A closed and common orbi.., p.3
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.3

           Becky Chambers

  Sidra assessed this space. She’d been so anxious to get out of the shuttle, but now that she’d experienced a crowd, she decided that being within a structure was the lesser evil. Structures had edges. Ends. Doors. The dim awareness of unseen actions happening behind the kit’s head was still unnerving, but she was inside now, and inside was something she understood.

  A safety announcement was rattled off in several languages – Klip, Hanto, Reskitkish. Aeluon light panels affixed to the walls lit up and shimmered in tandem with the audio. Sidra watched the colour language dance and blend. It was an enticing thing to focus on.

  The doors spun shut, melting into the opaque walls. There was a hum, then a buzz, then a massive rush of air. Sidra could tell they were moving, even though the environment within the car was calm and comfortable. The old man seated nearby began to snore.

  She swung the kit’s head around, trying to cover all her blind spots. ‘Are there no windows?’

  ‘There will be,’ Blue said. ‘Just w-wait a few minutes.’

  A twinge of excitement cut through the heavier thoughts. This was kind of fun. ‘How does this thing work?’ she asked. There were no tracks or cables that she’d seen, no obvious engines. ‘What kind of propulsion does this use?’

  ‘I have no idea,’ Pepper said, putting her feet up on the back of the seat in front of her. ‘I mean, I’ve tried to understand it. I’ve looked it up. I just do not get it.’

  ‘And for her—’ Blue began.

  Pepper waved him off. ‘Oh, don’t.’

  Blue ignored her. ‘For her, it, ah, it really is saying something.’

  ‘Nobody gets how the Undersea works,’ Pepper said. ‘Unless you’re a Pair. And nobody gets them, either.’

  Her companion raised an eyebrow. ‘That was vaguely speciest.’

  Pepper’s lips gave a mischievous twitch. ‘It’s the Human car.’ She leaned over, snuggling against Blue’s chest. His arm fell around her shoulders reflexively. Pepper hadn’t slept on the ten-hour trip back to Coriol. Nothing had been said about it, but Sidra suspected Pepper had stayed awake to keep an eye on her. Sidra was grateful, but felt guilty.

  Six minutes passed, and the car changed. The lights inside dimmed. The walls went gauzy, almost clear. Soft external lights switched on, illuminating the slice of sea surrounding the car. Sidra leaned the kit forward to get a better look.

  ‘Here, we can swap,’ Blue said, removing himself from Pepper and trading places with Sidra. He put his other arm back around Pepper, whose eyelids were drooping. She fought it with a stubborn scowl.

  Sidra pressed the kit close as she could to the transparent wall. The waters outside rushed past in a blur, creating what felt like a time-lapsed vid of the environment the car travelled through. The view was dim, thanks to the thick algae mats that capped the seas of Coriol, but even so, Sidra could see life out there. Tentacled things. Soft things. Toothed things. Things that drifted and bobbed and swayed.

  She began to make a note, then realised she could just ask. ‘Are there indigenous land species here as well?’

  ‘Little stuff,’ Pepper said, speaking with her eyes closed. ‘Bugs and crabs, that kind of thing. Coriol wasn’t too far along evolution-wise when everybody else rolled in. It was settled before the, um . . . oh, fucking what’s-it-called, the let’s-leave-planets-with-life-alone law—’

  ‘The Biodiversity Preservation Agreement,’ Sidra said.

  Pepper’s eyes snapped open. ‘You’re not, ah—’ She tapped the back of her head, right at the base of her skull. Sidra understood: Are you connected to the Linkings?

  ‘No,’ Sidra said, though she wished she was. ‘I don’t have a wireless receiver.’ She wondered how difficult it would be to install one. She had read that for organic sapients, the risks of wireless headjack hijacking were significant, which was scary, but . . . but surely, if she had the capability to detect a hijacking attempt directed toward a long-haul spacecraft, she could do it from inside one small body. Unsurprisingly, however, the public Linkings had come up empty on how to make hardware modifications to an illegal AI housing.

  Pepper squinted. ‘If you’re not in the Linkings, how do you know that tidbit?’

