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People will tell you I stole that little girl. They'll say, "That screwy Tam out on Dragon 9 Station, he stole that baby." But I'll tell you, as God is my witness, I didn't. I found her in the disposal. And everybody this side of the Cluster knows—what's left in the disposal is for anybody who comes along to have.

I was going hand-over-hand down the mainline just above the donut-hole of the station when I heard the cry. It's dark down there. Lights go out and nobody bothers to fix them. It doesn't matter to anybody rich. The tourists, they never come down that far; they stay out where there's station centripetal force that feels like gravity, feels like ground. Me, I was born inside a tin can with vacuum death a meter away the other side of a slab of metal and never lived anywhere else, so who cares about the ground?

That third shift, my ears were still ringing with starstatic, my eyes still filled with stardust. It had coated my helmet all the way out to Kip's ship on his mooring line with my supplies and back to the station for nine hours. The starlight blasted even through my filter. There's a hell of a lot of dust inside Red Dragon Cluster, and even more starlight.

So I was a little distracted when I heard the cry. It wasn't loud, sure not as loud as you'd expect in a kid. But it attracted me to the right-hand disposal, all the same. I headed over there, not too sure what I'd find. When I gave the lid a good yank, it came free.

The creature inside scrambled to get as far away from me as it could. When I reached inside, it bit me. I pulled back, spitting out a few nasty curses I only meant in that moment, almost letting the whole thing snap shut. As I did, I caught a pair of eyes in a head a little too big for its body. At first, I thought she couldn't have been more than a toddler. Then, I looked her over more closely—no, she was older than that, more nimble.

Definitely older and filthy to boot. "Well, you look young enough you might not be damaged goods just yet." Then I felt a pang of guilt. They hadn't found me until I was, what, four? What did that make me? I reached in a little slower. "I won't hurt you, monkey, but in about two hours, they're gonna dump everything in there into a big furnace. You'd better come."

She shook her head. I guessed she understood Clusterspeak, or enough to know I was trying to get her out of there. She didn't know me from a trooper, of course, and wasn't likely to come willingly. I thought about it for a few seconds and then I shrugged. "If that's the way you feel about it . . . okay."

I let down the cover gently. I wasn't lying about the fire, but some of us have to start making decisions early in life about whether or not we want to survive or what will help us do it. I started doing that for myself age four after my ma walked into a freezer to save me. Before they found me with her, trying to wake her up, wondering if I should cut her the way she'd told me.

I didn't get down the line much more than a few handholds before I heard yanking on the inside of that lid and kicking at it. But a little kid couldn't get it loose, not from the inside. Sighing to myself, I came back and pulled it open. Out she shot right in front of me, so fast and hard she bounced off the other wall and then up at an angle. She flailed around over my head and to my right. I pulled myself level under her and reached up. "Take my hand."

She slapped it away—too scared. I held it out to her again. "Take my hand and I'll take you someplace safe."

Something in the tone got through because she stopped flailing and stared down at me, black eyes against a black bulkhead. She drifted into my handhold. I let her come in on her own time, but when she bumped against me, she grabbed hold—on instinct, I think, like a monkey or a baby. I started off down the dark corridor again, the cold, dry air blowing past our faces. "I'll get you some food," I said.

I found one of the automated food dispensers and ordered some up: rice and bread and other things grown in a hydroponics lab that imitated the womb of a planet's soil.

I took the kid back to my cubicle at the autohotel and gave her half the food. She wolfed it down so fast she almost snapped my hand off. I thought she'd puke, but it stayed down. She was practiced at hunger, then. As I watched her, I figured her for older than I'd thought, maybe five or six, but undersized. Once she'd finished, I took the cartons away from her and dumped them down the disposal outside my cubicle in the autohotel. I took her a few meters down the black and silver hall to the washers. No one was inside—I liked the third shift because I never ran into anybody and nobody talked to me. I tossed her in, clothes and all. She yowled, but nobody can hear you inside of the washers unless they're right next to them. "Don't yell; it won't let you drown," I told her. "Get your clothes off in there while I go find you some new ones."

