"Carlos, left!" Tommy's voice had barely died away before Carlos Vargas spun in the gunner's seat and obliterated two Dianth fighters. Surveying the battle scene before him, he bit his lip. It was becoming frighteningly easy for him to take a shot at anything silver that entered his airspace. Andros had said that the fighters were computer-controlled, so it wasn't as if he was actually shooting at people. Still- a real war shouldn't be so much like a video game, should it?
"Don't think about it," a voice drifted back from the cockpit. Carlos couldn't see Chris' face, but the tone in the other boy's voice was very serious. "If you want to get through this with your sanity intact, just think of them as blips on the screen."
Carlos nodded, forgetting for a second that the other could not see him. "If you can do it, I can do it. Let's kick some tail."
The Gunstar plunged back into the fray with the speed of a diving falcon. Nearby, other ships spun and fired on each other, turning the battle into a dizzying kaleidoscope of metal and laser fire. Out of the corner of his eye, Carlos could see the other Rangers, each one identifiable from his or her flying style.
Tommy was a hot dog, pulling off incredible stunts with ease. Jamie and Jason, his constant wingmen, had a tendency to shoot at anything that crossed their range. Rocky was just this side of reckless, while Billy preferred to lure his opponents into traps and take as many out with one shot as possible.
Kimberly's style involved a lot of acrobatics, since she could make a ship practically turn on its tailfin. Lillian was acrobatic as well, but favored sudden dives as opposed to loops. Andros was almost as much of a hot dog as Tommy, but his longer experience showed in some of his stunts. As for Chris... As far as Carlos could tell, the new Silver Astro Ranger was following in the footsteps of WW II fighter pilots.
Although the Ranger pilots were never far from each other, there was a great deal of cooperation between their group and the Starrunner pilots they were assisting. A persistent Dianth Fighter that Rocky could not shake off his tail was suddenly blown away. "Thanks, man," Rocky sent.
"No problem," the Starrunner chuckled. "I'm not losing ANYBODY I fly with, even if I did just meet him."
Between the Rangers and the Starrunners, it looked as if the Dianth ships were finally routed. Suddenly a green laser shot from the front of the main flagship, narrowly missing a clump of fighters.
"Whoa!" Chris cried. "Nobody told me we were going up against the Death Star!"
"Everybody all right?" Ashley's voice asked over the comm system. The Rangers who were unable to fly had spread throughout the _Starfire,_ taking over as many tasks as they could, freeing more of the Starrunners to join the battle. Ashley had gotten herself installed as Communications Officer for the Rangers, and was helping direct the battle from the bridge.
"Singed my tail feathers, but I'm okay," Jamie responded.
Kimberly added, "That thing packs one heck of a wallop."
"If we don't do something about it soon," Jason finished,
"we are toast."
After all the explanations and introductions were finally finished, the assembled heroes of Earth decided to head to Angel Grove Park to try and relax. The assorted members of the support staff remained behind to discuss the current situation, and probably, Ryan thought, to offer more realistic, less hopeful appraisals of their situation.
Currently, the blond leader of the VR Troopers was sitting under a tree, watching one of the strangest games of Frisbee he'd ever seen. Drew was attempting to snag the disk with his telekinesis, Roland was outrunning everybody, and Jo and Fred had teamed up, the smaller girl lifting the Red Turbo Ranger into the air to grab the disk. Meanwhile, Kaitlin, JB, and Dex, the Masked Rider, were using their superior height to try and beat the others to the Frisbee. However, the Turbo Rangers were small and fast, with excellent jumping skills. It looked to be anybody's game.
Finally Kaitlin withdrew from the competition, pleading exhaustion, and sank gratefully down on the ground next to Ryan. "Did we have that much energy at their age?" she asked, leaning back against the tree. He shrugged.
"Remember what we did to the Professor's lab when Grimlord made us kids again?"
"Good point." She shook her head. "I can't believe this. The twelve of us are the only thing standing between this Shadowborg and Earth, and half of the defense force isn't old enough to vote!"
Ryan chuckled. "That's kind of a sore spot, Kaitlin. How would you feel if everyone kept second-guessing you, just because of your age?"
"I understand, I guess. But- this isn't exactly an activity I'd recommend for people their age."
"Well, they're obviously good at what they do," Ryan answered. "I mean, the Beetleborgs have been at this as long as we have, and they're still alive."
"Yeah, I guess." They sat in silence for a moment, then she got to her feet. "Well, I'm going to go play some more Frisbee. You coming?"
He shook his head. "No, I'm going to sit here for a while. You go on."
"Suit yourself," she shrugged, and headed out into the field again.
"You like to be by yourself a lot, don't you?" Ryan looked up to see Drew watching him. Ryan grinned.
"Geez, do you turn invisible, too? I didn't even see you leave the Frisbee game."
Drew smiled, but there was a slightly bitter cast to it. Sitting down next to Ryan, he shook his head. "No, I'm not the one who turns invisible. And you didn't answer my question."
Ryan winced. "Touche," he acknowledged. "I guess I do like to be by myself. It helps me think." Quickly, he changed the subject. "I still can't get over how two of Earth's major hero teams aren't old enough to drive. No offense, but I just thought you'd be- older."
"There are days I feel like I'm fifty," Drew offered. "Does that count?"
Ryan laughed. "I know exactly what you mean."
On the bridge of the _Starfire,_ Ashley watched apprehensively as the Ranger pilots discussed how to best deal with the newest threat.
"I have an idea!" Billy announced suddenly.
"We're all ears here, Billy," Lillian replied.
"It looks as though it takes that laser array some time to power up. Andros and Chris are our best pilots. We wait until that thing fires again, then the two of them get in there and take it out."
"Wait a minute!" Chris objected. "You want me to fly through about a hundred pirate ships, directly towards the biggest laser this side of Vegas? Are you crazy?"
"Come on, man," Carlos teased. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"I left it in my other pants," grumbled the Silver Astro Ranger.
"You guys are the best we've got," Tommy informed them. "If you don't go through with this, it's gonna be Rangers flambe."
"You'll have to hurry," Billy continued. "When that thing fires, you'd better get going like-"
"Like my hair was on fire and my ass was catching?" Chris interjected. "Billy, you aren't even going to see me move!"
Ashley chuckled. Chris certainly had a way with words. Suddenly a bolt of green energy shot from the Dianth Flagship again, this one aimed directly at the _Starfire._ Quickly, she grabbed for a console as the bridge rocked around her. "You'd better hurry, guys!" she cried over her headset. "We can't take another shot like that one!"
"Already on our way," Andros sent back. "Somebody keep those fighters off our tails!"
"Come on, guys!" Jason yelled. "Let's plow the road!"
With the other Rangers covering them, Andros and Chris made it quite close to the main laser array. "Lock on weapons!" Andros ordered. "And- Fire!" Two lasers shot out, obliterating the array in a huge explosion. Unfortunately, Andros and Chris were not far enough away, and were caught up in the shockwave as well.
"Shit!" Chris cried. "My systems are out!"
"Mine too!" Andros replied. "We've been caught in the gravity well of that planet!" The two ships began to spiral down into the atmosphere.
"We're toast!" Carlos cried. Chris sounded calmer.
"Re-entry's gonna be a real pain in the-" A burst of static cut him off as the two ships spiraled out of contact and were gone.
"CARLOS!" Ashley cried, jumping to her feet. "We have to save them!"
J'neth, also stationed on the bridge, shook his head. "That's Onyx, a planet completely controlled by villains. We'd never make it. If they survive re-entry, they'll have to find their own way back. We've got problems of our own."
"Like what?" Ashley followed his gaze to a computer screen. It read "Unauthorized teleportation into main hold."
"I think," he replied grimly, "we've just been boarded."
Fred Kelman had no sooner grabbed the Frisbee than his communicator went off. Distracted, he didn't quite get his feet under him as he touched down, and consequently landed hard on his butt. Any injury he suffered was immediately forgotten as the rest of the group clustered around him. Justin had promised to make up enough communicators for the entire group, but until then, the Turbos were the only ones that had them.
"We read you," Fred responded. "What's up?"
"Shadowborg," Egon Spengler replied succinctly. "He's downtown, causing a great deal of rather random destruction and chaos. I'm quite sure this is some sort of challenge to you."
"He's calling us out," mused JB.
"We'd better get down there now," Drew informed the others.
Suddenly Ray Stantz's voice interrupted them. "Hold up a minute, guys. Franklin, there's- something you should know."
A chill shot up the Green Turbo Ranger's spine, and he swallowed hard. "What?"
"Apparently Shadowborg has crossed paths with the Angel Grove Police Department. He has a group of cops pinned down inside a parking garage. We think there's injuries, but- we can't tell how many or how serious."
Seeing Franklin's face go death-pale, Dex shot Rosa a curious look. Rosa bit her lip. "His dad's a cop," she explained. "On the 'Monster Squad.'" Reaching out, she wrapped an arm around her green friend's waist. He squeezed her shoulders gently, not really seeming to notice that she was there.
"If your dad's the Detective Park we met this morning, I wouldn't worry," Drew told him. Jo seconded the idea.
"Yeah, that guy looked like he could eat Crustaceans for breakfast."
Franklin smiled slightly. "Let's just get down there and stop Shadowborg before anybody else gets hurt," he responded. Fred nodded.
"Right." Breaking up into their respective teams, the twelve assembled heroes moved slightly apart.
"Shift into Turbo!"
"Trooper Transform!" Angel Grove Park was treated to a light show the likes of which it had never seen, a feat in itself, considering all the things that had occurred there. Then, with another brilliant flash, the defenders of Earth were teleported downtown.
"Well," Yellow Turbo grimaced. "I don't think we're going to have any trouble finding him." A wide trail of destruction surrounded them, leading off down the street.
"Just so long as he doesn't find us first," Blue Trooper replied, scanning the area.
"Everybody be very careful," Titanium Silver stressed. "This guy can take just about anything we can dish out."
Following the swathe of crumpled mailboxes, slagged lampposts, and shattered concrete, the heroes quickly found their target, almost idly trading shots with the police still trapped in the garage.
"All right, guys," Red Turbo said quietly, calling his companions into a huddle. "Our first priority is to get those cops out of that building, and out of the war zone if possible. Frank, that's your job." Green Turbo nodded, an acknowledgment both of the command and of the fact that he wouldn't be good for anything else. Not, at least, until he knew his father was safe.
"I wouldn't recommend going alone, though," his leader continued. "We haven't seen any foot soldiers in this attack, but that doesn't mean there aren't any. Besides, you might need help with the police. Who do you want with you?"
"Roland? We make a pretty good team," Green Turbo suggested. Titanium Silver nodded. "I think I'll take Tasha, too. She can bully them into cooperation, even if they're in shock."
"I have experience in working with the police, and some first aid training," White Trooper volunteered.
"Great," Red Turbo nodded. "You guys get in there, get the cops out, and then get your butts back here as fast as possible, understand? We are going to need all the support we can get against this guy."
The four nodded. "Right." Taking care not to draw Shadowborg's attention, they slipped off.
"Now it's our turn, right?" Blue Turbo sighed. "We get to be the distraction."
"Could be worse," Platinum Purple replied cheerfully.
"How?" Even while bickering quietly, the two of them were moving to surround Shadowborg, along with the other six. No sooner had the eight of them formed a semicircle around their target than Shadowborg turned slowly.
"Well, well, well," he chuckled coldly. "Eight against one. And I thought Earth's defenders were supposed to fight with honor."
"This is as fair a fight as you deserve," Chromium Gold snarled, surprising the others with the venom in his tone.
"So we meet again, Drew. I must say, I like the new look better than your old blue one. Yellow is definitely your color."
Feeling her brother stiffen beside her, Platinum Purple put out a hand. "Don't..." she whispered.
"Still taking orders from your little sister?" Shadowborg asked with mock politeness. "No wonder you were nearly displaced by that snotty little upstart."
"That's enough," Masked Rider interrupted. "We came here to fight, not to listen to you run your mouth."
"Then it's a fight you shall have!" With that, Shadowborg leaped forward. Cries echoed through the square as eight heroes and one very nasty villain did battle.
Brushing blond hair out of his eyes, Rick Winslow regarded his partner sardonically. "Trevor, sit still. I have to bandage this up, and I can't do that if you keep moving."
"It's just a little laser wound," Trevor replied absently. He had his head craned, trying to see through the small holes between the cars that formed their shelter. "You'd think he took my arm off or something." The police detective frowned. "What is going on out there? I don't recognize half of those voices."
Rick opened his mouth to make another sarcastic comment, but never made it. Four forms dropped from an upper level, instantly finding themselves the targets of a number of police guns.
Titanium Silver raised his hands. "It's okay, really. We're the good guys."
Green Turbo couldn't reach his father's side fast enough. "Da- Detective Park. Are you all right?"
"It's just a scratch," Trevor replied, indicating the bandage on his arm. "You'd better see to the guys who are worse off than me."
White Trooper crossed to where a blond woman, whose badge identified her as a lieutenant, was supporting the head of another man. The man's leg was bent in the wrong place, and White Trooper winced as she knelt beside them. "Is this broken?" she asked quietly.
