"Hey! Oliver, hold up a minute," Tommy turned at the sound of the voice. The speaker was one of the school jocks, George Coleman. George was probably the most popular guy in school. Both the girls and the guys liked him, though not in the same way. Girls all seemed to think he was the cutest boy on the face of the earth, guys wanted to be him, and since that was not possible, at least be seen with him.
Tommy stood quietly, waiting for George to catch up. "What is it?" he asked at last.
"I was just wondering if you wanted to come with me and some friends to the mall after school, you know, just to hang around," George said.
"Yeah, that'd be cool. Thanks," Tommy replied, quite surprised at the offer.
"Great! We all rendezvous in front of the school. Meet us there." With that George walked briskly off, disappearing into the crowded hallway.
The day passed in a blur for Tommy, he was so anxious for school to end so he could hang out with the guys. This was a new experience for him as he had spent most of his young life moving frequently, and he had a hard time making friends. Maybe this time he would fit in and have real friends.
After the final bell Tommy raced to the front of the school, his emotions swinging wildly from excitement to a horrible suspicion that it was all an elaborate joke. But when he got to the front of the school George was there with four other students: Travis, Scott, Dylan, and Mike. They all greeted Tommy in a friendly manner, accepting him apparently on George's recommendation. They spent most of the afternoon at the mall, and Tommy had a good time.
During the next few weeks Tommy became more and more a part of the gang. He no longer felt he was hanging around with the guys on a 'trial basis'. He felt accepted-a feeling that was very new to him. He had friends, but more exciting, he had Cool Friends-that is how he thought of them, not cool friends, but Cool Friends. As part of that group he found he was more accepted in school overall. Students, who ignored him before, went out of their way to talk to him. Girls gave him more attention, and at twelve he was just starting to notice them with appreciation.
It was the best few weeks of his life up to that point.
The other constant in his life was his Karate instruction. Wherever he lived, for however long he lived there, he took Karate lessons. His current instructor was a high school principal, Richard Kellerman. Mr. Kellerman had taken a strong liking to Tommy, he sensed the boy's dedication to martial arts. Tommy never missed his twice weekly classes.
There was only one thing that bothered Tommy. His friends were sometimes cruel to others. Not physically cruel, they never hit or physically molested anyone, but verbally cruel. They sometimes played practical jokes that hurt other kid's feelings. On more than one occasion Tommy had seen them humiliate others. Tommy had not actively participated in any of these things, nor had he tried to stop them.
Three months after George first approached Tommy the gang was hanging out in the park. It was a boring Saturday afternoon, they didn't have any money so going to the mall would be a waste of time. They were lounging around a bench, eating their lunches, when they saw a fellow student strolling along the path, unaware of their presence.
"Hey, lets have some fun with 'Elmer'," Mike suggested. The student's name was actually Keith, but the others called him 'Elmer' because he reminded them somewhat of Elmer Fudd, from the Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The others agreed, glad to have some diversion at hand. Travis and Scott approached Keith and invited him to join them. Keith looked at them warily, but everyone looked friendly enough, and he seemed to take comfort in Tommy's presence. He had talked to Tommy before, shortly after Tommy had moved to town, and had been treated nice enough by the 'new guy'.
Keith had just sat down, and was looking around shyly, when at a signal from George, the guys all took a swig from their assorted drinks, and spewed them on their unsuspecting victim. Keith jumped up in dismay, disgusted and humiliated. Being spit on by five other guys will do that to a person. He looked around at the other boys, then seemed to pin Tommy in particular with his hurt filled eyes. Tommy had not participated in the prank, but when he saw the expression in Keith's eyes, he felt ashamed. Keith bolted from the bench and ran toward his home, followed by the sound of the other boys' laughter.
George was still laughing. "That was fun. I didn't know he could run that fast! Let's go over to your house, Scott, and watch your video of the latest motocross meet again."
Tommy excused himself from the group, saying he had to be home to help his parents that afternoon. He spent the rest of the day wandering around, struggling with his feelings about what had happened earlier. He found himself in front of Mr. Kellerman's house, unsure exactly how he came to be there. He had never bothered his instructor on his off time before, but his parents were actually out of town for the day, and Tommy needed to talk to someone. He walked up and rang the doorbell before he could change his mind.
"Tommy! This is a surprise. What can I do for you?" Mr. Kellerman greeted his student warmly.
"Can I talk to you for a minute? No, you know, never mind, I shouldn't be here. I'm sorry," Tommy turned and started back toward the street.
"Wait a minute, Tommy. Why don't I walk with you for a bit? I've been sitting all day it seems. I could use the exercise," he didn't wait for Tommy's response, but simply fell in step beside his student.
They walked for several blocks without speaking. Mr. Kellerman could see Tommy was struggling with something, but had no idea what. He decided to try to broach the subject again.
"Do you want to tell me what is bothering you? Even if I can't help, I can listen," he offered gently, laying a warm hand on Tommy's shoulder.
Speaking hesitantly at first, then more rapidly, he spilled out his confusion about his new friends, ending with the incident in the park that day. When he was finished he looked down at the pavement, afraid to look at his instructor, not wanting to see the censure in the man's expression.
"Tommy, look at me," Mr. Kellerman gently lifted Tommy's chin, forcing the boy to look at him. "Do you understand why you feel so bad?"
"Because I'm friends with boys who do bad things?"
"That is part of it. You said you did not participate in these so-called pranks. But, Tommy, you were there. You may not have spit, or tripped, or teased, but you did not prevent it from happening. You were a passive participant."
Tommy looked at him with confusion in his expression. "I don't understand."
"By doing nothing, by not preventing the cruelty from happening, it was the same as if you helped do the cruel acts. You did help, by not stopping them. That is just as bad, if not worse, than being an active participant, because it shows that you know it was bad, but you were too afraid to change it. You said Keith looked at you in particular. You had already met Keith before, right? He probably knew you were not the kind of person to be mean, and he expected you to keep him from being hurt. He felt betrayed because you didn't. That probably hurt his feelings worse than what the other five boys did. You have a conscience, Tommy, and knowledge of right from wrong. You know cruel and humiliating 'jokes' should not be played on other kids. This knowledge comes with a responsibility. Morally decent people have a responsibility to prevent wanton cruelty whenever possible." Mr. Kellerman stopped his lecture, seeing Tommy was in tears, though trying mightily to hide them. He took his student in his arms and gave him a comforting hug. When Tommy was a little more settled, he looked at Mr. Kellerman in dismay.
"What am I going to do?"
"Think it over, Tommy. What do you think you SHOULD do?"
Tommy thought carefully. "I need to apologize to Keith. And to stop hanging around with George and the guys. And if I see them doing stuff like that I need to stop them, if I can. Right?"
