Sometimes I noticed the soot covering me. It turned everything filthy on Crowndon. We had to burn whatever we scrounged up for fuel. Between that and the factories, ash was a constant mist. The snow was full of it. When snow melted in my hands, it left trails of light skin.
Days were spent finding stuff to scrabble through the next day. Lucky ones worked in the factories. They had food most days and their windows were stuffed, keeping the wind out. Mam wasn’t a lucky one. We stayed hungry and cold, but she taught me how to scrounge. She once found a tattered sweater. It hung over my scrawny body to my knees, flapping over my hands. It was perfect.
When Mam brought Joram home, things were supposed to get better. They didn’t. I wasn’t just scrawny, I was small. Moved quick. Quick enough to get away from Joram. He grabbed at me when he stunk of ketla. Mam looked away. One night, he caught the back of my sweater. The harsh sound of it ripping as I yanked away decided me. I had to get gone.
It was dark when I stopped running. My breath huffing out in clouds, I thought fast. Thugs were bad, but night brought out the rapegangs. The only light in most places was from the moons. Even they had to fight through the layer of soot.
The spaceport had some lights. Clinging to shadows, I aimed for it. Took it slow and real careful. I had to crouch in one deep shadow, waiting while a gang took someone down. I covered my ears against the boy’s screams. They finally moved on, the kid they raped stumbling away.
I pushed through a hole in the spaceport fence. The place was empty. No one landed on this iceball if they had a choice. Wasn’t my first night hiding from Joram. Wasn’t my first time scrounging at the spaceport, either. Sometimes I found good rags or leftover ration bars. I’d make do. Didn’t plan to go back ever.
I got to work. Found a deep shadow for a bed. Torn, greasy coveralls mostly fit with the sleeves and legs rolled up. No traffic here, but a few people worked the port. I saw them come and go, watched when they threw stuff away.
A ship landed one night. Moving between shadows, I went for a look. Might be some good scrounging. I saw a port worker arguing with a pretty man. He was all clean, wearing bright colors. The pretty man looked angry when he went to his ship. I scurried near the landpad, ducking into darkness when he came out. He muttered, carrying a crate to the ‘cycler. Soon as he was gone, I jumped in to scrounge.
More muttering made me freeze. He stopped, crate raised, eyes widening. “This gods-forsaken spaceport has rats? Come on, out you get.” He looked me over. “Too small to be a rat. A mouse then.” He squinted then snapped his fingers. “Come along, Mouse.” I followed him to the hatch of his ship and waited. He stuck his head out. “I said come along.” Startled, I stepped into the ship.
Bright lights. Shiny and clean. My mouth dropped open and I stared. He held out a cup. “Slowly, it’s hot,” he warned. I tasted it. Soup, with veg even. I sucked it down. My belly was warm and full. My “thank you” was too small for so big a gift.
“I mean no offense, Mouse, but you are unpleasantly fragrant. Into the ‘fresher. The autotailor has basic clothing. I’ll just set the size to Mouse.” He smiled at me. “Unless you’re particularly fond of those coveralls?” I mutely shook my head, eyes wide as I trembled. Too embarrassed to tell him I never used a ‘fresher, I fiddled with the buttons. Water cascaded over me. Foamy soap cut through the grime. I scrubbed and discovered pale skin. Clothes waited for me, from new smalls to shirt, pants and coveralls.
I gathered my stinking pile of rags and headed for the hatch. “You’re a blonde?” He came toward me. “Much better, Mouse. Put those in the wall ‘cycler. There’s still the small matter of your payment.” My shoulders slumped. Knew it was too good to be true. I fed each disgusting piece to the ‘cycler, pausing when I got to the sweater. Fingering the tear at the back, I remembered what waited at home. Maybe getting raped in exchange for being fed and clean wasn’t such a bad deal.
“The portmaster says there’s no droid repair here. That can’t be right. Who fixes your droids?” He looked so earnest I almost smiled. At least he wasn’t in a hurry to rape me.
“No droids here,” I replied. “Not since the Perlaki War took out the power grid.”
“No droids.” The pretty man tilted his head. “It seems I have employment available, Mouse. Looking for a job? You’d have to learn quickly and get used to being clean and fed daily.”
“You need a whore?” I heard of them, people dressing nice and bartering rapes for food.
He blinked. “No. I need an assistant. My droid fried its mem crystal.”
“None.” He watched me. “It would mean leaving Crowndon. Are you willing?”
The only sound for a long moment was my heart hammering. Dumbstruck, I nodded. “Please?” I heard my voice. “Please, I need to get gone.”
He nodded decisively. “Very well. You may begin by telling the portmaster we’ll lift off at 3515 Galaxy Standard Time.”
He let me sit with him as he guided the ship away from the spaceport. I watched Crowndon become a dingy ball with two bright moons against a backdrop of stars. I stared at the planet until its filth disappeared in the darkness of space. Only then did I truly feel clean. It’s the closest I ever came to a spiritual experience.
© 2010 Jessica Rosen
This story was inspired by a #storystarters I wrote. The lines are used to begin “Rescue Mission (Crowndon, Part 2).”