Somewhere in Kenya
Aisha Campbell closed her eyes, tipping her face up to the cloudless sky above. It was a beautiful day, with the sun shining down on the savanna and the usual summer heat lifted by a cool breeze. It was days like this that made a girl glad to be alive. Dropping her face from the morning sky, Aisha scanned her surroundings, a wistful look in her dark eyes. She loved Africa, and loved working with animals, and nothing would ever change that. But- somehow it didn't seem like she belonged here anymore.
The plague that she had given up her Ranger powers to combat had finally been defeated, thanks to her help in discovering a local plant which produced antibodies against the bacteria. She had spent most of the summer trying to think of what she now wanted to do with her life. Her parents would more than likely stay in Africa. They loved living and working with the tribe, especially her father, who had really grown into his position as the local doctor. But that wasn't what she wanted. More and more, she found herself poring over the letters from all her friends in Angel Grove, thinking about old times. God, she missed being a Ranger. Thanks to her giving up her Zeo Crystal to Tanya, her body had not quite weathered the time change the way the Rangers had. Her link to her Morphin powers was so faint as to be almost non-existent. She knew; after receiving Rocky's letter about the discovery of the Morphin Warriors, she had attempted to call on her own powers, just to see if she could. She got a minor flash of light, but nothing else.
But I'm still a Ranger, Aisha thought to herself. She might not have full powers anymore, but once a member of that brotherhood, you could never quite escape it. Not that she'd want to in any case. Maybe she should head back to Angel Grove, but she remembered that most of the team had scattered. Still, it was their epicenter, the place all of them would always be connected to. Even if she did return, though, what would she do there? She couldn't just hop the next flight for California, much as she would love to do so.
Suddenly a streak of light came screaming out of the sky, heading towards the east. As it disappeared over the horizon, Aisha was nearly knocked off her feet by a rush of wind and sound. Shock wave, she thought, barely coherent. Damn, I've been hanging around Billy too long.
Whatever it was, it looked to have come down pretty close, not more than a mile or so away. Aisha knew that she probably should head back to the village, tell one of the adults. Get someone to come with her and check it out. But instincts honed in a year of Rangering told her that she was the best and perhaps only person to handle it. Without really noticing it, Aisha had returned to thinking of her parents and friends as "civilians," as she had during her time on the team. And the inflexible rule, pounded into every Ranger's head, was "Civilians are protected." Taking a firmer grip on her walking stick, Aisha headed off in the direction of the impact.
Reaching the crater, Aisha gave a low whistle. "Shee-it," she remarked quietly. "Looks like somebody didn't hit the brakes." The object she had seen was really little more than a heap of twisted metal now, but she could tell that it had once been a spacecraft, probably a single-seater. Cautiously, she made her way closer. She didn't actually know the intentions of the pilot, but she figured that anyone who survived the crash would most likely be in no shape to give her trouble. If she found anyone alive, that was.
A stirring noise caught her attention. Moving closer, she realized that she was looking at some type of opaque crystal. Obviously it was the cockpit walls, burned and blackened by the crash. The noise came again from inside, softer this time. "Hold on," Aisha instructed. "I'll have you out of there in a minute." Using her stick, she managed to pry the damaged canopy open, revealing the person inside.
He- Aisha thought it was a he- was in bad shape. His black, featureless armor was scratched and dented in a number of places. Circuitry showed through in some spots, and Aisha wondered idly if he was a sentient robot, like Alpha, or a human in powered armor. It didn't matter, though, because she had to get him out of that plane fast.
"Can you get your arm around my neck?" she asked urgently. The pilot nodded, his black visor giving away nothing. "All right, then, do it," she ordered. Once he was secure, she managed to lift him out of the cockpit down to the ground. His legs would not support him, however, and he collapsed to a seated position. Aisha studied the damage to his armor with an in-drawn breath.
"Man, this does not look good. I don't care how high-quality that armor is, you've got internal injuries," she informed him. "We've gotta get you to a hospital."
He shook his head. "There is- no time," he managed, in a surprisingly light male voice. "Besides, your Earth hospitals would not know how to help me."
Aisha nodded, accepting that. "Damn it!" she cursed. "I shouldn't have given my communicator to Tanya. If I still had it, I'd bet Zordon could help you!"
"Zordon of- Eltare?" The man began to laugh, although the sound became coughing in spots. "Typical- luck," he managed. "You know Zordon, do you?"
"I used to be a Power Ranger," she replied. "My name is Aisha Campbell."
"Aisha. It's a- pretty name. I am- Korel Darsan, of the planet Sadrath. I am also known as the Phantom Ranger."
"There's gotta be something I can do to help you," she pleaded. He shook his head.
"By the time you found me, it was already too late. My death song was played when I crashed. I am just grateful that I was found, and by one such as you." Aisha frowned. "What to you mean?"
Korel did not answer, simply concentrated. In a flash of black, Aisha saw a young, handsome man sitting against the plane. His hair was a brilliant white, and his eyes were a truly unearthly shade of green. In one hand he held a spherical ruby, which Aisha remembered seeing in the chest plate of his armor.
"This is my Power Ruby. It controls the transformations of the Phantom Ranger. I came to Earth fleeing from a man named Darkonda. He recently failed in his efforts to seize the powers of the Gold Zeo Ranger, and so he attempted to take mine instead. I lost him, but-" his wry chuckle suddenly became a cough, "I paid the price for it. Aisha, Darkonda must not get his hands on these powers. I have always used them to champion the cause of good. As one of Zordon's pupils, I know that you will do the same. I ask you to become the Phantom Ranger, to protect the power until the day comes to pass it on to someone you deem worthy. It is a great responsibility, but no more than those that you have handled before. Will you do as I ask?"
"I don't know anything about being a Phantom Ranger," she protested. Korel smiled, a little rivulet of blood trickling from his mouth.
"The Ruby will tell you what to do. It's all instinct- rather like being a Power Ranger. When the time comes, you will know."
Aisha hung her head. "Then I'll do it. I'll take your place."
"Very well." As he moved to hand her the stone, a sudden thought struck him. "Are you a thief, Aisha Campbell?"
"Of course not!" she responded hotly. He sighed.
"Guess nobody's perfect." Then the stone was in Aisha's hand, and the world began to spin.
When Aisha came to her senses, the sun had moved on. Judging by its new position, she'd been out for almost an hour, entranced by the things that the Ruby was telling her. She now knew the powers and history of the Phantom Ranger, the mysterious champion of good who had roamed space since before the time of Ivan Ooze. Somewhere, tucked away, she possessed the memories of every being who had ever held these powers.
Her eyes fell on the still form of Korel Darsan, the former Phantom Ranger. Sometime during Aisha's bonding with the Ruby, he had died, but from the look on his face, it had been a welcome end, a respite from pain. Reaching out, Aisha closed his eyes, feeling an odd lump building in her throat. It seemed strange to grieve for a man she had never met, and yet she felt as if she had known him all her life. "Rest well, my friend," she said softly. Stepping away from the wrecked ship, she closed her eyes and clutched the Ruby tightly. For a moment, nothing happened, and then the ship and body faded into nothingness.
Alone again, Aisha regarded the gemstone in her hand. It sparkled in the sunlight, seeming almost alive. Matters were settled, then. The Phantom Ranger couldn't spend the rest of her life in Africa- the others would almost certainly need her help eventually. It was time to go back. But where?
