8:46 AM PST
The world exploded. Her back was to the blast, but she felt the fire envelope her as a blaze of heat and golden light swept across her vision. For one timeless second everything hovered between existence and nothingness, and her last panicked thought was that Andros would be furious with her for dying.
Her next thought was that she stood amidst the rubble in nothing but her street clothes, and if her Ranger armor was gone then she would be little use in holding off the quantrons. Her teammates were clad in their regular clothes too, and that could only be bad. They were all... sparkling?
Ashley looked down at her hands, lifting them up even as the golden sparkles faded and fell away. She was still alive, she realized suddenly. She looked around in confusion, but the quantrons were gone. She barely had time to process that before the crowd surrounding them swept in, swirling around them, patting, touching, congratulating and hugging them all at once.
She heard TJ's exultant whoop from somewhere far away, and she saw Carlos engulfed by grateful civilians as he threw up his arms in a victory wave. She saw Zhane and Cassie clinging to each other in the melee, ducking and laughing at the same time, and then she too was caught up in the rising tide of exultation.
Throughout the kaleidoscopic whirl of cheers and dancing and the embrace of strangers, she looked for Andros. He had to be here, somewhere. If they had won, if the quantrons were really gone and Earth was free again, then he had to be here. Only Andros could have worked such a miracle.
Everywhere she turned, Ashley saw flashes of red, long hair swinging, and the glint of silver on an unguarded wrist. But the Red Ranger remained absent, and a stillness began to settle over her frantic thoughts. He's gone, a voice inside her head whispered. This time he's really gone.
She felt someone catch her hands and she turned expectantly, but it was only Cassie, pulling her out of the chaotic celebration and into temporary refuge beneath a fallen steel girder. "Any word from Andros?" the other girl whispered, the words barely audible over the shouts of triumph from the street.
With a single shake of her head, she tried to let the silent answer lie. The words bubbled up anyway, and she found couldn't keep from voicing her worst fears. "Cassie... I don't think he's coming back."
The look of sympathy and sadness on her best friend's face was too much, and she looked down at their clasped hands. Cassie accepted without question that if anyone knew what had happened to Andros it would be her, but her acceptance was worse than denial. If she had protested, that would have meant there was hope.
Ashley felt another hand on her shoulder, and she knew without having to look that Carlos had found them. He said no more than Cassie, and she hated them for it. They made everything more real by not fighting it, and she just couldn't believe it was true. She couldn't accept it, or winning wouldn't mean anything anymore.
He's gone, the voice in her head whispered again, and she closed her eyes.
It was the hum that made her look up again, staring at the girder as though she could see through it and stepping away from her friends when she couldn't. There was a dissonant buzz in the air, building under the excited sounds of the impromptu party that had sprung up around them. Building under it, and then overwhelming it, until the other sounds were silenced completely and all that was left was the angry roar of the Dark Fortress settling into the very rubble it had created earlier that day.
It meant nothing. All their work, all their sacrifice--all that for a few moments of imagined freedom while Astronema recalled her soldiers and gloated over her handiwork. She must have known when the Rangers' armor was lost, perhaps even been responsible for it herself, and she had known there was nothing more this backward planet could do to repel her. She had called back her quantrons and had now come to enjoy their defeat personally.
The boarding ramp was lowered to the ground, and Ashley stared numbly at the unforgiving metal as she waited for the honor guard to make its appearance. She could probably take the first ten or so quantrons, even without armor, and the insult might be some small payment for everything Astronema had taken from her. She could probably do it, as long as she remembered how to move long enough to make it to the ramp.
A pair of boots appeared at the top of the ramp. A single pair of boots. Black boots, with silver buckles, striding down the ramp toward them. A grey flight suit over a red shirt, with a double planet insignia on the breast. Blonde-streaked brown hair pulled back from an expressionless but very familiar face...
"Andros!" The cry was torn from her before she even realized what was happening, and she found herself racing forward, intent on catapulting herself into his arms.
Only when her mind finally caught up with her heart did she realize that his arms were already occupied, and his face was not expressionless but full of a terrible sorrow that made her own fears seem insignificant. He held Astronema's still form close to him as he descended the ramp, and he laid the body of their archenemy reverently down on the cracked pavement below.
Distantly, Ashley was aware of the unbroken quiet behind her. The engines of the Dark Fortress had fallen silent, but the sole focus of the crowd was taken up with the scene playing out before them. She could feel her teammates crowding close behind her, not quite daring to step past in case this turned out to be something bigger than they were.
Alive or dead? Her mind chanted the words over and over, and she searched the frozen tableau for some sign one way or the other. Alive or dead?
Andros was crying now, a single tear running down his face, though he hadn't moved since he laid Astronema down. Another tear followed the first, and the sight made Ashley long to go to him, to wrap her arms around his kneeling figure and offer him some reprieve from his pain. No matter how she wished it, though, she couldn't seem to make her feet move.
Her vision blurred with her own tears, and for a moment she could see what Andros must see: his sister, younger by all of six minutes, lying there in Astronema's place. The red hair faded to blonde, the ugly metal implants disappeared, and color suffused the pale cheeks of a girl who had been torn from him yet again. She had been the only family he had left, and now--
Now she was sitting up, a bewildered look quickly being replaced by concern as she caught sight of her brother's tears. "Andros?" She stared at him for a moment, and Ashley blinked in confusion. No matter how she tried to clear her eyes, though, the vision wouldn't fade.
"How did I get here?" Karone asked uncertainly, looking down at herself and then back up at Andros. She seemed more worried for his obvious shock than for her own apparent amnesia.
"That's--" Andros choked on the words, as though a chuckle might be trying to work its way through his tears. "That's a long story," he managed at last, leaning forward to help her when she propped herself up on her elbows.
As he pulled his sister into a sitting position, the spell that held everyone else motionless was broken. Ashley found herself running forward, half-dropping, half-falling to her knees beside the two of them. She threw her arms around Karone and at the same moment she felt someone touch her hair, gently but deliberately.
Cassie had tumbled to the ground with her, and Ashley released Karone into her friend's embrace as she looked up at Andros. His hand was still caressing her hair, but when he caught her gaze he slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. She couldn't keep her balance, but his other arm encircled her as she fell against him and he held her safely in place.
She didn't know how long they stayed like that, but before long Cassie was helping Karone to her feet and Zhane had stepped up to her other side. While Cassie only looked solicitous, watching Karone's every movement, Zhane was clearly assessing the crowd. No one knew for certain how the news of Astronema's true identity would be received, although Ashley had given it some thought when Karone defected the first time.
Zhane hadn't been there then. This time, his expression said clear as day that anyone who had words for the former Queen of Evil would have to go through him first.
Carlos and TJ were equally protective of her and Andros, Ashley noticed. As Andros drew her up beside him and took a step forward, their teammates fell into flanking positions on either side of them. What trouble they expected, she didn't know, but she found the gesture oddly comforting--especially with the crowd they now found themselves facing.
"Andros!" Adelle's voice was the first to catch her attention above the increasing commotion, and she felt Andros focus on the Surf Spot's owner. His attention seemed to give her some kind of authority, and those nearby quieted as she stepped forward.
"Or should I say, 'Red Ranger'?" Adelle had her hands on her hips, undaunted by the sudden scrutiny. She was giving them the same appraising look that she gave every teenager who walked into her establishment, and Ashley wondered if revealing their identities had been such a good idea.
At her side, she felt Andros square his shoulders. "That's me," he said calmly, meeting Adelle's gaze without flinching. "I'm sorry we couldn't keep Dark Specter's war from coming to Earth."
Adelle snorted. "You just saved this whole dang planet, and you have the nerve to apologize? Let me tell you something, smart alec--" Her eyes twinkled at the gasps from the crowd, inviting Andros to remember their first conversation and share the humor. "If I'd known who I was talking to all those months ago, you'd have been eating free at the Surf Spot ever since."
Those words elicited a cheer from the crowd, and Ashley couldn't help laughing. Andros nodded once, conveying his appreciation, but as soon as it was quiet enough for him to speak he said, "Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do before I can take you up on that. Is there anyone here from the hospital?"
A blonde-haired woman raised her hand as she stepped forward to join Adelle. "I work in Pediatrics," she offered, and Ashley blinked. It was the same woman who, in a last ditch effort to save Angel Grove that morning, had claimed to be the Yellow Ranger.
"Is the hospital still standing?" Andros wanted to know. "Will you be able to treat seriously injured people there, or will we have to send them to..."
"Stone Canyon," Ashley whispered, and he squeezed her shoulder in thanks.
"Stone Canyon?" he finished, as though he hadn't paused. "We'll need satellite treatment centers too; even if the hospital isn't damaged it'll fill up fast, and some people won't be able to travel that far."
Ashley swallowed, hearing Andros' own experience in the words. He had cleaned up a mess like this once before on his own planet. There the battle had ended with retreat instead of victory, and she knew the memories still haunted him.
"The hospital was in good shape the last time I saw it," the blonde-haired woman told him. "If we can find people to staff it, we should be able to treat the worst of the injuries."
"You'll need volunteers," Andros said, his gaze sliding away from her and out across the gathered crowd. At his words, several people began to push their way forward to cluster around the pediatric nurse. She looked a little startled by the sudden support, but Adelle spoke up before she could say anything.
"You can use the Surf Spot as one of those 'satellite treatment centers'," she told Andros. "It's in one of the least damaged sections of town, and we'll convert it into a shelter right quick."
"Can you organize some kind of shelter network?" Andros asked, studying her. "Maybe get people settled at the high school, too, and find out what other public buildings are in good enough condition to use as temporary housing."
"You got it." Adelle took on the responsibility without hesitation, and Andros glanced over at Ashley.
"Who's in charge of search and rescue?" he whispered, and she had to think about it for a minute.
"The police, or the fire department I guess," she replied at last, just as softly.
Raising his voice again, Andros asked, "Anyone from the police or the fire department here?"
Ashley stifled a giggle as she realized he was repeating her words verbatim, but it sounded all right. When shouts from further back in the crowd identified the requested officials, the others parted to let them through and Andros shot her a helpless glance. Hospitals he knew, she guessed, but local law enforcement was probably beyond him.
"We're going to have to search pretty much the whole city," she announced, knowing she didn't have to tell anyone here that. "We can't have untrained people going into unstable buildings, so the fire department will have to direct volunteers and decide who can go where. We'll need the police to keep track of where the searchers are and where victims are being taken so that people can find their family members."
"We also have to find out how widespread the damage is," Andros put in. "The attack seemed to be centered on Angel Grove, probably because Astronema wanted the Power Rangers, but we'll need to make sure."
Ashley glanced at Karone, but Andros' sister didn't so much as blink at the mention of Astronema. Ashley wondered how much she remembered. She must at least have connected the devastation with the presence of the Dark Fortress, even if she had no real memories of her most recent time under Dark Specter's control.
One of the officers offered to put Andros in touch with the governor, and Ashley hid a smile when he addressed Andros as "Red Ranger". When one was faced with the end of the world one didn't tend to think too much about consequences, and they really hadn't been given a choice when it came to revealing their identities. It was done now, for better or worse, and it looked like the rest of the city didn't know exactly how to handle it either.
"Will you come?" Andros asked her, startling her out of her musings. More quietly, he added, "I don't know anything about your government. Maybe I should have gone to History with you after all."
It took her a moment to realize he was joking, and his lips quirked upward when she rolled her eyes. "Is that a yes?" he wanted to know.
"Yes," she sighed, making a show of reluctance. "I'll go talk to the governor of California with you. But only because I don't have anything better to do."
"Andros," Zhane interjected, keeping his voice as low as theirs. He turned a little, staying between Karone and the crowd, but his gaze didn't waver from Andros'. "You know I want to help, but I left the rebels in a lot of trouble. I have to go back to KO-35."
Andros frowned, but Ashley knew he wasn't disagreeing. He was wishing he could go.
"We can do it without you," she said softly, though the idea of him leaving hurt her heart. "If you want to go with Zhane, we can help put Earth back together."
He turned his frown on her. "Do you want me to go?"
"Of course not!" The protest was out before she had time to think, and it seemed to reassure him. "I had to watch you leave once," she reminded him, unable to hold his gaze. Staring down at the ground, she admitted, "I don't want to do it again. But--if you need to be on KO-35, I'll understand."
The gentle brush of fingers against her cheek made her look up, and she found Andros studying her with the same intent expression he'd given her the night before. Just before he left. She didn't know whether things would play out the same way they had then--or if maybe this time he'd kiss her before he went.
"What I need right now," he said softly. Staring into her eyes, he seemed unable to finish the sentence. "What I need..."
She swallowed, and she heard Zhane clear his throat. Andros blinked, letting his hand fall. In a more normal tone of voice, he said, "What I need right now is to be here with--here, on Earth. But I don't want you to go alone, Zhane."
"I'll go," Cassie offered unexpectedly. "We owe the rebels for helping us defeat Darkonda on Centaur B. I'll go with Zhane; you guys take care of Earth."
"They'd say you don't owe them anything," Zhane began, but Cassie shook her head.
"They're our friends," she said firmly. "We have to help them. Can we take the Megaship, Andros?"
Andros glanced at Zhane. "Can you take the Megaship, Zhane?" Despite his dry tone, some of his worry came through. He would be heartbroken if his precious ship had been damaged beyond repair.
"Her offensive capability is totally shot," Zhane answered. "No pun intended," he added as an afterthought. "But she's spaceworthy, and as long as we don't have to fight she'll make the trip fine."
"But we won't have any way of getting in touch with you," TJ reminded them. "Our communicators won't reach that far without DECA to boost the signal, and we don't have anything else right now."
"Yes, we do." Karone's voice was as confident as Astronema's had been, if a little gentler. "The Dark Fortress took almost no damage during the attack, and the comm system can easily reach KO-35."
Zhane gave her a surprised look, but Andros just nodded. "Good. We'll stay in contact, then, and Cassie... keep Zhane out of trouble, would you?"
"No problem," Cassie agreed with a grin, while Zhane yelped in protest.
"Karone," Andros said, glancing at his sister again and ignoring the indignant look Zhane was giving him. "We're going to need to know what damage the Dark Fortress did take and what exactly it's capable of inside an atmosphere. Think you could take TJ to help you assess things, and maybe educate him a little at the same time?"
"Of course," Karone murmured, giving TJ a sideways glance. "As long as he doesn't mind working with a traitor."
"That's not going to work," TJ informed her, although he looked like he was trying not to grin. "You're not going to get me to apologize again, so just forget it."
Ashley shot a quick look at the plainclothes officer who was still waiting patiently for them, and she nudged Andros gently. Behind the man who had offered to help them reach the governor, the rest of the crowd was breaking up into smaller groups. Some followed Adelle and the nurse, while others were allowing the remainder of the public offcials to organize them in some useful fashion. A few others were simply drifting off or hurrying away, in search of loved ones or places they had called home, but all of them gave the Dark Fortress a wide berth.
All of them too, Ashley noted, gave Andros wide-eyes looks of wonder from time to time. No matter what task they were engaged in or which direction they seemed to be headed, no one left the sight of that final showdown without a last glance at the leader of the Power Rangers. She supposed they were curious about Karone, too, wondering how the one who had been Astronema came to be standing at Andros' side, but they were still enough in awe that questions like that could wait.
Andros took it all in with a fraction of the time she'd spent, and his gaze came to rest on her after he'd finished his scan. "Carlos," he said, not taking his eyes off of her. "Can you do a sweep of the city and make sure the Vanishing Villain Act didn't miss anyone important?"
"And help anyone else it might have reformed," Karone reminded them. "I couldn't have been the only one."
"And help anyone that might have been reformed," Andros agreed, though he didn't look optimistic about the prospect.
"I'm on it," Carlos promised. "I'll let you know what I find."
Andros' fingers squeezed her shoulder, and he nodded once. "Right. Then let's get going."
T + 0:52
9:38 AM PST
The Earth dwindled steadily behind them, but that was the only indication she had that they were traveling at an impossibly fast speed. There was no rush of wind in her ears, no nearby objects slipping past in her peripheral vision--no sense of motion at all, really, save for the shrinking planet behind her.
Cassie supposed she would never truly comprehend the Galaxy Gliders. The tiny vehicles went from standstill to 286K in less than a second, defied both gravity and inertia while generating their own portable atmosphere, and were surprisingly resistant to attack for all that. Not resistant enough, of course, but these days what was?
She might find out when she got around to fixing hers. It had been damaged beyond casual repair several days ago, and Andros' jury-rig had lasted only long enough to get her to Earth. Now she shared Zhane's silver Glider for the brief ride to the moon. He hadn't said, and Andros hadn't asked, but Cassie assumed the Megaship's teleportation was down along with her "offensive capabilities".
The moon appeared in front of them, expanding like a balloon as Zhane's Glider soared through the vacuum and began its steep dive into lunar gravity. The slowing of their momentum was imperceptible despite the massive deceleration that had to be taking place, and she was glad for the comfort of Zhane's hands on her waist. The omni theater effect was convincing and completely real, and her body tensed involuntarily at the sight of the moon's surface racing toward them.
Within seconds, their descent had leveled out and the Glider was slipping through the cloak that surrounded their zord base. The metal structure sprang into visibility, and Cassie flinched as they slid through the outer grillwork faster than she could see it coming. Then she caught sight of a crushed "W" lying amid what looked like nothing so much as a pile of rubble, and her breath caught again.
"Zhane," she whispered, craning her neck to catch another glimpse as they zipped past. "That's the Megawinger?"
The bubble of surrounding atmosphere carried his reply easily to her ears. "It was," he corrected. "Now it has an offer for a starring roll in 'Scrap Heaps of the Century'."
She couldn't quite wrap her mind around the damage, even after seeing the Mega Voyager blown to pieces the week before. "And you survived?"
"What can I say?" His voice was irrepressibly cocky, and it brought a smile to her face. "Technology just can't keep up with me."
She elbowed him gently, just enough to tease, and his grip on her waist tightened. "The Megaship's in pretty bad shape," he warned, and his voice in her ear was suddenly serious. "I didn't ditch her until I had to."
Cassie tried to stifle a gasp as the Megaship came into view. Like a bird with broken wings, the once-proud battleship was huddled in the shadows beneath the exterior supports. She was barely inside the base at all, protected mostly by the cloak and whatever luck had seen her through the countless battles to this day. It was as though the starlight itself was painful to her metal skin, yet she couldn't be denied the sight of it.
Zhane said nothing as his Glider came to a halt in the shadow of the wounded ship. He stepped down and offered her his hand, and she accepted the gallant gesture absently. Still staring up at the hulking battleship that had been their home for so many months, Cassie wondered aloud, "Is DECA all right?"
"Well, she's not speaking to me," Zhane remarked, straight-faced.
Cassie frowned, but when she looked over at him he cleared his throat. "She's not speaking to anyone, actually," he admitted. "Her speech circuits are offline, but I don't think her neural matrix was affected."
It was hard to believe there could be anything unaffected underneath the scarred and pitted remains of the Megaship's battle armor, and the interior did nothing to quell Cassie's skepticism. The lifts were down and the lighting did nothing but flicker as they made their painstaking way to the Bridge, hindered by emergency bulkheads and the icy chill that had sunk into every corner of the battleship.
The Bridge, like the rest of the ship, had been sealed off when the Megaship started to vent atmosphere, and the bulkheads that protected it seemed to have suffered damage of their own. The first one she and Zhane came to wouldn't respond at all and the second one stuck halfway up, forcing them to scramble underneath to get through. When she saw the Bridge, Cassie finally gave voice to her doubts.
"Are you sure she'll make the trip?" she asked, her voice hushed as she surveyed the darkened control center.
"She'll make it," Zhane said confidently. "She's been through worse."
At Cassie's incredulous glance, he amended, "Well, as bad, anyway. Remember Onyx."
She ran her fingers across the weapons' console, missing the surge of power that usually accompanied her commands. The panel didn't even light when she touched it, and she hoped they didn't run into anything nasty between here and the Karova system. Zhane hadn't been exaggerating the Megaship's condition.
"I remember," she agreed, looking up as the Silver Ranger settled into the pilot's seat. "But you shouldn't. You were sleeping the sleep of the fatally injured during that fight."
The obvious answer came to her when he shrugged. "Andros told me," he said, even as she guessed the same aloud. He grinned, but he didn't take his eyes off the controls. "Yeah. He caught me up on a lot when I woke up."
The end of his sentence was almost drowned out as the Megaship rumbled to life, stuttering and growling as raw power shuddered through the engines once more. The harsh rasp of damaged thrusters joined in as the ship lurched forward, maneuvering toward the cloak's perimeter with halting uncertainty. Cassie barely noticed the moon's retreat as Zhane coaxed the Megaship out into the void of space, but the noise decreased to a more bearable level when the thrusters turned off.
It was still a far cry from the steady purr of normal acceleration and the almost unnoticeable hum of standard cruising speeds.
"Come on," Zhane muttered, apparently talking to the ship. "Just a little faster... you can do it. Don't let us down now."
Cassie watched in surprise as he urged the Megaship on, pushing her toward hyperrush with his hands and his voice. She'd never heard him sound quite so gentle before, and she wondered if DECA was listening. Whether the ship's computer could do anything to help them was open to question, but she would probably appreciate Zhane's concern if she were aware of it.
Finally, hyperspace yawned open around them and the visible universe flashed out of existence. Zhane leaned back with a sigh, glancing up at the screen where a computer-generated simulation of stars streaking by on either side had replaced the regular sensor feed. "Got it," he said unnecessarily. "We're on our way."
"Did you know it would be that hard?" Cassie wanted to know, settling into her usual chair to the left of the pilot's station. "You didn't seem worried when you were talking to Andros."
"Andros doesn't need anything else to worry about," Zhane said, avoiding and dismissing the question at the same time. "Let's see if we can get some news."
Cassie had watched Zhane scan the infoweb often enough to know that finding "news" in outer space was considerably harder than turning on the television at home. Nonetheless, as he switched to Ashley's station and started fiddling with the comm setup, she supposed she should be glad the comm was working well enough to make him optimistic about the possibility.
The view on the main screen wavered, and she looked up in time to see a silver line appear through the middle before it went black. The image, or lack thereof, was immediately replaced by the words "No service." Then a more deliberate message appeared, with a vaguely familiar background and the words "Star Network is not transmitting at this time. Please contact the station for details."
"Their relays must be down," Zhane muttered. "Maybe Intergalactic's back online."
This time, a live image replaced the error screen and an IGN symbol appeared in the upper lefthand corner. "--following the apparent eradication of evil in the known galaxies," a reporter was saying. An orange band cut off the bottom part of the screen with words Cassie didn't bother to read scrolling across it.
"Eltar is calling for the support and cooperation of all League citizens in this time of uncertainty," the reporter continued. "Just moments ago, a spokesperson reminded us that the aftermath of war is potentially as destructive as the war itself--and there is still no conclusive sign that this one is over."
"Earth isn't on there yet," Zhane commented, surprising her. "You ought to log in and let them know you're all right."
She frowned at him, puzzled. "What?"
He nodded at the screen. "They're running confirmation lists for every world that survived the war. I saw them do this on KO-35 once, right after the first attacks. Everyone who can calls in, and they try to track down anybody who doesn't. It'll probably be a while before they can get someone out as far as Earth, but you should contact them anyway."
"How?" she wondered, hoping her face didn't betray her thoughts. There was only one person she could think of that might be watching for her name on the "safe" list, and she didn't even know where he was. Or if he'd survived.
It was a disturbing thought, but she tried not to let it show. Instead, she listened to Zhane explain the interactive display and wondered if digital TV would ever be this involved. If it was this easy to communicate with the rest of the universe, then what was the Phantom Ranger's excuse?
"Zhane of KO-35," Zhane told the screen, and a new display popped up in place of the reporter's face. His voice could still be heard in the background, but now they were watching a solid color screen with a Ranger list and two planetary status summaries.
A message at the top of the screen read, "Voice authorization confirmed" and below it was the double planet logo of the Karova system. Zhane and Andros' names were listed underneath that, Zhane's highlighted in blue, and two planets were listed to their right. The first was KO-35, but the second was one she didn't recognize. Both had the word "unconfirmed" beside them.
"Andros of KO-35," Zhane said aloud, and Andros' name turned blue as well. At the top of the screen, the message became "Teammate override accepted. Ranger status confirmed."
"End session." With Zhane's words, the new display vanished, revealing a new reporter's visage in its place. It lingered only a moment before Zhane did something else to the screen and nodded to her. "Say your name," he prompted.
"Cassie Chan," she said obediently, and tried not to look surprised when the orange bar expanded again. She got the same confirmation message that had greeted Zhane, but instead of the Karovan symbol there was a picture of their old Turbo logo. The roster, too, was outdated: Justin Stewart's name was listed along with theirs, and he hadn't been a Ranger for almost a year.
Or had he? Suddenly Cassie realized just how lax they'd been in keeping up with their younger friend. He had a morpher again, courtesy of an ally that took the form of a spaceworthy car. Sure, he had been headed back to Earth when they saw him last, but what had become of him since?
"Is this thing really smart?" Cassie asked slowly, considering the possibilities. "Or just really behind?"
"Really behind," Zhane opined. "Dimitria must have kept your listings updated for you, but I'm betting Andros never showed you how to change them after she left. He doesn't bother with the bureaucratic stuff much."
"Well, we don't know about Justin," Cassie admitted guiltily. Hers was the only blue name on the screen. "But the others are all right. Do I just say their names?"
At Zhane's nod, she recited her teammates' first and last names, and one by one they turned from orange to blue. Only Justin's remained unchanged. Before she could dwell too much on that, Zhane pointed to the notation beside their names.
"Earth status: confirmed," he corrected, but the screen didn't change. He shrugged, as though it didn't matter to him, and he leaned back in his chair. "It doesn't recognize my authority to speak for Earth," he said, sounding amused. "We'll probably have to harass Andros about that later."
"Earth status, confirmed," Cassie repeated, and this time a new subscreen popped up in the lower right corner. It started to blink, slowly, reminding her of a cursor on a computer screen.
"Don't say anything until you've thought about it," Zhane warned, a grin playing across his lips. "It's waiting to record whatever you have to say about Earth."
She opened her mouth to ask why it hadn't asked him about KO-35, then closed it again abruptly. Zhane's grin widened, and she shot an exasperated look in his direction. How could she sum up the condition of an entire planet?
"Earth... will recover," Cassie said, still at something of a loss. "Astronema--"
Zhane sat up at the mention of Astronema's name, and he shook his head sharply at her. "Don't tell them she's there," he said, his voice low but urgent. "Not even as Karone."
"Astronema wanted Earth's surrender more than she wanted its destruction," Cassie continued, giving him a "duh" look. "We don't know exactly how bad it is yet, but I think we'll be all right."
She stopped, not sure how to end the recording. She shrugged helplessly at Zhane before she remembered what he had said to log out. "End session?"
Before the screen vanished, she saw the words "Planetary status confirmed" flash across the screen. This time, when the IGN display returned, she saw the word "Earth" lurking on the orange bar at the bottom of the screen. "What about Eltar?" she wondered, and before Zhane could answer the word "Eltar" replaced "Earth" on the scrollbar.
"It's still in audio activation mode," Zhane offered. "It'll respond to things we say until we turn it off." He touched the tactical display in front of him, and the image on the main screen changed too. It showed the same orange field they'd been looking at before, but filled with Eltaran statistics instead of Earth or Karovan.
Cassie caught her breath as she focused on two words at the bottom of the screen: Phantom Ranger. There were five names listed above his, and a rather longer dialogue box to the right concerning the condition of Eltar, but all she could concentrate on was that single phrase. "Phantom Ranger..."
"Know him?" Zhane asked, surprising her with the realization that she'd spoken aloud. "He's not the most fun guy around, but he takes being a Ranger seriously. I hope he made it all right."
It was then that she realized his name was the only one listed in orange. "No," she whispered, staring at the screen. "He is okay. He has to be."
Zhane was watching her curiously, but she paid no attention. She hadn't seen the Phantom Ranger since he'd alerted them to Zordon's presence on Hercuron, and he had vanished before she and her teammates could catch up with him. The message he'd left there had given her hope that he might seek her out again, but now...
"He's survived worse," Zhane offered, startling her. "Not that things like this happen often, but the Phantom's not an ordinary Ranger. Some people think he's invincible." He paused, then added, "Of course, some people don't think he exists at all."
"He exists," Cassie said softly. "He's real. He came to Earth once."
"Really?" Finally she became aware that Zhane was studying her, his eyes not wavering from her face. "You must have been in an awful lot of trouble."
That snapped her out of her reverie, and he must have seen something in her eyes when she looked at him. "Hey, no offense," he said quickly. "He goes where he's needed, that's all. And I've never seen you guys need anyone outside the team."
"Yeah," Cassie agreed, trying to suppress a sigh. Those had been some of the hardest, and best, days that she had spent as a Ranger. "We needed him."
Looking back at the screen, she added silently, Some of us still do.
"You like him!" Zhane exclaimed, glee evident in his tone. He settled back in his chair, an infuriatingly smug grin on his face. "I see where this is going. He came and saved all your lives, and now you have a crush on him!"
Stung by the implied mockery, Cassie glared back at him. "At least I have a crush on someone who saved us instead of someone who tried to kill us, Mr. I'll-go-out-with-my-archenemy-because-she's-cute!"
Zhane's mouth fell open. "Did Andros tell you about that?"
"Nope," Cassie answered with a satisfied smirk. "I was just guessing." Actually, Andros had complained to Ashley about Zhane dating his sister, and Ashley had naturally let Cassie in on the secret. But it was much more fun to let Zhane think he'd given himself away.
The Silver Ranger narrowed his eyes at her. "You didn't just guess that!"
Cassie shrugged innocently, and Zhane muttered something she couldn't quite make out. "What was that?" she teased, leaning a little closer as though she thought he'd meant her to hear. "Did you just say you're sorry for making fun of me?"
"No," he retorted. "I said I'm sorry I didn't swear Andros to secrecy... It was hard with him being upset over the whole sister thing at the time." His words full of remembered indignation, he added, "It wasn't like I knew who she was when I went out with her!"
Cassie couldn't help laughing at his supposed defense. "Which means you went out with Astronema thinking she was just our worst enemy, and that makes it so much better. You do know what 'conflict of interest' means, right?"
"Hey, at least I knew her name when I fell for her," Zhane reminded her.
"Not her real name!" Cassie shot back.
Zhane tipped his head as if to acknowledge her point, and she smiled ruefully. "Kind of a silly thing to argue about, huh?"
He grinned. "It keeps our minds off of other things."
She sobered a little, glancing back at the screen. "Why didn't you say anything about KO-35's status when you were confirming yours and Andros'?" she asked, her curiosity piqued again by the reminder.
In retrospect, his answer was obvious. "Because I don't know what it is," he said simply. "The relay stations in that sector went down before I left, and no one's been able to contact KO-35 since."
She started to nod, but then she frowned. "How did you know the rebels had surrendered?"
Zhane sat up, no longer lounging in his chair, and the rakish expression on his face faded the rest of the way. "They had a deadline," he said, lifting his gaze to the main screen. She doubted he was seeing it anymore than she was, but it gave them something else to look at. "Just before I left, they were given a solar day to surrender or... not."
He didn't really finish the sentence, but she could see what he feared in his expression. "They surrendered," he said quietly. "They have to have surrendered. I shouldn't have left, but I thought... I didn't realize what was happening."
"You thought you'd bring all of us back with you," Cassie guessed, watching his face for confirmation. "You couldn't have known the entire League was under attack."
Zhane didn't answer, and she reached out to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "You did the right thing," she said gently. "By leaving KO-35, and by staying to fight Astronema with us."
He still didn't answer, but he didn't pull away from her touch, either. She didn't like seeing his usually carefree expression so troubled. "Andros would say you did the right thing, too," she added, more quietly.
He looked up at that, and the heartbreakingly vulnerable look on his face made her swallow hard. "You think so?"
Cassie squeezed his shoulder. "I know so," she promised.
T + 1:15
10:01 AM PST
"You don't know anything," TJ repeated, following Karone through the winding corridors of the Dark Fortress. "How can you not know? You were here the whole time!"
"Ecliptor always took care of prisoner containment," Andros' sister replied. "He didn't think it was necessary for me to know exactly who was being held, or how. Except for Zordon, of course."
The remark was so casual that it took TJ several seconds to process its significance. "Zordon?" He stared after her, not aware that he had stopped walking until he realized she was getting farther away. "You had Zordon here?"
Karone too came to a halt, turning to regard him with a look of thinly veiled exasperation. "Must you repeat everything I say?"
"Where is he now?" TJ demanded. "What did you do with him?"
She looked away, but TJ didn't like the expression that had flickered across her face before she hid her eyes. "I didn't do anything," she said quietly. "It was Andros."
Suspicion flared within him, and he struggled to suppress it. He'd promised himself that he'd give her a chance. "You can't tell me that Andros would ever--"
"No," she interrupted him, her voice fiercer than he'd expected. "You don't understand. Andros saved us all! He did what Zordon asked him to do and he made me... good again."
Staring down at the deck, she whispered, "He even forgave me." This time TJ wasn't sure whether she was talking about Andros or Zordon. "Even after everything I've done. At the end--he still believed in me."
"Karone," TJ said, trying to keep his voice neutral. "What are you saying?"
She who had been Astronema lifted her chin and met his gaze squarely. "I'm saying that Andros did what I couldn't," she told him, the slight waver in her voice betraying her. "And it cost Zordon his life."
TJ could only stare. "Zordon's... gone?" he managed at last.
It was obviously the wrong thing to say, for she turned without another word and walked away. He followed, still trying to understand what had happened. "What do you mean, he did what you couldn't? Karone--"
He didn't realize where they were going until they were already inside, and even then it took him a moment to recognize the Dark Fortress' command center. He had only ever seen it over the comm screen, as an imposing backdrop for Astronema's latest threat. It was larger than he had expected, but it was also a shambles.
"What happened here?" he asked, taking in the scorched surfaces and collapsed grating. What he had seen of the rest of the Dark Fortress had been in perfect condition. This looked like a scene straight from the streets of Angel Grove.
"Andros." The word was so quiet he almost didn't hear it, but then Karone turned to face him. "Andros happened. He snuck on board last night; he must have told you."
TJ shook his head, remembering the war council they'd held by lantern light. "We didn't want him to go. He thought he could talk you into stopping everything, but we convinced him he wouldn't be able to get through to you with those implants in your head. Or we thought we convinced him. Ashley didn't tell us until after he'd left."
Karone looked away again. "You were right," she said. There was no emotion in her voice. "Zordon thought I could be turned, too, but he was wrong. Andros had to do it, you see. He didn't have any other choice."
"Do what?" TJ insisted. "What did Andros do?"
She wasn't staring at the deck, TJ realized suddenly. She was staring at the shard of glass that lay at her feet. There was another shard a short distance away, and another--the deck was littered with them. He hadn't noticed until now. They seemed to originate from an impact point on the other side of the room.
Following the trail of broken glass, he studied the destruction that seemed to be the source of the shards. It was hard to tell what had been there before. Whatever it was had been completely demolished by the force that had swept through the command center, and he couldn't come up with a reconstruction that would answer the question.
"Zordon told him to," Karone murmured. "Just like he told me to stop the war. I could do it, he said, when Dark Specter was destroyed. I was in charge, and if I said it was over, then it would be over. But I couldn't do it, TJ. I couldn't say it."
"Hey..." TJ took a step toward her, alarmed by the dreamlike quality to her voice. "It wasn't you. You were being controlled by that stuff in your head. You didn't have a choice, and Zordon knew it. He just had to try."
"I tried to kill Andros." Karone's voice was suddenly sharp, and her eyes were painfully clear when she caught his gaze. "My own brother. If I couldn't end the war, you'd think I could at least keep from killing the only family I have left. But it didn't even feel wrong. How can I be around anyone if I can't trust what I think is right and wrong?"
