Disclaimer: "Never give up! Never surrender!" Man, I love that movie. Saban owns the Power Rangers.
She hung on as the viewscreen's image spun before her, turning the scene over and over until she couldn't remember which way had been "up" before she lost control. It was an eerie feeling to know that it didn't really matter, to know her "upside-down" could be another ship's "rightside-up" in the blink of an eye.
But it mattered to *her* that she keep track, and for the first few seconds she had tried. Then the Megaship, which she had been using as a reference point, banked sharply and didn't come out of the half-roll as it took off in a new direction. With it at a ninety-degree angle to what she had been calling "up", she found herself completely confused.
After that, she had tried to use her own zord for reference. Her "up" was *the* "up", and everyone else was wrong. Rocky must have been used to that system as well, for all his instructions were based on individual zord orientation. When he wanted someone to go somewhere, he told them in terms of *their* right, left, up and down. She had no idea how he kept track, but she was grateful.
That had worked for a little while, until Linnse started giving them orders. She didn't know who Linnse *was*, exactly, but she rattled off numbers as though they were supposed to mean something and used words that made sense only in the abstract. Finally, to everyone's relief, Cassie had intervened, and told Linnse to follow Rocky's system of directions.
Now even that was gone. The Megaship had stop responding more than a minute ago, and she hadn't realized how much she had been depending on Linnse's voice until it was gone. Without that calm and obviously experienced instruction, she felt more alone than she had since they had entered hyperspace and left Earth behind.
At the time, she had at least been able to see the other Mega V zords via the interface. She knew the other pilots only as acquaintances, or as the friend of a friend, but they had all been in pretty much the same situation. Now they were spread across half the inner solar system, isolated from each other and caught up in the fight of their lives.
She didn't know how TJ did it. She really didn't. This wasn't just playing at some computer game; this was the real thing. If they failed, or if their zords somehow failed, they would be so much spacedust in a matter of seconds. They weren't even fighting on Earth, where at least the environment was friendly. One wrong move out here, and she could kill herself as surely as the enemy could.
"Mega V5," Rocky's voice broke into the panic she was trying to suppress. "What's your status?"
She glared at the stars still spinning across the forward screen. She had been told their comm transmissions weren't secure, and she really didn't want to broadcast her disabled thruster to the rest of the ships out there. The zord's self-repair systems assured her it would be back online in a matter of seconds, but that was plenty of time for one of those velocifighters to zero in on her.
She settled for, "Not good." Tempted as she was to repeat Han Solo's smart-alecky, "Out of control and blind as a bat," she decided Rocky wouldn't necessarily appreciate the attempt at humor.
"Not technical enough, V5," a new voice broke in. She flinched as a silver point of light on her forward screen grew into a rapidly rotating starfighter in less than a second, flashing out of the sky toward her and arrowing past overhead. Or at least, it was rightside-up when it vanished off her screen.
She glanced down at her tactical map automatically, trying to find out where it had gone, and her eyes widened. In the time she had frozen, a velocifighter triad had come up behind her while she did absolutely nothing--no wonder Rocky had asked about her "status". *Don't think,* she reminded herself, repeating Linnse's earlier words. *Just react.*
"My right thruster's out," she said, doing her best to fire the other one in some sort of pattern. Trying to bring her zord under control was the first thing she should have done when that battleship's lasers had hit her, but the dizzying motion of the stars had paralyzed her. She was lucky Rocky had been paying more attention than she had.
"Repairable?" the unfamiliar voice asked, and she saw two of the velocifighters disappear from her tactical map. The green dot that was her rescuer spun around and came back for another pass even as the last velocifighter opened fire.
The stars, having slowed their rate of spin to something more manageable, wavered sideways as the velocifighter's weapons struck her shields. Then the silver ship was back and the velocifighter vanished from her map, taking the flashing red outline around the map with it.
"Yeah, I think so," she said. "I have... eight seconds left on self-repair."
"Good," the voice answered. The starfighter settled into position beside her, obviously intending to wait until her thruster was back online. The pilot said nothing about her inability to completely stop the zord's spin, but she couldn't help feeling frustrated at her lack of control.
Finally her thruster display turned green again, and her right thruster came back with a violent flare that not only stopped her spin but sent her zord tumbling in the other direction. She lowered the power output hastily, chastising herself for forgetting, and the zord finally stabilized.
"Thruster back online?" the voice remarked mildly, and she felt her cheeks turn red.
"Yes, thanks," she said. The tag on her tactical map said "Def-1", but she couldn't bring herself to use the odd-sounding label. "Thanks for the save."
