He was free. Finally free. The knowledge left him almost giddy with anticipation at what the future could hold for him now. Finally, after years of enduring more than he ever thought a human being could, he had escaped hell. Granted, escape wasn't the same as being given one's freedom, but that didn't seem significant, especially since the colony was more intent on trying to prevent Astronema and her evil tentacles from overtaking the planet as she had all the other planets in their solar system. And now that Darkconda had disappeared for good, no one would be looking for him. In a way, it was almost as if he had been erased from existence. Anyone who had known him from the colony either was happy to see him go, or dead. He smiled as he thought about it. He could start all over again, and this time, he wouldn't have to answer to anyone but himself.
The suns were hot, and without a second thought, he peeled off his old red shirt. Absently, he tossed it to the ground and then surveyed the open meadow before him. As Starslinger shifted slightly under him and snorted, he decided to give into impulse. A grin worked its way to his lips and with a quick kick, he sent the horse flying across the field at breakneck speed. He could feel Starslinger's muscles ripple beneath his legs, and deftly he tied the reins in a knot as the horse galloped.
As the palomino stallion looped around to gallop back in the other direction, he let go of the reins in favor of guiding the horse with his legs. Without hesitation, he threw his arms out wide, closed his eyes, and tilted his face up to the sunlight as the wind whipped through his long blonde, brown streaked hair. Freedom was definitely a heady experience, he decided with a broad smile.
Tannen managed a grin at her transfixed face. _This was the right choice. This expedition had to be just me and Ashley. Tryan can be so thick skulled and stubborn sometimes. Carlos and TJ didn't help matters any either. You'd think that I had been trying to take a romantic vacation with Ashley with the way they were carrying on. They just don't understand._ He looked up at the boy before them and then at the girl beside him. _I guess some things are universal in all dimensions._
Ashley's eyes flickered to Tannen's, and then she quickly averted them. She could see that sad regret that lingered in them, and she felt a niggling of guilt at her interest in this Andros, no matter how unreasonable it was. As she stared out at the boy on the horse in front of her, she couldn't help but wonder what things could have been like for them all. If the war had never been, if earth hadn't been taken over. She found herself unable to pull up an image of that imaginary world, even though the girl from the other dimension had indicated that it did exist in a parallel universe. She glanced quickly over at Tannen, and she could tell by the distant look on his face, that he was running through a memory that only he could know about, and she felt a sense of sadness at the obvious pained look on his face.
Anxiously, she looked down at her watch. _Two hours._ Two hours and her life would probably change forever. TJ had said to go and put your personal lives in order because they may never return from this trip. _I can't believe we're going into space with a borrowed shuttle. Arrange our personal lives he says. What personal life? All the people that I care about and who care about me, will be on that shuttle. I have nothing, no one to leave behind._ As she took a sip of her shake, she tried to shake the feeling of dread that was creeping up her spine. It almost felt as if she and the rest of the team were overlooking one important thing, but for the life of her, she couldn't figure out what it was.
Sick of her own thoughts, and desperate to find something else to concentrate on, Cassie surveyed the room. It was only ten in the morning, so most of the lunch crowd hadn't yet shown up, and the breakfast crowd had already left. But at a table across from her booth, a guy with a thick shock of auburn hair caught her attention.
Like her, he had a milkshake. An empty plate sat to one side, and she found herself mildly amazed that he had finished off one of Adela's dishes. Her hamburgers alone were enough to feed three people. She tried not to grin as he glared at the shake in front of him. She watched as he picked up a straw, regarded it curiously for a moment, and then stuck it in the shake.
She couldn't stop the giggle that worked up her throat as he tried to drink. Adela's shakes were much too thick to even begin to come up through a mere straw, but apparently he didn't know that. His face was beginning to turn purple from sucking so hard when she finally decided to say something.
"Trying using a spoon, buddy. It works better."
Tannen's head swung around, and he found himself looking into almond shaped brown eyes. Her long hair fell carelessly over the pink tee she was wearing, and there was an amused grin playing at her lips. He felt as if someone had just punched him in the stomach.
Cassie tried not to laugh at the blank look on the guy's face, and decided it wouldn't hurt if she talked to him. Just for a little while. He seemed pretty innocent, and he was cute in an unconventional sort of way.
"My name's Cassie." She said boldly as she stuck out her hand. He looked at it with uncertain confusion.
