Taylor’s brow furrowed at the “unidentified caller” message on her cell phone, before hitting the call button and answering.
<< - ksh - Strike - ksh - die - >>
“Hello? Who is this?"
<< - and I call a dead woman.>>
Taylor’s eyes widened at the burst of clarity. She knew that voice! “Duke?!"
<< - ksh - >>
“Duke, are you there? Duke!"
<< - fucking tortured and I’m spending the last of our sat phone battery - >>
“Then stop using it, Rodent!” Taylor snapped, “Call the fucking base, instead!"
<<No one’s coming, Tay,>> Duke slurred, <<We’ll see you soon.>>
“Duke - Hey, Duke!"
The line went dead.
Taylor’s blood ran cold as she lowered her phone. She knew, with the same certainty that she knew the Eaglezord had chosen her, that her teammates were trapped and being tortured by the enemy, and no one was coming to rescue them because no one knew where they were.
The Eaglezord cried out as it flew overhead and her expression hardened. Not on her watch. She whistled sharply and waited until the Eaglezord flew overhead and jumped up. Manoeuvring into the cockpit, she set down her phone and manipulated the controls until it was embedded in the Eaglezord’s system.
“See if you can run a trace on my call, buddy."
The others tended to think their words were just some kind of animal spirits embedded in metal, but she’d spent a year exploring the ins and outs of her zord and knew just how complicated the machinery inside was.
And yes, there was a sentient ancient animal spirit in there, too.
A large map appeared in front of her, the Eaglezord’s system trying to triangulate as she dialled out.
“Come on, come on…"
Taylor’s eyes lit up as a blinking yellow dot appeared over [REDACTED]. Oh thank God.
The Eaglezord rose, and Taylor tapped some of the other controls. “Uh-uh, buddy. You’re not going anywhere."
The Eaglezord protested, and Taylor explained, “Just because you don’t appear on radar doesn’t mean you’re good at ground stealth. And there’s no way I’m dropping either of us into enemy territory blind."
Her zord grumbled and flew down to let her disembark. Taylor gave a small smile. “Hey. I’m not going anywhere without you, okay? You’ve always got my back."
Taylor walked away, dialling a number on her cell.
“I need a favour."
<<Good morning to you, too, Sunshine.>>
“Eric, it’s important."
<<Alright, what’s up?>>
“Are you still in contact with your buddies from JSOC and Army Intelligence?"
<<How do you - yeah, yeah I am.>>
“I’m going to send you some coordinates, I need satellite and thermals for the area."
<<… Okay, apart from your apparent desire to get us all court-martialled, what’s this about?>>
Taylor swallowed. “It’s my squad, Eric. They’re in trouble."
Taylor forced her voice steady as she relayed her earlier conversation with Duke, and the information she’d found with the Eaglezord.
Eric whistled. <<Shit, Taylor, I - what about your superiors? They’re not just going to leave an entire squad in enemy hands.>>
"We’re a ghost squad, Eric."
<<Alright, I’ll make some calls. But Taylor… You know I can’t promise anything, right?>>
Taylor swallowed again. “I know. Thanks, Eric."
<<Don’t mention it. I’ll get back to you in a couple hours.>>
Taylor murmured her thanks again and ended the call.
And now she waited.
<<Alright, I got the scans, and… It’s not pretty.>>
Taylor looked at the images Eric e-mailed her, her gut churning. “Jesus."
<<Yeah. So what’s the plan?>>
“One-man exfil, I’ll use the Eaglezord for cover."
<<You’re going alone? What about your team?>>
Taylor snorted. “My Peace Love Happiness team? They can barely bring themselves to kill Orgs, I’m not putting them near a war zone."
<<Touché. Alright, I’m coming with.>>
Taylor blinked. “What?!"
<<One, I have been lectured about public image often enough to know that a Power Ranger turning up to fight in [REDACTED] is a bad idea for everyone. We do this, we’re going to have to do it as plain old military, and you’re going to need backup. Two, if things go south and we need to morph, two zords are better than one.>>
Taylor’s eyebrows rose. “A red and silver dinosaur traipsing across the countryside isn’t exactly below the radar."
