Violence and death.
May 24th, 2020. Sunday. Sunny.
Finally, after more than two months, I had the chance to talk to her without no one around to interrupt us.
You know that hike I invited her to? Well it was more of an… Appointment. I’d told her a place, and that I would be waiting there every Sunday afternoon. Then I started my routine: I would pack a boxed lunch, go out there, and sit down in the open. Just waiting for her. Then, in the evening, I teleported back to base.
For a long time, there was no trace of her. I was starting to doubt the… Connection. That feeling I had for her, which I thought was mutual. Maybe she just didn’t think much of me. Maybe I was just… Deluding myself. After several Sundays of her not showing, that feeling of doubt was becoming almost a certainty.
And then today, on the tenth week, she showed up. Just strode out of the woods and sat down next to me at the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley.
I said hi, she grunted in response. We were quiet for a while, but then she mentioned that the view was really nice.
After that, we started chatting. She said that she’d actually come out to find me on the first day I was there, but she’d spent the ten weeks… Watching. Just looking at me sitting there. She wanted to make sure this wasn’t some kind of trick, which… Why would it be a trick? I don’t know. But in the end, she stopped being skittish, she gathered her courage – her words – and decided to approach me.
I’m reminded of The Little Prince, the book by that french guy. The part with the kid and the fox. How the fox says that, over time, he will get used to the kid, sitting closer and closer every day, until he will finally let the kid pet him.
Except I’m pretty sure THIS fox would cut my hand right off if I tried to pet her. At least for now. These things take time.
But we exchanged names, at least. That’s progress. I know it’s weird that we hadn’t before, but still. Progress.
Her name is Lorem. That’s a nice name.
I was in the training room, working out with Amelia, when the door opened and Meg walked in.
I re-racked my weights with a grunt, and sat up on the bench. “Good afternoon. Any news?” I asked.
Meg shook her head. “Still nothing. He’s still in a coma.” She sighed. “It’s been a week now, and still no sign of him waking up. His life isn’t in danger at least, but…”
She had a sad expression on her face, and I couldn’t blame her: losing Elijah, just like that, had been a serious blow to our morale.
At General Ryder’s behest, Megan had stepped up and become temporary field commander of the Defender Squadron. “Until Captain Wilson wakes up, and is able to return to fighting,” he’d said; no one had any idea when that would be. She hadn’t had to take charge yet, though: the Repulsoids were giving us some space to breathe, it seemed – or they’d overextended themselves attacking so many times in a row, and they had to stop to regroup.
I looked down at the floor. “It’s my fault he’s like that,” I said.
“No, Steph,” Amelia said firmly. “It’s absolutely not your fault.”
“I’m still not strong enough,” I continued, ignoring her. “If someone else had been there, like Clyde…”
“Steph,” Meg said, grabbing my shoulders. “Stop.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said, echoing Amelia’s words. “No one could’ve foreseen Beetle being able to do something like that. I know we tend to blame ourselves when one of our friends gets injured. Clyde did that. I know I do that. But you did the best you could.”
I sighed. “Guess my best wasn’t enough,” I replied, still looking down at the floor.
She tightened her grip on my shoulders. “Well, let’s keep on training then.” She lifted my chin with one hand and looked straight at me: her eyes were shining with determination. “So next time we meet Beetle, we can show him what’s what, and avenge Eli.”
There was a moment of silence, then Amelia piped up: “You mean we’ll get to beat the Beetle?”
Despite everything, I found myself giggling; Megan, on the other hand, let out a groan. “Amelia, you ever thought of writing a book of dad jokes?” she queried.
“I did write one, actually,” Amelia replied. “But it’s under lock and key in an underground vault; my jokes are much too powerful to be let out in the world.”
Megan smiled. “Never change, girl.” Then she stood up from her kneeling position, and offered me her hand. “So, what do you say? Morphed combat training sound good?”
With Clyde gone back home to help his aunt and uncle, and Eli in a coma, it fell to Meg or Amelia to spar with me – mostly on Meg, because Amelia already was my coach for weight and endurance training. In truth, without the two male members of the squadron around, the base felt half empty. It was a bit lonely: I’d even found myself wishing Clyde was back, so that I would have one more person to talk to besides the two girls – the general was always on his own, and I wasn’t really on speaking terms with Mae.
I nodded, grabbed Meg’s hand, and let her pull me up. “Let’s do this,” I said.
Just then, the alarm blared.
I sighed; I hated that sound. “After we get back, I guess.”
“Sorry I’m late, I was in the shower when the alarm rang,” Clyde said, striding into the situation room; he was wearing a tracksuit, and his short hair was damp with moisture, with a couple streaks of un-rinsed shampoo in it.
“Just by a minute, lieutenant,” General Ryder replied. “Don’t worry, but don’t make a habit of it.” He turned to Maelyn. “What are we looking at?”
