Violence and death; description of dysphoria; (accidental) misgendering.
The swords clashed with a clacking sound; once, then twice, then thrice.
“Keep going,” Clyde said. “Keep your stance up.”
I didn’t acknowledge what he said: I didn’t want to get distracted. Instead, I redoubled my attack, taking a few steps towards him. He stepped back in turn, parrying and deflecting my blows, while trying to strike at me occasionally. I frowned; he’d told me earlier that he would only attack me when he saw a hole in my guard, something that could be exploited by an enemy – and that he was attacking me meant that I still was far from perfect. I’d been training with him for the past three weeks, and yet I still had quite a way to go. I doubted I would ever get to his level.
Clyde noticed my expression. “Don’t think about what you’re doing; the movements have to come naturally, otherwise you’re going to leave yourself open.” His sword snapped around, and my own weapon went spinning out of my hand; he stepped forward and gently tapped me on the side of my neck in what would’ve been a killing blow had this not been a sparring match. “See what I mean?” he said. “And you still have to learn to keep a solid grip on your weapon.”
I sighed, massaged my sore muscles, and then walked over to my fallen sword and picked it up – while keeping an eye on Clyde: I’d learned that lesson the first time.
He took his stance again. “You’re still way too sloppy,” he said. “Any Leader, even the weakest ones, would have a field day with you. Let’s go at it again.”
I stretched a few times, and then fell into a stance of my own: I’d slowly perfected it through training, and Clyde had admitted that it was good enough to withstand any attack. The problems came later, during the actual clash, when I found it difficult to be as quick and precise as needed to keep fighting for long.
As I was about to launch myself at Clyde, an alarm beeped; he relaxed his stance. “Never mind, time for a break.”
I sighed again, and sat down on a bench, grabbing a water bottle. Even though he was a harsh taskmaster, Clyde recognised that taking breaks was important; every time we’d trained together – which had been every afternoon since I first arrived at Defender Base – he insisted on giving me some time to breathe every now and then.
“Good job,” Amelia said, handing me a towel; I grabbed it with a grateful smile, and dabbed my sweat.
“You’ve really improved a lot,” she said, sitting beside me. “I can recognise some of Mark’s talent in you, guess it runs in the family.”
“But I’m still nowhere near his level,” I replied. “Or Clyde’s, for that matter.”
“That will come in time.”
I shot a side glance at Clyde, who’d been doing some stretches and lunges to loosen his muscles and joints. “It would help if he complimented me once in a while,” I mumbled.
“He never will,” Amelia said. “It’s just how he is.”
“Was he like this with my brother?”
She hesitated, but then replied, “No, he wasn’t. They were, like… Best buds. Two peas in a pod. They would keep bantering to one another as they sparred, spurring each other on.”
“Then why can’t he do it with me, too?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“Because you’re not your brother,” she answered.
I took a sip of water. “You mean it’s because I’m trans.”
“No, not because you’re trans,” Amelia said, shaking her head. “It’s because you’re a girl.”
“Same difference, really.”
The alarm beeped again. “Kennedy!” Clyde called. “Break’s over!”
I stood up from the bench, grabbed my practice sword, and started walking over to the sparring area, but then I froze: another alarm had started sounding, one I’d never heard before. It came from the loudspeakers set near the ceiling of the training room; what did it mean?
My unspoken question was answered when Mae’s voice came out of the speakers. “Alert!” she said. “Repulsoid attack confirmed! Defender Squadron, assemble in the situation room.”
I felt my blood run cold. It was the first time the Repulsoids had attacked since I’d joined the Defenders, and I wasn’t looking forward to having to go in the field to fight them; but then again, I didn’t have a choice, did I? I’d already been lucky I’d been given three full weeks of respite, in which to train up as much as possible.
“Come on,” Amelia said, rushing out of the door. I was right on her heels, with Clyde following me, and shortly we reached the situation room; all the others – Meg, Elijah, Mae, and General Ryder – were already there.
“Good, you’re all here,” the general said, then nodded to Maelyn. “Status report.”
“Repulsoid presence has been reported in Terre Haute,” she answered, reading from a screen. “About a hundred soldiers, maybe more.”
“None so far, though we can’t exclude their presence.”
