The Falling Marionette

by Jennifer Lee Rossman

Stumbling and wobbling, her arms floating out from her body in the lower gravity, Cass took her first steps.

At the request of her brain, the hinges at her ankle, knee, and hip bent in sync, unsticking the gravity boot that locked her feet to the deck of the clinic ship. It came down with a little click a few inches ahead. Joy flooded her body that had never moved with such ease.

And then she panicked.

Too many moving parts, too many directions to bend. Bend a knee, straighten the ankle… Which way do the arms go?

Multitasking at its worst.

The metal skeleton and lack of gravity kept her from collapsing, invisible strings holding her upright, but she folded gently in the vague direction of the ground. She stared up at the puppetmaster that was not there.

“That why we do this in orbit,” her therapist said, click clicking over to her. “Hurts less.”

He wrapped his hand around hers, all the little rods and pistons along his fingers curling with a precision she couldn’t match. She stared at her hand, thinking so loud she was surprised the other patients couldn’t hear.

One by one they contracted, squeezing with more strength than she ever remembered having, even before the disease progressed. Once she tried getting her legs under her, however, she slipped and slid, a baby deer on ice, and her hand relaxed its grip.

He had to lift her to her feet, wait for her knees to remember how to stand without buckling.

“But that was good. Try holding onto the bar this time for stability.”

Hold the bar? She could hardly hold his hand.

Everyone stared. All the nurses and therapists and even some of the other patients. Crowding at the edges of the room to watch the spectacle, offer too-enthusiastic encouragement, and mutter “Poor girl; so brave” when they thought she couldn’t hear.

Cass took another step and fell, tumbling sideways around the axis of the bar. She forgot how to make it let go.

****

There was a boy, a few years younger than Cass. He came into the clinic all mangled from an accident while Cass was recovering from her surgeries.

He was going back to Earth, his exoskeleton fully functional. He would still need to get used to the full gravity, but he had been running and riding bikes while Cass was struggling to wiggle her toes.

She watched him stride out of the clinic with an ease she couldn’t fathom, casually sidestepping a bunch of balloons while giving a thumbs-up to all the cheering people who came to see him off.

“I’d be flat on my face if I tried that,” she mumbled.

With a swipe of his hand, her physical therapist turned the window of her room opaque. “You can’t compare your progress to anyone else’s. He started in a different place than you.”

“But he started worse than me. Why does he get to be better before me? Am I doing something wrong?”

His face made her regret complaining. So sad and annoyed at the same time. Even his face was a multitasker.

“His injuries were quite severe,” he acknowledged, sitting on her bed. “Shattered bones, torn muscles, damage to the spinal cord. Without the external and neural supports, he would have been paralyzed and possibly lost limbs. But his body took to therapy so easily because it already knew how to work.”

Cass tried not to sigh or roll her eyes at another person explaining her disease to her.

“Your brain works perfectly. So do your muscles. But the SMA affects the way they talk to each other, so the messages don’t get through so well.” He pointed towards the window. “Ahmed’s body already knew how to talk; we just taught it a new accent. Your body is struggling not to forget English, and we want to teach it Mandarin and Hebrew.”

Cass just looked at him, watching his fingers drum against his knee. Each gleaming metal support moved like precision clockwork, the joints springing and relaxing at every tug of electronic tendons.

Did he even notice that he was doing it, or did it come so naturally that he didn’t have to give any conscious thought to the process?

He followed her gaze and smiled. “You’ll get there.”

“Or maybe some of us just have more skilled puppeteers.”

****

It wasn’t the fall that hurt you, people said. It was the landing.

Maybe in a physics sense, Cass thought as she gripped the bar with an unsteady hand, but not in her case.

She’d been falling since soon after birth. Falling behind the other babies, struggling to catch up to milestones. Nearly caught them for a while, using motorized chairs and machines that reached for things, before she started falling again.

First she couldn’t lift her arms to feed herself, then she couldn’t swallow. When her lungs gave out, they sent her to orbit for treatment. Less gravity pushing down on her chest kept her alive until surgery, but muscles atrophy in space.

She fell so far, she needed marionette strings to pull her up. Miracle machines to save her life and improve the quality of it.

She’d spent so many years falling, she didn’t know how to stand up, but she had to learn because the worst part of falling wasn’t the landing. No, the part that hurt the most was people watching it happen.

The sad smiles, the stares, the being treated like less than a human because she needed wheels to get around. People talked slowly and used small words. If they talked to her at all. More often than not, they talked about her and over her. Like she was too stupid to walk.

A step. Focus. All the joints pulling in different directions.

When she got back to Earth, it would be different. She would walk. She would have value.

Another step. Hold tight to the bar. Don’t fall.

****

Cass had forgotten how strong gravity could be. On the shuttle ride from the orbiting clinic, she felt her body sink into the seat, and it took more mental effort to lift her limbs.

But her seat was just like everyone else’s, no special supports for her head or straps to keep her from leaning over, and she could scratch her own nose without asking someone for help.

