T.J. Edwards, the Blue Space Ranger, ducked into the store and glanced around, shaking some water off his head as he did so. It wasn't heavily populated in here today, for which he was grateful. He'd been in here some days when there were so many other patrons he hadn't been able to get his favorite magazine.
I wonder what the other Rangers would think, he mused as he twisted his way around the racks to what was commonly referred to as the 'adult' section. His eyes almost automatically blipped over a hunched over figure in a trenchcoat browsing through the racks. What would they think if they knew that me, T.J. Edwards, the former Red Turbo Ranger, now the Blue Space Ranger, reads things like this?
He chuckled to himself softly as he stopped in front of the rack he was looking for. Latest issue, latest issue, he mused, scanning the dates on the magazine covers. He didn't have a lot of time, the others would probably come looking for him soon, and he wanted to get his purchase secured and be out of there before that happened. I really should have come sooner, but I didn't have time. We had to get spare parts for the MegaZord, and restock the synthetron's basic food supplies, get caught up with our families, and there was that monster attack the other day.
T.J. winced to himself even as he thought that, a bruise twitching as he did so. Astronema's latest monster had slammed him hard up against a telephone pole, and even the sickbay and a Ranger's accelerated healing couldn't get rid of all the bruising. I'll have to move faster next time, he thought absently, picking up one of the magazines and checking out the cover quickly. Ohh, doesn't look too bad. He'd wished every now and then that they didn't come wrapped up in plastic, but he guessed that was for the best. If they weren't, then people could just read through them without paying. He looked up quickly when the bell over the door sounded, and relaxed when it turned out to not be one of the others. Though I don't think Andros would mind. If he even KNEW or cared what these were.
He headed up to the checkout counter and nodded pleasantly at the cashier as she started to ring him up. In the six months he'd been buying Playboy he'd never been asked his age or to show his I.D., and he was profoundly grateful. As he handed over his money, the cashier spoke pleasantly, "Haven't seen you around for a while, T.J."
"I've been sort of busy," he replied just as pleasantly and casually. "Personal stuff."
She nodded as she slid his magazine into a bag and handed it to him, the receipt tucked inside. "There you go. See you next month?"
His answer was never heard, however, since right then was when the stranger he'd half-noticed in the back threw off his trenchcoat and stood revealed as the mutated Elgar! T.J. swore under his breath, wishing he could morph. "Maybe, maybe not!" Astronema's stupidest henchman declared, waving his arm and calling up a very large batch of Quantrons. "Quantrons, attack!"
"Just what I always wanted," T.J. growled as he dodged away from the robotic things. "To get trapped in the bookstore with these things!" he threw a glance up to the cashier, who was huddling behind the counter in abject terror. "You'd better get out of here! I can handle these things!"
She looked as if she were about to protest, when T.J. turned and delivered a fairly nasty spin kick to a Quantron's midsection, causing it to fly back into a rack of Sports Illustrated. That was all it took to get her out of there, and that was all T.J. needed.
"I paid six bucks for this thing," he grumbled, stuffing his magazine into a pocket of his jacket, "and you metal jerks are not going to mess it up!"
"Get him, Quantrons, get him!" Elgar urged the creatures towards him. T.J. noticed out of the corner of his eye that the monster was holding a couple of magazines of his own, and if it weren't for the fact he had four Quantrons to deal with, he would've laughed.
I would have never imagined that Elgar would pick up Playboy AND Playgirl. I wonder. . .a sudden image popped into his head of Astronema sitting casually on the deck of the Dark Fortress, paging through Playgirl. The distraction was almost too much, however, when a Quantron got through his guard and slammed a metal fist into his stomach.
"Okay, that does it!" T.J. backflipped to behind the counter and pulled the communimorpher, as Ashley had taken to calling the combined communicator and keypad with which they morphed, up to his mouth. "Guys! This is T.J., I'm in the bookstore across from the Surf Spot, and I've got a boatload of Quantrons to deal with! I need some help!"
Before an answer came, he found himself being knocked almost through the counter, by Ecliptor. Oh, wonderful, he growled to himself. I wonder who ELSE is going to show up?
"Having a few problems, Blue Ranger?" the crystalline creature almost seemed to purr. "All by yourself?"
"The only problem I'm having is your bad breath!" T.J. retorted, jumping to his feet and looking around to make sure no civilians we're near. "Let's rocket!"
When the flash of blue light that signaled his transformation was over with, he found that he was no longer alone: the other Rangers had joined him. "When did these guys learn how to read?" Carlos quipped as he fell into his usual fighting stance.
"I think they're just here to look at the pictures!" Cassie giggled as she punched a Quantron in the metallic version of it's guts and threw it over her shoulder, just missing Andros, who was having it out with Ecliptor again.
T.J. was supremely glad that his helmet concealed the serious blush that was spreading across his dark features at that little comment.
"Idiots," Astronema hissed to herself as she watched the fight below on the monitors. "If that idiot Elgar tears my magazine, I'm going to feed him to Scrudly again." the Princess of Evil knew she should've went to get the latest issue of Playgirl herself, but she'd been busy planning out her next attack against the Power Rangers and couldn't spare the time.
She paced briefly, her thoughts turning this way and that. How could she defeat them? If she didn't, Dark Spectre would have her hide, in more pieces than she was inclined to give to him.
She shoved away thoughts of defeat; she would destroy them, and she would be elevated to the position of Queen of Evil! Divatox has had it for too long anyway!
Astronema glanced up as Ecliptor and Elgar returned with the remains of the Quantrons. "Couldn't even beat one Ranger!" she growled. "Well, no matter. Just get out of my sight for now. I've got more important things to worry about than you."
Elgar was about to walk off the bridge, when Astronema snapped her fingers sharply. "Elgar! My magazine!"
"Oh, yeah, right, boss!" the idiot tossed her the magazine she'd been waiting for and wandered off about his stupid business. The lavender haired villainess quickly ripped off the plastic, turned to the centerfold, and licked her lips.
Oh, my, but this is nice. . .Earth does have some good things about it after all. . .
Once they were back on the MegaShip, after helping to repair the damage the fight had caused to the bookstore, Ashley asked T.J., "What were you in there for anyway? Stocking up on some books before we head off into space for the long haul?"
They'd just finished up school for the year, and were going to be spending the summer in space, looking for Zordon. DECA and Alpha would let them know when it was time to return, if they were still searching for the captive Eltarian mentor in three months. They all hoped that by then, their search would be over and their enemies defeated. Or at least Zordon rescued.
"Yeah," the Blue Ranger picked up the small bag of possessions he was going to be decorating his room with. It wasn't a very big room; heck, at his uncle's house on Earth he had seen larger closets. But it was all his for at least the next three months, and he was going to make it as much of a home as he could. "We can't train constantly!"
"We should," Andros' voice came from behind him, and T.J. almost jumped. "We're going to have to be on the alert constantly to find Zordon," there was a slight hint of confusion in his tone; the Red Ranger had never quite understood just what his new friends saw in so many small possessions. He made do with the barest of essentials himself.
T.J. didn't say anything, nor did any of the others as they started to their rooms. It didn't take him long to get things set up in there; but from the noise coming from Ashley and Cassie's rooms, the two female Rangers were going to be a while.
At least we didn't have to pack clothes, he thought, setting up a small picture of his family on the tiny nightstand. The shipboard uniforms are good enough. He'd never really thought about Rangers being a military sort of thing until he and the others had launched into their spacequest. Andros had told them that this uniform had been the traditional garb of the Space Rangers of KO-35 for as far back as they could remember, when on the MegaShip.
I sure hope we do find Zordon, he thought, pulling more things out of his bag and arranging them around the room. If Dark Spectre drains all of his power. . .the Blue Ranger shivered at the thought, then stopped suddenly, staring at what was in his hands. It didn't look like much, but it had quite literally shaken him to his core.
A calendar. A small calendar was all it was, with a date circled in blue and a notation on it. He stared at it. He'd completely and utterly forgotten about it. "How could I forget my own birthday?" he whispered to himself. There it was, in plain lettering. June 18th, 1998. His sixteenth birthday. In three days. The same day that they would be blasting off to start their three months in space on search.
