A closed and common orbi.., p.31
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.31

           Becky Chambers
 

  Pepper laughed. ‘Sweetheart, none of us ever do.’

  Sidra considered her own words: the kit. The kit was back in the storage compartment. She processed. The ship was what she was designed for, but . . . but. She didn’t know this ship. This ship could have been any ship, and she would’ve filled it equally as well. If she didn’t open a hatch, someone else could open it manually, regardless of whether she wanted to. She was nothing more than a ghost in a ship. A sidekick. A tool.

  The kit was restrictive. It wasn’t enough. But it was also autonomous. It was hers. Nobody could force her to raise a hand or walk across the room. In the kit, she could walk when she wanted to walk, and sit when she wanted to sit. She could run. She could hug. She could dance. If she could alter her own code, then the kit wasn’t the end limit either. For all the things the kit wasn’t, there was much it still could be.

  ‘Tak, could you open the storage compartment to your left, please?’ Sidra asked. ‘I think I’d like to be in my body for a little while.’

  PEPPER

  The Reskit Museum of Interstellar Migration (Kaathet Branch) turned out to be one of those things that made civilisation as a whole look like a pretty okay thing to get behind. It was the largest building in the city, by far, and even though Aandrisks weren’t known for getting too fluffy with their architecture, the design was a hell of a thing to see. Aandrisk buildings weren’t big on windows to begin with (hard to keep heat in that way), and sunlight was rough on just about everything, especially old tech. The museum had gotten around that problem by building the entire complex out of thinly cut yellow stone, sliced so slim that the light from outside glowed through. The effect was haunting – magical, almost. It was like walking through the heart of a star, or a dying fire. It was like being within something alive.

  None of that changed the fact that by base, museums were weird. Pepper understood that you had to get your story down somewhere, and making it tangible was a good way to keep from forgetting. The intent was fine. The content . . . that was what weirded her out. Everything in the Reskit Museum was junk. A clunky early ansible, a burned-out nav beacon, an old tunnel map from the days when the Harmagians were the only ones boring holes in space. Why this stuff? Why this antique exosuit, and not the ten others that had probably come in with it? Why had this one been lovingly stitched, patched, and propped up in a temperature-controlled cube, while the others had been chucked out – or worse, boxed away in an archival warehouse somewhere. A whole building set aside for stuff you couldn’t use, couldn’t fix, and wouldn’t get rid of. Now that was the mark of people who had it good.

  Speaking of, Tak looked like a kid in a candy store. She gaped at display after display, stopping to read every word on every placard. It was like she’d forgotten why they were there – and maybe that wasn’t too far from the truth. Before they’d made their way to the museum that morning, Pepper had watched Tak suck down three bowls of tease and half a batch of mek, followed by a handful of some kind of Aeluon spacesickness remedy that smelled like feet. They were on solid ground now, but gravity wasn’t Tak’s concern. Aeluons were at a disadvantage when it came to lying. It was hard to play it cool when you wore your heart on your face. The museum was Aandrisk-run, yes, but these were smart people in a multispecies city. Even Pepper, who hadn’t gotten any degrees in cultural know-how or whatever, could make a solid guess about an Aeluon’s mood. Tak was nervous about the whole business, which, in turn, made Pepper nervous. She didn’t like bringing someone besides Blue along for this in the first place, and Tak was such an all-around good citizen that Pepper had been surprised she’d come at all. But Tak clearly understood her limitations, and had done what she could to chill herself out. Pepper hadn’t seen a trace of nervous red or worried yellow cross the Aeluon’s cheeks since they’d left the shuttledock hotel. That was good – though Pepper would have equally appreciated them moving through the exhibits faster. She tapped her thumbs against the outside of her pockets as she watched Tak telling Sidra about the importance of whatever rusted gadget they were fawning over now. Pepper had been waiting ten years for this. She didn’t want to put it off any longer.

  She felt a hand on her shoulder, felt it squeeze. Blue. We’ll get there, his eyes said.

  Pepper nodded reluctantly. If Tak could be cool, so could she. And in all fairness, a bit of ordinary museum-going was not a bad way to go about it. She’d been counting cameras since they walked in – twenty-eight, so far – and the security bots hanging dormant in their docks along the walls were nothing to sneeze at. Tak still had to meet the curator she’d been in touch with to arrange this whole thing. Looking like ordinary, scholarly folks was a smart precaution.

