237

by


By the time I found her, she’d already removed one of her legs. Katherine gave me a weak smile, her eyes watering from pain despite how happy her self-amputations were making her, and continued sawing at the other.

“I’m sorry,” she moaned over the sound of tearing flesh, her once-strong voice breaking. “I want this. I need this.”

Problem was, she’d sealed herself off behind a security gate. We were in an abandoned clinic. It had been closed for months, but since the discovery of clean, renewable energy, nobody bothered to shut off power these days. That left a lot of empty structures that still hummed and whirred, ready to spring to life at a moment’s notice. This particular office had been in a rough area, so there were tons of security measures to keep people out. It was all beige walls, silent alarms, and undisposed medical material.

In this case, the security measures weren’t stopping a drug addict or criminal. They weren’t preventing a surgeon from getting her brains blown out, or a stash of life-saving drugs from being peddled on the black market. These bars were only stopping me from saving what remained of her limbs.

A loud crack resounded from inside the room as she broke her left femur. Face pale and hands trembling, she brushed the unwanted limb aside, sitting on the surgical table as just a torso and arms. “You can’t stop me. I’ve already programmed the equipment to remove my arms,” she said, voice shaking worse than her hands. I could hear the pain in her voice. Maybe it had always been there.

“Please, Kat, wait! I love you, I—I’m listening, okay? I hear you. I understand.”

Katherine bit her lip and shook her head. “No. You don’t. You said so yourself, remember?”

I did. Her problem started two years ago, but it didn’t get bad until recently. Two years back, they finally perfected Adaptogenic Augmentations, a self-replicating nano-technology that would analyze the patient’s physiology and automatically repair and damage to his or her body. It had been used to treat mental illnesses, chronic diseases, failing organs, genetic issues… it had even been used to grow new limbs. Patients who’d lost a body part could simply get a shot of Adaptogen, and soon, they’d have a perfect chrome replacement for the organic one they had before. It was usually overseen by a professional who’d ‘guide’ the process. Black market, or ‘rogue,’ augmentations weren’t unheard of.

Seeing people walk the streets with these new limbs had been the turning point. She’d always admired cybernetics, to the point of adoration, but I had no idea how deep that obsession went. A few months back, she started reading all she could on these procedures, printing out pictures of augmented artists, writers, and musicians, people who combined their new, technological body parts with their chosen craft to create beautiful compositions that ‘pure flesh’ artists simply couldn’t.

It seemed like a hobby to me. Harmless. Then she tried to bribe a surgeon to remove her limbs so she could grow new ones, and assaulted him when he wouldn’t perform the operation. At the police station, she broke down, sobbing to me about how “useless” her “shell” was. How she was never meant to be flesh. I’d stared at my wife, wondering who she was. Why I’d never noticed this pain—this delusion—in her before. Still, I convinced myself it was harmless.

Now, I stared in horror as she leaned back, reaching to the side of the operating table to hit a red button. Mechanical arms spindled out of the ceiling, aiming for her as she smiled, prompting me to bang against the gates. Nothing distracted her. A long, thin appendage, slightly rusted and creaking from disuse, but still clearly functional, injected something into each shoulder. Then a separate arm, far thicker than the other, aimed down with a bone saw.

“What about Dana?” I yelled, banking on the gate. “Trevor? What will we tell them?”

“Tell them—Ah!” she cried out as the blade began digging into her skin. “We’ll say Mommy had an operation done, and she’s all better now.”

Blood arced wildly around the room. Her therapist—court mandated—said it was Body Integrity Identity Disorder, specifically a little subset called Amputation Envy. BIID begins with the delusion that some or all of your body is wrong or misshapen. It can be as simple as feeling as though one ‘should’ be fat or thin, or it can involve the desire to be blind or paralyzed. That last part, her unique little corner of the diagnostic world, hinged on a particular need to have a removed limb replaced with an advanced prosthesis.

“Oh, god!” she screeched. I almost called 9-1-1, afraid to watch, not willing to look away, but didn’t, knowing what the police would do to Katherine. Her face was a roiling ocean, a storm of feelings no wall could contain nor sailor survive, even as the copper scent of her life filled the room and wafted over to me. She had lost a lot of blood now, and her already pale face was practically translucent, but her eyes remained focused.