"You're welcome, V5," the starfighter pilot replied, and it veered off to rejoin the battle.
Her zord followed more slowly, and she kept a close eye on her tactical map this time. Then she heard the same voice, a little fainter this time as it spoke over the fighters' intership channel instead of the zords' personal comm frequency. "Def-1 to Megaship," he was saying urgently.
She caught her breath as Cassie's voice came back at last, answering his hail. "This is the Megaship."
Linnse's voice was right behind her, but Tessa only had a few seconds to feel relief. Her computer chimed a polite warning at her, and her nav display zoomed out abruptly. A massive cluster of red dots was moving steadily across the dotted line representing the "edge" of the Rysian solar system.
This time, Cassie's voice came across on the zords' frequency. "Aquitian megazord, this is the Megaship. Please respond."
The answer was immediate, though the voice was as unfamiliar as those on the fighters' channel. "Aquitian megazord. What's your status?"
"The Parikat fleet just arrived," Cassie said grimly. "We need you as soon as possible."
Tessa's tactical map started to flash again, and she stared at it in dismay as another group of velocifighters got a target lock on her zord. Then Linnse's sharp voice was back, overriding the conversation as the computer sorted the comm by channel, source and destination. "Mega V5, don't just sit there. V4, back her up."
She gave her head a shake, letting the Power's instincts take over. She threw her zord out of the way, scanning the network screen for Emily's vector as she followed Linnse's order. V4 was coming in from behind and "below" the velocifighters, right in their visual blind spot. They scattered as her weapons penetrated their formation, and Tessa swung around to help.
It was somehow easier to fight when you were doing it with someone else, she thought. She wondered if TJ and his friends had noticed the same thing.
"Ashley! Come on!"
She heard a shuffle and then a clang as Andros slammed another quantron up against the wall, and she ducked instinctively at the whisper of air behind her. She grabbed for the arm as it shot past overhead, yanking the quantron off its feet and levering it over her shoulder to impact with the floor. "What about the others?" she demanded, fighting the urge to turn back.
The sound of running footsteps made her spin, arms up in a defensive posture, and she caught sight of Zhane coming up behind her. "Astrea says go!" he shouted, reaching for her hand as he caught up with her. "They'll catch up! Come on!"
She braced her weapon over one shoulder and ran with him, letting him pull her down the corridor after Andros and Cestria. "Down to the end of the hall!" Andros said, slamming his foot into another quantron.
It was Ashley's turn to yank Cestria with them as the Aquitian hesitated, looking back down the hallway toward the prison entrance. "If Kerone says they'll catch up, they will! Let's go!"
The other Yellow Ranger nodded her understanding, and Ashley motioned to Zhane. He pulled Cestria around the corner as Ashley slowed. Turning around, she let the barrel of her weapon fall into her right hand as she waited for Andros.
He elbowed a quantron with enough force to shove it into one of its fellows, then turned and made a break for it himself. She pulled the trigger of the weapon Kerone had thrust into her hands earlier, feeling it slam against her left shoulder as she fired. The widebeam energy disintegrated two quantrons before Andros caught up with her, and she fired once more before turning to follow him.
Zhane was waiting at the end of the hallway with Cestria, and Andros waved at them to go on as soon as they were in sight. Behind them, Ashley could hear the quantrons coming, over their fear of her cover fire already and eager to make up for their momentary lapse.
The junction Saryn had mentioned was right around the corner, and she saw Zhane disappearing up the ladder even as they arrived. She turned around again, bracing herself to fire as soon as the quantrons appeared. Andros scrambled up the ladder without argument, and she got off a couple of shots as the metallic army swarmed around the corner.
"Ashley!" Andros yelled from overhead, and she looked up to see him already on the next deck. She swung the heavy weapon against her shoulder again and grabbed hold of the ladder, not looking forward to climbing with it.
She was only two rungs up when she felt the weight begin to lift. Andros grabbed the barrel and took the weapon from her, reaching back for her hand a moment later. The clang of a Q-blade on the ladder below made her flinch, and suddenly Zhane's hands were on her other arm and the two were forcibly hauling her through the opening.
Then the roar of her weapon burst through the sound of Q-blades, and Ashley slumped against the wall as she watched Cestria fire through the opening. *Like shooting fish in a barrel,* she thought, her breath labored as her lungs tried to catch up with the rest of her body. She had a moment to decide that the metaphor might not have been the best one she could have chosen, considering who was doing the shooting, and then Andros' arm was around her and she was hugging him back as hard as she could.
