A closed and common orbi.., p.17
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.17

           Becky Chambers
 

  She felt weird, like she was wearing too little clothing. She wanted to go back to her room. She wanted a real task. ‘Um . . .’

  ‘Are you feeling nervous?’ Manjiri said. ‘That’s okay. Everybody feels nervous when trying new things. Would you feel better if I held your hand?’

  Jane’s eyes went huge. Could she do that? Could they touch her? She nodded, once, hard.

  The not-real girl’s hand felt like a memory of being held, but oh – oh, it was close enough! Something all knotted up inside Jane’s chest let go. She squeezed her hand; the made-up hand squeezed back. Holding hands was good, more good than not being hungry, more good than she knew how to say.

  The furry animal ran up Manjiri’s back and hopped onto Jane’s shoulder. Jane jumped, but the animal just hung on and snuggled in, making silly sounds. The kids laughed. Jane decided the animal was okay.

  ‘Come on,’ Manjiri said, leading the way, still holding Jane’s hand. Jane followed her through the smoky colours. They tickled in a good way as she went through, and there was the sound of lots of kids laughing. Jane felt a little better, though she still wasn’t sure about any of this.

  They stepped into a ship. Even though the only ship Jane had ever seen was the one she and Owl lived in, she knew this one was no more real than the kids were. The walls, the ceilings, the consoles – they were all big and round and soft-looking, with buttons and knobs that didn’t look very functional. Everything was bright bright colours – green mostly, but also red and blue and yellow. It was noisy in there, too. Lots of beeps and whistles and music sounds. There were two big bubble windows at the front, with lots of not-real stars on the other side. In front of the windows were three consoles, each with reading squiggles at the top. A big squashy chair sat in front of each one. They looked good to sit in.

  ‘This is our ship,’ Manjiri said. ‘The Big Bug!’

  ‘The Big Bug’s a special ship,’ Alain said. ‘In the real world, ships are powered by different kinds of fuel. Do you know any kinds of fuel?’

  ‘Um,’ Jane said. She licked her lips. ‘Algae. Sunlight. Ambi.’ She thought hard, and remembered what Owl had found in the water she brought home. ‘S . . . scrub?’

  ‘That’s right!’ Manjiri said. ‘Those are all common types of fuel. But we don’t use those here. The Big Bug is a ship powered by imaaaaaagination.’ She spread her fingers out flat and wiggled them through the air.

  ‘With imagination, you can go anywhere!’ Alain said.

  Jane didn’t know what that stuff was, but it sounded pretty useful. She wondered if she could find some for the shuttle.

  ‘Jane, do you live on a ship, or on a planet?’ Manjiri asked.

  Jane rubbed the back of her neck. ‘Both,’ she said.

  The kids nodded together. ‘Lots of families go back and forth,’ Manjiri said.

  ‘If you live on a ship, then you already know that you should never ever fly one without a grown-up,’ Alain said. Pinch nodded twice, crossing his furry arms across his chest. ‘But in an imagination ship, we don’t need grown-ups! We can do everything ourselves!’

  Alain and Manjiri each raised one of their hands and slapped their palms together. They ran to the consoles, real excited. Manjiri took the one on the left, and Alain took the one on the right.

  The kids pointed to the console between them. ‘This one’s for you, Jane!’ Manjiri said. Pinch jumped on top of the empty chair, doing another silly flip. He sure was a busy little animal.

  Jane sat in the chair, which felt just as snuggly as it looked. Pinch hopped down and sat in her lap. She held still for a minute, then slowly, slowly reached out to touch his head. Pinch made an ooooo sound, and with his eyes scrunched tight, rubbed his soft head up into her palm. Jane laughed, but just a little, real quiet. She knew she wouldn’t get in trouble for laughing here, but laughing was bad behaviour, and it made her nervous.

  ‘Okay,’ Alain said. ‘Let’s find out our mission for today!’

  ‘Hey, Bumble!’ Manjiri said. ‘Wake up!’

  A face appeared on all of their console screens: big, fuzzy, yellow, not at all like a person. Jane understood it was an AI like Owl, even though Owl had a person’s face. This wasn’t a real AI, though. Nothing here was real.

  The yellow fuzzy face yawned and smacked its lips. ‘Aw, is it time to get up already?’

  Alain laughed. ‘Oh, Bumble! You’re gonna sleep the day away!’

