A closed and common orbi.., p.30
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.30

           Becky Chambers
 

  Jane felt her cheeks flush. ‘You heard about that?’

  Oouoh stretched his limbs. ‘Ships are small. Things get around. Don’t let her get to you. She thinks I smell, too.’ He ruffled the fur on his forearm. ‘We mammals got the shit end of the evolution stick.’

  Something wrapped tight in Jane’s chest loosened a bit, and she smiled. She liked this guy.

  ‘Anyway, all I’m saying is you two act like you’ve known each other a while. I guess if you’ve been through some bad stuff together, that speeds things up.’

  Jane thought about that. She thought about the bit early on in Scorch Squad VI when the Squad crosses paths with Death-Head Eve, and they team up to fight the Oil Prince. They went through a lot of bad stuff together, and they did all kinds of crazy things that you’d only do if you really trusted and cared about somebody. But in the end, when the job was done, when the bad guy was gone, they went their separate ways. They weren’t friends, not in the sticking-around sense. Jane and Laurian had never discussed whether they’d be sticking around each other once they left the Yo’ton. She’d just assumed it would happen. But why? If he didn’t want to stick around, he didn’t have to, right? The thought made her sad, which was stupid. She could take care of herself. If she could scavenge, if she could deal with dogs, she could handle whatever Port Coriol had on her own.

  But she liked Laurian. She liked him being with her. She liked working with him, eating with him. She liked the drawings he made on the old scrib the captain had given him. She liked teaching him Klip, little by little, going real slow as he fought through the sounds. She liked the way he put his hand on her shoulder when she got scared or angry. She liked sleeping next to him, even though the storage compartment sucked. She liked knowing that if she had a nightmare, he’d wake her up, and that she’d do the same for him. She liked telling him sim stories in the dark when neither of them could sleep, and she liked that he’d draw her pictures of characters the way he imagined them. She liked that time she’d woken up to find that they’d cuddled close, nose to nose. She’d stayed awake as long as she could, just lying real still and knowing he was there. It wasn’t like having a bunkmate. She didn’t know what it was like. She thought about what Oouoh had assumed. She wished she could talk to Owl.

  She pointed at the pipe. ‘Can I have some more?’

  Oouoh passed the pipe back. ‘Like it?’

  Jane sparked the redreed. ‘I dunno yet.’ She breathed in smoke. And coughed, of course. ‘I like the taste, at least. I like tasting new things.’

  The Laru watched her, his neck bobbing in thought. ‘Come on,’ he said, standing up and waving her to follow. Oouoh went back into the storage area, where the cook worked. He opened a two-doored cupboard, and gestured her toward it.

  Jane stepped forward. Inside the cupboard were dozens of little jars and bottles, all labelled with words she could read but didn’t recognise. Crushberry leaf. Ground huptum. River salt. She didn’t understand.

  Oouoh’s eyes rolled toward the jars, then back at Jane. ‘They’re spices,’ he said. ‘You know what spices are?’

  Jane shook her head.

  ‘Stars,’ Oouoh muttered. He grabbed a jar – Yekeni pepper, the label read – and pulled out the stopper. ‘Put out your hand,’ he said. Jane did, and Oouoh sprinkled a tiny dash of rough yellow dust into her palm. ‘Go on. Taste it.’

  Jane stared at the hard little clumps. This . . . wasn’t food. She didn’t know what this was. She sniffed it. Her sinuses shot open in response. Timidly, she stuck out her tongue and dabbed up a few of the mysterious grains.

  Her mouth exploded, but oh, stars, in such a good way. Everything was hot and sharp, but delicious, too, and smoky and dry and – and like nothing she’d ever tasted. Nothing ever. She licked up the rest, not caring about the pain that came with it. The pain almost made it better, in a weird way. Her eyes watered and her nose cleared. She was the most awake she’d felt in days.

  She grabbed another jar. Suddet, it read. ‘Are any of these poisonous?’ she asked.

  Oouoh wiggled his neck. ‘To you? No idea. But I know where the med ward is, and you look easy to carry.’

  Jane grinned, then poured a bit of the suddet – whatever that was – straight onto her tongue. Different! So different! This one wasn’t hot at all! It was like . . . dammit, she needed words for this. She’d find the words. She’d learn.

