A closed and common orbi.., p.15
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.15

           Becky Chambers
 

  She watched Pepper as she worked on the same project she’d been working on at the shop all day, the same project she’d been working on one-handed through dinner, the same project she’d been working on when Blue kissed the top of her head and bid them both goodnight. Sidra felt unkind in thinking it, but this was one of the things she enjoyed about Tak’s company. She was glad to have met someone who liked to read.

  Feed source: unknown

  Encryption: 4

  Translation: 0

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: unknown

  pinch: hey, got another question for you guys. this one’s just out of curiosity. if you wanted to expand an AI’s memory capacity, how would you go about it?

  ilikesmash: expand by how much?

  pinch: a lot. enough to make her comparable with an organic’s ability to learn new stuff indefinitely

  tishtesh: are you talking about an intelligent sentient model? you know that’s why they have linking access, right?

  pinch: let’s say linking access wasn’t a possibility

  nebbit: you’d need to install additional hardware to whatever housing it’s in. extra storage drives.

  pinch: let’s say that that wasn’t a possibility, either

  tishtesh: uhhhhh okay. you’re fucking stuck then

  ilikesmash: you could pare down its cognitive processors to limit how much info it wants to access. slow the deluge a bit.

  tishtesh: then what would even be the point of an intelligent sentient model

  AAAAAAAA: limiting processors would be cruel

  ilikesmash: how is it cruel? you’re taking away the protocol that’s causing the issue. would make for a more stable installation.

  AAAAAAAA: you’re taking away a crucial part of xyr cognitive processes. would you get rid of your own curiosity if it made you more ‘stable’?

  tishtesh: stars, can we not

  ilikesmash: ah, i see. you’re one of those. come back when you’ve realised they’re not people

  nebbit: friends, we have a separate thread for ethical arguments. please stay on topic.

  JANE, AGE 10

  She still wasn’t sure about the mushrooms. They tasted okay – more interesting than meals, anyway. They filled her up real good, and Owl said they were good for her, too, but making them into food was not a task Jane liked very much. Fixing scrap was much better. But like Owl had said, she couldn’t fix scrap if she didn’t fuel herself first. So, mushrooms.

  As she cut up that morning’s handful of food, she wondered what other people ate. She wondered about other people a lot. Owl had explained that the planet they were on – which was still weird to think about – had lands on all sides of it, but the lands were separated by lots of water. The land on their side was where all the scrap went, and where all the factories were (there was more than just the one!). The land on the other side had cities. The cities were where the scrap came from. The people in the cities didn’t like scrap or think about it much, but they liked stuff, and since they didn’t talk to other Humans or species, they couldn’t get new stuff, or materials to make new stuff (they’d already used up everything they dug out of the ground, Owl said). If they wanted new stuff, they had to make it out of old stuff.

  ‘What do the other people on this planet do?’ Jane asked.

  ‘I don’t understand the question. What do you mean?’ Owl said.

  ‘I mean . . . what do they do? If the girls on this side take care of the scrap, what do they do?’ Jane was still trying to figure out the point of a city. And of most things. The more questions she asked, the more questions she thought up.

  ‘The same things people do everywhere, I suppose,’ Owl said. ‘They learn things, make families, ask questions, see places.’

  ‘Do they know about us on this side? Do they know we’re here?’

  ‘Yes. Not you and I specifically, but yes.’

  ‘Do they know about the Mothers?’

  ‘Yes. They made them. They made the factories, too. And the girls.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because they don’t want to clean up their own messes.’

  Jane thought about that. ‘Why don’t they just have the Mothers clean up instead?’

  Owl’s eyes moved away from Jane. ‘Because making girls is cheaper, in the long run.’

  ‘What’s cheaper?’ Jane asked. She turned the bits of mushrooms so she could chop them smaller.

  ‘Cheaper is . . . it means it requires less materials. Machines like the Mothers take a lot of kinds of metal that people here don’t have much of. Girls are easier for them to make.’

  Jane remembered her face smashing down red and hot against the treadmill, a metal hand on the back of her neck. ‘Are the other people on this planet bad?’

