"Morning, Mom. Morning, Dad," said Andros, still trying to stifle a sleepy yawn as he wandered into the kitchen.
"Good morning, son," said Geran, his father, peering briefly over the morning paper. "Is your sister up yet?"
"She's getting there," Andros replied, smiling a little. He knew Karone usually got up earlier than he did, but she would sometimes spend a whole hour or more playing with her hair and doing whatever other early-morning feminine things she did behind her closed door. He had never bothered to probe such arcane mysteries, but he was fairly certain that she would be finished soon.
"Breakfast is almost ready," said his mother, Alika, from the kitchen, "and there's one banana left, if you want it. First come, first served."
"Thanks," said Andros. He quickly appropriated the alien fruit that was lying innocently on the counter. He had never even seen a banana until he had started making frequent visits to Earth, but he had developed a liking for them, and he usually brought home a few, plus some other Earthly delicacies like popcorn and bubblegum, whenever he visited his friends' home planet. He peeled the banana, smiling a little at the memory of his first encounter with one, and looked around at the peaceful morning scene. Having been without his parents and sister for years, he appreciated their presence more than ever before, and he took a lot of enjoyment out of even simple things like eating breakfast together.
"What's in the news, Dad?" he asked, addressing the figure who was hiding behind a paper. "Anything good?"
"When is there ever anything good in newspapers?" his father answered. "No matter how well things are going, they still manage to find something bad to report. I have to wonder why I even bother reading these things." He paused, turning a page, and scanned the new array of articles. "Hmm. This is odd. Take a look at this."
He folded the paper and handed it to his son, who took it curiously and began to read. The largest headline on the page announced, "Sorceress Held Captive on Constrexia." Delving deeper into the story, Andros learned that a sorceress named Mauralisa Quintessa was being confined to a single building on the city-planet of Constrexia, pending her marriage to the planet's chief scientist, Sfar Vrinn. It was said that the sorceress had unique powers over machinery, and it was speculated that the match was a political one, a gambit to increase Constexian power. Andros frowned a little.
"Something sounds kind of fishy about that," he muttered.
"What have fish got to do with anything?" asked his father in genuine puzzlement.
Andros made a face with embarrassment. A by-product of hanging out with Terrans was that he had started picking up some of their linguistic eccentricities without realizing it.
"Sorry," he said. "I was just thinking that it sounds sort of suspicious. In a way, I can understand having a political marriage, but why do they have to hold her captive? It sounds sort of... well, warlike to me."
"That's what I thought you'd think," his father replied, taking back the paper. "The Constexians have always been a peaceful people. They're a powerful military force, yes, but they've always allied with the Confederation of Light in the past. This kind of action is unlike them."
"Who's this Vrinn guy?" asked Andros. "I've never heard of him. Is he important?"
"In a minor way. He's the chief scientist, a great researcher and inventor. He developed a lot of the weapons technology used today, and Mauralisa is probably the only person in the universe with more technical knowledge than him."
"So he wants to marry her so he can try to force her to add her talents to his," Andros muttered.
"That's how I'm reading the situation," his father answered, nodding sadly. "It's an ugly thing. The Chief Executor is taking responsibility for the match, but one can't help but be suspicious... if there wasn't some element of coercion involved, why is a marriage necessary? Couldn't she just be employed, as Lord Vrinn is? She could even replace him altogether, which might actually be an improvement in Constrexia's condition. I don't know, but something doesn't seem right here."
"I agree," said Andros. "What should we do about it?"
"Do? Who says we can do anything?"
"The Power Rangers ought to be able to do something," Andros replied.
"Don't get your friends mixed up in this. This isn't the kind of fight Rangers are meant for. This is politics, and a nasty, sticky business at that. You all don't have the kind of knowledge and experience necessary to handle this situation. Besides, we don't have the facts to prove that this is anything corrupt, only speculation. If you got involved, it could result in even more trouble than there is already. You wouldn't want to see a battle break out over her, would you?"
"No," Andros admitted, "but I still don't like it."
"Some things are out of your sphere of influence," said his father gently. "Not even the Red Ranger can do everything."
Andros was quiet for a while as he absentmindedly ate his banana, his mind toying with notions about the captive sorceress and what the Constrexian government's motives were in keeping her. The one thing that managed to distract him from his dark thoughts was the arrival of his sister. She glided down the stairs like the princess she had once been. Morning light streamed through the windows, providing her with a halo that made her golden hair shine.