She could practically hear Eric rolling his eyes. <<My zord is summoned from the ground, which means he turns up wherever I want him to. You get us to [REDACTED], and I’ll bring the firepower.>>
Taylor’s expression softened. “Deal. Thanks, Eric."
<<Grab dinner with me, and we’ll call it square.>>
“Beach sex is still a no, Myers,” Taylor deadpanned, and Eric laughed.
“Is that an AS50?” Taylor blurted out as Eric unloaded his Jeep.
He smirked. “Should have known you’d be able to tell from the bag, Striker."
Taylor made a face. “Don’t call me that."
“Hey, own the name, Sunshine,” Eric replied, his smirk widening. “Highest range and accuracy record since the creation of the Academy, fastest, too."
Taylor shook her head. “Of course you pulled my file."
“Hey, quid pro quo. Let’s load up."
They added two sniper rifles, MP5s, and a small country’s worth of ammunition into the Eaglezord, along with triage equipment. Eric had a Sig Sauer at his side, while Taylor had her Beretta and a tactical knife. They both had tac vests with with extra clips, grenades, and radios.
“I retract my statement. If we make it back from this, I will happily take you up on that beach sex."
Eric grinned wickedly.
“Approaching drop point,” Taylor reported.
“Gear’s good to go,” Eric responded.
Taylor’s palm slid over the Eaglezord’s control, and with a flare of Power, she and Eric appeared on the ground on a hillside near the target camp. Taylor gestured at Eric, and he nodded, picking up his sniper rifle and moving away from Taylor.
Taylor slowed her breathing as she set up, and looked through the scope. Her senses switched into high focus, and she waited. She knew how to do this, trained to do this, and she was damn good at it.
A man walked into the view field of her scope, and she fired.
The body dropped.
One shot, two shot, three. She idly thought about what poor form is was that the guards were so spread out; it would take longer to sound the alarm.
<<Upper level cleared.>>
“Copy that. I’m moving in."
Eric watched over Taylor as she made her way down to the camp. They’d picked off the guards on patrol, paving the way for Taylor’s infiltration.
“I’m going to lose sight of you in fifteen yards."
<<Copy. Eaglezord’s scramblers are about to go live. Radio silence in ten.>>
Eric shifted a dial on his rifle and fired, taking down an armed man about to turn the corridor in front of Taylor. Luck was on their side, the guards had gone down quickly, and no one had come looking yet.
Taylor disappeared behind concrete, and Eric drew away from the sniper rifle. Time for him to move.
Taylor heard the sound of a body drop, but didn’t stop moving. She may have only worked with Eric on the battlefield once, but she knew his record - there was no one better to watch her back.
She readied the MP5. Now came the hard part.
Just like the sparse patrolling outside, there were fewer guards along the corridors than she expected. Worry niggled at the back of her mind - this was too easy. They had four US soldiers in custody, the place should have been Fort Knox.
And then the alarm went off.
Taylor bolted down a side corridor as she heard footsteps pounding her way.
Okay, never mind, there were a lot more guards, and they were very keen on keeping their prisoners. There was the ‘bad’ Eric had mentioned.
Taylor ducked around the corner, MP5 raised, and fired. Two guards went down before their companions turned, and by then, Taylor was already moving. Eric was at least five minutes out, maybe more, which meant that she didn’t have a lot of time to extract her team.
Fuck, she wished they’d been able to get a map of this hellhole.
Keep moving, keep firing, don’t stop until the package is secure. She may have been a pilot, but ghost squads didn’t get backup. Every aspect of their missions they did themselves, from start to finish.
Keep moving, keep firing, secure the package.
Taylor kicked down another door and swore. A lone figure was hanging from chains, bruised and bloody. He was shirtless, his fatigues stained with blood and sweat and dirt. His normally pale skin was red and purple and yellow, red blood still oozing from cuts across his body.
The figure didn’t respond.
“Shit, Cade -"
Taylor lowered the rifle and rushed towards Cade, searching for a way to free her teammate. “Come on, come on, don’t do this to me, Chief. I am not dragging your sorry carcass -"
“… Tay… lor…?"