"What am I supposed to do?" He asked finally as his bright blue eyes met with hers.
"Shake it." Cassie said with a sarcastic note of disbelief. "Where are you from?" She added, hoping she wasn't coming rudely across, but trying to understand the teen in front of her. His hand clasped hers and he shook it briefly before letting it go.
"KO-35." He said seriously. She leaned back in a chair with suspicious confusion.
"KO-35." He said with strained patience, it was obvious to her that this wasn't the first explanation he'd given about the place. "It's a space colony on a planet in the Kerova galaxy. I'm here on a mission to find the Earth rangers to warn them about the impending invasion that faces Earth, but I can't open a communication channel with their base, and nobody knows who they are." The frustration was evident in his voice, and Cassie felt her jaw drop in shock. Quickly she looked around to ensure that no one had overheard the conversation. The diner was almost completely empty.
Jumping to her feet, she grabbed his arm and dragged him to a secluded alcove in the back of the restaurant. He looked to her for an explanation.
"I was the pink ranger. Our Command Center was just destroyed. Teleportation still works, but everything else was completely destroyed along with our powers. We're going to see TJ, he was the red ranger." She said quickly as she grabbed his hand and pushed a button on her communicator.
"A girl ranger?!" He exclaimed as they were both enveloped in pink light.
Turning slightly, he saw a slight rustling in the bushes in the back of the tree grove, and as he watched, a Kerovian panther burst through. "Ashley!" Tannen cried as he jumped for the nearest tree and shimmied up it. The large cat paid him no mind though as it centered the yellow ranger in its sights and ran at her on all fours.
Reaching out with one arm, he allowed himself to slip slightly off Starslinger's back and to one side. She threw her arms around his neck at about the same time he threw his outstretched arm around her waist. She gave an awkward jump, and with help from him, she managed to get a leg over Starslinger's back as the horse galloped away from the running cat.
Ashley shut her eyes tightly and held onto the boy's middle for dear life as the horse pounded across the terrain beneath them. Out of all scenarios she had had running through her mind since she had first seen him across the field, this had not been the way she had pictured meeting him. But then, nothing in her life had ever gone the way she had pictured it, so she guessed that now was no exception. For a moment, the wild ride reminded her of another time and place when she hadn't been so lucky as to have a savior whisk her away from the danger.
"I am crazy. This is craziness and I'm personifying it." She muttered to herself as she jerked the controls, sending the fighter into a barrel roll out of immediate danger. In the process she managed to hit a few of the fighters with a laser volley as she winged her way past yet another squad of flying pests. She grinned quickly, mildly impressed by her own sharp shooting, but the moment did not last long.
_ _ Ashley watch to the right, there's a whole other squad getting ready to cut you off. _ _ She heard TJ project to her from his stolen velocifighter. She managed to curl the fighter over and into a loop, neatly avoiding the oncoming fighters, only to find herself confronted by more.
"We can't keep this up forever, Teej. How are the guys on the ground doing?" Ashley asked through her comm link as sweat broke out on her forehead. She shot a volley of fire bringing down three or four fighter, but not even making a dent in the squad heading her way.
_ _ I don't know. I can't reach any of them._ _ His mental voice hesitated, and Ashley knew it wasn't a good sign. _ _ I think we're going to have to retreat. As soon as possible. _ _ She knew he was right, but the words seemed so foreign to her vocabulary. They were the good guys. They were supposed to win, right? _ _ Aim for the warehouse district. We'll meet up there._ _
Ashley nodded, even though she knew he couldn't see her. She maneuvered evasively in attempts to extricate herself from the melee of fighters that were now beginning to surround her from all sides. As she flew in and out of the squads, a stray volley hit her left wing.
In the space of a second, her fighter was descending in a spiral towards the ground with alarming speed. She tried yanking the controls up, but to no avail. As the ground drew closer. She closed her eyes tight and whispered a quick prayer. Then she knew nothing.
She awoke to a pain induced haze as she felt someone try to pry her out of the mangled wreckage of the fighter. She looked up to see Tannen trying to gently move her bleeding arm out from under the crunched console. Distantly she looked at it, and noted that she would probably end up with a rather nasty looking scar from the injury. Trying to ignore the blood, though, she turned to look up at the red ranger.
