A closed and common orbi.., p.13
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.13

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘A Quelin folktale. More like an epic, I suppose. It’s a bit dark in places, but there’s a wonderful poetry to it, too.’ The kit fidgeted as she remembered Pepper’s words that morning: you’re filing away half the fucking Reskit library. ‘I have the three most popular translations on hand.’

  Blue leaned back, never taking his eyes off the canvas. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard any Quelin stories. Feel like sharing?’

  The kit blinked. ‘Yes, but it’s quite long.’

  ‘How long is it?’

  She selected one of the three files – the Tosh’bom translation – and ran a quick analysis. ‘It’d take me approximately two hours to recite it aloud.’

  Blue shrugged and smiled. ‘Sounds like a great thing to do while painting.’

  Sidra adjusted her processes, and began to convert text to speech. ‘Call out, brave warriors, and remember our song. Remember the heroes lost and the heroes born. Remember the shells shattered among sea and rock and cave . . .’

  She was aware, as the saga of war and homeland poured forth from the kit’s mouth, that Blue was distracting her. She’d seen him do the same sort of thing to Pepper in the moments they thought Sidra didn’t notice, when Pepper became quietly, whisperingly afraid of nothing. In those moments, Blue would ask Pepper about her day. He’d ask her about what she was working on. He’d ask her about the latest sim she’d been playing. In a small way, Sidra felt a bit manipulated, like he was purposefully driving away the bad mood she’d felt justified in nursing – but having something else to focus on was better, and being painted was a surprisingly good feeling, too. It was nice to be watched, to have somebody pouring all his attention into her. Was that selfish? And if so, was that a bad thing?

  Blue hardly spoke at all as she told the story, other than a short laugh or ‘mmm’ here and there. His eyes were intensely focused on his work, and by extension, on her. It was a look she’d never seen in him. At home, he was so mellow, so gentle. Here, there was a spark, a curious sort of strength. He reminded her a bit of Pepper, when she fell into a groove with a project. Sidra hadn’t felt that way about anything before. She was focused now, yes, but she knew that was different. Was she capable of that kind of flow? If she could disable her ability to track time, could she lose herself the way they did?

  She continued to recite, and after one hour and fifty-six minutes, the tale of the Never-Born Queen reached its final lines: ‘. . . to sleep, to sleep, that our heroes may wake once more.’

  Blue nodded thoughtfully. ‘That,’ he said, ‘was fascinating. Kinda grim, but I w – I wouldn’t expect much, um, much less from the Quelin.’

  ‘They have some sweet children’s stories, too,’ Sidra said. ‘Well . . . rather speciest. But sweet, in the right cultural context.’

  Blue laughed. ‘Again, as expected.’ He put down his brush with conviction. ‘It’s been a long time since I did, uh, since I did a portrait, and this is just a quick one. But . . . well, tell me what you think.’

  He turned the canvas toward her. The paint still glistened. A Human woman stared back, serious and quiet, with a face that would easily disappear in an Exodan crowd. Sidra studied the details. Copper skin that didn’t see much sun. Slender cheeks fed on bugs and stasie food. Eyes so brown the irises were nearly lost in them. A cap of black curls, cut short and hugging tight. She’d looked at that face many times in the mirror in her room, but this was something different. This was the kit as Blue saw it.

  ‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, and meant it.

  ‘The painting, or the face?’

  ‘The painting. You’re very skilled.’

  Blue gave a happy nod. ‘What about the face? What do you see in it?’

  She searched for an answer, but found nothing. ‘I don’t know.’ She paused for two seconds. ‘Do you know who decided what the kit would look like?’ she asked at last. ‘Did it come this way, or did Jenks choose it, or . . .?’

  ‘Lovey chose it,’ Blue said. ‘This was all her, or so P-Pepper said.’

  Sidra looked at the portrait, at the face someone else had chosen for her. Why? Why had her former installation wanted this face? Why this hair, those colours, those eyes? What about this form had made Lovey think yes, this is me?

  ‘Hey,’ Blue said, taking the kit’s hand. ‘What’s up?’

  Sidra couldn’t look at him. ‘I’m a mistake,’ she whispered.

