A closed and common orbi.., p.5
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.5

           Becky Chambers
 

  Why is this so hard to understand?

  The Laru’s wide eyes crinkled as they approached. ‘Morning, Pepper,’ he said, bringing his face respectfully down to her level.

  ‘Hey, Nri,’ Pepper said with a casual, friendly nod. Her demeanour had changed the moment they’d entered this place. Up on the surface, she moved like she was on a mission – chin up, feet fast, never stumbling as she ducked through every pause in the sapient stream. But as soon as they’d reached the entrance ramp, something in Pepper let go. Her shoulders loosened, her pace slowed. She sauntered.

  The caves were every bit as labyrinthine as the market, every bit as busy and loud. Garish lights and pixel displays flashed in a chaotic array, and the air was overflowing with voices and mechanical noise. But this place was easier for Sidra, just as Pepper and Blue’s home was easier, just as the Undersea was easier. Everything here was something new, too, but the walls told her protocols where to stop. She’d only been on Coriol for a little over a standard day, but already, she saw patterns in the places that were relatively comfortable for her.

  ‘Hey, Pepper!’ shouted an Aandrisk woman unloading crates from a cargo drone. ‘Good morning!’

  ‘G’morning!’ Pepper drifted over to her. ‘Need a hand?’

  ‘Nah,’ the Aandrisk said. ‘That’s what bots are for.’ She nodded toward the small, bulbous squad working together to haul a crate into a shopfront.

  Pepper gestured toward the kit. ‘Hish, this is my new assistant, Sidra. Sidra, this is Hish, owner of Open Circuit.’

  Sidra flipped the kit’s hand into eshka – Aandrisk hand speak for nice to meet you. She was glad she’d taken the time to download such things.

  Pepper raised her brow, but said nothing.

  Hish returned eshka enthusiastically, then reached out to shake Sidra’s hand Human-style. ‘It’s a pleasure,’ she said. ‘Have you been to the caves before? I haven’t seen you around.’

  ‘I just got to the Port,’ Sidra said. ‘It’s my first time here.’

  ‘Oh, welcome!’ Hish said. ‘Where are you from?’

  Sidra was ready for this. She pulled up the repository of technically-true responses she and Pepper had prepared together. ‘I was born on a long-haul ship. Decided to finally get my feet on the ground.’

  ‘Ahh, a spacer, huh? Any system in particular, or just all over?’

  Sidra scrambled for an appropriate response. ‘I started out in the GC. I’m not a citizen, though.’ This seemed like an unnecessary point to volunteer, but Pepper had assured her this was the right track to head down. There are plenty of crazy Human isolationists doing who-knows-what out there, Pepper had said. If you were born here but aren’t a citizen, that means your parents didn’t register you. That’ll make people think your parents were fringers in the neighbourhood for supplies. And given that Human establishments on the other side of the fence are rarely anything anybody wants to discuss in casual conversation, you won’t get asked much beyond that.

  Hish gave Sidra an understanding nod, proving Pepper right. ‘I gotcha,’ she said with a bittersweet smile. ‘Well, you could hardly ask for someone better suited than this one’ – she nodded at Pepper – ‘to show you the ropes. You got a place to stay?’ The question was asked calmly, but with unmistakable concern.

  ‘Yes.’

  Pepper clapped the kit on the shoulder. ‘We’ve put her up. She’s going to get sick of me real quick.’

  Hish laughed, then touched Pepper’s forearm. ‘You and Blue are good people. I’ve always said so.’ She straightened up, glancing at her heavily laden bots. ‘Well, I shouldn’t keep you two. Sidra, have a wonderful first day. And if you ever need comp tech gear, you come straight to me.’

  Sidra waited until they were out of earshot. ‘Pepper, did she . . . did she feel sorry for me?’

  ‘She thinks you’ve gotten away from some bad shit,’ Pepper said. ‘Which is exactly what we want. The more people think you came from something rough, the less they’ll ask you questions.’

  ‘I see,’ Sidra said. She was glad for the lack of prying, but something about the way the Aandrisk woman had looked at her made her uneasy. She didn’t want to be the subject of pity. She watched Pepper as she ambled her way through the caves, greeting peers, trading small talk, asking technical questions that made Sidra long for the Linkings. She watched people’s reactions, too, as she recycled her tailored responses over and over. Their replies were always variations on the same theme: kindness toward Sidra, respect for Pepper. The former was nice, but the latter seemed more desirable. Pepper had come from some ‘bad shit’, too, but no one looked at her as if she were a stray pet. Pepper was useful here. Sidra wasn’t yet. It would take time, she knew, but the continued lack of a clear-cut purpose was unpleasant.

