“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” –Malcolm X
“Tanner! Tanner? Where the hell are you?” Zaria shouted as she hastily pushed her way through a crowd of mercenaries unloading equipment from a pair of dirty, green transport vehicles. Tanner’s head popped up from a group of men and his confused expression enforced the nauseous sense of worry coursing its way through Zaria’s chest.
“Zaria, what’s going?” Tanner asked. His dark blonde hair was grimy and unwashed. Dirt clung to his black uniform and Kevlar vest and Zaria spotted a line of dried blood that she could only assume wasn’t his. Zaria ran to Tanner and took his vest in her hands, shaking him in animated concern.
“Did you see Rogue on the road? Please tell me you saw her, it’s been hours since we separated,” Zaria pleaded. Tanner’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“What are you talking about? You and Rogue were to maintain position here while Virus and I were on patrol,” Tanner said slowly. Zaria shook her head and adjusted the rifle slung over her shoulder.
“We got word from a few of the men that an armed convoy was moving a high profile target. They said the target’s name was Seraph,” Zaria said sheepishly. The blood drained from Tanner’s face immediately. His hand snapped to the radio on his chest.
“Virus, get your ass over to transport location two,” Tanner barked. No more than a second later, Virus came to a skidding halt, an assault rifle in his hands.
“You sound pissed, who we killin?” Virus asked, cracking his neck with a loud pop.
“Rogue and Zaria took a team after a convoy. Rogue hasn’t returned. Seraph was the target,” Tanner answered, shoving a pair of rifle magazines into his vest pouches.
“She said she could handle it. She wanted to have him here for you when you guys got back. I should have stopped her, I’m so sorry,” Zaria whimpered.
“Not as sorry as you’ll be if she went and got herself killed. Where did you leave her?” Virus asked sternly while adjusting his assault rifle for running.
“Mile one twenty-two, near the overpass at old Orr Park. She had Conner and Daniel with her,” Zaria said quickly. Before she finished speaking Virus was gone, leaving only a haze of dust where his presence used to be. Tanner placed a firm hand on Zaria’s shoulder.
“I’m sure she’s fine. We’ll be back. Until then, stay here. I mean it.” Tanner turned and sprinted after Virus. Zaria watched him disappear over the horizon before clenching her jaw to fight back the imminent tears. Turning on her heel, Zaria marched back to her and Rogue’s home, a small shack with a single bedroom and a fire pit for cooking. The floor was covered in soft tatami mats and over the fire pit was a small rotisserie for turning meals or hanging a pot. Resting on the single windowsill was the photograph of Zaria and her mother in its tattered wooden frame.
Lifting open the lid off a storage crate that sat in the corner of their shack, Zaria pulled out a dusty bottle of vodka, uncorked it, and downed several swallows before gasping for air.
“Come home to me baby,” Zaria whispered. Taking a seat on the straw bed, Zaria continued to drink. For several hours she waited, the now empty bottle of liquor left lying on the floor as she stared blankly at the ceiling above her.
There came a soft rapping on the tin door. Zaria jolted from where she lay and rushed to the door.
“Did you find her?” Zaria shouted, whipping the door open. Tanner and Virus stood in the doorway as the dust filtered light of the sun behind them created ominous silhouettes of gloom. Tanner shook his head.
“The truck was overturned. Both of the men with Rogue were killed,” Virus said slowly.
“We have to go after her!” Zaria attempted to bolt past the two Mercenaries, but Tanner stopped her with an outstretched hand. His body hardly shifted against the miniscule weight of her mortal frame.
“Zaria, we didn’t find her body or any sign that she was killed. In fact we found four bodies that we can only guess are Seraph’s men. The only assumption possible is that Seraph is stronger and more capable than we had anticipated. He took her and we have no idea where to or how well guarded he is. Going after them would be suicide,” Tanner explained.
“You’re not going to help? I thought you were her friend!” Zaria bellowed into Tanner’s face. Shoving her hands into his chest, Zaria snatched her rifle from near the door and shouldered past the two Mercenaries.
“Zaria!” Virus shouted angrily after her. She stopped and turned to glare at him, her face red with anger. “Believe me, if there was a possibility that we could find her and save her we’d take it, but there isn’t. If you go after her you could die. Not honorably, not heroically, but stupidly. I, of all people, know what it means to act on impulse. Trust us to research, dig, question. Give us time and I promise that we will find her, but don’t go get yourself killed for something you can’t control. You aren’t strong enough.” Virus had moved up to her as tears began to slip down her cheeks. Virus wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly as she shook.
