illustration by Kathryn Weaver

Mother's Day

T.R. North

Unexpected motherhood comes in an unusual way in T.R. North’s “Mother’s Day”. Set in a fascinatingly diverse, yet rather regulated, world, this story explores everything from reluctant parenting to created family to doing the best you can with the genes you inherited. This is the author’s first professional sale, and it’s one that gives me the warm fuzzies; I hope you enjoy it too!

Sita kneaded her temples and resisted the urge to overturn the table her elbows were braced against.

“My absentee father and his irresponsible alien girlfriend made an illegal clone of me ten years ago, and now that they’ve abandoned her as well, you expect me to raise her?” she asked.

The social services droid tilted its square head five degrees off the vertical and steepled its delicately-jointed fingers, and Sita was sure that if it made that gesture at her one more time, she really was going to overturn the table.

“You’re the closest genetic relative found in the galactic database,” the droid repeated patiently.

“Yes,” Sita hissed. “Because she’s a clone. An illegal clone, in case you didn’t catch that part.”

“Her genome has been analyzed thoroughly, and no indicators of corruption were found,” the droid told her. “The results of her test mean that she is eligible for amnesty under current laws. I have already initiated the process for certifying her as legal. It won’t present an undue burden.”

“And the part where I didn’t authorize a clone or receive notification?” Sita asked sourly.

“Regrettable. Would you like to file charges at this time?” The droid’s blank screen of a face lit up with a description of the relevant statutes and possible penalties for infraction.

“Yeah, sure. Add it to the small mountain of civil suits he’s already got pending,” Sita grumbled.

“Your complaint has been forwarded to the appropriate district for investigation,” the droid chirped. “Neither the registered parent nor the registered custodial guardian filed the necessary forms designating an alternate caretaker, so custody defaults to you.”

Sita tugged at her braid and groaned in frustration. It seemed like ages ago and not just that morning that she’d been called off the factory floor over a family emergency. She’d been sure it was a case of mistaken identity and that supplying her correct min-soc metrics would have her back to work before the hour was out. Instead she’d been informed by a shiny new droid programmed with the latest in social services techniques that the man who’d left her and her mother to go gallivanting around the far ends of the galaxy with some orange-skinned heiress had decided to take a second shot at being her father. Only rather than filing a registry inquiry and sending a subspace communication apologizing for leaving and asking Sita to call him, he’d paid a blackmarket womb-farm to just manufacture a new infant with her DNA.

Of course, once she’d absorbed that information, the rest of it had made perfect sense. Kanishka pra Vale was not the sort of man to register alternate caretakers before abandoning his illegal offspring without warning or explanation in a spaceport diner. And while Sita thought that the Cerixen in general had an unfair reputation for being thoughtless, Duchess Fahseen of Gruoun III in specific had made earning the label her life’s work. Sita was sure that making provisions for their young ward in the event of their incarceration, disappearance, or death had never so much as crossed their minds, in spite of Kanishka being a known smuggler and sometimes-pirate operating in a very dangerous sector and Fahseen having been targeted for assassination at least three times that Sita knew of.

Sita brightened suddenly. “What about the Gruouni government? If the duchess is down as a custodial guardian, can’t they take her on?”

“The Gruouni government have chosen to interpret her as a pet,” the droid said. “Further inquiries also reflected their belief that Gruoun’s treaties do not cover parental responsibility, their confusion as to which duchess is under discussion, and that we have reached the wrong department and should contact them again at a later date.”

“I wish I’d thought of that,” Sita muttered.

She leaned back and crossed her arms, glaring at the droid. It had been given access to her full file the moment Sita had been identified as Janaki pra Vale’s closest living genetic relative, so it was no use pretending a lack of financial resources, or an inability to house her, or a disinclination to parent. She made good money and was able to keep stable hours as a shift supervisor, she was well-liked in her housing-pod, and the pod was in the lowest tier for registered interpersonal or environmental infractions. She knew full well that everything would pass muster, because she’d only submitted her application for an artificial insemination voucher last week. The less-shiny, less-new soc-sev droid who had processed her form had told her that her chances of being approved were excellent.

