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art by Seth Alan Bareiss


K.C. Norton's work can be found in the pages of Crossed Genres, Lightspeed's Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, Writers of the Future Volume 30, and IGMS, as well as Daily Science Fiction. She is currently a student of Writing for Children and Young Adults, but once in a while she has to sit down and make space in her brain for some of the weirder thoughts.

She takes him apart, bone from meat from ventricle.
"You have nimble hands," he tells her. "It barely hurts. The pamphlet made it sound much worse."
The Engineer smiles at him without looking up from her work. She prods the waxy blue bulge of his aorta. "While the patient may experience some emotional discomfort in the days prior to the procedure," she says, quoting from the right-hand interior flap of the informational trifold, the section labeled simply Q&A, "the surgery itself registers in the surviving portion of gray matter as a pinch, no more painful than the common bee sting."
"Yes," he says, jerking his chin into the air, "yes, exactly. Bee sting. It isn't nearly so unpleasant."
At last his heart comes free in her hands, and the Engineer lifts it out. His arteries flap around her fingers like rubber tubes. "The heart," she says--she is still quoting, this time from the middle interior panel, "is nothing more than a battery, fulfilling the same functions as the potato in the classic school science project."
The way she leaves the silence hanging registers, in the surviving portion of his gray matter, as a question. "That's what the literature says."
She nods. Her cheeks glint platinum under the white lights. She does not speak. Perhaps, he thinks, she cannot speak, except to parrot the literature.
When his heart slaps onto the steel surgical tray at the Engineer's side, the patient feels an unexpected pinch of nostalgia. Like a bee sting. Nothing he can't survive.
"May I see it?" he asks.
She frowns at him, reaching for the obsolete muscle, her fingers tightening into its clammy surface.
"No. Not that. The new one."
The Engineer's face clears, and she reaches beneath the table, to where the mechanical heart lies still nested safely in the bubble wrap. Contrary to the assertions of the pamphlet, it does not resemble a potato battery. It is like nothing so much as a bird, a plumed bird small enough that it can be cupped in the palm of the Engineer's hand. Its spray of hollow pinions, soon to be fitted with his veins, shiver at the slightest touch.
She is much more careful with this one than the old one.
"Beautiful," he says. "May I..." he hesitates, and he feels--yes, feels--an inarticulate sadness that such a beautiful thing, crafted with such care, will so shortly be harnessed to the aging meat that is his body. Shackled to it. Integrated. "May I touch it?"
The Engineer shakes her head.
He wishes she would say something of her own volition, something she hasn't been programmed to say.
Brightness flashes at the edge of his vision. "What are those?" he asks, blinking. "Those little lights?"
"During the operation, some patients see sparks caused by dying neurons, suffocating from a lack of oxygen that a regular heartbeat would normally provide." This wasn't on the pamphlet, but he remembers skimming it somewhere. The website, the FAQs?
She is already inside his chest again, fitting tubes into arteries, needles into veins.
When she turns the heart on, flipping a switch on its underbelly, he gasps. "Jesus Christ!" he cries.
The Engineer tilts her head, smiles. "The initial current may come as a shock. Patients are advised to wait several hours before attempting vigorous physical activity, such as lifting heavy loads or jogging." She zips up his chest with neat black stitches.
The lights are gone from his vision; his brain has stabilized. When he sits up, he experiences a brief moment of disorientation, but it passes quickly.
He gets his feet under him, drinks the glass of water she offers him in three small gulps. "Thank you," he says. This feels--yes, feels--like the wrong thing to say to someone so intimate with the machine that is his body, so he shakes her hand and turns to leave.
The surviving portion of his gray matter wonders what will become of the dead tissue, the discarded battery. He hardens his heart and does not look back.
In the main office, he signs the waivers. No, he will not operate heavy machinery for the next three days. Yes, he has a way to get home that does not involve driving. Yes, he has the emergency contact information. No, he will not take any over-the-counter painkillers for the next two weeks.
When his wife asks how the surgery went, he tells her, "It was fine, hardly hurt. Yes, I'm the same man. Of course I still love you."
Alone, in the operating room, the Engineer removes her heart and inserts the patient's heart in its place. It is nothing but old muscle now, of course, but it's so beautiful, like a halved geode. It's too big and clumsy for the hollow in her chest, but while she's wearing it she feels like a queen decked out in priceless finery.
Looking in the mirror, she practices forbidden phrases: "If I could be anything, I'd be a professional snowboarder," and "Last night, I dreamed that radishes could speak," and "I love you." She can't be sure, but she thinks she looks different when she says these things.
In the end her systems run low, and her own heart has to go back in, and that's the end of her pretending.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, June 30th, 2014

Author Comments

Recently, I've been struggling with the fact that I have a human heart. Most days I can cope with it, but others... other days, I wouldn't mind having an unbreakable heart.

- K. C. Norton
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