by Rain Fletcher

Chapter Eleven - Paths of Victory

In his brief career as a running back for the Angel Grove High School football team, Billy had scored only one touchdown, as the coach had generally used him as a "go-to guy," trusting him with the ball on third-and-long plays. When friends complimented him on his adept footwork and ability to dodge incoming defensemen, he always shrugged it off by saying he only moved that well out of fear of getting tackled.

Now, with Klank's head once again tucked against his chest like a football, Billy was again making a dash for it, but this time cogs instead of defensemen were chasing him. He outpaced the pursuers down a spiral ramp and out of the Machine Empire's satellite command base, never once breaking momentum. Once outside the towering structure, Billy sprinted clear as the first explosion rocked its foundation. This was followed by another, and another, each explosion larger than its predecessor. Billy leaped over a four-foot monorail track and took cover as yet another explosion caused the command base to lurch sideways before collapsing inward upon itself.

Billy peeked over the rail to see that the pursuing cogs had completely forgotten about him, and swarms of worker cogs were descending upon the wreckage, looking for all the world like ants scurrying around a stepped-on anthill.

"How does it look, Ranger?" Klank asked.

He raised Klank's head up above the rail. "See for yourself. You weren't kidding about that one spot being vulnerable."

"I'm overhearin' several transmissions," Klank informed him. "Aye, good. Like I said, they're turnin' attention t'the wreck. Now's our chance to take out the reactors b'neath the processors."

"I just wish we hadn't used so many of the explosives back there. Are you sure we'll have enough to blow the reactors?"

"We'll make do, Ranger, believe me."

"And you're sure we'll be able to get in?"

"Now would be our only chance, laddie, while they're confused. It won't take 'em long t' start lookin' f'r us again, and with tha' witch's scryin' power..."

"With any luck we'll be protected from that," Billy nodded, checking on the sword belted to his hip. "Otherwise, this little infiltration won't last long."

"An' if we dinna hurry, 'twill na' matter, laddie. Let's hop to."

* * *
"Blue Lion, can you give me an ETA on the mom and dad bots?" Jason asked.

"They'll be here inside of two minutes!" Kat replied.

Jason nodded to himself. They'd need this Voltron form Billy had told them about in order to take on something that size, he figured, but with those fighters still dogging them, he didn't like the odds of giving them only one target.

Then, as though in answer to his prayers, Adam's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Guys, the fighters have gone dead! They've just stopped moving!"

"What?!" Jason replied, stunned. "Lions, report in!"

"It's true!" Kat confirmed. "Blue Lion scans zero function in all the fighters! They all went dead at once!"

Aisha spoke next. "Yellow Lion's picking up no transmissions to the ships, and I'm reading several large explosions on the main Skybase!"

"Captain, I've got an aye-firmative on those readings," Skull reported from the lower deck. "The bogeys have all croaked."

"Yeah, all but the two big ones!" Bulk warned. "They're still coming in!"

"Billy!" Jason grinned. "He DID it! He must've knocked out the fighter controls! Okay, all lions, meet me at these coordinates! It's time for a little teamwork!"

"We're with you, Black Lion!" Trini replied.

"MegaZord, you'd better stick close to us," Jason suggested. "I don't think it'd be a good idea for you to engage those guys alone."

"I'm with you on that, Black Lion," Tommy replied. "Let's take it on the run!"

The MegaZord took the lead, then, setting a course away from the incoming Mondo and Machina. Behind the Zeo Rangers, the five lions fell into a V-shaped formation, with Black Lion in the front, Red and Green Lions to either side and slightly behind, and Blue and Yellow Lions one step further back.

"Hold onto your butts, gentlemen," Jason warned Bulk and Skull. He then switched communications to the five lions. "Okay, guys, let's do it! READY TO FORM VOLTRON!"

Jason pressed a thumb button on his right-hand control handle and twisted it a half-circle counter-clockwise. "Activate interlock!" he called, scanning his console as the results of the interlock procedure came up on his main viewer. "Dynatherms connected! Infracells are up! Megathrusters are go! Let's GO, Voltron Force!"

That said, an energy field reached out from the Black Lion, taking the four smaller lions in its grip as they continued their retreat. Jason both heard and felt the Black Lion roar as the transformation began. The front legs of the lion folded back and inward upon themselves, disappearing into the main body, and the back legs stretched out straight behind. Apertures came open in the shoulders to prepare for the docking procedure. Meanwhile, the other lions were bringing it together, legs likewise folding and disappearing into the main superstructures, preparing to be joined with the parent ship.

From his pilot's chair, Jason could see and sense it all. Like so many times before with the zords, he knew exactly what he needed to do. "Here we go! Blue Lion, Yellow Lion, form feet and legs!" The four and five ships pivoted their heads ninety degrees, so that the bodies of the lions were the legs of Voltron, and the heads were his feet.

"Red Lion, Green Lion, form arms and body!" The energy field surrounding the five lions began to contract, pulling the smaller lions in to hook up. The lions' tails plugged themselves into the shoulder apertures, which then locked them into place, so that the lions' bodies were arms, and the heads were fists. Soon after, the Blue and Yellow lions docked with the Black Lion's outstretched lower legs, becoming extensions of the lead ship. Now, only one thing remained.

Jason gripped his controls and took a deep breath. "And I'll form the head!" he cried, giving each of his control handles a sharp turn inward. As he did so, the head of Black Lion pivoted to match the rest of the body, its ears grew into horns, and the jaws opened wide to reveal the face of Voltron.

"We did it!" Jason cheered. He took a look around the cockpit, and was momentarily surprised to see that only Bulk and Skull were there. He'd been expecting that the others would join him here in the combined form, as with the MegaZord, but apparently Voltron kept the individual pilots within their own lions. "Everybody made it through that okay?"

"That was a rush!" Adam exclaimed.

"You can say that again!" Aisha agreed.

"It looks like all systems are go," Trini added.

"Our two friends are still in pursuit," Kat warned. "We're holding even with them at our current speed."

"Well what do you say we do something about that?" Jason grinned. "Okay, Voltron Force, it's time to see what this big guy can do! Prepare to intercept the bad guys!"

He brought Voltron around to face the onrushing robeasts, and the Zeo Megazord pulled into place beside them, both forces ready for battle.

* * *
In spite of the atmosphere controls of his flight suit keeping him at a nominal temperature, Billy was sweating as he climbed through a service hatch and down a ladder, into the heart of the main factory- slash-processing plant of the Empire. It was here that reclaimed metal was brought to be made into more fighters and more cogs, again and again and again. It was the source of the seemingly endless forces the Rangers had faced during the siege. And with luck, it would be their Achilles heel.

Monitors on the inside of his helmet reported that the temperature here was something to the order of a hundred ninety degrees, with radiation counts that would kill an unprotected human within moments: all the more reason to keep his suit in one piece, as it protected him from both.

The room they had entered was the very core within the core: three spherical reactors dominated the scene, held in place by enormous metal bracings, venting superheated gas and radioactive material every few seconds.

"Holy crow," Billy said, softly.

"'Tis a thing of beauty," Klank sighed. "A shame tha' we have t'blow it up."

"What do I need to do?"

"Carry me as close t'the center as ye can," Klank instructed. "I need t'see if anythin' has been changed since last I was here."

"Right," Billy nodded, holding Klank out at arm's length and creeping as close to the triad of reactors as he dared. The three were set in what amounted to a triangle shape, each one touching the other two. Billy was incongruously reminded of the last three pieces of cereal clinging to one another as they floated in the milk.

"Good," Klank reported. "No one seems t'have disturbed the works. Now, laddie, I need ye t'follow these next instructions t'the letter. I dinna have any arms t'do this m'self."

"I'm listening," Billy nodded.

"If ye look down at where m'neck used to be, ye should find a small panel. I want ye t'pry that panel open."

Billy studied the base of the neck, and indeed found the panel in question. Using a tool from his belt, he forced it open. Inside, he found four small, square white buttons in a row, each with a number of black dots between one and four. They looked rather like dice.

"D'ye see four numbered buttons there, laddie?" Klank asked.

"Affirmative," Billy said, nervously. He wasn't sure what Klank was planning, but just standing this close to three nuclear reactors was about all his nerves could handle.

"I need ye t'press 'em in this order. Four, two, four, two, one, three, one."

"Four, two, four, two, one, three...." Billy repeated as he pressed them.

"One moment, lad!" Klank exclaimed before Billy could press the last. After a brief pause, he continued. "All right, ye can finish now."

"One," Billy said, pressing the final button. As he did, there was a whirring sound from somewhere inside Klank's metal cranium, and his eyes flashed three times.

"Now set me down as close t'the center as ye can," Klank said, quietly.

"Why?" Billy asked. "What was that all about? What did I just do?"

"I've activated my self-destruct countdown," Klank replied, evenly. "The code ye entered locks out my automatic override. Nothin' can stop the countdown now."

Billy stared into Klank's immobile face for a moment, then shook his head. "WHAT?!"

"'Tis the only way, lad!" Klank growled. "Yuir explosives wouldna' be able t'dent these reactors, much less destroy 'em! Now put me down and go find that witch!"

Still stunned by this turn of events, Billy could only do as Klank instructed. He set the head down on a small platform near where the three spheres joined.

"Now get out of this place!" Klank insisted. "The witch will be in the castle! Remember yuir promise, Ranger!"

Billy turned to go, but then shook his head and turned back to the robot. "Klank, don't do this. There has to be something else we can do. You don't have to sacrifice yourself!"

"Oh, but I do, Ranger."

"Look, just shut up and listen for a second!" Billy shot back. "I have every intention of keeping my promise to you, Klank, but I don't plan to die today. I'm going to do everything in my power to take that witch down, then get back to my ship and make a run for it. You could come with me! Think of all the things we could learn from one another!"

"Nay, laddie," Klank replied. "Ye're a Maker, an' a talented one, but there're some things na' even you could program out of me. I will serve the Machine Empire until the verra last. Please, Ranger, let me do this last thing for m'King and m'Queen. Let me be the end of the one tha' slayed 'em. Let me make certain the forces of the Empire don't fall into other hands."

The two adversaries stared at one another for a few moments, then Billy looked away. "Okay," he whispered. "I just wish it didn't have to happen this way." He turned to go.

"Ranger!" Klank called after him.

"What is it?" Billy asked, looking back.

Klank paused before replying. "Ye were a worthy foe, Ranger," he said in a voice tinged with grudging respect.

Billy nodded. "Thank you. As were you."

"Aye, an' since ye WERE a worthy an' honorable foe, there's one last thing I'll tell ye, so tha' ye can tell yuir fellow Rangers if ye do escape."

"What's that?" Billy asked, taking a step closer.

"King Mondo conquered many star systems, an' in so doin' made many enemies. With him gone, there'll be more than one oppressed warlord hopin' t'take his place at the top to reclaim the Empire afore it fully collapses. An' they'll no doubt be interested in the world tha' brought Mondo down. Be ready for them, Ranger, for they will come."

In spite of the heat of the core, Billy felt a shiver run down his spine at this warning.

"The countdown is still goin'," Klank reminded him. "If ye do intend t'slay the witch and escape, ye'd best do so quickly."

"I'll try." Billy took a deep breath. "Goodbye, Klank."

"Good luck, Ranger."

* * *
Jason mentally ran through the list of weapons at Voltron's disposal. In spite of the situation, he found himself smiling. In addition to the Lion Torches and missiles controlled by the individual pilots, the combined form had several attacks which drew power from the unified strength. With the Mondo robeast rushing in first, Jason wasted no time in bringing up the first one. "Form Electro-Saber!" he shouted.

A pair of long blades materialized in the mouths of the Red and Green Lions. Jason brought Voltron's hands together, and the two fused together into a long javelin. He gave this one to Trini to control, gripped tightly by the Green Lion as the Red Lion reared back and prepared its torches.

"Here we go, team!" Jason transmitted to the group as Mondo came into striking range. The robeast King was a head taller than even Voltron, and thus dwarfed the much smaller MegaZord. Jason hoped Tommy wasn't planning on getting too wild out there with their limited power.

Mondo charged, staff raised to strike at Voltron. Jason came in to meet the former Machine King head-on, and staff and saber met in a shower of sparks. Voltron spun with the impact and sprayed the robeast with missile fire, with Adam adding to the barrage with his Lion Torches. Mondo retreated, then, only to turn around a ways off to prepare for another charge.

"Bulk, I need you to hook into Blue Lion's scanners!" Jason ordered. "Keep an eye on our other bogey!"

"Gotcha!" Bulk shouted from the lower tier. "Second bogey's holding back for right now."

"Doesn't make much sense," Jason muttered to himself. Why hold back, when they could outnumber Voltron two to one? In all Jason had heard about King Mondo, he'd never have guessed him to be particularly honorable.

Then there was no more time to wonder about it, as Mondo charged in a second time, staff held high. Jason again positioned Voltron to meet the charge, but this time, to the surprise of all the Voltron Force, Mondo spun around at the last moment and took a swipe at them with the spinning wheel of blades mounted on his back. Adam brought the Red Lion up to block the attack, but the saw-like motion of the blade-wheel dug into the Red Lion, and sparks flew into the blackness even as Adam cried out with shock and pain.

"That was a bad hit!" Bulk reported. "Hull's holding for now, but another hit in that same spot and we've got problems!"

"Trini, see if you can jam up the works there!" Jason called. "I'll give it a shot!" she replied.

Adam's move had at least deflected the charging robeast away, and as it withdrew, Trini reared back with the Electro-Saber and threw it, plunging it into Mondo's back, right amidst the whirring blades. It had the same basic effect as shoving a broomstick into a bicycle wheel's spokes. The blades seized up, and soon the motor spinning them exploded, sending Mondo sprawling through space.

"Good shot, Green Lion!" Adam panted.

"Adam, are you okay?" Aisha asked.

"It only hurts when I laugh. Have we got something else to throw at this guy?"

Jason again consulted the list of options available as Mondo righted himself and brought up his staff for another charge. "Let's get him with his own medicine! Form Spinning Laser Blades!"

Two huge shuriken-like blades materialized in Voltron's hands, and Jason spun the robot in a full three-sixty, allowing Trini and Adam to fling the blades at the robeast. They spun through the intervening space, then hit home, one cleaving into Mondo's torso while the other took off one of his lower legs at the knee. The robeast roared, but paused only a moment before resuming its charge.

"He looks pretty cheesed!" Adam shouted.

"We need something for short-range!" Kat added.

Jason nodded. "Okay, enough of the little stuff. FORM BLAZING SWORD!"

Again, the fists of Voltron came together, and as Jason drew them apart, a magnificent glowing blade appeared between them, its hilt gripped by the Red Lion's mouth. "This one's all yours, Adam!" Jason told his teammate. "Make it count!"

Mondo came in swinging, bringing his staff straight down upon them, but Adam brought up the Blazing Sword to block it. Sparks flew at the impact, and the sword half-severed the staff, but this only served to get the two stuck together.

At that moment, Mondo lowered his head like a bull, and the spikes of his warped crown shot forward, impaling Voltron through the chest in several places. None of the spikes penetrated the shield-crest for some reason, but several others pierced the Black Lion's hull and dug into place, locking the two enemies together.

Jason could not suppress a cry of pain himself, then, as he all but felt the spikes drilling into his own chest. He struggled to get them free, but they were caught, and Mondo was using this opportunity to start draining their power, as Sprocket had done to the MegaZord.

"I can't get him to let go!" Trini cried, as she pounded the robeast time and again with the Green Lion's head/fist.

"Looks like deja vu to me!" Aisha shouted. "Time to take care of business!"

That said, she brought up the Yellow Lion in an attempt to knee the Machine King in the groin. Her blow landed, but had no noticeable effect. Apparently this was not a vulnerable spot for the Machine King.

Then, to Jason's relief, a series of explosions snapped the spikes in half, and he was able to wrench Voltron free. Checking his scan, he saw that the Zeo MegaZord had come in and drilled the Machine King with several well-placed shots. The MegaZord's customary helmet was gone, replaced by a single huge cannon.

"We owe you one, Tommy!" Jason called, as Kat planted a kick in Mondo's chest and sent him flying backwards.

"You can thank Kimberly for that one!" Tommy corrected him.

"Gotta love these Battle Helmets!" Kimberly added as the MegaZord retreated alongside Voltron. As they did, the standard helmet reformed, putting Tommy back in command.

"Give me some good news, gentlemen!" Jason shouted down to his co-pilots.

"We're in pretty good shape, believe it or not!" Skull called back. "No critical areas are damaged!"

"Our other bogey's missing!" said Bulk, suddenly. "I can't find it on any scans!"

Jason blew a frustrated breath through his teeth. Their fight had carried them halfway across the world: Machina could be anywhere by now. "Keep your eyes glued, Bulk," Jason ordered. "The last thing we need's a surprise attack!"

"Here he comes!" Adam warned, drawing their attention back to Mondo.

Jason nodded grimly. "Let's stand our ground, guys!"

* * *
The climb to the throne room through the castle had not been without skirmishes, but Billy had been gripped with a resolve that would not be denied. He simply raced through the palace with both guns blazing, taking out any cog patrol or guard he might encounter with a flurry of attacks that brought them down before they could manage a counterattack.

He was working against a serious deadline here, and most frustrating of all was that he did not know how long he had before Klank blew the reactors. It honestly hadn't occurred to him at the time that he should ask, and it was probably too late to go back and find out. As it was he'd have to cover about a quarter of a mile over dangerous terrain just to get back to where he'd left Crow, assuming he could take out the witch in time. But that first required finding her.

At last, his ascent brought him to the topmost level, and the throne room. Before entering, he loaded his last cartridge into his rocket rifle and slung it at the ready. His pistols were all but drained of ammunition, so he hoped he wouldn't be involved in any more fire-fights.

Taking one last deep breath to steady himself, he charged into the throne room.

It was empty. The thrones, the observation deck, all of it completely empty.

Billy shook his head angrily. He hadn't come this far to fail. "HAGGAR!" he shouted into the empty room.

From behind came a evil cackling. Billy spun around to see that Mondo's throne was no longer unoccupied. Sitting there leisurely, stroking a blue cat that sat in her lap, was the witch. She stared at him with malevolent yellow eyes, a fanged grin framed by her dark blue- green face.

"How delightful!" the hag laughed. "The brave knight comes to destroy the wicked witch and save his world! How wonderfully pathetic! Were you really so foolish as to come alone, boy?"

"Who says I came alone?" Billy shot back. "Or haven't you noticed? Voltron and the Power Rangers will take care of your forces, Haggar."

"While you take care of me, I presume," the witch laughed. The blue cat, by this time, was growling and hissing at Billy, so Haggar set it down on the floor and stood, casually reaching to pick up her gnarled wooden staff from where it had been resting against the throne.

