Carson Colt adjusted his camouflage baseball cap and rested the protective earmuffs over his head. The percussion from the other weapons at the shooting range grew faint, but the ringing in his ears persisted.
After wiping his sweaty palm on the front of his Johnny Cash t-shirt, he stared down the range. The red mark in the center of the target’s chest taunted him. An hour of shooting and zero bull’s-eyes. That was bad. He considered going into a prone position to make it easier. No, I’m doing this standing.
He reached for a box of fresh rounds, but it slid out of his hand. Bullets clattered across the floor. “Dammit!”
A woman turned her head to face him. An auburn ponytail swung from the back of her Atlanta Police Department cap. Her eyes shot hollow points his way.
He gave her an apologetic wave before kneeling to retrieve the rounds.
The muscles in his damaged hand strained as he picked up each bullet like a doctor performing an intricate surgery. He was missing half of his index finger and thumb, including the distal joints. Almost nothing remained of the middle finger. His left hand was more intact but still without the tips of the index and middle fingers.
After clearing the ground, he checked the time and knew he had to leave for his appointment. He loaded his rifle with a single round and faced the target. Bullet holes were distributed everywhere except for the red chest mark. Just one more shot.
He imagined the wretched face of his old adversary. The man who called himself the Commander had different-colored eyes—one blue and one brown. He also had a beak-shaped nose, a high and tight hairstyle, and the forearm tattoo of a skeleton hand grasping a human brain. It was the emblem for Mentis, the criminal organization that took everything from Carson.
He exhaled and aimed. His pulse quickened. Burning fatigue plagued his muscles as they stretched. The stump of his index finger barely reached the trigger.
The shot rang out, and the strong odor of gunpowder invaded his nose. He set his rifle down on a nearby table and looked downrange.
The red mark was still untouched.
His shoulders slumped. The words from the letter he’d received that morning drummed in his brain like a headache: “Sergeant Colt, this letter is in response to your request for a medical waiver. You served in the United States Marine Corps with great honor and bravery. However, the request to waive your medical disqualification has been denied.”
Denied. Denied. Denied.
Carson had read the letter three times, and that word pierced through his heart each time. His face flushed, and he rubbed his temple, soothing the pulsating vessel there. At age twenty-six, he damn sure wasn’t ready for retirement.
He took one last look at the target. With a full set of fingers, the bull’s-eye would have been littered with holes.
Before leaving the range, he glanced at the cop next to him once more. She narrowed her eyes, focused on the target, and fired several rounds from her pistol. Those intense emerald eyes. She reminded him too much of Jane, the woman who’d saved his life. The image of her flashed into his mind, strong and beautiful, as she fired back against Mentis while he writhed on the damp jungle grass.
He spun around before the cop could see him looking and left the range.
“Your blood work and nerve conduction tests came back normal. Your blood pressure is a little high, but your vitals overall look good,” Dr. James Evans said. He was a stocky, middle-aged man with a thick mustache. The head of orthopedics at the Atlanta VA, he had performed surgery on Carson’s hands a year ago.
Carson scanned over his charts. His cholesterol was also up from last year, courtesy of all the ribs and burgers he couldn’t eat when he was still in the Corps. “And my grip strength?”
Dr. Evans flipped through his notes. “Getting closer to baseline from what the physical therapy department told me. Keep it up and your hand function will continue improving. Outside of that, everything looks to be in good shape. How’s the prosthetic working? I noticed you don’t have it with you today.”
Carson shrugged. “It’s been fine.”
That wasn’t entirely true. The prosthetic contained three plastic digits—thumb included—with metal joints. Its purpose was to improve dexterity and gripping function. The problem was that it didn’t help Carson’s marksmanship the way he’d hoped. He’d worn it at the shooting range a few months ago, but it made his accuracy even worse. The extra joint for the index finger helped him reach the trigger more easily, but it was clunky and uncomfortable. Maybe he was being stubborn by giving up on it so soon, but he wanted to shoot like his old self again without needing artificial help.
Dr. Evans nodded. “That’s all I have for you today. Do you have any questions or concerns for me?”
“Can I see Kent now?”
“Thank you, sir.”
Carson headed to the inpatient psychiatry department and checked with one of the nurses to make sure visitors were allowed.
Once he was cleared, he entered the room.
Kent Robinson sat upright in his inclined bed. He was Carson’s age and normally had a muscular body frame, but he’d lost a noticeable amount of weight in the past year. An unkempt beard covered his bony cheeks and chin. Restraints held his hands and feet to the bed, and his weary, apathetic eyes stared at the wall.
