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All Aboard the Tugship

Rufus pressed his nose against the porthole window of the tugship's cabin and squinted as hard as he could, but he could see no planets, not even a moon, just an endless wave of stars.

Rufus was almost six years old, but he had never seen, let alone been to, the planet Earth. He had lived his whole life on the tugship, a tiny spacecraft designed for pulling larger craft, but which his father had converted to carry cargo in order to eke out a meager living for himself, Rufus, Sven, the tug's only other crewman.

"When will we get home, Papa?" he asked, climbing onto the cabin's faded green couch. Papa sighed as he unfolded his star charts onto the dented wooden coffee table, while Sven, the first mate, studied a map on the floor.

"What makes you call Earth 'home,' Rufus?" said Papa, lifting a star chart up to the one dim lightbulb that lit the cabin.

"I don't know," said Rufus.

He was happy enough living with Papa and Sven, but he felt that something was missing; the tug never felt like home. He didn't want to say that every night, when Papa and Sven thought he was asleep, he was often only half-asleep, and that he could hear them talk in low voices in the galley, drinking out of glass bottles they had taken from the cargo hold. He would fall asleep to their faint whisperings of "home" and "Earth," though he could not picture the place at all.

"Well, when are we getting there?" Rufus repeated.

Papa kept his eyes on his maps and star charts. "Looks like we'll reach Earth in a little less than a month. Cargo's heavy though, might be longer."

"We'll be there in time for your birthday, Rufus," said Sven. "How about that?"

"Really?" said Rufus, swinging his feet on the couch.

"Only if the fuel lasts," said Papa. "The tank is leaky and the cargo weight's going to be a drain, might have to make a detour for the Titan colony if we run low."

"We should have a party when we get home," said Sven. "Rufus has never had a real birthday party. Six years old, you're almost an old man!"

"No I'm not!" said Rufus. He and Sven lightly punched each other, as Papa rolled his eyes. "What presents do you want, old man?" said Sven, tickling Rufus's ribs.

"I know! I know what I want!" said Rufus.

"Well, tell us quick, there's work to do," said Papa.

Rufus took a deep breath. "Can I have a little brother?"

"Oh, Rufus," said Papa. "That's just not possible."

"Yes, ask for something easier, like a meteor made of chocolate," said Sven, chuckling beneath his breath.

Papa rubbed his eyes. "What do you want a little brother for, anyway?"

"So I have someone to play with," said Rufus.

"I wish I had someone to play with too," sighed Sven. "A lady someone—"

"Rufus," said Papa, nudging Sven's elbow, "when we're docked on the colonies, you play with other kids, don't you?"

"Yes, but they're mean to me," said Rufus. "They call me names because we're poor and we live on a tugship. But Earth's really our home, not the tug, right?"

Papa rubbed his temple and stared at the worn carpet of the cabin, but he said nothing back, like he always did whenever Rufus had something important to say.

"The children on the colonies are spoiled brats," said Sven. "They're not good enough for you, Rufus. Earth children, they're much more fun. Once we get there, you'll make plenty of friends!"

"Really?" said Rufus.

"Your birthday party will be standing-room only," said Sven. "We'll have to turn people away at the doors!"

"Let's not get carried away," said Papa, rolling up the star charts. "And you're not getting a little brother, Rufus, it's just not going to happen."

"But I have nobody to play with," said Rufus.

"What about me?" said Sven, as he lifted up Rufus and draped him over his broad shoulder.

Rufus laughed upside-down, "I can't play with you all the time, you have to work and help Papa."

"That's true," said Papa. "Speaking of which—time to get to work, Sven. There's repairs to make, lots of boxes to inventory." Papa ducked through the cabin door and down the short stairs to the cargo hold, and Sven set Rufus down and ruffled his hair. Rufus trotted after him to the hold, which was stacked to the brim with boxes, each one twice as tall as Rufus.

"What's in the boxes?" said Rufus. "The boxes for Earth?"

"Moon rocks," said Sven, motioning with his hands. "Really big ones."

"No!" giggled Rufus. "What's in them?"

"It's just boring, grown-up stuff," said Papa, peeling open a box, "that the people on the colonies need us to take to the people on Earth."

"Is Earth boring?" asked Rufus.

"No, no, not at all," said Sven, as he lifted Rufus up into his thick arms. "Don't let your papa confuse you—he just doesn't remember how much fun Earth can be. When we get there, I'll take you to Stockholm. That's where all the excitement is."

