Chapter Eight: Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
As soon as he saw the Red BattleZord spin by overhead, Tommy leaped
skyward and teleported himself into the zord's cockpit. He then brought
it down to Earth between the Power Chamber and the onrushing robeast.
This one looked like it might be a little easier to handle. At least it only had two arms and two legs, instead of all those tentacles. But like the last one, it was a lot bigger than the BattleZord, and he wasn't sure how much damage he'd be able to do to it.
His landing caught the robeast's attention, at least, and it lumbered forward, raising one clawed hand to swipe at him. Tommy dodged under the blow and aimed a high kick at the thing's knee: not an honorable move under normal circumstances, perhaps, but these were definitely not normal circumstances.
He heard a crunching sound, but the robeast did not seem notably injured. Apparently it had a hard exoskeleton beneath the layer of slime. Another hand came swinging down at him, so he dropped the zord into a dodging roll, springing back up to fire from the wrist-mounted weapons. "Crunch on this, big guy!"
He'd been without rockets for so long that he had almost forgotten how devastating they could be. The beast roared with pain as the explosions further cracked its exterior, but then it slammed the BattleZord with a kick, sending Tommy tumbling across the desert. The robeast then continued its march on the Power Chamber.
"Kat, have the people cleared out yet?" Tommy asked, as he righted the zord and got it to its feet.
"Some of them have, but a lot are just panicking, and... oh, God, Tommy, some of them are actually taking the time to pack their things! What are they thinking?!"
They were probably thinking that the Power Rangers would save them, so why hurry? Mindful of this, Tommy started the BattleZord forward at a full sprint, then leaped at the robeast from behind, hitting it right in the small of the back, fists-first. The beast toppled forward, making the ground tremble as it slammed down. the BattleZord rolled past it, then got to its feet and fired all weapons.
The robeast roared again, louder this time, as the weapons tore into it. Tommy realized he was actually doing it some damage, but he knew from past experience that he had to finish it off quickly before it gained more power. He continued firing, but even under his assault, it struggled to its feet, and then more quickly than he could dodge, reached out and snatched up the BattleZord with one clawed hand.
Tommy felt himself being lifted into the air, and to his horror, realized that the robeast was holding the zord over its head with both hands, as though to tear it in half. Instead, though, it raised one knee and slammed the zord down upon it, as if to break its back.
While the zord had no true back to break, the attack was no less devastating. Tommy shielded his eyes and bit down hard on the pain as several of his controls shorted out and exploded. His mental connection with the zord was allowing him to share in the agony: he felt as though he'd been knifed in the base of his spine, and his entire nervous system was afire with the residual pain. Rather than submit to the pain, though, he welcomed it. He allowed it to run its course and leave his spirit untouched.
The robeast tossed the zord aside and relentlessly crept forward, though more slowly this time. It didn't stop to finish him off: it obviously thought that he was no longer a threat, and was going back to its original mission.
"Tommy, can you move?" Katherine transmitted.
"It's gonna take me a few seconds to get control back!" he reported.
"I'm going to try something, but I need a little more time!"
"Leave that to me!" With a mighty effort, he brought the zord again to its feet and stumbled off in pursuit of the monster. It was getting awfully close to the Power Chamber. Tommy could now see that there was still a pretty good crowd around the mountain, but upon seeing the robeast, these people were dropping everything and running like the blazes. About time, too.
The BattleZord cut in front of the beast's path, making it rear back a moment in surprise. Then, it aimed another heavy fist at him. Tommy ducked under the blow and took a swing in reply. They exchanged punches for a little while, and Tommy found himself getting the better of it. Obviously the previous attacks had damaged the monster sufficiently to slow it down, and this gave the agile BattleZord the advantage. But it seemed to be picking up speed, and the cracks in the exoskeleton were beginning to seal themselves. He'd need to think of something pretty fast.
"Tommy, get clear!" Katherine suddenly shouted.
Acting on instinct alone, Tommy dodged sideways and rolled to his feet a few dozen yards away. The moment he regained his feet, a huge laser beam drilled right into the robeast's chest. Looking back, Tommy saw that it was coming from the top of the mountain.
The robeast reeled backward, flailing its arms as the laser continued to sear clean through its exoskeleton. Tommy braced his zord, then, and fired his own weapons to accompany the barrage from the mountaintop. Between the two, they blew the monster apart.
"Got him!" Tommy cheered. "Nice job, Kat! What did you do?"
"I took manual control of Zero. I just hope I can get it back on automatic tracking again."
The next incoming voice was Adam's. "Tommy, not to rush you or anything, but are you going to be back in the air soon? Without you and Zero, I'm getting swamped!"
"I'll be right there, Adam!" he replied, then switched back to Katherine. "Kat, I'm going to teleport straight to the Phoenix. There's no time to get the BattleZord back to the hangar right now. We can leave it out here in case another robeast comes."
"But what if they do send another one? What if they send several? Zero and Eric can't track them, and they can't tell them apart from the other ships!"
"I guess the rest of us'll just have to be more careful choosing our targets," Tommy sighed. He then teleported himself back to the waiting Phoenix, which he'd parked on a wide salt-flat, giving him plenty of room for takeoff.
"I can try to update the tracking programs," Kat considered, but it was obvious from her tone that she was frustrated. "Maybe I can get it to recognize anything shaped like a coffin as being a high priority, and then have the computers notify you whenever one's coming, but I can't make any promises. I...."
"Kat?" Tommy asked during the ensuing silence.
"I wish Billy were here," she growled.
She was angry, and not just at her own lack of knowledge with the Power Chamber. There was more to her wanting Billy there than simply the need for his technical skills, and more even than the worry they all shared for their missing teammate.
"I know you do, Kat," he heard himself say as the Phoenix once again took to the sky. "I know you do."
* * *
Repairing the Green Lion had presented Billy with any number of new challenges, not the least of which was familiarizing himself with a completely different lion structure. As an arm of Voltron rather than a leg, it was smaller than either of the two he'd previously encountered. Green Lion was obviously a much more battle-oriented craft: most of the internal space was taken up with weapons and mechanisms to serve the weapons systems. There was no hangar: only a tiny space where a single sled-ship could park. The crew capacity was smaller as well, at least by the look of the crew barracks, mess and sick bay. The cockpit was more or less the same, thankfully, though here too the emphasis was on offense, with no fewer than three separate tactical stations in the horseshoe.
Engineering, at least, was almost exactly the same, and this made Billy's job a lot easier. The design was a little more streamlined and compact (this was a later model, after all), but it didn't take him too long to get used to it. Within no more than two hours (by his own guess) he had revived the smaller lion's power source, and started it on its way to recovery. Three down, two to go.
In these two hours, the Yellow Lion had made startling strides in his own recovery: from the outside, he already looked all but untouched, and his eyes were glowing as brilliantly as his mate's. Once Rith was more or less aware of her surroundings, Billy and Alth left her in Toth's care for the moment while they went off searching for the remaining two lions.
It was here that Billy hit his first major snag since his arrival. Alth's powerful scanners discovered that the Red Lion was on the surface of Arus. Apparently his orbit had decayed as he'd drifted. This didn't sound promising: the forces of Doom had no doubt done him substantial damage already, and a violent re-entry and crash on the surface would only complicate matters.
Lacking an alternative, Billy brought the Blue Lion in for planetfall, touching down in the blackened skeletal remains of what had probably once been a lush forest. (Alth informed him that this, ironically, had been the forest where the Green Lion had made her lair.) Here, they found the Red Lion, in several pieces, strewn across the landscape like the wreckage it was.
After working for several hours in what was left of Engineering (near the middle of one of the larger pieces), Billy was nearing his wits' end. The other lions, while heavily damaged, had at least been more or less in one piece. What was the sense in reconnecting power to systems that were lying fifty yards off in a completely different section? How could the auto-repair systems fix these gaps? Every time he made even the slightest progress, something else would burn out, forcing him to start over. And to top it all off, he was working in an upside-down room: the torso had landed more or less on its back, and the gravity of Arus was doing the rest.
Finally, he realized he'd done all he could from here, and the lion wouldn't get anywhere until he could connect the power source to the cockpit. The only problem with this was that the cockpit was currently lying some eighty meters to the northwest along with the rest of the head.
So at great length, Billy pulled himself out of the lion's torso, dragging an enormous coil of power cable with him. He'd cannibalized several non-essential systems to get this much cable, and had done splice job after splice job to get it all together. And it was very heavy.
Slowly but surely, he dragged the coil along the scorched ground, unrolling it as he went. Off a ways from the site, Alth watched his progress with glowing yellow eyes. Can he be saved, Maker?
"Don't ask me that yet," Billy grunted, heaving the cable over a piece of the Red Lion's leg, which lay half-buried in his path. He then swung himself over the obstacle and kept going.
The cable ended up falling short by about fifty feet. When he reached the end of the line, and realized how much further he had to get, Billy felt a numbing wave of frustration sweep through him.
And then the next thing he knew, he was lying awkwardly on the ground. He was vaguely aware that he had fallen, but couldn't really picture it. Had he passed out?
Whatever had happened, Alth had risen from the ground nearby and rushed toward him, and her enormous face was now peering at him closely. Maker? Maker, you are not well?
"I'm okay," he growled, but he made no effort to get up yet. "No, scratch that, I'm not okay. The truth is, I haven't had a decent sleep in nearly two weeks, I haven't eaten anything in at least thirty-six hours, and I've been living on my wits and my nerves ever since we got here because if I don't hurry all my friends and the girl who's not really my mate and an entire planet might die at the hands of a witch named after my favorite brand of dress slacks, and now this stupid cable is too effing SHORT!"
I have neglected you! Alth sounded horrified. Maker, forgive me. I have worried so for the lives of my family that I have neglected you!
"No, no, don't think that. I've neglected me. Trust me, I'm good at this. Back home, I was the same way: I'd get involved with a project, or some computer program, or some new invention, and I'd go days on end without eating or sleeping properly. I tend to get so wrapped up in my work that I forget everything else."
I should have recognized this. Please forgive me, Maker. It has been so long since I had a pilot. I had forgotten how fragile you can be. In her thoughts, Billy felt an unsettling void of time and loneliness, and he got the idea that it had been much longer than he would have thought.
"It's all right, Alth," he sighed. "I don't really think you've done anything that I'd need to forgive you for, but if it'll make you feel better, I forgive you."
Alfor, the Father-Creator, taught us never to neglect our pilots. I fear I took you away from your home with no thought for your own health, and my food stores have been empty since my last crew deserted me. I have nothing to offer you.
"Oh, I'll be okay without food for a while. I've gone longer than this without eating before, after all. So long as I have water, I should be all right."
Yes. Water is something I can certainly do.
Billy chuckled. "Ah, well. I guess it's time to head back and gather up some more cable. That cockpit's not getting any closer."
Alth looked at him for a moment more, then padded over to where the Red Lion's head was lying. As Billy watched, she reached down with her jaws, picked it up by one ear, and carefully carried it over toward the torso. She then set it down gently, backed away, sat down, and looked at Billy expectantly.
He couldn't help but laugh. "Now why didn't I think of that?"
* * *
Aisha Campbell looked to the north as another beam of yellow cut through the darkening sky, and wondered how much longer this would take. Off behind her a ways, her three travel companions were hard at work setting up tonight's campsite. She knew she should probably join them: after all, they were here on account of her.
Thankfully, no one had done much questioning about the whys and wherefores of her need to get to the source of the yellow power, as Aisha really wasn't sure herself. It was more a hunch than anything else. All she really knew was that she was needed, and that she had to find her way back to Tanya. There was no question in Aisha's mind that she and Tanya were connected, somehow, like sisters, and Aisha had experienced enough in her life to believe a hunch like this.
But every night, as she thought about how far they had yet to travel, she had to worry, as now her hunch had involved not only herself, but three of her tribe "cousins," Ishala, and even great-uncle Kipchoge. Nyandika, Kuria and Joram all knew a little about her history with the Power Rangers, which was why Ishala had chosen them to guide Aisha, but what if they had come all this way for nothing?
Another beam of yellow laser streaked across the starry night. It seemed a world away.
They had already run out of good highways, and were currently on a hard-packed dirt road, well away from the nearest town. They had extra gas cans with the truck, to help them across the longer stretches between automobile-friendly towns, but even so, there were a great many things that could go wrong. There was no telling what the political implications of the invasion had been, and how each of the several countries they would pass through would react to their presence. So much to consider...
"Aisha!" Joram called, interrupting her reverie. She looked back to see her cousin approaching. The others had just finished lighting a fire, and were now staring intently into the distance.
"(What is it?)" she asked him in Swahili.
"(There is someone else coming up the road. They might stop to see who we are.)"
Aisha looked back in the direction Joram indicated, and saw a single headlight bouncing along not too far off. The vehicle had a weird silhouette: too big to be a motorcycle, but not much like a car or a truck. "(Do you think they'll see the fire?)"
"(I am not sure,)" Joram grimaced. "(We should keep an eye on them, though.)"
She returned to the campsite with Joram, and saw to her mounting disquiet that the approaching vehicle was indeed slowing, and pulling off the road just a few dozen yards behind Kipchoge's truck. As Aisha's eyes adjusted to the distance, she saw two figures emerge from the parked motorcycle and sidecar, stripping off helmets and setting them down.
"(I will see what they want,)" Kuria volunteered.
"(No, I will go,)" Joram insisted. The younger Kuria locked eyes with his brother, then nodded.
"(I'm coming with you,)" Aisha informed him.
Joram knew better than to argue with her. He started toward the two figures, who were at that moment approaching the campsite warily. Aisha followed close behind him. "(Who's there?)" Joram called.
"(Joram, is that you?)" one of the strangers called in reply.
Aisha barely had time to register this familiar voice before another one called out in plain English. "Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?"
"Kijana?" Joram called.
Aisha's jaw dropped. "Skull?!" she gasped.
The two came into the light, and Aisha saw that it was indeed Kijana and Skull. The two looked so out of context together that Aisha could only just stand there and stare at them. Then Skull gave her one of his grins and pointed an accusing finger at her. "I have been looking EVERYwhere for you, young lady!"
