Wyld FLASH – 25 September 2020
The rehab wing of the hospital was decorated in soft pastels and neutrals, unlike the sterile white of the emergency and trauma departments. It was quiet and boring, and at the moment quiet and boring was kind of a nice change of pace. Xan ignored her handheld and implants, not so much out of concern over snooping as a desire to ramp up the boredom. She was almost alone in the waiting room. A kid, maybe eight or ten, sat in a corner staring at their own handheld, completely absorbed.
The only downside of Xan’s embrace of boredom was a growing awareness of her leg’s itchiness. She ran the heel of her palm across her thigh, feeling the give of the semi-liquid regrowth medium, full of busy nanites rebuilding tissue. Contemplating the mess inside her leg was gross, but not nearly so viscerally upsetting as the persistent itching.
“You shouldn’t scratch it,” the kid said, now staring at Xan with the intensity previously reserved for the handheld.
“I know.” She made much more of an effort to be polite than she had when adults offered the same advice. “I’m rubbing, not scratching.”
“Okay. But it’s not something they’re lying about. It really does take longer to heal if you scratch up the edges.”
“And then I’d have goop leaking all over my leg.”
The kid offered a gap-toothed grin.
“What are you in for?” Xan asked, because maybe the boredom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
The kid pulled up their sleeve, revealing a large patch of purple on the inside of their forearm. “Do you want to feel it?”
Xan ran a reflexive review of local statutes regarding interaction with kids and deemed it a safe offer. “Sure.” Before she could grab her cane, the kid popped up and settled into the seat next to hers.
The artificial skin on their arm was bright purple and textured. The very edges were smooth, where it bonded to the kid’s skin, but the rest of it was covered in bumps. “It’s like lizard skin.”
“You can scratch it,” the kid offered.
“I don’t want to scratch it. And you’re not supposed to scratch it,” she reminded them, conscious of her role as the adult in the room.
“I am. That’s why they make it like this. So you can scratch the bumps–just not the edges. It’s for kids,” they added. “You probably got something that matches your skin.”
“That is fucking brilliant.” Her artificial skin did not, in fact, match her natural skin tone terribly well. First came emergency care and regrowth, then rehab, then cosmetics. “I’m jealous. Purple lizard skin is awesome.”
“Have you touched a lizard?” One hundred percent stationer, with that eager look in their eye. They’d probably never left the station, but knew how to recognize visitors.
“Yeah. They’re pretty great. The small ones, anyway. I don’t voluntarily pet anything with teeth bigger than my hand.”
She could see the wheels turning as the kid mentally cataloged animals with teeth almost as big as Xan’s hand.
“We played with worms in school,” the kid said. “But they’re slimy.”
“Still pretty great, though, right?” she said, because there was a line between awing the younger generation and cruelly one-upping their life experience.
“What happened to your leg?”
“A really bad burn. I had an accident at work.”
“I have a burn, too. I was in the kitchen.”
Hell of a kitchen accident, if it called for hospital care rather than slathering on bug cream. “My last kitchen injury involved a knife,” Xan confided. “Always use a cutting board.”
“I broke my wrist when we went to Kissrook Falls. I slipped on a wet stone.”
“When I was a kid, I broke my hand when I punched my cousin.” She might be the adult in the room, but still derived some pleasure from the way the kid’s eyes went wide with awe, if not necessarily approval.
“Why did you do that?”
“He kept calling me “Tippy,” even though I told him not to.”
“Does he still call you Tippy?”
“I broke this finger last year.” The kid raised their middle finger, a little surreptitiously. Xan quashed the urge to expand their vocabulary of obscene gestures.
“I lost a couple fingernails one time.”
“I broke my nose once. I fell in my bedroom.”
“Ouch. Did it bleed a lot?”
The kid nodded solemnly.
Belatedly, things clicked into place in Xan’s brain. This station was not a planet. It was nice. The air quality was excellent, the gravity reliable, the parks impressive. The kid might run wild on the station, to the extent it was possible to “run wild” in an enclosed, easily-monitored environment. But it wasn’t dangerous. Zoning meant that a kid wasn’t likely to access dockyards, maintenance sections, or other hazardous places.
The history of humanity included many examples of unlikely, innovative means of injury. But the litany of injuries, spoken in a flat tone using the passive voice, without childish glee about adventures, was a little chilling.
What the fuck was the point of a nice station with nice hospital facilities if they didn’t notice a cycle of abuse? She desperately wanted to kick the shit out of the kid’s parent (it had to be a parent, or someone with legal custodianship) but semi-reputable professional transients didn’t get away with that sort of thing on nice stations. And violence wasn’t likely to improve the situation. Not unless she wanted to engage in kidnapping as well as assault.
If she was a better person, maybe she’d engage in kidnapping and assault.
“You seem like you come here a lot,” she managed. Very smooth.
The kid just smiled, a smile she recognized from the mirror, except Xan hadn’t perfected it until she’d been much older. Polite, detached, and hinting at just a bit of thoroughly deserved contempt.
“It’s okay,” the kid said with the confidence of youth and wisdom of experience. “They can fix anything here.”
Author Bio: A. P. Howell has worked as an archivist, ice cream scooper, webmaster, and data wrangler. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and Community of Magic Pens. She’s on Twitter @APHowell and her website is aphowell.com.
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