You don't talk much, do you?

First time in a rig, I couldn't keep my damn mouth closed. Felt like I'd left a window open and the galactic winds were pourin' straight in through the breach, ruffling my gums.

I reckon maybe you're nervous. Happens to some of us at the start of a long haul. Who's this guy sittin' next to us? He's awful quiet. We gonna get along?

There ain't much space for fighting inside the cab, and ain't exactly like we could step outside and settle if things came to it. There's only one EVO suit between the seats, in case one of us feels like Operatin' on the Vehicle Externally. Ain't no need for two. Two encourages fights.

We're gonna get along, though, just you listen to me. It's this feeling I have. Nobody's gonna get pushed out, left to spiral in the dark and the stars, like sometimes happens with the more ornery rig pilots. Sure, you're the silent type, but I can keep jawin' enough for both of us.

That mess'a papers they handed me on the dock didn't say your name. That's fine, I guess. Mine's Ray (and that's a weak assed handshake you do there, boy. Best get to fixin' that.) Born and raised in the business, I was. Had a rig pilot for my daddy and a stopover point human services technician for my ma. They're still out there somewhere, 'less my daddy got the stirs or my ma got old.

You have family at all? I mean, 'course you do. Everyone's got 'em. But what I reckon I'm trying to ask is who.

Nobody? Alright. Suit yourself. Didn't mean to be pryin' like. It's just, we need something to talk about. Try ta do one'a these runs in silence an' within the first week you'll stop bein' right in the head.

Heard of a fellow who once tried. Co-pilot was cracked. Pulled a shiv on him. Man defended himself, killed the co-pilot, but it was only two days into the trip. By the end of it, he was clucking to himself softly, trying to imagine the steering wheel in a frilly dress. I reckon they recycled him after that.

's a terrible thing to happen to any man, so I hope I've impressed upon you the need for some kind'a common ground? Good.

Let's talk about the controls. Ain't much there, an' you'd best have seen the training films, but it's a good place to start. That switch right there? That's the throttle. You don't move it. It's always on full, unless the system detects a malfunction or we're nearing a stopover point. Then it unlocks and you can go and pull it on back.

Next to the throttle is the wheel. You don't touch the wheel much, but sometimes the route curves. The edges of existence being somewhat ellipsoid and all. If part'a the route ever looks like that, you and the whoever you're driving with trade off on the wheel. Ain't no sense in one man keeping his arms out all stiff like that for days.

Above the wheel is that little switch on the dash. That's how you tell the little machines in the rig to start spraying their indelible paint onto the cosmos. You flip it once when you leave dock or a stopover point, and once when you're docking and stopping. Don't touch it any more than that, and never forget it. That switch is the job we're here to do. Miss that, and you're bound for the bin for sure.

Not to get all philosophical, of course, but there ain't many a job more important than this one. Without us an' our rigs, folks'd be flying right off the edge of existence all a' the time. Hell, without us, you know there'd be crazies trying to explore all that nonbein' on the other side. It ain't natural, and I'm glad we're here to paint the lines.

I bet you're wonderin' what it looks like. Well, too bad. Best fix your eyes on the lifeless void out my window, 'cause yours is all blocked up for a reason. That practice started ages ago, back when rigs had a whole windshield and two side mirrors. Things worked out alright, I guess, but some drivers kept staring over the other side of the lines. Got a little fixated, if you know what I mean. Ain't like they were, you know, the best of men, but enough hatches popped and bodies asphyxiated will send anyone a message. So, study the little pinpricks of burning helium on this side—if'n you have to.

They say that over there, through your window, everything is so dark and quiet that it drinks the light from your eyes. I'm not so sure I believe it, but I'm not so sure as I don't either. It can make things a touch tricky when you're painting the lines, though. After all, you have to know where they're landing. Whether you're about to stray over the edge or wander into some ol' fringer's backyard. Might be you get tempted to lean around the partition and check, but it ain't worth doing.

You just have to trust, 'specially on the long hauls. You have your vector locked in at the dock, an' it's never wrong. They triple check that kind of thing, those eggheads with the company. It's what they love. If Calculus was a human services technician, you'd have to put up snipers and 'lectric fences to keep them off'a her route.

Perhaps you've heard that story, though. You know which one I mean. Pilots get a little too deep in their cups of reconstitute, and maybe the stopover point is too far away from anything worthy to have them ubiquitous cameras in it, an' sooner or later somebody tells it. You can tell when they're doin' it 'cause'a the hush that just falls on everybody in the place. Ma once had a down blanket, and it's an awful lot like that, only smotherin'.