  Manjiri pointed at Jane’s screen. ‘Jane, this is Bumble, our AI. Xe’s going to tell us where we’re going today.’ Jane knew that person word, too. It was the one for people who weren’t girls or boys, and also what you said if you didn’t know which they were. It was kind of exciting, hearing somebody besides Owl use words that Jane had learned. It made her feel like she was learning important stuff.

  Bumble shook xyr face, and looked a little more awake. ‘Today, you’re off to Theth!’ xe said. A picture of a big striped planet with rings and a whole bunch of moons appeared on the bubble windows. ‘You’ll be meeting with our good friend Heshet, who says he needs our help! Some of Theth’s moons have gone missing!’

  Jane frowned. Could moons go missing? That seemed wrong. They were real big.

  Bumble put another little picture in front of the one of the planet. It was a person, but— ‘Hey!’ Jane said, pointing. ‘I know that species! They’re, um . . . they’re . . . oh . . .’ She tried to remember. She was a Human species. Aeluons were the silver ones. Hermigeans were the squishy ones. Quelin had lots of legs. This one was none of those. This one was green, and had a flat face, and . . . oh, why couldn’t she find the word?

  Alain smiled. ‘Heshet is an Aandrisk,’ he said.

  Aandrisk. Right. But there was something different about him than the pictures Owl had showed her of that species. ‘Where’s his, um . . .’ Another word she couldn’t find! She felt all dumb inside. She waved her hand over the top of her head, trying to explain.

  ‘Do you mean feathers?’ Manjiri asked.

  ‘Yes!’ Jane said. ‘Yes. Feathers. Where’s his feathers?’

  ‘Aandrisks don’t get feathers until they start to become grown-ups,’ Manjiri said. ‘Heshet’s a kid like us!’

  Jane thought about her smooth head, which would never have feathers, or hair, either. Would she always look like a kid to Aandrisks, even when she got older?

  ‘Okay, Jane, it’s time to plot our course,’ Alain said. Jane’s interface panel changed. There was a picture on it – a bunch of coloured circles with little curvy lines between. ‘These are the tunnels that can get us from here to Hashkath, the moon where Heshet lives. Can you figure out the shortest way to get there? Draw your finger from here to there to give it a try.’

  Jane looked at the lines real careful, then at how they connected to the blinking circle they were supposed to get to. It reminded her of rewiring a circuit. Easy. She traced her finger along the screen, the path behind it turning blue.

  ‘Wow!’ Manjiri said. ‘First try! Good job!’

  Pinch made animal sounds and clapped his hands. She hadn’t done much, but Jane felt good anyway.

  ‘Great!’ Alain said. ‘Now hit the autopilot button and we’ll be on our way! It’s the big red button in the middle.’

  Jane saw the big red button. There were a lot of other buttons, too, and . . . oh no. All the buttons were marked with reading squiggles. Would these kids need her to push buttons fast? Did she have to be on task? Her stomach sank. ‘I can’t read,’ she said.

  ‘We know,’ Alain said in a voice that made her feel safe. He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. ‘Don’t worry! Everybody has to learn how. We’ll help you practise.’

  ‘This one says “autopilot”,’ Manjiri said, pointing at a big red button. ‘And this one says “stop”.’ She got a big grin. ‘And this—’ She pointed not at a button, but the long block on top of the console. ‘Do you know what this says?’

  Jane pressed her lips together and shook her head.

&
nbsp; ‘That’s you,’ Manjiri said. ‘That’s how you spell “Jane”.’

  SIDRA

  Everything was gone for a while. When it came back, Blue was there, looking hugely relieved.

  ‘She’s awake!’ His face melted into a smile. ‘W – uh, welcome back,’ he said, squeezing the kit’s hand. Sidra wondered how long he’d been holding it. She had no record on that point.

  There was the sound of someone getting up fast. Pepper appeared, placing a hand on Blue’s shoulder as she plunked herself into a chair. A chair. Tak’s chairs. They were in the tattoo shop.

  Why were they in the tattoo shop?

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Pepper said. ‘Stars, it worked.’ Her head fell forward, pressing against the side of the kit. ‘Shit.’ She sat back up, quickly, her eyes darting over the kit’s face. ‘Are you feeling okay? Gimme a diagnostic.’