  ‘Whoa, hang on—’

  ‘I am,’ she insisted. ‘This’ – she gestured between the kit and the portrait – ‘is hers. It’s all hers. I would’ve been her if I hadn’t scrubbed those memory files when I woke up.’ The kit closed its eyes tight. ‘Stars. I’m what killed her.’

  ‘No,’ Blue said, not a hint of a question in his voice. ‘No. Oh, Sidra.’ He took the other hand now, too, and held them both firmly. ‘You had no idea. No idea. What happened to Lovey is not your fault. That, um, that crew, they knew when they flipped the switch that Lovey – that Lovey might not come back.’

  ‘But they wanted her to. They didn’t want me. I’m just . . .’ She thought again of the Harmagian she’d nearly tripped over, the argument that had preceded him, the guarded way Pepper watched her when she spoke to strangers. ‘I’m a mistake,’ she repeated.

  Blue leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. ‘Well, if you are, I am, too.’ He touched the top of his head, tangling his fingers in his thick brown hair. ‘You know why I’ve, um, why I’ve got hair and Pepper doesn’t?’

  ‘She said you’re not like her. You weren’t made for the factories.’

  ‘Yeah. W-Want to know what I was made for?’ He raised his eyebrows, smirking. ‘Civil leadership. I was supposed to, uh, to be a c – a coun—’ He gave up on the word, and laughed at himself. ‘A politician.’ Blue grinned, but there was a sadness in his eyes. Something about this wasn’t as easy as he was making it out to be. ‘The b-bastards that made us, they’re not as good at, uh, good at genetweaking as they think. They think they’ve got it down. They make dancers, they make math – mathematicians, they make athletes. They m-make factories full of slave kids with no hair. But evolution isn’t a – a thing you can wrangle like that. It doesn’t always go in predictable ways. Genes and chromosomes, they, um, they do their own thing sometimes. You think you’re mixing together a politician, and instead, you get me.’ He shrugged. ‘The Enhanced call us m-misfits. People who don’t suit their intended purpose. So, maybe, ah, maybe you’re a misfit, too. Doesn’t mean you’re not deserving. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here. Lovey’s gone, and that’s horribly sad. You’re here, and that’s wonderful. This isn’t a zero sum thing. Both can be true at the same time.’ He looked at the painting. ‘And maybe this, um, maybe this isn’t you right now. Maybe the face you’re, um, the face you’re wearing just needs a little time before it f-fits you. Or you fit it. Either way.’

  Sidra thought for two seconds. ‘I don’t know what to say right now.’

  ‘That’s okay.’

  Sidra watched the drying paint as she processed the events of the day over and over. Blue sat beside her, hand around the kit’s, clearly in no hurry. She cycled through the argument with Pepper that morning. You need to try. She’d been so angry to hear that, but remembering it now, the feeling was different. Maybe she needed to stop fighting the kit. Maybe she could be more like everyone else. She looked at the portrait’s eyes, and tried to imagine what it would be like to see herself looking back.

  ‘Do you know an Aeluon named Tak?’ she asked.

  Blue blinked, surprised by the question. ‘I know a dozen Aeluons named Tak. That’s the problem with, um, with an invented language. Not a lot of names to go around. Do you know xyr f-full name?’

  ‘No. Just Tak. She’s a tattoo artist. I met her at Shimmerquick.’ Sidra pulled up the contact file. ‘Her shop’s in the western art district. Steady Hand?’

  ‘Oh, yeah. I don’t know that par – um, particular Tak, but I’ve seen
that shop.’ He scratched his chin. ‘I don’t think it’s too far from the noodle bar, if you wanted to go see her after lunch.’

  ‘I hadn’t thought of it before now, but I would like to, yes.’

  He looked at her curiously. ‘Why, you thinking of getting some ink?’

  The kit shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

  Blue laughed and ruffled the kit’s hair. ‘I mean, hey, if you’re g-going to have an existential crisis, go all out, yeah?’

  JANE, AGE 10

  ‘Pour it in the funnel there,’ Owl said. Her face on the screen nodded toward the empty water tanks. Jane took the cap off the canteen and poured the gross water out.

  ‘It smells real bad,’ Jane said, turning her face away as the water splashed into the funnel.

  ‘I’ll bet,’ Owl said. ‘Okay, I’ll just divert some power from the hatch, and—’ There was a sound, the sound of a thing turning on. Owl looked good – happy. ‘Excellent. Give me a moment to analyse it.’

