TIMELINE AND NOTES: Doesn't everyone who follows the Power Rangers wonder how the first five ever became friends in the first place? I know there are other stories out there that address this issue, but I just had to make my attempt. The bulk of the story takes place years before the Power Ranger team was assembled. The last part shortly after Jason gave back the gold powers. Please note: I have never seen the episodes concerning Jason's giving up the powers, so I am using the little bit of knowledge I have gained from other's stories, and episode guides from some PR sites. Consequently, any inaccuracies are completely due to my ignorance. Also, I don't know diddlysquat about fire fighting, so those inaccuracies are also due to ignorance. The story is rated, um, PG, I guess. Not much cursing. Minor violence. On with the show......
Jason Lee Scott was hurrying along the street in anticipation of getting home and having a snack. Karate practice always affected him that way. He was invigorated, and hungry at the same time. He also felt invincible, and strong, as only a healthy ten-year-old can feel. That was the age he had achieved with the passing of his birthday the previous month.
He was so intent on getting home he almost didn't hear the voices emanating from the alley as he passed. But the sound of a cry of pain caught his attention. He looked down the alley to see three bigger boys, probably twelve or thirteen years old, harassing a much smaller boy. Jason could not just walk by and ignore such an unfair situation. He headed into the alley, knowing he would probably not escape unscathed from the altercation, but also knowing he had to help the other boy.
"Hey! What are you doing? Leave him alone," Jason mustered all the authority he could and projected it in his voice.
The larger boys were taken aback for a moment, until they realized the speaker was younger than they were.
"Get out of here, kid. Unless you want some of this," one of the thugs said menacingly.
Jason could see past them now to their victim. A boy who was probably the same age as Jason, but easily a couple of inches shorter and much slimmer in build. The other boys had already done a pretty good job on him, his nose was bleeding, and one eye was already swelling and blackening. He held his left arm to his side as if it, or the ribs on that side, hurt. He was crying and cowering from the trio that surrounded him.
Jason felt a surprising burst of anger. Three against one was unfair odds under any circumstances, but it was ridiculous when the one was so much smaller. "Leave him alone!" he ordered them.
"Guess he does want some of this," one of them commented with an unpleasant laugh. "We do have enough to go around." With that the larger boy attached Jason.
Or at least, he tried to. Jason easily sidestepped the attack, and as the larger boy stumbled past Jason swept his feet out from under him. The big boy went down with a thud.
The other two attackers went after Jason simultaneously. Jason dodged one, tripping him as he went by, and met the other's attack face on, using the boy's momentum to flip him over Jason and land him flat on his back, his wind knocked out of him. The first boy managed to grab Jason before he could get into a defensive position and the boy Jason tripped came up and started to hit Jason. The blows were painful, but Jason kept his wits about him and looked for a chance to turn the tables. It came when the boy who was punching him moved in too close, and Jason could reach him with a powerful kick. The blow landed in the boy's middle and he dropped with a groan. Jason was then able to twist out of the grip of the boy who was holding him and land a couple of hard blows before the boy could recover. The three bullies were enraged by the fact that a younger boy was doing so much damage, and the situation would have gotten much worse if not for the strong voice that rang down the alley.
"All right boys, knock it off!" Jason was both relieved and dismayed to see his father standing at the head of the alley.
The three young thugs took off without a backward glance, as Jason slowly walked up to meet his father.
Jack Scott was anything but happy with his son at that moment. He and his wife, Marjorie, had realized early that their offspring would be a very strong boy. With that in mind they had taken extra measures to ensure he realized the responsibility that came with physical strength. That was one of the reasons they had enrolled Jason in karate classes, so he would learn self-control. They realized that they were lucky Jason had such a good heart. He was not a bully, but he could be goaded into fights, and once in a fight he could do damage. This is what worried his parents.
"What did I tell you would happen if I caught you fighting again?" Jack asked sternly.
"I would be punished," Jason answered quickly. "But, Dad,.." he started.
"No 'buts' about it, young man. Were you fighting?" he asked sharply.
"Yes, sir," came the resigned reply. Jason knew better than to argue with his father.
"Then you will be punished, I'm sorry to say. I think a few strokes with my belt might serve as a reminder not to fight," he stated.
"Yes, sir," was all Jason could say in reply. He looked quickly around the alley. The smaller boy had disappeared. He sighed quietly.
"Come on, son, let's get this over with."
Jason walked dejectedly beside his father. Boy, had things changed suddenly. In just a few minutes he had gone from feeling so good about life to facing the strictest punishment his father ever meted out. Jason rarely did anything to deserve the belt, but when he did he quickly regretted it. He took slight comfort in the thought that at least he had allowed enough time to let the smaller boy get away. Someone got some good out his effort anyway.
They had turned into the Scott's front yard when a soft voice piped up behind them. "Excuse me, Sir?"
Jason and his father turned to see a slender boy with dark blond hair standing at the front gate. Jason recognized the boy from the alley. It was pretty simple considering the blood smeared across his lower face and the hideously swollen black eye.
"My God, Jason, is this who you were fighting?" Jack couldn't believe his eyes.
"NO!" both Jason and the other boy spoke as one. Jason's tone was one of horrified disbelief. Could his father think he was capable of beating up someone so much smaller than he was?
"No, Sir," the other boy reiterated. "I just wanted to tell you that I was the reason your son got into that fight. The other boys were beating me up and your son came to help me. I kind of got the feeling you were mad at him about that," as he spoke he was slowly backing away.
Jack Scott had been a police officer for over ten years. He knew the look of a victim of violence who was struggling with the shock and fear that came after the pain. His voice became soothing and gentle. "What is you name, son?"
"Billy, are your parents home?"
"My dad will be home soon, sir." The kid was excruciatingly polite.
"What about your mom?"
"She died last year," came the soft reply as Billy studied the toes of his sneakers.
"Why don't you come on inside and let my wife take a look at you. She is a nurse, she can give you some ice for your eye, and make sure you don't have any other injuries." Jack offered.
"That's okay, I know what to do." Billy was still retreating slowly.
Jack's heart went out to the boy with that response. He suddenly realized who the boy was, why the name had sounded familiar. There had been a car accident last year that fortunately happened while he was off duty. A drunk driver hit another car head on. The family in the second car had just recently moved into Angel Grove. The woman in the car had died at the scene, in front of her husband and young son. Jack remembered the officers who had been on duty had kept in touch with the survivors for a while. They had told him how the husband seemed to be having a particularly hard time coping with what had happened. Jack now wondered if the man had ever come to grips with his wife's death, or had been able to help his son deal with it.
Whatever the situation with his father, the boy could use some help now. Jack did not want to have to chase the kid down, but he couldn't just let him leave without at least assuring himself that he had no other injuries. He was curiously moved by the boy's odd combination of vulnerability and courage. For he knew it had taken a great deal of courage to step forward and speak up when he was so obviously scared. Jack was trying to find the words to reassure the boy when Jason spoke up from beside him.
"Come on, Billy, my mom's great. She will fix your eye up and give you the best brownies in town." Jason declared with a child's unfeigned enthusiasm.
Billy looked up longingly. "She won't mind? I don't want to be a bother."
"Nah, she's a nurse. She's used to bleeding people." Jason said artlessly.
"Okay. Thanks." Billy said with a shy smile.
Jack ushered both boys into the house.
* * *
A half-hour later Jason and Billy were sitting at the kitchen table eating brownies and discussing the latest issue of the "Fantastic Four" comic book series. Marjorie had given Jason and Billy a quick look over when they got inside. Jason had some bruises, fortunately they were not too bad. Billy had the spectacular black eye, but his nose wasn't broken, nor were the ribs he had been protecting with his arm. She prescribed ice for Billy's eye and brownies and milk for both boys, then left them alone. She and Jack listened unobtrusively to the boys' conversation from the next room. They exchanged incredulous looks when they heard Billy explain in exact detail why a machine used in the comic strip could never work in reality. The boy had an impressive grasp of basic physics, chemistry and engineering. It was quite obvious he was far more intelligent than average.
"He must be at the genius level as far as his IQ goes," Marjorie said softly to her husband.
"No kidding, I didn't understand half of what he was talking about," he replied. He had never been a good science student.
"I doubt Jason did either. I hope this turns into a lasting friendship. I get the feeling they both need each other," she replied.
In the kitchen the subject had changed to a project Jason was working on with his friend, Zack. "We have been working on a model rocket, the kind where you build the whole thing yourself, mix the powder for launching it, everything. It's awesome. We have set it off a couple of times, but it doesn't go very far. I think we got gypped on the blasting powder. We are going to try again tomorrow. Want to come?"
"Will Zack mind?" Billy looked a little worried.
"Nah, Zack's cool. He gets along with everyone. You gotta watch him, though. He gets all hyper and starts dancing around. Doesn't need music or anything. He says he hears the music in his head and his feet can't stop. It's so funny to watch," Jason said with a laugh.
"Sure, where are you going to set this rocket off from?"
"Zack's back yard. He lives over on Sycamore Street, the only green house on the street, number 2879. But it you want, just meet me here in the morning and we'll go over together."
"I'll meet you here then. Gosh, look at the time! My dad will be home by now. I'd better be going. Thanks for brownies Mrs. Scott," he said politely as Jason's parents came into the room.
"You're welcome, Billy. It was nice to meet you," she replied, glad to see the boy smile.
"See ya tomorrow morning, Billy."
* * *
Jason was just settling into bed when his father came in. Jack sat on the edge of his bed and studied him for a long moment.
"Jason, I owe you an apology. I was wrong to not let you explain why you were fighting this afternoon. And furthermore, I was wrong to assume you had been the one fighting with Billy. I am sorry," Jack said solemnly.
"That's okay Dad. I WAS fighting, after all, and that was what the rule was about. We had never said anything about WHY. But I am glad Billy showed up when he did," Jason admitted with a small smile.
"I bet you were. What did you think of him?" Jack was curious, Jason had said little about his new friend after he had left.
"He's okay. Seems a little sad I guess. But he sure is smart, at least he sounds smart." Jason replied.
"Yes, he did. It also seemed like he needed a friend, I'm glad you invited him to join you tomorrow." Jack couldn't help his pride in his son's kind heart.
"I figure Zack will like him and he seems like he would have some neat ideas for things to do," Jason said in an offhand way. It was obvious to Jack that Jason didn't think what he had done that day was a big deal. Jack's pride increased as he got a glimpse of the unfeigned kindness that came naturally to his much-loved son.
"He probably will. Good night, son, sleep well. I love you," Jack said the last softly, but not so softly Jason wouldn't be able to hear it.
He shut off the light and left his son to his dreams.
* * *
The next day found Jason and Billy pedaling their bikes over to the Taylor house to meet Zack for the rocket launching. Billy looked much better - the swelling around his eye was already going down. He seemed a little nervous about meeting Zack, and frankly Jason was a little worried too. He had forgotten to mention that Zack was African-American, and he didn't know if that was a problem with Billy. If it was, he would have to ask Billy to leave, but Zack would still be hurt. He hoped that wouldn't happen.
Zack was waiting for Jason in the front yard. He looked curiously at Billy as they rode up, but greeted Jason with a dazzling smile.
"I was about to give up on you and shoot for the moon by myself," he declared with a laugh.
"Ah, you wouldn't even make it to the clouds," Jason shot back. "This is Billy. I invited him to join us in our historic launch."
Zack smiled at Billy openly. "Hi. I'm Zack," he offered his hand to Billy. When Billy reached for it Zack snapped his hand up so Billy ended up grasping air. Zack offered him a quick grin. "Gotcha!"
Billy looked like he didn't know what to think of Zack, but Jason was only slightly amused. "Come on, Zack, don't be a dweeb."
"Sorry, didn't mean to be mean," Zack said to Billy with another smile.
"'S okay," he mumbled, then smiled tentatively.
Zack's smile brightened considerably. "Cool! Let's get this show on the road!" he enthused.
They headed to the backyard, where Zack had everything in readiness. He was explaining to Billy what he had done. Billy listened quietly, offering no opinion but observing everything closely.
Jason and Zack conferred briefly on who got to actually activate the ignition, then all three boys backed away to watch the launch. Zack set it off and the rocket shot from the launching pad, but only went up about 20 feet before petering out. All three boys were disappointed.
