Freudenberger ordered her squadron to give Delia her space and privacy, as best as they could manage in such a small house. She knew Delia needed to settle into her surroundings, to get used to them as soon as possible since she would be shipped off on her first mission to Africa in only a few days.
Once Delia was briefed on the uncanny mission details, she wandered through the two bedrooms in the house, then the few rooms surrounding them. The house was indeed small, cramped even, but the land itself was vast. She carefully creaked her way into the only bathroom and found herself frozen in front of the vanity mirror above the sink. Delia’s eyes were round, moon-like, as Primal’s were, but Delia’s were larger and the irises were a silky java bean brown. Her hair was long, with split ends that only she noticed although she didn’t care because the sheen of coal black hid any imperfections she found. Her complexion gave its best russet-bronze glow, although it was a little ragged from lack of nutrition. Her eyebrows were as dark as her hair, thick, but not unattractive. Lips left colorless and thin, she smiled to see her teeth. Her attempts at living on campus without a dorm left her little ability and privacy properly tend to herself. She was hardly able to do more than the most basic bath from a public restroom’s sink at uncanny hours to avoid the most students. She never really had the time to just look at herself, but seeing her slightly crooked, stained teeth she was actually somewhat relieved she never noticed how awful she looked. Delia slapped her hand flat against the mirror, covering her face, and turned to look out the window by the shower. There was a muddied barn with a tin-roofed lean-to attached. She admired the property surrounding the old house, and quickly saw the importance that the land served.
In addition to being isolated from civilization, the rough, varied terrain created an intensive training course. Its seventy acres contained woods, pasture, and rocky creek banks. It truly was a cross-country obstacle course which supported the group’s training in combat, weapons handling, covert ops and stealth, and survival skills such as hunting and tracking. Delia watched the two young men, Spade and Flyboy, spar with each other. She was impressed with their combat skills. The taller, broader one wielded a short blade katana, but seemed to take on stances more likened to fencing than any form of Japanese martial arts. Upon watching him further, she did notice some Karate techniques come forward, but his sword-fighting techniques were entirely that of fencing. She remembered learning as many styles of combat as she could before embarking on her journey to America. Although choosing only one form, Delia had studied several in order to find the most suitable form of fighting for her. She was always careful to be prepared for anything, especially after all she fought against in India.
Delia walked out to the barn nearby to better see the fighting. The two girls stood with Freudenberger off to the side, ensuring a good distance was held safely between them and the avidly fighting duo. They were down a slope, in a moderate clearing just before the thick of the woods began. Curled and crunchy leaves carpeted the ground, but were flying about noisily from the fighters’ scuffling. Delia made sure not to call attention to herself, allowing the fight to continue between the two men undisturbed.
As she continued to watch, she noticed how the other one, the black-haired one with the metallic blue eyes, seemed to rely on agility and swiftness. He was quick to dodge and just as quick to strike back. His form of combat reminded her of a cobra suddenly rearing back, straight upward, then equivalently swift in its ability to strike and release its venom. The young man often used sleek, steel cards with fine edges to them. Delia reached down to her ankle, touching around her cut, realizing what exactly had inflicted the wound upon her. She noted he also had a taser attached to his belt, as well as a small dagger, but he was skilled with the metal cards, flinging them at his opponent with relentless speed and force enough to cut flesh and tear open thickly woven clothes. However, only a few hits were achieved with his opponent, for Flyboy was able to deflect many of the cards with his katana, or simply allowed them cut his defending knuckle but nothing more valuable.
Delia was significantly impressed with both of their skills. They were well-trained.
The girl with brunette curls and geometric patterned glasses pointed out Delia’s position to Freudenberger, whom simply nodded and promptly made her way to the watchful girl.
“I see you’re fairly pleased with their abilities.” Freudenberger commented once she came to the barn. “This isn’t hardly half of what either of them can do. They have so much more to offer which, in my opinion, is more valuable than how well they fight. Although being strong, talented fighters is what keeps them alive in the harshest complications, after all.”
