A closed and common orbi.., p.21
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.21

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘No. I have no interest in changing my career, and I’ve never been fertile when female. I’d like to, though.’ She grinned. ‘Besides, old folks will tell you that kids with a shon parent are lucky. So: have you ever been swimming?’

  ‘No. Why do you ask?’

  ‘Because you said you can’t breathe, and I’m jealous. You could walk around the bottom of the ocean.’ Tak’s eyes went wide. ‘You could spacewalk without a suit!’

  ‘No, I couldn’t.’

  ‘You absolutely could!’

  ‘That’d be an amazing way to get caught.’ Sidra looked around the ro’valon as she considered more questions. The nude Aandrisk man had fallen asleep, scrib on his face. A pair of young adult Aeluons were lying on their backs beside each other, close as public politeness would allow. ‘You said your fathers are anti-war. Are you?’

  Tak rocked her head. ‘Less than they’d like. I think war is an idiotic way to spend resources and the precious time we have, but I don’t think we’re ready to just dismantle our gunships yet. Look at the Rosk, for example.’ She flicked her inner eyelids. ‘I don’t think even my fathers can argue that one.’ She balled up the empty candy packet in her palm, and slipped it back into her pocket. ‘Are you afraid of getting caught?’

  ‘All the time. But . . .’ Sidra paused for one second. ‘I think I could get away with more than I do now.’

  ‘How do you mean?’

  Sidra looked at the kit’s hands, and paused for two seconds more. ‘Pepper doesn’t like it when I want to do things more in line with my intended capabilities when we’re not at home. The Linkings, for example. I’m capable of processing dozens of lines of thought at once. I often feel bored, or stuck inside my own mind. In a ship, I’d have Linking access at all times. I don’t in here. Pepper says it’d be dangerous to install a wireless receiver in the kit.’

  ‘She’s probably right, but there must be a way to deal with that.’

  ‘She doesn’t want me to do things that make it clear I have different abilities. She’s afraid someone will notice.’

  ‘Are you afraid of that?’

  Sidra processed. ‘No. I could hide it. I would be careful. I’m frustrated with what I am now. I’m capable of so much more.’

  Tak reclined into the grass, folding her hands over her flat chest. ‘I know it’s your turn to ask a question, but . . . let’s stick with this a bit. Maybe we can think of a solution Pepper hasn’t hit on.’

  ‘Like what?’

  Tak shrugged. ‘I have no idea. But if we can go to space and invent implants and learn how to talk to other species, surely there’s a way to help you. I get that you have to be careful. But you’re . . . you’re not like the rest of us. No offence.’

  ‘None taken. It’s true.’

  ‘I mean, we’re all sapients, right? Me, you, those goofballs over there.’ She gestured vaguely toward the youths, who were staring at each other with lovestruck eyes. ‘But say . . . say I moved to Hagarem. Say, by some stroke of luck, I was the only Aeluon in a whole city of Harmagians. Would I respect their ways? Yes. Would I adopt their customs? Yes. Would I ever, ever stop being Aeluon? Hell no.’ She drummed one set of fingers against the other. ‘I get that it’s a different thing for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon what makes you unique. You’re supposed to own that, not smother it.’ She rocked her head, cheeks brown and determined. ‘Where do you feel most comfortable? What kinds of places do you like?’

  ‘I have a different answer for each of those questions.’

  ‘Okay.’

  ‘I’m most comfortable at home. It’s safe, and I can use the Linkings, and Pepper and Blue are there with me.’ The kit’s mouth scrunched up. ‘But I like parties best.’

  Tak raised her chin. ‘Really?’

  ‘Really. I love parties. I love lots of crazy things happening within a set of walls. I love trying new drinks. I love watching people dance. I love all the colour and light and noise.’

  Tak grinned. ‘When was the last time you went to a party?’

  ‘Six days before the . . . the thing that happened at your shop. A birthday party for one of Blue’s artist friends.’

  Tak thought for a moment. ‘That’s thirty-eight days since your last party.’ She gave a sharp nod. ‘That’s the first thing we’ll fix.’

