Authors: Andrew Lane
Calum sank back into his thoughts, and Tara started typing a response into her tablet.
I think if there were any dinosaurs out there any more they would have evolved into something new and different by now. Isn’t it strange that any
films and TV programmes about dinosaurs still living these days assume that they stopped evolving several million years ago, and still look exactly the same now as they did then?
Funny you should mention the Loch Ness Monster. The best explanation I ever saw for it was that circuses driving up and down the road that runs
alongside Loch Ness used to stop and let their elephants swim in the water, to cool them down and to let them get a drink. An elephant, swimming just beneath the water looks a lot like some
kind of plesiosaur – there’s the hump made by its back, another hump made by the tops of its head and then the trunk looking like a neck with a small head at the end. Someone
seeing the elephant swimming might mistake it for a monster. Strange, but true!
She reread it, just to check that she wasn’t sounding stupid, and then pressed
She browsed the internet for a while, and did some administrative stuff on
She kept checking her emails, but there was no response from Tom. She wondered why. Maybe
he’d gone offline, or maybe she
said something stupid and he’d decided to stop talking to her. She wanted to send another message straight away to apologize, but she stopped
herself. That would just make her seem needy. She had to wait for him to respond.
When she looked up from her screen, the car was travelling along a country lane. They must have come off the motorway without her realizing.
Macfarlane swung the car left, off the road, and up to a set of gates. They were closed, but there was a security box just where the driver’s window would be when the car stopped. As
Macfarlane lowered the window, Tara gazed around. The security gates were in a double fence, both stretches of which were topped with barbed wire. The inside fence was electrified as well, if the
signs hanging on it were to be believed. If there was a building inside the wire, then it was hidden by trees and some expert landscaping.
‘Yes?’ a voice said from the security box. It might have been human, or it might have been computer-generated.
‘Oi ’ave Mr Calum Challenger,’ Mr Macfarlane said gruffly. ‘Oi believe you are expectin’ ’im.’
Tara heard a loud electronic buzz, and the gates began to swing open. ‘Please follow the road,’ the voice said, ‘and park in a designated visitor spot. Someone will be there to
meet you in reception.’
‘Their customer relations leave a lot to be desired,’ Calum murmured as they drove through the gap and the gates swung shut behind them. ‘I’m beginning to regret this
his is the mobility lab,’ Dr Kircher said as he gestured Calum and Tara through yet another security door and into a large,
over-illuminated space. There were tables along the walls, something that looked like a medical scanner off to one side and a harness hanging from the ceiling that, Calum suspected, was there for
him to be strapped into like a puppet. It was attached to a set of tracks that ran from one side of the lab to the other.
He was not enjoying this. Not one bit.
Dr Kircher had met Calum and Tara in reception. He had obviously been expecting Calum, but Tara came as a surprise to him. It was also obviously the bionic legs that he really wanted to see.
Calum was just a means to an end.
Tara walked beside Calum as he manoeuvred his wheelchair into the lab. He suspected that the next couple of hours were going to be painful and emotional, and the fewer people who saw him like
that the better.
Across on the other side of the lab, two assistants were carefully unpacking the mechanical legs from their crate and laying them on a table, spreading the wires out so they didn’t become
‘So what kind of things do you do here?’ Tara asked politely to break the tension.
‘We study the ways in which biological organisms walk, and we try to replicate those ways as closely as we can using technology,’ Dr Kircher answered. He was a thin man, with black
hair brushed straight back from his prominent forehead. He had a way of walking fast and with long strides that, Calum thought ironically, would be a challenge to replicate with technology.
‘Why?’ Tara asked simply. Calum smiled inwardly. She was very good at asking apparently innocent but actually quite pointed questions like that.
whole variety of reasons,’ Dr Kircher answered. ‘For one, we can calculate the likely weight and speed of dinosaurs by looking at their fossilized bones, looking at
the grooves where the tendons would have attached and then simulating it all on a computer. That’s useful not only for palaeontologists, but also for film and TV special-effects companies, so
they can make their CGI creatures look as realistic as possible.’