"Does it sound right to you, Tommy?"
"Yes, I think so. I should also tell my parents, I guess," he added reluctantly.
"That would be a good idea. You learned a huge lesson today, Tommy. One that so many do not ever learn."
Tommy made good on his resolve. He sought out Keith on Monday and apologized. He told his parents what he had done. He told George he would not hang around with them if they continued to play mean tricks on other kids. George got mad, and they had a huge argument that ended their friendship. For remaining two years Tommy lived there, George never spoke to him again.......
* * *
".....Keith ended up a pretty good friend. He was a lot like you are, except not quite as smart."
Billy looked at Tommy with admiration. "That was some story, Tommy. Have you ever heard from anyone there as to whatever happened to George and his cohorts?"
"Actually, yes. George, Scott and Travis are all graduating with honors in June. They will be going to prestigious schools. They are 'big men on campus' at the high school, football heroes, yada, yada, yada. Dylan and Mike both have moved out of the area, I have no idea what happened to them." Tommy actually looked pretty disgusted as he reported on how they all were doing.
"Doesn't really seem fair, does it? They have wanton cruel streaks running through them, yet they are still thriving. While you struggle with your sense of honor."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. I think I wanted them to suffer because they are so basically unkind. Oh, well, I guess eventually it will catch up with them. It just really stunk-the first time I was ever friends with a popular bunch they turn out to be jerks. So they will probably end up rich, successful jerks."
"You forgot 'unhappy jerks', cause that is also what they will be. Thanks for telling me that story, Tommy." Billy meant that sincerely. He felt he understood a little bit better his complex friend.
"Sure. Jason should be here in a minute, you are almost to the halfway point."
"Thank God. I have never wanted to sleep more."
"Well, don't get too comfortable, I said ALMOST HALFWAY. In other words, fourteen more hours to go. Ah, good, here's Jason."
"I like the term 'halfway' much more than 'fourteen hours'. Sounds much better."
Jason walked up with a grin, carrying a paper bag. "Everything okay here, guys?"
"Yep. Tommy here was just making me feel much better. Sorta. At least until that fourteen hour thing."
"What 'fourteen hour thing'?"
"The 'you still have to stay awake for fourteen more hours' 'fourteen hour thing'," Billy replied.
"Ah. Don't like that, do you?" Jason asked with a smile.
"Not really." Billy noticed Tommy getting ready to leave. "Thanks again, Tommy."
"Sure thing. See you later, man." Tommy replied as he headed out the door.
Jason noticed Billy's thoughtful expression as he watched Tommy leave. "Things okay with you two?" Jason asked.
"Yeah. I was just wondering if I will ever completely understand him."
"Probably not. You are too different, yet too similar, to really understand each other."
"What are you talking about, Jase?"
"Tommy broods over things, picks at them in his mind until it fairly drives him crazy. You don't brood, you accept things, file them away in that active mind of yours and refuse to think any more about it. Notice, I didn't say you necessarily deal with the problem, you just don't brood about it. And neither one of you will ask for help. That's where you are so similar. Stubborn, independent cusses the both of you. Between the two of you, you drive the rest of us crazy."
Billy looked at Jason with an amazed expression. "Just when did you become a psych major?"
Jason looked a little abashed. "Trini was the one who pointed that out to me, actually. We were kind of analyzing all our friends."
Billy laughed quietly at Jason's confession. "Nice to know you all had something to talk about. I guess I can't really argue with your observations. Except maybe the 'stubborn, independent cuss' thing. I take exception to that."
Jason grinned. "That was Trini's term. Take exception with her, I was just quoting."
"I certainly will, next time I see her."
"So, what has been going on in here? How have they kept you awake so far?"
"It's been 'story hour', or rather, 'story hours'. Everyone has told me a story from their life, or the life of their family."
"That has been enough to keep you awake, huh?"
"Yeah, so far. Of course, my internal clock knew I was supposed to be awake, so I was not getting the strong urges to sleep like I am now. It's going to be a long night."
"I have something that might help," Jason said as he reached for the bag he had been carrying.
He handed Billy two big brownies and a large cup of coffee. "Your mom's brownies? And who made the coffee?"
"Yes, Mom's brownies. I made the coffee, and before you complain, I brewed it as strong as I could, then tested it. I poured a little on a paper towel then wiped a part of the kitchen wall with it. When the paint peeled I knew it was finally strong enough."
"Sounds about right. Thanks."
"You're welcome. Now, about the story, you know, Billy, we've been friends for so long, I think I have told you all my stories, even the ones from Switzerland. But you have a story I haven't heard yet. So, I think this time it is your turn to tell the tale."
Billy looked at Jason with some trepidation. "What story might that be, Jason?"
"What happened when you went to Aquitar with Cestro. All I know is that you graduated early, and that same day Cestro shows up and takes you to Aquitar after you helped him complete the device to defeat the Hydro Contaminator. You were gone for three weeks, man. What were you doing there?" Jason was ready to push Billy some to get him to talk about this. When Jason came back from his time in Switzerland he had been struck by the huge changes he saw in his quiet childhood friend. Billy was far more reserved, more serious, than he used to be. There was an aura of sadness and regret around Billy that had not been there before, and it worried Jason. He knew some of the problem stemmed from Billy giving up his powers; Jason had been through the same struggle himself. But there was more than that, and Jason wanted to get to the root of the matter.
He had another motivation, as well. Though reluctant to tell stories, once started Billy was an excellent storyteller, his intelligence and vocabulary enabling him to draw extraordinary verbal pictures. Jason had always enjoyed listening to him.
"I don't know, Jason. I really don't feel like talking about that."
"Come on, Bro! I want to hear about Aquitar. What do they do there? How is their government set up? What does the place look like? What are the people like? Did you have sex with any of them?"
"Jason!" Billy blushed at his words.
"Well, inquiring minds want to know. Spill, Little Bro, or I'll just bug you until you do. Worse yet, I'll take back the brownies and coffee."
"No way! Okay, you win. Let's see, it started when Mr. Caplan called me into his office. I was really surprised, you know how rarely I get into any trouble. He told me I had all the credits I needed to graduate, handed me my diploma and showed me the door. I was stunned, and wondering what was I going to do now.....
* * *
BILLY'S AQUITIAN ADVENTURE
Billy walked away from Angel Grove High School, shocked. He had graduated? Just given a slip of paper and shown the door? Now what was he supposed to do? That morning he had gotten up knowing what to expect from the day, or so he thought. Then in the space of a few minutes his whole life was turned upside down. He left the school campus, and with no idea what else to do, teleported to the Power Chamber. He worked around there all day until it was time for school to let out. Tommy and Adam teleported to the Power Chamber immediately to see how Billy was doing, and to invite him to the party they were throwing in honor of his graduation.