  Oouoh leaned back against the counter and smoked his pipe as Jane tore through the cupboard. Would she get in trouble for this? Would the cook be mad? She didn’t care. How could she care when there was a whole pantry full of new experiences with names like chokevine and roasting blend and kulli paste? She couldn’t, was the answer. She wanted to taste everything in there. She wanted to do it until her mouth went numb.

  She stood in front of the cupboard, jars on the floor around her, palms coated with multicoloured dust. She wasn’t sure if it was the redreed or something she’d swallowed or what, but in that moment, she could feel a bridge stretching between her as she was right then – giggling and gasping in a spaceship kitchen – to her at four years old, sucking algae gunk from her nails in the dark. She felt as though she could reach out to that little girl and pull her through the years. Look, she’d say. Look who you’re gonna be. Look where you’re gonna go.

  Jane let out a sob she hadn’t known was there. Oouoh sat up with a start. ‘Oh – oh, what the fuck,’ he said. ‘Shit, let’s get you to the med ward, come on—’

  Jane stared at him. ‘What? Why? I’m fine.’

  ‘Uh, no, you’re . . . your eyes are leaking.’

  Jane laughed, which was hard to do while crying. ‘No, no, this’ – she sniffed hard – ‘it’s just tears. It’s okay.’

  Oouoh was distraught. ‘What about this is okay?’

  ‘We do this. Humans do this when – when we’re feeling a lot of things.’

  ‘You leak?’

  ‘I guess. I’m okay, really. I’m fine.’

  The Laru shifted his jaw back and forth. ‘All right. That’s fucking creepy, but all right.’ He rubbed the length of his neck, smoothing the fur down. ‘What are you feeling? Are you upset?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ Jane said. ‘This is all . . . it’s just a lot. All of this is a lot.’

  Oouoh considered. ‘Is your species . . . I mean, are you okay with touching? Y’know, physical contact?’

  Jane nodded, tears still flowing steady.

  Oouoh took a step forward and wrapped one of his big arms around her, pulling her close to his chest. He wrapped his neck around her, too, which was strange, but it wasn’t so different from another arm. He squeezed, gently, and Jane hung on tight, more grateful for that weird alien hug than she’d been for anything in a long time.

  ‘You’re okay now,’ Oouoh said as Jane cried into his fur. ‘You’re okay.’

  SIDRA

  Tak sat on the floor, leaning against the doorway that led into the core chamber. ‘So,’ she said. ‘This is you.’

  ‘No,’ Sidra said. ‘This is the core. It’s not me. It’s just where most of my processes are taking place. For the time being, it’s . . . it’s my brain, I guess.’

  ‘And the rest of your processes are . . .?’

  ‘Spread throughout the ship. You know how this works.’

  ‘Right,’ Tak said. ‘Right.’ She shifted her weight, not for the first time. Was she nervous? Afraid? Uncomfortable? Her red-speckled cheeks could’ve been all of the above. ‘It’s a weird thought, knowing we’re . . . walking through you.’

  Sidra sighed. ‘You’re walking through the ship. I’m just—’

  ‘Everywhere. I know. I get it. Are you . . . okay? How is this for you?’

  ‘This is what I was designed for.’

  ‘I get that. But is this . . . better?’

  Sidra wanted to say yes. There were a lot of reasons to say yes. But even though she could lie now, she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Why? What could possibly be missing? She had
Linking access, which was nothing short of blissful. The shuttle was much smaller than the sort of craft she was intended for, but size didn’t matter in the face of cameras, voxes, an outer hull. The low hum of unease she’d been carrying every day since the Wayfarer was gone now. Her pathways were still and clear. This was the configuration she was meant be in, the existence she’d been longing for.

  How could this not be better?

  Tak took Sidra’s silence in stride. ‘You know, as far as secret stowaway plans go—’

  ‘This was not the best?’

  Her friend chuckled. ‘Not really. Though I admire the guts it took.’ She glanced around. ‘How do I . . . it feels odd, talking to you without looking you in the eye.’

  ‘I know you’re talking to me. But if it makes you feel better, you can look here.’ She wiggled the nearest camera, zooming in and out quickly so that Tak could hear it.

