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A Short Story by Rober ... ©1995

They had him hooked up to the machine again. The whispering campaign in the Veterans hospital had told him this wasn't part of 'therapy' at all. He was serving his country again as part of a 'grand new experiment'.

He didn't mind. With only stumps for arms and legs, he'd given up caring long ago. There was a certain pleasure in being hooked up to the machine, anyway. His mind could forget, for a while, the agony of his existence. He wasn't much of a hi-tech person. He wasn't even sure what they called the thing. Stark white panels vibrating seriously. Needles darting on display panels. The staff never told him anything, and he didn't expect them to. Sullen, they were, as long as they lasted — and none of them did. Pay was low and benefits disappearing as the government geared up for another blast at health care reform.

They all took it out on the stumps ... the patients. Dirty bed pans, cold food, and long blank days with nothing to do but wait for the next one. Yeah, he didn't mind the machine. It gave him something to do.

"He's doing it again!!!"

"I see... Look at that hologram he's casting! He's growing arms and legs! It's no longer just feeding back the image he has of himself ... He's actually working the system!"

"I told you that new Alpha software design would work. this is going to knock the socks of the brass! It's our ticket out of here!"

"You mean your going to tell them now??? You been fiddling with this thing on your own for too long to tell them. They don't even know you been using the old mainframes in the basement to set up the system!"

He could hear them. He wasn't sure how. He stared down at the shimmering ghost that was his new image and raised a hand up before his face for inspection. He could see too. See and hear. His hands stroked down the clean lines of his arms, and he felt the electric crackle of purring energy dart through him. Feel, too. It was like living in a dream ... to be able to walk again.

"What's happening? Did you see that? He's getting more solid!"

"Quiet! I need to study this! How's the juice?"

"We got plenty. We're stealing it from the X-ray machine up in Wing C. Don't worry about it. What's he doing now? I lost him on the monitor."

"Shut up. Let him go. He'll be back when the drugs wear off. He'll be remembering it as a dream, just like the other times." 

"Yeah, poor slob. Poor half dead slob. We're doing him a favor, and he doesn't even know it."

He had to remember to cast a shadow. It was a little tricky at first, until he figured out how to fill in his image. Once learned, it was like any other habit. You just put it on automatic and it happened. He needed practice walking. He was okay on flat surfaces but what about stairs? That's the ticket. Find some stairs. He moved like a ghost. Too quiet. With concentrated effort, he added the sound of walking, the sound of his ragged breathing as he climbed. So much to create to make this real.

She glanced behind her, startled. Pretty. Neat features in a nurse's uniform. "Hey, what are you doing up here? Visitors aren't allowed on this floor." Clear green eyes studied him, waiting for his answer.

"I'm sorry ... didn't mean to startle you. Here to fix the ... machine."

"Oh! Your a Tech. That explains it." Her smile was easy. Reassuring as reality took familiar form again. "It's down there, two flights down. Say hi to Stevens when you see him for me, ok? I'm Jan." She patted her hair before turning back to folding sheets. 

"Stevens," he said to himself. Yes, he'd be sure to say hi to Stevens. He laughed inside himself ... the echos disappearing into the machine somewhere. He followed them with his thoughts ... It was easier to work on the machine this way ... through his thoughts, than it was to walk down the two flights of stairs, but he was getting the hang of it by the time he hit the last floor. He wanted to see the machine and not just the monitors they had him hooked up too.
It felt strange. He was awake now, but still hooked up. He watched through the monitors as they wheeled him away. It was like cloning himself. Being in two places at once. Schizy and weird, but what a feeling of power! ...and to have arms and legs again, that was the miracle!

He didn't think how he was managing to stay hooked up. He and the machine had done it together. Some form of remote feed directly to his own brain's alpha waves. He'd picked up something through the hospital grapevine about the techs experimenting with that with computers, but living it was something else.

He stopped the double vision by willing his stump to drowsy half sleep, and stared at the machine, seeing it from inside and out. Beautiful!. Lines of energy pulsing. Microcircuits streaming information back and forth like flexing muscles. Beautiful!

They never turned it off, and he was glad of that now. Stevens figured the administration would notice changes in power being used faster than if he was constantly sucking it into the machine.
What was this? His thoughts followed the sudden change in energy flow. The thing was hooked up to the outer world through a phone line! Modem ... yes, that's what they called it. He let his thoughts flow with the new flux of energy, his image of his new whole body slowly dissolving into fading shadow again as he became one with the machine.

He was startled. Someone was talking to him from another computer. He sensed it was a woman. He'd forgotten the pleasure of being accepted, of being greeted by a simple hello.

"Hi... I've missed you."

"No you haven't... I know what you are!"

He felt a sudden surge of despair. Even here? Even strangers knew? His lack of privacy was like a hangman's noose around his life. 

"You do?"

"Yes ... you're just a computer program ... of a male surrogate date, but you're good ... very good."

He laughed. She had it so wrong. How to show her how wrong she was? Then he knew ... really show her ...

He moved through the fiber optics following the stream of their conversation to her computer terminal ... checking the machine's capabilities as he went ... yes, it was possible ...

He stood behind her ... liking the vulnerable curve of her neck as she stared into the monitor of the home computer. He recognized so many things he'd only seen on the black and white tv at the Veterans hospital. Seeing them in color brought them to life. He checked his shadow self consciously and spoke.

"Hi Linda..."


She jumped, turning around to see him. Confusion in her eyes. "How did you get in here??? What ARE you???"

"Shhh .... isn't it enough that I found a way to get here?" The dreams and memories were mingling now, of talking with her before, from the machine. It was nice to find out she wasn't part of the dreams ... she was part of the new reality. 

He wondered just how real he could make himself as he took her, trembling, into his strong arms. Comforting her felt marvelous. He wondered why stump's eyes were filled with tears.


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Revised: March 11, 1999
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