AN: Happy St. Nicholas Day, folks. Credit for World War Z goes to the wonderful author, credit for the 'Zombieland' phrase goes to the scriptwriter of the excellent movie Zombieland. Just FYI, when this OC refers to 'lalem' in italics, she means the actual weapon involved, because frankly, what use is an anti-zombie martial art without a kickass weapon? If you want info on the actual martial arts I reference here, look it up on Wikipedia: 'Canne de Combat', 'Halling', and 'Silambam'. Much gratitude is owed to my pals and fellow students at my local dojang, to my brother (who beta'd this for me, so go throw rotten eggs at him if I screwed up), and to the author of WWZ for leaving in that tagline about Mkunga Lalem without getting too specific. Heh.
(Cassidy Fleischer, trained at the original Lalem Center in (location classified) rated seventh in a graduating class of thirteen first-generation Mkunga Lalem black belts, agreed to an interview outside the Mkunga Center training yard in Honolulu. A class of twenty children, boys and girls between the ages of six and nine, go through the first unarmed form of Mkunga Lalem. Their white belts are nearly gray with dust.)
They're our future, you know. (She gestures to the yard, then chuckles). It's funny. They call my class first generation, when really they are the first to live in the post-war world. They're the first to be born in Zombieland. But you don't want to hear about that; you want to know what the "first generation" has to say.
Anywhere you feel comfortable starting is fine.
Okay. Whatever floats your boat. Before I was 'The Butcher' I was just Cassie. I was an unremarkable, kind of spoiled suburban white girl living on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon – where we had two seasons: rainy season and August. In the spring of my frosh year of high school, I started taking lessons at the local dojang – (Name censored for legal reasons). Sabunim Maxwell – we all called him Sab – was an incredible teacher. I connected with the teaching style, the art, and the students there immediately.
Funny thing about tae kwon do; once I got started, it seemed like everything I'd done with my life, all the dance lessons and the year of fencing, my dabbling in archery and even the community choir I sang in, it all fed into the art. Once I got started, it was like breaking the sound barrier and slogging through mud at the same time. It was glorious.
Things started getting weird in the second semester of my junior year – by then I'd reached purple belt. Nobody on the West Coast knew it was anything other than "some new kind of rabies". There had been a few outbreaks in the coastal towns, Seaside and Newport, but they'd all been contained real quick.
Sab actually got his call from a colleague during my brown belt test. Bless his heart, when he realized exactly how much shit the world was in and exactly how much pull he had as an R&D advisor, he got us students and our immediate family out of the kill-box. Made a successful argument about the benefits of training ML operatives from a young age instead of from adulthood. It was about the time Sab had the sack to bring us in that the others got their act together and pulled the majority of their students out of civ life and into the safe zone.
Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Soon as we got to base, we earned our keep. Food was basically unstinted, but from the age of ten up, every amenity from shower time to laundry slots to bunk space was allotted on a training version of the resource-to-kill ratio; if you didn't work and you didn't prosper, you got the shit end of the stick. The first month saw a twenty percent dropout rate, a little under a thousand students, mostly from our sector of the population. About eight hundred suburban American kids couldn't take the heat.
Man, thinking about it still gives me the chills up the spine – the good kind. Before the dropouts, and even after them, we had a 'meeting of the minds'. There were students from American schools of everything from krav maga to MMA, saber and rapier students from Spain and England, a silambam school from southern India, cannistes de combat from France, hallingdanser from Sweden, even a few handfuls of Shaolin kung fu students. Just walking down the bunk halls, you heard seven or eight different languages.
And everyone – everyone – shared. A couple of the hallingdanser had been on exchange to American schools, so they taught me some halling in exchange for a few steps of ceili dance I picked up in my old life. Older students taught younger students and younger students picked up extra chore duties for them; it was an incredible upward spiral of general knowledge, if you tapped into it.
Families were housed elsewhere; my older brother, with his former years of fencing experience, qualified to join the students on a probationary basis, and soon set up with the Spanish and British fencers. But I rarely saw my mother and father. We were allowed brief visits once a month, which may have contributed to the dropout rate among younger students. Most of them simply couldn't hack it without their parents.
Those who made it, we called the 'little survivors', the ones who could soldier on.
What was training like?