"Morning, everyone!" she said cheerfully. "Hi, Andros. Is that the last banana? You're such a pig," she teased, ruffling her brother's hair affectionately.
"Hey, cut that out!" he said, laughing. "And to think I spent a whole ten years looking for you. If I'd known you were going to be so much trouble, maybe I'd have left you behind."
Karone grinned impishly. "Well, if I bother you that much, Zhane's offered to let me move in with him..."
"Oh, no you don't!" spluttered her father from behind her paper.
Andros and Karone began laughing. Their father flushed red for a moment, and then he saw the funny side of it and laughed, too. In the middle of it, Alika came in carrying a breakfast tray and looked at them all in confusion.
"What did I miss?" she asked.
"Oh, nothing," said Andros, getting himself under control again. "Just Karone kidding around... at least, you'd better be kidding."
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding," she assured her protective brother. She dropped into her chair with a contented smile. "Right now, I'm happy just to be here with my family. This beats the princess life by a light-year!"
The talk of dark pasts and convoluted politics were dropped then, and the family chatted together about mundane matters. Andros listened in and occasionally put in a comment, but his mind was still troubled with the plight of the sorceress of Constrexia. Maybe his father was right, that it wasn't Ranger business and he ought to keep out of it. It could be just a political gambit. It might not even be a real problem. As far as he knew, this Mauralisa might even want to marry Sfar Vrinn, but... somehow, he didn't think so. In the back of his mind, he knew he was already decided. The first opportunity that presented itself, he was going to go to Constrexia and have a look at the situation for himself.
"Well, I think I'm done with breakfast," he announced. "How about you, Karone?"
"Yeah, I think so," she replied.
"I'm going for a walk now. Want to come with me?"
They put their breakfast dishes away to be washed, and then wandered outside. It was a perfect day on KO-35, as warm and sunny as anyone could ask, and with a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean to keep the heat from getting oppressive. Andros looked around, enjoying the beauty of his newly restored home world... and suddenly, everything went out of focus. The world seemed to spin around him, turning blurry and unstable as he was hit with a wave of dizziness. His feet were beyond his control, and he stumbled. He managed to avoid falling only by the serendipitous placement of the porch railing, and he clutched at it desperately, panting. Then, just as suddenly as it began, it stopped, and everything settled down to the way it should be. The entire episode had lasted no more than a few seconds.
"Are you okay?" asked Karone in concern. "What happened?"
"I'm fine," Andros said, standing up straight again. "I just tripped, that's all."
"Are you sure? You look so pale all of a sudden," Karone replied. "You aren't getting sick, are you?"
"I feel fine," insisted Andros. "I'm probably just tired. I didn't sleep too well last night. I'll be okay."
"As long as you're sure," Karone said dubiously. Though Andros had toughened himself with years of martial arts practice, and he was given some protection from diseases and other ailments by the Power he carried, his constitution was still somewhat weaker than his friends, and he was still prone to catching the occasional roaming virus.
"I promise I'll turn in early tonight," said Andros reassuringly. "I don't want to get sick any more than you want me to... especially now that something's come up."
"Something? What kind of something?" asked Karone, worries momentarily forgotten in the face of curiosity.
"Something dad found in the paper," Andros replied, and he told his sister what he knew about the situation on Constrexia.
"That does sound suspicious," Karone agreed, "but are you sure we should get involved? Power Rangers... well, they mostly battle physical evil, you know? Are you sure we wouldn't be overstepping our boundaries a little if we got mixed up in this?"
"A Power Ranger's duty is to fight evil where they find it," said Andros, displaying his stubborn streak. "I say there's something about this situation that doesn't add up. Look," he said, noting her skeptical expression, "I'm not saying I want to launch an attack on the Constrexians. All I want right now is to get some more information. We go in, look around, ask a few discreet questions, and then either decide what action to take or leave it all alone. I don't intend to take any great chances."
"Well, maybe that would be all right," said Karone thoughtfully, staring off into space. "Hmm... Sfar Vrinn, Sfar Vrinn. That sounds familiar, somehow. Where have I heard that name before?"
"The last time you heard-that-name-before, we ended up fighting Blackwind for a week," Andros muttered. "I say anyone you've heard of somewhere before is likely to be bad news."
