A closed and common orbi.., p.9
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       A Closed and Common Orbit, p.9

           Becky Chambers

  Owl’s face got sad. ‘Oh, stars. A planet is . . . what we’re on right now. I will explain in more detail later. That’s a bigger question than you should have to swallow right now. You’re not hurt, are you? Did they bite you?’

  ‘No.’ Jane 23 looked down. ‘I cut my hands, though.’

  ‘Okay,’ Owl said. She looked like she was thinking about something. ‘The water tanks are long gone, but there may be some first aid supplies. I hope so. Here, follow me.’ The screen switched off, but another one turned on, farther into the room.

  Jane 23 didn’t move.

  ‘Hey,’ Owl said. ‘It’s okay. Nothing in here will hurt you. You’re safe.’

  Jane 23 didn’t move.

  ‘Sweetie, I don’t have a body. I can’t touch you.’

  Jane 23 thought about that. That seemed a little more good. She walked to the new screen.

  Owl continued through the machine – the ship – switching screens on and off. All the rooms were tucked in real tight, like a bunch of storage closets or something. There were so many things in there, all kinds of machines and stuff without names, but thrown around like scrap in a bin. Jane 23 had so many questions. Her stomach hurt from all the questions.

  ‘Go in that room there,’ Owl said. ‘To your left. Do you know what “left” is?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Jane 23. Of course she knew what ‘left’ was. She was ten.

  ‘Do you see that box on the floor? The blue one with the white stripes? Go ahead and open that up.’

  Jane 23 did as told, and looked inside the box. Now this stuff she knew. Well, not exactly, but the stuff in the box looked a lot like some of the stuff they used in the med ward.

  ‘Right, let’s see.’ Owl sounded like the way Jane 23 felt when she couldn’t find the right tool, or if a piece of scrap was acting like junk even though she knew it was good. ‘I wish the sinks were working. We’ll just have to make do. Do you see those little silver tubes? Those are . . . it’s a goo that will kill the bad stuff in your hands.’

  Jane 23 nodded. ‘Disinfectant.’

  The face on the screen looked surprised. ‘Disinfectant, right. Have you used it before?’

  ‘No,’ Jane 23 said. ‘But the Mothers do.’

  ‘Do you think you can use it on yourself?’

  Jane 23 thought about this. ‘Yes.’

  ‘Maybe use a few tubes. You can put some on, and use that gauze there to wipe the disinfectant and the dirt back out. Then put more disinfectant on, and then bandages. Does that . . .’ Owl looked like she was kind of confused, too. ‘Will that work? I’m so sorry, honey, I don’t have hands. I’m just working from memory here.’

  ‘That sounds okay,’ Jane 23 said. She sat down on the floor and cleaned herself up. The disinfectant hurt and it smelled funny, but the feeling reminded her of getting fixed in the med ward, and that made her feel a little better. She spread the goo on thick, then wiped it away, taking away dust and blood with it. She touched her tongue to the corner of the messy gauze. Blood. Chemicals. Sharp and angry and bad.

  Once the blood was gone and the cuts were clean, she put more disinfectant on, and started covering her hands with bandages. ‘Why are you in here?’ she asked Owl.

  ‘That’s a complicated question. The short answer is I was installed in this ship so that I could help the people who flew it. This – this area was a bad place for them to go, but they thought they knew what they were doing, and—’ She paused. She sounded sad. ‘Anyway, they were arrested – taken away – and the ship and I were thrown out. The people here don’t want things from elsewhere, you see.’ She sighed. ‘This must be so confusing for you. I’ll do my best to make sense of everything.’ The face in the wall gasped. ‘I haven’t asked your name! I’m sorry. It’s been so long since I had someone to talk to. I’m so scattered. Do you have a name?’

  ‘Jane 23.’

  ‘Jane 23,’ Owl said. She nodded, real slow. ‘Well, since you’re the only Jane I see here, is it okay if I leave the numbers off?’

  Jane 23 looked up from her bandages. ‘Just . . . Jane?’

  ‘Just Jane.’

  Jane couldn’t say why, but that felt kind of good.