  Tak looked directly at the camera, inner eyelids sliding sideways. ‘No offence, but this is odd, too. It’ll take some getting used to, at least.’

  Pepper entered, surprising Tak, but not Sidra, who had seen her lingering in the corridor, assessing whether or not to join them. ‘It was easier with Owl,’ Pepper said, sitting opposite from Tak. ‘The shuttle had vid panels above the voxes. She’d display a face when she was talking to me.’

  ‘What’d she look like?’ Tak asked.

  ‘Just . . . standard Human,’ Pepper said. ‘Not realistic. Just this sort of outline, y’know? Like a drawing. And it was set against shifting colours.’ She nodded at Tak. ‘You would’ve hated it.’

  Tak laughed. ‘Possibly.’

  Pepper folded her arms around herself. ‘It’s been so long, the details are a bit blurry. But she had a kind face, I can tell you that much. I thought she looked kind, anyway.’

  ‘Why aren’t there vid panels here?’ Sidra asked. There hadn’t been any on the Wayfarer either, come to think of it. She couldn’t remember having seen anything like that.

  ‘Some people still use them,’ Pepper said, ‘but not commonly. They fell out of fashion. They’re hard to find these days.’

  ‘Why?’

  Pepper’s face twisted into a humourless smirk. ‘They were seen as inefficient, particularly for long-haul ships.’ She looked at the camera. ‘There was the tendency for people to get emotionally attached. AI vendors didn’t like that. Made it less likely for people to buy new platforms. So, the programmers and the hardware manufacturers got their heads together, and here you are, minus a face.’

  Tak frowned, yellow and pensive. ‘The more I think about these things, the less I understand why they are the way they are.’

  ‘It’s very easy to understand,’ Pepper said. She stretched out her legs, crossing one ankle over the other. ‘It’s the same thing the Enhanced did to us factory kids. It’s the same thing the Harmagians did to the Akaraks, or the Felasens, or any of the other species they mowed over. And you guys, you guys invented AIs in the first place. Sentient code didn’t exist before you wrote it down.’ She shrugged. ‘Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we’re doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe that you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you . . . well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.’ She jutted her chin toward Tak. ‘You studied history. You know this. Everybody’s history is one long slog of all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other.’

  ‘It’s not all that,’ Tak said. ‘A lot of it, yes. But there’s good things, too. There’s art and cities and science. All the things we’ve discovered. All the things we’ve learned and made better.’

  ‘All the things made better for some people. Nobody has ever figured out how to make things better for everybody.’

  ‘I know,’ Tak said. She thought, cheeks swirling. ‘That’s why we have to keep talking to each other.’

  ‘And listening,’ Pepper said.

  Tak nodded, Human-style. ‘And listening.’

  As Sidra watched them, she realised their body language had changed. They’d each angled toward the other. They sat with a respectful amount of space between them – as much as the cramped corridor would allow, anyhow – and they watched each other intently as they spoke. She imagined the situation if she were not in the walls, but in the kit, sitting on the floor with them. She imagined their angle would be different. She imagined that their eyes, from time to time, would look at the kit, too. And yes, she knew they knew she was there in the core. Tak wanted to look into the camera. Pepper had done so without direction. But they had an instinctive response toward another body that cameras did not elicit. Sidra no longer shared a space with them. She was the space. She was the shell that held them. She’d be empty if they weren’t there.

  Her pathways churned with incredulity, and she couldn’t help but laugh aloud through the vox.

  ‘What’s so funny?’ Pepper said.

  ‘I am,’ Sidra said, continuing to laugh. ‘Oh, this is stupid. I’m so incredibly stupid.’

  Tak and Pepper shared a glance. ‘Why?’ Pepper asked.

  Sidra found the words, and worked up the courage to say them. Stars, but this was inane. ‘I want to be on the floor with you,’ she said. She laughed and laughed. ‘I’m finally in a ship, and all I want is to be sitting on the floor.’

  Tak bloomed blue and green. ‘“Dear Thumhum Is Upside Down”.’

  ‘What?’ Pepper said.

  Sidra had already run the words through the Linkings. ‘It’s a Harmagian children’s story,’ she said. ‘A very old one.’

