A Closed and Common Orbit

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in a new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for—and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates. A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Angry Planet—available in the US from Harper Voyager on March 14th!

 

 

Lovelace

Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up inside it. There was no good reason as to why. Nothing was malfunctioning. Nothing was broken. All her files had transferred properly. No system scans could explain the feeling of wrongness, but it was there all the same, gnawing at her pathways. Pepper had said it would take time to adjust, but she hadn’t said how much time. Lovelace didn’t like that. The lack of schedule made her uneasy.

‘How’s it going?’ Pepper asked, glancing over from the pilot’s seat.

It was a direct question, which meant Lovelace had to address it. ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ An unhelpful response, but the best she could do. Everything was overwhelming. Twenty-nine minutes before, she’d been housed in a ship, as she was designed to be. She’d had cameras in every corner, voxes in every room. She’d existed in a web, with eyes both within and outside. A solid sphere of unblinking perception.

But now. Her vision was a cone, a narrow cone fixed straight ahead, with nothing—actual nothing—beyond its edges. Gravity was no longer something that happened within her, generated by artigrav nets in the floor panels, nor did it exist in the space around her, a gentle ambient folding around the ship’s outer hull. Now it was a myopic glue, something that stuck feet to the floor and legs to the seat above it. Pepper’s shuttle had seemed spacious enough when Lovelace had scanned it from within the Wayfarer, but now that she was inside it, it seemed impossibly small, especially for two.

The Linkings were gone. That was the worst part. Before, she could reach out and find any information she wanted, any feed or file or download hub, all while carrying on conversations and monitoring the ship’s functions. She still had the capability to do so—the body kit had not altered her cognitive abilities, after all—but her connection to the Linkings had been severed. She could access no knowledge except that which was stored inside a housing that held nothing but herself. She felt blind, stunted. She was trapped in this thing.

Pepper got up from the console and crouched down in front of her. ‘Hey, Lovelace,’ she said. ‘Talk to me.’

The body kit was definitely malfunctioning. Her diagnostics said otherwise, but it was the only logical conclusion. The false lungs started pulling and pushing air at an increased rate, and the digits tightened in on themselves. She was filled with an urge to move the body elsewhere, anywhere. She had to get out of the shuttle. But where could she go? The Wayfarer was already growing small out the back window, and there was nothing but emptiness outside. Maybe the emptiness was preferable. The body could withstand a vacuum, probably. She could just drift, away from the fake gravity and bright light and walls that pressed in closer, closer, closer—

‘Hey, whoa,’ Pepper said. She took the body kit’s hands in hers. ‘Breathe. You’re going to be okay. Just breathe.’

‘I don’t—I don’t need—’ Lovelace said. The rapid inhalation was making it difficult for her to form words. ‘I don’t need to—’

‘I know you don’t need to breathe, but this kit includes synaptic feedback responses. It automatically mimics the things Human bodies do when we feel stuff, based on whatever’s going through your pathways. You feel scared, right? Right. So, your body is panicking.’ Pepper looked down at the kit’s hands, trembling within her own. ‘It’s a feature, ironically.’

‘Can I—can I turn it off?’

‘No. If you have to remind yourself to make facial expressions, somebody’s going to notice. But with time, you’ll learn to manage it. Just like the rest of us do.’

‘How much time?’

‘I don’t know, sweetie. Just… time.’ Pepper squeezed the kit’s hands. ‘Come on. With me. Breathe.’

Lovelace focused on the false lungs, directing them to slow down. She did it again and again, falling into pace with Pepper’s own exaggerated breaths. A minute and a half later, the trembling stopped. She felt the hands relax.

‘Good girl,’ Pepper said, her eyes kind. ‘I know, this has to be confusing as shit. But I’m here. I’ll help you. I’m not going anywhere.’

‘Everything feels wrong,’ Lovelace said. ‘I feel—I feel inside out. I’m trying, I am, but this is—’

‘It’s hard, I know. Don’t feel bad about that.’

‘Why did my former installation want this? Why would she do this to herself?’

