Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Discussion in 'Justice Fiction' started by y3k, Oct 6, 2015.

  1. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    [​IMG]
    (Credit to Dami for image)

    "This is without a doubt the worst plan you've ever had"

    "...Probably, yeah"


    ---

    -SYNOPSIS-

    The year is 2241. The last half century has seen the United Alliance and its military/peacekeeping arm, SPD, rise to untold heights and then fall again as world after world rose up against its slowly growing totalitarian policies.

    In the aftermath of the civil war, a new state has developed in local space; the Confederation of Worlds. Based from KO-35, it is a loose conglomeration of former Alliance subjects; worlds such as Aquitar, Triforia, Mirinoi, New Edenoi, Horath, and many others. It is a mutual pact of partnership and defense against the many enemies encircling them—the Vile Imperium, the resurgent Machine Empire, and of course the Alliance itself.

    In an effort to keep itself from repeating the mistakes of the past, the Confederacy has no legal superhero arm to speak of. Riders, rangers, and other heroes are unwelcome inside Confederate space, its inhabitants fearing a repeat of SPD. But, in a universe where ancient evil lurks around every corner, one simply cannot survive without protection. And so the government quietly turns to a clandestine but ad-hoc off-the-books ranger organization to take care of threats that the official military and security forces cannot handle. This organization is codenamed simply, ‘The Peacekeepers’.

    It has been five years since the end of the war, and both sides still feel the effects, licking their wounds. But now tensions are on the rise again, and it seems only a matter of time again before the Alliance and Confederacy strike at each other once more. But for the Peacekeepers, a war with the Alliance is only the least of its worries. Another shadow organization is pulling the strings of fate across the universe. This is of course the PRU, and truly ancient evil lurks around every corner.

    Two rangers travel to a free port system on the edge of Alliance space, with the mission to pick up a special cargo—a young woman, whose safety is vital to their mysterious employer. Another man, a traveler with no direction in life, happens his way into this arrangement by assumed accident as numerous other factions, all playing their unseen game, move in for the kill. And thus the story of a new team of rangers begins…


    [​IMG]
    Reference map of the local supercluster of galaxies, circa early/mid twenty-third century CE.
    (Credit to atlasoftheuniverse for the original image)

    -INDEX-
    BOOK ONE:

    1.01 Less than Perfect, part 1
    1.02 Less than Perfect, part 2
    1.03 Something worth fighting for
    1.04 Sacrilege
    1.05 Body Snatching
    1.06 Shadowed Memories
    1.07 Divide and Conquer
    1.08 Broken Karma
    1.09 Something Completely Different
    1.10 Haunted Whispers
    1.11 Advent
    1.12 Secrets and Lies, part 1
    1.13 Secrets and Lies, part 2

    BOOK TWO:
    2.01 The Problem with Sixth Rangers
    2.02 Frozen in Place
    2.03 Identity Crisis

    ALL FURTHER UPDATES WILL OCCUR HERE: https://www.fanfiction.net/s/11195793/1/Power-Rangers-Peacekeepers
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2016
  2. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.01: LESS THAN PERFECT, part 1

    Arkilla. By all accounts it was a gem of a world. A bit rough, being on the outskirts of the Alliance, but a gem nonetheless. Not that you’d be able to particularly tell from orbit, mind you. From space it looked like a dime-a-dozen ice ball that the outer fringes of any star system would contain thousands of. And yet…tectonic activity allowed for an under-ice ocean teeming with alien life. Temperate oases full of evergreen forest pockets, encircled by ice walls, pockmarked the surface. A powerful magnetosphere allowed for stunning auroras at night. Massive fog-covered ice mountains created breathtaking vistas. Ice chasms crisscrossed the surface.

    And of course, there was the capital. Arkilla City was a gem in of itself; a major port settlement for wayside travelers looking to rest between Alliance space and wherever else they were going to or coming from. Beautiful brightly-lit towers stretched up above the ice canyon it was located in, and housing districts sat under the ice, with a view of the ocean and all its wonders. People of all kinds came to Arkilla; it was a trade hub, a central nexus of culture and society. Rough and tumble maybe, but cosmopolitan.

    But of course, being ‘rough and tumble’ meant that the local law enforcement always had to deal with…less than reputable members of society--such as the two streaks of light that were currently making a B-line for the capital city below; one green, the other blue.

    “Attention unidentified craft, you are within unauthorized aerospace. Power down your vehicles and prepare to submit to SPD authority. Failure to yield will resort in lethal force. This is your final warning”.

    Several more streaks of light now tailed the first two, all of them white. To someone watching, they might have been forgiven for thinking it was an unusually colorful, if brief, meteor shower. That is, until the streaks began to twist and turn, moving in ways that would be impossible for average chunks of rock and ice.

    As the streaks entered the lower atmosphere, their speed decreased dramatically, until they vanished completely, in their place now a number of small, personal riding craft, each occupied by a single figure. The first two, the green and blue ones with black accents, were ridden by, predictably, rangers of their patron color. Both were of the same design—the blue and green on their suits accented by black going up the inside of their legs and wrapping around their belts, before going straight up and widening across the chest, the split between the two colors being tied together by silver trim (and a silver belt), dividing the suit in an angled design. The chest continued the theme, being overlaid with angled trim of the suits’ patron colors and an abstract rendition of their helmet visors in the center. The visors themselves were basic and angled, both unique from the other. Above the visor lay another stylized black piece that reached up and behind the head, the symbol an almost further abstract of the chest symbol. The visors effectively split the helmet, with the bottom half consisting of a black color with a blank faceplate connecting directly below the visor. The neckpiece was of the suits’ patron color, cutting off with a silver collar at the neckline. Light silver and black armor wrapped around the suits—as boots, as wrist guards, and as shoulder pieces.

    The other vehicles, the white sky bikes with the armored black and white figures, well…

    “E Class SPD forces” the green ranger, male, called to blue, “At least seven of them. I told you this was a bad idea!”

    Blue, female, scoffed, “They’re just mass produced grunts, Trok. They can’t hold a candle to real ranger powers. We can take ‘em!” with that, blue veered off sharply, twisting her skycycle about in impossible ways, throwing herself directly at the enemy.

    Trok grimaced under his helmet as a laser blast nearly melted his leg off, “You know, when Iota told us to keep a low profile, I don’t think this is what he meant!” He sighed inwardly in aggravation. Trok looked up to her, really he did. But dang she didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘stealth’. How the heck were they going to explain *this* to the boss?!

    The two rangers proceeded to turn on the suddenly hostile SPD craft, signaling the beginning of a furious dogfight. Blue shot right between two enemy cycles. As she did, she tapped her controls, letting two grappling guns on the sides of her vehicle fire and latch onto the SPD bikes. As she soared past, the two SPD skycycles were dragged with her, colliding into each other and exploding in a furious storm of smoke and debris.

    “Down to five, now!” she cheered, pumping her fist in the air as if to make her point. Her self-satisfaction came to an abrupt end however, when a laser blast from another bike hit her in square in the primary engine. “Uh…uh…” she sputtered, noticing the black smoke and fire beginning to consume the back of her craft, and as her vehicle began to lose control, “…Uh oh!”

    “Xolin!” Trok shouted, noticing his teammate’s dovetailing into the cloud layer above the capital. The green ranger pulled away from his attack, immediately flying off to assist the blue ranger.

    Xolin shooed him off, “…Don’t worry, I…I got this! Just keep them off me!” she shouted, while still struggling to stay seated in the centripetal nightmare that was her immediate existence. She wasn’t…*worried*, exactly. Maybe slightly concerned. Sure, she might be plummeting to a painful death but…er…okay, maybe just a little worry.

    “But—”

    “Do as I say!” she shouted again, as another laser blast nearly took off her head, “I GOT THIS! WATCH YOUR SIX! WATCH *MY* SIX!”

    Green narrowly avoided a stream of laser fire, as he reluctantly returned to the fray. Xolin flipped on her thusters, “Please be okay, pleaaaaase be okay” she worriedly mantra’d to herself. To her extreme relief, the skycycle’s thrusters activated with no issue. It wasn’t anywhere in the same neighborhood to being a perfect solution; thrusters weren’t built for flying a ship, just for minor navigational corrections, but at least she could get herself to stop spinning…

    There, thank the Trinity. She had stopped tumbling aimlessly…of course there was still the problem of the city down below. And, y’know, the fact that it was approaching. Quickly.

    …Rather quickly, in fact.

    Really, really quickly.

    “…Oh, this is gonna suck” she muttered to herself, gripping her controls tightly. Her best bet now was to somehow glide in, y’know, at paint-splattering speeds…within a city with lots of buildings. Another barrage of lasers firing past her alerted her to another SPD soldier on her tail. “Man, today just *sucks*”.

    Putting her thrusters on full burn, Xolin forcefully swung her machine around, still plummeting, to a full one hundred eighty degrees, just as another series of lasers sizzled past. It took her a moment to aim her skycycle correctly but…

    Xolin pressed the ‘fire’ button, and the SPD skycycle lit up like a roman candle. Satisfied, the blue ranger flipped her vehicle back around and her mind returned to the more pressing concern. Those buildings, for instance, were getting pretty big. She managed to correct her direction just as she grazed by the highest-most towers, currently gliding many stories over a thankfully long stretch of freeway. If she hadn’t been confronting her own mortality, she might have stolen a brief half-second to admire the beauty of the city; high brightly-lit skyscrapers bunched together with the faint golden glow of dusk bouncing off of them, wide freeways of hovercraft intersecting below, a vibrant cornucopia of activity from all the ads and lights and sounds and people and…everything, below. And all of it sat within a large ice canyon, a dark bluish white now that the sun wasn’t directly bouncing on all of it, and very much a contrast to the darker makeup of the city skyline, or the even darker bluish sky. It was almost scenic.

    …And, predictably, that was when the city began firing on her. Automated defense systems in case of stray asteroids or debris, she figured. Not that it made things any less annoying. Or terrifying.

    “You have GOT to be kidding me!”

    Up ahead the highway made a sharp right turn. There was no way she could maneuver that; her bike was running on inertia and gravity, and little else. Two SPD skycycles flanked her. The building at the end of the road approached rapidly.

    “…WELP”

    Xolin had nothing to lose. The blue ranger leapt off her bike in a single fluid movement, bringing her legs up and wrapping her arms around them as she flung herself down. The skycycle slammed into the side of the building in a blaze of glory, giving her the opening she needed. She hit the interior floor of the structure and rolled, allowing her inertia to let her get back up and keep running as the wreckage of the bike exploded, ripping through what looked to be a warehouse.

    Of course it was a warehouse.

    Reaching the end of the scaffolding she was on, Xolin flipped off, just as the explosion consumed the entire area. The blue ranger landed in a heap on the ground floor, debris from the partially destroyed building raining down around her. Xolin groaned as she staggered back to her feet. As if to signify she meant to do that, the blue ranger simply began brushing herself off.

    …Unfortunately, her pursuers weren’t quite so willing to go along with it. As she got her bearings, she realized the burning building was in the process of being surrounded. She saw white armored troops arriving at every entrance and piling in. Immediately, she took up a defensive position, waiting to see what they did next. This was…actually not good, at all. The leader of the group, his armor a bit more imposing than the mass produced models, stepped forward.

    “We have you surrounded, do not attempt to escape. You are charged with multiple counts of trespassing, violation of aerospace, failure to yield to authorities, and vandalism”.

    Under her helmet, Xolin’s eyebrow arched as she put her hands on her belt, “…Vandalism? What…” she turned her vision to the the burning wreckage around her, “…Oh, riiiight, the building. Duh. My bad”.

    The SPD commander brought out his judgment scanner, which unsurprisingly declared her guilty in a heartbeat. “You are under arrest by the authority of Arkilla E-Squad Battalion. Prepare for sentence”.

    Xolin made a short, dry chuckle, “Sorry. I don’t much feel like being part of someone’s trading card collection. Not this way, anyway” out of nowhere a lance appeared in her hand, “But you guys are totally welcome to try”.

    “Target has chosen force” the officer commanded to his troops, “All units, take the criminal down!”

    Outnumbered at least twenty to one. No way to escape. Stranded on a hostile world. Not good odds. Definitely not a good start to a mission. And Trok! Where had he—

    Xolin’s thoughts as the enemy soldiers closed in were shattered as another large chunk of the wall in front of her was ripped apart, laser blasts once again filling the air over her head with blinding light and thunderous fury. For a second, she swore the entire building was coming down, or that SPD had trained the city defenses on her, or both. But then, she realized with relief that the cavalry had arrived in the form of a green skycycle which emerged through the hole, gunning down the equally stunned SPD soldiers…before turning his attention to the supports of the building itself.

    Wait, what. No. Nononono. OH SHI--

    “TROK, WHAT ARE YOU—” her words were drowned out by the unearthly chaos of reality crashing down around her.

    ---

    New hired hands often complained about dank, dark, and cramped feel of his ship. He was always baffled about this; did none of them ever find themselves in the employ of any other pirate lord ever? Or a Vile mercenary band? How was it he only ever got the freshest of meat?

    For his part, he loved his ship. Bright lights bothered his vision, and he enjoyed the atmosphere the shadows provided; it always helped to unnerve visitors or prisoners. It wasn’t the biggest or most powerful ship out there, but it was his. He knew every creak, every loose wire, every stain. Here, he was *The* Pirate Lord. Pipes stuck out of the walls, the floor consisted of grates covering knotted up wires, and bare twisted struts jutted out at random intervals like knives. Even the bridge contained few types of comfort to more…squishy types, mostly just existing to house his throne, a few status stations to his back and side, and the main screen.

    They called him Capricorn; a nickname given to him when he was young, on his first pirate mission onboard a Eurasan Clan vessel. See, he resembled a humanoid goat…thing, so…well, *they* had thought it was clever. Capricorn had taken that name and owned it. To him, it *was* his real name; whatever one he had been given when he was created was lost long ago; destroyed in whatever evil lair he had been concocted from. It was probably something lame anyway, like ‘Goat Master’, or ‘Robogoat’. He was an imposing sight; he was almost seven feet tall with Greek style hoplite armor plated over his hide, and four large horns twisting out over his head.

    “We’ve docked” a rough voice from behind his command chair stated. Vl’nox, a varox, and one of his longest-lasting crewmembers—he had actually come with the ship when he bought it. It was something about ‘sentimental value’ or some nonsense. Whatever, he had proven a loyal –and more importantly, capable— minion. The haphazardly but full-body armored and fearsome-looking bounty hunter made a pass around the edge of the bridge, coming to Capricorn’s left, “Shall I alert the crew?”

    Capricorn nodded, then stood up, “They know the mission objectives; have them fan out. The Objective must be secured before it leaves this planet”.

    Vl’nox bowed slightly, “It will be done” he stated, before turning to leave. Capricorn remained behind for a moment to ponder, glancing at the viewscreen, out at the busy thoroughfare that was the landing bay of Arkilla City’s spaceport. The payoff for this mission was absolutely insane; whoever wanted the objective was desperate. For a moment Capricorn entertained blackmailing them for more money once he had what they wanted, but soon dismissed it; pulling that on an employer who could dish out this kind of cash probably meant he’d be dead within a week. He’d played this game long enough to know when being a scheming backstabber was a stupid idea. And regardless, he’d soon be swimming in credits. Well, not literally swimming, since they were an electronic form of currency but…well.

    ---

    “Please remember to take your belongings with you as you exit the transport. We appreciate you choosing to fly with Aeurola Spacelines today. Thank you, and have a nice day”.

    Sid idly wondered why businesses bothered with fake pre-recorded pleasantries as he grabbed his backpack from the top rung of the transport he had been riding for the last several hours. It’s just, no one actually believed the message itself really cared, or that the person who had recorded it really had the capacity of empathy for every single person in the billions who would hear it every time they stepped off a space transport, right? But if they didn’t, it’d still be committing a social faux pas because people would get the idea the company couldn’t bother.

    Hrn.

    He was thinking about this too much. Sid shrugged and exited the ship, finding himself in the midst of the Arkilla spaceport, a gigantic open parking lot, ringed by multi-tiered walls covered in shops and services, the interior filled with transports and cargo vessels, and thousands upon thousands of people making their way from one place to another; a sea of people, as one would expect from a major metropolis. From his vantage point, Sid could also see it wasn’t even the largest of the landing pads—up above him loomed a number of towers, all part of the same complex, reaching up to various heights. This was the center of the city, its beating heart.

    “I do love scenic worlds” the early-mid 20-something-year-old male whispered to himself, before adjusting his bag and turning to go. He fished a small note out of his pocket, looking it over for the umpteenth time. The email had been fairly vague, just a name, an address, and promise of ‘high pay’ for his services. Sid wondered how someone this far out even knew about him; usually he had to work hard to sell himself to skeptical would-be employers. And what would this person even want with Sid? He was an odd-jobs kinda guy, y’know, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none sort of thing. Except not really a jack, more of um…an ‘8’ in the deck, he guessed. Maybe a ‘5’.

    …Sigh. This was totally a trap. But then, Sid couldn’t figure out why *him*. It couldn’t be a scam, you didn’t need a person’s physical body to steal their bank account. Not that Sid even *had* anything in his bank account, hence his actually-coming-out-here. And like, they had paid for his trip and everything. So, y’know, suspicious. Either he was going to be harvested for organs, or he was about to be thrown into some sort of clandestine gang war.

    “This was a bad idea” he muttered, looking around, “A really bad idea”.

    His train of thought was brought to an abrupt end by the sound of commotion not too far away. He turned his attention to a group of various aliens—two tengas and…a piranatron? Huh, didn’t see many of them these days. Also, there was an aquitian. Looked to be an older dude too. Huh.

    …Oh! They were shaking the aquitian down, it looked like. Duh. And of course none of the guards were coming to assist. Sigh.

    “Excuse me!” he said, swaggering up to the group, “Is there a problem here? I couldn’t help hearing all the noise”.

    One of the tengas turned around to look at the newcomer. Sid never much liked tengas; they were kind of like one of those scary bedtime story monsters. Y’know, when you’d have a nightmare as a kid of a large black-feathered human-sized bird creature carrying you off. It didn’t help that it always looked like they had some sort of disease either. piranatrons were better; though that was mostly because he had no idea what any of them looked like under their copper fish-themed armor.

    …Really, did anyone know? He made a mental note to search ‘piranatron’ later.

    “None of your business, human. Be on your way” the bird creature crowed, annoyed that it had been interrupted.

    Sid sighed and grinned, “Sorry, but I’d like to hear it from the old man” he said, pointing to the elder man who, if one had been living under a rock for…well, centuries, looked as if either his head was swollen, or as if he was wearing a strange helmet of some sort. To anyone in the know of course, he was just your average aquitian, an aquatic humanoid alien with a thick protective skull to house their enlarged brains.

    The aquitian gave Sid a knowing nod. Sid nodded back, “Okay guys. Step away from the old guy”.

    “You gonna make us?” cawed the other tenga. All three took an aggressive stance against the human.

    “You really want to do this in the middle of the spaceport?” asked Sid, casually tossing his bag aside, “I can walk out of the police station without a problem” his voice took on a dangerous tone as his grin widened, “Can you?”

    The three aliens looked at each other for a moment before grumbling. “…You win this time, human. Watch yourself” said the first tenga as they began to walk away.

    Sid just gave him a cocky smile and a fake salute, “I’ll keep that in mind”.

    “Oh, thank you for that” the elderly aquitian casually brushed himself off, “They were *quite* persistent”.

    “It’s no problem, really” Sid replied in earnest. He picked up his bag off the floor, then paused, “What was that about, anyway?”

    The aquitian shrugged, “Just some common thugs looking for some change. Come now, we should speak in my office” he said, his voice carrying the usual ‘bubble’ accent that most of his species had when speaking land languages—though it was noticeably less present than usual. Whoever this guy was, he’d been away from home for quite some time. He waved Sid to follow him as he turned.

    Sid’s eyebrow arched, “…Come again?”

    The aquitian turned back again, the two of them just sort of staring at each other for the briefest of awkward seconds. “…The employment position. I assume that’s why you are here, yes? You are Sid Drake?”

    “I...wait, you’re…” Sid looked down at his paper, “…Coros?” Hrn. He hated being blindsided like this.

    The elder chuckled, “Indeed I am. It is good to finally meet you. My employer has said many good things about you”.

    Now Sid was *completely* taken off guard, “Wait, what? Your employer? Who—”

    Coros chuckled again, “Come, come. We can discuss everything in my office. But not here”. The aquitian once again motioned for Sid to follow him. Sid sighed; this was *totally* going to end in organ harvesting, wasn’t it?

    ---

    Eugh. She’d be scrubbing dust and debris out of her hair for weeks. Part of it reminded her of the dust storms growing up in the arid badlands of Triforia…she hated it then, too. Granted, she hated most of her childhood, so not much was new there. Xolin absently combed her fingers through her black hair for the umpteenth time as she glanced around the corner of the alleyway the two of them had ducked into. The city street seemed clear of hostiles—by now night had settled, and the entire strip was illuminated by artificial light. The next target was clear even from here—the Arkilla spaceport, the massive towering , monolithic complex in the center of the city; the hub of all commerce in this trade town. She smiled to herself; downtown was a dang good place to hide in plain sight. She and Trok had both forgone their ranger attire, instead returning to their civilian forms. Even in SPD space, a triforian and a horathean wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary, especially not for a port city like Arkilla. She just had to blend in and look like she was supposed to be here. And it wasn’t like a triforian couldn’t just pass off as an indiscriminate human anyway—and there were still more than a few human colony worlds waving the Alliance flag. Even the ceremonial tattoo around her left eye could be ignored as a fashion statement unless one had really brushed up on obscure triforian subcultures.

    Heh. She wished it was.

    “What do you even call that?!” she exclaimed to her companion, as they rejoined the busy city life. She was obviously referring to the whole ‘bring the house down around us’ fiasco.

    Trok shrugged, kind of uncomfortably, “You were surrounded, our cover was blown, I had to do something. So I thought, ‘what would Xolin do?’”

    Xolin eyed the horathean suspiciously. The green scaly patches that covered much of his head and limbs should have made him an imposing sight, but somehow, they only served to make him even more like the adorkable kid she was leading around on deadly mission after deadly mission. Well, not *actually* a kid. Late teen, maybe? Very late teen. But still, a good few years younger than her. Wait…how fast *did* horatheans age?

    Regardless, she pressed on, “So months training together, and the only thing that comes to mind when you think about me is ‘blow buildings up with us inside’, huh?” her voice was even, peppered with bemused sarcasm.

    Trok shrugged again, “You uh…did sort of botch the whole ‘undercover’ thing with an aerial dogfight. In broad daylight”.

    The triforian wheeled on her teammate, an annoyed expression plastered on her face, “Not my fault! And what are even the chances they detected our approach with a trajectory like that? We should have just been considered space debris!”

    “Space debris with morphin’ grid energy readings, maybe” Trok said with a knowing smirk, continuing to walk.

    Xolin glared at him impetuously as he passed her by, “…You know, I think I liked you better before you learned to snark”. Trok just snickered.

    She sighed as she resumed her walk, now behind Trok, “Guess I better call the boss. Let him know we landed alright”. She grimaced inwardly as she tapped into her wrist morpher; she wasn’t looking forward to this call at all. But, well, she supposed it was better to get it over with now instead of him calling them later concerned about their lack of progress. Detaching a small device from her morpher, she placed it in her ear and dialed.

    “We made it to Arkilla” she said, after making sure the connection had gotten through, “Enroute now to the spaceport”.

    “Enroute? I thought you said you landed” came the response. No real outward emotion to it, but that was Iota for you; all business.

    Xolin chuckled nervously, “We uh…had to take a slight detour. We’re in the city, just…a bit off of our destination”.

    “By ‘detour’ she means she crashed into a random building” Trok smirked.

    “…What was that?” asked their boss, concern laced in his voice.

    “Nothing!” Xolin continued to laugh nervously, before giving Trok a withering glare, “Nothing. Trok’s just being his usual charming self. We’re fine. Everyone’s fine. No need to be alarmed. We’ve got this”.

    “You’re a terrible liar, Xolin”

    Xolin sputtered, red in the face, while Trok looked like he was about to double over laughing.

    “Let me remind you that this mission is supposed to be subtle. Undercover. Incognito. Get in, get the girl, get out without being noticed. It’s a stealth mission, not a combat mission. The stakes on this one are impossibly high. Don’t make me regret letting you play squad commander. Get your objective, and get out as quickly as you can”.

    “I…” Xolin sighed, knowing from experience that arguing with Iota was fruitless, “Yes sir. We’re pretty sure SPD lost our trail after we landed anyway”.

    There was a slight pause, “…SPD’s not who I’m worried about”.

    The two rangers glanced at each other as he said this, now somewhat concerned and confused. “…Sir?” Xolin asked warily. Unfortunately for them, she was not about to get clarification.

    “Just do your jobs. Iota out”.

    “Always a sociable guy, that one” Trok said, as Xolin’s link went dead. She just sighed and returned the earbud to its place on her wrist morpher. “What do you think he meant be ‘the stakes are impossibly high’, anyway?” Trok asked.

    Xolin shrugged as they turned a corner, “Heck if I know. He never lets us in on the actual strategic details”. She couldn’t help but feel a bit hurt at that; no matter how much they accomplished, she could tell Iota was keeping things from them. It was just…frustrating. She never doubted they weren’t making a difference; they had defeated countless monsters since she had joined up, but…well. And then there was this mission…something just felt a bit off about it

    “…Not sure if it’s all really classified by the organization, or if he just doesn’t trust us” she continued, a bit quieter than before.

    “Well, given the situation…” Trok turned back to see Xolin giving him another withering glare, which he just took in stride with a large troublemaking grin. She was just too easy sometimes. “You didn’t tell him that we need new skycycles, huh?”

    “…I hate you” she deadpanned.

    ---

    Sid had to hand it to the aquitians; they knew how to decorate. He had been expecting your average office; big desk, fancy chair, probably a full wall window overlooking the spaceport promenade, somewhere underneath the landing deck. And yeah, all three of those were things he found once Coros opened the door. But then there were the aquariums. Not like, fish tanks, but like, the walls themselves were one giant ecosystem filled with all sorts of flora and fauna from Aquitar. Vibrant and elaborate alien coral and fan seaweed made a playground for all sorts of bizarre creatures swimming in and around the entire room. The water cast a soft blue light on the interior of the room, only dissipated by the lights coming from the window. Sid had to admit, it was kind of impressive for an office; it really set a unique mood. And he figured it was a way for Coros to keep from getting homesick.

    …But jeeze, this must have been expensive. How important was this guy? What did he even *do*?

    The other thing Sid noticed upon entering the room was the girl. She had green hair and a small crystal on her forehead; Xybrian, Sid guessed, and looked to be…fairly young, actually. seventeen…ish? She looked at him for a moment, making direct eye contact with no expression on her face, before returning her gaze to the spot on the aquarium just opposite of her.

    …Yeah, this wasn’t weird at all. Sid made a mental note to bug out the second the March Hare showed up and asked for more tea.

    “Please, have a seat” Coros said, motioning to a chair as the entered the room. Coros took his seat behind the desk, while Sid elected to remain standing. He crossed his arms expectantly, his eyebrow arched. Coros cleared his throat, “…Yes, well. First of all, I would like you to meet Sel” he said, motioning to the Xybrian in the corner of the room.

    “Hello” Sid said casually, waving his hand before continuing to keep his arms in the folded position. She said nothing in response, instead simply making eye contact one more before returning to her vigil. “…Right” he turned back to Coros, shrugging, “Okay…?”

    “Forgive her; she’s a very quiet type. Don’t take it personally” Coros said. He began looting through his desk drawer, eventually finding a small button which he pressed. A panel in the middle of the desk rose up, revealing a small compartment with a box. Oh god, this wasn’t good. Small, hidden boxes were *never* good. “I apologize for the…unconventional situation” the aquitian continued, “Time, and secrecy, has made the usual method of doing things unwieldy”

    Sid eyed his potential employer. This was sounding worse all the time, “…So what exactly do you want out of me?”

    “I understand you were once a ranger. Red ranger, in fact. SPD D-Squad, Mirinoi division? During the War?”

    Shit.

    “…Yeah?” Sid asked hesitantly, now definitely sure he didn’t like where this was going. His eyes went back to the small, black box. He pretty much knew what was inside. Sure enough, Coros opened the box, and a wrist morpher lay inside. “No deal” Sid replied briskly as he began walking to the door, “Sorry for wasting your time”.

    “I need a protector. A guardian. Your file fits that; you were chosen out of hundreds of options. You are the most qualified—”

    Sid cut the old man off with anger in his voice, turning from the door, “No. You chose wrong. If you’ve really studied my file, then you knew exactly what my answer was going to be before I even walked in here”. Never again. Never, ever, ever again. Not after…well.

    Coros sighed, “And I’m afraid that’s an answer I cannot accept”.

    Sid pressed the door button several times to no effect. Hrn. He glared back at the elderly aquitian, “Let. Me. Go” he growled, anger seeping through his clenched teeth. This wasn’t happening. He had absolutely *no* intention of playing this game—not today, not ever.

    Maddeningly, Coros continued on as if nothing had happened, “The girl in front of us represents a major investment for my organization. The details are not important just yet, but suffice to say numerous hostile parties are looking for her. If they were to take her into their custody, the consequences would be…catastrophic”.

    “For you, anyway” Sid added, still futilely, but absentmindedly pressing the door button.

    Coros turned his gaze from Sel to Sid, almost unnervingly so, “For everyone” he corrected him, his voice low, quiet, even.

    “…Right” Sid said, “Now, can you let me out? I’d rather not have to crash through your window”. Really, he’d rather not. All those shards, and the tumbling several floors down, and having to explain to the police…just way too much work involved.

    “Your personality files suggested you were the heroic type. I must say, even with your…background, I’m surprised you’re not even willing to listen to me” Coros calmly placed his hand together on the desk in a steeple formation.

    Sid’s eyes narrowed as he let go of the door, making a few steps toward Coros’s desk. Oh no. They were NOT playing this game with him, “Oh, I’ve already listened to you, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the jist of things. You’re an amoral under-the-table megacorporation who probably got in a bit over their heads with something and now you need a hero to fix your mess-ups. Except you’re doing a really bad job of trying to manipulate me into doing it, so it’d be better for everyone involved if you just let it all drop and let me go. I already gave you my answer: I’m not interested”.

    Seriously. The sheer amount of gall this whole setup took. Luring Sid here after studying his entire personal history, then locking him in a room with friggin’ McCrazypants until he agreed to fight for them, despite *knowing* full well that not only would he never put on the ranger uniform again, but knowing exactly *why* he wouldn’t?

    …Who even *does* that?! What kind of sick freak tries to strong-arm a random war vet into a private mercenary service? There were plenty of people willing to play hero in the universe. Choose some random wide-eyed adventurer to be your meat puppet. He had already seen way more—lost way more than he ever wanted to. Never again.

    A sudden light rumble shook the room. Earthquake? No, too quick and clean. Sid’s experience had taught him that abnormal ground shakings were usually bad ideas. His priorities suddenly shifted, “Uh…what was that?” he asked, now a little concerned.

    “Company” Coros replied plainly, without even a hint of emotion.

    Son of a…

    ---

    She swore; it was like EVERYONE WAS OUT TO GET HER. The subway was out, the tram system was out, she couldn’t get a hovercraft to stop…and this place didn’t even have any sort of teleporter network. It was totally unfair!

    “COME ON!” she shouted, kicking the elevator door. It was supposed to take them up several stories to the next level of the city, but they had been standing here for at least five minutes. *Seriously*, this was the worst system of public transportation she had ever—the door opened. *Finally*.

    “’Bout friggin time” she exhaled in exasperation as she marched inside.

    Trok, for his part, had just sort of tried to make himself invisible. As people made curious glances at Xolin’s inane rantings at the inanimate elevator, Trok just kind of nervously chuckled, scratching the back of his head, and generally staying a few feet away from the screaming triforian. Maybe if he was lucky, they’d think he was an unrelated passenger. He sighed and boarded the elevator after his mentor.

    It wasn’t like he didn’t like Xolin; far from it. She was smart and capable and beautiful and…man, she knew so many awesome things—like how she was always training him how to fight in new styles; it was like she never ran out of new tricks and tips. She was like the cool older sibling he had never had back home. …Er, rephrase. She was like the older sibling he had wished he never had back home. She was demanding; always expecting the very best and never accepting anything less from him—she pushed him to be the best he possibly could. But she was also kind and understanding, quickly coming to trust and even respect him, even though she was way more capable and trained. But at the same time…well, there was this.

    She was still ranting about public transportation. Trok knew to just nod and smile while she did so. Sigh. Like an elder sibling, no matter how cool, she could be *really* embarrassing at times.

    Still ranting. Now it was about how the city was inconveniencing her.

    Sigh.

    ---

    Sid felt another rumble. And another. And another. Each one was a bit stronger than the last, and each were evenly spaced apart.

    “…Footsteps” he whispered, looking in the direction he thought they might be coming from. Whatever was coming, it was big…and probably not very nice.

    Coros nodded, “I would assume that would be the ‘hostile parties’ I mentioned”.

    Sid glared at his imprisoner, bile rising up inside of him. This was all calculated. Coros *knew* he’d be needed convincing, so he had made sure there was no way Sid could resist, “…You set this up. You son of a—”

    Coros’s voice was even, controlled, yet filled with urgency. “I would take the morpher, Sid Drake of Mirinoi, of clan Ash’anta. If you wish to save not only yourself, but the girl as well, then take the morpher and do what you were trained to do. What you were born to do”.

    What a bunch of... ‘What he was born to do’? Who even talked like that, outside of recruitment posters? Sid’s fists bunched up. His eye twitched. He was about to punch the old man out…but the footsteps. The footsteps. Glancing over to the girl, he exhaled, anger leaving his body. Closing his eyes, the looked down for a moment, coming to a decision. God damn it. “…What’s your purpose here?” he asked, looking Sel dead in the eyes, “Who are you?”

    She looked away, “…I don’t know” she said softly. Something about it…maybe it was the soft almost broken nature of it all, maybe it was aura of pitiful emptiness she exuded, but something got his attention. He sighed; she didn’t deserve to die, regardless of anything else.

    He hated mind games.

    The once and again red ranger resigned himself, regretfully picking the morpher up off the desk. “Here’s the deal” he said, strapping it to his wrist, “I’m going to save you and your princess over there. I’m going to kick some evil space alien butt, win the day, all that jazz. And then?” he slammed his palms onto the desk, leaning over and leering at his would-be commander, “And then we’re going to have a nice, long chat about personal boundaries”.

    A small smirk formed on Coros’s mouth. He had what he wanted, after all. Sid resisted the urge to punch him right into the fish tank, “I look forward to it” the old man grinned.

    At that moment, the fish tank behind them…well, exploded. Glass and wall debris threw itself out into the room, water and aquatic life knocking Sid back as the entire aquarium emptied out, flooding into the middle of the room. Looking back at the point of detonation, Sid found an imposing sight; a large, eight foot tall tank monster. Two tread legs, two arms with guns galore, and a head folded down into the large, armored body, a large gun on top.

    “Well, you’re an ugly one, aren’t you?” Sid asked, actually a little impressed. This wasn’t your average run-of-the-mill monster. Noticing Coros now lying still under the ruins of his desk, Sid moved to guard Sel, placing himself in between her and the monster. Sid couldn’t say he was really broken up about Coros; but he had bigger things to deal with right now anyway.

    The tank looked at Sid, then at the girl, who was now out of her chair and backing up. At least she wasn’t completely catatonic; some level of self-preservation by his appointed charges was always appreciated by Sid. “Scanning: Objective located. Beginning retrieval operation” its mechanical voice stated, with absolutely no hint of emotion.

