A closed and common orbi.., p.20
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.20

           Becky Chambers
 

  The ground went away, but she still clawed, even though there was nothing but air. Nothing but air until her body came crashing down.

  For a moment, the entire world was loud and red – a bright, stinging red that filled her shut eyes and ringing ears. Her leg felt red, too, red and angry. She remembered how to breathe, and pulled in a hard lungful. She opened her eyes. The world was not red, and neither was her leg, but something was very, very wrong with it. There was no deep blood and nothing poking out, but when she tried to stand, she screamed. She saw the sky as she did so. It was further away than it had been before, a bright circle out of reach. She had landed in one of the holes.

  My leg’s broken, she thought. She’d never had a broken bone before, but somehow she knew it all the same. ‘Fuck,’ she said out loud, her breath speeding up. ‘Stars, fucking . . . shit.’ She made ugly sounds as she tried to sit up, moaning and whining and choking. She looked up, around, all over. Even if she’d been able to stand straight and reach up, the hole was taller than her, and there was nothing to climb on – no rocks, no crates, nothing.

  She was so fucked.

  ‘You’re okay,’ she said, her voice coming out wrong. ‘You’re okay. Come on. Come on, it’s okay.’ But it wasn’t okay. Her hands were scraped and bruised, as were her arms, her face, everything. And her leg – stars, her leg. She pulled off her satchel and the weapon pack – both looking entirely the wrong shape – so she could lie flat on the ground. She put her hands over her face, trying to breathe, trying to stop shaking. What the hell was she going to do?

  For a long while, there was nothing she could do but lie there and hurt. Her mind had finally started to turn to can I even climb out of here with a broke-ass leg when she heard something – somethings – approach the hole. Jane held her breath. A dog came into view over the edge – a lean, sharp-eyed dog. There was a scrabbling sound behind it, a weirdly playful sound. Jane couldn’t believe it: two freckled pups, no longer than her arm from tip to tail. The big one had to be their mother. Jane had never seen pups up close. She knew better than to go into dog dens. They were too dark, too closed in. Jane and the mother stared at each other, neither making a sound. The mother broke her gaze first, looking at her paws, the sides of the hole, the drop to the bottom. She was figuring it out, just like Jane had been, trying to see if there was a safe way back up. Jane’s mouth went dry. All dogs were kinda scrawny, but she could see the ribs on this one. She could see the ribs on the pups, too. Where was their pack? Were they alone? Didn’t matter. This was a problem, a big fucking problem. Even if she could manage the climb out, she couldn’t pull herself up with her weapon in hand, and – wait. Wait. She thought back to the moment she’d hit the ground. There had been so much noise, so much crunching . . . She grabbed the weapon rod and hit the switch. Nothing happened. She hit it again, again. She could hear the soft click of the firing mechanism inside, but nothing. Nothing. Her leg wasn’t the only broken thing.

  She let out a yell from the very bottom of her belly, clenching her fists against her face. She could hear the pups startle. She turned her head to them, sharp and furious. ‘What? You scared? Raaaaaah!’ She yelled again. ‘Go away! Get out of here! Go! Go away!’ She threw a rock; it didn’t make it out. The pups backed away out of view. The mother looked wary, but she stood her ground, ears laid back, fur bristling.

  Jane grabbed her satchel, torn and dirty from the fall. She pulled out the jerky she’d packed that morning. ‘Smell that?’ she yelled, shoving the handful of dried meat in the mother’s direction. ‘Huh? You know what that is?’ Jane took it between her teeth and ripped out a messy chunk. ‘Mmm! That’s you! That’s your pups! You’re fucking delicious, did you know that?’ The words sounded good, but Jane shook as she said them. She thought about the empty click of the weapon. She thought about the shuttle, half a morning’s walk away. She thought about Owl.

  She thought about Owl.

  If the dogs could smell the jerky, they didn’t care. The pups rejoined their mother, who had sat down, muscles tight, head lowered into the hole. She was staying put. Jane was, too. She didn’t have a choice.

  She and the dog stared at each other all day, despite more thrown rocks, despite Jane yelling until her throat was raw. They stared at each other until the sun went down. And even after that, Jane could see the mother’s eyes watching her in the dark, glinting green in the moonlight. Patient. Waiting. Hungry.