And no one knows about it but me, he thought. He hadn't known any of his friends a full year yet, he realized. Cassie, Ashley, and Carlos, he'd known for eight months. Andros, he had known for less than six weeks. And none of them knew when his birthday was. Then again, I don't think I know when any of THEIRS are either!
"Hey, Teej!" he turned around to see Carlos standing in the doorway, a basketball in his hands. "Want to go shoot some hoops on the Simudeck?"
"Sure," he glanced around, checking to make certain everything was in place and wouldn't be sliding around when the MegaShip went careening through the universe. The way Andros kicks it into high gear when we catch sight of the Dark Fortress sometimes, I'm surprised we don't burn the twice the fuel we do. Or get a speeding ticket. He just managed to stifle a chuckle at that thought as he caught the ball Carlos was tossing towards him.
Carlos peered around the room as T.J. caught the ball, casually checking out things. He wasn't by nature nosy, but when someone lived literally down the hall from you, it was human nature to want to know what their room looked like. His eyes were almost hypnotically drawn to the calendar on the wall, and he raised one eyebrow. "Thursday's your birthday?"
"Yeah," he shrugged a little. "Gonna be sixteen."
The Black Ranger made no outward motions, but inside he was already churning with excitement and ideas. I'm gonna have to talk to the others about this, he thought as they headed for the Simudeck. "Happy birthday in advance then," was all he said. I've always wanted to throw someone a party!
It was late that night on the MegaShip before Carlos was able to talk to any of the others without T.J. around. The Blue Ranger had went to bed early, and Cassie and Ashley both looked as if they were going to head off that way any minute. Except for the one incident in the bookstore, there had been nothing heard from Astronema all that day.
"It's getting late," Andros declared, standing up. "I think you guys should turn in." they all knew that he wouldn't be, he was going to be scanning still for his sister.
Carlos cleared his throat a little. "Guys, I've got something to tell you. It's about T.J."
Everyone turned their attention to him at once. Cassie raised one eyebrow. "What is it?"
"His birthday's coming up," he told them. "He's going to be sixteen on Thursday, and I think we should do something for him."
Andros frowned a little. "What do you mean, do something?"
"You know, throw a party or something!" Ashley piped up, her eyes dancing with the thought of it. "A surprise party!"
"That's just what I was thinking," Carlos grinned. "We're still close enough to Earth to teleport back there and get the supplies for it, or we can just make them here on the ship."
The Red Ranger cleared his throat. "Just how are birthdays celebrated on your world?" he asked when everyone looked at him.
"Well, usually with parties, food, and gifts," Cassie told him. "How were they done where you're from?"
"It varied, depending on how old the person was," Andros responded levelly, though they could see a slight pain in his eyes at remembering his home. "Children were generally given toys and tested to see how skilled they've become in whatever psychic ability they had. When we grew older, other things were given," he refrained from mentioning just what some of those 'other things' were. He'd been around the Earth Rangers long enough to know how they would react to some things, and he didn't think the traditional sixteenth birthday gift was something they might want to hear about just now. But I think it would be something T.J. might appreciate.
The Rangers glanced at each other; they weren't stupid, they could figure out their strange friend was holding things back. Just what those things might be, they each privately decided they would most likely be better off not knowing. Carlos broke the slightly uncomfortable silence that had arisen once Andros finished speaking.
"So, are we going to throw him a party or not? And if so, does he know about it?"
"Why shouldn't he?" Andros frowned. "Is there some custom against it or something?"
Cassie shook her head. "Not always. Sometimes the person knows they're going to have a party, and sometimes they don't. When they don't, it's called a surprise party, and usually the people who are throwing it pretend to have forgotten the birthday person's special day."
"Why don't we do it as a sort of semi-surprise?" Ashley suggested. "We wish him a happy birthday and all of that, maybe even get him small gifts, but we also get really special ones, and plan out a big party that he doesn't know about? That way, he knows we care, and he's surprised at the same time!"
Andros still looked a bit dubious as they all agreed to the Yellow Ranger's plan, and Cassie made a mental note to explain things in much more detail to their leader and friend as soon as possible. "We can even have it on the Simudeck!" Carlos added. "Heck, that would be the easiest, cause it can just generate anything we need! And I think I know what I'm going to get for him!"
"I think it's getting late," Andros said suddenly, glancing at the clock prominently displayed on one of the screens. "We've still got a few days left, and time to plan this out properly, when we've all rested."
No one was overly surprised to see him head over to the scanning systems and start programming DECA once again to search for his sister. As they started to their own rooms, Ashley glanced at the blue door they passed. A slight pang touched her heart. I wish Justin had come with us, even though Andros only had four spare powers. I just miss him. . .even as she thought that, she knew what her gift to T.J. was going to be, and smiled.
"Ow!" was the standard first word out of the four Earth-originating Rangers every morning, and the next one was no different as T.J. hit his head on the low hanging ceiling over his bunk. He quickly wiggled his way out from under it and stretched, trying to work out the inevitable kinks that came with sleeping in there.
"Good morning, T.J.," the computerized voice of DECA came with the usual morning report. "It is currently seven a.m. in Angel Grove, and Andros, Cassie, and Carlos are awake and in the dining area already. Will you be requiring your usual morning simulation in the Simudeck?"
The Blue Ranger shook his head. "I don't think so, I think I can skip one day without it," he yawned a little, he'd been having the strangest dreams all the previous night. I saw Erutan and Justin and the old Rangers and. . .he shivered a little, fighting back a tear at the memory of his dream, and a memory from the destruction of the Power Chamber. Lightning Cruiser. He would never admit it to anyone, but he missed that sentient car. The two of them had been friends, as much as you could be friends with a car.
I wish I at least had some idea of what's happened to him and Storm Blaster. Last we saw them, they were in that fight. . .he clenched his fists, trying hard not to think too hard about it. If only they'd been able to find the two of them, if they had some clue as to what had happened to them. . .
He took a deep breath, shaking his head. He was probably never going to find out. He had to deal with it.
"Good morning, T.J.," he heard a far too perky voice coming from behind the closed doors. There was only one person who could possibly sound like that at this hour. ..
"Good morning, Ashley," he pulled his uniform jacket on and thumbed the door open to the smiling face of his yellow-coated teammate. "Or at least morning," he smiled a bit weakly.
She looked with concern at him. "Something wrong?"
"Not really," he shook his head. "Just thinking about old times and old friends."
Ashley's eyes were keen, and she touched just under one of his eyes gently. "You were thinking about the fight at the Power Chamber, weren't you?" she said quietly, her voice showing just a touch of raggedness. That day ranked as the worst of her life, just as the day she'd been chosen as a Power Ranger ranked as the best.
"Yeah," he sighed a little as they started down the hall. "I can't help but think of that as the greatest failure I've ever had."
The Yellow Ranger put a hand on his shoulder and shook her head. "It wasn't. There wasn't anything you could do, there had to have been a thousand Piranatrons there, and Divatox was there too, Elgar, Rygog, Porto. We'd lost Dimitria and the Blue Senturion, we hadn't seen the Phantom Ranger in two months by then. It was the very worst possible time for the attack, and you did the very best you could."
T.J. sighed again, trying not to show the pain he usually kept hidden deep inside himself about this. "I guess. It doesn't usually hit me like this, I was just thinking about some dreams I had, that's all."
The last sentence he said was heard as he and Ashley entered the main room where the others were having breakfast. Andros glanced over to him curiously. "What were you dreaming about?"
T.J. almost flinched. "Nothing important," he tried to sound flippant. "So, what are we going to do today?"
"I was thinking we could---" Carlos' voice was interrupted by Andros.
"If whatever you were dreaming about was what was causing you to scream in your sleep last night 'Lightning Cruiser, no!', then I think we should discuss your dream," the Red Ranger said evenly. Cassie, Ashley, and Carlos all looked from T.J. to Andros as he spoke, and the Blue Ranger went completely stiff.
When he moved again, he brought his plate quietly to the table and sat down. He couldn't look at the others as he started eating, but he could almost feel their eyes on him. He wanted a chance to think things through before he actually answered.
"T.J.," Andros said quietly, and the Ranger from Earth just nodded slowly, understanding what the Red Ranger was saying.