    Sid moved to activate his morpher, “Sorry sparky, this one’s mine. But I’m sure you can get one just like it off the internet for che—”

    Sid never got a chance to finish his sentence, instead finding his body being flung like a ragdoll through the window. He slammed into the side of one of the food stalls on the promenade below, crashing into the booth in a heap. Screams and shouts combined with the world spinning around him to provide him with a particularly unhelpful symphony of crazy. By the time he was starting to get his bearings again, an SPD officer was helping him to his feet and telling him to run, before charging into the fray himself, along with numerous other officers. The tank had dropped itself to the street level of the promenade, Sel in a heap behind it—Sid surmised it had incapacitated her somehow. Whoever wanted her, wanted her alive and intact. Good to know. The other thing he noticed was that all of the SPD officers were activating low-level E-class white armor over their bodies, but none were suiting up as rangers. And predictably, they were being blown apart by the tank.

    “Where’s your ranger team?!” he asked one of the guards who had just been thrown back by an indirect hit. Lucky for him he didn’t seem that hurt, just a little dazed.

    “Offworld. Won’t be back until tomorrow” the guard grunted as Sid helped him up, “Thank you. Now get out of here, hurry!” he ran off, back to the chaos as Sid just stood there. He looked down at his morpher, brushing over it with his other hand. No rangers? This wasn’t good. The guards weren’t quitting, Sid had to give them that---but they just weren’t up to the task. And many more innocents could get hurt.

    Damnit all.

    Suddenly, the tank began to shift and change, compartments opening up and…oh god. Sid’s eyes widened in terror as he realized what it was about to do. Jumping over a busted counter and laying low, he barely missed the onslaught as the tank monster began to simply lay waste to anyone and everyone with a massive barrage of weapons fire, ranging from bullets and grenades to full on artillery fire. Within a second the promenade had turned into an apocalyptic hellstorm.

    ---

    The outer ring of the spaceport was now just a few blocks away now, thank the Trinity. So predictably, that was when the side of one of the port towers decided to randomly explode.

    “Huh. That…happened” Trok said dumbly, watching the smoke beginning to rise from the hole in the structure.

    Xolin sighed, this day sucked. “Of course it happened. Why not? Everything else is in the gutter tonight. Bleh. Come on, we gotta hurry!” she said, breaking into a sprint. Trok quickly followed suit.

    “Think it’s related to Coros?” asked Trok, keeping back with Xolin. She nodded glumly.

    “An explosion just happens to rip through part of Spaceport tower five, where we were supposed to meet him? Yeah, I don’t do coincidences”.

    ---

    The tank surveyed the wreckage of what once been an indoor marketplace. The civilians had fled, and guards were all down. Situation was resolved.

    …Except…

    A plum of smoke vanished, replaced by a red ranger, a large double-sided axe in hand, having just used it to clear a path in the smoke.

    “Okay” Sid said, brandishing his weapon at his opponent, “I think we got off on the wrong foot. Let’s try this again. I’m Sid, and you’re…?”

    The tank turned its attention back on the red ranger, “Threat located. Preparing to terminate”.

    Sid snorted. Well, *he* was just a bundle of personality, “Sorry, the correct answer was ‘I’m going to give up and OHSHI—” the red ranger barely dodged another projectile from the monster’s primary cannon. This was bad; the tank was likely at least a class B on the monster scale, possibly class A--he seriously doubted one ranger had enough firepower to take this thing down, especially not his own power set which as far as he could tell was primarily built for melee. If only he had like, a power cannon or something. Or a zord.

    …Did he have a zord? A quick mental scan revealed, nope, he was out of luck. Dang. Another blast drove Sid out of his hiding spot. He was now in a constant game of hide-and-seek, except it was more or less ‘find cover and then watch it blow up’. All in all, not a game he had particularly missed.

    “I can’t even get close to him” Sid muttered to himself, just before launching himself to new cover yet again, “I need someone to keep it busy”. Grabbing his pistol, he took a few shots, watching in annoyance as they were simply deflected by the strong armor of the creature. Sid rolled his eyes in disgust, “Because of course the side arm is useless. Why wouldn’t it be?”

    Sadly for Sid, that little dig cost him dearly; the monster had gotten a chance to finally lock on to him. At that moment, Sid discovered two things. One: it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve faced your own mortality, your life will always flash right before your eyes just before the end. And two: man, taking the equivalent of a platoon assault to the face friggin’ *hurt*.

    ---

    All hostiles had been neutralized, the Objective was secure. The entity known as Artillar had draped the girl over its shoulder and was now making its way down one of the hallways. Since leaving the promenade it had encountered a handful more hostile targets; they had also been quickly neutralized. One mission objective remained; return to Capricorn’s ship. It mapped out its route from its position, ensuring it wouldn’t get lost.

    Alert. Two more targets were incoming.

    “…Wow. This place got *destroyed*”

    Trok peered around the devastated corridor. The power here had gone out, leaving the debris-ridden hallway dim and eerily quiet, the only sounds being the crackling of electricity and the slow dripping of water as it pooled on the floor. …Well, that and the ever present thumping noise of something moving. Neither he nor Xolin had morphed yet; it was probably best not to get SPD on their tail if they could help it.

    “Scanner says she’s close” Xolin replied. She had shifted her morpher to holographic display mode, allowing her more control over its functions, as well as giving her an extremely helpful sensor system.

    “Uh…”

    Xolin looked up at Trok’s sudden stopping in his tracks, “…What? I haven’t—huh”.

    Ahead of both of them stood an eight foot tank robot.

    “Found her” Trok said lamely, pointing at the unconscious female draped over its shoulder. Xolin sighed and shut off her holographic display, mildly annoyed.

    The tank turned around, each step shaking the ground around them so it could meet its new opponents.

    Trok backed away , “Uh…morph now?” he asked, fairly certain he knew where this was gonna go. And fairly eager to get to that part, because the tank was closing in on them really fast and this wasn’t cool.

    Gods, finally. Xolin grinned as she gripped her morpher, “Oh yeah. It’s game time!”

    Artillar opened fire with its two shoulder cannons, the two rangers rolling under the barrage as they transformed into the green and blue rangers, before jumping up and landing a double kick on the tank. Unfortunately for them however, it didn’t even faze it.

    “Tough hide” Xolin dodged the creature’s massive left arm and swung around to the back, bringing out her lance and continuing her attack from the back “Try to blunt your way in” she ordered, noticing her lance wasn’t doing much good. Up front, Trok gripped his hammer, hoping to bash through Artillar’s main body cavity.

    Bad move.

    The front panels of the tank flipped open, and Trok got a face-full of missile swarm. The resulting explosion threw the green ranger through the wall, and he collapsed in a heap.

    “TROK!” Xolin shouted in panic. For a brief moment she was half-convinced he had just been vaporized, until she saw his body fly through the wall. Her face twisted in rage; *nobody* hurt her protégé! She screamed in rage, hitting the robot with as much force as she could muster, her lance charging up with blue energy as she swung it back and then down.

    The tank stumbled forward, a satisfied smirk forming under Xolin’s helmet. Her moment of triumph however, was cut short as the monster once again turned around.

    “…Uh oh” was the last thing Xolin managed to utter before the right arm punched her into another wall.

    Targets neutralized.

    “HEY, SIR SMASHINGTON!”

    Artillar turned to see the red ranger standing a few feet down the hall, now somewhat haggard and breathing heavily, burn marks pockmarking his crimson suit, and a stray pole in his hand. The tank aimed its main gun.

    “…Not this time” the red ranger grunted, grasping the pole in his hands and thrusting himself at the monster. Aiming his makeshift weapon, Sid leapt up and shoved it into the barrel of the main gun. “Check and mate” he said smugly as he dropped back down.

    Boom. The monster’s head shifted and shook, a muffled thump heralding a plume of smoke rising from the creature. A short moment of uneasy silence ensued, followed by the tank teetering and falling over on its back, completely lifeless.

    Sid blinked. “…Huh. That…went easier than I expected”. The red ranger moved around the dead creature--being careful in case it wasn’t really offlined for good. He’d done this before; he knew how this kind of stuff worked. Rangers *never* won that easily. “Alright” he said, grabbing Sel, “Come on, we gotta…go somewhere. Hrm” he stopped as he settled her over his back. Where *was* he going? Sid supposed he could go back to see if Coros was still alive, get paid for all this bull at least. Then again, considering the whole situation, maybe it was better if he just cut and ran now, instead of trying to explain to the police why he was wielding unregistered ranger powers and fighting a giant tank monster over a probably-underage girl.

    Hrn.

    “Okay buddy. Put the girl down”.

    Sid glanced to his right, where the voice had come from. Another ranger, female, stood her lance at the ready. Another sound, to his left, indicated a second ranger, male, with a hammer. Because of course it had been too easy. Of COURSE it had been too easy. He inwardly cursed himself for a moment for his inattentiveness; this never would have happened before he…er, ‘retired’. Stupid rusty reflexes. Sid wondered for a moment if the two newcomers represented the same faction as the tank. Probably not, honestly, which meant they were likely Hostile Faction Number Two.

    “I don’t suppose we could talk this out?” Sid asked, feigning diplomacy.

    The female ranger took up a fighting stance, “Give us the girl, and sure. Why not?” Oh, belligerent sarcasm. Sid liked her.

    He gave a dry single chuckle, “Sorry, no can do. I gotta get paid somehow. Raincheck?”

    “Last. Warning” the female ranger said. Her tone of voice pretty much told Sid all he needed to know about how much she was bluffing; i.e. not at all. But then again, would she risk hurting the girl? Maybe this faction didn’t care if the girl was intact for whatever reason, unlike whoever sent the tank. Or maybe she was just a foolhardy idiot. He could work with that. But what about the other one? Sid stole a glance at the male ranger.

    “And what about you?”

    “Er…” the male seemed taken aback. He wasn’t used to being called on. The girl ranger called the shots, huh? He gathered they were a two man team; not a full one, and the girl was obviously the senior.

    “Talk to me, not to him. Put the girl down” the girl repeated.

    “And if I don’t?”

    “Then I cut you in two” the girl threatened.

    A goofy smile formed under Sid’s helmet, “And risk hurting the girl?” he asked, hoping to pump a bit more information out of them. To a small bit of surprise to Sid, the girl hesitated. Interesting; why did everyone want this girl in one piece? What had he gotten himself into? Hrm. “…What’s she to you, anyway? Why is she important?”

    “You don’t know?” she asked, somewhat surprised herself, it sounded like.

    Sid shrugged, “I’m just a mercenary. I do the thing, I get paid. Simple enough”. Not…really, but for the purposes of this conversation, sure. But he made a mental note to interrogate Coros later for the whole story. Er…if the old man was still alive, that was.

    “…It’s classified”

    “Oh, of course” Sid replied, with not a little sarcasm. He idly wondered if she really knew either.

    “Uh…guys?” asked the guy ranger.

    “Put. Her. Down” the girl shifted her stance.

    “Guys?”

    Sid cocked his head, “…Make me”.

    “Uh…”

    “Don’t tempt me!”

    “Xolin?”

    “Come at me, bro”

    “GUYS!”

    “WHAT?!” the two of them shouted turning on the other male ranger.

    The guy ranger pointed, to which the other two looked over at the remains of the tank monster. Er, well, where the corpse had been. Now it was back up, standing on its two legs. Yep, it had been *way* too easy. Because of course.

    “Oh” Sid said, “…Crud”. This…this was not good.

    Artillar turned and faced the rangers, guns all at the ready, and pointed up at the ceiling in multiple directions.

    “…This is gonna suck” the girl sighed.

    Sid inwardly agreed, “I hate everything” he muttered.

    Boom.

    ---

    She awoke to agony. Every inch of Xolin’s body ached; areas she didn’t even know *could* ache hurt. Every movement she made was pain.

    “I hate *everything*” she managed to croak out.

    “What…happened?” she heard Trok ask. Where was Trok anyway? Her eyes blinked open, finding herself in the middle of wreckage. Just…wreckage everywhere, obscuring the night sky beyond. …Oh, right, the tank. It must have brought down the entire ceiling on top of them—and likely the floors above as well. No wonder she hurt.

    “…We got crushed” Xolin replied as she tried to sit up—‘tried’ being the operative term. She slumped back down, breathing heavily in heavy pain. She instead decided to let her ranger powers fix her up and flood her with the morphin’ grid equivalent of painkillers first.

    “I am afraid you three don’t have the luxury of lying around right now”

    Xolin struggled to turn and see the source of the new voice. There stood the elderly aquitian, her contact here. “…Coros! What…” Coros knelt down next to the blue ranger as she managed to sit up. She noticed Trok next to her, as well as the other ranger—red, huh? Looked like her and Trok’s power set, but that would mean…uh oh. Oh no.

    “Long story short” Coros said to all three of them, “the monster has the girl. We don’t have much time before he reaches his ship. You *must* intercept them and win the day”.

    Red spoke up, “Look, no offense, I’m sure this is hugely important. But if they’re yours” he waved at Xolin and Trok, “Then I’m out. You’ve already got mercenaries”.

    Mercenaries!? Xolin glared angrily, “Who are you calling a mercenary!? I’m—” her would-be rant died as Coros waved her off.

    The aquitian replied calmly, “I told you. You were selected from hundreds of candidates. You weren’t employed to be a random brute mercenary, Sid. You’re supposed to lead this team”

    What?! Xolin gaped at the two of them. No! She was leader! This…this wasn’t fair! Not fair at all! She had been training Trok for *months*! They couldn’t steal her right at leader away now, not on her first mission without Iota on the field. No no no no—

    “No” Sid replied.

    Yes!

    The red ranger staggered to his feet, “I don’t lead teams. Why won’t you leave me alone?”

    Xolin blinked. What was *that* supposed to mean?

    Coros stood up as well, his hands sliding into his pockets, “Please Sid, reconsider. Believe it or not, this really is a mission of intergalactic importance. The fate of the known universe rests on you”.

    “Right. And why should I believe anything you say?” Sid asked, venom dripping from his tone, “You’ve done nothing but try to manipulate me from the moment you met me”.

    The aquitian sighed. He had hoped to do this later, but perhaps he had misjudged Sid, “Very well. I represent an organization known as the Peacekeepers. We are a ranger unit charged with defense of the member worlds of the Confederacy”.

    Sid snorted in contempt as he folded his arms, “Nice try. But we all know the Confederacy banned all ranger and rider projects after the War, when we split from the Alliance and SPD”.

    “Officially, yes. Unofficially, the Confederacy still recognizes the threat posed not only by SPD and the Alliance, but the other major local powers as well. The Vile Imperium, the Pirate Consortium…and our troubling reports of resurgence in activity in the Machine Empire, amongst others. The universe needs rangers, Sid. Heroes. Those who will fight and defend their homes when no one else can. We may not be…*officially* condoned by the Senate, but make no mistake, we *are* the good guys”.

    “So the reason a bunch of covert ops Confederacy types are prowling around in SPD-held territory…?”

    “Classified for now, I’m afraid” Coros replied matter-of-factly, “We have many enemies. If you’re not willing to join, then you’re a potential security risk, and I’ve already told you far more than you’re supposed to know”

    Uh huh. Yeah, this totally sounded legit, and not in any way a practiced speech. “Right, okay. So, assuming for a moment that I believe a word you’re saying—which I don’t for the record, what’s up with the girl?” Sid asked, curious.

    “Let us just say she is a child of extraordinary importance and power, even if she doesn’t look like much”.

    So basically, classified. Great, “Welp, thanks for the pep talk. I’m out”.

    “Sid, wait, please” Coros pleaded. For the first time, Sid thought he heard genuine concern coming out of his voice. Probably another trick but…why wait until now to pull out the acting chops? The aquitian continued when Sid did indeed pause, “I can’t tell you why she’s important, but I can tell you that she *is*. You were chosen for your experience and intelligence. While circumstances prevented you from rising very high in the ranks, your file puts you as one the most well-equipped people to handle this. The other two are green, they need you, if only just this once”.

    “Green!?” Xolin spoke up, incensed, “What do you mean green!?” She had been at this for *months*. She was a veteran!

    Trok sat down on a pile of debris, a bit confused, “Yeah, I’m green. She’s blue”.

    “…Not now, Trok” Xolin sighed in annoyance, before turning her attention back to the ingrate who just insulted her awesome skills, she didn’t even care if it was her mission contact, “I’m Xolin of Triforia! I’m *awesome* and skilled and can handle anything you throw at me. I don’t need some washed up quitter mercenary” she pointed at Sid, who seemed a little taken aback, “To hold my hand and make sure I’m okay, got it!?”

    “Someone’s touchy” Sid replied. Evidently that was the wrong thing to say, because even with her helmet on, Xolin looked like she was going to murder him. Thankfully, Coros intervened.

    “You are still young, Xolin. And these orders come directly from Iota” he said. The anger seemed to somewhat subside from her body, replaced by disappointment as she turned her attention to the aquitian.

    “Iota? But…why?!” she asked. Sid was quickly building a makeshift list of her psychology in his head; driven, high-strung, cocky but with a very delicate ego. She had skill, but was also fairly new at this, as Coros had said. She’d won some victories, but hadn’t really had a bad defeat yet. As for the other one…he was really inexperienced. And if he was taking cues from Xolin…oh boy. These two were going to get slaughtered by the tank robot. Just like them.

    Sigh.

    He repressed memories as the others continued talking.

    “Xolin, you have shown much promise, but you aren’t ready for leadership yet. Your er…stunt upon arriving here is proof of that” Xolin moved to counter, but Coros cut her off before she even opened her mouth, “And don’t bother lying about it, I saw the footage on your way here. You need to refine your skills, and Sid would have made a perfect mentor in that regard”.

    “Even now Iota doesn’t trust me” Xolin muttered, her fists balling up, “Months of this stuff and he still thinks I’m just a kid”.

    “…It takes more than a few months to be an expert at this stuff” Sid finally spoke up quietly, but with an air of gravity that hadn’t been there a second ago. He looked down at the rubble at his feet, “How much?”

    “How much what?” asked Xolin, hands on her hips impatiently.

    “…How much are you willing to pay me?” he clarified, his gaze turning to Coros.

    “Fifty thousand credits” the old man replied, not missing a beat.

    Dang. That was a lot of money, even he had to admit. They must have been desperate. Sid closed his eyes and exhaled. Damn it. “…Fine. You’ve got me for the rest of this mission. I’ll make sure everyone gets home safe”.

    “And then?” asked Coros.

    Sid returned to looking at the rubble, “…And then I take my fifty grand and go on vacation or something. I dunno. Just not here, and not with you”.

    Coros nodded, “Thank you”.

    “Thank me *after* I’ve saved the day” Sid replied, glumly. He looked at Xolin, “You guys coming?”

    Xolin folded her arms, “Why should I take orders from you?” she sneered.

    “Because I’m the best thing you’ve got” Sid replied, not entirely confidently, but still rather glumly.

    “And because it’s an order” Coros added, to which Xolin let her arms back down in a defeated snit. Sid could tell she was going to be a joy to work with. Oh well, better get this show on the road. The quicker he saved the princess or whatever, the quicker he could get the hell out of here. The red ranger looked over his morpher while the blue ranger and the aquitian talked. Hrm, it seemed that the tank was already near the closest launch pad.

    “If we’re gonna do this, we gotta do it now” Sid said, “Big guy’s already almost to home base. Everyone, follow me” with that, Sid turned and headed down the hallway at a low run. Trok shrugged and followed, leaving an extremely grumpy Xolin behind.

    She sighed, “I hate my life” the blue ranger said, before chasing after them.

    Coros watched them vanish around a darkened pile of debris for a moment, before pulling a communicator out of his pocket. “Coros here. Big fish has swallowed the bait. He wasn’t too happy though, you’ll need to entice him further once the mission is complete”.

    “Understood. Good work, Coros”.

    “The girl wasn’t too happy either. May want to settle her down before she does something reckless”.

    “She’ll live” said the voice, “Xolin’s impatient and headstrong. But she’ll learn, sooner or later. The Megaship is enroute. Keep tabs on them until I arrive. Iota out”.

    Coros snapped his communicator shut, shoved his hands back into his pockets, and strode off, hoping to get out of the warzone before more SPD troops arrived. The less questions, the better.

    ---

    A new ranger! Holy crap! Trok was beside himself, this was a really awesome turn of events. Xolin didn’t seem happy for some reason, but he didn’t get why. Another ranger meant another friend, another comrade to the team. And Sid seemed pretty cool—and most of all, experienced.

    “So, uh…my name’s Trok!” he said to Sid, fairly clumsily. He mentally cursed himself. Don’t be so needy! Let him breath. He didn’t want the new leader to hate him already.

    “Trok huh?” asked Sid as they ran, “….That’s Horathean, isn’t it?”

    Trok beamed in gratitude, “Yes sir! Glad to meet you!”

    Sid laughed and shook his head. They came to a stop at a pair of elevators, Xolin rounding the corner right behind them, “No formal ranks here, kid. I’m just your substitute teacher”.

    “Care to explain to me why we stopped at a pair of elevators when the power’s out, oh glorious leader?” asked Xolin, again with not just a little sarcasm.

    “You’re going to be just peachy to work with, aren’t you?” Sid grumbled. He didn’t even bother to look in her direction, instead grasping at the space between the elevator doors. He pulled them open after giving a small grunt. They were a bit more stubborn than he had expected, even with his ranger powers.

    “I’m just saying” Xolin retorted. He may have stolen her right as leader, but damned if she wasn’t going to fight for it to her dying breath.

    Sid said nothing in response, instead simply pulling off the control panel inside the elevator and going to work. He began pressing buttons on his morpher, activating the holo-display for a moment, before two ports opened up on the side, “Everyone better get inside. This thing is about to get supercharged with morphin’ grid energy”.

    “What are you gonna do?” asked Trok, curious.

    Sid smiled, “An old trick I learned at the academy. Watch”. The red ranger connected his morpher to a couple of wires, and immediately, the elevator lit up and shut the doors.

    “Awesome!” Trok said, clearly impressed. Xolin just watched in quiet annoyance; why was Trok suddenly such a big hero worshipper of this guy? He showed up literally out of nowhere.

    “Next stop, top floor!” Sid pressed the button on the elevator wall, and the room shot up a three times the normal speed.

    “Is this safe?!” asked Xolin worriedly, gripping tight to the railing as the entire room shook violently. As soon as she finished asking though, the entire group got swept off their feet and onto the ground as the shaking stopped and the elevator opened.

    “Probably not” Sid replied gingerly, standing up and brushing himself off. He stepped out onto the launching pad, followed by the other two, “But it’s quick”. The place was quiet; most of the civilians had escaped during the earlier confrontation with the monster, when SPD evacuated the building. And if they hadn’t then, they surely would have when part of the roof collapsed—as all three of them could attest to. And indeed, to their right, a large gaping hole lay where part of the tower had once been. Sid grimaced; he wondered just how stable the rest of this launch tower was.

    There was no visual sign of the tank yet, but it was a big space port; numerous ships of varying sizes and shapes were littered about, empty and devoid of occupants. Not as many as when he had arrived here earlier; a number had evidently fled, but plenty still remained behind.

    “So, what now, glorious leader?”

    “Will you stop calling me that? My name is Sid” the red ranger called back to blue.

    “What, trying to be humble, now?”

    “…You are such a child” he said, as he started to become genuinely irritated with her. She huffed. “Oh, what?” he asked, “Are you really that thin skinned? Fun-fact, not everything is about you”.

    “And you would know?” she bit back.

    He chuckled, “Well, I *am* better than you, so…”

    “Excuse me?!” Xolin flared up in righteous indignation. They were never going to find his body; she would make sure of that.

    “Guys!” Trok called, now over behind one of the vehicle and peering around the side. Sweet jeeze, could they be any louder? And here he had thought he was the kid in the group, “Not right now! Look!”

    The other two rangers huddled over to Trok’s position. Sure enough, there was the tank…and a bunch of other monsters and creatures. Because the tank hadn’t been enough. Sigh.

    Sid’s mind raced with battle options. “Okay. So uh…plan. I distract the tank. Trok, keep the others occupied. Xolin, you grab the girl. Go!”


    “Got it!” Trok said enthusiastically. Ranger battle!

    “Wait!” Xolin said, but it was already too late; both Trok and Sid had raced out to meet the bad guys. Idiots! And why was Trok suddenly so star struck!? Ugh. Trok didn’t have the skillset to fight off multiple opponents! Damnit. Xolin raced out behind them, hoping to somehow salvage what she assumed was going to be a very unpleasant affair.

    ---

    Capricorn was having a very good night, all things considered. Artillar had taken out most of the SPD forces in the building, leaving the rest scattered and dazed. He had the girl, for which his employers would pay him handsomely for. And best of all, no muss, no fuss. The goat pirate lord was about to leave this two-bit world just after getting here, and he was going to be friggin’ rich.

    “Good work, Artillar” he said, highly impressed with his simple-minded thrall, “secure her in the hold. We have a rendezvous in the Randian sector to make”.

    At his command, the rest of his crew began to prepare for takeoff. Two of them, the two tengas Sid had seen harassing Coros earlier, got the girl off of Artillar. Sid also took note of a few others; a varox, that piranhatron from earlier, and a stag beetle monster.

    Fun group.

    “Nuh, uh, uh” the red ranger said, coming out from around a corner, soon flanked by green and blue, “Put the girl down”.

    Capricorn, almost to the door to his ship, turned and faced the rangers, “…and you would be…?” he drawled out, slightly amused by this turn of events.

    “Power Rangers, duh” Sid said, brandishing his axe, “Now how about you do as I said?”

    The goat chuckled, and then responded with joviality “I think not. Boys, show them what happens to interlopers”

    The other two rangers brought out their weapons. Sid nodded. This was familiar. “Right, remember the plan. Xolin, girl. Trok, monsters. I got tankenstine over there. Go!”

    “Wait…damnit!” Xolin called, again ignored as the other two broke rank. The blue ranger immediately noticed her target; Sel was being dragged into the ship by the two tenga. Okay, easy enough. She could take them out, then get the girl to safety. Then hopefully she could pull Trok out before he was crushed into the dirt. Stupid friggin’ plan by the glorious leader, by the way. Sure, send the inexperienced member up against multiple opponents, including what looked to be the brains of the operation. Perfect. Why not.

    She was going to throttle Iota when she saw him.

    Charging up her weapon, she flew past the rest of the battlefield and cut into one of the tenga. He fell over in a flash of sparks as she quickly incapacitated the other, grabbing Sel by her right arm. “Okay, let’s get you away…” she whispered, more for her own benefit than the unconscious girl. Then she heard a cry. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Trok collapsing after being cut through by the goat monster’s sword.

    “TROK!” she shouted, dropping Sel. Gripping her weapon, she flung herself into her teammate’s opponent. The two traded a series of blows, a seeming match for each other. This wasn’t so hard! Psh, ‘green’. Right.

    “XOLIN!” Sid called out, rolling out of the way of Artillar’s arms, “What are you doing?! Get the girl!” Was she *trying* to spite him?

    Xolin looked over where she had left Sel—the tengas had scurried inside the ship, and the varox was carrying the girl inside. “NO!” she shouted, but her moment of distraction cost her dearly; Capricorn’s blade cut through her like butter, a shower of sparks erupting from the point of impact. Xolin collapsed to the ground next to Trok.

    “NO!” Sid broke from his fight, making a direct beeline for Sel—and was immediately cut down by Artillar’s guns as soon as he had a clear shot. Rookie mistake…

    “…That’s it?” asked Capricorn, in an earnest bit of confusion, “That was…easier than I expected. Heh. Pathetic” he kicked Xolin over as she struggled to get back up, then walked towards his ship.

    “What should we do with them?” asked the varox.

    Capricorn looked back at the three injured rangers, “…Destroy them. We don’t need anyone fol—” the pirate trailed off as he began to hear something; a spaceship thundered in. Except it wasn’t a regular transport it was… “…A Megaship. Defender class” he whispered to himself as the black and silver triangular warship soared in. It was sleek even with the undercarriage, almost invisible in the night air, and as he well knew, armed to the teeth. The rangers’ cavalry had arrived. He spoke up to the rest of the crew, “Never mind! Leave the wounded, everyone get onboard. We’re taking off, NOW!”

    The remaining crew shuffled aboard, and a few seconds later it lifted off the ground. The Megaship attempted to shoot it down, but the pirate vessel quickly veered off into the distance. It was not pursued—the Megaship had other concerns to deal with.

    ---

    Sid was getting really tired of waking up in an unfamiliar place after feeling like he had been trampled via stampede. “Ugh…my head”.

    “Welcome back to the world of the living”

    Sid looked over as he sat up in a…medical bed. There in front of him stood an armored ranger-like figure, though very different in design than the rest of the team. More like a knight, almost.

    “Ugh…and you are?” Sid asked, realizing he had shifted back to civilian form.

    The figure bowed slightly, “I am Iota. Welcome aboard the Defender Megaship. I hope you enjoy your stay. You have of course met Xolin and Trok” he motioned to the triforian and horathean sitting up in the other beds next to his, where Coros was looking them over.

    “Psh. Yeah, thanks for nothing, buddy” Xolin shot angrily, folding her arms in contempt even as Coros waved his medical scanner over her, “Your plan pretty much netted us zilch; the bad guys got away with Sel, and we got nothin’ but a bunch of cuts and bruises for our troubles”.

    “Not my fault you can’t follow orders” Sid bit back, “If you had done what I told you, you’d have the girl and everyone would have gone home happy”.

    “Y’know, except Trok” Xolin said, waving to the horathean, “I don’t know what you learned at ‘The Academy’, but I don’t do ‘acceptable losses’. I take care of my team!”

    Oh, she did NOT. Sid jumped off of the medical bed, his face contorted in pure rage, “How DARE Y—”

    “Enough!” Iota cut in, “It wasn’t the best plan, Xolin is right. But it is clear you need to learn the importance of teamwork and the chain of command” he said, directing his attention to the seething blue ranger. “You can reflect on it while we are en-route”.

    “En-route to where?” asked Trok, eager to steer the conversation away from the fighting. He hated the fighting.

    Iota seemed a bit hesitant, “We are tracking the enemy ship. We believe…Capricorn, as we have identified him, is heading for Onyx. We are in pursuit”.

    Predictably, both Sid and Xolin’s faces drained of color.

    “You can’t be serious” Sid said, “Onyx is a deathtrap”.

    “This is why subtlety is a virtue” Iota replied, once again eying Xolin. “Rest up; we’ll be arriving in a few hours. And next time, I expect a better plan” he said, aiming at Sid this time.

    “You abduct me, and then tell me I’m not performing up to standards?” Sid asked incredulously, “Who do you think you are?”

    Iota looked Sid over, “…I am the man paying you a small fortune. And I am also the man who knows, as well as you do, that you are capable of so much more than the stunt you just pulled. You’re already along for the ride, so you may as well make the best of it” with that, the knight figure left the medbay, Coros in tow. Sid was left with a slight headache—he wasn’t sure if it was from getting hit in the head with missiles and entire buildings, or from the gall-ridden inanity that had become the last few hours of his life. He and Xolin looked at each other, viewing the other with nothing but contempt, before averting their eyes in disgust. Trok sighed; so much for teamwork.

    ---

    Sel awoke to quiet; only creaking metal and the low rumbling of engines. Her cell was small and dirty, and the ship was dark and cramped.

    “Good morning” said a voice. Sel looked over, seeing a large goat monster sitting in a chair just outside of her cage, “Glad to see you’ve finally decided to join us”.

    “…Who are you?” she asked quietly, trying hard not to show fear…she wasn’t succeeding very well, “Where am I?”

    The goat chuckled softly, “I am Capricorn, a pirate captain. We are on my ship, and you are my honored guest. As for where we’re going well…does Onyx ring any bells?”

    Sel swallowed, terrified, “…Why?”

    Why? Why did they want her? Why did anyone, everyone want her? She couldn’t even remember anything from more than a few months ago. Coros found her on Arkilla and…why did everyone want *her*?

    Capricorn rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as if pondering himself, “That’s where your er…buyers have elected to meet. I wouldn’t get too comfortable here if I were you, it’s not that long a trip at the speeds we’re going” the goat bleated in laughter, leaving Sel alone in her room. She simply sat there, silent. Alone, with nothing but her thoughts and fears.

    …Why her?

    TO BE CONTINUED…
     
  3. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.02: LESS THAN PERFECT, part 2

    He wore a business suit, and carried with him a briefcase of which Capricorn, in all his dealings with the man, had never seen the inside of. To the unobservant, they saw a normal Caucasian human male, somewhere in his mid to late thirties; just a typical businessman--never mind that he was currently acting as an envoy for Capricorn’s mysterious but-almost-certainly-illegal employers. He had been used by them since they had begun contacting Capricorn over a year ago. Every month or two he’d have another mission for the pirate crew; ‘steal this item’, or ‘break into that research facility’. The targets, as far as Capricorn could tell, had no rhyme or reason or overarching plan. In that respect, ‘kidnap a xybrian girl’ fit right in.

    But whatever, they paid handsomely enough. Who was Capricorn to complain?

    “My employers will be very pleased you have the girl. And in such a timely manner, too” the man said, currently plastered across Capricorn’s viewscreen on his bridge, while the goat monster sat slouched in his chair. He didn’t actually know the man’s name; when asked, the man had simply referred to himself as an ‘Emissary’. How melodramatic. The man continued, “May I ask what your ETA to Onyx is expected to be?”

    Capricorn smiled, “A matter of hours, I assure you. We are already en-route, but well…Alliance space is far from Onyx and the rest of the Pirate Consortium”.

    The man nodded, “Understandable. I look forward to your arrival”.

    With that, the contact link was severed, leaving the viewscreen with nothing on it but flying stars. Capricorn stood up, turning to Vl’nox, “Inform me when we arrive in orbit. I’ll be in my quarters”.

    “Yes sir” Capricorn heard his varox officer reply, as he walked off the bridge.

    Soon, very soon.

    ---

    Sid had to give this organization credit; they certainly had the resources to deploy themselves some nice spaceships. Certainly, the Defender class of Megaship wasn’t exactly *new* persay—they had been designed and built as a mass-production line before the war to work as a quick hit-and-run border guard against the Vile Imperium. But most of them within Confederate space had been mothballed or outright decommissioned when it shut down its own branches of SPD and (officially) outlawed ranger activity--but still, this ship was obviously well-furnished and maintained.

    He shook his head in amusement. For all its assertions that they didn’t need super soldiers to do their jobs for them, it would seem that the Confederacy did indeed still employ ranger teams—if only covertly. Sid wondered what the backlash would be if the beans were spilled. It would make sense that they’d not let Sid in on any more of their secrets without him committing—what they’d done was enough to incite a revolt as it was.

    If they were legit, that was, which Sid wasn’t *entirely* convinced of yet.

    “…And in here is our work bay! We usually use this to…well, work on stuff. Repair equipment, work on personal projects, build stuff we need…”

    Oh, right. The horathean was trying to give him the ‘grand tour’ of the ship, maybe he should be paying attention to that at all, if only to keep from hurting his feelings. From the second Sid had woken up on the ship, Trok had just zeroed in on him, instantly star struck for reasons Sid couldn’t even fathom. Hadn’t the kid almost just died because of his plan? And it was crazy; it was like he never got tired.

    “…And over here’s the synthatron, where we make our food…”

    “Yeah, I know what a synthatron is” Sid replied with just a hint of bemusement.

    Trok thought sheepishly for a moment, remembering why exactly Sid had been hired on, “Huh, yeah. I guess you would. Anyway, over here is where we put our skycycles when they need repairs. Er…or rather, we did, before we got them blown up. Anyway…” he continued, but Sid’s train of thought was quickly leaving the station again.

