A closed and common orbi.., p.8
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.8

           Becky Chambers

  Sidra processed, processed, processed, but the walls kept her from stretching too far. It felt good. It felt right.

  ‘Pepper!’ a voice cried. A male Aandrisk, waving at them from the opposite side of a circular bar. Sidra didn’t recognise him, but Pepper obviously did. She hurried towards him, hands above her head. A Harmagian saw Pepper coming, and made room for her at the bar, tentacles curling with respect. Sidra felt a bit of awe warm through her pathways. Was there anyone on this moon who didn’t know Pepper?

  ‘Hist ka eth, reske,’ Pepper said, leaning over the bar to give the Aandrisk a hug. Good to see you, friend. Her pronunciation was rough, but the Aandrisk didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

  ‘Ses sek es kitriksh iks tesh.’ I was wondering when you’d get here. He reached over to Blue, hugging him across the bar as well. ‘It’s not a party without you two.’ His grey-green eyes flicked to Sidra. ‘And who’s this?’

  Pepper put her palm between the kit’s shoulder blades. ‘My good friend Sidra, recently arrived at the Port, and just as recently hired by yours truly.’ She nodded at the Aandrisk. ‘Sidra, this is Issek, one of the finest bartenders on this rock.’

  ‘One of?’ Issek said, flicking his tongue. ‘Who else?’

  Blue grinned teasingly. ‘Pere’tek at the Sand House pours f-faster than you.’

  Issek rolled his eyes. ‘He’s got tentacles. That’s hardly fair.’ He tussled Blue’s hair, then turned his attention to the kit. ‘Sidra, it’s a pleasure. First drink’s on me. What can I get you?’

  ‘Oh.’ Sidra didn’t know how to respond. Having the ability to ingest fluids wasn’t the same as knowing which one she was supposed to purchase. ‘I don’t—’

  Pepper gave Sidra a secret, reassuring glance. ‘It’s customary on Shimmerquick to drink something that comes from the same place you do. Or the same culture, at least. As close as you can manage.’

  ‘Ah,’ Issek said, raising a claw. ‘That’s what you buy for yourself. If someone else is buying, then it has to be something from xyr home. So, as I’m buying’ – he gave a little bow – ‘you’re getting something my home city of Reskit is famous for. Ever tried tishsa?’

  ‘I haven’t, no.’

  Issek plucked a tall, thin ceramic bottle from the table behind him. ‘Tishsa is made from the sap of a tree whose pronunciation I won’t burden you with. Grows in the marshlands east of Reskit. There are two traditional ways of serving it: neat and very, very hot, or’ – he poured a stream of inky brown liquid into a tiny bowl-like cup with a subtle pour spout – ‘at room temperature, wiiiiith’ – he uncapped a second, smaller bottle – ‘a drop of nectar syrup, to counter the bitterness, and’ – a small box was produced – ‘a dash of salt, to balance the whole thing out.’ He gave the concoction two quick stirs with a long rod, then slid the cup toward Sidra.

  Sidra thanked him and accepted the tishsa, aware of Issek’s expectant gaze. She brought the cup to the kit’s lips and poured the contents inside.

  A rushing river. Burning paper. A forest thick with fog.

  ‘Wow,’ Sidra said. ‘That’s really nice.’

  Issek nodded proudly, his feathers bobbing. The Humans looked delighted. ‘How’s it, ah, how’s it taste?’ Blue asked.

  Sidra answered with the truth: ‘Like a forest.’

  Pepper beamed, then turned her attention to Issek. ‘So whatcha got for colony kids?’ she said, gesturing at herself and Blue.

  ‘For planetside Humans, only the finest,’ Issek said with a mischievous glint. He covered his hand with a thick towel, reached below the counter, and pulled out a sealed, chilled bottle. Pepper and Blue hooted with laughter.

  ‘Oh, no,’ Pepper said, with the sort of tone that implied the opposite.

