"Once again," she muttered, "I slept through my alarm clock. I'm late!"
But Aisha wasn't too worried about being late to school this morning. As she undressed, she realized she had other problems. On the side of her abdomen was a dark scar, still with dried blood on it. She ran her fingers down the scar, which was nearly a foot long, as she recalled how she received such a terrible wound. About one week ago, she battled Holocaust as the Green Ranger. He managed to deflect her attack, and blasted her with powerful plasmic energy, throwing her into a rusted steel beam. The sharp metal sliced through both her armor and her flesh, giving her a serious wound. But, her wound wasn't as serious as Jason and Zack's. Jason's shoulder was almost completely sliced through, and Zack's leg was crushed, and he sustained a serious head injury. Even Tommy had numerous broken ribs, that even punctured his lungs. But all three young men have made complete recoveries, thanks to their enhanced Ranger healing abilities, coupled with the highly advanced med-unit, which further increases the body's ability to heal itself. What was strange is that she wasn't healing like the others. The med-unit could only partially heal her wounds, and left this horrible scar. Billy had diagnosed that her wound was more serious than it looked, and since the med-unit had been used so extensively after that fight, it was low on energy. He believed Aisha's own healing abilities would finish up the regeneration of the skin, and she'd be as good as new in a day or two. But, its been six days, and she's still aching horribly.
"No big deal," she reasoned, wrapping her body in her bathrobe, "So I have a scar. It'll heal eventually. Its no reason to bother Billy. He said I'll be fine, and I believe him."
Aisha hurried into the bathroom, and showered. Afterwards, she combed out her hair, and got dressed. While she was tying her shoelaces, there was a knock on her door.
"Come in!" she called, standing up and applying lip gloss. Doctor Benjamin Campbell, her father, entered the room, and smiled at his only daughter.
"You're a little late this morning," he said, glancing down at his watch, "Its nearly nine o'clock!"
"I know," she sighed, "but ever since Holocaust banged me up, I haven't been able to function well. I'll be okay, though--"
"Aisha," Doctor Campbell said sternly, "that battle was a week ago! Your wound wasn't so serious that you'd still be feeling the effects. Especially after the med-unit mended the cut. You should have been okay after a couple of hours."
Aisha shook her head, and turned to her father. At first, Aisha thought that keeping the secret of being a Power Ranger from her parents was difficult, because there was no way to explain the drop in grades, and constantly having to disappear, only to return with bruises and scratches. But now, she realizes its worse when the parent knows the truth, and is always hounding her to be careful. Thank goodness Mom doesn't know. She'd never let me out of the house!
"Dad, I'll be fine," she said, "Its probably because I haven't been a Power Ranger for awhile. My system just has to readjust is all."
"You don't have to go to school," Doctor Campbell said, "If you're not feeling well, I can write a note saying you were ill today."
"Nah, I'm too far behind as it is," said Aisha, standing up on her toes to give her father a kiss on the cheek, "Gotta go!"
"At least let me drive you," said Doctor Campbell, following Aisha out of her bedroom, "Its on my way to the University."
Ten minutes later, Aisha hurries into Angel Grove High, carrying a note from her father, stating that she woke up not feeling well, and needed some extra sleep. At least with this note, she should be able to avoid detention for tardiness. After checking in at the main office, Aisha went to her locker to put her jacket away, and collect the books needed for the next period. While she was at her locker, the bell rang, dismissing first period. She spun around when she heard a familiar voice call her name.
She giggled when she saw Zack Taylor, the Silver Ranger, jump down the last few steps on his way to the first floor. He jogged up beside her, and leaned against the locker next to hers.
"Hi, Aisha," he said with a smile, "What's up?"
"Nothing new," she answered.
"Where were you this morning? Are you just getting here?"
"Uh, yeah," she said, slightly embarassed, "I just couldn't drag myself out of bed."
"You're late more often than Tommy!" Zack laughed.
"So, did you only come over here to criticize me?" she asked him.
"Actually, I... I wanna ask you a question. Do you know that new dance club that opened downtown?"
"Yeah..." said Aisha, her smile widening, I can't believe it! He's finally asking me out! I thought he'd _never_ get over Angela!
"Well, how do you think I can get Angela to go with me? I mean, if she'd only give me a chance, she'd realize what a cool guy I am!"
Aisha's smile fell, and she arched an eyebrow. "Look, Zack, I'm not really friendly with Angela. I have no idea how you would impress her."
"Are you okay?" he asked, noticing her sudden change in mood.
"Yeah, I'm just... tired is all," she responded, taking a deep breath. She closed her locker, and smiled up at Zack. "See ya at lunch, Taylor."
"Bye," he said with a grin, waving and jogging down the hall. Aisha leaned against her locker, and rolled her eyes.
What IS it with him? she pondered, What do I have to do, throw myself at his feet for him to notice me?! I must be barking up the wrong tree. There's no getting through to Zachary Taylor. He's head over heels for Angela, a woman who doesn't even give him the time of day. I should just forget about him, and keep my eyes open for someone else. But, why does he have to be so darn cute?!
Aisha scrunched her nose as she strapped on her backpack, and crossed the hallway, where she saw her best friends chatting in a circle against the walls.
"What are you four talking about?" she asked.
"I was just showing Tanya the ring Tommy gave me," Kimberly said with a smile, "She just got back from Kenya, and we've been filling her in on all the details."
"Yes," said Tanya, "I can't believe Tommy proposed! Its so romantic!"
"He didn't actually ask me to marry him," Kim corrected, "he just wanted to make sure I realized how much he loves me."
"And I'll bet you didn't realize how much you loved him, until that battle against Solar," said Alexis with a knowing smile.
"You're right," Kim agreed. Boy, she thought, they don't even know the half of it! Only Tommy, Billy and I know the whole truth-- that Annie was actually me, in some alternate future! Seeing an older version of me married to someone else probably scared him. It sure as heck scared me!
"I guess he realized that he won't live forever," Katherine said, "I mean, Solar nearly killed him! Tommy had to face the fact that he doesn't have forever to tell you exactly how he feels. Being thrown in mortal peril is the only way to wake some guys up."
"So, maybe I should inflict some life-altering damage to Zack?" sighed Aisha.
"What happened?" asked Kim, her euphoric smile falling.
"He asked me how to get Angela to go out with him," she muttered, "Honestly, he's putting me in an awkward position. I don't know what to do--"
"Maybe you should ask him out," suggested Alexis.
"Nah," said Aisha, "he's in love with Angela. I know I'm not the one he really wants to be with, and if I did ask him, it would makes things weird between us. I mean, we're friends. I don't want to make him uncomfortable around me."
"Give him time," said Kimberly, placing her hand on Aisha's shoulder, "One of these days, Zack will realize that Angela isn't the right girl for him. Now, let's get going! We have to go to class!"
The group of girls split up, and hurried to their respective classrooms. Not long after, the bell rang, signaling the start of second period.
Meanwhile, on the Moon, Goldar is busy sharpening his golden sword carefully. He is a bitter mood, because the war against Earth has taken a drastic turn. Not quite a week ago, the extremely powerful being Solar attacked the palace, and with but a passing thought, managed to get rid of both Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa, by throwing them into the endless void of the Multiverse. Although both villains had previously shown the ability to manipulate the Multiverse, it is unlikely they will find their way home. At least not for a while. Although Goldar has many times dreamt of finally being the leader, he is now overwhelmed with uncertainty, All his life, he has been a follower. Now, he has to establish himself as the superior being, and decide what his ultimate goal is. The latter is easy, but the former is harder.
Rito is an idiot, Goldar reasoned, Even though, being Rita's brother, he is the most likely successor, he doesn't have the qualifications to order anyone around! Finster is a genius, but even though he is never one to crumble under the weight of authority, he is not a leader. And Squatt and Baboo don't even enter into the picture...
Goldar sheathed his sharpened sword, and quickly marched to the throne room, where all the other villains who served Rita and Zedd were. He walked passed them, and stood upon the balcony, looking out upon the Earth circling below.
"Well?" asked Finster, "Why did you ask us all here?"
"Its been days," Goldar's deep voice rumbled, "and Zedd and Rita are still gone. Also, we must assume Solar himself has been destroyed since we can find no trace of him. It is safe for us to remain in the palace, and continue to attack Earth."
"But, why?" asked Baboo, "Can't we just all go home?"
"Go home where?!" Goldar roared, "We have been in the service of Lord Zedd for centuries! None of us are welcome in our home worlds, since we all betrayed our friends and family when Zedd took over. Well, all except Rito and Finster. Rito, will you be a traitor to your family by giving up the fight against justice?"
"Uhh..." Rito said, rubbing his chin.
"And you, Finster," said Goldar, turning to the old scientist, "where will you go? Your home planet was destroyed."
Finster bowed his head solemnly. His planet was indeed destroyed, by volcanic eruptions that tore the planet apart. He is the only member of his race to survive, because he was away from the planet on a scientific expedition when the destruction occured. There was nowhere for him to go. "So, what are you suggesting?" asked Finster.
"If we work together, we can destroy the Power Rangers, and then make our own kingdom. Here on Earth."
"Good idea!" said Rito, "Can I be the leader?"
"Let's worry about who leads after the Power Rangers have been dealt with. Any ideas, anyone?"
"Nope," said Rito, shrugging his shoulders, "I don't have a... ah... ah... CHOOOO!!"
Rito sneezed right into Goldar's face. Goldar's eyes flashed as he wiped the moisture from his snout.
"Sheesh," Rito sniffled, "sorry about that, Goldie. I guess I'm coming down with a Space Flu."
Goldar's eyes widened, and a frown crossed his face. "IDIOT!!" he roared, "Space Viruses are highly contagious!"
"So?" asked Rito with another shrug, "Space Viruses only cause sneezing and stuffy noses."
"Not necessarily," said Finster, "Space Viruses are notorious for their unpredictabililty. Each species has different symptoms, varying in seriousness. Your species suffers sneezing and congestion, while in my species, the symptoms include fatigue and dizziness."
"And you, Goldie?" asked Rito.
"We get an itch," muttered Goldar, "A chronic, debilitating itch."
"Cool," said Rito, "Hey, it could be worse! In some species, Space Viruses are fatal."
Goldar's sneer suddenly turned into a chilling grin, and he turned to Finster. "Do you know how a Space Virus affects humans?"
"No," said Finster, "I don't believe humans have ever been inflicted with Space Viruses. The germs originated from another galaxy, and they cannot survive in the Earth's atmosphere. If they somehow managed to get through the upper atmosphere, it would only survive a matter of minutes in the air. But, if a human were to contract the Space Flu, the symptoms would most likely be extreme, since humans are extremely fragile."
"So, all we have to do is get the virus down to Earth, so it can infect the Power Rangers!" said Goldar excitedly, "At the very least, it'll keep them incapacitated for awhile, and they will be helpless to prevent us from conquering the planet!!"
"How do we get the rangers infected?" asked Squatt.
"I could create a monster with the virus," said Finster, "He may not last long in Earth's atmosphere, but he will be strong enough to deliver the disease, All the rangers have to do is breathe his breath to be exposed to the virus."
"I guess you're assuming they won't morph," said Rito. Goldar grumbled.
"You're right, the rangers' helmets would protect them from breathing contaminated air. We must expose them to the virus before they'd be able to morph! But, how do we stop them from morphin?"
"If we attack in a well-populated area, there will be too many spectators," said Finster.
"Excellent!" cried Goldar, "The rangers all gather at the Youth Center for lunch daily! If the monster attacks them there, they will need time to evacuate the bystanders before morphin! Even though the monster probably won't last long in the battle, the rangers will come down with the Space Flu!! Finster, its already nine-thirty in Angel Grove. Can you complete the monster by noon?"
"All I need is a sample of the Space Virus."
"Its coming!" shouted Rito, "Ah... ah... ah--!"
Everyone stepped back except Finster, who held out his palm in front of Rito's nose and mouth.
"That'll do," said Finster, walking to his lab, "Thank you, Rito."
"No prob," he said, "Just make sure you wash your hands before eating."
At the Youth Center, Tommy Oliver, Kimberly Hart, Aisha Campbell, Tanya Sloan, Adam Park, Rocky DeSantos, Alexis Darling, Katherine Hillard, Billy Mitchell, Zack Taylor, and Jason Lee sit on a round table, eating lunch and talking about various topics.
"So," said Alexis, "Why were you in Africa, Tanya?"
"Well, after the fight against Sandman, that I'm sure everyone else told you about, my parents were freed from ten years of captivity. We had to go back to their home city in Kenya to collect what was left of their things, contact family members, apply for Visas to come here, and even look into buying a house here. That kind of stuff takes a while. We got a house right on the border of Angel Grove and Stone Canyon."
"Really?" asked Alexis, "Which street?"
"Wow, I live on Elmwood! That's like two blocks away! We can walk to school together."
"Sounds good to me," said Tanya, "So, what have you guys been up to? Other than expanding your roster with a Purple Ranger, of course."
