Chapters:

Upgrade

1.

Erica stood in the corner of the doctor’s office basement, beside a softly humming coffee machine, looking at a woman cradle her metallic left arm like it was a child. The woman was on the verge of tears. She spoke softly, slowly. The others, sitting in a circle quietly, were mostly motionless. A few bobbed their heads in agreement. The prosthesis was so new Erica could make out the woman’s face reflected in the metal. She was maybe in her forties, but her reflection was twisted, and she looked older and more weathered in it.

“They say it’ll be better when there’s skin on it,” the woman said. “But I don’t know. Not everyone gets grafts anyway. Some say it doesn’t matter, so why spend the money?”

The woman lost her arm in a car accident three weeks ago. It was her second time at a meeting, and she finally had the courage to speak up. But Erica was barely paying attention. Instead her eyes were on the clock on the far side of the wall. The session was almost over.

“Would it feel better to you to have it covered?” Dr. Mora asked. The doctor was the oldest in the circle, a woman in her sixties, the head of the therapy group and leading doctor in Robotics and Cybernetics Development in New York City. She was leaning on her knees, propping her head up with her hands, wearing a face of intense interest and concern.

To Erica, she only looked tired.

“I...I couldn’t say,” the woman said, staring at her arm like it might have its own opinion.

“It’s not something that has to be rushed, after all,” Dr. Mora said. “Remember, we’re looking at our own comfort here, not anyone else’s. It’s a lot like being a teenager again. We think everyone’s looking at us, when really we’re all focused on our own thing. How we’re feeling on the inside will have a profound effect on the actions and thoughts of people on the outside.”

A few in the group let out a soft “that’s right.” Erica shrugged internally. She’d heard the same speech already a few times.

“We’re almost out of time, but I’m sure you can come to your own decision on it. Of course everyone is welcome to stick around and talk awhile longer, but I think that should be all for tonight. There’s still some coffee if anyone wants a cup. We’ll meet up again next week, same time.”

Everyone stood. A few exchanged goodbyes, a few shook the doctor’s hand before leaving. The woman with the metal arm put a jacket on despite the summer heat outside. Erica sipped a cold cup of coffee while everyone filed out. Some nodded to her, others mumbled a “goodnight,” but she merely let her eyes say goodbye.

“Hi Evelyn.”

“Pour me a cup of that, will you?” Mora asked.

She likes it with milk, the voice inside Erica’s head said.

“I know,” she said aloud.

Erica dumped the milk into the brown liquid and passed the cup over. Dr. Mora took several long sips, then sighed. Her eyes wandered up and down Erica’s frame, then settled on her bare left shoulder. At the fresh tattoo that was there - black flames in large swirls, extending down the length of her arm to the top of her hand. The skin around it was still pink and swollen.

“Christ almighty. Did that hurt?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.”

“Not as much as that sob story earlier,” Erica said.

“You’ll have to be more specific.”

“The guy with the two fingers. Lost them in a...what was it? Construction accident?”

“Everyone has trouble adjusting at first,” Dr. Mora said. “For some it takes even longer. Besides, it’s not like you to disparage the program. Not to my face, anyway.”

Their eyes locked, and Erica put her coffee down.

“So you came. Since you wouldn’t even sit in the circle, I’m assuming you aren’t here to share your feelings with me.”

“It’s my knee. It’s been acting up.”

“Specifically?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You mean Cassie couldn’t diagnose it?”

Oh, she flatters me! Cassie said. Tell her it’s something with one of the rotors beneath the patella. A gyroscopic balancer is out of line, I think.

“Do you mind taking a look?” Erica asked, ignoring the voice.

Dr. Mora led her upstairs to the main offices, flicking on light switches as she went. Late at night the entire laboratory felt even more sterile and creepy than when it was washed out with white lights during the day. Without all the commotion and people walking about in the daytime, the lights were blinding, and highlighted the many flaws that Erica rarely noticed. Cracks in the ceiling and paint chipping off doorways. The glass walls that separated labs from offices had hand prints and other smudges on them. Upholstery on chairs wasn’t as fresh and smooth as it looked normally.

The doctor’s heels caused an echo down the hallways. When she flicked a switch on in a room larger than the others, the hum was as loud as a car engine starting. Inside was a lab with an enormous examination machine, nearly the entire width and height of the wall, with a little bed sticking out the center of it like a face sticking out its tongue. Dr. Mora motioned for Erica to sit, and she did so after removing her shoes and pants as she had so many other times when visiting.