New York City
"I hate the rain," Peter Venkman complained, looking out the windows of Ecto-1 as the converted hearse cruised slowly through the water-filled streets. "It's wet, and it's cold, and it makes your boots squelch." To illustrate, the psychologist wiggled his toes, evoking a sloshing noise. "The only thing worse than rain is running around in it, chasing undines for three hours. I just KNOW I'm gonna catch a cold."
Beside him, Egon Spengler smiled slightly. "Your condition is not completely due to the rain, Peter," he pointed out. "I believe a good portion of your drenching came from the undines."
"Yeah," agreed Winston Zeddemore, from where he sat in the driver's seat. "And considering all the names you were calling them, I can't exactly blame 'em."
Green eyes sparkling with anticipation, Peter prepared to plunge into the verbal battle with a will. He loved testing his wits against an opponent, and the other Ghostbusters were only too happy to oblige him without ever taking offense. Before he could begin, though, he was distracted by a figure trudging along the sidewalk ahead of them. "Hey, Winston," he realized. "Isn't that Zack Taylor?"
"Looks like it," the oldest of the Ghostbusters agreed.
Ray made a sympathetic sound. "He looks like he got some REALLY bad news. Pull over, Winston."
"Already on it, man." The car eased up alongside the sodden teenager and Peter winced. Ray was right; Zack looked miserable. He wasn't even wearing a jacket, and from the look in his dark eyes, he hadn't heard Ecto pull up next to him, either.
"Yo, Zack," Peter called, rolling down the window. "Hey, man, get in the car before you drown or catch pneumonia."
"Huh?" The Black Morphin Warrior startled, looking around to see who had spoken. "Oh, hi, Peter," he replied despondently. "Thanks, but I- I just want to walk for a while."
"Zack, if you go any farther down this street, you're going to be swimming," the psychologist insisted. "Come on, get in the car. We'll take you back to the firehouse, get you some hot cocoa and a towel, and you can tell me all about it. Dr. Venkman's going rates." During his time in the Power Chamber, Peter had learned that ANY type of psychological distress among the Rangers was bad news, and had to be dealt with as soon as possible. Otherwise, one or more of the villains would decide to take advantage of the weakness on the team. While Peter rather doubted any of the villains were monitoring them at the moment, he'd rather not take the chance.
After a moment, Zack shrugged. "Okay, if you insist. But I'm not responsible for the upholstery."
"Got it covered," Peter replied, gesturing to the towels on the seat. "Literally." Scooting over, the psychologist allowed the young man into the car, and the group began making its way back to the firehouse.
One shower later, Zack was sitting at the table in the firehouse kitchen, in a pair of gray sweatpants and a black T-shirt that he had borrowed from Winston. A mug of hot cocoa in his hand was sending steam up into the air, and Zack sipped at the hot liquid absently as the Ghostbusters puttered around the kitchen, trying to look like they had something to do. Despite his misery, Zack couldn't help a small smile. He'd had more than a few late-night study sessions at Ghostbuster Central, having found no better tutors in most of his classes than the four men who resided there. During those evenings, he'd had plenty of time to learn that when cocoa was served, it was time to open up about your problems. None of the Ghostbusters could get around it, and it looked as if he couldn't, either.
"All right," he sighed, only half in exasperation. "Sit down, let's talk." Zack stared absently at the mug in his hand. "What do you want to know?"
"Well," Peter replied, sinking into a chair with fluid grace, "why don't we start with the reason you look like the world is coming to an end?"
Zack rubbed a hand over his face. "Maybe because mine is," he muttered. "Angela dumped me," he admitted finally, not looking up.
"Aw, man, that's rough," Winston sympathized. "You guys were together a long time?"
"Little more than a year, but I'd been after her for most of high school," the teen admitted. "Man, I thought she walked on water, and she wouldn't even give me the time of day. Then, after I came back from the Peace Conference, and she said yes, I was on top of the world. I felt like I could take on Rita, Zedd, AND the Machine Empire, all by myself."
Ray laid a sympathetic hand on the younger man's shoulder. "And she broke up with you?"
Zack nodded. "Over the PHONE!" His voice cracked, and he took a moment to get his emotions under control. "She said that she didn't see me enough, that even when I was home, I was always with my friends, never had any time for her. I told her that she could come hang out with us, and she said that she never felt like she belonged. She said- when she saw me with my friends, she got the feeling that she didn't really know me at all- because I wouldn't let her."
He shook his head. "It's kind of funny, you know? It always used to be that I'd get a chance to impress her, and then Rita would attack. And I mean, there wasn't any choice to be made there. Angela or the world- not exactly a real dilemma. And now that I'm not on active duty, THAT'S when I lose her. Not to running out at all hours, but just to the secret, to the fact that we share it, and she doesn't. Now I see why Ranger/non-Ranger relationships never work out." Biting his lip, he continued in a much softer tone. "But I was so sure..."
Reaching out, Peter took the younger man's hand. "I can't say I know how you feel, Zack, because only you know that. But I've been there, buddy, and I know it hurts like hell." Black eyes came up to lock with green ones, as Peter continued. "You remember I told you about Dana? And I know you've seen the movie."
Zack nodded. "Sure, man. You two were an item, right?"
"Yeah." A slight note of bitterness colored Peter's voice. He didn't particularly like dredging up memories of this time, but if it would help Zack, he'd do it. "She dumped me, Zack. Actually, what happened was, she gave me an ultimatum. After everything that happened, Dana couldn't stand the idea of being exposed to the supernatural again. Can't say that I blame her. We dated for a while, but- in the end, she told me it was her or Ghostbusting. No, scratch that. It was her or the Ghostbusters. She didn't come right out and say it, but she was asking me to choose between her and my buddies." Peter shrugged. "Like you said, there wasn't much of a choice to be made." Egon's hand fell on Peter's shoulder and the physicist squeezed lightly, giving what comfort was possible.
"How could anybody ask something like that?" Zack asked, bewildered. To his surprise, it was Egon's bass rumble that answered.
"Some people simply cannot understand that you can love more than one person," the physicist explained. "Or love in more than one way. They see close relationships of any other kind as a threat."
"I know it hurts, Zack," Peter replied earnestly. "But you gotta remember, you've got friends who'll help you through it."
A genuine smile lit the Black Morphin Warrior's face. "Thanks, guys. I needed to hear that."
Currently he was sitting in his physics class, thanking any and all powers listening that he had Egon and Ray to tutor him in this particular subject. Nothing the professor said made any sense to him, perhaps due to the man's thick Indian accent. But if Egon could get Peter to pass physics, then he could certainly do the same for Zack. Besides, it was only the third day of class.
Suddenly, in the middle of a particularly impenetrable example, the door opened and a young woman walked in. Every one of Zack's nerves was instantly on alert. The girl looked incredibly familiar, but he couldn't seem to make the connection between the face and a name. She was short, probably smaller than Kimberly, with dark skin and hair. The hair was done up in lots of little braids and pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a yellow T-shirt and black jeans, and for some reason, those colors were also pulling at his memory.
"Can I help you?" the professor asked.
"Yeah, I'm Aisha Campbell," the girl replied. "I'm signed up for this class. I would have been here sooner, but my plane from Kenya was delayed by this killer storm."
The professor nodded. "Understandable. Please, take a seat." He waved at the class absently and turned back to the board.
Zack quickly cleared his books from the seat next to him, his mind exploding. Aisha Campbell- now he remembered who she was! He'd only seen Trini's replacement a few times, and those had been almost three years ago. He tapped the chair as she approached, hoping she'd take the hint and sit next to him. There were a hundred things he wanted to say to her, all running around in his head. First and foremost, though, was What were the odds of THIS?
