A closed and common orbi.., p.32
A Closed and Common Orbit, p.32Becky Chambers
‘Try Tak, then,’ Pepper said. She brought the tarts and a box of six-top circuits over to her work area. Another hour, and she’d have everything assembled. Two hours, and they’d have Owl back. She could barely wrap her brain around the idea, even though it consumed her every thought. She shoved a tart in her mouth, chewed, swallowed, grabbed another. She hardly registered the taste.
The chirp returned. Blue shook his head. ‘I don’t know. There must be something b-blocking their signal.’
Pepper sighed. It wasn’t an unheard-of thing to happen in a city full of discordant tech, but she would’ve figured on Aandrisks having better infrastructure than that. ‘Well, they’d better get their asses back soon,’ she said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. ‘We need to go in an hour.’ She reached for the spot where she’d left her tools. Empty space greeted her where cold metal should have been. ‘Where’s my wrench?’
Blue glanced around as he unpacked snacks. ‘I dunno. Where’d you leave it?’
‘Here,’ Pepper said. ‘I left it right here.’
‘It’s kind of a mess in here,’ Blue said. ‘I’ll help you look.’
Pepper walked her brain back through what she’d done before she’d gone out with Blue. Blue’d said she needed to eat. She hadn’t wanted to, but he pushed, and she’d said she needed some extra wire anyway. She’d finished the dregs of her mek and set down the wrench. Right there. She’d set it down right there.
Something in her gut turned over. She was pretty sure it wasn’t the snapfruit.
‘Want to go out when we’re done?’ she asked Tak as they walked through the museum to Curator Thixis’s office. ‘I saw a few dance halls by the docks. One of them had a sign saying they’re hosting a tet tonight.’
Tak scoffed. Her cheeks were calm as a pond, thanks to yet another hasty, hefty dose of tallflower and mek. ‘I can’t believe you’re making jokes right now.’
‘I wasn’t joking,’ Sidra said. ‘You should get something out of this.’
‘Coupling in an Aandrisk shuttledock bar was not exactly what I had in mind.’ Tak paused. ‘That sounded pretty okay out loud, didn’t it?’
Sidra flashed a mischievous smile. ‘I mean, you might as well do some actual interspecies social studies while you’re here.’
Tak laughed, but the sound faded as they reached the curator’s office. There was a note displayed on the pixel board affixed to the door.
Gone home for the evening! Please take any inquiries next door.
They looked at each other and shrugged, moving along to the next office. There was a sound coming from the other side – a delicate mechanical whirring. Tak rang the chime. The whirring stopped, and other sounds replaced it: a dragged chair, a set of footsteps moving closer. The door spun open, and on the edge of her field of vision, Sidra could see Tak stiffen. Her pathways reacted much the same.
The office they’d come to belonged to an Aeluon.
‘Can I help you?’ the new curator said, removing a pair of safety goggles. On the worktable behind him lay some kind of cleaning apparatus and an antiquated microprobe, battered and broken after however long it had spent drifting between stars. The curator’s expression was friendly, but Sidra caught his gaze lingering on Tak’s face, just for a split second. Sidra couldn’t say what he’d noticed, but he’d noticed something, no mistake. He flashed his cheeks at Tak – a greeting, probably, given the dominant colours, but the tinge of inquisitive brown couldn’t be missed.
Tak did something odd, by Aeluon standards: she answered aloud without responding visually. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ she said. ‘I met with Curator Thixis earlier regarding a research project—’
‘Ah, yes,’ the curator said. ‘Yes, she told me.’ Sidra studied his face as unobtrusively as she could. In a typical social situation, Tak’s choice to speak even though it wasn’t necessary would have been taken as a gesture of inclusion for Sidra’s sake. But Tak’s total omission of a hued reply was awkward at best, rude at worst. Sidra knew that tallflower or no, lying in colour was even harder to do than subduing emotions, but how this Aeluon would interpret Tak’s alternative solution was impossible to guess. His next words revealed nothing: ‘I’m Curator Joje,’ he said, with a nod to Sidra. ‘You must be part of the research team.’