When she was flat on her back, her eyes focused on a moldy spot in the corner of the ceiling, the machine whirred to life. The bed slid inside feet first, allowing Erica’s head to remain outside scanning range. Dr. Mora was just beside her on a chair, seemingly upside down, her eyes watching the monitors while the lasers did their work.

“So what have you been doing with your time? Besides getting more enormous tattoos?” the woman asked. “It’s been four months. Six since your last check up.”

“I guess I’ve been busy.” Erica had to nearly shout it over the sound of the machine now working on all cylinders, or whatever electric pulses and surges it used to do deep-tissue scans.

“Are you still doing that...what was it before? Photography?”

Erica flinched. The photography gig had seemed perfect at the time, until she realized every other amateur photographer in New York City was already taking pictures of old men in the park and pigeons on statues in black and white, and even tasteful nudes were a dime a dozen. The only way to scrounge up some money from the job was wedding photography, and she couldn’t stand to be near so many happy people at once. One afternoon tagging along with a professional had yielded a few bad shots of Uncle Ira dancing, and then she called it quits.

“No, that’s out,” she said. The machine whirred, then hummed. A dull, throbbing sound. Though the lasers were painless, Erica swore she could feel them probing her.

Almost done, Cassie said.

I know.

“A lot of new faces there tonight,” Erica said.

“We’ve been busy. Prosthesis surgeries have become more and more commonplace as materials have gotten cheaper. With so many back from the war and signing up, we’ve had plenty of people willing to come out. It would probably do you some good to meet some new faces.”

“Two years of meetings was enough, thank you,” Erica said.

The machine finally stopped and went silent, like a large beast taking a rest. The little bed extended outward, releasing Erica from the device’s maw. Dr. Mora clicked through a set of scans on a monitor beside her, the colors from the imaging reflecting off her glasses.

“So, will I live?”

My guess is the right gyroscopic lateral plug was loose.

“For now,” Dr. Mora said. “One of the bolts holding the patella above the sockets is loose. It’s been sliding around, I think, which is what’s causing the discomfort.”

Oh. Not even close. Erica could feel Cassie’s disappointment.

“Did you bang your knee lately?

“Probably.” Erica’s memory flashed to the hundreds of times she’d banged her knee and other parts of her body while carrying ice and kegs from the basement of the local bar up to the top floor. Her latest gig that kept her near the action but not really part of it. “I guess I hit it a little too hard.”

Dr. Mora removed her glasses and tapped the monitor with them. “I’m also a little worried about your skeletal structure in general. All of your metal components are what - five, six years old?”

Five years, two months, twenty two days, Cassie corrected.

Erica repeated the correction.

“Right. That’s a long time, in terms of cyborg hardware. You were one of the very first, and as far as I know, no one has prostheses to the extent you do anywhere else. Over fifty percent.”

Seventy three percent cybernetic, Cassie corrected. This time Erica kept the statistic to herself.

“I know, you said it last time I’m due for like, an upgrade or something.” Erica meant it as a joke. Dr. Mora didn’t smile, however.

“This latest problem is another good example of why you should consider it. The parts they manufacture now are far stronger and more resilient. Years ahead of everything you have. A lot of your stuff was experimental. I’m not entirely sure how long yours can hold up under a lot of stress.”

Thoughts flashed into Erica’s head like alarms: surgeries, money, more metal.

“Yeah well, maybe you should have thought of that before you put it in me.”

Dr. Mora sat back, disappointed, and put her glasses back on.

“Your father and I were under a time limit. We had to act quickly.” Her words came out dulled. They were also ones Erica had heard, and tonight the doctor didn’t feel like mustering the energy to defend herself.

“I’ve done okay so far. So maybe just fix my knee and let me get out of here.”

Neither woman spoke for a moment. Dr. Mora’s eyes stayed fixed on the monitor.

“The procedure would take about an hour, and it’s late. Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll work on it. Alright?”

“Yeah. Fine. I’ve somewhere to be anyway.”

Erica dressed without speaking and left without saying goodbye. It felt good to be out on the city street, even though it was eighty percent humidity and nearing ninety degrees even at night. Every few minutes there would be a hint of a breeze that felt delicious, and it sent pleasant goosebumps up her spine. For a moment she thought about just going home, and blowing off the rest of the night. But there was no reason to go home at all except to sleep, and Erica had no intention of doing that.

An upgrade wouldn’t be so bad, Cassie said. And you didn’t have to be so mean about it. No one else would charge you nothing for the maintenance on you Dr. Mora provides.

