Episode Six: The Ropes
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Spoiler

misgendering, bigotry, transphobia.

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“Alright, first thing first,” Mae said as we walked through a corridor. “You may have noticed that none of us are wearing our uniforms.”

“Yeah, why’s that?” I asked.

“The answer is simple: Repulsoids tend to attack civilian targets, right? Well often the attacks get recorded, cellphones are a thing after all. People would get speculating if soldiers showed up in the footage… Especially if those same soldiers later showed up in the footage for another attack, and another, and so on.” She shrugged. “So the squad wears civvies so they can blend in more easily: attacks happen suddenly, so they wouldn’t have the time to change before heading out. And it would be unfair if they were the only ones afforded that privilege, so all the support team here at base does it.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“This way,” she said, opening a door and motioning for me to enter. I complied and found myself in…

“A classroom?” I said, my eyebrows rising.

“Of course,” Maelyn replied. “This is a former school after all, the general told you as much, didn’t he? There are a few rooms that were left as is, because they’re good enough for their purpose.” She smirked. “Now sit down, lieutenant, class is in session.”

I picked a chair in the front row and sat down; Mae rummaged into a closet for a moment, and then dropped a large sheaf of paper in front of me: it landed on my desk with a thud.

“This is all the information we currently have on the Repulsoids,” she said. When she saw me boggling at the size of the thing – it must have been easily over a thousand pages – she continued, “You can read through it on your own time, for now I’ll give you the Cliffs Notes version.”

“Thank you,” I answered, relieved that I wouldn’t have to memorise such a massive amount of information right away.

“Okay, so!” Mae exclaimed, and clicked the button of a remote she produced seemingly out of thin air: the lights in the classroom dimmed, and a picture of a Repulsoid soldier appeared on a screen that had been set up where a blackboard would normally be. “You may have noticed that Repulsoids are bigger and much more physically capable than humans.” I nodded. “Well, luckily for us, the suits we use amplify human strength; the Defenders are way more powerful than ordinary Repulsoid soldiers.”

I nodded again. “Yeah, I saw. When I fought them, I noticed that I could easily…”

I stopped. What was I about to say? Defeat them? Kill them? Did I even have the right to do that? They were clearly sentient beings. At the time, in the heat of the moment, I hadn’t put any thought in it, it was us or them, but now?

But then again, they did attack civilian targets, didn’t they? The Defenders were just fighting back. It wasn’t like we were going after them, and attacking their civilians in turn.

“…I noticed the difference in strength.”

“Right,” Mae said. “And they notice it, too: for them, the Defenders are like, I dunno, mythical monsters who suddenly appear from nowhere to rain death and destruction upon them.”

I thought back at when I’d engaged the four Repulsoids to protect my aunts. The first one had been taken by surprise by my attack and knocked out, but out of the remaining three, two had in fact tried to run away. And now I understood why: they had been afraid. They weren’t expecting a Defender to show up, and they were scared shitless when they saw me.

Again, did I have the right to kill someone who was so scared by my simple presence? Maybe, if they tried attacking me. That would surely count as self-defence. But I silently resolved not to harm any of those who threw down their weapons and tried to flee.

“You okay, Stephanie?” Maelyn asked when she saw I was so deep in thought.

I shook myself. “Yes, I’m alright. I was just…” I shook my head again to clear it. “Go on.”

“Okay,” she continued. “Point here being, Repulsoid soldiers aren’t a threat at all, you can hold your ground even against a dozen of them. What you need to worry about are these.”

She clicked her remote, and the picture on the screen changed: now it was showing a photo of the enemy that had almost killed me three days before.

Emerald Scarab.

Mae walked over to the screen and tapped it with her knuckle. “Repulsoid Leaders. They use suits built from the same technology as the Defenders’, and they are really bad news. Engaging one of them alone is highly discouraged, you should always try to have numerical advantage if you can.”

I stared at the screen for a couple seconds, then asked: “How many of them are there?”

“Usually less than five at the same time,” was the answer. “Right now there are just two that we know of, Emerald Scarab and Ruby Scorpion. Those are codenames based on their appearance, obviously. And sorry, we don’t have a picture of Scorpion; even getting one of Scarab was difficult, and she’s been around from the start: the Leaders started showing up about a year after the Defenders first went into action, when the Repulsoids finally realised that foot soldiers weren’t going to be able to handle themselves against us, and Scarab was the very first one to appear.” She paused, and then continued, “She’s also the most dangerous: your brother was the only one who was able to fight her one-on-one several times without being injured, and according to him they were more or less evenly matched.”

“What happened to the others?”

“Some of them were defeated by us,” she replied. “Others just… Disappeared.”

My eyebrows rose. “Disappeared?”

“Yeah, they just stopped showing up. We don’t know what happened to them, though whenever one vanishes, we intercept communications from the Repulsoids that, when translated, reference something they call the Ebon Ghost. We think it’s related somehow, of course, but we don’t know how. Beyond that, no clue.” She shrugged.