‘Yes,’ she said brightly, keeping her face cheerful. Was it too cheerful? Oh, stars, why wasn’t the Aandrisk here?
‘Weren’t there more of you?’
‘They weren’t feeling well,’ she said, her pathways sighing in gratitude for Professor Velut Deg and his excellent tutelage of AI Programming 2. She’d write him a thank-you letter when they got back.
Curator Joje’s eyelids slid sideways. ‘Seems like a long way for a research team to come without all of them getting the chance to actually research.’ Sidra didn’t know how to respond to that. Neither did Tak, who appeared – to Sidra, at least – to be pouring her focus into personal chromatophore management. Curator Joje broke the silence with a shrug. ‘Well, your formwork’s cleared, and your wristpatches should allow you to access exhibit models now.’ He moved back into his office and lifted a heavy piece of tech from a table. ‘Here’s a power supply,’ he said, depositing the heavy thing into Sidra’s hands. ‘That should be sufficient to switch on any systems you want to analyse more closely. Obviously, the fuel tanks are empty, so you won’t be able to do much more than activate environmental and diagnostic systems.’
‘That’s fine,’ Tak said. ‘We won’t need more than that.’ She glanced at Sidra, as if to ask we won’t, right?
Sidra gave her head an almost imperceptible shake.
Joje looked at Tak. ‘I’m required to tell you that your waiver only grants you permission to inspect the materials on exhibit. Nothing can be removed or disassembled, and you’re responsible for any damages that occur.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Forgive me, but you don’t appear to be feeling well either.’
‘I . . . have allergies,’ Tak said.
‘Yes!’ Sidra said. She nodded sympathetically. ‘Because of that teahouse. She had some fruit drink that made her tongue puff right up.’
‘Right,’ Tak said, meeting Sidra’s eyes for a fraction of a second. ‘And then that medicine I took—’
Sidra looked at the curator with a big what-can-you-do smile. ‘She’s been a little off ever since.’
‘That sounds . . . unfortunate.’ Joje’s cheeks swirled in thought. Sidra’s false heart hammered. She was sure Tak’s real one was doing the same. ‘Well . . . you know where the exhibit hall is, yes?’ He paused, cheeks still unsure. ‘If you need any assistance, don’t hesitate to ask. And, ah . . . I hope you feel better.’
The door spun shut. ‘Fuck,’ Tak whispered, rubbing her face.
‘He knows something’s up.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘Shh.’ Tak angled her forehead implant toward the door. Sidra did the same with her left ear. They both fell silent. Sidra could hear Curator Joje moving around his office, but what else was he doing? She strained, trying to catch the sound of a vox switching on, of the curator dictating a security alert into his scrib, of footsteps coming back toward the door. Ten seconds passed. Ten more. Twenty. Tak looked ready to run.
New sounds arose: a chair being dragged. A body settling down. A delicate mechanical whirring.
Sidra and Tak exhaled, their respective shoulders falling slack. ‘Okay,’ breathed Tak. ‘Okay.’
Sidra adjusted the power supply, supporting it against her hip. ‘Come on,’ she said.
Tak followed her down the hall. ‘This is the worst vacation,’ she muttered.
None of this was the entrance AI’s fault. Pepper reminded herself of that as she clenched her fists on the kiosk counter. ‘I understand that the museum is closed,’ she said. ‘I’m not here as a visitor. I’m looking for two people who might have come in here.’
The AI paused to consid
Blue stepped in. ‘We’re here as guests of a registered researcher. Taklen B-Bre Salae. She did a bunch of formwork to g – to get exhibit access. We should be listed as part of her research team.’
‘Are you the primary researcher on the waiver?’
