A Closed and Common Orbit Page 1

Part 1



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?’