A closed and common orbi.., p.2
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.2

           Becky Chambers
 

  She moved close to Jane 64, nose against her cheek. It was a good feeling. Sometimes, even if she was real tired at the end of the day, she’d make herself stay awake as long as she could, just so she could stay close to Jane 64. Their bunk was the only place that felt quiet sometimes. She’d slept alone for a week once, when Jane 64 was in the med ward after breathing in some bad stuff in the melt room. Jane 23 had not liked that week. She did not like being alone. She thought it was real good that she’d never been put in a trio.

  She wondered if she and Jane 64 would stay together after they turned twelve. She didn’t know what happened to girls then. The last batch to turn twelve was the Jennys. They’d been gone since the day the last work schedule was posted, just like the Sarahs and the Claires in the years before that. She didn’t know where they went, no more than she knew where the fixed scrap went, or where new batches of girls came from. The youngest now were the Lucys. They made a lot of noise and didn’t know how to do anything. The youngest batch was always like that.

  The alarm went off, quiet at first, then louder and louder. Jane 64 woke up slow, like always. Morning was never easy for her. Jane 23 waited for 64’s eyes to open all the way before she got up. They made their bed together, as all the girls did, before getting in line for the showers. They put their sleep clothes in the hamper, got wet, scrubbed down. A clock on the wall counted minutes, but Jane 23 didn’t need to look at it. She knew what five minutes felt like. She did this every day.

  A Mother walked through the doorway. She handed each of the Janes a clean stack of work clothes as they went out. Jane 23 took a bundle from the Mother’s metal hands. Mothers had hands, of course, and arms and legs like girls did, but taller and stronger. They didn’t have faces, though. Just a dull silver round thing, polished real smooth. Jane 23 couldn’t remember when she first figured out that the Mothers were machines. Sometimes she wondered what they looked like inside, whether they were full of good stuff or junk. Had to be good stuff; the Mothers were never wrong. But when they got angry, Jane 23 sometimes pictured them all filled up with junk, rusted and sparking and sharp.

  Jane 23 entered the sorting room and sat down at her bench. A full meal cup and a bin of clean scrap were waiting for her. She put on her gloves and pulled out the first piece: an interface panel, screen shattered in little lines. She flipped it over and inspected the casing. It looked easy enough to open up. She got a screwdriver from her toolkit, and took the panel apart real careful. She poked at the pins and wires, looking for junk. The screen was no good, but the motherboard looked good, maybe. She pulled it out slow, slow, slow, taking care not to touch the circuits. She connected the board to a pair of electrodes built into the back of her bench. Nothing happened. She looked a little closer. There were a couple of pins out of place, so she bent them back right and tried again. The motherboard lit up. That made her feel good. It was always good, finding the bits that worked.

  She put the motherboard in the tray for keeping, and the screen in the tray for junk.

  Her morning continued much the same way. An oxygen gauge. A heating coil. Some kind of motor (that one had been real good to figure out, all sorts of little bits that spun ’round and ’round and ’round . . .). When the junk tray was full, she carried it to the hatch across the room. She tipped the junk in, and it fell down into the dark. Below, a conveyor belt carried it away to . . . wherever junk went. Away.

  ‘You are very on-task today, Jane 23,’ one of the Mothers said. ‘Good job.’ Jane 23 felt good to hear that, but not good good, not like she’d felt when the motherboard worked, or when she’d been waiting for Jane 64 to wake up. This was a small kind of good, the kind of good that was only the opposite of the Mothers being angry. Sometimes it was real hard to guess when they’d be angry.

  Local folder: downloads > reference > self

  File name: Mr Crisp’s Beginner User Manual (All Kit Models)

  Chapter 2 – Real Quick Answers To Common Questions Many of the points explained here are covered in greater detail later on. This is simply a quick list to answer the questions I get most often regarding new installations.

  – Your body has been given a three-day ‘booster charge’, which will give you the energy needed to start moving (and, of course, to support your core consciousness). By then, your onboard generator will have harvested enough kinetic energy to keep you going. You’ll be able to power yourself by that point. Unless you spend several days completely motionless in bed, you’ll always have enough power.