"I swear, the powder kit they sold us was bad," Zack declared.
"May I see it, and the instructions that came with it?" Billy asked.
Zack handed over the stuff, and he and Jason watched as Billy quickly read through the instructions. Billy then asked Zack to demonstrate how he mixed the two powders together.
"I think I know what went wrong. You mixed them equally, but the instructions say to use a three to one ratio," Billy explained.
"What do they mean by a 'three to one' ratio?" Jason asked curiously. Neither he nor Zack were great math students.
"It means if you put one scoop of Powder A in you have to mix it with three scoops of Powder B. Look, like this." Billy quickly mixed up a new batch of the launching powder.
Zack had retrieved the rocket, so they set it up again, using the powder mixture Billy had made. This time when Zack set it off, it went OFF. All three boys watched in awe as the rocket shot so high it seemed to them it would run into an airplane up there. They whooped with unrestrained joy at the success of the launch.
"Whoa, Billy, that was awesome! Where were you last week when we couldn't even get it to go as high as the tops of the trees?" Zack spoke with his customary enthusiasm.
"I didn't really do anything, you guys did all the work. I just knew the math," Billy was somewhat embarrassed by Zack's praise.
"Whatever, but that was GREAT!" Zack was still high from the success of the launch.
"Yeah, we really needed your help for that last part," Jason added.
Zack walked up between the other two boys, hooking an elbow around each of their necks. "We make a heck of a team! We can do anything, what with Jason's brawn, Billy's brain, and my style, we are unbeatable!"
And, as Jason had warned him, Zack started to dance around the yard to music only he could hear. Jason looked over at Billy conspiratorially.
"What can I say? He gets a bit excited."
* * *
The next few weeks sped by as the three boys' friendship continued to grow. They had found Zack was right about their making a good team. Zack supplied the imagination, Billy the know-how, and Jason the power to do anything their active minds came up with. Of course, not everything they attempted was a complete success. They had each had to cough up two weeks allowance to replace the Taylor's trashcans after the "Great Trashcan Race". And the far corner of the Cranston's back yard still showed the scars from the "Mystical Buried Treasure Hunt."
Summer vacation was rapidly coming to an end, so Jason decided they needed to have a "great adventure" before it was over. They decided to bike deep into Angel Grove Forest and stalk the Bigfoot type monster that had been spotted there. (Or, so they had heard.) They would leave in the early morning, Mr. Taylor would give them, and their bikes, a lift to the lower camp area where they could start their search. They would pack lunches and meet Mr. Taylor back at the starting point at 5 p.m. They were excitedly discussing their plans when they heard feminine giggling behind them.
"A monster?" Giggled a petite brown-haired girl wearing a short pink dress.
"In Angel Grove Forest?" Her companion was a delicate looking oriental girl in a bright yellow blouse.
"Come on, Kimberly, be nice," Billy said to the first girl.
"Sorry, Billy, but it is funny. You guys think there is a monster in the forest," she pealed out more laughter.
"You know her, Billy?" Jason asked. He vaguely recognized the girl in pink, but couldn't remember her name.
"Yeah, she lives near me, her name is Kimberly Hart," Billy supplied.
The two girls finally settled down, but the merriment that sparkled in their eyes betrayed their attempts to listen soberly to the boys' plans. Zack explained how he heard the rumor about the monster from another kid he knew, and Billy explained their plan to track it, and Jason their plan to trap it.
"You don't really believe there is a monster, do you?" Kimberly was still skeptical.
"Maybe not, but it will still be fun," Zack declared with a grin. "Lots of times we start out doing one thing and end up doing something else that is even more fun."
"Well, there is no 'maybe' about it, there is no monster. And what can be fun about spending the day traipsing around the forest getting hot and sticky?" Kimberly shot back.
"You can have lots of fun, if you aren't scared. But I guess you'll never know, will you?" Zack baited her.
"I'm not scared in the least," Kimberly declared haughtily.
"Oh, yeah, I think you are. I think you are scared of being in the forest, and I think you are scared there might be a monster." Zack was really getting into teasing the girl.
"I'm not scared, and I'll prove it! Trini and I will come with you boys, and we get to laugh at you when you can't find a monster. So there!"
"You weren't invited, you can't come," Zack shot back at her.
"What are you? Scared I might be right?"
"No way! Okay, you can come along, we meet at my house at 6 a.m. tomorrow. Bring your bikes and lunch."
"We will be there, Zachary Taylor, and we will prove we aren't scared AND there are no such things as monsters!" With that Kimberly stalked off without another word.
Trini turned to the three boys. "It was nice to meet you, I guess I'll see you in the morning. My name is Trini, by the way." She smiled slightly and hurried to catch up with Kimberly.
Zack turned to the other boys to see them looking at him strangely. "Um, guys, hope it is okay if the girls come along," he said sheepishly. "I didn't mean to just take over like that, but she really got to me."
"Kimberly can do that to people. She is really very nice, but she won't let anyone take advantage of her. She has a lot of spirit," Billy said.
"Yeah, I noticed. Well, it's a done deal now. They might not show up anyway. And if they do, well, we will worry about that then," Zack decided.
"Oh, I think they will show up, Kimberly is not one to back down."
* * *
Trini finally caught up with Kimberly. "Hey, what's wrong? Don't you like that guy?" she asked. Trini was new in town, and Kimberly was the first friend she had made.
"Zack? Oh, he's okay. He just gets to me, you know? I don't know him that well, but he tends to tease people, goad them on. I shouldn't have let him get to me. But, no one can accuse me of being afraid of anything. I'm not afraid." Kim declared.
"I believe you. Are you really going to go tomorrow?" Trini asked.
"If my parents say it is okay, I will be there. How about you?"
"I'll be there too. I'm not afraid of the woods or anything in it," Trini stated stoutly.
"Who were those boys, anyway? If I'm going to spend tomorrow with them it might be nice to at least know their names."
"Oh, well, Zack is the guy I was arguing with. The big guy is Jason, he's into karate. I don't know him well either, but he has always seemed nice enough. The other one is Billy. He lives near me so I know him better than the other two. He is real nice, but very quiet and shy. Oh, don't ask him about his mother, she died last year, it was really sad," Kimberly added.
"Car crash. Billy was there, he saw everything. I heard my parents talking about it one night, my mom knew Billy's mom a little. It really shook her up." Kim looked upset at the memory.
"How awful!" Trini had not known anyone who had had a parent die before. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose someone like that.
"Yeah, it was."
* * *
Billy was in his kitchen making his lunch for the next day's adventure when his father wandered in. Wallace Cranston was a small, slight man, with thick glasses and a defenseless look about him. He watched his only child quietly for a moment as Billy spread jam thickly on the bread.
"Tomorrow is the 'great forest adventure'?" he asked Billy.
"Yeah, I'm going over to Zack's house at 6:00 a.m. to meet the others. Kimberly Hart is going too, as well as a new girl in town, Trini. It should be a lot of fun." Billy smiled at his dad.
Wallace was glad to see that smile. Smiles had been a rare commodity in recent months. Billy had always been tormented by larger boys who beat him up because he was so much smarter than they were, or because he was well liked by adults, or simply because he was an easy target. He learned young, and the hard way, that life could be difficult for those who are different. The frequent beatings resulted in his withdrawing somewhat from others, developing an introspection that was most unusual for so young a boy. Then, after the accident and the loss of his mother, Billy had become even more withdrawn. Wallace was not so caught up in his own misery that he did not notice his son's problems, he just had no idea how to help him. His helplessness in the face of his son's pain was difficult to accept. Then a few weeks ago, Billy's conversations became peppered with talk of "Jason", and "Zack", and the things they did together. Wallace saw the wall of loneliness around Billy slowly crumble, and the sadness overshadowing his heart lift. Wallace's own spirits lifted as well. His son was the only light he had in his life, and seeing him happy was a solace to the lonely man.
"You kids will be careful, right?" Wallace asked, looking directly at Billy.
"Of course we will. We always are, evidence notwithstanding," Billy said a bit sheepishly. He had picked up a sprained ankle a week ago during one of their adventures, this time in the far corner of the Angel Grove Park.
"Um-hmm, of course you are," Wallace smiled. "When will you get home?"
"Mr. Taylor is picking us up at 5 p.m., so I should be home by six. Is that okay?"
"Yes, it's okay. Just don't be late, I don't want to have to come after you." He said sternly.
"We won't be late, I promise."
* * *
Kimberly Hart had gotten permission from her parents to go on the trip into the forest. She had been lucky, both her mom and dad were in a good mood, which was becoming a rare occasion around the Hart home. In recent months her parents were more and more often on opposite sides of an issue, whether it was who should be President of the United States or if their daughter should spend the day exploring the forest with her friends. Kimberly found herself unconsciously checking her parents' moods before doing anything else. If both were okay she went on with life as usual, but if one or the other were in a bad mood she found herself trying to ensure everything went extra smoothly to prevent an outburst of anger. It never occurred to her that the problems her parents were having had nothing to do with her. She was convinced that if she did everything right they would be okay, so she focused the majority of her considerable energy on making life as easy as possible for them.
It was a losing battle, but she didn't know that.
Kimberly had just laid out the outfit she was going to wear in the morning when she looked up to see her mother standing in the bedroom doorway.
"Who are the other kids you are going with?" Eileen Hart asked.
"Trini, Billy, Jason Scott, and Zack Taylor." Kim replied.
"Billy Cranston? He finally got some friends? Well, good." Eileen said, "Is Jason the son of Jack Scott, the police lieutenant?"
"I think so, his dad is a policeman at any rate, and Zack's dad works for the county," Kimberly supplied.
"Well, I guess they are all good kids, then. Trini seems very nice," Eileen added.
"She is. We don't really have a lot in common, but she is a lot of fun to hang around with," Kimberly said.
"Maybe she will interest you in something other than shopping in you spare time," Eileen smiled to take the sting out of her comment.
Kimberly smiled weakly. Shopping was one of her ways to make herself feel better when the parents were fighting. She'd been shopping an awful lot recently.
Just then Kimberly's younger brother, Kenny, poked his head in the door. "Where are you going tomorrow? Can I go, too?" he whined.
"No, pest. Not this time. We are riding our bikes on rough trails, you couldn't keep up. Please, Mom?" Kimberly turned a supplicating look to her mother. There was no way she wanted her seven-year-old brother to come along tomorrow.
"Not this time, Kenny. Maybe Kimberly will take you to the matinee Saturday to make up for it?" The last part was half question, half suggestion.
"Yeah, I can do that instead, okay, Kenny?"
"Can we see the scary movie?"
"Yeah, if you insist. But you'll just have bad dreams." Kim stated.
"I don't care, it's a deal!" Kenny decided.
"Good! That is taken care of. Now, you kids get ready for bed. We'll be in to say goodnight in a few minutes," Eileen said over her shoulder as she headed for the living room.
Kimberly chased her brother out and settled into bed. When her mom and dad came in to say goodnight, they seemed strained. Kimberly felt sudden dread, knowing they would be fighting later.
A couple of hours later she was awakened by the sound of her parents shouting at each other. They sounded so angry! She was fighting back tears when she heard her door open, and in the faint light saw Kenny approach her bed.
"Are you awake?" he asked in a trembling voice.
"Yeah, come on and lay down here. Are you scared?" Kimberly asked gently.
"Yes," he said, and Kimberly realized he was crying.
"It will be okay, really it will. Things will get better, I know it," she tried to soothe him with confident words.
"When, Kimberly? When will they get better?" he asked piteously.
"I don't know," was all she could say.
* * *
Trini Kwan awoke with the first rays of the dawning sun. She always awoke at sunrise, no matter where she was. She stretched and looked around a bedroom that was finally beginning to feel like it was hers. She hated the first month or so in a new house, when nothing was familiar yet. Thank goodness her parents were convinced they were going to stay in Angel Grove for a while. She was sick of moving, living out of boxes, and never getting to make friendships that would last. She grabbed the clothing she had set out the night before and headed to the bathroom to prepare for the day ahead.