Carson’s insides churned. Kent was too gregarious to be reduced to this state. With a charming smile and endless charisma, he’d always been the guy people flocked to at a party.
Kent had been a Marine Corps Sergeant before making a lateral move to counterintelligence. He always had a desire for undercover work, and with a near-perfect ASVAB score, he also had the brains. But Kent had been compromised during his last mission in Ronilia, an island near Central America.
“Carson, it’s good to see you,” said a deep voice from the corner of the room.
Kent’s father grasped his cane and stood on shaky legs. He was a dark-skinned man who wore glasses and a Marine Corps jacket. Limping toward Carson, he held out his hand.
Carson returned the handshake. “You too, Colonel Robinson. How is he?”
Colonel Robinson sighed and shook his head. “I just want to be able to talk to my son again. I want him to know his own name.” His trembling hand squeezed the cane. His voice quivered. “I don’t want to see him like this. Tethered in those damn restraints like he’s some kind of beast.”
“How long’s he had ’em on?”
“Since last week. He started attacking his nurses, so they had to do it.”
Carson pulled up a chair and sat in front of the bed. “Hi, Kent.”
Kent’s gaze was fixed on the wall when he replied. “My name is M-03. Why does everyone keep calling me Kent? Where’s the Commander?”
“Because your name is Kent Robinson. We went through Marine Corps boot camp together. Don’t you remember any of that?”
Kent’s voice was monotone. “I’m not a Marine. I’m an agent of Mentis.”
Carson glanced at Colonel Robinson, who looked to the floor with glistening eyes. Carson shifted his attention back to Kent. “Remember what your dad would say to us? Once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Kent shook his head. He still refused to make eye contact.
Carson’s heart sank. After a year of treatment, Kent was still in the same state he’d been when they’d rescued him from the Ronilian jungle. Whatever those Mentis bastards had injected him with, it still had a grip on him.
Carson held his stare on Kent, praying his friend would look him in the eye. No luck. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Carson stood and embraced Colonel Robinson. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“You got nothing to be sorry for," Colonel Robinson said. "You’re the reason my son is still around.”
“He’s in there somewhere.”
Visiting hours had ended, and Carson sat in his silver Ford Mustang. Stars spotted the darkening sky. A cool breeze swept through the open window, but he still felt the sweltering heat from that dreadful day.
Seeing Kent always triggered memories of the Ronilian jungle: the lightning bolt of pain that had shot throughout his hands and nervous system, the sulfuric scent of gunpowder mixed with the metallic scent of blood, a brainwashed Kent trying to kill him, and his emerald-eyed savior, Jane.
Carson’s breathing accelerated as it did whenever these thoughts invaded his mind. He squeezed the steering wheel. His knuckles turned white, and he glared at his hands as he did every day, hoping in vain that his fingers would grow back.
Carson collapsed onto the threadbare couch in his apartment. The place wasn’t much to look at, but it was just the right size for a couple of bachelors in their twenties. Visitors immediately knew which bedroom was Carson’s, because he made his bed to perfection every morning. It was one of those tasks the Marines had ingrained into his head.
The TV was on, but his roommate Shoji wore headphones and was fixated on his laptop.
“How’s it going, Sho?”
No response. Shoji’s eyes didn’t even flicker.
Carson waved his hands. “Hey, Sho? You copy?”
Shoji removed his headphones. “You say something?”
“Just had to make sure you were alive.”
Shoji smiled as he did so naturally, lighting up his clean-cut face. He wore short, spiky hair and a cutoff t-shirt with Japanese lettering. He was born in Sapporo, a large city on Hokkaido, one of the main islands in Japan.
Carson had met him at the gym shortly after his medical discharge from the Marines. After such a disheartening visit with Kent, Carson knew Shoji was just the man who could lighten his mood.
“Alive and well,” Shoji said. “How was the range?”
“Pretty rough. Shooting ain’t like riding a bike for me anymore.”
Shoji tilted his head. “I thought the hand therapy helped improve your shot.”
Carson muted the TV. “It did. Still not good enough for the Corps. I’ll just have to keep up with my treatment. The medical waiver will have to wait.” He did his best to stay positive but sometimes wondered if he could tell the difference between hope and delusion.
“You’ve been working hard. If anyone can get their mojo back, it’s you.”
“I wish it was that easy. You ever try firing a weapon with missing fingers?”
“Nah. But I’m sure your stubborn ass will find a way.”
Carson grinned. “You’re calling me stubborn?”
Shoji winked. “Never said that was a bad thing. So, what are you gonna do now?”