  SIDRA

  Sidra hadn’t been to the Aeluon district before. Their community on Coriol was less technologically up-to-date than their interstellar kin, but their neighbourhoods were a noticeable step up from Sixtop. The streets were well lit – rather to Sidra’s chagrin – and the buildings were clean, cared-for and, most importantly, aesthetically complementary. Everything was curved and domed, and the only colours beyond white and grey grew out of the ground.

  Her quick-travel pod dropped her off outside the windowless establishment Tak’s location tag had steered her to. It didn’t look like much. There was no signage she could read, only a bright colour plate flashing soundless words on the wall. She started to make a note, then thought better of it. For a Human – even an ostensible one – recognising Aeluon emotions was a mark of cultural savvy. Understanding their language, however . . . that wasn’t something the average Human could do, and it was the sort of thing that could prompt questions. She closed her reminder list with a flicker of regret.

  Tak was waiting for her. She stood in conversation with three other Aeluons, flashing their cheeks and looking congenial. She noticed Sidra approaching and called out: ‘Hey!’ The sound was startling in the silent street. She flashed something to the others, apparently bidding them farewell, then walked Sidra’s way. ‘Glad you could make it.’

  ‘Thanks,’ Sidra said. She glanced at the others. ‘Are we joining them?’ A quiet worry arose.

  Tak smiled blue. ‘Nah, we just ran into each other. Some friends of one of my fathers.’ She leaned her head toward the nondescript building. ‘Come on, let’s get out of the cold.’ She hugged a woven sort of jacket around her torso as they went. ‘I should live in the Aandrisk district. They’ve got a hab dome heated warm enough for them to walk around naked – in this.’ She gestured to the stars that never set as they arrived at the outer wall. ‘So. I don’t know if you’ve been to one of these before,’ she said, pressing her palm against a doorframe. The wall melted to let them through.

  ‘One of—’ Sidra scrapped the sentence as she walked through the door. ‘Oh,’ she said softly, trying not to disturb the quiet within.

  ‘We obviously don’t have a spoken word for this,’ Tak whispered. ‘Klip just borrowed the Hanto for it: ro’valon. Direct translation is “city field”.’

  The translation was apt. The large domed space was filled with rolling little hillocks, none taller than the kit, each covered with an inviting blanket of grass. Whatever framework rested below them had been sculpted to create leafy seats, living benches, private hollows to share secrets in, flat clearings to stretch out on. A few small trees were in there as well, creating subtle curtains and canopies. The curved walls surrounding everything were covered with projections of unending fields stretching outward, bright and clear as noon. It was realistic imagery, but the illusion had no effect on Sidra. She could tell that it wasn’t the real thing, which made it easy for her to know where to stop looking. For an organic sapient, though, she imagined the effect would’ve been quite convincing, and indeed, the people present seemed awfully content. They were mostly Aeluon, though Sidra spotted a few others (including an Aandrisk who had no qualms about lying spread-legged on his back, his discarded pants bundled beneath his head as he read his scrib).

  ‘It’s not as big as the ones you get on Sohep Frie,’ Tak said. ‘But it’s the best thing in the world after a busy day in a city.’

  Sidra followed Tak to a sparse reception desk, where an Aeluon man sat working on a small pixel puzzle. He set it aside as they approached. Cheek flas
hing ensued. After a moment, he handed Tak a small rectangular device, which Sidra did not recognise. He waved at Sidra, then returned to his puzzle with interest. Tak caught Sidra’s eye and made a Human gesture – a finger against her mouth. Sidra understood, and said nothing as they ventured into the ro’valon. No one else was talking, either. It was the quietest place she’d ever been to. There was more noise in a spaceship than in here.

  Tak looked around, searching for a free spot. She chose a secluded hollow with a sloping seat built into it, big enough for two people to lounge with plenty of space between them. She sat; Sidra made the kit do the same. The tended grass folded beneath them. Tak set the rectangular device down beside her and pressed her thumb to it. A soft beam of light shot up, then spread out around them in a wide, nearly-clear bubble, touching all the way to the ground.

  ‘I take it you’ve never seen a privacy shield before,’ Tak said, catching something on the kit’s face.