    At least one good thing was coming out of this—Xolin was in a fit of twitching rage since Trok had latched on to him so much. Her expression as Trok led the two of them away from the medbay had been priceless. In response, Sid had only looked back and winked with a smug grin—a response that had only further sent the blue ranger into conniptions. He was really beginning to love aggravating her. It was therapeutic.

    “So why don’t you want to stick around?”

    Well, THAT question came out of nowhere. Sid glanced back at the young horathean. He could tell there was a bit of disappointment in the kid’s face—he was pretty much the definition of ‘wearing one’s emotions on one’s sleeve’. Aw.

    Sid sighed, hands in his pockets, “It’s nothing personal, really. I just…it’s a long story. One you’d probably have to get me really drunk to tell. I just don’t do ranger stuff anymore”.

    “Bad experience?” the horathean asked, as they continued walking again.

    Sid nodded, chuckling, “Yeah. Yeah, you could say that”

    “So there’s no way at all to convince you to stay after this mission is over?”

    Sid’s eyebrow arched, “Why *do* you want me around so badly anyway?”

    Trok rubbed his arm self-conciously as he looked away, “I dunno. I just think it’d be fun. You seem like a cool guy, and it’d be nice to have another member of the team. Xolin’s awesome and all, but it’s just the two of us. Well, and Iota. But he’s not much of a ‘team’ person really. Just sort of…locks himself away in his room”.

    “Ah. I’m sure you’ll find someone just as awesome” Sid replied, “There’s plenty of people with skills out there”.

    “Yeah, but I already kinda like your skills”

    “Give it a rest, Trok. No means no” Xolin stood at the corner of the hallway they had been walking down, leaning against the wall with her arms folded and one foot up against the bulkhead.

    Trok’s shoulders slumped. “Right, sorry. I didn’t mean anything” he said, looking back at Sid.

    Sid waved him off with a smile, “It’s fine, really”.

    “We’ve arrived” Xolin cut in again, her voice remaining even, if not a little sullen, “Iota wants to see us in the launch hanger”.

    Trok nodded and hurried off. Sid followed more casually, passing Xolin who began to follow Trok as well. “…Thanks, I think” Sid said, not completely sure how to take this.

    “We all got our reasons” she muttered, “But don’t think this changes anything” she passed him up, hurrying after Trok, leaving Sid in the rear.

    “Hrmph” he crossed his arms in, again, bemusement, “What a nice place”.

    ---

    The launch hanger was visibly similar to the work bay in size and shape; just replace the tables and benches with a large bulkhead door at the far end and dimmer lighting. Not that that was really surprising; most passenger-type Megaships were utilitarian and modular in design. After all, their main purpose was combat and quick deployment, not civilian comfort. Still, they were never too bad for a small crew.

    Sid arrived after Trok and Xolin, finding Iota there waiting for him. The warrior nodded at Sid, “Glad you could finally make it”. Sid gave a slightly incredulous look, but said nothing. Iota continued, “We’ve arrived at Onyx, making landfall in the northern wastes, about half a mile from the settlement of Nar’war; far enough to be out of sight, but close enough that it’s not too bad of a walk”.

    Sid shrugged, “Um…teleportation?” he asked, with a hint of snark.

    Iota shook his head, as if he hadn’t even noticed the sarcasm, “No. Unauthorized teleportation would risk setting off orbital scanners, even on outlaw worlds like Onyx. We rarely use it. And thanks to the…prior mission, we no longer have the skycycles either. We’ll need to requisition some more during our next resupply run”. Xolin seemed moderately embarrassed, Sid noted. She was almost too easy to torment.

    “You’ll need cloaks to blend in; average human types aren’t very welcome here. Or horatheans” Iota added, nodding to Trok. Pressing a button on a controller embedded in his wrist, three cloaks dropped down from above on hangers right in front of the rangers.

    “…Are you serious” Sid muttered to himself about the theatrics, grabbing his. The doors to the ship slid open, flooding the hanger with harsh desert sunlight. Beyond lay the great wastes; most of Onyx were covered in them. Nothing but sand, dirt, and strange desert formations, occasionally broken up by salt flats and the rare oasis. It was really no wonder that all settlements on Onyx were incredibly small; if anything, it was a wonder there were any settlements at all.

    As the three threw their cloaks on, Iota continued, “The settlement of Nar’war has just a small number of buildings; two major streets, that’s it. So luckily, there’s not too much to comb. There’s probably at least one bar, as well as the resident shipyard; Capricorn could be in either place. Good luck”.

    Just after the rangers stepped out of the ship, they found the door abruptly shutting behind them.

    “…That was just a bit rude” Sid said.

    Xolin passed him, “That’s Iota. Get used to it. Come on, the town is still a bit of a walk”.

    Trok quickly hurried after her, again leaving Sid in third place as he casually followed them into the barren desert.

    ---

    Twenty-seven. This was world number twenty-seven Trok had set foot on. He had of course been to a number of worlds multiple times, but totally unique worlds? Twenty-seven. Amazing, considering that just a few months ago he had never left Horath in his life. And even now, he was always impressed with what he saw; every world was different. Arkilla had been a teeming metropolis in a glacial pit. Awuaron had been his first trip to an Aquitian colony. Veldkar? Steamy jungle with ancient ruins. And of course there had been KO-35, with its massive sprawling high-tech cities. Everywhere he went was unique and vast and just so awesome.

    Onyx in contrast was…a bit of a letdown. There was sand. And rock. And more sand. And sun. It was as if he had never left Horath. And it’s not like desert planets couldn’t be cool; he’d been to Ioalus; he’d seen giant canyons with towns built into them, and impossible towering mesa formations. Onyx just underdelivered.

    “Twenty-seven worlds, and this is the first one that didn’t impress me” he muttered. Xolin’s face broke into a wry grin. It was always good when he got her to smile or laugh; she was a tough room. Especially since Sid had come aboard.

    Sid spoke up, “You’ll find the interesting planets are the ones everyone likes to visit. They’re on well-traveled routes. Barren, inhospitable worlds? Those are the backwoods. No one wants them, and they’re a dime a dozen in any star system. Makes them the perfect place to set up shop if you’re a crime syndicate or other malcontent”.

    Trok digested this for a moment, before asking, “So…what *is* Onyx anyway? Like, I always hear it mentioned, but I can't ever find a site with much information on it”.

    “You ever watch ‘Star Wars’?” asked Sid. The horathean blinked, confused. Sid sighed and chuckled to himself, shaking his head as they continued to march through the empty wastes, “Nevermind. Onyx is…well, it’s a haven for bandits, pirates, swindlers…” he listed off nouns like he had recited this particular line many, *many* times, “…crime lords, mercenaries, freelance adventurers, and pretty much anyone else that doesn’t fit in to ‘civilized’ society. Rule of thumb: don’t look anyone in the eye. Also don’t buy anything. Or eat anything. Or talk to anyone” Sid thought for a moment, “Actually, best not to breath heavily either. Or—”.

    “So don’t do anything and we’ll be fine, then” Xolin waved back to him, cutting him off. Was he their travel agent or something?

    Sid grinned, “I didn’t say that”.

    As if to punctuate his words, a town became visible as they rounded the last sandy dune. It wasn’t even remotely impressive; just a bunch of ramshackle huts lined up in a couple of rows, surrounding a dirt path. A number of residents could be seen going about their business, all of them either wrapped in cloaks, monstrous, or both.

    “Welcome to Nar’war, scenic capital of the northern wastes. Please feel free to browse the gift shop, and don’t forget to sign the guest book” Xolin said, stopping in her tracks to take a good long look at the place.

    “Best to keep moving, no attention is good attention” Sid replied, prodding her along. She protested, but kept going anyway.

    “So now what?” asked Trok, hoping to divert the other two away from yet another fight.

    Sid glanced around, “…It’s not that big of a place. Your boss was right about the saloon and the shipyard. If I had to figure, I’d guess that—” whatever Sid was about to say, no one ever got to hear it, as at that moment a particularly shifty-looking gentlemen with odd implants and a cloak hurried up to them.

    “Welcome! Welcome!” the man said, enthusiastically shaking Xolin’s hand with both of his. She pulled hers away with a disgusted expression on her face, “Welcome to Nar’war, fellow travelers!” Sid withdrew his hand before the man could shake it. Instead, he settled for Trok.

    “Uh…thanks!” Trok said, oblivious to the reactions of the other two and more than a little overwhelmed by the strange, friendly man, “And you are?”

    “I am just a traveler, like yourself” the man replied enthusiastically, “And I come with fantastic artifacts” he opened his cloak, revealing a number of odd objects inside. Trok’s eyes were immediately drawn to a strange golden egg device with strange runes. They seemed almost familiar. The man caught on quickly, “Aaah, I see you eying the…Triforian egg of power” he pulled it out of his coat.

    “Er…” Trok started to say, but the man continued unabated.

    “It’s a fascinating object, really. Incredibly rare. Very valuable, but I’d be willing to work in a discount. Legend holds that the first king of Triforia, when he was uniting the houses, fought a powerful morphin’ master allied to a rival clan. He sealed the master away within his own artifact and—”

    “No he didn’t”

    “I…pardon?” asked the man to Xolin. She stood there, annoyed and with her arms crossed. Trok also turned his attention to her, having been shaken out of the engrossing tale he man had been weaving.

    Xolin continued, “The first king was Trialous the first, twenty-seven thousand years ago. The masters vanished millions of years ago. And there’s no record of him fighting one, in legends or otherwise”.

    “…It’s an obscure legend” the man replied, annoyed himself now, “As I was saying, the king—hey!”

    Sid pulled the object right out of the man’s hand, looking it over, “Huh. Didn’t know morphin’ masters built their ancient all-powerful artifacts out of plastic. Silly me”.

    “Give that back!” the man growled, grabbing for his stolen prize. Instead Xolin took it, looking it over herself.

    “The runes aren’t even anything. I think it’s a gimmick font on my computer”.

    “…Oh. Yeah!” Trok said, suddenly realizing where he’d seen them before, and now a little embarrassed he had bought into the man’s story at all. Ugh.

    Xolin tossed the object back to the swindler, who barely caught it with his palms, “Go peddle your forgeries to someone who cares” she bit at him, “And next time, do some homework”. The man growled and wrapped his cloak around himself, trotting off back into the town.

    “…What did I say about making eye contact?” asked Sid, to Trok.

    A slight twinge of embarrassment hit Trok, “Sorry. He was just so…yeah. Sorry”. Man, his first attempt to impress Sid, and he’d already fouled it up. On the other hand…his eyes lit up as he looked up from the ground to Sid and Xolin, his voice full of wonder, “But still, that was *awesome*!”

    “…What was?” asked Xolin, confused.

    Trok pointed at both them enthusiastically. He *knew* they could work together, “That whole thing! The two of you! He was bein’ all sneaky, and then you guys shut him down like it was nothing. Like tag teaming or something. That was great!”

    Sid and Xolin looked at each other for a moment with bewildered glares. Then they looked back at Trok, and then at each other again. A series of expressions flooded through their faces; confusion, concern, annoyance, disgust, embarrassment…

    “So!” Xolin said, clearing her throat and beginning to walk again, “The local bar then”.

    “Shipyard” Sid countered. Xolin bunched up her fists and she turned back around. Uh oh.

    “Pardon?”

    Sid pointed to the other end of town from where Xolin had been heading. A number of small ships could be seen parked at the edge of the settlement, “Shipyard. Bad guys 101: you leave your cargo in the ship while you go and have a drink or whatever. No use getting it stolen by a bunch of lowlifes”

    Xolin eyed him, a suspicious expression on her face, “So…you want me to go to the shipyard”.

    “Yep”.

    “Saloon it is!” Xolin spun back around and headed towards the large building down the street. Sid sighed. “Come Trok!” Xolin shouted back at the horathean. Trok shrugged at Sid awkwardly and hurried after Xolin, leaving Sid behind.

    Trok exasperatingly blew a puff of air through his lips. He hated this. The two of them were almost working together there for a second. Why wouldn’t they just get along? Blah. Oh well, maybe by splitting up they could track down the girl faster.

    ---

    Bah. Bunch of amateurs.

    Sid sauntered his way over to the shipyard. Well…’shipyard’ was generous, in that the location was only a ‘shipyard’ in the most literal sense: it was a large patch of flat dirt with a number of small craft parked on it. Hence, well, ‘shipyard’. Most of the vessels were just as hodge-podge as the town itself; random bits and pieces hobbled together into some sort of makeshift craft. There were a few nicer ones; ships he could pick out as having once been Karovian, or Edenite, or…was that an Eltarian ship? Huh. Didn’t see many of those on the black market, or outside Eltarian space at all. Someone must have gotten lucky.

    It had always one of Sid’s hobbies to point out ship designs to himself. He loved ship classes; how each one was different and served a different purpose; how two separate organizations could look at the same problem and come away with completely different solutions. Plus, y’know…spaceships were cool. Like, take the Eltarian one; sure at this point it was beaten up and parts had been replaced with makeshift repairs, but one could still see the elegance of pure Eltarian design underneath; the shiny silver surface, the smooth curves and elongated nose, and how it all fit together and gave off the appearance some highly advanced and ethereal culture.

    Beyond a particularly ugly mess of metal with engines strapped to it, he saw a familiar one. Also fairly ugly and hodgepodge-y, but Sid recognized it as Capricorn’s vessel. And right outside of it stood the varox from the fight on Arkilla, probably on guard duty.

    Perfect.

    “I’m here on business with your captain” Sid said, after first making sure his face was hidden by the cloak, “Where can I find him?” Rule one when bluffing: assume within reason.

    The varox looked at him inquisitively, “…Are you here about the Arkilla job?” he asked, obviously bored, “Capricorn’s with the rest your lot discussing prices back at the saloon”.

    Capricorn was out AND he had an in. Sid smiled to himself; this was going to be like taking candy from a baby.

    “I was sent ahead to see the merchandise for myself” Sid replied, keeping his voice low and growl-like. “May I?”

    Even though the varox’s mask couldn’t show expressions, Sid could almost feel the annoyance and incredulity radiating off him, “…The girl is with Capricorn. Are you always so inept about your job?”

    Er…crap.

    “Ah…my mistake. Bad er…directions. I’ll be going, thank you for your time”.

    The varox snorted in derision, returning to his silent vigil as Sid slipped away. That was close—sometimes bluffing just did not go well. Sid mentally cursed himself for mis-estimating his situation. …Wait…the girl was with Capricorn? At the bar?

    …That meant Xolin had been right.

    Sonuva…

    ---

    The first thing Trok noticed upon entering the saloon was that it was crowded. Also, that it was filthy. And loud. And chaotic. And…did that guy have a sword growing out the back of his head? Wow. He idly wondered if that was an actual thing with his species, or some sort of really bad accident. As Xolin led him in, he couldn’t help but stare. She must have taken notice, because Xolin suddenly grabbed his hand and pulled him along.

    “No eye contact” she hissed. Keep to yourself. Right. Silly him. Still, he stole himself a few more casual glances at the rest of the denizens; various mutants, monsters, and otherwise scary-looking bad guys.

    …Was that a Cog?

    “There” Xolin said, pointing to a table at the far corner of the building. True enough, Trok recognized the goat monster, who was sitting with a small group of others—the two Pirahnatrons and the tank monster, as well as two people hidden by cloaks. “Bingo” she said, a small smile forming.

    Wait, something was off, “…Where’s the girl?” Trok asked.

    Xolin scanned the scene, her expression briefly faulting, before smiling again and pointing discreetly, “No, she’s there. See? The cloaked figure on the left; they’re bound by the Pirahnatrons. That’s gotta be her”.

    Trok nodded, getting it now, “Ah! Right. Silly me”.

    The triforian looked over at the bar counter, and then motioned to Trok, “Come on. Let’s get a seat at the bar for now”.

    “But what about the girl?” asked Trok, looking back at the meeting.

    “Too many people here; we could start a scene. Best to wait until they’re done, and then ambush them outside”.

    “…A stakeout!” Trok said happily, a little too loudly. Xolin gave him a withering glare, though thankfully it seemed that in the mania that was the saloon, no one had heard him. Trok chuckled nervously, “Uh…heh, sorry”.

    “Can’t take you anywhere” Xolin sighed, pulling him towards the counter. He knew she didn’t *really* mean that of course, it was just how Xolin was. Though, granted, that was a mistake just now that shouldn’t have happened. Trok took the stool next to Xolin, making subtle attempts to peer out to the corner where Capricorn sat. Attempted subtlety, anyway.

    “Don’t worry about them. I’ve got my eye on the situation. Just keep your head down and quiet” Xolin said quietly; encouragingly, but firmly. Trok nodded and returned to a neutral sitting position.

    “I don’t believe I’ve seen you before” another voice said. Xolin glanced to her side; some mutant was now leaning on the counter next to her, his face inquisitive. Ugh, no.

    “Get lost, worm” Xolin spat at him with all the disgust she could muster, “We’re waiting for someone. Not you”.

    “Sorry” the bar patron said. He put his hands up and backed away, “See you around”.

    “…You’re really good at this” Trok said, as soon as the man was out of earshot.

    Xolin shrugged, “I lived from bar to bar after I left home, remember? I know how this works. Don’t worry about it”.

    It was true, she had mentioned that—not much else though. Trok didn’t know WHY she had left home, but the fact that she never talked about it spoke wonders. Sorta like how he never talked about his. He figured it was sort of a mutual understanding between them. Still; he was always curious.

    Xolin, for her part, kept as low of a profile as she could. Every so often she’d make a casual glance at the meeting, but she’d also make sure to take stock of the rest of the place, so as to not arouse suspicion. When approached by the bartender, she continued with her grouchy persona, telling him that she wasn’t in the mood for drinks since she was waiting for someone. The humanoid dinosaur bartender wisely left her alone.

    And while Trok was impressed by this—he was always impressed by Xolin (well…usually, anyway)—man was he bored. How long did it take to have a meeting? What were they even meeting about? Wasn’t there any way they could just lure Capricorn outside?

    Finally, *finally*, Xolin noticed movement coming from Capricorn’s table. They were getting ready to leave.

    “Wait for it…” she whispered to Trok. He couldn’t resist, and turned to look—a rash decision considering it cost the bar patron next to him his drink.

    “Hey!” the mutant shouted, wiping the liquid off of his lap, “Watch it!”

    Trok’s eyes widened in embarrassment, “Oh, I am so sorry!” he said, “Let me just get a towel—”

    “What do you think you’re trying to do?!” the mutant roared, shooting to his feet. Trok stumbled off of his stool, backing into Xolin who had so far been ignoring them as she watched Capricorn prepare to leave.

    “Trok, what are you—” Xolin noticed Trok’s predicament almost immediately, “Back off!” she growled, slipping back into her bar persona.

    This mutant wasn’t so easy to dismiss however, “No, *you* back off! This lout just spilled my drink! He’s gonna pay!”

    “Last warning!” Xolin roared back. The mutant ignored her and pulled out a knife, clearly aiming for Trok. Xolin pushed him out of the way, grabbing the mutant’s arm and tossing him into the nearest table. Almost immediately, Xolin knew she had made a terrible, terrible error, and that she was going to pay for this big time. The mutant began fighting with the other patrons from the table he had been smashed into, and soon that brawl grew like a runaway domino effect—within a minute or two the entire bar was in a free-for-all storm of chaotic fury.

    “…Oops” Trok muttered sheepishly. Man, he just could not catch a break today.

    “Forget it” Xolin pointed to Capricorn, “Get him!”

    Finding it impossible to just waltz over thanks to the swarming mass of monsters and undesirables, Trok and Xolin nodded at each other in succinct agreement, before launching themselves into battle, knocking their opponents aside as they fought their way to the goat at the end of the room.

    For his part, Capricorn found himself equally trapped by the sudden storm of chaos surrounding him. He sighed impatiently, “This is what I get for using Onyx as a meeting place”. At that point, a patron was sent flying through the window next to Capricorn. The goat shrugged and climbed through, motioning to the rest of his group. The two pirahnatrons followed suit with one of the cloaked figures in tow. The other figure grabbed his briefcase off the table and trailed them.

    …And then the tank burst through the wall where the window had been. Capricorn stared at Artillar’s makeshift exit, then shrugged, “Come on, my ship is this way. We can finish our negotiations there”.

    The figure with the briefcase nodded, and followed Capricorn and his crew away from the saloon.

    “STOP!” Xolin yelled as her quarry got away. She was still neck-deep in fighting low-class drunken beasts and couldn’t get to Capricorn. Damn; if he got to his ship…wait. She brought her morpher up to her mouth as she kicked a bee monster aside, “Xolin to Iota. We’re gonna need a favor…”

    ---

    Sid grumbled to himself as he left the parking lot…and that was when he saw an explosion rip through the roof of the saloon at the other end of town, a plume of smoke rocketing into the cloudless sky.

    “…Huh. Somebody must have ticked somebody else off”.

    There was a beat.

    “…Oh, no” Sid sighed as he realized the implications. He rolled his eyes as he picked up his pace; “Because of course she would have…”

    Sid didn’t have far to run though, as he soon caught sight of a number of figures running towards him from the saloon—including a large tank monster.

    “Oh no you don’t!” Sid shouted, pulling his morpher out from under his cloak, “It’s game time!”

    In a flash of brilliant red light, Sid transformed into the red ranger as he closed in, being sure to avoid the tank’s artillery shots. The hero leapt into the air, slamming his foot into one of the pirahnatrons, before landing and swinging back around to knock the other one out. He then ripped off the hood of the cloaked figure to find the green-haired xybrian underneath.

    “Oh! Hello, again” Sid chirped happily, not noticing the other cloaked figure was now making a run for it, or that Capricorn was glaring at the traitor with disgust.

    “Who…do I know you?” Sel asked untrustingly.

    Sid blinked, then remembered she hadn’t seen any of the ranger battle on Arkilla, “Oh, right. Yeah, long story. Don’t worry, I’m with the good guys”.

    “Is that what you’re going with?” asked Caricorn, pulling out twin swords and beckoning to Sid, “How much *did* they pay you?”

    Sid shrugged, smiling under his helmet, “A lot, actually!” pulling his axe from out of nowhere, the red ranger charged the goat, the two combatants entering into an elaborate dance as their blades clashed again and again. While Sid forced Capricorn back, the goat managed to almost skewer the red ranger in his side. Sid dodged out of the way just in time, while also upholstering his sidearm and opening fire on his opponent, their blades still connecting. The red ranger followed up, even as Capricorn ducked from the laser fire, by slamming his boot into the sword holding his axe back, further followed up by a spin kick to the face. Capricorn stumbled back, just in time to see Sid’s axe come right down into his chest. Capricorn’s armor sparked and smoked as the goat monster fell down and rolled away from the ranger. He staggered to his feet.

    “Artillar, NOW!”

    Sid mentally cursed himself; he had neglected the tank, which had locked onto Sid’s signature. While he had been in melee combat with Capricorn he had been safe, but now…

    Explosions punched the air around Sid. The red ranger fell to the ground in a heap. Cackling madly, Capricorn grabbed Sel by her wrist binds and pulled her with him towards his ship.

    Sid struggled to get up, all while the er…‘townspeople’ of Nar’war were watching him warily. A ranger? Here on Onyx? What WAS the universe coming to? Thankfully, none of them seemed like they wanted to tempt fate by taking him on. “Don’t…mind me, folks. Just had a bit of a setback” Sid muttered, finally on his feet. He staggered off, towards Capricorn.

    “Almost there…” Capricorn cackled madly. This whole mission had gone to hell, but at least he still had his prize. He’d just have to contact his associate again and meet on a different world. Maybe somewhere in the Aerolus belt. Or Gratha. Somewhere no one would expect---

    Capricorn’s hope died with his ship. For a moment he couldn’t comprehend what was happening, as the rangers’ megaship vaulted in, its frontal lasers laying into his undefended, powered down transport vessel. The ship almost seemed to implode at first, before reversing and erupting with furious vigor. Debris and fire rained down, as two rangers, one blue and one green, dropped down in between him and what had at one point been his ship.

    “What…you…my ship!” Capricorn gasped. His voice became hard, vengeful, “You destroyed my ship!”

    Xolin looked behind her as the burning maelstrom, “Yeah. Yeah, guess we did” she turned back to Capricorn, “What now, chuckles?”

    “I…I will destroy you!” Capricorn tossed Sel aside, aiming his swords at the two rangers in rage, “I will make you beg for death!”

    “Give it up, dude. Game’s over” said another, familiar voice. Behind Capricorn stood the red ranger, now back in fighting shape. The goat looked at his own forces; all that remained was Artillar—everyone else was either dead or had bailed. His entire crew, gone. His ship, gone. His prize…almost out of reach.

    No.

    No!

    NO!

    Capricorn was seething with almost inarticulate rage. “Artillar, DESTROY *ALL* OF THEM! Leave no survivors! I want every child here wearing a primary or secondary color *dead*, do you understand?”

    The tank’s weapon systems primed.

    “Take him!” Sid commanded, brandishing his axe, “Fast and hard! Don’t let him lock his weapons!”

    “No duh!” Xolin responded, as the three rangers rushed in from different angles. Sid came in from behind, leaping up and jamming his weapon behind the robot’s neck, while the green and blue rangers swung at the front. Artillar swung its arm at them; Trok got knocked aside while Xolin jumped up onto it and began hacking at the limb—all while trying not to be thrown off.

    Taking this as his cue to leave, Capricorn grabbed Sel by the arms, leading her away. He was going to have to find new transport off his barren chunk of rock, and he wasn’t happy about that at *all*. He’d have to start over. All his hard work and toil, for nothing. At least the girl would help get his career back off the ground.

    Jumping on the arm was proving to have been a bad idea; Xolin was quickly getting nauseous by all the spinning. “A little help here!” she shouted, desperately clinging to the machine’s limb.

    Sid dodged another swipe, hitting the dirt before having to roll away when the tank’s chest batteries opened fire. Man, this was just not his day. Crouching up on his knees, he barely broke into a sprint before the next volley sent him flying into the side of a ship. Now free to deal with the other threat, Artillar wasted no time in crushing the blue ranger repeatedly against the hull of the nearest vessel.

    Xolin grunted and fell to the ground in a heap.

    By now Trok was back on his feet, hammer in hand. “Hey! No one hurts my friends!” Gripping his mallet, with a mighty roar the green ranger charged his weapon up, before swinging it into the ground with all his power. Cracks emanated from the point of impact as the terrain shook. The tank stumbled, giving Trok a chance to close the distance, slamming his weapon into the monster’s chestplate. The sheer amount of energy put into the attack was enough to punch a hole through the tank’s armor plating, revealing the more tender inner workings.

    It wasn’t enough for Trok however, as the tank’s claws closed around him, and soon the green ranger felt himself being tossed through the air, hitting the top of a ship before rolling off and collapsing on the ground below.

    “Trok!” Xolin grunted in pain, trying to get up. Sid also got to his feet, but was stopped from attacking by Iota, who put his hand on the red rangers’ shoulder.

    “Wait…when did you get here?” asked Sid, genuinely confused.

    Iota shook his head, “Never mind. I’ll handle things here. I have a different job for you”.

    Sid cocked his head, “Uh…”

    ---

    New ship. He needed a new ship. Damn those rangers. Damn them all!

    Capricorn paid no heed to Sel’s obvious discomfort as he hurried them down a back alleyway; he was far too busy trying to formulate an escape plan. He figured his best option would be just to return to the saloon and throw money at the problem; right now he just needed to be transported off-world. He’d worry about everything else after.

    As Capricorn exited the back alleyway, he found the red ranger standing just across the street from him.

    “…Don’t you EVER give up?!” the goat demanded in exasperation. Everywhere he turned; there were more rangers. Like cockroaches, every last one of them.

    “I dunno” Sid grinned smugly, axe in hand, “Got any more stuff I can break?”

    Capricorn snapped, tossing his prize aside and unsheathing his swords in absolute incoherent rage as he roared, charging the red ranger.

    “Come and get some” Sid muttered, taking a fighting stance, letting Capricorn come to him. He dodged the first blow, and the second, parrying the third, and kicking back before the fourth, allowing him to twist one of the enemy swords with his axe, giving him a clear shot. The red ranger cut into Capricorn, ripping sparks out. The goat got clear, and then spun back in, his swords a furious whirlwind of death that Sid was unprepared for; one, two, three, four, five—the red ranger continued to be hit again and again. He dropped his axe, but rebounded the second Capricorn ran out of steam, blocking his attacks at the wrist. The red ranger followed up by a double kick to the chest, while also drawing his sidearm and opening fire the second he landed.

    Sid converted his pistol into blade form and flung it at the monster, letting it distract him while he grabbed his axe. Remembering how Trok powered up his own weapon, Sid focused, letting the morphin’ energies flood into the blade. The double-headed axe began to burn with crimson fire.

    “Oh. Okay, that’s cool” Sid nodded. Give credit where credit is due, after all. His appreciation almost cost him however—Capricorn was rushing at him. The swords came down—and Sid’s axe went up.

    The ends of Capricorn’s swords went to the ground as burnt shards. Before Capricorn had even completely understood his situation, Sid followed up with another fire strike. And another. And another. His opponent completely collapsed under the offensive, slumping to the ground as sparks and smoke emanated off of his armor.

    “Stay down” Sid hissed, before heading over to Sel. “You okay?” he asked.

    “I…yes” she said, quietly, “…Thank you”.

    Sid pulled off his helmet, letting her see him—she quickly recognized him, “…You’re the one from before” she said, a slight smile forming.

    Sid chuckled, “Yeah. And I got a present for you, from uh…well, from a friend”.

    She looked at him inquisitively as the red ranger first broke her restraints with a hand chop and then pulled out a second morpher. She let him strap it to her wrist, before she felt it with her other hand, “But…I don’t know how to fight” she said, again quietly. It was adorable, in an almost child-like way. It was clear to Sid she had never done much, if anything on her own.

    …Well, birds needed to lean to fly sometime.

    Sid smiled warmly, “It doesn’t matter. It’ll still keep you safe. And, if I’m not wrong, this power set has some instinctual interface built in”. Noting her hesitation, he gently guided her hand to the ‘morph’ button. “Trust me” he said. She nodded hesitantly, and a second later and with a brilliant flash of light, the yellow ranger now stood before Sid. “…Huh, yellow. I was wondering when that one would show up”.

    “You…you ruined everything!”

    Sid and Sel both turned to Capricorn. His armor was smoking and charred, his weapons broken and scattered. But still the monster staggered to his feet.

    “I don’t take kindly to human traffickers” Sid warned the goat, pointing at him, “You’re beaten, and you know it. Get out of here. Now, while you still have legs”.

    Capricorn stuttered, rage still filling his every cell. But Sid was right; he was done. With one final roar of indignation, he stumbled away, fleeing back to the saloon. Sid turned to Sel.

    “We gotta go help the others before they get squished; come on”.

    Sel nodded, again hesitantly, but with a bit more confidence in Sid now.

    ---

    There was a hole in Artillar’s abdomen, but no one could reach the weak spot. Xolin panted heavily; her body was starting to feel tired from all the dodging, and she was more than a little frustrated by their lack of progress.

    “Man, this sucks” Trok said, echoing her feelings. She nodded in agreement, before having to split up as another barrage of lasers came flying their way.

    Iota came in from the monster’s rear, grabbing its head after leaping up the backside, “Now, rangers!” he commanded.

    Xolin flew into action, charging up her lance with blue energy. While the tank was distracted, her weapon met its target, and much of the insides froze instantly, their pieces becoming brittle and cold as the energy was sucked out. Ripping her lance back out in satisfaction, she called to Trok, “We almost got ‘im! Finish him!”

    The green ranger went on the attack, but both rangers were soon cast aside by another swing of the arm, and Iota soon followed.

    “This is stupid” Xolin complained. She punched the ground with her fist as she once again staggered back to her feet, “What’s it going to take to beat him!?”

    “Her”.

    Everyone turned their attention to Sid, who now stood side by side with a new yellow ranger. Iota nodded in approval. Sid turned to Sel, “I’ve been scanning your suit’s systems. You’re a long-range fighter; exactly what the rest of us are lacking. You see that hole?” he pointed at the wound on the tank’s abdomen, “Aim for that, and we can all go home”.

    “I don’t…” she looked at her hands, at her suit, “I…don’t…”

    Sid placed his hand on her shoulder, “You can. Trust me” he said gently.

    “…How do you know?”

    Sid glanced at Iota, “…Because the man who recruited you has an eye for talent. I don’t believe he would have gone to all this trouble for you if you weren’t worth it” his eyes narrowed under his helmet, though he kept his tone gentle for Sel’s sake, “…This has all been calculated”.

    Artillar turned on Sid and Sel.

    “Get ready!” Sid shouted, charging up his weapon once again with crimson flame.

    Sel dug in as the monster unleashed another barrage. Her mind reached out into the suit, collecting and analyzing everything at an absurd rate—an ability she had never known she had. Sid was standing in front of her now, cutting the incoming attacks aside with his full power.

    She knew what she had to do.

    There was a lull in the attack. She summoned her weapon, an archery bow with laser string and blades attached to the outer curve. Summoning her powers, she created a laser arrow, aimed, took a deep breath…and fired.

    The tank never stood a chance. Its insides were ripped apart by the energy of her attack; electricity and smoke spilling out as sparks erupted across its hull. A final, ear-shattering explosion tore the creature asunder as it toppled over, spelling the end for Artillar. And for a moment, there was quiet. Sid put his hand back on Sel’s shoulder; reassuring her. Under her helmet, a slight smile formed.

    “…We did it” Trok gasped, disbelieving, “We did it!” He pumped his fists in the air, and then he and the blue ranger exchanged high-fives—Xolin slightly reluctantly.

    “Excellent work, rangers” Iota nodded approvingly, “Now, I suggest we get out of here before more trouble follows. Onyx is not known for its hospitality to heroes”.

    Right on cue, the Megaship flew in and shifted to a hovering position right above them, before descending to the ground.

    ---

    Capricorn watched the Megaship take off. No, not like this. Not like this!

    Refusing to surrender, he hobbled over to Artillar’s corpse. He dropped to his knees and began to dig around in his charred remains, growing more and more frustrated, before finally he cackled in manic glee, having found what he was looking for—a small intact black box.

    “Round two, rangers” he laughed, pressing the main button on the box. Almost immediately, the monster debris began to shift and shimmer, coalescing into a singular form.

    And then it began to grow…

    ---

    “Back already?” asked Coros as the team arrived on the bridge. It was the first time for Sid; but the setup didn’t surprise him much; passenger megaship bridge design hadn’t had much updating since the Astro class; so while it was more advanced than the older designs—holographic consoles and whatnot, the only real differences were cosmetic; lower lightning, and a more sleek ‘angular’ feel among the metal and plastic structure of the room. Other than that, everything was pretty much what he expected; a large viewscreen in front, two rows of battlestations, all encircled by more stations at the edges. All four rangers had taken their helmets off, and behind them Iota entered.

    “Get us out of here, Coros. KO-35, hyperrush seven” he said urgently, taking a seat in the captain’s chair. The aquitian nodded and got to work plotting their next course.

    “So…now what?” asked Trok, removing his helmet, just as the others had.

    “Now, we got to KO-35, and you let me out of your little circus” Sid replied. Trok was a little crestfallen, but said nothing. Xolin however, suddenly seemed a little perkier.

    “Hold that thought” Coros said, “Scanners are picking up a ship closing in on us”.

    “How big?” asked Iota.

    “Our size. And it’s fast. In fact, it’s going to—”

    The ship shook violently.

    “…Catch us” Coros finished lamely, just as another hit rocked the vessel, followed by a third. Coros slid into the tactical station, “We’re approaching the Agate belt, I’ll drop us out of hyperrush and try to lose it there”.

    With a burst of light, the Megaship shot into the asteroid field, its pursuer directly behind, unleashing a steady stream of fire on the Megaship. The Megaship attempted to maneuver itself in and around the asteroids, but the attacking ship was every bit as nimble and fast-footed.

