The foundling could not have been more than three years old. Yet he held a secret that was destined to bring joy to many unhappy people.
Unlike Gaul, the north continent of Venus is divided into four parts. No Caesar has set foot here either, nor shall one--for the dank, stinging, caustic air swallows up the lives of men and only Venus may say, I conquered.
This is colonized Venus, where one may walk without the threat of sudden death--except from other men--the most bitterly fought for, the dearest, bloodiest, most worthless land in the solar system.
Separated by men into East and West at the center of the Twilight Zone, the division across the continent is the irregular, jagged line of Mud River, springing from the Great Serpent Range.
The African Republic holds one quarter which the Negroes exploit as best they can, encumbered by filter masks and protective clothing.
The Asians still actually try to colonize their quarter, while the Venusian primitives neither help nor hinder the bitter game of power-politics, secret murder, and misery--most of all, misery.
The men from Mars understand this better, for their quarter is a penal colony. Sleepy-eyed, phlegmatic Martians, self-condemned for minute violations of their incredible and complex mores--without guards save themselves--will return to the subterranean cities, complex philosophies, and cool, dry air of Mars when they have declared their own sentences to be at an end.
Meanwhile, they labor to extract the wealth of Venus without the bitterness and hate, without the savagery and fear of their neighbors. Hence, they are regarded by all with the greatest suspicion.
The Federated States, after their fashion, plunder the land and send screaming ships to North America laden with booty and with men grown suddenly rich--and with men who will never care for riches or anything else again. These are the fortunate dead. The rest are received into the sloppy breast of Venus where even a tombstone or marker is swallowed in a few, short weeks. And they die quickly on Venus, and often.
From the arbitrary point where the four territories met, New Reno flung its sprawling, dirty carcass over the muddy soil and roared and hooted endlessly, laughed with the rough boisterousness of miners and spacemen, rang with the brittle, brassy laughter of women following a trade older than New Reno. It clanged and shouted and bellowed so loudly that quiet sobbing was never heard.
But a strange sound hung in the air, the crying of a child. A tiny child, a boy, he sat begrimed by mud at the edge of the street where an occasional ground car flung fresh contamination on his small form until he became almost indistinguishable from the muddy street. His whimpering changed to prolonged wailing sobs. He didn’t turn to look at any of the giant passers-by nor did they even notice him.
But finally one passer-by stopped. She was young and probably from the Federated States. She was not painted nor was she well-dressed. She had nothing to distinguish her, except that she stopped.
“Oh, my!” she breathed, bending over the tiny form. “You poor thing. Where’s your mama?”
The little figure rubbed its face, looked at her blankly and heaved a long, shuddering sigh.
“I can’t leave you sitting here in the mud!” She pulled out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the mud and then helped him up. His clothes were rags, his feet bare. She took him by the hand and as they walked along she talked to him. But he seemed not to hear.
Soon they reached the dirty, plastic front of the Elite Cafe. Once through the double portals, she pulled the respirator from her face. The air inside was dirty and smelly but it was breathable. People were eating noisily, boisterously, with all the lusty, unclean young life that was Venus. They clamored, banged and threw things for no reason other than to throw them.
She guided the little one past the tables filled with people and into the kitchen. The door closed with a bang, shutting out much of the noise from the big room. Gingerly she sat him down on a stool, and with detergent and water she began removing the mud. His eyes were horribly red-rimmed.
“It’s a wonder you didn’t die out there,” she murmured. “Poor little thing!”
“Hey! Are you going to work or aren’t you, Jane?” a voice boomed.
A large ruddy man in white had entered the kitchen and he stood frowning at the girl. Women weren’t rare on Venus, and she was only a waitress...
“What in the blue blazes is that!” He pointed to the child.
“He was outside,” the girl explained, “sitting in the street. He didn’t have a respirator.”
The ruddy man scowled at the boy speculatively. “His lungs all right?”
“He isn’t coughing much,” she replied.
“But what are you going to do with him?” the man asked Jane.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Something. Tell the Patrol about him, I guess.”
The beefy man hesitated. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a kid this young on Venus. They always ship ‘em home. Could have been dumped. Maybe his parents left him on purpose.”
The girl flinched.
He grunted disgustedly, his face mirroring his thoughts. _Stringy hair ... plain face ... and soft as Venus slime clear through!_ He shrugged. “Anyway, he’s got to eat.” He looked at the small figure. “Want to eat, kid? Would you like a glass of milk?” He opened a refrigerator, took out a plastic bottle and poured milk in a glass.
Chubby hands reached out for the glass.
“There, that’s better,” the cook said. “Pete will see that you get fed all right.” He turned to the girl. “Could he belong to someone around here?”
Jane shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Well, he can stay in the kitchen while you work the shift. I’ll watch him.”
She nodded, took an apron down from a hook and tied it around her waist. Then she patted the sober-faced youngster on his tousled head and left.
The beefy man studied the boy. “I think I’ll put you over there,” he said. He lifted him, stool and all, and carried him across the kitchen. “You can watch through that panel. See? That’s Jane in there. She’ll come back and forth, pass right by here. Is that all right?”
The little one nodded.
“Oh?” Pete raised his eyebrows. “So you do know what I’m saying.” He watched the child for a few minutes, then turned his attention to the range. The rush hour was on and he soon forgot the little boy on the stool...
Whenever possible during the lunch-hour rush, Jane stopped to smile and talk to the child. Once she asked, “Don’t you know where your mama and daddy are?”
He just stared at her, unblinking, his big eyes soft and sad-looking.
The girl studied him for a moment, then she picked up a cookie and gave it to him. “Can you tell me your name?” she asked hopefully.
His lips parted. Cookie crumbs fell off his chin and from the corners of his mouth, but he spoke no words.
She sighed, turned, and went out to the clattering throng with laden plates of food.
For a while Jane was so busy she almost forgot the young one. But finally people began to linger more over their food, the clinking of dishes grew quieter and Pete took time for a cup of coffee. His sweating face was haggard. He stared sullenly at the little boy and shook his head.
“Shouldn’t be such things as kids,” he muttered. “Nothing but a pain in the neck!”
Jane came through the door. “It gets worse all the time,” she groaned. She turned to the little boy. “Did you have something to eat?”
“I didn’t know what to fix for him,” Pete said. “How about some beef stew? Do you think he’d go for that?”
Jane hesitated. “I--I don’t know. Try it.”
Pete ladled up a bowl of steaming stew. Jane took it and put it on the table. She took a bit on a spoon, blew on it, then held it out. The child opened his mouth. She smiled and slowly fed him the stew.
“How old do you think he is?” Pete asked.
The girl hesitated, opened her mouth, but said nothing.
“About two and a half, I’d guess,” Pete answered himself. “Maybe three.” Jane nodded and he turned back to cleaning the stove.
“Don’t you want some more stew?” Jane asked as she offered the small one another spoonful.
The little mouth didn’t open.
“Guess you’ve had enough,” she said, smiling.
Pete glanced up. “Why don’t you leave now, Jane. You’re going to have to see the Patrol about that kid. I can take care of things here.”
She stood thinking for a moment. “Can I use an extra respirator?”
“You can’t take him out without one!” Pete replied. He opened a locker and pulled out a transparent facepiece. “I think this’ll tighten down enough to fit his face.”
She took it and walked over to the youngster. His large eyes had followed all her movements and he drew back slightly as she held out the respirator. “It won’t hurt,” she coaxed. “You have to wear it. The air outside stings.”