Aisha sank into the seat offered to her, wondering why the handsome young man beside her was so desperate for her company. He looked like the type who could get dates just by thinking about it. And why did he look so familiar to her?
The class period flew by, neither teen paying too much attention to the man at the front of the room. When eleven-twenty rolled around, the room started to empty. Aisha turned to Zack with a teasing grin.
"Should I be flattered, or are you just really desperate?" she asked. He chuckled.
"You don't remember me, do you?" At her blank look, he shook his head. "I'm not surprised. I didn't recognize you either, until I heard your name. We met only a few times, three years ago. I'm Zack Taylor."
Aisha's eyes widened as a memory slammed home. "Oh my gosh! You were- um, the guy who showed Adam the ropes," she substituted, remembering that they were in public.
"Right, and you were Trini's friend," he agreed. "The guys said you went to Africa? What happened?"
"That's a LOOONG story," she sighed, "and one better told over lunch. Care to join me?"
Zack nodded. "Definitely. I don't have any classes for the rest of the day."
"Me either. Come on, let's go! And you can fill me in on everything that's happened since Rocky's letters stopped coming."
The crystalline warrior bowed, as much to escape the icy green eyes as in subservience. "Positive, master. It is the unmistakable signature of the Phantom Ranger's Ruby."
"But the overtones are different," Astronoma supplied, from beside Ecliptor. "It appears the Ruby has a new owner."
The Monarch of Evil rubbed his forehead with one slim-fingered hand. Today he wore the form of a Shade Elf from the planet Evelon. Black hair, green eyes, and deathly pale skin gave him the appearance of a handsome but menacing ghost. "Great, just great," the shape-shifter complained. Ecliptor startled at the sound of the Earth slang from his master. For one second, he wondered whether the planet had worked its spell on Dark Specter as well, then dismissed it. His master was as evil as ever, and had taken precautions against the power of Earth. The linguistic patterns were simply infectious. Ecliptor had caught them creeping into his own speech from time to time.
"The last thing I needed was yet ANOTHER Ranger," Dark Specter continued in a growl. "What does that bring the count up to now, Ecliptor?"
After some hasty mental calculations, the warrior replied, "Twenty-eight, my lord, counting only the powered members."
Dark Specter snorted. "Counting the support staff would give me a headache. Twenty-eight. Maybe I SHOULD have just attacked Fel'har." He shook his head. "No, I'd never have been able to live it down. Well, with so many Rangers, we need to boost our own powers. Any ideas?"
"Perhaps I can be of some assistance," a gravelly voice sneered. The three villains whirled, Ecliptor already knowing what they would find.
Sure enough, Darkonda was leaning against a doorway, examining his fingernails, the picture of indolence. Ecliptor growled in his throat, taking a step forward.
"YOU are not welcome here," he hissed, gesturing with his sword. Darkonda chuckled.
"YOU do not make those decisions," the Mephistan replied, mimicking the crystalline warrior's tone. "I have come, Great and Powerful Dark Specter, to offer my services to you. I am Darkonda of Mephistos. Perhaps you have heard of me?"
"Indeed, Darkonda," Dark Specter replied, an interested expression on his face. "Your involvement with the arrest of Zordon of Eltare is legendary throughout the Alliance."
"Yes, well, too bad it didn't turn out as I had hoped," Darkonda replied, shooting Ecliptor a glance. The warrior snorted.
"My lord, Darkonda is a treacherous swine who would stab his own mother in the back for gain- if he hadn't already sold her to the Tritharium mines. He can not be trusted."
Darkonda laughed. "Ecliptor is simply worried about his position, Dark Specter. After all, if he can't get the job done, why should you keep him around? Especially since he's growing soft."
"And what do you base THAT observation on?" Astronoma asked, her tone icy.
"He let the Red Zeo Ranger's sister go when he could have finished her- in fact, he intervened to rescue her from me! Perhaps there beats a soft heart under all that rock, eh, Ecliptor?"
"Not at all," Ecliptor replied, unruffled. "But Chelsea Oliver has a sense of fair play. I knew that if I intervened on her behalf, she would keep the Intergalactic Police from trying to arrest me- which she did. Pure self-interest."
Dark Specter nodded. "No doubt. But a strategist such as you, Darkonda, might be just what I need to tip the odds in my favor. Come, let us discuss this further- over a bottle of Dragontail Brandy?" The two villains left the throne room together, leaving Ecliptor and Astronoma behind.
"Why do you hate Darkonda so much, Ecliptor?" Astronoma wanted to know.
"Because he is a lying sack of Taarva waste with no more honor than a toad!" The warrior was quiet for a long moment, trying to control his anger, while Astronoma's hand rested on his shoulder. Honor was very important to Ecliptor, Astronoma knew that. And he had been her guardian and protector for as long as she could remember. If he thought Darkonda was dangerous, she would believe him. Something else tugged at her memory, and she raised an eyebrow.
"Did you really save the Red Zeo Ranger's sister from Darkonda?" she asked. At his nod, she continued. "Why?"
He was silent for a long moment, then sighed. "Because she reminded me very much of you."
Astronoma's eyes widened. "Oh," she managed. The two of them were silent then, staring out the window at the Earth below.
God, he'd missed having another Ranger to talk to. Oh sure, he and the others had been practically inseparable all summer, but now that college had started, he had been sure he was going to have another nine months of partial loneliness. The Ghostbusters were good friends, and it sometimes helped to talk to them about things, but they weren't Rangers, not even Peter, although the psychologist possessed the powers of a Morphin Warrior. Even though Zack and Aisha had never served on the same team, they still shared a lot of the same experiences, and understood a lot of the same jokes. It was a powerful connection, and one that Zack had missed profoundly during his freshman year.
"So why did you come back?" Zack asked, leaning back to stare at the sky. "I mean, from what I heard, the thing in Africa sounded pretty permanent."
Aisha sighed- not sadly, Zack thought, but more reflectively. "It was, at first," she agreed. "For a long time, we weren't making any headway, but at least we were keeping the disease from progressing. I spent most of that time as an extra pair of hands, missing the rest of the Rangers and wondering just what the hell I'd gotten myself into. After a while, though, I started to learn things, and I really began to fall in love with my work. And then one day, I found a plant that seemed to be making some of the wildebeest herds feel better. I took it back to the doctor, and we synthesized an antidote. It was over, and I felt so good! But after a while, the exhilaration wore off, and I realized I didn't want to stay in Africa. I knew I'd already missed a year of college, but I wasn't worried. A lot of what I learned on the veldt was transferable, thanks to the people I was working with. But- I wasn't where I needed to be. The only problem was, I didn't KNOW where I needed to be." She shifted slightly. "Then one day, everything changed."
Softly, Aisha related the story of her acquisition of the Phantom Ranger powers. Her voice nearly broke once, when she spoke of Korel's death, and Zack instinctively wrapped an arm around her shoulders, offering her what comfort he could. For some reason that she was reluctant to share with him, Aisha had formed a powerful bond with a man she had known for less than an hour. "The Phantom Ranger has fought for good for millennia," she finished. "I couldn't just stay in Africa and let it go to waste. And for some reason, I was drawn to New York."
"Back home," Zack mused. Aisha shot him a strange look.
"Back home. Look, in terms of ley line energy, the natural magic of the planet, New York and Angel Grove are practically mirror images of each other. New York's nexus isn't quite as big, but there's the same- intensity to the energy, which no other place on the globe has. Subconsciously, you wanted to come home."
"So why New York, and not Angel Grove?" Aisha wanted to know.
