"Let justice be done, though the heavens fall."- Lord Mansfield, in _Rex vs. Wilkes_
Chelsea whistled, catching her first glimpse of Triforia. Ecliptor's scout was currently in orbit around the planet, attracting little attention among the hundreds of transports circling the green and yellow planet.
"It's beautiful," she remarked. "But- aren't there any oceans?"
Trey grinned. "As many as on Earth. They're just not blue. We have an ocean-dwelling plankton on Triforia that makes the water appear a deep emerald green."
"Are the two of you ready?" Ecliptor asked. "The teleportation is set up."
Trey and Chelsea stepped onto the teleportation pad, ready to be sent to the main teleport station in Aurilia, the capital. Chelsea suddenly cocked an eyebrow at the crystalline being who stood at the controls. "Are you going to be okay spending two days here by yourself?" she asked. Ecliptor chuckled.
"I will be fine," he assured her. "And I doubt I would be very welcome on the planet. Have a good time." Pressing a button on the console, he watched as the two before him dissolved into their teleport streams, one gold, one white.
"Wow," Chelsea breathed, materializing on one of the pads. The Aurilia teleport station had been created to control the arrival of travelers, to keep them from materializing in inconvenient areas and to monitor who came and went. Since it was the first thing a visitor to Triforia saw, it was understandably impressive. High, vaulted ceilings were supported by columns, made of the same strange golden stone as the walls. Gold, Trey had once informed her, was a very common color in Triforian nature, second only to green. It had to do with some mineral found in abundance there, but she couldn't remember the name of it at the moment.
Trey laughed, watching as his fiancee tried to take in everything at once. "Come on, Chelsea," he grinned, taking her hand. "I'll give you a grand tour of Aurilia later. Right now, we've got to get out front and get a cab." She nodded, following him as he led the way through the teleport station. As they passed a ticket desk, she snickered. She could hear the woman on duty explaining that his teleport would be late because parts needed to fix the pad were stuck in transit on Planet O'hari. Shaking her head, she continued after Trey and out into the sunshine of Aurilia.
The streets were filled with people in all manner of conveyances. A triangular symbol that Chelsea guessed meant "taxicab" adorned many of them, from hovercars to ground cars to carriages drawn by- Chelsea blinked. That couldn't really be a Pepto-Bismol pink OSTRICH, could it?
"That's an aoridil," Trey told her quietly, seeing her expression. "They're strong, but they have very little brain. As a matter of fact, that's the car I got. Come on." The two of them made for the carriage, Trey helping Chelsea to climb in. Once settled into the seat, she looked around herself and saw several other aoride in various other pastel shades, from blue to green to lavender.
"Where to, buddy?" the cab driver asked, nudging his aoridil into a trot.
"Royal Palace, please," Trey replied, while Chelsea was absorbed in the architecture around them.
The cab driver shook his head. "Your business, but I wouldn't be headed in there. Somebody's stirred up a real hornet's nest."
"Yeah?" Trey asked curiously. He would have thought Darkonda would have kept the news of his arrest from his family, since no one else seemed to know anything about what was occurring.
"Oh, yeah, it's all over the place. Apparently Prince Trey hasn't been heard from in days, and the queen's getting worried. There's all sorts of rumors that something big's going on."
Trey grinned. "I wouldn't worry about the prince; he can take care of himself."
"Well yeah, but she's his mother. Mothers worry. You know how that is. Why, my mother herself, Triune Lady give her peace, used to raise such a fuss about me." As the cab driver talked, Trey listened with only half an ear. The rest of his attention was taken up with watching Chelsea absorb the sights and sounds of a Triforian city, and realize just how good it was to be home.
Since they were between crises at the moment, the assorted heroes gathered to deal with Shadowborg had decided to take a short break and go hang out in the park. Peter had even managed to drag Egon out of the Power Chamber, Dragon Borg volunteering to watch the monitors and Les. Despite his protests, the blond Ghostbuster had been almost immediately drawn into a game of football with the other Ghostbusters, JB, Dex, Lita, Tasha, Roland, and Jo.
Josh was relaxing under a tree, watching the football game with detached interest when he felt someone plop down next to him. Looking over, he was only mildly surprised to see Drew there. "What's up?" he asked laconically.
Drew shrugged. "I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry for trying to kill you," he replied. "And I wanted to thank you for bringing me back."
"Drew," Josh began. There was something he wanted to say, and this seemed to be as good a time as any. "All those things I said during the fight- I didn't mean them. I was just trying to tick you off so that you'd make a mistake. Those insults I threw at you- they're all bull."
Drew smiled. "I know that, here, at least." He touched his forehead. "I did want to ask you about something else, though."
"Why? I could have killed you without a second thought, Josh. The way I was feeling, I could have gutted you and enjoyed it. Why did you take a risk like that?"
"Because you're my friend, Drew," Josh replied. "Despite all the problems we've had, I know you'd have done it for me. You're the type of leader who'll risk everything for his team, and even for people he doesn't know. You've got more courage than I ever will, and I respect that. I did it because if you were gone, my world would be a lot poorer, even if we do fight all the time. You're my friend, Drew. I'd take any risk to help you."
Drew was silent at that for a long time. "I'm glad," he said at last. "And I'm honored to count you as my friend as well." The two of them said little for a long time, simply sat, watching as the occupants of the park enjoyed the day. Besides the football players, Art could be seen, sitting under a tree and sketching. Not far away were Justin, Fred, Franklin, and Rosa, sparring with each other. Under another tree, Ryan and Katie were looking deep into each other's eyes, talking about something in low tones. Drew winced. "Ouch."
"What?" Josh wanted to know. Drew pointed to yet another tree, where Kaitlin was just turning away from the lovebirds. "Oh."
Drew levered himself to his feet. "Come on, we'd better go talk to her."
Josh did the same, and the two of them crossed the park to where Kaitlin stood. "You all right?" Josh asked. Kaitlin nodded.
"It doesn't hurt quite as much anymore," she explained. "It's just- he seems so happy."
Drew raised an eyebrow. "Don't you want him to be happy?" he probed, sensing there was something behind this.
She sighed, flopping down to sit on the grass and hug her knees. "I do, but- sometimes it seems as if Ryan's only happy right before something awful happens. The last time he found someone he seemed that happy with, she turned out to be one of Grimlord's minions. He'd barely gotten his father back when Tyler Steele had to go to Norway to continue his research. I'm just afraid that he's being set up for another fall. And with Shadowborg out there, it's all too possible."
"You can't know what's going to happen in the future," Josh replied. "All we can do is be here to try and make sure nothing happens."
Kaitlin nodded, but her eyes were clouded with worry. "You're right, Josh, but I can't shake the feeling that there's a storm rolling in."
"I'm sorry, but the Palace is closed to visitors today," the guard informed them politely. Trey and Chelsea exchanged glances, and she barely smothered a smile. He did look quite different in his Earth clothes, with his tattoo covered by make-up. Still, it seemed a little silly that the guards didn't recognize him.
Trey sighed. "Look, does this help? Golden Power Staff!" Extending his hand, Trey called the staff to him in a flash of golden light. The two guards' jaws hit the ground.
"Prince Trey! Forgive us. Your- attire mislead us," one managed. Trey shook his head in amusement.
"It's all right, Tresan. Can we go in to see my mother now? I'm sure she's frantic."
"Of course, my lord. If I may ask- who is your companion?"
"Chelsea Oliver of Earth." Seeing the guardsman's startled expression, Trey chuckled. "It's a very long story, Tresan."
"Follow me, then, my lord. Your mother is in the council room, meeting with the advisors to the court."
Trey grinned. "Oh good. I get to make an entrance." Tresan snorted.
"Truly, you are the least conventional prince Triforia has had in eons," he replied. They made their way through lushly decorated halls. Chelsea would have liked to examine the furniture and wall hangings more closely, but had no real time to. Soon they reached a wooden door, and Tresan stood to one side, smiling slightly.
"I suppose you'll wish to announce yourself?" the guardsman asked, with the attitude of one long used to such antics. Trey laughed.
"Don't I always? Stay about a step behind me, Chelse. I don't think they'll notice you that way, and I'd like you to meet my mother before the advisors pounce on you." At her nod, he took a deep breath, and pushed the doors open.
"Really, your Majesty, we must face facts," a thin-faced man in a black tunic was saying. "If your son were able to respond to our hails, he would have done so by now. I think it's quite obvious-"
"That I'm alive and kicking, Fetrin," Trey interrupted, folding his arms over his chest. Chelsea grinned to herself. Someone was going to get it now.
"Lord Trey!" In unison, five advisors shot to their feet, leaving only the Queen seated. Four faces, including Fetrin's, showed pure shock. The fifth man seemed surprised, but was also grinning like an idiot.
"Nice to see you're not decorating the bottom of an Earth river somewhere," the man greeted Trey. "What happen? Forget to pay your comm bill?"
"I've been a little busy, Zared," Trey shot back. He then raked his other advisors with a sharp glare. "I trust this will show you the dangers in declaring me dead before suitable evidence is found?"
"Uh... yes, my lord," a white-haired man said, bowing. Trey nodded.
"Then leave us, please. I would like to have a discussion with my mother." The advisors bowed quickly and left the room, Zared last.
"We'll talk later," he promised, winking at Trey. Then he scurried out, closing the door behind them. Trey sighed, turning back to his mother, who was still seated.
"What was all that about?"
Lady Trania sighed, placing a hand on her forehead. "There are a number of your advisors who are- concerned about the amount of time you spend on Earth. Technically, Trey, you ARE the King of Triforia."
Trey snorted. "In this case, technicalities aren't worth a pile of feathers." He dropped heavily into a chair, motioning for Chelsea to sit as well. Chelsea did so, studying Trey's mother as she did. Lady Trania was an attractive woman, apparently in her mid- to late-forties. Her hair was reddish, but she had the same sparkling dark eyes as her son. The lines of her face were quite similar as well.
"That may be, Trey, but your advisors worry about you spending so much time in that- 'barbaric backwater,' I believe were Ferin's exact words." Trania smiled, and Chelsea suddenly knew exactly where Trey had learned to play political hardball from. Suddenly she felt the Queen's gaze fall on her. "And who is this young lady, Trey?"
"Mother, this is Chelsea Oliver, from Earth. She's the sister to one of the Power Rangers there, and she's also my fiancee."
Trania raised an eyebrow and looked Chelsea over again, more appraisingly this time.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, ma'am," Chelsea spoke up. "Trey's told me a great deal about his family."
"I hope most of it was flattering," Trania chuckled. "Trey and his sisters- do not always see eye to eye."
"I have three brothers," Chelsea assured her. "I know how to interpret."
Smiling at that, the Queen then turned to her son. "Trey, I am indeed very happy that you have found someone to complete your life, but have you thought this through? You're going to give the nobles heart attacks."
Trey grinned. "Some change will be good for them," he replied teasingly. "Seriously, mother, I have thought about this a great deal. Chelsea has a number of qualities that will make her an excellent Queen, as well as making her the woman I love." Trey flashed a smile at his fiancee in apology for talking around her. "First of all, as the sister to a Power Ranger, she'll cement our ties with THE most powerful fighting force in the galaxy. Second, she is an excellent diplomat, capable of learning languages quickly and NOT provoking a fight, even when tempted. She is a warrior in her own right, and has recently become a full member of the Deshaadra. She's a leader, good at decision-making and dealing with people. I absolutely refuse to marry a noble maid who has been taught since birth that her only function is to bear children and look pretty on my arm."
Chelsea chuckled. "Breathe, Trey. You're going to be the Blue Ranger in a minute."
Grinning, Trey looked at his mother. "Did I also mention that she's not afraid of anybody?"
Trania laughed. "It'll be good for you to have someone to keep you in line," the queen replied. "Welcome to the family, dear." Then she sobered. "What brings you back to Triforia, Trey? It must be very important for you to leave your post on Earth."
"It is," he answered grimly. "I've been arrested." Quickly, he filled his mother in on the events of the past two weeks. "That's why I'm here," he finished. "I have to make arrangements in case I'm found guilty. Darkonda must NOT get his hands on the Gold Ranger Powers."
"What do you propose to do?" Lady Trania asked curiously.
Trey took a deep breath. "I'm naming Trialia as my successor, NOW. If I'm found guilty at the trial, you'll have to claim the powers instantly, before the Council can strip them from me. Trialia's had the training, and she's always wanted to follow in my footsteps. I know she'll make an excellent Gold Ranger if necessary."
"Trey, the holder of the Gold Ranger powers is ALWAYS the child in line for the throne," his mother reminded him. "There hasn't been a female Gold Ranger since the days of Solaria. I'm only the ruling Queen because your father died before you were truly ready to assume the throne."
Trey nodded. "I know, Mother, and it means I'm going to have to kick some- uh, be extremely persuasive to get my advisors to support her." Chelsea snickered at his self-censorship, and he threw her a look. "However, I always knew this might happen, and since I had no little brothers, I've been training Trill to take the post."
Trania sighed. "Well, I have no objections, but you will have to discuss it with your sister. Both of them should be back at the palace tonight for dinner- will the two of you join us?"
Trey nodded. "Yes, Mother, thank you."
In a cold, dark office in Cross World City, a businessman by the name of Karl Ziktor surveyed the city below him. The past two weeks had been peaceful for the people of the city, an occurrence that was almost unheard of. For two years, mutants and robots from the world of virtual reality had been launching attacks on it, attacks always repelled by the VR Troopers. But now the Troopers had turned their attention to Shadowborg, and Grimlord had seemingly taken a vacation. The people of Cross World were unwilling to look a gift horse in the mouth, but privately, some couldn't help but wonder why the virtual warlord would stop his attacks just when the city was most vulnerable.
Karl Ziktor's mouth curved in a thin smile. _He_ knew. Turning away from the window, he caressed the prism that sat on his desk. It was that prism which empowered him, which gave him the power he would need to one day control the world. For Karl Ziktor, wealthy industrialist, was also Grimlord, master of the Virtual World.
And he was a strategist. Why should he waste his resources fighting the VR Troopers, especially when they had so many allies on their side? Let them battle the Shadowborg. Whichever force was victorious, the winner would be exhausted, and easy prey for the fresh, strong Virtual Army. Whichever way the battle went, reality would belong to Grimlord.
As he had watched the battles unfolding on his television screen, however, doubts had begun to assail him. If there was one thing he had learned over the course of his two-year battle with the Troopers, it was that overcoming tremendous odds only made them stronger, as if victory provided them with some fresh surge of energy. And should any of Ryan Steele's companions be the first to die, the battle would be over right then and there. Ziktor had no illusions about that. Ryan Steele would hunt him down and kill him, no matter how badly wounded he was in the process.
No, too many things could go wrong if he played the waiting game. Which was why he had come up with a new plan. Placing his hand on the prism, he took a deep breath. "Forces of Darkness, empower me! Take me back to my Virtual Reality." Light flashed, and suddenly Karl Ziktor, wealthy businessman, was transformed into Grimlord, virtual warlord. Clad in strange metal armor, Grimlord did not appear human. Clawed hands and feet, thick scaly skin, and a tail growing from the small of his back gave him more the appearance of a demonic lizard. His eyes glowed with red energy as he scanned his Dark Fortress, where the transformation had carried him.
"Colonel Icebot!" he growled, sending a beam of energy at one wall. A viewscreen formed, showing a white robot whose face seemed permanently formed into a sly grin.
"All is in readiness, your Lordship!" Grimlord's main scientist and chief suck-up replied. "We have modified the sensors to allow teleportation directly to this Nukus' base of operations."
Doommaster, the leader of Grimlord's troops, bowed. "I am ready to depart whenever you command, Grimlord."
"No, Doommaster, I think to have the proper effect, I shall go myself." In a flash of red light, Grimlord dissolved.
When he reappeared, he found himself in a cavern, deep underground. Ahead of him, he could hear voices, and he moved forward to investigate.
"Perhaps you're not the great warrior you were rumored to be," Horribelle sniffed. "Those heroes have rescued their friend, gained reinforcements, and quite nearly sent you packing. Looks like they're on to you."
Shadowborg barely seemed to move, but Horribelle suddenly found the Shadow Claw buried in the rock wall beside her head. "If someone hadn't allowed the defense force to acquire my creator, perhaps we would still have the advantage," Shadowborg replied quietly. "But it matters little. It is a pity that we cannot use Drew in our fight against these heroes, but he still served a very useful purpose."
"And what is that?" Nukus asked, curious.
"I now know the identities of every member of that defense force, and a good deal about the strengths and weaknesses of each. And superior knowledge is the key to winning this war."
Liking what he was hearing, Grimlord stepped out of the shadows, instantly gaining the attention of all four occupants of the crypt. Quickly, he raised his hands to show he was unarmed. "I'm not here for a fight, Nukus. As a matter of fact, I have a proposal for you."
Nukus cocked his head. "What type of proposal? And just who are you?"
"I am Grimlord, master of virtual reality and eternal enemy to those accursed Troopers, part of that defense force that is giving you so much trouble. I'd like to give you a hand with that, if I may."
"And just why should we trust you?" Vilor challenged.
Grimlord chuckled. "No real reason. But consider this. I have NEVER been able to defeat those tin-plated heroes on my own. Why would I double-cross you and condemn myself to that fate once more?"
Nukus thought about that, then nodded. "What do you propose, Grimlord?"
"An alliance. The two of us will work together to defeat those heroes, no tricks, no back-stabbing, no nothing."
"And then I suppose we'll share the world equally," Horribelle sneered.
Grimlord waved irritably. "Of course not! This would be a temporary alliance, lasting only until the heroes are destroyed. Then we are once again rivals for this Earth. I know better than to propose an alliance based on anything more than self-interest. It is in both of our best interests to cooperate until our enemies are destroyed."
"An alliance, then," Nukus replied. "What do you have that we could need?"
"A little present for your warrior there," Grimlord laughed. With a flash, a katana appeared in his hands, the blade as dark as ebony and gleaming slightly. "This sword will cut through VR armor as if it was butter, and there's a surprise in the blade, as well. I think it'll serve you quite well."
Shadowborg took the blade from Grimlord, swinging it a few times to test its heft. Then, grunting acceptance, he placed it on a nearby table.
"I have one other thing to bring to this alliance- my advice on the Troopers," Grimlord continued. "I know them in ways that only someone who's spent years battling them can. My first bit of advice is- kill Steele first. Of all the Troopers, and perhaps the entire force, Ryan Steele must be the first to die."
"I would have thought you'd want him to be last, considering all the trouble he's caused you," remarked Vilor.
"It's not a question of vengeance, it's a question of survival. If he sees one of his companions die, he will go completely insane. There will most likely be no stopping him. No, Steele must die first."
"Very well," Nukus remarked. Crossing to Grimlord, he stuck out his hand, and the two shook. "This looks like the beginning of a most profitable relationship."