“He took her,” She whimpered, a wave of hopelessness washing over her.
“We’ll get her back,” Virus promised, “We’ll get her back.”
It wasn’t until the sun cast a piercing ray of light through the single grimy window and onto Zaria’s face did her eyelids flicker open. Pale blue irises focused on nothing in particular. With a weak sigh, Zaria sat up and placed a hand on the side of the bed where Rogue usually slept beside her. A surge of anger overtook her and Zaria pounded her fist into the bed with a shout. With a shake of her thick black hair, Zaria stood and began to dress. She donned a pair of beaten black running shoes she had found on a walk with Rogue, a black sleeveless shirt and a pair of loose fitting basketball shorts. She finished tying her hair behind her head when she heard the sound of nearly fifty pairs of boots beating the earth.
Zaria shut the door carelessly behind her as Tanner and Virus led the members of Lance through their morning jog. She waited for the last soldier to pass by before setting off at a steady jog directly behind them. She managed to keep pace with the hardened warriors for just over a mile before she began to feel her legs weaken and her breath become ragged. The nearest soldiers periodically glanced over their shoulders to ensure that their raven-haired friend was still behind them, pride and encouragement evident in their eyes.
“Let’s go, kiddo. You’re doing good,” encouraged Grant, the large, black Gatekeeper that seemed to have developed a special place in his heart for the young girl.
“Tell that to my lungs! Can you get pulmonary hypertension? Because it really feels like that’s what’s happening,” Zaria panted, her legs feeling like Jell-O as she forced herself along. Grant laughed and slowed down to keep pace with her. Zaria stared in captivation at the man’s massive leg muscle and ease of breath that she clearly lacked.
“I don’t know what that is. When’s the last time you worked out?” Grant asked casually as he ran beside the wheezing woman.
“Hmm,” Zaria pondered haggardly, “Roughly... never…” Zaria’s exhausted legs dragged slightly, causing her foot to catch a chunk of old highway and send her tumbling over. Concrete and gravel burrowed in her palms, arms and legs. Her body contorted in excruciating pain as she bled onto the pavement.
“Tit shit!” She screamed incredulously. Grant skidded to a halt and sprinted back to the pained woman’s side.
“Jesus, Zaria, are you alright?” He asked frantically.
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me. Had worse in ’Nam,” She joked through gritted teeth. She resisted the urge to cry out in pain as she forced herself to her feet and picked a shard of glass from her forearm.
“Let’s get you back,” Grant sighed.
“No, let’s keep going,” Zaria said, shaking her head in refusal.
“Zaria, you’re bleeding, hurt and tired. Why are you pushing yourself so hard?” Grant asked. Concern was evident in his face, but Zaria couldn’t let him see how badly she hurt inside.
“Virus said I wasn’t strong enough. He was right. I have to get stronger so that I can save her,” Zaria stated, limping forward.
“You really want to get stronger then huh?” Grant said to himself, interest in his eyes as Zaria began to jog again, each step jarring the cuts and gashes in her legs as she propelled herself forward. Grant easily caught up to the small woman and kept pace beside her.
“We hit the sparring circle at ten o’clock,” Grant ordered. Zaria looked up at him in surprise. The large man winked at her and set off at a sprint to catch up with his men, leaving Zaria alone to push herself.
She ran, deep into the decrepit, and broken remains of the city of Los Angeles for several more minutes before slowing down to a casual walk. Her hand trailed along the cracked and toppled remains of a highway overpass. Her eyes lingered on the old bones and pieces of litter scattered about, revealing traces of the world before the War. She stayed there for a good hour, working over the amount of shadow boxing that she knew and knocking out several sets of pushups and sit-ups. Zaria was damp with sweat by the time she returned to camp. The soldiers had just finished their run and Zaria followed them into the secondary training tent on the outside of the encampment.
Ever since Rogue had convinced the townspeople to evacuate Kennedy and move up the highway several miles a few months back, the refugee’s and soldiers had steadily begun rebuilding the town to its former miniscule glory. It was still far from what it was, but everyone was working hard. The training facility was Virus’ idea and, after he and Tanner revealed their identities, the soldiers had no doubt that they were in good hands.
