I had a name once, in a life that seems as strange to me as my own appearance does now. I was among the first of those called Salamander Soldiers, an elite army unit favored with extra pay, an exclusive diet, and our own separate housing. Officially, we specialize in nocturnal jungle reconnaissance. Unofficially, we tromp about all night in dank undergrowth and swampy regions – places people with any sense try to avoid.
The work agrees with us though, like we were born to it, well reborn might be more accurate. All of us were triple amputees or worse, learning to live again in the rehab wing of a VA Hospital when the white coats came in wearing suits, and ties, and very official titles. They spoke in terms only science-types could comprehend about a genetic differentiation/regeneration factor isolated from salamanders that would restore us to our former selves. All we really understood is that a second chance at life had arrived in the form of a vaccine. Everyone volunteered, but they only accepted those of us who were the worst off.
It took three injections, but unbelievably, I grew whole again. My new skin is smooth and scar free, but it feels different and is constantly moist head to toe, and hairless. I guess I can get used to that, and how the sun burns my eyes, since I can walk now – just never go back home. Not like this. I don’t mind really. I had nothing to go home to, but some of the others did. The white coats said they would try to eliminate the side effects.
There were fifteen of us in all, put through every kind of test imaginable – sight, hearing, endurance, performance – anything and everything the army could think of until they had ascertained what we could and could not do. Apparently they were satisfied because we began getting assignments, a few at first, then more and more until we were being deployed someplace around the world almost every night.
We were exhausted, even requested time off, but top brass tried to talk us into working harder – earning our extra pay. And I thought we already were!
Some relief would be nice, but we’d heard the vaccine had been banned. And then an odd thing happened. A new group of salamander soldiers arrived when we were out on assignment. I couldn’t help but wonder if the side effects had been eliminated, or deemed acceptable as long as there was work to be done.
We don’t talk about it. We don’t speak anymore. My tongue feels thick and sticky in my mouth, and I’m always thirsty. But what worries me, keeps me awake, and haunts my dreams if I do manage to sleep, is the itching in my tailbone – same maddening itching that tormented the stumps of my limbs before they grew back.
This story first appeared in Cover of Darkness, May 2011