Mae woke to a white light and the sound of her mother’s sobbing. The blankets were heavy on her chest and there was a faint scent of something acrid in the air. Her head hurt and her body felt bloated and unsure. It was daytime. The windowpane was speckled with fingerprints but, beyond the glass, there were leaves and branches and a white winter sky.
The room was new to her, but her mind was too fogged for Mae to question it. The fluorescent light stung her eyes. “Mum?” Mae’s voice was dry, but the word filled the room.
The sobbing stopped. There was a scrape of chair legs on linoleum and then warm hands pressed against Mae’s cheeks and a sequence of kisses marked her forehead. “My baby,” her mother said, her mascara smudged prettily in the corners of her eyes. “My poor, poor baby.”
Mae tried to move, but her arms and legs felt heavy. Blinking to focus, she looked down at the hands that lay crossed on her chest, like a corpse laid out in a coffin. A thick bandage was wrapped around one elbow. Below it, the skin was silvery and free of markings. A prosthetic, she realised, the thought coming to her as though from a distance. Legs too, most likely. And, through the mist, came a vague echo of screaming brakes.
She was too tired to panic. She slept.
When Mae woke again, the room was quiet and she was alone. A grey blind had been lowered over the window and the room was lit only by the cold light that seeped through the open doorway to the corridor. The faint murmur of a distant television was the only sound that penetrated the silence.
There were footsteps in the corridor, and the room darkened as a sturdy body paused at Mae’s door. “You’re awake.”
The overhead light flicked on and Mae closed her eyes against the sudden glare. When she dared open them, she recognised a nurse’s uniform.
“You’re a lucky girl,” the nurse said. “You’ve been fitted with the very best cybernetic prosthetics available. Dr. Olssen is a leader in the field.”
“But—” Mae paused for a moment, trying to clear the fog in her mind. “There’s a waiting list. It’s always in the news.”
“You have excellent connections.”
Mae understood. “My mother.”
“A good friend of Dr. Olssen,” the nurse said, her smile tight. “Now, can you lift that cup beside your bed?”
To Mae’s surprise, she was able to do so effortlessly, the prosthetic hand acting just as her biological hand would have done. If anything, it was easier; there was a mechanical strength in the new hand that made the glass seem almost weightless.
“As I said, you’re very lucky. A bit of rehab and you’ll be back to normal in no time.”
Normal, Mae thought. Nothing will be normal again.
When Mae’s mother returned, she was not alone. Mae ordered the photographers out of her room in a voice so loud that a nurse came to investigate the noise.
“Really, Mother?” she said once they had gone.
Loretta smoothed the perfect lines of her suit. “I didn’t think you’d mind, dear. Dr. Olssen has been good to you. I thought you’d be pleased to give him some publicity.”
“Give you some publicity, you mean.” Mae shook her head. “I won’t play crippled daughter to give you a boost in the polls.”
“Such a cynic.” Loretta checked her reflection in the window. “You get that from your father. The public loves stories about cybernetic enhancement; it’s only fair to satisfy that need.”
“I’m hardly enhanced,” Mae said. “I walk like a robot and my hand keeps twitching.”
“You can’t expect to adapt instantly. Why must you always be so negative?”
Mae took a breath before replying. “I’m a triple amputee. I think some negativity is justified.”
“You were a triple amputee,” Loretta corrected her. “I wasn’t about to let you languish in the public system for years.”
“Yes, about that.” Mae held her mother’s gaze. “I’ve seen the news reports. The waiting list for these things is ridiculous. And yet…here I am.”
Loretta smiled. “Never underestimate the power of wealth, dear.”
“But money can only go so far,” Mae persisted. “They can’t make enough prostheses to satisfy demand. Everyone knows that. Your own government set up the training grants.”
Loretta dismissed her with a wave. “They always hold back a few for VIPs. It’s how the world works. How many times have we eaten at fully-booked restaurants because of who I am?”
“Food’s different to these hunks of metal.” Mae raised her right arm. The sun’s light was entering the room at just the right angle to emphasise the silvery sheen of its skin. As Mae rotated her hand, the metal joints moved in a way that was almost human and she resisted a shudder of disgust.