  They’d been at the Shimmerquick celebration for two hours and three minutes, but Sidra had decided forty-six minutes prior that she liked alcohol. It had no cognitive effect on her, but there was such an incredible variety of concoctions to choose from, and they all triggered separate images. As her companions and their friends got ever louder and happier, she enjoyed someone else’s memories of boats, fireworks, rainbows. She wasn’t sure how much she enjoyed alcohol’s effect on other sapients, though. Most of their behaviour was cute, even endearing. Blue had told her how glad he was that she had come to them, which was very gratifying to hear (though it lost some of its impact by the third or fourth time). Pepper was loud, but not as loud as her friend Gidge, who had crossed over from smart to sloppy. The sapients milling near their table were all various shades of inebriated as well. Relieved as Sidra had been to get a corner seat, she had reached a point where the desire for different input outweighed the comfort gained by staying put. She excused herself and walked along the edge of the party, holding half a glass of Sohep Sunset between both the kit’s hands, staying as close to the outer wall as she could. She would’ve liked to put her back to it and shuffle along sideways, like a crab, but that wasn’t how Humans moved. There was a good chance that if she had walked that way, she’d just be assumed to be drunk or high or both, but no, avoiding attention was the smarter call.

  The booths near the wall were less crowded than those in the middle of the Pavilion. She passed by vendors selling light pins, cheap trinkets, and chilled cups of roe, until she came to a tucked-away booth, wreathed with strands of white globulbs and floating pixel confetti. GET SOME INK! a handwritten sign read. CAN ACCOMMODATE ALL MOST SPECIES. Inside sat an Aeluon woman, tracing a whirring implement over her customer’s arm. The patterned fabric around her waist and legs was dark shon grey, ornately wrapped in an intricate knot. Like the rest of her kind, she was covered in glitter from head to toe, but underneath that, every bit of her finely scaled skin was tattooed. Unlike much of the body art Sidra had seen since she arrived at the Port, the Aeluon’s ink was static, apparently free of nanobots. A tangled forest covered her chest, full of hidden animals and reaching vines. A multitude of images and symbols laced their way down her arms – explosions of spirals and circles, a map of Central space, a wreath of multispecies hands pressing palms. When the Aeluon turned to make an adjustment in her work, Sidra could see writing on the back of her head – something in ancient Aeluon text. Sidra had the modern Aeluon alphabet installed, but nothing from antiquity. She captured the image, and added it to the list of things to download.

  The Aeluon’s subject was a female Aandrisk, looking entirely unconcerned by the harsh-looking machinery rubbing over her scales. Comparing this woman’s face to the other partygoers she’d seen that night, Sidra found it likely that she’d been smoking smash. She wondered if the Aandrisk would change her mind about the Aeluon’s handiwork once the drug wore off.

  ‘You looking for ink?’ the Aeluon said, never taking an eye off the Aandrisk. ‘Or just looking?’ She held a long, curved pipe between her teeth, which smouldered undisturbed as words emanated from the talkbox in her throat. The pipe contained a popular Aeluon vice known in Klip by the simple name of tallflower – or tease, as she’d heard Pepper call the stuff. Apparently the smoke smelled wonderful to Humans, but had no effect on them.

  ‘Just looking,’ Sidra said. ‘If I’m bothering you—’

  The Aeluon’s cheeks ebbed friendly blue. ‘Not at all.’ She waved Sidra over. ‘I’d love some company, and I promise she doesn’t mind an audience. She doesn’t mind much of anything right now.’

  Sidra sat the kit down in an empty chair beside the Aeluon. The Aandrisk lolled her head toward them, flashed a stupid smile, then went back to wherever she’d
been before.

  Smoke shot silently out the Aeluon’s small nostrils. Her talkbox laughed in tandem. ‘See, most species I wouldn’t work on when they’re this gone. But Aandrisks shed. If this is a mistake for her, it’s a temporary one.’

  The Aandrisk spoke, but her words were lost before they got past her teeth.

  ‘Whatever you say, friend,’ the Aeluon said. She shrugged at Sidra. ‘I don’t speak much Reskitkish, do you?’

  Sidra paused. Humans who spoke Reskitkish were rare, and revealing that she was indeed fluent might invite questions she couldn’t safely answer. There was no way around this one, though. ‘I do,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t understand her.’

  ‘Well, unless she said, “Please stop using yellow,” I’m going to assume everything’s fine.’ She pointed at her subject’s scales. ‘You know anything about scale dyeing?’

