I set my tray down on the cafeteria table and sat down, giving the other girls – Mae, Amelia and Meg – a nod of greeting, before tucking into my meal. We’d taken to having breakfast together, as a way to socialise and chat a bit, before we each went about our daily routine, which for me consisted in physical exercise in the morning, under Amelia’s watchful eye, and combat training with Clyde in the afternoon.
It was two weeks after my second encounter with Emerald Scarab, and after I’d managed to hit her – though just barely – I found that I was sleeping much better at night: the nightmares had almost disappeared, even if they weren’t completely gone. Scarab, to me, was no longer the unbeatable monster she at first seemed, but rather someone who could be hit, who could be defeated, if I only trained hard enough. And that was all it had taken for my brain to overcome the shock, it seemed: to realise that I had a chance against her, slight as it might have been.
Even so, I was absolutely exhausted: I’d been training hard ever since I’d first arrived at Defender Base, taking breaks only to eat and sleep. I felt like I was about to snap, and soon.
Looking around the table, I could see I wasn’t the only one who was really tired: Mae looked a bit out of it, and as I was looking at her, she barely suppressed a yawn.
“Sleepless night?” I asked with a smile.
“You bet,” she replied. “I didn’t sleep a wink.”
“What were you doing?”
“Don’t even bother asking, Steph,” Meg said. “She won’t tell you. It’s classified.”
My eyebrows rose. “Classified?”
Amelia nodded. “You’ll learn in time. About two or three times per month, she’s completely knackered in the morning, but when we ask her the reason, she replies that General Ryder had ordered her to do something she can’t talk about.”
“We think it’s got to do with SIGINT, or something,” Meg added.
“SIGINT?” I asked.
“Signals intelligence,” Mae said. “It means we look over whatever we managed to intercept over the radio and the like, and try to decipher it, to get as much information as we can. And no, for once I can actually tell you what I was doing last night, this time it’s not classified.”
“It’s not?” Amelia said. “Do tell, then.”
“I was trying to track down a hacker,” Mae replied. “We found a breach in the security cameras in your hometown, Steph,” she said, looking at me. “We think someone accessed them without authorisation, and I was trying to find out who it was.”
“My hometown?” I asked, and Mae nodded. “Weird. But why would someone try to do something like that?”
Mae speared a tater tot with her fork and waved it around as she explained. “Well, you know. Usually the Defenders morph into their suits before heading out to fight the Repulsoids, and then morph back once they’ve returned to base.” She ate the morsel of food and continued. “But the first time you morphed,” she said, pointing at me with her fork, “You did so in the open.”
Realisation dawned on me. “Oh,” I said. Looking around the table, I could see that Meg and Amelia had concerned looks on their faces. “So you think… Someone might use the footage to find out who Defender Red is? Who I am, I mean?”
“It’s a possibility,” Maelyn said, waving her fork around. “I wouldn’t be too worried, though. Even if they found out who you are, what could they even do about it?”
“They could go after my aunts,” I replied, looking her in the eyes.
“Unlikely,” she answered. “I’ve taken a look at the footage, and your face is the only one that’s clear enough to make out. They would have to discern your identity – which is already difficult, since I bet your face has changed quite a bit over the past year because, you know – and then make the connection between you and your family.”
I kept looking at her, and slowly nodded. “If you say so,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she insisted. “It’s probably some journalist or something looking for a scoop anyway, completely innocuous. But what they did is still illegal, so we have to track them down.”
“And have you managed to?” Meg inquired.
Mae frowned. “Not quite. Whoever it was, they managed to cover their tracks quite well. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even have noticed it if they hadn’t left the backdoor they used open.”
“So I guess you shut that backdoor now, right?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, I didn’t.”
“You didn’t? Why?”
“Because they’re still streaming data through it,” she replied. “They’re still downloading the footage from the cameras – from cameras all over the country, actually; and I can probably track where they’re sending that data, but the trace is still running, they’ve hidden their tracks pretty well. If I plugged the hole now, they’d notice, and I’ll never be able to track them down.”
“Well, thanks for telling us,” Amelia said. “Come on, Steph, we have to get to the gym and start our workout.”
