It had taken her completely by surprise, just over a week ago. Suddenly he didn't have time to talk, or play pool at Adelle's, or even do maintenance work with her. He didn't seem angry with her, just...disinterested. After a few days of pushing for attention, she stopped, embarrassed with herself. She began to question the others incessantly, hoping they had some insight about what she had done wrong...but they knew nothing. It wasn't until she asked Zhane that her depression really set in. He said that Andros was "going through a tough time right now", and that she might have to stay away for a little while. For both their sakes.
Ashley questioned no more. That was it. Her relationship with Andros was ending, no matter how delicately Zhane chose to put it.
By now she had stopped trying to justify it. Cassie had told her not to. Ashley hadn't done anything wrong, she and Andros just weren't meant to be together--only time could have told that. Now all that was left was to make it official--cut a clean break so they could move on with their lives. Maybe she'd do that today--if she didn't let hope distract her when he said 'Good Morning'.
With an aura as grey as everything else on the Megaship, Ashley headed for the bridge.
Andros was there, to her discomfort, working at the rear control deck. Zhane was there also, sitting stiffly in the command chair. The others must already be off at work. What time was it anyway..?
"Where have you been?" came a sharp query. Andros was twisted around to greet her with a less-than-welcoming glare. Ashley's stomach contorted. What had she done now?
"Sorry, I haven't been sleeping well," she explained, evading his gaze.
"That's not an excuse," he scolded soundly. "We start work at oh-eight-hundred sharp, so we can be ready for monster attacks later in the day. How hard is it to do that?"
"I said I was sorry!" she snapped, taking her station and hoping the interrogation could end. Unfortunately, Andros chose that time to unload all his issues on her in the form of a long, drawn out ultimatum. She was soon on the verge of tears, barely hearing a word he said. And all the while, Zhane just sat there looking subdued, as though he were scared to intervene. Was everyone afraid of Andros lately?
Finally there came a break in the lecture through which she could escape.
"It won't happen again ok? I'm sorry!"
She snatched up the nearest repair tool and rushed for the door, turning her face away so they couldn't see she was crying. Once free of Andros's oppressive eyes, she forgot everything and started looking for a place to hide. She had to cry this out. Then maybe she could get on with her day like nothing had happened.
But footsteps were coming after her. She heard Zhane calling out for her to wait, and her heart sank because she knew she could hold back these tears no longer.
"What do you want?" she asked, voice wobbling.
He caught up with her, and found she would not meet his gaze.
"Are you ok?" he asked delicately.
"Zhane, I...no, I'm not OK! I'm as far from OK as I have ever been, thank you for noticing!"
Anger seemed to ward off her tears, but it made the Silver Ranger flinch.
"I'm sorry..." he began again. "Look, Ashley, he was way out of line back there. Don't take it so personally..."
She gave him an incredulous stare. "How am I supposed to take it??"
"You have every right to be angry! Just understand his point of view--I told you he's going through something and probably isn't thinking about anyone else's feelings right now."
"Well if this is what happens when he's going through something, maybe it's better we had nothing to do with each other."
"Ashley no!" Zhane cried. "He's not himself...!"
"I don't care who he is, I can't take this kind of abuse any more!"
There came a moment of tense silence, when neither seemed to know what to say. Finally Zhane began to plead calmly.
"Take some time off," he said, with a gentle squeeze of her arm. "I'll clear it with Andros, you just get your butt back home. In fact, I'll suggest it to the others, it'll give things a chance to blow over. Take Karone with you too."
"What about monster attacks?"
"Andros and I used to get the job done on our own. We'll be fine. Trust me."
He physically turned her around and pushed her gently down the hall. "Don't argue, just get packed and get out of here. The sooner the better..."
Those last four words sounded strangely urgent. They made Ashley look back, but he just waved her on with a smile. He would listen to no more protests, and left her there in the hallway with nothing to do but what he suggested.
One mental shrug later, she was heading for her quarters to pack.
When she emerged, she wore bright civilian clothes in place of her lead-grey flightsuit. Her Nike bag was packed and slung over her shoulder, and she headed for the Jump Bay to leave the ship. There was no need to say goodbye, the others knew where she was going. They probably knew why too.