  Jane put her ear up to the tank as things clunked and whirred. ‘What’s it doing?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m scanning for contaminants,’ Owl said.

  ‘Yes, but how?’

  ‘I don’t actually know how it works. I bet one of our manuals can tell us. But I have to focus on this now. I don’t have enough power to be running too many extra processes.’

  Jane scrunched up her forehead, but didn’t say anything further. Maybe if she was real careful, she could take one of the tanks apart and then put it back together the exact same way.

  ‘Analysis complete,’ Owl said. ‘Stars, what isn’t in this stuff?’

  ‘Is it bad?’ Jane asked, her fingers all tangled together. Was the water she found wrong? Would Owl get angry?

  ‘That depends on your point of view,’ Owl said. She was not angry. ‘There are eight different types of fuel residue, more industrial by-products than you have time to listen to, bacteria, microbes, fungal spores, decaying organic matter, a heaping helping of dirt, and, weirdly, an awful lot of salt.’ Her face smiled from the wall. ‘Luckily, none of it is beyond my ability to handle. Pour the rest in. I can have a batch this small clean in six minutes and forty-three seconds. Give or take.’

  ‘Can I drink it?’ Jane said.

  ‘Yes, and you should have enough to wash your face and hands, too. But don’t drink all of it until you’ve brought more back. Do you think you can take the water wagon out tomorrow?’

  ‘Yeah!’ Jane said. She could! She could do that! ‘Oh, and I found something by the water.’ She opened up her satchel.

  Owl’s mouth went tight. ‘What kind of something?’

  ‘I don’t know.’ Jane put the work gloves back on and pulled out the purple stuff. It was banged up and crushed flat, but still in one piece. She held it up toward the camera.

  ‘Hmm,’ Owl said. ‘That looks like some kind of mushroom. Or something similar to a mushroom, at least.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘It’s like a plant. A plant is a . . . a living thing that isn’t an animal.’

  Jane had thought maybe the purple stuff was alive, but knowing it for sure felt weird. She held the mushroom a little further away from herself. ‘Is it bad?’

  ‘I don’t know. We should check it out. Bring it to the bathroom.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘There’s a tool in there I can use. At least, I think it’s in there. It should be in there.’

  Jane walked to the bathroom. Owl bounced along the walls beside her. Jane had to help Owl push the bathroom door open because something in the mechanism that pulled the door in and out of the wall was junk. The lights flickered, eventually staying on. Jane saw the dry shower. She scratched behind her ear. She scratched and scratched and scratched. Gross.

  The girl in the mirror did not look like the girl she was used to seeing. This girl had a red gross face, and gross hands, and gross clothes. Dirt all over. She looked like someone new. She wondered if Jane 64 would recognise her. Would have recognised her.

  ‘What am I looking for?’ she asked Owl, wanting to think about something else.

  ‘Here, let me show you.’ Owl’s face went away, and a picture appeared: a small machine with a round flat tray beneath some kind of lens.

  Jane opened the cupboard. There it was, right in front. She held the machine up to the camera.

  ‘That’s it!’ Owl said, and Jane felt good, even though she hadn’t done much. ‘That’s a scanner for medical samples. You can probably use it to analyse what’s in that mushroom you found. I can tell you if any of it is bad for you.’

  Jane set the scanner on the edge of the sink. ‘How do I . . .’

  ‘Put the mushroom in the tray. Okay, good. Now wave your hand by the interface panel to turn it on.’

  Jane waved her hand. She waved, and waved again. Nothing happened.

  ‘Damn,’ Owl said. Jane didn’t know what that meant, but Owl had a wrong sound in her voice. ‘It must be out of power.’

  Jane took the mushroom out of the tray and picked up the scanner. She turned it around and around, looking close. ‘There’s a power jack here,’ she said, pointing. ‘Do you have any charge cables?’

  ‘Probably, but I don’t know where.’

  Jane went back to the cupboard and dug through all the stuff. She found a coiled black cable with the right kind of coupler. ‘Where can I plug this in?’

  ‘There’s a power station in the kitchen. Next to the sink.’

  Jane went to the kitchen, hooked up the cables, and plugged in the scanner. Nothing changed. ‘Does it have a timed charge?’ she asked. ‘Does it need to sit for a bit?’