The policewoman nodded. "Damn thing snapped it like a twig," she growled. "We never stood a chance."
"We're the 'Monster Squad,' Spinelli," the injured man grinned weakly. "What else could we do? The Rangers were out of action."
"Well, reinforcements have arrived," White Trooper informed him. Looking around the garage, she saw Green and Yellow Turbos bandaging wounds and moving the injured into the center of the room as gently as possible. Spotting Titanium Silver, she waved him over.
"We're going to have to set this leg before we move him anywhere," she said in a low tone. "You distract him, okay?"
Titanium Silver nodded, moving to take the injured man's hand. "So- what's your name, man?" he asked.
"Sergeant Charles Maddox. People call me Chuck."
"Got any kids, Sergeant Maddox?"
Chuck smiled. "Two. You know, they’re going to flip when they hear about this. They think the Beetleborgs are the greatest thing since sliced bread." Just then, Lieutenant Spinelli and White Trooper squeezed his leg, moving the bone back into position with a sickening crunch. Chuck's face went pale, but he did not cry out.
Titanium Silver was impressed. "Tell you what," he said lightly, trying to cover his reaction. "When all this is over, the three of us will sign a Beetleborg comic for them, okay?"
"Sounds- good to me," Chuck panted. Gently, White Trooper and Lieutenant Spinelli moved him into the center of the floor, where the rest of the police had gathered.
"Power Chamber, get ready to teleport to the hospital on my signal," Green Turbo instructed. "Detective Park, can you take care of all the admissions stuff?"
Before Trevor had a chance to answer, Rick stepped in. "_I_ will take care of the admissions stuff. Trevor will be admitted with all the other walking wounded." He grinned. "I'm just dirty. Besides, if I let you spend one minute without medical care, your wife would put ME in the hospital."
"You're probably right," Trevor admitted. Looking at Green Turbo, he grinned. "We'll be fine." With that said, the group of policemen dissolved into white light and were gone.
"All right, enough moping around!" Yellow Turbo declared. "The others need our help. Let's get out there and kick some Shadow Butt!"
"Ohhh, man," Carlos groaned, slowly waking up. "I can't believe it. I'm alive!" Re-entry had burned out most of the Gunstar's systems, and had caused extensive damage to the outside of the craft, but somehow it had managed not to kill them. "Chris? You alive up there?"
"I don't think being dead hurts this much," came the muffled reply. "Think the air's breathable?"
"Since I'm staring through a hole in the canopy, I'd say yes," the Black Astro Ranger replied wryly. "Pop the top, will you? We have to find Andros."
"Not to mention a way OFF this rock." After a few tense moments, the Gunstar's canopy unsealed, peeling back from the cockpit. Gingerly, the two boys climbed down the side of the ship. Looking at the wreck, they winced in unison.
"I don't think we can fix her," Carlos sighed. Chris nodded.
"If she was a horse, we'd have to shoot her. You think Andros made it down in one piece?"
"I don't know, but I do know that he's been flying a lot longer than either of us. My question is, how are we gonna find him?"
Chris pointed over Carlos' shoulder. "My money is on that column of smoke over there. Come on!" The two of them took off running. As they crested a rise, they saw Andros standing a few yards away from his destroyed fighter, watching as what was left of the wreckage smoldered.
"You all right?" Carlos asked, coming up beside his leader. Andros nodded.
"Yeah, Carlos. Come on, we'd better get out of here before the wreck explodes, or before the people of the planet come to investigate." He began walking. Exchanging a glance, Chris and Carlos hurried to catch up.
"Where ARE we, anyway?" Chris asked, coming back alongside Andros. "I didn't exactly check the map before we crashed."
"We're on the planet Onyx. It's a sort of haven for villains. The UAE- United Alliance of Evil," he explained to Chris, "the UAE took it over millennia ago for use as a rest and recreation zone. It's the most crime-ridden, dangerous hellhole in three galactic sectors."
"Great," Chris grumbled. "Shot down over the galactic equivalent of South Central."
"How do you know so much about this place?" Carlos pursued.
Andros sighed. "After the loss of KO-35, I followed Dark Specter for almost a year before he went to Earth. This was one of the places that I followed him to." In the distance, a town was approaching. Andros smiled slightly.
"Figures. This is Port Town, the main- heck, the only center of civilization on Onyx. Our ships must have tried to bring us in here, since it's the best landing site on the planet."
"Looks like the backlot for a bad sci-fi Western," was Chris's appraisal. It was a fairly accurate one. The streets were full of strange creatures, but the architecture seemed to be straight out of "Gunsmoke." Andros ducked into an alley, pulling the other two with him.
"I'm going to scope out the town and see if I can't find us a way off this planet," the Red Astro Ranger told his teammates. "You two stay in this alley and be ready to back me up if I need you." Reaching behind a loose board on a wall, he pulled out a wine-red cloak. "Well, what do you know? Still here." Dusting it off, he covered himself in it.
"How will we know if you need us?" Carlos asked.
Andros chuckled. "Trust me, Carlos, you'll know." Pulling
the hood over his head, he slipped out into the street and was gone.
A loud clang resounded through the street as Blue Trooper slammed into the nearest wall. Instantly, Masked Rider was at his side, helping him up. "Are you all right?" the insectoid hero asked, concerned.
"I think so," the Trooper replied, standing gingerly. "Man, that guy packs one heck of a punch."
"Tell me about it."
While his auto-repair circuits took care of the damage inflicted on him, Blue Trooper watched the battle raging in front of him. Pink Turbo had taken position on top of a dumpster, and was launching bolt after energy bolt from her bow. Unfortunately, none of them seemed to connect, and a blast from the Shadow Laser sent her flying.
Platinum Purple had summoned her Metallix Baton, a staff with prongs on the ends. She darted in for an attack, only to be knocked away by a casual kick. Masked Rider and Blue Trooper stopped her before she could hit the wall, but all three of them tumbled to the pavement.
No sooner had Shadowborg dispatched Platinum Purple, however, then Chromium Gold attacked. This match was far more even, as the two of them traded powerful blows back and forth.
"Wow," Pink Turbo breathed, limping over to help Platinum Purple to her feet. Nearby, Masked Rider was doing the same for Blue Trooper. "Drew is PISSED."
"I've never seen him this bad," Platinum Purple told them. "He's beginning to scare me."
A fast kick to the midsection sent Chromium Gold sprawling. He continued the motion of his roll, barely dodging as the Shadow Claw bit into the concrete where his head had been. Suddenly a bolt of blue energy sent Shadowborg staggering back, just long enough for Red Turbo, Blue Turbo, and Black Trooper to interpose themselves between Shadowborg and his target. Meanwhile, Platinum Purple and Blue Trooper rushed to help Chromium Gold up. A powerful blast from the Shadow Laser sent the entire group down.
"Looks like you guys could use some reinforcements!" Green Turbo's voice called. The downed heroes looked up to see the last four members of their team rushing out of the parking garage. Quickly, the newcomers arrayed themselves around their fallen friends, giving them time to get to their feet.
"I think it's time we doubled the odds!" White Trooper declared. "VR Kaitlin Doubleteam Command, NOW!" In a flash of light, another figure appeared beside White Trooper. The newcomer was an exact duplicate of White Trooper, down to the white and red armor she wore.
Shadowborg just laughed. "Thirteen, my lucky number." Pointing towards White 2, the claw shot from his wrist and buried itself in her chest armor. Laughing coldly, he reeled her in as a fisherman does a bass, then grabbed her arms and sent electric shocks coursing through her. The other heroes tried to move in and break his grip, but Shadowborg just used the Trooper in his grasp as a shield to keep them away.
However, White 2 was not out of the fight yet. Twisting her wrist, she summoned one of the double-ended sickles that were her main weapons. "Laugh it- up, ugly," she growled. Then with a powerful shove, she embedded the kama in Shadowborg's chest plate. Releasing her, he staggered back a few paces. White 2 began to collapse bonelessly to the ground, but Blue Trooper was right there, and caught her as she began to fall. The rest of the team moved to form a wall between them and the Shadowborg.
Looking down, Shadowborg reached up and casually pulled the weapon out of his chest. Regarding it for a moment, he tossed it contemptuously aside. Still, the heroes could see sparks flying from the hole it left, proof that the injury was a bit more serious than had first appeared.
"One battle does not win a war, heroes," Shadowborg informed them. "I'll be back, when you least expect it." Turning, he walked into the nearest shadow and was gone.
"Are you going to be all right?" Blue Trooper asked White 2. The girl nodded.
"Sure. Once we retroform all the damage will be gone. After all, SHE'S the original." Blue Trooper cocked his head at the bitterness apparent in her voice, but said nothing.
"It's over for now, guys," Chromium Gold sighed. "Let's go back to the Power Chamber."
"Right," agreed Red Turbo. "Beam us up, Scotty." The thirteen heroes vanished into flashes of light, four of them with strange circuitry patterns.
"Turbo Rangers Power Down."
"Masked Rider Power Down."
"Retroform Command, now." The weariness that all four teams felt was obvious from the lack of force in their back-transformation commands. However, no sooner had the power around them cleared than a new problem presented itself. Ryan and JB simply stared, speechless, at the place where TWO Kaitlin Starrs stood face-to-face.
Peter raised an eyebrow. "I take it this is not normal?"
"This is the last place I want to be," TJ grumbled. "I feel like an extra in 'Aliens.'" TJ, Skull, Adam, and Cassie, being the best shots currently on board, had been assigned to the team dealing with the boarders in the holds. Currently, they were making their way through the dark corridors that formed the lower levels of the _Starfire._ Skull grinned.
"Well, at least here you only have to worry about pirates," he chuckled. "Not facehuggers."
Suddenly Adora, the Starrunner in charge of the eight-man team, raised a hand. "Shh. I think we've found them. There, in Hold 6A. Weapons ready, everybody." At her signal, the team moved into the better-lit hold.
"Don't move!" Adora snapped, leveling her laser at the nine Dianth pirates. Of course, none of them listened. Instead, they all dove for cover, drawing their own lasers and opening fire.
"Duck!" Adam yelled, taking cover behind a stack of metal crates. The rest of the team did the same. Cassie winced as one bolt came a little too close for comfort.
"Forget 'Aliens,' Teej. We just walked into 'Lethal Weapon!'"
Quickly, Adam leaned around the corner of his shelter, snapping a volley of shots off at the attacking pirates. As he ducked back to safety, he noticed Skull doing the same thing. It was sort of funny, he thought, how the only member of the Rangers who had never used an energy pistol was a crack shot. That was Skull for you, though, always full of surprises.
TJ ducked as a volley of laser shots went screaming over his head. "This is getting us nowhere," he remarked. "We could trade shots like this all day."
"You have a better idea?" Jayce, the Starrunner beside him asked. The young man was a little younger than TJ, and had brown hair with a white streak running through it.
"As a matter of fact, maybe I do," TJ grinned. "Come on!" The two of them dashed across the hold, to where a stack of barrels stood. "What's in these?"
"Dragontail Brandy. Expensive, but not deadly- well, unless you drink WAY too much," Jayce replied, seeing what TJ meant to do. "Besides, the barrels are very strong, and it won't hurt the drink too much."
"Good. Help me push!" The two young men set their backs to the stack and began to push. For a long second, nothing happened. Then the barrels began to quiver, and toppled- right in the direction of the Dianth pirates.
It worked just as TJ had hoped. The rolling barrels knocked pirates left and right, and directly into walls. Those who weren't KO'd by the barrels found themselves disarmed and dealing with Starrunners and Rangers all at once. Suddenly, an arm slipped around TJ's throat, cutting off his wind. The barrel of a laser pistol placed against his temple kept him from struggling.
"Give it up, Dianth," Adora snapped, drawing her pistol and pointing it at TJ's assailant. "You're outnumbered and have nowhere to go."
"Oh, I have plenty of places to go," the pirate sneered. "Back to the _Demon,_ for example. How much do you think a Power Ranger would go for on the galactic slave market?" Before this could register, TJ and his captor were enveloped in sparkles of light and then disappeared. Starrunners and Rangers looked at each other.
"Shit," Cassie grunted. That pretty much said it all.
The ship shuddered again as Chelsea ran onto the bridge. "What the heck is going on here?" she asked, slipping smoothly into the navigator's chair.
"Obviously, we're under attack," Ecliptor retorted. "Can you take over the radar?"
"Already on it," she replied, flipping switches. "Trey, what are you up to?"
"I'm weapons detail," the Gold Ranger responded, not looking up.
"So, who's chasing us?" Chelsea inquired. "All I see are blips on the screen."
"Varox," Trey ground out. "I'm more convinced than ever that this is a set-up. Whoever hired these guys to get me in the first place has got to be behind this."
Ecliptor grunted, dodging laser blasts as he flew. "I told you, my old enemy Darkonda is behind this."
"Yeah, but the only Darkonda _I_ know of is a respected member of the Council. I've never heard of this guy you're talking about."
"But you have, Gold Ranger. The Darkonda I speak of IS the one you know. In recent centuries, the Council has grown lax in checking the background of its members. And Darkonda is very, very good about hiding his past."
"But- why me?" Trey shook his head. "It's not like my arrest would gain him anything."