“The Repulsoids are attacking Danville, Illinois,” she replied. “About seventy to eighty soldiers confirmed, as well a Leader.”
I gulped; I really didn’t want to face her; or Beetle, for that matter. Couldn’t it have been Scorpion instead?
“Alright,” the general said. He turned to us. “I know this will be difficult, since we’re one man down, but we have to do this. Transform, and move out.”
“Yes, sir!” we replied in unison.
It took only a few seconds for us to morph into our defender suits and be teleported to Danville; I took a moment to steady myself, as always, and then we opened the door to the empty warehouse that disguised our teleport platform, and exited out onto the street.
“Mae, where are the Repulsoids?” White asked.
“All over the city, unfortunately,” Mae replied. “In groups of about ten to a dozen each.”
“Alright,” White said. “We’ll have to split up.”
“But…” I started to protest, but she shook her head.
“I know it’s dangerous, and I don’t like it either, but ensuring civilians are safe is our utmost priority; this way, we’ll cover more ground.”
I hesitated, then said, “Okay.”
“Remember not to take any unnecessary risks, and call for backup if you meet the Leader. Let’s go.”
We all nodded, turned around, and started running in four different directions. It didn’t take long before I met the first group of soldiers, and I quickly dispatched them. Truth to be told, I felt a little bad about it: they never had any chance against the Defenders – against me – but still, they were sent out to fight by whoever was in charge, without regards for whatever fate befell them.
I wondered if the Leaders were the same: whether they had to obey orders, or whether they were the ones calling the shots.
“Good day, Defender Red,” said a voice behind me. A voice I recognised.
Well, what better way to find out than to ask a Leader?
I turned around to face Emerald Scarab. Unlike the previous times she’d surprised me, she wasn’t standing right behind me, but rather several metres away. Still, her sword was unsheathed: it looked like she wanted to fight.
“Am I Defender Red now?” I asked. “Really? I thought I was Fake Red.”
Scarab shook her head. “You have grown since the first time we faced each other. I have looked at the way you fight. I have asked my soldiers,” she answered. There was a tinge of sadness in her voice. “As much as I don’t want to admit it, you have fully taken the place of the first Defender Red.”
She raised her sword and pointed it at me. “Though I don’t know if you’re quite on his level yet.”
There was a long pause; neither of us moved.
“What are you waiting for?” she said. “Draw your blade, so that we may duel.”
“No,” I said.
She tilted her head to the side. “No?”
“No,” I repeated, shaking my head. “I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want to fight any of you.” I took a deep breath. “There has to be a better way.”
“A better way for what?” she asked, lowering her blade so that it pointed at the ground.
“All this fighting. All this pain,” I said. “Is it really necessary? My friend, Defender Blue, is lying in the hospital, unconscious. And what have you gained from it?”
“We have removed an obstacle,” she replied.
“At what cost? How many soldiers have been killed? How many Leaders have been killed? Or seriously injured? Do you remember what happened to Ipsum?” I paused, as a thought came to my mind. “By the way, what did happen to Ipsum? Where is he now?”
“He…” Scarab began, then seemed to hesitate. “He died of his wounds. Black killed him.”
She didn’t sound convincing. “Did he really? Because your other ally, the one in blue, seemed convinced I was responsible for his death.”
“I have not mentioned Black’s involvement,” she said.
I blinked. “Why would you do that?”
There was another long pause. “There was another one who thought we could talk instead of fighting,” she said, finally, ignoring my question. “Nothing came of it. Despite all efforts, we’re still fighting. We cannot help it, it’s our nature.”
“Who was this another one?” I asked.
Again, she ignored my question; instead, she turned her head to the side to look at something. I followed her gaze, and saw the other three Defenders approaching us at a sprint. As I was looking, Yellow drew his gun and fired a shot, narrowly missing Scarab.
“It is regretful, but it seems our conversation is at an end,” she said. She turned to look at me again, and continued, “Next time, there will be no more talking.”
She raised her fist, lightning-quick, and deflected a plasma bolt which otherwise would’ve hit her square in the chest; then she wrapped herself in her cape, and disappeared in a flash of green light.
“Red!” White said when she reached me. “Are you okay? Are you injured?”
“I’m fine,” I replied.
“Why didn’t you call for back-up?”
“There was no need to.”
The three Defenders stared at me for a moment, then Green raised her hand and slapped me on the back of my head.
“You idiot,” she said. “You don’t have to be proud and do everything by yourself. I would expect this from Yellow–”
“Hey!” Yellow protested.
“–But from you? This is new.”
“I didn’t…” I began to say, but then stopped.
“You didn’t what?” Green asked.
I hesitated, then replied: “…Never mind. How’s the situation?”