Four new robotic limbs uncoiled. These were longer, more flexible, with tubules full of a roiling ocean of viscous gray fluid. “Katherine!” I yelled, but there was no stopping it now. What was I going to do, anyway? Even if I did put an end to this procedure, somehow halting the machines would leave her to bleed to death.

The new arms jabbed a needle just above each wound, emptying their contents into her so the nanobots could repair the damage she’d inflicted upon herself. Tears poured from her eyes, a smile fixed in place. Each was a shimmering bead of finally-realized happiness.

The therapist, Doctor Nigel Hansen, had given me some instructions. “Treat her with understanding,” he’d said. “This is a thought disorder, an unusual belief, that’s all, and we’re going to help her find order again.” The real kicker had been, “She needs supportive people in her life, positive reinforcement for non-delusional behaviors, so you can’t criticize her right now. You can’t discourage her. If you make her feel like she’s done something wrong, it could reinforce the idea that her body is wrong, and she’ll think that everything will be better if she gets her limbs replaced.”

So I’d followed his advice. We ate elaborate meals by candlelight that I’d cooked myself, so she’d feel loved. I praised her for being a great mother, even when she got so distracted looking at cybernetics online that she forgot to pick our children up from school. Each night, I chose a body part, at random, and told her how beautiful it was. Each day, I watched her slip farther away from me, her gaze distant, like the only thing she could see was her own metallic future. Like she was fantasizing about this day. About carving off her own limbs.

It took everything in me not to vomit. Had the doctor been wrong? Had I unwittingly pushed her to this? I tried to tell myself it’d be okay—that she’d soon be whole again, accept her new body, and we’d proceed with our lives the way we used to.

If I’d had any idea what was going to happen, I might’ve found a surgeon and paid for her quadruple amputation myself. Hell, I would’ve held him hostage, pointed a gun at his head and forced the bastard to cut up the woman I love, because anything, even a life in jail, would’ve been better than what happened.

Katherine groaned weakly that something didn’t feel right, then the assembly started, far faster than I’d seen it happen in any of the many YouTube videos she’d shown me. I quickly realized they weren’t forming arms. Thin gray beams grew out of her shoulders, ending in a ball joint that swiveled wildly as a thinner spike grew out from that. They were somewhat reflective, almost like steel beams that had been tapered down to a fine point. The same happened to her ‘legs,’ the nanobots creating perversions of human limbs. Her new appendages belonged more on a spider than a person.

The ‘procedure’ finished quickly, and Katherine raised an arm, staring at the sharpened point of her new left arm. Each limb was far longer than it should’ve been, at least six feet long. She cocked her head, trying to figure out what she was seeing, then let out a shriek, flailing erratically.

“Katherine!” I yelled. “Please, it’s okay, just… just come here, open the door. We’ll find someone who can…” It didn’t feel right to say fix you, but what else was I going to say? “Make the bots do what you wanted, you know?”

In her panic, she rolled off the table, landing on her back hard enough to let out a snap that didn’t sound like the normal clack of metal against a linoleum floor. She moaned something about a broken shoulder. Her once-white, now blood-spattered tank top slipped and I saw gray lines arcing across the exposed skin of her upper back, where her bone had given way. A new limb, a fifth, just as long and sharp as the other four, lanced its way out of her, clacking down on the floor below, her shirt tearing and falling away in the process.

My wife looked up at me, sobbing, her insectoid legs carrying her to the security gate. Toxic, green-gray lines wormed under her skin at right angles, wires and chips carrying new data all around her increasingly mutated form. Her other shoulder snapped, a loud fracture that I was sure the machinery had caused, for the sake of symmetry, if nothing else.

“Isiah, I…” she trailed off as leg number six touched down on the floor.

A loud bang came from the front of the building, a shout of “New Seattle Police, anyone here?” echoing through the halls. Her tattered shirt fell off. Those nanobots were aiming for her hips.

Raising my hand to the gate, I said, “Don’t say anything. I should’ve… I should’ve helped you more.”

She trembled as her hips broke, allowing two more legs to announce themselves as her hips mutated into a second abdomen—this one more rotund and spider-like, with her human torso levering to stand erect, perpendicular to her insectoid lower body. Katherine gingerly raised her right arm—well, the spike that had taken the place of her original right arm—and pressed it against the security gate. It was narrow enough to slip through the gaps and touch my palm. I felt it break the skin, but didn’t care.

