The Child From Qas

Rin stood at the counter in the orphanage’s galley when the boy entered. At first he just stood beside her, watching her scoop the guts out of several sugar squash—the guts are the only digestible part—grown right here on Nayim. The boy waited to get her attention until she’d finished with the squash in hand. When he finally tugged on her coverall, he only motioned to his mouth and worked his jaws up and down.

“Use your words, Dagger,” she said. He broke her heart. He was only seven. But seven is plenty old enough to be speaking, and far too old to change the unfortunate name his parents had saddled him with.

“Hungry food,” he said. His thin and digitized voice came from his vocoder.

“You’ve had more than enough electropaste for one day, don’t you think?”

But Dagger only repeated himself. “Hungry food.” His mouth hung open and motionless as the digital voice crawled up and out of his throat. His family had emigrated to the settlement on Qas—a moon of one of the ice giants sharing Nayim’s sun—and were there just one month when micrometeoroids punched through three quarters of the protective domes above the habitats. The harsh chemistry of the moon’s atmosphere killed nearly everyone there, including Dagger’s parents and two sisters. And though he’d survived, his digestive system from his duodenum up to his lower jaw had to be removed and replaced with mechanical substitutes. The prosthetics made no attempt to look natural—maybe he could upgrade when he stopped growing, but these would grow with him.

Dagger snatched a discarded sugar squash shell from the countertop and jammed it into his mouth.

“You little stinker! Don’t eat that,” called Rin. Dagger paused and made eye contact with her as all children do before deciding to disobey. “Dagger, don’t you dare.”

His strong synthetic jaw crunched the shell like a nutcracker and he swallowed the hard little bits. His robotic stomach would be grinding for days, but ultimately he’d be okay. Rin chased him down, picked him up, and held him upside down as she gave him a good tickling. He needed it, but the vocoder’s imitation laughter was a ghastly sound to endure.

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