When they landed, she exited with everyone else. No special ramp or waiting for an attendant to unhook her chair.

Just Cass, her brain and muscles finally working as they were meant to. Neurons firing, messages traveling along synthetic pathways to tendons made of pistons and actuators, pulling and pushing her joints like muscles should have.

She walked out of the ship, taller and happier than she’d ever been. Her legs moved stiffly, wobbled a bit, but her strings kept her from falling and she even waved at the crowd clustered on the edge of the landing pad.

Who, she quickly realized as the other passengers went to hug their families, were not all there to see her. She let out a relieved breath and told her clenched hands to relax as she made her way towards her parents. No more spectacle or pity, just a human among humans.

At first, her parents didn’t know how to hug her. Too much metal around her torso, holding up her spine. Not enough snuggly daughter to squish. But they hadn’t seen her in months, except over video, and the metal skeleton only held up the reunion for a few awkward seconds.

“You’re taller than I am,” her mother said with a laugh, having only seen Cass sitting. She started crying.

Her father cleared his throat and tried to hide his emotions with humor as they walked back to their aerocar. “Glad it worked out for you, kid. I was worried they wouldn’t refund the money I spent signing you up for soccer.”

Soccer?

Cass knew he was joking, but… soccer? She’d never even thought about playing sports before.

The world opened up before her, full of possibilities. She could play sports now – real ones, not the virtual kind where you throw a pixel ball with the flick of a finger. She could learn piano. She could visit that museum that didn’t have a ramp! She could–

“Poor thing.”

Cass froze. Her legs wouldn’t budge, all neural activity being diverted to two little words. Her stomach felt like it would tumble out of the pit in her gut if not for the metal cage around her body.

She found the source of the comment, an old lady smiling sadly with her head cocked sideways. Her gaze traveled, groping at every exposed support and lingering over the ones hidden by Cass’s pants and shirt.

Cass opened her mouth, but choked on the tears that stung at her eyes and squeezed her throat.

But I’m better, she wanted to say. These help me not be as disabled; more like you. I’m not something to pity anymore, and I never was.

The woman turned to her parents. “What’s wrong with her?”

Her strings were cut, and Cass was falling again.

****

Surgeries, implants, months of therapy, and Cass still lay in bed, afraid to be seen in public.

Nothing had changed. If anything, this was worse.

Before, she did need the help everyone offered, opening doors and picking up dropped items. She was severely disabled – not that they had the right to think less of her for that, but at least she understood their logic.

Now she was free, liberated by technology from the prison of her own body. A lump of wood finally given legs to dance on.

But people saw her and they said “Oh, how awful. She can’t ever be a real girl with those strings.”

Her body almost killed her. She lived in space, and she hurt for months, and she earned the right to walk and feed herself and braid her own hair. To be normal.

But she would never be normal, no matter how hard she tried. Always a freak, falling, falling.

A few months after leaving the clinic, she saw the boy on vidscreen, winning every event in a sporting competition for people with disabilities.

Prerecorded segments told his story. Star athlete in high school, tragically mutilated when his aero fell from the sky with a malfunctioning thruster.

Look at how brave he was, a voiceover said in a tone that definitely came from a tilted head. Going through all those awful surgeries but never losing hope. He didn’t give up! How did he take one look at his hideous metal supports and have the strength not to just throw himself off a roof! So amazing!

And now he was not only competing as a disabled athlete, but advocating for disabled rights and building wheelchairs for kids in the Congo.

He was an inspiration. Not to Cass, but to all the reporters and announcers who had never had so much as a sprained ankle in their lives.

She tested her legs, running little laps around her bedroom and jumping hurdles made of kitchen chairs. Her puppeteer wasn’t skilled enough yet; maybe never would be. Cass wasn’t sure she wanted to be an inspiration anyway.

Were those her only choices? Keep to disabled circles and let people find strength in the misery they projected on her, or try to integrate into the human world, only to have every person she met try and snip her strings?

****

Like a baby deer, Cass struggled to stand on the ice. Her body was not meant for skates, but the bulky hockey uniform hid the metal bars that ran along every bone and the goalie wasn’t expected to move around as much as the other players.

Her teammates were all real girls. No strings, no disability.

And as far as they knew, so was she.

For weeks, Cass went to practice and taught her limbs to move in different ways than they ever had and taught herself to trust. Pizza afterwards, laughter and fun with the girls. A glimmer of hope for a normal future, if only she could keep her uniform on.

The first game found Cass with thousands of eyes on her, boring through the layers of pads and seeing every misstep for what it was: distraction making her neurons not fire strongly enough.

Focus. One leg, then the other. Hold the stick tight.

The puck came her way. She lunged, sent it skittering from the goal.

In the cheers and exhalation, she lost her footing.

Falling. Always falling.

The ice hit her face, her cheek split. She took off her glove to feel for blood as another girl skated over.

Her hand curled around Cass’s, pulling her up. A glance at the exoskeleton, a friendly smile devoid of pity.

Cass wasn’t falling anymore.

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