Limb From Limb
John A. Frochio
Damn it, why couldn’t he just will his limbs to grow faster? Byron Anderson closed his eyes and concentrated.
The distant snarling of war drones reminded Byron of his Father putting the chainsaw to the overlarge branches of those gnarly old trees in their backyard. The memory was pleasant, but didn’t help much in his current situation.
Byron struggled to find distractions from the constant pain. The burnt, smoking ground strewn with the dead and dying and the pungent odors of scorched flesh offered no useful diversion. The hard, uneven ground added to his discomfort. His Army-issued aPad was fried; he couldn’t even use it for mindless games.
Perhaps a happy memory about Melissa might help. He tried to recall one clear memory about her that did not contain tears or other forms of pain. Those memories did exist. Their early years were good. He reached further back in time and found something that made him smile. Their first getaway weekend at the beach. Ah, to be at the beach again, the calming hush of the waves caressing the sand.
The sun began its slow ascent, casting long shadows across the dismal landscape.
Byron was nearly twenty. He was thin with sandy blond hair, which he was sure looked like a distraught tangle of hay. Judging by the dirt, dried blood, and torn uniform, he did not present a pretty picture.
He clenched his teeth as another blast of searing pain ripped through his body. In his mind he cursed this endless war. He cursed all wars.
Most of his body was spared serious damage by the dragon skin, which surprisingly held up pretty well under the numerous flechette and laser hits it sustained. However . . .
Leaning against a fallen tree, he looked down at his legs. Or where his legs used to be. Both were bloody stumps now.
Tourniquets he had made earlier from his own torn uniform kept the bleeding to a minimum. Hopefully that would give the regenerative implant the time it needed to grow his new legs. The odds were decent. He estimated between sixteen to twenty hours before he would be able to stand and move about. However, there was no telling how long it would take for a drone to locate him and send a mobile hospital unit down. That could take days. There were a lot of battlefields to cover. Until then he would simply have to wait and pray there was no irreparable organ damage that would cut short the healing process.
Pray. That was a good idea. He closed his eyes and prayed. While he was at it, he even prayed for Melissa—wherever she was—and their unborn child he would probably never see. And he prayed for an end to all wars. Why not? Go for all of it!
He winced again at the pain as he prayed. Pain inhibitor injections were administered sparingly by the implant, just enough to make the pain bearable at times. The implant was smart enough to know how to ration the injections throughout the healing process.
When he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of a flickering light out of the corner of his eye. He tried to turn his head to get a better look, but he wasn’t in a good enough position. The strain of twisting caused a sharp pain to shoot through his neck. He froze and caught his breath. Damn, he hoped there wasn’t any damage there.
He struggled for the next half hour to move into a better position to look toward the flashes. After many small painful movements, he finally faced the source of the flashes.
The flashes were irregularly spaced every two to ten minutes. Eventually he could make out the source. A man sprawled out under a smoldering tree fifty feet away from him. He held something that reflected the light from the rising sun. He moved it in random patterns. The man was clearly alive. A surge of hope welled briefly within him. So he was not the only living thing left on this killing field!
A pair of binoculars with one broken lens lay on the ground next to Byron. With some effort he managed to grasp it and lift it to his eyes to examine his neighbor. He immediately recognized the uniform of his enemy. The man had only one leg and one arm. Crude tourniquets made from torn cloth and strips of silver reflective tape (that’s what he saw flashing when the man moved) kept the blood flow in check. His other leg was also damaged, wrapped in bloody rags.
Byron expected he also had a regenerative implant hard at work repairing the damaged tissues and generating a new arm and leg. Except for those who could not tolerate it, most young soldiers had the implant.
He let the binoculars fall to his lap. It took too much effort to hold onto them. Nearly all his strength and energy was being commissioned into the service of the regenerative implant.
A grim thought occurred to Byron. It was only a matter of time before he found out whose nation had the best regenerative implant technology. The race was on!
