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Lost on Port Cullen
"War makes its own terms. The people must live in them.”
I am Airee of Athos, and my life is recording history. Whenever I visit a new place, what a first-face wants from me is a particular set of words, a story of their world the way they want it to appear to the outside. As much as they try to project their desire to give me autonomy, they badly wish to impose their frame, to tell their story for me. What these first-faces all misunderstand is that history doesn’t care what they want or what I want, it simply is, regardless of how we try to shape it. I don’t know whether I’ll turn left or right when I visit a place. I merely go, and I find what I’m meant to find. I worked that way long before my trip to Port Cullen, long before I encountered the Trasp orphans.
The first-face on Port Cullen was the Architect of the Station, a tremendously impressive man with a staff of sixty thousand architects, structural engineers, physicists, mathematicians, materials designers, and a thousand other technical professions of deep complexity, whose skills and expertise all needed to blend seamlessly to keep a mega-station like Port Cullen safe and operationally sound. The architect’s name was Van Dorn. The story he wanted me to tell was a statistical one, and I will indulge his wishes here for the sake of scale. He would want you to know about the numbers—that nearly twenty million people pass through the port on an average day, traveling to-and-from hundreds of planets, outposts, and settlements all over the Battery. He would have it that you need to know almost two thousand ships dock every twenty-four hours and roughly that number depart. He’d have you know that there are nearly eight hundred million permanent residents registered in Port Cullen’s citizenship census. He would break down for you, as he did for me, the characteristics of the seventy-eight rings where the people reside. Then he’d tell you of the comings and goings of cargo, peoples, robotics, equipment, military vessels, and a host of other logistical marvels, all of which have made Port Cullen the heartbeat of the Battery, as local sloganeering would have it. In my career, I’ve been met by a thousand faces like Van Dorn’s, all of which were equipped with mouths that seemed only capable of quoting statistics and happy talk about their domain. Usually, they are politicians—whom we’ll get to shortly—but curiously, all of them claim to be familiar with and, indeed, many are great fans of my work. Yet they never seem to notice the pattern. The very first thing I do when I can, is lose that first-face, and the next thing I do is try to get lost in a place, to see the things the people like Van Dorn desperately do not want me to see. Nobody cares how much cargo moves through Port Cullen. That’s expected. The reason people care about my work is that I notice things that people like Van Dorn ignore. The signs.
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Historians are uniquely positioned to notice the health of civilizations in the same way a good doctor might see the signs of a fatal illness long before a patient even experiences symptoms. The Van Dorns ignore the minor aches and pains, the occasional lightheadedness, the loss of appetite, the fatigue.
I didn’t go to Port Cullen to diagnose a civilization. I just went to get lost on the galaxy’s largest spaceport, to see what I would find. And did I ever find something unexpected. The first sign of it passed me in the form of a child, a boy I was not supposed to see. I didn’t even properly see him.
Van Dorn was escorting me through one of the newer rings, the Krispin Band, an offshoot of the outer superstructure. We were stopping for lunch at an area meant to showcase Port Cullen’s agricultural independence—a policy platform of the present administration. The food was excellent, as fine as any of the cities on Athos or Hellenia. Then, through a wash of foot traffic, I spotted the boy on the other side of the causeway. He was sneaking into the side entrance of a neighboring bakery. I got up immediately from the table, left the restaurant, and tried to see if I could discover what this boy was up to. From that distance I couldn’t say what I saw in him. He just looked different and curious. He was the left turn I had to take. I didn’t get to the bakery door in time. The boy came out running, clutching a loaf of bread under each arm, but what caught my interest was the black eye.
Van Dorn had caught up to me by then.
“Is this sort of thing common in this neighborhood?” I asked him.
“Urchins,” he said with some annoyance. “Not common at all.”
“Yet you use the plural ‘urchins’ as though there’s more than one. It also looks like he’s carrying more bread than a boy that size could ever eat in a day.”
Van Dorn shrugged. “Not unheard of, but not common. I assure you we are addressing the situation.”
“Somebody has blackened that poor boy’s eye.”
“Probably another boy, a bigger boy.”
“Another of the urchins, yes?”
“If you want to call it that.”
They were his words, and Van Dorn only grew more dismissive and evasive as I asked about that boy. The boy and I had met eyes as he’d run off. He was emblematic of so many metaphorical realities I didn’t grasp in the moment. All I saw was an innocent little face rushing to find his way out of sight. He was in a frantic state I’d never seen a child before. He could not be ignored.
