Kara stared down at her legs. Her legs wanted to run.
Kara’s legs dominated marathons and triathlons. They earned medals and placements at meets around the world. They secured sponsorships that let her concentrate on training. They ran long races up steep mountain inclines to air so thin she felt she would never fill her lungs again. Her legs carried her back down keeping pace the whole way. Kara’s legs could run 400 meters at a dead sprint in just over a minute. Respectable, especially for a distance runner. They trained and worked and pushed with purpose for years. They earned the points needed for Olympic team qualifiers. They never gave up. Even when other parts of her wanted to. The problem wasn’t her legs.
She stared down at them. They stared back at her.
They wanted to run. She could tell. They were her legs, after all. When they wanted to run they could hardly hide that from her. Kara’s legs loved to run.
“Kara Lynn Liu? Hello Ms. Liu, I’m Dr. Dawson.”
She knew Dr. Dawson, of course. Sandy-haired, stockily built, never maintains eye contact, had introduced herself in exactly the same way the last two times they talked. Kara found Dr. Dawson utterly confounding. Mackenzie, Kara’s older sister, would know how to talk to Dr. Dawson. Mackenzie still spoke kinesiology. At the very least, they had that in common. If things had gone differently, Kara thought, her sister would probably be working for someone like Dr. Dawson. Finishing her doctorate. Helping people to run again. She wished Mackenzie were here.
Kara forced a bright and genuine sounding “Hello, nice to see you again.”
Dr. Dawson smiled slightly but never lifted her eyes from her tablet.
“Ms. Liu, follow me please?”
— # —
Kara hadn’t run for twenty-seven days. She kept count. Two days in bed while the bone glue and temporary stabilizers set. Two days of nurses helping her lanky frame in and out of the chair. Twelve days in the hospital, ramming into walls and IV stands. Another eleven trapped in her apartment, colliding with the bathroom doorway, her coffee table, the entrance to her kitchen. Nothing in her apartment was built for a wheelchair. She wasn’t built for a wheelchair.
Twenty-seven days. Twenty team workouts. Three scheduled meets. One non-competitive event. Her teammates argued otherwise, but she knew in her core that every day she didn’t run made her just a little bit slower. Just a little bit further behind.
Mackenzie had been with her in the hospital. Sat by her bed. Slept in the chair. Mackenzie came back to Kara’s apartment with her for those first few days. Just to help get her settled, she said. Mackenzie installed the bars for her toilet and shower. She helped connect the TENS system that would keep Kara’s leg muscles stimulated with tiny jolts of electricity. They had food delivered. Food that Kara rarely ate. She drank thick, chalky shakes that masked the taste of the drugs. Dr. Mboya wrote her a prescription to promote nerve healing but as far as she could tell it just made her teeth buzz and her ears ring.
“What are you doing?”
Mackenzie looked over at her but kept stirring the big pot on the stove. “Staying away from your cat. And making supper. I wanted to make food tonight. You need to eat something real.”
“I’m supposed to maintain my training diet.”
“I know your training diet. I wrote your training diet. I’m making mapo tofu. Don’t worry. It’s all veggie. You don’t have a wok, so I used this.” Mackenzie nodded at the pot approvingly.
“Thanks Kenzie, but I’m good. I don’t need you to cook for me.”
Kara rolled back and forth just outside the kitchen. It was difficult enough for her to get the chair into her narrow hallway of a kitchen, with her sister in there it was impossible.
“Will you stop, Kara. You used to like this when maa maa made it. Anyway, I want to eat too. This is not just for you. Maybe you should go take a shower.”
“Maybe you should go home and cook it for your own kid.”
Mackenzie stopped stirring. She let go of the wooden spoon and it clunked dully against the side of the pot. She stared silently into the mixture.
“I’m fine, Mackenzie. Look.” Kara rolled her chair partway into the kitchen and back out again, tipping onto the back wheels. She ended the maneuver by throwing her hands up in a shrugging motion and dropping back onto all four wheels. “I don’t need you to take care of me. I’m getting surgery for this. Stop pretending to be maa maa and go take care of your own family.”
Kara then offered the facts. The clinic was monitoring her vitals for the prosthetic research group remotely. She couldn’t pee without Dr. Dawson logging it in a spreadsheet. The university had tracking and fall detection tags on her loaner chair. One of her early sponsors sent her more nutrient-balanced shake powder than she could eat in a year. Mackenzie had not been Kara’s coach, or planned her meals, or made her tofu for years. All cold hard facts that Mackenzie couldn’t ignore. Mackenzie ran on facts. Facts were the best weapons.
