One of them, who went by the name of Zhane, sought refuge in the home of his best friend. It was blessedly cool indoors. The large back windows were open to the breeze which made the thin drapes flutter like birds' wings. Around him, crates and other makeshift furniture took the place of many years of decorating done by Andros and Karone's parents.
Andros, Karone and Zhane were living here now, returning the property to order after the Karovan War and KO-35's subsequent abandonment. Just three years earlier this place had been a lush home nestled in the dense forest, filled with many fascinating curiosities to spawn memories in the people who lived there. But now it was a barren, stripped place, looted and defaced by the invading armies. The gardens tended so lovingly by Andros's father were just pale smudges of dirt among the weeds. The furnishings were burned or stolen, the skyport was completely destroyed, and the great tree Zhane remembered at the foot of the walkway was now just a ragged, termite-infested stump, blown to shreds by bombing long ago.
Yet the place was not completely without hope. No real structural damage was done to the house; all it needed was a few new windows, some cleaning, painting, and a new host of furniture, and it would be good as new. The gardens would take time to come back, but with care, they would; and most of all Andros and Karone loved to be home. So many memories had come back to her when she saw the mild country dwelling she had been so long parted from. Things were almost perfect...
Zhane took a long sip of ginger water and let the breeze cool the sweat on his body. He would return to the ruins of the skyport in a little while; right now he needed a break from the sweltering heat and back-breaking work he was doing.
But at that moment his ears caught a faint sound behind the wind. It was little more than a vibration, which soon became a hum, and finally a muffled roar. A skycraft was coming. He saw it rise over the treeline close to the house and flash in the sun, then slowly descend towards the property. It passed out of sight over the rooftop, and a minute later the engines fell silent as it set down on the front lawn. Curious, Zhane headed for the front door to see who the visitor was.
From the shade of the porch, Zhane watched as a lone man headed up the walkway. Next to the ruined skyport sat his ship--a sleek white skysled with the markings of the New Karovan Government. Zhane descended the steps to meet the newcomer, soon recognizing him as one of the men he worked with back when the Rebels were in hiding.
"Dag, long time no see," Zhane laughed, clasping the man's arm.
"Too long, Zhane," replied Dag with a grin. "How are things out here in the peaceful countryside?"
Zhane rolled his eyes. "Almost too quiet. If it weren't for all the work to be done, we'd be climbing the walls."
"Well, it's good you're keeping busy. It's probably best the Red Ranger and his sister stayed out of the public eye a while longer huh?"
Zhane was forced to nod. "That's the truth. Karone still isn't used to living among friends. Once she's comfortable with us, she might be ready to face the people who aren't ready to forgive Astronema...but for now what we have here is what she needs."
Dag gave a nod. "Well all the best of luck to you. As to why I'm out here, we received something back at the Statehouse that gave us a bit of a start. It's for Andros."
He removed something white from his jacket. It was a paper envelope with writing on the front. Dag handed it to Zhane and waited to see his reaction.
Zhane gave it a double take in his surprise.
"Where did you get this??"
"It came in yesterday on a Triforian freight barge. They made a special stop at our spaceport to deliver it."
Zhane's mind raced a mile a minute. "I don't believe it. Of all the crazy things..."
"Thought you'd be pleased," grinned Dag in amusement. "Take care Zhane, I'll see you back in the city sometime."
"You got it man, thanks!"
Dag returned to his ship while Zhane tore back into the house.
"Karone! Come take a look at this!"
Karone emerged from one of the bedrooms wringing a rag in her hands. She was dressed in coveralls and speckled with white paint from her head to her toes.
"What's all the noise?" she asked.
"Look what arrived at the spaceport yesterday." He showed her the envelope, and the name written in the upper left corner.
"Oh my..." she clapped a hand over her mouth and snatched it. "Where is he?"
"In the back garden last I saw."
"I'll be right back ok? I've gotta take it to him!" With that, she flew out the back door, tearing the handkerchief off her head and letting her blond tresses fly in the wind of her speed. Through the bay windows Zhane watched her run, heading for the maze of wire fences that used to be the vegetable garden long ago.
"Andros! There's something here for you!" Karone cried, hopping the garden gate. At her call, her brother Andros looked up from his tilling to see what was the matter.
As much as he disliked heat, he had been determined to get the gardens back in shape as soon as possible. All that time spent outdoors had bronzed him quite thoroughly, and less and less could be seen of his dark hair streaks. Now he dusted off his hands and stood up as his sister reached him, clutching the paper envelope in her fingers.
"What is that?" he wanted to know.
"It came into the spaceport yesterday. It's a letter, Andros."
"A letter?" he repeated, taking it from her. He held it before him and read the name of the addresser. Then he read it again...and one more time.
He looked up at his sister in confusion, as if to ask any or all of the questions in his mind, but she only smiled, squeezed his arm and walked away, leaving him with his surprise.
Savagely, he tore open the envelope and began to walk towards the woods where the trees afforded a bit of shade. There were three sheets of paper folded together, and filled with neat, swirling handwriting. He almost couldn't read the first line for all the spinning in his mind.
April 20, '99
I'm praying this letter finds its way to you. If it does, thank the Triforian Commander who promised to deliver it the next time he swung by the Karova System. I don't know how long it will be from now until the time you read this, but I'm guessing it's been a while. Whatever the case, it was high time I wrote you.
Sitting down on a concrete block, Andros steadied himself to keep reading. His hands were trembling, his heart fluttering. This letter was from Ashley...
Well it's April here. As I'm writing this I'm sitting by the pool at home watching the moon set. Today was a scorcher, which is how it always is in springtime, you remember. I know how much you hate the heat so it's probably great to be so far away on KO-35 right now. What's the weather like there?
I can't tell you how much I miss you, Andros. I'm thinking about you every day now. Every time I turn around something reminds me of you. I don't know if you've wondered, but I haven't found anyone new since we last heard from each other. To be honest, Earth guys are pretty uninteresting after spending a year with you.
But I'm not trying to embarrass you here so I'll get to the point. I've been madly in love with you since the first day we met--you know that. When you finally told me you felt the same, it was almost too good to be true, and the time we spent together is time I'll never forget.
But also, sometimes, I couldn't help wondering if your feelings really were as deep as mine. I mean, I would never have said anything about it, but that's the way I felt. Maybe it's just my immature little insecurities talking, I don't know. Anyway, it ties in with the main reason I'm writing you.
As much as I loved us being together, your happiness is what I'm thinking about now. It's been so long, and I know how lonely I feel right now, so I can only wonder if maybe you've gone ahead and found someone new.
If you have, I bet she's wonderful. I bet you love her with all your heart. So, I'm writing to tell you, I'm going to let you go. You will always be the strongest love I've ever had, but I couldn't ask you to wait for me when we'll probably never cross paths again. If you've found someone new, I want you to love her with everything you've got, and not worry about me. We're both better off living in the present, not in the past.
Andros had to take a breather from it all. He could see the tearstains on the page, imagine Ashley sitting on the deck of her beautiful home, crying under the moonlight...it broke his heart to imagine the pain she was in. And the worst part was that she was dead wrong. There was no new love in his life; he had hardly left his parents' home since he got here--back when the victory over Dark Specter was only days old.
And she was wrong about his feelings not running as deep as hers. Sure he had been slow to believe it, but he was just as much in love as she was. He had only needed time to realize what had changed in his heart since she came around. In the two years that he was alone on the Megaship, he had come to believe he would never love a girl like Ashley because her life was sheltered and innocent next to his. He needed someone who wouldn't need the trials of spacefaring life explained to her, and someone who understood deep personal pain. The bubbly, perpetually cheerful girl he had met on the bridge of his ship seemed neither of those things. But she surprised him in the end.
Now she had written him this letter.
She went on to fill him in on all the news since they were last in contact. That was, unfortunately, the sad day when she and Cassie, Carlos and TJ had passed on their Ranger Powers to the new team. It was three months after the foiled attack on Earth, and Andros, Karone and Zhane had been left with their people after sending the Red and Silver Powers away. These five new Rangers were a dynamic crew, and would carry on the morphing tradition well; but it also meant a loss for the retiring Earth Rangers. Because they would have to mesh back into their planet's society, they could no longer take advantage of high-tech equipment like their communicators. Contact with each other would be reduced to the regular channels, and contact with Andros, Zhane and Karone would be completely cut off.
In the letter, Ashley reported having seen all three of her friends off to different parts of the country. Cassie's band was traveling, trying to spread their name around; TJ was at college in the Southeast on a baseball scholarship, and Carlos was in Europe of all places, playing soccer. Even their friend Justin was gone. The young teen had graduated highschool early (no surprise) and gone on to a prestigious university. Ashley was left alone in Angel Grove waiting for her life to return to normal.
She was telling him a sob-story, Andros knew, but he didn't care. He was lonely too, trying to help his sister build herself a new life. In the meantime, he had to watch her relationship with Zhane grow and blossom. He could always find something to be jealous of Zhane about.
But this letter was unexpected. He had thought Ashley long gone from his life, and he had tried to forget her but now came this sign--this light from above--that he still had a chance for love. There was gardening to be done, but he couldn't pass this opportunity by.
"Not much, I won't be traveling more than a few days at a time."
Andros was chewing a bland ration bar as he packed his bag that evening. Karone sat on his mattress with the letter in her hands.
"How long do you expect to be?"
Her brother stopped rifling through his clothes crate. "I dunno."
"And you're sure you'll be safe with the Yugathi right?"
"Positive. They're friendly to the Rangers."
"What about food? What are you going to eat on the way?"
He looked at her strangely for a moment, then began to transfer some socks to his dufflebag. "I'll eat whatever the Yugathi eat. And you should know, you are reminding me of Mom now more than ever."
She just gave him a little sneer but kept her mouth shut while he worked. Finally, she decided to get her real concerns out in the open.