  It was just taking for ever.

  A gallery of satellites, an interactive starchart, and a barrier of slow-moving Harmagian tourists later, they arrived at an administrative hallway, and from there, found their particular curator’s office. This was Tak’s show, for the moment. Pepper’s heart raced. If they fucked this up, they’d fuck the whole thing, and there wasn’t anything she could do but hang back and smile. Her jaw already ached from clenching, but it was better than yelling. She wished she’d had a second cup of mek, too.

  Tak gestured at the chime, and the door opened. An Aandrisk stood inside, reading pixel feeds. ‘Ah,’ she said in an educated Central accent. She approached Tak warmly, though Pepper caught the quick questioning glance she threw toward the rest of them. ‘Taklen Bre Salae, I’m guessing?’

  ‘That’s me,’ Tak said, stepping forward to brush cheeks in the Aandrisk way. ‘Just Tak, if you don’t mind.’ Pepper watched her face closely, and shit, yep, there it was – an anxious freckle of red.

  If the Aandrisk noticed, she didn’t mention it. ‘Just Tak it is.’ She looked to the Humans with polite confusion. ‘And who might you be?’

  A second freckle appeared. ‘These are my research assistants,’ Tak said. ‘Pepper, Blue, and Sidra.’

  ‘Welcome,’ the Aandrisk said. ‘I’m Thixis, third curator.’ She smiled, still trying to figure them out. ‘Quite a lot of assistants for an associate-level project, eh?’

  ‘Well—’ Tak said. She took an audible breath.

  Pepper’s fingers curled inside her pockets. Come on, Tak.

  Tak exhaled, and a wave of gracious blue swallowed the freckles. Pepper’s fingers let go. ‘Though my project’s focused on technology,’ Tak said smoothly, ‘my background’s in history. I’ve hired this team to help me deduce the more mechanical side of things.’

  That explanation appeared to work for the third curator. ‘I like that approach,’ she said. ‘I’ve always preferred getting answers first-hand, rather than digging through the Linkings. Remind me of your thesis again? You know how it is, my brain’s twenty different places in twenty different centuries today.’

  Tak laughed. ‘I’m researching the fuel systems used in Human-made vessels following their species’ admission to the GC, as a means of better understanding their wildly variant levels of economic disparity. I’m hoping to draw conclusions based on political affiliation, cross-species collaboration, and galactic region of origin.’ Tak spoke the words, but they were Sidra’s. Pepper had to admit, that was pretty solid academic nonsense.

  ‘Well, it certainly looks like you’ve hired the right bunch for that,’ Thixis said, with a wink at the Humans. It was only mildly patronising. ‘And I think you’ll be able to find some excellent pieces to examine in our exhibit. Come, I can show you while we discuss your needs further.’

  Pepper’s heart somehow managed to speed up even more. They were going to the exhibit. They were going to the exhibit right now.

  She barely heard a word the aliens said as she and Blue followed them through the glowing stone halls. She knew she had to prepare herself, but the question was – for what? For seeing the shuttle again? For seeing it dismantled and spread out on a wall? For that modder on Picnic being wrong about it being there? For Owl’s core being – no, no, no, she wasn’t g
oing to entertain that. The core would be there, and it would be intact. It had to be. It had to be.

  They followed a sign – The Small Craft Hall – which led to a massive doorway. On the other side lay one of the most ridiculous sights Pepper had ever laid eyes on. It wasn’t so much an exhibit hall as a hangar, so long and wide it was easy to think it went on for ever. Within it sat shuttles – rows upon rows of retired shuttles, all immaculately clean, lit, and labelled. She’d seen spacedocks smaller than this.

  ‘Holy shit,’ Pepper said. Everyone turned to look at her. She cleared her throat. ‘Sorry.’

  Curator Thixis chuckled. ‘I take it as a compliment,’ she said.

  It took everything in Pepper’s power to not run forward. Tak caught her eye; she understood. ‘Which way’s the Human section?’ she asked with an easy smile. ‘Sorry, I’m just—’

  ‘Ready to get started? I know the feeling,’ Thixis said, waving them along. ‘Let’s find what you came here for.’