But as she neared the Jump Bay, she thought she heard faint voices ahead. They came from just around the bend beyond the doorway, and they belonged to Andros and Zhane. Even before she could hear their words, she could tell they were arguing.
"Of all the stupid things to do!" Andros yelled. "Why didn't you ask me first??"
"I was going to! Really! I just thought she'd want to get out of here right away. You didn't have to chew the others out like that..."
They continued bickering in that manner, and something inside Ashley told her to eavesdrop. Perhaps she hoped Zhane would win the argument, and she would at least have the satisfaction of knowing Andros got his just desserts. She hid in the doorway and listened.
"I hope you're happy when the next monster grinds us into asteroid dust, and they don't even hear about it 'till its too late."
"We just had our monster of the week, we afford the loss for a few days."
"I still can't believe you sent Karone away. She doesn't know how to behave on Earth, she shouldn't be there without me..."
Zhane's reply was thick with tension. "They could all use the vacation time Andros. Especially if it gets them away from you..."
The argument stopped cold. Smoldering silence ensued. Ashley half expected to hear them start pounding each others' heads in, but Andros simply said, "I'll deal with this later," and stormed away. Zhane was heard to give a deep sigh, then his footsteps went in the opposite direction, at no leisurely pace.
Ashley slipped back inside the Jump Bay, and leaned against the wall. As expected, it felt good to hear Andros back down, but the feeling was overshadowed by her growing concern for the team. Now it seemed Andros had alienated them all. Was this the end of their time together? Was this the last time she'd ever set foot on the Megaship as the Yellow Ranger?
She took the steps to the Jump Deck and glanced slowly around. She said goodbye to the Synthetron and the rest of the ship just in case she never saw them again, then she flung her luggage down and dove in after. It was time to seek refuge in a place where she was welcome.
Instead, she cruised her own neighborhood, admiring the other fancy mansions lining the smooth street. When she tired of that she went to the mall, but oddly enough bought nothing. She still couldn't find satisfaction with the way she looked. No sense aggravating that feeling by trying on clothes.
Boredom set in around mid afternoon. It persisted for the rest of the day until Ashley decided to give up and go home. When her father arrived she would just explain she was home for a few days, and then convince him to take her to the movies. That would be an appropriate distraction. She sulked out of the mall just as the sun was setting.
The walk home was a short one--no need to endure a chatty cab driver on the way. She tugged her sweater a bit tighter around herself, and strolled down the palm lined avenue feeing sorry for herself.
If her senses detected movement in the hedge, her subconscious quickly dismissed it. She was completely unprepared when an iron hand grabbed her arm and another clamped over her mouth. She didn't have time to scream...
Her attacker dragged her behind the bushes, and a sense of panic came and went leaving adrenaline behind. Ashley smashed her foot down to crush the hoodlum's toe, but he snatched it out of the way first. In reply, he shook her forcefully and hissed 'Shhhh!' in her ear. The voice was familiar... She looked down and saw a silver communicator on her captor's wrist.
Zhane let go, and turned her around to face him. He was dressed all dark, and his eyes were wary.
'Not a word..' he mouthed. She nodded dumbly, bewildered by the situation. Still holding her arm, he pulled her deeper into the foliage and then pointed through the hedge towards the next lawn. It was Ashley's own lawn, with its little stone walkway bordered by thick ferns. One could barely make out, in this light, a figure crouched in the foliage.
Ashley turned to Zhane and mouthed 'Who?'
Zhane looked grim. 'Andros,' he replied.
They played a waiting game for the next forty five minutes. Not a word was spoken, so Ashley learned no more about what was happening. Zhane had begged with a glance to for her to simply trust him.
So they sat in the bushes feeling chilled and foolish, watching the tiny movements Andros made. He too wore all black, including a hooded sweatshirt so they could not see his face. But every so often he lifted an arm to scratch his cheek, and they saw the flash of red on his wrist.
Every time a car or pedestrian came along, Andros froze, and all but vanished in the dark. But Zhane seemed unconcerned, so Ashley got the idea that Andros was waiting for her. Little did he know she wasn't going to show up.
The cool of night soon set in. Ashley was pondering getting Zhane to put his arm around her, when a car approached from the direction of downtown. It pulled into the driveway, flashing its headlights in Zhane and Ashley's eyes, blinding them quite thoroughly. A sudden surge of fear washed through Ashley's mind when she realized it was her father, and he was in danger.