"You know what's right and what's wrong," TJ said firmly. "The implants are gone, Karone. I don't know how, but you're free of Dark Specter's control. Take that gift for all it's worth and don't waste the rest of your life second-guessing yourself."
"Maybe the price of freedom was too high," she answered, her tone soft again.
He glanced back at the broken glass, frowning. "Karone... what happened? What did Zordon want Andros to do?"
"He told Andros to shatter his energy tube." Karone followed his gaze back to the glass on the deck. "He said the good energy in his tube would cleanse the universe of evil."
She delivered this piece of news in a detached montone, as though it didn't make an impression on her one way or the other. Her moodiness was entirely typical of Astronema, but for once he was worried by the similarity for her sake instead of his own. If Zordon had indeed sacrificed himself to end the war, the last thing he would have wanted was to have the former Queen of Evil lost in guilt over it.
He didn't doubt her anymore, he realized. He didn't know if it was the evidence in front of him or just the fact that she hadn't had to tell him any of this, but his earlier suspicion had evaporated. If she said Zordon had asked Andros to destroy his tube, then that was how it happened.
"Andros must have done it," Karone added quietly, oblivious to his silent revelation. "I saw how much it hurt him, but he must have done it anyway."
TJ raised an eyebrow. "He must have done it?" She was right, he noted absently. He was repeating everything she said. "You didn't see it happen?"
For the first time since they'd boarded the Dark Fortress, Karone gave him a small smile. "I was trying to kill him, TJ." To his relief, there was even the slightest hint of humor in her voice. "You don't think he'd just let me, do you?"
He gave her a knowing look. "He used the Battlelizer punch on you, didn't he. I swear he does that when we spar, but I haven't been able to prove it yet."
He had meant to cheer her up, but instead he saw her swallow as her smile vanished. "No," she murmured. "He didn't want to fight. He did everything he could to keep from attacking me, but when I turned my staff on him he had to defend himself. The bolt bounced back, and... I don't remember anything else until I woke up outside."
TJ whistled. He had suspected that Andros carried substantial guilt along with his sister's body when he emerged from the Dark Fortress, but it hadn't occurred to him that the Red Ranger might have been mourning an accident. "That's Andros for you," he muttered, not sure whether to be dismayed or impressed.
"He did what he had to," Karone said, something that might have been anger flaring in her eyes.
"He always does," TJ agreed seriously. "Several times now, I've thought his blind faith in you would be the end of us. But he's always done what he had to, no matter how much it hurts."
Karone stared at him for a long moment before lowering her gaze yet again. "I'm not worthy of that faith," she told the metal deck. "Believing in me only hurts people."
"Not true." TJ looked down at her fondly, seeing for the first time the scared girl that Andros must have fought for all along. "I believe in you. The rest of the team does too, I think. Andros has always believed in you, and it hasn't hurt him yet."
While that wasn't entirely true, she seemed comforted by the words. But then she nudged another piece of glass with her toe and her eyes sought further reassurance in his. "What about Zordon?"
"He made his own choice," TJ said quietly. "You couldn't really have stopped the war, Karone, no matter what he told you. It was too big. You were riding on the crest of a wave, but you couldn't have turned it back. No one could have. Zordon chose to sacrifice himself, not just for you, but for everyone in the known universe. You said it yourself: he saved us all. Don't diminish that."
Karone gazed at him for a long moment, an inscrutable expression on her face. He tried to imagine what she could be thinking, but when she finally spoke it took him by surprise. "I used to think that Rangers were weak," she said pensively, "because they always try to talk their way out of things. Now... I wonder if it's more of a strength than I realized."
He wasn't sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. "Communication is better protection than weapons can ever be," he offered at last. "That's what my sensei teaches, anyway."
She frowned. "Sensei?" she echoed.
"Teacher," he clarified, surprised to find a word she didn't know. "A martial arts instructor."
Her expression lightened. "Martial arts--that's your fighting style, isn't it?"
He tried not to smile, but he wasn't entirely successful. "Sure," he agreed. "It's a general term for the kind of self-defense we use. It's broken down into lots of different methods."
"Self-defense," she murmured. He noted with amusement that now it was her turn to echo him. "It's funny that you use the word 'defense' for something so destructive."
"We never start a fight," TJ reminded her. "But if we're attacked, we fight back."
Karone considered him. "I'll think about that," she said at last, stepping past him to a control island just inside the main doors. Before she touched it, though, she hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder. "TJ? Thanks--for what you said about Zordon."
He shook his head. "You don't have to thank me. It was the truth."
For only the second time, a smile crept onto her face. "It's been a long time since someone's told me the truth like that," she said, turning back to the island in front of her. "Thank you."
The words were deliberate, and ignoring them felt like an insult. So, shrugging to himself, he replied, "You're welcome."
She made no further reference to the conversation, instead gesturing him forward so she could explain the basic functions of the control island to him. She pointed out navigation, scanning, and satellaser override, then focused on the communications interface. It was far more complicated than he had expected, and he found he had no more time to wonder about her guilt over Zordon's death.
Finally, Karone looked up and pointed out, "You don't need to know how it works, you know. You just need to know which buttons to push."
He sighed, frustrated. "You're probably right," he admitted. "It's just--I took all that time to learn everything I could about the Megaship, and now it feels like I'm back to square one."
"I suppose you went through this with your zords, too," she remarked. "I'll tell you whatever you want to know, but it would be easier for you if you'd worry about using it before you try to fix it."
He flashed her a rueful grin. "Am I that obvious? Andros is always trying to improve things. I guess it's contagious."
"You're doing fine," she told him. There was a hesitance in her voice, which he attributed to her being unused to reassuring others. "You don't have to be able to take it apart and put it back together. You just have to be able to turn it on and talk."
TJ chuckled. "You make it sound so easy."
"It is," she insisted. "Quantrons can use this interface, TJ. Even Elgar could use it. What does that tell you?"
"Did you just compare me to Elgar?" He raised an eyebrow at her, chagrin warring with amusement. "That certainly puts me in my place."
"You're just trying too hard," she said, her lips turning up at the edges.
He looked down at the interface again. "Maybe you're right," he admitted. "You said we had to learn our zords too, but we didn't; not really. We know whatever we need to know when we morph. I guess I'm used to having all that information in my head in advance. "
"Quick," she said, pointing to a blinking light on the board. "What does that mean?"
He frowned at it. "Someone's trying to contact us?"
This time she did smile, though he wasn't sure why. "Close. There's a general transmission being directed at Earth, probably meant for anyone who can receive it. Can you pick it up?"
TJ touched the panel carefully, hoping she would tell him if he were about to do something disastrous. A screen to his left lit up, and he looked up in surprise. The only image that appeared was one of five half-circular outlines, colored and superimposed over a black background. He looked at Karone helplessly.
"That's the ID screen," she offered. "It tells you who's trying to contact you. Right now they're seeing ours."
"So who is it?" he wanted to know. "It's not very useful if I can't read it."
Karone gave him an odd look. "You don't recognize a Ranger logo when you see one?"
"You do?" he retorted.
She all but rolled her eyes. "Rangers are the only people arrogant enough to expect others to know who they are without words. Haven't you ever seen your own ID screen?"
"When?" TJ asked, raising an eyebrow at her. "This is Earth. The only time any of us used a comm system like this was on the Megaship, and it's not like we called ourselves."
"You'd better let them link," she reminded him, indicating the screen without bothering to answer. "Whoever's on the other end is staring at Astronema's sorceress symbol right now."
Alarmed, TJ returned his attention to the comm interface. He tapped what he hoped was the right sequence of controls, and a human face appeared in place of the semi-circle logo. TJ's first thought was that Karone had been wrong, it wasn't Rangers after all, and his second was that the face looked vaguely familiar.
"This is the Blue Aquitian Ranger," the image on the other end said, his tone tinged with wariness. "To whom am I speaking?"
"I'm the Blue Astro Ranger," TJ told him. "We're using the Dark Fortress as a temporary ops base. We're going to change the ID screen," he added, giving Karone a pointed look.
"TJ?" The sound of his name got his attention, and he looked back at the screen as the other Ranger repeated, "TJ Johnson?"
It was TJ's turn to be wary. "Do I know you?"
The other Ranger's face broke into a smile and he shook his head once. "No, but I've heard of you. My name is Billy Cranston. I was a Ranger for Earth for three years."
The name, like the face, stirred something in TJ's memory that he couldn't quite place. "Not a Turbo Ranger," he said at last. He had met everyone who had held the Turbo Power before his team, and Billy hadn't been one of them.
Billy shook his head again. "Morphin and Ninja," he corrected. "One of the first. I moved to Aquitar a few years ago, and... well, it seems history does repeat itself."
"Tell me about it," Karone muttered, sounding mildly annoyed.
"This is Karone," TJ said quickly. "She's--" He had all of two seconds to decide how much he should tell Billy, and in the end he finished awkwardly, "She's the Red Ranger's sister."
Karone narrowed her eyes at him, but she didn't contradict the statement. Billy's gaze flickered toward her as he nodded politely, and he did a quick but subtle double take. If TJ hadn't been watching for the other Ranger's reaction, he wouldn't have noticed it at all.
"It's an honor to meet you," Billy told her, though TJ was sure he hadn't planned to say anything in greeting just a moment ago. She couldn't be that easy to recognize without the makeup and the glamour, could she?
"I've already spoken to my family," Billy was saying, apparently unaware of TJ's discomfort. "It sounds like Angel Grove is in bad shape, but I was hoping to get a Ranger's opinion on the situation. What kind of aid are you going to need?"
"Aid?" TJ repeated, feeling a little overwhelmed. Billy had spoken to his family? When? And how? And since when did Earth request aid after monster attacks, as though it was something someone on another planet could compensate them for? "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about helping Earth," Billy answered patiently. "It looks like Astronema took a personal interest in your planet, a fact which seems to be confirmed by your presence on the Dark Fortress.
"Have you seen her, by the way?" The innocent question made TJ straighten where he stood, but Billy didn't wait for an answer. "There are some people turning up in the rubble who claim to be reformed villains; you might want to keep an eye out for that on Earth."
"We will," TJ replied evasively. "Carlos is out patrolling the city right now."
There was a brief but uncomfortable silence, and finally Billy nodded. "All right. Do you want some help assessing the damage? I know Earth isn't actively involved in the League, but Eltar has always watched out for you and as your neighbor Aquitar has some influence too."
"I'm not sure what you think you can do," TJ said, trying to hide a frown. "Earth has survived monster attacks in the past. Nothing on this scale, certainly, but the rest of the universe was hit just as hard as we were. Asking for help seems like... favoritism."
"If it is, then the League is built on it," Billy answered. "While I was a Ranger for Earth, Aquitar lent us its entire team on more than one occasion. Earth once sheltered a Triforian Ranger from bounty hunters, and later held his Power in trust while he went on a quest. Rangers swear an oath to their teammates, TJ, but everyone who holds the Power shares a responsibility to look out for each other."
TJ exchanged glances with Karone, not even aware of the gesture until after he'd done it. "Right," he agreed after a moment. "In that case, we could probably use someone with your experience."
For the first time, Billy looked away from the screen. He seemed to be listening to someone, but no sound was audible over the comm. "It might not be me," he said at last, turning back to them. "I may have to ask one of the others to go instead, but we'll get someone there soon. Can you pick up IGN from where you are?"
TJ saw Karone nod out of the corner of his eye, and he took his cue from her. "We should be able to; why?"
"It might be a good idea to start broadcasting that, if you can," Billy told them. "Or at least keep up with it yourself. I don't think Earth is going to be able to ignore the rest of the universe much longer."
TJ frowned. Even if that was true, he wasn't sure beaming an intergalactic news broadcast around the city was the best approach. "We'll think about it. In the meantime, I'll link my communicator to the Dark Fortress' comm system so you can reach us when we're not here."
"I'll let you know who to expect and when," Billy promised. "Aquitar out."
Color semi-circles flashed across the screen once more before fading into darkness, and TJ glanced at Karone. "I can do that, right?"
She gave him a half-smile. "Link your communicator to the Dark Fortress'? I'll show you."
T + 3:32
12:18 PM PST
He heard his communicator beep, but he couldn't reach it. The air was thick with smoke and particulate matter, clogging his lungs as he struggled down the partially collapsed stairwell with two others in tow. Carlos was lucky one of his rescuees had been conscious and in relatively good condition when he discovered them. He doubted the building was going to hold up long enough for him to risk the stairs a second time.
Together, they managed to struggle through the murky remains of the office building's lobby and out onto the street. The air didn't change much, and with suspended debris hanging in a haze over much of the city the sky was almost as dark as the interior of the building had been. But there were helping hands out here, people who reached out to relieve them of their unconscious burden and offered fresh cloths to replace the one he'd dropped inside.
Pressing the damp but mostly clean cloth to his mouth, Carlos took his first deep breath since setting foot inside the ruined building. Blinking rapidly to keep up with the tearing of his eyes, he shook his head when someone asked him if there were still people inside. It was a grim but somehow satisfying business, pulling survivors out of their hiding places and passing them into the waiting arms of a city suddenly overpopulated with good samaritans.
Stepping away from the group clustered around the building's entrance, he lifted his communicator and extended one finger from the hand holding the cloth over his mouth in place. The morpher, currently disguised as a silver wristband, was still beeping insistently. Tapping it clumsily, he moved the cloth just enough to speak directly into the little device.
"Yeah," he said, hearing his voice rasp as soon as he tried to use it. "This is Carlos."
"Carlos!" TJ's voice came over the communicator loud and clear. "Are you all right? We've been signaling you--"
"I know," Carlos cut him off. His voice gave out and his lungs contracted in a coughing fit. He probably didn't want to know what he was breathing in right now. "I was busy," he managed, once he got himself under control again. "Couldn't answer. What's going on?"
There was a noticeable pause before TJ's voice came back. "We've got an Aquitian Ranger here who wants to see the city, and I thought you could do the honors."
Carlos almost choked on his laughter, suppressing another coughing fit when the choking became a little too real for comfort. "You're kidding me."
There was another pause. "No, I'm not," TJ answered. "I'm checking your coordinates now."
"Teej, wait." Carlos held up his free hand, gesturing to the other volunteers to indicate that he'd be back in a minute. Turning away from the building they'd been searching, he brought his communicator close enough to speak into again as he made his way down the street. "This is no place for an alien delegate, all right? No one should be teleporting in here right now, let alone visitors."
"Aquitar has enough to worry about right now without sending us visitors," TJ told him. There was a warning note in his voice that let Carlos know their "visitor" was probably listening to the entire conversation. "They're doing us a favor by having a Ranger check in with us to see what we need."
"What we need?" Carlos gave up on the idea of getting out of the dust cloud that seemed to permeate the city and just stopped where he was. Looking around at the devastation that TJ had yet to see firsthand, he couldn't contain his anger any longer. "What we need is a way to get back the lives we lost last night! What we need is a way to tell children that their parents are never coming home! We need a way to find the people who are too scared to yell for help, and to treat the ones that won't sit still long enough to put on a band-aid, let alone have someone operate on them!
"Can Aquitar do that?" he demanded of his communicator. "Can anyone? Because if they can, bring it on! But if they can't, don't ask me to waste time that could be spent saving a life by taking someone on a tour of the rubble!"
He stabbed at his wrist again, the device chirping in protest as he cut off the link abruptly. Lowering his left arm, he started determinedly back toward the volunteer station set up just inside the business district. If TJ wanted a show-and-tell, he could do it himself.
He hadn't taken more than five steps when a flare of red light tried to steal what vision he had left. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes instinctively, but the flash was gone before he could complete the gesture. In its place stood a being he could tentatively identify as "Aquitian", and when her gaze settled on him the look of detached curiosity in her eyes made him groan.
"Greetings," she said calmly. "As the Red Ranger of Aquitar, I offer my assistance."
He ruthlessly suppressed a curse. "Yeah, well, as an overworked human of Earth, I hope you know what you're saying." If TJ expected this to help, then Carlos considered himself well within his rights to put her to work. "Come on."
She followed without question as he led her down the street, pausing briefly at the volunteer station to find out where the searchers were now. No one gave the alien at his side a second glance, though he did see someone hand her a cloth to put over her mouth. She stayed with him as he plowed toward the next ruined building, uttering no word of protest even when the structure creaked ominously over their heads as they pushed their way between crumpled supports.
"Is this what you wanted to see?" he had to ask, as the beam from a flashlight up ahead pierced the gloom inside. Her silence puzzled him, even as her apparent willingness to follow and help made him moderate his tone a little. "Is this why you came to Earth?"
"Would it matter to you if it weren't?" She didn't sound hostile, but there was no friendship in her voice either. Turning to meet his stare with one of her own, she added simply, "I have seen worse."
He had no time to consider the implications of that. There was a shout from the darkness, and they both plunged toward the sound. The sound of overstressed metal was the only warning he had before another support gave way, and two of the searchers only just avoided being pinned beneath its crushing weight. They all froze, not daring to move as the building began to shift.
The motion ground to a halt as unexpectedly as it had begun, and Carlos let out a sigh of relief as the remains of the building resettled without further collapse. There was no telling how long their grace period would last, and they all knew it. The searchers split up, combing every accessible part of the building with flashlights or dark-adapted eyes, sifting through the debris with their bare hands.
It was a pattern they would repeat many more times, stopping only to wipe the grime from their eyes and accept a drink of water from the volunteers waiting outside. The volunteers' faces changed continually as they rode ambulances, fire trucks, and old blue pickups out to the shelters or in from other districts. They brought clean blankets for the victims and more flashlights for the searchers, and somewhere along the line the wet cloths were replaced by gauze masks.
Carlos didn't know how long they went on like that, but he did know that they had made their way into an ancient greenhouse when it came down around their ears. He heard the spiderweb cracks reaching deadly fingers across the glass panes only moments before the ceiling let go, and he grabbed his partner's arm without thinking. Diving under a table, he dragged her to the ground beside him and squeezed his eyes shut against the sound of shattering glass.
When the deadly crystalline fall had ceased, Carlos had a moment to be grateful the metal supports had not likewise come crashing down on their heads. The table had kept most of the broken glass off of their skin, but it wouldn't have stood a chance against twisted metal. He wondered why this had seemed a safe place to search, even from the outside.
There was movement at his side, and a moment later he felt their shelter being shoved away. The table fell to the ground with crash that sounded insignificant after the devastation that had just rained down from above. He looked up to find the other Ranger regarding him impassively.
"Are you injured?" she wanted to know. "We should get back to the others."
Getting to his feet, he grudgingly admitted to himself that he might have been wrong about her. "What did you say your name was, again?"
"I did not." For a moment, he thought she wasn't going to tell him, but finally she relented. "My name is Aura."
He nodded, wondering if they shook hands on Aquitar. "I'm Carlos."
She inclined her head before turning away to crunch across the broken glass and out through what had once been a solid wall. If there was one thing to be said about this part of town, Carlos thought as he followed, it was that the air seemed to be marginally clearer. Now he could tell the wall was missing from several paces away, instead of having to feel along the surface until he found the opening.
He raised his hand when he caught sight of another searcher in the street, and the man jerked his head back toward the greenhouse. Carlos shook his head, forming an "O" with his fingers. The man pointed to his right, toward the commercial complex that stood relatively intact beside the collapsed glass structure. Carlos nodded his understanding, and they moved on together.
These buildings had survived with minimal damage, and they found a large group of people inside the second one they searched. He and Aura checked the upper levels while those huddled downstairs were evacuated, but it seemed there had been comfort in numbers. They were on their way down the back stairwell of the most structurally sound building they had entered all day when the stairs gave way under Carlos' feet.
He had time for a shout of surprise before his arm was wrenched from his side and an iron grip on his wrist halted his fall. He looked up into Aura's worried face, noting distantly that he hadn't seen that much expression on her features all morning. He reached up with his other hand and she grabbed it before he could take hold of what support remained where the stairs used to be.
How had she managed to avoid falling? It was a question he couldn't answer, but he was grateful nonetheless as her Ranger strength hauled him back onto the second floor beside her. "Though that way may be faster," she was telling him, her voice strained as she struggled to catch her breath, "I suggest that the way we came up may result in fewer broken bones."
Staring down at the two-story drop, Carlos wondered what would have happened to a searcher without Aura's preternatural speed. The back of the building was simply missing, disintegrated by stray laser fire or demolished by velocifighter impact, but from the third floor the damage was invisible. Some of the structural supports were still in place, keeping the upper levels from caving in, and from above there was no way to know what awaited the unwary trespasser.
Aura's words finally registered, and he gave her an odd look. "What did you just say?"
She cocked her head. "I complimented your desire for swiftness. However, I cannot help but note that the route you have chosen leaves something to be desired in terms of our safe arrival at the bottom."
He stared at her for a moment, trying to process her deadpan expression. "Yeah," he agreed at last, wondering if she was making a joke or just stating the obvious. "Well, I can't help noticing that your method of rescue leaves my arm with something to be desired. Like a shoulder socket."
She studied him. "Your shoulder does not appear to be dislocated," she informed him.
He tried, gingerly, to rotate his shoulder, but stopped with a wince. "Yeah, well, that doesn't mean it hurts any less."
"My apologies," she said, her expression unchanged. "Next time I will consider other options before saving you from life-threatening injury."
That had to be sarcasm behind her even tone, and he felt his lips quirk upward. "I'd just as soon you didn't," he admitted. "Thanks."
The corners of her mouth lifted too, and though she didn't smile there was a distinct lightening of her expression. "You are welcome."
With a sigh, he dragged himself to his feet. "We'd better get going. They'll probably have heard that crash, and I'd hate for someone to come along and step through that hole without an Aquitian to save their butt."
This time she did smile, but she made no other reply. She accepted the hand he offered with visible relief, and he frowned as he pulled her up. "You all right? You don't look so great."
"Nor do you," she informed him. Was it his imagination, or was there a hint of testiness in her tone?
"Great," he said, pulling her away from the edge of the stairs. "So anyone who made it through the attacks can be scared to death by the sight of us. Let's get something to drink."
She didn't argue, and they made their way back toward the front of the building in silence. The evacuees from the ground floor were huddled together outside, and Carlos made a "water" gesture to one of the volunteers that was helping them. The other searchers were nowhere to be seen, and he was about to go looking when he felt a blanket settle over his shoulders.
He looked up in surprise, and he found another volunteer wrapping a blanket around Aura. "We're not--" he started to say, but the teenager at his side pressed a cup of water into his hand and told him, in no uncertain terms, to drink.
As he pulled his mask off and obeyed, the volunteer added, "Steve says you've been going all day. You're supposed to rest. Get out of this murk for a while, if you can."
Steve was the search coordinator for the business district, Carlos remembered vaguely. But... "All day?" he asked, his voice thick and sluggish now that the water had soothed some of the roughness out of it. "What time is it?"
"Six or so, last time someone checked," the volunteer answered. "Here. Someone donated these; they'll do you good. Take two," he added, and Carlos found a couple of specialty protein bars in his hand. "But don't forget to eat some real food."
Carlos held out his empty paper cup, a little dazed, and someone filled it up and handed it back. He looked over to see what Aura made of all this, but she was draining her own cup and paid him no attention. She was alien, he remembered as he watched her gulp the water down. He wondered that no one had commented on it yet.
"Eat," the teenage volunteer reminded him. He tore open the protein bar and put it back in Carlos' hand. "Can we get you guys a ride out? There's an ambulance due back from the residential sector in a few minutes."
"If you have room," Carlos agreed distractedly. Without the gauze over his nose and mouth he could feel the dust catching in his throat again, but the thought of food was more tempting than air at this point. He put the protein bar into his mouth without hesitation, and the volunteer talked while he chewed with single-minded determination.
"We'll pack you in like sardines," the kid was saying cheerfully. "But you'll be able to breathe, so it'll be better than here. We're shipping most of this lot to the high school, but the ambulance will drop you off anywhere along the way if you ask."
Carlos shook his head slowly, watching Aura drain her fifth cup of water as he tore into his second protein bar. "No, the high school will be fine. What about..."
His glance took in everything in sight, but the volunteer understood his meaning. "We're rotating the searchers out as they come back, now," he answered. "I hear a good lot of them have already crashed at the fire station, and there've been new people filtering in all afternoon. You're some of the last from the first group."
"Hey," Carlos said suddenly, reaching out to intercept Aura's sixth refill. "You're going to pass out from low blood sugar at that rate. Eat something first."
She lifted her head and glared at him, her features eerily accentuated by the lights of the approaching ambulance. "I do not comprehend your physiology," she said, her voice deadly soft. "Do not presume to understand mine."
He pulled his hand back, startled.
"Here," said the volunteer that had been filling Aura's cup. "Take mine." As she handed the other Ranger a nearly full water bottle, she added, "The ambulance is going to be crowded--go and get a lift from the man in the pickup, all right? That's my husband. He'll drop you off wherever you need to go."
Aura reacted to both offers with a murmur of thanks, no trace of venom in her voice now. She headed blindly toward the indicated vehicle, though whether she didn't care if he followed or she just assumed he would, it was impossible to say. He did, of course, and when he caught up he stopped just short of putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Aura," he said quietly, wishing his voice didn't sound quite so hoarse. "Back there..." He didn't know exactly what to say, so he settled for, "I'm sorry."
"Accepted," she answered without rancor. That was it, just the one word and nothing more, but at least she understood what he was trying to say.
Hands reached out to help them into the back of the pickup truck, and they settled together on the bed behind the left wheel. For several minutes, nothing happened. There was no sound but the rasp of breathing in the dust-laden air and the muffled sounds of the volunteer station nearby. The ambulance's flashing lights still lent a surreal quality to the entire vicinity, piercing the gloom with pulsing red and white, and Carlos noticed his reluctant ally had closed her eyes to the strobe effect.
Finally, with no sign to or from the driver that Carlos could see, the truck rumbled to life. As it started to roll forward, someone else sprang into the back and pulled the tailgate shut behind him. "Where to?" he asked, catching Carlos' eye.
"High school." The words came out as nothing more than a loud whisper, but he found it was the best he could do. His throat had closed up somewhere between now and a moment ago, and he was glad to be able to articulate anything at all.
The man grunted in response, but it was a sympathetic sound rather than a hostile one. Carlos thought about thanking someone for the ride, but he couldn't make the words come. He supposed words of appreciation were buried somewhere along with his ability to laugh, which he was fairly sure he had lost somewhere along the torturous road of "today".
He felt Aura poke him, unceremoniously but with a pleading look in her eyes as she held her water bottle out to him. "Open," she muttered, obviously having as much trouble speaking as he was.
He tugged on the top, but it was already out as far as it could go. When he put it in his mouth and tipped it up, he could taste the water dribbling out, so he passed it back to her with a shrug. "Is open," he mumbled, miming the gesture he had just made.
She imitated his actions, and at first it amused him to see her suck greedily on the water bottle. Finally, though, he realized it was only frustrating her and he took it away from her again. "Here," he said, twisting the top off and handing it back. "Don't spill it."
She gave him a look that would have withered grass, but she accepted the change with something like relief. Letting the water bottle drop only when it was empty, Aura slumped against the side of the truck and watched over the heads of the people across from them as the city slid past. The truck swept a wide arc around the corner of an intersection, and Carlos didn't have the strength to straighten up when he found himself leaning against her shorter frame.
The air didn't clear completely, but he did find that he was missing his face mask less and less. Maybe the dust had settled this far out, or maybe the air just hadn't been as contaminated to start with, but being able to breath without coughing was a welcome change. He tried to concentrate on enjoying it, but between the comforting rumble of the truck and the novelty of sitting after an entire day on his feet, he couldn't even keep his eyes open.
He felt his head droop and didn't try to stop it, knowing someone would wake him when they got wherever they were going. Only then did he realize that Aura's head was already on his shoulder, and he was weary enough that resting his on top of hers was a relief. She might be an alien, he mused drowsily, and a short alien at that, but she was awfully tough.
It seemed like only a moment later that someone was shaking him awake, and hands were helping the two of them out of the back of the truck. It took him a moment to get his bearings, but finally he recognized the looming structure of Angel Grove High School directly ahead. It might technically be summer vacation, but he couldn't remember ever having seen a more welcome sight.
T + 4:07
4:53 PM MT
It wasn't what she had expected. The sight that greeted them when they stepped off the Megaship was not one that had been in her mind's eye only moments before. In truth, Cassie wasn't entirely sure what she had expected, but a military encampment in the middle of a windswept dustbowl wasn't it. She stared out at the horizon, trying to reconcile the view with the image of a lush paradise that KO-35 had presented on previous visits.
"Well, here we are," Zhane announced. "Home sweet home." All traces of his earlier doubt seemed to have vanished, and he sounded strangely satisfied for someone returning to a barren plain.
Not wanting him to see her dismay, Cassie folded her arms and said the first thing that came to mind. "You conduct your battles from tents?"
Zhane was standing close enough that she could feel him shrug. "The cities are obvious targets; we learned that the hard way. Military headquarters are as remote as we can make them."
She was saved from having to reply by a shout from around the forward hull. "They expected us to teleport out," Zhane murmured in her ear, as a handful of people came into view. "Must have been waiting up front."
Cassie recognized two of the people now hurrying toward them, and she smiled as Taikwa called out to Zhane once more. "We were so worried," the older woman exclaimed, pulling the Silver Ranger into a hug.
"When you didn't return, we feared the worst," Kinwon agreed. The rebel leader was more reserved than his companion, but he too reached out to embrace Zhane when Taikwa stepped back. "We're glad to have you home safely, Zhane."
"And Cassie!" Taikwa hugged her with as much warmth as she had shown Zhane. "It's good to see you again. How does Earth fare?"
Surprised by the welcome, Cassie didn't have time to return the embrace before the other woman pulled away. "It's... it's all right," she said, smiling to convey her appreciation. "Zhane and I were watching the news on our way in, and it looks like Earth came through the war better than most."
"And your teammates?" Kinwon inquired, nodding his own greeting to her. "They are all well, I trust?"
"They are," she answered, heartened by their easy welcome. "They're all fine; thanks."
"We even kept Andros out of trouble," Zhane put in. "And that's not easy!"
Kinwon smiled at that, and Taikwa laughed aloud. "It certainly isn't," she agreed. "I feared this war might consume him before it was done."
"You've done well, Zhane," Kinwon said, clapping a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Come, both of you, and give us news of the outside world."
Their good humor was so contagious that Cassie couldn't help chuckling. Taikwa bumped her shoulder affectionately as she fell in beside the others, and Cassie grinned at her. Taikwa draped a companionable arm over her shoulders, returning the grin with one of her own, and Cassie sighed happily.
Nothing gets them down, she thought to herself. Can they possibly have seen worse? How can they be so optimistic in the aftermath of intergalactic war?
In the end, she decided she didn't care. The rebels' cheer was a welcome relief from the stress of the last few days, and she wasn't going to overanalyze it. Instead, she put her arm around Taikwa's waist and listened as Kinwon interrupted Zhane's admittedly rushed narrative with questions and comparisons of his own.
"Is it really over, do you think?" Taikwa's whispered question was meant for her ears alone, and she glanced over at the other woman. "The war, I mean? If all the soldiers have vanished..."
"I don't know," Cassie admitted. Up to that point, she had managed to avoid thinking about the future too much. "We saw quantrons turn to sand in front of us... but why? Why did it happen, and what does it mean?"
"To have all evil just vanish," Taikwa murmured. "Is that even possible, philosophically speaking?"
Cassie looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you can't have an extreme without an opposite," Taikwa said, as though it were obvious. "If all evil is gone, then no good can exist."
"Good isn't gone," Cassie answered automatically.
"No," Taikwa agreed, her tone pensive. Cassie glanced sideways at her, only to find the other woman looking back. She wasn't sure whether to find the implication disturbing or fundamentally reassuring.
A distant whine pierced the air, barely noticeable at first, and Cassie wouldn't have thought anything of it if Taikwa hadn't looked up. As the high-pitched buzz escalated in volume the others began to fall silent as well, turning their gazes toward the horizon. Soon the entire group had stopped in their tracks, shielding their eyes as they sought the source of the sound and muttering restlessly among themselves.
A wing of fighters appeared on the horizon, too far away to be identifiable but closing fast. Cassie felt a moment of panic at the thought that none of the Karovans were expecting the flyby, and she knew firsthand the uncertainty Taikwa had voiced earlier. What made them think all evil was gone? The troops on the front lines might have been mysteriously eradicated, but there were any number of villains that might have soldiers in reserve.
"They're coming in too low!" Zhane had to shout to make himself heard above the roar of the fighters' engines, and Cassie squinted against the sun in an effort to get an indication of the wing's altitude. "That isn't an attack formation!"
He was right, she realized suddenly. The wing was far too close to the ground for a strafing run, and it seemed to be slowing as it approached. It was almost as though--
"They mean to land!" Kinwon shouted, one hand still held high to protect his eyes. "Can anyone identify those fighters?"
There was a moment of tense silence as the wing drew closer, kicking up wind and sand even as it slowed. Cassie could barely keep her eyes open long enough to see anything, but suddenly she heard Zhane let out a whoop. "Eltaran! They're Eltaran fighters!"
The rest of the Karovans, those who had come to greet them and those who were only now emerging from their tents, took up the cheer immediately. Cassie waved her hand ineffectually, trying to keep the sand out of her eyes as the fighters started to set down outside the rebels' encampment. She felt Taikwa pull her forward and she stumbled a little, wondering how the others could see in this mess.
Kinwon stopped at a respectable distance from the lead fighter, and the wind that whipped his robes began to taper off as engines throughout the wing powered down. Grateful for the encroaching calm, Cassie brushed her braids out of her face and tossed her head impatiently. Somehow she had ended up at the front of the gathering crowd with Kinwon, Zhane, and Taikwa, but she still had no real certainties about what was happening.
Two canopies popped open simultaneously, and Cassie watched curiously as the pilot in the lead fighter and the one at the right corner of the diamond-shaped formation climbed out. They converged between the two ships without having to look at each other, and they strode forward to meet Kinwon together. Their motions were so efficient, so coordinated that she almost expected them to walk in sync.
"Greetings," the first pilot said, coming to a sharp halt exactly three paces from Kinwon. He inclined his head and shoulders in a gesture that could be nothing but a bow. "Our apologies for intruding on your airspace without permission, but you did not answer our hails."
"Forgiven," Kinwon said with a slight smile. "Our communications have been down for some time, but any emissary of Eltar will always find welcome here."
"As any of KO-35 are ever welcome on Eltar," the pilot returned gravely. "My name is Jenkarta, Red Ranger of Eltar. My companion and wingmate is Saryn, of Elisia. We come to offer our aid in the wake of the recent attacks."
Jenkarta had yet to look at anyone but Kinwon, and Cassie wondered idly how he knew who the rebel leader was. She let her own gaze slide politely toward his companion when the other was introduced, and she was disconcerted to find Saryn watching her intently. Something in his eyes was familiar, and she frowned as she studied him in return, trying without success to place him in her memory.
"We thank you for your assistance," Kinwon replied, his tone just as formal without sounding stilted. "I, Kinwon, lead those here on KO-35. Taikwa stands beside me, and the Rangers that defend us are Zhane of KO-35 and Cassie of Earth."
Still preoccupied with Saryn's gaze, Cassie spared little thought for Kinwon's introduction. She had seen this man before--but when? And where? The Astro Rangers had traveled far and wide in search of Zordon, but socializing hadn't been their first priority. Most of their downtime had been spent on Earth, and she doubted her planet was a choice vacation spot for Eltaran pilots.
"With your leave, then," Jenkarta was saying, "I would speak with your Rangers. My wingmate speaks for Eltar in my absence. If you will allow the rest of our pilots to disembark?"
At Kinwon's nod, Jenkarta continued, "You may put them to any task you see fit while we confer. We will not be long."
There must have been some signal that Cassie didn't catch, for the rest of the fighters opened up and began to discharge their pilots. Jenkarta nodded to her and Zhane, then turned and walked off as though unable to imagine that they wouldn't follow. Zhane rolled his eyes and mimed a pretentious expression, and Cassie stifled a giggle.