  They arrived at a sedately decorated shopfront, far less flashy than its neighbours. ‘Here we are,’ Pepper said, gesturing dramatically. A sign made of scrap announced the purpose of the open-air counter beneath it:

  THE RUST BUCKET

  Tech swap and fix-it shop

  Pepper and Blue, Proprietors

  ‘Blue no longer works here, correct?’ Sidra asked.

  Pepper waved her wristpatch over a scanner by the counter. There was a brief, quiet crackle as a security shield switched off. ‘Correct. He stops by sometimes, though, if he’s feeling tired of artists being artists.’ She flipped up the counter door and headed back into her space. There was a long workbench opposite the counter, with plenty of room between. Behind that was a doorway, through which there appeared to be a small workshop, comfortably removed from the territory of customers. Sidra kept the kit out of Pepper’s way as she filled the counter with display boxes full of second-hand components, each smartly wrapped and labelled.

  ‘Can you hand me that?’ Pepper asked.

  Sidra turned the kit’s head to follow Pepper’s gaze, and found a toolbelt. It was absurdly heavy, overburdened with wrenches and pliers. The thick fabric had been reinforced with rough thread – several times over, it seemed. ‘Yes,’ Sidra said. She handed the belt to Pepper, as requested. ‘Do you mind working here alone?’ she asked.

  Pepper shook her head. ‘Nah. Tech is my thing, not Blue’s. He can do it, but it’s not what makes him get up in the morning.’ She grinned. ‘And besides, I don’t work here alone any more.’ She pulled a clean work apron and gloves out of a drawer, then clad herself with them and the clattering toolbelt as she spoke. ‘So. The Rust Bucket is your all-purpose place to get stuff fixed, and we sell refurbished bits and bobs, too. I have only a few rules.’ She raised a gloved finger. ‘Number one: no military-grade weapons or explosives. If you’re a livestock farmer, or you’re headed to Cricket or something, and you need your slug rifle fixed, sure, I can do that. You throw down some Aeluon-wannabe blaster, get the fuck out. If you’re not a soldier, you don’t need that shit.’

  Sidra recorded every word. ‘What if you are a soldier?’

  ‘If you are a soldier, I am the last person you’d come to with weapon problems. Unless your military has massive organisational issues, I guess. I will do basic tools of self defence, not murder gear.’ She raised a second finger. ‘Rule number two: no biotech. Not my area of expertise. If someone wants their mods tweaked, I’ve got a good list of clinics I can refer them to. Safe, trustworthy places. You get anybody asking about implant or mod stuff, come get me, and I’ll point them in the right direction. No nanobots, either, even if they’re not bio. It’s not my thing, and I don’t have the right equipment. Rule number three: somebody brings in anything with magnets, they damn well better tell us up front so I can store it properly. Anybody who doesn’t gets to compensate me for whatever got fried. Fourth rule: whatever they bring in has to be able to fit behind the counter. I will do bigger jobs outside of the shop, but that’s on a case-by-case basis. I don’t do that for everybody, so don’t mention it to people. Just come get me and I’ll decide if it’s worth my time. Other than that . . .’ She pursed her lip
s in thought. ‘I’ll take just about anything.’ She drummed her fingers on the counter. ‘My pricing is . . . variable. Whatever it says on the package, or whatever I promised. Between you and me, I really don’t care how much things cost. As long as I have food in my belly and can buy dumb stuff to decorate my house with, it doesn’t matter whether people are paying me the same amount every time. I work within budgets, and trade is every bit as welcome as credits. More so, even.’ She lifted her foot. ‘I got these boots for free because I fixed a clothing merchant’s patch scanner. I’ve got a doctor who upgrades me and Blue’s imubots every standard in exchange for random fix-it jobs whenever he wants. And I’ve got a lifetime half-off discount at Captain Smacky’s Snack Fest, because I did a same-day rush job on their grill.’ She shrugged. ‘Credits are imaginary. I’ll accept them because we’ve collectively decided that’s how we do things, but I prefer doing business in a tangible way. Don’t worry, though – you’ll get paid in credits. Cleaner that way.’