  JANE, AGE 14

  Nobody was coming for her.

  This should have been an obvious thing. There was nobody else there. There had never been anyone to help her, not when she hurt her hands or fought off dogs or anything. But now, shivering in the dark at the bottom of a hole, she really got what having no one meant. Nobody was out looking for her. Nobody would miss her if she died. No one would notice. No one would care.

  The mother dog paced up above. One of her pups was snoring. Jane shivered. She leaned back against the dirt wall, pulling her arms and her good leg in, trying to keep warm. The night was biting cold, and her clothes weren’t meant for it. Her butt was numb from sitting, but there were only so many ways she could sit without her leg shrieking back at her.

  This was her fault. If only she’d stepped different. If only she’d not tried to get to the stupid ship. If only she’d gone left instead of right. Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. Bad girl. Bad behaviour.

  ‘Stop,’ she whispered to herself, holding her ears. ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do this. Stop.’

  But familiar thoughts were creeping in now, and there were no projects or lessons or sims to shut them up. She had been bad. If she hadn’t climbed the wall, this wouldn’t have happened. If she hadn’t gone left. If she had just thought for a second, instead of being so clumsy and bad and off-task—

  ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ she said, rocking back and forth. ‘Stop.’

  She’d been bad. And bad girls got punished.

  She thought of the factory, which was never cold and never lonely. She thought of her warm bunk, with Jane 64 cuddled close. I don’t think we should, 64 had said. But Jane had made her. She’d made her go do something bad, and that good little girl had died for it.

  She thought about what that meant – dying. Just . . . ending. Lights out. The end. What if this – this night – was it? What if the last thing she ever felt was being cold and alone and afraid? What if the last thing she ever saw was a pair of hungry eyes staring at her in the dark? Maybe the lizard-birds would find her. They stuck to mushrooms, usually, but she’d seen them nibbling at dead dogs and dust mice sometimes, unwilling to let food go to waste. She remembered how those dead things looked. She imagined how she’d look if she were dead. How she’d look as other things ate her. ‘Stop,’ she said, louder. ‘Jane, stop it. Stop it.’

  She whimpered at the bottom of the hole, her leg hurting more every time the cold made her shiver too hard. The dogs at the top moved restlessly. Jane 64 was dead. Jane 23 was probably dead, too, because she’d been stupid and careless and nobody was coming for her. Nobody cared. Nobody except Owl, and she’d never know what happened. Another stupid Human had left her alone, and nobody would be able to tell her why.

  Jane clutched her face, rocking and rocking. This, all of this, was her punishment. And she deserved it. She deserved every bit of it.

  The dogs ate the old dead female on Jane’s wagon sometime in the night. Jane didn’t know dogs ate other dogs, but protein was protein, and she guessed they’d given up on her. She couldn’t see them feeding, but she heard it, all right. The pups were excited. She almost thought they sounded happy.

  She slept, kind of. It wasn’t a real sleep, just a confusion she dipped in and out of until she heard the flutter of lizard-birds overhead, which meant the sun was coming up. She had to get out of there. She had to do something. She wanted to go home.

  Come on, get up, she thought. Get up get up get up get—

  She tried to stand, and regretted it immediately. ‘Fucking dammit,’ she hissed, slamming her head back against the dirt wall.

  A handful of dirt crumbled down to her shoulders.


  Of course. Of course. It was so obvious. The ground had collapsed and made the hole. What if . . . what if she made it collapse a little more?

  She dragged herself around so she was facing the wall. Even though her eyes had adjusted to the dark, it was so hard to see. But she could feel. She ran her palm over the dirt, packed tight but pliable. She got a tool out of her satchel – a small prybar, good for unsticking stuck scrap. She paused. If she made a way up, the dogs could get down. She listened. She hadn’t heard them at all since the eating sounds stopped. They had probably moved on, but there was no telling how far, or if they were still hungry. She got her knife out of her satchel and stuck it in her pocket. It was something. It was better than just fading out down there, anyway.