  Sidra ran a systems check, as directed. Line by line, the results came back: Go. Go. Go. ‘I’m fine,’ she said, and she felt it, too. ‘Though—’ She rifled through her memory files. ‘I don’t know how you got here. I don’t know when you got here. What time is it?’

  ‘A little after thirteen,’ Blue said. ‘You’ve, uh, you’ve been out for an hour.’

  An hour. In Tak’s shop. And Pepper had told her to run a diag— oh, no.

  The kit sat up, and Sidra looked around. The front shutters were drawn. The door was shut. Tak was leaning against a corner wall, as far away from them as he could be. He puffed his pipe, face taut, cheeks a pensive yellow.

  He knew.

  Sidra looked back to Pepper, away from Tak’s silent stare. ‘What happened?’ she whispered.

  Pepper sighed. ‘So, as it turns out, nanobot ink doesn’t play nicely with your bots. Their signals interfered with the signals travelling from your core to the kit. It made everything flip out.’ Her eyes flicked to Tak, her gaze hard and careful. Sidra knew that look. It was the same look Pepper had when she was assessing something combustible. ‘Tak called us, and we . . . we figured it out. I—’ She frowned with discomfort ‘—I directed you to go into standby mode until all the bots were out.’

  Sidra had no record of the directive, but she knew Pepper well enough to know that triggering a system protocol that forced Sidra to turn herself off would not sit right with her. ‘You had to,’ Sidra said. ‘I understand.’

  Pepper shut her eyes and gave a single nod.

  ‘He re – um, removed the ink,’ Blue said, looking at Tak with a smile. ‘It was a – a real, uh, a real – a real big help.’ His tone was friendly – too friendly, and his words were sticking more than usual.

  Tak gave a short, polite Aeluon smile that vanished almost as soon as it had appeared. His cheeks roiled with nervous conflict. He emptied the ash from his pipe, then began to refill it.

  Pepper and Blue exchanged a worried glance. The same concern crept through Sidra. Tak knew, and they didn’t know him at all. I don’t even know him, Sidra thought. We had a nice conversation, and I confused that for knowing someone. So stupid. So stupid. And yet, of all the deadly serious things she was scared of in that moment – Tak calling the Port Authority, Pepper and Blue getting in trouble, the likelihood of the kit being deactivated with her still in it – the situational variable that was stuck in the loudest, most unhappy processing loop was the thought of Tak no longer wanting to hang out with her. So stupid.

  ‘Can we go home?’ she said quietly, doing her best to not meet Tak’s eye.

  Pepper turned to the shopkeeper. ‘Listen. Tak. I’m truly grateful for your help today. We all are. And I’m really sorry for the scare you went through. Blue and I – we take responsibility for that.’

  ‘Pepper—’ Sidra said.

  Pepper carried on. ‘We knew she was coming here today, and the potential for risk didn’t occur to either of us. It was a major oversight on our part. I can’t apologise enough.’ She met the kit’s eyes. ‘To both of you.’ Pepper pressed her lips together, choosing her words with care. ‘I know the situation here is . . . unusual.’

  Tak gave a short, audible exhale – a relative rarity for his silent species. It was a scoff, a reaction that happened too quick for talkbox phrasing. Sidra’s pathways felt as if they were folding in on themselves. She wanted to go home. She wanted to be anywhere that wasn’t here.

  Pepper didn’t miss a beat. ‘If you want money, we can pay you. That’s no problem. Or free fix-it services, we can arrange—’

  Tak cut her off. ‘I won’t say anything. Okay? It’s fine. I’ve seen plenty of weird modder shit and I really don’t care. It is not my business. I just don’t want it coming back to me if this project of yours gets found out. I don’t know about this, okay? I don’t know about this, and I have nothing to do with it.’

  ‘You think she’s – it’s not like that. Sidra’s not a project.’

  ‘Okay. I told you, I don’t care.’

  Blue helped the kit up. ‘C-come on,’ he whispered. ‘We, uh, we should go.’

  Pepper sighed. ‘Okay,’ she said to Tak. A tightness crept into her voice, but she remained civil. She owed him, and she knew it. ‘Thank you for being cool about this.’

  Sidra headed for the door with Blue, but something made her turn back around. She and Tak stared at each other across the long room. Sidra wasn’t quite sure what he was feeling. She got the impression maybe he didn’t know either.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Sidra said. ‘I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.’

