The cave on Wrorick B was like a giant mouth in the ground. On a grassy hillside miles from civilization, the dark maw lead curious spelunkers into a world of stalactites and blind cave-dwelling creatures. On most days, the silence was interrupted only by the dripping of ground water. Today however, the crunch of boots echoed hollowly off the ancient rock walls.
"Fire up your scanners," Andros ordered, shining his palmlight up ahead. The Rangers were gathered at the bottom of the entrance slope, where the ground levelled out and the ceiling vaulted high. Adjusting their handheld scanners, they prepared to search for the rare trace mineral they had come here for. Orbital scans said the right conditions were present, but the mineral itself gave off too weak a signal. A surface mission was required.
So here they were, wandering into the dark, moist environment, looking for rocks. Many of them could think of better things to be doing with their time.
Ashley, for instance, complained, "I can think of better things to be doing with my time."
TJ walked next to her, and admonished "Come on, make a sacrifice in the name of science."
"What are they gonna do with this stuff anyway?" asked Cassie.
Andros, in the lead, shrugged distractedly. "They didn't say. The transmission just asked for a 2 kilogram sample of Bortite to be sent to the research station as soon as possible. I guess we were the most convenient ship in the area to get it."
"Figures," grumbled Carlos. "Who can resist rock-hunting in the dark on a Saturday night?"
They scanned meter after meter of wall, working late into the evening to find their sample. Eventually they decided to split up (communicator channels left open) and search the smaller tunnels as well. After a few hours of this, they had still found nothing.
Ashley gave a frustrated sigh as another meter of scan turned up empty. Tugging at the collar of her environment suit, she lifted her communicator and said, "I dunno about everyone else, but I think it's time to quit. There's nothing to scan down here."
Cassie was quick to agree. "She's right, we could search all night and never find a trace of this stuff."
"I could use some fresh air," Carlos put in. "It's like breathing soup down here."
"How 'bout it Andros?" called TJ. "You ready to pack it in?"
But there was no response from Andros.
"Hey Andros, you there?"
Silence filled the channel.
"Well this isn't good," said Cassie. "Set your scanners to life-signs." The Rangers quickly did as she suggested, adjusting their equipment accordingly. Ashley was disheartened to see only one of her friends registering on the screen.
"We're too far apart, I can only see Carlos. Andros was in the next sector last time I saw him. Who's the closest?"
"I am," said Cassie. "I think I've got a lock on his signal."
The four Rangers quickly converged towards each other, listening to the sound of Cassie's breath over the channel. Finally, she stopped and made a confused noise.
"What is it?"
"I'm stuck. There's a wall between me and where Andros should be."
"I'm close," said TJ. "I'll see if I can get around. What are your coordinates?"
This time, Cassie didn't respond.
"Cassie are you there? Damn..."
"Everybody check in," Ashley said quickly.
"Carlos here..." said Carlos. And then there was nothing.
"Ashley I'm coming to find you," Carlos warned. "Meet me at...where the hell am I?...the last lateral passage before the big chamber."
"I'm on my way. I knew we shouldn't have split up in a place like this..."
At that moment, she heard a muffled thud over the channel. It sounded like someone hitting the ground.
As she feared, there was no response.
So Ashley turned and started running back the way she came. Carlos had gone off her scanner readout, but he had said to meet him at the passage before the big chamber. He couldn't be too far from there now. She skidded to a halt as she reached the rendezvous point. Of course, Carlos was nowhere around.
"Carlos! I'm here, where are you??" she hollered. If he made any response, she couldn't hear it for all the echoing. "Carlos, can you hear me??"
The last reverberations of her cry died down to nothing. She was left with silence again. Drawing her blaster, she began to stalk forward again, hoping luck would lead her to her friend.
But instead, just as she reached the big chamber, she heard a scrabbling sound and felt a few pebbles strike her head.
In a cave environment, dark and spooky, when one knows something is lurking in the shadows eating your friends, the tiny sound of pebbles falling would give anyone a fright. Ashley stiffened, her hair standing on end, and looked up to see what had made the noise. On the dark stone cieling there was a small dark shape. It was round and maybe as big as a football. Ashley stared a moment, and the shape just stared back, so she began to think it was just a trick of the light.
Then, before she could blink, it fell. There was a glimpse of spindly legs and an insectoid underbelly, and then it landed smack! on her face. She was blind. She couldn't breathe or scream. The critter had her.
In a state of pure panic, Ashley dropped her blaster and staggered backward, striking the wall hard. Her hands groped at the thing, trying to tear it off her face, but it held on tight--surprisingly tight. She couldn't budge it. Agonizing seconds went by as she struggled with the terrifying creature. Her knees were growing weak and her head beginning to swim with lack of oxygen. She was going to suffocate for sure! If only she could blast the thing off without frying her face as well. If only her friends were here!
Soon her shoulder hit the hard ground and she realized she had fallen. Her time was up. Her lungs begged for oxygen which the creature wouldn't allow. Ashley felt consciousness fading...
And then there was nothing but blind sleep, and the sound of the cave water dripping.
He had been standing at the edge of the cliff, looking down at the glassy, tranquil cave-lake below, when he heard a noise above him. He forgot the idle chatter coming from his communicator, and looked up to see a dark shape on the cieling. Suddenly, it fell, and he glimpsed the scorpion-like body just before it latched onto his face.
He was so startled that he forgot where he was, and took a staggering step forward. Unfortunately, there was no ground to meet his foot, and he fell from the precipice into the shallow lake 15 feet below.
Little did he realize, the fall was probably the best thing to have happened to him. He lost consciousness upon impact with the bottom, but the water must have made the creature let go, for now it was nowhere in sight. At the moment, Andros was lying on his back in the water, his rear resting on the bottom, and the padding of his environment suit keeping his head afloat. He sat up slowly, feeling his back muscles protest. The palm light was a dull glow underwater at his side.
So slowly, carefully, Andros hauled himself out of the water and began searching for a way back up the cliff. Good fortune provided him with an easy set of hand and footholds, and soon he was standing on the precipice again, looking down at where he'd been. Water dripped from the tip of his nose and fell with a tiny plip back into the lake. Those ripples would take a long time to die down.