"It would gain power, young prince. Control over an ever-expanding portion of the Council. The Gold Ranger is the only holder of the power to also be a ruler among his people. Imagine, if he could have you declared unworthy of the powers, and therefore unworthy of your post."
A chill shot up Trey's spine. "And he'd surely have a suitable candidate already picked out- suitable meaning one he could control, whether by greed, or fear, or spells."
"And Triforia is one of the major powers in the galaxy. A Gold Ranger and a number of allied planets, all under his control..."
"He could use the economic and political power as a bludgeon to get the rest of the Council to do whatever he wanted," Chelsea broke in somberly. Both men darted her sharp glances. "Hey, we do have politics on Earth, you know. And it doesn't seem to work much differently out here. I made A's in Political Science, thank you very much!"
Trey grinned, shaking his head. "You never cease to amaze me, Chelse."
"Mmm..." Chelsea raised an eyebrow. "Ecliptor, I can't find these guys anywhere. They've just dropped off my screens. Do you think we lost them?"
The ship suddenly shook violently, as a blip appeared and disappeared, directly behind them.
"I'd say that's a 'no,'" Trey replied dryly, swinging the cannons around and firing.
"They're cloaked," Ecliptor growled.
Another shudder shook them, and suddenly the weapons panel exploded in a fiery display of sparks. "TREY!" Chelsea yelled, leaping out of her seat to go to her fallen boyfriend. Ecliptor gritted his teeth.
"Hang on to something!" he yelled. "I've got one more trick in this thing!" Suddenly the world around them began to blur, and Chelsea realized that Ecliptor had shifted them into hyperspace. She had no attention to spare this information, though. Her entire brain was focused on the man who lay unconscious beside her on the floor.
Slowly the world returned to normal, but Chelsea didn't notice. She was too busy checking Trey's pulse- irregular and far too fast- and his breathing. He had first and second-degree burns on his torso and arms, which had shielded his face at the moment of explosion. His pupils were dilated, and she was afraid he had a concussion.
"How is he?" Ecliptor asked, coming to her side.
"Bad," Chelsea replied, keeping her voice steady with an effort. "If we don't get him medical attention soon-" she broke off, unable to finish.
Ecliptor was silent for a long moment, then sighed. "I have an idea." Reaching down, he picked the unconscious Gold Ranger up off the floor as if he weighed no more than a feather. Once again, Chelsea was forcibly reminded of how strong Ecliptor was. If he decided she was a liability... She forced that out of her mind, following the crystalline being down the hall.
Ecliptor's strides brought them quickly to the medical bay. A small room with a single bed, Chelsea wasn't sure how anything there could help a condition as serious as Trey's. "Take the mattress off the med bed," Ecliptor instructed. Chelsea did so, and found a cabinet beneath, just deep enough for a humanoid to lie in. Gently, Ecliptor set Trey down in the cabinet and pressed a button. A blue glow sprang into being around the unconscious man, pulsing gently.
"It's a stasis field," the crystalline warrior explained. "It will keep his condition from deteriorating until we can get him somewhere that he can get treatment."
"Do you have anywhere in mind?" Chelsea asked. Ecliptor regarded her for a moment. She had immediately reigned in the fear and uncertainty she felt, and was all business again. He chuckled.
"As a matter of fact, I do. And for now, you're my co-pilot."
Chelsea couldn't keep from making a small face. "Oh, joy,"
In the Power Chamber, shock had given way to questions, as everyone wanted to know exactly what happened with Kaitlin. Finally, Ryan raised a hand to still the clamor. Taking a deep breath, he began to explain.
"To make a long, ugly story short, Grimlord created a device that took Kaitlin's reflection and made a sort of - virtual copy, who went by Kaitlin 2. She nearly destroyed us, but we managed to break through the control Grimlord had over her, and she joined us. Unfortunately, she and Kaitlin began to dissolve, thanks to a sort of- molecular decay process. After a few misadventures and fights, we retrieved Grimlord's mirror crystal and rejoined the two Kaitlins. Only Jeb knocked the mirror to the floor and broke it, keeping Kaitlin 2 from dissipating totally."
"I existed in a sort of- virtual buffer zone," Kaitlin 2 explained. "When Kaitlin was transformed, she could call me into being as you saw, but once she stopped inhabiting virtual reality, I went back to the buffer. I could see everything that went on around her, but there wasn't anything I could do about it."
Ryan turned to her, surprise in his eyes. "That must have been awful. I wish we had known- maybe we could have done something."
Kaitlin 2 shrugged. "It was more like I was dreaming, so it wasn't that bad." The expression on her face hinted that she was holding something back, but Ryan didn't push her any further.
"So, what happened to bring you into the real world?" Jo wanted to know. In unison, Ryan and both Kaitlins turned to look at JB. He shrugged.
"Darned if I know. Professor, you want to take this one?"
The virtual image thought for a long moment. Appearing to be a black man in his early sixties, Professor Horatio Hart had been a close friend of Ryan's father, Tyler Steele. The two physicists were in fact the creators of the VR Trooper technology, although most of the ideas had been Tyler's. It had been that technology that had attracted the attention of Grimlord, an evil being from Virtual Reality, who had nearly killed Professor Hart, forcing Tyler to download his mind into a virtual computer. Later Grimlord had kidnapped Tyler, hoping to use his intelligence as a weapon to conquer reality. Instead, he had just given Ryan one more reason to see him brought down.
"I believe I have the answer," Professor Hart mused finally. "Kaitlin 2, when Shadowborg attacked you, his claw cut into some of the circuits that control retroforming. Apparently, it shunted the energy so that you simply formed into a normal human, rather than returning to the buffer zone."
"So, we don't have to worry about decay?" Kaitlin asked hopefully.
"No. Kaitlin 2 is a completely normal human being."
"In that case," Peter interrupted, "we probably ought to have something better to call you than just 'Kaitlin 2.' Establishing an identity, you know."
Kaitlin 2 thought for a moment. "How about Katie? It's close enough to Kaitlin for me to remember to answer to, but no one has EVER called you Katie that I remember."
Kaitlin nodded. "Works for me."
Lita watched in amusement as Ryan looked from one woman to the other in confusion. Suddenly the thoughts that had been chasing each other around all day made contact and she stood up straight. "You said your last name was Steele?" she asked suddenly.
"Yeah, why?" Ryan asked cautiously.
"You said you were eight years old when Grimlord kidnapped your father, right? And you were left with your grandparents? Did they ever send you to a psychiatrist?"
Ryan blinked. Twelve years had blurred some of the details, especially of the time right after his father had disappeared, when he had been trying to forget most everything. Suddenly, however, a memory snapped into focus and his jaw dropped. "That was you, wasn't it? Geez, I'd forgotten all about that!"
"I had too, until just now. You certainly don't look much like the eight year-old boy who sat on my couch and ignored me for hours."
Ryan blushed. "I've grown up since then."
The semi-surprised silence lingered for a while, and then Peter grinned.
"Well, this has been a day for surprises."
Andros made his way into the Onyx Tavern almost unnoticed, heading over to the bar. Only a few watchful stares marked his passing, something that subtly reassured him. It was impossible to go completely unwatched on Onyx- villains were not trusting people. However, he was unobtrusive enough not to draw a great deal of attention. Making sure his Astro Morpher was carefully tucked under the sleeve of his cloak, he levered himself onto a stool.
"What'll it be?" the bartender asked, polishing a glass in time-honored fashion.
"Onyx Fruit," Andros replied, the voice changer in the cloak causing the words to sound husky and low.
The giant ant regarded him for a long moment, then shrugged. The juice of the Onyx Fruit had mild euphoric properties, but nothing nearly as strong as some of the other concoctions behind the bar. Still, a man who wanted to keep his wits about him was nothing new, and the bartender fetched the drink without comment.
"Buy a lady a drink?" a low voice said in his ear. Andros turned to see a humanoid woman sitting on the stool next to him, wearing the rather minimal costume of a dancehall girl. He chuckled to himself. She was certainly pretty, with pale skin and shining aquamarine hair, and a year ago, he might have been tempted to carry through with the flirtation. Now, however... _She's got nothing on Cassie,_ he thought to himself.
"Sorry," he rasped. "You're not my type."
The woman fixed him with a pair of violet eyes. "Perhaps I could interest you in- another sort of transaction, then. I know a great deal about almost everything. My- customers are often careless with their knowledge."
Andros cocked his head. "I- might be interested in some information," he replied cautiously. "What would you be expecting in return?"
"That depends on you, traveler." As the bartender came around, she ordered a glass of Meelar water. She took a long swallow. "What would you be willing to give me?"
That was the sixty-four dollar question, as humans said. At the moment, he was flat broke. He generally didn't keep Galactic script on him anymore, and certainly not during a space battle. Suddenly an idea hit him.
"Information for information," he chuckled. "Something someone in your business would find most useful."
"What type of information? I can't do much with the price of grain on Shilharia, you know," she told him, amused.
"Information about the way the balance of power in the Alliance may be shifting soon. Are you interested?"
She smiled. "I am indeed, traveler. But let us find somewhere a little more private for this conversation." Taking his hands, she led him up the stairs to the second floor, to the sound of a few catcalls from below. Leading him into a bedroom on the second floor, she shut the door behind him.
"Now, traveler, what information do you wish?"
"I need to know what ships are in port, preferably the ones with small crews and light guards."
She raised an eyebrow. "Planning to steal a ship, are we? Well, there are a number of single-person fighters down at the launching pad. You could pretty much take your pick."
"No good," he shook his head. "I need something that at least seats three people."
Her expression suddenly changed. "You- you came down on those ships! Lady Stars, you're from the Council!" She lunged for the door, but he moved even faster, spinning her into his arms and covering her mouth with one hand.
"I'm not from the Council, and I don't mean you any harm," he rasped in her ear. "All I want is to get off this planet and get back to my friends. Now, I'm going to let you go. Please, don't scream or I'll have to do something we'll both regret. Okay?" She nodded, and he carefully released her.
"Who are you?" she asked, backing slowly across the room. All hint of her seductive manner had vanished, and he saw that she couldn't be too much older than he was. Taking a chance, he slid the hood off his head, exposing his face.
"My name is Andros," he told her. "What are you called?"
"Kylora," she replied softly.
"Kylora, I don't want to hurt you. That's not my intention at all. All I want is to get my friends and go home. Now, what is in port that I could- appropriate for my own uses."
"Well," she thought slowly, "there is one ship in that has the capability of breaking out through the defense grid, one that doesn't require a huge crew. It was an- acquisition from the KO-35 Space Navy during a battle a number of years ago."
"The Delta Megaship?" he gasped, astounded. That was the only craft he knew of that had been stolen from the Space Navy, at least in recent memory. Kylora nodded.
"Yes, that's what it's called. It's currently in the possession of Ichori, a fairly nasty bounty hunter. If you can get the Battleizer away from him, the Megaship could certainly get you off the planet." She hesitated. "But my price has changed."
Andros raised an eyebrow. "What is it now?"
"Take me with you," she responded. "I don't intend to spend the rest of my life here. I never wanted that."
"Deal," Andros replied immediately. "Can you fight?"
Kylora grinned. "Quite well, thank you."
"Good. Now, we need to get the Battleizer away from Ichori, and
I have a plan. This is what we'll do."
"Katie?" Ryan asked hesitantly. The heroes assembled in the Power Chamber had begun yet another of their strategy meetings, discussing every possible aspect of the last battle, trying to find some flaw in Shadowborg's armor. Suddenly, Ryan had noticed that Katie was no longer in the group. Going on a hunch, Ryan had headed for the tunnel that led to the main doors. Sure enough, Katie was standing on one of the cliffs outside the Power Chamber, watching as the sun slowly sank down in the west. She looked up at the sound of his approach, not seeming very surprised.
"Oh, hi, Ryan," she smiled. The expression did not reach her eyes, however, which seemed troubled and so very tired.
"What's the matter?" he asked, concerned. Quickly, he crossed to stand beside her at the end of the cliff.
She shook her head. "Nothing. Everything. It's like- I just woke up from a dream. What am I supposed to do now? I have no life, no past, no family- I'm not even a good copy of Kaitlin anymore. Enough has happened that we're different people."
"That's true," Ryan allowed. "But with all the computer geniuses we have around here, creating a past for you should be a snap. We can't do anything about a family- but you'll always have the three of us. You may not be Kaitlin, but you ARE our friend. We would never just abandon you, Katie."
"I know that. I'm just afraid that real life may be even harder to bear than a dream."
He frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, do you remember what happened when we first met?"
"I'll say," he replied, rubbing the back of his neck. "You threw me over a desk."
She chuckled slightly. "Only after my attempt to distract you didn't work."
"You were going to distract me by sparring with me?"
"Not exactly." She shook her head in amusement. "You are a sweet guy, Ryan Steele, but you can be EXTREMELY obtuse."
"All right, so what am I missing here? What were you planning to do?"
For a moment, she didn't reply, just looked at him. Then she reached out, and before he could react, she drew his face to hers and kissed him soundly. Then she released him, watching him apprehensively.
Ryan blinked. "I get it, I get it." He regarded her keenly. "Was that just a distraction, or what?"
