sitting in the corner, waiting for someone to arrive. "Hey! Good morning! Or...uh, Good Wake Cycle! I keep forgetting that morning and evening and night are not really applicable on a starship. Say, this isn't a P-Class Improbability Jumper, is it?"
I blinked at her, a bit blown away by this storm of words. "No. Q-Class."
She grinned at that, tucking her hair behind ears which stuck out almost comically; her hair fell past her shoulders in a straight black fall. "Q-Class!" Her bright blue eyes shimmered with what seemed like excitement. "That means it's a thinking-feeling ship! Ship? Hey, Ship! What's your name?"
There was a long, reluctant pause. "Virgil," the ship finally muttered. He was always shy around new folk, poor thing.
"Virgil! That's a neat name! I'm Sue. Well, my original name was Sesta, but Sue is such a nice old-timey name, isn't it? Really old-world and Earthy. My swarm-father told me--"
"Could you be quiet for a moment?" I ran my index finger over the layered glass which separated the airlock from the rest of the ship. "Just...let me check your vitals."
"Sure!" Sue actually pinched her lips shut with the fingers of one hand. They were really long, bony fingers. I rolled my eyes and squinted at the information wavering on the glass itself. "What's your name?"
"You're doing such a great job at being quiet." I closed one eye and considered the words in the glass. "Taomo," I told her and then asked: "What line of Terran are you?" The ship's records were giving me an identification error, which was odd but not too unusual. The Organization came out with at least one new line every generation.
"Are you a San or a Sen?" she countered, her fingers tapping against her lips. "You look like a San."
"I am a San," I said and then felt something tighten in my chest. "Well. I was a San until...my partner died."
Sue's narrow face gained a deeply apologetic expression. "That is so very sad to hear."
"It's fine." I didn’t look directly at her. "It wasn't too long ago, but it's fine." I shook myself, wondering how I was telling a stranger all of this.
Larkin had been an amazing partner and he had a loud, sweet laugh, the kind of laugh that made you smile when you heard it. We had renewed our relationship contract numerous times, because we had understood each other so well. I had been dedicated to him; we had been of the same line, Jumper: designed by the Organization to be well-suited at maintaining consciousness in improbability space. It might be a small engineered trait, but it was pretty important. Improbable space was crazy.
Larkin and I had even looked alike: shorter than most other lines and stocky, with dark skin and brown eyes. There was a malfunction on the ship he had been maintaining at the time; it had been pulled into a star. Larkin's death had placed me in a numb state for months, and only Virgil's shyly insistent request for me to return as as his maintainer and navigator had drawn me out of that dark time.
I missed him terribly. Larkin had been everything to me. Everything.
"What line of Terran are you?" I asked again, pushing the memory of Larkin to the back of my mind. "And Virgil told me you were in stasis on a chunk of rock. Well, half-stasis, since you managed to thumb your way onto this ship."
Sue took a deep breath, held it and then spoke on the exhale. "I'm...from the Destructor line."
I staggered away from the airlock's door, and plastered myself against the opposite wall. My eyes felt too wide for my face, as if they were about to fall out of their sockets. I could feel the slow pulse of Virgil's engines, even from all the way up here.
"Destructor line," Virgil said and made a funny, choking sound. "We have a Destructor on-board. Taomo?"
I tried to speak, and had to swallow hard before I could manage to croak out, "Yes?"
"I am so, so sorry."
Destructors had probably been the most ill-conceived line designed by the Organization. Simply put, they had been designed to destroy things. They were powerful, unstable and went into a half-stasis once their job was done. Once, I'd heard that a single Destructor had taken out a binary-star system; seventeen planets. I wasn't sure how true that was, though. The Organization probably thought they were a great way to get rid of potential enemies, but Destructors were far too unhinged for that.
Strangely, Sue kept up her perky disposition as we jumped in and out of improbabilities (she unconscious in a pod during those times, and me making sure I was as far from her as I could manage). The only time she had seemed upset had been when I had refused to let her out of the airlock, terrified that if she got out, she'd blow us to pieces and encase herself in that protective stasis cocoon that the Destructors made for themselves when their assignments were finished. They'd wait to be picked up by their supervisors, I imagine.
"You should let me out of here," she'd told me, her smile gaining a trembling, sharp edge. It was a frightened and threatening smile, all at the same time. "I can't stand small places for too long. I get upset and when I get upset...things get destroyed."
I had released her pretty quickly, with shaking fingers, and then raced away from her as fast as my legs could carry me. I fled, I'm not ashamed to say, and had avoided her since then. As soon as we got to Terran space, I was going to drop her off at the closest Organizational outlet and never look back.
"Hello," Sue said right in my ear, once when we were in probable space and I actually shrieked, certain that Virgil and I would be reduced to so much dust in a few seconds. I spun around where I had been standing at a console and checking on Virgil's cargo-bays. We were transporting a large quantity of ore from CSO-V, and the mass tended to shift during improbability jumps.
I scuttled away, holding my hands up defensively. "Sue, don't--"
Her expression darkened and a strange green glow filled the air around her lanky frame. The ship began to shake.
We were going to die. I was sure of it.
Then, she clenched her fists at her sides and lowered her head until her chin was touching her chest, breathing deeply. When she looked up at me again, the glow was gone and Virgil was flying along just as normally as before.
"I'm not going to blow you guys up," Sue said. "Okay? So you can stop acting like I'm some kind of mass-murderer, or something."
"You're a Destructor," I said, trying to sound brave, but my voice was thin. "You destroy things."