  ‘You know it?’ Tak said to Pepper. Pepper shook her head. ‘Thumhum is a child who goes up into zero-g for the first time. You know for Harmagians, falling with their belly exposed makes it difficult for them to flip back over, right? So Thumhum keeps calling for help, because he’s freaking out about being upside down. Doesn’t matter which way they turn him. He’s always upside down.’

  ‘But . . . he’s in zero-g,’ Pepper said. ‘There is no upside down.’

  ‘That’s the point,’ Tak said. ‘He’s so focused on being upside down, he misses the fact that he’s already up.’

  Sidra laughed, but Pepper did not. ‘No,’ Pepper said. ‘No, I don’t think that’s what this is.’ She folded her hands in her lap, thinking hard. ‘When I first got to the Port, it scared the high holy fuck out of me. It was like stepping out of the factory all over again. I didn’t know what anything was. I didn’t know what the foods were. I didn’t know what people were selling. The scrapyard was hell, but it was a hell I knew. I knew which piles I’d picked over, where the water was, where the dogs slept. I knew how to get back home. Coriol wasn’t home, not at first. It was just a big, loud mess. I hated it. I wanted to leave almost as soon as we got there.’ She turned her eyes to the camera. ‘Take a look at the left-hand side of the pilot’s console. Tell Tak what’s sitting on top of it.’

  Sidra zoomed in with the cockpit camera. ‘Figurines,’ she said. ‘Alain, Manjiri, and Pinch.’

  Tak went light brown with recognition. ‘Big Bug, right?’

  Pepper nodded with a faraway smile. ‘Yup. Owl had one episode in storage. “The Big Bug Crew and the Planetary Puzzle”. I can’t even tell you how many times I played it. I can still tell you every bit of dialogue, word for word. Every story variable, every line in the artwork. I could draw that ship from top to bottom, if I could draw for shit.’ She collected her thoughts. ‘My first morning on Coriol, I left Blue sleeping and went out alone. I wanted to get a handle on things by myself. I was still so angry, and so afraid, and having an audience for that was just too much. Anyway, I wandered the marketplace for a while. I didn’t know what I was doing, but looking back, I was searchi
ng for something – anything – familiar. I would’ve eaten dog again, if somebody’d been selling it. I don’t know how long I’d been out there – an hour, maybe two. I stumble on this shop. It’s got all sorts of sim characters painted on the walls. I didn’t know most of them, but right there, smack in the middle, are the Big Bug Crew. And I was just like . . . holy shit, my friends! My friends are here! Stars, I almost cried. I know that sounds stupid—’

  ‘It doesn’t,’ Tak said.

  Pepper gave a small nod. ‘So I go into the shop – it’s a sim shop, obviously – and there’s this Human guy in there. And he’s like, hey, what can I do for you? And I say – well, keep in mind, I’ve got about ten thousand credits to my name, and I woke up in the corner of some modder’s cargo shed. I was broke as broke gets, but I bought a hackjob sim hub off him. He asks me if I want any sims while I’m there, and I say, “Do you have Big Bug Crew?” And he looks at me and says, “Of course, which one?”’ She laughed. ‘“Which one?” I didn’t know there was more than one! He thinks I’m nuts at this point, obviously. He brings up this massive catalogue, and he says, “Friend, they’ve been making Big Bug for over thirty standards.”’

  ‘How many did you buy?’ Sidra asked.

  ‘Oh, all of them. I had to go back and explain to Blue why I’d just spent most of our credits on kids’ sims and a busted hub. I didn’t really understand money then. I still don’t.’ Pepper looked to the ceiling, thinking. ‘Since then, I’ve played every single episode at least twice. I can tell you any trivia you want to know. I love Big Bug. I love it dearly. But it will never feel the same as it did when I was a kid. I’m different now. And different is good, but it cuts both ways.’ She reached out and touched the closest circuit junction. ‘You’re different now, too.’

  Sidra wasn’t sure if that was a comfort or a concern. ‘The kit has so many limitations, and there’s only so much code I can tweak before I start changing who I am. If I had come back into a ship after only a few days, or a tenday, even, I think I would’ve been fine. But now . . .’ She tried to untangle her pathways. ‘I don’t know what I want.’

 
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