"Can I have my birthday party there?" said Rufus, playing with Sven's long blond hair, which hung in thin strands over his bright blue eyes.

"It would be the perfect place to have your party!" said Sven. "Your birthday is in the summer, and in the summer the sun never goes down in Stockholm. Even in the middle of the night, you can still see everything clear as day—if you haven't had too much to drink of course. I'll show you."

"Ooh," said Rufus, trying to imagine the warm sun lighting everything up in the cold, dark tugship. All his life, he'd only known darkness lit by stars and electricity.

Sven carried Rufus to his bunk, where pictures with fraying corners had been taped up all along the walls, of Sven with his hair short and his face shaved clean, surrounded by smiling people with their arms around each other, lifting big glass mugs in the air. "The best beer in all the world is in Stockholm," said Sven, tapping the pictures. "I hope my favorite bar hasn't closed. I was a big part of their business."

"Where is Stockholm?" asked Rufus.

Sven chuckled and set Rufus down, and after looking around the tiny room for a moment, pulled out a rolled-up piece of paper that had been shoved behind his bunk.

"This is my Earth map—haven't needed to use it in quite a long time," said Sven as he unrolled the map onto his bunk, and Rufus leaned in close to look at it.

"Is Earth a very big planet?"

The map was so old that Rufus could see through the paper, and so faded that the brown lines of the land blurred into the blue of the oceans, and none of the letters were visible to read.

"It's small, but very crowded—full of people," said Sven. He pointed to a shape that looked like the second of three fingers, curled upside-down. "Look, this is Sweden, and here is Stockholm, right on the water."

"That's where the sun never goes down and they have the best beer," said Rufus.

"Very good!"

"Sven?" crackled Papa's voice over the intercom.

Sven rolled his eyes and said, "Next to the bar is a bakery, the owner bakes the best strudel, you'll love it. She would make such a fuss over you—"


"What's that?" asked Rufus. "Strudel—"


"Strudel? It's like a donut—but you've never had a donut before, have you? Oh, just wait until we get you to Earth—"

"Sven? Need you on the bridge. Now."

"All right, I'm coming," said Sven. "Wish we had a bigger crew on this tug. Every minute it's 'Sven, fix this broken thing,' or 'Sven, lift this heavy thing.' I'm half of the crew, but I do two times the work, I tell you."

"When I'm six I'll be able to lift heavy things for you," said Rufus.

"Perfect, my troubles will be over." Sven chuckled as he stood up carefully—he was so tall he often hit his head on the ceiling of the cramped tug—and tousled Rufus's hair before heading for the bridge.

 Rufus sighed and studied the map, wishing he had someone else to explain it to him. There were so many strange shapes that looked nothing like the ones Rufus knew.

Though Rufus had spent his whole life on the tug with only Papa and Sven, the tug seemed colder and darker when he was alone. The lurching engines growled deeper and the dim lightbulbs flickered stranger shadows on the wall.

Rufus felt a chill on the back of his neck as he looked out the small porthole window. Usually the stars kept him company, but sometimes their silent blinking frightened Rufus, reminded him just how entirely alone he was, a tiny boy in a little tug in enormous space. Rufus jumped up and ran to the bridge, clutching the map under his arm, and that's when he saw the screaming man, inside a blue spacesuit, gently knocking against the thick glass that domed the tug's bridge.

The screaming man was on the wrong side of the window, drifting in space, and his face was contorted in terror. Rufus could not hear the man screaming inside his spacesuit, as Papa and Sven struggled to reel him in with the tug's grappling hook, but his mouth was open and his eyes were wrenching in horrified circles at the sheer vastness in every direction.

"Rufus, stay away from the door," said Sven, as he ran to the airlock to help the screaming man inside, and once he was, the screaming man would not stop screaming, and Rufus started screaming too.

"Rufus, calm down," said Papa. "Sir? Everything's all right, you're—"

The man kept screaming as his eyes darted from Papa to Sven and down to Rufus.

"His suit looks like it's from a megaship, one of the new ones," said Sven, putting his fingers in his ears. "Isn't blue the color they use for the new ones?"

"I've heard of people being thrown off megaships," said Papa. "Stowaways, poor people trying to skip on the fare—"

"He isn't dressed like a stowaway," said Sven. The screaming man had torn off his spacesuit like it was burning his skin—he was wearing a neat black coat and pants underneath, with a crisp white shirt and tie. Rufus had never seen someone wearing such nice clothes aboard the tug; he and Papa and Sven only had faded sweaters, holed-up pants, and boots with missing laces.