The soc-sev droid in front of her now spread its hands in what she could only assume was meant to be a placating gesture.

“Have you considered this custodial arrangement as an opportunity to fulfill your biological urge to parent?” it asked. The tone was chipper, and Sita could only assume something had flipped its counselor sub-routine. She felt the relentless cheer was counterproductive.

“No, I have not,” Sita said flatly. “I want a baby of my own, not a pre-adolescent version of myself raised by a pair of social parasites.”

What she had actually wanted was a registered partnership with a suitable man, but Kanishka’s status as an outlaw had led to polite but firm refusals from the matriarchs of every respectable family her mother had approached. The few mothers who’d approached them with offers had been more interested in the size of the pra Vale herds than in the potential couple’s emotional or genetic compatibility.

Sita had dreamed of finding a partner herself once she left New Ladakh for the Oberon Belt, with its fully-engineered neo-societies and Confederated Industries-sponsored mission to establish permanent populations within the next century. It was a fantasy, privately cherished and appearing less and less outside of messages to her mother and old friends back home, of which she was learning to let go. She got on well with her podmates and her colleagues, and the colonies were 95% human, but the first and second waves of recruits had been 80% female in order to maximize potential native births. 96.7% of the human colonists were from sectors where registered partnerships were practically unheard of. She’d known the astronomical odds before she’d accepted the placement, however, and she’d been fully prepared for needing to file with the Fertility Ministry in order to conceive. Sita had just never expected that her careful ordering of her life to eventually include children of her own would guarantee that she’d be saddled with one of her father’s mistakes.

“Have you considered that, as a clone, Janaki carries more of your genome than a natural child would?” the droid asked.

Sita ground the heels of her palms into her eyes and sighed. It wasn’t as if she actually had a choice; if she refused custody, the clone would be sent to live with Sita’s mother. Her partnership prospects, which had flowered after Sita’s departure, would wither quickly.

“Where do I sign?” she asked, giving in.

“Place your hand on the screen, please.”

The droid’s neck clicked as the joints locked, and the glowing outline of a hand lit of the plate. Sita pressed her palm against the cool surface and waited until the light changed from green to white before removing it.

“Congratulations, Sita pra Vale. You are now the sole recognized legal guardian of Janaki pra Vale. The appropriate support credits have been allocated to your account, and your application for an artificial insemination voucher has been vacated. You may re-apply in fifteen standard months, or immediately upon revocation of your guardian status.”

“Great.” Sita stood up and smoothed her jumpsuit. “Will we need to shuttle to the port to pick up her things, or was she allowed to bring them with her?”

The droid rolled to the door and waved it open. “She is wearing her only belongings, and she has been advised to keep her service-issued personal supplies with her at all times.”

Sita opened her mouth to demand an explanation, then closed it again. That she’d had her mother and a perfectly comfortable life when Kanishka had run out on them had been happenstance and nothing more. It shouldn’t have surprised her that he’d left a ten-year-old alone in a port with nothing more than the clothes on her back. The droid rolled on, oblivious to her anger. Eventually they came to a small, comfortably-furnished room full of toys and small edubots.

Two children with badges indicating adoption cases were playing with three children whose badges classed them as minors travelling alone, likely to reunite with colonist mothers elsewhere in the Belt. A lone child in a corner clutched her brightly patterned soc-sev bag to her chest and glared at them. Sita stared in shock. She’d been prepared to find a child who looked exactly as she had at that age. The girl glowering at her from behind the dubious shield of her bag was wearing badly-mended clothes meant for an adult, had hair shorter than would have been appropriate for a boy her age, and looked too underfed and too pale to be healthy.

“Shri Ganesha, grant your favor in this,” Sita murmured, shaking her head.

“Janaki, this is your original, Sita pra Vale. She will be your new guardian,” the droid said, pointing at Sita.