"Because Angel Grove is the center, but it's not the place the energy is. We're scattered, and we needed you to complete the pattern." Zack's eyes were partially glazed over, but Aisha was not alarmed. This had a tendency to happen when you became a Ranger. Any and all psychic abilities were enhanced by the Power, and you often ended up conveying information in a sort of trance. "You're the last one, the final one- and now you've returned. The powers are drawing inward, and the storm is approaching fast."
NOW Aisha was getting worried. Zack was slipping out of the normal "explanation mode" they all wound up in occasionally. This was getting to sound more and more like prophecy. She didn't much like those. For the Rangers, prophecies generally involved a lot of fear and danger. But she couldn't cut Zack off. He'd have to come back on his own.
"What storm?" she asked warily, trying to hurry him along. They'd have to run this by Zordon later, she reflected, and almost giggled at how naturally the Ranger thought-patterns came back.
"Dark clouds- thunder- shadows thought forgotten- three against the night. If they fail- eternal darkness." Zack's breathing was growing labored, and with a sudden cry, he came fully awake.
Aisha reached out a hand and laid it against Zack's sweaty forehead. "Zack, you're trembling. Are you all right?"
He nodded, trying to control his breathing. "Yeah," he grimaced. "I just HATE it when I start predicting the future. That's supposed to be Rocky's department."
"Do you remember what you were saying?" Zack shook his head.
"No, nothing. All I've got is this powerful conviction that a circle has closed."
"Before you started channeling, you said something about me being the last. What did that mean?"
He looked surprised. "I thought that was obvious. You're the last Ranger to come back to the team. Of everyone who's left, you were the only one NOT to come back. The last of Zordon's chosen has come home."
The semi-ominous tone of his words sent a chill down Aisha's spine. She had a feeling that something unpleasant was just over the horizon.
No, don't think of her. Think of the patterns, of your opponents before you. Dodge, weave, parry, thrust. Feel muscles responding, remember the heat of the sand beneath your feet and the sun reflecting off the crystal spires in the distance-
"Hrel!" Ecliptor cursed, slamming a hand into the nearest wall. Why couldn't he shake the memories of Kouseki, his home so many centuries ago? He had made his choice of which path to take. He had committed himself to the darkness, and had never once regretted his actions.
He wasn't sure he was regretting them now, to tell the truth. All he knew was that he couldn't stop thinking of his youth, when things had seemed so much simpler than they were now...
"You seem to be having a bad day, Ecliptor," a voice oozed behind him. Ecliptor didn't turn around.
This time, he vowed to himself, I will NOT let that son of a Daartha worm bait me. "I am well enough, Darkonda," the crystalline warrior replied coolly, continuing to stare out the window. "I would assume, from your presence here, that Dark Specter has retained your services?"
"Indeed, he has made me quite welcome," the Mephistan replied, chuckling. Ecliptor merely nodded. In truth, he had expected nothing else. Dark Specter believed himself to be the most cunning, underhanded, and completely evil villain in the entire universe. It wasn't Ecliptor's place to dispute that, although he had his doubts. But Dark Specter would never admit that Darkonda might possibly pose a threat, and the free agent's skill as a strategist nearly guaranteed him a place in Dark Specter's court.
"And what do you get out of this arrangement?" Ecliptor wanted to know, sounding bored.
"I get the powers of the Phantom Ranger for my own use, once the Rangers are no more," Darkonda chuckled. Ecliptor fought down a shudder at the idea of Darkonda with that much power.
I'm going to have to watch my back, Ecliptor reflected. Even if Dark Specter doesn't pit us against each other, Darkonda will certainly turn this into an attempt to gain the advantage. We have been enemies too long for that to ever change. Turning from the window, Ecliptor pinned his mortal enemy with a level red stare.
"You had best serve Dark Specter well, Darkonda. He does not tolerate failures- or traitors. And neither do I." With that, the crystalline warrior strode out of the room, leaving the Mephistan with the distinct feeling that he had just been one-upped.
The open area was swarming with Dark Specter's Quantrons, and the metallic warriors seemed intent on causing as much damage as possible. Students were frantically trying to escape, but the robots simply continued to hem them in. And standing in the center of the action, laughing maniacally, was a figure Zack knew only too well.
"Darkonda!" he growled. Beside him, Aisha startled.
"Darkonda? That's the name of the guy who's after the Phantom powers." Her jaw tightened as realization struck her. "He's here after me."
"Well then," Zack chuckled. "Maybe we should give him what he wants. I can't morph- Quantrons are cold iron. I'll take care of them in human form. You take on Darkonda. Sound good?"
Aisha nodded sharply. "Sounds great. Let's do it." Aisha extended her hand, and Zack was startled to see a spherical ruby appear. "Phantom Ranger Power!" she called. Black light flashed, and when it cleared, Zack caught sight of the Phantom Ranger for the first time. He whistled.
"Impressive," he allowed. "Come on, let's go take out the trash."
"Right." The two of them ran out into the plaza. While Zack plowed headlong into the closest mob of Quantrons, Phantom Ranger kept running until she reached the center of the disturbance- Darkonda.
"Looking for me?" she asked sweetly, dropping into a battle stance. Hundreds of memories, both her own and those of the Phantoms, whispered in her muscles.
"Ah, the Phantom Ranger," Darkonda chuckled. "I must admit, I'm surprised to see that the powers have been passed on to a woman."
"As an Earth poet once said, 'The female of the species is more deadly than the male,'" Phantom Ranger reminded him. "Come on, Darkonda, if you want my powers, you'll have to take me on."
The Mephistan simply chuckled. "Not yet, my dear Phantom Ranger. This particular assault was simply to allow us to meet face to face. Our reckoning will come at a later date." With that, the alien vanished.
"I don't like the way he said that," she mused. Looking over to check on Zack, she saw that he was outnumbered and tiring fast. "Hold on!" she yelled. "I'm coming!" And the Phantom Ranger plowed back into the fight with a will.
It seemed as if the two of them were drowning in a sea of Quantrons when an unfamiliar sound caused Phantom Ranger to look up from her work. Behind her impassive helmet-face, her jaw dropped. "Zack, correct me if I'm wrong- but- aren't those the Ghostbusters?"
The siren penetrating his consciousness as well, Zack looked up to see Ecto-1 barreling down the street towards them. Zack's grin widened as he saw the converted hearse swerve, not to avoid a Quantron, but to actually mow one down. "I don't think Winston is ever going to let Ray drive again," the young man chuckled. As the car skidded to a stop, the four Ghostbusters piled out, three of them looking decidedly green. Even Winston was pale. Ray, on the other hand, was all bounce and excitement.
"Wow, a Quantron attack! What do you suppose they're after, Peter?"
The older man shook his head fondly. "I don't know, Tex, but I do know we can't let them get their hands on it. Everybody, open fire!" A hail of proton bolts struck the press of robotic minions, and the Quantrons quickly decided that they'd had enough. They vanished in a hail of silver light. Shipping their throwers, the Ghostbusters walked over to the two figures in the middle of the courtyard.
Winston shook his head at Zack's presence. "Zack Taylor. Why am I not surprised to find you in the middle of this?"
"Those moderate ESP abilities?" the Black Morphin Warrior offered, his face in a huge grin. "What are you guys doing here, anyway?"
Egon adjusted his glasses. "The Dean called us to take care of a ghost problem. And, speak of the devil, he is coming this way, so I would suggest that you and your friend slip off and find a quiet place to demorph. Meet us back by Ecto when you're done. I think you have a great deal to fill us in on."
"You aren't kidding," Zack replied fervently. "Come on, Aisha. Let's go get changed."