Shaking his head, Zhane put his hand on her elbow and leaned over to whisper, "Maybe we should have brought Andros after all. He does 'stuck up' like no one else."
She slapped his fingers, but she caught his hand before it could fall and dragged him after Jenkarta. "Be nice," she hissed, hoping her smile didn't show on her face. "He is a Ranger."
"I've known a lot of Rangers," Zhane reminded her under his breath. "Having a morpher doesn't automatically make you fun to be around."
Something made Cassie glance over her shoulder, and she narrowed her eyes thoughtfully as she saw Saryn look up at the same moment and glance after them. Turning back to Zhane quickly, she murmured, "Do you know that guy who's with Jenkarta?"
To her relief, he didn't look back. "Saryn? Nope; never met him before."
Jenkarta had come to a halt beside his fighter. He was standing on the side opposite the rebels' encampment, though whom he was expecting to eavesdrop was a mystery. Zhane and Cassie joined him reluctantly, neither sure what to expect.
He didn't acknowledge them at first, staring out in the direction from which his wing had come. He had a faroff expression on his face, making the piercing look he turned on them a moment later all the more startling. "Can you morph?" he asked, not bothering with pleasantries.
Cassie exchanged glances with Zhane. "No," he said slowly. They had tried it on the way to KO-35, just to make sure. "We thought maybe it was just us."
Jenkarta's expression didn't change. "Many others have said the same thing. I assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth. Every Ranger I've spoken to is in the same situation."
"We demorphed when the wave swept through," Cassie said, glancing at Zhane for support. "Whatever turned the quantrons to sand must have done this, too."
"The golden light?" Jenkarta didn't say anything for a moment. "If we had any idea what caused it, we might be able to say with more certainty what its purpose was. As it is..."
It was the first time since landing that he'd been without words. Taikwa's remark echoed in Cassie's mind and she frowned, wondering if she should mention it. It didn't seem useful, but then, she should know better than to try and guess what other people might find useful by now.
"Taikwa said something earlier," she offered hesitantly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zhane look up. "I don't know if it means anything, but she thinks good can't exist without evil. Is it--is it possible that this is some kind of... I don't know; balancing act?"
Jenkarta tapped the badge on his shirt, though the action didn't seem to have any purpose. It looked more like a nervous habit than anything else. Cassie looked closer, catching the red tint to the metal, and finally she recognized it for what it was. The flat hexagonal badge must be his morpher.
"It's possible," Jenkarta said at last. "There was a time when I would have dismissed it as religious jargon, but I've seen a lot of strange things since becoming a Ranger. Maybe there is a cosmic scale somewhere that has to be leveled; I don't know."
His speech was more relaxed when he was distracted, Cassie noticed. "Maybe it's simpler than that," she mused aloud. "Rangers aren't summoned until they're needed, right? Maybe when evil vanished, the Power went dormant. Maybe it knows it isn't needed."
Zhane was eyeing her skeptically. "That's simpler?" he inquired.
Jenkarta ignored him. "Both suggestions assume that evil is indeed gone from the universe. That's something we have yet to determine."
"Good luck," Zhane told him. "Even if we can't find it, how do we know it hasn't just gone into hiding?"
"Or changed its form." Jenkarta tapped his morpher again, considering. "You are aware, of course, that people who claim to be reformed villains have been appearing throughout the known galaxies."
"We noticed," Cassie said warily. Several people on IGN had reported such claims with open suspicion, and she was glad no one had mentioned Andros' sister.
"You don't sound convinced," Zhane added.
"That they're reformed?" Jenkarta studied each of them in turn. "I am not. The best efforts of our people have accomplished nothing toward that end, and I find it difficult to believe that villains are now changing their ways simply because they saw the light, so to speak."
"Have you spoken to any of them?" Zhane wanted to know.
"I haven't had the opportunity." Jenkarta gave him an odd look. "Have you?"
Zhane folded his arms, obviously on the defensive. "Maybe."
"You shelter someone," Jenkarta said flatly. "Someone you do not wish to see subject to the wrath of a war-torn universe."
"Maybe you should look up the definition of 'reformed'," Cassie snapped. "They're not the same people that ordered all this destruction. They're good now, and I think they deserve a second chance."
Jenkarta stared at her for a long moment. "Perhaps," he said finally. "But I will not find out the hard way that you are wrong. In your own affairs, I can only urge caution."
"So you're here because of the communications blackout?" Zhane asked, making no effort to hide the fact that he was changing the subject. "A whole Eltaran fighter wing just for us? We're flattered."
"No one from KO-35 has been heard from since before the attacks began," Jenkarta told them. It was impossible to tell whether he was agreeing with or correcting Zhane's statement. "Are you and Cassie without any means of contacting the rest of the universe?"
"All right, there's a couple of things you should know," Zhane said, his face mirroring Jenkarta's impassivity. "First off, Cassie isn't a Karovan Ranger. She's a Ranger from Earth who happens to be helping us out.
"Second, Andros and I both logged into the Ranger network through IGN, so there's no need to go around making sweeping remarks about 'no one being heard from.' Finally, before you ask, we didn't update KO-35's status because we didn't know what it was until Cassie and I arrived--right before you did, just now."
For the first time, Jenkarta seemed nonplussed. "You have a most unusual team arrangement," he said at last. "You are both Astro Rangers, are you not?"
Cassie glanced at Zhane, and Jenkarta shook his head sharply. "Forgive me," he said, before either of them could reply. "That is not relevant to the matter at hand. Tell me what you know of your planet's status, and I will send word to Eltar."
Once engaged, Zhane was difficult to distract, and he put his momentum to good use. Cassie tried to listen, knowing she had missed most of Kinwon's earlier report thanks to her conversation with Taikwa. She found she couldn't pay as much attention as she ought, though, because she kept getting distracted by Jenkarta's morpher.
Maybe it was just that she had never seen a morpher worn that way before. That was what she tried to tell herself, but the more she tried to dismiss it as just that the more often it seemed to pop into her mind. If she didn't know it was impossible, she'd have sworn she had seen something like it somewhere else.
When Jenkarta was at last satisfied with Zhane's recounting, he returned the favor in his own brisk, efficient sort of way. He told them little that they hadn't been able to gather from the news, although Rangers in general and Eltar in particular seemed to be trying to keep their inability to morph from becoming public. He did mention that Zordon was still missing, which seemed strange to Cassie since there shouldn't be anyone left to keep him prisoner.
Jenkarta also offered, in the most casual way possible, to leave one of his own pilots on KO-35 until the communication problem was fixed. Kinwon had indicated that the issue lay not only in lost relays but also in the existence of a system-wide jamming field that was blocking even surface-to-orbit transmissions. An Eltaran courier could be the solution if help were needed before communication was restored... but it didn't seem like a particularly glamorous duty for a fighter pilot.
Zhane accepted anyway, and Cassie wondered how they would choose which pilot had to stay. She amused herself by picturing a fistful of straws while they made their way back to the rebel encampment. Perhaps among aliens it would be the long straw that was the loser...
Saryn appeared as though summoned the moment they set foot outside Kinwon's tent, and Cassie almost took a step back at the suddenness of his presence. She found herself watching as he compared notes with Jenkarta--not watching their interaction, but watching him, and wondering what it was that made her want to do so. She couldn't help noticing that watching him was no chore, especially when he moved. He had an easy grace that drew the eye.
"Daydreaming?" Zhane whispered, sidling up to her. She hadn't even noticed when he left. "Or worrying? I don't think they'll try to do anything about Karone, if that's what you're thinking."
She shook her head, but Kinwon's arrival saved her from having to reply. Zhane must have slipped off to get him. Now the leader of the Karovans inserted himself into Jenkarta's discussion with Saryn without seeming to intrude in the slightest. That was some trick, Cassie thought, watching Kinwon politely thank the Eltarans for their concern.
Jenkarta told him the same thing he had told Zhane, but when Kinwon started to protest it was Saryn who cut him off. "I will stay," the pilot informed him. "It is no inconvenience."
Cassie blinked. No straws after all. She certainly hadn't expected anyone to volunteer for the duty. From Jenkarta's expression when she snuck a peek at him, he hadn't seen that one coming either. Or maybe he just hadn't expected it to be his second in command who volunteered.
When Jenkarta tried, diplomatically, to object to the arrangement, Saryn looked at him. That was it, he just looked at him, and at length the Red Ranger closed his mouth and let the declaration stand. Cassie shivered sympathetically, aware of what it felt like to be the subject of that unwavering gaze.
As though he had sensed her thoughts, Saryn glanced in her direction. His eyes were blue, she noted absently. Where had she seen him before? It was going to drive her crazy until she figured it out.
T + 9:28
6:14 PM PST
Andros had often wondered if the inhabitants of Earth were predisposed to insanity. Now, after almost a year of exposure, he wondered if it might be something about the planet itself that made one more inclined to lose one's mind. There was no efficiency and less organization, yet somehow, when one wasn't looking, things got done. He didn't understand it.
He also didn't appreciate it, especially when he had come to count on just the opposite. He had left Ashley at the Surf Spot when he went to see General Norquist, with the unspoken agreement that their skills would be put to better use by splitting up. Ashley comforted others with her presence, while Andros had a natural tendency to strategize even when he was supposed to be doing other things. He had meant to find her as soon as he'd checked in with NASADA, but the chaos of Adelle's improvised shelter was making it harder than he'd expected.
When he left, Ashley had been helping some of her classmates move tables in the establishment's restaurant and bar area. Now the main room had been converted into a dormitory hall, and all of the back rooms seemed to be in use as treatment and recovery wards. Finding anyone in the youth hangout had become a challenge, and finding someone as in demand as a Ranger was nearly impossible. No matter where she had "just" been seen, she was always gone by the time he got there.
Finally, he caught a glimpse of Adelle bustling past the foyer doors. Calling out to her, Andros tried to make his way toward the doorway with some kind of speed. She heard him and halted, since he never would have caught up otherwise--the place was packed with people sleeping, milling, or in some cases, actually helping.
"I'm looking for Ashley," he said, sidestepping a small child as he joined her in the foyer. The toddler couldn't have been more than three or four, but it didn't seem to be accompanied by anyone. "Have you seen her?"
Adelle reached out and caught the child's hand before it could go any further alone. "She's in the kitchen, I think," the older woman told him. "She's been working hard this afternoon."
"Thanks," Andros said gratefully. He headed for the kitchen without an another word, but Adelle's voice made him pause.
"You eaten yet, Andros?" She sounded like she knew the answer but had to ask anyway. "Make sure they get you some food in that kitchen, you hear?"
He waved in acknowledgement, pushing the kitchen doors open without breaking stride. Food was very close to the last thing on his mind right now, and if he didn't find Ashley here he was going to signal her communicator and track her by the noise. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate Adelle's concern; it was just that he was getting tired of people--
The flash of yellow over by the windows caught his eye, and he zeroed in on it with single-minded determination. Ashley was talking to two people he didn't recognize, absently bouncing a sleeper-clad infant in her arms as she spoke. Where the child had come from, he didn't know, but he didn't like the implications of so many unsupervised children running around loose.
He walked right up to the group, not caring what he was interrupting. "I need to talk to you," Andros told her, taking the child out of her arms and handing it to the woman she'd been talking to. "Ranger business," he added, addressing the others. "You understand."
Without waiting for their reply, he took her elbow and steered her back toward the doors. "What are you doing?" Ashley hissed. She sounded torn between laughter and worry. "Is everything okay?"
"It's fine," Andros said, reaching out to grab an apple from a counter as he passed. "I just need to talk to you, that's all."
She held the door for him even as he guided her out into the foyer, but she halted there and refused to take another step. "Andros, what's going on?" she demanded. "Did something happen with NASADA?"
"Nothing happened," he insisted, taking a bite out of the apple as he glanced around apprehensively. The foyer was almost empty, but he knew it couldn't last. It was only a matter of time before someone came along to ask them for something.
Dragging his attention back to her, he forced himself to look at her objectively. "How are you?" he asked, studying her grimy clothes and disheveled hair. She had tried to pull her hair back into a ponytail sometime during the course of the afternoon, but an elastic wasn't sufficient restraint. Her face and hands were clean, though she still bore streaks of dust and soot everywhere else.
Ashley shrugged, subjecting him to the same scrutiny he was giving her. "I'm all right," she said, smiling at some humor he didn't catch. She reached out to tug at the hem of his jacket, straightening it, and she brushed his loose hair over his shoulder. "Your uniform's starting to look as bad as my clothes," she teased. "Too bad Zhane and Cassie took the Megaship. You might be stuck with it for a while."
"Ashley," someone called, then stopped. A woman Andros didn't recognize had poked her head out from the kitchen, and she didn't look at all certain that she should be interrupting the conversation. "Vegan food?" she said hesitantly, when they both turned to look at her.
"There's some bread with the desert stuff," Ashley told her. "And Adelle said there was soy milk in the refrigerator. For the rest, use up the fruit and veggies before they go bad."
The woman bobbed her head in thanks before ducking back into the kitchen. Over the top of his apple, Andros looked at her in amusement. "How did you get to be the head chef?"
Ashley sighed, tugging on his jacket again. "Don't ask. So how did it go with General Norquist? What does he think about the relay satellites?"
"He thinks you're going to need a whole new branch of the space agency to deal with the issues they'll raise," Andros said with a grin. "He muttered something about 'Galactic Reporters, Inc.' but I don't think he was serious."
"He's right, though," Ashley mused, a far-off look in her eyes. "It will change everything. But Earth can't be taken by surprise like this again. We have to have some kind of communication with the rest of the universe."
"Andros!" Adelle's eye lit upon them as she hurried through the foyer. "There's someone on the phone for you. Something about the National Guard."
"Tell them I'm not here," Andros said with a sigh.
Adelle's eyes sparkled with sympathetic amusement. "You got it," she called over her shoulder, vanishing back into one of the offices.
Ashley shifted where she stood, and he reached out to catch her left hand before she could do anything else to his jacket. Leaning closer to whisper in her ear, he suggested softly, "Let's get out of here."
Wisps of escaped hair tickled his cheek when she nodded, and he closed his eyes for a moment. Would he ever get up the nerve to kiss her? Why couldn't he do it now? Would it matter if anyone else saw?
He heard footsteps behind the kitchen doors and he drew back quickly. "Come on," he whispered, catching her arm and pulling her toward the front entrance.
Ashley giggled at his haste, but she stopped him just before they reached the exit. There were people outside, heading for the main doors and effectively blocking their escape route. He saw Ashley make a face, and he had just resigned himself to trying to sneak by when she grabbed his hand.
Before he knew what had happened, she had pulled him into a tiny room off of the foyer and pulled the door shut behind them. It was completely dark and strangely oppressive, and when he tried to take a step he put his foot on something that wasn't the floor. "Where--"
He felt Ashley put her finger over his mouth, and he fell silent. "Shh," she whispered, and he felt her hair brush against his face again when she turned her head. She was very close, closer than they had been in the hallway, and suddenly he didn't think this was a bad idea at all. He squeezed her hand, and they stood absolutely still as the main doors were thrown open.
Voices in the foyer rose and fell for several minutes, and at one point he was sure he heard Adelle in all the confusion. He couldn't help the irrational fear that someone would stride over to their hiding place, which he was beginning to suspect consisted of little more than a closet, and yank the door open. He wasn't sure what he'd say if someone asked him what he was doing, but he did know that he was finally alone with Ashley and that was worth quite a lot.
Finally the noise outside began to subside, and as individual footsteps became distinguishable and then faded, Ashley lowered her hand. He lifted his apple again and took a small bite, trying to chew quietly. "Ash," he whispered, straining his eyes against the darkness as he glanced around. "Are we in a closet?"
She pulled her hand away from his, and at first he was disappointed. But then he heard her fingers sliding over the wall, and a moment later their surroundings burst into light. "Looks that way," she agreed quietly, her eyes sparkling with humor. "Too bad all these cleaning supplies are in it with us."
He chuckled, nudging a mop bucket out of the way with his foot. "It's not so bad," he pointed out, finishing his apple and tossing the core into a bucket labeled "compost". "See? All the luxuries of home."
She covered her mouth in an effort to muffle her giggles, and he gazed at her for a long moment, soaking up the sound. "Ash," he said at last, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Look at me."
She did, letting her hand fall as she gave him a curious look. Taking a nervous breath, he leaned forward and pressed his mouth gently to hers. She tilted her head as though she'd expected nothing less, and when he pulled away she smiled up at him. "Took you long enough," she whispered.
Then she licked her lips and giggled again. "You're forever connected to apples in my mind now."
He let out the breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "I wanted to do that yesterday," he murmured, brushing an errant wisp of hair away from her face.
"Why didn't you?" she asked frankly, not flinching from his gaze. "If you... if things had worked out differently..."
"If I hadn't come back," he said and she nodded once, not taking her eyes off of him. "That's why I couldn't do it," he admitted, willing her to understand. "If you'd let me kiss you--I might not have gone to the Dark Fortress. I might have stayed on Earth, with you... and Astronema would have won."
She looked away at last, staring down at her fingers, and he wondered what she was thinking. Before he could ask, she lifted her eyes to his and tried to smile. "It's a good thing I didn't know it was that easy to keep you with us," she offered, the waver in her voice betraying her composure.
"With you," he corrected. He lifted one hand to her face as she blinked quickly. Brushing away an imaginary tear, he murmured, "I would have stayed for you, Ash--not for the team. But I couldn't... and that was because of you too, don't you see?"
She shook her head wordlessly, but she didn't push his hand away.
"If we'd done nothing," he said softly, "Astronema would have conquered Earth. She would have found us, and we would have died defending each other. But we wouldn't have died together, even if we were side by side. One of us would have had to go first, and I couldn't bear--"
Now she really was crying, and he stopped, not knowing how to continue. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, but she didn't answer. Awkwardly, he put his arms around her, and she leaned into his embrace and hugged him hard.
"Don't be sorry," he heard her whisper. "You saved me. You saved all of us."
He shook his head, holding her carefully against him. "Zordon saved us," he said, treasuring the feel of her in his arms. He'd been right. If he were asked now to make the same decision he had made yesterday, he doubted he could do it.
"Zordon couldn't have done it if you hadn't been there," Ashley murmured, and he could feel her breathing becoming more even. She lifted one hand behind his shoulder and rubbed her face, and he reached back to capture her fingers and pull them away.
She let him step back, a puzzled look on her tearstained face until he reached up to dry her cheeks himself. "Don't cry," he told her gently. "It's all right now. We made it."
She smiled, taking a deep breath to cover her sniffles. "Yeah," she agreed, lifting her hand to cover his. He held still as she leaned her head against their hands and reached out to touch his lips. "We made it..."
The invitation was clear, and he leaned in to kiss her again. She closed her eyes and lifted her face toward his, and her mouth was soft and warm beneath his. He smiled when he felt her arm slide around his neck, and she hugged him tightly before he could pull away. "Thanks for coming back," she whispered, her breath tickling his skin.
He didn't know how to answer, so he just wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her back. They stood that way for a long moment, just holding each other, and finally Ashley giggled. Without letting him go, she murmured, "This whole closet thing is pretty romantic. I should have tried this before."
Andros smiled into her hair. "Everything with you is romantic," he said, meaning it.
He felt her squeeze him harder, but just as she took a breath his communicator beeped. He caught her eye as they broke apart, and they exchanged resigned glances. "Figures," he muttered, and he was rewarded by her laugh.
Lifting his left wrist, he announced, "This is Andros."
Ashley motioned to him to lower his voice, indicating the door, and he rolled his eyes. That was an explanation he didn't really want to give. He could just imagine how their teammates would react to the news that he and Ashley were hiding in one of the Surf Spot's cleaning closets.
"It's TJ," the voice on the other end of the link replied. "Eltar is trying to contact us. They think Zordon might have been on the Dark Fortress, and they want to know if we've found any sign of him. What should I tell them?"
Andros glanced at Ashley. In whispered, piecemeal conversations throughout the day, he had managed to fill her in on his time aboard the Dark Fortress. TJ must know too, or he wouldn't have bothered to ask for advice. Ashley's eyes were wide with the questions that simple query raised, and Andros tried not to sigh.
"Tell them the truth," he said, still gazing at her. "They have a right to know."
There was a brief but noticeable hesitation, and then TJ said, "Karone doesn't think that's such a good idea. All we really need to say is that Zordon sacrificed himself for us, and that the energy wave was his last gift to a universe at war."
"If we try to hide what happened, then we admit there was something to hide," Andros pointed out. "I shattered Zordon's energy tube, TJ. I'm not going to lie about it, and I don't want any of you to either."
There was another pause. "If that's how you feel about it, then I respect that," TJ said at last. "But Karone wants to talk to you."
He saw Ashley hide a grin, but Karone's voice came over the communicator before he could say anything. "Andros, I don't know what's going to happen, but I have this feeling that Eltar isn't going to be happy about their legendary leader being dead. I'm not going to let them turn their anger on you."
"They won't," Andros said flatly. "I did what I did because Zordon asked me to. You know that."
"I know that, but they don't!" Karone sounded frustrated. "I was the only other one there, and you can't think they're going to take my word for anything.
"Just tell them I did it, Andros." Her voice went from exasperated to earnest in the time it took to blink. "Tell them I killed Zordon. No one will question you, and it might as well be true. If I'd done what he asked me to, none of this would have happened."
"No!" Andros glared at his communicator, forgetting where he was for a moment. "That's not true, and I won't let you pretend it is! This is not your fault!"
There was silence from the link, and he closed his eyes briefly. "Karone... I'm sorry. I'm not upset with you."
"I know," she said in a small voice. "I--I'm sorry too. I just don't want to lose you."
"You won't," he told her, giving Ashley a meaningful look at the same time. "No one's going to lose anyone. Trust me."
He could almost hear his sister sigh. "Remember how I said I was working on that?" she asked, a resigned note in her voice. Before she'd been fitted with mental implants to insure her loyalty, Astronema had told him how hard trust was for her. "I haven't quite gotten there yet."
"Don't worry," he said quietly. "I have enough trust for both of us."
He saw Ashley smile a little at that, and he smiled back. When his communicator remained silent, he added, "Tell the Eltarans what happened, TJ. They need to know."
"Right," TJ agreed a moment later. "I'll tell them."
Andros nodded, though he knew TJ couldn't see him, and he let his wrist fall. Ashley watched as he sat down on the edge of the floor sink, leaning back against the wall and gazing up at her. "Come here," he murmured, and she settled onto the dry tile next to him without a word.
"Hey," he said a moment later, as he caught sight of something on the shelf next to his head. "Look what we have."
He flipped the switch and a barely audible sound emanated from the radio's speakers. Glancing sideways at Ashley, he slid his other arm around her shoulders. She moved a little closer and closed her eyes, letting out a small sound of contentment, and he smiled to himself.
She reached up to fiddle with the ribbon on her shirt, and he couldn't help turning his head to watch. It wasn't her shirt at all, he realized then. She was playing with the necklace he had given her. He couldn't quite see it, but he could hear the tiny chink of metal as she slid the silver pendant along its chain.
At length, she took a noticeable breath. "Andros?"
He made an inquisitive sound, not feeling up to more words right now.
She shifted again, curling her legs up beside her and snuggling her head against his chest. "Nothing," she said softly.
He smiled, letting his eyes slide closed. "I have an idea," he murmured.
When she didn't answer, he continued, "Let's just stay here until everyone leaves."
He felt her muffled giggle as much as he heard it. "I'm not sure we can live in a closet for the next decade."
Out in the foyer, he overheard someone asking for the Power Rangers. A voice he recognized from the kitchen answered, and to his surprise he heard Carlos' name. Sleeping... Andros wouldn't mind sleeping right now. The Black Ranger had earned it, though, and no less than the rest of them. The only difficulty was that sleeping meant separating from Ashley, and that sounded less and less appealing the longer he thought about it.
Maybe if they stayed there long enough they'd fall asleep where they were, Andros mused. That would solve the problem nicely, if uncomfortably. But with Ashley in his arms, who was he to complain?
"Might be worth a try," he said aloud. Her breathing was quiet and even, as though she was thinking the same thing. He bent just enough to kiss her hair, and he didn't have to see her face to know she was smiling.
T + 16:41
1:27 AM PST
Carlos tossed restlessly, his sight held hostage by the darkness. He'd been fading in and out of consciousness for an indeterminate amount of time, his exhaustion no longer thick enough to overwhelm the strangeness of his surroundings. He burrowed farther under his blanket, hoping to block out enough of the rustling that he could slip back into sleep again.
Rustling meant movement. He threw his covers back as that realization hit him, forcing his eyes open once more. The darkness was unrelenting, but his blind gaze turned toward the sound nonetheless. "Aura?" he whispered hoarsely. "You okay?"
The rustling stopped, but her voice sounded breathy when she replied. "I am well."
She was awake. And, unless he totally missed his guess, she was lying through her teeth. Fumbling for the flashlight he'd lifted from the front office, he put his hand over the top and flipped it on. In the muted glow of light through his fingers, he could just make out Aura's shadowy form sitting up on the couch.
"What are you doing awake?" he mumbled, levering himself upright.
"I could ask the same of you," she replied. She still sounded out of breath, but his sleepy brain couldn't figure out why. "You should be resting."
"I was," he muttered. "You woke me up."
There was a brief pause. "Is there a place where I might obtain water?" she asked at last.
The plaintive note in her voice got his attention, and he blinked the rest of the sleep from his eyes. "Sure," he said, aiming the flashlight at the floor before taking his hand off of it. "There's a water fountain out in the gym. Come on; I'll take you."
She got to her feet without a word and followed him out of the phys ed office, treading as carefully as he did in the dark. He tried to keep the flashlight between them, but it helped that he knew where they were going. She was more apt to stumble, first over the lip of the doorway and then again on the walking mats in the hallway that led to the locker rooms.
When they reached the fountain, he took the water bottle from her hand and handed her the flashlight. He demonstrated, pushing the handle on the side of the water fountain and filling the bottle for her. "There you go," he said, recapping it and holding it out.
She just gave him the flashlight back and stepped up to the water fountain herself. He frowned, watching her bend over and scoop up the trickle of water in her hand. She splashed it against her neck, baffling him, then did the same thing with her other hand. She took a deep breath and repeated the process, not seeming to care that her shirt was getting wet.
"Thank you," she said at last, letting go of the water fountain and reaching for the bottle he had filled moments before. "It is adequate."
Without waiting for him to take the lead, she made her careful way back toward the office. She managed, even with him and the flashlight behind her, and Carlos took the hint. She lay down on the couch, her back to him, and he didn't ask again.
The next time he woke, the grey light of dawn was creeping into their room through a single window near the ceiling. He shifted on the exercise mat that had been his bed for the night, feeling the blanket tangled around his legs. The air conditioning had been shaky the day before and it had apparently cut out entirely during the night.
Suddenly he realized what had woken him, and he sat bolt upright on his makeshift mattress. Aura was convulsing on the couch, breath rasping in her lungs as she clutched at her neck. He was at her side as fast as he could move, registering the empty water bottle on the floor a moment later.
"Aura?" He touched her arm hesitantly, not knowing what else to do, but she didn't respond. "Aura! Are you all right?"
It was a stupid question, he reflected in retrospect. If she were all right, she would have told him by now. Taking hold of her wrist, he pulled her right hand away from her neck and gasped at the angry cuts that had appeared in her skin.
It took a moment for the fact that they weren't bleeding to sink in. The reminder that she wasn't human crashed home like a physical blow and he flinched involuntarily. He remembered her gulping water in the truck the day before, and splashing water on her neck last night when it had been too dark to see anything.
"I don't comprehend your physiology," she had told him. "Do not presume to understand mine."
They weren't cuts at all, he realized at last. They were gills.
"Can you stand?" he demanded, not sure whether she could hear what he was saying. If she made any sign, it was lost in the shudders wracking her body. He dragged her to her feet without waiting for anything clearer--if she had gills, then she wasn't just hurting right now. She was suffocating.
He pulled her out into the hallway, stumbling toward the locker rooms with her and praying there was no one in there this early. She wasn't easy to support, he reflected grimly, cursing as he lurched into the doorway. She was too short for him to duck under her arm, and without the Power he wasn't sure how far he could carry her.
Carlos could hear the water running before they took two steps into the womens' locker room, and he growled in frustration. "Everybody out!" he shouted, from the safety of the changing room. "You have to the count of five to get out of the shower! One!"
There were exclamations of surprise and at least one irritated sounding grumble, and he couldn't help wondering why women got up at godawful hours of the morning to shower. Didn't they know that the world had almost ended yesterday? Couldn't they disrupt their cleaning routine for one measly morning?
Aura doubled over, almost slipping from his grasp before he got his arms around her. She wasn't making any sound anymore, but her eyes were wide with fright as her mouth opened and closed frantically. He hadn't thought he could feel any more helpless, but somehow he did.
"Five!" he yelled, pulling her forward again. They burst into the communal shower with no regard for the glares and indignant yelps of people who typically counted three numbers between one and five. The glares turned to looks of concern and uncertainty as he drew Aura under one of the showerheads and cranked it up, but he paid no attention.
His own breath deserted him as the cold water hit his skin, and he found himself gasping as hard as she had been earlier. He couldn't breathe, but he couldn't let her go either, so he stayed under the icy waterfall and held her up until she tilted her head to the side and let the water run down her neck. He stared, transfixed, as her gills flared under the cascading liquid sheets.
Carlos could hear people murmuring, but he didn't register anything other than the Aquitian Ranger's abrupt inhalation. Closing her eyes, she opened her mouth and let her head fall back. It would have choked a human, but she just gulped swallow after swallow of water as though returning from too long in the desert.
"Is--is something wrong?" he heard someone ask. He rolled his eyes, but the immediate danger seemed to have passed and he really did owe some sort of explanation.
Aura lowered her head, her grey eyes fixing on his. Water still rained down on them, slicking her hair to her shoulders and soaking his clothes. He could feel the water droplets making trails through the grime he had been too tired to wash off the day before, and they dripped off of her nose in a way that made her serious expression almost comical.
"How did you know?" she asked at length, her voice sounding stronger than it had since early yesterday.
He shrugged, his gaze darting inadvertently to her neck. The gills were less prominent now, but they were still clearly visible. There was no way he could have missed them, and yet... "Lucky guess," he said at last. Lifting his eyes to hers again, he studied her expression. "What happened?"
"I was careless," she said stiffly, her eyes focusing on something past his left shoulder.
He turned, aware as he did so that he was drenched and his clothes probably wouldn't dry for hours. At least the water had finally warmed up; that was something. Or was it? Looking at the curious, towel-clad forms were peering at them with as much outraged bemusement as a human face could muster, he thought the temperature of the water wasn't much consolation after all.
"Hello," he said, sighing as he stepped out of the spray. "I'm Carlos." Was there anyone in the city that didn't know that, after yesterday? "Sorry for disrupting your shower like that. It was kind of urgent."
"Are you... an alien?" one of the girls asked, staring past him at Aura.
"No," the Red Aquitian Ranger answered. She sounded faintly cross. It was so subtle that Carlos hoped it wasn't noticeable to anyone else. "It is you who are alien, so far as I am concerned."
She looked remarkably dignified, Carlos decided, for someone who was standing in a shower dripping and fully clothed. Nonetheless, she didn't seem to be in a particularly good mood, and he suspected she didn't much care about the ambiguous nature of the Rangers' reputation in Angel Grove right now. Without even meaning to, she might tip the balance against them.
"Are you all right now?" he asked, shifting his weight on the tile floor. His stocking feet made ripples in the standing water of the shower basin, and he shoved his wet hair out of his face impatiently. Where was he going to get dry clothes?
"I am," she said warily, sensing the change in his demeanor.
"Then let's go." He slogged toward the edge of the shower and stepped out, ignoring the puddles he left behind him as he headed for the door. "Sorry," he added over her shoulder for the benefit of the onlookers.
He didn't see how reluctant she was to step out of the water, but he heard her padding behind him as he squished down the hallway toward the water fountain. Shucking his shirt without a second thought, he held it over the fountain and twisted it as tightly as he could. He glanced back at her while he wrung it out, and the incongruity of her appearance struck him suddenly.
"Why aren't your clothes wet?" Carlos demanded, not sure whether he was more curious or irritated. Whatever had happened was her fault, after all, yet he was the one who was dripping.
She looked down at herself as though she hadn't noticed. "They were not made to retain water," she said at last. "It is not that kind of fabric."
He shook his head, pulling his socks off and repeating the procedure. "Well, I'm going to have to find some dry clothes. If you want to go back to sleep, I can wake you up later."
"That is not necessary." She watched him shake his damp t-shirt out and put it back on, grimacing as it clung to his skin. He opted against the socks, deciding it couldn't be more uncomfortable to wear sneakers barefoot than it would be to wear them over wet socks.
"Thank you," Aura said abruptly, startling him. "I appreciate what you did."
He stopped, staring at her in confusion before he realized what she meant. "Oh," he said, at something of a loss. "Well... you're welcome. I'm just glad I figured out what was happening." He frowned at that, studying her more closely. "What was happening?"
She looked away, and his eyes slid to the curve of her neck. The skin there was smooth, unmarred and apparently normal. That explained why he hadn't seen the gills yesterday, then. They must disappear when she wasn't using them. But then--
"The air is too dry," she muttered. "I suspect my lungs are suffering an adverse reaction to the constant irritation. I ought to have expected it."
"All that dust probably didn't help, either," he said slowly, considering it in retrospect. "Sorry. I shouldn't have been so harsh yesterday. You have your own planet to worry about--"
"People in need are the same no matter where they are," she interrupted. "We must help where we can."
Carlos looked at her for a moment, wondering if he would be as selfless in her place. He had the sudden urge to find out. Maybe he could visit Aquitar sometime, and try to repay the precious hours its Red Ranger had spent offworld in a time of crisis.
His communicator beeped, and he lifted his wrist automatically. "This is Carlos," he said, wrenching his attention back to the present.
"It's TJ," the Blue Ranger answered. "Glad you're awake. We need to regroup."
"I have to get home first," Carlos said firmly. "I haven't even tried to find my folks yet, and there's some things I need. Including breakfast."
"Adelle's going to feed us," TJ told him. "Karone and I did some checking last night. Your brother was seen at the dojo yesterday afternoon, and your mom registered as a volunteer at the orphanage. I haven't been able to track down your dad, but the building where he works was evacuated before the worst of it hit."
"What about the others?" Carlos asked, trying to ignore the lump in his throat. He wouldn't think about what it meant right now; he couldn't. He just wanted the facts.
"I talked to my uncle this morning." TJ's voice was measured, as though he was just as detached. "He hasn't been able to reach anyone from home. Half the phone lines were knocked out in the attack, and the other half are jammed. People with military clearance are the only ones getting through.
"Ashley's dad was at the house when everything went down, and he holed up there with a few others--none of her family, though. Her mom was checked into the hospital yesterday, but no one's heard from her brother. Cassie never gave anyone contacts for her relatives, so..."
As TJ trailed off, Carlos felt a gentle pressure on his shoulder. He looked up to find Aura's hand on his damp t-shirt, her touch warm and her gaze openly sympathetic. The expression was so different from the one she usually wore that he swallowed, trying to smile in thanks but not quite managing it.
"Can you meet us at the Surf Spot in an hour?" TJ asked at last. "There's a lot we need to talk about before we do anything else.
He didn't miss the warning note in his friend's voice, and Carlos frowned. "Something I should know now?"
"It can wait until we eat," TJ answered, but the implication that it couldn't wait longer was obvious. "Tell Aura that Aquitar's been calling nonstop. Is she okay?"
Without a word, Carlos held out his communicator to her.
"Tell them I am well," she told it, taking her hand off of his shoulder. "I will contact them shortly. Ask Billy whether Sirethian suffers from loneliness," she added, casually enough that it almost sounded like an afterthought. The request was so deliberate, though, that Carlos had no doubt it was an identity check her teammates would recognize.
"Sirethian," TJ repeated, clearly catching the significance too. "Will do. We'll see you in an hour, then."