“I see that. Where did they learn to fight?” Delia kept her gaze on the two. “Or did you train them here yourself?”
Freudenberger laughed. “No, I did not train them in their specific fighting forms. They were all either professionally trained by experts or learned to fight on their own, or in some cases both. I did, however, see to it that they trained against each other here for a few months before taking on their first assignment. To this day, between missions, I encourage they do this to keep themselves as fit as possible.”
“That’s smart. They get to constantly improve their specific skills when full on fighting each other, as well as learn each other’s skills so intimately that they must fight beautifully in sync in real combat situations.” Delia inferred, noting how the two men did seem to predict one another’s next moves in some instances. “They have to keep learning more, getting better, in order to keep successfully beating each other, thus becoming a better version of themselves each time they enter the battle field.” Delia lost herself in her own head for a moment, realizing Freudenberger’s stare fixated upon her. “Sorry for rambling. I just see how this all works out. I see why they aren’t holding back from each other, and why you encourage that.”
“There’s certainly no need to apologize.” Freudenberger returned her sight to the sparring. “That’s exactly what I expected you to see, especially with your background in necessary self-defense.”
Delia decided to carefully walk down the slope to procure a closer view of the training session. To anyone else it would seem as though Flyboy and Spade were engaged, nay entrapped, in a brutal fight. To an extent, Delia realized, it was indeed a brutal fight. From the sidelines Primal and Dali shouted vulgar terms of encouragement to their “champions.” They had each placed bets, pitting their comrades against each other for training as well as an opportunity to gain each other’s personal affects. Apparently this was a common practice, as they approached Delia casually about who she would bet on to win. Delia politely turned down their invitation to gamble.
“It’s how we keep it interesting.” Dali said. “Over a year of fighting each other, well, there’s only so much bludgeoning you can do to each other before it becomes mundane.”
Primal agreed. “Even the team fights we started several months back lost their luster pretty quickly.” She stopped to chastise Flyboy, her “champion” this go ‘round, when he let one of Spade’s cards slit his forearm slightly. “Sure, we learn from each other, keep ourselves sharp, even improve ourselves by doing this often, but the gambling bit is a lot more motivational.”
“And fun.” Dali applauded Spade for a near-miss dodge of Flyboy’s katana hilt. “Kick his ass!”
“Jesus Flyboy! Should’ve called you Bitchboy!” Primal threw her arms up in the air as another metal card slipped too close past Flyboy’s cheek. “Lunge at him! Fuck his day up!”
Dali laughed, “You can rip him apart, just be careful not to cut up his pretty face too much!”
For the most part, the two fighting had learned to ignore their hecklers.
Delia’s expression remained vacant as she registered their behaviors, unsure of their ethical worth. So far, she had gathered that Dali may have been the most morally founded member of the group, and that wasn’t saying much. As far as her logical, albeit personal beliefs were concerned, Delia still struggled to find the morality in Freudenberger’s scheming. She half scoffed, half laughed at herself; morality in scheming seemed entirely the oxymoron. However, no matter how she correctly assessed Freudenberger and her squad’s intentions as wholly unwholesome, in the pit of her stomach she somehow knew they were all the best possible versions of the human race she would ever encounter. She sensed tragedy had conquered each of their lives, morbidly twisting them, shadowing their backgrounds, rooting them in their decision to stay united together, but bettering together. Where they currently were was both the consequence and necessary goodness each of them needed and desired. Delia thought that perhaps they each were their own light at the end of the tunnel.
Delia snapped her attention back to the training, hardly realizing how long the harsh battle had endured. Freudenberger, plodding uncomfortably over the uneven terrain, halted Spade and Flyboy mid-movement with a sharp yell like a mother calling out her children at the playground. Although, their fighting was certainly more intense and violent than two five-year-olds arguing in the sandbox.