"I'd heard of you before. Does that make you bad news?" asked Karone teasingly.
"Very funny," said Andros, but he grinned a little anyway. "So, what do you think? Will you come?"
"What are we going to tell our parents?" she asked.
"Tell them... tell them we're going to Earth for a while, to see the rest of the gang," answered Andros thoughtfully. "That's not exactly a lie. We will go to Earth and we will see them. We just won't stay there."
"Hmm," said Karone, frowning a little. "I don't know..."
"Well, I'm going," said Andros. "Do you want to come or not? I promise, we'll leave the instant it looks like there will be trouble."
"Well..." Karone said. She looked at her brother's puppy-dog expression, smiled fondly, and shook her head. "Okay, big brother, I'll come. Someone has to keep you out of trouble, and I know Zhane won't be the one to do it!"
Andros chuckled. "Ha, when he hears about this, he'll be ready to storm the Palace of Law and take Sfar Vrinn as a prisoner of war or something."
Karone joined in with her own bright laughter. "I can see him now, kicking down doors and trying to rescue the fair lady, like in one of those movies you like."
"You're the one who likes the dramatic rescues," said Andros, taking mock- offense. "I just watch them to keep you company."
"Well, if we're going to do this, let's get going. It will take a while to get to Constrexia," said Karone, ever practical. "You tell Mom and Dad, and I'll find Zhane."
"Zhane probably isn't awake this time of day," Andros answered with a victorious grin. "Besides, Dad will be less suspicious if you propose a day out. He's already lectured me once about trying this."
"Imagine me being the trustworthy one in the family," said Karone. "All right, you go wake up sleepyhead, and I'll play innocent for Mom and Dad. See you in a little while!"
"See you," Andros replied.
They went their separate ways, one going back into the house, the other heading for other parts of the city. Andros tried to ignore his qualms of nervousness about the whole situation... and also the headache which hovered vaguely behind his eyes, misting over his vision. He blinked and shook his head, and everything cleared up again. He wondered briefly if he really was getting sick... but it was no large matter. He could attend to this mission quickly, and then return home for some well deserved rest. It was probably nothing serious, anyway.
It took very little time to convince Zhane to come along on an adventure. He was always up for some excitement... except when he had not yet been dragged from blissful slumber. The greater part of Andros's visit to his friend's home was spent in waking Zhane up enough to be coherent. However, once he was awake and alert and had been made aware of the situation, he was more than ready to assist in the rescue of the captive sorceress. Within a few minutes, they had packed their personal belongings, tracked down Alpha Six, and had boarded the MegaShip, heading for Earth.
Within hours, they had tracked down their old friends, putting out the word that a new adventure was afoot, and they were all invited. It was easy enough to convince them to come along on this journey; after crisscrossing the universe as Power Rangers, the mundane details of day-to-day life got boring, and they were happy for the chance to be leaving Earth for a little while. They didn't even ask for an explanation until they were already out in space.
"Where are we going, anyway?" asked Cassie, as the Rangers assembled in the bridge for a planning session.
"We're heading for a planet called Constrexia," Zhane replied, pointing it out on a computerized starmap. "It's one of the most technologically advanced planets in the universe. The whole place is just one huge city."
"If we run into Darth Vader, I'm leaving," said Carlos flippantly.
"Who?" asked Andros.
"So," said T.J., bringing the conversation back on track, "why do we want to go to Constrexia? Are they having monster troubles?"
"No, this is a rescue mission," Andros replied. For the umpteenth time that day, he launched into an explanation of the captive sorceress's plight.
"We think there's something underhanded going on," Zhane said, noting his friends' puzzled looks. "Constrexia is technically on the side of the Confederation of Light, but this kind of action goes against the established Confederation laws. You can't deprive people of their freedom unless they've done something to deserve it, and forced marriages are frowned on."
"Why doesn't the Confederation stop this, then?" asked Ashely.
"The Confederation is weak and disorganized these days," Andros replied gravely. "They lost a lot during the war. A few high officials were killed or wounded too badly to participate, and most of the Confederation members still have problems that are more serious and closer to home to deal with. Besides, I did some research on the way to Earth and got some more information on the subject. This Sfar Vrinn guy is a slippery character; he's managed to crawl through some loopholes in the law and say he's offering Mauralisa protection from dangerous criminals. That's legal. And since there's no legal way to prove an engagement, you can't prove he's forcing Maura to marry him."