This was always the way it had been between them. At least since Mackenzie quit her own college track team to focus on Kara’s high school athletics. She would drive Kara to meets. Coach and manage. Set up schedules. Dictate all aspects of her life. When Kara had enough of that she would remind Mackenzie that they each had their own lives. The last time was a few months after Mackenzie and Micheal got engaged, and Kara sent out feelers for a new coach. As far as Kara was concerned, this was another example of the system at work.
When Mackenzie left in the morning, she didn’t wake Kara to say goodbye.
Two days after Mackenzie left, Kara rolled over her cat’s tail. It was another two days before Rupert would jump up into her lap again. Kara noted that she could no longer feel the landing of his paws. The hollow in her chest grew just a little every time. She stroked him behind his ears and told him it was going to be okay.
— # —
All told, it had been twenty-seven days without training. Twenty-seven days away from her team. Twenty-seven days without running.
By the time she finally reoriented herself and began pushing the wheels forward in unison Dr. Dawson had already disappeared down the hall and off to the right. All of those days and she hadn’t really figured out how to use the chair. She didn’t want to figure it out. Dr. Dawson was going to get her running again.
“It’s just Kara”
“Okay.” Dr. Dawson briefly flicked her eyes up from her tablet but totally failed to focus on anything. “Kara.”
“T11 to L3 Bridge with L1 wrap and reinforcement,” Dr. Dawson muttered into her tablet.
Kara felt the urge to pipe up even though she was fairly sure that Dr. Dawson wasn’t talking to her. “Yes, that’s what you recommended. The first time we met.”
Dr. Dawson just hummed to herself and kept reading, swiping on the tablet with one finger.
“You used to run, right?”
Kara spent the last weeks avoiding past tenses. This was an injury. Like a sprain or a tear or a break. Something that needed treatment and rehab. Standard physiotherapy. Maybe a lot of physiotherapy. No mention of running in the past tense ever left her mouth. She hadn’t let it.
Katie Winstead, 10-meter diving.
Martin Krell, Formula E1.
Zhang Xi, Snowboard Cross.
All of them, competing again only weeks or months after devastating accidents. All injuries that would have ended their careers less than a decade ago. It would have been even odds that any of them walked again. Krell wouldn’t have been able to breathe on his own. A set of state-of-the-art nerve bridges put him back in his car. Zhang now had bridges, and a carbotanium wrapped femur, pelvis, and lower spine. Each one of them recovered and back at the top of their sport. All of them owed their recovery, at least in part, to Dr. Dawson. And those were only the famous ones. Restorative prosthetics had become so commonplace not even the local news covered them anymore.
“You used to run, right?”
“I do.” Kara choked on the words. “I do run. I have Olympic team qualifiers coming. 10k.”
Dr. Dawson stopped swiping and tapping. When she slowly lifted her chin to look at Kara it was with dawning recognition, as though she just set eyes on an old friend. She was attempting a broad and warm smile. She wore it poorly.
When she spoke again she was animated and quick, snapping off each phrase with excited glee.
“I’ve been thinking about this instead. Full T1 to L5 wrap and bypass. Passive bridges introduce lag and need multiple open ports for upkeep, so those suck. We can shunt your whole column over to optoelectronic fibres. Faster. Newer. Expensive. But better recovery and only a single surgery. No grafts to deal with means a shorter course of immunosuppressants.”
Dr. Dawson spun the tablet around to show Kara a three-dimensional representation of her spine. Images collected from far too many scans. About two-thirds of the way down, the vertebrae went from being solid distinct shapes to loose gravel. Right in that spot. The spot where the self-drive delivery truck clipped her. One moment she was 3K into a training ride. The next she was laying on the shoulder of the highway watching the bent front wheel of her bike turning wobbly rotations. She felt a phantom twinge in that spot. The place where she had become separated from her legs.
Dr. Dawson jabbed that spot on her screen and a ring menu appeared. She slid her finger to the upper quadrant. An array of options fanned out from that and she selected one of them.
On the screen, Kara watched as a series of highlighted points cascaded from the top of the hips all the way up to the base of the neck.
A wave of heat swept through her chased by a clammy chill. Kara had expected a small bridge, some wrapped vertebrae. This was an entirely different scale of operation. Mackenzie would have loved this. Treatments and technologies her sister would have slipped into, swam in. Devoured whole.
The model spine dimmed before being overdrawn by a new, sleek black lattice structure. Like a spider’s web woven into the shape of a spine. Six, tiny, glowing jewels connected in pairs dotted the length of it. Kara found it dizzyingly beautiful, and more than a little menacing. This new spine squirmed into place grappling onto her skeleton. Spiral tendrils extending, clasping onto anchor points on ribs and vertebrae.