Then he spotted the gun. His own gun was broken at his side and he saw none near his enemy. However, halfway between them lay a gun that appeared to be in perfect condition. It was an American made Mach XVI Crystal Laser Classic typically issued only to officers. The headless broken body nearby was most likely its former owner.
The gun pulsed a soft green light, indicating its crystal power source was still intact and functioning. Byron immediately laid claim to the abandoned weapon on the basis of “finders keepers, losers weepers.” (He laughed out loud. As if there was any other feasible behavior on a battlefield.) Now all he had to do was be the first to reach it.
He was too weak, even though he had both arms, to crawl to the weapon now. The healing process removed even more of his upper arm strength as it drew much of its limb regenerative energy from the rest of his body.
His enemy was sitting up now, leaning against the blackened trunk of the oak tree. Byron struggled to pull the binoculars to his eyes again. His enemy was young like himself, with a full head of black curly hair, dark complexioned, but bulkier and more muscular than Byron. This was a strong, well-trained warrior who could potentially heal more quickly than he could.
Byron felt a twinge of worry. He shook it off. Hell, his country still had a reputation for the best technology worldwide! He didn’t have anything to worry about, did he? In a few hours he would stroll across the scorched field and calmly take ownership of his prize. And then any enemy still lurking would feel the power he brandished in his hands.
The enemy . . .
The enemy by the oak tree was watching him now with his own pair of binoculars. Not good! He was certainly thinking similar thoughts. And he certainly saw the gun. A life and death race was on!
The enemy lowered his binoculars slowly and smiled broadly.
It was as if he knew something that Byron did not know.
Damn that Smilin’ Jack!
His enemy had a name now.
The hours dragged on. From time to time Byron would take his binoculars and compare his limb growth against Smilin’ Jack’s as best as he could, considering the distance between them. He couldn’t tell who was in the lead. There was no clear difference.
As he watched his own progress over time, he remembered the explanations of the Atala Process from the manual. Autologous cells –- blood cells, bone, muscle -– formed around the carbon nanotube scaffold that grew out from the stubs of his legs. He watched with fascination as new tissue formed. It helped him forget the pain to some degree. It was a very slow process, but he could see clear progress over time. At times he felt like a detached observer watching a training video.
Bone and epidermal tissue formed directly on the scaffold while muscle tissue formed from fibrous auto weaving mechanisms. Blood vessels and other types of cells were assimilated as distinct layers were completed. The ends of the stumps where most of the active growth occurred were the most sensitive areas. They looked like diaphanous films over raw and bloody flesh and bone. He was careful not to disturb and potentially damage the ongoing construction in these areas.
Byron continued to wonder why Smilin’ Jack was smiling. Perhaps Jack knew he was in better physical shape than Byron and could heal faster. Or perhaps he knew his healing process had started before Byron’s. Maybe he was sure he could reach the gun before Byron could.
But there was no use worrying about it. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. He lifted another prayer to heaven and let it go.
The sun peaked and began its afternoon descent. The battlefield remained an ugly gray despite the life-giving rays pouring from the sun.
Byron ate a few morsels from his remaining rations: some raisins and a chocolate peanut butter protein bar. He watched his enemy for a while, but there was almost no activity. He figured Smilin’ Jack must be getting some rest. That was a good idea. He needed sleep, too. He estimated seven to ten hours of healing was still required. He needed to sleep, conserve his energy. Sleep helped the healing process. Yeah, that’s what the manual said.
He took some pain relief tabs. The pain eventually eased up. As he faded into sleep—-a restless, uneasy sleep—he again heard the far off familiar sounds of search drones.
He awoke with a start! What was that noise? He looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He examined his legs. Feet were beginning to form. He grinned. Not quite done yet, but soon.
Then he looked up and spotted his enemy. He gasped. Smilin’ Jack was a few feet away from his tree. He was using his mostly formed arms and footless new leg to crawl forward toward the gun. He wasn’t making great strides, but he was making progress in small movements.