She was actually quite excited to be going on this foray into the forest with the other kids. She got a good feeling from all of them. And she had become friends with Kimberly so quickly. Trini was not normally the most outgoing of people, so she had been surprised at herself when she approached Kimberly at the mall and asked her advice on a shirt she was looking at. That had lead to a further discussion of fashion, color coordinating, and mall etiquette. That had lead to them spending the bulk of the day together, and, somehow, that led to them spending the bulk of the remaining summer together.
Now this-an all day adventure in the forest. Trini had never had an experience like this before. She was looking forward to it keenly.
She went into the kitchen to get some breakfast and pack her lunch. As usual, her father had beaten her to the table.
"Good morning, Father," she greeted him. She always addressed her parents in a formal manner, it was a family tradition.
"Good morning, Trini," Russell Kwan replied. He favored his younger daughter with a warm look. She looked happy this morning. "Is this the morning of the big outing?"
"Yes, I just need to pack a lunch and I'll be ready to go. Thank you for giving me permission."
"You have a great deal of good sense, Trini. I know you will not do something foolish. You have always merited our trust," he replied.
"Thank you." They ate their breakfasts in silence for a while. Trini treasured these quiet mornings with her father. Russell Kwan was a busy man, he loved his work as an engineer. He had changed jobs several times looking for one that would provide stability with a variety of duties. He hated to be static in anything, especially work. The Angel Grove Power Plant provided the work environment he was looking for, as the town provided the type of environment he wished to raise his two daughters in. Trini was the daughter who took after him. Julie was more like their mother, Michelle. The two of them were sometimes more like friends than mother and daughter. The same applied to Trini and her father, their father/daughter relationship was heavily spiced with genuine friendship, they were kindred spirits.
"Do you think you will become friends with all these children?" Russell asked at last.
"Well, I think I'm already friends with Kimberly, and the boys seemed to be nice enough. Kimberly said she knows the one, Billy, pretty well and that he is very nice. She said both the other boys have good reputations. Beyond that, I can't say at this time. I hope they all become friends. It would be nice to have friends that last more than a year," she said wistfully.
"Who knows, this may be the start of something good."
* * *
Clayton Taylor and his son, Zack, were wrestling the utility trailer out of the garage. They needed to hook it up to the Bronco so they could haul the five bikes up to the Angel Grove Forest. Zack was all but bursting with energy.
"This is going to be so cool! All day by ourselves with so much to see and do. It is gonna be awesome!"
Clayton was amused by his son's enthusiasm. His eldest son was a constant source of joyful energy. His great aunt once said that Zack had the "habit of happiness", and his father was inclined to agree with that assessment. Angel Grove did not have a large African-American population, Zack was only one of seven black students in his class. Some youngsters would become bitter or embattled under those circumstances. Not Zack. He found friends to whom skin pigmentation was unimportant. Clayton had known Jason Scott for a couple of years, since Zack first brought him home. Jason was a great kid, he and Zack got along better than most brothers did. For that matter, better than Zack got along with his own brothers. Then recently Billy had started hanging around. Though Clayton hadn't gotten to know the boy yet, he seemed to be as unquestioningly accepting as Jason was. Zack was lucky to have friends like that, and, in Clayton's admittedly biased opinion, they were lucky to have Zack as a friend.
"Thanks again, Dad, for taking us all up there. It's so cool of you."
"My pleasure, Zack. Just be sure you are all there when I come to pick you up. I don't want to end up regretting my helping you out."
"No problem, Dad. We'll be there!"
* * *
The five youngsters waved to Mr. Taylor as he turned around and left them with their bikes at the lowest campground in Angel Grove Forest. As the Bronco rounded a curve and moved out of sight, the kids all looked around. The day was perfectly still, the temperature would probably not exceed eighty degrees, and the sky was a pristine blue ceiling above them.
"Gosh, it is so beautiful here," Kimberly breathed.
"Absolutely. I'm very glad I could come with you guys. Thanks for inviting me," Trini added.
"Um, I don't remember exactly how you ended up being invited, but you are welcome anyway," Zack said with a huge smile. "Which way should we head out?"
"According to this map and my compass, we need to head that way," Billy announced, pointing to the south. "Didn't you say the monster was sighted near Harper's Gorge?"
"Yeah, that is what they said," Zack agreed.
"Then, let's do it!" Jason enthused. "Wagons Ho! and all that sort of thing."
With a burst of giggles the kids headed out to their adventure.
* * *
Almost four hours later the five explorers stopped for a break. They had not seen so much as a hint of a monster, but they had seen various forms of wildlife, including a couple of deer that peered curiously at the children before leaping soundlessly and gracefully off the path. The path was getting progressively steeper and sandier, and they found they were spending more time walking their bikes than riding them.
"What do you say we leave our bikes here and continue on foot?" Jason suggested from his seat at the base of a huge pine tree.
"Sounds like a plan to me. I'm tired of trying to wrestle it through all this soft sand," Zack agreed. "But what are we going to chain them to? All the trees are too big around for our chains."
"We could chain them together. It would be virtually impossible for someone to pick up all five bikes at once and carry them all the way out of here. There are much easier ways to steal a bike," Billy suggested.
"Yet another good idea from the brains of the bunch!" Zack declared with glee. Billy had long since realized Zack's teasing was never mean spirited, so he just grinned when Zack made that comment.
"Jeez, Zack, do you have to be so mean to Billy?" Kim grumbled.
"He's not being mean, Kimberly, he's just being, well.....um...he's being Zack!" Billy tried to explain.
"Humph!" was her only comment as she joined the others in chaining the five bikes together.
With that done they headed out on foot, still aiming for Harper's Gorge where the monster was allegedly sighted. Zack was telling the others a long, involved joke concerning a monkey, a bank, and a red sports car that was made funnier by Zack's inability to get the facts straight. The sound of their laughter caused minor panic among the smaller forest creatures.
* * *
Miles from where the five Angel Grove children hiked through the forest, a family of six was breaking camp. They loaded their Suburban with their camping gear, checked to be sure they had properly cleaned up their campsite, and carefully doused the fire. Satisfied they had done everything they needed to, they headed on out, never noticing the small column of smoke coming from the shrubs on the edge of the campsite. A spark that had been expelled from the fire when a piece of green wood snapped in the flames had smoldered beneath the bushes for over an hour. The dry old leaves and twigs were the perfect kindling. Soon the smoldering debris gave birth to a small flame, which would quickly grow. By the time it was discovered, it was out of control.
* * *
Trini could not remember a day she had enjoyed quite as much as this one. She had come to realize she liked all her companions. Jason was a natural leader, calm and decisive, with a strength the others seemed to instinctively turn to. Zack was so happy and relaxed, but she suspected that beneath the easy come, easy go exterior was a fiercely loyal heart. She also detected an odd sort of strength in Billy, the kind of strength that was more intellectual in nature than the others. And Kimberly's frivolous exterior hid a warm, sensitive heart coupled with a strong determination to do what that heart told her was right. Trini wasn't too sure what she herself added to their group, but she sensed they complimented and completed each other. She felt she belonged, in a way she couldn't explain and had never experienced before.
With these four friends, she just felt right.
She was so engrossed in her thoughts she walked into Billy when he stopped suddenly in front of her.
"Oh, I'm sorry Billy," she said, as she reached out to steady him when he stumbled. "I wasn't paying any attention."
"It's okay, Trini, you didn't hurt me. Why are we stopping?" he called out to Jason, who had been leading them.
"We're trying to figure out where to go now, there is a fork in the path. Do you still have the map?"
"Yeah, here, let me see where we are," said Billy as he pulled out the now worn map.
He went to join Jason at the point where the path forked, carefully studying the map. "I think we go right," he finally decided.
"Right it is," Jason agreed without argument. "Maybe we should mark the path to remind us which way we need to go when we come back," he suggested.
The suggestion was met with enthusiasm from the others, who decided a small stack of rocks would suffice. Once they had set up their marker, they headed quickly onward. It was almost noon and they would have to turn back soon if they wanted to get out in time. They figured they would take at least an hour less to get out than to get in as they would be going downhill coming out of the area. Harper's Gorge was within a half mile.
* * *
Back in Angel Grove, at the Forest Service office, there came an call from a camper going through the nearby national forest. The caller reported a thick column of smoke was clearly visible from the road in the general area of a small campground. It appeared to be more smoke than could be attributed to a campfire. The forest ranger who took the call promised to send a unit to investigate, but personally, he thought it was probably just a campfire made by someone who felt they needed an inferno to cook over.
He radioed a couple of fellow rangers who were in the general area, they promised to check out the situation.
None of them were too worried.
* * *
Jason stood on the edge of Harper's Gorge, looking at the panoramic view in front of him. His friends stood on either side of him, all of them silent for a moment, lost in their own thoughts. For the time being, they forgot they were supposed to be in search of a monster, the girls forgot to tease the boys about the lack of any evidence of said monster. They had found themselves caught up in the simple experience of hiking in the woods, surrounded by beauty and majesty. They felt their history lessons coming to life when they pondered who had first explored these woods, they found their class on natural science coming in handy when they considered the evidence of the passing of time that was all around them. But mostly, they simply basked in the feeling of being young, healthy, together, and free.
"This looks like a good spot for lunch, what do you all say?" Jason asked the group.
"Good idea, lets eat!" was Zack's response. They had put off having lunch until they reached Harper's Gorge. Consequently, they were now famished.
Lunches were unpacked and unceremoniously wolfed down. The girls remembered why there were on this trek, and started to tease the boys, especially Zack.
"Hey, Zack, where is the monster you promised us?" Kim taunted him. "Maybe we should leave it a trail of bread crumbs so it can find us? Or maybe Reese's Pieces, like in ET?"
"Heck, it probably heard you coming and ran in fear!" Zack shot back at her with a gleam in his eye.
"Huh, it probably got a look at Jason and is hiding in terror!" Kim was quick to respond.
Trini and Jason were chuckling at the interplay between the two. Trini noticed that Billy seemed to be distracted and wasn't paying any attention to the others.
"Billy, is something wrong?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know. The sky looks a little funny back the way we came from," he said distractedly.
Trini scanned the sky to the north of them, where Billy had been looking. The sky did look a little off color, but it was hard to be sure. Was it clouding up? The other three noticed that Billy and Trini were both worried about something and joined them in observing the sky.
"It does look a bit odd. Maybe we should head back, there was that point a ways back where we had a good view to the north of us, I think. Let's go there and see if we can figure out what is happening," Jason suggested practically.
The five of them quickly picked up their lunch debris and headed back.
* * *
The two forest rangers who had been dispatched to check out the smoke near the small campground in the northern area of the forest were surprised and dismayed to find it was not a campfire, as they had thought it would be. The fire had already encompassed the small campground, and was rapidly spreading in the drought-dried forest. They called for the immediate dispatch of all available units to fight the fire, and requested additional out-of-the-area units be advised to stand by. This could be a bad one.
They also asked for more rangers to assist them in the evacuation of the other campgrounds. It was no longer considered safe to be anywhere within a fifteen-mile radius.
The five children from Angel Grove were seven miles from the fire's point of origin.
* * *
Jason set a quick pace back down the trail. He wanted to see what was going on, plus, they had lingered a little longer over lunch than they had intended to. They were going to have to hustle to make it to the pickup spot in time.
They couldn't get a decent look at the forest to the north of them, due to the large trees that surrounded them. The trail they were on wound it's way almost blindly through the thick foliage, but that which they found so beautiful on the hike up was now considered a hindrance.
Jason finally reached the spot he had remembered as having a view to the north, and stopped in shock. The others caught up with him, and joined him in his wordless scrutiny of the northern horizon.
"Oh, my God," Jason breathed. "We are in trouble now."
The sky to the north was now a weird tan/gray color due to the smoke put out by the fire. It appeared to be huge, and there was no doubt it was moving in their direction. It was clear that even if the campground where they started in the morning was okay now, it wouldn't be for long. There was no way they could go back the way they had come.
"Jason, what should we do?" Kimberly asked, turning to Jason as the leader without even thinking about it.
"Obviously, we will have to head south, but where will we get to? Billy, let's look at the map," Jason decided.
He and Billy looked at the map, trying to decipher what was to the south of them. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be considered civilization in that direction. Jason studied the map, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly, a blue circle on the map caught his attention.