"We'll be there," Carlos agreed, glancing down at his sopping wet jeans in distaste. As he lowered his left wrist, he wondered whether his car had made it through the attacks. They would be hard-pressed to make it in the time allotted on foot, especially if they ran into anyone--and it seemed unlikely that they wouldn't.
He underestimated the citizens of Angel Grove. He and Aura stopped long enough to fill her water bottle and collect his sneakers before taking the back exit out of the high school gymnasium, but they hadn't even made it past the soccer fields when a car pulled over and offered them a ride. When Carlos told the driver where they were headed, she didn't bat an eye. "Hop in," the woman told them without hesitation.
Whether she recognized him or had just seen too many aimless pedestrians was impossible to say, but Carlos didn't argue. She waved away his thanks, letting him direct her through the residential side roads until they were practically at his front door. The car slowed, and once more she refused to accept his thanks.
As the vehicle drove away, he wondered briefly if he would ever find out who she was. His thoughts flashed back to the searchers he had worked with the day before, and he realized he might never see them again either. Even if he picked up where he left off, they would no doubt be distributed differently today--
He shook the thought away, turning toward the house and noting with detached relief that his car was in the driveway. The door was locked, but the key was hidden under a ceramic pot on the front steps. He let Aura in and followed before it occurred to him that there was no visible velocifighter damage on the entire street. He peered back through one of the front windows before pushing the puzzle to the back of his mind.
"I'm going to take a shower," he told Aura, unhooking his car keys from the rack by the door and tossing them on the hall table. "A real one, with soap. Want one?"
She looked torn. "Is it--would it be an inconvenience?"
"Of course not." He led the way upstairs, pushing open the bathroom door and showing her how the faucet worked. "I'll get you a towel--and some clean clothes, if you want."
She nodded hesitantly, and he grabbed a towel out of the linen closet. "I'll leave the clothes outside the door," he told her. "I'll meet you downstairs whenever you're done."
"Thank you," she said, somewhat awkwardly.
Pulling the bathroom door closed behind him, he headed for his own room. Nothing of his was going to fit Aura, but Ashley had been wont to leave her cheerleading uniforms at his house in the past. He supposed the yellow t-shirt with the "A" on it might raise a few eyebrows, but with some of his mom's jeans it wouldn't be too out of place. He dropped the clothes in the hallway outside the bathroom door and headed back toward his parents' room.
The first thing he noticed when he emerged from the master bath almost ten minutes later was that the water at the other end of the house had stopped running. Toweling his hair off, he poked his head out into the hallway. Sure enough, the bathroom door stood open and the clothes he had left were gone.
"You're the only woman I know who takes a faster shower than I do," he told her when he caught up with her in the kitchen. She didn't turn, and he walked over to see what she was looking at.
His mother had left a note on the table. It hadn't even occurred to him to check when they first arrived, but now he took in every word. She had stayed at the orphanage overnight, and she wrote that his brother was helping at the community center across from the dojo. She wrote, too, that his father had been recruited as an ambulance driver and EMT and planned to spend the foreseeable future on call at the clinic.
He let out a breath he was sure he hadn't been holding, and he felt Aura stir. "From your family?" she asked quietly.
He nodded, giving her a quick glance. "You can't read it?"
She shook her head wordlessly.
He picked it up, for no other reason than that they felt closer that way. "My mom says everyone's all right," he said, staring down at the paper. "She says they're worried about me, but they saw me on some news broadcast..."
He trailed off, not sure what to make of that. He should have expected it, really, but he couldn't remember any cameras in the last 24 hours. "She also says she's sure they'll hear from me soon," he added, with a wry smile. "She can lay on the guilt without even being here."
Picking up a pen from beside the phone, he realized the light on their answering machine was flashing. Did he really want to know? TJ had said the phones were down, so who could have left a message? With some trepidation, Carlos pressed the "play" button.
"I'm calling for Carlos Vargas," a vaguely familiar voice announced. It had a no-nonsense air of authority about it, and a moment later he realized why. "This is General Norquist at NASADA," the voice continued. "I need to speak with one of the Power Rangers on a matter of extreme urgency. You can contact me at--"
Carlos cut the message off with more violence than was necessary. Turning back to the table with his pen in hand, he caught Aura's odd look. "Well, it wasn't urgent enough for him to tell me about it, was it?" he demanded, embarrassed by her inquisitive gaze.
She studied him, then replied calmly, "Your family is more important."
"Damn right it is," he muttered, leaning down to scrawl his own note at the bottom of his mother's. He couldn't call and he really didn't have time to stop by the orphanage, but if she came home at all today she would see the message.
Straightening up, he tossed the pen down and opened his mouth to say something about the Surf Spot. Only then did his eyes catch up with his brain, and he realized that he was staring at an alien in a cheerleader's tee and jeans. His lips twitched as he took in the sight, and she folded her arms defensively.
"You look nice," he said quickly, not wanting to upset her. "Sorry there's nothing red."
"It is adequate." They were the same words she had said the night before, and he hoped they were truthful this time. He didn't have time to ask, so he took her word for it as he went to retrieve his keys.
"Ready for some breakfast?" Carlos asked, glancing over his shoulder as she joined him in the hallway. He held the door for her, and she stepped out into a surprisingly clear morning.
"Much better," he said appreciatively, trying to ignore the haze that still rolled across an otherwise blue sky. "Let's get going. The others must be starving by now."
T + 23:11
7:57 AM PST
"I'm not saying you should eat if you're not hungry," Andros was telling her.
"He's just saying you should be," TJ interjected, pushing his way into the room and depositing two bowls full of pale lumpiness on the table. "You didn't even eat dinner last night!"
"I didn't want anything." Karone stared at the bowl TJ slid toward her, then looked up as the door banged open again.
"No brown sugar," Ashley said cheerfully, joining them in the small room with two more bowls of unidentifiable goo. "But I found something almost as good!"
TJ reached for the box under her arm just as she danced out of the way. "Nice try," she told him with a grin. "Me first!"
"You don't even like raisins," the Blue Ranger protested, as his teammate handed one of the bowls to Andros and set her own down on the table.
Ashley shrugged, popping the box top open. "I don't like oatmeal, either, but it's better than no breakfast at all. Did you get the spoons?"
"Ye of little faith," TJ teased, swinging his chair around and settling into it backwards. "Everyone else gets a spoon, but don't expect yours until you hand over the raisins."
Ashley rolled her eyes as TJ passed spoons to Karone and Andros. "Do you honestly think I'm going to eat the entire box?"
"I wouldn't put it past you to try to improve oatmeal by adding it to the raisins instead of the other way around," TJ informed her. "Hand them over."
She smiled sweetly at him. "How am I supposed to get the raisins out without a spoon?"
"Pour, like everyone else."
Ashley turned the box over. Nothing happened. "It's too hot," she explained. "They're stuck together."
With a long-suffering sigh, TJ passed her a spoon. "Save some for us," he reminded her.
Ashley reached into the box and tossed a raisin at him in reply. "There's your raisin," she said with a giggle. Scooping some into her bowl, she asked, "Want some, Andros?"
"Not if you're going to throw them at me," Andros answered, grinning at her.
She wrinkled her nose at him, and Karone couldn't help smiling. It was nice to see her brother so happy. Even as Astronema, she'd known that the Red Ranger carried a lot of repressed hurt. Of course, when she'd thought he was her enemy she'd considered that a good thing, but now she was glad to see him letting go of some of it.
"Karone?" Ashley asked, holding the box out to her. "Raisins for your oatmeal?"
Ignoring TJ's indignant protest, Karone looked down at her bowl doubtfully. "What's... 'oatmeal'?"
"It's--" Ashley glanced down at her own bowl, then shrugged a little. "I don't know, actually. I think it's oats and water, or milk, or something. I guess that makes it like wet, gluey bread."
TJ stopped chewing, his spoon halfway to his mouth, and gave her a reproachful look. Andros took the opportunity to snatch the raisin box from Ashley's hand while she was distracted, pretending not to notice her exclamation. He had already downed almost a third of his oatmeal, and Ashley's description didn't seem to bother him in the slightest.
"As good as you make it sound," Karone said, pushing her bowl away with a slight smile, "I'm not really hungry."
"You have to eat something," TJ protested, turning his attention back to her. "I haven't seen you eat anything since Andros brought you off of the Dark Fortress yesterday."
She saw Andros and Ashley look at her in surprise, their mock fight over the raisin box momentarily forgotten. "Karone," Andros began.
"Look," she interrupted. "It's not like I'm used to eating all the time, okay? Food was a luxury on the Dark Fortress. Most of the soldiers there didn't eat at all."
"Yeah, because they were machines," Ashley pointed out. "You're not like them. You're one of us."
"That's right," TJ agreed. "And if we have to listen to Ashley complain about the food, so do you, so eat up."
"Hey!" Ashley picked another raisin out of her oatmeal and threw it at him.
TJ ducked, raising a hand to ward her off, and Ashley laughed. TJ's spoon clattered to the table as he grabbed a raisin from Andros' bowl and chucked it back at her. "That'll teach you to throw fruit, young lady!"
"Raisins aren't fruit," Ashley protested, scrambling out of her seat and taking the box of raisins with her. "Who's got the ammunition now, huh? You'd better be nice to me!"
TJ and Andros exchanged glances. Something must have passed between them, for they both lunged from their chairs at exactly the same time. TJ went for the raisin box while Andros grabbed Ashley from behind, tickling her mercilessly as she shrieked and tried to wriggle free.
It was onto this scene of chaos that the door swung open once more, though Karone was the only one to notice right away. Carlos stopped in the doorway, watching TJ try to wrestle a cardboard box away from his teammate while Andros held her as best he could. Ashley put up an impressive fight for someone who was too convulsed with laughter to stand up straight.
"And these are the esteemed Astro Rangers," Carlos deadpanned, as he stepped into the room and held the door for the Ranger behind him. "Protectors of Earth and KO-35. They saved this planet from the wrath of Dark Specter and the power of Astronema."
"While they fought among themselves over gluey oats and dried fruit," Karone remarked, watching Andros laugh as Ashley stumbled into him. "I should be ashamed."
She saw the Aquitian Ranger from yesterday shoot a sharp glance in her direction, and she remembered how TJ had introduced her. Could it really be that difficult to figure out who she was? The magical glamour had been part of Astronema's image, but she couldn't believe she was that hard to recognize without it.
Something stung her skin, and she started. Tensing as she tried to isolate the threat, she didn't at first grasp the significance of TJ's smirk. When he flung another raisin in her direction, though, she lifted her hand instinctively and it dissolved into a flash of violet light before she could think.
TJ blinked, looking a little startled. Before she could say anything, though, he objected, "That was cheating!"
"At least someone still has their power," Carlos muttered, sliding into the seat Andros had vacated. He didn't seem at all taken aback by her magic display, but his companion was eyeing her warily.
Ignoring the other Ranger, Karone looked at Carlos. "You don't--but you still have your morphers," she said, frowning. A quick glance at his wrist made her hesitate. "Don't you?"
Carlos followed her gaze, but it was TJ who answered. "Yeah, we do," the Blue Ranger said, scraping his spoon along the inside of the raisin box. "They just don't seem to do anything anymore."
Carlos understood the part of her confusion that TJ had missed, and he twisted his left wrist casually. An astromorpher appeared where his silver watchband had been, and he caught her eye with a grin. "They just look like that when we're on Earth," he said by way of explanation. "Makes us less conspicuous."
"Oh," she agreed, not sure what else to say. Karone hadn't realized until yesterday morning that the Power Rangers' identities had been kept secret from the inhabitants of Earth. Rueful thoughts of how much damage she could have done if she'd known that beforehand still flitted through her mind from time to time.
"So where did breakfast come from?" Carlos wanted to know. "Did you run out after four bowls?"
"Adelle's got someone making it in the kitchen," Ashley gasped, wrenching away from Andros with a breathless giggle. "I'll go get you some!"
"I'll help," Andros offered, but TJ caught his arm when he would have followed Ashley out the door.
"Sit down," TJ said firmly. "I don't trust either of you alone together after that."
Andros all but rolled his eyes, but he allowed TJ to drag him back to the table. "It was as much your idea as it was mine," he pointed out, leaning back to pull the other two chairs over to the table with him. "I already had raisins."
Karone saw Carlos raise his eyebrow at that, but he didn't comment.
TJ held up the raisin box and shook it. "Recognize these?"
Andros shrugged, gesturing for Carlos to move over. "Here," he told the Aquitian Ranger. "Have a seat. Ashley's getting some oatmeal."
"Yeah, to escape you," Carlos added, not missing the way Andros had avoided the question. "Since when do you guys have tickle fights?"
Andros pushed Ashley's chair down too, and TJ moved closer to Karone without prompting. Finally done rearranging chairs, Andros sat down and pulled what was left of his oatmeal away from Carlos. Carlos picked up his spoon and held it out, but when Andros went to take it the Black Ranger pulled it back. "Well?" he demanded.
"What's wrong with tickling someone?" Andros wanted to know, snatching his spoon out of Carlos' hand. "It's a nonviolent method of incapacitation."
Carlos rolled his eyes. "Only you could make something that's one step down from kissing sound like a tactical maneuver."
"You don't consider kissing a tactical maneuver?" Karone inquired, burying her spoon in her oatmeal. She considered the gooey mess for several seconds, aware that every eye in the room had turned toward her. She wasn't sure she dared to take her first bite under those circumstances.
"You do?" Carlos asked incredulously.
"Of course," she said, lifting her head. "Kissing is an excellent method of distracting or disarming an opponent. And, in some company, it has a surprise value totally unrelated to its physical effects."
"Right," TJ said, the hint of humor in his voice implying that he didn't know whether to take her seriously or not.
Knowing she'd never get him to meet her halfway, Karone put a hand on TJ's shoulder and leaned forward, pressing her mouth full against his. She felt him flinch in surprise even as she pulled away, settling back into her chair with a small smile. The others were staring at her in shock.
"TJ and I are the only ones facing the door," she explained. "Not only did I make him look away, I also made sure that none of you would look over your shoulders until it was too late. Anyone could have entered the room just now, and you wouldn't have even noticed."
As she'd expected, TJ and Andros automatically looked toward the door, and the person who'd been standing in it laughed.
"That was interesting," Ashley admitted, joining them at the table and letting the door swing shut behind her. Setting down the bowls she was carrying, she passed Andros an apple with a wink. "I got you a present."
Karone watched with interest as Andros blushed, but Ashley continued as though nothing had happened. "It looks like you could teach us a few things, Karone."
"I could teach you a lot," Karone corrected, lowering her gaze to her oatmeal and giving it a half-hearted poke. "But most of it you probably don't want to learn."
There was an awkward silence. As Ashley handed extra spoons to Carlos and the Aquitian Ranger, he broke into the quiet with his thanks. "Sorry it's your first introduction to California food," he told the alien at his side. "Better than nothing, though."
"What is it?" the other Ranger asked, seeming oblivious to the tension in the room.
"It's mixed grains," TJ said, giving Ashley a warning look. "It's good for you."
The Aquitian Ranger studied him. "Are you sure?"
TJ started to shrug, then frowned. "Oh. No, I'm not."
She did a credible imitation of his shrug before lifting her spoon to her mouth. "So long as I know what I am risking, then."
Karone smiled to herself, and she saw Carlos glance around the table. "Aura, do you know everyone?" he asked suddenly. "I forgot that you didn't meet Andros and Ashley yesterday."
She swallowed her oatmeal and gave him a quizzical look. "It appears you have answered your own question."
TJ chuckled, and Carlos shot an irritated look in his direction. "This is Andros," he said, pointedly ignoring TJ. "He's our Red Ranger, and that's Ashley, the Yellow Ranger."
"Hi," Ashley said with a smile. "I think you're wearing my clothes."
Karone took a closer look, noticing for the first time the similarity of Aura's attire to that of the Astro Rangers. Only then did it occur to her that Aura now wore yellow, though she had been introduced to Karone as the Red Ranger. She tried to remember ever seeing the Astro Rangers in something other than "their" colors, and she found she couldn't.
"It's just your shirt," Carlos was telling his teammate. "The jeans are my mom's."
Aura's downward glance was a self-conscious gesture, and Ashley noticed immediately. "I'm glad someone's getting some wear out of it," she assured the other Ranger. "The 'A' works as well for you as it does for me."
Aura tilted her head. "I do not know what you mean," she confessed, a curious glint in her eyes.
"It's Aura, right?" When she nodded, Ashley smiled. "In our language, your name starts with an 'A'. That's the letter that's on your shirt. So does mine."
"So does 'Angel Grove', which is what it actually stands for," Carlos put in. "Ashley and I usually go to soccer games together, so we sometimes leave our uniforms at each other's houses." This last seemed to be for Andros' benefit more than anything.
"It's an honor to meet you," Aura offered, apparently unsure what to make of that information.
"You too," Ashley said cheerfully. She pushed the raisin box across the table. "Want some raisins? It makes the oatmeal easier to eat."
Spoon in hand, Aura regarded her bowl uncertainly. "Does it?"
"Well, it does for me." Ashley glanced at Karone's bowl. "I tried to warn Karone about oatmeal earlier, but she didn't listen."
"It's not so bad," Karone told her, assuming the remark was meant in jest. "I've eaten much worse on the Dark Fortress. Zhane even cooked for me once," she added, smiling a little.
Ashley choked on her oatmeal, coughing twice before she got herself under control. "He what?" she asked in disbelief.
Karone glanced around the table. Seeing the skepticism in TJ and Carlos' faces, she guessed in a small voice, "He didn't tell you?"
"He said you went on a date," Andros told her, patting Ashley on the back. "He never said he cooked."
Catching TJ's incredulous stare, he offered, "Well, he told me."
"It wasn't as romantic as it probably sounds," Karone said with a small smile.
Ashley managed to regain her composure with a laugh. "Tell me about," she said with a wink. "Zhane's a terrible cook."
It was Andros' turn to stare, and she added defensively, "Well, he tried to make hot chocolate that one time. And then when he tried to make pizza with avocado sauce--"
"When did all this happen?" TJ demanded, not losing sight of the original conversation. "Was I asleep that week?"
A knock on the door saved Karone from having to reply. When Andros asked who was there, a distinctive voice replied, "It's Adelle."
Andros got up to open the door, but Adelle declined to come in and join them. "I just came to tell you," she said, glancing over Andros' shoulder. "General Norquist called again. I told him you weren't here, but he said to let you know he was looking."
"Damn," Carlos muttered under his breath. "He left a message on my parents' machine, too. I forgot to tell you."
Andros sighed. "It's all right. I've been meaning to let NASADA know there'll be an Eltaran ship coming in later anyway. Thanks, Adelle."
"And thanks for breakfast," TJ put in.
Ashley and Carlos added their agreement, but Adelle just waved it away. "It's the least I could do," she assured them. "You need anything else, you just let me know."
As she hurried away, Ashley murmured, "They wouldn't even let us wait in line in the kitchen. When I went in just now, David told me to come up to the counter first and everyone else practically pushed me up there when I tried to argue."
"We tried to wait our turn the first time," TJ agreed. "Everyone kept telling us to go in front of them, and we ended up at the front of the line before we stopped moving."
Andros gazed at the closed door for a long moment before returning to the table, and Karone watched him as he sat down again. He wasn't listening to their quiet commentary, even when Carlos mentioned the way Andros had been saluted the day before. The delegation from Eltar must be worrying him more than he was letting on.
"Hey," Ashley said gently, putting her hand on Andros' shoulder. "Still with us?" She had noticed his silence too.
Tapping his spoon against his empty bowl, Andros gave her a distracted smile. "I'm listening," he assured her. "Just thinking."
"About Zordon?" she asked, sympathy evident in her voice. The table was suddenly quieter than it had been before.
"What about Zordon?" Carlos looked around, spoon halfway to his mouth as he tried to figure out what they were talking about.
Karone glance over at TJ and found him looking back. "Zordon's gone," the Blue Ranger said, redirecting his attention to Carlos. "He caused the energy wave that made everyone good again."
"Everyone?" Carlos repeated, missing the significance of the explanation. "There are more people--like Karone?"
"A woman claiming to be Divatox was discovered on Aquitar shortly before I left," Aura offered. Though she seemed to be speaking to Carlos, she was studying Karone intently. "She managed to go several minutes without threatening to destroy our planet, but whether her identity or her intentions have been confirmed, I do not know."
"She was telling the truth," TJ told Aura. "The wave reformed anyone it didn't turn to sand. Zordon sacrificed his life to make sure all evil would be gone from the universe."
A quiet stillness pervaded the room, but finally Aura tilted her head in acknowledgement. "He would have said the price was small," she said softly. "But we are much less without him."
"Eltar thinks so too," Karone said, unable to stay silent any longer. "They aren't as calm about it."
Carlos frowned at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that Zordon asked Andros to shatter his energy tube, and he didn't bother to let his people know." Karone glared back at him, glad to have someone to be irritated with for a change. "Now the Eltarans want to put Andros on trial."
T + 25:03
10:00 AM PST
"Maybe it's just me." Carlos was leaning back against the control island in the Dark Fortress' command center. Staring pensively at the far wall, he continued, "I just can't help thinking that if you save the universe, you should get a little credit. A party, or a medal or something. Not a trial."
"Your communicator's all set," Karone said, holding it out to him without looking up. She had ignored the current conversation since it resumed a few minutes ago. Ashley wasn't sure if linking their communicators to the Dark Fortress' comm system really took that much concentration, or if she just didn't feel like talking about it anymore.
"Thanks," Carlos said, straightening up. As he fastened his communicator to his wrist again, he asked the room at large, "Isn't there an extenuating circumstances clause somewhere?"
"The circumstances don't change what I did," Andros told him. "I killed someone, and I have to be held accountable for that."
Ashley opened her mouth to protest, but TJ beat her to it.
"You did not kill Zordon," he said firmly. "Zordon made a decision to sacrifice himself. He asked you to help him carry out that decision, but the choice was his.
"Think about it," TJ added. "Would you have even considered shattering his tube if he hadn't asked you to?"
Andros frowned. "Of course not."
TJ shrugged as though he had made his point. "See? He not only had to ask you, he had to convince you. Zordon's choice was his responsibility, not yours."
"Ashley?" Karone said, holding out her hand.
She squeezed Andros' shoulder reassuringly before joining his sister at the control island. She fumbled with the catch on her communicator for a moment before getting it to release, and she passed it to Karone with a smile of thanks. The other girl didn't meet her gaze, though, and Ashley started to doubt it was just the comm link preoccupying her.
"Are you all right?" she asked Karone quietly, hoping not to draw everyone's attention.
Karone glanced up at that, catching her eye in surprise. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You just seem a little... distracted."
A screen to their left lit up with the Aquitian Rangers' logo, and Karone glanced over at it without answering. "Aquitar is trying to contact us," she remarked.
Carlos looked over at them, raising an eyebrow. "She only left two seconds ago."
The logo disappeared as Karone tapped the console in front of her. An Aquitian face Ashley had never seen before appeared in place of the logo, and suddenly she felt Andros at her side. The woman on the screen nodded as though she recognized the Red Astro Ranger.
"The Rangers of Aquitar wish to thank the Rangers of Earth and KO-35 for the hospitality you have shown to our teammate," the Aquitian woman declared.
Andros nodded in return. "It was our honor to host her, Cetaci. Any of your team are always welcome on our worlds."
"We appreciate your generosity," the other Ranger replied. "You too are welcome here. If we may ever reciprocate, please allow us to do so."
"We appreciate your concern," Andros countered. "The favor was yours, and I hope we can return it someday."
The Aquitian Ranger inclined her head. "Until we meet again."
Andros mimicked her gesture, and the screen darkened again. Karone made an irritated sound. She went back to her work without further complaint, but she had made her displeasure at the interruption known.
"That was weird," TJ observed. When Andros didn't say anything, he added, "Is that normal? For Ranger leaders to call each other and exchange team 'thank you' notes?"
"How did you know she was the team leader?" Ashley wanted to know. She wouldn't even have recognized the Aquitian as a Ranger if it hadn't been for the fact that her clothes were almost identical to Aura's.
"She wore a sash," TJ answered. "Plus White Rangers usually outrank Red."
"Not always," Andros said defensively, but Ashley was too surprised to be amused by his reaction.
"Since when do you know so much about alien Rangers?" she demanded, only half teasing. She hadn't even noticed the white shirt under the Aquitian Ranger's tunic.
TJ shrugged, but his grin acknowledged her amazement. "Since I started working with them," he said, nodding toward Andros. "What do we know about space, remember? So I decided I'd better learn something."
"Here you go," Karone murmured, handing Ashley's communicator back to her.
"Thanks, Karone," Ashley said, and this time the other girl caught her eye and smiled back.
"It's not unusual that Cetaci called to thank us," Andros said, sliding his communicator off and giving it to Karone without prompting. "What's unusual is that Billy sent Aura in the first place."
Ashley frowned a little, trying to decipher that. "Instead of coming himself, you mean?"
"Ranger teams don't usually interfere with each other," TJ put in. "From what I can tell, it's a jurisdiction issue."
"Home guard authority," Andros agreed, reaching out to take her communicator. She held out her arm with a sigh, embarrassed that he had noticed her struggling with the catch but grateful for the gesture. "When Rangers do assist each other, visiting Rangers defer to the resident team."
He fastened the communicator around her wrist, tugging it gently to make sure the latch had caught. Giving her arm an experimental twist, she felt the disguised morpher settle into its accustomed place. She smiled when he looked up, and Andros squeezed her hand.
"But Aura did that," Carlos was saying. His words had the sound of grudging admiration. "She let me tell her what to do, and she took my word for a few things she probably shouldn't have. She was more polite than I gave her reason to be, that's for sure."
"It's not how she acted," Andros pointed out. "It's the fact that she was here at all. From what TJ says, Billy was pretty insistent about getting someone here."
"You said Billy's from Earth," Ashley reminded him. Andros did have a tendency to overreact. "It's no wonder he wanted to know if his home planet had survived Ast--Dark Specter's war."
She just stopped herself from saying "Astronema", and she struggled to keep from looking at Karone to see if her slip had been noticeable. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the other girl still working at the control island, and she hoped that this time Karone truly wasn't listening. She had never been quite sure how Karone regarded her alter ego, and the last 24 hours hadn't shed much light on the subject.
"You helped us," Carlos said unexpectedly. "When Eltar fell, and we lost our powers." Though he seemed to be addressing Andros, every eye in the room turned toward him. Even Karone paused, and when he realized they were all looking at him he shrugged. "I'm just saying sometimes you help the people who need help first, and worry about where they're from later."
"There's no way we need help more than Aquitar does right now." Andros' tone was adamant. "They lost satellites, ground transport, surface cities--"
"Divatox has no finesse," Karone interrupted. "It goes with being a pirate. Not all worlds fared as badly as Aquitar."
"No," TJ agreed grimly. "Some of them fared worse."
Karone passed Andros' communicator back to him without a word, and suddenly it dawned on Ashley. Karone wasn't being aloof--she was being defensive. Her promotion after Dark Specter's demise had placed the responsibility for the continuing war squarely on Astronema's shoulders, and maybe that wasn't as easy for her to forget as she wanted them to think.
"Can we not talk about this right now?" Ashley asked, making a show of shivering as she folded her arms over her chest. She glanced over her shoulder and added, "It's spooky enough here as it is."
Andros gave her an odd look, but Carlos backed her up immediately. "It is spooky... It feels like someone's watching us."
"That's the internal cameras," Karone offered, not looking up. "I brought them back online last night."
"Why?" TJ asked, frowning.
"Do you know how many people there are in Angel Grove?" Karone shot him an exasperated look that was reminiscent of Andros. "It's only a matter of time before their curiosity overwhelms their fear and this place is crawling with civilians."
Ashley exchanged glances with Andros. They should have thought of that. The Dark Fortress probably shouldn't stay here at all, but it wasn't convenient to have it in orbit when they couldn't teleport. And even with their communicators linked to it from the ground, they were going to need some kind of base while the Megaship was gone.
The thoughts flashed through her mind in quick succession, and she could see them mirrored in Andros' face. They were going to have to find a way to seal off the Dark Fortress to anyone other than the Power Rangers, and the irony wasn't lost on either of them.
"The cameras, not to mention the security systems, usually operate continuously," Karone was saying, oblivious to their internal dialogue. "But Andros did an emergency shutdown when he brought the Dark Fortress into the atmosphere, and it's taken me a while to get everything running again."
"Emergency shutdown?" Carlos repeated, wandering back toward the other side of the control island. He peered at what she was doing, though whether it was in genuine curiosity or just an effort to appear interested, Ashley couldn't tell. "What did you do that for?"
"Those security systems Karone isn't mentioning?" Andros glanced around the command center as though he expected them to spring into action at any moment. "Yesterday morning would have been a bad time for them to figure out who I was."
"And you didn't know how to turn them off, so you crashed the whole system," Karone finished.
Andros shrugged. "Yeah."
The slightest hint of a smile touched Karone's face as she looked over at him. "Remind me to thank you later."
"Is that supposed to be blinking?" Carlos inquired, leaning over the control island and pointing at a light next to the comm system.
Karone gave it an offhand look, then frowned and tapped in a sequence that Ashley could barely follow. She stared at the console for a moment. When the screen to her left flashed again, she looked up and they all followed her gaze.
The word "ALERT" covered the screen in large orange letters.
"I'm guessing that's a 'no'?" Carlos suggested.
"That's the cryofreeze facility," Karone muttered. Ashley assumed she meant the dimly lit scene that was almost obscured by the warning on the screen. "The safeties must have kicked in when Andros cut the power."
"That's good, right?" TJ didn't sound at all certain, which was unusual for him. Ashley saw him exchange glances with Carlos out of the corner of her eye. "Was someone down there?"
"That's bad," Karone corrected, not bothering to answer his second question. Her fingers danced across the console, and the screen dimmed slightly before going dark. Karone turned and strode out the door without another word.
Puzzled, Ashley looked around and found no clues in the faces of her teammates. No one asked the obvious question. They headed out of the command center as one, the four of them following Karone through the corridors of the Dark Fortress in wary silence.
It didn't take them long to reach the place they'd just been looking at, but the room didn't look much different in person. It actually a little looked less ominous, given that there was no orange warning superimposed over it. Karone came to a halt just inside the doorway and glared, offering no explanation.
"Well?" TJ asked at last. "What's going on?"
"Looks pretty quiet to me," Carlos remarked, venturing past Karone to inspect the cryofreeze pods lined up against the wall. "No insane tank monsters... no green glowing energy webs... what else do we ask, lately?"
"They're empty." Karone's flat tone cut off Carlos' attempt at humor without even a smile of acknowledgement.
"Who was in them?" Andros asked. He sounded as though he didn't really want to know the answer, and Ashley snuck a look at him. He was the only one staring at Karone instead of the pods.
"Not who," Karone said softly. "What."
"Since when do you put machines into cryofreeze?" Carlos demanded.
"They're not machines." Even Karone was gazing at the pods, as though she could will their occupants back. "There was one force that defeated the Rangers over and over again, you know. The only thing that kept them from destroying you utterly was me... and Ecliptor, once or twice.
"Well, that and the fact that they were selfish, short-sighted idiots," she added as an afterthought, and Ashley tried not to stare. That statement, delivered as it was with an unconcerned shrug, was pure Astronema.
Andros' next words drove the thought from her mind.
"We destroyed the Psycho Rangers," he told his sister. "They're gone."
"You destroyed Darkonda, too," Karone reminded him. "Several times, as I recall."
"Wait a minute." Carlos held up his hand in a futile attempt to rewind the conversation. "The Psycho Rangers? They were data cards the last time we saw them! Or knew about them, anyway. Data cards that were blown up along with the rest of Secret City a few minutes later."
Karone seemed to be staring at something they couldn't see. When she finally answered, her voice was distant. "Ecliptor failed me that day," she murmured. "'Guard them with your life,' I told him. He risked his own survival to make up for that mistake."
"He retrieved the data cards," Andros said, watching his sister gaze off into space.
Watching him watch her, Ashley could only wonder what was going through his mind. Was he baffled by yet another example of the loyalty of Astronema's evil bodyguard? Was he saddened by what Karone had lost, or just glad that his sister was free? Would she ever dare ask him about it?
"Yes." The single word fell into the silence like a stone, and Karone's attention returned to them. "Ecliptor rescued the data cards, and I reanimated the Psychos. In a way," she added, gesturing to the cryofreeze pods. "They were much less trouble in here."
"Why didn't you use them in battle?" Ever the tactician, TJ sounded more curious than upset.
"Without Dark Specter to power them, they were just regular monsters," Karone answered. "But there was a perfectly good power source here on Earth... if I could just get your people to turn you in. I wish I'd known you kept your identities secret," she added, looking a little annoyed.
Ashley shuddered, but she felt a smile tug at her lips despite it. "I'm glad there was at least one thing you didn't know," she teased.
"Yeah, where is your crystal ball, anyway?" Getting into the spirit of things, Carlos pretended to look around for it. "We were lucky there was only one of you for five of us. Imagine a team of Astronemas."
Karone looked down, but Ashley saw the smile she tried to hide. "Don't scare me," she admonished Carlos. "I have to sleep at night."
"Not with the Psycho Rangers around." TJ was either oblivious to their attempts to cheer Karone up or too preoccupied to care. "What you're saying is that they were here, they weren't affected by Zordon's wave because they were in suspended animation, and now they're loose in the city somewhere."
"When they take human form," Andros said, not waiting for Karone to answer. "Do they always take the same form, or can they shift?"
"You mean will they look the way they did last time?" Karone looked troubled for the first time. "The ones you saw were influenced by the three of you. I don't know if they'll keep those faces or not."
"You said that without an outside power source, they're just regular monsters," Ashley said, hoping to lighten the gloom a little. "That means they're not the same Psycho Rangers we fought."
At her side, Andros lifted his left wrist. "We're not the same Power Rangers they fought, either," he reminded her.
"They may be regular monsters now," TJ said grimly, "but we're just regular humans. We can't morph anymore. Maybe we could have taken one monster without the Power, but we can't take on five."
"Not all at once," Carlos agreed. "And especially not if we have no idea where they are or what they look like."
"Although," Karone remarked thoughtfully, "there is a bright side."
"What's that?" Ashley prompted, when she didn't continue.
Karone tilted her head to one side, her expression perfectly solemn. "At least there won't be any Psycho Silver."
T + 28:09
7:06 PM MT
Zhane stared out at the horizon, not really seeing the returning hovers or the heat shimmers that tried to hide them. The military encampment was emptying out as the hovers came back and departed again, groups that had been on search and reconnaissance turning one by one to transport and relocation. The jamming field had been lifted sometime last night, and when the comms came back online the search speed had increased dramatically. By the time dawn arrived, it had been widely agreed that KO-35 was deserted but for the rebels, and they were more than ready to reclaim their own.
It wasn't the hum of air traffic that held his attention, though, no more than the heat of day was enough to drive him out of the sun. There was something out there, just beyond his sight, and he wasn't going anywhere until he had identified it. He knew the feeling, knew it as well as he knew the planet on which he stood, and it was one that would give him no rest until he did something about it.
He had tried ignoring it before, but it wasn't a physical sensation. It was more like the feeling of something important that had been forgotten, or a revelation that promised answers to everything if he could just get his mind around it. It would start out so subtly that he didn't always notice it coming on, but if allowed to grow it would eventually erupt into a full-out vision of whatever mess his best friend had gotten into this time.
The sporadic bouts of telepathy the two of them shared had saved their lives more times than he could count, but Zhane wouldn't mind if it were a little more controllable.
He blinked as he realized someone was calling his name, and he looked away from the horizon at last. "Cassie?" She looked a little out of breath as she joined him, and he put a hand on her shoulder in concern. "You all right?"
"Yeah," she said, drawing in a deep breath. "You? I must have called you four or five times, but you didn't hear me."
"Sorry." He gave her an apologetic grin, but even he knew it looked distracted. "I was thinking about something else."
"Want to talk about it?" Cassie offered. Following his gaze toward the edge of the desert, she lifted her hand to shade her eyes. "Something out there?"