After lunch, I ducked into the bathroom, out the back exit, where I left my visitor’s pass and swatch, along with a video message thanking Mr. Van Dorn for his hospitality in guiding me. I informed him that I would be continuing alone for the duration of my stay on Port Cullen. Then I set off after the boy.
I spoke first with a young woman leading a maintenance team on that level. Unfortunately, she was perceptive enough to guess that I was an outsider seeking to uncover knowledge she wasn’t certain her superiors would be happy she was sharing, so she directed me to the local government office. That local field office for the Krispin Band’s maintenance crews knew exactly who I was, so I feigned interest in the maintenance practices of the station, and I asked them if they might embed me for a time with one of their teams. They were flattered I was interested in their work and set me up with one of their oldest hands, Jarrel Dalit-Nu. He oversaw the young lady I’d previously spoken with and sixteen other teams, including the environmental and electrical engineers for that entire level. He also possessed the blessed and rare trait of speaking frankly about the way things worked, both people and machines. So when I met him along his rounds on the lower causeway of Krispin Band, I asked him about the boy.
“Is that what this is about?”
“I’d like to find and speak with that boy,” I said. “I’d like to know about his life, his circumstances. That’s how I work. I tell the story of a place, usually by telling the story of one person there.”
“And you picked one of the Trasp kids?”
Jarrel nodded. “Started arriving … I guess about eighteen months ago. It was supposed to be a humanitarian docking. Resupply and move on, but no outpost would take them, or so they said. They stayed on dock for almost ten days before anyone was allowed into the port. Then once they let them on to see the doctors, they took off all over the Victoria ring, refused to re-embark, and they spread out from there. Now they’re all over Port Cullen.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Which ship, you mean?”
“The first few ships were from Dana Point. Then it got further and further back from the line. They’re even coming from New Charris lately.”
“So it’s more than one ship?”
He laughed. “More than a hundred. I’m not sure we know how many.”
“How many kids total?”
Jarrel threw his hands into the air. “Not that anybody knows. They count freight to the ounce because somebody on Athos or the Letters is paying the lading bill. These kids, once that door opens and they’re on board … I’d guess … thirty to fifty thousand at least.”
I was stunned.
“Where are the parents?”
Jarrel huffed and smiled, almost as a defense mechanism. “Dead? Fighting? Getting shelled? I suppose the last thing they’d resort to is sending off their kids on freight carriers to a neutral port to fend for themselves.”
“How does no one on Athos know about this?”
“It’s not like the architects want people to know there’s Trasp kids running around, sleeping in the maintenance areas.”
“How could they allow it?”
“I don’t know. Nobody really talks about it, but it’s maybe the least bad of the terrible options. I mean, they’re children. What’s Van Dorn going to do, turn them away to space? Send them back home to get blown up if it’s so bad back there the parents sent them away in the first place? And the unspoken thing is that as much as we like to think we’re safe being neutral out here, we’re safer knowing that the Trasp are aware thousands of their kids are on Port Cullen.”
“Is that even a fear out here?”
“What the Trasp would do? What wouldn’t they do if they thought there was a strategic advantage in it? Even sending their kids here—that’s the thing nobody really wants to talk about—what happens in five years if we continue to do nothing, like we’re doing now? What strategic advantage would Trasp gain with thousands of their people living here in the shadows?”
“Can you show me where they live, Jarrel?”
He shrugged and shook his head. “They’re pretty clever, these kids. Strategic. They move around a lot. You can tell they were raised in a war zone.”
“But you said maintenance areas.”
“Yeah, especially the heat. They like to stay where its warm. I can pair you with Ashta. She’ll go down there with a Harold, but nobody goes down alone anymore.”
Ashta was an electrician who worked under Jarrel. She had a section to review that afternoon and was happy to have the company. Ordinarily on her rounds, it was only she and a Harold clone from the Linden line, which they embodied in a humanoid model. The bot’s presence was enough to ensure her security in those isolated areas. Jarrel introduced me to Ashta along the outskirts of his territory. She and I talked as we climbed down ladders and crawled through access tunnels.
“Are you genuinely afraid for your safety?” I asked her. “From children?”
“Me personally, no,” she said. “I’ve always brought Harold along, and candy. But there’s been incidents on other rings.”
“Sure. It’s all they’ve ever known, these kids.”
“The boy I first saw when I arrived, he had a black eye.”
“And probably some broken ribs and more bruises than you’d believe. Some of the bigger boys, you wouldn’t want to confront them without help. They know how to fight.”
“One of my many functions,” Harold said, “is to deter confrontations, and to protect Ms. Ashta should they arise.”