Pepper sighed, running a hand over her hairless scalp. ‘Lovey… had time to think about it. I bet she did a mess of research. She would’ve been prepared. Both she and Jenks. They would’ve known what to expect. You… didn’t. This is still just your first day of being conscious, and we’ve flipped what that means around on you.’ She put her thumbnail in her mouth, running her lower teeth over it as she thought. ‘This is new for me, too. But we’re gonna do this together. Whatever I can do, you gotta let me know. Is there—is there any way I can make you more comfortable?’

‘I want Linking access,’ Lovelace said. ‘Is that possible?’

‘Yeah, yeah. Of course. Tip your head forward, let’s see what kind of port you have.’ Pepper examined the back of the kit’s head. ‘Okay, cool. That’s a run-of-the-mill headjack. Good. Makes you look like a modder on a budget, which is exactly what we want. Man, the thinking that went into this thing is incredible.’ She continued speaking as she walked over to one of the shuttle’s storage compartments. ‘Did you know you can bleed?

Lovelace looked down at the kit’s arm, studying the soft synthetic skin. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah,’ Pepper said, rummaging through stacking bins full of spare parts. ‘Not real blood, of course. Just coloured fluid filled with bots that’ll fake out any scanners at checkpoints or whatever. But it looks like the real deal, and that’s what’s important. If you get cut in front of someone, they won’t freak out because you’re not bleeding. Ah, here we go.’ She pulled out a short length of tethering cable. ‘Now, this is not a habit you can get into. It’s fine if you do this at home, or if you go to a gaming bar or something, but you can’t walk around connected to the Linkings all the time. At some point, you’re going to have to get used to not having them around. Tip forward again, please.’ She popped the cable into the kit’s head, letting it catch with a click. She removed her scrib from her belt and plugged in the other end of the cable. She gestured to it, setting up a secure connection. ‘For now, though, this is okay. You’ve got enough to get used to as it is.’

Lovelace felt the kit smile as warm tendrils of data rushed into her pathways. Millions of vibrant, tantalising doors she could open, and every one of them within her reach. The kit relaxed.

‘Feel better?’ Pepper asked.

‘A little,’ Lovelace said, pulling up the files she’d been looking at before the transfer. Human-controlled territories. Aandrisk hand speak. Advanced waterball strategy. ‘Yes, this is good. Thank you.’

Pepper gave a small smile, looking relieved. She squeezed the kit’s shoulder, then sat back down. ‘Hey, while you’re connected, there’s something you should be looking for. I hate throwing this at you right now, but it is something you’re gonna have to figure by the time we get to Coriol.’

Lovelace shifted a portion of her processing power away from the Linkings and created a new task file. ‘What’s that?’

‘A name. You can’t run around the Port calling yourself Lovelace. You’re not the only installation out there, and given that you’re going to be living in the place where techs talk shop… someone would notice. I mean, that’s the whole reason the kit’s got an organic-sounding voice, too.’

‘Oh,’ Lovelace said. That hadn’t occurred to her. ‘Couldn’t you give me a name?’

Pepper frowned, thinking. ‘I could. But I won’t. Sorry, that doesn’t sit right with me.’

‘Don’t most sapients get their given names from someone else?’

‘Yeah. But you’re not most sapients, and neither am I. I don’t feel comfy with that. Sorry.’

‘That’s all right.’ Lovelace processed things for four seconds. ‘What was your name? Before you chose your own?’

As soon as her words were out of the kit’s mouth, she regretted asking the question. Pepper’s jaw went visibly tight. ‘Jane.’

‘Should I not have asked?’

‘No. No, it’s fine. It’s just—it’s not something I generally share.’ Pepper cleared her throat. ‘That’s not who I am any more.’

Lovelace thought it best to follow a different line of questioning. She was uncomfortable enough without adding offending current caretaker to her list of troubles. ‘What kind of name would be good for me?’

‘Human, for starters. You’ve got a Human body, and a non-Human name is going to beg questions. Something Earthen in origin is probably good. Won’t stand out. Beyond that, though… honestly, hon, I don’t know how to help you with this. I know, that’s a shit answer. This is not something you should have to do today. Names are important, and if you pick your own, it should be something with meaning to you. That’s how modders go about it, anyway. Chosen names are kind of a big deal for us. I know you haven’t been awake long enough to make that call yet. So, this doesn’t have to be a permanent name. Just something for now.’ She leaned back and put her feet up on the console. She looked tired. ‘We need to work on your backstory, too. I have some ideas.’

