Victoria had always hated hospital gowns. They felt like they could fall off at any moment and she always got so damn cold. The fact that she had to wear the huge solid polymer brace that kept her entire upper body immobilized was adding insult to injury. She felt like a dog wearing one of those cone things. Snapping her gum irritably she waited for the two doctors to come back and give her a prognosis.
Trying to glance at her mom who was anxiously tapping her foot she sighed and had to settle for rolling her eyes because of the damn brace. “Mom would you knock it off? You’re making me nervous.”
“What on earth could be taking them so long? I mean it was just a stress fracture in your neck right? This is why we had men on our cheer team when I was in high school; girls just aren’t strong enough to catch you when you are coming down from that high basket toss. I hope this doesn’t make you miss the finals; you’ve worked so hard – “ She trailed off as there was a knock at the door and the older of the two doctors returned.
Without preamble, he walked around to where he could look Victoria in the eye, “Miss Scott, I’m Dr. Frederick Stephenson. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.” Victoria knew it was bad now, her heart started to pound.
“OK.” She said, proud of how steady her voice was. “Lemme have it then, I hate long waits.”
Frederick nodded in approval at her calm attitude. “I like to be frank when it comes to things like this, I apologize if it seems like I’m not being tactful. You have a rare form of bone cancer and it is in a rare location. The stress fracture in your upper thoracic vertebra was a result of the bone being weakened by the cancerous cells. It is only a matter of time before your spine becomes so brittle it will no longer support the weight of your body.”
He paused and his tone became lighter, “Thankfully you are young and that expands our treatment options. It also significantly raises the likelihood of your survival, especially since we caught it so early. Unfortunately the state of deterioration of your spine leads me to believe you will be restricted to a wheelchair but you should be able to retain the majority of your mobility.”
“What do you mean cancer? Vicky doesn’t even smoke! You don’t smoke do you sweetheart? Of course not. How could she have cancer?”
“Ma’am, if you want to come with me into the other room I can go over some initial treatment information with you. Your husband has arrived and is waiting in the next room.” He turned and gave a sympathetic glance in Victoria’s direction, then walked out with her mother.
Tears leaked out of the corners of Victoria’s eyes and she took a deep breath to keep herself from bursting into tears. “Oh God, this has to be a joke. I can’t believe this is happening to me. Restricted to a wheelchair at eighteen? My life is fucking over.”
She tried to put her face in her hands but due to the restriction of her brace she had to settle for wiping her eyes. The door opened again without warning and this time admitted the second, younger doctor.
“Before you let your parents make any decisions for you I want you to look at this.” He had a laptop in one hand and a pet carrier in the other. “I’ve been working on this project for seven years now and I have finally perfected it to the point where it’s ready for a human trial.”
She blinked away tears and looked at him. “What on Earth are you talking about?”
“Sorry, my name is Eugene and I work in the Prosthetics and Neuroscience departments here at the hospital.” He set the pet carrier down on a table across from her, “I know that might seem like a strange combination but it’ll be clear once you see what I have in this.”
Eugene opened the carrier and Victoria suppressed a cringe before it caused her neck to spasm inside her brace. Inside was a large white rat; all along its spine was a mass of metal and brightly colored wiring protruding from the skin in an unhealthy looking tangle. One of its legs was missing and replaced by a jointed metal limb with a blunt rubber “foot” that it employed with apparent ease despite the macabre appearance it had.
“Ohmygod what is THAT?” She exclaimed, crinkling her nose and leaning back slightly. Oblivious to her disgust, Eugene continued.
“This is Megan. She was a lost cause a few short months ago after the rack her cage was on collapsed, crushing her spine and severing her left front leg. With the technology I have been developing she is now able to function more or less normally although the function of her limb and flexibility of her spine is limited. The human-sized prototype I have created has approximately a hundred times the mobility that this smaller version does.”
“Wait you want to put one of THOSE in ME?” She pointed a shaky finger at the mangled looking mess that comprised the spine of the rat. “I think I’d rather be in a wheelchair.”
