"Sky?" Wes called. "What are you doing wandering around over here? Did you need something?"
The teen turned. "Just looking around," he answered casually.
Wes raised his eyebrows. "In the training offices wing?" He frowned. "What do you need over here?"
"I was hoping to study the area. Learn the layout better, in case of a surprise attack. You never know what could happen."
"Yeah, sure. Hey, don't forget: Chinese for dinner tonight. Uncle Eric's teat."
"Sounds great. I'll catch up with you later, then."
"You got it, kiddo." He drew his right hand forward from his forehead before dropping it to hug his elbows.
Sky mimicked him almost absently. "Later."
Wes watched subtly as whatever he'd just talked to walked away, heart pounding. He waited several minutes after it had turned the corner before raising his morpher. "Eric? We have a situation."
"What's up, Wes?"
"Go talk to Sky, would you? He's just leaving the training offices wing, heading right. You ... you'll see what I mean."
"Wes, what - "
"Eric, just trust me, all right?"
There was an annoyed sigh. "Don't I always?" Eric muttered just before cutting off the link.
Wes leaned back against the wall for a moment, trying not to shudder at the thought of the person he'd just spoken to. It wasn't Sky. The posture, the tone, the way he spoke ... it was all wrong.
It wasn't Sky under the influence of someone else; ignoring the disrespectful way he spoke - not one 'sir', let alone 'Dad' - there was the fact that he hadn't known anything that Sky already did. For one thing, Sky had already memorized entire layout of S.P.D. Newtech years ago, down to the smallest crawlspace. He'd grown up here, after all. And he only came over to the Squad offices when he needed to talk to someone.
Then there was the fact that Sky *hated* Chinese food, and hadn't called Eric 'uncle' since he was nine. 'Kiddo' had always been his nickname for Bridge, while Sky had begun protesting 'buddy' as soon as he hit puberty. And most importantly, Sky was fluent in American Sign Language because of his grandmother; there was no way he would have mistaken the sign for son as a gesture of goodbye.
So if wasn't Sky ... who was it?
He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking. The kids had brought someone in earlier ... It had been unusual, because Cruger had wanted him for questioning instead of straight containment, to verify if he was -
He shuddered as he remembered the name, and what that name meant to him now.
--Images of endless wasteland and black water, farther than the eye could see.--
--Screaming for his friend to stop, that it wasn't worth it, there was nothing to do now - --
--Cestro crying out weakly, feeling blindly for Aurico's hand. Aurico's despair that his partner could no longer feel his touch.--
--The silent wave of sorrow from three remaining Aquitians as they joined them in their grief, the fourth who stood alone with a blank expression.--
--"Cestro, no! Don't!"--
His head snapped up as he gasped for breath. After a moment he shook it hard to clear it, blinking. He stood still for several minutes, focusing on his breathing and letting it even out as R.J. had taught him, trying to clear his thoughts. Now wasn't the time for this.
A single frustrated thought slipped through his attempts: would the flashbacks *ever* end?
He looked up sharply, relaxing a bit as he recognized Eric. "Eric."
"You're right," Eric said grimly as he joined him. "I don't know what that was, but it's not Sky. Something about him ... it's not right."
Wes nodded. "Shape-shifter most likely. Which means we need to identify what it is and how it got into S.P.D., nullify the threat, and find the real Sky."
He blinked as he realized Eric was staring at him. "What?"
"You ... " Eric hesitated. "You've changed."
He smiled distantly, knowing instinctively that the expression on his face was less than pleasant at the memories the words evoked. "Had to."
Eric grabbed his arms, kissing him abruptly with a passion that left him breathless. "I'm not missing anything else," he whispered fiercely.
Wes nodded slowly, still stunned by the sudden display. "Let's go get our son back."
They moved stealthily through the hallways with the ease from years of practice as they protected each other's back. Both watched warily for any signs of the shape-shifter.
"So, if Sky's not ... Sky, where is he?" Eric asked quietly.
"Gotta be Wootox. Which means Sky will be where Wootox *should* be - the cells. We've gotta get him out of there."
They both froze, looking up as the alarms went off. "Sounds like Sky didn't want to sit and wait for us to find him," Eric snorted.
Wes sighed, shaking his head. "He gets that from you," he grumbled as they raced forward.
"Yeah, try checking a mirror sometime."
"Whatever - there!"
