“Defender Red, you alright back there?” the pilot asked over the intercom.
“Yes,” I replied, gritting my teeth under my helmet; truth is, I hated flying, and the way the Super Hercules shook and rattled under me was quite a bit unsettling. “How long still?”
“Nearly there. Get ready for the drop.”
As if on cue, the rear cargo door started opening slowly. The operator who was sitting beside me gestured for me to stand up; he checked my chute one last time, and made sure the ripcord was secured to the cable inside the plane.
I’d never jumped from a plane before: this would be an experience.
“We’re in position. Jump, now!” the pilot said.
The operator nodded. “Good luck out there,” he said, and saluted me; I returned the salute, and stepped out of the plane.
The chute opened almost immediately, slowing my fall: a thousand feet below me, I could see the earth coming up towards me – the plane had been deliberately flying very low to the ground, to avoid being picked up by the Repulsoids’ radar systems.
As I’d been told to, I softened the landing with my legs, and I immediately unhooked the quick release of the chute and ran off, away from the landing zone, in case the enemy came along to check it out. As I ran, I tapped the side of my helmet. “Red here,” I said. “I’ve landed successfully, and I’m now headed for the coordinates.”
“Acknowledged, Red,” General Ryder replied. “Full radio silence from now on. Ryder out.”
Since the Repulsoids were very good at intercepting electronic communications, we’d decided that I would go completely dark besides that one radio message just after landing; likewise, the plane had dropped me about five miles from the coordinates – which, according to a pre-war map that had been dug out from the archives, and confirmed by satellite reconnaissance, was a quarry. Bit weird for a meeting point.
Thanks to the suit enhancing my physical abilities, I covered the distance to the objective rather quickly; then I crouched, and crept slowly over to the edge of the pit that had been dug into the earth many years before. As I looked over the edge, I was surprised to see that Maelyn was sitting in a chair in the middle of the quarry, illuminated by several spotlights aimed directly at her, arranged in a circle around her position. It was a bizarre sight. Also, I couldn’t see anyone else around, which made me a bit worried; this was clearly a trap, with Mae as the bait. I carefully scanned the sides of the quarry with my eyes, looking for the easiest and most concealed approach – not that there was much concealment to be found: that was clearly something the Repulsoids had planned, it would be impossible for me to approach my friend without being spotted. Still, if I could manage to slide down the side, as quietly as possible…
“Are you looking for a way down?” said a mellifluous voice next to my ear. “I can show you where it is.”
I jumped up, scared out of my wits, and retreated several metres back, away from Emerald Scarab, as quickly as I could, pulling my sword out in the process.
“Will you stop doing that!” I shrieked.
Scarab chuckled. “Why should I?” she said. “Every time I do it, your reaction is ever so amusing.”
We looked at each other for several seconds, and then I noticed something weird: she was making no move to attack me. Rather, her posture was completely relaxed, unlike the previous times I’d fought her – even her sword was still in its scabbard, hanging from her side.
“Aren’t… Aren’t you going to attack me?” I asked.
She tilted her head to the side. “Not tonight, no. I am not your opponent this day, Fake Red,” she replied. “You have been called here for a duel, with your life and your friend’s as the prize, by someone who is not me.”
I blinked at her. “A duel?”
“A duel, yes. A contest of skill between two people, if you’re unfamiliar with the term.”
“I know what a duel is,” I answered.
“That’s good,” Scarab said. “Well, shall we go down there? As I said, I can show you the path to descend to the bottom.”
I hesitated. “Is this a trick? Are you going to lead me into an ambush or something?”
“Do you really think I would need to resort to tricks to kill you?” she said; and she did have a point about that. “If you don’t trust me, you can just jump down. I’m sure you’ll survive the fall, these are not the Cliffs of Insanity. Or I could swear on the soul of my father you will reach the bottom alive.”
I gulped. “No need to swear. I trust your word.” This time, I mentally added.
“Good,” she replied. “Especially because we Repulsoids don’t have parents. Follow me.” She turned her back to me, and started to walk away.
“You’re just going to show me your back like that?” I asked. “What if I attacked you?”
She stopped, and looked back over her shoulder. “Someone who would let my soldiers run away when they have lost the will to fight? Strike me in the back? Don’t be ridiculous.” She resumed walking, and after a moment of hesitation, I followed her.
We made our way partway around the quarry in silence, until we reached a point where the drop wasn’t as sheer, but sloped more gently towards the bottom. Wordlessly, she gestured me towards the ramp, and I started downwards, with her behind me.
“If you do not mind, can I ask you a question?” she queried as we walked.
I shrugged. “Sure, ask away,” I replied.
“I have seen the recording of yourself, before morphing into Defender Red.”
I was surprised. “You’ve seen it?”
“I have. It is what we used to track you down, comparing the live feed of security cameras to the recordings, waiting for you to show up.”
Of course. I could’ve kicked myself. That’s how they’d done it. That’s how they knew to target Dayton, specifically, and how they knew to kidnap Maelyn.
“So my question is,” Scarab continued. “You are a woman, are you not?”
