A closed and common orbi.., p.28
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.28

           Becky Chambers
 

  ‘Hello, Jane,’ Counsellor Lukin said. She had a weird accent. ‘You probably don’t remember me. I came to you a tenday ago, but you were too sick to properly speak. I’m so glad you’re feeling better now.’

  Jane frowned. If this woman had been there ten days ago – what kind of days, anyway; did she mean standard days? – and they’d had to send for her from somewhere else, then . . . ‘How long have I been here?’

  ‘Nearly four tendays,’ the doctor said gently.

  Jane swallowed. Huh, she thought. ‘Where’s Owl?’

  Counsellor Lukin looked at Ithis. He shrugged at her, subtly, as if Jane wouldn’t see. ‘Who’s Owl?’ Lukin asked. Jane wasn’t sure how Humans out here were supposed to sound, but something about this one’s tone was a little too nice.

  ‘She’s in my ship,’ Jane said. Both of the biosuited people looked blank. ‘The AI in my ship.’ Counsellor Lukin and Ithis looked at each other again. Jane sat up as tall as she could, even though it was work. ‘Where’s my ship?’

  ‘Jane,’ the Human woman said with a big smile. Jane had got nothing but sim smiles for years, and yet this was the fakest she’d ever seen. ‘You’ve been very sick, and there’s a lot for you to take in. Today, I think it’d be a good idea for you to get some rest, take it slow—’

  Jane glared. ‘Where’s – my – ship?’

  Counsellor Lukin sighed. ‘Jane, the thing you need to understand is that in the GC, there are strict laws concerning space travel. Space is dangerous, especially out in the open. Our laws keep people safe. Your ship . . . your ship wasn’t very safe, Jane. Its internal components racked up dozens of transport code violations, and it was flying on improperly recycled fuel, which is both illegal and highly hazardous.’ She laughed. ‘I don’t know where you found that thing, but—’

  ‘I built it,’ Jane said, her words snapping cold. ‘I built that thing.’

  The fake smile faltered. ‘I see. Well, the other component here is that you don’t have a pilot’s licence, which means you’re not allowed to own or operate a ship of any size. The good news is that I was able to arrange for some small compensation from the Transport Board. The GC always provides basic housing and supplies for refugee cases like yours, but I figured some additional credits to help you get started would—’

  ‘I don’t know what you’re saying. Compensation for what?’

  Ithis reached toward her. ‘Jane, you’re still sick, you need to—’

  Jane slapped his claws aside. ‘Compensation for what? What’s the Transport Board?’

  The woman sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Jane. The ship’s been confiscated.’

  SIDRA

  Nobody was eating the cake. Of all the things bothering Sidra in that moment, that was the stupidest, but the thought nagged at her all the same. She’d known this would be a difficult conversation, so she’d bought jenjen cake from Tak’s favourite bakery, then sat on the Undersea for an hour to get chocolate cake from Pepper’s favourite bakery. The plate holding both sat in the middle of the kitchen table, next to the pitcher of mek, which was getting cold. Everyone had taken slices and poured a cup, but that had been as far as it went.

  Sidra glanced across the table at Blue, who was watching the conversation with a furrowed brow and slight circles under his eyes. He wanted this to go well, too.

  ‘She’s on Kaathet,’ Pepper said, eyes fixed on her scrib. The message she’d received two days prior was still on screen. Sidra wasn’t sure if she’d closed it.

  Blue wet his lips before speaking. ‘The shuttle’s on Kaathet,’ he said, gently, cautiously.

  A tightness appeared around Pepper’s mouth and eyes. ‘Fine, yes, the shuttle’s on Kaathet. It’s at—’ She laughed humourlessly. ‘—it’s at the regional branch of the Reskit Museum of Interstellar Migration.’ She shook her head at the absurdity and rubbed her eyes. ‘They’ve apparently got this big exhibit of single-family spacecraft, and . . . well, it’s there.’

  Tak had the look of someone who wanted to be sympathetic but was at an utter loss. Xe also looked tired, which was understandable, since xe was in the first days of a shift. Xyr skin was bright with hormones, and Sidra could tell from the way xe continuously shifted weight that xyr muscles ached. Sidra had wished there’d been a better time for this conversation, but this was one of those things there was no planning for.