Janaki reluctantly stood up and slung her bag across her back. She carefully widened her eyes and let her mouth go a little slack.

“Will I look like you when I grow up?” she asked innocently.

“Knock it off, you little grifter,” Sita sighed. “I wouldn’t have been impressed by this at your age, and I grew up herding cows on a planet that doesn’t believe in droids.”

Janaki’s expression slid back into her fear-tinged scowl, but she fell in next to Sita when she turned away. Janaki didn’t say anything else until they’d boarded the shuttle that would take them to Sita’s factory housing block. Janaki climbed into a seat too high for her feet to reach the floor and pulled her bag into her lap like someone might try to take it from her. Sita stood, just in case Janaki tried to run.

“How do they not believe in droids? Haven’t they ever seen one?” Janaki’s face scrunched a little. “Don’t they get the space-opera transmissions? They practically all have evil robot doubles or funny droid pilots.”

“They believe they exist,” Sita clarified, “just not in using them. Or having them on the planet.”

“Oh.” Janaki’s shoulders slumped. “That’s less interesting.”

Sita pursed her lips, then decided against saying anything at the moment. The prohibition against droids was interesting, taken from a historical perspective of the New Kushan separatists who’d founded the first colony-clusters of which New Ladakh had been a part, the later rejection of many founding precepts by fifth- and sixth-wave settlers whose religious beliefs had been less radical, and the eventual re-integration with the Galactic Federal Union. She’d found it a hard sell as a child herself, though, and she was sure Janaki would find it even more so.

“They’re coming back, you know,” Janaki said abruptly, swinging her feet and staring at the floor.

Sita felt a sharp twinge of recognition and shook her head. She’d insisted for years after he’d gone that Kanishka would be back soon, with a ship full of treasure and a mouth full of exciting stories about his adventures. Her mother and grandmother had tried to tell her it wasn’t so, and Kanishka’s mother had just cried and apologized for raising such a son.

“I hope so,” Sita said instead.

And she did, for all the good it would do either of them. Whatever legal troubles or personal enemies or fear of responsibility had prompted their father to dump Janaki off, creditless and alone, in an Interzone spaceport, Sita doubted very much that they’d be solved quickly. And Confederated Industries’ license to operate in the Belt was contingent upon them maintaining a healthy patrol presence off the established passenger and shipping lanes. Even if he could take Janaki back, and even if he wanted to, the actual business of collecting her would be practically impossible. Smuggling, piracy, and illegal mineral harvesting were difficult and risky; Kanishka’s ship faced a blockade off the lanes and several outstanding warrants in them.

Sita took Janaki’s hand when they reached their stop, and the girl pulled her up short when she saw the dormitories they were heading toward.

“What’s with all the plants?” she asked suspiciously.

Sita looked at the flowering vines draped from the balconies and the herb gardens sprawling along the sidewalks in front, trying to puzzle out what had set Janaki off. They weren’t anything unusual, unlike some of prune-jobs and cultivars on the blocks closer to the factories. Their block gardeners were enthusiastic but without any particular talent for the job, and their tastes were fairly pedestrian.

“What about all the plants?” Sita finally demanded, her dark brows furrowing.

“Why are they all over everything? Don’t people live here?”

“They’re all over everything because people live here,” Sita explained, tugging her back into motion. “They’re decorative or edible, and they help keep the air clean and the building cool.”

“But they’re everywhere!” Janaki protested.

“They’re supposed to be,” Sita assured her, exasperated. She ushered Janaki through the lobby and onto the elevator before she could find anything else to be alarmed about, only to wind up with the girl cowering behind her as two of Sita’s podmates joined them.

“Not that I’m complaining, because we kind of need your help right now, but aren’t you supposed to be at work?” Dorthe asked. She tried to get a good look at Janaki without being obvious about it, and Sita grunted.