Rehabilitation wasn’t as difficult as Mae had imagined. Once the worst of the pain from the implantations had faded, she was met in her room every morning by a physiotherapist. For the hand, he taught Mae repetitive exercises that strengthened the synthetic links between the prosthesis and her brain. She spent hours writing and rewriting the letters of the alphabet, the letters slowly becoming more legible with time. Keyboards were easier, as they didn’t require the same fine motor skill, although Mae’s left and right hands didn’t coordinate as well as before and the letters occasionally jumbled on the screen.
While the therapist also showed Mae leg exercises aimed at improving her balance, he emphasised that walking was the key to adaptation. To that end, Mae was instructed to spend as much of her day as possible roaming around the public areas of the hospital.
Three Pine House, Mae learned, had originally been a private home, and much of the hospital was still housed within the old mansion. Bold signs directed those seeking cosmetic surgery up the front staircase to the first floor, and most of the patients’ rooms were located in the mansion’s heavily renovated left and right wings. Beyond the original part of the building, there was a sizeable extension, all glass and white paint and stainless steel. It was here that Mae did much of her walking. The floor-to-ceiling windows gave a near-interrupted view out to the garden, and the corridors were wide and sympathetic to Mae’s awkward gait.
There was a sterility in the new part of the building that went beyond the usual hospital smell of disinfectant and welding propane. The white-clad nurses blended into the white walls and the white sunlight reflected off the silver-white steel. When Mae walked down the halls, the nurses nodded to her but did not speak, almost as though they too were part of the backdrop.
The old part of the hospital was different. The corridors were narrow and the floorboards—although stained and polished—creaked under the increased weight of Mae’s legs. The walls were still white, but the windows were smaller and fewer, and the light never carried to the corners of the high ceilings. There, the nurses were often hidden away, in patients’ rooms or offices, and the smell was one of age: of crumbling and concealment.
And so she preferred to leave the left wing for the glass and metal of the extension, and her regular walks always took the same path. On the fourth afternoon, however, Mae closed the door to her room behind her, and her legs carried her in the opposite direction.
Mae had grown used to strange twitches from the new limbs, which the nurses reassured her were a normal part of the brain’s adjustment, but occasionally things happened that made her wonder whether she had any control over the prostheses at all.
That sensation was only heightened, Mae discovered, when your legs seemed to have a mind of their own. Her attempts to turn just caused her to wobble feebly, her torso too weak to redirect the greater weight and power of the metal-filled legs. She grabbed at a nearby doorway with her left hand, but it only stilled her for a moment before the grip was broken. She thought about calling for a nurse, but the absurdity of the situation kept her silent.
By then, Mae had reached the end of the corridor and had passed beyond the grand front staircase and into the murkier administration area behind it. There, the hall was narrower and lit only by yellow fluorescent lights. The offices were cramped and uninviting; Mae caught glimpses of desks as she passed. At the end of the hall was a door with a sign on it that read Strictly Staff Only Beyond This Point. Mae’s legs paused and she had a brief moment to feel relieved before her right hand reached out to turn the knob.
“Can’t you read?”
Mae turned—and now my body decides to obey me, she thought—and recognised the matron by her grey uniform and grey-streaked hair. “I’m sorry, matron,” she said, aware of how crazy she must sound, “but I’m having trouble controlling my prostheses.”
The matron regarded her through narrowed eyes, as though trying to assess whether Mae was being wilfully ridiculous or merely lying. “That would be highly unusual,” she said briskly, “but I suppose I can ask Dr. Olssen to look in on you when he next has a free moment.”
Mae’s cheeks were hot. “Thank you,” she said. “That would be good.”
The matron watched as she walked away. Mae’s legs did as she wished and, when she reached her bedroom, she buried her face in her pillow and cried.
Dr. Olssen was not the tall, fair young man that Mae had imagined. Instead, he was middle aged, with greying black hair and a weak jaw. His clothes were noticeably expensive, but he didn’t carry himself like Mae’s mother or her friends. He didn’t look Mae in the eye when he spoke, instead staring at her breasts or focussing on a point above her head.