    “I don’t recognize the ship configuration” Sid said, having moved over to the sensor station, “I don’t…oh, duh” Sid gently slapped his forehead. He was an idiot, “It’s the tank monster. Capricorn must have made him big”.

    The bridge shook again.

    “Shields are at seventy percent and falling!” said Xolin, also having found a station to monitor.

    Another hit.

    “Everyone, to the cockpit, now!” Iota ordered urgently, as another hit nearly knocked him clear of his seat. Xolin nodded and headed off, waving everyone to follow her.

    “Come on!” she shouted as she exited the bridge. Trok hurried after her, followed by Sid and finally Sel, the most unsure of the bunch, each putting their helmets back on.

    ---

    The megazord cockpit was, again, fairly standard; just a collection of five seats in a terraced formation and numerous controls surrounding them, all behind a large windshield that covered the entire front wall. Sid, customarily, took the central seat; a move that incensed Xolin, who had been aiming for the same chair and just wasn’t quick enough. Annoyed, she settled for the seat to his left and front, just one step down. Trok took the seat to her left, while Sel took the seat behind Sid and to his right, one level up.

    Trok noted at the seat behind Xolin and Sid; it was empty. “…Five?” he asked.

    “Standard military issue” Sid replied, “Makes it really tough for core teams with more than five members”.

    Trok laid back in his seat, “…It bugs me”.

    Sid smiled, “Oh don’t worry. I’m sure you’ve got an extra ranger due to appear sometime”.

    “You think?!” Trok asked excitedly.

    “Guys, focus!” Xolin interrupted. She pressed a button on her console, “Iota, we’re ready. Initiate Megazord sequence”.

    ---

    Iota activated a number of controls at his station, “Megazord sequence initiated. Turning all ship controls over to you; good luck”.

    “…Why not just pilot from here?” asked Coros with a quizzical expression.

    “Kids have to learn sometime” Iota replied, resting one foot on his other leg, his hands clasped together, “If things go south, I can resume control at any time”.

    ---

    The Megaship spun around on its axis, opening fire on its oppressor even as it continued to fly in reverse.

    “Defender Megazord, online!” Sid commanded, pulling a holographic lever. The triangular ship underwent a radical transformation, its front and sides splitting apart and around into legs, while arms flipped around to the front. The head formed from part of the undercarriage and a chunk of the top of the ship flipping up onto the shoulders of the robot—now a black and silver humanoid behemoth. A sword appeared in its fist, as it struck at the offending vessel, still flying backwards. The enemy ship banked off, sparks coming off its hull from the impact. It transformed as well, returning to its former tank monster shape, now forty stories tall, before opening up with a full barrage of artillery fire.

    “Approaching asteroid!” Trok said, his hands flailing over his controls.

    “Got it” Sid replied. The Megazord’s boot thrusters burned the asteroid’s surface as the zord landed gracefully, before using the rock as a launching point, flinging itself back at the tank through the sea of enemy fire.

    “Shield!” Sid commanded. Ah yes, he remembered this part; like riding a bike. For a brief moment, it was almost like the old days. With them.

    The Megazord’s left arm unfolded into a rectangular legionary-style wrist shield, deflecting the oncoming fire as it readied its blade.

    “Spin kick!” Xolin ordered.

    “Power sword!” Sid also ordered, simultaneously. Their eyes widened and they glared at each other in shock, but neither retracted their order. The Megazord flailed into Artillar, who bashed them aside into another rock. The cockpit shook and exploded with a shower of sparks.

    “That…sucked” Trok whimpered, struggling to remain in his seat.

    Sid sighed. This wasn’t working; the team wasn’t trained for group operations yet. Silly him. Guess it was all up to red after all, “Executive command, rerouting all controls to my station”.

    “What?!” Xolin spun in her seat, glaring at the red ranger, “You can’t do that!”

    “Just did. Hang on” Sid replied. He didn’t have time for this.

    Xolin futilely messed with her dead controls for a moment, before throwing up her arms in frustration. She folded her arms and leaned back in her seat, pouting. Eyeing Trok, hoping for some sort of tact agreement, he just shrugged. She grumbled incoherently back at him returning her vision to the windshield.

    Sid meanwhile, had righted the Megazord’s position, and launched it back at Artillar. Charging up the Megazord’s sword, he plunged it into the monster’s headplate, before letting go, spinning the Megazord over the beast and kicking it in the back. The Megazord spun away.

    “Blaster!”

    As the zord’s front spun back to face the monster, it pulled out a large blaster cannon in its free hand, opening fire on Artillar with a furious storm of laser fire.

    “…You lost the sword” Xolin grumbled.

    “Wait for it” Sid grinned. The Megazord launched off of another asteroid, “Power punch!”

    The zord’s blaster vanished, replaced by a charged up fist and slammed it into the monster’s chest. The shield arm grabbed the sword, pulling it out before kicking away again. Artillar fumbled wildly in the void of space.

    “Endgame” said Sid, “Final strike!”

    The Megazord spun around on its axis, becoming a whirlwind of white energy with its sword at the front, cutting clear through the enemy beast in a single quick motion. When it emerged out the other side, Artillar exploded once again in a blaze of glory and metal shards.

    Sid leaned back in satisfaction, “And *that* is how you win a zord battle”.

    Xolin grunted, discontent with anything and everything, “Showoff”.

    Trok said nothing, not wishing to alienate Xolin, so instead settled for just kind of silently fanboy-ing out in his seat. That had been *awesome*.

    ---

    “Not…exactly what I had in mind” Iota grumbled.

    “You get what you pay for” Coros replied plainly, “You know Sid’s record”.

    “Hrm”. This was going to take a bit more work than he had imagined.

    ---

    “So…I’m Trok”.

    Sel looked to her side as the group, now demorphed, made their way back towards the bridge, finding the hyperactive horathean walking next to her, a big grin on his face. She eyed him.

    “Sel” she replied softly, returning her focus to the hallway ahead of her.

    “So…you’re one of us now, huh?” he asked, trying to draw her into a conversation. She however, wasn’t biting.

    “I suppose” was her fairly simple answer. She said nothing after that.

    Trok grimaced, but wasn’t about to give up just yet, “So…uh…where are you from?”

    “I don’t know”.

    Hrn. “…You don’t know where you’re from?”

    “No”

    “Why?”

    “I don’t know”.

    Dang. She was like talking to a wall. Trok tried another tack, “What do you like to do? I mean like, hobbies and stuff”.

    She was silent for a moment, before replying, her voice somehow even quieter than before “…I don’t know”. Her expression shifted from neutrality to subdued regret, though the sighing green ranger didn’t notice. He slumped.

    “Do you know *anything*?!” he asked, a bit exasperated now. The group turned a corner, nearing the bridge.

    Sel gave Trok an annoyed glare, but said nothing and instead remained silent as the doors to the bridge opened for them. Xolin glanced back at the two of them as they did, having overheard the conversation. What kind of psychos was Iota recruiting!? First the egotist, now the empty vessel. She supposed the next ranger would be some sort of serial killer.

    Speaking of the egotist…

    “Well, that was fun” Sid unstrapped his morpher and tossed it at Iota, who caught it in his palms, “But a job’s a job. No more detours, no more near-misses, no more hidden contract clauses, no more growing monsters, I’m done. I want paid and dropped off at KO-35”.

    Iota nodded, “As you wish. Your payment will be processed once we’re back within Confederate space. We’ll be making a b-line for the Karovian system immediately anyway; we need to stock up on supplies. A pity; you are exactly what I am looking for”.

    “Yeah well, I’m sure you’ll find someone else. Best of luck” Sid mock-saluted, leaving the bridge in a hurry. Xolin barely contained her enthusiasm, skipping over to her station and dropping into her seat, doing a sort of half-spin in the chair.

    “Aw” Trok murmured, back to being disappointed as Sid high-tailed it out of the room. This wasn’t how he pictured the team coming together; he again eyed Sel who was busy standing awkwardly off to the side, not doing much of anything but watching the endless starfield—absolutely none of this was impacting her at all.

    Man. This sucked.

    ---

    Capricorn stumbled behind a back alley on Nar’war, utterly ruined. His armor was broken, his weapons were lost. His ship was destroyed, his crew scattered or dead…even his pride and joy, Artillar, was debris decorating space. And worst of all, he had nothing to show for it. Nothing at all. The monster slumped to the ground, leaning against the wall of a shack; his wounds finally beginning to cripple him. He was defeated in every conceivable way—defeated by *children*.

    “I must say, this has been a stunning disappointment”.

    Capricorn looked to his left, where the voice had come from. The cloaked figure stood there, his briefcase in his hand. He pulled his hood down, allowing Capricorn to see the face of his assistant—the businessman.

    “A fat lot of good you did” Capricorn sneered, wincing at a wound in his abdomen as his hand pressed up against it, “You bailed the second those rangers showed up”.

    The man adjusted the glasses on his face, “My job is not to fight. My job is that of a middle-man between you and my employers. If you cannot be trusted to be able to defend yourself or complete your missions with your own skill and means, then there is no reason for us to keep you on our payroll”.

    Capricorn snorted in derision, “Then go; leave me in peace”. He had had enough of this; he’d rebuild his empire with more honest missions; some mercenary work here, some pillaging there…enough of this cloak-and-dagger nonsense from a group of people who never even showed themselves. Bad medicine all around.

    “Fortunately, my employers are willing to give you another chance” the man said, as if Capricorn hadn’t said anything at all.

    The goat glared at the businessman, “Didn’t hear me? I said I quit. Go find some other stooge to do your dirty work”.

    “I’m afraid you misunderstand me” the man said plainly, “We’re not giving you a choice”.

    Haha, what? What kind of nonsense… “Oh, is that so?” Capricorn chuckled, “And pray tell, how do you intend to force me to do anything?”

    The man said nothing. Instead, he simply kneeled in front of the goat monster and opened his briefcase. For the first time, Capricorn saw, and understood.

    Capricorn screamed.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  4. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.03: SOMETHING WORTH FIGHTING FOR

    The two sat opposite of one another in the small office onboard the megaship. Iota used it as his own personal study; his ready room, for lack of a better term. Across his desk from him sat his newest recruit, the xybrian girl he had had the rangers save from Capricorn’s band of pirates. And so far, she had barely said a word to him.

    “…So, I’d like to keep you here for the time being, for your own safety” he said, watching her somber, and somewhat empty expression intently. Her gaze was vaguely focused on some object on the floor to her right, visible only to her. “…Is that alright?” he asked, prodding her. She nodded.

    “Sid gave you a morpher when he found you. I believe you could be of great asset to this team, if you are up to it. Are you interested?”

    The girl shrugged absently, “I…guess”. In truth though, she didn’t think she was of any ‘great asset’, but whatever. A moment of silence passed; Iota knew she wasn’t done just yet, so he waited patiently, letting her digest the situation. Finally, she spoke again, “…Why are you doing this?”

    “Doing what?”

    “…protecting me” she asked, her voice taking a definite quizzical nature.

    Iota knew this question had been coming, “You don’t remember much of anything before a few months ago, do you?”

    She shook her head.

    “What’s the earliest thing you can remember?”

    She thought for a moment. The earliest clear memories had been when Coros had found her wandering the streets of Arkilla. Before that…sometimes she’d get flashes. Scary flashes. Painful flashes. She didn’t like them. “…The streets” she said at last, quietly, “and Coros”.

    Iota nodded, as if this was to be expected, “I’m afraid I don’t have all the answers yet, but I do believe you are important. I’ve had Coros keep you safe for as long as he could, but Arkilla is no longer a safe place for you. I do believe you will fit in here, though. Welcome aboard”.

    Before the conversation had any chance to continue, the computer’s voice sounded, “Arriving in orbit of KO-35. Dropping out of hyperrush”.

    “Ah!” Iota clasped his hands in appreciation, “We have arrived. Please, come, come” he beckoned to Sel as he got up and moved to the door. The girl reluctantly followed. Why not, right?

    ---

    “You’re installing the power regulator wrong”.

    Sid looked up from where he was sitting. The one-time red ranger had been fiddling with ‘his’ power ax, having had opened it up to take a look ‘under the hood’, so to speak. Bits and pieces now lay strewn about the table in the work bay; a chaotic mess to the untrained eye. Sid (mostly) knew what he was doing, but he had to admit he’d never seen this configuration before. It was part of why he had wanted to take a look at the weapon before he left the ship--his last power set had only included twin blasters. SPD equipment was often unimaginative and basic.

    “Come again?” Sid asked, looking up at Trok, who had somehow walked into the room without him knowing. Man, he must have really been focused on his fiddling.

    Trok sat down across from Sid, motioning to his former teammate. Sid gave up the piece he had been trying to fit back into the hilt of the weapon, allowing Trok to make his try with it. Almost effortlessly, and to the surprise of Sid, Trok snapped the small device easily into place. “You were connecting it wrong; see, these three connector points all have particular slots they fit into, each carrying a different charge. The regulator channels the energy of the power crystal up into the weapon and determines where the energy is going to go and what it’s going to do—in this case, pyro elemental abilities”.

    Sid blinked.

    “…Wait, you’re *smart*?”

    “Yeah, I gue—” Trok paused, the situation catching up with him, “Wait, why *wouldn’t* I be smart?”

    Sid shrugged awkwardly. Oops. That had kinda just…blurted itself out, “I…dunno, I just…you didn’t seem the type. I guess”.

    Uuuuugh. Classy, Sid. Classy.

    The look of quiet insecurity in Trok’s eyes told Sid all he needed to know that he had messed up. Foot in mouth. Oops. Er…At least he wouldn’t ever see these guys ever again?

    “Trok’s an engineer. Anything breaks, he can fix it” came Xolin’s voice. She was leaning against the door when Sid and Trok looked over at her. The triforian swung a chair around to its backside next to Trok, plopping down and leaning forward on the back rest, “Saved our butts a bunch of times”.

    Trok shrugged sheepishly, “I’ve just…always had a thing for tech, I guess” he mumbled under his breath, “…Wouldn’t call me an expert or anything though…” to which Xolin just put a comforting hand on his shoulder, while silently glaring daggers at Sid.

    Yikes. This was awkward. And uncomfortable. Worse, this was uncomfortable moment number two: he had actually come down here to get away from a conversation with Xolin earlier, when he had made the mistake of asking about the tattoo around her eye. Instead of her customary snark or aggression, he had very obviously triggered some bad memory of something that she had no interest in talking about.

    Today was just not his day. This place was like a minefield.

    “Attention all hands: meet me down in the loading bay two. We’ve arrived in the Karovian system and are about to dock at Skyport sixteen, in orbit”.


    Oh thank god, saved by the bell. Er, announcement. Whatever.

    “Welp, that’s my cue!” Sid said as casually as possible, though still shooting out of his seat. He grabbed his bag and hurried out the door, not waiting for either of the others.

    ---

    As Iota predicted, Sid was the first to arrive in loading bay two; one of the two main entrances to the ship via the two undercarriage arms of the megazord.. The kid had wanted nothing more than to be off his ship. How annoying. Still, Iota wasn’t *quite* ready to give up just yet. Especially if that other ship signature he had detected before coming down here was what he thought it was.

    Rule one when it came to planning: never try to strong-arm events to fit your schemes. Always let them happen organically, and then spin them to your advantage. Sid *would* take his rightful place as red ranger before he left this station. Iota was certain of that. Sid just hadn’t realized his choice had already been made for him.

    Sid gave Iota a mocking half-salute as he hurried out the bay door into the skyport’s main hanger chamber. Iota said nothing, just giving a simple nod of acknowledgement. Attempting to change Sid’s mind at this moment would be futile, and would just further damage his efforts.

    “Good luck with uh…whatever it is you guys do” Sid said on his way out. It was clear he still didn’t buy that they were an actual official military organization. But again, that didn’t matter.

    “Hm. Same to you” Iota said diplomatically. Sid just issued a brief smile and then turned to Sel, who was standing next to him, “Take care of yourself, okay?” he said, much more genuinely. She nodded hesitantly, before Sid continued on his merry way.

    Soon after, the remaining two rangers appeared. “Gone, just like that, huh?” asked Trok, a bit dejectedly as he put his hands in his pockets. Sid was already lost in the crowd, though that didn’t stop the horathean from searching the sea of people with his eyes.

    A bit bewildered, Xolin asked, “…Why are you so down about that? He *just* insulted your intelligence!”

    Trok shrugged halfheartedly, “…It’s not like he meant it. Don’t you say things all the time you don’t mean?”

    “I…” Xolin moved to counter, but quickly realized she had nothing, “…I still don’t like him” she grumbled, folding her arms in abject annoyance…and not a small hint of shame.

    Iota coughed, getting everyone’s attention, “We’ll only be staying here a few hours while we load up some supplies and hardware. If you were going to enjoy some shore leave, I’d suggest you’d better get to it”.

    Trok and Xolin’s faces immediately brightened. Shore leave? Freedom? Hell yeah. Shore leave was kind of rare; while they regularly had missions to various worlds, they were always on-duty, even when off the clock. But here was a genuine chance to get off the ship for a bit.

    Iota was quick to temper their enthusiasm, “Remember, it’s just until we’re stocked up. I wouldn’t go leaving the station. I’ll call you when it’s time. Go, have fun”.

    The two rangers looked at each other with faces like they were kids on Christmas morning, then at the wide open hanger bay of the spaceport.

    “Wanna come?” Trok asked Sel.

    She rubbed her arm uncomfortably, “…I don’t know…” she said quietly, but plainly.

    Xolin looked at her like she was defective, but it was Trok who replied, “Um…why not?” he asked sheepishly, uncertain of how to go about explaining something so simple. He scratched the back of his head a bit awkwardly.

    “Yeah, do you wanna go do things or not?” asked Xolin impatiently. She didn’t have time for this; shore leave time was burning.

    Sel for her part just seemed genuinely lost, “…things?”

    Xolin’s temper flared, “Things! I don’t know, just…stuff. You know”. Both Sel and, amusingly, Trok just looked at her confused.

    Iota sighed inwardly. This was going to be a *fun* team to deal with; “Go with them, Sel. Getting to experience the world around you is a good thing. And it’ll be a good chance to get to know your team better”.

    She looked at him uncertainly, with a twinge of worry, but nodded in compliance, and followed them off of the ship.

    “Got your hands full, I see”.

    Iota turned to see Coros now coming down from the ship as well, an electronic pad in his hand. “I’ve got the requisition order. I’m going to go get everything straightened out with the depot so they can start loading supplies”.

    “You sure you can’t stick around? I could use the help. Or at least someone who isn’t crazed” Iota sighed, with a bit of uncharacteristic wryness.

    Coros shook his head with a hint of a chuckle, “Sorry. The organization has other plans for me. Besides, I’m a bit too old for all this…gallivanting around the universe with a bunch of rowdy kids. I just want a nice office job and some peace and quiet”.

    “Be safe then” said Iota.

    “I think that’s my line” Coros replied, “You’re the one headed back to the thick of things here shortly”.

    Iota gave a brief one-note chuckle, to which Coros nodded slightly before stepping off the ship and into the crowd. Alone with a group of maddened children. What *had* he been thinking when he picked them out?

    ---

    He felt cold.

    Not like the normal cold. This was a deep cold, a fundamental cold. A cold that wracked at his very core, one that no one else felt. It was as if the very warmth of his life force had been stolen away. And no matter what Capricorn did, he couldn’t find a way to warm up.

    How could he? How could anyone after seeing what he had witnessed?

    He was a slave; he knew this now. He wasn’t a contracted bounty hunter, or a paid associate, or whatever fiction had been constructed. He was a slave. He now existed solely to further the agenda of some unseen force, having been lured into their trap. Certainly, they would still pay him, they seemed civil enough. But he had no choice in this matter. To attempt defiance, to deny Them, whoever they were, was to invite an unpleasant end.

    Or worse.

    Capricorn shivered.

    His newest recruit stood just down the walkway of this cramped vessel—a small transport vessel had had commandeered from a uh…‘willing’ donator—a private not-quite-legal spice mining operator, who had also been pressed into the goat’s service.

    “We’re almost there” the pilot said, from his small cockpit just behind the wall Capricorn had been leaning on, “Dropping out of hyperrush speed shortly”.

    Capricorn eyed his new mercenary—a bug-like monster with thick but unbulky and form-fitting carapace armor—an almost samurai style about it, and sapphire blue in color, with leg-like ribs embroidering the suit. ‘Trill’ was her name, and she had a decent resume; having apparently having had a long successful run in Troobian employ, including, to his surprise, an apparently successful raid into Eltarian space.

    She sat on a bench at the back of the walkway, idly leaning back in her seat.

    “Are you ready?” asked Capricorn, walking over to her.

    Trill snorted, “Of course I am. Get in, get the girl, get out. This is child’s play” she said lazily, before sitting up, “I can’t believe you hired *me* for such a common errand run”.

    Capricorn glared at her, his fist clenching, “Do not underestimate your opponents. They bested my entire crew in a single day. You *will* have your work cut out for you”.

    The insect monster stood up, laughing derisively, “Please. I’ve fought Eltaran Arch-wizards. I don’t fear some loser’s back-yard makeshift ranger team”.

    “We’ve dropped out of hyperrush” said the pilot, his voice strained and worn with worry. Hrm, maybe his use had just about come to an end.

    Capricorn turned from the pilot back to Trill. She nodded, and faded from view, her body shimmering away under the protection of invisibility. Only a subtle shift in Capricorn’s view of the bulkhead behind her could tell him that she was still there, and moving towards the launch bay.

    He sighed. He hoped this would work. But then, even if it did, would he ever truly be free again?

    Capricorn shivered.

    ---

    Trok always felt so…*fancy* when visiting Karovian places. The crisp geometric designs, the clean edges, the windows…it was almost like being in some sort of retro sci-fi adventure.

    …Never mind that they lived on a used spaceship.

    The promenade they found themselves on was ringed with multiple levels, centered below a giant geometric dome with a stunning view of KO-35 above them. At the bottom of the promenade rested a garden of sorts, with pathways and many different architectural structures ranging from obelisks to arches and fountains. Even the rest of the shop levels contained many assorted structures, flowering plants, and trees, arranged in a pleasing fashion.

    “They do love their feng shui” Xolin muttered, taking a moment to scan the shops nearby. She was hungry, and she wanted food.

    “So, where should we eat?” asked Trok, taking his eyes off the large waterfall fountain that ran from the top level to the bottom just opposite of them.

    “There’s a nice Triforian place just down the hall” Xolin replied, pointing three stores down.

    Trok made a face, “Blech. Your people put too many spices on their food”.

    “…It adds flavor!” Xolin shot back. They had had this argument many times, but while Xolin had been legitimately annoyed the first few times, now it was just standard banter between the two. He didn’t like Triforian cuisine, she poked fun at his tribal customs. It was a give and take relationship.

    “If by ‘flavor’ you mean ‘burning’, sure” said Trok, “Besides, you always make me order while you go hide” a beat as Trok realized the implications, “…Why don’t you like your people?”

    Xolin’s eyes shot away with a pained expression on her face, “…Fine. We don’t have to eat there” she said, a bit more quiet then before. Trok knew to leave well enough alone, whatever it was. He looked to Sel, now eager to change the subject and forget his misstep.

    “What about you? What do you like to eat?”

    Sel looked around uneasily, “Um…”

    “…What? It’s not that hard of a question” Xolin said, the fire in her voice returning, “What do you like to eat?”

    “I…” she glanced around again, “…don’t really know”.

    Xolin sighed, annoyed, “Why am I not surprised? What *do* you know? Anything?”

    “I don’t…”

    Xolin raised her voice in frustration, “If you say you don’t know, I’m gonna—”

    “Xolin! Please” Trok cut in, getting in between Xolin and her prey. He and Xolin met glares, but Xolin quickly let it go, realizing she had probably gone a bit too far. Again, “Right, whatever” she grumbled, walking away, “Maybe she’ll discover her undying love for Thessalian Aquitian. Come on” she said, taking complete control of the situation. To hell with figuring out what anyone wanted.

    Trok motioned to Sel, and the two followed Xolin, Sel reluctantly so.

    “Don’t worry about Xolin” Trok said, seeing the down look in Sel’s eyes, “She’s just…hard to get to know. She doesn’t mean it” he paused, then corrected himself, “…Usually”.

    Sel kept her view on the path in front of her, “…Why?”

    “It’s…just how she is”.

    “No, I mean…why do you…why am I here with you?”

    Trok blinked, completely unprepared, “I…do you mean metaphorically? Because haha” he scratched the back of his head, “I’m…not really good at philosophy. I think Xolin might be though, she’s pretty big on spiritualit—”

    Sel cut him off, even with her quiet voice, “No I mean…why did you have me come along?”

    “I don’t understand” Trok replied, his expression becoming more concerned now.

    Sel glanced at them, then back at Xolin before settling on the path ahead once more, “I don’t…never mind” she said, her voice even quieter.

    “But…I don’t understand” Trok said, genuinely confused but willing to help. He hesitantly touched her shoulder, but she abruptly cast his hand aside.

    “I said never mind!” she bit back with a hint of anger, a bit more forcefully than Trok knew she had in her. He caught her pained, frustrated expression as she passed him up, “Come. We need food”.

    Trok sighed, wounded inside. She was hurting, but he wasn’t sure what he had done. Had he done anything? Could he *do* anything? He put his hands in his pockets and slide into last place in their little group, “…Why am I so bad at making friends?” he asked himself.

    ---

    On his own again.

    Really, Sid preferred it this way. Less attachments meant less people getting in his way. He could do what he wanted when he wanted, and never have to deal with other people—never have to deal with their wants and needs, or have them get in the way, or have to worry about them…

    Sid quietly repressed an unpleasant memory as he walked down the hall towards the next terminal. His intent was just to find a cheap flight that still had room for him to jump on. It didn’t really matter where too; as long as it was still in Confederate space, and as long as it was far away from Capn’ Crunch and his merry band of misfits.

    Yeah, suuuure they were employed by the government. Sure, why not. And he secretly moonlit as a street mime.

    …Actually. Hm. Sid idly wondered how much street mimes might get in tips. He mentally filed it away under ‘just in case’ as he made his way over to the ticket desk. Thankfully, there was no line.

    “One, please”.

    The man at the desk was human, presumably karovian, middle aged, and balding; a very apathetic expression on his face. He looked up at Sid, adjusting his glasses, “I’m sorry?”

    “One” Sid said, a bit more slowly, “As in uno. Singular. For me”.

    The man’s eyebrow arched as he drawled with a sigh, “…Sir, passengers normally book passage to their destination in advance” he adjusted his glasses again and looked back down at the spreadsheet on his desk, “Also, they normally have a destination in mind”.

    Sid leaned forward on the desk counter, “Well I’m not normal. Now, what you got?”

    “…Excuse me?” came the annoyingly slow drawl of the reply.

    “Destinations. Places to go. Flights. What. Do. You. Have?” Sid asked, quickly tiring of the exchange. It was like this every time. Did no one really fly just to explore new places anymore? Where was everyone’s sense of adventure? Not everything needed to be planned out.

    The man lazily looked at his spreadsheet, “…I have one flight in an hour to Gratha. There are six open seats. Would you like---”

    “Yes. Please” Sid sighed, interrupting the man, who looked a bit miffed, but Sid took no notice. Just…please. Could he have his shuttle ticket. Thank you.

    Sid paid the man and took his ticket. Gratha, huh. Sid had never been there, though he knew of it. Gratha was one of the oldest Aquitian colony worlds, established many, many millennia ago during their first branch out into space. At the time their lack of FTL prowess had left the number of worlds suitable to their needs within their grasp rather thin; thus many early colonists had decided to take refuge on the aforementioned Gratha, a largely swamp and marsh type world. While on the surface it wasn’t the greatest option, the inhabitants had since made it their own.

    He put the boarding pass in his pocket after reading its details in his pocket, heading off to his assigned terminal.

    Finally, he could get away from the crazy.

    ---

    “I hope we get a new set of conflux inserters. The old ones are getting worn and rickety. Could cause problems with the hyperrush engine down the line”. The three rangers sat in the middle of the food court on the sixth level of the promenade, having settled on an aquitian stall for lunch; Trok and Xolin sat next to each other on one side, while Sel sat slightly separate from them on the other side of the table.

    In all honesty, Xolin had absolutely no idea what Trok had just said, but she still knew the answer, “You know Iota. Unless it’s an immediate issue, you’re out of luck. We’re on a budget”.

    Trok exhaled as he repeatedly poked his food, “You’d think working for the government would mean we’d be able to requisition whatever we needed. We’re saving people, for crying out loud!”

    Xolin chuckled. Sometimes her teammate’s naivety was refreshingly quaint, “Government’s not made of money, especially since we’re not exactly public”.

    Trok grumbled, but then decided to switch topics, “…Think we’ll get a new red ranger?”

    Now that Iota had revealed he had one, and was apparently in a recruiting mode? Oh definitely, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll see it again before too long. Unfortunately---and for crying out loud, it’s a Skish. A mollusk. Eat it” Xolin groaned, annoyed as Trok needled the bizarre, squishy, disk-shaped and bite-sized object on his plate.

    “Eugh. Sea food always weirds me out. Especially anything from Aquitar” he said, continuing to poke at the object with his fork.

    “Why are you so picky?!” Xolin exclaimed. All she had wanted was some food that *wasn’t* replicated by synthesizer. But seriously, every time this became an ordeal. If they went out for tengari steak, he’d be fiddling with the insect legs. When they had siriusian, he was always complaining about the color and texture. If it was edenoite, it…well, okay, no one much liked edenoite cuisine.

    “Hello! Desert planet” Trok said, waving his hand in the air…and still picking at his food with the other one.

    “Psh. I grew up in the desert too” Xolin countered, pulling his hand back down.

    “Yeah, but Triforia has seas. Horath is just a giant sand orb”.

    “Uh…underground ocean, much?” Xolin said, “Don’t lie to *me*, Trok. You’re just a picky eater!”

    Trok grumbled, “…Not my fault aliens have weird food—hey!” he protested, as Xolin grabbed the small sea creature and popped it into her mouth in one swift motion, “That was mine!”

    “So you can poke at it some more?” she grinned, placing her hands under chin in a very self-satisfied expression, “Besides, you got like, six more. Eat up before I do” she added, with a mockingly predatory undertone.

    “You wouldn’t!”

    “Law of the desert” she said, “Try me”.

    Trok pulled his plate away from Xolin, and in response she tried to grab another piece, resulting in a sort of tug of war between the two adult children.

    For her part, Sel was just quietly eating opposite of them, having had chosen some sort of kelp dish. Even Xolin had to admit, it didn’t really look that appealing. Sel found all the noise and activity in the food court…overwhelming, so instead she just focused on what was on her plate—though with the other two horsing around, she found her concentration wavering. So much activity. Too much activity.

    Why had she come along, anyway? She didn’t really like being here, and she was with a bunch of unfamiliar people she didn’t know and didn’t know her. They were distant to her, and strange, and she could be back in her room on the megaship, waiting in comfortable silence and left to her own devices until needed by Iota. She longed to be elsewhere.

    There was too much noise.

    Wait.

    *Too* much noise.

    Trok and Xolin had noticed it too; some sort of commotion was happening down the walkway. People were screaming, panicking. An explosion went off as people started running away, running towards and past the rangers.

    “What the?” asked Trok, getting up out of his seat as people fled past the small group. Xolin was quicker, already on her way out of the food court and down the walkway.

    Sure enough, she spotted her quarry—some sort of insectoid samurai monster. Female too, by the look of it. Trok met up with her momentarily, followed by Sel. And that was when the monster took notice of them.

    “…Ah!” she said, taking a good look at their faces; they were indeed the rangers Capricorn was looking for; “I got your attention. Good!” she swung her sword into a pillar, cutting it clean in half and letting the top half fly through the air into a food stand. More people screamed and scattered.

    “What do you want?!” Xolin demanded, assuming a fighting position. Trok fell in line behind her, always admiring –and slightly envious of— her ability to take charge.

    The samurai laughed, before sending a lightning bolt of energy out from her sword to the other end of the promenade. Another explosion ripped through one of the floors, sending rubble and debris falling down the side of the walkways. “Isn’t it obvious?!” she screeched, “I’m here for the girl. Give me the yellow ranger, and I *won’t* be forced to kill everyone on this station”.

    Trok looked down at where the rubble had fallen, catching sight of bodies struggling to get out, other helping…and some not moving at all. He looked back at Xolin, hoping she had an answer, before anyone else got hurt.

    “I’ve got a better proposal” Xolin said, a grin folding out from under her hardened expression, “How about I cave your face in instead, and we call it a day?”

    The insect laughed again in combat-ridden glee, “A challenge! Excellent; I welcome it! Come then!”

    A flash of blue light, and Xolin had been replaced by the blue peacekeeper ranger, flying through the air and landing a kick on the monster’s face.

    …Or rather, would have, had the samurai not blocked it with a second sword she had just pulled out, followed by the first sword knocking Xolin aside. The blue ranger’s suit sparked as the tucked and rolled away, crashing into a group of chairs.

    However, Trill didn’t have long to savor her quick victory; a flash of green and the second ranger was upon her. He brought his side arm down on her, which she easily caught with her twin blades.

    “Sel, what are you waiting for?!” Trok grunted, struggling under the monster’s strength, “Transform and help!”

    Sel seemed to hesitate for a moment, before nodding. They were fighting for her, after all, and for reasons she couldn’t quite articulate, she felt obligated to join in. She would do as she was ordered.

    A flash of yellow, and the third ranger entered the fray.

    ---

    The terminal was quiet; mostly devoid of people. That was just fine for Sid; he’d mostly had his fill of people for a while. Being stuck on a small ship with a group of crazy people, after being used to being on his own so much, had been fairly taxing.

    Because, man, they were crazy. Though…it had been kind of nice to be part of a team again.

    No. No, stop that. Those were bad thoughts. Never again.

    Never again.

    He attempted to distract himself with some news report from one of the many TV screens hanging from the ceiling in each terminal subsection. The one closest to him was going on about something about the upcoming Confederate budget talks.

    The Confederacy. Everyone knew it was a joke; even just a few years after the War, it was already fraying at the edges. It had first emerged as the anti-Alliance coalition that had led to the War; a collective reaction to SPD’s increasingly totalitarian policies. After the fall of Earth, her former colonies, allies, and neighbors finally had their excuse. They blamed SPD for their seeming inaction—an organization supposedly built on mutual defense had become a racketeering scam that refused to help out its member worlds when the time came. Earth burned, and the Alliance played its fiddle.

    And so many of the worlds of the local group united under a single banner. Triforia, Aquitar, Horath, New Edenoi, Mirinoi, KO-35, Xybria, and a handful of others told SPD to get out—supposedly their right as sovereign worlds. But the Alliance’s M.O. had changed over a few centuries, and civil war resulted—even as numerous local SPD branches outright defected to the emerging Confederacy.

    But one can’t build a nation out of simple hate and anger towards another polity. The Confederacy wanted to be the anti-Alliance, and so they had banned large-scale mutual defense organizations like SPD, or mutual anything really. Even the supposed government was toothless; instead the real power was still held by the member worlds. And now slowly but surely, the organization was beginning to break down.

    Sid looked out the large windows in front of him. They stretched around, encompassing the entire far wall of the terminal, bending around in the chamber’s semi-circular design, giving him a glorious view of the endless sky. Part of KO-35 could be seen down the curve to his left, and elsewhere he could pick out nebulae of various colors; yellow, blue, green, red…

    …Wait.

    Crud. Stop thinking about them!

    He laid back in his chair, shifting his bag aside. He’d been glad the red ranger suit had stored his belongings away during use; clearly they had been far more advanced in many regards than his old D-Squad issue.

    …D-Squad…

    Sid hunched over, putting his head in his hands, as finally, memories flooded in.