“Coming,” I said; then another wave of sleepiness hit me, and I yawned, before starting to get up from my seat.
“Tired?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Unlike Mae, I’ve slept pretty well, but it’s all the stress I’ve accumulated over the past weeks that’s getting to me.
Amelia blinked. “Wait, hold on,” she said, looking at me deep in thought. She started counting something on her fingers, while mumbling under her breath, “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday…” Then she stopped. “Damn.”
She looked up at me again. “Steph, when’s the last time you’ve taken some time off?”
I thought about it. “Uh… Never? Not since I’ve arrived here at Defender Base anyway.”
My three friends looked at me. “You’ve… Never taken time off? At all?” Megan asked.
“I haven’t. And why should I?” I replied. “I have to train hard to catch up with you all in terms of ability.”
She sucked in her breath sharply, and then exhaled. “Steph.”
“Look, I understand where you’re coming from,” she said. “But you can’t do that. You can’t spend every waking moment on duty, you’ll go stir crazy before long. It’s a wonder you haven’t already.”
“That’s right,” Amelia nodded in agreement. “It’s partially my fault; I hadn’t realised you’ve been training all day, every day, until I’ve thought about it just now.”
“I mean, what’s the harm?” I asked. “It’s not like you girls take any time off, either.”
“We do,” Mae said.
My eyebrows rose in surprise. “You do?”
“Yes. You probably didn’t notice it because you spend all your time in the training room, with Amelia in the morning and with Clyde in the afternoon, but we do take time off,” she explained. “All the time off we can, actually.”
“And how much is that?”
“Four hours every day, not including time off for eating or sleeping,” Meg replied. “Plus half a day of paid leave for every five days you’re on duty.”
I blinked. “That’s… A lot.”
“It is,” she nodded. “Much more than normal members of the military get. But on the other hand, we’re more on less on call 24/7, since we’re the only ones who can respond immediately should the Repulsoids attack.”
“If I did my math correctly, by now you have more than a week of leave available already, though if you want to use that, you have to coordinate with the general and the rest of the team,” Amelia said. “Plus of course the hours you spent on duty, while you should’ve been off duty instead. I’ll have a talk with the general to see if there’s some way you can get credit for those.”
“The point is,” Mae continued. “You should really take some time off. You deserve it.”
I just looked at them. I’d been so focused on the ‘mission’ I’d inherited from my brother, on defending innocent people against the Repulsoids, that I hadn’t even considered taking some time off. But they were right: I really should. Otherwise I risked cracking under pressure.
“Alright,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll take some time off, starting today.”
“Good,” Meg replied. Then she looked at Amelia. “Girls’ night out?”
“Girls’ night out,” Amelia nodded in response. “Mae, make the arrangements.”
“Consider it done,” Maelyn grinned.
I blinked, looked from Amelia to Meg to Mae. “Wait, what?”
“We’re taking you out to party tonight,” Meg said. “It’s been a while since we had a new face join us.”
“Of course, like Meg said, we’re on call 24/7, so we can’t drink alcohol,” Amelia continued. “But there are plenty of other ways to have fun besides getting shitfaced.”
“There’s a nightclub in Dayton we really like,” Mae said. “We can go there, dance a bit, have some fun.”
“Uh… How will we get to Dayton?” I asked.
“Oh, we morph and teleport there, then demorph before leaving the room we teleport into. Then teleport back when we’re done,” Meg explained.
“Is… Is that allowed?”
“Technically it’s against regulation. ‘Personal use of military hardware.’ But it’s fine,” she replied, waving her hand dismissively. “We do it all the time.”
“Yes, but…” I continued. I realised I was probably protesting a bit too much, but I was getting swept away by them; I was way out of my comfort zone. “All three of us? I mean, shouldn’t someone stay behind at base in case something happens? And what about Mae?” I pointed at her. “She can’t teleport.”
“It’s really no problem at all,” Maelyn said. “Clyde and Eli will be here at base, and we can teleport back immediately if there’s any trouble. And as for me, you can bring me along when you teleport, we just need to hold hands.”