“Matron tells me you have a complaint about your prostheses,” he said by way of greeting, taking the folder from the shelf beside Mae’s bed and flicking through it too quickly to read more than the occasional word.
“I wouldn’t call it a complaint.”
He didn’t look up. “No?”
“I’ve just been finding that I have no control over them at times.”
“Some weakness at first is only to be expected.”
Mae frowned. “Weakness isn’t the issue. They’re strong. Very strong. I’ve no way of stopping them when they decide to do what they want.”
Olssen looked up briefly, huffing with disdain. “They don’t want anything, Miss Robson. They’re inanimate objects, given movement through your brain’s commands.”
“If that’s right, then something is going wrong with the connection to my brain.”
Olssen replaced the folder, taking Mae’s right arm instead. With the bandage removed, the join between her body and the prosthesis was a red, shiny band of skin dotted with dark stitches. The healing wound looked untidy against the contrast of the silvery hand.
“Everything looks good to me,” Olssen said, rotating the wrist. “The synthetic skin is particularly nice on this model, and the joints are all working smoothly. Occasionally, we see problems with the metal structure—we’re dealing with such minute details, you see—but in this case we were able to integrate the new and old skeletal systems with no difficulty. It’s always easier with young, fit patients such as yourself.”
“Then why do my legs and my hand do what they want?” Mae persisted.
“It’s very normal to experience the occasional twitch at first. Just as the join sites need to heal, so do the new connections we’ve made to the brain.”
Mae laughed. “Twitches? Are you trying to say that my legs twitched me halfway around the building?”
Olssen met Mae’s eyes for the first time since entering her room. “No,” he said. “Miss Robson, I am telling you that it just isn’t possible for prostheses to do that. The technology is amazing, yes, but it’s only a tool: a tool that you command.”
“I know what I experienced.”
“You’ve had a hard time of it.” Olssen patted her on the shoulder, his hand lingering longer than necessary. “It must be difficult, adjusting to your new body. But you’ve been given a great opportunity.”
Olssen’s round, smug face was really beginning to annoy Mae. “So I should shut up and be grateful that my mother is powerful enough to push me to the head of the queue?”
Olssen smiled. His teeth were perfect and unnaturally white. “Cybernetic limbs are incapable of movement without a command from a human brain. You are either lying or mistaken. If you like, I can arrange for the hospital psychologist to pop in to discuss your feelings of loss relating to your injury—and your feelings of guilt about qualifying for private care.”
Mae closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath before replying, a technique learned and perfected in twenty-seven years of knowing her mother. “No, thank you. I’m not lying, and I’m not crazy. I know my body and I know when something is wrong with it.”
“The offer will be there if you change your mind.” Olssen obviously didn’t believe a word she was saying. “And, in the meantime, please stay in the public areas of the hospital. The private areas are not as well maintained, and may be unsafe.”
“I’ll do my best,” Mae said, her upper lip twitching slightly as the doctor left the room.
The next time it happened, it was late at night and the corridors were quiet and abandoned. Mae was woken by her legs sliding out from under the bedclothes and her right hand raising her torso from the mattress. The room was lit only by the faint line of moonlight seeping under the base of the Holland blind. Mae’s mind was dull and clumsy with sleep, but she was aware enough to feel frightened, and to clutch at the sheets with her left hand as her body rose.
Mae’s efforts were unsuccessful, the sheet tugging free of the mattress and trailing uselessly on the floor behind her as her legs carried her over to the door and out into the hall. Feeling even more conspicuous with the sheet hanging like a security blanket from her hand, she let it drop. She turned her head once before her legs took her around the corner, and the discarded fabric looked like a corpse in the shadowy hall.
Her legs took Mae straight to the older part of the hospital. Here, the lights were even weaker, away from the patients and the nurses’ offices. The grand staircase looked like a felled tree in the silent foyer, and the solid wood doors to the grounds were closed and presumably locked. For the first time, Mae realised that she was kept at Three Pine House by more than her rehabilitation. Her stomach twisted.
