A closed and common orbi.., p.11
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.11

           Becky Chambers

  Sidra’s pathways crackled with frustration. The kit tugged its hair in kind. ‘Pepper, my memory banks are filling up. I am not like you. I don’t have a brain that grows new folds and synapses whenever I learn something. You – you have an almost infinite capacity to learn things. I don’t.’

  ‘Sidra, I know—’

  ‘You’re not listening to me. I have a fixed limit on hard memory. I was designed to have constant Linking access at all times. I wasn’t meant to store everything locally. I’m going to have to start deleting things at some point. Any time I learn someone’s name, any time I’m taught a new skill, I’m going to have to pick and choose which of my memories to keep. I’m going to have to tear pieces of myself out. You say you understand, but you don’t. You have no idea what this is like. You have no idea how this feels.’ Her words were coming out loud, fast, barely processed. She could’ve stopped herself. She could’ve brought her voice back down, slowed her pace. She didn’t want to. She wanted to be loud. She wanted to yell. She knew it was unproductive, but right now, it felt good.

  ‘Okay, I don’t know exactly how it feels, but I get it.’ Pepper was getting loud now. Somehow, that felt good, too. ‘What you don’t seem to get is that you’re downloading things you have no need for. You wonder about an Aandrisk proverb or something, and an hour later, you’re filing away half the fucking Reskit library. You don’t need all that stuff.’

  ‘Do you need all your memories? Do you need to remember every song you’ve ever heard, every sim you’ve ever played?’

  ‘I don’t always remember. I have to look stuff up all the time.’

  ‘Yes, but then you remember. The memory’s still there. Do you know what that would be like, to download a song, delete the file, and then hear it again, thinking I’ve never heard it before?’

  ‘Sidra . . . stars. All I’m saying is that you need to be more picky. Log a one-line text reminder that you heard the song. Don’t download everything that musician’s ever made.’ Pepper frowned, chewing her thumbnail. ‘We could get you a hud.’

  ‘No,’ Sidra said. Reading was clunky and slow. That wasn’t what she wanted. That wasn’t what she needed.

  ‘Don’t say no before you’ve tried it. You could read the Linkings just like everyone—’

  ‘I am not like everyone else. I can’t be like everyone else.’

  ‘You need,’ Pepper said, in a tone that meant the conversation was over, ‘to try.’ She sighed again, glancing at the wall clock. ‘And we need to get to the shop.’

  Sidra pressed into the corner, fuming. Why was she so angry? This wasn’t fair to Pepper, she knew that. Pepper was just trying to keep her safe, and she’d done so much for her. They’d ordered dinner from Fleet Fry the night before, and Pepper had got an assortment of appetisers and one of each kind of dipping sauce so that Sidra could trigger new images. That memory file made her feel guilty in the context of the current conversation, but . . . but the hell with it. She might have to delete that memory file altogether if she didn’t find a way to deal with this.

  ‘I don’t want to go to work today,’ Sidra said. She sounded like a child. She didn’t care.

  ‘Okay,’ Pepper said. ‘All right, fine. What are you going to do instead?’

  ‘I don’t know.’ The kit crossed its arms. ‘I don’t know. I could clean.’

  ‘Don’t clean. Go out. Or stay in, whatever. Just . . . do something that feels good.’

  Sidra moved her gaze away from Pepper. The guilt associated with the previous night’s memory file was bleeding into everything else. This conversation was making her feel guilty, too. Why was she acting this way? Why couldn’t she just get used to the way things were? What was wrong with her? ‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered.

  ‘It’s cool. We’re going to figure this out.’ Pepper walked out of the room, rubbing the back of her head. ‘Seriously, though. Do something fun.’

  Sidra stayed in the corner long after she heard Pepper walk out the front door. She wrestled with the ugly knot of emotions clouding her processes. She was angry with Pepper for not understanding. She was grateful for Pepper trying to help. She was angry with Pepper for not agreeing with her about Linking access. She was ashamed of how she’d behaved just then. She was justified in how she’d behaved just then. She wasn’t. She was.

