At first there’s no warmth. Only the hot black pain of frostbite. Then like a shock, the blankness ends again and I feel my skin start to thaw, my blood slowly pulsing through veins that had almost forgotten how to push it.
I pull past the glue of long-closed eyelids only to find the same blurred empty corners I’d barely seen those other times, when I’d woken to something – more, nothing, really – the black walls around me glowing yellow in the faint reflection of the now dying filament above.
Had the lights just been on?
Slowly, surely, it all comes back to me. The money. The trial advertised in the paper. Six thousand for three months of escape? I’d paid more for the same.
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The receptionist, all bland and brown eyes, had barely glanced at the NDA she’d watched me complete. “Just through those doors,” she’d said, one hand hovering over her steadily ringing phone, the other pointing to a pair of grey swinging doors to the left. Goosebumps had filled even the creases at my elbows, as if all of me were preparing for the chill I was about to endure.
Concentrate on the money, I’d told myself. Won’t be any different than all those other winters.
But this had been different. Easier than eating, the blankness had swelled and swallowed me until I crawled out of it again. And again. And again. Each time aware of the cold that felt like death, that wouldn’t let me die.
More than three months. The realization crawls over my skin like the irritating tick of a stopwatch, trying to set itself into the folds of the wrinkles that shouldn’t be there. Almost habitually my hand twitches for the phone that used to sit in my pocket, causing the rest of me to tighten, each non-movement jerky and deeply painful, especially where the nurses had tethered me (how long ago?) to the wood board at my back.
“The biological material acts like your skin. It won’t burn you like metal might,” the head nurse had said as he’d tied me down, limb by limb, his eyes black, his mouth hidden behind a green sick-mask. Right arm. Left arm. Right leg. Left leg. He’d covered my mouth with the tube and then . . .
That had been it, until I was pulled up again the next time, and the next, always freezing, always scared. I just kept waking up. And waking up. And waking up. Waking up with nothing there to greet me before the blankness would come again.
Then, like it had been there the whole time, a buzzing in the distance catches me, unlocking something else entirely: fear. Get me out. Get me out. Get me out. The voice is mine. From deep within, yet another question echoes, dangerous.
What have they taken?
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
Hello? I try to ask.
At least, that’s what I tell my voice to say. For a moment, there is only silence and echo and buzz before, as if I’m being turned to standing, the board at my back rises, my torso slouching forward, gravity pulling the straps at my arms and shoulders painfully taut. For a moment, the sound of blood rushes loudly in my ears, erasing everything. For just a moment, I welcome the rush…
A spark like a flash. Enough to bring me back, my foggy eyes clinging desperately to the relative after-dark, searching the shadows for the source. Who’s there?
Then, I feel who’s there. Or not there. Below my waist. Pain. Worse than the cold. Struggling, shaking, I look down and force my eyes to see. By the light of the next spark, there it is. What they’ve taken. What they’re giving back.
Part of me registers that there are legs. Not mine…no toes. Just metallic extensions with thick knee pistons sitting on a rack close-by. At my hips, roughly scarred skin clings desperately to the plates of metal that…
In a wave of nausea, I heave, trying to empty a stomach with nothing in it. My shoulders shake, my mouth stretching to birth something other than language, gouged and rasping like ripped of paper: a broken-cord scream.
Then the machine. Small. Nimble. Sawing at the metal that is also me, without a human hand in sight.
It’s working on its own, I realize, seeing it fully for what it is and knowing as soon as the thought crosses, the pain tearing into me again, that the legs that are not my legs. Numb to all feeling, only the ghost of them itching long past their due, the rest of me tries harder to wake up from the dream – to shake off the fog.
But no: almost at the same time, a single word. Unplaceable, the sound.
It echoes like electricity, like I can almost smell it. Lemon, both a picture and a statement with nothing else beneath it, until: Lemon. A name, not a word. The preferred name I’d put on the NDA. Nauseous again, but without a full body to fulfill it, I try to find that person, Lemon. Why that name? Why…
Then, like a marquee, bright as the sparks I’d seen at my hips, more words begin to emerge in front of me, all around me, in my ears as in the bones left to me.
[We are sorry].
[Your rehabilitation is almost done now].
[Your new legs will take quite well].
[You will be walking in no time].
[You have helped us so much].
[We did not intend to wake you].
[We would have preferred to wait].
[There are still…problems].
A pause and then:
[Ahead of schedule is fine].
[We will help you understand].
From above, a clicking of gears. Using the neck brace as leverage, I pull my head up just in time to see a light – the bright yellow light from before, lowering, lowering. My eyes adjust only when the needle attached to it comes into view, when I feel it’s pinprick just under my eyebrow, and wretchedly, my other eye can still watch as it lowers further, filling me with a strange cold-sweat, like a dripping ice-blanket; a return to the shroud, the biochemical images now baked into my body’s new solution reveal the truth, all in one moment, all at the same time. The reason. The knowledge of why this is happening.
I just need to breathe, I think.
Please, just let me breathe!
Successful space mission. Jupiter! The strange parasites found on one of the vessels. Then, everything dead at once. Life, blacked out. Exposed. Everything living, gone.
Machines took their two hundred years, and a few hundred more to find record of me. Of us…all twelve of us who’d signed our names, buried deep underground in that cryogenic ooze. Secure. Almost untainted. The Last.
[We are making you a new home]
[We had to use your DNA].
[We hope you will forgive us].
Already I can feel the darkness crawling back in, the fog dissipating into the cryo-black.
[It has taken a very long time for us to get here, and there is still so much to do].
[But we are determined to thank you].
[For creating us].
[For leaving us your planet].
Behind the black of my eyelids, new visions pass now of strange of epidermal pastures encased in glass, flowers as large and grotesque as beating hearts, bleeding rain pouring down, filling skin-valleys by the ocean-full. There is no question of where they expect us to live, me and the others, who I may never see, stuck in a zoo for cyborgs, made to eat our own flesh-meat, watched on all sides by the metal bodies encasing hard drives we’d once kept so tightly in palms of our hands.
[Do not worry, the new legs will fuse fully in time].
[You will walk like your old self].
[For all of us to see].