"Don't ask," sighed Tommy, "A week ago, we had to fight this super-being called Solar. It was a pretty bad experience."
"Yeah," said Aisha, "and Solar's henchman Holocaust was one tough warrior! Those injuries were painful. And serious."
"Thank goodness there haven't been any monster attacks since then," said Kimberly, "We could all use the break."
"Speaking of break," said Zack, dipping a French fry in some ketchup, "What have you been up to during the silent period, Billy? I haven't seen you in a while."
"Well, I've taken the opportunity given by Rita and Zedd's recent disappearance to catch up on my reading."
"What are you reading?" asked Adam.
"The data on file in the CAC," he said, "There is a wealth of information from across the universe in the computers. Zordon left us very well prepared for any possibility. Just yesterday, I found a file listing all the known intelligent races in the universe. Did you know there are over twenty one million planets that support animal life? Its phenomenal."
"I'd say," said Rocky.
"I also found files of all manner of plant life and micro-organisms. So, we have at our disposal information on an innumerable number of poisons and medicines, as well as viruses and bacteria."
"So, you've been reading that stuff all this past week?!" said Adam, "Don't you ever relax?"
"Accumulating knowledge is how I unwind," said Billy with a shrug, "You guys tend to work out your bodies, I work out my mind."
Suddenly, a part of the ceiling caved in, and a large, green monster fell into the crowded restaurant. The rangers jumped to their feet as the other teens present screamed in terror.
"We got a problem," whispered Zack.
"Everyone, get out!" Billy cried, trying to calm down the people. Tanya, Rocky, and Adam followed Billy's example, and tried to get the people out of the building without trampling each other. The seven Power Rangers leapt to their feet, and lined up in front of the monster, prohibiting him from following the fleeing teenagers. The monster laughed, and air tainted with tiny neon green particles gushed from its mouth as it talked.
"Brave little kids," he declared, "I am Contagion, and I will destroy!!"
"Whew!" cried Aisha, waving her hand over her nose, "What have you been eating?!"
"That is foul, Man!" declared Zack, scrunching his nose. Jason looked around warily, and turned back to the monster.
"The coast's clear," he announced. Tommy smiled.
"Then... its Morphin Time!!" he declared, "TERRA FIRE POWER!!"
"TERRA EARTH POWER!!" bellowed Jason.
"TERRA WATER POWER!!" yelled Katherine.
"TERRA WIND POWER!!" screamed Aisha.
"X-Ranger One!!" hollered Zack.
"X-Ranger Two!!" cried Kimberly.
"Purple Ranger Power!!" called Alexis.
The seven Power Rangers transformed, and stood aggressively in a line. Contagion held up his long arms, and began swinging. The rangers easily dodged his flimsy attacks, and countered with punches and kicks from all angles. Contagion was stunned by the skill of his opponents, and the Purple Ranger took advantage of his state of confusion to hit him with a powerful beam of invisible ultraviolet light. The energy beam left a smoking wound on its chest, and it flew back, and crashed into a table.
"This guy isn't much of a fighter," said Zack, watching as the monster tried desperately to rise to its feet.
"Let's finish him while he'd down," said Jason.
"Right," said Tommy, "Terra Tempest, gang!"
"Ice Daggers!" cried Katherine, and two small silver and blue daggers appeared in her hands.
"Wind Shield!" yelled Aisha, and the green and black shield appeared.
"Flame Saber!" shouted Tommy, and his silver blade heeded his command.
"Lance of Light!" called Zack, the long white staff with a prism at either end materializing.
"Thunderbow!" screamed Kimberly, and her gold and yellow weapon took shape, sparking with electricity.
"Earth Sword!!" bellowed Jason, as the mighty sword materialized.
The rangers turned to the monster, who wasn't moving. They were stunned to see that it was slowly melting.
"Uh, what gives?" asked Alexis, "I mean, I didn't hit it that hard!"
"That was... weird," said Zack with a shrug, and the monster decomposed into nothing. Suddenly, the rangers' communicators went off.
"We read you," said Tommy into his wrist.
"Rangers," said Billy's voice, "my sensors are showing that the monster has been destroyed. Is that true?"
"I guess," said Tommy, "We didn't even get a chance to hit it with the Tempest, but it just... melted."
"I'll run some more conclusive scans on the Youth Center," said Billy, "Make sure that no one enters it for at least twenty minutes. Then, come back here."
"You got it," said Tommy, as he left the Youth Center. Just outside, a crowd of spectators were standing, with Ernie, the owner of the building, in the center.
"Is it dead, Red Ranger?" asked Ernie.
"We... we're not sure yet," Tommy replied, "Please, let no one enter the Youth Center for about twenty minutes. We're going to run a few scans, to make sure all is well."
Ernie nodded, and the Red Ranger returned to the rest of the team. Then, they all vanished in streaks of light.
"Well," muttered Rito, "That was pointless! Rita's Putties could last longer!"
"Contagion wasn't meant to fight the rangers!" roared Goldar, "All he had to do was breathe on them, and he did! Besides, Finster said it earlier-- the Space Virus can't last long in Earth's atmosphere. He did his job."
"So, now what do we do?" asked Rito.
"I'm glad you asked," said Goldar, stroking his sword and gazing down to Earth, "For species of the size of humans, the virus takes about twenty minutes to an hour to take affect. When it does, the Power Rangers will be incapacitated! We shall wait the whole hour, just to make sure. Then, we launch an invasion! We'll attack all the major cities in the United States, and then all the capitals in the rest of the world, bringing the planet to its knees. I've already asked Finster to start making a few batches of Viper Putties, and I've even sent a message to Scorpina. She's in the Alpha Centauri system."
"What is she doing there?" asked Rito.
"Zedd sent her to keep an eye on the Machine Empire. They are the greatest threat to his own empire, other than the rangers themselves, of course. But Scorpina hates it there. She'll be glad to return, especially since she won't have to follow Zedd's orders. She is only faithful to Rita."
"Come," said Goldar, "let's go see how the Viper Putty Army is coming along."
"What is the deal with that monster, Billy?" asked Zack, taking off his silver helmet, "He certainly didn't put up much of a fight."
"Do you think maybe Rito made him?" suggested Katherine, "It certainly wasn't of the caliber of Zedd or Finster's monsters."
"I'd like to get some better readings," said Billy, standing up from his desk. He was holding a small device, about the size and shape of a calculator. "Who'd like to collect some more scans from the Youth Center?"
"I'll go," offered Aisha. She took the device, and vanished in a streak of green light. The rangers gathered around the Viewing Globe, and watched a moment by moment replay of the entire battle, without any sound.
"I saw the fight," said Billy, "but I couldn't hear what was going on. Can you fill me in?"
"He didn't say much," said Jason, "He basically introduced himself, and quoted the usual threats."
"Can you elaborate?" asked Billy, wiping off the lenses of his glasses with his shirt.
"Something along the lines of 'I am Contagion, and I will destroy you!'" said Kimberly.
Billy's blue eyes widened in surprise, and he stood up straight. "His name was Contagion?!"
"Yeah," said Tommy, "I remembered hearing that word before, but I couldn't recall what it means..."
"Its probably from your sophomore year biology class," said Billy, sitting back down at his computer. He replayed the battle, but in slower motion. He also magnified the creature's face.
"What are you thinking, Billy?" asked Katherine.
"A contagion is a disease producing agent," Billy explained.
"Whoa," said Zack, "you mean like a virus?"
"Exactly. Take a look at this."
The rangers all watched as the monster slowly melted while it lay on a broken table. From the high magnification, small particles with an unnatural greenish glow were clearly visible.
"What is that?" asked Alexis, looking to Billy.
"From the image, along with the information we've just deduced, I'd conclude that those are viruses. The monster was most likely sent to start some kind of plague."
"Uh oh," said Tommy, "Good thing we kept anyone from getting back into the Youth Center. But Aisha is in there..."
"If she's wearing her helmet, she should be fine," he said, "The helmets have air purifiers, preventing the inhalation of harmful gases or particles."
"So then, we're okay," said Kat.
"No," said Zack, remembering the stench of Contagion's breath, "we're not. We didn't morph right away. And he was breathing all over us!!"
"It must have been the plan," said Billy, walking to the med unit. He activated the transporter, and six cots appeared side by side, all next to the med unit itself. Billy then turned to the rangers. "Please, all of you de-morph, and lie down. I'm going to get a face mask, just in case you are carrying a contagious disease. I'll also put on the air purifiers in here, to make sure no germs incubate."
Billy went into the closet against the wall, and the six rangers all de-morphed and lay down on the six cots. Soon, Billy returned with a scanning device and a mask over his mouth and nose. He began scanning the rangers, starting with Tommy.
"How do you feel?" he asked, activating the hand-held bio scanner.
"I feel fine," Tommy said, "But if we were just exposed to the virus, what makes you think it'd already be affecting us?"
"If a monster is distributing it, I would doubt this is an ordinary virus. If we assume its an alien disease, then your body will have no idea how to combat it. In short, you will have no natural defense against it."
After scanning Tommy for a few moments, Billy frowned, and touched Tommy's forehead.
"What's wrong?" Tommy asked.
"You have a fever," Billy said, "Its not too bad, but its a start. Other than that, I can't find anything else wrong with you."
Billy then left Tommy, and repeated the scan on Kimberly, and then the other Terran and X-Rangers. All five had the same symptom, a slight fever. When Billy scanned Alexis, he frowned even more.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Your temperature is higher than the others," he said, "Everyone else has a temperature of about 99.8, but you have a temperature of 101.3. That's a significant difference."
"What could be the cause?" asked Katherine.
"Perhaps because she's not a Terran Ranger?"
"What would that have to do with anything?" asked Jason.
"The Terra powers, as well as the X-Ranger powers, have a source from within your bodies-- namely the Zeo crystal shards. A consequence of having such a power source inside you is a stronger body, in all senses of the word. The crystals enhance you, especially your immune system. Haven't you noticed that none of you have been sick since you became Terran Rangers? You also manage to function with a lot less sleep."
"Yeah," said Alexis, "and me?"
"Mighty Morphin Power Rangers also have enhanced healing and immune systems, but not as much as the Terran Rangers. So, the virus is affecting you to a greater degree, but I don't think its something to worry too much about. Still, we'd better wait it out, to make sure the fevers don't get worse."
"What do we do in the meantime?" asked Tommy.
"Well, if you like, you can take two Tylenol."
Meanwhile, in the Youth Center, the Green Ranger continues to scan the area, looking for signs of Contagion.
"There's nothing here," she sighed, "Not even a trace of him!"
Aisha knelt, to get a better look at the spot where Contagion disintegrated, but still saw nothing. She gave up, and then stood up. But, she felt a wave of dizziness come upon her, and she steadied herself by leaning on a nearby chair. She touched her helmet, and shook her head.
"What's wrong with me?" she asked herself, "And why is it so... hot in here?"
Aisha tried to shrug off the wave of dizziness, but it only got worse. She sat down on the chair, and turned on her communicator.
"Green Ranger to CAC," she said, "Billy, do you read?"
"Affirmative," came Billy's voice, "Have you found anything?"
"Maybe. Its really hot in here all of the sudden. And the room is like spinning. Do you think there's some kind of gas in the air, or something?"
"If there were, it wouldn't affect you. You are wearing your helmet, right?"
"Of course I-- oooooh..."
Suddenly, Aisha fainted, and collapsed onto the Youth Center floor.
"Aisha? Aisha, do you read me?!"
There was no response.
"I'm bringing you back here, now!"
With that, the Green Ranger vanished from the Youth Center, along with the scanner she was using.
With a heavy, frustrated sigh, Zack turned away from his computer station, and glanced in Aisha's direction. Silently, he rose from his chair, and walked across the CAC. He stopped beside the med-unit, and watched Aisha's face for a few moments. It unsettled him to see his close friend so flushed and lifeless, especially considering how vibrant and energetic she was. In his ears, he could hear her cheerful laugh, the one she always laughed when he told a joke, or performed a trick. His eyes began to sting when he realized that he may never hear her laugh again.
"Anything yet?" he asked Tanya and Adam.
"Billy was right-- the med-unit just isn't helping her," Adam muttered, his face grim, "We even discovered some other scars, from the fight against Holocaust last week. They should've healed by now."
"So, what's wrong with her, exactly?"
"Lots of things," Tanya whispered, "For whatever reason, the med-unit is proving ineffective in healing any of Aisha's injuries. No matter what we do, her fever is still increasing. She's already up to 105.6 degrees, and we can't do a thing to stop it. This virus she's infected with is really running rampant, to a much more serious degree than the rest of you."
"Does anyone know why?" Zack asked.
"I believe I have a clue," Billy said, looking directly at Zack. Everyone in the room turned to Billy, waiting for one of his ingenius solutions.
"Remember when the Command Center was destroyed, and Zordon asked us to find the shards of the Zeo Crystal?"
