Darkness released him from its grasp and allowed him to emerge to the surface. Instead of a comforting embrace, he was welcomed by a harsh cold clench. Whey-faced, he was chilled to the marrow, his teeth shattering through his cyanotic lips, his body racked with tremors and his eyelids frozen shut. He lay stretched out on his back against an icy concrete floor that blotched his skin. He tried to lift his arms and but they would not comply. His legs offered the same resistance.
He arched his eyebrows in an attempt to pry open his eyelids. His leaden eyes caught sight of a quarter of beef hanging above inches to his right. He dwelled on it, slowly grasping at the notion that he was inside a meat freezer. “How did he fall into this plight?” he thought as his vacuous stare raked the room, his dull mind traveling back to his last vivid recollection before he was the thrown in this austere environment. His memory was blurred and his vision was bleared. The zooming mechanism in his left eye was inoperative due to the below freezing temperature. His breathing was shallow as a result of the numbing cold permeating his ribcage muscles, gradually paralyzing them. Spasms jolted throughout his body as he inhaled deeply. His asthenia prevented further struggling. He therefore conceded defeat. He closed his eyes and flashed a faint smile in a response to the dreamy vision of a placid prairie and a horse.
As he willingly resigned himself to the inevitable, a clonk echoed. Was it the call? Time to surrender his soul? He offered no struggle, lying still, a serene countenance spread across his ashen face. Two hefty hands slipped underneath the crook of his shoulders and dragged him bodily across the floor and out the door where he felt a waft of warm air brushed against his cheeks. His flagged body was cavalierly slung onto a padded table and soon, hostile hands stripped him down to his boxer shorts and dabbed him with an antiseptic solution. The bright spotlight hanging above the table supplied a welcomed source of thermal heat that gradually thawed his chilled body. He began to shiver uncontrollably. His left arm was extended and secured to the table with leather straps. He felt the same procedure being applied to the right arm. His hand, palm outward, was flattened. All five fingers were stretched out and individually fastened. Seconds later, his ankles were clamped in place.
His eyelids fluttered, but would not part ways. An inaudible moan escaped his lips and his brows furrowed as he barely felt the prick of the needle break his skin. An intravenous line was inserted in his left forearm. His glazed eyes opened at a crack. His bleary vision discerned a foggy silhouette clad in a surgical gown. Was he a doctor? Had he been brought to a hospital? The hazy figure plastered electrodes across his chest to monitor his heart rate. He then covered his entire body with sheets. He blinked away the fog and peered at what appeared to be an operating room, squinting at the blinding light above beaming on his face. A tingling sensation in his left arm prompted him to wiggle his fingers in order to restore blood flow. He breathed a lungful of air, wincing at his aching pectorals. The shudders were lessening in intensity. His eyes were now focusing clearly.
Wearing a scrub suit, a young doctor in his mid thirties walked over to the table. " How are you feeling Mr. Austin? " he queried.
"Co…Cold, " Steve sputtered.
" Don't worry. We’ll have you warmed up in no time, " the young medical man reassured.
"Who…who are you? " Steve asked in a slurred speech.
" Don't you remember me? " the doctor retorted peevishly.
Steve shook his head between shudders. The young man bent forward closer to Steve’s face and lowered at him. " Look closer. "
Steve studied his facial features. « Mat…Matthew Pr..Pr…Prince. » he stammered.
" Right! "
« You wor…worked with Ru…Rudy Wells. »
« That I did, before he unceremoniously fired me, « he railed, staring deadpan at his assistant. « But I don’t need him anymore, now that I have his greatest achievement, « he gloated as he stared down at Steve, « you. »
Steve swallowed a lump in his knot-constricted throat. " What are you planning to do to me? "
" Study you. " Matthew confided as he ambled over to the sink for the scrub up. " You see, I have always been fascinated by cyborg technology but Rudy will not let me in on his secrets since I was yet upgraded to Level six security clearance, " he explained as he shook his hands dry and reached for a towel. "But my inquiring scientific mind wasn't satisfied with merely running trifle errands for the good doctor. I have in an insatiated need to broaden my horizons. I have innovative ideas to improve the schematics of the bionic functions. "
" So you intend to experiment on me. "
Matthew turned to him with his hands in the air. " Not really. It’ll be more of an exploratory surgery. I need to identify the specific characteristic of certain elements in order to engineer the perfect bionic limb for my own prototype. "
" How? "
" I'm going to open you up. "
Steve’s right eye twitched nervously.
