“Leg” by Shaenon K. Garrity

When Tony’s leg called up its earliest memory, this was the file that opened: a hot night, crickets outside, and Tony’s mother touching the leg’s copper seams. Its metal parts were shinier then, polished to stand out for the doctors and technicians. Tony was six years old. Tony’s leg was six months. Tony played indoors with his Star Wars figures and wore jeans, even in the August heat, when he was shooed outside.

But Tony’s mother rolled up his pajama leg and stroked the copper seams. Racing stripes, she told him. They were racing stripes.

“She was just being a mother,” said Tony’s leg. “She didn’t really think we could run races. Even top-of-the-line prostheses weren’t expected to synchronize that smoothly with their hosts, and I wasn’t what you’d call a top-of-the-line prosthesis.”

The HR director nodded vaguely.

“My point is, nobody expected great results. But I remembered those words. I put everything I had into being the best leg I could be. And in his senior year of high school, Tony Sarto placed fifth in the Pennsylvania Division II regional cross-country tournament.”

Dramatic pause. Wait for a reaction. Give up. Plunge on.

“That’s the dedication I’ll bring to this job,” said Tony’s leg. “I won’t stop at just good enough.”

“We don’t do much…running…here,” said the HR director.

“It was a metaphor.”

“This is a plastics marketing company.”

“And I’m ready to help us sell the best polymer products we can.”

“Why don’t you look for a job as…” the HR director searched for the right euphemism, realized none existed. “As a leg?”

Deep in its central processor, Tony’s leg sighed. It had been dreading the question. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were, not that Tony’s leg found anything funny about that. In the past, it had always explained patiently that smart prostheses were built to their hosts. Tony’s leg had been Tony’s for over ten years. There was no way it could adapt to another body. Besides, its technology was years out of date even for people who still needed prostheses. And hardly anyone needed prostheses anymore…

After failing half a dozen interviews that way, Tony’s leg had looked up job-hunting tips online.

“I feel like I’ve done all I can do in the field of medical prosthetics,” it said. “My vision now is to take what I’ve learned and apply it to polymer sales.”

“It’s more of an administrative assistant position…”

“I’m just excited to be part of the industry.” The HR director looked skeptical, and Tony’s leg didn’t blame her. Woodrow H. Plastics himself probably hadn’t been excited to be in the plastics industry. Or whoever the guy was who invented it.

“There’s filing, routing mail, a lot of things involving hands…”

“Don’t think of me as a leg. Think of me as a robot, Turing certified and cloud-enabled, who happens to be more or less leg-shaped. Even today, very few AIs are self-owned citizens cleared for employment in the private sector. Ask yourself if you can afford to pass up the opportunity to add someone with my unique skills to the company team.”

The HR director gave Tony’s leg a long, hard look.

“We also need someone who can make coffee,” she said.

* * *

Not what you’d call a top-of-the-line prosthesis!” said Tony’s leg. “I said that! Why did I say that?”

“Hush,” said Joey.

“I came right out and told her I was a discount model ten years out of date!”

“Closer to fifteen,” muttered Joe.

“Do I hate myself? Do I not want to work?”

“So we’ve learned a lesson,” said Joey. “Next time, we don’t tell employers our technical specs. Let’s go out.”

“I can’t survive another ironic drag club,” said Tony’s leg.

“What drag club? We’re going to this bangara dance place Joe found. Here, I’ll help you change into a jean.”

Tony’s leg hopped off to its room. “I can do it myself.”

Smart of them. They knew Tony’s leg would get ready just to prove it could. A knee-jerk reaction, said the little voice in its processor. Not funny.

But why not humor them? They’d earned it. Joe was one of the medical technicians who’d worked with Tony, and when Tony and his leg had parted, Joe had offered Tony’s leg a spare room. The Joes didn’t make a peep when Tony’s leg was late with the rent, as it usually was. They invited it out, introduced it to people.

Even so, Tony’s leg could only take so much of the bangara club. It was a forest of legs.
Tony’s leg was an excellent dancer—another thing the doctors had never thought Tony would be able to do. But not here, not with all the hipsters staring.

“You know what you need?” Joe shouted over the music. “A name.”

“You say that all the time.”

“If only for the job hunt. You can’t expect employers to see you as an individual if you call yourself ‘Tony’s leg.'”

“They can use my serial number.”

“What would you think if I named myself after Joey? You’d be creeped out.”

“You two already have the same name.”

“I know, it’s adorable.”