"Of course," said Tommy, "We had to look in the ruins of the Command Center for the colored shards."
"Exactly. Well, if you recall, Zordon told us that not just anyone could be a Terran Ranger. Only those 'destined' for that role can safely harbor the Power."
"Wait," said Tanya, "I thought we established that he meant only those who were Mighty Morphin Power Rangers could be Terran Power Rangers, because of the molecular changes that are necessary to accept the Power."
"That wasn't established," Billy said quietly, "It was merely my hypothesis. And I was wrong."
Everyone in the CAC was startled to hear those words. In fact, no one could remember the last time Billy had admitted that.
"How were you wrong?" Kim asked gently.
"There's more necessary than simply being a former Power Ranger. Apparently, the Terra power is so vast, that only ones with very specific bio-chemical changes can safely use each gem. Everyone's bio-chemistry is slightly different. Any former holder of a Power Coin can become a Terran Ranger, but there are dangerous side-effects that aren't suffered by the 'chosen' rangers."
"Side effects?" Katherine repeated, "Do you know exactly what they are?"
"Well, I know that they include an increased likelihood of injury, overall exhaustion, and a weakened immune system and other bodily defenses."
"The exact opposite of the rest of us," Jason said, shaking his head, "That explains why Aisha is so sick!"
"Exactly," Billy said, "That's why I removed the green Zeo Shard from Aisha's heart. Hopefully, it will help strengthen her immune system, allowing her body to defend against the virus."
"Then I take it there's no cure," Rocky said quietly. Billy shook his head.
"There's no way of knowing until Adam and Tanya identify the virus. Did the computer finish processing the information in the scanner Aisha was using in the Youth Center right before she fainted?"
"It just did," Tanya said, reading off a screen, "It identified the virus. Its called a Space Virus."
"Then let's run it through the system, and see what we get," Billy said, turning back to the computer. The rest of the team gathered around him as he typed in the search command, and waited. Soon, a screen full of information appeared.
"Apparently, Space Viruses affect different species in different ways, ranging from something as minor as a headache to seriously fatal symptoms. They cannot exist in Earth's atmosphere, which is why no human being is recorded as being exposed to the virus."
"Well, Zedd and Rita managed to find a way to bring it to Earth," Zack muttered bitterly, folding his arms, "What does it say about treatment, Billy?"
"There... there is no known treatment," Billy said, taking a deep breath, "Space Viruses must be allowed to run its course. There is no medicine for it."
"What do you mean, 'run its course'?!" Zack hollered, "At this rate, Aisha'll be dead in a couple of hours!"
"There is no panacea, or something?" Kat asked Billy.
"Not on this record," Billy said, "The computer's searched through all the plant life on file, and nothing's come up. No one in the universe apparently knows how to cure this especially tenacious virus."
"I don't buy it," Tommy said, stepping away from the group and pacing across the floor, "Maybe the key isn't a plant. Is there any other method of killing viruses? How about healing magic?"
Billy shook his head. "Healing magic tends to work only in cases of magical injury, or even wounds. It won't affect disease patients. However, there are environmental factors that can affect whether or not a virus can thrive. Certain areas of the world have certain diseases, and apparently certain planets have their own."
"That's true," said Adam, "after all, the Space Virus can't survive here on Earth. There must be something that can kill it."
"But its already in her bloodstream," said Tanya, "and its raging. What help can environmental factors be?"
"Wait," said Billy, turning back to his computer. He typed in another search command, and glanced back at his friends. "Remember when I told you I was reading about all the different inhabited planets?"
"Yeah," Rocky said, grasping Billy's shoulder, "What've ya got?"
"Well, I found an inhabited planet, in the Ebole system, that is especially interesting. This planet, called Midgar, is a great deal like Earth, with humanoid, animal, and plant life. However, it has a high magic content, which is the likely cause of a high monster population. Also, it is known for having no harmful microorganisms."
"What?!" said Kat, "But, that's impossible! How can life exist without microorganisms?"
"Its been a mystery for centuries," Billy said, "but its hypothesized that the immense amounts of a certain kind of energy is what instantly destroys all potentially harmful bacterial or viral organisms that enter the atmosphere. And that energy is harmless to the humanoid life-- in small doses."
"And this energy is portable?" Kim asked with a hopeful smile.
"It should be. Its the energy that runs the planet, like electricity here. Its called Mako energy, and its abundant on Midgar."
Adam frowned. "Guys, this sounds like the biggest longshot I've ever heard."
"Unfortunately, its our best chance, given how little time we have."
"Then its settled!" said Zack, determination in his eyes, "I'll fly out to Midgar, and get some of this Mako energy. Hopefully, we can expose Aisha to it, and the Space Virus will die!"
"You?" Alexis said, glancing at Zack, "I think I should go. At least that way, the Terra team will be intact. If they want to make the Megazord or something, they'll need the Cheetah."
"But the Cheetah is by far the fastest of the ships, and we don't exactly have time on our side," Zack argued, "Besides, there's no way I'm not going on this trip."
"Well, taking a zord isn't the most efficient way of getting to such a distant destination," Billy said, "It would take nearly a day at your fastest speed. Instead, we should hyper-jet."
"What's that?" Kat inquired.
"Its a super-fast type of jetting," Rocky explained, "That's how Alpha sent me, Adam, Aisha, Kim, Tommy, and Billy to Phaedos to retrieve the Ninjetti power."
"Phaedos is about 205 light years away from Earth," Billy added, "and we arrived in a matter of hours. Midgar is only about twenty-seven light years away. It shouldn't take more than about half an hour to reach the planet."
"Well, fine," Zack said, "I'll leave the Cheetah here then. But I'm still going on this mission."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Billy said, shaking his head, "Hyper-jetting is a very delicate form of teleportation. Considering how quickly the passengers will be travelling, along with the extensive distance they will be covering, it is extremely difficult to plot a course that will reach the attempted destination accurately. Unfortunately, the power of a Zeo shard is enough to throw off the computer's calculations for best course. The risks are vastly increased that a Terran Ranger will completely miss Midgar, materializing somewhere in space, or even in a completely different solar system."
"Then, what do we do?" Kat asked.
"The only possibility I can come up with is that a team of non-rangers go. They won't have any internal energy sources that could hinder the transport."
Zack glanced coldly at Billy. "There's no way I'm not going on this mission. Why don't I just leave the Zeo shard here? I still will have some abilities, just like Kimberly did when she went to the moon with Nate Grey and Annie. For some reason, X-Rangers can use their special powers without the Zeo shard-- just to a a limited degree. Still, its better than nothing."
"But what if the Terran Rangers are needed, if Rita and Zedd decide to strike?" Jason asked, "After all, they did send Contagion to infect us. They're probably expecting us all to be on our death-beds, giving them a free shot at Earth."
"Then won't they be surprised to see a team of fully-functioning rangers, ready to kick their butts right back to the moon?" Zack pointed out.
Tommy looked at Zack for a moment. In Zack's eyes, he saw the fury and determination that he always saw in his own, whenever he felt Kimberly was in danger. The look was perfectly reflected in Zack's dark eyes. Tommy knew that, no matter what he said or did, Zack wasn't about to let someone else go on this mission without him. It was a waste of time trying to reason with him.
"Fine," Tommy said, nodding his head, "Zack can go. At least that way, the team going to Midgar won't be at a complete disadvantage. But you're not going alone, Zack. Who'll go with him?"
At that, Billy stepped forward, "I will. I need to go, because I'm the only one here who is in the least familiar with Mako energy. We're going to an alien world practically blindfolded. And also, Rocky, Tanya, and Adam have all been assisting me in the CAC for a long time. They are more than capable of handling things until our return."
"But wait!" Alexis protested, "You said that the Zeo power is what interferes with the teleport. My Power Coin doesn't emit that kind of energy, so I should be okay. Besides, you guys'll need all the help you can get!"
"Not with that fever you're running, Lex," Rocky pointed out, "You're feeling the affects of the virus more than the Terra team. We don't know how serious it'll get. You're staying here."
Alexis frowned, but nodded. "Okay, fine. I guess I see the logic in that."
Rocky grinned. "Don't worry, I'll take good care of you," he joked. Alexis playfully punched him in the shoulder.
"I'll bet you will!"
"We should get going," Zack said, slightly annoyed by the couple's playful antics in a time of crisis, "Aisha doesn't have alot of time."
"Let me program the teleporter for interplanetary hyper-jet mode, and lock on to Midgar," Billy said, activating the teleporter and setting coordinates, "It'll take a little while for the computer to calculate the best path for the jetting to take."
"In the meantime, did you figure out exactly where you need to go?" Kim asked, "You don't have enough time to search an entire planet!"
"Not completely, but we do have a clue. Rather recently, the computers have detected a vast amount of magical energy focused at one point on the Midgar globe, being the southern continent. We are going to aim our teleporter for as close to that point as possible. Hopefully, this is the Mako energy we are searching for."
Kat, Tommy, Alexis, and Jason watched as Billy busily programmed the computer to chart the journey. Rocky had taken the opportunity to search the storage closets for any devices that would prove useful on his friends' adventure. Adam and Tanya remained at Aisha's bedside, studying the computer readout of Aisha's condition. Kimberly was about to join Rocky in the storage room, when she saw Zack standing a few yards from the med-unit. She sighed deeply when she saw his eyes were glassy, as he stared at Aisha's frozen face mutely.
"Are you okay?" she asked, standing beside the pensive Silver Ranger.
"She... she's not moving," he responded quietly.
"We had to put her in cryo-stasis, to slow the spread of the virus," Tanya explained, turning to them, "I don't think it'll stop her fever from increasing completely, but it should give us a couple hours more time."
"Do you know how long she has left?"
Adam looked up from the readouts, and looked at his friends sadly. "I just checked the computer's analysis. At the rate Aisha was going, before we put her in stasis, she would have been dead in less than five hours. The fever has been significantly hindered, but its still increasing. The computer estimates she has about twelve hours before there's permanent brain damage done. There's no chance she'll survive at all past fourteen hours."
Zack shook his head. "And taking into account the hour deducted for two-way travel, we have no more than eleven hours to search a whole alien planet, and find some way to transport this alien energy."
"You always said you liked it when the odds are against you," Kim said, squeezing Zack's hand reassuringly, "Don't worry, Zack. Aisha's a dear friend to all of us. And if there's one thing about this group, its that we don't let friends down."
"Okay," Billy announced from across the CAC, stepping away from the teleporter, "its programmed and ready to go. Zack, did you separate from the crystal?"
"Not yet," he said quietly, closing his eyes. He held his arms out to his side, and gently pushed out his chest, and pushed back his head. In response to his efforts, the small white crystal, gleaming with glittery silver energy, passed through Zack's chest, and floated in front of him. As soon as he touched the crystal with his hands, it grew to its larger size. Zack walked to the med-unit, and placed the crystal beside the green shard. He then glanced at Aisha one more time.
"Don't worry, Campbell," he whispered, "you're gonna be just fine."
Zack then turned around, and stood beside Billy. "I'm ready when you are."
Billy nodded, and looked up from the console. "Could someone activate the teleporter? The transport range is optimal when those being transported are 6.4 feet away from the relay, to limit rebound interference."
"I'll pretend I understand what you're referring to," Rocky said with a grin, hurrying to the relay. He smiled at his friends, and held out two small pouches with shoulder straps. "I figured you'd need some equipment on your field trip."
Billy and Zack smiled, and took the pouches. "Its appreciated, Man," Zack said.
Rocky gave them a thumbs up, and looked back at the relay.
"Hold the fort 'til we get back," Zack called to the other rangers.
"You got it," Jason said, waving.
"Good luck, guys!" Rocky called, activating the teleportation sequence.
Kim, Tommy, Jason, Rocky, Tanya, Kat, Alexis, and Adam watched as Zack and Billy were slowly enveloped in bright energy. Finally, they were transformed into bright columns of pure white light. Once their friends had vanished, the eight teens regrouped.
"So, what do we do now?" Katherine asked.
"We'd better stay here, and keep an eye on Aisha," Adam said, "And, I'd like to run a couple more scans on Alexis, just to be safe."
"Honestly, Adam, I'm fine," Alexis protested. Rocky shook his head.
"Lex, we don't know how serious this virus is. The Terran Rangers should be okay, but you might be significantly affected. A couple scans won't hurt."
Alexis sighed, but obeyed, and sat on the cot beside Aisha. Adam turned away from the former Green Terran Ranger, and ran a small device over Alexis' forehead.
Goldar stepped away from the balcony of the imposing Moon Palace, and casually made himself comfortable in Lord Zedd's throne-- rather, the throne that was placed in the position Lord Zedd's throne used to be, before it mysteriously disappeared during Solar's short stay. Apparently, Rito, Baboo, and Squatt didn't seem to care that Goldar had taken such a bold move. However, Finster, by far the intellectual superior in this band of rogues, frowned slightly. He understood that by claiming the throne, Goldar was assuming the position of leader-- which he had no right to. And Finster also understood that Rito, the only one of royal blood in the band, didn't seem to notice Goldar's assumption of power.
