excerpt from Cyber Dawn
The eleven-year-old boy stared wide-eyed at the sleek silver and black cybernetic leg. He’d seen mock-ups of course. Even tried on a few as they worked to get the sizing just right.
This is the real thing, he thought. That’s my new leg.
His heart raced at the thought of being whole again.
He tore his eyes away and looked around the surgical room. The stainless steel furniture, bright lights, and adults wearing hospital scrubs, all reminded him of his last surgery. It even smelled the same – like when his house was freshly cleaned. But to the boy, it felt different. The last time he’d been in a room just like it, they had taken his leg to keep a cancerous tumor from spreading. Something the oncologist called a synovial sarcoma. Now, they were giving him a leg back.
An even better one.
He gazed down at the end of the bed and stared at the single hump his left foot formed under the sheets. When he’d woken up from his last surgery, groggy and disoriented from the anesthesia, his eyes tried to focus on his missing foot. His brain told him it was there. He could still feel it as part of his body. But his eyes saw something different. Where there should be two humps, there was only one.
Later, the doctors told him the sensation he felt – of his leg being there when it wasn’t – was called phantom pain. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out the phantom part. The pain sure felt real enough.
He pushed the memory to the back of his mind and stared at the ceiling. He wouldn’t look down again until after the surgery. Not until there were two humps.
“Okay, it’s time,” said a nurse from somewhere off to his right. “You’re already an old pro at this. Should be a piece of cake.”
She pulled a piece of surgical tubing tight around his arm. She then tapped the skin with the back of her fingers and inserted the needle. The prick used to hurt, but now it barely registered.
“You’ll feel a warm sensation flow into your arm and then throughout your body,” she said. “When I tell you, start counting back from one hundred.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
A few moments later, he felt the warm liquid flow into his veins. At the nurse’s prompt, he began to count backwards.
“100 … 99 … 98 … 97 … 96 … ”
Six years later
The CyberLife Industries Non-Disclosure Agreement I signed contains a long list of forbidden activities. Near the top, just under YOU WILL NOT ATTEMPT TO ACCESS OR OTHERWISE MODIFY YOUR CYBERNETIC SYSTEM, are the words: YOU WILL NOT PARTICIPATE IN CONTACT SPORTS. Of course, the second my parents hopped on a plane to Europe for two months, I forged the permission slip to try out for my high school football team.
For exactly forty days, it was the best decision of my life. I made the team, started three games at wide receiver, and met a ton of new friends. I even scored a date with the head of the cheerleading squad. For the first time in six years, life was normal. Instead of a lab rat, I felt like an actual teenager.
That was all before the helmet-on-helmet hit.
The medic at the game on Friday night diagnosed me with a concussion. But I knew better. I knew right away what it was. The hit screwed up my neural cybernetic augment.
* * *
By early Monday morning, the headache was so bad I called Megan, my cybernetic systems technician. Not surprisingly, she totally freaked out. After a half-dozen or so expletives, she demanded I meet her right away.
For almost three hours, I’d been lying on a cold, stainless steel surgical table in a secret underground laboratory at the CyberLife headquarters. Normally I didn’t mind our early morning appointments. Three hours was a lot of time for a nap or, in extreme cases, to cram for an exam or finish a homework assignment. With a midterm starting in less than an hour, I actually needed to study. My headache wouldn’t allow it.
I looked over at Megan. She sat at the lab’s lone workstation, hunched over a laptop. Her fingers moved rapidly, filling the otherwise quiet space with the sound of clattering keys. A light blue CyberLife lab coat covered her slender body. Her long, blond hair was pulled up in a ponytail and her blue eyes sparkled from the light of the laptop screen. Despite the boredom, and the pain, I smiled to myself. Even mad, she sure is easy to look at, I thought.
Megan tried to hide it, but I knew she was watching me in her peripheral vision. I could feel the anger flowing from her eyes. Anger because I disobeyed her direct orders. Anger because I woke her up at three in the morning. But most of all, anger because I let her down.
“Megan, how much longer?” I asked.
Without answering, she stood and walked in my direction. She stopped at the bank of diagnostic monitors sitting on a wheeled cart near my table. The monitors, connected wirelessly to my various cybernetic components, displayed the status of my heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital systems – human and cybernetic. Placing both hands on the cart’s handle, she began to push it back toward her workstation.
“Almost done?” I asked.
With a heavy sigh, Megan stopped the cart and turned to face me. “Benjamin, you do realize I’m in the process of repairing your brain?”
I swallowed hard.
“Keep distracting me,” she said as she pointed at one of the monitors. “And I might accidentally make this little zero here a one. The next thing you know, Ben’s taking first-grade math again.”
“And that’s a downgrade?” I laughed. “You know I suck at math.”
Megan opened her mouth to respond, but instead shook her head and stormed back to her workstation.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
I spent the next ten minutes looking around the small laboratory in an attempt to focus on something – anything really – other than the pain in my head. Up until earlier that day, I thought I had been in every lab at CyberLife. Both at the headquarters in Brookwood, Colorado, where I’d spent all morning, and the secret research campus in the mountains west of town, where I spent most of my teenage years. However, this one was new and, in my opinion, barely qualified as a lab. It was dimly lit, had no heat, and was four stories underground. The only furniture was Megan’s workstation and my cold, stainless steel, surgical table. The room seemed more like a medieval dungeon than a place where she should be performing high-tech surgery on my brain.
