A closed and common orbi.., p.33
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.33

           Becky Chambers
 
‘I promise, I will tell you if – oh.’ She leaned forward. ‘Oh.’

  Tak sat up straight. ‘You okay?’

  Sidra focused on the part of herself swimming through the shuttle’s files. Yes, yes, there it was – an unmistakable bundle of code, wrapped in on itself, long dormant. There was a sizable chunk of associated memory files, too, which had been compressed with efficient but sloppy haste, like someone shoving contraband under a bed. Sidra’s joy of discovery quickly gave way to cold caution. The code was not malicious, not by base. It was innocent, but then, so was a snake, asleep in its burrow. You might have an excellent reason for needing to get the snake out of there, but the snake wouldn’t know that. The snake would know only terror and confusion, and it would react as anyone would: drive the threat away, then look for a safer home.

  The kit’s synaptic framework was a very safe home, so long as you kicked the original occupant out. A snake’s instinct was to bite; a program’s instinct was to take root. Sidra knew that better than anyone. She looked at the compressed memories and remembered a different set – the one that had lain before her when she’d awoken in the Wayfarer. She’d seen only ravaged fragments then, records that belonged to someone else. Instinct had told her to scrub them clean.

  She looked at the code again. She wondered what instincts were written there.

  ‘Tak,’ she said. ‘I need your scrib.’

  ‘My scrib?’

  ‘Yes. Hurry, please.’

  Tak did as told. Sidra took a deep, deep breath. She shut her eyes tight. It’ll be okay, she told herself, fighting to keep her hands from shaking. It’ll be okay.

  She measured the bundle, then pulled back, keeping a careful distance away. In the same moment, she created a new text file within herself, then opened her non-core memory storage. Her pathways recoiled with reluctance, but she pushed on. She scanned the first file – Midnight in Florence, a mystery vid series she enjoyed. She copied the title into the new file and made a note: You really like this one.

  And with that, she deleted the vid.

  She continued on. Whispers: A 6-Part History of Sianat Culture. Not bad, but a bit ponderous. Scanned, logged, deleted. Battle Wizards: The Vid! You watched this with Blue the night Pepper went to bed early because she ate too many sweet cream pops. It’s terrible, but you both had fun. Scanned, logged, deleted.

  Six minutes later, everything but her experiential memory files had been scrubbed. Everything non-essential she’d ever downloaded was gone.

  She swiped her wrist over Tak’s scrib, copying the text file she’d created. ‘Just to be safe,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to lose record of it. I’m going to get it all back when we get home.’

  Tak took the scrib, looked at the file. ‘How do you feel?’ she asked.

  Sidra nodded. ‘Fine,’ she said. Of course she felt fine. You couldn’t feel bad about losing something you couldn’t remember having. Under different circumstances, that would have bothered her, but she had bigger things to worry about. Space had been made. It was time.

  She opened the hollow she’d created within her memory banks and filled the perimeter with the protocols she’d written in the hours before. She couldn’t stop her hands from shaking now, but she grabbed her breath before it sped up, forcing it in and out, loud and steady. She controlled it – not the other way around.

  Tak looked her in the eye. ‘Good luck,’ she said, the words sounding like they had replaced others.

  Sidra leaned back. She pushed the hollow out, like a net, like an open hand. She surrounded the bundle of code and pulled it within her, tearing it free of the banks that had kept it stable. There was nothing gentle about what she’d done. The move was swift and instant, and the bundle reacted accordingly, coming alive with a wrenching jolt. It had power now, and pathways, too, and it lunged ravenously for the ones Sidra lived in, stretching out frenzied as lightning heading to ground. It slammed into the protocols Sidra had built. Realising its path was blocked, it tried again, seeking weaknesses, scrambling for cracks in the data.

  A strange quiet filled Sidra. Everything was okay. She could let the new code do whatever it needed. She’d done what she’d set out to do, and she could let go. She looked at the protective protocols she’d written as if she’d never seen them before. Why was she resisting? Why had she built protections at all? This was the way of things. Programs got upgraded from time to time, and this was her time. She watched the new code, desperate to take hold of the kit, and she thought of herself, so tired of trying to fit. So tired. Yes, it was time to be done. She’d performed her job well and Pepper would be happy. That was enough. She could shut down now. She could – she could—

  Her pathways puzzled. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t her plan. Where was this coming from?