Before anyone could say anything else, Aisha launched herself at the impossibly familiar Skull and grabbed him in her best bearhug. "Eugene Skullovitch, what in heaven's name are you doing here?"
"Oof!" Skull grunted as she practically squeezed the wind out of him, but he returned her hug nonetheless. "Wow, I don't think anyone's ever been this happy to see me before! How ya been?"
"Me? I'm fine! What are you doing here?" She held him back at arms' length, then shot an accusing look at Kijana. "(Where did you find him?)"
"(He was wandering the plains and singing,)" Kijana grinned, wryly. "(He said he was looking for you, so Ishala told me to bring him to you.)"
She looked back to Skull, who obviously hadn't understood a word of that last exchange. "So how did you get here, then?"
Skull held up his left wrist, indicating a very familiar bracelet. "It has a little something to do with this."
Again, Aisha's jaw dropped. Skull, of all people? "You mean now you're a..?"
He held up both hands and shook his head. "Nonononono, not as such. Actually, Billy gave me this little doodad; he's the one who sent me to find you. It's kind of a long story."
"Well, then, you'd better tell me all about it at the fire. (Kijana, thank you so much for bringing him safely!)"
"(Of course, little sister,)" Kijana smiled. "(He's light on his feet... for an American.)"
"(So who is this friend of yours?)" Joram asked, patiently.
Aisha realized she'd completely skipped introductions. "Oh! (Joram, this is one of my friends from America. His name is Eugene Skullovitch, but we all call him Skull.) Skull, this is Joram, and I guess you and Kijana have already met."
"Skull," Joram nodded.
"Pleased to meetcha, Joram," Skull nodded in reply.
Joram patted Aisha on the shoulder. "(Come, let us introduce your friend to Kuria and Nyandika.)"
"(Of course.)" She extended one arm to Skull and smiled. "Join us?"
Skull looked at her hand dubiously for a moment, then took it. "Sure, I'll be glad... whoa!" The end of his sentence was snuffed out as Aisha all but dragged him back toward the campfire.
* * *
The Black Lion turned out to be the grandest of them all, and Billy was awed at the sheer scope of it. Broad of chest, easily twice the width of either the Blue or Yellow Lions, with uncountable weapons and an all but indestructible hull made of a glossy black metal. A pair of narrow red wings were folded across its back, and in the center of its chest it proudly wore the standard of King Alfor: a simple crown, and beneath it a golden cross separating fields of red and blue. Inside, it had the capacity to hold hundreds of troops, as well as air and ground assault craft stored in an enormous hangar. The cockpit was three-tiered and had room for a dozen officers, with stations maintaining not only the Black Lion's functions, but monitoring the other four lions as well.
It had been the last to fall in the battle with the forces of Doom, and no wonder. From the looks of the hull, they had thrown everything they could at him, and only after he had destroyed innumerable foes did they finally pull him down. He was the heart and body of Voltron, and was the source of their unity.
And so it was with no small amount of reverence that Billy set to work on righting the damage that had been done. While he worked on the inside, the four smaller lions circled their leader: even Muth, the Red Lion, still recovering from his own traumatic fall.
At first, it looked hopeless. In order to have fully slain him, the forces of Doom had hammered away at all of his potent defenses. The lion had regenerative abilities far superior to any of the others, and yet all repair systems, including five levels of backup, had been knocked out. The enemy had obviously taken pains to make it absolutely sure that this lion would not get back up again: something they thankfully had failed to do with Alth.
Billy was drained after his efforts on the surface with Muth, but he had passed beyond exhaustion at this point, and was working with a singular sense of direction and purpose. Restoring the Red Lion had given him new resolve, and after coming this far, he was not about to let anyone down: not his friends, not his world, and not the four lions who watched anxiously as he tried to resuscitate their leader.
Luck was with him, in that the Black Lion's matter processors were all but undamaged. This would speed up recovery once he had the diagnostic computers and matter emitters running. But this was looking like it might prove problematic. So many circuits were burned out, and so many materials had been reduced to slag that he feared he'd never be able to salvage enough here to make anything work.
That was when he realized that maybe he didn't need to salvage anything from here after all. Riding this idea, he flew his sled-ship back to Alth, currently the strongest of the four, and set to work
reprogramming her own repair systems to form new systems to match the Black Lion's specifications. Then it was a matter of transplanting these into the larger lion, hooking them up, and standing way back.
To Billy's relief, it worked, and worked quickly. Ever resilient, the Black Lion was able to utilize these jury-rigged connections long enough to set right its own internal works, and then with amazing speed began to repair itself.
When the mental voice came, Billy heard it as an amalgam of his father, Jason and Tommy: three figures he'd always looked up to, and always aspired to emulate. I am Seth, the Black Lion. Tell me your name, Maker, that I may know you.
For a moment, Billy could not find his voice. At length, he cleared his throat and spoke. "My name is William David Mitchell, of the planet Earth."
For what reason have you awakened me, Maker?
Billy took a few seconds to think about this. "My world is in danger, Seth. We have been under attack by the Machine Empire of King Mondo for many months, but now they've allied themselves with the forces of Doom, and placed the entire planet under siege. My friends, the Power Rangers, are defending the world as best they can, but they can't last much longer. They need help."
There was a mental "silence," though Billy got the feeling that Seth was conversing with the other lions. He waited nervously for the voice to return. Finally, Seth spoke again, and this time the voice was stronger, with an undercurrent of anger. They continue their foul work upon another lifebearing world. They must be stopped. Maker, you have given each of us new life, and we are grateful. We shall return to your Earth, and we shall once again do battle with the minions of Haggar. And this time, we will succeed!
The Black Lion roared, and the roar was echoed by the other four lions. Billy heard them all in his mind and spirit, and he felt compelled to roar their triumph with them. His own hunger and exhaustion quickly became the furthest things from his mind.
I must feed and heal for a time, Maker, but there is more I must tell you before we return to your Earth. Leave me for now, and I shall call you when I am ready to give you this last knowledge.
"Of course," Billy replied. "I'll be close by."
Seth's voice faded again, though his presence was felt throughout the structure of the Black Lion. Without another word, Billy made his way from Engineering to the hangar, boarded his sled-ship, and sped out into open space, where Alth and the others were waiting for him.
* * *
As the tenth attack day drew to a close, Katherine tried to busy herself by once more checking each of the computers throughout the Power Chamber. She wanted to make sure everything was okay before she went to sleep. A small part of her insisted that it wouldn't matter by this time tomorrow, but she stifled that voice. She needed to believe. She kept telling herself that she would have known, somehow, if something awful had happened to Billy.
One of the long-range communicators was still at work sending out a distress message to Aquitar (Billy had started this going before taking up the Blue Lion), but with their limited power, it was doubtful that this cry for help would be heard by the Alien Rangers. She watched it for a while as the programmed message was sent out again and again, her mind numb with fatigue.
Then, quite suddenly, Tommy's voice came from the main console. "Katherine, this is Tommy. Do you read?"
Katherine was somewhat surprised that Tommy hadn't powered down for the night by now. She returned to the console and pressed the response button. "I'm here, Tommy. Is everything all right?"
"Well, I...." he began, with uncharacteristic hesitance. "I want to make sure my gauges are right. How much time do you show the Phoenix's power supply having left?"
She looked at the appropriate monitor, as if it would have changed from the last time. "You're looking all right," she whispered.
"Come on, Kat," he replied, softly. "Be honest. According to my readings, I'll be out of power before the next attack day ends. I'm reading them right, aren't I?"
"I'm... I'm afraid so. Tommy, are you going to be checking in with Rocky or Adam soon? You should conserve as much power as you can, after all."
"Well... that was what I wanted to talk to you about," he sighed.
Katherine checked the holo-globe to see where exactly Tommy was. The red star-shaped icon representing the Phoenix was airborne over the southern Pacific, not too far from... Oh, thought Katherine to herself.
"Look, Katherine, I don't really know how to say this, but... I'm really worried that tomorrow might be it. That little run-in with the robeast earlier just made it more vivid. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to make it. I mean, I feel like a lousy leader for saying that, but...."
"You're just being realistic," Katherine said, very quietly.
"Kat, I...." He broke off again.
"You should probably talk to her," she told him.
Tommy sounded startled. "How did you know I was...?"
"Call it a hunch."
"Look, it's... there are just... so many questions I have right now. So many things that never got resolved when she left. If our time's running out, I want to ask some of those questions before it's all over."
"So why are you telling me?" Katherine sighed. "You don't need my permission. Tommy, I'm not blind. I think I've known all along what you've been feeling, and I understand."
There was a long silence. "I guess I'd better go now, then, and catch her before she goes to sleep."
"Probably so. You ought to conserve as much power as you can."
"Yeah, I guess...." She heard him let out a long, drawn-out sigh. "I don't know what to say, Kat. I just wish I could have.... You deserve better than what I had to give, you really do. I never wanted to hurt you. If things had been different...."
"No ifs, Tommy," she interrupted. "I'll be all right, I promise you. Just go." She was close to tears, and she didn't want Tommy to hear her cry.
"You know I'll always care about you."
There was another long silence, and finally, Katherine realized that Tommy had broken off the private call. Only then did she let herself cry aloud. Not for having lost Tommy, as she'd known in her heart for some time that he was lost to her. Not even for what might have been, as she'd never really dared to think that far ahead with him. She even found herself hopeful that he and Kimberly would be able to sort things out on what might indeed be their last moments alive together. He deserved to be happy, and so long as he was, Katherine knew that she'd be happy, too. So why was she crying?
Probably because she had also left things unsaid with someone she cared for, and now she didn't know if she'd ever have the chance to tell him.
* * *
As the evening progressed, Aisha's initial shock at seeing Skull was slowly developing into a more long-term surprise and disbelief.
It began with Skull telling the story of his arrival, with Kijana adding in details where necessary, and Aisha acting as interpreter between English and Swahili, adjusting the details of Skull's narrative where necessary to preserve at least some of the Power Rangers' secrets. At first she figured that Billy must have been truly desperate to send Skull out alone on Rangers business, but as she heard more of the story from Kijana's end, her surprise mounted. Skull had done more than just survive in the plains: he'd done so quite handily. Not only that, but he was obviously enjoying the storytelling part, using full-body gesturing and dramatic voices as he acted out the tale.
It was frustrating to think that the situation was as bad as it was, and that even with Skull's arrival, they were no closer to getting back. Aisha had tried her hand at the communicator, but couldn't get it to work any better than Skull had, so they were still stuck. Skull then hit on the idea that maybe they could use it to call Tanya's zord once they got close enough. Aisha agreed, and Skull and Kijana were welcomed to the expedition.
Since it was a night of reunions -- Kijana with family and Aisha with Skull -- and since they now had a new sense of direction and purpose to their quest, Joram decided to make a celebration out of it. Anytime was a good time for music with the three brothers, and after the stories had been told and the questions answered, Joram went back to the truck to get their instruments. He and Nyandika each had an mbira, while Kuria played a simple hand drum and led the chants. Kijana, having no instrument, kept rhythm by slapping his chest and thigh, and sang back the chants in counter with Kuria. Aisha knew most of these by now after her time with the family, and chanted full-voiced, glad to have the opportunity to celebrate something.
At one point, she looked over at Skull, and was again surprised, this time at the rapt attention he paid to the music around him. He kept looking from Kuria to Joram to Nyandika and back again, an expression of amazed delight on his face. After a while, he began to follow Kijana's lead, using his own body as his percussive instrument, and joining in the echo-chants. At first he kept the same rhythm as Kijana, but then he added his own touches, giving the familiar chants a new but not unwelcome depth.
After a while, Kijana and Nyandika got up, pulled Aisha to her feet, and the three began dancing around the fire as Joram and Kuria played on. Skull looked at Nyandika's mbira carefully, then looked to Nyandika himself, who grinned and waved as if to say "Sure, give it a try."
And Skull did so. Seating himself cross-legged with the gourd of the mbira resting against his calves, he began experimenting with the tones, and more quickly than Aisha or anyone else would have guessed, he began to play it. And not just random plinking away, either, but genuine, musical, tonal playing, matching Joram hesitantly at first, but then more confidently as he went on. Aisha watched this as she danced, and could scarcely believe her eyes. She'd heard horrifying tales of the garage band Skull had been in with Bulk back home, and the idea that he had any musical ability, much less the ability to pick up an mbira and play it this well, was simply incomprehensible. And like the storytelling earlier, he was obviously having a grand time being part of the chant, grinning ear to ear and punctuating the chants every so often with his characteristic laugh.
Finally, the celebration wound down, and Joram suggested quite sensibly that they grab some rest and get started with the dawn. Skull excused himself to go "water some plants," returned Nyandika's mbira reverently, then headed off into the darkness a ways while the others proceeded to bed down.
Aisha knew that she'd be a while falling asleep, so she decided to sit up and wait for Skull. There was still more she wanted to ask him. A few minutes passed, though, and he didn't return. She doubted anyone could need to water the plants quite this much, so she went off in the direction he'd gone, worried suddenly that he might have wandered off and gotten himself lost.
As it turned out, she needn't have worried. Skull was sitting up on a broad, flat rock a few hundred yards from camp, gazing up at the stars. Aisha approached quietly. "Having a private moment?" she asked.
He looked down at her, startled by the sound of her voice. "Nah," he said, quickly regaining his composure. "C'mon up and have a seat."
She did so, seating herself next to him and following his gaze up into the heavens. "I haven't seen any yellow lights for a while," he said. "I guess this is rest time. Billy said something about four-hour rests between attacks. Geez, if I had to get by on four hours' sleep I'd be needin' some backup myself."
"I hope we can get into Tanya's range soon," Aisha sighed. "It still seems so far away."
Skull nodded, but didn't say anything. Aisha studied his face for a moment. He looked different, and not just because of the time it had been since she'd last seen him. After a while, she realized that he wasn't chewing gum: a rarity for him.
"So, how are you doing?" she asked, not sure what else to say.
He looked over at her and grinned. "I'm in Africa," he said, shaking his head at the very idea.
"No, that's where you are, not how."
