A closed and common orbi.., p.24
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.24

           Becky Chambers
 

  As Jane headed back home, she decided something, and she knew it better than she’d ever known anything. She would die someday – no getting around that. But nobody would find her bones in the scrapyard. She wasn’t going to leave them there.

  SIDRA

  Sidra stood outside of the shop for three minutes. She’d seen the place before, when running errands for Pepper around the caves, but had never gone inside. She wasn’t sure why she hadn’t before. She wasn’t sure why she wanted to now.

  Friendly Tethesh, the blinking blue sign read. Licensed AI Vendor.

  The kit breathed in. She walked through the door.

  The space within was empty, for the most part. Just a cylindrical room with a large pixel projector bolted to the floor. Advertising prints for various programming studios lined the walls. An Aandrisk man lounged in an elaborate reclining workstation, eating a large snapfruit tart. The door to a back room was shut behind him.

  ‘Hey, welcome, welcome,’ the proprietor said. He put down his snack and got to his feet. ‘What can I do for you?’

  Sidra considered her words with care, hoping this wasn’t a mistake. ‘I’m . . . honestly, I’m just curious,’ she said. ‘I’ve never been in an AI shop before.’

  ‘I’m happy to be the first,’ the Aandrisk said. ‘I’m Tethesh. And you?’

  ‘Sidra.’

  ‘A pleasure,’ he said with a welcoming flick of his hand. ‘So. How can I help?’

  ‘I’d like to know more about how this works. If I wanted to buy an AI, how would I go about it?’

  Tethesh looked at her, considering. ‘You thinking about getting one for your ship? Or your workplace, perhaps?’

  Sidra struggled. A simple yes would move this conversation along, but that she couldn’t do. ‘The shop I work at has an AI,’ she said. It was an awkward reply, she knew, but she couldn’t say nothing.

  Tethesh, however, didn’t seem thrown. ‘Ah,’ he said, with a knowing nod. ‘Yeah, I know how it is when it’s time for a replacement. You’re ready to upgrade from the old one, but you’re so used to it, it’s hard to take the plunge. Well, I can show you what I have to offer, and maybe that’ll help you make a more informed decision.’ He gestured to the pixel projector. A flurry of pixels shot up and arranged themselves in neat sheets around them. ‘You’ll find a lot of merchants who specialise in one catalogue, but me, I offer a bit of everything. I’d rather help my customers find the perfect fit than get a sales commission.’ He pointed at the orderly lists the pixels had arranged themselves in. ‘Nath’duol, Tornado, SynTel, Next Stage. All the major developers. I have a few independent producers on offer as well,’ he said, nodding to a smaller list. ‘The big names give you reliability, but don’t discount the little guys. Some of the coolest changes in cognitive capacity are coming out of smaller studios these days.’

  Sidra looked around. Every catalogue was just a list of names. Kola. Tycho. Auntie. ‘How do you go about picking one?’ she asked.

  Tethesh raised a claw. ‘We start with the basics. Let’s say you’re looking for a shopfront program.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Catalogue filter: shopfront,’ he said, loud and clear. The pixels shifted, names disappearing, others sliding in to take their places. He looked to her again. ‘Now, you’re probably going to want someone who shares your cultural norms, so . . . catalogue filter: Human.’ He glanced at her, considering. ‘I’m gonna guess Exodan. How’d I do?’

  The kit clenched its teeth together. Stars and fire, but it shouldn’t be so hard to just say yes. ‘I was born out in the open.’

  Tethesh looked pleased with himself. ‘I thought so. I can always tell. Catalogue filter: Exodan. Now, we start to get into personality traits. Do you want something folksy? Classy? Purely utilitarian? These are the kinds of things you have to think about. If you’re planning to work or live alongside an AI, you have to consider the environmental effect it’s going to have.’

  ‘The core programming controls all of that?’

  ‘Oh, sure. Synthetic personalities are just that: synthetic. None of the core stuff happens by accident. Now, your installation will grow and change as it gets to know you and your clientele, but the starter ingredients remain the same.’

