A closed and common orbi.., p.26
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.26

           Becky Chambers
 
‘Last time,’ Owl said, following her down the hall. ‘You can do this.’

  Jane opened the stasie. The shelves were filled with meat and mushrooms, stacked and counted, divvied up as evenly as she could. There was enough for two people to eat two fillets and one bowl of mushrooms per day for thirty-seven days, plus extra to get her to and from the fuel factory. She’d have to go two days without eating – one on the way there, one on the way back. Laurian would have to skip a day, too. She hoped he’d be fine with that. He’d have to be.

  She stared at the food, all the food she couldn’t eat. She hated it. She hated how much work it took to gather and prepare. She hated the smell of the meat, the texture of the fungus. She hated the pieces of dog staring accusingly at her. She hated how much closer the live ones circled her these days, how much bolder they’d gotten ever since she’d started skipping meals.

  She ran her tongue over the spot where another tooth had fallen out, a ragged snap at the root. It had been gone two weeks, but the gum still bled a bit, sharp and metallic. She had a few scrapes on her legs from the last food trip that weren’t healing well, either. She looked gross, she knew. Would Laurian find her gross? His problem if so. He could either deal with her grossness or stay put. Up to him.

  She leaned her head against the stasie door. She was so tired. Stars, she was so tired.

  ‘You’ll be all right, Jane,’ Owl said, but her voice wasn’t sure. The screen in the kitchen wasn’t on, which meant Owl was hiding her sad mouth, her worried eyes. Jane hated that, too. She didn’t want Owl to feel that way on her account.

  Jane nodded and tried to smile, just to make Owl feel better. ‘Last time,’ she said, moving food from stasie to satchel. ‘Last time.’

  SIDRA

  The surface market was overwhelming as ever, but Sidra felt she could walk through it a little braver now. This time, she didn’t have to shrink away from strangers. This time, she was prepared.

  ‘Are you sure you’re all right?’ Tak was watching her closely, as he had been since they left his shop. There was no need for it, but the intent was appreciated.

  Sidra started to say the words I’m fine, but another possible response appeared, a far more tantalising one: ‘I don’t feel any different.’ Her pathways buzzed gleefully. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. There was a difference in her – not a big one, but she could feel it. I don’t feel any different was a nice, colloquial way to reassure someone that she was okay, but an hour before, she wouldn’t have been able to say it.

  She managed to keep the kit from skipping.

  A shopfront caught her eye. ‘I want to go in there,’ she said, making an abrupt turn.

  ‘Wait, what—’ she heard Tak say as she stepped through a smooth, curved doorway. It was an exosuit shop, filled with everything an organic sapient needed for a stroll out in space. Suits for different species stood smartly on display, as if their occupants had just stepped out. There were rocket boots, too, and all manner of breathing apparatus. Another Aeluon stood when they entered, clearly eager for customers. Her cheeks flashed in greeting to Tak.

  ‘Hello,’ the merchant said to Sidra. ‘What can I help you find?’

  Sidra had already crafted a new response file on her way inside. She deployed it, savouring the moment. ‘Well, I’m the captain of an asteroid mining ship.’

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Tak muttered.

  Sidra continued brightly. ‘I’ve been thinking of replacing my crew’s suits.’ The kit’s toes curled within their shoes. She gestured to Tak. ‘This is Tak, my comp tech. We’re travelling to Hagarem.’

  Tak looked pained. He flashed a weak acknowledgement.

  ‘You’ve come to the right place,’ the merchant said. ‘If you can tell me more about your budget and the species present in your crew, I can go over some options—’

  ‘Oh, no, look at the time,’ Sidra said, glancing at her scrib. ‘I’m so sorry. I just remembered, I have an appointment at the algae farms. We’ll have to come back.’ She took Tak’s hand and exited the shop, leaving the merchant looking politely bewildered. Sidra felt a little bad about that, but she couldn’t keep her delight from surfacing. She exited the shop and burst into laughter. ‘Oh!’ she said, sitting down on a nearby bench and clutching the kit’s sides. She hoped the merchant couldn’t hear her; it really hadn’t been a very nice thing to do. ‘I’m – I’m sorry, I just had to – oh, stars.’ She drummed the kit’s feet happily.