"Is that choking him?" asked Rufus, pointing to the tie.

"No, that's what men wear," said Sven. "On Earth, at least, if I remember right."

"Are you from Earth?" asked Papa, and the screaming man suddenly stopped screaming.

"Are you?" said Rufus, forgetting he was afraid. The screaming man tilted his head at Rufus, smiled kindly, and promptly fainted.

Sven and Papa had carried the screaming man to the lumpy couch in the cabin, where after an hour or so he had snapped back awake with a scream, and now he silently watched Rufus, Sven and Papa with darting eyes, which he averted from the porthole window. Rufus gently rolled out the map of Earth on the floor of the cabin.

"Show me somewhere else," he said.

"All right," said Sven, with one eye on the screaming man, as he tapped the first of the three curled-up fingers. "This is Norway, Sweden's neighbor. Lots of good restaurants, and excellent fishing—"

"What's a neighbor?" asked Rufus.

"A neighbor is someone who lives next to you," said Sven.

Rufus thought carefully. "Do we have a neighbor?"

"No, it's hard to have neighbors in space, especially on a tug, traveling from moon to moon, but on Earth, people live very close together," said Sven. "When I was your age, I lived in a little house by the water, and there was another house right next to my house, where my friends Astrid and Gus lived. They were my neighbors."

"Did you play with them?" sighed Rufus. "All the time?"

Sven smiled a little sadly and started to nod, but then Papa said, "Sven, that fuel tank's been leaking again, it'll take four hands to fix."

"You want to leave Rufus alone with him?" whispered Sven.

"He won't be any safer next to the fuel tank," said Papa.

"All right," sighed Sven, reaching for his tool bag.

"Hey Papa—show me somewhere?" asked Rufus, holding the map up for Papa, but Papa sucked in his breath and said, "Oh, Rufus, I can't remember any places now."

"Which shape is yours?" asked Rufus.

Papa chuckled nervously. "Come on Sven, every leaked drop of fuel is a lower payout for us."

"Rufus, call over the intercom if you need us," said Sven.

"I will," said Rufus, saddened that he had not learned another shape, or which shape belonged to Papa the way Sweden belonged to Sven. Sven ruffled his hair, and with a last careful look at the screaming man, followed Papa to the boiler room.

Rufus sighed and stared down at the map. "Norway. Sweden," he said, pressing his finger to each shape. "Stockholm. Astrid. Gus."

He wondered what Astrid and Gus looked like, and if they would be his friends if he met them on Earth. He decided that Astrid would be blond, like Sven, and that Gus would have dark brown hair, like Rufus—in fact, Gus would look just like Rufus, only smaller, and they would play with miniature rockets like the children on the colonies and eat strudel from Sven's favorite bakery . . .

The screaming man suddenly scuttled over to Rufus, and Rufus gasped and backed away, but the screaming man shyly raised his hand and pointed to a banana-shaped place near the edge of the map, surrounded by blue. Rufus could not understand what the man was saying to him, but as his words tumbled out, he smiled, and Rufus smiled back. The man took Rufus's hand and tapped his finger to the faded banana shape.

"Home?" he said.

Rufus gasped, "Oh! I know what that means!"

Rufus ran down to the boiler room, with the screaming man following close behind. "Rufus, are you all right?" said Sven.

"Look! He's from Earth! He's from right here!" said Rufus, the words tumbling out of him as he showed Sven and Papa the banana-shaped place near the edge of the map. "We can take him there! When we get to Earth, on my birthday!"

"Well, how about that?" said Sven.

The screaming man said, "Earth? You're going to Earth?"

"Uh, yes sir," said Papa, scratching his head. "We're delivering a cargo shipment there—"

"Can we take him home with us, Papa?" said Rufus.

"We could drop him off right where he needs to go," said Sven.

"Hmm, it would be a lot easier to just radio someone to take him off our hands," said Papa. "If we can get the radio fixed, of course. We don't want to be docked on Earth any longer than we need to be, we've got to get going on our next shipment if we're going to make up our fuel costs—"

"Please?" said Rufus.

Papa said nothing back, like he always did whenever Rufus had something important to say, but after a long silence, he sighed, "All right, we will take him home," and reached out a hand to the screaming man. "What's your name, sir?"

The man shook Papa's hand and said, "Koji." 

A week or so passed, and Koji began to smile and talk—he seemed to understand what was said to him even though he replied in his own language—and he started ruffling Rufus's hair and helping Papa and Sven with their work.

Rufus stared out the wide window that domed the tug's bridge, his fingers pressed against the glass, and he wondered what the banana-shaped country was like.

