Disclaimer: For Karen, Tiffany, Jocelyn, and Rene. The sisterhood of mothers and mothers-to-be has taught me so much more than just the fluffy pink muumuu. "I wasn't always a productive member of society, you know!" Buena Vista owns the Power Rangers.
"Ashley told me."
"She bring the team photo album with her?"
Astronema glared at him. "She said Zhane was the Silver Ranger. You're a Ranger, you're wearing silver, do the math."
"So you don't remember anything about KO-35?" Zhane pressed. He tried to ignore Kae's insistent tugs on the sleeve of his shirt. "Kae, not right now, okay?"
"I didn't know anything about this miserable planet until Dark Spectre ordered me here," she informed him. "Ashley told me I used to be a Ranger here. If it's true, I'm glad I don't remember it. It obviously wasn't one of the great success stories of our time."
"No thanks to you and your minions," Zhane retorted.
"Oh, stop that," she said crossly. "I was either good or I wasn't; you can't have it both ways."
"Kae." Zhane looked down at the boy and tried to soften his tone. It wasn't his fault there was no one else left to watch him. "You want to go make some noise in the kitchen?"
Kae just stared at him, but it was easier than looking at Astronema so Zhane stared right back. "What do you say? Want to go bang on all the stuff Ty takes away from you?"
"You're encouraging him to be loud and disruptive?" Astronema sounded incredulous.
"I'm encouraging him to entertain himself," Zhane said impatiently. "What's so bad about that?"
His digimorpher beeped. He flipped it open with a suppressed sigh, acknowledging a call from Kristet. "Need something?"
"Yes." She paused just long enough for him to open his mouth before continuing, "Public health access. Can you get me into the health center network?"
"Yeah, sure. Hang on." Zhane didn't even bother to close his digimorpher. "DECA?"
Her hologram appeared beside him, and he got a kind of mean satisfaction from seeing Astronema jump. "Yes, Zhane?"
"Authorize Kristet's comm to access the health center network, would you? She's trying to take over the world and I don't want to get in her way."
DECA gave him a curious look that said she didn't appreciate his humor. "Isn't facilitating a takeover of your homeworld exactly the opposite of what a Ranger is traditionally expected to do?"
This time he didn't bother to hide his sigh. "Yes, DECA, thank you for defining sarcasm."
"While not my primary goal," she replied primly, "I am pleased to serve in any capacity you choose."
"Funny," Zhane muttered, but she ignored him.
"Kristet Sinai is authorized to access the health center network," DECA added, almost as an afterthought.
"You're all set," Zhane told his digimorpher.
"Thanks," Kristet's voice answered. "I promise not to advertise everything I find."
Zhane was sorely tempted to tell her to do whatever she wanted as long as it couldn't be traced to him. He managed to restrain himself, though, and even got out a civil sort of, "You're welcome." Kae yanked on his arm again, and he was up and heading for the kitchen before he'd even put his digimorpher away. Better to hit pots and pans than the kid.
Kae was as enthusiastic as ever about yanking things out of their accustomed places, which was loud and obnoxious when those "things" included cookware, but Zhane didn't really care at this point. It was a big hangar. They were used to noise. And he had about a dozen too many demands on his attention right now.
"This is recreational?" Astronema demanded loudly. He turned around to find her watching from the far side of the counter with a skeptical expression on her face.
"This is a distraction," he answered, but the words were drowned out as Kae dropped a particularly large cooking sheet on the floor.
"This is a distraction," he repeated, in the pause between the cooking sheet and the emergence of a large ladle. "You know, like when you send velocifighters in one direction and the really scary ships in another. Anything the velocifighters destroy is just a bonus."
Astronema narrowed her eyes at him. "You don't like me," she remarked, as though it was a source of surprise for her.
"A Ranger, not liking the princess of evil?" He stared at her, unable to muster the energy to feign shock. "Maybe they'll take away my morpher."
"Ashley liked me," she informed him. "She said we used to be teammates. Why don't you like me?"
He hadn't missed the petulant child tone that Astrea used to be so good at. "Because my teammate is in the middle of your war zone," he said bluntly. "Because you're withholding information that could help her. And because I've had a lousy day and you're just a really good target."
Astronema seemed to consider that for a moment. He had no doubt that under normal circumstances, anyone who considered her a target of any kind usually ended up being one himself. But instead of threatening to blow his head off she just said, "You're more polite about your target practice than I am."
His lips quirked. "And you're more tolerant than I thought you'd be," he admitted, studying her. The banging from behind him stopped, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Kae attempting to balance one pan on top of another. It wasn't as interesting as trying to figure out Astronema.
"So why do you care whether I like you or not?" he wanted to know, turning around again. "You don't even remember me."
She frowned at that. "I don't care. I was just curious."