Inside the training tent, the men were all preparing for their practice sessions. On the far right side of the tent were rows of dented and rusted lockers, each with a long wooden bench in front of it. At the center, a large dirt arena covered in soft sand filled a space of about a hundred square feet. On the right were a few dummies with sand filled bottoms for practicing strikes on. Spotting Grant amidst the soldiers, Zaria made her way over to her massive friend.
“Hey shorty, got any wraps or anything?” Grant asked. Zaria shook her head and gawked at the few soldiers slamming powerful strikes into the training dummies on the other side of the gym. Grant reached into a tattered black gym bag and tossed Zaria a pair of white hand wraps that she caught with poor dexterity.
“Know how to put those on?”
“Hypothetically speaking, if I said no, how would you explain the process to me?” Zaria asked, turning the fabric wraps over in her palms. Grant brandished a broad grin and rose to his feet. Zaria couldn’t help but stagger at the overwhelming size of the giant man. However he took her hand in his gentle grasp and carefully wrapped her small fists in the white fabric as slowly as he could while explaining the process. When he finished, he shoved her in the direction of the class that was forming in a circle around Virus.
“Alright ladies, we’re going to start with our basic combinations. Jab, cross, jab, uppercut. Twenty times each side! Zaria, you’re with me. Everyone else, partner up. You know the drill; one punches, the other one tries not to get his nose broken,” Virus ordered. After receiving a loud, ‘Yes Sir’ from the men, they scattered around the circle to engage in their training.
“Alright Speedy, lemme show you how it’s done,” Zaria said, throwing the combination of punches Virus had called out. Virus smirked at the woman’s feeble punches and lifted his hands into a guard.
“Go easy on me,” He teased. Zaria swung her strikes with as much force and speed as she could muster, knowing full well she’d never land a hit on the infamous Scout. She was correct in her assumption. Virus blocked the blows as if he were fighting a child.
“You can hit harder than that. Put your hips into it and move your feet. Again,” Virus ordered.
“Your mom can hit harder than that,” Zaria muttered under her breath. However she obliged, twisting her hips partially with each strike and noticing the significant difference the small change had made.
“That’s a bit better. Now, keep twisting your hips, but move your feet too,” Virus spoke while Zaria continued to extend strikes with increasing frustration.
“This is bullshit, my body doesn’t want to do it!” She groaned. Virus sighed and stepped forward as Zaria’s strike sailed through his guard. He shifted his feet and used his hand to direct Zaria’s balance to the side, causing her to fall forward onto her hands and knees.
“Your body didn’t know why it needed to move. If you refuse to move your feet then I’m going to keep reminding it why it should,” Virus said evenly.
“Well fuck me,” Zaria hissed through gritted teeth. Virus stood, hands still up until Zaria pushed herself up to her feet.
“I know what you’re doing Zaria,” He accused.
“And I don’t know what you’re talking about,” She denied, continuing the combinations, this time making sure that her feet moved.
“If you’re planning on training to be one of us, then you’re going to have to start being treated like one of us,” Virus warned her. His voice was soft, but it was filled with an air of superiority that was gained through nearly a century of training.
“I’ll do whatever it takes. If I need this to find her, to save her, then I’ll take whatever you’ve got Speedy,” Zaria vowed. Virus smirked and blocked the incoming strike with the palm of his calloused hand.
“We’ll see if you still feel that way by the end of the day,” he laughed.
After a few more minutes of combinations, Virus stopped and called out a new series of strikes that he coached Zaria through, punishing her physically whenever she failed to follow instruction.
“Tits this hurts,” she thought, blocking the repeated pair of punches that Virus slowly launched with her arms. She could already feel dark bruises forming beneath her wraps and several cuts had begun to trace along her shoulders and knees from her falls and failed attempts to block. Finally the assault came to an end and Virus called his men to a heavy breathing, sweat coated stand still.
“Alright boys, who’s ready for some sparring?” Virus asked. The majority of the men grinned and cheered, excited for the bi-weekly challenge. Zaria stood around the circle pit with the rest of the soldiers, watching in earnest at what was unfolding.
