There was anticipation in TJ's voice. Unfortunately Andros couldn't hear him over the din.
"What?" the Red Ranger shouted, leaning closer and getting a face full of greasy fumes.
"I said you've never tasted anything like one of these!"
The boys were huddled next to one of the dozens of hot dog concessions at the Angel Grove Exposition, the annual carnival that brought tourists and their dollars from miles around, every July. Colored lights and pounding music made their heads spin, and the joyful screaming of ride patrons only added to the noise. It was nighttime, but even though the sky was clear, not a single star was visible from the fairgrounds. Angel Grove's astronomy buffs weren't big supporters of the Ex.
The tiltawhirl spun nearby, as did the "Chakram". A roller coaster called "The Phoenix" roared by on it's tracks overhead (making Andros nervous), and towering above it all was the giant Ferris wheel, boasting to be the largest in the state. Carlos, Cassie and Ashley were off somewhere, scaring themselves to death and filling their stomachs with "cotton candy", while TJ insisted on treating Andros to another Expo tradition: the Double Dog.
The Red Ranger watched in disgust and fascination as the hot dog wiener was lifted dripping from the grill, settled in it's bread shell, and then buried in remarkably unappetizing condiments. TJ kept insisting on more "sauerkraut" until the vendor threatened to charge him extra for it. Finally the masterpiece was done, and handed across the cart to the hungry men. TJ simply beamed.
"DECA would bust a board trying to re-create one of these. Here, knock yourself out."
He thrust the sloppy thing into Andros' hands, and the Kerovan eyed it suspiciously. "That's just what I was afraid of"
Defeated, Andros took a deep breath and raised the Double Dog to his mouth. He supposed TJ knew what he was doing, and it couldn't possibly be harmful could it? Ludicrously fattening yes, but safe...hopefully. There was only one way to find out.
"Andros, no!!" cried a voice. He was so startled he nearly dropped the Double Dog, which TJ immediately tried to rescue. The others were running towards them, Cassie in the lead, with a huge toy python draped around her neck. She bounced to a halt, shot TJ a glare, and then turned to her space-faring friend.
"Andros, what do you think you're doing? Do you have any idea what one of those Double Dogs will do to you??"
Andros looked at TJ in alarm, but the Blue Ranger simply waved her off. "Cassie, they're harmless...!"
"Maybe for you!" Carlos smirked. "But some of us like to treat our bodies like temples, not nuclear waste facilities!"
"Andros isn't used to this kind of food." Cassie scolded, taking the thing away from him and handing it back to TJ. "He's used to Synthetron food, which doesn't have insane amounts of salt and MSG and...sauerkraut...to foul up your plumbing. He'll be regretting it for a week if he eats one of these!"
Carlos pulled back from the smell of it. "Not to mention overloading the ventilation ducts in his quarters."
Cassie took Andros by the arm and shoved him towards Ashley. "You go with her, she's trying to win herself a souvenir and won't expose you to any harmful substances in the meantime. Carlos, let's go check out that new coaster ok? TJ can stay by himself until he's disposed of that thing."
He smirked at her and took a huge bite of it just to see her reaction. She was appropriately grossed out.
"If you survive till it's gone, come and find us ok? See ya later..."
She and Carlos took off at a jog, making her python and his shark toy fight a mock battle between them. Meanwhile, TJ took another bite of hot dog, gave his remaining friends a wink and offered, "I hear the Tunnel of Love is back in town this year..."
Ashley waved her hand in front of her face. "No enclosed spaces for you, Pepto Boy. See you after the Ex and I'll buy you some Lax."
He simply spouted an evil laugh and walked away towards the kissing booth. Ashley shook her head and lead Andros toward the midway.
They strolled down the promenade for a few minutes, observing the rows of enticing games on either side. Many were crowded with people playing games of "chance" and trying to win one of the seductive prizes hung thick around the booth. People threw darts and tossed softballs and flung rings and casted fishing poles, and occasionally someone walked by with a prize even larger than Cassie's vinyl snake. But Ashley had played many of these games already, and none been forthcoming with a toy. She was a little disenchanted with the carnival by now.
Andros shook his head slightly as he walked. "Don't these people realize they're being cheated out of their money?"
"Maybe," Ashley shrugged. "Doesn't stop them though."