They skidded to a stop, staring in surprise as a large purple creature with gold armor ran past them, dodging security as it went. Someone nearly overtook it, only to be roughly shoved aside. But rather than attack, the alien kept going.
Wes and Eric glanced at one another. "One way to be sure," Eric murmured.
Wes nodded. "Cut him off on either side of the hallway. You get him on the other end - you're faster."
"Always," Eric snorted, saluting cockily before he bolted.
Wes moved swiftly, gripping his blaster tightly in his fist as he braced his elbow with the opposite hand. For a moment, he desperately missed his Chrono Blaster, or even V1. Something about the S.P.D. standard issue just wasn't the same.
It took less time then he'd expected to hear the shout of "Freeze!" ahead of him. There was a garbled sound in an alien language, and the purple creature was in front of him. They both froze.
--"Watch your puny planet turn into a toxic paradise before your very eyes!"--
--"Oh, is the little Ranger sick?"--
--"So much death and destruction. I want more! *More*! I want to see *everything* on this planet bleed itself dry!"--
It took effort to keep from shuddering. "Freeze," he ordered quietly, but firmly. "We don't want to hurt you."
Wootox waved his arms, crying out in that strange language again.
"Your move, Wes," Eric called from behind the creature. "This is your show."
Taking a slow, deep breath to calm his nerves, he raised his right hand to his head, drawing it out like he was adjusting a baseball cap. Then he dropped his hand to hug his elbows, and waited, heart pounding.
Wootox jerked back. There was a moment of tense, impatient silence as no one moved. Then slowly, Wootox raised an open claw perpendicular to his forehead and pressed his thumb against it, wiggling his talons hesitantly.
Wes let out another quick breath, lowering his blaster. "Sky," he sighed in relief. At the very least now that they knew which one was Sky, they had a chance to figure out what to do about Wootox.
"You sure, Wes?" Eric asked warily.
Wootox turned around slowly to look at him. After a moment, he slowly worked his three claws in four deliberate movements. They weren't quite right; his 'fingers' were really too long, but somehow he managed to spell out a passable imitation of b, r, a, t, before pointing at himself.
Eric braced the Quantum Defender against his shoulder with an exasperated sigh. "Just can't keep yourself out of trouble, can you?" he grumbled. He gave them both a significant look. "We need to get him out of here. Not everyone else knows how to tell the difference apparently."
Judging by the way Wo - *Sky's* shoulders sagged, he was well aware of this already.
"We can go through the training grounds and out through the obstacle course," Wes decided. "No one will expect us to go through the hardest way to get out of here."
W - Sky nodded in agreement, while Eric sighed irritably again. "Great. Just how I wanted to spend my afternoon. Slogging through the mud because no one else knows the value of what it means to *not* shoot first and asking questions later."
Wes rolled his eyes at the hypocritical statement, exchanging an exasperated glance with Sky that would have felt far more normal in any other situation.
A sudden shriek from the Quantum Morpher made all three of them freeze.
"Morpher, location," Eric commanded, pressing a button. He squinted at his wrist as Wes and Sky waited impatiently. "Darn it," he muttered. He glanced up at them, tightening his grip on the Quantum Defender. "Change of plans. Wes, you get Sky out of here. I'm going up to the labs - someone activated the alarm."
Wes cursed under his breath. As a safety precaution after the explosion that had caused so many side effects all those years ago, an alarm had been installed into the labs in case of emergencies. The alarm went first of all to the Commander's desk, and second, to any active morpher or communicator within the S.P.D. base. Which meant that Kimberly, Zack, Rocky, Adam, Aisha, Ryan, and Carter had all gotten the same alert that Eric just had. It was just a matter of who was able to answer it at the moment, and who got there first.
But being that it was the labs, that meant -
Sky pressed his thumb against his chin, wiggling his open fingers frantically with another garbled cry.
"Don't worry, Sky. I'll protect her," Eric promised him. "You two get going before someone else gets in the way."
Wes nodded. "We'll catch up with you later. Be careful."
"Stupid, stupid, *stupid* kid!" Wes snarled under his breath as he darted down another alley. Eric and Vanessa would probably have a fit if they realized what part of Newtech City he was in, not to mention the fact that he was *alone*, but he didn't have time to care. If he managed to catch up to Sky before someone else did, he was going to ... to ..... well, do something very angry and parental to his son.