    ---

    “We didn’t get it”

    Sid slumped in next to Nikki, sprawling over the couch in their team’s common room. It was a small room for their entire team; standard SPD issue for the lower-ranking squads. Though quietly they had all wondered how long they’d even remain SPD what with the war and all; they’d split from the Alliance, and SPD central command. Presuming they won the rebellion, they’d probably have to come up with a new organization. That is, if those disquieting rumors about being disbanded turned out to just be rumors. Sid didn’t like to think about it.

    “…What?!” the redheaded girl exclaimed, putting down her book, “What do you mean?!”

    Sid shrugged, dejected, “I had a talk with the Commander. Said we were too young and inexperienced. Bleh”.

    “But…we flew through all the tests!” Nikki said, scratching her head in frustration, “We should have been a shoe-in for C-Squad! I don’t…what more did he want?”

    “I don’t know” Sid muttered, growing a bit more bitter now, “He never explains anything, just hands down orders. You know him”.

    “Sucks having your dad as your commander sometimes, huh?”

    Sid let out a dry chuckle, “Yeah, you could say that. I’m never friggin’ good enough for him”. It was true too; his entire life had been about his dad pushing him harder and harder, but never giving him the respect he deserved. Hey dad, I got top of my class this semester—oh, that’s well and good son, but in MY day…etc, etc. After a certain point Sid had learned to ignore it, but when it affected his ranger career it was different.

    Silence settled on the two of them for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. This was so unfair.

    “…Do the others know yet?”

    Sid absently shook his head, staring up at the ceiling, “Nah. Dunno how I’m gonna break it to them. Especially Matt. He was really banking on the promotion. This is just all so…augh” his hands grasped his face in abject frustration.

    “Maybe next year” Nikki sighed quietly, “We…we’ll just try again next year. Harder than ever”.

    Sid shook his head, “It’ll just be the same deal. You know that. Besides, I think he’s bringing in New Oregon’s D-Squad as the new C-Squad, since their branch got terminated”.

    “So we just show them up” Nikki replied, flashing a confident smile, “Competing against somebody is easier than trying to gain recognition alone”.

    Sid rolled his face over in her direction, a faint smile on his lips, “…I knew there was a reason I liked you”.


    ---

    He was thrust from his memories by a sudden blaring alarm echoing throughout the entire terminal.

    “Wha…?” Sid gasped, being violently cast back into the real world. Not that he was completely unthankful for it. He ran out into the main terminal wing hall, finding nothing in the mostly-empty hallway except for a few other concerned would-be passengers.

    Something was wrong. Battle instincts raced through him as he continued to look around him for some sign, some clue. And that was when all the television screens hanging from the ceilings changed from whatever stations they had been on to a single unifying news broadcast.

    “…are unknown, but they seem to be opposing the assaulting monster. Station security forces are enroute and will secure the area shortly. All civilians are urged to report to the designated safe zones. Repeat, Code Orange. This is not a drill…”

    Sid watched the broadcast, presumably coming from the station itself for just such events. The camera was one of security’s, placed on a ceiling just downwind of the fight that was brewing. Sid’s immediately recognized three of the combatants—the blue, green, and yellow peacekeeper rangers. They seemed to be fighting some sort of samurai bug creature.

    …And they seemed to be losing.

    The monster knocked Trok away, just in time to catch both Xolin and Sel. A kick thrust Xolin back, followed up by a surprise slash from one of the monster’s twin swords at Sel. Thrusting her other blade into the air, she charged it up with electrical energy, before swinging it around in a wide arc, catching all three rangers in a wave of power.

    Sid watched with concerned effort, despite his best wishes. Of *course* they’d get into a fight before he managed to get the hell out. Ugh. Whatever, he just had to wait another half hour for the flight to take off…

    Man, he wished he didn’t care.

    And that was when he felt a presence behind him. Sid turned around, and like some dark, Faustian contract-maker, there stood Iota.

    “You” Sid hissed through clenched teeth. His fist balled up in anticipation of what he knew was coming.

    Iota made no acknowledgement of Sid’s opinion towards him, instead taking a gander at the TV screen behind Sid, “They need help, you know”.

    Sid’s eyes darted briefly back to the television screen. Xolin went down again, protecting a downed Trok with her body. Sid looked back at Iota, “So go help them then. You’re their leader”.

    Iota shook his head, “Not my place”.

    Sid scoffed, “What, afraid to get your hands dirty?”

    “Are you?”

    Sid glared at the figure. Was this guy friggin’ serious? A brief moment of silence, punctuated only by another shout of pain from Trok, was broken when Sid began heading back to his seat, “If you won’t protect your team, why should I? If they were smart, they’d get out, like me”. He plopped back down in his seat, making sure to look at the starfield out the window, and *not* one of the TV screens.

    “Appearing on Onyx was risky enough; you will just have to trust me on that. If I were…noticed by certain parties, the results could be—”

    “Catastrophic?” Sid interjected cynically, “Yeah, you’ve already used that one. Get lost”. He glared out at the stars, trying his very best to ignore Sel’s grunt of pain as her suit absorbed another sword hit.

    ---

    Xolin clutched at her right side as she got back up on her knees—that last hit was going to leave an ugly bruise, she knew that already. The blue ranger surveyed the battlefield; Trok was also down but in the process of getting back up and grabbing his hammer. His suit was smoking pretty bad; she must have hit him good.

    At the moment the monster was pressing her assault on Sel. The poor girl just didn’t have what it took, though to her credit she was better at dodging than Xolin figured she’d be. Yellow got off one shot with her blade bow, but was startled by Trill’s counter-attack, and so the attack missed wildly, instead being fired off into the ceiling. Sel soon found herself disarmed, with her bow knocked aside under a table several feet away as Trill’s sword blades cut into her suit again and again.

    …That is, until Xolin’s lance stopped them. Free of the assault, Sel dropped to the ground in pain, panting heavily as her suit worked to minimize the damage.

    “You again?” scoffed the monster, “You just don’t know when to quit!”

    Xolin said nothing, instead pressing her advantage by pushing aside Trill’s weapons and laying into the monster again and again with her own. Sparks erupted off the monster’s hide with each impact as she staggered back. Xolin kept going, kept hitting.

    She could win this. She WAS winning this! Red ranger? Hah! She could…

    …Trill vanished as Xolin’s weapon prepared for another blow.

    “Wha--?!” was all Xolin could blurt out as her weapon passed through empty air. A second later, her backside exploded in a blaze of agony as Trill’s weapons came down on the blue ranger. Xolin spun around, doing her attempt to block, but there was no countering Trill’s sudden advantage. One more electrically-charged attack and blue was down again.

    A hammer head attached to a head wrapped around Trill’s abdomen from behind.

    “What the…!?”

    Trok pulled the hilt of his detached hammer back, “Stay away from her!” he warned, in the most menacing tone he could muster. Trill wasn’t impressed.

    “Didn’t think this one out, did you?” she asked, deadpan.

    Trok cocked his head, “What do you—” was all he managed to get out, before she gripped the chain, and electrical energy snaked up to the hilt of his weapon, frying the green ranger where he stood. Trok dropped to his knees in pain, struggling to keep upright at all.

    Trill was now dodging a volley of shots fired off by Sel. The monster grunted; this was getting tedious, just facing off each of them one at a time in turn. They couldn’t even function as a team, it was clear they were new at this. How was it that Capricorn found them so formidable? This wasn’t even sporting; it was like kicking a couple of puppies around.

    Trill charged, slamming into Sel and pinning her against the walkway railing. The yellow ranger struggled to keep the monster’s swords at bay, just barely keeping them away. “So pathetic” Trill complained, “What is it Capricorn sees in you? You’re just a stupid, boring little girl”. Sel just continued to grunt in pain, which wasn’t good enough for Trill, who continued to mock her, “Nothing to say for yourself?”

    “Stop…” Sel managed to croak out.

    The monster just took this as a nod to keep going, pressing against Sel even harder than before, “What’s wrong, I thought you were supposed to be super important! Surely you’ve got something to say!”

    “Stop…stop…” Sel’s whining grunts became increasingly frantic and frustrated; why all the questions? She couldn’t answer all the questions! She was too busy trying to hold her off and stay alive! Why was she here, fighting? Who was this person!? Why did everyone want her? She just wanted to be left alone! Too much…too much…TOO MUCH. Tears formed in her eyes as her struggle became more and more pronounced, until it escalated into a raging howl.

    “STOP!”

    Trill felt the air around her quicken, as a faint aura began to build around her opponent. Realizing the tide was about to change, Trill powered her blades back up and sent them back down on the yellow ranger. The impact blew Sel through the railing, sending her tumbling down to the fountain below. Upon hitting the wet rocks at the bottom and rolling over once before becoming still, her unconscious body transformed back into her civilian form in a flash of yellow light, even as debris and rubble rained down around her.

    Trill panted, realizing just how close she had come to being completely fried, “…Not so boring after all, huh? Interesting” she muttered, before turning her attention back towards the other two rangers.

    ---

    “One down, two to go” Iota sighed, “I can only hope Xolin can pull a victory out of this”.

    Sid said nothing, keeping his attention focused away from Iota. He took this as a challenge. “Did you know Xolin’s psychological profile closely matches that of your own? Independent, headstrong, intelligent but not much of one for authority. Lacking in your experience though”.

    Still nothing.

    “She’s reckless. Again, a similarity”.

    Sid visibly tensed this time. Iota pressed on.

    “…Would you really allow your team to die again?”

    “Not my team” Sid finally bit back, his head shooting back to where Iota was standing, “Stop trying to manipulate me”. His face was contorted in pure anger. How *dare* he use his memories against him! How *DARE* he! “I don’t get involved anymore. Not after that time. Your lackeys will just have to take care of themselves”.

    “Are you really so afraid of losing more people, that you’d let them die without trying anyway?” asked Iota.

    Sid shot up out of his seat, his face one of utter rage, “Shut *up*! For once just…shut up! Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?! You show up out of friggin’ nowhere and begin hounding me to do something I *do not* want to do, and somehow you’re trying to place me as the bad guy?! Bad things happen; I can’t help that. But none of this is my fight. *None* of it! I don’t know your team, and I don’t much care to know”.

    “Yet you care for them already. Don’t bother trying to deny it, I see it in your actions, your body language” Iota replied plainly, stepping towards Sid.

    Sid inwardly cursed. This entire setup had been manufactured from the beginning. Another cry of pain came from Trok, instinctively causing Sid to break his viewing fast and once again glance at the TV. The green ranger rolled away as blue charged in again.

    “They aren’t working as a team” Iota observed, watching the two remaining rangers attack one at a time in turn, “You could change that”.

    “No”. The tone was defiant, resolute. He checked the time. Twenty-two more minutes.

    Iota looked at him, his empty helmet gaze somehow packed with a million pounds of smarmy self-pleased bullcrap, “Then I guess we get to watch them die. Just like last time”.

    Just like last time. Sid could almost taste the ash in his mouth, could almost hear the screams and alarms, almost see the burning flames…

    ---

    Smoke clouded his vision, filled his lungs. Alarms blared in his ears. He could see the fire, dimly behind the curtain is black that obscured everything. It had all happened so fast, so quickly, he didn’t…where did…

    “Nikki?!” Sid coughed, “Nikki! Akire! Matt!” he brushed the cloud from his face, in a futile attempt to see, “Sarah!”

    Only the alarms answered. A moment ago his team had been about to split up to search the base. Matt and Akire had gone in to one of the rooms to extract the data they needed, and then…everything exploded. Booby trap? Proximity mines? Likely, but…how would they have known they were coming?

    For a brief second, Sid’s instincts were to call for help; but that would be pointless. They came here without backup; without even authorization. It had been a simple idea of Matt’s. What better way to get approval from the brass than to show them what they were capable of? A little raid on an Alliance outpost, mine some data about fleet movements and such, take out some guards, disable the station and make a call to the nearest flotilla. Easy enough, right? The brass might be a little ticked that they had gone off by themselves, but who were they to argue with results?

    Oh god, what had they done. What had *he* done?

    As he staggered through the wreckage, his mind still addled by the blast, he almost tripped over a body. No, not just any body. The blue ranger.

    Matt.

    Oh god.

    “Matt!” he shouted, kneeling and shaking his friend, “Matt, come on man, we gotta go!”

    But his helmet’s reading were already giving off what Sid feared most.

    Matt wasn’t there anymore.

    There were more bodies. Black, and yellow, and…white.

    Nikki. Oh god.

    “No…” Sid whimpered, “No…” She was gone. They were all gone. A bloodcurdling scream echoed through the burning, abandoned outpost as Sid’s mind snapped like a twig.

    ---

    Iota pressed on, “I’ve read the reports. The whole place had been a trap; there was no one else onboard except for some automated drones to put up the appearance of a security force. They found you there, some hours later after trailing your ship. Not the best impression on the boss, I take it”.

    “Dishonorably discharged. Slated for life in prison” Sid muttered quietly, looking back out the window, “…But you already knew that” he sneered.

    Iota made a small grunt of acknowledgement, “So you fled. Not just physically, but emotionally. You can’t hurt anyone if you aren’t around”.

    No response. Iota decided on a different tactic.

    “…Have you ever heard of the Trolley Dilemma?”

    More silence.

    “…It’s a thought experiment” Iota continued, unabated, “You’re on an out-of-control vehicle on a track. You can’t stop it, but you can direct its path, and ahead is a fork in the road—on the path you’re on is a stalled vehicle with a family. On the other, is a bus full of kids”.

    Sid shrugged passive-aggressively, “Sounds like a fun choice. And?”

    “The choice is simple. Do you let the train continue on its current course, thereby technically keeping your hands clean, or do you make a conscious decision to save that family—at the cost of others? In your case, can you really live with yourself if they die, and you did nothing when you could have? Are your hands really clean?”

    Iota saw Sid close his eyes in thought. It was clear he had had this argument with himself many times over, and still hadn’t reached a true consensus.

    “Can you really argue that running away and leaving innocents to die is an acceptable move?”

    Sid’s hands clenched.

    “Or do you try your best to save them, with the idea that they *might* not make it, instead of that they *definitely* won’t make it?”

    “…So what about you?” asked Sid, his voice low and quiet. His fists were bunched up in frustrated aggravation, “Are you willing to risk them dying if it means you get to keep your ‘low profile’?”

    Iota let out a slight chuckle, “My mission trumps any personal or moral feelings I may have. I cannot afford to coddle the team; if they cannot succeed on their own, then it means I have misjudged them, and will simply have to try again”.

    Sid’s eyes widened a bit as he shot a stunned look at the other figure, not quite able to believe what he was hearing. Every single person on that team, on any team Iota recruited, was expendable for his ‘mission’ How could…how could this guy even think of playing the morality card? Soon enough, Sid’s hateful glare returned, “So, the ends justify the means, huh? Someone doesn’t perform up to your standards, and suddenly they’re cannon fodder? And yet you expect me to trust you?”

    “Trust isn’t what’s expected” said Iota, “What I expect is for you to save your team and take your place as their leader”.

    Sid grimaced at his employer’s callousness towards other people. He really was just using all of them. Sid hated being used--that was almost enough for Sid to just walk out right now. But the most damning part of all this was that Iota was completely right; if he walked out now, even if the others didn’t die, they’d still be subject to Iota’s machinations, and to the machinations of whoever commanded him. And he was also right in that Sid couldn’t just sit by and let people die, as much as he wished he could.

    And the implications did not go over Sid’s head. He knew full well he was essentially being blackmailed; protect that team, or they wouldn’t be so lucky the next time Iota decided to throw them into mortal peril with no regard for their lives.

    Sickening.

    On the TV screen, Sid watched in grim horror as the green ranger was sent flying over the railing, landing on the floor of the market lobby in a heap and demorphing in a flash of green light. Only one ranger remained standing.

    Iota had him completely where he wanted him. Damnit. “So the ends justify the means, huh?” he asked coolly.

    “Essentially, yes”

    Sid sighed in frustration, “…And how could you possibly think I’m a good leader?” he asked, changing tracks, “Just last mission I nearly got Trok incinerated”.

    “You weren’t trying” Iota replied plainly, “You were still acting as if you were a solo fighter, and just playing through the motions of teamwork—just as you were during the zord battle. You need to allow yourself to feel for the team. Despite everything, I believe you have what I am looking for. All you need is…suitable stakes”.

    Right. The sociopathic chessmaster believed in him. Sure. Why not. That by itself would be giving Sid nightmares.

    Xolin let out a cry of pain, once again drawing Sid back to the gravity of the situation. ‘Suitable stakes’ indeed.

    “Time is ticking” Iota said, revealing the red morpher in his hand.

    Sid let out a frustrated growl, before looking Iota directly in the faceplate, hatred etched on his face, “…’And a prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated’”.

    Iota chuckled again, “Machiavelli. Quaint. Are we done?”

    Another cry of pain came from the blue ranger. Sid could feel the flames, hear the alarms. He could taste the smoke, see the readouts on his helmet telling him his worst nightmare had come true. Each blow Xolin suffered caused another flash in his mind. Blue. Black. Yellow. White. Sid gingerly snatched the morpher out of Iota’s hand, strapping it to his wrist, “This isn’t over, for the record”.

    “Naturally”

    “And you owe me for that transport ticket”.

    “Of course” Iota nodded as Sid morphed into the red ranger once more and broke into a sprint, running past, “Oh, and one more thing”.

    The red ranger stopped several feet away, but didn’t turn around.

    Iota continued, “We’ve given the local security force standing orders from the top not to jump in just yet; not that they know why, so you won’t have to worry too much about them getting in your way. That said I wouldn’t wait around too long just in case they get antsy about being stonewalled by command without reason during an incident. And if you get caught, it’s all on you. We technically don’t exist as an organization, so you won’t have any support from us”.

    Iota mused, “Oh, and another thing. If they do come after you, you are allowed to defend yourself. But if you kill them, well…again, we won’t have any choice but to let them take you. Rules of the road, I’m afraid”.

    Sid remained silent, but nodded before resuming his run. Iota lingered for a bit longer, eying the TV, before finally turning and heading back towards the megaship, confident in his victory.

    ---

    Her body felt like it was on fire; she had just been tossed from the railing into the fountain below, and her powers were barely keeping her conscious now, instead of absorbing her battle injuries. Xolin somehow struggled to her feet, using her lance as a cane to hold herself up.

    Trill gracefully dropped to the bottom floor, directly opposite of Xolin. To each side of her Xolin saw the bodies of her downed comrades—she really hoped they were alright.

    “You’re persistent, I’ll give you that” Trill scoffed at the blue ranger.

    “I…don’t quit” Xolin panted, “Afraid you’ve met your match”.

    Trill laughed, “Please. You’re a child playing grown-ups. I’ve been analyzing you while you were fighting me. You’ve got some skill in fighting styles, but none of them have been trained exceptionally well. You’re clumsy, arrogant, self-assured. And your teamwork” she laughed again as Xolin’s anger built up, “Well, that’s just non-existent. You might have actually posed a threat if you had bothered at all to work with your friends, but I guess in the end Capricorn was just an old softy after all”.

    Enraged, Xolin took a battle stance in an effort to seem imposing. Trill wasn’t fooled, especially by Xolin’s near-stumble from her injuries, “Oh please. Look at you; you can barely stand. How about you just sit this round out? I’ll take the girl and be on my way”.

    Wrong move. Xolin roared in pure rage, forcing her body to charge at Trill, “NO!”

    Trill responded with a blast of electrical energy from one of her swords. To her surprise, Xolin dodged it and kept coming. She dodged a second one too, and leapt into the air. However, Trill’s sudden being taken aback quickly reversed itself, as the samurai bug evaporated just before Xolin’s lance came down on her position. Knowing this trick, Xolin spun around, wildly swinging her weapon around. She hit her mark however, a very surprised –and very annoyed– Trill reappeared, gripping the end of Xolin’s lance in her blistered palm.

    “You--!” she struggled to say, holding Xolin’s attack at bay with all her might, “How…”

    “Not b-bad for…a ch-child, huh!” Xolin exclaimed, pressing harder.

    Trill’s calm demeanor returned as she regained control of the situation, “No, not bad. But too little, too late” she grasped the weapon, shoving Xolin full of electrical power. The blue ranger sparked and exploded, collapsing onto the ground in a heap. She ordered her body to get back up, but nothing would respond; she could barely move.

    Trill laughed to herself as she tossed aside Xolin’s weapon, before kicking Xolin back. The blue ranger slid a short distance across the floor, rolling into a pile of debris.

    “Good night, little girl” Trill powered up her swords, filling them with bright electricity as she brought them to bare over her head, with the intent of one, final executioner blow. Xolin kept struggling to move, to the very end, though she knew it was likely futile. She cursed herself for not being good enough.

    Several laser shots soared through the air, impacting Trill on her backside. Her energy attack dissipated as she lost her balance and stumbled back, turning around in fury, “Who dares?!”

    Xolin’s eyes widened as she looked up at her savior. There stood the red ranger, blaster in hand, “Me. I dare. Problem?”

    “…Y-you came back” the blue ranger managed to croak out.

    Sid waved to her enthusiastically, “The hero always arrives just in the nick of time, right?”

    “So there *was* a red ranger” Trill noted, powering up her swords, “Interesting!” she flung twin blasts at the red ranger, who simply jumped out of the way, landing a double-kick on his opponent, forcing her back as he hurried over to Xolin, helping her up.

    “W-why are you here?” she asked, stunned. She wasn’t *entirely* happy to see him, but who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth.

    “Been asking myself the same question” Sid mumbled, less jovial than a second ago, “Can you stand?”

    She wasn’t even close to one hundred percent by any means, but that brief respite had at least given her nominal motor control again, “Y-yeah. I think so” she said.

    Sid nodded and let her go once she was upright once more, and just in time as his blade suddenly clashed with Trill’s. He glanced back at Xolin as he held the monster at bay, “Get the others. I’ll keep her busy”. Normally Xolin would have argued; she’d be the one keeping the monster busy. But she knew that in her current state, it just wasn’t going to happen. She staggered off to where Trok was laying, as Sid turned his attention back to his opponent.

    “So, what’s your name?” he asked cordially.

    “Trill, mercenary extraordinaire” the samurai replied in kind.

    Sid nodded, “Nice to meet you, Trill” he said, as the two broke from their mutual grip and began a dance of swords. Unfortunately for Sid, he wasn’t quite up to par in his swordsman skills; he was soon on the defensive, and barely holding Trill’s assault at bay. But it didn’t matter; he just had to hold on for a minute or two.

    He hoped.

    Suddenly Trill vanished from his sights. A confusing second later, he found his side being impacted by a pair of swords. Sid rolled away in pain, getting back up after a fair distance. “I…see you’ve got some tricks” he wheezed, putting his sidearm away. A moment later he had pulled out his power axe.

    Trill said nothing, but snorted in derision. Charging up her blades, she flung crescent waves of electricity at Sid, who knocked the first two aside with his axe. The third however, hit him before he could rebound. The area around the red ranger exploded, sending him hurdling into another set of chairs.

    “And yet, just as incapable as the rest” Trill muttered disappointingly as she approached Sid, who was in the process of getting back up, “A pity. I was so hoping for a bit of a challenge”.

    ---

    Xolin staggered over to Trok as fast as she could. She was lucky; he was already beginning to stir. Thank the trinity; it was good to know he was alright.

    “You okay?” she asked, crouching beside him as he began to pick himself up. She helped him stand back on his feet. He nodded.

    “Well…I’m not dead. I think”.

    Xolin gave a slight chuckle of approval, then noted that Sid was being tossed around like a ragdoll, “…Get Sel” she said, her voice becoming serious, nodding to the still form of their teammate, “I need to help glorious leader”.

    “…Wait—he came back?” Trok gasped, watching in wonder as Sid blocked another attack, but fell prey to the second blade, “He came back”.

    Eugh. Disgusting. “Yeah, keep the hero worship under control for now, will you? You need to get Sel if we have any hope of surviving this” Xolin chastised him, shaking her teammate out of his sense of amazement.

    “Er…right. Good luck” he said, stumbling off towards Sel.

    Xolin sighed, looking back at the battle as she summoned her lance in her hands, “Yeah, right”. This was going to hurt.

    ---

    Sid tumbled over a table and over onto the ground behind it. Damn. She was just too good at melee combat for him. And every time he’d managed to gain an upper hand, she’d just vanish and sneak-attack him from behind. This was totally unfair.

    “Any last words before I remove your head from your neck?” the monster asked gleefully.

    Sid nodded, now on his knees, “Yeah. I call hax”.

    Trill stopped, cocking her head in confusion, “….What?”

    Hah. Excellent. Sid grinned under his helmet; now was his chance, “Xolin! NOW!”

    “Wha--!?” the monster spun around in surprise and confusion, but it was already too late. The blue ranger came down on the samurai with her lance in hand, cutting a wide swath down the front of her armor. Sid followed up with a second strike from his axe as he charged past, cutting through the side of the monster’s abdomen. Sparks exploded everywhere, the monster writhing in pain.

    “Blasters up!” Sid grasped his sidearm, followed by Xolin. The two unleashed a volley of red and blue laser fire on Trill, sending the monster soaring into the side of an escalator. She dropped to the ground in a heap.

    “Holy crap” Xolin muttered, not quite believing what had just happened. She looked over her gun, then at the monster. Had they really just…won?

    “Teamwork. It’s a thing” Sid said, glancing at his…well, his teammate, he guessed. Teammate. Hmm. It did feel oddly good to use that term again. Like…coming home. Xolin noticed he was looking at her, and responded with a hesitant nod in turn. The green and yellow rangers hurried over to them, with green also kind of amazed at what he had just seen.

    A groan from the monster transformed into a cry of rage as she stood back up, brushing the dirt off of her armor, “You…you will pay for that, whelps!” she roared, vanishing into thin air.

    But Sid was already on the ball, his eyes tracking the faint shimmer of her appearance as it closed in on them, “Sel, blade bow! Fire…there!” he pointed at the barely-visible figure.

    Hesitating for half a second, Sel grabbed her weapon, aimed, and fired at where she saw the shimmer. Two more shots followed up the first, and the samurai arthropod staggered back, completely visible and her chestplate a smoking ruin.

    “You…you…” she raged, clutching at her wound. But Sid wasn’t about to give her any room.

    “Trok, bind her!”

    “But—” Trok began to protest; last time he did that, he’d received several thousand volts of electricity. Not his smartest move.

    But Sid cut him off, “Don’t worry. There’s a plan”.

    Trok nodded after a moment of hesitation. The head of his hammer shot off the hilt like a mace, wrapping itself around Trill, binding her.

    “We’ve already played this game!” the monster crowed, moving to electrify the chain, “Spoiler: you lose!”

    “Xolin, now!” Sid cried, leaping into the air. He and the blue ranger came down on the monster, weapons in hand, each charged with elemental energy; Sid’s axe ablaze with fire, and Xolin’s lance crystalized with ice as her weapon absorbed all energy that came in contact with it.

    “Hyiah!” the two rangers shouted in unison as their attacks met with the monster’s hide. Trill screamed in agony as both weapons struck right through her. She fell back and dropped to her knees as the four rangers regrouped, each brandishing their chosen weapon. Trill gasped, pained, and understanding now, far too late, why Capricorn had considered them to be so much of a threat.

    Where had it all gone wrong? A minute ago she had been winning. Now she was about to die. How…how…?

    Sid looked over his axe, “…I wonder” he put his hand on Trok’s shoulder, “Mind if I borrow that?” he asked, pointing at his hammer.

    “Er…” Trok blinked in confusion, “…I guess? Why?” he asked, handing over the device to the red ranger. Immediately Sid began looking it over, before trying to rub it and the axe together.

    “Seeing if these combine” came Sid’s curt reply.

    “Uh…” Xolin awkwardly watched as Sid fumbled with the two weapons, until he paused.

    “Wait a second!” he exclaimed, a sudden burst of inspiration coming to him. Putting the axe down, he grabbed the hammer by both hands and twisted the head down and out so that it was parallel with the hilt.

    “Is…it supposed to do that?” asked Trok, as he and Xolin circled around him. Sid ignored them however, as he slide the axe on top, on the side of the hilt facing away from the hammer’s head. The end of the hammer facing out opened up, like a cannon barrel. Seeing what he was doing now, Xolin began looking for places to put her lance.

    “Split it apart” Sid said, pointing to two connector pieces on top of his axe.

    “It…doesn’t split apart” she said, annoyed that he would consider breaking her weapon in two.

    “Yes it does, look” he said, pulling the lance from her hand. She protested, but didn’t try to grab it back as he unhooked the two halves of the device, “See?” he then placed them on top of his axe, ends pointing out like blaster tips.

    “…oh…” was all she managed to get out, a little stunned. And a little embarrassed really, that she had never figured out her weapon could do that. Huh. Go figure.

    Trill watched with infuriated contempt as they ignored her, evidently considering her to be beneath their attention in comparison to whatever had suddenly drawn their interest. Well, that would be their loss. Time for them to all die; to hell with Capricorn’s bounty. She lunged at the group, screaming in raging fury.

    “…Tab A into Slot B, not Slot A into Tab B…Sel, if you would, please?” Sid asked absently, now way more engrossed in his project than some ugly interloper. Sel nodded, and unloaded a volley on the monster, knocking her back again.

    “Thanks” said Sid, sliding the last half of the lance into place, “Now, can I see that?” he asked, pointing at Sel’s blade bow. She gingerly handed her weapon over.

    “Where do you think it goes?” asked Trok, scouring the cannon with his eyes.

    Xolin shrugged, “It’s a blaster, right? So, up front somewhere”.

    “No, no. Look” Sid pointed at the blades of the bow, “These fold out here” he pulled out handles from the sides of the bow, just below the blades, “I think…” he grabbed the bow and folded the blades together, forcing the blaster part outward. He then slid it in through the back of the cannon, between the axe and hammer hilt. The blaster end of the bow connected right inside, “…It’s a power source. Of course. Duh” he chuckled to himself.

    “…A power cannon” Trok marveled, “This is *awesome*!”

    “TIME TO DIE, RANGERS!” Trill raged, charging once again, “NO GUNS TO SAVE YOU THIS—wuah…” she stopped in her tracks as she saw the rangers fold out around the newly assembled cannon. Sel rested on her knees, holding the front of the cannon up with her shoulder, while Xolin and Trok took the handles on the left and right sides. Sid brought up the rear, holding the gun from behind.

    “Defender Cannon!” Sid shouted.

    “…Defender?” asked Xolin, as she and Trok looked at him quizzically.

    Sid shrugged, “You have a better name?” The other two shrugged, noncommittal. “Alright then!” he shouted with glee, all the good memories now flooding back to him. He *loved* this part!

    “Defender Cannon!” the rangers called out in unison, “Aim!”

    “Wait. Wait no” Trill pleaded, dumbfounded, but knowing full well what was coming and being utterly powerless to stop it.

    “FIRE!”

    Trill was instantly vaporized by the maelstrom of sheer morphin’ energy that surged through her.

    “YES!” Trok shouted triumphantly, pumping his fist through the air as Trill’s form exploded in a brilliant flash of light and smoke, “WOOO!”

    Sid nodded quietly. The taste of ash was a little less noticeable now.

    ---

    Capricorn sighed in disgust as he watched his mercenary get annihilated by the rangers on the viewscreen onboard the small transport. “So much arrogance, so little to show for it” he said, shaking his head in annoyance.

    Well, so much for *that*. Capricorn knew now that just throwing mercenaries at the problem wasn’t going to solve anything. His next attempt would have to be a bit more…subtle. Oh well. Time to make his getaway. He pulled a small scroll out of his armor.

    “Scroll of Empowerment, descend” the goat commanded, as the scroll vanished from his hands. He figured a giant version of Trill would be enough to distract everyone from his escape, “…That will keep them busy. Driver. Get us out of here”.

    The pilot whimpered, “But…you said…”

    “Now, pilot” Capricorn growled, “Or else I find your use at an end”.

    The pilot sighed as he reluctantly plotted a course away from KO-35. So close to freedom, yet so far.

    ---

    “So…now what?” asked Trok, as the rangers dematerialized the cannon, back to its hammerspace.

    “Now we get out of here before security arrives” Sid replied, surveying the damage, “I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t feel like explaining everything to the cops much”.

    Just then, the entire promenade shook. “RANGERS!” came Trill’s bellowing voice. The four heroes looked up at the windowed ceiling, where instead of a star field or KO-35, they saw the samurai’s ugly –and very enlarged— facemask looking down at them.

    “Oh, right” Sid groaned, “*This* part”. Sigh. Why couldn’t monsters just ever stay dead?

    “…The Megaship, come on!” Xolin waved at the others, before breaking into a solid run back to the ship. The others quickly followed her lead.

    ---

    Sid’s seat pulled up, fitting the Megazord’s central controls around his lap as he entered the cockpit, soon followed by the blue, green, and yellow rangers, each flanking him from a different direction.

    “Defender Megazord, online!” Sid shouted, activating Megazord mode. As the ship left the docking hanger, it immediately began to twist and change form until its triangular shape had been replaced with that of a giant robot. The Megazord slammed its feet down on ‘top’ of the giant space station, just opposite of Trill, and taking a battle pose, sword and shield in hand.

    “Let’s do this!” Trok shouted with glee, as the Megazord charged in.

    But Trill was ready. She was giant, but no less nimble as the rangers soon discovered, her own swordplay quickly outmatching the clumsy four-minded robot. The cockpit shuddered under the consecutive hits the Megazord was receiving.

    “You rangers will pay for humiliating me!” the monster roared, bringing her swords down again. The Megazord sparked and shook. Electrical energy surged through the robot, causing it to stagger back, toppling over onto its side, its sword and shield scattered across the hull of the station.

    “The zord can’t keep taking this kind of beating!” Xolin said as her hands raced over the controls, doing her best to keep systems online and working as another impact sent sparks everywhere. The Megazord was down on its back and Trill was hammering down with all her might on the undefended titan. Things were not good.

    “…Guess we still don’t quite have the whole ‘teamwork’ thing down yet when it comes to giant robots” Sid muttered, as another blow struck the robot. He fired a laser beam from the eyes of the robot at Trill. She cried in pain as she backed off, giving the Megazord a moment to get back on its feet.

    “I believe I may have a solution to your problem, rangers” Iota’s voice came over the intercom.

    “…Meaning?” asked Sid, bracing himself against another sword strike.

    “Meaning we picked up some new toys when we resupplied at the station. Hang on”.

    The rangers looked at each other, confused for a moment, until Trok saw it. “Look!” he said, pointing at a red light that shot out from the Megazord’s chest. It flew around, growing larger and larger, until with a flash of red, the light vanished, replaced by a new red and silver spaceship, somewhat smaller than the Megaship. It unleashed a volley of laser fire that caused Trill to back off, before beginning to unfold around the Defender Megazord.

    It formed armor over the chestplate, arms, and legs, as well as formed a new helmet. But most importantly, twin axe blades had appeared over the Megazord’s fists.

    “Nice!” Trok said, getting out of his seat to get a better look at the arms.

    “Meet the Red Guardian zord. The first of a new set we just picked up. I think this’ll even the odds nicely”.

    “…Already?” Sid asked. Wasn’t it a little early? Well, whatever. Something, something, gifthorse, after all.

    Trill seethed with fury as she brandished her electrical blades, “No matter how many toys you bring out, I will not lose to the likes of you!”

    “Afraid you already have” Sid said grimly, gripping the controls, “Defender Megazord, Warrior Mode online!”

    The Megazord resumed its battle stance as Trill charged in, full bore. Four blades clashed again and again; the monster still with an upper hand, but at least now the Megazord was able to match her blow for blow. One crucial hit however, and the zord staggered back.

    “I’ve got an idea” Trok said, going over the new zord’s data. Pressing a couple controls, he marveled as the Megazord’s blades detached from its arms, still connected via chain. “….Oh. YES” he said, grinning.

