Violence and death.
“I think that’s enough for today,” White said, making her sword collapse back into a cylinder with a flick of her wrist; I nodded in acknowledgment, sheathed my own weapon, and flicked the lever on my morpher. “Power Down,” it announced, as my Defender suit disappeared.
“Good job,” Meg continued, handing me a towel, which I gratefully took to dab my sweat away. “You’re really improving. Clyde will be surprised when he comes back to base.”
“When is he coming back?” I asked. “He said he’d be gone for a week, and it’s been two already.”
Meg shrugged. “Beats me. I asked General Ryder a couple days back, but he said that Clyde has requested an extension on his leave. Something about his aunt and uncle still needing his help.”
“Alright,” I replied. “It just… Feels weird. He’s an idiot, but I’d become used to having him around.”
“I get what you mean,” she said. “It’s been several days since we last saw him, too, since there haven’t been any attacks meanwhile.”
That was true; after the battle in which I’d faced Emerald Scarab before she escaped with Defender Silver, it seemed that things had calmed down quite a bit. There hadn’t been any attacks: no Leaders had showed up, no Soldiers had engaged with us. I was grateful for that, since it was a lull in fighting I sorely needed to rest and relax, at least for a while, but it felt weird; I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to make the aliens stop attacking. Maybe they’d exhausted their forces in the flurry of attacks that had culminated with Eli getting put in a coma, Sapphire Beetle being captured, and Scarab and Silver leaving together? And now they had to gather their strength again, before going on the offensive once more. That was a possibility.
Whatever had happened, though, it was a net positive for me: it meant that I could spend my days exploring around Defender Base, trying to find the big secret my brother had apparently discovered before being killed.
“How about we head to dinner?” Meg said, shaking me out of my thoughts. “Mae and Amelia should already be there.”
“You go on ahead, I have some reading to catch up on,” I answered.
Her eyebrows rose questioningly. “Reading?”
“Reading,” I nodded. “You know that big pile of papers they give you when you join the team?”
“…No?” she replied. “I never got anything of the sort.”
I blinked. “You didn’t?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“They probably only gave it to me because I joined the team later on, then,” I said. “Really, it’s amazing; I could probably use it against the Repulsoids, it’s so heavy the blunt force alone would be enough to knock a Leader out.”
Meg chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it would. If it contains all the information we gathered about the Repulsoids over the past ten years, and especially the Leaders…”
“Precisely,” I nodded. “I’d neglected it because, with everything that happened…” I gestured vaguely at the air, “I decided to give training the priority. But now it’s time to do some catch-up.”
“Alright,” she said. “But try to find some time to relax, too; otherwise, you’ll go stir-crazy before long.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
“See you tomorrow, then.” She smiled, and then left the room, headed to the cafeteria; I, on the other hand, went in the other direction, headed for the base’s library.
Ever since deciding to try and figure stuff out on my own, I did some snooping, and found out that almost all of the documents related to the Repulsoids were kept on base, under lock and key: and it made sense, since outside of the Defender Squadron and all its support staff, very few people had the necessary security clearance needed to access them.
But it also meant that I could access all of it. Not the heavily redacted version I’d been given – I’d looked at it, but several details were crossed out in black, and some pages had been censored in their entirety – but the whole text; and also, some material I hadn’t been given at all, probably because it wasn’t relevant.
Including Doctor Winters’ research notes.
I walked through the door to the library. The room was arranged over two floors, the walls lined with shelves, with placards ordering them alphabetically A to Z – apparently they didn’t use the Dewey Decimal System here; there was a big desk with a computer on it just in front of the entrance, and the soldier seated behind it stood at attention and saluted.
“Good afternoon, private,” I said, returning the salute. “At ease.”
“’Afternoon, ma’am,” he said, relaxing. “May I help you?”
“Yes, actually,” I answered. “I’m looking for Doctor Winters’ research notes. Could you help me find them?”
“Of course. I can get them for you,” the soldier said. “What’s your security clearance?”
“I… I don’t know, actually,” I said.
“I can look that up for you if you want.”
I smiled. “That would be great, thank you.”
He sat back down, and typed for a while on the laptop’s keyboard. “Let’s see… Lieutenant Kennedy… Your security clearance is A-3, it allows you to access Confidential-level material and below.” He looked up at me. “Unfortunately, the Doctor’s notes are classified as Secret, but I can give you a redacted version if you’d like.”
Well, damn. That put a wrench in my plans. Nothing major, but still… “The redacted version is fine,” I said.
The soldier nodded. “Please wait here,” he said. He opened a drawer in the desk, pulled out a set of keys, and walked along a line of shelves, until he apparently located what I’d asked him for; he unlocked the reinforced glass door covering the shelf, and pulled out a sheaf of papers, stapled together, which he brought back to the desk after locking the shelf again.
“Here you are,” he said, handing me the papers. “As a reminder: don’t make any copies, and of course this material is not to leave the base.”
“Of course,” I nodded. “I’ll return it as soon--”
I was cut off by the blaring of the alarm, and by Mae’s voice coming over the PA system telling all Defender Squadron members to assemble in the situation room.