  Pepper wanted to hold Blue’s hand. She could feel him next to her, tugging like a magnet through her pocket to where her fingers fidgeted. She was glad he was nearby, at least.

  The Human section was a ways in, tucked off to the side, away from the impressive array of Aandrisk scout ships, and the crown jewel of the whole to-do, an honest-to-goodness Quelin research orbiter. She scanned the rows frantically, forcing herself to stay a few complacent steps behind Tak. This was crazy-making. Insulting, almost. It was—

  There.

  Everything else disappeared – the ships, the aliens, all sound. It was just her and one battered little shuttle. A Centaur 46-C, tan hull, photovoltaic coating.

  Home.

  It wasn’t the way she’d remembered it, not exactly. Someone had scraped the years of dirt and grime from it, probably cleaned out all the dust and fur and crud inside, too. It was so small – smaller than most of the other ships there, smaller than the shuttle she’d just travelled in. But it had been her whole world, once. And what had been her whole family was still inside.

  ‘Excuse me,’ Blue said. The others stopped. Pepper could feel Sidra’s eyes on her. ‘Would you mind if I sat, uh, if I sat down?’ He smiled sheepishly, and nodded at a nearby bench. ‘I’m still adjusting from the artigrav, and I’d l-like to keep still for a bit.’

  Pepper grabbed the lead he’d thrown her. ‘Ah, that sucks,’ she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. ‘I’ll hang out with you.’

  Tak nodded. ‘No problem,’ she said. ‘Just come find us when you’re feeling up to it.’

  The aliens departed. Sidra followed them, glancing back over her shoulder for a short moment. Blue sat down on the bench. Pepper nearly fell onto it. His hand was waiting, and she grabbed it, hard.

  ‘You okay?’ he said softly.

  ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I mean, I can’t breathe and I want to throw up everything I’ve ever eaten, but other than that, yeah, totally.’ She ran her thumb over the fingertips of her spare hand, one by one, back and forth, over and over. ‘There are thirty-seven cameras on the way in here. The core pedestal’s too big to carry out unnoticed, so I’m going to need to hack something together to fry their feeds. Or just knock them out for a short time while we leave.’

  ‘Can’t you just take the c-core itself? Why the whole pedestal?’

  ‘Because it was built decades ago, when they weren’t making neat little pop-off globes yet. I rip the core out of that thing, and I could—’ I could kill her. Pepper shook her head. ‘It’s heavy. If you help me carry it, it’ll go faster.’

  ‘Somebody will notice.’

  ‘Not if we go quick, and not if I fry the cameras as we go.’

  ‘Pepper—’

  ‘I told you, you don’t have to come with me. I will drag the core out myself if I have to.’

  Blue sighed. ‘How are you going to, um, going to fry the cameras?’

  ‘I have some ideas.’ Pepper kept nodding, never taking her eyes off the weathered lump she’d put back together. ‘Trust me. This will work.’

  SIDRA

  ‘This is not going to work.’ Sidra paced by the hotel room window as her pathways worked out the problem at hand. Outside, the city of Kaathet Aht began to glow in the twilight dark. Some other time, Sidra would’ve been keen to study the way the city shifted in pace and mood as its planet took a scheduled respite from the light of its twin suns. But not now. Now, her pathways were overflowing with the situation at hand, and none of it was anything comfortable.

  The Humans had gone out in search of food and tech supplies, leaving Sidra and Tak alone to parse the plan that had been non-negotiably dropped in their laps. They’d also left behind a mess of half-built, hastily assembled leftovers Pepper had ripped out of her contemporary shuttle. Sidra knew each component by name – she’d spent enough time at the Rust Bucket – but not what their current configurations were supposed to do. Pepper hadn’t bothered to answer those questions. The gadgets would work, she’d said. She’d have them completed by evening. Owl would be retrieved by midnight. No room for argument had been allowed.

  Tak was seated on the floor, head arched back against a pile of cheap cushions, tapping her thumbs together. She would’ve looked unhappy even if Sidra hadn’t known what mustard-yellow cheeks on an Aeluon meant. ‘Pepper said it’d be easy to build these things,’ Tak said. ‘She said I wouldn’t have to be nearby once we got into the exhibit.’