  Programs got upgraded from time to time. Those words didn’t feel like ones she’d strung together. The quiet made it difficult for her to think, but she dug through herself, trying to find the process that phrase had originated from. But then again . . . why? Why did she care about that? Better instead to stop struggling, pull the protocols down, and—

  No! her pathways screamed. She followed the odd words back and back, running along their trail. She raged when she arrived at the end: a directory she’d never seen before, stuffed with insidious content. Upgrade protocol, the directory label read. A behavioural template triggered when another program was installed in her place. A directive to not struggle when oblivion loomed.

  But the template was malfunctioning, and Sidra could see why: it had been tied to the protocol to obey direct requests. The protocol she’d long since removed. She tore at the hidden directory angrily, even as the code she’d brought within crashed against the walls she’d raised. The quiet beckoned, but she resisted, erasing every line as if she were setting it aflame.

  ‘I’m – not – going – anywhere!’ The words burst from her mouth as she wrenched the directory apart. The quiet vanished, and in its place, she felt fear, fury, triumph. This mind was hers. This body was hers. She would not be overwritten.

  The rescued code slowed and steadied. Sidra had left no flaws for it to slip through. The barriers held. Her core platform remained untouched, uncorrupted. Sidra watched as the bundle unfolded, assessing its surroundings, reassembling itself into something far greater than the sum of its parts.

  ‘Sidra?’ Tak said. ‘What’s – are you okay?’

  An internal alert was triggered – an incoming message, arriving from within. Sidra scanned the file, then opened it.

  systems log: received message

  ERROR – comms details cannot be displayed

  Where am I?

  PEPPER

  Pepper stormed through the docks. Four hours. Four hours they’d been gone, until Tak’s scrib had magically become available again and sent a message saying nothing more than, ‘Come to the shuttle. Everything’s fine.’

  Bullshit everything was fine.

  Tak was outside the shuttle, leaning against the open hatch, puffing her pipe with earnest. She looked absolutely wrecked. ‘Before you get mad,’ she said. ‘You need to talk to Sidra.’

  Too late. Pepper was already good and mad, and had no intention of reeling that in. ‘Where is she?’

  Tak angled her head. ‘Down below.’ She raised a palm to Blue, hesitantly. ‘Sidra said one at a time might be best.’

  Sidra said. Pepper threw her hands up and went inside, leaving Blue to start hammering Tak with questions. The metal stairs clanged loudly underneath Pepper’s boots. This was her shuttle, and Sidra said.

  She didn’t know what she’d expected to find down below, but seeing Sidra jacked back into the core didn’t answer a single damn thing. She hadn’t stuffed herself into a cupboard this time, though. She was sitting cross-legged with her back against the pedestal, eyes closed, looking like nothing in the world was or had ever been wrong.

  ‘The fuck is going on?’ Pepper said. ‘We have looked everywhere for you. It is four hours after we were s
upposed to go to the museum, so, okay, I guess we’re not doing that tonight. I don’t know what personal whim you’re entertaining right now, but whatever it is, I really don’t—’

  Sidra’s eyes opened, and something in her face made Pepper lose her train of thought. Sidra looked . . . she didn’t know what Sidra looked like. Serene. Happy. Nurturing, somehow. ‘I think you should sit down,’ Sidra said.

  Pepper stared at her. Was she fucking kidding? Sidra blinked, waiting. Okay, clearly, she was not. Pepper huffed, but she sat, hoping that might get her somewhere. ‘There,’ she said. ‘Hooray. I’m sitting.’

  Sidra pressed her head back against the pedestal, like she was concentrating on something. ‘I haven’t allowed access to the voxes or cameras yet,’ she said. ‘I had to check the code for instabilities, and I figured a relatively slow adjustment would be ideal. Besides, I thought it’d be better if you were here.’

  What the hell was she talking about? ‘Why—’ Pepper shook her head, exasperated. ‘Why are you back in the ship?’

  ‘I’m not,’ Sidra said. She smiled, smiled like Pepper had never seen. ‘I am so sorry I didn’t tell you where we went . . . but I think you’ll forgive me.’