“…I am,” I answered.
“Then why are you looking… Like that?” she asked. “Why do you wear a man’s suit?”
I sighed. “Not by my choice. It cannot be altered; I would wear a woman’s suit if I could.”
“Mmhmm,” she said pensively. “I see. I apologise, then.”
“You apologise? What for?”
“The last time we fought, I called you ‘an interesting man;’ that was wrong of me, since you’re not a man at all. I am sorry.”
“Apology accepted…?” I said. I was honestly puzzled: Emerald Scarab seemed to be a genuinely nice person… When she wasn’t trying to murder me.
“We’re here,” she said.
Indeed, we’d reached the bottom of the quarry; Maelyn was sitting in the chair, a mere thirty metres in front of me. “Mae!” I called. “Are you alright?”
“I am!” she shouted back, standing up. “Glad to see you, Red!”
Good. Now, if I could only get to her, grab her, and teleport away…
Scarab walked past me, making her way across the flat expanse at the bottom of the quarry. “I have brought you Defender Red,” she said. “You can show yourself now.”
“My, my,” a voice I’d heard before said. “Thank you, my dear.”
A man walked out of the darkness, to stand inside the circle of lights, and I stared. “You,” I said.
“Me,” he replied.
It was the man who’d sat down at our table the previous evening. The one who’d tried to put his moves on us. He looked much the same, except he wasn’t wearing his glasses and fedora, and I realised why he’d been wearing them in the first place: I could see his eyes now, which were yellow and slitted vertically, and he had a pair of cat-like ears on the top of his head. A feline tail swished lazily behind him.
I shook myself. “I am here, as you asked,” I said. “Let Maelyn go.”
“All in due time, my sweet,” he replied; his voice was low and sensuous, he was almost purring out the words. He turned towards Scarab. “My dear, will you do the needful?”
Emerald Scarab nodded, and she flicked a button on the side of one of the light poles; a net of electricity shot over the whole quarry, encasing it in a shimmering web.
“What is that?” I asked.
“A teleport inhibitor,” Scarab said. “It will prevent anyone from teleporting in or out, for as long as it’s active.”
“Did you think we wouldn’t foresee you would try to flee with our hostage at the first possible chance?” Ipsum asked.
“…You said you would let her go,” I repeated.
“We will. But first, I must kill you, like I promised the Emperor I would.”
I took a stance. “Well, you’ll find that won’t be easy.”
“Shall we compare our skill against each other, then?” he replied.
From behind his back, he pulled a sleek, black object, which was about the size of a morpher; he placed it against its belly. “Activated,” the object said; then Ipsum placed his hand on it.
“I do hope this will be entertaining,” he said, and pressed down on his morpher.
For a moment, it was as if he’d burst into flame, in a massive explosion; though I couldn’t feel any heat from it. Then the effect faded, and I found myself staring at him, now encased in a sleek red armour. It was a shocking sight.
“Ruby Scorpion,” I breathed out.
“That is the name you people have given me, yes,” he replied.
I pointed my sword at him. “You killed my brother,” I said.
“It’s possible; he kills a lot of people,” Emerald Scarab interjected, but I shook my head.
“Defender Red. My brother. You killed him,” I repeated.
“What?” Scarab exclaimed. “Mark? Defender Red? He was your brother?”
I glanced at her; how did she know that name? But I nodded.
“…I see,” she said.
“We’re here to fight,” Scorpion said, unsheathing his weapon. “Not to reminisce about dead people.”
He held his sword up: it started glowing, almost red hot, and he swung it in my direction. A red crescent of fire left the blade, flying towards me; I reflexively slashed at it, bisecting it: the two halves exploded behind me.
I had no respite, however: suddenly Scorpion was in front of me, slashing at me with his sword; I parried the blow, and fell back, deflecting strike after strike after strike, trying to gauge my opponent’s strength and skill. While I was retreating, my fight wasn’t desperate – either because I’d trained very hard, or because he wasn’t as skilled as Scarab, I found little difficulty in keeping ahead of his blows.
Slowly, surely, I began to see a pattern in his attacks: a rhythm, a repetition, which was probably subconscious, a result of his training and his previous battles. Slash, slash, step, step, slash, slash, step, slash, step step, slash, step, and repeat. Over and over again. We circled around the ring of lights, him steadily advancing, and myself moving back, with Scarab and Maelyn watching us closely.
“Disappointing,” I heard Scarab say. “She is not even attempting a return strike, she is just getting pushed back. From our previous battles, I thought the new Defender Red would be better than this.”
Well, let’s see how you like this, then.
Taking advantage of the pattern I’d seen in Scorpion’s attacks, I suddenly stepped forward at the same time as he did, deflected his blade with my own, and struck him square in the chest with a fist; he stumbled backwards, losing his balance, and I took the chance to start an attack of my own.