Oh, it was brutal. (She chuckles.) Even worse than Irish dance warm-ups, my brother said – every day from oh-six-hundred to 1200, the military trainers ran us through the course we called BS – Basic Survival Skills, Training, and Tactics. Noon to 1230, that was lunch. As much caloric value as they could pack into one meal, plus all the hydration we needed to keep up with afternoon classes in all the arts we normally practiced, plus a new one from the other students' options. That was 1230 to 1800, then from 1800 to lights-out at twenty-one hundred, we studied correspondence course, whatever we wanted to. I loved it – loaded up on foreign languages and creative literature. Somewhere in there, we sandwiched breakfast and dinner. When we weren't too busy with chores, homework, extra training. There was always something.
And that was just the R&D stage of the ML program. Once they had a proto-style in the works, we started learning it from scratch. New forms, new exercises, new basics, new techniques, new everything. The little survivors had it easier, in a way. They didn't have a lifetime of other habits to unlearn. Those first three months, they had video cameras on us twenty-four seven. Every little slip back into our familiar styles was analyzed to the hilt; whether the mutation of the sequences was actually a more natural flow, a more efficient kill. Exciting times.
Harsh times, too. A good third of us left over quit after those first three months. They weren't kicked out or anything; like the rest of the dropouts, they got shiny new government-contract jobs in whichever country we were in at the time. I think South Africa. It wasn't just the video cameras that pushed them off, either; we were training from well before 'cain see' to well after 'cain't see'. Meals were brief and nutri-packed, socialization was minimal. We were happy enough to help each other in-class, but outside we were dead to the world.
My brother was actually the one who invented the Nap Tap. I just gave it the nick and ended up with a shitload of credit I didn't need. Pardon my French. That and I was the fastest after him to learn it, followed by the hallingdanser. But I get ahead of myself. It was in Z-par, what we called the sparring sessions with 'live' Zack. My brother let his dancing partner get a little too close, freaked, and did a high kick that by pure freak accident drove its facial bones into the brain. Something about that magical angle that just misses the chin gives Zack one mother of a headache. (She laughs again, flicking her braid back over her shoulder. The motion exposes one of many scars on her shoulder. She notices my stare.)
Yeah, the training was tough. What wasn't tough about those first few years of the war? We had it easier than some of those poor civvies stuck in the hot zones. We had a guaranteed clean, safe bed and meals, even showers and continued education from whatever spare software they had on hand. All they asked of us in return was our blood, sweat and tears.
(Fleischer motions to the scars.)
After the premiere of the Mkunga Lalem program, there was a load of media sensation from this embedded reporter at the Lalem Center who saw our initial weapons training. It ain't easy to invent a weapon, that's for sure, and the early lalem were, if you'll pardon the expression, shitty to everyone – Zack and us friendlies. All the initial pattern dances got your hands and arms cut up, and besides that not a day went by that some poor fellow student didn't get himself seriously injured in forms or sparring. We heard the same warnings – don't go for the leg sweep in partner-patterns because the lalem can cut the hamstring like a hot knife through butter. Don't go for the crown strike, because once you get started on that downward arc, it's like the blade has a mind of its own. That was one feature they kept even into the final design.
(She pats the lalem, the infamous twin weapons of the Mkunga Lalem style)
Life got a hell of a lot better after we invented the 'lock and load' system, the double swords that can be locked together or unlocked with a twist. Y'know what we first called it at the Lalem? The 'Sith Design', after that prewar movie. Of course, Sith-Design lalem instantly required a shitload of extra techniques and forms, but it made our lives so much easier. Using the unlocked mode, you could go for the Zom-kebab, the double-hilt strike – technical term for the Flatheader – or even the Chopper dance, if you had the maneuvering room. All of those strikes were basically invented by us students in those rare in-class or workout moments when we were bored and had our lalem on us. Kudos for the Zom-kebab and the Flatheader actually go to my roomies – or bunkies, I guess – Joan and Iris. And yeah, that's Joan Erikson and Iris Zhang, 'The Badger', and 'The Bear'.
And the 'Chopper' was your invention.
Yep. Earned me that old 'Butcher' tag – all the slicin' and dicin'. Never a dull moment. And I could never have done the full Chopper-dance without the Sith Design. Double-bladed staff would've sheared off both arms, and two-sword style you couldn't get up enough speed to be worth it. Even then, the Chopper dance left you with those nasty side-arm gashes – if you kept your butterfly strikes far enough away from your sides, you didn't damage the muscle. Later, when they gave us our field armor and started us on training in it, the rate of scarring went down – but we still preferred to practice out of body armor. (She motions to her tank-top and long karate-style pants, typical wear for an Mkunga Lalem instructor). And sparring incidentals still happened; the only thing we've encountered so far that can really effectively tear up ML armor is a lalem in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing.
