The small conference room that the Scott family was sitting in had a tense feeling in the air. The flat screen television in front of them was showing a digital rendering of the spinal replacement surgery. A pair of technicians were explaining the procedure.
“The process is actually much simpler than it would seem. Since our neurosynth fluid is able to act as a conduit for nerve signals in much the same way the nerves of the spine are all that is necessary is to remove the existing spinal column and replace it with the artificial one.” The young female technician knew she had been chosen largely because of how close in age she was to the subject. This was a big break for her though; Dr. Arlington was seen as a visionary in the medical prosthetic world and if she could impress him maybe she could get on his team.
“How exactly does the spine attach to the existing tissues Dr. Jackson? I see a lot of data on the pre and post-surgery procedures but virtually nothing regarding the grafting procedure.” Victoria knew this would seem to be an advanced question from someone her age but she was genuinely interested.
“Well, I actually can’t tell you all the specifics because some of the medical procedures and equipment used are classified military data.” Here she paused for a moment, “It was a surprise to me too, but I’ve seen it in action for some of our other prosthetic integrations and it is nothing short of miraculous.”
“That’s not exactly a satisfactory answer Miss Jackson.” Victoria managed to take a superior tone despite being wrapped in an acrylic immobilizer and barely able to move.
“What Dr. Jackson is trying to say is that even if we had the clearance to get the specifics ourselves we would be violating our contract by telling you the details.” The second doctor surprised the others in the room by speaking for the first time. “Honestly, I’ve seen this stuff in the field and I still find it hard believe.”
“Thank you Dr. Sims.” Dr. Jackson gave him an ingratiating smile, “Miss Scott, if you would like we could show you some video of successful implementations. You could even visit the recovery ward where a patient has agreed to talk with you about his experience. Of course it wouldn’t be exactly the same, we used the process to attach a prosthetic hand not a spinal column but the grafting procedure is very similar.”
Victoria tried to shake her head and grimaced in pain, “Maybe afterword, I don’t want to get up and leave right now, I’m just stressing out about this whole thing. Please continue with your demonstration.”
Dr. Jackson picked up right where she had left off, “Right, so the main difficulty with this operation is keeping the body and the brain from going into shock when we begin the operation. It’s always troublesome with complex and invasive operations, but even more so in this case. In order to maintain the body systems integrity we will place you in a chemically induced coma, and then hook your brain stem up to a machine that tricks it into believing it’s still connected with your body.
“The next phase is where our specialized AI unit comes in. We connect it to the brain stem and it immediately begins interpreting and transmitting signals as though it were the spine, allowing the brain to continue as normal despite being more or less disconnected from the rest of the body. All the time basic body functions are maintained by the AI until the operation is complete, then we switch the AI over to operational mode from maintenance mode and it interfaces with the brain, allowing for transmission of brain signals to the body as would occur normally.”
The screen was changing, showing simplified images of the nervous system, surgery, the image of the artificial spine, a few images of the AI and its integration with the brain stem all scrolled by as the two doctors continued to describe the process. Victoria could tell that the more they learned about it the less her parents wanted her to have the procedure performed. In fact, she was terrified of it too, and although listening and watching wasn’t doing anything to assuage her doubts about it; she was still determined to go forward.
“Have there been any problems with the integration process with any of your test subjects?” Mr. Scott had his doubts about the doctors, the technology and the whole procedure. “It just seems like an operation of this magnitude can’t possibly be as simple as you are making it out to be.”
Dr. Sims shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, “Well as you know Dr. Arlington hasn’t yet done a human trial with the prosthetic spinal column. However, his team has had a one hundred percent success rate with every single test subject he’s had thus far. Also of note is that their recovery rate was a thousand times faster that of the control subjects.”
“Look, doing these kinds of tests on dogs and rats is one thing; this is my daughter you’re talking about here!”
“I understand your concern, but it was your daughter who requested we explore this method of treatment in the first place.”
“Daddy, this is my only chance at a normal life. I know it’s risky but so is chemo and the rewards for success with this operation far outweigh the rewards with conventional treatment.” Victoria turned her torso to fix her parents with a determined, if nervous look. “I want to go forward with it. I’m eighteen and you can’t stop me but I would rather do this with your blessing.”
At this rather abrupt and unexpected statement, her father stopped and gave her a steady look which she returned with more steel than he was accustomed to seeing in his young daughter.
“Shall we go and look at one of the other implementations?” Dr. Jackson asked, “The prosthetic recovery wing is attached to the R&D division. It’s a short walk from here, and I have a wheelchair for Victoria.”
“Yes!” Victoria said with real enthusiasm, “I’d love to see what you’ve been able to accomplish and maybe it would set our minds more at ease.”