"I don't know." The hovers were sliding into camp now, leaving the horizon once more clear of anything but heat-distorted air currents. His mind was just as vague, and whatever premonition was tickling his unconscious, it apparently meant to stay hidden for now.
"No," Zhane said with a shake of his head, turning back to her. "It's nothing. What's going on?"
"Okay," Cassie said uncertainly, glancing back at the desert for a moment. "I was just coming to tell you the engine repairs are almost done, and we have brand new thrusters. They wouldn't even let me help. They told me to 'supervise', but it's not like they need any instructions... Zhane, what are you looking at?"
She sounded impatient, and Zhane tore his gaze away from the horizon reluctantly. "Nothing," he assured her. "Sorry, keep going."
Cassie frowned. "That's it. Well, except for one sort of strange thing..."
That got his attention. "What?"
For just a moment, her attention seemed to turn inward. "It's probably not important," she hedged, glancing down at the ground. But her expression was puzzled when she caught his eye again. "It's just--remember Saryn?"
"The pilot who was stationed here?" She nodded, and he shrugged a little. "What about him?"
"He's gone." Cassie was frowning again, but now she looked more pensive than upset. "There's a woman named Taramine here now, with orders to stay until the relays are fixed. She says Saryn was recalled."
Zhane shrugged again. "So? Jenkarta didn't seem too thrilled about having him stay in the first place. He probably wanted his Second back."
"But that's just it," Cassie told him. "Saryn wasn't Jenkarta's second in command. Taramine says he's not even part of the wing; he was just standing in for someone who was injured."
Zhane gave her an odd look. "Why would Jenkarta put a substitute in charge?"
Cassie folded her arms and gave him a "See?" look. "I told you it was strange," she reminded him. "Taramine says she's never seen him fly with the wing before. If he's a regular replacement, he doesn't train with her shift."
"You're just gossip central, aren't you?" Zhane couldn't help asking. He ducked as she aimed a playful punch at his shoulder, and he held up his hands defensively. "So she told you all this, but she didn't say anything about why Saryn was recalled?"
She gave him a knowing look, perfectly aware that he would have done his own snooping if it had been convenient. "She didn't know. Jenkarta gave her a coded message for Saryn and orders to stay in his place, but he didn't tell her what the message said."
Andros. The sensation of wrongness flitted through his mind again, stronger this time.
Zhane grimaced, turning to glare out at the horizon once more. The jamming field had been lifted, but with the comm relays down they still couldn't get in touch with anyone outside the Karova system. There was no way to find out what was going on without leaving KO-35.
"We have to go," he said abruptly. "We'll take the Megaship. Kinwon and Taikwa have everything under control here."
Cassie frowned at him. "You know something about this? Why didn't you say so?"
"What?" He looked at her in surprise before he remembered what they had been talking about. "No, it's not that. We have to get to Earth."
Zhane turned and headed back into the camp, intent on finding Kinwon. He didn't want to leave the day after they'd arrived, but Rangers were warriors, and there was no battle here. He had a bad feeling there might be one on Earth.
"Zhane!" Cassie had to jog to catch up to him, but her shorter stride was faster than his as she fell in beside him. "Zhane, what are you talking about? Why do we have to get to Earth?"
"I don't know," he said, pausing outside the main ops tent. "We just do."
"Zhane?" Taikwa hurried up before he could throw back the door flap, a concerned look on her face. "I saw you watching for the hovers earlier, but you didn't come to meet them."
"I wasn't watching for them," he told her bluntly. "I was listening."
He saw Taikwa exchange glances with Cassie, who shrugged once. "Listening for what?" she wanted to know.
"Andros is in trouble," Zhane said, pushing the tent open and leaning inside. It was empty, and he let the tent flap fall without further inspection. "We need to go back to Earth."
Taikwa hesitated, but she didn't argue. "I'll tell Kinwon," she said at last. "Be safe, Zhane. Cassie," she added with a nod and a small smile.
Cassie returned the gesture, but she looked no less confused than she had before. "We'll be back," he heard her tell Taikwa as he turned away. Then she was beside him, whispering, "What was that about? What's going on, Zhane?"
She wouldn't give up, he knew that, but his impatience wouldn't let him explain right now. "I'll tell you in hyperrush," Zhane said, resisting the urge to break into a run. Nothing terrible could have happened yet or he would have seen it, but they needed to get to Earth now.
Cassie let it go, settling into her seat when they reached the Bridge without a word. He took Andros' station, bringing the engines online without a preflight and pushing the thrusters to maximum. The Megaship leapt from the planet's surface as though gravity had ceased to exist, plunging into the void of space with no regard for surrounding traffic. Luckily there wasn't much, but he saw Cassie shoot a sharp glance in his direction anyway.
The new thrusters cut out the instant the engines kicked in, the transfer of power as smooth as he could have asked. As smooth as even Andros could have asked, Zhane thought with a rueful grin, and he reminded himself to thank Taikwa's people when he saw them next. Hyperspace reached out inviting tendrils of color to envelop them as the Megaship accelerated to hyperrush velocity, and they slid into the space between the stars without so much as a tremor.
"All right," Cassie said firmly, turning in her chair and folding her arms. "Tell me what's going on, Zhane."
The main screen was showing a computer generated representation of hyperspace, and he looked away from the swirling colors to inspect the rest of the Bridge. "I don't know," he said, taking in the flickering lights and the bulkheads that still obstructed the doors. "I never know, until it gets so bad that I can see it."
He could almost hear her frowning. "What are you talking about?"
"I can tell when Andros is in trouble," he said simply. The air was warmer than it had been, but he doubted the environmental controls were functioning well enough to keep it that way. "You must have noticed; it works both ways. We don't have to be together to know when something's wrong."
"I guess we all knew you had a... connection." Cassie sounded bemused. "You always show up at exactly the right time. And Andros has led us to you--I don't know, more times than I remember."
Zhane shrugged, pushing away from the pilot's console and standing up. "I can't explain how we know, but I don't remember ever being wrong. Hopefully once we get out of the sector we'll be able to contact them."
"What did you mean about seeing it?" Cassie asked, looking up at him. "You said you never know until it gets so bad you can see it."
He shifted uncomfortably. On KO-35 it was widely accepted that he and Andros were more than just best friends. No one questioned their right to speak for or of each other, no matter the situation. He had never had to explain it to someone before, and he found it was harder than he'd expected.
"We have visions," Zhane admitted at last. "If his life was in danger, I'd see it. But unless that happens, all I know is that something's wrong."
When she didn't have an immediate response, he suggested, "We should see what we can do for DECA while we're in transit. Once her interface is back up, she can help us coordinate the rest of the repairs."
Cassie nodded slowly, getting to her feet with a thoughtful look on her face. To his surprise, she didn't pursue the subject, and they managed to get to work without any further mention of Andros. The repairs distracted him to some extent, but when the comm chimed he scrambled out from under the console without another thought.
Cassie met him at the forward row of stations as the main screen lit up. The Astro Rangers' logo flashed across the black, and they exchanged glances. Someone had clearly adapted the Dark Fortress' ID screen.
DECA's verbal interface was still down, but the words "Message waiting" scrolled beneath the logo. The last functioning relay between Earth and KO-35 had held the transmission until its intended recipient was within range. Zhane glanced at DECA's nearest camera, and the red light blinked at him in silent acknowledgement.
"Hi, guys." It was Ashley's face that replaced the logo as the message began to play, but her greeting was more subdued than usual. "We didn't know the relays were down, so I guess you won't be getting this message for a while. Call me when you do, okay? We've got trouble and I think we're going to need your help."
Zhane felt Cassie's gaze on him, but he didn't look away from the screen. Ashley didn't look good. It was more than just the dust and grime that still clung to her clothes, or the stiffness in her shoulders that spoke of a night spent on the floor. There was a worried look in her eyes that was totally out of character, and he wondered what could have put it there.
"I hope everything's all right on KO-35," she was saying, with an obvious effort to lighten her tone. It was a valiant attempt, but too transparent to be entirely successful. "We'll talk to you when you get the relays back. See you," Ashley added, producing an almost convincing version of her normal cheery smile.
Cassie caught his eye as the screen went blank again, and she shook her head. "She didn't sound good," the Pink Ranger murmured.
He looked back at the screen in time to see the hyperspace simulation appear on it again. "At least we're out of the dead zone," he said, hoping they weren't too late to take that worried look off of Ashley's face. "I'm trying to contact Earth now."
The Astro Rangers' logo appeared on the screen once more as the Dark Fortress received the transmission, but this time there was a substantially longer delay. Finally Carlos appeared in place of the logo, wearing an irritated expression that faded when he caught sight of them. "Your ID screen's down," he informed them, not bothering to say hello.
"Good to see you too," Cassie retorted. "We got Ashley's message."
"Yeah, she and TJ are at NASADA headquarters." Carlos pushed his loose hair out of his face, glancing away from the screen at something they couldn't see. "I've been doing research and public relations from the Dark Fortress; that's why it took me so long to answer. Sorry about that."
"Where's Andros?" Zhane wanted to know. Not only had Carlos avoided mentioning him, he'd also ignored Cassie's remark about Ashley's message. It was a rare thing for Carlos to be so evasive.
"He and Karone are on trial," the Black Ranger answered. His reply was so matter of fact that Zhane almost missed its significance.
"On trial?" Cassie repeated. "Both of them? For what?"
"Who's putting them on trial?" Zhane inquired with a frown. It would be just like Eltare to pull something like this. Why would no one accept that Astronema hadn't wanted to be evil? She had been brainwashed most of her life; it was no wonder--
"Just Andros," Carlos corrected. "He didn't want Karone to go with him, but short of tying her down there was no way to stop her. She refused to stay behind."
Zhane's thoughts screeched to a halt, and for a moment he was too shocked to respond.
"Even tying her probably wouldn't have worked," Carlos added, on further reflection. "She's still a sorceress, after all."
It took another several seconds before Zhane could form a coherent question. "What's Andros on trial for?"
Carlos shrugged apologetically, as though just now realizing he had forgotten part of the story. "Andros shattered Zordon's energy tube. That's what caused the light that turned all the quantrons to sand."
"Wait," Cassie said, shaking her head. "Zordon was on the Dark Fortress?"
"That's crazy," Zhane interrupted. "Zordon can't survive outside that tube."
"He didn't," Carlos said quietly. "He asked Andros to do it. Andros didn't want to, but... Karone went with him because she was there when it happened."
Cassie was silent, but Zhane just stared at Carlos. "You're saying that Andros destroyed all evil, everywhere, and he did it exactly the way Zordon wanted him to--and now Eltare wants to put him on trial for it?"
Carlos shrugged again. He had the rueful air of someone trying to catch others up on information he was long acquainted with, and who was no longer able to muster the appropriate enthusiasm for the subject. "Not quite all evil, but otherwise that about sums it up."
"Not all evil?" Cassie gave him a sharp look. "What do you mean?"
"Astronema reanimated the Psycho Rangers' data cards," Carlos told them. "The Psychos were in suspended animation when Zordon's wave went through, so I guess they didn't count as actively evil. Then Andros cut power to the Dark Fortress and the cryofreeze safeties freed them before any of us knew they were there."
"The Psycho Rangers are loose in the city?" Cassie sounded horrified. All Zhane could think about were those last few minutes in Secret City, when he'd stayed behind to try to get the data cards and had almost been caught in the explosion himself.
"It gets better," Carlos said dryly. "Karone thinks they may have taken human form again, and they may not look the same as they did the last time we saw them. In my spare time this morning I've been trying to find a way to track them."
"So they haven't attacked yet?" Cassie looked skeptical, but it didn't surprise Zhane. Without Dark Specter's power behind them, they wouldn't be able to rely on brute strength to beat a Ranger team.
"They don't know what happened when the wave went through," Zhane pointed out, hoping Cassie and Carlos would get the hint. A situation like this was exactly why Eltare didn't want word to get out about Rangers' inability to morph. "Dark Specter's gone. In a fair fight against Power Rangers the best they could do now is hold their own."
"But--" Carlos cut off as he realized what Zhane was getting at. Hacking into an unencrypted comm transmission wasn't difficult. Almost anyone could listen in, which was no doubt why Jenkarta had waited to raise the issue in person.
"The Psychos have never fought fair," Cassie said slowly. "It's only a matter of time before they get tired of hiding."
"That's why we tried to call you," Carlos agreed. "We're going to need the whole team to defeat them."
"Including Andros," Zhane muttered. "The only thing worse than Eltaran politics is Eltaran timing."
Cassie looked troubled. "What if they rule against him? What will happen then?"
"They won't." Zhane tried to sound more certain than he felt. "He saved the universe, Cassie; they're going to cut him some slack. You can't convict someone who just eradicated evil."
"Who's 'they'?" Carlos wanted to know. "Andros wouldn't tell us how the trial worked. He just said he had to go and let someone else decide whether he'd done the right thing."
Zhane tried not to sigh. "He knows he did the right thing, and so does everyone else. This whole trial is ridiculous. Under Eltaran law, the injured party has the right to convene a tribunal to assess an offender's actions, but Andros isn't an offender!"
"Yeah, and no offense, but the injured party isn't complaining," Carlos pointed out. "So who's judging him?"
Zhane glanced over at Cassie. She looked just as curious and a lot more indignant than Carlos did. He wished he had been there when Andros got the official summons... The wording could have gone a long way toward confirming his suspicion that this trial was a formality.
"On Eltar, a Ranger can only be judged by other Rangers." Zhane couldn't believe a planet that had fallen to Dark Specter months ago could spare its entire Ranger team so soon after its liberation, but by law Andros could have no other tribunal. "The Eltaran Rangers must be here to find out what happened."
T + 30:24
3:21 PM PST
The ship they had boarded might be Eltaran in design, but the room in which he stood could have been anywhere. The only light was a single glowing circle, a spotlight shining in the darkness to beckon them forward. It was the light of truth--the light of judgement.
Andros stepped into the circle. Karone followed silently, but he felt her tense at his side when movement whispered around them. She knew even less of what to expect than he did.
Six more pools of light appeared, each illuminating a hooded figure at their center as they surrounded him. "Your names," one of the figures demanded.
Andros turned to face the figure that had spoken. "Andros of KO-35," he answered, keeping his gaze straight ahead.
"Karone..." His sister's hesitation was brief but noticeable. "Of KO-35."
The hood turned at that, as though the figure was considering Karone. It was difficult to tell in the dimness, but the tribunal's leader ought to be the Red Eltaran Ranger. It was entirely possible that Jenkarta knew what had happened to Karone of KO-35 all those years ago, and her reappearance would be a matter of some curiosity.
"Why are you here?" the figure asked at last, following tribunal convention.
Andros gave the traditional reply, hoping Karone wouldn't answer at all. "I was summoned."
Karone lifted her chin, and he knew his hope was in vain. "I was there," she said simply.
He shot her a warning look. That could be interpreted in any number of ways, but there was no reason to make an issue of something that wasn't relevant. He doubted they could get through this without having Karone's identity revealed, but the longer it took the better as far as he was concerned.
The hooded figure that was Jenkarta didn't dispute her presence, and Andros was at once disappointed and relieved. He hadn't wanted her to come, and he still thought it would be safer for her if she didn't draw more attention than she needed to. But if her right to be at his side was questioned, he had no doubt that she would put up a fight that would do far more damage than her attendance alone.
"Andros of KO-35," the figure intoned. "Your teammate, TJ Johnson of Earth, claims that you are responsible for the death of Zordon of Eltar. You have been summoned to answer this charge. Do you confirm or refute TJ Johnson's claim?"
"I confirm it," Andros answered. "I didn't want to kill Zordon, but I did it."
Jenkarta paused, the hood of his robe turning to the side again. This time he seemed to be looking at one of his teammates. The figure directly to his right nodded once, and Jenkarta turned back to Andros with one word.
On Eltar, only Rangers could try Rangers. Some said it was favoritism. Others said no one could comprehend the choices Rangers made on a daily basis unless they were a Ranger themselves. The latter argument prevailed. If some of the formality fell away in such a setting, the truth was still served.
"Zordon asked me to shatter his energy tube," Andros said. "He said it was the only way to defeat the forces of evil."
"He said the energy from his tube would purify the universe," Karone added when Andros paused. "And it did. The energy wave made villains good and turned their soldiers to sand. It saved all of us."
Jenkarta lifted one hand to silence her. "We seek Andros' testimony so that we may understand his actions," he told Karone sternly. "What right do you claim to speak so freely?"
"I'm his sister!" Karone exclaimed. Never had she so openly acknowledged their relationship, and it would have delighted Andros had he not dreaded her next words. She didn't disappoint him.
"I was there," she informed the hooded circle that surrounded them. "I heard everything he and Zordon said to each other, so my testimony is just as valid."
Jenkarta turned slightly, and again the figure to his right nodded. Andros frowned, wondering who the empath on the team was. He had never heard that any of the Eltaran Rangers had the ability, but he supposed he had never paid as much attention to other teams as he ought.
"What was Karone of KO-35 doing on the UAE's Dark Fortress?" Jenkarta wanted to know. The question might not be directly relevant to the tribunal, but after her assertion they certainly had legitimate reason to ask.
"Karone wasn't there," his sister said, tossing her head. It was a gesture reminiscent of her long-haired alter ego, and as she moved the magic swirled around her. Violet sparkles transformed the image of a blonde teenager into that of the armor-clad queen of evil.
"Astronema was," she declared, as her staff materialized in her hand.
Jenkarta's form visibly stiffened, and two of his teammates actually took a step back. There was an untraceable murmur of noise; the sound of disbelief or protest or both as the Eltaran team stirred. The figure to Jenkarta's right didn't move.
"Dark Specter's second in command heard everything that happened on his flagship," Karone continued, unfazed by their reactions. "I kept Andros from carrying out Zordon's request. For a while," she amended, acknowledging the battle she had ultimately lost with a rueful smirk.
Andros looked down to hide his own smile. He took no pride in the outcome of that fight, but the mere fact that she could joke about it amused him. Karone was no less mercurial than Astronema had been, and he had a feeling that she would never be any more predictable than she was now.
"The leader of the dark forces is not welcome on this ship," Jenkarta told her, his voice cold.
Andros lifted his head at that. "Now wait just a minute," he began.
"No, Andros," Karone interrupted. "It's all right."
The glamour melted away into violet sparkles that flashed and faded, leaving only an innocent looking young woman. "Is this less intimidating?" she inquired, and the condescension in her voice was such that Andros had to struggle to keep a straight face.
Jenkarta was not amused. "Your identity does not change with your appearance," he snapped, his composure slipping a little. "What business do you have here?"
"My business is the same as yours," she answered haughtily. "To make sure that Andros gets a fair trial."
One of Jenkarta's teammates spoke. "What is Andros to you?" she wanted to know. Her tone was more curious than accusatory, and Karone hesitated for the first time.
"Andros believed in me," she said at last, and Andros looked at her in surprise. She didn't meet his gaze, instead addressing the hooded figure that had posed the question. "He believed in the good in me when no one else did. Now it's my turn to believe in him."
The woman who had spoken shifted slightly, and Jenkarta too turned. Both seemed to be waiting for something, and it wasn't long before Andros realized what it was. The figure to Jenkarta's right uttered one word: "True."
"Astronema is a sorceress," Jenkarta insisted. "The fact that she can change her appearance means nothing! She is still the same person who commanded the Dark Fortress in battle!"
Someone on the other side of the circle stirred. "Astronema's crimes are not relevant to this tribunal," a woman's voice warned.
"But they are." The one who had asked Karone what Andros meant to her spoke again. "If she has indeed changed, then her word is valid. Not only did the energy wave come from Zordon, as they claim, but it was released at his request. There is nothing more relevant."
"Karone of KO-35." The second woman did her the courtesy of addressing her as she had introduced herself. "Please restate your intentions for the benefit of this tribunal."
"I'm here to make sure Andros doesn't get in trouble for saving the universe," Karone said. Her voice held a combination of irony and wariness.
The figure to Jenkarta's right spoke again. "True."
The empath's voice was masculine and vaguely familiar, but Andros couldn't place it. The two women must be Kayatachi and Sayzie, the Pink and Blue Eltaran Rangers, but he didn't know either of their voices well enough to say which was which. There were only five Rangers on the Eltaran team, which left the sixth tribunal member unaccounted for. Andros wondered suddenly if the empath was the extra.
"And you, Andros?" The first woman to speak addressed him before Jenkarta could. "Do you believe that you saved the universe?"
"No," he said honestly. "But I know that Zordon did. Without him, every known world would be overrun right now."
Silence followed that statement, and he knew no one wanted to believe those words. But they had seen it for themselves: lives lost and spirits broken when Dark Specter's forces swept through, and not a Ranger team anywhere that could take them on and win. They knew... they had tried.
The voice from Jenkarta's right was quieter this time, but it was enough. "True."
"Zordon's gift to me--to us," Karone said, "was redemption." Her voice was just as quiet, but the statement was no less heartfelt. "He gave it freely."
There was a quiet moment, and then for the first time the empath offered a complete sentence. "I have no need to hear more."
"Nor I." The woman who had spoken in Karone's defense agreed first, and one by one her teammates followed suit. Finally, only Jenkarta remained silent.
"Have you anything else to add?" he asked, in the tradition of the tribunal.
Andros shook his head, feeling that he had already said what he came to say, but Karone spoke up. "I do," she declared. "Zordon sacrificed himself so that Andros and you and all the other Rangers wouldn't have to. Don't diminish that choice by condemning Andros for his actions."
Andros smiled to himself. For all that he had been against her coming, she had spoken more than he had. And more eloquently, too. Her words from earlier echoed in his mind. "Remind me to thank you later."
The empath inclined his head, acknowledging her words, but it was Jenkarta who spoke. "The tribunal will confer," he said simply. The six surrounding spotlights vanished, and the soft susurration of robes was the only audible indication of movement.
"You didn't tell me there'd be an empath," Karone hissed in his ear.
Andros gave her an amused look. "What did you expect? That they'd just take our word for it?"
"You're Rangers," she whispered indignantly. "I thought you were supposed to be the embodiment of all that's good and pure!"
He almost laughed. "You don't have to make it sound so terrible," he teased quietly.
She narrowed her eyes at him and he relented. "Rangers aren't superheroes, you know. They're just people that serve when they're called."
"They're chosen by the Power!" she exclaimed. "If the Power was capable of choosing someone who wasn't good and perfect, believe me, I would have tried it. Why do you think the Psychos used Dark Specter's energy?"
"You were going to transfer the Power we hold to them," Andros reminded her. "It would have worked, too. There have been Dark Rangers in the past. The Psychos wouldn't have been the first servants of evil to have morphers."
"But the Psychos are monsters," she argued, unfazed by his reference to her former plans. "No one would mistake them for..." Karone gestured helplessly. "Well, you!"
He smiled a little at her frustration. "Thanks for the vote of confidence," he teased again, unable to resist. "But Power Rangers have gone bad too. Anyone can be influenced by an evil that's strong enough or persuasive enough." He hesitated, wondering how much to say. "You were supposed to be a Ranger."
She frowned. "So what you're telling me is that the Eltarans thought you'd snapped? Turned to evil?"
Andros shrugged uncomfortably, letting her ignore his last statement. "I don't know what they think. But Eltaran law requires an empath at every tribunal. They can't comment on anything that isn't spoken aloud, but they have to be there."
"Sort of a built-in lie detector," Karone muttered. "I wish I'd had something like that on the Dark Fortress."
"Did you need it?" Andros asked wryly. "By the time you assumed everyone around you was lying, it must have been fairly easy to figure out what the truth was."
She glared at him, but he got the feeling it was a reflexive gesture. She was so used to glaring that it just seemed like the right thing to do. So he smirked back at her, and to his surprise she lowered her gaze with a laugh.
"Andros," she said, smiling as she shook her head. Lifting her eyes again she searched his expression with a look of combined amusement and wonder. "I never would have guessed you had a sense of humor."
"Until pretty recently, Ashley would have told you I didn't," he offered with a straight face. His deadpan expression softened when she giggled again, and he admitted, "I know what you mean, though. I never thought I'd hear you... laugh."
"Well," he amended quickly, "I always hoped I'd hear Karone laugh again. But I didn't think I'd hear it from Astronema."
She gave him a look that seemed torn between sympathy and curiosity. "I'm not what you expected, am I?" she asked frankly.
He shrugged a little, not sure he had an answer to that question. "I didn't know what to expect. I guess I got so caught up in trying to find you that I forgot you wouldn't be a little girl anymore."
She reached up to touch her locket, and an odd sensation tickled the back of his mind. "I thought you were dead," she remarked, not as though it meant anything to her. "I guess I never thought about what you might be like if you were still alive."
He gazed at her locket for a moment, wondering if he dared to ask a question that had been on his mind since he realized who she was. The time they'd spent together on the way to Yotoba had established the most tentative of bonds, and he hadn't wanted to pressure her. He had answered her questions while trying to keep his own to a minimum.
"Karone," he said finally, deciding that if "the right time" hadn't come yet it never would. "Do you... remember? Me, or KO-35, or anything... from before?"
She hesitated. "Sometimes," she said slowly. "At least, sometimes I think I do. When I was on KO-35... I don't know. I'm sorry, Andros."
"It's all right," he assured her. "I didn't really expect you to; I was just curious. You must have blocked most of that out when you were kidnapped."
Karone sighed. "You have to understand what it meant to me to think that you were dead. And not just you, but my whole family. I was all alone in the universe... and then Ecliptor came along.
"He cared for me," she said earnestly. "I don't know if you can believe it, but he became... some of what I had lost. And he taught me how to focus--how to ignore everything but what was happening, what was right in front of me... what I had to do to survive. That focus is what kept me alive in Dark Specter's monarchy."
"And it's what made you forget," Andros surmised quietly. The sense of something just beyond the edge of knowing flashed through his mind again, and he tried to ignore it.
She nodded once, not quite meeting his gaze.
"You said it yourself," he murmured. "You did what you had to do. I'm glad it was enough. I'm sorry, though, for... how much you lost yesterday."
She caught his eye at last, smiling wistfully. "I'm focusing, Andros."
He nodded, understanding. "Thanks for coming," he told her, hoping she knew how much he meant it. "And thanks--for what you said. About believing in me."
"Thank you," she said simply. "I never said it before, so I'm saying it now. Thanks for believing in me."
The circle of lights lit up around them before he could answer. The six hooded figures were back, as silent as before and so still that it was easy to believe they had never left. Andros knew better, of course, but the illusion was a convincing one.
"Andros of KO-35." Jenkarta's voice rang out, authority in every word. "It is the judgement of this tribunal--"
The room vanished. The darkness and the lights disappeared as though someone had thrown a switch, and in their place he saw the exterior of the Megaship, looming large against the backdrop provided by the NASADA compound. Zhane and Cassie were on the battleship's cargo ramp, surrounded and fighting hard against four armored Psycho Rangers.
The vision was gone as quickly as it had come, and he lifted his left wrist. "Ashley, TJ, Carlos," he snapped, bypassing the communicator's allcall so as not to alert the Psychos. "Megaship, NASADA staging area, now!"
"Andros?" Karone asked, and only then did he realize her hand was on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"
"Zhane's in trouble." Mentally, he cursed his inability to teleport. He would have to rely on Karone to get them there in time. "We have to go; the Psycho Rangers are trying to board the Megaship. Zhane and Cassie are up against four of them at once."
"Cassie?" The empath threw back his hood, revealing piercing blue eyes in a face less familiar than his voice.
"And the fifth?" Karone demanded, not questioning how Andros knew or what the Megaship was doing back on Earth. "Where's the other one?"
He was about to tell her it didn't matter when the floor seemed to sway gently. Missile impact, his mind decided immediately, and he felt Karone tense at his side. "Never mind," she muttered.
Jenkarta, too, tossed back his hood and strode out of the circle into the darkness. "Lights!" His disembodied voice commanded an instant response from the computer and the room was flooded with illumination. "I assume these 'Psycho Rangers' are exactly as they sound," he said over his shoulder as the light caught him halfway to the door.
"They're our Dark Ranger counterparts," Andros answered, trying not to fidget. He didn't want to follow, but he had no real right to leave this ship without the tribunal's consent. What had they decided? "Or they were, before the source of their power was destroyed. We have to go."
"I will assist you." The empath strode toward them even as the other Rangers shook their hoods free from their faces and scattered across the room. "We will even the odds for your teammates on the ground while this ship maneuvers above."
The ship rocked again, and Andros wondered briefly what the Psychos could be throwing at it. Then Karone extended her left hand and her staff appeared without ceremony. Violet sparkles swirled around it as she lowered it to the ground, the magical light brightening until it encompassed everything Andros could see. The violet glow obliterated his vision.
T + 31:14
4:11 PM PST
The sorceress' teleportation was unorthodox and more than a little disturbing. Though he had witnessed it from afar many times, he had never before been on the receiving end of it. The feeling of magic engulfing him was unsettling--but the scene that greeted them on arrival was even more so.
Saryn's gaze swept across the battlefield, assessing the situation with a pilot's eye for the big picture. There were, as Andros had said, four armored beings swarming the Astro Megaship. Whether they were attempting to gain entry or merely trying to cause damage it was impossible to say, but they had two of Andros' teammates effectively pinned inside the battleship's starboard hatch.
His Ranger reflexes kicked in as a stray shot burned through the place he'd been half a second before. Rolling into a crouch, he focused on the Megaship again. He was distantly aware of Andros hurtling past with his usual lack of subtlety, but his attention was on the two figures just visible through the open hatch.
Or more precisely, one of the figures just visible through the open hatch.
The Pink Ranger was a much better shot than her companion, but unfortunately their Astro Blasters didn't seem to be having much of an effect on the Psycho Rangers. Short of sealing the hatch there seemed to be little that would halt the villains' advance--until Andros joined the fray with a whirlwind energy that staggered the senses.
Out of the corner of his eye, Saryn saw Astronema's staff appear in her hand, and the sudden variable made him hesitate. He didn't particularly like a battle where he didn't know his allies, let alone his enemy, but the Power chose where it would. When he saw the pink Psycho Ranger breach the Megaship's last line of defense, he had no choice.
Throwing himself into the fight, he reached Psycho Pink just as she slammed her fist into the hull. Cassie had already scrambled out of the way, but Saryn intercepted the next blow before the Psycho Ranger could reacquire her target. "Evil has been eradicated," he told the monster in a low voice, glaring at her visor above their locked fists. "I suggest you take the hint."
She hurled him back against the hull with a casual strength no human could match unmorphed. "Make me," she sneered, turning her back on him as he struggled to catch his breath.
He lifted his right arm, and the weapon wrapped around his wrist fired the moment he clenched his fist. Psycho Pink staggered a little under the attack, and he shoved himself away from the hull, firing continuously as he advanced. Anyone who voiced a challenge like hers should know better than to turn their back on an enemy.
Psycho Pink spun, lashing out to kick his weapon aside and lunging before he could recover his guard. He sensed the blow from behind too late to completely avoid it, and one of her fellows shoved him right into her attack. Electricity crackled through his chest and for a moment there was nothing in the world but him and that mind-numbing pain.
Then the searing flash began to retreat and something hard was pressing into his back. He found himself lying on the ground, not quite able to focus on Cassie's face as she held out her hand to help him up. "--expect to see you here," she was saying.
"I was nearby," he managed, clasping her hand. He gathered himself, searching her expression as she helped haul him to his feet. There was recognition there, but only of the pilot she had been introduced to on KO-35. "I go where I am needed," he added, wondering if she even remembered.
Her eyes snapped back to his, and there was shock in her gaze as she demanded, "What did you just say?"
Psycho Pink had regained her feet and he pointed his right arm at her without a second thought. Only as he clenched his fist did he register the stabbing pain in his wrist, but the weapon had clung to him as it ought despite her attempt to disarm him. It fired without hesitation, and he saw Cassie raise her blaster out of the corner of his eye.
Something alerted him, and he spun just in time to block Psycho Blue's swing with one of his own. His already injured wrist screamed in protest, but he managed to push the Psycho Ranger hard enough that he stumbled back, giving Saryn some breathing room. He didn't like the way Cassie and Psycho Pink were fighting--he was subconsciously taking in the way they exchanged blows, and it seemed off... too similar, maybe. As though they were somehow anticipating each other's moves.
A shrill whine split the air as Psycho Blue charged him again, and two realizations crashed home almost simultaneously. The first was that the boom that had been ringing in his ears since their arrival was not an Earth normal noise, but rather the sound of an extra-atmospheric rocket launcher being fired from somewhere not so far away. The second was that the Eltarans were finally doing something about it.
He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but lasers meant for battle in space had already struck the surface nearby. The shockwave exploded outward, making the superheated air expand with crushing force as the ground bucked beneath his feet. The Megaship's hull slammed into him from behind, and as the breath deserted his lungs he found himself tumbling to the ground.
The distant sound of metal on metal was barely audible through the roar in his ears, and as he struggled to push himself up he realized how loud it must have actually been to penetrate at all. His hands made no sound on the rough gravel-strewn ground, and when he opened his mouth he couldn't hear his own voice. The only audible thing in the world was the silent noise in his head.
Climbing unsteadily to his feet, Saryn surveyed the scene as best he could. Two Psycho Rangers were dragging themselves up off the pavement even as he looked around, but the other two were nowhere to be found. The clang of metal must have been the Megaship's hatch crashing shut, for the entrance was now sealed. Presumably the remaining Psychos were on the other side of it--along with Cassie's teammates, as she was the only one he could see.
It was his turn to help her up, but her acceptance of the gesture was distracted, to say the least. It was not, however, the closed space hatch at which she was staring. Instead her gaze was focused on his chest, and he looked down automatically.
His necklace had come loose in the fighting. The ruby that glinted in the midday sunlight was not something anyone should see, but when he moved to tuck it under his tunic again she stopped him. Lifting her gaze at last, her eyes held him captive with silent inquiry.
He was still deaf to everything but the pounding in his ears, but he saw her mouth form the word: Phantom?
He shoved her out of the way as Psycho Blue's form rose behind her, but a blast pinned the Psycho Ranger before Saryn could even raise his weapon. A second beam of piercing light joined the first, and then another, and another, until five targeting scopes were trained on the Blue Psycho simultaneously. Saryn clenched his fist, pouring his own deadly assault into the beleaguered villain.
Cassie's blaster lit up too, leaving the Psycho Ranger with nowhere left to go. It writhed frantically under the onslaught, looking for escape and finding none as it crashed to the ground at their feet. Saryn flinched back from the resulting explosion, and he saw Cassie turn her head to the side.
The Eltaran Rangers strode out of the blast zone in perfect sync, the smoke still billowing at their backs. When Jenkarta lowered his weapon the others followed suit, and only then did Saryn realize that Psycho Pink was gone. The last Psycho Ranger had abandoned her companion to his fate while taking advantage of their distraction to slip away.
Jenkarta stopped in front of them, but his voice when he spoke sounded as though it was coming from much farther away. It was like hearing someone through a long tunnel, and a distorted, echoing tunnel at that. Saryn shook his head and put his hands over his ears briefly, trying to explain without having to speak.
The Red Eltaran Ranger frowned, but he nodded once. Almost as an afterthought he gave Cassie a questioning look, and Saryn saw him sigh in frustration when she too shook her head. Then movement made his eyes snap away from Jenkarta, seeking the source of the distraction.
Two of Cassie's teammates were racing across the tarmac toward them, skirting the blast zone without giving it a second glance. It occurred to him that, given the state of the rest of the city, the crater left by Eltaran lasers probably sparked little interest. And it was certainly nothing compared to the conspicuous absence of half their team.
"What happened?" the Yellow Ranger cried as they came to an abrupt halt in the shadow of the Megaship. "Where's Andros?"
Saryn started as he realized he had heard her. The words were still distant and far away, but Ashley's worried tone was audible through the curtain over his hearing. Belatedly, he remembered the motion Cassie had aborted earlier, and he slipped the ruby of the Phantom Ranger under his tunic again. This was no time for reunions.