"Uh-huh." He considered her for a moment, then offered, "Let me tell you what I remember. I remember an Astronema who was so confident in her power that she didn't dare have any friends, so she disguised herself as Kerone and started wandering around the planet she was supposed to be invading. I remember a normal teenage girl, who liked clouds and swings and the stars at night, and turned out to be the princess of evil on a ship that could have torn that planet apart."
Her frown deepened, and she was giving him a disdainful look. He kept his expression neutral as he continued, "But it didn't. And you know what I remember her telling me later?"
She wasn't going to ask, but he hadn't really expected her to. "That it was the fact they cared that made the people on that planet different from the people she knew on her ship," Zhane told her. "It wasn't whether they were good or evil themselves--it was the fact that they cared which was which."
"So I suppose you think that's what makes me evil," she said, a sneer making itself at home on her face. "The fact that I said I don't care."
"No." Zhane met her gaze without flinching. "It's just what makes you the same as everyone else on the Dark Fortress."
He hadn't noticed the quiet from behind him until a loud crash made him look back. Kae was unperturbed by the noise, and seemed to be gathering up the scattered items with a mission in mind. The foundation of whatever he had built still stood, and as Zhane watched, he began to patiently add things to the structure again.
Zhane watched in bemusement for a few moments, ultimately concluding that they needed to get that child some blocks. He had figured the chance to make noise and disorganize everything in sight would keep Kae busy, but apparently it took less than that. The kid needed some toys.
When he turned around he found himself face to face with one of Astronema's glowing palm grenades. He recognized it immediately, and maybe it should have scared him but he couldn't work up a proper respect. "Gonna blow me up to prove me right?"
Ironically, she actually looked less threatening than before, but somehow he didn't think that was what she was going for. "You're playing a dangerous game," she said quietly. He could hear her over the clatter in the background, but the effect was present nonetheless.
"Well," he remarked, "my life's been fairly boring lately. Maybe I'm looking for a little risk."
For the first time, she smiled. It wasn't a friendly look, but it wasn't a deadly one either. The palm grenade vanished like it had never existed. She lowered her hand and placed it on the counter, not taking her eyes off of him. "There are other ways to find excitement."
"If you have a suggestion," Zhane countered, "I'm listening."
His digimorpher beeped and DECA's hologram reappeared simultaneously. "My scanners are no longer detecting Andros' and Ashley's Power signatures," she told him. "Three velocifighter wings have appeared over Sai Kung."
"Is this you?" Zhane asked, holding up his digimorpher. When she nodded, he ignored it. "You're not detecting their Power signatures where? Did they leave Sai Kung?" The two of them had gone to investigate the new strain of abersiia less than an hour ago.
"I'm not detecting them anywhere on the planet," DECA clarified. "Or anywhere within immediate detection range of my scanners. If they left of their own accord, they did not notify me of their plans in advance."
His digimorpher beeped again, and DECA nodded to it. "That's Ty."
"Yeah," he said, flipping his digimorpher open. "You in the air?"
"I'm on my way," Ty answered. "DECA says she can't reach Andros or Ashley."
"Yeah, I know. Tell Marsie to fly her wings independently, standard planetary defense, tell her not to engage the velocifighters until they threaten the atmosphere. Do not go out to meet them, got it?"
"Got it," Ty's voice replied. "What about the zords?"
"You're the front line," Zhane told him. "Hold it."
He changed call codes without waiting for an answer. "Karen," he said, looking up to catch DECA's nod. "I need you in the air, DECA can give you coordinates. There are velocifighters in the system and we're missing three Rangers."
"You got it," she answered without hesitation.
He snapped his digimorpher shut and turned to Astronema. "Can you fly?"
She stared at him in total non-comprehension.
"A zord," he said impatiently. "Can you fly a zord?" He didn't see how she could; it had taken Kerone days to learn. But it couldn't hurt to ask.
She looked at him like he was crazy. "Maybe with a morpher," she said, as though he was joking. "That's how Rangers learn, right? There's no pilot school for zords."
"Kerone can't use a morpher." He stopped, catching hold of the idea just before his brain would have dismissed it. "Can you? Are you human?"
She gave him a disgusted look, but her words were magic. "Of course I'm human. Do I look like a quantron to you?"
"Zip," he said, opening his morpher again. "Want to take Astronema into space for me? She promises to treat you just like Kerone would."
An odd mechanical whine was his only answer, and he realized his mistake. "Just like Astrea would," he amended. "Okay? She's from another dimension, but she doesn't like velocifighters either and she wants to help us get rid of them. I'm gonna go with Magic, but Astronema needs a morpher to understand you."
This time there was silence, and he took that for assent. "Be nice to him," he said, handing his morpher to Astronema. "DECA--"
A crash from behind him made him wince. "Can you keep an eye on Kae?"
