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Kip looked worried and shook his head a lot when I showed up at the airlock on Level Two with Ruja in tow. "I don't know, Tam. Sounds like that AI needs adjusting. They don't let people adopt little kids just like that."

I'd bought Ruja a used spacesuit in a tourist shop before coming back downstation. The tourist suits were expensive as hell, even the ex-rentals, but they were secure and the only way I could get her a working kid-size suit. I stuck Ruja in a changing closet and gave her the suit to put on. I showed her the basics, then shut the door before I turned back to Kip so she couldn't hear us—and to stop Kip from having to avoid looking at her.

"You think they'll come after her?" I knew they would, but I needed his expert advice.

"Did you tell them your name?" Kip said, head on one side and squinting at me in the cluttered airlock's white and silver reflections.

"Yeah." It had seemed the right thing to do at the time—read: official thing.

"Then, yeah, I think as soon as they run through all the recent interactions that AI's had—which could take a day, could take a week, depending on where she is in her cycle and how conscientious her maintenance is—yeah, I think they're gonna come down here like bats outta Hell."

"Bats," I said, not too sure of the word.

"You know, like those things you've had in your sensory tower for the past five years, ever since you brought up that planetside shipment of bananas. Those little creatures that fly around and squeak and shit on your gamma ray sensors."

"Oh, those." I wasn't sure if he was making fun of me.

"Yeah, those. Look, Tam, admins all over the Cluster can call up your juvie record at the touch of a button and then they'll suddenly get interested in this little girl, just because you have her."

"I didn't do anything wrong," I blurted out. The old accusation that had brought me out swinging every time when I was a kid—until I learned never to throw the first punch—always stung, and the last person I wanted to hear it from was Kip.

"I know that, Tam, and neither have I. But people still think things, because then, they don't have to think how they jerked you from pillar to post for ten years until you were fourteen because nobody wanted you after your mother died. People in power don't care if you were the victim, just about saving face. They kept you on drug implants to keep you docile for four of those years, after you kicked up a stink for them knocking you down every time you got a step up, and you're expecting mercy or sense from them? We're talking about respectable people, here, not honest or kind or honorable ones. They'll do whatever it takes to keep looking respectable."

I hated this goddamned station; it had all but killed my mother. But to go to another station meant renegotiating my entire life, from air credits to my lightship's license.

"But they don't want Ruja," I said.

He shrugged. "They will as soon as they realize you have her. 'Tam the Cannibal'—sound familiar?"

I felt my lips thin. "About as familiar as 'Kip the Pedophile.'"

He turned pale. "So, you get the picture. Look, if we get her out of here before they catch on, I can get you both out to your ship, no problem. By the time the starstatic clears and you need to come back in for supplies, it'll all have died down and we can all pretend she was yours all along."

That sounded all too easy, but I guess I wanted to believe it. "You're saying we should just keep packing in the supplies as if nothing's happened."

He nodded. "Except that we hurry it up and get you out sooner, if we can." He jerked his head toward the closet. "I take it you're bringing her out today?"

"Well, there's nobody to leave her with here. She's as safe with us out there as in here. We have a good safety record."

"Can't argue with that logic, can I? All right. I'll go up the line and wait for you." He secured his helmet, then stepped into the outer airlock and hit the button on the other side. The door rang shut behind him. I heard the air blasting out distantly from the other side. A banging from inside the closet door got my attention. I opened the door. Ruja was inside, looking scared, with the suit up around her neck.

"Sorry," I said. I got her out of there and suited up. Her suit was a big, ugly, awkward orange thing with two many bags and folds, but it was that or me putting on a mama bundle and sticking her inside it on my back. I had a feeling she'd like that even less and six was old enough to wear your own suit.

"Kip scares you, doesn't he?" She didn't answer, but she didn't shake her head and she wouldn't look at me. "I know what you mean. You're a smart little monkey, aren't you? That's good; you hold on to that." I'd lost count of the number of people who'd tried to tell me black was white and bad was good when I was a kid just for their own comfort. It was evil. "Kip doesn't mean you harm, but yeah, he has some problems. So, I won't leave you alone with him—ever. Is that okay?" A nod, with her eyes cast down to the floor. "Okay. Let's get this thing on you better. You don't want a leak in your suit. You get anoxia and you could be down for the count before you knew it."

