A closed and common orbi.., p.4
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.4

           Becky Chambers

  ‘Ah,’ Pepper said with a grin. ‘Yeah, I’m really into sims. Non-realistics, specifically.’

  ‘And these are—’

  ‘Characters from them, yeah. See, there’s Meelo and Buster, Scorch Squad, Eris Redstone – fun stuff all around.’

  Sidra made the kit pick up one of the figurines. It was a group of three characters: two Human children – a boy and a girl – and some kind of small, anthropomorphised primate. The boy was examining a leaf with a microscope. The girl was looking up with a telescope. The primate was reaching into an open satchel full of snacks. All had enormous open-mouthed smiles.

  ‘You seem to favour these three,’ Sidra said. The characters appeared multiple times on the shelf, in various styles and sizes. She examined the base of the figurine in the kit’s hand. BigBugBash 36, it read in loud yellow letters. Dou Mu, Exodus Fleet, GC Standard 302.

  Pepper’s eyes widened. ‘Holy shit, you don’t know The Big Bug Crew. Of course you don’t.’ She took the figurine from the kit’s hand. Her eyes closed reverently. ‘Big Bug – oh man, it’s—’

  Blue sighed with a smirk as he scrolled through something on his scrib. ‘Here she goes.’

  Pepper gathered herself. ‘It’s a kids’ sim. I mean – yeah, okay, it’s for kids, technically. Educational thing, y’know, let’s learn about ships and other species and whatever. But it’s—’

  Blue made eye contact with Sidra and started mouthing words: ‘It’s so much more—’

  ‘It’s so much more than that,’ Pepper said. ‘This franchise has been putting out new modules for forty standards. Aside from the fact that it’s brilliant – stars, don’t even get me started on the adaptive coding – I mean, seriously, it’s a really important series. Every Human kid in the GC knows Big Bug, at least passively. And I don’t just mean every Human kid in the Fleet or something.’ She pointed at the two children on the figurine. ‘Alain and Manjiri. Manjiri’s from the Fleet. Alain’s from Florence.’ She looked expectantly at Sidra, as if this would have some significance. It did not. Pepper ploughed on. ‘This was the very first kids’ sim to have an Exodan and a Martian not just occupying the same ship, but being friends. Having adventures, working as a team, all that fuzzy stuff. That may not seem like a big deal today, but forty standards ago, that was huge. A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics. I’m not saying this sim is solely responsible for Exodans and Solans not hating each other any more, but Big Bug was definitely a contributing factor in helping us start moving past all that old Earth bullshit. Opened some minds, at least.’ She placed the figurine back on the shelf, straightening it just so. ‘Plus the artwork is fucking gorgeous. The level of detail is just—’

  Blue cleared his throat loudly.

  Pepper scratched behind her left earlobe with an embarrassed chuckle. ‘It’s really, really good.’

  Her partner waved his scrib at her. ‘How about Fleet Fry?’

  ‘Yes,’ Pepper said. ‘I want my usual. Two of my usual.’



  Blue laughed. ‘You got it.’

  It took Sidra two and a quarter seconds to understand the exchange – Blue was ordering food. She glanced over at the only spotlessly tidy place in sight: the kitchen. She accessed her behavioural reference files. It was possible Pepper and Blue didn’t do much cooking. And besides, it had been a long trip, and preparing food was time-consuming work. A little rush of pride flickered through her pathways. She didn’t have to ask questions about everything.

  ‘While he does that,’ Pepper said, ‘how about I show you your room? It’s not much, and I’m sorry about the clutter in there. Didn’t have a lot of time to get ready. We’ll clean it out and make it yours over the next few days.’

  Sidra followed Pepper up the stairs. Paintings hung on the wall at regular intervals. Landscapes, all of them – less than real, but somehow greater for it. Sidra paused the kit’s ascent and examined one: a frozen pond in winter, twin moons clear and crisp overhead.

  ‘Are these Blue’s?’ Sidra asked.

  Pepper came back down a step. ‘Yep. He did that one after our vacation on Kep’toran.’ Her lips twitched with a private smile. ‘All of these are places we’ve been together.’