"Well, what do you think?" Chelsea asked, slightly apprehensive. She'd been informed that dinner would be a semi-formal affair, and she doubted any of her traveling clothes would be appropriate. Luckily, Trania had taken charge, selecting an outfit that belonged to Trey's older sister, Trianna.
Trey's jaw dropped. "Wow," he managed finally. The gown wasn't anything formal, but it looked excellent. A simple sleeveless dress of a sparkling dark gold cloth, the full skirt was elegant, but not so bulky as to impair movement. "You look great," he managed finally, extending his arm.
"You too," she replied, taking it. He was wearing a black tunic and matching pants, both trimmed with gold. The two of them headed into the dining room, and saw that they were apparently the last to arrive.
Lady Trania stood at the head of the table, nodding to her son as he arrived. On her left was a girl with the same reddish hair as Trania, but eyes that were a strange golden color. She nodded to Trey as well.
"Chelsea, my sister, Trianna. Trianna, this is Chelsea Oliver," Trey introduced them. Trianna bowed, and Chelsea returned the gesture.
"It is a pleasure to meet the woman my brother has fallen so hard for," Trianna replied, smiling slightly. Chelsea grinned.
"And I'm glad to finally meet the older sister he told me so much about," she responded.
Trey then turned to his mother's right. The first place was empty, being reserved for him, but at the second stood a girl with the same coal-black hair and eyes as Trey. She wrinkled her nose at him.
Trey laughed. "Chelsea, this is my younger sister Trialia. Trialia, this is Chelsea Oliver."
"Call me Trill," the girl replied. "Everyone does." She extended her hand to Chelsea. "I hope I got that right. Trey's been telling me about Earth customs, but I'm not sure I remember everything."
Chelsea grinned. "On Earth, we generally use the right hand to shake, but you've got it down pretty well." Making a face, Trialia quickly extended the other hand, and the two girls shook.
Turning to the last occupant of the room, Trey raised an eyebrow. "Zared? Who invited you to dinner?"
"Trill did," the young man replied, indicating the girl across the table from him. "Seriously, Trey, I want to talk to you before the carnage tomorrow, and this was the best way."
Trey nodded. Quickly seating Chelsea beside his younger sister, he then claimed his chair at his mother's side.
The main course was some sort of roast fowl which looked to Chelsea rather like a turkey. It didn't taste like one, though, and not like a chicken, either. The flavor was in fact more like beef than either.
"It's called whitari," Trey explained. "They're everywhere on the planet, so it's a very common meal."
Once the dinner was underway, Trialia raised an eyebrow at her brother. "Mother informed us that you had something to ask," she probed. "What's the matter?"
Trey sighed. "A rather large problem has come up," he replied. Quickly, he related the events of Zordon's arrest and the subsequent journey he and Chelsea had taken. The other diners were aghast.
"You're a fugitive?" Zared managed finally, a slight grin crossing his face. "Trey, I never knew you had it in you."
Trey grinned back. "You shut up," he replied warmly.
Seeing the look on Chelsea's face, Trialia leaned over and whispered, "Trey and Zared have been friends forever. Zared's probably the only person who can get away with telling Trey when he's full of it."
"This is indeed most distressing news," Trianna broke in, "but I sense that it is not all that preoccupies you."
Trey winced. "You're going to be quite a wizard someday," he allowed. "There's a very strong chance that I might be found guilty. If that happens, the Council will strip me of my powers, and Darkonda will move that they be given to whatever candidate he has control of. If that happens, Triforia will be in grave danger."
"So don't be found guilty," Trialia suggested practically. Chuckling, Trey shook his head.
"I'll try my best, Trill, but frankly, I can't make any guarantees. Which is why you have to be ready to claim the Gold Ranger powers at a moment's notice."
"WHAT?" Trialia shot to her feet. "You want _me_ to be the Gold Ranger? Trey, last I checked, I was nowhere near the line of succession! I wouldn't know the first thing about ruling or Rangering!"
"You'd be surprised, Trill," her brother replied calmly. "Remember how I fought tooth and nail to get you included in all those lessons Father sent me to? At first, I just wanted some company, but as time went on, I realized that I needed a successor, a back-up, just in case something happened to me. You've had the same training I've had."
Trialia sank back into her chair. "Trey, I'm the third child, the useless one, politically, I mean. Trianna's the daughter, you're the heir, and nobody ever cared what I did, except my family. If you're going to pass the powers on to a sister, it ought to be Trianna."
"But I don't have the training for it," her older sister replied. "Besides, I'm only a few minutes older than you. As triplets, none of us REALLY has a stronger claim to the throne than the others. Trey only became the heir because he's male."
"Trill, you have the heart and soul of a warrior, and the intelligence and integrity to make a wonderful queen," Zared broke in. "The people love you, and would support you in a heartbeat." Then he grinned. "And after Trey's through with the counselors, I don't think any of them are going to have the guts to oppose you either." Then his face grew more serious.
"Trey, about this candidate Darkonda has. To have a prayer of being accepted by the Council and the people, he'd have to be pretty high up the line of succession."
Trey nodded grimly. "Which means he's likely to be fairly close to me- to us. I think we'd all better watch our backs."
Ray frowned. "Hey, Egon, check this out," the occultist called, still regarding the computer readout. The blond physicist strode across the Power Chamber, looking over his friend's shoulder.
"Most interesting, Raymond," Egon allowed, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. "What type of energy fluctuation do you believe it is?"
Stantz shook his head. "I don't know, Egon. I was scanning for energy pulses, hoping to tap into one of Shadowborg's teleports so that we don't have to wait for him to start blowing stuff up. But this isn't any type of energy I really understand."
Egon pursed his lips. "Professor? Flabber? Do either of you recognize this type of surge?"
"I'm afraid I do, Dr. Spengler," Professor Hart replied. "That is a virtual energy surge, of the type that indicates that the barrier between reality and virtual reality has been broken. It usually proceeds one of Grimlord's attacks."
Ray made a face. "Great. All we need right now is for one of the other villains to decide to make our lives more interesting." He clicked a few keys, tracing the surge to its source. "Well, it is in Cross World," the engineer reported. "But I don't see any disturbances. The map indicates that it's an office building of some type."
"Hmm..." Professor Hart frowned. "Can you set up one of the computers to monitor it? That way, if the pulse happens again, we could record some type of visual record, and discover the source of the problem."
Egon nodded. "Excellent idea, Professor." The two Ghostbusters began to work.
Regarding the five men gathered in his council room, Trey sighed inaudibly. It had been almost two years since he'd had to handle something like this. The Power Rangers Zeo could be a handful, but at least they worked together. His advisors, nobles from the five provinces of Triforia, tended to fight almost as often as they cooperated. Getting all five of them to agree on any plan of action was difficult, and one that went against tradition as far as this one would be nearly impossible. He just hoped he wasn't out of practice.
Surveying the table as the nobles talked quietly among themselves, he catalogued which ones he could expect support from, and which would be trouble. Zared, of course, would back him. The young lord of Kinyama had been his friend since they were very small, and had seen firsthand Trialia's abilities. Neither her age nor her gender would give him a moment's pause.
Another one he could probably count on was Rhatax, lord of Rioro province. In his mid-fifties by Earth standards, the large, stolid nobleman was slow to arrive at a decision, but he was always fair. In addition, his wife was the commander of the Rioro guard, so he would have few prejudices about women. Hopefully, Lord Rhatax could keep the arguments in here from getting out of hand.
Then Trey's gaze fell on Ferin, the lord he had interrupted during yesterday's meeting. Ferin wasn't a bad man, but he was very stuck on things being done properly, according to the way things had always been. Trey's ascension to the throne at a fairly young age had rankled the Aurathan noble, and he could just imagine how the idea of a ruling Queen and Gold Ranger would go down.
Another one that might be difficult to convince was Tritus of Midian. He was getting on in years, and any type of change set badly with him, most especially the liberation Triforian females had been achieving recently. Still, Trey had a few arguments that he thought could sway the man.
Last of all was Vetrian, the lord of Verdemar. Vetrian had been a good friend to his father, and Trey knew the man was fair in his decisions. What his opinion on the subject might be, however, Trey didn't know. Vetrian would be the most important one to sway to his side.
"Gentlemen," Trey began, quieting the conversation in the room. "I have convened this meeting for a vital discussion. I have been placed under arrest by the Council." Shocked mutters filled the room, and Trey quickly raised a hand to quiet them. "I have discovered that this is part of an attempt by a member of the Alliance of Evil to gain control of the Gold Ranger powers. I must go to Erlion and stand trial; there is no way around that. However, I will not allow evil to gain these powers, held in trust by the Triforian Royal line since the creation of our race. Therefore, I have chosen a successor who will take my powers should the Council find me guilty. Does this meet with opposition from any of you?"
"Of course not, my lord," Ferin replied. "It is the only course open to you." The other four echoed his nod.
Trey smiled slightly. "Good. Then I imagine you will all support my successor- Princess Trialia."
It was, Trey reflected, as if he had dropped a stink bomb in the youth center. Ferin and Tritus shot to their feet, and Rhatax and Vetrian looked startled. Zared simply leaned back in his chair and enjoyed the hornet's nest his friend and prince had stirred up.
Tritus was the first to make himself heard over his shock and indignation. "With all due respect, my lord, have you taken leave of your senses? Designating a woman as your successor?"
"I assure you, Tritus, I am quite sane." Trey's voice was friendly, but his smile held a bit of an edge to it. "Why should I not designate my sister? She has undergone the same training I have, ever since birth. She is both a capable warrior and a diplomat. And she is certainly of the full bloodline of the Royal family."
"This is highly irregular," Ferin sputtered. "The Gold Ranger powers and the throne have never been held by a woman!"
"Never?" Trey echoed, cocking an eyebrow. "What about Solaria? If I recall my history correctly, Solaria was the youngest child of a king who had only daughters, a priestess of the Golden One. When the forces of the Dark One attacked, and the king was gravely injured, the Golden One and the Triune Lady themselves directed the Golden Powers and heirship to her."
"My lord, that is a children's tale," Ferin replied with dignity.
"A tale it may be," Rhatax rumbled, "but Solaria was real. Historical documents show that. There is a precedent, Ferin." The Rioran noble seemed amused at being able to use Ferin's habits against him.
"Why your sister, lord, when there are many worthy young men in the line of succession?" Tritus wanted to know. "Surely one of them would be ideal."
Trey sighed. "But you see, Tritus, I no longer know which of them I could trust."
"What do you mean by that?" Vetrian asked, speaking for the first time.
"Remember, gentlemen, the powers of the Gold Ranger are more than just battle powers," Trey responded. "They also signify the king of our planet, or at least the heir to the throne. Why stop with having a battle machine, when with those same powers would come control over a good fourth of the galaxy?"
"But the people would not accept an usurper," Zared added, knowing where this was going.
"Exactly. But what if the recipient was not an alien, but a Triforian, a Triforian noble in line for the throne? The Council would see no foul, nor would the people. And the one who arranged all this could simply sit in the background and pull strings at will. You see, my lords, this is why my successor must be my sister. I know that she is capable of this post, for I have trained her myself. And as the one person who would never be considered to take my place, she is the only one of my successors I can fully trust."
All five of his nobles were nodding now, understanding what he said. Then Rhatax rose from his seat. "You have my complete support, my lord, as does your sister."
"Mine too," Zared agreed, rising.
Ferin rose as well, startling Trey slightly. "And mine," he added. Seeing the looks aimed at him, he shrugged and smiled humorlessly. "There is a precedent," he informed them.
"My support goes to you as well," Vetrian remarked, standing. Now only Tritus remained seated, looking at all those around him.
"I just can't," he replied. "It's just not right."
Ferin sighed. "Oh, come off it, Tritus. Look around you. We have women commanding the armies, women commanding gunships, women in every walk of life. And Trialia IS qualified."
An evil smile crossed Trey's face as Tritus still sat. "Well, I have a majority and that's all I need," he informed them. "It's too bad, though, that trade to the province of Midian will have to be halted."
Vetrian startled, then nodded, a respectful smile crossing his face. "Indeed. I'm afraid we can do no business with someone who will not support our leaders."
"Vetrian, I believe your factories can turn out those machine parts we bought from Midian?" Rhatax said blandly.
Zared nodded. "And the fields of Kinyama can certainly supply us all with produce."
"All right," Tritus huffed. "You have my support in this matter, Lord Trey." Raking his fellow lords with a glance, he added, "My full and unstinting support." Then he walked out of the room, too incensed to wait for Trey to dismiss the meeting.
"He'll do it," Ferin assured his prince. "He knows we will cut him off if he doesn't."
Trey smiled. "Thank you, gentlemen. And since Tritus has departed, I think we can declare this meeting adjourned."
The advisors made their way out of the room, Vetrian last of all. "Trey, I wanted to mention one thing to you before I left," the Verdemarian began. "I think your father would be very proud of you today."
"Thank you, Lord Vetrian," Trey bowed. "I certainly hope so."
You can tell a great deal about a person from their workspace. Decorations, organization, even preferred light level, all of these convey information about the person who likes them. A trained psychologist could give a full psychoanalysis from them.
To the untrained eye, Art Fortunes' studio looked as if a hurricane had hit it. Drawings were plastered all over the walls with no semblance of rhyme or reason. Monsters, weapons, armor, from preliminary sketches to finished products, all of it hung from the walls or drawing boards or lay stacked on every available surface. Even the overstuffed chairs weren't free of the clutter.
As she stood in the door, however, Joyce McCormick saw that Art did indeed have an organizational system, even if it was one only known to himself. He moved unerringly between piles, not disturbing a single sheet of paper. Finally, Joyce couldn't stand it any longer. "Art, how do you FIND anything in this mess?" she asked.
The cartoonist looked up and smiled sheepishly. "It's really not as bad as it looks," he defended himself. "Over here is my early stuff, I mean from before I even started publishing Beetleborgs. Over _here_ is the stuff that I came up with during the original run, minus some things that I burned after discovering that this was all real. This is Metallix ideas, and over here are a few things I've come up with, just in case I need to make new powers again. It's mainly conceptual stuff, nothing major yet."
"And- what are you looking for?"
Art shrugged. "That's actually a good question, Joyce. Something that'll help against Shadowborg, but that's not very specific. Oh, look at this." He pulled a drawing out of one of the "Original Run" piles. Crossing to stand beside him, Joyce saw that he held a portrait of four children standing on a hill. Despite Art's somewhat cartoony style, she could easily recognize Jo, Roland, Drew, and Josh.
"When did you do this?" she asked curiously.
"Not long after I got back to my studio after the whole Shadowborg ruckus ended. It just kind of- stuck in my mind." In the drawing, Roland had one hand on Drew's shoulder, and Drew had an arm slung around his little sister. Jo, meanwhile, was looking over at Josh, who was standing a little apart from the group, staring towards the sun, which was setting behind the hills in the distance. "I guess I kept it because it summed up the whole relationship for me."
Joyce nodded. She could see the bonds between the three main Beetleborgs, even in the static drawing. "You know, it seems so strange that you know more about my children than I do," she sighed.
"I wouldn't say that," Art replied, moving a sheaf of papers so that she could sit. "I just know more about one part of their lives."
"Tell me about them," she asked suddenly. "I mean about what they're like as Beetleborgs. And about Roland and Josh, too."
Art raised an eyebrow. "Is that why you volunteered to accompany me on this little expedition?" he asked, clearing a seat for himself as well. Joyce smiled.
"That was part of it," she admitted. "I mean, it was you, Flabber, or Dragon Borg, and I'm just a little more comfortable talking to humans, you know? But we are on the 'buddy system,' thanks to Shadowborg, and I do like being with you, Art. You're an interesting man."
"Well, thank you very much," he grinned. "Now, about the kids..."
Art began to relate his impressions of the Beetleborgs, from the first time they had barged into his office, to the arrival of Nukus, to the rediscovery of Roboborg and the creation of the Mega Spectra powers. Joyce listened in astonishment, wondering how she could have missed such profound changes in her children. With another part of her mind, thought, she was noticing Art's storytelling ability, and how it must have helped to make him a mint in the comic business.
Suddenly the two of them were shocked back to reality by the beeping of the communicators they wore on their wrists. With a sigh, Art tapped his. "Art here. What's up?"
"Shadowborg's been sighted downtown," Justin's voice reported. "You'd better get back to the Power Chamber on the double."
"Be right there." Rising to his feet, Art offered Joyce a hand. "No rest for the weary, huh?" She allowed him to help her up, and the two of them teleported out.
When Art and Joyce arrived in the Power Chamber, they found that most of the defense force had already arrived. JB, Justin, Egon and Ray were working on the computers, while the others were watching the largest viewscreen. "What's going on?" Art asked, turning to Dragon Borg, who stood next to him.
"Shadowborg's wreaking havoc on yet another area of downtown," the Astral Borg replied. "The financial district this time."
"I don't like this," Fred mused. "He's never showed up without a plan. What could he possibly have left to spring on us?"
Drew made a face. "With him and Nukus doing the planning, it could be anything."
"You'd better get out there fast, before somebody gets hurt," Winston informed them.
Jeb growled. "Be careful. Something smells REALLY bad here."
"I say we make this our LAST battle," Josh declared. The rest of the defenders nodded.
"Shift into Turbo!"
"Trooper Transform!" The heroes transformed, and then in fifteen flashes of light, teleported to downtown.
"You're history, Shadowborg!" Masked Rider called, catching sight of their quarry.
"I don't think so, Masked Rider," Shadowborg laughed. "Do you actually think you can stand against me?"
Black Trooper stepped forward. "You bet we can!"
Shadowborg simply ignored him, scanning the assembled heroes. His gaze fell on Chromium Gold, and he chuckled. "Back so soon? I'd have thought you'd be cowering in a corner, little boy."
"I'm not going to turn and run from you," Chromium Gold snarled.
"No, you're not afraid of me, are you? And why do you suppose that is? Deep down, you liked being my ally, didn't you? The power, the fear you commanded, you thirst for those things."
"Stuff it," Titanium Silver shot back. "You know that's bull. You're not going to get your hands on him ever again."
"You seem so sure of that, Beetleborg. But you can't really be sure of anything, can you? Not even whether your parents will ever come back to you. After all, if they don't love each other anymore, what's to stop them from just taking off and leaving you behind?"
"You shut up," Titanium Silver snarled. "My parents may be separated, but they still love me! They do!" His voice wavered just a little, though.
"Enough talk," Red Turbo interrupted. "Weapons!" In five flashes of light, the Turbo Rangers' weapons appeared in their hands. "Let's take this guy out."