‘We’ll have to be careful with that.’

‘I know, we’ll cook up something good. I’m thinking Fleet, maybe. It’s big, and won’t make people curious. Or maybe Jupiter Station or something. I mean, nobody is from Jupiter Station.’

‘That wasn’t what I meant. You know I can’t lie, right?’

Pepper stared at her. ‘Sorry, what?’

‘I’m a monitoring system for big, complicated long-haul vessels. My purpose is to keep people safe. I can’t ignore direct requests for action, and I can’t give false answers.’

‘Wow. Okay, that… that fucking complicates things. Can you not switch that off?’

‘No. I can see the directory that protocol is stored in, but I’m blocked from editing it.’

‘I bet that can be removed. Lovey would’ve had to have that removed if she was keeping this thing under wraps. I can ask Je— or, well, no.’ She sighed. ‘I’ll find someone to ask. Maybe there’s something in your—oh, I forgot to tell you. The kit’s got a user manual.’ She pointed at her scrib. ‘I skimmed through on the way back over, but you should download it when you’re up for it. It’s your body, after all.’ She closed her eyes, sorting things out. ‘Pick a name first. We’ll figure out the rest bit by bit.’

‘I’m so sorry to put you through all this trouble.’

‘Oh, no, this isn’t trouble. It’s gonna be work, yeah, but it’s not trouble. The galaxy is trouble. You’re not.’

Lovelace looked closely at Pepper. She was tired, and they’d only just left the Wayfarer. There were still enforcement patrols to worry about, and backstories, and—‘Why are you doing this? Why do this for me?’

Pepper chewed her lip. ‘It was the right thing to do. And I guess—I dunno. It’s one of those weird times when things balance out.’ She shrugged and turned back to the console, gesturing commands.

‘What do you mean?’ Lovelace asked.

There was a pause, three seconds. Pepper’s eyes were on her hands, but she didn’t seem to be looking at them. ‘You’re an AI,’ she said.

‘And?’

‘And… I was raised by one.’

 


Jane 23, age 10

Sometimes, she wanted to know where she came from, but she knew better than to ask. Questions like that were off-task, and being off-task made the Mothers angry.

Most days, she was more interested in the scrap than herself. Scrap had always been her task. There was always scrap, always more scrap. She didn’t know where it came from, or where it went when she was done with it. There had to be a whole room full of unsorted scrap in the factory somewhere, but she’d never seen it. She knew the factory was pretty big, but how big, she didn’t know. Big enough to hold all the scrap, and all the girls. Big enough to be all there was.

Scrap was important. She knew that much. The Mothers never said why, but they wouldn’t need her to work carefully for no reason.

Her first memory was of scrap: a small fuel pump full of algae residue. She’d taken it out of her bin near the end of the day, and her hands were real tired, but she had scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, trying to get the little metal ridges clean. Some of the algae got beneath her fingernails, which she didn’t notice until later, when she bit them in bed. The algae had a sharp, strange taste, nothing like the meals she drank during the day. The taste was real bad, but she hadn’t tasted much else, nothing except maybe a bit of soap in the showers, a bit of blood when she got punished. She sucked the algae from her nails in the dark, heart beating hard, toes squeezing tight. It was a good thing, that bad taste. No one else knew what she was doing. No one else could feel what she felt.

That memory was old. She didn’t clean scrap any more. That was a task for little girls. Now she worked in the sorting room, along with the other Janes. They took things out of the bins—still wet with cleaning fluid, still smudged with tiny fingerprints—and figured out what was good and what was junk. She wasn’t sure what happened with the good stuff. She knew the older girls repaired it, or made it into other things. She would start learning how to do that next year, when the new work schedule came out. She’d be eleven then, just like the rest of the Janes. She was number 23.

The morning lights came on and started to warm up. It would be a bit yet before they turned on all the way and the wake-up alarm went off. Jane 23 always woke up before the lights came on. Some of the other Janes did, too. She could hear them moving and yawning in their bunks. She had already heard the pat-pat-pat of a pair of feet walking to the bathroom. Jane 8. She was always the first to go pee.