  Tak looked not to her, but to the Humans accompanying her. Looked at them like you might look at a child’s parents if the kid asked something odd. Like you might look at the owner of a pet that strayed into your house.

  ‘I came here on my own,’ she said, her voice loud, her pathways spiking with injury and anger. ‘I came here. It wasn’t a directive. It wasn’t a task. I wanted to see you. I thought you could help me. I didn’t mean to cause trouble.’

  ‘Hey,’ Pepper said softly, putting her hand on the kit’s arm. ‘Sweetie, come on. Let’s go home.’

  ‘Wait,’ Tak said. ‘Wait.’ He was looking at Sidra now. His pipe smouldered between his fingers. ‘What—’ He paused, uncomfortable, unsure. ‘What did you want my help with?’

  ‘I already told you,’ Sidra said. ‘Twice, we’ve talked about it.’ She gestured at the kit. ‘This isn’t me. And you – you understood how I felt about that. Or you did, before an hour ago.’ She searched his face, looking for some glimmer of recognition, for that easy dynamic they’d fallen into when Tak had thought they were more or less the same. She saw only confusion and smoke. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said again. So stupid. She walked out of the shop and into the marketplace. Pepper and Blue followed close behind, their silence hanging thick between them. The crowd flowed around her, dozens of faces, dozens of names, dozens of stories in progress. She’d never felt so alone.

  JANE, ALMOST 12

  The shuttle hatch slid open. Jane entered, dragging her heavy haul on squeaking wheels. ‘I got some good stuff today.’ She knocked the dust off her shoes (made with thick rubber from a tyre liner, topped with cushion foam and a lot of wrap-around fabric from an old exosuit) and took off her jacket (more scavenged fabric, but from a real ugly chair). She left both by the door. ‘Check it out.’ She heard Owl’s cameras whir towards her as she started pulling stuff off of the wagon. ‘Switch couplers, fabric—’

  ‘What’s “fabric” in Klip?’ Owl asked.

  ‘Delet.’

  ‘That’s right. And what’s that thing behind the fabric?’

  Jane glanced at the dead dog, hanging over the back of the wagon. ‘Bashorel.’

  ‘Can you make a sentence in Klip with that word?’ Owl asked.

  Jane thought. ‘Laeken pa bashorel toh.’

  ‘Almost. Lae-ket kal bashorel toh.’

  ‘Laeket pa bashorel toh. Why?’

  ‘Because you haven’t eaten the dog yet. You’re going to eat the dog.’

  Dog had joined mushrooms on the list of fo
od things a long while back. Owl’s idea. Taking them apart was gross, but it wasn’t any grosser than scrubbing old tacky fuel gunk out of an engine or something. Gross was gross, whether it was animal or machine.

  Jane rolled her eyes at the Klip correction. ‘That’s a dumb rule.’

  Owl laughed. ‘Languages are full of dumb rules. Klip’s one of the easiest ones. Most sapients would say it’s much easier than Sko-Ensk.’

  ‘Can you say something in Standard Ensk?’ Jane had asked this before, of course, but hearing Owl speak different languages was real fun.

  ‘A ku spok anat, nor hoo datte spak Ensk.’

  Jane laughed. ‘That’s so weird.’ She began to unpack her finds, putting them into boxes with things like them. Owl had suggested that she label the boxes in Klip. Boli. Wires. Goiganund. Circuits. Timdrak. Plating. Her letters weren’t as neat as the ones Owl showed her on screen, but she was getting better. Alain and Manjiri were helping. They had a practice mode where she could work on things she was supposed to be learning in school. It was nice, learning stuff with other kids, even though they were pretend, even though they said the same sorts of sentences over and over after a while. Owl said it was important for Jane to remember how to talk to other people. She said it was maybe the most important thing, after getting the ship fixed.

  Jane put the fabric in the delet box. ‘Do any other species speak Sko-Ensk?’

  ‘I think that’d be very rare. Maybe some people at schools or museums. Spacers living out near the border might speak it. I’m not really sure.’

  Jane tossed a bolt onto a pile and watched it tumble down. ‘Will they think I’m weird if I don’t speak Klip right?’

  ‘No, sweetheart. But you will have an easier time if you know more words when we get out of here. You’ll be able to tell people what you want and what you don’t, and you can answer questions. You’ll make more friends if you can talk to people.’

 
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