Katie bit her lip, looking at him askance. "Well- I thought you were pretty cute, actually. I didn't want to hurt you, really, but you didn't give me much of a choice." She sighed. "This is why I both want to be here and don't want to be here. Do you know how hard it was, watching from that buffer zone as Kaitlin spent all that time within arm's length of what I wanted so desperately, and never even noticed? It was driving me crazy. But now, I have a chance- and I also have to worry about rejection. In some ways it was just easier being a virtual image."
Ryan was speechless for a long moment. "Katie," he began carefully, "before I say anything else, how do you feel about me?"
She sighed, closing her eyes. "I love you, you idiot," she admitted. "I have since the moment I laid eyes on you, since coming into the world."
Ryan was silent for so long that Katie was forced to open her eyes and look at him. He shook his head. "I don't know what to say," he began. She deflated.
"You don't have to say anything."
"No, I don't think I do." Turning her gently to face him,
he kissed her softly. They held that pose as the sun set, the light turned
gold around them- and Lita Kino hauled three interested Beetleborgs back
into the Power Chamber.
"Oof!" TJ sprawled flat on his face as his captor pushed him into a cell. He picked himself up just in time to see an energy field flash across the door. "Jerk," he growled.
"Thank you," the pirate laughed. "Enjoy your stay, Ranger. It won't be TOO long. I'm sure Dark Specter would be more than happy to meet any price we ask." Still laughing, the man walked away.
"Hello, stranger," a woman's voice greeted him. "What are you in for?"
Turning, TJ saw an attractive young woman standing behind him. She was apparently in her late twenties, with long black hair and twinkling blue eyes. Looking her over, he couldn't help raising an eyebrow at her outfit. She was wearing a bodysuit of space blue, with a silver star over the left side of the chest, and a pair of black boots, all normal enough. Completing the picture was a beat-up leather jacket, exactly like any you might find on Earth. Somehow, though, it looked a little out of place with the rest of the outfit.
"My name's TJ. I'm a Power Ranger, and I managed to get on the wrong side of these guys in a fight. How about you?"
She smiled. "Lt. Daystar Dianthan, Intergalactic Police Force. And you're obviously an Earth Ranger, or you would have recognized the insignia. I am in for having a sense of morals- and the bad luck to be General Havoc's daughter."
Daystar sighed. "Um- you know who Divatox is, right?"
TJ nodded. "Although there are times I wish I didn't."
"I know what you mean," Daystar agreed. "Anyway, Havoc's her brother. He's a cyborg now, ninety percent mechanical parts, but twenty-five years ago, he was still mostly organic. My mother was an ordinary member of a trader's crew, one that the Dianth clan attacked. Havoc took a liking to my mother, and a year or so later, I was born. My mother was determined that I wasn't going to grow up a pirate like everyone else on this ship, and finally, when I was five, she managed to sneak me out when we made planetfall for supplies." Her expression grew a little grimmer. "She wasn't so lucky. Anyway, I grew up as a street kid, stealing to survive, living one step ahead of starvation. One day, when I was about twelve in your years, I picked the wrong pocket, the head of the IGPF Academy. He gave me a choice. I could go to a Children's Home- and let me tell you, to a street brat, those places were worse than a regular jail- or my other choice was to enter the Academy and become a cop. He thought I could do it, and I would do just about anything to avoid the Home. So, I entered the Academy and passed with flying colors. At sixteen, I graduated, the youngest in my class, and the youngest ever. Unfortunately, the entire Dianth clan considers me a traitor, and there is a HUGE price on my head. I knew my luck would eventually run out and," she shrugged, "here I am. I'm just cooling my heels in here until they get around to calling all the elders back for my execution."
TJ raised an eyebrow again. "You seem pretty calm about the whole thing," he observed.
"Well, panicking never solved anybody's problems," she replied. "Besides, I'm a big fan of your Earth police movies. That's where I first saw one of these jackets. _Those_ guys never panic- it's bad for the image."
TJ chuckled. "Well, I'll agree with you about not panicking, but I don't intend to just cool my heels in here. There has got to be some way out of this sardine can."
"They bring in dinner in about half an hour," Daystar offered. "But there's three of them, and two are armed with neural stunners. Nasty things, leave you with pins-and-needles for half an hour."
"Hmm," TJ mused. "Good thing they didn't search me."
Reaching into his pants pocket, he pulled out a Swiss Army knife. "Never
leave home without one. I THINK I have an idea."
The Power Chamber has a lot of doors. For security reasons, most of them only open out, or blend into the rock, or come out two miles down the mountain range, but still, it has a lot of doors. That made it very easy for Kaitlin Starr to slip out to the eastern side of the building, without ever coming near Ryan and her lookalike. Now safely alone, she stared blindly at the stars beginning to appear in the clear desert sky and let the tears come.
_WHY?_ she asked herself, agonized. Why hadn't she ever said anything to him? She knew the answer to that one, actually. She had been afraid it would change things, wreck the friendship they had built between them over the past twelve years. Besides, she had never really thought he'd find someone else. It wasn't as if he had never tried- both of them had, actually. She grimaced, remembering all the failed dates and aborted relationships the two of them had found themselves in over the years. Ryan Steele had emotional armor a foot thick, thanks to his father's disappearance and then later to Grimlord's continual hounding. Even after Tyler Steele had been rescued, that wariness and distance had not lifted. Sure, Ryan flirted with anything that looked vaguely interested, but there was never a serious threat there. It took a special person not to be scared off by walls Ryan put around his heart, and Kaitlin had never thought another girl would make it. There were days she was surprised she had.
But now- they had all seen Ryan and Katie in each other's arms, oblivious to everything else. They'd only wanted to make sure the two of them were all right, but had gotten a definite eyeful. What hurt the most, somehow, wasn't just that she had finally lost her chance at Ryan's heart, but that she'd lost it to a person who was almost herself. She couldn't help wondering- if she'd had the courage to tell him, could that have been her in his arms? Now she'd never know.
"You want to talk?" a quiet voice asked. Kaitlin whirled, dashing tears from her eyes as she did so. When her vision cleared, she saw Drew McCormick, leader of the Beetleborgs, regarding her with a sympathetic expression that seemed far older than the rest of him.
"I wasn't expecting to see you here," she managed, sniffling slightly. Drew shrugged.
"I'm no psychiatrist, but like I told Dr. Kino, this is a subject I know a lot about." Coming to stand beside her, he sank down to sit on the rocky ground. Kaitlin did the same, not exactly knowing why. There was something about the boy that reminded her of Ryan. Part of it, surely, was their uncanny physical resemblance. With white-blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, the two boys could have easily been brothers. It was more than that, though. Both radiated a quiet surety that went far beyond their years.
"What subject is that?" Kaitlin asked, unsure of what he meant.
"It's pretty obvious that you're in love with him, Kaitlin. I figured it out inside of ten minutes, and I'd bet Lita and Peter knew it the minute they saw you. It must hurt a lot to know that he's found someone else, and even worse to have that someone be almost a replacement for you."
Kaitlin raised an eyebrow at his almost word-for-word articulation of her thoughts. "No offense, Drew, but you're fourteen years old. How could you know about this sort of thing?"
He smiled slightly. "Let me tell you about this girl I know. Her name is Heather. She's smart, nice, pretty, brave- and she thinks I'm a great friend. A friend and that's it." He sighed. "People are always telling me I'll get over her, but I don't think so. It doesn't feel like just a crush- I've had those before. This is different, more powerful." He shifted. It was obvious that the next part of his story made him somewhat uncomfortable.
"Now let me tell you about this guy I know. His name is Josh. He's fifteen now, taller, stronger, and just all-around more impressive than I am. He's brave, he's a good leader, and Roland, Jo, and Heather think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. He was even a Beetleborg for a while. In fact, he was the reason we defeated Shadowborg, and he lost his powers doing it, so now he's practically a martyr. Next to Josh, I'm just a piece of the background. Trust me, Kaitlin, I know what it's like to lose someone to the "new and improved" you. But you have to remember, you can't help who you fall in love with. They didn't do this to hurt you- they didn't have much of a choice. And they'll always be your friends, no matter how much it hurts to see them together now."
Kaitlin regarded him for a long second. "You're sure a lot more grown up than you look," she chuckled.
"Sorry to break up the therapy session," Lita interrupted, poking her head out the east door, "but it's getting late, and we have to decide on how we're going to work sleeping over."
Drew got to his feet, extending a hand to Kaitlin as he did so. She
rose as well, and the two of them headed back inside.
"Ecliptor, where are we?" Chelsea asked quietly, looking at the planet in the screens before her. Except for the different continental shapes, it looked a great deal like Earth."
"This is Briallta," Ecliptor explained. "It's been neutral in the war between the Council and the Alliance since anyone can remember. Anyone who lands here has to put aside factionary quarrels for the duration of their stay, by planetary law. This may be the only place in the galaxy that we can get Trey medical attention without him being arrested by the Council or assassinated by the Alliance."
"How are we going to pay for this, anyway? I'm not carrying anything but $2.85 American. I don't think that's gonna cover a medical bill."
The crystalline warrior chuckled. "I have that covered. There's a healer in one of the port towns who owes me a favor."
"Dare I ask for what?" Chelsea inquired dryly, strapping herself into the co-pilot's seat as she did so.
"Depends on how delicate your sensibilities are," replied Ecliptor absently. He was beginning the craft's entry into the atmosphere, and was only giving her half his attention.
Chelsea shook her head. "I don't think I want to know. Just tell me- do you think he can help Trey?"
"It all depends on the severity of the Prince's condition. He's a skilled healer, but-"
"He can't work miracles," Chelsea finished. The two of them were silent as the scout craft made its way down to the planet. Rising from his chair, Ecliptor stretched.
"Come on. I'll take you to see Sholtor, and then I'll give you the grand tour. We'll be here for a while- you'd better know your way around."
Chelsea followed Ecliptor out of the ship and through a spaceport that looked a great deal like any major airport she'd ever seen. Chelsea had always had a talent with languages, and had convinced Trey to teach her Eltaren, used as a galactic standard, and Triforian. As a result, she could catch snatches of conversation as they walked through the spaceport, including a customer arguing with a commercial spaceline about his lost luggage.
Seeing her grin, Ecliptor cocked his head. "What is so amusing?"
"It's just nice to see that some things are the same everywhere," she chuckled.
Outside the spaceport was a city that resembled many of the cities on Earth. The hovercars were a different touch, she reflected, and the architecture wasn't _quite_ normal, but the masses of people going in every direction had the same energy that she'd encountered a thousand times in Angel Grove. She would have liked to take some time to examine everything, but Ecliptor's hurried strides and her own worry for Trey kept her moving along. Soon they came to a medium sized building in what even Chelsea could recognize as one of the less select parts of town. Heading up a flight of stairs on the side of the building, Ecliptor knocked on a tiny door and waited patiently.
"What do you want?" a voice asked. "Whatever it is, I'm busy."
"It's Ecliptor," the crystalline warrior replied calmly. "I'm here to collect on that favor, Sholtor."
There was a silence, then the door opened. Chelsea raised an eyebrow. Sholtor was a good deal younger than she had expected, with metallic silver hair cut so that it fell into his black eyes. "What do you need?" he asked, sounding a great deal less abrupt. Then his gaze fell on Chelsea, and he raised an eyebrow. "My patient? You look pretty healthy to me, although I'm sure I could give you a- closer examination."
Chelsea just smiled. She hadn't had many dates in her life- a six-foot black belt for a twin brother kind of crimped your dating opportunities- but she'd heard enough propositions over the last four years that one more was certainly not going to bother her.
"Knock it off, Sholtor," Ecliptor rumbled, although there was no real exasperation in his voice. "She's taken. In fact, it's her fiance that's the problem. Maybe you've heard of him. Trey of Triforia?"
The young healer raised both eyebrows this time. "What have you gotten yourself mixed up in, Ecliptor? And does Dark Specter know about this?"
The crystalline being shifted uncomfortably. "He does now. I'm sort of- AWOL, I believe the Earth term is."
"Absent Without Leave," Chelsea translated, looking at Ecliptor in some surprise. "That must be one hell of a grudge you have."
"I don't want to talk about it," he growled.
"Look," Chelse sighed, turning back to Sholtor. "Trey was injured in an explosion. We've got him in stasis on the scout ship, and we don't know if he's going to make it. We need your help."
Sholtor sighed. "I never could resist a damsel in distress." He looked up sharply at Ecliptor's snort. "You realize this makes us even?"
Ecliptor nodded. "Certainly."
"I'll get my bag."
"You don't like me that much, do you?" Carlos asked quietly. He and Chris had been huddled in the alley for quite a while. Several times, Carlos had tried to start up a conversation, but Chris' responses had been pretty much non-existent.
Chris looked at the Black Astro Ranger and sighed. "Not really," he admitted. "I don't dislike you, but-"
"I get the picture. Why? Is it something I said?"
"Not exactly." For a moment, Chris was reluctant to go on. But the whole mess wasn't really Carlos' fault... "It's because you're dating Ashley. We've been friends forever, and sometimes I kind of slip into the "big brother" routine. Especially after what happened with her last boyfriend. Ben. When she first met him, he seemed like a really nice guy. Heck, even I liked him. But what neither of us realized was that he was really jealous. He didn't like her spending time with anybody other than him, especially not guys. And when he got mad, he got violent. He's the main reason her family moved out of Dry Creek, because he didn't like the news that she was breaking up with him. Anyway, after him, I've been kind of reluctant to trust anybody Ashley's with."
