The universe is governed by immutable laws, laws that form the fabric of reality. Stars burn, gravity pulls things down, nothing can be created or destroyed, and toast always lands butter-side down, especially on a dirty floor. We grow to expect these laws, to trust our perceptions by conformance to them. And when one of them is broken, it's a once-in-a-lifetime event.
One such event had just occurred on Dark Specter's Dark Fortress. Ecliptor and Darkonda had just agreed with each other, startling everyone in range. Ecliptor, first to get over his shock, continued.
"My lord, with all due respect, this plan will never work! Every villain who has ever attacked this planet has tried to create their own team of evil Rangers, and they've all failed miserably."
Darkonda nodded. "How can we possibly defeat the Rangers if we repeat the mistakes made by others?"
Dark Specter chuckled, an evil, liquid sound. Today he was in the form of an Earth human, with pale skin, black hair, and cat-green eyes, but he still exuded an aura of otherworldliness. "You fail to understand. The plan itself is not flawed in principle, simply in execution. Who better to defeat a Ranger than himself? The best copies, however, have always duplicated the goodness of their originals, and the less faithful imitations are no match for the real Rangers. It would seem an impasse which none can surmount."
"But you have found a way," Ecliptor stated. Although it was not a question, Dark Specter nodded.
"Oh yes, I think I have." He raised a hand, in which something glittered darkly. A closer look showed that it was a shard of obsidian glass, as big around as two hands together. "Behold! All that remains of the Mirror of Night!"
Andros blinked as the silver sparkles on the Megaship's bridge coalesced into the form of Chris Sterling, newest of the Astro Rangers. Partly his surprise was because Chris' unreliable powers meant that he spent less time with the team, but mainly it was because of his clothing. Andros had never seen ANY of the native Californian members of his team wear anything heavier than a cotton dress shirt. Tonight, however, Chris was wearing a gray sweater with a white turtleneck, and STILL shivering like a washing machine on "spin."
"Air conditioner broken?" Andros hazarded, regarding the bundled up teen before him.
"Nnnnoo, nnnott exxacctlly," Chris managed. With great effort, he kept his teeth from chattering. "Wwe nneed tto ttalk."
The Red Astro Ranger snorted. "Not until you can form complete sentences. DECA, can you have the Synthetron make up a cup of hot chocolate and teleport it up here?"
"Right away, Andros," the computer voice replied.
Sipping the hot liquid, Chris was finally able to stop shivering. "Is there something you're not telling me?" the larger boy wanted to know.
"The Silver powers. I've lost count of the number of nights I've dreamed about being entombed in ice. The nightmares started not long after we got back from space, and they've been getting more frequent lately. I think it may have to do with how many times I've come to rescue you guys. Now, I don't normally dream about becoming a Popsicle, so I figure it has to have something to do with these Silver powers."
Andros looked thoughtful. "You know, it's possible that you're picking those dreams up through the Silver powers. After all, your powers are only half of the full set."
"Right. The other half are in cryogenic suspension with your friend Zhane." Light dawned behind Chris' eyes. "Cryogenic suspension- frozen!"
"Exactly. There must be some sort of psychic link between you and Zhane. Scientists on KO-35 once theorized that long-term cryo-patients underwent dream states of a sort."
Finishing his hot chocolate, Chris rose to his feet. "Well, we'd better do something about it, or I'm gonna freeze to death in my sleep some night. Look at me, Andros! I can't get warm anymore!"
Andros nodded. "You're right. Come with me. We'll go down to the healing chamber, where Zhane is. I'll see if maybe I can find some way to break the psychic link between you two."
"Sounds good to me."
Chris Sterling would be the first person to point out that he was not very sensitive. He'd been picked on a lot in his youth, before hitting his most recent growth spurt, and he'd had to develop rhinoceros-thick skin to survive the verbal attacks of his classmates. Nevertheless, when he walked into the cryogenic chamber buried in the heart of the Megaship, Chris was struck with an indefinable sense of waiting, as if the universe were holding its breath. He could also imagine the pain and desperation that had filled this room a year ago. Looking over at Andros, Chris could tell that the Kerovan Ranger was extremely tense. This couldn't be bringing back good memories for him.
"I'm-" Andros swallowed. "I'm going to check the machinery, make sure there haven't been any malfunctions." When there was no response, he looked more closely at his companion. Chris was staring off into space, seemingly in a world of his own. Giving him an even more thorough once-over, Andros muffled a sudden curse. Chris's eyes, normally a deep, intelligent brown, were a strange silver color, like liquid mercury. Slowly, moving almost mechanically, Chris crossed to the cryo-tube and laid his hands atop it. His eyes closed and silver light began to arc between him and the motionless form in the cryo-tube.
"HEY!" Andros cried. "What are you doing?" He moved to grab Chris' shoulder, only to be blown halfway across the room by a bolt of silver.
The light around the tube was stronger now, and Andros was forced to shield his eyes as he lay on the floor. "DECA!" he yelled, hoping the onboard computer could hear him over the thrum of energy. "What is going ON in here?"
DECA's response was barely audible, but Andros thought he could detect a note of awe and bewilderment in her tone. "Unknown, Andros."
The thrumming increased, as did the intensity of the light. Both built to a fever pitch, until Andros was sure he was about to go blind, deaf, or insane- or maybe all three. Then, as suddenly as they had started, both light and noise cut off.
Slowly, Andros got to his feet, blinking to clear the spots from his eyes. His ears were ringing as well, and he felt unsteady. Whether that was due to the shock he'd received, or just how utterly _weird_ the whole situation was, he didn't know.
Meanwhile, Chris was sitting against one of the walls, a dazed look on his face. Andros would be willing to bet several lunches with TJ that he didn't remember anything of what had passed. But Andros' primary priority was the status of the cryo-tube's occupant.
Turning to the tube that had held his friend in stasis for more than a year, Andros' jaw plummeted. The tube was open, and the ice it had contained all sublimated away. Its cargo, dressed in a Silver Astro uniform identical to Chris', sat up, rubbing his helmet. Then, slowly, the Ranger removed his helmet, exposing blond hair and quizzical dark eyes.
"Andros?" Zhane asked, somewhat groggily. "What happened? Where are we? And- why are you crying?"
The Red Astro Ranger didn't try to speak, simply threw himself forward, his arms wrapping around Zhane like an octopus. His friend adjusted his grip, holding the sobbing Ranger tightly. "It's okay," Zhane whispered. "It's okay, I'm here now." Inwardly, his mind was spinning. What had happened? What could have brought his friend to this? A thousand questions were running around the inside of Zhane's head, but all he said aloud was "It's all right, Andros. It's gonna be okay."
"The Mirror of Night!" Darkonda gasped. "But- that was destroyed when the Rangers defeated Nyghtmayr. How could you possibly have it?"
Dark Specter chuckled. "I dug it out of the turf of Angel Grove Park. A number of shards survived the blast, but this was the only one large enough for my purposes." As the two henchmen watched in silent awe, liquid darkness flowed into Specter's hands, causing the Mirror to expand until it once again reached its full size.
"With Nyghtmayr destroyed by the Rangers, I can use this Mirror without having to worry about any emotional demons trying to usurp my place," Specter cackled.
Ecliptor cocked his head. "But will it work without Nyghtmayr? I thought it was Nyghtmayr's solidified darkness that allowed a Dark Reflection to be created."
"Very true, Ecliptor," nodded Specter. "However, this shard retains enough of the original Mirror's powers that I can use it, even if it's only once." The shapeshifter set the Mirror down on a table before him.
"I intend to use this Mirror to make Dark Reflections of the Astro Rangers. They will help me conquer this planet!"
Darkonda and Ecliptor exchanged glances. "What's to prevent your Dark Reflections from turning good the way Rita's did?" the Mephistan wanted to know.
"First, I do not intend to empower my Dark Reflections directly through the Morphin Grid. That will cut down on their becoming 'real.' Second, I intend to infuse them with such powerful quantities of dark energy that they will never think about leaving evil behind."
"And how do you intend to do that, my lord?" Ecliptor wanted to know.
Specter laughed evilly. "Oh, I have my ways," he replied. On the table in front of him, beside the Mirror of Night, five crystals sparkled malevolently, in red, black, blue, yellow, and pink.
After Chris had picked himself up off the floor, he had excused himself from the healing chamber on the pretext of going to call the other Rangers. Since Andros knew the task could have been done just as easily from the chamber as the bridge, he figured that Chris was leaving to give him time and privacy to have a conversation with Zhane. He appreciated that, even though he had no idea what he was going to say.
