Phantom Limb by Reiko Scott
I received my first cybernetic arm when I was eight years old.
Naomi Shimizu has undergone several enhancements. A cybernetic arm, to replace her crushed one. Smooth pale skin and visual implants, to replace what was lost in an accident. Over the course of her life, she has traded organic body parts for constructed ones—not always with her consent. So now, Naomi works for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene under the Cybernetic Registry, to halt and prevent the blackmarket sale of cybernetic mods. But modifications have a way of changing a girl—and Naomi will do anything it takes to do her job. To be perfect.
At first glance, how cybernetic do I look? Can you tell my face has been reconstructed from a mold or that neither of my arms are made of flesh and bone? Cut them and you’ll see—they shed sparks, not blood. But you probably already noticed the seam in my neck and the color of my skin. There’s only one way to get skin as white and flawless as mine.
“Naomi, where’re you heading?”
I slip my tablet into my jacket pocket and clear the remnants of my lunch from the desk. Taste hasn’t been the same since my jaw replacement left me with a synthetic tongue and I’ve left most of my dessert untouched.
“I’ve got a lead on a place on Bleecker,” I say. My voice is my own, though barely. It’s too difficult to recreate the minute variability in vocal cords from scratch, so they salvaged those from my organic throat and stitched them into the folds of a fabricated larynx. The timbre has a metallic echo, though I’m told I’m the only one who notices.
“University kids, huh? Sounds about right,” Williams says, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder. “I’m heading downtown too, want to grab a cab?”
I received my first cybernetic arm when I was eight years old.
All I remember from the crash was the wail of tires and a sound I associated with a tin can of soda being crushed underfoot. After that, nothing. No yelling, no sirens, no sobs. But that’s what the mind is meant to do, right? Forget?
If it had happened ten years earlier, the doctors would have tried to save the limb. Patched the tattered meat back together and left the scars to grow like vines over what was left. It would have been ugly, but it would have stayed mine. Instead, my parents insisted on fine-tuned silicon and steel, the best of what medicine had to offer.
“The somatosensory system is equal to or better than organic skin,” the nurse had explained when running through orientation to my new limb. “Electronic mechanoreceptors are more finely tuned at the fingertips than any bio-receptor can be. Pain is also cut off at a threshold.”
I rubbed my shoulder where metal met skin. The attachment process was more agonizing than the accident itself—if only because I remembered it—but I didn’t tell the nurse. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear.
The Bleecker street lead is my first breakthrough in weeks. There are rumors of an underground cybernetic clinic selling mods—memory enhancements, sensory acuity adjustments, that sort of thing. There’s need in a city like New York that runs on firsts and bests, and community health center prescribed ADHD stims don’t cut it. I get it, it’s hard to compete against the first-chair violinist when her cochlear implants give her perfect pitch and her wrist has been replaced after a bad case of carpal tunnel. It’s tempting to want to program one or two fewer hours of sleep with just the flick of a dial. Cybernetic equal opportunity.
It’s just my job at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene under the Cybernetic Registry to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The apartment is retrofitted to look just like any doctor’s office. The waiting room has bland couches and mag-tablets spread over the particle board coffee table. A metal plaque inscribed with “Min-ji Kim, MD” is tacked over the door. The receptionist stares at me, his eyes roaming over the top of a book that’s fallen loose in his fingers. Politeness, or the appearance of politeness, tends to make people look away from my implants. This man truly stares. My clothes hide most of it, but he lingers on the subtler tells. The bump of the seam between shoulder and torso that makes the fabric of my jacket fall strangely, the thin scar that ghosts along the bottom of my jawbone toward my ear.
“Water?” he says, slow and careful, like the words have spines.
“No thank you.” I take a seat, grab a mag-tablet and wait.
Screen after screen of modded men and women in the ads flash in my face. The desired body is the perfect body. No wonder there are so many pop-up cybernetic shops. I fiddle with the screw on my knuckle as I put down the mag-tablet and stare at the patterns in the rug instead.
When Dr. Kim finally emerges, I see she is a thin woman, dressed in loose fitting black slacks and button down floral shirt. She wears her white coat and stethoscope with the air physicians always do, as if they need to remind you of the power they have over you and your liver and lungs and veins and teeth.
“New patient?” she asks. “You need to fill out your forms with Mr. Cortez.”
“I’m just here to talk,” I say. “Can we go to your office?”
She taps her heel into the carpet. “We can speak here.”
