A closed and common orbi.., p.18
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.18

           Becky Chambers
 

  Jane dragged the wagon over to the utility hose and dumped the dog into the basin below it, holding her face as far away as she could from its stinking fur. She hosed it down, watching dirt and bits of whatever swirl down the drain. A few small bugs tried to get away. Jane smashed them with her thumb. She felt bad about it, but they weren’t big enough to eat, and they’d just make her itch.

  She sighed as she turned the dog over. She really didn’t like washing them, or the part that came after. Making dogs into food wasn’t fun. They tasted all right, though, if she cooked the pieces on the stove for a long time. It was a heavy taste, like smoke and rust. They kept her fuller than ration bars, which was the best part, because there were only a couple dozen of those left, and she had to keep them for emergencies. She reminded herself of that as she moved the fur around, getting it clean as she could. Some of the fur was burned where her latest weapon had touched it. This model killed dogs faster, which was good, but it made their fur catch fire real easy. She felt kind of bad about that, too . . . but not really.

  ‘Do you think the dogs know I’m eating other dogs?’ The packs had been bothering her less these days, and she’d wondered.

  ‘Possibly, yes.’

  ‘Because they can smell their blood on me?’

  ‘That’s quite likely, actually.’

  Jane nodded. That was good. She took off all her clothes, folded them, and set them far away. She wrapped a clear tarp around herself, the one she’d cut arm holes in and laced a woven cord through like a belt. She picked up the big kitchen knife from the edge of the basin, where she’d left it a few days before. She sucked air through her teeth as she closed her fingers around the grip.

  ‘Is your hand still bad?’ Owl asked.

  ‘It’s okay,’ Jane said, so Owl wouldn’t worry. She still hadn’t found a pair of work gloves that fit her right, which made digging through scrap hard. Bare hands were much easier to work with, but that meant getting cuts, like the bad one she’d got across her palm a week ago. Owl said she needed stitches, but after an explanation of how that was done, Jane knew that was not a thing she could do. So, she’d closed the skin up with some circuit glue, which Owl hadn’t liked, but she didn’t have any better ideas. The cut wasn’t bleeding any more, but stars, it still hurt.

  She looked at the soaked dead dog, lying in shrinking puddles of dirt and squished bugs, tongue hanging out like an old wet sock. It was so ugly. It was about to get worse.

  She chewed her thumbnail. It tasted of plex and sweat and old metal, and some nasty badness she couldn’t name. Maybe a bit of bug. ‘Do you think other sapients will smell blood on me?’

  ‘No, sweetie,’ Owl said, her face filling up the closest screen like a sun. ‘You’ll be nice and clean when we meet other people.’

  ‘And you’ll be with me, right?’

  ‘Of course I will.’

  ‘Okay,’ Jane said. ‘That’s good.’ She took a breath, raised her knife, and got to work.

  Feed source: unknown

  Encryption: 4

  Translation: 0

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: unknown

  Post subject: REPOST – Seeking heavily-altered derelict shuttle, see full post for details

  pinch: i’m searching for a Centaur 46-C, approximately 25 standards old, extensively repaired and altered. few parts left in original factory condition. faded tan hull, photovoltaic coating. if you have any information about its current location, please message me. you don’t have to have it, just know where it is.

  fluffyfluffycake: good luck, as always

  FunkyFronds: i swear, i could sync my clocks by when this post goes up. where did the past eight tendays go?

  tishtesh: how long are you gonna keep reposting this

  pinch: until i find it

  Part 2

  PULL

  SIDRA

  Sorting tech supplies was boring, but boring had become preferable. Boring meant there was nothing to worry about. Boring was safe.

  Sidra logged inventory as she worked. Seven bolts. She placed them in their bin. Two tethering cables. She placed them in their bin. One regulator grid – or . . . wait. ‘Pepper?’ she called, craning the kit’s head toward the workshop door.

  ‘One sec,’ Pepper called from the front counter, shouting over her welding torch. The security shield around the shop had been flickering when they got in that morning. Probably just some wiring that wore out, Pepper said, but it bothered Sidra enough that her host had wasted no time in starting repairs. Over the past twenty-six days, Sidra had been particular about locking doors, closing windows, avoiding customers she hadn’t seen before. She felt it best to volunteer for boring jobs that kept her in the workshop, out of sight. Sorting supplies fit the bill, and it was a task that Pepper was always happy to relinquish.

