GUARDS STEPPED ASIDE, and Carl strode into Training Base One. New recruits stood in ranks near the loading bay of an equipment shed, their freshly buzzed scalps shiny in the bright sunlight and streaked red by the clipper blades. The formation vibrated with fear.
Drill sergeants lurked, scowling.
At a glance, Carl noted injured sergeants—split lips, bloody noses, the red O of a bite mark on one forearm—and a massive kid sitting on the ground with splayed legs and his back to the loading-dock wall. The kid stared straight ahead, looking stunned, holding his nose.
Had this huge newcomer gotten into it with the sergeants? No. He wasn’t restrained, and no one was eyeballing him. Not him, then—someone else.
The metal shed door rippled with impact. It sounded like a mule was trapped in there, kicking its way out.
Someone had knocked it with the big kid and the cadre, and now they had him locked up in there.
And Carl knew in his gut who it was.
Dubois. The exact individual Stark had sent him to “check on”—Stark saying it the way he said so many things, giving Carl an order but not really explaining it.
Carl, of course, had agreed. During the six months since he’d surrendered his freedom, he had played the willing apprentice. Soon, he would have what he needed to burn this organization to the ground, but for now, he continued to play his role.
The loud pounding stopped, and muffled shouting started in the shed, curses and threats.
Drill Sergeant Rivera saw him and came away from the formation, smiling. They shook hands, Carl genuinely happy to see the man. The other drill sergeants eyed Carl like they might a Bengal tiger. Now the recruits were staring, too, their eyes going from Carl to the drill sergeants and back again to Carl.
Good. Let them wonder. Let them fear.
“Freeman,” Rivera said. “Glad to see you.”
“You, too,” Carl said, speaking casually with Rivera—a sharp contrast to the contempt with which he habitually addressed other sergeants. “What’s the sitrep?”
Rivera glanced toward the metal door. “We got a bobcat caged up in there.”
“His name Dubois?”
Rivera tilted his head. “How’d you know?”
“Is he armed?” Carl asked.
Bang. Bang. Bang. The pounding started up again, hard as hammer blows.
Rivera raised his brows. “Sounds like he picked up something.”
“Well,” Carl said, “I guess I better go in.”
“Your call,” Rivera said. “I’ll send these kids back to the barracks and keep a couple of drill sergeants here. Martinez worked on a CERT team, cell extractions, all that.”
“No,” Carl said. Even without thinking the problem through, he knew the answer. Strange, the way he understood things so intuitively now—a phenomenon that had nothing to do with the chip in his head and everything to do with Stark, the man constantly lecturing about leadership. “The recruits need to see this. And I’ll go in alone.”
Rivera hesitated only for a fraction of a second—even with his rapid processing and accelerated powers of observation, Carl barely caught the pause in his old drill sergeant’s eyes—and then nodded. “Lima Charlie, Freeman. Whatever you say.”
They climbed the stairs to the loading dock, drill sergeants stepping aside for them. Toppled chairs and electric razors lay on a many-colored carpet of freshly shorn hair. Feeling the hot sun on the back of his neck, Carl recalled his own day on the loading dock, Campbell trying yet failing to save his dreads.
Reflexively, Carl pushed his friend from his mind.
“Watch out,” Rivera said. “Dubois looks like a Chihuahua, but he fights like a pit bull.”
Inside the shed, muffled threats and curses joined the pounding. Carl glanced at the shaking door and wondered what was so special about this guy that Stark wanted Carl to check on him. Well, he’d find out soon enough. He motioned to Rivera and another soldier, and they unsnapped hooks at the base of the rolling metal door.
The banging stopped.
Probably waiting just inside, ready to clobber me, Carl thought, but this, of course, was of no real concern now that the chip was a part of him.
When he lifted the door a few inches, Dubois’s voice called from farther back in the shed, “Come on in, boys. I got something for you.”
Carl opened the door the rest of the way.
The kid stood maybe thirty feet away, looking small yet sturdy beneath a flickering fluorescent light. He had a grin on his bloody face, a broken mop handle in one hand, and the tall black pompadour of an Elvis impersonator. Ridiculous.