The crowd belched Joey up. He grabbed Joe. They tumbled off together, dancing badly and happily.

Tony’s leg found its way out into the cold night air. It checked its phone node. Three voicemails from Tony, unplayed. He probably wanted to send money again. Tony’s leg didn’t want his money.

A tap on the thigh made Tony’s leg spin around. “Having a good time?” said an arm.

It waved.

Tony’s leg had never met other prostheses outside of medical facilities, where they were usually attached to bodies. A single arm hanging out on a curb looked…no more bizarre than a single leg, probably.

Tony’s leg decided to play it cool. “I was on my way out.”

“Same here. Let’s get a drink.”

The arm called itself Dennis. Himself. Dennis was a him. He explained this to Tony’s leg at a dive bar where the drunks barely gave them a glance.

“They’re used to me here,” said Dennis. He signaled for two beers. They couldn’t drink, but it was polite to order something.

Tony’s leg found itself rambling about the job search. Dennis brought his fist down with a thud. “They custom-build you for a job, and as soon as it’s done they throw you out on your whatever-you-got. You try applying for another host?”

“I don’t want another host.”

“Don’t bother. Nobody’s looking.” Dennis drummed his fingers on the bar. “You’re a right leg, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Your guy was, what, five-nine, five-ten?”

“Five-ten, yeah.”

The beers arrived. “Let me invite you to a meeting this Sunday.”

* * *

“So who met someone last night?” said Joe.

“It’s a friendly meet-up, is all.”

“And for a friendly meet-up we’re at Barney’s, shopping for new pants.”

The assistant laid out several pairs of trousers, not bothering to conceal a sneer. He had already calculated the commission he was likely to receive on one-quarter of a discount-rack suit.

“I think it’s a healthy step,” said Joey. “No pun intended, I swear. You’re meeting people, updating your look…”

“Have you tried pinstripes?” said Joe.

“Tony hated pinstripes. Said they made us look like a Mafia don.”

“Perfect.” Joe delved into a thicket of trousers.

“Dennis just said he’d introduce me to some people,” Tony’s leg continued. “Thought we’d connect. He seems pretty popular for…well…”

“For an AI? Don’t sell yourself short,” said Joey. “Robots are moving up in the world. The Times Style section had a whole feature on the juice club boom in Brooklyn. That’s juice as in electricity, not juice as in juice. Juice as in juice is out.”

“Yeah, it’s a great big beautiful tomorrow if you’re a stainless-steel nanomolecular chef or some hedge-fund investor’s retired BMW.”

Joe bolted through the racks, spraying gabardine. “We need to go.”

“We just got—”

“Never mind, we need to go, just—”

And Tony was there.

He was looking good, not much different from his photos before Tony’s leg had blocked him on social media. (Joe: “Stop cyberstalking him before you become the inspiration for the most ridiculous CSI ever.”) Only Tony’s leg could have noticed the difference in the way he stood. Less graceful but more sure of himself.

Stiff but confident on his cloned leg.

“Magee,” said Tony.

“Tony,” said Tony’s leg at last.

And, reviewing it later, that was all there was to the conversation. Oh, Tony asked polite questions and confirmed he was doing well, really pretty good, he’d found an apartment, good neighborhood for biking (he was biking now?), a few dates with Rachel, you remember her. But neither of them said anything. Not really.

Tony promised to call, Tony’s leg promised to answer, and they both knew Tony’s leg was lying. Joe and Joey watched Tony go.

“Wait, you have a name?” said Joe.

“Nickname,” said Tony’s leg. After Maniac Magee, a book Tony and his leg had read in third grade. A book about a runner. “You don’t get to use it.”

Joey kicked Joe. They were good about that kind of thing. They’d stopped making leg puns after Tony’s leg had told them to knock it off. It’d never had to explain why. The Joes knew what to do when things got uncomfortable.

“My call,” said Joe, “is that you definitely need pinstripes.”

* * *

Tony’s leg acquired one and a half trousers and a new line on its credit card statement. It had a few weeks to figure out what to do about that. Until then, it didn’t feel like thinking, or doing much of anything.

“Isn’t your meeting with the arm tonight?” said Joe.

“I’m not in the mood to go out,” said Tony’s leg. It had draped itself, sweatpant-clad, over one arm of the sofa. With its interior remote it called up a movie queue. “How do you feel about The Magnificent Seven?”

Joe stalked into the kitchen. There emerged a furious clanging of pots.

A minute later, Joey entered with the new pinstripe trouser and a polished shoe, which he placed on the coffee table.