  ‘That’s . . .’ Tak began. Xyr inner eyelids darted in sideways, the Aeluon equivalent of a raised pair of eyebrows. ‘That must be overwhelming for you.’

  ‘Yeah,’ Pepper said. ‘Yeah.’

  Tak flicked xyr eyes to Sidra. Why am I here for this? the look said. The kit cleared its throat. ‘The letter Pepper got doesn’t have any information about the ship’s interior,’ Sidra said. ‘We . . . don’t know what condition it’s in.’

  ‘She means we don’t know if Owl’s installation is still functional,’ Pepper said flatly. Blue reached across the table and squeezed her arm. She laid her hand on top of his.

  ‘Okay,’ Tak said. The question on xyr face hadn’t wavered.

  Pepper sighed and shook her head. ‘You explain it to xyr,’ she said to Sidra. ‘This was your idea.’

  This was her idea, and Sidra knew Pepper didn’t like it. ‘Pepper needs to get into the ship and examine the core,’ Sidra said. ‘If all is well, she then needs to remove it. To do that, we have to get into the museum after visitor hours. We need to be able to get into the exhibit space.’

  ‘Wait,’ Tak said. Xe pulled back from the table, just a touch. ‘You . . . you want to break into a museum. You want to break into the Museum of Interstellar Migration.’

  That was exactly what Pepper had wanted to do two days ago, but Sidra felt it best to let that slide. ‘No,’ Sidra said. ‘That’s too risky.’ Pepper gave a quiet huff. ‘What we need is a way to get in that won’t attract attention. A legitimate way to get in.’

  Tak still wasn’t getting it, but xyr cheeks went wary yellow.

  Sidra pushed on. ‘The Reskit Museum is a registered GC cultural institution. That means that any citizen affiliated with any likewise registered group can have access to their archival materials, provided they sign a waiver against damages, and that sort of thing. Museum exhibitions count.’ Her pathways skittered, gathered, made the jump. ‘You never finished your studies. And at Ontalden, there’s no expiration date on an unfinished track. You’re still technically a university student.’

  Tak got it. Xe leaned back, staring at Sidra with a silence that spoke volumes. ‘You’re serious.’

  The kit nodded. ‘I’m serious.’

  ‘I—’ Xe rubbed xyr face and looked to Pepper. ‘Why don’t you just ask them?’

  Pepper blinked. ‘Ask them what? If I can go into their museum and take home some of their stuff?’

  ‘But it’s your stuff, right? Surely, if you explain the situation—’

  Pepper gave a brittle, incredulous laugh. ‘Stars. I’m sorry, Tak, but – stars. Yeah, if you went in and explained, maybe you’d get somewhere. I mean, look at you. You’re as respectable as it gets. You’re an Aeluon, you went to school. There is no door that won’t open for you. For me? For us?’ She pointed between her and Blue. ‘Humans aren’t much out here, and we barely qualify to begin with. You think if I stroll into some curator’s office with my monkey limbs and tweaked face, xe’s going to give a single solitary fuck about what I have to say? What would I even say? That they have a ship I used to live in? That someone I owe everything to has been stuck in it for ten years? Ships are property, and as far as the GC is concerned, AIs are, too. My home was confiscated, and that was legal. My family was taken from me, and that was legal. And the museum, the museum probably bought the ship at auction, which is totally legal and binding and all that shit. The law forgot to make space for people like me. People like her.’ She pointed at Sidra. ‘It doesn’t matter what sob story I lay out. If they say no – and they would – there is no chance of me ever getting in there again. There is no chance
of me ever getting Owl back.’

  Tak frowned. ‘If this is a matter of legality, you’re planning to steal something. Yes, I get that we’re talking about someone, here.’ Xe gave Sidra a small nod. ‘But to them, Owl is something, right? So that’s stealing. You’re going to steal something, and you want me to help. You want me to be an accessory.’

  Pepper shrugged. ‘Yeah, pretty much.’

  Blue leaned forward. ‘It’s not like that. All you’d have to do is g-get us in the door. If we wander off from there, you w – you wouldn’t be held responsible. That’d be on us.’

  ‘It wouldn’t have to be us,’ Pepper said to him. ‘You don’t have to go with me.’

  ‘Bullshit,’ Blue said.

