“Whatever gets you through the night.” –John Lennon
“Tap out,” Murphy ordered. The slender, black haired girl that he now held in a tight arm bar struggled briefly before releasing a disheartened sigh. After receiving a light tapping on his leg, Murphy released Zaria’s arm. The woman sluggishly picked herself up off of the ground, mumbling irritable and inaudible curses to herself.
“Alright Kono, I’m done for a little bit. I really don’t feel like I’m getting any better at this crap,” Zaria whined. She bent over and picked up a rust stained, white towel from the ground and wiped the droplets of sweat that were seeping from the pores on her face and neck.
“This ain’t the time for whining. Let’s get in three more miles and you can complain when we’re finished,” Murphy ordered.
“Always the charmer, you roided-out leprechaun,” Zaria joked half-heartedly, “Startin to wish I hadn’t agreed to work out number dos.” She stretched her arms out jerkily before pressing off. Her battered running shoes beat the dirt as she bounded down the street toward the camps exit, arms pumping steadily at her sides. Upon reaching the gate she took a hard right around the camp and started pushing herself to go faster, leaving Murphy in the dust. On her second lap around the camp she came to a skidding halt, spitting out the dust that had collected in her mouth. Squinting, she spotted the telltale plume of dirt that followed behind Virus’s patrol unit on their return route. Zaria quickly adjusted the ponytail behind her head before she took off to meet Virus. Her fingers lingered mournfully on the sheered hairs where she had cut her once long, black hair short. The strands of black now fell almost to her shoulders rather than nearly the small of her back.
“You’re back! Find any info Barry?” Zaria enquired tentatively of Virus. The scout had been gone for nearly a month in an attempt to reach out to some of his old contacts in hopes of potentially finding Rogue. Virus motioned for his men to start unloading the truck before he turned back to Zaria with a disappointed expression on his face.
“Sorry Doc, no one’s seen or heard anything. It’s like she’s just vanished,” Virus answered solemnly. Zaria bit the inside of her cheek and cast her saddened eyes to the dirt.
“Oh,” Was all she could bring herself to mumble.
“But you look like you’ve bulked up a bit,” Virus complimented, squeezing Zaria’s bicep. The once small girl was still slender, however she had a clear layer of hard muscle over her arms that showed through the black sleeveless shirt she wore.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed. I’ve just been training with Murphy and Tanner since you left. Those two really don’t give a girl a break,” Zaria informed her Scout friend.
“Yeah well, we’ll see how you do in the pit tomorrow morning,” Virus teased.
“Get John ready for the gun show. Shaclack!” Zaria joked, flexing her arms out to her sides.
“Come on, I need to report in to Tanner,” Virus laughed, marching off with Zaria at his heels.
Tanner sat at an old wooden table in the back of the Lance Mercenary Tent, a protractor and coordinate scale in his hands as he plotted points on a tattered map with its edges torn and bent. He looked up as Virus whipped open the flap with Zaria in tow.
“Any luck?” Tanner asked, stress creasing his brow.
“Unfortunately not. I thought that my old NSA contacts of all people would at least have something but everything’s been unusually quiet,” Virus said, straddling a chair.
“Shit. That’s how it’s been out here ‘cept for a few raids by some of the gangs. Weird thing is that nothings been going on within a fifty mile radius. Take a look at this,” Tanner said, spinning the map for Virus and Zaria to see. Virus’ eyes traced the coordinate points quickly. After a brief moment he laid his finger out on a point on the map.
“The next place is Jasper? They’re hitting refugee camps,” Virus said matter-of-factly.
“Yep, we should get over there. Find out who’s causing so much goddamn trouble,” Tanner decided.
“They clearly know where we’re located if they’re keeping such a consistent distance from New Kennedy,” Zaria added, “Oh, and I’m coming with by the way.”
“Nope,” Virus said immediately, “I don’t have a death wish for when we find Yellow-Eyes.”
“She’s gone and I’m part to blame. I’ll deal with her temper tantrum when she’s home safe!” Zaria snapped. Virus turned his head from the map to look at her slowly, eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“You heard the woman. Gather a team of six and meet us at the trucks,” Tanner grinned, shaking his head.
“Alright Xena, just don’t get shot,” Virus warned.
“I’ve seen your patch jobs, trust me, I don’t plan on it Speedy.”