"I can not control his physical environment here on KO-35," the hologram reminded him. "If he touches something not connected to the main system I will--"
"Yeah, okay, take him to the Megaship," Zhane interrupted, talking over her. "Thanks. And send us to the zords."
"Did you just send a child to a battleship in the middle of a battle?"
Astronema's voice sounded strange over the Megaship's comm system. It was partly the distortion that apparently only DECA could detect, since the Rangers all praised the zord network for its clarity, and partly the fact that she sounded just enough like Kerone to make the differences glaringly obvious. Partly, too, it might have had something to do with her emotive quality, which was somewhere between confused and respectful--an unusual combination.
"Try to think of it like this," Zhane's voice answered. He, at least, sounded exactly the same as always. "I sent a child away from a planet under attack. Nowhere is safe, Astronema."
While that was arguably true, DECA would have preferred an actual pilot to the small child for whom she now found herself responsible. She had plenty of information on child care, development, and raising at her disposal, but she had very little firsthand experience. She was designed to fight, not to babysit.
Her service was to the Rangers, though, in whatever capacity they chose. They had Power-enhanced flight and artillery without her, and they had chosen to use it in her place. Her service was now secondarily to Kae until such time as one of the Rangers released her from that duty.
She manifested the same hologram she had used to communicate with Andros and Zhane when they were younger--and used again now, at Kerone's request. Kae didn't look surprised to see her, but then, he had seen her avatar many times in the hangar. He just stared silently up at the hologram's face.
"Hello, Kae," she said. Previous experience indicated that he was unlikely to reply. "Welcome aboard the Astro Megaship."
He continued to look at her. Wide blue eyes in a too-young face... she estimated his age slightly higher than the Rangers did, based on his decision-making ability rather than his appearance. She thought he was more aware of what went on around him than was immediately evident.
"Do you understand what's happening?" she asked him. Child psychology suggested that children were more amenable when an effort was made to explain the situation in terms to which they could relate.
Kae blinked at her. "Yes," he said quietly.
She had heard him vocalize only three words prior to this, and "yes" hadn't been one of them. The fact that the word was an appropriate response to her question only made it more noteworthy. "Then you know you're safe here," she told him. "Zhane will return soon, and when he does you may go back to the hangar."
He stared at her, his face blank. He could be thinking about what she had said, or he could be so far from truly understanding that her reassurance meant nothing to him. After a moment, though, he opened his mouth again. His voice was just as soft as before. "Where's Kerone?"
A fifth word she had never before heard from him--and the first full sentence. "There are two Kerones," she told him. "Do you recognize the difference?"
She expected no response. The concept of alternate dimensions and doppelgangers was not one easily grasped by a child whose life to this point had probably involved very little education. At the most, she thought he might reply "yes" or "no."
"One saved me," he said, very quietly. "Before. She's..." He hesitated before concluding, "She's back."
"That's right," DECA agreed. That was not only a relatively sophisticated concept, but also a distinction she hadn't expected him to make. "The first Kerone was from another dimension. She saved you and brought you here, to the hangar, in this dimension. The second Kerone has been taking care of you here, while the first one went back where you came from."
She paused, attempting to assess his comprehension level. Kae spoke without prompting this time. "She's back," he repeated.
"Yes. She's back," DECA confirmed. "She's helping the Rangers defend this planet from velocifighters. Would you like to watch?"
Kae still didn't move, and she wondered if he knew how to nod or shake his head. "Yes," he said, in his unusually soft voice.
She put the tactical display up on the main screen. Her hologram turned to look at it when Kae just continued to stare at her, and he followed her gaze. He considered the color-coded images for a long moment before whispering something that a human might not have overheard. "It's flat."
Flat. Two-dimensional? All the screens were two-dimensional. But the weapons station had an interactive three-dimensional program that could be projected anywhere on the Bridge. It was possible that he processed visual data better in 3D, though that particular characteristic would make him unique among the Rangers.
"Would you prefer a hologram?" she inquired. She projected the tactical grid into the empty space beside him, not expecting him to know what she meant without seeing an example of it for himself.
He reacted immediately. Lashing out at the insubstantial image, he swung his arms in a violent choppy motion that made her reassess his potential to injure himself. She monitored his movements as a matter of course. He was responding only to the holographic visual in front of him and his reaction was confined to that area.
His reaction wasn't uncontrolled. It was confined to a specific area, and it wasn't aimless flailing... he was pointing. Kae was pointing at velocifighters, sometimes as little as a fraction of a second before they were destroyed. They were all destroyed, though, every one that he pointed at--except for one that slid through the PD wing to score a damaging hit on one of the fighters.
