A closed and common orbi.., p.22
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.22

           Becky Chambers
 

  Another stranger appeared – two of them, rather. A pair of Aandrisks – a green man, a blue woman, feathers groomed perfectly, considerate pairs of trousers hung around their broad hips. They looked at Sidra in tandem, excited and interested.

  The kit nearly misplaced its foot. There were dozens of sapients here; why were they looking at her? Had she done something wrong? Had she manoeuvred the kit incorrectly? Were they laughing at her?

  The Aandrisks weren’t laughing. Their faces were structured differently than the Aeluons entwined together nearby, but they had the same sort of look: friendly, confident, inviting.

  They wanted to dance.

  Without a word spoken, they moved close to her, both facing the kit’s front in a sort of snug triangle. From the trusting, easy way they touched each other while dancing, Sidra surmised they were of a feather family – but then, it was always hard to tell with Aandrisks. She wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed now that she was dancing with others, rather than around them, but she stayed the course, grabbing files specific to platonic groups.

  The Aandrisk woman leaned in toward the kit as they danced. ‘You’re amazing!’ she shouted.

  Sidra wasn’t sure her pathways were capable of holding much more pride than what she felt right then.

  Her dance partners glanced at each other, communicating something Sidra could not know. They returned their gaze to her, their eyes asking a question she wasn’t sure she understood.

  She nodded yes anyway.

  The Aandrisks moved even closer, green and blue scales brushing against the kit’s skin. They put their hands on it, and their touches became a dance all of their own, every bit as much as their swinging heads and tails. There were hands running down arms, and claws in the kit’s hair.

  An image appeared, brighter than any she’d experienced before. Light. Warm, life-giving light. Water lapping over her toes. Sand cradling her body, holding her steady and safe. Sidra was at full attention. The image lingered, even though there was no food in her mouth, no jar of mek beneath her nose. It lingered as the Aandrisk woman pressed her hips against the kit’s. It grew as the man ran the flat of his palm down the kit’s back. Sidra had never experienced a sensory image in this way before, but somehow, she knew exactly what it meant.

  Oh, no, she thought. And then: Oh, wow.

  The image was almost overpoweringly good, and yet she had this hungry, impossible-to-ignore sense she hadn’t seen all of it. She knew there were other images waiting behind it, every bit as good. The Aandrisks nuzzled the kit, and she nuzzled back, wanting. She—

  A system alert went off, drowning out everything else within her. A proximity alert, the kind that warned of the sudden appearance of a nearby ship, or an object that posed a collision risk. An all-powerful screaming alert, triggered by someone behind her, someone she could not see, whose unknown hands were sliding over the kit’s shoulders.

  Sidra shut the alert off as quickly as she could, but her pathways were sure her housing was in danger, and the kit had taken its cue. It was no longer dancing. It was throwing the hands off its shoulders. It was spinning around to see what the danger was. Another Aandrisk, a man, likely associated with the other two, but it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter. Her system knew only danger.

  ‘Whoa,’ the third Aandrisk said. ‘Whoa, I am so sorry.’

  ‘Are you okay?’ the Aandrisk woman said.

  Sidra had to answer, but she couldn’t get the words out. The kit was breathing too fast. She shook the kit’s head.

  Tak was there – but from where, she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t tell anything. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t make sense, she just had that one narrow cone, and no no no, don’t do this, don’t do this now, stop it, don’t ruin it, stop it stop it stop—

  ‘It’s okay,’ he said, putting an arm around the kit’s shoulders. Sidra looked up at him just in time to see him flash an apology toward his dejected dance partner.

  See, you’ve ruined it, you’ve ruined it for him, I need to go home, I need to go away, I need to stop, please—

  ‘Hey. Sidra. Sidra, come on. We’ll . . . get somewhere quiet, yeah? I’m here, it’s . . . okay.’ He led the kit through the crowd. She kept her gaze on the floor, trying to ignore the concerned stares. She wanted to disappear.

  ‘Is she okay?’ It was the third Aandrisk, pushing his way alongside them.

  ‘She’s fine,’ Tak said.

  Sidra looked at the Aandrisk man, and tried to push words through the panicked breaths. ‘It’s not – it’s not your—’ The air got in the way. Dammit, she didn’t need to breathe!