" Don't look so frightened Colonel Austin. I assure you it won't hurt a bit. " He nodded to his assistant standing by the intravenous line. " Now. "
" What… what is this? " Steve asked apprehensively as he watched the assistant inject the drug at the base of the IV bag.
" Just something to help you relax, make you more cooperative. As you body warms up, your bionic strength will kick into full gear and I wouldn’t want to skip out on me. You are too valuable, " he explained mockingly.
" Do you know what you're doing? "
" Of course I do! " he scowled, miffed by Steve’s question. " Remember I learned from the master himself. " He ambled closer to the examining table. " I'm sorry I can’t give you any anesthetic. I need you fully aware and conscious. "
" I understand, " he replied submissively, sighing in resignation.
" You are very sympathetic to my cause. "
" What other choices do I have? "
Steve’s respiration grew heavier as the drug began to take effect, sending him into a semi-conscious state. His lips slightly parted, his muscles slackened and his eyes adopted a faraway stare.
" Don’t fight it, Colonel. Just relax. "
The assistant tilted Steve’s head to the left and covered it with a surgical sheet. Steve inhaled a few deep breaths to stabilize his respiratory rate and surrendered to his fate.
" Careful…radiation… atomic…cellllllllllllllls, " Steve cautioned weakly, exhaling each word as his voice gradually trailed off.
" I know about those. Don't worry I will stear clear from them. "
Matthew donned his surgical gloves and mask and moved to the end of the table. He lifted the sheet off Steve’s legs and took a scalpel off the tray. He glanced cursorily at a blueprint of the lower limbs that he had managed to appropriate himself from Rudy’s lab. With his index finger on top of the knife, he applied pressure to the tin blade in the mid left thigh, piercing the synthetic skin. Methodically and with surgical precision, he extended the insision down to the ankle above the leather strap. He used retractors to exercise a traction on either side of the open insision. He applied the same procedure to the right leg.
" Would you look at that! " Matt marveled at the intricate piece of leading edge technology before him. He switched instruments and began his probing, carefully unscrewing nuts and bolts to reach deeper into the complexitity of the wiring.
" According to the diagram, I’m assuming this is the… " he brushed the screwdriver lightly against a heap of wires straightened in a single band. Steve’s body jerked and the patient let out a painful yelp.
"Sciatic nerve, " Matthew finished upon observing Steve’s reaction.
Steve pursed his lips to mask his discomfort. "Yeah," he heaved out.
" Just wanted to make sure it was the right one so I can safely navigate around it. "
An hour went by which seemed like an eternity to Steve who was fully conscious as Matthew indulged in his studying. His strength was restored progressively as the drug began to wear off. Without assessing the circumstances at hand, he proceeded to sever the strap binding his right wrist by pulling his arm upwards.
The assistant noted the slight movement. " Matt, he's moving. "
" Give him another shot. Point five miligram. "
The assistant prepared the injection. In his haste, he inadvertently dosed 1.5mg instead of 5mg into the IV line.
As he felt the leather band expanding, weakness abruptly overcame him. The opiate depleted the speck of strength he had gained and his body went flaccid, rendering him listless. Seconds later, he began to stir and twitch, giving a muffled cough.
" What's the matter? " asked Mathew with a hint of concern.
" I feel sick, " Steve lamented, gulping down a wave of nausea.
" How much did you give him? " Matthew queried his assistant expectantly.
"Point five milligram, just like you told me. "
" He shouldn't be reacting this way. What's his blood pressure? "
The assistant glanced at the monitor. " Ninety over sixty. "
Matthew removed his mask and gloves and hurried to Steve’s side to check his pupils reflexes. "His breathing’s erratic. He’s blacking out. I don't like this. "
Steve fought to keep focused. Matthew tapped him lightly on the cheek. " Colonel Austin, stay with me now. "
Steve's eyes rolled back in his head and lost consciousness.
The assistant held the syringe at eye level. His brows furrowed. " Uh-oh! "
" Uh-ho what? "
" I think I accidently administered 1.5mg instead of point 5. "
Matthew angrily slammed his fist on the table." Dammit! I can't afford to lose him, " he ranted.