She registered Kae pointing at the velocifighter three separate times before it was finally obliterated. It was the first time since he had arrived on the Megaship that she had seen an expression on his face: frustration. Though she could come up with no justification for the phenomenon, he seemed to expect that the ships he pointed at would vanish from the tactical grid.
"Kae," she asked at last. "What is the purpose of your action?"
His concentration didn't waver, but his quiet voice replied fiercely, "Red is bad."
Enemy fighters were typically represented by orange. As they were the closest thing to red on the tactical screen, however, and also happened to be the symbols drawing all of his attention, she concluded that they were the subject of his statement. "Did someone teach you to use a tactical readout to manipulate weapons?"
He didn't answer. It was possible he was distracted. It was also possible that he just didn't understand.
She tried again. "Kae, who taught you to do what you're doing now?" He was shooting down enemy fighters; there was no doubt that his actions corresponded with that outcome. Or at least, that they would, if he actually had any control over the tactical simulation.
"Ship," he said. That was all. She monitored his verbal output as thoroughly as she observed his physiological cues, and he had only verbalized the one word. It seemed to be an involuntary exclamation, possibly related to his actions, except that he hadn't made any others. She had to consider that it might in fact be a reply to what she had asked.
Could the ship he was on have had an AI? Would he understand the question if she asked? The wreckage of the ship that had carried him and Astronema to this dimension had been salvaged, and there had been no mention of an AI. Perhaps that was not the "ship" to which he referred. He could have been transferred multiple times, or trained in some entirely alternate fashion.
Watching him, though, there was no doubt that he had been trained. And he seemed more responsive to her than he had to any of the Rangers. He might be able to clarify the mystery upon further questioning. Mysteries were no substitute for battle, but the boy had been entrusted to her care and she would fulfill her responsibility.
Kae poked another velocifighter for the second time when the PD failed to respond as quickly as he had. She wondered at his expression. Maybe she wasn't the only one feeling helpless after all.
One second they were inside the health center, and the next second they were surrounded by rubble. The transition was jarring but immediate, no actual noise, force, or destruction to cause the change from one environment to the other. They might as well have teleported without warning--and Ashley remembered this sensation.
Then Andros was pulling her down, and she ducked into hiding beside him just as the metallic whine of quantron speech registered. "JT's dimension?" she whispered. She stared around at as much as she could see of the rubble that shielded them, trying to get an idea of where the next threat might come from.
"Felt like it," Andros whispered back. He, too, was scanning the ruins. "Looks like it, too."
Looks like I imagine it, he meant. Neither of them had seen JT's KO-35, and from what Ashley knew of it, they should be glad. It was a slave planet in his dimension, being ground through the machinery of Dark Spectre's invasion. The Free Systems' territory didn't reach anywhere near the League's former border.
"Can you talk to Kerone?" Ashley murmured, checking for her morpher. She had it, but she wasn't sure how well it would work here. Every other time they'd come, their Power had been switched with that of their counterparts in this dimension.
She saw Andros reach for his morpher too before he caught her eye. "If we're wrong, she might be Astronema," he pointed out. "I'm not sure we should take that chance."
"Zhane?" she suggested instead. Holding up her morpher, she added, "DECA? No," she corrected, before he could say it. "Even a morpher signal might be traced."
He nodded. "I'll try to reach Zhane."
She could hear him, which he must have intended. They'd all gotten better at telepathic direction since they realized Kerone could hear everything they thought. Zhane didn't reply right away, though, and they exchanged glances. The thought flickered through Ashley's mind that if Zhane didn't answer, they were more alone than she'd been in a long time.
Voices made her turn just as the Silver Ranger's familiar greeting echoed in Andros' mind, and she heard it only because she was so close. She held her breath as passersby came within frightening range of their hiding place. The Power hummed through her instinctively, and she didn't question the slingshot that appeared in her hand. Not her current weapon. But not unknown, either.
She didn't listen to Andros and Zhane, finding it disturbingly easy to block their presence out of her mind entirely. Instead she concentrated on the troops parading by with what looked like a group of prisoners. Future slaves, she wondered? Current slaves, maybe? Slave transfers?
A weapons' discharge made her flinch, close to ducking down but not quite willing to give up her view. Her fingers tightened on her slingshot as she watched the prisoner line dissolve into chaos. More weapons opened fire, from the other side of the street and at least one from behind the column of soldiers.
If she had been alone, she wouldn't have hesitated. She knew she shouldn't jump into a fight she didn't understand, and she knew perfectly well that it could be suicidal to choose sides in a conflict she knew nothing about. But she knew what it looked like, she knew what the Power wanted her to do, and if Andros hadn't been with her she would have turned her slingshot on those troops without a second thought.