  She slammed the prybar into the dirt, making a hole. A hole in a hole. She dug. She dug, and dug, and dug. She dug as the night faded away. She dug as the air warmed up (finally). She dug even though her fingers ached and her leg hated her for it. And as she dug, sections of the dirt wall came falling down, little by little. When it got in her eyes, she brushed it out. When it got in her mouth, she spat it away. If a big bunch fell down, she’d pull herself up on top, then dig some more, until finally – finally! – enough of the dirt had fallen into the hole that it made a sort of ramp back up. She pulled herself with her arms, groaning loud and mean. If the dogs were still around, they had to know she was coming. She pulled out her pocket knife and crawled with it in hand, satchel and busted weapon dragging awkwardly along behind her. At last, there it was – the wagon, on the flat ground where she’d left it the day before. She wanted to laugh, but instead shut her mouth tight. The dogs were still there, asleep together next to the half-eaten carcass of the one Jane had killed. She clutched her knife hard. The mother looked up, belly fat and fur stained red, her eyes hazy with food. She and Jane stared at each other. The mother growled, but it wasn’t a hunting growl. This was quieter, lower. The mother’s pups snuggled close to her, fat and messy as she was. One rolled onto its back, little bloody paws stretching into the air. The mother folded her head over her young and growled again.

  Jane didn’t need to be told twice. She dragged herself the opposite way, toward a small scrap pile. The mother, at last, laid her head back down.

  Jane found a length of rusty pipe in the pile, almost as tall as she was. It would do. She pulled herself up with it, trying to stay as quiet as she could. She bit her lip hard. Her leg trembled. She’d been hurt before, but not like this. Nothing had ever hurt like this.

  She kept her leg up off the ground as best as she could, putting her weight against the pipe. She took a shuffling step forward, using the pipe like a walking stick. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the mother move. Jane cried out, nearly falling back down in fear. But the dog had just rolled over. Jane tried to get a hold of herself, tried to breathe normal. She was useless right now. She couldn’t run. She could barely drag herself forward. She’d gotten lucky with the dogs snoring away by her wagon – there was no way she was getting that back – but it would take her hours to get home at this speed, and if there were other packs between here and there . . .

  But she had to get home. She had to. She couldn’t stay here. She had to get home.

  SIDRA

  There was a lot going on at the Vortex that night – three dance pits! a Harmagian juggler! grasswine on tap! – but Sidra hadn’t missed the fact that something was bothering Tak. He was doing all the things organic sapients did in social places late at night. He’d been drinking and talking – and flirting, which had been fun to watch. But though there was nothing outwardly wrong, something was needling him, all the same.

  ‘What is it?’ Sidra asked, pushing her voice through the music and chatter.

  Tak blinked. ‘What’s . . . what?’ His words were clear, but slower than usual. Alcohol didn’t make Aeluons slur, of course, but thinking through what words to run through the talkbox took as much effort as trying to speak through a tipsy mouth.

  Sidra took a sip of her drink. Moonlight streaming behind a graceful white spider, weaving strand after strand of clear, strong silk. She savoured the image, but never took her gaze off her friend. ‘Something’s bothering you.’

  Tak shrugged, but the yellow in his cheeks told a different story. ‘I’m . . . good.’

  The kit raised an eyebrow.

  The Aeluon sighed aloud. ‘Are you . . . having fun?’

  ‘Of course I am. Aren’t you?’

  ‘I am, but . . . I’m having . . . fun . . . without you. We came here . . . together.’

  Sidra attempted to process, but came up short. ‘We are here together.’ She gestured at the table. ‘We are literally here together.’

  Tak rubbed his silver scalp. ‘You do this . . . every time . . . we go out. You find a corner table and sit . . . with your back to the wall. You . . . order a lot of drinks . . . no . . . two of them . . . the same. You watch . . . everybody else . . . having fun. Sometimes, if you’re feeling fancy . . . you switch it up and find . . . a different corner table.’ He went brown with thought. ‘Do . . . other people . . . make you nervous? Is that it?’

  ‘I don’t understand the question.’ What was he getting at? ‘I’m having a really good time.’

  ‘But you’re just . . . observing. You never . . . participate.’