Goldar, for his part, wore a smug expression on his feral face. His plan was to demonstrate his leadership capabilities to his allies, so he would be accepted as Zedd's sucessor. At this point, his plan was working flawlessly. The attack of the Contagion monster had been brilliant, as well as its selected place of attack. The rangers were all exposed to the disease, and considering that they had been locked away in the CAC for over an hour, it was obvious they were affected. Although Goldar couldn't see what happened inside the hidden Power Ranger headquarters, he did keep an eye on the Youth Center itself, hoping for a clue. Unfortunately, the rangers had ordered that no one enter the Youth Center, affectively avoiding a plague capable of wiping out all life on Earth. But the rest of Earth would be child's play to destroy, as long as the rangers themselves were out of commission. And, considering that the Green Ranger had lost consciousness, and needed to be teleported out of the Youth Center, the odds were that the other rangers suffered similiar symptoms.
"Now that the defenses are down, the King is exposed," Goldar said, his claws clasped together, "and its time to put the King in check."
"A chess metaphor?" Finster said, visibly startled, "My my, you have been here too long."
Goldar shrugged. "I always enjoyed games of strategy. Did you finish creating the army of Viper Putties?"
"I already told you, what you're asking is impossible," Finster sighed, "Viper Putties are a very special breed of Putty Patrolers, meaning they require a very special type of clay, mixed with my very own recipe of toxins and lizard DNA to give them their poisonous venom and regeneration ability. You are asking me to create thousands of Putties, to invade dozens of cities! I simply don't have the resources to do that. If I did, Zedd and Rita would have come up with this plan months ago!"
Goldar's eyes widened. He had always believed the only reason why Zedd and Rita didn't attack the entire planet was because of their obsession to get revenge on the Power Rangers, and Zordon before them. But in reality, they didn't have an efficient way of doing it.
"Could we create an army of giant-sized monsters?" Rito suggested, his voice nasal.
"No. Only Zedd and Rita can expand the size of monsters, and my Monster-Matic can only make a maximum of three monsters at once. And those three monsters are substantially weaker than they would have been had they not been created together."
"I don't believe this," Goldar muttered, "So close..."
"Let's face it, without Zedd and Rita, we don't have the resources for global conquest," Finster said, crossing his arms, "We don't have the power to match their magic. If we did, they would have served us, instead of the reverse."
"Good point," Baboo muttered, "So, now what?"
"I think we all need a vacation," Squatt said, "When was the last time we relaxed."
Goldar growled, and slammed his fist on the armrest of the throne. "No! We will not rest, not when the rangers are down! The affects of the virus are unpredictable! Who knows how long they will be out of commission?"
"Who knows if they are out of commission?" Finster retorted calmly, "If we create a plan of invasion, based on the assumption that the Power Rangers will not interfere, then we are doomed to failure."
"Then, what do you suggest?" Goldar grumbled.
"It is simple. The best way to expand our forces is for you and Rito to join the battle. I can create a total of three monsters, meaning five powerful warriors will be on Earth. I believe we should first destroy Angel Grove, just as Rita and Zedd had always planned. If the rangers truly are ready for battle, they will certainly intervene. That is the test, to see whether or not they are out of commission. Once we determine that the rangers are taken care of, we can instigate a search for the Central Access Complex. We already know its beneath the remains of the old Power Chamber, but it is hidden. If we can take out the base of operations, then we will inflict the fatal blow."
Goldar remained silent, thinking over Finster's plan. It was flawless, keeping in mind all the possibilities. The likelihood of the Power Rangers being able to defeat five monsters at once was nill, even if they are all in perfect health. And if the rangers are ravaged by the Space Virus, the team of villains can locate the hidden base and destroy it, possibly with the rangers still inside. If they were ill, they would certainly not risk infecting friends and family by leaving the contained environment of the CAC. The perfect plan... it was just a shame Goldar hadn't thought of it.
"Let us put your plan in motion, Finster," Goldar decided, "All those in favor?"
"I!" all the villains chorused.
"Excellent," Goldar said, rising from the throne, "Finster, how will you decide which monsters you will create?"
"For once, I can choose the monsters myself, rather than rely on Rita's shaky schemes," Finster muttered, rubbing his chin, "I shall choose monsters that are equipped to deal with the rangers."
"Perfect. All five of us shall go our separate ways, as far away from each other as possible. The rangers' fabled teamwork won't do them any good if they are forced to split up!"
On the southernmost continent of the distant planet of Midgar, two powerful beams of white slice through the bluish-purple sky. They continue downward, and come to a halt at a small clearing within a dense forest. Once the lights touch the green grass, they materialize into two young humans, who had travelled millions of miles to reach this destination. Their friend's life is at stake.
"Okay," said Zack, turning full circle, "where are we?"
"I don't know," Billy answered, peering into the trees, "Obviously a forest of some kind, but I'm not sure which direction we should be going..."
"Oh wow," Zack muttered, staring directly above him, "Check it out!"
Billy followed Zack's gaze, and stood in silent astonishment. Hanging in the northern part of the sky was a huge rock, glowing with a purple aura of energy. It lit up the typically blue sky of the entire planet with its colored energy, and sparks of energy flashed on occasion on its cratered surface.
"A meteor!" Billy exclaimed, "And its falling to the planet! A meteor that size could completely destroy Midgar!"
"That can't be good," Zack muttered, "This entire planet will be destroyed? Can the inhabitants do anything about it?"
"I doubt it," Billy said solemnly, "Midgar is technologically comparable with Earth. It has no space program at all, so its unlikely they have machines capable of stopping that meteor."
Zack shook his head, and continued walking around the clearing. "We don't have tons of time here," he said finally, "We should get moving."
"If memory serves, the high-density energy source I picked up at the CAC was inside a forest forest," Billy commented, digging through the pouch strapped on his shoulder, "This must be the right path."
"Good," said Zack, "which way should we go?"
"Let me see if I can get a reading on the energy," Billy said, pulling a small device from the pouch. He pressed a few buttons, and a beam of blue light fired from the sphere atop the device, and pointed west.
"Rocky packed a tracker," Zack commented, as he began following Billy through the thick forest. He then began searching through his own pouch. "Another tracker, a medical laser, an energy rope, and rations! Good job, Rocko!"
"Affirmative," Billy said, "this equipment will certianly make our job much easier."
As they walked, the air around them took on a greenish glow. Zack stopped walking, and stared at the faint swirls of green mist. "What's that stuff?"
"Its the raw form of Mako energy!" Billy said, a smile on his face, "Naturally, Mako is a liquid, but apparently its been boiled, sending vapor into the atmosphere. We must be getting closer."
Zack nodded, and continued following Billy through the forest. He stopped short when he saw movement from the corner of his eye.
"What was that?" he asked aloud, turning around again. But all he saw were stationary plants, just as before.
"What's wrong?" Billy inquired.
Zack took a quick look around, and then turned back to Billy. "I guess this forest is creeping me out is all."
Just then, a figure growled from above, and leapt from its high perch. It was shaped like a wheel, with a hard green shell, and it rolled right into Zack, knocking the wind out of him. It then rolled to a safe distance, and stretched out. Billy's eyes widened when he laid eyes on the five foot long green insect, with beady violet eyes, and a scorpion-like tail.
"I think we've encountered our first Midgar monster," Zack muttered weakly, forcing himself to sit up.
Without giving the pair the chance to regroup, the monster rolled into a wheel again, and rolled quickly in Billy's direction. Billy cartwheeled to the side, barely avoiding the monster. Instead the insect crashed into a tree, and reduced it to splinters. The insect then unrolled, and looked around in confusion. Billy saw his window of opportunity, and pulled the laser gun from his pouch.
Its a medical laser, he thought, but it should prove effective against this creature. It was made to cut through flesh and bone with pinpoint accuracy.
The creature soon recovered its bearings, and it reared on its hind legs, preparing to jump at Billy. It never got the chance. A tight beam of blue light streamed from the gun, easily slicing through the insects armored shell. Suddenly, the creature vanished in a pulse of red light.
"What happened to it?" Zack asked, weakly rising to his feet.
"The monsters on Midgar are composed of magic, just like the monsters Zedd and Rita send to Earth," Billy answered, "Perhaps when they are defeated, the magic is released from its corporeal casing, just like the monsters back home."
"That would make sense," Zack said, glancing at his own laser gun, "Wow, this thing has ten settings! From match-lighting mode to Shake 'n Bake mode."
"I had my laser on level seven," Billy said, "Unfortunately, the stronger the setting, the quicker the laser runs out of energy. If we are to succeed, we will need to find weapons with more--"
He stopped short when he saw a rustling in the bushes nearby. Another insect leapt out of its hiding place, and glared at them menacingly.
"I think he's mad," Zack whispered.
"I would agree," Billy said, glancing at another bush, "and unfortunately, he has brought some friends!" Zack turned to where Billy was looking, and stepped back when he saw three more insects crawl into the small clearing. Soon, even more joined in, until seven monsters surrounded them.
"Plan?" Zack asked, as the pair stood back to back in the center of the ring of insects.
"Nothing comes to mind," Billy answered.
"Then... let's try something," Zack said, closing his eyes tightly. A faint shield of silver energy erected around the pair, and pushed outwards, throwing the insects backwards into the nearby flora. Zack and Billy quickly pulled their laser guns, and unleashed a fury of blue-tinted energy. Each blast managed to penetrate the insects' armor, soon causing all seven to evaporate in clouds of red smoke.
"Well," Zack panted, "I guess that wasn't so bad."
"You're right," came a light voice, "Not bad at all. Pretty good, in fact."
"Who's there?" Billy asked, as both he and Zack looked around the seemingly empty forest.
"A warrior," she responded, "looking for a challenge. You up to it?"
"Huh?" Zack uttered.
"C'mon," the voice taunted, "you're not afraid, are you? I'll take you both on at once!"
"We're not looking for a fight," Billy answered, "We're looking for magical energy known as Mako."
There was silence for a few moments. "Then, how about a deal? If you win, I help you find what you're looking for."
"And what do you get if you win?" Zack asked suspiciously.
"Hmm... how about that energy gun of yours?"
Zack and Billy looked at each other. "We don't want to fight you--"
"Who said you had a choice?" she said, as a figure leapt down from a perch high in a nearby tree. She had straight black hair, reaching her chin, and bright brown almond-shaped eyes. She wore a green tank top, beige denim shorts, and brown sneakers. She looked like a typical human teenager, save for the three foot long shuriken-style weapon she gripped with her right hand.
"Defend yourselves!" she shouted, throwing her massive weapon. Billy and Zack both dropped to the ground, rolling out of the path of the weapon. Billy quickly returned to his feet, and fired a single shot at the weapon. The blue energy reflected off the weapon, striking a nearby tree branch, and sending it falling towards the young woman. She easily flipped out of the way, and caught her weapon as it flew back at her at a blinding speed. She landed gracefully on the grass, and threw her weapon again-- this time aimed much closer to the ground.
"I've got it!" Zack called, staring intently at the weapon. It instantly stopped in mid-air, and dropped to the ground. The young woman stared in shock at her weapon, and glared at Zack.
"Now you've done it!" she cried, holding up her left hand. A crystal bracelet, decorated with six colored gems, glinted in the sunlight. "Leviathan!!"
On her wristband, a red-colored gem began to glow brightly, until it cloaked her in its energy. Then, a twenty-foot water serpent magically appeared in front of her, towering over the highest trees in the forest, and staring down at Zack and Billy menacingly.
"I have to admit," Zack said quietly, staring up at the monster, "I wasn't expecting that!!"
"Zack..." Billy said, running to his friend's side, "do you think a magnetic shield can help?"
"Its our only chance," Zack answered, concentrating his powers. A faint shield appeared around the pair. Suddenly, the Leviathan waved its tail, and a wave of glowing blue water appeared around him. The tidal wave grew to nearly the size of the creature itself, and crashed into the shield with the power of a truck. As suddenly as it appeared, the Leviathan vanished, along with all the water it created. The warrior then smiled when she saw her opponents on the ground, and threw her hands on her hips.
"And so, the great Yuffie Kisaragi defeats another group of would-be opponents!" she announced, throwing her hands up in victory. Her jaw dropped when she saw Billy and Zack slowly rise to their feet.
"Impossible!" she shrieked angrily. Zack smiled at her mischeiviously, and held his open palm at her. Instantly, Yuffie flew off the ground, being thrown back and forth in the air by the invisible magnetic force.
"Keep her disoriented," Billy advised, "We don't want to hurt her."
"I know that," Zack said, sweat beading on his brow, "but without my Zeo shard, I can't keep this up for long!"
"Let's hope she can't keep this up for much longer," Billy said, watching the girl swing in the air. Finally, she shrieked in anger.