"I can understand that," Carlos conceded. "But I would never hurt her, in any way." Carlos grinned suddenly. "If I did, TJ, Andros, and Cassie would kick my butt, and the rest of the Rangers wouldn't be far behind."
Nodding, Chris chuckled. "I've noticed that." Suddenly a commotion from across the street caught their attention. "I think that's Andros' signal," the Silver Astro Ranger said dryly.
"What tipped you off?" Carlos inquired, leaping to his feet. Suddenly a form clad in a red cloak came flying through the tavern window, followed by a woman in a minimal green bodysuit. From the door came a six-foot lizard wearing purple coveralls and waving a sword around. It was yelling incoherently, even through the translation effect of Ranger powers. Behind it, a number of other villainous types were laughing and making remarks, as three other lizards joined the first.
"Ki-yah!" With a flying kick, Carlos plowed into the first of the lizards, just before it reached Andros's side. "I swear, we can't take you anywhere!" he yelled, pivoting to punch another of the lizards in the face.
In the back of his mind, Carlos took the time to be grateful for the forethought to wear civvies on this mission. His clothes might look strange to the assembled villain types, but at least they didn't scream "Power Ranger."
"Missed me!" Chris grinned, ducking a lizard's tail swipe. Kicking out with one sneakered foot, he landed a shot on the creature's rear end, dumping it flat on its face.
Kylora, meanwhile, was a whirlwind of action, especially as the owner of the tavern began to convince some of the other villains to get involved in the fight. After all, none of them particularly wanted the "entertainment" flying the coop. "Hands- OFF!" she grunted, snapping a powerful kick into a bat-creature's face.
"We can't keep this up forever!" Andros yelled, blocking the head lizard's punch. "Ichori, why don't you just lie down for a while?" A powerful uppercut put the creature down for the count. "We have to make a run for it!"
"This way!" Kylora yelled. She took off running, the three men close behind. Leading them on a winding path through the streets and alleys of the town, she quickly lost their pursuers. "Well, Andros, you certainly know how to show a lady a good time."
"Oh, guys?" Andros panted. "This- is Kylora. She's- coming with- us."
"Charmed," Chris replied between breaths. Carlos just contented himself with a nod.
"What- was all that- about?" Carlos managed finally. Andros winced.
"Apparently Satrachian Dune Walkers are touchy about losing at dice," he explained. "Especially when it loses them the keys to their spacecraft."
"Ichori- the guy in purple," Kylora explained, "accused Andros of cheating. Which, I might point out, you were doing."
"Telekinesis has its uses," Andros chuckled. "Anyway, a fight broke out, and the rest you know."
"I see," grinned Chris. "So, got us a way off this dirtball?"
"Hopefully. We'll probably have a re-match with Lizard-boy and friends, though. I'm sure even they'll be able to figure out where we're going."
"I'm sure the tavern owner will be searching for us too," Kylora added. "It's not good business to let your property get away."
"Then I suggest we keep moving," finished Carlos. "A
moving target is a lot harder to hit." With that, they began to move
again, at a slower rate this time.
Dark Specter was in a foul mood. His most trusted lieutenant, Ecliptor, had disappeared and joined forces with Trey of Triforia, of all people, for some business of his own. That had irked Specter, but not greatly. Ecliptor had served him long and loyally, and could be allowed a few jaunts on his own. As long as the warrior had a good reason when he returned, Specter would be willing to ignore the borderline treachery.
No, it was not Ecliptor's disappearance that rankled so badly. That was just the icing on the cake. First, this upstart Nukus, not even a member of the Alliance, releases a creature that does what Specter himself couldn't do- send the Power Rangers running home with their tails between their legs. _Of course, he only had five to deal with, not twenty-six,_ Specter reflected. Still, this "Shadowborg" was a definite threat, and something had to be done. So Dark Specter had summoned the other villains of the area to a conference, and THAT was when the worst of the frustrations had started.
Grimlord, the virtual being who constantly opposed the VR Troopers, had ignored the message altogether. In truth, Specter had expected no more. An Earthbound villain, Grimlord had no knowledge of who or what Specter was, and was probably not a great loss. But Divatox- she had responded to his summons, all right,- with a derisive jeer.
"You're telling me that the 'Great and Powerful Dark Specter' is threatened by a walking tin can? The Rangers'll turn him into so much scrap metal, just like they've done every one of our plans, any of us. Call me when it's over so I can laugh in your face." Then she had terminated the connection.
Dark Specter could feel what passed for his blood boil at the thought. He knew, of course, that over time, Earth's villains became near-useless buffoons. He even knew why it happened. The power of the ley lines, those lines of natural magic that made Earth such a tempting target, could expand on the good in even the hardest of hearts, and eat away the edge of the blackest evil. But he was Dark Specter! He had taken every precaution against the power of the lines. It stung to realize that in the minds of those around him, he had become just another victim of the Earth.
And the villains who had shown up... They were almost as much of an annoyance as Divatox. Mondo and Gasket were bickering loudly, as usual, while Rita was screeching at anything within range. Count Dregon, eternal enemy to the Masked Rider, was standing in the corner with a long-suffering look on his face. Far too evident was the hole in the group, caused by Zedd's defection to the side of the light. Dark Specter shook his head.
"_These_ are the cream of the Alliance?" he asked in disbelief. Astronema, standing next to him, just shrugged. Dark Specter had been extremely testy recently, and she didn't want to take the chance on upsetting him. That had- unpleasant consequences.
Sighing, the shapeshifter turned to his "guests." Raising his hands, he called for their attention.
They ignored him.
He tried again, and still there was no response. This was the last straw for the Monarch of Evil. Currently in the form of a Loongari, a human-sized black dragon, he began to blur until he had assumed the form of Maligore, Flame of Destruction.
"THAT- IS- ENOUGH!" he roared, his voice shaking the chamber. THAT did it. The four villains looked up from their bickering in astonishment, and their assorted henchmen slunk further back into the shadows surrounding the room. Assured of the four's attention, Dark Specter shrank back down into his Loongari form, raking them all with piercing green eyes.
"Now," he began, in a far more reasonable tone. "To business. It seems as though this "Nukus" may actually achieve what we, so far, have failed to do. If he succeeds in destroying the Rangers, we will be laughingstocks of the entire UAE. To lose Earth to another member is acceptable, if not desired. But to lose it to a DRAWING- that will simply not do."
Rita snorted. "None of us have ever been able to defeat those Power Brats. He'll fail as well. He can't even defeat those Beetleborgs he's supposed to be taking care of."
"I have heard of this Nukus," Gasket interjected. "He is a formidable strategist. This 'Shadowborg' he has loosed on the Rangers is of far more advanced design than even my own monsters."
"Not that that's saying much," Mondo muttered.
Dregon sighed. "Would you two please shut up?" Turning to Specter, he continued. "Gasket is right about Nukus, though. He is an excellent planner who has been plagued by weak monsters, a condition which has been remedied by the Shadowborg. However, the Rangers have responded by forming an alliance with the other heroes located in the area, my nephew among them. This will increase their strength exponentially."
"So, as the humans say, it's still anybody's game," Specter mused. He grinned, not a pleasant sight on a dragon. "Very well! We'll let Nukus play his game. Should he defeat the heroes, we can- eliminate the problem and compete for the planet in our usual fashion. Should the Rangers defeat him, everything goes back to normal. Is this acceptable?"
Buffoons though they were, none of the four villains were stupid. That,
they left to their henchmen. All four agreed to Specter's plan without
"Are you sure this is going to work?" Daystar asked skeptically.
"No, but do you have any better ideas? Look, it's our only chance." Using his knife, TJ had pried the cover off a wiring box. After some very careful rewiring, everything was in place. "I can't believe they were so careless," he marveled. "They didn't even search me."
"They probably ran you through a scanner on your way here. Your knife was too small to register as a weapon, so they didn't think about it," Daystar explained. "Shh, here they come."
Outside the cell, three muscular pirates were approaching. "Dinner time," the one in the front smirked. "Hope you like Selanian squid."
Daystar made a face. "We could be chewing that stuff from now 'til the Grid collapses and never make a dent!"
"Would you rather starve?" he asked, reaching out to deactivate the force door. The lights dimmed as an intense current arced through him, dropping him to the ground and burning out the door.
The instant the door opened, TJ was in motion, launching himself into a perfect flying kick. He plowed into the first pirate long before the other man could bring his stunner to bear. Soon the two were embroiled in a heated hand-to-hand battle.
Meanwhile, Daystar was more than holding her own. Four years of police training, plus twelve years on the force made her a formidable opponent- especially when she fought dirty.
Dropping his opponent, TJ turned to see Daystar casually slam her adversary into the nearest wall, allowing him to slump to the floor. "Come on," she grinned. "Let's see if we can't find the teleportation bay. Then we can both go home."
After a few minutes, they did find the teleportation bay. They also found six armed pirates guarding it. Diving behind a console, Daystar pulled out the blaster she had 'borrowed' from one of their unconscious guards. "Can you work one of these?" she asked.
"The blaster, yes," TJ replied. "The teleporter, no!"
"Then take this! I'll set up a jump to the _Starfire._ We're only gonna get one shot at this, so let’s make it good!" While TJ covered her, Daystar began typing coordinates into the teleporter, ducking occasionally as a stray shot grazed her ponytail.
"Hurry it up!" TJ yelled. "I'm running out of ammo!"
"Keep your shirt on! I'm going as fast as I can!" Daystar replied. "There!" Behind them, the teleport pad whined to life. "It's ready! Go, go!" The two of them took off, diving onto the pad and disappearing just as a huge explosion ripped through the room. Daystar had left her family a little present.
The two of them rematerialized in a heap on the bridge of the _Starfire._ "Ooof- get off me!" Daystar groaned, pushing TJ to the floor. "I hate fast teleport jumps."
"TJ!" The Blue Astro Ranger looked up just in time to be hugged tightly by Cassie. "You're all right! We were so worried about you!" Pulling back, she blinked. "Who's your friend?"
TJ grinned. "It's a long story, guys."
It was late, and getting close to bedtime for a good half of the Power Chamber's occupants. After the events of the day, though, no one was particularly eager for sleep, considering the likelihood of nightmares. Currently, all eyes were focused on Dr. Egon Spengler.
"Considering that the Shadowborg is a step up in terms of ruthlessness from anyone any of you have faced before, I think that it would be best if as many of you as possible spent the night here. This place is built like a fortress, and is more than adequately equipped with sleeping quarters and other such necessary facilities. The four of us certainly won't be going back to New York, but I don't know how each of you will be affected by this idea."
Ryan shrugged. "Kaitlin and I each live alone, and nobody's going to be looking for Katie. As for JB- why don't you call your parents and say you're spending the night at my place. We've certainly done it before."
JB nodded. "Yeah, I think they'll buy that. Heck, we've spent weeks living like that, so even if it runs long, they'll understand. What about working at the dojo?"
"I'll just call Tao and ask for a leave of absence. He'll understand- he always does. And it's our slow period anyway. He can handle the classes by himself for a while."
Kaitlin nodded. "Yeah, I can probably get the same deal from Woody at the paper, especially if I tell him I'm on the heels of a big story. And what could be bigger than Shadowborg?"
Art shrugged. "I was going to stay up late and see what I couldn't come up with in the way of extra gear for everybody. Might as well do it here."
Drew nodded. "That's a good idea, Art."
Fred shrugged. "For tonight, we can just say we're sleeping over at Frank's. Your dad will cover for us, right, Franklin?"
"He always has. But that won't work for tomorrow, or the next day. What will we do then?"
Rosa chuckled. "Camping trip. All of our parents know Lita, and the shelter people think pretty highly of her, too. If Detective Park hints that she's taking us on a week-long camping trip to get us out of the city..."
"Very devious," Winston congratulated her. "Think they'll buy it?"
Lita nodded. "They should. I wonder- do you suppose we could do something similar for your parents?" she asked the Beetleborgs.
Roland chewed his lip. "My mom and dad are away, and won't be back for a while. You'd have to get it past Nano, my grandmother. She's pretty sharp."
"Well, how about I go too?" Peter asked. "I am fairly well-known, so she'd be a little more likely to trust me than a woman she's never seen before, and between the two of us, we can fast-talk almost anyone."
Drew nodded. "Use the 'getting out of the city' hint, at least when you talk to my mom. If it's for Jo's and my safety, she'll jump at it."
"Just your mom?" Peter asked casually. Drew nodded.
"My dad died a long time ago. It's just the three of us now."
Ray nodded. "Okay, we can set that in motion in the morning. For tonight, everybody's staying here except the Beetleborgs?" Taking off his communicator, he gave it to Drew, while Egon passed Roland the one he was wearing. "These will let us contact you in the morning," the occultist continued. "We can teleport you back here then."
Drew sighed. "I have the feeling it's going to be a long night."