"Andros, its November there now. Seven months is a long time to wait, you know. Even for someone as in love as Ashley was. How can you be sure she hasn't gone on to someone new?"
Andros's face darkened, but he kept matter-of-fact. "I can't be sure. All I can do is go and find out. If I wasn't meant to do this, that letter wouldn't have made it all the way here like it did."
"Do you think it's wise to just show up out of the blue like this?"
"Would it be better to wait seven more months until another letter found its way to her? Which would you prefer, hearing back from me seven months late or over a year late? I'm going to see for myself what the story is, and if it's not good I'll just come home. I've got nothing to lose trying."
Karone looked at him levelly. "You have more to lose than you'll admit."
This froze him, and made him stand up and glare at her. Did she have to make this as difficult as possible? Never mind the truth...
The sound of another skysled was followed moments later by Zhane entering the room. "Your ride's here," he said solemnly, his usual bright grin nowhere to be seen. He too shared Karone's concern about the feelings being trifled with. "You know Andros, it's not too late to change you mind. The guy in the skysled'll understand."
Andros simply hoisted his duffle and grabbed his personal communications kit from the mattress. "Don't start with me."
"Come on man, this will not yield good results. I know you want to find out if Ashley's still yours, but you're rushing into this too fast..."
"Too much time's been wasted already." Andros took the letter from Karone and tucked in his jacket. Zhane was in the doorway, and Andros realized he would have to get past the taller, blonder one.
"Look," he said. "You all think I'm too emotionally fragile to handle a breakup, and your opinions aren't for me to change...but I've got something I need to do for my peace of mind, and neither of you are gonna keep me here in the country till its done. I'm going back into space to figure my life out."
He brushed past Zhane out of the room. Karone and Zhane heard the front door slam, and then the roar of the skysled as it took Andros away to the spaceport to meet his transport to Earth. They looked at each other sadly, wondering what heartbreak--or fulfillment--he might find.
The Yugathi ship was dank, dark, and fragrant with alien body odor. Andros's disgust had to be kept hidden though, since these aliens were doing him a great favor. Admitting non-Yugathi onboard their vessels wasn't an everyday practice for them.
He and the Commander walked side-by-side towards the crew quarters. "So Earth is where you're going eh?" asked the fat Commander in a gravely voice. "That's a bit out of our way."
Andros nodded, choosing his words carefully. "Your trouble is greatly appreciated, Commander. And it's an added privilege to be aboard your fine ship for the journey."
The Yugathi shipman liked having his ego stroked. "And we are in turn honored to have a former Power Ranger on board. But all that aside, you were less than clear about your reasons for this trip. What does a galactic citizen want on little Earth?"
"I've been separated from my significant other." This caused the Commander to halt, and grasp Andros's arm in concern. "How unfortunate. I did not realize the importance of this journey for you..."
They walked on, Andros chewing his cheek to hide a smile. The Yugathi had only one weakness: they were hopeless romantics.
The trip was slow, their speed never reaching HyperRush velocity because of the number of stops along the way. Andros was soon used to the smell, but other things kept him quite uncomfortable...like the food for instance. Karone had been right to worry, the food was all but unpalatable for a human. Andros survived on the small percentage of fruit and greens the Yugathi served, but the rest of it was pretty much out of the question if he wanted to keep it down.
Soon enough though, the constellations began to look right. They were nearing Sol, and Andros would be at the end of his journey soon.
Stepping off the landing ship onto the green grass of Earth was like stepping into the cool shower after a day of work in the garden. Andros inhaled deeply of the fresh coastal air, feeling his stomach settle for the first time in over a week. He thanked the Yugathi pilot profusely and went on his way. The Yugathi had landed him near the deep woods area of Angel Grove park, so he had a bit of walking to do to reach the city. A mental list ran through his mind as to where Ashley might be at this time of day; it was nearing the supper hour, so she would probably be at home.
The sights and sounds of California were distracting him. It had been almost a year since he left, but everything was still freshly familiar. He neared the part of the park where the Surf Spot had been, and found it still standing, as busy as ever. Memories of that place came back with a vengeance, but his better judgement told him not to go in; he would have time to see Adelle and his friends another day. Locating Ashley was his first priority.
As he found his way into the suburbs, his mind ran in circles around the things he wanted to say, and at the same time he was steeling himself to find out that he had been replaced. It was dark when he arrived at the Hammonds' front door. November brought the night time early to North America. His jacket kept him from feeling the chill, but chills of his own set him to shivering anyway. Walking up the path to the stone steps was a blur. When he pressed the door chime, the hollow sound within the house froze everything around him, and he prepared for the moment of truth to come...
But Ashley's father answered the door.
"Andros! Long time no see, son!" said Daniel Hammond with enthusiasm.
"It's been a while," Andros replied, forcing a smile.
"Off to college in Europe were you? How is Dublin?"
"Just fine, I like it there..." Andros was listening for footsteps within the house.
"Well do come in, have a coffee with me and tell me all about it," said Mr. Hammond, stepping aside. But something wasn't right.
"Uh, no thanks, I really can't stay long. I was just hoping to see Ashley. Is she in?"
"Ashley?" repeated Mr. Hammond. "Why no, Andros, Ashley is at college in New York. Are you saying she never wrote to tell you?"
"...Uh, no....college in New York....?" he repeated.
"That's right, NYU, on an arts scholarship. She's designing clothes again. I still can't believe she didn't let you know..."
"Well I'm hard to reach in Dublin. The letter probably couldn't find me."
"Well that's a darn shame..." Hammond tsked. "She's been gone a good two months now. Busy as heck over there, too; she just emailed me tonight to say how tired she's been."
"College keeps you busy," Andros heard himself say.
Daniel Hammond suddenly got an idea and wrote down the information about where Ashley was staying. He gave the piece of paper to Andros, but it would be useless unless Andros somehow made it to New York.
"Well I'm glad you stopped by son, it's good to see you again. Call if you need anything while you're in town, alright?"
"I will. Goodnight."
The next thing he knew, the door was closed, Mr. Hammond's footsteps were gone, and Andros had been standing there a full minute on the doorstep, his heart floundering in a puddle after the long fall.
Ashley was in New York--that was on the other side of the country! How could he possibly reach her now with no money or means of transportation available? He walked back down the path, stopping at the foot of the driveway, and realized he had been counting on Ashley for a place to stay; but he couldn't stand the thought of asking Mr. Hammond for a guest room. Just being in the house would be torture...
His eyes traveled up and down the quiet street, coming to rest on the neon sign of a restaurant. It gave him an idea...
"Well sonovagun, there's a face I haven't seen in a long time!" Adelle Ferguson cried.
"You're sure you don't mind me staying here alone at night?" Andros asked out of courtesy.
"Honey, it's no trouble at all. I know you better than you think, you wouldn't steal a glance. Besides, if you did, your little ass would be mine." And she winked good-naturedly at him.
Andros found himself glad that evening that some people still believed in charity. He was, of course, an experienced spacefarer and knew how to take care of himself--but he was here wasn't he? Together they wrestled the cot open in the corner of Adelle's office.
"I don't do this for free, mind you. I expect help in the kitchen tomorrow when you've got time."
"I've got time, I'm not going anywhere."
"Is it Christmas break for you kids in Dublin already?"
Andros nodded, hoping that was a feasible excuse.
"Well, you can stay here and work for me as long as you like. It's too bad none of the gang are left in town, I don't want to see you gettin' lonely."
Andros shrugged. "I came back to see Ashley. I didn't know she was gone too."
Adelle shook her head. "Off to New York City, that crazy child. And now here you are after she's gone...it's like something out of Romeo and Juliet, ain't it?"
"Who are they?"
"Never mind, I'll lend you the video. Now if any nasties break in, you call the police for me, don't try to be a hero, alright?"
She took the big wad of keys from her desk drawer and turned off the computer. "You sleep tight now. See you in the morning." She left him in the office, and heading for the main entrance. As she closed up the building and headed for her car, she wondered what could have possessed an upright young buck like Andros to leave school and come halfway around the world without even a place to stay. Of course, the answer was Ashley; teenagers could be pretty clueless when their hearts were involved. Adelle had seen many a puppy love in her lifetime, some ending better than others, but she hoped for Andros's sake that this one went well. In the meantime, she'd play den-mother to another lost cub.
The morning came quickly, and when Adelle arrived back at the Surf Spot, she found the cot and the bedding folded neatly out of the way. She set down the paper bag with Andros's bagel and coffee, and started to look for him.
"Andros? Son, where are you?"
"In the storage room," came the reply. She followed the sound of his voice and found him sitting on a box of hamburger buns, reading the writing on a plastic bag. He was washed, dressed and shaven, with his hair tied neatly back and an apron slung over his shoulder.
"What on Earth are you doing?"
"I'm reading the instructions for making hamburgers."
"Well I won't be putting you on the grill today, Andros. It's your first day, you'll be washing dishes."
"Oh," he said, and shoved the bag in his pocket.
"Come on, I brought you some breakfast."
Andros ate quickly while Adelle fired up the computer for the morning officework. By the time she was done, he had taken the liberty of wiping the front counter and sweeping out the rec area. Adelle watched him finish, anticipating the kind of work she might get out of this kid in the future. By the end of the day, she had made the decision to put him on the payroll. He had more than earned his room and board, and she knew he could use the money; she had seen the travel brochure for New York City sticking out of his pocket.
Two weeks went by with Andros pouring his heart into everything he did around the Surf Spot; he earned every penny of his minimum wage salary, plus his corner of the office and the bagels Adelle brought him every morning. He made a few new friends in some of the regular patrons, but mostly kept to himself. He worked weekends too, claiming he didn't have anything better to do. Adelle almost wished she could keep him forever, but she knew he had more than enough for his airline ticket now.
One Friday evening at closing time, she brought up the subject.
"So I suppose you'll be off to New York soon?"
He looked at her, obviously wondering how she knew, but nodded. "I've got enough for a one way ticket on a plane."