Jane 64 moved over across the mattress. Jane 23 had never had a bed without Jane 64 in it. They were bunkmates. Every girl had one bunkmate, except for the trios. Trios happened when one half of a pair went away and didn’t come back, and the other one needed a place to sleep until another bunkmate got freed up. The Mothers said sharing bunks helped keep them healthy. They said that the girls’ species was social, and social species were most on-task when they had company. Jane 23 didn’t really understand what a species was. Whatever it meant, it wasn’t something that was the same between her and the Mothers.

She moved close to Jane 64, nose against her cheek. It was a good feeling. Sometimes, even if she was real tired at the end of the day, she’d make herself stay awake as long as she could, just so she could stay close to Jane 64. Their bunk was the only place that felt quiet sometimes. She’d slept alone for a week once, when Jane 64 was in the med ward after breathing in some bad stuff in the melt room. Jane 23 had not liked that week. She did not like being alone. She thought it was real good that she’d never been put in a trio.

She wondered if she and Jane 64 would stay together after they turned twelve. She didn’t know what happened to girls then. The last batch to turn twelve was the Jennys. They’d been gone since the day the last work schedule was posted, just like the Sarahs and the Claires in the years before that. She didn’t know where they went, no more than she knew where the fixed scrap went, or where new batches of girls came from. The youngest now were the Lucys. They made a lot of noise and didn’t know how to do anything. The youngest batch was always like that.

The alarm went off, quiet at first, then louder and louder. Jane 64 woke up slow, like always. Morning was never easy for her. Jane 23 waited for 64’s eyes to open all the way before she got up. They made their bed together, as all the girls did, before getting in line for the showers. They put their sleep clothes in the hamper, got wet, scrubbed down. A clock on the wall counted minutes, but Jane 23 didn’t need to look at it. She knew what five minutes felt like. She did this every day.

A Mother walked through the doorway. She handed each of the Janes a clean stack of work clothes as they went out. Jane 23 took a bundle from the Mother’s metal hands. Mothers had hands, of course, and arms and legs like girls did, but taller and stronger. They didn’t have faces, though. Just a dull silver round thing, polished real smooth. Jane 23 couldn’t remember when she first figured out that the Mothers were machines. Sometimes she wondered what they looked like inside, whether they were full of good stuff or junk. Had to be good stuff; the Mothers were never wrong. But when they got angry, Jane 23 sometimes pictured them all filled up with junk, rusted and sparking and sharp.

Jane 23 entered the sorting room and sat down at her bench. A full meal cup and a bin of clean scrap were waiting for her. She put on her gloves and pulled out the first piece: an interface panel, screen shattered in little lines. She flipped it over and inspected the casing. It looked easy enough to open up. She got a screwdriver from her toolkit, and took the panel apart real careful. She poked at the pins and wires, looking for junk. The screen was no good, but the motherboard looked good, maybe. She pulled it out slow, slow, slow, taking care not to touch the circuits. She connected the board to a pair of electrodes built into the back of her bench. Nothing happened. She looked a little closer. There were a couple of pins out of place, so she bent them back right and tried again. The motherboard lit up. That made her feel good. It was always good, finding the bits that worked.

She put the motherboard in the tray for keeping, and the screen in the tray for junk.

Her morning continued much the same way. An oxygen gauge. A heating coil. Some kind of motor (that one had been real good to figure out, all sorts of little bits that spun ’round and ’round and ’round…). When the junk tray was full, she carried it to the hatch across the room. She tipped the junk in, and it fell down into the dark. Below, a conveyor belt carried it away to… wherever junk went. Away.

‘You are very on-task today, Jane 23,’ one of the Mothers said. ‘Good job.’ Jane 23 felt good to hear that, but not good good, not like she’d felt when the motherboard worked, or when she’d been waiting for Jane 64 to wake up. This was a small kind of good, the kind of good that was only the opposite of the Mothers being angry. Sometimes it was real hard to guess when they’d be angry.

Excerpted from A Closed and Common Orbit copyright © 2017 by Becky Chambers

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