“I’m glad you’re along,” I said to the bot.
“I am glad too, Mr. Airee,” Harold said. “Someone must tell this story. Our inaction is an action in itself, a bad mistake over time.”
That tour behind the access panels and down the crawlspaces of the Krispin Band was truly a revelation. At first, we saw little evidence of the Trasp children, which Ashta told me was usual. They were wary of adults, raised to be distrustful of anyone not Trasp generally, but Ashta alluded to “other dangers” these children faced beyond sleeping in crawlspaces for high-capacity wires, the hunger and constant fights over food, water, and space. Among these other dangers was being seen as too friendly with any of the outsiders, especially adults, which had certain stigmas attached to it and resulted in repercussions from the other children.
“A lot of the time,” she said, “the candy I bring, I just leave it in places I know they’ll find it. They know who I am and they leave me alone. It’s a kind of unspoken communication.”
She showed me the places they slept. We saw blankets and bottles stashed in crevices. Ashta would remove anything that posed an electrical or fire hazard and leave candy in its place. Then she would fold the blanket and leave it nearby.
I stood by while she re-wired an aging fitting and replaced the box. Conditions down there weren’t’ as unsanitary as I’d feared. The kids, she said, were most accessible at night. They’d come up to the main levels to use the public washrooms, usually in groups that had lookouts. Citizens on the Krispin Band had learned not to approach the public washrooms when they were in use at those hours, and the local politicians knew that this unspoken arrangement was far better than any they would have brokered with the Trasp children.
Of all the people on Port Cullen I met, Ashta was among the most understanding of the kids.
“They’re just trying to survive,” she said at least ten times over the course of the afternoon.
I asked her if she thought it would be possible to find that boy, the one with the black eye.
She laughed. “The one?”
Then she told me it was very unlikely. They moved around fast, and few citizens of Port Cullen had a sense for how they navigated the port, but Ashta was certain there was an order to it. She recommended I seek out a woman named Ty-Ann Ellis, the food service Czar on the Krispin Band.
“They all eat,” Ashta said, “and Ty-Ann Ellis knows about every last calorie consumed on Krispin.”
I caught up with Ty-Ann Ellis the following day in the city offices. She was a systems engineer before learning about food systems, and initially got intrigued by the challenge of delivering perishable items when the logistics of moving freight through the port became mundane.
After meeting briefly in her office she asked me to walk with her around the band.
“I’ll give you the other kind of food tour,” she joked. “You’ll see spaceports in a whole new light.”
It was true that as she pointed out the nuances of the food distribution network she managed, it was impossible to take a cookie or a piece of fruit for granted again. There was a Ty-Ann Ellis behind every meal on every port.
“I love food,” she told me. “That’s part of why I made the switch from cargo.”
Ashta was correct about her precision. Ty-Ann Ellis had a sense that even the AIs didn’t have, all in her head. It was almost as though she could see around corners, had magical intuition of where the kids would be.
“There are places where every system gets leaky,” she said. “If it’s gas or liquid under pressure, there’ll be weak points in seams; if it’s human movement, there’ll be choke points and corners; if it’s food, delivery bays or points of service. These kids will figure out a way to eat.”
She didn’t seem bothered by that fact. Ty-Ann talked about how they found ways to get fed, mostly by stealing from storefronts, which she and the political class were happy to allow.
“If they don’t steal from them, then they’d be begging on the causeways, and we don’t want that.”
“Why not just feed them,” I asked her. “Set up spaces, lay out meals? At least that way you know they’re getting proper nutrition.”
“Somebody would have to acknowledge the problem, that’s why. And the first person to do that would end up taking responsibility for that problem.”
“But they’re children. Shouldn’t the adults here treat them that way and take responsibility for their health and safety?”
“One would think. Meantime, I know where the soft spots are where they’re getting their food from. They’re eating okay.”
“The big ones are. The little ones get black eyes and go hungry.”
“Who told you that?”
“Mr. Van Dorn.”
She scoffed. “Van Dorn doesn’t know the first thing about these kids; I can tell you that with certainty. They’re eating fine. It’s spottier than if it were three full meals a day, but they eat. It’s just math.”
“Can you tell from the math how many there are?”
“On Krispin Band alone or Port Cullen total?”
“Krispin depends on the day. They migrate in patterns. I’m not sure how coordinated it is, but they all move around from ring to ring a lot more frequently than most of the politicians know. Any given day, roughly four thousand are on this band. That’s out of a little less than two million residents and travelers on Krispin. On Port Cullen in total, there’s about six hundred thousand Trasp children.”
