A closed and common orbi.., p.12
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.12

           Becky Chambers
 

  Sidra knew it was a limited, non-sentient model. She’d encountered plenty of others like it, housed in transit stations and shopfronts. More intelligent than a petbot, yes, but it wasn’t any closer to her than, say, a fish to a Human. She wondered about it, all the same. She wondered if it was content with its existence. She wondered if it suffered, if it ever tried to understand itself and ran up against a cognitive wall. ‘One to the art district, please,’ she said, waving her wristpatch over the scanner. There was a chirp of acknowledgement.

  ‘Very good,’ the kiosk AI said. ‘Your quick-travel pod will be dispatched shortly. Should you need additional transport or directions, look for the quick-travel symbol, as displayed above this kiosk.’

  Sadness oozed its way through Sidra’s pathways as the stunted AI continued its speech. Was she so different? She was built to serve, just as this one was, and while she might feel awfully special for being able to ask questions and have arguments, she was no more capable of skipping protocols than the little mind before her. She thought of the confused way the Harmagian in the crowd had held his tendrils after she’d blurted out the answer to his question – a question that hadn’t been meant as a question at all. The kit’s eyes watered as she listened to the kiosk AI ramble on about location indicators and safety procedures. It couldn’t do anything except what it was designed for. That was all it was. That was all it would ever be.

  ‘Thank you for using the Port Coriol quick-travel system,’ it said. One of the false tendrils shuddered with mechanical weariness. ‘Have a safe and pleasant ride.’

  Sidra laid one of the kit’s palms atop the synthetic head. She kept it there for a second, two, three. A quick-travel pod arrived, its hatch opening with a soft whir. She leaned toward the AI’s head before leaving. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘This isn’t fair.’

  JANE, AGE 10

  Owl had been right. There was water where the flying animals were – a big hole of water, and Jane didn’t see any dogs. That was real good.

  The flying animals were interesting. They were much smaller than her, about as long as her arm, and they had two front arms that had some kind of skin sheet hanging from them. They flapped that back and forth to get into the air. The rest of their skin was weird. It was orange, and wasn’t smooth like hers, or covered in fluff – fur, she reminded herself, fur. The flying animals’ skin looked hard and shiny, made up of little locking bits.

  Interesting as they were, she was kind of scared of them. Were they angry animals? Would they bite? Could they hurt her? She took a step forward. A few of the animals looked up. Most of them kept drinking. The ones who looked up didn’t seem angry. They just watched her a bit, then kept doing their own stuff. Jane breathed all her air out. That was good.

  ‘Ask Owl for the flying animals’ name,’ she said. She couldn’t make lists like Owl did, but saying things out loud helped her not forget.

  She walked to the water. It was not good water. It wasn’t clear, and it was thick with dust. ‘Not dust,’ she said. ‘Dirt.’ She scrunched her nose. A chemical slick lay on top of the water, making oily lines where it touched the ground. She didn’t know what chemical. Probably something leaking from the scrap nearby. The water smelled bad, too, which was a wrong thing even if the smell had been good. Water wasn’t supposed to smell at all. Jane stopped and thought about it. Owl had said any water she found out here wasn’t good to drink before it went in the filtration system, but it was so so interesting, this bad water. Also, the animals were drinking it and they were fine. She touched her finger in the water and put a big drop on her tongue. She spat it right back out with a loud sound. Metal and stink and bad things she had no words for. She spat and spat, but the taste lay down in her mouth.

  ‘How are you drinking this?’ she said to the animals. ‘It’s so bad!’ The animals didn’t say anything. Owl had said they couldn’t talk like girls did, but it didn’t hurt to try. Jane thought it would be good if they could talk. She wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t in a wall.

  Jane got a canteen from her satchel, and filled it at the side of the water. The flying animals watched her, but left her alone. There was enough water for everybody, Jane guessed. She made a face as she watched the stinky shiny water flow into the canteen. Gross. She did not want to drink that stuff at all. But Owl said the machines on the ship could clean up real real bad water, the worst water. They could clean pee, even. Jane was real interested to know how that worked.