They watched a child burst into tears as her last ring throw failed to win her a prize. "Don't they understand how pointless it is to try and win? I'll bet ninety percent of these games are rigged to make success impossible no matter how skilled the player is."
Ashley shook her head. "People like to take their chances, Andros. Everyone wants to be the person carrying the biggest toy home."
He just shook his head at the carnival patrons throwing their money away.
"Come on, why does anyone gamble? Why do you play Zenta?"
"Zenta is a true game of chance. You never know if the cards will come up in your favor or not. Unless you're cheating of course, which is what most of these vendors are doing." They fell silent as Ashley digested this, and they continued down the aisle listening to the sounds of the midway.
Slowly though, a mischievous smile spread over the Yellow Ranger's features. She took Andros' arm and pulled him towards a booth just ahead.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"Over here," she replied. "To swindle the swindlers."
38 year old Jim Brewer, A.K.A. Shecky the Ball Toss Knave, watched as the pretty young highschooler with the perky hair dragged her quiet-looking boyfriend towards his stall. Silently he gauged the girl's clothing and appearance, and decided she must have a rich mommy or daddy financing her trip to the fair. Straightening his jester costume which he had tailored himself, he turned to his young daughter and said "Go around back honey, and we'll go out for ice cream later. How's that sound?"
Six year old Katie sat on the ground behind the counter, playing with a couple of gaming balls. At the prospect of ice cream, the slim brunette cherub grinned at her father and obeyed, skipping out of the booth and flouncing behind to their trailer, out of the way.
"G'day, m'lord and lady!" Shecky cried, sliding off his stool to bow to his patrons. "Try your luck at a game of skill and chance this fine summer eve?"
The girl gave her boyfriend a knowing grin. "You bet we will. But um, what do we have to do to win one of those...?"
She pointed to the bank of prizes on display at the back. Her eyes were gleaming at the enormous yellow Koala Bear at the top of the heap.
"Why not the slightest effort m'lady! Simply throw as many of these vibrant spheres as you can, into those golden goblets at the back there, and you'll be sure to take home a new friend tonight. What say you?"
The girl was already fishing in her purse. "I say, lemme at 'em."
With a courteous bow, Jim took up three spray painted softballs and gave his little demonstration, throwing them with ease into the plastic cups at the back. Little did the kids know, they would not be playing with these gaming balls. They would be given the ones without weights to keep them from bouncing out of the cups again.
He finished the display with a flourish, and bowed again when the girl applauded. Then he bent over to get the unweighted balls from under the counter.
While he was down there, he heard the boy whisper, "You see what he's doing? Simple sleight of hand!"
Jim waited until the girl shushed him before he stood up again and pretended not to have heard.
"There you be, m'lady. Show yer beau just what a girl is made of!"
Taking careful aim, she drew back and prepared to fire the first ball. Jim didn't notice her companion absently tucking back his hair and pointing two fingers in her direction.
The ball left her hand just as gracefully as you please, and Jim watched respectfully, as if he didn't know what would happen next. But halfway through it's arc, he thought he saw the ball pause...catch in mid air as if met with some resistance. It continued on however, with gravity-defying slowness, finally coming to rest in one of the goblets at the front. Jim could do nothing but stare for a few moments, while the girl clapped and bounced on her toes in triumph. Then she proceeded to "throw" the remaining balls into the goblets in the same mind-boggling fashion while her mute companion stood by and watched. A stranger sight Jim had never seen.
When she was done, she looked at him expectantly and jerked her head towards the yellow Koala Bear. Still in a stupor, he went to the back wall, unclipped the toy from its rack and handed it down to her, watching a mischievous grin go between the young couple.
But suddenly, there was a loud thud! as something hit the back wall from behind. Several toys fell off their shelves, tumbling to the ground, and Jim forgot about the strange game he had just sold. The sound had come from the trailer.
"Katie?" he called, abandoning his Shecky the Knave voice. There was no immediate reply. "Katie, what's going on back there?" Jim started around to check on his daughter's well being, while the teens looked at each other questioningly.
All at once, there was a scream and the sound of glass splintering. "Dadeeeee!!" came Katie's terrified howl, and Jim's hair stood on end as he saw a dark figure dash out from behind the booth and run away in the shadows. It was holding a kicking and screaming child in its arms.