“The coast is clear,” White said. “Let’s go back home.”
July 19th, 2020. Sunday. Overcast.
I’ve met with Lorem every Sunday since late May, and I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m constantly learning new things about her and her family, for example that they’re all vegetarian – I wouldn’t have expected it, knowing how her relatives are.
I’m falling more and more in love with her with each passing moment. She’s smart, and funny, and clever, and witty. Besides being really badass, of course. And she’s also really cute: today, for the first time, she took off her coat, the one she always wears. She was clearly a bit embarrassed about it, as if she was taking off protection, but soon relaxed.
She has a… Feline beauty in her. She’s almost otherworldly.
I really wish we could be together even when we’re not out here in the boonies, hidden from everyone, but we’ve agreed that neither her family nor my friends would understand. It’s best if we keep this secret, at least for now. Though it’s really funny having to pretend we don’t know each other whenever we have a run-in during the week. It was a bit awkward the first few times, but we soon got used to it.
One thing she said today gave me pause, though: that my friends have always refused all contact with her family. That doesn’t sound right – I was convinced it was the opposite. I’d been told so, at least.
I thought I might check in with Alexander: if someone knows the truth, it would be him. But on the other hand… What if what Lorem said is true? It would mean Alexander had been deceiving us this whole time. But who else can I ask, though? The Doctor, maybe?
I’ll have to think about it.
“Report, Corporal,” General Ryder said.
“Richmond, Indiana,” Mae replied.
“And how large is the enemy force?”
“Well, this is weird. According to the report, it’s just two Repulsoids.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise. “Just two?” I asked.
“Yes,” Maelyn nodded. “Emerald Scarab and Sapphire Beetle. And, after the initial attack, where they drew our attention, they’re just… Standing there. Almost as if they were waiting for something.”
“Or someone,” I said.
“What do you mean, Steph?” Megan asked.
“It’s a challenge. They want us to go out there and fight them.”
“It’s probably a trap,” the general said.
“Probably,” Meg said. “But then again, what are we gonna do? Just let them hang out in the middle of a city? While the whole population is hiding in the shelters?” She shook her head. “And who knows what they may do if we don’t show.”
“Agreed,” Clyde said. He turned to General Ryder. “Your orders, sir?”
The general thought for a few seconds, then nodded. “Transform, and move out. But do be careful.”
“Always,” Amelia replied.
The two Leaders were still standing in the open when we reached their position. They’d chosen it very well: it was in the middle of a wide plaza, there was no way we could’ve gotten close enough to them to launch a sneak attack without them spotting us. So we decided to just walk in, all together.
“We meet again, Defender Red,” Beetle said. He raised his arm and pointed at me. “Today, it’s your turn.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” I replied. I drew my sword and squared off against him and Scarab, as did the other three Defenders.
“Shall we begin, then?” he replied, unsheathing his own blade.
There was a brief moment where everything was still and silent: you could almost hear the wind blow across the square. Then the moment was over, and we launched ourselves at the two Leaders, while they rushed us at the same time, and the battle was joined.
At first it seemed as if we were evenly matched. The four of us moved with perfect coordination, and kept attacking the two Repulsoids, while they parried, dodged, and avoided our strikes. It was almost as if it was an elaborate dance they were leading us into, and after a couple minutes, I noticed that it was exactly that: gradually their stances and movements had shifted and pulled apart, and we were no longer four against two – I was dueling Beetle alone, while the other three were battling Scarab.
No, that wasn’t it.
They were being kept busy by Scarab. She was keeping them engaged, keeping them distracted, so that by the time we noticed we were being split up, none of them could just break off and come to my help.
The two Leaders had been expertly leading the dance, making sure to isolate us, starting with me.
By that point, Beetle and I had moved out of the plaza, into an adjacent construction site: we’d reached a newly-erected building, unfinished except for the concrete skeleton. There was heavy equipment and machinery scattered all around, mounds of sand, piles of rebar just lying on the ground – this was a dangerous battleground, I had to be careful about where I placed my feet, lest I trip and give Beetle the opening he needed to finish me off.
Well then, let’s try something different before it comes to that.
I shifted my stance slightly, and the next time the Repulsoid took a swing at me, I dodged instead of parrying; then I stepped backwards and, with a flick of my wrist, drew my gun out of its holster. It was an idea I’d had while doing morphed training, and I’d tried it out a few times with Meg and Amelia – even though I was in close quarters, there was no reason I should only use my sword, was there?
As soon as the gun was in my hand, I took a shot at Beetle; he saw it coming, and slapped the plasma bolt out of the air, sending it crashing against a nearby concrete pillar. That gave me the opening I needed: I raised my sword and rushed forward to strike at him…
…And slipped on a patch of ice he created under my feet with a deft wave of his hand.