"What was I supposed to tell him, Ray?" the psychologist defended himself. "No, sir, you didn't have a ghost problem. You were just invaded by the robotic minions of an alien from outer space. Why were they here? Well, two of your students are superheroes, that's all." Venkman shook his head. "Ray, he would have called the men in white coats before I got past the second word. Besides, we haven't had a job since the undines. We could use the money."
"I agree with Peter," Egon interjected.
The younger man rolled his eyes. "It's a miracle!" he declared. Shooting his colleague a poisonous look, Spengler continued, apparently unruffled.
"Better not to dump something on the Dean that he is entirely unprepared to handle. He's come to the point of accepting ghosts, but Power Rangers is another matter."
By this time, Zack had led the slightly dumbstruck Aisha up to where Janine Melnitz sat at her desk, watching the by-play with amusement. "Hey, Janine, I want you to meet Aisha Campbell, an old friend of mine from Angel Grove."
The secretary smiled. "Nice to meet you, Aisha. Welcome to the nut house, although considering some of the things you must have seen during your Ranger career, this place can't be TOO bad."
"Zack, what is going on here?" Aisha exploded suddenly, her puzzlement obvious. "How do you know the Ghostbusters? And why do they know all about the Rangers?"
"Whoa, calm down," Winston chuckled, as he finished hanging his coveralls up in his locker. "We'll tell you the whole story, but not yet. Let's get upstairs and get comfortable first. I have a feeling that there's going to be a LOT of information flying around."
Peter nodded, running a hand through his dark hair. "Amen to that," he replied. "Every time we cross paths, the stories get longer and weirder."
Zack chuckled. "Chill out, Peter. For you guys, weird is a way of life."
Before the psychologist could come up with a suitable retort, a ball of green slime came barreling down the stairs, keening in a voice that could shatter concrete. "PEEEETER!"
"AUGHHH!" Venkman's scream rang through the firehall as he received the full brunt of the little ghost's sliming. "SLIMER!"
Reaching across the kitchen table, Winston took the girl's hand. "Forget that," he ordered, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. "If you'd stayed in Kenya, or run off somewhere even more isolated, you wouldn't have had a single ally against Darkonda. Here, you've got Zack and us, and the rest of the Rangers if necessary. And if Darkonda got your powers, innocent civilians would be in even more trouble than they are now."
Aisha smiled at the older man. "Thanks, Mr. Zeddemore. I needed to hear that."
Shaking his head in mock exasperation, Winston grinned. "I told you, it's Winston. "Mr. Zeddemore" has me looking over my shoulder for my dad."
Egon nodded. "Besides, Ghostbuster Central is fairly informal."
"So now that we know why Darkonda's here," Zack broke in, returning the conversation to its original track, "why would he sic the Quantrons on the school, anyway? There wasn't anything he wanted there, and he had to know that when he left, his Quantrons were going to get plastered."
"He said the assault was to 'allow us to meet face-to-face,'" Aisha offered. "Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure what that means."
Peter looked thoughtful. "Zack, how is it that the bad guys all know who you are, when you're out of uniform, anyway?"
"Well, Rita saw the first five of us transform, and she was just able to watch us all after that. Zedd learned our identities from her, and after that, our names and faces were all over the Alliance 'Wanted' lists. You oughtta see the price on Tommy's head. Why?"
"I know!" Ray snapped his fingers. "Darkonda didn't know who Aisha was! So he lured her out, and then after she won, he could continue to watch and see who she demorphed into, via Specter's scanners, right?"
The psychologist grinned. "Gold star, Tex." Aisha made a face.
"So what you're saying is that I've basically advertised my identity to Darkonda."
"Yeah," Zack agreed. "So? It just puts you on the same footing that you had before."
The girl sighed, massaging her temples. "Yeah, it just annoys me that I lost an advantage before I even knew I had it."
Pushing his glasses a little farther up on the bridge of his nose, Egon regarded the other five occupants of the table with a serious blue gaze. "I think, from what I have been told of Zordon's trial, that it is safe to state that Darkonda will undoubtedly launch more attacks, more serious attacks, in the near future. How do we intend to deal with them?"
"We?" Peter asked, one eyebrow raised eloquently. "Yes, we," Egon replied, his tone immovable. A hint of amusement sparkled in his eyes, however. "After all, Peter, you're a Power Ranger, too."
For a while, everything was quiet. Zack had delivered the news of Aisha's return to the rest of the teams, via communicator, and plans were being laid for some type of get-together the next time everyone had a break. Coordinating twenty-eight schedules was difficult, however, and nothing was yet concrete.
Meanwhile, Aisha had become as much of a regular at the firehouse as Zack. Janine in particular appreciated her presence, saying it finally gave her someone she could talk to on a woman-to-woman basis. The five males had exchanged glances and decided it was better not to ask.
On this particular evening, Zack and Aisha were up on the roof at Ghostbuster Central, enjoying the stars on a rare smog-free night. It was something they often did when they needed to get away from the bustle of campus life. Sometimes one or more of the Ghostbusters would join them, but tonight it was just the two of them, staring up at the twinkling heavens.
"Were you ever in love?" Zack asked suddenly, breaking the companionable silence that had arisen between them. Aisha blinked.
"For real?" she replied, considering. "Probably not. I've thought I was, a lot of times. No, that's not right either. Once or twice, I really thought I was, but most of the time, I just wanted to believe it. I was a pretty romantic kid in middle school, sure that the love of my life was going to come around a corner any minute and sweep me off my feet."
"Those times you thought you were in love- what happened?"
Aisha laughed. "Well, one of them was Adam, and you can probably guess what happened. We were in seventh grade, and I thought it had hit. I'd just noticed what a hunk he was, and I'm sure you can imagine the rest for yourself. Anyway, we went out on one date, and we realized that what we were really feeling was just friendship, with a little bit of attraction on the side. Don't get me wrong, I love Adam with all my heart, but there's nothing romantic about that. We're friends, and that's all we need."
"What about the other time?" Zack asked hesitantly. Aisha's face darkened, and Zack realized he'd hit an unpleasant memory. "If you don't want to talk about it, we can just forget it," he hurried on.
Shaking her head, Aisha flashed him a smile. "No, it's okay. It was after we became Rangers, actually. I hadn't been at Angel Grove long, and he was one of the best-looking, most popular guys in the school. I was flattered that he wanted to go out with me, of all people. What I didn't realize was that he had SERIOUS control issues. He couldn't stand coming off second best, especially to me, and he hated the idea that four of my best friends were guys, good-looking guys at that. Finally he told me that he didn't want me hanging around with the guys anymore, especially not Adam. Seems he had some sort of idea that I was cheating on him, with Adam, of all people. I told him I wasn't going to dump my friends for him, and if he wanted me to, we could just end it right there.
"A couple days later, we were in the hall and he made this- comment about me that wasn't very flattering. I'd never seen Adam react like that before. Rocky and Billy literally had to hold him back, or he would have ripped the guy apart. That's when Kim told him to leave, and if she heard word one of that getting around the school, some VERY pissed off martial artists would pay the guy a visit. My ex-boyfriend split, and that was the last I saw of him."
Zack was silent for a long moment. Then he laughed, although there was little humor in the sound. "Geez, I had it easy. All I got was a "Dear John" phone call."
Aisha nodded. "I heard about Angela," she replied. "And I wouldn't say you had it easy, Zack. Breaking up with someone still hurts, no matter what."
"I really thought I was in love with her," he sighed, sounding lost and alone. "And now, I just don't know. I talked to Peter, and that helped a lot, but- it still hurts so much, you know? It's just not fair."