  She sat down by the water hole, watching the animals. Everything was still big and strange and wrong, but this . . . this was kind of good. It was good to be out of the ship, and the air was warm. The sun did that, Owl had explained. The sun was the big light in the sky. Owl had told Jane it was very very important to not look right at it. Jane wanted to real bad, but she listened. She didn’t know what things could get her in trouble, and she didn’t want to make Owl angry. Owl had not been angry, not even once, but she was kind of like a Mother in the way she was built. Jane thought maybe the Mothers had been good like Owl once, but then the girls did so much bad behaviour that the Mothers got extra angry and stuck that way. Jane decided she would work real hard to be good and not make Owl angry. She didn’t want to make Owl go wrong.

  One of the flying animals walked close to her. Real close. Its big black eyes were so so dark against its weird orange skin. Jane didn’t move. She put her hand on her weapon and held her breath. The animal moved its head like it was thinking. It sniffed at her shoe. Then it walked away, head bouncing as it went. Jane let all her air out. Okay. Okay, that was good. Good and interesting. Maybe the flying animal had been interested in her, too. She liked that idea.

  The animal walked over to a group of more animals, who were . . . were they eating? They looked like they were eating. But what were they eating? It wasn’t a meal, of course, but it wasn’t like a ration bar, either. It was something coming up out of the ground – purple, smooth, kinda soft-looking, all wavy and interesting shaped. It was stuck to the ground, and to some of the scrap nearby. It wasn’t an animal, but it made her think of animals in a way that she didn’t understand. Not an animal, but not scrap or a machine, either. Something else. And the animals were eating it.

  Could she eat it, too?

  Owl had been real clear about not eating stuff out there, and Jane knew better than to just put her hands on a component she didn’t recognise. She let go of the weapon, put on the work gloves (even though they were way too big), and got the pocket knife. She walked over to the group of animals. They moved away real fast. Jane stopped. Had she scared them?

  ‘I’m not bad,’ she said to them. ‘I just want to see what you’re eating.’

  She crouched down and poked the purple stuff with the point of her knife. Nothing happened. She blew on it. Nothing happened. She looked at the little holes where the animals had been biting it. She held her knife best as she could with the big gloves, and cut off a piece. The stuff didn’t bleed. She looked at it real close. It was white inside, and solid. No bones. She really wanted to taste it, but after the water, she knew it was smart to listen to what Owl said. Owl knew so much.

  She put the piece of purple stuff into her satchel. It was a good time to go back, she thought. The sun was making the air real hot, and the skin on her arms kind of hurt. It was more red than usual.

  Jane 64’s face had been red, too, red and puffy and wrong and scared and—

  She heard a rattling sound. The knife in her hand was shaking. She was shaking. She wanted to go back to Owl. She wanted to go back right now. Owl had said she could come home if she felt bad, and she did feel bad, so she would.

  The animals started making a lot of noise. Most of them were running or flying away. Jane turned around. Two dogs stood there, watching the one thing that hadn’t run away. Watching her.

  Her stomach hurt and her eyes burned. She wanted to be back with Owl. She wanted to be back in her bed – her bed, with 64. She wanted a meal cup and a shower and not dogs. But th
ere were dogs anyway, and they were making quiet angry sounds.

  Her body wanted to run, like it had when the Mother stared at her through the wall, but there was no good place to go. The water hole had scrap all around it. The only way out was past the dogs. She didn’t think she could run by them without them being able to bite her.

  ‘Help,’ she said, real quiet. ‘Owl, help.’

  But Owl was too far.

  She switched the knife into her other hand and grabbed the weapon rod. She took a step back, shaking bad. ‘Stop,’ she said, trying not to cry. ‘Go away.’

  One of the dogs came closer, getting loud, teeth all wet.

  ‘Go away!’ she yelled, kicking a piece of scrap toward it. ‘Go away!’

  The dog made a louder sound. It ran at her.

  She tripped backward, but she remembered to point the weapon at the dog, and pushed the button as it jumped and opened its mouth of teeth.