After quickly preparing to depart, Zaria breathed a sigh of anxiety, the assault rifle in her hands shaking with a slight rattle of plastic on steel. She fitted the magazine into the weapon and chambered a round into the barrel after flicking on the safety. It seemed heavier than usual as she slung it over her shoulder and felt the weight settle there with an air of inevitability. Even when she had gone out with Rogue and fired on Seraph’s men, she hadn’t considered what she was doing. Now she was deliberately making the decision to take another man’s life, or rather, group of men’s lives and Rogue’s life rode on her doing so.
“Doctor gone killer, how apropos,” Zaria muttered to herself. She made her way to the transport and took a seat next to Murphy who sat across the bench from Grant. Both looked startled at the woman’s appearance.
“You’re coming?” Grant asked, shifting his 7.62 Mk3 to rest against his shoulder.
“Yeah, it’s just something a girls gotta do,” Zaria stated, “So what do I do once the fighting starts?” It was Murphy who answered, running his hands through his short red goatee.f
“Once we’ve got boots on the ground, Tanner and Virus will take lead of a fire team each. They’ll attempt peaceful negotiations unless there’s some bad shit going down. If it comes to a fight, stick with one of us and do what we say unless Virus or Tanner tell you otherwise,” Murphy instructed.
“And keep your head down. I don’t want to be the one to tell Rogue we got you shot,” Grant joked.
“That’s the second time in five minutes I’ve been told not to get shot,” Zaria whined.
“Well, we don’t want to bring you back in a bag either. Would look poorly on our reputation as upstanding gentlemen,” Murphy winked, his faint Irish accent enhancing his dry sense of humor.
The truck rumbling to life beneath them interrupted Zaria’s retort and Grant had to grab hold of her arm to stop her from falling out of the vehicle as it jerked forward with a metallic clank.
She watched melancholically as dust sprayed from behind the rumbling transport vehicle, leaving New Kennedy in its wake. Her attention faded in and out as her mind raced back and forth between the vibrant memories of her time with Rogue and the extent that she missed the blonde haired warrior she loved. The feeling of her hands across her skin, the way Rogue’s lips felt on her own and the look of eternal affection that shone through those often angry and hateful eyes. She could have gone on yearning for the touch and smell of Rogue, however the lurch and slam of the trucks brakes that sent her flying into Grant’s enormous shoulder cut her thoughts short.
“Fuck, move, move, move!” Murphy barked, jumping out of the truck and bolting for a nearby building. Concrete powder spurted near his shoulder as dozens of firearms erupted down the street from where the truck had stopped. Zaria barely had time to step out of transport before Virus grabbed hold of her and seemingly teleported them down the street and out of the line of fire just as lethal rounds peppered the place she had been standing.
“What the fuck happened?” Zaria cried out. Her hands shook around the gun and her knees quaked where she stood.
“We’ve been ambushed. They must have heard us coming. Are you ready to fight or’ve you been training for nothing?” Virus asked, flicking off the safety of his rifle. Zaria sucked in a sharp breath and nodded erratically.
Virus exhaled slowly and took a critical case of the location they had been pinned down in. The buildings around them were old, decrepit and looked as if they might collapse at any moment. Bright light from the afternoon sun baked down on the stone, concrete and metal, turning everything into a boiling deathtrap. It was an old downtown district near an old portion of Los Angeles. Crumpled concrete, steel and glass constructs that once towered majestically above the heads of the cities denizens now lay crumpled, as vestiges of their once former glory. Gunfire rebounded down the streets previously filled with living, breathing humans that had no intention of murdering one another. That was no longer the case and Virus was reminded of his fallen city as he fired a burst of rounds into the chest of an enemy unit that came jogging around the corner.
“Used to be such a friendly neighborhood,” Virus joked, “C’mon.”
Zaria tailed behind her ally, staring down at the dead soldier as she passed. Noticing a piece of paper sticking out from his vest, she quickly knelt down and snatched it from him before moving on.
Murphy and Grant turned and fired rounds down an alleyway, revolving back only when a hail of gunfire returned. Tanner was nowhere in sight and Zaria wondered where the Mercenary had gone.
“Murphy, Grant, keep your position here. You three, get to the rooftop and flank the left side. Zaria, you’re with me, we’re taking the right. These idiots boxed themselves in,” Virus ordered. The other three soldiers that Zaria didn’t know too well barked their affirmative and started searching for a way to the rooftop. Virus turned to Zaria and smiled broadly.
“You’re creepin me out,” Zaria whined.
“Ever ran up a building?” Virus asked with a wink.
“Wha-?” Zaria started. Virus dashed forward, flung the woman over his shoulder and made for a nearby building behind them. Gaining momentum, he darted half way up the three-story structure and kicked off. He and Zaria sailed over the street below, their heads narrowly passing over a set of power lines that no longer channeled any energy as they rotated mid-air. Virus’ feet touched down on the rooftop a second later, a pleased grin brandished on his dark skinned face.
