A closed and common orbi.., p.16
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.16

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘So,’ Tak said, never taking his eyes off his work. ‘I watched that vid series you mentioned last time. The documentary on the first Exodans leaving the Sol system.’

  A warm little glow danced through Sidra’s pathways. ‘What’d you think?’

  ‘Absolutely fascinating,’ Tak said. ‘It lost me a bit toward the end—’

  ‘The montage of images of the original crew?’

  ‘Yeah. Dragged on a little too long. But don’t get me wrong, I thought it was terrific overall. Much, much better than the scraps about Human expansion I learned as a kid.’

  Sidra was delighted that her recommendation had been well received. ‘If you want to keep going in that vein, there’s another series called Children of War. It’s not quite as weighty, but I think it offers some very good complementary ideas about the politics on Mars at the time.’ She processed. ‘You went to university, right?’

  ‘I did.’ A nostalgic orange-flecked ripple crossed Tak’s cheeks. ‘I had aims to be an historian when I was younger. Started my certification track and everything.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Really. It’s the only time I’ve lived away from here. Spent three standards at Ontalden – you know it?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘It’s one of the big universities on Sohep Frie. Had a lot of appeal to me back then. I wanted to see the homeworld, wanted to see what life was like outside of the Port.’ He shifted his pipe from one side of his mouth to the other. ‘But it wasn’t for me, in the end. I love learning. I love history. But there’s history in everything. Every building, everybody you talk to. It’s not limited to libraries and museums. I think people who spend their lives in school forget that sometimes.’

  Sidra wished she could watch the needle and Tak’s expressions at once. She was keen on processing both. ‘Why wasn’t it “for you”?’

  Tak thought as he worked. ‘I like history because it’s a way of understanding people. Understanding why we’re all like we are right now. Especially in a place like this.’ He rocked his head toward the door, toward the multispecies crowd beyond the wall. ‘I wanted to understand my friends and neighbours better. But when I was on Sohep Frie, I spent a lot of time holed up in the university archives, learning about my own species’ history. We shons, you know, we used to be cultural conduits. We brought a little bit of each village with us when we switched between. Something about that really spoke to me. Not like it’s in my genes, or something. I don’t believe we’re defined by this.’ He held up the wet rag, speckled with false blood. ‘But that idea of being an ambassador of sorts grabbed me, for whatever reason. I realised I wanted to work with a more tangible kind of history. That’s why I do bot ink, and scale dying, and all that stuff. There are few better ways to get to know how a species thinks than to learn their art.’ Tak lifted the needle off the kit’s skin, adjusting his pipe between his delicate teeth. ‘You sure you’ve never done this before?’ he asked, nodding toward the kit’s arm. ‘You’re doing really well.’

  A jolt of nervousness shot through her. She’d forgotten to maintain the appearance of pain. ‘Yes.’ She gave the kit a tight smile that communicated toughness – or so she hoped. It was a good thing that she’d seen so little of physical pain, but some frame of reference for how often and to what degree she should make the kit look uncomfortable would’ve been helpful. She chastised herself for not thinking to find some vids of organic sapients getting tattoos. Still, Tak seemed impressed, and in Sidra’s estimation, that was a good turn of events.

  They sat that way for an hour and a half – Tak altering the kit, Sidra watching his progress and pulling faces, the time punctuated by idle chit-chat (vids, food, waterball) and lulls of comfortable silence when Tak was most focused.

  At last, Tak sat back, switching off the pen. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘There’s your first layer. What do you think? Let me know if there’s something you don’t like. You won’t hurt my feelings.’

  Sidra examined the outline that had been driven into the kit’s synthetic skin. The kit started smiling almost before she’d had time to process. ‘This is great,’ she said.

  ‘Yeah?’

  ‘Yeah, it’s wonderful.’ The kit grinned at him. ‘Can we do the next layer now?’

  Tak laughed, talkbox bobbing in his throat. ‘I need a short break, and so do you. I’ll get us both some water.’

  Sidra eyed the static outline, and imagined it with colour, motion, life. ‘Can I see how it’s going to move?’