Before she could break cover, Zhane's hands fell on her shoulders. He would not let her go till they were sure Mr. Hammond needed help.
Thankfully, Ashley's dad made it safely inside the house without so much as a twitch from Andros. Their sight returning, Ashley and Zhane were astonished to see him stand up, peel back his hood to show his face again, and make his way to the street where he simply walked away. They watched him for a good long time till he was out of sight. Then there was a flash of red as he teleported into the sky.
Zhane sat back with a whump and rubbed his eyes. "Am I glad that's over..."
All of Ashley's questions flooded back. "Can we go someplace and talk?"
They stood, stretched their aching bodies, and started walking.
A clean little Waffle House was where they sought refuge. Zhane nursed a hot coffee while he told Ashley what he knew. The story was frightening.
"So this Impostor, this doppleganger, has been on the ship for over a week now, impersonating Andros down to the last detail. As near as I can tell, he's trying to get close to Karone, maybe to punish her for the crimes of Astronema. Its probably someone she hurt while she was still evil."
"How do you know all this?" Ashley asked.
"Karone and I have been piecing it together. He's done enough strange stuff over the past week to get us suspicious, and this is the theory that seemed most likely."
Ashley hugged her steaming mocha. "A doppleganger."
Zhane nodded. She seemed to lose touch with him for a moment, and he watched a progression of emotions cross her face.
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah fine..." she sighed. "It's just...this past week..."
"I know," he said, touching her hand. "He put you through hell. I would have tried to stop it if I didn't think I'd scare him off and blow his cover..."
"I understand...you did the right thing." She shared with him the smile of relief she was feeling. He was warmed by it.
"Anyway," he went on, "I'm still not sure what's happened to our Andros, but I think I know when the switch was made."
He took her back in time eight days, to their last trip to the beach. It was one of Karone's first forays into Earth society. They had come from Adelle's after teaching her about cheeseburgers, and were regrouping at the pier with their swimsuits on. Andros was the last to join them, emerging from the cabana rubbing his stomach. The first thing he said was how he could sure use some lunch.
"Of course!" said Ashley. "He must have been replaced when he went into the cabana where we couldn't see him."
"And the Impostor was too busy preparing the switch to have noticed we had eaten already. He came out thinking Andros should be getting hungry soon."
"Which means..." Ashley pondered. "..that the Impostor is using a body of his own, and he hasn't just taken over Andros's."
"Yep...but we still have to find out where he put the real Andros...and we've got our work cut out for us."
Ashley sighed, jamming her chin in her hand. "You looked everywhere for the others?"
"Everywhere. He must have gotten to them before he came for you."
"No, she's hiding. Somewhere I hope Andros...er, the Impostor, won't find her."
"Don't tell me where, just in case he...you know...gets me."
"So what now?"
"Retake the Megaship. It'll take us weeks to find the others without DECA's scanning equipment."
Ashley licked her lips and frowned. "And you propose we do this how? We can't just waltz back up there and say we forgot something. It's too late to keep pretending we don't know who he is... He may look like Andros, but we don't know what he's capable of."
Zhane dismissed her worries confidently. "If my idea works, we'll have someone very powerful on our side."
She frowned deeper. "Like who?"
Before he could explain, the waitress interrupted them with a cheery, "Would anyone like some more coffee?"
Ashley looked at Zhane. He shook his head, then jerked it towards the door.
"No thanks, we'd better get going," Ashley replied. The waitress flashed her waitress smile and chirped "Have a nice evening."
"You too," they said.
As Zhane and Ashley left the restaurant, the Yellow Ranger muttered, "It's gonna be a long one.."
"Where are we going?" Ashley queried anyway.
"We're not there yet," was Zhane's only reply. On they went, through the downtown, turning North once they smelled the ocean. Ashley grabbed his arm, realizing they were headed for the unfriendly warehouse district.
"Don't worry, we're just losing some excess baggage there."
Ashley scowled. His cryptic replies were getting on her nerves; but she didn't press him further because he had a certain look in his eyes... He was watching for something; aware of every vibration in the vicinity. She bet they were being followed, and perhaps listened-to as well. No need to make him divulge his plan to enemy ears.