  Sidra had forgotten about that part. ‘Oh. Right.’

  ‘You’ll get a cut from the shop’s monthly profits. Haven’t worked out how much yet, but I promise it’ll be fair. And that’s separate from room and board. You having a roof over your head is not contingent on you working here, so if you want to go do something else, that’s fine. You’re not indentured, okay? At the end of every couple tendays, we’ll divvy things up, and I’ll transfer—’ She snapped her fingers. The sound fell flat through the gloves. ‘We need to set you up with a bank account. Don’t worry, I know someone who can fix that for us. Works for the GC, but she’s good people. Does not mind turning a blind eye if you don’t have the right formwork, and does not ask a lot of questions. Also has an amazing collection of antique Harmagian ground carts that she uses at parties. Early colonial era, really gorgeous craftsmanship. I’ll drop her a note.’

  Sidra set aside the shop rules file and created another: my job. ‘So what will I be doing?’

  ‘Since Blue isn’t here any more, I need someone to be an extra pair of eyes and hands. I’m thinking you’ll be wherever I’m not. If I’m doing something big and noisy in the back, you’ll be up front, greeting folks, handing over finished stuff, selling packaged things that don’t need my input. If I’m up front, you can clean up in the back. If there’s an errand that needs doing, you can go out and about, or I can go out and do my thing, and you can hold down the fort.’ She cocked her head. ‘How does that sound, for starters?’

  Sidra processed that. In some ways, it wasn’t so different from her intended purpose. She’d be monitoring the safety of the shop and responding to requests. She’d perform tasks as directed. She’d be Pepper’s eyes where she couldn’t see. ‘I can do that.’

  Pepper studied her. ‘I’m sure you can. But do you want to do that?’

  Sidra processed that, too, and came up empty. ‘I can’t answer that, because I don’t know.’ When she was given a task, she performed the task. When a request was made, she filled the request as best she could. That . . . that was her job. That was her point. If things hadn’t gone the way they’d gone on the Wayfarer, if she’d stayed in the core she’d first been installed in, would anyone have said to her: Hello, Lovelace! Welcome! It’s time for you to start monitoring the ship – but only if you want to?

  She doubted it.

  Pepper put her hand on the kit’s shoulder and smiled. ‘What do you say we just get started and see how you like it, okay?’

  ‘Okay,’ Sidra said, relieved to set that processing loop aside. ‘How does the day start?’

  ‘First things first, I check two feeds: the shop’s message box, and Picnic.’ She gestured at a small pixel projector sitting on the counter. A cloud of pixels burst forth into the air, arranging themselves to display Pepper’s default feeds in twin translucent rectangles. The feed on the left was easy enough to decipher.

  NEW MESSAGES

  New request: engine overhaul – Prii Olk An Tosh’kavon

  Status check: scrib won’t turn on – Chinmae Lee

  New request: hello do you know anything about hydroponic equipment I think one of my pumps is broken – Kresh

  Query: would you accept live red coasters as payment – toad

  Query: not actually a query, the new build works beautifully, thank you!!!!!!!!! – Mako Mun

  The feed on the right, however, was more of a mystery. Given that it had taken the pixels longer to arrange themselves there, there was likely encryption at work.

  hello pinch. welcome to the picnic.

  mech (big)

  mech (small)

  bio

  nano

  digital

  experimental

  intelligent

  protective

  spaceworthy

  The kit blinked. ‘What’s that?’

  Pepper nodded at the right feed. ‘Picnic is an unlisted social feed for techs all over the GC who like to make connections with people who know stuff that . . . let’s just say, the Port Authority might not approve of. Officially, at least.’

  The kit wet its lips as Sidra considered that. Port Coriol’s black market was no secret, but it was a little disquieting to know she was looking through one of its windows. She had no grounds to disapprove of illegal activities – given that she was one – but all the same, she hoped she wasn’t in a place where she’d be easier to discover.

  Pepper noticed the pause. ‘Don’t worry. Here, look.’ She gestured at biotech, and skimmed through the dozens of discussion threads, searching for something. ‘Ah, there he is. You see this user, FunkyFronds? He’s the inspector who checks out my shop every standard. I play it safe.’

  ‘Is a lot of your business, ah . . .’ Sidra wasn’t sure how to phrase the question politely.