"I know. It hurts like hell, it's not fair, and it sucks worse than a vacuum cleaner. Sometimes things turn out that way. But you know I'm here for you, right?"
He nodded. "I know, and it's nice to have a friend." A thought suddenly struck him. "Hey, Aisha. Your ex, what was his name?"
"His name? Shawn. Shawn Corman."
"The baseball star? The Sultan of Swat? THAT Shawn Corman?" Zack blinked.
Aisha nodded, a puzzled frown on her face. "Yeah, that's the one. Why?"
Zack began to laugh, until he looked as if he was going to fall out of his chair. "God, no WONDER Adam hates his guts! The guy hasn't changed! He wound up doing the same thing to Tanya when she struck him out."
"Tanya? Adam's girlfriend actually DATED that louse?" Aisha was stunned for a minute, then joined Zack in his laughter.
The hammer finally came down one gorgeous afternoon, while Aisha and Zack were heading back from class. They had no sooner entered the Quad when a flash of light deposited Darkonda and a troop of Quantrons in the middle of the open area. With so many witnesses, Aisha and Zack were unable to morph. Instead, they quickly dropped into defensive stances, waiting for the charge.
It was not long in coming. A veritable sea of robotic warriors washed over the pair. Punching, kicking, dodging, and weaving, Aisha suddenly realized that she was being herded away from her companion. "Zack!" she yelled. "They're trying to separate us!"
"Tell me something I don't know!" the Black Morphin Warrior called back, his voice taut. Suddenly a lucky shot by a Quantron caught him in the gut, dropping him to his knees. Seeing him go down, Aisha tried to break through the press between them, but could not. She could only watch, horrified, as Darkonda slung her winded friend over his shoulder, laughing repulsively.
"I'm afraid your friend and I have some matters to discuss, Phantom Ranger," he laughed wickedly. "But I'll leave you a little something to make sure you're not bored while I'm gone. Cyberbat!" A flash of light, and a monster stood beside Darkonda, looking like a cross between Batman and the Terminator. "Keep our Phantom Ranger company, will you? I have some things to- take care of." Light flashed once more, and the Mephistan was gone.
Aisha looked around her, realizing that the Quad was now extremely empty. Her face set, she whipped out her Power Ruby and held it in front of her. "Phantom Ranger Power, now!" she called. In a swirl of black energy, the Phantom Ranger stood ready for battle. "All right, Batboy," she snarled, "let's rock."
Quickly, Phantom Ranger learned why Darkonda had chosen a bat monster for this particular fight. Thanks to the creature's sonar abilities, her cloaking device was almost useless. Without backup and unable to use most of her abilities, Phantom Ranger was getting hammered.
"You're pathetic," Cyberbat sneered, picking the exhausted Ranger up by the throat. "You weren't even a workout, human."
"Got- one more trick- up my sleeve," Phantom Ranger panted.
"And what's that?"
Cyberbat was answered by a hail of proton bolts slamming into its back. Dropping Phantom Ranger, it whirled to see the Ghostbusters standing behind it. Apparently, the Dean had made another phone call. "Hey, Dork Knight!" Peter yelled. "The cavalry just arrived."
"You gonna give up and go back to Dark Specter, or do we have to get rough?" Winston added.
"Give me a break!" the monster laughed. "What can four puny humans do to me?"
Phantom Ranger's voice sounded directly in Cyberbat's ear. "Well, they make one hell of a distraction," she informed it, launching a powerful kick into the small of its back. The creature flew across the Quad, striking another wall and sliding down. Suddenly green light shot down from the sky, bathing the creature in radiance and causing it to expand to a hundred feet in height.
"Ooh boy," Ray swallowed.
Phantom Ranger tapped her communicator. "Zordon, I could use some help here!" Only static greeted her. "Zordon? Tommy? Anybody?" No response.
"Communications must be jammed," mused Egon.
Slamming her hand into a nearby wall, Phantom Ranger swore violently. "Darkonda's going to do- something with Zack, and he's trying to keep me busy with this thing while he does it!"
"Well, I'd say we're fairly distracted here," Winston observed wryly. "We've got a hundred-foot bat in the middle of downtown New York, and no Zords to take care of the problem."
Phantom Ranger cocked her head. "I wouldn't say that," she grinned. Closing her eyes, she concentrated. The ruby set in her chest flashed once, and slowly, five battle machines materialized on the streets of New York. Vaguely humanoid in shape, one looked like a firefighter, one a construction worker, one a nurse, one a cop, and one a sanitation worker. "Guys, meet the Rescue Zords," Phantom Ranger announced.
As usual, Peter Venkman was the first to find his voice. "Those aren't Zords!" he exclaimed. "Those are the Village People!" The other three Ghostbusters snickered.
"They look kind of like they fit with the Turbo Zords," Ray observed. Phantom Ranger shrugged.
"They were given to one of the Phantom Rangers a long time ago. They don't exactly have a set form- I guess it's because the colors match up."
Egon adjusted his glasses, looking at the huge mechs towering above them. "So now that we have Zords, who's going to pilot them?"
"We are," declared Phantom Ranger. "You guys all still have low-level links to the Power, enough to let you pilot these things. I can take the fifth one."
"No way," protested Winston. "That's what Darkonda wants you to do. He's distracting you with this thing so that he can do- whatever to Zack without interference. You've gotta go after Zack now."
Phantom Ranger shook her head. "We don't have a fifth pilot. Besides, I couldn't get onto the Dark Fortress anyway."
"Neither can Darkonda," Egon pointed out. "He doesn't dare drop the shielding long enough to transport out. Zordon would know what was occuring, and would almost certainly mount a rescue mission."
"As for a fifth pilot," Peter began slowly, knowing he would probably regret it, "how about Janine?"
"WHAT?" Egon replied, whirling. "Absolutely not!"
Ray laid a calming hand on the physicist's shoulder. "Come on, Egon, where are you going to find anyone who's absorbed enough PKE to be able to control a Zord?"
"Yeah," nodded Winston. "Besides, isn't it her decision?"
"It's far too dangerous," Egon protested.
"Spengs," Peter replied gently, "she'll be a lot safer in a Zord than on the ground."
Egon seemed to deflate at that and nodded.
"I'll go get her," Phantom Ranger said quietly. She disappeared in a sparkle of black light, and seconds later reappeared with a startled secretary in tow.
"Aisha told me everything," Janine informed them, overcoming her surprise at being teleported. "Let's do it."
"Peter, Egon, Winston, you guys will have the Zords that have your color assignments. Peter, that gives you Thunder Loader, Egon's got Siren Blaster, and Winston gets Wind Rescue."
The black man grimaced, casting a glance above him. "A nurse? And I thought pink was bad."
"Ray, Janine, you guys don't have Zords in your colors, so I'm kind of guessing. There's some red/white sympathy in the Morphin Grid, so Ray gets Lightning Fire Tamer, which leaves Janine with the yellow one, Star Racer. Once you guys get into the Zords, you should know what to do."
Reaching down to his belt, Egon pulled a PKE meter off, quickly made several adjustments and handed it to Phantom Ranger. "This meter is set to detect Zack's Morphin Power signature. With it, you can track him anywhere in the city."
Phantom Ranger took the device gratefully. "Thanks, Egon. Good luck." The Power Ruby flashed again, and the five adults dissolved into pillars of light, four white and one mint green. Then, activating the PKE meter, Phantom Ranger took off on the trail of her friend.