Carl stepped forward.
He and Dubois stared silently at each other. The light buzzed erratically overhead, and Carl smelled clean linen, a scent strangely out of place in this tense moment.
Dubois began pacing back and forth, slapping the stick in the palm of his hand.
Considering the damage the kid had done outside, Carl had expected someone bigger. And considering Stark’s interest, he’d expected someone more impressive.
Dubois strutted, eyeing Carl.
He didn’t look afraid. Carl had to give him that much. What he looked like, Carl thought—the guy rugged but short, maybe five-five—was a fighting rooster. He even had the comb, all that tall black hair piled on top of his head.
Turning to the sergeants, Carl said, “Close the door.”
One of the soldiers started to protest, but Carl’s glare stopped him. Rivera hooah-ed, and the door rattled down.
When Carl turned back around, Dubois had closed half the distance and stood there grinning. From a gash in his hairline, blood streamed down the middle of his forehead and forked at the bridge of his nose, drawing twin lines of crimson to his jaw. Between the hair, the grin, and the oddly symmetrical blood, he looked like a psychotic clown.
“Come to see the sideshow, boss?” Dubois asked with a country twang.
“Something like that,” Carl said, keeping his voice flat.
Dubois rolled his head atop his shoulders, a classic prefight gesture. “Guess you’re the breaker, huh?”
“You know, the resident skull knocker. You look like a breaker.”
Carl guessed probably he did. People back in Philly wouldn’t even recognize him. Several months ago, when he’d first arrived on Phoenix Island, he was five foot nine and weighed 152 pounds. Now he was six foot two and 205. During his time here, he’d been beaten and burned, sliced and shot. Add to this bulk and these scars his crooked fighter’s nose, his battered knuckles, and his Phoenix Forcer uniform—boots, cargo pants, tank top, and beret, all black, save for the flaming red phoenix on his chest—and yeah, he must look like the resident enforcer. “What if I am?”
Dubois took up a batter’s stance. “Then you got your work cut out for you, buddy.”
“Relax,” Carl said, and raised his hands. “I came to talk, not fight.”
The kid looked doubtful. “This ain’t my first square dance, boss. I heard that one before.”
Keep him talking, Carl thought. “You been a lot of places like this, ones with breakers?”
Dubois grinned, and Carl saw he was missing a tooth not too far back on one side. “They been sending me places like this since I could tie my shoes. I tell them, send me someplace with a revolving door, because they won’t keep me long, either. Shoot, I don’t even bother unpacking no more.”
Carl let a smile come onto his face, figuring he’d ease the tension. Stark told him to check on the kid, not crush him. What was so special about Dubois, anyway? So far, he seemed like one more 150-pound knuckle-tosser, fearless, sure, but the streets were full of kids with big mouths and bad haircuts. “Well,” Carl said, “you better plan on staying here a while. How old are you?”
“Sixteen and a half.”
Same age I was when I came here, Carl thought. “My name’s Carl Freeman.”
Dubois straightened, lifting his chin. “Texarkana Reginald Dubois.”
He pronounced it Doo-bwah, but what really caught Carl was the first part. “Texarkana?”
Dubois tensed with the question, and Carl thought, His whole life, he’s been carrying that name around like a KICK ME sign taped to his back.
“It was my granddaddy’s name,” Dubois said.
“I thought it was a place,” Carl said.
Anger flashed in the boy’s eyes. Whatever potential Stark saw in the kid, this hair-trigger temper would likely ruin it. “It is a place—and a name, kind of like Washington. You ever hear of anybody named Washington before, genius?”
Carl said nothing, picturing not someone named Washington, but rather someone from Washington. Someone with beautiful gray eyes and a streak of white in her hair . . .
Texarkana Reginald Dubois ran a hand over his pompadour, seeming to relax again. “People call me Tex. Hey, you got a cigarette?”
Carl shook his head.
Tex sighed. “Figures. Probably all out of beer, too.”