While Billy appreciated the thought behind the party, he was grateful when Skull pulled him away with his mysterious summons. The party was only highlighting his loss, as far as Billy was concerned. It increased his sense of isolation from the team, made him feel like some sort of freak. Billy had worked hard to fit in with others, he had never wanted to be singled out in any way. His extraordinary intelligence made it quite difficult to fit in sometimes, but he had found a way to blend in with the other students, while not denying his mental abilities. Now all that work was undone in one fell swoop. He was the "super smart student that graduated a whole year early." He hated it. He had found himself in a perfectly foul mood, and was fighting to keep the others from realizing it.
Thank God, Cestro had provided the perfect excuse to get out of the party and back to some useful work. When it became clear the only reasonable answer was for him to go to Aquitar to help the people there fight the Hydro Contaminators, Billy found himself excited and more than ready to go. Anything to get away from the mess his life was turning into on Earth. His only regret was that he did not have a chance to say goodbye to his friends, but time was quickly running out. He'd barely had time to clear it with his father and say goodbye to him before he and Cestro had to take off.
His excitement was tinged with worry when they took off in the small spacecraft. However, Cestro seemed to know what he was doing, and really there was nothing Billy could do, so he settled back and he started to ask questions about Aquitar. Cestro answered as much as he could, but Billy sensed he seemed to be holding back some. He supposed it would be best to discover some of the answers for himself, so he didn't push it.
He drifted into his own thoughts, so he was startled when the small craft suddenly jolted and shuddered. "Cestro, what happened?" he asked in confusion.
"We have been fired on. I was hoping to be able to sneak into Aquitar without the Hydro Contaminators being aware of my return, but I have failed in that effort. They are firing from the planet surface, they their range is excellent. Hang on, they can be quite tenacious."
Billy couldn't suppress a yelp of surprise and fear when they were hit again. The small craft was knocked severely sideways, and he and Cestro were thrown into each other. Sparks and smoke spit out of several consoles. Cestro opened communications with Aquitar and advised them of their location and condition.
"Billy, we are going to have to come in hard and fast. Almost like a controlled crash. We have lost most navigational functions, we have little control over anything. Strap yourself in and hold on. If we do crash, do not worry, Delphine is dispatching rescue vessels to our expected location."
Billy did not waste time with unnecessary words but sufficed with a terse "Right!" and set himself for the landing. They came in hard, and at an angle, slicing into the surface of the water. Despite the tremendous jolt when they hit, neither Billy nor Cestro were injured, however the craft had sustained structural damage and was taking on water. At least in part due to the water that they had taken on, the craft began to sink, the water level rapidly rising.
"Don't worry, Billy, they will be here soon," Cestro reassured him,
"Cestro, I don't know how much you know about human physiology, but I cannot survive more than a few minutes under water. After that point you could not revive me. How soon is your definition of 'soon'?"
Cestro had taken on a worried expression. "Not soon enough I am afraid. Perhaps fifteen minutes. What can we do so you can survive?"
"I need to get out of this ship and to the surface as quickly as possible. I can swim there until Delphine arrives. I did some research before, and your air is breathable for humans, though just barely. But I should be okay for the short time I will be breathing it. Is there some sort of escape hatch?"
Cestro showed him how to get out of the escape hatch, and watched him disappear. Before Billy left, Cestro found a small device that would emit a signal enabling Delphine to locate Billy on the surface. Cestro was staying in the ship so he could brief Delphine on the situation as the communications system had shorted out.
Billy made it to the surface and gulped in a large breath, then regretted it immediately. The air was thicker than Earth's, very moist, with a slightly bitter taste to it. The sky above him was thick with cloud cover, the wind blew, and the water was quite cold. He shivered partly from cold, partly from delayed reaction to the events of the last few minutes. He hoped Delphine would arrive soon, as he was not sure he could last more than a few minutes in the icy water. A bolt of fear knifed through him as he felt something brush against his leg. He had no idea what sorts of predators inhabited Aquitar's waters. He prayed he was not about to find out.
He felt something thump his right leg harder and instinctively jerked his leg away from the contact. He tried to remain still, hoping the creature would lose interest and simply go away. But when he stayed too still he had a harder time keeping his head above water, and he felt the effects of the cold more. He started kicking more vigorously, and his unseen companion returned. It kept bumping against his legs and lower torso, hitting Billy with hard, but mostly glancing, blows. Each time it hit Billy expected to feel the clamp of teeth, visions of the "Jaws" movies playing in his mind.
He was so distracted he did not hear the approaching craft until it was almost on top of him. He looked up to see Tideus and Delphine reaching down to him. He gratefully took their hands and was hoisted onto the deck of the strange craft. As soon as he was aboard a clear dome closed over the deck and the craft descended underwater. Billy looked around and saw Cestro standing to the side, looking worriedly at Billy.
"Are you okay, Billy? Were you hurt?"
"I'm fine Cestro. There was some creature under the water that kept bumping into me. What was it?"
"Probably a Forcontia. They are large mammals that resemble a fish. They are quite benevolent," Delphine answered.
"It kept bumping into me. I had no idea what it was, I kept expecting it to bite me, or attack, or something," Billy admitted.
"It probably wanted to play," Tideus said with a smile.
"Wish it could have told me that. I wouldn't have been so startled," Billy sighed.
"There is much that will be strange to you here. As you were so kind in helping us when we were on Earth, I hope you will allow us to do the same for you here on Aquitar. If you have any questions, please, ask any of us. We only want to help. Your coming here is a favor to us, we want for you to be comfortable," Delphine stated.
"I will ask," Billy promised. "Just ask Zordon-he'd tell you I am not shy about asking questions if I want to understand something. I drove him crazy at first with all my questions. As a matter of fact, I have a question now. Where are we going?"
"To the main city center, it's where our Command Compound is. I plan to get you settled in a room. Please, do not take offense, but you look like you could use some rest. And maybe some dry clothing."
"No offense taken, I feel like I could use some rest. As for the dry clothing, that's a given. Did the suitcase with my clothes make it Cestro?"
"I am afraid not, Billy. But we can provide you with some clothing to use for now. We will be going back to the wreckage and hauling it in for repairs. We can get your belongings then," Cestro replied.
Soon they had arrived at the imposing Command Compound for the Aquitian Rangers. Unlike the Power Rangers on Earth, the Aquitian Rangers did not have to hide their identities, so their Command Compound was located in the center of the largest city. Delphine and Cestro showed Billy to a small apartment within the Compound. He was given clothes, shown how to work the various devices, then left alone to settle in.