  The torch hissed quiet, and Pepper stuck her head through the doorway. ‘What’s up?’

  Sidra showed her the part in the kit’s hand. ‘I don’t know what this is.’

  ‘That,’ Pepper said, squinting, ‘is an overload buffer.’

  Sidra made record of that. ‘Where should I put it?’

  Pepper looked over her hand-labelled bins. ‘Just toss it in with the other regulators. I’ll remember it’s there.’ She smirked at Sidra. ‘And so will you.’

  The kit smiled as Sidra filed away the overload buffer’s location into her workshop storage log. ‘I will.’

  There was a pause. ‘So,’ Pepper said, clearing her throat, ‘Blue and I were thinking about closing up shop and doing something fun tomorrow.’

  Sidra didn’t reply.

  ‘They’re having an adults-only day at the Bouncehouse,’ Pepper continued hopefully. ‘Only takes an hour to get up there, and it’s real kick in the pants.’

  Sidra knew of the Bouncehouse – a giant zero-g playground housed in a low-orbit satellite. She’d seen its designated shuttle port near the Undersea station at Kukkesh, seen the big flashing sign that pictured a laughing, multispecies group of youngsters diving through ringed obstacle courses and playing with globs of floating water. It did look like fun.

  She’d already guessed what Pepper was going to say next: ‘You want to come with?’

  Sidra picked up another part – an air tube – and put it in its bin. ‘I think I’ll just stay home,’ she said, forcing the kit to smile. ‘You two have a good time.’

  Pepper started to say something, but she swallowed it, her eyes sad. ‘Okay.’ She nodded. ‘I’m gonna order lunch soon, do you want—’

  ‘Hello?’ a voice called from the counter.

  ‘Be right there,’ Pepper called back. She squeezed the kit’s shoulder, and headed out. ‘What can I – oh. Uh, hi.’

  Sidra couldn’t see what was going on, but the shift in Pepper’s tone was palpable. All at once, Sidra’s pathways were on edge. Was there trouble? Was she in trouble? Pepper’s voice and the other spoke to each other in a hush, too low for Sidra to pick up. She leaned in, straining to hear.

  ‘. . . I told you,’ she heard Pepper say. ‘I’m not her keeper. She’s her own person. That’s totally up to her.’

  Sidra’s curiosity overpowered her concern about the unknown, and slowly, slowly, she peeked around the edge of the door. A pair of eyes looked past Pepper as soon as she did so.

  It was Tak.

  ‘Hi,’ Tak said, with an awkward Human-style wave of her hand. Her expression was friendly, but her cheeks told a different story. She was nervous, unsure. The sight did nothing to slow Sidra’s processes down.

  Sidra looked to Pepper, who didn’t look sure about this, either. Her face was neutral, but unnaturally so, and a flush of tense red heated her skin. The Aeluon wasn’t the only one changing colour, and Sidra understood why. Pepper did not take kindly to situations she wasn’t in control of, and she knew Tak had a trump card in her pocket. This was Pepper’s shop, Pepper’s territory, yet here was someone whose lead she had to follow.

  ‘Sidra,’ Peppe
r said, her voice calm and tight, ‘Tak was wondering if she could have a word with you.’

  The kit took a breath. ‘Okay,’ Sidra said.

  Tak held her satchel strap tightly with one hand. Sidra could see the other trying not to fidget. ‘I was hoping somewhere private? A cafe, or—’

  Pepper’s eyes snapped to Tak. ‘You’re welcome to step into the back, if you want.’ The words were nonchalant, but they weren’t an invitation.

  Tak’s talkbox moved as she swallowed. ‘Yeah. Yeah, that’s cool.’ The uneasy reddish yellow in her cheeks deepened; this wasn’t how she’d pictured things, either.

  What’s she doing here? Sidra thought. All her other processes were idling.

  ‘I’ll be right out here,’ Pepper said, as Tak made her way back. She was looking at Sidra, but the words were meant for everyone present. Sidra felt the kit’s shoulders relax, just a bit. Pepper was there. Pepper was listening.

  Tak entered the workshop. Sidra didn’t know what to do. Was she a customer? A guest? A threat? She had directory after directory stuffed with different ways to greet people, but none of them applied. How did you treat someone whose intentions were unclear?