I managed not to lose my footing, but I did lose my balance, and that was just what Beetle was waiting for: he swept his leg around, catching my own legs and sending me to the ground.
He didn’t even say anything as he stepped over to me and raised his sword.
“Hey!” a girl’s voice shouted. “Ya blue jerk! Over here!”
Beetle turned his head to look at where the voice had come from, and a fist-sized lump of concrete hit him right in the face, shattering into pieces; he grunted, probably more in surprise than in pain, and took a step backwards, away from me.
I turned my head just in time to see the girl come in swinging: her weapon collided with the Leader’s head with a clanging sound, and he staggered further back.
“Phew,” the girl said. “Glad I made it in time. You okay?”
All I could do was stare. A civilian? What the hell? This was an incredibly brave thing she was doing, but also incredibly foolish: she’d caught Beetle by surprise, true, but there was simply no way she could hope to stand up to him once he’d recovered.
“Hey!” she shouted back at me over her shoulder. “I said, you okay?”
I shook myself. “Yes,” I replied.
She’d planted herself between me and Beetle, her back to me; she was wearing sneakers, jeans, and a leather jacket, and her hair was in a short ponytail, which poked out of the back of her baseball hat. In her hands she held a long, thin metal bar – a piece of rebar, I realised – which was visibly bent where it had connected with Beetle’s head: the impact must have been very hard.
By then, Beetle had gotten his wits back: he was staring at the newcomer, and I could tell by his body language that he was very upset at the interference.
“What the hell? Who are you?” he demanded.
I couldn’t see the girl’s face, but somehow, I got the feeling she was grinning widely; she tossed aside the metal bar, which clanged to the ground, and pulled up the sleeve of her jacket.
Fastened to her wrist was an alien-looking object, not unlike… A morpher?
The girl pushed a button on the device. “Come On Now!” came an electronic voice.
“You’re right,” she said, and pushed another button.
“Are You Ready?”
“I haven’t introduced myself.”
She flicked a lever.
There was a flash of light; it was white, but had a weird tint about it. Almost metallic.
When it subsided, the girl was dressed in a suit. A… Defender suit? No, not really, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before – it was almost as if it was an amalgam of the Defender and Leader suits. It looked both human and alien at the same time, and it sparkled with a silver sheen.
She struck a pose. “Defender Silver on the scene!” she exclaimed.
Beetle didn’t wait for her to get ready: he stepped forward and went in swinging, but Silver just stepped back, and the swing went wide.
“Missed me!” she said.
Beetle growled, and brought his sword around again in a horizontal slash; the new Defender jumped up in the air, the blade whizzing harmlessly below her.
“Missed me again!”
“Stand still and fight!” Beetle shouted.
“I guess ‘fight’ means ‘let yourself be hit by my sword’ to you, doesn’t it?” Silver quipped. “No thanks!”
She jumped again and somersaulted over Beetle’s head; as soon as she landed behind him, a silver-coloured sword appeared in her hand. She spun around, and slashed the Leader’s back with it, making a shower of spark fall to the ground. Beetle grunted in pain, and staggered a few steps forward.
“Now, let’s try this,” Silver said. She cleared her throat, and said, in a bad imitation of Beetle’s voice, “Stand still and fight!”
Then she looked at me and stage-whispered, “That means ‘let yourself be hit by my sword,’ by the way.” She gave me a thumbs-up.
“Why you little…” Beetle said, turning around, but Silver had already closed the distance between them: she moved up close and personal to him, right in his face, so that he couldn’t hit her with his sword.
“Hey, question!” she asked. “Do you know the basics of close quarters combat?”
“What?” Beetle growled.
“Look down,” Silver said.
The Leader glanced downwards, and I followed his gaze: Silver had her gun out, the muzzle pushed right against Beetle’s stomach.
“It calls for the use of both a blade and a gun in close situations.”
She fired several times in close succession; Beetle screamed, and fell backwards to the ground. Silver jumped in place a few times. “Ah, nothing like a workout before dinner,” she said.
Beetle groaned; by then I’d climbed back to my feet, and I could see he was moving his hand towards his morpher.
“No you don’t!” Silver exclaimed, leaping forward, grabbing his wrist and twisting it; the Repulsoid let out a shout of pain.
“Let’s see now,” the new Defender said, fumbling around Beetle’s belt with her free hand. “It should be… Ah, yeah, here it is.”
She moved something on his morpher; an electronic voice said “De-energise,” and his suit disappeared.
“I’ll be taking this, if you don’t mind,” Silver said, snatching up Beetle’s morpher. Then she paused, turned to me, and gave me a wave.
“This was fun. Let’s do this again sometime.”
And then she teleported away in a flash of light.
I was left there, staring dumbfounded at Sapphire Beetle just lying there, suitless and defenceless, groaning in pain.
What the hell had just happened?