"Are you okay?" she murmured, struggling to draw a breath as he let her go. He nodded wordlessly, pressing his forehead to hers before pulling away.
Then Zhane's arm was around her shoulders, squeezing her briefly before turning to Cestria. "Want me to do that?" he offered. "We can switch off; the recoil on that thing must be terrible."
"Worse than terrible," Ashley put in fervently. "I feel like my arms are going to fall off."
"I can do it," Cestria said firmly, down on one knee beside the ladder. With her vision focused over the barrel of the weapon she didn't even look up, just kept pulling the trigger as soon as the power indicator flashed green. The weapon took almost two full seconds to recharge between each shot, but she was eliminating the metal soldiers one by one.
Ashley took a moment to glance up and down the hallway they now found themselves in before dropping to a crouch and leaning back against the wall. "Are the others even going to be able to get through here?" she asked, not really expecting an answer. "If the quantrons are blocking the hallway..."
Andros knelt beside her, resting his hands lightly on his knees and clearly ready to jump up again in a second. "That's my line," he said, between blasts from Cestria's weapon.
She cocked her head at him, puzzled.
"Always looking on the bright side, you said," he reminded her, and she smiled a little.
"That's right," she agreed. "You were too late. I beat you to it."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Zhane glance over at them. She looked up to wink at him, but stopped when she saw his eyes widen. Dropping to the deck on Andros' other side, he grabbed his friend's hand. It was scratched and bloody, perhaps moreso than most of their hands, but it didn't seem to warrant the look of horror Zhane was giving him.
The rush of the weapon faded, and there was relative quiet for a couple of seconds. It was long enough for Zhane to demand, "Andros, tell me those aren't teeth marks."
She looked down at Andros' hand again, but she saw him shake his head. In the next pause he said, "No; claws. Why?"
She could see Zhane sigh with relief, though she couldn't hear it. "Aura got bitten by one of those cat things," he said, letting Andros' hand fall. "The teeth were poisoned."
"Is she all right?" Ashley asked, alarmed, and she saw Cestria pause for the first time.
"Yeah," Zhane said quickly, including Cestria in his glance this time. "She stopped breathing, but Cetaci and Carlos revived her. They're on their way now."
Cestria nodded, firing once more before sitting back a little ways from the hole. "The quantrons have retreated," she said, looking over at them again. "I do not know if it is because they were summoned back, or--"
"If they just got tired of you taking potshots at them," Zhane finished. "Let's hope it's the second."
There was a tense silence for a few moments, and Ashley could feel the waiting like a tangible thing, pressing down on them and stifling further conversation. It was Zhane who broke it, though not with actual words. The Silver Ranger tensed, his fingers curling into a fist as he slammed his hand against the floor.
"It wasn't the second," he said, when Andros shot a questioning look at him. "The quantrons were called back when the others broke out. They can't get to us; Astrea's taking them another way."
"Is everyone all right?" Ashley asked.
He hesitated, glancing at Cestria again. "She says Aura seems okay, but Saryn's still unconscious."
"We'll have to meet them at the megazord," Andros said, getting to his feet and offering his uninjured hand to Ashley. "Four more decks--is everyone going to make it?"
Ashley nodded, trying not to wince as she rolled her shoulders. "It's when we *stop* moving that I'm going to be in trouble," she said wryly, and Andros grinned at her.
"Know the feeling," Zhane agreed, as he put his hands on the ladder and started up.
"Hey, Zhane," Ashley said, watching him climb. "That cat guy didn't hurt you, did he?"
"Other than the fact that I wish I could have ripped his stupid tail off?" Zhane pulled himself off the ladder and turned around to peer down at her as she followed. "Nope. Why?"
"Not at all?" she persisted, climbing off the ladder as he moved out of the way. When he shook his head, she crouched down by the opening and held her hand out to Cestria. The Aquitian passed the weapon up before following herself, and Ashley stood up again. "Take this," she told Zhane, offering the heavy object to him.
He reached out to grab it with his left hand. She pulled it back, narrowing her eyes. "With your other hand."
He hesitated a moment, and she sighed. "Andros, tell Zhane to stop being stupid and admit when he's hurt."
Andros poked his head through the opening between decks and repeated, "Zhane, stop being stupid and admit when you're hurt."
He climbed the rest of the way through, and Ashley grinned at him. "Thanks."
Zhane just rolled his eyes and started for the ladder again.
"I will go first," Cestria said, stopping him. "You are injured."
She started to climb before he could object, and Zhane sighed loudly. "Look, it's not that bad. It's not like I can't use it."