Kara took several long, slow breaths in an effort to hold back the disorientation she was feeling.
Dr. Dawson flipped the tablet back toward herself and grinned at it.
“Individually, these are all proven prosthetics so the risks are low. They’ve just not been used in combination before. And no one has done this.” Dr. Dawson tapped her finger on one of the jewels. “These embedded processors filter, amplify, and accelerate all downstream nerve trunks. We normally only use them in full replacements or radical bypasses when the damage is too severe for bridging. We use one, maybe two. Your nervous system is, quite frankly, in exceptional shape. Three coupled processors should increase nerve response well past your baseline. We leave your damaged systems intact because, and this should never happen, if there is a full system failure everything falls back to your existing column. All autonomics are maintained. You keep breathing. Your heart keeps pumping. You climb back into the chair and come in for repairs. There is really no downside.”
She raised one eyebrow slightly in an attempt to look conspiratorial. It didn’t totally land, but Kara appreciated the effort. Dr. Dawson’s words tumbled out in short excited breaths.
“Here’s the best part. It’s technically experimental. We can get the whole thing paid for under the R&D budget. With your elite athlete status we can rope in the University and some government grants, and it’s all covered. You don’t even have to wait for a payout from the trucking company. You would just have to agree to the elective surgery and the ongoing research project. We’ll get more than one Ph.D. thesis out of you.”
Dr. Dawson swiped a few times on her tablet and then spun it back around. On it was a page full of text and a line for a signature. Kara’s eyes had trouble focusing.
“I will be overseeing recovery, of course. Dr. Mboya will install the nerve junctions. He is the best in the field. Two dozen incisions so small they barely draw blood.”
Dr. Dawson continued to explain the particulars of the surgery and recovery. Kara struggled to focus. She would have to remain at the facility for twenty-four-hour monitoring during the first ninety days. She would spend the first few days after surgery paralyzed and in a twilight state. There would be several weeks of limited isolation to prevent infection. They would pull data from sensors in her spine wirelessly, but they still needed one small round port between her shoulder blades for updates and safety.
Kara breathed audibly and reached up to wipe cold sweat from her forehead. Dr. Dawson, for the first time, looked directly at her.
“Are you okay?”
Kara spoke, but the words sounded distant to her, like they weren’t in her own voice.
“Will I be able to run again?”
Dr. Dawson smiled wide, flashing all of her teeth, and pushed her glasses back up her nose.
“No, no. That’s not the question. The question is, how fast?.”
— # —
As promised, after almost three days of semi-conscious haze, Kara was able to stand. For a few seconds. Her arms hung from her shoulders like strung-up fish and she had no sensation from her lower jaw down to her toes. Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. She only knew that she was breathing by the sound of air whistling through her nose. It wasn’t going to come back all at once, or at least that was what they told her. But on that third day, she did stand. She reminded herself that a race is run one step at a time. She heard the reminder in Mackenzie’s voice.
Kara thought she remembered Mackenzie being there with her when she was lying face down, head resting in a donut-shaped pillow. She didn’t know if it had actually happened. When Kara’s head cleared, Mackenzie wasn’t there.
Kara distinctly remembered Dr. Dawson checking in on her twice. She stood in the doorway, peering through the plastic tent around Kara’s bed. She nodded at her tablet, said nothing, and then left. Kara remembered that vividly.
They moved her to the research wing where they wasted no time hooking her up to monitors and pumping her full of nerve blockers. A necessity. Newly reactivated nerves send a lot of random signals to the junctions. Signals that could confuse the processors and mess with their training. Of course that meant another fourteen days without running a single step. Days that Kara was counting.
They were able to remove the catheter and its monitor. She was happy to be free of all the friendly bleeps and chimes. She spent less time in the chair and more time marching slow, controlled, steps across a five-meter mat in the monitor room. First with a walker and harness, then with a harness, and finally unsupported, but never running. Never hopping. Never a light jog. If she were to injure herself now, when she couldn’t properly feel it, the damage could affect her recovery. So she took even, deliberate steps supervised by a legion of sensors.
The two grad students assigned to her, Linda and Greg, focused intently on the graphs that each of her footsteps created. Every few hours they would connect one of the machines to the port on her back, and a pervasive numbness would wash over her again.
Her legs wanted to run.
Eventually, a prickly sensation returned to her fingertips but it faded in and out. She was told that she should start eating solid food again. With her limited sense of taste she had little motivation for it. She stuck to the shakes.