  Do something fun, Pepper had said. Sidra thought about going down to her spot in the living room and plugging into the Linkings all day. Considering the topic at hand, it was the obvious thing to do. But in that moment, she didn’t want the Linkings for a day; she wanted a solution. She wanted the knot in her pathways to melt away. She wanted to fix this, to fit in, to stop clinging to corners and reaching for Linkings. She needed to change, and didn’t know how.

  Even though the corner felt good, even though her chair was right downstairs, even though going out was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, she wasn’t going to find answers in a public feed. She climbed down from the desk, put on her shoes and jacket, and headed for the Undersea.

  Feed source: unknown

  Encryption: 4

  Translation: 0

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: unknown

  ACuriousMind: greetings, fellow modders! i am about to embark upon a great journey of scientific discovery, and i need your help! i am extremely interested in the practice of genetic manipulation, particularly sapient hybridisation. i am new to this field, but i have read several linking books on the subject, and am confident that my theories will shatter the realm of biology as we know it. but first, i have to get some gear! can anybody recommend a reliable source for gestation chambers, preferably cheap? i am on a budget.

  tishtesh: is this a fucking joke

  KAPTAINKOOL: amazing. i can count six different kinds of stupid in one paragraph

  ACuriousMind has been banned from Picnic

  CuriousMind2 has joined Picnic

  CuriousMind2: i can’t believe this. picnic is supposed to be an open-minded place for tech trade and cutting-edge science! clearly, this community isn’t as high calibre as i was led to believe. there’s a whole channel here on genetweaking! why was i banned????

  fluffyfluffycake: because you lack subtlety, which means you have no clue what you’re doing. enjoy your inevitable arrest. flagged.

  pinch: also if you think sapient manufacture is the same as genetweaking, your science is a fucking horrorshow. flagged.

  tishtesh: also you’re an idiot. flagged.

  CuriousMind2 has been banned from Picnic

  tishtesh: anybody else want to scrub that kid’s scrib?

  KAPTAINKOOL: stars yes. i’ll message you.

  fluffyfluffycake: me too me too

  pinch: fry his patch while you’re at it

  FunkyFronds: i love this feed

  JANE, AGE 10

  Jane woke up excited and scared all at once. She and Owl had been real busy. Today was the day to see if all that busy worked.

  She got out of bed and stared at her clothes, lying in a heap on the floor. They were sleep clothes, not work clothes, but they were all she had. They were gross. That was a good word Owl had taught her. Gross. Gross was how it felt to have clothes that were all smudged with dirt and old blood, and to not have had a shower for four days. She didn’t want to put on the gross sleep clothes. The thought of it made her itch. She put them on anyway.

  ‘Good morning,’ Owl said. ‘You ready for today?’

  Jane’s stomach flipped over, but that hot, buzzy feeling in her chest was louder. ‘Yeah,’ Jane said.

  ‘I know you can do it,’ Owl said. She smiled, but her face was a little scared. Jane tried not to think about that too much. She didn’t want to think about what it meant if Owl was scared, too.

  Jane got up, went to the bathroom, went to the kitchen. She emptied a pouch of water into a cup she’d found two days before. She crumbled a ration bar into it, and drank it down once the bits got soft. She’d figured out that getting the food wet was bet
ter practice for her stomach. The bathroom was gross, too. They needed running water.

  The things she’d built with Owl’s help sat in a row on the living room floor. Jane felt good looking at them. Usually, seeing a pile of sorted scrap just made her feel a quiet kind of good, because sorted scrap meant the day was over. But this was scrap she’d fixed. Scrap she’d made into tools. It wasn’t just bins of junk brought in and taken away without knowing why. The scrap in front of her had jobs, and that made her feel real, real good.

  First, there was the scrib, which had been easy to fix. Just a few pins bent back into place. Owl said she didn’t have enough power to talk to Jane through the scrib, but she could activate a signal that would tell Jane which direction to walk in if she needed to get back to the shuttle. Jane was glad of that. She’d had enough of running around lost.