He took a long, deep breath, glancing from one of his friends to the other, taking in their faces. Only three of those there had been there that day, but Andros was perhaps the one who needed to hear this the most. He hadn't been very forthcoming about his own past, but maybe this would bring him out as well. . .
"Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster were two sentient cars that had allied themselves with us while we were defending Earth from Divatox," he said quietly. "Storm Blaster usually was driven by the Blue Turbo Ranger, Justin Stewart. He didn't come with us into space. Lightning Cruiser. .. he and I were a team," his fists clenched suddenly and harshly. "I was the only one he ever let drive him. We'd fly together . .."
The others from Earth perhaps weren't too surprised to see tears shining in his eyes. Andros just looked at his friend, still calm. "And?"
"O. ..on the day of the last fight," T.J. was literally forcing himself to speak now, forcing his thoughts away from the happy times he'd spent with Lightning Cruiser, to that last horrible day. "They showed up at the fight. No one called them, they were just there. I remember the Piranatrons throwing nets. . .," the tears were streaming down his cheeks now. "And then I didn't see them anymore. . .we n. . .never saw them again after that. . ."
T.J. knew it was somewhat childish, but he didn't care. He shoved his plate to the side and buried his face in his arms, crying tears he'd held in for six weeks. "Last night," he continued through his tears. "I could see Lightning Cruiser again, in the fight. Only this time, I saw Divatox standing next to him, and s. .she...she destroyed him. ..he blew . .bl..blew up. ..," tears ripped down his cheeks, tearing into his heart.
He didn't expect to feel a hand on his shoulder, and he most certainly didn't expect to look up to see Andros there. T.J. jumped to his feet and glanced around. "I. ..I think I need to be alone for a while," he said, dashing the tears from his eyes. He could see the grief and sorrow in everyone's face, and wanted to see it no more that day. "If you guys need me, call, okay?"
"Be careful," was all Andros said, stepping back. He hadn't know the subject was quite this sensitive, but he could tell T.J. needed some time to himself to grieve this out, or whatever he needed to do. He'd been through the same thing, more times than he cared to count. None of the others said anything when T.J. grabbed his Galaxy Glider and headed down the Jump-Tube, morphing and heading out into the depths of space. It was the only place he could really be alone, and they knew it.
"I hope he's going to be all right," Cassie said softly, glancing out one window to see the blue streak that was their friend soaring through the stars. She had always just been glad that they had survived the Power Chamber's destruction, and had given little thought to the events that had let up to it. Obviously T.J. hadn't forgotten a thing.
In that moment, Cassie knew what she was going to give T.J., if she could.
Far from the Astro MegaShip, and not too far from where T.J. was racing through the cosmos, twirled Astronema's Dark Fortress, home of the cold-hearted Princess of Evil. She idly paged through the magazine Elgar had brought her the day before, pausing every now and then to glance more closely at a muscle-wrapped model.
"Quite fine, quite fine," she purred to herself, her fingers stroking through her lavender-hued hair as she did so. "I wonder if any of the Rangers look like this without that armor of theirs on?"
"My queen," she glanced up at the chill sound of Ecliptor's voice. He bowed low before her and continued. "One of the Rangers has been spotted, he's traveling alone and very close to the Dark Fortress."
One eyebrow raised slowly. "A Power Ranger? Which one?"
"The Blue Ranger," the crystalline creature reported. "Shall I send a squadron of fighters to take him out?"
She thought for a few moments, perversely enjoying the moment of power. She held the power of life and death over a Power Ranger! "No," she decided. She wanted this to continue! "Have him captured, but not harmed. Bring him to me in chains, but not hurt. And take Elgar with you, it's time he did something useful around here."
"Yes, my queen," Ecliptor had long since stopped arguing with Astronema, ever since she had become a full member of the United Alliance of Evil, she had become more and more imperious. She wasn't like the others, though. They tended to rant, rave, and scream over their losses, and make total fools of themselves when the Rangers thwarted their plans. Astronema simply nodded, accepted it, and went on to her next plan without a hair out of place. She was an enigma wrapped in a mystery, and Ecliptor loved every moment of their time together.
Once she was alone again, Astronema glanced out to the stars, and smiled. "So, Blue Ranger, you went out for a stroll in the spaceways? Well, you won't be free for long. . .and I have so many plans that can be done now. . .so many things to try out on you," her eyes fell on the magazine again, and she laughed shortly, with no humor, another plan coming into her mind. This was going to be fun.
The most beautiful panorama in the universe, the endless starfields of the cosmos, were T.J.'s course of flight, and he barely even glanced at them. Even behind his helmet, tears still blinded him. He wished at times he'd never become a Ranger, that this hadn't happened to him, that he hadn't been involved in all these terrible events.
Then I would never know Cassie, Carlos, Ashley, Justin, Andros, Dimitria, Alpha, DECA, his mind rattled on, listing the people whose lives he had entered by becoming a Ranger. Yes, he'd met Cassie because they were on the same bus, not because of the Rangers, but if they hadn't been chosen to succeed Tommy Oliver and Kat Hilliard respectively, would their budding friendship have continued, and strengthened into what they had now?
He almost laughed at himself. What they had? They didn't have anything besides a common job and a goal, and one heck of a friendship. She'd fallen head over heels for the Phantom Ranger the first time she'd seen him, and hadn't given him another look since then. After they'd become Space Rangers, she'd confided in him that she hoped they would be able to meet the Phantom Ranger again.
And we did, T.J. sighed, leaning to the left a little to avoid an asteroid field. And he's helping us search for Zordon, and one day we'll find him, then maybe Phantom will show himself to Cassie, and they'll fall desperately in love and get married. And leave me alone again.
He sighed again, trying to shut down his thoughts and forget his problems, at least for a little while. That proved impossible, however, when the memory of what had happened at breakfast plonked itself right down into the front of his brain again.
I didn't want them to know that I still think about that day, he groaned. Especially not with my birthday coming up. I KNOW they're planning something, I could see it in their eyes. Carlos probably told them, and they've had this weird look about them ever since yesterday. Oh, well, I might not be with my parents on my birthday, but at least I'll still be with my family.
T.J. smiled faintly. The Rangers were his family, quite probably the best one he'd ever have. Even Andros had proven himself somewhat like a big brother that day, listening to his tearful recitation of the last moments he'd seen Storm Blaster and Lightning Cruiser with nothing like censure or mocking in his eyes. He knew his own brother would've probably laughed at him, worrying over the fate of two cars.
Maybe we can search for them next time we're near Earth, he thought, straightening up on his Galaxy Glider and looking around again. They've got to be somewhere. I'm not going to let them just slide off into oblivion. If they're. . .destroyed, he caught his breath at that thought, and shoved it away in the back of his mind. I'll give them a proper burial, and I don't care WHAT anyone says. They had souls. Maybe not like we know them, but they cared. They were intelligent. They were our friends.
Just the thought of searching for his old partner in the skies made him feel better, and T.J. turned, about to head back to the MegaShip. His travel plans took an unexpected change, however, when he saw a full squadron of Velocifighters hovering behind him. Elgar and Ecliptor were also there, and every weapon was trained on him.
"This is not good," he groaned. How in the world had they managed to sneak up on him? He didn't even bother to ask that, to himself or out loud. He knew how it had happened. He'd been so involved in his thoughts he might not have heard if they'd come in with a full twenty piece brass band! "Not good at all."
"Andros! Hey, Andros, wait up!" Cassie called out as she ran down the corridor of the MegaShip. "I need to talk to you!"
The Red Ranger paused and turned around, raising one eyebrow. He'd been in deep thought as he walked down the hallway, trying to put what he'd learned from T.J. into some form of perspective. "What is it?" he asked quietly, doing his best to sound interested and uninterested at the same time.
"I was wondering, what are you going to get T.J. for his birthday?" she asked a little breathlessly; she had just finished a good workout with Carlos on the Simudeck and her cheeks were flushed with heat. Irrationally, Andros found himself comparing her to. . .he shoved the thought away, that had no place here!
"I hadn't thought about it much," it was one of the few lies he'd spoken to them since finally agreeing to let them come with him. He'd decided almost as soon as they'd agreed on the party plans what he was going to do for his friend. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I just wanted to make sure you didn't try and get him the same thing I am," she blushed a little. "But I am going to need your help to get them, I think."