I looked at the soldier and sighed, dropping the papers back on his desk. “Hold on these for me, will you? I’ll come get them when I’m back from my mission.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. He rose to attention and saluted. “Good luck out there.”
“Thank you,” I said, smiling in return. Then I turned around, and left the room at a half-jog.
I peeked around the corner at the group of Repulsoid soldiers assembled in the street; it was the first attack in a week, and they’d gone all out – almost two hundred soldiers were attacking Anderson, Indiana. As a result, the four of us had split up into pairs, to deal with the large number of soldiers we had to face. I was with Green, and we were about to face approximately three dozen Repulsoids; nothing we couldn’t deal with – there were no Leaders present, after all – but we couldn’t afford to be careless, otherwise we’d risk getting seriously injured.
I looked at Green, and gave her a nod; she nodded back, and we rounded the corner at a run, our guns blazing, striking down several soldiers, before we reached the group and went in swords drawn. It was a quick fight, as fights go: it lasted barely three minutes. But then I found myself facing the last soldier standing in front of me, and a wild, crazy idea passed through my mind like a flash.
I glanced to the side at Green, who was busy with a group of soldiers and wasn’t really paying attention to me. This was the best chance I was going to get.
I sprung towards the soldier, but instead of slashing them with my sword I turned it around and, after dodging a desperate, flailing attack they aimed at me, brought the hilt down on the back of their head, knocking them out. They crumpled to the ground, looking much like any other soldier – only they were unconscious, instead of being dead.
And not a moment too soon. Behind me, I heard the sound of fighting stop, and Green take a deep breath. “Okay, this is done with,” she said; then she tapped the side of her helmet. “Mae, anyone else we need to deal with?”
“Not that I can see,” came Maelyn’s voice over the comms. “Looks like you’re all clear.”
White nodded, then looked at me. “Let’s go home; I was in the middle of lunch, there’s a steak with my name on it waiting for me in the cafeteria.”
I laughed, and nodded.
“Green ready for transport,” she said, and disappeared in a flash of green light.
Okay. I had one or two minutes, five at most, before the people back at Defender Base would begin to wonder where I was and why I wasn’t teleporting back. I had to move quickly.
Truth to be told, my plan was a spur-of-the-moment thing; I had no idea where exactly I was going with it, I was making it up as I went.
I thought back to all the towns and cities we’d visited, all the places we’d protected against the Repulsoids; in most of them, the teleporter platforms were hidden in abandoned buildings, empty warehouses… Places like those.
Which meant that, unless someone went to check them for whatever reason, they were the perfect place to hide something. Or someone.
I crouched next to the soldier I’d knocked out, and grabbed their arm; then I pictured Champaign in my mind, sort of aiming myself at the general direction of the city, and tapped my morpher.
The street I was in disappeared into red light, to be replaced by a dark, empty warehouse. And the soldier was still in front of me.
Perfect. I left them there, lying on the concrete floor, while I quickly darted around, checked each and every exit to the building, and made sure they were locked tight – I didn’t want the soldier to run away before I could get back to them.
I took a deep breath, and opened a comms channel. “Red ready for transport,” I said. Again, the world disappeared in a flash of light, and I found myself standing on the teleport platform at Defender Base.
Amelia was standing next to it, already demorphed, a frown on her face. “You’re late,” she said. “What took you so long?”
“Just as you teleported out, I thought I saw something. So I went to investigate,” I lied.
Her frown deepened. “Something? A new Leader?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No, it was nothing after all. Just a weird trick of the light, nothing to worry about.”
She looked at me for a few moments, then nodded. “If you say so. Come on, let’s get to dinner.”
“Actually—” I began.
“No,” she said. “You need to eat, Steph. Food is good for you, especially after exerting yourself. Megan told us you want to study, but you can do that later.”
I sighed. “Alright. Let’s go have dinner.”
Having to do small talk and keep up a happy, smiling face during dinner was excruciating; all I could think about was the time I was spending with my teammates, while the Repulsoid soldier was lying unconscious in the warehouse in Champaign. Finally, after a half hour or so, I excused myself, saying I had things to do. Meg and Amelia objected, saying I’d barely eaten anything, and it was true: I’d just picked at my food. To satisfy them, I grabbed a tray and piled it up with several food items, and carried that back to my room when I left; they still gave me a worried stare, but let me go without commenting on it.
When I reached my room I shut the door and let out a deep breath; then I reached down, and quickly flicked the buttons and lever on my morpher.
“Welcome. Standby. Power Up!”
Like I’d done earlier that evening, I concentrated on the location of Champaign; I was about to press down on my morpher, but then hesitated.
I glanced at the tray of food on my table.
The soldier I’d captured would probably be hungry.
I grabbed the tray, concentrated again, and tapped my morpher; with a flash of red light, my room was replaced by the empty warehouse.
The soldier was awake; they were sitting on the ground, their back against a concrete pillar, but sprung to their feet and backed away in fear when I appeared.
“No, wait,” I said, raising one hand, and holding on the tray of food with the other. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
The soldier froze; they looked at me wide-eyed, but made no further attempt to escape.