"Only one way?"
"I'll find work in New York when it's time to go back to Dublin," he replied, feeding her a small lie.
But at this remark, Adelle took his broom away and looked him straight in the eye. "Now just hold on a minute, boy. Work in New York isn't just there for the taking. It's a nice town to visit, but there ain't no Surf Spot and there ain't nobody who's going to give a job to a stranger in off the street."
Andros shook his head as though it didn't matter. "I'll manage Adelle. Don't worry about me."
"I don't think you heard me the first time!" she said. "I'm not letting you go off half-cocked thinking you can live off your own smarts."
He actually looked concerned for a moment. She had just threatened not to let him leave.
"Adelle...I have to go. It's what I've been working for all this time."
"And what if you get there and find Ashley with another boy? Are you gonna feel like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps then?"
That struck a nerve. She regretted it the moment it left her mouth, but it was the truth. He had to face it.
"I'll manage," he said again, making a stubborn face. "I'll figure something out...I'll manage."
He took his broom back and swept on. Adelle shook her head at him and went into the office to finish the accounting. He was deliberately still sweeping when she left the building for the night.
The next morning he was waiting for her at the staff entrance with his dufflebag on his arm, looking ready for a bit of traveling. He was clearly no longer angry, but looked a little nervous when she approached.
"I put the cot and the blankets away, and I swept out the kitchen and the rec floor last night. Everything's ready to open up," he said.
Adelle nodded, resting her hands on her hips. "So you're off to the airport I see."
He nodded in reply. "I'll be on the first plane I can get a seat for."
"Well Andros, it's been a good couple of weeks for me, I appreciate all the help. I still don't like the idea of you going off to New York alone though."
He flinched under her gaze, but tried to reassure her. "I can live on what I've got for a while. Whatever happens with Ashley, I'll find a way to deal with it."
Adelle nodded slowly. "I think you will. You are the most resourceful kid I've ever met. It's just my mothering instincts telling me to watch out for you."
This made him a little uncomfortable. "You won't be angry with me for leaving, will you?"
She laughed heartily. "Angry? At you? I'd like to see someone try."
He nodded in relief and let her fold him up in a big hug. "You take care of yourself now, you hear?"
"I promise. Thanks for all your help."
Before he left, he clasped her arm in a semi-sort of-handshake gesture, which she returned, giving him a questioning look. He just smiled and walked away towards the bus stop. Adelle watched him till she heard footsteps behind her.
"Hi Adelle," said a young girl with a book bag on her arm. "Andros said you might need some extra help around the kitchen."
The plane trip was nerve racking when Andros realized how the things actually worked. He imagined the rickety chunk of steel going down in flames at the slightest mishap--an encounter with high-flying geese for instance...
But soon enough he began to relax, and felt sleep overtaking him. After the in-flight meal (incidentally a Yugathi dish) he began to feel his eyelids grow heavy, and the sounds of the plane tuned out. He didn't realize he'd actually gone to sleep until the flight attendant touched his arm. "Excuse me Sir, we're about to land. Would you mind putting your seatbelt on?"
He blinked in the dimness, wondering how long he had been unconscious. Then he remembered hearing the flight would take about six hours. They had left Angel Grove International at 2:00pm.
"What time is it?" he asked the woman in blue.
"It's nearly four o'clock now."
Timezones were a riot.
Andros got off the plane at the place known as Laguardia. He was directed to the subway station where he found out how to take an underground transport to New York University. He did take a moment to step outside though, after the long time spent in the plane, and the bitterness of the cold took his breath away.
Those people who had their breath blew it out in white clouds. A light snow was falling as afternoon turned into evening. Andros had expected this, but hadn't been prepared; certainly this was the warmest clothing he had. He should have borrowed something from Adelle before he left the west coast.
In any event, he had a subway to catch, and a young woman to find.
Ashley had once seen a Quantron staring down a vending machine, and had remarked, "Oyag." When asked what it meant, she explained that it was really "O.I.A.G." which meant "Only In Angel Grove". She had modeled the expression after "Only In New York", and only now did Andros discover its true meaning. He was on the subway, trying to fit in with the remarkable variety of people in that one car.
There were people on rollerblades in shorts and t-shirts, people dressed in as much black as possible, fairly normal looking people who would nonetheless do something weird now and then; like the woman in the business suit carving a bar of soap into a small duck.
Mixed into it all were a plethora of different ethnicities: Black, Latino, Asian, Indian, Native, Caucasian, Middle Eastern... If only more places on Earth were as diverse as this city, he thought.
But soon enough, such musings took the backseat to thoughts of Ashley. College was a big step in an Earther's life. She was living on her own now, probably in a dormitory, maybe feeling a little lonely at times. She would be seeking comfort in the presence of new friends of both sexes.
Many earth adults Andros knew had met their spouses at college. Was there something about it that was conducive to love? Was their any more reason for Ashley to find a boyfriend here than in Angel Grove? Seven months was indeed a long time, and she had said she was going to let him go. She also said she'd never find another to replace him, but perhaps that was just to spare his feelings.
Thoughts such as these carried him off the subway, through the depot and up to street level where the snow was falling thick. He had memorized the map, and followed the street signs with the unoccupied portion of his brain.
Ashley had once talked about going to New York City together. Now they were here...in New York City...apart.
When he made it to the university campus, Mr. Hammond's neat handwriting told him what building Ashley was staying in. He found his way there and ducked inside, shivering uncontrollably. His ears and nose were numb by now.
But those minor discomforts were forgotten in a flash.
A warmly dressed police officer was standing there in the lobby, questioning a tearful young woman.
"..um, at lunch today," sniffed the student. "I last saw her at lunch."
"What time was that, approximately?"
"Was anyone with her that you could see?"
"Only Rob Bradley, a friend of hers."
Andros listened to the conversation a moment longer, then he looked at the paper he held in his hand. Ashley's room was #451. He would have just gone on up to see her, but if someone was missing, the security people would be on edge. No one would let a strange man go upstairs to a girl's dormitory.
Inevitably, he was spotted by the girl behind the desk.
"Can I help you with something?" she asked, a little harshly.
"I uh...I'm here to see a friend, but she's not expecting me. Her name is Ashley Hammond."
The room fell silent.
"Who are you, son?" asked the police officer.
"My name's Andros."
But the girl being questioned suddenly spoke up. "I know you..."
"You do?" said Andros.
"You're Ashley's friend from home. She has a picture of you in her room. Do you know where she went?"
"No, where did she go?"
The police officer looked annoyed. "That's the point son, we don't know. Ashley is missing."
"And you flew in from Dublin when?" asked this officer. She was the fifth he had spoken to, and still more were arriving.
"Two weeks ago," said Andros patiently. "I flew into Angel Grove International to visit her at home. I didn't know she had moved at the time."
"And what did you do for those two weeks afterward."
"I worked at a restaurant until I could afford to fly here."
The officer took Adelle's name and phone number down.
"And Ms. Hammond didn't know you were coming today?"
"No, I haven't spoken with her for almost a year. I recently got a seven month old letter from her that she wrote while she was still in Angel Grove."
Everything he told was the truth, or at least something that they'd have trouble proving was a lie. He longed for the moment when he could dash out of that dormitory and collapse somewhere to think about this. The harsh light of the lobby gave him a headache.
At long last, the officer checked her notes and nodded. "Alright son, you can go now. I suggest you stay in town in case we need you again. Where are you staying?"
"I haven't got a place to stay."
"Well then come down to the station with us and we'll make sure you get a hotel room." She walked away to confer with her colleagues. Andros didn't waste any time, snatching up his coat and bag and heading for the door.
But Ashley's friend jumped up and caught him by the sleeve.
"Wait," she said. "You are the guy from the picture in Ashley's room, aren't you?"
"Did you know her real well?"
"Yeah, I did."
The girl swallowed. "My name's Dawn, I'm in her design class. Ashley checked into the building at three-thirty today and no one saw her leave again, but when I came to see her at four, she was gone. Do you know why she might have just disappeared like this?"
Sadly, Andros did know. If she were still a Ranger, she would probably have disappeared to fight some monster; but Ashley wasn't a Ranger anymore. There was no explanation this time. At least, none that Andros could see.
"I don't know where she went, Dawn. She used to have this habit of disappearing from places without telling anyone."
"But no one saw her leave the building. And she's not in anybody else's room--"
"I told you I don't know anything."
His tone made Dawn visibly annoyed. "Well, sorry to bother you Andros. Don't freeze out there in the cold ok?" She turned on her heel and started to walk away.
Then Andros remembered something.
She turned to look at him.
"Who was that guy named Rob you mentioned?"
"Her boyfriend. Why?"
Andros's heart ripped in two.
"Has anyone seen him since Ashley disappeared?"
"The cops are looking for him now," Dawn replied, but Andros's meaning had taken hold. "Look, I tell you what," she said. "As soon as you've got your hotel room, look me up and we'll keep each other posted ok?"
Andros thought about this, and then nodded. "It's a deal. Thank you."
Dawn shrugged. "Don't mention it."
She went back to sit down in the lobby. Andros followed her, deciding to wait in the warm lobby with a friend instead of in the wintery cold outside.
Dawn arrived twice the next morning. The sun was barely up--peering icily into Andros's hotel room--when a knock came at the door. He hadn't bothered to undress the previous night, so he simply peeled himself off the bed, straightened himself out and went to see who it was.
Dawn was waiting on the other side.
"Good morning, sunshine.." she called out softly. Andros squirmed at Ashley's favorite phrase coming from someone else's lips, but opened the door the rest of the way.
"Hi. I can't stay long, I have to get to class, but I wanted to make sure you were updated. The police have no official explanation for Ashley's disappearance. They're calling it kidnaping, with no signs of forced entry."
Andros nodded, rubbing his brow. "Have they called her father yet?"
Dawn nodded. "Yeah, he's putting loads of money into the investigation. He wants to make sure they spare no expense."