    Under his helmet, Sid grinned as well, “*Now* we’re cooking!” He swung the Megazord’s arms around, flinging the blades down and across the monster. She blocked the first few attacks, but soon the Megazord’s left chain had wrapped itself around Trill’s right wrist. She was thrust forward, throwing her out of her defensive position, and giving the other blade time to cut into her. The left blade followed up by de-tangling from her arm and issuing a follow-up attack. She roared in pain, sparks erupting from her hide.

    “Let’s finish this!” Sid ordered. The Megazord brought up its two whip axe blades, cutting them parallel to each other. Trill’s swords snapped in two, leaving her with empty hilts as the now-useless blades fell to the ground.

    “No! NO!” she screamed, throwing the base of her weapons to the ground in a fit of anger, “NO!” she charged the Megazord in a suicide rage, firing bolts of lightning at the opposing titan as its axe blades retracted back up into its arms.

    “I got just the thing!” Xolin said with a satisfied smile on her face, bringing up a new attack schematic, “Dervish Spin!”

    The Defender Megazord raised his arms to eye level, and the entire upper body began to spin rapidly in a full three hundred and sixty degree motion; so quickly that they became a blur. Sid blinked; the Defender class wasn’t capable of *this*. It gave a little bit more credence to Iota; it was becoming clear that this team *was* being backed by somebody in power, if they could mod a megaship like this and then build more custom-made auxiliary zords for it.

    …Interesting.

    The Megazord ran at Trill, who was still coming in closer, firing electrical attacks at it. The spinning arms deflected the lightning harmlessly into space, until finally the two titans met.

    …And Trill was sliced apart by the rapidly moving axes. The Megazord stopped in its tracks a few steps away, as sparks erupted off of Trill’s armor, the monster howling in rage as she fell over and exploded in a blaze of glory.

    “YEAH!” Xolin and Trok met with an enthusiastic high-five in their seats, while Sid leaned back and sighed with relief…and stress as he knew what he was getting himself into. But…no use running from the past, he guessed. Besides, these kids needed him; needed somebody who *wasn’t* Iota looking out for them. He glanced back at Sel, somewhat behind him. She hesitantly nodded back at him, not saying a word.

    …It was a weird team.

    ---

    Sid’s hand slid over his new skycycle. He had to admit; it was friggin’ beautiful. Back in SPD, he’d been stuck with a basic street motorbike. But this…man, flying through the sky? He couldn’t wait to try it out—which was weird, considering how a few hours ago he wanted nothing to do with any of this. Weird how things work out.

    The currently demorphed red ranger was hanging out in the launch bay, where they’d…well, launch off with their skycycles. The big sealed security door that encompassed the entire far wall was a big giveaway in that regard. Besides his own, the room also currently housed the other three skycycles as well; blue, green, and yellow. There wasn’t much else besides that; not much room for anything. It really was just a launch point.

    “So I guess thanks are in order”.

    Sid looked up from his train of thought, out towards the door to the ship hallway. There in the doorway stood Xolin, leaning on the wall. “Hrm?” he asked, shaking the last thoughts from earlier out of his mind.

    She shrugged, “You saved us. That counts for something. Guess that means you can’t be *all* bad. So thanks”.

    Sid smirked, looking back down at his skycycle as his hands brushed across the top of it, “…It was a team effort. None of us could have taken her down alone”.

    “Still. You came back for us. That’s not something that’ll be forgotten”.

    Sid looked back at her. The two locked gazes for just a moment, before both glanced away again, “It’s nothing, really”.

    Silence.

    “…So why *did* you come back, after all that?” Xolin asked, her voice a bit less haughty and demanding than usual. A bit more…sincere.

    Sid pondered how to respond. Uncomfortable silence reigned again for a brief moment, “…We’ve all got our reasons” he said quietly, harkening back to their earlier conversation, just before Onyx.

    She nodded, understanding that this wasn’t a topic to be visited right now, if ever. She completely understood that.

    Another presence made itself known behind Xolin, “Trok’s looking for you. Something about accidentally inverting the power couplers down in engineering” Iota said.

    Xolin’s eyes widened slightly as she cursed in Triforian under her breath, “That boy’s going to end up killing himself” she muttered, dashing off towards engineering. Sid and Iota locked their gazes on one another; Sid’s full of distain and willpower; Iota’s masked by his ever-present helmet. Then Iota walked away, leaving Sid to his thoughts.

    Sid sighed. This was going to be a long trip.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  5. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.04: SACRILEGE

    Candles flickered faintly around her small quarters, the spice they burned puffing up into the air, creating a mildly irritating sensation to those not acquainted with the material. For her though, it was relaxing. She sat cross-legged on her bed, eyes closed, taking another deep breath of the material, the flames the only sources of light currently emanating from the room.

    Xolin did this every morning; daily meditation was an essential ingredient of balancing oneself. It was no coincidence that every single Triforian religion involved heavy amounts of meditation, since being a person of three distinct parts made for a crowded mind.

    Not like that. Not like…actual multiple personalities all talking in your brain; not unless something had forced the triforian in question to split apart into actual physically separate people. Xolin found it difficult to explain this as; well, she’d always been triforian. How do you explain color to a blind person, or vice-versa? But no, it was more like…well, balancing multiple facets of who you were. Keeping all of your aspects in-tune with the rest. Making sure the Id didn’t just curbstomp over the Superego. You know, that kind of stuff.

    The three aspects were always somewhat different for every triforian, but there were always three. And every triforian religion centered on that—well, for that matter, most of triforian culture revolved around that. Three was the sacred, lucky number. Nine was even better. Even the number system was based on multiples of three. Everything revolved around the Trinity. The gods themselves were of nine—a trinity of trinities; one absolute truth, distilled into three deities, which in turn were comprised of three each. Everything in creation could be seen in this way; an illusionary concept of separation, but in truth united.

    Hers were Courage, Mind, and Spirit.

    It wasn’t like meditation was *mandatory* for her people, there were plenty of non-practicing people back home. But well, it helped her find balance. Not that she would admit it to anyone else…even herself, but she was a volatile mess.

    Especially today, of all days.

    She sighed, trying once again in vain to center her being. *Especially* today.

    ---

    “Woosh! Pew pew!”

    Trok made sound effects with his mouth as he moved the two objects in his hands about in exaggerated motions, weaving them in and around themselves. Not just any objects either; but the miniaturized versions of two of the new auxiliary zords—his and Sid’s. His, larger and more clunky than Sid’s, was currently winning. He had marveled over how each of the zords were very intentionally designed for a different purpose. Sid’s was, from what he had seen, the ‘warrior’, a jack-of-all-trades in spaceship mode, and built for close-quarters combat effectiveness in megazord mode. His own was bigger—very square and blocky. There wasn’t too many weapons on it though, so as far as he could tell, it was some sort of armored tank; built for defensive purposes. Likely the megazord would be slow, but invulnerable. Sel’s was the opposite; the yellow zord was slightly smaller than his own, but was clearly just an artillery platform; he guessed it would be the megazord’s glass cannon mode.

    That just left Xolin’s. Hers was notably more aero-dynamic, much like Sid’s, but with long sleek wings pulling up the back. But nothing about it really stuck out as any particular strategy; ‘wings’ didn’t suffice when your entire zord set consisted of spaceships. Hrm.

    In truth, his entire reason for being down here in the workbay this morning was so he could run some tests on the zords, figure them out. Thank the spirits for miniaturization technology; it made this so much easier. And I mean really, could you imagine having to lug around an entire armada of zords everywhere you went?

    But the tests had sort of…gone awry. Oops.

    “Poosh!” his mouth sounded, as his zord struck an imaginary direct hit on the red zord.

    “Uh…what are you doing?”

    Trok stopped right in mid-motion, frozen in place as he looked over and saw Sid standing in the door. He was clearly only half awake, his eyes half-open and his hair a mess. Not that Sid had ever claimed he was a morning person.

    “Uh…nothing!” Trok quickly tried to cover up his actions, hastily making it look like he was er…inspecting the toys. Models. Er, zords…whatever. Unfortunately, he was also fairly clumsy, and the zords hit the floor.

    Sid sighed, shaking his head as he lazily made his way to the synthatron, “…You know, I’m sure Iota would skin you alive if he caught you playing with those. I’m sure they’re worth a small fortune”.

    “Uh…hehe” Trok laughed timidly, scratching his head in embarrassment, “I uh…well, you see…”

    “Besides, everyone knows my ship would wipe the floor with yours” Sid continued with a grin, unabated as he pulled out a cup of coffee from the food machine.

    Trok frowned with indignation, standing up, “Excuse me? Who’s got enough armor to fly into the local sun? Oh right, me”.

    Sid snorted with laughter, “Please. That just means it takes longer to kill. That much armor makes you a flying brick; nothing more. I could fly circles around it”.

    “…Yeah, well…” Trok mumbled, looking around for an out. He picked up Sel’s, “Sel’s could take you. One shot and you’re down. She’s a cannon”.

    Sid eyebrow arched as he took a sip of his drink, taking a seat at the counter near Trok’s work station, “…So, what? You’re letting someone else fight for you? Not very sportsman-like! If your ship can’t take mine out on its own, then you really shouldn’t be telling me about how awesome it is, hm?”

    Their argument was interrupted however, as Xolin’s evidently grumpy form marched through the room, past her two comrades, straight to the synthatron.

    “Uh…mornin’, sunshine” Sid chirped, now beginning to feel a little more awake. He received no response; instead Xolin’s back remained facing them as she worked the controls and then waited a few seconds for her meal. It was something Triforian; Sid could tell that much simply by the smell. Secretly he wondered if triforians just didn’t have many taste buds or something, and that was why they insisted on such insanely spicy foods.

    “Um…so, which auxillary zord do you think would win in a fight?” asked Sid. Xolin just grumbled to herself as she took a bite of her food, apparently finding it wanting if her facial expression was anything to go by. She muttered something about lousy synthatron food, before beginning her march back out of the room.

    “Uh, hi!” Sid waved as she walked by, “Remember us? Teammembers? Guys who live here? Hello? Be social? Maybe?”

    She glared at him, “No” was her simple, and cold, reply.

    Sid seemed kind of taken aback; sure, they’d been harsh to each other before, but in the week or so since he’d joined the crew, he’d thought their relationship had sort of progressed to that of ‘aggressive banter’. One person would poke at the other one until an argument erupted, mostly because it was fun to catch the other off-guard. Well okay, mostly it was Sid doing the poking, but he was pretty sure she was starting to catch on. But this…this seemed serious. Her gaze was deadly; cold. It wasn’t the red-hot annoyance and rage he had come to know; it was something deeper. Had he said something wrong?

    At any rate, a moment later, Xolin turned and left, back to her room.

    Sid blinked, “I…that wasn’t just my imagination, right? What’d I do?” he asked, turning to Trok. He shrugged, concerned.

    A moment passed. Trok spoke up, “…Question. Why don’t we have synthatrons in our rooms? Why do we have to come all the way down to the work bay to get breakfast?” It was a bit out of a blue sure, but it was something that had been bugging him for a while now. And if Xolin wasn’t feeling good, a synthatron in her room would have meant she wouldn’t have had to come all the way down here.

    “It’s a megaship, remember?” Sid grinned, “It’s built for ranger teams. Now what good is a team if they’re not interacting with each other and building team spirit and all that other nonsense?”

    Trok nodded in understanding as he began looking over Xolin’s zord once again, “Ah-hah. Fair enough, I guess”. No more words were spoken as Sid finished his coffee, but quietly the red ranger wondered about blue.

    ---

    Xolin mumbled a discontented sigh as her door slid shut behind her, once again leaving her in the dimly-lit confines of her room. She set her dish down on her bedside table and once again sat down cross-legged on the bed. Before she could get comfortable though, she noticed a blinking light on her work desk.

    She had a message. Though…she already knew exactly what it was, and she wasn’t in any way excited to get it. Sighing, she stood back up and moved over to her computer, dropping into her seat and pressing the ‘play’ button. On the holographic screen that popped up, an email sat in the middle. It was the same as usual for the message that would come out this time of year; how she was a disappointment to the House, about how there was hope back home that she would eventually return and admit to her transgressions. Beg for forgiveness, basically. And there was not a small amount of guilt-tripping from name-dropping family members in there. Disgusting. Her fist clenched in quiet fury; as far as she was concerned, it was a much healthier emotion than anything that involved tears. With rage…she could direct rage. She was in control with rage. Rage meant she was on the offensive. Not so much with…well, tears. Tears meant she was a victim.

    She would never be a victim. She was a predator.

    She skimmed over the letter with abject disgust. Xolin would get at least one letter a year; always on the anniversary that she had left, never to return.

    Sometimes she could still feel the warm, desert breeze. Hear the sounds of the chime bells ringing in the streets. See the lantern lights at nightfall; especially during a festival. Sometimes she almost missed---

    No. No, she could never miss it. She hated it; hated all of it. Hated everything about it. She was Xolin; she didn’t need to be tied down to a place like that. Her life was way better now, way more important.

    Speaking of.

    “All rangers report to the briefing room in thirty minutes. Mission time” Iota’s voice spilled over the comm.

    “…No, not today” Xolin groaned, planting her face directly onto the table. Damnit, she was *not* in the mood for this.

    ---

    By the time Xolin opened the door to the briefing room, the session was already in-progress, with the other three rangers sitting around the central round table, the holographic displays in front of their seats activated and in-use. At the other ‘end’ of the small circular room stood Iota, going over a number of readings on the various wall displays that encircled the chamber.

    “…Ah, glad you finally decided to join us” Iota nodded, his voice diplomatic, but with a hint of annoyed ire. Oh well, too bad for him.

    “Meh” Xolin grunted in depressed apathy, slumping into her own seat. She pressed a few buttons on the console in front of her, allowing her own holographic setup to appear, “Let’s just get this one over with”.

    Sid’s face was quizzical, “Is…there a problem?”

    “No” she said bluntly, “Just get on with it”.

    Sid stared at her for a moment longer, though she didn’t make eye contact with him, instead very intently staring at the wall. He let the matter drop, but very reluctantly. But…he *was* starting to think this wasn’t his doing.

    Iota regarded her for a moment himself, then continued, “Right. Anyway, we were just going over your next mission” he turned and pressed a holographic control, letting the outline of a planet appear in the center of the table. “This is Rideon, a triforian colony world on the edge of Confederate territory”.

    Xolin’s eyes snapped open at the name, her attention suddenly more direct.

    Iota continued, unaware of her change in demeanor, “It’s a mostly unremarkable border world; a population of a few million, scattered about in mostly small towns and villages across the north-western continent. The settlers there are from the Akhenai houses—one of the less…orthodox groups. Not one of the most welcoming sects of triforian culture, but you won’t be in any trouble”.

    “So what’s the actual mission then?” asked Sid, leaning forward in his seat with his arms folded, “You’re not just sending us out there to make nice with grumpy townsfolk, are you?”

    Another press of a button, and several new readouts appeared, hovering in the air. Iota continued, “There have been several unexplained incidents over the past few weeks in the capital town of Tanis. At least twelve people have had their energy stolen, each of them while alone, and no one’s managed to catch a view of the one responsible”.

    “…Vampires?” asked Trok, a little nervous now. His fingers fidgeted as he looked around at the others. Sel, as usual, betrayed no emotion on her face, just her normal slightly somber expression. Xolin was clearly only half-listening, busy with her own thoughts, whatever those were. Trok turned to Sid, sitting next to him—but the red ranger was in full business mode right now…or rather, as close to business as Sid got, but still, not an inch of fear. But then, Sid was a veteran, wasn’t he?

    Man, Trok wished he could be so cool under fire like that. Saving everyone in the nick of time, spouting off awesome one-liners…sigh.

    Iota gave a small shrug, “Unknown. That’s why you’re going in; we need you to investigate and put an end to these incidents, once and for all”.

    Sid blinked, a little uncertain himself now, “Um…I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you didn’t hire me for my detective abilities. Which are nil, in case you were wondering”.

    “Yeah, I’m not good either” Trok added, “Like, I’ve never even been able to win at Clue”.

    Iota eyed them both, his tone remaining business-oriented without even a bit of humor, “I believe you will find your skills up to the task”.

    Sid’s eyes narrowed, “…I hate it when you do that”.

    Iota gave an amused sound, nodding in approval, “Good. Any questions?”

    “Yeah, actually” Sid replied, his hand up in a half-raise, “What do you mean by ‘unorthodox’?”

    Xolin’s eyes darted briefly to Sid before returning their gaze to the holographic world at the center of the table, though only Trok caught it.

    “The Akhenai houses are one of the many outlier groups of Triforian society, among those that left during the Great Exodus following when their world was united under the monarchy. While they are still under the authority of the king, they tend to keep to themselves, and don’t much involve themselves in house politics with the other major players back on the homeworld” Iota leaned forward against the table, gazing at the world representation, “When I mean ‘unorthodox’, I refer to their social and religious customs. You’ll be dealing with an older subsect of Triforian culture, not like the more cosmopolitan cities elsewhere”.

    “Right, okay…” Trok nodded thoughtfully, “And what are houses?”

    Sid stifled a chuckle, “You know your horathean clans? Sort of like that. They’re family establishments that pretty much run everything on Triforia”.

    Iota nodded, “The difference is that Houses are small in comparison, consisting only of, at most, a few hundred individuals. They group together and ally themselves with other houses, forming large network alliances that dominate Triforian politics. House politics are a very serious deal, incredibly complicated, and often deadly”.

    “Lovely” Sid said sarcastically. He turned to Xolin, still hoping to drag her into one of their banter wars, “Your people know how to have fun, huh?” There was no response except for her eyes narrowing slightly, her attention still focused on the world in front of her. “Okay, seriously” Sid asked, now becoming a tad irritated by the silent treatment, “What’s with you today? Because you’re really starting to weird me out”.

    Xolin glared at Sid for a brief second, then turned to Iota, sighing in annoyance, “…Are we done?” she asked bluntly. He nodded, and Xolin got up, quickly leaving the room without another word.

    The suited figure resumed his attention on the other three, “Get down to the loading bay. We’ll be landing shortly” he paused, “…Oh, and be sure to remain discreet. You are here as myth investigators, nothing more. I doubt the civilians would take kindly to a heavily-armed ranger team bursting in and wrecking everything”.

    The remaining rangers each looked at each other, then got up and headed for the loading bay. Silently, Iota gazed at the holographic globe, and thought of Xolin. He expected things to get worse before they got better…a pity, but necessary.

    ---

    The first one off the ship, Trok took a deep breath of fresh desert air; it almost felt like home. Granted, it was a bit more vibrant than most of the region his clan had adopted; the only life from the wastes came from the occasional oasis…well, and predatory desert beasts. Here though, he could see colorful desert plants pockmarking the desert stone everywhere; any more flora, and he would have been hard-pressed to call it a desert. The view wasn’t bad either; to the left was the coast of a sea or ocean or something, downhill from where they were, and the rest of the horizon was broken up by numerous sandstone desert formations; arches, mesas, spires, you name it. And of course, right in front of him was the town. Tanis wasn’t a huge settlement, but even from here Trok could tell it had at least a few hundred thousand people strong. Not *too* bad for a remote colony world capital.

    Behind him, Sid exited the ship, taking a moment to enjoy the view himself, “Always been one of my favorite parts of traveling”.

    “Hm?” Trok asked, curious.

    Sid shrugged, waving at the skyline, “Just…this. The view. Every place I visit is always so different”. He closed his eyes, allowing the warm breeze to pass by them.

    Trok admired the man for a moment; he must have been so many places, done so many things. Trok was still so new at this, but even after all he had done in the last few months, he hungered for more. There was still so much to see, and do. “You’ve been a lot of places, huh?”

    Sid grinned, “Comes with the territory. For a while I was afraid that eventually I’d visit so many places everything would just start to run together but…it never does”.

    Their conversation was stopped short by a dark figure exiting the ship next to them, covered head to toe in a long, black hooded cloak. Every inch of the figure was covered.

    “Er…” Sid’s words died in his throat. The hell?

    “…Xolin?” asked Trok, equally confused, “Um…”

    “Are we going or not?” the figure asked, with Xolin’s voice, “The sooner we do this, the sooner we can leave”.

    The two male rangers looked at each other, then at Sel—who had left the ship just after Xolin but otherwise seemed to have no interest in the matter at all—then back at Xolin. “Uh…yeah, sure. Okay” Sid shrugged, pointing towards the town as he began to walk, “Let’s do this, team!” he shouted triumphantly.

    ---

    The town was…well, imagine you could step back in time, to Earth’s ancient Middle East. It was almost a combination of Babylonian and Egyptian styles, blended together with a bit of an alien flare. Though the town was only middle-sized at best, one could easily discern Triforian architectural styles from it. The buildings were blocky yet curved, with outdoor staircases that winded around their corners to upper levels. Towards the center of the town, the rangers could see a number of pyramidal structures, including a step one with staircases going up against the sides, with a large building on top—possibly the administrative capitol.

    The buildings were mostly the color of the desert itself; a lively brown and white mix, though numerous other bright colors had been painted all over the place. Ornate lanterns hung from lines above the narrow streets, carpets lined the entrances of homes, and even here on the outskirts they could see vendors peddling their goods. It was really almost like stepping back in time.

    …Y’know, except for the giant screens adorning several buildings, the high-tech toys the kids were playing with, the numerous single-person vehicles zipping above the town from one end to the other, the friendly holographic terminals…

    Y’know, except for all *that*, it was like stepping back through time. Almost.

    Okay, not really. But still.

    For Xolin, it was like coming home. She hated coming home. Yet, it was still oddly nostalgic. Could you be nostalgic for something that you didn’t like?

    …Not that it had all been bad back then. Just…bleh. She didn’t know. It was all so confusing. She wasn’t good at this kind of stuff; why couldn’t she just be wailing on some monster with her lance? She totally got violence; it was easy and direct. Conflicting emotions about childhood angst…not so much.

    Sigh.

    “So…what do we do?” asked Trok. The horathean began wandering around a bit, taking in his immediate surroundings.

    Sid folded his arms, deep in thought. He wasn’t used to this kind of thing; back when he was the leader of D-Squad, they had mostly gotten saddled with clean-up duties; flushing out remaining bad guys, clearing out megazord debris, etc. Even the actual combat missions had been mostly straightforward; smash that villain, save those kids, all that jazz. The actual investigative crime stuff had been mostly handled by the resident A and B squads—and even then, during the war there just hadn’t been much time for civilian police duties—they had mostly left that to the E-Squad battalions; the grunts.

    “Hrm…” Sid pondered, “I guess we should split up. One group goes and questions people about the energy-draining incidents, the other goes to Your Local Library and starts looking up stuff about anything that might be able to do this”.

    “You’re thinking a monster, huh?” asked Trok.

    Sid eyed his friend, not entirely sure if he was being a smartass or not, “I’m not ruling anything out, but yes. That’s…usually how these things work…likely from one of three places. Option A: it’s the latest monster from the local bad guy. Considering this world is usually peaceful, I’m crossing that one off the list. Option B: mercenary or otherwise random visitor. Possible. Option C: Local mythological creature given form”.

    “…How likely is the last one?” Trok gulped. Vampires. Friggin’ vampires.

    Sid shrugged, “It’s been known to happen. Universe is a big place, and things that shouldn’t be forgotten tend to fall through the cracks”. He paused, as if to think over the plan for himself, “…Alright. Trok, you take Sel and go take a peek at the local database. Xolin and I will go interrogate the townsfolk” he glanced at the cloaked figure, “…If you’re up for that” he added, in a bit more of a comforting tone.

    “Whichever” she mumbled.

    Sid sighed inwardly. Okay, forget annoyance, he was actually a little disappointed now. He had really thought they had started to bury the hatchet after the fight together on KO-35. They had had that brief conversation in the launch bay, and then things had settled down a bit, but now…

    Bleh. Whatever. He didn’t have time for her issues.

    “…W-wait, you want us to go…alone?” Trok asked worriedly, “What about er…house politics?”


    “…The what?” asked Sid.

    Trok seemed reluctant to elaborate, almost embarrassed by his own concern, “What Iota was saying. About house politics being deadly”.

    Oh! Hah. Sid laughed, “No, no. Unless you’re running for office or playing backroom deals or something, I wouldn’t worry. Especially not here; we’re way out on the fringe, and only the Akhenai Houses live here. Just rural townsfolk here, I’d figure. Besides, you run into trouble, you can just call us. Or morph. Whichever”.

    That seemed to settle Trok a bit, thankfully. “Right. Team, move out!” Sid pointed further into the town. Trok took Sel and headed off towards a computer terminal, while Sid led Xolin further down the street.

    ---

    The first thing Trok noticed about the tavern was that it was very…quaint. Small, dimly lit, quiet, but full of vibrant colors by way of rugs and tapestries. Why a tavern? Well, that was how most people got information to start their quests while playing games, right? Rumors and all that. Sure, they COULD have started searching the planetary database, but without knowing *what* they were looking for they’d be going at it forever. So, Trok had figured that some good old-fashioned rumor milling was in order. He motioned to Sel to come in. She did so, silently. As usual. Trok still couldn’t figure out how she worked, to his disappointment.

    But, as Trok had noted to himself, the tavern’s atmosphere was filling its role nicely. He kept his giddiness under control; but it was still *totally awesome* that his first real mission with the full team was off to such a great start. Man, this was gonna be an awesome quest.

    “Hi!” he said cheerfully, waving to the bartender at the far end of the room. The middle-aged male triforian, lazily cleaning the counter, looked at him with a slight interest.

    “Well now, we don’t see aliens around here very often” the bartender said, as the two rangers took up seats at the bar, “What brings you all the way out here?”

    Trok’s mind wheeled about; couldn’t just up and tell the guy that they were rangers, that would be stupid, “We’re uh…sort of adventure seekers” he said, oh-so-pleased with himself, “We’ve heard you guys have had some problems with er…vampires or something like that”.

    The few patrons eyed Trok, their expressions a mixture of concern, mild interest, and wariness. Momentarily, the quietness of the room somehow increased. Well…that was unsettling. Trok cleared his throat, awkwardness seeping in. Oh boy.

    The bartender regarded Trok and Sel coolly, not entirely sure what to make of them, but not finding them entirely welcome. “You mean the energy-draining incidents?” he asked cautiously, “That’s a…sensitive topic here. And a couple of kids like you are bound to get yourselves in trouble if you go looking for it”.

    Trok replied crossly, “Is that supposed to be some kind of threat?”

    “What? No!” the bartender leered at them, his voice sharp and annoyed, “I’m telling you for your own benefit. The last thing anyone needs is some damn fool tourist getting his lifeforce sucked out of him. Murder cases aren’t a game, kid”.

    “I’m not a kid!” Trok shot back, “And I came with a larger group. We’re…we deal with these kinds of things. We can handle ourselves”.

    It was clear the bartender didn’t believe him. He looked at the girl, “…Right…so, what? This is some sort of snake oil scheme? You show up with your novice group from trinity knows where…and offer to ‘slay the monster’ for a sum of cash?”

    “No charge” Trok replied, “We’re just here to take care of the situation and be on our way”.

    “And why would you do that?”

    Trok glanced down at his feet for a moment, unsure as to how he should answer. But then it came to him, and it was so mind-bogglingly simple. He looked the bartender right in the eyes, a determined expression on his face.

    “…Because it’s the right thing to do”.

    The bartender was clearly unconvinced but for whatever reason relented, “…Fine, whatever. You wanna get yourselves killed, it’s not my problem. You can use the computer terminal over there” he pointed to his left at the holographic display on the table in the corner.

    “Er…I was hoping for something more direct” Trok muttered, grimacing that they could have just used the console Sid had pointed to if this was going to be the end result anyway.

    “Computer terminal’s connected to the main database. You want information, you use that. Otherwise, I got nothin’ to say, because I don’t want your blood on my hands”.

    Damnit, back to square one. All that work with no payoff. Trok sighed in resignation and slumped over to the computer terminal. “…Fine. Come on Sel, we should—huh?” Trok looked around where Sel had been, but there was nobody---oh. She had already started working on the computer. Hrn.

    Well. This was embarrassing.

    ---

    Well. This was embarrassing.

    The ‘mysterious cloaked figure’ persona may have fit right at home on Onyx, but Sid was starting to get a little unsettled by all the whispered stares he and Xolin were getting as they made their way through the town marketplace. Because there was nothing awkward about a heavily shrouded person wandering around a civilian market; nope, no way. Nothing suspicious here.

    Sigh.

    “You know, if you took off the cloak, I’m sure they’d stop staring at us” Sid muttered to her. When no response came he continued, “You have *got* to be dying under that thing”. Still nothing.

    *Sigh*.

    “Did I do something wrong?” he asked in earnest, stopping in his tracks as she kept moving forward. She paused for a moment, as if to ponder a response. As she resumed her walk she replied with a low irritated tone.

    “Just drop it, Sid”.

    But Sid was really beginning to take this personally, and wasn’t about to let it go. “No, I’m not” he countered as he caught up with her, “You’ve been needlessly grouchy all day. And seriously, what is *with* the cloak? If you’re trying to blend in, it’s not working”.

    “I said drop it”.

    But the gears in Sid’s head were already spinning, “…this is your hometown, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice more understanding now, “Bad memories?”

    “You, shopkeep!” Xolin commanded to the nearest street vendor, a young man selling rugs. She planted her hands on his stall and leaned forward; making a point to completely ignore Sid, “Tell us what you know about the lifeforce draining incidents around here”.

    “I…what?!” the vendor sputtered out, equal parts confused and afraid.

    “…Yeah, this isn’t suspicious at all” Sid deadpanned, folding his arms in annoyance as the girl continued to ignore him, “Maybe next time you can just threaten him with a knife”. He took note of the reactions from the other townsfolk; they weren’t great. Inwardly Sid cringed; what if they decided Xolin was the one responsible? Made sense; intimidating mysterious figure demanding to know about her victims in a very badly acted attempt to throw them off the trail. Man, didn’t Iota tell them not to make a scene?

    A sudden scream interrupted the scene, and Sid’s attention was suddenly drawn to a nearby alleyway. He charged in, quickly followed by Xolin—and there, around the corner, they saw it in the shadows. A bat-like monster with two giant wings on his back stood before them, with the body of a triforian woman laying limp on the ground in front of him.

    “…Huh, vampire monster. Trok was right; go figure” Sid muttered, “And what are the odds its next victim would be right where we were?” He wasn’t *completely* surprised it was a literal vampire monster—that just seemed like a normal thing to happen. But the odds it was having lunch just down the street from where they happened to be? Yeah, that was a bit surprising. It’d be suspicious, if this kind of thing didn’t happen all the time anyway. Like that time on Colaris III, when---

    The beast roared, charging at the two rangers, knocking Sid out of his internal monologue. They dodged out of the way, just as a number of civilians began filling in to see what all the ruckus was about. Damn, that meant morphing was out for now—on top of the fact that they now had civilians in a combat zone. Fantastic. A number of gasps from the group went up.

    “An Areitai!”

    “The Areitai!”

    Well, *that* was interesting. Sid made a mental note to ask about it as soon as he was done trying to Not Die. The monster knocked him aside, sending him tumbling into a small collection of barrels, as Xolin charged in. With a single quick movement and a war cry, she leapt up and slammed her foot right into the monster’s face. In response, it grabbed her by the tail of her cloak, flinging her about like a ragdoll until she was just thrown clear out of it, flying over the group of civilians and landing in a heap just outside in the main street.

    She gritted her teeth in determination as she wobbled to her feet. Part of her couldn’t even believe it; a mythological Triforian creature was right here, right now. She supposed she shouldn’t really be surprised, after all she had seen. Even if it wasn’t strictly speaking an Areitai, anyone could have easily made a monster that looked and worked just like one.

    The crowd parted, running and screaming as the monster charged out of the alleyway, right at Xolin.

    “You want some?” she asked, assuming a battle stance. The creature roared, then began to twist and distort. Xolin’s eyes widened as she realized what was happening. With one final screeching howl, the one monster became three. Either it was a really good forgery and someone had done their homework, or it *was* an Areitai. Great. This day was just…great.

    Xolin moved to counter, but the beasts were too fast, quickly outflanking her and knocking her about. She soon found herself restrained by the claws of one of the monsters, and being approached by the other two. Xolin struggled, trying to free herself, but it was to no avail. The second Areitai shoved its claws into her chest, but instead of disemboweling her, instead it passed right through her as if she wasn’t there.

    And then the pain began.

    Slow at first, but soon Xolin felt her own life-force ebbing away, her own energy being sucked up through the monster’s claws.

    No. No. NO! Get out! She wasn’t going to die here, to some monster on this godsforsaken hunk of rock! Not today, not here, NOT NOW!

    *OUT*!

    Xolin screamed in battle-fueled rage, grabbing the monster’s claw…and a moment later, was joined by two other groups of hands. The three Xolins pushed the claws from her chest, and then delivered a trio of synchronized kicks to the second beast. It tumbled back, being caught by the third, and a moment later the three monsters rejoined as one once again after the first one was knocked aside by the two flanking Xolins.

    Sid, having dragged himself away from the wreckage he had been dumped into, leaned against the corner of the building as the battle unfolded. It took him a moment to really understand what he was seeing. He knew triforians biologically consisted of three distinct persons, that wasn’t exactly a secret. But triforians couldn’t command a split at will; a division between the three forms was always an involuntary last-ditch defense mechanism by the body itself; and it was even harder for them to re-unite into a single body. But he had just seen Xolin split her form under her own power.

    *That* was interesting. What was also interesting was that usually for a triforian, the three divided forms were weaker and helpless in battle. But here…Xolin was actually taking on the monster and winning.

    Indeed, almost like an expert dance team, the three Xolins gracefully spun around the monster in a synchronized movement, easily outflanking it just as it had her moments before. The creature seemed like it was in pain—which made sense to Xolin, if the legends were anything to go by—Areitai were weak against sustained sunlight, and this one had been out of its hiding hole in the back alley for a minute or two now. Its hide seemed to sizzle as it howled in agony, before it simply dived into another alleyway and vanished from view. Xolin almost went after it, but her own trio soon found themselves surrounded by very cross townsfolk, even as her multiple forms evaporated back into each other. She had made a critical error, and she knew it.

    Damn it. She instinctively took a step back as the crowd began to move in. Cries went up.

    “Shel’tol!”

    “Defiler!”

    Xolin gritted her teeth in anger, her eyes darting from one angry townsfolk to another, many of them wielding makeshift weapons from whatever they had on hand. A small rock whizzed right past her cheek.

    “Woah, woah!” Sid dropped himself right in between Xolin and the growing crowd, his arms out in a symbolic protective gesture. He wasn’t sure *why* things had taken this turn, but he knew a dangerous situation when he saw one, “What is going on here? She’s not the monster. She’s trying to help you”.

    “Sid, don’t” Xolin cut in with a warning.

    One of the civilians--an old lady--spoke up, “We don’t need help from a defiler!” she screeched with distain.

    Sid blinked in confusion, “…Defiler? What…”

    The woman shook her head in baffled disgust, “Do you really not know? She is of House Sais! She defiles her temple like only they know how! She is not welcome here, or anywhere! Not now, not ever!”

    What? Sid glanced back at Xolin, hoping for answers, “Xolin, what—” but all he saw was his teammate backing up, her front quickly collapsing before she finally simply turned and ran. On her face, he could see rage and pain and… “Xolin, wait!” he called after her, but she did not stop. He glanced back at the angry mob one last time before breaking into a sprint after her. She had already turned the corner and vanished, but Sid knew there was only one place she would be running to, and he intended to meet her there.

    ---

    ‘Areitai’.

    That had been the name Sid had just called and given Trok and Sel to search with. For Trok it was a breath of relief; up till now he’d been flying blind, forced to scour news reports and rumors in the comment sections. And as anyone could tell you, reading internet comments was *never* a fun job.