  Sidra opened the file named Human artistic practices, which she’d compiled on the shuttle after Pepper had told her Blue was a painter. ‘Does he always use physical media, or does he do digital work as well?’

  Pepper looked amused. ‘Didn’t know you were an art lover. Yeah, mostly physical, unless commissioned for something. I’ll take you to his shop up in the art district sometime soon.’ She kept speaking as she continued up the stairs. ‘Took me almost a decade of bothering before he finally started selling his stuff. I’m biased, of course, but he is really good, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees it any more.’ She reached the top of the stairs and sidestepped a pile of dubiously clean laundry. ‘He’s even got a patron of sorts. This old rich Harmagian. Algae merchant. I think she’s commissioned four of his pieces by now. We got a new engine for the shuttle with that.’

  Pepper stepped through an unremarkable doorway, waving the lights on as she entered. It was a room. Sidra didn’t know how to quantify it beyond that. How did one place value on a room? She couldn’t say if the room was good or not, but it was hers. That was interesting.

  Pepper rubbed the back of her head, looking apologetic. ‘It’s nothing fancy,’ she said. ‘And we’ve been using it for storage.’ She nodded at the stacks of crates and boxes, hastily shoved aside to make pathways and openings. ‘But it’s clean – Blue cleaned, and he made the bed, too. I don’t know if you’ll want the bed. I know you don’t need to sleep.’ Pepper pressed her lips together, a little at a loss. ‘I don’t know what a good space for you consists of. But we’ll work together to make it comfortable, yeah? We really want you to feel at home here.’

  ‘Thank you,’ Sidra said, and she meant it, fully. She didn’t know what she wanted in a space, either. She swung the head around, trying to take inventory. There was the bed, as mentioned, big enough for two if they cuddled close. The covers were thick, to ward off the dark side chill, and the pillows looked . . . inviting. Not knowing what else to do, she approached the bed, and pressed the kit’s hand into one of the pillows. It sank down in a pleasing sort of way.

  She turned and tried to assess everything else. There was an empty workdesk, and a storage cupboard, and – she shut the kit’s eyes and felt the face grimace.

  ‘What’s wrong?’ Pepper asked.

  ‘I don’t know if I can explain it.’

  ‘Try. I’m listening.’

  The kit exhaled. ‘I’m having trouble processing what I see. That’s been the case since installation. I don’t mean a malfunction. I mean this is hard. I’m meant to have cameras up in corners, looking down from above. Only being able to see this’ – she moved the kit’s hands, outlining her field of vision – ‘is frustrating. It’s one thing not being able to see behind a camera in a corner. But feeling empty space behind me and not knowing what’s there . . . it’s disconcerting. I don’t like it.’

  Pepper put her hands on her hips and looked around. ‘Well, here.’ She shoved some boxes aside, pushed the desk into a corner, and made an upward gesture. ‘There ya go.’

  Sidra stared for two seconds, then understood. She pulled the kit up onto the desk and backed it into the corner, as far as it would go. The top of the head now occupied the upper corner of the room.

  ‘How’s that?’ Pepper asked.

  Sidra slowly moved the kit’s head from side to side, imagining that she were operating one of the cameras aboard the Wayfarer. Seeing only one room at a time was still limiting, but this perspective – ‘Good,’ she said, feeling the kit’s limbs loosen. ‘Oh, that’s so helpful.’ She took in the room for three minutes, looking up and down, side to side. ‘Can I see it
from the other corners, too?’

  Pepper helped her rearrange furniture. They rearranged it again and again, each time creating a new angle Sidra could perch the kit in. When her bedroom had been sufficiently examined, they continued back through the house, dragging crates and tables around, Blue lending a hand with the bigger stuff. Neither of the Humans questioned it. Eventually the food drone arrived, bearing two grasshopper burgers (extra pepper sauce, extra onion), one order of spicy beansteak skewers (Blue didn’t eat animals, Sidra had learned), and some kind of fried vegetable sticks. Pepper and Blue ate their meal cross-legged on the floor as Sidra moved furniture. She was being presumptuous, she knew, but they didn’t seem to mind her disrupting their home, and she was too excited by this new way of discovering a space to stop. She navigated the kit around the house again and again, observing from corners, trying out every vantage point, learning all the details.

