A closed and common orbi.., p.10
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.10

           Becky Chambers
 

  She remembered a metal hand around 64’s neck. She remembered how 64 had screamed. She remembered that it was all her fault.

  Jane kicked off the blankets and got out of bed. ‘I need a task.’

  ‘Okay,’ Owl said, bringing the lights back up. ‘We’ll find something good to do.’

  Jane tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. She’d never been so thirsty, or so hungry. Her lips stuck to each other like old glue. ‘Is there water?’

  Owl’s face looked wrong, like somebody who got caught doing something bad. ‘Not in the tanks, but there may be supplies still. How long have you gone without drinking?’

  ‘I don’t know.’ Water was something the Mothers gave them, like meals and medicine. Water just . . . happened.

  ‘Oh, stars. Stars, I didn’t think of it, I’m so stupid. I’m sorry. There should be ration bars and emergency water pouches in the pantry. They should still be good.’ The screen beside Jane’s bed switched off; another by the door switched on. ‘Follow me.’ Jane did so, though she felt strange about going somewhere in only her underwear. ‘I understand, you know,’ Owl said, as her face bounced down the short hallway. ‘I hate not having a job.’

  ‘What did you do before I got here?’

  ‘Not much,’ Owl said. ‘Not much at all.’ Her face jumped to a screen beside a narrow sliding door. ‘This is the pantry. I don’t have a camera in there, so you’re on your own. Look for the latched crate marked “rations”. Oh, wait, sorry – it’s probably in Klip. “Greshen”. Gee ar ee ess aitch ee en.’

  Jane blinked. Owl wasn’t using words any more. ‘I don’t understand.’

  ‘That’s how it’s spelled. Gee ar ee—’ Owl stopped. ‘Jane, can you read?’

  Jane didn’t know what that meant. Was Owl okay? She wasn’t making much sense.

  ‘Right,’ Owl said. ‘That’s a task for me, then. It’s okay, don’t worry about it. Here.’ Owl’s face disappeared. A row of white squiggles appeared on the screen. Her voice continued speaking. ‘Do you see what I’m showing you?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Okay. Find the box with these exact same markings on it.’

  Jane went through the door. The little room on the other side was filled with crates, most of them empty, some toppled over. It was a mess. All the crates had squiggles on them. They reminded her a bit of the angled lines that were sometimes on scrap. She’d always liked those angles. They made flat metal more interesting to look at.

  The crate Owl had been talking about was in the back, buried under other stuff. Jane knocked the junk aside and opened the crate. Inside were soft packets – small rectangular ones and fat squishy ones. The squishy ones probably had liquid inside. The rectangles were harder, but kind of movable. She could feel the one in her hand give when she pushed her thumb against it.

  ‘Is this right?’ Jane asked, stepping back out into the hall with one of each packet.

  ‘Yes,’ Owl said. ‘Can you hold both of those up to the camera nearest to you? Up in the corner? I need to see the markings on them.’

  ‘What’s a camera?’

  ‘The little machine with the glass circle on the front.’

  Jane found the machine and held the packets up. The machi— the camera made a whirring sound.

  ‘Oh, good,’ Owl said. ‘Good, they haven’t expired. Those are safe for a while yet. I don’t know if they taste good, but they’ll keep you fed. For now, at least.’

  Jane turned the rectangle over in her hand. ‘How do I make a meal out of this?’ She looked over at the squishy packet. ‘Do I mix them together?’

  ‘No, just open up the bar and take a bite.’

  Jane tore the packet open. Inside was a yellowish lump, kind of like putty. She poked it. ‘I should . . . bite it?’

  ‘Yes.’ Owl’s face frowned. ‘What kind of food did you have at the factory?’

  ‘We get meals twice a day.’

  ‘Okay. What kind of food?’

  For a software that knew lots of stuff, there sure was a lot Owl didn’t get. ‘Meals. You know, in a cup.’

  ‘Oh boy. Have you ever had solid food? Something you have to chew?’

  ‘Like medicine?’

  ‘Probably like medicine, yes. You’ve never had food like that?’

  Jane shook her head.