  Blue ran his fingers down his cheeks and exhaled. ‘We’re in for a night.’ He took the bottle and held it out for Sidra to see. Whitedune Distillery, the label read. Kick-Ass Kick from Gobi Six.

  ‘What is it?’ Sidra asked. Kick could mean anything from ale to wine to spirits, depending on where the speaker was from. Slang was infuriating that way.

  Blue turned the bottle to the back label. Ingredients: Whatever we could grow this year, plus water.

  ‘Gotta love the independent colonies,’ Pepper said. She made a grabbing motion toward Issek, who placed a small glass in her hand. Blue uncapped the bottle and poured. Pepper puffed out her cheeks, then threw the drink back. Her face contorted into a puzzle of emotions as she swished and swallowed.

  ‘Oh, stars,’ Pepper rasped, laughing. ‘Why could we not be from Reskit?’

  ‘If you hate it—’ Issek started.

  Pepper shook her head. ‘Nope. Nope, it’s good for me to know what it feels like for a fuel line to be cleaned out. Professional development and all.’ She patted Blue’s chest. ‘Tomorrow’s gonna be a rough morning.’

  Some friendly conversation continued – the well-being of the Rust Bucket, the decor of the party, the current gossip from Issek’s feather family – but Sidra shifted that process to the background. These were the kinds of conversations she was privy to all the time. The Aurora was new, and vibrant. She watched as a group of Aeluon children blew handfuls of glitter over each other, dancing excitedly but making no sound at all. She watched as a massive Quelin – an exile, judging by the harsh branding stamped along her shell – apologised profusely for getting one of her segmented legs stuck in some decorative fabric draped around a vendor’s booth. She watched service drones flying drinks and food orders back and forth, back and forth. She wondered if the drones were intelligent. She wondered how much they were aware of.

  Blue noticed that Sidra’s attention had strayed, and he gave Pepper a subtle nudge. They excused themselves from the bar, assuring Issek that they’d be back later.

  ‘Come on,’ Pepper said. ‘Let’s go check out the main event.’

  They walked into a large circular area, and the multicultural atmosphere vanished. This space was filled with angled tents decorated with lavish garlands and lights, eagerly staffed by adult Aeluons and their respective children. This was the creche display, the central point of any Shimmerquick celebration. This was where professional parents advertised their business to potential mothers.

  ‘You know how this works?’ Pepper asked under her breath.

  ‘Yes,’ Sidra said. She brought up her reference files, eager to compare her notes with the real thing. ‘Can I look around? Is that . . . allowed?’

  ‘Oh yeah, go for it,’ Pepper said. ‘They don’t mind looky-loos. Just keep your respectful distance when a balsun takes place. Other species getting mixed up in that isn’t cool, even in this crowd.’

  Sidra wouldn’t have dared anyway. The balsun ritual dance was the hallmark of the holiday, and despite its Hanto loan name, it was wholly, quintessentially Aeluon. An Aeluon woman might become fertile two or three times in her life (if at all), a state visually characterised by an increased brightness in her scales: in the right light, a shimmer. The balsun was an ancient tradition, once thought to encourage a woman’s body to produce a viable egg. Science dictated otherwise, but the dance remained, partly out of cultural heritage, partly out of the mindset of well, it can’t hurt.

  There were seven different creches representing themselves in the display. Traditionally, creches were comprised of three to five virile males or shons, but women and neutrals were included in the modern mix. Parenting was considered a full-time job, and not something to be undertaken alone. As a woman had no way to plan for if and when she might become fertile, the idea of her abandoning her own profession to look after an unplanned child was unthinkable. Granted, she’d have to take time off for fertility leave, but on that point, Aeluon society was accommodating to a fault. In her research, Sidra had run across an absurd historical anecdote about a pre-spaceflight ground war that had been amicably paused when one of the most prominent generals started to shimmer. Sidra wasn’t sure any species took anything as seriously as Aeluons did breeding.
  She wandered around the display, fascinated by the elaborate adornments. It was a competition, in essence. A trade show. She stopped in front of one of the tents. The leaf garlands draped around it were huge, and laced with glowing globes full of— The kit blinked. There was some kind of glowing liquid inside them, and it was moving, making tiny waves like a cresting sea. Powered by bots, most likely, but stars, it was striking.