“Why Terre Haute?” I wondered. “Isn’t it on our side of the front lines?”
“That, unfortunately, is the Repulsoids’ MO,” General Ryder replied. “They attack civilian targets just behind the lines, hoping to establish a beach-head. After all, we don’t have enough manpower to constantly guard the whole perimeter.” He smiled. “But that’s where you come in. Corporal Kim, we have a nexus in Terre Haute, right?”
“Correct,” Mae replied.
“Good.” The general turned to face us. “Morph and head out.”
Everyone saluted, and I joined them after a moment’s hesitation; then, with a chorus of electronic voices, all the Defenders – no, the other Defenders, I was one too – morphed, and teleported away.
I took a deep breath, then pushed the buttons on my morpher.
Mae smiled at me. “Good luck out there, Steph. Give ‘em hell.”
I gave her a weak smile in return, then flicked the lever.
No sooner had the red flash of light subsided, than I found my perspective switching; I’d clearly been teleported somewhere else. My head spun for a few moments, but it didn’t affect me nearly as much as the first time – over the past weeks I’d also trained to withstand the shock of teleporting, by being beamed over and over and over again: I’d puked a few times, but after a while I’d gotten used to it. I looked around: it looked like we were in an empty warehouse, the teleport platform concealed beneath the concrete under our feet. I took a moment to centre myself, taking a couple deep breaths, in and out.
This is not you. This body is not you. What matters is inside.
I’d been training my mind over the past three weeks, too, and while being forced in a male body still gave me a good amount of dysphoria, I was able to avoid it affecting me. Most of the time.
I nodded to the rest of the team. “Ready.”
Blue tapped the side of his helmet. “Mae, what are we looking at?”
Her voice came back to all of us: “From what I can see, there are four main groups of Repulsoids; they are spread out quite a bit.”
“Okay,” Blue nodded. “Let’s split up, each of us will take a group. Red, you’re with Yellow.”
Yellow and I looked at each other, and then at Blue.
“Is there a problem?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No, no problem.”
“None at all,” Yellow said.
“Good. Remember to watch your backs, and call for back-up if you spot a Leader. Let’s go.”
He flung open the warehouse doors, and everyone headed in different directions, guided by Maelyn’s voice; I reluctantly followed Yellow.
“Try not to hold me back,” he said as we ran through the city streets.
I scowled – not that he could see it, since I was wearing a helmet – but didn’t acknowledge his words. Do not let him get a rise out of you, I thought, echoing Amelia’s words from three weeks earlier.
Coming to a crossroads, Yellow stopped dead in his tracks, and raised his hand; I stopped too, and we peered around the corner. There were about a dozen Repulsoid soldiers, walking slowly down the street towards us, looking left and right, peering into buildings; no one else seemed to be around, apparently all civilians had been evacuated or had taken refuge in the emergency shelters.
“Guns first,” Yellow said. “You take the ones on the left, I’ll take the right. After we get a few of them, we rush in with swords.”
I nodded. I crouched while he remained standing, we pulled out our guns, and took careful aim. “Now,” Yellow signalled, and we squeezed the trigger.
Twin beams of plasma shot out of our guns and lanced through two of the Repulsoids, killing them. All the others started to turn towards us, but we adjusted our aim and pulled the trigger again: two more soldiers down.
We simultaneously pulled out our swords and rounded the corner, leaping forward as we did so; two more Repulsoids died before they even saw we were coming. That left a handful of them: the one closest to me dropped their gun and tried to punch me, but I grabbed their arm, flipped them over with remarkable ease – it was amazing how much the suit amplified my strength – and slammed them into the pavement, knocking them out cold.
I turned around to look at the others: Yellow had killed most of them, but one had turned tail and was running away. The other Defender put away their sword, took out his gun, and took aim at our fleeing foe.
“No!” I shouted, and grabbed Yellow’s arm just as he squeezed the trigger, throwing off his aim; a mail box next to the Repulsoid exploded in a burst of flame, but they didn’t slow down: they turned a corner, and they were gone.
“Red, what the hell!” Yellow protested. “Why did you do that?”
“They were already running away, there was no need to kill them!” I said.
He stared at me for a few moments, then shook his head. “You’re out of your mind. Now we have to hunt it down before it does any more damage or kills someone.”