“What? Six hundred thousand!”
I’d never heard anything like it. It was a diaspora in its own right. I stood frozen beside her for what had to be half a minute with my jaw open, hardly able to breathe, much less speak.
“That’s why nobody wants to do anything,” Ty-Ann said. “They just think, as long as the people and the cargo move through and there’s relatively little trouble with the kids, leave them be.”
“There are six hundred thousand unsupervised Trasp children on this station?”
“Twenty million people pass through each day, Mr. Airee. Nearly a billion people live here. It’s a problem that’s taking care of itself, mostly. People like me, the security managers in the gate areas, a few others, we just get told to look the other way. Food loss, compensation for petty theft, these issues get factored into the station budget—came out of your landing fees when you paid your fare, Mr. Airee. As far as Van Dorn and his ilk are concerned, they just assume the war will end one day and they’ll all go home.”
“Who interacts with these kids?”
“I know some of the older ones who run Krispin. We talk, keep things smooth. The one person who really knows the most is over in Carver City. They had some problems with the kids there about three months ago. Donell Hall is the Carver City manager. I can get you an appointment to meet him. He and the city’s AI have been tracking movement on these kids.”
“Please,” I said. “I’d like to talk to him.”
In the moment, there were a million questions I should have asked Ms. Ellis. But the truth was that for perhaps the first time in my professional life, I was so overwhelmed I was stunned into silence. All I could do was continue to walk alongside her. The scope of the problem was nearly unimaginable to me. And equally stultifying was the normality with which everyone seemed to be treating the situation. Not that they should have been running around as though their hair was on fire, but surely someone should have been doing something about the problem, and I had the sense that everyone was simply looking the other way and hoping these kids would just disappear.
Meanwhile, I was still hoping to find that boy, to put a face to this humanitarian disaster that was hiding beneath the figurative floorboards on every ring of Port Cullen. I walked around Krispin Band all afternoon after Ty-Ann Ellis and I parted, looking and looking and only a few times catching a passing glimpse of these elusive Trasp children. Even if I’d have run into the boy that afternoon, though, I’d have had no sense yet what I would’ve asked him.
I did prepare a list of questions for Donell Hall the following morning before boarding a shuttle for Carver City. His ring was more residential than commercial or transitory. Most of the accommodations on the Carver City ring were permanent housing, many apartments that had been in families for several generations by then. As such, if anyone on Port Cullen was going to be bothered by the influx of Trasp refugee children, it was the people who cared enough about the station to notice what was going on. Donell Hall was certainly one of those people.
“A travesty,” were the first two words he said on the matter when I met him in the Carver City offices. He almost never stopped shaking his head as we were discussing the kids, both in disbelief and disgust—though not for the children themselves but for the station’s response. “How we are allowing this to continue…” he said at one point.
Donell often did that, leaving his speech to tail off, which I felt was the only defense mechanism he had left to keep himself from constantly spiraling into fits of sincere anger at the situation.
He invited me into his private office, asked me to sit, and gave me the first sincere breakdown of the scale of the situation, as well as the reality on the ground in most of the rings where the children would congregate.
“Joss has been tracking them as best we can through facial scans, but it’s spotty. They’re much more organized than any of us guessed at first. They live in units, maybe a mirror of the military structure of their parents’ society, but they move through areas in what … companies, I guess. The little ones always walk in twos, and they’re never alone. They look like they’re alone, but whenever Joss synthesizes camera data, there’s always an older kid fifty meters away, line of sight, keeping tabs on the little ones.”
“Could you find one?” I asked him. “Like do you know who these kids are? Their names?”
“By their faces, certainly. Joss can pull camera data from the entire port. Then it’s just a matter of where the kid pops up again. It’s how Joss has been putting together a picture of how they migrate. Joss and I know what’s going on about as well as anyone on the station, but we can only make so much fuss on Port Cullen, because if word got back to Athos or Hellenia what was going on out here, Van Dorn would be a pariah. The Interior Ministry threatened to pull a tenth of our monthly budget if I didn’t shut up about it, and I’ve got six million permanent residents. The compromise was that they allowed me to track the kids using Joss at all. Ordinarily that kind of data tracking is just for passengers. We don’t algorithmically track residents’ movements without a subpoena, just like Athos.”
“Could Joss find a boy for me?” I asked him. “I saw him over on Krispin Band stealing a loaf of bread. I’d like to talk to the boy.”