"Where is everyone? Did they all make it to the rendezvous point?" She asked somewhat hoarsely as she tried to blink away the fuzziness and stand. Tannen shifted a pair of haunted piercing blue eyes her way.
"They all made it to the rendezvous point except one. Cassie's dead." He said emotionlessly, and Ashley felt as if she had crashed all over again. The pain in her arm throbbed, but the pain in her heart throbbed even more.
"Are you okay?" The boy asked her, his voice was steady and not even winded by the wild ride. She nodded as she looked into his gold flecked, green eyes for the first time. They held a curious combination of pride, hurt, fascination, and intelligence as they regarded her solemnly.
"My friend." She gasped finally, trying to catch her breath as she gestured to the trees. "He climbed a tree." The sentence came out in short gasps as she tried to fill her lungs with air. He gave a curt nod as he turned the horse around again. With a kick, the horse was flying down the field.
She let out a tiny yelp, though, as she suddenly realized that the horse was actually flying, and that she actually wasn't riding a horse anymore. She tightened her hold around the boy's middle as gold scales glinted up at her and wings sprouted behind her. The horse they had been riding was now a flying dragon. She tried not to look down as the animal circled around the tree Tannen had climbed.
The dragon hovered for a moment as it plucked the red ranger out of the tree by the collar of his jacket. If she hadn't been twenty feet off the ground on the back of a strange unknown creature, she would have laughed at the sight of Tannen dangling from the dragon's talons. The golden colored creature flew up about twenty more feet and stayed at that height until the panther gave up and left. It wasn't until the dragon began to slowly descend that Ashley breathed a sigh of relief..
As they got close enough, it released Tannen's collar, allowing him to fall the two extra feet to the ground and then soared in for a landing. Ashley closed her eyes again as she felt the scales beneath her bare knees transfer back into the golden hide of the horse it had been earlier.
"You can open your eyes. Starslinger isn't moving anymore." His wry voice penetrated her conscious after a few moments, and she slowly opened one eye and then the other. His small grin let her known that he found her behavior amusing. Ashley found herself giving him a rather chagrined smile back. It had been a long time since she had felt the inclination to laugh at anything, and she was rather awed by the fact that his simple words had brought a smile to her lips. The war had taken away almost everything and everyone she had loved, and some days the wounds were so raw, they threatened to overwhelm her. She hadn't actually smiled since, well, she couldn't remember the last time she'd smiled. Reality came crashing back as she realized he was staring at her with those curious green eyes of his. Ashley pulled her arms back to her side as she suddenly became self conscious of how tightly she had been clinging to him.
He took the opportunity to throw a leg over and agilely slide off the horse. It was then that she realized that the odd creature she was sitting on, wasn't even wearing a saddle. Before she could even think about getting down on her own, his hands were on her waist helping her off the rather large stallion.
As she felt her feet safely land on the ground, she looked up at him to get a better look at the boy that had saved both her and Tannen. He wasn't much taller than her, an inch, two inches at most, she noticed as he released her in order to pick up a ragged, old red shirt off the ground. Deftly, he shrugged into it as she watched him in unabashed fascination.
He turned around then, trying to hide the blush that was working its way into his cheekbones, she noticed, as he reached to grab the horse's reins. The shy smile that had been working its way into her expression, froze on her face the moment his back turned to her. It was all that she could do to hold back the horrified gasp that had welled up in her throat. His shirt was cut into jagged slashes, and beneath the material, there were long thin, slightly pink marks that showed signs of scarring against his skin. She had seen scars that had been a lot worse from injuries that had almost been fatal, but those had been scars created by the war. KO-35 had remained free from the parasitic claws of the quantrons, piranatrons, and putties that littered so many planets like unwanted trash. There was no explanation that she could think of to explain away the healing slashes on his back.
"Oh my God, what happened to..." Tannen's astonished question faded from his lips as the odd teen turned to look both him and Ashley in the eyes. Above the boy's right eye, there were two tattooed thick lines that enclosed a blue tattooed star followed by three digits. _The mark of a slave. The hope for the universe rests on the shoulders of a slave._ Tannen struggled not to allow a sneer of disgust to enter his expression. Although Earthers had done away with slavery for the most part on their planet, it was a practiced institution on KO-35.