"Let me go!" she screamed, "I give up! Uncle!"
Zack shrugged, and lowered her towards the ground. But instead of placing her on her feet, he let her hang upside down, with her hair nearly touching the grass. Billy knelt on the grass beside her, and studied her face. She was taking short, shallow breaths, and her face was flushed.
"Put me down!" she shrieked, "I gave up already! You win!"
"We'd like to make sure you don't change your mind," Billy said.
"I promise... you win," she gasped, "Oh... I don't feel so good..."
Billy looked up at Zack. "Put her down gently, Zack. She suffers from motion-sickness."
Zack started to chuckle slightly. "So the great warrior has a weakness."
Zack gently turned Yuffie rightside up, and set her on her feet. Yuffie swayed slightly, and lowered herself to her knees, still breathing quickly. She then huffed, and looked up at Zack angrily.
"You cheated!" she shouted, "You used my motion-sickness against me!"
"All's fair in love and war," Billy answered, offering Yuffie his hand, "Let me help you up."
Yuffie grudgingly took Billy's hand, and steadied herself on her own two feet. She then sighed, and smiled at them. "Nice fight. I can lose with grace... just not often."
"So," said Zack, "what do you know about Mako energy?"
Yuffie tapped her chin. "Well, I can't say I know a whole lot about Mako itself, but I do know about materia."
Yuffie's eyebrows rose. "You've never heard of materia? Where are you from, anyway?"
Zack opened his mouth to reply, but Billy rose his hand, signalling to Zack that he would handle the matter. "We're from somewhere distant, and rather secluded from the rest of the planet," he answered, "We are in need of healing magic for a friend of ours, who is dying of symptoms that our normal curative measures cannot alleviate."
Yuffie blinked, and then glanced at Zack. "Does he always talk like that?"
Zack smiled. "You should hear him when he gets excited."
Billy chuckled. "Achem... in other words, we have an ill friend, and we need to find magic to help her. We hypothesize... um, we hope that Mako energy will help."
"Well," said Yuffie, pulling her weapon from behind her back, "like I said, if you're looking for healing magic, materia is your best shot. See these gemstones?"
Billy and Zack saw that Yuffie pointed to six small marbles, spread out across the weapon with one near each point, and two in the center.
"Those are the same little marbles as the ones on your bracelet," Zack observed, "That's how you created that lizard."
"Exactly," Yuffie said, "Materia is the solid form of Mako energy. Mako is the lifeblood of the planet, that runs deep beneath the surface. Its actually referred to as the Lifestream. When Mako is exposed to air long enough, it cools into solid crystals. Or, materia."
"So, materia creates big monsters?" Zack asked.
"Not exactly," Yuffie answered, "Different types of materia do different things. Red colored materia are summons, which allow a person to summon a magical creature to launch a powerful attack on an opponent. I summoned the Leviathan beast against those bugs just now. Yellow materia enables its user to use special attacks, like a Deathblow, which is a really powerful strike. Purple is independent materia, which can be lots of different things. Some kinds give you increased luck, vitality, and stuff like that. Blue is support materia, which can increase the abilities of other materias you use with it. For example, an All materia can make a spell that usually only attacks one target work on all targets at once. And finally, green is magic materia. You can cast healing spells, elemental spells, etcetera."
"Healing spells?" Zack said, an excited smile on his face, "Perfect! Where can we get a green one."
"Its not that simple," Yuffie said, "Each materia does something different. A Heal materia can heal poisons and stuff, and a Cure materia can restore physical damage received in battle."
"How do you know which materia is which?" Billy asked.
"Simple," Yuffie explained, pulling a green marble off her weapon. She stared into it, and nodded. "This one's Lightning materia. Take a gander."
Yuffie handed the gem to Billy, who stared at it intently. Beneath the smooth clear surface, green energy swirled at an alarming speed. As he continued to stare, he saw images of bolts of lightning.
"Amazing," he said, handing the gem to Zack so he could see, "So Yuffie, what would a heal materia look like?"
"Materia creates an image to alert the user what its used for," Yuffie explained, "It would show you an image to make you understand what it does."
"So if someone's got a cold, then you'd use a Heal or Cure materia?" Zack questioned.
"Well, if someone's cold, they'd just put a sweater on or something," Yuffie said, shrugging.
"No, like if someone's sick."
"Sick?" Yuffie asked, "I don't understand. If a person's been exposed to different types of chemicals, that cause blindness, poisoning, or being turned into a stone, the Heal materia undoes any abnormality. Is that what you mean?"
"Oh yeah," Zack muttered, "I forgot there are no diseases here."
"I suppose that Heal materia is the closest thing I can think of," Billy said, "What other types of materia are there?"
Yuffie tapped her chin in thought. "That's all the types I'm familiar with. But I'm no expert. I collect materia, doesn't mean I tend to use it alot."
"Where can we get information about materia?" Billy asked.
"Maybe Cloud would know..."
"Cloud?" Zack asked, "Is that a person?"
"Yeah, he's our leader," Yuffie said, "He's the one carrying on the fight against Sephiroth, to save the planet from Meteor!"
"Sephiroth?" Billy and Zack asked in unison. Yuffie's eyes widened, and she sighed.
"You've never heard of Sephiroth?! The luney trying to trash the whole planet?!?! Gosh, you really have been living under a rock! C'mon, I'll introduce you to Cloud, and the rest of the squad. I don't have any Heal or Cure materia on me, but I'd bet Tifa has both. Let's go!"
Yuffie started to jog into the forest, westward. She then stopped, and turned back to them. "Oh, and while we're there, I'd recommend buying a weapon or something. Times are tough, and those Head Hunters you fought are just the beginning."
"Those bugs are called Head Hunters?" Zack whispered incredulously.
"Maybe we should look into buying some weapons," Billy whispered back, "The creatures here are more numerous, and more dangerous, than I had anticipated."
By firing massive amounts of energy weapons on the town, Weapon managed to tap the springs of Mako. The town was completely submerged as the weak sediment bed separating the surface from the underground lake crumbled. Mideel sank into a lake of boiling hot Mako energy, which is healthy in small doses, but deadly in large. The proud town was reduced to nearly nothing, and many townspeople died. But those who survived were intent on rebuilding their homes, and so they did on the island of land in the center of the boiling spring of the Lifestream.
Sitting on the grass on a raised piece of land, looking down over the lake of green, was a young man. His legs dangled off the side, and his hands were clasped tightly in his lap, as if he was praying to some deity. The gentle breeze weaved through his unruly blonde locks, and his sky blue eyes, which shone with the inner energy of Mako energy that coursed through his veins, were focused on the brilliant green spring beneath him.
The Lifestream was as beautiful as it was powerful. It was like emerald lava, bubbling and steaming in contact with the cooler air of the surface, flowing as a thick liquid in a protective ring around the remnant of the town. As he stared into the Lifestream, an ironic smile crossed his face. The energy that flowed beneath him, tumbling around the earth in its most wild, untamed form, had taken so much away from him, yet it had given him so much as well.
Cloud Strife is a man shrouded in mystery. It isn't because he doesn't like being open and honest with his friends, either. In fact, he is a mystery to himself. He had relatively clear memories of his life early on, but then they became occluded. He didn't know what happened to him after the day that he decided to leave his hometown of Nibelheim to join the elite fighting force of SOLDIER. He didn't remember the experiments the Shinra corporation put him through, changing him on a molecular level by pumping forms of Mako energy into his body. That energy made him stronger physically, but it tore the delicate fabric of his mind. His memories were foggy, his intentions weren't clear to himself, and worst of all, his loyalties were questionable.
Somehow, Sephiroth had controlled him. He actually commanded his body, like a puppeteer would its toy. Cloud couldn't stop himself from obeying Sephiroth, and giving him the fabled Black Materia, the only source mighty enough to cast the dreaded spell of Meteor. It was Cloud's fault that Sephiroth was so close to destroying the planet. It was Cloud's fault that the Meteor speedily approached the planet, threatening the very survival of all life.
Cloud swallowed hard as he recalled what happened in the Northern Cave weeks ago. He gave Sephiroth the means to destroy the planet, and that outlash of power caused an eruption of the Lifestream in that location. Instead of fleeing the site with his friends, he let himself fall into the burning green liquid. He didn't feel he deserved anything better. No one should be able to survive being immersed in the raw Lifestream. It was believed that only the spirits of the dead could exist there. But he somehow survived. The Lifestream carried him all the way from the Northern Cave to the southern continent, where he was fortunate enough to be found by the famed doctors of Mideel. They diagnosed him with extreme Mako poisoning, which included near total paralysis. He was a shattered glass doll, a puppet with its strings cut.
But then, a tragic miracle happened. After his friends found him, the Ultimate Weapon struck. That led to him being once again plunged into the Lifestream, this time with Tifa by his side. Tifa was trying desperately to bring his broken body to safety, but the ground collapsed beneath them both. Together, they plummeted into the Lifestream, and into something of a dreamscape. That dreamscape was some form of representation of his own mind.
With Tifa's help, Cloud managed to piece his mind back together. Long suppressed memories of his lifetime surfaced, and his tormented soul was partially mended. The final result was the survival of both Cloud and Tifa, who eventually washed to shore on the destroyed Mideel. Cloud's confidence in himself rose as he learned just how Sephiroth was able to control him-- through the power he possessed from having the blood of an Ancient, which gave him control over Mako energy, including the Mako in Cloud's body. But while it made Cloud feel somewhat better that he hadn't willingly given in to Sephiroth, the question still remained. Would he be able to deny Sephiroth's will when the final confrontation came?
That is what drew him back to Mideel, back to the fountain of the Lifestream. Their quest was almost at an end. They had already collected the Huge Materia, which would be used to discern the secret to the power of Meteor, and how to stop it. They only had a few more days before the meteor actually hit the planet anyway. Like it or not, the final confrontation was near. And as Cloud stared into the green liquid, he prayed that he would have the answers he sought. Could he stand up against Sephiroth? Was his hatred towards him merely that, or does that make him weak? Could he even beat Sephiroth? Were his friends better off going alone? Was he even to be trusted?
He implored the Lifestream for more answers. The thought crossed his mind to dive into the Lifestream, and let it heal his fractured mind. Let it answer his questions. But although at times it did help his mind, it also is the source of the energy that fractured it in the first place. It was a blessing and a curse. A strange, mysterious paradox flowed in its boiling liquids, and it was a paradox he so longed to solve.
Cloud didn't look up, but he sensed her presence. He could feel her tawny gaze on his back. Although it was slightly uncomfortable to be so carefully watched, it also soothed him. He always knew that, no matter how much he doubted himself, she never would. She was always there to support him, to watch his back. She was the dearest of friends.
Tifa Lockheart came forward, and sat down on the grass beside Cloud. She followed his gaze to the boiling green, and a shudder passed through her. It was still so clear in her mind when the two of them plummeted into the emerald unknown, unsure if they would ever see the light of day. Her fear was immeasurable at first, but then she found Cloud. The real Cloud... the missing part of him that he had been searching for. And together, they found what the Lifestream wanted them to find. And together, hand in hand, they rose to the surface. Together they were strong. Together, they were invincible.
As she gazed into the green, another thought came to her mind. The magnificent, shining green was truly a color of majesty... of power, yet of gentleness. It was the exact same color of Aeris' eyes. It was as if Aeris was watching them in some way, even though she was now dead.
Tifa glanced at Cloud once again. She wondered what he was looking for in that stream of power. Did he too see Aeris' eyes in that pool? Was that why he wanted to come to Mideel to get supplies, instead of simply purchasing supplies from Cosmo Canyon, which was their destination anyway? For some reason, it disquieted her to think that now, so long after the death of their mutual comrade at Sephiroth's own hand, Cloud may still gain strength from her. That only assured Tifa of one sad thought-- Cloud Strife was indeed in love with Aeris Gainsborough. The notion grasped her heart like a cold vice, which was reflected onto her face in the form of a stony expression.
"Cloud," Tifa said finally, "I've got all the supplies we need. Maybe we should get going? The others are probably getting restless on the Highwind."
Cloud blinked, and nodded slowly. "You're right," he said, breathing out, "There's nothing left to find here. Let's go see Bugenhagen, and get this quest over with."
Tifa and Cloud then rose to their feet, and mutually straightened their attire. Cloud bent over, and lifted the massive blade known as the Ultima Weapon. The bright light from the Mako lake reflected off its translucent blue and white edge, and traveled along the length of it as Cloud spun it around and strapped it on his back. After taking one final glance at the well of green, he locked eyes with Tifa, another thought crossing his mind.
"Have you seen Yuffie?"
After a good fifteen minutes, Zack, Billy, and Yuffie continued their trek through the monster-infested forest surrounding Mideel. It didn't take long for Zack and Billy to fall behind their guide, as they curiously observed the alien forest they traveled through.
"I think we're getting close," Billy said, looking up at the faint swirls of Mako vapor in the air, "There's more Mako energy in the air."