  ‘No.’ Sidra had no references on that custom, but she was very interested. An inky spiral pattern was emerging, blossoming outward in a sort of mandala.

  The Aeluon continued working and smoking, speaking easily as she went. ‘Species with softer skin, like you and me, we can retain ink down in the dermis indefinitely. But Aandrisks are a whole different deal.’

  ‘Because they shed?’

  ‘That, and – I mean, look at this.’ She tapped one of the scales. ‘The stuff their scales are made of isn’t terribly different from this.’ She took one of the kit’s hands, and rubbed the thumbnail. ‘You can’t get an ink gun down into keratin, not easily. So this’ – she gestured with the dyeing implement – ‘is just a glorified paintbrush. Gives her scales a nice, quick, even coating.’

  ‘How long does it last?’

  ‘About six tendays. Or less than that, if she’s due to shed. Not so long that she’ll mind if she sobers up and hates it.’ She popped an empty cartridge out of the implement, slipped in a silver one, and continued. ‘I’m Tak, by the way,’ she said.


  Tak gave her an Aeluon smile. Tallflower smoke drifted up around her face. She pressed the tool against a clean scale, inundating it with dye. It caught the light of the nearby globulbs.

  ‘How many different techniques do you know?’ Sidra asked, thinking of the sign out front.

  ‘My specialty’s modern Aeluon style, but I also know how to do bots and temporary stuff like this.’ She nodded at the Aandrisk. ‘Most of my business comes from people who want bot art, actually. It’s pretty popular, especially for spacers. Everybody wants to say they got ink on Coriol. Apparently that means something out there. I dunno. I’ve never lived anywhere else, except for university.’

  Sidra considered. ‘You don’t use bots on yourself.’

  ‘Not like you mean. I don’t have any moving art on me, true. But there are bots here,’ she said, trailing a finger down one of the stylised trees branching across her flat, bare chest. ‘They just don’t move.’

  ‘Then why have bots at all?’

  ‘They help maintain the integrity of the linework when my skin grows or shrinks. Keeps the edges from blurring.’

  ‘Why don’t you use moving ones?’

  Tak made a face. ‘Because they drive us nuts. Aeluons, I mean. I don’t mind bots on other species. I can talk to a Human who’s swirling from head to toe, no problem. But on an Aeluon, that’d be a nightmare. Keep in mind—’ She pointed at one of her cheeks.

  ‘Oh,’ Sidra said. ‘Of course.’ A colour-changing tattoo during a colour-changing conversation would be an enormous distraction. ‘I’d imagine that’d be annoying.’

  ‘Confusing, mostly. And honestly, when I first started inking, it took me a while to get used to it with other species. I did a gorgeous nebula across this Human’s back once. All these rich purples and deep deep blues, swirling real slow. Art-wise, it looked fantastic, but combined with skin, I kept feeling like his back was pissed at me. Purple means angry, see.’ Tak’s cheeks rippled. She looked amused. ‘What about you? Got any ink?’


  ‘Just not your thing?’

  ‘No, I—’ Sidra paused, not wanting to insult this woman’s profession. ‘I don’t quite understand it.’

  ‘You mean, why people do it?’

  ‘I suppose so.’

  Tak rocked her head in thought, adjusting her pipe. ‘Depends on the person. I mean, just about every species mods themselves somehow. Quelin brand their shells. Harmagians shove jewellery through their tendrils. My species and yours have both been tattooing for millennia. If you’re interested in different cultural practices, there’s a great collection of essays called Through The Surface on body art traditions by species. It’s by Kirish Tekshereket – have you read any of her work?’

  Sidra added a note to her list. ‘I haven’t, no.’

  ‘Oh, she’s fantastic. Highly recommend it. But back to your question: why do people do it. I’ve always thought of it as a way to get a little more in touch with your body.’

  The kit leaned forward. ‘Really?’

  ‘Yeah. Your mind and your body. Two separate things, right?’

  Sidra directed all her processing power to the conversation at hand. ‘Right.’

  ‘Except not. Your mind comes from your body. It’s born out of it. And yet, it’s a wholly independent thing. Even though the two are linked, there’s a disconnect. Your body does stuff without asking your mind about it, and your mind wants stuff that your body can’t always do. You know what I mean?’

  ‘Yes.’ Stars, did she ever.