He'd only tasted a banana once. It was after the best payout Papa and Sven had ever had. Sven bought a banana from a colonies shop and peeled it for Rufus, and it was fresh and delicious, nothing like the packaged and processed food they ate on the tug. Rufus imagined that the sun always shone in the banana-shaped country, and that everything there smelled fresh and delicious, and there would be plenty of children who ate nothing but bananas, and would be happy to share with Rufus while they played. Rufus was so absorbed in his daydream that he almost didn't notice the small purple pod floating lazily outside the wide window.

"Look, a bubble!" said Rufus, for the pod looked almost exactly like a big purple bubble suspended among the stars. Papa groaned and reached for the lever that controlled the grappling hook. Koji held Rufus away from the airlock door as Sven opened it, and Rufus stood on tip-toe to see who emerged inside.

"About time!" said a girl with long brown braids and bright yellow clothes, as she shoved her bag into Sven's chest. "I radioed for help hours ago. What took you so long?"

"Uh, miss, we just happened across you," said Papa.

"You're not a rescue boat?" said the girl, wrinkling her nose at the dull carpet and peeling paint of the cabin. Sven carried her bag between his thumb and forefinger, as his hands were covered in oil. "I'm out of fuel. I radioed for a rescue boat to take me home."

"Sorry, miss," said Papa.

The girl groaned. "Do you have any fuel I could take?"

"I'm afraid we can't spare any, miss," said Papa. "We're on quite a long trip."

The girl bit her lip and slumped down on the lumpy couch in the cabin, where she buried her face in her hands.

"Why are you crying?" asked Rufus. Papa covered Rufus's mouth with his hand.

"Um, we'll just—be getting back to work, miss," said Papa. Koji, Sven and Rufus trotted after him to the cargo hold, where the adults went back to working on their inventory of the boxes while Rufus watched, swinging his feet against the stairs.

"I think her name is Lee," said Sven. "That's what it said on her bag."

"Looks to me like a runaway," said Papa, peeling open a box. "But runaways don't usually travel in such style. Those private pods are expensive."

"It would take me twenty years to afford one. She must be rich," said Sven. "Or her family's rich, more like it. A spoiled colonies child, what did I tell you, Rufus?"

"Maybe she wants to go to Earth too," said Rufus. "We could take her home, when we get there, on my birthday."

"There are a lot of different places and planets she could be from," said Papa. "And her family's probably looking for her. We've got to fix that radio, we'll call someone to get her—"

"Hey!" said Koji, holding up a package with strange writing on it.

"What's that say?" asked Rufus. Koji reached into the box and pulled out several identical packages and a very large spoon, and he chuckled and winked at Rufus.

Everyone gathered in the galley, even Lee, to eat what Koji had prepared from the packages with the strange writing that only he could read.

"This is very good," said Papa. "Much better food than we usually have." Koji nodded proudly, as Lee sulked and picked at her noodles.

"Can I have more?" asked Rufus. Koji ruffled his hair and served him another helping with the large spoon. Lee just sighed.

"Homesick?" said Papa. "You must miss your family."

"I'm homesick, but not for that home," said Lee. "It's just so awful, being in space…"

"We like it just fine," said Sven. "No place like space!"

Rufus picked up his map, which he had been hiding under his chair during dinner, and shyly held it up in front of Lee. She stared at it for a moment, and then pointed to the bottom of the lopsided oval right in the middle of the map.

"Oh!" said Rufus. "The big shape? With the bite taken out of it?"

"It's an elephant's ear," said Lee. "That's what I was told when I was your age, before we left for space." She rubbed her eyes but managed a small smile at Rufus.

"What's an elephant?" he said.

"It's an animal, on Earth," said Lee. "Didn't you learn that when you lived there?"

"I've never been to Earth," said Rufus. "Papa, can we take her home too?"

"Oh, I was afraid you were going to say that," said Papa.
"You're going to Earth?" said Lee. "I thought traders didn't go there."

"That's usually true, but we have a shipment," said Papa. "Our first in years."

"Well, I don't think this is the right way," said Lee, peering out the galley window. The stars looked small and far away, as they always did, and Rufus wondered if Earth was tiny as well, if he would know it from a star if he saw it out the window.

"Sure it is," said Sven. "I plotted the course myself."

Lee's eyes widened. "You don't have an onboard artificial intelligence with navigational databases?"

"No, just Sven," said Papa.

Sven grinned and tapped his temple with one finger. "I have the whole universe stored right up here," he said. "Even the weird bits."