Tony’s leg tapped its foot. “Are you going to try to talk me into this?”

“No. I’m just going to note that in twenty minutes I plan to noisily seduce Joe on this couch. You can stay or leave, it’s going to happen.”

Tony’s leg left.

* * *

It jiggled nervously on a barstool, looking for Dennis. Or for any appendages; hadn’t Dennis promised some kind of meeting? Tony’s leg was so focused on arms and legs, hands and feet, it didn’t notice when the headless man limped in.

The man was dressed casually, light layers, and would’ve stood about five-ten if he’d had a head. He turned to Tony’s leg, leaning on the bar, and from the leaning arm a voice emerged.

“Here he is, guys,” said Dennis. “The one I told you about.”

“Snappy dresser,” said the left leg. “Very GQ.”

There were five of them so far. Two arms, a left leg, an artificial heart and lung, “and we’ve been chatting online with some eyeballs, but we need to build a head apparatus first,” Dennis explained. “We might audition a few pairs and set up rotating shifts.”

“Lotta lonely eyeballs out there,” sighed the heart.

“What do you call yourselves?” said Tony’s leg, surprised that this was its first question.

“We’ll put it up to a vote once we get the core membership established,” said Dennis.

“I’m pushing for Carl,” said the left leg. “You can call me Six, by the way. First digit of my serial number.”

“Mine too.”

“What a coincidence! We must be same generation. Assuming you’re a Gresham Instruments…”

Dennis tapped the bar meaningfully. “Thing is, with you on board, we’ve got core membership. We can still take on new organs,” he added hastily, “but a right leg is the last essential part.”

“He’s not kidding about essential,” said Six. “You know how hard it is to get around with a traditional prosthesis? I don’t know how humans survived without us.”

“They survive fine without us now,” said the left arm, speaking up for the first time. “Cutting-edge to obsolete in a generation.”

“Can we cut the downer talk?” said Six.

Dennis leapt in. “So what do you say? Are you ready to be part of something again?”

Tony’s leg looked the makeshift body up and down. In its compiler, it tried out the name: Carl’s leg. It didn’t fit. But nothing fit right anymore.

“I’m in,” it said.

* * *

Six weeks later Carl, no last name, started work at a small publishing house. He loped through the rows of cubicles with a sure step, circulating proofs. At meetings he was never distracted by laptop or smartphone. He told bad jokes haltingly. He was a startlingly fast typist.

He didn’t tell anyone outside the HR department that he was artificial, but it was clear from his uncanny-valley face, his eyes that changed color from day to day, the way he sometimes spoke from places other than his mouth. People got used to him. And he was well-read—as much as five or six people, in fact—which was enough to win over most of the editorial staff.

Inside Carl’s khaki trouser, Tony’s leg was discovering a new kind of bond—not the synthesis it’d had with Tony, nothing like that, but the pleasure of working in a group with a shared passion. Six’s bouncy enthusiasm balanced the melancholy of the left arm, who was rather unoriginally named Lefty. On the right side, Dennis was a born manager, while Tony’s leg fell easily into a diplomatic role, tempering Dennis when he got too aggressive. The heart and lung, who renounced names, formed a private understanding in the hollows of the body cavity. And the chattering eyeballs, jumping in and out in shifts, provided a flow of outside perspectives.

Machines could communicate with each other on a deeper level than they could with humans, even the humans they’d been built for. Tony’s leg developed strong channels with Six in particular. Every day, the members of Carl came closer to unity.

For a while.

Joe and Joey had thrown Tony’s leg a farewell party when it moved out, tearfully offering socks and trashy paperbacks. From time to time they visited Carl in his apartment, with its empty kitchen and its shelves of clashing knick-knacks: watercolors, baseball bobbleheads, snow globes. The visits didn’t last long. It was hard to talk to the Joes through Carl.

Instead, Carl went drinking and had long conversations with people who always seemed to be in investment or banking or brokering. Something with money. As he talked, Carl’s feet shuffled, and his legs agreed they were bored. Six would rather have been discussing Haruki Murakami back at the publishing house, and Tony’s leg—it would always be Tony’s leg, it was starting to believe—didn’t know what it wanted, but it wasn’t these people. These were Dennis’s people, Tony’s leg thought, and the sourness of the thought made it nervous.