“I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
Yellow gave an exasperated sigh, and turned his back to me, looking in the direction the Repulsoid had fled towards. “Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable,” he said.
“I agree; it is remarkable, isn’t it?” said a voice behind me.
I jumped, and turned around, to find myself face-to-face with someone I’d often seen in my nightmares ever since I’d first met her: Emerald Scarab.
I quickly backed away from her, bringing my sword up and falling into a stance.
“After our first fight, one of our soldiers had told me you had let them go,” Scarab continued. “To be honest, I did not believe it until just now. You’re an interesting man, Fake Red.”
She drew her sword. “Have you trained since I saw you last? I will be disappointed if you’re at the same level as before.”
“Red, get behind me,” Yellow said, moving in front of me. Then he tapped the side of his helmet. “Yellow here. We have encountered Emerald Scarab. I’m engaging.”
There was a brief moment of silence, then Maelyn’s voice came over the radio: “Roger that, Yellow. The rest of the team is en route, ETA ten minutes.”
“Stay back, I’ll handle this,” Yellow said.
“What?” I protested. “We have been specifically told not to engage Leaders alone!”
“You would only be a liability,” he snapped back. “I’m more than enough for her.”
“But…” I started to say, but he cut me off.
“This is an order, Red!”
I bristled at his words. “We’re the same rank, you can’t order me around!”
“But I have seniority, so do as I said!”
“Are you two done bickering? Can we fight now?” Scarab asked; she was idly resting her sword on her shoulder, looking at us. I couldn’t see her face, of course, but she seemed to be really amused by the scene unfolding before her.
Yellow turned towards her, raised his sword, and charged with a shout.
Emerald parried his first blow with a flourish, and began falling back, meeting Yellow’s swings with her sword: step, slash, step, slash, step, slash. They seemed to be falling into a rhythm, it was almost hypnotic to look at them.
“Amusing,” Scarab said. “You are clearly skilled, both with your sword and with your feet, but I am afraid I am better than you are.”
Her footwork shifted, just slightly.
“Mind if I lead the dance now?”
With a spin, she sent Yellow’s next swing wide; then, taking advantage of him overextending himself, she brought her sword around and began attacking him in earnest, slashing away at him. Slowly but surely, she began pushing him back; for each step she took forward, there was a slash, but every now and then she would slash twice, or thrice.
Yellow was losing ground; it was clear that Scarab was much too skilled for him to face alone.
“Yellow!” I shouted.
“Stay out of it, I said!” he shouted back.
“We can do it if we fight together!” I insisted.
He shook his head. “No! I’m not going to lose you like I did Mark!”
That moment of distraction was all Scarab needed; Yellow’s sword spun out of his hand, landing at my feet, and she slashed him across the chest. He fell to the ground in a shower of sparks: it appeared his suit had softened the blow, but he was still injured.
Emerald Scarab loomed over him. She raised her sword, and brought it down.
I stopped it with my own blade.
Both she and Yellow turned their heads to look at me, seemingly startled at my interference.
“I’m not Mark,” I hissed.
She tilted her head to the side. “You’re right, you’re not,” she said.
She swung at me, and I parried the blow. She slashed again, and again I deflected it, taking a step back. And again. And again. I steadily began to lose ground: like the first time I’d fought her, I could only react against her attacks, even though I was handling myself better than before.
“So you did train. Good,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”
I kept retreating, looking at her, concentrating on her attacks, trying desperately to find an opening; out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something on the ground. I deliberately let myself fall to the pavement and rolled towards Yellow’s sword, picking it up, and rising to my feet again.
Emerald Scarab paused for a moment. “Do you really think another sword will help you?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Let’s find out.”
I slashed at her, first with one blade, then with the other. I spun around, slashing and stabbing, trying to find an opening, but to no avail: she kept parrying and deflecting my blows, and before long she again began pushing me back. Once, twice, thrice she attacked, then with an especially strong slash she sent Yellow’s sword flying from my hand; it embedded itself deep in the wall of a nearby building.
For a brief second we were still, then she raised her sword to strike at me again.
Behind her, I saw Yellow struggle to his feet and raise his gun, aiming it towards her.