“Yup,” Carl said. “So what happened out there?”
Tex snorted. “See, I got a problem with people trying to push me around.”
Me, too, Carl thought, but said nothing.
Tex shifted the mop handle to one hand, leaned on it like a cane, and nodded toward the door. “You see that boy out there, kid about eight feet tall, built like a gorilla?”
“I think so,” Carl said, remembering the enormous recruit slumped against the wall.
“Well, old King Kong’s been riding me since we climbed onto that bus back in Mexico. Hitting me in the back of the head, saying he’d never seen a white boy with an Afro, stuff like that.” Tex ran a hand gently over the thick mane like someone caressing a beloved pet. “I tried to ignore him, stay out of trouble, but then he started getting the other kids going, too. You don’t stand up then, someday you have to fight them all.”
Carl nodded, picturing it: Tex with his funny hair and his strut, not even five and a half feet tall, and with that country twang—exactly the type of guy some big, mean kid would push and push. He remembered his own start on the island—Davis, Decker, Parker . . . all of them pushing—and how difficult it had been, holding back.
Tex laughed. “We was formed up out there, waiting on haircuts. I knew what I had to do. Didn’t say a word, just turned around and gave him the old Texarkana haymaker right between the eyes.” He demonstrated, throwing a looping punch in the air. Not the greatest technique, but fast, and he shifted his weight with it. A strong punch. “Knocked him on his butt. He just sat there, blinking, and I told myself, ‘Texarkana, you got to fix this old boy right now and fix him good enough that everybody’ll leave you alone.’ So I grabbed him by the ears and put the knee to him.”
Carl let the hint of a smile creep onto his face. “The drill sergeants didn’t like it?”
Tex spat blood and grinned, one of his front teeth red. “Didn’t seem to, the way they hollered and put the boot leather to me.”
Carl laughed. Against all odds, he actually liked the kid. His guts, his sense of humor.
Tex said, “I knocked a couple of bulls down, too, but there sure was a bunch of them. They shoved me in here and locked the door, so I picked up this mop, broke off the handle, and here we are.” He shrugged, looking at the makeshift weapon. “Look, buddy,” he said, some of the tension going out of his muscles. “What are we doing here? You come to dance or fight?”
“I’m here to see you,” Carl said, and remembered Stark saying the same thing, a long, long time ago, when Carl was locked in the sweatbox, waiting to die. “We don’t have to fight.”
Tex nodded. “Guess I don’t need this anymore, then, huh?” And he tossed the mop handle across the room.
Good, Carl thought. Stark would be pleased that he had defused the situation.
“Say your name was Carl?”
“Right,” Carl said.
“Had a cousin named Carl,” Tex said. “Guess I still do, though I ain’t been home in so long, it’s hard to say. Given his habits, he might’ve gone to his reward in heaven by now.”
Carl said nothing. Let the kid talk, he thought. Make him comfortable.
“He was a snake handler, my cousin Carl, you know what I mean?”
“Ballsy, man. It was a church thing, back in the mountains. Pentecostal. Gospel of Mark and all that. The kid fourteen years old, leading the congregation, standing up there on this little, old, nailed-together stage, handling rattlesnakes as big as your leg and speaking in tongues.” He let out a stream of garbled nonsense that degraded into laughter. “You a snake handler, Carl?”
“Not me,” Carl said.
“So . . . let’s get this straight,” Tex said, squinting one eye. “What are you, the man around here? I see the way the bulls act around you. They’re wearing the boss hats, you’re half their age, and they still do what you tell them.”
“No,” Carl said, “I’m not the man, but I guess you could say I’m the man’s man.”
“The man’s man, huh?” Tex said, and spat on the floor again.
“Look,” Carl said, “you relax a little, I might be able to help you.”
Tex nodded thoughtfully. “Truth be told, I reckon I could use a hand right about now.”
“Hey,” Tex said in a soft voice, his eyes looking hopeful. “You reckon I really gotta get my head shaved?”
“Your grape,” Carl said.
Tex squinted. “My what?”