Kara would talk with Mackenzie over the phone. It was never a problem talking with Mackenzie, at a distance like this. She would ask how Rupert was doing. He was always fine. Ten-year-old cats sleep a lot. Kara wanted to complain about physio. She wanted to show Mackenzie the small room she spent all day pacing across and rage at them calling that physio. She wanted to rant about the numbness of her toes and the feeling of needles all through the surface of her skin. She never did. The Liu sisters never cried or complained. Never. At least not to each other. That’s how they got through everything. That’s how they would get through this. Just another part of the system at work.
She asked to hear stories about her nephew. She heard about how Alex was walking really well all on his own now. She never saw it herself since they mostly talked after Alex’s bedtime. Sometimes she could hear Micheal singing Alex a nighttime song or reading a book aloud in the background. Kara would hang up and stuff down the unfair jealousy she felt for a toddler’s mobility. Then she would try to sleep in a body that felt like the gums of a freshly pulled tooth. A heart that felt empty and lonely and tired.
When the nerve blockers finally left her system, the feeling of anything touching Kara’s skin was enough to send her into fits. The entire world felt sharp and abrasive. Cold and hot were concepts with no gradient between them. Everything hurt or burned or felt numb. All the time. She wore only the softest elastic running shorts and shirt to physio sessions. Even those pushed the boundaries of what was tolerable. Linda and Greg nodded at each other studiously and wrote something down each time Kara muttered or gritted her teeth. The charts on their monitors spiked with each of Kara’s steps.
After two days of this, Dr. Dawson walked into the recovery room, looked at her tablet, and made a few short swipes with her fingertips.
She stared at her tablet for a moment, said, “That’s better,” and walked back out of the room.
Kara seethed silently. She rounded on her heel and crossed the mat again. Linda and Greg tapped excitedly at a waveform that flowed from jagged spikes to more regular, rounded peaks.
Dr. Dawson was right though. Kara felt better. The constant stinging on the surface of her skin dulled in an instant. Her sense of touch just had the volume knob turned down. She felt better, and it was infuriating. It might have been the careless nonchalance, the lack of explanation, or the fact that Dr. Dawson had walked into the room and changed Kara’s perceptions with a brush of her fingers? Linda and Greg chittered to one another, pointed at new graphs, barely looking in Kara’s direction.
All Kara wanted to do was run. Why wasn’t that as easy as tapping on a tablet? Kara dared to hop lightly from one foot to the other. Greg and Linda raised their eyebrows, but whatever they were thinking, they didn’t share it with Kara.
Week three and four were a whirlwind. The pain and discomfort faded quickly, but every other sensation had the intensity gradually turned up. Kara could feel air move through her lungs with each breath. Small eddies swirling against her bronchi. She became acutely aware of the surfaces she touched and how the textures deformed the ridges of her fingerprints. With concentration, she could engage individual strands of muscle. Everything tasted intensely salty or sweet or sour. Except coffee. Coffee tasted like coffee again. When she described this to Mackenzie over the phone Kara’s eyes welled up and her voice felt tight. She leaned just out of view of the camera. Mackenzie said that was a silly overreaction because all of this was in the timeline if Kara would just take a minute to read it. If Kara lobbed facts like rocks, Mackenzie fired them like arrows.
By the end of week four she could pick up a pencil and write in cursive with her toes. That hadn’t been in the timeline.
Greg and Linda had begun to compile and sift through an embarrassingly detailed record of Kara’s nervous system over the past month. She was allowed to look it over and found it shockingly granular. Private. Invasive. Kara wasn’t particularly happy about that. Dr. Dawson reminded her again, she had signed the release form and all data was important data. She worked at pushing her self-consciousness aside to focus on running.
Kara felt a level of precision control over every movement that was nothing short of revelatory. It reminded her of training to run her first competitive 5k. When Mackenzie would record and review every stride with her. Drill her on proper breathing and race strategy. Managing her stride now seemed secondary to controlling her heart rate and blood flow. Breathing was no longer a rhythm tied to her footfalls. It was an efficiency calculation driven by the demand of her muscles and the speed of her metabolism. She could feel deep into all parts of her machine and tell it how to run better.
Kara had never felt calmer. She had never felt more exhilarated. Rehab was still rehab, of course. She was only allowed to do a few laps of the track before they stopped her to check the data and reapply sensor pads damn near everywhere. Even with the best doctors and experimental treatments, rehab was still rehab. One step at a time. She could hear Mackenzie repeating it over and over. One step at a time. Mackenzie wouldn’t say that if she could feel like this.
“Are your toes numb?”