“Yes!” Taylor clapped Cade’s face lightly, her fingers growing slick with the blood they picked up, “Hey, hey, look at me, Cade!"
Cade’s eyes weren’t tracking, which meant a dangerous head wound, and Taylor tugged fruitlessly on his chains. A lockpick would be really useful right now.
“Hang in there, Chief, I’m going to get you out, I promise."
She could shoot the chains holding him hanging, but there was too high a chance of bullet ricocheting and hurting Cade. She scanned the room, her gaze alighting on the rusty hinges of the door.
Okay, that she could work with.
Cade grunted as Taylor freed him from his chains, courtesy of a borrowed hinge pin, his head lolling against her shoulder. “… Tay…"
“‘Taylor,’ yeah,” Taylor muttered, trying to steady him, “I’m glad you know how to say my name."
Cade’s expression grew pained and he reached up a trembling hand towards her face, before his eyes fell shut and his body grew lax, unconscious. “Son of a b-"
Taylor tugged on the power, strengthening her muscles to bear 190 lbs of dead weight throughout the compound. She tugged Cade’s arm across her shoulder and grunted softly as she pulled him up in a fireman’s carry. It would be easier if she could morph - but, like Eric said - a Power Ranger turning up in [REDACTED] was something nobody needed.
“Alright, let’s go find the others."
“You’ve gotta be kidding me."
Taylor glared and peeled herself and Cade away from the corner. “You going to help, or are you waiting for an invite?"
Eric’s eyebrows rose. “Hey, I just shot the guys trying to turn you and your buddy into Swiss cheese.” He stepped over the dead bodies. “Come on, let’s find the rest of your boys."
Eric kept watch as the three of them made their way through the compound.
“Damn, you are one Hell of a shot."
Eric grinned. “Red Ranger. We’re good at this."
They turned a corner and Eric’s gun was up and firing before Taylor even registered there was a gunman in front of her.
“So basically you take advantage of the Power’s enhanced senses."
“Says the woman strengthening her muscles to carry 160 lbs of dead weight."
“190, he’s heavier than he looks - hear that?"
Eric nodded, moving towards the source of the noise - a faint moan coming from a door in front of them. Taylor’s free arm went to her gun, and she called on more of the Power to steady her, and then nodded.
Eric kicked down the door, ready to fire. “Clear!"
The cell was filthy, smelling worse than it looked. Two figures were huddled asleep in the corner, their clothes stained with blood and grime and sweat.
“Oh God,” Taylor choked out, “Nate, Jared…"
Taylor nodded, and Eric helped her lower Cade. Taylor crossed her cell to her teammates, kneeling down before them.
“Hey, Loki, Hotshot, you hear me? Nate! Jared!"
Taylor shook them lightly, trying to rouse them. Jared was the first to stir, blinking hazily up at Taylor. “… Taylor?"
Taylor smiled weakly. “Yeah, that’s me, Hotshot."
Jared’s expression crumbled into despair. “No nonono - you can’t be here!"
“You’re dead,” Jared cried, tears leaking from his eyes, “You’re dead you’re dead and this is Hell -"
“Jared Keller, that is enough!” Taylor snapped sharply, “You listen to me, and you listen good. You are not in Hell, and you are damn well not seeing the afterlife anytime soon! Now pull yourself together, Airman!"
“Ma’am, yes Ma’am,” Jared replied automatically, eyes wide.
“Your bedside manner hasn’t changed a bit, Striker,” Nate said softly.
Nate opened his eyes with a tired smile. “Senior Airman Nathanael Smith, reporting for duty, Lieutenant."
Taylor returned his smile, eyes stinging. “About time, Airman."
Taylor helped them up, pretending not to notice how tightly they clung to her, as if trying to make sure she was real, just as they didn’t mention her gentle touch or soothing murmurs. Behind them, Cade started to stir as well, eyelids fluttering.
Eric knelt down beside him, a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, you with us, man?”
Cade jerked back from Eric with a sharp cry, shoving him away.