"How far is it to this lake?" he asked Billy, knowing instinctively that Billy would be able to figure the distance more quickly and accurately than anyone else.
"About four miles, but mostly uphill," Billy answered.
"I can't think of anything else to do but head for there. We can take refuge in the water until the fire passes over us, then hike out. That might work. I just don't think we can go west or east fast enough to beat the fire. What do you guys think?" he asked, turning to the others.
"It seems like the only likely solution," Billy agreed.
"Let's do it," Zack added.
Kimberly was pale but composed. "We had better hurry."
"Yeah," Trini said quietly, "we may not have a lot of time to work with."
The five of them headed back up the trail, Jason in the lead, with Zack, Kimberly, Trini, and Billy following closely. According to the map they would have to follow along the side of Harper's Gorge for a mile or more, then cross some sort of bridge, then another steep climb before they would reach the lake. There were numerous intersections with other trails on their way, and Jason had tried to memorize what choices to make at each junction, just in case.
* * *
At the base camp that had been hastily set up for the units fighting the fire, Forest Ranger Todd James had received word that all the campgrounds had been successfully evacuated. Since it was a weekday, there were fewer people in the camps than usual. A check at the trailheads found no hikers were out that day.
"We are darn lucky, at least no people are in danger," he thought to himself with relief.
Of course, that wasn't quite true.
* * *
Jason led the way back to Harper's Gorge, where the trail ran uphill parallel to the edge, through a thick stand of trees. They hurried as much as possible given the steep climb and rough trail. They needed to be somewhat cautious as the trail was very close to the edge, and a misstep could easily cost someone their life. But, they were also moving parallel to the fire's approaching front, losing precious time and distance. They hoped that once they got across it, the gorge would slow the fire down.
At last Jason spotted the bridge. It was a large log shaved flat on one side, reaching from one side to the other. There was no handrail and the log was approximately a foot wide. Not great, but it could have been worse.
"I'll go first, we'll cross one at a time, and be careful! Don't worry about hurrying," Jason instructed.
He made it quickly and easily across, followed by Zack. While Kimberly was crossing, Jason told Zack he was going to scout ahead. When Kimberly got there, she decided to follow Jason, while Zack waited for Billy and Trini. Billy was just reaching the other side when they heard Kimberly scream in the distance.
"I'm gonna go check on her! Wait for Trini, okay? Then follow us on up the trail," Zack said as he darted on up the trail in the direction of Kimberly's cry.
"Okay," Billy responded to Zack's retreating form. He turned his attention to Trini on the far side. "Come on, Trini, we need to get going," he called out to her.
He noticed she was looking at the bridge, and the gorge, with an expression of fixed horror. Suddenly he realized what was wrong. Trini was afraid of heights. Billy looked up the trail in the direction Jason and the others had gone, then made up his mind. He crossed back to Trini's side.
"Trini," he said quietly, "we have to cross here. It is too far to the end of the gorge, and the fire will catch up with us before we get there."
"I can't," she whispered. "I can't cross on that bridge. I'll fall."
"No, you won't. None of us did. It is really quite safe," he tried to reassure her.
"I'll fall," she repeated, staring as if mesmerized at the gorge.
"I have an idea. Trini, look at me," he instructed, turning her face gently toward his. He remembered what he had read on hypnosis and decided it would be a good time to see if it worked. "You have to look at me, and only at me. We are going to cross together, and WE...WILL...NOT...FALL." He emphasized the last. "Trust me, Trini, we will be okay. I promise."
She looked at him closely, trying to believe. She understood that if she stayed on this side, she would most likely die. She didn't want that to happen, but her fear was almost overpowering. She felt her gaze drifting toward the gorge again.
"NO! Look only at me. Come on, Trini, look at me," he kept her gaze on him by the force of his words. "Here, hold my hands, we are going across hand in hand, together, and we will be fine, we will not fall," he poured every ounce of confidence he could muster into his voice. As he spoke he walked backwards to the bridge, insisting Trini look only at him, bringing her with him.
He stepped up onto the bridge, slowly and gently drawing Trini up with him. She was almost paralyzed with fear, but she found she could not resist what Billy was doing. Her deep-seated survival instinct was what was responding to Billy's commands, overriding her fear, but just barely.
Billy kept crossing the bridge backwards, using extreme caution, feeling each step behind him before committing to another. It was a slow, laborious process, but at least he had Trini crossing to safety. He kept up a steady stream of encouragement. After a seeming eternity, he realized they had reached the other side. He assisted Trini off the bridge, watching as she seemed to come out of the almost dazed state she had been in.
Trini collapsed on the ground, her back to the side of the log bridge. She was pale, and now that it was over, trembling with a delayed reaction to her fear. Billy knelt beside her to offer comfort.
"You did it Trini. You got across okay. Everything will be alright now, but we have to get moving," he didn't know how long it had taken to get across, but looking northward, the fire was rapidly gaining on them.
Trini looked up at him with tear filled eyes. "I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm so afraid of heights. You might have been hurt because of me," she felt terrible.
Billy reached out and patted her shoulder, "It's okay. Can we go on now?" he asked, not sure how to respond to her emotional state. Crying girls were something he had no experience with.
"Yes, I want to get far away from here," she agreed.
They started up the trail, wondering what had happened to the other three, why they had not come back to check on them.
* * *
Zack had raced up the trail when he heard Kimberly scream. He found her standing still and white in the middle of the path. He noted absently that the trail was much harder to define on this side.
"Kim, what's the matter, why did you scream like that?" he was a little exasperated, he saw no reason for her actions.
"Because of that," she said fearfully. She pointed to a spot just off the trail, where a bear stood on its hind legs looking at them.
"What are we supposed to do if confronted by a bear?" Zack asked quietly. His mind was a complete blank and he felt his body tense up in fear.
"I don't know. It hasn't moved toward me, but it hasn't left either. If we move slowly on up the trail, maybe it will ignore us," she suggested. "Let's try it." With that, Kimberly started moving slowly up the path. "Zack, come on."
Zack found he couldn't move. He did not have a lot of experience in the woods, all he knew about bears came from old westerns and frontier shows his parents had exposed him to. In all of those, bears were depicted as being fearsome killers.
Kimberly didn't know anything about bears either, but she figured getting out of the general area of this one would be a good idea. Her scream had been equal parts surprise and fear, but for some reason as soon as Zack got there, the fear was almost completely gone. She grabbed Zack's hand and forced him to follow her. He went with her readily enough, if somewhat stiffly.
Once they were out of sight of the bear, they broke into a run, calling for Jason.
* * *
Jack Scott had been in court all day, testifying in a case he had worked on the previous month. It wasn't until he got back to the station late that afternoon that he was notified of the fire. By then it was raging out of control, moving rapidly south and east. The officer who informed Jack of the fire was astonished to see the lieutenant turn so pale.
"What's wrong?" he asked in concern.
"Show me where the fire started, and where it is now," Jack said tersely.
The officer showed Jack what he needed to know on a map that hung on the back wall. Jack turned paler and leaned against the desk behind him for support.
"What is it?" the officer asked.
"My son and four of his friends are out there somewhere," Jack whispered.
* * *
Clayton Taylor left work at 4:30 to head out to pick up the kids. He had been working on some underground drainage pipes and hadn't heard any news broadcasts. He turned his Bronco toward the Angel Grove Forest and saw the horizon swathed in smoke.
Horrified and panic-stricken, he hurried toward the forest, hoping against hope the kids were out of danger.
He turned on the radio to listen for news updates on the situation. What he heard filled him with dread.
* * *
Far away from the inferno that was Angel Grove Forest, in a domed structure that mysteriously avoided detection, an ancient interdimensional being stirred from his state of suspended animation. He had the innate ability to immediately know what day and year it was, to remember what planet he was currently on, and what menace was most likely to appear. Something told him this was an unusual situation, and at present he was unsure why he had awakened.
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi! Zordon, what are you doing awake?" Alpha-5 was programmed to activate whenever Zordon emerged from his suspended state.
"I am not sure, Alpha. Something of significance is happening, but I am not sure of what it is. Activate the viewing globe, perhaps we can discover what has disturbed me."
"Right away, Zordon," Alpha replied, suiting action to words. "Ay-yi-yi, it appears the forest is on fire," he noted.
"Indeed, but why would that cause me to awaken? We must observe more, until I have discovered what is so significant about this event." Zordon stated.
Both he and Alpha focused their attention on the events transpiring in Angel Grove Forest.
* * *
Jason was caught up in his effort to reach the summit ahead of him. The trail from the gorge had led almost straight uphill, and he wanted to reach the top so he could assess the situation before meeting with the others. He was almost there when he heard voices calling his name. He turned around to find Zack and Kimberly approaching in a stumbling run.
The two youngsters reached Jason, but found themselves unable to speak. They were gasping for breath, almost on the verge of passing out.
"What happened?!? Are you guys okay? Where is Trini and Billy?" Jason's questions came rapid fire.
Zack tried to respond. "A...b..b..bear...we...saw...a ..bear..ran....away.."
"What? Where? Is it following you?"
"I don't think so. I hope not. I haven't heard it." Kim kept her sentences short, but she could get the point across.
"Where are Billy and Trini?" Jason asked again.
Kimberly and Zack exchanged guilty looks.
"Oh, gosh, I forgot about them! We were so scared the bear would follow, all I could think about was getting away," Kim was finally breathing easier, but now guilt overwhelmed her.
"They shouldn't have been far behind us. Billy was already across the bridge when I left to check on Kimberly when she screamed. They are probably just taking the hill slower." Zack suggested hopefully.
"Or the bear got them," Kimberly added grimly.
Jason blanched. "We better head back and see if we can find them," he decided. "I should never have let us get separated."
They started back down the hill, but hadn't gotten very far when they heard something approaching. It was the bear from the clearing lumbering up the trail. It wasn't running, but it was moving at a steady pace. The three children turned and ran as quickly as they could back up the grade. Jason didn't know what to do, if they should try to hide or if that would put them in more danger. Their adrenaline-fueled flight could not go on forever. He saw a fork in the trail ahead and made his decision.
"Turn to the left up ahead, then as soon as the path curves we will duck off it and hide in the bushes," he instructed the others in between gasps for breath.
Kim and Zack offered no objection, it was unlikely they could have gotten the message across even if they did object. They simply followed Jason's lead. When he ducked into the undergrowth, they followed on his heels and crouched beside him, trying to muffle their labored breathing.
None of them knew how long they crouched there, straining to hear the bear if it happened by. A seeming eternity later Jason decided the coast was clear and suggested they get back on the path. They saw no sign of the bear in any direction.
"Guess we lost it," Zack said.
"Must have, but unfortunately, we lost Trini and Billy as well," Jason said unhappily.
"What should we do?" Kim asked with a worried frown. She didn't want to admit it, but she was pretty freaked by the fire. But she was also worried about their two companions. She felt a closeness to Trini she had never experienced with a friend before, and the thought of abandoning her was unacceptable.
"Let's backtrack some and see if we can find them, and see where the fire is," Jason suggested. The proximity of the fire was now impossible to gauge from the smoke. A breeze from the north had sprung up, and the smoke was so thick overhead it blocked the sun much like a cloud cover would.
"I hope they are okay." Kimberly said quietly.
* * *
Jack Scott got on the radio to the firefighter's base camp as soon as he composed himself after hearing of the fire. He was connected with Todd James.
"Todd, this is Jack Scott, the police lieutenant. What is your situation there?"
"The fire is moving very quickly in a southern and eastern direction. We have evacuated the forest, at present no one is in any danger that we are aware of."
"Did you evacuate five children? Ten-year-olds, three boys and two girls?"
"We haven't seen any children, except those who were in campgrounds with their families. Are you saying we have five kids out there somewhere alone?" Todd's voice sounded stricken.
"God help us, I think so. My son and four of his friends started out from the lowest campground this morning. I think they were headed for Harper's Gorge. On bicycles." Jack kept the tremor out of his voice by sheer force of will. He felt his world crumbling around him with each passing moment.