Kara was towelling off on one of the wooden benches alongside the track. She plucked her headphones from her ears and looked up at Dr. Dawson. Trailing her was the small entourage of grad students, Ph.D. students, and residents that made up her research team. There were a few new faces that Kara didn’t recognize. Kara felt very conscious of the nearly healed port on her back.
“Hello, Dr. Dawson.” Kara made a small waving gesture with the towel. “Team. New Team.” She waved again, specifically directing it toward the people she didn’t recognize. “No, my toes are fine. I still have that one spot on the back of my left knee. It goes all pins and needles sometimes. And my forearms are itchy. Bit of a rash.”
Kara held out her arms, palms up. The Grad students looked them over, nodding and making notes. Dr. Dawson glanced once and returned to her tablet.
“Knee not toes. Might be a software problem. Or a delaminating junction? I’ll consult with Dr. Mboya when he gets back.”
“Oh, where did he go?”
Dr. Dawson paused for a moment and tipped her head to the side.
“Why would I know?”
“I don’t know? I was just curious.” Kara felt off-balance but wasn’t sure how she got there.
Greg and Linda had wandered over from their monitoring stations. Greg held up a finger in an exaggerated interjection. “I think he said he was going to the lake. With his family. They have a cabin.”
Dr. Dawson blinked a few times and wrinkled her nose slightly.
“I’m sorry. That sounded rude, didn’t it? Dr. Mboya is on vacation until the end of the week, but I didn’t ask where he was going.” Dr. Dawson looked back at her tablet. “And the rash is from dust mites. You’re more susceptible now. Could one of you clean Ms. Liu’s sheets for her?”
With that Dr. Dawson pivoted and strode back across the track with her crew in tow. Kara wanted to ask if she could attempt a longer run, a 2000m or even a slow 5k, but she held it in.
Greg and Linda both waved at Kara, sheepishly promising to take care of her sheets as they backed away.
Kara stood and shook out her ankles. One more easy jog around the track. Her legs wanted to run.
— # —
“I talked with…Linda, I think?” Mackenzie’s voice sounded clear over the phone but her video kept freezing. Pretty common at the physio end of the research wing. The internal network was blazing fast, but everything in and out of the building was a roll of the dice.
“Yeah, Linda. She’s on the research team.”
“She said your isolation period ended on Thursday. You had no rejection issues at all? No conductivity lag?”
“No. I’m fine. Thursday? I hardly know what day it is in here.”
“It’s on your schedule, Kara.”
“Yeah. I think it’s done now.”
“Hrm. Okay. Kara, there’s something I wanted to ask.” Mackenzie paused for a moment and squinted. Her image on the screen stayed that way “Where are you? Your video is trash.”
“I’m down at the gym. The Physiotherapy area. I like it better down here. It just feels more familiar. There’s a track, weights, mats. Pretty empty though. Everyone trains at the main gym. Just one rat in this lab. They do have one of those treadmill pools. They only let me use it once so far. Conductivity concerns or something. All the research equipment at the other end looks like it’s from a hospital. It reminds me of mom, I think. I don’t know. I don’t really remember her. Do you?”
It just sort of rolled out of her. Mackenzie was silent and frozen on the screen so long that Kara thought they had been disconnected. Kara heard a soft murmur of “mhmm” from the other end of the line. Mackenzie quickly told her that Rupert had started to venture outside on the balcony, but always ran right back in when the neighbour cat was outside.
Just past the halfway point of her rehab period, Kara ran a 1500m in four minutes and three seconds. Fifteen seconds slower than the current world record. She could feel her legs pounding out a consistent rhythm. Her feet landing on the track. But all of her focus was on maintaining her blood oxygen levels to keep her lactic acid production at bay. Manipulating her heart rate and blood vessel dilation. Pace wasn’t really on her mind.
Linda insisted that Kara not try to run faster right now. They had research data to crunch and they couldn’t risk Kara injuring herself. She wasn’t cleared for full competition training yet.
Kara desperately wanted to run faster, but she agreed. This was just one more step on the way to making a full recovery. It was tough not to dwell on the fact that this ‘one step’ was the fastest she had ever run in her life. In a middle-distance race no less. Her legs had absolutely crushed their old personal best.
It only took two minutes and twenty-three seconds to return to her resting heart rate.
She looked down at her legs and shook them out by the side of the track. They wanted to run.
Reporters started calling for interviews and statements. Kara knew that it wasn’t her they were calling about. Not really.
The research project Dr. Dawson managed was, at least in part, publicly funded. Anonymized data was regularly published on the university’s forward-facing website. Part of Kara’s recovery and rehab included recording times at the track. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out that the girl with the shattered spine was up and running a world-class 1500.