“Dr. Kim, I’m from the DOH.”
The receptionist, Mr. Cortez, puts his book down.
“No,” Dr. Kim says. “You need to leave.”
“We have reason to believe—”
“I’m fully registered,” she says. “Up to date with my licensing.”
“We have reason to believe,” I try again, “that you are signing off on prescriptions for cybernetics in unqualified patients.”
Mr. Cortez rises from his seat and walks to Dr. Kim’s side. His eyes glide from the line at the edge of my jaw to the screw on my knuckle I’m still playing with. When he opens his mouth, he speaks to the metal of my palm. “You don’t understand how hard it is for people like us.”
“Francisco, be quiet,” Dr. Kim says.
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to take you in for questioning,” I say. “Mr. Cortez, you are free to go.”
“No,” he says, placing a protective hand on Dr. Kim’s shoulder. “Dr. Kim doing the work that the hospitals won’t. Not all of us can afford the so called qualifications.”
“Dr. Kim,” I say. “I’m giving you this chance to come without fuss. Please.”
I wait. Somewhere, a phone chimes. A door slams shut down the hall, neighbors bickering over the crinkle of plastic grocery bags. Dr. Kim doesn’t move, so I reach for my handcuffs, collapsed under my belt.
Mr. Cortez grabs my wrist first. The intrusion is quick, sudden—the man’s hand on mine before I blink—but even as he twists, trying to wrestle the cuffs from my grasp, I don’t feel the pain. I step back, turn, and press my chest against his, restraining him. The unwanted sensory input of skin against skin against fabrication is a bolt of lightning over my nerves.
He writhes. He can feel it too. “Fuck. Is any of you real?” Dr. Kim doesn’t struggle when I escort her out next.
In my first year of university, I contracted meningitis. One week into my hospital stay, drugged and tubed until I felt I had become one with the hard plastic of the bed, the doctors decided it would be best to restructure the lining of my central nervous system. I wasn’t awake when my parents signed me off to be a test subject for the radical procedure.
They wanted the best for me, and if I was qualified for new cybernetic upgrades, how could I say no? Memory mods would get me further in life. Sensory acuity enhancements would allow me through more doors. It would make me better. It wasn’t my first cybernetic procedure since the arm. I had one for my vision (nearsightedness) and some spinal reconstruction (scoliosis), but this was the first procedure that made me wonder how much of me was still Naomi.
Am I like the ship of Theseus? If I replace each part of me one by one, will it still be the same me?
You could say the same for the life cycle of cells, I suppose.
When I went back to university for my second year, I started to notice the changes. I could remember better, yes, but I saw it more in the tip of the head of a professor after a didactic. In the lips of the first boy who slept with me, grin fading from giddy at the beginning of the evening to half-formed sneer afterwards. In in the greedy twist of words from the well-known bioengineer I applied to do research with, studying the neural links of synthetic limbs. Under “skills” I had put down my cybernetic enhancements. I was given the position because I was told I would be easier to train.
That’s when I stopped trying so hard to hide my arm in public.
I learned about cybernetics on my own, reading papers and tweaking my hardware whenever I had a chance. When I didn’t know if I could call this synthetic arm my arm, I reconstructed it to be mine alone. When I didn’t know if the thoughts that started racing through my mind over sleepless nights belonged to me or the flickering feedback of circuits embedded in my temporal lobe, I decided it didn’t matter. I used the extra waking hours to devote to computational models of neural networks.
“When are you coming home?”
I was talking to my mom over the phone on a hot June day of my third year. I’d elected to stay at school over the summer to work in the lab, finals week running into long, humid nights with no air conditioning in my dorm room.
“I have a week off before starting the semester,” I said.
“Will you be able to make Kimi’s wedding? She told me she wanted you there.”
“In August, right? Sixteenth?”
“It’s a weekend, let me find the invitation. Oh, I can’t read it in this light, give me a moment.”
“You should think about the new visual implant they put on the market,” I told her, listening to the far-away rustling sounds of my mom searching her desk. “You can stop complaining about needing reading glasses.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’ve had reading glasses forever, it isn’t bad. I’m not like you, Naomi, adapting to all this new technology. Oh, here it is. Yes, the sixteenth.”
“It’s a walk-in procedure, you’ll be approved immediately. Uncle Ken had it done last year.”