"Ah, yes, Voltron," she went on, and this time Billy literally saw a wisp of smoke from her eyes. "My dear enemy." She then whirled on Billy. "And you brought Voltron here, you little beast! For that alone I shall take great pleasure in watching you suffer before I kill you!"

"You're wrong, old witch," Billy replied, evenly. "You brought Voltron here when you destroyed Arus. They're here to pay you back for what you did for their world." After saying this, Billy drew the sword and held it out as best he could. "And so am I."

"Ah, yes, the sword of King Alfor!" she cackled. "I suspected as much when I could not locate my little invading saboteur. No matter, boy! My soldiers will soon restore communications to the ships of my fleet, and then all your hard work will be for nothing!"

Billy felt his heart skip for a moment, but she hadn't mentioned the reactors. He hoped she hadn't learned of that little detail of Klank's plan.

"Do you really think you can defeat me with that puny little sword?" Haggar laughed. "Why, it couldn't save even the mighty Voltron from my magic! An insignificant mortal like you will be child's play! And once I'm finished with you, Voltron will be next! Without the sword to protect them, I'll destroy them once and for all!"

She then gestured dramatically with her staff, and streamers of lightning arced forth to fry Billy where he stood. He gripped the sword tightly, though, and the energy beams were deflected, as though by an invisible sphere. This was followed by a flurry of attacks from the staff, but Billy deflected them all off. The sword seemed to be swinging by itself, and Billy knew that somehow King Alfor was guiding his hands.

After the initial volley, Haggar slowly circled Billy, watching him carefully. "Interesting. The sword seems to work well with you, human. Your strength and its strength feed one another. You're more like Alfor than I thought."

"If you want to surrender, now would be the right time," Billy offered.

As expected, this earned him another round of cackling. "Surrender?! To a stripling like you?!"

"Your spells can't harm me! Call off your attack!"

"I don't need my spells to harm you, boy!" Haggar shrieked. "GUARDS! TAKE HIM!"

Then, from all sides, demon-faced robot warriors materialized, murder in their glowing red eyes. These were much larger versions of the robots that piloted the claw-fighters, and each one looked strong enough to break Billy in two.

"That sword won't help you now!" the witch laughed. "Prepare to meet your doom!"

"I don't need the sword for the likes of them!" Billy shouted back. He quickly transferred the blade to his left hand, then with one fluid motion brought the rocket rifle from his right shoulder to his hand, braced the stock against his shoulder, and fired a rocket into the nearest robot, blowing it to fragments. Spinning in a full circle, he launched three more missiles at onrushing attackers, then dodged and rolled to one side, never taking his grip from either rifle or sword. One managed to graze him with a kick, but he rolled with it and blew away the attacker once he gained his ground. Soon he had launched his last rocket, so he chucked the rifle and drew his laser pistol, using the last of its battery power to finish off the remaining robots.

As he did, though, Haggar was up to something. Once the final robot was dealt with, he looked around to see not one but many witches, a dozen or more, now circling him. "Which one, fool?" they said in unison as they flew in a circle around him, their feet not touching the ground. "Which one is the real witch?"

"Let's find out!" Billy replied. Tossing aside his drained pistol, he again took the sword in both hands and charged the outside of the circle, hacking at one of the grinning witches. His swipe passed clean through it, though, and only served to make the image split into two more. They were spinning around him so crazily that he quickly lost track of the two, so he took another swipe, and ended up with another pair of images for his trouble.

Only then did he fully realize that he was outmatched here. Haggar was the mastermind behind the destruction of Arus and probably countless other worlds. What could one powerless Power Ranger do to defeat her?

Nothing, it seemed, except keep her busy, as Klank had suggested. After all, Klank was sacrificing himself in the name of his fallen Empire. Could Billy do any less for his world?

* * *
Far beneath the palace, Klank sat quietly in the reactor room, awaiting the inevitable. Not that he could do much else, he reminded himself.

He had never entertained notions of immortality. Even a free-willed machine had to come to terms with the idea that someday, somehow, something would prove stronger, and that would be the end. Klank was not an terribly introspective sort by nature, but he had given some thought to the idea of how he would like to meet his end, once it came.

This was, he thought to himself, the right way to go, in one last defiant gesture (preferably an obscene one) at the witch who'd destroyed his beloved Empire. His only regret was that his action came too late to save the royal family. But he'd seen what the witch had done to them. There was no recovering them from that.

The countdown marched on. It was now past the point where his automatic override would have kicked in, but the Ranger had taken care of that.

Klank had to admit (in a charitable mood brought on by his impending demise) that he almost liked the lad, as the two of them had been counterparts in the battles between the Empire and the Power Rangers. Behind the scenes, lacking much power on their own, but building and plotting and helping their leaders to keep up the fight. Klank even found himself hoping the Ranger would indeed manage to slay the witch and escape.

But he'd have to do it very soon. Time was nearly up. There was just enough left to do one last service-within-the-service for the royal family, for poor Orbus, and for himself.

In the heart of the reactor room, Klank began to sing.
The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you'll find him
His father's sword he has girded on
And his wild harp slung behind him
"Land of song!" cried the warrior bard
"Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword at least thy right shall guard
One faithful harp shall praise thee!"

He exploded.

* * *
The throne room shook violently around Billy as he continued his attacks on the witch's illusions, and for a moment, he was knocked off his feet. Fortunately for him, the quake also distracted Haggar, snuffing out her spell and causing her to look around herself in genuine shock. "What was that?" Her yellow eyes widened. "The reactors!"

Billy scampered to his feet and charged the witch in her moment of distraction, but before he could bring up the sword to attack, a blur of blue shot out of the darkness and attached itself to his head, the force of its impact literally knocking him sideways. Billy heard a bestial yowl as the witch's blue cat gripped his helmet, digging in with all four claws. He tried to shake the creature off, but it clung to him like a burr, and to his shock, its claws began to slice through the visor of his helmet. If it were to claw through, he'd be exposed to the outside environment, and he doubted he'd survive that long.

But no amount of grappling or tugging could pull the cat off his helmet. He spun crazily around the throne room in his efforts to dislodge the feline, but the harder he pulled, the harder it hung on. Soon, his flight suit monitors were screaming out alerts as the claws all but pierced the visor.

He had a sudden flash of inspiration, then immediately hated himself for it, but this was a life or death circumstance. He scanned his surroundings for the closest wall, turned, and charged it head-first, as fast as he could.

"NO!" the witch screamed from somewhere behind him, just before his helmet collided with the wall.

There was a sickening twisting crunch sound, accompanied by a blinding flash of pain from the impact. Billy rolled to one side, maintaining his grip on the sword while using his other hand to strip what was left of the cat from his helmet and fling it away. He was still seeing stars, but at least he hadn't cracked the helmet.

When his vision cleared, Haggar was standing over him, her staff gripped with both hands, eyes ablaze with fury. "Blast you, you meddling fool! First the reactors, and now my precious pussycat! Do you know, insect, how long it will take me to find another familiar to take his place?"

"My heart bleeds," Billy shot back.

"Oh, it will, boy!" she hissed, rearing back with the staff and preparing to drive one sharpened end of it right into his chest.

Time went into slow-motion. Billy saw the point of the staff descending upon him, and brought up the sword to defend himself. It was a wild swing at best, as Billy was still nothing more than a novice with the blade, but again, there seemed to be something guiding his hand. Slowly but surely he saw the edge cleaving through the air, leaving a trail of electrical sparks as it swept through its arc and sliced the witch's staff in two.

Next came an explosion of such force that Billy was swept across the hall and dumped out onto the observation deck. Even the anti-magic properties of the sword couldn't hold back this destructive outpour of pure magical power, but it did blunt the waves of energy enough to keep Billy from being blown clear out into space.

When the blast finally died down, Billy struggled to pick himself up off the deck, but something kicked him in the head and sent him sprawling. When he looked up, there again was Haggar, all but afire with rage. "Do you have any idea what you've done, brat?!"

"Stripped you of your power, I'll bet," Billy replied with all the defiance he could muster.

"Not quite, you miserable piece of filth! You may have killed my familiar and broken my staff, but I still have enough power to escape! Which is more than I can say for you! Enjoy your victory for these few moments, Power Ranger, for they will be your last! And as for your friends, I have already taken steps to ensure that my defeat will be avenged! You haven't heard the last of Haggar!"

And then, after the volley of cliches, she was gone, vanishing in a burst of acrid smoke, leaving only her evil laughter in her wake.

Billy wasted no time in getting to his feet and charging back into the throne room. Something had gone wrong, obviously. If Klank had indeed blown the reactors, this place should have been vaporized by now, but obviously this was not the case.

"Empress!" came a small voice from a half-melted computer terminal nearby. "Empress, come in! There was an explosion in the reactor chamber, and the cooling systems have been destroyed! We're minutes away from a reactor core breach, and we can't stop it!"

That was all Billy needed to hear. He sheathed the sword quickly and ran for it, retracing his steps through the palace, back down toward the ground level. He had a long way to go to reach his ship, and the most literal of deadlines looming over him should he not make it in time.

As he ran, he gave a silent apology to Klank. Even as the robot had failed to directly destroy the reactors, Billy had failed to keep the witch from escaping. But at least he'd managed to disrupt most of her power base. And at least Klank had ensured that the material resources of the Machine Empire would not be around for the next would-be emperor.

Only then did it occur to him that with the witch's power gone, the magical shield would likewise have vanished, and one or more of the Voltron lions might be tempted to come in and investigate. He needed to do something about that, and quickly.

* * *
"Okay, I've had enough of this nonsense," Jason transmitted to the rest of the Voltron Force. "Give me full power to the Blazing Sword, and let's finish this guy!"

"I can give you a one-minute boost of power to the sword, but it'll weaken the shields!" Bulk called from below.

"Then we'll just have to make our best defense a good offense," Adam replied. "Give me the boost!"

Bulk complied, and Jason felt the power flowing through Voltron's right arm, to focus upon the shimmering blade of the sword. "Looking good, team! How's our bogey doing?"

"He looks confused!" Kat reported. "He's stopped his charge!"

Jason brought his attention to his scanners, and saw that Mondo had indeed slowed his charge, and was holding position, his remaining limbs twitching violently.

"Guys, I'm reading a huge disturbance on the main base!" Aisha called in. "It's even bigger than the last explosion!"

"It's distracting him!" Trini shouted. "His guard's down!"

Jason didn't relish the thought of striking down a defenseless foe, but this was a fight for the future of his entire planet, and his own personal sense of honor was wearing a little thin. "Bring us in! Adam, he's yours!"

Voltron charged, but before they could reach sword range, Mondo snapped out of his trance, faced the onrushing robot, and raised his arms to block the downward swipe of the blade. The Machine King's right arm was sliced neatly in half, but he had deflected the blow from his body, and brought his left arm around to slam into Voltron's midsection. Alarms went off on Jason's control panel as the Black Lion's hull shook, but Adam did not pause. Voltron spun in a complete three-sixty to gain momentum, then Adam cleaved through Mondo's torso with the Blazing Sword.

The Machine King went up in a spectacular fireball, buffeting Voltron and driving them backward toward the Earth's atmosphere. Jason quickly regained control and righted their flight. "Nice one, Adam!" he congratulated the Red Lion pilot.

"I'm restoring power to the shields," Bulk called. "Should we keep the sword running?"

"Until we know where Machina got to, I think we'd better," Trini suggested.

"I'm with you there," Jason agreed. "Zeo MegaZord, are you guys okay?"

"We're coming up on you now," Tommy replied through the comlink. "We were a little shaken by that explosion, but there was no further damage."

"Good deal. Kat, I need a full scan for...."

"I've got a faint signal coming in!" Aisha interrupted. "It's from the Skybase!"

"Patch it through!" Jason replied.

There was a deafening squeal from the comlink, making Jason wince, but it quickly resolved itself into a voice. "--peat! This is Billy, calling Vol-- Force! Come in, --tron Force!"

"Billy, it's Jason! I read you, man! Where are you?"

"Still on the Skybase!" Billy shouted back. There was something wrong with his voice: he sounded like he was in the process of running a marathon. "What's your status?"

"We just took out a couple of robeasts, but there's still another one out there! Are you okay?"

The sound of an explosion followed, accompanied by a surprised cry from Billy. "Billy, come in!" Kat shouted. "Are you okay?"

"This place is falling down around my ears!" Billy shouted. "Listen, guys, the reactors are overheating, and they're going to blow at any moment! Don't come anywhere near here! Stay away from the satellites, too!"

"What about you?!" Adam cried.

"I'm trying to get back to my ship! Don't worry about me! Just stay away from here!"

"That's not good enough, Billy!" Jason disagreed. "Give us your position, and we'll airlift you out of there!" Even as he said it, he plotted a new course, sending them toward the Skybase at maximum speed. The MegaZord fell into place behind them, matching their velocity.

"Look, this is serious!" Billy yelled into his comlink. "I'm talking about an explosion that's going to vaporize everything within about fifty miles, and a chain reaction that'll blow every satellite in orbit! Stay out of the way! There's no sense in risking all of you when I've got a perfectly functional ship parked less than a quarter of a mile away!"

Jason took a moment to confer with his teammates. "I'm going in. If any of you want to bail, let me know now!"

"I think we stand a better chance joined up," Trini replied.

"We'd better make it quick," Aisha said next.

"Let's go," Adam said, simply.

"Kat?" Jason called.

"Do you need to ask?" she said in a low, determined voice.

"Works for me," Jason nodded. He then switched over to contact Billy's frequency. "Sorry, little bro, but you've just been outvoted." He cut the transmission before Billy could reply, and switched back to communications within Voltron itself. "I need full scans from Blue and Yellow Lions as we come in. Home in on his communicator frequency, and we'll dive in and get him. Bulk, Skull, if either of you two want to bail, now's the time to hit the escape capsules."

"Let's just do like the lady said and make it quick, okay?" Skull said over his shoulder. Jason could hear the fear in his voice, but he wasn't getting up from his station. Bulk said nothing, but he likewise remained at his station, patching into the Blue Lion's scanners.

"Approaching Skybase," Jason said, mostly to himself, as he watched the base draw closer. The surface of the base was an inferno, with explosion after explosion erupting from the machine structures. Billy wouldn't be able to survive that for long. "Give me some good news on those scans, guys!"

"I can't pinpoint his position," Aisha reported. "His signal keeps fading in and out, and that place is putting out a lot of interference!"

"Blue Lion might as well be blind," Kat said, frustrated. "I can't pick anything out on the surface through all that chaos!"

"I'm taking us in for a flyby over the surface!" Jason called. "I want all scanners open wide, and let's see what..."

"Incoming!" Bulk shouted from below, and then the world spun around them.

Something came up out of the fire, grabbed Voltron by the right leg, and slammed them into the surface of the Skybase. Jason didn't even need to look at the scanners to know that it was the other robeast. It had retreated to here, laying in wait where their scanners could not detect it, and blindsided them. The Blazing Sword went flying out of reach as they were thrown bodily to the ground. Something exploded beneath them, and for a moment, Jason was robbed of his senses, much less control of the giant robot.

He quickly shook off the pain and tried to get them off the surface, but something had Voltron by the foot. Another alarm was blasting in Jason's ears, and over this sound came Bulk's shouting voice. "Hull breach! We've got a hull breach!"

"Then we've got to close it off!" Jason shouted back. "Where is it?!"

Bulk did not answer, so Jason repeated his question. "Come on, man, where is it?!"

"The cockpit of the Blue Lion," Bulk said, quietly.

Jason felt his heart in his throat. "Kat, come in!" he shouted. "Kat, do you read?!"

* * *
The Zeo MegaZord was in a perfect position to see as the Machina robeast lunged out from the cover of the Skybase and brought Voltron down. Tommy grimaced beneath his helmet as he saw that one of the robeast's clawed hands had half-crushed the head of the Blue Lion. "Voltron, this is the MegaZord!" he transmitted. "Come in!"

"There's too much interference!" Zack said, shaking his head. "I've lost all contact with them!"

"We've got to help them!" Kim insisted. "They're caught!"

Tommy nodded slowly as he saw Voltron struggle to get up, only to be thrown down by the former Machine Queen, still holding the head of the Blue Lion in a vise grip. "Rocky, Tanya, how are we looking? If we go in, how much good can we do?"

"We're going to have to burn a lot of power on defense just to hold off the radiation," Rocky reported. "Billy wasn't kidding about that meltdown!"

"We won't be able to use the saber," Tanya added. "I'll cut as many corners as I can, but we'll probably only have time for one good shot."

"Do it," Tommy nodded. "I'm bringing us in for a flyby, and engaging the Zeo I Battle Helmet! Kim, on my word, you and I hit her with everything we've got!"

"Let's make it count!" she replied.

Tommy fired the thrusters and plotted the trajectory for a diving assault, hoping to disable the arm that was holding the Blue Lion long enough for Voltron to get back off the ground. His instruments flashed innumerable warnings as they drew closer to the surface, but he ignored them. They only had one chance at this.

"On my mark," he repeated, drawing his own weapons in on the target site. "Go for the arm! Ready... FIRE!"

They opened fire with their remaining weapons, drilling into Machina's chassis and causing several explosions, but the hand holding Voltron did not unclench. Cursing, Tommy pulled up out of the power-dive and started speeding them back into space.

"Oh, geez!" Zack said, suddenly.

"What is it, man?" Tommy demanded.

"She's throwing something at us!" Zack cried. "It looks like a fan!"

Tommy checked his own viewer to see that Machina had unfurled her customary metallic fan with her free hand. But the fan, like the rest of her, had been changed, becoming a weapon. Tommy could only watch as she threw the fan, sending it spinning after them faster than they could retreat.

"Brace for impact!" Tommy shouted.

The fan struck the MegaZord's midsection and cleaved straight through, barely breaking momentum as it all but cut them in two. Tommy was thrown forward in the cockpit and slammed face-first into his instrument panel, which then exploded beneath him. The last he sensed before he blacked out was the bitter taste of blood in his mouth and the surprisingly distant cries of his teammates. Then there was nothing at all.

* * *
She was surrounded on all sides by quiet, comfortable darkness, and for a long time, that was all there was. It reminded her of how she'd felt just prior to waking up in the Power Chamber with Billy watching over her. His voice had been the first she'd heard, bringing her out of her sleep.

There were other voices now, off in the distance, but none of them belonged to Billy.

"Kat, come in! If you can hear me, please say something!"

"I found her! Vital signs are positive, but I can't tell if she's awake or not!"

"We need to keep trying, then!"

"Let me handle that! You guys concentrate on getting us outta here!"

She recognized the second voice first. It sounded like Bulk, but more serious and stressed than she'd ever heard him. The other was a newer voice... _Jason,_ she thought.