And that's when he heard the one sound he didn't want to hear.
"No, no, no!" he shouted, pushing himself faster.
He barely registered the cries of fire, or the grunt of pain from Sky before he threw himself in front of his son, arms spread wide as he screamed "Hold your fire!"
"Hold it!" Red Ranger bellowed.
An errant blast nearly clipped him in the shoulder before he found himself being shoved roughly to the ground by Sky, who growled fiercely at him and gestured something angrily with a hand that looked vaguely like it was meant to be bad. Or possibly stop. Which was odd, because the two signs weren't normally that similar.
"Sergeant Collins!" Yellow Ranger cried.
"Let him go, Wootox!" Red Ranger yelled.
Wes pushed himself to his feet, batting the claws away. "Rangers, hold your fire!" he shouted again, planting himself firmly before Sky.
"Sir, what are you - "
"That's an *orderso* grounded for this stunt!"
Somehow, Sky clearly managed to plant his hands on his hips to display his exasperation.
"Sir, what are you doing?!" Red Ranger demanded. "Get out of the way!"
Wes glared fiercely at him. "If you want to hurt him cadet, you'll have to go through me. And there is *no way* I'm letting any of you lay a hand on my son."
The four Rangers jerked in surprise. "What?" Pink gasped.
"Sir, I don't understand," Green protested. "What do you mean?"
"None of this is what you think it is," Wes insisted. He resisted the urge to sigh as they all continued to stare at him in confusion. He was starting to understand how Bridge felt sometimes. "The person you think is Sky isn't really Sky. There's a - "
The rest of his sentence was cut off by the sight of Sky bolting past him to flip swiftly over the heads of his teammates.
"Whoa, what's he doing?"
"How did he ... ?"
"Skylar Ericson Tate, you get back here *right now*!" Wes shouted furiously.
But the doors were already closing, and he realized with a sickening sort of feeling what it was exactly that had Sky so desperate to get back to S.P.D. he didn't have time to try and explain. "Oh, no ... " he breathed in horror, staring at the base began it's slow transformation into the Delta Squad Megazord.
"It's turning into the Megazord!"
"Wootox must have taken over the controls!"
"This is *bad*! We can't stop it!"
Sky ... Eric. Vanessa, Wes thought desperately, clenching his fists helplessly. Please be all right.
"B Squad, hold your fire! That's an *order*!" Wes roared, forcing his way into the middle of the melee. "Wootox is a shape-shifter. He's taken Sky's body and put Sky in his own!"
"They've changed bodies," came another voice, as Shadow Ranger put a hand on Red's Delta Blasters, gently forcing them down. "We can't be sure who's who."
"We changed bodies, but we changed back! *I'm* Sky!" the teen snapped out.
The alien roared angrily, gesturing wildly with his claws.
"What?" Yellow demanded, sounding frustrated.
"So what do we do?" Red asked, glancing back and forth between the alien and what looked like their Blue Ranger.
"I know," Green spoke up, taking a step forward. He demorphed in a flash of green swirls, and Bridge reached up to remove of his gloves. "There's no way *any* Sky, real or fake, can hide from me," he informed them all calmly.
There was a flash of green light as he waved his hand carefully, studying first the human, then the alien. Then he turned to the human and smiled warmly, walking straight up to him.
Wes knew something was wrong the moment what looked like Wootox bellowed loudly, taking a step forward and reaching in Bridge's direction.
But at the same time as Wootox cried out, Bridge sent a spin kick into Sky's chest that would have made any one of his martial artist parents proud.
It was swiftly followed up by a wrist grab and hip throw that landed the fake Sky flat on his back, Bridge's knee planted just below his rib cage. "Anyone mind helping me pin him down?" he asked brightly. "I don't think this position's gonna work so well for switching them back."
Wes let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. In retrospect, he shouldn't have worried. It *was* Bridge after all.
But even so, he still waited impatiently as Yellow and Pink helped Bridge pin the fake Sky, while Shadow and Red hovered behind what looked like Wootox. He watched anxiously as Sky forced their foreheads together, making them both flare with bright lights that hurt to look at for long. And he stood back as Wootox was judged for his crimes, and at last contained as he should have been all along.
*Then* he grabbed his son, holding him tight and refusing to let go, even when Eric and Vanessa showed up at last to fuss over him in their own ways.