As usual, Zhane took the decision out of his hands. Folding his arms across his chest, the blond fixed his teammate with a stare and a raised eyebrow. "Okay, Andros, spill it. What is going ON here? The last thing I remember was Ecliptor- well, you know what I remember."
"Yeah, I have a pretty good idea," Andros snorted. "It's a long story, Zhane. A very long story."
"I figured. And I figured you stuck me in cryo after Ecliptor tried experimental surgery because it was that or a body bag. So where is everybody? I thought you'd all be here to meet me when I came out."
Andros bit his lip. "Zhane," he said helplessly. Stars, this was going to be one of the hardest things he'd ever done.
Zhane's jaw hardened. "Andros- where are the others?"
"They're- gone," he sighed. "Everybody's gone. KO-35 is a dead world."
If Zhane hadn't been leaning against the cryo-tube, he probably would have fallen. As it was, his skin became paler than his hair.
"No..." he whispered. "Everyone?"
Shrugging, Andros continued in a soft voice. "I don't know. There was an evacuation in progress, but- I was in cold-sleep too. I have no idea who got off the planet and who didn't, or where they might have gone."
"And the other Guardians?"
"Dead. Oh, _stars,_ Zhane, they're dead! I had- I had to see it all in DECA's sensor banks... Bran stuck me in a cryo-tube and they went down to fight... and they're all dead."
Zhane bowed his head. "How long was I- out?"
"About a year. The fall- came only a few days after you- well, you know."
"Where are we now?" Zhane asked quietly.
"Earth. I trailed Dark Specter here. He decided to try for the same prize everybody else was after. I came to stop him."
"Alone?" Zhane yelped, standing up straight. The idea of his friend taking on the forces of the shapeshifter without help made him almost as cold as the cryo-tube had.
Andros flashed his friend a quick, reassuring smile. "No, not alone." Footsteps in the hallway alerted Andros to the approach of the rest of his team. "As a matter of fact, here comes the rest of the group now."
"This better be good," TJ Carter declared, arms folded across his chest. He looked a good deal less rumpled than the other Rangers did, but only because he didn't have any hair. Andros grinned to himself. This was the first time he'd ever seen his teammates in sleepwear.
TJ was wearing a pair of blue jogging shorts, nothing else. Neither Ashley nor Cassie could resist shooting the occasional glance at him. Andros, noticing this, smothered a laugh. TJ certainly had more muscle than he himself could ever hope for, and outweighed Carlos as well.
The Black Astro Ranger was in a pair of sweatpants and a black tank top, his hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. Beside him, Ashley was wearing a set of yellow shortie pajamas. And last of all was Cassie. The Asian girl was wearing a pink, lacy nightgown tucked into a pair of jeans. The contrast was so typically Cassie that Andros couldn't help grinning.
A cough behind him reminded him that there was a reason everyone was on the ship in the middle of the night. Andros grimaced.
"Oh yeah. Guys, this is Zhane, one of my best friends, and the Silver Astro Guardian of KO-35. Zhane, these are my- well, my Ranger team."
Zhane cocked an eyebrow at his friend. "A RANGER team? You've come up in the world."
Andros smiled sadly. His friend had always dealt with things this way, pushing the hurt and anger so far down inside of him that no one could see it. He did the same thing, but while he tended to become cold and distant, Zhane became even more upbeat and cheerful, at least on the outside. Andros made a mental note to bully his friend into a visit to Lita, after some of the culture shock had worn off.
A squeal from Ashley suddenly drew his attention. "He looks like Brad Pitt!" she exclaimed. "I THOUGHT he looked familiar."
"You're right, he does," Cassie agreed, scrutinizing Zhane carefully. The young man in question raised an eyebrow.
"Brad who?" he asked, looking at Andros.
Andros grinned. "He's an Earth actor, the equivalent of a big holo star. Teenage girls love him."
"Better get used to ladies asking for your autograph," TJ teased. "You really do look like Brad Pitt."
"This is TJ Carter, by the way, Zhane," Andros continued, taking up the thread of the conversation where it had left off. "Blue Astro Ranger. Ashley Hammond, Yellow Astro Ranger, her boyfriend Carlos Vargas, Black Astro Ranger, Cassie Chan, Pink Astro Ranger, and Chris Sterling, Silver Astro Ranger."
Zhane looked down at the uniform he still wore. "I'd love to hear the story behind THAT."
"It was kind of an emergency," Chris grinned. "It's good to finally meet you, though."
"So, Andros," TJ interrupted, folding his arms across his chest. "What's the story behind this plot twist?"
Snorting, Zhane shook his head. "Same old Andros. You don't tell anybody anything until they absolutely need to know, do you?"
Andros grinned sheepishly. "Well... I never really found the right time."
"Well, you've got time now," Cassie prompted, looking at him levelly. Andros sighed.
"All right, all right. KO-35 had been under attack by Dark Specter for almost two months. So far we'd repelled all of his attacks, but we couldn't allow ourselves to get cocky. Dark Specter had a reputation for snatching victories away at the last second. Anyway, one day he planted some sort of explosive device in the Radaman Forest. We had to split into teams to cover more ground. Zhane and I went north, and we found the bomb. We also found Ecliptor and Astronema. They were on us before we could blink. It had all been a trap, you see. Zhane was the most powerful of us, and Dark Specter wanted him taken out immediately. Ecliptor teleported Zhane out, before I could stop him. Astronema kept me busy for a while, and then she left too, siccing a bunch of Quantrons on me. I took care of them, but they seriously injured me. To make matters worse, I didn't know where to start looking for Zhane. All of a sudden, his homing beacon came on, and I followed it. He was lying on the ground, nearly dead, and Ecliptor and Astronema were nowhere to be seen. I gathered him up, rushed him back to the ship, and we put him in cryo-sleep."
"She saved my life," Zhane broke in suddenly, causing all eyes to turn to him.
"What?" Andros asked, disbelieving.
Zhane fixed him with a serious stare. "Astronema. She saved my life. Ecliptor was just about to finish me off, and she teleported in and told him not to bother. That you guys were coming this way, that I would die anyway, and they had to leave before we got there, or you'd kill him, Andros. After he disappeared, she crossed over to me and hit the homing beacon on my morpher, then teleported out."
"You're telling us that Astronema saved your life?" Ashley asked, astonished. "Why would she do that?"
"I don't know," Zhane shrugged. "Maybe she thought I was really going to die, and just didn't want my- my body to go unfound. Maybe she was impressed with my rugged good looks. Who knows? That's something I've always wanted to ask her."
Andros chuckled. "Well, you may get your chance. She's here, with Dark Specter's army."
"And are you going to tell me just how THAT came about?" the blond Kerovan wanted to know.
"That, my friend, is a very long story."
No sooner had Andros finished relating the events of the past few months to his friend than the alarm went off, startling everyone in the room.
"DECA, on screen," Andros ordered. One of the monitors that had previously displayed Zhane's medical condition flickered, and an image came up. A tall, sandy-haired man in a pair of jogging shorts was locked in a sword battle with Ecliptor, in what appeared to be the hallway of a suburban house. Behind him, the Rangers could see Darkonda squaring off against a much smaller, redheaded opponent. Crashes resounded through the house, indicating that the scene they were watching was not the only action going on."
"Dark Specter is attacking the Zeddens?" Carlos asked for all of them. "Why would he want to do that?"
"Revenge?" Ashley offered. "Mr. Zedden's defection probably doesn't look good on his records."
TJ shook his head. "Not his style."
"It doesn't really matter," Andros decided. "We've got to get down there. I'm betting the Zeddens are outnumbered, and not even Mrs. Zedden's frying pan can keep an army of Quantrons at bay forever."
Zhane nodded, standing straighter. "I'm in," he announced. Andros shook his head.
"No way, Zhane. Your powers are split, remember? They could fail you at any time. Besides, you just came out of cryo-sleep. You and Chris stay here. If we need you, we'll call."
Zhane sighed. "I don't like it, but- you're the boss."
Andros threw his friend a grin, then turned to the rest of his team. "Let's Rocket!" Five colors of light flared, leaving Chris and Zhane alone on the Megaship. Chris smiled slightly, seeing the expression on Zhane's face.
"You get used to it. Come on, let's go to the bridge. We can watch the battle from there."