  ‘It’s not . . . your fault,’ Tak said. ‘She’ll be . . . fine. Thank you.’

  They cleared the pit, leaving the Aandrisk behind. Tak barrelled them through the crowd toward the table they’d occupied earlier. A group of Laru sat there now. Tak swore, and headed for the exit.

  ‘Not outside,’ Sidra gasped. ‘Not outside.’

  Tak changed course and entered the smoking room. A group of modders looked up from around a tall communal pipe.

  ‘Hey, man,’ a Human woman said, a smoking mouthpiece hanging in her mechanical hand. ‘Sorry, we just—’ She looked at Sidra. ‘Dude, is she okay?’

  Tak visibly willed the concern away from his face and looked back at them with an easy smile. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Never . . . buying smash from . . . that vendor again, though. Synth shit, y’know?’

  ‘Oh, rough,’ the woman said. ‘She got the shakes?’

  Sidra forced the kit to nod at her. It was true, technically. Just not in the way the modder meant.

  ‘Well, you’re welcome to ride it out in here,’ the woman said. She flicked her eyes over to Tak and gestured at the pipe. ‘Sorry about the redreed.’

  ‘It’s fine,’ Tak said. Sidra could see that his eyes were already starting to itch. As if this couldn’t get any worse.

  Tak led the kit to a quiet corner, away from the smokers. Sidra sat the kit down. The fast breathing had stopped. All that was left was the overwhelming sense of embarrassment. She preferred hyperventilating.

  ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ she whispered.

  ‘It’s not . . . your fault,’ Tak said, his talkbox turning itself down. ‘I pushed. I’m sorry. You told me . . . how you’re comfortable, and I . . . should have . . . respected that.’

  ‘It’s okay,’ Sidra said, taking his hand with the kit’s. ‘It was fun, at first. I liked it. I just—’ The kit put its face in its hands. ‘Stars, I am so tired of always making a mess of things for you.’

  Tak scoffed. ‘Now, that’s . . . just not true. We’ve . . . been to . . . how many parties—’

  ‘Eight.’

  ‘It was rhetorical, but . . . thank you. This is . . . the first time . . . this has happened. It’s also . . . the first time . . . somebody . . . surprised you . . . while dancing. So, we know . . . to avoid this . . . next time.’

  One of the modders approached them with a cup of water. ‘Here ya go,’ he said, handing it to Sidra.

  ‘You’re very kind,’ Sidra said, accepting it. She took a sip, for show. Water did nothing for her, but she was grateful for the gesture.

  ‘Take it easy,’ the Human man said. ‘We’ve all been there.’ He gave a warm, slightly inebriated smile, then returned to his friends.

  Sidra stared into the cup, watching the ripples bounce off each other. ‘I’m sorry for screwing things up for you,’ she said, remembering Tak’s happy face when the other Aeluon started dancing with him.

  Tak looked confused, then laughed. ‘Ah, don’t worry . . . about it. That . . . kind of thing . . . will come around . . . again.’ He patted her hand. ‘Let’s get you . . . mellowed out, then I’ll . . . take you home.’

  She started to object, started to tell him to stay, to have fun, to go get laid – but she didn’t. She didn’t want to head home alone. She couldn’t be alone. There was no telling when there’d be another system alert, another well-meaning stranger sendin
g her into a panic. Tak would hand her off to Pepper and Blue, who would hand her off to Tak again the next time she wanted to go out. Like a child. They didn’t see her that way, she knew, but it didn’t matter how nice they wanted to be to her. Being nice didn’t change the way things were.

  JANE, AGE 14

  I could die today.

  That was the first thing that shot through her head that morning, same as it had every morning since she dragged herself back to the shuttle two weeks before. The words showed up the second she was awake enough to start thinking, and they stuck with her all day, like a heartbeat, like a bug crawling on her ear, until she fell back into bed at night, relieved that she’d been wrong. Okay, she’d think. Today wasn’t it. Then she’d sleep. Sleep was good. Sleep meant not thinking. But then Owl would bring the lights up, and the whole thing started over again.

  I could die today.

  She hadn’t left the shuttle since she’d got back. Her leg was still weak and painful, but it was healing, and the splint she’d thrown together allowed her to hobble around. She’d fixed the weapon, too, and she had the means to build a new wagon. She could go out, if she stayed close to home. Except . . . she couldn’t. She couldn’t go out. She couldn’t do anything.