His other eyebrow raised. "Them? You're getting him more than one present?"
"Sort of. You heard him talking about Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster this morning," she said, pausing only long enough for him to nod his understanding. "I'm going to see if I can find them. They're our friends, anyway, and we should've looked for them a long time ago."
Andros nodded briefly once more. "And I think we have space for them on the Delta MegaShip, if not here," he said. The concept of intelligent vehicles didn't startle him, it was practically a commonplace on KO-35. Even so, he got the impression that these two vehicles were more than what he was expecting. "Where would you like to start looking?"
Cassie's words were drowned out suddenly by the klaxon alarms of DECA. "All Rangers to the bridge, all Rangers to the bridge," her mechanical voice declared. "We have a Stage Two emergency, Ranger in distress. All Rangers on board the Astro MegaShip report to the bridge at once."
Before she had uttered the second 'all Rangers to the bridge', Cassie and Andros were on the way, practically bumping into Carlos on the way as he dodged out of the showers and jerked on his uniform shirt.
Ashley was on the bridge already, she'd been on watch there while the others did their things. After T.J. had left and they had finished breakfast, filling Andros in on those few details their friend had left out, Cassie and Carlos had hit the Simudeck for practice, Andros had went to do some research, and Ashley had taken the day's first watch. Now, she was pacing up and down, her every motion nervous and upset.
"Ashley, what is it?" Andros snapped, turning on his 'leader mode' almost at once. "DECA, turn alarms off now."
As the noise level on the bridge decreased dramatically, Ashley started talking. "We picked up a distress signal from T.J.," she said quickly. "When we traced it back to him, we came up with this. On screen, DECA."
The four Rangers turned to see snow falling across one screen for a moment, then it flickered, revealing a visual of what had to be thirty Velocifighters, all surrounding one lone Galaxy Glider, and the Blue Ranger on top of it. Andros' fists clenched as Ecliptor, driving the only two-seater craft, pulled up closer to the Ranger and got out, his sword practically at T.J.'s throat. There was very little that Blue Ranger could do at this moment; if he moved, he'd be shot down by laser bolts. At Ecliptor's order, he demorphed, and his communimorpher was practically torn off his wrist.
Just like. . .Andros stopped that thought before it got started. As the visual ended, with T.J.'s wrists being roughly tied behind his back and the captive Ranger forced into Ecliptor's fighter, he turned the others, his voice unnaturally even. "DECA, get a vapor trail on the Velocifighters. We're going to track T.J. to the end of the universe if we have to."
Only Cassie heard his next soft words. "I'm not going to lose another friend."
"You're going to regret this, Ecliptor," T.J. promised as they flew back to the Dark Fortress. "And so will Astronema."
Ecliptor merely laughed. "Do you truly think that we are afraid of you, human? All we have to do is wait, and Dark Spectre will drain all of Zordon's powers, and that means that the forces of evil will win!"
"Try a new line," the captive said dryly. "I've heard that one before. Many times."
A low growl was the crystal being's only response, and T.J. couldn't help but grin secretly. He wasn't sure if it were possible to get under Ecliptor's skin, but if he could, he was going to grab his communimorpher and get the heck out of there! The last time I saw Astronema was bad enough, he shivered a little. I don't really feel like looking at her again.
He closed his eyes, concentrating his mental energies on the ropes that bound his wrists together. Rubbing them first one way, then the other, he could only hope that would weaken them enough for him to break them in time. He wasn't quite sure he'd be able to escape once he was brought to the Dark Fortress. One way, then the other, one way, then the other. . .it became almost hypnotic.
Not quite so hypnotic, indeed far more forceful, was the harsh crack of Ecliptor's hand against his chin, dragging T.J. back to the extremely grim reality of his situation. "You wouldn't be trying to break those ropes, now would you?" the creature growled. T.J. glared at him.
"What, and get away from such charming company?" he drawled. "Whatever do you mean?"
Ecliptor grunted out something in a language T.J. didn't understand, then turned back around. "We've arrived at the Dark Fortress," he laughed softly. "And Astronema is waiting to see you."
"Oh, lovely," the Blue Ranger growled to himself. "Just what I always wanted. To meet the Princess of Scum up close and personal."
He almost lost his breath, and the ability to breathe, when Ecliptor turned around and slapped him harshly. "You will refer to Astronema with more respect than that, human! She holds your fate in her hands right now, and if you please her, she just might let you live!"
Something about the way Ecliptor said that made T.J. not all that certain he wanted to live if he were a prisoner of the forces of evil.
Once they had landed on the Dark Fortress, T.J. found himself being literally jerked through the hallways until they reached the chamber where Astronema was awaiting him. Elgar had vanished almost as soon as they'd gotten there, for which the Ranger was profoundly grateful. It was bad enough he had to look at Ecliptor; he didn't think he could handle Elgar's stupidity as well.
I wish I had my communimorpher, he thought, hurrying along behind Ecliptor to avoid being jerked. At the very least, he would enter his captor's lair with his head held high and at least some measure of pride showing. He was a Power Ranger, by everything that was holy, and he'd show Astronema just what that meant!
"So," he recognized the voice and realized he was in the doorway to Astronema's chamber. He gulped to see her standing there, her spear-staff casually held in one hand, and her hair reaching down to her waist in a purple stream. Her black and silver combination spandex/armor hugged her body like a second skin, and if she hadn't been one of the most evil beings he'd ever had the displeasure of meeting, and if he wasn't already half in love with Cassie, he might have found her slightly attractive. "We meet again, Blue Ranger."
He glared at her harshly. "I'd rather meet up with a king cobra than see you again."
A soft, silvery laugh echoed around the room. "Your odds of survival would be a great deal greater if you had," Astronema walked around him as Ecliptor shoved him to the center of the room, fastening the end of the rope that bound his wrists to a ring in the floor. A zap of energy from his sword transformed the rope into a thick, solid chain that T.J. knew he had about as much chance of breaking as he did of sprouting wings and flying.
"I think you'd better let me go before my friends get here and tear this place apart!" he declared, glaring at her. For a moment, his eyes slipped off her, and landed on something he had only imagined he would ever see here.
I don't believe this! She really WAS looking at Playgirl! In spite of the danger of this situation, it was all T.J. could do not to laugh, and laugh hard about it.
Astronema chuckled softly, her eyes glinting a light purple at him. "Somehow, that prospect doesn't scare me," she purred, sauntering over to him. He wanted to kick or hit or something at her, but the way he was tied prevented it. She chuckled again. "Now. . .what to do with you. . .a captive Power Ranger. The possibilities are truly endless here."
"I say destroy him," Ecliptor growled from his post by the door. "It will send a message to the rest of the Rangers that they cannot win!"
The princess of evil favored her chief henchman with a glance. "Perhaps," she acknowledged, looking back at T.J. The Blue Ranger shivered inwardly at the evil implicit in that gaze. "But as much fun as killing one Ranger is. . .killing five would be so much better."
"What are you talking about?" T.J. growled, not liking the direction this was going one little bit. Astronema laughed softly.
"Oh, you'll see, Blue Ranger!" she declared, lifting up her staff and pointing it at him. A bolt of violet energy burst from the tip and blew into him, knocking him out. Astronema's lips curved wickedly, and she turned to Ecliptor. "Take him to the planet Cyopman, along with some Quantrons, and wait for the Rangers to show up. When they do, call me."
Ecliptor looked like he might have protested, but something in the way Astronema was smiling caused it to fade on what passed for his lips. He simply nodded, and went to unchain T.J. Astronema laughed to herself as she took her seat. What a wonderful day this was turning out to be!
"Not exactly the best day we've been having," Ashley grumbled as she scanned sector after sector of space in the effort to find T.J. How many more are we going to lose? Justin, Lightning Cruiser, Storm Blaster, Zordon, Dimitria, Blue Senturion, T.J.? How many more are going to leave our lives and never come back?
She took several deep breaths, glancing over the bridge in a quick break from the scanners. Cassie was reviewing the data on T.J.'s flight, checking out all possible habitable planets. Carlos was running a weapons check, they knew they were probably going to have to fight to get their friend back, and their weapons needed to be at top capability. Andros was . . .she frowned slightly, he seemed to be just sort of staring off into space, his fingers on the necklace he wore. How bad does this have to be for him, too? she wondered. How many people had the Red Space Ranger lost in his life? His sister, his entire planet, who knew what else?