“Murphy, you and Chandler are up first,” Virus ordered. Zaria looked over and realized the men that were sparring were all lined up on one side of the circle. She bit her lower lip in thought before tightening her fists. Shifting her way through the crowd of soldiers, Zaria got in the back of the line. The man in front of her gave her a quizzical look, but said nothing. As a soldier, he knew that it wasn’t his place and Zaria liked that these men didn’t outwardly deny her the chance to try and prove her worth. When she was younger, she remembered a lot of men doubting her mother’s medical skill, and she remembered the woman having to work extremely hard to prove herself. Now, Zaria didn’t have to earn her right to get in to this tight knit group of hardened warriors. No, instead she had to earn her right to stay.
“Chandler, tap out lad!” Murphy hollered. He had managed to get the other man onto his chest and lock his elbow joint beneath his knee. Chandler, a tall man with shaggy blonde hair clenched his teeth as he tried, in vain, to get his arm free from the Irish veteran’s iron like grip. The attempt was followed by a sickening pop and scream of agony from Chandler who now rolled on the ground in pain. Zaria winced, knowing instantly that the ligaments had been torn.
“God dammit Chandler, what the fuck is wrong with you?” Virus barked, striding into the circle casually.
“That’s my bad Virus, I should have let the boy go,” Murphy attempted to reason, but Virus simply shook his head.
“Pride has no place here. You’re all here to learn; not to try and prove a point. If any one of you thinks your hot fucking shit you can take me on and we’ll see how you do! Chandler should have tapped out and admitted he lost. You didn’t break his arm, he did. Chandler, get your ass over to medical. Murphy run a lap,” Virus seethed. Anger had reddened his face and the soldiers knew better than to speak out of turn.
“Yes sir,” Murphy quickly replied, jogging past Chandler who began walking to medical, gingerly cradling his arm.
“Next!” Virus barked. The two men that were in front of Zaria jumped forward before the intimidating Mercenary grew more irate. Their bout ended quickly and before she knew it, it became Zaria’s turn to fight.
“Zaria, you’re going to be fighting John,” Virus said, walking up to her and placing his hands on her shoulders. “Do not hold back, because he will hit you and it will hurt.”
“I’ll try not to be too rough with him,” Zaria winked nervously. Virus shook his head amused and moved to the side of the circle pit.
“Zaria, John, you’re up!” Virus barked. Surprised murmuring began passing about the crowd of soldiers as Zaria stepped forward to meet the guy that had been standing in front of her. John was a man of average height with short-cropped black hair. He smirked at her and raised his fists into the guard position before giving her a wink. Zaria loosed a sharp breath through her lips and began dancing back and forth on her toes as Virus had drilled into her during the course of the day.
“Fight!” Virus shouted. John didn’t waste a moment. He darted forward and sailed a jab through Zaria’s guard, landing the punch square on the side of her jaw. Zaria stumbled backward, but caught herself just in time to block the incoming kick to her ribs. The strike lifted her off the ground and sent searing pain through her forearms the likes of which she had never felt before.
“You hit like a bitch,” Zaria hissed through clenched teeth. John laughed and attempted to land a hook on the side of her head. Zaria ducked the strike only to move into the accompanying uppercut to her solar plexus. She felt the air leave her lungs and her saw her vision momentarily dim.
“You done Doc?” John taunted, dancing from foot to foot. Zaria staggered to her feet, her arms wrapped around herself as she inhaled deeply. The crowd around them was silent. They all knew her and they all knew if Rogue had been there, this soldier would probably be dead already. Zaria became all the more determined by the notion. She didn’t want to be protected anymore. She took a cautious step forward and lifted her hands to continue the fight. John smirked and extended a punch for the bridge of her nose. Zaria slid her foot across the dirt, swung her arm inward, knocked the punch to the side and slammed the back of her fist into the man’s exposed nose in one swift movement like Rogue had shown her during their practice sessions.
John stumbled backward, hands clutching his nose in pain. Zaria grinned and moved on him before he could gather his wits. She wrapped her hands around the back of his head and used his weight to pull her knee into his chest. John grunted and bent forward, using his arms to cover his face and body from the sudden viciousness of the raven-haired woman. Zaria smirked and span on the heel of her foot, whipping her leg up and out to kick John across the jaw. However John had already recovered. Blocking the kick, John grabbed hold of Zaria’s leg, stepped forward and swept her planted foot out from beneath her. She was thrown onto her back with such force that all the air left her body. John bent forward and, raising his fist above his head, pounded his knuckles across Zaria’s jaw, knocking her into unconsciousness.