  ‘I’m so glad you’re amused,’ Tak said.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ Sidra said, trying to get a hold of herself. ‘I’m sorry. It’s just – none of that was true!’

  ‘I’m well aware.’ Tak was starting to laugh as well, the kind of laugh that sprang from someone else’s laughter. ‘Though I guess I was your comp tech today.’

  ‘You were. You were, and I am so grateful.’ The kit smiled at him, warm and sincere.

  Tak returned the look, but it shifted serious again. ‘Sidra, you have to tell Pepper and Blue. Just in case something goes wrong.’

  ‘Nothing will go wrong. But, yes, I will tell them.’ She knew Blue wouldn’t object. As for Pepper . . . well, easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

  There was a slight tightness in Tak’s face Sidra hadn’t seen before. With a sting, she realised: he was trying to determine if she was telling the truth. ‘I wouldn’t lie to you,’ she said.

  ‘I know,’ Tak said, but there was a hesitancy in his tone. Sidra didn’t like that. Had he been more comfortable with her when she’d been easy to control? When she’d been truthful by default? She hoped not.

  JANE, AGE 19

  Jane had picked out their first overnight spot on the way to the factory: an old skiff, rusted through, but with the seating compartment easily accessible (well, mostly – she’d removed the upholstery on a previous trip). She glanced over her shoulder as she laid the sleeping bags out on the stripped-down seats. She started to say something, but had to clear her throat first. There was this weird, dry, rattling feeling in there she couldn’t shake. She’d have sworn she was thirsty, but it was food she was short on, not water. She cleared her throat again. ‘Hey,’ she said in Sko-Ensk. ‘You okay?’

  Laurian stood a few steps from her, staring out toward the setting sun. He didn’t talk much anyway, but this was a different kind of silence.

  Jane abandoned the sleeping bags and walked to him. ‘Hey,’ she said. She didn’t touch him. She’d made that mistake shortly after they’d left the factory. Just a congratulatory hand placed on his shoulder once they were well out of sight, but it had been enough to make him jump and gasp. Jane hadn’t needed to ask why. She’d been alone a long time, too.

  Laurian continued staring outward. ‘I r-re – I remem—’

  Jane considered. ‘You remember . . . being outside?’

  He shook his head and pointed toward the sun.

  ‘The sun? Sunsets?’

  Laurian nodded. He’d told her about his family in previous visits – the family who’d given him up. He’d drawn her sketches of a big home with lots of plants and windows, of siblings to play with, of pets that loved him. He’d been young when he’d been sent away, but he remembered. He remembered all of it. ‘I could – couldn’t see f-from – f-from—’

  ‘From the factory? Yeah. Yeah, your windows were facing southeast. That’s the wrong way.’ She paused, trying to remember what she’d been doing before speaking to him. The sleeping bags. Right. Right. ‘Come on and help me. It’s gonna get dark and cold real fast.’

  They worked together to get the fabric bundles lying flat as possible. Jane asked a question carefully. ‘Do you think they’ll come looking for you?’

  Laurian shook his head. He opened his mouth, then thought better of it. He pointed to the door of the skiff.

  ‘Door,’ Jane said. ‘Which door?’ She thought. ‘The door on your tower?’

  He nodded, then pointed at the locking mechanism.

  ‘The lock. The door was . . . locked? It was unlock
ed.’ She thought. ‘You could leave any time?’

  Laurian shrugged and nodded.

  Jane chewed on that. She understood. You can leave any time you want, the Enhanced were saying, but look outside. Look out your windows. Where is there to go? We’ll keep you fed, at least. We’ll give you a bed. It was a mean way to keep someone from running, tied up with an extra layer of we really don’t care, go ahead, starve out there, you’re totally replaceable. Stars, she hated them.

  ‘Did anyone else – any of the other monitors, did they ever leave?’

  Laurian nodded. He held up one finger.

  ‘Once?’

  He nodded again.

  Jane wondered where that one had gone. Was xe living out there, like she was? Or had the dogs and cold and hunger made another pile of bones?

