A closed and common orbi.., p.27
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.27

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘Nothing really,’ Jane said.

  Laurian’s face fell ever so slightly.

  Owl switched to Klip. ‘Jane, let him help. He wants to help.’

  Jane glanced up to one of the cameras. ‘There’s nothing for him to do. I’m fine.’

  ‘How well did you do in a new place without anything to do?’

  ‘He’s an adult.’

  ‘He’s afraid.’

  Jane sighed, and looked at Laurian. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Do you know what an indicator light is?’

  He shook his head, but looked a little happier.

  Jane walked to the kitchen, leaning lightly on the couch as she passed it. She pointed to the small green light on the underside of the stasie. ‘See this?’

  Laurian nodded.

  ‘There’s a bunch like it on the—’ She paused, trying to remember the word in Sko-Ensk. ‘—engine casing. I need you to go below and tell me if you see any red or yellow lights.’ She didn’t need that, actually. She’d checked them a dozen times over, and Owl would know if something was up. ‘You gotta check real careful. Double-check, just to be sure. Got it?’

  Laurian smiled, nodded, and beelined for the engine chamber.

  Jane gave Owl a look of there, I did the thing. Her eyes trailed over the stasie, full of food she couldn’t eat. It was ridiculous, but in that moment, the idea of ditching the whole plan, tucking into dog and mushrooms until she physically couldn’t eat any more, and just staying in the scrapyard for ever didn’t sound like a terrible alternative.

  ‘Is the heater on?’ Jane asked, doing her best to ignore her angry belly. The lower end of her torso was weirdly big these days, especially compared to the rest of her. She didn’t know how that could be, since there wasn’t much food in it.

  ‘Yes,’ Owl said. ‘Are you cold?’

  ‘Nah,’ Jane said, pulling the blanket tighter as she made her way to the control room. She settled into the pilot’s seat. ‘How are you feeling?’

  Owl appeared in the centre console. ‘I don’t know how to answer that. I’m having a hard time finding a good phrase that covers everything.’

  Jane began flipping switches. The console started to hum. ‘What’s the first thing that comes to mind?’

  Owl considered. ‘Holy shit, we’re doing this.’

  Jane threw back her head, cackling. ‘Yeah, that about sums it up.’

  SIDRA

  The three of them sat in the quick-travel pod, Pepper and Sidra up front, Tak leaning quiet in the back. Pepper had been staring out the window the entire time, but from her expression, she didn’t appear to be seeing much.

  ‘If he’s not at the shop,’ Pepper said, ‘we’ll ask Esther.’ Sidra knew who Pepper meant – the glassblower in the shop beside Blue’s. ‘He usually tells her when he’s stepping out so she can keep an eye on things for him.’ Pepper nodded to herself, calculating. ‘And if she doesn’t know, we can split up. I’ll go to the noodle bar, you two can go to the art supply—’

  Sidra put the kit’s hand on Pepper’s knee. Pepper was agitated, naturally, but figuring out every variable concerning what to do if Blue wasn’t there wouldn’t help. ‘He’s probably at the shop,’ Sidra said calmly.

  Pepper chewed her thumbnail. ‘This doesn’t feel real.’

  ‘Understandably.’

  ‘What if that message was wrong? Like a prank or something. It didn’t say much. Just said to write back for details.’

  ‘Which you did.’

  Pepper frowned at her scrib, which hadn’t left her hand since Sidra had found her. ‘Yeah, but he hasn’t replied yet.’ She sighed impatiently, then handed Sidra the scrib. ‘If that message came from a dummy node, we’re all wasting our time here. Can you dig through the comms path, make sure it’s legit?’

  Sidra took the scrib. ‘What are you going to do if it’s not?’ she said. She gestured at the scrib, pulling up comms path details.

  ‘I don’t know. I haven’t got that far y—’ Pepper stopped. She looked straight at Sidra. ‘You didn’t answer the question.’

  Shit. Sidra inwardly flailed. ‘I just meant—’

  ‘You didn’t answer the question. Sidra, you didn’t answer the question.’

  The kit sighed. ‘This is . . . not the best time to talk about that.’

  ‘Ah, fuck.’ Pepper put her face in her palms. ‘Fuck, Sidra, what – who did you go to?’