“Dorthe, Grixhish, this is Janaki. She’s a clone of me that my father made without telling anyone. He’s got thirty warrants out for him and left her behind, so I have custody of her until everything’s sorted. Janaki, this is Dorthe Horn. She’s a coworker and podmate.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Dorthe said brightly, waving at Janaki. She looked at Sita and muttered, “I thought our day was weird, but you definitely win this round.”

The tall, stone-colored Cesher next to Dorthe blinked three of her six eyes, and Janaki started. Sita put her hand on Janaki’s shoulder. “And this is Grixhish of Effen-on-Durg III. She’s a podmate.”

Grixhish worked in a nearby foundry with most of the other registered Cesheri, where her thick hide and tolerance for higher temperatures allowed less investment in safety equipment than humans would have required. Homeworld-based political differences had made it easier to scatter the few permitted Cesheri colonists amongst the human population, who found their internal arguments largely impenetrable, than it would have been to sort them into compatible sub-populations in Cesheri-tailored housing units. Janaki stared in open horror at Grixhish’s talons as she raised two of her hands in greeting.

“An honor,” Grixhish rumbled.

“You live with a Cesher?” Janaki squeaked. “But they can tear through a hull in five seconds flat!”

“It would have to be a very poor hull indeed,” Grixhish said thoughtfully. “Or I would need an exoskeleton with several enhancements built into it.”

“Also, we don’t have a hull,” Dorthe pointed out. “Planetside, remember? Your clone’s a real howl, Sita.”

Janaki blushed and crossed her arms over her thin chest, and Sita let her be when she ducked further back into the corner.

“You two needed something?” she reminded them.

The doors slid open silently, and they made their way through the communal den to the kitchen. Sita handed Janaki a carton of leftovers and a spoon, and the girl didn’t wait for an invitation before digging in. She ate like she was starving, but her eyes never strayed far from Grixhish.

“Grix is ovulating,” Dorthe said without preamble.

Sita gasped in shock. “Did your implant malfunction?”

“Presumably,” Grixhish said. “It will be detected before long.”

“And then ticket for one to Deportation Station,” Dorthe sighed. “Grix got the metrics on a medic who can take care of it and traded a pile of credits for some gold, so the transaction won’t pop on any of the monitors. I swapped shifts around so we could clear the day. We were hoping you could come along and dish out some of that pra Vale charm as needed. You know, make the face, start up with the ‘working together for a better tomorrow’ speech.”

“I don’t do that,” Sita said. She knew exactly what Dorthe was talking about, but she’d hoped that her habit of doing it had gone unnoticed. Her mother had always hoped that Sita would go into politics and at least put it to good use.

“Dad does,” Janaki said. Sita shot her a warning look. Kanishka’s oratory had largely been in the service of separating the trusting from their money or talking his way out of the deserved consequences of his actions. Sita mostly tried to badger people into behaving with more honor.

“I would like you to come for moral support,” Grix corrected firmly. “And to ensure that we are not cheated or denied service. Egg-bearing is a taxing process to endure when there is nothing to gain from it.”

Sita nodded quickly. It was theoretically possible for a Cesher to get a birthing permit from the Fertility Ministry, but with the potential for a hundred offspring from a single clutch, they were unheard of. While humans didn’t need to apply for any sort of reproductive pre-authorization so long as they weren’t seeking Ministry assistance to do it, Cesheri caught dodging the process were summarily deported.

“Don’t you want to have babies?” Janaki asked cautiously. She tried to hand the empty container back to Sita, who pointed to the sanitization array next to the sink.

“On a planet with no appropriate extrusion-pools, no clutch-guards, and no spawn-tenders?” Grixhish snorted. “Should I deposit my eggs in a tub and lose so much mass guarding them that I have to remolt once they’ve developed legs, while I’m at it?”

“We’d feed you while you guarded your egg-tub, Grix,” Dorthe assured her. She scratched at the scar running from the edge of her bald scalp to the nape of her neck. “What else are friends for?”

“Would you also inject me with the hormonal solution which would permit me to feed under such circumstances?” Grix scoffed. She snapped her vestigial claws in irritation. “It is not available on this world, before you say yes.”