Nukus looked up as the Shadowborg reformed in the dark shadows at one end of the crypt. "Where have you been?" the Crustacean leader asked curiously. "You retreated from your defeat in Angel Grove hours ago."
"I had some repairs to take care of, and then I did some research. With so many heroes in the game, I had to get a bit more knowledge." He chuckled coldly.
"Things are going to get interesting."
"I'd say they already have. You managed to stand up to thirteen heroes today. That's not bad, even if you did have to retreat."
"Next time, things will be- a little different."
"I have another assignment for you, if you're interested."
Curiosity tinged Shadowborg's dead voice. "Oh?"
"The Beetleborgs have a sort of- second line of defense, currently protecting Hillhurst. They're known as the Astral Borgs. I want you to destroy them, utterly. There will be no more reinforcements for our young heroes."
Shadowborg leaned closer. "Tell me all about them."
Four pairs of eyes surveyed the Delta Megaship's landing pad from the edge of the spaceport. Chris was humming the theme song to "Mission: Impossible" under his breath, although only Carlos got the joke.
"So, do we have a plan, or do we just go in there and break some heads?" Carlos asked quietly.
"Carlos, you're with me. We're going to hotwire our way into the ship, while Kylora and Chris distract our lizard friends. Think you two can do that?"
Kylora chuckled. "Not a problem. Come, Chris. I have an idea."
"I've waited my whole life to hear a beautiful woman say that," Chris chuckled, following her off. Carlos and Andros began sneaking closer to the ship, waiting for the distraction.
"Four of them," Chris counted. "I seriously hope this plan of yours is a good one."
"Trust me," she grinned. "Follow me." The two of them began walking across the concrete of the landing pad, Kylora swaying and hanging all over Chris as if she were drunk. Quickly catching on, the Silver Astro Ranger made his steps a little more hesitant, and leaned a little more on her. Without looking up, he could feel the lizards closing in, predatory habits getting the best of them. A few yards closer, and-
"Surprise!" Before the lizards could react, their would-be prey had turned the tables on them. An uppercut from Chris and a powerful kick from Kylora simultaneously put two lizards flat on their backs. The other two, given more time to react, were better able to hold their own in a fight. The battle was a furious blur of punches, kicks, and tail swipes. Finally, a triumphant shout from Carlos indicated that the door locks had been defeated. The four lizards temporarily incapacitated, Chris and Kylora took off running for the ship, as their opponents groggily rose off the ground behind them. With a dive, the two of them made it through the bay doors just as they rose. Running up the nearest corridor, they soon found themselves on the bridge.
"Fasten your seatbelts and return all tray tables to their upright position," Carlos grinned, waving at a couple of chairs. "It's going to be a bumpy ride!"
No sooner had Chris and Kylora strapped in than the ship rocketed up
through the atmosphere, blasting through the defense net and leaving the
planet Onyx behind. The bridge was consumed by a sudden relieved silence.
Then Chris grinned. "Can we do that again?"
The monsters of Hillhurst keep odd schedules. Unlike most of their kind, they are perfectly comfortable being awake in the day, at least within the confines of the house. In fact, they have no set pattern of activities whatsoever- except perhaps the daily half-hearted attempt to eat the Beetleborgs. They sleep and wake whenever they feel like it. This explains why, at 11:45 PM, Count Fangula, the house vampire, was embroiled in a cutthroat game of checkers with the gruff mummy, Mums. Wolfgang, the werewolf, was curled up on the rug in a light doze, while Frankenbeans amused himself with a children's picture book. Little Ghoul, the last of the group, was nowhere to be seen, which was just the way the rest of the monsters liked it.
"Sure is quiet without Flabber here," Fangula remarked, not looking up from the board.
Mums nodded. "Yeah, or those kids. I'm actually sorry they didn't show up today- I didn't have any lunch."
Fangula made a face. "If this keeps up, we're going to have to- ugh- raid Flabber's pantry."
"It wouldn't be the first time." Suddenly Wolfgang sat bolt upright and howled. The monsters quickly covered their ears.
"Ow!" Frankenbeans whined. "Ears- hurt!"
"What is his problem?" Mums asked the vampire. Fangula was quite probably the only person who could understand Werewolf.
"And tell him to shut up!" a girlish voice screeched. Wolfgang's howl had drawn Little Ghoul out of her basement, an unusual feat in and of itself.
"He says he smells something- evil," Fangula translated, frowning. "Evil, and familiar."
"Oh, like he's never smelled anything evil around here!" Mums replied sarcastically. "We're MONSTERS! Plus we've had Magnavores and Crustaceans trooping in and out of this place for two years!"
Wolfie howled again, nodding frantically. Fangula paled considerably, something Mums would have sworn was impossible. "He says- he says he recognizes it now. It's- Shadowborg."
Mums gulped. "Oh brother."
"Would someone like to fill me in on what's going ON AROUND HERE?" Little Ghoul asked, switching from sweet to shriek in mid-sentence."
"Shadowborg is an evil Beetleborg, created before you moved in with us. He quite nearly destroyed everything," Fangula explained. "Nukus must have sent him to attack the house! He's certainly tried that tactic before."
"And we don't have any Beetleborgs to protect us this time!" cried Mums.
Little Ghoul cocked her head. "Hold that thought- I'll be right back." Turning, she dashed down the stairs.
When she came back up, she found the other four peering through the boarded-up front window. "Do you see him?" Mums asked.
"There!" Frankenbeans pointed to where moonlight glinted off the silver portions of the Shadowborg's armor as he strode towards the house.
"Good thing I know where Flabber keeps these in case of emergency," Little Ghoul smirked. The other monsters turned to see her holding the four Astral Coins in her hand. "Come on, we don't have all century!" she grumped. Quickly, they hurried over. Fangula took the Lightning Borg coin, Mums took the Fire Borg coin, and Wolfie took the Lady Borg coin, leaving Little Ghoul to call on Dragon Borg. Then the four of them flipped the coins in the air, and the Astral Borgs materialized.
"What seems to be the problem?" Dragon Borg asked, looking around him.
"There's an evil Beetleborg getting ready to attack Hillhurst," Mums explained. Dragon Borg looked out the window.
"Ah, yes, I see," he replied. "But why summon all four of us?"
"Because he's really, really _tough,_" Fangula explained. "Shadowborg's the only one of Vexor OR Nukus' goons that ever came close to defeating the Beetleborgs."
"Trust us, you're going to need all four of you to take him on," Mums added.
"Then let's go," Fire Borg suggested. "The longer we wait, the more likely he is to attack."
The four Astral Borgs ran out the door, arraying themselves in front of the steps. In the sky, a full moon shone brightly, illuminating the scene as Shadowborg and the Astral Borgs faced off.
"We will allow you to go no further, Shadowborg," declared Dragon Borg. "If you turn around now, you will not be harmed."
Shadowborg simply laughed. "I haven't come all this way just to back off from you, Astral Borgs," he informed them.
"Why are you here?" Lightning Borg asked warily.
"I have come to destroy you." Faster than thought, Shadowborg
drew his laser and fired, the powerful blast knocking Lightning Borg off
his feet. Spreading out, the other three Astral Borgs began to surround
their adversary. Moonlight flashed off metal, and the slaughter began.
Between the valor of the _Starfire's_ pilots and the large explosion in the computer room of the _Demon,_ things were going well for the Rangers and the Starrunners. The small fighters were being mopped up, the Dianth boarding party had been unceremoniously transported back to their ship, (helped along by the occasional kick in the pants from Cassie,) and it was obvious the semi-crippled _Demon_ was preparing to move out. The mood on the bridge of the _Starfire_ was cautiously optimistic.
"Fleetleader, sir!" a young radar operator suddenly yelped, pushing his glasses back up his nose. J'neth was beside him in a flash, TJ, Daystar, and Ashley close behind.
"What is it, Presto?" J'neth asked.
"I don't know- but it's BIG," the boy replied. "It's coming from the direction of Onyx."
"Could it be the others?" Ashley asked excitedly.
"I dunno, but it's way too big even for a Gunstar," Presto informed her.
"Lana, hail that ship," instructed J'neth.
"Yes sir," the brunette comm officer responded. "Attention unknown vessel, this is the ship _Starfire._ Identify yourself and your mission immediately. I repeat, this is the ship _Starfire._ Identify yourself and your mission immediately."
For a moment, there was only silence on the bridge. Then a very familiar voice came back. "Keep your shirt on. I have to figure out how these things work, first!"
"Chris!" Ashley cried. "Are you all right?"
"Nothing's bleeding, burned, or broken. Let's leave it at that, okay?"
Carlos suddenly broke in with a chuckle. "He's got a black eye from where a lizard punched him, that's all."
"Would you give me that?" There was a moment of garbled sound, as if Andros was snatching the transmitter from his friends. "This is the Delta Megaship, formerly the property of the KO-35 Space Navy- with a few stops along the way. Permission to dock?"
J'neth grinned. "Permission granted. I guess all that galactic gossip is true. Earth Rangers really CAN work miracles." He turned to the Rangers on the bridge. "Come on, let's go down to the hold and meet them. Lana, tell the rest of the team the good news, all right?"
"Will do, sir," she chuckled.
_...Pain... fear...moonlight on metal..._ Drew sat up suddenly, gasping for breath. The nightmare that had chased him from sleep refused to follow, and all he could remember were bits and pieces. Looking around his darkened bedroom, Drew was suddenly struck with just how many shadows even a tiny nightlight cast. Each one could be a doorway for the Shadowborg. “Great,” he muttered to himself. “I’m fourteen years old, and I’m going to wind up sleeping with the light on.”
“Drew?” a small voice asked from the doorway. Turning, Drew saw his sister standing there, looking smaller than usual in her t-shirt and shorts.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, jumping out of the bed and going over to her. “Couldn’t you sleep?”
“I had this awful dream,” she replied. “I don’t remember what it was, but- I know Shadowborg was in it.”
Suddenly the phone beside Drew’s bed rang, and he dived for it before the ringer could awaken his mother. “Hello?” he asked, having a good idea who it was.
“This is Roland,” the voice confirmed. “I just had this awful nightmare, and there’s no WAY I’m going back to sleep. The funny thing is- I can’t remember anything about the dream.” Drew frowned. He wasn’t surprised that the three of them were having nightmares after the events of the day, but all at the same time? And Roland almost always remembered the dreams he had. It was rare that he couldn’t remember.
“I think we need to get out to Hillhurst,” Drew decided. “This is too much of a coincidence for me. Borg and meet us out there as fast as possible.”
“Will do,” Roland replied. Drew hung up the phone and turned to his sister.
“Better get dressed,” he said quietly. “He stole our powers once, and
I don’t want to be caught in my pajamas if he does it again.” She nodded
and headed back to her room. Pulling a pair of jeans out of a drawer, Drew
changed quickly, a cold finger of dread making its way down his spine.
Whatever was going on here, he didn’t like it already.
Above Hillhurst, the full moon continued to shine peacefully down. The scenes it shone on, however, were not nearly so peaceful. Fire Borg and Lightning Borg lay unmoving on the ground, barely recognizable due to a large number of cuts and laser blasts. Their circuits were still and cold, no more sparks arcing along them. Over by the steps, Dragon Borg knelt, cradling Lady Borg, the last of his companions in his arms.
“You’ll be all right,” he told her, his voice choking slightly. “I promise, we’ll have you as good as new in no time.”
She shook her head slightly. “No,” she replied, the hint of a sad smile in her voice. “I am- too badly damaged. Before I go, I must tell you- it was an honor to know you and to fight by your side. The same holds for the Beetleborgs. Tell them- please-” Her voice was growing weaker as she fought to keep aware.
“I shall,” Dragon Borg vowed. “And the same is true for me to you.”
Lady Borg sighed a little, and then her body went limp as the light behind her eyes died out.
“No,” whispered Dragon Borg, bowing his head. “Oh, please, no.”
In the middle of the destruction, Shadowborg stood, undamaged by any of the attacks that had been aimed his way. “How touching,” he laughed. “If I had a heart, it would be breaking by now.”
“If you had a heart,” Dragon Borg snarled, rising slowly to his feet, “I would rip it from your chest myself.”
“Such heroic sentiment,” chuckled Shadowborg. “Cheer up; you’ll be joining her soon enough.” Raising the Shadow Laser, he pointed it at his target. Too badly damaged to try and get out of the way, Dragon Borg simply raised his chin and waited for the final blow.
“NO!” A voice cried, simultaneous with the laser blast. Chromium Gold was at Dragon Borg’s side, even as the other fell to the ground, his chest plate smoking. In front of them, Platinum Purple and Titanium Silver formed a barrier between the fallen Astral Borg and his attacker.
“I’d love to stay and chat, kiddies,” Shadowborg informed them cheerfully, “but I have other business to attend to. Another time.” The shadows at his feet seemed to swallow him, and then he was gone.
As the adrenaline of the confrontation cleared from their systems, Platinum Purple and Titanium Silver truly saw the battlefield for the first time. Titanium Silver froze, staring motionlessly at the scattered parts which had once been three of Earth’s bravest defenders. Platinum Purple, on the other hand, quickly backblasted, turned, and quietly threw up.