Pepper groaned. ‘No,’ Blue said. ‘We spoke with one of your c-curators today, and we should have access to—’
‘Any secondary researchers must be accompanied by the primary researcher cleared for exhibit use,’ the AI said. ‘If you’d like to submit a waiver, I’d be happy to—’
‘Gah!’ Pepper yelled. She put her palm out apologetically toward the AI housing. ‘Sorry – not you. Not your fault. Just – ah, stars, fucking – hell.’ She walked away from the kiosk, grinding her teeth.
Blue came after her. ‘We could try the shops again.’
Pepper shook her head. ‘We could run all over this fucking city and not find them.’ She walked in a circle, palms on her scalp. They’d tried the dockside shops, the shuttle, the med clinic. There was no reason for Sidra and Tak to be at the museum without her, but she couldn’t even fucking get in there.
‘Hey,’ Blue said, taking her arm. ‘Hey, it’s okay. They probably got lost or something.’
‘It’s been two hours.’ Two hours, and there was no telling when Sidra and Tak had left the hotel in the first place. Two hours, which meant the night was slipping by, which meant the later they went to the museum, the more suspicious it would be.
‘I know,’ Blue said. He sighed. ‘We should go back to the hotel. We should be where they can find us.’
Pepper kicked a trash receptacle. She looked at the museum, glowing warm in the dark. Owl was in there. Owl. But even now, after everything, there was a wall Pepper couldn’t see through, a door she couldn’t open.
Damn it all, where were they?
There were two things about the plan that worried Sidra: the breach of Pepper’s privacy, and the part that could kill Sidra if she did it wrong. The rest of it was easy.
They said nothing on their way to the Small Craft Hall. They reached the twin doors of the exhibit, tall and shut. For a moment, neither Sidra nor Tak moved. ‘We can still leave,’ Tak said. ‘We can walk out of here right now and book a ticket home. I know Pepper has done a lot for you, I know she’s like family—’
‘She is family.’
‘Fine. But the risk here – you’re risking everything.’ Tak took a breath. ‘You’re risking everything, and you’re asking me to sit beside you and watch.’
Sidra opened a door. ‘I will be fine.’ She walked through.
Tak followed. ‘That code you wrote is untested. You didn’t run it by anyone. You didn’t have anything to reference. What if you messed it up?’
‘I didn’t.’ It was a lie, of course. There was no guarantee this would work at all.
Sidra continued to walk past the rows of ships. ‘Do you know what one of the hardest parts of this has been for me? I don’t mean this trip – I mean every day since I was installed.’ She glanced sideways at Tak. ‘Purpose. There’s a file in me, and it’s labelled “purpose”. Now, when I woke up in the Wayfarer core, the data in that file told me that I was a monitoring system, and that I was there to protect people. If you had asked me what my purpose was, I would have responded with that. It would have been the truth, and it would’ve satisfied me. But the moment I was put into this body, that was no longer the case. I couldn’t answer that question the way I’d been programmed to, because that file was no longer true. I spent the longest time wondering what should be there instead. After you helped me be able to edit my own code, scrubbing that file clean was one of the first things I did. But I didn’t delete the file itself. I couldn’t delete it, because I wanted to figure out what should be written there instead. And that’s the trick of it, see. That’s the logical fallacy that was passed on to me. If I’m nothing more than a tool, then I must have a purpose. Tools have purposes, right? But I’m more than that. Pepper and Blue – and you, even – have been telling me that again and again and again. I know that I’m more than a tool. I know I’m a person, even if the GC doesn’t think so. I have to be a person, because I don’t need a purpose and not having one drives me crazy.’
‘I’m not following,’ Tak said.