Andros thought of his friends. How long had he been unconscious? Were they still looking for him? His communicator was silent, but perhaps it was just inoperative after being underwater. Picking up his scanner (which lay on the ground where he dropped it), he began to search for them, and found their life readings gathered in a large vault near his position.
Perhaps they had regrouped to plan a search pattern? He hadn't been answering his communicator, obviously. They must have grown concerned.
Well, there was no need for that. He was alright, and would simply go join them and they would all finally get to go home. Boots squishing, he trudged off towards the chamber to meet up with them.
But as he neared, he grew worried because he couldn't hear any voices. No scanners bleeped, no pacing boots scuffled. What were they doing in there?
He snuck quietly closer, peeking around the curve of the passageway....
..and to his horror, he found them. Their sleeping faces looked out at him from inside huge suspended cocoons.
This chamber was oblong, with the row of cocoons hung along one wall. They were plastered up there with a thready membrane the color of milk. The Rangers seemed asleep, with their arms trapped at their sides and a thin cord running from a fluid sac to to each of their mouths. Andros was mortified, and ran to the one closest to him.
Ashley was suspended in this one. Andros took hold of the slippery membrane and pulled, but it would not tear loose. He tugged and ripped, even risking a shot with his blaster, but could not free the Yellow Ranger. The cocoon was frustratingly tough, and he had no high-powered cutting tools to use. One by one, he took a stab at each of the cocoons, trying his damnedest to break them. But it was no use.
In his desperation, Andros didn't notice the tiny scrabbling sound approaching from above. Gripping the stone with it's spidery legs, the creature stalked towards its prey, confident that the four already captured would not be disturbed.
With a cry of frustration, Andros retreated from his friends. He could do nothing to save them. It was almost too much to bear that they were in danger and beyond his reach.
For brief moment he fell silent, trying to make his brain think. That was when he heard it-- the tiny sound of crawling. Andros froze and did not look up, remembering that that was what the thing wanted him to do. Instead, he unholstered his blaster, turned, and threw himself into a shoulder roll along the ground. He came up a few feet away and raised the blaster for a blind shot at the cieling where the noise had come from. Sparks flew and chunks of rock were flung everywhere, but when the smoke cleared away, something else had fallen to the ground...
Lying on its back, the foot-long, six-legged, scorpion like creature lay stunned and flailing like an overturned turtle. Andros stood over it, feeling a vengeful urge in his trigger-finger; but he could do better than that. He needed this thing. It might hold the key to rescuing his friends.
So he opened a pocket on his pantleg and withdrew a thick plastic specimen bag. He put it over his hand, grasped the struggling creature, and then turned the bag inside-out so that it was trapped inside.
"You're mine," he told it, holding it up to the light. Then with one last, worried glance at his friends, Andros left the chamber and made his way out of the cave of horrors.
"I am sorry Red Ranger," the Wrorick delegate replied. "But there is nothing we can suggest. Very little is known about the Polybrachiovenator."
"That is the name our exobiologists have given it. It refers to a 'many-legged hunter'."
Andros blinked, and sat back again. He was in his command chair (wearing a nice, dry flightsuit) speaking to a representative from the planet about the mishap in the cave. But the alien had been less than optimistic.
"What else do they know about it?" Andros asked.
"They know virtually nothing. They assume that it attacks humanoid hosts as part of its reproductive cycle. Your friends are probably meant to feed the venator's offspring once they are hatched."
Andros squirmed at the thought. "There must be some way to break into the cocoons," he insisted. "There's never been a natural substance that couldn't be overcome by someone's technology. A mega-powered laser could break through..."
But the delegate was shaking his head. "As I said before, it would be a fruitless effort. The outer membrane is likely meant to protect your friends as much as entrap them. The venator has probably made them dependent on those fluid sacs. If they were freed now, they would die in minutes--drowning in the very oxygen we breathe. There is nothing you, nor I, can do for them..."
Andros gave him a wholly bitter glare. "Thanks for nothing," he growled, then cut off the channel. The old creep didn't know the meaning of the word "try".
Or "friends", for that matter.
He rubbed his face with both hands, trying to massage his brain into thinking. As frustrating as it was, the Wrorick was right. Evolution had Ashley, TJ, Carlos and Cassie backed into a corner. The venator's "plan" was foolproof after millions of years of development, and Andros had his hands tied. It was a nauseating image, swarms of tiny baby scorpions chewing the Rangers alive...
The only chance was that the creature hadn't laid her eggs yet. Her species probably dropped egg sacs that she watched over until the babies hatched. If she didn't give birth, perhaps the cocoons would deteriorate and let the Rangers loose. Unfortuately, they might be dead by then. Oh what a tangled web had been weave'd.
Might as well check on her, Andros thought, rising tiredly. He would stand by her container for a few minutes, fantasizing about poking her with a metal instrument of some kind. These thoughts got him to the infirmary in no time, and he punched in the keycode that locked the specimen cabinet shut.
But when the doors swung open, lo and behold, someone had burned a hole through her container, and likewise through the back wall. The venator was gone, escaped into the bowels of the MegaShip--and somehow DECA hadn't even noticed.
"DECA, what's the status of the alien specimen?" Andros asked with great annoyance.
"The alien specimen has escaped her enclosure."
"And when were you going to tell me?"
DECA actually paused to think about it. "When I became aware of it. Alert: The alien speciment has escaped her--"
With a snort, Andros slapped her mute switch and stalked out of the infirmary to find the devious little bug.
Internal scans didn't pick up its lifesign right away. As in the cave, it somehow managed to elude the sensors. But with the little knowledge he had of its physiology, Andros as able to modify the sensors to pick it up. It had somehow burned its way through both the container and the wall, and then began crawling about in the dense circuitry within the ship. Andros traced its path from the infirmary, to the Cargo Hold, to the SimuDeck, to the Jump Bay, to the Training Room, to the Engine Room, and back to the Cargo Hold again. It was leading him on a wild bug-chase. As he hurried to catch up with it, Andros thought of how good it might feel to dissect the thing with his bare hands...