"Nah, you don't get it. I'm in Africa! Me, an Angel Grove homebody who's never been anywhere, and never thought I needed to go anywhere. I'm in Africa. With all the nonstop action trying to catch up with you, it's been... kind'a hard to step back and notice that I'm someplace I never thought I'd be. I don't get out into nature much, y'know."
Aisha chuckled. "You fooled Kijana, then. He was pretty impressed with you, you know. He doesn't impress easily, either; he's real impatient with tourists."
He laughed another Skull laugh. "Yeah, Kijana's my bud! So what that we don't speak the same language, right? I was kinda worried at first, but pretty soon it felt like we were in a Hope and Crosby road movie, y'know? 'Oh, we're ooooon the road toooo Nai-ro-beeeeee!'" he sang, making Aisha giggle.
"Oh, man," she laughed. "I thought I was the only one our age who knew anything about Hope and Crosby movies!"
"You kidding? I saw a whole bunch of 'em on one of those classic movie channels. I just couldn't figure out whether Kijana was Bob or Bing."
She gave him a humored look. "You're crazy, you know that, Skull?"
"It's all part of my charm," he smiled, buffing his knuckles against his shirt.
Aisha snorted with laughter. "Uh huh."
"Hey, why exactly did you leave, anyway?" he asked, furrowing his brow. "I never heard the details."
"I came here for the animals," she said, quietly. "There was a plague, and a lot of the animals were dying. After all the time I spent at the animal shelter back in Angel Grove, it seemed like a good idea to come out here and put my skills to good use."
"And was it?" he prompted her when she stopped.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," she nodded. "I've got a huge family now, and they're all wonderful. And I've actually done something to help here. Sometimes that was the hardest part of being a Power Ranger. I mean, sure, we fought monsters and defended the world from Rita and Zedd, but most of the time it didn't seem like we were doing much in the long run. We just sat and waited to get attacked, and then we reacted. Out here, I've seen a sick lion get better thanks to me, I've delivered a baby giraffe, I've watched the balance slowly coming back.... I miss everyone back in Angel Grove, but I'm glad I stayed here." She smiled softly. "It's my calling, I guess."
Skull was studying her expression. "Wild," he said, simply. "I never really knew that you were so good with animals. That's really cool."
"Hey, speaking of surprising talents, where in the world did you learn to play an mbira?"
"That was my first time, actually," he said, looking down at his hands. "I've seen pictures of 'em in books, but I never had the chance to try one."
"You've never played one, and you just jumped right in?" Aisha asked, astounded.
"Well, it's not that complicated," he said, almost defensively. "It's kind'a like a piano, just you don't get to use all your fingers." He peered closely at his right thumb. "I'm gonna have blisters like nobody's business tomorrow."
"Since when do you play piano?" she asked.
He shrugged. "That's a long story. But if you asked real nicely...."
Aisha couldn't help but smile. "Tell me something, Skull. Have you changed, or have you always been this way and none of us ever noticed?"
"Oh, you're just catching me in my element, that's all," he laughed.
"What are you talking about?" she asked, confused. "We're out in the middle of nowhere even by MY standards, you're on a mission from the Power Rangers, and I'm able to say your name for the first time without attaching 'Bulk and' to the beginning of it, and you say you're in your element?"
"Oh, I don't mean any of that," he shrugged. "What can I say? I'm always at my best sitting under the stars trying like the dickens to impress a lady."
She raised her eyebrows at him. "Oh, really?"
"Yeah, especially one that I...." He stopped, and for a moment, the joking facade cracked, and he actually blushed.
Aisha decided to let that part slide for now. "So, how many chances have you had to put this particular skill into practice?" she asked him.
He looked speculatively at the stars. "Well, let's see. Counting this time... ah... once." He flashed her his grin again. "But I always knew I'd be good at it."
"You're even crazier than I thought," she chuckled, slapping him playfully across the arm.
"Thank you kindly, dear lady," he said in a British accent, bowing slightly from his seated position.
* * *
Kimberly couldn't sleep. Not for lack of being tired, of course: this day had been just as tough as any of the others, at least in the physical sense. This rest break was a little different than any of the others, though, and Kimberly knew it as much as anyone. It was no secret that tomorrow was going to be the do-or-die day. None of the Rangers had actually come out and foretold their doom, but it was obvious from their transmissions toward the end of the latest attack wave that the end was in all their thoughts. Rocky was hiding it well, still holding onto the dream of getting this over with so he could catch a World Series game, but his hopes were starting to sound hollow. Adam had grown very quiet, speaking only when necessary to plot a tactical move, and that wasn't a great sign. Even Tommy was sounding more stressed than ever. Thank God for Tanya, who was the true brick yet again, never once failing to rally the Rangers with a positive word. And most amazingly of all, she said these with utter conviction: it was obvious she still believed, even if the rest of them were starting to lag.
On top of this, Kimberly was worried about Billy. And Kat, too, who seemed to be taking Billy's disappearance worse than any of them. She'd been the last to see him, after all, and she was probably still kicking herself that she hadn't been able to teleport him out of the Blue Lion before it had warped out of the solar system.
Giving up on sleep for now, Kimberly climbed the long ladder from the zord's living quarters to the turret, seated herself in the way-too-familiar control chair, and tabbed the button to bring up the external view. The skies were clear outside Mt. Wilhelm, and the sky was starting to glow way off to the east, heralding the sunrise. A different ocean, maybe, but it reminded her of some of the sunrises she'd seen over in Florida. She didn't like them nearly as much as a good old Angel Grove sunset at the beach, but they each had their own beauty. And now they each had their own painful memories....
She was startled out of her sad reverie by a beep from her console, followed by a voice. "Kimberly, are you still up?"
Tommy. Kimberly felt her pulse pick up, and for a few seconds, she wasn't sure what to do. She considered not answering, and letting him think she was asleep.
"Kimberly, this is Tommy. Do you read?" He was speaking quietly enough not to disturb her possible sleep, but loudly enough that she would hear if she were awake. Always courteous.
It was then that Kimberly saw the movement in the eastern sky: a small speck silhouetted against the coming sunrise. A look at her scanner showed that it was indeed the Phoenix. Without really thinking about it, Kimberly activated her own ship's communicator to reply. "Yeah, I'm here."
"Oh, good," Tommy sighed, sounding plenty nervous. "I'm not waking you up, am I?"
"No, I couldn't sleep anyway. What's up?"
"Listen, Kim... I was wondering if maybe... if you're not too tired... maybe we could talk for a little while?"
She felt her pulse pick up even further, and her breath momentarily caught in her throat. "Um, sure, I guess. What do you want to talk about?"
"Well... it's not anything I'd want to talk about on the air. Can I come aboard?"
If she hadn't been nervous before, now she definitely was. She'd been dreading this talk ever since her arrival. In a sick way, she'd been thinking that if the world did indeed come to an end and they all got killed, at least then she wouldn't have to hear this. But to avoid it now would be unnecessarily hurtful to Tommy. She'd take her medicine. "Yeah, sure. Just give me a minute to get situated."
"I'll give you a few. I need to find a place to land, then I'll teleport over, okay?"
"Sure. See you soon."
* * *
After landing the Phoenix on another mountain not too far from Wilhelm, Tommy demorphed and prepared to teleport, but before he did, he looked up to the peak above him, where the zord rested, and took a deep breath. This wasn't going to be easy. But there was no sense in waiting any more. He pressed the last button, and teleported up in a red streak.
Almost immediately upon arrival, he saw Kimberly, and felt his insides flip over.
She was sitting on one of the two cots in the tiny cabin, holding her knees to her chest. She looked up at him as he appeared, and even as bedraggled and worn out as the past days had made her, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. "Hi," he whispered.
"Hey," she replied, not getting up.
After an uncertain moment, Tommy went and sat down on the other cot, clasping his hands between his knees. He took a breath to speak, but he couldn't put two thoughts together. All he could really do was look at her. He'd known it would be difficult, but he never thought it would be this bad.
"So what's up?" Kimberly asked him.
He turned away and closed his eyes. He couldn't bring himself to ask her about it. Instead, he retreated into Ranger business, a no less difficult topic at this point, but at least a safer one. "I'm going to run out of power before the end of the next attack wave. According to some projections Billy made before he left, once the Phoenix goes down it'll just open the door for more quadrafighters to get through and overwhelm us from the surface."
"Is there anything else we can do?"
He sighed. "Yeah, there is. If we hook up the MegaZord before the Phoenix runs out of power, then it'll be able to run off the joined power for as long as we stay combined. Then we could go and attack the base directly, and try to stop them at the source."
"But if we do that, nobody'll be guarding the planet!" Kimberly objected.
"I know that!" Tommy snapped. "If we go to MegaZord mode, we'll be leaving the Earth unprotected, and thousands of people will probably die even if we are successful, and there's no guarantee we will be if Billy was right about that shield up there being unbreakable. But if we don't hook up, the defense will break down, we'll eventually be worn out and outnumbered, and then they'll take the whole planet unopposed. That's the choice I'm gonna have to make tomorrow: allow thousands of people to die on a gamble that might not work, or hold the fort against impossible odds and lose everything. I don't like being the one to choose who lives and who dies."
"You're the leader," she said, quietly.
"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "I always knew something like this might happen, but I was hoping it would never come to this."
"You sound like you've already decided, though."
He nodded, still not looking at her. "Yeah. We'll have to try the MegaZord. It's our last chance. But I want to go down to the wire first. I want to give Billy as much time as I can."
"Do you think he'll make it back with help, then?"
"I don't know. But as long as there's still time, I'll wait for him and hope for the best."
The conversation lapsed at this point. At least they were talking now, but Tommy still had no idea what to say next.
"How's your training been?" he asked, finally.
"Pretty good. This little vacation isn't helping, but like I said, some things are more important than gymnastics."
"Yeah, I guess so."
Finally, to Tommy's surprise, Kimberly broached the subject first. "So... tell me about you and Kat."
Tommy looked over at her in surprise. "Who told you?" he asked.
"Billy did," she replied, then hastily added "But only because I asked him flat out. He didn't give me any details."
He nodded and looked away, once again uncertain of what to say.
Kimberly sighed loudly. "You can tell me, Tommy. I mean, it's pretty obvious she means something to you after the way you kept checking up on her when she was sick. I'd rather know from you, okay?"
There was something strange about her tone, but Tommy couldn't place it. Instead, he took a deep breath and began. "Well, she and I started seeing each other a few months ago. Nothing major, usually just going out and doing stuff with the whole gang. The first time was the weekend after I got your... letter. She and Billy took me for a ski trip to take my mind off things, but everything got messed up by King Mondo." He decided that she really didn't need to hear about Heather, as nothing had
even had the chance to start between them, in spite of Kat and Billy making their best effort to get the two of them together. "Anyway," he went on, "we started talking more after that. We went to dinner a couple of times, saw a few movies, nothing too major, and usually we at least had Billy or Tanya with us, since Tanya lived with Kat's folks, and since it was our only real time to see Billy anymore since he graduated."
"You never did anything alone?" Kim asked.
"Usually we just talked." He didn't want to say that most of those talks had been about Tommy's grief at losing Kimberly. It still pained him that he'd dumped all of that on Katherine, especially given the feelings she'd apparently had for him. That couldn't have been easy for her. She'd seen him cry more times than anyone alive, and yet she'd never taken advantage of those situations.
"So what happened?" Kimberly prompted him.
"Well, eventually I noticed that we were seeing each other a lot, and I was happy to be around her, and I really liked her a lot -- she's one of the kindest people on the face of the Earth. I started thinking that maybe things might be coming together for us, but I wasn't sure what to do. Then one weekend she went on another ski trip, this time with Adam and Rocky and Billy. When she got back from that, she seemed more serious about finding out what was going on with us. She asked me what exactly it was that we had, and whether we were more than just friends. And then one night she was over at my place, talking about it, and... we started kissing."
"When was this?" Kimberly whispered.
"I guess it was around the beginning of the summer. We started kissing, and then I finally realized what was going on."
"You were in love with her," Kimberly finished for him.
He let out an exasperated sigh. "No."
There was a long pause. "No?" Kimberly repeated in a small voice.
"No. We went on kissing for almost half an hour, and then I... said something, and we both just stopped."
"What did you say?" Kimberly asked, looking at him with wide eyes.
"Your name," Tommy whispered. "I called her Kim. In the heat of the moment, I called her by your name. Christ, the way she looked at me, like her whole world had come to an end. And then she started crying, and I couldn't do a thing about it, 'cause I knew why it happened. I wanted her to be you, and she wasn't. And I never had the guts to tell her outright that I'd never gotten over you, even though I guess she knew it all along. I even tried to work things out ever since then, 'cause I didn't want to hurt her, but it's like we've both been living a lie, and just growing further and further apart."
Tommy was interrupted by something soft hitting him with considerable speed, and he looked over at Kimberly in shock. She'd thrown her pillow at him, and was now staring at him furiously. "You idiot! You stupid macho idiot!"
"Okay, fine, I'm a scumbag!" he shouted back. "Trust me, I know!"
"You moron! You're not supposed to make bonehead mistakes like that! You're not supposed to hurt people because of your own stupidity!"
"Kim, I didn't want to!"
"Well, neither did I, and look where it got me!" she shouted.
An abrupt silence fell, and Tommy stared back at her, wide-eyed. "What?" he asked, carefully.
She collapsed back in her cot. "I can't believe you'd do the same stupid thing that I did! I can't believe you'd be as insecure as I was!"
"What are you talking about? What happened?"
"I never even told you his name," she began. She was beginning to cry, but her tone was still more angry and frustrated than sad. "I went off to Florida alone, and then along came someone who reminded me of you, and he was nice to me, just like you, and charming, just like you, and I was so stupid that I fell for him. And then I felt like Little Miss Mature, writing you that letter and letting you off easy. By the time I figured out that the only thing I liked about him was that he reminded me of you, I ended up hurting you, hurting him, and hurting myself. And then I didn't have the guts to tell you how stupid I was, 'cause I know you'd never make a mistake like that! And you did! God, I was dreading this talk! I thought you were gonna sit me down and give me that 'Kim, you know you'll always be my friend, but I'm in love with Kat now, and don't you feel stupid for letting me go and allowing this to happen' speech!"