But Andros was with her, and he was distracted and defenseless for as long as his thoughts were somewhere else. So she held her fire until she saw one of the prisoners take a blow to the head as an energy weapon swung around to target another. That was too much for the Power to take, too much for her to sit by and passively watch. She went up on her knees, braced her elbows on the concrete barricade in front of her, and knocked the soldier away in a shower of sparks from her Star Slinger.
After that the safest thing to do was to keep shooting, because she wasn't going to give the troops any more time than they could carve for themselves to pinpoint her location. She was more careful than usual with her aim. It wasn't just the prisoners she had to avoid, after all, it was whoever was hidden on the other side of the street.
Andros' sabre joined hers a moment later. Not a distance weapon under normal circumstances, but he had always been able to manipulate the Power into doing things no one else would believe. She didn't dare look over at him. Between them, they managed to keep up a calculated barrage that created an effective crossfire.
The ambush did its job. In the moments between the fall of the final soldier and the reaction of the prisoners' saviors, Andros reached out and nudged her with his elbow. "Guardian angel syndrome?" he muttered, his voice low in contrast to the high pitched whine of weapons that was still ringing in her ears.
"Like you've never done it," she murmured in return. "Zhane?"
"Surprised," he said succinctly. "We are in JT's dimension, but so are his Andros and Ashley. They didn't switch. Kerone's here; she says we're right on the edge of an incipient Border mutiny."
"Nice timing." She half meant it.
Andros snorted. "Yeah," he said, and she knew he didn't mean it at all. "Just our luck."
The prisoners were staggering free now, those of them that could move, or coordinate enough with each other to free themselves. Reluctantly, warily, several ragtag rescuers were appearing from across the street. They were eyeing their surroundings nervously. They must know as well as Ashley did that there shouldn't have been anyone on the other side of the street, let alone someone with weapons who would help them.
"Do we show ourselves?" Ashley asked quietly.
Andros gave her the Look. "Just because they shot at slavers doesn't mean they won't shoot us too."
A faint crunch was the only warning they had, and not nearly enough. "Hands in the air," a harsh voice instructed. The order reached them mid-turn and neither of them stopped.
Two Power-enhanced weapons squared off against three ordinary blasters. Before either of them could say anything, though, the man in front lifted his weapon in surrender. Her first fleeting thought was that he recognized their uniforms, but of course he wouldn't. Only the Astro Rangers had defended KO-35 in this dimension.
He did recognize something else, though.
It came out somewhere between an exclamation and a prayer, and it prompted the other two people with him to point their weapons skyward as well. "Ranger Andros," the man repeated, more respectfully.
"That's right." Andros caught her eye and nodded, and they lowered their weapons at the same time. "This is Ranger Ashley."
"Hi," Ashley offered, careful to keep her smile brief and restrained. These weren't conditions to smile about.
"This is more than we could have expected." One of the people behind the man who had recognized Andros spoke for the first time. "For the Rangers to have returned... now we know our cause will be successful."
Ashley glanced around, a little unnerved by the attention they were starting to draw. She didn't expect to see open agreement on the others' faces. When she looked at Andros, though, he showed no expression. He spoke again as though he hadn't even heard the words.
"We're on our way to rendezvous with Kerone," he told them. "Is everyone here safe?"
It might not have been the best thing to say, since she was pretty sure Kerone had been the Yellow Ranger and here Ashley was, clearly representing Yellow. From somewhere, she heard a shocked murmur. "Kerone survived?"
Andros didn't deign to answer. He kept his eyes on the man who had spoken to them first, waiting. The man finally seemed to realize it.
"We're safer than we were ten minutes ago. Everyone who can carry a weapon is to converge at the skyport--we'll seize it or die trying. Word of your return will bring new life to our people."
Spreading the word seemed like a phenomenally bad idea to Ashley, but Andros only nodded. "You'll have help at the skyport if we can spare it," he told them. "Go. And may the Power protect you."
The first hint of a smile cracked the man's careworn expression. "It already has, Ranger Andros. It already has."
"How am I supposed to tell the difference between rebels and non?" Kerone demanded, torn between amusement at her brother's audacity and irritation with his expectation of--well, if not the impossible, then at least the highly improbable. "Quantrons don't have that kind of adaptability! Most of the time I'm lucky if they remember how to fly and shoot at the same time, let alone asking them to choose their own targets!"
Andros didn't seem worried. "Your magic quantrons can tell the difference between people who are loyal to you and people who aren't. That's pretty subtle."
"Yes, they can tell the difference," she agreed, exasperated. "Because I tell them the difference. They don't decide for themselves. The magic override countermands any orders but mine."
"So tell them to shoot at ground-based quantrons," Andros said with a shrug. "What's so hard about that?"
"The hard part is that the two skyports nearest Sai Kung are already under my control," Kerone snapped. "I'm not going to open fire on my own soldiers, and if you don't know which one your rebels are going to then I'm not going to risk letting unknown insurgents in!"