  She still felt weird. The kit was still wrong. But she did feel better.

  Feed source: unknown

  Encryption: 4

  Translation: 0

  Transcription: 0

  Node identifier: unknown

  scrubman: i’ve got a Dollu Mor engine (version six) that’s clocking in at about 125.3 vuls. it’s not bad, but i think it can do better. any recs for speeding things up?

  fluffyfluffycake: this question has ‘pinch’ written all over it

  pinch: if you’ve got a Dollu Mor 6, i’m assuming it’s got a fuel regulator made by the same manufacturer. swap it out with the Ek-530 from Hahisseth instead. it’s not cheap, but it’ll shave off a good 20 or so vuls. now, theoretically, you COULD strip out the modulation grid and hot patch the fuel lines straight into the forward intake valve. that’s illegal, but that’s your call. if you don’t know what you’re doing, at best, it’ll be a hackjob piece of junk when you’re done. at worst, it’ll blow up in your face. done right, though, it would speed things up considerably. but again, you’d never get license approval with that kind of rig. i’m not saying you should do that. i’m just sharing information.

  scrubman: thanks for explaining! can anybody else back this up?

  fluffyfluffycake: if pinch says it’s good, you’re good.

  JANE 23, AGE 10

  A breathing mask. A wall vox. A light panel. Jane 23 was doing good work that day. She stretched her neck and her hands. They were tired, which meant work time was almost done. She looked into her bin. Ten – no, eleven items left. She looked up at the big clock on the wall. Yes, she could get eleven items sorted in half an hour. She would finish her bin, go exercise, get a meal cup, have learning time, then go to bed. That was how days went.

  She stopped knowing how days went one second later, when something went real real wrong.

  There was a loud, tearing sound, so fast and angry she almost couldn’t hear it. Then she actually couldn’t hear. She couldn’t hear anything. Her ears hurt real bad.

  Everything went white for a second, but for a long second, long enough for her to see a few Janes get knocked out of their chairs as the white flash filled with dust and pieces and blood.

  She sat up on the floor. She didn’t remember how she got there. She didn’t remember falling. She started to yell for help, but then she saw something that made her forget how to make words. Maybe it was because she couldn’t hear. Maybe it was because the air had been knocked out of her chest. But all she could think about was what she could see.

  There was a hole. A hole in the wall.

  Jane 23 sat all the way up.

  There was a big, broken hole in the wall. And there was stuff on the other side.

  Jane 23 did not understand what she was seeing. On the other side of the wall, there were not more walls. There were huge, huge piles of scrap, but far away, and the floor in between her and them didn’t look like any floor she’d ever seen. Above them, there was a . . . a ceiling. But not a ceiling. It didn’t look touchable. She couldn’t explain it. There was a ceiling that wasn’t a ceiling, and it was blue. Just blue, for a long, long way. Blue for ever. She felt like she was going to throw up.

  Girls were screaming. She could hear again.

  Jane 23 looked at the room, and understood the things she saw in there, at least. There had been an explosion. Jane 56’s bench was gone, all the way gone, just a smear of burnt wet stuff on the floor. She wondered what had been in 56’s bin. Probably some dangerous scrap that the little girls missed while cleaning. A bad engine, maybe, or something that still had fuel in it. She didn’t know.

  There were dead girls around the smear. She’d seen dead girls before, but never so many, never all at once. Some weren’t dead, but looked like they should be.

  Her arm felt wrong. She looked down and saw a metal shard stuck deep. Jane 23 was scared. She’d been cut before, but she’d never bled so dark.

  The living girls kept screaming.

  Jane 23 got up and ran through the mess, past things she didn’t want to see. Jane 64’s bench wasn’t far, but she couldn’t see her. She made herself look at the pieces on the ground, trying to tell if any of them belonged to 64. She almost threw up, again. Her mouth was dry. Her arm was wet, getting wetter.