Kip had gone up the line. I shut the outer door from inside and started it pressurizing again—it would take a good twelve minutes. I got Ruja suited up and then did up my own adult-red suit myself, pulling the helmet on last and latching up all the seals. I steered her out into the airlock and turned to face her. I turned on the comms for both suits and pointed at my helmet. "I can't see your face when we're out there, so if I'm asking you something and you want to tell me 'okay,' you do this, okay?" I held up a fist with a raised thumb. She started to nod, then remembered and raised her gloved hand, thumb up.

"Good girl." I turned her around and pointed at the big red button on the wall by the door. "See that? That's for closing the door. If somebody hits it, you get out of the way, because it closes quick." She answered with the thumb up faster this time. "Now, I'm gonna close the door and let out the air and I want you to stick by me, okay?" I hooked her up to my belt with the buddy cable. "We're attached, so you'll be fine."

I was talking like that because I always talked myself through this part. I wasn't sure how she'd deal with it, either, but I figured we'd see that soon enough. I hit the button, which started up the whole cycle, and grabbed a handhold, gesturing Ruja to do the same.

The doors opened easily enough after the depressurization stopped, though they were getting creaky with age. If you could hear them, that was usually a bad sign—it meant they were opening up before all the air had let out and the cycle was way out of whack. I couldn't hear anything, so we were all right.

Light started to leak in as soon as the doors cracked. Once they'd opened wide enough, I pulled the supplies Kip and I had packed up yesterday on the sled loose from the sticky tabs and gestured Ruja to help me push the sled out the door. Maybe if I kept her busy, she wouldn't freak out.

As the doors spread wide, the mooring line appeared below us, stretching out and up past the shadowed airlock and beyond sight to, I knew on faith, Kip's ship nearly a kilometer away. Kip couldn't afford to rent a dock, so he moored to one of the navigational buoys off-station. I clipped the sled to the line and got on board, Ruja scrambling up behind me. I could feel her lifting herself up so she could peer out and around. Wherever she'd been before, it hadn't ever been on a spacewalk.

I kicked off the sled jets in a short burst and we drifted out of the airlock along the line. I kept the nose tilted up so we wouldn't get fouled. Station walls slid past us, flat and gray, as the light brightened into an auburn/red/purple/blue glow and the dust started hitting my faceplate. As soon as we cleared the station, I heard a gasp over my comm and Ruja lost her grip on me. I hit the retrojets a puff and drifted to a stop so I could reel her in. She was flailing around, making squeaking noises like the mice that had infested my engine room for the past five years. You'd the think the damned cat colony that had come from the one single female I'd brought on board (and who just happened to be pregnant) would have solved the problem, but no. They'd all settled into a little balanced ecosystem, instead. I always knew whenever the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance was off, since I'd get drunken mice staggering across the top of the control panels.

I tugged in the line and grabbed her flailing arms and legs in a bear hug. "It's okay, little monkey! I've got you. It's just the Cluster. It's just stars."

Around us pulsed stars of every color, jewels in the biggest treasure chest in this arm of the galaxy, trillions of times larger than the station. Old red giants dissipated into the gloom, waiting to go supernova, while yellow and orange planet-warmers marked their position as diffuse blobs and bright, blue babies peeked through veils of dust. Still other precious veils glowed with new star life in tans and browns, hidden from human eyes. The view stretched for ten light years in some directions before the visibility cut out. Light, light everywhere and the omnipresent stardust. It could drive a soul mad if you hadn't grown up in it.

Ruja stopped struggling as I spoke to her, but I think my arms around her were what did it. They gave her a reference in the hugeness of the filled void before her. And she was only a kid. Kids haven't learned yet how to restrict their imaginations to a set of limited data points reading "normal."

"Everybody okay down there?" Kip had nudged his ship a hundred meters down toward the station to get within radio range. "Tam? You guys okay?"

"We're fine," I said. Ruja was still staring, reaching a tentative glove out to one particularly large and near red giant in a cloud in front of us, its light gilding her glove. Curiosity had got the better of her terror. "Just a touch of agoraphobia. Usual stuff."

"She coping okay?"

"Well, she's curious now. I'd call that a good sign." I eased off my grip and turned her around. "Now, you get on my back and hold on tight, all right? Everything will be fine. I promise." After a moment, she gave me a tentative thumbs up. "Good girl. Up you go."

We rode the rest of the way up the line to Kip's ship. He let us in and was waiting for us at the inner airlock. "She okay now?"