Maps and star charts quickly took over the table, and Rufus was left clutching his map in his hands.

"If we keep going on this route, we'll get there in a year," said Lee. "My father was the captain of an entire fleet, and he would have taken this route—"

"My father knew every fjord in Scandinavia up and down, drunk and sober, and he would say that way is wrong," said Sven. "We'll end up in the Sun!"

"My father would tell you both to stop bickering, or he'd turn this tug around," sighed Papa. "We're staying on this route."

After dinner, Papa, Sven and Koji shut the door of the galley with a glass bottle from the cargo. Rufus tucked himself into bed, and was studying his map and the shape where Lee had come from, when Lee appeared beside him, holding a little blue book.

"This is an elephant," she said, showing him a picture. Rufus studied the words around it, but he could not read the language they were printed in.

"What's it say?" he asked.

"If you want, I could read it to you," said Lee. "I can translate as I go, I used to read this to my cousins all the time."

"Were they nice?" said Rufus.

"Oh yes, they were very sweet," said Lee. "They were around your age too, but I never saw them again after we left for space. Once I get home, I'll find them and start a whole new life, as a whole new person. No more spoiled colonies child—I'll be the sweetest Earth girl you ever met."

"How?" asked Rufus.

Lee smiled shyly and said, "I think you'll like this book. It's about a boy from outer space, a little prince, who goes looking for friends."

"Ooh!" said Rufus, moving his map aside so Lee could sit next to him on the bed. He had never heard a story about someone like him before, and he listened to every word, keeping himself from falling into half-asleepness by squeezing his fists, until Lee stopped and said, "We can finish it another day, if you want."

Rufus managed a nod as he drifted away into a dream about the elephant-ear shaped country, where Lee's sweet cousins, with long braided hair like hers, sat and played with him as they listened to Lee read the blue book, while elephants trudged past, waving their trunks to greet them.

Another week or so passed, and the tug was loud and lively with the sounds of Sven and Lee arguing over how to reach Earth the fastest, and Koji and Papa working on the tug's repairs. Koji managed to fix both the leaky fuel tank and Papa's radio.

"You're a genius," said Papa. "This radio has never worked very well, and the fuel tank has always leaked—I wish you'd shown up years ago!"

Something round and hard and bronze-colored gently bounced into the wide bridge window.

"Another bubble!" said Rufus, clapping his hands.

"Sven, go to the airlock," sighed Papa, rubbing his forehead. "Koji can help me with the grappling hook. Lee, could you keep Rufus away from the door?"

The airlock door opened to reveal a boy around Lee's age, wearing a dull green shirt and tan-colored pants too big for his thin body.

 "Thank goodness!" he said, as he stumbled into the cabin. "It's so scary out there—I nearly passed out from the fear!"

"What happened to you?" said Sven.

"I stowed away on this megaship, but it was so crowded, I had to sneak into an escape pod to get away from all the commotion," said the boy. "Someone must have caught me and pressed the red button, and—here I am! They just chuck people into space if they can't pay… this isn't that kind of ship, is it?"

 "No, this is a tug," said Papa. "Welcome aboard, I guess."

The boy hugged Papa around the neck, and Papa looked so taken aback that Sven started laughing. The boy eagerly shook hands with everyone, saying, "I'm Maulik, pleased to meet you," to each one. When he got to Rufus, Rufus held up his map. 

 "Oh! I'm from—this one, born and mostly raised," he said, tapping an upside-down triangle attached to the biggest shape on the map. "I haven't been back to Earth in a long, long time, but I figure it has to be better than the Ceres colony. That's where I ran away from, it was the worst, and I've lived in some 'worst' places—"

"Papa, can we take him home too?" asked Rufus.

"Oh, you're not going to Earth, are you?" said Maulik. "That would be fantastic!"

 "It would be, wouldn't it?" sighed Papa. "After we unload our cargo, we can take you. We have to get paid before we can just fly willy-nilly around the entire planet."

"Wonderful!" said Maulik. He had the widest smile Rufus had ever seen, and it made him smile too. "I thought I was a goner for sure—I've always had the worst luck, but not today!"

"Well, you did manage to hit someone in space," said Sven.

That night, Lee read Rufus the end of her blue book, and Maulik sat cross-legged on the edge of Rufus's bed, listening carefully.

"Wait," said Rufus, when Lee closed the book. "What happened to the prince?"

"He went home," said Lee. "Space was his home, so that's where he went. Earth was too lonely for him."