He managed to parry my first two strikes without moving, but by the third one he’d started stepping backwards; slowly and steadily, he began losing ground. Every strike he made was countered, my blade meeting his, and he had to scramble to avoid me managing to slash him. As we fought, I mentally thanked Clyde for his training: he was a harsh taskmaster, true, but by sparring with him I’d managed to get to this level – to be able to fight toe to toe with a Repulsoid Leader, and even to push him back.
Scorpion was becoming desperate now, his movements increasingly erratic; weirdly, it was harder for me to fight him then than before, when he’d been calm and collected – he no longer followed a pattern, he was becoming unpredictable. But still, I managed to keep ahead of him, and keep pushing him back.
He frantically glanced at Emerald Scarab, who was looking onto our fight from the sidelines. “Help me!” he shouted. “Do something!”
“This is a duel, Ipsum,” she shouted back. “You specifically told me not to intervene, to just keep watching. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? This way, the glory is all yours. My compliments.”
“Why…” he said, and made a move towards her, but he had to stop himself to brace against another one of my strikes.
“Team in-fighting, is that it?” I commented “This is getting fun.”
He jumped backwards, just out of my reach.
“Well, let’s see how you like this!” he shouted.
He raised his sword again, and again his blade began glowing; I prepared myself for the attack, but instead of loosing his crescent of fire at me, he spun around and let it fly in a different direction.
Directly towards Maelyn.
“No!” I shouted.
Gathering all the strength I could in my legs, I jumped forward, hoping I could manage to intercept Scorpion’s attack before it hit my friend.
I managed, but just barely; and, unfortunately, when I landed I was in no position to slash at the attack, or even steady myself for the blow.
The fire crescent hit me square in the chest; I distinctly felt the impact, and the sizzling noise of the fire burning partway through my suit. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I collapsed to one knee, my sword dropping to the ground.
“Red!” Maelyn screamed.
“I’m… I’m fine,” I said, picking up my blade and struggling to my feet. “I can still do this.”
But I wasn’t so sure of that: Scorpion’s attack had taken a lot out of me, there was no way I could even hope to still fight at the same level as before.
I squared off against him, but was surprised to see Emerald Scarab standing between us, her back to me.
“This was supposed to be a duel,” she said, reproach in her voice.
“It still is,” Scorpion replied. “It is me against her.”
Scarab shook her head. “Then why did you attack the hostage? Is it because you were about to lose?”
“There are no rules in a war.”
“That may be so, but you’re still a coward. You’ve attacked someone defenceless, just to get an edge against someone who was beating you,” Scarab said.
“Guilty as charged. Now step aside,” Scorpion commanded.
Scarab didn’t answer, or move.
“Step aside, I said,” Scorpion repeated. “Or should I tell the Emperor you refused to let me kill one of the Defenders, even though we had her at our mercy?”
Scarab looked at him for a few moments more, and then stepped aside, turning towards me. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Scorpion strode past her, sword at the ready. I lunged. He easily parried my clumsy, sluggish attack, and then he brought his blade around, which I barely deflected. Again and again he redoubled his strikes, and again I began to fall back; this time, however, I knew it was over. There was no way I could hope to defeat him, not in the condition I now found myself into, and he knew it too: I could see he wasn’t putting as much effort as before into his attacks.
A few more steps backwards, and one of his attacks sent my sword flying; I crumpled down to the rocky ground, looking up at Scorpion.
I took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. “Guess you win. Congratulations,” I said bitterly.
“You were a good opponent,” he said.
“And you were a terrible cheat,” I replied.
“Red!” Maelyn called from where she was standing; I could see her desperate expression out of the corner of my eye.
“Fear not, my dear,” Scorpion said. “As soon as I’ve dispatched Defender Red, I will see to it that you’re delivered back to your base, unharmed.”
Well, there was that, at least. One glimmer of light in the darkness.
“No, wait,” Mae said.
“What is it?” Scorpion asked. “Do you perhaps wish to plead for Red’s life?”
“No, that’s not it,” she replied. “Just… Hold on, let me get this straight. You’re just going to let me go? Just like that?” She seemed genuinely puzzled.
“It is what I had promised,” Scorpion said. “We do not kill civilians if we can help it. You have served your purpose, so now you may go.”
“So, wait. Let’s run through this one more time,” Maelyn said. “You’ve kidnapped me from Dayton yesterday at sword point, and brought me here, in this place… Just to lure Red here? Just to serve as bait?”
“That’s right,” Scorpion answered. “And you have served your purpose splendidly.”
She stared at him; she had a weird expression on her face.
“So you have no idea who I am.”
Scorpion turned towards her. “Is there a point to this rambling? You are Red’s friend, and that was enough for my purposes.”
Mae’s expression suddenly changed; it turned hard, her eyes cold as ice. She clicked her tongue.
“Oh, you have such bad luck.”
She planted her feet on the ground and spread her arms wide. The air in front of her seemed to shimmer, and a belt appeared around her waist.
On it was a morpher.
It was completely black: even the buttons and lever, which normally were coloured, were instead black as pitch.
Maelyn pushed one of the buttons.
“You idiot,” she said. She pushed the other button.
“You poor, unfortunate soul.”
She slapped the switch on the morpher into position.