“Be a man,” said Joseph. “I'm tired of your complaints.”
“But an artificial limb?” Lawrence shuddered. “How does that make me more of a man? I get along fine with one leg.”
“Bullshit!” Joseph's scowl dug trenches in his forehead. “Yesterday you were practically crying in your beer. Called yourself a cripple. Don't tell me you get along fine.”
“Jeez, relax.” Lawrence held up his hands. “You know how I feel about robot stuff.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel about robotics, and it's stupid.”
Lawrence began to see red – his pulse raced. “Hey, don't you call me -”
“- stupid. Too bad, man. I've heard you crabbing about that leg of yours ever since you lost it, there's a perfectly good solution, you're too scared and stupid to take advantage of it because you've seen too many sci-fi movies or something. I've been trying to soothe you and coax you to take care of this for way too long and I've had enough. Man up. You're going to the mech center with me right now. I made us an appointment. Get in the car or I'll throw you in there.”
Joseph had a strange way of expressing love. Lawrence still found himself kind of moved by it. He grabbed his crutches and headed to the driveway where Joseph's car waited.
The mech center, a brand-new building five miles away, had a drive right up to the front door for people with mobility problems like Lawrence, but it still took him about four minutes to get out of the car and get his crutches under him – not a lot of time, really, but it seemed like longer than it really was to Lawrence. He found himself worrying that some other car would pull up behind Joseph's and the driver would get impatient and honk while he was trying to get out. Didn't happen, but it could have. More evidence that he needed a mech leg so he didn't have to rely on crutches. He still didn't like the idea of having a mechanical contraption with a half-intelligent sensor set gripping his knee.
Finally, he stood near the door on his one foot and crutches. He moved through the door as Joseph pulled away and headed for the parking lot.
A young blonde woman in a lab coat sat at the white reception desk with an earpiece tucked in her left ear. Silly, really. Obviously meant to look all clinical and sterile, and the receptionist meant to look like a medical professional – if she were a med pro, surely she'd be back in one of the examining room. “May I help you?” she said with a bright smile.
“Uh, I guess so, Lawrence stammered – med pro or not, he found the hospital-looking reception area kind of intimidating. As intended, no doubt. He cleared his throat and told himself sternly to stop stuttering. “I'm here for a mech leg.” Better – strong sounding.
The receptionist gestured behind her to an inner door with no windows. “Take a seat through there, please. Would you like a wheelchair?”
“Don't need it, Lawrence grunted, pushing himself toward the door. The receptionist got up, hustled to the door, opened it and smiled her big smile at him. The smile actually reached her eyes. Kind of impressive, really. Lawrence smiled back – he suspected that his smile did not reach his eyes, but the receptionist looked perfectly satisfied with it.
Lawrence went through the door and found two rows of plastic chairs, bolted to the floor as in all medical waiting rooms. The carpet was beige and the walls were beige. The other door stood at the opposite end of the waiting room. Also beige. Just a typical medical waiting room altogether; maybe cleaner than most.
He took a seat and waited, looking down at the stump where his leg had been up to six years before. Tuberculosis of the bone – who knew that was even a thing, especially in this day and age? And especially when the lab equipment at work failed and released tubercular microbes into the air at his station? And in an age when doctors didn't even recognize bone TB anymore? Infected his thigh bone and wasn't recognized until it was much too late...and now he was supposed to trust more medical tech in the form of an artificial limb? Right.
He was just about ready to forget the whole thing – actually stood up and was on his way out the door – when Joseph came through and stared at him. “Where the hell are you going?”
“Home,” Lawrence muttered, not even looking at him. “Changed my mind.”
Lawrence saw Joseph's feet right in front of him. He could try to walk around and continue out, but Joseph would just move to block him. The man was stubborn once his mind was made up. Lawrence turned and went back to his seat. Joseph sat down next to him. Lawrence didn't bother to look over.
Six minutes went by and the door opposite the waiting room entrance opened. A nurse – or a middle-aged woman in hospital whites, anyway - walked in and said “Mr. Lawrence Brown?”
“He's right here,” said Joseph.
Lawrence was all set to get pissed off, but thought better of it. If Joseph had kept his mouth shut, the nurse would only have had two people to choose from – there wasn't anyone else in the waiting room, so what was there to get pissed off about?
“Right this way, Mr. Brown,” said the nurse, and stood aside to leave room fr Lawrence to get by into – whatever was through the door.
Lawrence gripped the edge of his chair and pushed. The chair was a little low. Lawrence pushed harder.
“Do you need some help, sir?” said the nurse.