"Oh," said Rufus, even though he did not understand.

"Do you think you could start again from the beginning?" said Maulik.

After another week, the tug started to pass through red dust and colossal clouds of grey and blue particles. It was even darker than usual inside the tug, and colder too.

Rufus stared out the window in the galley, trying to spot Earth through the dust, but he could see nothing, not even stars. The group was eating another batch of Koji's noodles, with some added spices that Lee had found in the cargo.

"Are we there yet?" said Rufus. "It's going to be my birthday soon."

"That dust means we're getting close," said Sven.

 "When I get home, I'm going to try to find the neighborhood boys I grew up with—we were a daring bunch," said Maulik. "Always sneaking where we weren't supposed to go, having the greatest adventures—"

"Sounds like you have a lot of nice memories," said Papa.

"Oh yes. Rufus would have loved it," said Maulik. Sven had given Maulik an old sweater to wear, and the sleeves were far too long for Maulik's arms.

"I'll have to spot a real elephant for Rufus, before you drop me off," said Lee.

"Just wait until we get you to Earth, Rufus," said Sven. "We'll show you a good time, won't we?" Koji said something in agreement and ruffled Rufus's hair.

"I can't wait!" said Rufus, as he imagined a giant bunch of boys with wide smiles, who would show him each point of the upside-down triangle, but his daydream was snapped shut by the crackling of Papa's radio.

"Cancel shipment to Earth. Repeat, cancel shipment to Earth," said the voice on the radio. "Redirect vessel to Titan immediately. The sooner you arrive, the bigger your reward."

Everyone stared at Papa, Sven with his fork in the air, as if afraid to move. "Do not transport shipment to Earth. Just don't do it," said the voice, and the radio crackled back to silence.

"I guess…" said Papa, weighing his choices and their consequences, keeping his eyes on the table. "I guess we're not going to Earth after all. Sven, chart a course for Titan."

"What?" said Lee.

"We can sell off this cargo to pay for more fuel," said Papa. "If we turn around now, get there as fast as we can, we shouldn't lose too much when it's all added up—"

"We're not going to Earth?" said Maulik.

Koji said something urgent and pointed out the window. 

"We have to!" said Rufus.

"Rufus, we'll drop them off at Titan, they'll get to where they need to go," said Papa, but Rufus could barely hear him over the pounding of his heart. He had never yelled at Papa before, but he banged his fists on the table and shouted, "No! We have to go home! We have to take everyone home!"

"We're not a megaship," said Papa. "We're not even licensed to transport people. If we get stopped, we could get in trouble—"

 "No," said Rufus. "It's almost my birthday, and we're almost there, we're almost home!"

"Rufus, Earth is not 'home,' you've never even been there," said Papa. "Your home is here, on the tug."

Rufus shook his head and crossed his arms. "The tug's not my home, Earth is my home, and it's your home too."

Papa said nothing, like he did whenever Rufus had something important to say, but after a moment he murmured something to Sven.

Sven gently picked up Rufus and carried him to his bed. Rufus cried into Sven's giant shoulder, and Sven whispered, "Don't worry, we'll still show you a good birthday."

Rufus sniffled, "Papa doesn't care about me or anybody."

"Yes he does," said Sven. "He's always saying he's going to radio someone to take Koji and Lee and Maulik off our hands but he never has—doesn't that count for something?"

Sven tried to ruffle Rufus's hair as he tucked him in, but Rufus ducked away and pulled the blanket over his head.

"Good night, little prince," said Sven, as he closed the door behind him.

 Rufus woke in the morning, tears on his pillow, and looked out his porthole window, but instead of tiny, distant stars he saw a great big blue planet looming in front of him, growing closer and closer. It was huge, so much bigger than the tug, and Rufus could see the shape of the giant elephant ear, bigger than his mind had ever imagined it. He ran to the bridge as fast as he could, where everyone was standing at the wide window, laughing and talking and pointing out the window at the great big blue planet.

"Good morning," said Sven, punching Rufus's arm playfully. "About time you woke up!"

"Are we really going to Earth?" said Rufus, almost too stunned to speak.

Papa stared at the floor and muttered, "Too close to turn back anyway."

Everyone cheered as the tug broke through the clouds, and descended down to trees and streets and neighborhoods…but there were no people. In Rufus's dreams, neighbors and friends would rush out of their homes to wave at the tug, and wish Rufus a happy birthday, but the streets of Earth were empty.

"This is strange," said Sven. "I don't remember it looking like this."

"Where is everybody?" said Maulik.