That finally shut Andros up. She looked over at Ashley in the pause. She had teleported them both off of KO-35 as soon as Andros gave the word, but keeping them out of the way here on the Dark Fortress might prove to be the bigger problem. Ashley, at least, could come and go as she pleased. Her counterpart had relative freedom as a known spy for Astronema.
Andros, on the other hand, couldn't be passed off as anything but a Red Ranger serving at least two distinct enemy forces. She'd really like to send him back to KO-35, where maybe he could do some good... but at the same time, she wanted him here where she could keep any eye on him. That was the difference between being a tactical leader and a sister, she thought with a sigh. Sometimes she wondered how Andros did it.
"The Ranger logo," Andros said suddenly. "The Astro Rangers' symbol; everyone will recognize that. Fly it over your skyports."
She stared at him, but he didn't look like he was waiting to deliver a punchline. "Are you out of your mind?"
Andros' mouth quirked upward at the corners. "That's not really relevant, is it?"
"You want to flaunt the Ranger logo in the middle of occupied space?" Kerone demanded incredulously. "This is a mutiny, Andros, not a declaration of independence! We're not trying to create targets here!"
"You said you could take KO-35 back," Andros pointed out. "Can you or can't you?"
"I can," Kerone snapped. "But I'm not going to advertise it before the fact!"
"Why not?" Andros retorted, equally intent. "You're not working alone here, Kerone. There's an entire population down there that's just been waiting for their chance to throw this occupation back in Dark Spectre's face. You don't have to fight them, too... you can use them. Declare yourself. Let them help. Because they will."
"I think you have too much faith in people that have been enslaved," Kerone informed him. "They're not going to trust anything Astronema tells them."
"They don't have to trust Astronema," Andros shot back. "They trust the Rangers. They've seen their Rangers down there on the surface--they'll trust the stories, and the Power, and any flag that flies with the Ranger logo on it."
"Yeah, about that," Ashley interrupted, turning away from the window in Astronema's private quarters. "Why did you let them think the Rangers are back?"
Andros gave her a bemused look, like the answer was so obvious that she must be asking something else. It might have made Kerone smile if she wasn't so distracted by the idea of pretending a Ranger presence on a world that hadn't seen Power Rangers in more than two years. The idea would never have occurred to her. Not for the first time, she wondered how Andros hid that kind of deviousness from the rest of the world.
"They're not back," Ashley told him, before Andros could contradict her. "We are, and we don't even know how we got here or how long it's going to last."
"The ID portal," Andros said, flicking his gaze in her direction. "It wasn't JT; it must have been some kind of portal malfunction."
"I don't think it malfunctions quite like that." Kerone frowned, but she didn't knew less than her counterpart about how the velocifighter ID portal worked. "It requires a code to operate, no matter which side you're coming from. It doesn't make sense that it would just randomly snatch people up."
"No," Ashley said with a rueful smile, "but if it was going to pick people at random, you have to admit the odds are good that it would be us."
"From a distance?" Kerone said skeptically, sparing only a brief smile for Ashley's remark. "The velocifighters have to physically pass through the portal, and it's in space. There's no way you could have triggered it from the ground."
"But if we did," Andros insisted. "That would explain the hallucinations people have been seeing. It's not the abersiia virus at all; they're seeing flashes of this other dimension."
"Which would explain why they all say they saw basically the same thing," Ashley said with a sigh. She didn't sound surprised by the idea, which meant they had probably talked about it before. "But that's the only thing it explains. If they saw flashes, why are we... well, stuck here? If we are stuck here?"
An angry buzz came from the vicinity of the door, and Kerone caught Andros' eye. "Don't move," she warned him. With a wave of her hand, he vanished from their sight. She glanced at Ashley, then shook her head. "Trust me."
Violet sparkles swirled around Ashley, leaving her in a close-fitting black uniform that would probably get Andros' attention better than the invisibility. It was the same thing her counterpart had worn, when she came from the Free Systems to deliver Andros' locket to Astronema. Or at least, it was what she had been wearing when Kerone and Ty came to rescue her.
"Come in," Kerone called, affecting the most bored tone she could manage.
The door slid open, and Ecliptor took a single step inside. He bowed first, gave Ashley an obviously suspicious look, and then directed his attention to her again. "My princess."
"Ecliptor," she replied, swinging her hair over her shoulder as she got to her feet. "What news do you have from KO-35?"
"Most of the orbital stations have been secured," he ground out. "Two were destroyed in the fighting, and one was damaged so severely that vital areas are open to the vacuum of space. All operational stations are under our control."
"And the skyports?" she demanded impatiently. Taking the stations had been far more important, but it was never wise to let lackeys get complacent.
