Then his doctors told him about an experimental treatment, a painkilling video game supposedly more effective than morphine. If successful, it would deliver Brown from his living hell into a strange new world—a digital winter wonderland
At will and sometimes against his will, Sam Brown can return in his mind to that hour in the Kandahar desert when he knelt at the edge of a blast crater and raised his flaming arms to the Afghanistan sky. He'd already run through the macabre slapstick routine of a man on fire, trying to put himself out by rolling on the ground. He'd resorted to pelting his face with fistfuls of sand. That failing, he'd run in helpless circles. Finally he'd dropped to his knees, lifted his arms, and screamed Jesus, save me. Each scream drew fire deeper into his lungs. Behind him his Humvee was a twisted inferno. Bullets whizzed around him. His men were scattering, taking cover, moving dreamily in clouds of so-called moondust, that weird powdery talc, which hung in the air and gave the soldiers the appearance of snowmen. It was going on dusk, and in the fading light the enemy gunfire blazed behind the walls of the village.
Only the day before, Brown's brother, Daniel, had told him, in a phone call, You're invincible, they can't kill you. Best he could remember, he'd always felt invincible. Pretty much right up to the instant they rolled over the IED, he had remained the same man he'd been at West Point. That is, he was a man whose life still had meaning. Every action had been meant to hone him for the glory of battle. Even as varsity stroke, in command of a shell on the rowing team, out on the water every morning at dawn, the sun dripping off his oars, his arms burning as he counted off the strokes, welcoming the pain into his body, bronzed, sculpted, almost too good-looking, he sought hard perfection in himself and those around him.
A diligent cadet who would spend the whole of an afternoon in the library reading about ancient Greek wars in Herodotus, immersed in the virtual reality of history, yearning for his own chance to test his mettle—but that was before eight brain-dead weeks of providing security for the construction of a new FOB in the middle of nowhere, watching bulldozers push sand, anxious for anything to break up the tedium, anything. When he was told his platoon would have to help provide security for a convoy coming through his sector on its way to a hydroelectric dam out in Helmand—delivering turbines, on a hearts-and-minds mission—he was all for the diversion, almost ecstatic when the call came from First Platoon reporting they'd been ambushed and needed backup. Brown had responded immediately. He was on the radio to his lead vehicle when he saw the bright flash. His body went inert as the Humvee lifted into the air. How he escaped from the wreck he couldn't recall.
Kneeling there, on fire, he'd resigned himself to death. All he'd wanted to know was how long? How long would he have to burn? How many more torturous fractions of a second would he have to remain alive?
His gunner, Jensen, had come to his rescue, extinguishing the fire with sand, helping him to his feet. Running for cover, Brown had kept his arms held out in front of him, as if he were carrying an infant that he did not know what to do with. The sleeves of his uniform were burned off, with patches of the desert camo fused to his skin, and the visible bits of his own flesh either meat-raw or charred black. It felt as though his gloves—made of thick leather and fire-retardant Nomex—were somehow cooking his hands.
Crouching behind a wall, he turned to the private beside him and said, "Take my gloves off."
The private hesitated, but then took hold of the glove and started pulling. "Sir," he said, "it's not coming off."
"Take the glove off," First Lieutenant Brown said.
The soldier grimaced but put his strength into it, and the glove came off, and with it, Brown's flesh. They all looked at the glove on the ground and then at his hand. Or tried not to look.
Brown extended the other hand. "This one."
It was dark before vehicles from the other platoon managed to reach them. In the back of a Humvee, Brown watched the hot .50-cal brass shells raining down from the turret. After a few moments, he could hear the battle fading behind, and then they were out bumping across the poppy fields. At one point, Brown caught a glimpse of himself in the side mirror. His hair was ash. His nostrils were black. His face was unrecognizable.
Before the Humvee reached the appointed helicopter landing zone, whatever Brown had been running on was gone. After helping him out of the Humvee and onto a stretcher, Brown's men had wrapped gauze around his eyes to protect them from the flying dust the helicopter would kick up, and when they saw that he was having difficulty breathing, they began to sedate him in preparation to intubate. His arms were too badly burned, so they had to run the IV through his sternum. By the time they heard the Black Hawk and saw its search beam twitching over the poppy fields, the giant blades shredding the dark, the morphine had begun to find its way.