The Phoenix Gene
Rob Garrison was returning from his most recent deployment in a body bag. The flag draped over his transfer case covered the words stenciled on it; Head at one end, Foot at the other. As the 747 neared Dover Air Force Base, ice crackled in the Head side. Muffled thumps began in the Foot side. Soon pounding echoed through the cargo hold. Steel closures at the base clanked and stood their ground, but the aluminum holding the latches stretched and tore until the lid burst off. The body bag flowed from the container on a torrent of ice water. Then a small knife blade ripped through the bag and Rob took a breath for the first time in days.
At first, he was blind. His muscles twitched and burned as his nerves began to fire again. When his vision returned, he was peering through the hole in what he knew was a body bag at a blurry checkerboard floor. He lifted his head and rubbed an ear that had recently been deaf. It was caked inside and out with sand. He swallowed and realized sand plastered his mouth and throat.
Suddenly he became aware of a teakettle screaming. No, it was a jet engine. He let his head drop in relief. The flight back home was in progress. No one would be in the cargo hold, no one living anyway.
Am I lucky or what? In his roughly 230 years as a US Marine, he had never revived in the morgue or the coroner’s lab. If he had, there would be too many questions the Code would not let him answer.
Eager to escape his prison that reeked of blood, he sliced the body bag open until he could pull his shoulders through the gash. As usual, his shirt had been cut off when his corpse had been brought to the command post and he imagined the black phoenix tattoo emblazoned on his back appeared to rise from the black vinyl.
Halfway out and exhausted, Rob sprawled face down on the cold floor. It was a welcome contrast to his burning muscles. He stuffed some of the ice cubes in his mouth and let them melt. He had used a lot of water during rejuvenation. After a few more ice cubes he started thinking clearly.
What was it this time? Last thing he remembered was doing an involuntary back flip and landing on his face. And pain; searing, blinding pain. It must have been a car bomb. Figures. The last patrol I take before retiring is the one that sends me home without a pension.
He lifted his head. He was closest to the door and farthest from the cockpit. He glanced at the transfer cases behind him. They were lit only by the small windows of the hold and they stretched beyond his view, strapped to the floor at regular intervals as if at attention. He wondered how many of his friends were there. Not that it mattered. The Code would never allow him to see any of them again, living or dead.
He stuffed more ice into his mouth and let it melt. It tasted faintly of bleach and blood, but he had to rehydrate. He raised himself to his elbows to look at his arms and shoulders. There were new shrapnel scars; some were coin sized pockmarks, others were streaks a few inches long. Running his hands over the scars proved some shrapnel was still embedded. Or was it old shrapnel?
He didn’t have time to decide, the hum of landing gear startled him. He crawled on his elbows from the body bag, but it was difficult. His right leg tingled. Once out, he propelled himself to his feet and glanced out one of the tiny windows. He saw only a glimpse of Delaware Bay 2,000 feet below before hitting the floor.
Impatient, he pulled himself into pushup position and looked at his feet. Medics had cut his pants to mid-thigh. He could see his knees, but only one foot. A scarred stump had taken the place of his right calf. He lowered himself back to the floor. Why? Why now? He’d been in so many battles, and someone had always been there to put him back together. He had always been young and athletic…
The 747 shook and the rumble of the landing reminded him he had to hide, or break the Code. Unsure how to treat his damaged leg, he crawled on three limbs back to his transfer case and tossed his body bag onto the lid. There was something in the bottom. Sickened, he froze. They had found it. He wanted to dive into the bag and shove his dismembered leg back on like a lost shoe, but it was too late, he had healed. He straightened the bag and struggled to lift the case back onto the lid where it rested without being latched.
With his leg hidden, he stood and hopped into the shadows at the back of the cargo hold. The plane would taxi into place. The pilots would leave the cockpit and open the door for the honor guard. All he could do now was hide and wait.
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