They weren’t looking to interview an athlete, they were calling to build a story. A fluff piece they could run as the last segment before a commercial break. A sidebar to upcoming Olympic coverage. A feel-good story.
The writer from Runners World showed up in person. He seemed particularly hung up on the fact that Kara was a long-distance runner and not a sprinter or middle-distance specialist. He mentioned several times that, while tall, she didn’t even have a sprinter physique. She had not found it flattering. She gave him the same answer she gave the other reporters. She thanked Dr. Dawson, Dr. Mboya, and their team for her recovery. She stopped short of crediting them with her speed. She trained hard. Her legs worked years for that speed. Her new spine was helping her use what was already there. Just like any rehab, this was all about getting her moving again. Getting her running again.
Kara’s years of training were never part of these feel-good stories.
The Olympic team, through email, informed her that she was eligible on a probationary basis. They wanted to make sure that she would be ready to submit an official qualifying time before the deadline. They also informed her, in addition to standard drug testing she would have to submit paperwork for her new prosthesis. Investigators would test for any non-conforming equipment.
She and Dr. Dawson signed and submitted the papers. Dr. Dawson assured her everything was working as expected. There should be no issues.
When Mackenzie called, she asked about Kara’s rhythm and split pace. She offered to plan out a new training schedule. She asked if Kara suffered any residual pain or stiffness after so much time away. She told Kara that they were going to come by on the weekend to see her. Kara responded that she didn’t think it was a good time to visit yet because the research team were concerned about her access port. Part of that was true. They had given her some cortisone cream for the itchy skin around the port, but they had said nothing about not allowing visitors. Mackenzie, simple and cold, said “Okay” and hung up.
Three days later the team let her run a 5k. Kara ran a 13.40 flat. If she had been competing, she would now hold the women’s world record.
Two days after that she broke the men’s.
Less than two months ago she couldn’t wiggle her toes. Kara was now the fastest person alive. At least on this track under these conditions. She didn’t think she would be nearly this fast on a road course or an outdoor track filled with competitors. Not yet.
Mackenzie called her later that same day. Kara immediately asked how Alex was doing. Mackenzie said that Alex wanted to walk everywhere on his own and hated being picked up unless he was tired. His new favourite word was ‘limpics’.
Mackenzie’s face on the phone scrunched and she let out a deep sigh.
“Is this really what you want to talk about?”
Kara replied a feeble “Yes?”
Mackenzie rolled her eyes. “I’ve been talking to Dr. Dawson. There are a couple of things I want to ask you, but it can wait until we come down there.”
Kara grimaced but reluctantly agreed.
Mackenzie sighed again and hung up.
When they all came down to the university to see her, Mackenzie seemed preoccupied. They visited for a while, discussing the facility, the equipment, and the beauty of the changing leaves before Micheal gathered Alex up and said that he was going to show him the dinosaur skeletons in the walkway. A convincing enough excuse to leave the sisters alone together for a few minutes.
Mackenzie was silently looking over some of the research equipment. IV stands. ECG machines. Blood oxygen monitors. She brushed her fingers along a rack of them.
Kara noticed. “It’s those. They remind me of mom.”
“You asked me before if I remembered mom.” Mackenzie’s voice carried a sudden edge but she kept her back to Kara. “Of course I do.”
“I don’t really. I was four.”
“Why do you do this Kara?”
“I was thirteen.” The words hissed out of Mackenzie.
Kara went to say something but stopped.
“I was thirteen and you were four. I sat in the hospital with her. I was there when she died. I was there alone. Of course I remember.”
“We had maa maa. Dad was there.”
“We only had maa maa for a year. After that, dad was broken. He’s still broken.” Mackenzie spat the last part. ”I tried so hard, Kara.”
Kara walked a wide arc around Mackenzie to see her sister in profile. She was covering her eyes with a hand.
“Why are you mad? What did I do?”
“I read the site, Kara. I know how fast you are. Why don’t you tell me these things? Why don’t you tell me anything anymore?” Mackenzie’s anger cracked and made way for choked sobs. Mackenzie never cried. Never.
“I do. I do tell you things. We talk all the time.”
“You didn’t tell me when you were going in for surgery. The hospital called me. They called me when they couldn’t find dad. You put dad down as your contact? When is the last time either of us has even talked to him? You didn’t even tell me when I could come to visit you. Dr. Dawson sends me updates.”
“I wasn’t…I wasn’t ready.”
“Ready for what?” Mackenzie spoke quietly but with a venom neither of them expected.