"Ninety-two of the hundred and sixty-three working skyports are secure," Ecliptor reported. "Unfortunately, we are encountering resistance from more than foreign monarchy forces. Some of the workers have seized the opportunity to rebel, and they present a significant obstacle in some ports."
"Yes," Kerone agreed. With a haughty shrug, she declared, "I have thought of a solution to that problem. We will raise the flag of this planet's own defense force above the secure skyports.
"The... Power Rangers," she clarified, with feigned distaste. "Whatever name they go by here. Make their symbol visible, and the remaining population will fall into line."
Ecliptor's hesitation was barely noticeable. "Yes, my princess. It will be done."
"In fact--" She continued as though he hadn't spoken. "I will send Aisling down to the surface herself. Disguised as one of their precious Power Rangers. Perhaps even a Red Ranger," she said gleefully. "Yes! I'll transform your costume myself!"
She threw a glance in Ecliptor's direction, offhandedly, as though she had just remembered he was there. "You may go, Ecliptor. I want to know when all the skyports are under our control."
He bowed immediately. "Yes, my princess," he agreed, turning his back on her long enough to open the door. She approved of her people turning their backs when necessary. It made them vulnerable--and she made sure they knew there was nothing they could do to change that.
When the door closed, she waved in Andros' direction idly. He reappeared, looking more relaxed than she had expected after that little show. He was even smiling slightly. When Ashley gave him a questioning look, presumably for his expression, he shrugged.
"You can take the girl out of the Dark Fortress," Andros quipped, shooting her an amused glance as he leaned forward to brace his elbows on his knees. "You just can't take the Dark Fortress out of the girl."
She sat down again on the stool next to her private comm terminal, shaking her head playfully. There were bells in her violet curls today, and they chimed softly when she agitated them. "For which you can thank me later," she informed Andros. "In the meantime, I think you'd both be more useful on KO-35 than here. Unless you want me to just send you home."
"Home?" Ashley repeated, but then she got it. "The ID portal."
Kerone shrugged. "I can put you on a ship and send you through, and you'd end up practically in orbit around KO-35. Our KO-35."
Andros and Ashley exchanged glances. They both looked a little startled, which she found funny until Andros demanded, "If it's that easy, why don't you and Astronema just switch places?"
She gave him her best imitation of his Look. "Because it's only that easy if one of us is on the Dark Fortress to order it. Someone has to open the portal, and I don't trust anyone here to do it in my place."
"Except Ecliptor," Ashley suggested. "Astronema trusted him to open it for her after she brought us Kae."
"She trusted him once," Kerone said bluntly. "I don't know why, and I'm not going to push her luck by doing it again. I'm staying here until I find someone I do trust or get sent back by whatever brought me, whichever comes first."
Andros was frowning. "Look, we're not going to leave you here without backup. If you're staying, we're staying too."
"And if I disappear back to our own dimension as suddenly as I appeared here, you'll be in a lot more trouble than I'd be in without you," Kerone reminded him. "I can protect you. Astronema won't even know you're here."
"Oh, I think she will," Andros said wryly. "If you send us down to the surface to rally the troops, everyone's going to know we're here. We'll get some protection just from being visible. And if you disappear, I can still contact JT through Zhane. We'll be able to get a message to you guys.
"We'll probably be able to talk to Astronema, even," he added as an afterthought. "If you can talk to the Andros in this dimension, there's no reason I can't do the same with this dimension's Astronema."
"You can," Kerone pointed out. "Ashley can't."
Andros drew in a breath and stopped. He just stared at her for a long moment. When he turned to look at Ashley, she shook her head. "No. Don't even think about it. I'm not going anywhere you aren't."
"Ash," he began.
"Don't pretend this if for my own good," she snapped. "Sending me back will make you two feel better, but it won't do anyone else any good--including me. My counterpart is Astronema's spy, remember? Nobody's going to touch me.
"And," she added, emphasizing the word irritably when Kerone and Andros exchanged glances. "I may not be able to think to her, but she can think to me. Tell JT to send her a message. Tell her I'm here in case she gets switched. She'll watch out for me if she has to."
"You don't know that," Kerone said quietly.
"I believe it." Ashley's voice was firm. "She's a good person. We're friends, even here, and she will protect me."
This time when Kerone looked to Andros he held up his hands in surrender. "Okay. Fine. It's your decision."
That marked the first time Kerone had ever heard her brother say those words in that order. She kept the observation to herself. She only hoped, when she magicked both their uniforms and sent them back to KO-35, that he wouldn't have reason to regret it.
What was it that made Andros magic?
It was a fanciful question, perhaps, but Saryn thought the sentiment deserved serious consideration. Why did people follow him? How did he gamble anything at hand on a nebulous future that had no reason to bow to his will--and win? And maybe most importantly, what was it that drew people and circumstances into their most desirable configuration in his presence?