, Calum thought –
we were only talking about dinosaurs half an hour ago in the car
. Out loud, he said, ‘That’s great, but it’s not going to help me
‘True,’ Dr Kircher said with a tight smile. ‘We do a lot of work with athletes as well, helping them optimize their running, or jumping, or swimming, or whatever it is that
they do. Sometimes a small change in gait can achieve a big reduction in energy expenditure for a given result.’ Before Calum could interrupt, Kircher raised a hand and said: ‘And that
also applies to paralympic athletes. We design prosthetic running blades for sprinters, and prosthetic fins for swimmers, all based on computer-aided designs.’
‘And that’s where I come in,’ Calum said.
‘Exactly.’ The doctor gestured at Calum’s lower half. ‘Your legs are still present, with all the joints and muscles, but the nerve impulses aren’t getting through.
With the right mechanical exoskeleton we can provide the power in the right place at the right time to get your legs moving in the same way that they would if your spine was intact. In effect, we
provide the nervous impulses.’ He frowned. ‘One day, of course,’ he went on, ‘we hope to be able to regenerate nerve tissue, but that’s a while away yet.’
Not if I have anything to do with it
, Calum thought.
‘But you are going to use Calum’s brain impulses to control the legs, aren’t you?’ Tara said. ‘Did I get that right?’
‘That’s exactly right. Another part of what we do here is to analyse the electrical activity in the brain when decisions are taken to do various things, like walking, or picking an
object up off a table. Once we’ve characterized Calum’s brain processes, we can programme the controller on the legs to react to his thoughts.’ He grinned, and clapped his hands
together. ‘It’s like telepathy!’
Calum winced. ‘OK, then,’ he said. ‘Where do we start? Do you want me in that harness while you strap the legs on?’
Kircher frowned. ‘Oh no, that won’t be necessary. Not yet, anyway. What we need to do first is take a look inside your brain.’ He gestured towards the medical scanner.
‘That’s an MRI scanner, isn’t it?’ Tara asked.
‘It is,’ Kircher said.
‘It uses a strong magnetic field to invert all the neurons in your brain,’ Tara said, patting Calum on the shoulder. ‘When the field is turned off, the neurons return to their
previous orientation and give out a radio impulse. The machine picks up the radio impulses and uses them to draw up a three-dimensional map of your mind.’
Calum stared at the machine balefully. ‘Are you seriously trying to tell me that every single atom in my brain gets rearranged by that thing and then
back like a rubber
‘Pretty much,’ said Kircher, eyebrow raised as he stared at Tara. ‘We then inject a radioactive contrast medium into your bloodstream and take some more readings while
you’re thinking about various actions – moving your lower left leg, moving your upper left leg, and so on. The contrast medium will tell us which parts of your brain are active when
you’re thinking about those things. We can then target those areas with a net of electrodes across your scalp specifically tuned to pick up electrical triggers in those areas.’
‘You make it sound so easy,’ Calum murmured.
Kircher turned to Tara. ‘This is going to take a while,’ he said in a suddenly businesslike tone of voice. ‘You’ll be bored. I’ll arrange to have you driven back to
‘That’s not necessary,’ she said brightly. ‘Technology fascinates me. I’m happy to stay and watch.’
Kircher looked apologetic, but firm. ‘Trade secrets, I’m afraid. We’re willing to extend some latitude to Mr Challenger here, but you are . . . an unknown quantity, I’m
afraid. We didn’t know you were coming. You will have to go.’
Tara started to protest, but Calum raised a hand. ‘If that’s what Dr Kircher wants,’ he said, ‘then it’s for the best. I’ll get Mr Macfarlane to take you
back. He can come back for me afterwards.’
He could tell that Tara wanted to stay, but he also didn’t want to annoy Dr Kircher. These legs were his way out of paralysis, and now that he had come this far he fully intended to take
advantage of them.
‘Sorry,’ he added.