But all three Karovans had been told time and again what parts of town to avoid. Now Zhane seemed to be leading them in circles; deliberately lingering in Angel Grove's ass-half for longer than necessary. Ashley gave him a look that said 'This better be important,' and then stuck as close to him as she could without tripping them.
Finally, they wandered out of the Warehouse District, crossed the bay via the train bridge, and slipped back into the civilized part of town. Commercial high-rises and department stores lit up the nighttime streets, warming Ashley with their familiarity. Zhane led her down the street to Gowing's Fine Furnishings, opened the door, and ushered her inside.
She blinked in the flourescent light. "Ok, we got our exercise, now what was that all about?"
He explained, "The Impostor had a chance to catch us again when we left the Waffle House. If he was following us, we lost him among the warehouses. Now when he realizes we've gotten away, he'll go back up to the ship and start scanning for us, but its too late for that."
He took her towards the back of the store, watching for stray employees. "There's a microwave tower on top of this building, and some electronics on an upper floor. Our communicator signals will be masked from the sensors."
"So...what are we doing here?"
"We're here to get Karone."
They descended to the basement, dodging security guards, and slipped through the dusty maze of halls beneath the building. There was an office with the faded word "Security" printed on the door. Zhane pulled Ashley inside. There didn't seem to be anyone there.
"Well Ashley," Zhane said in a loud voice. "Looks like its just you and me here..."
She frowned at him and started to reply, but was interrupted by a flash of lavender. Before their eyes, Karone dropped down from the open ceiling, and holstered an Astro Blaster in her waistband.
"Am I glad to see you two," she said, giving them both a sincere hug. Behind her were a day's worth of cans, wrappers, and food remains that had sustained her here all day.
Zhane lingered in her arms for a moment. "Are you ok? Did anyone find you?"
Karone shook her head. "No one but the rats."
In the background they could here the incessant sound of rodents going about their business. Zhane made a face. "Hopefully we won't need this place anymore. It's time to go back to the ship."
"Did you find the others?"
He looked remorseful as he shook his head. Karone just sighed. She brought herself close to him in support and they touched foreheads for a moment or two. Ashley watched their silent exchange, wondering when these two got quite so physically comfortable. She also found herself wishing Andros were here to support her the same...
Zhane shook himself back to reality. "Get your gear on, I'll wait outside." He slipped out of the room and Ashley looked at Karone. "Gear?"
With a nervous smile, Karone threw back a dust cloth to reveal the Astronema costume, laid out carefully on the desk. Ashley's jaw hit the floor.
"I'm no actress," said the little blond Karovan. "But I know this role better than anyone."
Ashley picked up a five-inch-heeled boot as Karone began to strip. "Where did you get these? I thought they were destroyed when..."
"Not both suits. This is the one I wore when I defected the first time."
"What are you going to do in it?"
"I'm going to give the Impostor more than he bargained for. He came here to kill Karone. Instead, he'll have on take on Astronema."
"He won't believe you," said Ashley. "Everyone knows what happened to Astronema."
Karone was wriggling into the suit piece by piece. She took the boot from Ashley. "You're right, everyone knows what Zordon did, and this guy will be no exception. I don't know who he is or where he's from, but I probably did something horrible to his people back when I was conquering the galaxy. Right now the only card we have to play is his fear of what I was. I can work with that..."
She tugged on the other boot, and stood up to work the headpiece into her hair. She now had two full inches on Ashley.
"Lemme help," the Yellow Ranger offered, sitting Karone down before a small, dusty mirror on the wall. Outside, Zhane waited, listening to the sounds of the rats doing their thing.
"You're taking a big risk Karone.." Ashley sighed, piling blond tresses on top of her friend's head.
Karone wrung her hands. "I know, but there's no other choice, is there?"
The cold metal headpice was snapped into place, and there sat the Princess of Darkness. Astronema, in a slightly less-makeuped format.
"Scary..." whispered Karone to the mirror.
When Zhane looked in a moment later, his face registered the same thought.
"Come on," he said nervously, stuffing a garbage bag with all evidence of their presence. "We teleport straight from here, 'cause he'll detect it. Once we're there, we have to be ready for anything."