After a warm shower, and donning dry clothing, he went to the window and looked out over the city. The city was located under water, in a giant clear dome. The base of the dome was the ocean floor, so there were living plants growing throughout the city. The air was close to the same composition as on Earth, but without the impurities from pollution, and with higher water content. He could see transportation vehicles moving around the streets, people walking here and there, what appeared to be businesses, brightly lit.
It was incredibly beautiful, and undeniably alien.
As he stared out over the scene the events of the day suddenly caught up with him, and he found himself leaning against the glass, fighting tears. It was incredible to think about, but only that morning he had stood in front of Mr. Caplan getting his diploma and wondering what he was going to do with himself. Now, a party, a space flight, an attack, a crash, and half a galaxy later, here he was on Aquitar, living out a dream he had nurtured since earliest childhood. Talk about a roller coaster ride! It was an awful lot to have happen in one day.
Exhaustion overwhelmed him, and he stumbled to the bed, falling onto it fully clothed and drifting immediately into a deep sleep.
* * *
The following morning a persistent chiming sound awakened Billy. He sat up on the bed confused and disoriented, wondering where he was and why he was still dressed, and for that matter whose clothes he was wearing. It took a couple of moments for the memories to kick in, but once they did he set out to find the source of the chiming that had awakened him. It turned out to be a visitor, a small, elderly woman with a warm and welcoming smile.
"It is good to see our honored guest is awake at last. My name is Salina, I am an advisor to the Rangers here on Aquitar. They asked me to come to see you, to answer any questions you may have about our society, our way of life."
"That's great, I'm glad to meet you. But, if I may be honest, you woke me up...No! That's fine, I needed to get up...but my mind isn't exactly working at top speed at the moment, and frankly, I feel like I could use another shower, brush my teeth, and generally clean up before I feel human again."
Seeing her puzzled look he had to chuckle a bit. "I'm sorry, that had to sound weird. I simply mean I don't feel my best at the moment, and need a little while to get myself together...er, ready to face the day," he explained.
"I understand. I will be back in thirty of your Earth minutes with a meal. You should be hungry, they told me you did not have anything to eat last night. That was thoughtless of them."
"It was no problem. I probably couldn't have eaten anyway, I was simply too tired, sleep was what I needed the most."
She made a hrrumph sound and turned away. Billy couldn't help but feel he had just gained a surrogate mother.
Salina was as good as her word, showing up a half-hour later with a tray of food. Billy looked at the array of items without recognizing anything.
"Okay, first question of the day: what is this stuff?" He asked looking at the food with some confusion. Salina smiled and pointed out the various items, explaining what they were called, if they were natural or processed, and if processed what went into them. Billy tried a bit of everything, commenting to Salina when he found something he could compare to Earth food. Going by his comparisons, he had bananas, refried beans, tofu, graham crackers, and celery for breakfast, all washed down with water that had a slightly dill flavor. It was without a doubt the strangest breakfast he had ever had.
After breakfast Salina gave him a tour of the Command Compound. He was impressed with the technology, as well as the aesthetics of the building. It was huge, dominating an entire block, with areas dedicated to battle borg maintenance, galaxy wide monitoring devices, and of course, a laboratory. That is where Billy ended up when the tour was done. Cestro hurried over to greet him, and introduced Billy to his cousin, Cestria. Once introductions were completed Cestro began briefing Billy on the status of the war.
"There are thousands of Hydro Contaminators poisoning our water. We have been able to destroy them singly, but as soon as one is destroyed it seems two more show up to replace the destroyed one. We have had better luck in trying to undo the damage they are doing. We have been able to reverse a lot of their damage, but not all. At this point the water is not getting any worse, but it is not improving either. As for repairing our main computers, restoring teleportation, and getting the battle borgs on line, well, we haven't made any progress in that area at all," Cestro looked depressed as he made his report.
"What do you think the first priority should be? Computers and borgs back on line, or attacks against single Hydro Contaminators?" Billy asked.
"Personally, I think getting the borgs on line and finding some way to destroy all the Hydro Contaminators at once. What do you think?"
"I concur with your idea. What exactly happened with the computer? That is needed to operate the borgs, correct?"
"Yes, that is so. Let's go to the computer room and I can show you exactly what happened when the computers went down," Cestro said. The three of them headed to the computer room, Cestro and Cestria taking turns filling Billy in on what had happened, and what they had done in the meantime.
* * *
Billy found his days falling into a pattern. Each morning Salina woke him with a smile and tray of food. She had determined what foods Billy liked, and which ones he didn't. She would talk with him while he ate his breakfast, gradually adding to his knowledge of Aquitian customs, society and history. Sometimes Billy would tell her stories of Earth and what his life was like there. Salina had sensed Billy's confusion and unhappiness, she hoped that she could help alleviate some of it. She had quickly bonded with the young human, she wanted to see him happy if possible.
One morning the conversation turned, as it so frequently did, to Earth foods as compared to Aquitian foods. Billy was surprised to find Aquitians did not eat sweets at all, there was nothing comparable to sugar to be found there.
"I had noticed a lack of sweetness in the food, even the organic items. Perhaps it is due to the saline content of the soil. I have to confess I have a tremendous sweet tooth, my diet has always contained a lot of sugar and sugar products. It is hard for me to conceive of a world without chocolate. This is probably good for me, come to think of it. I wonder if eating sugar would hurt Aquitians?" Billy mused.
"What is chocolate? And where is your 'sweet tooth'? Is it different from other teeth?" Salina asked.
Billy explained the basic ingredients in chocolate, and the meaning of the term 'sweet tooth' for Salina, a twinkle in his eyes as he spoke. He had an idea, but first he had to do some tests.
The next morning after his breakfast, Billy told Salina he had a surprise for her. He went to a drawer and took out a flat package and handed it to her with a smile. She looked at it in some confusion.
"What it this, Billy?"
"That, Salina, is a chocolate bar. I did some tests yesterday, and it should not have any kind of adverse effect on you. You have been so kind in bringing me breakfast each morning, introducing me to your foods. I would like to return the favor, at least in a small way. I brought some chocolate bars with me just in case. Like I said, I eat chocolate as a staple in my diet. I would like for you to try it. I think you will like it."
She broke off a piece of the bar and hesitantly put it in her mouth. Her expression changed from one of apprehension to one of delight.
"I take it you like that?" Billy asked with a laugh.
"Oh, it is wonderful! You can have this whenever you want? No wonder you miss it. Thank you for sharing this with me."
"My pleasure. I'm glad you enjoyed it." He noted with amusement that she savored each bite, letting it melt in her mouth, getting full pleasure out of it, the expression on her face almost childlike.
"Mmm. I could get used to this stuff!"