"Just once," Jamie Zedden growled, "I would like to have a decent night's sleep." She blocked a slash from Darkonda and kicked out at his knees. "No nightmares, no monsters, no waking up with a craving for pastrami on rye!"
Ducking one of Ecliptor's swings, her father shot her a quick glance. "So that's where my pastrami is going. I wondered."
Jamie shrugged. "I'm a Power Ranger. My metabolism is through the roof."
"If you keep eating like Rocky, you'll eat us out of house and home!"
"It's a teenager thing," Ecliptor assured him, dodging as Larry's sword swooped towards his head. "It'll go in fits and spurts."
"Really? Well, that's some comfort, at least."
"My advice? Lay in a supply of high-energy foods. I think they call them- Power Bars, on Earth. That's what I used to give Astronema after she'd spent the day practicing magic."
Darkonda growled. "What is this? A battle or a PTA meeting?" He had to dodge VERY quickly as one of Jamie's feet nearly made contact with his groin.
The battle had left the hallway and entered the kitchen at this point. Keeping most of her attention on Darkonda, Jamie nevertheless noticed her mother holding a number of Quantrons at bay with the cast-iron frying pan that had become her weapon of choice. Beside her, Finster was doing his best with a rolling pin, but it was obvious the older man was being overwhelmed.
Suddenly ive flashes of light blinded everyone in the room. When they cleared, the Astro Rangers stood in the middle of the now still kitchen. Black Astro shook his head.
"A party," he said with mock hurt. "And you didn't invite us?"
Larry grinned. "Feel free to join in anytime."
"Actually," Darkonda chuckled. "We're on our way out- and so are you!" The Mephistan extended his arms, a black mirror appearing in his grasp. Quickly, Darkonda turned it so that the five Rangers were reflected in its depths. There was a flash, and the Rangers slumped, nearly falling to the ground.
"What the HELL?" Pink Astro wanted to know, her knees turning to water under her.
Just then, a Quantron rushed in, carrying a strangely made sword, which it showed to Ecliptor. The crystalline being nodded.
"We have what we came for," he announced. "Let's go." With that, Dark Specter's forces vanished.
As the various occupants of the kitchen pulled themselves together, Larry Zedden turned to his housekeeper and former monster-maker.
"Finster," he began, "that sword. Was that what I think it was?"
The white-haired man nodded. "I am afraid so, sir."
Folding his arms across his chest, Blue Astro gave them both the Look, visible even through his helmet. "Could you possibly be any MORE obscure?" he asked. Finster sighed.
"I'm terribly sorry. It seems that Dark Specter now possesses the Sword of Darkness."
Dark Specter smiled dangerously as Ecliptor and Darkonda reappeared in the throne room. "Excellent," he chuckled. "Darkonda, place the Mirror on the table and step back. Ecliptor, hand me the Sword." The two henchmen did as they were told, then quickly moved to the edges of the room. Neither of them had much desire to get caught in the middle of one of Dark Specter's spells.
The Sword of Darkness grasped in both hands, Specter pointed the weapon at the Mirror and spoke a few words in an ancient tongue. Ecliptor shivered. Dark magic had always made him uncomfortable, especially the incantations. Somehow the sounds of the Diabolae language sent chills up and down his spine. Not for the first time, Ecliptor wondered if he was truly cut out for this type of work.
As Specter chanted, the five crystals rose off the worktable, floating over to hover just in front of where the Mirror lay. Black lightning crackled from the Sword, flowing through the crystals and into the obsidian glass. Suddenly there was a flash of black, and when it cleared, five humans stood in the middle of the floor.
First glance would make an observer think these were the Astro Rangers, defenders of Earth. Indeed, Ecliptor noted, they were excellent copies, right down to the last detail. Only their dark, malicious expressions set them apart. The five Dark Reflections wore their crystal morphers around their necks, and the gems sparkled evilly in the dim light.
"Excellent!" Dark Specter exclaimed. "Tell me, my Dark Reflections, what are you called?"
Cassie's duplicate was the first to speak. "I am a reflection of Cassandra Mara Chan, so I shall be known as Mara."
"Roberto Vargas," Carlos' Reflection identified himself.
"Jade Thompson," was Ashley's double's choice.
TJ's doppelganger smiled, an expression that made Ecliptor's stomach twist. _This one is dangerous,_ he thought to himself. _As dangerous as Darkonda, perhaps more so._
"As my original is Timothy Jacob Carter, you can call me Jake," the Dark Reflection replied.
Last of all was Andros' copy. "I am Faran," he replied quietly, a small smile on his face. Ecliptor raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. In Kerovan lore, Faran was a mythical being, the Avatar of Darkness. It had some similarities to the human concept of the Angel of Death.
Dark Specter nodded. "Good. The crystals hanging around your necks are the legendary Neji crystals of the Mobius Galaxy. They will allow you to transform into Neji Rangers. With their power, you will crush the Power Rangers of Earth, starting with the Astro Rangers."
Faran bowed deeply. "As you wish, Dark Specter."
As soon as the Rangers realized that Finster had a LONG story to tell them, they had removed their helmets, placing their powers in standby-mode. The unpowered Spandex would be more comfortable than the activated armor, but not as revealing as the clothes they had been wearing to bed. In addition, they had called Zhane and Chris to come hear the story, since it would almost certainly involve them in the future. As the two men teleported in, Andros noted they both wore Megaship uniforms. Chris's was the usual gray outfit with a silver turtleneck beneath it, while Zhane wore a black version of the same, also with a silver turtleneck. The two men looked like photo negatives, and Andros stifled a grin.
"I was hot," Chris explained, catching Ashley's inquiring glance.
Meanwhile, Jamie was examining Zhane closely. "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Brad Pitt?" she asked. He flashed her a grin.
"Once so far this evening," he replied.
Carlos shrugged. "I don't see it," he remarked.
The eleven of them were gathered in the living room, seated on every available flat surface. Looking at Finster, TJ folded his arms.
"Okay, Finster, I think you've got some explaining to do. I thought the Sword of Darkness was destroyed when Jason released Tommy from Rita's spell."
Seeing Zhane's uncomprehending look, Andros leaned over and whispered in his friend's ear. "LONG story- I'll explain everything later." Zhane nodded, and turned his attention back to the Zeddens' elderly housekeeper.
"Oh, good heavens, no. The Sword of Darkness was FAR too powerful an artifact for me to give to Tommy. It likely would have cemented the spell on him permanently. So I made a copy, poured a little magic into it, and gave THAT to him. That sword did just the opposite. It wove itself so powerfully into the spell that when it was destroyed, the entire architecture of the spell went with it."
"So what IS the Sword of Darkness?" Ashley wanted to know. "And why would Dark Specter want it?"
Larry smiled slightly. "I believe I can answer that one, Ashley. The Sword of Darkness is one of three Swords forged millennia ago, by beings who were ancient legends even in my time, before- well, just before. These three Swords were forged to channel the energy of the Morphin Grid, not just one line or level, but an entire shade."
"Dad?" Jamie interrupted. "You're losing us, here. Most of us know bupkus about the Morphin Grid, and I think this is even out of Carlos and Ashley's league."
"Right, sorry. All right, most of you know that the Grid is divided into eight colors and three levels, making a total of twenty-four possible assignments, correct? What you may NOT know is that it is also divided into three shades, Dark, Light, and Shadow."
"I thought Green was the Shadow," Cassie broke in.
Larry nodded. "It is, but- it's the darkest of the Light and the lightest of the Dark. Whether a Green draws from the Dark side of the Grid or the Light, good or evil, he will always feel the pull of the other. And then there is the Shadow division, where EVERYTHING is shades of gray. Only a very few practitioners have ever drawn from the Shadow level of the Grid, and they have always been great mysteries."
Looking thoughtful, Leslie tried to process all this. "So the Sword of Darkness was the sword that drew from the Dark side of the Grid? All of it?"
"Right. With that Sword, Specter can tap the entire Dark side like never before. I can only imagine the power it will give his spells." That thought made them all shiver.
Finally, Zhane spoke. "Okay, so if Specter has the Sword of Darkness, where are the other two? Shadow and Light?"
Jamie slapped her forehead. "I'm an idiot. Sword of Light- Zordon has that one!"
Finster nodded. "Indeed. It was the sword retrieved from the Deserted Planet to accomplish the first Power Transfer- and, indirectly, the other ones."