" Do you need him alive for your study? "
" Yes! " he jeered. " Besides it was never my intention to kill him. "
" Were you seriously planning to set him free after that? He can identify you or me for that matter. "
" Oh no he won't. Once I'm through, I’m going to patch him up real good. No one will ever know I rummaged in there. Plus which, I will administer him a serum that will cause a partial retrograde amnesia. He’ll only remember the events prior to his abduction. "
The assistant stared dubiously at Matt. " You sure? "
" Trust me. " Matt put a reassuring hand on the assistant’s shoulder. " I’ve done this before. "
" What do we do now? "
" Wait until the effect of the drug wear off and then we’ll proceed. "
Half an hour later, Steve began to moan.
" His blood pressure is rising. Breathing is regular and his heart rate is stabilizing, " informed the assistant.
Matt signed with relief. " Good. That was a close call. " He looked up and glared at his assistant. "Let's not have another episode like this one."
Steve slowly opened his baby blues.
" Welcome back Colonel. You had us worried there for awhile. "
Steve’s eyes darted around. " What happened? " he asked groggily.
" You lost consciousness. You’ve been out of it for the past thirty minutes. How are you feeling? »
" Never better, " Steve muttered sardonically, gulping down between two breaths. He closed his eyes and wetted his lips.
" Alright then. We shall proceed. "
The assistant gingerly titled Steve’s head to the left, a procedure designed to shield his eyes from dwelling upon the gruesomeness of the procedure.
Matthew slipped on new gloves and raised his mask to his nose. He stepped up to Steve’s right arm and began making a incision from his shoulder down to his wrist. Steve signed, silently praying for an end to the nightmare. "And then what? " he thought to himself. His legs were dismantled and his right arm was about to meet a similar fate. He was trapped with no means of escape, thus dashing any hope of being released unharmed.
As Matthew studied the diagram meticulously, he was disturbed to note a slight variance in the nerve layout. " What’s this? "
" What’s wrong? "
" The diagram doesn’t match the limb. "
" How come? "
" Beats me. I hate to go by field. " Matthew sighed in frustration. " How’s he doing? "
The assistant glanced at the monitor. " He’s hanging in there. "
" He’s still conscious? "
The assistant cocked his head and peered at Steve’s face. The insentient patient was toiling to keep his drooping eyelids open. " Barely. "
Dejected, Matthew pinched the bridge of his nose. " This might take longer than I thought. " He rested both hands against the edge of the table and started drumming his fingers. " I don’t want to hurt him. "
" Want me to put him under? "
Matthew paused as he pondered the situation at hand. "Not yet. " He inhaled a lungful and picked up a nut driver off the tray. " Let’s do it. Check his vitals very closely and advise me of any drop in his blood pressure. "
" Alright. "
Although lost in a haze, Matthew’s words sank in and Steve steeled himself for the worse.
Matthew steadied his hand to unscrew an oversized nut in the upper arm near the base of the shoulder. Slowly, it released the pressure around a critical area connecting the bionic neuro link to the CNS, which instantly sent shockwaves throughout Steve’s arm. Steve’s body stiffened. His face twisted in pain, clamping his eyes shut as he burried his chin in his right shoulder, snarling in agony. Matthew’s eyes widened in alarm and gaped in numbed horror Steve’s body trash about from the searing pain.
" What have you done? " His assistant asked on an accusatory tone.
Matthew was frozen on the spot, flabbergasted. He shook his head. " I…I don’t know, " he stammered.
Steve’s eyes bulged as his head pounded out of his skull. Suddenly he went into convulsions. His body bucked. His head twitched. His back arched. His breathing came in gasping pants.
" Do something! " the assistant yelled Matthew to action as he clamped Steve’s jaw to prevent him from swallowing his tongue.
Matthew snatched a pair of pliers off the tray and quickly weighed his options.
Federal agents charged into the room, cocking their guns in unison.
« Drop it! » Oscar ordered. Transfixed, Matthew simply opened his hand and let the instrument fall onto the floor.
Rudy jostled his way to Steve who was in his death throes.
« My God, what did you do to him? » Rudy snapped at Matthew as he stared saucer-eyed in terror at the exposed bionic arm.