    Man, he was just so *bad* at this. Ugh. He guessed he could cross ‘detective’ off his possible career options.

    But holy shit, Sel. Even as he had been struggling, she had been quietly but persistently following leads. Her own holographic display was filled to the brim with windows, but instead of having her search collapse into a chaotic mess, she had organized everything and had been methodically going through option after option like a well-oiled machine.

    “…You’re good at this” Trok mumbled, watching her work with a bit of amazement.

    She paused briefly, not entirely sure how to take it. She had just been trying to do this as efficiently as she could; was that really that big a deal?

    Meh.

    “Areitai. A legendary Triforian monster, usually referred to in children’s stories” Sel began reciting off the page she had found, “Much like similar vampiric creatures in other cultures, the Areitai is a parasitic organism. However, instead of blood, it instead drains the lifeforce from its victims; at best leaving them in a comatose state, and at worst outright killing them. As with most vampiric creatures, it cannot stand direct sunlight”.

    Trok sighed, “Great, so vampires then. That’s just great…” his brow bunched in a sudden fit of inspiration, “…So how do we track it?” he asked, his complaining tone vanishing in the face of curiosity.

    Sel thought for a brief second, then tossed aside two of the windows, leaving her with the information she wanted, “It says here that Areitais are drawn to triforians with a high caliber of life energy. It could be anything from a strong willpower, to a deep spiritual nature, to simple genetics, or some combination”.

    Trok pondered this, “…So we need to somehow find out who’s got the highest lifeforce around here” he thought out-loud, leaning back in his chair. Then, he realized something--this was the most she had said in like…ever.

    “…What?” she asked. Trok realized he had been looking at her, and quickly averted his gaze, focusing back on the computer with more than a hint of embarrassment.

    “Nothing, nothing” he said, though she eyed him suspiciously. Before the conversation could continue any further however, a loud crash from somewhere in the back room interrupted everything. The other patrons all broke out of whatever they had been doing as everyone wondered what had just happened.

    “Nobody worry” the bartender reassured them as he got up from his spot at the counter, “Probably just some pots”. He grumbled, heading into the kitchen to check it out for himself. A few short seconds later, his scream emanated through the tavern; Sel and Trok knowingly looked at one another, and then in unspoken agreement, headed into the kitchen, followed by a couple of the other patrons.

    There, they saw it.

    “…An Areitai?!” one of the customers gasped, upon seeing the large bat-like monster, with the bartender’s limp body on the ground in front of it.

    “Go, get everyone out!” Trok called to the other patrons, his voice suddenly serious, “We’ll hold it off!”

    The other two patrons nodded in agreement, still somewhat slack-jawed, but they complied and headed back out to the front. Trok nodded at Sel, “Ready?”

    Sel said nothing, but grabbed her morpher. With a flash of twin green and yellow lights, the two rangers charged the monster. Unfortunately, in a kitchen there wasn’t much room for maneuverability, so the fight quickly resulted in Sel being tossed over the central stove, pots and pans flying everywhere. Trok managed a good hit, knocking the beast back towards the back door.

    Seeing a chance, Sel brought out her blade bow and aimed. The resulting explosion sent both the door and the monster flying out into the back alleyway. The two rangers followed, but by the time they had made it outside, the bat was already escaping around the corner.

    “After it!” Trok shouted, as he and Sel both raced off towards the monster.

    ---

    Hopefully Trok and Sel could come up with *something* online, or in the database or…somewhere. Sid slowed outside of the town gate, panting slightly; the city was bigger than it looked. Ahead of him however, was his target. Xolin was evidently more worn out than him, now simply walking towards the Megaship’s entry door.

    “Xolin!” he called as he increased his pace once again, “Wait up!”

    She briefly paused to look back at him, before continuing her trek, even as he closed in, “Go away, Sid. Just…don’t” she said in a hushed tone. She stood at the doorway separating her from the ship, Sid standing just behind her. Xolin didn’t look at him, instead simply keeping her head straight ahead and lowered.

    “Xolin…” Sid repeated, trying to be as friendly as possible about this. She made no reply.

    Awkward silence. Sid cleared his throat, “…Half that town wanted to butcher you. I think I deserve to know—”

    She cut him off; “Do you remember what I said?” she asked plainly, “Back when Trok was bugging you about your past?”

    Sid nodded, understanding, “…We’ve all got our reasons”.

    She nodded in return, slowly, and still looking straight ahead, “Just…go. This isn’t my day”. Her voice was tired, somber. Exhausted. “You don’t need me for this one. I’m not *fit* for this one”.

    *That* didn’t sound like Xolin at all. The rage-fueled firebrand who nearly skinned him for taking her perceived spot as leader just a week ago was now telling him she wasn’t needed? Yeah, Sid knew this wasn’t right at all…and he wasn’t going to let it rest, “When events start interfering with your job *and* your safety, then as leader it becomes my need to know why. Why did they attack you back there?”

    She whipped around angrily, mustering as strong of a death glare as she could, “Who the hell are you to demand answers about my life?” The truth however, was that she wasn’t even feeling it right now. She didn’t want a fight; she just wanted to curl up somewhere and let it all pass away.

    Sid could have bit back. Every nerve in his body was telling him to; it would have been just like every other argument they had had, where one would say something just to piss the other off, and then…well, nothing would get done. Sid swallowed his initial reaction, “…I’m your leader” he said, quietly, yet firmly.

    She snorted in derision, heading up the ramp into the ship. Maybe she had been right in her initial assessment after all; Sid was just there so he could abuse his power. Good thing to see she had been right all along; she’d been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt by letting him keep his secrets to himself, and she had *almost* believed him after he had come back to save them, but when the shoe was on the other foot he was just like every other hypocrite.

    “You want to know what my reason was?” he asked her, realizing he’d likely not have another shot at this. She paused, despite herself. Another moment of silence passed before Sid spoke again, his voice hesitant, “…A long time ago, I made a mistake. A big one, and it cost me my team”.

    Well, that suddenly made a lot of sense. Too much sense, actually. “Sucks for you. Tell me again why Iota hired you?” she muttered back, once again climbing up the ramp.

    “It haunts me every night. I can…I can still feel it. It’s like I’m there, in the smoke and alarms and…”

    Xolin paused again, hearing Sid’s voice break a little. Why was he telling her this?

    Sid took a deep breath, collecting himself, “My point is…I couldn’t let that happen again. That’s why I came back. Because…I watched you fight. I saw you and the others, while I waited. And I just couldn’t…” he trailed off, unable to figure out what he wanted to say next. His voice was almost pleading. Xolin closed her eyes. He sighed, “…I don’t want to be your enemy, Xolin”.

    Another moment of silence fell over them. He cared, she could tell; his voice was earnest. He really, really cared. *Why*, she couldn’t figure out, but he did. Steeling herself, Xolin’s whispering voice cut through the quiet breeze, “…I made mistakes too. And because of that, well, let’s just say my family and I don’t get along”. Why was she telling him this? She didn’t know; her mind was just a swirling maelstrom of emotion…and maybe, just maybe she was tired.

    “The townsfolk here?” Sid asked, venturing a guess.

    She shook her head, “I’ve never been here before”.

    Sid was perplexed, “Then why---”

    “House politics” she replied, anticipating his question, “It’s complicated. But my house isn’t very well-liked among many of the other houses…especially super-traditionally religious ones like on this planet. So I’m just sort of out of luck”.

    Ahhh. Now things were beginning to click in Sid’s mind. But he still had a major missing piece here; “…They called you a defiler”.

    Xolin inhaled, calming herself from her initial reaction to snap at him for pestering her. She had gotten this far, might as well see it through; “Our bodies are temples, reflections of the universe and its constituent parts. They are sacred. And I…” she looked down at her hand, balling it up into a fist, “…People of my House have certain skills, and certain beliefs that other houses don’t share. Like you saw earlier”.

    Sid’s eyes widened; that was *it*! When Xolin had been able to manually trigger her split, and then re-combine with absolutely no difficulty. Temple…sacred. Most triforians saw that as a violation of their spirituality. It was starting to make sense to Sid, “…I’m sorry” he said, not really sure what else to say.

    She shrugged, “That’s pretty much it. You told me something, I tell you something. Equal exchange, that’s how that works, right?” Whatever to help her sleep at night.

    “Xolin…”

    “I’m not angry at you, Sid” she said, cutting him off again, “Not this time. But please, just…leave me alone today. It’s an anniversary of sorts, and I just…”

    “You think that’s how friendship works?” he asked with a slight chuckle, counter-cutting her off just as she had begun to trail off, “Like a business contract?”

    Silence. She began to continue her trek into the ship.

    “You have friends, Xolin. At least one; if you’d ask him. And the rest of us are still your team. Something I’ve learned as of late; you don’t have to be alone”.

    “Why do you care so much?” she asked quietly.

    He was silent for a moment, contemplating his answer, “…I dunno. I guess I just don’t like to see people in pain. And I think…I think I understand you a bit better now” he replied, as heartfelt as possible.

    She didn’t reply, instead allowing the large door behind her shut after she had entered, leaving Sid alone outside. He sighed, brushing his hand through his hair in frustration. Then his morpher beeped.

    Trok and Sel were in trouble.

    ---

    A swipe from the claw and Sel was flung into the wall of the alleyway. The yellow ranger dropped into the open dumpster, vanishing from Trok’s view. This was bad; he was already nursing a wound on his side as he struggled back to his feet. And here he had thought the hard part was going to be cornering the monster; he had been fairly slippery, but they had finally managed to trap him back here in a dead-end section. While he was certain the monster could fly, it wouldn’t risk it during the daytime.

    So like a dork he thought that if they could catch it, that’d be it, job done.

    Instead, it was now swatting them aside like flies. He hated vampires.

    Gripping his hammer, the green ranger charged back in, slamming his weapon into the ground. The earth rocked, causing the Areitai to stumble and fall frontwards. As Trok swung in, the beast’s wings unfurled, knocking the ranger back as it got back up, before swinging around and slashing its claws into Trok’s suit. The green ranger, now on his back, dragged himself backwards toward the wall, backing into the corner as the monster closed in.

    And then the monster exploded.

    Well, not *exploded* exactly, but for a half a second it was what Trok thought happened. A second explosion, and Trok’s eyes shot up above, and a smile spread across his face as he saw a red and silver object dropping like a rock from the sky.

    Sid’s skycycle opened a third laser barrage just before dropping into the alleyway, barely missing the ground as he made an almost impossible ninety degree turn. The cycle flew past the monster, Sid’s axe cutting into its hide as he rode past. The machine spun around, skidding against the wall of the building before coming to a complete stop a few feet away. Sid disembarked, brandishing his axe at the monster.

    Trok got back up, looking back and forth between Sid and where he had first seen him coming down. “How---you---what---” he gasped, not quite entirely certain how to process the stunt he had just witnessed. I mean, he was *pretty* sure it had been awesome, but….

    Sid shrugged, “I’m a quick learner when it comes to vehicles”. In truth, he hadn’t actually been sure he’d be able to land correctly or…well, not crash, but there was no need for anyone else to know he had panicked at the last moment or that he had actually pulled up waaaay later than he had wanted. He gave himself a mental note to turn earlier next time. “You okay, princess?” he asked, looking over at the trash bin, where the yellow ranger had poked her head out.

    “…I believe so” she muttered, pulling herself out.

    “Alright! Three on one!” Trok grabbed his hammer off the ground, “Let’s do this!”

    The bat monster screeched, and then its body began to shift and writhe. A moment later, it had transformed into three independent and identical monsters.

    “So much for those odds” Sid sighed.

    Trok’s jaw dropped, “That’s…that’s totally unfair!” he exclaimed in annoyance.

    “…Or exactly fair, depending on how you look at it” Sid mumbled. He spoke up in his ‘mission’ voice, “Alright, battle plan. Focus all attacks on the central monster. We give him a good beating, take him down. With any luck it’ll cause the other two to also go boom. If not, well, then we just rinse and repeat on victim number two. If we’re going by normal triforian physics, each are only a third as strong as before”. He nodded at the other two flanking him, “Ready? Go!”

    The three rangers sped in, avoiding the short-range melee attacks of the two flanking monsters as they zoomed in on the central one. “Trok, fast and hard!” Sid shouted, as he and the green ranger powered up their respective weapons. Two quick hits later and the two rangers leapt out of the way. “Sel, now!”

    The yellow ranger, which had used this time to aim and charge her blade bow, fired her fully-powered weapon at the center monster. The laser arrow cut right through the Areitai, causing it to screech in pain as it doubled over and exploded.

    “One down, two to go!” Sid shouted triumphantly as he and Trok landed a few feet away from the already-dying flames. “Alright, rinse and repeat team, lets—” Sid’s words died in his throat as he watched purple energy emanate from the remaining two monsters, absorbing into the ruins of their fallen comrade. Within seconds, the mixture reformed into a new third beast.

    Sid nodded, understanding, “Right, okay. *That’s* unfair”.

    “Told you” Trok muttered.

    Sid sighed, picking his axe back up, “Alright kids, new plan. Everyone take a dance partner”.

    “But how do we *beat* them?” Sel asked as the monsters moved in for the counter-attack.

    Sid grimaced as he prepared to defend, “…I’ll let you know when I figure that out”.

    ---

    With a soft ‘swish’, the door to the observation deck slid open, and Xolin stepped in. It wasn’t used too often; its ‘official’ purpose was for diplomatic affairs and assemblies—but since they were a black ops group of questionable legal sanction, they really had no reason for that. Instead, it had just sort of become like the dining room of your house, where you keep meaning to use it but never seem to get around to it because the kitchen is just so much more practical and you just never have that big dinner party you always wanted to host. Trok had thought about using it as the team breakroom now that they had a full group, but so far no one had bothered to migrate from the workbay.

    Again, practicality. Kitchen trumps fancy dining room--and boy was this place fancy. Not like, legit high class or expansive (it couldn’t be, not with space being a premium commodity on a megaship), but it was notably more ‘public’ than most of the rest of the ship. The entire far wall was one big window looking outside with a small number of tables and chairs filling the center of the room, alternating with a couple random couches. The near wall on the other hand contained a small bar; not that there was anything in there.

    Too bad; she could have just downed an entire bottle of just about anything right now. Anything to make herself feel less completely awful…maybe just black out for a few hours. Xolin swept into the room, plopping down on the couch nearest the window, giving her a beautiful panoramic view of the desert town. Part of her loved the view; the rest of her hated it. Hated it, hated it, *hated* it. And she hated that part of her loved it. Yet she couldn’t bother herself to get up and go mope someplace less…direct.

    “I remember when I first found you, wandering the streets of New Melbourne”.

    Xolin’s ears perked up at Iota’s voice, coming from somewhere behind her. She hadn’t heard him come in…had he been here before her, in anticipation? While a little unnerved, she wasn’t too surprised by it; Iota seemed to have a weird ability to be exactly where he would be most annoying. She snapped back at him quietly, “I’m *really* not in the mood for a peptalk right now”.

    But Iota continued on as if she hadn’t said anything. He picked himself off from the wall he had been leaning against, strolling over to where Xolin was half-laying and half-sitting. “It’s hard to believe it was just a few months ago now. You were so angry then. So full of rage and hate”.

    “…Thanks for noticing” she muttered in a deadpan, not bothering to look at the armored figure. Gods, he was in a ‘mentor’ mood. UGH. That meant that he was going to press on regardless of anything anyone said. He was like the water torture of advice. UUUUUUUUGH. And it wasn’t like he was even a particularly good mentor.

    “You know your friends are fighting now” he said. Xolin knew of course; her morpher had gone off just after entering the ship. And she knew he know she knew; he was just baiting her.

    “They can handle it” she muttered. She really had no interest in this conversation; why couldn’t just leave her be? Really, she *knew* the others would be fine. Sid would come up with some amazing plan, and the day would be saved, and they just wouldn’t need her.

    “You know, it’s funny. One of the reasons you were picked was your incredible sense of self-confidence and bullheaded determination. So why now? What’s changed?”

    Oh no. No, he did *not*. She spun on him, standing up and wheeling around in a single graceful motion, a look of hatred in her eyes. Fine. He wanted to do this? They’d do this, right here. “You wanna know what my problem is?!” she seethed, “You won’t *shut up*, and neither will anyone else! What is *with* you people?! I’m having a *bad day*, why can’t I just have some space where people will leave me alone for a while!?”

    “Because your job determines whether people live or die—including your teammates. You don’t get sick days just because you ‘don’t feel like it’” Iota replied plainly, “It’s not just about you. But more than that, it’s because they care about you”.

    A slight surprise came over Xolin’s bloodlust face. She didn’t quite know how to counter that. Iota continued, “Sid told you as much, didn’t he? And you rejected him. You use so much effort keeping people out because they might hurt you; so much effort keeping your façade up so you can pretend you’re something you’re not—that eventually your well runs dry”.

    “You…wow…just who do you think you are?!” she demanded, her fists balling up in fury. Where was this even *coming* from? This is why she was starting to hate her boss; he’d just come out of nowhere and pull shit like this.

    …Was he why Sid had really come back? Suddenly Xolin wondered.

    But Iota didn’t miss a beat, instead prodding her further. If one approach didn’t work, he’d just attempt another one and another one until one stuck. Eventually he’d hit gold, or at the very least the cumulative efforts would bring her down, “So your family and you had a falling out. Are you *really* going to allow them to dictate your actions for the rest of your life? Are you really that much of a puppet?”

    That did it. Those were the magic words. Xolin lunged over the couch at the armored figure, her fist aiming right for his helmet. But Iota simply stepped aside, knocking her aside as she fumbled past. She landed in a heap on the ground, but scrambled for the next assault.

    “Your combat style today is clumsy; unfocused—much like yourself. I found you a drifter, but you haven’t yet been able to move beyond that. You’re just running in place, hiding in fear of yourself”.

    Holy CRAP, he just could not shut up today! She roared as she threw herself at her mentor again. But Iota had had quite enough, and simply knocked her aside, over the bar counter as she got close. A flash of blue emanated from just out of view, and a second later the blue ranger stood back up.

    “You’re going to fight me?” Iota chuckled darkly, “So you are still just a child, after all”.

    Xolin paused. She was battle-raged, sure, but she also had just enough mind to know that if she *did* go after him, he’d be completely right.

    Damn it.

    “If you have any ounce of self-respect and dignity, you will help your friends” Iota said, “Unless you just want to wallow in self-pity for the rest of your life; cowering in the shadow of your home life”. With that, Iota stepped out of the room, making sure he wasn’t present when Xolin’s fist put a dent in the wall. Another job well done, by his counting.

    ---

    This was bad. Each ranger had pared off against one of the bat monsters, but even though each were only a third as powerful as the single monster was originally, the fact that they were basically immortal meant that it was only a matter of time until they wore the rangers down. Already, their accumulated injuries were starting to slow them down. Sel had fared the worst; she had little to no melee combat training and just wasn’t a very physically strong person to begin with—and in such cramped quarters her ranged attacks just weren’t cutting it. Sid made a mental note to start her on some training exercises if they ever got out of this.

    Trok was holding his own a bit better, but it was clear to Sid that even he needed more practice. Trok just wasn’t a very skilled player yet.

    And as for Sid, well…he’d managed to take down his own dance partner at least twice now, but it had managed to edge in a few critical blows. Sid chocked it up to being out of practice.

    Yeah. He definitely needed to start training his team.

    A grunt of pain as the yellow ranger hit the wall next to him, and Sid knew she was almost down for the count. Another grunt of pain, and Trok joined them on Sid’s other flank, rolling in.

    “Well, this is just great” Sid mumbled to himself, his axe in a defensive position. Not that it mattered against three opponents. They had to get out of here. The red ranger glanced at the exit—he knew what he had to do; “Trok, Sel. Listen to me; head back for the ship. I’ll buy you a few minutes to get out of here”.

    Trok swung his attention at Sid, his jaw dropping at the implication, “What? But—”

    “No arguments” Sid said, “I think I can hold it off until it runs out of energy. You guys can’t. Regroup back at the ship for a new plan. I’ll join you as soon as I can”.

    “You’re not committing suicide” Trok protested.

    Sid grinned under his helmet, and flashed Trok a thumbs up, “Don’t worry. I’ve been through worse than this. Now go!”

    Trok was just about to grab Sel’s hand and do as he was told when he heard a voice. Her voice.

    “Don’t bother”.

    All three rangers turned to see Xolin standing at the exit. Her appearance was haggard, her face bitter and tired. With a shaky breath, she pressed her morpher, and in an instant the blue ranger appeared before the others. The monsters took notice of this…no, notice of *her*, and shifted their attention accordingly.

    Trok was quick on the uptake, “…Wait. Triforian…oh!”

    Xolin paid him no heed as she tossed Sid her lance, “Hold on to that. Get the cannon ready on my signal”.

    “What are you going to do?” he asked as she stepped in between them and the monsters.

    “What I’m supposed to do” she said with a quiet sigh. She increased her voice, addressing the monsters next as she pulled out her sidearm blade, “Legend goes that you guys hunt triforians with deep lifeforce reserves. Spiritual energy and all that”.

    The Areitai trio seemed to agree with her words, becoming agitated; they sensed her power. Under her helmet, she made a grim smile, “That’s why we found you as easily as we did, isn’t it? You were tracking me the second I entered town. Because I’m not *just* a font of spiritual energy. No, I can do things like this”.

    Trok’s eyes bulged in surprise as Xolin split herself into three separate rangers, each holding a saber. Even Sid was taken slightly aback; she’d managed to duplicate morphing energy as well. Powerful…and dangerous. Sid knew duplicating powers for any real length of time was…well, not good. Curious.

    The three Xolins took up a united combat stance. “Get ready” she said to Sid, before turning her attention back to the monsters. And in a single united movement, the three blue rangers leapt into action.

    It was beautiful, actually, almost like a dance as the three Xolins moved around the battlefield in absolute unison. The blue ranger swung around, under the claws, coming up the backside with her sword. With a single sweeping motion, she swung around and struck upward along the backside and followed up with a second diagonal slash. And a third. And a fourth.

    Screeching in pain, the beasts turned, their claws coming down on their targets. But Xolin was ready; flipping herself up, her leg knocked the claw aside, giving her sword a clean shot to cut right through the arm. As she landed, she transformed her sword into its blaster mode, aimed at the Areitai’s head, and fired repeatedly.

    Taking the monster took synchronous shots—anything less meant that the monster could regroup and recreate its fallen forms. She knew that; she’d read up on the creature during her priestess studies. She knew how they worked; and she was ready. Together, she shifted her weapon back to its melee form, rushing in at the monster’s open forms. She shouted, power coursing through her as the charged up blade struck true, impaling the monster.

    Another battle cry sounded as she pushed off the monster into the air with a kick, taking her sword with her. The blue ranger flipped around in the air, passing her other forms as they exchanged dance partners. Xolin came back down, blue energy exploding around her boot as she landed a kick on the Areitai’s face. Using it as another launching point, she swung around, landing a few feet away in a runner’s position and charged again, her blade now fully charged with energy. In her vision all she saw was an obstacle. Kill it, and she could go back home and let the day just pass away---and she could just go back to ignoring her past and all its problems.

    One final strike as she passed the beast by did it; the Areitai sparked and smoked, its three forms rescinding once more into one. She couldn’t ever lose to such a base creature.

    “Now!” Xolin commanded, “Before it escapes!”

    Sid nodded, he and the others leveling their combined weapon at the creature, “Defender Cannon!”

    “FIRE!” the three rangers shouted. A torrent of firepower zoomed in on the monster, and it exploded in a blaze of glory, leaving only a pile of smoldering debris behind.

    “That…how…how did you *do* that?” Trok asked, now that his attention was no longer on ‘not dying’. He jumped over to Xolin, looking over her figure, but there was no trace of the other two Xolins.

    “I…” she stammered, but didn’t quite know how to take it.

    The green ranger laughed, “That was amazing! You were like, woosh! And then, slash! And…wow!”

    “You uh…liked it?” she asked hesitantly. It was strange hearing those words; she’d become very accustomed to hiding her powers from other people after leaving home. Other triforians found it an abomination, and as for everyone else, well…

    Sid nodded, “Yeah. That was pretty great” he said approvingly, though not nearly as hyperactive as the green ranger. “Welcome back, by the way”.

    “…Y-yeah…” she muttered, a little bit of gloom seeping back in. She wasn’t exactly sure how to take this—part of her desperately wanted in. To just take their friendships and run with it. But part of her just wanted to run screaming in the other direction. She was afraid, and she hated that.

    Sid put his hand on her shoulder reassuringly. “Let’s go home, hmm?” he asked. She nodded, faintly smiling in forced gratitude.

    That, of course, was when the monster decided to reassemble itself and grow forty stories.

    “…I don’t suppose that’s in the mythology” Sid said, stepping back as he glared at the beast.

    Xolin’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, “No. No, it isn’t”.

    Sid sighed. Great. That meant they were still being hunted; someone had *brought* the monster here knowing it would attract them, and knowing it would go after Xolin. So much for being free. He brought his morpher to his faceplate, “Right. Iota, it’s zord time”.

    “Understood”.

    ---

    By the time the Areitai realized it wasn’t alone (by giant monster standards), it was too late. A flying kick from the Defender Megazord sent the monster out of the city, landing in the desert between it and the lowland sea just a few miles away.

    “So much for keeping a low profile” Sid mused, activating the Megazord’s sword from his seat in the cockpit. The two titans clashed, the Megazord’s saber blocking the monster’s claws, before going on the offensive and getting a good shot in.

    …Unfortunately, the rangers hadn’t counted on another ability of the Areitai; its wings began to flap, generating powerful winds that slammed into the Megazord’s hull. Sparks flew, and the Megazord toppled over, allowing the monster to jump on top of it and begin pummeling it. The cockpit shook and shuttered as the zord took a beating.

    “Shields are dropping fast! We need to get back up!” Trok said as his console sparked. Sid gritted his teeth.

    Taking action, Xolin brought up the Megazord’s blaster weapon, and a stream of steady laser fire punched into the bat. It staggered back in pain, smoke emanating from its chest as the Megazord got back to its feet, following up with another volley from its gun.

    “Nice!” Sid applauded, “You feel up to an auxillary zord?”

    Xolin nodded, knowing where this was going, “Do it”.

    A moment later, a blue light shot out of the Megazord’s chest, growing larger and larger until it evaporated, replaced by a blue and silver spaceship with black trim, large wings taking up its backside. The vehicle spun around the monster, opening fire as it weaved around gracefully, easily remaining out of range of reprisal.

    “Defender Megazord, Lightning Mode!” Xolin commanded. The blue Guardianzord split apart, its components forming around the Megazord as chest armor, gauntlets, a new helmet, and a pair of large wings—and two large guns now holstered to its sides.

    Before the monster could even rebound, the Megazord was already on the offensive, kicking off into the air as it grabbed its new weapons and opened fire in midair, vaulting over the creature.

    “Oooooh, *speed* mode! Duh!” Trok said, slapping himself. Xolin’s zord had been the only one he couldn’t figure out the purpose of. But duh, it made sense considering it was the only archtype unaccounted for.

    The monster howled as the lasers hit their mark. Another launch into the air, and the Megazord’s foot impacted against the Areitai’s side. The zord landed, and followed up with a second kick. And a third. It dodged a swipe from the claws, bringing its guns up and planting them right up against the monster’s hide.

    “Game over” Xolin said, as explosions ripped through the creature. “And now to finish this. Azure Sniper!” The Megazord combined the two guns into a single rifle and aimed. Even as the monster charged, it was too late. The resulting shot cut right through the beast. It toppled over, exploding once again, and leaving the Megazord triumphant.

    ---

    Sid grimaced as he stood in front of the doors to the simudeck. Trok had said she was in there, but…well, he wasn’t sure if he should disturb her. He had almost opened the door, but hesitated at the last second. What if he messed it up worse?

    Taking a deep breath, he resolved himself, and pressed the control button. The door swished open, and he cautiously stepped inside.

    The room was *definitely* Triforian in appearance; large sandstone columns held the rectangular ceiling up, with numerous pyramidal lanterns hanging ‘upside down’ at each interval to cast a quiet yellow light on the desert rock of the interior—though there were enough open ornately grated windows up above to allow natural sunlight in. (Well…’natural’ anyway, considering it was all a hologram). At each end of the room, waterfall fountains pooled, flanked by exotic desert plant life in pots, and populated by the occasional songbird bathing itself. Behind the pillars on the long wall he could also see two small fire pits, and all around the edges he could see numerous weapons and armor laying about haphazardly. And in the center sat a raised section of the floor, rectangular in design, and obviously designed for some sort of sparring ritual. Xolin sat cross-legged in the center, in some sort of meditative trance.

    A breeze filtered through the windows. A few chimes rang in the distance, pressured by the wind.

    Sid hesitantly stepped inside, taking in the illusion Xolin had created.

    “I was…feeling nostalgic, I guess. Pretty stupid thing to feel” she said with her eyes still closed, her voice barely above a whisper. She hated herself for that. For both things, actually. Being nostalgic for home…nonsense. Utter nonsense. And yet, here she was.

    “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude” Sid replied, turning, “I’ll come back later”.

    “No” she said suddenly, then relaxed, “…No. I mean…you’re not. I just…” she took a deep breath. This was hard. The words just weren’t coming out right. Damn it.

    “Bad day?”

    She laughed. Actually *laughed*. “…Yeah. Yeah, it’s been a pretty crappy day. Come on, sit down”. She motioned to the floor opposite of her. Sid hesitated, but sat down on the ledge regardless.

    “I meant what I said” Sid said, his voice also quiet, “I don’t want to be your enemy”.

    She nodded solemnly, “I know. I just…I know I’m not the easiest person to get along with”.

    “Join the club”.

    Another small chuckle; one he shared in with her. The laughter settled into a brief silence.

    “Tril’nai”.

    “…Pardon?” Sid asked, perplexed.

    A small smile crossed her lips as she explained, “My ability. It’s a skill my House taught me when I was a kid. Back home, I mean. It’s…” she paused, considering her words, “Triforian culture and religion is…weird. There’s a lot of nuances. But basically, we believe our bodies are sacred temples, abstract representations of the universe. We have multiple facets, just like the universe. Everything is just a fragment of a larger whole. And, well…some houses don’t take kindly to other houses teaching certain arts. They believe that by willfully splitting our souls, we are making a mockery of existence, and diluting our essences. We defile our temples”.

    Sid was quick on the uptake, “But not according to your people”.

    She shook her head, “Some houses, like mine, believe that Tril’nai is a celebration of life, of the universe and all its facets. We don’t see defilement; we see an expression of harmony and life”.

    “…So why did you leave home?”

    Xolin sighed, knowing this was coming. But she’d had enough time to think now, and was a bit more prepared. “It…my parents and I didn’t agree on a lot of things. Like what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or…well, anything really”.

    “What did you want to be?”

    “A member of the priest order of our House collective”. She laughed at Sid’s perplexed reaction, then sobered up, “...I was part of the upper class though, and my parents didn’t want me to ‘waste away’ in such ‘esoteric nonsense’. They wanted me in an arranged marriage--a business transaction with another House in our alliance. It was good for the family and our status. I disagreed and…things got bad” she got quiet for a moment, “…Not that I would have done any better in the order anyway. I’m way too independent. I’d have been rewriting ancient texts and committing heresies within a month of graduation”. She chuckled darkly.

    “I’m sorry” Sid said, not sure where else to go from here.

    “Yeah, so am I” Xolin flopped down on her back, mildly stretching. Silence once again filled the room.

    “…I’m tired of hating” she finally said a moment later, her voice quiet and weary and…exhausted. She stared up at the ceiling in contemplation, “But every time I think about…anything, it just boils inside of me, and everything tightens up and it just…comes out. And I don’t know what to do”. Why was she telling him all this? Or even admitting it to herself? She hadn’t even told Trok any of this. She didn’t know, but it felt…it felt okay. Trok, as close as they had gotten, was like a kid brother she figured. Sid was more like a…a peer? A friend?

    Hmm.

    Sid had absolutely no idea how to respond to this; he had absolutely no experience with this kind of stuff, he wasn’t…ugh. The red ranger was so used to simply being out on his own, only having to deal with himself that he was just out of his depth. Silently he cursed himself for thinking he could just come in here and make things right so easily.

    “Don’t worry” she said, eyeing him, reading his expression, “I know there’s not really anything you can say. It’s my problem to deal with”.

    “You know you’re not alone though, right?” he asked.

    She nodded, sitting up. She really *was* grateful for that, “Yeah. And thanks”.

    More silence.

    “…So why the cloak?” he asked, genuinely curious.

    She snickered as she stood up, pointing to the tattoo around her left eye, “Symbol of my House. Many Houses do it. It’s just sort of an old tradition, especially among the higher class ones. Though, I guess it’s not really ‘my’ House anymore”. She walked over to the edge of the small arena and began stretching her arms, “Wanna spar?” she asked casually.

    Sid was a little bit surprised by that request, “I…weren’t you meditating?”

    A wry grin crossed her face, this one not so easily removed, “Combat can be a form of meditation too”.

    Sid chuckled and stood up, taking his place at the opposite end of the arena.

    “I don’t want to be your enemy either, Sid” she said earnestly, now moving on to her legs. She finished and took up a fighting stance. Her smile widened into a cocky expression, “But fight me, and we’ll see if you’re friend material”.

    Sid returned the grin, assuming a fighting stance himself, “May the best man win”.

    She shook her head in amused disbelief, “I’ll make you eat those words” she said, just before the two swung into each other.

    ---

    Two other figures, holographic and obscured, stood inside Iota’s office, alongside the aforementioned warrior. For his part, Iota stood in front of his window, his arms crossed behind him as he watched the stars fly by.

    “Reckless. Very reckless” the first figure, male, said. His tone was disapproving—not that Iota particularly cared. “Your little zord battle was seen by the entire city. And there have been similar reports on KO-35, Onyx, and most troublingly—Arkilla. If the Alliance ever tracks the incident on Arkilla back to the Confederacy, the consequences would be disastrous”.

    Iota snorted, “And how would you recommend we cover up zord battles?”

    “I don’t *know*, Iota. That’s your job as a field agent to figure out. None of the other teams have this problem; they’ve been able to keep things from escalating that far in populated areas. And we don’t want attention drawn to us, least of all your team”. The male figure sighed.

    “Your concerns have been noted” Iota said.

    “Things are progressing well then, I take it” the male figure asked, changing the conversation. Iota knew he would; he didn’t do well with walls. And Iota was excellent at wall-building.

    Iota nodded, “Though there have been a few minor setbacks, we remain mostly on schedule”.

    The other figure, female, spoke up now, “When can we begin phase two, then?”

    “Not for a while” Iota sighed, moving back to his chair, “The team situation is still new and fragile. I haven’t yet been able to mold them to how they need to be. They are progressing, as I said, but…they are at a delicate stage. The slightest misstep could shatter the team. We need them as a functional unit before moving on to stage two of the operation”.

    “Agreed” the male said, “It would be unfortunate if anything were to happen”.

    “It should be noted that we *are* on a definite deadline” the female said, “If we wait too long, we may miss our window of opportunity”.

    Iota nodded, his hand on his chair, “I know that, but to move rashly is to invite disaster. Our enemies will not be forgiving”.

    The female relented, “Very well. Keep us informed of your progress. And…good luck”.

    Iota nodded just before the two forms vanished, “And to you”. Now alone, he sat down and brought up multiple windows; each containing his psychological reports on his team. Sid, Xolin, Trok, Sel…they were all there. The pieces were all there, they just hadn’t been made to all fit right just yet.

    “Soon” he reassured himself, “Soon”.

    TO BE CONTINUED…
     
  6. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.05: BODY SNATCHING

    Trok was bored.