One of his Rangers had flown into Astronema's stronghold and survived. Not only survived, but returned, with invaluable intelligence. Half of his team had maintained contact with a planet so overrun by evil that no news of it came through official channels. That planet was currently conspiring with another planet, also unreachable by anyone but the Astro Rangers, to establish a Free Systems foothold deep in monarchy territory.
Andros himself was in contact with yet another traitorous faction of Dark Spectre's forces, a faction that might yet prove to be led by a one of Andros' former teammates. A former teammate who had offered to deliver the entire Border to the Free Systems, for a price as yet unstated. And as unlikely as it seemed, here was Andros, reporting that the mutiny promised by Astronema was now in progress... and incredibly, gaining ground.
Saryn was standing on a promenade overlooking one of the Great Halls, watching Andros' announcement broadcast through the public concourse. It was a spontaneous, overwhelmingly dizzy feeling to be in the middle of such a crowd at a moment like this... and he had done it deliberately. There were times when he couldn't remember what it was like to feel this way, to feel anything at all other than dogged determination.
He couldn't even feel Cassandra coming through the spinning sensation of delight and astonishment and hope. He recognized her as soon as she pressed her hand against his arm, though, and his senses focused on her instantly. Her voice was muffled when she said his name, as if he was hearing it from a distance.
He tried to turn and look at her, but the movement through of his precarious equilibrium and he gripped the railing harder. He felt her fingers tighten, knew she had seen his balance waver, and he couldn't find the words to cut through the secondhand exhilaration in his mind. He wanted to laugh, to shout out to everyone around him, to give voice to the feelings that surged within him.
He would keep it in. He had to, he was still Saryn in the face of the elated rush that buoyed his spirit like nothing else. He could soar on the tide of other people's joy, but he could never let them know it.
Cassandra's concern was starting to penetrate the light. Don't you feel it? he wanted to ask. Don't you see how this has carried us away from where we are? All the way to the place where hope exists?
"I feel it." Cassandra's voice whispered at the edge of his awareness, though he thought that perhaps she was speaking more loudly than usual. "I feel you. I worry when you won't talk to me."
"Don't worry," he mumbled. He was surprised to hear his voice, and it brought him back to himself abruptly. He kept his hands on the railing as he turned his head toward her. "Cassandra?"
Her eyes searched his face, looking for... something. "Are you all right?"
"I am well," he assured her, and he felt a smile threaten. She must have seen it too, because her face lightened noticeably and she smiled back. "It's--" He gestured all around them. "This is amazing news."
Her smiled remained, but she was studying him closely. "I don't think I've ever heard you use the word 'amazing'," she mused. "And of course it is, but... you already knew, all this. You know more about what's going on than anyone here."
"I don't feel it the way they do," he said softly.
Her scrutiny didn't abate, nor did it make him uncomfortable. It was almost a relief to hear her ponder his true meaning aloud. "But you do," she decided at last. "That's why you didn't answer, isn't it? Are you here on purpose?"
He couldn't keep from smiling at her. He lifted one hand to her face, stroking her cheek with his fingers. "Sometimes I think it is wrong," he murmured. "No one gave me permission to enjoy their happiness."
For some reason, that made her laugh, a quiet breathy sound that made his smile widen. She was never more beautiful than when she was happy. "We're all celebrating," she reminded him. "You don't need permission to enjoy that.
"A smile isn't just for the person who's smiling," Cassandra added, lifting her hand to cover his fingers with hers. "It's for all the people who see the smile too. We all see people's sadness and their happiness on their faces, with our eyes. You feel it. There's nothing wrong with that."
Not when I'm with you, he thought, running his thumb across her cheekbone. Her concern was fading, and her secret hope was sweeter than anything he had felt from the anonymous faces around him. It was a rare moment when his empathy turned out to be a pleasure rather than a distraction. This was such a moment.
"Do you want to stay here longer?" she whispered, holding his hand in place and turning her head slightly to kiss his fingers. "I don't want to take you away from your happiness."
But she had been looking for him. He could hear it in what she didn't say, and now that he was paying attention he could sense the bittersweet delight lurking behind the smile she shared with him. "I would always choose your happiness above theirs," he murmured.
She kissed his fingers again and then let go of his hand, and her smile as she looked up at him was dazzling. "I have baby pictures," she said, in a voice that was very close to singsong. "Want to see?"
Her secretly pleased expression made him chuckle. "Need you ask?"
Cassandra took his hand again as they made their way across the promenade, anchoring him in the swirling emotion. He gave silent thanks for whatever whim of fate had brought them to this day of light in the midst of so much darkness. Nothing was perfect... but maybe, just maybe, more things were possible than he had dared to dream.