Astro was just beginning to become aware of movement in the room. He opened his eyes and saw a strange, yet familiar, face smiling at him. Another motion caused him to look to his right, where he saw his blonde friend, Roger Manning. coming toward him.
Roger softly asked, "How are you doing olí buddy?"
Astro thought for a second and said, "I feel fine. Iím just a little sleepy." He then looked to the left and saw the odd-looking fellow and asked, "Donít I know you from somewhere?"
The stranger laughed and as soon as he did, Astro know who it was. "Tom?! What happened to you?!"
Tom Corbett, had been the model of a proper cadet during the previous four years at Space Academy. Always well-groomed and hygienic, Tom was often accused, by fellow cadets, of not being able to grow facial hair. The figure before Astroís eyes had at least two days of beard growth. But that wasnít what had kept Astro from identifying him. Tom had all of the hair on his head removed except for a half-inch band encircling his scalp. It looked like a dark-brown halo that had settled into his head. In the center of his otherwise bald pate was a tattoo of a human skull with cat-like fangs in place of the canine teeth. While his appearance was certainly queer to Earthlings, it was a commonly seen method of decorating the human body in some remote spaceports. Typically, men who kept such an appearance were low-grade longshoremen who frequented some of the seediest entertainment facilities in the solar system. They usually either kept to themselves or sought out the camaraderie of similar people.
"By the Rings of Saturn, space-boy! Have you joined a gang?"
Tom just continued to laugh as he rubbed his newly-bald head. Astro turned to Roger and verbally assailed him. "Manning, youíre somehow responsible for this, arenít you? Did you talk Tom into becoming inebriated?"
Roger, wrapping his arms around his ribs, convulsively laughed and could only shake his head, denying involvement. Astro wasnít convinced and he grabbed the rail on the right side of the bed and used it to lever himself to the edge of the bed. Standing up, he shook his right index finger in Rogerís face and told him, "If youíre lying, Iíll knock your nose-cone into the next galaxy!" He then squared off with Roger and attempted to look menacing. Under normal conditions, Roger wouldnít have taken this action seriously, but he suddenly became somber as he looked at Astro. The big Venusian was standing in a hand-to-hand combat position while dressed in a surgical gown. His left leg was leading and slightly bent at the knee. The right leg was solidly braced behind him and ready to advance or be used in a kick technique. The right hand was balled into a tight fist ready to strike and the left arm was raised to either strike or block a strike from his opponent. That was what had Rogerís attention. Astroís left arm terminated just above the elbow and would not have been very effective in combat. Astro followed Rogerís stares and suddenly realized that his arm was missing. His blood pressure dropped suddenly and he keeled over into Rogerís arms. Roger and Tom picked him up and laid him back into the bed. Tom called the nurse, who monitored his vital signs and told them that he had just fainted from the shock, but that she would have a doctor check on him in a moment.
Roger looked at Tom and asked, "Youíre beginning to have doubts about this mission, arenít you?"
Tom, not able to take his eyes off of Astroís face, said, "No, Roger, I donít have any doubt about the mission... I just hope that all of this so-called preparation will be worthwhile."
Roger suddenly kicked a waste container, causing it to bounce off of the wall. His frustration was reflected in his red face and angry eyes. "I still donít think itís necessary to chop someoneís arm off just to gain the confidence of some jerk with a Napoleon complex!", he shouted.
A Guardsman wearing medical icons on the uniform of an officer, entered the room and immediately examined Astro. Satisfied, he called Tom and Roger aside. "Youíre friend is going to be just fine. In fact heís starting to stir now. Fainting is not uncommon when a patient realizes that he has lost a limb."
Astro began calling from the bed. "Tom? Roger? Are you still here?"
The group rejoined Astro at his bedside. The doctor raise the head of the bed and asked, "Do you feel better now, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Sir... but..." Astro paused as he tried to collect his thoughts. He raised the stump of his arm up and looked at the bandages. "Hey, Doc! This really feels weird. I know that the arm is missing, but honestly, I think that I can feel my fingers moving!"
The doctor looked Astro in the eyes and asked, "Can you try to grab my hand, son?"
Astro reached upward with the stub of his arm and grunted. "Sir, Itís as if you are a ghost and I can pass my hand right through yours. I know that I donít have a hand, but it doesnít feel like itís missing. Itís just that I have no sense of touch."
The doctor smiled and said, "Thatís a good sign, Lieutenant. Actually your description of a ghost is pretty accurate. We call what you are experiencing the phantom limb syndrome. The limb may be missing, but your nervous system doesnít know it. The nerves are providing a feedback to your brain as if everything was normal. The feeling will fade away in a few weeks, but hopefully before that happens and we have to retrain your system, we will have your arm reattached and you will be well on your way to recovery."