* * *
Billy, Cestro and Cestria were making progress in repairing the computers and getting the borgs back on line. Billy had found they needed to almost completely rewire the consoles in the computer room, and replace the bulk of the hardware. He believed the data was still intact, that the repairs needed were simply mechanical in nature. However straightforward the repairs were, they still took time, a luxury they were rapidly running out of.
The attacks had continued unabated, and the measures being taken to offset the effects were no longer keeping abreast of the damage. The planet was in danger of being destroyed. At the current rate they estimated the damage would become irreparable in one week.
"There! That is the last connection. Everyone stand clear, I'm going to fire her up," Billy declared as he reached for the main power switch.
Cestro, Cestria, and the other workers stepped back as Billy hit the switch. All the consoles emitted beeps, lights began to flash on the boards, and they could hear the soft electrical hum that signaled the normal working of the computers.
Everyone let loose a cheer. "We did it! We are back on line! Now we can concentrate on the borgs," Cestro declared, a smile lighting up his features.
Though clearly delighted with the success so far, everyone recognized that they were far from home free. Leaving a couple of people in the computer room to 'baby-sit' the newly resurrected computers, the rest headed for the borg holding bay to assess what needed to be done there.
Again, it appeared to be wiring and hardware problems, the programming that linked the borgs to the computer system showed no sign of damage. There were five borgs, which combined to form one megaborg. They split up into five teams and began work on each borg.
Hours later Cestro and Billy watched the exhausted workers quietly file out, heading for their homes and families.
"I wish we had more workers skilled enough to help us," Cestro said pensively. "It would be good if repairs could be done round the clock."
"Yeah, it would help. But we have made good progress today. We must not give up hope or get discouraged," Billy said.
"You are right, of course. It is just so hard to see the damage being done and not be able to stop it immediately."
"I understand, Cestro. I feel the same way," Billy sighed.
"Well, I should get home and rest, tomorrow will be a long day. I wish this was over with," Cestro added.
" There's a saying on Earth, goes something like 'If wishes were horses, even poor men would ride'," Billy quoted.
Cestro thought it over carefully, keeping silent for a couple of minutes before asking, "What are horses?"
Billy chuckled as he strode out with Cestro, explaining about horses as he went. It was those moments, when he and one of his Aquitian friends exchanged snippets of their culture, that Billy had his own fervent wish. He wished he were here for any other reason than to help prevent the annihilation of the planet.
* * *
The next morning Salina turned the subject of their conversation to faith. She asked Billy to explain spirituality as practiced on Earth. Billy, though somewhat daunted by her request, did his best to reply, touching on the basic beliefs of the major faiths practiced on his home planet.
"There are so many belief systems I cannot even begin to answer your question fully, Salina. There are faiths that have millions of followers, and some that have only a few. The ones I just told you about were some of the more popular ones," he concluded.
"Oh, my, I had no idea. Which faith do you practice?" she asked.
Billy looked a little abashed. "I don't actively practice any faith. My parents were Methodists, but Dad quit going to church after Mom died. So I guess you would say I am a non-practicing Christian."
"Oh. Why did your dad quit going to church?"
"He kind of lost his faith when Mom died in the accident. I was only nine, so when he quit going to church, I quit going. I never went back again, even after I was old enough to choose for myself."
Salina looked very disturbed by Billy's revelation.
"Salina, are you going to tell me about your spiritual beliefs?" he asked, at least partly to break the uncomfortable silence.
"Not today, Billy. I need to think about all you have told me. We will speak of this again tomorrow. Plus, it is nearly time for us to be heading to work."
Salina was more than just an honorary advisor to the Rangers of Aquitar. She was an active part of their team. Each morning she heard a report on the progress made the preceding day, and conferred with the team as to what should be attempted next. She did not have the technological knowledge to actually do the work on the machines, but she acted as a sort of overseer to the entire operation.
With the work on the borgs down to mostly routine rewiring, Billy and Cestro were concentrating on building five replicas of the weapon they had developed on Earth to destroy the Hydro Contaminator there. They needed to make the weapons large enough to be used by the borgs, yet small enough to be precisely aimed. They were having considerable success so far and hoped the weapons would be ready to use when the borgs were back on line.
The remaining Aquitian Rangers, were drawing up a plan of attack, monitoring the actions of the Hydro Contaminators, coordinating the relief efforts to offset the damage, and watching for the main ship from which the Hydro Contaminators were being issued. Though they needed to destroy all the Hydro Contaminators, they also knew they needed to destroy the source. So far all they had learned was that the Hydro Contaminators were being sent to Aquitar's surface from a large space vessel maintaining position just beyond the range of the planet's sensors.
Salina was the sounding board for both groups-the tacticians and the technicians. She kept them focused, renewed their hope, fired their enthusiasm, and soothed their souls. She was somewhere between an advisor and team mother, and Billy found his respect, affection, and admiration for her growing daily.
* * *
As promised, Salina broached the subject of Aquitian spirituality the next morning. She explained gently that Aquitian belief system was vastly different than Earth's. For one thing, there was one planet-wide 'religion', one deity, and one system of worship. Their God did not expect songs sung in his praise, nor did they observe one specific day, or place, of worship. Instead, the belief and faith was internalized, from earliest childhood children were taught to start each morning with a few minutes of study and prayer. For all the unity as to the faith, there were no religious holidays observed on Aquitar. They had accomplished on Aquitar what so many religions strove to achieve on Earth-worship and faith was a daily, accepted, expected part of life on Aquitar.
"God does not want us to stop our lives to worship Him, He wants us to worship Him while going about our daily lives. We live and work to honor Him. We honor Him through our treatment of each other. On Aquitar we have virtually no violent crime, no hate crimes. I have been disturbed by your stories of the random violence and hatred that exists on Earth. If you had our belief system, your lives would be so much better."
"Yes, I suppose they would. But Humans seem to want, indeed need, choices. The problem arises when so many make bad choices.
Salina continued. "Our faith teaches us that if we believe another should die for his sins, then we should be willing to sacrifice our own life at the same time. There is no greater honor than to die in such a way, if it is truly to rid the universe of an evil presence."
Billy was having a hard time grasping what she was telling him. "Are you saying that if a person finds himself in the position of having to kill another, even though the other is evil, that person should give up his own life, even if it is not absolutely necessary? For instance, if I were armed and had in my sights a person who had just committed murder, I saw the crime and had no doubt as to that person's guilt, and my killing him is in self defense-I should somehow find a way to kill us both, rather than just him?"
"That is a rather extreme example, but yes, you should."
"How in the world do you manage if there is a war? What about the Hydro Contaminators?"
"The rule applies only to sentient beings, and we do not consider the Hydro Contaminators to be sentient. They are mechanical in nature. Their creators are most likely sentient. As to how we manage during times of war, well, I am afraid this will really upset you, but it is permissible to allow the sacrifice of one for the deaths of many enemies."