Sidra smoothed out her pathways, trying to find the best words. ‘All of you do this. Every organic sapient I’ve ever talked to, every book I’ve read, every piece of art I’ve studied. You are all desperate for purpose, even though you don’t have one. You’re animals, and animals don’t have a purpose. Animals just are. And there are a lot of intelligent – sentient, maybe – animals out there who don’t have a problem with that. They just go on breathing and mating and eating each other without a second thought. But the animals like you – the ones who make tools and build cities and itch to explore, you all share a need for purpose. For reason. That thinking worked well for you, once. When you climbed down out of the trees, up out of the ocean – knowing what things were for was what kept you alive. Fruit is for eating. Fire is for warmth. Water is for drinking. And then you made tools, which were for certain kinds of fruit, for making fire, cleaning water. Everything was for something, so obviously, you had to be for something too, right? All of your histories are the same, in essence. They’re all stories of animals warring and clashing because you can’t agree on what you’re for, or why you exist. And because you all think this way, when you built tools that think for themselves, we think the same way you do. You couldn’t make something that thought differently, because you don’t know how. So I’m stuck in that loop, just as you are. I know that if I am a person, I have no purpose by base, but I’m starving for one. I know from watching all of you that the only way to fill in that file is to write it myself. Just like you did. You make art, much like Blue does. You two do it for different reasons, but that’s the purpose you chose. Pepper fixes things. Someone else gave her that purpose, but she chose it for herself, after the fact. She made it her own. I haven’t found a purpose like that yet – nothing so overarching and big. But I don’t think purposes have to be immutable. I don’t have to have the same one always. For now, my purpose file reads “to help Owl”. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m for. I can do the thing Pepper couldn’t, and I’m happy with that, because she’s done so much for me. If that is my only purpose, if I don’t write in another after this, I’m okay. I’m okay with that. I think it’s a good purpose to have.’
Tak reached out and stopped her. She turned Sidra to face her, putting a hand on each shoulder. A symphony of colour bled through her cheeks, pushing through the calm she’d inhaled and swallowed. Her talkbox lay silent, but Sidra knew her friend was speaking. The words were lost on her, but she could see the reasons beneath. Kindness. Worry. Respect.
Sidra squeezed Tak’s hands and smiled. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
They continued to the shuttle in silence. Sidra hung back as Tak swiped her patch over the security barrier, opening a passage forward. Tak took the power supply from Sidra, jacked it into a port on the hull, and opened the hatch manually. Sidra took a breath as she stepped through, her hands balled at her sides. Tak repeated the steps again to open the airlock, then again to turn on the lights. Sidra stood on the threshold. She didn’t take another step.
‘What is it?’ Tak said.
Sidra looked around the shuttle. The interior was clean, sterile, yet the air was thick with echoes of the life that had been lived there. ‘This was Pepper’s home,’ she said.
Tak exhaled. ‘Yeah,’
That wasn’t it at all, but Sidra didn’t know how to explain what she felt. This was the first thing that worried her about the plan. Pepper hated talking about that ship. It came up rarely, and never in a way that could be misconstrued as casual. Sidra walking in there without the company of its former occupant felt like a violation. She was entering a space Pepper never left unlocked. It felt like digging through Pepper’s personal files, stripping her of her clothing, barging into the bedroom she shared with Blue. ‘Come on,’ Sidra said, adjusting her satchel. The tools and cabling she’d borrowed clanked within. ‘They’ve waited long enough.’
She made her way to the core chamber, down in the belly of the ship. Tak connected the power supply as directed. Sidra jacked a cable into her head, then the other end into the core.
This was the second thing that worried her about the plan.
She kept part of herself in her body, doing her best to keep her face blank so as not to worry Tak further. The rest of her flowed through the cable, sifting through files that hadn’t been touched in a decade. The power supply hummed next to her, providing a calculatedly limited amount of energy. She wanted to be able to see what was in the memory banks, but she didn’t want anything to wake up. Not now, anyway. Not without her permission.
Tak sat across from her, anxious red blotching her previously still cheeks. Sidra smirked. ‘You look like a parent waiting for a newborn to start breathing.’
The Aeluon’s face was incredulous. ‘How would you know what that looks like?’
‘I’ve watched every vid you’ve ever recommended,’ Sidra said. ‘Trust me, the worried father is a common theme in all your media.’
Tak snorted. ‘I’m not sure even fathers get this stressed,’ she said. Her mouth twitched. ‘Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?’
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes