A closed and common orbi.., p.6
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.6

           Becky Chambers

  ‘Isn’t that too hot?’ Sidra asked.

  ‘Yeah, but stars, it’s good.’ Pepper slurped slowly through a tiny opening between her lips. ‘Ahhhh. Here, you want to try?’

  ‘Yes.’ Sidra accepted the mug. The kit’s mock pain reflexes didn’t kick in, so clearly it wasn’t too hot – at least, not for her. She looked at the liquid, swirling into itself in a friendly kind of way.

  ‘Do you know how to drink?’ Pepper asked.

  ‘I think so.’ Sidra hadn’t manoeuvred the kit in this way before, but it was easy enough to mimic. She brought the mug to the kit’s lips, parted them, and pulled liquid in. She could detect heat, and—

  She was stepping into a hot bath, but this body wasn’t hers. It was someone else – rounder, taller, at ease in her body. She sank into the water, scented foam folding around her. Everything was okay.

  Sidra looked up at Pepper. ‘It happened again. Not a cat, but—’ She took another sip. She was stepping into a hot bath, but this body wasn’t hers. ‘It’s a bath. It’s a memory file of someone taking a bath. And now it’s gone again.’ She grabbed the tin of mek powder and inhaled. A sleeping cat, sprawled – ‘That triggered the cat again.’ She took another sip from the mug, testing for patterns. She was stepping into – ‘Bath.’

  ‘Whoa. Okay. This is too specific to be a random malfunction.’ Pepper went to the front counter and got her scrib. ‘Time to look at your user manual.’

  ‘There was nothing like this in the user manual.’

  Pepper gave her a wry look. ‘Modders love secret shit.’ She gestured. ‘Search term, um . . . random image files?’

  A chunk of text appeared.

  Congratulations! You’ve discovered one of the best features of your kit: sensory analogues! You’re going to be spending a lot of time with organic sapients, and if there’s one thing organic sapients love, it’s physical enjoyment: foods, touching, things that smell good. I didn’t want you to miss out on enjoying those moments with your friends. You don’t have the capability to process sensory input as organics do, so your kit includes a huge hidden repository of pleasing images, which was seamlessly integrated with your core program upon installation (don’t bother looking – you won’t be able to find it!). Whenever your kit receives stimuli that an organic would derive a pleasant sensation from, the repository will be triggered. So, go ahead! Have dessert! Get a massage! Smell the roses!

  Pepper looked at Sidra, then back to the scrib. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is a work of genius.’ She shut her eyes and laughed. ‘Oh, stars, we are going to have so much fun.’ She gestured at the pixel projector, bringing up a comms program.

  ‘Contact name, please,’ an automated voice said.

  ‘Captain Smacky’s Snack Fest,’ Pepper said, winking at Sidra.

  A cartoonish logo of some sort of seafaring Human with an ornate hat and several prosthetic limbs appeared, followed by a lengthy menu offering foods of dubious nutritional value. Piping hot boxes of cricket crunch, made to order. Red coaster dumplings by the dozen. A wide assortment of pocket stuffers, both spicy and sugar-fried. The list went on and on.

  ‘Welcome to Captain Smacky’s ordering system!’ a chipper recording exclaimed. ‘Simply place an order and we’ll dispatch a drone to your location tag straight away. If you know what you’d like—’

  ‘I do.’ Pepper nodded seriously. ‘I’d like the left side of the menu, please.’

  JANE 23, AGE 10

  ‘I don’t understand,’ Jane 64 said. They were talking in bed, which wasn’t allowed, but they were doing it real real quiet, and none of the girls ever got each other in trouble for doing that.

  Jane 23 tried to find good words, but it was hard. ‘There was something on the other side of the wall.’

  ‘Another room?’

  ‘No, not another room.’

  ‘I don’t understand,’ 64 said again. ‘How was it not a room?’

  ‘It didn’t have walls,’ Jane 23 said. This was so hard to explain. ‘It wasn’t like anything here. There is something else outside the factory.’

  Jane 64 frowned. ‘Was it big?’

  ‘Real big. Bigger than anything I’ve ever seen.’

  ‘Was it a piece of scrap?’

  ‘No,’ Jane 23 said, trying not to get loud. She felt almost angry. ‘It wasn’t like anything. It was like the space inside rooms, only . . . only without walls. I don’t know.’ She didn’t have any more words. ‘It was unknown and wrong.’