"One person is literally sacrificed?"
"Yes. Often he or she is a passenger on a missile, or will personally walk a bomb into an enemy stronghold, something like that. It is considered a great honor to be selected to do so."
Billy placed his hands over his face and rubbed tiredly. "Oh, wow. This is so hard for me to understand." His eyes sought out Salina's. "You truly believe in this?"
"Yes, Billy, I do. All Aquitians do. It is a cornerstone of our society."
"Well, I wanted to learn about different cultures. Please understand, this is completely at odds with what I was raised to believe in. When in a combat situation, we for the most part believe in RISKING our lives, but if we don't have to die, we will avoid it. There have been some exceptions of course. Kamikaze pilots would literally ram their planes into an enemy, destroying the enemy and themselves at the same time. But that was an exception, not a rule."
"Well, I guess you could consider 'Kamikazes' to be the rule on Aquitar. It has to do with the strength of your belief in the other person's deserving to die. And a respect for the sanctity of life. That to take a life, no matter how evil, is wrong and should be met with an equal sacrifice."
"And it is an honor to die in such a manner?"
"Salina, you have given me much to think about this morning. Recalling what I told you yesterday about our spiritual beliefs on Earth, I am no longer wondering why you were reluctant to tell me about your beliefs. That is a major difference between our worlds."
"Is it a difference that can be overcome?"
"I have to believe so. My 'jerk knee' reaction is repulsion at the idea of sacrifices. That is a practice that is basically outlawed in almost every society on Earth, at least actual sacrifices. Symbolic ones are still common enough. But I was raised to respect other ideas, other customs. My parents' training, and my own ideals, make me strive to understand and accept other people's way of life. I have found much to admire and respect on Aquitar, this doesn't change that. I will simply have to get over the surprise and accept this as part of what makes Aquitar what it is."
"Give yourself the time to assimilate new ideas, Billy. You are so very intelligent, and learn so rapidly, but there are some things that cannot be rushed. This is one of them. I, too, have had much to think about. But, enough discussion of faith this morning, we must get to work. We can talk again tomorrow," Salina gave him her best strict look.
* * *
As it turned out, the next few days Billy and Salina avoided the subject of faith, keeping the conversations on safer topics. They hurried through the morning meal, anxious to get to work. They were almost done with the borgs, and the five weapons Cestro and Billy were making were almost completed.
The day finally came when the connection between the now functional borgs and the computer system was reinstated. Teleportation was also now available, for limited distances.
"It is time, Rangers," Delphine announced. "We must destroy the Hydro Contaminators and stop their damage at once. It's morphing time!"
Suddenly the five Aquitian Rangers were in full armor, ready to go. Billy and Cestro gave them all last minute instructions on the operation of the new weapons, then the Rangers teleported into the borgs and set out to rid the planet of the menace which had caused so much devastation.
Billy, Cestria, and Salina watched on the monitors in the computer room, which would now function as a tactical base for the Rangers. They let out a cheer as they saw the first wave of the Rangers' attack wipe out hundreds of Hydro Contaminators. The weapons worked perfectly.
It took fifteen exhausting hours, but the last of the Hydro Contaminators were finally destroyed, freeing Aquitar from their grip of destruction. Now all that remained was the 'mother ship', still hovering just beyond the sensor's reach, and the rehabilitation of Aquitar's waters.
"Perhaps we can increase the sensor's range? What if we reroute some of the power from the monitoring devices we don't need at the moment to the main sensor? That may give us a peek at what we are up against," Billy suggested. Actually, he had wanted to do that long ago, but it was a low priority when the planet was being destroyed.
"Yes, that should work. But we all need to rest now, I have activated the alarm grid to alert us if the ship approaches Aquitar," Cestro said.
Billy bit back on his impatience and conceded the issue. In truth, he was pretty tired and a good night's sleep would help. Tomorrow would be soon enough to see if they would be facing an additional menace.
* * *
The next morning found Billy rested, ready to address the mystery of the ship that had launched the Hydro Contaminators to do their dirty work. Salina smiled at seeing him up, fully dressed, and ready to go.
"You know my rule, you have breakfast first. You skip too many meals as it is, you will fade away to nothing and your Earth Rangers will come here to find out who mistreated their friend. I have no wish to be in trouble with them. So you will sit down and eat before you go to the computers," Salina ordered him.
Billy chuckled sheepishly and sat down to eat his meal. He had long since convinced Salina to eat her breakfast with him, since she insisted on bringing his meal to his room. They ate in companionable silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Salina looked up to see Billy looking out the window pensively.
"You are missing your friends, aren't you?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, I am. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I didn't until you mentioned them. Now, all of a sudden, all I want to do is be home. I want to drink a smoothie, work out with the guys, and listen to the girls gossip. I want to see my dad, to hear him mumbling to himself when he is cooking dinner. He is a lousy cook, but he tries hard. Man, I even miss Bulk and Skull, and I never would have believed that."
"Bulk and Skull?"
"A couple of bullies. I used to think they were my personal nightmare. They picked on me constantly, took money from me, locked me in my own locker at school, tripped me when I walked by, basically made my life as miserable as possible. However, recently they got involved in the junior police, and have started straightening themselves up some. At least they leave me alone now."
"They sound awful. Why would you miss them?"
"Probably just because I have known them since I was a little kid. They were mean to me, but they were also always there. Hmmm, maybe they simply symbolize the fact that I even miss the bad side of life on Earth. How does that sound?"
Salina laughed heartily. "It sounds like, what was that word you used, bunk to me. Is that right?"
Billy almost choked on his mouthful of water. "Yeah, that is right. Sounds like I am a bad influence on you."
"Probably," she replied tranquilly.
"Can I go to the computers now, ma'am. I ate all my breakfast," he asked, eyes twinkling.
"Oh, alright. I guess you earned it."
* * *
A few hours later Billy had some of the answers they were seeking. He had juiced up the sensor's power, and was able to get a view of the mysterious ship. He showed it to the Aquitian Rangers, who all looked worried when they saw the picture.
"Do you know who it is?" Billy asked, seeing Delphine's expression.
"Yes, I do. It is a Briardian ship, from the planet Briard. They have not been seen in this galaxy for over a hundred years, since the last time we defeated their attempt to destroy Aquitar. They are a race of beings determined to conquer and destroy every planet they encounter. We are definitely still in peril. They will seek retribution for the destruction of the Hydro Contaminators."
"The ship is emitting a beam of some sort. When it hits the atmosphere it dissipates, spreading out over the outer layer of the atmosphere. I have gathered as much data as possible and the computers are processing it now. But I have to be honest, I really don't like the look of this," Billy reported.