"Sounds like a politician to me," said Cassie, rolling her eyes in annoyance.
"So instead of trying to fight legal battles with this Vrinn character, you think it would be better to just move in and smuggle Mauralisa out," T.J. summarized.
"No," Andros corrected firmly. "We're going in to investigate and see how everything really stands... but if there really is a problem, yes, I am prepared to take that step. What about you guys?"
"I don't know..." Ashley said hesitantly. "Wouldn't that kind of be like kidnaping or something?"
"No way! If anything, he kidnaped her... or something like that," Cassie disagreed. "Keeping her locked up in her own home is kind of like kidnaping."
"If the situation is bad enough, I say we do what we can," T.J. said. "Laws are only meant to be followed when they're being used right. When they're abused like this, you have to take a stand."
"Good," said Andros, obviously deciding the matter had been agreed upon. "We can start by seeing if they'll let us talk to Mauralisa, and then..."
"Approaching the planet Constrexia," DECA cut in. "Fifteen minutes until contact."
"Bring up a visual," Andros ordred.
A screen flashed to life, showing a great silver-white planet looming up before them. Everyone stared at it, all conversation momentarily forgotten. From this distance, the shining white buildings of the global city made the entire world look like a single diamond that glittered from a trillion facets. Even the dark side flashed, lit by a million flashing city lights. The stars that lit the sky beyond it seemed to pale in comparison. The crowning touch was a sleek silver ring that encircled it. This was no natural ring of space dust, but an actual floating skybase that acted as the gate between Constrexia and the rest of the universe - a beautiful but pointed reminder that visitors were not always welcome.
"It's incredible," Ashley whispered.
"Like a comet," said Zhane. "Nice to look at from a distance, but you wouldn't want to get in its way."
"Time to get checked in," Andros muttered. "I hope they don't suspect anything..."
"You were the one who said no one would suspect a Power Ranger of making trouble," said Karone.
"That was back at home, where it was safe," Andros replied.
He guided the ship toward a gap in the ring, landing it smoothly in the docking station. They spent the next half hour having their ship searched for any dangerous devices and other such problematic cargo. After the exasperating and seemingly endless search was over, they were issued a bill of passage allowing them to spend an allotted amount of time on Constrexia. T.J. handled most of that business, while Andros left the ship to circumspectly discuss his visit with one of the officials at the gate, which took more time. Finally, after a long and tedious argument, a somewhat annoyed looking Red Ranger returned to his ship, announcing that he had gotten directions to Mauralisa's home and tacit permission to see her. That was good enough for them. Legal troubles behind them, they made their way to the main part of Constrexia.
On Earth, most cities were divided by vertical lines, like invisible walls, that separated the "good" parts of town from the "bad" ones. Constrexia, on the other hand, was covered totally with skyscrapers, each identical, and so the dividing lines had gradually become horizontal. The very lowest levels were the slum areas, eternally dirty and garbage-strewn, and only the poor and the criminal lived there. The highest levels tended to be clean, installed with all the latest technology, and horrendously expensive. It was a testament to Mauralisa's value that her rooms occupied the entire top floor of one of the more exclusive buildings. If she was being held captive, it was in a gilded cage. The Rangers parked the MegaShip on a rooftop landing pad and escorted to her front door by a stiff and rather overdecorated bellhop. He then abandoned them, leaving them to glance at each other to see who felt courageous enough to ring the doorbell. Looking at the opulent furnishings of the hallway and hoping he was doing the right thing, Andros moved forward and pressed a finger determinedly to the doorbell. A musical chime sounded somewhere inside.
"Who is it?" inquired a female voice. It was pleasant, but tinged with anxiety.
"Visitors," answered Ashley. No one could hear her cheerful, innocent voice and suspect her of treachery. "We heard you lived here, and we couldn't leave without coming to meet you in person. You don't mind, do you?"
"Oh, no, of course not! I get so lonely here, sometimes..."
There was a sound of footsteps, and then the door was opened a crack, just wide enough for a pair of curious hazel-green eyes to peer out at the Rangers. Finding herself faced with nothing more sinister than a group of somewhat nervous-looking teenagers, Mauralisa opened the door wide with a welcoming smile.