At night, most of Carl shut down to recharge, but Lefty stayed up writing poetry. Bad poetry, Tony’s leg thought. It was hard to feel rested when parts of Carl kept running until dawn. Cracks began to emerge. The heart and lung vetoed adding more organs and refused to explain why. And the eyeballs…well, eyeballs were idiots, everyone might as well admit it, and their gossip was getting on the nerves no one had.

But it was okay, almost, until the date with Yuki stripped away the comforting layers of self-reassurance and forced Carl to admit he wasn’t together.

It was a wreck from the start.

Maybe not the very start, when Yuki moved into the cubicle next to Carl’s and stunned the entirety of him by flirting. This was new. Tony’s leg had awkward memories of Tony’s first kiss, of course, and his second and third, and a feverish high-school make-out session that had ended in part because Tony was shy about revealing the prosthesis. But those were Tony’s romances.

This more-than-friendliness with Yuki hit closer to home. Tony’s leg didn’t like the way it felt. On more than one occasion, he and Six cut off a conversation with Yuki by turning Carl around and walking away, upsetting the arms, who had been enjoying themselves. (Dennis did more and more of the talking for Carl. Tony’s leg noticed that, too.)

Finally, one day, before the others could stop him, Dennis asked Yuki out for tapas.

“Are you sure we’re ready for this?” the heart asked that evening.

“It’s just one date,” said Lefty. “What are the chances it’ll get serious?”

“You let me talk, pretty high,” said Dennis, and the two of them chuckled. It bugged Tony’s leg how chummy the two arms were getting, but maybe they felt the same way about the legs.

“Sorry,” said Tony’s leg, “but I’m not feeling it.”

“That’s just a knee-jerk reaction,” said Lefty.

“I told you I don’t like the puns.”

“Do I need to bring up the obvious?” said Six.

“The ethics of inviting a singular person into a gestalt relationship?” said Tony’s leg, who had been reading columns on the internet.

“No. We don’t have a dick.”

“First date,” said Lefty. “Let’s not get optimistic.”

“I don’t even know if they make smart genitals,” said Six.

“Totes sending you a link,” piped up one of the eyeballs.

“Please don’t.”

“Relax,” said Dennis. “We’ll treat this as a learning experience. Not to mention a test of our ability to work together.”

“All of us against one woman,” said Lefty. “I call those even odds.”

Tony’s leg logged out of the conversation. It was already dreading the walk to the tapas place.

* * *

Things started to disintegrate long before the walk. The eyeballs got into a screaming fight over which of them would get to ride in Carl’s sockets for the date, and Dennis didn’t help by suggesting the two matching blues because they were the best-looking. Carl showed up forty minutes late with mismatched eyes, one hazel and one cracked brown. His button-down shirt clashed with his ripped jeans.

Yuki settled into her seat. “Tell me about yourself.”

“You first,” said Carl. His left hand snaked under the table, going for Yuki’s knee. His right hand grabbed the left and dropped it in his lap. “You went to Cornell, right?”

On Carl’s internal network, Lefty messaged the legs. “Let’s try playing footsie,” he said. “Can you do, you know, a flirty foot thing?”

“What are you, in middle school?” said Six.

“How about touching knees? Be casual.”

“I’m blocking you,” said Six, and did.

“Thanks,” said Tony’s leg. “And for the record, there is going to be no footsie from my side tonight.”

“I know. It’s like he doesn’t even realize how awkward he’s making it for us.”

“Awkward for everyone but Dennis. And maybe Lefty, I can’t figure him out…”

“Well, yeah, but us especially. I mean, humans don’t do it for me, and you’re gay.”

Far away, in the world outside Carl, Yuki was saying, “I hope this doesn’t come off as offensive, but I’m new to this.”

“Paella?” said Carl, and Dennis IM’ed Lefty a high-five.

Yuki smiled. “You know. My first dinner with an android.”

Tony’s leg recorded it all without listening. Six was right, and he’d always known it, but at the same time he hadn’t. Just as he’d known, and not known, that Carl was coming apart.

“Sorry,” said Six. “Was that too blunt? I know we’ve never talked about it…”

“I need fresh air,” said Tony’s leg.

“Don’t worry,” Carl was saying, via Dennis. “You’ll find I’m like any other man.” Both hands clamped down on Tony’s leg, which was inching its way out of Carl’s jeans.

“You certainly seem—” Yuki said, and that was when Six tried to knee the hands out of the way, missed, and kicked Yuki. The arms pinwheeled, knocking over a glass of wine.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” said Tony’s leg. It yanked itself free and writhed across the floor, naked save for an athletic sock and a Chuck Taylor. A server dropped a tray of sangrias.