“I’m introducing you to Delia.” The little woman stated plainly. “You’ve kidnapped her, attacked her, wounded her, and yet she hardly still has a clue who you all are.”
The four shifted somewhat awkwardly, finding difficulty in pulling themselves down from their feisty adrenaline high.
Freudenberger looked at Delia as she pointed to the tallest squadmember who seemed to fit the description of the pretty-boy or perhaps the golden-boy. “Flyboy here is our director of transport. He and his family owns hangars all over the world as well as many automobile connections for practically any vehicle we could ever need, and he is a skilled driver and especially a fantastic pilot. Wherever we need to go, Flyboy covers our transportation there in all ways. He is also a certified mechanical engineer, as well as a decent physicist.” Freudenberger ignored his joking conceited actions.
“Primal here is our weapons expert regarding firearms supply and combat with knives. She is a dedicated fighter and defender, and an expert survivalist, raised by doomsday preppers, and the best animal behaviorist I have ever met.” Primal remained still with her usual look of aggravated dissension, but a smirk twitched when Freudenberger continued. “She trained those beautiful beasts, the wolfdogs, whom you’ve met already. She is also experienced in breaking in horses, and has taught her fellow members how to ride well. If you do not know how to ride, she will teach you as soon as we can afford the time.”
Delia questioned the point of horses. “Isn’t that a little impractical?”
Freudenberger’s expression remained seriously blank. “You’d be surprised how often they have had no other option but to continue their mission on horseback… And on foot is hardly ever the best option when there is no ability to attain a vehicle or aircraft. We try to prepare for as many scenarios as possible.”
Delia pursed her lips, but gave no further retort.
Freudenberger moved on. “Dali’s experience and education was solely dedicated to artistry, all forms. She was a skilled artist, outshining most of her fellow students and sometimes her own teachers. Because of her combined trained skills and natural talents, Dali developed and sharpened her odd little ability to notice the finer details.”
“What?” Delia pressed.
Freudenberger exhaled slowly, visibly pondering the best way to explain Dali’s skill. Before she could make an attempt at conveying it, Dali stepped in. “I can notice the hidden things, the quiet things. I can sense the littlest changes in our surroundings, whatever those may be. I can find the differences when everyone else sees nothing but a repetition of the same thing. I see the spark in the monotony.” Dali seemed intent at first, but as soon as she finished she looked downward and shrugged. “Or something like that. That’s what it is to me.”
Delia nodded. “Like when you saw the security camera at the hotel.” She seemed to process Dali’s personal description. “That’s very useful. That seems like something any regular person would overlook when recruiting for a group like this.”
Dali smiled, and so did Freudenberger. “Thank you. I’m also a computer technician.” Dali twisted back and forth in a nearly childlike manner. “My dad was a professional technician and started teaching me when I was little. Oh and we’re a squad, not a group. We’re Freudenberger’s squad.”
Freudenberger sighed sharply, quickly moving on to Spade, who looked one hundred percent bored and antsy. “Spade here is… Well, the best way I can say it is that he is the master of sleight of hand. He’s our lock-pick, our pickpocket-er, and-“
“And everything else involving the word ‘pick.’” Primal interrupted, chuckling with Dali.
“And…” Freudenberger flitted a quick glare at Primal, begging her not to break her stride further. “And he’s a trained negotiator, as well as a professional hypnotist, promoting his ability to properly and effectively interrogate anyone from which we need information.”
Primal laughed. “Yes, because it’s his negotiating skills that totally gets information out of people. I think you may be forgetting to add just what a sadistic fuck he is.” Primal coughed out the word “torture.”
Freudenberger snapped at her, “Yes, that is a part of it, of course it is, or none of you would be able to get anywhere on your missions. And you seem to be forgetting to add that you are just as sadistic. Dali tells me everything you both do to the prisoners together.”
Primal grinned, pleased with herself. “Of course we do it together, I’m the only one versed well enough in psychology to figure out if anything our prisoners say hold any water. And hell yeah we’re sadistic. Best compliment I’ve received all day.”