“Honey, are you sure-” Her mother started, but stopped when Victoria looked at her with imploring eyes. Her father helped her from the table, lifting her easily and setting her in the wheelchair.
“I will agree to this only if the science and the implementation appear to be a valid option.” He said, giving the doctors a meaningful look.
They made their way through some sterile corridors with recessed lighting that glowed from hidden fixtures. Dr. Jackson waved her security badge in front of a door and it opened smoothly, revealing a room with wide windows on one wall and a bank of computer monitors on another. A man sat in an adjustable chair, his right leg ended just above the knee.
Instead of a fleshy stump, smooth metal ball protruded from the cut off leg of his hospital gown. Next to the chair was a complex carbon fiber prosthetic with a steel cup that looked like it would match the ball. He looked up with a smile as Dr. Jackson entered.
“Katherine! I’ve already had my checkup today, but damn me if it ain’t good to see you!” Spotting Victoria and her parents behind her, he quirked an eyebrow. “Hello there, who’s this?”
“Lance Corporal Stewart Donnahue, this is the Scott family. Victoria, Richard and Lorraine, Stewart was injured during a mission in Iraq. An IED took his leg among other things, but with our reconstructive efforts and the miracle of Dr. Arlington’s technology he is able to walk.”
The man reached out, grabbing the prosthetic and spreading some gel from a tube into the cup before sticking the two together. They melded with an audible snap, tiny LED lights twinkling to life around the ball and the socket.
“Pretty darn cool eh?” He said with a grin, running his right hand over his crew cut. “Super powered electro magnets they tell me, all I know is I can walk again!”
“Wow…” Victoria was staring at it with a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. It was a lot like the feeling of anticipation she got just before running onto the floor to perform with Torrent. “Do you mind if I get a closer look Lance Corporal?”
“Of course not!” He beamed, “And call me Stew. Christ, it’s not like I need any formalities here; I’m done with that crap!”
Victoria wheeled herself closer and awkwardly bent in her brace. Reaching out a hand she pushed his shorts up to look at the spot where the metal joined with skin. There was a ring of black rubber or neoprene or something similar that his skin disappeared underneath.
“How does it feel?” She asked, removing her hand quickly and blushing as she realized how far up his thigh she had been touching. “I mean does it get sore?” She blushed even deeper, but he was kind enough to ignore it.
“Well, I’ve only had it for a couple weeks, but I can already walk normally. If anything I’ve gotten increased mobility, although I need to make sure I charge it at least twice a day.” He grinned, “Man, the first time I forgot that will be the last. I was running on the track and it just fell off.”
“But it doesn’t hurt? It doesn’t give you any trouble?” Rich said, coming forward to pull Victoria’s wheelchair back.
Stewart seemed to notice Victoria’s brace and the wheelchair for the first time. “What happened to you?” He asked, “Oh man, are you thinking about getting new legs? I tell ya I can’t say enough, this thing is … well it’s amazing. I can’t even tell you. At first there was a little bleeding around the socket and I had a mild infection but those were honestly just because I wouldn’t take it easy like the doc told me to.”
“What did they say the recovery time would be?” Victoria asked, “I’ve had a rather major injury…”
“They said maybe a month, but I had full mobility in just a week. If I’d taken things slower I probably would have been out of here by now.” He said with a grin that made him look like the kid he really was, “Man Katherine, are you gonna show ‘em Jake? You gotta show ‘em Jake.”
“Jake?” Rich asked, giving Dr. Jackson an inquisitive look.
“Jacob lost his arm just below the bicep. His prosthetic has restored more than full mobility to his arm and hand.” She said with a slight smile. “I’m afraid he isn’t available right now though; he’s getting the upgrade.”
“No shit?” Stew’s eyes widened, “The new AI?”
“Yes, we just finished the coding this afternoon.” She said, “That’s where I’ll be going once I’m finished here.”
Stew stood up, the carbon fiber of the leg flexing under his weight. The ‘foot’ was a cluster of four metal prongs with sturdy looking rubber ‘toes’ that moved to help him balance. At the joint, the sphere on his leg moved smoothly acting like a knee that could flex far beyond any normal appendage.
“Oh man that’s awesome!” He said, “Man, I can’t wait until you can do the same for me.”
“Upgrade?” Victoria asked, “What’s it do differently than what you have now?”
“Just some enhancements.” Dr. Jackson said, giving Stewart a pointed look. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
“Thank you for answering my questions.” Victoria said to Stewart, “I really appreciate you letting me take up some of your time.”
“Aw hell.” He said, grinning again and getting a little pink, “Ain’t like I was doing anything anyway. Come by any time.”
They turned to go and he spoke up again. “Hey Victoria, what operation are you considering?”
“I have bone cancer.” She said, “I’m getting a prosthetic spinal column.” He still hadn’t managed to shut his mouth when the door closed behind them.