Kara stumbled over words trying to get everything she felt out at once. All of her facts. “This is just an indoor track. I’m not even done with my rehab. It was all paid for. I didn’t need help. You have a family. You have other things to worry about.”
“I worry about you.”
“Well stop worrying about me.”
“One of us has to!”
“I’m fine on my own, Mackenzie! I don’t need a mother! Just leave me alone!”
Kara’s words echoed through the room long after the sound of them faded.
“I worry about you, dummy.” Mackenzie wiped her face, dragging wet smears across her cheeks. Mackenzie’s eyes, though, had gone dry and hard. Kara couldn’t think of one good reason that she hadn’t told her sister about her track times. Not one.
“I’ve worried about you since you were four. And I was thirteen.”
Alex ran into the room with Micheal in tow. Kara could see Micheal actively scanning for sharp edges and cables within the toddler’s reach.
“I think he’s starting to get hungry. If we feed him now he’ll probably have a nap in the car.” Micheal reached out and scooped Alex up with one arm just before he could get a handful of loose wires connected to one of the research monitors.
Mackenzie quickly wiped her face with her sleeve. “It’s fine. We’re done anyway.”
Micheal tensed, suddenly aware of the mood in the room. “Are you sure?”
Mackenzie took Alex from him and started out of the room. “Yes. We’re done.”
Micheal waved to Kara and wished her well with the last days of her rehab, before following Mackenzie out.
Kara felt around in herself. She felt the rhythm of her breathing. She could feel the action of her tear ducts and the involuntary contraction of the muscles along her sides. The slight change in temperature as her short breaths flowed along her chest and arms. Every rapid beat of her heart.
— # —
The National Olympic Committee offered a special allowance to Kara, letting her run qualifiers outside of an official meet. The research team agreed and gave her the go-ahead. They collected all the samples and telemetry the NOC requested. She fell far short of her personal best but it was still fast enough to place her at the top of the qualifiers.
When the anti-doping crew showed up later that day, they had a lot of questions for Dr. Dawson and her team. Dr. Dawson assured them that the prosthetic did nothing to enhance Kara’s muscles or hormone balance. She said that Kara was “all legacy hardware”, the new spine just let her make the most of her natural potential. They ran some tests of their own, all standard fare. Urine test, blood test, EM field test. They had her do reflex and dexterity challenges. One of them let slip that they were only doing it to see if she could react faster than one hundred and twenty milliseconds. A party trick more than a real test. She did manage to do it. A couple of times.
When they left they seemed very happy.
The email message that followed was not the one that Kara had been expecting.
It was very official looking but read like a team of lawyers wrote it during an all-nighter. A lot of overly complex language converging on a single statement.
Several countries had written a joint complaint to the World Athletics committee letting them know that they would be filing Kara’s spine as a regulated performance-enhancing technology. Zhang and Winstead were in the clear because their prosthetics only restored function. They argued that Kara’s stepped over the line. Dr. Dawson, over a video call, tried to explain the limiters and fine adjustments built into the prosthesis but none of the international committee seemed to fully grasp what she was talking about. Kara sat silently and wished Mackenzie were there to translate.
When Mackenzie called that night, Kara didn’t answer.
A new crew of investigators arrived, this time from the world anti-doping agency. There were tests administered, samples taken, and demonstrations of technology. Dr. Dawson nearly got in a fistfight with some of the investigators when they described what they wanted to do. She told them, loudly, that she had a right to defend her work and her patient. They didn’t seem to agree. Kara endured one of them using diagnostic equipment to probe at the port between her shoulder blades. It made her fingers and toes buzz. They wanted to take her new spine offline for most of a day, putting her back into a chair. She had to bite back her anger, but she allowed it. If they would let her run again she would allow almost anything.
Kara relived flashes of the accident. Laying on the side of the road watching her bike tire spin slower and slower circles. The terror of it crashed over her in waves for the whole afternoon. Linda and Greg fielded as many of the investigators’ questions as they could while Kara stared silently past her feet at the rubber mat flooring below.
A small handful of the reporters started calling. They all asked leading or antagonistic questions. Was she in favour of clean competition? Did she think that augmented athletes should be allowed in sport? Was it fair that countries with fewer resources were told they were competing on level ground? How would she feel if she had to compete against an athlete with cybernetic legs, or lungs, or heart?
She stopped answering her phone entirely.
After less than a week of back and forth between the national team and the international committee, it was decided. The petition would stand. World Athletics barred Kara from all competition until they could complete a full investigation. They would consider reinstating her after that. No appeals. No reviews. No need to raise a stink over it.
It was day eighty-seven of her scheduled ninety-day rehab period.