But arriving at the Cargo Hold, all these thoughts were swept from his mind.
The venator was crouched before a cluster of storage barrels. Her back faced the doorway, but she did not bother to turn when Andros arrived. She was busy fondling something with four of her front legs.
From Andros's viewpoint, it looked like a small white pillow, but the dim lighting cast a shiny gleam on its surface. He crept a little closer and the venator ignored him. She kept caressing the little pod like it was her child...
By the time the venator took notice of him, Andros was less than a meter away, crouched on his haunches, watching the interchange. Absently, the mother waved a front leg at him, then went back to her work. She wasn't just touching the pod, Andros saw, but coating it with some kind of thick, sticky substance that hardened into a membrane. Andros was reminded of how egg whites harden and turn opaque when cooked. This was almost the same thing.
More and more of the sticky slime bubbled from her mouthparts, and was spread over the little pod with tender loving care. Andros decided to risk one more inch closer, because he thought he could see something inside--something dark and unmoving--the baby bug perhaps?
Mother venator seemed to glare at him as he leaned in, but she made no moves of aggression. She tolerated the curious human as he examined her work. Andros realized the membrane was exactly like the stuff trapping the other Rangers down in the cave, but in a much earlier state. If only he could get a look at the baby before it was entirely covered...
Mother venator moved back so he could see. She somehow saw value in showing him what she was up to. What Andros saw made his breath catch in his throat, for inside the cloudy pod, he could make out the tiny shape of a human fetus.
He'd been right about one thing--the mother hadn't laid her eggs yet. But why in the universe had she given birth to a human? What was a human baby going to do with the sleeping body of one of its own kind? He wondered if the fetus would grow into some kind of hybrid bug-child, but there was no way of knowing at this point. All he could do was wait and see what developed.
Or, he could destroy the mother and child and be done with it.
Looking down at the arachnoid creature, Andros struggled to see the vicious predator he had captured in the cave. But it wasn't there. All he could see was the mother being who had just given birth to the next generation of her kind. What right did he have to kill her?
No, he would leave her be, keep her with him on the ship, and let nature take its course. It might take a while, but she would eventually give him the answers he needed to help his friends. He had faith in that.
So he continued to watch her until he stepped back from the pod, guaged her surroundings one more time, and then crawled into the shadows behind the barrels. Andros stood, hearing a sizzling sound, and moved the barrels away to see a big-sized hole in the wall. She was on the move again. And he was pretty sure he knew where.
He headed to the SimuDeck, and sure enough she was there, tending another pod. Once again, when Andros looked closely, he could see the tiny form of a baby curled around a thin cord that protruded from its little mouth. The venator wrapped this one up and then left the little alcove, heading for the wall neaby. This time Andros saw her as she gurgled up a wad of spit and spat it on the wall, dissolving the metal in seconds. Then she was gone, and Andros got up to meet her in the Jump Bay.
After they were done there, they visited a pod in the Training Room, and then the last one in the Engine Room. Five baby humans, four trapped Rangers. What was that all about?
He wanted to ask the mother venator, but she didn't speak any language he knew, so he wouldn't get his answers that way. By now, she had curled up to rest in the opposite corner of the room from the fifth pod. Andros sat nearly, watching her as she tucked her eight legs beneath her and twiddled her mouthparts absently. She looked exactly like a woman who'd just given birth to quintuplets--she was exhausted.
But over the course of the next two weeks, she dragged herself along her daily rounds, checking on the five pods. Andros would return from checking on the Rangers, and find her lying in the corner of the Engine Room taking a much-needed nap. Eventually she would get up and follow Andros around on his duties, but she took plenty of time out to rest her tired legs. Her health began to concern Andros as the days went by.
Something about being on the MegaShip was affecting her. It wasn't much like her natural cave home. It was too bright for one thing, and there wasn't enough to eat lying around. Andros had discovered she "ate" the very metal she burned through when travelling. The minerals it contained were what kept her going, but the bulkhead metal was clearly not as nutritious as rock. She probably felt as though she'd been living on junk food for a while.
Still, Andros did what he could for her, leaving out bits of scrap material at the five pod sites. He even brought her chunks of rock from the cave each day, but it wasn't enough. She continued to weaken. She needed to go home, which was something Andros would not allow.
As bad as he felt for her, he could not let her go through with her plans for his four friends.
14 days passed. The venator grew steadily sicker and sicker, until one day Andros had to carry her to the Cargo Hold to start the daily rounds.
Astonishingly, while the mother's health failed, the pods flourished. They had grown into full grown human-sized cocoons in just fourteen days. The membrane was thinning as well, perhaps to make escape easier for whatever was inside. Andros was both fearful and curious about the unborn creature--what kind of hideous bug-baby would emerge from the cloudy white cocoon?
Little did he realize, today would be the day he found out.
"Well what are you waiting for?" he asked the venator. He had begun talking to her, for lack of anyone else to chat with. But when he had put her down on the floor just now, she hadn't crawled up to the pod to start feeling it as usual. She just sat there, as if waiting for something.
"What's wrong? Are you hungry again?"
Instead of a reply, Andros heard a small squish from the pod's direction. He too began to stare at it, and saw it move a little, accompanied by another squish. Something dark shifted beneath the thin membrane surface. This bug-baby was waking up, and getting ready to hatch.
All of a sudden Andros was in a panic. What was he supposed to do to help? Should he break the cocoon to help the baby out, or should he leave it alone and let it escape by itself? The mother was making no move to approach, but she reached out with her forelegs longingly, as if she wanted to help but couldn't find the strength to do it. Andros decided he'd do it for her.
Reaching inside his jacket, he removed the little utility knife he kept clipped to his lapel. He snapped open the sharpest blade and crouched next to the struggling pod, putting one hand out to steady it. The membrane was rubbery, and the bug-baby trembled at his touch.
Quickly and carefully, Andros slit into the membrane with his knife. Then he scooted backward as a gush of runny, clear fluid spilled out.