“Will you be all right here by yourself, Janaki?” Sita asked. “I’ll show you our bedroom and the bathroom. You can borrow anything of mine that fits for now, and we’ll get you some proper clothes tomorrow.”

Janaki clutched her bag tightly and then burst into tears. Sita stared at her, taken aback, and Dorthe let out a low whistle.

“I think that’s a no, mate,” she said. “Just bring her with us. How much trouble could she possibly be? This isn’t Interzone.”

Janaki didn’t stop sniffling until they were halfway to the medic’s office, in spite of angrily insisting that she was fine and that nothing was wrong. Grixhish had tried to distract her with an amusing story about an amorous kraxbeast trying to win the affections of a granite boulder, which hadn’t translated well, and Dorthe had told her the story of Thrym stealing Thor’s hammer, which hadn’t translated at all. Sita appreciated their efforts, though, and it seemed to help Janaki get over her earlier fear of Grixhish.

The medic, as it turned out, didn’t need any haranguing. He collected their coins, replaced the malfunctioning suppressor, and administered a quick dose of hormones to arrest the ovulation without further prompting. He even offered to do a free physical for Janaki, on the grounds that he hadn’t treated a human adolescent since he’d left his training pod. Sita thanked him but demurred when Janaki hid behind her and hissed at him. To celebrate, Grixhish bought them all a carton of fried locusts on the ride home, and they pretended not to notice when Janaki ate half of them by herself.

“So, your dad’s a . . . pirate?” Dorthe asked, clearly trying to remember what Sita had told her about Kanishka. Her own homeworld hadn’t offered registered partnerships in over a century, and the idea of someone going through the trouble to form one only to run away had held a certain fascination for her.

Janaki sputtered something around a mouthful of locust, then swallowed indignantly. “He’s a freedom fighter! All the money he makes goes back to the democratic rebels on my mom’s homeworld.”

“Minus a reasonable amount for operating expenses?” Sita muttered. She remembered him using similar pitches when she was young. Gruoun III had been a functional democracy since before Fahseen’s mother had left her grandfather’s broodpouch. The monarchy were ceremonial leaders, and the titled families were a political force primarily due to their hereditary wealth and the tax privileges negotiated during the peaceful transition of power. If the Gruouni needed another revolution, it was economic and not civil.

“We have to eat and repair the ship and pay the crew a fair wage,” Janaki said reasonably, and Sita could practically hear the words in Kanishka’s voice. “The revolution starts at home.”

“Sure,” Dorthe agreed easily. She raised her eyebrows at Sita over Janaki’s head. “I get it. Put your own house in order before you tell someone else how to run theirs.”

“It sounds like a most noble goal, young one,” Grixhish added.

“It is,” Janaki said loftily. She finished the locusts and kicked the carton under the shuttle seat. Sita sucked at her teeth, picked it up, and threw it away properly.

“If you don’t clean up after yourself, someone else has to,” she scolded. “The sanitation workers and shuttle pilots are not your servants.”

“It was just a box,” Janaki sulked, flushing.

“The revolution starts at home, kid,” Dorthe reminded her, smiling. “Just think of the whole planet like you’d think of your dad’s ship. No such thing as not your problem, right?”

“The whole planet?” Janaki asked, her face crumpling. Sita patted her on the back.

“It’s been a long day. Let’s just get back to the pod. We can talk about it more tomorrow,” she soothed.

The shuttle slowed unexpectedly, and Sita could make out the sound of distant shouts and whistles.

“It looks as if we might need to walk to another shuttle line,” Grixhish said. “The protest appears to have regained its energy.”

“What’s happening?” Janaki demanded, reaching for Sita’s hand. Sita took it.

“There’s a Rigelian embassy up ahead. They suspended emigration passports last week, and two days ago they renounced recognition of one of their former colonies as an independent party. People are angry,” Sita explained. It didn’t help that there were a fair number of Rigelians among the colonists, or that Rigel’s government had seized control of the planet’s communications networks two weeks ago. For the expats, fear about what might be happening to the loved ones they’d left behind hadn’t been long in turning into action once the border closing had been announced. The embassy had been mobbed in short order, and it had stayed mobbed since.