"I think so." I got the helmet off Ruja's head before I answered. Her hair flew out all over the place and she was breathing fast, looking shaky, eyes wide. But she was grinning, too. "Yeah, she's fine." I patted her on the head, trying to smooth down that damned hair—she needed a clip or something for it. "Bet you're pretty pleased with yourself now, aren't you, little monkey?" She nodded, then gave me two thumbs up. I grinned at Kip and he smiled back. "Yeah, she's spacer material. No ground-hugging tourist, this one."

Kip's smile turned sad. "It's kinda too bad . . ."

"Don't worry about it," I said in a warning tone—Not in front of the kid. "Let's stick to the plan, see what happens. I think it'll be fine."

It was fine for about five days. We did a few more trips back and forth that day. Then, I took her back to the station and bought her a teddy bear while we were getting supplies, along with a clip for her hair. I'd considered a dolly, but the only one they had was plastic with a mouthy, girly AI personality and she didn't seem to like it. Guess a little kid who could handle the Cluster age sixish wasn't the dolly type. She sure liked that bear, though, hugged it more than she hugged me after that. I let her stuff it in her space suit against her belly and we jetted the supplies up to the ship. At night, she slept with her ear to my chest, listening for my heart. She didn't shake me awake, so I guess it worked for her.

We'd got most of the supplies up there and by that fifth day were checking out of the autohotel when they finally showed up. There was a woman at the head of two station guards in blue uniforms. She wore a green civilian coverall and a bland smile calculated not to offend. She reminded me of one of the counselors from the institution who had always told me oh-so-gently how messed up I was. She lumbered, as if she hadn't quite got the hang of freefall. As soon as she saw the woman and the guards, Ruja ducked behind me.

"Mr. Severs?" the woman said.

I blinked, so unused to being called by my family name that for a minute there, I didn't know what she meant. The last time someone had called me that was after I got my ma's ship back. Some guy had bought it for a song after they carted me off to the institution. It got traded around until I got out age fourteen and discovered I still had a claim. I worked my ass off for two years, saving up money. Then, I tracked down the latest owner in an airlock one day and offered to buy it. He laughed at me. I told him we could take it to the admins, see what they said. He got nervous, then, knowing it could go either way. Or, I said, as I put my hand on the airlock door button, I could just space us both. Or he could take my money and give me the title to my ship. He gave up the ship.

"Um, yeah?" I said to the woman. "That's me. Severs."

The bland smile expanded, but the two big guards behind her remained stone-faced. "We're following up a report you made about a lost child you found down on Zero Level?"

"I did?" I started inching backward along the wall. I could only bluff so long before they got impatient. Ruja seemed glued to my back. No way did she want to go with them.

"Yes, you did. Is that the child?" The woman tried to lean forward and had to stop herself from rolling by catching herself on a wall rung. "Come here, princess," she said to Ruja, talking through me. "You're coming with us."

Ruja started to shake, but she wouldn't come out from behind me. "This isn't that child," I said.

"But she matches the description the AI gave us, Mr. Severs," the woman said. She still hadn't given me her name. Why should she when she had all the power?

"Ruja's with me," I said. I don't know where the strength came from for the next words, but come it did. "She's not going anywhere. For sure not with you."

The smile vanished. It was almost a relief. "Mr. Severs, I'm sorry, but we can't allow you to keep that child in your custody. You've been seen in the company of a known pedophile, who appears to be working with you and . . . well . . . your own history is very sad."

"I didn't kill my mother," I said in a steady tone. "And I didn't eat her, either." My voice started to rise, despite myself, making the woman push backward, eyes wide, and the two guards push forward, grim-faced. "And I didn't see you giving a damn about this little girl when she needed your help to get her out of a disposal before she burned up like a piece of trash!"

I don't know what set me off—Ruja's desperate whine into the small of my back, heard only by me, or an all-too-familiar-looking needle in the hand of one of the guards—but they both happened about the same time. I kicked out hard and got one guard right in the balls. The other one pushed forward and I lashed out with my left hand, knocking the needle free to clatter against the wall and shatter. As the first guard curled around himself, I jumped off the floor and grabbed an overhead handhold. Swinging forward and up, I kicked the second one in the face. Behind them, the woman was fumbling with a device and shouting into it. I launched myself from the handhold between the two gagging guards and grabbed the woman. She yelped but the sound cut off as I slammed her headfirst into the wall. Blood came out of her scalp in globules and she slumped, clutching her head. Let her smile that smile now.