  ‘Sure,’ Tak said. ‘You won’t get the full effect yet, but I can show you where it’s at right now.’ He picked up his scrib and accessed some sort of control program. ‘I’ll just activate it for a few seconds, then shut it back down.’

  Tak gestured at the scrib. In an instant, Sidra’s excitement turned to fear. A dozen warning notifications leaped to the forefront of her pathways – system errors, signal errors, feedback errors. Something was wrong.

  ‘Sidra?’ Tak said, cheeks anxious. ‘You o—’

  Sidra didn’t hear the rest. The kit convulsed, doubling over and falling forward. She was dimly aware of Tak catching her, but her knowledge of that was buried beneath error after error, flashing red and urgent. And her pathways – her pathways didn’t make sense. Things were stuck. Things were falling. Things were opening and closing with her on both sides of the door. What was she saying? Was she saying something? No, Tak was: ‘I’m calling emergency services. Sidra? Sidra, stay with me.’

  An interesting thing happened: Sidra heard herself speak, even though she couldn’t see the process that made her do so. ‘No – Pepper. Not – services. Pepper. Get Pepper.’

  She wasn’t sure which part of her was still running speech protocols, but it was a good thing they were working, because the rest of her was losing the fight in keeping the kit still, and her pathways really couldn’t process anything more than—

  JANE, AGE 10

  A day off. And Owl said she had something fun! Jane ate her mushrooms real fast, along with two bites of ration bar (Owl said they had good things in them that mushrooms didn’t, and she should have a little bit with her mushrooms every day until the bars ran out). She washed the food down with filtered water from the sink. It still tasted different from the water they drank at the factory, but it was much much better than the packets. Not just because it was cold and clean and didn’t taste like packaging, but also because the reason the sink water was there in the first place was because she’d brought it home. She was drinking water she’d got herself, and that made it taste extra good.

  She put the wagon outside, too. The rain was everywhere. She wanted to stand and look at it, wanted to try to see where it was falling from, but it was cold and making her clothes all wet. It only took a minute of standing in it for her to understand that she didn’t like rain very much.

  She went back inside, then followed Owl into the bedroom. ‘Okay, look under the bed,’ Owl said. ‘Not your bed, the other one. It should still be under there.’

  ‘What should?’ Jane said, getting down on her hands and knees. There were boxes under there with stuff that had belonged to one of the men who had brought Owl to the planet. Not much of the stuff had been useful, except for the pocket knife.

  ‘Here, I’ll show you. Look here.’ Owl’s face went away from the wall screen, and a picture of a funny-looking piece of tech came up – some kind of a small net, with goggles and wires that Jane didn’t know the point of.

  Jane dug around under the bed until she found the thing, put away real careful in a box. ‘What is it?’ she asked.

  ‘It’s a sim cap,’ Owl said. ‘It’s a piece of tech that tells you a story inside your head.’

  Jane stared into the box. Nothing here made sense. ‘Like a dream?’

  ‘Yes, but it makes more sense than a dream, and you can interact with it.’

  ‘What’s interact?’

  ‘Do stuff with it. Pretend that you’re really there. It’s not real. It’s a
ll made up, but it can show you lots of different things. I think you might like it.’

  Jane touched the wires. There was nothing pokey or sharp, nothing that would go inside her head. She picked up the net. She could see now that it was round, and had little soft patches all along the inside. Some kind of feedback patches. The other wires were covered with them too. The wires split into five ends each – hands? Were they for her hands? ‘What stories will it show me?’ Jane asked.

  ‘Different kinds of stories. I have a small selection of sims in storage. Most of them are for grown-ups, but I have a few for kids. I remembered them when you asked about . . . about the family that owned the ship. Their kids played sims when they had long trips.’

  ‘What’s kids?’

  ‘Children.’

  ‘Am I a kids?

  ‘You’re a kid, yes.’

  Jane took that in. ‘I’m a Human and a person and a girl and a kid.’ That seemed like a lot of labels for just one girl.

  Owl smiled. ‘That’s right.’

  Jane looked back at the box. ‘How do I put this on?’

  ‘Put the round thing over your head. There’s a strap on the bottom so you can pull it tight against your skin. Yes, good. Now, those long bits are like gloves. Put the caps over each fingertip, and pull the little straps tight.’