"Makes sense," Chris agreed. "If you're going to manipulate Ranger Powers that are Powers of Light, a sword that gave control over the Light side of the Grid would be a good tool. But I don't think any of us have heard of a Sword of Shadow."
"The Sword of the Shadow side of the Grid is different from the others," Finster replied. "After their creation, the Swords were split up, to keep anyone from ever possessing the entire power of the Grid. The Sword of Light was sent to the Deserted Planet, and the Sword of Darkness was hidden on a planet called Tenebra, where it was found centuries later and started making its way around the galaxy. But the Shadow Sword was made intangible and hidden where only those possessing both dark and light could access it, and it was given a different name. Buried in the Grid itself, over the centuries it became known as the Sword of Power."
Jamie's jaw dropped. "The Sword of Power? Are we talking about that blade that can only be summoned by a team of Rangers connected in heart and mind? The one that nearly got stolen by Robo-goat, what- four years ago? That Sword of Power?"
Finster nodded. "The very same."
Andros chuckled. "So- all three swords have been in the possession of Earth's defenders for a good three years now, and no one ever noticed?"
"Things get hectic around here," Larry replied, grinning.
"I've got another question," Carlos said suddenly. "That mirror Darkonda was holding, the one that nearly wiped us out- what was up with that?"
Larry and Finster exchanged glances. "Carlos," Finster sighed, "I'm afraid that Specter has recreated the Mirror of Night."
"Hello?" Zhane poked his head into the holding bay, not certain what he would find. The ship had changed a great deal in the year he had been in cryo-sleep, and he was still getting used to everything. The only thing that hadn't changed were his quarters. Those had been left exactly the way they were before his accident, which kind of gave him the creeps. Laying on the ground, feeling the life bleed out of him, Zhane had been quite sure he was dying. Even once he had been loaded into cold-sleep, the odds of him ever waking up were minimal. The fact that Andros hadn't even moved his stuff into storage spoke of just how unhealthy his friend's mental state had been.
The other Guardians' quarters had been emptied, even Deanara's. Zhane suspected that Andros' Rangers had been the cause of that, if only because they had given his friend something to hold onto besides the past. Not that he couldn't see TJ actually bullying Andros into it. The Blue Astro Ranger had none of Daithi's technical genius, but the two shared an understanding of what made people tick. Zhane was very glad that there were so many people to look after Andros- the younger boy often had trouble looking out for himself.
It was hard to believe that his friends were gone, Zhane ruminated, making his way into the empty holding bay. For him, it had been only a moment between the world going dark and waking up in the Megaship's cryo-bay. In the real world, though, a year had passed, and in that time, four of his friends had begun the Journey. And Andros, last link to his home and past, was a RANGER, the best of the best. He'd left for school this morning, although he'd seemed extremely reluctant to go. Only Zhane's assurance that they could talk later, and Cassie's reminders that Miss Appleby had a test waiting for them had finally convinced the Red Astro Ranger to leave the ship.
"Anybody home?" Zhane looked up as a second voice broke into his thoughts, and saw Chris Sterling enter the Megaship holding bay. Zhane noted that the other boy was wearing a gray T-shirt and a pair of pants made of some rough blue material, NOT a Megaship uniform. Seeing the direction of Zhane's glance, Chris looked down at himself and grinned.
"Mild rebellion," he explained easily. "We all do it. Andros can be SUCH a stickler for protocol, we like yanking his chain occasionally."
Zhane chuckled. "Sounds familiar. Of course, we only had our Megaship uniforms, and a couple outfits for formal occasions."
Chris nodded. "That's right, everyone knew who you guys were."
"They don't on your planet?"
"Long story short, we're a interdicted world that's bending a number of rules. Anyway, if you're wondering what I'm doing here, I came to keep you company. I figured if you had to spend the entire day with no one to talk to but DECA, you'd go completely insane."
Frowning slightly, Zhane cocked his head. "If the other Rangers are all in school, why are you here?"
"Home schooling," Chris replied. "My family keeps weird hours, and it just wound up being more convenient for everybody."
"On KO-35, that was the only way anybody did it. I didn't even realize there were other systems."
Chris rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Don't get me started on home schooling versus the public system- I have a tendency to rant."
Zhane chuckled. He thought he was going to like this guy- if the Silver Powers didn't come between them. "All right, so you're here," Zhane went on. "What did you have planned for the day?"
"Well, I thought that we could head down to Earth, and I could show you the park. Nobody notices anything going on there, so I figured it would be good for your first glimpse. Help you get over the culture shock."
"But- I don't have any Earth clothes." The blond glanced at his uniform. "Think this'll tell people I'm not from around here?"
"Indubitably," Chris responded. "Not to worry, though. We're about the same size, so I brought you some of my stuff. That ought to hold you until the girls can take you shopping." He shuddered. "Fate worse than death."
"You should have seen Saoirse and Deanara shop. Those two could clean out an orbital mall in half an hour, if they worked systematically."
Chris laughed. "Cassie's not so bad, really. It's Ashley who could wear the numbers off a credit card. Come on, you can get changed and we'll hit the park."
Zhane sighed in pleasure, absorbing the sunlight beaming down on him. He could hardly believe it was one of the fall months here- October, he thought the Earthlings called it. Sitting on the park bench beside him, Chris chuckled.
"You're not kidding," Zhane replied emphatically. "On KO-35, it'd probably be snowing right now."
Chris blinked. "Over the whole planet?"
"KO-35 was a terraforming experiment," Zhane explained. "It was farther from the sun than your Earth is, and the atmosphere was thinner. We were lucky we had an atmosphere at all. So the only time it got this warm was in the summer, in the equatorial region."
"Man, that bites," was Chris' opinion. "But it would explain why Andros keeps the Megaship at approximately the same temperature as a meat locker." Shifting slightly, Chris turned to better face his companion.
"Listen, I wanted to talk to you about something. Andros told you about how I wound up on the team, right?"
"Yeah," Zhane replied. "Why?"
"I just wondered if you knew that I wasn't a real Ranger. I'm just a stopgap. But- these guys have become the best friends I've ever had- hell, they're the ONLY friends I've ever had. It used to be that I didn't want to open myself up to anybody, but they taught me better than that. And I like you, and I'm hoping you and I could be friends. But I don't want these powers to get in the way. As far as I'm concerned, YOU'RE the Silver Ranger. I'm just a temp."
Zhane was speechless for a moment. He knew how addictive the Guardian powers could be, both physically and psychologically. With only a half-measure, he was feeling mild withdrawal affects right at the moment. Maybe having only held half-powers, Chris wouldn't undergo the physical side of withdrawal, but still, to make such an offer...
Suddenly, Zhane broke into a grin. "It doesn't matter yet- I'm not sure if we even can recombine the powers, and I'm still not ready, physically or mentally. But- that means a lot to me, and I would like to be friends."
"Aw, isn't that sweet," sneered a voice that sounded strangely like Andros'. The two Silver Rangers looked up to see the other five Astro Rangers standing in front of the bench. Chris' eyes narrowed, and he stood slowly, looking the five of them over.
"Shouldn't you guys be in school?" Chris asked slowly. "And when did you change clothes?" All five were wearing darker shades of their colors than usual.
TJ stepped forward, a smile on his face that nearly chilled Chris' blood. "We- decided to take a vacation," he laughed. The insane edge to the Blue Astro Ranger's voice finally convinced Chris that these were not his friends.
"Zhane, get back to the Megaship, now," Chris ordered. "Call the guys and tell them to get here ASAP."
Her eyes wide with mock sweetness, Ashley moved to intercept him. "Oh, don't go," she giggled. "We were just about to have some fun." Stepping even closer to Chris, she slid her arms up around his neck, leaning up to plant a kiss on his lips. Her position left her off-balance, and when he shoved her away, she fell on her rear.
"Now I KNOW you're not Ashley," Chris snapped, falling into a defensive stance. He took a moment to be grateful for the intensive course in hand to hand that the other Rangers had insisted he take. Whatever these things were, he had a feeling they weren't just going to leave him alone.
Andros glared at him as Ashley- or whatever was pretending to be Ashley- got to her feet. "That was a mistake," he snarled. "Neji Rangers! Transform!"
Beams of colored light shot up from the ground around the five evil doubles. As the streams rose, they twisted and warped, enclosing each Ranger in a cocoon of light. Then the light faded and the five of them were revealed.