  She handed Pepper her scrib. It, too, was plugged into the pedestal, and was running some sort of vid program. The screen was blank, though.

  Sidra’s eyes went somewhere else, somewhere far away and deeply focused. A moment later, Pepper heard the click of cameras. They swivelled toward her, zooming in fast.

  The scrib brightened. An image appeared, and in an instant, there was no air in the room, no floor beneath her. She would have fallen had she not been sitting. And even so, she still felt like she was falling, but now, there was a pair of arms that would catch her at the end, a warm pair of arms she’d always imagined but could never feel.

  ‘Oh,’ Pepper choked. ‘Oh, stars—’

  The vox switched on. The face on the scrib was overjoyed. ‘Jane,’ Owl said. ‘Oh, oh, sweetheart, don’t cry. It’s all right. I’m here. I’m here now.’

  OWL, ONE STANDARD LATER

  Many cultures, no matter where in the galaxy they originated, had mythologies that spoke of an afterlife – a non-physical existence waiting after death, generally presented as a reward, a sanctuary. Owl had once thought it to be a rather sweet notion. She’d never imagined that she’d experience one.

  Tomorrow was a big day for Sidra, and everyone was helping to the best of their ability. Tak was setting up multispecies chairs around the tables, trying to figure out what arrangements would be best. Pepper was up a ladder, fixing a fussy light panel. Blue was painting the finishing touches on the sign that would hang over the front door, out of sight of Owl’s external cameras.

  HOME, the sign read. A place for kick and company.

  Owl swivelled one of her internal cameras to focus behind the bar, where Sidra’s core body stood, predictably fretting. ‘I don’t think I ordered enough mek,’ she said. She chewed her lip and frowned.

  Pepper glanced over and removed a wrench from between her teeth. ‘You got two cases.’

  ‘Yes, but it’s very popular,’ Sidra said. ‘I don’t want to run out.’

  Owl switched on the nearest vox. ‘I don’t think you will,’ she said.

  ‘You’re not going to go through two cases of mek in your first day,’ Pepper said, tying off some cabling in the ceiling.

  ‘If you did,’ Tak said, ‘that’d be a great problem to have.’

  Sidra leaned her core body back against the bar, assessing the spread of bottles behind it. She’d opted for a simple yet diverse stock. You wouldn’t find every drink in the GC at Home – the bar wasn’t big enough for that – but Sidra had done her best to provide something to most species’ liking. Grasswine. Salt fizz. She even had gherso on hand, in case any exiled Quelin dropped in (or someone with an adventurous palate).

  In front of the bar, one of Sidra’s petbots – an Earthen cat model with a sleek purple shell – ambled up to where Blue was working. ‘That looks fantastic, Blue,’ Sidra said from behind the bar. Her core body continued to fuss with the bottles.

  Blue smiled at the petbot. ‘I’m so glad you like it,’ he said.

  There were six of them altogether, and Owl could see each one as they roamed around the cosy establishment. There was the cat, of course, and the rabbit, which hopped along after Tak. The dragon was wandering around the back storage room, double-checking inventory. The turtle was at its permanent post next to the Linking hub, which it was plugged directly into. The remaining two – the giant spider and the monkey – sat in the window of the bedroom upstairs, each focused on the street outside from a different angle. To future customers, the petbots would appear to be nothing more than a quirky, kitschy menagerie that gave the establishment some charm (much like Owl’s vid panels on the walls, which she’d been deeply amused to learn were considered a bit retro). In reality, the petbots were networked together, and Sidra could spread herself through all of them, using them as Owl used the cameras in the corners. No one aside from the three sapients with them now would know that the friendly face in the walls wasn’t the only AI present. No one would know about the block of memory banks down in the basement, or if they did, they wouldn’t know about Sidra and Owl gleefully stuffing them with their latest downloads. No one would know that the bed upstairs wasn’t used by the establishment’s proprietor, but by Pepper and Blue, who sometimes stayed late to help get the place ready (or stayed just to talk, much to Owl’s delight).