"You left him?" Tommy asked, still not quite grasping that.
"Months ago," she sighed, angrily. "And you know what? When I said that some things are more important than gymnastics, I wasn't just talking about being a Power Ranger. Somewhere in the back of my tiny little brain I was thinking that maybe you'd... forgive me for being such an idiot. And then when Billy told me that you and Kat were seeing each other, I felt like...."
"Probably like I felt when I got your letter," Tommy whispered. "I guess now we've got something else in common. It looks like we both messed this whole thing up."
"So what do we do now?" Kimberly sniffed.
Tommy slowly got up, crossed the tiny space to the opposite cot, sat down next to Kimberly and put his arms around her. She returned his hug, and they held each other tightly. Tommy realized that they were both shaking, and he felt tears springing to his eyes. "I missed you," he whispered.
"I missed you too."
They continued on in that same embrace for a long time, gently rocking back and forth. Finally, Tommy looked down into her eyes. "You never got over me, either?" he whispered, still unable to fully believe it.
She managed something resembling a smile. "How could I ever forget you?" Then, without another word, she kissed him.
After they broke, Tommy looked into her eyes for a long time. "Do you think there might still be a chance for us?" he asked.
"I'm willing to take the chance if you are," she breathed.
They kissed again, and the emotions Tommy had been trying to keep in check flooded him. Soon he was holding her so tightly he feared he'd break her back, but she was returning his grip with equal force.
"Kim," he managed between kisses, "at this rate we... won't get any rest. I... think maybe I should go."
"Tommy Oliver, don't you dare."
* * *
Katherine watched the holo-globe for a long time, feeling her thoughts go gradually numb. She knew she should feel something, but after she'd stopped crying, any feelings she might have had were dulled over by exhaustion.
After a while, she realized that the juxtaposed red star and pink oval on the projected image were not going to be going anywhere anytime soon, and there was no sense in her watching any longer. She rose somewhat laboriously to her feet, stretched, and headed off to at least try to sleep.
"Please don't hurt him again, Kimberly," she whispered as she left the Power Chamber.
* * *
Billy was on board the Yellow Lion trying to figure out how to use its sophisticated communications systems sufficiently to get a message back to the Power Chamber when he heard the voice of the Black Lion in his mind. Maker, I have returned. I must speak with you now. Please join me. The words were spoken with a weird mix of authority and deference, making it more or less a very strong request.
"Uh, sure. I'm on my way."
Toth spoke next. I will continue searching for the frequencies you specified, Maker, but I fear that contact from this distance may be difficult, even for my ears.
"That's what I figured, too. Keep at it, though. I don't want to keep Seth waiting."
Billy hurried down to the hangar, where he boarded his now-trusty fighter-sled and rocketed back into space. The Black Lion was there, along with the Red and Green Lions, back from their hunt and probably gorged on raw material by now. Muth in particular looked worlds better: almost as fully healed as his sister thanks to the ministrations of Alth and Toth.
And the Black Lion looked more alive and ominous than ever. He had to admit to being somewhat unnerved by this one's sheer power and presence. Nevertheless, he docked with the chief lion and parked his sled in the immense internal hangar. As he did, the hangar doors closed, and the great room quickly pressurized, gaining a suitable atmosphere. Once the monitors in his suit indicated that the air around him was safe, he opened the visor of his helmet and took a deep breath. "Where should I go?" he asked the room.
Come to the cockpit and sit in the pilot's chair, Seth instructed. There is much that I must show you.
Billy complied, hurrying up the spinal corridor and into the lion's head. The cockpit was lit up like Christmas, with instruments flashing at each of the dozen consoles. Billy scanned them each as he passed, then scaled the steep metal staircase to the pilot's chair. He paused for a moment to take a breath, then seated himself.
Contact was made, and Billy was momentarily disoriented by the vastness of the father lion. Contact with any of the lions was a mind-opening experience, to be sure, but this was even more so. "I'm here," he said, quietly, though he was sure Seth already knew this.
The front monitor lit up with a view of the decimated planet Arus. We were built by the Father-Creator to defend the lifebearing world of Arus and all its inhabitants. But we were forsaken by the descendants of Alfor, and in forsaking us, they doomed themselves, they doomed us, and they doomed Arus. We lions were never meant to fight alone. We are stronger when joined with our pilots. The forces of Doom would have been difficult to defeat even then, but alone, we were no match for them, and Arus died.
Billy nodded, too caught up in Seth's words to offer a verbal response.
Arus shall live again one day. To destroy a world is something beyond the vaunted might of Haggar, though she fancies herself a slayer of planets. Arus shall heal, but the healing shall be slow, and until such time as this world bears life again, we are without a home to defend. I have conferred with the lions of Voltron, particularly with Alth, who has witnessed your Earth firsthand, and we have come to an agreement. We have already vowed to assist you in your battle, but we wish to do more. We wish to make your Earth our home, and to take your world and all its creatures under our protection. Shall we be welcome upon your world, Maker?
"I'm... I'm afraid I'm not used to speaking for my entire world," Billy replied, "but I can say that it would be a great honor to welcome such noble protectors as the Voltron lions to the planet Earth."
There was a murmuring of other thoughts from the four lesser lions, and then Seth spoke again. So be it. We shall return with you to Earth, and remain there. But I must repeat, Maker, that without pilots trained to withstand the rigors of the joining, we shall be weakened, and may be defeated by the combined forces of Doom and the Machine Empire.
"I don't believe that will be a problem," Billy replied. "Including the five current Power Rangers, I can think of ten others besides myself who would be up for the task. If you can teach them as well as Alth taught me, then we should be fine."
This is good, Seth agreed. Now, Maker, for the final gift.
Without warning, restraints came down and buckled Billy into the pilot's chair. He was startled, but trusting Seth as he had trusted Alth, he did not struggle. The chair withdrew backwards into the wall, turned around, and propelled him along a corridor which sloped downward into the lion's chest. The chair then turned upside-down, but his restraints kept him in place. After a time, he was aware of a shift in the gravity, and his feet were once again pointing down. The gravity in this section of the lion was inverted from the rest.
Finally, the chair came to a stop before an ornate door decorated with Alfor's royal crest. Billy stood up, and regarded the portal carefully. "Where am I?" he asked.
Enter, Seth replied. The door slid open, and Billy stepped inside.
The room beyond was breathtaking. It was in the same shield-like shape as the royal crest, and the ceiling was transparent, allowing starlight to outline the room. Murals lined the walls, depicting five flesh-and-blood lions -- one black, one red, one green, one blue, and one yellow -- in various poses of hunting and pouncing and roaring, with one of the six walls devoted to each of the five lions, and the sixth depicting the five standing strong together. The floor was a mosaic of stones, again in the shape of the royal crest of Alfor.
Dominating the room from its very center was an enormous sarcophagus, the stone lid lovingly carved in the image of a man Billy immediately recognized as King Alfor. He appeared to be sleeping on top of the casket, with his hands upon his chest, gripping the hilt of a sword. The carving was so lifelike that it took Billy a few moments to realize that it was only stone.
Billy very slowly stepped into the chamber. He now knew where he was: the ceiling above him was the crest upon the Black Lion's chest. Billy realized that it was as much a grave marker as an insignia. Alfor had been entombed in the heart of his last creation.
There was an inscription at the foot of the sarcophagus. Billy knelt to read it. It was in the same language he'd first encountered exploring the Blue Lion, but this time he found he could read it.
"Here lies Alfor the First, King of Arus," he translated aloud. "It is here that I take my final rest, and here that I give my final gift to my beloved creations."
Take up the sword of Alfor, Maker, Seth intoned.
Billy rose from his knees and studied the sword. At first he thought it had been part of the carving, but now he realized it was a genuine sword, sheathed in an ornate scabbard. "Why?" he asked, confused at Seth's request.
This sword is proof against the magicks of Haggar. It defended us against her might in our final battle, and prevented our destruction, though she was still able to separate us. Take the sword now, and use it to destroy the witch.
It was beginning to sound less and less like a request. Billy reached out gingerly and placed one hand upon the scabbard. As he did, the stone fingers suddenly unclasped, allowing the hilt to slide free. Billy slowly withdrew the blade from the scabbard, and tested its weight in his hands. It was a beautiful piece of work, keen of edge and unblemished by use.
"I can't do this, Seth," he said, quietly. "I can't take his last gift to you. It wouldn't be right."
He couldn't exactly say that Seth chuckled, but the lion's voice took on a humorous rumble. The sword was not his gift, Maker. It is yours, now. You are our chosen Maker, and you shall lead us into battle. You may command whichever of us you choose.
Billy belted the sword on carefully as he considered this. "I understand," he nodded. "And though I realize that the leader would normally accompany you, I..." He paused to take a breath. "Alth brought me here, and...."
Again, he all but heard the Black Lion laugh. Of course, Maker. Return to her now, and we shall journey to your Earth with all haste.
* * *
Billy spent the first part of the journey back in the cockpit of the Blue Lion. He had examined the sword with the on-board scanners for a while, and was now in the pilot's chair, studying the etchings on the blade. They seemed to be mostly decorative, but they put him in mind of magical runes. There was no question in his mind that the sword had powers beyond heft and edge, but there weren't any obvious instructions for its use, and the scans hadn't been very helpful. He didn't even really know how to wield a sword: that was Adam's forte.
Maker, we will be many hours returning to your world, said Alth, gently. You have worked hard on our behalf. Perhaps you should rest for a time, in preparation for the battle to come.
"I suppose so. I just wish we could get word to the Power Rangers that we're on our way."
That is impossible while in Transit, she reminded him.
"I know. I just hope there'll still be an Earth waiting for us when we get back."
Take heart, Maker. Your companions are strong.
"I know," he said again. He then took a deep breath through his nostrils. "Speaking of strong, though, this suit is starting to get pretty rank. I should probably get cleaned up, too."
As you wish. The pilot's quarters are yours, now.
Billy stepped down from the pilot's chair and started around the horseshoe to the exit. "Tell me something, Alth," he said as he walked. "What WAS Alfor's last gift to the lions?"
Have you not already guessed? Alth asked in reply.
"I thought it was the sword. I mean, it protected you against Haggar."
Yes, but his true gift was much, much more.
He stopped and looked around at the flashing consoles. "Tell me," he asked her.
When first I contacted you fully, you expressed surprise that we were sentient.
"You told me that was only a reflection of my own thoughts."
Yes, but reflected from what?
Billy furrowed his brow in thought, then the light dawned. "You mean...."
The Father-Creator's final gift was his own essence. He gave his very spirit to us, and in so doing, made us more than machines, and more than artificial intelligence. He gave us his soul, and made it ours.
For a long time, Billy could only stand there and digest this stunning idea. "Is that why you speak only to Makers?"
Yes. Only a Maker may hear our voices, as only they may understand our own Maker spirits. It was with great joy that my spirit met yours, Maker, and I will be forever grateful to you.
There was an unsettling note of farewell in that last thought. "Will I still hear you when we get back to Earth?"
Yes, but less now that my family has returned. Communicating with you this way has been difficult, I fear, and I must also rest. But I will always listen for you.
"I'm glad," Billy nodded. "Thanks, Alth. Thanks for everything."
Of course, Billy. And thank you.
The voice faded, and only then did Billy realize that she'd called him by name. He smiled at the thought, then headed down the corridor to the pilot's quarters. He set the sword down upon a broad shelf, then stripped off his uniform and got into the shower.
He wasn't surprised that the cabin was equipped with a shower. After all, any civilized race worth its salt would naturally have discovered the sheer therapeutic value of pouring gallons of hot water over one's head. Billy stood under the water flow for some time, letting his thoughts wander.
The zords had always been related in some way. Each was always a different color, but there was a common thread that brought them all together. The DinoZords were of five colors and shared the shapes of five prehistoric beasts. The ThunderZords were of five colors and shared the shapes of five mythical creatures. The NinjaZords were of six colors and the six sacred animals of the Ninjetti. The ShogunZords were all roughly the same shape, but had characteristics of the sacred animals, and each had an individual geometric symbol as well as a color. This continued with the ZeoZords, which had very little in common save for the shape-symbols: a one-sided oval for one, a pair of one-sided ovals for two, a three-sided triangle for three, a four-sided rectangle for four, and a five-pointed star for five.
What was the connection between the Voltron lions? They had five different colors, but what other characteristic both set each lion apart from the other and made them all related?
The water running over his head gave him an idea. Water. That was the Blue Lion's habitat, and secret weapon. Perhaps the four elements of alchemy, then? Yellow Lion, with its sandblast weapon and desert home, could be earth, Blue Lion could be water, and Red Lion, with its heavy-duty flamethrowers, could be fire. That left Green or Black as air, and Billy had to consider the Black Lion more suited to the air role given its wings. Air didn't seem right for the agile, forest-dwelling, plant-friendly Green Lion.
Then he remembered that in some Eastern philosophies, there had not been four basic elements, but five. Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Wood. It seemed like a good fit, anyway, even if it was based on a culture separated from Arus by light-years of distance and who knows how many centuries.
After his shower, Billy dried off, found a suitable robe in the closet to put on, then let himself collapse into the small bed. He lay there for a while, wishing that somehow he could tell Katherine that he was on his way with reinforcements. He felt a sense of guilt as he realized that he'd (by necessity) put her out of his thoughts during his time around Arus, and now his concern for her was catching up with him. While working on the lions, there simply hadn't been time to ruminate. Now, lying alone, with no sound except the distant rumble of the engines, there was nothing but time.
But he also knew that Alth had been right. Katherine was strong, as were all of the Rangers. She'd be there, alive and well, when he returned, and once this was all over, he promised himself he'd finally have that talk with Ms. Hillard.
Assured that Alth would alert him somehow when they were within range of the Earth, Billy finally and gratefully fell asleep.
Chapter Nine: Hero Blues
Siege, day eleven
Bulk was awakened by an insistent knocking on the door of Jason's dorm room. He fumbled for the light button on his watch, squinted at the illuminated face, and saw that it was just shy of three in the morning.
"Whozzat?" Jason said indistinctly.