Lawrence ground his teeth. “No,” he grunted, and pushed again.
The nurse took a few steps towards him, letting the door begin to swing shu. “Allow me...”
“No!” Lawrence barked, pushed harder, got to his foot, grabbed his crutches and started to the door. The nurse hustled past him and pulled the door all the way open again.
Through the door, Lawrence came to a white-painted hall with three more doors to the left and a desk and chair to the right. The nurse came around from behind him, said “Through here, pkease” and opened the third door. He hoisted himself down the hall – it would be the farthest door he had to go through, of course – and into the room the nurse showed him.
That room was painted beige rather than white, at least. Inside was an examining table and a stool, where a plump man in a white coat sat facing him. “Mr. Brown,” he nodded, “please have a seat.” He gestured to the examining table, his face relaxed into a friendly enough expression. No smile, though. Professional.
Lawrence turned away from the table and pushed himself onto it. The man in the lab coat tapped his knee. “Looks good,” he muttered. “I'd like to untie your pant leg please.”
Lawrence felt his teeth grind together again. “I'll do it,” he said, trying not to snarl and not quite succeeding. Why did the whole world assume he was a cripple? He tugged at the knot in his pants. The slipknot opened. Lawrence rolled the leg up clear of his stump.
The man in the lab coat squeezed a purplish ointment into his palm, rubbed his hands together, and smeared the ointment onto Lawrence's stump. Despite the hand-rubbing, the stuff was still freezing. “Hey!”
“Sorry.” The tech didn't even look up. He took a square of black plastic out of a drawer and stuck on Lawrence's ointment-laced stump, followed by a metal cup that he got from somewhere.
“What the hell is that stuff?” Lawrence asked. His irritation turned his voice into a growl.
“Contact jelly,” said the tech. He didn't seem to notice Lawrence's grouchy growl. “Connects the electronics in the mech to the nerves in your leg.” He opened a cupboard and took out a device shaped like a calf and foot.
“You mean I have to smear that stuff on every time I wear the mech?” This was getting better all the damn time.
“We're expecting to have a mech that doesn't require contact jelly in a few months.” The tech slid the mech over Lawrence's stump and flipped a few switches. “Let's see, power, service, feedback...all green.” He backed away and actually smiled. “All right, Mr. Brown, why don't you stand up and see how it feels?”
Lawrence slid off the table and onto his foot. The mech's toe touched the ground.
“Go on, Mr. Brown,” said the tech. He still smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. “Put some weight on it.”
Lawrence did. He felt as if...”I'm tilted, aren't I?”
“A little.” The tech squatted near the mech and adjusted something with a screwdriver. Lawrence felt the leg shorten until the tilt was gone. “How's that?”
“Great.” The smile still didn't reach the tech's eyes. “Take a few steps.”
Lawrence swallowed. It felt like he was going to fall. He stepped out with his real foot, then with the mech.
He stayed upright. The mech embraced his stump with a strange vibration.
He took a step. The mech squeezed his knee. There was a little pinch.
He took another step. The mech squeezed him again. It felt almost like a massage, except for the tiny electric jolt.
Another step and the electric massage strengthened. It was almost comfortable.
“How is it?” said the tech.
“Okay, I guess,” said Lawrence. Another step. Again, almost comfortable. “What's that electric shock?”
“You'll get used to that.” The tech smiled. “Most people do.”
Lawrence realized he didn't want to get used to it. He thought about walking around like this for the rest of his life, having an electrically buzzing massage with every step. The bionic walker.
He sat down, took off the mech and the sticky electrical cup thing on his stump, said “No thanks,” grabbed his crutches and headed for the door.
The tech behind him looked stunned. It looked more real on him than any expression Lawrence had seen. “But, Mr. Brown...”
“Thanks for your time.” Lawrence pushed the examining room door open, went down the wall, pushed open the waiting room door and ducked through it before it could shut. Not a bad job.
Joseph, facing the door, stood up. “So when are you going to get your mech?”
Lawrence's lungs filled and he straightened to his full height, for the first time since he lost his leg. Silly pride. “I'm not.”
Joseph seemed to wilt. “What the hell...”
“Yeah, I know. It just doesn't feel right.”
Joseph's eyebrows knit. “But what are you...”
“I know, man. I just don't want to be a half-robot, okay?”
Joseph stared at him. It looked like he was about to yell. Then his face relaxed into a tiny grin. “What am I going to do with you?”
Lawrence grinned back. “Damned if I know.”
They went out to the car. Lawrence made the whole trip without crabbing once.