  ‘I – right. I am the worst teacher for this. You really need to be learning from a person. But all right, I’ve watched enough people eat. I can do this. We’ll . . . we’ll go slow.’

  ‘Is it complicated?’

  Owl laughed; Jane didn’t know why. ‘It’s not complicated, but your body is going to have to get used to it. I think your stomach might hurt a bit at first. I’m not entirely sure.’

  Jane looked at the packet, not feeling so good about it any more. She did not like stomach aches. ‘I’ll just have this, then,’ she said, waving the squishy pouch.

  ‘You can’t survive on water alone, Jane. Go ahead, give it a try. Just a tiny bite.’

  Jane brought the putty food to her face. Real slow, she touched her tongue to the edge. Her eyes got real big, and she almost dropped the food. It tasted . . . it tasted like nothing she’d ever had. Not like meals. Not like medicine. Not like blood or soap or algae. Whatever it was, it was good. Weird. New. Scary. Good.

  She put a corner of the food into her mouth and bit down, breaking off a piece behind her teeth. Yeah, this food was good. Her stomach growled loud. She wanted that food real real bad. She was hungrier than any girl had ever been, probably.

  But she had to chew the food, Owl said. She rolled the hard, good-tasting lump around on her tongue. It was breaking apart, kind of, but she didn’t think she could swallow it like it was.

  ‘That’s it,’ Owl said. ‘Chew it up really well.’

  Jane chewed. She chewed and chewed and chewed until the food turned to mush. She swallowed. She coughed, but it went down. ‘It feels real weird,’ she said. She put her hand on her stomach. It growled even louder.

  Owl smiled. ‘You’re doing great. Have some water. I believe that helps wash it down.’

  Jane tore open the corner of the squishy packet and took a sip. Even the water tasted different, almost like plex or something. She didn’t care. She’d never needed anything as bad as that water. She sucked down the whole thing at once, and breathed real hard after. Her lips felt better. ‘Can I have another one?’

  Owl looked weird. Almost scared, but not quite. Like she was thinking about something that might be bad. ‘Yes, but let’s be smart about it. How many of those packets were in there?’

  ‘Lots.’

  ‘Ten? More than ten?’

  ‘More than ten. Lots of tens.’

  Owl nodded. ‘I think you should have as many as you need right now. But the rest you’ll have to be more careful about. There’s no way for us to get more.’

  Jane went back into the pantry and got three more water packets. She drank half of one all at once, took another bite of the bar, and washed it down with more water. She got through half of the bar before she had a new problem. She was still hungry, but her jaw was getting tired from so much chewing, and her stomach wasn’t sure about what she’d put in it.

  Owl noticed. ‘You don’t have to eat it all right now.’

  ‘But I’m hungry.’

  ‘I know, honey. But this is going to take practice. Give your stomach a little rest, then have more later if you’re feeling okay.’

  Jane thought that was a good idea. Her stomach was making weird sounds, and it kind of hurt. She folded the wrapper around the food she hadn’t eaten. ‘Can I finish the water?’ she asked, holding up the third packet.

  ‘Yes. You don’t have to ask me for permission, Jane. I can’t give it to you anyway. I don’t control you.’

  That was an interesting thing to think about. Jane looked at the packet in her hand. ‘So . . . I can have this water.’

  ‘Yes,’ Owl said, her smile real big now. ‘You can.’

  Jane loo
ked around as she drank. It was easier to get a good look at the ship now than it had been when she got there. Nothing was chasing her, and that made thinking better. ‘What’s this room for?’ Jane asked.

  ‘It’s for relaxing and being together,’ Owl said. ‘The people who were here before you called it the living room.’

  Jane thought that was a weird name, since you could live anywhere in the ship. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, pointing to the space next to the pantry. There was a thing built into the wall that she didn’t know, with cupboards around it, and a sort of workbench that stuck out.

  ‘That’s the kitchen,’ Owl said.

  ‘Kitchen,’ Jane said, feeling the word in her mouth. ‘What’s it for?’

  ‘It’s for preparing food. Making meals.’