Kara felt numb. The truck had hit her again, but this time it got everything.
— # —
Mackenzie walked into the room. Kara was kneeling by the bed packing a duffel full of clothes.
“Dr. Dawson called me. She told me everything. I think she was concerned. I’m so sorry.”
Kara nodded and folded the soft running shorts, placing them in the bag.
“Bastards. The NOC already cleared you to compete.”
Kara nodded silently and picked up a pair of her shoes.
“I’m sorry, Kara.”
Kara leaned forward to set the shoes down and crumpled into deep sobs. Tears dripped from her nose and chin leaving dark splotches on her neatly folded clothes. She could feel every one of the teardrops forming tiny rivulets down her cheeks. How they deflected minuscule hairs as they flowed past. How they settled in the creases of her nose. The cooling of her skin as the liquid evaporated.
Mackenzie swept in and hugged her across the shoulders leaning her head close to Kara’s. Kara vibrated in waves and collapsed against her sister. The both of them hunched over the neatly packed remains of Kara’s track career.
After a few minutes, Kara struggled out two words. “Thank you.”
“Thank you, Kenzie. For always being here. For taking care of me. Thank you.”
“I really tried.”
“I was four, you were thirteen.”
“I really tried.”
“I know. Thank you.”
— # —
Kara watched the opening ceremonies on Mackenzie’s couch. When her team walked in, she looked away. Instead, she watched Alex run from the footstool to the armchair and back again yelling ‘limpics’. It made her smile. Mackenzie sheepishly mentioned that she’d entered the local Mothers Day charity 5k. She added that Kara was welcome to come with her, if she wanted. Kara said that she thought that it sounded like a good idea. She said it, but they both knew she didn’t feel it. Kara asked when Mackenzie planned to reapply for her doctorate.
Micheal looked puzzled “Didn’t she tell you? Kenz, you didn’t ask her yet? Dr. Dawson wants her to start again in the fall.”
Mackenzie cut in, stammering “If you agree. To help. I’m sorry. I wanted to ask but I didn’t want you to think I was taking advantage of you. Of your accident.”
Rupert stayed on Kara’s lap far from Alex’s path. She stroked him behind his ears and felt him purr against her legs.
Kara and Mackenzie talked for a long time.
Mackenzie cooked mapo tofu.
— # —
Kara slid her finger across the tablet in three slow swipes dragging each of the nerve acceleration sliders all the way down. A quick tap of the tablet put the processors into passive mode. These, she was told, were the settings for near baseline function. A pop-up notification asked if this is what she wanted. Reluctantly, she pressed yes. This was the closest she would ever be to how she felt before the accident. A wave of tingles swept from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. When the wave subsided her entire body felt like it was wrapped in heavy cotton. Too cold in some places, too hot in others. She hated it.
Unfortunately, this would be the only way she would be allowed to compete. With her nerve acceleration dialled all the way down. Along with a battery of tests before, during, and after every race. None of her competitors were being made to run in snow boots, so World Athletics calling this ‘fair’ didn’t really ring true.
Kara shook out her ankles and wrists, rolled her neck a few times and loosened up her shoulders. She tested her balance from foot to foot. She breathed deeply and felt for oxygen transferring in her lungs. Barely any feeling at all. How could anyone live this way? It was like having all of the lights dimmed after spending months walking in the sunshine.
Her legs seemed so far away now, attached by a tether, but she could tell that they were ready. They wanted to run.
She thought about regulating her oxygen levels, maintaining a steady heart cadence, engaging her muscles smoothly and efficiently. Kara’s body was a machine built for running. She knew her control of that machine was second to none.
She could hear Mackenzie in her head calmly talking over race strategy with every step. Every stride. Every breath. Helping her. Driving her forward.
10k. Mackenzie held up the stopwatch for Kara to see while she jotted down some notes.
Just over forty-eight seconds behind the world record.
“That’s a good first step. For an empty track. Think you can beat it?”
Kara shot a mock sneer at her sister, “Yes. Did you get all the data you needed Dr. Liu?”
“You can’t call me Doctor. Not yet.”
“Race you then? World record versus doctorate?”
Mackenzie scoffed, “Obviously I’ll win. Okay, you’re on. Ready when you are.”
Kara looked down at her legs. They wanted to run. She let them.
© 2022 Owen McManus
About the Author
Owen McManus is usually an artist in the video game industry but, when he’s not doing that, he likes to write.
Owen grew up in rural Saskatchewan and now lives in Calgary, Alberta with his wonderful partner and kids.
‘All Legacy Hardware’ is his first published story.
Hopefully not his last.