  Owl hadn’t said anything about Jane staying home, which was weird. Usually Owl nagged her about the chores she hadn’t done or stuff that needed fixing, but not now. Jane was glad of that, though she hadn’t said so.

  She tugged her worn blanket around her shoulders and headed for the kitchen. She opened the stasie and stared at the shrinking stacks of dog meat and mushrooms. She needed to go out. She needed to get more food. But she couldn’t do that, either.

  Her stomach churned. She was hungry, but everything in the stasie looked like too much work. She hadn’t done any dishes, either, which she’d have to do before cooking. That would take for ever, and she was hungry now. She grabbed a handful of raw mushrooms and shoved them in her mouth. They were gross that way. She didn’t really care.

  ‘Are you going out today?’ Owl asked.

  Jane pulled the blanket closer and chewed, avoiding eye contact. ‘I dunno,’ she said, though she knew the answer wouldn’t be yes. She thought about going back to bed, but it’d been a while since she’d done laundry, and the sheets were grossing her out. Plus, she knew what would happen if she went back there. She’d just stare at the ceiling, brain all fuzzy and stupid, thinking the same thing over and over. I could die today. She’d be stuck in that thought, and everything would get hot and fuzzy and she couldn’t breathe right, and Owl would try to help but nothing would make it better, and then Jane would just feel even worse for making such a fuss, and – yeah, no. She needed something else to fill up her brain.

  She lay down on the couch. The sim cap lay on the floor nearby.

  ‘What do you want to play?’ Owl asked.

  Jane was officially sick of Scorch Squad, and all the other story sims Owl had sounded too loud and fast. Jane felt tired just thinking about them. She didn’t want danger and explosions. She wanted quiet. She wanted her head to shut up. She wanted a hug.

  ‘Do you want me to pick something for you?’ said Owl.

  ‘No,’ Jane said. She closed her eyes. ‘It’s . . . it’s stupid.’

  ‘What is?’

  Jane sucked her lips, embarrassed. ‘Can I play Big Bug Crew?’

  She couldn’t see Owl’s face, but she could hear the smile. ‘You got it.’

  Jane put on the cap and the world blanked out. Everything went warm, soft yellow. Alain and Manjiri and little monkey Pinch jumped out from nowhere. ‘Jane!’ Manjiri cried. ‘Alain, look! It’s our old friend Jane!’

  Alain reached up to touch her forearm. He was so small. Had she been so small? ‘Good to see you, Jane!’ Alain said. ‘Wow, you’ve gotten tall!’

  Pinch ran up her back and hugged her head, chirping gleefully.

  ‘It’s good to see you guys, too,’ Jane said. She pulled Pinch off her head and held him against her chest. His fur felt totally unreal, and she loved every bit of it. He crooned and wiggled his toes as she skritched his ears.

  Manjiri pulled out her scrib and flipped it towards Jane. A star map glittered in bright, bold colours. ‘We’re so excited for you to be with us on our latest adventure—’

  ‘THE BIG BUG CREW AND THE PLANETARY PUZZLE!’ Jane shouted along with the kids. The sim’s title appeared in mid-air, bold red letters shimmering with confetti. The kids took her hands, and she started singing with them at the top of her lungs. ‘Engines, on! Fuel pumps, go! Grab your gear, there’s lots to know—’ Jane couldn’t get the words out past that. She didn’t know if it was the kids or the monkey or what, but suddenly, she was ten years old again. She was ten years old and the entire world was crumbling down.

  The kids did something she’d never seen them do before: they stopped singing the theme song. ‘Jane, are you okay?’ Alain asked.

  Jane let out a sob. Why? What was wrong with her? She sat down on the fake floor, face in her hands.

  ‘Jane?’ Manjiri said. Jane could feel Pinch’s furry paw on the top of her head. ‘If you’re feeling bad, that’s okay. Everybody has bad days sometimes.’

  Somewhere in Jane’s head, she was real interested that she’d triggered a script she’d never seen, but that tiny flicker was drowned out by . . . by whatever this sobbing, uncontrollable bullshit was.

  ‘Is there a grown-up you can talk to?’ Alain asked.