The fifteen defenders threw themselves to the attack. Dodging a shot from Blue Turbo's Hand Blasters, he blocked a kick from White Trooper, but didn't manage to stop Platinum Purple's punch. It caught him in the chin and sent him reeling. Blue Trooper and Masked Rider double-teamed Shadowborg with swords flashing, only to be knocked away. However, Shadowborg wasn't fast enough to completely dodge the hail of shots White 2, Yellow Turbo, and Chromium Gold were aiming at him. With fifteen opponents, it was becoming obvious that Shadowborg was getting worn down. No matter where he turned, one of the defenders was always in his face, especially Chromium Gold and Electric Bronze, who were fighting like men possessed.
Ducking into a parking garage, Shadowborg found himself face to face with Dragon Borg, the maze of cars preventing any of the others from entering. Shadowborg chuckled, studying his foe. "You pride yourself on being the Beetleborgs' protector, don't you?" the evil Beetleborg sneered. "Some protector. Your three teammates are dead, and your four young charges are as vulnerable as kittens. I could take them away at any time." He chuckled. "Especially Drew. So much pain and anger. It was so easy to make him hate you, you know. After all, you'd failed him. His mother and sister were in danger, and you- weren't- there." The two of them circled, each wary of making the first move. "It'll be a shame to kill him, really. He had such delightful potential. But I suppose I'll enjoy it more this way. Perhaps I'll even let you watch, and listen as he screams."
Dragon Borg's control snapped, and with an inarticulate cry, he threw himself at Shadowborg. The two of them exchanged punches, kicks, and strikes in a furious hand-to-hand whirlwind. Suddenly, in a powerful lunge, Dragon Borg knocked his opponent out of the parking garage and back into the street.
Lashing out with his feet, Shadowborg sent Dragon Borg flying back into his comrades. Getting up, Shadowborg extended his hand, and a black katana appeared in it. "This has been fun, heroes, but it's time to end it now." Throwing himself into the group, he began knocking heroes left and right with punches and kicks, never once using the blade in his hand. It became obvious that he was targeting Blue Trooper, and soon they were locked in a deadly sword battle. None of the others dared interfere for fear of breaking Blue Trooper's concentration.
Suddenly, Shadowborg knocked Blue Trooper's sword from his hand. Another kick sent the exhausted Trooper sprawling on the pavement. Chuckling, Shadowborg raised the katana above his head. "Goodbye, Ryan Steele," he laughed.
"NO!" White 2 cried, throwing herself forward. The sword sped downwards and struck home- directly in her abdomen. The evil blade sheared through the VR Armor as if it weren't there, and White 2 staggered back, clutching her stomach. Then she fell into Blue Trooper's arms, as the other members of the defense force came to surround them. Shadowborg weighed his odds and shook his head.
"Another day, heroes," he grinned. Saluting with the blade in his hand, he disappeared. Then all attention turned to Blue Trooper, still kneeling on the ground holding White 2 in his arms.
"Just hold on, Katie," he was saying. "We'll get you back to the Power Chamber, and you'll be all right."
She shook her head. "No," she replied. "I can feel it- something's happening to me." Indeed, her armor was beginning to flash oddly, and flicker in and out. Blue Trooper looked up helplessly.
"JB, what's happening to her?"
Black Trooper did a scan, and let out a slow breath. "I-"
"Tell me," White 2 said, with some difficulty. "The whole truth."
"Something in that sword disrupted her molecular structure. It's causing her Trooper energies to go into a state of hyper-catabolisis. In short- the powers are eating her alive," he said quietly.
"Can we stop it?" Blue Turbo asked in a low tone. Black Trooper shook his head.
"It's happening too fast. By the time we got her back to the Power Chamber, she'd be gone anyway."
Suddenly White 2's armor faded away, leaving only Katie, staring up at Blue Trooper with half-focused eyes. "Ryan," she whispered.
"Retroform command." In a flash, Ryan Steele was human again, holding Katie in his arms. "Don't try to talk," he murmured. "God, please don't leave me. You have to fight this- I need you too much."
She smiled. "I love you, Ryan Steele. I'm so glad- I got the chance to know you. Even if it had to end this way, I wouldn't change a thing."
Tears were running down Ryan's face now, as the other heroes formed a barrier between them and the street. "I love you too, Katie. God, I'm so sorry. He was going after me- it should have been me!"
"Don't say that!" she managed. "You have to go on! Too many people- love you, Ryan. Your father, JB, Tao, Kaitlin, Jeb, the Professor- Ryan, you must go on. You can't give Grimlord the satisfaction."
Ryan shook his head. "I don't want to live without you," he whispered.
"I am always with you," she replied, raising her hand to his heart. "Here."
"And I'm always with you," he told her. Dropping his head, he kissed her softly. When he pulled back, she smiled.
"Thank you for loving me," she whispered. Then her eyes closed, and her body was still. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then her form began to glow, and slowly dissolved, as the last of her body was consumed by her powers. All that was left was a virtualizer, the crystal cold and lifeless.
"NO!" Ryan's cry echoed throughout downtown, a sound of indescribable anguish. Then he collapsed in a sobbing heap.
"Come on," Masked Rider said quietly. "Let's go." In a flash of light, the heroes disappeared.
"Gotcha!" Parker's hand moved too fast for the eye to follow, catching the little canid's wrist as he attempted to move off into the crowd. "Come on, kid, give me back my wallet," Parker demanded, extending a hand.
The pup examined Parker for a long moment, then dug the wallet out of a pocket hidden somewhere in his rags. "How did you know, mister?" asked the boy, who looked a little like a boxer.
"We've got pickpockets on my planet too, you know," Parker replied, slipping his wallet into an inside pocket in his jacket. "Now beat it, before I call the cops." The kid did as he was told, slipping off into the crowd.
Daystar grinned. "He had pretty good technique," she observed. "How _did_ you know?"
"I didn't, exactly," he explained, "but when you spend a lot of time in downtown Angel Grove, you become hyper-sensitive to being bumped, especially in the area you keep your wallet. And when I saw the kid making tracks, I knew I'd been picked."
Daystar grinned. "I bet I could get your wallet without your noticing," she teased.
"You could certainly be very distracting," he grinned back.
The two of them were headed to IGPF Headquarters, while the rest of the party settled into the apartments set aside for Edenite delegations. The streets of Maracha, the capital city, were thronged with people, including a number of pickpockets.
"I grew up in a place like this," Daystar mused. "Stealing from street vendors, keeping one step ahead of the cops. I tell you, Erlion was an interesting place for a kid to grow up. It's a crossroads for nearly every type of being in the Council planets, so I got a real education on galactic culture."
"I would imagine," Parker agreed, snapping a few shots of the full street with his camera. "I'm getting an education of my own."
Daystar suddenly grabbed his wrist and began pulling him to one side of the street. "There's Headquarters."
The building housing IGPF Headquarters was of the more modern white plastic Parker had seen other places on Erlion. Once inside, he found himself treated to a scene at once odd and familiar. Police were bustling everywhere, and he could see a few perps being escorted from place to place. The noise of conversation and machinery hovered over everything. The scene was one Parker had seen a thousand times in AG, and he almost expected Detective Park to come charging over to throw him out.
On the other hand, it was also very different. The officer on duty at the desk resembled a large blob of clear jelly with a nerve center in the middle. Humanoids of various colors and shapes were milling about in the back, and a large orange frog, wearing the star insignia around its neck, hopped past them, ribbiting at Daystar as it went. Parker raised an eyebrow. "Friend of yours?"
"We served on the same ship for a while," Daystar replied. "Come on, I'll introduce you to the captain. I have to report in anyway."
Parker followed her back through the mass of cops, knowing he was drawing a few stares as he went. Soon they came to a door marked with some sort of unreadable calligraphy. Daystar knocked, and the door slid up.
Following Daystar in, Parker saw what appeared to be a large turquoise octopus, sitting on some sort of gel-pad, behind a desk. He looked up at the two of them and made a gargling sound.
"Captain. Translator?" Daystar reminded, tapping the side of her neck. The octopus gargled again, and tapped the side of his head with one tentacle.
"Better?" he asked with sarcastic sweetness.
"Much," Daystar replied in the same tone. "Now I don't have to wear my vocal cords out on that collection of grunts you call a language."
"Your respect for authority always amazes me, Dianthan," the captain grumbled. "However, I suppose it beats you being dead. That's what they told us, you know."
"Who told you? My partner-of-the-day? I suppose they'd think that, seeing as I was caught when that building exploded. No, I was redirected by the Dianth Clan, who were quite happy at the prospect of my execution. Luckily, the Starrunners and some Rangers were in the area, and I got sprung, not to mention a ride home."
"So which is he?" the Selanian asked, pointing a tentacle at Parker.
"Him? Neither. And where are my manners? Captain, this is Parker O'Neil, an Earth reporter along to assist the Earth Ranger team in a mission. Parker, this is Captain Deepjet. Well, that's the best translation we can get. His real name sounds like someone strangling a pipe organ."
"If all you're going to do is stand around my office insulting me, Dianthan, consider yourself debriefed," Deepjet grunted. "Anything else, or are you ready to return to duty?"
"Well, I've got to attend Zordon's trial, but after that..."
"WHAT!" Like Earth octopi, Selanians had the ability to change the color of their skin, usually with emotional response. Before Parker's eyes, Deepjet went from turquoise to a yellow-white, obviously indicating surprise. "Zordon of ELTARE? Nobody told us about this."
"Somebody on the Council has gone to pretty great lengths to keep this under wraps," Parker replied. The other Ranger teams, with the exception of Chelsea and Trey, had all arrived on the planet and begun comparing notes. Quickly, Parker related everything that the four teams had deduced.
Deepjet let out another gargle, sinking down on his gel-pad like a deflated balloon. Parker was puzzled for a minute, before he realized that the translator probably didn't cover cursing. Looking at the expression on Daystar's face, he realized he'd missed a doozy.
"So we've got a Council conspiracy?" Deepjet asked, his color fading to a weary gray. Daystar shook her head.
"No, as far as we can tell, we've got one bad Council member who's very good at pulling strings. The odds aren't good on more than one Council member being rotten. Their screening methods are better than that."
"Argh." The captain rubbed his eyes with two tentacles, fading back to his normal turquoise. "All right, get out of here, both of you. I've got work to do. Daystar, I won't expect to see you until after the trial, all right?"
She nodded. "Right." She and Parker made for the door, only to be stopped by Deepjet's voice.
"And Star-" this time he sounded concerned, "if something's rotten, and you need help, you will call for backup."
"Of course I will, Captain," she replied. "Don't I always?" She continued out the door, but not before Parker heard the captain's muttered response.
"About as often as solar eclipses. Oceans help us all."
"Shit." Lita Kino sagged into one of the overstuffed chairs in the Power Chamber's lounge. Peter, lying on the couch, turned towards her sympathetically.
"How'd it go?" he inquired, already knowing the answer.
Lita made a face. "Lousy. Ryan won't even look at me, Pete. He just sits on his bed and stares off into space. I never thought I'd see anyone more closed off than he was at eight, but I was wrong. How about you?"
"Well, Kaitlin is bawling her eyes out, of course," the Ghostbuster replied, his eyes far away. "It's hit everybody, but to have someone who looks exactly like you die- that's gotta be worse than anything. Still, Rosa and Jo are with her, and at least they're talking. I think she'll be okay, in time."
"How about JB?"
Peter laughed humorlessly. "He's in the gym downstairs, beating the crap out of a punching bag. Winston, Fred, and Franklin are keeping an eye on him, to make sure he doesn't hurt himself. Again, I think he'll be able to work through it. He's not bottling it all up."
Lita sighed. "And the rest of the kids are upstairs in one of the side rooms, talking to Art and Joyce. We're all of us in shock, but I think we're going to be able to handle it. It's Ryan I'm worried about. This type of deep grief- it's not healthy. He HAS to open up to somebody. Peter, he won't even talk to Jeb!"
The psychologist sat up. "Where is that dog, anyway? I want to ask him a question."
"I think he's up in the main room. Why? What do you want to ask?"
Peter got to his feet. "Come on, I'll explain when I get there."
Jeb cocked his head. "You want someone he'll talk to, there's only one choice," the Coonhound replied. "His father, Tyler Steele."
Professor Hart nodded. "Tyler will most certainly be able to get through to Ryan. I've never seen any parent and child as close as they are."
"Can you find him for us?" Lita asked Justin. "We'll have to teleport out there and get him."
The Blue Turbo Ranger nodded, still subdued from the day's events. "Sure, Dr. Kino. Professor? Do you have a bio-pattern I can scan for?"
"Certainly, Justin. Uploading it now."
"Okay, scan commencing. You said he was in Norway, right Professor?"
For a moment, all was quiet as the computer clicked away. Then Justin looked up from the console. "Got him. Ready to go?"
Peter nodded. "I think we'd both better go. Buddy system, remember?"
"And you've got powers," Lita added. "I don't."
"Coordinates locked," Justin reported. "Good luck."
Sharing a glance, Peter and Lita tapped their communicators, and disappeared into two columns of green-white light.
Tyler Steele had just finished up the last series of virtual calculations when the intercom in the computer room toned. "Tyler, I think you'd better get out here," Dr. Jacobsen's voice informed him.
"I'm almost done in here," Tyler reported, saving the information.
"Tyler, two people just appeared out of nowhere and are asking for you," his colleague replied, his tone slightly more urgent.
Rising from the computer, Tyler frowned. Jacobsen would recognize any of the Troopers, and Grimlord's minions wouldn't waste time asking. But who else did he know that had access to teleportation?
Exiting the room, Tyler found a man and a woman waiting in the outside room of the lab, regarding the consoles around them with interest. The man looked up as Tyler entered.
"Ah, Tyler Steele, I presume?" he asked. Tyler nodded, trying to figure out why the man looked so familiar.
"Mr. Steele, my name is Peter Venkman. This is Dr. Lita Kino . I'm afraid we have an emergency that requires your help."
Tyler raised an eyebrow, the memory clicking into place. "Well, I'll do what I can, but what could a Ghostbuster need my help for?"
Peter cast a glance at Dr. Jacobsen as he answered. "Well, it involves your son, Ryan."
Tyler's face became ashen. "You can say anything you need to in front of Dr. Jacobsen," he managed. "What- what happened to Ryan?"
Lita raised a hand. "He's all right, Mr. Steele- physically, at least. I don't know if you've heard about the current problem in Angel Grove?"
"The Shadowborg?" Tyler asked. "Bits and pieces have been on the international news, and I remember hearing the Troopers had joined the defense force. Why?"
"In battle today, Shadowborg- killed one of the Troopers, a virtual double of Kaitlin Starr. She and Ryan were- very close," Peter explained.
Lita then took up the narrative. "Ryan's completely cut himself off from the world, to the extent of entering an almost catatonic state. We need someone to get through to him, and you were the best candidate."
"We'll have to teleport you back to the Power Chamber," Peter added. "Are you ready to go?"
Tyler nodded. "Yes, let's go." Peter and Lita moved closer to the physicist, and Lita raised her communicator to her mouth.
"Justin, three to teleport in." In a green-white flash, the three disappeared.
"Enjoy your trip?" Ecliptor asked, as Chelsea and Trey teleported back onto the ship. Chelsea grinned.
"It was interesting," she allowed. "We'd better make tracks for Erlion. The trial starts tomorrow. Trey's mother and sisters are headed there now by teleport beam."
Even as she was speaking, the three of them were strapping into their various stations in the cockpit, preparing to leave Triforian orbit. "Wish we could teleport," Trey sighed, "but Darkonda's people are probably watching the pads on Erlion."
"Quite likely," Ecliptor agreed. "This is the only chance we have of slipping you through the security net."
"Then let's haul rear, gentlemen," suggested Chelsea.
Ecliptor chuckled. "Your wish is my command, milady." Impulse jets flaring, the scout pulled out of Triforian orbit and began heading towards Erlion.
For a few minutes, all was quiet in the scout's cockpit. Then Chelsea made a disgusted noise. "They're baa-ack," she warbled, looking at the radar. "Six ships, closing fast. Formation suggests it's everybody's favorite bounty hunters again."
"Wonderful," Trey grumbled, switching on the weapons systems. "What does it take to kill these guys?"
"They're worse than cockroaches," Chelsea agreed, as laser fire began to streak past the ship. "Luckily, they're lousy shots, too."
Ecliptor snorted. "I'd like to see you hit a moving target at half lightspeed," he replied. "Although now that I've said that, you'll do it just to spite me."
Trey hissed between his teeth. "There's too many of them! No way I can take them all out before they fry us!"
"We've been hit, port side!" Chelsea warned. "Ecliptor, they're getting REALLY close to life support."
"Tell me something I don't know!" the crystalline being barked. "Our only chance to lose them is to try and jump to hyperspace."
"Well, you'd better do it fast," Trey replied. "Or we're all going to be space dust."
Ecliptor nodded sharply. "Brace yourselves!" The ship began to glow, speeding up in preparation for the jump to hyperspace. Shining with white light, the scout rocketed through space, the Varox in hot pursuit. Suddenly a golden laser shot out, catching Ecliptor's ship dead on, just as the craft erupted in a flare of pure white light. When the brilliance cleared, nothing was left in the area except six Varox ships- and a lot of loose debris.
Making his way through the corridors of the Power Chamber's sleeping quarters, Tyler was glad that Lita had provided him with a map. If he hadn't had one, he could have been wandering for years. The place was like a maze.
As it was, he found his way to Ryan's room quite quickly. At the door, he paused, hearing music from within.
I close my eyes
Only for a moment
And the moment's gone,
And all my dreams
Flash before my eyes
Dust in the wind.
All we are is dust in the wind.
Same old song,
Just a drop of water
In an endless sea,
And all we do
Crumbles to the ground
though we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind.
All we are is dust in the wind.
Don't hang on.
Nothing lasts forever
But the earth and sky.
It slips away,
And not all of your money
Will another moment buy.
Dust in the wind.
All we are is dust in the wind.
Tyler winced. As an indicator of Ryan's emotional state, that was not promising. As the last strains of the song faded away, Tyler pushed open the door and walked into the room.
Ryan didn't even seem to notice his entrance, another bad sign. Ryan's senses were fairly acute, and Tyler hadn't even been trying to be quiet. Instead, Ryan just lay on his cot, staring at the ceiling with blank, empty eyes.
It was almost too much for Tyler. Instantly he flashed back twenty years, to when he had been in a similar predicament. He had just lost his wife, Ryan's mother, in a car accident. There had been days when the pain was so bad, he had thought he'd die, and almost welcomed it. The only thing that had kept him going was his son, the just-born child that was all he had left of Mariah.
Returning to the present, Tyler quickly swallowed the lump in his throat. "Ryan," he said quietly, taking a step forward.
The blond Trooper turned towards his father, his blue eyes registering only dull surprise. "Dad," Ryan acknowledged, his voice flat and weary. "What are you doing here?"