My mom laughed and it sounded tinny across the line. “I’m fine how I am,” she said. “Now, tell me more about that project. I can’t believe your advisor is letting you take that on yourself. And you said there’s a conference…?”
I didn’t end up going to that wedding. I didn’t find time to visit home at all. Another opportunity popped up, an experiment my Principle Investigator needed to finish before she could submit to a journal. It was the first time I got my name listed as an author on a paper.
Instead of getting angry as I thought they would, my parents told me they were proud.
It doesn’t go well in the interrogation room back at the DOH.
Dr. Kim’s is just a small clinic, but it’s the closest we’ve come to rooting out the ring of suppliers that serves the tristate area in a while. Two years of work—of dead ends and dropped calls and shit luck—flash in my mind. Reports of untraceable cybernetics on patient discharges are piled on my desk next to pages of contacts in the major hospital in all the boroughs. Stories of stashes filled with forgotten limbs scatter across tales of stripped corpses and I’m left to untangle the whole mess.
We need concrete information to arrest the guys in charge, dates and locations, but Dr. Kim won’t speak to any of the investigators about her suppliers.
Detectives Williams and Parker call me over after two hours with no headway.
“We think she might open to you,” Parker says. “Since you’re—I mean, you’re the one who brought her in.” He coughs, swallowing the remnants of the words still on his tongue. I know what he’s implying. Mods and implants aren’t the only thing people aren’t comfortable talking about out loud. Not the only thing that prevents people from looking me in the eye.
“Room two?” I ask.
I bring a bottle of water and an apple I nabbed from the kitchen in with me and slide them both across the table. As I sit, Dr. Kim reads my name on the badge that’s now clipped to my shirt pocket. She laughs. A quiet little puff of air, just barely a chuckle and very far from real amusement.
“When I first saw you, I assumed you were just another one of those entitled brats,” she says. “White trust fund kid from the Upper East Side, daddy’s connections getting you cool gadgets. Hungry for more.”
No, I’m not any of those things, but I’m familiar with the impression I give.
Drumming my false fingers across the table, I work to keep my fabricated face steady. If she’s comfortable enough to start speaking, maybe she’ll say something of use. There’s a click in the knuckle of my middle finger whenever I move it. I noticed it a couple days ago, but haven’t had a chance to go in and fix it yet. I fiddle with it again. Drum, drum, click, drum, drum.
“But you’re something else, aren’t you? A machine,” Dr. Kim says. “They made you into a machine. And now, look at you, you’re perfect.”
I stop drumming and she stops talking. The fan bolted to the ceiling rotates lazily and the lights hum overhead. Dr. Kim doesn’t touch the food or water.
I walk out after fifteen minutes of silence.
“Sorry, Parker,” I say. “She’s not going to cooperate.”
“She said something when you—”
“Nothing of importance to the case,” I say, but he notices the way I stiffen. Reactions are reactions, no matter how synthetic the neural impulses are.
I think he’s going to let it go, but instead, he leans in, as if we’re buddies. As if we talk like this all the time. “Don’t worry. You did well today, Ms. Shimizu. Really well. The boss is going to be happy.”
To my parents’ confusion and disappointment, I didn’t go into academics after college. All the hope they had stored in me since we immigrated to the US from Japan—the dreams they had cradled and fed me for years—disappeared the moment I graduated. Instead, I applied for a job at the New York City Department of Health.
On some level, I deserve what happened. I took the ship they built out of their faith and sailed it into a storm. And in that storm, my body fell apart.
I had tracked the location of a lab conducting unregulated testing of performance enhancing implants. They were applying new materials to old cybernetics, seeing if they could change out the energy storage systems in the fluid musculature of synthetic legs. The scientists knew the risk. As soon as I cornered them, they overloaded one of their own prototypes, sending flammable gas, shards of metal, and live wires cascading toward where I stood, a freeze still caught in my mouth and a hand too slow to shield my face.
It was pain like nothing I’d experienced before. There was no shut-off mechanism, no override. It was organic pain, so my pain alone, and I was sinking. The doctors must have told me what parts of me were dying—the flesh of my chest and shoulders and face that couldn’t be saved—but I couldn’t hear them under the sound of rushing water in my ears and the thudding of my own heart.
I was drowning.
If they ever asked me if they could change my body like they did, I didn’t hear them. I never said yes.
Sure, it was actually easier to have two cybernetic arms instead of just one. I got used to that very quickly.