“Give me the time and location, and Joss can get you an approximate area, maybe even an access panel number where the kid is hiding out. Once they go below, though, there’s no cameras down there, so it’s inference in the data. The real problem will be getting the boy to talk to you. I do know somebody who could help you on that front, I think.”
“I would appreciate that.”
“Mr. Airee, I have a question for you, if you don’t mind. See the thing I just haven’t been able to figure out is what this is, this phenomenon. Do you have any historical precedent for this … I don’t know what you would call it?”
“It’s certainly a humanitarian disaster,” I said.
“There’s no question about that,” Donell said.
“It doesn’t bode well for Trasp; that’s for sure,” I continued. “I had thought, with nearly a half century of warfare, they and the Etterans had hit a long equilibrium. This happened last year?”
“I started noticing them about May. Sixteen months back or thereabouts. And recently, I started hearing rumors of kids coming from as far back as New Charris, like deep, critical Trasp territory. Nobody really knows what’s going on out there, though, and the kids don’t say nothing about nothing to anyone.”
That information seemed grave, and portended a likely fall of the entire Trasp protectorate in the near future. Nothing was certain in war, though.
I gave him my historical perspective. “You know, the people of Earth, they used to have a saying that the first casualty of war is the truth. They called it the fog of war.”
“What do you suppose the last casualty of war is, Mr. Airee?”
“Judging by this situation, the second to last seems to be our humanity, followed shortly thereafter by the humans themselves, at least a lot of them anyway.”
“You got that right.”
“The Trasp must be seriously desperate to be sending their kids away—their next generation of war fighters.” I was struggling to think of a historical precedent that mirrored the situation. “I can’t help but think though, Mr. Hall, as desperate as the situation on the station seems, the children are better off here than there.”
“I just think of these kids, living in air ducts and crawlspaces, half of them their parents probably dead. These are the great descendants of the people who engineered Dreeson’s rings, and we’re letting them live like animals, slinking from causeway to causeway stealing food. I’m ashamed of it. Every day I’m forced to look the other way, I’m ashamed.”
“What would you do about it, Mr. Hall? If you had the final say?”
“I’d move them. Round them up as peacefully and humanely as possible, DNA test them all so we didn’t separate any siblings, then I’d place them in homes back in the Battery. Loving families would adopt them. It wouldn’t be hard to keep clean records, and if the war ends, then we’d know where they all are, and they could get an education in the meantime.”
He shook his head.
“These are the great-great-grandchildren of the ringbuilders. Stealing bread to survive. Like I said, an absolute disgusting travesty. The whole war is. But this…”
Donell tailed off again, staring off into the corner of his office.
I had the sense while speaking with Donell that he was always on the cusp of either flying into a rage or bursting into tears, but he never did fully lose control of his emotions, the long list of which began with disgust but surely didn’t end there. When we finished the conversation, the main emotion I felt was despair. This was the sacking of Carthage on a cosmic scale, her children scattering to the stars. And for what?
Donell connected me with a woman named Pieta LaVigne, whom he told me would be my best chance of getting the child to talk once Joss tracked the boy down. That didn’t take long. The boy was on the Trace Band by then, nearly on the other side of Port Cullen. I couldn’t believe he’d moved so far so fast, but Donell explained that they knew their way around the transport system, which was open and free by necessity, as travelers needed to be able to embark and debark from all gates on all piers. Hindering that freedom of movement for millions of travelers to confine the kids was unacceptable. So the Trasp children took advantage of station transport.
I met Pieta LaVigne at the main concourse on the Trace Band. It was one of the earlier sections of Port Cullen, but the concourse was magnificent. The grand walkway of the main station rose, what I guessed to be, at least fifty stories above an open space nearly the circumference of a stadium, and the entirety of this inner sky was adorned with moving art of crystal-clear resolution, as though the entire domed ceiling had been painted by the hands of humanity’s greatest masters. It was such a wonder I had to be mindful of where I was walking. I’d been privileged to that point to see similar sky-sims on Hellenia, some of the subterranean hubs on Charris, and a few of the outer lettered worlds, but none had the scope, clarity, and beauty of the Skyroom on Trace Band. Usually, these types of false skies simulated only a day or night sky, and usually, they floated message boards or even in some tackier cases, advertisements. Had it not been for the quest to find the young boy and the need to meet Ms. LaVigne, I’d likely have stared at that sky admiring its intricacy until my neck hurt.
