The combat deck smelled like sweat and old gym shorts. Dust flew from punching bags as off-duty Rangers worked out their aggression on their inanimate opponents. Taz, sitting cross-legged next to a pile of dirty towels, was watching Lieutenant Up put a bunch of ensigns through their paces in the ring. Most of them were boys, not much older than her, and they were putting on a fairly pathetic display.
“You wanna tell me what those are in your head? Those things under the eyelashes your mama thinks are so pretty?”
Silence. Someone chuckled.
“Uh, my eyes, sir?”
“Give the boy a prize!” bellowed Up. “Your eyes are for more than winking at pretty girls, ensign. Use ‘em next time or you’ll be back on your arse on the floor again. You’ve got to see what’s coming at you in battle, or you’ll be toast faster than a marshmallow in a campfire. Next!”
The next ensign was no more impressive. “I should send you back to the Academy, the lot of you!” Up regarded his charges and sighed. “You’re over-thinking this, children. A warrior has to sense what’s going on and react – there’s no time for your brain to get in the way.” He shrugged off his uniform jacket and Taz sat up a little taller against the wall. Just, you know, so she could see the ring better.
“So,” said Up, and the ensigns drew back, looking apprehensive. “Who’s going to give it a go? No takers? Parker, how ‘bout you?”
The ensign stepped forward reluctantly, a stout boy who looked like he’d rather be typing complex code onto a computer screen than facing the ship’s most formidable fighter in combat.
“Now, come at me, Parker,” Up coaxed. “Try your best.”
Parker, after a nervous look at the others, charged. Up moved so quickly that Taz couldn’t tell what happened, but the ensign was on the floor and Up wasn’t even winded.
“Remember, keep your eyes on the enemy. Don’t let them surprise you,” Up said, helping the boy up. “Next!”
They continued in this fashion until the whistle blew for mess. The ensigns, variously limping or holding appendages gingerly, filed out of the deck. Taz bit her lip, and then approached Up.
“Stupid children,” he was muttering as he towelled off. “I wasn’t kidding, they ought to send them all straight back. There was a time when only the best soldiers even had a prayer of graduating from the Academy as Rangers. Now they’ll take anyone.”
Taz tried very hard not to look at his arms, which were on full display in his white tank top. “Why’s that?” she asked.
He looked down at her, and slipped his jacket on. “The robots, Taz. You think half those kids will still be alive in a year’s time?”
She looked at the door where they’d left.
“True Starship Rangers are becoming a rare breed,” Up said, picking up his gym bag. “There aren’t many of us left.”
He turned to leave.
“You could teach me,” Taz blurted. She hadn’t meant to say it quite so bluntly.
The Lieutenant stopped and turned to look at her. She drew herself up as tall as she could, fully aware of how ridiculous she probably looked in her too-big uniform. “Teach you?” he echoed, blankly.
“How to fight,” she said, her heartbeat in her ears. “I may be little, but I’m fast. I’ve been scrapping on the streets since I was a little niño and I know I’m better than any of those ensigns.”
He looked skeptical.
“I mean it, I could beat those idiotas any day. But you could make me better – you’re the best fighter I’ve even seen.”
Was he blushing? She chalked it up to exertion. “Why do you want to know how to fight, Taz?” he asked.
For a moment she heard the rrrr, rrrr sound of a robot’s deadly approach. She closed her eyes, opened them again, and looked straight at Up.
“Because I never want to be that helpless again. The next time I meet a robot, the hijo de puta is going to be the one tied up in a tree. And I’m going to be the one laughing.”
He was silent for a long time. Then he nodded.
“Meet me here, after lights out. We’ll see what you’ve got.”
She was as good as she said she was, quick, and she could dodge a punch like nobody’s business. But her style was rough around the edges, unrefined.
“You fight like a wildcat. You’re using your instincts, that’s good, but you’ve also got to strategize. I’m twice your size. You’re not going to beat me with strength.” She dodged another hit. “Or by dancing around me all night.”
“I don’t dance,” she panted, tossing her thick braid over her shoulder. “And besides, you told the ensigns they were thinking too much.”
“That’s not your problem,” he said, and she glared at him. He tried not to draw back from the ferocity he saw there.
It took four more late night sessions before she got a hit in, but that was more than any ensign had ever managed. It wasn’t a hard hit, but Up rubbed his shoulder anyway.
“Good,” he said. “Now do it again.”
Up’s rank and reputation kept any sass about his “pet” to a minimum when he was around, but he heard the whispers begin once he’d walk away, and he knew Taz did too. She kept to her bunk a lot, venturing out only for meals and to watch him at training. Her constant gaze made him nervous, but he didn’t let on. The ensigns were barely opponents at all – he wondered whether she’d still think him such a marvellous fighter when he was evenly matched.
Taz had been on the ship a week and was waiting in line in the mess hall when a drunk midshipman accosted her. Up had already gotten his food and was on his way to sit down when he heard the exchange.
“Hello, gorgeous,” the midshipman slurred. “Why don’t you take a break from the old man for awhile? Give us a spin, eh?”
Up looked over his shoulder. Taz took a step back as the midshipman leered closer.
“Yes, you are a pretty one, aren’t you? What I could do with those-”
She punched him, a good one, in the nose. Up was halfway there as the midshipman staggered backward.
“Stupid whore!” he called through a stream of blood, but faltered when he saw Lieutenant Up standing over him. The whole hall was silent.
“Here’s what you’re going to do, Ranger,” he said, in a dark and quiet voice. “You’re going to turn around, walk away, and you’re going to stay the fuck away from her.”
The midshipman didn’t respond. Up turned his back on him. “Come on,” he said to Taz, who was still shaking, her fists tightly clenched.
“I guess you don’t like to share your toys, eh Lieutenant?”
“Uh oh,” someone said.
Up was reprimanded for beating the living shit out of the midshipman, but Taz was left alone after that. They continued their late night fighting sessions. She got in a few more hits, and Up didn’t have to pretend that they hurt anymore. She was getting better.
So he started getting harder on her. “Get up!” he hollered one night as she lay on the floor, stunned after a particularly hard blow to the head. He pushed his guilt for hurting her away. It was the only way to learn.
She looked up at him, and he could see defeat in her eyes. “I’m never gonna beat you, Up.”
“Not if you stay on the floor,” he said. She took a breath, then pushed herself up.
They sparred, and soon she was back on the mat. She was tiring.
“Get up!” he said again.
“I can’t,” she said, and this time she wouldn’t look at him.
“Taz,” he said, and he bent down so that she had to meet his eyes. “The next time you meet those robots, and they knock you down, is this what you’re going to do? Lay down and surrender? Run away and hide?”
“No,” she said.
“If there is one thing that I teach you, Taz, it has to be this: no matter what comes at you, no matter how tough it is, how impossible it seems, the only way to win – to survive – is to just keep getting back up.” He straightened, and held out his hand to her. “So get back up!”
She took his hand, and he pulled her up.
“Okay,” she said. “Again.”
Read Chapter 4 here.
Thanks once again for reading, and thank you for all of your lovely feedback! Feel free to drop your questions, comments, thoughts, etc, in my ask box so that I can respond!
Tumblr newb question: would it be more polite to be putting the bulk of these increasingly longer stories under a “Read More” cut?