  – You are waterproof! Fun party tricks include sitting at the bottom of a pool, or sticking your head in a globe of water in a zero-g environment. Don’t do this around people you don’t trust, obviously.

  – You don’t sweat and you can’t contract diseases, but practising hygiene habits comparable to those of organic sapients provides many benefits. For starters, you need to do it to keep up appearances (you will get dirty!). Most importantly, you may not be able to get sick, but whatever’s on your hand can be passed along to your organic buddies. Ask a friend to teach you about hand washing.

  – You can safely ingest food and drink. Your false stomach can store a total of 10.6 kulks of foodstuffs for twelve hours. Beyond that point, bacteria and mould growth is an inevitability, and you don’t want to pose a health hazard to your friends (plus, your breath will smell gnarly). As you don’t have a digestive system, you’ll need to empty your stomach when you get home. Refer to chapter 6, section 7 for instructions.

  – STAY AWAY FROM LARGE MAGNETS. Small ones are fine. Industrial strength ones are a problem. Keep this in mind if you plan on spending any time in shipyards or tech factories.

  – Your hair, nails, claws, fur, and/or feathers do not grow. You’re welcome. (Note for Aandrisk models only: I recommend spending three days at home twice a standard. Aandrisks commonly take time off during a moult, and no one will question it. While you won’t suffer this problem, bowing out for a few days will keep people from getting curious as to why you haven’t shed your skin.)

  – Your strength, speed, and constitution are on par with that of your chosen species.

  – Your body can withstand a vacuum, though the cold of open space will begin to negatively affect your skin after an hour. Feel free to enjoy an unsuited spacewalk, but mind the time, and again, don’t do this in sight of people you don’t trust implicitly.

  – Your body will give the appearance of aging, and will deactivate at a time concurrent with your chosen species’ expected lifespan. A warning notification will occur one standard before this happens, giving you ample time to decide if you wish to continue life in a new housing.

  – Yes, you can have sex! You’ve got all the parts for it, and unless you’re coupling with an expert physician who spends a lot of time looking at your bits under good light (hey, to each their own), no one will be able to tell the difference. But before you get to it, please do plenty of research about healthy sexual relationships and proper consent. Ideally, ask a friend for advice. Similar to the recommendation about hand washing, you should also practise good hygiene and disease prevention practices for the sake of your partner. There’s no guarantee that xyr imubots are up to date.

  – If part of your body becomes damaged, send me details via the same contact path you purchased the kit through. I can’t promise that it can be repaired, but I’ll see what I can do.

  Though you are welcome to contact me if there are issues with the kit, I ask that any communications be strictly limited to the operation and maintenance of your new body. I will not reply to any messages regarding cultural adjustment, legal trouble, or other social matters. I’m sure you can understand my position on this. Talk to a friend instead.

  Feed source: unknown

  Encryption: 4

  Translation: 0

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: unknown

  pinch: hey, comp techs. this isn’t my area of expertise so i’m hoping you guys can help me out. i need some advice about a
ltering AI protocols. got a new installation i’d like to make adjustments to.

  nebbit: good to see you over in our channel, pinch. it’s a pleasure. two questions: what protocols specifically, and what intelligence level?

  FunkyFronds: pinch in a newbie channel? i never thought i’d see the day

  pinch: level S1. whatever protocol it is that makes honesty mandatory

  nebbit: hope you like complicated code. honesty protocols are rarely a simple on/off deal. for us organics, it would be. either you lie or you don’t. easy. but the architecture for AI communication is hugely complicated. you start pulling threads, you can fuck up the whole tapestry. what’s your programming skillset like? can you write Lattice?

  pinch: i was afraid you’d say that. i don’t know lattice. i can write basic tinker, but only enough to get me around mech repairs

  tishtesh: yeah, do not go anywhere near an AI

  FunkyFronds: there is no need to be rude, this channel is for beginners

  tishtesh: i’m not being rude. i’m just saying, tinker isn’t worth shit here

  nebbit: you ARE being rude, but you’re not wrong. pinch, i hate to say it, but you need to be very, very comfortable with Lattice before you dive into a project like this. if you’d be cool with someone else doing the work for you, i’d be happy to work out a trade.