"You'd better morph before we go," suggested Karone.
"Hang on as sec..." mused Ashley, eyeing the desk again. This room was where the Security guards used to have their office. While the others looked at her questioningly, she padded over to the desk and opened the top drawer. A metal gleam rewarded her.
"What's in there?" Zhane asked.
Ashley turned around with a set of handcuffs dangling from each hand.
Karone realized what was about to happen. "Not again! The oldest trick in the book..."
Until DECA broke in.
"Two of the Rangers have returned," she reported.
A figure with dual-toned hair swiveled in his seat. "Who is it?"
"Ashley and Zhane. Karone is with them."
The figure froze, heart and mind racing. 'Of course, the Criminal and Yellow were with Silver all this time. He's been suspicious far too long. He must have hid the women at the same time I was hiding Black, Pink and Blue. But why return now? What are they planning?'
"Where are they, computer?"
"They are headed for the bridge."
"Well, seal the doors, I'm not ready!"
"Unable to com--" DECA's voice was cut off by a resounding BLAM! The MegaLift doors buckled inward, and smoke poured out.. The Impostor whirled.
"Hello again old friend..." purred the evil voice from his darkest dreams. "Did you miss me?"
There she stood in all her terrifying glory. Behind her, subdued and fearful, were the Silver and Yellow Rangers, bound by metal restraints. Andros's double felt his knees grow weak and his color drain. This couldn't be happening...
"What trickery is this??" he cried, in the human voice of Andros.
"I assure you, it's no trick," she smiled. "Just ask them."
The Yellow Ranger scowled murderously, but couldn't do anything more.
"No!" he cowered. "You're no longer Astronema, Zordon saw to that! Where are your Quantrons? Your Wrath Staff? You're nothing but a simple human now!"
"If only!" shouted Silver.
Astronema ignored him. "I may be human, but I'm far from simple. You see, I'll never forget my days as the Empress of Evil. And sometimes, I just feel like reminiscing..."
She began to circle around the rear control deck, coming to get him. He maintained his distance, circling the same way to keep the barrier between himself and her.
"Ah memories..." hissed the evil woman. "I remember you...your people..."
"NO!" he screamed. "Do not even speak the name of my people! Trelaya lies in ruins because of you!"
Astronema's eyes barely flickered at the mention of the planet's name. "Such a lovely world. So much life. Too bad it was between me and the Trelynne Scepter..."
"Bitch! May you die in the cold of space!"
One brow curved upward. "After you..."
All of a sudden, the two Rangers were upon him! He had all but forgotten them, and they took him by surprise as Astronema got his backed turned towards the Megalift. Before he knew it he was slammed down on the control bank and restrained by cold steel.
Yellow Ranger's voice was even colder. "Alright you bastard, its time to cough up some answers."
"Number one," said Silver, "Tell us where Andros and the other Rangers are."
Enraged and panicking, the Impostor cried, "You'll never find them! Not in your lifetime!"
Astronema took his face in her leather-clad hand. "It's me you want. Give them their answers. Maybe you'll get a chance to deal with me yourself."
His only reply was to spit at her. "One day someone will take my place, and deal with you for good..."
No one knew how to respond to that. If there had been time, they would have kept on dealing and threatening, but instead the Impostor sealed his own fate. He held his breath and closed his eyes, and suddenly Ashley and Zhane jerked away as if burned. With inhuman strength, the Impostor ripped apart the handcuffs and threw his arms in the air, letting out a ringing cry of triumph...
..and then the world flashed white-hot, and all became still...
Karone and the Rangers blinked their watering eyes. The Trelayan was no more. He had left only a scorch mark on the floor, and a cooked-flesh smell in the air around them.
The realization set in that he had taken his own life; become a Martyr for a cause that did not even exist. They still didn't know where Andros and the others were. Dead and gone already? There was no one left who knew.
Karone clutched her head in misery. "This can't be happening..."
Retreating to the center chair, she slumped into it, resting her head in trembling hands. Zhane was with her in an instant, trying to be positive. "Don't punish yourself for this...it wasn't your fault..." She hardly seemed to hear him, so he gathered her up in his arms. "We'll get him back somehow. I promise, Karone..." Stroking her tangled hair gently, he looked up at Ashley for support.