There was a moment of silence as I absorbed this information; but I had another question burning in my mind.

“And which of them killed my brother?”

Maelyn’s eyes narrowed. “Stephanie…” she began.

“I’m not going to go hunting for revenge, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “It’s just… I want to know who is responsible for his death.”

She held my gaze for a few moments, and then sighed. “Ruby Scorpion.”

“How did it happen?”

“We don’t know exactly,” she said, shaking her head. “Mark was accompanying Doctor Winters to a conference in Columbus, and…” She paused. “Ah, Doctor Winters was the one--”

“Who developed and built the morphers, I know,” I said.

Mae nodded. “Since she is… Since she was irreplaceable, every time she left the base one of the Defenders acted as her bodyguard, and that day it was Mark’s turn. They were attacked suddenly, and by the time the rest of the squad got there Winters was dead, as were two Leaders; they arrived just as Scorpion struck the final blow on Mark.”

There was a heavy moment of silence, hanging between us.

“In any case,” Maelyn said, “Leaders are extremely dangerous. If you see one of them: do not engage. Stand back, call for support, and wait until the rest of the team gets there.”

I nodded. “Alright.”

“Besides the Leaders,” she continued, “There’s also the Repulsoid Emperor – they’re a monarchy, apparently. We don’t know any details about him besides that he exists and that his word is law among them, but nothing beyond that. We don’t even know how they pick him, if he’s elected, if it’s hereditary, if they choose the strongest, or what.”

“You don’t?” I was surprised to hear that. “Aren’t we negotiating with the Repulsoids? To try and find a peaceful solution if possible.”

She shook her head. “We aren’t, that’s just something we tell the general public to reassure them. In reality General Ryder has always firmly said that until they stop with their attacks, there will be no dialogue with them. ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists’ were his exact words.”

My eyebrows rose. “The general?” I asked. “Why does he get to decide?”

“He’s the foremost expert on Repulsoids,” Mae answered. “He was field commander of the army during the first phase of the war, and then he was put in charge of the defence perimeter when the situation stabilised. The President and the Joint Chiefs delegate every decision to him.” She shrugged. “Politics. I’ll never really understand it.”

I frowned. I was a bit concerned: the general was such an important person, and yet he came personally to attend my brother’s funeral and then tried to recruit me… Without even bringing along a Defender as a bodyguard? Even Doctor Winters never went anywhere without an escort, according to what Maelyn had told me. It felt, I don’t know… Weird.

“That’s more or less everything you need to know,” Maelyn said, shaking me from my thoughts. “The details, as I said, are all in there.” She pointed to the stack of paper, and I nodded: I would need to read it carefully.

“Did you have any questions?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “I was wondering how the teleport nexus works.”

“Oh, that. I don’t know the details, of course, I’m no scientist,” she said. “But the teleport platforms act as a kind of lightning rod: you get turned into energy, which is then aimed at a certain spot – it doesn’t need to be precise, it has several miles of tolerance – and the platforms gather that energy and reassemble it. The turn-into-energy part can be done easily, it’s the reassembly that needs extra equipment.”

I thought about it for a bit. “So we can teleport from anywhere, but only to certain specific spots that have been set up, right?”

“Right,” she nodded and smiled. “It’s not that hard.”

“Alright.”

“Any other questions?”

I gulped. I had something I’d been meaning to ask, and I’d been saving it for last. Something really important.

“Is it possible to change how the suit looks?” I asked.

Mae tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean?”

“To make it look… You know… Like White and Green’s suits.”

Her eyes widened in understanding. “You mean, to make it look like a woman?” When I nodded she continued: “No, Stephanie, I’m sorry. The way I understand it, the morpher has two default ‘looks’ hardcoded into it, male and female. The only way to change from one to the other would be to take it apart and rebuild it, and the only one who was able to do that…”

“…Was Doctor Winters.”

She nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry.”

Well then. I would just have to bear with it.

There was a pause, and then Maelyn asked: “Was there something else you wanted to know about?”

I thought about it, but then shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. Not yet at least, I may have more questions when I read through the material.”

“Okay, then we can move on to combat training,” she said.

I blinked. “Combat training?”

“You need to get up to snuff if you’re going to be fighting alongside the other Defenders, so it’s better to start right away. Come with me.” She motioned for me to follow her, and I complied, carrying the papers she’d given me under my arm and my duffel bag in one hand.

We walked through the corridors of the former school, and found ourselves right back where we’d started: in front of the training room, which had been converted from the school’s gym.

“I’ll put these in your quarters,” Mae said, taking the papers and the bag from me. “In you go.”

“Aren’t you going to come with me?”

“No, I have other things to do I’m afraid,” she replied, shaking her head. “But don’t worry, you’ll have a good teacher. Just… Don’t let him get to you.”

I wondered what she meant by that, and my unspoken question was answered when I entered the training room, and found Clyde Weber – Defender Yellow – in there, waiting for me.

“You’re late,” he said curtly, waving a hand towards a rack that held several types of wooden swords. “Grab a training sword, whichever you like.”