“Yeah,” Meg said. “Didn’t I tell you the first time? Everything you’re holding when you teleport comes along with you; that includes other people. We even used it to evacuate civilians a few times, you have them form a human chain, holding hands with each other, and then you grab the first one, and away you go.”
“Huh.” That sounded really useful. I needed to remember it.
“So what do you say? Wanna have a girls’ night out?” Meg continued.
I sighed. “I do, I really do, but… I don’t have anything to wear.”
“That’s not a problem,” Amelia interjected. “I have plenty of dresses, one of them should fit you.”
I looked at her. “You have dresses?”
“And skirts, and heels, and stuff,” she answered. “What? Just because I’m a sporty gal who works out it doesn’t mean I don’t like to look nice when I go out.” She paused. “So what about it? You can stop by my room after you’re done with Clyde this afternoon, and we’ll pick out something nice for you.”
I looked between the three of them. “I don’t have a choice in this matter, do I?”
“Nope!” Mae said brightly.
I sighed again. “Alright then.”
Surprisingly, General Ryder didn’t have anything to say against us heading out for the night: his only response when Maelyn told him we would be going to Dayton to have some fun was to remind us that curfew was at ten PM – or “Twenty-two hundred hours,” as he put it. He also had a slight smile on his face when he said that: I guess he was used to the three girls’ shenanigans.
After I was done training with Clyde for the day (I kept getting better and better every time we sparred, and while he was still stronger than me I was getting close; he’d grudgingly admitted I had a talent for fighting, just like my brother Mark) I took a quick shower, and walked the small distance down the corridor from my room to Amelia’s: the living quarters for the Defender Squadron and the whole support team were all on one side of the former school, which made sense since it was probably the part of the building that had required the most extensive remodelling to make it suitable for the army’s purposes.
I raised my hand to knock at the door, but then hesitated; thinking about it, it would be the first time I ever had a girls’ night out. I’d only started transitioning about a year earlier, and I’d been quite busy since then – mostly trying to survive, after my parents had thrown me out. And it would also be the first time I would dress up to go out.
It was a bit ironic: I’d steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the military my whole life, and yet I’d found some friends who truly accepted me for who I was after enlisting.
I knocked on the door, which opened to reveal Amelia: she’d exchanged her normal civilian outfit – a comfortable jeans-and-sweater combination – for a simple purple dress, which came down to her knees; she had a pair of strappy sandals on her feet, and she’d styled her short hair as much as she could (which wasn’t much, it was really short). She was even wearing a bit of make-up.
“Hi! Come in, come in,” she greeted me, ushering me inside her room. I looked around: it was an exact duplicate of my own room, down to the position of the furniture, but she’d personalised it a bit by hanging some nature posters on the walls, and there was a picture of her with an older couple – her parents, I guessed – stuck on the mirror. Several dresses were laid out on the bed.
“Alright,” she said cheerfully. “Pick one!”
“Er,” I replied. I didn’t even know where to begin.
Amelia noticed my hesitation. “Oh, don’t worry, they’re all your size. I think. And I bet you’ll look stunning in them.” She beamed at me.
I gulped. “Alright,” I said, picking up one of the dresses. “How about this one?”
“Oooh, the red one,” she said with a wink. “Someone’s feeling bold!”
“…Should I pick a different one?”
“No, not at all!” she exclaimed. “After all, red’s your colour, isn’t it?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
I started to walk towards the bathroom, but Amelia raised one eyebrow. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“To get changed,” I replied.
“You can do it here,” she said. “This way, I can help you put the dress on, there are a couple parts that are a bit tricky.”
I paused. “Um, it’s just…” I began. Then I looked down at the floor and sighed. “It’s just that I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Well, because I am…” I sighed again. “You know.”
Amelia shook her head. “Nah, don’t worry, you can get changed here. I don’t mind.”
I looked up at her in surprise. “You don’t?”
“Why should I?” she answered with a shrug. “It’s not like you’re a man, or something. Only us girls here.” She smiled. “So do go on, get changed, girl.”
I felt my cheeks redden, and my eyes moistened a bit. “Thank you,” I whispered.