Kneeling at Dragon Borg’s side, Chromium Gold was peripherally aware of his sister’s violent illness, and of Titanium Silver gently supporting her as she was sick. But all of his attention was focused on the far-too-still body in his arms, and the realization that he had failed. If they’d been a little quicker, if he’d thought to bring the Astral Sword and coins to the Power Chamber, if he’d made any one of a thousand decisions, this might not have happened. But it had, and it was all his fault.
Suddenly a vague thrumming beneath his hands caused Chromium Gold to start. “Roland! Jo! I think he’s still alive!”
Titanium Silver was at his side instantly. “You might be right, Drew,” he agreed. “This moonlight makes it hard to tell, but it looks as if Shadow Borg’s blast might have just missed the power generator. Probably his aim was thrown off when you yelled.”
“Let’s get him back to the Power Chamber,” Jo suggested. Her face was pale, but her voice was steady. “Maybe Dr. Spengler and Dr. Stantz can help him.”
“It’s gotta be worth a try,” Chromium Gold agreed. “Hit the communicator
and bring us in.” In a strange flash of light, the four Borgs disappeared,
leaving only wreckage behind.
"Carlos!" The Black Astro Ranger had barely gotten one foot inside the hold when Ashley pounced on him, wrapping him in a tight embrace. Then she pulled back, glaring at him. "Don't you ever scare me like that again, Carlos Vargas!"
He grinned. "You've got a deal," he told her fervently. Looking up, he saw Daystar standing behind TJ and grinning. "Who's she?" The uniform was definitely not Starrunner issue.
"Daystar Dianthan, IGPF," she introduced herself. The mention of the police brought a squeak from Kylora, who suddenly attempted to hide behind Andros. Daystar raised an eyebrow. "Did I say something wrong?"
"She's from Onyx," Andros explained. "But she did help us get away."
Cocking her head, Daystar moved around Andros, gently turning Kylora to face her. "Honey, I'm not going to arrest you just because you came from Onyx." Taking in Kylora's wardrobe, especially her bare feet, her face hardened. "What- exactly were you doing before you threw in your lot with these guys?"
"I- worked in a tavern," Kylora admitted, not looking up from the ground.
Daystar shook her head. "What happened to your parents?"
"They were traders. Our ship was attacked- I wasn't very old."
Daystar cursed softly. "That part of your life is over now," she said quietly. "You don't ever have to go back there again."
"I don't?" The hope in Kylora's voice was almost heartbreaking.
"No," J'neth replied, stepping in. "You can stay here, with us, if you wish. The Starrunners are always ready to welcome a new face."
Kylora smiled, something which lit up her entire face. "I'd like that," she said shyly. "A lot."
As J'neth led Kylora off to show her around, TJ turned to Daystar. Cold anger was rolling off the woman in waves, and her blue eyes seemed to be pure ice. "I really hate my relatives," she snarled.
"Did- I miss something here?" Chris asked, looking from one person to another.
"Daystar is rather reluctantly related to Divatox and the rest of the Dianth Clan," TJ explained.
"And out of all the despicable, underhanded space scum in the universe, only the Dianth Clan has a stranglehold on the galactic slave trade," Daystar continued.
Carlos shook his head. "I guess people don't change that much wherever
you go, huh?"
"How's the repairs coming, Ray?" Peter asked quietly.
Ray Stantz looked up from the delicate circuitry he was repairing. "He's a lucky- guy," the occultist replied grimly. "Half an inch to the left, and he'd be missing a power generator. Drew's interference came just in time."
Peter sighed, leaning against a console wearily. "Try convincing him of that," he sighed. The three Beetleborgs had returned home, headed once again for their beds. He doubted, however, that any of them would get to sleep for a long time.
"No thanks," Ray chuckled. "You're the psychologist around here."
"And you're the tech. How are you and Egon doing? Is he going to make it?"
Stantz sighed. "I wish I knew, Peter. This design- it's not like anything I've ever seen before. It's almost like a- a cybernetic nervous system! And Art Fortunes isn't a lot of help, either. He may of designed these guys, but he wasn't really thinking about the nuts and bolts when he did it. It's like trying to thread a needle in the dark."
"Just keep at it," Peter grinned tiredly. "If anybody can pull this off, it's Dr. Spengler and Super Stantz." The dark-haired Ghostbuster cocked his head. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"No!" Ray protested.
"I don't mean Shadowborg ripping people to pieces, I mean the whole thing. Beetleborgs, Power Rangers, new and exciting technologies, and being a part of the big good vs. evil thing."
The younger man sighed. "I guess so," he admitted. "It's just- so exciting! It feels like I'm a part of something important, something special."
"I'm not trying to make it sound bad, Tex," Venman replied easily. "It's a perfectly normal reaction. Ask any one of these kids, or the Troopers- heck, ask Art when he wakes up. They'll all tell you they feel the same. I'd be more worried if you _weren't_ enjoying it. That's just not like you, Ray. I'M even enjoying this- although if you tell anyone, I'll deny it."
Ray grinned. "I don't have to tell anyone. I think Dr. Kino's already figured it out for herself."
"She's a sharp lady," Peter agreed. "Too bad I don't date inside my profession."
Ray just shook his head and returned to his repairs.
“Where are we going?” Andros asked. The Red Astro Ranger had barely finished being welcomed back by the rest of the Rangers when J’neth had taken him aside and told him there was something he should see. The Starrunner seemed amused rather than worried, with Andros took as a good sign. Now, though, as they made their way through the ship, Andros was beginning to get a little confused.
“Holding bay B,” J’neth chuckled. “I have a surprise for you, sort of a thanks for all the help your Rangers have given us during the Dianth attack.”
“If it wasn’t for us, there wouldn’t have been a Dianth attack,” Andros reminded the other man.
“We were coming through this area anyway,” replied J’neth, dismissing that point. “And the Dianth never miss a chance to attack us. It’s not a great relationship. If it hadn’t been for your Rangers, we might have been seriously overwhelmed.” As they talked, they finally came to a large set of sliding doors. Punching in a code, J’neth grinned at Andros as the doors slid open, revealing the most beautiful ship the Kerovan Ranger had ever seen.
“THAT’S your thank you?” Andros gasped. Slightly smaller than the Astro Megaship, the silver craft was approximately half the length of a full Megazord. Sleek and streamlined, she was obviously designed for speed and maneuverability.
“She’s all ready to go, Fleetleader,” a voice called. Andros looked in the direction of the speaker and saw what resembled nothing so much as a four-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex. Of course, most Tyrannosaurs didn’t wear violet coveralls or hold wrenches in their hands. Andros quickly identified the newcomer as a Chugach, a saurian species who were the best mechanics in the known galaxy.
“Andros, this is Bugsy, the chief of my mechanic’s crew,” J’neth introduced him.
Andros raised an eyebrow. “‘Bugsy?’” Chugach names were unpronounceable by any human throat, and so members of that race usually picked nicknames if they left their planet. This one was a little unusual.
Bugsy shrugged. “The ship picks up Earth satellite feeds. You oughta meet my brothers.” The Chugach turned back towards the ship. “Hey, guys! Come out and meet the new owner of the bird we’ve been working on.”
There was a scrambling, and four more Chugach, with slightly different colorations, came out into the main parts of the bay. “These are my brothers. Bubba, Bruno, Buck, and Benny.”
“They have a thing for the letter B,” J’neth explained needlessly.
Buck, in the yellow coveralls, cocked his head. “Nice to meet you,” he greeted Andros. To complete the slightly ridiculous image, he was speaking with a decided Western accent. “We’ve given the thing a complete overhaul. Your dynotherms oughta hit approximately two hundred, she’s got laser reticulars, and-”
Bruno cleared his throat. “You wanna run that by us in plain Eltaren, Buck?”
“Oh- she’s fast, fairly well-armed, but not a gunship. This lady is based on the hit and run strategy.”
“And that kind of work’s not cheap,” Benny added. Bugsy rolled his eyes.
“But you are,” he responded. “Quit hitting the man up for a tip and get back to work.”
Andros shook his head. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Thank you is always good,” Bubba contributed, picking up a wrench. Andros chuckled.
“Thank you. Thank you all.”
“Last stop,” Lita Kino remarked. That morning, she had made her rounds, explaining to the guardians of each of the Turbo Ranger the concept of the camping trip. With Shadowborg on the rampage, the adults were only too glad to get their children out of harm’s way.
Then, picking up Peter, she had driven to Charterville to tackle the parents of the Beetleborgs. Nano Williams had given the two of them the third degree, but Peter’s charm was effective even on black-belt grandmothers. Constructing a careful edifice of half-truths, Peter convinced Nano that the Ghostbusters were involved in the effort against Shadowborg, and that Lita, a “trusted colleague” would be taking the children out of the city for their own protection.
“I feel like a heel,” Peter grimaced. “We’re telling these parents that their children will be far away from the action, when they’re really going to be charging into the thick of it.”
“Would you rather tell them the truth, and give them all heart attacks?” Lita asked, smiling.
“You have a point, Dr. Kino.”
“Come on, let’s go,” Drew said impatiently. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can go back to the Power Chamber and check on Dragon Borg.”
Lita and Peter exchanged glances, then the four of them headed up to the door. Taking a deep breath, Lita rang the bell.
After a few seconds, the door was answered by a pretty woman with blond hair and the same piercing blue eyes as Drew and Jo. Seeing her children standing on the doorstep with two adults, Joyce McCormick raised an eyebrow. “Is there some sort of problem?” she asked cautiously.
“Not really, Mrs. McCormick,” replied Lita. “We just have a proposal to discuss with you.”
“It’s cool, Mom,” Jo replied. Joyce looked at her daughter.
“Well- won’t you come in?” The entire group moved into the living room. To Lita’s amusement, Drew sat down in one of the chairs, while Jo sank cross-legged onto the ground by his feet. Lita and Peter sat side by side on the beige couch, while Joyce took one of the other chairs.
“Mrs. McCormick, my name is Lita Kino, and this is Dr. Peter Venkman. I’m a psychiatrist who has worked closely with Stone and Crystal County child services.”
“And I catch ghosts for a living,” Peter put in.
Joyce nodded. “Yes, Dr. Venkman, I’ve seen you on the news a few times. However, I’m fairly sure there are no ghosts in this house.”
Lita smiled. “Actually, Dr. Venkman is a friend of mine, along as a character reference of sorts. I’ve been asked by the Angel Grove child services to lead a camping retreat for the next week, in part to get children out of the battle zone. Since Shadowborg originated from Charterville, there is some concern that the fighting may break out here as well, and I have been asked to take some Charterville children on the trip as well.”
“Can we go, Mom?” Drew asked. “It’s supposed to be really cool. Jo and I signed up for it at the community center, but we need your permission. We’ve already met some of the other kids.”
“Roland’s going,” Jo added. She knew that if anything would convince her mother, that would.
Joyce thought about that for a minute. “Well- if Nano said it was all right, I suppose it’s okay.”
“Great!” Drew cried, getting to his feet and kissing his mother on the cheek. “Come on, Jo, let’s go get our stuff.” The two children thundered up the stairs, leaving the adults to make small talk.
“So, the children will be gone for a week?” Joyce asked. “I hope that’s all it takes to get this resolved. I’ve grown accustomed to all the Beetleborg-related ruckus going on in this town, but Shadowborg is something else again. He’s perhaps the only one that really scares me, even though I’ve never seen him face-to-face.”
“He scares me too,” Lita replied truthfully.
A few more minutes of light conversation, and Drew and Jo were back, full backpacks on their backs and sleeping bags tucked under their arms. Peter grinned. “Take your stuff out to the car, guys, and we’ll head out, all right?”
“Right,” Drew agreed. Both of them knew that the kids would simply teleport themselves and their gear to the Power Chamber when they had the chance.
The children thundered out the door, and Lita and Peter rose to their feet.
“It was nice meeting you, Mrs. McCormick,” Lita informed her, extending a hand.
“Same here, Dr. Kino, Dr. Venkman,” Joyce replied, taking it. “I’ll see you in a week.”
“I wouldn’t lay any bets on that,” a cold voice said. The three adults turned to see Shadowborg standing in a shaded corner of the room.
“Oh, shit!” Peter blurted, gently moving Joyce behind him. “Lita, get Mrs. McCormick out of here. I’ll slow this guy down.”
“I think not,” Shadowborg chuckled, drawing out his laser. Peter didn’t think- his instincts knew quite well what to do. In a shimmer of green light, he was clad in his Morphin Warrior uniform, just as Shadow’s laser struck him in the chest. He flew backward into a wall. Lita and Joyce, who had ducked behind the couch, winced in sympathy.
“Out the door!” Lita hissed. “Now!” The two women made a break for it, but Shadowborg was too quick for them.
“Now, now, ladies, the fun’s just starting.” A casual cuff sent Lita flying across the room, where she struck a bookcase and slumped to the floor, still. Peter growled, levering himself to his feet. His green eyes almost seemed to glow with a light of their own. The Ghostbuster was still shaky, however, and another shot from the Shadow Laser sent him to his knees. Then Shadowborg turned to the last person in the room. Joyce McCormick was backed up against a wall, trying desperately not to panic. Reaching out, Shadowborg grabbed her wrist, pulling her closer.
“Mrs. McCormick,” he chuckled. “So nice to make your acquaintance.”