I did my best to ignore the glorious distraction and proceeded to the meeting post at the far side of the grand concourse. Pieta LaVigne herself was a sight as well. I was expecting a matronly older woman, dedicated to charity as she was. But Ms. LaVigne was young and looked quite youthful even for her young age. She had a very kind smile, and I realized that it was precisely these qualities that had enabled her to communicate with the Trasp children. She looked friendly and nonthreatening to them, and the eyes did not deceive about her. She was staggeringly empathic, could hardly pass by a child or a baby along the city’s various causeways without looking, smiling, and admiring, and as we walked and discussed the situation of the Trasp children, it was as though the tragedy had been personally inflicted on her through the person of each Trasp child.
“How is it that you came to know Donell Hall?” I asked her as we were walking.
“Same as you, I suppose,” she said. “He was looking for a go-between last year, and apparently, someone on Taylor Ring, where I live, got word to his office that I was friendly with many of the boys who ran my neighborhood.”
“How do you mean that, ‘ran your neighborhood’?”
“They’re martial, their society. They run in regiments. The bigger boys run things, so if you want to talk to the children, you need permission from the leaders; otherwise, the younger ones will ignore you or run off, no matter how friendly you try to be.”
“So this boy we’re going to see, he’ll need permission from the boy that’s in charge of this area?”
“Maybe, Mr. Airee. It’s not an exact science. Either that boy who runs the regiment or the local leader for Trace Band. Maybe both. If we’re lucky I’ll know the boy over him, or one of them may know me by reputation. We’ll see.”
She instructed me to hang back while she knocked on doors to get into access areas or maintenance tunnels where the Trasp kids were likely to be. She was completely unafraid and projected that fearlessness in the way she walked, smiled, and greeted everyone.
She finally got the attention of a pair of little ones on the upper tier of a commercial area near Trace Band’s piers. I was close enough to hear her talk to these children, who were leery at first but defenseless against Pieta’s smile and charm. She knew all the right things to say, insisting that she’d like to speak to their watchers then the local boy in charge. Then she waved me off as she went off with the two children. I sat on a bench and waited for her to return.
She came back twenty minutes later with a boy who was perhaps twelve years old, maybe thirteen. He was very big for his age, but I couldn’t help but notice how baby-faced this boy-leader looked. He asked Pieta what business I had with the black-eyed boy whose picture she’d showed him. I wanted to explain, to offer to take them all for a meal, to feed them, buy them new clothes, blankets, do something for them, but Pieta was explicit about what I should say—that to say too much would scare them off.
“I would just like to hear his story,” I told him.
“She says you’re not Etteran,” the boy-leader said. “You don’t look Etteran.”
“I am not. I’m from Athos.”
The boy nodded his approval.
“Why this boy?” he asked me.
“I saw him first when I came.”
“Would you speak to me instead?”
“Of course, if you prefer,” I said. “I would also like to speak to him if it’s possible, though.”
The boy waved over another boy who was just out of our sightline and said something like “Cazo clowell, cazo cleip,” in some Trasp cant or code language. The second boy ran off.
“Stay nearby,” the lead boy said. “It may be an hour or so but we’ll bring him to you,”
I waited on the bench with Pieta. She told me I was lucky. She didn’t know that bigger boy, but she had met the leader of the group that the black-eyed boy was under. Somehow he had vouched for her, and that had lowered suspicions enough that they were willing to arrange a meeting in a public place. She explained that the boy was either underground somewhere or working nearby, which meant either stealing food from vendors or picking small items from travelers in transit.
It was nearly two hours, a coffee, and a breakfast bar later before the larger boy from earlier returned. He told Pieta the boy would come but only with an escort at the insistence of his local group’s leader. He asked me if this was okay.
“Of course,” I said. “Please.”
He told us to meet the children at a plaza that was near the piers and told us not to try to go inside any of the shops or restaurants with the children. We could eat lunch but only at the outside tables in the concourse where we could be watched.
Pieta and I started walking in that direction. Along the way, I asked her about their careful reticence.
“It’s not just that they’re Trasp,” she said. “Kids have been pulled off by travelers, other adults. There’s a lot of reasons the politicians don’t want to address this problem. Some very ugly incidents would come to light.”
We met the children at a café along the concourse called Mello’s. As with the young children, though we were out of earshot, Pieta had no doubt we were being watched from several angles at all times.
The boy looked even shorter than the image of him I’d been remembering while searching all week. He was probably eight or nine years old, I guessed. His eye was still black, though yellowing around the edges of the bruise as it faded. He clearly had no idea why he was there or who I was.