  Pepper almost smiled.

  ‘Tak,’ Sidra said softly. ‘I know you don’t know Owl. I don’t, either. What if it were me? What if—’

  ‘Don’t,’ Tak said. ‘Don’t ask me that. I don’t have an answer.’

  The hanging question bothered Sidra, but she understood. Sidra reached the kit’s hand out and laid it flat on the table. ‘I know we’re asking a lot. But it’d be easy, honestly. All you’d have to do is a bit of formwork – some reactivation procedures with the university, a request form for the museum. And you’d have to take some time off work, which isn’t so bad. You’ve been saying you want a vacation.’

  Tak gave her a look. ‘This is not a vacation.’

  ‘We’d pay you back for the time off,’ Blue said. ‘That’s not a question.’

  ‘That’s not my concern,’ Tak said.

  The table fell silent. Sidra doubted anyone was going to eat cake by this point.

  Tak exhaled. ‘I need to think about it,’ xe said. ‘That doesn’t mean yes.’

  Pepper started to say something; Blue touched her shoulder. ‘That’s fine,’ he said. Pepper pressed her lips together. She was disappointed, Sidra knew, and impatient, too. Pepper didn’t like not having a plan. She didn’t like leaving things unfixed.

  ‘We’re planning to leave for Kaathet as soon as possible,’ Sidra said. ‘If you don’t come along, I understand, but—’

  Pepper cleared her throat. ‘Sidra,’ she said, drawing out the syllables to delay what came next. ‘Blue and I are going. You can’t come with us.’

  Sidra’s pathways balked. ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘Someone needs to watch the shop.’ It was a weak reason, and Pepper looked like she knew it. She sighed. ‘That, and . . . and the fact that yeah, there’s a chance we’ll get caught. And if you got caught with us . . .’ She closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘You have to stay home.’

  ‘But I did the research.’ Sidra tried to hold her voice still. ‘I brought Tak here. This was my idea.’

  ‘And I am really, truly grateful for that,’ Pepper said. ‘I am. But this isn’t up for debate. You can’t come with us.’

  ‘But I can help! What if Owl’s unstable? What if her files have been corrupted? I can edit Lattice! I can—’

  ‘Pepper’s right,’ Blue said. ‘We can’t lose both of you.’

  The kit shook its head. ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not going to just sit here.’

  Tak – Tak! – went orange-brown with agreement. ‘I understand why you want to help them, but—’

  Sidra was done listening. The kit stood up, took the tray of cake, and went upstairs, ignoring the repeated calls of her name. She kicked her bedroom door shut behind her, savouring the slam. Did they think she was stupid? Of course there were risks. Of course there could be trouble. That was why someone wrote monitoring systems in the first place – to prevent trouble. But no, all she ever did was cause trouble, or be made to stay out of it. She could help this time! She could help, and they wouldn’t let her. Not even Tak would let her. All they wanted from her was to stay behind doors, safe and useless.

  The kit took a handful of chocolate cake and stuffed it into its mouth. Her pathways continued to rankle, despite the image that appeared. A warm fireplace, its crackling embers blending in harmony with the rain drumming on the wooden roof.

  I’m not going to just sit here, she thought, as the image of fire danced and played. I’m not going to just sit here.

  JANE, AGE 19

  The station commander eyed Jane from across the table, cheeks swirling purple. This was not the first time Jane had been in her office. This was not the first time she’d been pissed at her.

  Counsellor Lukin sat near them, as always, completing the triangle of people who did not want to be talking to each other. Her fake smiles had grown less frequent. That suited Jane just fine.

  Commander Hoae stroked the skin around her talkbox, as she did when she was thinking. Jane was kind of annoyed for thinking it, but stars, her species really was pretty. ‘I am trying to understand,’ she said, ‘why you were caught trying to break into cargo hold six.’

  Jane crossed her arms. ‘I got caught because I was stupid and didn’t disable the third camera.’

  The purple in Commander Hoae’s cheeks grew darker. ‘I meant why you were trying to break in at all.’

  Jane flicked her eyes over to Counsellor Lukin, who was rubbing one of her temples. ‘I was looking for my ship.’