"We must find a way to defend ourselves against them," Cestro added, remembering the stories he had heard of the epic battle against the Briardians so long ago.
Before anyone could reply, a flashing green light indicated an incoming message. Delphine activated the communications console.
"Delphine of Aquitar here. To whom am I speaking?"
"I am Drephon of Briard. You Aquitians have destroyed valuable assets of the Briardian Empire. You will pay for your impudence. At this time tomorrow this ship will launch a full-scale attack on Aquitar. I would suggest you use the time to make your peace with whatever deity you hold in honor." With that the transmission ended.
"What information do you have on the Briards?" Billy asked.
"We have a considerable database of information on them. Do you want to see it?" Cestro replied.
"That would be a good place to start. Knowing your enemy is always a good strategy." Billy started studying the information Cestro called up on the screen, while the rest of the Aquitian Rangers went to the borg holding bay to check on the status of the borgs after the previous day's battles.
Billy was interrupted by an alarm that indicated a transmission was being sent to the ship from the planet surface. Billy called Delphine and Cestro in, and they traced the source. Cestro and Aurico were dispatched to the location to find out who was transmitting to the Briardian ship. They arrived back very upset, bearing the body of the person they found at the location.
"We knocked on the door and demanded entry, announcing ourselves as Rangers. We heard an odd noise from inside and broke down the door. We found a Briardian inside, dead. He must have killed himself when he realized we knew about him. I'm sorry Delphine, I had no idea he would do that," Cestro reported.
"It was not your fault, Cestro. At least he won't be transmitting anything else. We have to get back to work on the borgs. Cestro, you are in charge of making sure they are battle ready when needed. The rest of us will assist you," Delphine said.
Hours later Billy had assimilated the information he had read on the Briards, analyzed the report from the computer on the data he had assembled on the mysterious beam, and had formulated a plan. It was not a plan he particularly liked.
"The beam consists of elements designed to destroy the outer edge of the atmosphere, causing a complete disruption of the planet's atmospheric and ecological balance. This in conjunction with a direct assault from the ship would prove devastating to Aquitar. The planet is still weak from the damage done by the Hydro Contaminators, this dual attack is more than we can take. I have formulated one possible plan, but it is somewhat extreme and I would welcome any alternate suggestions. I have found an almost intact Hydro Contaminator. The only feasible plan I was able to come up with so far is that we repair it to the point it can make its way back to the ship. But we send it up with an explosive inside, set to detonate once it is inside the ship, destroying it from the inside. I noticed when the original attack was launched the Hydro Contaminators were apparently on a sort of 'auto pilot'. Based on the data you have, the Hydro Contaminators would very likely have been stored in a cargo bay with automatic docking and launching. The ship would most likely automatically allow one to board, possibly without the crew even being aware of it. Especially if the device we use doesn't alert the automatic sensors. That should be pretty easy to do."
"It sounds like a good plan, Billy. How long until we can implement it?" Delphine asked in the ensuing silence.
"It would take just a few hours to complete repairs on the Hydro Contaminator, load the explosive and prepare to send it back. Are you sure you want to do this? If it works, Drephon and his crew will be killed when the ship is destroyed."
"You read the report on the Briards, you know they kill entire populations without a qualm. If killing a handful of them will save Aquitar, we must do so. We really do not have any choice."
"Perhaps once we get it on board we can warn them of what we did and give them a chance to give up. That would give them a fairer chance than they gave us," Tideus suggested quietly.
"Yes, we can do that. Very well, let's get to work, we need to launch the Hydro Contaminator in the morning," Delphine ordered, fully in command mode.
The rest of the day passed in a flurry of fevered activity, preparing for the launch the next morning. Billy did not go back to his room until very late, and then he simply fell asleep on top of the bed, too tired to undress, let alone shower.
He was just emerging from the shower the next morning when Salina arrived with his breakfast.
"You skipped dinner again, didn't you?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, I was just too tired to eat. I have always had problems eating when I get too tired, if I try to force myself to eat I just get sick. It's easier to skip eating until I am rested." Despite his words he picked at his meal.
"What is on your mind this morning?" she asked.
"I don't feel right about this sneaky way of attacking the ship. I am more used to direct confrontation, not sabotage. I know we are out of options, but it bothers me just the same," he sighed.
"You are going to be giving them a last chance. It is much more than they would give us, it is all you can do, Billy. And you not eating your breakfast is not going to help. Eat!"
"Geez, you and my dad would get along great," he grumbled as he started to eat.
"We probably would at that. We could team up at nagging at you about your eating habits," she grinned.
"Wouldn't that be fun," he observed dryly.
* * *
A couple of hours later the Hydro Contaminator was launched from the surface of Aquitar. They launched it from a remote area, trying in all ways to make it seem it was simply one that escaped destruction. They hurried back to the Command Compound to see what would happen next.
As Billy had predicted, the Hydro Contaminator took a direct course to the ship. They waited breathlessly as the small craft approached the ship, wondering if they ship would destroy it, accept it, hail it, or ignore it. It turned out they ignored it. An automated docking door opened and the Hydro Contaminator drifted inside as if it belonged there.
"We are in, time to contact Drephon," Delphine announced.
When the Briard's face appeared on the communications console Delphine wasted no time in addressing him. "We have successfully planted an explosive on your ship. If you do not surrender immediately we will detonate it, destroying your ship and killing you and your crew. We would prefer to avoid this if possible. It is your choice."
"I do not believe you, Aquitian whore. And even if it is true, we prefer death to capture by the likes of you. There will be no surrender!" The ugly visage faded from the screen.
"The ship has launched some sort of automated fighter drones. We must get to the borgs and destroy them," Tideus announced.
"It's morphing time!" Delphine declared. The five Rangers were completely morphed in seconds and ready to go to their borgs.
"Billy, you must detonate the device. We will destroy the drones," Delphine ordered.
"Good luck you guys," Billy said as the Rangers teleported to their borgs.
Billy was starting the sequence to activate the explosive device when the communications console beeped for his attention. He activated it quickly. "This is Billy, to whom am I speaking?"
"Billy, it's Salina. Did they agree to surrender? Where are the Rangers?"
"Salina!? Where are you? No, they won't surrender. They launched some fighter drones the Rangers are out battling. I am starting the sequence to activate the explosive," he reported tersely.
"I am inside the Hydro Contaminator you sent up. So I guess I am on their ship now."
"What! No! Salina, why are you doing this? Are you crazy?" Billy was frantic by this point.
"Billy, remember our discussion of my faith's outlook on killing? This is my choice, and I am honored to do this. It is right," her voice was very calm.
"Do you honestly expect me to detonate that device with you inside? Salina, I can't do that. That may be okay with your faith, but it isn't with mine."