  Jane did as she was told. The caps on the net and gloves stuck onto her skin real tight. It was weird, but not bad. She picked up the goggles. ‘And these?’

  ‘You should lie down before you put those on. You won’t be able to see out of them.’

  Jane lay down on her bed and put the goggles on. Owl was right – they made the whole room go away. It wasn’t scary, she told herself. Owl said it was okay. Owl said it was okay.

  ‘I’m going to upload the sim to the kit now,’ Owl said. ‘And don’t worry, I’m right here. You can still talk to me, even when it’s playing.’

  Jane relaxed into her pillow. She heard a little click as something activated in the goggles. The net pressed very, very softly into her scalp, like it was grabbing it. The gloves hugged her fingers, too. Her skin tingled. Owl said it was okay.

  The darkness started to go away. Then . . . then it got weird.

  She was standing in an empty space, lit with soft yellow light. She wasn’t standing, not really. She was still lying down in bed. But she was also standing in the yellow place. Lying down felt more real; standing felt like a memory. But it was a memory that was happening right that second.

  Nothing. Here. Made. Sense.

  A glowing ball rose up out of the ground with a hum. It stopped right in front of her face. ‘Tek tem!’ it said, pulsing bright with each word. ‘Kebbi sum?’

  Jane swallowed. Owl had taught her tek tem. Those were Klip words for hello. But she didn’t understand anything else the ball said. ‘Um . . . I’m . . . I don’t understand.’

  ‘Oh!’ the ball said. The sound of its voice had changed. ‘Am sora! Hoo spak Ensk! Weth all spak Ensk agath na. Ef hoo gan larin Klip?’

  She frowned. Some of those words were almost like normal words, but the rest . . . weren’t. She felt tired already. ‘Owl?’ she called.

  Owl’s voice appeared all around her, as if there were speakers everywhere. ‘I’m sorry, Jane,’ Owl said, ‘I didn’t think about the language packs. Give me just a minute. There must be a module for Sko-Ensk, this franchise got a grant from the Diaspora – ah, here we are. Things may go dark for a second, don’t be scared.’

  ‘I’m not scared,’ Jane said.

  Things went dark, just as Owl had said. Okay, fine, it was a little scary. She was all the way back in bed, but she couldn’t see anything. She didn’t like that at all. But only a second or two went by before the warm yellow space returned, and the ball of light came back. ‘Hi there!’ it said. ‘What’s your name?’

  Jane relaxed. The ball spoke with the same weird kind of voice sound that Owl had (accent, Owl had said – it was called an accent), but Jane could understand it now. ‘I’m Jane,’ she said.

  ‘Welcome, Jane! Is this your first time in a sim, or have you played others before?’

  She bit her thumbnail (or the memory of it, anyway). This whole thing made her feel a little silly. ‘First time.’

  ‘Awesome! You’re in for a treat! I’m the Game Globe. I help make the sim fit you just right. If you ever need to change something, or if you need to leave, just yell “Game Globe!” and I’ll help you out. Okay?’

  ‘Um, okay.’

  ‘Great! So how old are you, Jane?’

  ‘Ten.’

  ‘Are you in school?’

  ‘No.’ Owl had explained school. It sounded like fun. ‘But Owl’s teaching me.’

  ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite understand that. Is Owl a grown-up?’

  ‘Owl is an AI,’ she said. ‘I live with her in a shuttle and she helps me be okay.’

  ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite understand that,’ the ball said. ‘What’s—’

  Owl’s voice cut in. ‘Just tell it I’m your parent, Jane,’ Owl said. ‘It’s easier. That thing isn’t sentient.’

  Jane didn’t know what parent or sentient meant, but she did as told. ‘Owl’s my parent.’

  ‘Got it!’ the ball said. ‘I’m going to ask you a few questions, just to see what kind of stuff you already know. Okay?’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘Great!’ The ball wiggled, then dissolved into shapes – reading squiggles, like on the boxes in the shuttle. There were a lot of them. A whole big lot of them, much more than on boxes. ‘Can you read this back to me?’ the ball said.

  ‘No.’

  ‘Okay.’ The squiggles changed. There were less of them now. ‘Can you read this?’

