Kay sat reclined in her recovery bed, exhausted and bereft within herself, a sludgy consciousness like a body in a still pool of water. Her eyes felt achingly large and dry in her face, and the dissonant pulsing of her own heart put a pressure in her sinuses and a vibration on her vision that still unsettled. In front of her, a television display.
Longing gazes and furtive touches—onscreen was yet another well-produced romantic moment turned fan-service love scene. Soul searching lovemaking for the avid press-to-vote viewer, and Kay didn’t know if she could stand much more of being so consistently irritated. She would learn to tolerate it though (maybe even enjoy it), because the tripe on tv was the only stimulating thing going on in the rehabilitative ward of Ellison Flagship Hospital Main. And since all the ward’s programming content came from their social division, Ellison Life, it reduced Kay, prone in her new body and still growing in to the prosthetic, to the choice of either watching their non-stop stream of bullshit or shutting it off to deal with the new constant racket that was her own bodily feedback.
She looked down at herself in slow awareness, mildly repulsed at the dozens of calibrative insertables jutting out from all over, and for the umpteenth time reassured herself away from the verge of hysteria that this had been a good idea. She closed her eyes, dampening the constant disruptive throb rocking her vision. One month in and she could still only communicate via direct interface inputs—no mouth talking (still!). It was becoming difficult to stifle the deep impatience she felt for all those exaggerated woes of non-prosth real stars on TV and their ability to run their pinch mouths on whatever the fuck they wanted. This prosthetic body shit better be for real.
But you know, sometimes that hospital programming was all right. The movies, anyway. She’d blaze through those trilogy marathons and feel her new nerve endings creeping along, and suddenly find herself weeping. Fucking sappy ending shits, making her cry. Back in the neighborhood she would never be caught crying. It took her a while before she told herself, but here, it’s okay. It’s only the Progenitor motherfuckers come to check on your feeds and run you through therapy exercises. After they leave, you can put that bullshit back on and cry it out. Kay wondered if, even with the mountains of data she produced at any given hour, they knew why she would cry.
Eight weeks into rehabilitation and Kay realized one morning that the provided television programming was deliberate. Had to be. Or was this suspicion just another part of the old body withdrawal syndrome they’d warned was a side effect? She couldn’t tell, frowning with realization then that this new constant uncertainty was not unlike the uterus-driven pre-menstrual hormone wash of her previous body’s cycle, where she could never figure out if she was being oversensitive or everyone else was being insensitive. But anyway, this week was flat and everything was making her feel a little more empty inside. Distant. Overly nostalgic, maybe. Fragile, even. That’s what it was. The new body was . . . wild. “Nigh invulnerable” like on the backs of her superhero trading cards from childhood. And that’s what she was never going to know again – vulnerability. It was true. Those days were over. But she had grown in enough now and was allowed to take laps in the pool for basic coordination.
The Progenitors were pleased with Kay almost always. They patted her on the shoulder, seeming especially impressed and saying things like “good girl” and “atta girl.” Even lacking fine motor skills, it would make her skin crawl and her lip curl, all while trying to maintain poise so they would check her off on to the next stage of therapy. What is it with these squares? Decades of living in walled off “metropolises” made everyone a sick freak delusional with the good ole days, whatever the fuck that even meant here. Her team of psych-bioengineers and acupuncture-chemists were all staunchly gendered nice old men and pleasant women in skirts and pumps, who would use the words “she” and “her” as if Kay were something besides human. In those instances she missed her tattoos, her hair, her clothes and all the other things that signified respect where she came from. Kay had been the brains, the cunning bitch, the small hand. She had fleeting fantasies of getting another “good girl” from Dr. Karo and putting her hand through his chest, no master’s style. But she still had trouble getting her arms to do what she wanted. She fell asleep to rumors of her stunted progress, and feared the uncertainty of what was to be done.
“Wake her up. Procedure is successful.”
“Dr. Karo, are you sure? She almost died on us. Twice.”
“I’m sure, Pela. She almost died, but she did make it through. How many make it through the whole assisted restructuring procedure?”
The bionics doctor called Pela looked at her colleague for a lingering moment before deciding he was right.
“All right, everyone, let’s get her conscious and online!”
A small array of surgeons mobilized at the call of their director. Forty minutes later, the corporation’s most promising surveyor enabled cyborg was having the post-op residue wiped from her eyes. What happened?
The world was not as she remembered; the colors were off and nothing had a firm edge to it. The doctors looked a single entity of amoebic green on a wall the color of petri dish. Their mouths puckered open at random like flexing sphincters, and it took her a long moment before she realized that the droning monotone buzz-hum in her ears was someone talking to her. The operating table beneath her registered as a wide blunt mass pushing back, herself nothing more than a consciousness trapped in a humanoid brick. She was beginning to feel alarmed. Where was the tv? And her pool privileges? And the 60 different feedback steams? Her old therapy team?