  ‘Come on,’ she said, crawling into the skiff. The air was already starting to bite, and they weren’t going to have a heater that night. The sooner they got into their sleeping bags, the better.

  Getting comfy was awkward, but they managed, bundled up side by side in the back of the skiff. Jane was excited. It was like having a bunkmate again. Jane could feel the warmth coming off of him as he sat down beside her, and that was good, too. She never felt warm any more, no matter how much she wore, no matter how close she sat to the heating elements at home.

  ‘Hungry?’ she asked, reaching for her satchel. Laurian hadn’t managed to snag any food before they left, which was okay, but kind of disappointing. She’d really been hoping to not have to skip any more meals.

  The light in the skiff was dim, but she could still see Laurian’s brow furrow. ‘Wh-what—’

  She followed his gaze to the well-cooked meat that lay unwrapped in her lap. ‘It’s dog,’ she said. ‘It tastes okay, and—’ She stopped. Laurian hadn’t moved much, but his whole face was one big expression of no. She frowned. ‘I know it’s probably really weird to you,’ she said, handing him his portion, ‘but you have to eat.’

  Her stomach was already growling loudly, and she tucked in fast. She took a big bite, tugging at one end with her teeth, the other with her hands. Laurian looked like he was going to be sick. She thought of how she must look to him – dirty skin, dirty clothes, tearing at a hunk of dead dog. Maybe she didn’t look much like a person. Maybe she wasn’t one, really.

  Laurian looked at his piece of meat for a bit, then took a timid bite. The corners of his lips twisted, but he chewed and swallowed. He turned to her with a forced smile. ‘I-it’s – it’s good,’ he said.

  Jane pushed her bite of food into her cheek and laughed. ‘You’re lying,’ she said. ‘But thanks.’

  SIDRA

  What would Pepper say?

  Sidra wondered about that as she made her way down to the caves with Tak. Would she be angry? Proud? Hopefully proud. Sidra had solved a problem on her own, and Pepper was a fan of such things. But would Pepper be upset that Sidra had done it without asking? That she’d asked Tak? She wasn’t sure, and that was never a state of mind Sidra enjoyed.

  She returned a few smiles and waves as she made her way to the Rust Bucket. It was nice to be recognised. From here on out, she could actually have proper conversations with the other people here. No more vague answers, no more technical truths, no more fear of direct questioning. She could make stuff up. She could nod yes when she meant no. She could get to know people without putting herself or her friends in danger. She could make more friends. This was good. Everything about this was good.

  She paused when she saw the empty shopfront. No shield around the stall, no In the back, yell for service sign on the counter. That was odd. Pepper didn’t usually leave the front unattended without some kind of notice. ‘Pepper?’ she said as she approached the counter. No answer. She waved her patch over the counter door and stepped behind it. Tak followed at a respectful distance.

  ‘Are you back here?’ Sidra asked, heading to the workshop.

  Her question was answered immediately. Pepper was sitting on the floor beside the mek brewer, empty mug still in one hand, staring at her scrib in the other. Her face was taut and pale.

  ‘Tak, could you keep an eye on the counter, please?’ Sidra whispered. Tak obliged.

  Sidra stepped close and crouched down. Pepper looked up at her with . . . with . . . Sidra didn’t know what to make of the expression on her face. Hope and pain and shock, all twisted together.

  Without a word, Pepper handed Sidra the scrib. Sidra read it, line by line, quick as she could. She looked sharply to Pepper as she reached the end. ‘Have you told Blue yet?’

  Pepper shook her head. ‘His scrib’s turned off,’ she said quietly. ‘He does that sometimes when he’s painting.’

  Sidra reached out the kit’s hand. ‘Come on. Let’s go get him.’

  JANE, AGE 19

  The ceiling looked the same as it had four hours before. Jane pulled her blanket up to her chin. She had longed for her bed during the three days and nights out in the scrapyard, but now that she had it, sleep was a long way off.

  ‘Water tanks are full,’ she breathed into the dark. ‘Taps and filters are clear. Hatch and window seals are . . . sealed. Artigrav nets – well, we’ll find out, won’t we—’

  She touched thumbtip to each finger on her left hand as she went through every system on the ship over and over, index to middle to ring to pinky, then back the way she came. The words leaving her mouth barely moved the air around her lips. She didn’t want to disturb Laurian – who was asleep, snoring softly in his bed. Good for him. At least one of them would be going into lift-off with a decent night of rest.