  Next, the water wagon. It wasn’t much – just a cargo dolly with two big empty food crates bolted to it. The water tanks on the shuttle would need a bunch of crates’ worth of water to get full, but the wheels would make the task easier than lugging around bottles or something. She just had to find water first.

  The last thing she’d built was scary, and she didn’t want to ever use it. It was a tool for making dogs go away. It started with a long plex rod with a length of stripped cable running through it. The cable plugged into a small generator (which had been part of an exosuit, whatever that was). The generator had two fabric straps – also cut out of the exosuit – stapled to it, so Jane could wear it on her back. At one end of the rod, Jane had wrapped a whole bunch of fabric, to make it comfy (another good new word), and another smaller strip that she could tie around her wrist, so the rod wouldn’t fall down if she needed to do stuff with her hands. The other end of the rod held a bunch of metal forks – a tool for eating solid meals, Owl said – spread out like fingers, each connected to the cable with a smaller wire. Jane could switch the generator power on and off with a manual switch she’d inserted right above where her thumb rested on the grip. When the power was on, the forks got all full of electricity. Owl had told her to spit on the forks the night before, to test it out. The spit made the forks pop and hiss real loud. It’d hurt the dogs a lot, Owl said. She called this tool a weapon. Jane thought that was a good-sounding word. She didn’t want to get close to the dogs again, but she knew they’d try to get close to her, so having a weapon was a good thing.

  She’d found some other good things, too – an empty cloth bag called a satchel, some work gloves that were way too big for her hands but might be okay, and a real good cutting tool called a pocket knife. She put the last two things into the satchel, along with three empty canteens to bring back any water she found (Owl wanted to do tests before Jane did the hard work of filling up the water wagon). She also packed two ration bars, four pouches of water, and the scrib. She put the satchel over her shoulder and the weapon generator onto her back, slipping her hand into the grip.

  ‘You look like a girl who knows what she’s doing,’ Owl said. ‘You look very brave.’

  Jane swallowed. Owl had explained brave the day before. She did not feel brave. ‘Do you think I’ll have to go far?’

  ‘I don’t know, sweetie. Hopefully not. If you get too tired, or if you don’t feel good, you can come back home, even if you haven’t found water.’

  ‘What’s home?’

  ‘Home is here. Home’s where I am, and where you can rest.’ Owl paused. Her face was some kind of sad, and it made Jane feel all weird in her chest – kind of tight, and wishing she had a blanket to curl up in. ‘Please be safe out there.’

  Owl opened the inner door that led to the airlock, then opened the outer hatch. Jane tightened her grip around the weapon, and stepped outside.

  She was glad Owl had taught her some new words, because everything outside the shuttle needed them. The sky was big, and the sun was bright, and the air was hot. She wasn’t sure she understood wind, but she didn’t think there was any. She could already feel herself starting to sweat. It was good that there was water in her satchel.

  The metal siding on the outside of the shuttle had scratch marks on it. She spread out her fingers, running them along the scratches. Dogs. She gripped her weapon tight.

  She put her palm flat above her eyes to block out the sun, and looked around. So much scrap. Scrap everywhere. Piles and piles and piles, on and on. How could anyone use this much stuff? And why would they get rid of it, if most of it just needed some fixing to be good?

  She thought of Jane 64, bent over her workstation. She thought of how 64 was real good at untangling cables, better than most of the girls. Something sharp jumped into Jane’s stomach. She wanted to go back inside. She wanted to go home. She wanted to go back to bed and turn out all the lights. She had done that on the second day in the shuttle. Being in bed had not helped and was not relaxing, but everything else was too hard and Jane 64 wouldn’t leave her head, so Jane had just stayed in bed and cried until she ran to the bathroom and threw up in the sink, and then she slept because it was the only thing she could do. Owl had been good to her. She stayed on the screen by the bed all day, and she taught Jane about something called music, which was a weird bunch of sounds that had no point but made things feel a little better.