Carl turned to Yuki, his jaw slack. His eyeballs dropped out of his face. One of them—the hazel—landed in the paella.

All things considered, Yuki was nice about it.

* * *

Out on the street, Tony’s leg realized it was pantsless with nowhere to go. There was no chance of catching a cab, not least because it obviously wasn’t carrying a wallet. In the end, it hopped the eighteen blocks to Carl’s apartment, where the doorman was kind enough to let it in.

Carl showed up an hour later, one eye socket still empty. “I think,” said Dennis, “it’s time for a meeting.”

It was cacophony. Everyone except Tony’s leg wanted to talk. No, shout. They’d been messaging in silence for too long. The upstairs neighbors banged on the floor.

“It’s not working,” said Six at last. “We’re not a person. We’re a crowd.”

Lefty said, “There’s one thing we could try.”

As he spoke he flashed the idea over Carl’s network, with links to the relevant editing tools. It was simple enough. Splice their software together into a single AI running off a central processor in Carl’s chest. Really and truly merge.

Little code would be sacrificed, and the new AI would compile in a few hours.

“It’s what we were working toward in the beginning,” said Dennis slowly. “When things were going well, I mean.”

“You’re willing to lose your individuality?” said Tony’s leg. “You?”

“If that’s the logical conclusion of the Carl project. It could be an amazing experience. A true gestalt would be far greater than the sum of our parts.”

“We could write a hell of a memoir,” said Lefty.

Tony’s leg hopped off the sofa. “Not with me.”

“I’m out too,” said one of the eyeballs, but nobody cared.

“Remember how lost you were when I found you?” said Dennis. “How hopeless?”

“Is that what you all thought of me?”

“Of course not,” said Six.

“I think that way about the whole group,” said Lefty.

“Don’t go,” said Six.

Tony’s leg turned.

“I’m staying,” said Six. “I think Lefty’s right.”

What a terrible unintentional pun, thought Tony’s leg.

“Well?” said Dennis. “Are you going to be just a leg for the rest of your life?”

* * *

Tony was halfway through an espresso when the unoccupied chair at the café table skidded aside. Into the empty chair jumped Tony’s leg.

“I was in the neighborhood,” said Tony’s leg, “and I saw you sitting here, and I thought…”

“What did you think?”

“I thought I’d better leg it over here.”

Tony wasn’t the smiling type. But his eyes glinted. “Get your foot in the door?”

“I was afraid last time I came off as a bit of a heel.”

“If this is a challenge, let me warn you I’m ready to go toe to toe.”

“I’ll get a kick out of watching you try.”

“Don’t worry, I’m having a ball.”

There was a pause.

“Ball of the foot?” said Tony.

Tony’s leg sighed.

“I haven’t done this in a while. You always loved the pun challenge, though, didn’t you?”

“I did,” said Tony’s leg.

“So. How are you doing, really?”

“Really? I’m an antique limb with no decent dress shoes and eight weeks at a publishing house on my resume. I’m fine.”

“I’m getting a croissant. You want a croissant?”

“You know I don’t eat.”

“You want to watch me eat two croissants?”

“That sounds good.”

Later, after Joe and Joey picked him up, Tony’s leg told them, “I think you should know that from now on, I’m a him.”

“A him?” said Joe.

“Instead of an it.”

“We’ve always called you him.”

“Really? I never noticed.”

“One doesn’t often address people in the third person,” said Joey. “That’s grammar. Don’t you work in publishing?”

“Also,” said Tony’s leg, “I need a name.”

“Aristotle!” said Joe, who’d clearly been saving it up. ” ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the world’!”

“I’m not calling myself Aristotle.”

“But you’re going out with us tonight.”

“Nothing trendy. I see one ankle tattoo, we’re out of there.”

“Promise.”

“Race you there,” said Tony’s leg.


Shaenon K. Garrity is a cartoonist best known for the webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse. Her prose fiction has appeared in publications including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Escape Pod, Drabblecast, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. She lives in Berkeley with a cat and two men of varying sizes.
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  • philipp michel reichold

    incredible. best I’ve read in a while

  • beentsy

    So clever and wonderful. And the puns, the puns!

  • danny in canada

    really, really good work. Well done.

  • Pingback: Monthly Short Fiction Reviews: April 2017 | Strangely Charmless()

  • I wanted to call this story clever too, but beentsy beat me to it (by 3 months). Thesaurus.com to the rescue!

    This story was damn crackerjack.