  ‘So, tattooing . . . you’ve got a picture in your mind, then you put it on your body. You make a hazy imagining into a tangible part of you. Or, to flip it around, you want a reminder of something, so you put it on your body, where it’s a real, touchable thing. You see the thing on your body, you remember it in your mind, then you touch it on your body, you remember why you got it, what you were feeling then, and so on, and so on. It’s a re-enforcing circle. You’re reminded that all these separate pieces are part of the whole that comprises you.’ The Aeluon laughed at herself. ‘Or is that too fluffy?’

  ‘No,’ Sidra said. She was intensely focused, as if she were plugged into the Linkings. There was an Aandrisk gesture that captured this feeling perfectly: tresha. Someone seeing a truth in you without being told. ‘No, that sounds wonderful.’

  Tak lifted the gun away from the Aandrisk, and took out her pipe. She looked Sidra in the eye, studying her. ‘Tell you what,’ she said, after three seconds. She tapped her wristpatch against Sidra’s. Sidra registered a new download – a contact file. ‘You ever want to take the plunge, I’d love to assist.’

  ‘Thank you,’ Sidra said. She held the contact file at the forefront of her pathways for a moment, feeling like Tak had given her a gift. ‘Would you mind if I kept watching you work for a while?’

  ‘Not at all.’ Tak placed the pipe back in her mouth, unruffled by the unexpected audience. It was a good thing, Sidra thought, to know your craft so well that an extra pair of eyes made little difference.

  Sidra remembered her drink and took a sip. A bird, black as night, beating its powerful wings through the dawn. Tak worked over the scales: yellow, silver, white, yellow, silver, white. She exhaled smoke. It cast shadows. Sidra took another sip: A bird, black as night, beating its powerful wings through the dawn. Tak continued: yellow, silver, white. As for the Aandrisk, she said nothing at all.

  JANE, AGE 10

  Jane was still tired, but she woke up because it was time to wake up. Her body said so. It was the time before the alarm went off, before the lights went on, right around the same time Jane 8 got up to pee.

  She listened in the dark. No girls moving beneath their sheets. No pat pat pat of feet headed to the bathroom. No Jane 64 breathing beside her.

  She remembered. She was alone.

  ‘Owl?’ she said. She clutched the blankets tight. They weren’t her blankets, and this wasn’t her bed. This was one of the beds in the shuttle. There were two beds, and she didn’t know
who either of them were for, and she wasn’t wearing clothes, and— ‘Owl?’

  Owl’s glowing face appeared in the screen beside the bed. ‘Hey, hey, I’m right here. Everything’s okay. Do you want me to turn the lights on?’

  Jane wasn’t afraid of the dark – she was ten – but right then, lights sounded like a good idea. ‘Yes,’ she said.

  The lights came up slowly, much like the lights in the dorm did, but they were different. Everything was different. Jane felt different, too.

  She sat up, hugging the different blanket to her chest. Owl stayed with her, but didn’t say anything. She just watched. Jane couldn’t say why, but somehow that didn’t scare her like when a Mother looked at her. Owl felt . . . okay.

  ‘Owl, what do I do today?’ Jane said. ‘What’s my task?’

  ‘Well . . .’ Owl said. ‘There are things that would be good for you to do at some point, but you had a very hard night. I think you should do anything you want today.’

  Jane thought about that. ‘Like what?’

  ‘If you want to stay in bed for a while, you can. If you want to stay in bed all day, you can! We can talk, or not talk, or—’

  ‘I can stay in bed?’

  ‘Of course you can.’

  ‘. . . all day?’

  Owl laughed. ‘Yes. All day.’

  Jane frowned. ‘But what would I do?’

  ‘Just . . . relax.’

  Jane wasn’t sure what to make of that. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll try that.’ She lay back down, pulling the blanket tight around herself. She wasn’t cold, but the bed felt too big, and the blanket made it better.

  ‘Do you want me to turn out the lights?’ Owl asked.

  ‘Would that help?’

  ‘Maybe down a little, at least.’ The lights dimmed, as did Owl’s face.

  Jane lay still. Just relax, she thought. Just relax. I won’t get punished. But her body knew it was time to wake up, and the feeling of being in trouble grew louder and sharper, sitting thick in her chest. Girls who stayed in bed got punished. Girls who were late got punished. I won’t get punished. Girls had to work hard. Girls couldn’t be lazy. I won’t get—

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