Once upon a time the company got its routes wrong, so they tell. Only, instead of breaking a trail straight into the heart of some gassy sun an' exploding, they went off'a the rails the other way. Entered the beyond and never came back. Now, it sure got patched up powerful fast, if'n it ever did happen, but the real bit'a bad magic is this: supposedly they recovered the pilot.

Stories say he seemed right enough, up 'til he carved out someone's earlobe and drowned an orderly in his sink, but you couldn't look at his face without feeling uneasy. Stead'a having regular sized pupils, itty bitty black dots in his orbs, he had huge, almighty, thought-devourin' ones. Just drew you straight in an', when he was done, spat the mangled up remnants of your psyche out into his palm.

I ain't tellin' you this just to scare you, boy. I just want you to know what you're facing if you feel the other side start tuggin' at your neck.

But lets move on to happier things. Can't spend the whole damn journey jumpin' at ghosts. Be plum tuckered when you finally tumble outta the cab.

So, you got a girl waitin' for you at dock? It's best not to. Words gets around that you're seein' someone on a regular basis, an' the company'll decide you've got a...what'cha'ma'call'em. A strategic psychological dependency on her. Means they think you can get through the meanest scarcity just by thinking about her, an' that ain't good at all for you. She gets a little stipend. You get posted twice 'round the cosmos.

I knew a guy who tried to swing this to his advantage. He an' his lady (you'll notice them air quotes,) wanted to leave dock. Figured they'd save up what the company was slippin' her an' buy their way out. It worked, too, in what you might say was a Pyrrhic fashion. He got recycled at the end of his last run, an' she was promoted to sub-secretarial assistive services by way of a consolation prize.

Shame about that. Bill was alright. He had his faults. Way the man chewed his food was an abb-er-ation, jaw going up and down like it was fit to unhinge, but he never did nothing wrong by me. Never killed a co-pilot neither. Or was that Daniel I was thinking of?

Y'all looked nervous for a moment, there. I ain't got no cause to kill you. Not if you don't start nothing an' you don't try an' make a pass at me. Had that happen once, right before we got outta dock. Had them technicians haul me right back in and replace my co-pilot. Can't be goin' on one'a these month-long trips with someone who's wonderin' what you look like under your suit.

Yeah. You're right to shudder. I feel my spine tryin' to dance too. Heard it happened once. Two pilots went strange, but luckily they recycled the both of them.

Beats me how they found out. Company tells us there ain't cameras in here, so they must'a figured it out on their own. Maybe it was the way those pilots walked. Walk straight at the next stopover, you hear?

How long until we're there? That's not a question you want to be voicing much. Were I the superstitious type, I'd swear on my daddy's recycled body that asking someone adds time to the clock. We'll get there when we get there. Can't hurry a rig any more'n you could hurry a moon or a moron.

You fancy a game of cards? I always swallow a deck before I leave dock. Company frowns on non-standard recreation, but sometimes you need a pack of nudies to look at. Reminds you what's real.

Well, fine. Suit yourself. Don't look like you'd be much good at holding them. What do you do for fun, anyway?

Fair enough. To each his own, long as it's not ob-scene.

Me? I like to think. Ruminate. Recollect. I reckon that's not what you expected to hear, but it's true. I like to ponder all great creation's imponderables, 'cept for the ones we're not supposed to consider. For example, there's you, who hasn't uttered so much as a peep since we got the jets lit up an' those metaphorical wheels rollin'. You're a bit of an enigma. 's almost like you're not really...

But nah. That's crazy talk, right?

Right?

You gonna agree with me boy, or do I have'ta make up my own mind? It's not like I can't. Just you watch me. Here I am, deciding that you're just shy.

It's okay. Take your time. There's months left to go a'fore we hit stopover number one.

An' here I am, deciding that you're doing it to spite me.

YOU LIKE THAT, HUH? DO YOU? I could hit you again, crack your skull right open. But maybe...

Maybe I've decided you aren't real at all.

Got nothin' to say to that, do you?

Well, how about you, company man? You got somethin' to say to me? I sure bet you do. I sure bet you do, you skunk-eating bastard putting me in here with a—

--END TRANSMISSION--

Internal memo

Loc: Our Well Defined Borders Inc.

Re: co-pilots

The overall success of the new co-pilot initiative has been marred by a few incidents, such as the one concerning Mr. Ashton. After vandalizing the third-party recorder installed in the dash, he proceeded to swerve off course into unregulated space. Security mechanisms installed in the vessel activated at this point, destroying the pilot along with his rig.

It is the firm belief of human resources that these incidents, while unfortunate, fall within the threshold of acceptable losses for the program. We are expecting a 50% increase in completed runs over our previous figures. After a period of initial turbulence, we expect all rig pilots to interface effectively with their co-pilots. We will continue to install humanoid mannequins in every craft that makes dock.