  ‘If I wanted to replace the AI at my shop, how would I go about that? Is it difficult?’

  ‘No, not at all. You’d want an experienced comp tech on hand to make sure it all goes smoothly. But it’s no different in practice from, say, updating your bots.’

  The kit wet its lips. ‘What about other models? Say, something for a ship?’

  ‘What kind of ship?’

  She paused, wondering if she actually wanted to ask the question she’d lined up. ‘A long-haul vessel. I was on a ship once that had an AI named Lovelace installed. Do you have that one?’

  Tethesh thought for a moment. ‘That’s a Cerulean product, I believe,’ he said. ‘One of the indies. Cerulean catalogue search: Lovelace.’

  The pixels shifted. Sidra stepped forward.

  LOVELACE

  Attentive and courteous, this model is a perfect monitoring system for class 6-and-up vessels out on the long haul. Lovelace features robust processing capabilities, and is capable of handling dozens of crew requests simultaneously while still keeping a watchful eye on everything inside and out. Like all intelligent multitaskers, Lovelace can develop performance and personality issues if left without input for too long, so this model is not recommended for vessels that habitually remain in dock.

  However, if you make your home out in the open, this AI is an excellent choice for those seeking a good balance between practicality and environmental enhancement.

  Cultural basis: Human, with basic reference files for all GC species.

  Ideal for multispecies crews.

  Intelligence level: S1

  Gender: Female

  Accent: Exodan

  Price: 680k GCC

  The kit’s shoulders began to tense. ‘If I wanted to buy this model – or any – what would be the next step?’ Sidra asked. ‘Do they arrive by mail, or do I download them, or . . .’

  Tethesh waved for her to follow him into the back room. He wrapped a heat blanket around his shoulders before opening the door. A cold sigh of temperature-controlled air met them. ‘Worst part about my job,’ he said with a wink.

  He gestured at a light panel, and the room’s contents were revealed. The kit went stiff. They were standing before approximately two dozen metal racks, all filled with core globes – hundreds of core globes, each about the size of a small melon, individually packaged like any other tech component. Their wrappings made them look like something Pepper might have her pick up on a supply run, but Sidra knew their contents. Code. Protocols. Pathways. She swung her gaze around the room, looking over all the quiet minds waiting to be installed.

  ‘I have a healthy selection here on hand,’ the Aandrisk said. ‘If you want a popular program, you can usually walk out with it soon as I’ve got your credits. If I don’t have what you’re looking for, I can order it for you. Express transit’s on me.’ He walked through the stacks, looking for something. Sidra followed, the kit’s footsteps falling soft. He nodded at a spot a few racks in. ‘Here, see, here’s the one you were just looking at.’

  The kit froze. Sidra pushed it forward.

  There were three globes on the shelf, all identical, sitting silent in the cold. Sidra picked one up, cupping it gently. She could see the kit’s face reflected in the globe’s plating. She tried not to look at the label, but she’d already read it by then.

  Lovelace

  Shipwide Monitoring System

  Vessel Class 6+

  Designed and manufactured at Cerulean HQ

  She set the globe back down carefully before turning to Tethesh. ‘Thank you so much for taking the time to show me around,’ Sidra said, forcing the kit’s face into a smile. ‘I think I’ve seen enough for now.’

  JANE, AGE 18

  Scouting missions always sounded cool in the
sims, but holy shit, were they ever boring in real life. Jane had been tucked into the same scrap pile for a full day, watching carefully through the binoculars she’d fashioned out of some storage canisters and a sheet of plex. The view was fuzzy, but she could make things out well enough. Nothing was happening. That was good. It needed to stay that way.

  She was a four-day walk from home, and being away was hard. The night was bitter cold, even with the sleeping bag she’d stitched together (seat fabric inside and out, with upholstery foam stuffed inside for squish and warmth). She was cranky. She was stiff. She missed Owl. She wanted warm food, cold water, and an actual bathroom. She was scared, which was to be expected, but had to be ignored. If she couldn’t pull this part off, none of what they’d done over the years would matter. If she couldn’t pull this off, they’d never leave.