"How do you know all this?" he asked. "I thought the police would be keeping their findings secret."
Dawn shrugged. "My boyfriend works for the next precinct. He gets all the gossip from his buddies. He knows I wouldn't tell a soul--unless they needed to know."
Andros nodded again, leaning against the doorframe. "I appreciate your help. I'd be a lot worse off without an ally in this city."
She smiled, a little lopsidedly. "My pleasure. So where are you from Andros? You've got a funny name."
"I'm from Angel Grove. My parents named me after an ancestor I think."
"Can I call you Andy? It's easier."
"Be my guest."
"Right. See ya Andy. If you need anything, gimme a call."
She gave a little wave, then breezed away. She was back to a bouncy, bubbly self that had a smile for every occasion. Kind of like someone he knew...no wonder they were friends.
Andros eventually undressed and took a shower. He had come to enjoy soap and water showers as opposed to sonic showers like on the Megaship. When he was clean, he got dressed in some clean clothes and went downstairs to see what he could eat. The lobby was busy, as men and women in suits and skirts checked out of their rooms for the day. This wasn't an upscale hotel, but so far everything had been clean and pleasant. It was better than his corner in Adelle's office.
A small pastry and disposable cup of juice was offered to him with the name "Continental Breakfast" attached; but he could have eaten mud at that point so he was happy. He took the food to the lounge where a television was on, and sat down to watch for any bulletins about Ashley but there were none. The police were indeed keeping quiet. Either that or kidnappings weren't headline news around here. Andros wondered why there was not at least a "Have You Seen This Girl?" message somewhere in the day's headlines. Alas, when the news was over, a talk show came on and there was nothing else to wait for. Andros returned to his room.
He lay on his bed for a long time, thinking. Dawn was a good resource. She had connections, she was a friend of Ashley's and therefore friendly to him, and she had access to the scene of the crime. No doubt Ashley's room was off limits, but the general vicinity was available to her. Perhaps Andros could take advantage of that.
For the only answer Andros had for all this, was that Ashley's kidnapper was not of this world. It was an old enemy from the past perhaps--someone who had escaped the purging wave of good that Zordon died to create. This someone had found her here on Earth, vulnerable without her Powers, and decided to take advantage of her situation. The Police would be reluctant to buy that, but there might be some clue that would help Andros get a lead. He had his connections too, just not on Earth.
So he picked up the phone and dialed Dawn's number. She wouldn't be home right now but he could leave his message on her answering device.
"This is Andros, I'm calling to ask for a favor from you. It probably isn't legal so don't tell your boyfriend, but I'd like you to look around Ashley's room for me. Get as close as you can, and try to find anything the police may have missed. Don't be afraid to report strange things either. Call me at my room if you find anything."
That done, he had nothing left to do but wait. And wait is what he did.
His phone did not ring until early evening. By then he was climbing the walls, trying anything to stave off boredom and anticipation. He had filled several sheets of hotel note paper with random thoughts and scribblings. He had even counted the number of "Smiths" in the New York City telephone directory. The number swam in his head. He set to multiplying it by the average number of family members in each of those households.
Then the phone nearly put him through the ceiling.
"Hello, Dawn?" he blurted.
"No sir, it's Room Service. Will you be purchasing any pay-per-view television this evening?"
"No, I don't even know what that is. Now excuse me, I'm waiting for a transmission." He hung up and chewed his lip for a minute, annoyed at himself for getting worked-up. Then suddenly, the phone rang again.
"Hi, it's Dawn. You wanted me to do some snooping?"
Dawn had done as he asked, and gone to Ashley's room with a notepad and a few plastic bags. For some reason, she mentioned having read a lot of "Nancy Drew Books" as a child. She couldn't go into the apartment itself, but she was allowed access to the hallway right outside. Other students had to use it, naturally. She had spent a full hour there, making note of things that fell under the category of strange.
"Such as?" Andros queried.
"Such as Ashley's door poster isn't there. She had this autographed poster of the Power Rangers on her front door, and now it's missing."
"I know the poster you mean," said Andros, telling her the truth for once. "What else did you see?"
"Nothing obvious at her doorway, but I did find something strange when I went back to mine. A little piece of velcro."
His tone gave her pause. "Yeah. You know that stuff that kids tie their shoes with?"
Dawn was perplexed. "The cloth with the little hooks on one side and the little loops on the other side so they stick together. C'mon Andy, there's some on your jacket. Anyway there was a little piece of it on the carpet near my door. I dunno where it came from."
"Maybe it fell off one of your jackets."
"No, I don't think so. It's too small to be for holding clothes together."
Andros scratched his head in frustration. "You have no idea what it could be from?"
"No clue. In fact, I'm not even sure it's velcro, it kind of looks like metal now that I've got it under the light."
"Any chance you could bring it over?"
"Sure, have you eaten yet?"
"I'll bring some takeout. Be there in a few. Bye!"
She hung up rapidly and left him in mid-speech. He had been about to ask her not to bring vendor hot dogs. They never stayed down.
Thankfully she brought Chinese instead. Now he would only had to grapple with the chopsticks.
"Take this for me Andy, the velcro's in my purse."
He took the twin cartons of sweet-smelling vegetables, and she dug around in her handbag. Finally she produced a sealable plastic bag with a tiny square of grey in the bottom. Andros took it carefully.
"See it sorta looks like velcro, but when you get it under the light..."
She switched on the warm table lamp so he could see. "..am I right or am I right?"
Andros looked until his eyes watered. "You're right, it's not velcro.."
Unfortunately, he couldn't tell her what it was. The tiny patch of metal fuzz was part of a rotating friction joint. Part of a Quantron.
"Think I should turn it in?" Dawn was asking.
"To the police I mean."
He shook his head, forcing nonchalance into his tone. "What would they do with it? It's probably nothing, don't a lot of people wear weird things in this city? O.I.N.Y?"
She looked at him strangely, but shrugged. "I guess so, I dunno. I just don't wanna be 'obstructing justice' or anything. For Ashley's sake."
"Come on, let's eat and we'll decide what to do."
"Um, actually, I can't. I have a job interview in a little while."
"In the evening?"
"It's for a nightshift."
"Oh. Well good luck. Sorry I just barged on over, I guess I was eager to find some answers to this mess."
"I know, I am too. Thanks for the takeout."
"No problem. You want I should keep that with me?" She nodded to the plastic bag.
"Maybe I should keep it here. Your boyfriend might find it at your place."
She smirked. "Like I let him touch my things. Keep it here with you then Andy, it's no big deal. Just don't lose it in the sofa cushions."
"I won't. Oh wait, Dawn?"
"What ever happened to Rob, Ashley's boyfriend."
Dawn shrugged. "Nobody knows. The guy hasn't been seen since Ashley vanished. So far he's the prime suspect."
Andros nodded. "Alright, thanks. Goodnight."
"G'night Andy. Sleep tight."
He closed the door behind her, then closed his fingers around the plastic bag. His first clue! Now things were starting to go somewhere. If Quantrons were in the dormitory, it proved two things: One: that some outer-space villain had survived the Universal Purge, and Two: that they had a decent group of minions under their control. Just a few Quantrons would have been no trouble for Ashley, Yellow Ranger or not. Also, wherever Rob was, this proved he probably had nothing to do with Ashley's kidnaping. It was some greater evil from outer space.
It still made Andros's heart ache to think of it though. He had been replaced with another love. Maybe that's why she wrote the letter in the first place, so she could have an easy conscience when she started seeing other people; but she wouldn't profess false feelings to him, would she? She had said she still loved him. Didn't she?
He wished he could ask her. Unfortunately though, she wasn't available for questioning. Someone would have to rescue her before they could have a heart-to-heart talk about their relationship. And it just so happened, that someone was gonna be him.
Andros was on the hotel roof, his bag slung over his arm, when the Yugathi lander arrived. There would be some UFO sightings in the city tonight, but Andros would have frozen to death trying to make it to a rural area for the pickup.
After Dawn left, he had made three calls. One was to the police station, saying a new employer was transferring him out of town. The second was to Dawn, saying he had gotten the job, but had to leave New York for it. He was lying to both, but at least they were matching lies.
The third wasn't made on the phone. It was made on his portable communications kit. The Yugathi would be coming back through the Sol system about this time, and could they perhaps take the time to swing by Earth and get him? After all, his significant other was in more trouble than he thought, and he was her only hope for rescue.
They were there in record time.
"So Andros, back to Karova to regroup is it?" asked the Yugathi Commander, once Andros was aboard.
"No actually, I'm going to Outpost 99. Is there a fast pod I can hire from you? I'm willing to pay in information."
"What sort of information?"
"I'll tell you about it while we check out that pod. Apparently, there may be some evil left in the universe after all..."
Andros headed there in the Yugathi pod, in search of two old acquaintances. Dr. Oram Goor was a computer-scientist of vast intellect and resource. Dr. Pell Ghanam was an engineer with unmatched skill in ship design, and both were fellow Karovans. Years ago, they had teamed up to create the masterpiece known as the Astro Megaship, for use by the new Karovan Power Ranger team. Goor's D.E.C.A. unit and Ghanam's Megaship vessel had proven to be an unbeatable pair--much like the designers themselves. Now they resided on Outpost 99, continuing their work.
After touching down, Andros hired a pilot to return the pod to the Yugathi. Then he made his way to the Computer Research section.
In Artificial Intelligence, he found what he was looking for. An office door with two names printed on it. He pressed the chime.
"Come," said a voice from within. He entered and gazed about the messy office, finally spotting a human being among the clutter.
The tiny, mousey-faced woman looked up from her data pad, and took a moment to recognize the face in the doorway.
"Gods, look who's here!" she cried. With a swift movement she was around the desk and clasping Andros's arm firmly. "It's a pleasure and a surprise Andros. Did you remember to tell the new Red Ranger about coil sixteen?"
Andros smiled. "I didn't have to. We fixed it."