  ‘Just something I ran across while—’ Sidra paused, remembering that they were not alone, and that the kit’s voice did not transmit sound as directionally as, say, a wall-mounted vox. ‘— while I was doing research earlier.’ It was true, and it had to be. Already, the honesty protocol was proving to be a challenge, and her inability to disable it herself made her uneasy. Housed within a ship, she might have been ambivalent about it. But out here, where she was hyper-aware of everything she was and wasn’t, truth left her vulnerable.

  She processed her discomfort as she turned her gaze back to Pepper and Blue, who were arranged easily against each other. Again, she compared them to their fellow passengers. No two Humans that Sidra could see looked anything alike. They varied in skin tone, in shape, in size. But though those they shared the car with were, presumably, from everywhere, Pepper and Blue were from a very particular someplace else. Sidra had determined what set Blue apart from the rest of his species: symmetry. His face was arranged in a way that genes simply could not achieve when left untampered with, and his body suggested bones and muscles structured with equal attention to design. The same was present in Pepper as well, despite all her body had weathered. Yes, her hands were heavily scarred, and much of her skin had a sun-damaged roughness, but once you stopped focusing on the wear and the lack of hair, you could see the same polish. Whoever made Blue had made Pepper, too.

  This conclusion wasn’t a revelation. Pepper had explained things on the shuttle – explained the scar tissue on her palms, explained how she’d found Blue, explained why Enhanced Humanity colonies were estranged from the GC. Sidra wasn’t sure how many questions on the topic were too many (a distinction she was still learning in all things), but Pepper had been up front. She didn’t seem to mind being asked, even though some answers came harder than others. If you’re going to stay with us, she’d said, you should know whose house you’re in.

  Sidra watched the pair as the Undersea shot around the moon. Pepper, at last, gave in to sleep. Blue seemed content watching blurs of curious fish and tangled seaweed. Neither of them had been made for this place, Sidra considered. And neither, truly, had any of the Humans here, even though they had been created with far less intent. The same could be said for the other species in the other transit cars. The Aeluons and the Aandrisks with their breathing masks. The Harmagians with their motorised carts. None of them were meant to share a world together – meant to share this world – yet here they were.

  Perhaps in that way, at least, she was not so different from them.

  JANE 23, AGE 10

  At the end of the day, the Janes went on their exercise break, as they always did. Jane 23 liked exercising. After sitting at a bench all morning, running felt real good. She followed the other girls into the exercise room and got on the same treadmill she always did. The handles were sweaty from whatever girl had been there before. One of the Marys. She’d seen them leaving.

  ‘Get ready,’ the Mother said. All the Janes were ready. ‘Go.’

  The treadmill switched on. Jane 23 ran and ran and ran. Her heart beat fast and her scalp felt kinda buzzy, and she liked how she breathed harder as she went along. She closed her eyes. She wanted to go faster. She wanted to go faster so much. And she could, too. She felt something deep in her legs, something all packed in and itchy, something that wanted to be let out. She leaned her head back, and let her feet go just a little—

  Somebody in the room coughed. Jane 23 opened her eyes and saw Jane 64, looking at her hard. Jane 23 looked toward the Mother watching over them. She was looking somewhere else, not at Jane 23, but that could change real fast. Jane 23 slowed back down. She hadn’t meant to go fast, not really. It had just happened. Jane 64 was real helpful for noticing. Jane 23 nodded at 64, knowing they both felt good.

  She looked toward the Mother again, hoping she hadn’t noticed. Last time Jane 23 had gone faster than the other girls, she’d been punished. Going fast had felt so good before that. For a second, she’d been somewhere else, somewhere where all she could feel was heart and breath and buzzy head. Her body was doing exactly what it wanted. Everything was bright and clean, and she had smiled.

  But then her treadmill had turned off without slowing down first, and she’d smashed her face into the monitor as she fell. Her nose gushed hot and red. A Mother had pulled her up, metal hand around the back of her neck. Jane 23 hadn’t heard her coming, didn’t see her walk over. Mothers were like that. They were real, real fast, and quiet, too.