"We have to find someone to tell us where to dock," said Papa. "No one's answering my radio call. We'll just fly around until someone sees us."

 The tug flew low and fast over the shapes of Earth for the rest of the day, but Earth was empty, just like in Lee's book. Koji's banana-shaped country was empty, Maulik's upside-down triangle was empty, and even Lee's great big elephant ear was empty.

"Now I know why the megaship was so crowded," said Maulik. "Everyone on Earth was leaving."

"So much for a new life," said Lee, and Koji wiped his eyes. A strange sound crackled over Papa's radio, and no one noticed, except for Rufus. He tugged at Papa's sleeve and said, "What's that noise?" and everyone snapped back to life.

"Might be a signal," said Sven, plotting a course to the source of the sound.

"It's worth a shot," said Papa.

A jagged rectangle in the ocean was the source of the sound, and the tug descended through a thick cloud of grey fog to find a white-haired woman sitting on a park bench, clutching a radio on her lap.

"Ma'am?" said Papa, hanging out the airlock door, several feet off the ground. "Excuse me, do you need help?"

The white-haired woman took several moments to notice the tug looming above her.

"Oh, hello!" cried the woman. "Thank goodness you've come!"

Rufus waved from the wide window on the bridge, and the woman waved back. Rufus smiled his widest smile—at least one person on Earth was glad to see him.

Koji lifted up the entire bench with the tug's grappling hook, and Sven and Papa helped the white-haired woman step through the airlock.

"I do hope I'm not putting you out," she said. "When the emptying began, I didn't have my hearing aids in—I missed the whole thing!"

"Oh, it's no trouble," said Papa. He looked uncomfortable as the woman squeezed his arm and kissed his cheek. "Uh, welcome aboard."

Rufus held up his map, and the woman said, "Oh dear, my eyes aren't what they used to be, I'm sorry. What a nice little tug!"

Sven winked and tapped the jagged rectangle near the top of Rufus's map, and whispered, "England."

Everyone introduced themselves to the white-haired woman, who said her name was Rose, and before the space tug had even taken off into the fog, Rose was making tea in the galley. Rufus nearly fell backwards from the smell—it was warm and fragrant like nothing he had ever smelled before on the cold, dark tug.

"I didn't even know we had tea on board," said Sven.

"Here, try some, dear," said Rose. Rufus tried a sip and his whole body felt warm, like a little sun.

The tug flew around Earth for another whole day, and was trudging through some low-hanging clouds over a huge mass of land covered in thick trees and empty roads, when Koji shouted to Papa, and pointed out something moving on the pavement below.

"I'll get the grappling hook," said Papa. "Maybe it's someone who can help us."

"Who is it?" said Rufus.

"I don't know," said Papa. "They're moving a lot, I'm having trouble getting a grip—"

Sven opened the airlock door opened and a little green-eyed girl, even smaller than Rufus, tumbled inside. She did not start crying until she was released by the grappling hook, but once she looked around, she began sobbing and would not stop.

"Poor little thing!" said Rose. "Getting swept up by that horrid hook!"

"I'm sorry!" said Papa. "I didn't know it was a kid!"

Sven lifted the crying girl up into his thick arms, and Rufus felt his heart pound with jealousy.

"Where are we, anyway?" asked Maulik.

"I've lost track," said Papa, rubbing his eyes.

"Rufus, go and get your map," said Lee.

Rufus fetched his map and held it up to show the green-eyed girl, but she just stared at it and stifled a sob in Sven's sweater—she did not know which shape was hers.

"You're safe now," said Sven, rocking her back and forth, as Rufus clenched the map in his fists.

That evening, everyone gathered around Rufus's map in the cabin, staring at the empty shapes. "I can't believe there's no one else left," said Lee.

Rufus imagined Astrid and Gus, the delicious-smelling children of the banana-shaped island, Lee's sweet cousins and Maulik's daring neighbors, all leaving Earth without waiting for him. He had finally gotten home only to find that no one was there, except for Rose, who was old, and the green-eyed girl, who he hated, for taking Sven and his bed, where she was sleeping now.

"What do we do now?" asked Maulik.

"I say break open a whole case from the cargo, because I need a drink," sighed Sven. Koji nodded and rubbed his temples.

"I guess—we should turn around?" said Lee. "Go back into space?"

The green-eyed girl wandered into the cabin, rubbing her eyes, and she climbed onto Sven's lap and clutched at his shoulders. Rufus felt his heart pound again.