"Great Goddess, I don't believe it! You'll have to tell me what you did. Meantime though, what brings you here?"
At that moment, Oram Goor entered the front office, his lab coat swishing around his stout legs. His square-jawed face stared a moment in surprise, before grinning at Andros. "I wasn't expecting this! Welcome to the dungeon Andros," and he made a sweeping gesture around the office.
"Thanks," Andros replied. "But I'm not here for to visit. I have a crisis and you may be the only ones who can help."
Ghanam shrugged. "Name it, what can we do for you?"
"When you built the Megaship, was there ever a prototype? A working model that never got used?"
Goor looked at Ghanam and she raised her eyebrows. "As a matter of fact yes. It was our first stab at building my design, but there were too many flaws and we had to start over. Instead we used it as a test ship, making sure all the components functioned before we added them to the second model."
"Does it still exist?"
"Well yes, the vessel is still around, but you can't fly it."
"There's no central computer to run the thing. Oram only ever built one DECA and its in the Megaship."
Andros grimaced a little. This was his only hope, he didn't know anyone else who could get him a ship for free.
"Unless..." Goor spoke up suddenly. "Unless..."
Ghanam queried him with a glance and he stroked his chin. "True there was only one DECA, but there was also a HEXA."
Andros frowned. "HEXA?"
Ghanam snapped her fingers. "HEXA! Of course.."
"What is HEXA?" asked Andros.
"HEXA is DECA's ancestor. While DECA uses a network of ten trillion micro-processors, HEXA only had six trillion, and therefore couldn't achieve the level of human mimicry that DECA can. She's essentially DECA's dumb great aunt or something."
"Is she capable of running the Megaship Prototype?"
Ghanam looked at Goor and he shrugged. "The two were never tested together. Theoretically it should work, but if the ship is too much for HEXA to handle, she'll do some damage when she explodes."
Andros swallowed. "One of my former teammates is missing. She was taken from Earth just days ago, and there is evidence of Quantron involvement. I need a vessel comparable to the Megaship if I'm going to try to save her."
"And you can't just get the new team involved?"
Andros shook his head. "I won't risk taking them away from their jobs. Not if there's a new evil at work out there."
Ghanam nodded. "Good logic. We'll do the best we can Andros, HEXA and the prototype are now Priority One. Lend a hand and you'll be on the road in no time."
And so Ghanam, Goor, Andros, and the brilliant Computer/Engineering team set to work at a feverish pace. Every one of them was made aware that time was of the essence.
Meanwhile, in a place not so far away, time was foremost on someone's mind. Ashley Hammond had been passing time for longer that she could remember. It couldn't have been more than a few days, but it felt like forever in this grimy, dark dungeon of hers. She lay in the corner, curled around herself, trying now to sleep the time away; but her mind was focused on one moment in time--the moment of her kidnaping.
She had been in her dorm room cleaning up before Dawn came over to study. It had been almost a year since she thought about fighting, or morphing, or danger or planetary takeover. She suspected nothing.
When she heard the sound outside her room, she almost didn't believe her ears. It was a soft whine, an electronic sound. The sounds that Quantrons made.
But that couldn't be, they'd all been destroyed by Zordon. She went to check on it, her Rangering instincts kicking in for what might be the last time.
Unfortunately, her Rangering reflexes didn't come back so easily. She was slow to react when, sticking her head out the door, she heard the hiss of a projectile in the air. She felt it strike her flesh, plunging into her jugular, and immediately the world lurched and began to spin. She fell backwards onto her dorm room floor and began to slip away, her last sight being the Quantron standing over her in the doorway, a dart gun in its hand. Then she was out, and woke up here sometime later.
There were too many questions now for her to fathom. How had the Quantron survived Zordon's purge? Who had ordered it to kidnap her? Where was she now? What purpose would she serve her captors? What chaos had she left behind, vanishing without a trace like this?
She could only hope the Rangers knew. DECA would have detected Quantron presence on Earth, and alerted the Rangers immediately. They would be done talking with the police by now, and hot on the trail of the kidnappers. The Quantron's ship would have left an ion trail to follow, so the Rangers would have no trouble tracing where she had been taken. They'd be here to rescue her any time now. That, at least, was the optimistic side.
Still, here she was, with no way out and no way to know what fate had in store for her. She believed she would be rescued in time, but how much time was still a mystery.
Ashley coughed and looked up at the ceiling of her cell. The exit was there somehow, if only it weren't thirty feet above her head. She would stay in this damp, cold box until someone came for her, and she had nothing to do now but sleep till the moment came.
"Watch those levels! She's gonna spark a processor!" Ghanam cried. She was in one of the engineering conduits of the Megaship prototype. The power readout was reflected in her welding glasses which perched on her forehead. Somewhere below her, Andros was trying to open the power conduits to full flow, but HEXA wasn't ready. At Ghanam's yell, Andros backed off.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked the computer, half expecting HEXA to answer back.
"I wish I knew," Ghanam replied. "This is unfathomable. There is no logical explanation for this reaction!" She emphasized her words by gesturing forcefully, but HEXA didn't react. She just waited mutely for the next trial.
But help was on the way. Goor was jogging over to them with a circuit box in his hand.
"The buffer!" he cried, waving in the air. "We forgot the buffer! I took it out months ago so I could use it in an automaton."
Ghanam threw up her hands in relief. Andros rested his head on his arm.
Three hours later the buffer was in place and Andros was opening the power flow again.
"How's it look?" he yelled up into the air.
"Looks good," Ghanam yelled back. "So far."
Andros squeezed the lever and throttled up a little more. He forced himself not to crank it all the way. At any moment Ghanam could give a yelp of alarm and he would have to back off, or risk damaging irreplaceable parts. They could not afford a waste of time like that.
"Keep coming.." Ghanam urged, as if she needed to remind him. She sounded hopeful. "A little further...I think she's going to hold!"
With a growing rush of glee, Andros pushed the lever along until it hit the end of its slot. The ship came to life around him, buzzing with electricity flowing cleanly through her veins. Andros waited for the word.
"It looks..." said Pell. "..like we got it!" she cried. Goor let out a whoop of laughter and hugged her. Andros blew out a great breath of relief. They were on their way.
HEXA learned quickly, much to Goor's pride and delight. Within minutes of her activation, she had taken control of all remote systems and even began a hull-cleaning cycle. The Team was left to install the last few components and close up their panels finally. Andros made sure he was in the center of it all.
"Testing communications port three. Testing...testing..." said the bridge speakers.
"Acknowledged Outpost 99, you're loud and clear," replied Andros. "Thanks for the help, everything is checking out at this end now."
"Aye Aye," said the officer on the other end. "Clear Flying, Sunshine."
From a hole in the middle of the bridge, Pell Ghanam gave a snicker. "Did you pick that name?" she asked.
Andros drew himself up. "Matter of fact, I did."
"It's...cute," she said, struggling for the word.
"Thank you," he replied, not bothering to tell her the hidden meaning. Might as well allow her the laugh.
Fewer and fewer of the Outpost technicians could be seen onboard the Sunshine. They were finishing their jobs and leaving. Soon only Andros, Pell and Oram were left, and they met together on the bridge.
"I owe you both," Andros assured them. "This ship is a miracle."
Pell nodded. "You're damn straight. But we were happy to help. Let us know how she does in the field, won't you?"
"I will. Thank you again." He clasped arms with Ghanam, then Goor, who had a coil of conduit around his neck like a feather boa. "HEXA's a good little wad of circuitry. She'll hold things together. Expect nothing less from DECA's family."
With a final farewell they were gone, and Andros was alone on the Sunshine with the control sticks in his grip.
"HEXA online," he ordered.
A few responding bleeps came, and then a new female voice replied, "HEXA online. All systems nominal on board the...Sunshine...Current status: Fully Operational."
"Activate command codes. Voice Print Authorization: Andros 335."
"Andros 335. Acknowledged. Welcome aboard, Andros."
He smiled a little. "Thanks...now let's rocket..."
Andros clamped his hands around his head. "Just lemme think for a minute alright?" His tone was sharp, even though the computer would never understand. As well as HEXA performed, she was nothing like DECA in that she couldn't seem to anticipate what he needed. DECA had always thought along the same lines as he. She saved him so much time by figuring out what he wanted to do, and making the proper adjustments to best fit the need. Of course she was just a computer, but she had a touch of humanity in her as well. The Megaship wouldn't have been the same without her.
But here on the Sunshine, all he had was HEXA, and he would just have to learn to live with her.
"Alright, let's try again. Set the scanners for human life in general. Exclude myself and those present back on the Outpost."
"I do not understand the reference to 'The Outpost'."
"Outpost 99, where we were six hours ago."
"Outpost 99 is now out of sensor range."
Andros sighed in misery. "Then don't worry about it! Begin scan!"
HEXA complied and Andros pinched the bridge of his nose. If this scan turned up nothing, he was going to go get a headache remedy.
This scan was broader then all the others so far. Naturally it would take longer, but after a minute, HEXA had seemingly fallen asleep. Andros waited with great impatience.
"Well?" he said finally.
HEXA bleeped. "Please rephrase the question."
"Did your scan turn up any sign of human life, HEXA?" "Affirmative, Andros," she replied.
Andros blinked. "Why didn't you say something??"
"I have said something. My last response was 'Affirmative, Andr--"
"Nevermind that! Show me the life sign!"
A star chart appeared on the viewer. Andros struggled to recognize it, but HEXA saved him the trouble. "Quadrant Six One Nine, Sector Fifty Five, Region Seven Four One Two--"
"Thank you, I see it. Show me the life reading."
"On screen," she said again.
This time, a little red dot replaced a star in the corner and began to blink calmly. Andros sat forward, heart and mind beginning to race.
"Narrow the parameters and re-scan. Questions: What is the general health and condition of the being? Is the being male or female? Go scan."