« I don’t know! « he stammered.
« You don’t know? » Rudy barked. He applied his body weight onto Steve’s chest to maintain his convulsions under control. « Oscar, hold him down, will you? »
Oscar stepped up to the table and took over for Rudy who made a quick assessment of the arm before grabbing a pair of wirecutters off the tray. « Hurry! Come here and pin his shoulder onto the table, » Rudy urged Matthew, snapping him out of his numbness.
Steve’s seizure began to dwindle once Rudy severed the neurolink. A harsh measure that was imperative under the circumstances to release Steve from his paroxysm. Oscar, Matthew, and the assistant respectively loosened their grip on Steve’s body, shoulder and face as the convulsions subsided into mere twitches.
Steve felt as though his arm was being amputated but he welcomed the absence of pain. His respiration remained erratic and his heart was racing. His eyes darted around the room with a faraway look that worried Rudy.
« Steve, can you hear me? » Rudy gently tapped him on the cheeks to elicit some response.
Oscar stood by, horrified by the episode he just witnessed. He gulped down as his throat closed spasdically.« Rudy? »
Rudy flashed him a ominous look, one that surmised the situation. It sent chills down his spine.
Rudy clasped Steve’s head, tilting it towards him. « Steve, focus on me. » Steve’s eyes continued to rove around.
" Come on Steve, look at me," he commanded on a gentle tone. When that failed, he shouted, "Look at me!" He held a finger in from of Steve’s eyes. "Follow my finger." Rudy moved his finger to the right but Steve’s eyes weren’t acknowledging. Rudy flicked his fingers and repeated the movement to the left. Same result. Steve was plunged into a state of utter panic. « It’s okay Steve…calm down. Everything will be fine, » Rudy appeased with a contrived smile. Then Steve lapsed into unconsciousness. « Did you give him any medication? » he asked Mathew.
« Midazolam, 3mg. »
« No wonder he’s out of it. » He lifted Steve’s right eyelid to check the pupil reflex and glanced at the heart monitor. « How long has he been seizing? »
« About five minutes. »
Rudy turned around and glowered at Matthew. « Do you realize you could have killed him? » he spewed out between gritted teeth. « I hope for his sake there isn’t any permanent brain damage, » Rudy scolded Matthew as he was being handcuffed.
« What did I do? » he asked innocently.
« What did you do? » Rudy lashed out in disgust. « You just created a major short circuit in the synthetic nerves connecting to the brain.
« The diagram didn’t comply with the actual structure of the limb, » Matthew defended.
« Naturally it didn’t. You stole a two-year-old blueprint. I’ve brought several adjustments and modifications since. »
Matthew took a deep breath as his face lit with triumph.
« Take him out of my sight! » a disgusted Rudy told Oscar with a wave of the hand. He checked Steve’s right eye once more for any sign of a reaction.
« Rudy, can you mend the damages? » Oscar asked with an edge of fear.
« I sure hope I can, « Rudy replied dejectedly, looking over the mangled arm.
« Does it look worse than it is? »
« I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. »
« You said something about brain damage? »
« Yeah. »
« You don’t think... »
« I don’t know. His seizure lasted five minutes. He couldn’t focus on me. I’m hoping it’s just the result of the drug and the confusion. » He signed. « Help me remove the restraints and retractors first and then we’ll swathe his arm and legs tightly with sheets. We have to take him back to the lab. »
Oscar unstrapped the leather band on the left arm while Rudy tended to the right. The man was ill at ease. He tried to look past his feeling of repugnance and hurried with the harrowing task at hand. He moved down to the legs and proceeded to carefully remove the retractors. Upon doing so, he inadvertently brushed against a neurlink, sending Steve’s body jolting.
« What did you do? » Rudy asked.
« I don’t know. I swear I don’t know. » a flustered Oscar answered, nauseating spurs of adrenalin coursing through his veins.
« It’s okay. Go on. »
Oscar inched away from Steve and shook his head. « I can’t Rudy. I just can’t. »
Rudy sympathized with Oscar’s apprehension and finished the work himself. Oscar stood stock-still. He had seen Steve with slight injuries before and never really got used to them. His friend had gruesomely been autopsied like a vulgar corpse at the morgue. He burped out a few nauseas, inhaling deeply to avoid passing out. He was never one to display his emotions. Always level-headed and stone-faced in times of crisis, but Steve’s plight was something he just couldn’t handle.