"Your friends called and told me about Katie," replied Tyler, entering the room all the way. "Ryan, I am so sorry."
Ryan laughed mirthlessly, slowly sitting up. "Yeah, Dad. We all are." Rising from the cot, he turned and walked away from his father, examining the top of the dresser he had been given. "Grimlord especially. Shadowborg was going after me, Dad. Me in particular." He turned back around as anger began to creep into his voice, the first emotion Tyler had heard since the conversation began. "It's always _me_ he wants, but he's got such lousy aim! I've come so close to losing Kaitlin, JB, Jeb, you..." his voice trailed off for a second. "All because of this sick little game we like to play. This was supposed to be MY fight. I should never have gotten anyone else involved."
"Ryan, the Professor and I created three sets of powers for a reason. One man could never handle Grimlord's armies, even with VR Powers! You would have been slaughtered!"
"Maybe that would have been better!" Ryan shot back. "At least it would just have been ME! Now everyone I care about winds up a target for Grimlord, or Shadowborg, or whoever wants to pick a fight." He looked away. "I can't lose anyone else, Dad. It was supposed to be me today. It should have been."
"Bullshit." The word took Ryan by surprise. He had never heard his father swear before, in all the years he could remember. "Ryan, Katie gave her life for you, knowing exactly what she was doing. She did it because she loved you, and to her, your life was more important. If it came down to it, I'd do the same thing." Ryan's eyes widened, and he backed away as his father moved closer. Tyler Steele still had a few inches reach on his son, however, and he grabbed Ryan's wrist, pulling him into a tight hug. "I would give my life for yours in a heartbeat, Ryan," Tyler whispered. "I'd do it because I love you, and I'd never regret it. Don't try to make it your fault, Ryan. Don't throw Katie's love away."
"I- I-" Ryan tried desperately to speak, but couldn't seem to force the words out.
"It's all right, Ryan," Tyler said quietly. "Let it go. It's okay to cry."
For a moment, Ryan was quiet, then a dam within him burst, and the tears began to flow. Father and son held each other tightly, and cried for all things lost.
Peter and Lita looked up from the quiet conversation they were having, as Tyler Steele made his way into the lounge and flopped down into one of the overstuffed chairs. Peter, closest to the fridge, leaned over and pulled out a green bottle. "Beer?" he asked, anticipating what the response would be.
"Please," Tyler replied. Catching the bottle as it was neatly tossed to him, the scientist popped the top and took a long swallow, relaxing visibly as he did so. For a long moment, the three were quiet, and Lita took the opportunity to study the newest member of their little group. Ryan had not inherited his coloring from his father, that was certain. Tyler's hair was a reddish-brown, lighter than either Peter's or Lita's. His eyes were blue, but not the vivid blue-gray color Ryan's were. Instead, Tyler's eyes were an odd pale color, neither blue nor green, nor any identifiable shade in between.
Despite the dissimilarity there, however, it was easy to tell that Tyler and Ryan were father and son. Both had the same strong, defined jaw, and similar builds. In addition, a careless movement or nervous habit connected one to the other. Finally, it was obvious from where Ryan derived his self-contained demeanor.
"I'm surprised you keep this stuff around here," Tyler remarked, finally breaking the silence. "Since a good percentage of the occupants of this place are below legal drinking age."
Lita shrugged. "The Turbo Rangers and the Beetleborgs are young enough that the thought of consuming alcohol never even occurs to them. Dex's physiology is different enough that none of us know what it would do to him, and he's not eager to find out. As for the Troopers, they're all model citizens. They're not likely to slug down a couple of beers."
"If any of these kids winds up drinking, they'll be hitting something a lot more potent than beer," Peter added.
Tyler winced, nodding. "Yeah, I guess so." He rubbed his forehead, taking another sip of his beer.
"How is he?" Lita asked. "I guess that's a stupid question, but you know what I mean."
"We both of us cried ourselves out- and in Ryan's case, I do mean out. I left him dead to the world on his cot. I don't think he's going to go catatonic again. I'm more worried about his anger. Ryan doesn't fly off the handle when he's angry, but there are times when I think that makes him more dangerous."
Lita made a face. "Trust me, Mr. Steele, I know exactly what you're talking about. We've got a couple of Power Rangers who are the exact same way."
"Call me Tyler," he replied. "We're going to be seeing a lot of each other for a while. There's no way I'm going back to Norway right now. Jacobsen's just going to have to get along without me for a while."
Looking over at Peter, Lita saw that the dark-haired Ghostbuster seemed lost in some thoughts of his own. "Peter?" she interrupted quietly. "What is it?"
"Flabber said the Crustaceans don't do magic, other than what they need to bring out monsters. But from what the kids have said, they don't do science, either. And it strikes me that whoever made that sword knew a lot about science, most especially VR technology. According to JB, that thing was DESIGNED to disrupt virtual energies in a specific pattern, and induce hyper-catabolisis. Now, with his cartoonist stuck in a containment field here in the Power Chamber, you want to tell me how Nukus got his hands on something like that?"
Tyler paled. "Only one person would have access to that kind of virtual technology. You know what this means? Grimlord and Nukus have joined forces."
Peter nodded, his face grim. "Your son may not be a nuclear physicist, but he's definitely not the dumbest of the bunch. If I put two and two together, how long do you think it'll take him?"
"We'd better sit on him for a while," decided Lita. "The last thing we need is him going off half-cocked."
Closing his eyes, Tyler shook his head. "I never thought I'd be glad not to know who Grimlord really is," he sighed.
Tommy shook his head, smiling at his diminutive ex-girlfriend in mild bewilderment. "I can't believe the two of you got married," he repeated. Kimberly giggled.
"I can't either, sometimes. I know we're only nineteen, but I think we did the right thing. Besides, it doesn't exactly count on Earth, legally, at least."
Tommy laughed. "I can just see you explaining THAT to your parents," he laughed.
She nodded. "No kidding. Mom still doesn't know I'm a Power Ranger, and I don't think I'm going to tell her. You know how overprotective she can get. At least Dad took it well."
"Your mother's still a little disappointed you didn't snag me," Tommy reminded her. "Remember?"
"Better than you do," Kim shot back. Tommy winced, acknowledging the barb. "My mom read me the riot act after I told her what had happened. 'Kim, are you nuts? Tall, dark, handsome, polite,- what do you want to throw all that away for?' And when I started dating Skull, she about hit the roof."
"So did I," Tommy chuckled. "But he and Bulk grew up a lot, didn't they?"
Kim nodded, and Tommy bent and kissed her on the cheek. "I'm just sorry I wasn't there for the wedding," he told her seriously. "I bet you were a beautiful bride."
Just then, Andros walked in, causing the two to look up. The Rangers were gathered in one of the antechambers of the Council Hall, waiting for their cue to enter the main room, where Zordon's trial was being held. The Red Astro Ranger surveyed his friends and nodded. "It's time," he said solemnly.
Quickly, the gathered heroes morphed. Then the Zeo and Astro Rangers removed their helmets. This mode was generally accepted as formal dress for Rangers, and would serve to remind the Council that Zordon's chosen were avatars of the Power, as capable as any in the galaxy. At least Andros hoped so.
"Where's Parker?" Lillian asked, looking around. "I don't see him anywhere."
"He and Daystar are going to be sitting with King Lexian," Andros explained. "Since he's not a Ranger, he's not part of this procession."
Tommy frowned. "I'm more worried about Trey and Chelsea. They should have been here by now."
"Tommy," Andros began, "I'm sorry."
Tommy paled. "What? What happened?"
"Reports say that their ship was destroyed by the Varox when they attempted to resist arrest," the Kerovan Ranger replied. "I'm sorry."
The Red Ranger closed his eyes. "Resisting arrest, huh?" he said finally, his voice cold and tired. "Let's go. I'll be damned if I'm going to let that bastard get away with this, too."
Lillian laid a hand on his shoulder in sympathy. It was obvious that Tommy was still in shock, that the news hadn't quite set in yet. All he felt right now was anger, and she knew that he would draw on that to carry him through the trial. After that...
Andros turned from Tommy to face the rest of the Rangers. "We'll form up according to teams, all right? Get ready; we're heading in."
The doors in the hall swung slowly open, and the three teams of Rangers moved through, passing slowly into the main room. First came the Astro Rangers, Andros at the head, with Carlos and TJ flanking him. Cassie, Ashley, and Chris brought up the rear. Looking over at her old friend, Ashley noticed that he was doing an excellent job of not ogling the various beings who sat around the room. She herself had never dreamed that so many different types of people could exist.
Behind them came the Zeo Rangers, Tommy at the head, with the others arranged in a double line behind him. The Red Zeo Ranger walked slowly, proudly, looking every inch the hero. Only someone who knew him well could see the rage and pain burning in his eyes.
Last came the Morphin Warriors, arranged in double lines, with Jason and Skull at the head. Kimberly smiled to herself at how natural Skull looked as part of the Rangers. Had it really been only a year since he joined the team? It seemed like forever. So much had changed since then.
The Rangers moved slowly past the assembled spectators, past the time warp which allowed Zordon to attend the proceedings, up to the podium at which sat the judge, a five-foot ball of fuzz. Andros, who had been unanimously elected the Rangers' spokesman, bowed his head.
"Honorable Council Members, the Rangers of Earth are here in support for our mentor, Zordon of Eltare," he declared, his clear voice carrying to the farthest corners of the room. The judge nodded, but the prosecutor, a creature which looked vaguely like a demon of human mythology, cocked his head.
"Don't the Rangers of Earth have four teams?" he asked, his gravelly voice dripping with insinuations. "Where are your Turbo Rangers?"
"They remain on Earth to defend it from invaders," Andros replied coolly. "The Rangers of Earth are quite aware of the demands of duty and honor." His tone of voice implied that the prosecutor was not, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the watching Council members. A few quiet snickers from the crowd told the Rangers that Andros' barb had been appreciated.
"You are welcome, Rangers of Earth," the judge replied. "Seats have been set aside for you, if you would take them."
Andros nodded, and the three teams moved to sit. Andros' eyes never left the prosecutor as he did so
"Darkonda, the floor is yours," the judge continued. The prosecutor inclined his head and moved to the center of the room.
"Members of the Council of Worlds," Darkonda began, "you are gathered here today to determine whether Zordon of Eltare has overstepped his authority in his dealings with the interdicted planet, Earth. That he has violated the interdict there can be no question. You see the proof standing before you." Darkonda pointed at the twenty-one Rangers sitting to one side of the courtroom. "However, as a Morphin Master, it can be argued that that is within Zordon's powers. What you must determine is whether or not his actions are justified, and if in fact he is fit for his position."
"Doesn't Zordon have a lawyer?" Cassie asked quietly, seeing that the interdimensional being's time warp was alone in the floor. Andros shook his head.
"Zordon will testify on his own behalf, and then various others will volunteer to testify for him. That's why somebody sicced the Dianth on us, among other things."
"Wait a minute- that was deliberate? I thought we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Andros shook his head. "J'neth and I did a little research. The Dianth were about half a light-year off their normal attack routes. Someone knew we were coming through there."
Out on the floor, Darkonda was finishing up his opening speech, and the two Rangers turned their attention back to him. "Zordon has done a great deal for our galaxy, true," the prosecutor was saying, "but that is no reason for us to ignore his erratic behavior, or that of those he protects."
Andros' eyes narrowed. He didn't like this "Darkonda" at all. Something was seriously wrong here.
"Well, that didn't go quite as well as planned," Grimlord growled. "Of all the Troopers who could have been killed, why did it have to be her? Steele will be out for everybody's blood now!"
Shadowborg sat cross-legged in one corner of the crypt, polishing his sword. Looking up, he chuckled coldly. "Perhaps that can be turned to an advantage. What type of temper does he have?"
"Cold," Grimlord replied, shaking his head. "He just gets more and more dangerous, the angrier he gets."
"A killing machine?" Shadowborg suggested.
Nukus began nodding. "I think I see what you're getting at, Shadowborg. But if it failed on that Beetlebrat, what makes you think it'd be permanent for Steele?"
Shadowborg waved a hand dismissively. "Self-hatred is relatively strong on the scale of dark emotions, but it's also one of the easiest to counteract. The true and selfless love of a friend makes it disappear like that. But real hate, pure, concentrated malice directed at another person, that is strong. It eats through anything, and it's much harder to unseat. Besides, this type of control is far more powerful when you take the final step of your own will. I have a plan that will deliver Ryan Steele into our hands, with very little chance of him ever being rescued."
"And what might that be?" Grimlord asked skeptically. Shadowborg laughed.
"I can't tell you that. It wouldn't be a surprise." Rising, he changed the subject. "This sword is sharp enough to cut through almost any type of armor, correct?"
Grimlord nodded. "That thing will cut through titanium, if necessary. Why?"
"Well, I was just wondering- if Troopers have such a bad reaction to the material, what would happen if one wounded a Beetleborg?"
"I have no idea," Grimlord replied innocently. "Perhaps you should find out." Evil laughter echoed through the crypt, sending anything within hearing scurrying for someplace safer- including Vilor and Horribelle.
"State your name, rank, and planet of origin," instructed the bailiff, a blue-scaled humanoid with visible gills.
"Lexian, king of Edenoi," the witness replied calmly. Lexian had been the first witness to volunteer on Zordon's behalf.
"Do you swear upon the Power that what you are about to speak is the complete and utter truth?"
"I do," Lexian affirmed. The bailiff returned to her seat, and Lexian began to speak. "I have known Zordon for far more years than I care to count, and in all that time, I have never seen anyone more dedicated to preserving what is right in the galaxy, no matter the cost to himself. During my time as leader of the Order of the Meledan, Zordon served as my second in command, and he saved my life so many times that I finally had to stop counting. During the Grid War, I found it an honor to serve with a man who placed freedom for the galaxy so far above his own life. But it was not just lofty principles Zordon valued above himself. He would have given his life for any of the Rangers who served under him, and never thought twice.
"When Zordon was placed in his time warp, and had himself posted on Earth, I believed it would be the last contact I would ever have with my friend. I was wrong. During the height of Count Dregon's occupation of our world, five of Zordon's Rangers risked everything by coming to our planet, having intercepted a distress signal. Were it not for these five, Count Dregon might have succeeded in gaining the powers of the Masked Rider, and all the universe would have been in danger.
"Then, not two weeks ago, Zordon's Rangers returned, and with their assistance, Edenoi was at last liberated from its long war against the forces of Count Dregon. Zordon's Rangers are selfless, brave, and intelligent. His actions, as always, have been within necessity, and quite justified."
Sensing Lexian's speech was over, Darkonda rose from his seat to begin questioning. "King Lexian, you mentioned your grandson, the Masked Rider," the prosecutor began. "Where is he now? As your heir, I would have thought he would be present at these proceedings."
"Dex is on Earth," Lexian admitted calmly. "He has gone to prevent Count Dregon from adding it to his empire. I sent him there disguised as a human, in accordance with Council Regulations."
"Score one for Lexian," Adam remarked under his breath, seeing the disgruntled expression on Darkonda's face. Tanya nodded. If the prosecutor had been trying to ruffle the king of Edenoi, he was wasting his time. There were times she wondered if a nuclear explosion would disturb Lexian's calm.
"No further questions," Darkonda replied, returning to his seat.
The blaring of the monster alarm suddenly cut through the Power Chamber, startling Justin and Tyler, who were working on a power boost for some of the virtual equipment. "Shit," the Blue Turbo Ranger grumbled, scrambling for one of the consoles.
Tyler raised an eyebrow at Justin's language, but merely asked, "Now what?"
"Shadowborg, of course. He's taken his show to Little Japan. Hit the call button, will you, Mr. Steele?"
Tyler did as he was asked, and soon the Power Chamber filled up with heroes. "Don't tell me, let me guess," Winston sighed. "Shadowborg's begun urban renewal on another section of the city."
Justin nodded. "Little Japan, to be precise." Rosa groaned.
"That place is a freaking maze! He could run us in circles for hours!"
Drew made a face. "I doubt that's his plan. He prefers head-on confrontation."
"But he learns from previous battles," Dex replied. "He might well switch to a hit-and-run strategy, continue to whittle down our numbers."
"That's not going to happen," Ryan interrupted quietly. He was holding Katie's powerless virtualizer clenched tightly in one hand.
"And you're not going," JB shot back. "You're in no condition to be taking Shadowborg on right now."
Ryan whirled on his friend. "JB, I am not going to just sit here and let Shadowborg kill someone else! We've got to stop him, now!"
"Ryan, with all due respect," Lita broke in, "fighting Shadowborg in your current emotional state would be disastrous."
"She's right," a new voice said quietly. The occupants of the Power Chamber turned to see Les Fortunes regarding them seriously. The cartoonist had been very quiet for the past couple of days, to the point where most of them had almost forgotten his presence.
"What?" Fred asked, cocking his head.
"I said, she's right," Les repeated, slightly louder. "You're angry, hurt, and more than anything, you hate Shadowborg and want to blow him to kingdom come. The way you feel right now, Shadowborg could snap his fingers and get you to do anything he wanted."
"Listen to the man, Ryan," Peter entreated. "He oughta know what he's talking about."
Ryan let out a long breath, nodding slightly. "All right, I'll stay behind. You guys be careful, though."
"Have no fear of that," Dragon Borg replied dryly. "Everyone ready?"
"Shift into Turbo!"
"I never get tired of watching them do that," Jeb woofed.
"Hmmm, back to thirteen again," Shadowborg remarked, as the heroes teleported in around him. "Where's your leader, Troopers? Home crying for his lost love?"
"Worry about yourself, Shadowborg," Yellow Turbo replied. "We're gonna turn you into an ashtray."
"Really, little Turbo Ranger? All by yourself? I don't think so. Without your friends to save you, you're really quite useless."
A shot from Blue Turbo's Hand Blasters answered him. Yellow Turbo folded her arms over her chest. "At least I've _got_ friends," she returned. "You're slipping, Shadowborg. Is that the best you can do?"
"Perhaps it's time I let this do the talking!" Extending a hand, Shadowborg summoned the katana. Black and White Troopers stiffened, remembering what that blade could do to them. With a cry, Shadowborg ran at the group, which parted before him.
Quickly, the defenders summoned their various weapons, knowing that they didn't dare try to go hand-to-hand with Shadowborg now. Yellow Turbo ducked a sword swipe, looking at her Star Chargers in disbelief. "Oh, yeah, that did me a lot of good," she yelled. "What the hell am I supposed to do, tase him to death?"
Titanium Silver snickered. "Draw your Autoblaster," he suggested. Yellow Turbo did as he advised, and began launching shots at Shadowborg with a vengeance.