Cassie pointed at the Megaship, flashing two fingers at her teammate. Whether Ashley got the message or not was a moot point, for she raised her communicator without another word. Andros, she said clearly, but after that Saryn's lip-reading ability failed him.
She did wince at whatever reply came over her communicator, though, and he saw Jenkarta's expression twist. He glanced at Cassie only to find her looking back at him, as frustrated as he was at not being able to hear what was said. He tried not to notice the way her dark hair glinted in the sun when she turned to her friends.
Ashley gestured at her communicator, making a sign with her hands that could only mean "no signal". But the few words he caught seemed to indicate that she'd heard something from the device, and he wondered if it was being jammed. Could these Psycho Rangers have done that so quickly?
"--two of them," he heard Jenkarta say. "One from... and... here."
Saryn frowned, not quite able to fill in the blanks. He heard Cassie ask, "How did you know?" She seemed to be catching more of the conversation than he was.
Jenkarta's answer was clearer, no doubt because he knew what it would be before the other spoke. "Andros knew," the Eltaran answered. "He told us where to go."
"There must--" Cassie's voice caught his attention again, but he lost the rest of her sentence when he looked over at her. She was staring at Ashley with the intensity he remembered so well, and he wished fleetingly that she would turn that unwavering gaze on him again.
Ashley shook her head, apparently disagreeing with her teammate. The roaring in his ears was receding slowly, to the point where he could make out the gist of her argument. She wanted to follow the others onto the Megaship, regardless of whether the closed hatch was a trap and acting only out of angry fear for her friends.
Luckily, TJ was every bit as level-headed as Saryn remembered. "We can't just storm onto the Megaship, Ash," he said, his words faint but determined through the static haze. "They must be there for a reason. Karone would have teleported them out by now if they were trapped; you know that."
He had a good deal of faith in someone who had been quite literally his worst enemy the day before, Saryn reflected. He also had an amazing amount of faith in his teammates' abilities. Whatever had happened when Ashley tried to signal their leader, it was obvious that they were completely cut off from each other. There was nothing to say Andros and Zhane were even conscious, let alone operating within whatever contingency plan TJ had in mind.
"--cut off access to DECA," TJ was saying. "We can probably hack into the database with Andros' override codes, but it's going to take a while if we don't want them to notice what we're doing.
"Cassie, you'd better let Adelle know what's going on," he added. "I don't really want civilians involved, but Carlos hasn't been able to find a way to track the Psychos yet. If Adelle can alert the shelters to be on the lookout, we might be able to find Psycho Pink faster."
Cassie nodded once, looking away from TJ to clip her Astro Blaster to her belt. Like most Ranger uniforms, their flight suits weren't designed to carry weapons, but these were extraordinary circumstances. The Blue Ranger didn't say a word as she let her jacket settle back into place, half hiding the blaster.
"You'll be a target," Jenkarta interjected, apparently unable to keep silent any longer. Saryn had been thinking the same thing, but he didn't want to draw more attention to himself than he had to.
"It's your Dark Ranger that's out there, and she'll certainly notice that you're alone." Though Jenkarta's words were clearly directed at Cassie, his gaze shifted between her and TJ, who seemed to have assumed authority in Andros' absence. "Saryn and I will accompany you, if you wish."
The look Cassie exchanged with TJ made Saryn's heart sink. Though their glances were neutral, the mere fact that they sought each other's eyes at all told him what he needed to know. They weren't overlooking the possibility that Psycho Pink would seek her out--they were counting on it.
"I know," Cassie said at last, confirming his suspicion. "But she saw us destroy Psycho Blue. If we go out in force, she'll avoid us until we split up. This way maybe we can lure her into attacking before the last three regroup."
"And if she attacks, then what?" Jenkarta persisted. "Am I correct in assuming that you cannot teleport without your ship's computer?" When Cassie nodded reluctantly, Jenkarta pressed, "At least allow Saryn to accompany you."
Saryn shot a sharp look in his direction, but Jenkarta's gaze was intent upon Cassie. "He can summon us when Psycho Pink catches up with you," the Eltaran Ranger told her. "Your plan is not complete without a trap behind the bait."
Cassie actually smiled a little at that, but she didn't nod until TJ did. "All right," she said finally. "Saryn and I will see what we can find out. Call me if you need help," she told TJ, giving the Megaship a meaningful glance.
Saryn took the opportunity to frown at Jenkarta while the others were distracted. The other knew of his fascination with the Pink Astro Ranger, but there was no reason to push them together. Jenkarta's return stare was bland, acknowledging nothing.
"Let's go," Cassie said, waiting for him to catch her eye before turning away.
He caught her arm before she could head off across the tarmac, and she gave him a questioning look. Tapping the badge on his tunic, he said, "Two to teleport, most recent entry point."
Black fire leapt across his vision, and the diminishing ring in his ears was the only noise he could hear in the teleportation stream. A new world coalesced around him in less time that it would have taken to blink, and he had to reorient himself to the crush of minds around them. Shoving the sensation down forcefully, he shook his head to clear it. Teleporting into unknown places did strange things to his empathy.
Cassie was looking around in surprise. "How did you know where we were going?"
He shrugged, self-conscious in her presence as he had not been when there were others with them. "I... guessed," he admitted. "This is the place from which Andros teleported earlier."
She turned a concerned look on him. "What happened with the trial? He's not going to be in trouble, is he? He saved all of us, you know, and it's not like he wanted to kill Zordon--"
"You do not need to convince me," Saryn assured her. "Nor the tribunal. They found no fault with Andros' actions."
She closed her eyes briefly, smiling in relief. "Zhane wasn't sure," she admitted with a sigh. "He said the whole thing was crazy, but he was just worried enough to scare me.
"We'd better go find Adelle," she added, not giving him a chance to reply. "She'll be inside."
He followed without a word, images of her and Zhane together on KO-35 flashing through his mind. Shoulder to shoulder as teammates at Kinwon's side, then whispering together like friends when they went to follow Jenkarta. Handfast and laughing moments later as he watched them depart...
He didn't know what Zhane was to her, but he meant to find out.
The building in which "Adelle" was to be found was not quite the command center that he had expected. There were people everywhere, but Cassie's uniform was the only one in evidence and there seemed to be little order to their interactions. Cassie made her way toward the back of the building first, and the way people stopped to stare led him to believe that her presence here was not typical.
"Adelle?" she asked, knocking on a door that was only partly open. "It's Cassie. Are you in here?"
A voice came back immediately. "Come on in, hon!"
Cassie pushed the door open the rest of the way, and a large woman sitting on a desk gestured for them to enter. She was holding something to her ear, and when she spoke again it wasn't to them. Saryn could only the object in her hand was some sort of communication device.
"I've got to go," she was saying. "I have a shelter to run. I'll tell them if I see them, General."
Cassie started, waving a hand at the other woman. She mouthed something Saryn didn't catch, and Adelle told her communicator, "Hold your horses there, General. Wait one darn moment."
Holding the object away from her ear, Adelle gave Cassie a resigned look. Pointing at it, she asked quietly, "You want to talk to him?"
Cassie nodded, and Adelle passed her the communicator. "General Norquist," Cassie said, with a cheerfulness that hadn't been in her voice a moment before. "This is good timing. We've got an emergency situation out in the staging area, so I'd appreciate it if you could keep your people away from the Megaship for now."
There was a pause, and Saryn felt Adelle's gaze on him. She was assessing him, wondering whether she'd seen him before and when she concluded that she had not, wondering what his connection to Cassie might be. He didn't need to be empathic to sense her curiosity.
"He's been called to help deal with the situation on the Megaship," Cassie was saying. "We've had relations with Aquitar for several years, General; Carlos' absence won't jeopardize that."
"No," she said a moment later, sounding suddenly stern. "The Power Rangers will take care of this, General. There's no need to worry. TJ will contact you as soon as he can."
"Thank you," she said, after a brief hesitation. "Goodbye."
"Well, he's getting mighty pushy," Adelle drawled as Cassie set the communication device down. "I'm starting to feel like the Power Rangers' secretary here!"
Cassie flashed a brilliant smile at the woman, tinged with just the right amount of apology and commiseration. "I know, and I'm sorry, Adelle. I'll tell him to stop calling, if you want."
"No, no." Adelle waved the suggestion away. "They've got to be able to reach you somehow, and I don't mind taking messages. But I won't be held responsible if he doesn't start treating you all with a little more respect, you hear? Do this, do that--just like you're one of his soldiers!"
"Norquist didn't expect the Power Rangers to be teenagers," Cassie said with a sigh. "He doesn't know what to make of us."
"I'll show him what to make of you," Adelle muttered, but then she made a visible effort to put her irritation aside. "So, what can I do for you and your pretty friend?"
Cassie shot him an embarrassed glance before rolling her eyes at Adelle. "He's a Power Ranger from Eltar, Adelle. His name's Saryn. Saryn, this is Adelle."
"Well, I'm pleased to meet you!" Adelle held out her hand in a gesture Saryn had seen before, and he mimicked her without thinking about it. When she shook his hand, though, he winced and her sharp eyes didn't miss his reaction.
"Something wrong?" she asked bluntly, studying him.
"You hurt your wrist, didn't you." Cassie was at his side instantly, taking his hand from Adelle and turning it over. "How bad is it? Can you move your fingers? I saw you get hit, but I didn't think--"
"It is not serious," he interrupted, all his attention focused on her careful touch. "Only an inconvenience, without the Power to heal it."
"I was just about to take this stuff out front," Adelle said, bustling over to a box by the door. "Can't be broken, with the way you grabbed my hand. Probably just sprained.
"Here, hon." She returned, thrusting something into the Pink Ranger's hands before resettling herself on the desk. "You bandage that up, then tell me what's so important that you left your friends in an emergency just to find me."
Satisfied with her inspection of his wrist, Cassie proceeded to do just that. But he knew the story, and her fingers were so gentle. He alternated between staring at them and watching her face, her expression intent as she wrapped his wrist and explained the situation to Adelle.
He didn't hear a word she said.
T + 31:22
4:19 PM PST
Zhane couldn't hear a thing, but right now he had more immediate concerns. Andros was sprawled over top of him, definitely breathing but otherwise not moving, and he had seen Karone get slammed against the far wall before the hatch crashed shut. He wasn't sure either of them was conscious and he doubted the Psycho Rangers were going to wait for him to find out.
He pushed Andros off of him as gently as he could, wincing when his friend's body slid bonelessly to the floor. His knew his first priority should be to find his blaster, but he reached for Andros' wrist instead. Though he had never doubted that his friend lived, the steady heartbeat reassured him and finally he lifted his gaze to survey the corridor.
Psycho Black had recovered faster than he had. The Psycho Ranger stood over them with a sneer etched into his visor and a rather deadly looking weapon aimed at Zhane's head. The silence was surreal, Zhane couldn't wrap his mind around what was about to happen.
Violet fire illuminated Psycho Black, and his head jerked back as his weapon tumbled to the floor. For a brief moment, he was a silhouette of light in the darkened hallway, a bizarre negative image that faded slowly as the electricity consumed him. It flashed hungrily around the place where he had been before going out, vanishing with more reluctance than the thing it had destroyed.
Karone settled her staff with a pensive look, resting one end against the deck as she considered the space between her and Zhane. He saw a vaguely troubled expression flit across her face as she lifted her gaze to his, and she shook her head. I hate doing that.
He could see the words clearly on her lips, but they made no sound in the oppressive air. The idea that he was the only one unable to hear was unnerving, but he pushed the thought aside as he cast about for Psycho Yellow. She was nowhere to be seen, and he turned to Karone with a frown.
She shook her head before he could ask, and he read the word Gone on her lips. In the-- He couldn't make out the last word, but when she pointed at DECA's camera he understood what she meant. Some villains never bothered to learn new tricks.
Zhane tapped his ear, giving her an inquiring look, and she shook her head again. The explosion had temporarily deafened her too, then. He looked down at Andros, wondering why that wasn't more reassuring.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and his gaze flicked to Karone as she knelt beside Andros. She looked as worried as he felt, and she lifted her eyes to his in concern. Is he all right?
Zhane couldn't answer that. As he smoothed his friend's hair back, though, Andros stirred a little and they both tensed. He saw Karone take her brother's hand and he resisted the urge to do the same, watching hopefully as Andros shifted. The Red Ranger stilled the moment he opened his eyes, gaze sliding past them with an awareness that belied his semi-conscious state.
The Psychos? Andros frowned even as he formed the words, and his eyes sought Zhane's. I can't hear anything.
Zhane shook his head, gesturing at Karone. Us either. One Psycho-- He mimed pulling an Astro Blaster trigger. The other one-- Zhane pointed at DECA's camera, and he saw his friend wince.
Andros pushed himself up on his elbows, surveying the hallway before locking gazes with Zhane again. The others?
Outside. He pointed to DECA's camera. She sealed us in.
Andros struggled to sit up, a grim expression on his face. We have to get it out of the-- Zhane assumed the last word was "computer", and he nodded in emphatic agreement. Helping his friend to his feet, he caught Karone's impatient gesture out of the corner of his eye.
How do you do that? She gave him an irritated look as she flowed to her feet, glancing from him to Andros and back again. What are you saying?
Zhane looked at her in surprise. You can't tell?
What? She looked more frustrated than ever.
He exchanged glances with Andros, only to find his friend putting more concentration into staying upright than he ought to be. Hey. One arm under Andros' shoulders, he gripped his friend's free hand to get his attention. You all right?
Andros nodded, but then his head jerked up and he froze. Zhane tensed, scanning the hallway in both directions, but it was clear. Andros took his hand before he could ask and pressed it up against the wall.
Zhane's eyes widened. The wall was vibrating, very slightly, but enough to be noticeable if one was accustomed to it. The engines. He stared at Andros, mind rapidly running through the possibilities. Psycho Yellow couldn't really believe she could control a Ranger owned and operated battleship for any significant length of time, let alone get away intact if she did. Which meant she intended a short trip, some quick zord-inflicted destruction, or...
Comprehension dawned at exactly the same time, and he saw it in Andros' eyes before the other even said the words. Self-destruct!
They turned as one, heading for the main engine room as fast as they could go. Andros kept pace remarkably well, but Zhane was so wrapped up in watching out for him that he forgot Psycho Yellow had access to all of DECA's cameras. When the engine room bulkhead fell right in front of them Andros had to catch him to keep him from slamming into it.
It was probably the one working bulkhead on the ship, Zhane reflected wryly. Karovan techs had fixed it the day before in order to reach the engine core, and now it was down again. Only when he heard someone clap their hands did he realize what else the bulkhead had told him.
He turned, startled, as Karone clapped her hands again. Just once, and with a curiously satisfied expression on her face, but she gestured to the bulkhead and then indicated one of her ears. I heard that!
Great, Zhane thought. So when the ship blows up, we'll all know what it sounds like.
Andros was already working on the access panel, trying to get control of the bulkheads back from the entity possessing the ship's computer. DECA must be fighting what amounted to a viral infection in her mainframe, but Zhane supposed it could be worse. Psycho Yellow could have control of the intruder defense system instead of just atmospheric containment.
Not that she'll need it if the ship explodes…
Andros drew his hand back as though shocked, and Zhane glanced warily in either direction before looking over his friend's shoulder. The access lockouts were failing, one by one and without Andros' help. Zhane's first thought was that DECA had regained control, but then he saw the override code that was in use.
He exchanged grins with Andros as Ashley's override continued to work its inexorable way through the lockout, breaking down barrier after barrier until finally the access flashed clear. Andros punched a series of commands into the control pad, and the bulkhead began to rise. Zhane didn't wait, ducking underneath with Andros on his heels.
Shoulder to shoulder, they worked the consoles with a determined focus that was aided yet again by Ashley's efforts from the outside. Her override was weakening Psycho Yellow's hold on the computer, but it wasn't enough. Even Karone could see what was happening now, as her worried gaze darted between them and an engine core that was rapidly going critical.
"Zhane." The sound startled him enough that he looked up, and Karone nodded to the core. "I can shut it down!"
Andros had heard too, and he caught Zhane's eye briefly before shaking his head and turning back to the console. Still, Zhane couldn't help asking, "How?"
She lifted her left hand, and violet sparkles swirled around her fingers.
Nice effect, Zhane thought admiringly, but he had to back Andros. "Not unless the manual override fails. There's no telling how the core would react to that kind of power surge."
"She's gone." Andros' voice didn't penetrate the leftover haze in Zhane's ears as well as Karone's, but it was audible nonetheless. "Psycho Yellow's gone! DECA, emergency core shutdown!"
The screen flashed "password access only" at them and Zhane clenched his fists. "Silver lightning!" he exclaimed, thinking dark thoughts about the Psycho that had invaded their network. "Override self-destruct!"
"Password accepted," the screen informed him silently. "Self-destruct aborted. Core shutdown in progress."
He glanced over his shoulder as the pulsing engine core began to darken. All he could think was what a pain it was going to be to reinitialize it after a complete shutdown. Then Andros clapped him on the shoulder, and he had to laugh at the thought. Yeah, a real inconvenience. Too bad we didn't blow up instead.
"So where is she?" Karone demanded, as he and Andros exchanged wrist blocks. "Why would she leave when she was winning?"
"Fear of death?" Zhane suggested, clasping Andros' hands in his own and giving his friend a shove. "Typical villain survival instinct?"
"Typical anyone survival instinct," Andros countered, shoving him back with a grin. "Let's see if DECA can track her."
As Andros let go of him and turned back to the console, Zhane saw him stumble. His eyes narrowed, and he regarded the Red Ranger carefully. "Andros, are you all right? You don't look so good."
"I'm fine," Andros said, not looking up. "There's an incoming transmission from KO-35. It looks like they've been trying to reach us for several minutes. There was a signal reversal... 43 seconds ago."
"She piggybacked the transmission," Zhane realized.
Andros straightened, regarding the now dark engine core with irritation. "We have to go after her. We'd better check on the others first--" He stopped, looking torn. "If Ashley was helping us, they must have won, right?"
"You go," Zhane interjected. "I'll reinitialize the core. Call me if you need me."
"I can send us," Karone volunteered.
They both turned to look at her. "What?" Andros said, as though he hadn't heard her right. "You can send us where?"
"To KO-35." She shrugged, the closest approximation of self-consciousness that Zhane had seen yet. "I can teleport us there."
"Karone, KO-35 is six galaxies away." Andros didn't seem to know whether to believe her or not. "Even the Megaship can't teleport out of the system."
Karone smiled, a smug smile that was closer to a smirk than anything else. "Technology has limits," she reminded him. "Magic is infinite."
Zhane stared at her. "How did we beat you, again?"
She gave him a haughty look. "You cheated, of course."
"We need to find the others," Andros broke in, amusement belying his stern tone. "As soon as we make sure they're okay, you can teleport us to KO-35 to deal with Psycho Yellow."
"We did not cheat," Zhane whispered, as they followed Andros out of the engine room. "You had henchmen and armies and we had--let me think--six people!"
"And you had Zordon," she hissed back. "I never should have fallen for that 'too weak to do anything' routine. He was always more devious than anyone gave him credit for."
"Guys," Andros warned from up ahead. "That's not funny."
"Yes it is," Zhane retorted. "The fact that she's accusing us of cheating at war? I think it's hilarious."
"Dark Specter's army was stronger," Karone insisted. "You should have lost."
Zhane rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well he's dead, isn't he. Guess things don't always work out the way you plan."
"Guys!" Andros had paused by the space hatch to glare at them.
"Lighten up, Andros." Zhane reached past him to key the hatch open. "It's just a joke."
"War isn't a joke!" Andros exclaimed. "People die! That's not a joke, and it's not funny!"
"Look," Zhane said, taking him by the shoulders. "Zordon's death wasn't your fault. We've all gotten stuck with more responsibility than we ever wanted these last few days, but it's better to laugh about it than to pretend it didn't happen!"
"Agreed." TJ's voice left no room for argument as the ramp hit the ground outside. "Zhane's right, Andros. We're only human."
Andros shrugged off his hands, turning toward the assembled Rangers with an inscrutable stare. "Is everyone all right? What happened to the other Psycho Rangers?"
TJ took a step forward. "Andros--"
In his impatience, the Blue Ranger's gaze slid past Andros and Zhane managed to catch his eye. Shaking his head slightly, he indicated that TJ should drop it. TJ didn't look happy about it, but all he said was, "We're all fine. Psycho Pink got away, but the Eltarans took care of Psycho Red and Psycho Blue."
"Psycho Yellow's still loose too." Though he was ostensibly addressing them all, Andros' gaze was fixed on Ashley. "She piggybacked a transmission to KO-35 before we could catch her. It's too late to warn the rebels, but Karone says she can teleport us there before she does too much damage."
"I'm going with you," Ashley said firmly, surprising no one as she stepped up onto the ramp beside them. "It's my Psycho Ranger." Her expression dared Andros to order her to stay, but he moved aside to make room without a word
"We'll take care of Psycho Pink," TJ added, and Andros nodded to him.
When he turned to Karone, she tossed her head and the Megaship was gone. It was the most disconcerting teleportation Zhane had ever felt, but she was as good as her word. One moment they were on Earth, and the next they stood on a barren plain broken only by the surrounding outlines of Kinwon's military encampment.
"This is the last place the Megaship landed," Karone offered, in answer to Andros' questioning look. "I don't know whether Psycho Yellow's here or not."
"She should be, if the transmission came from Kinwon." Zhane scanned the area, wondering what they'd done to deserve such terrible timing. The rebels had probably been transmitting just to prove they could, to let the Megaship know the relays were back up in the Karovan system, and Psycho Yellow had taken advantage of it.
"So where is she?" Ashley voiced the frustration they all felt. The camp was deserted, and with no way of tracking the Psychos it would be almost impossible to find Psycho Yellow if she'd gone to ground somewhere else. "What does she gain by hiding?"
Karone shrugged. "What does she lose?" she countered, sounding distracted. "She must have seen what I did to Psycho Black."
Before either of them could ask what exactly she had done, there was a stirring from what Cassie had called "Tent City HQ". Taikwa poked her head out of the main ops tent, and her face lit up when she saw them. "Andros! Zhane!" She motioned to them as they all hurried over. "We thought you might be here soon."
Zhane frowned. That didn't make any sense, and he was about to comment on it when Taikwa threw the tent all the way open. He halted in his tracks and drew his blaster, arming and aiming in one smooth motion, and at his side he saw Karone's staff materialize in her hand. Belatedly, he realized that Andros and Ashley were unarmed, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
Directly behind Kinwon's field commander stood Psycho Yellow.
"We had a visitor," Taikwa explained, not seeming at all concerned. "We thought you might be looking for her."
She strode out to meet them, unfazed by the weapons pointed in her directions. The way Psycho Yellow stumbled when she went to follow made Zhane's eyes narrow, and he relaxed slightly when he saw an armed general at the Psycho's back. Her arms were pinned behind her, and the general shoved her again when she didn't move fast enough for him. How they had managed to capture a Psycho Ranger at all was a mystery to him, let alone so quickly, but she did seem to be restrained.
"Militant civilians," he heard Karone mutter, just loud enough for the four of them to hear. "What a nightmare. It's like Angel Grove all over again."
She hefted her staff, motioning for Taikwa to step aside. "I have some loose ends to tie up," Karone said, more loudly. "I told you not to hunt the Power Rangers without my permission. You should have listened."
"If we'd known who you were, we never would have obeyed you in the first place," Psycho Yellow hissed, visor glittering angrily. "You're no better than they are."
"Thank you." Karone seemed to smile. "That means a lot to me. Goodbye, Psycho Ranger."
"Karone." Andros put a hand on her arm. "She's a prisoner, not an opponent."
His sister threw him a disbelieving look. "What?"
"Is the Red Ranger getting cold feet?" Psycho Yellow demanded. If she could have smirked, Zhane was sure she would have been doing it. "It's easier in the heat of battle, isn't it? Not so fun when you have time to think about it.
"And you want to be like them," she sneered, addressing Karone now. "Weak. Pathetic. Well congratulations, princess. You're more like them than you know."
A bolt from Astronema's staff sent Psycho Yellow flying backward, bringing down a corner of the ops tent as she hit the ground. Taikwa and the general who had been guarding Psycho Yellow backed away uncertainly as Karone advanced, but she paid no attention to them. Her fists were clenched as she stared down at the fallen Psycho Ranger, and she radiated the same angry authority that had made Astronema so feared.
"Never call me that," Karone hissed, her tone low and deadly. Swinging her staff with obvious intent, her voice rose rapidly as she declared, "To you, I am queen!"
"Karone!" Andros' shout came too late, and violet fire wrapped itself around the prone Psycho Ranger. Electricity glittered and snapped, pouring into the armored figure as the air around it seemed to twist. For several long seconds, the crackle of lightning drowned out all other sounds.
Then it was over, and Psycho Yellow was gone. In the Psycho Ranger's place was a rodent: small, but very much alive and clearly terrified. It sat frozen in place for a brief moment, then turned and scurried for cover as fast as its short legs could carry it.
As his mind clicked over what had happened, taking into account Karone's fury, Andros' obvious reluctance to dispatch the impotent Psycho Ranger, and the expressions on both their faces as they exchanged glances, Zhane couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. "That'll show her who's weak and pathetic!" he chuckled.
Karone tossed her head, settling her staff against the ground with finality. "No one calls me 'princess' but Ecliptor," she informed them.
"No nicknames," Andros said, giving her a half-smile. "Got it."
She winked at him, and Ashley laughed. "I'm glad you're on our side now," she declared, throwing her arm around Karone's shoulders. "I never would have been able to sleep knowing you could turn people into rats!"
Taikwa lowered her hands from her mouth, staring at Andros' sister in shock. "Karone?" she asked, her tone tinged with incredulity. "Is that you?"
The staff vanished, and Karone ducked her head with a self-conscious smile. "It's me," she agreed, completing the transformation from outraged sorceress to modest teenager with that simple gesture. She didn't look at all sure of her welcome.
"We need to check on the others," Andros said, not giving Taikwa a chance to reply. Zhane couldn't tell whether he was really that concerned or if he was just protecting Karone, but Taikwa nodded anyway.
"You can use our comm equipment," she offered, motioning toward the ops tent. "The last of the relays were fixed just before you arrived."
T + 32:16
5:05 PM PST
"That explains how Psycho Yellow got there," TJ muttered, peering around the corner of the dojo as he spoke to his communicator. "Good thing the Karovans were ready for her. I'm going to tell Cassie to stop complaining about military encampments."
Distracted, he didn't quite catch Andros' muttered response. "What was that?" he asked, frowning across the street at the Surf Spot. It was frustrating to think that almost anyone walking through those doors could be Psycho Pink, and he wouldn't know until it was too late.
"Nothing," Andros said, more loudly. "You're sure you don't need us?"
"Between the Eltarans' firepower and Carlos' tracking device, I think we've got it covered," TJ answered. He hoped that was true, but more Rangers weren't what they needed right now. "Cassie's visible enough that Psycho Pink shouldn't have much trouble finding her, and the rest of us are ready for her when she comes."
"Cassie's not alone, is she?" Andros sounded a little skeptical, and TJ grinned to himself. Andros might not have started out as a leader, but it hadn't taken him long to go from strategically gifted to strategically gifted and bossy.
"She's got her own personal bodyguard," TJ assured him, his smile fading a little. He wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that... the Eltarans claimed "Saryn" as one of their own, yet it didn't take a genius to figure out that they were five without him. Unlike the Astro Rangers, the Eltarans didn't have a sixth--so who was Saryn?
"Right," Andros agreed at last. "We're going to stay on KO-35 a little longer, then. There's still a lot to be done here, but if you need us--"
"We know where to find you," TJ interrupted. There was movement around the front of the dojo, and he took a step back. "Andros, I have to go. We'll keep you updated."
He cut off the communication before the Red Ranger had a chance to answer. Peering around the corner again, he saw Carlos' brother frowning in his direction. Catching sight of TJ, the younger boy's expression cleared and he trotted over to his hiding place without a second thought.
"Carlos says to tell you Pscyho Pink's approaching the Surf Spot from the direction of the high school," he said. With a deadpan expression to rival his older brother's, he added, "He also says you should use your cell phone for personal calls."
TJ felt the corner of his mouth quirk upward. "Tell him to invent a communicator with call waiting," he advised. "Next time he can convince Andros to take care of his planet himself."
As if on cue, his communicator chimed. "I'm heading for the Surf Spot," Carlos' voice informed him. "I'm going to circle around back, see if I can catch Psycho Pink before she gets inside. I've already alerted the others."
"I'm on my way," TJ answered. Clapping Carlos' brother on the shoulder, he added, "Thanks, man. You'd better get back to the dojo."
The younger boy rolled his eyes. "How many times do you think I've heard that?" he asked rhetorically, but he headed back toward the door without further complaint.
TJ crossed the parking lot keeping a wary eye out for passersby, hoping it hadn't occurred to Psycho Pink that they might be tracking her. The Psychos were fast when they wanted to be, and if she suspected what they were doing she could thwart their efforts with speed alone. Psycho Pink could be in the front door and out again while they were still gathering behind the building.
The sound of weapons' fire from the direction of the Surf Spot quelled any fear he might have had about missing the Psycho Ranger. Dashing across the nearly deserted street, he wondered how Carlos could have gotten so far ahead of him. The Black Ranger must have left the dojo only seconds before TJ, yet he was nowhere to be seen.
Psycho Pink, unfortunately, was all too easy to locate. He heard her before he saw her, snarling at someone with words that were drowned out by an all too familiar shriek. He rounded the corner just in time to see Cassie jerked roughly into a headlock with a weapon pointed at her temple. Saryn was on the ground, though he was struggling to his feet again by the time TJ reached his side.
Wiping blood from his mouth, Saryn shot Psycho Pink a look of utter fury. "You have no idea who you've challenged," he growled.
"Oh, are you a Power Ranger too?" Psycho Pink taunted. "Then why don't you come and get me? Why don't you just gather your little weapons and crush me?"
She knew. Psycho Pink must have discovered they couldn't morph, and now she was taking full advantage of it. There was no way Cassie could survive a point-blank shot without her armor to protect her, and the only reason the Psycho Ranger hadn't put it to the test yet was the hope of sending more of them with her.
A crash from the fire escape briefly diverted Psycho Pink's attention, but TJ had seen that trick too often to be fooled by it now. He drew his Astro Blaster just as Carlos launched himself from his hiding place on the ground, catching Psycho Pink full in the back while she scanned the area above. Saryn slammed into her from the other side, knocking Cassie to the ground as he twisted Psycho Pink's arm back.
Carlos went for her other arm and Cassie went for her Astro Blaster, but neither she nor TJ could fire with the others so close to their target. There was another sound from the fire escape, and this time Jenkarta's voice rang out. "Everybody back!"
Saryn and Carlos let go of Psycho Pink at exactly the same time, and TJ pulled the trigger instantly. Cassie did the same as the Eltarans opened up from above, catching the last remaining Psycho Ranger in a deadly crossfire. For half a second, it looked as though she might be able to take cover behind the dumpster as Carlos had, but Carlos' blaster caught her as she stepped back, and then Saryn's joined in, and Psycho Pink exploded into fiery oblivion.
The clatter of pounding feet on the fire escape filled the air as the rush of vaporized particulates dissipated. "Is everyone all right?" Jenkarta demanded, bursting into the alley and glancing around with barely a pause. "Saryn?"
It was only natural that he would look to his own teammate first, but Saryn's attention was clearly elsewhere. Clipping his Astro Blaster to his jeans, TJ resisted the urge to check on Cassie himself, choosing instead to watch Saryn help her to her feet. The Eltaran was paying no attention to the Red Ranger; indeed, it seemed possible that he hadn't even heard Jenkarta speak.
"I'm fine," Cassie was insisting, though she had accepted Saryn's hand and didn't seem in any hurry to let it go. "She didn't hurt me. You're bleeding," she added, concern in her voice as she reached for his face.
Once ascertaining that she was all right, TJ looked automatically for Carlos and found him watching Cassie with interest. She had tilted Saryn's head toward her to better study his injury, which seemed to consist of nothing more serious than a split lip. He didn't object to her ministrations, but when the two of them seemed more inclined to stare at each other than anything else, TJ cleared his throat.
"Thanks for the save, guys," Cassie said, pulling away from Saryn as though there had been no pause in the conversation. "That was good timing. Does anyone know if Psycho Yellow's still out there?"
"She isn't," TJ answered, still watching Saryn. "Andros and Ashley took care of her. They're going to stay on KO-35 for a while and help get things under control there."
"As we must do on Eltar," Jenkarta interjected smoothly. "I assume Andros told you of our wish to induct Earth into the League of Allied Worlds?"
"Yeah, and Aquitar wants to sponsor us," Carlos put in. "We have to send a representative to meet with their Council or something."
"It is their privilege as your nearest League neighbor to assist you in this transition," Jenkarta agreed. "A representative will also be required on Eltar, to accept the induction award and to participate in a brief ceremony."
"I don't know about a ceremony," Carlos said warily, "but Cetaci asked if I would go to Aquitar. Something about debts, and honor... I didn't really understand it, but it sounded important."
TJ suppressed a sigh, hoping he didn't sound as resigned as he felt. Norquist wasn't going to be happy to hear this. "Cassie and I will go to Eltar," he told Jenkarta. "But we can't stay long. Earth needs us here."
Jenkarta nodded once. "Of course," he agreed. "A lengthy presence will not be required. In fact, if you are prepared to depart now, we may go and take care of business before the day is out."
It was a tempting offer, to leave without explaining themselves to anyone and just vanish the way Ashley and Andros had earlier. But if they expected to have NASADA's support for the League initiative, they would have to keep the agency informed. And if it came down to it, Adelle deserved to know what was going on too, given everything she'd done for them recently.
"I'll let Adelle know," Cassie volunteered, clearly thinking along the same lines.
"I'll talk to NASADA," TJ agreed with a sigh.
He glanced over at Cassie and found her smirking back at him, perfectly aware of what she had avoided by offering to talk to Adelle. "I'm going to put my flight suit on first," he added, "so if you finish early, maybe it would be faster if you went to see Norquist too."
She rolled her eyes, and he heard Carlos snicker. "Adelle will probably have a lot of questions," Cassie told him. "I'm sure it will take a while to fill her in.
"Besides," she said, almost as an afterthought. "Norquist called looking for you when you ran out on him earlier. I told him you'd be back to explain later."
"Hey, if you want some moral support," Carlos began, finally taking pity on TJ. "I'll go with. Just don't expect me to explain that temporal physics stuff they started going on about last time."
"You've got a deal," TJ said fervently, holding out his fist. He cuffed Carlos' with his own, once on top and once underneath, giving him a relieved grin. "I owe you."
"Just remember that next time when Norquist asks for me," Carlos countered with a smile of his own. "Let's go."
"I'll call you when we're done," TJ said, glancing from Cassie to Jenkarta before he turned away. They both nodded, and he found his gaze sliding involuntarily to Saryn. The mysterious Eltaran stared back inscrutably, but TJ couldn't shake a feeling of familiarity as he followed Carlos across the street to the dojo.
The Black Ranger's car got them to the Megaship faster than anything short of teleporting, but it was hard not to miss instantaneous travel. When it came to Ranger business, they had all gotten used to coming and going at the speed of thought. There was no question about the priority list for repairs.
On the other hand, it gave him time to reflect... almost too much time, for he was restless with curiosity more than impatience when they finally reached NASADA. The guard at the front gate gave their vehicle a suspicious glare before he realized who was in it. He stepped back respectfully, motioning security to let them through without further clearance.
They had to pass through three more checkpoints before they reached the staging area, and TJ wondered if Norquist would consider issuing them some ID. Their recent notoriety guaranteed them access for the foreseeable future, but there was no telling what League connections and intergalactic news would do to the situation. Then there was the question of the League diplomats themselves--
Which led him straight back to the focus of his curiosity. He and Carlos went their separate ways aboard the Megaship, though not before eyebrows were raised over the scorch marks just inside the space hatch. The fight had apparently not made it past deck six, as the living quarters just above were untouched. Or at least, untouched since the day before when the battleship had been pounded by everything Astronema could throw at them.