Then the two of them sank into the shadows and were gone.
“This is going to be really weird,” Rocky remarked. Adam nodded.
“Tell me about it. This is probably the most we’ve ever been split up.”
Rocky shifted, looking at his best friend. “So, what do you think Phaedos is like?”
“Well,” Adam replied, “Billy’s memories say that there’s a lot of rocky land, and also a lot of jungle. I think we’re going to have our hiking cut out for us.”
“At least we’ve got the girls along,” the Blue Zeo Ranger grinned. Not knowing how long the separation would be for, Andros had constructed the teams so as to place boyfriends and girlfriends together. His assigning Cassie to his own team had produced a few grins from the rest of the Rangers, but she seemed to think nothing of it.
Billy was leading Adam, Carlos, Ashley, Christina, and Tanya to Phaedos, the most mysterious of the four planets, in the Delta Megaship. All they had to guide them were Billy’s false memories of a trip there, a trip taken by his other self in an alternate universe. However, the six of them were quite skilled at working together, and Billy seemed confident in his team.
Meanwhile, tackling Danata, the home planet of the Zarakin race, were Jamie, Jason, TJ, Chris, Rocky, and Katarina, in the newly acquired Mega Winger. Andros had been careful to select the less- uptight members of the team for the socially uninhibited Zarakin. Jamie, of course, was close kin to the current king, although it was not perhaps a relationship she would want to advertise. But her usual mode of behavior was so close to the Zarakin norm that Andros figured she could pass unnoticed among the people with no problem at all.
The Astro Megazord Shuttle, the smallest of the four conveyances, would be headed to Edenoi, which was the closest of the planets. Tommy would be leading that expedition, as one of the few Rangers present who had actually been there before. Lillian, Parker, and Zack were accompanying him, as well as Daystar, who had flatly refused to leave her newfound reporter friend behind. Since Daystar was quite familiar with Edenite Court behavior and manners, the Rangers had decided that having her along would be a good idea.
Lastly, Andros would be piloting the Astro Megaship to Eltare to gain the support of the Royal Family. Besides Cassie, he would also be taking Kim, Skull, Trini, and Kat, all calm, rational personalities similar to those of the planet Eltare. Plus, since the planet held the White principle of the Grid in high esteem, Skull might well be able to buy some respect that Andros could not.
All throughout the main holding bay of the _Starfire,_ farewells were being said. Everyone realized that this very well might be the last time they saw each other, and the good-byes reflected that. The girls were hugging anything that came into sight, while the male Rangers generally contented themselves with handshakes and forearm clasps.
All the male Rangers except for Jason and Tommy, that is. They had started with the usual handshake and light banter, but neither could really sound unconcerned. Finally, Tommy looked at his oldest friend with deep sincerity.
“I’m only going to say this once, Jase, because I know how dumb it sounds. But- I am going to say it, just in case we don’t make it back. You’ve been my friend for five years, through thick and thin and things I can’t even talk about. You never once let me down or backed away when I needed help. It’s an honor to have known you, man, and- aw heck,” Tommy sighed. “I love you, you know that?”
Jason grinned. “Yeah, I think I did. And I love you too, Tommy. You’ve always been like a brother to me, and you always will.” With that, Jason pulled Tommy closer and gave him a quick, fierce hug, which Tommy returned. Then they pulled apart, Tommy regarding Jason with his trademark half-smile. Jason just shook his head.
Turning to the crowd around them, Tommy cocked an eyebrow. “What are you all looking at?” he asked in mock aggravation. “Let’s get to those ships and get going!”
The four teams of Rangers quickly split up to their separate vessels.
Then, firing their engines, the four ships sped away into the blackness
A flash of green light suddenly filled the Power Chamber. When it faded, Peter Venkman stood in the middle of the floor, dressed in his Morphin Warrior jumpsuit and holding an unconscious Lita Kino in his arms. “I need a little help here!” he called, tension in his voice. Instantly, Ryan and Winston were there, lifting the psychiatrist out of Peter’s arms while Justin and Rosa wheeled over a table. The three men laid Lita gently on the table, as Ray, JB, and Egon left their repairs of Dragon Borg.
“What happened?” Ray asked anxiously.
“She took a header into a bookcase,” Peter replied. Leaning heavily against a console, he flashed again, returning to his normal attire of jeans and a green T-shirt.
Justin quickly pulled out a hand-held medical scanner and turned it on the unconscious woman, while Egon did the same for Peter. Irritably, the dark-haired psychologist waved him away. “I’m fine, Egon. I hit a wall, but I was morphed. I’m okay.”
“She’s going to be all right,” Justin reported, relieved. “One hell of a headache when she wakes up, but she’ll be okay, thanks to the Green Coin.”
“I think this color is more trouble than it’s worth,” Peter grumbled, just as the Beetleborg and the three missing Rangers ran in from the direction of the sleeping quarters.
“We heard the alarm,” Franklin informed the others. “What’s the matter?”
Suddenly Fred caught sight of Lita lying on the med table. “Lita!” he cried, rushing to her side.
“Chill out,” Jeb told him. “The lady took a header, but she’s gonna be okay.”
“What’s going on here?” Drew asked, as Kaitlin and Katie teleported in, their hands full of shopping bags. They had gone to the Charterville Mall that afternoon to pick Katie up a whole new wardrobe. Drew’s features suddenly hardened remembering where Peter and Lita had been. “What happened?” he asked, turning towards the psychologist.
Venkman sighed. This was not going to be easy for any of them, especially not Drew and Jo. “Shadowborg happened,” he replied reluctantly. “Lita and I were on our way out the door when he showed up. I don’t think he had any idea who we were- until I morphed. He blew me into a wall and pitched Lita into the nearest bookcase.”
“What about our mom?” Jo said in a small voice.
Peter ran a hand through his hair, unable to meet her eyes. “He took her with him, Jo. I couldn’t stop him.”
“What?” Drew cried, his skin going dead white. Beside him, Ryan laid a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder. Better than anyone in the room, he knew what Drew was feeling right now.
“We’re getting a transmission,” Egon frowned, as a console beside him began to flash.
“Put it on the main screen,” Fred ordered coldly. “I have a feeling I know who’s calling.”
The main viewscreen lit up, showing the face of the Shadowborg, as Fred had surmised. “Greetings, heroes of Earth,” the evil Beetleborg chuckled. “Ready to surrender yet?”
“Where’s my mother, you bastard?” Drew snarled.
“Watch your language, little boy. You don’t want Mommy to wash your mouth out with soap.” The image changed, showing Joyce McCormick tied to a stalactite. She was dirty and frightened, but seemed unharmed. Then the picture went back to Shadowborg.
“Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I called. There’s some- unfinished business between me and the Chromium Gold Beetleborg. Therefore, I’m issuing him a challenge. Come to the Charterville Cemetery in one hour- alone. If you don’t- your mother will regret it very much.” With that threat, Shadowborg’s transmission winked out, leaving a seething Drew staring at the screen.
“I’ll be there,” he promised quietly. “And YOU’LL regret it very much.”
“Drew,” Jo began, “I’m coming with you.”
The leader of the Beetleborgs shook his head. “You heard what he said, Jo. I have to go alone.”
“Are you nuts?” cried Tasha. “That guy nearly ripped the three of you apart before. He’s at least twice as powerful now! This is suicide!”
“I’m not putting my mother in any more danger,” Drew replied.
“I have an idea,” Professor Hart said suddenly. “I seriously doubt that Shadowborg intends to meet Drew at the specified place. Too much chance of an ambush, should Drew disregard the conditions. More likely, he’ll be teleporting him to a shielded location.”
Franklin grinned. “So we put a wire on him and track him!”
“Then we can teleport in and give him back-up,” Katie finished.
Winston shook his head. “One person, no more. If Shadowborg sees an army, he’ll take Mrs. McCormick out before we can react.”
“I’m going,” Jo said firmly. Flabber cocked his head.
“Jo, are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Flabber, this is my mother. I’m _going._” There was no contradicting that tone.
Fred sighed. “Then I’d guess we’d better get to work on that tracker.
We don’t have a lot of time.”
Chromium Gold looked around Charterville Cemetery nervously. Once, a long time ago, he had sort of liked this place. The peace had reached out to him every time he’d come to visit his father’s grave. Then the Magnavores had set up their base here, and the atmosphere changed to one of oppression. Now that Nukus was in residence, the evil that could be felt in the area was overwhelming.
“I’m here!” he called, scanning the area warily. “Where are you!”
“Step into the portal, Beetleborg.” Shadowborg’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Suddenly a black portal, seemingly made of solid shadows, irised open in front of Chromium Gold. Nerving himself, the Beetleborg stepped through.
An instant of disorientation, the sensation of freezing cold, and then he was through, in a cavern that could have been located in any of the cave systems that undercut Charterville. Standing in front of him was Shadowborg, and farther back in the cave, Joyce McCormick was chained to a stalagmite.
“I’m here,” Chromium Gold repeated quietly. “Now let my mother go!”
“Backblast,” was Shadowborg’s only response.
Chromium Gold frowned. “What?”
“Backblast. I want her to see you without the armor.”
“You fight dirty,” Chromium Gold growled, but there was a note of defeat in his voice. “Backblast!” In a flash of light, Drew McCormick stood in the cave, glaring up at his adversary.
“Drew?” Joyce gasped. The boy looked up.
“I’ll explain everything later, Mom,” he promised. Then, under his breath, “If there is a later.”
Standing straighter, he glared at the evil Beetleborg in front of him. “What now, Shadowborg? Is it easier for you to kill a fourteen-year-old kid than a full-fledged Beetleborg?” Drew didn’t know whether the creature before him had any pride to wound or not, but he had to keep Shadowborg’s attention on him. He had just spotted the purple-and-red sparkles which signified that Platinum Purple had teleported into the cavern, behind Shadowborg.
“You misunderstand me, Drew. It was never my intention to kill you- at least, not this time around. I learn from my mistakes, you see.”
“And what did you learn?” inquired Drew, shifting. He didn’t like where this was heading at all.
“That you would make me a far better ally than an enemy,” Shadowborg replied, taking a step towards the boy.
Biting her lip, Platinum Purple barely stopped herself from crying out. Slowly she moved behind the stalagmite holding her mother prisoner. “Shh,” she cautioned. “Just hold on, Mom. I’m going to get you out of here.” Since Shadowborg had forced Drew to backblast, she saw no reason to keep her identity a secret.
Meanwhile, Drew was regarding Shadowborg in total shock. “Nukus must have fried your brains when he brought you back,” Drew laughed. “Me, join you? Not in a million years!”
“No? Think about it. At last you’d be free of a responsibility you don’t want. No more looking after a little sister who leaps before she looks. No more bailing out a best friend who constantly gets in over his head. No more having to be the sane, rational one when everything is going crazy.”
Drew shivered. As much as he hated to admit it, some part of him was responding to the things Shadowborg was saying. And the soothing cadence of the creature’s voice was making it hard to think. “You’re wrong,” he replied, without as much conviction as before. “I wouldn’t want things different.”
“And think of the power. No more being treated like a second-class citizen simply because of your age. You would be the one in command, in control.” Seeing Drew’s resistance weakening, Shadowborg moved in for the kill. “And think about Heather.”
Drew jerked. “What do you know about Heather?” he growled.
“I know she never pays you the slightest attention. But I’d bet the Chromium Gold Beetleborg would impress her. You could tell her all about yourself- and get rid of the last obstacle to everything you want. Josh Baldwin.” Drew’s eyes flashed at the mention of that name. Seeing that, Shadowborg chuckled.
“Humans have a saying. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Baldwin is certainly an enemy to both of us. Don’t you think we should be friends?”
“Josh- isn’t my enemy,” Drew protested. His words were growing thick and his eyes were dark.
“No? He stole your friends, muscled his way onto the Beetleborgs, and took the heart of the woman you care for, all without a second thought. He has never done anything but upstage you and make you look bad. He cares nothing for you. As long as he exists, you will always be second-best, second-rate. Join me, and together we will wipe him off the face of this planet.”
In the back of the cave, Platinum Purple was growing desperate. “We don’t have time for stealth,” she growled. “Hold real still.” Grasping the chains, she pulled hard, ripping them apart and setting her mother free. Unfortunately, the noise of the rending metal caught Shadowborg’s attention. Whirling, he spotted them, and seemed shocked for the first time that Platinum Purple could remember.
“Jo!” Drew cried, trying to focus through the dark fog in his mind. “Get Mom out of here!”
“What about you?” she called back, stepping in front of her mother as Shadowborg raised his Shadow Laser.
“I’ll catch up,” he assured her, lying through his teeth. “Go!” In a flash of light, Platinum Purple and Joyce McCormick were gone. Drew, left behind, collapsed to the ground as his vision began to grow dark.
“Very heroic,” Shadowborg sneered, coming to stand over him. “They may have escaped, but that doesn’t matter. I have you.”
Drew had to admit to himself that Shadowborg was right. As the darkness reached up to claim him, he had time for one last thought. _At least Mom and Jo are safe. Nothing else matters anymore._ Then Drew slumped to the ground. The light in his eyes went out, and the cavern was filled with Shadowborg’s mocking laughter.