Freudenberger stared her down, but soon found herself laughing at Primal. She adored her, no matter the fuss she received from the amateur ranting comic. “If I can continue… Spade has gained most of his skills from training and working as a magician, starting when he was young.”
Delia tried not to laugh. “A magician? And a hypnotist? I want to have faith in you Freudenberger, but I’m having a difficult time grasping how that could be applied to the reality of the fatal events you have them endure.”
Spade cut off any initial response Freudenberger had prepared, “Yes, because a year’s worth of being shot-at, imprisoned, bombed, and chased down like hunted game has rendered me dead at this very moment because of my apparently unrealistic skills.” He was obviously offended, which had only brought forth a bubbling of anger as he mocked Delia belligerently.
Freudenberger asked him to stop, and he complied, but the way carried himself expressed otherwise.
“You genuinely do not understand how often he has not only perfectly conducted himself in the field, but has additionally supported, even carried his team in the most dangerous predicaments.” Freudenberger defended him professionally, but a little fire sparked through her hazel eyes. “While you, Delia, have yet to prove your worth to this group. My inferences about people have never been incorrect, but there can always be a first, and God forbid if it is your performance that is the downfall to everyone.”
Delia was silent for a moment, her foolish initial judgement having sunk her deep in chagrin. She knew to behave better than that, but it had been too long since she had been invited in, accepted, by anyone. And here she was, asked to help change the world with people she had just insulted, demeaned, disbelieved. “You’re right.” She turned to Spade, sincere. “I apologize, truly. At this point you all are my teachers. I can in no way be your leader until you grant me with that highly privileged title. It is not my right until given by you.”
Freudenberger watched her group nigh indistinguishably soften before Delia’s honest words. Spade immediately relaxed; his muscles releasing their familiar tension.
“Now, I have a serious question.” Delia’s face was stony. “What the hell is with the nicknames?”
“To protect their identities, they came into this group with only myself knowing their names and history.” Freudenberger explained. “The nicknames were simply amusing little anecdotes they invented for each other. Except for Dali; I called her that myself.”
Dali smiled, “Because of how I notice and highlight the unseen and the obscure.”
Spade carefully stroked the sharp edge of his metal card, “I came into the group with my name pre-chosen.”
“And Flyboy and I named each other.” Primal smirked at him. “His is obvious.”
“And hers is because she subscribes to the fetish.” Flyboy and Spade laughed.
“Hey!” Primal protested. “Well, yeah…. But that’s not why he named me that.”
They only laughed harder.
Delia kicked a stone around at her feet. “Well then… Your names and backgrounds are all kept from each other. That puts me at a disadvantage.”
“But then again you don’t have a background that needs protecting from everyone here.” Freudenberger assured her. “These four have some heavier incidents which serve no purpose being brought to light here. It’s better this way.”
“But we can come up with a name for you anyway if it makes you feel better.” Dali offered.
Delia laughed. “I’m not sure if that’s going to be a good thing or not.”
Freudenberger ended the conversation, “It’s critical that we spend these next two days dedicated to training with Delia. You have only these two days to teach her as much as possible, and learn as much as you can about her. And by learning about her I mean memorizing her skills, her combat, her expertise, anything and everything considered crucial to the field and whether or not you all live. She is one of you now; you’re all cogs on the same wheel, so it’s time to act like it.”
The group spent hours at a time in combat training, only stopping to discuss survival situations and the skills they would use within them. They took Freudenberger’s demands to heart, and although they started a little begrudgingly, they immediately fell into a rhythm together. Whether or not they would live depended upon how well they performed as a unit. Personal opinions aside, Delia’s alliance with them was cemented. No one could object unless they wished to risk their lives on the battle field.
As each sparred with Delia, they came to understand her techniques more clearly. With every careful dodge and vicious yet calculated lunge, Primal was the one to name Delia’s preferred combat form.