“Not sure yet, but I know I don’t want to keep working retail.” Carson stood and walked over to a display case in the corner of the living room. He rested his hand on the cool glass.
A photo of himself in his Dress Blues was in the case. A Silver Star and a Purple Heart were displayed underneath, along with an engraved KA-BAR knife Colonel Robinson had given him. It read: “A warrior wounded is a warrior still.”
Smiling, Carson studied his thin, clean-shaven face in the photo. He now had a thick, reddish-brown beard and was twenty pounds heavier. The Corps had a way of keeping the weight off. He couldn’t stop staring at his old self. When he was a Marine Raider, he was respected. Revered. “I just want to feel useful again.”
“You’ve already been more useful than most people are their entire lives,” Shoji said.
Carson held his gaze on the display case. “I need to do more.”
“You know what you need to do now?”
“Hit the gym with me. It’s been over a month since we’ve sparred.” He snapped his fingers. “I met this new guy there a few weeks ago. If you’re tired of working retail, he might have a job that’s up your alley.”
Carson turned away from the case and nodded. “Sounds good.” He pointed at Shoji’s computer. “Anything to get you out from behind that laptop.”
“Hey, I’m just checking out Karina’s album before her tour comes into town. Listen to this.” Shoji clicked a few keys. The voice of a woman backed by an orchestra blared from the speakers:
With blood pumping and veins popping,
It’s gaining momentum!
When shadows surround, it ain’t stoppin’,
It’ll strike like a cobra’s venom!
You can’t stop it or even slow it,
Won’t get trampled under your feet,
It’s the heart of a hero, so just let it beat!
It was rising star Karina’s hit song “Let it Beat,” and it had played endlessly on the radio over the past few months.
According to Shoji, he particularly enjoyed the song because of his eighteen-year-old sister, Akari. When their father left ten years ago, Shoji had become a close role model for her. It was difficult for him when she’d registered to study abroad in Barcelona this fall, but Karina’s music was still a way for them to connect.
After cranking the volume up, Shoji nodded and snapped his fingers to the beat. He had good rhythm.
Carson crossed his arms and grinned. He admired the way Shoji could make him smile regardless of his mood. “How many times you gonna make me listen to that?”
“Until I get tired of it. But Karina’s music is special. Plus, she makes the only songs you’ll tolerate outside of country. That’s an impressive feat.”
Carson nodded. “I’ll admit that ‘Let it Beat’ is pretty good, but that don’t mean I’d hang a poster of Karina in my room.”
Shoji slumped in his seat, rolled his eyes, and groaned. “You really won’t let that go, will you?”
Carson pointed toward Shoji’s room. “Until your grown ass takes that poster down, I ain’t lettin’ it go.”
“Fair enough.” Shoji donned his headphones again.
Carson chuckled and turned back toward the muted TV. His smile faded when he saw the headline of a crowded press conference. The graphic at the bottom of the screen read: “Ronilia President Antonio Statem Addresses Mentis Threat.”
Mentis had been a problem in Central America and the Caribbean for decades. But within the last couple of years, there were scattered reports of their agents in parts of the U.S., mainly Florida.
Antonio Statem was instantly recognizable because of his elaborate fractal scars. They wrapped around his right eye and branched down to his neck. The scars looked more like a meticulous work of art. He had well-combed hair with light patches of gray on his sideburns.
He was the President of Ronilia, an island in the Caribbean Sea located just north of Panama. It was roughly the size of Jamaica. The press conference took place in Ernin, the capital city in the northern part of the island where most of the population resided.
Carson was only familiar with the dense, Mentis-infested jungle that took up the southern half of Ronilia. The same jungle where his Marine Raiders extracted Kent a year ago.
He turned up the volume. Hundreds of cameras clicked in the background.
“We’ve addressed the growing concerns about Mentis’s presence on the island,” Statem said into the microphone. He spoke with confident authority and animated hand motions. “My Ronilian Police Force is working to keep our city safe, and we will not allow those parasitic criminals to take over our beautiful island.” Statem gave dramatic pauses between each sentence. His voice boomed. “Because Ronilians are strong and fearless, and I will dedicate each day to ensuring our safety and prosperity.”
The massive crowd applauded. Statem grinned, apparently reveling in the adoration of the masses.
Carson rolled his eyes. You sure as hell didn’t keep Kent safe from Mentis. The capital city was well-protected, but from what he’d seen a year ago, the jungle and villages were swarming with Mentis agents.
“You ready to go to the gym?” Shoji asked, interrupting Carson’s thoughts.
Carson turned the TV off. “Yeah.”