“Never, ever, ever, ever do that again!” Zaria stammered, her face stark white.
“Oh, come on, that was epic,” Virus argued comically.
“No! Where’s Tanner?” Zaria asked shakily, looking around expectantly for her mentor.
“Knowing him, he’s probably laying down with his rifle up there,” Virus said. He pointed toward a tall skyscraper with its windows blown inward from a nuclear explosion that had happened nearly half a century ago. A small flash, like that of a mirror reflecting sunlight blinked rapidly three times and Virus smirked proudly.
“Jesus. Anywhosits, what now? We’re not even at Jasper,” Zaria digressed.
“I know. They must have hit the camp already and are moving onto the next one. That or they already found what they were looking for,” Virus answered. He walked calmly to the building’s ledge and peered down at the fighting below them. Zaria followed and took a look of her own. She spotted over a dozen enemy soldiers. Four of which were guarding a trio of trucks, while the others were covering alley entrances.
Virus held up his hand, four fingers extended out. The four fingers quickly changed to three and then he clenched his fist. Zaria looked to Virus curiously when the four soldiers guarding the transport vehicles sprouted massive bleeding wounds and one lost the top of his skull. Red painted the vehicles and Virus couldn’t hold back the laugh that erupted from deep in his throat.
Two men below them turned with shocked expressions to see Virus and Zaria perched above them with weapons in their hands. They quickly rose their own and would have fired if Zaria’s minute training hadn’t kicked in, urging her to open fire immediately. She couldn’t deny the thrilled excitement pulsing through her as the butt of the gun drove into her shoulder, as the molded brass casings tumbled to the ground and the lives of those that would harm her collapsed to the ground. She couldn’t deny that she was pleased, and that fact both shocked and excited her. Tanner continued to lay down cover fire from his position within the skyscraper and Virus picked off those that his men failed to gun to down.
“Good work,” Virus said quickly. Before Zaria could answer, Virus was on the ground, the last remaining soldier’s throat held tightly in his hand. The soldier’s feet dangled above the ground as Virus held him up by the neck and glared into his eyes.
“You know who I am, you know what I can do. Tell me why you’re taking these people captive and I’ll let you live,” Virus demanded calmly. The man glared defiantly into Virus’ face, refusing to give the details that Virus desired. Virus shrugged and flicked his wrist, neatly snapping the soldier’s neck. He dropped the lifeless corpse to ground and waved to Zaria while looking pleased with himself.
“Care to lend a lady a hand?” Zaria begged. She wobbled anxiously upon taking a look down the three stories of the building she stood upon. In a brief moment Virus retrieved her and carefully deposited her onto the dusty concrete street.
“You good?” Virus asked, taking a quick glance at the three soldiers his black haired companion had slain. Zaria stared at the bodies for a brief moment before answering, the knowledge that she could never clean their blood from her hands persistently pounding in the back of her consciousness.
“Yeah. I knew what I might have to do to save Rogue. I’ll keep doing it, at least until I have her back,” She vowed. Virus bobbed his chin slightly in acknowledgment. He knew those ghosts that now danced behind her eyes. They were the whispers, the beginnings of something far more dangerous to come. Ethereal whispers of power that would contort into a driving frenzy for war and blood. He knew because it was exactly the thing he had seen in his own eyes as he stared down the beast within himself under the revealing truth of the mirror. Virus knew in his gut that Zaria would never again be the same gentle soul that she once was and that sent a pang of guilt through his chest. There was nothing he would like to avoid more than causing a good woman to become a monster like himself, Tanner or Rogue. But this was her choice and she was part of the fight now. He could only protect her from losing control of the beast inside.
“Good. Now let’s check out those transports. There has to be a reason they had security on them even while staging an ambush,” Virus ordered.
“Here, check this out,” Zaria offered, holding the sheet of paper she had taken off the soldier in the street. Virus took the paper in his gloved hand and read it quizzically.
“James Burns, Adam Danielson, Terrell Dutton, Jenson Masters and Alexander Petrovich… Petrovich?” Virus read aloud. “Why does that name sound so familiar?”
“Maybe whatever’s behind door number two’ll remind you?” Zaria offered, walking casually to the transport vehicle. She reached her hand up and drew back the thick canvas curtain that blocked their view of the passengers. As the curtain drew back, the barrel of a rifle protruded through the break in the fabric and pointed directly into Zaria’s face. Her heart stopped and her body froze as the black cylinder announced her imminent demise. However before the man behind the curtain could fire, the crack of Tanner’s rifle declared his death. The body of Seraph’s soldier tumbled forth and collapsed with a dull thud onto the concrete. Zaria crumbled to her knees, her entire body shaking as she stared forward with wide eyes.