I closed the door on her—I figured if she'd made it to age six hiding in disposals and hadn't burned yet, she wouldn't drown inside of a washer, either. But then, I never claimed to have any parenting skills, aside from what I'd picked up protecting the little ones from the other big kids at the institution. The babies always needed more attention than they got; the bullies knew that and used it. I was forty-three years old and I could probably count and name every person I'd ever spoken to. If I thought about it long enough, I might remember most of what we'd talked about, too.

I punched in a scan of her in the washer and ordered up the clothes. The autohotel had to think on it and check the station databases. Tourists didn't take their kids down this far and we transients didn't go in much for carting around little ones from station to station. I picked something purple because I had a vague memory that kids like silly colors and purple had always seemed silly to me—some kind of interstitial color between blue and red. Something was clicking over inside my head that I had to add to the order, but I couldn't remember it right off.

At that moment, Kip let himself in through the blast door from the outside corridor. As he stepped into the autohotel, the lights came up that next step brighter the way they do for more than two people passing within five minutes. "Hey, Tam. What's up?"

I turned my head toward the washer and then the clothesmaker and back to him. "Found a kid," I managed finally. "Getting it some clothes."

His breath hitched a little and he got a look on his face I didn't like, the kind of look dust-users get when they need a fix and you're in the way. "'It'?"

"Her," I admitted.

He frowned at me with official-type disapproval. "You got a kid in here? The autohotel is only for adults, Tam."

"I know that. I found her. I'll take her in to the station admins tomorrow morning before anybody gets nervous about it." Martial law had been imposed on Dragon 9 about a year before I was born, after a revolution gone bad. The troopers had come in shooting, kicking heads and spacing bodies. We learned that in the institution school, though by that time, I had a drug-management implant for beating the hell out of an older kid; I loathed bullies. I couldn't learn or remember much through the haze, let alone Cluster history I'd never use. But I remembered that. Could be because my ma always claimed I was her clone and therefore, wanted. But I learned in school you can't make a boy clone from a woman. I already knew she'd been one of the leaders in the revolution and once I learned about how you made a natural baby, how long it took, I got it. I'd remember how she used to slap me sometimes when she got drunk and call me a little bastard. And I can count.

Kip shrugged. "All right. Just make sure you bring her in before the troopers come after you for not reporting her. You don't want to get in the way of that juggernaut." Much as I normally didn't mind his presence, I really didn't want him around once I hauled the kid out. "'Her,' you said? What's her name?" That same funny look came over his face and vanished.

I blinked, taken aback. I didn't know very many women's names. "Um . . . Ruja."

"Rooh-yaaa," he drew it out. "Wasn't that your mother's name?"

"Yeah." We'd talked about my ma once or twice—right after we'd talked about Kip's perfect parents and his not-so-perfect Uncle Arun. And what Uncle Arun used to do with him.

"Is she gonna come out saying that's her name, Tam?" He slumped down on a handhold so he could look at me level. Kip was what the ladies liked to call "tall, dark, and handsome," none of which I was. His parents had made sure he'd come out of the womb that way. He just had that one little flaw, courtesy of his uncle. "Is it?"

"She doesn't talk." The thing I'd been trying to remember cycled to the top of my brain and I snapped my fingers. Of course. I'd got yelled at enough times in the institution about wetting the bed to know. I ordered up two sets of diapers, too.

Kip glanced at the washer, which had kachunked into the rinse cycle. The distant yowling echoing inside had long since stopped and I thought I heard a squeal or two mixed with lots of splashing that sounded playful. Being as filthy as she'd been couldn't have been all that comfortable. "Why not?"

"I don't know. She just hasn't yet." The washer went to a blow-dry and then stopped cycling right about the time the clothes came up. I opened the door and handed them in, a set of the diapers first, to make sure she got the point and put them on. I got a glimpse of tan skin and big black eyes in the bright lights of the washer before I turned away. I knew you weren't supposed to peek at people naked, especially little girls.