Jared and Nate stood woozily as Taylor left them to crouch in front of Cade. “Hey, hey, calm down, Chief. It’s okay, we’re here to get you out."
“You’re dead,” Cade slurred.
Taylor scoffed weakly. “What, did you think being dead was going to stop me from pulling your dumb ass out of the fire?"
Cade tilted his head, confused. Taylor gripped his arms. “Come on, up you get -"
Eric turned at the distant rapport of gunfire, scowling. “We’ve got company."
Taylor looked up. “Stall them. I still need to find Duke."
Eric nodded curtly. “Hurry."
Jared helped Taylor lift Cade to his feet, balancing his weight. “I got ’im, Taylor. Nate, get over here."
“Are you sure -"
“We’re not exactly great shots right now."
Taylor nodded, shifting her rifle. “Let’s move."
“Jared, grab the MP5!"
Taylor ducked under her opponent’s swinging rifle butt, keeping an ear out for her teammates’ positioning, lashing upwards and slicing her assailant’s arm.
“Stay behind cover,” Taylor ordered, hurling her knife forward. It hit her enemy right over his heart and he stumbled back, stunned, before he collapsed dead.
“Taylor, I need another clip!"
Taylor slid over another clip towards her teammate’s voice, moving to retrieve his knife. “We goo -"
She ducked and jerked away as Jared opened fire, hissing furiously, “Keller! I do not plan on dying by friendly fire tonight!"
“Shit - Taylor -"
Gunfire started up again in the distance, along with more cries of pain. “That’s Eric, come on, we gotta go!"
“Duke’s cell should be right around the corner,” Jared said, helping Nate move Cade.
Jared was right - but none of them expected to find Duke lying in a large pool of his own blood.
Taylor bolted forward, dropping down beside the dark-skinned man. “No no no - Duke! Look at me, hey!"
Two fingers against Duke’s throat proved he was still alive - barely. “Duke, come on - shit, where is all this blood coming from -"
Duke gasped weakly as Taylor pressed down on an injury, trying to stem the flow of blood.
“That’s it, come on, Duke, come on -"
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, Rodent. Come on, what are you doing laying around, hunh?” Taylor tried to joke, her voice thick.
“‘R you - re’l?"
Taylor stroked his head gently with a crooked smile, her eyes wet and bright. “Yeah, yeah I am."
“Taylor,” Nate said softly, placing his hands on Duke’s injury, so Taylor could focus on supporting Duke.
“I hoped you were,” Duke said with a faint smile. “The team isn’t the same without you."
“You need to stop talking,” Taylor cut in, “Save your strength."
Duke coughed up blood.
“‘M not goin’ ‘nywhere, Striker."
“Yes, you are,” Taylor insisted desperately. His skin was cold and clammy, a grey tint to his dark brown skin.
“He’s lost too much blood,” Nate replied, voice breaking.
“Taylor,” Duke replied, grasping her hand. “It’s over.” His gaze drifted down Taylor’s tac vest. “Just let me make it count."
Taylor’s gaze dropped down to see what Duke was staring at.
Taylor gripped Duke’s hand tightly. “Duke -"
Gunfire exploded to their side, and they heard Eric shouting, “Time to go, guys!"
“Taylor -“ Nate started to say.
“Go,” Taylor said roughly, “Get Cade out of here. I’ll be right behind you."
Nate nodded, tears rolling down his cheeks. He reached out and clasped Duke’s hand. “It’s been an honour."
Duke smirked wetly. “Give ‘em Hell, Loki. And don’t think you can slack off, either, Hotshot!"
Jared gave a weak laugh that come out as a strangled sob. “All this to get out of that steak dinner you owe me, hunh?"
“Guys, time to move!” Eric snapped, grabbing the doorframe.
Taylor nodded, not taking her eyes off Duke. “Nate, Jared, go with him."
“Take Nate and go!"
Eric stood aside, watching the corridors as Nate and Jared hobbled out with a barely conscious Cade between them.
Taylor unpinned a grenade and pressed it into Duke’s hands, wrapping them around it tightly. Duke smiled, and Taylor kissed his forehead. “Give ‘em Hell, Duke."