"Kat, this is Bulk," came the second voice again, confirming its identity. "I don't know if you can hear me or not, but listen up. You've been pulled out of the cockpit by an automatic system. Just before you were breached, it automatically sealed your suit and pulled your chair out of that section."

Jason's voice came again. "Bulk, is she still in the head? If we can get her into the body, we could jettison the head if all else fails."

"If I'm reading this right, she's still somewhere in the head," Bulk said, but he no longer seemed to be talking to her. "She should have been pulled into the body, but there's some kind of blockage in the tunnel! I think it might have collapsed when she got grabbed!"

"Then we'll need to wake her up and get her to teleport out!" Jason replied. "Keep trying!"

Kat wanted to say something to let them know she was, in fact, awake, but she could not find her voice, nor for that matter could she find any sensation in her limbs. She needed to reach her wrist unit, as they said, but she could not seem to move her arms.

Then, gradually, she realized that she was being held in her pilot's chair by a series of restraints which had apparently come down around her when she was yanked out of the cockpit. The reason she could not move her arms was that they were clamped to the armrests.

She was stuck in pitch blackness with no way to teleport out. Katherine tried to scream, but even that was denied her.

* * *
As the MegaZord tumbled through space, the four conscious Power Rangers tried to take stock of their newest predicament.

"Is everyone okay?" Tanya asked.

"I think so," Kim winced.

"I think Tommy's out cold," Zack reported, reaching across the small space to check on their leader. "He's breathing, but that's about it. Is it safe to take off his helmet?"

"Don't," Tanya replied, shaking her head. "Just lean him forward so he won't choke on anything. Rocky, how come you haven't said anything yet?"

"Just waiting my turn," Rocky said through clenched teeth. "I think my right arm's broken. I can't move it."

"Can one of you guys get a fix on where we are?" Tanya asked.

Rocky clumsily attempted to get a reading, using his left hand on the control keys. The forward viewer came up, showing a swirl of stars passing at high speed.

"We're drifting," Zack said, quietly.

"No, look!" Tanya said, pointing at the monitor. As they watched, the Skybase crossed their field of view from bottom to top. A few seconds later, it did so again, giving them a brief view of Voltron and Machina, still tangled up at the surface.

"Okay, so we're tumbling," Zack corrected himself. "That's not much better."

"There has to be something we can do," Tanya insisted. "Can we route the thruster controls to another station?"

Rocky checked on this. "No. There aren't any controls to route. All thruster systems are down, and there's not enough power for self- repair."

"How about radio?" Tanya asked Zack. "Can we put out an S.O.S.?"

"No," Zack replied, checking his own controls. "Looks like they're all fried, too."

Tanya paused to take a deep breath. "This is starting to sound like Apollo 13. So what have we got that does work?"

There was a long pause as each of them went through their own control systems. Rocky spoke first. "Life support is still working, and so are the radiation screens."

"That's good news," Tanya nodded.

"Yeah, but there ain't much else," Rocky went on, his voice becoming more edged with pain as he worked around his broken arm. "That fan nearly sliced us in half, and there's no contact with any of the lower sections. We can't even separate into the five zords until that gets fixed, and that's not an option."

"The Battle Helmet is still engaged," Kimberly added. "I've still got firing control to that, but it looks like all the power's being used for other systems."

"Communications are completely shot, like I said," Zack finished. "But we still have our visual scanners giving us the picture."

"That doesn't give us much," Rocky said, stating the very obvious.

"Maybe, but..." Tanya began, but then trailed off as she stared at the display.

"What's up, Tanya?" Kim asked her.

"I've got an idea," Tanya replied, quietly.

* * *
"Give me all power to thrusters!" Jason ordered. "We'll try to pull ourselves loose!"

Voltron rose up from the surface of the Skybase and tried to rocket away, but the robeast maintained a firm grip on their foot: the head of the Blue Lion. The foot-thrusters from the Blue Lion were severely damaged as well, and even with the Yellow Lion pouring out maximum power, they could not budge. Machina was clamped to the surface with both feet, and was holding them with one extended arm, showing no signs of weakening.

"Why isn't she attacking?" Aisha asked. "We're sitting ducks!"

"She doesn't need to!" Trini replied. "She just needs to hold us here until the reactor goes!"

"We need to get Kat out so we can ditch the head!" Jason shouted. "Bulk, is there any way to get her out of there?"

"I'm trying to find one!" Bulk replied.

The next voice, to Jason's surprise, was Kat's. She sounded distant and strained, but it was her. "Jason, I can't move! All my restraints are on, and I can't reach my teleporter!"

"Hang in there, Kat, we'll get you loose! Adam, Trini, I want you to fry that thing with your lion torches! Try to get her to let go, but don't torch too close to Kat!"

"Jason, you have to leave me here!" Kat exclaimed. "Just get Billy away!"

"Not acceptable, Kat!" Jason replied. "Bulk, try to find a way to override the controls to her pilot's chair and disengage the restraints!"

"I'm looking, I'm looking! Skull, give me a hand with this!"

* * *
Far below, in the deserted Power Chamber, something was happening. It began with the sound of the main generators coming online and restoring power to all systems, one by one. First the computers, then the lights, then the circulation fans and other life support mechanisms. Diagnostic tests flashed across every screen, each one coming up green in turn. There was no movement to be seen, however.

After a few moments, something did finally move. The something in question was Alpha 5, who had just completed a full reboot. "Ay yi yi!" the diminutive robot shrieked, turning around in circles as power coursed through its limbs again. "All systems functioning within normal parameters! Power blockage has been negated!"

Alpha hurried to the controls of Zordon's stasis tube and began pressing buttons frantically. "Ooooh, Zordon, please be there!"

After a pause, the customary bluish light filled the tube, and Zordon's face gradually materialized. He looked groggy, but unharmed. "It is good to see you are still functional, Alpha," Zordon intoned. "I feared that the power block may have destroyed you."

"What was it, Zordon?"

"It felt like a strong magical field, the likes of which I have never encountered. Quickly, Alpha, find the Rangers!"

Alpha scurried over to a convenient scanner and checked the display. "Ooooh! Ay yi yi! Zordon! The Machine Skybase is coming apart, and the Zeo MegaZord is badly damaged! It's drifting toward the atmosphere!"

"Are the Rangers alive, Alpha?"

"I'm getting five positive life signs aboard the MegaZord, but they won't survive re-entry if we don't bring them back!"

"Then you must do so. Teleport the Rangers to the Power Chamber, and teleport the MegaZord to the holding bay."

"I can't!" Alpha cried. "Ay yi yi! Teleportation circuits are not yet functional!"

"Restore them as quickly as you can, Alpha," Zordon ordered "We may already be too late!"

* * *
Tanya pointed to the forward viewer. "Zack, can you magnify that view?"

"Sure thing," Zack nodded, typing at his console. The view changed, and the next time the battle scene passed by, they could pick out details. Voltron was spaceborne, but still being held from escape by Machina. Just as quickly, the view passed by, then reappeared, then passed.

"Kimberly, bring up the crosshairs for the Battle Helmet cannon," Tanya told her teammate.

"Got it," Kimberly complied, bringing the targeting graphic to the screen.

"There, do you see?" Tanya said, excitedly. "We're not just tumbling, we're rotating. Every time we spin, the crosshairs get just a little closer to where they're being held. If we can time it just right, we can take another shot at the arm that's holding onto them!"

"Great, but we don't have any power for the gun," Rocky observed.

"Not now, we don't. But if we route all power, and I mean all power into one shot, it might be enough. That means shutting down life-support, shutting down radiation screens, and leaving just enough to keep the viewer working long enough for Kim to fire the cannon."

"Shut down life-support?" Zack parroted.

"We'll still have all the protection of our armor," Tanya pointed out. "That'll last us a while."

"But that won't be enough to get us through re-entry," Rocky told her. "Then again, I don't think we have enough power to survive re-entry regardless."

"Then we've got nothing to lose and everything to gain," Tanya insisted. "If we can get them loose, they can save us. We can have one of our communicators put out a distress signal, and hope that they can hear it and come get us. Look, we're running out of time! They'll pass out of range soon!"

"Okay, let's do it," Rocky nodded. "If we can do anything to get them loose, I say we try."

"Kim, can you make a shot like that?" Zack asked.

"I can try," she said, nervously.

Zack paused, then shook his head. "Fine. Let's do it."

Tanya was already at work at her console, re-routing all the power she could get her hands on. Soon, the lights went down, and an eerie silence settled over the cockpit. The only illumination now was from the forward viewer and Kimberly's gun controls.

The battle scrolled past again, then again. The magnified view showed the crosshairs passing closer and closer to the arm that held Voltron. "Two or three more passes," Tanya whispered. "We know you can do it, Kim."

"Here goes," Kim said, quietly.

The perfect shot came into the crosshairs, and Kimberly fired. Before the Rangers could even see whether or not the shot hit home, however, they vanished in a series of teleportation beams.

* * *
Jason was wrenched with vertigo as Voltron suddenly rocketed into the sky, no longer held by Machina. "Whoa!" he shouted. "What happened?!"

"A shot came out of nowhere and blew her hand clean off!" Adam reported. "It must have been the MegaZord!"

"She's coming after us!" Aisha warned.

"We can worry about her later," said Jason. "Jason to Billy! Come in! Give us your position, man, we're coming to get you out of there!"

After a few seconds, Billy's voice came over the communicator. "What, are you guys still here?! Did you think I was kidding?! Get away from here, NOW!"

"Billy, we can't leave you!" Adam shouted.

"You have to! I'm nearly to my ship! GO!"

"Just tell us where you are!" Jason demanded.

Billy paused, then shouted his reply for all he was worth. "Seth, get them out of there, now! As a Maker, I a ordering you to get them to safety!"

And then, immediately, Jason's controls went dead, and Voltron began fleeing from the Skybase with all available speed. Machina followed them for a moment, then turned tail and headed straight back for her collapsing fortress.

"I've lost all controls!" Jason shouted.

"Automatic systems have taken over!" Skull yelled over his shoulder. "All five lions have gone to automatic pilot! We're locked out!"

"Billy, NO!" Katherine screamed.

* * *
Billy cast a glance skyward as he emerged from the base of the fortress, just in time to see Voltron streak away into the stars. He allowed himself a small sigh of relief. Seth had listened when push came to shove, and for that, he was grateful.

Now Billy had to see about saving himself, which meant sprinting two hundred yards across the flaming tarmac and hoping that Crow was still there. He wasted no time in doing so, diving forth into the chaos. Entire buildings went up in flames around him, but he did not break momentum.

To his amazement, Crow had not even been touched in his absence, and had miraculously been missed by any and all shrapnel from the explosions. He quickly popped open the canopy, vaulted in, and closed it behind him.

Before he could warm up the engines, though, his console lit up with the message, "RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL DETECTED. STAND BY FOR DECONTAMINATION."

"Can't we do this later?!" Billy shouted at his controls. The cockpit pressurized quickly, and the air became charged as the radioactive particles clinging to Billy's suit were neutralized. Billy began warming the engines as quickly as he could, buckling on his restraints as he did.

Then the ground shook beneath him. Craning his neck around to look over his shoulder, he saw, to his horror, that the robeast that had once been Queen Machina had landed not twenty yards away, and seemed to be looking for him.

Takeoff was going to be tricky as it was. Only the front support strut was left, which at least meant that his nose was pointed skyward. He had hoped to have a chance to do this carefully, but Machina's appearance made caution take a back seat to desperation. As soon as the engines came online, Billy gunned them, and Crow launched crazily from the surface, spinning out of control. Billy fought with the unresponsive controls until his one remaining stabilizer brought him to a level flight path, and he sped away from the Skybase, not knowing, nor caring, in which direction he was heading. Machina, to his disquiet, was following.

And then, behind him, the Skybase went nova. A shockwave of brilliant white energy erupted forth from the vaporized base, expanding in a fiery sphere of destruction.

It didn't take long for Billy to realize that the shockwave was catching up with him, and he had Crow's abused thrusters firing well past safe levels as it was. Through his rear viewer, he watched as Machina was overtaken and consumed by the wave, which continued on unabated after devouring her.

He just plain wasn't going to make it. The wall of brilliance drew closer and closer, but he kept the thrusters firing in a last desperate hope.

"Kat," he said again, quietly. "Oh, Kat, I'm sorry...." Then the wave overtook him, and his senses were lost to the brilliance.

Chapter 12: Chimes of Freedom

When Tommy finally regained consciousness, it took him a few seconds to find his bearings. The last he remembered was the attack by Machina, and now he was suddenly in... the Power Chamber?

Kimberly's face then appeared in his field of vision. "Zordon, he's awake!" she called over her shoulder, then looked back to him with an expression filled with concern. "How do you feel?"

"Not too bad, I guess," he grimaced, sitting up on the medical cot. He took a look around to see that the other Rangers were here as well. Kimberly was keeping watch at his side, Tanya was at the main control panel, and Rocky, stripped to the waist, was being tended to by Zack and Alpha for what appeared to be a broken arm.

Seeing Alpha in motion clicked together with what Kimberly had just said, and Tommy looked over at Zordon's stasis tube to see his mentor's concerned face looking down at him. "I am glad to see that you are not severely injured, Tommy."

"Zordon?!" Tommy exclaimed. "You're okay? What happened?"

"The spell holding myself and Alpha has been disrupted," Zordon explained.

"As soon as they found us, they teleported us back here," Kimberly went on.

"What about the others?" Tommy asked. "Did they get loose? Did they find Billy?"

"Tanya's looking for them now," Kimberly sighed.

On cue, Tanya spoke up. "I found them!" she called. "They're retreating from the Skybase, and it looks like they're heading for home!"

"AwRIGHT!" Zack cheered. "Looks like it was a good shot after all, Kimmie!"

"Thanks," Kimberly smiled, softly, "but I never could have done it without Tanya."

"Uh, guys, there's something happening at the Skybase," Tanya interrupted. "I'm putting it on the main screen."

The largest monitor came to life just in time for the Rangers to see the Skybase explode. The entire Power Chamber was flooded with light, and Tommy had to shield his eyes from the sudden brilliance.

"Ho-lee smoke," Rocky whispered.

"Looks like the bad guys are toast," Zack said, stating the very obvious.

"They did it," Tommy nodded. "They actually took out the entire Skybase."

"That's not all," Tanya pointed out. "Check out the holo-globe."

Tommy pushed himself off the medical cot, assisted by Kim, and they joined the rest of the Rangers and Alpha around the holographic projection of the Earth and the surrounding forces. One by one, the satellite bases were lighting up and then fading away, starting with those closest to the Skybase and then continuing in both directions around the Earth. Kimberly slipped one hand into Tommy's, and he held it tightly.

"We won," Rocky said quietly, sounding as though he still couldn't believe it.

Tommy looked down at Kimberly, whose face was a mix of emotions warring between elation, disbelief and concern. She put her arms around him, and they held each other tightly as the last satellites flared up and died.

"How soon before the others get back?" Zack asked, breaking the silence. "I think we've got us a victory celebration coming!"

Tanya went back to the main console and started typing away at the controls. "I can't raise them on communications," she said. "They're coming into the atmosphere now. It looks like they're still under pilot control, but for some reason they're not answering our transmissions."

"Put them on the main viewer, Tanya," Zordon suggested.

"You got it," she nodded, working the appropriate controls. The image of Voltron appeared on the main screen, descending quickly through the atmosphere. The mighty robot showed obvious damage from its battles, but was still in one piece.

Then, as they watched, that changed. Once they had passed the initial stage of re-entry and slowed to make their final approach, the humanoid form broke up into five segments -- two arms, two legs and body -- and each of these re-formed into a lion ship: one black, one red, one green, one blue, and one yellow.

"Incredible," Zordon said in a quiet, amazed voice.

"What do you mean?" Zack asked.

"Rangers, you are witnessing the work of King Alfor of the planet Arus. I knew him many centuries ago, when he had created the first of his lion ships. He shared with me his dream of five lions uniting into an unstoppable robotic warrior. His dream was the inspiration for the first zords, and I created the Sabretooth Tiger zord in the image of his lions, to honor his work. To see them defending the Earth in the company of the Power Rangers is...." He trailed off, unable to finish the thought.

The five lions spiralled closer, and gradually came in to land in a circle around the Power Chamber. The external cameras took in the sight of the five lions at rest, and of the awestruck crowds still surrounding the mountain.

"Alpha," Zordon called, "find the other Rangers and teleport them here. You are all to be congratulated on a job well done."

"I'm detecting seven communicator signals," Alpha reported. "Teleporting now!"

Seven beams of grey formed at the far end of the Power Chamber, and soon resolved into the figures of Jason, Adam, Trini, Katherine, Aisha, Bulk and Skull. In spite of his pounding head, Tommy was across the room in a flash to embrace his best friend. "Jason, you're okay!"

"Yeah," Jason said, and Tommy was surprised to see tears in his friend's eyes. "Yeah, I guess we are."

Tommy turned to look for Katherine, but she was already striding across the room, toward the main controls. To his surprise, she almost literally shook Kimberly and Tanya off as she continued single-mindedly in her path.

It was then that Tommy took a mental head-count and realized there should have been eight of them. "Where's Billy? Isn't he with you?"

Jason shook his head slowly, and Tommy felt a cold clenching in his guts. "He was still on the Skybase. He... ordered the lions to take us away, and they did."

"He might have gotten away in time, though," Trini added, coming over to put her hand on Jason's shoulder. "He said he was close to his ship."

"Yeah, maybe," Jason whispered, but he didn't sound like he believed it.

"I'll bet Katherine's checking it out now," Trini went on, refusing to let go of hope.

The other nine Rangers (and Bulk and Skull) slowly drifted across the Power Chamber to where Katherine and Alpha were still at work. Tommy couldn't help noticing that Kat looked terrible: her eyes were visibly red, her jaw was clenched, and she was working at a frantic pace. Around them, old friends who hadn't seen each other in the flesh for years were holding hands, hugging each other, and each of them waiting tensely for someone to say something.

Eventually, it was Zordon who did so. "Katherine, I am sorry, but there is no sign of Billy or his ship."

"That's not good enough!" Katherine snapped. "We have to keep looking! He's up there somewhere, I know he is!"

"Katherine," Zordon said, gently, "if Billy had survived the explosion of the Skybase, surely he would have contacted us by now."

"He might not be able to! He might be hurt, or...."

"Katherine," Zordon repeated, "I know this is difficult for you. It is no easier for me. We have heard nothing from Billy, and we cannot locate a signal from his communicator. We must assume that he did not survive."

"I'll assume no such thing! I can't believe you'd just give up on him like this!"