The pretty Yellow Ranger's eyes went hard. No more, she decided. We're NOT going to lose anymore. We're going to find T.J., and that's all there is to it. Astronema won't be allowed to keep him. The bad guys have won enough.
She returned to her work with a greater determination than ever. She didn't notice Andros glancing over at her as she bent back, and probably would've been startled by the slight tenderness in his eyes. She's like Syria, he thought quietly. Just like Cassie is like Orona. He forced his thoughts harshly away from both of those directions. His inattention had once cost him four teammates, and earlier in his life it had cost him the sister he cared about more than anything. He wasn't going to let it happen again.
Andros looked back to the scans that were feeding into his station and sighed. No sign of anyone, he thought. No Zordon. No Karone. No T.J. There's never any sign. . .not anything real. Just tricks and traps. . .he choked back a sigh, not wanting to let the others know in the slightest what was on his mind.
We are going to find them all, he repeated the litany he told himself every night before going to sleep, every morning when he woke from his usual nightmare-filled sleep, and whenever he had a spare moment of thought. We are going to find them.
As he checked the scans again, he winced when the symbols for KO-35 passed by. He was extremely grateful at that moment that none of the others could see him, and was even more grateful when the memories of his past gripped him. . .
They had been playing with the telekinesis ball, practicing their skills. Then it bounced away, and Andros had run to get it, leaving his sister Karone to wait for him there. That was his way, to do things for her, to do everything he could. Then screams had pierced the air, high and scared and female.
"Karone!" he cried out, turning just barely in time to see her being carried off by something or something. He couldn't see what it was, all he saw was a dark figure, and then it was gone, and she was gone. . .and he had never seen her again. . .
"Karone," he whispered, his voice low and full of emotion he never showed to anyone else. He would never show it to anyone else. He shook his head a little, that was the past, he'd dedicated his life to finding her from that moment on. He'd trained, he'd practiced, he'd studied and learned everything he could in preparation for the day when he'd be able to go out into the universe and search for the lost one.
He couldn't stop himself this time. This time, the thoughts pulled him in the direction they wanted to go without respect for his feelings. He could only hope the others wouldn't see him, wouldn't see his weakness. The others. ..the second team. ...he knew they had never asked him why he had four other communimorphers. He was glad of it. He could never have spoken of them if he had. . .
Could never have spoken of Syria and Orona, of Luno and Pyrak, the first Yellow, Pink, Blue, and Black Space Rangers. Could never have told them how he had led them into a battle for KO-35, a dead world even by then, and how they had all fallen. How Syria had literally thrown herself onto Astronema's spear to save her beloved Luno, who had died anyway, slain by Ecliptor. How Orona and Pyrak had willingly sacrificed themselves in a vain attempt to destroy Dark Spectre.
Andros' fists clenched, remembering all their dying screams, remembering the agony of loss that had come from Korone's kidnapping, remembering her screams. It won't happen again, he swore. I will avenge their deaths, and I will find Karone, Zordon, and T.J. I will. He glanced at the others, still working, and in his heart, finally admitted it. He wasn't alone anymore. Whether he liked it or not. We will.
Ecliptor tightened the last chain on the still-unconscious Ranger and took a look at him. He's not going to be getting out of this without help, he thought harshly, his features twisting slightly into what could've been a smile. And when his 'help' gets here, there going to get a very nasty surprise. Two or three of them, as a matter of fact.
He chuckled wickedly, stepping back and ordering a troop of Quantrons to take their places around the prisoner. "The Rangers should be here soon," he said unnecessarily. "We don't want to make things easy for them, now do we?"
The cold-hearted crystalline being glanced briefly to the sky, wondering just when he'd see the Astro MegaShip come soaring out of the clouds to rescue their friend. He was almost looking forward to it, anticipating the clash he would soon be in with the Red Ranger.
The fool attacks me every time he sees me, regardless of common sense or the condition his friends are in. And every time, I trounce him unmercifully. Frankly, it's starting to get boring, Ecliptor transferred his eyes between T.J. and the sky, wondering how long it was going to take.
He walked back and forth a little, playing with the edge of his sword. He didn't know all of Astronema's plan, but what he did know was enough to give him a healthy respect for the Princess of Evil. He was very proud of her actually. He had watched her grow up from the moment Dark Spectre had placed her, a child of no more than six, in his arms and told him to raise her as a warrior and being of evil. He had done that, too.
For a brief moment, he wondered who she actually was, who she had been before Spectre had given him guardianship of her. Then he just shrugged. Whoever she was, is no more. Who she is now is Astronema, Princess of Evil, and once she has destroyed the Power Rangers, the Queen of Evil, and Dark Spectre's prize!
A soft groan from behind him alerted him to his duties, and he turned to the chained up Ranger. "Welcome back to the land of the awake, Ranger," he laughed softly.
T.J. raised his head, and his eyes glinted softly purple as he looked at Ecliptor. "Hello," was all he said. But that one word was said in a tone that sent chills down Ecliptor's spine.
Oh, Astronema, you ARE evil!
"I think I've got something!" Ashley exploded suddenly, half-leaping out of her seat. "There's readings coming from the planet Cyopman!"
Andros quickly double-checked, and fought down a smile as he instructed the computer to put the readings up on the visual scanners. "Let's take a look," was all he said out loud. They watched, none of them daring to breathe.
Cassie's eyes went wide when she saw the dozen Quantrons standing around T.J., their weapons resting, but obviously ready to rise up at the first hint of trouble. T.J. himself was chained to a tall pole, the thick irons wrapped around his entire body. His eyes were open and full of hate as he glared at the other guard, Ecliptor, who was pacing back and forth, his sword in his hands and glancing up above them every few minutes. It was obvious he was waiting for them.
"It's a trap," Carlos actually spoke the words before Andros, who was thinking them, could. "There's twelve Quantrons there we can see, and I'd bet at least fifty more than we can't, not to mention whatever Astronema's latest monster is, and her too!"
Andros nodded slowly, his fingers flicking across the computer console. "Inputting course for Cyopman," he said firmly. "It might be a trap, but it's also our only way to get T.J. back. I'm not going to leave him there."
The bridge of the MegaShip was a blur of activity as people jumped to various stations on board, preparing themselves for the jump to hyperspace. Cyopman wasn't that far from Earth, galactically speaking, and the Rangers knew it would take at least ten minutes to get there once they got going. So much could happen in ten minutes. . .
Cassie glanced to Earth as she finished the last few adjustments they needed to the course settings, and took a deep breath, checking over the scan she'd started just after they'd found out about T.J.'s capture. I guess that wasn't really the right time, we could've found him sooner if I hadn't, maybe, but the sooner I start looking for Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster, the better odds we can find him for T.J.'s birthday.
She turned back to the others, to where Andros was looking at them all. "Everyone ready?" the Red Ranger asked.
"Ready over here!" Carlos waved from his station.
"Let's get moving!" Ashley declared.
"Time to rock and roll!" Cassie's grin was slightly forced, but not much. Andros smiled briefly in return, then hit the sequence that set the Astro MegaShip soaring away from Earth.
The Power Rangers were on their way to save a friend.
Behind them, on the rapidly disappearing Earth, Cassie's scans had not gone unnoticed, though they had failed to discover what they were looking for. In a small house in Angel Grove, Justin Stewart suddenly sat up as his communicator, the only remnant now of his Ranger days, began to beep. It only did that when. ..
He was out of the house and heading to the woods as fast as he could. There, in a clearing he'd found just outside of a small cave, he found the source of the beeping: a sleek red sports car and a blue jeep, both with their headlights flaring and their horns blaring. The minute he arrived, silence fell.
"Hey, guys," he said, laying a hand on Storm Blaster's hood and smiling weakly. "What's so important?"
Even now he couldn't understand their strange language of 'car' fully. But ever since he had found them, badly beaten and on the verge of what would be 'death' for them, he'd come to figure out a few words. As near as he could figure, they were worried over something or someone.
"I don't know what it is either," he wasn't surprised at the voice, nodding to Tommy Oliver as he came out of the cave, wiping his hands on a towel. "But whatever it is, it's really got them worked up."