"Killing the others on board is?"
"Salina, this is hardly the time for this debate. I will attempt to get a teleportation lock on you and get you out of there."
"You will do no such thing! Besides, I am wearing a device that prohibits teleportation. I put it on just in case the Briard's sensors spotted me and tried to remove me from the craft. If you do not destroy this ship, the entire planet will be destroyed. I go with this ship-the sacrifice to prove the strength in our belief that these others must die. Detonate the device, Billy. You do not have the right to deny me this."
"How can you ask me to do this? Do you really understand what you are asking me to do?"
For a moment Salina was overcome with guilt. She had forgotten, as others had occasionally forgotten before her, one simple fact. For all his intelligence, for all his insight, Billy was still a kid. He was only seventeen, too young for such decisions. But it was too late for Salina to change the course of her decision now.
"I am sorry, Billy. Truly I am. When I decided on my course of action, I did not consider the cost to you. Truthfully, I had hoped the Aquitian Rangers would be available to deal with it. It is part of their culture. But fate has given the task to you. Please, you must be strong, you must do this. The fate of my world depends on it."
Billy felt despair wash through him. Despite what she had said, he had tried for a teleportation lock without success. Time was running out, there were no other options he could see.
"Thank you, Salina, for all you have taught me. I will never forget you."
"Thank you, Billy, for bringing to me stories of your world. And for the chance to taste chocolate, the first Aquitian ever to do so! Thank you for doing all this."
He reached out a trembling hand toward the switch that would detonate the device.......
* * *
".....there was in incredible flash of light, then the ship was simply gone. The remaining three drones the Rangers were fighting suddenly lost all power. It was over. Aquitar was safe," Billy's voice was hoarse from his long narrative. He looked at Jason for the first time in hours and was startled to see tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
"Oh, God, Billy. No wonder you never wanted to talk about it."
"I try never to even think about it. Though I can't control the dreams I still have. I spent the next two days on Aquitar in my room. The Rangers and Cestria came several times a day, trying to get me to talk about what was bothering me, trying to get me to eat, trying to lly could finally go home and get some sleep.
Jason reached out and took one of Billy's hands in his. "You did what you had to do, Billy. That is all any of us can ever do. She made her choice, based on her beliefs. You couldn't have changed that."
Billy was quiet so long Jason thought he may have finally succumbed to sleep, but the death grip Billy was keeping on his hand told him differently.
When he spoke again, his voice was once again controlled. "Thanks, Jason, for being here for me. I suppose I did need to talk about it. Surprisingly enough, I actually feel a little better."
"I'm not surprised. In the future you might want to skip the fall and concussion and go straight to the talking part. Would be a little easier."
Billy actually laughed at that. "It probably would. Geez, I feel loopy. What time is it?"
"Time's pretty much up. It's a quarter to eleven."
"Yea! I get to go home. And sleep. Guess you can go home and sleep too. Maybe the rest of the guys in the ops room will be able to sleep, as well."
"You knew they were there?" Jason had seen several of the other Rangers peek in on them during the long night, but Jason had always subtly signaled them to not disturb him and Billy.
"Yep. I figured they didn't want to disturb the story, and with them being as curious as you are, they would stay to the bitter end. I designed the communications system in here, I know how well they could hear out there." As Billy finished speaking the other five Rangers filed into the room. All of them looked tired, and more than one pair of eyes showed the telltale signs of recent tears.
"Boy, we are a sorry looking bunch. I never intended for all of you to get stuck staying awake for the 24 hours," Billy said.
"Yeah, and you didn't intend for me to end up with purple hair, but look what happened," Rocky declared.
"Rocky, I refuse to take responsibility for your hair problems. You should not have tossed Maria's doll the way you did."
"Keep that up and I'll convince my parents to give Maria to your dad to raise. See how you like having a younger sister."
Rocky's good-natured banter was the balm the other Rangers needed for their emotions. They had all been affected by Billy's story, but it was clear from Billy's enthusiastic response to Rocky's humorous comments that he did not wish to discuss the matter further. His attitude clearly said he felt it was time to move on.
"Zordon, is it okay for Billy to go home now?" Tommy asked their mentor as his visage appeared above the communications console.
"Yes, Tommy. Billy shows no signs of complications, it should be safe for him to sleep now. You should all rest."
Billy gratefully stood up from the bed. "Thank you Zordon. No offense, but I am truly sick of this room, I'm going home." He looked around at his friends with a warm look. "Thank you all for staying with me."
"You're welcome, bro. Now go home and sleep," Jason ordered. Billy teleported out in a streak of white, leaving the other Rangers in the Med Room.
Jason leaned wearily against the bed Billy had just vacated. "Damn. When that guy has a secret, it's usually a doozy. I'm glad he finally told us what happened."
"Yeah. I just wish he hadn't had to go through that. What a philosophy they have. You know, I had never heard Billy tell a story before, even when we were in Mondo's prison he didn't. He tells a heck of a tale."
"Yes, he does. That was one of the reasons I wanted him to talk. The nice thing is, once he starts he keeps on going. It's just hard to get him fired up enough to tell stories."
"You should have been in the other room. Five of us in there trying not to let anyone else see we were crying. Must have given Zordon quite a show," Tanya added.
"I did not cry!" Rocky declared.
"Yeah, right, and I suppose you just had 'dust in your eyes'," Adam snorted.
"Rangers, all of you get out of here. Go home and sleep," Zordon ordered them.
"Yes, sir!" Six voices, all tinged with considerable amusement, rang out as one as they all teleported to their homes for some much-needed sleep.
* * *
It was late that afternoon when the seven friends gathered at their favorite table in the Juice Bar. Billy was still a bit pale, but looked much better.
"You feeling okay?" Jason asked, noticing Billy was quieter than usual.
"Yes, Jason, I'm fine. Still pretty tired, but a good night's sleep tonight will do the trick. Did everyone else get some sleep?"
Affirmative answers came from all the others.
"I just have one question, Billy, then I won't speak of the matter again. Would you ever go back to Aquitar? Or have you had enough of intergalactic travel?" This was not just idle curiosity on Jason's part. He knew how long Billy had dreamed of visiting other planets, and he didn't like the idea that his experience on Aquitar had destroyed Billy's dreams.
Billy took a moment to think about it. "Yes, I would go back. I made a lot of friends there. I got quite close to Cestro and Cestria. I like Delphine and the rest of the Rangers. Sure, I would go back."
"Good. Just, next time, send us a postcard or something to let us know how you are doing."
"Sure thing, Jason. I'll even write on it 'having a great time, wish you were here'."
Sitting at the table, laughing at that comment, they had no idea how soon those words would come back to haunt a couple of them.