  There was a factory beyond her scrap pile – not the one she’d come from, but clearly of the same make. She’d never been there before, but Owl had, when the shuttle first came to the scrapyard. This wasn’t just any factory. This was a fuel recycling plant. Any vehicles that made their way to the scrapyard passed through there first. Owl remembered workers – very young, she said – fitting tubes into the fuel tanks, sucking the ship’s reserves dry. Owl doubted the fuel removal was a safety precaution. The scrapyard was full of weird leaky things, and nothing else from the shuttle had been removed (except for the water – they’d taken that, too). No, Owl thought it likely that the Enhanced were reusing the fuel, and from what Jane had seen, that seemed like a safe bet. Crewless cargo carriers dropped off big bellyfuls of old junkers and skiffs at one end of the factory. Barrels were picked up by smaller carriers at the other end. It was so neat and tidy and sealed off. Everything about it made Jane’s fists go tight. She knew that behind those walls, there were workers – little Janes, little Sarahs – all as empty and wasted as she’d once been. She wanted to tell them how things were. She wanted to run in, hug them, kiss their bruises and scrapes, explain planets and aliens, teach them to speak Klip. Take them away with her. Take them away from all this shit.

  But she couldn’t. She’d be toast if there were Mothers in there (there had to be, and it made her want to throw up). She was just one girl. The Enhanced were a society. A machine. And no matter what the sims said about the power of a single solitary hero, there were some things just too big to change alone. There was nothing she could do but help herself and Owl. That was a cold, mushy mouthful to choke down, but that’s all there was to it. She wasn’t even sure she could do that much. Looking at the factory made her shaky. It was huge, riveted, dominating. It wanted nothing more than to swallow her whole, and there she was, trying to find the best way to dive in.

  She had to try. For her sake and for Owl’s, she had to try.

  There were two obvious openings – the drop point for the scrap, and the exit for the barrels. Both seemed like stupid ideas. There had to be Mothers or cameras or something there, making sure no girls got out. What she’d had her binoculars focused on for the past day was way more interesting – and way more scary. There was a short tower on the side of the factory, and on top of it, a door. A person-sized door with a small platform attached to it, the kind of thing she imagined a skiff could dock itself to. There was no telling what was through the door – or who. She remembered the Mother holding Jane 64, staring furiously at the hole in the wall, unable to step beyond it. She was pretty sure the Mothers never left the factories. Couldn’t leave the factories. That meant this was a door for people . . . but what kind of people?

  Those were the questions that had kept her there in the scrap pile, tucked into a small cubby, switching her legs to get the ache out of them. The door hadn’t moved since she’d got there, not in a whole day. No skiffs, no people. Just a door, with who knew what on the other side.

  She had to try.

  She left her cubby that night, moving quick and quiet through the yard. She was scared – stupid scared – but it was this or nothing. It was this, or hang out in the shuttle for ever, until everything broke beyond repair or the dogs got her, whichever came first. No way. No fucking way.

  ‘I’m not leaving my bones here,’ she said to herself as she moved. ‘I’m not leaving my bones here.’

  She had a different weapon for this trip – a gun, or something rather like one. It was smaller, lighter, fit comfy in one hand. It could kill a dog, sure, but it wasn’t meant for that. This weapon was meant for something she really, really hoped she wouldn’t have to do. Owl hadn’t said much when Jane had built it. What was there to say? They both knew what was at stake. They both knew what it might cost.

  Jane reached the edge of the factory. A metal ladder led up to the platform, rusty and cold. She stood under it, feet heavy, hands shaking.

  ‘Shit,’ she whispered. She ran her hands over her head. She wanted to turn around. She wanted nothing more than to turn right the hell around and go home.

  She climbed the ladder. She hoped she’d climb back down it.

  The door at the top didn’t have a latch or a handle. There was some kind of scanning pad instead, and she had no idea what would happen if she touched it. Was it keyed to particular fingerprints, or bio readings? Would an alarm go off if the wrong person put their hand on it? Would—

  She had more questions, but they vanished the second the door opened and a man stood in its place.