The minder was a girl of about twelve. She was a little shorter than Pieta and rail thin. She had a sharp look to her but her eyes were bright, if suspicious. I gathered her function was less to ensure the boy’s protection than to carefully monitor what he was allowed to say, as well as to report back accurately what was said to their watchers. They may have been living outside of the bounds of Port Cullen’s society, but they were certainly not free. To be fair, no Trasp was. Everyone was in bondage to the war in some form.
Both Trasp children moved as though there was a threat around them at all times, something about to close in, and they looked at me suspiciously but followed as we were seated at the table. Their eyes almost never quieted, always assessing their surroundings.
“My name is Airee,” I announced to both of them. I looked at the boy. “Do you remember me?”
He shook his head in the negative.
“The other day on Krispin Band. I was there when you were getting some bread. Do you remember that?”
“It’s okay. You’re not in any trouble. I just wanted to speak to you.”
“Why do you want to speak to him?” the girl asked.
“Perhaps names first,” Pieta said. “I’m Pieta. What are your names?” she asked the girl.
“Rachel,” she said, then turning to the boy. “He’s Kiro.”
“It’s good to meet you both,” I said. “I only wanted to talk with you.”
“Again, why?” Rachel said.
“I’m a historian. I came to Port Cullen to explore the history of the spaceport. What I usually do is look for interesting people or things that tell a story. I think yours is a story I’d like to know.”
“You said you came to Port Cullen,” Rachel said. “Where did you come from?”
“I came from Ithaca on Athos. That’s my home. Do you know of Athos?”
The boy nodded.
“Everyone knows Athos,” Rachel said.
“We built your ring, you know,” Kiro said. “The Trasp built Athos. And Iophos too.”
“That’s true,” I said. “Your ancestors and ours, along with a lot of robots.”
Pieta took charge of helping the kids order lunch from the touchscreen table, instructing them that they could order anything they wanted. I cleared them through my biometrics and invited them to eat their fill. They were still hesitant. I suppose they must have felt a bit like a pair of fairy tale children being fattened up for some kill.
We made small talk about the station, which rings they liked best, their favorite places and foods. I asked them how long they had been there, and both had arrived together eight months prior on the same starship. They’d been shifting around Port Cullen ever since, hiding in crawlspaces and maintenance rooms when they weren’t out stealing food and trinkets from travelers.
“I wanted to ask you about your eye,” I finally said to Kiro. “That’s what really caught my attention when I first saw you.”
He furrowed his brow as if it confused him, almost as though he’d forgotten entirely about it. And it occurred to me the boy probably rarely looked in the mirror or paid his appearance much mind.
“What do you want to know about it?”
“How did that happen?”
He shrugged. “Just some guy.”
“He caught me going through his satchel outside the gate.”
“And he hit you?”
“I bit him after he grabbed me, and then he socked me.”
Kiro seemed genuine. It was doubtful he was lying or misrepresenting the incident. He also seemed to be wondering what was so interesting to me about the situation.
“Can I ask you, Kiro, do you like it here on Port Cullen?”
Again he seemed confused by my question. He didn’t answer.
“I’m not sure they know what you mean,” Pieta said.
“Well, I guess what I’m asking is whether you’d prefer perhaps to be in school, to live in an apartment with a family.”
Rachel looked over at the boy, shooting him a warning.
“Do you ever think of that?” I asked her.
“Why would we,” Rachel said. “We’re here.”
“What if you had a choice,” I said.
“We don’t,” she said emphatically.
“Maybe today you don’t,” I conceded. “What if people were to try and help change the way you’re all living?”
“To maybe take you to live somewhere else in the Battery. To a home where you could go to school and live with a family.”
“We already have families,” Rachel said.
“I understand,” I said. “I’m not suggesting you go anywhere permanently, just until your parents send for you again.”
“Why?” Rachel asked.
“Wouldn’t it be better for you to have a home, a bed to sleep in, a school to go to, somewhere safe to live, regular meals?”
The two kids looked at each other.
“If you’re asking if we’d prefer a normal life or if we’d like to go live on Athos or Hellenia or something like that, of course we would,” Kiro said. “We’re not stupid. But that’s not our life, that’s yours.”
The kids ate quietly for a few minutes. And I tried to let them know how many people out there in the Battery would happily take them in, to give them a home, that all it would take would be for someone like me to get the word out, that humanitarian agencies would make sure they could stay with their brothers and sisters, that their parents would have no trouble locating them and reaching out when it was safe again. They still seemed wary.
“How would they come get us?” Kiro asked. “Here on Port Cullen we’re close. Athos is farther away.”
“That’s true,” I conceded. “We could take you back here, or perhaps even all the way back to Trasp territory once the war ends.”
