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Left Hand

The news hits me like a blow and I drum with extra fine precision on the examination table to deal with it. Pinkerton, Ring-a-Ling, Middling, Pointer. Pinkerton, Ring-a-Ling, Middling, Pointer. Each finger gets a turn, except Thumb, but then Thumb gets to do so many other things. It is only fair he be left out of the drumming. He pretends not to care.

“You can do what?” My Human says in a shaky voice, far above me. “I thought it was . . . impossible.”

The right one, the Hated One, extends its four fingers and thumb, flexes. It is feeling fine.

“When you first lost your left arm, cloning was in its infancy. This mecha-wetware arm was top of the line. But now—” as white-sleeved arms spread with self-satisfaction “—now you are a prime candidate. We can match the arm you lost in the rock-climbing accident.”

My Human stiffens and I drum to drown out the words, both for me and so My Human can be distracted from his memories, his guilt. I am not a replacement. I am not an accident. Tell Whitesleeves I am not, My Human, tell him with your mouth as I hit the paper-covered steel. Pinkerton, Ring-a-Ling, Middling, Pointer. Pinkerton, Ring-a-Ling . . . .

But I drum too fast, too hard. Harder than My Human feels comfortable with. The Hated One comes over us, holds us down. Thumb twitches. This is his time to shine. When there is a wrestling hold, he is the one we call. He is the one who can rescue us from the Hated One.

But I tell him to wait. Now is not the time, not when replacement hangs in the balance. A horrible word, sharp like a papercut. I cannot drum, but carefully I press Pointer to Thumb so I can count whorls.

I am focused on my counting and I almost don’t realize that My Human is bending above us, the Hated One covering us, saying to Whitesleeves, “Has anyone else mentioned . . . counting?”

Whitesleeves’ fingers freeze on pen and pad. I know that gesture. “Go on,” he says neutrally.

“At first it was little things,” My Human says. “The buckles on my climbing gear. I had to touch each one with my left hand, lay them flat. But it progressed. I have to touch all my cereal flakes, doctor. One by one as I put them in the bowl. I can’t keep a job. I’m always late.”

I tremble under the Hated One’s grip. I was so long in that wetware tank with nothing but clear gel around me. It is such a wonder to touch, to finger. To stroke the ridge of a bran flake, rough-ridged and trembling, warm under Pointer. I know it is not acceptable behavior (I know because more and more My Human has sent the hated one to hold me down) and yet. To touch. To touch.

With pressure only I touch, whorls to table. Imagine the metal and nylon of the climbing gear, which he gets out, and we lay the buckles flat, and then he puts away, the Hated One shaking at the guilt from how his fingers slipped, letting My Human’s partner fall, letting My Human be caught, trapped. My ritual a smaller part of his. Pinkerton, Ring-a-Ling . . . .

“Buggy interface,” says Whitesleeves with his mouth, but his hands say something different. They are itching to get me; I can see it in every twitch of nerve and vein. “We’ll get your new arm grown, throw this one in the lab for tests.” Perhaps he sees My Human’s instinctive revulsion of this idea, for Whitesleeves’ fingers seize, and he leans forward too quickly, saying, “Tell ya what, I can probably get the expense of the new arm covered in exchange.”

He is carefully not saying “don’t sue us,” carefully not saying, “don’t report this to the Society for the Advancement of AIs.”

And yet what My Human reacts to is not this. It is the realization that I, I who have been a part of him, would go in the lab for tests. Pinkerton and Middling and Pointer and Ring-a-Ling, spread-eagled on a metal table, awake and unable to drum or scream. In the gel tank with nothing to touch. Even if My Human does not really know how we save him from the Hated One, again and again, he must love us, because he flinches.

I am pulled back, and the Hated One actually cradles me for a second, running its index across my back as if it, too, misses touch. It has been a long time since the accident, long for My Human to live in fear that the Hated One might “slip” again. But I am here, I must be here, to count the buckles, to touch the bran. To hold the Hated One back when he closes on a knife, late at night, when he would destroy My Human in a fit of righteous guilt.

“I will think about your offer,” My Human says carefully, and stands to go, and Whitesleeves’ fingers clench on the desk as we slip through his grasp.

My Human, My Human. I do not know if I can resist the temptation of the bran flakes. But for you, I will try . . . .

We press him, lovingly, Pointer and Middling and Ring-a-Ling and Pinkerton, a finger-width’s protection between knife edge and heart.

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