The mother scooted forward an inch or two, stopping at the edge of the spreading puddle. All the fluid from the pod was leaking out onto the floor. It began to shrink around the bug-baby, who remained trapped inside, clawing and struggling against its rubbery prison.
Andros's heart raced. If only the venator could have told him what action to take. He had never even been to a human birth let alone a baby-bug birth.
But then the baby began to make choking noises. Its body spasmed and Andros could see the membrance plastered over its face, suffocating it. Whatever the cost, Andros had to get the baby free or it would die right there in its cocoon. So he ventured forward again, staining his knees in the puddle of fluid, and reached both hands into the cut he had made. With a mighty heave he tore open the cocoon and ripped it off the baby's face..
..then he froze in strangled horror.
Trembling, naked, and soaked in slimy fluid, was a full-grown human form. Its eyes were wide and bore into Andros like a hazel-colored lasers. As it struggled for breath, it had no idea it was looking into a mirror, for this newborn human was a perfect duplicate of Andros himself.
Andros looked over his doppleganger in speechless shock. It was so like him...right down to the birthmark next to its navel. The only differences were in their musculature--the duplicate wasn't as toned as Andros--and in their hair--the duplicate bore no artificial blond streaks like Andros.
Meanwhile, the duplicate glanced about fearfully as it observed the world for the first time--a dark, cold, metal place. Then its eyes returned to the person who had torn it from the womb. The duplicate's eyes remained blank, unthinking, unknowing.
The mother venator simply watched.
Then suddenly the duplicate fell silent, its gasps cut off by fluid in its weak lungs. Its chest began to heave, and it made wet, choking sounds, but no air would go in. His panic rising again, Andros grabbed the duplicate and dragged it out onto the floor where he could try to help it--but somehow he knew there was no hope.
Five minutes later, he was still trying to force air into its lungs long after it stopped moving. The venator lay down to mourn, as Andros closed off the duplicate's mouth with his own and blew. Something wouldn't let him stop. He wanted to save its life so badly...
But finally it was over. The duplicate was dead. The mother venator dragged herself over and reached out to touch its face with her forelegs, like she had done since the beginning. Her touch was still tender, still loving, like the touch of any mother.
Then she dragged herself to the door to wait for Andros. He realized there were four more duplicates onboard the ship. He had four more chances to save a life.
One by one, he waited for the duplicates--no longer "bug-babies"--to break out of their cocoons. In the SimuDeck, he didn't wait for the duplicate to drown in the pod fluids. He cut the membrane right away, ignoring the tide of liquid, and withdrew another perfect replica, this time, of his friend TJ.
But once again, Andros had barely gotten a look at the clone when it fell into distress. This time, there was no fluid in its lungs, but it was suffocating anyway. Andros could do nothing to save it, and yet another human being died in his arms.
Despite all his efforts, he couldn't save the Cassie clone, who hatched in the Jump Bay. She didn't last two minutes before her lips turned blue and her eyes rolled back in her head. The frustration was almost too much for Andros, and he held her desperately for a moment, even though he knew she was gone.
But something strange happened in the Training Room. As the last traces of life faded from the duplicate Carlos, mother venator dragged herself up and reached for its face again. She had done this with all of them, but this time she deliberately put her two front forelegs into its mouth.
"What are you trying to do?" Andros asked out loud. After a moment's work, she had succeeded in scoring the inside of "Carlos's" cheek with her claw. It had no effect of course, but mother had been desperate to get it done.
"What are you trying to do??" Andros asked again.
It was then that he noticed the tiny drop of liquid trembling on the tip of the claw. It was not saliva, nor pod fluid. The venator had secreted it from her talon like a snake drips venom from its fang. She had been trying to inject something into the duplicate.
Andros's heavy heart beat faster with hope. Perhaps there was a way to save one of these clones. The mother knew how, but was too weak to do it. If Andros could figure out what she was trying to do for her babies, he could help her complete the process with the last duplicate--the clone of Ashley.
There was little time left. Leaving the dead clone of Carlos to rest, Andros scooped up the venator and headed for the infirmary.
A quick analyses of the mother's "venom" yielded all the answers. The liquid contained an enzyme that the newborn clones needed to survive. In her exhaustion, the mother venator had neglected to administer the stuff to her clones and they had died without it. But now, Andros could make sure the Ashley clone got what she needed. Andros took a good-sized sample of the liquid and capped it up in a hypodermic syringe. Then he took the mother venator to the Engine Room.
Night-time mode had been activated hours ago. Most of the ship was dark. In the Engine Room, the only light was the steady red glow of the HyperCore which was cast about spookily.
In the corner, the Ashley clone was already moving. Arms pushed outward against the membrane, trying with all their strength to break free.
Andros didn't even think, setting the mother bug down and withdrawing his knife quickly. But before he could get there, one hand burst through.
Pod liquid began to drain as it had before. The hand became an arm, reaching out through the broken pod wall. The Ashley clone had busted through the end instead of the side, and now Andros waited to help her in any way he could. She fought dilligently to tear the hole wider, soon getting another trembling arm through. She was coming through face-down.
A slick head was next, followed by a pair of shoulders, and Andros finally reached out to help her the rest of the way. He pulled her upper-body into his lap while he slipped the empty membrane the rest of the way off her....and flung it away.
She was free, lying half-conscious across his lap. Ever-so-gently he turned her face upwards, and saw the familiar lips, nose and cheeks of the Yellow Ranger.
The tapping of claws alerted him to the mother venator's approach. She reached for the clone's face as if to remind Andros what to do. He complied, taking out the syringe and pressing it against the moist skin of the clone's neck.
She didn't respond. At all. She didn't begin to choke or struggle or turn blue...she simply fell asleep in the warmth of the engine core, there in Andros's lap.
He found himself almost embarassed, holding a naked woman's body. But when he looked to the venator for her reaction, his heart fell.
The mother was dead, lying belly-up on the floor. She had lived to see the last clone survive, and then she had let go to take her eternal rest. Her only daughter was left in Andros's hands now.