Of course, you didn't get other scars unless you were really advanced. Free sparring left you with a lot of facial or cranial scarring from all the incidentals, though we were too well trained by then to get hit hard enough for a concussion. And the shoulder cuts – the 'Black Scars' – we got those from the first black belt pattern dances. The first forms you learn after killing your first Z in live-combat for that black belt test. The most brutal test in the world, that embed reporter called it, where 'children are pitted against the very monsters we must protect them from!'. We all laughed at that article, us in the black belt program.
There were only something like forty of us left by then. The best of the best – about a quarter of the original Shaolin students, a handful remaining from the silambam school, a handful from the American schools, two of the hallingdanser, and two cannistes. In the end, us 'Bees' from bunk-bed 307 – Iris, Joan, and I – we wound up as the only Americans in the first-generation class. Rated sixth, seventh, and eleventh. The top of the heap in the Mkunga Lalem black belt 'world', Master Lian, was from Shaolin.
What was it like in the graduating class? Were there factions, or did everyone get along?
By then, everyone who was part of a faction of any kind had been weeded out. It wasn't enough to 'play well with others'. You had to be strong in your own right. We all recognized that in each other, and we all respected it. There was a kind of code among us, the written oath we all took as black belts, and the unspoken laws we followed. If one of us was in need, we helped the other – pertinent questions only, because 'no questions asked' was as good as a death sentence. If a younger one – and we meant 'younger' in any sense – needed aid, we helped them. If we were off-duty and saw a zombie, we killed it. No hesitations.
If we were infected, we ended it ourselves. Everyone carried the tanto. Okay, so it wasn't an actual authentic Japanese tanto, but the principle was the same – if our bodies were fouled by the infection, it was our duty and responsibility to free our souls.
That was how we lost Iris. You should understand – we never thought we'd lose anyone. The whole point of the sucky training was to weed out any fodder. The best of the best, we were. The three Bees forever. It was after graduation, when we three were on the hunt in the grounds around the Lalem Center – nothing fancy, just a routine sweep. Iris went off on her own to take a leak, and the next thing I know there's a chain swarm of them, practically on top of us. (She shakes her head) Christ, it was so long ago, I can't hardly remember how it happened, y'know? I remember drawing my lalem – I remember Joan going for a 'Mountain Goat'; a front-Flatheader followed by a double back-strike with the business ends. We were surrounded. Joan was trying for a back-to-back, but I shouted at her to get away; I was going for the Chopper dance.
Once the little bastards settled, we went to check on Iris. She was just sitting there, staring at the bite mark on her ankle.
We got her back to Lalem. Iris deserved to die with family around her, and that's practically what we were by then. We called everyone in from practice in the training yard, and laid her out in the multi-faith room; it seemed fitting, somehow. Her prewar teacher was there, Sensei Russ, and her boyfriend, Yunha. We were all trying not to, and some of us succeeded, but you could tell we were all crying. All twelve of us, gathered around her. She smiled at us, and she said her last words, and she drew her tanto and ended it.
I recall there was a lot of publicity about the funeral?
Oh, yes. Everyone likes to see a hero die. It was the first time they ever saw all thirteen of us in one place since the UN demonstration, too. The evening was unfairly gorgeous, I remember, but the sunset – ah, that sunset was the most beautiful I'd ever seen. Iris loved to watch the sunset.
The minister who said the words over her body did a good job of it; short, plain, and to the point, which is all our Iris would've had patience for if she'd been alive. And he let us say, in our own words, how she died. 'As she lived; with courage, strength, and honor.' Everything went the way she wanted it to, exactly by the plan she laid down after her belt test. That was one of the requirements, once you were a probie-grad. To plan your own funeral.
It still is, if my information is correct.
We actually kept a lot more of the original requirements than we thought we would. It's the same old story; we get way too many kids with stars in their eyes wanting to be the next baddie on the block, thousands of them. Only a few have the potential to go all the way. There's a reason most Mkunga Lalem students stop at Advanced Red Belt. To make it to Probationary Graduated Black Belt, you have to pass a grueling test of physical, mental, and emotional endurance. You have to have endured practically a lifetime of our world, and you have to be willing to keep doing it. And you have to accept that one day you will die in the line of duty.
What can I say? Everyone starts learning from the ground up; that's how every expert begins. To break the sound barrier, you need to slog through the mud.