Seeing her in this state of agitation was just about all Tommy could stand. He'd never seen her like this, even in their darkest times. "Kat," he whispered, reaching to put his hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged the hand off, then went for her wrist unit. Before anyone could react, she teleported out in a flash of light.

"Alpha, see if you can find her," Tommy said, immediately.

"Katherine may need some time alone to come to terms with what has happened," Zordon said, softly. "I suggest we allow her that time."

"We'll be here when she needs us," Tanya whispered.

* * *
The recall button on her wrist unit took Katherine right back to her previous position: the bridge of the Blue Lion. Once the ship had landed, her pilot's chair had automatically returned her here and disengaged the restraints which had locked her in place, but by then, of course, it had been too late.

The cockpit was still in a state of near-complete chaos, including several gouges which opened the interior to the outside air. Self-repair systems seemed to be hard at work, though, beaming things back into place one component at a time.

She shifted herself off the actual pilot's chair and knelt before the main control panel. The main viewer had a crack all the way from the left side to the right, but it still appeared to be functional. She brought up a self-diagnostic of the ship to assess the level of damage.

As she feared, the lion was nowhere near spaceworthy. It had flown as a part of Voltron, and briefly through the Earth's atmosphere as a separate ship, but would not be ready to fly again with a pilot for several hours, minimum.

And if Billy were indeed adrift, or injured, or something even worse, several hours might be too late. Katherine tried to re-route the repair systems to work on sealing the cockpit and restoring controls, but she found herself locked out.

"Don't do this!" she shouted out in frustration. "I need your help! I can't find him alone!"

There was no answer to her angry outburst except the dull ache that had accompanied her since the lion's injury. "I need your eyes," Katherine went on. "Your scanners are more powerful than Zordon's. Maybe they couldn't find him, but you could!"

The screen suddenly changed before Katherine's eyes, showing a close-up schematic of the lion's head. All of the damaged systems showed up in flashing red, and Katherine realized that the main sensor array had been severely damaged by the robeast's attack. The Blue Lion was all but blind.

"Then fix those systems first!" Katherine insisted. "Just fix what you need to find him!"

There was no visible response to this. Repair systems continued with what they were doing, unaffected by her request.

"Listen to me!" she shouted, her voice filled with anger and desperation. "Billy spoke of you as a living thing. He told me he was entrusting you with my care. Now I'm asking you to think of his care! If you love him half as much as I do, please, help me find him!"

For a few seconds, nothing happened, and the only sound was Katherine's ragged breathing.

Then, the entire head began to move. Katherine looked up at the gaping holes in the bulkheads and saw clouds passing by overhead. Gradually, the motion stopped. The main viewer blinked off for a moment, then came back on with a forward view. There, looking back at her, was the face of the Yellow Lion, its eyes lit up a brilliant blue.

One of the four auxiliary screens came to life, showing an empty pilot's chair. Katherine realized that this screen was the view of the Yellow Lion's cockpit, currently unoccupied. A series of numbers appeared at the bottom of this screen, and Katherine recognized them immediately as coordinates.

She looked back at the Yellow Lion, which seemed to be staring straight through the monitor and into her mind.

"I understand," she whispered, reaching to set these coordinates with her wrist unit. Before she teleported, though, she took a deep breath and looked around her. "Thank you," she said to the Blue Lion, then vanished.

* * *
Back in the Power Chamber, Jason gave his perspective of the battle, from the moment Billy had brought them into space to pilot the lions to the moment Billy had ordered the retreat. By this point in the story, Jason finally let go of his attempt to contain his tears. "He gave some name... I don't know if it was an override code-word or what, but it put Voltron on auto-pilot and got us away. He... he wouldn't risk our lives to save his, even if we wanted it. He took the choice out of our hands...."

"You did what you could, man," Zack whispered.

"Why did he do it?" Jason went on, pausing to make a vain attempt to dry his eyes. "Why did he stop us?"

"Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," Bulk spoke up. All eyes turned to Bulk (except Adam, who had his head bowed over a computer console, staring fixedly at nothing), so he went on. "Come on, you know what I mean! He figured it was more important to save the seven of us than himself. Wouldn't you have done the same thing?"

"He's right, man," Tommy spoke up. "If that had been me down there, I wouldn't have wanted you anywhere near that base."

"What if you were in my place, then?" Jason snapped. "We were already there! We were so close! Just another thirty seconds, and we could have had him, and..."

"And then you could have all been dead!" Rocky snapped back.

"He should have at least let us try!"

Tommy grabbed Jason by the front of his uniform, spun him around, and pushed him into the nearest wall. "Stop it! None of us are blaming you, man! Nobody's blaming you except you! Now stop trying to shift that blame onto Billy and accept that there's nothing you could have done!"

Jason's face became a mask of fury at this accusation, but this anger just as quickly dissolved into pain, and he began to slowly sink to the floor, his legs no longer able to support him. Tommy and Trini knelt at his side as Jason's entire body was wracked by sobs.

For a long while, no one said anything, but then Alpha's high-pitched voice broke the relative silence. "Ay yi yi! Zordon! Rangers! The Yellow Lion is taking off!"

Tommy looked over at Trini, his eyes wide. "Kat?" he said.

"Probably," Trini nodded. "We didn't have time to take the keys out before we were teleported in."

Leaving Trini to look after Jason, Tommy crossed to where Alpha and several of the others were watching an image of the Yellow Lion going for altitude with all available speed. "Can you put us in contact, Alpha?" he asked.

"I'll try," Alpha answered. After a few moments at the controls, he nodded. "Channel open."

"Power Chamber to Yellow Lion," Tommy transmitted. "Come in, Yellow Lion."

"Don't try to stop me, Tommy." The voice was Katherine's, no question.

"Kat, come back! Don't go up there by yourself!"

"I'm not by myself," she replied. "I'll be back once I've found Billy." There was a short burst of static as she broke off contact.

Tommy cursed under his breath. "Alpha, try to get her back! Adam, are the other lions spaceworthy? We need to get her back down!"

A hand gently clasped his shoulder, and Tommy looked to his side to see Kimberly standing there, slowly shaking her head. "No, we don't. Let her go, Tommy. Whether or not she's right, she needs to do this. She'll come back."

Aisha nodded in accord. "She'll be safe. Yellow Lion's a good ship."

"Rangers," Zordon broke in at this point, "I'm afraid we have other matters with which to concern ourselves at present."

"More important than one of our own?" Tommy said to Zordon's floating image.

"Katherine's safety is, of course, important," Zordon replied, grimly, "but this is something that may compromise the collective safety, indeed the very existence, of the Power Rangers."

* * *
Once she cleared the upper atmosphere, Katherine checked out the visual scanners to get a feel for what she was up against. The space surrounding the Earth was choked with debris and inactive ships, and it occurred to her, distantly, that the five lions would be needed again fairly soon to take care of some of the larger pieces before they could fall into the atmosphere. The lions could feast to their hearts' content, drag some of the wreckage back for future fuel, and blow the rest into pieces that would burn up before reaching the surface.

Katherine realized that her mouth was beginning to water in anticipation of the feeding that was to come, and she shook herself. "Not yet," she said, aloud. "Soon, though. We have something else to do first, remember?"

Yellow Lion's visual scanners were not nearly as acute as Blue Lion's, but they were good enough to get a bead on hundreds upon thousands of drifting fragments. She let her senses be taken by the lion's, and with this three-dimensional, all-around sight, she started watching for patterns of motion.

There was nothing at all where the Skybase had been, but the shockwave from its explosion had stirred up the wreckage something fierce, causing bits and pieces to drift away from the site in a slowly growing sphere. This would be a good place to start.

From her place in the pilot's chair, Katherine willed the enormous ears of the Yellow Lion to pivot outward from the head, and the receivers mounted inside these ears to activate. Katherine had hoped to look for Billy, but perhaps listening for him would work just as well.

"Okay, Toth," she whispered as she settled in her chair to listen. "Let's see what we can find."

* * *

"What are you talking about, Zordon?" Rocky asked.

"A transmission is being broadcast on several frequencies, in several languages, from a large number of sources in the upper atmosphere. I'm afraid it is already reaching the homes of thousands of people via television, and will no doubt reach many more."

"What is it?" Tommy asked.

"Observe the monitor," Zordon indicated.

The main viewscreen lit up with what at first looked like a test pattern: an image of a circle divided into five different-colored sections. Through the center of the circle, the words "A MESSAGE FROM THE POWER RANGERS" was inscribed in bold white letters.

"What the...?" Zack wondered aloud.

The image changed, then, to a view of their mountain base from the outside. A pleasant female voice began to speak. "To the nations and peoples of the planet Earth. We, the Power Rangers, have defeated the forces of the Machine Empire. The Earth is safe at last. We thank you for your cooperation in our continuing battle to bring peace to this world."

"Where's this coming from?" Tanya asked.

"As I said, it is being simultaneously broadcast from a large number of source-points in the upper atmosphere," Zordon replied.

"So it's not anything Billy did, is it?"

"No, Tanya. This message does not originate with any of the Power Rangers."

"Then where...?"

Zordon's face darkened. "That is what concerns me."

The voice went on, but the image changed to a battle scene, showing the five Zeo Rangers duking it out with a swarm of cogs. "For years we have defended the Earth anonymously, asking no reward for our services. We fight because it is the right thing to do, and we will continue to do so. However, we feel that we may no longer do so behind the anonymity of masks. We wish the world to know us for who we are."

"Oh, no...." Kimberly whispered, gripping Tommy's arm more tightly. A series of images followed, showing the Pink Ranger in action on the ground, the Zeo I Zord firing from the top of Mount Wilhelm, and then, to the horror of all, images of Katherine morphing and de-morphing. Then, to their continued shock, they heard Katherine's voice. "My name is Katherine Hillard, originally from Sydney, Australia, now living in Angel Grove, California. I am Zeo Ranger I, Pink."

Next came a similar set of images showing the Yellow Ranger, accompanied by Tanya's voice. "I'm Tanya Sloan, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, by way of Nairobi, Kenya. I'm Zeo Ranger II, Yellow."

"Can't we stop this?!" Tommy asked, watching the screen with wide eyes.

"I'm afraid not," Zordon replied. "It would be impossible to disrupt this many transmissions."

"My name's Rocky DeSantos," the monitor continued, in Rocky's voice. "I'm from East L.A., now living in Angel Grove with my friends. I'm Zeo Ranger III, Blue."

"My name is Adam Park, from Seoul, South Korea, now living in Angel Grove. I am Zeo Ranger IV, Green."

"I'm Tommy Oliver, from Joshua Tree, California, now in Angel Grove. I'm the field leader of the Power Rangers, and I'm Zeo Ranger V, Red."

Last came images of Billy, many of which involved him working with the computers in the Power Chamber. "And I'm Billy Mitchell, the leader of the Power Rangers. I'm originally from the Chicago area, but I've lived in Angel Grove for years, which is how I met the rest of the team."

After this, the unidentified female voice returned. "Many have wondered, over the years, who and what the Power Rangers were. We are happy to inform you that we are six of your own children, raised to respect and preserve life, and to fight for justice and goodness. And thankfully, we do not fight alone. We have our allies, not the least of which being our close friends Kimberly Hart, Farkus Bulkmeier, and Eugene Skullovitch."

Kimberly's name was accompanied by a view of her assuming the Pink power right there in the Power Chamber, as she had done days before, and the names of Bulk and Skull were accompanied by a silent clip of Billy briefing them for their mission, while Katherine watched with an amused expression.

"Smile, Bulkie," Skull said quietly. "We're on Candid Camera."

"And now, people of Earth," the voice continued, showing an image of their world as seen from space, "rejoice in this victory, rebuild that which has been lost, and rest assured that the Power Rangers are here to defend you from whatever menace may strike against us next. Message ends."

The screen went black, and for a long time, no one said a word. Jason, by this time, had calmed down enough to join the rest of them around the monitor, with Trini beside him. He, finally, broke the silence. "Do you think this came from the Machine Empire?"

"Probably," Adam said in a constricted voice. "They must have been recording us all along, preparing this to be their last revenge in case they lost."

"How'd they get your voices?" Kimberly asked.

"Recorded those, too," Tanya nodded. "If they got enough samples, they could probably put 'em together to say whatever they wanted us to say."

"So what happens now?" Rocky asked, simply.

The image of Zordon's head shook slowly from side to side. "I am not certain, Rangers. However, if I am not mistaken, we will know very soon."

* * *

Chaos. The destruction of the Skybase had been a wind of chaos, and had left that chaos in its wake. Electromagnetic emissions from countless sources flooded the sensors of the Yellow Lion in an incoherent babble of static.

Katherine listened carefully, opening her ears and her mind to the lion, allowing him to share it with her in a form she could comprehend: sound. They needed to sift through the sound, filtering out the static to find... what? In her own mind, that part which was still a nervous young woman, Katherine knew that she had no clue what she was after, but Toth had been certain he could help.

There had to be a pattern to the chaos somewhere. There had to be something that was more than just random signals picked up across the broad spectrum of EM waves "audible" to the lion. The lion's computers and Katherine's senses searched through the noise, trying to find just such a pattern.

After several sweeps of the spectrum in several directions, and in the midst of yet another, Katherine heard something vaguely familiar, and all but jumped out of her chair at the sound of it. "Go back! Quickly!"

There it was again! A low, rhythmic backbeat to the cacophony of noise. Something too regular to be a random signal. But it was all but lost amidst the other sources.

"Tighten it up! Filter everything out, and focus in on that pulse!" The sound coming over the cabin speakers grew more quiet by the second, and soon, only the rapid pulse remained. It was then that Katherine realized where she'd heard this before. It was almost exactly like Billy's echo signal that had reached the Power Chamber earlier!

"That's it!" she cried, excitedly. "It must be Billy's ship! We need to find the source!"

She took hold of the control levers and fired up the engines, using her tracking systems to lock in on the source of the transmission. Soon they had a location: a single source on a course for deep space amid a cloud of other debris.

A translation of the signal revealed that it was a distress beacon, too quiet to be heard by anything short of the Yellow Lion. Katherine's mounting sense of relief and joy was quelled, however, by the realization that this was an automatic beacon which only came on in the event of the pilot's incapacitation.

"Put it on screen," she whispered.

The forward viewer came up with a view of the hurtling debris, zooming in on the source of their signal: a scorched capsule-shaped hunk of metal. Katherine realized that it was Crow's fuselage: everything else had been melted off, but the main hull looked intact. Still, that was no guarantee that Billy had survived.

Katherine was out of her chair in a flash, hurrying down the steps and around the bridge to the airlock. "Bring it in, Toth! I'm on my way to the hangar!"

* * *

Tommy looked from the now-blank viewscreen to Zordon's face. "What do you mean, we'll know very soon? What's going to--"

Before he could finish the question, Tommy was doubled over by a sudden wave of nausea, and when he shook it off, he discovered that the Zeo armor had vanished, leaving him in the clothes he'd been wearing back when the siege had begun. Looking to his side, he saw that Kimberly, too, was demorphed, and a quick scan of the Power Chamber revealed that Tanya and Rocky were also out of uniform. Zack, however, still wore the garb of the Green Ranger.

"What's happening?" Rocky gasped, still reeling from the shock. "Our powers!"

"Our morphers are gone!" Tanya added, trying in vain to summon her zeonizers to her wrists.

"It is then as I feared," Zordon sighed. "The power is lost to you."

"Lost to us?!" Tommy exclaimed. "How? Why?!"

"The vow has been broken," Zordon replied. "When you accepted your powers, one of the conditions was that your identities could never be revealed, except to a most trusted ally or friend, such as Tommy's brother David, or the Rangers of Aquitar, or even your new allies Farkus and Eugene. However, your identities are now known to countless thousands, and soon many more will hear of you."

"But that wasn't our fault!" Kimberly exclaimed. "We didn't reveal them to anyone! It was... those aliens!"

"I am truly sorry, Kimberly, but what matters is the result, and not the means."

"That's bunk!" Zack shouted. "How can you do this, Zordon?"

"Maybe you haven't been keeping up with current events, man, but we just saved the whole freakin' planet!" Rocky spat, his face twisted with fury. "And now you're gonna thank us by taking our powers away?! What kind of screwed-up logic is that?!"

"I understand your anger, my young friends, but you cannot deny that your identities have been compromised. I am not taking your powers from you: you are simply no longer capable of possessing them. Such is the nature of the Power."

"So we risk our lives and our sanity... and Billy dies," Adam said, his voice rising in pitch and volume as he went on, "and now we're not good enough for the Power?"

"I wish with all my heart that I could change this, Adam, but I cannot," Zordon replied. "What is done is done, and the nature of the power cannot be denied. I can only say that I deeply regret this unfortunate outcome."

Zack glared up at Zordon for a long while, then demorphed, stripped off the green zeonizers, and tossed them into the floor at the base of Zordon's column of light. "Yeah, you and me both, Z-man."

"I don't know about you guys, but I've heard enough," Tommy said, shaking his head at his friends. "Let's get out of here."

He put one arm around Kimberly, and together, they headed out of the Power Chamber, then up to the mountaintop exit. Adam followed, tailed closely by Rocky, and gradually, all of them fell in line, leaving the Power Chamber empty save for Alpha and Zordon.

As they began descending the mountain, Tommy noticed that the crowds had not thinned in the slightest with the arrival of the lions: several brave people were even checking the remaining robots out up close, though none seemed to have dared to try to find a way inside.

"Adam, why don't you give Zack your helmet?" Tommy suggested.

"What for?" Zack asked.

Tommy indicated the mass of people. "Well, with no power, we can't teleport, so it looks like we're going to have to go through them to get out of here. You, Jason, Trini and Aisha weren't mentioned in the announcement, so there's no sense in you showing your faces now."

"Why should we hide ourselves?" Jason asked. "We should be standing together."

"He's right, Jason," Trini nodded, putting her own helmet back on and bringing down the full-face visor. "We have our families to think about."

Jason nodded slowly and put on his helmet, as did Aisha, and Zack put on Adam's over his sweats. Tommy's ears rang with Trini's words. "Our families...." She was right, of course: theirs had not been the only lives put at risk by the Machine Empire's revenge.

A few kids wandering up the side of the mountain were the first to notice the group of them coming down the slope, and as they ran back to tell others, a considerable crowd began to gather in their path, including at least two news crews. Tommy felt Kimberly's arm tighten around his waist, and he paused a moment to look down into her eyes. She gave him a shadow of a smile, and nodded.

"Jason, do you think we could use Black Lion to fly us out of here?" Tommy asked over his shoulder.

"I don't see why not." Jason replied. "We should probably get all four of them away, if we can, then wait somewhere for Kat to come back."