  ‘No one, I – Pepper, this isn’t the time.’

  ‘Bullshit this isn’t the time. Are you okay? Holy fuck. I can’t – who helped you?’

  ‘No one! It was just me and Tak.’

  ‘You and Tak?’ She glanced toward the Aeluon in the backseat. ‘You did this? You fucked with her code?’

  ‘I—’ Tak began.

  Pepper snapped back to Sidra. ‘Have you run a diagnostic?’

  ‘I’ve run three. I’m fine, I promise. I’m stable. I came to the shop to tell you—’

  ‘Stars.’ Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘I really – ugh, I really can’t think about this right now.’ She let out a tense breath. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’

  ‘I’m fine. I promise, you don’t need to worry about it. I’ll explain later.’

  Pepper pressed her forehead into the side window and shut her eyes. A silence filled the pod. One second went by. Two. Five. Ten.

  Tak leaned forward, sticking his head over the back of the front seat. ‘I would really love it,’ he said, ‘if someone could tell me what’s going on.’

  JANE, AGE 19

  Laurian sat down in the right-side chair and strapped in tight. She looked at him – nervous, not quite trusting, but willing to follow her. Under other circumstances, she would’ve wondered why he was there at all. She had no idea what she was doing – not a damn clue – and there was a non-zero chance they might blow up or decompress or die in a dozen other horrible ways in the next three minutes. But in comparison to the place she’d taken him away from . . . yeah, this was a better option.

  Jane adjusted herself in the sagging seat. Owl had their ascent plotted, their course to the border charted. Jane wouldn’t have to steer at all; she could learn that later. Owl couldn’t do anything fancy, but then, they wouldn’t need that. Jane hoped they wouldn’t need that.

  ‘Engines on,’ Owl said.

  It took Jane a second to make the connection. She chuckled. ‘Fuel pumps, go,’ she said, smiling at Owl’s camera. Okay. Okay. She could do this. ‘You ready?’ she asked Laurian.

  Laurian swallowed hard. He nodded harder.

  ‘Right,’ Jane said, gripping the armrests. She could hear her pulse in her ears. ‘Okay, Owl. Let’s get out of here.’

  Jane had turned the engine on before, switched the thrusters on, made the shuttle hover just a bit above ground to make sure it worked. This felt nothing like that. This was a thud, a kick, a girl clinging to the fur on the back of a running dog. The thrusters roared, and Jane was aware of how small she was – she and Laurian both. So small, so squishy. They’d strapped themselves into this explosive hunk of scrap and aimed for the sky. How was this a good idea? How had anyone ever thought this was a good idea?

  She wasn’t sure if she was doing it for herself or for him, but she reached across the gap and grabbed Laurian’s hand. His fingers latched onto hers, and they held on with all they had as the shuttle shot away from the scrapyard, curving up and up and up.

  They climbed, the sun burning bright. They met the clouds, then left them behind a moment later. They pierced the sky until there was no sky left. It melted away in an instant, changing from the roof of all things to a thin line below, shrinking smaller and smaller, hugging the curve she’d been told of but had never seen.

  And there were stars. There were stars, and stars, and stars.

  In the back of her head, she was aware of different sounds: the thrusters switching over to propulsion strips, the low hum of the artigrav nets (which worked!). She’d built those things, fixed those things, and they’d ta
ken her away. They’d let her escape.

  She unbuckled her safety straps and ran into the main cabin. ‘Jane!’ Owl called after her. ‘Jane, wait until we’ve stabilised.’

  Jane ignored her. She ran on shaking legs to the viewscreen beside the hatch, the one she’d never used for more than a minute or two to check the weather. She never wanted to see the scrapyard once she’d left it, never wanted to turn it on one day to see a dog or a Mother staring back. But now . . . ‘Turn it on,’ Jane said. ‘Please. Please, I need to see.’

  The viewscreen flickered on. The only planet she’d ever known lay below. Clouds tumbled thickly, but she could see through the patches between them, down to the scrapyards, the factories and pockmarked land that stretched on and on until they reached . . . seas! There were seas down there, stained sickly orange and grey. But those colours faded, gradually clearing into a deep, breathtaking blue. The shuttle continued around the planet, using gravity to throw itself free. Seas met land, and Jane saw cities – sparkling, intricate, flocked with green. They were so far from the scrapyards neither would ever know the other was there. You could live your whole life in one of those cities and never know how ugly it was somewhere else.