  ‘This is not good behaviour,’ the Mother had said. ‘Do not do this again.’ Jane 23 was so so scared, but the Mother had put her back down. After, when they went to get meal cups, there hadn’t been one marked 23.

  She didn’t go fast any more. It was good that Jane 64 was helping her do good behaviour. She didn’t want to get in trouble again. She didn’t want Jane 64 to have to sleep with other bunkmates.

  After exercise, they went to the showers – five minutes, like always – then got meal cups in the learning room. They sat on the soft floor with their legs crossed as the vid screen came on.

  ‘Today we’re going to learn about artigrav nets,’ the voice from the vid said. ‘You will begin to see these in your scrap allotments after the new work schedule is posted.’ A picture appeared: a very complicated thing with all kinds of rods and wires and little bits. Jane 23 leaned forward, drinking her meal. This looked like a real good piece of scrap. Real interesting.

  Jane 64 leaned against Jane 23’s shoulder, which was allowed after work time. All the girls were starting to move closer together. It was nice, being close. Jane 8 laid her head on 64’s knee, and 12 sprawled out on her stomach, swinging her feet in the air. Jane 64 looked real sleepy. Her task that day had been a very big piece of scrap that had needed five girls working on it. All those girls had gotten a little extra in their meal cups. That was what happened when you had to work with heavy stuff. Heavy stuff made you hungry.

  ‘Artigrav nets look good,’ Jane 23 said. Talking was allowed, too, so long as it was about the vid.

  ‘It looks hard,’ Jane 64 said. ‘Look at the interlacing conduits.’

  ‘Yes, but it’s got lots of little bits,’ said Jane 23. She felt Jane 64 smile against her shoulder.

  ‘You like little bits,’ Jane 64 said. ‘You’re real good at them. I think you’re the most good at little bits.’

  Jane 23 drank her meal and watched the vid. She was starting to feel sleepy, too. It had been a real good day, though. She had been on task and hadn’t gotten punished and Jane 64 said she was the most good.


  Already, Sidra preferred Coriol’s dark side. It was a curious astronomical phenomenon – a planet tidally locked with its sun, a moon tidally locked with its planet, each with a day and night that never shifted across their respective surfaces. Sidra was grateful for it. The lack of natural light meant there was only so far she could see, and that meant there was less to process. The Undersea had risen up above the ground, travelling relatively more slowly through a tube supported by thick columns. The tube ran through multiple districts, as Blue explained. Sidra made a note to find a way to explore them in a slower mode of transportation, perhaps on foot once she adjusted to the kit. But even zipping past, she could see that the distinctions separating districts were stark. The dark side was where Coriol’s merchants sought refuge from the bright bustle of the marketplace. There were districts there, too, but from what Blue had told her, the distinctions were based on wares and services. Here, the lines drawn were quite different. The first district they passed through was Tessara Cliffs, home to the wealthy and well-off (ship dealers, mostly, Blue said, and fuel merchants, too). The homes there were hidden behind artful walls and sculpted rock, but she could tell they were large and impeccably cared for. Next, Kukkesh, the Aandrisk district, a cosy sprawl of single-storey homes with welcoming doors and few windows. There was an invisible but unmistakable border between there and Flatrock Bay, a name no one but tourists and maps used.

  ‘This is the Bruise,’ Blue said quietly. ‘Not a good place to hang out. It’s where folks end up if, ah, if they got dealt a b-bad hand.’

  As they passed through the station there, Sidra saw the weary faces of a family of Akaraks, digging through a trash receptacle with the help of their badly dented mechsuits. It was a troubling sight, and Sidra found other things to process as quickly as she could.