"Then let's go and meet our public," Tommy nodded. They continued on, with Tommy and Kimberly in the lead, still holding one another tightly. Rocky, Tanya and Adam followed, then Jason and Trini, then Aisha and Zack, and lastly Bulk and Skull, bringing up the rear.

Tommy had half-expected a mob scene and a mass of questions, but the onlookers only stared at this procession of exhausted, bedraggled, somber teenagers. A path quickly cleared for them, and as they passed through, gasps and amazed whispers buzzed through the crowd, including the phrases "It's them!" and "Power Rangers!" and "They're real!" Obviously some of the campers had been watching on portable televisions when the revenge had come down, as the sounds sweeping the crowd were of awe and recognition. The news cameras were following them as they passed, but none of the reporters dared to approach them.

Then, above the hushed sounds of the crowd, someone began applauding.

Another pair of hands joined in, then another, and soon dozens more, until the hundreds of people who had gathered at the foot of the mountain were cheering the former Power Rangers as they passed by. Tommy kept his eyes front, realizing suddenly that if he looked at these very real people expressing their very real gratitude, he'd probably break down and start crying. It was one thing to anonymously save an anonymous world. This was something quite different.

The crowds did not follow them as they approached the towering Black Lion, but the news cameras remained trained on them. The eleven stopped at the feet of the great robot and paused to just quietly look at one another.

"Was it worth it?" Jason asked.

"To save the whole world?" Tanya asked in reply. "Of course it was."

"No, I don't mean that," Jason sighed, shaking his head. "I mean, being Power Rangers at all. It didn't have to be us. Don't get me wrong: it was the greatest honor I've ever been given in my life, but... was it worth it, to end this way?"

"I think it was," Tommy nodded. "And I think if Billy were here, he'd say the same."

"You're probably right," Jason sighed, looking down at his boots. Trini gripped his hand tightly, and he gave her a tiny smile.

"Where do we go now?" Skull asked at this point. "Assuming Bulkie and I are still invited, that is."

"Of course you are!" Aisha chided him, giving him a hug. "We're all in this together."

Tommy was mildly surprised at the warmth between those two, and apparently Bulk was, too, as he was staring at Skull with a puzzled expression. "We should go someplace where we can contact our families and get some rest," Tommy suggested. "Maybe...."

His words were drowned out by a low rumbling sound, and the ground beneath them began to tremble. As one, the group began looking around frantically for the source. It felt to Tommy as though it were coming from the mountain, but as he looked to the base, he saw the Blue Lion emerge from behind the peak, rocketing into the sky.

"Someone's stealing the Blue Lion!" Aisha shouted, pointing at the dwindling shape.

Tommy shook his head, which was suddenly buzzing inside. "No, it's not that... I think we're supposed to follow!"

"You're right," Jason nodded. "Come on, let's split up! Tommy, Bulk, Skull, we'll take Black Lion! Trini, you take Kim, Aisha and Zack in Green Lion! Adam, take Rocky and Tanya in Red Lion! Let's move!"

They scattered, but not before Kimberly gripped Tommy's hands and gave him a departing kiss. It didn't even occur to Tommy that he should protest this: Kimberly was needed with Green Lion, just as he was needed with Black Lion.

The Black Lion went into a crouch, until its head was only about ten feet off the ground. A small hatch opened in the underside, and from this a ladder descended to them. Jason was the first up, but Tommy waved for Bulk and Skull to climb up before he did, so that he could watch the other groups heading for their lions. Once he was satisfied that they were well on their way, he followed the other three up the ladder and aboard.

* * *
By the time Katherine arrived at the hangar, the doors from the inner airlock were cycling open, and the scorched metal mass of Crow's fuselage was carried into the open space by a conveyor in the floor. She hurried up to the battered ship, searching for a way in. After a while, she found the seam where the canopy met the fuselage, but she could not see inside: the once-transparent canopy was now in the same blackened state as the rest of the ship.

She hunted along the seam for the access panel, but found it fused shut. Not wasting a moment, she drew her sidearm and used the beam-laser to cut the melted plate away and uncover the canopy release handle. Once this was done, she grabbed hold of the handle and yanked it as hard as she could.

After a few tense moments, Katherine was beginning to think that there had been no effect, but then a hissing sound came from the seam as it slowly opened, and a series of valiant servo motors began to raise the canopy. There was a sudden rush of air into the cockpit, and Katherine felt her breath catch in her throat: the inside of the ship had been a vacuum.

Finally, the canopy opened enough for her to fit her head and shoulders inside, so she did so. Inside, to her relief and horror, was Billy: the relief she felt simply at the sight of him, the horror because of the limp, boneless way he lay in his chair.

Moving with a drive and precision that astonished her, Katherine quickly released the complicated series of restraints which held Billy in his chair, and then bodily picked him up and lifted him slowly out of the cockpit, setting him down on the floor of the hangar beside his ravaged ship. The small amount of moisture in the hangar's false atmosphere had condensed into a fine layer of frost over his uniform and visor, and Katherine had to wipe it away with her gloved hand to see his face.

Upon first glance, he appeared to be dead. His skin was a dull, grey pallor, and his lips were blue. There was no sign that he was breathing.

Katherine reached to unfasten his helmet, but before she could do so, a strange feeling settled over her. No. Not yet. There was more she needed to do first.

Leaving Billy where he was, Katherine dashed over to one of the many supply cabinets that lined the hangar walls. She passed over the weapons storage, tool storage, and parts storage, and eventually zeroed in on the emergency medical equipment. This wasn't the first time a fighter pilot had returned to the lion in such a condition, she realized, and in times long passed, there would be a crew on hand for such an emergency.

She and Billy didn't have the luxury of a crew, but Katherine knew, nevertheless, that she was not alone in her efforts.

She grabbed an emergency resuscitation kit from the medical locker and hurried back to where Billy was lying. The first item she removed was a small black box with a five-pronged plug extending from one of its six faces. She found an access port on the side of his collar, near where it joined the helmet, and plugged the box in. It emitted a series of beeps, and then there was a hissing sound from inside the sealed environment of Billy's uniform. Katherine watched his face, and for the first time, noticed the deep gouges on the visor of his helmet. They looked a lot like cat-scratches.

At length, the hissing sound stopped, and the box emitted three short, rapid beeps. Some color had returned to Billy's face, but Katherine knew her work was not yet finished. She unplugged the box, and carefully reached to disconnect his helmet. This was not an easy procedure: it involved several successive unlatchings, and could only be accomplished by someone who knew where to look for them. When she was done, the visor first retracted slightly, then the helmet itself fully detached from the rest of the uniform. Katherine carefully removed it, then went back into her kit-bag and came up with a small breathing mask attached to a set of air tanks. She placed the mask over his mouth and nose and held it with one hand, while reaching into the pack with her free hand to pull out a semicircular component which she placed over Billy's forehead, the two ends of it resting over his temples.

She knew what was happening, by this time. The inner fuselage of the fighter craft was designed to take serious punishment, and had remained more or less intact when the Skybase had exploded. However, with no means of propulsion and little fuel to maintain internal functions, an automatic system had kicked in, placing Billy in a sort of suspended animation, depressurizing the cockpit and sending out the distress call which had caught the Yellow Lion's attention.

The three-step procedure Katherine now followed was meant to revive a suspended pilot after just such a rescue. However, the systems had originally been designed for the people of planet Arus, and while these people had to be very close to human considering the design of the lions, there was no guarantee that this procedure would work on Billy.

Katherine waited tensely while the neural stimulator continued its work, and then, suddenly, Billy took a deep breath through the air mask. The stimulator had restored autonomic reflexes first. Now it was up to the stimulator and the special mixture of gases in the air tanks to finish the job.

Finally, Billy's eyelids fluttered open, but his pupils were enormous and unfocused. Katherine removed the stimulator and the air mask, then positioned herself in front of Billy's staring eyes. "Billy? Can you hear me?"

He blinked a few times, licked his dry lips, and gradually, his eyes focused on her. After a few moments, he cleared his throat as best he could and spoke in a rough, scratchy voice. "Hello, Kat."

With a cry of relief and joy, Katherine pulled Billy into her arms and held him tightly. "You're alive!" she whispered, her voice breaking as her eyes filled with tears.

"Of course I am," he said. They broke a small amount, so that he could look into her eyes. "Do you think for a moment, Katherine Hillard, that I would be so rude as to die before we had a chance to talk again?"

"I think I know you better than that," she laughed, holding him to her.

"How did you find me?" Billy asked.

"Toth helped me," she smiled. "Alth was too hurt to fly, so Toth brought me to you."

Again, they broke slightly, and this time Billy gave her a look of surprise. "You know their names?" he asked.

She nodded. "Toth spoke to me, Billy. It was incredible. His voice was so much like yours...."

Before Billy could ask how this had happened, a voice came over the hangar speakers. "Black Lion to Yellow Lion. Kat, are you there?"

"I'm here, Jason!" she called back.

"Is everything okay up here?" Jason transmitted.

"Couldn't be better!" she laughed. "Are the others with you?"

"We're here, Kat!" Adam called. "The Blue Lion took off after you, and we followed!"

"Thanks, Alth," Billy said quietly.

"Well, I'm glad you're all here," Katherine called, "because I've got some really good news to give you...."

Chapter 13: The Times, They Are A-Changin'
Post-Siege, day one
The first order of business once the lions were reunited in orbit was to get some sleep.

This, it turned out, was easily accomplished. The Rangers simply let the lions go into automatic feeding mode (clearing away the considerable wreckage before any could fall into the atmosphere), retired to their respective crew quarters, and crashed hard. It would take more than one good rest to recover from their exertions, but this would be a good start.

And so it was that when Billy next awakened, he found himself in the pilot's quarters of the Yellow Lion, not to mention in the most enviable position of waking up in Katherine's arms. For a while, he just let himself enjoy the warmth and comfort of her presence. This was a first for him, without question, waking up next to the woman he loved, and he found it a feeling he could certainly enjoy getting used to.

After a while, though, he realized that he needed to get some things taken care of, and there was no sense waking Katherine to do so. He carefully slipped out of her arms and pushed himself up off the large pilot's bunk. He didn't really want to leave her here by herself, but he would probably need to do this work from the cockpit.

Then, a gentle nudge from Toth reminded him that this was not necessary. There was a computer terminal here in the pilot's quarters, and he could probably access anything he needed from here.

Thanking Toth silently, he took a seat at the pilot's desk and went to work. The tabletop was itself a touch-sensitive computer, and he tapped in a few commands to get access to the communications array. They needed to get back to Earth eventually, and Billy wanted to know what to expect once they got down there.

Toth's ears brought in a series of silent television broadcasts from Angel Grove, and as expected, there were currently two news stories airing regarding the revelation of the Power Rangers' identities. Billy hadn't been too surprised when Tommy told him about this part: after all, Haggar had promised revenge when she'd been defeated on the Skybase. Billy had to wonder if Haggar had known that leaking their identities would have the added effect of stripping the Power from them. She was probably having a good laugh about it somewhere.

It then occurred to him that he should check his e-mail. He hadn't been home in a couple of weeks, and the messages were bound to have piled up. Toth's sophisticated communications array took only seconds to negotiate with Billy's domain system back home, and before long, he had access to his mailbox, where about a dozen messages were waiting.

The first few were from classmates and even a professor who were wondering where he'd disappeared to since the invasion. Another three were from various news services he subscribed to, so he saved those to read later. One of them even apologized for having been delayed by the damage to continental phone services. Billy smiled at this: even with global communications at a modern-age low, nothing could kill the Internet.

The last four messages had arrived in the past twelve hours. Two were from classmates, and said, essentially, "We just saw the news and... that was you, wasn't it?" Billy sighed, as he'd been expecting this. He was frankly surprised that there weren't already more of these messages.

The next, he saw, was from his father.

Mail From:
No fewer than twenty different members of my research team have called or approached me in the last six hours, and all of them have been asking the same thing: "Is that your son?"
What you may not know is that I have suspected this for quite some time. When it first occurred to me, I thought of the possibility of intervening, but you're too much like your mother: once you have a cause to fight for, nothing will shake you from it.
What you also may not know is that you have always made me proud, William, but I have never been more proud of you than I am now. No doubt I am going to be fielding many more questions about you and your cause very soon, but I will simply tell them that any father would be proud to have a son like you.


A pair of hands appeared at Billy's shoulders, then, and began a gentle massage that nearly made him dissolve into a puddle. "Oh. Oh, I'm giving you just two hours to stop that, I mean it."

"Silly," Katherine laughed. "I thought you could use it."

"Definitely. Just so long as I get to return the favor."

"That would be nice. As comfortable as these pilot's chairs are, my back is one huge knot after all this. And you do give great backrubs."

"It's all those books on human anatomy for Bio," Billy smiled, then winced as she caught a particularly tight spot. "Just a matter of knowing where to put the hands."

She did not reply to this, and after a while, Billy looked up to see that she was giving him a curious smile. "Oh, really?" she said, once she had his eyes.

"C'mere," Billy whispered, putting his arms out to her. She came around and settled herself on his lap so that they could put their arms around each other.

"I love you very, very much," he said quietly.

"And I love you," she smiled. "I can't tell you how happy it made me to hear you say that last night."

"After all the times we kept talking about how we'd find time to talk about it later, I hoped that just saying I loved you... well... let's just say I hoped it wouldn't be a let-down after all the dramatic build-up."

"Oh, you," she laughed, placing her forehead against his.

He paused a long time to collect his thoughts before pressing on. "And as for the rest... Are you okay with that?"

She looked into his eyes for a while, then nodded silently.

"I don't know if I was making any sense last night," Billy admitted.

"We have both been under a lot of stress," she nodded.

"Of course. I... just didn't want to rush into anything. Not meaning that I didn't want... you, of course, just... not yet, not under these circumstances. I wasn't sure if I was able to get a coherent meaning across."

"You did," she assured him.

"I want to enjoy every new thing about this," Billy went on. "I want to cherish every first. This was the first time I ever woke up to find you next to me, and it was incredible."

She gave him a humored smile. "And this is the first time I ever awakened to find you at the computer, though I have a feeling it may not be the last."

"Sorry," he blushed.

"Only teasing, silly," she chuckled, giving him a small peck on the lips. "So what are you up to, anyhow?"

"Just checking e-mail," he told her, reaching around her to advance to the next message. "Hey, here's one from Ernie!"

"I didn't know Ernie had e-mail."

"I set him up with a webpage and e-mail account for the youth center a while ago," Billy explained.

Mail From:
You know, I always knew there was something about you and your friends. A lot of things suddenly make more sense now, and I've been kicking myself for never putting it together before now. You kids did good, and you did us all proud. I'm not sure why you picked now to come out and tell the world, but I'm sure you had good reason.
I know there's nothing anyone can really do to pay you back for saving the world, but I'll tell you what. Give me a call if you can, and I'll set up a private party after-hours for you and anyone else you'd like to bring. I promise not to tell anyone else about it. No news, no authorities, and you guys can blow off as much steam as you need to. I figure it's the least I can do.
You did good, Billy. Tell the others I said so.


"Oh, that's sweet," Katherine smiled as she read it.

"Yeah, Ernie's one of a kind."

She looked over at Billy and raised her eyebrows. "Do you think we should take him up on his offer?"

Billy's smile became gradually wider. "Let's see what the others think when they wake up. In the meantime, don't I owe you a backrub?"

"I won't say no to that."

Post-Siege, day two
Muriel was just about to turn the information desk over to Sophia when a delivery man with long, somewhat shaggy black hair came through the front doors of the dormitory carrying a huge bouquet of red roses. He looked around for a few moments, then approached the desk.

"(May I help you, sir?)" she asked.

He gave her a blank look. "Uh, look, I'm really sorry, but I don't speak French. Do you speak English?"

"Yes, I do," she replied, surprised that a local florist would employ anyone who didn't speak the language. There was something familiar about him beneath the sunglasses and high-collar coat he was wearing, though.

"Cool. Are you Muriel? I don't have a last name, just Muriel at the front desk."

Muriel exchanged glances with Sophia. "Yes, I'm Muriel."

"These are for you, then," he nodded, setting the roses down on the desktop. "Sign, please?"

Still in mild shock at this, Muriel signed his notepad at the indicated line, after which he gave her an expressive grin and was on his way.

"(Who are they from?)" Sophia asked, looking at Muriel with huge eyes. Her features then fell. "(I hope it isn't Louis trying to get you back.)"

"(Louis would never have thought to send roses,)" Muriel remarked, searching through the flowers for a card. Once she found it, she carefully opened and read it. It was also in English, she noticed, and she felt her heart jump as she read it.

Chere Muriel-
Thanks for your help last week. Whether you know it or not (and you might), you did us all a great big favor, and all of us are very grateful. Even though we met on business, the pleasure was all mine.
-M. Bulk
(p.s. If you want to say hello, just follow that delivery guy!)

"(What does it say?)" Sophia asked, trying to get a look.

Muriel stared at the card for a moment, then suddenly remembered where she'd seen the delivery man's face before. "(Sophia, I have to go.)"

"(What's the matter?)" Sophia asked as Muriel scooped up the flowers and headed for the door.

"(Nothing at all,)" Muriel grinned back at her, then hurried outside.

She caught sight of the delivery man heading off between two of the outer dorm houses, so she took off running after him. She was almost upon him when he turned a corner behind one of the large buildings. She hurried after him, and literally ran into a larger shape as she whipped around the corner. The roses went flying as she was sent sprawling by the impact.

"Muriel!" she heard, and then Bulk was there, extending one hand to help her up.

She looked up at his broad, smiling face, then at the face of the "delivery man," and she gasped. "It was you!" she laughed. "Mon Dieu, it was!"

"I take it you understood what I meant in the note, then?" Bulk asked.

She nodded. "When I saw a replay of the announcement, I recognized your face, and I heard 'Bulk' as part of your name, so I thought it had to be you. You were here working for the Power Rangers?"

Bulk exchanged glances with the other young man. "Well, that's one of the things I was hoping to talk to you about. Remember how I came here looking for three people, and how I hitched a ride with your roommate all the way down to the Riviera just to catch them?"

She nodded. "I remember. Were they other allies of yours?"

"Yeah, they were. Um... have you told anyone else about this?"

"Non, I did not. It did not seem right to do so. Aside from which, who would believe me?"

"Good. See, it's really important that no one else finds out about their connection with all of this."

"I promise, I'll keep it to myself," she smiled. She then looked down to where she'd dropped the half-crushed bouquet as she'd run into him. She quickly reached to pick it up. "Merci pour les fleurs," she said, somewhat embarrassed by the condition of them.

"You're welcome," he smiled back, looking a bit nervous. "Um, by the way, this is my best friend Skull. Skull, this is Muriel."

"Pleased to meetcha," Skull smiled, taking her hand and kissing it. Bulk glared at him.