"The first person through could run into anything," Andros informed him. "At least with Cestria already there you'll have a chance."
"I did fine back in the prison," Zhane objected over his shoulder as he followed Cestria.
"Because you and Astrea were back to back almost the whole time," Ashley retorted, watching him go. He was barely putting any weight on his right hand, but he was using it--voluntarily--so she didn't think he could have broken anything.
She saw Andros turn his head, and only then did she realize what she had said. "Now he's got *me* calling her Astrea," she muttered, with an exasperated shake of her head. "Sorry."
Andros shrugged, motioning her to go after Zhane. "You don't have to apologize to me. She can use whatever name she wants."
"What?" Zhane asked her, as she passed the weapon up to him. His curiosity was obvious, and she knew he must have caught some of the conversation.
"You calling Kerone 'Astrea'," she explained, climbing up the ladder after him. "It's contagious. I did it just now without thinking about it."
He actually looked a little embarrassed. "I don't mean to keep doing that. But I got so used to calling her 'Astrea' before I knew who she was that it's hard to stop now."
"You called her 'Kerone' for a while there," Ashley pointed out, as Andros joined them silently. "I'm sure I remember you using it at first."
Zhane shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah... I guess."
That was all the explanation he offered, and she tried to suppress a smile. Kerone had told her, privately, that she liked Zhane calling her "Astrea". She couldn't help thinking that Zhane had somehow found that out, and that was the real reason he used it so often now.
Andros stopped Cestria before she could lead the way up another deck. "We're leaving the lower levels now," he warned her. "There's only two more decks to go, but if there are quantrons anywhere, they'll be here."
She nodded her understanding, and they all fell silent as they watched her ascend.
Another forcefield fizzled into place, separating them further, and she swore. "They're sealing the prison level!" She glanced back at Carlos and added, "Everybody go up--fast. We'll meet on the next deck and go from there."
Aura reacted more quickly than he did, and Kerone turned away. There was no way TJ was going to be able to get Saryn up one of these ladders by himself, Power Ranger or not. But Cetaci was waiting impatiently at the base of one of the emergency ladders, and Kerone darted over to join her.
"Will they seal the next level as well?" Cetaci asked, as she started up.
"I don't know," Kerone admitted. "It depends on how quickly they can find us. Standard procedure is to isolate the prison level first, and then try and track the intruders."
She clambered onto the next deck and they ran for the nearest ladder together. Cetaci went around the other side and they both dropped to the deck, reaching down to help TJ with Saryn. He managed to lift the unconscious Ranger far enough that they could grab him under the arms and pull him up.
"We're lucky TJ is so tall," Cetaci said under her breath as they stumbled to one side, supporting Saryn between them.
Kerone looked at her in surprise. "I never thought of that," she said, feeling her lips twitch. "You're right."
"Who's right?" TJ asked, stepping off the ladder on the deck beside them. She was relieved to see that he had Saryn's backpack over one shoulder.
A sharp crackle prevented any reply she might have made, and another forcefield appeared down the hall near the junction. TJ jumped forward to take Saryn as Kerone grabbed the rungs of the ladder and started up again. "If they're sealing multiple levels, the emergency ladders are going to be cut off too," she said, hearing Cetaci on the rungs right behind her. "We need to hurry."
She crouched down on the deck beside the ladder, and Cetaci scrambled off on the other side. TJ looked down, making sure of his footing, then boosted Saryn toward them again. It was harder this time, where TJ couldn't stand directly beneath the opening in the deck, and she heard his sudden yelp just as she and Cetaci grabbed Saryn's arms.
"Saryn, you picked the worst time to wake up!" TJ exclaimed.
"Stop struggling," she snapped, nodding to Cetaci. They tightened their grip and managed to lift him anyway, but getting him onto the deck was harder than it should have been. "Saryn, hold still!"
"There's a forcefield between that deck and the prison level now," TJ told them, sounding a little breathless as he joined them. "Should we keep going?"
Kerone hesitated. "They can't seal the upper decks the way they can the lower levels--but are we better off fighting quantrons or forcefields?"
The crackle she was beginning to dread came again, announcing the arrival of another forcefield. "Quantrons," TJ and Cetaci said at the same time, and Cetaci added, "Aura will risk quantrons over the forcefields. If we are to catch up with her and Carlos we have to keep going."
Kerone nodded, gesturing her up. "Then let's go." As Cetaci scrambled up the ladder, she peered more closely at Saryn. "You look awful. Can you climb?"