  They stood facing each other. Tak had the look of someone with a lot to say but no idea where to begin. Sidra knew the feeling.

  ‘Would you like some mek?’ Sidra said. She wasn’t sure if that was the right way to start, but it was better than silence.

  Tak blinked. ‘Uh, no,’ she said, with surprised politeness. ‘No, I’m okay. Thanks.’

  Sidra kept searching. ‘Do you . . . want to sit down?’

  Tak rubbed her palms on her hips. ‘Yeah,’ she said, and took the chair offered. She exhaled, audibly. ‘Sorry, I . . . this is weird.’

  Sidra nodded, then considered. ‘Do you mean for you, or for me?’

  ‘For both, I’m sure.’ Tak went dusky orange, and pale green, too. Exasperated. Amused. ‘I . . . I don’t know where to start. I figured I’d know when I got here but . . .’ She gestured at herself. ‘Clearly not.’

  The kit cocked its head. ‘I just realised something,’ Sidra said.

  ‘What’s that?’

  Sidra paused, worried that she should’ve kept the thought to herself. Given Tak’s reaction the last time they’d been together, she didn’t want to draw attention to her synthetic nature – but there was no point in hiding it any more, either. ‘Neither of us is speaking with an organic voice,’ Sidra said.

  Tak blinked again. A soft chuckle came from her talkbox. ‘That’s true. That’s true.’ She thought for three seconds, and gave a glance toward the door. Pepper was no longer welding, but she was doing something involving tools and metal. Something rhythmic and punctuated. Something you couldn’t ignore if you were in earshot. Tak shifted her weight. ‘There is no way I can say any of this without sounding ignorant. But . . . okay. Stars, I’m really trying to not . . . offend you.’ She frowned. ‘This is new for me. That’s a poor excuse, but I mean – I’ve never had a conversation with an AI before. I’m not a spacer. I’m not a modder. I didn’t grow up on a ship. I grew up down here. And here, AIs are just . . . tools. They’re the things that make travel pods go. They’re what answer your questions at the library. They’re what greet you at hotels and shuttleports when you’re travelling. I’ve never thought of them as anything but that.’

  ‘Okay,’ Sidra said. None of that was an out-of-the-ordinary sentiment, but it itched all the same.

  ‘But then you . . . you came into my shop. You wanted ink. I’ve thought about what you said before you left. You came to me, you said, because you didn’t fit within your body. And that . . . that is something more than a tool would say. And when you said it, you looked . . . angry. Upset. I hurt you, didn’t I?’

  ‘Yes,’ Sidra said.

  Tak rocked her head in guilty acknowledgement. ‘You get hurt. You read essays and watch vids. I’m sure there are huge differences between you and me, but I mean . . . there are huge differences between me and a Harmagian. We’re all different. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since you left, and a lot of reading, and—’ She exhaled again, short and frustrated. ‘What I’m trying to say is I – I think maybe I under-estimated you. I misunderstood, at least.’

  Sidra’s pathways latched onto that, hard. Was Tak here to apologise? Everything that had been said pointed in that direction, and Sidra switched gears as fast as she could. ‘I see,’ she said, still processing.

  Tak looked around the workshop, at the bins, the tools, the unfinished projects. ‘This is where you work.’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Were you . . . made here?’

  Sidra gave a short laugh. ‘No. No, Pepper and Blue are friends, that’s all. They take care of me. They didn’t . . . make me.’ The kit leaned back in the chair, more at ease. ‘I don’t blame you for the way you reacted,’ she said. ‘I’m not even legal, much less typical. And I really am sorry for what happened in the shop. I didn’t know how the bots would affect me.’

  Tak waved the concern aside. ‘Nobody knows they’re allergic to something until they try it.’

  Sidra processed, processed, processed. The metallic banging out front had missed a few beats. ‘This . . . re-evaluation of yours. Does it extend to other AIs? Or do you merely see me differently because I’m in a body?’

  Tak exhaled. ‘We’re being honest here, right?’

  ‘I can’t be anything but.’

  ‘Okay, well – wait, seriously?’

  ‘Seriously.’

  ‘Right. Okay. I guess I have to be honest too, then, if we’re gonna keep this fair.’ Tak knitted her long silver fingers together and stared at them. ‘I’m not sure I would’ve gone down this road if you weren’t in a body, no. I . . . don’t think it would’ve occurred to me to think differently.’