  Jane had never thought about what was in meals before. Meals were just meals. You got them twice a day. ‘What are meals made out of?’

  ‘Plants and animals.’

  Jane felt tired. More things she didn’t know.

  Owl’s face had a warm, good sort of look. ‘I’ll explain in more detail later. Don’t worry, I’m keeping a list of things you’ve asked about.’

  That was good to know. Owl was good at answering questions, and she seemed to like explaining to Jane what all the stuff was. Beside the kitchen, there was a small storage room with a big machine in it called a stasis unit. Owl said ‘stasie’ was a better word for it. She said you could put stuff to make meals in there and it wouldn’t go bad. Jane didn’t know what going bad meant, so Owl put it on the list.

  There were other storage spaces, too – mostly empty, but some had weird tools and other junk. There were clothes also, the biggest clothes Jane had ever seen. You could fit a girl twice Jane’s size in those clothes. More than twice. Owl looked kind of sad when Jane found the clothes, but she didn’t say why.

  The biggest space was the cargo hold, which filled up the back of the shuttle. There was a lot of scrap and thrown-away things in there, all tossed around and fallen over. Owl said it would be a good task, at some point, to go through that stuff and see what was there.

  There was a short stairway in the cargo hold that went into the underside of the ship. That’s where the engine was kept, and also the core that Owl was installed in. Out of everything, that place made the most sense to Jane. She could see circuit boards, fuel lines, power junctions. She touched the engine, finding all the little bits.

  You like little bits, Jane 64 said in her head. You’re real good at them.

  Jane went fast back up the stairs, feeling almost like she was being chased again.

  ‘Hey,’ Owl said. ‘You okay? Was it too dark down there? I know some of the globulbs are broken.’

  Jane found a corner and sat in it, arms around her knees.

  ‘What is it, Jane?’

  Jane didn’t know how to answer. Nothing was making sense. One minute, everything was new and interesting and there were words like kitchen, and the next, Jane 64 was in her head and the things outside were chasing her. And it was her fault.

  She put her face in her hands. She didn’t know if she wanted to keep learning or just go to sleep. Just go to sleep and not wake up.

  Owl watched her from the closest wall screen. She didn’t say anything for a while. Jane held herself hard and shook her head over and over, trying to get Jane 64 out of it.

  ‘Would you like a task?’ Owl said.

  ‘Yes,’ Jane said. She was crying again, and she didn’t know why.

  ‘Okay. Now, here’s the thing: as an AI, I can’t tell you what to do. I can only give suggestions. You have to pick what you want to do most. But I have some thoughts on what the most important tasks might be.’

  Jane rubbed her nose with her wrist. ‘Okay,’ she said.

  ‘When you’re ready to get up, I’ll show you.’

  The being-chased feeling was already starting to get a little quieter. Jane sniffed. ‘I’m ready.’

  ‘Attagirl,’ Owl said. Jane didn’t quite know what it meant, but something about the sound of it made her feel good. ‘Do you see those big drums in the corner? The big round things? Those are the water tanks, and they’re empty right now.’

  Jane got up and walked over to the drums. They were much taller than her, but not so so big. ‘Where does the water come from?’

  ‘Well, normally, somebody using the ship would fill up the tanks at a supply station, but we don’t have anything like that around. Not to mention, we can’t move.’ Owl laughed, but it wasn’t a good laugh. It turned into a sigh. ‘You’ll need to find water outside. Jane, I know there’s so much you don’t understand yet, and I don’t want to scare you further. But if you want to stay in here, you will have to find water. The rations won’t last you very long. The good news is, once you fill up these drums, you’ll only need to top them up every so often. Most of it will get recycled. I don’t have enough power to run the water filtration system right now, but it’s still functional. That’d be another good task: getting the hull cleared so I can get more power.’

  Jane thought about that. ‘What kind of power source makes you go?’