As long as he had been alive, his people had had slaves. They worked the fields, they did repairs, and they made it easier for the intellectual class to see to the more important tasks of seeing to the advancements of technical society. They were treated well, as far as he knew. The government claimed they lacked nothing, if anything they were treated better than most orphans from other planets would have been in similar circumstances. In his mind it made logical sense. Orphans without any relations became slaves. Instead of being tossed out on the streets to starve, they were given quarters to live in, food to eat, and clothes to wear in exchange for manual labor. It was a fair, humanitarian way to take care of a potentially damaging social problem.
Tannen frowned slightly. He had always been taught that escaped slaves were the laziest, most insolent, ungrateful creatures in the universe, and he found the assessment uncomfortably at odds with what he knew this boy was destined for. The boy before them was supposed to be the salvation and hope for everyone everywhere.
Andros knew the moment the red haired young man recognized him for what he was. Although he tried to hide the disgusted reaction, Andros could see the distaste in his eyes. It was a look that the green eyed boy was very familiar with. He had seen it on numerous occasions and he knew from experience that it did not bode well for him. Andros willed himself to look at the girl, trying to steel himself against the hatred he was sure would be glaring in her eyes at him. Surprisingly, she merely smiled at him. His brow furrowed slightly in confusion.
Her friendliness did not negate her partner's disapproval, though, and wishing to place as much distance between them and him, Andros hoisted himself up onto Starslinger's back with one fluid motion. _I will never kowtow to anyone again. I lived that life, and as far as I am concerned, that Andros is dead to the world. My new life starts now. I am free._ He shot both strangers before him an aloof glare as he held his defiant posture on the stallion's back.
Ashley stood between the two boys, profoundly mystified by the sudden hostility she saw in their mannerisms. _For someone who was so insistent that we had to find this Andros person, Tannen is not endearing himself to this stranger at all. Boys._ She thought as she gave a disgruntled mental sigh. _I'll deal with Tannen later._
She moved forward to the horse, and smiled as she stretched out her hand to the boy. "My name's Ashley. Thank you for saving our lives." She said sincerely as she waited for the odd teen to shake her hand. He cocked his head slightly to one side, and gave her a rather baffled look.
"Ashley, Kerovians don't shake hands remember?" Tannen said, mirth working its way into his expression. Ashley crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him.
"And that's Tannen." She said flatly, addressing the boy on the horse. "You'll have to excuse him, he's completely lacking in manners." She said as she gave the green eyed boy a conspiratorial wink. Andros' eyes shot up into his hairline in surprise at the wink and at the name.
"Tannen? The red ranger." He said more to himself then to either of the strangers. They had sent a ranger after him. Panic flooded his mind as he contemplated what returning might mean. A cold sweat broke out on his brow as his hands curled defensively around the reins. For a tense moment, no one said anything, and then with a kick, Andros tried to wheel Starslinger around. Starslinger failed to cooperate with his wishes to gallop away from the ranger and the girl, though. Instead, Andros had to groan in dismay as his horse nudged the brown haired girl curiously with his massive head. She giggled and scratched the golden head between the ears as the stallion knickered in happiness. _So much for friendship and loyalty._ Andros thought disparagingly.
_ _Watch and learn, young colt._ _ Starslinger's deeper, wiser voice penetrated his consciousness, and Andros sighed as he tried to rein in the wild thumping of his own panicked heart. Ashley's hand stopped in mid scratch as she regarded the animal before her with new curiosity, but Andros' thoughts were too occupied with the red ranger before him to care.
"If you've come to take me back, you're wasting your time and your breath. I will die before I willingly go back." Andros said, his eyes flashing as he regarded Tannen. Starslinger whipped his head around and bit the seated rider on the thigh.
Angry and hurt by the abrupt attack, Andros immediately slid off the horse's back and glared at the creature. Tannen gave a bark of laughter at the scene the image afforded him.
The horse's gaze fastened on the red ranger, and in the space of a moment, the massive equine body was transformed into that of a small golden eagle. The bird flew directly at Tannen, pecking him precisely between the eyes with a rather outraged caw. Tannen was forced to raise his arms in front of his face protectively as he took a step back away from both the boy and the creature.
The eagle then fastened its yellowed eyed gaze on Ashley, and as suddenly as he had changed into an eagle, he shifted into a small feline. The yellow cat purred loudly as he rubbed blissfully against the girl's ankle with his head. _ _Fillies are much more intelligent than young colts._ _ Ashley felt a smile work its way onto her face at the projected thought.