"Damn! The fire is already to the gorge. It looks like it will cross it, thanks to the wind," suddenly Todd realized he was not just speaking to the police lieutenant, but to a distraught parent. "Look, I'm going to contact the 'copter pilot to be on the lookout, he can swing over that area, perhaps he will spot them. The kids probably saw the fire a long time ago and are well ahead of it. I'll have another 'copter dispatched to scout for them. We'll do all we can."
Jack appreciated Todd's reassurance, but he was a hard core realist. Those kids were in a world of trouble. Then the thought hit him.
Did any of the other parents know?
* * *
Eileen Hart had been showing houses to a prospective buyer all day. The man was one of those irritating people who had to be shown the same property time and again. Back and forth all day between four places. Then he decided he needs more time to reach a decision. Eileen was tired and grumpy, so say the least, when the receptionist told her she had a call.
"Hello, this is Eileen Hart."
"Mrs. Hart, this is Jack Scott, Jason Scott's dad."
"Hello, Mr. Scott, what can I do for you?"
"I don't want to frighten you unnecessarily, but you may have noticed the smoke to the east. There is a fire burning out of control in Angel Grove Forest. Our children are still unaccounted for."
Eileen dropped weakly into her chair, her legs would no longer support her. She found she was unable to speak.
"Mrs. Hart? Mrs. Hart? Eileen? Are you there? Hello?" Jack's voice was sounding increasingly desperate.
Eileen finally found her voice. "I'm here. Are you sure? They are still out there?"
"I spoke to the firefighter's base camp, to the man in charge. They have not evacuated five children. However, they have started a search for them. My wife and I will be heading up to the base camp in a little while. Would you and your husband like to come with us?"
"Thank you, no. I have to contact my husband, he is working in the city today, and I'll wait for him to get home then head up there. Where exactly is the base?"
Jack Scott gave her directions, and got her cell phone number so he could contact her at any time.
Eileen realized dimly that she was in shock. She had experienced emergency situations before, and knew the shock could be useful. She started calling around to locate her husband, and to get friends to look after Kenny.
She had everything arranged, and was just pulling into her driveway when the dam burst inside her, and she broke down in hysterics.
* * *
Clayton Taylor had reached the roadblock the firefighters had put up to keep motorists out of Angel Grove Forest. The Highway Patrol was assisting by directing the vehicles to turn around and leave the area. When Clayton finally reached the officer, he was beyond frustrated by the gawkers and sightseers.
"I'm sorry, sir, but no one is allowed past this point," the young officer said in an almost mechanical voice that properly hid his irritation with the people who came to the site of a disaster to just watch. "You need to turn around and leave this area. We need it clear for emergency vehicles."
"Please! My son and some of his friends were up there. I dropped them off this morning. I have to know if they have gotten out safely." Clayton pleaded with the officer.
The younger man's demeanor changed suddenly. "I heard about the kids on the radio transmissions between the base and the helicopter." It occurred to the young patrolman that this man in the Bronco could have also heard that transmission, and decided to use the information to get in closer to the action. But a closer look at the man's frantic expression relieved the officer's doubts.
"Pull over there please. I'm going to radio to the base and get an escort for you. Sit tight, we'll have you to the base in a few minutes, and you can find out what is going on."
Clayton gratefully pulled over where indicated and waited for his escort.
* * *
Russell Kwan was getting more frustrated by the minute. He had been trying for over thirty minutes to reach someone who could tell him what was going on with the fire. He had heard about the blaze when the radio interrupted their usual programming with a news report about it, and had immediately started trying to get more information.
He was still at his desk, looking at his phone and trying to figure out whom to call, when it rang.
"Russell Kwan, to whom am I speaking, please?"
"This is Jack Scott, Jason's dad. Are you Trini's father?"
"Yes! What is going on with the fire? Are the children safe?"
"I'm afraid they are not accounted for right now. The firefighters are searching for them, they are hopeful the kids are well ahead of the fire and they can be picked up without incident. But as yet, they have not been seen. I have just heard from Todd James, he's in charge of the fire base camp, that Clayton Taylor is already there. He said any of us that want to go to the base camp will be allowed to get past the roadblocks. My wife and I will be going up there in a little while. If you want to come up with us, you would be welcome."
"I need to get home and tell my family what is happening, and be sure my other daughter is safe with friends. We will drive ourselves up there as soon as we can. Thank you for the offer and for calling me." Russell found himself mouthing the correct responses, while inside he felt like screaming in anger and dismay. His little girl was in danger, and he couldn't think of a thing to do to help her.
He abruptly headed out the door for home. He needed to get to the base camp as soon as possible.
* * *
Wallace Cranston was sitting at his desk staring blankly at his computer screen. He was supposed to be working on the financial statements for the firm's biggest client, but he couldn't concentrate. Something was bothering him, keeping him on edge, but he couldn't figure out what it was. His gaze fell on his desktop calendar, and he finally realized what was wrong today.
It had been a year. Twelve months to the day since the accident that forever changed his life, and Billy's life, and ended Marie's life. He had blocked the significance of the date from his mind, but now the memories and feelings came flooding back. He realized he didn't give a hoot if the client never got his financial statements-he had to get out of the office. Without a word to anyone, he headed out the door.
Five minutes later his phone rang. And rang. And rang.
* * *
Billy and Trini had started quickly up the path Zack had taken in search of Kimberly. Trini was still somewhat unsettled by the experience at the bridge, and Billy was paying more attention to encouraging her than to the trail. They didn't notice the intersection where Jason, Kimberly, and Zack had veered left. Trini and Billy veered right.
The trail got progressively worse. They were going steeply uphill; the ground was rocky and uneven. The condition of the trail, and the fact that the smoke was getting thicker, slowed their progress. When they reached the summit they looked back toward the gorge.
The fire was at the far side of the gorge, and a couple of small blazes were already ignited on the near side.
The gorge was not going to stop the fire.
* * *
Jason, Kimberly and Zack had a fair view down the hill they had climbed in such haste ahead of the bear. They could see the fire had started to cross the gorge, and would soon enough be hurrying up the hill behind them.
"We have to go on," Jason said slowly. "If we try to get down the hill again, we will never get back up it in time. There were a lot of forks in the trail, they may have gone a different direction. We have to find the lake before it is too late."
Kimberly and Zack looked at Jason solemnly. They understood why they had to go on, but they liked it no better than Jason did.
For the first time in a long time, Kimberly found herself praying.
"Please, God, let all of us get through this. Please."
* * *
Wallace Cranston was walking aimlessly along a side street in downtown Angel Grove when a car pulled up beside him. He looked up in annoyance, only to recognize Gabrielle, the receptionist at the accounting firm where he worked.
"Wallace, we have been looking all over for you! Jack Scott, the police lieutenant, has been trying to reach you. Something about the fire in Angel Grove Forest, and your son being there. Here, I'll call him on my cell phone, just a second."
She punched in the number, then handed the phone to him.
"Hello? Mr. Cranston, are you there?"
"I'm here," his voice was little more than a whisper.
Jack quickly explained about the fire, and the efforts being taken to find the children. Wallace remained mute, barely able to process what he was being told.
"Are you saying my boy is somewhere in a forest that is burning?" He finally found his voice.
"Unfortunately, that is the situation at the moment. You should come to the base camp, that is where the kids will be brought when they are found. Will you be okay to drive up there? My wife and I can give you a lift if you would like."
"I'm okay to drive. Just tell me where to go."
* * *
Far away in their camouflaged command center, Zordon and Alpha watched events unfold in the forest. They had seen Kimberly and Zack's flight from the bear, Trini and Billy's crossing of the bridge, how the one group became two groups, lost from each other.
Alpha had shown Zordon an aerial view of the section of the forest where the five children were. Zordon realized they needed to reach the lake if they were to have a chance to survive. Unfortunately, it appeared they were all off course-Jason, Zack and Kimberly to the east, Trini and Billy to the west.
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi! Zordon, they are on the wrong trails. What can we do?" Alpha had no idea who the children might be, but the desire to help those in trouble was programmed into him.
Zordon considered the situation. He needed to herd Jason, Zack and Kimberly to the right, Billy and Trini to the left. He looked for something to utilize in order to encourage the children to change direction.
He spotted the bear that had so frightened Jason's group earlier.
"Alpha, please check the data banks for information on how to communicate with a black bear. I believe we can use him to force the group on the left to move right, toward the lake. We must do so quickly, or they will be past the lake without even realizing it was there."
"The information you want is coming through to you now," Alpha replied a moment later.
Zordon quickly processed the information, then asked Alpha to open a communications link to a point near the large animal. After the link was in place, Zordon made his transmission.
They both watched as the bear immediately changed direction and headed toward the three children.
* * *
Jason, Zack and Kimberly were getting increasingly frightened. As far as Jason could remember from the map, they should have reached the lake by now. They all kept looking back over their shoulders, expecting to see the flames gaining on them.
They rounded a curve in the trail and came face to face with the bear. All three screamed and turned to run the other direction. The bear charged, but did not attack the children. Instead it passed close by their right side, forcing them to turn to the left. The children reversed direction again, going back the direction they were in the first place, and the bear passed them on their left, forcing them to the right. Jason took the hint and abandoned the trail, running across country in a westerly direction, closely followed by Zack and Kim. They topped a small rise and stopped dead, disregarding the bear that might be behind them.
In front of them was the lake.
* * *
Zordon and Alpha watched with some satisfaction as Jason, Kimberly and Zack waded into the lake. Those three were safe for now.
* * *
Todd James looked over to the group gathered at the edge of the camp. He wished he could give them some good news, but all he had was no news. The second helicopter had been looking over the area beyond the fire's front, but had not spotted anything. And they would be out of daylight soon. He knew there was something else he should do. He waved over Mike Nelson, a veteran forest ranger.
"Mike, I hate to give you this assignment, but someone has to do it. And you know these woods better than anyone. It should be cool enough behind the fire to try to follow the probable path the five kids took this morning. I need you to take a couple of men and do that. You know what you are looking for."
Mike looked unhappy, but he knew this job was necessary. "Yeah, bodies," he said quietly.
"If you find anything, use a secured frequency on the radio. I don't want anyone else hearing before I have a chance to talk to the families."
"Will do," Mike agreed. He looked over to where the nine parents were sitting, standing or pacing. "I feel for those folks. This has got to be hell for them." Mike was the father of four, and grandfather of two. He waved over a couple of younger rangers and they headed out in a jeep to the place where the five children had started out that morning.
He really hoped he didn't find anything.
* * *
Zordon and Alpha's relief was short-lived. Jason, Zack and Kimberly were safe, that was true, but Billy and Trini were still in peril. And there was no bear, or other wild creature, nearby to use to herd the children in the right direction.
Zordon realized he would have to be less subtle with these two. "Alpha, please power up the defense system. We are going to have to use firepower to convince these two children to move to their left."
A few moments later Alpha reported the systems were up and ready.
"Target the large tree ahead and to the right of them. Then fire at its base." Zordon ordered.
* * *
Billy and Trini had been hurrying, hoping against hope they were heading in the right direction. They realized they must have taken a different turn than the other three had, or they would have caught up with them by now. They were worried about their friends, but knew there was nothing they could do about finding them. They were in enough trouble as it was. They knew the fire was rapidly gaining on them, they had little time left to find somewhere where they would be safe.
Suddenly they sensed, rather than saw, a burst of light, and the base of a tree not far in front of them exploded.
"What! What happened? Was it lightening?" Billy was completely confused by this event.
"There aren't any clouds. It couldn't be lightening." Trini replied.
Suddenly, it happened again, this time to a tree to their right. Both children moved instinctively to their left.
"I've read of cases where lightening struck out of a cloudless sky, but this is too weird," Billy said breathlessly. "And that didn't look like lightening."
Another blast to the right of the trail they had been on convinced them to move away from the area. Since ahead had been subject to the mysterious explosions, as had the right, and the fire was coming from the rear, the only direction that was safe for them to go was to the left.
They ran off the trail to their left as another explosion occurred. They ran faster, panic setting in. Suddenly, Billy stumbled and fell.
"Billy, come on, you have to get up! We have to get out of here," Trini pulled on his arm to help him to his feet.
He reached his feet, then gasped in pain. "Ow! I twisted the same ankle I sprained last week," he cried.