"Great!" Zack gasped excitedly, "Hang on Aisha, we've almost got it!"
Billy glanced at Zack, and noticed the Silver Ranger was out of breath. "Are you okay?"
"I'll be fine," Zack answered, "I'm just a bit winded is all."
"Perhaps its because of the Space Virus," Billy suggested, "Without the Zeo shard, your immune system will have to repel the virus by itself."
Zack brushed the comment aside. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. Let's just worry about Aisha, okay?"
"Hey, guys!!" Yuffie called, glancing back at them from her perch atop a fallen tree, "What's taking you so long? We're here!"
The pair followed Yuffie into the clearing. Both stopped short when they saw a bridge crossing over a lake of glowing green liquid, to a desolated town on the island in the center.
"That's Mako energy?" Billy asked Yuffie, who was already halfway across the bridge.
"Yeah," she called, "that's the Lifestream- Mako energy in its raw, most potent form. Just don't get too close, okay? If you do, you could get Mako poisoning. Not pretty."
Billy and Zack followed Yuffie across the bridge, and gazed in awe around the ravaged town of Mideel. All that was left were planks of wood from buildings, and some damaged remains of stores. Also, many people were on the streets of the town, busily rebuilding their homes. Close to the bridge, a section of the destroyed town was cleared of debris, and the venders of Mideel took up shop at small counters, hoping to share their wares with travelers, to earn a living.
"Okay," Yuffie said, stopping at a counter with a brand of a sword on its face, "here's where you can get some weapons. How're ya doing, Leon?"
The portly vender smiled at her, and nodded. "Things could be worse, Yuffie. Of course, since your entire crew bought weapons and armor from me a couple weeks ago, things've been looking up. So, how's that mission to save the planet?"
Yuffie grinned. "We got our hands on these big chunks of Huge Materia, that are supposedly of a totally different class than the regular stuff. I don't know what we're supposed to do with it, but we're counting on Bugenhagen figuring it out."
"Bugenhagen can figure anything out," Leon chuckled, "He's famous, even all the way down here in Mideel. So, what can I get ya?"
"My friends here need weapons," she said, looking back at them. She eyed Billy scrutinously, "Hmm, I'd say something small. Y'got a dagger or something?"
Billy frowned. "Personally, I prefer lances."
"Oh," Yuffie said, shrugging, "You don't look the type to like big weapons. What kind of lances do you have here, Leon?"
"Lemme check my wares," Leon answered, peeking in the storage bin behind the counter. He then pulled out a long staff, with a sharp blade on the end. "Its the Partisan."
"What do you think, Billy?" Yuffie asked, tossing the weapon to him. Billy caught it, and was surprised by how light it was to carry.
"This is an expertly designed weapon," Billy commented, taking a few practice thrusts to get the feel of it, "Its so light..."
"All weapons are lightweight," Yuffie said, "How else would people carry such big weapons around? They sure do pack a punch, though. So, is it a keeper?"
"I'm afraid I don't have any of your currency..."
"You can pay me back later," Yuffie said with a grin. She then turned her attention to Zack. "What's your pleasure?"
"Well, since Billy here got a short range weapon, what do you have in the long range department?"
"You can get a Crystal Cross, which is something like what Yuffie's got, or a Winchester, which is gun."
Zack nodded. "Can I see the Winchester?"
Leon nodded, and pulled a rifle-like weapon from beneath the counter. Zack nodded, and held the gun in his hands, aiming towards the sky. "Yeah, this'll do. Its something like the rifle I use for clay-shooting with my dad."
"Perfect," Yuffie said, turning back to Leon, "How much?"
"Well, its usually 37,000 gil, but since you and your friends have been such good customers, I'll give it to ya for 19,000."
"That still sounds kinda steep," Zack said.
"I'll tell you what," Yuffie said, a sly grin on her face, "I'll buy you these weapons, and you promise to give me any materia you find that you won't need once your mission's over. Deal?"
Billy and Zack glanced at each other questioningly. Finally, Billy nodded.
"Great!" Yuffie said, tossing a few bags to Leon. "Keep the change, my man."
"Thanks, Yuffie," Leon said, putting the gold money in a chest beside him, "Do you think you need anything else?"
"Nah," Yuffie answered, "I think these guys have what they need. Oh, did you see Cloud and Tifa around?"
"Well, Cloud's been sittin' over by the Mako lake for over an hour," Leon said, gesturing behind him, "Is everything okay with him?"
Yuffie rolled her eyes. "He's in one of his hurt puppy-dog moods. He'll be fine. Thanks a lot, Leon!"
Yuffie then turned to Billy, who was still trying out his new weapon.
"Mind if I take a look at that?" she inquired.
"Be my guest," Billy answered, handing her the Partisan. Yuffie gazed at the long blade, and nodded.
"You have six materia slots, so keep your eyes peeled. Materia can really help you out when you're in a pickle." She grinned. "And the more you find, the more I get to keep!"
Yuffie handed Billy the Partisan, and then took a look at Zack's Winchester.
"You know, I think Vincent had one just like this, before he found himself the Death Penalty," Yuffie commented, "You've got six slots too."
Yuffie handed Zack his weapon, and then began to look around the town. "There's Cloud and Tifa!"
Billy and Zack followed Yuffie's gaze. Standing at a plateau overlooking the town was a tall young man with thick, unruly blonde hair and unnaturally bright blue eyes. He wore loose navy blue pants, matching sleeveless shirt, and brown boots. Strapped to his back was a translucent blue and white sword, with a blade that nearly reached his feet. Beside him was a young woman, only a few inches shorter than he. She had flowing dark brown hair that nearly reached her knees, gleaming tawny eyes, a tight white sleeveless shirt, and black leather shorts. She also wore hiking boots, and a shimmering glove on her right hand.
"Cloud! Tifa! What's up?"
"Yuffie," Cloud said with a weak smile. His smile fell into a curious gaze when he noticed her two companions. "Where've you been?"
"And who are your friends?" Tifa added.
"I was in the forest, keeping my eyes peeled for a good fight so I could keep myself occupied, and I... bumped into Billy and Zack," she answered, pointing them out. "They're on a quest to save a friend of theirs."
"That's very noble," Tifa said, "What's wrong with your friend?"
"She has... come down with a malady of sorts, and she must be cured," Billy answered.
"So, is she poisoned?" Cloud asked, "Turned into a stone? What exactly are her symptoms?"
"Most predominately, she has a fever," Billy said, "Its really hard to explain, but the point is, she's dying. Our only hope is some kind of curative magic. Yuffie explained to us that magic is usually in the form of materia. We hope to find a materia that can cure her."
"Yuffie had to tell you what materia is?" Cloud asked, his eyebrow raising, "Where are you from, anyway?"
"You've never been there," Zack answered.
Cloud gazed at Zack deeply, causing the latter man to look away uncomfortably. Zack could have sworn he saw a glint of blue energy in his eyes, but he disregarded that. Finally, Cloud's eyes widened a little, and a small grin crept onto his lips. He then turned to Tifa. "Do you have any Cure or Heal materia on you? Maybe that'll help."
"Sure I do," Tifa said, glancing down at her glove, the Premium Heart. She pulled a small green marble from one of the materia slots. "Here's a Heal materia. I don't know if it'll work or not."
"How will we know?" Zack asked.
"Hold it," Cloud answered, "Materia tells you what it can be used for."
Billy nodded, and grasped the small sphere in his hand. He peered into the cloud of green energy, searching for a hint as to the true power of the gem. The materia did indeed show him images of what it could be used for, but nothing even came close to the purpose he needed it for.
"No good," Billy sighed, handing the materia back to Tifa, "This won't save Aisha."
"Perhaps Cure?" Tifa said, taking a different gem off her glove. But that one was also unable to cure disease.
"Please tell me there's other kinds of materia that'll help," Zack said quietly.
"All the other types of restorative materia work along the same lines as Heal and Cure," Tifa said quietly, "I'm really sorry, but I don't think any of them will help your friend."
Zack took a deep breath, and took a seat on a fallen tree trunk. "We came all this way... for nothing?" he whispered.
"What made you think materia would be able to help?" Cloud asked, "After all, you apparently don't know anything about it."
"We... heard the legends of a powerful restorative energy that permeates the entire planet," Billy said, "It was Yuffie who said this energy is solidified as materia."
"You mean the Lifestream," Tifa said quietly. Billy nodded.
"Well, even though the Lifestream is the source of materia, there are lots of differences between them," Cloud said, "Maybe ordinary materia isn't the answer."
"What are you suggesting?" Tifa asked.
"Maybe Bugenhagen can help them."
"Of course!" Yuffie cried, "No one knows the Lifestream better than Bugenhagen."
"Who's Bugenhagen?" Billy asked, looking up from the ground.
"He's the wisest person alive," Cloud answered, "and he's spent his entire life studying nature, and this planet. He's the one who first helped us understand the Lifestream. We were on our way to go see him now. You're welcome to join us."
Tifa glanced at Cloud questioningly, and he answered her with a slight nod. Without saying another word, Cloud began walking towards the bridge separating Mideel from the monster-infested forest that surrounded it. Once he reached the end of the bridge, he pulled the Ultima Weapon from its sheath, and readied himself for any coming battle. Tifa was right behind him, and then Yuffie, Zack, and Billy, all walking with their weapons in hand.
"So," Zack whispered to Yuffie, "that's Cloud and Tifa, huh?"
"That's them," Yuffie answered.
"What's with Cloud's eyes?" Zack asked, looking past Yuffie to the back of Cloud's head. "They were... weird."
"They're Mako eyes," she responded, "Cloud's been pumped with Mako energy during a biological experiment, and after that he fell into the Lifestream. Twice. It's a miracle he's still alive. I guess the Lifestream likes him."
"That's interesting," Billy said, "And what about this Huge Materia you spoke of earlier? Does that have curative powers, like the Lifestream itself?"
Yuffie shrugged. "I have no idea. Actually, none of us really know why we needed to collect the Huge Materia. Bugenhagen told us it's the only way to save the planet, but he didn't say why. Now that we have it, we'll go back to Bugenhagen and ask him what to do next."
Zack frowned. "Um, its not that I don't appreciate all your help, Yuffie, but we're on a really tight schedule."
"Don't worry. It'll only take a couple hours to get to Cosmo Canyon."
Zack glanced once again at the leader walking ahead of them. He didn't understand why, but something exuded from him that was reminiscent of a deep inner power. Strangely, it reminded him of any one of the Terran Rangers, each endowed with vast magical power. Maybe we have more in common than I thought...
Zack continued to watch Cloud carefully, until Tifa turned around and locked eyes with him. Embarrassed, Zack turned away. Tifa's eyebrow rose slightly, and she turned back to Cloud.
"Cloud," she whispered loud enough for only him to hear, "what are we doing? We can't let ourselves get side-tracked."
"We're not," Cloud answered, "We're taking them to Bugenhagen, and that's where we're going anyway. What's the big deal."
Tifa frowned. "We don't know anything about them. How can we trust them? What if they're Shinra employees or something, to steal back the Huge Materia?"
Cloud shook his head. "They're not. They're pure."
"Trust me on this, Tifa. There's something about them... Zack particularly. I saw it in his eyes."
Tifa's eyes widened. "Mako eyes?"
"No," Cloud said, "I don't think its Mako energy that I detect in him. Its powerful, but its... purer. Like a force of goodness. It actually reminds me a bit of Aeris. There's something innately good about them, and I can feel it. We should help them."
Tifa sighed, but accepted that explanation. They did seem harmless enough after all, and Yuffie seemed to grow attached to them immediately. She probably just wants to be around someone her age, Tifa decided. Oh well, I guess a few extra hands wouldn't be a bad thing.
Suddenly, Cloud stopped, and signaled his allies to pause as well. Tifa's eyes narrowed, and she immediately took a fighting position. Yuffie beamed with excitement, her Conformer at the ready. Billy and Zack glanced at the trio as they instantly moved side by side, leaving Billy and Zack in the back row. "Uh... guys?" Zack asked, "Why did we stop?"
In answer, the trees above ruffled with life. Zack swallowed, tightening his grip on his Winchester. Billy frowned, the Partisan balanced perfectly between his hands.
The attackers were swift, but not swift enough to gain an upper hand. This time, nearly twenty of the deadly Head Hunters Billy and Zack encountered earlier appeared, coming out from all directions, including from directly above them. Three fell towards the ground, but they were all disintegrated with one slash from Cloud's Ultima Weapon. He slashed the sword through the air, creating an arc of white light. That arc sailed through the air, colliding with the monsters and reducing them to flashes of magical light.