  ‘I haven’t, no.’ Sidra glanced over the kit’s shoulder. ‘Is it okay to talk now?’

  ‘Oh, yeah,’ Tak said, snuggling into the grass with relish. ‘The shield blocks all sound. It’s a courtesy thing when you’re in a place like this, but I figured it’d be doubly useful in your case.’

  ‘I appreciate that.’ Sidra looked around. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’

  ‘Yeah, they tend to be one of our better-kept secrets. I think we forget other species don’t have these.’

  ‘I meant a field, in general. I know it isn’t a real one, but . . .’

  Tak blinked. ‘Stars, you’ve never been out in nature, have you?’

  Sidra shook the kit’s head. ‘I mean, there are parks near where I live, but—’

  ‘Oh, no, that’s not the same, and neither is this. Wow.’ Tak mulled that over as she retrieved a packet of something edible from her jacket pocket. ‘I’d say you should travel more, but . . . can you do that?’

  ‘Sure. I don’t really want to, though.’

  ‘Why?’

  ‘Being outside is hard for me. My primary function was to observe all the goings-on within a ship. All the goings-on. If I don’t have boundaries, I don’t know where to stop processing.’

  Tak opened the packet and shook seven pieces of candied fruit into her palm. ‘That sounds exhausting,’ she said, picking up one of the pieces between two fingers. She popped it in her mouth and chewed.

  ‘It is,’ Sidra said. ‘I prefer staying inside.’

  ‘Is there no way around that? Needing to observe everything, I mean.’

  The kit sighed. ‘Theoretically, someone could alter my code to remove certain protocols. But Pepper and Blue don’t know how to write Lattice, and I can’t alter myself. It’s . . . a challenge.’

  ‘Like having to tell the truth all the time.’

  ‘Precisely. It’s one of the things I like least about being in the kit.’

  Tak leaned back into the grass. ‘Why do you do that?’

  ‘Do what?’

  ‘“The kit”. You don’t say “my body”. You say “the kit”.’

  Sidra wasn’t sure how to explain. ‘If you were talking to an AI installed in a ship, would you expect it to refer to the ship as its body?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Well, then, there you go.’

  Tak did not look as convinced as Sidra had hoped. ‘It’s . . . a ship, though. It’s not a body.’

  ‘It’s the same thing to me. I was housed in a ship. I’m now housed in a body kit. My place of installation changes my abilities, but it’s not mine. It’s not me.’

  ‘But the kit is yours. It’s . . . yours.’

  The kit shook its head. ‘It doesn’t feel that way.’ She started to explain further, but something about the conversation thus far was making her uneasy. Everything had been about her. She felt the kit’s cheeks flush.

  ‘What’s up?’

  Sidra tried to condense what she was feeling. ‘Pepper and Blue are my friends,’ Sidra said at last. ‘But they’re friends born out of circumstance. Pepper was there when I woke up, and she’s taken care of me since. Blue’s part of the package deal of being friends with her. But you – I’ve never made a friend on my own before. Just . . . gone out and picked somebody. I don’t know how this works. I don’t know where to start.’

  ‘Are you uncomfortable?’

  ‘A little.’

  ‘Why?’

  Sidra processed. It wasn’t because Pepper and Blue weren’t there. It wasn’t because she was in a new place. It wasn’t because – oh, wait, yes it was. She looked at Tak. Even if she hadn’t been forced into honesty, she would’ve told the truth then. ‘I’m not sure why you want to be friends with me. Right now, I feel like I’m just some sort of curiosity to you.’

  Tak chewed her candy thoughtfully, unoffended. ‘Tell you what. You ask me a question about myself, I’ll give you a straight answer, then we’ll flip it around. If I want to know something about your body – sorry, about the kit – then you can ask me something about my body in return. Anything you want to know. That’s how a friendship should work. It’s an even give and take.’

  ‘Can we ask questions about other things, too?’ Sidra considered her words. She knew what she wanted to say, but she didn’t want to sound arrogant. ‘There’s more to me than just the kit. And the same is true for you.’

  Tak darkened into a happy blue. ‘Deal. And if you want, you can ask the first question.’

  ‘Okay.’ Sidra compiled a quick list and started from the top. ‘How long has your family been on Coriol?’