“I should’ve held your hand more,” she whispered, eyes red. Wires arced along under the skin of her face now, and I could see them gathering to create additional eyes. Her teeth were gray, growing sharper.

“This isn’t what I wanted,” she whispered. “What… what are you gonna tell the kids?”

That didn’t matter. I couldn’t think about that right now. All I could focus on was the new law they’d passed a few months ago: due to overpopulation, criminals could be executed on sight as long as there was clear evidence of a felony. The medical supplies she’d used, even though technically not owned by anyone, were easily worth tens of thousands of dollars—and there was no hiding that she’d used them illegally. That was two guaranteed reasons for a shoot-on-sight situation.

“Honey, you have to get out of here,” I pleaded, watching flashlights bob around on the walls at the end of the hall. The police were close. “Go, before they get here.”

She didn’t argue. God, it hurt to see it, but in her eyes—all four of them, and counting—there was a clear knowledge of what she’d done. Even as the tainted nanobots ravaged her system. A human mind trapped in an increasingly arachnid frame.

Katherine drew back, looked at an exposed vent in the ceiling, the grate having fallen away, and tested her limbs on the wall. She was able to scale them with ease, some kind of magnetism enabling her ascent. “I love you,” she whispered, crawling inside.

I felt blood pooling in my palm from where her arm had pierced me. Her words came back, echoing through the dusty halls: I don’t feel right in this body. It doesn’t belong to me. I prayed the new one was better.

The police rounded into this hallway. “Freeze!” one of them yelled, raising her gun. I showed my palms, arms overhead, kneeling, waiting for the cuffs.

A bullet ripped into my shoulder. A second hit my torso and shredding one of my organs. Don’t know which, just felt the white-hot blast, saw it light up inside my eyes. Then I remembered that trespassing on federal property was now a felony—and this clinic had been run by the FDA.

Some said it was also a testing facility for experimental material. I tried to shrug this off, even as I fell back and hit the ground, dust coagulating in my wounds, until the officers were standing over me. Except they weren’t officers. Police officers didn’t wear black suits. Detectives, maybe, but… I knew better. These weren’t locals.

One of the agents looked into the surgical room, where Katherine’s blood was cooling on the ground, and pulled out his radio. “Looks like someone used batch 237. No body. One witness.”

The second knelt down and pressed the barrel of his gun to my forehead. He wore dark glasses that obscured his eyes. “We have security footage. We know your wife was here. What happened?”

I told him to go to hell.

Agent One radioed again: “Witness alive, sustained two gunshot wounds. Smart mouthed moron. Suspect has fled the scene. First survivor of 237. There were no cameras in the room though.” His head turned toward me. “We’ll bring the witness in for questioning.”

Agent Two drew a syringe from his pocket. Emergency adaptogen. It had replaced pretty much every first aid kit. The needle pierced my neck, then one of them flipped me over and cuffed me.

The bullets clinked to the floor as my body healed itself, a mix of flesh and circuitry knitting my injuries shut, but as they dragged me away, I couldn’t help craning my neck to stare at the ceiling. There, in the darkness of a misplaced ceiling panel, lurked my wife, skin pale, her eight eyes watching. I could see her ready to intervene.

I shook my head.

She waited too long for this.

I let them drag me off, and my wife scuttled through the ceiling on eight pointed limbs, her many eyes adjusting to the darkness.

Food for Thought

Bionic limbs are rapidly becoming more advanced, with some recent models even sporting wifi, USB ports, and the ability to play music. Some even have a collection of limbs for performance or cosmetic reasons, such as the singer Viktoria Modesta. But if these products were to become commercially viable, should a line be drawn? If the cybernetic limb becomes more efficient than the human limb, would it be ethical to provide these replacements at will, or should they only be allowed with a doctor’s recommendation, like with a prescription? Given the advent of 3D printing, it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that someone would use such a printer to create a weaponized limb—one that might have a built-in knife, stun gun, regular gun, etc. What can be done, if anything, to prevent this from happening?

About the Author

Kevin Holton’s work has appeared with companies like Siren’s Call Publications, James Ward Kirk Fiction, and Crystal Lake Publishing in anthologies such as No Sight for the Saved, Voice from the Gloom volume 2, and Arachnophobia, among others. He is a writer, editor, voice actor, and amateur Batman who can be found at www.kevinholton.com and Game Time Reviews.

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