“Hold on a second,” I said. I carefully placed the tray on the ground, and then flicked the lever on my morpher.
As my suit disappeared, I raised both arms, to show I was unarmed. “See? I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I just want to talk.”
The Repulsoid tilted their head to the side in curiosity. I knew they could understand me – my previous interactions with the Repulsoid soldiers had proven as much – but they were clearly not going to trust me any time soon.
I bent over, and picked up the food again. “Are you hungry?” I asked, motioning at them with the tray. “There’s some food here if you want it.”
I took a step towards them, but at that they backed away again. I sighed; yeah, it would take more than words to make them trust me.
“Look, I know this is a scary situation,” I said. “You find yourself in an unknown place, faced with someone who could easily kill you. I don’t blame you. But really, I don’t want to hurt you.” I paused. “If I’d wanted to, I could’ve killed you earlier today, couldn’t I?”
The Repulsoid seemed to consider that.
Remembering something, I quickly rearranged the food on the tray; then I placed it back down on the ground, bent over, and slid it a bit over in their direction. “Don’t worry, it’s not poisoned or anything like that,” I continued; I picked up a sandwich, took a bite out of it, chewed for a few moments, then swallowed. “See?”
I walked a few metres away, and sat down cross-legged on the floor, watching the soldier while slowly eating my sandwich.
The Repulsoid looked at me for a while, then slowly, cautiously, approached the tray I’d left for them, while keeping an eye on me all the while. When they reached the food, they bent over, and gave it a tentative sniff.
“The stuff on the left side doesn’t have any meat in it,” I said; they looked up at me in surprise. “I know y’all are vegetarians.”
That was something I remembered reading in my brother’s journal: Lorem had told him all her family – which was probably the Repulsoids – didn’t eat meat.
The soldier looked at me for a few seconds, then picked up the tray, and carried it several metres away; they sat back down, their back supported by a pillar, and put a few bits of food in their mouth. They tentatively chewed for a few moments, before grimacing.
“Yeah, I know. Yuck,” I laughed. “Cafeteria food. Not my favourite, either. And thinking about it, I have no idea what your taste buds are even like, maybe what tastes good to me tastes horrible to you, and vice-versa.”
The Repulsoid continued chewing, and then swallowed. They picked up another piece of food from the tray, looked at me, and shrugged, before putting it into their mouth.
I nodded. “I get ya. Food is food.”
We sat in silence for a long while while they ate; in the end, they’d completely cleared the side of the tray that had the meatless food on it. They’d probably been really hungry.
I looked at my watch; it was getting late, I would have to get back to base before long. If I was found to be missing, it would arouse suspicions, and I’d rather avoid that.
I stood up – the soldier giving a start of surprise, then relaxing again – and marched over to one of the warehouse’s doors.
“Okay, listen carefully,” I said. “I know this is scary, you’re alone on your own in the middle of who-knows-where, but I want to make one thing very clear: I don’t intend to hurt you. In fact, you’re not even my prisoner.”
I unlocked the door and flung it open. “See? You can leave whenever you want,” I said. “If you go out this door and head north, you should be back to Repulsoid territory in about fifteen or twenty miles.” I paused. “I’ll be back tomorrow with more food, and I hope I’ll find you here. But if you’re not, I’ll understand.”
They tilted their head to the side, and grunted questioningly.
“…I don’t really know why I’m doing this myself, either,” I said. “I just want to talk with someone from your side, I guess? Because I want to believe that fighting isn’t the only solution, that we can have a proper conversation.” I smiled. “Not that we had a conversation, mind. You’ve been quiet this whole time. And even if you did speak, I wouldn’t be able to understand you. You’re smarter than me, it seems, you can understand my language while I can’t understand yours. I’ll have to study.”
I sighed, and stepped away from the door.
“Either way, I hope I’ll find you here tomorrow.”
I quickly morphed, then waved to the Repulsoid soldier, and concentrated on Indianapolis, the location of Defender Base. I tapped the morpher on my belt, and I was off.
As I’d hoped, the teleporter room was completely dark and empty when I appeared on the platform; it was already past midnight, and it would’ve been difficult to answer any questions regarding where I’d been.
I demorphed, and slowly opened the door to the corridor, looked left and then right; no one was there either. I stepped out of the room, quietly slid the door closed, and set off along the corridor towards my room.
I made it halfway before, rounding a corner, I bumped into Mae.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I…” she said. Then she looked up. “Steph? What are you doing awake at this hour?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” I replied. “Thought that maybe pacing the corridors a bit would help me. How about you?”
“That’s classified,” she said.
I looked at her. “It’s not something bad, is it?”
She crossed her arms in front of her, and looked at me with a smirk. “That’s classified.”
“…You’re impossible,” I said with an exasperated sigh, walking around her and towards my room.
“Have a good sleep, Stephanie!” she called after me, in a sing-song voice.
When I got to my room I didn’t even bother turning on the lights or changing into my pajamas; I just lay down on my bed, and was soon fast asleep.
Thanks for reading, and if you want to leave a comment, I always love reading those.
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