Tara just looked at him. ‘If that’s what you want,’ she said eventually, in a small and very controlled voice, ‘then that’s what I’ll do. Have fun.’
Calum watched her go, feeling guilt washing through him. He half wanted to call her back, but Dr Kircher seemed so sure that she couldn’t be there, and Calum didn’t want Dr Kircher
to pull the plug on the tests and the fitting session.
Kircher handed him a tablet computer and an electronic pen. ‘If you can just sign this form . . .’ he said casually. ‘It’s a standard waiver, in case anything goes
Calum scribbled his signature in the box on the tablet. He was eager to find out what happened next . . .
Calum felt like an idiot. He also felt as if he should never have agreed to come along to the Robledo Mountains Technology laboratories in the first place.
He was suspended in the cradle that he had seen earlier – the one that ran along a track attached to the ceiling of the lab. The waistcoat-like corset was strapped round his chest so
tightly that he couldn’t breathe properly, and his legs hung uselessly down, dangling a few centimetres above the floor. He had a skullcap of thin wires wound through his hair, close to his
scalp, and thicker ones that ran round his forehead. A small box had been stuck to the nape of his neck with some kind of biological glue, which, they had promised him, wouldn’t be
Worse than that, he’d had to take his trousers off, and was hanging there in his boxer shorts and a T-shirt.
‘I feel like the fairy in a cheap pantomime,’ he said. He raised a hand to the wires that ran round his forehead. ‘If I just move this thing up a few centimetres, it could be a
Everyone ignored him. The various technicians bustled around the laboratory, taking readings and typing into computers. The big display on the wall showed various coloured graphs in three
dimensions, updating every second with new readings.
‘No, seriously,’ he said, ‘how much longer am I going to have to hang around here?’
He was glad that Tara wasn’t there to see his humiliation. He could feel the skin of his face radiating heat as he blushed.
Dr Kircher looked up from what he was doing. ‘Just a few more minutes,’ he said. ‘We’re just making sure that the data we downloaded from your brain during the MRI scan
has transmitted to the processor unit in the legs properly. It would be a tragedy if the files had been corrupted somewhere along the way, and you ended up doing a goose-step march across the lab
when all you wanted to do was take a small step forward.’
‘Yes,’ Calum admitted, ‘that
be a bad thing.’
Dr Kircher watched his team until one by one they looked over and gave him a thumbs-up signal.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘we’re ready to go.’
A group of technicians came over with one of the bionic legs – the left one. They carefully fitted it round Calum’s own leg and strapped it tight to his calf and to his thigh. He
couldn’t feel it, but then he couldn’t feel anything from his legs anyway. They were dead to him. Once they had the leg fitted, they added a separate section that Calum hadn’t
noticed before – one that cradled his foot and connected to the leg via a rotating joint. It was, he supposed, a bit like being a medieval knight getting strapped into armour by his
More technicians came across with the right leg. They strapped that to him as well, and then added the foot. Once they had both legs attached, they connected the two legs together at the level
of Calum’s hips with a kind of brace. He wasn’t entirely sure how the bits all connected together: it was difficult for him to see what they were doing down there, and he couldn’t
feel a thing.
He felt like a side of beef hanging in an abattoir on which butchers were working, trimming the fat and removing the tendons.
Eventually the technicians stood back, checking over their work. One of them held a bunch of wires in her hands, which she plugged into a box that she clipped to Calum’s belt.
‘Is everyone happy?’ Dr Kircher asked.
The technicians nodded.
Dr Kircher gestured to another of the technicians across the lab. This one, a young man with black hair, was standing beside the controls for the wires that had hoisted Calum in the air half an
hour before. ‘Can you lower Mr Challenger down gradually to the floor, please, until you get feedback from the legs that his full weight has been taken off the wires.’
The technician nodded and pressed a series of buttons, and with a whining sound the motor above Calum’s head lowered him smoothly down. He couldn’t feel the point where his heels
touched the floor, but he could tell when it happened because he stopped going down any further and the wires holding him began to sag. The bionic legs were now taking his weight.