It’s been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looks exactly the same. The dust has settled a little thicker, and nature has taken back its place between the foundation cracks—but underneath all that, it’s like a picture frozen in time.

Anja Volkov walks down the alleyways between crumbling buildings. Rubble scattered about the pathways. This is where it all began. Training for citizenship was something she always wanted to do—at least, ever since her father told her of the freedoms the country offered in exchange for six years of military service. When the invasion swept over her village as a child, and they took her captive, she thought, perhaps, her dream of freedom may never come to pass. But when she landed here two years later, and began training, she knew this was her shot.

Smoke from the attack permeates her senses, thrusting her back to that night.

There are so many sounds and smells associated with the visual state of this place; Steel screeching as its compromised structure could no longer keep walls vertical. The rumble of those same walls falling and smashing into each other. Alarms blaring to notify everyone of the attack. One thing noticeably vacant, though, were screams.

One would assume, from the visual damage, people would scream—out of fear and pain—but it’s the one thing Anja distinctly remembers not hearing. It was surreal, the calm everyone kept as the entire youth training base took fire.

A hand lands on her shoulder, pulling her through a doorway right before a projectile drove through the air where she had been standing. Breathless, she turns to see the face of her savior. Martell—in the right place at the right time, it would seem.

“Swivel it, kid!” Martell hollers under his breath as his gaze darts from one window to the other.

“What?” She shouts back at him, leaning in closer.

Martell grabs the collar of her uniform, pulls her close, and says, “Pay attention! Swivel that head if you want to keep it!”

He shoves her forward, sending her palms to the ground in the same moment an explosion sprays debris into them from the corner of the building. Blond hair falling from her pony tail sticks to the sweat on the side of her face as he grabs her by the back of the collar. Only half way to her feet, they scurry to the far corner of the room; him dragging her along. Anja sinks into the corner, trying to get as small as possible. Martell kneels beside her, twisting his rifle around to rest on his back before pulling a pistol from his hip.

“How long you been here, kid?” He asks her. Trying to steady her breath, her eyes dart around at the debris outside. “Hey!”—he shouts—“Focus on me, here.” Tapping the side of her face, he points to his eyes. “What unit are you in?”

Dragging her gaze to lock with his, she lets go of the shock silencing her. “Volkov. Division twelve. Transferred two weeks ago.”

“Where’s your rendezvous?” He asks, looking over his shoulder. Anja’s glance follows his before she swallows and looks back at him, shaking her head, mouth hanging open as though to speak.

“On your feet.” Martell shoves the pistol into her hands before standing and swinging his rifle back around. With his footpath hugging the wall, he makes his way to the buildings entrance, checking vantage points along the way. Anja shakily firms her grip on the pistol, following him against all instinct to stay as small as possible in the corner.

Stopping behind him, her breath shakes in anticipation and uncertainty of what to do next.

“Stay hidden, but close enough to keep track of where I go. Do you know where the fallout shelter is?” He asks.

Anja nods. “Yes.” Her voice cracks as she speaks.

“If you lose track of me or something else happens, get there.”

“Why is this happening?” Anja asks.

“Sorry, kid. Just the luck of the draw.” He says with a shrug before setting his rifle into his shoulder and stepping out from the cover of the wall.

The heat saturates the surrounding air—fire sucking moisture from it. Keeping eyes trailed on his back, Anja follows him through the rubble and flames. Every crackle and pop around them sets her focus in that direction. A loud squeal emanates from the path ahead and Martell stops.

“Back up!” He hollers, turning to run. Doing nothing more than following directions, Anja turns and runs before the sound of the steel snapping radiates toward them.

A hand on her upper back forces her forward, tripping her into a wall. Struggling to breathe, she blinks and looks at Martell’s face only inches away, body full pressed against hers, pinning her to the wall.

Dust fills the air, forcing her to cough. Attempts at moving his body off hers are ineffective. “Shit,”—she gasps—“wake up!”

“I’m awake.” He mumbles, dragging his arm up to push against the wall her cheek is scraping against. Martell grunts as he peels his body from hers, looking around. “Fuck. What happened?”

“The façade. It came down. You saved me—Again.” Anja says.

Martell sways, taking a quick readjusting step backward. Reaching out, Anja grabs his hand to help him regain balance.

Anja’s eyes target the blood saturating his collar. “You’re hurt.”

Martell grimaces as he wipes the back of his neck and looks at his hand. “I’ll be fine.” A growl slips through his teeth as he re-shoulders his rifle and turns to look at the path before them. “We have to move. Now.” With a list in his first step, Anja is quick to press her hand against his shoulder. “Fallout is . . . just a few . . . more streets over.” He controls his breathing with each step forward. “You’ll be safe there.”

“We should stop your bleeding first.” Anja says. A grenade flies overhead, exploding on the other side of the building they’re next to, sending her hands over her head instinctively.

“Go!” Martell shouts and starts forward, Anja on his heels. After passing the rubble of the collapsed building façade, bullets find their way toward them. Martell ducks behind a slab of concrete. Anja cuts her arm on the protruding rebar as she slides to the ground behind the slab.

“Those are from just down the street.” He says, eyes fixed on the location they just came from. “We can’t let them pin us down.”