A particularly loud blast from Lightning Cruiser got both of their attentions. Justin frowned; he'd never heard the sports car 'talking' exactly like that before, but he had heard Storm Blaster. When the sentient cars had first shown up, when he and Storm Blaster had been captured by Divatox, the jeep had given blasts like that.
"That's it!" the connection hit in his mind suddenly. "T.J.'s in trouble!"
"Justin?" Tommy frowned. "How do you know?"
The former Ranger ignored Tommy, jumping up and heading over to Lightning Cruiser and putting a hand on the hood. "Cruiser, is it T.J.? Is that what has you so upset?"
The red car blared it's horn loudly enough to almost cause ear damage in the both of them. "I take that as a yes," Tommy groaned. "How'd you figure it out, Justin?"
"Simple," he shrugged. "Storm Blaster sounded a lot like that, kind of concerned, when he and I were caught by Divatox's monster. I don't know how, but I think T.J. and Lightning Cruiser are sort of connected, like Blaster and I are."
"How?" the former leader of the Rangers raised an eyebrow. "You don't have the Turbo Power anymore, and T.J.'s got a new one, from all the reports I've seen on television. I thought these guys were linked to the Turbo power."
Justin glanced at both the cars, wondering what was going on here. In the six weeks since the Power Chamber's destruction, things had changed so much. He'd stayed so he could leave Angel Grove with his dad, only to find out that his dad's bosses had changed their mind, and given the job that would've taken him out of town to someone without a child. So now he was still in Angel Grove, but no longer a Power Ranger. Shortly after finding that out, he'd went back to the ruins of the Power Chamber, browsing through the rubble for something, anything, to keep that would remind him of that short year and a half of his life when he had been a proud defender of the planet.
He hadn't really expected to find anything. But he had. He'd found Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster, the remains of nets around them, mute reminders that they, too, had been in the final battle. He hadn't known what to do at first, not with the others in space and no real idea of where the former Rangers were, or if they could or would want to help.
Then he'd remembered Tommy. Tommy was in Angel Grove, was there on a break from the racing circuit. Tommy would understand. He'd almost broken his legs trying to get to the former Ranger, and had quickly spilled out what had happened, about the loss of the Turbo powers and the fate of Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster.
Tommy had managed to calm his young friend down, and get a clearer explanation of events. Once he understood, he and Justin had grabbed the toolbox and headed back to where the Command Center had been. They'd managed to repair the two cars, and had explained to them somehow about the loss of the Turbo powers and how the others had went into space to search for Zordon. Storm Blaster had seemed to deal with it just fine, but Lightning Cruiser had been, for lack of a better word, sad. Justin hadn't been able to figure it out, until now.
He's missed T.J., he realized. When they'd repaired the cars, Justin had wired them so that either of them could call on the communicator frequency if they wanted him there. Tommy and Justin were the only ones in Angel Grove right now who still wore theirs; everyone else had went on about their lives and didn't bother.
"I don't know how," he said finally. "But T.J.'s in trouble, and that means I have to find a way to help him."
A sharp beep caused him to wince, and he glanced to Lightning Cruiser. The car almost seemed to be glaring at him, and he quickly amended his words. "We have to go find a way to help him."
"Include me in that 'we', Justin," Tommy said firmly. "I don't know T.J. like you do, but if someone's in trouble, I'm going to help."
The former Blue Ranger glanced at him, frowning slightly. Tommy was older than he was, had more experience by far at being a Ranger, and was a black belt in more martial arts than Justin had any idea existed. Not only that, they were good friends. "Next question," was all Justin said. "How do we get to space?"
Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster answered that one, their doors swinging open invitingly. Justin and Tommy exchanged glances. "Let's do it."
"We're here," Andros' voice was tight and thick as they descended through the clouds to Cyopman. He took another look at the scans and took a deep breath. Something isn't right about this, but I don't know what. Or why.
Carlos nodded. "Ecliptor's still there, no sign of anyone else or any more Quantrons," he reported unnecessarily, they could all see that. It made them feel better to hear it, though.
"There's got to be something we're not seeing here," Ashley mused, staring down at their captive friend. "I just wish I knew what it was."
"We all do," Cassie agreed. Andros shook his head.
"Whatever it is, we'll find out when we get down there," he said. "And the sooner we get down, the sooner we'll have T.J. back. This has to be a trap, we all know that. Astronema's not stupid, she wouldn't just leave him chained up with a few Quantrons and Ecliptor for a guard. We'll have to keep our eyes open."
He was already heading for the Jump-Tubes, and the others weren't far behind him. Carlos nodded quickly. "She can lay a trap, but we can get out of them!"
A sharp, "Let's rocket!" was the answer that came as they went through the routine they'd been through many times already. It might have been Andros, Cassie, Carlos, and Ashley who started through the Jump-Tubes, but the Red, Pink, Black, and Yellow Space Rangers flew out the other end on their Galaxy Gliders. Beneath their suits and helmets were perfect fighting machines, their morphed bodies, but within those bodies were the souls of four very nervous and scared teens.
"Well, now, what do we have here?" Ecliptor laughed softly as he lifted his sword, testing the edge of it against one finger. "I think they've finally gotten here, Ranger!"
T.J. said nothing as he watched the rest of the Rangers soaring down to land a short distance away. Andros stepped forward as they hopped off their Galaxy Gliders, and pointed a finger towards them. "Let him go, Ecliptor!"
The crystal creature laughed. "I don't think so, Ranger! There's someone else who wants to see you!" he raised up his sword up, an explosion of light bursting from the tip. The Rangers glanced at each other, slightly confused, until in her customary glow, Astronema appeared.
"Well, well, well," she smiled wickedly, running her fingers through her long locks. "I see that the Power Twerps have arrived. Looking for someone, Rangers?"
Andros growled harshly, his fingers itching to call out the Spiral Sabre. "Let T.J. go!" he demanded. "Now!"
"You've got to be kidding," Astronema laughed, and gestured briefly to the Quantrons. "Get them."
She watched with a satisfied expression on her face as the metallic warriors leaped towards the Rangers, weapons rising and falling with swift strokes. Seeing them morphed like that brought something back to her mind, and she waved her staff slightly, laying things in place for the next part of her plan.
"Astronema!" she glanced up to see Ecliptor was battling Andros, and the Pink Ranger was heading for her at top speed, leaping past the Quantrons as fast as she could. "Astronema, you'd better get away from T.J., now!"
The evil princess smiled lightly, leveling her spear-staff at Cassie. "I don't think so," she said, balanced and ready as the Pink Ranger charged her. She moved quickly as Cassie got closer, and let her go right on past her. "My, my, Pink Ranger, are you in a hurry?"
Cassie recovered quickly, then noticed that she was in between Astronema, the Quantrons, Ecliptor, and T.J., and she was closer to her captive friend than they were. "Yeah! In a hurry to get him free!" with a quick blast from her Satellite Stunner, she'd blown the chains apart. "Come on, T.J., let's blow this place!"
"A wonderful idea," T.J.'s voice was different than what it had been, somehow lower, colder, icier. It was that coldness that gave Cassie enough warning to turn, just in time to see T.J.'s powerful arm pistoning towards her, and a leg snaking out to knock her off her feet.
She landed hard on her back, staring up at him in disbelief as Astronema walked over next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. The Blue Ranger glanced over at her, bowing his head low. "What are your orders, my queen?"
Astronema gestured briefly to the Rangers. "Morph and destroy them!" she ordered, smiling. The Rangers hadn't even noticed she'd restored his communimorpher, something she wouldn't have done if she wasn't in complete control of him, and the situation.
"T.J.!" Andros stared in disbelief. "What are you doing?"
The young man stepped only a bare step away from Astronema. In a dead-sounding voice he declared, "Let's rocket!" morphed, he glared even through his helmet at them. "I am destroying you!" he declared. "For Astronema and the forces of all that is evil!"
Cassie backflipped to her feet and jumped over to join the other Rangers. "Astronema must be controlling him, like she did the Turtles!" she reminded the others of the other superhero team they'd met early on in their tenure as Space Rangers. The hardest part of that was, they hadn't been able to break the Turtles free. Something else had done that, and if this was happening the same way, then they had no idea of what to do!