“Not angry enough to start setting fires, though,” Dorthe added quickly. “Security forces are there to keep everybody off each other, if it comes to it. Slow going for a shuttle, though.”

“The droid said it was safe here,” Janaki moaned.

“Of course it’s safe,” Dorthe said. “Hardly anybody ever gets knifed without a good reason.”

“Dorthe’s right. It’s very safe for a colony planet,” Sita told her. “That’s one of the reasons I transferred here. So long as we stay off the cordon-line, we’re not likely to get caught up in it.”

Janaki huddled in the middle of them once they were off the shuttle, and she stuck close without prompting until they’d made it safely back to the housing complex. Her worry was largely unnecessary; few sober humans liked their odds against an adult Cesher, and the protestors had given them a wide berth. Once they’d been back on a street she recognized, Janaki had relaxed enough to ask why everyone was so upset about Rigel, and Sita’s answers had only seemed to confuse her more.

“Rigel’s history should have been included in your lesson-vids last year,” Sita explained. “Did you skip a section?”

She could easily see Kanishka not bothering to make sure the vid transmissions had been complete before loading them for the girl, and she doubted Fahseen would even know how to check the files for errors. Sita wondered how much else had been dropped over the years Kanishka had been dragging Janaki around the edges of established space, where communications were notoriously spotty. It was possible the girl didn’t even know that the Rigelian colonies had been sequestered from external communication and artificially kept in a pre-spaceflight stage of technological development as a social experiment. The history was long and ugly, and the protests were a reflection of that.

“Lesson-vids?” Janaki echoed, frowning. “What are lesson-vids?”

“The educational material made available by the GFU to all member races and planets,” Grixhish said. “It is mandated by law that caretakers must supply them, or an equivalent education, to their spawn with no incursion of debt or malicious editing.”

Janaki looked even more confused, and Sita had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was more difficult to see Kanishka not educating the girl at all, but not entirely out of the question. Dorthe caught her look and shook her head.

“Maybe you can get an extra stipend for rehabilitating a feral,” she suggested. Sita glared at her, then turned back to Janaki.

“We’ll go to the Education Ministry tomorrow and see about getting you caught up,” she promised.

Janaki curled up and fell asleep as soon as they got back to their pod, and Sita took a moment to breathe. She begged a few pieces of chocolate from Dorthe and picked a handful of poppies from the garden, then made a proper offering at the shrine to Ganesha tucked away on the leaf-shaded balcony. The slow swirl of the starchart on Vasuki’s head glittered behind the raised trunk, and Sita felt calmer as she watched it. Perhaps things with Janaki were not as impossible as they seemed. If Janaki could adapt to life aboard a pirate ship, surely she could adapt to life in a well-run, peaceful colony. And the girl needed her; that much was clear. She needed a great many things, few of which she seemed to have been getting.

Sita considered the extent to which her life would need rearranging to accommodate Janaki’s presence and admitted that it wouldn’t be much. After all, she’d deliberately left room for an infant, and at least Janaki could feed, dress, and bathe herself. And Sita had not gotten where she was in the galaxy by shrinking from a challenge. She realized that she was breathing easier than she had since she’d been called in for the interview with the soc-sev droid.

The spell was broken by Dorthe shouting. A sharp cry of pain followed, and Sita ran back inside to find Grixhish hoisting a skinny Cerixen by his scruff and Dorthe waving a stun-baton in the face of a grungy human. The man was at least forty and looked like he’d been living hard for some time, but he darted around Dorthe like a terrier getting around a plow horse.

“They’re after your clone!” Dorthe warned, chasing after him.