  ‘Sixty-four!’ she yelled. She yelled so loud it hurt.

  ‘Twenty-three.’ A hand grabbed the end of her pants. ‘Twenty-three.’

  Jane 23 turned. 64 was under a bench, holding her knees. Her head and face were bloody, but she was awake and living. She was shaking, though, so hard Jane 23 could hear her teeth click.

  ‘Come on,’ Jane 23 said. ‘Come on. We need to go to the med ward.’

  Jane 64 looked at her. She didn’t move.

  ‘Sixty-four,’ Jane 23 said. She reached out, took her bunkmate’s hand, and pulled her up. ‘We can’t stay here.’ Blood ran down Jane 23’s other arm, dripping onto the floor. Everything was spinning and scary and loud. ‘Come on. We have to find a Mother.’

  There were already a lot of Mothers there, running in the door real fast. Jane 23 headed for the first one she saw, pulling 64 with her. The Mother swung her head down, looking at them without eyes.

  ‘We need help,’ Jane 23 said. She looked down at her arm, which was so so bloody, and everything went weird and black.

  The next thing she knew, she was in the med ward.

  There were stitches in her arm. And there were so many girls in the room with her, so many Janes. There was a lot of noise, and crying. Nobody was getting punished for crying, which was different. Maybe the Mothers were too busy fixing things to be angry about crying.

  ‘You’re all right, Jane 23,’ a Mother said, showing up real fast by her bed. She handed her a cup of water and another smaller cup with some medicine in it. ‘We fixed you.’

  ‘Is Sixty-four okay?’ Jane 23 asked.

  The Mother went quiet. They did that when they were talking to the other Mothers without words. ‘We fixed her, too.’

  Jane 23 felt real good at that, the most good she’d ever felt.

  ‘Take your medicine,’ the Mother said.

  Jane crunched the medicine between her teeth. It had a bad, sharp taste, but she sat with it for a little bit before drinking some water and washing it away. She lay back down. The medicine started working real fast. She felt quiet and good, and didn’t need to cry at all. Everything was light and fluffy. Everything was okay.

  She looked at the walls. The walls in the med ward were blue, a bright blue. A real different blue from the blue on the other side of the hole.

  She wondered about that.


  Sidra kept the kit’s eyes pointed at Pepper as they wound their way through the market streets, and wondered if she’d ever get used to this place. With every step there was something new to observe. She couldn’t help but pay attention, make note, file it away. Out in space, something new could be a meteoroid, a ship full of pirates, an engine fire. Here, it was just shopkeepers. Travellers. Musicians. Kids. And behind every one of them, there was another, and another – an infinity o
f harmless instances of something new. She knew that there was a big difference between a shopkeeper and a meteoroid, but her protocols didn’t, and they clawed at her. She didn’t know how to stop. She couldn’t stop.

  In this way, she found, her coned vision had a silver lining: she had to turn the kit’s head to look at things. As long as she stayed focused on the back of Pepper’s head, she could ignore the endless, edgeless clutter. Mostly. Somewhat.

  She followed Pepper down the ramp into the tech district – the caves – and the kit sighed in tandem with Sidra’s relief. Ceilings and walls, and an immediate drop in temperature. The kit was self-cooling, so overheating wasn’t an issue, but the market’s climate was warmer than the inside of a ship should be. She’d had an errant external temperature warning needling at her ever since they’d stepped off the Undersea. She was very glad to see it disappear.

  A shaggy Laru man leaned against a wall near the entrance, his limb-like neck bent low as he watched people come and go. His yellow fur was braided from head to toe, and he idly flipped a pulse pistol around one of his prehensile paws. There was a large warning sign on the wall beside him, written in multiple languages.


  Ghost patches (surface-penetrating ocular implants)

  Hijacker or assassin bots

  Hack dust (airborne code injectors)

  Improperly sealed radioactive materials (if you’re not sure, don’t chance it)

  Anything running on scrub fuel


  A handwritten message was scrawled beneath, in Klip:

  Seriously, we are not fucking around.

  And below that, a second message, in a different hand:

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