Scarab noticed my reaction, and she spun around just in time to slap the beam of plasma out of the air.
That distracted her. Briefly, but enough to give me an opening. I stabbed my sword towards her.
She saw the attack coming just a fraction of a second too late; she twisted her body out of the way, but the tip of my blade brushed against her shoulder. Just barely, but from her reaction she felt it, if only a little bit.
“Gotcha,” I said with satisfaction.
“You…” she hissed, raising her sword again; but then she stopped, and stepped back as more plasma beams began to rain down around us. Turning my head, I saw the other three Defenders approaching us at a run, shooting at Scarab.
She looked at them, then at me, then at Yellow, then back at me. Seemingly deciding that she couldn’t handle all five of us at the same time, she wrapped herself in her cape, and she was gone.
Yellow collapsed to the ground; apparently it had taken all he had to stand up and shoot at Scarab.
“Yellow!” White shouted, crouching next to him. “Are you injured?”
As White and Green fussed over Yellow, Blue walked over to me. “You okay?” he asked.
I slowly exhaled the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” I replied.
He nodded. “Good. Maelyn, how’s the situation?”
“Most of the Repulsoids are gone,” she answered. “There are a few stragglers here and there, but nothing the clean-up crews can’t handle.”
“Alright. Then we’re done here,” Blue said. “Let’s go home.”
Later that evening, I was in my room, lying on the bed, looking at the ceiling, mentally reviewing the day’s events. After we’d come back from Terre Haute, Clyde had been sent off to the infirmary right away; we were told that his injury was superficial, and he should be back to full strength in a couple days, which was remarkable since he’d been slashed across the chest – the Defender suits were really good armour, it seemed.
I had been congratulated by the rest of the team for my first successful mission, and General Ryder commended me for saving Clyde’s life; and while I didn’t say anything, I secretly hoped he would get reprimanded for trying to fight a Leader alone.
I took a deep breath and let it out. All in all, it had been a really good day; I’d even gotten a small win over Emerald Scarab. I had the feeling I would sleep soundly that night, for the first time in quite a while.
Remembering something, I rose to my feet and opened the drawer of my desk; Mark’s journal, and his last letter to me, were still there, untouched since I’d first put them there – I’d been so preoccupied with training over the previous weeks that I’d forgotten all about them. Well, what better time to read the letter?
I ripped the envelope open and began reading; surprisingly, it was really brief.
Sorry for writing another letter so soon, without first waiting for your reply to my previous one.
I just wanted to tell you that the timing for my next leave has been decided: in a month, I will come visit you. So get ready, we’ll have lots of fun.
Maybe we can even go visit Andrew and his uncle Victor; it’s been a while since we saw them, I’ve heard they’ve moved close to Boston so it won’t be too difficult.
This is all for now. See you in a month.
Your brother Mark
As I read the letter, I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise up; I ran my eyes over the text again, but there was no mistake: the words were clear as day.
“Uncle Victor” was a code phrase, one we’d developed when we still lived at home and couldn’t discuss certain things in front of our parents. Whenever one of us would mention it, it had a clear meaning: there is something of extreme importance we have to talk about as soon as possible. Then we would find a way to meet outside the home, and talk about things.
I’d used that code phrase when I first told him I was trans.
And now he’d written it into a letter, which had been meant for me. So clearly he had something he needed to tell me… Probably something he’d discovered while living here on base. But what could it be?
I was shaken from my thoughts by a knock at my door. I put the letter back in my drawer, walked to the door, and opened it; Clyde was standing behind it. His arm was in a sling, but otherwise he didn’t seem any worse for wear.
“Hey,” he said sheepishly.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I…” he began. He gulped. “I wanted to apologise. I’ve been too hard on you. Today… You’ve really saved me out there.” He paused. “So, I’m sorry. And I was wondering if we could maybe start over again? On the right foot? As friends?”
I looked at him for a couple seconds. “No,” I replied.
He was clearly taken aback. “No?”
“No, we can’t be friends. Not after the way you treated me. Not after you tried to make me a replacement for my brother,” I said. “We can be co-workers, we can be allies, we can support each other during missions, but we can’t be friends.”
“But…” he began to say.
“Good night, Clyde.”
I shut my door in his face.