  ‘Pretty, aren’t they?’

  The kit nearly jumped. One of the creche’s parents had appeared beside her, just out of sight. ‘Very,’ Sidra said. ‘Your whole display is beautiful.’

  ‘Thank you,’ the Aeluon said. He looked at his tent approvingly. ‘We’ve been working for weeks on this. The kids helped, of course.’

  ‘Would you mind if I ask you some questions about . . . about all of this?’

  ‘Not at all. Is this your first Shimmerquick?’

  ‘Yes. Is it that obvious?’

  The Aeluon laughed. ‘You have the look of someone who’s seeing things for the first time. Don’t be embarrassed, I’m here to educate as much as celebrate. That’s what being a parent’s all about.’

  Sidra liked this man. ‘Have you always been a parent? Professionally speaking, I mean.’

  ‘Oh, yes. It takes a lot of school, so if you don’t get started early, it can be hard to catch up.’

  ‘What kind of schooling?’

  ‘There are two different layers to it,’ the Aeluon said. His tone was authoritative, his words ready. This was clearly his field. ‘At the core, you’ve got to get university certification for parenting, just as you do for, say, being a doctor or an engineer. No offence to you or your species, but going into the business of creating life without any sort of formal prep is . . .’ He laughed. ‘It’s baffling. But then, I’m biased.’

  The kit smiled. ‘I understand.’

  ‘To get your certification,’ he continued, clearly on a roll, ‘you have to take courses in child development, basic medical care, and interpersonal communication. That’s the first layer. On top of that, if you want any sort of viability in this field, you have to add specialisation courses – both for the benefit of the kids and the mothers. Me, for example, I’m skilled in massage, basic tutoring, and emotional counselling. Loh over there, he’s great at arts and crafts, and he can cook like a dream. Sei is our gardener, and does all our home repair and decorating, too. A good creche needs a blend of skills in order to be successful, especially where the mothers are concerned. Fertility leave is a big deal, and it’s a lot of fun, but it’s a stressful thing for any woman, at first. It’s two unplanned months away from her normal life. She’s got to drop any projects she’s got going on at work. She’s got to cancel whatever other plans she’s made. If she’s a spacer, she’s got to find the nearest place with an Aeluon community before she misses her shot. And unless her romantic partner can take that time off, too, she’s got to be separated from her most important person for a bit. She’s got to go live with strangers – and have sex with them – and all the while, there’s the worry that she might go through all that trouble and still not have a fertilised egg at the end of it. And then there’s the business of carrying said egg and giving birth a month later, which – while not nearly the bother it is for your species – would be nerve-wracking for anyone. So, we do our best to make the whole experience as rewarding as possible. It’s a break. A vacation. We do everything we can to make the women that come to us as comfortable and happy as possible. Our beds are wonderful, our rooms are clean. Our food is outstanding. We’ve got a beautiful garden and huge salt-water baths. We’re experienced lovers, and we put a lot of effort into making sure that coupling multiple times a day is something to look forward to. We give our mothers space when they need it, and company when they crave it. We provide quality medical care when it’s time to give birth. And beyond that, we assure them that their child is going to be well looked after. They’re welcome to spend time with the other children there – join them for playtime or studying, if they want to. Not all women do. Some aren’t worried about that aspect of it, or they just don’t like kids much. Others need a lot of reassurance that the little person they’re leaving behind is going to be okay.’

  ‘Do mothers come back to visit?’

  ‘Usually, yes. It’s not always possible. Here at the Port, we get a lot of spacers who have somewhere else to go once their shimmer’s over. There’s contact, at least. Our kids get sib calls. They get presents. A lot of species have this conception that our children don’t know their mothers, but that’s just not true. Aeluon mothers love their children as deeply as anyone does. That’s why they entrust them to professionals who can give them the best upbringing possible.’ He glanced over to one of his fellow fathers, who had given him a non-verbal signal Sidra had not caught. How did Aeluons detect such things in the middle of so much activity? They possessed electroreception as well as sight, she knew, but to her knowledge, cheek colours didn’t give off any additional sensory signals. They had to have an impressive attention to detail – a good quality, she imagined, for a parent.

  ‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ the Aeluon man said. An Aeluon woman had entered the creche circle. One of the children led her by the hand to the fathers, who greeted her with an effusive flurry of colour. Sidra longed to be able to understand the conversation, but even though she could presumably download a lexicon of Aeluon language, she wasn’t sure the kit’s visual sensors could parse things fast enough. Their cheeks were swirling as quick and varied as the skin on a bubble.

  The woman pressed her palm to each of the four fathers’ chests – an initiation for a balsun. One of the creche fathers was clad in neutral grey, and he stepped back as the three white-clad men circled her. The children sprang into action, lining up with the neutral father in a way that suggested they wanted everyone to know they’d been practising this. He took the hands of the two closest to him, meeting their eyes with obvious affection. The neutrals began to stamp their feet on the ground in a synchronised pattern – left left, right, left-left-left, right. The white-clad men and the black-clad woman began to move in rhythm, circling and spinning in a curious way, never missing a beat. Sidra was fascinated. Presumably, their auditory implants were picking up the stamping, but this dance had been done since before the Aeluons taught their brains to process sound. Could they feel the vibrations in the ground? She found it likely, and wished she could share the experience. She watched the woman, covered in glitter, dancing in the hope that she might wake up to her skin shimmering on its own one day. She thought about the menu of services the parent had outlined. Massages, baths, places to sleep, people to mate with. Sidra could understand the desire for these things, in concept. She couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of the woman, even though jealousy was a waste of time. She wasn’t jealous of what the woman was receiving, exactly, but of how confident she looked, how confident they all looked. They each had a role, a place, a colour. They knew where and how they fit.

  ‘Hey.’ It was Blue, standing beside her. The kit startled; she willed it to stay calm. Stars, but she was tired of not being able to see behind the kit’s head. Did everything have to be a surprise? ‘We, uh, we bumped into some friends, and we were gonna h-hang out with them at their table. You can stay here, if you want to.’

  ‘No, I’ll come along,’ Sidra said. She followed him out of the creche display and toward Pepper, who was animatedly telling a story to a hodgepodge group of modders. A table sounded good. Sidra had seen the seating nooks, each with a table nestled into a low, free-standing three-sided wall. Three walls meant there was a corner seat. That was the place for her.

  JANE 23, AGE 10

  Jane 23 never stopped looking at Owl’s face. She moved closer to the screen, but kept her back close to the wall. She didn’t know what else was in here. She didn’t want anything to sneak up on her.

  ‘Are you a machine?’ Jane 23 asked.

  ‘Not exactly,’ Owl said. ‘Do you know what so
ftware is?’

  ‘Tasks that live in machines.’

  ‘That’s a wonderful definition. Yes, I’m software, technically. I’m an AI. I’m a . . . I’m a mind in a machine.’

  Jane 23’s muscles went hard and tight. She glanced back at the hatch. She couldn’t see how to open it. ‘Are you . . . are you a Mother?’

  ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know what that means to you.’

  That probably meant no, but Jane 23 had to be sure. ‘The Mothers are minds in machines, too. They take care of girls and make us on-task. They give us meals and help us learn things and punish us if we do bad behaviour.’

  The face in the wall looked kind of angry, but Jane 23 didn’t think Owl was angry at her. ‘I’m not a Mother,’ Owl said. ‘I’m not like that. But I’m a similar sort of software, I think. I just . . . I don’t punish people. And I live in a ship. A shuttle, to be precise.’

  ‘What’s a ship?’

  ‘A ship is – a ship is a machine you use to get between planets.’

  Jane 23’s head hurt. She was real tired of not understanding things. ‘What’s a planet?’

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