“You okay?” Tanner asked, walking up and placing a gentle hand on Zaria’s shoulder.
Zaria bobbed her head and unsteadily lifted herself up off of the ground.
“You kidding? This is just your average Monday,” She stuttered frantically, hugging herself to keep from shaking.
“It’s Wednesday,” Virus corrected.
“Hush,” She responded quickly, “Let me have this.”
“Tanner, the name Petrovich sound familiar to you?” Virus asked his friend. Tanner thought for a moment.
“Yeah, but I can’t remember why. What about it?” Tanner asked as the soldiers from Lance gathered around. Several of them spread out to cover alleyways and the men that had found a way to the roof remained to pull overhead security for their team.
“Zaria found a list of what I can only guess is high profile targets,” Virus answered. Tanner opened his mouth to respond when a muffled voice interrupted them.
“My names Petrovich. You fellas care to un-cuff an old man?” Petrovich shouted from inside the transport beside them. Tanner looked at Virus incredulously and strutted over. Drawing his pistol, he pulled the curtain back and peered inside. Sure enough, inside was a lone man that appeared to be in his late seventies. A thick grey beard covered his face, however there wasn’t a single hair on his bald head that was coated in dirt and grime. The man clearly had not showered in several days. His cheeks were slightly sunken and several liver spots dotted the arms that were bound in front of him by a thick pair of steel handcuffs. A single soldier lay at his feet, his face crushed inward and bleeding profusely. The blood on Petrovich’s forehead and boot heel enthralled Tanner’s interest. Petrovich turned his head and when his eyes fell on Tanner, the look of pure astonishment surprised even Tanner.
“Tinman?” Petrovich asked in disbelief. At the name of his friend, Virus peered around the vehicle, followed closely by Zaria. “And Virus! My god, what are the chances that two of you would still be alive in all of this hell my boys? Please, get me out of here and I’ll explain everything.”
“How do you know who we are?” Virus asked. Hopping into the vehicle he used his bare hands to pry the handcuffs from around Petrovich’s wrists.
“I guess that I have aged a good amount over the years. I was one of the Augmentation Specialists at District X. I administered the treatment to both of you,” Petrovich informed them.
“Holy shit that’s right. What the hell happened?” Virus pressed, helping the elderly man to his feet, “You sure as shit didn’t age well.”
“I managed to escape to a small refugee camp north of here after the War. Seraph tracked me down for what I can only assume is some twisted plot,” Petrovich answered. He flinched as Virus lifted his arm and Zaria noticed the infected bullet wound in Petrovich’s shoulder.
“What about the civilians?” Tanner asked, extending a hand to help his old comrade down from the vehicle.
“All dead. They didn’t stand a chance,” He replied solemnly. Virus grunted and punched his fist through one of the truck’s roll cage support beams.
“Should… should we do something?” Zaria asked. Her eyes shifted from Tanner to Petrovich to Virus and back, uncertain of where she ranked in this circle of veterans.
“There’s nothing we can do kiddo. The refugee camps that the soldiers attacked were burned to the ground and everyone killed. Luckily, of all the men they were looking for, I’m the only one they managed to find. The others are more than likely dead,” Petrovich informed the raven-haired woman.
“So many people,” Zaria breathed nauseously.
“Indeed. These bastards got what they deserved however. Thanks to you lot they won’t be murdering anymore innocents,” Petrovich sighed.
“Well old man, lets get you back to camp. When’s the last time you ate?” Virus asked.
“It’s definitely been a few days,” Petrovich smirked.
“Alright men, lets move out! We’re RTB in five!” Tanner shouted. He received a round of confirmations and moved to catch up with Zaria.
“What’s up pup?” Zaria asked, seeing the look of concern in her friend’s expression.
“I saw what you did. That was quick thinking,” Tanner complimented.
“Gee, thanks. Glad my murderousness can impress,” She replied sarcastically.
“If you hadn’t killed them, more innocent people could have died. If ever you question yourself, at least remember that,” Tanner comforted.
“Yeah,” Zaria replied curtly. They had arrived at the transport vehicles and Zaria clambered inside, taking a seat in the far corner of the vehicle with her eyes downcast to be alone with her thoughts.
Petrovich rode in the passenger seat between Tanner and Virus, his expression one of intense thought.