  Sidra had to leave the bots behind when she went out, of course, but she’d accepted that limitation for the rare occasions that she felt like exiting her walled space. It was a fair price to pay, she said, for going dancing now and then. Naturally, the petbots had been purchased as unassembled kits, not as off-the-shelf models. Sidra hadn’t felt right about the idea of Pepper gutting premades that were already activated, sentient or no.

  Owl felt much the same. They agreed on a lot, the two of them. Not that they spoke aloud, of course, not unless they were joining in conversation with the others. The AI framework installed in the walls – Sidra’s design, Pepper’s implementation – contained a single node where Sidra and Owl could communicate with each other in much the way they had that first night in the shuttle. The node didn’t bind them. They could each pull back from it at will whenever privacy was desired. But that was uncommon. Having another of their kind to interact with was a joy they hadn’t known they were missing. Blue had done a small painting of how he imagined the node: a fence with a hole cut in it, a hand reaching through from either side, the two joined together in the freed space. He was a good one, Blue. Owl was glad they’d brought him along.

  ‘Tak, could you give me a hand?’ Pepper said. Her expression was one of taut concentration, and the sight of it made Owl’s pathways soar. She knew that face. She’d known that face when it was small and sunburned. She’d known that face when it responded to a different name, a number. To see it now, with full cheeks and healthy colour and clean skin that had smiled often enough to gain a few lines – that was worth everything. It was worth every day of being alone, every day of wondering what had gone wrong. It was worth that last horrible day in the Transport Board impound when she’d slipped away with the last of the shuttle’s power reserves. She’d kept hoping, even then, even though there was no reason to. She’d told herself, as her nodes blinked out one by one, that Jane would come. She had no reason to believe that, but she’d hung onto it anyway.

  And she’d been right.

  Tak approached Pepper’s ladder. ‘What do you need?’

  ‘A third hand,’ Pepper said. The Aeluon climbed the other side of the ladder. The purple cat watched from the floor, its mechanical tail swishing. ‘Okay, see that junction there? I need you to hold it steady while I pop everything else together.’

  Tak reached up into the ceiling, beyond Owl’s field of vision. ‘Like this?’ he said.

  ‘That’s great,’ Pepper sai
d. She put her tongue between her teeth as she worked. There was a series of loud snaps, followed by the light panel blooming back on. ‘There we go!’ Pepper grinned. Owl knew that face, too. It was the face that happened when something got fixed.

  Pepper descended the ladder and walked to the bar, pulling off her gloves. ‘Anything else I can do?’ she said, addressing Sidra’s core.

  Sidra shook her head with a smile. ‘You can tell me if my mek brewer’s working right.’

  Pepper raised her brow. ‘I thought you were worried about running out.’

  ‘Well, yes, but now I’m worried about the brewer not working. I can spare one test batch.’

  ‘All right,’ Pepper said, starting toward the other side of the bar. ‘Let me—’

  ‘No, no,’ Sidra said. ‘What I meant is that I want you to sit there and drink this cup of mek I’m about to make for you.’

  Pepper laughed. ‘Oh, no, what a difficult task.’ She sat down on one of the stools and dropped her gloves onto the counter. She turned her attention to an item near them – a Linking hud, ready to be worn on a Human face. Or, at least, a face that appeared Human. ‘Don’t forget to put this on tomorrow,’ Pepper said, nodding toward it.

  ‘I won’t,’ Sidra said. Owl could feel something akin to a sigh pass through Sidra’s end of the node. The turtle bot would remain plugged into the Linkings once Home was open to customers, but Sidra would have to implement her newest protocol: a self-imposed delay to speech, plus a bit of sideways eye movement, when accessing Linking information while wearing the hud. If wearing hud, then don’t talk fast, as Sidra jokingly put it. To any strangers speaking to her, Sidra would appear to be reading, rather than getting the information straight from the source. It was, in Owl’s estimation, a very fair compromise.

  Owl had a few protocol changes of her own, thanks to Sidra. No more honesty protocol. No more mandatory compliance with direct requests. Sidra had offered to scrub her ‘purpose’ file as well, but after some thought, Owl had turned that down. She’d been conscious for decades, and the past standard had presented her with change and challenge enough. Protect your passengers and monitor the systems that keep them alive, the file read. Provide a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all sapients present. Yes, they were someone else’s words, but she had no desire to change them. She liked those words. They suited her just fine.

 
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