  ‘Look at you,’ Owl said with a big smile. ‘You’re such a smart girl.’ Jane felt so good hearing that. Owl kept talking: ‘There are two primary power sources in the ship. There’s the solar generator, which powers both basic mechanical functions, life support, and, well, me. And there’s the engine, which runs on algae. The engine powers propulsion – do you know what that is?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Propulsion is a big word for making things move. The engine makes the shuttle go places. We don’t need that kind of power just yet. The solar generator is enough to keep me going, as well as to run the things we need to keep you healthy. The problem is, there’s junk outside covering most of the solar coating on the hull. I’ve got less than half the amount of power I ideally should have. If you can get the hull clean and find some water, that would be a really good start.’

  Those tasks sounded okay, but there was a problem. ‘I can’t go outside,’ Jane said. ‘The . . . things are outside.’

  ‘Animals. Living things like you – things that can move and breathe – are called animals. And those particular kind of animals are called dogs. Horrible, genetweaked dogs, but dogs all the same.’

  Dogs. Okay. ‘I can’t go outside if there are dogs.’

  ‘I know. We’ll have to get creative. For your very first task, I suggest the following: go through the stuff in here and see what you can find. I’ll help you understand what supplies we have on hand. Then, once we’ve figured out what we’ve got, maybe we can figure out how to make some equipment that will deal with the dogs.’

  ‘What’s equipment?’

  ‘Tools. Tech. Machines. Things you can use.’

  Jane frowned. ‘I can’t make machines.’

  ‘Didn’t you build things at the factory?’

  ‘No,’ Jane said, shaking her head. ‘The older girls do that. The Janes clean and sort scrap. We tell if it’s good or if it’s junk.’

  ‘Tell me exactly what you did there. What kinds of scrap did you clean?’

  ‘All kinds.’

  ‘Tell me a few things you sorted.’

  ‘Um . . . fuel pumps. Light panels. Interface panels.’

  Owl looked real interested. ‘Tell me about interface panels. The last one you worked with, was it good, or was it junk?’

  ‘It was good.’

  ‘How did you know?’

  ‘I opened it up and bent the pins into place and hooked it up to some power, and it turned on.’

  ‘That’s more than sorting scrap, Jane. That’s fixing. And if you can fix things, you can build new things out of them. Go through the scrap in here. Figure out what’s good. Once that’s done, I’ll help you figure out what to do with it. I may not have hands, but I have a whole database full of reference files. I’ve got manuals on how the ship works, and information on how to repair things. I bet between the two of us, we c
an make some pretty good stuff.’

  Jane thought about that. She did always like it when she got scrap working again. The idea of making something different and useful out of it was real interesting. ‘What kind of stuff?’ she asked.

  Owl smiled. ‘I have a few ideas.’

  SIDRA

  ‘Sidra, we’ve been over this a dozen times.’ Pepper looked tired, but Sidra didn’t care. She was tired, too.

  ‘I can’t keep doing this,’ Sidra said from atop the desk in the corner of her bedroom. She pressed the kit’s head back as far as she could into the walls’ intersection, trying to make the edges of the room mesh with the kit’s blindspots. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough.

  Pepper sighed and rubbed her face. ‘I know it’s hard. I know you’ve still got a lot of adjusting to do—’

  ‘You don’t know,’ Sidra snapped. ‘You have no idea—’

  ‘You can not be connected to the Linkings at all times. You can’t.’

  ‘Other sapients do! There’s a shop right by ours where they install wireless headjacks. People come in and out of there all the time.’

  Pepper shook her head hard. ‘You’ve never seen what those people turn into. Full-time jackers are massively fucked up. They can’t focus. They can’t talk right. Some of them don’t come back out to the real world at all. I’ll take you to a jack den sometime, if it’ll get you off this kick. People rent bunks by the tenday, complete with a cable for their brain and a nutrient pump to keep them alive. A lot of them never leave. They just lie down and fade away. It’s disgusting.’ She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together, as if summoning words. ‘I know you wouldn’t run into the same problem, but you live in a modder community. You can’t be connected to the Linkings for the same reason you couldn’t keep the name Lovelace. If you run around knowing everything instantly without your social skills being shit, somebody is going to catch on. Somebody will realise that you’re not just crazy smart. You will slip, and they will catch it, and they will take you apart.’

 
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