  ‘Life support systems are go. Control room panels are go. Hatch – no, dammit, you already said hatch, start again, start again.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Water tanks are full. Taps and filters are clear . . .’

  She’d been forgetting things, or if not forgetting things entirely, doing them in the wrong order, or getting confused on things that should’ve been easy. Her head ached all the time, and her thoughts ran thick as fuel. ‘You’re just tired,’ she reassured herself, pausing the count on her fingers. ‘You’re just tired.’

  She startled as Laurian rolled over in his sleep. She’d known for nearly a year that she’d be sharing this space with him, but knowing that and doing it were two very different things. He made sounds she wasn’t used to. He stood and sat in places that had always been empty. Part of her was glad to hear someone else breathing again. Part of her wanted him gone.

  She continued her count again and again, until Owl appeared some hours later, turning on the screen beside Jane’s bed as dimly as she could. ‘Hey,’ Owl whispered.

  ‘Is it time?’ Jane whispered back. Laurian continued to breathe deep on the other side of the room.

  Owl nodded. ‘Sun’s coming up.’

  They’d decided on leaving in the morning, rather than the moment Jane and Laurian got back to the shuttle (as Jane had initially wanted). A night launch would’ve been crazy bright, and though there had never been any indication that anyone was watching, there was no need to call more attention to themselves than needed. A little ship heading spaceward was obvious enough without lighting up the sky.

  There would be no breakfast that morning. The thought made both heart and stomach sink, but in some ways, having an empty belly was good. Apparently some people got spacesick – especially if the artigrav nets didn’t hold, which was really anybody’s guess at this point – and wasting food was out of the question. They could eat once they got out there. They’d have dinner in space.

  Jane hugged her blanket to herself, the same blanket she’d crawled sobbing under her first night there, the same blanket that had covered her every day since. She got up, holding the ragged cloth around her like a cloak. She walked out to the living room, every step a chore. She walked to the hatch and looked through the window into the airlock. She knew what it looked like outside. She knew it like she knew her own face, her own skin.

  ‘Owl, can you let me outside?’
>
  Owl opened the hatch. Jane stepped through the airlock, then out. Rocks pressed roughly into her bare feet. The sun was bleeding orange, the dark blue above fading lighter. The air was cold and sharp. She breathed deep, the last breath of unfiltered air she’d have for a while. She looked out, out to the piles of scrap, out to the makeshift paths she’d walked in the spaces between. She had worked for nine years to get out of that place. Nine years where she thought of nothing but leaving, but now . . . now she dug her toes into the dirt, trying to hold on. She looked up at the fading stars. She knew the scrapyard. She knew this shitty planet. Up there . . . that was something else altogether. She dug her toes in harder, pulled the blanket closer.

  ‘I know,’ Owl said, speaking through the vox on the hull. ‘I’m scared, too.’

  Jane took a step back, still looking up, and pressed her palm against the hull. ‘I never said thank you,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know to say thank you then.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  Jane thought back to that first night – a voice calling out in the dark, reaching farther and faster than the dogs and Mothers. A voice that brought her home. ‘I wouldn’t have made it without you,’ Jane said, pressing her palm harder.

  Owl was quiet for a moment. ‘I wouldn’t have, either.’

  It was time. It was long past time. Jane returned to the airlock. The hatch opened, and once again, she jumped at the sight of Laurian, sitting patiently on the couch, eyes a little bleary. There was a question on his face. Jane could guess what it was.

  ‘We’ll be going in about an hour,’ she said. ‘I’ve got to . . . um . . .’ The thought died in transit from her brain to her mouth.

  ‘Warm up the fuel pumps,’ Owl said.

  ‘Yes,’ Jane said. She shut her eyes and gave her head a short shake, trying to clear it. She was just tired.

  ‘W-what—’ Laurian licked his lips, pushing the words through. ‘What – what c-can—’ He tapped his chest with his fingertips, then gestured around the room.

 
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