  ‘My fathers moved here a little over thirty standards ago.’ Tak smirked. ‘They say it’s because they knew there would be a lot of demand for parents in a place where travellers stop off, but I know it’s partly because none of them fit in well on Sohep Frie. They’re ah’ – she scratched her throat with an amused look – ‘a bit politically vocal. Anti-war, to be precise. They don’t mesh well on the homeworld.’ She plucked another candy from the packet. ‘Okay, my turn. I know you read books and watch vids and stuff. Do you have a particular genre you like?’

  ‘I like folktales, mythology, and non-fiction. Mysteries are fun, too.’

  ‘You mean Human-style?’ Tak made a face. ‘I can’t get into those. They make me anxious. I don’t find bad things happening to people to be particularly entertaining.’

  ‘I personally enjoy trying to find all the clues, but I’ve spent a lot of time considering the broader appeal.’

  ‘And?’

  ‘I think it has to do with the fear of death. All organics are afraid of it, and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent bad things from happening sometimes. My guess is that there’s an odd sort of comfort in imagining that even if something horrible happens to you or someone you love, the ones responsible will always be caught, and the people who figure it out will do so in style.’

  Tak laughed. ‘You make a good case. All right, your turn.’

  ‘How do you know when it’s time to switch sex? What does it feel like?’

  ‘It’s like an itch. Not a literal itch – though you don’t know what that feels like, do you?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Hmm. Okay. It’s a . . . an irritation. An urge. But it doesn’t last long. The implants kick in, and I change fully within three days. That part’s fine. It doesn’t hurt or anything. A little achy, maybe, but it’s not bad. Much better than it would be without my implants.’

  ‘How would that be?’

  ‘Incredibly unpleasant.’

  ‘Because you couldn’t change.’

  ‘Exactly. That’s how you find out you’re shon. It hits during puberty. You wake up with this itching, aching feeling, and your body isn’t getting the right hormonal input to be able to respond the way it should.’

  ‘Because you don’t live in segregated villages any more.’

  ‘Right. Biology-wise, shifts are supposed to occur within a single-sex environment, which we obviously no longer have. So,
you start to get sick. Your hormones don’t know what to do. I got my implants within a day of Father Re realising why I’d been dizzy and achy all morning. He took me to the clinic right away, and they fixed me up.’ Tak pointed at herself, indicating it was time for a question of her own. ‘What – how to phrase this – what do you have in there?’ She made a circular motion with her palm toward the kit’s torso.

  ‘Lots of things.’ Sidra touched the upper chest. ‘To begin with, false lungs and heart. Do you want to listen?’

  Tak’s face lit up, but her tone remained steady. ‘Are you comfortable with that?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Tak leaned forward, pressing her ear to the kit. Sidra took a deep breath. ‘Wow,’ Tak said. ‘That’s incredible. But they don’t do anything?’

  ‘The lungs, no, not really. They just suck air in and out to give the appearance of breathing. The heart actually behaves like a heart. It pumps fake blood throughout the kit. But the blood isn’t a vital system function. You could remove the heart and I’d still be fine.’

  ‘That’s . . . grimly poetic.’

  Sidra continued down the kit. ‘There’s a false stomach as well, which stores anything I ingest.’

  ‘I was wondering how you ate. You drank mek at my shop.’

  The kit nodded. ‘But again, it doesn’t provide fuel. It’s just for show. I’ll spare you how I get rid of it, if that’s all right.’

  Tak put up her palms. ‘That’s not a pretty thing in most species, so, yeah, that’s fine.’

  Sidra placed the kit’s hands on the kit’s abdomen. ‘The core is in here, as well as the battery and the main bulk of processing circuitry.’

  Tak blinked. ‘You’re saying your brain is in your belly. Sorry, the kit’s belly.’

  ‘In a manner of speaking, but only part of it.’ She tapped the kit’s head. ‘Memory storage and visual processing is up here. Remember, if I were in a ship, I’d be spread all through it. I’m not limited to one processing unit.’ She touched the kit’s thighs. ‘Kinetic energy harvesters are laced all through the limbs and skin. Whenever I move the kit, it generates more power.’ Her turn for a question. ‘Have you ever had children? Either as a father or a mother?’

 
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