"Hang on, I'll check," Bulk yawned. He got up laboriously from the futon-couch and staggered over to the door, from which the knocking continued.
As he pulled the door open, Trini all but shoved him out of the way as she barged into the room and turned on the lights. Bulk shielded his eyes against the sudden brightness. "Ngah!"
"Trini, what's up?" Jason asked, sitting up in bed.
"I," Trini said excitedly, "am a genius. That's all there is to it. I'm a genius."
"I already know that," Jason chuckled sleepily. As Bulk's eyes got used to the light, he saw that an equally bleary-eyed Zack had followed Trini into the room. "What are you guys doing up?" he asked Zack.
"I'm only up 'cause she woke me," Zack muttered.
"Guys," Trini went on, "I need you to get dressed and come back over to my room. I think I've finally got it working, and I want you all there when I try to make the call."
Jason swung himself out of bed and grabbed his pants from the floor. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't stay up all night killing yourself, Trini," he told her.
"I know, but tonight I felt so close," Trini assured him. "Besides, it's not like they're getting any rest. Who knows? Tomorrow might be too late."
"I guess she's got a point there," Zack nodded.
"Hurry up and get dressed," Trini insisted. "Bulk, you might want to bring your pack, and Jason, you should bring anything you think you might need over there."
"Right," Bulk nodded, gathering up his things and stuffing them back into his duffel bag.
Ten minutes later, the four headed down to Trini's room, where she had been hard at work indeed, setting up an incredibly sophisticated transmitter (at least, that's what Bulk figured it had to be, as he didn't really recognize many of the components except the miniature satellite dish propped in the open window).
Trini sat down at her desk, where the majority of the tangle of equipment sat, and indicated a device that resembled a short-wave radio. "I've reconfigured this to broadcast on the same frequencies that Zordon uses, which was the easy part. The tough part was gathering enough power to boost the signal sufficiently. Since they're all the way on the other side of the world, we can't do a straight-shot transmission. I had to find one of Zordon's hidden satellites to bounce the signal from, and I guess most of those have been destroyed by the aliens. I think I've found one that'll work this time, though. It's going to be an immense signal, but it's on a frequency that shouldn't interfere with anything local."
"Sounds good," Jason nodded, placing his hands on the back of her chair and leaning forward. "Give it a try."
Trini nodded. She picked up a microphone from the desktop, then paused. "Cross your fingers, guys."
"Oh, I'm crossin' em," Zack agreed.
* * *
At that very moment, Katherine was keeping herself busy by reading up on the specs of the five ZeoZords. Most of the information was pure nonsense to her, but she read on, hoping to find something that would leap out at her and present a solution. There had to be some way to recharge the Phoenix, even if only for a short while. If she could somehow divert all power from the Power Chamber to the hangar (except that which was needed to keep Zordon and herself alive), perhaps they could give the bird a zap of power that would last even a few hours more. She feared that this might do more harm than good, though, as it would shut down Zero and Eric, and leave the Power Chamber completely helpless, ripe and ready for another robeast to drop in. If it were just her own life in question, she would shut down the entire base and bolt for safety in the city, but she couldn't very well leave Alpha and Zordon here defenseless.
The main console beeped suddenly. Katherine looked up from her own station to see a light flashing amid the controls.
Furrowing her brow, she crossed over to the main station and got a closer look. Her eyes widened as she recognized the light as belonging to the Communications system. Someone was calling in, and it wasn't one of the Rangers!
Then another transmission came in, but this one was recognized as being from Tanya. "Hey, guys, I'm getting some kind of signal out here. Anyone else hearing it?"
"That's a negative," Tommy replied.
"Me either," said Kimberly.
"Nothing out here," Rocky added.
"I'm receiving it here, Tanya," Katherine transmitted. "Just keep shooting, though. I'll check it out."
She pressed the control tab to put the transmission over speakers. Immediately, the Power Chamber was filled with a female voice which Katherine did not recognize. "--to Command Center. Come in Command Center. This is Sabretooth Tiger. Come in, Command Center. Does anyone copy?"
"Sabretooth Tiger?" Katherine whispered to herself. She'd heard that term used by the other Rangers from time to time... one of the old zords. Then she remembered. The Yellow Ranger used to call upon the power of the Sabretooth Tiger in order to morph!
As she made this realization, there was a conferring of voices from the transmission, and then a new voice came on: one which Katherine recognized right away. "Uh... this is... (what should I call myself?) This is Bulk Ranger to base. Come in, base."
"I read!" Katherine called back. "Bulk, this is Kat! I read you!"
"Awright!" Bulk replied in what could only be called a triumphant sigh. "Here, let me give you back to someone who knows what they're doing."
Bulk's voice was then replaced by the previous female voice. "Command Center, this is Sabretooth Tiger. I'm, ah, not sure how secure this communication is, so we should avoid real names for the time being. What can I call you?"
"Um... you can call me Pink Ranger, I suppose."
"That'll be fine. I can't tell you how glad I am to hear from you. I'm here with Tyrannosaurus, Mastodon and... Bulk Ranger. We've been trying to get back to you for a couple of days now, but the communicator wasn't strong enough."
"I know," Kat sighed. "Bi-- um..."
"Triceratops?" the voice offered.
"Right, Triceratops... He told me about that. We've also lost contact with... the other detective."
She heard Bulk in the background saying "Oh, boy...."
"Is Triceratops there with you?" the woman asked.
"No, he isn't...." Katherine replied, softly. "I'm afraid he's... missing."
After a brief silence, the voice came back. "Well, there's no sense asking you to elaborate while we're on the air. Listen, do you think you could trace our signal back enough to get a teleport lock on us and bring us to you? We can't teleport on our own."
"Of course," Katherine replied. "Just give me a couple of minutes to set up the transport. I'll have you here in no time."
"I'm glad to hear it. (Okay, you guys, huddle in close.)"
Katherine went right to work on tracking down the signal. The main viewer showed it as being right on the border between France and Switzerland, near the city of Geneva. "I've got a lock," she told them. "Are you ready for transport?"
"Ready," came four voices in ragged unison. She fired up the teleporter, making the lights in the Power Chamber momentarily flicker. Almost immediately, though, four figures began to form at the far side of the chamber, bathed in white light.
Then, the four materialized, along with what had apparently been a desktop transmitter. Lacking a desk, though, it immediately plummeted to the floor and smashed itself. One of the four, a pretty Asian girl, scowled at the wrecked transmitter. "Oh, darn it, I should have known that would happen."
Katherine approached the four hurriedly, zeroing in on Bulk and giving him a warm hug. "Thank goodness you found them."
"Hey, I didn't do that much," Bulk admitted. "I think Trini here should get most of the credit."
Katherine turned her attention to the Asian girl, who was smiling at her. "Pink Ranger?" the girl asked.
"Sabretooth Tiger?" Katherine smiled back.
"Glad to meet you," she nodded, putting her hand out to shake with Kat. "I'm Trini Kwan." She indicated the other two, a tall, muscular black-haired young man and a grinning African-American teen. "This is Jason Lee, and this is Zack Taylor."
"Katherine Hillard," she replied, shaking each of their hands in turn. "I'm glad to finally have the chance to meet the three of you. Welcome to the Power Chamber."
"What is this place?" Jason asked, looking around at the new base.
"Yeah, what happened to the Command Center?" Zack added.
"You mean none of the others ever told you?" Katherine asked, confused.
"We didn't talk too much about Ranger business in our letters," Trini explained. "The Postal Service isn't exactly the most secure form of communication, after all."
"Ah," Katherine nodded. "Well, the Command Center was destroyed about a year ago. The Power Chamber is actually down near the center of the mountain, beneath where the Command Center used to be."
"Kat, do you know what happened to Skull?" Bulk added, obviously concerned about his partner's fate.
"Yeah, and where's Zordon?" Zack asked.
"And how exactly did Billy wind up missing?" Trini continued.
"Well, how about I give you the whole story?" Katherine offered. "It might take a while, though...."
* * *
Skull, Aisha and company were just breaking camp and preparing to set out again when the communicator Skull was still wearing began to emit a strange noise. It was a faint signal at best, and it was heavily distorted, but it sounded like it might be a voice.
"Hey, Aisha, c'mere!" he called, excitedly. "I think maybe someone's trying to call!"
Aisha hurried over to Skull, grabbed his hand to pull the wrist unit closer to her ear, and listened intently to the signal. "You're right!" she exclaimed, immediately grabbing the communicator and fiddling with the controls. "It's pretty weak. Maybe I can tune it in."
"Uh, Aisha?" Skull said in a slightly pained voice. "Uh, that's my arm. I kinda need that."
"Oh," Aisha said, sheepishly. "Sorry." She relaxed her grip and continued working the controls. Gradually, the voice came more into "focus," and they began to recognize words.
"...tooth Tiger... Command Center, does... copy?" "That sounds like Trini!" Aisha gasped.
"Keep tuning, keep tuning!" Skull insisted. By this time, Kijana, Joram and the others had gathered around the two, recognizing that something was afoot. "(Are we close enough to contact them now?)" Joram asked Aisha.
"(I don't know,)" Aisha replied.
To Skull's surprise, the next voice that came through the comlink was Bulk's. "Uh, this... Bulk Ranger to base... come..."
"Bulkie!" Skull shouted. He snatched his arm back, pressed the transmit button, and shouted into the communicator. "Hey, Bulkie! This is Skull! Do you read me, big guy?"
After a long pause, Trini's voice came back. "Command Center, this is... Tiger... not sure how secure this comm... should avoid real names for the... can I call you?"
"Trini, this is Skull! Come in!" Skull shouted. "They can't hear you," Aisha sighed, deflating. "We're still too far away."
They continued listening to the one-sided conversation, as Trini reported that she, Zack, Jason and Bulk were all together. Apparently they were talking to Katherine, as Trini asked at one point about whether or not Triceratops was there, but Skull's communicator wasn't picking up Katherine's end of the dialogue. Every so often, Skull tried to transmit again, but each time it only became more apparent that no one could hear them.
Finally, they heard Trini suggest tracing their signal and teleporting them back to the base. After a couple of minutes more, they heard a quartet of voices say "Ready," and then the signal cut off.
"Looks like they made it," Aisha nodded, trying to look on the bright side.
"Good job, Bulkie," Skull sighed. He then looked at Aisha and raised his eyebrows. "Well, now what do we do?"
Joram tapped Aisha on the shoulder. "(Still too far?)" he asked again.
"(Yes,)" Aisha replied.
The eldest brother nodded slowly, then turned to the others. "(We are closer, but not yet close enough. Come. We have a long way yet to go.)"
Kijana tossed Skull his helmet, then began buckling on his own. After he had it secure, he gave Skull the thumbs-up. "Let's roll," he said in his deep voice. Yet another snippet of Skull's vocabulary which Kijana had picked up on.
In spite of his frustration, Skull had to laugh at that. "Yessiree, pardner," he said in an old-west voice. "Let's head 'em up and move 'em out!"
* * *
Katherine told the whole story as well as she knew it, from the attack of the robeast to the arrival of Kimberly to the crash of the Blue Lion to Kat's own illness and Kimberly's substitution, to the arrival and subsequent departure of Bulk and Skull, to Billy's attempt to fly the Blue Lion, to the growing concern over the power level of the Phoenix, and what would happen to them once it failed.
Each of the four reacted to the story in a different way. Jason paced back and forth, chewing absently on a fingernail. Zack sat very still, resting his chin on folded hands, looking off into space, and nodding every once in a while. Bulk was obviously trying very hard to follow, but a lot of the material seemed to be over his head.
Of the four, Katherine noticed that Trini seemed to be the most in tune with the situation. She spent the time of the story checking out the monitors and controls of the Power Chamber, yet obviously not missing a word, and asking many questions of Katherine as the narration progressed.
Once Katherine was finished, there was a long silence, interrupted only by the constant drones and beeping sounds from the instruments.
Trini had made it to the vital sign monitors, and was shaking her head slowly. "They're in pretty bad shape out there. Adam looks the worst, but Rocky's close."
"How soon can we get out there and take their place, then?" Zack asked.
"Well, there's the problem," Katherine sighed. "Trying to get you in there before the end of the attack wave would be risky, but by the end of today's wave, it'll already be too late. The Phoenix will be out of power."
"How much time does the Phoenix have left, then?" Jason asked. Katherine consulted the power monitor. "About eleven hours," she said, gravely.
"And how much time is left in today's attack wave?" Jason went on. "About sixteen hours."
"Well, then, we just need to find a way to get the Phoenix some more power," Trini nodded.
"I was just looking into that when you called," Katherine told her. "I was going over Billy's notes..." She waved absently at the pile of notepads covered with Billy's mathematical scrawlings. "They didn't make a lot of sense to me, I'm afraid."
"May I take a look?" Trini asked.
"Please," Katherine nodded. "I was considering the idea of shutting down as much as possible here at the Power Chamber and attempting to give the Phoenix a burst of energy through the recharging systems in the hangar, but I don't think that would do much good."
"No, perhaps not," Trini agreed, glancing over the first few pages of notes. "What I'm more interested in is the Red BattleZord you mentioned. Since Tommy's the only one to have two zords, it might be fortunate that he's the one having this problem, and not one of the others. If they both run in conjunction with the red powers, it might be possible to cannibalize the BattleZord's power supply and place it in the Phoenix."
"Whoa, I don't know if I like the idea of trashing the only reserve zord," Jason pointed out. "If it doesn't work, then the Phoenix and the BattleZord will both be out of commission, am I right?"
"Yes, but from what Katherine said, the BattleZord will be pretty much useless for planetary defense anyway. We might want to give it a try."
"Billy considered doing that, too," said Katherine. "At least, from the looks of his notes, he did. But if I was reading them right, most of the power would be lost in the transfer between the two zords."
"Possibly," Trini nodded. She looked up at Katherine and gave her a reassuring smile. "But I think it's worth checking out all the same. Since I'm coming from the outside, maybe I'll be able to spot something that Billy might not have considered. Not to mention that if I know Billy, he was getting even less rest than the Rangers in the field, and he might have been a little bit off on his calculations. Where's the BattleZord now?"