Their armor was done in the same colors as the five main Astro Rangers, but there all similarity ended. It was actually armor, predominantly black with accents in their color. The helmets were demonic visages, complete with long, sharp teeth. All told, the five Neji Rangers looked capable of dealing out some major damage.
Exchanging one glance, Chris and Zhane sprang into action. "Let's Rocket!" they chorused, typing their activation commands into their Astro Morphers. Their motions were eerily synchronized as silver light swallowed them up, and faded to reveal two Silver Astro Rangers.
"Let's kick some armored butt!" Zhane called. Suddenly he found himself surrounded by the three male Neji Rangers, who seemed quite intent on pounding him into the ground. "Oh, sure, gang up on the new guy," he snorted.
Meanwhile, Chris was doing only slightly better against Nejis Yellow and Pink. Both girls were formidable fighters, which made sense, considering the originals. Ducking one of Neji Pink's kicks, Chris found himself tackled by Neji Yellow.
"Get OFF me!" he yelled, trying to dislodge her.
"I bet you wouldn't be complaining if I was the _real_ Ashley," Neji Yellow said teasingly.
Chris grunted. "The real Ashley isn't trying to kill me." With that, he threw her off, rolling back to his feet.
Moving into a back-to-back formation, Chris and Zhane managed to keep their attackers at bay. Unfortunately, their unstable powers chose that moment to fail them, leaving them unmorphed. Shooting each other a look, they gulped in unison.
The Neji Rangers began to close in. Suddenly the turf exploded with colored light. Looking up, Chris grinned. "Here comes the cavalry!"
Zhane blinked. He didn't recognize ANY of these people, although he was extremely glad to see them. Three of them seemed to have related powers, wearing nearly solid suits of red, blue, and purple, and helmets adorned with geometric shapes. The other two wore no helmets, although the one in blue had a visor protecting his eyes. The other wore red armor and held a broadsword in one hand.
"This isn't over yet!" Neji Black hissed. "We'll be back!" The air seemed to twist, and the Neji Rangers were gone.
Chris crossed to the person in red, whose helmet bore a star. "Man, talk about showing up in the nick of time," he laughed. "Thanks."
"Hey, it's what we're here for," the stranger replied. "To be back-up for active duty. If you want to thank anybody, thank Zordon. He's the one who called us."
"You can be sure we will," Chris assured him. "You guys got time to head back to the Megaship?"
"Sorry- Jase and I have class, and I think Billy and Jamie do, too."
The helmeted blue warrior shrugged. "I'm baby-sitting- don't ask."
Chris grinned. "I won't. Look, thanks again."
The purple stranger, whom Zhane noticed was female, waved. "All in a day's work." Then in a multi-colored flash, the five strangers were gone.
Zhane turned towards his friend. "Who was THAT?"
"Long story. Let's go back to the Megaship and I'll tell you ALL about them."
Ashley held up a gray T-shirt for Cassie's inspection. "What do you think?" she asked. The Pink Astro Ranger cocked her head.
"I dunno... it's nice, but we can have DECA just synthesize something like that."
"Good point," the other girl nodded. She looked over at the object of their shopping trip, the newest arrival on their planet. "See anything you like, Zhane?"
The blond teen started. "Oh- I'm sorry. Everything's just so- different here. I guess I wasn't looking much at clothes."
Cassie grinned. "Don't worry, we took Andros shopping, too. We know how that can be. Tell you what- it's almost noon. How about we break for lunch, and we can start looking around again afterwards."
"Sounds good to me," Zhane agreed. "Ashley?"
"I'm game," the third member of their group replied perkily. The three of them left the department store, heading for the food court at the Angel Grove Mall. For his part, Zhane was looking everywhere at once, trying to take in all the sights around him.
"Are all shopping centers on your planet open like this?" Zhane asked Cassie, as Ashley ordered them Chinese food. The Asian girl laughed.
"No way! Most malls are either contained in an entire building, or are lots of stores next to each other. Those are called strip malls."
Sitting down at one of the tables, Zhane looked up at the sky above him. "I think I like this better."
"Me too," Cassie agreed. "It's got the convenience of a regular mall, but it's built around an open courtyard, so that you can sit out in the sun and enjoy yourself."
Further conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Ashley and the sweet-and-sour chicken. Mutually deciding not to mess with the chopsticks, the girls quickly provided Zhane with a fork. For a long moment, the only sounds were the noises of the trio chewing away.
"Tell me about Andros," Zhane said suddenly, out of the blue. The girls looked at him in surprise.
"What?" Ashley asked, cocking her head to one side.
"Tell me about Andros. He was always one of my best friends, but- it's been a year, and there's so much I don't know about him now." Zhane smiled wistfully. "He's changed, and I'm running to catch up."
Ashley and Cassie exchanged glances. "Well," Ashley began, "why don't you tell us about the Andros you remember, and we'll fill you in on what's changed."
Zhane nodded. "That sounds good. Andros- let me see. Well, he was the youngest of all the Astro Guardians, by about a year. In your Earth terms, he'd be about seventeen right now."
That got a blink from Cassie. "You mean- he's actually a year older than we are?" The Red Astro Ranger was a good deal smaller than his teammates, and the idea that he might be older had never occurred to her.
"I guess so. Funny, I'm so used to him being the 'kid.' Then I think, and realize we're the same age now. And he's actually older than the rest of you? Wow."
Shaking his head, Zhane collected himself. "Anyway, he was chosen as the leader because of his high score on the qualifying tests, but he didn't think he was right for the position, at first. Bran and I had to work at him for months before he finally felt comfortable in his role. He was quieter then, too- it took several months before he'd laugh with us the way he does with you. I guess that's because of his sister."
"Sister?" the Ranger girls chorused.
"He didn't tell you about that?" Zhane slapped his forehead in exasperation. "It's like escaping deathweed to get him to tell you stuff. When Andros was very young, like about four or five, his twin sister, Karone, was kidnapped. They never found her, but I don't think Andros ever gave up hope. For a long time, she was all he lived for."
Cassie closed her eyes in sympathy. "God, no wonder he was so reluctant to let us in. He's lost everyone he ever cared about, one by one."
"And you're going to be next," a new voice declared. The three of them turned to see the Neji Rangers standing in the middle of the rapidly emptying food court. Neji Red, who had spoken, was regarding them with interest.
"Poor little Andros," he sneered. "Definitely the weaker half. I wonder how he'll feel when I take three more teammates away from him?"
"You're never going to find out," Cassie replied, stancing. Faster than thought, Neji Red closed the distance between them, as the other four moved to take on Zhane and Ashley. Vaguely, Cassie was aware of two morphing calls behind her, and the sounds of battle. She could spare them no attention, however, for that was all taken up with the Neji Ranger who had her wrists imprisoned in his grasp.
Neji Red laughed as she struggled fruitlessly. "You have a lot of spunk, Cassie. I like that. I was planning to kill you, but now I think it would hurt my mirror image a lot more to make you all mine." He had backed her up against a wall, and now pinned her wrists there with one hand, while the other ran down the side of her face. Cassie tried to pull away, but a morphed Ranger was far too strong for her.
"Don't bother, Cassie. There's no one to come to your rescue here. We're all alone." Indeed, Cassie could no longer hear the sounds of the battle behind her. In desperation, for lack of anything better to do, Cassie tried to bring her knee up into her opponent's groin. Neji Red shifted, however, taking the blow on the inside of his thigh. Then he struck her across the face, hard enough to send her to the ground. A strange twisting sound came to her ears, and when she looked up, she was staring into the face of Andros' Dark Reflection. Her ears ringing, she nevertheless reacted as she had been trained, snapping a punch into his face that sent him reeling. He recovered faster than she did, however, and hit her again.
"That was not a nice thing to do," Faran told her softly, grabbing a fistful of her hair and tilting her head back. "Now what am I going to do with you?"
Something cold and hard- the tip of an Astro Blaster- pressed against the back of Faran's head. "My advice?" came the cold voice behind him. "Let her go." Red Astro sounded capable of freezing nitrogen with a word. Faran did as he was ordered, his hands raising slowly.
"Now step away from Cassie," Red Astro continued. Instead of obeying, however, Faran disappeared in a twist of air. "Damn," Red Astro muttered, holstering his Astro Blaster. Then his attention fell on his teammate.
"Cassie- did he hurt you?" Red Astro asked, kneeling at her side. He did NOT demorph, guessing that the last thing she needed at the moment was to see a carbon copy of her assailant.