She tugged off his dogtags and followed after her teammates. She ignored Eric’s watchful gaze and squared her shoulders. “Take point, we don’t have much time."
Eric nodded, and the five of them made their way down the corridor. They heard shouts behind them, and Taylor turned, firing her Beretta.
And then the wall exploded.
Taylor raised her arm to protect her face from shrapnel, her ears ringing. Smoke and dust had her coughing, eyes watering.
But there was no one else coming after them. Duke’s last act had saved them all.
Duke standing proud, saluting the flag, protecting the men and women of America.
Service before self.
Duke dragging soldiers off the battlefield, helping rookies with their training and showing them the ropes.
Excellence in all we do.
Duke’s clear gaze as General Shaw pinned a medal to his dress blues.
“You did your country and your Air Force proud, Airman."
“Where’s home base for you guys?” Eric called from the cockpit of the Eaglezord as Taylor cleaned and wrapped Cade’s head wound.
“[REDACTED],” Jared replied, leaning against Taylor’s side as she worked. “So, Power Rangers, hunh?"
Taylor kept her gaze focused on Cade.
“We thought you went down over [REDACTED], we grieved for you -"
“I’m sorry,” Taylor answered quietly.
“- and you couldn’t even give us a - a call?!"
“Hey, take it easy,” Eric snapped, “She didn’t have a choice!"
“Leave it alone, Eric,” Taylor snapped back.
Eric rolled his eyes, muttering under his breath, and turned back to monitoring the Eaglezord’s flight path.
“If I could have told you, I wold have,” Taylor insisted, “I swear, on everything we’ve ever been through."
Jared looked at Taylor for a moment and then nodded, relaxing.
“Earhardt, who knows you’re alive, anyway?"
“Lightspeed,” Taylor answered Eric, slapping Nate’s hand away from messing with the salve on his arm, “General McKnight, Army, and Captain Mitchell, Navy."
Nate frowned. “No one in the Air Force?"
“Since General McKnight does, I’d guess General Shaw does as well? I don’t really know how much the Joint Chiefs of Staff talk,” Taylor mused, “Lightspeed’s been my only military contact for nearly two years."
Jared reared back and stared at Taylor. “… So you’ve basically been on a black op for two years. Alone. With no backup."
Taylor frowned. “It’s not like that, Jared. I’ve got the other Power Rangers to back me up."
Nate snorted. “I don’t see any Power Rangers here."
“Technically a Ranger,” Eric called back, raising his hand, “Served before Taylor, though."
“My team’s not really equipped to do anything like this. Eric invited himself along -"
“- At the risk of court-martial for appropriating military resources -"
“- because he’s a spec-ops adrenaline junkie."
“Army Intelligence,” Eric added.
Jared considered him. “Army, hunh? I’d have pegged you for a leatherneck."
“Watch your mouth, zoomie, I’m the one piloting this can."
Taylor rolled her eyes. “Ignore him, the Eaglezord flies itself."
Jared snarked back at Eric, and Taylor and Nate exchanged exasperated looks. It was going to be a long ride to [REDACTED].
Cade was sitting upright by the time they reached [REDACTED], leaning against Taylor and fiddling with Duke’s dogtags.
“So how do we want to play this?"
“I go in, debrief their CO, everyone goes to the infirmary -"
“Absolutely not,” Eric and Cade responded immediately.
Taylor’s eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?!"
“No one knows you’re alive,” Cade argued, “Which means you’re going to get interrogated to Hell and back."
“At best, Lightspeed will intervene, but it’s going to take them a long while to get there, because they don’t have a flying zord or a magic island that bends space. And when they finally do get here, there’s going to be more paperwork and negotiations - you won’t be able to leave anytime soon. Which means when the call comes -"
“- I won’t be able to go fight beside the other Wild Force Rangers,” Taylor said, closing her eyes. Images of Cole, Alyssa, Max, and Danny getting hurt because she couldn’t get to them in time flashed through her mind and she clenched her fists. “Damn it."
“We could just report in ourselves,” Jared pointed out.