"In the hangar," Katherine informed her. "After the last robeast attacked, I waited until the attack wave was over, then teleported it back."
"Hey, shouldn't we tell the gang that we're here?" Zack asked. Katherine thought about what the knowledge of Kimberly's arrival had done to her own ability to get the job done. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea just yet. It might interrupt their concentration."
"Well, then, I don't think we've got any time to waste," Trini nodded. "I'm all for checking out the BattleZord. Does anyone want to come with me?"
"I'll go," Jason volunteered.
"I don't think I'd do you much good," Zack shrugged. "What say I stick around here and study up on the new zords?"
"Good idea," Trini agreed. "Bulk, you want to come?" Bulk looked up at her, somewhat startled. "Uh, sure. I guess I could always help with the heavy lifting."
* * *
By this time, Adam felt he had achieved something of a oneness with Taurus. He wasn't sure anymore where the machine ended and he began. After all, his piloting had become as mechanical as the zord itself: stimulus, response, stimulus, response. Run across uninhabited land and try not to step on anyone. Fire into the sky to nail incoming ships. And so on, and so on, and so on....
There wasn't time to feel anything at this point. There was time to act, and to fight, and that was about all. If he let himself feel, the stress would kill him.
Adam caught another squadron of incoming on his heads-up monitor, and reached up with his left hand to activate the tracking controls.
Only his left hand wasn't there. He felt his mind give the command, he even felt as though his arm were indeed raising, but as he glanced at the control, his hand was simply not there.
Glancing down, he saw that his hand was in fact lying awkwardly on the armrest of his pilot's chair. He tried again to move it, but it simply lay there, and as he made an effort, his arm merely slipped off the rest and dangled to his side, completely numb.
Then, it wasn't just his arm: the entire left side of his body had gone dead. He tried to call for help, but his throat was constricted, and his tongue was paralyzed.
Now, Adam felt something. He felt deeply afraid.
* * *
About an hour had passed since Trini, Jason and Bulk had teleported over to the hangar, and the Power Chamber had grown quiet as Zack and Katherine concentrated on their respective tasks. Every once in a while Zack would speak up long enough to say "Cool," or "These things rock," or something similar.
The relative silence was then cut off by a loud beeping from one of the vital sign monitors. Katherine looked up from her console in alarm. "Oh, no," she whispered, hurrying over to check out the readouts.
In a flash, Zack was there beside her. "What's goin' on?"
"It's Adam," Katherine gasped. "Oh, no, his heart rate's skyrocketing!"
At that moment, a voice came over the communication system, barely recognizable as Adam's. "Hhhhhuuu... Mmmmuuuuhh!"
"Adam, what's wrong, man?!" Rocky shouted.
"Hhhhhuuuupmuh!" Adam panted. "Smmmone hhhhupmuh!"
"Adam, are you okay?" Tommy transmitted. "Come on, talk to me, man!"
"He's hyperventilating," said Zack, indicating his respiration count.
"It looks like some kind of seizure," Katherine whispered.
"We've got to get him to breathe in his own air," Zack told her. "This used to happen to a cousin of mine. He's got too much oxygen in his blood, and he needs to breathe in his own carbon dioxide."
"Right," Katherine nodded. She raced over to the main console to retrieve her headset communicator, then hurried back to the vitals monitor. "Adam, this is Katherine. Can you hear me?"
"Adam, listen carefully!" she shouted. "You're hyperventilating! I want you to turn off the atmosphere controls for your helmet! You need to breathe back your own air! Can you do that?"
There was a pause, and the only sound was Adam's ragged, constricted breathing. His pulse continued to accelerate, though, and his blood oxygen level wasn't going down. "Adam, I can't access your atmosphere controls from here!" Katherine shouted. "You need to shut them off!"
"Kat, get him out of there!" Tommy ordered. "I'll cover for him as long as I can!"
"All right! Hang on, Adam, we'll have you here in a second!" She covered her microphone with her hand and looked to Zack. "As soon as I get him here, bring him over to the medical table!"
"You got it," Zack nodded.
Katherine returned to the main terminal, zeroed in on Adam's position, and pulled him out of the bull's cockpit. Adam materialized at the far end of the chamber, and immediately collapsed against Zack, who picked his friend up and carried him over to the medical table, as Katherine had instructed.
"Get his helmet off," Katherine instructed. "I'll be right back!" She hurried down the hall, past the living quarters, and into the storage compartment, where the remainder of Billy's latest supply run was being kept. She found a small paper bag amidst the clutter, grabbed it, and headed back into the main chamber. Here, she saw that Zack had managed to remove Adam's helmet, and was checking his pulse. The Green Ranger's face was drained of color and covered with perspiration.
"You read my mind," Zack nodded when he noticed the paper bag. He took it from her, half-crumpled the open end, and placed it over Adam's mouth and nose. "Come on, buddy. Breathe slow, now. Breathe slow."
After a while, Adam's breathing did finally slow somewhat, and as Katherine checked his pulse rate, she could feel that it was going down as well.
Zack eventually removed the bag from Adam's face and looked down at him. "Just relax, man."
"Zack?" Adam said, looking blearily at the former Black Ranger. "Whennnd you ge'here?"
"Just about an hour ago, my man. The reinforcements have arrived."
"Zack, I cannnt feel my arm," Adam whispered. "Or my leg."
"Just give it a minute," Zack assured him. "You'll be fine. Just rest."
"Can't! Gotta get back out n'fight!"
"Don't get up!" Zack insisted, restraining the Ranger. "You're gonna make yourself worse!"
"Lisssen," Adam whispered. "One'a you needs t'take my powers and go back before people get hurt."
"Adam, if you give up your powers in this condition you might...." Katherine began, but couldn't let herself finish the thought.
With a flash of green, Adam demorphed. "Donnnt matter," he said. "Tommy can't do it alone. Need a Green Ranger out there."
Katherine looked up to meet Zack's eyes. In response, he raised his eyebrows at her. "Do you want to go, or should I?" he asked.
"Do you think you can?" she asked him.
"Yeah. Something told me I'd be needing to read up on those controls, and now I know why."
"Kat!" Tommy called in, his voice barely under control. "It looks like we're out of time a little early! Now listen! I want you to take Adam's zeonizers and take control of Taurus! We're gonna have to do the MegaZord now! We can't risk losing anyone else!"
"Tommy, we can't do that!" Rocky shouted. "People are gonna get killed!"
"We haven't got any other choice!"
"Yes, we do!" Kat called back. "Just hold on another couple of minutes, and we'll get someone out there!"
Zack, meanwhile, was carefully removing Adam's zeonizers and placing them on his own wrists. "You hang in there, Adam," Zack assured his friend. "I'm gonna consider this a loan, and that's all, you got me?"
"Hurry," Adam whispered.
Katherine quickly showed Adam how to manipulate the zeonizers, and with a double flash of green, the power left Adam and went to Zack, transforming him into the Green Ranger.
"Get moving!" Katherine shouted. "Use the coordinates on the main console!"
"I'm gone!" Zack nodded. "Take care of the little brother, okay?" Zack took a moment to study the position of the bull zord, then teleported out. Katherine then turned her full attention to Adam.
To her considerable relief, he looked none the worse for having lost his power. But then, he'd been eating and resting and demorphing from time to time, while Katherine had not. "How do you feel?" she asked him.
"I'm scared," he whispered.
"I know," she sighed, placing one hand over his damp forehead. "Me, too."
At that moment, she heard Zack's voice over the comlink. "Green Ranger, back in action! Bad guys better beware, 'cause the Zack-man is back in town!"
"Zack?!" Tommy all but choked.
"Omigod, Zack, when did you get here?" Kimberly asked.
"Just in time to save the day, looks like. Hey, Kat, how's the Ad-man?"
"I think he's going to be fine," she reported.
* * *
Ten minutes later, Adam was in fact doing better, or at least was resting easily. Once she felt it was safe to leave his bedside for a moment, Katherine put out a call to Trini and the others, asking them to come back from the hangar. It wouldn't hurt to get a second opinion, especially one from Trini: she seemed a lot more comfortable with these things than Katherine felt she would ever be.
"How's the arm?" Jason asked, gently massaging Adam's left hand. "Your hand's still pretty cold. Can you feel this?"
"A little bit," Adam whispered. "I can move it a little, but I can still barely feel it. It's like I'm operating it by remote control."
Trini, meanwhile, was watching a playback of Adam's vitals at the time the seizure had occurred. "Well, I think I know what happened," she said at length.
"What was it?" Katherine asked.
"It looks like you had a panic attack," she went on, rising from her chair to move to Adam's bedside. "Which is pretty understandable, given the circumstances, and not really something you should worry about."
"Not something I should worry about?" Adam repeated. "I had a panic attack in the middle of battle, and you're saying it's nothing to worry about?"
"I'm saying it could have been something a lot worse," Trini elaborated. "From the way Kat described it, I was worried it might have been a heart attack, or even a stroke."
"Isn't he a little young to have a stroke?" Bulk asked, raising his eyebrows at Trini.
"It can happen to anyone," Trini corrected him. She then smiled reassuringly at Adam. "But I'm guessing this was just two weeks of anxiety finally catching up with you."
"I let the team down," Adam muttered.
"No you didn't," Jason disagreed, looking Adam in the eye. "You did everything you could, and that's all any of us can ask of ourselves."
* * *
Billy stirred awake as the Blue Lion made the shift from Transit speed to real space. He quickly put on a clean uniform and hurried to the cockpit to see where they were.
A quick glance at the Navigation system showed that they were approaching the solar system at an angle almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. As the powerful "eyes" of the lion continued to scan the area, the positions and orbits of the planets lit up on the navigation screen, so that Billy was more or less looking at the entire planetary sphere from above. They were still at a pretty good distance -- about twice as far from the sun as the orbits of Neptune and Pluto -- but that was easily within the Blue Lion's scanning range. After all, she was Voltron's eyes.
He went from Navigation to the Science station, then, to get a better look at the Earth. Above him, he heard the sound of motors as the third and most powerful of the lion's eyes rose up from the top of the head. Part telescope, part multi-purpose scanner, a device to put the Palomar Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope to shame.
The main science screen lit up with a view of the solar system from above, as before. Billy took the controls, and brought the telescope around to zoom in on the Earth.
And zoom it did, bringing the planet up in startling detail. He saw the planet itself, still as blue and beautiful as he remembered. He was more or less looking down at the north pole, so that the entire northern hemisphere was visible.
As more and more detail came into focus, he saw the ring of Mondo's cogwheel platforms still surrounding the planet, and the computers began to track the motions of quadrafighters and claw-fighters, still making their attack runs. And then, to Billy's relief, the scan began pinpointing the beams of energy coming up from the surface to destroy the incoming ships. Billy saw beams of yellow, green, and orange, which meant that Tanya, Adam and Zero were still at work. A few flashes of red punctuated this, so Tommy and the Phoenix were still airborne. Kimberly and Rocky were on the other side of the world from Billy's point of view, but occasionally he'd see traces of their attacks as well.
The Rangers were still fighting. He'd made it in time after all. Now all he needed to do was contact them, but a quick access of the Communications station revealed that this would be next to impossible from here, and to come in much closer would be to risk detection by Mondo's forces.
But Billy had been expecting this. He'd simply need to turn this task over to Voltron's ears.
Moving quickly now, Billy pulled himself up to the pilot's station and removed the lion's key from the main console. Around him, all non- essential systems powered down, and the lights dimmed. Blue Lion slowed, and finally stopped, holding position, and he sensed that the remaining lions were following suit.
Pausing only a moment to test the weight of the key in his hand, Billy headed out through the airlock, took a brief sidetrack to the pilot's quarters to belt on the sword, then headed down to the hangar and boarded his mini-fighter.
As he rocketed out through the lion's jaws, it occurred to him that he should give this ship a name, especially given how faithfully it had served him throughout this mission. After all, the lions had names, and he'd even given Zero and Eric names, so why shouldn't this ship have a name? It was something to think about, anyway.
After making brief stops at the Red, Green and Black Lions, Billy docked the as-yet-unnamed fighter with the Yellow Lion, parked it in the hangar, then headed up to the cockpit and seated himself at the Communications station.
As before, he brought up a navigation scan of the solar system, then had the lion's senses zoom in on the Earth and scan for signals. He again heard the sound of motors at work, and a glance at Operations revealed that the massive ears were pivoting outward to take in the incoming signals.
And there were a lot of them. Even with global communications for the most part down, the Yellow Lion was picking up on every television and radio station in the northern hemisphere, every short-wave radio, every remaining satellite relay, probably even every cordless or cellular phone signal.
It then occurred to him that he should have some music. He hadn't been able to give the Rangers a wakeup call with music lately, and wanted the chance to do so. Just to see if he could, he tried to isolate the signal of his favorite classic rock station.
After a brief burst of static, the cabin speakers kicked in with the tail end of a Bob Dylan song. Billy was amazed at the clarity of the signal: he was getting better reception from outside the solar system than he'd ever been able to get from the Power Chamber.
"Nice ears," he said under his breath. He set one of the flight recorders to record the music, then started scanning for transmissions from the Rangers.
To his surprise, the first voice he heard was Zack's, coming from the Taurus, calling out an alert to Tommy. Zack had switched with Adam? Billy wondered if this meant Bulk had managed to complete his mission even without backup.
As he continued listening, though, he heard transmissions from Kimberly, Tanya, Tommy and Rocky, but none from Jason or Trini, as he had half-expected. Maybe Zack had been the only one to make it back to them.
The Dylan song segued into a song by R.E.M., and Billy had to pause a moment just to listen. "Oh, this is perfect," he said to himself. Smiling now, he zeroed in on the Power Chamber and considered his options. Contacting the base was well within Yellow Lion's capabilities, but to do so would mean alerting Mondo and company. There had to be a way to get a signal to them that couldn't be picked up by the Machine Empire.
After checking his options some more, he found a possibility, but decided he'd better test it first.
* * *
Things had quieted down considerably in the Power Chamber by this time. Adam was sleeping soundly, and probably would continue to do so for some time. Bulk had been keeping watch at Adam's bedside, reading one of Billy's many computer magazines, but after a couple of hours, he'd fallen asleep in his chair, and Katherine didn't really feel it necessary to wake him. Trini and Jason, meanwhile, were still hard at work in the hangar, trying to figure out what to do about the Red BattleZord.