  Still, even with Owl and the music, that second day had been a real bad day. But compared with going out to where dogs could be, doing all those bad feelings all over again sounded easier than leaving the shuttle. She almost went back inside. But she was sweating and gross, and her clothes itched. She wanted a shower. And if she wanted a shower, she needed water.

  Way far off, out where the piles looked small, Jane could see something move. A bunch of somethings. She didn’t have a word for them, but she did have a new word for what they were doing – flying. They were flying down behind one of the piles. They were animals, she knew. She didn’t know how she knew that, but something in her was sure they couldn’t be anything else. Owl had said if she saw animals – even dogs – there had to be water somewhere close by.

  Weapon in one hand, satchel strap in the other, Jane started the long walk toward them.


  She never should have left the Wayfarer.

  Sidra thought this as she pushed through the topside markets, fighting her directive to take note of every face, every sound, every colour. Three tendays at Port Coriol, and being outside of walls was still absolute chaos. Perhaps that feeling would never go away. Perhaps this was how it would always be.

  She dodged a merchant pushing a sample platter of candies her way. She didn’t make eye contact, didn’t reply. It was rude, and she felt guilty, which made her all the angrier. Guilt was what had made her choose to be in this stupid body in the first place.

  Why had she left? At the time, it had seemed like the best course, the cleanest option. She had come into existence where another mind should have been. She wasn’t what the Wayfarer crew was expecting, or hoping for. Her presence upset them, and that meant she had to go. That was why she’d left – not because she’d wanted to, not because she’d truly understood what it would mean, but because the crew was upset, and she was the reason for it. She’d left for the sake of people she’d never met. She’d left for the sake of a stranger crying in a cargo bay. She’d left because it was in her design to be accommodating, to put others first, to make everyone else comfortable, no matter what.

  But what of her comfort? What about that? Would the eight people who no longer had to hear her voice every day find this to be a fair trade, if they knew how she felt out here? Would they care if they knew this existence wasn’t right? Would they not have acclimatised to her, just as they had presumably acclimatised to the absence of her predecessor?

  She fought to keep the kit’s eyes on the ground, struggled to keep the kit’s breath steady. She could feel panic creeping as the crowd pressed in and the buildings sprawled forever outward. She remembered how the ship had felt – a camera in every hallway, a vox in every room, the lull of open space embra
cing it all. She remembered the vacuum, and she ached for it.

  ‘Hey!’ an angry voice said. Sidra looked down, and saw that she’d blundered into the path of a Harmagian’s cart, just a step away from knocking him and his trailer of packages over. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ he demanded, tendrils flexing irritably.

  Oh no, don’t, she thought, but it was a direct question, and she had no choice but to respond. ‘The market is exhausting, I hate this body, I acted like an ass toward the friend who’s taking care of me, and I regret the decision that brought me here.’

  The Harmagian’s tendrils went slack with bewilderment. ‘I . . .’ His eyestalks twitched. ‘Well, ah . . . watch where you’re going while you sort that out.’ He manoeuvred the cart around her, continuing on his way.

  The kit shut its eyes tight. Stupid, stupid honesty protocol. That part of herself, at least, she was anxious to delete. Pepper was trying, she knew. She’d seen her frowning at her scrib late at night, muttering as she dragged herself through the basics of Lattice. Code was not Pepper’s strong suit, but she was firmly against seeking outside help, and Sidra couldn’t argue that point. But in the meantime, how was she supposed to function in a place like this? She couldn’t, was the answer. She had no business being out among sapients, masquerading as one of them. She wasn’t one of them, and she couldn’t even keep up that pretence while walking through a crowd. How long until someone asked her a question that would get Pepper and Blue in trouble? No, no, dammit – a question that would get her in trouble. Would she ever start thinking of herself first? Could she even?

  She looked around the street, full of strangers and unknown questions. She couldn’t be out here. She wasn’t meant for out here.

  She ran for the nearest quick-travel kiosk. A grotesque approximation of a Harmagian head was mounted on the desk, just like all the other kiosks. Its polymer tendrils aped polite gestures as the AI within spoke. ‘Destination, please.’

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