Following a gruelling eight hour of surgery, Steve was settled in I.C.U.
Rudy made his way into the waiting room where a careworn Oscar had drowsed off, hunched in an armchair. He approached him and gently tapped him on the shoulder to wake him. Oscar started out of sleep. Seeing Rudy before him he jumped to his feet. " Rudy, how’s Steve? "
" The surgery went well. We were able to mend the damages. A few weeks of physiotherapy and he should be as good as new. "
Oscar sighed with relief. " That's good news. "
A long silence cast a gloom over the ecstasy of joy. Oscar looked up at Rudy who stood with a forlorn expression. " There’s something else, isn't there? "
" The bionic parts have been repaired but the human part may have been affected. »
" Brain damage? " Oscar asked with a strained voice.
Rudy nodded. " His seizure lasted a good five minutes. That's a lot of brain activity. We won't know the extent of the damage until he regains consciousness. "
« Can you estimate a time-table on his recovery? »
« Not at the moment, Oscar. »
Oscar heaved a sigh of despair. Rudy gave a sorrowful smile and put his hand on his shoulder. " Oscar, go home and get some sleep. "
" What time is it? " Oscar asked, putting a hand over his mouth to cover the yawn.
" It's almost three o’clock. "
" In the morning? " Oscar exclaimed.
" It was a long process. Go on, get some rest. I’ll call you if there's any change, I promise. "
Oscar put his hand on Rudy’s shoulder and stared at him with despair mirroring in his eyes. " Take care of him. "
" I will. Don't worry. "
Rudy watched Oscar walked away, rubbing his stiff neck. He fashioned a musing smile at Oscar’s solicitousness. An inveterate workaholic, he found little time to hit the dating scene and therefore never married. Although he showed a semblance of contentment and fulfillness, Oscar couldn’t deny the solitude that often invaded him. He longed for a family and judging by his caring and compassion towards Steve, Rudy suspected he’d come to consider Steve as his own son.
In the next forty eight hours, Rudy made frequent visits to Steve’s room to monitor his vitals and check for any signs of rejection. The EEG results were troubling. His chances of regaining consciousness were greatly diminished by the hours spent in a coma. It was touch and go but Steve was clinging on.
Almost four days following surgery, Steve remained in a comatose state. One morning the day nurse walked into the room and drew open the curtains to allow the sunshine in. The glaring light beams shone through Steve eyelids, triggering a response. Slowly he emerged from his deep slumber.
He moaned. The nurse approached bed and smiled at the faint complaints. As she crossed to the door to notify Rudy, he walked in.
" Dr. Wells, I believe our patient is rejoining the land of the living, " she informed gleefully.
Rudy leaned over Steve and raised his right eyelid. The pupils were reacting to the light density, evidence that the patient was indeed coming around. Steve's moans turned into grunts. His eyes fluttered open. He latched his vacous stare onto Rudy’s indistinct form, batting his eyes to establish focus, staring intently at the bleary but shapping figure. Rudy fashioned a pleasing smile as he gently laid his hand on Steve’s forehead. « Welcome back. »
Steve’s eyes blinked with incredulity. Rudy held Steve’s head in his hands, gently tilting it toward him. " Do you know who I am? "
It took a couple of seconds for Steve’s befuddled mind to register Rudy face before he nodded feebly.
" Do you know who you are? "
Steve blinked and nodded. « Any pain? » he added. Steve ignored the question as his bemused eyes made a sweep of the room.
" You are in the lab, " Rudy informed, seeing Steve confusion.
Steve's eyes travelled down to his remodeled right arm. He struggled to raise it up but was still too weak.
" Don't worry. With a few weeks of physical therapy you'll be as good as new . " Rudy gently rubbed Steve’s shoulder and bent forward. " Get some rest. I’ll be back to check on you later. "
Steve nodded. Rudy left room.
Steve closed his eyes and choked back a strangled sob. The raw memories of his ordeal seared on his mind crowded in on him, bedevilling him malignantly. The pain he was subjected to and the notion of having been used as a guinea pig tiped the scale on his mental equilibrium. For the second time since his ill-fated flight, despair engulfed him.