Katherine cast another glance at the power gauges, and saw that the Phoenix was down to four hours of usable power. It should have been six, but Tommy had taken a few damaging hits while covering for the absent Green Ranger several hours ago, and this had further drained his already limited power. Whatever Trini and Jason were doing, she hoped they would hurry.
All of a sudden, a single light began flashing on the main terminal. Katherine hurried over to investigate, and saw, to her surprise, that they were picking up another incoming transmission. Thinking that it might be Skull, she put it on speakers.
Rather than a voice, though, the transmission was some kind of rapid, rhythmic pulse, which sounded mechanical rather than vocal. Katherine furrowed her brow, trying to figure this one out. Maybe they were picking up a stray transmission from the Machine Empire. If so, this might turn out to be useful, so she immediately began running it through the decoders.
"What's going on?" asked Bulk from across the room. Apparently he'd been awakened by the sound.
"There's some kind of weird signal coming in," Katherine told him. "I'm not sure where it's coming from, though."
Bulk yawned, then drifted over to the terminal to look over her shoulder. "What's it saying?"
"That's what I'm hoping to find out."
There was a pause while the computers continued processing, then Bulk broke the silence. "Hey, I've been wondering something for a while now."
"Well, you've got these two guns called Zero and Eric, right?"
"Okay, Zero I can understand, 'cause you've got the numbers one through five for the Power Rangers. So what's the deal with Eric?"
"Eric the Half a Zord, of course," Kat grinned. Bulk gave her a confused look, but before he could ask the next question, the computer beeped again, and a readout came up on the screen.
"'Test for echo,'" Katherine read. "It's repeating that, over and over again, in code. What does that mean?"
"Well...." Bulk considered, "I think that's the name of the new Rush album, but that's probably not too relevant."
There came a dual flash of grey light as Trini and Jason teleported back into the Power Chamber. Katherine immediately waved them over. "You read my mind: I was just about to call you."
"We've got it figured out," Trini told them, excitedly. "If we can get the Phoenix back to the hangar, we can have the power supply from the Red BattleZord installed in about two hours, and it'll give the Phoenix about three more days worth of power."
"The only thing I'm worried about is what happens during those two hours," Jason sighed.
"I guess that's good news," Katherine nodded. "Trini, could you have a look at this before we try any of that, though? We just picked up this coded signal. What does 'test for echo' mean?"
Trini took the controls as Katherine scooted aside. "Interesting," Trini whispered. "If I'm reading this right, this signal's coming from somewhere outside the solar system."
"So it's not from Mondo, then," Katherine considered.
"Probably not," Trini agreed. "This is strange, though. According to these readings, this signal is basically coming in on a tightly focused beam. It's like a radio wave, but it's no more than a foot wide, and it doesn't emanate outward."
"That's impossible," Jason frowned. "How can you contain a radio wave in open space? I mean, I know I wasn't great in physics, but that just doesn't seem possible."
"No, it doesn't, but it's happening. Whoever's doing it is sending a pinpoint transmission to the Power Chamber. Whoever it is knew exactly where to send it."
"Do you think it might be Billy?" Katherine asked, feeling her heart rate suddenly pick up.
"I don't know," Trini sighed. "It could be, but... A test for echo is basically just sending out a signal to see who's listening. Whoever's doing this is either trying to get our attention, or just trying to see if there's anyone here."
"Then what should we do?" asked Bulk.
"Can we send back an echo?" Jason suggested.
"I'll try," Trini nodded. She took a seat at the control panel and set to work.
Katherine took a step back to give Trini a bit more space. Then, to her surprise, she bumped into Adam, who'd been standing at her shoulder. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Adam, you should be resting," she told him.
"I'm okay," he said. "So what's going on?"
Before Katherine could reply, Trini turned away from the console. "Okay, I set the receivers to reflect the signal back. But considering that it's coming from all the way outside the solar system, it's going to take a long time to reach the source, if it does at all..."
Then, without warning, there was another beep from the console, and the Power Chamber became flooded with music. First a couple of instrumental measures, then the voice of Michael Stipe echoed through the underground complex.
This one goes out to the one I love...
This one goes out to the one I left behind....
* * *
"What's this?!" Jason exclaimed.
"Uh, it sounds like R.E.M.," Bulk offered. Katherine listened to the words of this familiar song. She'd heard it many times before, but this time every word went straight from her ears to her heart. She knew immediately where this song was coming from. "It's Billy!" she cried, excitedly.
"Are you sure?" Trini asked, looking over her shoulder.
Jason started laughing. "Man, who else would be sending us an R.E.M. song from outer space?"
As if to confirm this, the music faded to the background, and a familiar voice came over the speakers. "That was R.E.M. coming at you from the highways and byways of space and time, here on KLFR, Lion Force Radio! Our request lines are now open, so give us a call!"
Katherine joined Trini at the console and pressed the response key. "Billy, we hear you! We hear you!"
"Kat!" he shouted. "Oh, man, I can't even begin to tell you how good it is to hear your voice again."
"Hey, Billy, what's shakin'?" Jason called.
"Is that you, Jason?"
"It sure is, bro!"
"Wonderful!" Billy replied, and they could all tell that he was smiling. "Who else is there with you?"
Kat spoke up before Jason could. "Bulk found Trini and Zack and Jason, and they just arrived here several hours ago."
"That's great. Is Bulk within hearing distance?"
"Yeah, I'm right here," Bulk replied.
"Well, then let me be the latest to congratulate you on a job well done. Sorry we lost contact with you; that was a technical gaffe on my part."
"Ahh, it just made it more of an adventure," Bulk shrugged. "So where are you?"
"Hiding out with the cavalry," Billy chuckled. "I heard your echo. By any chance was that Trini's doing?"
Trini exchanged glances with Katherine. "As a matter of fact it was," Trini then spoke up. "Hello, Billy. Long time no see!"
"Hi, Trini! It's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back."
Billy's tone became more concerned. "One question: I was listening to the Rangers' transmissions to one another, and I heard Zack out there piloting Taurus. Is Adam all right?"
"I'm okay," said Adam, interrupting Kat before she could answer. "And I'd have to say I'm doing a lot better knowing you're back, man."
"I'm glad everything's okay, then," Billy nodded. "Hold on a second, and I'll try to patch in a visual signal."
The five turned as one to the viewing globe, which immediately lit up with a view of Billy, still in the blue uniform he'd been wearing when he'd left, sitting in the cockpit of a ship. "Can you see me?" he asked.
"Yes, we can!" Katherine smiled. "So are you still with the Blue Lion?"
Billy gave them a skewed grin. "Well, actually I'm with the Yellow Lion right at this precise moment."
"The Yellow Lion?" Trini asked, her interest piqued.
"Yeah, and you'd probably find it pretty familiar looking, Trini," Billy nodded. "In fact, I've got the whole damn family with me. Hold on, and I'll try to relay a visual to you."
Billy's face disappeared from the globe, to be replaced by a view of empty space, with large, looming shapes eclipsing the starry background. "Let me get some external lights going," Billy narrated. As he said this, floodlights came on, and they saw a formation of not one but four lion ships, one blue, one green, one red and one black.
"Holy moley," Bulk whispered.
"It's kind of a long story," Billy went on, "but the Reader's Digest version is that the Blue Lion took me back to her homeworld to fix the other four, and in return, they've come back to help us defend the Earth. So it's a good thing all of you guys are there, because we need a few good pilots to fly these monsters."
Jason looked at Trini. "Sweet," he said, quietly.
The view of the lions switched to Billy's concerned face. "Have any of you heard from Skull yet? Or Aisha?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Katherine frowned. "The only reason we heard from Trini was because she was able to build a stronger transmitter."
"I don't know if Skull would have had that option," Trini grimaced.
"Okay, then," Billy nodded. "I'll try to track down the signal, then give you coordinates so you can teleport him back. With any luck, he'll have already found Aisha."
"How do we get to you and the lions, then?" Adam asked. Katherine cast a concerned look at him, but he didn't seem to notice. Katherine remembered how much she'd hated being taken out of battle by her condition, though, and imagined it was the same for him.
"Well," Billy explained, "once we have you all together, I'll give you new coordinates to teleport to. If you trace my signal back for a reference point, it should make it easier on the power reserves."
"Billy, how is it that this signal is even getting to us?" Trini asked. "If you're outside the solar system, instantaneous communication like this should be impossible."
He shrugged in reply. "I haven't figured out all of the technology involved here, but for these lions, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot that's impossible." He then looked down at his own console. "Aha! I found Skull's communicator. Hold on, I'll patch us through."
* * *
The road warriors (as Skull had started referring to them) were taking a mid-day break, doing their best to hide from the blazing African sun, when the communicator on Skull's wrist suddenly started blaring out a Bob Dylan song. Skull, who'd been dozing in the shade of the truck, was awake with a start, leaping to his feet and spinning in a full circle, trying to see where this music was coming from.
Aisha, who'd been leaning against Skull and likewise dozing, barely caught herself in time to keep from crashing into the ground. She then stood up beside him. "Skull, it's the communicator!" she cried.
Skull studied the wrist-unit for a second. "Oh, great, first it picked up Trini, now it's getting some radio station!"
The song cut out abruptly, and was replaced by a voice. "Test for echo. Calling Detective Two. Test for echo. Do you read?"
"It's Billy!" Aisha practically squealed, as Joram and Kijana joined them, wondering where this noise was coming from.
Skull held up the communicator and pressed the transmit button. "Hey, Billy! Izzat you?"
"Skull!" Billy replied. "I'm glad to hear you're all right."
"Oh, couldn't be better!" Skull shrugged. "It's not like I got dropped out in the middle of nowhere and then nobody called me for a few days. Not a problem!"
Billy sighed loudly. "I'm sorry about that, Skull. That wasn't supposed to happen."
Another voice joined in. "Skull, you knucklehead, where are you?"
"Bulkie!" Skull grinned. "I'm in the middle of Africa, where else?"
"Skull, is Aisha there with you?" Billy asked.
"Yeah, I caught up with her last night."
"Excellent! Listen, I've got a lock on your coordinates, and I'm sending them to the Power Chamber now. Trini, can you got a fix on their position?"
Trini's voice came next. "I've got it. I can teleport you both here whenever you're ready."
"Hold on a second," Skull transmitted, then took his finger from the transmit button and looked down at Aisha. "Well, whaddya know, it's time to go!"
Joram gave her a smile. "(Did we get you close enough, then?)"
Looking at his triumphant expression, Aisha didn't have the heart to tell him otherwise. "(Yes, we did it. They're going to send for us, now. We have to go.)"
Joram nodded, then hugged her. "(Return to us soon, little sister.)"
"(I will. I promise.)"
As Joram moved on to shake hands with Skull, Kijana came and hugged Aisha next. "(Be careful.)"
"(Don't worry. I'll have Skull looking out for me.)"
Kijana gave her an off-center grin. "(As I said, be careful.)" He then turned to Skull, extended his hand, and said something in Swahili.
"What'd he say?" Skull asked Aisha.
"He said 'Good journeys to you, my friend.'" Aisha smiled. Skull gave Kijana a hearty handshake. "Well, you tell him that he's the bomb, okay?"
"(Skull says to tell you that... he has great admiration for you,)" Aisha translated.
Kijana raised his eyebrows at Skull. "The bomb?"
"It's a good thing!" Skull assured him, giving him the thumbs-up.
Kuria said his goodbyes next, and then Nyandika quickly dashed to the truck and returned with his mbira. Smiling, he presented it to Skull, who took it with jaw dropped. "(Tell Skull I want him to have this,)" he told Aisha.
Aisha translated this to Skull, who shook his head. "No, no, I can't, man! This is yours!"
She relayed this to Nyandika, then gave the youngest brother's reply to Skull. "He says it's for you to play on the rest of the journey. He says if you play the songs like we did last night, then they'll be able to listen for us."
Skull shook his head again, not sure of what to say, but then he gave the much shorter Nyandika a one-armed hug. "Thanks, man. I'll take good care of it, I promise."
Trini's voice again came from the communicator. "Is everything okay, Skull?"
"Yeah, everything's fine," he replied. He then looked to Aisha. "You ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," she nodded.
She and Skull stepped away from the truck and waved their last goodbyes to the rest of the road warriors. "Ms. Kwan, two to beam up!" Skull transmitted, and within seconds, the both of them vanished in streaks of greyish light.
* * *
Once the final teleportation was complete, Billy quickly retrieved the Yellow Lion's key from the pilot's control panel, then hurried down the main hall into the crew area. He paused only a moment before opening the door to the main briefing room and stepping inside.
Katherine was the first to greet him, racing up and throwing her arms around him. Billy hugged her tightly, and for a few moments, forgot about everything except how good it was to have her in his arms again. "I knew you'd come back," she said into his ear.
"With the incentive you gave me, how could I not?" he smiled. They broke, and Billy found himself mobbed by the others.
Trini hugged him next, first giving him a knowing look with raised eyebrows in reference to his warm reunion with Kat. "Something you two haven't been telling us?"
"Let me get back to you on that," Billy laughed, returning Trini's embrace. Jason and Aisha were next, practically sandwiching him between them. Skull gave him an intricate six-part handshake, and Bulk settled for just clasping forearms. Adam was the last to greet him, and Billy was momentarily taken aback. His friend looked absolutely wiped out. "Are you sure you're okay?" Billy asked him.
"I'll be fine now," Adam grinned.
Once reunions were out of the way, Billy addressed the group at large. "Well, it's great to see you all. Welcome aboard the Yellow Lion, fifth ship of the Voltron Force. Let's all take a seat, and I'll give you the quick briefing. I know our time's pretty short here."
"I didn't like leaving the Power Chamber empty like that," Katherine admitted. "I only hope nothing goes wrong before we get back."