"Enchante," she nodded to him. She then looked at Bulk. "So... now that I'm sworn to secrecy, will I ever see you again?"

"Actually," Bulk said, looking more nervous now, "we're having a little party back in Angel Grove for all the Rangers and their friends, and I was wondering if you'd... like to come?"

"Oh, I'd love to! But how would we get to America from here? There are still no flights."

Bulk and Skull exchanged knowing looks. "Let's just say that flying over won't be a problem," Bulk nodded.

* * *

For an event being held in secret, the celebration at the Youth Center was one of the most festive the place had ever seen. The Rangers and company had been very careful as to who they invited, as four of them still had secret identities to worry about for the time being, so the numbers were not too high, including only the most trusted of friends and family members.

Billy spent much of the gathering sitting off to one side, resting. He was still fairly weak from his brief hibernation, and needed a little bit of time to take it easy. From here, he had an unparalleled view of all of his friends as they danced, caught up with one another's lives, explained things to somewhat glassy-eyed parents, and just enjoyed one another's presence. A few short weeks ago, Billy would have felt disconnected from this vantage, as though he were still on the outside looking in. Now, no such thoughts crossed his mind.

His eyes found Katherine, who was having a somewhat animated conversation with her parents, with Tanya close by to give her backup. That seemed to be going well enough. Scanning the room, he found that Kimberly and Tommy were still dancing, as expected. The song currently playing was an upbeat dance tune, but they were slow-dancing anyway, lost in one another again. Over by the main counter, Skull was chatting with a stunned Detective Stone, and as Billy watched, Aisha drifted past, reached out, and gave Skull's hand a squeeze before moving on. Skull smiled at her with an expression that was right on the borders of shy. Zack, Trini and Jason were in what appeared to be a very secretive discussion, occasionally casting glances toward where Tanya and Kat were standing. Billy laughed to himself. It was obvious from the position of outside observer that Zack had become quite taken with Tanya in an awful hurry, but of course Adam might have something to say about that. Also seated at the long counter were Bulk and Muriel. Bulk seemed to be entertaining her with stories of his service aboard the Black Lion, pointing out different members of the team as he narrated. At one point he indicated Billy, and Billy waved back as Muriel looked over at him with wide eyes.

At length, Katherine and Tanya joined him, having left Katherine's parents to talk with the Olivers. "Feeling antisocial?" Kat asked, sitting down beside him and taking his hand. Tanya rolled her eyes and took a seat opposite Billy.

"Not at all," he smiled, bringing her hand to his lips and kissing it. Tanya gave this an even more exaggerated eye-rolling, but she was smiling. "I'm just watching for future developments, that's all."

Kat raised her eyebrows. "How do you mean?"

"We've got a large number of questions that remain to be answered, not the least of which being 'What do we do next?'" Billy elaborated. "I'm trying to get a feel for it."

"I bet you've already got plans," Tanya nodded.

"I do, but they might not come to anything, depending on how everyone feels now that the big push to save the world is over. Take Skull, for instance. Do you see the way he's talking to Detective Stone?"

Katherine and Tanya followed his gaze. "Stone's looking a bit skeptical," Katherine noted.

"Yeah, and Skull has that quietly manic look he gets when he's got strong ideas," Billy went on. "He's with us no matter what we do. He's really excited about being a part of something this big, and I'll bet he's either giving his resignation to Stone or trying to convince him to come along for the ride. I think Bulk will follow Skull's lead on this one, which is a bit of a switch, and he's really trying to impress this Muriel of his."

"I can see that," Tanya nodded. "So what about Tommy and Kim? They haven't looked up for the last hour."

Billy looked the pair over. "My guess is that Tommy's going to have a lot of trouble with the idea of losing the Power, and Kim is going to be having trouble with the idea of her gymnastics career being over before it could begin properly. They'll be okay with one another for a while, but if they start trying to use one another to get over what they've lost, they're in for trouble. On a similar note, look at Adam and Rocky."

"They look like they're arguing," Katherine frowned.

Billy nodded. "Or at least having a heated discussion. Rocky's still feeling very angry and betrayed about losing the Power, and blames Zordon for that. He wants to try to fight it somehow, or try to make some kind of appeal to Zordon, but Adam's having doubts because he feels like he failed the team when he collapsed at the wheel."

As they watched, Rocky shook his head angrily and stalked off, oblivious to Adam's attempt to restrain him. Tanya immediately got to her feet. "I'd better see what this is all about," she said. "I'll be right back."

Billy gazed thoughtfully after her. "I feel even more badly for her," he noted to Katherine. "The way I hear it, she really came into her own as a leader and tactician when Tommy was knocked out in combat, and now she probably feels she'll never have the chance to prove herself again."

"Are you sure you didn't switch to majoring in Psychology?" Katherine asked him.

"This has nothing to do with study. It has to do with knowing most of these people as long as I have, and having watched most of them in action at one time or another. This last year, stuck in the Power Chamber, I had a lot of time to think about things like this."

"Then the question still stands. What do we do now?"

"I have some ideas, but it's not all up to me."

The song that had been playing ended, to be followed by a track from the new Journey album. "Oh, I love this band," Kat whispered. She then stood and held both hands out for Billy. "Are you too tired to share a dance?" she smiled.

"Never," he laughed, pulling himself to his feet with her help.

When she walked into the room, I felt her move me
I saw her eyes, they went right through me
Just one look, I was forever in blue
In a spell of her embrace just for a moment
I was the one, caught in the moment
I knew, yes, right then I knew...

Two hearts reach for another
One chance, she's like no other
I'm lost, lost in the dream of you
'Cause it's true... I'm forever, forever in blue

Aisha looked over as Skull pulled up a chair beside her at one of the outlying tables. "Fair eve to thee, my lady," he mock-bowed from his seated position.

"Fair eve to theeself," she chuckled. "So what were you and Lieutenant Stone talking about?"

"Well, officially it's detective Stone now," he corrected her.

"Right. Sorry, I'm still feeling really out of touch here."

"Oh, you haven't been gone that long," Skull replied, waving aside the comment.

"Longer than you think," she sighed.

Skull furrowed his brow in an almost comic look of confusion. "'Splain, please?"

Aisha took a long drink of her smoothie and tried to think of a way to broach the subject. "You remember Rita and Lord Zedd, right?"

"I think everyone in Angel Grove remembers them," Skull nodded.

"And of course you know about the Machine Empire, considering that we just helped take them down."

"All true."

"Well, not too long before the Machine Empire arrived, there was a time when Rita's father came to Earth and tried to help Rita and Zedd take over. It was right after Kim left the team, and right before I left. His name was Master Vile."

"I remember Master Vile," Skull nodded. "He disappeared the same time the Machine Empire came to town, just like Rita and Zedd, right?"

"Right. Well, what you may not remember is that Master Vile figured out a way to warp time backwards, and everyone was de-aged by about eight years. That way, the Power Rangers were out of commission, since we were too young to properly hold the powers. Billy figured out a way to reverse the process on himself, but at the same time our power coins were destroyed."

"Ouch," Skull winced. His expression indicated that he was trying very hard to follow Aisha's brief explanation, and seemed to be doing okay so far.

"The Alien Rangers came to Earth then and helped us out while the rest of us kid rangers went out looking for the pieces of the Zeo Crystal."

"The new source of the Rangers' powers?" Skull asked.


"So who are the Alien Rangers?"

Aisha looked him in the eyes for a moment, then nodded. "I figured you wouldn't remember."

"Why's that?"

"I'm getting to that."

"Ah. Then do please continue, dear lady."

She smiled at his affected tone. "I had to go to Africa to find my part of the crystal, but that was when I found out about the plague that was affecting the wildlife. That was also when I met Tanya, and when I decided to stay and help her family, she took the crystal shard and came back to Angel Grove. I guess once they got the crystal together, it brought time back to the way it was supposed to be, and no one remembered any of it happening except those of us who'd been involved with bringing the pieces of the crystal back."

Skull nodded very slowly, and then the light gradually dawned. "You know, right around that same time, I remember Bulk and I were kicking around, minding our own business, and then suddenly we were at the playground, on the swings, with no idea how we got there. I figured somebody must have slipped us a mickey in our smoothies and that we both blacked out. Maybe that was when time got reset."

"That could be," Aisha nodded.

He nodded along with her, obviously waiting for her to continue. When she said nothing, he fixed her with another puzzled look. "And this has to do with why you feel out of touch becaaaause..?"

"Because my decision to stay in Africa altered history slightly. Once time reset itself, Tanya grew up back here in Angel Grove, while I grew up and lived with my family in Africa. So what that means is that I have all the memories of living in Angel Grove until age seventeen, and then all the memories of growing up in Nairobi and in the wilds. I still remember being a Power Ranger, but it's as though it all happened nine years ago. My parents don't remember living here: as far as they're concerned, we moved to Nairobi when I was nine years old. Only the other Power Rangers remembered that I'd ever lived here at all."

"I remembered," Skull said, quietly.

Aisha studied his expression for a long moment. "But you shouldn't. As far as history's concerned, I never went to Angel Grove High School, and we should never have met. Only the other Power Rangers remembered."

"No, Bulk and I distinctly remembered you. It's funny, though: we used to wonder why it was that after you left, everyone just stopped talking about you. I guess it was because no one else at school remembered who you were. Wild. Maybe that's why Billy asked if me and Bulk remembered you before he sent me out to find you."

"But you're not Power Rangers!" Aisha said, shaking her head. "I never really thought about it, but you shouldn't have recognized me the other day. Why you and Bulk, and not anyone else outside the team?"

Skull then surprised Aisha by taking her hand and very gently kissing it. "Probably because some people are never to be forgotten, m'lady."

She tried to think of a flippant response to keep the mood light, but as she looked into his eyes she realized that he was being completely serious, or at least as much as he had ever been.

"Skull?" she asked, quietly.


"Would you like to dance?"

"I would be honored, m'lady."

He still had her hand, so she pulled him up from his seat and led him out to the dance floor. As they danced, he gave her one of his patented quirky smiles. "So if you have both sets of memories, does this technically make you... twenty-five or so?"

"I guess. It was weird being a seventeen-year-old mind in a nine-year-old body, but I got by."

"Cool. So how do you feel about dating younger men?"

"Oh, you," she half-sighed and half-laughed, leaning her head against his shoulder. She saw Kat dancing with Billy a few feet away, and shot the other girl a wide smile.

"You never answered my question," she continued at length. "What were you and Lieu... I mean, Detective Stone talking about?"

"Future plans," Skull replied. "Now that I've had a taste of this whole hero thing, the rest of you are never gonna get rid of me."

"Good," Aisha said, very quietly.

"I was just thinking it might be nice for the good guys to have a contact like him: someone with a little military and law- enforcement background. That kind of thing. Do you think Billy and Tommy would go for that?"

"Probably. They've always liked him."

"So... what are your plans from here?" he asked. "Now that the Machine Empire's out of the way, are you going back to Kenya?"

"I... may need to think about that..." she whispered.

In a fantasy of my anticipation
I knew there was no consolation
I knew, oh, I knew
And on the night she told me that she had another
I was broken by the truth I'd discovered
I knew, oh, I knew

Two hearts reach for each other
One chance, she's like no other
I'm lost, lost in the dream of you
'Cause it's true... I'm forever, forever in blue

Adam and Tanya found Rocky outside, staring up at the night sky. The final destruction of the Machine Empire had left uncountable tiny fragments of debris around the Earth, causing a spectacular light show as they fell into the atmosphere. Shooting star after shooting star raced across the night, and for a moment, both Adam and Tanya just stood close by and watched them, as Rocky was doing.

Rocky finally broke the silence. "We beat 'em. It nearly killed us all, but we won."

"Yeah, we did," Adam whispered.

"We should be happy about that," Tanya added, placing one hand on Rocky's shoulder. "It's over."

"But it's not over. You heard Billy tell us about what Klank said. Who knows how many of those planets Mondo conquered are gonna want to take us down? And now all we can do is just sit and watch while someone else tries to save the day. I'm not ready for it to be over."

"Rocky, we did our part!" Tanya insisted. "Pretty much everyone wants to save the world these days, but how many of us actually get the chance to actively do it? Being Power Rangers was an honor and a privilege, and we can't forget that."

"Zordon forgot about it pretty quick," Rocky said, darkly.

"Well, so what? So someone else will have to be the Power Rangers now. That doesn't change what we did, and it doesn't change who we are."

"There's still plenty of ways we can save the world, Rock," Adam nodded.

"That's easy for you to say. You've got the Red Lion."

"I had the Red Lion," Adam corrected him, putting some heat into his voice. "And to be honest, I only had the Red Lion because there was no one else there who could have flown it except Bulk and Skull, and they haven't had our training. Now that we've actually got some other choices, maybe someone else will end up flying it."

"The point is," Tanya went on, "not having powers doesn't mean you can't do anything for the cause. I mean, look at Billy! He's been without his powers for a year, and look at everything he did!"

"But I'm not Billy!" Rocky growled, stepping away from them. "I don't have his brains, or his way with machines! I can't build zords and weapons! I can't come up with plans to save the world! I'm just a fighter!"

"That's not true," Adam told his friend.

Rocky looked up at the sky again, and both Adam and Tanya were surprised to see that he was crying. "When we got the Zeo crystal, I remember thinking that Billy should have been the Blue Ranger instead of me. I knew it'd be better for the team to have him around. But I didn't say anything, because I couldn't handle not having powers anymore! I remember thinking better him than me, 'cause he didn't need his powers to help out, and I knew that if I didn't have powers, I'd be..."

"You'd be what?" Tanya asked, gently.

"Just another dumb punk kid," Rocky wept. "Bein' a Power Ranger, I was somebody. Now, I'm... nothing."

It was here that he finally broke down, but Tanya was there to put her arms around him and hold him close, and Adam was there for him to lean on. "That's where you're wrong, Rocky," Adam whispered. "Completely and totally wrong."

Believe me girl, I tried not to call
But here I am once again, yes once again
Beside you, with my hands on the wall

"Hey, guys!" Ernie called, indicating the television set on the counter. "Looks like the local news is doing another story on you."

Jason, Trini and Zack drifted over to watch, as did Bulk, Muriel, and several of the adults present.

"...siege barely one day over, world governments are struggling to re-establish order. Scientists at NASA have stated that it will take at least three years to replace the dozens of satellites lost in the attack."

"Maybe we could throw in and help NASA out," Jason mused.

"Memorial services were held in Washington today in honor of those lives lost during the invasion. Tens of thousands gathered in Centennial Park to pay tribute, including the President and First Lady. In addressing the crowd, the President urged not only America, but the world, to take pride in this victory over the Machine Empire."

The picture switched to a somewhat static-washed view of the President speaking to the crowd (the picture quality being testament to the lack of good satellites), as the Vice-President, Speaker of the House and First Lady looked on. "We, as a nation... we, as the human race have suffered at the hands of those who would take from us the very world that sustains us. We have many pieces to pick up... many struggles to overcome in the days and weeks and months to come. Now is the time when we will need each other more than ever. I call upon the people of America... the people of all the world... to remember this as the day of our liberation, and remember always those brave young men and women who fought to save us all."

Bulk exchanged wide-eyed looks with the others. "Wow," was all he said.

From the President's speech, the televised image changed to footage from yesterday's encounter with the public outside the Power Chamber. Tommy and Kimberly led the way, arm in arm, while the others followed behind in their stoic procession. The local newscaster's voice accompanied the images. "Nothing more has been heard from the Power Rangers since their surprising televised message, and even more surprising appearance outside their mountaintop base yesterday. Among those seen were four of the five current Power Rangers, three of their proclaimed allies, and a number of unknown uniformed figures presumed to be the pilots of the giant lion-ships surrounding the base. Of Pink Ranger Katherine Hillard and team leader William Mitchell, however, there was no sign, and it has been speculated that these two may have been lost in the battle."

As the anchorwoman went on to describe local efforts to get Angel Grove back on its feet, Jason shook his head. "That's strange, man. It's weird to think of the President talking about us like that."

"What's so strange?" Ernie asked. "You kids are heroes."

"I think I know what you mean, Jase," Zack nodded. "After a while, it was like fighting the bad guys was just our job. It was what we did, and we didn't make a big deal out of it."

"It seems it was a big deal after all," Trini smiled at him. "In fact, it was about as big as it gets."

Two hearts reach for each other
One chance, she's like no other
I'm lost, lost in the dream of you
'Cause it's true... I'm forever, forever...
In blue...

Billy managed to stay steady on his feet for the dance, but by the end of the song, he was leaning on Katherine out of more than just affection. "Promise me we'll have time to do this again when I've recovered," he sighed.

"We'll have time for lots of things," she grinned, leading him back to the sidelines, where they reclaimed their seats.

At this point, Tommy and Kimberly also abandoned the dance floor and drifted over toward the two of them, hand in hand. "You, ah..." Tommy started, then cleared his throat. "You two look good together."

"So do you," Katherine smiled back, making Tommy look away for a moment. Even holding hands with his one true love, Billy noticed, he still held onto his guilt, like always.

"We just wanted you to be the first to know," Kimberly went on. "We're... thinking of moving back to Florida, both of us."

"Yeah," Tommy affirmed. "We thought it might be a good idea to get away from Angel Grove after all that's happened."

"Ohhh, I'm sorry to hear that," Katherine said, with genuine sorrow.

"I wish you wouldn't," Billy added.

"It'd be one thing if we still had the Power Rangers, but now we don't even have that anymore," Kimberly sighed.

"That's not true," Billy disagreed, shaking his head.

Tommy brought over a couple of chairs, and he and Kimberly sat down opposite the other couple. "Why do you say that?" Tommy asked.

"Because we may not have the Power anymore, but we still have each other, not to mention Voltron."

"Are the lions staying, then?" Kimberly asked.

"Yes, at least until Arus becomes habitable again. And that won't be until well after our lifetimes."

"Yeah, but it looks like you guys have Voltron pretty well covered without us," Tommy shrugged.

"Who's got Voltron pretty well covered?" Jason asked, as he, Trini and Zack pulled up into the group conversation.

"All of you guys," Tommy said, vaguely gesturing to Jason and Katherine. "You handled things just fine up there."

"I would hardly call that a flawless performance," Kat grimaced.

"Yes, but we did all make it back," Trini reminded her, nodding and smiling at Billy.

"Are you guys planning to stick with it?" Tommy asked.

"Well... that was something we wanted to talk to everyone about..." Jason said, pulling up a chair for Trini, then himself. Zack gave his friend a sarcastic pout as he found a chair for himself.

"Did Zordon talk to you?" Billy asked.

Trini widened her eyes at him. "How did you know?"

"Educated guess," he shrugged. "It makes perfect sense that he would."