"We are in deep trouble," Carlos muttered, backing up as T.J. strode towards them, flanked by Astronema and Ecliptor. The evil threesome looked extremely dangerous, if not murderous. Andros couldn't believe his eyes. How could this be happening?
T.J. laughed softly. The Rangers had fallen for Astronema's deception, they had thought he actually needed rescuing from her. Perhaps he might have at one point, but now he was her loyal warrior, and there was nothing anyone could do about it! T.J. Edwards had joined the side of evil!
Astronema's eyes were on Cassie as they marched forward. Ever since they had first met, she'd had a special place of hatred reserved for the Pink Ranger. She fully intended to do something extremely painful to Cassie at the earliest opportunity, and could hardly wait to hear the wild screams of purest anguish that would echo forth.
Andros was the object of Ecliptor's attention as they drew closer and closer to the paralyzed-with-shock Rangers. He was going to have quite a bit of fun tearing this Ranger apart! Ever since T.J. had awakened, and Ecliptor had recognized Astronema's evil taint in him, the green and black warrior had been looking forward to this fight. He laughed coldly. What fools these humans were!
The Rangers could not, did not believe what was going on in front of them. T.J. was under Astronema's power, and was fighting them! That one blazing fact seemed to be just about all that could seep into their brains right now. It shouldn't be, it couldn't be, but it was happening, and as far as they knew, there was nothing that could be done about it.
Then the attack came. Ecliptor leaped straight for Andros, knocking the Red Ranger down and pounding on him in pure savagery, and enjoying every second of it. Astronema went for Cassie, kicking her Satellite Stunner out of her hands and slamming her staff towards her opponent's guts. T.J. twisted his Astro Axe around in the customary attack pattern, taking Ashley and Carlos both down with it.
"So this is what Power Rangers are like when they lose," Astronema laughed mockingly, holding the blade of her staff-spear over Cassie's throat. "T.J., Ecliptor. . .shall we finish them off quickly or slowly?"
Ecliptor's eyes were firmly on Andros, who had held his own as well as he ever had throughout the fight. "Slowly," he growled. "Extremely slowly."
"Quickly," T.J. shook his head. "Don't give them time to get away."
"T.J.!" Cassie cried out, trying to ignore her own imminent death. "T.J., don't do this! We're your friends, you don't want to do this! Astronema's the enemy, remember?"
His voice held an echoing, hollow, evil quality to it as he laughed. "I remember. But I don't care."
"But we do!" it was an impossibility. It couldn't be. But it was. And that wasn't the only thing that shouldn't be happening, that was. In two flashes of red and blue, two things had appeared in the middle of the fight. Doors swung open, and two figures, familiar only to a few there, stepped out. One had spoken, small and compact, and still dressed in blue, despite the six weeks that had passed since last he had borne the Blue Turbo Ranger armor.
Carlos stared. One single word left his lips. "J. . justin?"
Other words came from T.J. as his mouth dropped open. "L. ..Lightning Cruiser?"
The sentient vehicle beeped harshly at him, flashing it's lights in a clear display of disapproval at his behavior. T.J. gripped his Axe, shaking quite literally in his boots as Astronema's wind-warping conflicted harshly and suddenly with the bond he still somehow shared with the sleek car.
"T.J., I don't know who that is," Tommy spoke next, quietly and firmly as he glanced at Astronema. "But she's evil, and you're not. Remember me, Tommy? I chose you as the Red Turbo Ranger, after you saved my life from Divatox's trap. I trusted you, and I know you didn't let me down. You might've lost a few battles, but you've kept on fighting all the way. Don't stop now!"
The Blue Ranger was still staring, his head turning from Justin to Tommy to Lightning Cruiser to Astronema and back again, shaking. "I. . .I don't know," he whispered. As the words fell from his lips, Astronema growled, kicking Cassie hard enough so she wouldn't have to worry about the prone Ranger, then leveled her spear-staff at T.J.
"You're my Ranger!" she growled, a small ball of purple light and energy gathering at the tip of it. "And that's all there is to it!"
Before she could blast it out, a somewhat larger ball of blue shot across the battlefield and slammed into her, knocking her down. Justin stamped hard on her spear-staff, glaring at her with a rage all out of proportion to his body. "Leave my friends alone!" he growled. Astronema only smiled, turning to T.J.
"You see, T.J.? He attacked me without any reason," her voice was sweet and reasonable. "Don't you want to protect me from these Rangers and their friends. They aren't your friends, I am. . .your friend and mistress, remember?"
She might have said more, but Lightning Cruiser let a blast of pure raw sound loose from his horn, deafening everyone who wasn't morphed at the moment, and cutting seriously into their hearing as well. T.J. looked from the fallen villainess to his friends. His eyes fell on Tommy, who hadn't moved, except to look directly into his eyes.
"I was evil once, T.J.," the former Ranger said quietly. "And it did not make me happy. I hurt people, and I hurt myself in the process. That's what evil does. It hurts and it destroys and it does nothing for the person who is evil."
To back up Tommy's words, Lightning Cruiser rolled over to the confused Ranger, and almost seemed to nuzzle against him. Into T.J.'s mind there came memories, memories of them flying together, of how he'd wept when he thought they were gone, how together they had destroyed Goldgoyle, and how Cruiser had come to his rescue now. His shoulders, rigid and stern in the grip of evil, almost seemed to collapse. "Power down," he whispered. As the armor vanished, Lightning Cruiser came even closer, sort of rubbing against his leg in welcome. "Hey there, old friend," he caressed Lightning Cruiser's hood just like he had in the old days. "I've missed you."
"How dare you!" Astronema growled, leaping to her feet and throwing Justin aside. She raged for all of a second, before regaining her almost unearthly composure. "Very well. We shall meet again, Rangers. Ecliptor, Quantrons. Let's go."
They were gone almost before the Rangers had time to pull together and welcome T.J. back to them. Andros cleared his throat lightly, the look on his face plainly saying 'who the heck are these new people?'. Ashley grinned briefly.
"Andros, I'd like you to meet Tommy Oliver, Justin Stewart, Lightning Cruiser, and Storm Blaster," she said. "Otherwise known as the former Red Turbo Ranger before T.J., the Blue Turbo Ranger, and two of our best allies," she glanced to the new arrivals. "Mr. Oliver, Justin, this is Andros, our new leader and who gave us our Space Ranger powers."
The two young men looked at each other measuringly. Tommy could see hurt and pain in the Red Space Ranger's eyes, loss and grief. Andros could see compassion, wisdom, and strength in the former Ranger's. Slowly, Tommy extended one hand. "It's nice to meet you," he said quietly. "And Ashley. . .call me Tommy."
"So, the Rangers have friends and allies still," Astronema mused, filing her nails back on the Dark Fortress' bridge. "This could be interesting."
Ecliptor slammed the flat of his sword against his hand. "Why did we flee, my princess?" he asked, trying not to let his anger show. "We could have taken them!"
"Don't be so quick to fight, Ecliptor," she advised almost sweetly. "Let's do some traveling. I have an old friend I think the Rangers would like to meet."
"Friend?" Ecliptor frowned; he'd forgotten how many different places and people they'd seen in their years together. "Who?"
She chuckled. "You'll see. Let's go."
As the Dark Fortress started moving, Astronema smiled darkly. I'll be back, Rangers. And when I am, you'll wish you'd never met me.
It wasn't until they were back on the Astro MegaShip that everyone started getting their stories told and straight. Justin and Tommy explained how they'd found and repaired Storm Blaster and Lightning Cruiser, and the probable link to Justin and T.J. the two cars seemed to have, which had let the Cruiser know that T.J. was in deep and dangerous trouble.
"I was trying to find you guys earlier," Cassie said, her eyes on Cruiser and Blaster. "I didn't have time to finish the scans, though. We sort of got interrupted," she smiled briefly, glancing at T.J.
The Blue Ranger blushed deeply. "Sorry about that. Sorry about attacking you guys, too."
"It wasn't your fault," Andros told him. "It was Astronema's. But we got you back."