  Jane 64 moved closer, talking so quiet that 23 couldn’t have heard her if she was any farther away. ‘Do you think the Mothers know there’s something there?’

  ‘Yes.’ Jane 23 knew they knew. She didn’t know how. She just knew it.

  ‘Then we should ask them.’

  ‘No.’ Back in the med ward, the Mothers had asked all the girls one by one what they saw in the sorting room when the accident happened. ‘I heard Jane 25 tell them she saw the hole.’

  They both went quiet. Jane 25 had been Jane 17’s bunkmate. 17 was sleeping with 34 and 55 now.

  ‘What did you tell them?’ Jane 64 asked, her eyes real big.

  ‘I said I got knocked down and then went looking for you.’

  64’s eyes went even bigger. ‘You lied?’

  Jane 23 shrugged even though she was scared. ‘I just didn’t say.’ She’d been real real scared about that ever since the med ward, like maybe the Mothers would think about it again and know that she hadn’t said everything she should have.

  ‘Maybe we should ask the other girls,’ Jane 64 said. ‘Maybe someone else saw, too.’

  Jane 23 didn’t think that was a good idea. She felt okay talking about it with 64, because she knew 64 would never get her in trouble. ‘I just want to know what it is,’ she said. ‘I didn’t get to look very long.’

  Jane 64 scratched the stitches on her forehead. ‘Do you think it’ll be there when we go back to our sorting room?’

  ‘No, I think that’s why we’re in a different room now,’ Jane 23 said. ‘I think they’ll fix it before we go back.’ There was another thing she wanted to say, but it stuck in her mouth. It was real scary. She wanted to say it so so bad, though. She had to say. ‘I want to go look at it.’

  Jane 64 stared at her, scared but real interested. ‘Me too,’ she said. ‘But I don’t want to get punished.’

  Jane 23 thought about it. ‘We could do it without getting punished.’

  ‘They wouldn’t let us go there during the work day.’

  ‘We could go at night.’

  Jane 64 shook her head hard. ‘We’re not allowed out of bed,’ she said, her voice high and shaky.

  ‘We are if we’re going to the bathroom.’

  ‘We aren’t going to the bathroom. They know where the bathroom is.’

  ‘We could say . . . we could say we were going to the bathroom, and we heard a weird sound outside the bathroom, and thought someone might need some help.’


  ‘Someone. One of the little girls. We could say we heard one of the little girls and she sounded scared,’ Jane 23 said. Her own scared feeling started to go away, and in its place was something kind of hot and loud and good. They were talking about bad behaviour, but she wanted to do this. She wanted to do this a lot. So she did. Right then. She got up, put on her shoes, and walked away. 64 whispered something, but Jane 23 was already too far away to hear. She could hear her come quietly tap-tap-tapping after her, though.

  ‘This is a bad idea,’ Jane 64 said. ‘If we see a Mother, I am telling her it was your idea.’ She said it, but 23 knew it wasn’t true. 64 would never let 23 get punished in her place. Only bad girls did stuff like that, and 64 wasn’t bad. She was the most good.

  The bathroom was cold. They moved through it real quick. Jane 23 stopped when they got to the hallway door. Maybe it was a bad idea. They could go back. They could go back right then and no one would ever know. They could just go back and sleep and have a good on-task day tomorrow.
br />   She stepped through the door. 64 went with her.

  The hallways were weird all dark, but it was easy to find their way. One time, they thought they heard a Mother, so they ducked behind a stack of bins. There was nothing, though. They were okay. They were okay all the way to the sorting room. The door was closed, but it wasn’t locked. Why would it be? Girls never went anywhere without Mothers watching.

  ‘I don’t think we should,’ Jane 64 whispered.

  They shouldn’t, Jane 23 knew. She looked around the hallway. No one else was there, but that could change real fast. She knew how fast the Mothers moved.

  ‘Come on,’ Jane 23 said, taking her bunkmate’s hand. She went through the door. Jane 64 followed, not tugging back or anything.

  Even in the dark, Jane 23 could see that the sorting room had been cleaned up. There was still a mess, but not a wet kind of mess. The blood and bits were gone, and the exploded stuff had been swept into piles. The scrap was gone from all their benches, too. Jane 23 was scared, even though the room was quiet. The room didn’t look like it had the last time she’d seen it, but in her head, she still saw it the old way. What if there were pieces of girls in there? What if there was a girl stuck under a desk and she grabbed them when they walked by? Jane 23 pressed close to 64. 64 pressed back.