Jason nodded slowly. "He called the three of us over to the Power Chamber earlier today and asked if we wanted to join up as Power Rangers again."

"Did you accept?" Kat asked.

Zack shook his head. "I started giving him attitude again, like yesterday. He asked us to think about it, and we left."

"It doesn't seem right, somehow," Trini went on. "Logically, I can understand why none of you can hold the Power anymore, but..."

Jason finished for her. "But it still stinks. It would feel like we were benefitting from your misfortune."

Billy looked at Tommy, trying to gauge his reaction, but could sense nothing.

"But on the other hand," Zack admitted, "it's a tempting offer."

"I think you should take him up on it, if you want to," Billy said, making all eyes suddenly go to him. He glanced around the circle and nodded. "The world still needs the Power Rangers, even with Voltron here."

It was at this point that Skull and Aisha found their way into the outskirts of the conversation, having seen the gathering from where they had been dancing. Within moments, Bulk and Muriel joined them as well, standing beside the other couple.

"I'm not happy about what happened either," Billy went on, "but if Voltron and the Voltron Force are going to be a viable, working team here on Earth, it would be better to be closely allied with the Power Rangers than just sort of co-existing on the same planet. If we had a bunch of total strangers as Power Rangers, that might not be easy to accomplish, but with you there, we could all be part of the same team. Aside from which, I can't think of anyone I'd trust more with the job."

Jason nodded slowly, then looked over at Tommy. "Would you be okay with that, bro?"
"Of course I would!" Tommy half-smiled. "At least I'd know the team was in good hands."

"That would make three of us," Trini pointed out, looking at Zack to see if he agreed. When he finally nodded in assent, she went on. "That leaves two more, and it has to be two who weren't revealed on that broadcast."

"What about Aisha?" Kimberly asked, looking around the group to find the other girl. "You're still eligible, I guess."

Aisha widened her eyes. "Me? But... but I don't know if I could..."

Skull fixed her with a steady gaze. "You did it before, didn't you?"

She gave him a worried frown, then looked over her ring of friends, desperately trying to find Tanya in the crowd. The former Yellow Zeo Ranger was approaching the confab opposite her, with Adam and Rocky close behind. "I was just telling Skull about... The thing is, after what happened with Master Vile reversing time, then bringing it back, it feels like it's been nearly ten years since I was a Power Ranger. The same thing happened to Tanya." She motioned vaguely across the circle, hoping that Tanya would back her up on this.

Tanya nodded, crossing her arms. "Yeah, it's true. Sometimes I barely remember how life was back in Kenya."

"I... just don't want to be a liability," Aisha finished, shaking her head.

"I don't see that happening," Jason said. "I'll bet it'll be just like riding a bike. Once we're back in the armor for a few days, we'll probably be just as good as we ever were."

There was a long pause, as Aisha struggled with this, but at last she nodded. "If you really think I'm needed, of course I'll stay."

"And that," Billy said, suddenly turning back to Tommy and Kimberly, "is why I hope the two of you reconsider. "We're going to need all the help we can get with Voltron."

"Well, you only need five pilots, right?" Rocky asked. His voice was a bit rough, taking Billy somewhat off-guard. "There's more than five of us left."

"That's as may be, but we don't just need five pilots. We need all the people we can get! There was a time when each lion of Voltron had dozens of crew members. They can be flown by a single person, sure, but they're so much more effective if they each have a team of their own. I think any of us who have the drive and the ability should have a chance to work with the lions, and yes, that includes piloting them. I think it would behoove each of us to learn as much as we can from the lions and about the lions, because it's quite possible that we may one day be recruiting and training others to join us. To start with, though, we only have each other, and I'd rather keep this team together, if we can do it."

Kimberly and Tommy had both been staring at him during this impassioned speech, then they turned to one another. "Can we think about this?" Kimberly asked Billy.

"Of course you can," Billy laughed. "I'm sorry, I know I'm being pretty insistent here, but I think it's for a good cause. Look at this group we have here. With all of us together, think of all we can accomplish. There's going to be a lot more to this than just defending the world from invaders, too. We have a chance to help bring together a new beginning for the entire planet Earth."

Billy felt Katherine's hand close around his, and he looked over at her. She said nothing: simply gazed into his eyes and waited for him to continue.

"While I was in the Power Chamber during the siege, I had the radio playing the news almost constantly. One of the most amazing things about the entire crisis was that the world started pulling together against the common enemy. Maybe they didn't do it in the best of ways -- given a little more time they probably would have launched the nukes and screwed up the whole works -- but it was a start. We've got the ability now to help that along. In those five lions we've got access to technology that could change the face of the planet. Technology that could produce almost limitless energy with no environmental side effects. Technology that could irrigate deserts and help grow enough food to feed the world. Technology that could, theoretically, eliminate the need for war. It won't be easy, of course, and it would involve more politics than you can shake a stick at, but we've got some political experience between us now." He indicated Zack, Jason and Trini.

"But it's not just a matter of the Earth. During the time we've been Power Rangers, we've met a lot of enemies from space, but we've also made some good friends and allies, like the Rangers of Aquitar. They were here to help us, and we always said we'd return the favor. Why stop there, though? Why not find out who else is out there? Why not make as many friends as we can, and present a united front against people like Mondo, or Lord Zedd, or Planet Doom? We could have not only a unified Earth, but an entire galaxy alliance to stand against evil and oppression."

At this point, Billy started to feel a buzz in the back of his mind, similar to the feeling he got while holding Alth's key, and the words began pouring out. "King Alfor always hoped for something like this. He built Voltron mostly for defense, but also had exploration in mind. In time we won't just need fighters and defenders: we'll need adventurers and explorers to go out and find these new worlds. Maybe in time we can build a second Voltron, one intended more for exploration than defense, to complement the lions. One joined force made up of three exploration vessels: one to explore from the air, one from the land, one from the sea. And each of these three could be a combined force of its own, made up of a team of five smaller vessels. Then once things are a little more settled here on Earth, and the Power Rangers have the defense of this planet well in hand, the two Voltrons can go to work bringing together all the forces of good in this galaxy, and we can truly live up to the name 'Defenders of the Universe.'"

Billy blinked a few times as the rush of words ended, and looked around the circle to see that everyone in the room had come to listen, including Ernie, Detective Stone, and the Rangers' family members.

"Geez, Billy," Zack said at last. "You don't think small, do you?"

"When did you go and become a visionary on us?" Kimberly smiled at him.

"Let's just say that my trip to Planet Arus opened my eyes to some things," Billy shrugged. "If we want to keep up the good fight, we've got a lot of work ahead of us, and we'll need everyone we can get."

"Where do we start?" Katherine asked him.

"Oh, right here, I imagine. We still need to find a fifth Power Ranger for the time being."

"How about my brother David?" Tommy asked.

"How about Muriel?" Bulk asked, making Muriel stare slack- jawed at him.

"Hey, maybe Kijana?" Skull grinned, raising his eyebrows at Aisha.
"There's a guy named Carlos I met coaching soccer," Adam pointed out.
"Have any of you met this dude T.J. that just moved to town?" Rocky continued.
"Maybe you should bring up those suggestions with Zordon," Billy chuckled. "I'm sure he'll want to have something to do with the decision. In the meantime, I have every intention of starting work on establishing a home base for the Voltron Force as soon as possible. Who's with me?"

The teens cheered in response to Billy's question, and the crowd became a babble of excited conversation and making of plans. In the middle of it, Billy watched Tommy and Kimberly discussing things between themselves. Kimberly smiled and nodded to Tommy, who then turned to Billy. "We're with you, man."

Billy clasped Tommy's hand. "I'm glad to hear it."

Post-Siege, day four
NEW YORK (AP): Game five of the World Series took an interesting turn when a potentially catchable fly ball to the warning track was snagged out of the air by a fan in the front row, preventing Atlanta Braves outfielder Marquis Grissom from making what could have been an inning-ending catch. The fly ball was ruled a home run, despite protests from the Atlanta bench.

What caused a greater stir, however, was when the scoreboard crew relayed a live video image of the fan who caught the ball up onto the Jumbo-Tron scoreboard: the ball had been caught by none other than former Power Ranger Rocky DeSantos, who was attending the game alongside fellow former Power Rangers Adam Park and Tanya Sloan. As the crowd recognized DeSantos and his companions, game play was momentarily halted as all in attendance at Yankee Stadium gave the three Rangers a standing ovation for a full seven minutes. After shaking hands with a few dozen fans, the three quickly vanished from the scene to allow game play to continue. DeSantos later contacted the local news media to apologize for interrupting the game, which the Yankees eventually won in extra innings by the score of 5 to 4.

This was the first public appearance by any members of the Power Rangers since they announced their collective retirement at a press conference two days ago, and introduced the five new costumed heroes who would take their place. The identities of the five new heroes remain a guarded secret, which former field leader Tommy Oliver states would be best for all concerned parties. -PAUL HOOVER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Post-Siege, week three
Katherine and Billy did eventually have the chance to see the world from the top of Mount Wilhelm together.

Soon after establishing a permanent base for Voltron in the wilds of Australia (thanks to the cooperation of local government and tribal leaders), the two went for a well-deserved afternoon fly with the Blue and Yellow Lions. As it turned out, they didn't stay at the top of Wilhelm for very long, electing instead to jaunt off to a deserted stretch of beach along the continent's west coast. While Kat brought Toth in to land on the sand, Billy took Alth down to gratefully immerse herself in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, eventually settling down so that only the top of her head could be seen above the waves.

"I'll get changed and meet you on the beach," Katherine transmitted, smiling from one of Alth's auxiliary viewers.

"Okay. I'll swim in to meet you," he replied before contact was broken. He checked the main viewer to see that the Yellow Lion was making himself comfortable in the endless sand.

"Toth seems to be enjoying this," Billy remarked as he descended the stairs from the pilot's chair.

[He couldn't be happier now that he has a proper desert in which to live,] Alth replied, her mental voice sounding humored at her mate's antics. [He is also quite pleased with his new choice of pilot.]

"The two of them seem to have a nice rapport," Billy nodded as he stepped into the pilot's quarters and started stripping off his uniform.

As he undressed, he suddenly remembered a question he'd been meaning to ask for some time. "Alth?"

[Yes, Maker?]

"Why exactly can Katherine hear you, anyway? I thought only Makers could hear your voices."


"So... does this mean that she's a Maker?"

[So it would seem.]

Billy tried to picture this, but couldn't. "But she doesn't like working with her hands. She's always talking about how mechanically inept she is, which I think is an exaggeration, but... if she's a Maker, she keeps that light under a thick bushel."

[Ah, but she is not a Maker in that sense.]

He slipped on his swimming trunks and rummaged around in the closet for a plastic bag to wrap his towel in. "In what sense, then?"

[She is a Maker of the spirit. While you are a Maker in that you are a visionary, a builder and a scientist, she is a Maker in that she is a nurturer, a healer and an artist. You are a craftsman and an architect, while she is a moderator and a wise counsel. You will build many great things, while she will touch many lives deeply. You are two sides of the same coin. You will learn from one another and provide balance for one another.]

Billy paused to let this thought sink in. "I never thought about it quite that way," he said, quietly.

[And when two such Makers join, there is naught which cannot be accomplished between you.]

He closed his eyes and smiled, putting these thoughts to images. "That's good to know."

[Indeed. But in the here and now, you may not wish to keep the Maker waiting.]


After returning to the bridge one last time to glance over the rows of monitors, he exited through a service hatch somewhere in the top of the lion's head, then dove from the very tip of Alth's snout into the water.

It had been positively forever since the last time he'd had a real swim in a real ocean: not since his last visit to Aquitar, come to think of it. It felt wonderful to knife through the warm water with a series of powerful strokes, allowing the incoming waves to guide him in to shore.

As he neared the shallows, however, something shot out of nowhere and grabbed him. Billy flipped over with the impact, then struggled to get his head back above the water, but just as quickly as he did, two hands dunked him right back under again.

When Billy finally righted himself and started treading water, he was not at all surprised to see Katherine there, grinning at him. "You're so easy to sneak up on," she laughed.

"Guilty as charged. I think I may have lost my towel for good on that one." He hunted around for the plastic bag, which he'd let go of during his struggle. Luckily, it was close by.

Swimming side by side, then, they rode the gentle surf in to the point that they could walk up onto the beach, hand in hand. Billy unwrapped his towel and unrolled it next to hers (in spite of his best efforts, it was slightly damp in places), and only after looking up from this did he notice Katherine's state of dress.

Once she had his undivided attention, she struck a mock-runway pose. "So... how do I look in yellow?"

During Billy's childhood, his father had possessed a huge collection of vinyl 45 r.p.m. singles from the golden age of rock and roll, and Billy had grown up listening to them again and again, memorizing every word. Unbidden, the tune of "Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" came to the forefront of his mind. Billy realized then and there that whoever wrote that song must have somehow fallen into a time portal and been inspired by Katherine to come up with the lyrics.

He, on the other hand, was left completely speechless.

Katherine put her arms around him and leaned in to kiss him. "I take it you approve?"

"Um..." was all he had time to say before a verbal reply suddenly became the very least of his priorities.

From the sand and the sea, Toth and Alth kept watch.

Post-Siege, week five
The long voyage was nearly over. The mighty pyramid-ship was preparing to make its final approach to the shining blue-white planet Earth, and its lone occupant and pilot was beginning to feel the rush of anticipation. Earth: the location of the Zeo Crystal, and the five brave Rangers who bore its power. Soon there would be six, he thought with some satisfaction. Soon the Gold Ranger would make himself known to his Earthbound allies, and once they had proven themselves to him, he would reveal the final pieces of....

Trey of Triforia, the Gold Ranger, was shaken out of his thoughts as alert sirens blared out, and warning lights lit up all around the bridge of the great pyramid. Scans revealed an incoming ship speeding away from the Earth's surface, on a direct intercept course. This was not right! According to all he had gathered on Earth and the Zeo Rangers, space travel was as yet beyond them, short of their MegaZord, and this incoming ship looked nothing like it!

He brought Pyramidas around to face off with the incoming vessel, preparing himself for anything. Perhaps he was too late, and the Earth had already fallen to the machines.

Once his scanners completed their analysis of the incoming ship, he brought a visual to his heads-up viewer. What he saw there made his jaw drop in shock.

At approximately the same moment, a voice came in over his communications systems. "Attention alien vessel: this is Red Lion of the Voltron Force. Please identify yourself." The voice was human, and male. Trey shook his head slowly. The legendary Voltron? Here?

"I..." he stammered, "I am seeking the Zeo Rangers, to offer assistance in their battle with the Machine Empire."

Another male voice laughed at this. "Really? I hate to break it to you, pal, but you're about a month late!"

"Who are you?" asked the first voice.

"I am Trey of Triforia, the Gold Ranger. Are you... I mean to say is that... really one of the ships of Voltron?"

"Sure is!" laughed the second voice.

"Then... perhaps I am not needed here after all. I do apologize, my friends. Pyramidas has been crossing the void between our worlds for some time. I did not hear of your victory. I shall return to Triforia as soon as..."

"Wait, you don't have to go yet," the first voice interrupted him. "Why don't you come back down to Earth with us? I'm sure the rest of the Voltron Force would like to meet you, not to mention the new Zeo Rangers."

"But if the Earth is guarded by Voltron...."

"Hey, man, you just came all this way to lend us a hand. The least we could do is have you over for dinner to meet the gang. Come on, we'll guide you in."

Trey watched the Red Lion turn and rocket off toward the distant Earth. Lacking a clear alternative, he and Pyramidas followed.

Post-Siege, week eighteen
Construction of the ships which would form the second Voltron (collectively known to the Force as Vehicle Voltron) had been underway for about a month, and Billy was finding his skills as a Maker tested again and again. Designing fifteen individual vehicles (each capable of space travel as well as travel over their specific environment) which could alternately transform into three advanced fighter craft or into one combined humanoid shape was a logistic nightmare, but it was a concept he was not ready to abandon yet. Fortunately for him, he had a lot of help with the actual construction.

Their mountaintop base (ironically located in the Kimberley Plateau region of Western Australia) had been the first major construction project, providing a meeting place for the Voltron Force, housing for not only the Force members but any visiting family (most of their families had relocated to escape media attention, but many spent a considerable amount of time here as well), plus underground access to the new lairs of the five lions. The very top level of the structure was the construction hangar, where Billy had practically been living for the last couple of weeks.

This particular day found a festive mood in the cavernous hangar, as construction of the first of the five ships of the Air Team neared completion. Billy, Skull, Tanya, Rocky and Adam stood around the vessel, which resembled a huge, high-tech helicopter, and inspected their work.

"Looking sweet!" Rocky grinned, running his hand down along the tail of the craft. "Now we just need to see how well it flies."

"You can just leave that to me," Skull nodded, rubbing a chamois cloth over the glossy black metal. He more than any of them had become particularly attached to this ship, and he and Bulk had put in many late hours in its construction.

"We've got a few more tests to run on it before I'd be willing to risk a pilot," Billy reminded him.

Skull gave a high-pitched laugh. "I thought risk was the business, kemo sabe. Besides, I always wanted to be a test pilot, just like in The Right Stuff."

"I still can't wait 'til we get to the Land Team," Tanya remarked. "No offense to the old zords, but I want something that can cover some ground."

Adam started laughing, and Tanya swatted him playfully. "What's so funny?"

"I just got this mental picture of you at the wheel of a monster-truck zord. What's funny is that it fits."

"Oh, yeah, definitely!" Rocky agreed, making Tanya smack him across the arm as well.

"So how long is Bulk going to be with that pizza?" Skull asked, taking off his shirt and using it to wipe the sweat from his face.

On cue, Bulk teleported in, carrying two pizza boxes and a twelve-pack of soda. "Direct from Chicago, it's the Bulk Ranger teleporting pizza delivery service!" He caught sight of Skull and wolf-whistled. "Man, could you be any sexier?"

Skull replied by striking a heroic pose and puffing out his chest. Tanya all but fell over laughing at the expression on his face.

They gathered away from the ship to pass around the pizza and drinks and celebrate their accomplishment. "Chicago style," Rocky noted around a mouthful of cheese. "Good choice, Bulk."

"As our dear friend Mr. Mitchell says, the new teleporters should be used for team business only," Bulk said in an overly prim and proper tone. "What better business than this, I ask you?"

"I can't argue with that," Billy nodded, trying to get a single piece removed without pulling the cheese off the entire pizza.

They ate, drank and chatted for a while, until their impromptu celebration was interrupted by the echoing sound of a telephone bell.

"I'll get it," Adam volunteered, setting down his drink and jogging toward the glass-walled control booth in the corner of the hangar. He emerged after a few moments and called back across the hangar. "Hey, Billy, you've got a call!"