  ‘My business is giving people what they need. You heard my rules. I don’t do anything dangerous or stupid. The thing is, a lot of laws are stupid, too, and they don’t always keep people out of danger. What can I say? I’m a woman of principle.’ She winked. ‘Come on, I’ve thought up your first task. Sorry – job. Your first job. It is, perhaps, the most important thing.’

  Sidra followed Pepper into the workshop behind the front counter. Having been in Pepper’s home, what lay beyond was no surprise. Shelves of supplies towered overhead, stuffed with crates all labelled – by hand! – in big block letters. There was organisation at work, but clutter, too. The mark of a logical mind that sometimes strayed.

  Pepper gestured proudly at an elaborate hand-hacked contraption covered in shiny tubes and dented pipes. ‘If you’re going to be my assistant,’ she said, ‘you’ve gotta learn to make mek.’

  ‘That’s . . . the most important thing?’

  ‘Oh yeah. Fixing complicated shit requires a clear head, and nothing chills a person out like a warm cup of mek.’ Pepper placed an affectionate hand on the brewing machine. ‘I require a lot of this.’

  Sidra accessed a behavioural reference file. ‘Don’t most sapients drink it recreationally? At the end of the day?’

  Pepper rolled her eyes. ‘Most sapients confuse working hard with being miserable. I do solid work, and I’m never late. So, why not? It’s not like I’m smoking smash. Mek is just a food coma without the food. Same brain chemicals, basically. You drink too much, you take a nap. And seriously, anybody working in a job that doesn’t let you take a nap when you need to should get a new job. Present company excluded, of course.’

  ‘Are naps good?’

  ‘Naps are fucking great.’ Pepper opened a drawer and pulled out a tin decorated with an Aeluon design – monochromatic swirls and circles. ‘You’re kind of missing out there. Missing out on mek, too.’ She opened the tin and stuck her nose over it, inhaling deeply. ‘Mmm, yeah.’ She held the tin out to Sidra. ‘When you smell that, how do you . . . how do you process that? Is it just a list of chemicals?’

  ‘I’m not sure. I’ll find out.’ Sidra took the tin, manoeuvred it to the kit’s nose, and pulled in air.

  Th
e image was there without warning, leaping to the front of all other external input – a sleeping cat, sprawled on its back in a puddle of sunlight, fur mussed, pink toes splayed sweetly – then gone, just as fast.

  ‘Hey, you okay?’ Pepper asked, taking the tin. Something on the kit’s face had her attention.

  Sidra tore through her directory logs, looking for an explanation. ‘I – I don’t know.’ She paused for one second. ‘I saw a cat.’

  ‘Like . . . an Earthen cat?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Pepper glanced around. ‘What, here?’

  ‘No, no. It felt like a memory file. A cat, asleep by a window. But I’ve never seen a cat before.’

  ‘Then . . . how do you know it was a cat?’

  ‘Behavioural files. Animals you can find around Humans. I know what a cat is, I’ve just never seen one.’ She raced through logs and came up empty. ‘I can’t find the file. I don’t understand.’

  ‘It’s okay,’ Pepper said. Her voice was light, but there was a small furrow between her eyes. ‘Maybe some stray crud you picked up in the Linkings?’

  ‘No, I – I don’t know. Maybe.’

  ‘If it happens again, let me know. And maybe we should run a diagnostic, just to be safe. Are you feeling okay otherwise?’

  ‘Yes. Just confused.’

  ‘You’re still adjusting. It’s cool. Stuff’s gonna be weird for a while. So, let’s give you something to focus on, huh? When my head gets cluttered, always helps to do something with my hands.’

  Pepper walked Sidra through the steps of making a batch of mek – measuring the powder, hooking up the water, keeping an eye on the temperature. It wasn’t complicated, but Pepper was particular about the details. ‘See, if you cook it too fast, there’s a compound in the bark that gets bitter in a real mean way. Cook it too slow, though, and you’ll just end up with sludge.’ Sidra took extensive notes. Clearly, this was important.

  A soft timer chimed, indicating the batch was ready. Pepper picked up a mug, inspected the inside, wiped it out with the corner of her apron, then pressed it under the brewer’s spigot. A small cloud of steam unfurled as the milky white liquid poured out. Pepper took the mug with both hands, inhaling deeply. She blew across the surface, then took a cautious sip.

 
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