HEXA did as she was told, but replied not a moment later. "Reading is too far out of range. I cannot answer those questions."
He pursed his lips. "Alright, that's fine, we've still got the lead. Move us within the proper sensor range, Hyper Rush Eight."
"Negative I cannot comply. The life reading is beyond the borders of unfriendly space."
Andros recognized the star chart finally, and realized what the problem was.
"HEXA, update your records. We are no longer at war with the Kreebo, we can safely pass through their space."
"Understood. Updating information now," she said. "Shall I proceed with the course?"
"If it's not too much trouble."
"It is not too much trouble to--"
Ashley flattened herself against the wall and held her breath. With a shaking hand, she reached up and plucked the dart out of the side of her neck.
Wherever it came from, it had struck its mark and she was growing dizzier by the second. She lay down deliberately this time. No need to take another fall. In a few moments, the dark ceiling of her cell faded into blackness, and she fainted away.
When she woke up, she was surprised to find a new ceiling above her. This one had weak lights buzzing from behind glowing panels. She had been moved to another metal room, but this one was actually a room--not a dungeon. Slowly, Ashley began to sit up.
This room was the size of an apartment, circular, and made all of gleaming metal. A band of large windows filled the upper half of the walls, and the view outside them was breathtaking: This building was at the peak of a great mountain, cloaked by night. Scattered on the slopes far below, were thousands of tiny points of light coming from the windows of other buildings. A thousand people could have been camped there. The buildings stopped at the shore of a glittering black sea that stretched away to the horizon, and stars dimly lit the coastline.
Ashley had seen all this in a moment, and was just about to turn and complete her view, when someone grabbed her arms. Two tall figures flanked her suddenly.
They were Quantrons.
Before she could fight them off, a voice came. "Please don't struggle, Miss Hammond. You are not to be harmed."
The Quantrons turned her around and she saw the other side of the room. The windows went all the way around, showing the same ocean view. But a desk sat here. A man sat at the desk. He was a fearsome individual, decked out in black leather and shining steel. A mask hid his face from Ashley's eyes.
"Welcome to my headquarters," said the man, gesturing to the room and the island outside. "You my dear, are an honored guest."
"Who are you?" Ashley demanded. "What do you want with me?"
"One question at a time, girl. First of all, you may call me The Corruptor. Second of all...many things."
"You get right to the point, don't you? Well, the list includes information on the Power Rangers..."
Crap, he knows, Ashley thought.
"..but we can go over all that later. First, is there anything you urgently require?"
Ashley was bewildered. "Anything I require?? Where do you want me to start?"
"I was referring to health and safety needs," said The Corruptor impatiently. "Are you ill or injured in any way?"
Play the card, Ashley.
"I've been coughing. It's a little damp in that cell down there."
The Corruptor nodded. "I'll have that remedied for you...although you cannot have a different cell--"
"And your flunkies here are bruising me."
He gave her a warning look, but gestured to the Quantrons to ease up a little.
"Now, on to the business at hand--"
"Why don't you start by telling me what the hell you think you're getting away with here? If you know who I am, then you know who my friends are."
The Corruptor kept his cool, but stood up from his chair. He came around the desk and approached her, standing close enough that she had to look up at him.
"If you are smart Ashley, and I know you are, then you'll moderate your tone towards me. I do not respond well to disrespect."
"And I don't respond well to being kidnaped. You don't scare me."
"You tread on dangerous ground."
"Give me one good reason not to."
"I'll give you five," he said, and smacked her.
It wasn't a vicious slap, but it stung, and made her lip bleed. Ashley wasn't used to being slapped either. She shook with anger and did not look up at him again.
"I'm sorry to do that," he said gently. "But it was important for you to see that I would. Again, I do not respond well to disrespect."
He waited for her to snap off a harsh reply. She only brought her eyes back up to him, filling her gaze with as much disgust as possible.
He inclined his head, saying, "I've made my point." and walked calmly back to his seat. "Now that that's settled, we'll discuss future plans." He pressed a button and a trap door opened in the floor before his desk. A chair rose up on a platform. The Quantrons brought Ashley forward and pushed her down on it.
"In answer to your second initial question," said The Corruptor. "I want from you the following things: Information on the Power Rangers, information on the monetary assets held by your father, Mr. Daniel Hammond..." A dramatic pause. "..and something slightly more personal..."
The lilt in his voice told all.
"Go to hell," she snapped from her bleeding lip.
The Corruptor only smiled. "Silly girl. I run that place."
His plan was explained in all its detail. He was going to use her to gain control of the Power Rangers, who would become his personal team of enforcers in a bid to take over the planet. They would systematically kidnap a long list of world leaders, each of whom would be a link in a chain--a chain of control. By threatening the leaders' lives, the chain could be tightened around any country, or even the whole planet. And that chain would be in the hands of The Corruptor.
Ashley's father came in on a strictly financial level. It was pure coincidence that a former ranger had rich folks. The Hammond Fortune would cover any expenses incurred during the domination of the planet.
And lastly, Ashley herself was to become Mrs. Corruptor.
"It's only logical that I should make you my wife in the meantime," reasoned the supervillain. "What else would I do with a lovely female pawn?"
"You have got to be crazy..."
He was amused. "How hurtful. What makes you say that?"
"Every part of this 'Master Plan' of yours has been completely predictable. If I were still one of the Rangers, we would have kicked your butt long ago. No villain has ever gotten one of these plans to work, and I don't see any threat of that changing."
The Corruptor considered this deeply. "You're right of course. No one has ever brought one of these plans to fruition. If mine is to work, it must be different from all the others somehow. What could that difference be?"
Ashley waited while he pretended to ponder this. He stroked the chin of his mask until she rolled her eyes impatiently.
"I think I have it," he said. "The difference between those other plans and mine..."
The steel mask moved as The Corruptor's face smiled. "..that the good guys don't know."
Ashley frowned. "Excuse me?"
"The Power Rangers can't stop me because they don't know I exist. And if they even know you're missing, they certainly don't know where to look for you. We're in the best hiding place we could be. When the time comes, they won't know what hit 'em."
And with that, The Corruptor began to laugh in an insane, supervillain sort of way. He shook with laughter, the sound reverberating in the room like thunder. His insanity was the most frightening part of all this. Ashley was suddenly afraid to make him angry, because she didn't know how he might react--what painful powers he might use on her.
She thought she had given up the Ranger life--the risks and the danger. Maybe she was wrong...
Signal after signal came within range, and the ship had been through sector after sector following them. So frustrating! So disappointing. Andros knew this painful combination of feelings all too well. Was this the beginning of another decade of fruitless searching for someone he loved?
Time passed slowly at The Corruptor's headquarters as well. Locked in her cell again, Ashley paced the damp floor, wondering if her own luck had run out.
It had been a few days since she first met her captor. He was a mystery--polite and gentile at times, tall and foreboding at others, and prone to outbursts of rage when he was angered. Ashley hadn't been hit again, but the technique was been highly effective. She had been choosing her words carefully since that day.
'Day' was an odd word now. She hadn't seen daylight since the day of her capture. Whenever she was brought to The Corruptor's office, it was dark and starry outside. Maybe they only brought her out at night, or maybe this planet was in perpetual night. There was no way to tell because of all the lost time.
Whenever she was moved from her cell to the office, she was first tranquilized with a dart gun. She would wake up later in the office, to be questioned or whatever, and then tranqued again before being returned. The shot always came from the ceiling somewhere, and was always preceded by the sound of rushing water overhead. Ashley had painful sores all over her neck and collar from where the darts had struck. The poison was building in her system too, she couldn't think as clearly as before. If this went on, she would be in severe trouble.
But all hope was not lost. She did have the makings of a plan, as well as a few strange clues she didn't know what to make of.
For instance, one time, during one of The Corruptor's outbursts, he had shoved a Quantron into a wall. She could have sworn she heard the machine curse at its master, but everyone pretended like nothing happened. She might have imagined it, but she did remember.
Then, maybe a day later, she was being interrogated about the Rangers and was sitting on the platform-chair. Suddenly there was a sound like wood splitting, and the platform lurched, dumping her off. As she sat on the ground, all she could think of was why wood had been used in the construction of this great steely complex; but they tranqued her again and took her away before she could wonder any more.
Something was fishy around this place. It was not what it seemed to be.
Unfortunately, her cell was no less confining, and The Corruptor was no less demanding, and she had to act quickly if she was going to save herself.
HEXA looked on from above as the latest life signal proved to be useless. The Sunshine had been all over the galaxy by now, and its young commander was losing hope quickly.
"HEXA, calculate," he said quietly from his chair. "Given the number of signals we've investigated, and the amount of space we've covered so far, what is the probability we'll find Ashley within the next month?"
HEXA gave her familiar thinking bleep, and replied, "That figure contains too many digits to conveniently report with my vocal function."
Andros closed his eyes. This was hopeless. He could almost see how the next few years of his life would be spent--just like old times, searching for Karone. He had eventually found her, but how could he possibly be so lucky a second time?
"Suggestion," HEXA said then. It was a word he hadn't heard from her until that moment.
"What is it?" he replied.
"Suggest you look in the improbable place."
He frowned. "Excuse me?"
"You are excused," she replied dumbly, but he didn't bother to get annoyed. She had just given him a bizarre idea. She had said to look in the improbable places; true, he had been looking in all the backwater areas of space, but could he do better than that? What was the one place where he hadn't looked?
"HEXA, are you talking about Earth?"
"Probably," she said. "Earth is an improbable place to search for a missing Earther."
"You're damn right it is..." he said, his heart accelerating a little. "Okay, set course for Earth. Let's see if you're right."
The Sunshine took off moments later, and Andros took a moment to realize what HEXA had just done. She had been observing him these past few days, learning the way he thinks--and the way he doesn't think. She knew he had covered all probable search strategies but one, and finally decided to point out the last one. She had learned him, just like DECA...