"Katie!!" he shouted. "Daddy's coming!"
Before he could move though, a hand grabbed his arm. "Sir, we'll take care of this! Stay with your booth!" It took him a moment to recognize the girl's voice. She shoved the Koala Bear back into his hands while her friend pounded after the kidnapper like a rocket-fueled cheetah. Then the girl ran off after him, following close behind.
Andros' breath was loud in his ears as he pursued the kidnapper. Shecky's booth was on the edge of the midway, so Andros was able to chase the villain out of the Expo and away from any places to hide. They dashed across the empty part of the field, where no floodlights showed them the way.
The distance between them was widening, the abductor being a bit more fleet of foot than the Red Ranger. The only thing keeping Andros on the right track was the constant screaming of the little girl, and he prayed he could keep up until he was far enough from the carnival to Morph.
"I'm calling the others!" came Ashley's voice, breathless behind him. He heard her break off her pursuit and activate her communicator, but then he turned his attention back to the task at hand.
The abductor was leading them towards a power facility of some kind; a geometric forest of wires and scaffolding fifty feet away. Andros might be at a disadvantage there since the abductor might try to climb his way to safety, potentially hurting himself or the girl in the process. The only upside was that the power station was lit brilliantly by floodlights, making hiding tough to find.
Risking a glance over his shoulder, Andros judged himself far enough away from the fair, and safe from prying eyes. In mid-run he extended his left arm and cried,
AGDWP Station #119 was silent when the Red Ranger arrived on the scene. He paused a moment to catch his breath, then started forward, prowling for signs of the abductor or abductee. The little girl's cries had stopped, though they continued to ring in Andros' mind.
The power station was indeed a strange-looking forest, with its high canopy of wires, tall structuring reaching for the sky, and hard concrete floor. Shadows crisscrossed everything, cast down through the scaffolds, and gave the place an extra touch of eerie-ness.
Andros had followed the abductor through a hastily-torn hole in the fence, which almost looked to have been burned into being. The abductor might have managed it if he had some kind of electric cutters on hand, but otherwise it was remarkable how he had gotten through so fast. Now there was no sign of him or the child, and a growing feeling of unease was in the air.
A distant clang made Andros jump. He whirled defensively toward it, but there was nothing to see. Cautiously he kept on moving, wishing his heart would quit pounding so loudly. Wondering what was keeping the others, he passed beneath one of the large cylindrical transformers perched high overhead. From that great height, a large, dark figure suddenly fell, landing with the gracefulness of a cat behind the Red Ranger. Andros whirled barely in time, and narrowly missed being skewered by a long slender blade.
He leaped out of the way and executing a graceful roll, coming up to the sound of throaty, evil laughter. He snapped into a defensive posture, fixing on his attacker who simply stood waiting in the shadows where he landed. His silhouette was tall, heavy, and bulkier than any human's should have been. All Andros could see were a pair of slit, glowing red eyes staring out at him like a demon's.
"Darkonda..." Andros snarled, his face twisting beneath his mask.
The figure did not reply, simply craning his body to look upwards, and then extending his sword to the sky. Before Andros' eyes, the sword grew to twice it's length and began to glow with energy. Then it spat forth a great burst of power which traveled upward, slamming into the transformer with a deafening explosion.
Sparks rushed skyward as a blast of heat struck Andros and made him shield his eyes. He scrambled backward to avoid being cooked, but saw that Darkonda no longer stood beneath the exploding transformer device. The mutant monster now watched from far away, still hidden by shadow, laughing devilishly at the destruction he had caused. With a feral grin, he looked at Andros and cried, "Till our paths cross again, Red Ranger; it's time we came full circle! Fourth time the charm!"
Then he was gone, vanishing in a dark ripple of energy.
Back at the fairgrounds, lights, music, rides and everything electric began to shut down one machine at a time. People yelled their annoyance from the top of the still Ferris wheel, roller coasters coasted to a halt in the valleys, and children screamed as the funhouse went dark, trapping them inside. The sounds of the carnival grew quiet for a moment, then were gradually replaced by the rising chorus of protest from it's patrons. Anyone who wasn't complaining was too busy wondering what the glowing explosion at the power station had been for. Moments passed as Andros let Darkonda's words echo in his mind. The power had shut down here too, and now the only light came from the soft blue of the moon.