“Of course not, the human model is a work of art. Poor Megan was just my test subject; with the funding I was able to secure recently I have been able to create a perfect and beautiful finished product.” He set the laptop down and his face became sober.
“What they aren’t telling you is there is no guarantee with the chemo. In fact your condition is by far the most advanced we’ve seen especially for someone so young.” The zeal he had displayed while showing off his creation was replaced with grim determination. “That’s why Dr. Frederick wanted to talk to your parents separately. They didn’t think you could handle how dire the situation really is. In fact we aren’t even sure that the cancer hasn’t invaded your other bone tissue.”
He walked forward and took her hands. His were dry and surprisingly rough, “I’m going to be honest with you right now; even if chemo was completely successful your odds of survival are still pretty grim. That said, your chances with my spinal replacement aren’t much better.” He shrugged, “I just thought you might want to know that you could be a part of something bigger. You know, that you might be able to further medical science instead of just walking down the same boring old road.”
Releasing her hands he opened the laptop and turned it so she could see what was on it; a rotating three-dimensional image of a rather complex steel and rubber spinal column. “Take this and read my research notes. Someone who scored as high on the SAT’s as you did shouldn’t have a problem understanding most of what’s on here. My personal cell is on this card; call me if you have any questions.” Eugene handed her a business card with a phone number written on the back in a small tidy script, picked up the pet carrier and walked toward the door.
“Hey! How do you know about my SAT’s?” Victoria had recovered enough from the shock of what he was suggesting to be indignant about the invasion of her privacy.
Eugene paused with his hand on the door handle, “Because I was on the alumnus board that voted to approve your full ride to MIT last week. It would honestly be criminal to waste a mind as brilliant as yours Miss Scott.” With that he walked out the door and closed it behind him.
Awkwardly juggling the laptop to a position where she could read it with the brace on Victoria looked at the summary notes and had to admit it was pretty intriguing stuff. The idea that electrodes could be hooked up directly to nerves wasn’t a new one; what was revolutionary was that he had managed to isolate nerve function by frequency.
Victoria scrolled through the document, noting in passing that it seemed to have a custom OS she hadn’t ever seen before. It was very simple to operate though and within a couple of minutes she was scrolling through the technical specs with ease. By touching the screen she opened a short video titled ‘Neurosynth Wavelength Interaction’ and a complex molecule rotate in 3D on the screen. Eugene’s voice was narrating in the same intense tone he had been using before.
“Different commands actually have varied pulse lengths; this anomaly allows my technology to interpret nerve messages with relative speed and ease. Not only that but it means complex connections are now irrelevant. The connective fluid between the flesh and the machine will transmit the signal through the skin. Preliminary testing shows it to be effective and to have little or no physical therapy time.
“Larger nerve function could be problematic as the amount of memory needed to operate even the most basic muscle or body function is astronomical; however our test subject has been able to adapt. My future recommendation is to integrate the AI directly into the brain stem, allowing unused biological memory to compensate. This would help to eliminate bulky and expensive hardware.”
Looking back at the initial graphic of the prosthetic, Victoria found there were several more CG images showing the prosthetic, how it could look integrated with a person and the neuro-connective fluid. The finished concept was a smooth interlocking series of polished steel plates with black rubber spacers. Not unlike a normal spine, except for the obvious fact that it was all above the surface of the skin.
The last graphic was an actual picture of the prepared modular spine. All of its connections and interlocking parts polished and gleaming under bright halogen lighting as it lay submerged in a tank of some sort of fluid surrounded by an array of computer screens, each with different unintelligible output.
Victoria found herself wondering what life in a wheelchair would be like. No more cheer team. No more early morning runs in the wooded trails behind her parent’s house that she loved so much. No more volleyball. She would never be able to swim again, she’d be lucky to even be able to dress herself. “No way, I think I’d rather die. If there’s a chance I can stay out of a wheelchair I’m taking it.”