Ashley had been scouring her cell for an hour now, and finally found what she was looking for. A flaw. There was a piece of paneling that had rusted a little, and this she began to pull at until a chunk came free. It was the size and shape of her hand with outstretched fingers. A few more minutes work produced another piece of metal just like it. These she bent over her knee until they were curved enough to form a tube together. Now she had a fully-functional, dart-proof neck-protector.
Ignoring the discomfort, she slipped the chunks of metal inside her turtleneck, one on each side. Thank goodness this all hadn't happened when she lived in Angel Grove, or she would have been wearing a tube top that day.
Now she hunkered down to wait, making sure her throat was properly exposed. When she heard the rushing water, she pretended to be asleep.
Right on schedule, the dart hissed through the air and struck its mark, sticking in the folds of her collar, but not penetrating the metal. She congratulated herself on her Ranger-like resourcefulness, and promptly pretended to faint.
Now came the fun part. What would happened to her when the Quantrons came? Where would the door to this cell prove to be?
As she suspected, the door was in the ceiling. With an unprofessional rusty squeal, the lid was raised and stale air wafted down to the bottom of the cell. Human voices surprised Ashley as they wondered aloud if she was asleep yet. Finally they decided she was, and lowered a ladder to the cell floor.
Ashley was ungraciously heaved over a shoulder and hauled up the ladder into that stale, dark air she smelled before. A large fan whirred somewhere in the background. Ashley was laid out on a cold canvas stretcher and the men began to haul her up a hill.
She hadn't seen any humans under the employ of The Corruptor. She only ever saw Quantrons. Why did they appear now to do the dirty work of hauling her unconscious butt around the complex? Why did they sound so young--and so familiar? No faces came to mind, but she was sure she'd heard several of these voices before; not very long ago either. They weren't aliens she knew from her Rangering days.
They didn't say much as they hauled her along, and she stayed in character, not moving an inch. This incline must be the island slope, she thought. Her pallbearers were having trouble keeping their footing though. At one point, someone slipped and the stretcher tipped, and she nearly gave herself away with a scream. Then she heard someone whisper, "Watch it, dumbass. You'll ruin this whole production if you wake her up out here."
Whatever he meant by that, the person he was chiding didn't respond.
Ashley decided to risk a peek at her surroundings.
Her head was turned to the side on the stretcher, the metal plates digging into her throat. When she opened one eye, she had to gasp.
She was flying, soaring high above the buildings of the complex. Yet still the young men walked on the ground with her stretcher in their hands. Was her addled brain playing tricks on her...or had she just learned part of The Corruptor's secret?
She closed her eyes again when they reached the top of the hill. A bit of light shone through her eyelids here, and then someone opened a door and warm air washed out; this air smelled like the office. They had arrived, and so had the moment of truth.
Earth in the viewscreen was a warm welcome. The last time Andros had seen it, he was looking out the port window of the Yugathi ship, the day they took him away to Outpost 99. That had been, what, a lifetime ago?
But Earth also posed a challenge for Andros and HEXA. Earth had the highest concentration of humans in the Galaxy. How to find one among billions of them?
HEXA knew. They were barely in orbit when she reported a probable lifesign. Using all the scan parameters they had tried before, she had found a possible match, and when Andros looked at the readout, his heart soared. He knew the numbers were hers.
"Where is she HEXA?"
"City of Brooklyn, New York State, United States, North America."
The viewer switched to an orbital shot of Brooklyn. It was night time, the dawn terminator at least two hours away. The shot adjusted to a closer view, and then a large circle began to blink.
"Is that the building she's in?"
"Any idea what it is?"
"Good enough. Hold this orbit, I'm going down."
He strode off the bridge feeling energized and ready for anything.
Ashley was brought into the office, laid down, and slid off the stretcher, then a voice began to mutter orders. It instructed that the stretcher be stowed, the ocean "refilled" and for "you guys" to "get back in costume".
Someone made a complaint about the discomfort of his costume, but Ashley didn't really hear it. She was fixated on the first voice. This time she knew it was someone she knew. Someone from the recent past. From school.
The voice stopped talking and was replaced by a new one, the voice of The Corruptor. He said, "How much stuff did you pump into her? She should be awake by now."
Someone replied dumbly, and The Corruptor brushed him off. "Nevermind. Get your helmets on and get ready."
Ashley heard movement--the sounds of Quantrons moving--and then all fell silent. This was her cue. She opened her eyes and took a breath, hoping she was a convincing enough actress. Recalling previous occasions, she looked around for a moment as if she didn't know where she was, then her eyes fixed on The Corruptor. This time, his mask hid nothing. It all came to her in a rush of recognition.
"Good to see you again my dear," he said, affecting his voice like good actors do. "I'm afraid we have no more time to waste. Today you'll hand over what you know, or..." he tsked. "..face the consequences."
What is he doing? Ashley asked herself. Sweet, savvy, ingenuous Rob! He was behind all this! All at once, Ashley was concerned for his sanity and safety, and infuriated by this pathetic stunt he had pulled.
"I've said it a hundred times, you're not getting anything from me!"
He didn't move, but she saw that stupid mask twitch a little. She had forgotten herself and provoked him. Now he would get mad and storm around and yell at her, trying to strike fear into her little heart, as usual; but he surprised her this time...he didn't get mad.
"Very well then," he said, and turned his back on her to open a metal case on the desk. Out came something shiny, which he held in front of him so she couldn't see.
"I've been very patient with you Miss Hammond. My demands were reasonable, given the circumstances, but you continue to be stubborn. Because of your obstinance, I'm forced to take more drastic action."
He turned around with a gleaming blaster in his hand. A prop obviously--but a frighteningly good one.
"This weapon is set to kill. I will now ask you one more time if you'll agree to my demands. If you refuse, I will kill you, then your father, and when I get my hands on them, your Ranger friends." He stretched out his arm and aimed the gun at her. "Now what will it be?"
Ashley let her face soften a little.
"My God Rob. You are a sick man."
At the mention of his name, the gun trembled. Rob stiffened visibly and the Quantrons all looked at each other in astonishment. They actually backed away from her.
"R-Rob?" squawked the thwarted supervillain.
"Let it go Rob, I figured you out," Ashley went on, standing up. "That's not a real gun and you're not 'The Corruptor'. None of this has been real."
"It's realer than you think!" he insisted, but Ashley just shook her head.
"It's over. I'm going to call the police and they'll take us both home. We're on Earth, in one of your film studios or something, aren't we?"
"I'm warning you Ashley!" He brandished the gun some more as she drew near. "Don't make me hurt you!"
Ashley gave him a stern look. "You know who I am Rob. Don't make me hurt you."
Suddenly, a distant alarm went off. The Quantrons looked around, and one of them said, in human voice, "Somebody's at the gate!" Everyone looked at Rob for orders, but he was frozen. Ashley took her chance. She slapped the gun out of his hand and tackled him, sending him careening backwards onto the desk. All at once the place erupted in commotion, as the "Quantrons" began to panic and The Corruptor and his prisoner wrestled frantically to subdue each other . Rob put up a good fight, but he was no space villain, and after a minute of grappling Ashley put a choke-hold on him until he passed out. His buddies in costume had been watching in horror, but now they looked like they might actually try to subdue her if she let them.
They were blocking the exit, but it was time to escape anyway. Ashley sprang up, sprinted towards the nearest window and smashed herself through.
The cheap glass shattered against the force of her leap. Her face covered, wrists turned inward, she felt herself falling for a long time before the ground rushed up to strike. She rolled until she came to a stop on the slope, and took quick stock of herself, finding only shallow cuts and bruisings from her tumble. She was lying on the slope amid the remains of the "complex", a landscape of miniature trees, streets, and buildings with lightbulbs inside. From the office it looked enormously real. Lying on top of them, Ashley felt like Gulliver. Her tumble had mowed down a great swath of them and she almost felt sorry for the imaginary Lilliputians living inside.
But there was no time to mourn for them because Rob was screaming in the office. He must have faked passing out. Ashley got up and ran, noting that the night sky was the dark interior of a bubble dome, and that the stars were specks of sunlight from outside. The "ocean" did not stretch away to the horizon, but angled mirrors made it look that way. This was all an exquisite illusion put together for her benefit. Obviously, dating a fourth-year film student with relatives in the business had been a bad idea; but how could she have known he was capable of such a grand crime?
"Ashley!!" he yelled from the broken office window. "You won't get away from me!"
Ashley didn't respond, just kept on running towards the water. The exit would be beyond those mirrors. She wasn't worried for her safety at all...until she heard the sound of a lazer blast.
It struck her square in the back like a screaming-hot fireball. Her vision went black and she pitched forward into the ocean, then she couldn't move any more. She could only float in the frigid water, suffocating, and wondering what kind of prop that could have been...
Nevertheless, he couldn't afford to worry about them now. He was running through a cluster of buildings that surrounded a huge grey bubble dome. It was the kind of building that could be set up and inflated for temporary use. Just a little more luck would allow him to get inside and find Ashley before anyone knew he was here. Still dressed in civilian clothes, he avoided the icy patches on the concrete and tried not to think about the cold.
The dome's entrance was a revolving glass door. He sprinted towards it as soon as it came into view, but suddenly, it began to turn, and a disorganized-looking bunch of Quantrons poured out. There were a dozen of them, with their heads on crooked, armor dinged and dirty, and Q-Blades held awkwardly in their hands. Andros had to stop and stare. It was the oddest sight he had ever seen. It reminded him of the time he and Zhane snuck aboard the Dark Fortress, and dressed up like Quantrons for disguise...
"Unbelievable..." Andros sighed. These weren't Quantrons. They were humans in costume. They didn't look like they knew how to fight either, or even wanted to. They just stood there, trying to look threatening, but only succeeding in scaring themselves.
Andros put his hands on his hips. "So are we going to do this the easy way or the hard way?"