He nodded wordlessly, but he staggered as TJ helped him to his feet. "Are you sure?" she demanded. "We need to know."
He nodded again, taking hold of the ladder as if to prove it. He hauled himself up, one rung at a time and painfully slowly, but Cetaci was there to help him off at the next level. TJ motioned for her to go next, so Kerone followed as quickly as she could, hearing another forcefield snap into place between the levels below them.
Saryn was slumped against the wall when she reached the next level, and she exchanged glances with Cetaci. The White Ranger shrugged helplessly, giving him a worried look but saying nothing.
TJ too stared at Saryn as he stepped off the ladder, but he didn't stop to ask. "I'll go check for Carlos and Aura," he said. "You two had better get him to the megazord."
"No," Cetaci said quickly. "I can find them more quickly than you. You go with your teammates."
Kerone narrowed her eyes. Though her words were calm and her statement was perfectly logical, there was something about the way she had spoken that didn't sound quite right.
She caught Cetaci's arm as she turned away. The former Aquitian leader looked up in surprise, and Kerone regarded her intently. "We'll come back for you, if you don't return. Don't think otherwise."
Cetaci nodded. "Of course." She slipped away before Kerone could question her.
"What was that about?" TJ wanted to know.
"I'm not sure," Kerone admitted, troubled. But they didn't have time to worry right now. Cetaci was a Ranger, and, as her brother and his teammates had repeatedly proven, that meant something.
"We'd better get moving, then," TJ said. "We have, what, one more level to go?"
She nodded, turning to regard the ladder. "One more level, and several long corridors. Saryn, can you do this?"
A weak nod was his only response.
She frowned, turning to TJ. "Is he like this because of the Power? Is it still gone?"
He shook his head. "I think so... It's hard for me to tell. I don't have my morpher, and I'm not as sensitive to it as he is. Any withdrawal I'm feeling is probably buried under adrenaline."
"It's..." Saryn's whisper, tremulous though it was, got her attention immediately. "It's still gone."
"So what does that mean?" Kerone demanded, frustrated with their hesitant replies. "How long will it take you to get better without it?"
He didn't answer, and she turned to TJ. The Blue Ranger glanced over at Saryn, then shook his head again. "He won't get better. Without the Power... I don't know how long he can survive."
She stared at him. "He'll--die?"
TJ nodded wordlessly, and she turned her incredulous stare on Saryn.
She had known his ruby was his Power source, a morpher without the electronic components the Astro Rangers used. And she had heard rumors that he did not respond well to having it taken away. But the only person who had ever managed to do that for any amount of time was Divatox, and she wasn't the most trustworthy source of information under Dark Spectre.
He had survived the time when Divatox had supposedly had his ruby. But if what Zhane said was true, he had still had some measure of Power within him, even when the ruby was gone. Now TJ said they were totally cut off from it.
"Then let's go," she said abruptly, catching hold of the ladder and starting up. "The sooner we get him out of here, the better. And someone had better explain this to me later," she added over her shoulder.
He ducked and the quantron overbalanced, tumbling past him toward the deck below. Carlos scrambled up the ladder the rest of the way, hanging onto the rungs to stay on his feet as he kicked another quantron in the chest.
"You had to say it," Aura said, knocking another quantron through the hole before a forcefield shimmered into place between the decks.
He shrugged. "I was trying to look on the bright side!" Slamming a quantron against the wall, he whirled to block a punch and push its friend across the hallway. He realized as he did so that Aura wouldn't get the joke; she had been in another system when he and the others were captured.
"The bright side is not all I had hoped it would be," Aura replied, and he heard a metallic crunch from somewhere behind him.
With a grin, he disabled one last quantron and spun around to face her. She had taken care of four more on her side of the ladder, and she lifted her head when she saw him turn. "Well done," she said, nodding to him.
"You too," he agreed, glancing up. His grin faded as he caught sight of the luminescent barrier between them and the upper decks. "Damn. I think we're in trouble."
She followed his gaze. "Is there no way to disable it?"
"I don't know," he said, as a control panel buried behind the ladder caught his eye. "But it's worth a try."
He put one foot on the ladder and leaned against it, careful not to touch the forcefield embedded in the floor in front of it. He didn't know what that thing would do, but he didn't really want to find out the hard way.
Studying the control panel, he tried to remember everything he had learned about Kerovan and Aquitian technology. The two technologies were vastly different, of course, but their zords were oddly comparable, and he thought he might have picked up enough to decipher the workings in other spacefaring vessels.