  There were so many sounds. The generator hummed. The electricity cracked off the forks. The dog screamed, which was the most bad part of all. It fell down screaming, and shook and twitched. It was the scariest thing she’d ever seen, even worse than the Mothers. She held the button down anyway. There was a bad smell, a burning smell. The dog stopped twitching.

  The other dog made an angry yell, and it jumped at her, too. She hit the button again. Hum. Crack. Scream.

  Both dogs lay on the ground, fur smoking. Jane ran and ran and ran, satchel full of heavy canteens crashing into her leg. The dogs didn’t follow her.

  It wasn’t until she stopped running that she understood they were dead.

  She hadn’t meant to do that. She had made something to hurt dogs, but it worked too good, she guessed, because she had hurt them dead. That made her feel something in a very big way, something good and bad all at once.

  She threw up. It was a bad thing to do, but she threw up until there was nothing left but gross sharp spit. She realised the front of her pants was wet, and her face burned as she understood why. She was ten.

  Jane sat down in the dirt and drank a water pouch. She was still shaking. The good-bad feeling was still there, but the more she thought about things, the bigger the good part got. Things were okay. She had bad water that Owl would clean up, and she knew where to get more. She had something she could eat, maybe. She’d stopped the dogs. She’d stopped the dogs!

  You look very brave, Owl had said. Jane thought of that and felt real good. She felt real good because Owl had been right.

  ‘I’m brave,’ Jane said, so she would remember. ‘I can stop dogs. I’m brave.’

  On the way back, Jane reminded herself of the things she needed to ask Owl. She wanted to know words. Words for the flying animals, for the purple stuff that wasn’t an animal and also maybe food, and for the feeling you got when you felt bad for making a thing dead but also good because you were still alive.

  SIDRA

  The art district had every bit as much noise and detail as the others, but it was less crowded, at least. In the other districts, everything was always being pushed and sought in an important rush, as if your credits might not be good enough if you didn’t buy something now. But here, where the items for sale were anything but practical, both merchants and patrons seemed to have all the time in the world. Sidra could see little barrier between culture or medium. Everything was crammed in together – wooden Laru sculptures, Harmagian rock carvings, fusion artists mixing traditions with abandon, body artists offering to alter flesh and scale and shell. The shops reflected the same mix. On one end of the spectrum, there were pristine galleries with clean walls and echoing ceilings; on the other, you had people selling prints and figures from behind portable tables, or sometimes straight off the ground.

  Blue’s shop fell somewhere between the two extremes, though nearer the more humble end. His stall – ‘Northwest Window’ – was in a larger communal building, one small cell in a busy hive. Sidra stood in the corridor for three minutes before walking through his door (painted, appropriately, in a thick coat of rich cyan). She’d behaved badly toward Pepper, she knew, and Blue was on Pepper’s side, first and foremost. Maybe he already knew about the fight. Maybe Pepper had sent him a message, telling him she was out of patience for Sidra’s nonsense. Maybe Blue felt the same way.

  When Sidra walked in, her worries vanished. Blue looked up from his easel, and he smiled at her as warmly as he always did. ‘Sidra! What are, um, what are you doing up in the sun?’

  ‘I’m not at work today.’

  ‘So I see.’ He wiped his brush off with a rag, set it down, and got to his feet. He wore an apron, but the clothes beneath it were still speckled with paint. ‘Taking, ah, taking a day off?’

  ‘Yes.’ She looked around. She’d been to the shop before, but it was a little different every time. She noted the changes: the paintings of the mysterious forest and the bustling carnival were gone – sold, presumably – and a new canvas depicting a group of space-walkers hung on the wall. There were five brushes and a scraper in the sink – fewer than the twelve brushes she’d seen the last time – and the dead globulb in the south corner of the room had been fixed. There was one thing that always remained the same, though, and it was the chief difference between this place and those he shared with Pepper: Blue kept his own environment immaculately tidy. Everything had a shelf, a drawer, an angle. Pepper had spots for things, too, in her way, but Blue always kept his shop looking like he was expecting company at any second. Even the dirty brushes in the sink were neatly set in their cup of water.

  Sidra was aware of Blue studying her as she examined the space. ‘Everything okay?’ he asked. ‘You look upset.’