They looked at each other, shivering. One of them took it as a cue to attack, coming at Andros with his Q-blade held high for a killing strike, and got a quick kick in the gut for his efforts. He was out for the count. A few others tried to attack, thinking they could outdo the last guy, but Andros stayed sharp and hurt them all some way or another. He didn't go all out on them though--these Quantrons could be subdued much more gently than regular ones.
When he was done, he checked to see that they were all properly discouraged, and picked one up by the chestplate to question it. He popped the helmet off and saw a scared teenager underneath.
"Where's the girl you're holding here?"
"I dunno what you're talking about man--!"
"Don't give me that! Do you wanna know what I'd do to you if you were a real robot?"
The kid paled, and reluctantly pointed to the dome. "She's in there, in the room on the fake hill."
"That's better. Now why don't you go call the police on me?"
Andros dropped him and turned towards the entrance...
..then the sound of lazer fire reached his ears.
Fear for Ashley surged in his mind, and he slammed through the revolving door into the warm, smelly bubble.
Once inside, his path was blocked by huge plates of grey glass standing in a circle around the main floor of the dome. The only way he could see over them was by climbing a metal staircase at his left. There was a catwalk up there, with ropes and lights and rigging attached to it. He took the stairs three at a time until his view spilled out over the wall, and he saw the great artificial island standing in the center of the arena-sized dome. Water surrounded it. The grey room the Quantron spoke about was perched on top, with tiny buildings sprinkled all around.
Suddenly though, his eyes spotted movement. Someone was climbing out of the room, through a broken glass window. This man was dressed from head to toe in black and silver, with a mask over his face, and in his hand was a blaster. As he stormed down the island slope, he tore the mask from his face angrily, and revealed a young, infuriated face, with a snarling mouth and insane blue eyes.
"Hey you!" Andros called. The man stopped dead in his tracks. "Where's Ashley? Don't play games with me either, I've had a long day..."
His surprise apparent, the angry man paused for a moment, then aimed his gun at Andros. A deadly lazer blast screamed toward the catwalk. There was only one quick option for getting out of the way--Andros jumped into the water.
He hit the surface with a chilly, painful splash!, freezing water and bubbles surrounded him for a moment. The cold tore the breath from his lungs, and he hit bottom a little harder than he wanted; but when he forced his eyes open, he could see the gunman standing at the water's edge, waiting for him to surface. Recoiling with his legs, he launched himself upward, tackling the surprised gunman from below and sending them both sprawling.
Now the two began a grappling match, vying for a submission hold and control of the gun. Just when Andros thought he had the guy beat, the gun came out and fired straight upward, knocking them apart, dazed and reeling.
They eventually got to their feet again, Andros using a lightning-fast kick to knock the gun into the water. Now the odds were back on his side. Unfortunately, his own stunned brain was not. The gunman moved too quickly, diving forward and tackling him around the middle. He felt the wind knocked out of him as they tumbled backward together, and then the water closed over his face again. This time, he wasn't allowed to come up.
The blue-eyed man held him in a bear-hug from behind, keeping his face below the surface. He kicked and fought and struggled, but underwater he could get no leverage. He couldn't even get his legs under him to throw the guy off. Bit by bit the air leaked from his lungs, and the pressure built till he was ready to burst. His vision began to fade and the strength left his body as he succumbed to his oxygen-starved fate...
Then suddenly, something struck the gunman from behind, and Andros was released. He used his last ounce of strength to bob to the surface while a few violent splashes came from behind. Then they died down, and the only sound was Andros sucking deep gulps of air.
He bobbed there with his chin in the water, until hands grasped his shoulders and turned him around. He was able to look up and see the face of his savior.
"My hero," she said with a smile.
Police cars and ambulances filled the lot a half hour later. The sun was rising, warming the air a little bit. Red flashes were cast about on the icy pavement. One by one, every single Quantron had been rounded up and "The Corruptor" was regaining consciousness in the back of a police car. Slowly but surely, things were being sorted out.
Meanwhile, Andros had escaped questioning to find the ambulance where his friend would be. Now they sat together, wrapped in blankets on the tailgate.
"How did he pull it off?" Andros wanted to know. "It was good enough to fool me into wandering all over the galaxy looking for a new supervillain."
Ashley took a deep breath to explain. "He's always been a resourceful kind of guy. His first-year film won awards at three student film festivals. He's been working on this latest project for months, a 'Sci-Fi Epic', but he kept it all under wraps. Nobody knew a thing, which was the way it had to be to pull off a crime at the same time."
But Andros was not satisfied. "Ashley, the Quantron armor. The piece of the joint I found. The stun-gun. How could he have gotten all these things?"
Clearly she hadn't come up with an answer for that yet. "Maybe..." she said. "Maybe you were right to suspect a new evil. Maybe Zordon's purge wasn't absolute after all..."
The weight of this theory registered on his face. It agonized them to believe Zordon's sacrifice hadn't been all it was meant to be, despite the obvious good it had done.
Ashley's spine still ached from being shot. Both their throats hurt from the lungfulls of water. All they wanted to do now was forget the troubles of the past few weeks, so Andros patted down her fluffy, short hair as it dried in the cold.
"You cut it," he marveled. She smiled, noticing his approval.
"I needed a new look," she explained. "I was making a lot of changes when I left Angel Grove."
His face clouded with thought for a moment, then he reached inside his blanket to pull out a soggy envelope. "I got your letter..." he said, studying it carefully. "I don't know how you managed it, but it got to me."
Ashley seemed mesmerized. "Can I see?" He handed it to her.
She stared at it quietly for a moment, sending herself back in time to the day she sealed her message inside, printing Andros's name on the front but not knowing what address to put under it. The ink had leaked everywhere now, blurring into an unrecognizable smudge. No doubt the words inside were ruined too, but they had done their work. They had been written with the intent to call Andros back, and that is what they did.
Andors gazed longingly at her until she flung the envelope away. It landed in a puddle and sank. "I don't need it anymore. It did what it was supposed to do."
Andros began to nod. "It brought me to you."
She smiled her old smile. "Exactly."
He took a deep breath and stared at the Police Car where Rob sat in handcuffs in the backseat. "I'm sorry for what happened between you two. I know you loved him."
She followed Andros's gaze to the car. "Who told you I loved him?"
"Your friend Dawn. You and I didn't really let go when we said goodbye, so when I got your letter I figured you were trying to break things off once and for all....but I came anyway to see for myself. I'm glad it let me save you but I didn't mean to interfere--"
She was smiling and blushing as she listened, and finally cut him off with a finger to his lips. "Andros, Dawn made me go out with him," she laughed. "I was gloomy as hell trying to get over you, so she tried to cheer me up with one blind date. It was a disaster."
He blinked while a few pieces of this story were rewritten in his mind. "He isn't your boyfriend?"
She shook her head. "Have you found another girl yet?"
"No, of course not."
Her stare was the one he had been waiting to see all this time--the one that told him how badly he was still wanted.
Under the distracted gaze of the paramedics and Quantrons, they slid into each other's arms and kissed deeply, desperately; the way lost-lovers should. Then Andros tucked his face in her cheek, and whispered an idea which made her blink rapidly in surprise.
"What about school?" she whispered back.
"I could wait three more years," he answered. "If I had to."
"Well...what about my family, everything? Andros this is huge..."
He gave her a reassuring squeeze. "I've always wanted this, and you could do so much more good this way. You just have to decide if its worth giving up what you might have here."
Her face went into turmoil for a moment, then she squeezed a little tighter. "Stay with me in New York for awhile, and I'll think about it, ok?"
"As long as it takes..." he promised.
One month later, a ship touched down on the sturdy new skyport outside Andros and Karone's home. The two current residents got up from their shady tree in the backyard, and ventured out onto the porch to see if another delivery had arrived.
Instead, a familar young woman hopped out onto the landing deck and began to descend the stairs.
"Ashley!" cried Karone, bounding across the front lawn. She pounced on her old friend, nearly knocking her over, and crushed her with a delighted hug. Meanwhile Zhane caught up and wrapped his arms around both girls for good measure. "I can't believe you're here!" Karone sang.
"I can't believe it either!" Ashley replied. "This place is so beautiful..!"
Zhane's face glowed with humor. "It takes a place like this to grow a couple of beauties like these two." He put one arm around Karone and nodded to Andros coming down the stairs. Andros punched him lightly in the shoulder, then hugged his sister gratefully.
"So the quest was worth it?" she whispered in his ear.
"More than you know," he said.
Together they led Ashley up the walk between rows of budding bushes to the porch, where planters overflowed with bloom. Inside, Andros found himself speechless at what he saw.
All the makeshift furniture was gone, replaced by some of the most beautiful antiques he had ever seen. Rich mahogany tables, tall wood-and-glass cabinets filled with gleaming china, lush rugs of all different colors, and even a crystal chandelier. It hung over the diningroom table, which now sat before the back windows draped in a lace tablecloth.
"Zhane, is that..?"
"Your Grandma's chandelier. It was buried in the backyard with just a few beads missing."
"Does it work?"
Andros shook his head in awe. The purr of that lamp was the most comforting of all his childhood memories. He really had come home.
Zhane and Karone led them around the house some more, showing them the old treasures they had uncovered, and the new ones they had found. The four bedrooms were each finished as well, with carved oak beadsteads like the ones they used to own. The house was bursting with beautiful things to see.
"There's lots left to do though," Zhane warned, as they paused in the kitchen. "That vegetable garden is still a disaster."
"There's a vegetable garden?" Ashley beamed. "Can I plant chives somewhere?"
He and Karone blinked. "Are you gonna be around to take care of them?"
"Yes, what do you think I'm doing here? Andros asked me to stay and help get KO-35 back on its feet."
The room fell silent a moment, then filled up with delighted laughter and the welcoming hugs were renewed. "Hey, way to go, Andros..." Zhane joked, but his friend wasn't really listening. He was staring out into the front room, thinking about how good it would be when he found his parents again. He had such wonderful gifts to show them.