It didn't take him long to realize that that was a vain hope, and he wondered if he should opt for Kerone's "hit first, ask questions later" strategy. Destroying the panel might not accomplish anything, but there was no question that it would make him feel better.
"Hey, Aura," he said, turning around. He was about to ask if she wanted to try her hand at it before he did anything irreparable, but the question died on his lips as he got a good look at her.
She cocked her head at him as though nothing was wrong, but she was quite clearly shivering. She had her arms folded across her chest as though she was trying to hold the heat in, yet when he looked more closely her skin seemed to have an odd sheen to it. If it were possible, she looked as though she was freezing and sweating at the same time.
"Are you all right?" he demanded, stepping away from the ladder. "What's wrong?"
She shrugged a little, apparently untroubled. "Aquitians are hard to poison. The water in our bodies dilutes foreign substances and flushes them out through our skin."
"But?" he prompted urgently, knowing an incomplete explanation when he heard one.
She shrugged again, hugging her arms closer to her chest. "The more dehydrated we are, the harder it is to maintain a constant body temperature."
He stared at her. "So it's poison or hypothermia?"
She shook her head. "I will pass out from water loss before I am seriously affected by the cold."
"You say that like it's a sure thing," he said, giving her a suspicious look. Her obvious calm was the only thing reassuring him.
"It is," she said. "I have been losing water since I was bitten. It's an involuntary reaction; there is nothing I can do to stop it. And even if I could, I have no wish to die of poisoning."
"You're not going to die," he promised automatically. "Look, I know your people depend a lot on water, but you'll be okay, right? You said the most that will happen is you'll pass out? How serious is this?"
"It is fatal," she replied steadily.
He could only stare, waiting for her to go on. She just looked back at him, still shivering, but said nothing more.
"So that's it?" he demanded at last. "The poison didn't kill you, but you're going to die anyway?"
She lowered her gaze at his accusing tone, and he saw her twitch violently. Her knuckles were white where her hands gripped her arms, and he reached out to her without thinking. Her skin was clammy to the touch, and her whole body felt cool as he wrapped his arms around her.
She didn't protest, and he hugged her a little closer, feeling tears sting his eyelids. It was an act. Her constant composure was just an act, like the façade so many of the other Aquitians wore. Why hadn't he ever realized that? Why hadn't he noticed that she had looked just as calm talking about Billy and Cestria the night before as she had this morning when she accepted Billy's offer of a truce to end their food fight?
"How long do you have?" he asked quietly, hoping for the best. She had been able to fight, after all, and if she was only cold it seemed like she had a good chance of reaching the megazord. *Assuming we can get out of here at all, that is.*
"I do not know," she answered, resting her head against his shoulder. "But I suspect I will find out."
"Don't talk like that," he said, tightening his arms around her. "You're going to be fine." It was an empty promise and she knew it, but he couldn't just let a statement like that pass without comment.
She didn't answer, and he turned his head a little so he could rest it on top of hers. He wished there was something he could do to calm her trembling, but no matter how tightly he held her she didn't stop shaking.
He was staring down the hall without really focusing his eyes on anything, trying to no avail to come up with something that would get them out of this. The violent red and black crosshatching didn't even register at first, but after a moment he squinted, wondering what the lettering above the garish stripes of color could mean. Large, black lettering... with an urgent feel to it despite the alien nature of the language.
"Aura," he said slowly, lifting his head. Would the lower decks ever need to be evacuated? Were prisoners' lives worth saving in the event of a shipwide emergency? *What about prison guards?*
She looked up, first at him and then down the hall, following his gaze. "Yes?" Some part of his mind noted that her voice was no less steady than it had been before, but the rest of his brain was busy wondering.
"Come on," he said, taking her hand and pulling her down the hallway.
She followed without protest, not even tugging her hand free when he paused in front of the oddly marked door. It was short, barely even level with his chest, and round, a little more than a meter across at the center. But there was no question that it was designed to be noticed from some distance away.
"Does this look at all familiar?" he asked carefully, not wanting to get his hopes up if it wasn't what he thought it was.
She studied it, reaching out to run her free hand across the edge of the circular door. He watched her eyes flicker across the lettering, then travel down to the crosshatched markings on the door itself. "An--emergency exit?" she asked at last, not sounding very sure of herself.
He held his breath as she reached for the access panel, her hand hesitating over it for a moment. Then she pressed the left-hand corner. The large and very prominent orange touchpad lit up beneath her fingers, and, with a rumble and a bit of a squeak, the crosshatched door rolled open.
Even Carlos recognized the interior of the "room" on the other side. "An escape pod!"