"All right, heads up, people," Peter called, as the five adults maneuvered the Rescue Zords to surround the Cyberbat. "This is going to be nasty."
"Are you kidding, Peter?" Ray's voice came back. "This is GREAT!"
Winston snorted. "Ray, I'm going to assume your cockpit is decorated VERY differently from mine. And if I'm wrong, I DON'T wanna know."
"Janine?" Egon called, concern obvious in his voice. "Are you all right?"
There was no answer for a second, then the secretary's reply crackled from the radio. "Just fine, Egon. I'm just kind of- absorbing everything. It's weird, but somehow I know exactly what all the controls do."
"Low-level telepathic contact, similar to the connection between Rangers and their Zords," the physicist replied. "We've all got it."
"So now what?" Peter asked practically. Suddenly Cyberbat threw a punch at him, and Thunder Loader barely ducked in time. "I had to ask." The green Zord wound up and launched a punch directly into the Cyberbat's midsection. The creature blocked, and a kick sent the massive Zord reeling back along the street. Only a number of swift maneuvers on Peter's part kept the huge machine from crashing into the buildings.
Winston's voice crackled over the radio. "There's no traffic, but how are we going to keep this thing from knocking us into the scenery?"
"I'm open to suggestions!" was Ray's reply, ducking as the monster launched an energy beam at him.
"I think I've got it!" Janine called. "There's a button on my console labeled 'Emergency Teleport.' If we all grab him and hit it, we can get him out of the city!"
Egon nodded, forgetting for a second that the secretary couldn't see him. "Good plan, Janine. Let's do it!" In unison, the five machines lumbered forward, all latching onto Cyberbat at once. Then in a flash of white radiance, they were gone.
Darkonda chuckled, not looking at the young man who was his prisoner. "And why not? It's useful for my purposes, and it isn't as though I have to stay here indefinitely. Only until my little project is done."
Zack rolled his eyes. He had been attempting to take advantage of the Mephistan's inattention by working at the restraints holding him to the table. As yet, however, he had met with little success. "Okay, since this is the part where the villain spills his plans to the captive hero for the home audience, I'll bite. What is this "little project," and how the heck do you expect to beat Aisha with it? Your Cyberbat couldn't squeak his way out of a paper bag."
"Cyberbat? Oh, no, that thing is merely a distraction. Although if it manages to destroy the Phantom Ranger and bring her powers to me, I wouldn't be too unhappy. Even if she does somehow manage to pull a Zord out of that bag of tricks, she'll still be kept far too busy to do anything else. So do stop struggling. No-one is going to come to your rescue until it's far too late."
"What are you planning, Darkonda? I'll never work for you, you know that."
Darkonda laughed. "Not willingly, of course. But I have ways of ensuring your cooperation."
Zack fought back the sudden chill that shot along his spine at the Mephistan's words. He'd seen what the aftereffects of mental control were, and he had no desire to undergo such treatment. The thought of Darkonda wading merrily through his mind, changing anything he saw fit, had Zack's stomach curling painfully. However, rather than show this, he forced a scornful look on his face and continued.
"As if I could really take Aisha out. I'm only a Morphin Warrior, a half-strength power. Aisha's a full Ranger, even if it's not pure Morphin energy."
"Therein lies your problem, Ranger. You're so centered on one way of doing things that going around an obstacle never crosses your mind."
Suddenly, the awful realization of what Darkonda was planning broke into Zack's mind. "An assassin. You'll let her think she's rescued me, and then-"
"Exactly. One or two blows when she's not on guard should take care of the problem nicely."
"I'll kill myself first," the teen declared, defiant. "I won't let you use me against my friends."
Darkonda finally turned around, a syringe held in one hand. "Since you're the one tied to the table, I don't think you really have a choice," the villain observed wryly. "You know," he continued, crossing over to the boy, "you humans have truly come up with some interesting methods of behavior modification. I've been looking forward to trying some of these techniques out." Raising the needle, Darkonda laughed. "I wish I could say this wouldn't hurt a bit, Ranger, but I'd be lying." With that, the Mephistan injected the contents of the syringe into Zack's arm. With the current speed of the young Ranger's heart, it didn't take long for the drug to take effect.
"No," Zack murmured, his eyes drifting closed, despite fighting to keep them open. "I won't let you..."
"You're stubborn, Ranger, I'll give you that," Darkonda laughed. "But I'm afraid your fighting is futile. I have all the time in the world."
At that moment, the sound of running footsteps got both of their attentions. A smile crossed Zack's lips, despite the effort the motion took. "I- don't know about that..."
The last thing that Zack Taylor saw was the door to the warehouse exploding inward. Then the darkness reached up to claim him.
"I'm all right, Peter," his friend responded, sounding a bit winded. "Remind me to make a BIG donation to the National Park Service when we're done here, okay?"
The psychologist chuckled. "Got it, Tex." The five of them had managed to move the battle to the outskirts of town, but unfortunately, things were not going much better. Several times, the monster had nearly brought them to their knees with sonic barrages. Peter winced as his thoughts were interrupted by yet another of the sound attacks.
"Does this remind anyone of a certain banshee?" Winston asked, shouting to be heard over the radio. "Peter?"
Making a face, Venkman immediately responded. "You're never gonna let me live that down, are you, Zed? That was not my fault! Besides, Shanna O'Callahan was a lot prettier than this thing."
"The banshee!" Egon cried suddenly. "Winston, that's brilliant! My Zord is equipped with communications equipment and a loudspeaker. We can use the same trick that we used on Shanna on the Cyberbat!"
Janine also remembered the case. (She remembered all of the stories where Egon saved the day. Plus she never lost an opportunity to tease the quartet about their "punk look.") "Feedback! Do you think it'll work?"
"Only one way to find out," the physicist replied grimly. "Cover your ears!" As his four companions did so, Spengler quickly began blasting amplifier feedback at the Cyberbat, which responded by turning up its own volume. Unfortunately, Siren Blaster had a much better sound system than Cyberbat, and the creature's sonic emitter quickly shattered.
"All right!" Ray cried. "Now it's hand to hand."
Winston sounded concerned. "Careful, Ray. This guy's still dangerous."
"You bet I am!" Cyberbat sneered. Suddenly it launched a volley of lasers. Lightning Fire Tamer and Wind Rescue caught the edges of the blast, but Star Racer was right in the middle, taking the brunt of it. The Zord fell to its knees, and all four Ghostbusters could hear their secretary's cry of pain.
Suddenly the monster was sent reeling back from a powerful punch to the jaw. When it's vision cleared, Cyberbat found Siren Blaster standing between it and the fallen Yellow Zord.
"Don't even think about it," Egon snapped. Over in Thunder Loader, Peter grinned to himself. His best friend might pretend to be unaware of or indifferent to Janine's advances, but the physicist was always the first one to defend her in a crisis.
"You all right, Janine?" Ray asked, as Wind Rescue and Lightning Fire Tamer helped Star Racer to its feet.
"Fine," the secretary shot back, a hint of her old Brooklyn accent coming out.
Winston chuckled to himself. Janine had lost the accent thanks to a marauding ghost, but it still made an appearance from time to time. When it showed up, it meant that she was seriously pissed.
The five Zords continued to pummel on the stunned Cyberbat for a few more minutes. Finally, Ray called a halt. "I think we've softened it up enough, guys. Form the Rescue Megazord!"
With the instinctive knowledge of Zord operations that the minor links gave, the five managed to execute the gestalt merge without a problem. Now all in one cockpit, Peter threw a grin at Ray, who was occupying the main pilot's seat.
"Enjoying yourself, Stantz?" the psychologist wanted to know. The younger man shot him a blazing smile.