“Krav Maga.” Primal said under her breath as she spun out of Delia’s way. In truth, Primal had spent the majority of the exercise only dodging, more like running from Delia. She only knew a little herself, coupled with kick-boxing, but the rest of her fighting was self-trained based on survival. Delia, on the other hand, seemed fully trained in one of the most deadly fighting forms in the world. Primal was genuinely concerned she would be crippled by Delia if she lost focus for even a second.
Delia was quick with her actions and reactions in the fight. She already knew how to counter before Primal could even finish her assault. Delia never stopped, only pausing to move swiftly out of Primal’s path when necessary, then immediately following her defense with a barrage of attacks. She showed no expression, made no sound, and her breathing remained freakishly regular throughout. If anything, Delia could beat her foes by simply wearing them out in battle without a single hit.
Her movements were immediate, not fluid and graceful as was expected from most Asian martial arts. There was a certain ferocity with every move Delia made, and distinct disregard for any fear of getting hurt. Everyone discovered immediately with each spar that Delia would sacrifice pain to happily avoid any life-threatening injuries. Thus, she would plow through with a knife to her arm without a second thought when she knew it would prevent that knife from entering her heart.
When Primal finally called it, the two rejoined their group to catch a short rest. The four were beyond impressed with Delia’s skills, they were ecstatic to be aligned with her when the real fighting would inevitably begin on their missions together.
“How did you learn Krav Maga? Especially that well?” Primal asked.
Delia grinned, “How did you know it was that?”
She shrugged. “I was taught briefly; only a handful of lessons before I was unable to continue them. Where I came from something that incredible was hard to find, and it was even harder to make sure the instructors were actual Krav Maga fighters.”
“Where did you learn it?” Spade asked.
Delia let out a breath, relaxing her stance. Over the two days, she had no qualms answering her companions’ nearly endless questions. She felt she had nothing to hide, and by this point they knew most of the story. Well, they knew about as much as Freudenberger did, and that was all Delia felt was necessary to share. “When I was trekking from India to get back to America, I was able to enter Israel. I mostly skulked around, not planning on staying very long, but I met a member of the Israeli military. She was pretty remarkable, and something in her told her to reach out to me, so she did. We both knew English, and for a while it was how we communicated, but eventually I learned her language to make things easier, although I knew I didn’t make much sense most of the time. She took care of me, and she taught me Krav Maga.” She chuckled. “She told me that I was my own greatest weapon, so I had better act like it.”
“Wow.” Dali said quietly. The rest agreed.
“You spent most of your life in India, so why don’t you have an accent?” Flyboy asked. Everyone shot him a glare. “What?” He asked them. “I’m just curious.”
Dali nodded. “Yeah, all right, I kind of been wondering that myself.”
Delia burst out laughing. “I made a point of hiding my accent so I could live in America more easily. Think about it, I wasn’t necessarily an official citizen, I didn’t look like the common white American, so I certainly didn’t need to draw any further ‘alien’ attention to myself.”
“Makes sense.” Dali concluded.
“All right,” Delia tensed, turning to Dali. “I haven’t sparred against you this whole two days, and I’ve hardly seen you truly fight at all. I think they go too soft on you.” She motioned to the others jokingly.
Dali remained rooted right where she was. “I don’t spar much, aside from the group fights, but even then I don’t really get into this.”
Delia showed obvious surprise. “Why? I don’t understand. We’re all supposed to fight, it’s how we stay in shape and improve, yes?”
Spade intervened. “She was never trained in any form of combat, not even by herself. We’ve spent the past year trying to train her ourselves, and we’ve gotten as far as teaching her basic self-defense. Which is honestly all she needed.”
“My job isn’t to fight and defend all the time like Spade and Primal, and hell even Flyboy isn’t in the fights most of the time. He’s busy with the planes and cars and whatnot.” Dali said pointedly.