With phenomenal agility, Shadowborg dodged the energy hurled at him, coming suddenly sword to sword with Red Turbo. After two weeks of not only battling Shadowborg, but sparring with Ryan and JB, Red Turbo's sword skills had improved exponentially. Now the two combatants were equal.
Suddenly Shadowborg knocked Red Turbo away with a vicious kick, and found himself face to face with Platinum Purple. Dark sword and Metallix Baton clashed as the female Beetleborg was finally able to let the fear, anger, and frustration of the past few days out on a concrete target. To Shadowborg's surprise, she was actually a worthy combatant.
He was better, however. With a powerful cut, he knocked her Baton out of the way. Then he reversed the strike, slashing viciously across her breastplate. The force of the blow knocked her backwards and sent her slamming into the ground.
"JO!" Chromium Gold and Electric Bronze cried in unison. Before Shadowborg could strike at the fallen girl, Electric Bronze was there, blocking the downward swing with his own blade. While Chromium Gold dragged his sister to safety, Electric Bronze and Shadowborg found themselves in a fight far more brutal than any yet seen by the defenders. The newest of the Beetleborgs seemed unstoppable, cutting, thrusting, slashing in a whirlwind of steel. Shadowborg had no choice but to fall back before his attacks.
Suddenly one of Electric Bronze's slashes connected, slicing Shadowborg across the chest, mirroring his attack on Platinum Purple. The impact was enough to knock Shadowborg to the pavement. Electric Bronze's sword scythed down towards Shadowborg's neck, but the shadows on the ground rose up and swallowed the evil Beetleborg just before the blade could connect. Instead, the Metallix Saber scraped against the pavement, striking sparks.
For a long moment, no one moved. Then Electric Bronze turned and ran to Platinum Purple's side.
"How is she?" he asked, almost whispering. Chromium Gold shook his head.
"I don't know," he choked. "She's not responding. That could mean she's unconscious, or-"
Dragon Borg laid a hand on his shoulder. "Let's not jump to conclusions, lad. We'll take her back to the Power Chamber and have her checked out there." Brilliant light filled the street, and when it cleared, the heroes were gone once again.
The members of the Council had been surprised, to say the least, when six of the Rangers had risen and requested permission to bring out the next witness for Zordon's defense. That had been peanuts, however, to their reaction as Billy and company shifted into their Ninjetti costumes, forming a ring in the center of the floor. The source and type of their power did not go unnoticed, as whispers of surprise and awe filtered through the room.
Everything became quiet as a column of blue luminescence began to spiral up from the floor, in the center of the ring of Rangers. As it rose, the line of light became brighter and wider, until filled the circle, shining as bright as a young star. When the light faded, an image of Dulcea stood in it's place, glowing faintly blue.
"Greetings, honorable Council," she intoned. "I am Dulcea, Master Warrior of the Planet Phaedos, and once, long ago, I served with Zordon of Eltare in the Order of the Meledan. Zordon is a man of wisdom and honor, one who I am privileged to call my friend. It was Zordon who spoke for me at my ascension to Master Warrior, Zordon who rescued me when I awaited execution as Ivan Ooze's prisoner. Zordon of Eltare has risked life, limb, and sanity for the people of the galaxy, and any who doubt his ability and resolve are sorely mistaken.
"As for his Rangers," her smile was warm, "I can only speak for those six who journeyed to my planet, but never in all my centuries of guarding the Great Power have I seen six travelers so selfless, and so pure of heart. The Great Power itself has judged them worthy, and so I will place my trust behind them, whatever may come." With that, the beam faded out, and the six Rangers slumped, exhausted. It had taken a great deal of energy to open such a powerful psychic link. The six Ninjetti Rangers slowly made their way back to their seats. However, Billy mused, it had all been worth it to see the absolutely dumbfounded expression on Darkonda's face.
"Jo!" No sooner had the heroes returned to the Power Chamber than Joyce McCormick was kneeling by the side of her unconscious daughter. She barely noticed the flashes around her as the rest of the team retroformed. "Jo, honey, wake up," she pleaded, squeezing Platinum Purple's armored hand.
"Joyce, you're going to have to move," Art said quietly, gently pulling the distraught woman away as Tyler Steele and Ray Stantz moved in. Not really comprehending her surroundings, Joyce clung to Art in a daze. Adjusting his arms around her waist, Art held her, offering what comfort he could.
Ray trained a hand-held device on Platinum Purple, and suddenly her armor disappeared, leaving the girl motionless. Kneeling, Tyler quickly checked for a pulse. After a second, he looked up in relief.
"Slow, but strong," he reported. "Same with her breathing." Quickly, he peeled up her eyelids and winced. "Pupils are dilated. But she can't have a concussion. Winston, would you give me a hand here? We'd better get her to sickbay."
The Ghostbuster nodded. "Sure thing," he replied. Gently, the two men lifted the girl onto a gurney which Egon had materialized out of nowhere. Then the entire group headed off.
With Ray's assistance, Winston and Tyler managed to transfer Jo to one of the medical beds and hook her up to some of the diagnostic equipment. Justin, Rosa, and Ryan quickly moved to various readouts on the walls.
"Blood pressure is low, but not life-threatening," the Pink Turbo Ranger reported.
Her blue teammate nodded. "Respiratory and cardiac functions seem to be normal, if a little low."
Ryan frowned. "Dad, come take a look at these brainwave readings," he said suddenly. "They don't make sense."
Tyler crossed to stand behind his son. "You're right, Ryan. All of these readings are extremely low-level, especially the alpha waves."
"Excuse me?" Roland asked, from his position in the hall. "What does that mean?"
Egon shoved his glasses back up on his nose. "I would theorize that the material of the sword reacted differently with Jo's powers than with Katie's. The interaction caused the blade to act as an alpha wave blocker, suppressing all cognitive functions."
"In other words, it put her in a coma," Franklin added, long used to translating for Justin when he got excited.
"Can you bring her out of it?" Drew asked. The leader of the Beetleborgs was standing on one side of the bed, holding his sister's hand tightly.
Tyler, Ray, and Egon exchanged glances. "Perhaps," the virtual scientist said thoughtfully. "By determining various differences in energy signatures, I can postulate the content of the blade, and reverse engineer something to unblock the alpha waves. But I'll need some help, and one Trooper and one Beetleborg to sample energies from."
Ryan saw the look that Peter and Lita were throwing between them and stepped forward. "Drew, why don't we give my dad a hand with that?"
The younger boy looked up from his sister helplessly. "I don't want to leave her," was his only reply. Ryan nodded.
"I know," he said quietly. "But she's not going to wake up on her own, Drew. And there's not much either of us can do here. At least this way, we can be useful."
Watching his son, Tyler shook his head. That had always been Ryan's way of dealing with pain. He concentrated all his energy on helping someone else. It was certainly an admirable trait, but sometimes Tyler wished Ryan would put a little more attention on himself.
Seeing the logic in Ryan's words, Drew nodded. The group in the sickbay and the outside hall began to break up, drifting off to various projects. The assembled brains and their guinea pigs headed for one of the secondary labs to begin their work, and Winston noticed Peter and Roland headed for one of the lounges. On a hunch, he looked for Lita, and sure enough, he found the psychiatrist and four of the Turbo Rangers headed off in another direction. Kaitlin and Dragon Borg were already deep in conversation in one of the side halls. The oldest of the Ghostbusters was slightly surprised to see Art Fortunes leading Joyce McCormick off to yet another one of the lounges, saying something about getting something to eat. A smile pulled at his lips as something occurred to him, then he shrugged. Wasn't any of his business, after all.
Suddenly he frowned. One face was missing from the crowd. Turning around, he headed back into sickbay, and was unsurprised to see Josh Baldwin there. What was rather surprising was the expression of despair and worry on his face.
"You all right?" Winston asked casually. Josh looked up, startled.
"Um, yeah, I guess," he said quietly, looking back at the unconscious Jo. Snagging a chair, he sank into it, his eyes never leaving her face.
Winston sat as well, events beginning to crystallize in his mind. Josh's rage on the battlefield, his remaining behind, the look of utter desolation on his face- "You care about her a lot, don't you?"
Josh began to splutter. "Well, I- yeah! She's my friend."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," Winston shot back, his tone amused. "Come on, I won't tell anybody."
"She's just a kid, Mr. Zeddemore," Josh protested. "She's ELEVEN!" Seeing Winston was not about to drop the matter, he sighed. "Yeah, I do. But like I said, she's eleven years old. I'm fifteen. You don't think there's something a little bit wrong about that?"
Winston shook his head. "Not really. Josh, you're both still kids. Right now, those four years seem like forever, but you're really not all that far apart. And you're not exactly ordinary kids. In a lot of ways, she's almost a grown up." Shifting position, Winston continued.
"I've known a lot of kids over the years, Josh, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you're never too young to really love someone. It's just the type of love that changes. You're both a little too young for hormones to be playing a part in this, so where's your problem?"
Josh smiled weakly. "Other than Drew breaking me into little, bitty pieces when he finds out, not much, I guess. Thanks, Mr. Zeddemore."
"Any time, Josh."
"State your name, rank, and planet of origin."
"Andros, Red Astro Ranger, formerly of the planet KO-35, now of Earth." Andros' unhesitating claim of Earth as his home planet evoked a few murmurs and raised eyebrows among the Council members.
"Do you swear upon the Power that what you are about to speak is the complete and utter truth?"
"I do." The bailiff returned to her seat, and Andros found himself face to face with Darkonda. The Kerovan Ranger regarded the prosecutor with outward calm, but inside, it felt as if his organs were tying themselves in knots. As spokesman for the Rangers of Earth, he would be the one to respond to Darkonda's questions, and he had a feeling that the other would not go easily on them.
"You identify yourself as Red Astro Ranger, but were you not originally the Red Astro Guardian? Leader of the defenders of KO-35?" Darkonda asked casually.
Andros nodded. "That is correct," he replied simply. He knew better than to give any more information than directly asked by the question. The less he gave Darkonda to twist around, the better.
"Yet KO-35 is now a dead world," Darkonda mused. "Would you call that defending your world?"
"I would call it failing," Andros conceded, his jaw clenching. "Failure is not unknown in the history of Ranger teams, though. The only difference is I survived."
"And- why did you survive? You were the leader, were you not? Yet your four teammates perished, while you did not."
"I had been injured in battle, and was not yet recovered. My second-in- command pronounced me unfit for battle, and when I attempted to join the fight anyway, he shoved me into a cryo-pod and told our ship's computer not to awaken me until my teammates returned, or their transformation devices did. By the time I woke, my teammates and all of KO-35 were long dead."
"And how did you come to bear the title of Ranger, since your powers are not derived from the Morphin Grid?"
"It was bestowed upon me and my new team by Zordon of Eltare, when we joined with his current team to defeat the recently unleashed Ivan Ooze."
"So, after you allowed one world and one team to perish, Zordon of Eltare extended to you the title of Ranger, placing you in the same situation again?"
Andros smiled slightly. "Dark Specter killed my world, I did not. And I will never let it happen again. Some people learn from their mistakes."
"And some keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Let us discuss the record of the Rangers of Earth when it comes to sources of energy, shall we? The original Rangers held the five coins of the Dinosaurs, and later gained and lost the Green Dragon Coin, correct?"
"To the machinations of Rita Repulsa, who had sabotaged the coin during it's time in her possession," Andros replied.
"And the Rangers then lost their powers to the coming of Lord Zedd."
"Actually, no. They simply retuned their coins for greater efficiency against a different threat. No power was actually lost."
"But they did lose six battle mecha," Darkonda shot back.
"They recycled five battle mecha," corrected Andros. "The Dinozords became the Thunderzords, and the Dragonzord returned to the sea."
"And then these Thunderzords were destroyed when the White Ranger, then leader of the team, refused to pull out of a battle and overloaded both Zords and Power Coins, correct?"
"There was really nowhere-"
Darkonda quickly cut into Andros's reply. "Yes or no?"
"Yes," admitted Andros, eyes flashing.
"And so the Rangers began tapping yet a third power, the last level of the Grid, and were given new mecha even then. Which they promptly lost seven Earth months later."
"The powers were rendered inactive by Master Vile turning the timestream back upon itself," Andros reminded him.
"And then the inactive Power Coins were destroyed by Zedd and Rita."
"While the Rangers were attempting to return the timestream to normal with them."
"That's quite a record," Darkonda said, satisfied.
"What about our other record?" Andros asked, raising an eyebrow. "Standing off FIVE villains simultaneously? NEVER losing a Ranger in the line of duty?"
"Tell me, Red Astro Ranger, are you aware of the history of the other members of your team?" Darkonda asked suddenly.
"What? I don't understand the question."
"Are you aware that the Red Zeo Ranger is the son of Master Vile? That the Purple Zeo Ranger is the daughter of Lord Zedd? And yet they hold two of the most powerful positions on the team?"
"Objection!" Zarador suddenly cried, standing in his seat. "The Council of Worlds has long held that children are not responsible for the deeds of their bloodlines. My membership is proof of that. If Councilor Darkonda wishes to discuss the "sins of the fathers," I can name a GREAT many Mephistans that he might wish to consider."
The judge nodded. "Objection sustained," he ruled. "Councilor, please confine your questioning to the actions of those directly concerned."
"Very well," Darkonda nodded. "Then shall we discuss the actions of the Red Zeo Ranger, formerly the Green Ranger? As I recall, he caused a great deal of destruction and chaos on Earth, but Zordon placed him in charge of the team."
"No one is haunted more by the actions of the Evil Green Ranger than Tommy Oliver, Red Zeo Ranger," Andros replied. "He would give his life to wipe out what happened in those days, if he could take away the pain the Evil Green Ranger caused. But the Evil Green Ranger was Rita's creation, a person created through a spell cast upon an unsuspecting teenager. A teenager who had the strength of will and heart to keep from killing someone he didn't even know, despite the power of Rita Repulsa's spells. And Zordon did not make him the leader of the team immediately. First, he served as an ordinary Ranger, as the Green Ranger. His courage, self-sacrifice, and ability were the main factors in Zordon's selection of him as leader of the team."
Darkonda thought for a moment, then shrugged. "No further questions," he announced, returning to his seat. After a moment, Andros did the same.
Ryan yawned, taking another sip of his coffee. He never slept much or well at the best of times, and ever since Katie's death, he'd been lucky to get two or three hours of dreamless sleep. After that, he'd come screaming awake, fresh from the image of her dissolving in his arms. That pretty much precluded going back to sleep for the rest of the night.
This was the reason he had volunteered to take the early morning sensor watch. After ten years of nightmare-ridden sleep, Ryan had learned very well how to function on only a few hours of deep rest. Once jolted awake from his nightmares, he would shower, dress, and come to relieve Dragon Borg from monitoring the sensors. Even Astral Borgs needed to shut down for a few hours a night.
Taking another sip of his coffee, Ryan yawned again. Even he generally got four or so hours of sleep a night, he thought wryly. If this kept up much longer, the lack of sleep would gang up on him, and he'd probably spend a day or so dead to the world. That was all right with him. As long as he was too deep for dreams to touch him, he could sleep forever.
Quickly, he shook his head to banish that thought. There was too much at stake for him even to consider that as an option. Still, there were times...
A flashing light suddenly caught his attention. Crossing to the appropriate console, he saw it was the computer that had been programmed to monitor the power fluctuations from the office building in Cross World. He remembered the Professor mentioning it in passing.
While he punched up the recorded data, he checked the map and frowned. He knew that street address. It was the main headquarters for Ziktor Industries, and the corporate dark tower of its head, Karl Ziktor. He and JB had accompanied Kaitlin on every trip there, for whatever story she was working on.
A quiet beep told him that the recording had rewound. Quickly he set it on "play"- and nearly choked on his coffee. On the screen, he saw the plush interior of Karl Ziktor's office, tasteful but cold. Suddenly there was a bright flash of light, and Grimlord was standing behind the desk. Placing his hand on a prism, Grimlord's form flickered several times, as lightning seemed to play around him. Then the virtual warlord seemed to shrink until he became an ordinary human dressed in a business suit, a man Ryan knew only too well. Karl Ziktor.
"You son of a bitch," he whispered, taking a step back from the console. Suddenly a hundred things made sense. He understood why Ziktor had always seemed to dislike him particularly, why any investigation of Karl Ziktor's operations eventually got them ambushed by Grimlord. Ryan put a hand to his forehead. Ever since his adventures in the otherworldly Isis Dimension, the Troopers had known Grimlord had a human identity. But to know it was Karl Ziktor... He had to tell the others.
Suddenly Ryan's hand stopped half-way to the call button. Why should he tell them? What could they do? No one would ever believe them. No, there was nothing the Troopers could do. But there was something HE could do.
A cold smile crossed Ryan's face as he thought about it. For two years, he had been dreaming about what he would do to Grimlord when he finally had the virtual leader cornered. Now he finally had the chance, and finally had a target for his rage. "I can FINALLY make him pay," he whispered, looking at the lifeless virtualizer he held in one hand.
Quickly, he erased the recording, set the sensors to trigger an alarm should Shadowborg appear anywhere, and set up a teleportation to the holding bay, where his motorcycle was parked. That way, no one could trace his movements. He knew if Kaitlin or JB found out about this, or worse, his father, they'd try and stop him. And this time, no one was getting into Ryan Steele's way.
"Members of the Council of Worlds," Zarador began, "I have known Zordon for many, many years, and there has been no one in this universe who has made more of an impact on my life. We first met when I joined the Order of the Meledan. I was a typical teenage Zarakin, headstrong and ready to take on the world. Zordon quite probably kept me from breaking my neck. He was my advisor and always the one to hold me back when I would have charged into a disastrous situation. Had I never known him, I would have become a pretty lousy king.
"Zordon was the first person not to care that my father was Lord Zedd. In that, he helped me to accept who I was, and become a stronger person for it. Zordon has saved my life and sanity more times than I can count, a pattern which has continued to the present day.
"As for his Rangers, I can vouch for their abilities as well. All six proved themselves in trial by combat, and the Purple Ranger went one step farther, refusing to kill an opponent who would have slain her without a second thought. They have the full support of the entire planet of Danata, and mine as well."
Rising from his seat, Darkonda crossed to face the Zarakin. "You say the Purple Ranger's opponent tried to kill her? What insult could she have offered him to provoke that?"
"None," Zarador replied easily. "Apparently, he had been hired to keep anyone from interfering with this trial. Someone very powerful seems to have a hand in this."
"Really? Did this man name his employer?"
"Regretfully, no. A magical medallion destroyed him before he could do so. But I have several corroborating witnesses as to his words, and am in fact tracing the signature pattern on that medallion right now." The Zarakin monarch smiled charmingly as Darkonda went slightly pale. "It should be very interesting to see what the research turns up."
"Er- yes," the Mephistan replied. "No further questions."