In response to Red Astro's question, Cassie shook her head, but didn't look up. She just wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Seeing this, Red Astro reached out and carefully gathered her into his arms. She immediately burrowed into the embrace, wrapping her arms around him and holding on tight.
"It's all right," he said soothingly. "He won't hurt you. I'll never let him lay a hand on you again."
"Well, you think we hit enough stores, Teej?" Carlos asked, looking at the bags piled up in the rear of TJ's jeep.
"Hey, Zhane's gonna need this stuff for when he starts school tomorrow," the Blue Astro Ranger defended himself, sliding behind the wheel. So saying, he darted a glance at the newest member of the team. Zhane hadn't been on Earth long, but he'd already figured out the desirability of calling shotgun. Carlos had therefore been relegated to the back seat, but he was taking his loss with equanimity.
Zhane shook his head. "I can hardly take it all in, you know? So many changes..."
Nodding, TJ started the jeep and pulled out of the parking lot. "I can imagine, but you'll do fine. We had Justin hack into the school computers and arrange your schedule so that one of us is with you at all times. That strategy worked for Andros, it should work for you."
"It's just so different from KO-35. We'd get our lessons from DECA, most of the time, or from some of the former Astro Guardians that acted as our mentors."
Leaning forward, Carlos put a hand on the Kerovan's shoulder. "You know, Andros never told us much about the people he served with. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to, but if you want to talk, we'd be happy to listen."
Zhane sighed, sinking back into his seat. "Where to start? I guess with Bran, the Black Guardian. He was the oldest of us, and the first one I met. This was before we were selected to be Astro Guardians, when we were REALLY young, like about five or so. Our parents sent us to the same care center during the day, and we became really good friends. Bran was quiet, with this devastating sense of humor. He also had this really strong sense of responsibility, but he could always be counted on to get into trouble with you. About a year later, we met Andros. It wasn't long after he had lost his sister, and he was really withdrawn, quiet. We took a liking to him, though, and we quickly became a trio.
"When we were about ten, we met Daithi and Saoirse. They were childhood friends, complimented each other perfectly. Daithi was a goofball, but a certified genius. He could fix anything he laid his hands on, and he also had this thing for practical jokes. Saoirse was the one who kept him in line. She was quiet and caring- a real good listener. She didn't laugh or smile much, but when she did, it was like the entire world had lit up.
"Last of our group was Deanara. We met her when we were selected to be Astro Guardians. She was so young and fragile that we kind of all took her under our wings. Well, except for Andros- he fell for her hard and fast. I really thought it would last forever. She had this beautiful singing voice, but almost no confidence in herself. We couldn't ever get her to perform in front of people." There was silence in the car for a while, then Zhane perked up.
"Hey, TJ, where are we headed? I thought we were done shopping."
The blue-clad teen grinned. "We are. We're headed to the Surf Spot for lunch. It's a local place- trust me, you'll like it."
Hearing the word "lunch," Carlos leaned forward. "Hey, TJ, could you step on it? I'm kinda hungry."
"Are you kidding? Vargas, I don't wanna hear another word out of you about my hollow leg in the future."
"My lips are sealed," Carlos shot back, miming zipping his mouth shut. "Now hurry up before I die of starvation, okay?"
The three Rangers settled into a corner booth at the Surf Spot, and Zhane was now being introduced to the culinary delight known as the hamburger. They were talking about nothing in particular when they noticed two of Adelle's assistants arguing by the bar.
"You ask him!" the girl demanded. Her blue-green eyes gleamed as she attempted to stare down her companion.
The auburn-haired young man shook his head. "I'm not gonna ask him. You go ask him, Cynthia, since you're so hot on the subject."
Cynthia sighed. "You were the one who brought it up, Matt. Now go on, GO!" With that, Cynthia shoved Matt in the direction of the booth, hard enough that he stumbled. Making a show of brushing himself off, Matt glared back at Cynthia, who just made shooing motions. Finally, Matt walked over to the booth, where the three occupants had been watching the exchange with interest.
"Cynthia wants to know if you're related to Brad Pitt," Matt announced, ignoring his co-worker's indignant screech.
The three Rangers traded looks, then collapsed into laughter.
Zhane shot Andros a suspicious glance as the two of them entered the small office. "What is this place?" The blond swept an arm around, his gesture taking in the warm tan walls, midbrown carpet, and numerous plants.
"I want to introduce you to someone," Andros replied. "I think we could both use a long talk with her."
"You're up to something, aren't you?" The smaller Ranger didn't answer, simply walked up to the secretary at the desk.
"Hey, Serena," Andros greeted the pretty blonde. "Is Lita in?"
The older woman smiled at him. "Yeah, Andros, she's in her office. Go on in."
"Thanks. Oh, by the way, that's a pretty brooch you're wearing. I've never seen a silver crystal like that before."
"Darian gave it to me," Serena replied. "It is nice, isn't it? Now, enough flattery. Go on, shoo!"
He did as he was told, leading Zhane into the inner office and shutting the door. Andros never knew what to expect when entering Lita Kino's office, so he was relieved to see the psychiatrist sitting calmly at her desk, reading a textbook. As the two of them entered, she looked up and smiled warmly.
"Hey, guys. Have a seat." Turning to the Silver Ranger, she extended her hand. "You must be Zhane. I'd heard that you'd joined the team recently. I'm Lita Kino." She cocked her head. "Has anybody told you that you look amazingly like Brad Pitt?"
Andros and Zhane sighed. Then, tentatively, the blond Kerovan reached out and grasped the woman's hand. Correcting his grip, Lita shook firmly, then let go. Sitting back in her chair, she regarded the two of them with a penetrating green gaze.
"All right, boys, what's up? Somehow, I doubt this is just a social call."
Sighing, Andros was about to explain when he noticed that there was something missing from Lita's desk. Specifically, the picture of Max Delany, her boyfriend. Seeing the direction of Andros' gaze, Lita grimaced.
"Before you ask, yes, Max and I broke up. We mutually decided that it wasn't working out, and that we were better off just as friends. I should have known not to date another psychiatrist. It just doesn't work. Now quit stalling."
Andros laughed, and began the tale of the Neji Rangers, up to and including the attack at the mall. "God, I've only once been so scared in my entire life," Andros confessed. "The day we put Zhane into cryo-sleep. If I'd been a few minutes later-"
"But you weren't," Lita said soothingly. "I talked to Tommy and Jamie at length about their Dark Reflections, back when Tyler and Terry were first created. You have to remember that that thing out there, the Red Neji Ranger, isn't you. It's a twisted, distorted version of everything in you. You care for Cassie, and want to be with her- that becomes a twisted desire for ownership. It may wear your face, but it doesn't have your soul."
Andros smiled weakly. "Thanks. That really does help."
Lita smiled. "You know, the name is quite appropriate," she remarked. "Neji Rangers. In Japanese sentai, the word would be run together, as Nejiranger. The Japanese word "nejire" means "twisted," so it's kind of a pun."
Zhane made a face. "Makes you wonder if somebody doesn't have a really sick sense of humor."
"Mmm," Lita agreed, and turned to her next victim. " Now Zhane. Let's talk about you."
Zhane looked at his best friend, but only saw determination in Andros' eyes. "You have to let it out, Zhane." Andros said softly. "If you keep burying the pain and anger, in the end, it'll eat you alive. You can't let that happen."
Zhane sighed, but he knew Andros was right. Taking a deep breath, he began to talk.
On Earth, Indian Summer had come with a vengeance. Even though it was late October, the heat was beating down on Angel Grove without mercy. For that reason, the Astro Rangers had retreated the safety of the Megaship's air-conditioned bridge. Andros and Zhane were deep in conversation about something in their past, while TJ devoured a mystery novel. Cassie was listening to music via her headphones, and Carlos, Chris, and Ashley were having a conversation of their own.
"Hey," the Black Astro Ranger suddenly called. "Who's up for the Halloween party at Adelle's this evening?"
The other Rangers left their various pursuits, looking at each other. "Geez," Cassie remarked, placing her headphones on a nearby console. "I almost forgot tonight was Halloween, what with everything that's been going on." Her eyes still held shadows from Faran's attack, and her friends desperately wanted to lift them.
"I think we should all go," Ashley decided. "It'll be fun, take our minds off the Neji Rangers for a while."
Andros made a face. "We could certainly use the distraction."
"Excuse me," Zhane broke in, "but what is Halloween?"