Delia furrowed her brow. “But you need to be able to fight. Sure, Flyboy is usually working for the squad elsewhere, but he still knows how to defend himself, you, everyone, and be able to kill when need be. Everyone here can do that, you need to do that as well.”
Dali turned grim. “I can defend myself, and my squad, and I can kill. I have done all of these things. I just can’t spar against my companions. I don’t have any special martial art skills. I do my job, and when things go to shit, I can take care of myself and everyone else.” She managed her anger better than the others, but Delia could still tell she struck a menacing cord. “I am not deadweight.”
Delia quietly cursed at herself, forgetting again how these people had already done so much together that she simply couldn’t understand. “You’re right. I should trust you. I’ll take your word for it.”
The girl pressed her hand into her round, freckled cheek, closing her eyes. She just wanted a mellow, smooth setting while she was still at home, or as much as she could make of the safe house to call it a home. “It’s ok, you’ll see what I mean soon. I’m sure of it.”
Their final day of training neared to its end. Freudenberger called her squad together one last time before leaving their house.
“Tomorrow morning you leave for Africa. You will arrive in Kisumu, Kenya, which is a port town nearer Uganda where it seems the German scientists are fleeing.” Freudenberger allowed each member to look through articles, pictures, and an overall map of Kisumu which she had on her phone. “It’s an extremely poverty-stricken area, and there have been reports of violent outbursts from the people when their county and country are high with turmoil, especially political. Some of the more recent events resulted from their presidential elections.”
“How are we going about our being there?” Delia asked. “Five foreigners in a country where’s painfully noticeably won’t go over well.”
“Of course not. It never does.” Freudenberger replied. “That’s why you’re starting out in Kisumu. You’re going to pretend you’re a part of the Trees for Cities organization. Many countries in Africa are all too used to foreigners infiltrating their towns and villages for aid purposes, so as long as you play along with this no one will know the difference. They do a thing called ‘My Pet Tree,’ and that will be the program you discuss with anyone and everyone. Their environment is rather degraded, thus this whole tree thing has become quite the ideal program for their area.”
“What’s the job in Kisumu, and where do we go after there?” Primal asked.
“When you can, two of you will sneak out at a time, survey the area and find out where the scientists could have possibly gone.” Freudenberger took back her phone, swiping to bring up their next destination. “I know for a fact that they had been in Kisumu only briefly, perhaps arriving through the airport? And I know they were heading into Uganda which is close. Thus, I believe the next best place to arrive will be Luanda, right on the border of Uganda.” She passed her phone around again. “It’s a small market town, research it well, but it shouldn’t be difficult for you all to work your way through it. While on your way to Luanda, I encourage you to divert if you find evidence of the scientists heading elsewhere. Otherwise, stick to Luanda and find out how to get into Uganda. Contact me when you get to the small town if you can, otherwise you will rely on Delia to plan the next best course of action.”
“Is that all?” Spade half-joked.
“It is, actually.” Freudenberger collected her small amount of luggage. “We won’t be seeing each other again for who knows how long. Be safe, contact me as often as you are able, and I will do my best to follow you from my computer at home. Primal, your weapons should be in the safe house you will all be occupying under the floor in an obscure, but safely locked case. Flyboy already has your flight checked out, you will be leaving in the morning, and he has arranged to land at their airport. Everything should be taken care of.” As she made a few steps towards the door, she stopped, her face twisting in a look of skeptic concern. “And please, for the love of God, stay out of Africa’s warring issues.”
“No promises.” Spade replied.
With a final tired sigh, Freudenbeger left her squad and departed from their home and property. They were on their own again.
“Well,” Dali started, “I guess we should pack up whatever we have left to take.”
While the others left to make the final adjustments necessary for their trip, Delia remained behind. She was frozen in thought, one repeating thought. This is happening. Tomorrow morning I will be risking my life to stop a group of German scientists from potentially wreaking havoc on African villages with parasites that promote auto-cannibalism. This is not a movie, a book, or a dream. This is happening.