"Lean on me, we have to keep moving," Trini said, pulling his arm over her shoulder so she could take some of his weight. With Trini supporting Billy, the two continued as quickly as possible.
They almost fell into the lake before they realized they had reached it.
* * *
"Good shooting, Alpha," Zordon intoned solemnly.
Alpha searched his memory banks for a correct response. "Ah, shucks, twern't nothin'," he said in a passable imitation of an old time movie cowboy.
Zordon just gave him a strange look.
* * *
Jack Scott looked around at the other parents. He and Marjorie had been the last to arrive, they had picked up Sheryl Taylor to bring her up to meet her husband. The Taylors sat with their arms around each other, Sheryl's head resting on Clayton's shoulder. That had been in that ounded.
"Because, he has made Billy happy and I have seen my son smiling and laughing for the first time in a year. Ever since he first met Jason, then Zack, he has been happy, there is really no other way to put it. He comes to the breakfast table bursting with energy, rattling on about their plans for the day, compared with the way he used to kind of slump in his chair and give monosyllable answers to my questions. AND, he hasn't been beaten up since they met, that is a new record, believe me. So, even if it would make me feel better to be able to blame this all on your son, and hate him, I cannot, because of the changes he has caused in Billy."
Jack and Marjorie considered the man's words in silence. They had noticed a definite lightening in Billy's attitude since the first time they had met him, they had not considered the fact that their son was responsible for it.
Wallace had been watching their reaction to his words. "I'm sorry if I have caused offense. I should not have spoken."
"You haven't offended us, we just hadn't considered our son's effect on your son. I guess I can see your point. This kind of occurrence would be a little more tolerable if there is someone to blame, not just a random event, caused by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, we can't give up hope, the kids are all bright, and Jason has had a lot of experience in the woods. They have probably found a safe place to wait out the fire." Jack said.
"Do you really think so? Are there caves, or lakes, or something where they could be safe while the fire passes by?" asked Russell Kwan, who had wandered over with his wife and overheard the last comment.
"There are several lakes, as well as some caves, though those are not really in the area the kids were headed for. But there are at least three or four lakes they could reach, as well as some rocky outcroppings where they could take refuge," Jack reassured them.
"I know Billy took a map of the forest, so they do have a way of figuring where they are and where a safe area would be," Wallace added, looking a little more optimistic.
The Harts and Taylors had joined the group and they also seemed to take heart from the comments they had just heard. The ice finally was broken among them, and they all quietly began to introduce themselves. They felt a drawing together, and none of them resisted it. They all seemed to realize that this ordeal would be a little easier if they all shared the burden, so, though it seemed incongruous, they began the social ritual of getting to know each other.
It occurred to more than one of them that this was one hell of a way to get acquainted.
* * *
Jason looked at Kimberly and Zack worriedly. They had waded into the lake to the point where they could still touch the bottom and their heads were above the water, but it didn't look like they were far enough out to be safe from the effects of the fire. They would have to go farther, which meant they would be swimming, then treading water for quite a long time. There were several difficulties they faced: the water was quite cold, and they were already tired, and hungry. They were also worried because they had seen no sign of Billy and/or Trini.
"Guys, we are going to have to go out further into deeper water while the fire passes by this spot. We aren't safe here," Jason announced.
"How deep do we have to go?" Zack asked.
"I'm not sure, but we need to be out of the reach of any falling trees or branches, I would guess," Jason replied. "Are you okay to go out into the deeper water Kimberly?" He looked at Kimberly again in the waning light and realized tears were streaming down her face. "Kim?" he asked tentatively, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"Where are they?" she asked in despair. "They need to be here in the water. It's my fault we got separated." She hitched in a breath, trying to get herself under control.
"It's not your fault, Kimberly, it is my fault. I was the one who had to scout ahead. I should never have let us get separated," Jason assured her, guilt written on his expression.
"For what it is worth, I don't think it is either of your faults. I was the one who left them to check on Kimberly, but something had to have happened right after I left them. Billy was already across the bridge, it should only have taken Trini a minute to cross. They should have both been right behind me, but they weren't. When we saw the bear, we could see for quite a way down the path toward the bridge, and they weren't there. So I think our getting separated was at least partly due to something that happened to them after I left," Zack proposed.
Both Jason and Kimberly thought about that, it did make sense. Jason was once again drawn back to the present problem. "We need to start out toward the middle of the lake, just be sure we keep together," he said.
The three of them started swimming toward the middle of the small lake, as the fire loomed at the northern edge.
* * *
Mike Nelson and his two assistants were moving quickly along the trail that they figured the kids had taken that morning. He had briefed the younger rangers to be on the lookout for bodies, and while both had looked anything but happy with their assignment they had not complained. As Mike moved through the forest he found himself not only dreading the possibility of finding five dead children, but mourning the forest's loss of life and beauty. It was going to take a long time for it to recover from the fire. But, ultimately, it would recover. Such was the beauty of nature.
He was jarred out of his thoughts by the voice of one of the other rangers. "Boss, better come take a look at this."
He approached where the younger man was standing and saw what had caught his attention. He felt his heart painfully skip a beat.
It was the charred remains of five bikes, chained together, lying there like a marker. Mike could see in his mind's eye five carefree children laughing as they chained them, carefully safeguarding one of the most precious treasures of a child's world. Then setting out on foot without a worry in the world.
"Damn," he said softly.
* * *
Billy and Trini had waded out as deep as they could without having to swim. They were watching the fire approach the north end of the lake, and considering their options.
"We need to be far enough out to avoid being struck by falling trees, branches or sparks. Toward that end we will need to swim almost to the middle of this lake. Do you think you can do that, Trini," Billy asked.
"I think so. Can you with your bad ankle?" she responded.
"I think I can swim much better than I can walk at this point," he replied. "Come on, we should get on out there, this fire is moving awful fast." They both began swimming, keeping a close watch on the approaching fire.
The sun had set, and the thick smoke effectively blocked the remaining light, so the only illumination they had was from the fire itself. They were so intent on watching the shoreline, they didn't pay much attention to their destination, so they were unaware of the presence of anyone else until Billy almost swam over Kimberly, who had also been watching the fire.
"Ahhh!" she screamed, thoroughly startling everyone, as she and Billy both sank below the surface. She came up swinging, and managed to nail Billy on the side of the head before she realized who it was.
"Ow! Hey, don't hit me Kimberly, I didn't mean to scare you," he cried out.
"Billy! Trini! You're okay!" Kimberly squealed.
"Well, yeah, if you don't hit me anymore we are," Billy replied with a bemused smile. "We're glad to see you too!"
"What happened? Where have you been?" Jason demanded.
"It took us longer than expected to cross the bridge, then we must have taken a wrong turn. What happened with you guys? We had kind of expected you to come back and check on us," Billy responded, while Trini gave him a grateful look for not revealing her weakness.
"A bear chased us," Zack explained. "That kept us kind of busy for a few minutes, then the fire started to catch up with us."
"Oh," Billy said, "I guess that explains it. Think we're safe enough here?"
"I hope so, it looks like we are in the middle, so it's as safe as it is going to get," Jason replied.
"All we can do now is wait for the fire to pass."
* * *
Todd James was not looking forward to talking to the parents of the missing children. He had just heard from Mike Nelson that they had found the kids' bikes, chained together, and charred. It was the first sign they had found of the children; neither of the helicopter pilots had spotted any indication of the children being in that area of the forest.
The fire was moving rapidly now since the winds had kicked up as the evening advanced. They were able to fight the fire with ground crews in only a couple of locations, the rugged terrain and lack of a road system into the area hampered their efforts. The largest part of the fire fighting effort was from the helicopters dumping quantities of water from the air and flying in additional ground crew to the more remote areas. Todd knew the fight would continue well into the next day, but he had hopes they could save most of the forest.
If only he felt as sure about saving the five missing children-he knew their chances diminished with each passing moment.
He forced those thoughts to the back of his mind and settled his features into an expression of hope, and went to talk to the parents.
* * *
Jack Scott left Marjorie talking quietly to Wallace Cranston and went to stand on the outskirts of the base camp. He looked southeast toward where the fire was burning. It looked so near, yet it was so far. He felt a chill in his heart knowing his son was out there somewhere, probably scared, possibly hurt, facing incredible danger. How could that be happening to his son within his range of vision? What had he been thinking of, letting those kids go into the forest alone? They were only ten years old, for God's sake! He could see past Todd James' fašade of hopefulness. The fact that the kids had not been spotted was ominous. As a police officer he had occasionally had to be falsely optimistic when dealing with distraught parents, and he had always hated it. His personal philosophy was "the truth, or nothing".
Right now, he would have traded his soul for a convincing lie.
* * *
Zack had been fascinated watching the approaching fire. He had never seen anything quite as beautiful. It was horrible to admit, but it was truly a magnificent sight. He knew it was destroying that which had taken decades to create, that numerous animals, and possibly five children, could lose their lives because of it, but it was still beautiful. Zack had always been the kind of child that noticed the beauty around him, be it a flower, a sunset, a face or figure, but he had never encountered destructive beauty before. The concept left him very confused.
However, his appreciation of the fire's beauty waned when he looked around the perimeter of the lake and realized the fire now completely surrounded them. The heat was intense, all of them had taken to ducking their heads under water frequently to cool themselves off. The overall temperature of the lake was increasing, though it didn't seem like it would actually get hot.
The five of them were grouped together in a circle, everyone had a hold of at least one other. They weren't speaking much, just watching the fire with dazed eyes, fighting to keep the panic at bay. All of them, to varying degrees, felt an incredible urge to flee once the fire had completely surrounded them. The feeling of being trapped in the small lake was terrifying, the sounds of the fire were overwhelming.
Several trees along the shore fell into the lake in flames, sending water and steam into the air. One particularly tall tree came close to reaching their position in the middle of the lake. Sparks, burning debris, and smoke choked the air. The fire seemed to create its own wind, and the roar of its passing rivaled the sound of a train or jet, it was a like being caught in a swirling, glowing, screaming, burning corner of hell.
So they clung to each other for safety and reassurance as the fire made its way past.
* * *
Robert Hart was leaning against a nearby tree, looking at his wife sitting again in the plastic chair. Like most of the others, her gaze kept going toward the southeastern horizon where the fire was still burning out of control. Robert could not remember a time when he had felt worse. His daughter was missing, in incredible danger, and he could not do a thing to stop it. Looking at his wife he felt a stirring in his heart he had not felt in a long time. For the first time in too long, he remembered why he had fallen in love with her, why he had married her. He felt a renewed kinship with his wife, brought on by the intense fear they shared for their little girl. He stepped back up behind her and gently massaged her shoulders.
"We need to try again to make this work," he said softly. "We will get our Kimberly back and make this marriage work. It is too important to lose."
Eileen looked up into his eyes and was startled to see the sincerity there.
* * *
Russell and Michelle Kwan, and Sheryl and Clayton Taylor where sitting together around a picnic table quietly talking. They all looked to the fire front occasionally, but tried not to dwell on it. They had discovered they shared a common positive attitude about the difficulties that life threw at them. They accepted Todd James' words at face value, not out of stupidity or naivete, but because they truly believed things would work out the way they were supposed to. The Taylors had a strong Christian belief that Jesus would look out for their son, the Kwans their faith that their daughter would live to see her destiny.
They simply believed it was not their children's time to die.
* * *
The fire was now three-quarters of the way past the lake where the kids had taken refuge. They decided it was safe enough to start toward the northern shore, despite the fact that spot fires still burned here and there. The previously clear lake was now clogged with soot and debris, the surrounding landscape a nightmare of glowing red tree skeletons.
The five youngsters swam slowly toward the shore. They were exhausted. First the long hike to get there, then having to tread water for who knew how long, now they were facing the hike out.
They stopped at a point where they could stand with their heads well above the water and surveyed the area. It looked like it was still too hot to start walking out, so they contented themselves by moving close enough to shore to be able to sit down and wait for everything to cool off a bit. The smoke had also cleared a lot, so they could see that they were going to be the beneficiaries of a full moon. It was giving off enough light for them to be able to see to walk.
They would start out as soon as they could.