DECA's speech circuits were still offline, but the other half of the audio interface had been restored and TJ took full advantage of it while he changed. As DECA's replies flashed across his comm screen, he could almost hear her curious voice answering him as it had so many times before. His research usually seemed to amuse her more than anything, but this time her answers had a bemused tone to them.
"Do a visual comparison," he said at last, pulling a blue tank top on over his head. There was no way he was wearing long sleeves in the middle of August, uniform or no. "Match observable physical characteristics."
"96% correlation," the screen informed him silently. "Three percent deviation from average. Probability of identity match based solely on physical data?" she added, before he could ask. "Eight percent."
He considered that as he shrugged into his flight jacket. In other words, the fact that the two looked and sounded startlingly similar wasn't conclusive. But that wasn't what his hunch was based on, either, and he trusted his teammates' reactions as much as his own--especially in this case.
He saw the screen flash out of the corner of his eye, and he glanced over at it again. He felt his mouth quirk upward as he read the question there, and he lifted his gaze to DECA's camera. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. It's not logical."
"That I have no trouble believing," the screen responded impudently, and he grinned. DECA's primary complaint about Alpha, aside from the fact that he kept beating her at chess, was that he displayed no capacity for consistent logical thought. She maintained that it was a result of his long immersion in organic cultures.
"Is Carlos ready?" he asked, throwing a glance over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
There was a pause, and he waited while she relayed the message down the hall. "He is engaged in a comm diagnostic he can not leave," she answered at last. "He will join you at the space hatch as soon as it is complete."
TJ stepped out into the hallway, knowing she could hear him just as well out here. "Thanks, DECA," he said, making his way toward the emergency access ladders. "I'll wait outside."
Under normal circumstances, the Megaship was brightly lit and full of something close enough to daylight to satisfy its crew. Today, though, with most of the lights failing or extinguished altogether, the contrast between the battleship's interior and the sunlit tarmac outside was shocking. TJ couldn't help glancing upward as he stepped outside, soaking in the heat and light of the planet he would always call home.
Movement caught the edge of his awareness, and he turned to find someone watching him from the shadow of the ramp. He almost smiled, somehow not surprised to find this particular person waiting for him here. He had always seemed to have timing that bordered on prescience.
"Saryn," he said, nodding to the figure.
The black-clad figure detached itself from the shadows and came forward, turning to follow TJ's gaze across the sun-drenched facility. "TJ," he answered, returning the greeting just as noncommittally.
The wariness was new, and TJ wondered if the other was expecting his next question. "Or should I say... 'Phantom Ranger'?"
There was a sigh, and the Eltaran who had been introduced as "Saryn" turned to look at him again. TJ met his gaze squarely, seeing confirmation of his hunch in the resigned expression. "I hope my identity is not so easy to deduce as you make it seem."
"Why?" TJ wanted to know. "Why keep it a secret?"
"Because I can be killed," Saryn said simply. "The Phantom Ranger can not. One is either mortal or invincible--not both."
TJ raised an eyebrow, turning over the implications of that in his mind. The goal of mythical status would explain why he had never stopped moving. To have connections, to have a life, was to be vulnerable... Little wonder Divatox had detested him so much: an indestructible Ranger that could appear anywhere at any time, and had, foiling any number of her plans.
"How did you know?" Saryn asked, breaking into his musing.
TJ didn't realize he'd looked away until he had to look back. "Love is everyone's weakness," he said, watching for the other's reaction.
Saryn lowered his gaze, his eyes shuttered as he stared down at the ground. "Cassie," he said quietly. It wasn't a question, but his comprehension was all TJ needed.
"Cassie," TJ agreed. "You treat her exactly the same way the Phantom Ranger does."
"Is it really so obvious?" Saryn was regarding him intently now, genuine curiosity in his eyes. There was a hint of amusement in his voice when he asked, "Am I so transparent that her mere presence is enough to give me away?"
TJ hesitated, trying to give the question the objective consideration it deserved. But he wasn't objective, not when it came to Cassie, and he suspected the Phantom Ranger knew it. "Yes," he said at last.
Saryn actually smiled at that, and TJ felt his own expression lighten in response. "That is an honest answer," Saryn allowed. "Even if it is not the one I wanted to hear."
The sound of footsteps on the deck behind them kept TJ from replying, and Carlos emerged into the sunshine a moment later. "Hey, Teej," he began, squinting against the light as he glanced around. "Guess we'd better--"
Carlos didn't try to hide his surprise when he caught sight of Saryn. "What are you doing here?" he asked frankly. "Is something wrong?"
Saryn seemed to take no offense. "I suppose I will never escape my reputation as the bearer of bad tidings," he remarked, catching TJ's eye in an invitation to share the humor. "There is nothing wrong; I only came to speak with TJ for a moment."
Carlos gave TJ a puzzled glance, and he nodded slightly. With a shrug and uncharacteristic equanimity, Carlos let it go. "In that case, we'd better get going. The sooner we catch up with Norquist, the sooner we can leave."
"I will await your signal with the others." Saryn lifted one hand to the hexagonal badge on his tunic, glancing over at TJ as he did so. "I leave the immediate future in your hands."
TJ raised an eyebrow as Saryn disappeared into the teleportation stream. He had expected the other to trust him with the secret of the Phantom Ranger, but he hadn't thought Saryn would give tacit permission to share that secret with his teammates. "Interesting," he muttered, mostly to himself.
"What's going on?" Carlos wanted to know. He had stepped off the ramp, allowing the space hatch to close behind him, and it was clear he was more curious than he had let on. "Who is that guy, anyway? I thought Eltare only had five Rangers."
TJ shook his head, wondering how long Saryn thought he could hide his identity without the Power to morph. "I'll tell you on the way," he said at last. "Let's go."
T + 34:10
The Megaship was on its way to Aquitar within the hour. Not only had they managed to explain the situation to Norquist's satisfaction, they had also gotten the Dark Fortress off the ground and back into orbit. With the Eltarans' help, Dark Specter's flagship would be safely beyond the reach of civilians in their absence.
"DECA," Carlos said, sliding out from under the ops console. "Is this the only inoperable part of the interface?"
An affirmative flashed on the main screen, indicating that visual and audio communications were both completely functional. Only her speech circuits were still down, and that wouldn't be for much longer if Carlos had anything to say about it. He missed DECA's deadpan delivery almost as much as her constant updates. The lack was accentuated by the fact that he was the only one aboard right now.
Carlos ducked back under the console, wondering if Cassie would have taken the Eltarans up on their offer of a ride even if they hadn't all been headed for the same place. The revelation about Saryn cast Cassie's interaction with him in a new light, and their lingering stares in the alley behind the Surf Spot made more sense now. Carlos had wondered if she might finally be getting over the Phantom Ranger, but apparently it was just the opposite.
"How's that?" he asked, craning his neck to catch another glimpse of the main screen.
DECA's answer was considerably longer this time, so he ignored most of it and went back to work. If she couldn't answer aloud, obviously it wasn't enough. DECA did have a tendency to ramble... probably to compensate for Andros' reticence, Carlos thought with a grin.
The thought made him wonder how the others were doing on KO-35. How long was "for a while," anyway? Andros had wanted his home restored for longer than they'd known him, and now the colony was a reality again. His sister was good and his best friend was at his side... It seemed there was only one thing to keep Andros from abandoning the team for good now.
Unfortunately, Ashley loved space as much as she adored Andros. It didn't seem ridiculous to think that she might leave the Astro Rangers with Andros, if he asked... and not for Earth. Ashley threw herself into adventure with unrivaled enthusiasm, and wouldn't this be the ultimate adventure?
"Carlos?" A familiar voice inserted itself into his thoughts. "I believe you have succeeded."
"Good," he muttered absently. "I'll see if I can--"
He jerked out from underneath the console, staring at the screen in surprise. "DECA?"
"Yes, Carlos?" Her heard a motor whir softly, and when he looked up he found the camera over the ops console pointing straight down at him. "Did I interrupt you?"
"No," he said automatically, then blinked. "I mean, yeah, but... good, I'm glad you can talk again."
The red light on her camera blinked at him. "You seem to have traded your ability for mine," DECA observed. "Perhaps you should reconsider your repair strategy."
"Yeah, thanks," he said wryly. "I'll think about it. What's our ETA?"
"Two and a half minutes," DECA replied without hesitation.
Carlos sighed. He probably shouldn't have spent all his time on repairs, but it had seemed like the thing to do at the time. "Think you can give me a crash course on the Aquitian Rangers in that amount of time? So I don't totally embarrass myself?"
"Yes to the first," DECA answered primly. "As for the second, I make no guarantees."
He rolled his eyes. "Just tell me their names, all right?"
"The Aquitian team consists of five Rangers," DECA replied, and Carlos suppressed the urge to roll his eyes again as he recognized her lecture mode. "Cetaci leads them as the team's White Ranger. She is the youngest and most recent addition to the team.
"Cetaci's second in command is the Yellow Ranger known as Cestria, who has been a Ranger ever since her uncle and one of his teammates retired from the team three years ago. Billy Cranston, the only alien Ranger on the team, joined at the same time.
"Delphinius, like Cestria, is a second-generation Ranger whose recommendation came from the team's former leader. He is the Black Ranger, and one of his classmates filled the next opening a short time later. The Red Ranger powers are held by Aura, whom I believe you've met."
Carlos gave her a startled look. "How did you know that?"
"My speech circuits were offline, not my scanners," DECA pointed out.
Carlos smirked at her tone of voice. "Your speech circuits and your engines. And your thrusters, your shields, the megalasers, the environmental controls... the lights... should I keep going?"
"That will not be necessary." The computer sounded downright sulky, and Carlos relented.
"We'll have you back in working order in no time," he promised, spinning the degausser in his fingers as he headed for the comm station on the other side of the Bridge. "In the meantime, what should I expect from the Council on Aquitar? What does this whole sponsoring thing involve?"
"It involves more technical aid than anything else." DECA still did not sound happy, but at least she'd forgiven him enough to answer. "Although, in this case, there will probably be some political maneuvering on your behalf, given Earth's relative isolation until now."
When she didn't elaborate, he realized she wasn't as forgiving as he'd thought. She hadn't actually answered his question at all, though her evasion had been subtle. "What about me?" he repeated. "Will I have to do anything while I'm there?"
"You will be required to speak, which is a skill that we've established you no longer have," she replied smoothly. "You will also need to exercise some amount of tact."
He let out a token sigh, secretly amused by her remarks. The night after they'd left her and Zhane in orbit while they tried to stem the tide of ground forces on Earth, the Astro Rangers had finally faced the possibility of the Megaship's destruction. With no word from either DECA or Zhane for more than six hours, their survival had seemed unlikely at best, and Carlos had seldom been happier to be wrong.
"Did I mention that I'm sorry?" he asked, pretending to be annoyed. "And that nothing could ever beat the Megaship, no matter what condition she's in? Because DECA is the best computer to ever run a battleship, and she's all-knowing and very powerful?"
The camera over his head tilted slightly, giving the impression of a person cocking their head. "You didn't mention that, no," she said, sounding somewhat mollified. "It does, however, go without saying."
"Of course," he agreed readily. "Along with the fact that you're wise and talented and probably the strongest ship in the League. No one needs to say it, but I think it's good to voice our appreciation every now and then."
"I have no objection." If DECA were human, she would have been preening. "It's very perceptive of you to recognize my abilities."
"So you're going to tell this very perceptive human about League sponsorship, right?" he cajoled. "Just enough so that everyone wonders what incredibly intelligent being could have taught him so well?"
"Sponsorship dates back to the earliest days of the League," DECA replied immediately, her tone conciliatory and more than a little condescending. "Anyone wishing to join needed a League planet to vouch for them. Even after being accepted for membership the new ally would allow their sponsor to speak for them until such time as they felt competent to represent themselves.
"As time went on and less advanced planets applied for League membership, it became traditional for the planet's sponsor to assist in the technological upgrades necessary to make League participation possible. This is what Aquitar will be required to do for Earth," DECA added unnecessarily, and Carlos shot a half-hearted glare at her camera.
"For yourself," DECA continued, when he didn't rise to the bait, "you will only need to affirm Earth's wish to join the League, and commit to a partnership with Aquitar for as long as it benefits both planets. The Rangers will no doubt be there to support you."
"You're good," Carlos remarked, as the chime of the comm accentuated her words. "You're very good."
"Yes," DECA agreed smugly. "That's true."
She accepted the incoming transmission without asking and the Aquitian logo appeared on the main screen. The colored half circles were reminiscent of breaking waves, and Carlos supposed that was appropriate for a people that had gills. The Ranger that replaced the logo a moment later was the same one who had contacted them after Aura's departure that morning.
"Greetings," Cetaci said politely. "The Aquitian system welcomes the Astro Megaship. Carlos of Earth, we invite you to join us in the Ranger dome at your earliest convenience."
"Thank you." Carlos tried not to let her formality throw him, remembering the way Aura had talked. "The Megaship can't teleport anyone at the moment, but I can take our shuttle to the surface if you'll give me an approach vector."
"If you supply coordinates, we will teleport you ourselves," the White Ranger offered.
"Thank you," Carlos repeated, glancing back at one of DECA's cameras. He nodded to her, and the camera light flashed in response.
A moment later Cetaci announced, "Coordinates received. I am transmitting an orbital flight path to your ship's computer. Please confirm."
"Flight path confirmed," DECA answered.
"We're all set here," Carlos added, and Cetaci cocked her head in a gesture he took for acknowledgement.
"Preparing to teleport," she warned. Carlos took a step back from the console in front of him, and the world suddenly lit up as black fire pulled him into the teleportation stream.
When it released him, he found himself in what he could only assume was the Ranger dome. His first sensation was of violet humidity, and the dimness surprised him after the glare of the Megaship's Bridge. He would have liked to stare, but a Ranger he hadn't been introduced to caught his attention before he could look around.
"Welcome," she said with a smile. That surprised him too, though it took him a minute to figure out why. He could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen Aura smile, and Cetaci hadn't bothered with the expression at all. "We are glad to have you among us, Carlos of Earth."
"Just Carlos," he said quickly. Hearing "Carlos of Earth" every time he turned around would get old fast. "And thank you. I'm glad to be here."
"Carlos," she said, tilting her head in acquiescence. "My name is Cestria. I greet you for myself, and for Cetaci, who is trying to coordinate too many tasks at once."
He followed her gaze automatically. The White Ranger was on the other side of the room, and it took him a moment to realize that she stood in the foreground of an image he'd seen in two dimensions from the Megaship. He'd had no indication that she was overworked from her comm transmission, and right now she was giving that same degree of attention to someone else.
Just like Andros, he thought, unbidden. Easy to entangle and impossible to distract.
"Aura meant to be here as well," Cestria was saying. "I replaced her some time ago, however, so that she might have time away from Control. Please excuse me while I let her know that you have arrived."
"You will not," Cetaci said sharply. Cestria didn't so much as blink, and it took Carlos a moment to realize that Cetaci was still talking to someone else. As Cestria turned her attention to a wrist communicator much like the ones the Astro Rangers wore, the White Ranger moderated her tone a little.
"Aura." Cestria turned enough to give her conversation the illusion of privacy, but not enough to put her back to him. "The Black Astro Ranger is here. Do you wish to join us?"
"Already?" Aura's voice over the communicator was clearer than any of theirs would be, and it occurred to Carlos to wonder why the design was so similar. "Tell him that he travels faster than he showers."
Cestria gave him a startled look, and Carlos couldn't help laughing. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said good-naturedly. "The last time she showed me what speed was, she almost dislocated my shoulder."
Before Cestria could say anything, Aura inquired rhetorically, "Are you still complaining about that? On some planets it is customary to express gratitude toward someone who saved your life."
Carlos opened his mouth to reply, but Cestria cut him off. "Perhaps you will join us in Control," she suggested mildly. "This exchange might be more satisfying if you were face to face."
Someone stepped through a door at the other end of the room, and for a moment Carlos thought she was going to get her wish. The Yellow Ranger clearly had other things to be doing, and despite her tactful way of reminding them he couldn't help feeling chagrinned. Aura's familiarity had made him forget where he was for a moment.
It wasn't Aura who had entered the control room, though. Carlos missed her reply to Cestria while he tried to remember the name of the Black Aquitian Ranger. Normally the Power enhanced their memory as well as their physical abilities, but it was an aid he had to do without now.
More puzzling than the new Ranger's name, though, was the expression on his face. He looked downright annoyed, even if Carlos wasn't sure how he knew that. The Aquitians' different facial structure made them hard to read, but there was no doubt in his mind that this one was upset.
"You have no authority over the fighters," he informed Cetaci. It sounded like he was continuing an earlier conversation, and he didn't even seem to see Cestria and Carlos. Only when Cetaci turned away from the comm did Carlos realize that he must have been the one on the other end of the link.
"Actually," Cestria was saying into the pause, "I think I will send him down to you. The zord bay is somewhat quieter than Control."
"Everyone answers to the Rangers in a time of crisis," Cetaci said, ignoring Cestria. "Darren has raised no objections."
"Of course he hasn't objected," the other Ranger told her, his voice dangerously quiet. "Darren knows how to lead."
"I think I'll come with you," Cestria announced, lowering her communicator and turning to Carlos. "The lift is this way."
He raised an eyebrow, but he followed without a word. As they stepped into the cylindrical lift he heard Cetaci snap, "If you think you can do better, why don't you say so? There is no need to insult me without reason."
The lift sealed out whatever reply the other Ranger gave, and Carlos gave Cestria a questioning look. She only shook her head and ran her finger across a glowing bar by the door. The sense of motion was almost nonexistent, but he did get the feeling that they were traveling downward.
"Sometimes they are better behaved when we have company," Cestria said abruptly, and he looked back at her in surprise. "It seems that the stress of the last few days has affected everyone. I hope you can forgive us our lapse."
"That happens often?" he asked, too startled to reassure her. He had never seen such open hostility between Rangers. Andros and Zhane had shouting matches to rival Cassie and Ashley's, but they were friendly squabbles that never lasted long. TJ's distrust of Karone was the closest they had come to team division, and even then TJ hadn't questioned Andros' authority to his face.
Cestria didn't answer, and he apologized quickly. "I'm sorry; it's none of my business. We've all been under a lot of pressure lately; you're right about that. It's no wonder people are getting a little cranky."
"'Cranky'?" Cestria repeated, giving him an odd look. At first he thought she was objecting to the term, but then she said, "I am not familiar with that word."
It took a moment for that to sink in. "Sorry," he said at last, giving her a sheepish smile for his surprise. "You speak English so well that I forget. It just means irritable, or easily annoyed. Quick to get upset over little things."
Cestria smiled at that. "Yes," she murmured. "I think that describes them very well."
The vague sense of motion vanished then and she stepped out of the lift before he could decide what to say to that. A place that could only be the zord bay stretched out in front of them, as cavernous and echoing as the Turbo garage had once been. The hulking figures of the Aquitian zords loomed over them, reaching up into the shadows with a dormant power that only hinted at the ferocious guardians they really were.
Carlos glanced down at the sound of a soft splash, and he sighed inwardly. The floor of the bay was made out of some material he didn't recognize, but more importantly it was covered with a layer of water that glistened and rippled around his boots. He should have worn his sneakers--at least they were already wet.
"Greetings!" Aura's voice hailed them from somewhere off to the right, and he looked up in time to see her watching their progress from the top of one of the zords. "It was polite of you to escort Carlos, Cestria."
There was an implied question in that statement, and Cestria responded just as cryptically. "Cetaci and Delphinius are in the control room. The zord bay is more welcoming right now."
"I see." Aura was climbing down the exterior staging, her back to them momentarily, but the amusement in her voice was obvious. "Your input would be valued, if you chose to stay here for a time."
"Thank you," Cestria replied, an answering smile on her face. "But someone must make sure they are not overheard. The Rangers must present a unified front now, of all times."
"If I can help..." Aura sprang from the bottom of the staging and started toward them, giving Carlos a nod and Cestria a look of sympathy.
"I will tell you," Cestria finished. "Thank you.
"Carlos," she added, nodding to him. "It was nice to meet you. I look forward to speaking with you again in the future. On behalf of Aquitar, may I say that it is an honor to sponsor Earth in the League."
"Nice to meet you too," he said, a little surprised that she was leaving. "Thanks for everything you've done for us."
She inclined her head with a smile. As the lift swallowed her up, he turned to Aura with a frown. "Why did she say it like it was already a sure thing? Don't I have to see the Council or something?"
Aura studied him as though she had no idea what he was talking about. "Excuse me?"
"Cetaci said I'd have to talk to the Council about sponsoring Earth," he said warily. "Cestria sounded like it was already decided."
"It is," Aura agreed. "We have offered, and you have accepted. The Council will follow the Rangers' lead in matters such as this. If there is convincing to be done, it is our responsibility, not yours."
Carlos raised an eyebrow. "Then... no offense, but why am I here?"
"Because Cetaci was testing you," she said matter-of-factly. "It is not the method I would have chosen to affirm your commitment, but it was not my decision. She wished to know whether you would give us the time that I gave you."
He frowned. "She could have just asked," he pointed out. "Andros told you we'd repay you any way we could."
"I reminded her of that," Aura admitted, looking a little uncomfortable. "But it is not my place to rationalize her decision. I apologize if you are offended."
"No," he said slowly. "I'm not. She did try to warn me with that whole speech about honor." He grinned suddenly. "I'll just file it away as my second lesson in Aquitian culture."
"Why?" she asked suspiciously, as though she knew she was walking into a trap. "What was your first?"
She was letting him tease her. It made him want to laugh almost as much as her expression. "Never try to separate an Aquitian from her water bottle."
T + 38:58
"That will be the Aquitians' responsibility," someone said firmly. "In all practical ways, Earth is affiliated with Aquitar for the foreseeable future."
"The people of Earth can't expect Aquitar to be responsible for their security," TJ interjected. "That's our job, not the Aquitians'."
"Their physical defense is your responsibility," Jenkarta agreed. "Not their economic or political welfare. The Rangers are warriors, not administrators. Allow Aquitar to screen your world's contact with the rest of the universe until agencies on your planet are capable of handling such matters."
"It is no reflection on you," the unidentified person agreed. "The Astro Rangers are an unorthodox but well-respected team throughout the local galaxies. It is only Earth's ability to follow where you lead that leaves something to be desired."
"There are people on Earth who aren't convinced that other planets exist yet, let alone other people," TJ answered. "They've adapted before; they'll do it again. All I'm saying is that it isn't fair to make the Aquitians pick up the slack in the meantime."
"That is the duty of a sponsor," Jenkarta said simply.
The conversation continued, but Cassie wasn't paying that much attention. The Eltaran Rangers and government delegates had met after the induction ceremony to give them what Kayatachi called "a proper reception", but the person she most wanted to talk to had already disappeared. She couldn't help wondering if he was avoiding something... or someone.
"You look overwhelmed," someone said, and she turned to see Sayzie offering her a drink and a smile. "We probably should have found another reason to throw a party, but you were the best excuse we could come up with on such short notice."
Cassie smiled back as she accepted the tiny glass. "So Eltar's freedom doesn't count?"
Sayzie laughed. "It's too big," she explained. "It's like having evil just disappear. No one can quite get their mind around it, so we celebrate the little things instead.
"Plus," the Blue Eltaran Ranger added, pausing to down her drink. "Imagine the guest list. Eltar's not in any shape for a party as big as that yet."
Cassie followed her example, more in an effort to be polite than anything else. The Eltarans treated the liquid concoctions like hors d'oeuvres, but Cassie hadn't found one she liked yet. This one was no exception, and she just kept herself from wincing at the taste.
"You don't like it," Sayzie remarked, not sounding affronted in the slightest. "You should have told me; I'd have gotten you something else."
"No, it's not that," Cassie assured her. She smiled sheepishly at Sayzie's knowing look. "Well, no, I don't like them. I guess I'm just having a little trouble keeping up with all of this. You were right; it's a lot to take in."
"There's an observation deck upstairs," the other Ranger suggested. "A real one that's open to the sky, not just windows underneath the launch pad. If it would help to have some time to yourself..."
She let the sentence trail off, but Cassie couldn't help being grateful for the offer. "That sounds good," she said sincerely. "I think I'll take you up on that."
Sayzie indicated the nearest door. "There's a set of stairs at the end of the hallway to your right. If you follow them all the way to the top, the observation deck is just through the doors."
Cassie nodded in thanks, then glanced around to see if she could get TJ's attention. He was engaged in some kind of debate with one of the other Rangers, though, and she decided he wouldn't miss her. With another smile for Sayzie, she wandered over to the door and slipped into the hallway.
The stairs weren't closed off from the rest of the building, and the view from the height she was starting at was dramatic. As she wound her way up the stairs she couldn't help looking over the railing, searching for the bottom of the stairwell. It was lost in the distance, and she wondered suddenly if people ever fell. Just looking down was enough to make her dizzy.
There were doors at the top, as Sayzie had promised, but when she pushed against them they didn't budge. She took a step back, puzzled, and then caught sight of the handle off to the left. She didn't recognize the language underneath, but the handle only seemed to move one way. When she pushed it up something inside the doors clicked and they swung open at her touch.
The air was cool and fast, sweeping across her skin and stealing her breath as she stepped out onto the observation deck. She heard the doors click again as they closed behind her, but the rest of her attention was captured by the amazing vista spread out as far as she could see. The capitol building in which the induction ceremony had been held stood higher than most of its company, and the skyline wasn't anything to scoff at.
Does it count as urban sprawl if you go up instead of out? Cassie wondered. It was like some futuristic version of Los Angeles.
The railing at the edge of the deck made her nervous, but she found herself drawn to it nonetheless. It seemed an inadequate barrier, given the incredible height involved, but at the same time there was something boring about keeping a safe distance between her and that seemingly endless drop. She crossed over to it carefully, putting her hands on the railing and giving it a gentle but experimental push before leaning forward to look down.
What she saw made her laugh. She should have known it couldn't be as dangerous as all that. The observation deck was only one small level of a multi-layered building that grew outward as it reached toward the ground, ensuring that no one who made it over the railing on the observation deck would get more than a few meters before encountering a much more solid obstacle.
There was a shadow of movement out of the corner of her eye, but she barely had time to register it before a quiet voice inquired, "Do you find the view amusing?"
If the voice had been any closer she would have jumped, but as it was the wind muffled the sound and the words seemed to come from some distance away. She turned her head to find the black-clad pilot from Eltar leaning on the railing exactly as she did, too far away to touch but certainly close enough that she should have noticed him when she came out. She must have been too distracted by the building's "edge".
After a moment of trying to figure out how to explain her laughter, she decided to treat the question as rhetorical. "I didn't see you leave," she said instead. "I wondered if you were bored."
"I'm empathic," he corrected softly, as though it was nothing special. He still didn't look at her, and she wondered that they could even hear each other over the hum of the wind and the city noise. "I find it difficult to tolerate crowds."
Cassie pushed away from the railing and took a step back. "If you'd rather be alone--"
"No," he interrupted, looking her way at last. He smiled suddenly, his blue eyes intent as they caught hers. "I enjoy your company very much."
She smiled back. Wandering over to brace her arms on the railing beside him, where she could enjoy the view and not have to strain to hear, she remarked, "I got your message on Hercuron."
He gazed out at the skyscrapers and the darting air traffic, silent as though trying to remember what message she meant. Even to her it seemed a long time ago now, but someone had to bring it up. Saryn the pilot was as intriguing as the Phantom Ranger had been mysterious, and she wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away because she was too scared to act on it.
"The sentiment was unsolicited," he said at last, his eyes dropping to regard his hands. "And the promise I made proved impossible to keep."
"I thought it was sweet," she countered, watching him weave his fingers together. The bandage on his wrist was a little worse for wear after the struggle with Psycho Pink. "I worried about you, though. What happened after we left? Andros said he lost contact with you, but when we came looking you were gone."
For a moment he didn't answer. He tugged at the bandage idly, then lifted his gaze to the city again. "I lost consciousness," he admitted, apparently addressing the skyline. "I dreamed about you." This was delivered in a neutral tone, as though it was no more or less significant than the sentence before it.
"When I woke," he continued with a sigh, "Zordon was still gone, and I had to go after him." He glanced at her again, but his attention slipped away as quickly as it had the first time. "No matter how much I may have wished otherwise."
She didn't know how much to read into that, and she found herself studying the buildings before her without really seeing them. "I worried about you," she repeated softly.
"And I about you," he answered, shifting his weight from one side to the other. "Imagine my dismay when I didn't learn until after your escape that Astronema had captured you and delivered you to Dark Specter. I suffered no less anxiety for being able to keep track of you."
For a moment, Cassie drew a blank. She tried to suppress a smile when she realized he was talking about Yotoba. "It was a trick," she murmured. "Astronema was only pretending that we were her prisoners to help us get to Zordon."
He didn't move, but she could see him frowning out of the corner of her eye. "I confess I cannot comprehend her motivation."
"Andros." This time she did smile, remembering the Red Ranger's determination. "He convinced her to switch sides. Until Dark Specter put implants in her head, anyway. Andros and Zhane tried to get her back after that, but it was like she didn't even recognize them."
"You are saying she was good before Zordon's wave."
He seemed to be struggling with the idea, and she glanced sideways at him. "She's a good person. I just talked to Carlos, you know... he says she's agreed to leave the Dark Fortress in orbit around Earth until we can get League satellites in place. Maybe longer."
He shrugged, a strangely human gesture in the midst of this alien city. "It is not so self-sacrificing as it seems. Without an AI, the Dark Fortress cannot fly without a full crew complement anyway."
"It's still her home," Cassie argued, annoyed that he would dismiss Karone's gesture of peace as an act of necessity.
She could hear the amusement in his voice when he said, "It is precisely the fact that the Dark Fortress is her home that makes it difficult for me to trust her."
"It wasn't easy for us, either," she told him, torn between indignation on Karone's behalf and the effort to persuade him to see what they saw. "But she's proven herself since then."
He caught her eye, holding her gaze for the first time. "If you say it, then I believe it to be true," he said simply. All the humor was gone from his voice.
She stared at him, a gust of wind whipping her hair away from her face as she lost herself in his intent expression. "Intent" was the only way to describe it; he studied her so closely that she could almost see herself in his eyes. It was as though he echoed somehow, and she wondered suddenly if he felt that from her too. Could he feel the same thing that had brought her up short every time she'd encountered the Phantom Ranger?
"Why didn't you ever tell us who you were?" she asked abruptly. "All those times--"
"I didn't have to," he interrupted, almost speaking over her. Amusement touched his tone again, though he didn't look away. "As I recall, you knew me before I could introduce myself. 'The Phantom Ranger,' you said... barring the unlikely event that you had somehow guessed, I assumed that Dimitria had told you."
"That's not what I meant." She frowned. He knew what she was talking about... but was he being evasive or just teasing? She couldn't tell. "You never demorphed. You never even told us your name."
He was still watching her, and she was starting to find his unwavering gaze disconcerting. "I couldn't," he said at last. "The Phantom Ranger doesn't have a name."
"But you do," she insisted. "Saryn does, and we never knew it. Why didn't you tell us?"
"Why didn't I tell the Astro Rangers?" he repeated, an odd look on his face. "Or why didn't I tell you?"
She swallowed and found she couldn't answer.
"I didn't tell your teammates," he said quietly, "because the Phantom Ranger is not a person. The Phantom Ranger is a legend, without name or homeworld or history. The Ranger is the armor, nothing more.
"I didn't tell you," he added, "because you made it more. In you, suddenly the Phantom Ranger had a weakness. It went against all the codes I'd sworn to uphold, and I couldn't compromise everyone who'd given a legend life just because I fell in love with you."
"No," she said, managing to keep her voice steady. The whole situation seemed so surreal all of a sudden that she had to struggle not to laugh. "I guess you couldn't."
"I wanted to," he muttered, apparently not noticing her reaction. He looked distinctly unhappy. "I planned to give up the Phantom Ranger powers as soon as Zordon was free. At least as Saryn I could have had a conversation with you that wasn't constantly interrupted by Divatox, or Havoc, or some combination of their minions."
He sounded surprisingly bitter, and she reached out to offer comfort instinctively. "Hey," she murmured, touching his arm. "It might not be exactly the way you planned, but I'd say it's close enough." She smiled a little, the urge to laugh replaced by the desire to soothe. "I'd consider this a pretty good conversation."
His gaze wavered, glancing down at her hand and then back to her face. He didn't say anything, but the look on his face made her take a step closer. He touched her cheek gently, his eyes following the movement as his fingers slid through her hair. She smiled involuntarily, embarrassed by the attention.
His hand under her chin made her look up again, and before she knew it his lips were on hers and his kiss was the softest thing she'd ever felt. She held her breath, not daring to move or even think as the chill air of the observation deck swirled around them. His hand cupped her face, and when he pulled away she could still feel his warmth on her skin.
She lifted her eyes to his, smiling at the scrutiny he was subjecting her too. "Don't look so surprised," she murmured, reaching up to touch his face. "Havoc captured me the same way he got you, you know."
He froze, searching her expression. "He used my form."
She nodded wordlessly, and he sighed. His breath teased her cheek as he buried his fingers in her hair, brushing it away from her face as though he needed some excuse for the contact. "Villains all over the galaxies may have been reformed, but there are some things I will have difficulty forgiving them for regardless."
It seemed so long ago now that she had to smile at his anger. "We're here now," she pointed out, trailing the backs of her fingers across his skin. "What else matters?"
This time when he covered her mouth with his she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him closer. He had one hand on the back of her head, and she felt the other snake around her waist as she closed her eyes. His embrace warmed her all the way through. She smiled into their kiss but didn't let go, delighting in a moment she had dreamed about for so long.
"Cassie," he whispered, and her eyes fluttered open. His hand slid down to her neck, and he was regarding her as seriously as ever. "I meant to ask you about Zhane."
It was such a non sequitur that she could only stare at him, wondering what could possibly have prompted that remark. When he didn't continue, clearly expecting her to understand, she gave him a bewildered look. "What are you talking about?"
He hesitated. "You were... very friendly, on KO-35," he said, not taking his eyes off of her. With his arms around her and a leap she was having trouble making in her own mind, she barely made sense of what he was saying. "I have no wish to come between you if--"
She couldn't help giggling. She was still leaning against him, and when he didn't let her go she just laid her head on his shoulder and laughed. "Don't be silly," she managed at last, lifting her gaze to his and finding a confused and slightly hurt expression on his face. "Zhane's dating Astronema."
A look of consternation swept the hurt off of his face, and she drew his head toward hers without another thought. He didn't hesitate to return her kiss, as gentle as before but thoroughly enough that his relief was unmistakable. She was so lost in the sensation that the sound of a click from behind them didn't register until she heard someone clear their throat.
She drew back reluctantly, and he smiled at her before they turned to see TJ leaning back against the doors he'd just come through. "Don't let me interrupt," he drawled, a smirk on his face.
"Teej," she said, by way of greeting. Saryn had kept one arm around her and she leaned against his shoulder companionably, transferring her smile from one to the other. "Saryn is--"
"The Phantom Ranger," TJ finished, not looking particularly surprised. "Yeah, he told me. I'm glad you guys found each other."
"He guessed," Saryn corrected, when she gave him a questioning look. "Just before we left Earth."
"I just thought I'd let you know the reception's winding down," TJ added. "Since Carlos isn't going to pick us up till later, Jenkarta suggested we get something to eat."
Cassie made a face. She'd just as soon stay here until it was too dark to see, but she couldn't deny that the thought of food was appealing. "Something other than those little juice things?" she suggested hopefully.
TJ grinned, and she saw him glance at Saryn before answering. "Yeah. Jenkarta promised us real food this time."
She looked up at Saryn too, and found him watching her with a slight smile on his face. "I would be delighted to accompany you," he said, answering the question she hadn't asked. "I will not pretend that I am hungry, but if you consent to go then I wish to join you."