  The hole in the wall was covered with a tarp. There was stuff next to it, some kind of . . . Jane 23 wasn’t sure. There was stuff in buckets, and tools, too. She thought of the glue she used on broken good scrap sometimes. Maybe the Mothers were trying to glue the wall closed.

  A corner of the tarp waved at them, pushed back and forth by air from . . . somewhere. The other side.

  ‘Let’s go back,’ Jane 64 said, but she said it quiet, like she wasn’t sure. She was staring at the waving corner.

  Jane 23’s heart was beating so hard she thought she might break. She grabbed the corner in her hand. The air pushing it was cold. Real cold.

  She pulled the tarp aside.

  The stuff on the other side of the wall hadn’t made any sense before, but it made even less now. The huge huge piles of scrap were still there, but the ceiling that wasn’t a ceiling had changed. It wasn’t blue any more, and it wasn’t bright – at least, not in the same way. Before, it had been bright all the way through, but now, it was real dark, except for three big round lights and a whole bunch of little specks and something kinda smoky running across it. The not-ceiling was big. So, so big. Bigger than the sorting room, bigger than the dorm. It went on so far Jane 23 couldn’t see any edges. It went on for always.

  Jane 64 wasn’t saying anything, just breathing real hard and heavy. Scared, probably, but she wasn’t talking about going back to bed any more, either. Jane 23 understood. She felt the same way.

  Jane 23 stuck her hand out beyond the edge of the broken wall. It was real cold, for sure, but not cold like metal was cold or the floor in the bathroom was cold. It was just cold, everywhere. Her skin got tight and made little bumps. It wasn’t a very good feeling, but she liked it anyway, just as she liked it whenever she got to taste soap or blood or anything that wasn’t a meal. It was different. The cold felt different.

  ‘Twenty-three, don’t,’ 64 whispered.

  But Jane 23 was listening to something else now – that hot, good feeling pushing all through her chest. She stepped past the wall. She took another step. Two steps. Three. Four.

  The scrap went on as far as the not-ceiling did, piles and piles and piles of it. No wonder there was always scrap to sort. You could have girls sorting this stuff for years and they’d never be done.

  She looked down. The floor outside the wall was dusty, powdery. There were little hard bits all over, too, and all of it sloped down toward the piles of scrap. She looked up again at the not-ceiling. It made her head hurt, and her stomach, too. Maybe if she got closer, it would make sense. Maybe if she could touch it—

  Jane 64 screamed. ‘No! No!’

  Jane 23 spun around. A Mother had Jane 64 up off the floor, metal hand wrapped around her neck. Her bunkmate kicked and fought, tugging at the silver fingers.

  Jane 23 wanted to scream, too, but her throat wouldn’t let the sound out. They’d be punished for this. They’d be punished in the way that girls never came back from. There’d be an empty bunk in the dorm, the one they should’ve been sleeping in. The Mothers wouldn’t need to make a trio.

  It was all her fault.

  The Mother saw Jane 23, but she didn’t step through the hole. She looked at it and just stood there, like she didn’t know what to do. Even without a face, it was real easy to tell that she was angry. So, so angry.

  Jane 64 was crying and scared, and her face was a wrong kind of red. She looked at Jane 23 real hard, looked at her in a way that made her think of every morning they’d cuddled close before the wake-up lights turned on, of the time 64 had said she was the most good. ‘Run,’ Jane 64 said. ‘Run!’

  Jane 23 knew she shouldn’t run. She’d done bad behaviour. There was no way to get out of punishment, and fighting would make it worse. But that hot, good, angry feeling was louder than anything the Mothers had ever told her. Jane 64 kept screaming: ‘Run!’ Her muscles said it, too: Run. Run!

  So she did.


  Blue got to his feet as Pepper and Sidra walked in the door. ‘Hey!’ he said with a big smile.

  ‘Hi,’ Sidra said, and simultaneously accessed the file named make yourself comfortable.

  1. remove jacket

  2. remove shoes

  3. find a place to sit

  4. (optional) get a snack or beverage

  Pepper eyed her partner as she unlaced her boots. ‘What’s up?’ she asked, in a tone that suggested something had to be.

  Blue continued to smile. ‘I’ve, uh, I’ve done some redecorating.’ He spoke more reassuringly as Pepper raised her brow. ‘Nothing big! Just s-something, ah, something for our housemate.’