But Ashley could tell him nothing. She was almost out of hope as well. She wanted to curl up and cry alongside Karone.
Two sobbing women. That wouldn't do. Zhane was begging with his eyes for some of Ashley's strength, but all she could do was kick the nearest bulkhead and mutter,
A moment of silence came.
"Rats...?" sniffled Karone, lifting her head.
Sheer minutes later, they were running through the dusty catacomb of Gowings' basement, calling out their friends' names over and over again.
Each time they stopped to listen, they heard nothing but silence, and the ringing of their ears.
"It had to be them! There were no rats, it was them! This is the best hiding place in the city, The Impostor had to have put them here!!"
"Take it easy, Karone!" Ashley insisted.
Karone stopped to rub her temples and catch her breath. Silence was allowed to fall.
"Hey...what's that noise?" Zhane wondered aloud. The building wasn't silent after all; there was a machinery hum in the background.
Ashley cocked her head to the side. "It must be a boiler room."
"This way, I think I saw more stairs before!" Zhane took off down the hall. Ashley and Karone glanced at each other and followed.
"In here! I found them!!" Karone hollered. The noise from the boiler room was loud, but the gladness in her voice was unmistakable. Zhane and Ashley followed her into the dank vault and were relieved to see the faces of their four missing friends.
They were all tied to the tall boiler assembly; Cassie to a fluid drum at the bottom, TJ to a ladder just above, Carlos to a grate above the Blue Ranger and Andros to a thick pipe, as he stood on a catwalk above it all. They were all gagged, but when the Rangers first rushed in, they were still banging loudly on the nearest piece of equipment.
Cassie was the first to be ungagged. "What took you so long??" she cried. "I thought I was gonna run out of brain cells banging my head against this thing!"
"It's good to see you too," laughed Zhane as he untied her. Karone was already climbing the boiler to get to Andros. She stopped to untie Carlos on her way. Meanwhile, Ashley saw to TJ's ropes and then watched brother and sister reunite.
In a move only a sibling would think of, Karone left the gag on while she reached over Andros's head to free him from the pipe he was tied to. She worked at the knots while he stared at her, caught off-guard by the costume she was in. For her part, she had all but forgotten that she was Astronema today. Finally her brother was free to embrace her.
He ripped the gag off himself. "I am so glad to see you," he rasped, throat dry from lack of water.
"I messed up Andros," Karone confessed. "We almost didn't figure out where you were, until Ashley--"
"Ashley?" His eyes darted down to where the Yellow Ranger was throwing down TJ's binds. She had done it without looking, staring upwards the whole time. TJ took one look at them and shoved her towards the ladder. "Get up there, what are you waiting for?"
Andros let go of his sister and jumped the six feet to the deck below, landing with a bang! Ashley climbed the ladder three steps at a time, her footsteps resounding, and they met halfway between. In all her life, Ashley had never been snapped up into a hug as tight as that one.
Andros had been captive for six whole days, so he understandably didn't smell too good. And his arms were cold, since they'd been over his head so long with the blood draining out...but by golly, he was hugging her! Ashley's heart was full and brimming. She let him take a fistful of her hair and bury his face in her neck.
"You don't know how worried I've been..!" he murmured.
"I could say the same," she squeaked, realizing she was crying again. "You know its a bitch to have your boyfriend replaced by an alien on a revenge crusade?"
He pulled away to stare at her, confused, but she shook her head to show it didn't matter.
"What matters is you're you....and you're okay.....okay?"
"Okay.." he nodded, then kissed her on the lips. Ashley almost wished this happened more often....at least the reunion part. All doubts about his feelings were washed away in those few minutes they were together again.
The others gave them some time, then made their wishes clear. "How long are you guys gonna be?" Carlos complained.
"Yeah, I could eat a horse," Cassie chimed in. "So I don't even wanna think about how hungry Teej is."
TJ pretended to chew her arm until she fought him off, and the three of them began to joke and wrestle their stress away, bringing Zhane into the tussle as well. It had been a long day for everyone...
There was another bang as Karone dropped down from the catwalk. "I'm ready to go home," she said.
"Anywhere but here is fine with me," Andros agreed. "Er...not because of the company, that is."
"Nice save," said Ashley with a smile.