It took some getting used to for Andros, who at first felt alone when he was in the room with her. But he quickly realized she paid attention when he spoke. She knew not what was being said, but still listened whenever Andros opened his mouth. She gradually began to seem like a person to him. And she did eventually learn to laugh; snorting in amusement whenever Andros dropped something, or when the computer made a good noise. "You think that's funny, huh?" Andros would say, smiling. And she would smile back, warming his heart like mad.
The Wrorick delegates were dumbstruck when Andros told them about her.
"Fully sentient...?" they repeated. "Total motor control...?"
"The works," Andros shot back proudly. "She seems to have the capacity of a normal infant human, although that's changing by the hour. She said a few words today."
"Remarkable," was all they could say. "What does she eat?"
"Nothing so far. Her physiology is a little unusual, in that her stomach is a superflouous organ. The enzyme in her bloodstream seems to make her independent from the need to eat."
"Well, Andros," they said. "We have absolutely no explanation for this. It is a phenomenon we had no idea took place."
Andros lounged in the command chair while they chatted. On the screen were three scientists plus the delegate he had spoken to earlier. Andros enjoyed seeing this man caught off-guard. "I'm sending you a detailed report of what I've observed," he said. "..from the time I brought the venator onboard, to my latest observations of the offspring. Maybe you can tell me the rest of what your people know?"
"Of course," one of the scientists chirped. "Perhaps you'd come down to the surface so we can speak in person?"
Andros frowned. "I'd rather not leave the offspring alone."
The scientists looked a little sheepish. "Actually we were hoping you would bring her with you so we could take a look at her ourselves..."
So an hour later, Andros had Ash dressed in a comfortable, neutral tunic and trousers, and was leading her by the hand through the Wrorick Foreign Affairs Embassy. They went slow, and Andros made sure she saw that he wasn't afraid of anything around them. It was her first foray off the Megaship after all. He felt like a father taking his child to school for the first time.
Ash was mesmerized by everything, which was wonderful to watch. She clung to his hand but her eyes went everywhere, darting this way and that to follow noises she heard. People took little notice of her, beyond the fact that she was alien. No one suspected her true nature. If there was a chance she would have been found out, Andros wouldn't never have agreed to bring her here; his protective instincts wouldn't allow her to become a freak-show.
When they arrived at the scientific area, they were greeted by a strange entourage. Four important looking delegates were there, including the one Andros liked to see squirm. Behind them, an excited cluster of scientists in white coats buzzed amongst themselves. They shot fascinated glances at Ash, who soon realized she was being scrutinized. The delegates just looked nervous. Andros halted before they came within earshot.
Stepping in front of Ash, blocking her view of the waiting Wrorickans, he spoke to her gently. "Now you might be a little scared of these guys, but they're nothing to be afraid of. They just want to learn about you. You can trust them, okay?"
She continued to peer past him distractedly, and Andros turned her face back towards him. "Okay? We're going now...hold my hand."
She stayed one step behind him as they finally approached the welcomers. The one Andros knew was the one to greet them.
"Red Ranger, it is an honor to meet you in person," he glowed. "And a special honor to meet your young friend here..." He cast a grandfatherly smile at Ash, which she shrank from, eyes narrowed. Andros was enjoying this.
"I've started calling her 'Ash' actually, so I'd be grateful if you all helped her learn her name as well."
"Of course. Ash is our guest here. If you'll follow me, we can proceed to the lab where these ladies and gentlemen will make a few observations of her."
He extended his arm to guide them. Andros did not move. "No tests," he said authoritatively. Some of the scientists deflated.
"No tests," agreed the delegate. "I give you my word."
Andros and Ash were taken to a laboratory that seemed to be built for the study of children. The atmosphere was colorful, if sterile, and a number of toys were set out on the floor. Andros knew just by looking what each toy was meant to do, but he wondered if Ash show that same level of understanding.
The scientists made them both nervous with their whispering and clustering, and finally Andros said something to their delegate, who now had a name.
"Ambassador Leis, can we cut down on the number of people in here? I don't want her overwhelmed."
Leis was quick to comply, sending all but two of the scientists away. The others left in a sulk. Ash began to relax a little.
"I hope that will be more comfortable," said Leis in his formal manner. "Now perhaps we can discuss the history of the venator on our planet."
One scientist darted forward. "Ash, would you like to come with me?" she chirped, sticking her hand out. Ash looked at Andros in alarm, but then the play-value of those toys began to sink in. She went with the scientists willingly.
"I will tell you everything we know," said Ambassador Leis, looking for a place to sit. All he could find was a pair of tiny, red chairs with big yellow flowers on the seat. Andros smothered a grin as they sat down.
Leis began to read from a data pad in his hand. "Here we are...the venator was first discovered several years ago, when a group of young people went missing in their favorite cave. Weeks of searching turned up nothing, and then they mysteriously re-appeared with no memory of their adventure. Their last clear memories all revolved around being separated from their friends, and then attacked by a scorpion-like creature."
"Like what happened to the other Rangers and I."
"Yes, your testimony is helping us piece together the situation, for you are the only one to have survived unscathed. Before that first encounter seven years ago, no one had ever seen such a creature in those caves. When the missing youths returned, there was public outcry, and an organization was set up to exterminate the creature; but there was never any proof that their efforts worked. As far as we knew, she was still in there somewhere."
"So," Andros interrupted. "When the kids came back, were they clones like Ash, or can I expect my friends to suddenly free themselves in a little while?"
"Those youths were not clones like Ash. Specialized DNA testing assured us they were the same people who went missing before, but no one ever knew why they had gone missing. Now it appears, with the knowledge of what happened to your friends after meeting the venator, that they too were going through part of its life cycle."
"I know, you said my friends are probably going to be dinner for the venator's offspring. But the offspring is right over there and she doesn't look like she's ready to devour a human being. Besides, those other kids eventually came back..."
Leis glanced over to Ash, playing a mirror game with the scientists. "This is true. We don't yet know what role Ash and her siblings play in all of this. But the more we learn from her, the closer we will get to our answers."
Alarm bells went off in Andros's mind. "What are you saying? You want to run tests on her after all? I've performed every test I'm capable of on the Megaship, and the information is already in your computers. What more do you want?"
"We would like to study her long-term; see how she develops as a sentient being, and perhaps learn how we can protect ourselves from the venator's species."