"It's a holiday they celebrate here on Earth, all about monsters and scary things that nobody really believes in. Little kids dress up in costumes and go around for candy, and older kids dress up in costumes and party."
Cocking his head, Zhane gave his best friend a confused look. "They have a holiday to celebrate fear?"
"Sure," Chris replied. "Because once you face a fear, you see it really isn't all that scary. It's kind of a way of saying that there's nothing out there in the dark that we can't handle."
TJ grinned. "Mainly, though, it's an excuse to party."
Cassie nodded enthusiastically. "I'm in. Guys?" A round of agreements met her question. "Now, about costumes..."
"Let's go as the Astro Rangers!" Carlos grinned evilly. Ashley swatted his arm.
"Who'd be Silver?" she asked.
"Besides," Andros continued, "Fred and his friends did that joke last year. Let's try and be original."
Shifting position, Chris chewed his lip. "Who says we have to go as a unit? I mean, you guys are my friends, but why don't we come up with our own costumes and surprise each other?"
The others exchanged glances. "That's a good idea," Carlos replied. "I guess I get so used to thinking of us as a team, I forget we're individuals sometimes."
Whatever might have followed Carlos' statement was drowned out by the sudden chiming of the alarm. Instantly, Andros was on his feet. "DECA, on screen!" he called. One of the forward viewscreens flickered to life, showing the Neji Rangers firing on innocent civilians in Angel Grove.
"Aw, damn," TJ groaned. "Don't these guys take a vacation?"
"Apparently not," Cassie replied. "And neither do we."
Andros nodded. "Zhane, Chris-"
"We know," the two chorused. "Wait here."
Blinking, Carlos regarded them with delighted awe. "Spooky."
"Let's Rocket!" Andros yelled. In a flash of light, the five Rangers were transported to the business district. At their entrance, the Neji Rangers broke off their attack, moving slowly to encircle their prey.
"So nice of you to join us," Neji Blue giggled. His voice was like nails on a chalkboard, sending shivers up the Astros' spines. "Especially you, Blue Ranger. We're gonna have a LOT of fun together. I can't decide what to do first, though. Should I start with your fingers, or just cut out your heart?"
"Neither, you psychopath," Blue Astro growled, trying to hide the sick lurch his counterpart's words had evoked. "I'm going to send you back to Dark Specter in little tiny pieces!"
"You can try," Neji Pink laughed. "But you are no match for us, Rangers!"
Pink Astro snorted. "We'll just see about that!" The two groups rushed at each other, and in a flash, the battle was joined.
Very quickly, the Astro Rangers realized that they were outmatched. The Neji powers gave their doubles speed and strength beyond even that conferred by the Astro Morphers. In addition, their opposites were far more vicious. Neji Yellow grabbed Yellow Astro by the arm, swinging her sharply into a nearby building. Meanwhile, Neji Pink and Pink Astro traded shots from their sidearms, neither gaining the upper hand.
Black Astro ducked into one of the warehouses, hiding behind a pile of crates. Desperately, he tried to calm his heaving breath and racing pulse. The way his heart was beating, he'd be surprised if his doppelganger couldn't follow it straight to him.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are," Neji Black called, his tone a menacing singsong. Black Astro nearly vomited, hearing his own voice so filled with hatred. Quietly, he climbed to the top of the nearest pile of crates, watching as his duplicate moved closer. Waiting...
A flying leap sent him crashing into Neji Black, and the two of them fell to the floor in a desperate struggle.
Meanwhile, Red Astro and Neji Red were engaged in a truly dizzying hand-to-hand battle. No punch or kick landed as they blocked each other's strikes, their limbs weaving a dazzling web of motion. Suddenly an uppercut sent Red Astro crashing to the ground. He lay there, stunned, as his opponent advanced on him, laughing menacingly.
Last of all, Blue Astro was just trying to keep his hide intact as Neji Blue laid about him with a twisted version of his own Astral Axe. Blue Astro could barely block the strikes around him, much less mount one of his own. A lucky cut sent him sprawling on the floor, and above him, Neji Blue raised his axe like the executioner at the chopping block.
"Goodbye, TJ," Neji Blue sneered. "I wish we could have known each other- longer."
On the Megaship, Chris and Zhane watched the battle below with growing frustration. "They need us!" Chris shouted.
"They need the Silver Ranger," corrected Zhane, quirking an eyebrow.
"If you haven't noticed, we seem to be short one of those," Chris pointed out, folding his arms across his chest. "In this case, two halves DON'T make a whole."
"But they could," Zhane replied. "I know of a way to merge the powers back into one whole force. We could fix our morphers so that mine absorbs all the power, which would make me the full Silver Ranger again. The reason I haven't mentioned it before is because it's dangerous."
"What isn't?" the dark-haired boy cracked. "What do we have to do, get struck by lightning?"
Zhane shook his head. "That's if you need a recharge," he replied blithely, oblivious to Chris' shock. "I can make the necessary modifications, but I'll need your morpher."
Without a trace of hesitation, Chris handed over the wristband. "Do it- and hurry. Their time is running out."
Working quickly, Zhane popped open two panels on the morphers, quickly connecting wires that let between the two. "That should do it," he said at last, slipping his on. "I should warn you, however, that if this doesn't work, we'll both be annihilated by the Silver Energy."
"Hey, who wants to live forever anyway?" Chris responded, nervousness in his eyes. "They're our friends. We have to risk it. Let's go." He slipped his wrist into the other morpher, and now the two men stood facing each other.
Zhane threw his friend a small smile. "It was nice knowing you, Chris."
"Same here," the other boy replied. His voice quavered slightly, but he quickly got it under control.
"Let's Rocket!" they cried in unison, punching in the morphing codes. A sound like amplifier feedback rang through the air, and a silver light swallowed the bridge of the Megaship.
Blue Astro lay on his back, watching helplessly as Neji Blue's axe swung downward to part his head from his shoulders. The weapon's arc had only just begun, though, when a bolt of silver energy struck it, tearing it from the Neji Ranger's grasp. Neji Blue looked up just in time for a silver form to plow into him, knocking him away from Blue Astro.
Getting slowly to his feet, the Astro Ranger watched in astonishment as his silver teammate quickly sent Neji Blue packing. The evil Ranger was not brave enough to stand up to an opponent he didn't know so well.
"Chris?" Blue Astro asked automatically, trying to catch his breath.
Silver Astro shook his head. "Sorry, wrong guess. Would you like to try again?"
"Zhane! What happened? How did you get here?" Blue Astro strode over to his friend, shaking his head in bewilderment.
"Long story, and we don't have time right now. Let's get out there, before those Neji Rangers make hash out of our team!"
The two Astro Rangers ran out of the warehouse to find a scene of utter chaos. The Astro Rangers had attempted to regroup, but the Nejis were making any type of connection difficult.
"Super Silverizer!" Silver Astro called, extending his hand. A strange gun appeared in his hand, with a brace extending to his forearm. Methodically, Silver and Blue Astros unloaded their fire into the Nejis, disrupting the assault long enough for the Astros to get back together..
As Silver Astro moved to join his friends, a bolt of green energy whizzed past his head, stopping him. Turning, he found Ecliptor standing ready to challenge him, sword held high.
"You and me, Silver Ranger. I will destroy you, and finish what I started on KO-35!"
"Not a chance, Ecliptor," Silver Astro snapped. "Blade mode!" His Silverizer extended a bluish blade from the end, and he and Ecliptor quickly found themselves embroiled in a fierce battle. Hacking and slashing, the two of them gave free reign to the vendetta that had been festering since Zhane's resurrection.
While the two of them were lost in their duel, and the newly reunified Astro Rangers were dealing with their evil twins, no one noticed Darkonda as he crept up on the unsuspecting Silver Ranger. Keeping to the shadows, the Mephistan managed to remain unseen as he moved closer to the battle.
"I'll destroy the Silver Ranger myself," he chuckled. "And there'll be no risk to it, and much gain. Dark Specter will reward me handsomely for this." Raising his sword, he stepped out of his hiding place, ready to strike Silver Astro down.
A flash of silver and a loud "THUMP" captured the attentions of both Ecliptor and Silver Astro, simultaneously. Their battle forgotten, both turned in the direction of the sound to find Darkonda sprawled on the ground, obviously unconscious. Floating above him was Chris Sterling, perched on the Silver Galaxy Glider, peering down at the Mephistan with obviously feigned surprise.