  pinch: appreciated, but i’ll pass. do you have any resources for learning lattice?

  nebbit: yeah, i’ll message you some nodes to download. it’s dense stuff, but i’m sure you can handle it

  LOVELACE

  The crowds beyond the massive shuttle dock were thick, but Pepper held the kit’s hand, leading the way with the certainty of someone who had done this dozens of times. Lovelace tried to make sense of the throngs of sapients they weaved past – merchants lugging cargo, families embracing however their appendages allowed, tunnel-hopping tourists staring at maps on their scribs – but there were too many of them. Far too many. It wasn’t the excess of information that frazzled her, but the lack of boundaries. There was no end to Port Coriol, no bulk-heads or windows to provide a context, no point beyond which she could cease her directive to pay attention to every tiny detail. On and on the crowds went, stretching off down alleyways and pedestrian paths, a calamity of language and light and airborne chemicals.

  It was too much. Too much, and yet, the restrictions that were in place made processing the Port all the harder. Things were happening behind the kit, she knew. She could hear them, smell them. The visual cone of perception that had rattled her upon installation was maddening now. She found herself jerking the kit sharply around at loud noises and bright colours, trying desperately to take it all in. That was her job. To look. To notice. She couldn’t do that here, not with fragmented views of crowds without edges. Not in a city that covered a continent.

  What little she could process led to questions she couldn’t answer. In the shuttle, she’d downloaded as much as she could to prepare – books about sapient behaviour in public spaces, essays on socioeconomics, profiles on Port Coriol’s cultural mix. But even so, she kept seeing things she hadn’t anticipated. What was that instrument that Aandrisk was carrying? Why did some Harmagians have red dots painted on their carts? Why, anatomically speaking, did Humans not need breathing masks to shield themselves from the smell of this place? She filled a file with notes as she steered the kit forward, hoping she would have the opportunity to answer them later.

  ‘Blue!’ Pepper called, letting go of the kit and waving high above her head. She was lugging an overnight sack and an enormous, clanking bag of tools, but she quickened her step all the same. A Human man beelined for her, meeting her halfway. He was tall and slimly built, but not thin, like Pepper, and not hairless, either. Lovelace rummaged through her visual reference files. Human genetics were too varied to conclusively pin down by region without asking the person in question, and indeed, Blue’s golden brown skin could’ve been anything from Martian to Exodan to the product of any number of independent colonies – but from sight alone, it was clear that none of those heritages were his. There was something different in him, something a little too smooth, too polished. As she watched him hug Pepper, watched Pepper stretch up on her toes to kiss him, Lovelace couldn’t help but notice the separation between them and the other Humans scattered through the crowd. Pale pink Pepper with her shiny, hairless head, Blue with his . . . whatever it was. Lovelace couldn’t pin down the difference in him. They stood out, no question. She, however, did not, or did not believe that she did. The kit looked like it had been pulled straight from the ‘Human’ example in an interspecies relations textbook: brown skin, black hair, brown eyes. She was thankful that the kit’s manufacturer had seen the wisdom of blending in.

  Blue turned and smiled warmly. The kit returned the expression. ‘W-welcome to the Port,’ he said. He had a curious accent she had no reference for, and his syllables stuck slightly before they left his mouth. The latter was not something to add to the list of questions; Pepper had mentioned in the shuttle that her partner had a speech impediment. ‘I’m, ah, I’m Blue. And you’re . . .?’

  ‘Sidra,’ she said. She’d found it in a database three and a half hours before they landed. A Human name, Earthen origin, as Pepper had suggested. Why that name in particular had jumped out at her, though, she couldn’t say. Pepper said that was a good enough reason to pick it.

  Blue nodded, his smile growing a bit wider. ‘Sidra. Really, um, really nice to meet you.’ He looked to Pepper. ‘Any problems?’