  Sidra was intrigued. She removed jacket and shoes from the kit, and went into the living room. Blue was right – not much had changed, but the couch had been moved, and beside it was a new chair, pushed up against the wall as far as it would go. A small table was next to it, holding a Linking box and a tethering cable. A blush of happiness spread through Sidra’s pathways. She understood. This was a place for her to sit down and plug in when she came home.

  ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘This is very kind.’ She paused, not wanting to be impolite. ‘Can I . . .?’

  ‘Please!’ Blue said.

  Sidra couldn’t get the kit seated fast enough. She popped the cable into the headjack, and the kit fell back into the chair, as an organic sapient would at the end of a long day. She closed the kit’s eyes, savouring the flood of information. She wouldn’t have known how to describe the feeling to the Humans. Perhaps like instantly regrowing a limb that had recently been severed.

  ‘Is the chair in a g-good spot?’ Blue asked. ‘Is the angle okay? I tried to find somewhere, ah, somewhere where you can see most of the room.’

  Sidra opened the kit’s eyes and looked around. ‘Yes, this is great,’ she said, simultaneously downloading everything she’d added to her topics to research file that day. She’d already begun to lose herself in the task when she detected something brushing against the kit’s leg. She flicked the kit’s eyes down, but the angle wasn’t right. She still couldn’t see what it was. The kit sighed, and she bent it forward, directing the head down.

  A little machine had come out from under the chair. A soft-skinned bot, in the shape of an animal Sidra didn’t recognise. Big head, stubby body, eight stumpy legs. She searched her reference files, but came up empty.

  ‘Oh, cute!’ Pepper said as she came into the room. She placed a fond hand on Blue’s shoulder. ‘Aw, that’s real cute.’

  Sidra watched the bot, which had begun to rub its side against the kit’s leg. Two green mechanical eyes opened and met her gaze. Without warning, the bot leaped into the kit’s lap, and cooed a wordless invitation.

>   Sidra wasn’t sure what to do. ‘What is this?’ she asked.

  ‘Put out your hand,’ Blue said.

  Sidra put the kit’s right hand forward, hesitantly. The machine pushed its nose forward, nuzzling the kit’s fingertips, cooing and chuffing as it did so. The kit started smiling, though Sidra couldn’t say quite why.

  ‘It’s a petbot,’ Blue said. ‘This one’s, ah, this one’s made to look like an ushmin. They’re a Harmagian th-thing, but everybody likes ushmin.’

  Sidra realised that Blue was watching her with hopeful expectation. ‘Wait,’ she said. ‘Is this for me?’

  Blue nodded happily. ‘I kn-know being in somebody else’s space can be weird. I figured it’d be, um, be good to – good to have something that’s yours.’ He put his hands in his front pockets. ‘Plus they say pets are – are calming. Thought it might help you feel more at home here.’

  The sentiment was sweet, but Sidra stuck on one bit of the phrasing: something that’s yours. If the petbot was a gift, she owned it now. Gingerly, she made the kit pick up the mechanical ushmin. It wriggled, giving the impression of enjoying the contact. The kit’s smile faded. ‘Is it sentient?’

  Blue looked slightly appalled. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I would never buy something like that. It’s not intelligent, it’s just, um, just mechanical.’

  Sidra continued to stare at the petbot. It stared back, eyes blinking slowly. A non-sentient program, then. Nothing but if/thens, on and off, tiny baby algorithms. She glanced over at Pepper, who was raiding the kitchen. A box of dried beetles – original five-spice blend! – was in her free hand as she dug through the cooler in search of a drink. Beetles, Sidra thought. Beetles weren’t intelligent, either. They couldn’t fly a shuttle or build an Undersea or create art. She looked again to the petbot, now seated in her lap. She stretched out one set of the kit’s fingers toward it. The bot stretched up toward them, begging to be touched. A recognition protocol, clearly. If approached by owner, then act cute. She thought back to the beetles. If approached by bird, then run away. If hungry, then eat. If challenged, then fight. Beetles weren’t considered to be much, but they were alive, at least. There were rules about how to quickly kill insects before consumption. She’d seen such things on the packaging of Pepper’s snacks: Harvested humanely in accordance with GC law. You could be fairly sure beetles didn’t understand what was happening to them, and that they didn’t suffer much, but consideration was given to the fact that they might. Did petbots come with any such ethical labelling? What was the difference between strung-together neurons and a simple bundle of if/then code, if the outward actions were the same? Could you say for certain that there wasn’t a tiny mind in that bot, looking back at the world like a beetle might?

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