Abandoned by its staff, the administration corridor was dark and cool. The only light was provided by the green glow of the exit sign above the doorway to the foyer. In the darkness, the hall felt even narrower, the walls grey and close at Mae’s sides. Worried that she might trip, Mae groped along the walls for a light switch but, if one existed, it was out of her reach. Her lack of vision didn’t seem to impede her movement, however. Her legs carried her to the far end of the corridor without incident, and her right hand hung, motionless, at her side.
It was only when she reached the door marked Staff Only that the hand twitched and rose, its movement jerky as it reached out and turned the handle. The door was not locked, and it opened smoothly and silently to reveal another green-tinged darkness beyond. Here, there was a switch right beside the door, and fluorescent light burned Mae’s eyes as the shadows of the hall flickered out of view.
Dark, peeling wallpaper covered the walls and the carpet underfoot was worn completely bare in places. Original features, a real estate agent would call it but, to Mae, it looked like the putrefaction of many years. There were spider-webs on the cornices and a smell of mildew in the air. Mae shivered, and not just from the cold.
She was moving slowly now, as though the wing was unsettling her prostheses too. On the right, she passed an open door that led to a room with a crumbling chaise lounge and wooden floors. Heavy curtains pooled at the base of windows that were covered in mouldering planks of wood. Mae was glad when her legs passed the room without pausing.
At the end of the hall, there was a heavy wood door, with a faded KEEP OUT sign nailed slightly off-centre. Mae felt her throat tighten as her right hand attempted to turn the handle, but the door remained closed. Locked, she thought, relieved, but her hand rattled the knob for some time before stilling.
There was the sickly smell of decay in the air. Mae’s legs gave way, and she crumpled to the floor.
“You’ve always had a big imagination.” Mae’s mother stood near to the door, the perfect picture of I can’t stay long. “You used to scare your sister half to death talking about monsters.”
“That was a long time ago. This is real.” Mae didn’t like crying in front of her mother, but today the tears refused to stop. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be silly.” Loretta retrieved a packet of tissues from her handbag and passed them to her daughter. “You’re in a hospital: the safest place in the world! And, if there are any problems, you’re surrounded by people who can help.”
As if he had heard her, Dr. Olssen walked into the room, a suit jacket folded over one arm and his hair slicked back. He deposited the jacket on Mae’s bed as he was motioned into Loretta’s wide-spread arms. “The nurses told me you were in today,” he said into her shoulder, his body pressed close against her breasts. “Always a pleasure, Lottie. Always a pleasure.”
As Mae wrinkled her nose in response to the display, her right hand reached into the pocket of Olssen’s jacket, slipping back under the bedclothes with a silvery tangle of keys clutched within its fist.
Mae opened her mouth, but remained silent.
Mae was not surprised when her legs woke her again that night. Her hand found the keys where it had hidden them—a half-eaten packet of biscuits beside Mae’s bed—and folded its fingers tightly around them, so that there was no chance of Mae prising them from its grasp. She was not sure she wanted to. As fearful as she was, she felt like she had embarked upon a journey, and a part of her wanted to know where she’d end up.
Her legs took the same route as the previous night. Again, Mae found herself in the formal foyer, and again she passed along the office-lined corridor and through to the dilapidated area beyond the forbidding door. There, however, she stopped, as though her limbs were sharing her apprehension.
The nights were getting colder, and Mae was dressed only in her pyjamas. There was a chill in the musty air that raised her skin into goosebumps and caused her to shiver. The silence in the mouldering wing was unbroken and oppressive. Mae’s legs began to walk.
As she approached the door, her right hand rose, fumbling with the keys. Mae could see that there were not many on the ring. One was easily identifiable as a car key, and several looked decades too modern to fit the rusting lock. Only two were the right shape and age, and Mae’s hand fit the first into the keyhole without difficulty. She found herself hoping that the key wouldn’t turn, but it was the right key and the bolt slid back quietly. Mae closed her eyes as her right hand opened the door.