The Rangers stared in faint surprise. None of them had known many sorceresses in their time, but they had constructed a vague notion that they ought to be tall and glamourous, with flashing eyes and flowing gowns. Mauralisa Quintessa defied her pretentious name by being nothing of the sort. She was a small, motherly looking woman with bright eyes and rosy cheeks. Her long brown hair was just beginning to silver, and there were laugh lines around her eyes and mouth, the only hints that she was much older than she looked - use of magic tended to preserve the user far past their natural years. Putting her completely out of the realms of anything the Rangers had expected, she wore a simple green dress covered by an apron. Who expected to meet a sorceress in a blue-and-white checked apron?
"Come in, come in!" she urged, stepping aside and beckoning them to enter. "I get so few visitors these days, and even fewer young people. Forgive my appearance; I've been cooking. Do you all like cake?"
Within minutes, the Rangers found themselves seated in Mauralisa's parlor, eating cake with chocolate frosting, still warm from the oven, and sipping hot chocolate. The homey warmth was welcome after being out in the bleak city. Their hostess, who insisted on being called Maura, chatted with them as if she had known them all their lives, teasing the males and complimenting the females on their clothing and hair, entertaining them all with jokes and gossip.
While they were eating, T.J. scanned the room's furnishing with a studious eye, trying to glean insights on the nature of their new acquaintance. The walls were decorated with paintings of pastoral scenes, and seemingly every free space was decorated with vases of flowers (probably imported at great expense, judging by the amount of growing space available on Constrexia). Even the carpets and wallpaper were decorated with designs of flowers and climbing vines. The furniture was simpler than he would have expected, given the state of the outside hall, and it looked as if she had made a deliberate effort to done down what she had been given with knickknacks and doilies. The air was scented sweetly with the scent of flowers, plus an added perfume of vanilla from the cake.
*This is the home of a woman who misses the country,* T.J. decided. *She doesn't belong in the city at all. Andros is right - it really is wrong to keep her here. We're going to have to get her out of here.*
"Anyone for seconds?" asked Maura, indicating the half-eaten cake.
"I'll have some," said Carlos.
"No, thanks," Karone said. "A girl's got to watch her figure."
"Hey, with a figure like that, I'd be glad to watch it for you!" Zhane piped up.
"Zhane!" Karone protested, blushing brightly.
Zhane just grinned. He liked teasing Karone. She turned such pretty shades of pink! The others laughed, and Karone finally had to join in.
Just then, there was a knock on the door - not a chime from the doorbell, but a loud, impatient knocking. Maura looked up in slight alarm.
"Oh, dear," she murmured. "This isn't good timing. Please excuse me, my friends. This probably won't concern you."
The knocking continued insistently, and Maura hurried to answer the door. Just before she reached it, it seemed to burst open of its own accord, and a man stepped into the room. He was pale skinned and dark haired, with a neatly clipped beard covering his chin. On some people, beards could soften a person's expression, but this one seemed to be there only to emphasize his face's angularity and harshness. Blue eyes flashed coldly from behind a pair of glasses. The temperature in the room seemed to drop a few degrees as he entered, and Mauralisa shrank away from him, suddenly looking pale and frightened.
"Sfar!" she blurted. "What are you... I mean, I wasn't expecting..."
"I don't need a reason to pay a visit to my fiancee," said Sfar blandly, "and it looks as if I came just in time. What are these unauthorized persons doing in your home, Mauralisa? You know you aren't supposed to have people here without my permission."
"Oh, Sfar, let them stay! They're only children, Sfar. They're doing no harm," Maura pleaded.
"Nonsense. They are unauthorized, and that means they shouldn't be here. If their purpose was benign, they would have applied for permission," Sfar answered. He turned his penetrating gaze from Maura to the Rangers. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"We're only space travelers," said Andros, doing his best to sound innocent. "We've heard about Mauralisa's expertise, and we wanted to inquire with her about a technical problem with our ship. She's very graciously agreed to help us."
"She does not have that freedom," Sfar answered coldly.
"You mean Mauralisa can't do anything without your permission?" asked Andros, matching frost for frost.
Sfar hesitated, studying Andros as if he could read the young man's motives in his expression. Andros kept his face impassive, letting only cool determination and calm self- assurance show in his eyes. He had faced down things a lot more dangerous than arrogant scientists, and he made sure this one knew he wasn't backing down. He watched expressions of suspicion and speculation cross the man's stern countenance. Suddenly, his sharp black eyes flashed with a kind of cold recognition.
