In the depths of the third-class level of Solaris, something stirred at the bottom of the Sector 11 Waste Disposal chute.
The lungs of Number 0808191 had never taken in air in ten years of existence, but they did now, each rapid chestful of air carrying with it the stench of waste and rot and human filth.
It breathed rapidly now, veins pulsing beneath the near-transluscent skin. It breathed because it had to, because the other option was death.
It was not certain how it understood this; merely that it did.
The pit was full of darkness, illuminated only by a thin column of light streaming downwards, like a golden thread, from the top of the chute. Number 0808191 closed its golden eyes against the light and the shadows and the things which it did not understand; there had been nothing in its warm little world to prepare it for this.
It had to go back. There had been a mistake, it thought to itself somewhere behind the demure infant's face. It was the ultimate life, superior to all humans. It was the Contact, the one who would open the door to God's kingdom. He had said that. He had promised. The woman with the cold hands and the cold eyes had made a mistake. Surely he would come back for Number 0808191 and bring it back to the cozy warm world.
If he did not come, then...
A failure. Worthless. No better than garbage to us.
The dark pit was full of noises, too, noises that it had never heard before; and smells too, an incomprehensible mixture of terrible things that made Number 0808191's empty stomach twitch in revulsion. Though it did not shiver, it was cold. Every inch of its mottled skin prickled with agony and yet it continued to breathe, in and out, breathe the foul air that made its stomach heave, because it did not want to die. It could not die. Either he would come back and take Number 0808191 back to its home, or...
You are nothing but trash to us, so you can go out with the trash.
It would find him, and the woman too. Something inside its pulsing chest filled up with something darker and colder than the shadows.
The moving thing in the bottom of the Sector 11 disposal chute opened its eyes, and slowly, shakily, rolled over in the mess and stench, onto its chest.
It raised its head from the frigid floor. No normal infant would have been able to lift its head at this stage of development, but Number 0808191 was not a normal infant.
Armlength by armlength, it began to drag its body out of the pile of filth with a muscular strength it should not have possessed; its motions stirred up new sickening smells, and waste stuck to its nude body, to the pale-white flesh. It looked up, and its golden eyes fixed upon the source of illumination, staring in wonder at the dust motes whirling in the narrow shaft of light.
Some mysterious want stirred in its chest, a new and entirely unfamiliar sensation.
Its tiny hands clutched frantically at the floor, the little fingers slipping into nooks and bits of loose metal and garbage stuck to the floor, anything at all that might afford a better grip. There was pain now, a burning ache and exhaustion in its soft infant arms: never in all its days of warm suspension in its own little world had it felt such pain, and tears streamed from the corners of Number 0808191's golden eyes as it hauled its tiny form out of the filth and into the light. A tiny, strangled wail, the cry of a newborn, emerged from its throat; its chest worked frantically, heart pumping like a frightened little animal's, air surging in and out of the untrained lungs.
At long last, exhausted beyond anything in its reckoning, Number 0808191 fell into a shivering heap in the little patch of sunlight, curled into a ball and whimpering. The light burned, burned its eyes, and it shut them tight, pressed its head to its soft chubby knees.
With its eyes closed and its strength spent, Number 0808191 dreamed.
He had never in his life felt the touch of a warm human body, but as if something deeper than conscious thought was remembering a long-ago existence, he felt it now.
The hands cradling him were warm, not cold; he pressed tight, tight against a mass of warmth and heard the dull, soothing rhythm of a heartbeat-- a dear and precious noise to him, somehow, as familiar as the whispers of his own heart.
There were words murmured now, mumbled in a low crooning tone; though he did not understand the words, he somehow comprehended their meaning and snuggled his head with a sigh against the warmth and the distant heartbeat. He felt the warmth of a hand now, stroking, stroking gently, across arm and hair and cheek.
Without giving it a bit of thought, as if obeying an unseen command, he turned his head to the side and found a mouthful of soft flesh: something that tasted good when he kneaded at it instinctively with his lips. More words were whispered, and the curve of a hand supported his head lightly, and he drank until he was no longer hungry and he rested his head against the warm body which held him tight, drifting off to sleep as gentle lips pressed to his cheek, his head, making him promises and vows he would forget by the time the dream was over and the creation known as Number 0808191 awoke huddled on a cold floor, nuzzling its head against a stray pile of junk, its thumb clasped firmly in its mouth.
He understood, somehow, that this was what he needed.