  Owl was quiet. Jane looked up from her pile of mushrooms to the wall screen. ‘Yes,’ Owl said. ‘That’s not a nice thing of me to say. But yes, they’re bad people.’ She sighed. ‘That was why my last crew came here. They wanted to change them.’

  ‘Change them into what?’

  Owl’s forehead crumpled up. ‘I’ll try to explain this as best as I can. My last crew were two men. Brothers. Yes, I’ll explain about brothers later. They were . . . they called themselves Gaiists, which are a type of people who – who believe Humans shouldn’t have left Earth. They go around the galaxy and try to convince Humans to come back to the Sol system.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because they think they’re doing the right thing. It’s complicated. Can we save that question for later?’

  Jane brushed the mushroom pile together real tight, then picked her knife back up. ‘Is it on your question list?’

  ‘I just added it.’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘Anyway, the people here don’t want to change. The city people, anyway. Those brothers should’ve known better, but they were doing what they believed in.’ She shook her head. ‘They were kind people, but very foolish.’

  ‘What’s foolish?’

  ‘A foolish person would reach into a machine without turning off the power.’

  Jane frowned. ‘That’s stupid.’

  Owl laughed. ‘Yes, it is. Anyway, they were only with me a short time. They purchased the shuttle less than a standard before, but I mostly sat in the bay of their carrier ship. The carrier took them to the Han’foral tunnel, which is the closest one to here. Took about thirty-seven days to get from that tunnel to where we are now.’

  Jane chopped the mushrooms smaller, smaller, smaller. The littler they were, the easier on her stomach. ‘When was that?’

  ‘About five years ago.’

  Jane stopped chopping. She looked at the face in the wall. ‘You’ve been here for five years? In the scrap?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Jane tried to think about how long ago five years was. She was ten now, so she was five when Owl had got to the planet. Jane couldn’t remember being five very well. And in five more years, she’d be fifteen! Five years was a lot. ‘Were you sad?’ she asked.

  ‘Yes. Yes, I was very sad.’ Owl smiled, but it was a weird kind of smile, like it was hard to do. ‘But we’re together now, and I’m not sad any more.’

  Jane stared at the mushroom bits, all purple and white and chewy. ‘I’m still sad.’

  ‘I know, sweetheart. And that’s okay.’

  They had talked a lot about sad a few days before, after Jane had thrown a box of stuff at the wall for reasons she couldn’t explain. She’d yelled at Owl a lot, and said she wanted to go back to the factory, which she didn’t really at all, so she didn’t know why she’d said it. Then she’d cried again, which she was real tired of doing. She’d done a lot of bad behaviour that day, but Owl hadn’t been angry. Instead, she’d told Jane to come sit next to the wall screen by her bed, close as she could to Owl’s face, and Owl made some music until Jane stopped crying. Owl said it was okay to be sad about 64, and about the bad things that had happened at the factory. She said that was a kind of sad
that would never go away, but it would get easier. It hadn’t gotten easier yet. Jane wished it would hurry up.

  She scooped up the mushroom bits into her hands and walked over to the stove. A stove was a hot thing you made food on. Owl could give it power now, ever since Jane had started cleaning off the outside of the ship – the hull. Now more of the coating on the hull could make power out of sunlight. Once Jane finished that task, Owl wouldn’t have to choose which things worked and which things didn’t. She could make a lot more things work now than she had at first. She could make the ship very warm and turn on all the lights inside, and the stove and the stasie worked. The shower worked now, too, because Jane had filled up the water tanks. That had taken six days of dragging the water wagon back and forth, back and forth. It had been stupid and bad, and there had been dogs a couple times (the weapon was such a good thing). But there was clean water now, and she didn’t itch any more, and the bathroom wasn’t gross. That all was good. But between that and the two days she’d spent cleaning scrap off of the ship, her arms and legs were real real tired. She wasn’t bleeding or broken or anything, but she hurt.