“Not one for pleasantries, I guess,” I muttered under my breath, making my way towards the rack. I took the occasion to glance around the room: there was a wide open area in the middle, likely a training and sparring area, and surrounding it were all kinds of gym machines and racks holding a variety of weights. Amelia Miller, Defender Green, was there too: she was sitting on a bench, doing bicep curls with a dumbbell that must have weighed at least forty pounds, if not more, and she had a look of intense concentration on her face; while I was looking at her she paused for a moment, looked up at me, and gave me a brief nod, before resuming her exercise.

I looked at the rack of swords: there were about a dozen, of various shapes and sizes. I knew what the correct choice was, however, and I grabbed the one that most closely approximated the short sword I’d used when I’d morphed into Defender Red. I turned back towards Clyde; from the look in his eyes, he seemed to be approving my choice.

“Okay. Show me your moves,” he said, taking a stance. I walked into the sparring area, and squared off against him; we stared at each other without speaking for several seconds, at least half a minute, before he spoke up again: “What are you waiting for? Come at me, bro.”

My eyes narrowed. He was waiting for me to take the initiative: well, I wasn’t going to disappoint him. I stepped forward, aiming a slash at his midsection, which he dodged by taking a step back; I followed up by taking another step towards him, turning the slash into a lunge, which he deflected with a flick of his sword.

“Your stance is decent, but your movements are sluggish and way too predictable,” he said. “I was expecting something more from Mark’s brother.”

I flinched; I felt as if I’d been slapped. “Sister,” I hissed.

“Taking hormones makes you weaker,” he rebutted, slashing at me; I barely managed to bring my sword up to deflect his blow, but my weapon was sent flying from my hands as a result, and he spun his own sword around and brought it down on my shoulder. I expected it to be painful, but he held back his blow at the last moment, and just barely tapped me.

“See?” he said. “Mark wouldn’t have let that blow disarm him. You need to keep a firmer grip on your weapon.” He took a few steps back, and fell into his stance once more. “Again.”

I walked over to my fallen weapon and picked it up; I turned around to go at him again, but found him right in front of me – he took advantage of my moment of confusion to grab me into a hold and fling me to the ground, my sword clattering away once more.

“Do not get distracted, and do not turn your back on an enemy.” Once more, he walked away from me and took a stance. “Again,” he said, his voice harsh.

I climbed back to my feet and, without taking my eyes off him, I retrieved my sword.

I thought back to all the training I did when I was young, all the martial arts I’d thrown myself into, to try and push the thought that I was a girl out of my mind. It hadn’t worked, of course, but I’d still learned a few tricks.

I squared off against him again, with a fencing stance this time: instead of strength, I decided to go for speed. I looked at him carefully, looking for an opening, and when he blinked, I lunged.

He was taken by surprise by how quick I was, but it was only for a moment: he deflected my first two blows, parried the third one, then stepped forward and grabbed my sword arm, yanking on it and throwing me off balance; he swept his leg and I tumbled to the ground once more.

“Unbelievable,” he said, sounding exasperated. “Until just recently, Defender Red was the strongest of us all, and now he’s the weakest.” He took a deep breath. “Pathetic.”

Pathetic. Those words echoed in my ears. It was the second time I’d been called that recently, and I couldn’t stand it. That, and hearing him misgender me, made my blood rush to my head: without even thinking about what I was doing, my hand flew to my belt and pushed the buttons of my morpher.

Welcome. Standby.

Clyde looked at me wide-eyed, and quickly backed away from me.

I jumped to my feet. “I’ll fucking show you who’s pathetic!” I shouted, and flicked the lever.

Power Up!

The flash of light momentarily blinded me, but then I rushed forward towards Clyde, my sword appearing in my hand, ready to slash at him.

Welcome. Standby. Power Up!

That sound came from behind me, and barely registered: I was too focused on my target to pay attention to it. And then something slammed into my back, and I found myself on the ground, my arm stretched behind me in a joint lock; I turned my head, and saw that Defender Green had pinned me to the ground.

“Do not let him get a rise out of you,” she said. “Keep your cool.”

When she said that, my mind cleared. What the hell was I thinking? Trying to use Defender Red’s strength against a normal human?

My tense muscles relaxed, and she felt it. “You good?” she asked, and I nodded; she let me go.

I got back to my feet, and flicked the lever back to its original position. “Power Down,” the morpher announced.

I took a deep breath. “Sorry,” I said.

Clyde just stared at me. “We have lots of work to do. Get some sleep.”

He turned on his heel and left the training room.

Defender Green demorphed too, and resumed her weight training. I was so ashamed I didn’t even look at her as I left, too.

Somehow I made my way to my quarters – I think I asked someone for directions, I don’t even remember, I was too out of it; it was a small room, with just a bed, a desk, and a wardrobe in it. On the desk was a box, which I instantly knew were Mark’s personal effects, but I didn’t even look at them, I was too exhausted.

I laid down in bed and fell asleep.

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