"With some help," Ashley added. She was still a bit in awe of Tommy; he and his fellow Rangers were practically legends to her and the others. They were older, stronger, and had been Rangers so long their lives were practically nothing but heroism. They'd accomplished deeds that made hers and her friends look somewhat pallid and wan in comparison, and had kept the world safe long enough for them to take over it's defense. And they also trusted us to keep it going, she reminded herself. And we're going to.
The conversation seemed to fall into silence as the last few things were said. Everyone glanced companionably at everyone else as they relaxed on the Simudeck. Ashley and Carlos were sitting rather close to each other, while T.J. was quite literally perched on Lightning Cruiser's hood. Justin and Tommy had curled up on Storm Blaster's seats, with Andros sitting a touch nervously in the back next to Cassie.
"Well, it looks like I'm going to have to find you something different for your birthday, T.J.," Cassie said finally. "I was going to locate Lightning Cruiser and Storm Blaster, but I think they've went and located us!" she chuckled a little.
Ashley's lips quirked suddenly. "I need to find something else too," she grinned. "I was going to see if I could talk Justin into coming up here for a little while, but it looks like he's here already!"
Tommy raised one eyebrow. "Your birthday?" he glanced to the other Ranger.
"Yeah," T.J. nodded. "Day after tomorrow, I'll be sixteen."
"Happy birthday in advance then," Tommy smiled, then looked down to his watch. "Oh, man, I've got to get back! I have to check in with my uncle!"
"You can do that from here," Andros offered suddenly, shocking them all, and himself in the process. "DECA can patch into the phone lines and contact your uncle. If you want to stay for a while, that is."
Tommy blinked for a couple of seconds. Two different thoughts warred in his mind. Why would I want to stay here? I've got a life on Earth, racing, and I'm not a Ranger anymore, was what first went through his head. To be back in the thick of things. That Astronema person is probably going to want revenge anyway, they always do. It would be best to be with the Rangers. And racing is kind of boring after you've been involved in life and death battles for the fate of the entire planet. His answer was spoken just as quick as Andros' question was. "I'd be honored. Thank you."
As the two of them went to make the arrangements through DECA, Justin stood up. "I've got to go too," he sighed a little. "My dad and I are supposed to go out for a special dinner tonight. It was good to see everyone again."
Carlos put a hand on his friend's shoulder as he turned to Storm Blaster. "You're going to come back for T.J.'s birthday, right?" the tone in his voice was the very essence of warmth, harking back to the days when the two had been Turbo Rangers together. Justin smiled.
"You got it. See you guys then," he looked to Storm Blaster. "Coming with me or staying here with Lightning Cruiser?" they could already tell that the sports car was going to stay here with T.J. Storm Blaster beeped his horn and slid a bit closer to Justin. "I think that means he's coming with me!"
Nothing was heard from Astronema over the next two days, but the Rangers and their newly refound friends weren't going to complain over it. Preparations were going full blast for T.J.'s birthday party, and the rescued Blue Ranger was kept firmly in the dark on everything. All he knew was that it was going to happen, not where, when, or who else would possibly be there. Lightning Cruiser was dispatched to keep him occupied and out of the MegaShip as much as possible, much to the pleasure of the young Ranger. The two of them were far too busy rediscovering the joy of flying together to mind much.
"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" the shout rocked T.J. back on his heels as he stood in the doorway of the Simudeck. His eyes went wide and round when he took in the various faces there.
Andros, Cassie, Carlos, Ashley, Justin, Tommy, Lightning Cruiser, Storm Blaster. . .his eyes went wide. "D. .. Dimitria?" he whispered softly. The white-robed mentor from Inquirius, whom they hadn't seen since she had left just before the destruction of the Power Chamber, smiled as she laid a hand on his shoulder in greeting.
"When the others contacted me on Eltar and told me of what has happened, I had to come," she said quietly. "I cannot remain long away from the resistance there, but I will at least help you celebrate this day, my friend."
"As will we all," a voice came from behind him. It was a voice he could have sworn he would never hear again, but there it was! There he was!
The Blue Ranger stared at Erutan almost as if the Spirit of the Woods were a ghost! "Erutan?" he whispered. "I thought you were gone. .."
"I told you, as long as the woods are protected by people like you, then I'm okay," the little boy smiled as he came over to give his friend a strong shake of the hand. "And it is protected."
Justin smiled. "By all of us," T.J. looked up at the phrase to see some more people he could've sworn he wouldn't see, at least not here on the MegaShip!
"Mom? Dad?" he whispered, going extremely pale with shock. They're on the MegaShip. ..d. . do they. ..
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards came to give their son a hug, and his mom whispered softly, "We can keep a secret, T.J. Your friend Ashley told us everything, and we're very, very proud of you. Blue Ranger."
He couldn't help it, he blushed. Just knowing his parents knew, it filled him with both fear and enjoyment and emotions he couldn't even name. "Thanks, Ashley," he whispered, looking over at her. "Thanks a lot." Getting to spend this day with his parents, and so many of his old friends, was truly one of the best presents he'd ever had!
The party wound on. Carlos had arranged, with some help from DECA, for the other former Turbo Rangers, Kat Hilliard, Tanya Sloane, and Adam Park, to also show up. As Dimitria had said during the transfer of the power, they were now part of the Power Ranger family, and family was together for occasions like this.
It would be pointless to describe all the gifts he got, since most of those were of the living type like his family. He'd already picked up those few things he could carry with him into space, and just seeing some of those he had never thought he would see again was present enough. But as the day turned into evening, T.J. noticed that Andros hadn't given him anything yet. But the Ranger from KO-35 glanced at him every now and then, with a curious expression on his face. Whenever the Blue Ranger tried to talk to him about it, Andros avoided the situation deftly, almost as if he were trying to avoid him. By the time the party ended, T.J. was feeling just a trifle upset.
He managed to keep up a happy face as everyone made their way to various rooms on the MegaShip, or teleported down to Earth, depending. Tommy was the only non-Ranger staying on the ship, and he and Kat had shared a very emotional good-bye. Everyone could tell those two were in love.
"T.J.?" the young man jerked around at the sound of Andros' voice. The Kerovan was standing just behind him, a curios expression on his face. "I know you've been trying to talk to me all day, and I've avoided you."
T.J. frowned. "Yes. What's up?"
"Come with me," the two of them were on the bridge, having just bid farewell to the last of those teleporting back to Earth. The other Rangers and Tommy were in bed, they were the only ones awake right now. A bit bemused, T.J. followed his leader to the Simudeck. "T.J., on KO-35, when a young man came of age, at the Earth equilivant of sixteen years old, he was considered an adult in all ways. In order to fully function in our society, he had to go through a ritual of adulthood, which from my research into your society meant having sex."
At this point, T.J.'s jaw was somewhere in the vicinity of his knees. Andros continued. "I know your society is different, but the best gift I could think of for you, something unusual that I know no one would ever give you because there's so few of my people left, and I'm the only one of them you know, would be the means to accomplish this ritual."
He turned to the control panel and touched it lightly. Light flickered around them, and an extremely luxuriously appointed bedroom morphed into existence. On the bed was a woman almost the precise duplicate of the one on the centerfold of the Playboy T.J. had bought the other day, and the Blue Ranger could feel his urges urging him onward. Andros put a hand on his shoulder.
"I know you're not of my society," he said quietly. "But it's been a long time since I had any friends, and an even longer time since I had a family. You all gave me all of that back, and seeing your predecessors here, and the leader of the resistance on Eltar, your former mentor, reminded me of what it is to be a Ranger. It's to have a family that includes everyone who's a Ranger, past and present, and even future. You're my brother now, T.J., and I hope you enjoy your present. I even turned DECA off in here, so you can enjoy it in privacy."
T.J. smiled warmly, all the bad feelings he'd had over what he'd thought was Andros' neglect of him vanishing. "Thanks, Andros," he said. He groped briefly for more words, but the Red Ranger only smiled, clasped his hand, and then T.J. was alone with the holographic girl.
"What a birthday," he chuckled to himself as he started to the bed, secure in the knowledge that this was just a hologram. His life since becoming a Ranger had been beyond belief, what was one more technical impossibility? When you deal with superpowers, evil invading aliens, intelligent cars, and more, what was a fake girl for a birthday present? "What a birthday."
As he began to enjoy Andros' gift, one thought went through his mind.
I wonder what's going to happen next year!?