"I know who you are now," he said. "It was rude of you not to introduce yourself. You are Andros Geranson of KO-35. I've heard of you. You're a Power Ranger."
"That's true," Andros replied. "These are my friends and crewmates. Surely you aren't going to say the Power Rangers can't be trusted!"
"It is best not to trust anyone. There have been evil Rangers before," said Sfar blandly. "But no matter; I know you to be what you seem to be, and I think Mauralisa can be trusted in your care. That being the case, I freely give my permission for her to visit your ship. I've heard it's quite impressive."
"Thank you, Sfar," said Maura. "I'd love to see it, I really would. You're very generous."
"I expect you to behave while you're there," Sfar replied. "I'll be going now - mustn't keep you from your technological discoveries. Do let me know if you find something interesting."
"I will, Sfar," she answered obediently, but those nearest to her could see the lines of annoyance on her face.
"Very good. I will see you later then. Goodbye, Mauralisa," said Sfar. He swept out the door, letting it slam behind him.
Maura collapsed into the nearest chair, looking relieved.
"I'm so glad he's gone," she said. "I know it's wrong, but I really can't stand his company. I wish I wasn't expected to marry him..."
"I can believe that!" said Cassie. "Who does he think he is, the king or something? He's acting like you're a prisoner or something!"
"I am, in a way," said Maura wistfully. "This planet used to be such a beautiful place. There were trees and rivers and even oceans. I used to have such a charming little house out in the country, with a garden and an orchard, and a little creek running through the back... that was before the Technologists took over the government, and they kept building and expanding until there was nothing left! There was a movement, years ago, to eliminate part of the city and reclaim part of nature on Constrexia, but Sfar fought it viciously. It was how he rose to power, you know... I don't like to say this, but I could easily hate him just for that. Sometimes I think I do. I think I'm the last of my kind, and the only reason I'm tolerated is for my talent. There's nowhere on this planet I really want to be, but if I marry him, I'll have to stay here forever!"
"None of this is fair! You shouldn't be forced to do any of this," said Ashley vehemently. "Why is he making you do this? He obviously doesn't care anything about you."
"Of course he doesn't care," said Maura bitterly. "All he cares about is the fact that nothing will stay broken when I decide to fix it, and that I can build a lethal weapon out of scrap metal and rubber bands. Do you know why he's letting me go on board your ship? He's hoping I'll be able to copy some of your plans... as if I ever would do such a thing!" For a moment, her eyes blazed with anger, her fists clenched so tightly that they shook. Then she sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Rangers. I shouldn't burden you with my troubles."
"It's all right," said Andros. "That's exactly why we're here. Power Rangers exist to fight injustice, and this is definitely not right. We're on your side, Maura. I promise, we'll do whatever it takes to get you away from here!"
"Oh, no, you mustn't do that!" she said. "The law forbids it! You'll all be in danger if you try."
"The law is wrong" said Zhane. "The Confederation of Light would side with us on this. Believe me, one way or another, we will get you out of this."
"It would be easy enough just to have you drop out of sight. I did it, once," said Karone quietly.
"Well..." said Maura hesitantly, "I'll think about it. But I really would love to see your ship, and as long as I've got permission, I will at least go that far."
Andros grinned. "Right this way!"
Mauralisa's expressive eyes widened in delight as she entered the MegaShip, and her face lit up in a smile of wonder.
"Oh, do you really live here?" she exclaimed. "This is wonderful!"
"You like it?" asked Andros with proprietary pride.
"I love it!" she said. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back rapturously, as if enjoying beautiful music that only she could hear - but then again, perhaps the quiet humming and bleeping of computers and machines really was music to her ears. "It truly is a masterwork. I can feel a vibration here, a kind of life. This is a machine built by caring hands, not by those who would use this as a battleship. There is a sense of peace here. I would be happy to live here forever, especially if it would get me away from this horrible planet."
"We'll do our best to get you to freedom," T.J. promised, "but it's not going to be easy. Those guards searched every inch of this ship before they let us in. I don't think we could hide you here and get away with it."
"Don't worry, though," said Cassie quickly. "We will think of something. The Power Rangers have never been beaten yet."