Now Andros was fully apalled. "You can't expect me to leave her here, in your lab, with no one but those creepy scientists to stare at her! She may have had a bug for a mom, but next to that, I'm her family. Your people don't even have sex, how will she ever learn how to be a human being?"
Leis was stonefaced. "Are you going to teach her about sex, Red Ranger?"
"That's not what I meant, Ambassador..."
"What kind of life can you give her then? A life on a spaceship, with a bunch of danger-seeking youths? How will she learn to have her own identity, if one of her shipmates has the same face and name as she?"
He had a point, even though Andros could not admit it. "Ash is coming back to the Megaship with me," he said. "At this point, I decide what's best for her until she gains enough wisdom to decide for herself."
"Children sometimes make mistakes," said Leis in a poignant way.
But they were both interrupted by a loud curse from the forest of toys. One of the scientists was clutching his hand gingerly, and the other was staring at Ash in surprise. Ash had both arms crossed over her chest protectively. Andros's chair toppled when he stood.
"What are you doing??" he demanded, charging up and putting himself between Ash and the others.
"Nothing," said the woman. "We simply had her show us some bruising on her abdominal area."
"Did it ever occur to you that she wouldn't like to be touched there?"
Neither of them had an answer, and the man left to disinfect his hand. Andros drew Ash to her feet. "We're leaving Ambassador. Ash is not coming back."
"Please, consider one final offer..." Leis began.
"Make it quick."
"Will you agree to take Ash back to the caves, accompanied by an armed security detail to protect you? Seeing her in the venator's environment might provide us with clues we need."
Andros looked at the auburn-haired clone, whose eyes reflected shame from the invasion a moment ago. She was attatched to his hand again, gripping with brute force, and keeping her head low. A classic, and understandable fear response.
"I can't put her through that," he finally said.
"You are looking out for her best interests, I know, but--"
"No buts!" he shouted. "I'm taking her back to the ship to wait for those cocoons to open, then me and my friends are leaving. That's all there is to it."
And with that he turned and stalked out, hurrying the girl along with him. Leis could only watch them go, his stoic politician's face belying his frustration.
That evening, Andros sat in the Jump Bay watching Ash play. She lay on her back on the floor, twisting bits of wire into shapes she knew. Everytime he looked at her he could practically see her learning; growing and changing into a proper human being. In a very short time she would be going through all the stages of childhood. How could Andros be responsible for that? He did not want to be a father. He did not want the weight of cultivating an intellect on his shoulders. There was no place for Ash in his life, and yet he couldn't ship her off to be studied like some mutant mushroom. Her future was so close at hand, and he was nowhere near ready for it.
"Andros," she said, startling him awake.
"Can I go?"
Her skillful use of language made him blink in surprise, but he went along with it.
This time she didn't have words this time to describe what she wanted, so she just got up and left. He pried himself up and followed, letting her lead him to the Infirmary where she still slept these days. She passed her bed, walked to the far end of the room, and put her hand on the speciment cabinet. The mother venator's corpse was in there.
Andros couldn't believe she knew. She had been asleep when he put the little body in there. Warily he punched the code and opened the closet, and there sat the big glass container with the venator pickling inside. Ash stared expressionlessly. The curve of the glass magnified parts of the mother's corpse; legs and tail scales swelled surreally before their eyes. Ash didn't seem repulsed, but drawn to the ugly thing instead. Her hand darted for the lid...
"Hey, no!" Andros cried, catching her arm. She jerked in surprise at his tone. That was the second time today she heard him raise his voice to somebody.
"I'm sorry, but you can't open that," he explained more gently. "You don't want to smell what's in there."
She wrinkled her nose, but continued to stare at the pickled speciment with interest. Andros got an idea.
Instead of letting her play with the squishy dead body, he lead her to another room where he often watched video of fights. Calling up DECA's RAM memory, he found footage of the mother venator when she was still alive, following Andros around the ship. Ash grinned widely when she saw this.
They watched footage together for a long time, Ash quickly learning to work the controls. She would watch a minute of tape, then roll back, watch another bit, then roll further back again. Pretty soon the screen went very dark, and became DECA's sensor footage from inside the caves.
"Oh..!" shouted the girl in excitment. She pounded the screen with her fingers, trying to form a word. She seemed to recognize the caves.
"What? What do you wanna say?" he urged, watching her rack her brain for language.
"Mmmm....." she hummed as she tried to think. "Lets go...Andros, go with me!"
"You want to go to the caves?"
She nodded vigorously, but she still hadn't found her word. Andros tried to jog her memory. "You wanna go back? Back to the planet? To Wrorick?"
"Yes, yes..!" she cried in frustration. Then her eyes lit as she hit on the word to describe what she felt inside.
"Andros, lets go home," she said.
We are home... his brain insisted. But that obviously wasn't what Ash thought. "The caves are your home? The ship isn't your home?"
She nodded, then shook her head, then frowned at him and pounded the screen again. She knew he understood was she was communicating; she just didn't understand the holdup.
He took a deep breath and clutched her hands to still them. "Ash, we can't go to the caves right now, it's getting close to night time."
"Tomorrow, the caves," she ordered. Andros sighed again.
"Alright, tomorrrow we'll do the caves. But we have to take scientists with us. Understand?"
She gave him a look what said 'what-ever', and then threw her arms around his neck gratefully. Sometime over the course of her short life, she had learned to give hugs.
He nearly recoiled from her attack, but caught himself in time and let her hold him. He hadn't let himself do this until now, and thankfully Ash hadn't given him reason...hugging her was too much like holding Ashley--the real Ashley--and the thought of her was torture. Even as he grew to know this clone, he missed Ashley terribly, wishing he had her support and positive energy with him now. As close as Ash came in appearance, no one could replace the Yellow Ranger.
Andros was finally released and Ash left quickly on her own. He would find her later and make sure she went to sleep, but right now he had a call to make.
On the bridge, he waited for Ambassador Leis to appear on the screen.
"Ah, Andros, what prompts you to call at this time of the evening?" His tone was polite, but Andros knew he was getting satisfaction out of this. Andros had come crawling back.