TJ raised an amused eyebrow at her, and she could feel herself blushing. "I'm in," she told TJ, trying to ignore his knowing look. "Let's find some food!"
Saryn didn't let go of her as they made their way back downstairs. TJ bounded ahead of them, taking the stairs two at a time until he was completely out of earshot. She didn't doubt that he had done it on purpose, and as she lifted her hand to her shoulder and twined her fingers through Saryn's she made a mental note to thank him later.
"What are we going to do now?" she mused aloud, concentrating on keeping her steps slow and even. It wasn't easy to walk down stairs with someone's arm over her shoulders, but she wasn't about to complain.
"Unless I am gravely mistaken, we are going to eat," Saryn answered. "That is, after all, what we've just agreed to. Did you have other ideas?"
His perfectly polite tone was too innocent to be anything but an effort to tease her, and she squeezed his fingers in acknowledgement. "That's not what I meant," she remarked mildly, a contented smile on her face. "And you know it."
"Ah, you mean after that." He took a moment to consider, as though he really hadn't thought about it until now. "Is it too much to hope that you will kiss me again?"
She laughed, giving him a gentle shove with her shoulder. "Only if you answer the question!"
She felt him shrug again, but there was a smile in his voice when he replied, "You tell me. I volunteered for duty on KO-35 solely because you were there. Then I was called to Earth, and somehow you ended up there too. Now here we are on Eltar... and I confess I can no more predict what you will do next than I could on KO-35."
"Are you trying?" Cassie asked, glancing at him curiously.
"To predict what you are going to do?" He returned her look a measured gaze of his own. "I'm trying very hard."
Her toe caught on the edge of the stairs, and Saryn steadied her as she tensed. Looking up at him again, she said impulsively, "Come to Earth. I don't know what's going to happen, with us or with anything at home, but... I'd like it if you could come to Earth."
Saryn smiled. "I will come to Earth," he agreed.
T + 201:06
4:51 AM KT
He couldn't go to Earth. Staring up at the ceiling, Andros wondered how many of the others already knew. It hadn't been clear to him until this morning, but now that the choice was only hours away it became glaringly obvious. He was probably the only one who hadn't known what he would decide.
The days they'd spent on KO-35 had blurred into a pleasant tangle of work and play: moving the colonists and introducing them to Ashley, letting Karone put her sorcery to use in the reconstruction effort, and watching Zhane charm his way out of whatever he didn't feel like doing. Having all four of them together eased the pressure, and the long days were made easier by Zhane's antics and Ashley's laughter. Even Karone was learning how to smile and talk with people other than her friends.
It was strange to be back in Keyota after so long, especially since their old hometown had been one of the first to be evacuated in the wake of Dark Specter's attacks. It was stranger still to be there with his sister, now grown up and more assertive than ever, and his girlfriend, who had never seen KO-35 without the shadow of abandonment hanging over it. Zhane too was an anomaly, though to a both greater and lesser extent than either of them: this had been his home up until the day it was destroyed, but he hadn't left it alive.
Despite the circumstances, though, from the post-war trauma to the disconnected state of their lives, it was still home. It was all Andros had wished for since he lost it years ago, and now not only the place but the people had been restored to him. There were moments when it felt so natural that he could forget it had ever been any other way.
Until the Megaship came back, bringing a reminder of other loyalties and duties he had yet to fulfill. The other Astro Rangers came with it, brimming with enthusiasm for Earth's new status in the League and full of stories that proved life hadn't stopped while they were on KO-35. No matter how easy it was to ignore the passage of time in Keyota, it clearly continued elsewhere.
Carlos now sported two communicators, his silver Astromorpher on his left wrist and a gold wristband presented to him by the Aquitian Rangers on his right. Apparently they had named him the Aquitian liaison for Earth, just as Cassie was considering the position of ambassador to Eltar. She seemed to have become involved with an Eltaran pilot, though Andros was a little unclear on how that had happened. TJ had taken over the leadership void left by the Red Ranger's absence, complaining repeatedly but good-naturedly about the sudden demand for public relations work in Angel Grove.
According to TJ, they had come as soon as their planet could be left on its own for more than a few hours at a time. Cassie rolled her eyes at TJ's attitude, but Andros noticed that she didn't contradict him. Carlos' opinion on the subject seemed, inexplicably, to hinge on Earth's ability to produce a decent cheeseburger. He insisted that if Aquitar, subsisting on a diet of what he termed "salty goo", could take care of itself, then Earth with its fast food establishments had nothing to worry about.
TJ had forbidden Carlos to oversee the repair work on the Megaship until he'd gotten some sleep.
Their arrival caused a new stir in a still unsettled community, but the other Rangers were eager to help out while the Megaship was grounded. TJ jokingly apologized for bringing the battleship back in such bad condition, and Taikwa pretended dismay while Kinwon chided him for apologizing at all, even in fun. The internal repairs were completed in days, and the Rangers traded work for work as they helped out all over Keyota.
Andros pushed the blankets away and rolled out of bed. He was careful not to wake the others as he dressed, and he winced when the great windows on the east side of the room squeaked when he pushed them open. He climbed out onto the roof anyway, grateful for the warmth of his flight jacket in the early Keyota spring, and settled just out of sight from those inside.
The Megaship was parked out by the edge of town, its bulk silhouetted against the glowing horizon. The sun wouldn't rise for some time yet, but the light was enough to cast shadows across the pitted battle armor. It would eventually have to be replaced, but TJ claimed they couldn't afford to be away from Earth that long right now. The Megaship was heading home today, and it was taking its crew with it.
How much of its crew would go, though... that was what no one had been able to say for sure.
"Brr," Zhane's voice complained, accompanied by a creak and the sound of uncertain footsteps on the slanted roof. "Couldn't you pick more hospitable places to brood? Like the warm and cozy living room downstairs? I think there's even a fire going down there."
"Other people like hospitable places," Andros answered absently. "It's hard to be alone there."
As usual, Zhane ignored the hint and sat down beside him. "Nice view," he remarked, following Andros' gaze. "Since when do you wake up before sunrise?"
"Look who's talking," Andros retorted.
Zhane shrugged. "I heard you get up," he said simply.
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the horizon brighten incrementally. Andros didn't say anything when Zhane shivered, but he felt a pang of sympathy when the other drew his sweatshirt closer around his shoulders. Zhane was still wearing his pajamas, but he made no further complaints about the cold.
"What is home?" Andros asked abruptly, still staring at the Megaship.
Zhane didn't even hesitate. "Home is the people you love."
Andros frowned, his gaze wandering over the rough outlines of the battleship. He had wanted KO-35 back for a long time, but it had been Zhane's return that eased the sharp ache in his heart. And now, with Karone alive and his people free, he wondered how he could still ask for more.
"What if the people you love go in different directions?" he asked quietly, remembering Ashley's tears the night he left the Rangers to find Astronema.
Zhane didn't answer right away. Hugging his arms across his chest, he tucked his fingers underneath to keep them warm. "Then I guess you choose," he said at last.
Andros glanced over at his best friend, feeling inexplicably responsible for the unhappy expression on Zhane's face. "I'm going to get some breakfast," he said, finally taking pity on his friend. "Want to come inside?"
Zhane sprang to his feet, holding out his hand expectantly. "You have to ask?"
Andros smiled to himself as he let Zhane haul him to his feet. They crept back inside with more stealth than was strictly necessary, given that neither Ashley nor Karone was likely to stop them if they woke, and made their way down to the common area. Andros smiled again when he saw the fire, wondering how Zhane had known.
"This is much better," Zhane remarked, sounding satisfied. "Do you want your leftovers warm or cold?"
"Cold." Andros wandered over to the sink, trying to remember whose idea it had been not to wash the dishes last night. It wasn't a mistake he was going to rectify now, in any case.
While Zhane divided up the remains of last night's dinner, Andros poured drinks and set them on the floor near the fire. He didn't bother telling Zhane to leave some for the girls. He'd learned the hard way that Ashley wouldn't eat anything that had been left out overnight.
Zhane sat down next to him, passing him a plate and clean fork. The crackle and pop of the fire was the only noise as they dug in, cleaning up the leftovers in less time than it would have taken to walk them out to the compost. Still, it didn't escape Andros that they were erasing the last traces of last night's events, a gathering that had essentially been a farewell party--to KO-35 or to each other, no one was entirely sure.
"Zhane..." They had promised not to pressure each other, and everyone had taken that to mean there was no asking allowed. The choice to stay on KO-35 or go with the Astro Rangers was up to each of them alone. So why did he feel like his choice hinged on what everyone else decided?
"Zhane," he tried again. "What do you want to do with your life?"
To his surprise, Zhane laughed. "Well, I'm not planning to die until I'm a hundred and ten," he teased, "so I've thought about the next ninety years very carefully.
"First," he said, scraping his plate clean and setting it aside, "I'm going to get your sister to go out with me. And I'm going to make sure she isn't armed first." He ducked as Andros swung at him half-heartedly, grinning without apology.
"Then," he continued, "I'm going to watch you and Ashley get married. I figure it'll be a while, considering how long it took you to start dating. But that's all right, because that will give me time to figure out how you're going to elope so I can foil your plans.
"Also, in case you're interested," Zhane added as an aside, "I'm going to make sure that neither of our children ever listen to us. I think they'd better ignore any advice we--especially you--give them, so there's no chance they'll turn out like us."
"What's wrong with my advice?" Andros interrupted indignantly. Principle demanded that he protest, but he was more amused than offended. Zhane's picture of the future was so outrageous that he couldn't help but smile.
"I have three words for you," Zhane informed him. "'Bring it on.' You expect your kid to take you seriously when you tell monsters to attack you?"
"You expect to have kids with someone who shot you on your first date?" Andros countered.
Zhane took Andros' empty plate and stacked it on top of his own. "At least I didn't wait five months to ask her out!"
"She asked you out," Andros reminded him. "And then you stood her up."
"That wasn't my fault!" Zhane exclaimed. "If she hadn't sent that stupid monster--"
"I told you, I didn't send it," a new voice interrupted. "Ecliptor did."
They both turned, startled, but Zhane recovered faster. "Sure he did," he drawled. "You knew exactly where I was. You wouldn't have waited around if you'd really thought I stood you up."
Karone was standing at the bottom of the stairs, wearing an aloof expression that was somewhat spoiled by Ashley's entrance. The other girl was dressed but yawning as she wandered downstairs, the necklace Andros had given her glittering against her yellow shirt. She'd found time to pull her hair back, but her feet were still bare and it made her look charmingly innocent even in her silver-grey flight suit.
"Also not convincing," Zhane opined, proving that not everyone was as distracted by Ashley's appearance as Andros was. "You wouldn't have had any reason to think I'd show, so you'd have sent a monster to get revenge instead of trying to do it yourself. Unless you knew you'd already sent one."
Andros blinked, realizing he'd completely missed Karone's reply. This time she just narrowed her eyes at his best friend and remarked, "Maybe I had more faith in you than you knew."
Zhane stared at her for a moment, taken aback. But then he shook his head, grinning at her as though she'd said something particularly funny. "Nice try. If that was true, you would have believed me when I told you what happened."
She folded her arms. "Maybe I would have believed any excuse except the one you gave, because I knew it wasn't true."
"It was true!" Zhane exclaimed indignantly.
Karone stamped her foot. "It wasn't! I didn't send that monster!"
Andros caught Ashley's eye, and she nodded toward the door. He smiled, casually picking up their dishes from the floor before heading toward the sink. Ashley met him halfway, and as he set the plates in the sink she retrieved her boots from their place by the fire. He held the door for her, and she padded out onto the steps in her bare feet.
Behind them, Zhane had demanded to know what the difference was. Karone replied icily, "The difference is that, in your scenario, I lied and manipulated you. In the real version of events, I did neither."
He closed the door as quietly as he could, wondering whether they would be speaking to each other by the time the Megaship left. They hadn't stopped arguing with each other for more than a few hours at a time since they'd arrived on KO-35, when Zhane had taken it upon himself to critique Karone's choice of punishments for Psycho Yellow. Their successive disagreements had covered issues ranging from the responsibility of Rangers for war crimes to the best color for her hair.
"They can't have a conversation without fighting," Ashley remarked, echoing his own thoughts. She was perched on the top step, pulling on the same brightly colored socks she had worn the day before. "Do you suppose they enjoy it?"
"They must," Andros said with a sigh. "They argue about the most ridiculous things. You missed the time she accused him of cheating at war."
Ashley gave him a wide-eyed look, obviously torn between laughter and shock. "What? What did she say?"
"She said that if we'd played by the rules, she would have won." Andros sat down beside her, passing her one of the boots he'd moved in order to have more room. She smiled in thanks, and he added, "She had more soldiers, so she felt that entitled her to victory."
Laughter won. Ashley just shook her head, giggling as she reached for her other boot. "Someone should explain to her about quality versus quantity."
Andros made a sound of agreement, but his attention was diverted by her necklace. It swung freely as she leaned forward, and the day he'd given it to her came back to him with surprising clarity. He'd come so close to asking her out on her birthday... but he hadn't been able to do it, for fear of upsetting her on a day she considered so special.
Now he knew it had been fear for himself that had made him stay silent, fear that his long dormant heart wouldn't be able to take her rejection, rather than a real wish for her happiness. They both would have been better off if he'd told her how he felt then, instead of waiting until jealousy of his best friend started to affect his judgement and he led the team into a trap. As she had done, unwittingly, on her birthday...
He chuckled suddenly, and Ashley gave him a curious look. "I love you," he said before he could think about it. "Did you know that?"
She stilled, gazing at him in wonder. "Yeah," she said at last, a smile creeping onto her face. "Yeah, I did. You know what else I know?"
He couldn't suppress a grin. "You're going to tell me anyway, aren't you?"
She giggled, her eyes sparkling in the early morning sunlight. "I love you more," she whispered, putting her arm around him and laying her free hand against his cheek. "Ever since the beginning."
"Have not," he answered automatically, still grinning. "I asked you out first."
Her eyes widened. "Only because you interrupted me to do it! You were horrible to me for months!"
"I was nicer to you than anyone else," he protested. "And you thought I was a lizard! Don't expect me to believe this 'ever since the beginning' stuff, because--"
She silenced him with a kiss. He let her draw him into an embrace as natural as breathing and he returned her kiss without a thought for their prior argument. There was something about being in Ashley's arms that made the rest of the world fade away, as though the most important and meaningful thing that he would ever do was to hold her.
When she pulled away, it took him a moment to comprehend the sadness in her eyes. "You're not coming back to Earth with us, are you." She said it as though it was a given, as much as her decision not to stay, and he supposed maybe it had been.
He swallowed, wanting to look away but unable to force himself to do it. "Not this time," he said softly. He couldn't, not when they still needed him. Not when his future was here. "I'm sorry."
"This time?" she repeated, searching his gaze. "What do you mean, 'this time'?"
A crash from inside prompted him to stand, and he tried to smile as he held out his hand to her. "Will you walk with me?"
She reflected the same half-hearted smile back at him, putting her hand in his and not letting go as they wandered out across the commons. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and Andros watched people all around them drift eastward. Whether they were hurrying or wandering or standing still and waiting, they all glanced toward the edge of town as their eyes were drawn inevitably to the battleship that cast deep shadows among the nearby buildings.
It was early yet in Keyota, but the sun would set on California in only a few hours. TJ and the others were probably done loading by now, and they would be getting ready to say their goodbyes. Taikwa would probably try to convince them to stay longer, and they would no doubt thank her politely but decline. They all had their own reasons to be home right now.
"I never thought I'd have to say goodbye," Ashley murmured, breaking into his musing. She halted as they emerged from underneath a portico, the sunlight glinting off of her hair and as she turned to look at him. She stared at him as though about to say something else, then thought the better of it.
He wanted to explain, to tell her what Zhane had said... sometimes you have to choose. But he couldn't, not when she was looking at him like that. "I know," he agreed helplessly. All those times he'd thought he would be the one leaving her and her friends, not the other way around.
"Are you sure you won't come with us?" she asked at last, not taking her eyes off of him.
He looked down, trying to find something to say that would make sense. He took her hands, rubbing her fingers as he caught her eye once more. "KO-35 is my home," he reminded her quietly.
A look of indefinable sadness crossed her face, and he couldn't stand it anymore. Pulling her closer, he wrapped his arms around her and whispered in her ear, "Just this one time, Ash. They need me right now. But next time... when you come back, I'll go wherever you want."
She hugged him back, restoring his sense of belonging with that simple gesture. They stood that way for a long time, paying no attention to the people around them. He held her, and she held him, and for an undefined amount of time they just existed. For just a moment, he caught a glimpse of Zhane's "future" and felt the tiniest echo of his friend's certainty. Maybe some things were meant to be.
Then Ashley let him go, and the feeling was gone. Neither of them spoke, but they turned as one toward the edge of town and headed reluctantly for the ship that would take her away. She didn't let go of his hand until they reached the crowd gathered around the Megaship's space hatch, and even then she let him draw her forward to stand with the Rangers before she stepped away.
Zhane and Karone were already there, and he could feel everyone's eyes on him as he slowly shook his head. I'm not going. He saw his best friend and his sister exchange glances out of the corner of her eye, and TJ put a hand on Ashley's shoulder. She didn't look at him but she did take a step back, toward the Megaship, and that was all the answer he needed. They were really splitting up.
Then Carlos was hugging him, and telling him to take care, and he saw Cassie embracing Kinwon and Taikwa at the same time. TJ told him, oddly, to write, and the Blue Ranger laughed as though it was some private joke. It was Ashley that he couldn't take his eyes off of, though, and as the others turned away one by one she was the last to lower her gaze. She didn't wave as she followed her friends onto the Megaship, hesitating only a moment before she reached out to close the hatch behind them.
Andros watched her until the hatch obscured his view and someone stirred at his side. Only when he felt Karone's hand on his shoulder did he realize who it was, and he heard her murmur, "I feel like I've done this before. Only then I was good-turned-evil, and now it's the other way around. I wonder what that means for next time."
She didn't seem to be talking to him, but a moment later he heard Zhane answer, "There is no next time. Nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice."
There is no next time. Andros' eyes widened, and he shook his head in denial. You're not coming back to Earth with us, are you.
"I can't," he said abruptly.
He felt Zhane's gaze on him, and he turned to face the Silver Ranger squarely. "You knew, didn't you. All this time, you've known and you never said." He felt like laughing, but he managed to stifle the urge. "I have to go, Zhane."
There was an odd look on Zhane's face, but he just smiled at Andros' determination. "You won't go alone."
The words were cryptic, but Andros didn't have time to ponder them. He reached for his morpher, teleporting without another word of farewell, and the familiar halls of the Megaship wavered into being around him. He heard muted voices from the Bridge, but no one so much as looked up when he followed them to their source. Studying his teammates from behind, Andros couldn't help smiling.
Into the sudden silence, he announced, "DECA, set a course for Earth."
He saw Ashley stiffen, and Cassie turned away from comforting her friend with a startled look on her face. He was too busy waiting to catch Ashley's eye to see Carlos and TJ's reaction, but later he would wonder if TJ didn't look quite as surprised as he ought. Then the Yellow Ranger leapt out of her chair and launched herself at him, her shout twining with his laugh as she threw her arms around his neck.
Hugging her close, Andros whispered, "My home is with you." She squeezed him tighter and he buried his face in her hair, hoping he would never have to let go. Right now, it didn't matter who needed him--he needed Ashley, and she made any place home. Sometimes you had to choose.
T + 205:31
10:16 PM PST
It was good to be home, Ashley thought, surveying the park through the twilight shadows of a late summer evening. The warm breeze carried the sounds of chatter and laughter, the smell of barbecues and hibachis, and an intangible sense of recovery despite recent loss. It was nice to see the city turn out to celebrate for a change, and if Angel Grove had to use the Power Rangers as an excuse for its party then she wasn't going to complain.
"What's your name?" Andros was asking, kneeling next to a little boy who couldn't have been more than five or six. She smiled as he took the boy's marker, waiting patiently for the answer.
The boy squirmed a little. "Marcus," he mumbled at last, glancing up at Andros with adoring eyes.
"Well, Marcus," Andros said, scrawling his name across the toy morpher the boy had given him, "It's nice to meet you. Maybe I'll see you in space someday," he added, handing the toy and the marker back.
The boy's face lit up, and he barely remembered to say "Thanks!" before darting away.
Ashley watched him go, trying not to giggle. Andros told every kid who asked for his autograph that he'd see them in space, and so far it had made every one of them glow. "Did you tell him that was a digimorpher he gave you?" she asked, when the boy was out of earshot.
Andros shrugged as he rose. "It'll make Zhane happy to know his morpher is as popular as all of ours put together," he said with a grin. "The kids don't care who signs what."
Linking her arm through his, Ashley smiled contentedly. Yes, it was good to be back on Earth... but it was better to be here with Andros. She'd thought back to the moment of departure from KO-35 many times since, and she had to wonder what would have happened if Andros hadn't changed his mind at the last minute. Would she really have left? Would she have been able to watch his planet recede into the distance with nothing but the promise of "next time" to comfort her?
"What are you thinking about?" Andros asked quietly, sensing her distraction.
She glanced over at him, her smile renewed. "I'm just so glad you're here," she admitted, searching his expression. "I'm not sure I would have been able to leave if you hadn't changed your mind."
He chuckled. "Now you tell me," he teased. At her sober look, he squeezed her arm gently. "Just kidding," he added. "I'm glad we came. I wouldn't have wanted to miss this."
"Yeah," she agreed wryly, still looking for reassurance. "Huge crowds of people are really your thing."
"You're my thing," Andros said simply. "I'd rather be with you than anywhere else. Including KO-35. Although--" He looked torn between annoyance and amusement. "It definitely would have been nice to know Zhane and Karone felt the same way."
She couldn't help giggling. Zhane and Karone had appeared on the Megaship moments after Andros, with an offhanded remark about needing a ride to retrieve the Mega Winger and wearing innocent expressions that fooled no one. They finally confessed to having agreed between the two of them, days before, to follow Andros no matter what he decided. Andros had just rolled his eyes, but he didn't bother to hide his happiness.
"Next time," Ashley suggested with a smile, "let's not ban the 'talking to each other' part. It doesn't seem to work very well."
"There is no next time." Andros returned her smile absently, then explained, "That's what made me change my mind. You can't plan the future. And Zhane knew it."
She gave him an odd look, and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. "He told me my home was with the people I loved," he offered. "He knew I couldn't choose, so he made it so I wouldn't have to. And then he didn't tell me."
"What else are best friends good for, other than confusing us?" Ashley asked rhetorically. As far as she was concerned, he'd changed his mind for the same reason she would have if he hadn't beaten her to it: what they felt for each other was more important than what anyone else expected of them. Sometimes you had to choose for your own sake instead of someone else's.
He gave her a sheepish grin. "That was a pretty bad explanation, huh?"
She rested her head on his shoulder briefly before smiling up at him. "Do I look like I need an explanation?"
For answer, he lifted his free hand and put it over hers. Before he could say anything, though, someone called her name, and they traded amused looks. "We're never going to actually get to the ice cream truck, you know," he whispered in her ear.
She pulled a few dollars out of her pocket and passed it to him, standing on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss. "Get me a candy apple?" she murmured.
She saw him struggling not to smile at her request. "Only because you asked so nicely," he teased, giving her a wink that was more reminiscent of his sister than of the solemn Red Astro Ranger. "I'll be right back."
Ashley grinned and waved after him, surprised he'd caught her implication but not about to complain. She turned when she heard her name called again, and a girl who didn't look much younger than she was ducked her head and waved tentatively. "Hi," she called shyly, hurrying over. "Ashley Hammond?"
"That's me," Ashley answered cheerfully, then almost laughed when she realized what she'd said. That was Andros' traditional response whenever he couldn't think why someone would be asking. "Hi," she added, smiling in welcome.
"Hi," the girl repeated, blushing. "I'm Nature. I used to be in your homeroom class, remember? Back in September... I sat behind you for a few weeks."
The memory clicked, and Ashley's eyes widened. "I do remember! You left right after school started, though, and no one knew where you'd gone." Nature wasn't younger than she was after all; she had been a year ahead of Ashley in school.
Nature shrugged self-consciously. "I dropped out," she admitted. "I got mixed up with some bad people, but I'm going back this year. I'll graduate a year late, but it's better than not at all."
"Congratulations," Ashley said sincerely, keeping her tone warm. She'd probably had all the questions a thousand times before, so Ashley didn't ask. "That's really great, Nature. Hey, maybe we'll be in the same homeroom again!"
Nature smiled, a real unabashed smile this time. "I'd like that," she agreed. "I just wanted to tell you... It always mattered to me that you smiled when you saw me. Whenever I came into homeroom late, which was pretty much always, or when we saw each other in the hallway--you smiled, and that meant a lot to me."
Ashley gazed at her, dismayed that such a little thing had been important to the other girl. "I don't know what to say," she confessed, trying not to swallow. "That's just--"
"I know," Nature interrupted. "You smiled at everyone; it's just what you do. But it made me feel like I was worth something, you know? And I was wondering," she continued hurriedly, as though she didn't want Ashley to contradict her. "Now that you're famous and all, I was wondering if you'd sign my shirt."
Ashley laughed delightedly. "Of course I will! And Nature," she added, staring the other girl in the eye. "You are worth something. You're worth a lot. I'm so proud of you for going back to school."
Nature blushed again, and Ashley grinned, motioning for her to turn around. "Can I draw something, too?" she asked, and Nature nodded without a word.
Ashley caught sight of Andros standing over near the basketball court as she uncapped her Sharpie. He glanced in her direction at the same moment, and she shook her head slightly. He nodded, understanding, and said something to Carlos. The Black Ranger gestured, apparently trying to get Andros to go one-on-one with him, and Ashley smiled to herself as she turned back to Nature's t-shirt.
"There's one thing you have to promise me," she said idly, as she brushed Nature's long hair forward. Tracing the other girl's name carefully, she continued, "If I sign your shirt, you have to sign mine."
She heard Nature's startled laugh. "If you want me to," the other girl agreed, sounding both amused and surprised.
"I do." Ashley drew the Astro Rangers' logo underneath Nature's name, but instead of filling in the blocks with colors she wrote Reach for the stars in the first four, and then drew a little picture of the space shuttle in the last one. "Anyone who can take control of their life the way you have is as much a hero as any of us."
She signed her name and added With love, above it, then filled in the words Yellow Astro Ranger underneath. "There," she said, satisfied. It wasn't easy to write on cloth, especially when someone was wearing it. "Now you do mine."
"What did you write?" Nature asked curiously, taking the marker from her as she turned around.
Ashley grinned. "Your destiny," she said, gathering her own hair up and out of Nature's way. She tried not to squirm at the feel of a marker on her shoulder blades, and she smiled at the painstaking care Nature took in spelling out her message.
"What did you write?" she asked, when Nature finished.
"Your identity," Nature said with a smile, handing her marker back. "See you in school, Ashley."
"See you," Ashley answered automatically, waiting until the other girl turned away to head over to the basketball court. "Thanks for smiling..." How did you answer someone who thanked you for being who you were?
"Hey," Andros greeted her, straightening up as he wandered over to meet her. Holding out a candy apple on a stick, he added, "I got you a present."
She laughed, but when she reached for it he pulled it back. "Pay up," he demanded, and she blinked at him in surprise. No one had let them pay for anything all evening.
Then she saw the look in his eyes, and comprehension dawned. She sidled closer, trying not to giggle as she slid one hand around behind his neck and pulled his head toward hers. As they shared a single tender kiss, she suddenly knew the answer to her own question. There was only one way to thank someone for who they were, and that was by showing them, as best you could.
"Andros," she murmured as they separated. She lifted her gaze to catch his and smiled. "Thanks for loving me."
He smiled back. "How could I not?" He kissed her again before he handed over her candy apple, and he added softly, "Thanks, yourself."
"Hey, guys," Carlos interrupted, his words punctuated by the bounce of a basketball on the pavement. He wasn't looking at them; TJ had joined him a few minutes ago and the two of them were struggling for the one-on-one champion title. "Anytime you want to make this a real game, TJ could use some help."
"Yeah, cause I'm only up by five," TJ drawled. "No question, I'm the one that needs help."
"Hello," Ashley reminded them. "Eating!" She bit into her apple to illustrate the point.
"Andros and I could take you both," Zhane's voice broke in, and Carlos laughed. The distraction was enough for TJ to steal the ball and dribble it out to the half-court line, but Carlos waved a time-out before the Blue Ranger could come back.
Carlos was giving Zhane a classic "yeah, right" smirk, and TJ caught his intent without the two of them having to exchange words. "We'll be happy to prove you wrong," TJ offered with a grin, tossing the basketball up and spinning it on his index finger. "First person to fifteen wins?"
"We'll beat you in ten," Andros countered, getting into the spirit of things.
Zhane ambled over to his best friend and whispered loudly, "Hey, how do you play this game again?" TJ and Carlos exchanged glances, and Andros just rolled his eyes.
Ashley raised her hand. "Um, guys?"
"Boo," she heard Cassie whisper behind her, and she clapped her hand over her mouth. She heard her friend laugh quietly, but the guys paid no attention to them as they took sides on the court.
"Do they know you taught Zhane to play basketball in exchange for helping you with telekinesis?" Cassie murmured, as they turned away from the cracked pavement and moved off to a safer vantage point. "Because he's almost as good as TJ."
"Nope." Ashley took another bite out of her apple before offering it to Cassie. "Andros isn't as bad as he used to be, either. They might be in for a surprise."
Cassie accepted the treat on a stick as they sat down underneath one of the park's giant live oak trees. "This is good," she said a moment later. "Did you get this from the ice cream truck?"
Ashley nodded. "Tastes like one of Skull's, doesn't it?"
Cassie paused and gave the candy apple a second look. "Now that you mention it... I thought it tasted a little different. Are he and Bulk revolutionizing the ice cream truck market now?"
"I don't know," Ashey admitted. "Andros got it for me, and I haven't seen either of them since the Vanishing Villain Act."
Cassie grinned, taking another bite before passing the apple back to Ashley. "Andros is going to have to patent that phrase."
"It has a nice ring to it," Ashley agreed, smiling. "Who knows; maybe they'll get together with David and Suzy from Adelle's and reopen the Beach Club. The idea's been floating around long enough."
"They need something to do," Cassie commented. "Did TJ tell you that NASADA wants to hire Professor Phenomenus as a consultant?"
Ashley turned wide eyes on her best friend. "You're kidding!"
Cassie shook her head. "He seems crazy, but apparently he's brilliant. Astronema stole a couple of his ideas, and I guess that's enough to convince NASADA that he could at least use supervision."
Ashley crunched through another layer of candy, considering that. She didn't know that much about the professor, but he seemed nice enough. He was always friendly to everyone, and Bulk and Skull certainly seemed to like him. The duo had helped the Rangers an awful lot lately, whether they had meant to or not, and anyone they liked was someone Ashley was willing to take seriously.
"So life goes on," she murmured thoughtfully. "I guess I didn't expect things to stay the same forever. Still..." She trailed off, and Cassie gave her a knowing look.
"Still," the Pink Ranger agreed. "I had just gotten used to the way things were. Now it's all changing again."
"Foul!" TJ yelled. "No telekinesis on the basketball court!"
"Hey!" Zhane sounded indignant. "Are you saying you don't think I'm that good?"
"No one's that good!" Carlos shot back. "That was an impossible rebound, and you know it! Andros, your teammate cheats."
"On KO-35, a person uses all his skills to play a game," Andros answered calmly. "But if you can't keep up with us unless we have a handicap, I'm sure we could try to play at your level."
Ashley giggled at TJ's outraged retort, while Carlos began to explain the rules of basketball for the third time. "Maybe not all of it," she said, sharing a smile with Cassie.
Between them, they finished the candy apple in contented silence. They watched the basketball game continue--without telekinesis--until a familiar bark made Cassie glance away from the court. "Sounds like Jetson got tired of playing with Saryn," she said, picking up the apple stick as she climbed to her feet. "I'll throw this away. See you after the fireworks?"
Ashley nodded, glancing up at the sky in a futile effort to estimate when the light show would start. "See you then," she agreed, catching her friend's eye again. "Say 'hi' to Jetson for me."
"Sure. I'll tell Saryn you like my dog better than him," Cassie replied with a straight face.
Ashley laughed at that, but in all honesty it hadn't occurred to her to consider Saryn one of the group. No matter how long he had fought with them, they had never known who he was. Still, it was obviously important to Cassie, so she added, "Him too. Tell him thanks for letting me borrow you this evening, since I know I wouldn't have seen you otherwise."
Cassie made a face at her, but she waved cheerfully as she turned away. The Pink Ranger didn't take anything personally lately. She was high on cloud nine, and if she stayed there much longer she was going to have to get a permanent forwarding address. Nothing seemed to touch her since she'd come back from Eltar with the Phantom Ranger on her arm.
"Is this a private staring contest, or do you need an opponent?" Andros wanted to know, dropping to the ground beside her. "I'm pretty good, but I'll let you win if you want."
He startled a laugh out of her, and she reached out to take his hand. "I concede," she countered. "I'm not going up against the famous Andros stare."
He was ready with an answer, but it wasn't the one she expected. "In that case, how about finding a better place to watch the fireworks?"
She glanced over at the basketball court, where Karone had magically appeared while she was distracted. Andros' sister was already arguing with Zhane, while Carlos and TJ gathered up their sweatshirts. "Who won?" she asked, letting Andros pull her to her feet.
He shrugged. "Depends who you ask," he told her, keeping her hand in his as they wandered away. "Zhane thinks he's never lost a game in his life. But if you don't count telekinesis assists, TJ and Carlos broke the nine-point tie first."
Ashley was impressed in spite of herself. "Not bad for a couple of aliens," she murmured, squeezing his hand.
"Hey," he said, nudging her shoulder. "KO-35 isn't the only place aliens live."
She giggled, leaning against him as they approached the fringes of the blanket and lawn chair crowd. As they found a place for themselves in the grass, Andros asked suddenly, "Who wrote on your shirt?"
She'd forgotten about Nature's message. "Someone from school," she said, craning her neck as though she could read the words over her shoulder. "What does it say?"
"'Smiles change lives,'" Andros answered. He sounded puzzled. "Does that mean something?"
Ashley smiled to herself. "I guess it does to people who need them."
"Lie down," Andros murmured, putting his arm around her when she leaned against his shoulder again. She stretched out obediently, resting her head in his lap, and he reached down to stroke her hair. "Your smile changed my life, you know."
Her smile widened, and she sighed happily. Lifting her hand to twine her fingers through his, she told him, "I'd say, 'yours too,' but you didn't smile much at first."
A whistling sound was the only warning she had before the sky above them burst into light, showering color and sound across the darkening sky. A second bloomed before the first had faded, but Andros didn't look up. "You know something else?" he asked, just loud enough to be heard between the pops and booms of the fireworks.
She squeezed his fingers, and he reached out to straighten the necklace lying against her shirt. Smiling up at him, she countered, "You're going to tell me whether I do or not, right?"
All around them, glowing bracelets and sparklers were flashing as people shifted or chased after wandering children. The fireworks lit up faces like colored strobe daylight or a multicolored lightning storm, and noises were buried each time a new round of thunder rolled through the park. In between, there were "ooh"s and "ahh"s and Andros' smile, undimmed by the coruscating show above.
"I love you," he said simply. The words reached her ears with perfect clarity despite the rumbling from above and the rustle of movement that surrounded them.
She brought their joined hands to her mouth and kissed his fingers. "I love you more," she answered, gazing up at him. He was silhouetted as a wave of gold illuminated the sky above him, and she caught her breath when the light began to fade. The expression on his face was one of unadulterated adoration.
The effervescent rain burned trails toward the horizon, making his eyes sparkle with the echoes of faroff fireworks, and for one timeless moment they were all that existed in the world. They were together, they were in love, and that was all that mattered. He lowered his head to hers slowly, their lips meeting in a kiss as the heavens exploded above them.
T ~ countdown aborted.
August 21, 1998