"Mr. Steele?" Tyler Steele cracked an eyelid as the comm unit in his room came to life.
"Yeah, JB, what is it?" the scientist asked, slowly coming awake.
The Trooper sighed. "I just came to take over for Ryan on the sensor watch, and found he wasn't here. I checked the teleport record. Turns out he left _two hours_ ago, teleporting into the garage. His motorcycle's gone, too."
Tyler was now fully awake. "I'll be right there, JB," he replied, pulling on a shirt. "Better call the others."
"Already on it, Mr. Steele."
Five minutes later, a very rumpled Tyler Steele ran into the main room of the Power Chamber, finding most of the heroes already there. While looking over the computers, he snagged a cup of coffee and sipped at it. The pot, an industrial-size version originally from Art's studio, had quickly become a fixture of the Power Chamber.
"Hey, I think I found something!" Justin suddenly spoke up. As the others crowded around him, he pointed to a spot on one screen. "Looks like he tried to erase something here."
"Guess he didn't know about the backup system," Tasha chuckled.
Tyler patted the Blue Turbo Ranger on the shoulder. "Good work, Justin. Can you bring it up?"
"You bet, Mr. Steele," Justin replied. After a few seconds, the recording began to play back on the Power Chamber's main screen. JB groaned, and Kaitlin clapped a hand over her mouth.
"ZIKTOR!" JB growled. "We should have known!"
Joyce looked puzzled. "What are you talking about?"
"The man on screen, Grimlord's other identity, is Karl Ziktor, a wealthy businessman from Cross World," Kaitlin explained.
"A dirty businessman," added JB. "That guy isn't happy unless he's breaking the law in eight different ways."
Art frowned. "So why would Ryan erase that? I mean, wouldn't he want you to know the secret identity of your arch-enemy?"
Tyler paled. "Ryan and Grimlord have always hated each other, but it's gotten a lot stronger this past year, and especially after Katie's death. He erased the tape, and then teleported to the garage instead of directly, because we could trace that."
Franklin nodded. "He's hiding his movements, doesn't want us to know where he's going."
"Ryan's going to kill him," Drew realized. "It's what I would do, if Nukus was that vulnerable." His gaze was fixed on the screen, and so he missed the concerned look his mother shot him.
"We've got to stop him," Dex declared.
Fred looked at his watch and winced. "If he's been gone two hours, he's probably getting there right now. We'd better teleport up."
"And fast," Egon interrupted. The blond physicist fixed them all with solemn blue eyes. "I've just monitored another teleportation in that area. Anybody want to make a guess on who it is?"
Peter made a face. "Shadowborg," he replied. Egon nodded.
"All the more reason to get up there now," Dragon Borg mused.
"This could be very, very bad," Les Fortunes suddenly broke in. He raked the assembled heroes with a serious gaze. "Even I can see how badly Ryan hates Grimlord. With emotion that powerful, Shadowborg will have a field day. And if Ryan makes the decision to kill on his own..."
"We'll lose him forever," Lita breathed, following Les' train of thought. "He'll be sunk so far in the darkness we'll never get him back."
"Then let's go untransformed," Josh suggested. "Ryan's more likely to really SEE us if we're in human form."
"Be careful," Ray cautioned them all, pressing a button on the console. In brilliant light, the twelve heroes dissolved. For a long moment, all was silent. Then a voice rang out from one of the side chambers.
"Ai yi yi! What's going on here?"
The courtroom was prenaturally silent as Darkonda and Zordon locked eyes. It was strange, Tommy mused, how intimidating Zordon could still be, even though the only part of his image projected onto his time warp was his head. And he would never understand how a disembodied head managed to use such good body language. Somehow, the Eltaren wizard looked relaxed but alert, waiting for Darkonda to begin the questioning.
"How long have you been posted on the planet Earth?" Darkonda asked.
"Ten thousand years," Zordon replied calmly, "ever since the end of the Grid War."
"And you were sent there with five Power Coins to protect it in case evil ever attacked."
"That is correct," responded Zordon . "The lines of natural magic there made it an excellent target."
"Now, the general code of Ranger Planetary Defense is to recruit a team of Rangers from the nearest Council planet in case of invasion on an interdicted world, correct? But instead, you chose five natives of the planet to be your Rangers, directly violating the interdict. Why?"
"Because there was no time. The nearest Council world to Earth is Aquitar, a number of light-years away. To find five who were willing, teleport them in, and then deal with dehydration problems, all with a two-minute lag on communications, that would have allowed Rita Repulsa to stomp half the planet flat. And the interdict would have been even more broken."
Zordon's tone was dry, and Tommy couldn't help doing a double-take at this new side of Zordon. He had seen the Eltaren as a father figure, handing out advice and discipline, a teacher, instructing his charges in the ways of the Power, and occasionally as a very harried administrator, trying to keep three teams functioning at once. He had never seen Zordon playing political hardball with all the grace of a practiced bureaucrat.
"I see. And the fondness you have developed for humans over the millennia had nothing to do with it."
Zordon seemed to be pondering the question. "I was in the unique position of watching the race evolve, and perhaps had a better opinion of them than most members of galactic society," he acknowledged. "Their history is as rich as ours, in acts of sheer heroism and villainy, timeless loves and powerful hatreds, and their people as valorous as any of the Council's races. But in fact, I had no idea how high they could rise until I made the first five my Rangers. I must admit, the first choice was as much out of desperation as admiration.
"But my first five Rangers, barely out of childhood even by their own standards, rose to the challenge far better than many seasoned warriors that I have seen. They faced everything, even the prospect of their own deaths, with courage and honor. The roster has changed and swelled over the years that I have worked with them, but one thing remains constant- these are RANGERS, more worthy of the name than some teams who have never been challenged. What I did was not, technically, legal, and I admit that. I may even have overstepped my powers as a Morphin Master, and should I be judged so, I am prepared to accept whatever punishment might come. But I do not, and will not regret what I have done. I am proud of my Rangers, and honored to be the recipient of their loyalty. So few people can claim anything like it."
Darkonda looked as if he was about to reply, then thought better of it. "No further questions."
It was the unexpected noise that alerted Ziktor first. His secretaries, actually disguised virtual mutants known as skugs, were quiet and efficient workers, and also very effective bouncers, being able to lift twice their own weight. There had never been a situation in his office that they hadn't been able to handle quickly and quietly- until now.
Then the door to his office slammed open, and Ziktor saw what all the commotion had been about. A blond, blue-eyed hurricane, better known as Ryan Steele, stormed into the office, eyes shooting sparks. Ziktor groaned to himself. When Steele looked like that, no skug in either reality had any chance of stopping him. For that matter, neither did Godzilla.
"Can I help you with something?" Ziktor asked, slipping into his "generous businessman" mode. Maybe if he hoped REAL hard, it would turn out that Steele was just angry about an illegal dump site or something. Yeah, right.
"Cut the bullshit, _Mr. Ziktor,_" Ryan seethed. "You know very well why I'm here."
"Maybe you could- humor me?" Ziktor smiled, sliding one hand under his desk. Anything to stall.
Ryan slammed his hands down on the marble desk top, startling the other man. "Fine, you want to play games? I know exactly who and what you are- Grimlord."
Ziktor sighed. "I knew it was too good to last," he remarked, to no one in particular. "And now that you know this," he drawled, "what do you intend to do about it? Turn me into the police?"
Ryan smiled, an expression which sent chills shooting up Ziktor's spine. "No, I don't think we'll involve the police in this. It's between you and me, isn't it?"
Ziktor nodded. "It always has been."
"Mr. Ziktor?" a woman's voice asked quietly from the door. Ryan half-turned to look at the secretary, giving Ziktor the chance to pull his hand, and the gun he held, out from under the desk. Unfortunately for him, Ryan caught the movement from the corner of his eye. In a lightning-fast movement, he pivoted, catching the gun before Ziktor could bring it to bear. Now with the weapon in his own hand, Ryan looked back at the astounded secretary.
"Leave. Now," he instructed her. "Shut the door behind you." She nodded, and quickly did as he said. In human form, she was just as vulnerable to gunshot wounds as anybody else. With the office doors sealed, Ryan turned his attention back to Ziktor, gun still held in one hand.
".45 caliber. Nasty thing," Ryan remarked. "You expecting many assaults in here?"
Ziktor shrugged, his eyes never leaving the gun. "A man has to be prepared."
Suddenly, one of the shadows in the corner of the room grew deeper, and the Shadowborg materialized.
Ziktor sighed in relief. "I was beginning to think I wouldn't get any help here."
Shadowborg chuckled. "Now, really, boys. I wouldn't miss this for the world." Looking at Ryan, he cocked his head. "Are you planning to use that, or are you just waving it around?"
"I-" Ryan shook his head slightly. He hadn't really had any clear-cut plan upon coming to confront Ziktor. In the back of his mind, he supposed he'd had some idea of forcing the final battle, and ending this on the virtual plane. Shooting him down in cold blood hadn't been part of the equation.
"What's the matter? Why hesitate? Isn't this what you've wanted for two years? The chance to end this, to finish it? No more worrying, no more fear? No more loss?"
"No- I mean-" Ryan blinked. It was getting harder and harder to think of anything but the utter cold enveloping him. He tightened his grip on the handle of the gun.
"You know he deserves it," Shadowborg continued. "How many innocent people has he hurt? How many times has he destroyed your life? Taken every chance at happiness away? You'll be doing the world a favor. It would be justice."
"Justice," Ryan repeated, his voice floating and disconnected. Ziktor swallowed hard, seeing Ryan's eyes turn into two chips of blue ice. Raising the gun, Ryan sighted down its length.
"For your father. For yourself. For Katie," Shadowborg urged. "Justice for the injured. Vengeance for the dead."
"For Katie," echoed Ryan. "Justice." Ziktor looked around for an escape, and found none. Closing his eyes, he waited for the shot.
Looking around the courtroom, Darkonda smiled. "Since we seem to have no more witnesses in Zordon's defense, it is time for the members of the Council to consider their verdict."
"Not just yet!" a truly unique voice announced. Tommy, recognizing the speaker, leaped to his feet.
"NINJOR!" the six former Ninja Rangers chorused. The blue-clad warrior marched in through the front doors, causing murmurs of astonishment to ripple through the gallery.
"Did I not tell you I would always be there when you needed assistance?"
The Red Zeo Ranger strode across the floor to clasp forearms with his old ally. "We thought that we'd never see you again, with the time disturbance and everything."
"Well, my powers are Grid-based, so they're not real effective against Mondo," Ninjor replied. "But you Rangers handled it, as usual."
Leaving the Rangers behind, Ninjor strode to the middle of the floor, shooting Darkonda an innocent glance. "I do hope I'm in time to present my testimony," the ninja remarked blandly.
The bailiff quickly stopped goggling and crossed to stand before Ninjor. "State your name, rank, and planet of origin," she requested.
"Ninjor of Igara, Blue Morphin Master."
"Do you swear upon the Power that what you are about to speak is the complete and utter truth?"
"I do." The bailiff returned to her seat, and Ninjor turned to face the gallery. "Members of the Council of Worlds, I'm sure most of you know who I am, even though to most of you, I am only a legend. Millennia ago, I retired to work on creating Power Coins, preferring to focus on my art to the exclusion of all else. I forgot that art, especially Power Artifacts, must be shared, or it is worthless.
"I know nothing of Zordon, except the bits and pieces I have heard over the centuries. I come instead to speak of his Rangers, whom I have had the pleasure of working with quite closely. The six of them crossed the Desert of Despair, which no one had done in centuries. The Temple of Ninja Power admitted them without complaint. Then they made their way to my inner sanctum and managed to guilt-trip me into returning to active battle with the forces of evil. I reforged their Power Coins to draw upon the Ninja level of the Grid, and battled evil by their side.
"These six Rangers are the most selfless, courageous heroes that I have seen in thousands of years. All I know of Zordon is what I have learned from his choice of defenders, but from that, I can say that I would certainly choose to have Zordon fight beside me at any time."
Rising from his seat, Darkonda moved to face Ninjor. His expression showed he was a bit nervous at dealing with a living legend, and Ninjor was obviously capitalizing on it. He somehow looked bored and amused all at once.
"So, you are the great Ninjor, are you?" Darkonda asked. Ninjor shrugged.
"I guess so. I don't know any other Ninjors, do you?"
"You created the Power Coins, did you not? And gave the Rangers the Ninja powers which they held for all of seven months?"
"I did," Ninjor assented. "Your point is?"
Kim snickered. Ninjor could be such a wiseass, something that threw most people, who expected someone more like Zordon. It was obvious that Darkonda was a bit-off balance from Ninjor's remarks.
"Why do you support the Rangers, after they completely destroyed the powers you gave them?"
"Hey, I made those coins in the first place, and I reforged them for the Rangers. It's really no ones business but mine what happens to those coins. And it's like I said- Power Coins have to be used to reach their value. If they're not used to fight evil and uphold the principles of the Power, they're nothing more than spare change. The Rangers lost their coins while fighting evil, trying to protect the innocent. I can't think of a better way for those coins to go out."
"But what about the waste of power?"
Despite his featureless face, Ninjor managed to give Darkonda The Look. Yes, The Look, the one mothers on a thousand planets give their children, the one that says, "Could you be any _dumber?_"
"Don't you know ANYTHING about how Power Artifacts work?" Ninjor asked incredulously. "Look, it's like- valves. The Coin, in this case, acts as a tap, channeling the Grid energy into the Ranger. It's also got a back-up, in case of temporary loss of connection. When the Coin is destroyed, the Grid is still there. NOTHING can destroy the Grid. The only energy released is the back-up energy, and even THAT gets reabsorbed into the Grid. There's no WASTE. Sheesh. What are they teaching kids in school these days?"
Laughter rippled through the room as a befuddled Darkonda shook his head. "No further questions."
The scene in Ziktor's office was a static one. Ryan Steele stood motionless, the gun in his hand still firmly pointed at Karl Ziktor. For his part, Ziktor didn't dare move, for fear of breaking the uneasy balance. Meanwhile Shadowborg watched them both in amusement, as Ryan struggled with his decision.
Suddenly the door flew open, drawing the attention of all three occupants of the office. JB and Kaitlin were first through the door, stopping dead as they crossed the threshold. Seeing the situation within, the other heroes hung back, not wanting to crowd Ryan into pulling the trigger.
"Ryan, put the gun down," JB said quietly. "You don't want to do this."
Ryan shook his head. "The hell I don't," he ground out. "JB, he's made our lives hell for the past two years. He's been hounding us at every turn, turning the city into a toxic waste dump, and just generally ruining everything he touches. He deserves to die."
"Ryan, you can't make that decision," Kaitlin replied. "If you kill him, you'll be as bad as he is!"
"I don't care anymore, Kaitlin," Ryan whispered. "I'm so tired..."
"Then end it," Shadowborg suggested. "With Grimlord gone, you can finally let go. You can finally be at peace."
"Eternal peace," Ryan murmured.
"No!" JB cried, taking a single step forward. "Ryan, that's not an option! Think about Tao- about your dad! You can't just turn your backs on all the people who care about you!"
"You don't understand," managed Ryan. He was having trouble getting the words out, his jaw was clenched so tightly. "He'll just keep coming- he'll kill everyone I love, everyone I care about- like he killed Katie. It has to end here!"
"No," Kaitlin replied. "I may not be her, but we're enough alike that I know she wouldn't want that. Ryan, he's not worth it. Come back to us, please."
Ryan shook his head again. "There has to be justice," he replied. "Justice for all the innocent people he's hurt."
"There will be," JB assured him. "But not like this. Ryan, this isn't justice- this is revenge. There's a difference, and you know it. He'll face his justice, but this is not the way."
"Then what is?" Shadowborg asked. "The courts? As if this ridiculous story would ever go to trial? Who will make him pay if you do not? Who has the right? Finish it, Ryan. Put an end to the fear and uncertainty forever."
Ryan nodded, his eyes blue flames. "It ends today." Raising the gun, he fired- directly at Shadowborg. The impact of the bullets knocked the evil Beetleborg back into the wall, causing only minor damage. Breathing deeply, Ryan dropped the now-empty gun to the carpet. "It was close, Shadowborg, but I'm not going to give in. I'm not a murderer, no matter how tempting. And my father taught me that you can't be judge, jury, and executioner."
Sizing up the Trooper, Shadowborg nodded. "Very well, then. I am through playing with you heroes. Now you face the full force of Nukus' power. DREGS!" he bellowed, raising a hand. Almost forty of the Crustacean foot soldiers appeared in the office and the anteroom, surrounding the thirteen heroes. Drew made a face.
"Looks like Nukus finally learned about copy machines," he remarked to Roland. The other boy chuckled.
"This is the final battle, Shadowborg," Ryan agreed. "Let's do it!"
"Shift into Turbo!"
In Karl Ziktor's plush offices, all hell broke loose.
"Um- state your name, rank, and planet of origin, please," the flustered bailiff managed. The witness threw her a wide smile.
"J'neth, Fleetleader for Clan Starrunner and king of Bariath," he responded.
"Do you swear upon the Power that what you are about to speak is the complete and utter truth?"
"I do." Quickly the bailiff returned to her seat. Meanwhile, the Rangers and most of the Council were still scraping their jaws up off the floor. It had been a bit of a shock, to say the least, when J'neth strode into the courtroom, his honor guard trailing behind them. Now, throwing a wink at the Rangers, he began to speak.
"Like most people in this galaxy, my only real knowledge of Zordon of Eltare comes from the stories and legends that I heard as a child," the Starrunner began. "So there is little I can say on Zordon's behalf. Instead, I have come to show my support for his Rangers. Almost two weeks ago, the Rangers were attacked by the Dianth Clan, as were we, when we stopped to offer help. If it hadn't been for the courage and intelligence of Zordon's Rangers, we might have lost everything. Instead, their responses were excellent. They fought courageously on our side when they could easily have turned tail and run, leaving us to our enemies. Many of my Starrunners have reported to me the courage and competence of these Rangers in battle. I am honored to count them as my friends, and hope that they may be Bariath's allies if we should someday need their help."
"You are both leader of the Starrunner pirate clan, and the king of Bariath?" Darkonda asked, pacing slowly around J'neth.
"That's right," the pirate assented lazily.
"However do you find time to balance those duties? I would think that flying around the galaxy on various pirate missions would severely hamper a king's obligations to his people."
"You would, wouldn't you?" J'neth drawled, making the statement into a veiled insult. "Comm units are wonderful things, though, as are advisors. When I can't be in space, I stay in touch with my captains, and when I can't be on Bariath, I stay in touch with my ministers." He flashed the prosecutor a dangerous smile. "As a matter of fact, my position as Fleetleader provides Bariath with a powerful defense force, not to mention extra trading routes."