Her curiosity was greater than her fear. Even once she opened her eyes, the room remained dark, but there was a light switch beside the door. Once illuminated, the room quickly revealed the reason for its blackness: it was large and windowless, the only other break in the wallpaper being a door on the far wall. The condition of the wallpaper was better than in the hall, and Mae could see that the room had once been beautiful. There was a long table in front of her, its surface covered in dust, and chairs that bled their stuffing onto the floor. There were worn rugs and bookcases and darkened paintings on the walls, but most of all there was the smell. It was sweet and it was sickening and Mae retched as the foul air filled her lungs.
“So that’s where my keys went.” Dr. Olssen was beside her before she’d registered the sound of his footsteps. “Trespassers are not tolerated in this hospital, no matter who their mothers may be.”
“I’m sorry,” Mae said, a twisting heaviness filling her chest. “My hand—”
“Oh please. Spare me the fairy tales.” Olssen tried to take the keys from Mae’s hand, but the metal of her fingers was immovable. “You damn cyborgs are more trouble than you’re worth. How much do you know?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What have you seen?”
Mae followed Olssen’s gaze to the closed door. “Only this room.” Her right hand shook the keys, causing them to jangle.
“You’re lying.” Olssen’s face was tight with anger and something that looked like fear. “You society types are so quick to expect special treatment, but you never think about what has to happen for you to get it. And then you find out the truth and blame the very people who got you what you wanted. Do you think it’s easy for me? I got into this business to heal people, but there’s no money in waiting lists and wheelchairs.”
Mae tried to back away, but her legs remained stationary. “If you need money, my mother—”
“Tempting, but no. You’d talk.” Snatching a thick book from the bookcase beside him, he swung it at Mae. It connected at the temple, dazing her, but her stance remained firm and motionless, and her right hand did not flinch. Olssen raised the book again. “At least you’ll be good for spare parts.”
“Stop! I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mae pleaded, her head already beginning to pound. “I won’t talk. I won’t tell anyone you hit me. I don’t want to be here at all. If you help me, I’ll go. I didn’t mean to trespass.”
Olssen ignored her. As he attacked again, Mae’s right foot knocked his legs from beneath him. His knees made a dull sound as they met the tapestry rug and his eyes grew wide as Mae’s right hand stretched forward and thrust the car key into the side of his neck.
The doctor’s blood was dark and quick-flowing. He clutched at his neck, trying to close the wound, but the key had torn a jagged hole in his flesh and his fingers were soon coated as the blood continued to pool on the floor.
“What can I do?” Mae asked, her throat tight and sore. She tried to go for help, but her legs would not comply.
Olssen did not reply, focussed only on the lake of red in which he was kneeling. When he crumpled sideways, his eyes closing, Mae felt the cold of the room inside her veins.
“You’ve killed him!” she shouted, hitting her right hand with the left, ignoring the pain of the metal beneath her fingers. “You’ve killed him and I’ll go to jail!”
Mae’s tears came in a wave, the situation crashing over her as she struggled to draw breath.
It was a long while before Mae’s legs moved again. Her tears had all but subsided and she had fallen into a dazed state, barely registering as she approached the door on the far wall. The car key was covered in Olssen’s blood, but it was the second of the old keys that her right hand slid into the keyhole, and it opened the lock freely, as though it was frequently used.
As the door opened, the smell became almost unbearable. The inner room was dark, and this time it was her right hand that felt for the switch. The light was dim, but it was enough to turn the shadows into a gallery of corpses. The bodies were lying discarded on the floor, their missing limbs reminiscent of ancient statues. It was colder in the room—very cold—but not cold enough. The smell was a living thing. Mae retched, and then vomited onto the floor beside what once had been a head.
Mae’s legs carried her to the far corner of the room. She stared with dull eyes at the mottled female body that lay before her. Like most of the corpses, it was beginning to decompose. It was missing its legs and the lower part of its right arm. Above each wound was the familiar pink scar of the prosthetic surgery that had taken place. Mae’s legs knelt beside the body, and her right hand stroked red hair back from the remains of the woman’s face. She looked down at her arm and at the silvery lines of her legs. They must have been a perfect fit.