"Immensely. But I think it's time to finish this off. Artillery Power, NOW!" Two cannons appeared on the shoulders of the Zord. Twin bursts of energy launched from the weapons, slamming into the monster and obliterating it. For a long moment, all was quiet. Then Janine pumped a fist into the air.
"We did it!"
Peter nodded. "Yeah. Can we go home now?"
"Certainly, Peter," Egon replied. "I'll set the Zord teleportation system to send us back to the firehouse. Aisha will no doubt meet us there once she has finished her own mission. The Zords should go back into subspace storage." Making his adjustments, the blond pressed a button on the console, and the five of them dissolved into pillars of light.
The trail led to an abandoned warehouse in a bad section of town, but Phantom Ranger barely noticed. All her attention was on her friend's bioreadings, which were beginning to fluctuate erratically. Speeding up, she approached the warehouse that was her target at a dead run.
As she approached the door, Phantom Ranger dropped her shoulder and crashed through the wood in a way that would have made Rocky proud. It would also have given Adam ulcers, but that was beside the point. As the debris settled around her, Phantom Ranger saw Zack, strapped to some sort of table. Even as she watched, his eyes slid closed, and his entire body relaxed. With a low growl, she turned to face Darkonda.
"What did you do to him?" she demanded, her voice dangerous.
The Mephistan laughed. "It really doesn't matter now, Phantom Ranger. But I'm curious- how did you defeat the Cyberbat and find us so quickly? Or did you simply abandon your Ranger duties for your friend here?"
"Neither, scumbag," Phantom Ranger shot back. "Let's just say that you should never underestimate the importance of having friends to bail you out!"
"Well, you're all alone right now, Phantom Ranger. Perhaps I'll destroy you myself!" With that, Darkonda summoned his sword and charged. Phantom Ranger responded by flickering into invisibility.
A powerful kick caught Darkonda in the midsection, followed by another to his back. Unable to see his opponent, the Mephistan was being knocked around like a rag doll. Crashing into a crate, he fell to the ground. As he levered himself painfully to his knees, he coughed.
"I thought you Rangers were supposed to fight fair," he growled.
A scornful laugh came from the air to his right. "Fair?" Phantom Ranger asked, disbelieving. "You don't even know the meaning of the word!" Darkonda launched an energy volley at the apparent source of the voice, but struck nothing. "You don't deserve fairness, Darkonda." Another shot, another miss. "You kidnapped my friend, and did God knows what to him- you tried to have my mentor destroyed, you've tried to kill most of my other friends!" Darkonda was suddenly hauled to his feet. Slowly Phantom Ranger shimmered into existence, her faceplate right up against Darkonda's face. "Goldar and Rito have more honor than you. You are nothing but a distempered animal that should be put to sleep." The cold black glass of Phantom Ranger's visor showed nothing at all, but Darkonda suddenly had the powerful conviction that he was looking into the face of Death itself.
Then he was shoved away roughly, striking another crate as he fell. "But I'm a Ranger. I don't kill in cold blood," she informed him. "That's YOUR department. Now get out of here, before I change my mind."
"As you wish, Phantom Ranger," Darkonda chuckled, standing painfully. "But we shall meet another day!" He disappeared in a hail of yellow light.
"And I'll be waiting," Phantom Ranger replied to the empty air. Then, turning to her unconscious friend, she began undoing the straps that held him to the table.
"What happened?" he asked, concerned.
Black light fell away from the armored Ranger, revealing Aisha Campbell, looking extremely worried. "Darkonda gave him some sort of drug, I think," she responded. "From the setup he had in that warehouse, I think he was trying some type of brainwashing." The girl shuddered, remembering some of the paraphernalia she had seen.
Peter didn't know exactly what had been in that warehouse, but he could form a pretty good guess. Reaching out, he squeezed Aisha's shoulders for a second before turning to examine Zack. After taking his pulse and checking his pupils, the psychologist nodded.
"Looks like he was given some sort of pentathol derivative, generally used in brainwashing. Let him sleep for a while, and he should be fine." Carefully, Peter did not mention some of the new brainwashing drugs that turned the mind into Swiss Cheese. Aisha didn't need to worry any more than she already was.
"He'd probably more comfortable in a bed. Do you guys have a guest room?" she asked. Peter nodded.
"Yeah. Just let me get Winston to help me move him. He's kind of heavy."
"You're awake," Winston Zeddemore observed. Amusement was audible in his voice. "How are you feeling?"
Zack made a face. "Like shit, thanks for asking." As his head stopped spinning, he examined his surroundings. Finding himself in the guest bedroom at Ghostbuster Central, he cocked an eyebrow at the man sitting next to his bed. "I guess the cavalry made it in time?"
The Ghostbuster nodded. "Yep. She broke the door down just as you passed out." Zack sighed in relief. He didn't feel any different, but that was often the point of mental control. After taking a few deep breaths, the Morphin Warrior felt capable of sitting up.
It took numerous tries and a lot of leaning on Winston, but Zack finally was able not just to sit up, but to stand. Despite Zack's assurances that he was steady, the older man refused to let go of his younger friend's arm as they headed out into the hall.
"Forget it, kiddo," Zeddemore grinned. "I'm at the point where Peter Venkman himself can't con me anymore. You don't have a chance."
"You don't have to be so smug about it," Zack grumbled, but a smile was breaking on his face as well.
As the two of them approached the kitchen, the smell of food wafted out towards them. For just a second, Zack felt his stomach turn over at the thought of eating. Then it was past, and he realized that he was practically starving. Entering the kitchen, he found Peter stirring industriously at a pot, and the rest of the group seated around the kitchen table. Noticing the young man's entrance, Ray quickly waved Zack into a seat between him and Aisha. Zack sank into the chair gratefully.
"I see you're awake," Egon commented, shoving his glasses up on his nose. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone ran me over with a steamroller, but I'm okay."
Peter's voice suddenly piped up behind him. "You were given a pretty big dose of pentathol, so you're gonna be a little wobbly for the rest of the night. This soup's almost done- you'll feel better when you have something in your stomach."
The teen snorted. "I couldn't possibly feel worse." Janine was closest to the refrigerator, and she quickly snagged a can of Coke, passing it to the younger man. Thanking her, he took a sip and relaxed as the carbonation helped settle his stomach. "One thing I don't quite get," he remarked. "Darkonda made Cyberbat grow to try and keep Aisha busy. But she came right after me. What happened to Cyberbat?"
The Ghostbusters exchanged glances, and then Egon launched into the story. As he talked, Peter threw out smart comments, which Janine responded to without fail. Zack grinned- it was almost like listening to Rocky and Kim. As the story wound down, Zack shook his head.
"Man, you guys are practically full-fledged Rangers now."
Peter snorted. "Yeah? Too bad superheroes don't get paychecks." The others just shook their heads, knowing that Peter was nowhere near as money-grubbing as he liked to pretend. Then the soup was being served, and the conversation turned to other things.
After dinner, Zack and Aisha found themselves on the roof again, staring out at the city lights. After a long moment, Zack broke the silence. "Look, Aisha, I just wanted to thank you for saving my butt today. If you hadn't-" he broke off, shivering.
"I know," she replied sympathetically, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I remember what happened to Kat. But you know I'll always be there for you, don't you? That's what friends are for."
He nodded. "Yeah." Then he smiled. "So- speaking of friends, would you want to go see a movie with me on Saturday?"
Aisha grinned. "I'd love to- friend." Clasping hands, they went back
downstairs, to join the rest of the party.