“Your grape,” Carl said. “That’s what they call your head around here. Might as well get the lingo straight. And yeah, they’re going to shave it.”
“That right there is the worst news I had all day.” He whistled and ran a hand once more through his thick hair. “But I suppose, when in Rome . . . get your grape shaved.”
Carl laughed. “Pretty much.”
A look of concern came onto Tex’s face. “What are they going to do to me, Carl? One guy kept talking about a sweatbox, and I’ll tell you right now, I can’t hack small spaces.”
“Don’t worry,” Carl said. “I can make this go away. No sweatbox, and a fresh start.”
Tex whooped and clapped his hands. “You are the man!”
Carl smiled, but picturing Stark, he said, “No, trust me . . . when you meet the man, you’ll know it.” He turned and crouched, reaching for the door handle. “He’s the most—”
And then he was ducking, rolling sideways, his body reacting automatically before his conscious mind even registered the footsteps racing up behind him. Tex’s boot slammed hard into the metal door, right where Carl’s head had been, and the shed filled with insane laughter.
“Wake up, boss!” Tex shouted, leering at Carl through wild eyes. “Almost took your grape off with that one!”
He almost had, too. A kick like that could’ve broken his neck. Rage leapt up in Carl as hot and fast as a flame, and then he was smelling ashes again.
Tex raised his fists. “Come on then, Carla. Let’s see what you got. I do love to fight!”
Carl advanced slowly and silently, outwardly calm. He’d been nice to Tex, helped him, and the second he’d turned his back, the kid had tried to take his head off—would have taken his head off if it weren’t for the chip.
Rage roared, demanding retribution. Control it, he cautioned himself.
Tex backpedaled to the far wall and picked up the broken mop handle.
Carl walked toward him, arms loose at his sides.
Behind him, the door rattled open, and men’s shouting filled the shed.
“Come on in, boys!” Tex shouted. “The more the merrier!” And he swung the makeshift club with a whoosh.
Without even looking in the soldiers’ direction, Carl stuck out a palm. “Stand down.”
He walked toward Tex, saying nothing.
“You can’t sweet-talk Texarkana Reginald Dubois,” Tex said, and charged, raising the mop handle overhead like a chopping ax.
For Carl, the world decelerated as the chip worked its magic. Tex swung the stick in slo-mo. Carl slid easily under the attack and drove an uppercut into the kid’s stomach.
Tex dropped to the floor, gasping. The broken handle clattered away.
Seeing the traitor crumpled at his feet, Carl braced himself for the red wave. For the chip had done more than make him faster . . .
His eyes found the sharp end of the broken handle a few short strides away, and the beast within him demanded he drive the pointed end into the exposed neck of the sucker-punching thug lying helpless as a sacrifice before him.
Carl’s body took one step in that direction, but he gritted his teeth and stopped himself. No, he told himself, fighting the rage that lived within him now like a dark twin. Don’t do it, don’t give in. When that didn’t work, he thought, Remember Sanderson.
The memory slapped him hard with its sun and sand and screams, allowing him to wrestle his rage temporarily into uneasy submission.
Tex stirred. “Punch,” he gasped, “like a girl.”
“Shh,” Carl said. He plunged his hand into the thick black pompadour and lifted Tex’s head. “Nap time.”
The strike was short and sharp, a palm heel to temple, and Tex went instantly limp, snoring the way some guys do when they get knocked out.
The dark twin within Carl roared, and Carl stepped back, afraid that if he lingered even briefly, he would pick up that broken handle. He turned to discover Rivera and the others staring at him with fear and awe.
“Toss him in the sweatbox,” Carl told them, “but first, shave off that stupid hair.”
With a chip in his head and hundreds more throughout his body, sixteen-year-old Carl Freeman was turned from an orphan with impulse control issues into a super-soldier. Forced into the mercenary Phoenix Force group, he begins to fear he’ll never escape. Sent to a volcanic island to fight for them, he’ll compete in a combat tournament that awards teens with survival for merciless brutality. But just when all looks lost, he spies a friendly face…and possibly a way out.