  At last, they reached the modder district – Sixtop. The name was a pun, a reference to both the six small hills the homes were tucked around, and six-top circuits, a ubiquitous mech tech component. Sidra didn’t know what to expect of the place, but what she saw upon exiting the Undersea was surprisingly organic in aesthetic for a multispecies community of tech lovers. Yes, the signs of its inhabitants’ various trades were obvious – personal power generators, empty fuel drums, receivers and transmitters of all kinds. But likewise, there were lovingly tended strips of plantlife basking under sunlamps, and glowing fountains that glittered in the dark. There were sculptures made of scrap, smooth benches utilised by chatting friends and amorous couples, soft lighting fixtures that looked like the pet projects of individuals with disparate senses of style. There was nothing bureaucratic or single-minded about the public decor. This was a place built by many. She saw a food shop, a gaming bar, a few vendors of this and that. There was a quiet slowness here, absent in what she’d seen of the light side. Perhaps modders got enough flash and bustle in their day jobs. Perhaps they, too, needed a place to unplug.

  The smooth path leading from the Undersea station was curved, branching out like a river into the clusters of homes beyond. The dwellings themselves were low to the ground – nothing over two storeys tall – and rounded at the edges, like someone had moulded them out of handfuls of . . . something. She didn’t have any stored files on building materials. Yet another thing to download.

  ‘Watch your step,’ Blue said. Sidra moved her gaze down to see a gauzy winged insect right below where the kit’s right foot would have fallen. She had no information on the species, but it was beautiful, whatever it was. The wings were thick and fuzzy, and luminescent patches along its thorax pulsed with gentle light. She stepped safely aside, glad to have avoided it. The idea of killing something, even if by accident – especially by accident – was unsettling.

  ‘We keep things dim here, to keep light pollution down,’ Pepper said. ‘It’s kinda hard to see what’s in front of you sometimes, but you get used to it.’ She considered something. ‘Though I guess you could just, y’know, adjust your light intake. Might make it easier.’ She led the way forward, and reached her hand back. Blue took it. He fell in step beside her.

  Sidra did not adjust her light intake. She wanted to see the neighbourhood as her companions did. The dim light Pepper spoke of came from hovering blue globes, situated here and there along the path. They bobbed slightly, buoyed by unseen energy. Below them, night-blooming moss and chubby mushrooms lined the edges of the path. More of the winged insects clustered there, their lighted sides illuminating the veins of the leaves as they searched for nectar. Sidra looked ahead, and around. She could see sapients behind windows, silhouetted as they ate and cleaned and spoke. A trio of Aandrisk hatchlings chased each other around a fountain, shouting in a haphazard melange of Klip and Reskitkish. A Harmagian whirred by on her cart, waving her heavily pierced dactyli at Pepper and Blue in an approximation of the Human greeting. The Humans returned the gesture with their free palms. Sidra couldn’t say why, but frayed as she still was, something about Sixtop made her relax.

  They approached a modestly sized dwelling, not much different from the others. The plants around the outer walls were overgrown, a little forgotten. Pepper approached the door and swiped her wrist over the locking panel. The lights inside switched on
and the door slid back. ‘Welcome home,’ Pepper said.

  Sidra watched Pepper and Blue carefully as they entered the building. She wasn’t sure what the correct protocol was here, and she didn’t want to do anything impolite. They removed their shoes; so did she. They hung their jackets; so did she. And then . . . then what? What did a person do inside a house?

  ‘Make yourself comfortable,’ Blue said.

  That did not answer her question.

  Pepper caught Sidra’s silence. ‘Just take a look around,’ she said. ‘Explore. Get used to the place.’ She turned to Blue. ‘I . . . am hungry.’

  ‘We’ve got leftover noodles in the stasie. But I don’t think there’s enough for th-three.’

  ‘She doesn’t need to eat.’

  ‘Oh, right! Right. W-well, then we’ve got enough.’

  ‘You missed the part where I am hungry,’ Pepper said, balling her hands into pleading fists. ‘I don’t want noodles. I want protein. I want something that will stick in my belly and make me regret it later.’

  Sidra moved the kit through the room as the Humans discussed dinner. It was not a big home, nor one that gave the impression of wealth. The main room was a round, soft-looking space, with a cooking area branching off to the side. The walls were lined with shelves straining under the weight of bins of spare parts, pixel plants, and kitschy knick-knacks. Judging by the cluttered worktable stationed by a broad window, Pepper liked to bring her work home with her.

  Sidra approached one of the shelves, which was devoted solely to figurines. Palm-size little people, all screaming with colour.

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