His driver had been nearly silent on their trip out of the city, shrugging off Sam’s few attempts at questions with vague answers. His only company had been the terrible country music pouring out of the radio. Under different circumstances he would have switched the station, but he wasn’t in a position to argue, so he just sat there stoically and ground his teeth.
Even as they pulled up to the compound, Sam couldn’t shake the feeling that this was some kind of trick. He looked around, half-expecting guards to come pouring out of the buildings with their weapons raised. Instead, they passed through the gate, barely stopping to get checked by the guard. He shook off the feeling. If they’d really wanted him dead, they could have just left him where he was.
The place had the feel of military base with electrified fences and guard towers all around the perimeter. The guard at the gate had worn full camo and had carried an automatic rifle openly, but displayed no insignia. Sam couldn’t even tell which branch of the service he belonged to. He wondered exactly what he had gotten himself into. Whatever was going on here was meant to be kept secret.
They pulled up in front of a squat two-story building with a bare concrete façade, likely an office of some kind. The man in the suit – he still hadn’t told Sam his name – hopped out and signaled for Sam to follow. He squinted in the bright sunlight and brought his hand up to shield his eyes. “Do you think I could stop to take a piss? Those back roads were murder on my kidneys.”
“No time,” said the man. “You need to see the doctor before we do anything else.”
He led Sam inside past a reception desk were two more soldiers were waiting, dressed in the same combat fatigues. They followed as Sam and the man went down a hallway and through a set of double doors. The room they had entered looked like a clinic or a small trauma ward with two sets of hospital beds along the side walls. At the back of the room, a desk and series of filing cabinets sat in one corner while the other was taken up by what looked like an operating suite or exam room separated from the rest of the room by plastic curtains.
The man in the suit led Sam straight inside and headed toward the far end of the room, the guards trailing a few steps behind. A short, round man in his fifties sat with his feet on the desk, reading a paperback novel and smoking a cigarette. He peaked out from behind the book as the men approached him and stubbed the butt out in an overfilled ashtray.
“Got a patient for you, doc,” said the man in the suit, swiping at the smoke lingering in the air. “Be gentle with him. It’s his first time.”
The doctor tossed his book on the desk and swung his feet down to the floor. Standing up, he was a head shorter than Sam, but he probably weighed the same. He thumbed toward the curtain beside them. “All right, hop up on the table and let’s have a look at you.”
“Should you be smoking in here?” asked Sam.
“Oh, he knows better,” said the man in the suit. “He just doesn’t care. The doctor is uniquely qualified, you see, and not likely to be replaced anytime soon.”
“I heard you found a class seven,” said the doctor. “Figured it might be time to take a vacation, but you let her get away. Is that why you and your partner got babysitting duty?”
The man in the suit glared at the doctor. “She was a complete nut, that one. No substitute for you. I’m afraid you’re stuck with us, doc.”
“Should I take my shirt off or something?” asked Sam. He didn’t want to be here and still had to take a leak, so he was getting tired of the back and forth between the two men.
“No, just have a seat.”
Sam perched on the low table and the doctor briefly examined the shrapnel wounds on his face. He then took Sam’s shattered hand and indelicately cut the bandage away from it, revealing the stump that was all that remained of his thumb. He turned the hand over and looked at it for a minute before turning around to start rummaging through one of the cabinets.
“Any implants? Pins, screws, plates, or metal joints? There’s no mention in your file, but I have to ask.”
“No,” said Sam, shaking his head. He had lead a charmed life in that respect at least.
“Any dental work? Dentures?” asked the doctor.
“The usual,” said Sam, uncertain where this was headed. “A few fillings and a crown on a tooth that got cracked when I was breaking up a bar fight. Why?”
The doctor made no answer except to hand him a small plastic tray with what looked like a couple of antacid tablets in it. Puzzled, Sam shook the tray a couple of times, but there was nothing unusual about them, so he let the tray rest on his knee. From a mini-fridge set under the counter, the doctor pulled out a stainless steel bowl and set it down on the table beside Sam. Glancing down, Sam saw that it was filled with what he could only describe as pâté mixed with chicken bones.
“What the hell is that for?”
“You’re going to feel a burning and pinching sensation,” said the doctor. “Don’t be alarmed. It’s just the nerves regenerating. It will only hurt for a minute or so. Whatever you do, don’t take your hand out of the bowl. That will only make it worse. Fear is the mind-killer and all that.” The doctor chuckled to himself.