I turned to Kip, my back to the washer. Sure, he was good with his meds and he'd never actually touched a kid as far as I knew. But he was still on that official list as a "participant" in Arun's crime. "Look, Kip, maybe you should . . ." I gestured down the hall toward his cubicle.

He started. "What? Oh! Oh, yeah. Yeah, I should. I'll see you later."

"See you tomorrow on the line." I watched him move off to his cubicle along the handholds. I felt a little bad, but better that than give him a big source of temptation. I felt a tap on my arm and shoved the purple set of overalls into the washer without looking. "Here ya go."

When she came out, she smelled like soap instead of rotten banana and spit, and her previously matted hair made a black halo around her head in all directions, floating in the station air. I couldn't help but crack a smile. I tried patting down her hair, but it didn't stay very well. "Come on. You're probably tired."

She grabbed the back of my coveralls as I moved down the corridor to my cubicle. I had her crawl in first, then crawled in after her. I'd had a long day and I was already yawning. "Tomorrow, I'll take you upstation and see if we can find your people," I said. She didn't answer and I couldn't tell if she heard me or not. I didn't know why I was talking to her so much. I talked to myself a lot when I was alone, but in front of other people, my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth, as the old book said. But she was so little and I had been that little once. Nobody had treated me very well, then, not after ma died. They didn't need to when I had no other kin.

I settled the kid down with her back to me. I couldn't do much about blankets, as I only had the one sleeping bag, but she didn't seem to mind. It had to be better than a disposal. "How do you feel about being called 'Ruja'?" I said, but I fell asleep before I heard any of the answer I knew wouldn't come.

I woke up in the middle of a fight. I lashed out and didn't hit anything. Someone was behind me, yanking on my coveralls so they cut into my neck. They stopped as soon as I sat up. I looked back at the kid. She was lying there in the half-dark from the red comm button light, staring up at me with those black-hole eyes. They took in everything and didn't let nothing out. "What're you doing?" I said to her, but she just settled down next to me, as if I'd proven something to her. Grumbling to myself, I lay down and drifted off again.

This time, I came straight out of a dream of being strangled by a mooring line right through my helmet, clawing at the cable as anoxia made the jewel-like stars blazing all round me and the station and the ships moored there turn grey. I woke up with a mighty cough in a coffin-sized cubicle with a kid hauling away from behind. When I sat up this time, I banged my head and used a few curses Kip had taught me by yelling them in rapid-fire over the comm for hours on end. Again, the kid let up. I twisted around. She was already lying down again, staring at me with those eyes. "What're you doing?" I said. Now I'd cursed myself out, I was starting to think. Why would you have done that when you were a kid? I got hold of a reason, but I wasn't sure if it was hers. It sure wasn't a reason for a normal, happy little kid, but nobody would've stuck one of those in a disposal.

"You know," I said. "When I was your age, my ma, she died. I kept trying to wake her up, but I never could. Is that what you're trying to do—to make sure you can wake me up?"

She chewed on her lip before she nodded. It was a little nod, but I got the picture. I felt sad for her; if she was an orphan, they'd send her to the institution like me and she'd hate that. I had. But at least tonight, I could do something for her.

"Okay. Here's what we'll do. Come over here and put your head against my chest." She hesitated. "It's okay. I want to show you something." She inched over my hip to the other side and put her arm over me, laying her head on my chest up near my shoulder. "You hear that thumping noise?" I felt the nod this time. "That's my heart. People, when they're still alive, their hearts beat. If you can hear my heart, you can still wake me up. So, just you keep your head there tonight and you'll know everything's fine, all right?" Another tiny nod. "Good."

We both slept for the rest of the night.

The next morning, she'd wet the diaper and got all embarrassed about it. I thought she looked relieved when all I did was say, "Good thing I got that extra diaper last night."

I got her washed up again and clothed in a new purple jumpsuit and took her upstation where all the admin offices were. I hated the extra gravity. It hurt my legs.