Two Head Hunters approached Yuffie, who stood the furthest to the right. Her smile widening, she flipped into the air, smacking one's head with her heel and plowing it into the ground. Instantly, she sliced off its tail with the razor sharp edge of the Conformer, prohibiting it from stabbing her. She then leapt off her opponent, and landed in the path of the other. Bending her knees slightly to achieve the perfect balance, Yuffie bend her elbow and threw the Conformer through the air. It sailed towards the monster, but it ducked right before the sharp metal sliced into its head. An eyebrow arched, but an ecstatic smile nonetheless, Yuffie raised her hand. The Conformer immediately responded, turning around to return to its master's hand. In doing so, its sliced through the Head Hunter from behind, destroying it.
Tifa's eyes locked with the pulsing eyes of a rather large Head Hunter, walking directly at her. Shaking her head at the ardacity of the creature to attack her, she bounced lightly between her two legs in a boxing fashion. The monster immediately transformed into a wheel, and began spinning toward her. After taking quick glance behind her, to make sure no one was in harm's way, she side-stepped the monster. As it rolled past her, she delivered a mighty punch to its center. The force of her punch, immensely magnified by her glove, reverberated through the creature's body, piercing the exoskeleton where she made contact. Soon, the creature collapsed completely, unrolled, and vanished from reality. Her fighting senses kicking in, she dodged just in time to avoid another Head Hunter decapitating her. With her Premium Heart glove, Tifa managed to catch the swinging tail of her opponent, and lifted it into the air. The increased strength granted by the Premium Heart allowed her to slam the creature into the ground, depressing the ground where it hit, and causing the monster to vanish. Satisfied with her work, she steeled herself for her next opponent.
With another flick of the wrist, Billy managed to block another Head Hunter's deadly tail. He then swung it around to block the tail of another. The first one growled with anger, and lunged at Billy, fangs dripping with saliva. Almost instinctively, Billy jammed the sharp end of the Partisan down the creature's throat. Its eyes wide with surprise and pain, it vanished. The second Head Hunter, taking advantage of Billy's momentary distraction, sliced at him with its deadly claws. Billy shouted in pain as one of the sharp claws dug into his thigh, tearing through blue denim and tender flesh. Billy gritted his teeth, pushing past the pain, and spun his Partisan like a baton. The dull end struck the Head Hunter under the chin, knocking it onto its back. Without a moment's hesitation, Billy plunged the sharp end into the creature's underbelly, reducing it to a flash of magical red light.
Zack was extremely pleased with himself as he took aim and fired, destroying the second Head Hunter to come his way. He was also pleased with the Winchester. Each monster only took two shots, and he even found a style to make it more interesting. He shot once, spun the weapon on the trigger finger, and shot again. He only missed one shot so far.
However, one Head Hunter got much closer than Zack would have liked. With a soft yelp, Zack rolled out of the way as it swung its tail downward, plowing up the earth it touched. Zack quickly rolled onto his knees, and set off two more shots, decimating the creature before it had a chance to respond. He leapt to his feet, prepared to fire at the first flash of green that moved, but he was surprised to see that all the Head Hunters were gone.
Cloud stood tall, and spun his Ultima Weapon at its hilt. In order to do this, he had to hold the weapon as high as possible, so it didn't hit the ground. Yuffie leapt for joy, holding up her Conformer proudly. Tifa merely smiled slightly, and stretched her arms and back. Zack chuckled slightly as he stuck the Winchester into the holster Leon had provided him with. His victory laugh stopped short when he saw Billy sitting on the grass, pressing down on his thigh with both hands. Zack saw a circle of red extend from the spot, staining several inches of Billy's jeans.
"Billy!" he shouted, running to his friend's side. Billy smiled wanly at his friend, and shook his head in disappointment.
"You'd think after all those years as the Blue Ranger, I'd know how to fight without getting hurt."
"When you were the Blue Ranger, you had armor to protect you," Zack reminded his friend, "How bad is it?"
"No big deal," Billy answered, trying to rise to his feet while covering the wound with his left hand. He winced when he placed weight on his leg, and lost his balance. Zack quickly caught Billy's arm, preventing him from hitting the grass hard.
"Are you alright, Billy?" Tifa asked, walking towards them.
"Nothing some battle dressing won't fix," he answered.
"Let me see it," she said, tightening her gloved hand into a fist. It began to glow with a pale green light, with swirls of white energy appearing sporadically.
Billy removed his hand from his wound. Zack winced when he saw the gash, about four inches long, and bleeding profusely. It looked pretty deep, too.
"Man," Zack said quietly, "we gotta get you to a hospital!"
"Just relax," Tifa said, her fist straightening into a flat palm. She moved her hand towards Billy's thigh, the green energy increasing as she drew closer. She stopped about an inch away from his skin, and the green aura shone brighter in the direction of the wound. Before their eyes, the wound slowly closed up, and the scar vanished. Billy blinked his eyes, and glanced at his thigh in mute shock. His flesh was as good as new. The only evidence to his wound was the torn, bloodstained jeans he wore.
"Incredible," Billy whispered, rising to his feet. He tried out his leg. "Absolutely incredible."
"That's the power of materia," Yuffie said, crossing her arms. "Hmm. Maybe I shoulda gotten you guys some armor while we were at Mideel?"
"That's not a problem," Cloud said, joining the group, "We have plenty of extra armor on the Highwind, and we're almost out of the forest. Are you alright now, Billy?"
He nodded. "Never better."
Cloud nodded as well. "Then let's move out."
The group continued through the forest, until they finally reached the plains beyond them. Once they reached the plains, there was a huge vessel seated lazily on the grass. Zack and Billy stopped, and stared at the machine in amazement.
"What is that?" Billy inquired.
"That's the Highwind," Tifa answered, "Its an airship. With it, we can travel around the entire planet in only a few hours."
"Awesome," Zack commented, as the group climbed up the rope ladder to the deck. Once they stepped foot on the wood planks, they saw a tall, burly black man with fierce eyes and a mean-looking gun arm standing on the deck.
"What's going on, Barrett?" Cloud asked the sentry, "Where's everyone else?"
Barrett Wallace growled slightly in reply. "That lousy waste of space pilot went on a joyride with your damned pet, Cloud."
"Cid certainly picked a great time to goof off," Yuffie huffed.
"Your pet?" Zack asked Cloud.
"He means Chip," Cloud answered, "our Gold Chocobo."
"Chocobo?" Billy asked. Tifa, Yuffie, Barrett, and Cloud turned to him in amazement.
"Chocobos are large birds, about seven feet tall," Tifa explained, "They can't fly, but they can run rather quickly, with maximum speeds of about 120 kilometers per hour. Typically, chocobos can only run on land, but Gold Chocobos are a special breed, capable of running on any terrain; including mountains, marshes, quicksand, rivers, or even oceans."
"That's amazing!" Zack exclaimed.
"Yeah, yeah," Barrett muttered, staring at Zack and Billy menacingly, "Now just who in the flippin' world are you, that don't know what a Chocobo is?"
"We're... not from around here," Billy answered, "I'm Billy, and this is Zack."
Barrett huffed at their introduction, and glanced at Cloud. "They're kinda puny," he muttered, "I say toss 'em back."
Zack frowned. "Don't talk about us like we're not here, or anything."
Barrett glowered at Zack with a look that sent chills up the Silver Ranger's spine. But he didn't back down. Finally, Barrett chuckled.
"Well, the kid's got guts," he said, "What're you doin' here anyway? Ya joining this little freak show?"
"We need to see Bugenhagen," Billy answered, "We're searching for materia."
Barrett laughed aloud at that, and turned to Yuffie. "Ya better watch your back. They're after your job!"
"We've struck a deal," Yuffie said, puffing up her chest proudly, "I think we'll get along just fine."
"Whatever," Barrett said, calming down, "Anyway, ya better call that drunken pilot on the PHS. Cait Sith practically shoved it up his butt to make him take it along with him. Just in case he needed some help."
"I'll give him a call then," Cloud said, pulling a black cellular phone from his pocket, "Tifa, Yuffie, Barrett... why don't you show our guests the ropes?"
Barrett frowned. "What the hell do I look like? A friggin' tour-guide?!"
"Nah, you're just a big ole' stick in the mud," Yuffie said dismissively, hopping down the stairs. Zack, Billy, and Tifa followed her through the middle level of the ship.
"Red XIII and Cait Sith should be on the bridge," Tifa said, "and Vincent should be hanging around here somewhere."
"This is an incredible vessel," Billy commented, "It must be able to go at incredible speeds to cover the entire planet in a matter of hours."
"Unless Midgar is a really small planet," Zack commented wryly.
"Small compared to what?" Yuffie inquired. Zack shrugged.
"Nothing," he answered, "Never mind."
After descending several flights of stairs, the quartet arrived on the main level of the Highwind. On the deck, a group of officers all dressed in similar blue uniforms manned their stations, while a large white marshmallow-shaped creature stood, with a small black cat sitting on its head. The cat continued to bellow orders at the officers with his megaphone, causing them to scurry about the bridge urgently. At the railing along the edge of the bridge, a large red wolf-like creature lay on its stomach, its face gazing up at the purple meteor that lit up the afternoon sky.
"Cait Sith!" Yuffie shouted at the marshmallow creature, "Why are you bossing those guys around?"
"They need to learn efficiency," the black cat replied, smoothing its whiskers, "Cid asked me to make sure these guys are properly drilled until we get back into the air. So, how was the supply run?"
"Good," Tifa answered, "We picked up some tents and elixers. I think Cloud just needed to take a little break."
"Hmm," Cait Sith squeaked, his feline eyes passing Yuffie and Tifa to the two strangers behind them, "and I see you picked up some cabin boys too."
"No, we're just hitching a ride to see Bugenhagen," Billy said.
"Right," Zack affirmed, "we're not manual laborers."
"Well, welcome aboard," he greeted, the long arm of the marshmallow body stretching forward, "I'm Cait Sith."
Zack stared at the arm for a moment, and then hesitantly shook its hand. Billy then did the same.
"I know what you're thinking," Cait Sith said, "you're wondering what the heck kind of life form I am."
"Well..." Zack conceded.
"Ah, I get it all the time! I'm an artificial intelligence, operated by remote control."
"So the marshmallow is the robot, and the cat is alive?" Zack asked.
"No, the 'marshmallow', as you call it, is something of a vehicle for the cat, which is the actual brain of the machine. But I'm really a human being, as a matter of fact."
"Really?" Billy marveled, "Then, where is your real body? Or is your mind somehow preserved inside this structure."
"No," Tifa sighed, "he has a completely intact body. However, he doesn't want to risk his life on this mission, so instead he plays hero through this remote robot."
"And he won't tell us who he really is," Yuffie added.
Cait Sith shrugged. "Hey, what's wrong with a little mystery in life? Besides, I can do my duties to help you guys without you knowing who I am. So don't worry about it."
Cait Sith then turned to Zack and Billy again. "So, where are you from?"
Zack grinned. "What's wrong with a little mystery in life?" he repeated. Cait Sith smiled in amusement.
"Suit yourselves," he said, turning back to the command station he was sitting at earlier.
"And what's that?" Billy asked, pointing to the red wolf on the deck, "Is he someone's pet?"
"Actually, that's Red XIII, an important addition to our little band," Tifa clarified, "He's older, and wiser, than any of us, and he's actually Bugenhagen's grandson."
"So Bugenhagen's a wolf?" Zack asked in surprise.
"No, he's human," Yuffie answered, "Red is his adoptive grandson. He raised him, after his parents died trying to defend Cosmo Canyon."
"Hey guys!" Cloud called, walking onto the bridge, "Cid's back! All senior crewmembers to the conference room. Pilot, set a course for Cosmo Canyon, as fast as this thing can carry us."
"You got it, Sir!" the pilot called, taking his station at the steering wheel. The ship shook slightly as it rose off the grassy field, hovering about a thousand feet in the air. Then, it lurched forward, and sailed through the clear skies. Billy and Zack watched the scenery fly by in awe, as Cait Sith, Tifa, Yuffie, and Red XIII made their way into the interior of the ship. Yuffie then turned around, and whistled at the awestruck visitors.
"Hey boys!" she shouted, "You'd better join us for the meeting! We're gonna figure out a plan of action!"
Billy nodded, and he and Zack hurried to join Yuffie by the gate. They entered the interior of the ship, and walked into a large conference room, with a sentry posted at the door, and a long table, with Cloud seated at the head, and Red XIII sitting on the floor beside him. Seated at chairs were Tifa, Cait Sith, Barrett, and an unfamiliar tall, slender man with a two-day old beard, matted platinum blonde hair, and pilot's goggles on his forehead. He gnawed on a cigar, and propped his feet on the table, his boots stained with mud. In the shaded corner stood another stranger, his body wrapped in a red cape, with long black hair, haunted red eyes, and a scarf covering his neck and chin. Yuffie sat down beside Cloud on the opposite side of Tifa, and Zack and Billy sat next to her. The two unfamiliar men, as well as Red XIII, looked at them strangely.
"Okay, everyone," Cloud said, "we'll start with introductions. Red, Vincent, Cid, this is Zack and Billy. They're going with us to Cosmo Canyon, because they need to ask Bugenhagen about materia to save a friend of theirs."