Aura gave him a searching look. "You know that Dark Spectre will most likely notice its launch."
"Can you talk to Cassie the way you talk to me?" he countered. He tapped his temple to leave no doubt about what he meant, and she nodded slowly. "Good. Then we'll get her to pick us up. Come on!"
"The Megaship can't teleport through its current shielding," she reminded him.
"Then we'll get her to open the hangar doors," he said impatiently. "Hey," he added, when she did not look convinced, "I'm supposed to be the voice of gloom and doom around here, remember?"
She smiled a little, reluctantly, and he smiled back. "That's better. Now let's go."
Andros took a careful breath and nodded to Ashley. "Ready when you are."
"On three," she whispered back. She held the weapon Kerone had given her, for despite the fact that the recoil was taking its toll she seemed to be most adept with it.
"One," she said quietly, and he saw her glance over at Zhane and Cestria to make sure they were ready. "Two... three."
Andros stepped out from the small amount of cover the junction had given them, getting his first good look at the quantrons swarming through the corridor in front of them. They would probably like nothing better than to get into the megazord that had attached itself to their hull, but Cestria reported that Billy and Delphinius had simply closed the airlock. No one got in or out without a morpher, and there was very little the quantrons could do to damage it from the outside.
As their attention turned toward him, he heard Ashley swing out into the middle of the hallway with him. She dropped to one knee, bracing her right elbow on her knee as she sited down the barrel of her weapon. Zhane and Cestria stepped up on her other side, and as the quantrons began to flood toward them Ashley opened fire.
The lead quantrons froze momentarily and were vaporized for their caution, but the ones behind them kept coming. Andros took a few steps forward, knowing Zhane and Cestria were doing the same thing--it would limit Ashley's range a little bit, but it would also ensure that they were the first ones to encounter the quantrons. Ashley would have a few extra seconds of warning and probably a couple more shots before she had to go hand to hand with them.
Just as the quantrons ran into their barrier, a rumble behind them announced the opening of the Aquitian megazord's airlock. Andros smiled grimly as some of the quantrons paused, and he and Zhane took full advantage of their distraction. Ashley fired again, and in the momentary lull while her weapon recharged two more energy weapons opened up on the quantrons from the other side.
He leapt to one side to evade a punch and grabbed the quantron before it could go for Ashley, swinging it farther around than it had meant to go. He let go even as it impacted with the wall and turned back to the swarm, seeing Zhane take out another quantron in much the same way. Cestria was right there with them, and between them on one side and the Aquitians' blasters on the other, Ashley was able to back up and keep firing without being overwhelmed.
Then a very welcome flare of purple light signaled his sister's arrival, and he would have breathed a sigh of relief if he had had the time. She was on the other side, with the Aquitians, and he flinched as another of her violet energy bombs exploded in the quantrons' midst.
Ashley's weapon finally stopped firing at that, and then Billy was there in front of them. He pressed a blaster into Andros' hand and went to help Cestria, and energy fire from the other side of the corridor said that Zhane had one too. Normally, Andros would have preferred hand to hand fighting, but without their Ranger uniforms everyone's hands had taken a beating today, and he was just as glad to step back and pull a trigger instead.
As the quantrons' ranks thinned, the crossfire became more dangerous, and more and more of the metallic soldiers slipped through the cracks of their defenses. But most of them seemed happy to simply run rather than fight, and Andros wasn't going to complain. He did wonder, though, if it had anything to do with his sister's appearance--Kerone's Astronema guise hadn't slipped once since she had appeared in the prison with Zhane.
"Hey," Ashley said breathlessly, slipping behind his left shoulder and staring after the retreating quantrons. He fired a few more times, picking off two of them before they disappeared around the corner. "Nice shooting!"
"Not as good as yours," he said, letting his weapon fall as he turned toward her. He glanced down the hallway once, found it mostly clear, and leaned in to kiss her quickly. "Thanks for covering us."
"Thank for covering *me*," she murmured, slipping her arm through his and leaning tiredly against him. "Can we go home now?"
"Andros! Ashley!" Zhane was motioning to them from farther down the corridor, and Andros slid his arm around her waist as they went to join the Silver Ranger.
"He was talking to us before," Kerone was saying as they arrived. "But we had to practically carry him this far." She and TJ were supporting Saryn between them. Whether he was unconscious or not was open to question, but he didn't seem to be aware of anything happening around him.
"We have to get him off this ship," Zhane said, looking to Andros for support.
He nodded, alarmed by the other's condition. "He won't get better until we do, that's for sure. Let's go."