“What are you talking about?” asked Sam.
“Frank Herbert? Dune? Doesn’t anyone read the classics anymore?” He looked at the man in the suit, but he just shrugged in reply. Clearly disgusted with both of them, the doctor continued, “The day the flesh shapes and the flesh the day shapes? No? Anyone? I thought that was appropriate given the circumstances.”
“Just get on with it, doc,” said the man in the suit.
“Very well,” said the doctor. “Boys, if you will.” The two guards stepped forward, and each drew what looked like a high-end taser, raising the business end to point at Sam.
“What the hell?” Sam started to shimmy of the table, put the man in the suit pushed him back with a firm hand on his shoulder.
“It’s just protocol,” said the man. “Besides, they’re not for you; they’re for him.” He pointed at the doctor who was tapping at what looked like an oversized wristwatch with the tip of a mechanical pencil.
Sam looked again. The two guards were indeed pointing their weapons at the doctor and not him, but before he could puzzle it out the man moved behind him and stuffed something in his mouth. He tasted the chalky sweetness of an antacid as well something hard and smooth which he quickly realized was one of the chicken bones. Disgusted, he was about to spit it out when the man clamped his hand over Sam’s mouth and forced his wounded hand into the bowl of meat.
Sam’s heart raced. He started to struggle, but the man had too much leverage on him He couldn’t break free. Then the doctor came toward him from the front. He put one of his hands on top of Sam’s wrist and cupped Sam’s cheek with the other. A sensation like bugs crawling over his face and arm made him fight even harder to break free. The bugs became hot coals, burning and stinging his mouth and hand. His eyes watered from the pain, and he wanted to scream and vomit at the same time. But as the doctor had promised, the pain began to lessen, and soon he could think clearly again.
He could feel that same burning sensation moving throughout his body now, occasionally pausing at one spot or another. It wasn’t as painful as his hand or mouth had been until he felt a twinge in his gut that reminded him of the time his appendix had nearly burst. His right knee erupted in pain reminding him how he had torn it up playing football in high school. Finally the sensations started to pass and the doctor released his grip. It had only been a minute or two, but it was some of the most intense pain he had ever felt in his life. The man in the suit released his grip, but Sam was too stunned by what had happened to even try to move.
“Spit,” said the doctor as he held up the tray to Sam’s face. He realized his mouth was still full of chalky sludge and chicken bone, but also what felt like bits of gravel. He quickly spat everything out into the tray and was astonished to realize that what he had thought were stones were the ceramic fillings from his teeth. He ran his tongue around his mouth but could find no gaps or sore spots.
The man in the suit was laughing. “Restored to factory settings,” he said and slapped Sam on the back.
“What the hell did you just do to me?” demanded Sam.
The doctor looked disapprovingly at the man in the suit. “You haven’t even told him anything yet, have you?”
“Of course not. That would take all the fun out of it,” he said and began laughing again.
The doctor shook his head and went back to tinkering with that bracelet again. When he was done he showed it to one of the guards. The two soldiers then relaxed, holstered their weapons, and left the room.
“You could have given me some warning,” said Sam, “or at least some anesthetic. And what was with the chicken bones? That was disgusting.”
“Stop being such a pussy. Besides, you haven’t even seen the best part yet.” The man took Sam’s wrist and held his wounded hand up in front of his face, only it wasn’t damaged anymore. Under the grease and bits of meat, Sam saw that his hand was once again complete, the missing thumb replaced with a new one. Sam flicked it a few times to make sure it worked and then reached out to touch it with his other hand, just to be certain it was real.
“Anesthetic wears off in a few seconds making it useless,” said the doctor, “and the bones and meat are for source material. Without them the whole process would go on for ten of fifteen minutes.” The doctor slapped him on the shoulder, nearly knocking Sam off the table. “We’re done. Now get out of here. I want to get back to my book.”
Sam slid off the table and stood up. He felt good. In fact, he couldn’t remember feeling this good in his entire life. It wasn’t just that he was happy to be whole again. It was like he had been carrying around a sack full of bricks for years and had only now realized he could simply take it off and be free of his burden. He didn’t even need to take a piss anymore.
“Now that you’ve had a practical demonstration,” said the man in the suit, “we’ll get you fitted for your bracelet, and I’ll run you through Freak 101.”
To be continued…