"Ambassador, Ash has expressed interest in going to the caves after all. If you have your entourage ready in the morning, she and I will come with you."
"Splendid. I'm glad you reconsidered. We will be waiting for you tomorrow at the cave entrance, with a research team and an armed guard. If there are more venators alive in the cave, we will be well protected."
"Thanks. See you tomorrow..." Andros reached for the cutoff switch.
"I look forward to it," Leis smiled.
Andros cut the channel and chewed the inside of his cheek. "Ugly smeg," he muttered, and went to look for Ash. When he found her, she was in the Infirmary...fast asleep. Unlike most children looking forward to something, she was aware that the sooner you went to bed, the sooner morning came.
Now the two of them stood outside the cave amidst dozens of women and men, who wore orange jumpsuits and carried powerful weaponry. No way would he let them come near her with those things. Only Leis and the scientists were allowed close.
"Is she ready?" Leis asked as he approached the pair. Andros looked at her, dressed in a desert-toned environment suit and playing with her very own palmlight. "Ash, you ready?"
She looked up brightly. "Ready."
Leis was taken aback, but showed it as little as possible. He gestured toward the formation of guards. "If you'll take your places please..."
Slowly, the swarm of people filtered into the darkness of the caves.
Andros kept Ash with him the whole time, but once again her mind went elsewhere, taking in everything that passed before her senses. The palmlight hung from its cord at her side. She didn't seem to need it to get the full experience.
"We are approaching the cocoon chamber," announced Leis, even though they were fully aware of it. Moist rock walls slid past until the chamber opened out before them.
"Take a look, Ash," Andros encouraged. She mutely complied, drifting towards the four cocoons with senses flared. Andros was spellbound as he watched her interact with them, prodding their rubbery surface with her hands. The guards waited in a protective semi-circle, their own senses on alert. Finally Leis broke the silence by crunching over to Andros and murmuring to him, "Do the cocoons appear any different to you?"
Andros took a look, then nodded. "Yes, they seem more brittle than before."
He kept his voice low so as not to disturb things. "When Ash is finished examining them, I would like to check your freinds' life signs. Perhaps they are almost ready to be freed."
With a silent nod, Andros moved forward and reached out his hand. Ash jumped at his touch. "The scientists want to look too. Come over here and wait for them ok?"
"Look," she said, ignoring his request and pointing to the cocoon above them. Behind the membrane was Ashley. "She looks like you doesn't she?" Andros said. Ash only nodded and let herself be lead away.
The scientists moved in, unholstering a wide array of probes and testing devices. They poked and jabbed and monitored, recording every bit of information they could, and comparing it with what Andros had learned before. For his part, Andros waited impatiently, clenching and unclenching his fists while they came up with an answer. Above, the Rangers slept, oblivious to it all.
Finally one woman in a white coat turned to address them all. "The Power Rangers are in stable health and are almost completely free of the cocoon's support system." A sense of relief washed through those assembled. "We estimate they can be cut down in a matter of hours."
"Excellent, Doctor Pajot," Leis praised proudly. "It shall be done. Meanwhile, Ash may spend as much time as she wants with them, correct?"
They all looked around for Ash, who hadn't been heard from in a few minutes. She was standing at the edge of the guard circle, a pained look on her face.
"Ash, what's wrong?" asked Andros, starting towards her reflexively. But to his surprise she shrank back from him. The guards gave way.
"What is wrong with her?" Leis wanted to know. He watched in puzzlement as she wraped both arms across her abdomen, and gave a long whimper of discomfort.
Alarm gripped the Red Ranger's heart. "Hold her," he said. "Something's making her sick." But before anyone got close again, she bolted like a rabbit, dashing into the dark of the next tunnel.
"Ash, no!!" he shouted after her.
"Follow her, quickly!" Leis ordered. The guards gathered themselves up and tramped in formation into the dark.
The caves began to ring with voices shouting her name. "Ash! Where are you? Don't hide from us, please!" Deeper and deeper they searched, fanning out into every passage and chamber that was big enough for them to fit through.
While all this went on, Andros ran into Doctor Pajot, the short, redhaired scientist from before. She pulled him aside and looked him straight in the eye.
"Red Ranger, you mentioned in your report about a superfluous organ; the stomach chamber Ash does not use."
"Yes, what about it?" he answered distractedly. A million worries were clouding his mind at the moment, he could just see Ash taking a fall of the lake cliff and splitting her head open on the bottom.
"Did you do a detailed study of what the stomach could do?"
"No, I didn't. There wasn't time"
"Well it's obviously the area that's giving her trouble. You saw her hug it protectively just before she ran off."
"Well as soon as we find her, we can figure it out. How does that sound?" His sharp tone made Pajot scowl.
But the scowl vanished when a shout went up from the point-man. "Sirs, we've found her! A chamber just ahead!"
Andros forgot about the doctor and pushed past everyone in his way. He ducked through a low passage and came up in a little round room that formed a dead-end for them. Ash was curled against the far wall.
"Ash...hey, are you okay...?" He dropped to a crouch and tried to come near, but her sharp glance told him no; no one was to venture closer. Leis arrived at that moment to see what was going on. "Red Ranger, is she..?"
"Shhh!" Andros hissed. He was looking her over from top to bottom. Her whole form trembled as she lay on the ground, sweat sheening her brow and whimpers of pain coming from her throat. She still hugged her stomach, as though trying to hold something in. Perhaps Doctor Pajot had been onto something after all.
"Ash listen to me," Andros soothed. "Everything's gonna be ok. I know you're scared, but we're gonna take care of you..."
A louder cry made them all cringe. Pain rippled visibly through the girl's body. She had no understanding of why she was in such anguish, but Andros had no power to stop it. None of them did.
Something began to happen, and Ash's whimpers became strangled screams. Before the group's disturbed eyes, something began pushing its way out from the inside. She fought with it as long as she could, but there came the sound of tearing cloth and flesh, and her face froze in a wide-eyed look of horror. Blood gushed over her arms. Something black, bloodsoaked, and insectoid nosed its way through the rip it had made, and slid out onto the ground dragging strings of flesh with it.