It’s not maintenance, Erica thought. But she knew Cassie was right, as she usually was. Dr. Mora was always taking the time to fix a damaged rotator cuff, suffered during a rough landing after skydiving. Or realign her upper thoracic vertebrae when she twisted it mountain biking downhill. Or suggesting she come to the cyborg prosthesis support group in the early days, and listening patiently when Erica swore she couldn’t live with the AI voice chattering in her brain.

Cassie, the AI Dr. Mora and her father had invented to help perform surgeries. The one that had gotten accidentally trapped inside her head.

You insufferable know-it-all, Erica thought.

I don’t mean to be that way, Cassie said to her, in a voice as clear and loud as her own thoughts. I literally can’t help it.

And ever since her surgery and their accidental pairing, Erica felt mostly mechanical, more like it was Cassie’s body rather than her own. And Dr. Mora, for all her help, only made her feel more Tin-Man than Dorothy.

Erica turned up Third avenue and headed north, past a few bodegas and a locked-up flower shop. The streets were fairly empty for a late June night. Anyone still on the street had a tired, harried look, like they were searching for a drink, or a hit of something, or just air conditioning. Something to relieve the heat and the pressure in the air.

Finally she came upon O’Malleys, and to her dismay the french doors to the patio were wide open and the ceiling fans were spinning as fast as possible, precluding the air conditioner blasting at full power. The sounds of guitars and drums were loud and billowing out into the night air. Alex’s band was already in the middle of a long, hard riff about never having enough or some such thing. Erica stood on the street, and from the sidewalk she could look in and see a crowd of twenty and thirty somethings sitting at their little tables or hunched over the bar, nursing drinks, half the crowd paying attention and the other half watching the highlights of the Yankees game on the televisions.

The song ended, and a few people clapped. Alex grabbed the mic, her long black bangs hanging in her eyes and her red guitar across her waist. She smiled seductively, looking out towards the end of the bar, towards the sidewalk, at Erica and at no one in particular.

“Thanks. Now something a little slower, if you please.”

The keyboardist, a third grade teacher who worked in the same building as Alex during the school year, started up, his synthesizer imitating a Steinway. Alex began to croon, the microphone an inch from her lips, her hands cupping it like it was made of gold.

“You told me you loved me,” she sang, “but that was a lie…”

Of all Alex’s songs, this is my favorite, Cassie said.

Why’s that?

It’s most like her. Raw and honest.

Erica went in, ordered a drink, and moved to the edge of the bar closest to the band. In the middle of a word Alex saw her, and gave just a hint of a smile before continuing on. The beer was so cold in the heat Erica couldn’t taste it. But it didn’t matter if it was top of the line or rotgut. The circuitry in her skull would never let her get drunk anyway.

“You told me you loved me, but I couldn’t see it in your eyes…”

Erica liked this song too. But she liked all of Alex’s songs. The way she agonized over the lyrics when she should have been grading spelling tests. Or would disappear some weekends just to practice guitar in her room. Or find a rotating cast of teachers still willing to cling to their old dreams of being musicians during the summer and holiday weekends. There was more passion in Alex than any person Erica had ever known, and it was impossible not to admire it.

When she finished singing, Alex took a small bow to a few more claps from the audience, told them they were going to take five, and bounded over to Erica while signaling for a drink.

“Took you long enough,” she said. The bartender, a young man with a beard as long as a his arm, passed a bottle to her. Despite few people paying attention or showing interest, including the three dudes in her band, she looked happy, if not sweaty.

“Hung up at the doctor’s,” Erica said.

“Everything okay?”

“The usual stuff. My knee acting up.”

“You sound like an old lady,” Alex said. “I still can’t believe how nice this came out.” She pointed to the tattoo on Erica’s arm.

“I know. The guy does great work. Looks like I’m out for teaching kindergarten though.”

“Your loss. We could share hallway space. Just think of all the snark and sarcastic comments the kids would hear if you were teaching too.”

“I’ll leave it to you.”

“Give me the stage any day of the week,” she said. “You want to sit in on a song?”

“I haven’t played guitar in years.”

“I don’t think most people are paying attention anyway,” she said. “At least play wingwoman for me for awhile. Some of these guys are cute.”

Erica scanned the crowd to find whoever these mystery guys were, and came up empty. The closest she saw was a table of four younger guys, their mid-thirties probably, ten years older than Alex and herself, all of them in undone ties and button down shirts, looking plastered and distant. All of them were balding, and all of them looked like the kind of guys trying very hard to stay in shape despite long hours at a job that forced them every weeknight into bars like O’Malley’s where they would drink and eat wings because it was cheap and fast.