  She put a pan on the stove, dropped the mushrooms into it, and turned the stove on real low. She had to be careful doing that. Mushrooms weren’t very good to eat without being cooked, but if she cooked them too hot, they’d stick to the pan and they wouldn’t be any good at all. She’d made that mistake the first time, and wasted a whole bunch of them. With as much work as it took to bring mushrooms home and get them ready, she didn’t want to waste any ever again.

  Jane had a thought she hadn’t before. ‘Did you have a crew before the . . . the two men?’

  Owl had said she wasn’t sad any more, but she was now. Her face said so. ‘Yes. The shuttle was owned by a couple on Mars. They used the ship for vacations. Outer Sol system, mostly. The occasional tunnel hop. I was with them for ten years.’

  The mushrooms started to make hissing sounds. Jane tried to keep an eye on them, but she was worried about Owl. She’d never heard her sound so wrong. ‘Did they get arrested, too?’

  ‘Oh, no. No, they sold the ship. They had two children, Mariko and Max. I watched them grow up in here. But after they became adults, the vacations stopped, and I guess . . . I guess their parents didn’t need a shuttle any more.’

  Jane frowned, watching the mushrooms wiggle against the pan. ‘Did you want to stay with them?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Did they know that?’

  ‘I don’t know. If they did, it wouldn’t have mattered. That’s not how the galaxy works.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Because AIs aren’t people, Jane. You can’t forget that about me. I’m not like you.’

  Jane didn’t understand why Owl being not like her would make her feelings not important, but the mushrooms were starting to get crispy around the edges, so she paid attention to that instead. It was easier than finding words.

  There was a sound – a tapping kind of sound. Jane turned her ear toward the ceiling. ‘Owl, what is that?’ She turned off the stove. The mushrooms hissed quieter; the tapping got louder. Like a bunch of little bolts falling onto the hull.

  ‘It’s nothing bad. Go up to the control room and I’ll show you.’

  Jane hurried out of the kitchen and did as told. Owl turned the viewscreen on and . . . and . . . Jane did not understand. It was morning, but the sky was kind of dark. And there was . . . there was . . .

  ‘Owl,’ Jane said slowly. ‘Why is there water falling out of the sky?’

  ‘That’s called rain,’ Owl said. ‘Don’t worry, it’s supposed to happen.’

  The tapping got louder, louder. Everything outside was wet. She saw a few lizard-birds (that was what Owl called the flying animals; she didn’t know the right word for them). They flew down low, ducking into a scrap pile, shaking off their wings and tails to get the sky water off them.

  Nothing outside the factory made any sense. Not any sense.

  ‘Jane, it’d be a good idea for you to push the water wagon outside,’ Owl said. ‘With the drums open. They’ll catch the rain that way.’

  ‘Is it good water?’ Jane wasn’t sure about this rain thing. This was maybe the weirdest thing yet, and she’d seen a lot of weird things already.

  ‘It’s better than the water you brought back, for sure. It’s probably not drinkable as it is, but it’ll be easier to clean.’

  ‘But the tanks are already full.’ Pushing the water wagon outside meant going outside. Into the rain.

  ‘They won’t always be. This way, when you need to top them up, you don’t have to go all the way back to the waterhole. You’ll have a bit right here already.’

  Jane took a deep breath. ‘Okay.’ The rain was weird and she didn’t want to go into it, but her hurting legs and tired back made her think Owl’s idea was better than one more trip to the waterhole. ‘Wait,’ she said. ‘What am I supposed to do now?’

  ‘I don’t understand the question. What do you mean?’

  ‘I mean today. I was going to finish cleaning the scrap off the hull. That was my task. Can I do that in the rain?’ The water was coming down very fast now, falling in great big lines.

  ‘Yes, but I suggest staying inside today. The rain here can be quite heavy, and wet clothes aren’t fun. Plus, wet scrap is slippery. I don’t want you to fall.’

  ‘But . . .’ Jane started feeling wrong. ‘I don’t have another task.’ She needed a task. Without a task, her thoughts went places she didn’t want them to go. She didn’t want another bad behaviour day. She wanted to be okay today. She wanted to be okay, and if she didn’t have a task, then—

  ‘I have an idea,’ Owl said. ‘And actually, I think it would be a good idea even if it wasn’t raining. Jane, you need a day off.’