“Why are we down here?” I asked, determined to strike up a conversation. “Is this even a lab?”
Megan walked over and set her laptop down on the table next to me. “If you must know,” she said. “We’re down here because my idiot teenage patient decided to play football, got himself smacked in the head, and just about scrambled the cybernetic augment attached to his brain.”
I sat still, suddenly wishing I’d kept my mouth shut.
“And, so Dr. Merrick doesn’t find out,” she continued. “I decided we should meet down here this morning instead of in my office, which is two doors down from his.”
Megan folded her arms across her chest and arched an eyebrow. “Make sense?”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, makes sense.”
“Good.” She turned back to her laptop. “Now shut up so I can finish.”
“Any idea how much longer?”
Megan sighed and shook her head. “You’re impossible Benjamin.”
“I have a math mid-term at eight.”
She glanced at her watch and resumed the rapid fire typing. “Lucky for you, I’ve figured out the problem. Just need to upload a new software build.”
I groaned. New software meant new bugs. The last thing I needed was a system malfunction during mid-term exam week. Then again, being virtually stabbed in the foot every minute during an exam would do little to help either. Instead of arguing, I lay back down on the table. Wearing only my boxers and socks, the cold metal surface sent a shiver up my spine.
“You look cold,” she said. “Want to borrow my coat? I just need to tweak a few more things before we get started with the upload.”
“You read my mind,” I said. “It’s freezing in here.”
Megan slipped off her lab coat and placed it over my legs. She wore a tight, light blue sweater and khaki pants. The outfit provided enough of a distraction that I didn’t notice her hands slide under the coat. She wrapped her ice cold fingers around my bare leg.
I shot forward and tried to push, pull, and claw her hands off me. It was no use. I had learned long ago that the cute, blue-eyed blonde was freakishly strong.
“Your hands are freezing!”
Her grip tightened. “Oh, they are? I had no idea.”
I tried to punch her shoulder, but she dodged out of the way, and I almost fell off the table.
“Not funny Megan!”
“Oh, don’t be such a big baby.” She let go and tucked her lab coat tight around my legs. “There, is that better?”
“Gee, thanks,” I grumbled. “You cheated and tweaked the temperature sensors in my leg, didn’t you?”
“Maybe.” Her grin widened.
I shook my head and cursed the CyberLife engineers who had made my leg so damn realistic. Not only was it nearly impossible to detect visually, its lifelike synthetic skin could sense touch as well as a range of temperatures and relay the associated sensation to my brain.
“How’s your head?”
Several moments later, I let out a deep sigh of relief. The headache was gone. Cute, strong, and ridiculously good at her job, I thought. “Thanks Megan. You’re the best.”
“No problem,” she answered. “And while I question that your brain is still intact and functioning correctly, my tests revealed no major damage.”
“So what happened?”
With a shrug, she said, “I think the impact occurred just as your augment was feeding stored Cytoxinol into your system. The process was interrupted, and a software bug kept it from starting again. The lack of Cytoxinol caused your headache. To be honest, I’m surprised it didn’t result in more problems. You were lucky.”
I whistled softly. Cytoxinol was a CyberLife-manufactured drug I took daily. I didn’t know the details, only that it somehow kept my body and my cybernetic system in balance.
“What if I didn’t call you to get it fixed?” I asked.
“You’d have been dead in two days.”
My mouth fell open as I waited for the punch line. When one didn’t come, I said, “Dead?”
“I’m serious Ben,” Megan replied. “You’re taking Cytoxinol for a reason. Without it, your cybernetic augments would poison you.”
I let out a deep breath. Joining the football team now seemed like a pretty dumb idea.
Megan squeezed my arm. “Now you know why I was so angry?”
“Am angry. Don’t push your luck.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a black data cable. “Since you’re in a hurry, I’ll use the wire. It transfers data a hundred times faster.”
Before I could protest, she bent down and slipped her hands up my boxer shorts. I tensed, both because I expected her hands to be cold and because she had her fingers wrapped around my upper thigh.
“Easy there Benjamin,” she said.
“Geez Megan, a little notice next time?”
“Oh, like you’re not used to it,” she joked. “I’ve been putting my hands in your pants for three years.”
My face flushed red. “Megan, seriously?”
She laughed, tucked her fingers under the synthetic skin, and rolled it down past my knee. My cybernetic leg’s rigid titanium alloy shell and flexible Kevlar fabric muscles made it look like something out of a science fiction movie. Even now, six years later, I had to look twice to convince my brain it really was my leg.
After plugging in the cable and entering a series of commands on her laptop, Megan sat on the corner of the table and crossed her arms.
“Okay Benjamin, you’ve got ten minutes,” she said, a serious look on her face. “Start talking.”
“Talk?” I replied tentatively.
She scowled and leaned in close. In a voice barely above a whisper, she said, “Tell me why, of all the things you could possibly do, you decided to join the football team? Not the golf team. Not the debate team or the chess team. The full-contact football team.”
At that moment, I realized the true downside to the sparse, underground lab.
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.