Mauralisa sighed. "I hope you're right, Cassie. Things are getting . . . very bad for me here. I think Sfar is losing patience with me; I can't put him off much longer, and I am frightened of his followers." She trailed a graceful hand over the console of a nearby computer, as if the patterns of buttons and knobs were a code that she could read.
"You are not authorized to use that equipment," said DECA imperiously.
"Oh, come on, DECA!" said Zhane in exasperation. "Maura is our friend. She can use the stupid computer if she wants to."
"Your ship talks?" asked Mauralisa in amazement.
"In a way," said Andros. "DECA is the ship's main computer. She monitors and controls everything that goes on aboard the MegaShip."
"Ah, I see," said Mauralisa thoughtfully. "A ship with a soul."
"Well, not exactly," Andros said.
"She's got an attitude, anyway, that's for sure," Carlos muttered.
"I heard that!" said DECA.
Mauralisa wasn't listening.
"This is interesting," she said to herself. "Very interesting. I think it's given me an idea..."
"Well, let's hear it!" Ashley encouraged.
"I am thinking," said Mauralisa. "There has never been anything I have tried to do with a machine that has not worked. I am wondering if it would be possible if I could change places with DECA for a while. I would be the computer, and she would be, well, a human."
Andros shook his head. "That's risky. Besides, even if it worked, it would still leave us with an unidentified person on board. The guards would just wind up capturing DECA instead of you."
"Maybe," Karone said, "and maybe not. Let me see our passport, Andros. Maybe there's a loophole somewhere."
Without much real hope, Andros fished the passport out of his pocket and gave it to his sister. She unfolded it and carefully read over all the fine print.
"Well, here's our answer right here," she said. "The passport is to admit the crew of the Astro MegaShip, but it doesn't say who the crew is. I think DECA would count as part of the crew, human or not."
"Well, if Maura is really willing to try it..." Andros began.
"What about DECA?" an unexpected voice piped up. Everyone turned to look at Alpha, who was watching them all with an accusatory look. "That would be dangerous for her, too, you know. Doesn't she get any say in this?"
Andros slapped his forehead in chagrin. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to overlook her." He looked up at the nearest audio-visual scanner mounted on the wall and addressed it. "What do you say, DECA? Will you help us out?"
There was a long pause as DECA sorted through the options - it wasn't often that a computer was asked to give its opinion, even if the computer was as opinionated as DECA. After a moment, the camera-like device bobbed once in an imitation of a nod.
"All right, then," said Mauralisa softly. "Let the magic begin."
She closed her eyes and rested her hand on one of the computers, breathing slowly and deeply, her face a mask of concentration. Slowly but surely, an aura of silver-green light built up around her until she appeared as nothing more than a glow. Then, there was a sudden whooshing noise and a bright flash of light, and Mauralisa was suddenly gone.
In her place stood a young lady, perhaps in her early twenties, with a serious face framed by tendrils of straight, dark hair that were trying to escape the confines of a ponytail. She was dressed in the same kind of silver suit worn by the rest of the MegaShip's crew, but the shirt she wore under the uniform was plain grey. Her skin was pale, as if she'd never even seen the sun, and her eyes, framed by thick-rimmed glasses, were dark and widened by surprise. She was panting a little with shock.
"Human," she said softly, and then quickly raised a hand to touch her throat, as if she was startled to hear any sound coming from it. Then, she slowly lowered her hand and held it out to look at it. A little shakily, she repeated, "I really am human!" Her voice was the same tone as it had always been, though without the slight mechanical distortion and with more emotion. Still staring at everything as if she'd never seen any of it before, she took a hesitant step forward. One foot got caught on the other, making her stumble, but the Rangers quickly caught her and helped her right herself.
"Are you okay?" asked Andros in concern. "Are both of you okay?" he added, looking up at the nearby scanner.
"All's well here," came Mauralisa's voice from the machine on the wall. "I think you had better attend to Deca. Being a machine is much simpler than being a human."
"I'm all right," Deca insisted unsteadily, trying to regain her balance. She tried to step forward again, and this time made it as far as one of the computers before she stumbled again. "I don't think I like this."
"You won't have to deal with it very long," said Zhane. "Just as long as it takes for us to get through the checkpoint, and then you can go back to being a computer again."
"You'll be okay, Deca," said Alpha, patting her shoulder comfortingly. "You're lucky. I'd be a human if I could."
"You want it, you try it," she snapped back.