“What do we do?” Anja asks, pressing her back against the concrete slab.

“They shoot us we gotta shoot back, kiddo.” Martell crouches down smaller and looks over his shoulder at the wall as chunks of it disintegrate from the impact of incoming bullets. Peering around the side of the cover, he pops off a few rounds. Bringing his focus to her, he reaches out and grips her collar, tugging on it. “Don’t hug walls. That’s what projectiles do. How’s your aim?”

“I manage the minimum,” Anja responds as she re-positions herself an arm’s length from the slab.

Martell gives her a half-hearted smile and nods. “Good enough.” He looks at her shaking hand on the pistol and reaches for it, gripping her other one and placing it on the other side. “Take a deep breath. Firm hold. You control it, not the other way around.”

Anja swallows hard, shaking her head. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You already have. Just remember your training for the last two weeks.” Martell taps the side of his rifle with the edge of his fisted palm and nods. “Ready?” Anja closes her eyes and nods. “Go out low, aim high, run left.” Martell says before lifts off the ground and hurls a grenade down the street.

Smoke fills the ground of the street, expanding into the air. Martell shoulders the stock, spinning around in a crouch, and repeatedly fires in the direction the bullets are coming from before taking new cover behind a pile of rubble.

Anja follows, pressing the trigger, reminding herself not to close her eyes with every re-set. Running through the steps each time: slack, sights, press. Without thinking where she’s running to, eye trained on the tress drown in the night before her, she makes it to where Martell is waiting. Sliding down to sit next to him, he welcomes her with a nod. With a swipe of his hand, he motions for her to increase her distance from the cover as he peers down the alleyway. “Nice. I think you got one.”

“Yeah, right.” She chuckles with a heavy breath.

“How many rounds?”

“I . . . don’t know.”

Shaking his head, he hands her another clip. “Pocket that. We’re almost there. If I cover fire, you should be able to sprint to that building there.”—he points—“After that, you can cut through the interior and it’s a straight shot to the shelter.”

“What about you?” She asks, slipping the clip into her pocket.

“I’ll be coming in behind you.” He checks over his shoulder before looking back. “Ready?”

Anja nods and adjusts her grip on the pistol the same way he’d placed her hands prior. “Okay.”

Twisting back into a crouch, he moves from behind the pile of concrete and hollers for her to go as he unloads his clip. Anja stands and sprints, eyeing her destination. Her feet slip on debris, pushing her harder without looking back. Bullets crack around her and her ankles scream in protest as she finally clears the sanctity of the building. Slipping inside, she looks behind her at Martell. “Come on. Run.” She mutters, chest heaving, as he locks eyes with her over his shoulder.

“Go!” He shouts, throwing a grenade into the bushes. Swinging his rifle around from his back, he fixes his grip on it and turns to sprint toward her.

Pain shoots up her forearm as she pounds on the thick metal door of the fallout shelter. “Volkov. Division twelve! Let me in!” She pleads as she looks over her shoulder, continuing to slam her fist on the door.

After what seems like an eternity the door opens, a hand reaches out, grabs her by the collar, and pulls her in.

“Are you alone, Volkov?” A man asks.

“Volkov. Division twelve…” she mutters repeatedly—eyes glazed over.

“Did you see anyone else out there?” He asks again.

“A man. There was a man.” Anja says. “He saved my life.”

“What man?”

“I don’t know his name. Tall. Brown eyes. Dark hair . . . I think. I—I didn’t see much else, he was in full gear. Kept calling me kid.” Anja jumps and aims the pistol when there’s a loud banging on the door.

“Martell! Division four, unit seven.” Martell calls from the outside of the door. The man questioning me puts his hand on the pistol and removes it from my shaky grip as others let Martell inside.

“You’re white as a ghost, kid.” Martell says as they close the door behind him.

“You’re alive?” She says in shock.

“Of course I’m alive. I had to make sure I lost them to avoid exposing the shelter.” He lifts the sling of his rifle over his head and sets it down before removing his helmet to reveal a large gash on the back side of the base of his skull. Sitting next to her on a pile of crates, a medic wipes blood from the back of his neck. “You take much damage?” He asks.

Anja shrugs, twisting her arm to show him where the rebar had broken skin. “Nothing much.”

He leans in to get a better look at it and grins. “Nice.” He says.

“Thank you . . . for saving my life.” Anja picks at her cuticles, ashamed of her inability to manage on her own.

“I just talked. You did all the work.”

With a shake of her head, she looks at him. “I don’t remember even doing anything.”

“Ah,”—he swats a hand at the air—“that’s the shock and adrenaline. It’ll wear off.” He reaches a hand over his chest. “Jax Martell.”

Slipping her palm into his, she smiles. “Anja Volkov. Nice to meet you,” she says, locking eyes with him—feeling at home for the first time since her arrival in the states.

That wouldn’t be the last time Jax saved her life, in more ways than just getting her out of a hot zone. But now, society has finally reached a point where war is obsolete. Humans even managed not to blow themselves up while establishing peace. They must re-build, and it will be hard work. But they survived. She will be one to carry on the legacy—and that is all that matters.