Two hands on her arms, and it was a violent shock of sensation as dormant receptors on her compound skin flared alive, then fizzled out like fireworks back to darkness. She was being moved away from a hard translucent table and over to a densely molded recliner. And as they sat her down in it, a new sensation came, sudden and upsetting. Penetration, embedding, connection. Oh. It was the diagnostic computer.
A plowing surge of awareness overcame her and then lessened, evening out. Objects soon began to have depth. The distortion of the buzz mellowed to a recognizable pitch of human speech. And as this lightstream of information infested her she could, unlike before, wiggle her fingers with agility.
“Miss Peñafiel? Kay?” one of doctors leaned in front of her. Her eyes jumped to him, rapt with attention and muscle memory, forgetting all about the fact that she seemed to have command of her body now. She felt annoyed with herself for being so quick to acknowledge him, who was hovering there with a learned smile on his face. “Listen, honey, you weren’t growing in to your prosthetic quickly enough so we were forced to take emergency procedures.”
Quickly enough?, she thought to herself.
“Dr. Karo, I’m a little—”
“Oh, would you look at that! You’re already talking. Good girl! Great job everybody,” the doctor said, spinning around to congratulate his team. “I think this is a great example of how to really salvage a bad situation and turn it into something profitable again.”
Kay’s opportunity to main this man for his neverending indignities was gone in the same instant that she realized the sheer amount of force dormant in her newly fortified muscles. If she had jumped out of that chair, torn the diagnostic connector out of the back of her ass or wherever the fuck disgusting place it was plugged in (she couldn’t tell yet), it might have been bad. You didn’t get to be a big badass cyborg if you had a history of violence, no. Do that shit when you’re on the job, not when you’re back in your pen. That’s what they alluded to on the contract, anyway.
Dr. Karo went on emptying and filling his lungs, telling the team of what was to come, and singing sweetly to Kay of what a promising example she was. She turned her newly lush gaze to anti-bacterial floor, aching now for that stupid television show about the cash husband sex marathon and the dullness of her former state of awareness. To think, she had angsted so desperately that she would never feel vulnerable again!
The last two and a half months of Kay’s rehabilitation saw her in the coordination pools again, and the orientation chambers, the toxicity neutralization bars, the temperature resistance fields, the weapons arenas, the combat mats, the tactical planning sims, the meditation. And as her proficiencies blossomed, Kay groomed herself with the thrill of new abilities, of superior abilities. This prosthetic body shit was for real. But now she worried about going back to the neighborhood. She felt ephemeral and shorn, and her body was completely changed as well. Would anyone be able to recognize her after being gone for six months and come back looking like a crispy pair of school shoes? Shit, at least she still had human pattern body hair—she’d had to argue for them to grow it on her cause they weren’t going to do it on account of her being a “lady.” Of course, they kept mislabeling her that. They didn’t know. They purposefully didn’t.
The next day, when Kay was coming up out of the deep submerge pool, there was a stranger waiting by the room entrance with a sole therapist. A barrel chested person with dense thighs and solid posture, standing barefoot in a pair of navy swim briefs. Kay pulled herself completely out and stood on the pool’s edge looking at the stranger openly; they recognized each other. As one of their own. She watched the shrouded, mistrustful gaze shift to reveal a heavy, restrained anger (chest constricting), and shift again to a deep shame (then collapsing, just enough). She looked at this stranger, who watched her back, and strode forward, ignoring the assigned therapist as she began the gesture of a handshake.
“My name’s Kay.”
The stranger blinked, slowly, pausing to look into her just a beat longer, then completed the gesture. They clasped hands. The therapist jumped.
“Braga. You’re from up Godfrey way?”
“Yeah . . . ” Kay’s lips began to purse towards a grin. Braga squeezed her hand tightly, then let go.
“Yeah, I remember you. You used to be that little tattooed girl always on Xaime’s stoop.
“I lived the block down, but I’d always walk up Mascher to the corner store and pass y’all kids by. Listen, I dunno how I look—you probably don’t remember me, I was a forgettable guy. But you don’t look any different to me.”
Kay huhmphed, intrigued, head canted to one side, musing on the fact that, were they not the only two people here speaking with regional accents, in the most revolting facility in the world, Braga might come off as a creep.
“This is a hell of a place to run into an old neighbor,” she offered finally.
The doors opened with Braga’s assigned therapy crew; their bodies tensing awkwardly to find themselves walking into an occupied room with not one but two surveyor cyborgs. Braga was immediate to follow Kay’s eyes, head angling back over shoulder for a quick assessment. And then they were locking eyes again.
“I guess we’re not supposed to share facilities,” Braga said plainly.
“I guess not.” She rocked slowly backwards on one heel, preparing to go somewhere not there. Braga’s mouth parted to say something, then paused, gaze dropping to the floor before rising back sheepishly.
“I didn’t think I’d see anyone like you here.”
“Me neither,” she admitted.
“They keep telling me that one of the lady applicants that almost died was probably gonna be me and some other guys’ unit captain now. That supposed to be you?”
“I dunno. Do I look like a lady applicant?”
“No, not really. No disrespect but . . . you ain’t the lady type.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Dick Swanson for Documerica series, 1970s