Sita was faster, and she got to Janaki on the man’s heels. She tackled him and began punching him furiously, every scrap of frustration with the day’s events roaring back in an instant and pouring into her flying fists. Janaki woke with a start and looked around in confusion, then began screaming on what appeared to be general principle. The man lashed out desperately and finally managed to land a blow, a kick to the hip that sent Sita reeling across the room toward Janaki. She reached under the bed and dragged out her shamshir. The man had a moment to gape at her before she dealt him a staggering blow to the ribs with its flat, and he collapsed into a gasping heap on the floor.

“Christ Pantocrator, woman, that’s a damn sword!” he gasped, clutching his side. “I give, I give!”

Grixhish growled, low and threatening, and Sita heard an “I give, too!” from the den.

“What are you doing here?” Sita snarled. “Janaki, do you know him?”

The man raised his hands in surrender. “We know her father. We were sent to bring her back after she got snatched up by the soc-sev droids.”

“Don’t listen to him!” Janaki cried, pulling the blankets around her. “Dad owes them money!”

“What sort of fool lends Kanishka pra Vale a credit he can’t live without?” Sita demanded, glaring at him. “And what sort of man tries to snatch a child as collateral?”

He moved to get up, and she prodded him with the shamshir as a reminder.

“Why do you even have that?” he groaned, rubbing his side again.

“A good herdswoman sees to it that her cattle are safe from both sorts of wolf,” Sita told him coldly.

In the doorway, Dorthe smacked the heavy stun-baton against her palm. “You get a five-minute head start, and then she’s calling colonial security on you, and we’re coming after you. I see your face again, and you’ll get to find out how good the Belt’s brain surgery units are.”

“They do their best with the resources available,” Grixhish rumbled from the den. “Their efforts are to be applauded, if not their results.”

“What she said,” Dorthe grunted.

“Look, it’s a win-win,” the man wheedled. “We take her with us, we get our money back. You get to keep whatever stipend you’re getting for her without having to feed her. Come on.”

“Get out,” Sita growled. “And tell any of your colleagues with similar plans that mercy is shown only once in this household.”

The pair scuttled out, and Sita lowered her sword. Grixhish appeared in the bedroom doorway after the monitors showed that they’d left the building. Her defensive spines were still half-raised, making her too wide to fit through comfortably. Janaki threw her arms around Sita’s waist and buried her face in her side, and Sita wrapped her free arm around the girl and hugged her tight. Janaki calmed down after a moment.

“They must have been shadowing her all the way to the Belt,” Dorthe pointed out.

Sita nodded, her hands shaking as the adrenaline receded from her system. There would likely be more than one creditor to have the idea, too; if Kanishka had left one man so desperate, there were doubtless at least a half-dozen more in similar straits. She would have to file a security complaint immediately, as well as an application for a defensive weaponry permit for Janaki. It was obvious that Dorthe was having similar thoughts, because she turned the stun-baton off and held it up.

“You know how to use one of these, kid? I’ve got a spare that should be light enough for you, and I can up the amperage to compensate.”

Janaki perked up considerably.

“Dorthe!” Sita exclaimed, aghast.

“Don’t worry,” Dorthe said quickly. “I can make it look like a malfunction. She wouldn’t get in trouble for it.”

“She’s ten,” Sita reminded her. Janaki wouldn’t get in trouble for it anyway; it would be either Dorthe or Sita on the hook for any penalties. “What happens when she shocks herself with it instead of an assailant?”

“Oh. Right. I hadn’t thought of that.” Dorthe ran her hand over her scalp. “Fine. No upping the amperage. If you have to use it, just aim for the gonads, kid. It’s not nice, but you’re tiny, so I think we can assume anyone trying to grab you has it coming.”

Janaki reached for the baton, and Dorthe handed it over. The girl waved it experimentally before taking it with both hands and turning on the current. She grinned as it crackled, and Sita covered a smile, remembering her own reaction to receiving her first real sword. Dorthe snickered.

“What?” Sita asked defensively.

“There’s two of you now,” Dorthe chuckled. “The Workers’ Council is never going to know what hit it.”

Sita considered the point. Perhaps having Janaki around wouldn’t be so bad after all.

• • •