"Probably not a good idea," Maura said. "Not now, anyway. Though I don't object to letting him try, what you would get would be something along the lines of a precocious ten-year- old child, and I don't think you could get him through the checkpoint. If anyone does this, it's going to be Deca."
Alpha shrugged. "Oh, well, maybe later."
"Can we leave now?" asked Deca impatiently. "I do not want to stay like this any longer than I have to."
"Fine, fine, sure," Andros replied. "Fire up the engines, DE... I mean, Maura, and let's get out of this creepy place. I've had enough of Constrexia myslef."
"Right away, captain!" said Maura cheerfully.
There was a soft rush of engines, and the MegaShip lifted gently off the landing pad and soared into the sky. The Rangers drifted off to their proper stations to monitor the controls and engine, leaving Deca resting in Andros's chair, trying to get used to her new station in life. She looked in bewilderment at hands, clothing, hair, even taking off her glasses to study them. This was so strange! She was used to being high above the general chaos of day-to-day activities, and it was confusing to suddenly be thrust down on the ground and forced to move among the humans she was used to observing. Observing... she only had two eyes now. How strange! Just a few minutes ago, she had been able to see everything that was going on within the entire ship, and with her scanners, she could see and hear things that were on the far side of the universe. Now, all she could see was what was directly in front of her, and even that was hard to make out without these new glasses. On the other hand, what she could see was amazing! Colors had never looked so bright, or lines as sharp. And then there were all these feelings to consider... She sighed; it was all a little too much for her to handle at once.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" she asked, looking plaintively up at the security camera that would be Maura's eyes and ears for the next few hours.
*So that's what I looked like. I never even thought about it before.*
"All will be well," Maura's voice assured her. "Trust in the Power, and be patient."
"I never did patience well," Deca muttered, "even as a computer."
Maura laughed. "Don't feel bad. It will take me some time to get used to not being human anymore. Interesting view from up here... I could get to like it."
"I did," said Deca. She considered a little while. "I think I'll do some exploring. I might never get another chance for a human's-eye view of things. Some good might as well come from this." Still not looking at all cheerful, she got up and walked slowly and carefully away.
It was a relief to see the silver ring of the checkpoint looming up to fill the viewing screen. The Rangers gathered together on the bridge to observe their progress - everyone wanted to be off of Constrexia as soon as possible.
"This is it," said Andros, a slight smile playing across his features. "Once we get past this, it will be smooth sailing."
"And not a moment too soon," Deca grumbled. Given time, she might possibly have gotten used to being human, but she didn't really want to take that time. She still had it firmly fixed in her mind that computers were still superior to humans, and she didn't care much for the fact that she had suddenly fallen down a rung in the scheme of things.
The ship landed in the docking station, and the officials immediately stormed it. The Rangers bore the scrutiny nervously; last time, there had been nothing to hide, but now... even though there was no way anyone could have guessed that Maura was lurking within their computer system, they still felt somewhat guilty, and they hoped it didn't show too much. Deca was the only one who was completely calm, but that was more ignorance than confidence. After all, what did she know about what kind of punishments could be inflicted on errant humans? How could she comprehend it even if she had known. One of the guards looked at her suspiciously.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "I don't remember seeing you last time."
"That's Deca," T.J. said quickly, saving her from having to explain herself. "She's our computer specialist. She's been a part of our crew ever since we got this ship."
"Hmm..." said the guard, brow furrowed in thought. "If you say so. I don't recognize her as anyone important, so I guess..."
"All's clear, Captain!" shouted one of the younger guards, returning from his check of the ship. The other guards followed close behind. "Nothing to report, sir. The ship's clean as new glass."
"Very well, then," said the captain of the guard, turning to Andros. "If you'll just turn in your passport, we'll send you on your..."
"Wait, wait! Hold everything!" shouted a voice.
All heads turned, as a new set of guards suddenly dashed up. Unlike the regular guards, with their soft green uniforms and minimal decoration, these were dressed in sleek black, with partial armor, and carried deadly-looking lasers. They all looked like they meant business. A few of the Rangers looked uncomfortable. "Don't let these people escape! We're under orders to arrest them!"
"Arrest us? What for?" demanded Andros, trying to sound shocked and indignant.
"Sorry, sir!" said another soldier, shoving his way forward to
handcuffs on his wrists,
"you and your crew are under arrest for the murder of Mauralisa