  ‘Why?’ she whispered. ‘Why’d you do this? How could you do this?’

  Jane clung to the wall, breathing hard. Her head swam, but it had nothing to do with launch, or the fake gravity, or any of that. Everything was too much. Too much. The planet was beautiful. The planet was horrible. The planet was full of people, and they were beautiful and horrible, too. They’d made a mess of everything, and she was leaving now, and she was never coming back.

  She stumbled to the couch and put her face in her hands. She wanted to scream and laugh and sleep all at once. Laurian was with her, all of a sudden, sitting close but not touching. He said nothing, but somehow Jane knew it wasn’t because of his trouble with words. He said nothing because there was nothing that could be said.

  Jane looked up toward the viewscreen again. She could see satellites out there, glinting with sunlight. She could see them turn towards her ship.

  ‘You sure we have nothing to worry about?’ she whispered.

  Laurian nodded. He made a curve with his hand, and gestured down through it with his index finger. Jane understood. He’d explained this before – the Enhanced weren’t as concerned with people heading out as they were with people heading in, and there weren’t any orbital launch sites on the part of the planet where the factories were. There were defence patrols that could come after, but by the time they realised what was happening, the shuttle would be out of reach.

  The satellites grew smaller, and the planet did, too, bit by bit. It was so lonely, so exposed out there. Just like their ship. Just like its passengers.

  Jane put her hand on Laurian’s, and looked at Owl’s nearest camera. ‘No matter what happens next,’ she said, ‘no matter where we go, we’re all going together.’

  SIDRA

  Blue wasn’t at the noodle bar, nor the art supply depot. He was right where Pepper had hoped he would be: standing behind his easel, hands and apron spattered with paint, a thump box blasting music as he worked. He looked up with congenial surprise as Pepper and Sidra entered. Tak had parted ways with them at the travel kiosk, saying that this was a ‘family affair’. Sidra felt privileged to be included in such a thing, but she stayed a few steps behind Pepper anyway. Pepper needed her space right now.

  ‘Well, hey,’ Blue said, gesturing the thump box into silence. ‘What’s going—’ His smile faded. Sidra couldn’t see the look on Pepper’s face, but whatever it was, it changed everything for Blue. ‘What’s going on?’ he said with a frown.

  For as much as Pepper had talked on the way there, she didn’t seem to know what to say now. ‘Someone found it,’ she said at last, her voice sounding like it belonged to someone else.

  Blue didn’t understand. He glanced at Sidra, then back to Pepper. ‘Someone found wh—’ His eyes grew wide. ‘No way.’

  Pepper nodded. ‘Someone on Picnic.’ She took a deep breath. ‘They found my ship.’

  Part 3

  CIRCLE

  JANE, AGE 19

  These weren’t her blankets, and this wasn’t her bed. She’d been aware of this before she woke up, but not in a clear way, not in a way that made sense. Nothing had made sense for a long time. There’d been days and days of dreams, or things that weren’t dreams but might as well have been. Monsters and voices and pain. The kind of sleep that ached rather than soothed. But she was aware of the bed now, the bed that wasn’t hers. That was good. That was a start.

  Everything was so clean. That was the next thing she noticed. The bed was comfortable, though a weird shape – much bigger than she was, and with grooves for limbs she didn’t have. Some kind of shield hugged the area around it, a crackling see-through purple. She couldn’t make out any machine sounds that she knew. She heard nothing breaking, nothing wearing down. Just the gentle hum of things working as they should in a clean, white, safe room.

  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so scared.

  A hazy memory surfaced: something uncomfortable involving her right arm. Her left hand drifted over to investigate. Her fingers met metal. She threw the blankets back and brought her arm to her face. A neat row of round black sucker things were embedded in her skin, each holding a small plex chamber half-full of different colours of liquid – some clear, some yellowish, one blue. She stared, pulse racing. Something within each of the suckers made a synchronised click. A little bit of each liquid disappeared. Disappeared into her.

  She nearly yelled, but before the sound could leave her mouth, she noticed something else: a small square patch implanted in her forearm, just below the heel of her palm. A wristpatch. Alain and Manjiri had wristpatches. Everybody in the GC had wristpatches.