  Pepper shook her head. ‘Everything worked as advertised. Her patch was a breeze to set up.’

  Sidra looked down at the woven wristwrap Pepper had given her. So many lies stored beneath it, tucked away in one little subdermal square. Fake readouts from imubots she didn’t have. An ID file Pepper had invented two hours before. An ID number Pepper said wouldn’t be a problem unless Sidra had any plans to visit Central space (she didn’t).

  Blue glanced around. ‘Maybe we, ah, maybe we shouldn’t talk about this here.’

  Pepper rolled her eyes. ‘Like anyone is listening to us.’ She headed forward. ‘I bet half these assholes forged their cargo manifests.’

  The crowd surged around them. Sidra thought perhaps it would be less stressful if she focused all her attention on one spot. That was easier said than done. She was designed to process multiple input sources at once – ship corridors, different rooms, the space beyond the hull. Focusing on one thing meant the ship was in danger, or that she was experiencing a task queue overload. Neither was true, of course, but limiting her processes that way was still an action that made her feel edgy.

  She pointed the kit’s eyes at the back of Pepper’s head and kept them there. Don’t look around, she thought. There’s nothing interesting out there. There’s not. Just follow Pepper. That’s all there is. The rest is just noise. It’s static. It’s background radiation. Ignore it. Ignore it.

  This worked okay for a minute and twelve seconds, until Pepper broke the boundaries. ‘Just for future reference,’ she said, swivelling her head back and pointing toward a distinctly painted kiosk, ‘that’s the quick-travel hub. You need to get around the surface, that’s how you do it. I’ll show you how another time. We, on the other hand, are heading to the dark side of this rock.’ She made a sudden turn, heading down a subterranean ramp. Sidra switched focus to the sign overhead.

  UNDERSEA TRANSIT LINE

  Port Coriol – Midway Isle – Tessara Cliffs

  ‘Are we going underwater?’ Sidra asked. The idea was unexpectedly unnerving. The moon of Coriol was mostly covered by water, and there was a great deal of distance between its two continents. Travelling under the seas between was not a possibility she’d considered. Breaking apart in space was somehow much less frightening than being crushed inward.

  ‘Yep, that’s the way home,’ Blue said. ‘Have to do it every, um, every day, but it’s still a f-fun trip.’

  ‘How long is the trip?’

 
’Bout an hour and change,’ Pepper said.

  The kit blinked. ‘That’s not very long.’ Not long at all, considering they’d be crossing halfway around a moon.

  Pepper grinned back at her. ‘Hire a few Sianats to solve a problem, and they’ll blow your freakin’ mind.’

  They walked down into a large underground chamber, brightly lit and gently domed. The walls were covered in an obnoxious collage of blinking, swirling, shifting pixel posters advertising local businesses. A few vendors had small outposts within the busy crowd – snacks, drinks, small sundries Sidra couldn’t identify. Through the centre of it all ran an enormous tube made of industrial plex, containing a line of separate transport cars suspended within some sort of energy field.

  ‘Oh, good,’ Pepper said. ‘We’re right on time.’

  Sidra continued to follow her, absorbing the transit line’s details as quickly as she could, making note of things to look up later. Each car was labelled several times over with multilingual signs. Aeluon. Aandrisk. Laru. Harmagian. Quelin. She followed Pepper and Blue into the Human car. ‘Why don’t different species sit together?’ she asked. Segregated transit cars didn’t mesh with what she’d read of the Port’s famed egalitarianism.

  ‘Different species,’ Blue said, ‘different butts.’ He nodded toward the rows of high-backed, rounded seats, unsuitable for Aandrisk tails or Harmagian carts.

  They sat in a row, all three together. Pepper dropped her tool bag into the fourth seat with a clang. Only a group of tourists raised their heads to look (even with Sidra’s limited experience of observing sapients, tourists were already easy to spot). No one else in the transit car seemed to mind the noise. A woman covered with metal implants watched something flashy on her hud. An old man cradling a potted plant was already asleep. A small child licked the back of her seat; her father half-heartedly told her to stop, as if he knew the attempt was futile.

 
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