That phrase elicited a doubtful smile from the boy and a blank stare from his minder, Rachel.
“I see,” Kiro said.
It was quiet for a few moments.
“We don’t mind living here,” he said. “It’s all right.”
“We’re fine,” Rachel insisted.
Rachel gave Kiro a look and tilted her head, signaling it was time to go. They’d each eaten enough for two children, but Kiro was still reluctant to get up. She shot him a look that told him her decision was final.
“Thank you for the meal,” Rachel said. “It was very kind of you.”
As they were walking away from us, I caught sight of an older boy on the level above us tracking them from nearly forty meters down the concourse. Then, as the two children grew smaller and smaller walking into the distance, another older boy passed by the restaurant, walking behind them, almost perfectly in step nearly forty meters behind.
“They always move like that?” I said to Pieta.
“It’s like they’re already soldiers.”
“It is very much like that,” she said.
It was unlike any meeting I’d ever held. Never had a subject so surprised me with what should have been such unsurprising behavior or responses. I was suddenly left wondering what this was. An infiltration? Of children? The girl, Rachel, was not all that long for childhood when held in relief with the scale of the West Battery War. Not by a long shot.
“How long, do you suppose, Pieta, before those children are having children of their own in the shadows here on Port Cullen?”
She rolled her eyes and looked away.
“Is anyone even asking those questions?”
“Maybe Donell is,” she said. “Everyone else is just hoping the issue goes away.”
The children themselves, of course, could be nothing sinister. For a time, they’d still be the innocent victims of their parents’ war. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, how they were serving it. No one on the outside really knew how the war was going. Not for Trasp nor the Etterans. Neither was inclined to welcome reporters or historians to record the happenings accurately. They both welcomed the shroud that hung over the war in the darkness of space—a black shadow hanging over their fog of war.
When I returned to Athos the following week, I consulted with a colleague who was an expert in military strategy—a historian, not a practitioner.
“Yes, those kids are soldiers,” he told me. “All Trasp are now.”
Most likely, he explained, their function was to catalogue movements—of freight, of people—in and out of the Battery toward the Lettered Systems near Etteran space. Metals and minerals for weapons, ships, and bots would be of particular interest. The children’s presence on a neutral spaceport ensured their safety, while the order the parents had instilled in the children from an early age ensured they didn’t stray from their martial culture. They’d have to be dragged off that station, my colleague thought. There was no chance of them being coerced by the trappings of a family life with strangers on foreign settlements, even if it meant regular meals and peace. They were children of war, stashed there to mature in safety till they could be gathered up again later to fight.
“Perhaps someone should drag them off kicking and screaming,” I suggested, “rather than being complicit in incubating them as Trasp cannon fodder. Surely, the Trasp have surrendered whatever parental rights they once could have claimed.”
“That would certainly be a confrontation Van Dorn wishes to avoid,” my colleague responded. “Neutrality is a tricky business, especially for a nation of a billion souls surrounded on all sides by empty space and two tremendously lethal warring factions. Courage can sometimes be a luxury as much as a state of being, dictated to us by the terms of our existence. War makes its own terms. The people must live in them.”
This story of the boy Kiro—black-eyed and lost on Port Cullen—I thought for many weeks about how to tell it back home on Athos, or even whether I should tell it at all, and if so, when. The story had all the elements of human psychology that would yank at the hearts of my fellow Athosians, the good people of Iophos, Hellenia, the Letters, and everywhere else in the Battery civilized people called home. I needn’t even propose the intervention. I knew that by the time I’d taken my third breath after hitting publish, there’d already be a charitable foundation composed of countless self-righteous signalers in as staggering a number as the earnest and well-meaning. In ten minutes, on Athos alone, there would be a place for every Trasp child a hundred times over. The fog of war, though, to my great shame, held me in its grasp for a time, rendering me hesitant to publish.
I knew that history could very well tell a tale of the humanitarian effort that salvaged the ragged children of the Trasp civilization in her dying hours, sheltering the few remaining great-great grandchildren of the galaxy’s greatest engineers. Just as easily, though, I knew it might tell of the standoff that destroyed the largest spaceport in the galaxy when the beleaguered Trasp came to collect their wayward children for conscription, furious that Port Cullen had given away the most valuable of their final resources.
Then I thought of a boy with a blackened eye, sleeping under a steampipe in an electrical closet. Never had history seemed a crueler partner.
Damn neutrality, and damn the Trasp. Let them come for my head. Word is out now to the humans of the Battery. No circumstance need make monsters of all of us. Every last child deserves a bed.
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