I scrambled backwards fast, lashing out at the two guards for a few more good kicks and blows. Then, I turned and pushed myself toward Ruja. "Go! Go!"

She didn't need any more urging. I had all I could do just to keep up. We were almost at the airlock before I dared call Kip via the ship's antenna. They'd hear it, too, but I couldn't help that. "Kip, come in; we have a problem."

He answered back within seconds. "What's up? What's wrong?"

"Get down here as close as you can. We're coming up right now."

Ruja had gone ahead of me into the outer airlock. I yanked out our suits and started suiting her up, trying to let my hands work naturally and quickly. "No leaks," I babbled as I worked. "No leaks. Remember? Do it right."

A clamor broke out in the corridor. They burst into the inner airlock. I didn't hesitate. Even though I was only half in my suit, I turned and slapped the red button. The door slammed shut in their faces. Air started to hiss out. We had twelve precious minutes before it cycled through and they could come after us. I got Ruja suited up, telling myself we both had time even as I knew only she did. I was already feeling lightheaded when I got her finished and suited myself up. I didn't have time to do all the helmet seals, but the air was rapidly disappearing. No time left. I'd just have to hope we got up to Kip's ship in time for me and my brain.

The doors opened and I pushed out, shoving Ruja ahead of me. She went up the line like a monkey. I followed, but my mind was already starting to slow and black stars edged out the brilliant reds, blues, and oranges around me. Ruja came back for me and started tugging on my suit. "Go ahead, monkey, go on," I gasped. "I'm just gonna lie down for a bit, lie down here in the freezer and when you run out of food, you come in and get me."

I could have sworn she said something to me, but now she sounded like my mother, and I wondered if I'd meet ma again on the other side. . . .

Ma knelt in front of me and hugged me. It scared me. It wasn't one of her sullen moods that I understood. "There's no food left, Tam," she said. "Not enough for us both before they come get us. I'm gonna go lie down in the freezer now, okay? You keep eating the food we got. And if you run out, you just come in with the knife and you cut a piece off me, okay?" She hugged me again, awkwardly, since she wasn't used to it any more than me. "I'm sorry I wasn't a better ma for you. I love you Tam. Don't ever forget that." She turned and opened the freezer door. She went inside and shut it behind her and when I finally got up the guts to go in there against her say-so to wake her up, I couldn't do it. She was stiff and icy cold and they say they found me there, trying to shake her awake and crying. But if they did, I don't remember it.

Somebody was shaking me hard. I grunted and tried to push them off, only to find myself stuck to a deck with my helmet off and a mask over my face. I opened my eyes to see Ruja staring back at me. She smiled when she saw my eyes were open.

"You sure do like to cut it close." The voice came from beyond Ruja. Kip came into view. "Check the seals on your suit next time."

"Sorry," I croaked. "We were in a hurry."

"I know." He nodded. "I had to turn the comm off after a while. They got pretty insulting." He crouched next to me. "We're in transit; doubt they'll catch us now. The starstatic's already too high. I'll take you guys to your ship and maybe I'll just stay with you until this dies down a bit if you're willing. Maybe we can go to Dragon 6 after that. You haven't made any enemies there yet, have you?"

I shook my head. "It's on the other side of the Cluster. Too far away to visit." I reached out to grasp his sleeve as he turned away. "Kip . . . thank you."

He glanced at me and Ruja, who had her head jammed up against my suit, trying to hear my heart. "I wanted to help. Nobody helped me. My parents didn't believe me when I told them about my uncle, and the shrink they sent me to for 'lying' diagnosed me as a pedophile. Nobody stood up for me, nobody. The only other person I ever told was you—and you just took it in stride. You had your mother and everybody just assumed you'd turned cannibal after she died, not that she did this great thing for you." He swallowed. "I wanted to do for you and Ruja what nobody did for me."

I hugged Ruja to me. With the oxygen coming back to my brain, I finally realized that we were home free. "We'll be fine, Kip. All three of us. We're all we have."

He smiled and when he looked at Ruja, it didn't seem creepy for once, as if he'd mastered whatever temptation his uncle had put in him like a bad seed, at least for now. "Well, that's better than what we ever had before."

He had a point there.

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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