  Jane blinked. ‘A day off of what?’

  ‘Of work. All Human beings need to take a break from work sometimes. You need to let your body rest, and your mind, too.’

  No. No no no. She needed a task. ‘I don’t want to do nothing,’ she said, remembering that first morning in bed, when she’d tried to just lie there, and the couple days after that, when she couldn’t get out of bed at all and it was a real real bad time.

  ‘That’s not what I’m suggesting,’ Owl said. ‘I’ve been going through my old files, and I found something I think might be fun. It’s not a real task, but it will let you rest without doing nothing.’

  Jane scrunched up her mouth. That sounded okay.

  ‘I’ll get it ready. I suggest eating your mushrooms before they get cold, then putting the wagon outside.’ Owl’s face did a happy wiggle inside the screen. ‘Oh, I hope you like it.’

  SIDRA

  Sidra settled into the piece of furniture beside Tak’s tool cabinet. It was an eelim, a sort of responsive chair that moulded itself around the body of the person using it. Sidra was fascinated as she watched the white material shift around the kit. She fought the urge to stand the kit up just so she could sit down and watch the eelim move again. But Tak was preparing his tools, and that was fascinating, too. He had a fresh pipe of tallflower, a full cup of mek, a gloved pair of hands. He loaded cartridges of colour bots into the industrial-looking needle pen, which looked a bit frightening, even in the hands of one so friendly.

  ‘It doesn’t use magnets, does it?’ Sidra asked, eying the hefty machine as calmly as she could.

  It was an odd thing to ask, she knew, but Tak seemed to take it as nothing more than quirk. ‘Nope, just pumps and gravity. Why, you have implants you’re worried about?’

  ‘No,’ Sidra said, glad the question hadn’t been more specific.

  ‘Well, even if you did, no magnets here. But it is going to hurt. You know that, right?’

  Sidra chose her words carefully. ‘I know that tattoos hurt, yes.’ That much was true. She left out the part about not being able to feel pain. She’d practised wincing the night before. Blue had said she’d got it down.

  Tak loaded the final cartridge
with a decisive snap. He lit his pipe and inhaled deeply, ribbons of smoke curling out his flat nostrils. He gestured over his scrib, bringing up the image he and Sidra had worked on so intently together. A crashing wave, teeming with all manner of sealife. The image moved, just as it would on the kit’s skin, fins and tentacles gently, gently pulsing forward and back, no faster than a sigh. The movement was noticeable, but not distracting. It’d take the bots a full minute to cycle through the image. ‘A subtle bit of background action,’ as Tak had put it. Sidra looked at it hungrily, trying to imagine how it would look on her housing. Her pathways practically vibrated with excitement.

  Tak noticed her eagerness. ‘You ready to do this?’

  Sidra leaned the kit back into the eelim. ‘I’m ready.’

  Tak sat in his workchair, dragging it close as he could to her. He disinfected the surface of the kit’s skin with a small spray bottle, then shaved the fine hair away with a hand razor. Sidra hadn’t realised that would be part of the process. That hair would never grow back, and having a bald patch on the kit’s upper arm would look odd. She made a note to shave the rest of the kit’s arms at home. It would be less obvious that way.

  Tak tapped the pen on. It was louder than Sidra expected, though maybe only due to its closeness. The needle touched the kit’s arm; she directed the kit to inhale softly. Tak pushed the needle through the skin; Sidra closed the kit’s eyes. The needle buzzed forward. She inhaled again, a little sharper, a little shorter, just as she and Blue had practised.

  Tak pulled the needle back. ‘That’s how it feels. Is that okay?’

  ‘That’s okay.’

  ‘You’re gonna do great, I know it. Just let me know if you need a break.’ He leaned in, moving the needle with the same care and sincerity as Blue with his brushes, as Pepper with her tools. Sidra watched with interest as little lines of still-dormant bots appeared, dark and clear below the surface. The kit bled. Tak dabbed the dishonest red liquid up with the corner of a clean cloth. He saw no difference.

 
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