"We should head for Titan to refuel," said Papa. He smiled sadly at Rufus and added, "But it's Rufus's birthday tomorrow. I was thinking we could have his party here, then take off for Titan—is that all right?"

"Sounds like a perfect plan to me," said Sven.

"Where should we go?" asked Maulik.

"Wherever you want, Rufus," said Papa.

Rufus tapped a spot on the map. "I know where!"

The tug limped into the clouds above Stockholm, docking on the top of a sleek silver building, with vines creeping up the sides. Papa and Sven were able to open a door on the roof that led to a stairwell, and the group wandered around the waterfront, where empty boats gently rocked back and forth, still docked in place. It was nearly midnight, but the sun was still in the sky, white and hazy, covered partly by pink clouds. Rufus felt like the sun was shining just for them.

"Here we are!" said Sven, running inside a small brick building. "The name is different, but it's the same bar!"

Everyone followed him inside, and Sven ran his hands along the dusty wooden chairs. "They must have closed up for good," he sighed, picking up an empty mug. "They must have forgotten to say good-bye to me."

Lee turned on the lights, Maulik found some bags of peanuts and pretzels, and Rose turned her radio to a music station. Suddenly, the bar felt warm and inviting.

"Look!" said Rufus, pointing to a board with dozens of pictures pinned to it. Several had Sven in the middle, smiling happily, holding a mug high in the air. 

"How about that?" said Sven, ruffling Rufus's hair. "They didn't forget me after all."

"It's almost midnight, and your birthday," said Papa. "Is this the place?"

 "It doesn't seem proper, having a sixth birthday at a pub," said Rose.

"But this is where the best beer is," said Rufus, and everyone laughed, and told stories and jokes while they waited for Rufus's birthday.

Sven disappeared a little bit before the clock struck midnight, and the green-eyed girl climbed into Rufus's lap and clutched Rufus's shoulders instead. Rufus was not sure what to do, but Papa chuckled and said, "Looks like you got your birthday wish a little early—sort of."

The clock in the bar chimed and Maulik cried, "Hey, it's midnight!"

"Happy birthday!" said Lee, hugging Rufus tight.

"Happy birthday, son," said Papa

Rose turned up her radio, which was playing a cheerful song in a language no one understood, but the green-eyed girl jumped up and sang along. Maulik took her hands and danced with her, while Lee danced with Rufus, spinning him in circles as Rose and Papa clapped.

Koji found some hats and noisemakers under the bar, and he passed them out to everyone. Even the green-eyed girl reached out her hand for a noisemaker, and blew it in Rufus's face.

"Hey!" said Rufus, blowing his own noisemaker at the green-eyed girl, and she laughed and blew her noisemaker at him again.

"Oh, it's a pity we don't have a cake," said Rose.

"Not so fast!" said Sven, suddenly appearing in the doorway. He winked at Rufus and produced a cake from behind his back.

"The bakery is still next door," he said. "Took a while to get the oven to work—what do you think?"

The cake was a lopsided square, but Sven had used green frosting to draw a messy map of Earth under the words 'Happy Birthday Rufus!'

Rufus pressed the lines of the curled fingers, the banana, the elephant ear, the upside-down triangle, and the jagged rectangle, smudging the frosting with his thumb.

"You forgot a few parts," said Lee.

"Well, I was going from memory," said Sven.

"I love it!" said Rufus.

Everyone sang "Happy Birthday," in every language they knew, and danced and ate cake and laughed late into the night.

After Rufus tired of dancing, his noisemaker blew its last, and he finished eating his final slice of cake, he climbed into Papa's lap, and closed his eyes, but he was only half-asleep, for he still heard the voices of Sven and Lee and Koji and Rose. He felt the wind from the empty waterfront when Papa carried him outside, he heard the slamming door on the roof of the building and voices hissing "Shh!" and Maulik whispering, "Sorry!"

It wasn't until Rufus was in his bed, with the green-eyed girl breathing slowly beside him, not until he heard the sputter and the roar of the engine, and the shudder of the tug lifting into space, not until he felt the stars around him, that he allowed himself to fall asleep.

He was home.

About the Author
Elizabeth Barron lives in the dark, football fan-infested forests of Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her partner, three cats, and a dog. She has a degree in creative writing from Oberlin College and an MFA from Hamline University, where her thesis was a YA novel about a hotel in outer space. She has also been published at Fiction on the Web and The Fable Online, and has an upcoming publication with Diabolical Plots. She highly recommends visiting Stockholm, a lovely city full of friendly people with quite a few tugboats bobbing along the waterways.