  ‘Hey!’ She was yelling now, sitting up as best as she could. ‘Hey!’ Stars and fire, where was she?

  There was a flurry of footsteps, and – oh, shit. An alien. There was an alien. An Aandrisk. Oh, shit.

  ‘Whoa, it’s okay,’ the Aandrisk said. Jane scrambled, trying to remember all Owl had taught her. He. This Aandrisk was a he. He was tall, and wearing a full biosuit. She could see his feathers tucked back and away from his face under the helmet. The Aandrisk gestured at a control panel. The shield around Jane’s bed switched off long enough for him to step through, then resumed its position. He spoke toward a vox on the wall. ‘Get the rep in here,’ he said, then turned his attention back to Jane. ‘It’s okay. You’re safe. Can you understand me?’

  ‘Yes,’ Jane said, clutching the covers close. Holy shit, he looked weird.

  ‘Do you speak Klip?’

  ‘Yes.’

  The Aandrisk looked . . . relieved, maybe? ‘Oh, good. We’ve had some trouble communicating with your friend. We don’t have any Human staff here, and with his difficulty speaking—’

  Jane missed whatever else the Aandrisk said. ‘Where’s Laurian?’ she blurted. ‘Where’s Owl?’

  The Aandrisk blinked, yellow eyes disappearing behind blue-green lids. ‘I don’t know who Owl is. Laurian’s fine. He’s in quarantine. You are, too, technically, but he didn’t require medical care.’

  Too many thoughts. Jane shook her head. Her brain wasn’t working right, and everything ached, and none of this made sense. One thing at a time, Owl would say. ‘Where am I?’

  ‘You’re in the medical ward at the Han’foral Lookout Station,’ he said, pulling over a backless chair. He sat, sleeved tail draping down behind him. ‘My name’s Ithis. I’m one of the doctors here.’

  Jane pulled his words in, held them close, turned them over. A Lookout Station. ‘We made it,’ she whispered.

  The Aandrisk nodded. ‘Yeah. You made it.’

  Jane leaned back into the pillow, slowly. The moment felt nothing like what she’d imagined. She felt . . . empty. Quiet. She looked again to the suckers in her arm. ‘What – what are these?’

  ‘Yo
ur name is Jane, right?’

  She nodded. Holy shit, she was talking to an alien.

  ‘Jane, you’ve been suffering from a bacterial disease previously unknown to science – congratulations – on top of a severe case of long-term malnutrition and a broad assortment of other maladies. We figured out pretty fast that your immune system is . . . atypical. But as deficient as you were in just about everything you need to stay healthy, there’s no way your natural defences could keep up. You had superficial wounds that hadn’t healed properly, fungal growths under your nails, different fungal growths in your oesophagus, and an amazing variety of precancerous polyps on and around your liver and kidneys, which I’m assuming were the result of the high levels of heavy metals and industrial waste products we found floating around your bloodstream.’ His face was hard to read, but he looked emotional. ‘You’re the sickest patient I’ve ever treated.’

  Jane took that in. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘but what are these?’ She waved her sucker-covered arm at him.

  ‘Those,’ Ithis said, ‘distribute medicine through your system. As well as nutrients, in your case. We’ve scrubbed all the junk out of your blood, and you’ve got imubots now.’ He pointed to the patch on her wrist. ‘Your body’s undergone a lot of damage, but we’re giving you as fresh a start as we can.’ The Aandrisk made a weird almost-smile, and spoke the words she’d been waiting to hear: ‘You’re going to be fine.’

  Jane had more questions, but another person walked in – a Human woman, also clad in a biosuit. The doctor gestured to her. ‘Jane, this is Teah Lukin, a legal counsellor for the GC. She normally works in trade law, not immigrant cases, but she was the closest Human GC representative to us, and we thought having someone of your own species around might make this whole process easier. She’s here to help you and Laurian get started.’

  The woman approached Jane’s bedside and touched her hand. It was a gesture Jane should have liked, but she didn’t. She didn’t know why. She just didn’t. Jane studied the woman’s face behind her thick protective helmet. This woman had been a girl once, but Jane couldn’t see that. She couldn’t see anything she recognised. This Human was every bit as alien as the scaly guy sitting beside her.

 
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