They were always transferring some official up from some planet, and they couldn't lose bone mass living and working down in the center, oh, no. The office we were looking for was only about a quarter of the way up, though, because it would only take poor people, so the gravity was light. Ruja wasn't happy about going; she kept grabbing at handholds and holding us back. But I kept prying her loose and we arrived in pretty good time. I still had to meet up with Kip and get in a full day of stocking up. The starstatic was building up out there, and I needed to reach my ship and be in place before it got too high. I had navigation beacons to set up and maintain and all that fun shit you do when you're running a lightship on one of the busiest navigational routes in the Cluster. Kip had had the motherwit to get out to his ship early. He was a good buddy and he might have been bigger than me, but he knew I could—and would—take anyone in a fight. I wasn't kidding about his staying away from temptation. And for him, Ruja was a big temptation.

The corridors got progressively bigger and lighter and busier as we went. Rich folk. The gravity got heavier until we were bouncing along the outer wall of the corridors in a crowd of people going in both directions. By the time we arrived at the admin's headquarters, my palms were sweating and Ruja's eyes were so big, I thought they really were black holes. The door intimidated me, even though it was open with people passing in and out. I pulled her inside. I got a number and we found some sticky patches in the waiting room to attach ourselves to while we waited. The room was filling up with people along the walls and then clinging to straps from the ceiling and floor. We all kept sinking toward the door.

People were there mostly to beg—for free air credits, food credits, living quarters, a license here, a franchise there. Even though we'd arrived early, we had to wait an hour. Finally, a mechanical voice called us and I moved up to the floor-length window with Ruja, balancing on a pole that stuck out of the ceiling. A woman's image wavered inside the glass.

"State your name and occupation," she snapped. They had given up on serial numbers for identification a long time ago. Nobody bothered to remember them.

"Tam Severs," I said. "I run the lightship in the Kali Six sector."

The woman nodded. She had chocolate skin, strawberry-colored hair and flat, electric-blue eyes that sparked. I'd had strawberries once, when I was nine. A tourist had given me some as a handout while I was on a work/study junket in Maintenance at Dragon Seven Station. "What do you want?" she said.

I pushed Ruja up over my head toward the glass. "I found her in a disposal on Zero Level. I don't know if she's got kin or not, but if she does, I figure they'll be pretty worried about her. And if not, she'll need looking after."

The woman blinked. It seemed unnatural and I wondered if she was real or a threshold program. You couldn't even get a live person these days to talk to you. "Disposal issues should be reported to Maintenance on Level Four."

Ruja was squirming in my grip. "I said I found her in the disposal on Zero Level—a little kid. Somebody abandoned her or lost her or something. I'm reporting her so she can get into social care."

The eyes sparked again. "The station is not responsible for children's accidents. Keep your child out of the disposal next time." I'd always thought Artificial Intelligence had its limits, despite what they said. I didn't like being right this time.

I lowered Ruja, who grabbed me around my shoulders and clung to me. I was in public and I never had a voice in public, but something hot and fierce rose up inside me that gave me one—maybe it was Ruja's voice. "You goddamned, stupid AI—she's been abandoned. I'm reporting it."

"The station is not responsible for the safety of your child. I repeat: the station is not responsible for the safety of your child. Please leave or I must call Security." The picture flickered over my head, godlike, ready to disappear in a puff of electronic divinity. "Thank you for using Station Administration Services."

"My child." The way Ruja was holding onto me, it felt like it. "Fine. My child now. My responsibility now." I stepped off the pole and let us sink back to the door as a skinny, smelly woman in a yellow coverall shouldered up. The AI was already calling another number, Ruja and me already forgotten and disposed of, and hers was next.

We sank back out into the corridor. "All right," I told Ruja. "You can let go now." She slid down until she was bouncing gently next to me, looking up at me, holding my hand. "I guess you come with me, now," I said. "You ever been in a spacesuit by yourself? Not a mama bundle?" She shook her head. "Well, today, you're going to learn."

Read part 2 here

Paula Stiles has sold SF and fantasy stories to Far Sector, Albedo One, Neometropolis, Not One of Us, and Black Gate, as well as an SF mystery novel, Fraterfamilias (with co-writer Judith Doloughan), to serial publisher Virtual Tales. She currently lives in Vancouver. For more about her and her work, see her website. She can be reached at:
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