"I see. You credit the Rangers with protecting you from the Dianth attack, but didn't the Dianth only attack you because you stopped to help the Rangers? Sounds to me as if they were just protecting themselves."
"I've never seen a pilot who's "just protecting himself" fly directly into a laser array to take it out before it shoots down another pilot," J'neth replied easily. "But it does seem a little- odd to me that the Dianth showed up just there. It was not very close to their usual territory, you know?" The pirate leader suddenly smiled. "Well, we have a couple in custody now, and they're spilling their guts in exchange for leniency. We'll know who ordered the attack soon enough."
Darkonda paled again. "How- fortunate," he managed. "No further questions."
"Whoof!" Masked Rider ducked as one of the Dregs took a swipe at them. Unlike the foot soldiers for most of the empires attacking Earth, Dregs did not have a uniform appearance. They were just all ugly, mutant animals. Masked Rider was fighting something that looked like a squid, and he'd seen a snake and a fish somewhere in the melee as well. All had humanoid bodies in addition to their animal heads. "Two to one odds are NOT my idea of a good time!" he yelled.
Beside him, Dragon Borg nodded. "Aye, lad. And these close quarters aren't helping any!" The majority of the heroes were in the outer room of the office, dodging Dregs and desks at the same time.
"Get outta my face!" Yellow Turbo growled, knocking one Dreg onto its rear in a trash basket. Another one grabbed her from behind, and she flipped it through the air, laughing as it landed neatly on it's companion.
One Dreg, which looked vaguely like a bear, had Black Trooper pinned to a desk and was trying to strangle him. Despite his augmented strength, Black Trooper couldn't push the creature away, and his vision was going dark.
Suddenly an electric typewriter slammed into the Dreg's skull. Sitting up, Black Trooper turned to thank his rescuer- and saw one of Ziktor's skug secretaries. She fixed him with an intense look.
"This never happened," she informed him.
Black Trooper nodded. "You got it." Taking a deep breath, he threw himself back into the battle.
"Think those windows are safety glass?" Titanium Silver asked. Green Turbo shrugged.
"I dunno." Grabbing the nearest Dreg, he tossed it at the glass. The creature broke through and immediately plummeted to the ground. Falling from a height of thirty stories, it was headed back to the printed page in a matter of seconds.
Green Turbo looked at his friend and chuckled. "Guess not. Hand me the guy who looks like a rat, okay?"
In Ziktor's office, Blue Trooper and Shadowborg were facing off, while Electric Bronze and Chromium Gold waited in the background. All three had grudges against the evil Borg, but currently Blue Trooper's was the most immediate. The swords in their hands blurred into lines of black and silver as they fenced, hacking and slashing at each other. It looked as if neither one would tire soon.
"Somebody- ung- give me a hand here!" White Trooper's voice floated out of the outer office. Her voice sounded choked, as if something was cutting off her wind.
"Kaitlin?" Blue Trooper startled. It was the wrong move. Shadowborg swept his sword around in a complicated move, disarming the Trooper. Then he pulled back and went for the kill.
With a loud clang, he found his strike blocked by Chromium Gold's Lancer. "Go on!" the Beetleborg yelled. "Go help her! We'll take care of this!"
Blue Trooper nodded. Retrieving his sword, he threw himself into the chaos outside with a will.
Sword held ready, Shadowborg studied Chromium Gold and Electric Bronze as they set themselves against him. "So it has come down to this once again," he mused. "The final battle."
"We always knew it would be," Electric Bronze replied. "We're going to take you down."
"Together," Chromium Gold added.
"Then so be it," Shadowborg laughed. "Come, children, and face your doom!"
A furious hand-to-hand battle ensued. Shadowborg was holding his own, blocking, thrusting, and dodging the attacks of the two Beetleborgs facing him. Their anger gave them strength, however, and the two boys were able to match their more skilled adversary move for move. No matter how often Shadowborg knocked one down, the other was there to prevent the killing strike.
"Drew!" Electric Bronze cried, as Chromium Gold rose behind him. "Remember what you said? We have to take this guy together!"
"What do you mean?"
"Art's gestalt weapons system! Now's the time to use it!"
"But don't we need all four?"
"Just you and me! A little extra something Art threw in."
Chromium Gold chuckled. "Then I say we do it!" Pulling away from Shadowborg, Chromium Gold extended his Lancer. "Metallix Lancer!"
"Metallix Saber!" Electric Bronze added, slamming his sword lengthwise onto the Lancer. Both Borgs grasped the shaft, pointing it at Shadowborg.
In unison, they cried, "Metallix STRIKER!" A bolt of gold-bronze energy streamed from the point of the Lancer, striking home in Shadowborg's chest. There was a thunderous crack of sound- then silence.
The Shadowborg lay on the floor, moving fitfully, as the rest of the heroes made their way into the office to investigate the noise. Smoke rose from his ruined chestplate, and it was obvious that he was not going to recover from this battle. With great difficulty, he raised his head to look up at the heroes and chuckled evilly.
"Well- done, heroes. Are you proud of yourself, Drew?" he asked haltingly.
"No," Chromium Gold said quietly. "Just glad it's over."
"Is it? I am the shadows, the essence of night. Darkness given flesh, pure distilled nightmare. Do such things- ever go away? I am the darkness, heroes, and I will- see you in your dreams." With that, the last of his power gave out, and he collapsed on the floor.
Suddenly, Shadowborg's form began to glow with an evil black radiance. Then, in a flash, a bolt of pure shadow shot upwards from his chest, screaming defiantly as it flew. For just a second, it seemed to take the form of a Phoenix- and then it was gone, and all that was left of the Shadowborg was a smoking husk, and even that was rapidly dissolving.
"'Pure distilled nightmare,'" Chromium Gold echoed slowly. Electric Bronze put a hand on his shoulder.
"Maybe so. But nightmares end when the sun rises," he reminded his friend.
"And it's time to finish this nightmare once and for all," Blue Trooper broke in. He glared at Ziktor, who had huddled, forgotten, in one corner of his office. "I'm going to let you live, Ziktor, although it's more than you deserve. But THIS does not belong to you." Reaching out, he lifted the green prism from Ziktor's desk. It was the tool that allowed Ziktor to become Grimlord, but more than that, it contained the virtual knowledge that Grimlord had once stolen from Tyler Steele. In a way, it symbolized all that Ryan had lost.
As the heroes assembled for their teleportation back to the Power Chamber, Red Turbo fixed the businessman with a glare. "A word of warning, Mr. Ziktor," the boy announced coolly. "If you mess with the VR Troopers in the future, be prepared to deal with the rest of us as well. Because we'll come down on you like a ton of bricks."
"Count on it," Masked Rider added, and the assembled heroes disappeared.
Skull cast a sideways glance at his girlfriend- no, wife, he corrected himself. That was going to have to be kept secret on Earth, of course. "Surprises keep mounting up," he whispered. She nodded.
Not five minutes ago, the Tribunal of Morphin Masters had entered the courtroom, to the complete shock of the assembly. This newest surprise was almost too much for Darkonda, who nearly fell out of his chair. Even the Rangers were astounded at how much support they had gained in their travels.
As the eight Masters were being sworn in, Bagh'ra flashed Skull a wink, which the White Warrior returned. He had a feeling that this was going to be the final straw in Darkonda's defeat. It was going to be extremely hard, if not downright impossible, for the Mephistan to discredit these witnesses, and from the look on Darkonda's face, he knew it.
"Honorable Council Members, I am Jarek of Gaiala, Red Master and spokesman for the Tribunal. Not long ago, the Power Rangers of Earth came to us, seeking aid for their mentor, Zordon. As is traditional, we set them a test, to travel through the Caves of Alshar."
"The Caves have long been used as a testing ground for those who would ascend to the rank of Morphin Master," Swiftclaw rumbled, taking up the narrative. "The Rangers passed with flying colors, coming through the Caves faster than any other team before them. They are intelligent and selfless, and more than worthy of the title of Ranger."
"In short," purred Bagh'ra, "they have the complete support of the Tribunal, as does Zordon. As Morphin Masters, WE find no overreach of Zordon's duties."
Titania nodded. "Just the opposite," she added. "Zordon is to be commended for his choice and training, in our opinion."
"I thank you," Zordon replied, "but no credit is due to me. It is my Rangers who deserve recognition."
Verdia shot Darkonda an amused yellow glance. "I believe it iss your turn, Counssilor," she chuckled. Darkonda took one look at the Tribunal and shook his head.
"No questions," he sighed.
Les Fortunes didn't really mind being stuck in a containment field. Most of the time, he didn't even notice. The defense force fed him regularly, and the field had access to sanitary facilities and, more importantly, room to sketch. He was feverishly working on his current idea when a rap on the forcefield made him look up. Joyce McCormick stood outside, a tray in one hand.
"Dinner," she smiled brightly. Les wasn't much good with people, but even he could tell it seemed forced.
"Jo still no better?" he asked, taking the tray she slid through the field.
Joyce raised an eyebrow. He sounded almost- sympathetic. She had noticed his behavior improving during his confinement, as a matter of fact. Maybe it had something to do with that ley energy the Rangers mentioned. Goodness knows, it seemed to do everything else. Remembering he had asked a question, she shook her head.
"Tyler says he's on the verge of a breakthrough, but-" she shrugged. "At least the research keeps Drew out of trouble."
"I guess." Setting the tray on the table before him, he turned back to his sketches, only to have Joyce knock on the forcefield again, harder this time. He looked up again, exasperation in his eyes. "What?"
"Eat," she ordered. "I know how you Fortunes men are when you're working, and I don't want you starving to death here. You will eat everything on your plate, and THEN you can go back to sketching."
Les decided it wasn't worth arguing about. Setting the tray in front of him, he dug in. "Who are you, my mother?" he asked, swallowing.
Joyce rolled her eyes. "God forbid," she replied dryly. "Consider yourself a surrogate, since one child is in a coma and the other is currently in battle."
"Do you give Arthur this much trouble?"
"Art has more sense than you do- he doesn't argue with me," she replied. Folding her arms, she leaned against a nearby wall, watching him. "Do you always call each other by your full names?"
"Is it any of your business?" Les shot back.
Joyce shrugged. "Probably not. You don't get along real well, do you?"
"Of course not! He stole my ideas! I'm the one with the real talent in this family!"
Cocking her head, Joyce regarded him seriously. "You know something, Les? I don't think you believe that anymore. You've just been rivals for so long, you don't know any other way to relate to each other. Well, let me tell you something. Rivalry or not, Art is and will always be your brother, first and foremost. You might want to think about that." Turning, she walked out of the room, Les watching her go.
"I didn't put her up to that," Art's voice announced. Les turned to see his brother entering the room from a different corridor than the one Joyce had used.
Les nodded. "She's not a woman who follows orders," he agreed. "What do you want?"
"I've been thinking, Lester. You've been giving us a lot of help recently. You kept Ryan from getting himself killed, or worse, controlled by Shadowborg, and the kids didn't even have to do a lot of arm twisting to get you to give us the specs on Shadowborg. I've been wondering why that was?"
"I'm crazy, not stupid," Les replied shortly. "Shadowborg would have killed everybody and everything that got in his way, or even if they didn't. I'd like to live to see my next birthday, thank you."
"Maybe," Art acknowledged, "but I also think there's still a little decency in there. You drew up the Shadowborg, Les, even if you never wanted it released. So this whole mess is slightly your fault. And I've got a little joint project in mind that would be the perfect way to make amends."
Interested despite himself, Les looked at his brother. "I'm listening. Go on."
Art's grin widened, and he began to explain.
Darkonda was in the middle of his closing argument, trying as best he could to put a negative spin on Zordon and the Rangers of Earth. He seemed to be ignoring the twenty-one glares boring into his back from where the Rangers sat.
"As some of you may know," Darkonda began in a satisfied tone, "Prince Trey of Triforia was also supposed to have been a defendant at these proceedings. However, he was destroyed by the operatives who were supposed to bring him in, when he resisted arrest. Hardly the actions of an innocent man. And yet Trey was Gold Ranger, operating under the auspices of Zordon. It makes you wonder why Zordon would protect someone who broke the law so openly."
"Didn't anyone ever tell you it was bad manners to speak ill of the dead?" a voice drawled. Darkonda turned to see Trey of Triforia, leaning casually against a pillar, looking very much alive. The Mephistan took a step back in surprise.
"As a very clever Earth author once said, 'Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,' Trey continued, stepping into the middle of the floor. "Members of the Council of Worlds, I stand before you, very much alive, despite the desperate efforts of Councilor Darkonda to prevent this. He has orchestrated this entire mockery of justice in an attempt to possess my powers for himself." Gasps and whispers of shock greeted Trey's announcement.
"And do you have any proof of this ridiculous accusation?" Darkonda asked, sounding bored.
Trey smiled, and it was not a pleasant expression. "Well, I have a Varox pilot willing to swear up and down that you paid them to destroy me and get my powers, not once, but twice."
"And where is this pilot you claim to have?"
"Right here," a woman's voice broke in. "Someone wanna give me a hand with this guy? He's heavy."
"CHELSEA!" Tommy cried, leaping to his feet as his "twin" dragged a bound Varox into the courtroom. Rushing over, he gave her a tight hug.
"Oof! Watch it, bro," she laughed, pushing him away gently. "Even in standby mode, you're strong."
Tommy held his sister at arm's length, shaking his head slightly. "I thought you were dead," he whispered.
"That was the point," she replied. "Dump the contents of the repair bays and jump to hyperspace. You look like you've been turned to space dust. Sorry, Tommy."
"And just who are you?" the judge asked Chelsea, trying to restore some order to the courtroom.
"Chelsea Oliver of Earth, Deshaadra warrior," she replied, indicating her uniform.
"Apprenticed to whom?"
"The Black Falcon," she replied, showing him her pendant. That prompted a number of gasps and murmurs from the crowd.
Meanwhile, Darkonda was staring at the bound Varox. "I think your witness may be less than credible," he announced dryly. "He looks a bit intimidated to me."
"Then how about my witnesses?" J'neth asked, standing. "I have two Dianth pirates who swear you ordered the attack on the Rangers."
"And my trace on that medallion paid off," Zarador added, also standing. "It's registered to your House, Darkonda. I think you have a little explaining to do."
Darkonda looked around wildly, then grabbed Chelsea by the wrist, pulling her against him and laying a blaster against the side of her head. "I'm not doing anything but walking right out the door," he laughed. Turning, he saw Daystar leap down from Lexian's booth, aiming her own weapon at him. "Drop it," he ordered, punctuating his statement by pushing his blaster ever so slightly into Chelsea's temple. Daystar hesitated, then did as she was ordered. "Very good. Now, if one of you so much as moves, I will splatter her brains all over this courtroom. After all, I have nothing to lose."
Brilliant light flared, and when it cleared, thirteen exhausted heroes stood in the middle of the Power Chamber. Before anyone could take the opportunity to collapse, however, an unfamiliar voice greeted them. "Ai yi yi! Rangers! You're back!"
The Turbo Rangers whirled quickly. "ALPHA!" they cried in unison. Hurriedly, they ran to embrace the little robot, even Tasha. After a few enthusiastic hugs, Fred remembered the rest of the defense force, and turned around.
"Guys, this is Alpha 5. He's Zordon's assistant, and a really good friend."
The Troopers and Beetleborgs greeted the robot with waves, smiles, or quiet "Hi's." Dex, however, stepped forward, a broad smile on his face.
"It's nice to see that my grandfather's Alpha series are still existent," the Prince of Edenoi remarked.
"Oh- Prince Dex! Lita said you were here. I hope your grandfather is well?"
Dex nodded. "He is, thank you."
"Ai yi yi, Rangers, I almost forgot! Tyler Steele wanted me to tell you to come directly to sickbay! He thinks he's ready to revive Jo."
Drew instantly perked up. "Really? Come on, let's go!"
The group headed down the hall, Drew, Josh, and Roland solidly in the lead. Justin and Tasha walked with Alpha, towards the back.
"What happened, Alpha? We thought you wouldn't be reactivated until Zordon got back," the Blue Turbo Ranger asked.
Alpha 5 shrugged. "I have no idea, Justin. I just suddenly woke up in one of the side chambers, with all these strange people around."
Tasha chuckled. "I'll bet Tyler Steele just LOVED you."
"Well, my assistance did help with the ray he's developed. I just hope it's enough to help Jo."
Reaching the sickbay, most of the crowd remained outside. The three Beetleborgs, however, immediately entered. Drew took his sister's left hand, barely noticing as Josh took her right. Peter and Lita noticed, however, and the two of them traded amused looks. Everyone then looked at Tyler Steele, who was holding what appeared to be a two-handed ray gun.
"This ray should emit radiation that will counter the alpha-blocking properties of Shadowborg's sword," he explained. "Hopefully, that will bring her out of her coma."
"That's a lot of ifs, Mr. Steele," Drew commented, his eyes never leaving his sister's still face.
"I know, Drew," the virtual scientist said quietly. "Cross your fingers, everybody." Aiming the device at Jo, Tyler pulled the trigger, bathing the unconscious girl in a cool blue light. A few minutes passed, and the device clicked off.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Then Jo's eyelids fluttered, and her eyes drifted open. "Drew?" she asked groggily. "Roland?"
"We're here," Roland replied, leaning over Drew so that she could see him.
Jo smiled, and turned to see who had her other hand. When her eyes made contact with Josh's, her smile became positively radiant. "You're still here," she murmured, slowly coming awake.
Josh nodded. "And I'm not going anywhere, ever again," he replied. "You three are stuck with me."
"We wouldn't have it any other way," she retorted, grinning at him.
"Jo," Drew began quietly, returning her attention to him. "Don't you EVER scare me like that again."
"Yes, sir," she chuckled. Then her face sobered. "Did you get him? Is it over?"
Drew nodded. "Yeah, Jo. It's finally over." Reaching out, he pulled her into a tight hug.
"Hey, don't I get in on this?" Joyce asked, striding over to embrace her children. The three-way hug held for a moment, then Joyce and Jo pulled back a little. With identical sparkles of mischief in their eyes, the two reached out. Joyce grabbed Roland, while Jo snagged Josh, and both pulled, expanding the hug to five. When it broke up, Drew fixed Josh with a mock glare.
"You tell anyone about this, and I'll kill you."
Josh laughed. "Understood," he replied.
Looking over the happy reunion, Peter sidled up to Egon. "NOW it's over," the psychologist declared, and his friend had to agree with him.
"I can walk just fine!" Jo protested. Ray chuckled.
"You've been comatose for almost a day, Jo. Relax and enjoy it. I mean, how often do you get to ride in a wheelchair and get chauffeured everywhere?"
"And _why,_" Peter puffed in mock aggravation, "was I volunteered to push her?"
Winston chuckled. "It's about time you put all that wind of yours to good use, Pete."