  ‘No,’ Sidra said. ‘I don’t. The kit looks upset.’

  Blue glanced over the kit’s shoulder, making sure the door was closed. ‘That’s, ah, that’s an important distinction to you.’

  ‘It is. I feel upset, yes. But I don’t know what you see. Whatever the kit’s doing, it’s not me.’

  Blue tapped a finger against his thigh. ‘You got somewhere to be?’ She shook the kit’s head. ‘G-good.’ He gestured toward a chair facing the back of the easel. ‘Have a seat.’

  Blue moved the in-progress canvas aside as she settled the kit down. He bustled around, gathering paints and clean brushes. He poured a cup of mek from a small brewer and fetched a fresh canvas.

  ‘What are you doing?’ Sidra asked.

  ‘Something that might help,’ Blue said. He held out his palm. ‘Give me your hand, please.’ Sidra placed the kit’s hand in his. He ran his thumb over the back of it, and rummaged through a box of paint tubes with his other hand, pulling various colours out. ‘I think . . . hmm. I think you’re somewhere between Royal Bronze and Classic Sepia.’

  ‘Are you going to paint me?’

  Blue grinned. ‘Maybe a d-dab of Autumn Sunrise, too.’

  Sidra’s pathways lit up with interest. The idea of someone studying her details for an extended period was a fascinating reversal. ‘What do I do?’

  ‘Just sit there and relax. If you need to, uh, if you need to get up, or if you get bored, let me know.’ He squeezed paint onto palette, beginning to conjure the kit’s skin tone.

  ‘What should I do with the kit’s face? Should it smile?’

  Blue shook his head as he stirred. ‘Don’t ch-change anything. Don’t be anything but, ah, but what you were when you walked through my door. Just be yourself.’ He nodded toward the canvas. ‘I’m curious to know what you think of how you look.’

  ‘I’ve seen the kit in mirrors.’

  ‘Let me, uh, let me rephrase. I want to know how you feel when you see – when you see yourself the way somebody else sees you.’ Blue glanced from paint to the kit, then back again. With a satisfied nod, he picked up a brush and began to work. ‘Taste anything fun today?’

  ‘No. I haven’t eaten anything.’

  ‘That’s not like you.’

  ‘I was . . . distracted.’

  ‘If you want, we
can go to lunch after this. There’s a good noodle bar not far from here.’ He dragged brush down canvas in a long, smooth stroke. Sidra did her best to stay still, even though she badly wanted to watch. ‘Come up with, um, with any new questions on the way here?’

  Sidra gave a short chuckle. There were always new questions. She pulled up her list. ‘Why don’t the Laru overheat? Other species seem to find it warm here, and the Laru are covered with fur.’

  ‘Hmm. I never thought about that. You’ll need to look that one up.’

  ‘How dangerous is it if you swallow dentbots? I imagine they’d go after a lot of good symbiotic bacteria in your stomach.’

  ‘They do, but it’s not, um, it’s not overly dangerous. You j-just get a stomach ache. Happened to me a few times when I first started using them.’ His eyes flicked cautiously over to hers. ‘So . . . why no work today?’

  Sidra looked around the shop. ‘I had a disagreement with Pepper.’

  ‘What about?’

  Sidra sighed. ‘She won’t let me install a wireless Linking receiver.’

  Blue raised an eyebrow. ‘You two have been on that merry-go-round before.’

  ‘I know. But she’s not listening to me. I don’t want to delete memory files.’

  ‘She is listening,’ Blue said with measured diplomacy. ‘She just doesn’t agree with you.’

  The kit frowned. ‘And you don’t either.’

  ‘I didn’t say that. I don’t always take her side, you know. I’m listening, too. I’m listening to both of you.’ He reached for another tube of paint. ‘Tell me something you’re afraid of deleting.’

  ‘I’ve downloaded a lot of things.’

  ‘I know. Pick a favourite.’

  ‘I . . . don’t know if I have one.’

  ‘Something you find really interesting, then. Just something at random.’

  Sidra worked her way down the length of her memory banks, not sure where to start. ‘Well . . . there’s this. “The Never-Born Queen and Those Who Followed”.’

 
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