  ‘No!’ Jane didn’t know why she was yelling. ‘There’s nobody! There’s nobody here.’

  ‘Well, we’re here,’ Manjiri said. ‘You should talk to a real person when you can, but it’s okay to make yourself feel better with imagination, too.’

  ‘It’s just—’ Jane wiped her nose on her sleeve, knowing it did nothing for the snot that was probably running down her lip back in the real world. ‘I’m so scared. I’ve always been scared. And I’m so tired, I’m so tired of always being afraid. I just want – I just want to have people. I want somebody to make me dinner. I want a doctor to look at my leg and tell me to my face that it’s okay. I want to be – I want to be like you. I want to live on Mars with a family and go on vacations. You – you both always – always said the galaxy was a wonderful place, but it’s fucking not. It can’t be, if it’s got places like this one. If it’s got people who make people like this.’ She pointed at her sun-scarred face, her bald head. ‘Do normal Humans know? Do they even know this planet is here? Do they know that any of this is going on? Because I’m going to die here.’ Saying the words out loud made her even more afraid, as if putting them out into the world would make them happen. But they were there now, and it was true. ‘I’m going to die here, and no – nobody will care.’

  ‘I care.’

  Jane turned around, and her mouth fell open. ‘. . . Owl?’

  It was Owl’s face, but no longer flat on a wall. She looked like a person, a whole person, with a body and clothes and all of it. There was nothing real about her, not any more real than the Big Bug kids. But she was there. Owl smiled, kinda shy. ‘What do you think?’ she said, gesturing at herself.

  Jane wiped her nose again. ‘How—’

  ‘I got the idea when you started playing the adult sims. I figured out how to build myself a character skin and paste it into the base code. No different from reorganising memory banks, really. And I’m not in here. This is just . . . a puppet.’ She sat down on the floor next to Jane. The kids, who had apparently run out of script, sat down too, smiling in stasis.

  Jane couldn’t stop staring. ‘Can I—’ She reached a hand out, hoping.

  Owl shook her head with a sad smile. ‘I couldn’t make this tangible. But we can share the same space, at least. That’s something, right?’

  ‘Why haven’t you done this before?’

  ‘I thought . . . see, you enjoyed the other sims so much, and I wanted to share them with you. I thought maybe if we could play together, you might . . .’ Owl’s voice traile
d off. ‘I was worried you’d think it was a dumb idea. I’ve just been annoying you lately. I figured you’d rather play on your own.’

  Jane almost threw herself at the Owl puppet before she remembered it couldn’t hug her back. ‘I’m sorry,’ Jane sobbed. ‘I’m so sorry.’

  ‘Shh,’ Owl said, sitting next to her. ‘Everything’s okay. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.’

  ‘I’ve been such an asshole,’ Jane said. Owl laughed, and Jane laughed, too, through the tears. ‘And I was stupid out there, I was so stupid and I knew better, and I almost left you all alone.’

  Owl put her puppet hand on Jane’s back. It didn’t feel like anything, but knowing Owl wanted to have a hand to put there was good enough. ‘When you didn’t come home that night, I thought I’d lost you. But I never thought you left. I know you wouldn’t do that, not without saying why.’ She placed an empty kiss on Jane’s scalp. ‘That’s not how family works.’

  SIDRA

  Sidra stepped into the workshop, her scrib in the kit’s hands. ‘Pepper, do you have a minute?’

  Pepper looked up from the sim cap she was repairing. ‘I have several.’

  The kit took a breath. She set the scrib down flat on Pepper’s workbench. ‘I was hoping this might be a good time to talk about the . . . thing I’ve been working on.’

  Pepper grinned. She put her tools aside and sat down. ‘So, do I finally get to see the mystery project?’

  ‘Yes.’ Sidra gestured at the scrib; a set of blueprints appeared. Pepper leaned forward, studying. ‘This—’ Sidra began.

  ‘—is an AI framework,’ Pepper said, eyes darting from junction to junction. She raised an absent eyebrow and looked Sidra in the eye. ‘And it’s also my house.’

  The kit swallowed.

  Pepper gave a patient smile. ‘You’re not being presumptuous, if that’s what you’re worried about. I have no problem ripping walls open.’ She leaned back in her chair. ‘I’m all ears.’

 
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