Astroís eyes opened wide as he remembered that his arm was being preserved for the duration of the mission. "What did you do with my arm, Doc? Freeze it?"
"No, son. If we had cryogenically frozen the limb, Iím afraid that there would have been too much cellular damage. We can do that on simple organisms and even vertebrates that have unsophisticated nervous systems. A human is a very complex being and we donít want to hurt the many different layers of tissue and nerve endings."
Tom picked up a glass of water and began sipping it as the obvious question came to mind. He place the bottom of the cool tumbler on the top of his head to relieve the sting of the sensitive tattooed area. "Excuse me, doctor. Just what did you do with Astroís arm?"
The doctor, noticing Tomís actions, reached into his pocket and produced a small tube of medication. He then said, "If that tattoo is bothering you, rub a small amount of this salve on it. It will speed the tissue repair up and you wonít feel any discomfort after a couple of hours." Tom gratefully accepted the medicine and the doctor continued. "Would you like to see what we did with it?"
The three young men nodded and the doctor pulled an electric-powered wheelchair up to Astroís bed and helped the big Venusian into it. They traveled down a long hallway and entered a door marked Research Laboratory, Restricted Admission. The doctor entered a security code into the locking mechanism and the door opened to a dark room. As they entered, the doctor switched on the lights and the young men were amazed at the number of research projects that were being conducted. There were all manner of biological, chemical, electrical and medical apparatus set up. Continuing experiments produced their own sights and sounds... small animals scurrying around in terrariums, humming and crackling electrical equipment, monitors scrolling data, and in one dark corner a human figure kept track of everything during the night watch. He came to his feet and acknowledge the small group. "Good evening Doctor, gentlemen."
The doctor returned the greeting and asked, "Hans, would you please open the locker to Experiment Bravo Three One Seven?"
The man nodded and scurried to a series of panels along one wall. He inserted a light-key and pulled down on a lever to un-latch the door. As it swung open, all three former Polaris Unit members were aghast as they saw a tank of liquid in which a human arm was suspended. There were an amazing number of tubes and wires running in and out of the vat and it was obvious that they were carrying nutrients and other fluids to the severed limb. Roger became ill at the sight and ran to a sink in case his constitution was not tolerant of any more revelations. He ran some cold water onto a cloth and daubed it onto his face and eyes. Tom and Astro looked at the gristly sight with some degree of fascination.
Astro, asked, "Doc, how long can you keep it like that?"
The doctor said, "We have kept limbs suspended for up to three months before there was any serious degradation. But, donít worry, your mission shouldnít take anywhere near that long. We have added a new regimen to the preservation process. Every fifteen minutes, each nerve in the limb is activated to keep the electrical pulse paths active." He then pressed a button and the arm began twisting and turning, the fingers contracted and then straightened out. It was too much for Roger, who leaned into the sink and emptied his upper digestive system. Tom grinned at Rogerís embarrassment and Astro watched his own detached arm with fascination.
After a couple of minutes, the doctor closed the cabinet and thanked Hans for the demonstration. They started toward the door and helped Roger recover enough to join them. Back in Astroís recovery room, the doctor gave Astro a lecture on care of his amputation. Roger and Tom both sipped more iced water and listened intently so as to back-up Astroís memory. Satisfied that everything would be okay, the doctor went to the door and began to exit. He then turned and looked at all three men and asked, "Do any of you have questions?"
Tom turned toward the man and said, "Yes, Sir. Iím sorry, but during this entire session, we have become familiar with each other, and we are grateful, Sir. Unfortunately, we have been remiss because we didnít introduce ourselves. May I ask for your name, Sir?"
The distinguished-looking man pursed his lips as he stifled a response. He then smiled and said, "Frankenstein, Dr. Victor Frankenstein."
Tom and Roger both lost their coordination and dropped their water tumblers in perfect synchronization. Unable to speak or even move, they stood with their mouths agape and Astro, seeing his friendsí response, began laughing loudly.
The doctor approached the two men and grabbed them at the shoulders. "Actually, my name is Colonel William Payne, Chief of Surgery for the Solar Guard." The doctor returned to the doorway again and went outside. He then leaned back in and said, "Thereís a joke in that name too!". He ducked back into the hallway and disappeared.
Tom and Roger slowly regained their ability to interact and started to respond to Astroís playful poking and chiding. Soon all three were kidding each other and having fun with their foibles and physical attributes.