  ‘No,’ Jane said. Her cheeks felt hot. This was a test, and she was failing it. ‘I can’t read.’

  The squiggles melted together into the Game Globe. ‘That’s okay! Thank you for telling me. Do you know how to count?’

  ‘Yes,’ she said, sighing.

  Owl’s voice came back. ‘Jane, hang on just a minute. I’m going to tweak this thing’s protocols. This is supposed to be fun, not an interrogation.’

  ‘What’s an intro—’

  ‘It’s when somebody asks you too many questions. Here, I’m going to configure the educational parameters for you. Let’s see . . . starter reading, starter math, starter Klip, starter species studies, starter science, starter code, and . . . I’m going to go ahead and say advanced technology.’

  The Game Globe held perfectly still for a few seconds, frozen in the middle of a pulse. ‘Thanks for answering my questions, Jane! Now, hang on tight – your adventure’s about to begin!’

  The Game Globe spun away, like a crazy spark. The light in the yellow space followed it. For a moment, there was nothing.

  The nothing didn’t last long. So much stuff happened at once.

  A bunch of colours burst all around her, big stripes of them stretching out farther than she could see. Two kids stepped through doors that appeared in the air. A girl and a boy. That was very exciting, because Jane hadn’t seen a boy except in the pictures Owl had showed her. But neither the girl nor the boy looked real. Their bodies were shaped wrong – big round heads, big thick lines along their clothes – and their colours were all the way solid, like paint. They were weird, but there was something nice about them, too. She liked looking at them.

  The kids were opposites of each other, kind of. The boy had dark brown skin, and yellowish hair that was real fun, all curled in soft circles. The girl – the girl wasn’t like any girl Jane had ever seen. She had shiny black hair that fell all the way down her back, like a blanket but way nicer. She was brown, too, but a different brown than the boy. Kind of like Jane’s pink skin, but not really. Later, she would ask Owl for more colour words. There had to be better words.

  Jane could’ve looked at the kids for a long time, but things went real fast after they showed up. An animal dropped down from somewhere way up high and landed on its feet.
It wasn’t a dog, or a lizard-bird, or anything she’d seen. It had feet and hands kind of like a kid, was red-brown and furry, and had a tail like a dog did, but much longer and thinner. It had a silly face, too: fat cheeks and stick-out ears and a squashed-in nose. There was something in the animal’s hand – a curled, shiny metal thing, with a big opening at one end and a smaller one at the other. The animal blew into the small end, and a loud music sound came out: BAAAAAH-BAH-BAH-BAH-BAHHHH!

  The kids threw their not-real hands up in the air. The colours spun and bounced. The kids talked music.

  Engines on! Fuel pumps, go!

  Grab your gear, there’s lots to know

  Our galaxy is where we play

  Come with us, we know the way!

  BIG BUG!

  From ground and sky!

  BIG BUG!

  By stars we fly!

  BIG BUG!

  We’re the Big Bug Crew!

  The Big Bug Crew and YOOOOOU!

  ‘Hey, Jane!’ the not-real girl said. ‘I’m Manjiri.’

  ‘I’m Alain,’ the not-real boy said. Her — his, Jane reminded herself. Boys got a different word. His accent was different than Manjiri’s but the same as Owl’s. Jane didn’t know why that was, but it was interesting.

  ‘And this is our best buddy, Pinch!’ the kids said together, putting their open hands toward the animal. The animal did a silly jump.

  Jane did not move. She said nothing. The rain was not the weirdest thing any more, not by a lot.

  ‘This is your first time playing a sim, right?’ Alain said. ‘Don’t worry. This is gonna be fun!’

  Manjiri grinned. ‘We’re so excited for you to be with us on our latest adventure—’

  The kids and the animal raised their hands up toward the air, where a bunch of red reading squiggles appeared, lit with yellow sparks. ‘THE BIG BUG CREW AND THE PLANETARY PUZZLE!’ the kids shouted.

  ‘Come on!’ Alain said. ‘We’ve got to get to the ship!’ He waved his hand over the air and a doorway appeared, not held up by anything. Jane couldn’t see anything through the door, either. Just colours swirling like smoke.

 
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