  ‘Jane, I don’t know how many times we have to go over this,’ Counsellor Lukin said. ‘That ship is not here. It was confiscated by legal authorities, and I do not know where it has gone. That is how it works when something is confiscated. You do not know where it is. You do not get it back.’

  ‘Why did you think it was in cargo hold six?’ the commander asked. ‘It wasn’t in cargo hold two or three, either. As you know from experience.’

  Jane shrugged. ‘I haven’t been to cargo hold six yet.’

  ‘So why—’

  ‘I just said. I haven’t been to it. She says’ – she pointed at Counsellor Lukin – ‘that my ship’s not there, but I don’t know that. All I know is that she says that. That means nothing to me. What, because she’s got the same face and hands as me, and has the power to take people’s stuff away—’

  ‘I didn’t have any say in it,’ Counsellor Lukin said, speaking over Jane. ‘This was a Transport Board matter—’

  ‘—I’m supposed to believe anything that comes out of her mouth?’

  ‘I am trying to help—’

  ‘And you, you have all your doors and walls and unauthorised zones. Why? What don’t you want me to see? What’s so fucking important that—’

  ‘Okay, enough,’ the commander said. She sighed – the first time she’d opened her mouth during the whole conversation. Owl had told Jane to be ready for the way Aeluons talked, but Jane hadn’t been, not really.

  Owl had told her. Jane shut her eyes. Don’t worry, she thought, trying to make the words stretch as far as they needed to. I haven’t left you. I haven’t left you. I’m coming. I’m coming and it’s going to be okay.

  The commander kept talking, lots of words like behaviour and regulations and for your own safety. Blah fucking blah. Jane didn’t care. She didn’t care about any of this. She’d been on the station for more than sixty days, and they still couldn’t tell her when she’d get to leave. Formwork, Counsellor Lukin said. Processing. Applying for citizenship took time, she said, and there was some dumb unanswered question about whether Jane’s case counted as a standard refugee thing, or if Jane and Laurian should be categorised as clones, which was apparently a whole big complicated thing if so. Oh, and social adjustment. Fucking hell, Lukin was actually making them watch all these dumb vids about what to expect in GC society. As if Jane hadn’t been practising that for years. As if everything Owl taught her didn’t matter.

  Owl. Owl Owl Owl.

  The room had gone silent, and Jane realised the other two were waiting for her to say something. ‘Uh, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I won’t do it again.’ She looked back and forth between them. Neither looked any more pleased than they had when the security guard brought her in there. ‘Can I go?’

  The commander sigh
ed again, and waved her toward the door. Jane couldn’t get out fast enough.

  Laurian was waiting for her on the other side, sitting on a bench opposite the door. ‘H-hey,’ he said, speaking Sko-Ensk. He chased after her as she strode down the hall. ‘I-is, um, are – a-are you—’

  ‘I’m so sick of this,’ she said. ‘So sick of all this stupid shit.’ She walked faster and faster, nearly breaking into a run. Her muscles wanted to run. She wanted to run away from the station, away from all these stupid binding rules, away to wherever they’d taken Owl.

  Laurian kept up. She could feel him watching her. She had nothing to say to him, but she felt better with him there. He was the only thing on the station she recognised.

  They came to a railing, overlooking the wide commons below. She leaned against the cold metal, looking down, looking at nothing. Dammit. Of course there’d been a third camera. The hall outside that cargo hold was a weird junction, and she’d just assumed that it had the same camera setup as everything else. Stupid. They’d taken her tools – again – and they knew she was going for that particular cargo hold, so she’d have to be real careful the next time. She’d have to plan it just right so that . . . that . . . She kicked the railing, so hard it made her toes curl in. Her body was strong enough to kick now. It could kick and punch and yell real loud, and those were the only things she wanted to do these days.

  ‘She’s not here, is she?’ Jane whispered.

  She hadn’t meant the words for anyone, but Laurian answered – not with words, but with a hand on top of hers. He looked at her with his grass-green eyes, a hue Human eyes could never be without some help. No, his eyes said. And I am so, so sorry.

  Jane watched the busy commons down below. It was full of aliens, not another Human to be seen. They were spacers, most of them, except for the vendors selling food the doctors hadn’t let her eat yet. Your body isn’t ready for heavy foods, Jane. Come on, take your supplements. Fuck off. Supplements were just meals crammed into a pill instead of a cup.

 
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