The Arm and FlanaganDavid Dvorkin / Horror / Science Fiction
THE ARM AND FLANAGAN
Copyright 2012 by David Dvorkin
* * * * *
* * * * *
Jimmy stared at the doctor uncomprehendingly.
The doctor repeated himself. “It’s revolutionary technology, Sergeant Flanagan. It’s an experimental program. Civilians probably won’t have access to this for years, but the government is determined to do whatever it can for its wounded warriors.”
“Wounded warriors,” Jimmy repeated.
“You’ve given so much to your country. Now your country wants to give back to you.”
Jimmy perked up. “You found my arm? You can reattach it?”
The doctor sighed. “No, no, of course not. I doubt if it was recovered from the battlefield. Even if it was, it’s been far too long. It’s no longer viable.”
“Viable,” Jimmy said. He smiled. “What a great word.”
“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” the doctor said, betraying a hint of impatience, “but I’ve already explained all of this to you. “Your original arm is long gone, but thanks to a special budget allocation, we’re able to fit you with a very expensive, very advanced replacement that will be even better.”
“Better than a real arm?” Jimmy asked.
“Better than the original one. The one you lost in the explosion.”
“I almost made it,” Jimmy said. “Four years, three tours. Not a mark on me. I was almost there.”
“Mm, hmm,” the doctor said.
The door to the examining room opened and a young woman in blue scrubs came in carrying a long, narrow cardboard box.
“And here it is!” the doctor said heartily. “Your new left arm.”
The nurse put the box on the examining table next to Jimmy. He avoided looking at it and looked at the nurse instead. She was pretty and had a warm smile. Once, he might have flirted with her. Once, before his arm had been blown off. What chance would he have now with a girl?
There was Terrie, of course. He knew he couldn’t put off calling her. He should at least listen to some of the messages she’d been leaving for him. She wanted to dump him; he knew that. Might as well get on with it.
“Might as well get on with it,” Jimmy said.
“Exactly,” the doctor said. “Take your shirt off, please. Nurse.”
The nurse stepped forward to help.
“No,” Jimmy said. He stood up, pulled his shirt out of his pants awkwardly with his right hand, and started tugging it over his head even more awkwardly. Even when it covered his head, he could sense the stares of the other two, he could feel the combination of sympathy and annoyance at his refusal of help. Finally, he got the shirt off, dropped it on the room’s single chair, and climbed back onto the table.
The doctor motioned with his head and the nurse left the room. Jimmy watched her sadly as she disappeared behind the closing door.
The doctor did something to the dressing covering the stump that ended halfway down Jimmy’s left upper arm. The dressing fell away. It landed on the examining table and slipped to the floor. The doctor leaned toward Jimmy, frowning, as he examined the stump. “Lift,” he said.
“Lift your arm, please. I want to have a look at the rest of it.”
“My arm,” Jimmy said. “You mean this.” Nonetheless, he lifted it, surprised again, as he always was, at its lightness.
The doctor peered at the puckered edges and the still–raw center of the wound.
“Looks good,” the doctor said.
Jimmy shivered again.
“I think we’re ready,” the doctor said. He walked around Jimmy and, standing on Jimmy’s right, opened the box the nurse had left and lifted something from it. “Isn’t it a beauty?”
Jimmy looked in the opposite direction, toward his stump. He didn’t want to look at that, either, but at least it was part of him, and it was human.
“Visually indistinguishable from your standard original arm, but superior in every way. Better senses, stronger, and immensely rugged. It’s a triumph of science and engineering, as you can see.”
Jimmy closed his eyes.
“It’s covered with a tough skin analog containing microscopic sensors that will give you a sense of touch that’s superior to that of human skin. You’ll find this arm far more responsive than your standard arm, and not just because the circuitry and artificial muscles are so superior to and faster and more responsive than standard human nerves and muscles, but also — even more — because of its built–in intelligence. There’s almost as much reasoning and modeling and predicting ability in this baby as there is in your own brain. It can actually anticipate what you need it to do, and that will just keep improving as it gets to know you.
“It even handles the process of attachment itself,” he said, growing still more enthusiastic. “It’s designed to grasp the stump, applying a local anesthetic as it does so, and begin the process of integration with your body by itself. It’s an in–office procedure, and you’ll be ready to walk out of here and drive home within half an hour. Probably less.”
“Sounds like a real time saver for the VA,” Jimmy said.
“Oh, yes,” the doctor said. “All the R&D was handled by DARPA. We had to pay for this beauty, and it’s a lot, but we save on surgery and recovery costs. And you’re only using twenty, twenty–five minutes of my time. Everyone wins. So let’s get to it.”
Jimmy sighed, steeled himself, and turned to face the arm, to face this mechanical nightmare from an old science–fiction movie.
To his surprise it looked like … an arm. It looked completely human.
The doctor was holding it with the hand toward Jimmy. The hand, which he had expected to consist of some sort of metallic graspers, looked just like a human hand — much like the hand he had lost in the explosion, in fact. The arm’s color was almost identical to the color of the skin of his right arm. He didn’t feel repelled and horrified, as he had expected to. He felt numb.
Carrying the arm, the doctor walked around Jimmy toward his left, toward what was left of his left arm. As he did so, he turned the artificial arm so that the other end, the end that would attach itself to Jimmy, pointed toward the young man.