* * *
Wallace Cranston had fallen silent, sitting companionably beside Marjorie Scott on the bench. He was staring at the southeastern skyline without truly seeing it. He had not mentioned the significance of today's date to Marjorie, but he couldn't forget about it. He knew Marjorie truly felt the children had a good chance of making it, but Wallace wasn't so sure. He loved his son more than he could express, but he knew the boy was not as hardy as some others. Additionally, Billy had always seemed to be plagued by bad luck, as he himself had been. The only truly lucky things Wallace believed he had ever been the recipient of were Marie's love and Billy's existence. Then he had lost Marie. The thought that he might lose Billy as well was agony, it simply couldn't happen, neither of them deserved that much bad luck. It was oddly enough that thought that gave him some hope-that Billy dying would be simply too much bad luck for either of them. Wallace could not accept the thought of fate being cruel enough to take his child exactly one year after taking his wife. He felt something crawling on his cheek and reached up to brush it away.
It was a tear.
* * *
Jason stood up suddenly. "I'm going to see if the ground is cool enough for us to walk out. We need to get going."
He carefully made his way onto shore and walked around a bit. It seemed like they would be okay to start walking out. "Come on guys, let's go."
Soon he was joined on shore by the other four. They looked at each other with some amusement-they were soaking wet and covered with the black soot that floated thickly on the surface of the lake. The stress and fear of the last couple of hours found voice in a sudden explosion of laughter. It started suddenly and built to a frantic pitch quickly, they were stumbling around holding their sides or stomachs as the laughter raged out of control. It continued until Kimberly's laughter suddenly turned into tears, and she sat down unmindful of the soot, pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face in her knees. Trini immediately dropped down beside Kimberly to comfort her and promptly burst into tears herself. Zack approached them intending to offer comfort and found himself crying as well, much to his surprise. He went ahead and put his arms around Kimberly and Trini, as much for his comfort as theirs. Billy stumbled toward the group on the ground, finding he was also crying as he added himself to the group hug. Jason felt his own tears building and fought against it. He hated to cry, and didn't want the others to think he was in any way weak. It was a losing battle, he finally gave in and added himself to the group huddled together on the ground.
He found he felt much better.
* * *
The two younger rangers working with Mike Nelson had fallen silent since finding the bikes a couple of hours before. Working by the light of the moon and their flashlights they searched the area as thoroughly as possible. Paths that were easy to pick out before the fire, were now nearly impossible to follow. The unnatural silence the fire left behind had them both a little spooked. They exchanged nervous glances, trying to keep their feelings hidden from the veteran ranger.
If he hadn't been so worried about the missing children, Mike would have been amused at the attitude of the two young fellows who were working with him. Not that he didn't understand their feelings. He remembered all too well the first time he had been assigned to the task of looking for bodies in the wake of a wild fire. They had found a family of four burned beyond recognition. He still had nightmares about it, never before or since had he seen anything so pathetic. It had appeared the parents tried to save their children by shielding them from the fire using their own bodies. It hadn't worked, but something inside Mike had saluted those parents' gallant effort, and the feeling only intensified when he had children of his own.
And, since that first search, he especially hated looking for children.
* * *
Jason looked over his companions carefully. The tears had finally stopped, and they had slowly started working their way back toward the gorge. The moon provided ample light to walk by if they were careful, so they had no choice but to take is slow. Even if the light and ground conditions had allowed it, they could not have gone much faster. Kimberly was really dragging now, she was the smallest, and it appeared she was simply growing exhausted. Billy was also moving along much more slowly than before. He was limping pretty badly after wrenching his ankle getting to the lake. Trini and Zack were in better condition, but even they were showing obvious signs of reaching the end of their endurance. He wasn't feeling so energetic himself.
They hadn't spoken much since their tears had stopped, so Jason didn't know about the others, but emotionally, he felt much better. And he had sensed a "drawing together" among them, the forming of a bond he couldn't explain, but knew existed. He felt it in his soul-they would always be friends, nothing could change that now. They were a part of each other's destinies.
Zack, who had been walking in the lead, suddenly stopped. "We're at the gorge," he announced. "But it looks like the bridge is gone. Which way should we head?"
Billy had already found his map was destroyed, but he remembered most of the important information from it. "We need to go up, to the west, in a couple of miles the gorge ends, and we will be able to get to the other side and head back down," he said wearily.
The others looked at him unhappily. "That far?" Kimberly asked with a sigh. "There is no other way to get across?"
"Not without a bridge, or wings," Billy replied.
"We better get going then," Jason suggested.
They started up the edge of the gorge.
* * *
Tony Franco had been a helicopter pilot for over twenty years. He had thousands of hours of experience fighting fires, so he had quickly fallen into a routine as he flew back and forth bringing loads of water to dump on the fire. He still kept a lookout for the missing children, but most of his attention was focused on making the cycle between the water supply and fire as quickly as possible while he and his co-pilot monitored the radio transmissions,
"Base Camp to Firebird One, please come in," Todd James' voice brought Tony back from his thoughts.
"Firebird One here, go ahead Base Camp," Tony replied.
"Any sign of the missing children, Tony?"
"Sorry, Todd, I haven't seen anything, but I will continue to look."
"Thanks," even over the radio Tony could hear the defeat in Todd's voice.
Hope was fading fast.
* * *
Todd's call to Tony was strictly procedure, he knew Tony would have called immediately if he had seen any sign of the kids. But he had to follow procedure. He looked over to the area where the parents were gathered. He could not bring himself to tell them there was still no sign. They would know that already simply because no one had told them any different, so there was no reason to drive the point home.
He would wait until he had some definite news, one way or the other.
* * *
Trini was not wearing a watch, but she knew they had been walking at least two hours since leaving the lake. She was exhausted, cold, and hungry. And scared-she realized they were still in danger. The temperature had dropped quickly after the sun set, and their clothes were still damp in places. They had no food, nor water, nor did they have a map. In the eerily altered landscape it would be very easy to get lost and wander far from where anyone could find them. And, was anyone looking for them? Or had they decided five children on their own would not survive? She was pretty sure her parents would continue to search until they found her, dead or alive-but would the others who were fighting the fire? She did not like the turn her thoughts were taking.
"Can we stop for a break now?" Kimberly's voice cut through Trini's thoughts. "Please?"
"Yeah, I guess we all need one," Jason replied as they all dropped basically where they had been standing.
"Man, seems like we are never going to reach the end of this gorge!" Zack declared.
"Actually, I think we are getting close. It is not nearly as far across as it was," Billy pointed out from where he was leaning against a boulder.
"Hey, I think you're right! We will be able to head back downhill pretty soon then," Jason added.
"The sooner the better. I'm sick of this uphill stuff," Kim said.
"But once we get across, will we be able to find the original path?" Trini wondered.
"I hope so. We will just have to worry about that when the time comes. Maybe there are people out searching for us. We might get lucky and someone will find us before then," Jason said hopefully.
"I sure hope so," Zack muttered. "This hike has been much longer than I expected it to. My folks must be worried."
"Oh, gosh, my parents! They are probably worried sick! They have enough to worry about without me getting lost," Kimberly said in despair. "I'm not supposed to do anything to make problems for them."
"What do you mean? You aren't making a problem for them, this isn't your fault, or any of our faults. It just happened, they can't blame you for it," Jason said.
Kimberly looked unhappily at Trini, she was the only one who knew about Kimberly's difficulties at home. "My folks are having a lot of problems, they fight a lot. I try to make things easier so they won't fight. They may break up because of me!" she cried, her fear coming to the surface.
Trini put a supporting arm around her upset friend. "Kim, it will be okay. It's not your fault if they break up."
"Yeah, and even of they do, you will still have them both, just not together," Billy added in his quiet way.
Kim looked over at him sadly. "I guess you're right. I just get upset, that's all. I guess it could be worse. Thanks guys, sorry I lost it on you. All of our parents must be upset."
"My dad is probably freaked, it has been a year since Mom died. I had even thought he might make me stay home today, but he said he was going to work and I figured he had forgotten the anniversary. He isn't too good about remembering significant dates outside of the ones he needs to know for work," Billy explained.
"This is the one-year anniversary of the accident?" Kimberly asked in surprise.
"Wow, I bet he is freaked. But my parents will be there to help him, they have wanted to meet him for a long time. They like the meet the parents of my friends," Jason said.
"Well, they are probably all acquainted by now. Think they will thank us for this chance to get to know each other?" Zack asked with a grin.
"Oh, yeah, sure. Then we will all get together again in about ten years or so, which is probably the soonest they will let us leave our houses again," Jason replied. "Come on, guys, we need to keep moving." He had noticed they were all showing signs of being cold, sitting too long could cause problems.
They set out with a little renewed energy at the thought they were almost at the end of the gorge. That hope kept them moving at a fairly good clip until they heard Zack call out joyfully, "I see the end!"
"Where? How much further?" Trini asked, she had fallen a ways behind Zack and couldn't see what he was looking at.
"See? There! We are almost to the end, come on guys, it will be downhill all the way now!"
They hurried around the tip of the gorge and started back downhill. Jason noticed there appeared to be a trail slightly away from the edge, which they decided to follow. It looked much easier than following the edge and having to clamber over rocks.
They had no way of knowing the trail led away from where they needed to go.
* * *
Alpha and Zordon had continued to observe the lost children. From their viewpoint they could see the children's choice of trail would not lead them to safety, but would lead them further away from the approaching rangers who had been searching for them.
"Alpha, please try to isolate the radio frequency the helicopter carrying water is using."
"Right away Zordon. Are we going to contact them?"
"I will endeavor to do so. Perhaps they can be persuaded to change their course to one that passes over the children's location. They need to be rescued soon. I sense their time is running out."
"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi! I have the information for you now Zordon, you can transmit when ready."
* * *
Tony Franco was scheduled to make only two more cycles between the water source and the fire before another pilot would relieve him. He was considering how good it would feel to have a meal and sleep for a few hours when a strange voice from the radio startled him.
"Pilot! Please alter your course a few degrees north, near the end of the gorge, you will find the missing children there."
Tony looked at his co-pilot, Ron, in surprise, then grabbed the radio. "Who is this? How do you know where those kids are? Is this some sort of sick joke?"
"This is no joke. Please, you must get to those children, they are headed the wrong way."
Tony started to say something, but stopped. The voice had sounded weird, like it was being filtered or something. The change in course the voice requested would take a minute to two longer at most. His gut told him to do it.
His co-pilot looked a bit surprised, but made no protest when Tony changed their course.
"Get the binoculars out and search the area when I pass over it please," Tony requested.
"Gotcha," Ron replied.
They said nothing more as they approached the area the mysterious voice had directed them to. Tony moved in low and slow, giving Ron time to search.
"I don't see anything," Ron said as they swept over the area. "Must have been a hoax. WAIT! I think I see something! Move us to the left a little, there, Damn! Tony, it's the kids! I don't believe it! They're alive! Look!" They were now close enough for both the men to see the five children without binoculars.
The five small figures on the ground stopped and turned toward the helicopter, then started waving. Tony reached for the radio.
"Firebird One to Base Camp, do you read me Todd?"
"I read you Firebird One, what's up Tony?"
"Hope you are sitting down, buddy. We have spotted the kids, they are alive."
"Alive? All five? Are you are sure about that?" Todd's voice sounded disbelieving.
"Very sure. I can't pick them up right now, I have to lose the bucket. You have someone on the ground in this area? We are near the end of the gorge."
"Sit tight for just a minute, okay, let me contact Mike Nelson and see where he is, he may be able to reach them. I'll be back in just a second, stay on this frequency."
Todd James adjusted the frequency on the radio to contact Mike. "Mike, you there?"
"Yep. Nothing to report yet, though."
"Where are you in relation to the gorge?"
"Maybe a quarter mile from the end. Why?"
"Firebird One spotted the kids. They are alive, near the end of the gorge. Can you see Firebird from there?"
"Give me a minute, we are in a depressed area, if we get higher we may be able to spot it."
Mike excitedly climbed to a higher spot, with his two younger companions on his heels. As soon as he reached the top he spotted the helicopter.
"I see it! You said the kids are alive?"
"That is what Tony says. How soon can you reach that location?"
"Give us ten minutes, max. We are going now. What frequency is Tony on?"