  Jane almost shot him. That’s what weapons were for, and she had one humming in her hand. But she wasn’t dealing with a dog. This was a man – a man, like in the sims. A young man, she guessed, maybe a little older than her. A man who looked ready to shit himself. He stared at her. She stared back. He looked at the gun, confused, terrified. He was a person – a person! – like she was, made of breath and blood and bones. She raised her weapon higher.

  ‘Are there alarms?’ she asked. It had been a long time since she’d spoken Sko-Ensk, and the words would’ve felt weird on her lips even if they hadn’t been dry and trembling.

  The man shook his head.

  ‘Are there cameras?’

  He shook his head again.

  ‘Can I get inside without anyone else seeing me?’

  He nodded.

  ‘Are you lying? If you’re lying, I’m not – I’m not kidding—’ She wrapped her other hand around the gun. Stars, who was she right now?

  The man shook his head furiously, his eyes begging.

  She jabbed the gun at him, like she’d seen done in the sims. ‘Inside. Now.’

  The man stepped backward slowly. She followed, hardly daring to blink. She took one hand off the gun and closed the door behind her. He stepped back into a room – a not-very-big room, full of control panels and monitors and – drawings? There were drawings tacked to the blank spots on the walls. Waterfalls. Canyons. Forests. Jane frowned. What the fuck was this? This guy was Enhanced, had to be. He was tall and healthy and had hair, which was hard not to stare at. But he was in a factory. Alone, it seemed. What was he doing there?

  The man’s eyes flickered to a control panel with a large red button on one side. Jane didn’t have to think hard to guess what it was. ‘Don’t,’ she said, keeping the gun high. ‘Don’t even think about it.’

  He looked to the floor, shoulders slumped.

  Okay, Jane thought. Okay. Now what? She was in a room, in a factory, with a freaked-out stranger and no plan. ‘Sit,’ she said, nodding at a chair. The man obeyed. She looked at the monitors. Live camera feeds, all gut-punchingly familiar. Conveyor belts. Scrap piles. Sleeping little bodies in a dorm room, two to a bunk. Mothers, walking the halls. Mothers. Mothers.

  Jane wanted to scream.

  ‘Do you watch them?’ she asked, angling her head toward the feed of the dorm. ‘Is that your – is that what you do here?’

  The man nodded.

  ‘Why?’ She had a job to do, yes, but this was confusing as shit. Had her factory had someone like this? Someones, maybe?

  The man looked pained. He said nothing.

  ‘Why?’ Jane repeated. ‘Are you . . . are you some kind of backup? Like a failsafe? In case the girls take over or the Mothers break down?’

  The man looked at the red button and nodded.

  Jane looked around the room again. She’d only been in there a minute, but it looked like a fucking miserable place to be. Two small windows looking out to the hell outside, a wall of camera feeds broadcasting the hell within. There was a hole in the floor, too, with a ladder stretching downward. She walked back toward it, never turning her back on the man, and glanced down. She could see the corner of a bed down there. A potted plant. Some basic furniture. More drawings. Something that looked like a sim hub. ‘Is this – like a punishment or something? How long have you been here?’

  The man opened and closed his mouth, but no sound came out. Was he that scared? Stars. ‘Look,’ Jane said. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, okay? I will, if you start anything. But I don’t want to. I just need answers.’ She kept her voice quiet, but didn’t lower the gun. ‘What’s your name?’

  The man’s eyes fell shut. ‘L-L—’

  Jane frowned. ‘What’s the matter? Can you talk?’

  ‘L-Laurian.’

  ‘Laurian?’

  He nodded. ‘M-my n – my n—’ His face contorted with frustration. He looked like he might cry.

  ‘Laurian,’ Jane said. The gun sank a smidge lower. ‘Your name is Laurian.’

  SIDRA

  Sent message

  Encryption: 2

  Translation: 0

  From: name hidden (path: 8952-684-63)

  To: [name unavailable] (path: 6932-247-52)

 
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