That end didn’t look at all human. It was filled with unidentifiable shapes in various colors and sizes. Around the perimeter were innumerable small, gleaming, sharp–looking prongs. It looked like the many–toothed mouth of some alien predator.
Noticing his start of alarm, the doctor said, “Self–sterilizing. Nothing to worry about there.”
With a quick movement, and before Jimmy realized he was going to do anything, the doctor pressed the predatory mouth against Jimmy’s stump. The prongs snapped down, slicing into Jimmy’s skin. Small beads of blood appeared at every wound, forming a ring around his stump.
Jimmy sat frozen in fear. He felt nothing, not the slightest pain, not even the touch of the artificial monster.
“Excellent,” the doctor said. “Notice how it blocked the pain immediately? That shows you that it’s already integrating itself with your nervous system. Don’t move for a while. Just stay that way. It’s merging with your bone and muscles right now.” Cautiously, he lifted his hands from the arm. It remained in place, attached to Jimmy’s stump. The beads of blood disappeared, absorbed by the arm.
Jimmy could feel nothing — not pain, not the mechanical arm itself. All he could feel was the weight of the thing, dragging his stump and shoulder down. As he stared at it, the prongs penetrating his skin sank further in and disappeared. The division between his skin and the artificial surface of the arm blurred and faded away. In seconds, he couldn’t tell where he ended and the arm began.
The hand clenched into a fist. Then, one by one, the fingers straightened. The process repeated a few times. Then the arm bent at the elbow, bringing the hand close to Jimmy’s face. He gasped in surprise and a bit of fear.
“Self–testing procedure,” the doctor said. “It’s checking itself to make sure everything works properly. When it’s satisfied, it’ll turn on the connections, and you’ll be all set.”
For a moment, the arm held the hand in front of Jimmy’s face, the palm toward him, the fingers together and the thumb out, as though offering itself for his inspection.
The elbow straightened part way. Jimmy’s stump rotated, and the arm lowered itself to rest on Jimmy’s lap. Jimmy hadn’t willed his stump to rotate. It had happened by itself. No, not by itself: it had happened under the arm’s control. Jimmy stared in shock at the arm resting on his lap.
“There you are,” the doctor said proudly. “Your new arm. You’ll love it. Treat it well, and it will treat you well. I’ll see you again in a month for a brief follow up. See the receptionist on the way out to make an appointment.” He nodded and left the room.
It’s not my new arm, Jimmy thought. It’s just a thing that’s attached to me.
He looked at the arm as it lay on his lap. He didn’t even want to try to make it move. He resented it. He wanted his real arm back, not this thing that had taken its place.
Long minutes passed as Jimmy sat immobile, trying not to think but unable to ignore the arm.
There was a knock on the door. The door opened, and the pretty nurse entered. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t realize you were still here. I wanted to prep the room for the next patient.”
“Sorry.” He got off the table and stepped over to the chair. He picked his shirt up with his right hand and fumbled with it.
“Use both hands,” the nurse said brightly. “Now you can.”
“Christ,” Jimmy muttered. He glanced at the arm, hanging limply down his left side, a weight pulling him slightly to the left. But he had to start at some point.
He willed the arm to move. Nothing happened.
“Don’t think about it,” the nurse said. “Just use it, the way you used to, before you lost it.”
He wanted to point out that the arm wasn’t the one he had lost, but he decided it would be silly to keep making that point. Instead, he looked away from the arm, looked at the shirt, tried to slip back into old ways, old habits.
“I’m just going to put my shirt on,” he said. “Like always.”
And he did.
With his right hand and the new arm’s hand, he picked up the shirt by its bottom. He put his right arm through its opening and the new arm through the left opening, and then he pulled it over his head.
He grinned at the nurse. “You’re right. It worked. Now I need to unzip my pants and try to tuck it in, so you’re going to have to leave.”
She laughed. “I’m a nurse, but okay. Good luck!”
Good luck, and don’t castrate yourself with your mechanical arm, he thought. Is that what you mean? “Thanks,” he said.
When she had left the room, he concentrated on not thinking about what he was doing. Mechanical actions with a mechanical arm, he thought. That’s the key, I guess.
He tried to think about other things while undoing his pants. He focused on Terrie, but the pretty nurse kept replacing her. Both images made him feel sad and hopeless. In the meantime, mechanically, he undid his belt, unzipped his pants, tucked in his shirt, and did everything up again.
There was no mirror in which to check that he had done it all correctly, but it felt comfortable, and when he ran his right hand and the arm’s hand around his waist to check, everything felt right.
He stopped in amazement. Felt right! Yes, he had been able to feel with both hands, both his real hand and the other arm’s hand, throughout the entire process.
The fucking thing really is a triumph of science and engineering, he thought.
He experimented with opening the door to the examining room with the arm’s hand instead of his right hand. It seemed quite natural. The feel of the door handle felt natural, as well.
He hoped that it would be easy to get back in the habit of driving with two hands, now that he had spent so many months getting accustomed to driving with one. But once he was back inside his car in the hospital’s parking lot, he started the engine, put the car in Drive, put both hands on the wheel, and it all seemed just the way it should be, the way it had always been.
In a way, it was better. He felt in control and confident in a way he hadn’t for years. The new arm’s hand rested on the wheel with casual confidence. He sensed that it was even happier to be driving than he was.
But it’s not my arm, he thought.
“You’re not my arm,” he said to it. “I wanted my arm back.”
* * * * *