"Not all the time!" Sue squeezed her eyes shut. I watched her force her line-abilities under control again. "Do you think I like being a Destructor?"
I regarded at her out of the corner of my eye. "I don't know. Do you?"
Her top lip curled. "No Destructor likes what they are." For a long moment, she simply stared at a point on the inner hull to the right of my head.
"What did you blow up before you hitched a ride with us?" I asked, and her bright blue gaze snapped back to me.
"I didn't blow up anything." Her voice was small, tired. Suddenly, she looked too tall and reedy, as if she would fold over in a moment. "I... ran away from my last assignment."
I raised my eyebrows. "And yet, you stuck your thumb out."
Sue shrugged and then grinned. "Hey, even Destructors get lonely."
I found myself smiling in return.
I didn't know how quiet the ship had been until Sue came along. She talked constantly, even if I wasn't responding. Sometimes, I just let her voice pour over me; it got to the point where I'd imagine the chattering even in the middle of an improbable jump. She asked questions, played games with Virgil and even helped me with some repair-work. Privately, I wondered how long a Destructor could go for before they had to destroy something. I wasn't quite sure how they functioned.
"What's improbable space like?" she asked me one day. I was crawling through a circular duct, peering at the lasers bouncing along in their cables, transferring Virgil's commands from one point to another. She was outside the duct, cradling my tools in her hands. I stuck my hand out of the access-way and plucked a light-tester from the jumbled pile.
"It's...weird." I focused the tester on a laser-beam which seemed to be fluctuating just a little. "Hard to explain. Very...improbable."
"I've always wanted to be a Jumper," Sue said, dreamily. I snorted and tugged a glass screwdriver from a pocket in the front of my coveralls, adjusting the laser.
"Ah," Virgil said, a happy little sigh. "That's it. Thank you, Taomo."
"No problem, Virg."
"What do you see when the ship is jumping?" Sue asked when I slid out of the hatch and secured it. "Do you see stars being born? I always heard Jumpers saw stuff like that."
"Sometimes." I walked down the corridor, wiping my hands on my clothing. It wasn't that my hands were dirty, but...just a habit I picked up from Larkin, I suppose.
"Awesome. How about...people who've died?"
I paused in the middle of waving my hand near the lift-beam.
"That's an impossibility," I finally said, and summoned the lift. "Not an improbability."
"Yeah," Sue said. "But it would be kinda nice."
Virgil was shouting, "I didn't know, Taomo, I didn't know!" the moment we fell out of improbable space on that last day with Sue.
"What? What?" I was groggy, shifting restlessly in my chair; this last jump had been filled with voices and laughter. Ghosts of people who haven't died as yet. Stars folding in themselves and light bursting from the seams. Improbabilities converging on impossibilities."Why are you shouting?"
Virgil was crying. The ship spun around and flew upside down. If I hadn't been strapped in, I would have ended up on the ceiling.
For a moment, I thought we were still in improbable space, but the stars were normal outside.
"Virgil!" I yelled. "What is it?"
He kept on crying. I was frightened; the only time I had seen Virgil like this was when we'd been told that Larkin had died.
"Virg? Could you fly properly, for me?"
Virgil's answer worried me even more. "Am I...I'm not flying right?"
"No, honey," I told him, tears filling my eyes even though I had no idea what was wrong. He sounded like a little lost boy. "You're the wrong way up."
"I should have made sure she was properly asleep," Virgil said, even as he corrected himself. "But I didn't know. I just...didn't know."
I tore at the straps, clawing them away from my body and racing out to the pod which Sue had claimed for herself. The material of the pod, which was specially designed to withstand jumps, was bubbling and melting away. An awesome green light seeped out of the sagging holes which were made.
After a few breathless moments, I saw Sue slumped inside the pod; her skin was melting off her bones.
At my cry, she opened her eyes and smiled. "Hey!" She blinked; one of her dark eyebrows was slipping down over the eye it had once sheltered.
"Sue!" I stepped close, and jerked back as my overalls began to burn. "Sue, can't you stop it?!"
Sue shook her head. "Looks like this is my last explosion." She coughed, and blood flew from between her lips. "Taomo. It's so beautiful in there. In improbable space. So weird."
"You should have been asleep!"
"I know. I know. You'll have to eject this pod or something. I don't want to blow up you and Virgil."
I may have been whispering her name as I wept, closing off the sector she was in. I had almost finished, and was going to jettison the lot of it, when I heard her say, "I saw him, you know. Larkin."
I pressed my forehead against the cool surface of the hull. Virgil had stopped crying, but there was a fine tremor in his metallic skin.
"Not impossible. You keep telling yourself that, and you don't see him. Improbable-jump...he activated the drive before the star swallowed him whole. He's somewhere...waiting. Thumb out."
I couldn't speak. I closed off a switch. Doors closed with harsh hisses, and the green glow almost blinded me before the entire area was disconnected from Virgil. I wondered if it hurt him.
It must have hurt.
It appeared that Sue managed to hold off until Virgil and I were a reasonable distance away before she exploded. We went back and searched for a long time, but we saw no sign of her...not even a stasis-coccoon.
We're on our way to Serpens sector, to where Larkin had been pulled into the star. I've been listening very hard during jumps, believing, as I should have, in improbabilities.
Sometimes, I hear him laughing. Just outside of Serpens, I heard him clearly say, "Hey! Hey, Taomo! My thumb's been out for a long time!"
I don't hear Sue.