"Touching," the man with the cigar muttered.
"Cid," Tifa muttered, "you could at least try to be civil."
"When hell freezes over," was his wry response.
"And Zack and Billy," Cloud continued, "This is Red XIII, Vincent, and Cid."
"Hello," Red said pleasantly, standing on all four legs and waving his tail as a gesture of greetings.
"Charmed," Vincent said flatly, not moving from his shadowy position. Both Billy and Zack felt an intense coldness exuding from Vincent, as well as an obnoxious air from Cid.
"Before we start," Yuffie said, leaning over the table at the chainsmoker, "why don't you fill us in on exactly where you've been all day?"
"I was bored to death sittin' on my butt all day, so I went exploring," Cid answered, taking a long puff from his cigar, "I figured I'd test out that Gold Chocobo we spent all that time and money on."
"Well, that sounds like a waste of time," Cait Sith huffed, "You should have stayed aboard the ship and supervised your crew yourself."
Cid glanced at Cait, and made an obscene gesture at him. Cait glowered at him, but didn't respond.
"Like I was sayin', before I was so rudely interrupted, I found a small island up north, completely surrounded by mountains," Cid continued, hefting his Venus Gospel lance, "and I found this."
Cid pulled a small red materia off his spear, and tossed it on the table. Cloud looked at Cid questioningly, and picked up the marble. His blue eyes widened with surprise when he looked into the shiny red stone.
"I... I don't believe it," he whispered, blinking, "I didn't think it really existed."
"What?" Tifa asked, "What is it?"
"Take a look," he answered, handing her the sphere. She gazed into the crystal, and her jaw dropped.
"The Knights of the Round summon materia?!" she exclaimed. Barrett whistled.
"Well I'll be damned," he muttered, a smirk on his face. Red XIII stood up, and looked at the crystal too.
"The most powerful summon in existence?" he asked, "But its only a legend."
"Seein' is believin', kids," Cid said, leaning back smugly in his chair.
"What's Knights of the Round?" Zack asked impatiently.
"Its a summon, like the Leviathan I... demonstrated before," Yuffie said, "but this one is tons tougher."
"According to legend, it creates all thirteen mighty Knights of the Round Table, each one delivering a mighty single stroke on your opponent. The damage done by each attack is impressive, but add up the strength of all thirteen, and the attack is phenomenal," Vincent said from his station in the corner, "Truly a worthy addition to our arsenal."
"Good job, Cid," Cloud admitted, handing the sphere back to Cid. Cid waved it away.
"I ain't got no use for it," he muttered, "Y'know materia ain't my thing."
Yuffie smiled broadly, and opened her mouth to speak, but Cid held his hand to her before a word could escape her mouth.
"No," he answered, "I may be thick, but I'm not so dumb to give the mightiest summon materia in the flippin' universe to a back-stabbin' sneak thief like you."
Yuffie glared at him. "Hey! I gave back all the materia I ever stole from you guys!"
"Sure you did," Cid muttered, leaning comfortably in his chair. A yawn escaped his lips.
"So," Tifa sighed, "can we please get back to the briefing? Before Cid falls asleep."
"I'm awake," he muttered, his eyes already closed.
"Right," Cloud said, standing up. He walked over to the back wall, and pressed his hand against the plaque. The wall opened, and four large crystals, each about the size of the entire Zeo Crystal, appeared in the opening. They were four colors: yellow, red, blue, and green.
"What're those?" Billy asked.
"Yeah," Zack added, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
"They're the Huge Materia," Cloud explained, "and Bugenhagen told us they'd be the key to stopping Meteor. Now that we have all four pieces, we can go to Cosmo Canyon, and give them to Bugenhagen. Hopefully, he'll know what to do with them."
"And Bugenhagen will know how to help Aisha?" Zack asked.
"We hope so," Tifa said.
Zack didn't find that answer to his liking. "You mean we may be wasting our time here? What if he can't help her then? We won't have time to try something else!"
Barrett rose to his feet, and glared at Zack furiously. "Who the hell do you think you are, Punk?! It ain't our problem you're friend's not feelin' her best! We have a whole flippin' planet to save! So shut up, or ship out!"
Billy glanced at Zack in surprise. No matter how frustrated Zack was with the situation, it wasn't like him to just explode out of anger. It was then he noticed the sweat glistening on Zack's face.
"Zack," he said, "I think you'd better lay down."
"I will not lay down!" he declared, "We have a job to do!"
Billy remained calm, his glance turning to Cloud. "Just how far are we from Cosmo Canyon?"
"About three hours," he responded, "Maybe a bit less."
"Then can Zack possibly lie down for the duration? I'm afraid he's not himself."
"What are you talking about?" Zack demanded, "I'm fine."
Billy rose to his feet, and help the back of his palm to Zack's forehead. "No, you're not fine. You have a fever, Zack. You need rest."
"No I don't," Zack sustained. Billy frowned.
"Dying won't help Aisha," he said in a low voice, "and this Space Virus is probably running rampant through your system. You need rest if you're going to be strong enough to accompany us when we see Bugenhagen."
Zack's frown remained, but he nodded in consent.
"Fine, I'll take a little break."
Goldar rose from the throne he had assumed when the gates to the clammy throne room opened, and the sound of three pairs of heels clicked against the cold granite. A grin crossed his feral face, and he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Rito, who had fallen asleep on the floor beside the throne, perked up when he heard Goldar's deep laughter echo through the chamber. He too stood up, and took notice.
Standing before the throne stood three women, all the peak if physical perfection. The first was a redhead with ivory skin and blazing ruby eyes. She wore a multi-toned catsuit that was black from the heels of her boots to about the thigh, and then became increasingly lighter shades of gray. The differing tones created the image of a bright fire, with all the different colors of a deadly flame within. She grinned at Goldar, revealing sharp teeth, and held her hands on her hips.
Beside her stood another woman, whose face mirrored the redhead's exactly. She, however, was of a milk-chocolate skin tone, and her pitch black hair hung from a ponytail that sat high on her head. Her deep green eyes shimmered with malevolence, and a harsh grin was painted on her chocolate lips. She was dressed in black as well, but her outfit consisted of a gown that reached her ankle, with slits reaching all the way past her hips, and a golden chain hanging on her hips like a belt. The top portion of the gown was a turtleneck, made of the same shiny vinyl-like material as the rest. Draped on her shoulders was a wispy black cape, that flowed behind her with every move she made.
The final woman was of a bronze skin tone, with curly snow white hair tumbling over her shoulders. Her uniform was a silvery gray tunic that reached about mid thigh, a thick black belt, and black leggings that connected with her three inch heels. A playful smile danced in her bright violet eyes, and she licked her lips flirtatiously.
"Sheesh," Rito mumbled, "So these are the kind of monsters Finster really likes to make."
"I heard that," Finster muttered walking into the throne room slowly. He stretched out his arms, and a yawn escaped his lips.
"So what are they, and can they defeat the Power Rangers?" Goldar asked.
"They are the Dreadkin," he answered, "three sisters of immense beauty and might. This monster design was actually from an ancient conquering race known as the Grenika, who spanned the universe in the year--"
"Finster," Goldar muttered with contempt, "you're rambling."
Finster blinked. "Oh, so I am. In any case, may I present Blaze, Shade, and Nirvana."
The three sisters bowed once their name was called, starting with the redhead, and ending with the third. Each woman smiled maliciously at Goldar.
"What do they do, besides stand there and look pretty?" Rito asked.
"Blaze controls the Black Flame, which is something like the opposite of solar fire. Shade can teleport, become intangible or invisible, and can send her opponent into a cold void universe within her cape for a short period of time. And finally, Nirvana can alter perception. Hearing, vision, balance... you name it."
"Excellent," Goldar chuckled, scratching his snout, "If the Power Rangers did somehow survive Contagion, then they'll surely fall to this fighting force!"
"Of course," Finster yawned, walking towards the gate, "If anyone needs me, I'll be in bed. I'm thoroughly exhausted."
"I wonder what's wrong with him," Rito thought aloud.
"Who cares," Goldar said dismissively, "Ladies, prepare to meet the Terran Power Rangers."
Zack lay on his back, staring up at the bottom of the bed suspended above his own. Even though he was lying in the comfortable darkness of the crew quarters, he couldn't drift to sleep. It didn't take long before he began to shiver slightly, but he forced himself to think about something else. He realized the frustration of having to wait was aggravating his symptoms, and without the Zeo shard's presence, he had to fight off the disease with his own immune system. Fortunately, the shard had already serious weakened the virus while he was still in the CAC, but he wasn't completely healed yet. Now, his own life was at stake as well.
"Zack," a soft voice whispered, as light passed into the room through the small opening in the door, "are you awake?"
"Yeah," Zack answered, glancing at the door. Tifa entered the room, and sat down on a chair she placed beside Zack's bed. She touched his forehead with her hand.
"Wow," she said, "you really are warm! What did Billy call this again...?"
"A fever," Zack said quietly, "Don't worry, though. I'll be fine."
"Its no trouble," Tifa said, placing a cold compress on his head, "Billy said this should help."
"Yeah," Zack whispered, holding the ice, wrapped in a towel, on his forehead, "It does. Thanks."
"Like I said, its no trouble," Tifa said, rising to her feet, "We should be arriving at Cosmo Canyon in about two hours. You should take this chance to get some rest."
Zack shrugged, and closed his eyes. Tifa walked to the door, but then glanced back at Zack. "You love her, don't you?"
Zack's eyes shot open. "Huh?"
"You love her... the girl you're trying to save," Tifa repeated, "Don't you?"
Zack blinked. "What makes you say that?"
"Well... back in Mideel, when you thought there was no hope, you showed such despair, just at the thought of it. Of life without her. And when the possibility arose that she could be saved, you beamed with excitement and hope. Billy showed similar feelings, but yours were magnified. And just now, you displayed so much anger at her predicament, and you placed her well being before your own. It could only be love."
"I..." Zack muttered, gazing at Tifa in surprise, "I mean... I do care about her. Aisha's one of my best friends. We have a lot in common, and we try to help each other out. But we're friends. Its a different kind of love."
Tifa nodded, a grin crossing her lips. "I've been down that road before. Let me tell you a little story, Zack."
Tifa sat back down beside Zack's bed, and stared at the wall, her mind immersed in memories.
"Cloud and I grew up together," she started, "He actually lived about two houses away from me. We hung out together, played together, and even climbed Mount Nibel together. We even shared our dreams with one another. I remember so clearly when he told me his greatest wish was to join SOLDIER, and be a great warrior. We were inseparable."
A small sigh escaped her lips, but she continued. "When we were teenagers, Cloud left Nibelheim, to join SOLDIER, like he always dreamed. It was years until I saw him again. But when I did, it was like he never left. True, a lot happened to both of us... but we were close friends again, just like before. I really loved the idea of having him back in my life. But no matter how much I cared about him, I couldn't imagine him as anything other than a close friend. Until... I couldn't have him anymore."
Tifa's smile fell, and her eyes closed. "There was another member of our little group, named Aeris. She was gentle, graceful, beautiful... and she had such a innocence and love of life about her. And it was obvious that she fell for Cloud. And slowly, the feeling was reciprocated. I didn't notice it at first... but eventually, I realized how close they were. I couldn't understand why I was so jealous. Aeris was a close friend of mine, but I still... I couldn't help but wish, sometimes, that she wasn't with us. But then, she died."
Tifa took a deep breath, and tears formed in her tawny eyes. "Sephiroth stabbed her in the back, right in front of Cloud. He moved too quickly and purposefully for Cloud to do anything about it. I... I think it was the first time I ever saw him cry. And ever since then, he hasn't been the same. He's been so hard, as if all his emotions have died. Only on rare occasions, he lets his guard down, and shows a brief image of the man he used to be. It hurt me so much to see him suffer, and a part of me felt guilty that I didn't wish them the best when they were together. Not long ago, he was critically injured-it was a deadly case of Mako poisoning. The doctors were sure he would die, but I wouldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't imagine life without him. It was then that I realized I had loved him. It took that much for me to admit it to myself, what I feel for him. But it was too late. Yes, he made a miraculous recovery, but he was still out of my reach. He's in love with Aeris. She's gone, but her memory will always be with him. If I had taken a chance earlier, and accepted what I felt and told him, then we may have had a future together. But I didn't... and I lost him."
Zack kept his eyes on Tifa, completely speechless. Soon Tifa pulled herself back to reality, and she wiped at her eyes with her fingertips. She cleared her throat, and looked down at Zack.
"My advice to you... don't make the same mistake I did. Its hard to see the line between 'friends' and 'more than friends', but it'll be obvious when you're time's up. You don't have forever to make your move."
With that, she ran her hands through her dark hair, and rose to leave. "Get some rest, Zack. We'll come get you when we're close to Cosmo Canyon."
When the door closed behind Tifa, Zack found himself alone in the darkness. But so much weighing on his mind, he found it difficult to drift into sleep.