The psychologist stuck out his tongue at his friend, but did not reply.
Soon everyone had gathered in the Power Chamber's main room. Dex raised an eyebrow. "All right, Mr. Fortunes, we're all here. What's this surprise you have for us?"
"Not me, exactly," Art corrected him. "Me and Les. We had to have something to work on while you were all out fighting Shadowborg-"
"And we were tired of Blue Eyes over there moping around the place," Les broke in, indicating Dragon Borg.
"Anyway, I got to thinking- Les and I had created the Astral Borgs as a joint thing in the first place, even if I set the actual stats for them. I still needed Lester to provide some of the things I lacked. So, I figured if we worked together- aw, heck. Why don't I just show you?"
Hitting a button on the console, Art sent a door in one wall rising up. Smoke curled out from under it, obscuring the view, but the defenders could see three forms moving within. Suddenly one broke from the others and dashed forward- and Dragon Borg suddenly found his arms full of a very alive Lady Borg.
"Wha- But I- You-" The leader of the Astral Borgs was too shocked to put together a complete sentence.
"We redrew them," Art replied. "Lester and I. We specified that they were the exact same characters they had been before, with the same memories, so it's sort of like- Shadowborg sent them into a comic buffer zone, and we retrieved them."
"We missed you," Lady Borg said quietly, as Fire Borg and Lightning Borg also left the bay.
"And I you," Dragon Borg replied, holding her tightly. Fire Borg laid one hand on his friend's shoulder, while Lightning Borg stood close by. Smiles were breaking out on all of the defense heroes, and even Les Fortunes seemed happy.
"That isn't all we did," Les spoke up. "We decided that it's not as if there was any reason for you to hang around in the Lost Comic all the time, and the Beetleborgs could use your help, even sometimes when they can't get to the coins."
"So we decided you ought to have the ability to blend into society," Art continued. "Just say 'Backblast.'"
The Astral Borgs looked at each other, then in unison repeated the word. Light flared, and when it faded, four humans were standing where the Astral Borgs had been.
One, a tall Asian youth, looked at his hands in astonishment. "We're humans!" he cried, his voice identifying him as Fire Borg. "Cool!"
"Your Astral Bonders will function like Beetlebonders, allowing you to transform at will," Art continued.
Dragon Borg looked at his three teammates, shaking his head. "Absolutely incredible," he murmured. His new form looked suspiciously like Sean Connery, a fact which evoked several snickers from the defenders.
"Very cute, Art," Josh chuckled. The cartoonist shrugged.
"Wish I could say it was mine, but I'll have to admit Les came up with that one." If Art saw the surprised look his brother shot him, he didn't admit it.
"What about histories?" Lightning Borg asked. "And names? I know people can't just appear out of thin air." He was a fairly tall, heavy-set man with brown hair and deep blue eyes.
"That's where we come in, right?" JB chuckled. Justin nodded.
"We can have you a flawless papertrail inside of three days," the Blue Turbo Ranger agreed. "No problems there."
"And you can make up your own names," Art added. "Any preferences?"
"Aida," Lady Borg declared. "I always liked that opera." Aside from a fall of black hair, she greatly resembled Joyce McCormick, a fact which did not go unnoticed by Joyce.
"Since you look a lot like me, how about you be a cousin or something? You can be Aida Madison. That was my maiden name, and there are so many kids on the Madison side of the family, no one will notice, even my parents."
"Sounds good," Lady Borg agreed. "What about the rest of you?"
"I always liked Luke," Fire Borg offered.
"Luke Hino," Rosa offered. "The last name is Japanese for "of Fire," so it fits."
"Luke Hino. I like it!"
Franklin sized Lightning Borg up. "You look like a "Ben," to me," he said finally. "I dunno why."
"Ben Farraday?" Tyler offered. The science-minded heroes chuckled.
"It's a unit of charge," Justin explained. "Perfect."
"Well, what about me?" Dragon Borg asked. "I never really thought about it."
"Sean," Lita and Peter chorused. "Sean Drake," the Ghostbuster added. "Trust me on this one."
Dragon Borg shrugged, but nodded. As the four newly human Astral Borgs were assimilated into the group, Art looked over at his brother. "You did good, Les," he remarked. Les shrugged.
As Darkonda dragged her towards the door, Chelsea quickly reviewed her options. The problem was, there weren't many of them. He had a blaster pressed tightly to her temple, and any movement on her part would likely cause him to trigger it. And Tommy and Trey, while they were threatening Darkonda with some of the more painful procedures she'd ever heard of, were too worried about her to make a move. She couldn't reach her laser sword, and she was too close to use it anyway. But if Darkonda got her outside, her odds were practically zero anyway.
"Let the girl go, Darkonda," a quiet voice said. Darkonda spun to find Ecliptor standing behind him, lounging lazily against a doorpost. "Trust me, it's not worth it. If she doesn't kill you, her brother or boyfriend will."
"Why so concerned, Ecliptor? Going soft on me?"
"I could care less, _old friend._" Ecliptor's voice had a great deal of bite to it. "She's served her purpose, and brought your schemes down around your ears. I must admit, it was a creative way to advance yourself in the Alliance. The major players would pay almost anything to have the services of a member of the Council."
"It was an excellent scheme," Darkonda agreed. "Unfortunately nothing lasts forever. But we were discussing the girl. Why do you care if I kill her or not?"
"I don't," Ecliptor replied. "But I want to be the one to destroy you, and I don't want to have to fight off Tommy and Trey to do it."
Chelsea didn't much care what Ecliptor's motives were for keeping her alive. All her attention was fixed on Darkonda's blaster. As he and Ecliptor talked, the barrel was slipping away from her temple, bit by bit. It was going to require split-second timing...
"How very- utilitarian," Darkonda laughed. "And here I thought it was because she was so pretty." The Mephistan chuckled in Chelsea's ear as she fought to keep from throwing up. "Don't worry, girl, I'll take very good care of you."
"Please," Chelsea snorted. "When are you villains going to get creative? Besides-" Taking advantage of Darkonda's momentary distraction, she grabbed his blaster hand and pushed up. The weapon discharged, but harmlessly, over her head. Then she flipped the villain neatly over her shoulder, disarming him in the process. "I can take very good care of myself," she finished.
"So- I see," Darkonda puffed, levering himself slowly to his feet. Looking around himself, he realized he was greatly outnumbered. "Well, as they say on Earth, 'He who fights and runs away...'" In a flash of red light, he suddenly disappeared. The threat gone, Chelsea quickly collapsed into her fiancee's arms.
The judge looked around him and shrugged. "Members of the Council of Worlds, how do you find Zordon of Eltare? Not Guilty?"
The thunderous response shook the chamber.
Only silence. The judge chuckled. "Then Zordon, I pronounce you a free man. All restrictions upon your Power Chamber shall be lifted, and we shall transmit you home as soon as possible.
In all the chaos, Chelsea was the only one who saw Ecliptor slip away. Their temporary alliance was ended, she reasoned, and the next time they met, he would be the enemy. Still, she couldn't help being grateful to him for all that he had done.
Turning around, Ecliptor suddenly caught Chelsea's eye. She smiled at him, and he nodded, disappearing out the door. No further words were necessary.
Zack looked around at his friends and grinned. "Can we go home now?" he asked.
The Rangers erupted into laughter.
Of course, it wasn't quite that easy. Politics never is. The Council had decided Zordon's actions were justified, but what he had done was technically illegal. Despite the dispensation his powers as Morphin Master gave, the Council could not, legally, ignore his decisions. That would simply set the stage for a repetition of this trial somewhere down the road.
Parker watched warily as the Tribunal and several high-ranking members of the Council clustered near Zordon's warp tube. Conspiring politicians made him nervous at the best of times, and the fact that these kept darting glances in his and Daystar's direction made him nervous.
"I hate politics," Daystar breathed next to him. "Are they looking at us?"
"I think so," Parker replied. Then the huddle broke up, and the group moved towards them. Zarador was grinning broadly, a fact which did not reassure Parker in the least.
"I believe that we have found an appropriate solution," Lexian declared. "To prevent any future recurrence of this problem, we must have a qualified observer to report on Zordon's activities. A member of the IGPF would be excellent for this purpose."
Daystar took a step back. "You've got to be kidding me!"
Parker chuckled. "I wanted to show you Earth, but this wasn't quite what I had in mind." She shot a poisonous look at him, and he quieted down.
"Lt. Dianthan, you yourself must admit that you will no longer be quite so effective on the slaver beat," Naren, the Councilor from Eltare pointed out. "And you have the necessary background to blend in on Earth."
"And it would certainly provide Zordon with protection," Zarador added blandly.
"I can't- my captain would have a fit!" she protested.
"Already called him," Baghr'a chuckled. "I'd never heard some of the phrases he'd used, but he finally agreed- contingent upon your decision, of course."
Daystar looked from person to person and sighed. "I suppose you've already got me packed?" she asked, resigned. Laughing, Parker hugged her, and after a moment, she returned the gesture.
Alpha 5 was alone in the Power Chamber, on sensor watch. With the Shadowborg crisis over and Les delivered back to the Charterville Prison, there had been no real reason for Professor Hart or Flabber to hang around, and so the two of them had returned to watching over their respective bases. Besides, as Flabber had pointed out, someone had to keep the House Monsters in line.
The various heroes and support staff, however, had been reluctant to break up. Over the past two weeks, a tight bond had formed among the members of the defense force, and no one was particularly anxious to return to their normal routines, not even Kaitlin, who had the story of the century sitting in her laptop.
There was another reason the defense force hadn't split up yet. Grimlord and Nukus might be temporarily out of action, but the same couldn't be said of the Rangers' enemies, nor Count Dregon. All of the defenders realized that they were too tired to handle any type of attack on their own, and keeping the force together might well buy them some time.
Today, the heroes and support staff had all taken the day to go and hang out in the part. Such get-togethers were the traditional Ranger way to blow off steam after a major conflict. That left Alpha alone to watch the sensors on the off-chance that one of the villains would decide to mount an attack. He was so wrapped up in the changes to the Chamber that when the three teams of Rangers teleported in in a riot of color, he nearly hit the ceiling. "Ai yi yi!" he cried, turning around. "Rangers! You're back!"
"Hey, Alpha," Tanya chuckled. There was a beat of silence as the Rangers looked around their command post, and then everyone began talking at once.
"My God, look at this mess!"
"They've hotwired every console in the place!"
"Why are there THREE medbeds in this corridor?"
"Has someone been WELDING on the diagnostic table?"
"Alpha, who crosspatched the sensor systems?"
"Wow, that coffee pot is HUGE!"
Alpha, trying to respond, finally gave up on civility. "RANGERS!" he cried, yelling at the top of his robotic lungs. The unusual behavior caused all of the Power Chamber's occupants to turn and look at the little robot.
Before Alpha could begin his explanations, however, there was a crackle behind him, and Zordon's image returned to the plasma tube. "Rangers, I have-" Zordon stopped midway through his sentence, looking around the Power Chamber. After a second, he blinked and looked down at Alpha. "Alpha 5, what exactly occurred in my absence?"
If robots could sweat, Alpha would be dripping. "Well- we've been a little busy here, Zordon..." the little droid began weakly.
"So, you do this after EVERY battle?" Ryan asked, stretching out in the sun. Beside him, Fred shrugged.
"Well, we generally hang out together, but most of the time, it's just the five of us," the leader of the Turbo Rangers explained. "These big 'wrap parties,' as Tasha calls them, are usually after major battles involving two or more teams."
"Do you always hit the park?"
"Nah. A lot of the time, we go to the youth center. But, with twenty-five people, we decided that the park was the best bet." Fred looked up with a grin as he heard the unmistakable sound of teleportation. A green column of sparks and a green-and-silver column of light appeared, surrounded by a number of white flashes.
"Did we really need TEN jumbo pizzas?" Roland asked, looking at the boxes around him. Franklin chuckled.
"Obviously you haven't yet seen Tasha eat," he grinned. "PIZZA! Come and get it!"
The assembled heroes descended on the food like hungry wolves. Ryan laughed out loud as he watched his father blithely beating Josh's grab for a slice. Lita and Peter were arguing good-naturedly about the perfect toppings, and even Jeb had his own plate. Over to one side, Dex and Art exchanged glances.
"And the strangest part is, this all seems perfectly normal," Art mused. Dex laughed.
"You get used to it," the Edenite agreed.
The sound of a teleport behind them caused all the heroes to turn, ready for anything. Behind them stood a crowd of people watching them, and looking slightly travel-weary.
"ADAM!" Franklin cried, running for his brother. Rosa was not far behind him, and the two Turbo Rangers were soon swept up in tight hugs by their siblings.
Fred groaned. "Rocky's here! Somebody order more pizza!" That brought a round of laughter from all the Rangers, and the crowds began to mingle.
"Pizza?" Art offered, plopping down beside Joyce. Nodding, she accepted the slice he offered.
"This is quite a scene," she observed, looking around. Over under a clump of trees, Tyler Steele was deeply involved in a discussion of VR theory with Egon Spengler, while Justin, Billy, and Ashley hung intently on every word. Parker was explaining the concept of pizza to a skeptical Daystar. A football game in the middle of the park had so many participants, Joyce had given up trying to keep track. Franklin and Fred were taking Drew through an elementary kata, while Rosa and Jo sparred nearby. Skull and Kim were liplocked under the nearest tree, much to the amusement of Andros, Cassie, Trini, and Christina, who were having a conversation nearby. Zack had teleported a fairly large stereo system in from his room, and was attempting to teach Roland to dance. Sean and Aida were under yet another tree, looking extremely friendly.
Art grinned. "It is a bit busy," he admitted. "So- are you sorry?"
Thinking about that for a moment, Joyce shook her head. "No, I'm not. I want to be a part of my children's lives, even this part. Besides, I wouldn't have made such interesting friends if I hadn't gotten drawn into this. How many other women get the chance to hang out with a talking dog?"
"So- just the dog is interesting?" Art asked casually. Joyce threw him a look.
"Why, Art Fortunes. Are you fishing for compliments?"
Joyce laughed. "You're interesting too," she reassured him. Leaning back on the grass, she sighed. "Oh, I haven't been on a picnic for a long time, not since Harry died. I guess I got so caught up in the rat race, I forgot to relax."
Art chewed his lip. "Um, Joyce, I was wondering- well, I mean- would you want to go to dinner sometime, after we get back to Charterville?"
Joyce's eyes flew open, and she stared at the cartoonist in surprise. "Dinner? You mean, as in a date?"
"Um- well, yeah, I guess. Drew mentioned once that you're not- seeing anybody..."
"No, I'm not," she replied, smiling. "Art, I would love to go out with you."
Art let out a relieved breath. "Thank goodness. You know, I haven't been that nervous since I was sixteen."
Joyce laughed again, laying back on the grass once more.
Lillian O'Neil shook her head. "I can't believe I never guessed that you guys were the VR Troopers. And after those skugs broke up our picnic and everything!"
JB shrugged. "Well, we never figured you were a Power Ranger, either. But it DOES explain how you disappeared from the bathroom back in May."
She shot him a look. "You checked on me?"
"NO!" JB actually blushed visibly. "We had Kaitlin go look when you didn't come back."
"Good, because I'd hate to have to keep you and Tommy from hurting each other," she grinned. “I remember wondering why you guys kept dashing out the door at weird moments, but it never occurred to me that you might be superheroes.” She shrugged. "Come on, let's go play football!" Leaping to her feet, she dragged him out towards the game.
Sitting under a nearby tree, Ryan shook his head at their conversation, smiling slightly. The grief of Katie's passing still weighed on his heart, but it no longer threatened to swallow him alive. The unflagging support of his friends, both old and new, would give him the strength to come through. There would always be a little ache in his heart, but at least now he could laugh again as well.
His smile widened as he watched JB get tackled by the red-headed Purple Zeo Ranger, Jamie, her name was. His best friend stood more than a foot taller than the girl, but she was a veritable pit bull, not letting go until JB had crashed to the ground.
"Good one!" Jason called. "I think you dragged her about three feet!"
"Better than you ever did!" Jamie shot back. "When I tackle _you,_ you go down right there!"
Jason blushed red, prompting laughter and more teasing from the people around him.
"Interesting couple, aren't they?" Kaitlin chuckled, coming to sit down beside Ryan. He nodded.
"Made for each other," he replied. "You having a good time?"
"The best," she answered. "How about you?"
He sighed. "I'm doing okay, Kaitlin." She nodded understandingly.
"Remember, if you ever want to talk, I'm here."
"I know," he agreed. "And you always have been." Something in his tone caused her to shoot him a sharp look, but his attention was on something else.
Suddenly the hip-hop which had been blaring through the park cut off, causing everyone to look at the stereo. Chelsea Oliver was changing tapes, prompting Zack's eyes to widen.
"No! Keep her away from my stereo!" he cried, charging across the park.
Too late. Chelsea threw Zack a saccharine smile as she hit the "Play" button, sending the first strains of music wafting through the park.
"ARGGHH!" the Black Morphin Warrior cried. "She's playing COUNTRY! Somebody save me!"
Zack's theatrics drew laughs from his friends, but Ryan noticed no one moved towards the stereo. Listening, the blond Trooper managed to identify the song as Del Rio's "You're Gone."
I said "Hello, I think I'm broken."
And though I was only joking,
It took me by surprise when you believed.
I was trying to be clever.
For the life of me, I never
Could have guessed how far the simple truth would lead.
You knew all my lines,
You knew all my tricks,
You knew how to heal that pain
No medicine can fix.
And I bless the day I met you,
And I thank God that he let you
Lay beside me for a moment that lives on.
And the good news is I'm better for
The time we spent together,
And the bad news is you're gone.
Looking back it's still surprising,
I was sinking, you were rising,
And with a look you caught me in midair.
Now I know God has his reasons,
But sometimes it's hard to see them
When I awake and find that you're not there.
You found hope in hopeless,
You made crazy sane,
You became the missing link
That helped me break my chains.
And I bless the day I met you,
And I thank God that he let you
Lay beside me for a moment that lives on.
And the good news is I'm better for
The time we spent together,
And the bad news is you're gone.
Ryan smiled to himself. This was one of the main reasons he loved country music. Somehow, you could always find a song that mirrored your situations at the moment. Katie had been the one to heal him, even if her loss had hurt again. And he did have to admit that he would have been poorer if he had not known her, no matter how much pain he had endured.
Looking over at Kaitlin, he saw her smile as well, and he knew she understood. Suddenly he got to his feet. "Come on. Feel like joining the football game?"
She grinned. "You're on!"
They dashed out into the sunlight, and were soon absorbed in the game. The heroes of Earth put all thoughts of battle out of their minds. They knew all too well that peace never lasts forever. But whatever came, they would meet it head on, together. That, after all, is what heroes do.