Todd gave him the information and switched his own radio back to speak to Tony. He heard Mike and Tony already discussing what had to be done. Mike and the other two would stay with the kids while Tony landed and removed the bucket that was attached to the bottom of the helicopter, then he could safely land and pick up the kids. They anticipated having the children to the base camp within an hour.
Tony hovered over the children's location until he saw Mike reach them, then he headed out to get the bucket removed.
He would be back as quickly as possible.
* * *
Todd James set down the radio and breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Then he turned to face the parents, still barely able to believe he was giving them good news.
"Folks," he stated fairly loudly to get everyone's attention, "we have news about your children. They have been found, they are all alive, and should be back here within an hour."
He was pleased to see four couples immediately enfold their partners in tight embraces. Mr. Cranston was the lone exception, and Todd was on the verge of at least going over to offer the man a handshake when Marjorie Scott turned from her husband's embrace and enfolded the Wallace in a hug.
Todd smiled and went back to work.
* * *
Jason, Zack, Trini, Kimberly, and Billy were still waving at the helicopter that hovered over their location when they heard an amplified voice coming from it.
"Sit tight, kids. A couple of forest rangers will be there in a few minutes. And we will be back soon to fly you back to the base, where your parents are waiting for you. You are all going to be okay now!"
The five friends offered up a cheer and turned to each other to embrace happily. They were still hugging each other and chattering excitedly when Mike Nelson arrived on the scene.
"Well! What do you know, five thoroughly filthy kids! Funny the things you find in the wake of a fire," he grinned.
The children stopped suddenly and looked somewhat startled by the sudden arrival. "It's okay, kids, we are here to help. Anyone want something to drink, or maybe eat. And, by the way, what are your names?"
As the children slowly approached the new arrivals Jason introduced them. "I'm Jason Scott, this is Zack Taylor, Kimberly Hart, Billy Cranston and Trini, um, Trini, I don't know her last name," he finished, embarrassed.
"Kwan," Trini supplied with a slight smile.
"Nice to meet you all. Billy, you're limping. Are you hurt, son?"
"I just wrenched my ankle, it isn't serious." Billy replied shyly.
"Well, let's take a look at it anyway. And, let's get you all something to eat and drink. It will be a bit before the helicopter gets back," Mike got his assistants dispensing some energy bars and water to the kids, while he took a look at Billy's ankle.
"You're right, it isn't too bad, but it must hurt. I'm going to go ahead and wrap it, which will make it feel a little better." He quickly bandaged Billy's foot and ankle and turned to the other children. "Any other injuries?" He was a little surprised to see the others all shake their heads in a negative answer.
They had been incredibly lucky.
* * *
Zordon watched as the five children boarded the helicopter, accompanied by the forest rangers who had found them. He felt a sense of satisfaction seeing the children safe. Things would be okay for now.
"Alpha, you can turn off the viewing globe now. They will be okay. I'm going to go back to 'sleep', it is not yet time to assemble a new team."
"Zordon, why did you awaken? Was it because of those children? Who are they?"
"They are the future."
* * *
Jack Scott was anxious. He had spent the last several hours believing his only child may be dead, and he had felt calm and in control. Once he knew Jason was okay, he felt a nervous wreck. It made no sense at all.
All nine parents were now watching the southeastern skyline, but with impatience and hope instead of fear and dismay. They had been told the helicopter had made it back to the kids' location and was picking them up. They would be here shortly.
Todd James stood slightly off to the side of the parents, also waiting anxiously for the helicopter. Behind them were the other personnel that were at the base. Everyone had known about the missing children, all had been worried, and all were excited about the outcome of the situation.
Finally the helicopter came into view, seeming to approach at a snail's pace. It seemed hours before it landed and the blades began to slow. Todd motioned for the parents to stay where they were, and he ran, bent over, up to the helicopter's door and opened it.
He felt tears in his eyes as he looked in at the five small faces peering out at him. "Come on kids, got some folks here that are mighty anxious to see you." With that he reached in and gently began to lift children out to the ground. Kimberly was first. As soon as her feet hit the ground she was running to where her parents stood, crying as she flung herself into their arms. Jason, Trini, Zack, and Billy, who ran with an awkward hopping gait on his bandaged ankle, followed her.
A cheer sounded from the base personnel at the emotional reunion. Todd, Tony, Mike, Ron and the others stood around tired, but incredibly happy.
They felt as if they had played part in a miracle.
* * *
Jason Lee Scott sat alone on the edge of Harper's Gorge. He remembered starting out on a hike that morning with no destination in mind. It struck him as appropriate that he ended up here. Where everything started nine years before.
The forest was well on its way to recovering from the fire. Ground cover had grown back within the first couple of years, bushes were well established again, and young trees could be found everywhere. It would be a few more decades before all the damage was repaired, but it would eventually recover completely.
Jason wondered if he would.
He sighed deeply-he missed his friends. He didn't want to admit it, but he needed them now. He had given back the Gold Powers, but the physical difficulties persisted. He had been assured they would fade in time, but for now he was miserable. It had taken all his considerable strength to get up here. He suspected he would end up spending most of the night here, resting, and trying to get his strength back enough to hike out.
As it was he had been sitting here for a couple of hours, lost in his memories of the fire that summer. In Jason's mind that fire was the flame in which his friendship with Zack, Billy, Trini, and Kimberly was forged. It sealed a five-way friendship that summer. To Jason that friendship started in an alley in Angel Grove and was permanently sealed in a lake in the forest. The first time they faced adversity together. The first of many times one or more of them would need the strength provided by that friendship. Memories flashed in his mind's eye like glimpses of a county fair caught from inside a madly whirling carnival ride.
......The following winter when Zack contracted pneumonia, and ended up spending over a week in the hospital. Jason had visited him with his father, and came away haunted by his friend's gray face and desperate struggle to breathe. He and the others kept a hospital vigil, even though they were only rarely allowed in to see him.
......The summer they were all twelve, Kimberly's parents' struggling marriage failed completely. Kimberly spent most of that summer in a haze of guilt and grief. She was convinced it was somehow her fault. Her parents ended up sending her to a therapist for a time to help her work out her feelings. Her friends were there with unconditional support.
......That same summer Trini and her family were involved in a serious car accident. Trini suffered three broken ribs, and a broken left arm. Her father suffered two broken legs, and because he was off work so long they started to have some financial problems. Trini was afraid they would end up moving again, until the company set up an arrangement to assist the Kwans financially until Russell was able to work again. Trini had needed her friends' support to face the uncertainties that summer.
......The following fall and winter Billy spent six months living with the Scotts while his father underwent chemotherapy for kidney cancer. Wallace stayed with his elderly aunt in the city, who didn't have the room or inclination to have Billy there as well. All concerned agreed it would be easier for him if he was able to stay in Angel Grove and the Scotts were glad to take him in. Every other weekend they would take Billy to see his father. Nearly every night Jason would awaken to hear Billy's suppressed sobs. It was one of the most painful things Jason had faced, being unable to do anything to reassure his friend that his father would be okay. Because for a time, none of them had been sure he would be. But after six months Wallace was given a clean bill of health and came home.
......Three months after Billy moved back with his father, Jason was hit by a car while riding his bike. He suffered two broken legs, a dislocated shoulder and internal injuries. He spent a month in the hospital in traction, and two more months in bed at home. During that time all of the others came over daily to keep him up to date on his schoolwork, gossip and news from school, and the outside life in general. They would all spend most of their weekend in his room watching movies, playing board or card games, or just hanging out. When he was finally healed enough to resume his normal activities he found he had no catching up to do thanks to his friends' efforts.
Jason found himself remembering the other times as well, the large and small events that make up any life.
Kimberly finishing second in her first gymnastics competition. Zack's relentless pursuit of Angela, despite her aloofness. Trini teaching Zack and him Kung Fu. Billy's science fair project being selected as third in the National Science Fair, competing against college seniors when he was only twelve. Jason receiving his black belt. The five of them receiving the Morphin Powers. The disastrous first fight against the Putties. Tommy joining the team, and Kimberly falling in love with him at first sight. Zack, Trini and him being chosen to go to Switzerland as diplomats. Turning his powers over to Rocky. Sitting up all night in his dorm room in Switzerland talking with Zack and Trini. Coming back to assume the Gold Powers. Seeing Billy's still young eyes peering out of the face of a man dying of old age. Having to give up the Gold Powers......
Right now he felt older than Billy had looked when he left for Aquitar. Jason sighed again deeply.
"Keep that up and you'll hyperventilate and pass out," advised a familiar voice from behind him.
Jason leapt to his feet and whirled to find Zack standing behind him.
"Zack! How did you find me? What are you doing here?" Jason was overwhelmed by the joy of seeing his friend again. Before Zack could respond, Jason pulled him into a tight hug.
"Guess you're glad to see me," Zack quipped, returning the hug.
"I didn't know how much until I saw you! What are you doing here?"
"Got a call saying you might need a friend, so here I am, with some other company."
Jason looked beyond Zack to see Trini standing there. She had gotten her hair cut shorter and styled to frame her face. The cute girl and pretty teenager was rapidly turning into a beautiful young woman. She smiled warmly and reached out to hug Jason tightly.
"I'm sorry things have turned out this way," she murmured softly.
"Hey! Break it up! My turn!" The voice came from behind Trini, where Kimberly stood waiting her turn.
"Kim, they called you too?" Jason enveloped her in a tight embrace.
"Of course, and when I heard what had happened I couldn't be kept away!" she declared with customary emphasis.
"It feels so good to have us all together, well, almost," Jason started, but was interrupted by yet another voice.
"What's this 'almost' stuff? Looks like we're all here."
"BILLY!" Jason couldn't believe he was here, even after grabbing him in a bear hug.
"It's good to see you, too, Jason. Ease up on the ribs, huh?" Billy's smile lit up his face.
Jason released him and looked him over carefully. "You look okay! It really did work?"
"You thought it didn't?" Billy asked with a gentle irony.
"I just remember how awful you looked when Cestria took you to Aquitar. You looked okay when you contacted us to tell us you were staying there, but it wasn't like seeing you in person. You look great." Jason explained.
Billy did look young and healthy again, and fairly happy as well. Kimberly looked to be in perfect shape, leaner and stronger than ever. Zack had gotten a more sophisticated hairstyle, and his clothes spoke of his emerging mature style. Trini's luminous beauty was perfectly offset by her simple outfit.
The feeling of having his friends there again overwhelmed Jason. He truly had not realized how much he had missed them. He felt as if a part of his soul had been restored. The pain and physical distress that were the remainders of his time possessing the Gold Powers were still with him, but he felt he had the strength to fight back now. He could do anything if his friends were here to help.
The five of them sat down, much as they had nine years before. Their conversation ranged over a variety of topics: gymnastics, foreign policy, alien social structure, karate, school, romance, the future, the past. Though it had been over two years since the five of them had been together, it was as if it had been only yesterday. There was no awkwardness, no hesitation, no holding back.
Kim spoke of her regret at breaking up with Tommy, Billy of his uncertainty regarding his future on Aquitar, Zack of his desire to build a career in show business, Trini of her dream of a career in international diplomacy, Jason of his longing to open his own dojo.
They laughed often, cried occasionally, shared unconditionally. The conversations were just starting to dry up when the sun peeked over the horizon. They had talked the night away.
"Guess we'd better start back," Zack decided, climbing stiffly to his feet.
"Yeah, it is a long hike out, and I'm already hungry," Billy added as the rest of them stood up.
"At least there is no fire this time," Trini noted with a smile. That generated another round of chuckles.
"Guys," Jason started, suspicious moisture visible in his eyes. "I don't know how to tell you all how much your coming here has meant to me. Thank you, more than you can know, thank you."
Kimberly walked over to him and wrapped him in a hug. "We are your friends, we couldn't do anything else," she declared softly.
"You would do the same for any of us," Trini added, joining Kim in hugging Jason.
"Yeah, next time we'll all go to Aquitar and cheer Billy up," Zack added with a laugh, putting his arms around Jason and Trini.
"Time and distance don't matter when friendship is involved," Billy stated, putting his arms around Jason and Kimberly, completing the group hug.
They stayed that way for a few minutes, silent, letting their hearts speak for them, as the sun rose over the mountains behind them.
For now they were together, and nothing else mattered.