Even though she’d told me she didn’t mind, however, I was still a bit self-conscious: I turned my back to her, and quickly stripped off my normal clothing – a pair of slacks and a simple T-shirt, leaving only my bra and panties on. Then I held up the dress, unzipped it, and carefully stepped into it.
“Okay now, let me give you a hand with the zipper, it can be a bit tricky the first few times,” Amelia said, stepping up behind me. I nodded, and pushed my hair out of the way as she zipped me up. Then she gently grabbed me by the shoulders, and turned me to face the mirror.
“I was right, see? You do look stunning in that.”
I slowly nodded as I admired my reflection. I did look really nice in the knee-length, short-sleeved red dress: while I still looked a bit too masculine for my tastes, I could see myself in the mirror, and it gave me quite a bit of euphoria.
“Okay, now let’s do your make-up a little bit. Then we’ll join the others,” Amelia said. “They’re probably already waiting for us. Here.”
She handed me a small pouch, about the size of a pen case. “What’s this?” I asked, looking up at her.
“Oh, just something me and Mae and Meg have put together,” she replied. “A bit of a starter kit for make-up: there’s some eyeliner, an eyebrow pencil, some mascara, and some lipstick.” She shrugged. “Sorry, it’s not much, but it’s hard to get supplies out here, especially on short notice.”
I stared at her. “…Why?”
“Because we realised we hadn’t properly welcomed you aboard. It’s been five weeks already, and we hadn’t really done anything for you.” She smiled. “So here it is: a welcome present, for you. Welcome to the team, Stephanie.”
My eyes were more than moist now: I was blinking back tears. “Thank you,” I said again.
“You’re welcome. Now, can you do your make-up on your own?”
I gulped, nodded, turned back towards the mirror, and set to work.
About ten minutes later, we joined Megan and Maelyn in the training room, where we’d agreed to meet. They noticed my expression, and Maelyn asked, “So I guess Amelia gave you your present?”
I nodded. “Thank you,” I told them.
“Oh, you’re more than welcome, dear,” Meg said. “We’ll celebrate properly when we get to Dayton, but for the time being, get over here.”
She motioned for me to walk over to her, and when I did she gave me a tight hug – I’d learned over the past weeks that she was a hugger. Then I broke the embrace, and hugged Mae too; as I was about to pull away from her, she held the hug a bit longer.
“So, shall we go?” Mae asked.
“Yeah, let’s,” Meg said.
I put my hand on my morpher, which I’d taken to carrying on my belt – and this time was no exception: the black with red accents went well with the dress, in fact. Though I’d also brought a purse, which I’d borrowed from Amelia, so I could stuff it in there after we got to Dayton.
“Wanna try to do a team morph?” Amelia asked.
“What’s that?” I queried.
“It’s simply when we morph together, at the same time. It doesn’t have any particular benefit, it’s just neat.”
“Okay,” I nodded.
The three of us struck a pose, hands on our morphers.
“Ready?” Meg said. “Three… Two… One…”
“Welcome. Standby. Power Up!” three electronic voices said at the same time.
“Well done,” Mae said. “The timing was a bit off, but you’ll get the hang of it, Steph.”
“Ready to go?” Green asked.
“Give me a second,” I said; as I always did when I morphed, I relaxed, centred myself, and started running through my mindfulness exercises.
This is not you. This body is not you. What matters is inside.
I repeated that mentally a couple times. I was getting better and better at controlling my dysphoria, but it was always there, in the back of my mind, and it only got worse when I morphed.
“Okay, I’m ready,” I said.
“Good,” White replied. “You take Mae, we’ll see you in Dayton.”
With twin flashes of white and green light, they were gone.
I offered Mae my hand. “My princess, your carriage has arrived,” I said, with a small bow.
She laughed. “Thank you, my lady,” she replied, and took my hand.
As I’d practised, I pictured the target location for my teleportation – Dayton, Ohio – in my mind: the approximate position, based on the map. That was the way to teleport when you knew the destination – otherwise, Mission Control could simply take over and send you where you needed to go. Then I tapped the morpher on my belt slightly.
There was a flash of red light, and we were off to Dayton.