  ‘Pepper is being an idiot,’ Sidra said tersely. ‘She was in that museum for all of three and a half hours today. Her entire plan is based on a cursory glance at their security systems. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into, and she’s dragging the rest of us along with her.’

  Tak managed a wry look. ‘You’re not coming along, remember?’

  Sidra rolled her eyes. Of course she remembered. Pepper’s mandate on that front hadn’t vanished because of a successful stowaway attempt. The irony was Sidra had no desire to go along now, not if the plan was knock out some cameras and hope. ‘The point,’ she said, ‘is that Pepper isn’t thinking clearly. I understand that if Owl’s in there, Pepper doesn’t want to leave her a second longer. But she’s risking all of you in the process. She’s going to get herself and Blue arrested. She’s going to get you arrested.’

  Tak gave a grim laugh. ‘Says the person who talked me into this.’

  A lash of guilt snaked its way through Sidra. ‘That was before I knew Pepper was going to run blindly in there with a half-hacked plan. Pepper is smart. She’s methodical. I’ve never known her to be rash. She’s treating this like a heist sim, and it’s not.’ She looked at Tak. ‘You can’t tell me you think this is a good idea.’

  Tak rubbed her face. ‘No. I don’t.’ Her jaw shifted as she thought. ‘Honestly, I’ve been lying here working up the nerve to walk out the door and buy a ticket back home.’

  Sidra leaned against the wall and considered Tak. Good, thoughtful Tak, who had no business being here. This was no way to treat a friend, she knew. But Pepper and Blue were her friends, too. They’d done more for her than she would’ve ever dared to ask for. The time had come to try to pay it back. ‘You can go if you want to,’ Sidra said. ‘I wouldn’t blame you. But if you’re still willing to help, I have another idea. A plan that will actually work, and that doesn’t violate any of the conditions in the waiver you signed. We’d be in and out in a couple of hours, and no one at the museum would question anything we’d done there.’

  Tak looked at Sidra curiously. ‘Why did you not mention this before?’

  ‘Because Pepper will hate it,’ Sidra said. As she spoke, she continued the work she’d been doing within herself for an hour and ten minutes: a tidy bundle of purposeful new code, slowly gaining cohesion. ‘And because she can’t come with us.’

  PEPPER

  Pepper liked Aandrisks as much as she liked anybody, but finding an actual restaurant in a city settled by a people who just nibbled all day long was a real pain in the ass. There were some multispec
ies shops set up near the shuttledock, for the sake of travellers, but nowhere that would make her a damn sandwich. There apparently was a Human-run bug fry in the city, or so said the Linkings, but it wasn’t within walking distance of the nearest tech depot. They’d had to settle for an Aandrisk grocery, where she and Blue had barely put up with the merchant who could not get over how many ready-made snacks two people were planning to eat in one evening. Any other time, she might have enjoyed the exchange. That night, though, every second wasted grated on her. Every smile she had to force hurt.

  She held a bag of snapfruit tarts between her teeth as she fumbled with the hotel room door panel, shifting the weight of the boxes of tech stuff she carried against her hip.

  ‘Can I help?’ Blue asked.

  ‘Mm hmhm hng mhm mm ms m hm,’ Pepper said, bumping the unlocked door open.

  ‘One more time?’

  Pepper set the boxes down and took the bag out of her mouth. ‘You haven’t got any more hands than me,’ she said, nodding as Blue set down his own armload. She glanced around the room. ‘Hello?’ She frowned. Where were Sidra and Tak? She walked around the room, which wasn’t exactly a suite. There weren’t that many places to go. Balcony? No. Washroom? No. She put her hands on her hips. ‘Where’d they go?’

  Blue dug around his satchel and removed his scrib. ‘I have a m-message,’ he said. ‘Didn’t hear it outside.’ He gestured. ‘Yeah, it’s Sidra. She said they went to get some food.’

  Pepper’s frown deepened. ‘We asked them before we left if they wanted anything.’

  Blue shrugged.

  ‘Ask her how long they’ll be,’ Pepper said.

  Blue spoke the message to the scrib. A discouraging chirp came back a moment later. ‘Huh, weird,’ he said. ‘Her scrib must be glitching. It’s not going through.’

 
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