The face? It took me months to get used to that. They evened out the shape of my ears so they would be symmetrical, enhanced the little freckles on the tip of my nose that only used to come out in the summertime, lightened the color of my eyes a few shades, because who wouldn’t want to see those beautiful eyes pop? They sparkle wide under the eyelid fold and defined brow ridge I never had before. It was all an improvement, they said. All to be just like those models in the mag-tablets.
After I got out of the hospital, I cut and dyed my hair so I could be in control of at least some of this new me. I ran my fingers through my short, blue bob and stopped looking in mirrors. After that, I could deal a little better.
My new metallic-tinged voice, though, I never got used to.
Mr. Cortez lets more slip in his interview than Dr. Kim does and it’s enough to give us a lead on Kevin Yang, the younger of a pair of brothers running the Manhattan branch of the cybernetic suppliers.
His information leads me to a little shopfront in Washington Heights. The faded yellow and red lettering on the awning says Home Supply, but the metal grates over the doors and windows are shut. Inside, the store is empty except for a few shelves of paint and a lonely checkout counter. It’s easy to find the back entrance, easier to break the lock with a lazy twist of my government-issued cybernetic hand. I take a breath and look up the stairwell. The dust hasn’t settled like it had through the foggy window of the shop. It’s been disturbed recently, the metal steps cleaned with the feet of frequent guests.
As soon as I make it past the third story, I hear voices.
“The doc down on West 103rd is looking for attention mods,” a man says. I recognize his voice from the vids I studied over the past couple months. Yang, my target.
“CNS mods are tough. Skulls aren’t forgiving.”
I take a cautious couple of steps toward the open door of the office. The shadows of two men spread like spilled ink over the floor.
“There’s a pediatric neuro clinic attached to Mount Sinai that runs through those like candy. Dumpster dive, for all I care.”
I crawl closer, ear to the wall.
“Shh. I hear something.”
I hold my breath, knowing that the mechanical drone of air around my synthetic larynx would give me away. There is total silence for one, two, three seconds. And then, I know I’m found.
Before I can react, Yang leaps forward, slams the door shut, and throws his chair against the handle with a clatter of wood on metal. Without hesitation, I smash my fist through the glass of the door to unblock it, disregarding the crisscrossing wires that would have cut flesh. My fist can’t bruise or bleed. The chair clatters to the floor and I burst through the entrance, but Yang has already climbed out the fire exit, his partner following behind.
I leap after them, the rickety metal ladder shaking so hard I think it’ll collapse. When the pavement nears beneath me, I jump, ankles buckling, but the two are already half a block ahead of me. The light streaks over the line of parked cars and my legs burn with effort, fatigue coursing through my last organic limbs. My arms can only pump in a whir of useless motors and circuits. Yang leaps into the driver’s seat of a black Toyota.
I gasp and call, “Stop!” but they don’t hear me over the thrum of the engine starting.
It’s over as soon as they start driving. They’ll head straight for the George Washington bridge into New Jersey where there’s nothing I can do to catch them. The tires skid as they pull away and all I can do is shout after the headlights whipping around the corner.
One week in May, after my first year with the DOH, I’d garnered enough time to stay with my parents for a week.
“Just in time to see the flowers bloom,” my mother said in Japanese as I kicked off my shoes in my parents’ genkan, ignoring the pile of slippers in a basket by the door. I liked the feel of bare feet on wooden floors, toes free to stretch and curl.
“Just in time to have me work in the garden,” I teased back in English, leaning into the hug she was waiting for. It had been eight months since my surgeries and my mom still couldn’t meet my eyes, instead fixing her gaze somewhere past my right shoulder. She visited me right after the accident, when she had pressed her palms on either side of my face, searching for something in the ridge of my nose. She said nothing, only nodded, like it was all so normal that her daughter no longer shared her wide set mouth or crooked canines. That nod wormed its way into my mind again and again, like a wave crashing on the shore. Like an error message in code, a loop I couldn’t escape from. I didn’t know what it meant.
“Dinner first. Help me cook.”
My dad waved at me from the living room with the same look that slipped right by me, like water over a duck’s back. It passed by the electronic photoreceptors in my eyes and tracked across the signal replicators under the synthetic skin that allowed me to smile and laugh and frown. The look ignited something, a tic in my circuits that shorted and cracked, and I could feel myself grimace.
I retreated to the kitchen and took the knife from my mom’s waiting hands. I’d never been able to wield it with the same deftness as her, but I always tried my best to mimic her precision. Out of practice, even with my enhanced reflexes, the scallions were torn to shreds and the onions diced into uneven chunks.