"Is it an outside line?" Billy asked. As far as he knew, there was no one else in the complex right now who would have any need to talk to him.

"You could say that. It's Kat."

"Oooooh!" Billy's four other teammates chorused, grinning at him.

"I'll take it in there, Adam," Billy said, ignoring their well-meaning taunts. As he passed Adam on his way to the booth, he added "Make sure Rocky doesn't eat everything while I'm talking, okay?"

"Will do," Adam chuckled.

The control monitors showed that the "incoming call" was indeed from the Blue Lion (relayed through the ground-based Yellow Lion), and a quick telemetry scan revealed that the ship was starting on its way back from Aquitar. The signal was audio-only, so Billy put on a headset microphone to reply. "Kat?"

"Hullo, Billy!" Kat's voice came over the headset. Even light-years away, she sounded as though she were in the next room. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you too, sweetheart. But you're days early! Did everything go well?"

"Oh, everything went perfectly," she replied. "Better than perfectly, in fact. You were right: Tommy knew exactly which inspiring words to say."

"How are he and Kim, then?"

"Oh, they're fine."

"Uh huh. And how are you with he and Kim?"

She gave a melodramatic sigh. "Perhaps the tiniest bit exasperated. At least they're not afraid to hold hands in front of me anymore."

Billy chuckled at this. He had been somewhat reproachful about the three of them taking this mission together, but details had conspired. The Blue Lion was the best ship for a journey to Aquitar, and Billy was the logical choice to negotiate with the Aquitian Rangers considering the amount of time he had spent with them. Billy, however, was more than slightly occupied with the construction of the Vehicle Voltron, so Tommy became the next logical choice for the negotiations. Alth, however, had insisted (or at least strongly requested) that Katherine be her pilot for this trip in lieu of Billy. No one had specifically said anything, but it was obvious that Kimberly was not too thrilled with the idea of Katherine and Tommy going off alone into space for a week-long mission. It was Katherine who then suggested that Kimberly join them, which she told Billy was for her own peace of mind as much as Kim's. She hadn't relished the idea of listening to Tommy apologizing to her all through the trip.

"You'll be happy to know that the mission was a smashing success," Katherine went on. "The Rangers of Aquitar will be happy to form an official alliance with both the Rangers of Earth and the Voltron Force. That's one step toward your Galaxy Alliance."

"Two, if Trey can put in the good word on Triforia," Billy nodded.

"True. As for the advice you requested concerning the Sea Team vehicles, well... we have a bit of a surprise."

"What's that?"

"It just so happens that Delphine and Cestro were both quite taken with the idea of the Vehicle Voltron, and they said they would be happy to offer any assistance you require in its construction."

"Really? That's great!"

"There's more."


Katherine's tone implied that she was smiling widely. "Yes. You see, when I say they were quite taken with the idea, I mean QUITE taken. They in fact insisted on accompanying us back to Earth. They're currently on board with us."

"But aren't they needed on Aquitar?"

"That was what we asked. As it turns out, they've both retired from active duty, and new White and Blue Rangers have taken their place."

"You're kidding!"

"Not at all. Delphine seems to think it was fated that we would arrive seeking their help so soon after they stepped down."

Billy shook his head. "That's amazing. Having them here should help immeasurably."

"So what do you think? Was this mission a success?"

"Quite. You did great. Tell Kim and Tommy I said so, would you? And give my regards to Cestro and Delphine?"

"Of course," she replied. "Before I sign off, though, there was one other thing."



This completely lost him. "I'm sorry, I don't follow."



She laughed. "I've been thinking about that talk we had on the beach last week, and... yes, I would be happy to marry you."

For a long while, Billy was too stunned to answer. At length, he shook his head and grinned. "So you're telling me this now, when I'm in the middle of building helicopters and you're still two days away from Earth and I can't even kiss you? No fair."

She giggled at his tone. "I couldn't wait the two days to say it, love."

"Do you realize," he said, still laughing, "that I'm going to have to go back out into the hangar and explain to everyone why I'm grinning like an idiot?"

"You'll think of something, I'm sure."

He let out a long sigh. "Kat?"


"Hurry back."

There was a pause, then she laughed. "Alth says to tell you that patience is always rewarded. I'll call again once we're clear of Transit, I promise."

"I'll be around, I'm sure."

Post-Siege, year one
NEW YORK (AP): Optimism was high at the United Nations, as was tension, as the world prepares for the launch of the Voltron Force. Many nations expressed concern that the Earth would be left undefended with the departure of the lion ships, which have worked alongside the Power Rangers to repel several alien attacks since their arrival during the Machine Empire Siege of 1996. In a statement read by Muriel LaFauve, the Voltron/Power Ranger liaison to the U.N., the nations of the world were assured that the next generation of Power Rangers would prove equal to any task, even with the Voltron Force away on what is being called the first of many long-term exploration missions.

LaFauve was followed by representatives from the planets Aquitar and Triforia, who went on to proclaim to the people of Earth that any attack from space would be met with the combined force of three worlds' defenders, eliciting a standing ovation from all present.

Now, all attention turns to Australia, awaiting the moment the five lion ships will leave the Earth and briefly join their allies in orbit before the combined force departs for space unknown. - PAUL HOOVER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Exploration, day one
Ten miles off the western coast of Australia, Alth emerged from her undersea lair and began her ascent, first breaking the surface of the water, then climbing for altitude, spinning in a few barrel-rolls as she went. Billy could feel her anticipation for the mission to come, and it fed his own excitement.

His scans showed the other four lions rocketing from their own lairs across the continent, converging toward the rendezvous point in orbit. Gradually, they fell into formation, with the Black Lion in the lead, Red and Green Lions behind and to either side, and Blue and Yellow Lions completing the V-shape at the rear.

"Okay, Lion Force, let's log on!" came Tommy's voice. "Black Lion, ready!"

"Red Lion, ready!" sounded the only marginally different voice of David Trueheart, Tommy's brother.

"Green Lion, ready!" Kimberly shouted, the sound of her voice indication enough that she was smiling.

"Blue Lion, ready!" Billy added, biting down on the urge to let out a wild whoop of joy as they cleared the atmosphere.

"Yellow Lion, ready!" Katherine chimed in, completing the roll call.

"Let's go and meet the rest of the gang, then!" Tommy laughed. "Setting a course for the EXPLORER."

"Right on your tail, bro!" David said in a growl that would do his lion proud.

Billy's scans revealed the mother-ship of the Vehicle Force dead ahead, and he adjusted Alth's flight path to follow Black Lion to the final rendezvous point. As the EXPLORER drew closer, he could not help but feel a rush of pride. He had seen the ship in various states of completion over the past months, and now that it was finished, his satisfaction was at an all-time high. He had done his best to live up to the title of Maker, and here was the fruit of those efforts.

"Black Lion to EXPLORER!" Tommy transmitted to the huge vessel. "Trey, do you copy?"

"EXPLORER here!" came Trey's voice.

"What's your status?"

"All systems are go, crew is at the ready, and the pilots are prepared to launch!"

"Whenever you're ready, then!"

* * *

Jason swung himself into the cockpit of his fighter-craft, fastened on his helmet, and started going through his pre-flight checklist. Each system came up green, and he found that he was grinning ear to ear in anticipation of this mission. Even though he had flown countless practices with the rest of the Air Team, this was the first time he felt like he was getting ready for the real thing. As commander of the Air Team, not only his four immediate teammates but all of the Vehicle Force would be looking to him for leadership, and he was proud to have been chosen once again for this role.

"Air Team Leader, this is Helm Control," Trey's voice came over his helmet speakers. "Lion Force is in position, awaiting your launch."

"Stand by, Helm Control!" Jason grinned in reply.

A status screen to the left of his main viewer showed that the other four ships of the Air Team were likewise finalizing their preparations, and in moments, all five showed up as ready. He switched over to broadcast to the whole team. "This is Air Team Leader. Air Team is prepared for launch. Team Leaders, what's your status?"

"Land Team Leader, reporting," Tanya replied. "We're ready when you are!"

"Sea Team Leader, reporting," Delphine added. "All ships prepared to launch!"

"Helm Control, all systems are go!" Jason called. "Awaiting clearance to launch!"

"Acknowledged, Air Leader. You are cleared for sequential launch."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have been cleared!" Jason advised the team. "Just like we practiced, now! Air Team Leader, launch!" He gunned his throttle, and his fighter craft shot out of its hangar and into space, leaving the huge mother-ship behind it.

"Air Team Two, launch!" Zack shouted, rocketing his own fighter out of its hangar and into Jason's wake.

"Air Team Three, launch!" Trini's ship followed close on Zack's heels.

"Air Team Four, launch!" With a laugh and a wild "Yeee-hah!" Skull brought his beloved rocket-copter out of the hangar and into space.

"Air Team Five, launch!" Bulk echoed. His copter, a twin of Skull's, followed his partner's ship into the inky void.

Jason brought up a rear display to see the other four trailing behind him. It was a team to be proud of. He was grateful that he, Trini and Zack had not been split up, and he had to admit that Bulk and Skull were shaping up to be pretty decent heroes. "Looking good, folks!" he called to the four. "Land Team, you're next!"

"Here we come!" Tanya acknowledged. "Land Team Leader, launch!" Her ship, resembling nothing so much as a racecar, led the rest of her team into space.

"Land Team Two, launch!" A second racecar followed, piloted by Aisha.

"Land Team Three, launch!" Thirteen-year-old whiz kid Justin Stewart's voice cracked with excitement as he followed his teammates.

"Land Team Four, launch!" Rocky called out, bringing out the first of two all-terrain crafts which would double as Voltron's fists.

"Land Team Five, launch!" Adam finished, following in his own six-wheeler.

Jason by this time had led the Air Team to their rendezvous point, and he turned his attention to his monitors to check the status of the others. He always liked watching the Land Team flying. Cars in space? Who would have thought it. Adam had been the original choice to lead this group of mostly middle-era Rangers, but he had abdicated in favor of Tanya early on, and the results had been spectacular. Jason was a little worried about the kid, but Rocky always managed to keep him in line.

"Okay, Delphine, Sea Team's up next!" he transmitted.

"Roger that!" Delphine called in, her distorted voice tinged with excitement. "Sea Team Leader, launch!"

"Sea Team Two, launch!" The second of the mid-depth "sea rovers" was piloted by Carlos Vargas, a relatively new addition to the Force.

"Sea Team Three, launch!" Cestro warbled. The former Aquitian Ranger's ship was more an undersea laboratory than anything else, but had a fair share of firepower.

"Sea Team Four, launch!" came the voice of fifteen-year-old Fred Kelleman, a longtime acquaintance but new recruit for the team.

"Sea Team Five, launch!" The second deep-sea diver, and last of the ships, was flown by Ashley Hammond, another recent addition who had amazed them all with her piloting skills.

Jason watched the relatively non-descript Sea Team vessels circle in to take their place in the sky with the other two teams. This group he was the most uncertain about, as three of the five were relatively inexperienced, with only a few months as Rangers between them. Having Delphine and Cestro as part of the team, however, went far to ease his concerns. Their many years of Rangering, not to mention knowledge of marine life, would be invaluable.

"Helm Control to Vehicle Force," Trey radioed in. "All ships clear, and launch tubes have been sealed. Well done, my friends!"

"That was just the beginning. Team leaders, bring your ships together on my mark! Initiate docking sequences... now!"

With that order, each team of five brought their ships together into the first of their joined stages: the terrain fighters. For the Air Team, this meant docking the two planes and two copters with four of the six faces of Trini's more or less cubical transport vessel (nicknamed the Borg Cube). The Land Team, similarly, brought the two cars and two ATV's in to join with Justin's armored carrier (dubbed the Sandcrawler), and the Sea Team hooked up the four pods to Cestro's submersible lab (which as yet had no official nickname, but they were leaning toward Sea Biscuit).

The joining went off without a hitch, and Jason's auxiliary monitors lit up with the faces of his four Air Team compatriots.

"You know, Jason, we have got to stop meeting like this," Skull chided him, waggling one finger at his leader.

"I think I can see my house from here!" Bulk joked.

"Steady there, gentlemen," Jason chuckled. "Trini, how're we doing on power?"

"Power cell merge is complete, and we're green for interstellar travel," she smiled at him.

"Don't be talkin' green, girl," Zack laughed. "This is the Air Team, not the Air Sickness Team."

"You guys get yourselves set for Transit," Jason warned them. "Tanya, Delphine, how are things with your groups? Are you ready for the Transit jump?"

"That's a big aye-firmative for the Land Team!" Tanya replied.

"Ditto for the Sea Team," Delphine reported. "Just lead the way!"

"Helm Control, are you ready to jump?"

"Affirmative, Air Leader. All personnel are ready for Transit on your go."

Jason brought the combined Air Fighter around to take its place in the lead of what would be a convoy to their first destination point, with the Land Fighter, Sea Fighter and EXPLORER following behind. Once the shakedown leg of their journey was over, the fifteen individual ships would again dock with the EXPLORER, and they would continue their voyage as a single unit until the smaller ships were needed.

His viewscreen showed nothing but stars ahead. Stars surrounded by worlds just begging to be explored. Again, he found that he had not yet stopped smiling.

"Air Team Leader to Black Lion," he called. "Did you like what you saw there, bro?"

Tommy laughed at Jason's words. "You guys were great. Are we all set, then?"

"Everything looks good on our end. You take care of the Black Lion, bro, you hear me?"

"You bet, man. You guys keep in touch, and be sure to yell if you need backup. Otherwise we'll see you at Planet Arus in six months."

"Wouldn't miss it, bro! Happy trails!"

He brought a forward view to his main screen, and watched as the three joined vessels headed off into space, followed by their parent ship. They would take it slow until reaching the boundaries of the solar system, then make their jump into Transit. Tommy watched them go, and couldn't help feeling a bit wistful. After working so closely for the last year, they were separating again, but he knew that they would be able to take care of each other.

"We'll see them soon," Kimberly said, echoing his own thoughts.

"Of course we will," Katherine agreed.

"Meanwhile, we've got a job of our own to do," Billy reminded them.

"So when do we get started?" David asked.

"There's just one last thing to take care of," Tommy replied. "Kat, could you patch us through to the Command Center?"

"Done," Katherine replied. Almost immediately, the forward view was replaced by the smiling face of T.J. Kroon, the recently promoted leader of the next batch of Power Rangers.

"Command Center here!" T.J. reported. "You guys all set to go?"

"Any moment now," Tommy nodded. "How's the team?"

"Couldn't be better. We've got some good ones here, no doubt about it."

"They had a good teacher," said Billy.

"Thanks," T.J. sighed, looking mildly embarrassed at the praise.

"I know we've said this before, but you guys take good care of the Earth while we're gone, okay?"

T.J. held up both hands. "Tommy, I promise you, the planet won't even have a scratch on it when you get back. With those two sets of zords we've got, we're all set."

"We're counting on you, little brother," Tommy grinned. "You and Cassie keep a close eye on those rookies, now."

"We won't disappoint you," T.J. promised. "Good luck up there! Call us anytime!"

After a chorus of goodbyes and well-wishings to be passed on to Zordon, Alpha and the rest of the new team, Tommy broke contact and turned Black Lion's sights to the stars.

"We've got a lot of space to cover," he told the team. "Are you ready?"

"No time like the present," David replied.

* * *

Within a few minutes, the five lion ships were speeding out past the orbit of Mars. Like the Vehicle Force, they would make the first leg of the voyage in real space before shifting velocities.

While they had a few moments, Billy put in a private communication to Katherine. "So... what do you think of the team?"

"I think it worked out well," she nodded. "Though I hope you realize that Tommy's going to have a hard time acting like a team leader to you now."

"He'll get used to it," Billy chuckled. "I'm sure Seth will help in his own subtle way. It's funny we ended up with this group of five, though; there's a lot of family involved here. I hope it's not bad for the mythology to have two brothers in the Black and Red Lions."

"Well, at least that way we managed to have the Red and Green Lions be brother and sister, technically."


"And as for Alth and Toth being lifemates...." she went on.

Billy looked to see the outline of the ring beneath his uniform glove. "Yes, I think we've got that covered."

"Most assuredly."

The five lions sped into the blackness, and into what they knew was only the beginning.


"Earthsiege" by Rain Fletcher
January 12, 1998 4:57 a.m.

This story (c) 1996-1998 Rain Fletcher

Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Power Rangers Zeo, Power Rangers Turbo and all constituent characters and locations (c) 1998 Saban Entertainment

Voltron, Defender of the Universe (Lion Force) and constituent characters and locations based on GOLION, (c) 1998 Toei Corporation, licensed to World Events Productions. Voltron, Defender of the Universe (Vehicle Force) based on DAIRUGGER XV, (c) 1998 Toei Corporation, licensed to World Events Productions
The characters of Muriel LaFauve, Sophia Renard, Paul Hoover, and Aisha's various family members (except Ishala, (c) 1998 Saban) were created by and are (c) 1998 Rain Fletcher (I wanted to use only "real" Saban characters, but I guess it's unavoidable that any fanfic is going to wind up needing incidental characters like these...)
"Forever in Blue" performed by Journey, from TRIAL BY FIRE, words and music by Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain and Neil Schon, (c) 1996 Love Batch Music/So Much Music/Fingers of Joy Music (ASCAP) All rights reserved
The author would like to suggest the following soundtrack for EARTHSIEGE:

TRIAL BY FIRE by Journey, particularly the songs "Forever in Blue," "Castles Burning" and "Can't Tame the Lion"
TEST FOR ECHO by Rush, particularly the songs "Driven" and "Resist"
"All Along the Watchtower" as performed by Jimi Hendrix
"Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, from EVERYONE KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE
"Don't Cry" by Seal, from SEAL (the second one)
"The One I Love" by R.E.M., from DOCUMENT
"Machine Messiah" by Yes, from DRAMA
"The Forge of Vulcan" by Hawkwind, from QUARK, STRANGENESS AND CHARM
"The Minstrel Boy," a traditional Irish song of valor
"Peace in Our Time" by Eddie Money, from THE SOUND OF MONEY
and pretty much anything Bob Dylan ever recorded.

Special thanks to Kittie Verdena (for patience and sometimes lack thereof), Manuel Perez (for my first break on the Web), Akiko (for suggesting a story with a little action), Kevin McPhail (for showing I wasn't the only Billy/Kat fan out there), Chris Funaro (for late-night storyline jams), and everyone who encouraged me to finish this beast, with particular thanks to Lynn Hodges, who I really need to call.

Extra-special thanks to David Yost, Catherine Sutherland, Paul Schrier, Jason Narvy, and the rest of the cast of POWER RANGERS, for breathing life into these characters and making them truly worth caring about.