Byron looked down at his footless legs again. Could he make them work? He tried to pull himself up with his weakened arms. His legs were wobbly. He stopped and tried again and again until he finally got up on his knees. He wavered a bit and nearly toppled over. Then he tried to move forward on his knees and elbows. His new knees were fairly strong and held up, but the progress was painful and slow.
If he was in a hospital room, his doctors would chastise him. They would tell him that using his new legs too soon would set back the healing process and possibly cause irreparable damage. But he wasn’t in a hospital. He was on a battlefield. He had no choice.
His movements were unbearably slow. He kept watching Smilin’ Jack as he moved. Jack was no longer smiling.
He tried to move faster and fell face down onto the hard ground. He spat blood from broken teeth, then struggled back to his knees. He kept moving.
Both soldiers moved slowly, inexorably, toward their mutual goal. The distance gradually closed. Everything moved in slow motion.
When they were a couple yards from the gun, Smilin’ Jack grimaced and tried to stand. He forced himself into a crouched position, poised to leap across the final yards. Byron increased his pace. Both leaped simultaneously.
Byron reached the gun first, grabbed it in one hand, and clutched it to his chest as he tumbled to the ground and rolled. He screamed as a searing pain shot through his body. His eyes closed. His teeth clenched. He almost lost hold of the gun, then clasped it tight against his chest. When he forced his eyes open, he saw Jack moving toward him. He could see Jack’s brown eyes glowing like embers in a dying fire.
With some effort he lifted the heavy weapon with both hands. Jack grasped the barrel of the gun with his hands. Both held on tightly as they fell to the hard ground. Both cried out in pain. For the next several minutes each struggled to take possession of the weapon.
Byron grew rapidly weaker. As his pain intensified, he lost his grip on the gun. Jack smiled as he struggled to sit up, lifting the gun high above his head.
Exhausted, Byron let his hand drop onto the dead officer’s helmet, one of the strong titanium types that unfortunately did not save its headless owner. The helmet had only a few scratches but was otherwise intact. He wondered if it would suffice as a crude shield.
Before he could come up with an answer, a loud chattering noise arose from the east. Both turned in time to see a war drone flying erratically toward them, spinning and weaving back and forth, and randomly firing laser blasts at the ground. It was moving fast and would be above them in seconds.
After a brief hesitation, Jack turned the gun toward the out of control drone and fired. The blast clipped a wing, causing the drone to spin even more wildly. Before Jack could fire again, a blast from the spinning drone hit him square on the shoulder. He fell, dropping the gun.
As laser blasts struck around him, Byron struggled to his knees and reached for the fallen weapon. With much effort and pain, he turned the gun to the sky. Waiting a moment to determine the drone’s whirling trajectory, he fired. Byron was struck in the side just as the drone was hit and sent reeling and sputtering to the ground with a loud crash several yards away. He collapsed on top of Jack and covered his face as the drone exploded, sending a torrent of burning shrapnel over them. He brushed off the hot metal as fast as he could.
The mad drone no longer moved.
The battlefield became as still as a mausoleum.
Byron rolled off Jack still clutching the gun. His hardfought prize. He brushed off more fragments from the shattered drone. A sudden sharp pain in his side reminded him of his new wound. He set the gun down between him and his enemy and tended to his wound, cleaning it with a medisquirt and applying pressure.
Jack stirred. He watched Byron and the unattended gun. He reached out toward the weapon, then winced from the pain in his shoulder. He examined his own wound and tended to it.
They looked at one another.
Byron nodded slowly.
Byron said, “Yeah, this is crap. Let’s stop this fighting.” Byron’s voice—unused for some time—was weak and ragged.
Jack said something in his language. Neither understood what the other said. But the meanings of their words were clear in their tones. The actual words didn’t matter.
Wordlessly, they had declared a truce. For them, for now, in this place and time, the war was over.
Jack leaned back into a more relaxed position.
Both men were set back significantly in their healing process. The two stretched out and relaxed as best as they could. Might as well get comfortable. It was time to let the healing resume its good and faithful work.
The war could resume its dirty work some other time.