  ‘Tak,’ Sidra said, keeping her voice as low as she could. ‘You understand why that is. I don’t require participation in order to be enjoying myself. Company and interesting input. That’s all I need.’

  He stared back at her with a gravity rarely achieved by the sober. ‘I . . . get that. But you are more . . . than what they programmed you . . . to be.’ Tak threw back the remainder of his drink in one go. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’re . . . getting you . . . some different . . . input.’ He took the kit’s hand and led her away from the table.

  Other people did not make Sidra nervous, but this turn of events did. The comfort of the corner was gone, and the direction Tak was leading her in gave her pause. ‘I don’t know how to make the kit dance,’ she yelled. A dangerous bit of phrasing, she knew, but there was a degree of safety to be had in being surrounded by loud music and drunk people.

  Tak looked over his shoulder and gave her a withering look. ‘With all . . . the hours of observation time you’ve . . . clocked, you should . . . have some idea . . . by now.’ He gestured at the dance pit. ‘Besides, does . . . anybody here look like . . . they know . . . what they’re doing?’

  The kit swallowed as she watched the bodies shake and sway. ‘Yes.’

  Tak scratched his jaw. ‘Well . . . okay, they do. But so . . . do I.’ He smiled at her. ‘If . . . you hate it, I’ll take you . . . right back . . . to your corner . . . and buy you any drink . . . you want.’

  Sidra considered the kit’s limbs, its neck, the curve of its spine. She had the ability to manage life support systems, hold dozens of simultaneous conversations, even dock a ship if emergency demanded it. She could handle a dance pit. Yes, she could do this. She pulled up every memory file she had of people dancing at parties past. ‘You’re buying me a drink whether I hate this or not,’ she said.

  Tak laughed, and led her into the throng.

  Dance was curious in its near universality. Not all species had dance in their cultures, but most did, and those that did not quickly latched onto the idea once exposed to it. Even Aeluons, who would never hear music as others did, had traditional ways of moving together. Sidra had watched a lot of archival footage of dance, but fascinating as that was from a cultural perspective, she enjoyed the improvised madness of a multispecies gathering much more. In the pit, she’d observed, it didn’t matter what your limbs looked like, or how you liked to move. So long as there was a beat and warm bodies nearby, you could do whatever felt good.

  Sidra knew dancing wouldn’t feel the same to her as it did to others. But maybe . . . maybe she could at least look good.

  Tak let go of the kit’s hands and began to stomp his feet i
n an encouraging way. Sidra did a quick scan of her memories and found a file of a Human woman she’d seen sixteen days prior. It was as good a place to start as any.

  Sidra analysed the file, and fed her findings into the kit’s kinetic systems. The kit responded, changing its posture into something Sidra hadn’t experienced before. The limbs were no longer pressed close to the torso, the back no longer straight. What had been tension and angles was now a harmony of curves, rocking, swaying, shifting.

  Tak threw back his head, cheeks a mirthful green, laughter exploding from his talkbox. ‘I . . . knew it,’ he said. ‘I knew it.’ His hands went up in the air and he cheered.

  A curious sense of delight began to warm up Sidra’s pathways. This whole change in affairs was fascinating. The awareness of people behind the kit was as uncomfortable as ever, yes, but in this case, it was more of an irritation than a hindrance. Frustration with perception was a familiar feeling. Dancing was not. Presented with something new, she could easily ignore the everyday.

  The music played on and on, never slowing, never stopping. Sidra could not hear Tak breathing, but she could see it – hard and elated through his open mouth. A stranger appeared beside them, as if the crowd were an ocean washing someone ashore. It was one of the Aeluons Tak had been flirting with earlier, and her friend was clearly happy with the turn of events.

  Do you mind? Tak’s face asked.

  Of course not! the kit’s face responded.

  Tak grinned, then turned his attention to the other Aeluon. They moved closer than friends, silver skin shimmering under the flashing lights. If the colours of the environment were communicating something erroneous to Aeluon eyes, they clearly didn’t care.

  Sidra was happy for Tak, happy for this entire turn of events. She had three dozen more dance memory files waiting on tap, and she couldn’t wait to see how—

 
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