  ‘Probably, but make sure it’s actually charging. Has anything lit up?’

  Jane flipped the scanner around again. There was an indicator patch, all right, but it was dark. She unplugged it and thought real hard. She went to the table where she’d built the weapon and got some tools. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s see how it works.’

  It took her no time to get the case open, and only a little bit longer to find the problem: a rusted conduit connecting the power source to the motherboard.

  ‘Can you fix it?’ Owl said. ‘What do you need?’

  Jane scratched behind her ear with the tip of the screwdriver. ‘Something . . . something metal. Something that will fit. And binding tape. Or glue. Do you have those?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ Owl said. ‘Check the drawers.’

  Jane had to check lots of drawers, but she found some sticky tape that would work okay. As for the conduit, she didn’t know where to find one of those, but there were plenty of metal things in the kitchen. She got one of the forks. The pointy things on a fork might work. She bent them like she’d bent the ones on the weapon – putting the pointy things under her shoe and pulling the handle up – but this time, she wiggled the handle back and forth and back and forth and back, until snap! The pointy things broke off. She bundled them up in tape real good, so that they wouldn’t spark into the machine, and then taped the bundle into the empty space. She plugged the scanner back in. The indicator patch turned green.

  ‘Look!’ she said, turning to Owl’s camera. ‘Look!’ Fixing things always felt real good, but it felt even more good knowing somebody else had seen her do it.

  ‘Oh, wonderful! Great job!’ Owl said. ‘Let it charge for a while, and then we’ll see if that mushroom is something you can eat.’

  Jane put her chin on her hands and watched the scanner. It wasn’t doing anything, but seeing the green light was good. She’d done a great job. Owl had said so.

  ‘Jane,’ Owl said. She spoke kind of slow, like she was thinking about something. ‘You’re very good at fixing things.’

  ‘It’s my task,’ Jane said.

  ‘I think . . .’ Owl got quiet. Jane looked at the screen on the wall. Owl was kind of frowny, like girls got when there was a piece of scrap they couldn’t figure out. ‘I have an idea,’ Owl said. ‘I’ve had it since you got here, but I wa
sn’t sure if you could do it. I’m still not sure it’s the right thing.’ She sighed. ‘We’d have to agree to it together. I can’t make you. Okay?’

  ‘Okay,’ Jane said, a little scared now.

  ‘This ship can’t fly as it is. It’s broken and in bad repair. There are so many parts that need replacing. I gave up hope of ever taking flight again a long time ago. But watching you work . . . Jane, with my help, you could find the things this ship needs to become functional. It would take a long time, and I can’t promise we’d be successful. But I have all the manuals. I can walk you through the ship’s systems and tell you what everything does. I can keep you safe and healthy. And you – you can find the things that are missing. You can find the pieces we need to replace the broken stuff. And if you can’t find a piece, you can make it out of others. I know you can. Look at the things you’ve built: the weapon, the water wagon. We’re surrounded by tech here. I really think we could do this.’

  Jane could tell Owl liked this idea, but she wasn’t sure why it was so important. The ship kept the dogs away, and there was water now, and she could eat the mushrooms. ‘Why do we need the ship to fly?’

  Owl looked kind of surprised, but then she smiled. ‘Because, sweetheart, if the ship works, we can get away from here.’

  Jane blinked. ‘To where?’

  Owl’s smile got sad. ‘I think it’s time I explained planets.’

  SIDRA

  Tak had changed since Shimmerquick. Sometime during the tendays between, Tak’s reproductive system had indicated that it was time to switch sides. The implants beneath his skin had responded in kind, releasing a potent mix of hormones that allowed his body to do what it had evolved to do. He didn’t look terribly different from the Aeluon woman Sidra had met at the Aurora. His face was instantly recognisable. A lightening of skin and a slight shift in facial cartilage was all that had taken place, but it was enough to be instantly noticeable.

  What had not changed about Tak was his air of quiet confidence, which was readily apparent the moment Sidra walked into his shop. The proprietor lounged in a broad chair near a window, smoking his pipe and reading something on his scrib. His cheeks flashed colours, and Sidra accessed her reference files in kind. Tak was surprised, and pleased.

 
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