"Oops, did I do that?" Chris asked with exaggerated innocence. A muffled sound came from Ecliptor's direction. It sounded almost like a snort of laughter.
"We'll- finish this another day, Silver Ranger," Ecliptor managed. A second chuckle escaped him, and he quickly teleported out before he could break down completely.
That done, Silver Astro turned his attention back to Chris. "You're on my Galaxy Glider," he said flatly, sounding disbelieving.
Chris raised an eyebrow. "Well, hello to you too," he shot back. "I mean, I just stopped you from becoming shish-kebab, no big deal."
"Thank you, but- you're on my Galaxy Glider," Silver Astro repeated. "How?"
"Danged if I know," his friend shrugged. "You needed me, and the rest was kind of instinctive. I just hopped on the Glider and headed down here."
"And hit him on the back of the head with it."
The other boy looked sheepish. "I haven't worked stopping out quite yet, okay?"
Silver Astro snorted. "Well, thanks for the help, but you'd better get out of here. Without any Ranger powers, you're a sitting duck."
"Right. Meet you back at the ship." With that, Chris zoomed off.
Silver Astro turned his attention to the other part of the battle, but found that his assistance was no longer needed. Once back as a team, the Astros' teamwork had been sufficient to give them the upper hand over the Nejis. Now the evil Rangers disengaged, backing away from their opponents.
"This isn't the end, Rangers," Neji Red promised. "You'll be hearing from us again. Count on it." The air twisted, and the five evil Rangers disappeared.
"Glad that's over," Silver Astro remarked. Red Astro nodded.
"No kidding. Let's head back to the ship, guys. I think Zhane's got some explaining to do."
The Surf Spot was packed when Chris Sterling arrived that evening. Most of the tables had been moved to the sides of the room, to make way for the dancers, but he still had trouble seeing the linoleum. The music that filled the air was at the perfect volume, loud enough to carry, but not loud enough to make conversation impossible. As Chris cut through the crowd on the floor, he received a number of compliments on his costume. Although he thanked the speakers, he grinned to himself. Not one of these people actually knew what he was dressed at.
Over behind the bar, he could just see Richie, Trini's boyfriend and Ernie's part-time bartender, on loan to the Surf Spot for the party tonight. The youth center was the site of the most elaborate haunted house in Angel Grove history, so the young man wasn't needed there. Although most of the other young adults in the city were, including the remaining Zeo Rangers and Morphin Warriors.
"Nice costume," a voice said behind him. Turning, Chris suddenly found he couldn't breathe. Ashley stood behind him, wearing a black bodysuit that fit like a second skin. A small black mask hid her eyes, and two black ears perched in her hair. A pair of boots with spiked heels completed the ensemble, lifting her until her eyes were almost level with his.
"Uh... thanks," the former Astro Ranger finally managed. "You too."
Ashley grinned. "I've always liked the original Catwoman outfit," she purred, moving closer. "Don't you?"
"Getting a little into the costume, aren't you?" Chris joked. "Come on, the others are waiting for us." Looking up, Chris scanned the room, searching for the table where the Rangers had planned to meet. "Yeah, over there by the back hall," he continued. Bringing his attention back to his surroundings, he found that Ashley was gone, swallowed up by the crowd once more. Shrugging, Chris continued on his way back to the table.
Pushing through the group, Chris found TJ, Andros, and Zhane already waiting for him. Seeing TJ's costume, he chuckled, even though they had worked the outfits out ahead of time. TJ was dressed as Darkwing Duck, complete with gray hat, purple suit, and purple mask. He even had a gas gun, which he was currently playing with idly.
"Your faithful sidekick is reporting for duty," Chris reported, sliding into the seat next to TJ. He was dressed in an aviator's costume, complete with cap and scarf. Specifically, he was Launchpad McQuack. Looking at Andros and Zhane's identical black suits, he raised an eyebrow.
"Pulp Fiction?" he asked.
"Men in Black," TJ corrected him. "But it's hard to tell the difference."
Zhane shrugged. "Cassie seemed to think it was very funny."
"Well," Chris replied, "you are saving Angel Grove from the scum of the universe." That required an explanation, which led into Chris and TJ telling Andros and Zhane what _their_ costumes were from. The exposition was interrupted by the arrival of two more of their teammates.
"Hi, guys," Carlos greeted them, his fangs gleaming in the dim light of the Surf Spot. Dressed all in black, Carlos made an extremely convincing vampire. Next to him was Ashley, and looking at her, Chris lost his breath again.
"Ash," he croaked. "You didn't change your costume recently, did you?"
The Yellow Astro Ranger looked at her Buffy ensemble in confusion. "No, I've had it on all night. Why?"
"Because I just saw you out on the floor, dressed like Catwoman. Now, if it wasn't you-"
Zhane cursed. "The Neji Rangers have decided to crash the party."
"Or at least one of them has," TJ replied. "Do you think they're preparing an attack?"
Andros shook his head. "We're safe, at least for now. If they launch an attack in here, these people will stampede, and that's as dangerous for them as it is for us."
"Gee, what a relief," Ashley replied tartly.
Footsteps made the six look up, to see Cassie Chan approaching the table. She wore a long, tight red dress that left very little to the imagination, and her hair was pulled up on her head. All in all, she was one of the most impressive torch singers the gang had ever seen.
Chris and Zhane were instantly on their feet, squabbling about who was going to pull out Cassie's chair for her. Grinning at their comical bickering, Cassie forestalled the question by pulling her own seat out and sitting down.
"So, Chris," Andros began, as if Cassie's arrival had been some sort of signal. "How are you feeling?"
Chris didn't even think about lying. "A little weak, but pretty good. I only had a half-measure to become dependent on, so I should bounce right back."
"Just remember- once a Ranger, always a Ranger," TJ told him. "You will always be a part of our team, no matter what."
"Don't worry, guys, I'm not going anywhere," Sterling assured them. "After all, I've still got a connection to Zhane's stuff. If you need me to fly something, I'm here. More to the point, if you need me to CRASH something..." He broke off, ducking as TJ swatted him good-naturedly.
"Hey, look!" Carlos pointed. "It's the Turbo Rangers!" The group looked up to see the younger team a few tables away from them. Fred, dressed as Indiana Jones, waved at the older teens. The other four Rangers were on the dance floor- Franklin and Rosa as Romeo and Juliet, Tasha in camouflage, and Justin Stewart dressed as Spider-man.
Ashley chuckled. "There sure are a lot of neat costumes here tonight," she observed. "Hey, TJ, look! Somebody came to the party as Negaduck!"
Expecting his friend to make some sort of silly comment, Chris was startled when he felt the Blue Astro Ranger freeze beside him. For a long moment, TJ was immobile, his face impassive. Then he smiled weakly.
"Boy, a hero just can't get a break these days," he joked, but his heart wasn't in it.
"Who's Negaduck?" Zhane asked.
Chris shrugged. "On the Darkwing Duck cartoon, Negaduck was Darkwing's- evil... twin..." His voice trailed off as the meaning sank in, and he twisted around in his seat. The person in the Negaduck costume was gone, however. Turning back around, he looked at his friend. "Teej..."
TJ stood up abruptly, cutting off all questions. "I'm going to go get us some sodas, all right? Cokes okay?" His demeanor said that he did NOT intend to discuss the matter further. Getting his friends' drink preferences, he strode towards the bar. His friends silently watched him go.
A few minutes later, TJ was back with Adelle in tow. TJ carried a tray of drinks, while the Surf Spot's owner held a basket of her special complimentary fries. "On the house," she reminded them as she set the basket down. Then she looked at Zhane. "Has anybody ever told you-" she broke off as seven teenagers glared at her. "All right, I guess they have," she finished. "You kids enjoy."
"We will, Adelle," Cassie replied. "Thanks." The seven teens collected their sodas, and Carlos raised his glass.
"To the seven of us," he toasted. "United we stand, right, guys?"
"Hear, hear," came the reply, and seven glasses clinked. Chris felt a warm feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. It had taken gaining and losing a set of superpowers, and nearly dying too many times to count, but he felt as if he'd finally come home. Looking over the table at Andros and Zhane, he smiled. Looked as if he wasn't the only one. Surprising himself, he raised his own glass.
"To friends and family- and homecomings," he announced, his eyes locking with Zhane's. The Silver Astro Ranger smiled and nodded slightly. The glasses clinked again, and in the center of the noise and hubbub, seven friends began to talk, finally at home, together.