Her eyes then settled on a man in the corner. Older, in his fifties she guessed, sitting in jeans and a t-shirt, his stare distant, hand curled around a rocks glass of some unidentifiable brown liquid. The hand with skin on it, anyway. His other arm, from his elbow to his fingers, was a metal so polished she could see herself in it, across the bar. He looked gruff enough to be a vet, but then he was also a little old. So many of the men back from combat overseas were younger, the kind she’d see in Dr. Mora’s group.

“You okay?” Alex asked. She followed Erica’s line of sight, then nodded. “Ah. Yeah, I’ve seen him in here a few times.”

“No skin.”

“Hm?”

“He’s got no skin on his arm.”

“I know. I’m told it’s a new trend. No skin grafting, no ‘artificial epidermis’, as they call it.” Alex leaned in close. “I don’t think that’s the kind of guy who’d care if you stared at him anyway.”

“Guess not.”

“Crazy thing I’m hearing is, now people are going in for cybernetic treatments they don’t even need. Fashionable, or something.”

It was enough to break Erica from her spell. She turned on her friend like she’d spit acid on her cheek.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Who would do that?”

“Hey, I don’t know. It’s just what I heard. But there’s definitely less stigma to it now, you have to admit. No one says anything anymore.”

Erica shrugged, then finished her drink. “Whatever.”

“Anyway. I’ve gotta get back up there,” Alex said. She plastered on a big smile. “You sure you don’t want to play a little ax?”

“I’m sure,” Erica said. “You guys already sound great.”

She wiped some sweat from her forehead and nodded.

“Well call me tomorrow at least. We’ll make plans for the Fourth.”

“Yeah.”

Erica stayed for a few more songs and a few more beers. The teachers were pretty good, though the louder they got the less people seemed to pay attention. Even Erica herself had trouble focusing on her friend. Instead she stared at the man with the metal arm. Every few minutes he would take a sip of his drink, and only once did he get up, and that was to get another one. He never looked at anybody, not even Erica, though she could would have thought he was feeling her gaze after so much time staring. But he never moved, and finally she lost interest. He became just part of the scenery, like another bar stool, and the crushing heat of the night became oppressive. It was time to go.

She left the bar with the sounds of Alex’s guitar carrying her out, another loud song doing its best to jolt everyone in the bar and on the street awake. The idea of someone cutting off their own arm for a cybernetic one sat in her brain like a splinter. She’d heard stories - or more accurately, Cassie could recount stories to her - of people with Body Identity Disorder. People who feel the need to be disabled. But they were rare. And the average person, the newspaper people who interviewed her and her father five years ago, the people who worked in finance or as school teachers or as politicians or anyone not involved in science, were shocked and disappointed to learn that cybernetics and metallic prostheses were not some body enhancing superpower. Her metallic bones were stronger than human ones, yes, but not by much. She wouldn’t be bench pressing cars anytime soon. So it became just one more thing to live with for most people. Why show it off?

Your blood alcohol level has returned to normal, Cassie said while she walked.

I only had a few beers, Erica thought.

I know. I’m just informing you. Alex sounded good. We should have stayed.

I’m tired.

Not that tired. Can we go to the beach with her this year? Coney Island, maybe?

You enjoy the sun too much. It’s not good for my skin.

I’ve only been seeing it for the last five years. I’m not as used to it as you. So can we?

Maybe. The sun isn’t good for the tattoo.

I know. But we can sit under an umbrella.

A car horn blared when Erica stepped off the sidewalk and into the street. A yellow cab sped past a few inches from her. She’d been walking against the light. When she looked up, she realized she had gone two blocks past her apartment. She turned around, nearly walking into a younger couple behind her waiting patiently for the light to change and trying to pretend they didn’t just notice her almost get run down.

You’re distracting me, she thought. Can’t we talk about it when we’re home? Or tomorrow?

I didn’t mean to.

You never mean to. But you do it anyway, so just keep quiet.

Her keys jingled when she opened the front door to the hall. Inside the air was stale but somewhat cooler. She checked her mailbox. A couple of bills. A flyer to a local restaurant that just opened. And a sealed letter from Prometheus Labs, her name and address typed neatly on the front.

“Huh.”

What could they want with you?

“What did I say about being quiet?” Erica said. Her voice echoed in the foyer. Cassie didn’t respond.

She tucked the letters under her arm and headed to the fifth floor. A few moments later she was in her apartment, where the air conditioner was already on. The place was dark and cool.

When she switched the lights on, she nearly screamed. At her feet was the body of a man, passed out or dead, lying spread eagle on the ground.

You can’t expect me to stay quiet for this, can you? Cassie asked.

Next Chapter: Colson