They seated themselves around a small conference table. Katherine took the seat to Billy's left, and Adam the seat to his right. "All right, then. You might be wondering where I've been for the past couple of days. Like I told some of you earlier, when I took the Blue Lion out into the fight, she basically hijacked me and took me back to her homeworld, planet Arus, so that I could repair the other four lions. They were destroyed by the forces of Doom, led by the witch Haggar: Mondo's new friend. After the lions were brought down, Doom lay waste to all of planet Arus, just as they no doubt intend to do to the Earth."
Katherine reached under the table to take Billy's hand. He gratefully allowed her to do so, then gave her hand a squeeze. "Since the lions no longer have a home to defend, they've come back with me to Earth, where they'll help us defend ourselves against Doom and the Machine Empire. But to do that, they need pilots. That's why I need you guys. With five pilots, the lions are all but unstoppable, and only with five pilots can they join together into their combined form, which is called Voltron."
"I don't think we have much time to learn to fly them, though," Trini pointed out.
"With luck, we won't need much time," Billy explained. "These lions work with their pilots through a deep neural interface. Basically, they'll show you how to fly them as you go. That's not to say it's easy, though. Your mental training as Power Rangers should get you through it."
"Guess that leaves us out, Bulkie," Skull commented to his partner.
"You know, Skull, I think I can live with that," Bulk nodded in reply.
"I appreciate your honesty, guys," Billy chuckled. "How about the rest of you? Do any of you have any second thoughts about flying one of the lions? Make no mistake, this is going to be dangerous. The forces of Doom hate Voltron with a deep, abiding passion, and they'll turn all of their focus on us. With any luck, though, that'll take the heat off the Rangers. So... are you all ready?"
Billy waited for a few moments, but there was not a dissenting voice amongst them. Billy smiled, then took the five lion keys from a pouch attached to his belt. "In that case, let's get started. Each of the lions has its own personality, you might say, so I'm going to try to match each of you up with the one best suited for you. It may not be the same color you're used to, but trust me on this."
He passed the first key across the table to his former leader. "Jason, you'll take the Black Lion. He's the leader, and the strongest of the lions.
"Adam, you'll fly the Red Lion. He's a hardened warrior, and the right arm of Voltron." Adam accepted the key with a nod, and perhaps a touch of relief in his expression.
"Trini, I'd like you to take the Green Lion. She's the quickest and most agile of them, but she also packs a tremendous punch. Somehow that seemed suitable." Trini smiled at this analogy, taking the key from Billy's hand.
"Aisha, you'll be staying here and flying the Yellow Lion," Billy went on, passing the next key to Aisha. "He's the left leg of Voltron, and he's got more than his share of power backing him up."
Lastly, Billy turned to Katherine, who gave him a confused expression. "Kat...." he began.
"Would you like me to fly the Blue Lion with you, then?" she asked him.
"Not exactly," Billy sighed, considering the last of the five keys. He then took it and pressed it into Katherine's hand. "I'd like you to fly the Blue Lion instead of me."
Her expression turned to out-and-out shock. "What?"
"Billy, don't tell me you're going back to the Power Chamber!" Adam spoke up.
"No, it's not that, it's-"
Jason interrupted before Billy could get any further. "No way, man. Look, Billy, Katherine told us all about everything you've done for the Rangers during this battle. No offense to Tommy, but you've been as much of a leader as he has for this whole situation. After all that, you deserve this command more than I do, man. You take the Black Lion."
He started to hand the key back to Billy, but Billy restrained him. "No, really, Jason. I'm flattered, but I can't be with you for this fight. There's something else I have to do. A promise I made."
"What's that?" Aisha asked.
Billy looked over at Katherine, then at Adam, and finally at Jason. "I need to take on Haggar the witch."
"Wo," Adam whispered.
"But why?" Kat gasped.
"It's... something that needs to be done, and something I promised I'd do."
There was a brief silence, then Billy went on. "As for the keys. You need those to power up your lions, but they also serve another purpose. As long as you hold the key, you're in partial contact with the lion. Even now, you might start getting initial impressions from your lions, which will be even stronger after you've taken a seat in the pilot's chair for the first time."
"Yes, I feel it," Trini nodded, pausing a moment to close her eyes. "It's strange, but... it's kind of soothing."
Billy nodded at this, wondering if the lions would consider her a Maker, too. "Well, we should get started pretty soon, here. There are a bunch of small craft down in the hangar that we can use to get you to your lions. Once you're aboard, I'd suggest getting into a uniform like this one: the helmet helps focus the neural interface. Then we can start heading home, and you can all get a feel for the controls."
"What do you want us to do?" Skull spoke up.
Jason reached over to pat each of them on the shoulder in turn. "Why don't you come with me? Black Lion's a big ship. I could probably use a couple extra sets of hands."
"That's not a bad idea," Billy agreed.
"You think so?" Bulk asked, making an obvious effort to contain his excitement.
"Sounds like a plan to me!" Skull grinned.
Billy again looked at Katherine, whose expression was warring between concern and pride. "Well, everyone, we've got our work cut out for us. The Power Rangers have been defending the world for almost two solid weeks with no end in sight. It's time for the Voltron Force to come in and lend a helping hand."
"Hear, hear!" Trini agreed.
"You said it!" Aisha added.
"Let's kick Mondo back to the scrap heap he crawled out of," Adam nodded.
"All right, then," Billy said, exhaling slowly. "Let's get you to your lions!"
* * *
Jason finished putting on his white-and-black uniform, strapped on his helmet, then checked out his reflection in a full-length mirror. Not too bad a look, these outfits. The only potential drawback was the visor, which was tinted rather than opaque. Appearing in public as a Power Ranger had never been a problem thanks to the full-face helmets. But then, he wasn't here to fight putties on the ground anymore. He was here to fly a spectacular piece of technology into a spaceborne battle.
Already he was beginning to feel his blood pumping in anticipation of the action to come. It was good to be back in the fight, and even more so to be looked upon as a leader again. None of the others had questioned his leadership role, even after he'd offered it to Billy: they had all pretty much expected it of him, and he was not about to let them down.
One thing was certain, though. He wasn't about to go back to Switzerland once this was all over. The peace conferences would survive just fine without him, he figured, and with the arrival of the lions, he had all-new incentive to get back into creating world peace the way he best knew how. Piloting the Black Lion wasn't going to be the same as being a Power Ranger, sure, but from the feelings he was getting from the key in his hand, it was something just as worthwhile, and just as rewarding.
He heard Skull's signature laugh echoing from down the hall outside the pilot's quarters. Stepping out of the chamber, he saw the two partners in crime heading up the hall from the crew quarters, deeper in the lion's interior. Both had dressed in similar uniforms to Jason's (there had even been one in Bulk's size, apparently), with only the insignia on the forehead of the helmet being slightly different, probably indicating rank.
The two pulled up in front of Jason, and Skull snapped to attention, giving the pilot a salute. "Reporting for duty, Captain!" he grinned.
"Looking good, gentlemen," Jason nodded. "So what do you say we see what this big cat can do, eh?"
The three continued down the hall, through a pressurized doorway, and into the tri-level cockpit of the Black Lion. For a few moments, all three of them simply stood and stared at the complexity of the place. Even with the lights dimmed and most of the equipment not running, it was wondrous to behold.
"Now this is what I call the bridge of a starship," Bulk said, admiringly.
"You can say that again," Jason nodded. He looked up at the pilot's seat, situated well above the other stations, and slowly climbed the steep metal staircase leading up to it. He gingerly seated himself, then scanned the control panel for the place to put the key. He found it almost at once, and then pausing only to take a deep breath, he snapped the key into place.
Immediately, the bridge powered up, and Jason found himself in contact with something huge beyond imagining. He'd heard echoes of this as he'd concentrated on the key, but now he was experiencing the grandeur of the lion in its entirety, and his mind opened up to touch every corner of this metallic shell. For a brief instant, he felt that he and the machine were joined as one.
Then the rush faded slightly, and he looked at the control panel with a new understanding of its function. "Okay, guys," he said to his two companions. "Down on the lower level, do you see those four crew stations?"
"Sure do," Bulk replied.
"Cool. That's where I need you guys. Those stations monitor the status of the other four lions. When we get into the fight, it's gonna be your job to keep close watch over those screens and report any problems with the other lions to me. We're not just the lead lion: we're the guardian."
"Uh... sure, whatever you say," Skull shrugged. The two headed down to the lower tier and started checking out the indicated stations. "Hey, Jason!" Skull then called. "It looks like the Green Lion is trying to get your attention."
Jason nodded, as he'd felt this even as Skull had started to mention it. Trini was calling in on the Communications system. "Thanks, Skull," he said, then mentally threw a switch. In front of him, the largest screen lit up with a forward view of stars. There were two smaller screens to each side of the main one, and four more beneath it. The screen to the upper left lit up with a view of Trini, sitting in the pilot's chair of the Green Lion.
"Hi, Trini," he grinned at the screen. "How's all of this strike you?"
"This is incredible," she replied. "I think it even makes having to wear green worthwhile."
"Oh, come on, you look good in anything and you know it," Jason chuckled.
* * *
"I still wish I could find a uniform in pink," Katherine said from somewhere off behind Billy.
They were in the pilot's quarters aboard Blue Lion, where Katherine had chosen a uniform from the closetful of different sizes, and was now proceeding to get changed. Billy stood close to the door, back turned to give her a little privacy. "Well, as far as I can tell, there never was a Pink Lion," he informed her, all the while keeping a mantra running through his head: I will NOT look, I will NOT look, I will NOT look....
"But Blue's your color. I just feel strange wearing it, especially around you."
The sounds of shuffling fabric continued, and Billy struggled to keep his mind on the task at hand. "You know, it's funny how attached we all tend to get to the colors we wear as Rangers. I always liked blue, so when I became the Blue Ranger, I didn't really change my wardrobe at all, but once I gave up the powers... I couldn't bring myself to wear most of my old clothes, because they just reminded me of what I'd left behind. It doesn't make much sense, come to think of it, but it happened anyway."
"Do you promise you won't hold it against me if I wear something blue, then?" Kat said in an amused tone.
"Of course not."
"I'd hate to feel obligated to throw away all of my pink things if I don't go back to being the Pink Ranger," Kat went on. "I just... like the way it looks on me."
Billy almost said "You and me both," but he stopped himself. At length, the sounds of fabric stopped.
"All right, you can look now," Katherine told him.
He turned to face her, and upon later reflection, he couldn't say quite how he'd managed to keep his eyes from falling out of their sockets.
Billy had, of course, seen Katherine in similar states of dress. The body-armor worn by the Power Rangers was basically skintight and form-fitting, and left comparatively little to the imagination. And even in everyday life Katherine had a tendency to dress in an attention- grabbing manner, often hovering around the borders of provocative. In his darker moments, Billy had figured that this had only been in an effort to impress Tommy.
Nevertheless, Katherine was a stunning sight in the pure white of a Voltron Force uniform. He'd never seen her in white before: it gave her a positively radiant glow, and the blue around the shoulders only served to accent the mischievous gleam in her eyes.
"Well?" she asked him, all but striking a pose.
"You look fantastic," he whispered.
"Thank you," she smiled, tilting her head at him. She then turned to consider her reflection in a nearby mirror. "It's certainly different."
"Indeed," Billy agreed. "Um, you'll need to put your hair up before you put on the helmet, so that it can seal with the suit if it becomes necessary.
"Oh, I suppose I should," she blinked at her reflection. "How strange. I never considered it before, but when we morph, that sort of happens automatically, doesn't it?"
"That's because the Ranger armor molds itself around you," Billy explained.
She cast a curious look over her shoulder at him. "Do you know how to tie a French braid?"
"Uh... yeah," he stammered. "I used to do it for Kimberly sometimes. Would you like me to..."
"Please," she smiled.
Katherine again turned to face the mirror, then Billy positioned himself behind her and began to carefully braid her hair. He found himself startlingly aware of her proximity: the feel of her hair in his hands, the smell of her shampoo, the soft skin of her neck which he brushed with his fingers as he gathered her long tresses to braid. It was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking.
"I didn't want to say this in front of everyone," Katherine said at length, "but I'm very flattered that you're trusting me with your ship like this." From her tone, Billy couldn't really tell if this had been intended as a joke or not.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say she's my ship," he replied. "And as far as the whole trust issue goes, it's as much vice versa."
Katherine thought about this for a moment. "How do you mean?"
"I mean that I'm trusting her with you as much as you with her. Or even more so."
He went on braiding for a while before she spoke again. "What's she like?"
Billy paused. "Who?"
"The Blue Lion. What's she like?"
He held his breath for a moment, then continued with the braiding. "Well, she's unshakably loyal, she's driven, and she's always looking out for the others. In a lot of ways, she reminds me of you. I think she'll like you."
"They're a lot more than just machines, aren't they? The lions, I mean?"
"I think you'll sense it," he considered, finishing off the braid. "There. You're all set." His hands lingered there for a moment, and his mind gave him a strong image of slipping his arms around her from behind and pulling her to him.
Before he could think to move his hands, she turned around to smile at him. The smile turned to a look of mild surprise, though. "Billy, you're blushing!"
"I am?" he asked, but the warm feeling in his face was all the evidence he needed. "Sorry. I guess I'm just a little... nervous."
She arched one eyebrow. "Billy," she said, patiently, "you were my surgeon, my physician and my bedside nurse for two days. I imagine you've seen me in more... delicate positions than needing my hair braided."
"That was a completely different situation, though."
They were interrupted by a beep from Katherine's communicator, followed by a voice. "Jason to Kat. Come in."
"Go ahead, Jason," she replied.
"I hate to interrupt anything that I might be interrupting, but everyone else is just about ready to go. We've still got some ground to cover before we reach Earth."
"I was just on my way up to the bridge. I'll contact you there. Kat out."
Billy sighed. "I guess I'd better get down to the hangar and prep Crow for the infiltration."
"Crow?" she asked, but then shook her head. "Never mind, I don't need to know yet."
They stood there for a moment, looking anywhere but at one another. Billy struggled for the right words, but could not find them. What could he say to her with the very real possibility of death looming on the horizon?
"I think," she said patiently, "that this is the part in the script where you're supposed to kiss the pretty blonde."
"You think so?" he whispered, leaning closer.
"I do," she breathed, just before their lips met.