As Kerone and TJ started forward, though, he frowned. Turning back to the megazord, he saw Billy and Cestria approaching from the other direction. Delphinius was stepping out of the hole in the hull, emerging from cover or returning from a check on the megazord, Andros couldn't tell. But there were clearly faces missing.
"Wait," he said, catching Kerone's arm. "Where's Carlos?"
"And Aura and Cetaci," Ashley added, repeating his scan of the badly damaged corridor. "Weren't they with you?"
"We got separated from Aura and Carlos," Kerone said, glancing over her shoulder as though she expected them to arrive at any moment. "Cetaci went to look for them... they should be right behind us."
"Cestria," Andros called, letting Kerone go. She and TJ continued through the airlock with Saryn, and Cestria waited patiently for him to join her. "Can you contact Aura and find out where she is?"
Cestria exchanged troubled looks with Billy. "I did so as soon as I realized she was not with your sister."
"And?" he asked, looking over his shoulder to make sure Ashley and Zhane were with him.
"She and Carlos were trapped belowdecks when the forcefields isolated the lower levels," Cestria said quietly. "They located an escape pod and have since left the ship."
"And Cetaci?" Delphinius demanded, from just inside the airlock. "What trouble has she gotten herself into this time?"
Cestria shot him an unreadable look before turning her head and addressing Andros again. "Neither Carlos nor Aura has seen Cetaci since they were separated from the rest of the group, and I have been unable to reach her."
"Damn her!" Delphinius sounded angrier than Andros had ever heard him, and the other Ranger shoved past him with no word of apology or explanation. Andros was too startled to react, but Zhane grabbed him as the Aquitian burst out into the corridor.
"You aren't going anywhere," Zhane told him firmly. "Those quantrons are nothing to scoff at, and they're not going to run scared for long." As if to emphasize his words, the distinctive sound of metal boots on decking echoed faintly down the corridor.
Andros took a step back and motioned Ashley into the megazord. She moved past him without a word of protest, though she didn't go further than the airlock. Zhane stayed where he was, holding onto Delphinius, and Cestria spoke gently to him. "I am concerned for her as well," she reminded the Black Ranger. "But we simply do not have the luxury of going back for *anyone* right now."
"You can't tell me you're going to abandon her here!" Delphinius protested, trying to jerk his arm free.
Cestria swallowed, and the miserable look in her eyes was enough to convince Andros that she knew exactly what she was saying. "Carlos and Aura need us," she said softly. "The Megaship is under siege. It can barely defend itself, let alone rescue them, and the fleet outside can not wait any longer for us to rejoin them. If we do not go now there will be nothing left for us to return to."
"This ship is wired with explosives!" Delphinius glared at her. "As soon as we're away, someone pulls the trigger!"
Kerone appeared in the airlock. "Disassemble the megazord."
Cestria turned to her in surprise, but it was Billy who spoke. "What?"
"Disassemble the megazord," she repeated, more loudly, as if they simply hadn't heard her the first time. "Get us away from here, break the megazord apart, and Delphinius and I will come back for her. TJ has the trigger for the detonators; I'll tell him when to push it."
Andros could think of ten things he hated about that plan right off the top of his head, but nothing that made it logically unworkable. And they didn't have time to debate it now anyway--quantrons poured around the corner as Delphinius hesitated, and he wasn't sure even that would be enough to convince the other Ranger.
He felt Zhane push him from behind, and he ducked through the airlock hastily to make way for the others. His friend was right beside him, blocking his view of the Aquitians' equally quick entrance. It wasn't until the airlock was sealed and they slid into their places at the megazord controls that he was sure Delphinius was with them.
He felt Ashley's arm slide around him as the megazord tore itself away from Dark Spectre's ship, and he couldn't help taking a quick headcount. Ashley, Zhane, and Kerone... TJ stood beside Saryn, keeping the unresponsive Ranger in an unclaimed cockpit chair while the megazord shook itself free, and Cestria and Billy conferred with each other between the forward stations.
Delphinius hovered behind his teammates at the second row of stations, making no effort to involve himself in their subdued conference. He was staring intently down at his control panel, to all appearances completely absorbed in the readout, but somehow Andros doubted he was truly seeing much of it.
Ashley's arm tightened around his waist, and he tried not to be too overt about pulling her closer. He knew all too well what Delphinius was feeling, and he wished there were some way he could spare the other Ranger that pain. But as Ashley's head rested lightly against his shoulder, all he could do was pray that no one he knew would be on Dark Spectre's ship when TJ pressed the trigger.