"Sexist horse." Andros muttered under his breath as he moved towards the girl that had won Starslinger's affection. In his mind, if Starslinger liked her, than she meant him no harm. Starslinger had a way of knowing what was occurring inside of people's heads, and Andros trusted the animal completely when it came to judging character. The stallion's assessment of people had gotten him out of more than one scrape in the past. If Starslinger liked her, than she was a friend. "My name is Andros." He said as he tried to mimic the gesture she had given him earlier. _ _Colts can learn though._ _ Starslinger's grinning voice penetrated his conscious. Ashley accepted his outstretched hand, trying not to laugh at his bewildered expression as she shook it.
"We're not here to take you back." Tannen said finally, as he rubbed the spot between his eyes. He walked over to his teammates side, being sure to give the odd yellow creature a wide berth in the process. "Actually we're here to ask for your help, Andros."
Andros couldn't have been more astonished. He looked from one earnest expression to the other on the faces of the strangers before him. "How could I possibly help you?" He asked, mystified by the change the conversation had taken. He was a slave, and an escaped one at that. Even in the most imaginative depths of his mind, he couldn't contrive a single reason that two rangers would need *his* help for. Ashley suppressed a grin at the bafflement in his voice as she turned to Tannen, waiting for him to explain.
"We need your help in defeating Astronema." The red ranger said quietly. "It is your destiny. It has always been your destiny." He added with a heavy sigh. Starslinger cocked his feline head to the side for a second, and then padded over to the red ranger. Tannen eyed the animal warily , but then breathed a sigh of relief as the cat merely purred and rubbed against his leg.
_ _ There is much pain in this young colt._ _
Ashley found herself nodding in agreement to the creature's assessment. Andros spared her a curious glance, and she found herself blushing under his green eyed scrutiny.
"I can't." Andros said finally as he turned to look at Tannen. They were rangers, fighting the evil was their duty and one they were probably better equipped to deal with than he would ever be. They needed him like they needed an extra solar system to defend. They would do just fine without his help, so he didn't feel overly guilty about what he was going to say. "I have to find my sister first, I owe it to her." He couldn't stop the sorrow from entering his voice, and he cursed at himself for allowing these rangers access to one of his weaknesses. He was giving them power against him, and he knew it. The cat's eyes flashed, and in a blink the small cat was replaced by the palomino stallion.
_ _ Stubborn colt. There is much pain in him, too. Take note young Filly. He is very thick skulled._ _ Ashley nodded sagely at the golden horse's affectionate projected voice. Andros turned to her in astonishment.
"You hear him?!" He asked in disbelief as she nodded.
"We need you to come with us. Please try to believe me when I tell you that in helping us defeat Astronema, you will find your sister." Ashley said as she focused her brown eyes on him. "DECA can explain this better than I can." She added as she sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to open an emotional channel between them. She could at least try to persuade him with an empathetic link, she decided. They needed him. The hope of the universe rested on his shoulders, according to Tannen.
She felt nothing. Abruptly, she let go of his shoulder and allowed her gaze to flit back and forth between the two boys beside her. _ Oh Lord, things ought to get really interesting now. And TJ thought that one guilt ridden red personality was enough._ She managed a sad smile at the thought. She definitely had her work cut out for her.
Everyone was silent for a moment, and as Andros looked into the brunette's sympathetic brown eyes, he realized fate had already made the decision for him. Despite what he thought about the matter, he knew he was going to say yes. It was inevitable. Like the suns rising in the morning. He felt a small chill run up his back at the eerriness of it all. "I will go with you." He said finally. As the words left his mouth, a thread of familiarity chased through his mind's eye, and in the far recesses of his brain he could faintly hear a feminine voice yelling "Starslinger" as yellow light enveloped her.
Tannen smiled bittersweetly as he saw the interest spark between
Ashley and the proud, defiant slave. In a way, it reminded him
painfully of what he had had with his Cassie. His face hardened,
blocking the memory. Evil was going to learn that good could not be so
easily defeated. While they had killed her and the fire in her spirit,
they were going to learn that a little fire could not be blown out that
absolutely. The flames that were left over were about to roar into an
inferno against them. He'd see to it personally that they paid for
taking her away from him.