  Sidra nodded. ‘I understand. It bothers me, but I do understand.’

  ‘Yeah. It kind of bothers me, too. I’m not sure I like what any of this says about me.’ Tak glanced at the kit’s arm. Faint lines marked where the tattoo had been. Pepper said they looked like scars, but they weren’t, not in the way that organic sapients meant. ‘What are you made out of?’

  ‘Code and circuits,’ Sidra said. ‘But you’re asking about the body kit, not me.’

  Tak chuckled. ‘I suppose I am. Are you – is your body . . . real? Like something lab-grown, or . . .?’

  The kit shook its head. ‘Everything I’m housed in is synthetic.’

  ‘Wow.’ Tak’s eyes lingered on the pseudo-scars. ‘Do those hurt?’

  ‘No. I don’t feel physical pain. I know when something’s wrong, either with my program or the kit. It’s not an enjoyable experience, but it’s not pain.’

  Tak acknowledged that, still looking at the synthetic skin. ‘I have so many questions I want to ask you. You’ve got me thinking about things I’ve never chewed on. It’s not comfortable, realising that you’ve been wrong about something, but I

  suppose it’s a good thing to do from time to time. And you . . . you seem like you have questions, too. You came to me because you thought I could help. Maybe I still can. So . . . if you don’t think I’m a complete asshole, maybe we can try again. Y’know, being friends.’

  ‘I’d like that,’ Sidra said. The kit smiled. ‘I’d like that a lot.’

  JANE, AGE 14

  ‘Jane?’ The lights came on in the most annoying way possible. ‘Jane, it’s long past time to wake up.’

  Jane pulled the covers over her head.

  ‘Jane, come on. There isn’t that much daylight this time of year.’ Owl sounded tired. Whatever. Jane was tired, too. Jane was always tired. No matter how much sleep she got, it was never enough.

  ‘Turn off the lights,’ Jane said. She’d figured out a long time ago that Owl had to obey direct commands related to the ship.

  She couldn’t see Owl’s face, but she could feel it: frowning and frustrated. Through the edges of the blanket, Jane saw the lights switch off. ‘Jane, plea
se,’ Owl said.

  Jane sighed, long and loud. Pulling the direct-command card was a jerk thing to do, and she knew it. Sometimes it felt good though, especially when Owl was being annoying. Owl was annoying a lot lately. Jane pulled the blanket off her face. ‘Turn the lights back on.’ The room lit up; Jane winced.

  ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ Owl said.

  Jane caught a glimpse of Owl. She looked hurt. Jane pretended to not notice, but she felt kind of bad about it. She didn’t say that, though. She shuffled off to the bathroom. Stars, she was tired.

  She peed, not bothering to flush. The filtration system was going to fizz out soon, and until she could find a replacement (or something she could hack into a replacement), flushing was on the list of things she could only do when there was something other than pee to deal with. It was gross, but when you did the math, it was either that or not washing the dogs she brought home. There was no way she wasn’t washing the dogs.

  She sucked in water straight from the faucet and swished it around her mouth, trying to get rid of the hot inside-out sock feeling. There had been dentbot packs on the shuttle when she’d first got there, but those had run out forever ago, and she hadn’t found more. She missed having teeth that didn’t hurt. Sometimes she thought back to the factory, where they’d had these bland little tabs they sucked on to get the fuzz off their teeth. Those had been good. Not everything in the factory was stupid. Most things. But not all things.

  Soap. That was the other thing she missed. She showered as often as the water supply would allow, but she could still smell herself, sour and musky. The dogs were way worse, but they weren’t so different. Mammals smelled, Owl had said. That was just the way of it.

  Jane hadn’t smelled bad when she was a kid. At least, she didn’t remember smelling bad. Her body had changed a lot, and Owl said it would keep changing for a while. Still, though, Jane hadn’t been changing in quite the way Owl had said – not like other Human girls did. She’d gotten taller, sure, and she had to make new clothes a lot. But she wasn’t all curves and circles like the pictures Owl had shown her of adult women. Jane was still as skinny as a kid, and she didn’t have big round breasts – just small bumps that ached all the time. Her hips were wider, kind of, but sometimes she thought she looked more like a boy (except for the whole between-the-legs thing, but that was just a big bunch of weirdness no matter which bits you had).

 
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