“Who taught you to cook like that?” my mom joked, though we both knew the answer.
The joints of my hands froze. I sent commands to them to keep moving, but some signal got lost in the electric jumps between brain and fingers.
“It’s all your new technology,” she said. “Makes you forget all the important things.” She stole the rest of the vegetables back from me and started chatting so quickly I could only catch half of it, my fading command of Japanese dropping words and phrases. I hadn’t spoken fluently since I was little. Little and whole. Maybe when they cured my meningitis and enhanced my memory, they did so at the expense of my language centers. Now, whenever I reached for Wernicke’s area, it was like there was a file I couldn’t access. When I tried, all I got in return was a buzzing sound at the back of my throat and shame electrifying my spine. “Remember when you were six? All you did was follow me around when I was cooking. What happened to my little girl?”
I didn’t remember.
My right arm started to hurt.
I was afraid that when they fixed me, they reorganized my episodic memory too. That they picked through my thoughts and chose which ones I was allowed to keep before stuffing them all back—that my memories were tainted by surgical hands. I’d never dared voice this fear with the synthetic throat they’d given me.
Something I did remember: the ship of Theseus was remade to honor the hero’s trip home. The Athenians had built it strong, over and over, to preserve the legacy of their past. What was I but a thing my parents made? Carefully constructed, over and over and over.
“Sometimes I wish you were still that little girl,” my mom said.
I wanted to scream, but my traitorous voice was soft and full of static. “You wanted me to become like this.”
The phantom pain in my arm grew worse. The nerve endings to the spinal ganglia had all been connected to the cybernetic limb, but I was simultaneously processing false data from my lost organic. For a moment, I felt like I had three arms—the two still cradling the knife, and the third, a ghost. My arm flared up in the agony of an impossible feedback loop, growing and growing before shorting out. I gripped the right limb with my left so it wouldn’t spasm. I was pitching forward. I was losing the vision at the corners of my eyes. I didn’t want my mom to notice.
She was still speaking quickly, but I didn’t have enough processing power to listen.
“Wakaranai,” I said, because it was the only piece of broken Japanese I could manage. I don’t understand.
I call into the DOH to report what happened with Yang. My boss tells me I was impulsive. That if I knew what I was doing, I would have waited for backup.
“Shimizu, I expected better from you.”
I know. I told him I could do it and I made myself a liar.
I end the call as I drag myself back up to the empty distributor’s office, hoping to find salvageable data on any tablets left behind, but there’s nothing. The men are gone and that’s what matters. All the effort, wasted. The extra time I put in updating my cybernetics. The holidays I missed because I needed to catch up on my reports. Working on January first? My mother had asked. That’s a bad omen for the new year. But I still need to prove myself. I need to catch these guys and show that my education, that my body, wasn’t a waste.
I look out the window, at the rusted fire escape, and know that if I had been just a little faster, a little stronger, it would have ended differently. That I could plan all I wanted, but it came down to a race that I had lost.
I stick my head out, then my torso, and finally curl my legs out into the fresh air. Four stories doesn’t seem too far. What if I could have jumped?
I rub my organic legs, feeling the prickle of hair that I hadn’t shaved in a couple days, the scars on my knees from when I was nine and fell playing tag in the yard, the goosebumps that perk up when a cold wind blows my way from over the Hudson. I squeeze my shins, feeling the release of lactic acid makes them ache. Sweat comes off in my palm. I look down again.
I know why there are unregistered clinics all over the city. I know why people who have the means pay double or triple the uninsured prices on cybernetics. I even know why MDs, who devoted their lives to making others well, making others better, would risk their licenses to serve people who couldn’t afford the implants they wanted.
The fire escape shakes as I stand, though it might just be a reverberation from the trembling of my knees. My organic heart races as my cybernetic fists open and close. I shut my eyes, imagining myself on a ship, salty air whipping through my hair as I prepare to enter the sea. I hold my breath as I jump, feet first.
There’s a Japanese equivalent to the ship of Theseus. Shinto shrines, in a ceremony of renewal, are rebuilt every twenty years with entirely new wood. There are festivals to celebrate the reconstruction, the gods as their witness. The building is still sacred.
But is it the same?
At the hospital, they fit me with state of the art legs, more perfect in every way. Indestructible, two inches longer, blemish free, hair free, and milky white.
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