A new venator was born, this time a perfect likeness of its mother.
Horrified and shaking, Andros watched the disgusting birth. Ash was clearly dead now; her lifeless shell lay quiet, never to smile or speak again. Meanwhile the newborn venator found strength in its legs, and got up to crawl around for the first time. It took little notice of the people nearby; it simply did its thing, training its many legs to work in harmony for locomotion. Fluid oozed from its mouthparts as it washed itself of Ash's blood. Andros swallowed the urge to vomit in anguish.
The young venator finally took a glance around, waving its forelegs at the crowd. Ambassador Leis swallowed and took a step away. The guards held their ground, but looked a little green in the face. Doctor Pajot and her team kept clinically composed, but the weight of what had taken place did not escape them. No one tried to console the Red Ranger. He simply locked gazes with the venator and stared it down, eyes full of pain and confusion.
Casually, the venator turned to Ash's corpse, and tore off a piece of flesh with its mouth.
"You son of a bitch...!" Andros cried, unholstering his Astro Blaster.
"No wait!" yelped Doctor Pajot. She restrained Andros's arm. "I know what's happening. This is what was meant to be."
"It can't be..." Andros moaned.
"It is," she replied. "We have seen the entire life cycle now. The venator attacked you and your friends, took samples of your DNA, and used them to clone offspring like Ash and her siblings. They were never meant to be anything but fodder for the young venators growing inside. If not for you, Ash would have simply lain in the cave until this creature hatched. She was never meant to learn, or speak, or interact as you allowed her to do."
It all seemed inconceivably cruel, but it also rang true.
"Your friends in the chamber back there were never in danger. The true offspring always had its clone host to eat. These creatures have taken nothing that wasn't theirs."
Andros finally brought his bitter eyes to rest on her. "That's what they think," he said, and left the chamber in a hurry, shoving past Leis and giving no one a moment more of his time. The Wrorickans were left to listen to the soft sounds of flesh being consumed. A few hours after Ash's death, Andros still hadn't left the cave. He had fled far from the others to the glassy lake, where he sat on the cliff and cried. Someone had to, after all. Ash had no one else to shed the tears of mourning.
As always, his pain tied back to his childhood in the end, and the early trauma of losing Karone. He had been only a boy then, with no real power to prevent Darkonda from doing his deed. This time he was a man, with another life in his charge, and had been powerless to stop the forces of nature from taking that life away. What lesson was fate trying to teach, and when would he learn it so girls could stop dying?
His intellect reminded him that he had had no business with Ash in the first place. If he'd killed the mother when he had the chance, he would never have come across her, nor the clones of himself and his other friends. Yet he made his choices, and thus life took its course, bringing him to the here and now with his sadness to confront. Someday he would get over the pain of losing her, but that day was very far away.
The crunch of footsteps drifted up the passage to him. He sniffed back quickly and smeared the tears from his eyes, waiting for whoever it was to arrive. It had better not be Leis, he thought privately.
"Red Ranger?" called Doctor Pajot. She ventured no further than the chamber entrance.
"What is it?" Andros replied.
"We're preparing to break the cocoons. We thought you'd want to be present for that."
He let her stare at his back for a moment before making any move to join her. "They're ready to come out?"
"Yes, there is already some movement happening."
Andros got up and turned, keeping his head low. "Lead the way," he said, and Pajot started off, giving him the privacy of walking behind. As they made their way back he let all traces of tears vanish. He would need to reassure the others once they woke up.
"Alright, start with the one on the left, and go slowly," Pajot ordered. "Keep the resuscitation team close. Let's get these people free."
One by one, Andros helped cut open the brittle membranes, which now broke easily beneath their hands. No tools were needed to get TJ free, and when he was, they carefully lowered him to the ground. Someone tugged the long umbilical cord from his throat. He began to cough and choke immediately, breathing on his own for the first time in days, and Andros was there when he opened his eyes.
"TJ...take it easy, you're alright now. Concentrate on trying to breathe."
TJ did his friend suggested, but kept a wary eye on the strangers all around. Finally he asked, "You wanna fill me in on all of this?"
"In a little while. We have to get the others down first, then I'll explain everything. Just sit tight and relax." The Blue Ranger nodded and settled back to watch as his other friends were cut down from their suspended sleeping bags. Cassie came next, then Carlos. The last one, Andros did almost by himself.
He grabbed a fistful of the membrane and pulled, ripping a nice big hole in the cocoon near Ashley's face. Her eyes were closed, and she appeared to be sleeping--much more peaceful a face than Ash wore when she died. Bit by bit the cocoon came loose, and two other people kept her from falling until she was free. Then down she came into Andros's waiting arms. He took the liberty of pulling out the umbilical cord, then waited for her eyes to open.
"Ashley its me," he offered. "Wake up. You'll be okay now..." In response, she made a bit of noise and her facial muscles twitched. She blinked awake, staring at plain wall until she realized Andros's face was right there.
"What happened?" she asked hoarsely. "I was just looking for Carlos..."
"I'll explain everything in a little while. How do you feel?"
"Alright, I guess. My throat hurts, and...oh God, I'm hungry..." She expended some energy to sit up, but was happy to let Andros keep her close. Then something made Andros squirm when her eyes guaged him for the first time.
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine.." he answered. "Really." Ashley didn't have to look twice to know he was lying, but she also seemed to understand he didn't want to talk about it here. There would be a time for it later.
"How long has it been then?"
"Almost three weeks. We've been waiting for your cocoons to loosen up before we could get you free. You're all perfectly healthy now."
"And in need of showers...yech," she said, in disgust of her condition.
Doctor Pajot walked over after checking on the others. "Excuse me Andros...hello Ashley, I'm Doctor Pajot. Do you mind if I give you a quick examination?"
Ashley lay back obediently to be looked over. With a squeeze of Andros's hand, she remarked, "Made some new friends while we were gone, huh?"
Somewhere in the back of his mind rang the sound of Ash's laughter. "Yeah you could say that," he whispered. He wished Ashley could have met the friend he had made.