“Your careers would be over,” Taylor dismissed immediately.
“I’ll take them down to [REDACTED],” Eric offered, “My identity’s public, so no one would be too surprised. And since I was Army before I was a Power Ranger, General McKnight can intervene on my behalf without any problems."
Taylor looked between Eric and her teammates for a long moment before nodding. “Okay."
Taylor slammed the meat of her fist against the wall of her shower.
As if on cue, she’d gotten the call notifying her of an Org attack in downtown Turtle Cove the moment Eric took her team down.
An Org that spewed some kind of disgusting goo that stepped through her suit and through the seam under her helmet.
Her clothes were even more of a lost cause than before, goo adding to the blood and sweat and soot already on them.
God, she could see Duke’s blood staining her knees. Even with scalding hot water and a scrub brush, she could still see his blood.
She could still see Duke's body when she closed her eyes, see Cade hanging from chains with blood and bruises - he’d been electrocuted, now that she thought about, small spots and blisters, probably from a cattle prod.
He’d been in so much pain. And Duke had -
Duke had -
They’d all been in so much pain, and she’d walked out alive and whole.
Soldiers died, she knew that. Especially in [REDACTED]. God, did she know that, remembering bullets and fire and convoys exploding. Her squad was practically off the books, anyway, plucked right out of the Academy and sent in one some of the deadliest secret missions because they were the only ones qualified, the ones easiest to disavow.
They should have died a long time ago.
But they hadn’t.
They hadn’t, until this terrible day in [REDACTED].
A sob tore its way from her throat, and she hit the wall again. Damn it.
She couldn’t believe she’d never see him again, never get to play basketball with him, never get to listen to him and Nate calm Cade down when he got pissed when she and Jared started showing off on their jets in their downtime. Duke had this way of making MREs taste like gourmet meals. He’d always tell them about his huge family, about growing up in Boston -
Oh God. His family.
They’d never know, there wouldn’t even be any acknowledgement of his service because he died on a mission no one was supposed to even know about.
And what about Cade and Jared and Nate? Would she lose them in the line of duty, too, before she finished being a Ranger and could go home?
Taylor sobbed harder, resting both hands against the wall, nails scraping against the wall as she clenched her fists.
Several weeks later...
“You ever think about reenlisting?"
Taylor’s attention shifted from the ocean she was watching to the man she was reclining against. She blinked and looked up at Eric. “Hmm? Yeah, the minute this is all over, I’m getting back in my bird and rejoining my squad. Lightspeed said they’d smooth things over. You?"
Eric exhaled, his breath ghosting along her ear, and Taylor shifted in his embrace. He interlocked his fingers with hers before replying, “I’m thinking about it. Going after your team…"
Eric trailed off, pausing to take stock of Taylor’s reaction. Someone had pulled strings to get Duke the hero’s funeral he deserved, and Eric and Taylor had both attended. Eric went in public, but seeing Taylor in her dress blues in the shadows, more heartbroken than any other uniformed soldier there - he knew how hard it hit her. But while Taylor's gaze was a little clouded, her breathing was calm, and she continued tracing small circles with her fingers on Eric’s knee.
“Brought back memories. Reminded me why I joined up."
“What, it wasn’t to ‘see the world’ and ‘be all you can be?’” Taylor teased.
Eric scoffed and nipped at Taylor’s ear, causing her to yelp and punch his thigh.
“You seemed pretty happy with it a few - ow!"
Taylor dug her toes into the sand and crossed her arms. “Don’t be a pig."
Eric chuckled and worked on slowly uncrossing her arms. “Wes and the Silver Guardians… They’re great. Wes is probably one of the best friends I’ve ever had. But patrolling streets and occasionally providing muscle for cops isn’t really what I’m built for."
“You’d rather be blowing up bad guys in [REDACTED]?"
Eric chuckled and looked out at the ocean. “Something like that. Though maybe not there. After what happened, General Morrison forbade me from ever setting foot in [REDACTED] ever again."
Taylor laughed, tilting her head to kiss him. “To God and country, then."
Eric grinned, tugging them back down onto the sand. “To God and country."