    The green ranger had spent the last ten minutes crouching under a bush waiting just in case the prey came his way. Ugh. They could have at least let him push the monster into the trap; Sid always got all the fun parts. Leader’s prerogative, he guessed. Bleh.

    The plan had actually been kind of complex; lure the shape-changing monster into an area where they had set up beacons to neutralize his abilities, and then position themselves at the edge until it was time to move in. It had merit; it was similar to how his people would hunt for food back home—large desert creatures needed to be outflanked and taken down through teamwork. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t still *bored*.

    Though, Trok was actually pretty proud of himself this time. Those beacon devices that neutralized shapeshifting? Those were all his. While Sid had come up with the plan, the devices themselves were Trok’s handiwork. Not bad, for such a rushed, jury-rigged solution.

    The planet that they were on couldn’t have been less like home if it tried. The entire time they had been here, Trok had only seen marshes and swamps. Even now, he was crouching knee-deep in watery muck…eugh. What he wouldn’t give to be on dry land. Not that the atmosphere wasn’t beautiful; it really was. Giant trees towered above him, connecting to each other through their branches like one gigantic organism. They were spaced out on the ground, interspaced with smaller independent alien plant life; large organisms with blue, purple, or orange bioluminescent parts. And in the early mist-filled hours at the edge of dawn, their glow made the forest almost magical, like something out of a storybook.

    Focus, Trok.

    The green ranger glanced at his morpher. Numerous life-signs appeared on the small holographic map, and it seemed that everything was almost in place. Sure enough, Xolin’s voice soon came over the communicator, “Target in sight. Everyone get ready to move in”.

    He couldn’t see anyone else out in the swamp, but that was because of just how wide the trap had been sent, and just how dense the murky jungle was. When it had first been mentioned they were visiting an aquitian colony world, Trok had been expecting the usual; large oceanic expanses with pod cities on the sea floor. Instead, here aquitian settlements rose out of the low wetlands like bizarre fungal growths, peeking above the waterline in large collectives.

    A rustle in the leaves near Trok caught his attention. The monster couldn’t be here already, he’d have gotten an update from Xolin if that were the case. So why… Trok risked a glance over the bush he was stationed behind. To his surprise, a familiar fat blob-like white figure was lurking around not more than a few yards away. The monster! But how…didn’t matter. Trok gripped his hammer as he prepared to strike.

    “I’ve located the monster” he spoke into his morpher, “Everyone converge on my position!”

    “…What? Trok, no, the monster’s over this way! Trok!”

    The green ranger paid no heed to the warning as he charged in, swinging his hammer at the monster’s backside. It had been a particularly annoying foe; being able to change its appearance and mimic anyone and everyone. They’d had a hell of a time trying to flush him out of the aquitian colony, and even now it seemed he was a slippery one, having somehow evaded the other rangers. But that just meant it was all up to Trok.

    The hammer came down on the monster’s face, just as it turned around to see its attacker a smidge too late. Trok followed up with a second swing, and a third. A grin broke across his face as he laid into the monster. He was winning! *Winning*! At this rate he’d take out the monster before the others showed up. He’d be the hero for today! Wouldn’t the others be so proud of him.

    Seemingly realizing it was outmatched, the monster turned tail and ran. No! Trok knew that if it got away, the trap would have failed. He wouldn’t let it end this way; not yet not when they were so close. The others had put too much effort into it for it to fail like this. Trok gave chase, even as he spoke into his morpher, “Monster is attempting to escape. Following in pursuit”.

    “Trok? Trok! Stop! You’re out of formation!”

    But the green range was too into the chase to hear the pleas for him to turn back. Deeper and deeper into the forest he ran. His hammer mace almost caught the monster at one point, but instead wrapped itself around an old tree log, which shattered when he pulled his weapon back. Unfortunately, that split second delay was all that the monster needed to up and vanish.

    “No!” Trok panted, slowing to a halt. His fist hit the tree he was leaning next to in frustration. He had been so close.

    “Trok! Come in, where are you?!” his morpher chirped with Sid’s voice, “The monster’s closing in on Sel’s position! She can’t fight in melee combat, where are you?!”

    Wait, the monster was back there? But how…nevermind. He was too far out of position, he knew that as he looked around at his unfamiliar surroundings, breathing heavily. Oh spirits, Sel. Trok doubled back, already a bit winded from sprinting so far with a heavy weapon. He’d make it though; he had to.

    ---

    It was quiet. She liked quiet. Not like, *absolute* silence, that would drive anyone insane. But this…this was nice. It far exceeded, in her opinion, the stuffy corridors of the aquitian pods. So many people coming and going… She had to admit, seeing all these new things were beginning to give her a fondness for it, but after a while all the sights and sounds would just start to blend together and become an uncomfortable noisy mess. Too much noise.

    But here…she’d hear the breeze, some birds calling, the occasional frog or…well, whatever passed for ‘frog’ on an alien world. It was nice.

    …Now, if only everyone else would stop talking all the time over the communicator. They were yelling at Trok for…some reason. He’d found the monster, wasn’t that good? She idly checked her map.

    Wait, that wasn’t good. Trok *was* way out of position, and the monster was…

    “The monster’s closing in on Sel’s position! She can’t fight in melee combat, where are you?!”

    Uh oh.

    Sel had been positioned between Trok and Xolin of Courage, so that no matter what, one of them could have intercepted her if she ended up being in the path of the monster’s attempted escape. Now one of those flanks was gone, and it looked like the shapeshifter would reach her before any of Xolin’s aspects did—and even Courage, the strongest of the three, wasn’t nearly as powerful as Xolin herself.

    Sure enough, the white and flabby but otherwise disturbingly blank form of the monster was closing in on her position, and indeed had already noticed her—though it was hard to tell since its face was non-existent, but the fact that it was bounding right at her was a giveaway. The one advantage she had was that she was a few feet up in a tree looking down at the creature. So, she took aim with her bow and fired a shot. But just as she fired, the monster shot of volley of laser blasts of its own, knocking her out of the tree and into the muck below. Her own attack had just barely missed. As the yellow ranger struggled to get back to her feet, the creature charged in. Sel just barely had time to block with her bow, slashing across the monster’s front with the blades lining the front of her weapon. A second attempt at a (short-ranged) missile attack was thwarted by the shapeshifter knocking her weapon aside, her laser arrow hitting a nearby tree harmlessly. Two more hits and she was down.

    Sel grunted as the creature kicked her. The others had only begun training her on melee combat in the past week. While she was quickly proving to be a naturally excellent sniper, a single week of training was not enough to effective against anything. The yellow ranger struggled, pinned to the marshy ground by the much fatter beast’s foot, her weapon having been lost somewhere under one of the water pools hidden by the tall grass.

    ‘Surprise your enemy’ had been one of Sid’s first lessons to her, just before he had swung his pole under behind her legs, dropping her to the ground unceremoniously. Now, in a fit of inspiration, she grabbed her sidearm blaster and opened fire, catching the monster off-guard as it had been preparing to finish her off. It stumbled back, giving her a moment to scramble to her feet and let off another volley of laser blasts. By now however, the monster was ready, and simply bullrushed through, slamming Sel against the nearest tree, its form rippling but unable to take another shape. Likely this meant that the dampening field was working. Not that that was much comfort to Sel, as the monster pressed against her, unable to understand why it wasn’t able to take her form.

    Sel struggled frantically. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breath. This was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise and just…too much.

    TOO MUCH!

    She roared, electrical energy surging through her body, coursing down her arms. It flooded into the shapeshifter as she screamed in a mixture of fear, anger, and pain. The monster staggered back, sparking and smoking as Sel limply fell to the ground, having blacked out.

    “SEL!” Xolin of Courage shouted, seeing her downed comrade. Her lance struck the monster as she came down on it, wheeling around and making sure her body was a barrier between her opponent and the unconscious yellow ranger. Realizing there wasn’t much she could do right at this moment, the blue ranger spun at the monster, trading numerous blows. She wasn’t too effective however; with only a third of her strength, she mostly had to rely on her speed and agility to keep avoiding the monster’s attacks as she drew its attention.

    Thankfully, Xolins of Mind and Spirit showed up just as the monster gained the upper hand. Her two other aspects landed on the monster’s shoulders, flipping around and landing kicks before dropping next to Xolin of Courage. The three of them united once more, leaving just one fully-powered blue ranger.

    But before the fight could resume between the two of them, Sid’s axe imbedded itself in the monster’s back. It staggered forward, sparking.

    “About time you showed up” Xolin grunted, as the two rangers readied for the next assault.

    Sid shrugged, grinning under his helmet, “Sorry. Had to stop and ask for directions”.

    “You’re not funny” the blue ranger quipped back.

    “How is she?” Sid asked, changing the subject as he saw Sel’s form behind them.

    “Don’t know” Xolin replied, keeping her eye on the monster, “I’ve been a little preoccupied”.

    Sid nodded, “Right. Shall we?”

    The two rangers launched their attack, striking out at the fat, pale blob monster with their respective weapons, both fully charged. It took numerous strikes, but unable to transform into any other form, the blob was defenseless against two skilled rangers. It collapsed and exploded.

    Sid knelt down next to Sel as he and Xolin heard Trok’s voice, “I’m here! I’m here! Sorry! I just—woah!” a large splash told them all they needed to know. They sighed as a very dirty green ranger arrived on the scene, utterly out of breath. “Sorry…I…”

    “Where are you?” asked Sid, annoyed, “We had a plan for a reason”. He sat Sel upright next to the tree and began removing her helmet.

    Trok stammered, “S-sorry. I just…I saw the monster going in another direction and then it vanished and I just---”

    “But we just killed that thing” Xolin said, glancing at Sid, her tone judgmental, but also a tad quizzical.

    The red ranger shook his head, “It’s…possible the monster had a decoy power we didn’t know about”. He wasn’t sure how much he liked that idea; if that was true then how did they know they’d even destroyed the real monster? Would they ever? Amazingly, he’d have preferred it if Trok had simply messed this one up.

    “How is she?” Trok asked timidly, as Sid felt for her pulse under her jaw. This was all his fault. If he’d just…damnit. Still just a stupid rookie.

    Sid grimaced, “I think she’s just out cold, but we should really get her back to the ship just in case the monster put a spell on her or something”. He picked her up, slinging her body over his shoulder, “Come on”.

    “Y-yeah…” Trok muttered, stepping in line behind the others. No one said anything as they headed back to the Megaship. No one noticed the flake of the monster’s skin that had lodged itself under Sid’s belt.

    ---

    The alert went off; that meant that phase one had been completed.

    Capricorn was pleased. The rangers would expect to defeat the monster as always, and the gimmick employed meant that it would have been a challenging enough fight that they wouldn’t think anything was wrong. But little did any of them know that it just meant that round one was over.

    For weeks now he’d been struggling to find a way to take that damned ranger team down—partly because it was a job, but also because he *owed* them. They had single-handedly destroyed his life, his career…they would pay. But every time so far, he’d been thwarted. Trill had been a disappointment—hiring mercenaries to take care of the job just wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t clever enough. No, he’d needed to be sneakier about this.

    So he’d employed an Areitai, dropping the creature off on an isolated colony world near where they had been stationed, knowing they’d likely be the ones to investigate. But things had gone wrong, and the monster just hadn’t been good enough. An energy-draining monster was a good idea, but just not practical when it couldn’t be controlled and only wanted triforian energy.

    But now he had a *good* idea. He’d hit the rangers where they lived, infiltrate their own ranks with one of his own. He cackled at his own genius. Soon. Soon, he’d be back on top, and he’d even be able to take their megaship as his own personal base. All he had to do was wait.

    ---

    Thankfully, to Trok, there had been no spells or anything of any sort. Sel had awoken extremely exhausted and with a splitting headache once in the medbay, but other than that she seemed pretty much okay. Sid and Iota had postulated that the monster had somehow drained her energy—though how it had done so while leaving her powers intact was a puzzle. But the thought that the monster had yet *another* new power they hadn’t factored in worried Sid, even with it dead and gone. He hoped, anyway.

    Unfortunately for Trok, Iota wasn’t too happy.

    “Irresponsible” the armored figure spat out, “Why would you abandon your position?” he demanded to know of Trok. For his part, the horathean kept his eyes down in shame and fear. He didn’t like getting on anyone’s bad side, least of all his commanding officer’s. And when people were disappointed in him it was just the worst.

    “I…I thought I saw the monster, so I went after it” he explained, “It was heading in the opposite direction, away from the dampening field. I thought—”.

    “You thought incorrectly” Iota cut him off crossly, “Did the sensor map not tell you where the monster was?”

    Trok fidgeted, “Well, yes…but—”

    “Then why did you not focus on the monster’s actual location?”

    Xolin broke in, unable to take this any longer, “We think the monster had some kind of doppleganger power. In that case---”

    “In that case, I expect you to follow your scanners, and not your eyes” Iota snapped, not taking his gaze off Trok, “You were supposed to be in position to assist your teammate. She’s not yet trained in melee combat; because of your actions she could have been severely injured!”

    Trok dared a glance at Sel, seemingly terrified at what could have happened. He didn’t look at her for very long; he couldn’t, and very quickly resumed his staring contest with the ground.

    Sid spoke up angrily in his defense, “Hey, that’s not fair! It was a combat situation, he did what he thought was the best course of action with the information provided”.

    “Plans don’t always go the way we want them to” Xolin added, folding her arms, quickly becoming very cross.

    For the first time since the argument had started, Iota turned his attention toward Sid, “And what happened the last time you didn’t follow the plan?”

    Both Xolin and Sid glared angrily at him; his intentions did not go unnoticed. They said nothing though, it was clear this argument had already been decided in Iota’s mind, and Sid had no intention of digging through old sins with some aloof blowhard. When it seemed that they had conceded, Iota added, “You’re all dismissed”.


    “I’m…sorry” Trok muttered, “I’ll really try better next time”.

    “See that you do”. Iota’s response dripped with disappointment, and shortly after the green ranger ran from the room—Sid could have sworn he saw tears. Poor kid. Iota glanced once more at the others before also leaving the room, his exit far more composed.

    “*Really* starting to dislike the boss” Sid seethed.

    “You okay?” Xolin asked him.

    Sid exhaled, “Besides wanting his face in the wall? Yeah”.

    “Must you yell here?” came Sel’s voice. She was now sitting upright in the bed, an annoyed expression etched on her face.

    Sid’s face changed to a more sympathetic one, “Sorry. Just…disappointed in ourselves. We’ll be going”.

    “Mmm” Sel mused quietly, leaning back.

    Xolin sighed, turning her attention back to Sid, “Go find Trok, cheer him up”.

    “…Isn’t he *your* sidekick?” Sid asked, perplexed that Xolin would defer that much responsibility to someone else—especially him.

    Xolin shook her head, “He looks up to you. I’m more like an annoying big sister; it’d mean more coming from a highly sought after objective source. I’ll catch up with him during our training session later”.

    “If you’re sure…” Sid said warily, turning to leave.

    She nodded, gently pushing him out the door, “I am, trust me. I know how Trok works, and right now he needs a comforting word. Who better than his hero? ‘Sides, you’re better at it than I am”.

    Sid nodded in hesitant response and headed out, leaving Xolin and Sel behind. Xolin looked back at her, “You need anything?” she asked offhand.

    “No” was the singular response.

    Xolin smirked in bemusement as she turned to leave; typical Sel. The girl never needed anything—even a few weeks into this, and she was an enigma that Xolin didn’t really care to crack. “Call if that changes” she casually remarked, leaving. She wouldn’t, of course, but it would be irresponsible to just leave her to rot.

    Sel relaxed. Quiet. Finally. Too much shouting.

    ---

    The first place Sid looked was the workbay, with the assumption that Trok would be moping around somewhere in there, tinkering with weapons or some other personal project. When it was clear that the room was empty, he instead tried the launchbay—maybe he was working on the skycycles. But nope, no-one there.

    Maybe the loading bay. Nope.

    …Why were half of the rooms on this ship named with ‘bay’ as a suffix?

    By the time he tried Trok’s room (mentally smacking himself for not thinking about that earlier), he was becoming a tad annoyed. But nope, still nothing. Same with the simudeck.

    Dang. He was quickly running out of places to visit. Knowing his luck, Sid was starting to assume that Trok would naturally be located where he had just looked, unknowingly trailing him. It would be just his speed.

    …Wait. Sid had an idea. He crossed the ship, heading towards the lower deck’s rear, towards engineering.

    Bingo.

    Engineering was dominated by the central hyperrush engine, a tall complex pillar that bulged out around the middle with opaque windows to the interior chamber, filled with energy that powered the vessel. The pillar was flanked by smaller engine annexes, while above a pair of catwalks crossed by the top of the engine. Off to the side lay a sealed airlock door directly to space; Sid knew it was ‘just in case’ of an engine meltdown and excess energy needed vented into space, but its existence always put him on edge, no matter the ship.

    To the side of *that* was a small storage room annex; which is where he found Trok, currently digging around through supplies.

    “Hey” Sid casually waved, leaning against the door as Trok came back out into the main engineering room. He seemed slightly surprised, but collected himself quickly, if still sullen.

    “…Hey”. Trok headed over back towards the engine, a data pad in his hands. He opened up a small control panel to its side and began to work on it.

    “Need any help?”

    Trok shook his head, keeping his attention on the control panel, “Nah. I’m just running diagnostics, checking scans. Tuneups, that sort of thing. It’s relaxing”.

    “You do like to tinker, don’t you?” Sid sat down on a stay crate next to the wall. Whenever he found Trok, the kid was usually working on things—tuning up the skycycles, or upgrading the weapons, sometimes he was building inventions of his own (like the dampening device they had used to take down the monster)…or in this case, making his rounds in engineering. In truth Sid hadn’t the foggiest idea what Trok was doing, he couldn’t tell the difference between a warp conduit and a flux capacitor.

    …Flux capacitors were a thing starships had, right?

    “Mmm” Trok mumbled in reply. An uncomfortable awkward silence fell over the room, broken only by the soft beeps from buttons being pressed.

    “He was wrong, you know”.

    The beeping stopped, Trok paused. He didn’t look back at Sid, instead taking a moment to organize his thoughts, “No, he was right. I messed up. Sel got hurt, and it was my fault ‘cause I wasn’t there”. His voice was quiet, despondent.

    “You reacted to a combat situation and attempted to resolve it to the best of your abilities” Sid countered. “Yeah, you really probably shouldn’t have gone off without telling us, but you were right for investigating. And anyway, that’s why we put Xolin on Sel’s other flank; just in case. You wouldn’t have made it any sooner than her”.

    “I still could have made it there a hell of a lot quicker than I did”.

    Sid smiled sadly, “We all make mistakes. You’re inexperienced; it happens. But it was a controlled environment, and no one got seriously hurt. We’re rangers; unexpected situations happen. Don’t let Iota get to you”.

    Trok turned to Sid, his padd to his side, “Iota’s just…concerned”.

    Grimacing, Sid sighed, not entirely sure how to approach this subject. He grunted, “I…look, nobody’s perfect. Not you, not me, not Iota. Don’t let him dictate everything”.

    Trok blinked, “…What exactly are you trying to say?”

    This had been a bad idea; Sid knew that now. He’d made a poor move, time to backtrack. “…Nothing. Forget it” he stood up, “Just remember that mistakes are…” he paused in thought, “mistakes are a necessary part of life. We learn from them, we grow from them. But don’t get too down about them”. Inwardly, Sid chastised himself; because who better to give advice about not getting too upset about mistakes than the guy who led his old team to their deaths, right?

    Another uncomfortable pause settled over the conversation. Sid sighed; damnit, he was *so* not the person to be doing this—especially since he was feeling like a hypocrite giving him that kind of advice. He secretly wondered if Xolin hadn’t just pawned this off on him because she really didn’t want to herself.

    Trok closed the control panel, setting the data padd on the ledge, “…I make a lot of mistakes” Trok mumbled, an unmistakable and unusual bitter tone present, “And I can’t seem to stop doing it”. The horathean passed Sid as he trudged out of the room—a pained expression etched on his face. Sid crossed his arms as he watched him go, annoyed at Iota.

    “Damn manipulating blowhards” he grumbled to himself, now alone and free to speak his mind to the otherwise empty room.

    ---

    Iota exhaled as he gently tossed a data padd over to the other side of his desk in his office; Peacekeeper logistics could get bent. He’d seen enough operative deployments that he was pretty sure he’d memorized the entire membership roster *and* every sector name within the Confederacy. If he looked at a chessboard, he’d probably see deployment numbers.

    Rook to the Eredon Sector. Knight to the Vika Sector.

    Sigh.

    A chime came at the door. “Come in” Iota said, bored. The door swished open, and Sid stepped in.

    “We need to talk”.

    This should be good. Iota leaned back in his chair, preparing for Sid’s inevitable response to their conversation in the medbay. He’d figured that he’d have a decent chance of Sid coming to speak with him, but it had been almost fifty-fifty—it really depended on just how far Sid felt he had been pushed. “Do we?” he asked, ready for Sid’s blunt-force approach to arguing, and ready to shoot down anything he could muster. There was only a thirty percent chance Sid would do anything more than just reiterate his earlier points, and then shut down when Iota would remind Sid of the team he’d already lost to incompetence. Still, it was better than working on files.

    But to Iota’s surprise, Sid’s glare quickly shifted to that of a wild smile after the door closed.

    Wait, what.

    Before Iota could react, just as he was realizing that shit was indeed *very* wrong, Sid’s arm reached out and extended, throwing Iota into the wall, knocking his chair aside. A second later, Sid’s form melted away, replaced by the white flabby shapeshifting monster.

    Shit.

    Pinned against the wall, he moved to contact the team through his helmet’s communicator, but the monster seemed to know what he was about to do, instead repeatedly slamming Iota against the bulkhead until he simply passed out. The armored warrior dropped to the floor in a heap, as the monster stepped back into its Sid guise, a malicious grin plastered across his face as he closed in, “I’m glad we had this talk”.

    ---

    “Your left foot’s out of position again. Straighten it up”.

    “Sorry”.

    “Stop saying you’re sorry”.

    “Sorry”.

    “Ugh! And move your foot!”

    Xolin sighed in exasperation, she and her opponent standing within her meditation simudeck program. This training session was *not* going well. Not well at all. Trok’s thoughts were clearly elsewhere, and any attempt to correct him just ended up making him feel worse. Mistakes compounding mistakes compounding mistakes. And while Xolin had a definite soft spot for the kid, she had absolutely no patience for self-hating whining. Yeah, she knew she was a hypocrite. Regardless.

    She guessed she’d just have to try a tough love approach. With lightning-fast reflexes, she swung in, fainting a forward attack. But instead, her leg swung around, tilting her body as she balanced on her hand. Trok had perhaps been expecting a normal frontal assault, but his counter met nothing but midair as Xolin’s foot introduced itself to his mouth. Another flip around, and Xolin’s other leg swept into Trok’s exposed chest. A final launch off from Trok’s body sent him tumbling to the ground, as Xolin gracefully landed a few feet away on one knee. She stood back up as Trok grunted.

    “And *That* is why you need your head in the game” she said, helping him up, “Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t help on the battlefield”.

    “Sorry”.

    For the love of…

    She sighed. “Look, you messed up, I get it. Shit sucks. But if you do nothing but blame yourself and obsess over it, and you just end up making more mistakes. So, y’know, get over it”.

    Trok said nothing in reply, instead looking away—clearly embarrassed that he was now messing up about messing up. Ugh. He was no good like this, and she knew it. “…Let’s call it quits for today, hm?” she said to him, “Go get some rest, come back tomorrow when you’ve got your head on straight”. Trok nodded numbly, and walked away, passing Sid as he exited the door to the rest of the ship. Xolin shook her head in irritation as she went to grab a towel she had left hanging on one of the simulation’s stone ledges. Hopefully he’d be back to normal by tomorrow.

    Damnit, she wasn’t good at this kind of thing.

    “Problems?” asked Sid, waltzing in.

    Xolin grumbled, “Nah, just…Trok’s still down. I gather you didn’t have much luck either”.

    Sid shook his head as he put his hands in his pockets, “Sorry”.

    The glared at him, “Next person to tell me they’re sorry is going to get my foot in their mouth”.

    Before Sid could respond, a second Sid entered the room, hands also in his pockets. “Xolin?” he called, “Have you seen—woah!” his casual domineer evaporated when he suddenly found himself face to face with…well, himself. His expression quickly shifted from confusion, to shock, back to confusion, and then hostility as his mind collected all the pieces of the puzzle, “XOLIN!”

    She twisted around, pulling the towel off her head as she suddenly saw double. “Wha—”

    The first Sid’s smile cracked with psychotic glee as he wheeled on the real Sid, throwing the still-somewhat-off-balance red ranger away before turning his attention on the triforian. Xolin was a bit quicker on the uptake, launching a counter-assault on her foe. Her kick knocked him back a few, giving Sid a few crucial moments to rebound on his doppleganger.

    Sadly, it was not to be so.

    The doppleganger’s appearance melted away as it threw itself into Xolin’s midsection, causing her to tumble back into the waterfall fountain.

    “Xolin!” Sid shouted in concern, just before the monster’s form backhanded him into a pillar. Sucker was strong, that was for sure. But how was it still alive?

    Xolin struggled with increasing panic with the semi-solid form of the monster that was keeping her under the water. Xolin hadn’t thought enabling the safeties for the water controls in her own personal meditation simulation had been needed; after all, it was just two small fountain pools, how could you drown?

    How indeed.

    A flash of red, and Sid’s ranger form laid into the monster’s backside with his axe. The monster let go of Xolin, instead transforming itself into the red ranger, and lunging at Sid. The two clashed blades with the other, with Sid momentarily gaining the upper hand, as Xolin managed to drag herself out of the pool, coughing violently as her body struggled to breathe again. Unfortunately, just as the monster lulled Sid into a mirror axe fight, its left arm let go and melted away into a powerful white limb that punched Sid directly into the next pillar, causing him to drop his weapon. Now with the advantage, the monster’s white form slammed into Sid, rapid-punching him senseless until it simply grabbed him and threw him into the wall. Sid fell to the ground in a heap just below where his impact had left a mark on the stone. The red ranger demorphed back into his unconscious human form. The faceless monster then turned back on Xolin, still on her knees, and still coughing.

    Determined not to go down this way, she forced herself to her feet, pressed her finger on her morpher…and promptly blacked out as the shapeshifter’s red ranger form plowed into her.

    ---

    All he’d ever wanted was for them to be proud of him. Sid was that unbeatable ace; that idol you’d look up to for inspiration—unbeatable and undeniable. Xolin was like a big sister; competent and self-assured, yet stern and only ever accepting the best. Iota was his commanding officer; and the man who never gave an inch. To get their respect would mean everything; it’d mean Trok was one step further along on his path to being a hero in his own right, instead of just being the kid; the rookie. He wanted respect.

    All he ever wanted was to be a hero. To be the one doing the right thing, to be seen as something better. He’d never gotten much of that at home; the downsides of being the younger sibling.

    Hrm. Home. He’d let them down too. It wasn’t like it was his *fault*, he had been cast out by his brother, what was he to do? Bad shit had gone down after their parents had died, and Trok had just ended up as the perfect scapegoat. It wasn’t like he had *wanted* to leave, but it also wasn’t like he was built to take on the responsibilities expected of him in his clan. His brother was better at that anyway. Yet for some reason, that always nagged at the back of his mind.

    And now he’d gone and fouled this up too. Again. He’d tried to be like Xolin and Sid, doing what they did and trusting himself and his instincts…and he had failed miserably. Worse, he’d gotten a teammate injured…and Sel of all people. He had still held out hope they could be friends, but after that…man, he was sure he’d be lucky if she even wanted to be in the same room after that. It was all his fault. He’d gotten used to messing up; like that time on Onyx he nearly got swindled, or Ergath IV when he and Xolin had almost gotten arrested because he’d messed up some sort of sacred tea ceremony he hadn’t even known he was participating in. Eugh.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid. This is why he shouldn’t have tried to be anything more than the sidekick. Just…keep your head down, and follow orders blindly. He wasn’t much good for anything else.

    Blech.

    Something else was beginning to bother him though. Things were…quiet. Trok had noticed this for a bit now. Like, normally with only five people onboard, the ship would be quiet anyway, but there was just something…off. It was empty. After he’d left the simudeck, he’d not seen a single person.

    Granted, that could be easily explained; both Sid and Xolin were in the simudeck. Sel was in the medbay. Iota was…well, he’d probably be squirreled away inside his office as usual. But…it had been hours. At the very least Sid or Xolin would have been done in the simudeck, or just checked in on him. Or Iota would be making his rounds or…something.

    He’d come to the workbay to tinker and be left alone for a while, but now he was starting to feel…lonely.

    “Where *is* everyone?” he asked himself, noting that *someone* should have come in for dinner by this point. Deciding something…well, not ‘wrong’ persay, but ‘off’ at the very least, Trok got up off his chair and wandered out into the hall.

    Quiet emptiness. Hrn.

    “…Guys?” he asked the silence. No response. “Sid? Xolin?” Hrn. Trok crept towards the bridge. Why creeping, he didn’t know, but something felt…yeah, something felt wrong.

    A hand touched his shoulder, and Trok very nearly freaked the freak out. Catching his heart in his throat as he spun around, he was *immensely* relieved to see Sid. “Dude!” he gasped, “Don’t do that!”

    Sid chuckled light-heartedly, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Have you seen anyone else?”

    “You can’t find anyone either?” Trok asked. This was definitely wrong; together the two of them should have encountered *somebody*.

    Sid shook his head, “Nah. Xolin and I finished practicing in the simudeck like, an hour ago. I haven’t seen anyone since then”.

    Trok blinked, “Not even Sel?” By all rights, she should have still been in the medbay.

    “…Where is she?” asked Sid, seemingly curious. Something was wrong, Trok knew that now; Sid would have known that Sel was still in the medbay. He had been *there*. He’d been the one to *put* her in there.

    “…You don’t know?” Trok asked, not willing to give any further information.

    Sid became hesitant, “Er…like I said, I’ve been in the simudeck. I don’t know where everyone is right now”.

    “…Where was she when you last saw her?” Trok asked, his suspicions quickly confirming themselves. Whoever this was, this was *not* Sid.

    “Er…”

    Trok’s expression switched from surprise and concern to that of a glare, “…Who are you?” he asked, though deep down, he already had a fairly good idea.

    Sid stepped back, his jovial nature transforming into malicious glee. Trok was lucky he dodged when he did; one more split second and he’d have been thrown through the wall by the monster’s attack. Another split second, and the newly-transformed green ranger charged, hammer in hand. The shapeshifter’s other arm swung, but was knocked aside by Trok’s weapon, giving him the opening he needed to punch right through. The monster screetched an inhuman noise as it reverted to its normal flabby appearance…and then melted away into the nearest floor grate.

    “Wait!” Trok shouted, going after it. But it was too late; it had already escaped. Damn. Trok’s mind raced quickly; if he had Sid’s form, then Sid was likely already down for the count. He’d last seen Sid with Xolin alone…oh spirits. That left him with two options—Iota and Sel. He really didn’t want to deal with the commander right now, and he wasn’t the greatest at combat anyway (he assumed anyway…Iota rarely took the field). And Sel was a sitting duck.

    Sel! Not again!

    Trok ran towards the medbay, hoping beyond hope he wasn’t too late.

    ---

    The medbay was empty.

    The medbay was *empty*.

    The green ranger barreled inside the empty room, looking around wildly for some sort of sign. Where was Sel?! Had the monster already been here?! A sound from behind him caused Trok to whirl around—and almost get smacked in the helmet with the IV drop pole that had been stored in the center of the room.

    “Sel!” Trok gasped, gripping the pole and trying to keep it away from her beaning him in the head with it, “Where…how…”

    The two struggled for a brief moment more, before Sel let go, allowing him to put the pole back down. “I…apologize” she said, backing away a bit, “I thought you were…something is wrong”. Her tone was soft and unsure, as if she had just woken from a bad nightmare.

    “Are you okay?” the green ranger asked, concerned, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost”.

    “I…” she hesitated, unsure. “I…don’t feel right. Something is here. Something is wrong”.

    Trok cocked his head sideways, “Well, you’re right about that. The shapeshifter’s onboard. I think he’s got Sid and Xolin already”.

    Her eyes widened, “It’s here? Now?”

    “Well yeah, but---”

    “Where?!”

    Trok was about to answer that he didn’t know, but instead her heard his voice call out Sel’s name. “Sel! Get away from him!”

    The two looked over to see another green ranger in the doorway, his weapon in his hands and ready to strike. The first green ranger moved to protect Sel. Sel backed away, unsure as to who was real and who was a theat. Everything just felt wrong; that was all she knew.

    Thankfully, Trok knew how to work this—if for no other reason than this exact same kind of thing had happened down on the planet when trying to capture the damned thing. It had impersonated Xolin after they had split up to look for it, and only Sid’s apparent experience in this sort of thing had seen them through after the two blue rangers had started to wail on each other. “Hey, Sel” he said to the girl behind him, making sure to keep his focus on his double, “Remember when we visited KO-35?”

    She nodded, picking up on his meaning, “And after that, we went to Targrath, right?”

    He smiled, “No. Rideon. The Triforian colony”.

    Sel grabbed her bow, her form having already transformed into the yellow ranger. She aimed her weapon—and the false Trok dodged, melting away and pouring itself into the nearest grate.

    “I hate it when he does that!” Trok complained, annoyed it had escaped again…and more than a little paranoid. He turned to Sel, “You okay?”

    She nodded, “Yeah. Still tired but…yes”.

    “We should stick together” Trok said, knowing the second they split up, they’d have trouble figuring out who was who again. That…wouldn’t be fun. At all. Sel seemed to share his opinion, thankfully. Not that she ever really disagreed with anyone’s plans to begin with…hrn. He wondered why she was always so reserved; but now wasn’t the time for that.

    “Where should we go?” she asked him.

    Trok thought for a moment. They could go find Iota; he’d probably have a solution…but there was no proof it’d be the real Iota that they found. No, they needed to get to the bottom of this, they needed to track *everyone*, and secure the ship—it’s what Sid and Xolin would do, instead of hiding behind someone else, “…The bridge. We need to find out where the others are”. Sel nodded in agreement, and together the two rangers dashed off towards the heart of the ship.

    ---

    The bridge, thankfully, was empty. Not that it really gave Trok much comfort—what if one of the chairs was the monster? Or a console? Or…something. Sure, nothing looked out of place so at least he could *mostly* rule it out, but it was still some really annoying paranoia fuel, especially after just getting here had been one long tedious game of ‘hope nothing jump scares you when you turn the corner’.

    Upon entering the bridge, he had quickly enforced quarantine measures, allowing the doors to lock down and all other possible entrances to be sealed off via force fields. Having given himself some piece of mind, the green ranger settled onto other tasks. He noted Sel was already on top of things by scanning the interior of the ship.

    “Found them” she said, motioning Trok over to her. The green ranger looked down at the computer screen, seeing that she had activated one of the many onboard cameras—this particular one located down in engineering. Sure enough, the other two rangers and Iota were chained up in the middle of the floor—and there seemed to be enough for at least two more.

    “That’s them alright” Trok said as he turned to leave, “Come on, let’s do this”.

    “Wait” Sel cautioned. The mere fact that she spoke up like that got Trok’s attention. He looked at her expectedly, and she continued softly after a moment of hesitation, “…The monster, it’s not in view of the camera. And sensors aren’t picking it up”.

    It was a trap then. Trok grunted, annoyed. “…Then we’ll just have to be on our guard. All we need to do is free them and—”

    “I think it’s expecting us to do that” she cut in. It never ceased to surprise Trok; she always seemed so…distant, so shy or aloof, and then suddenly out of nowhere she’d be direct and upfront. It was…well, he’d never been able to get a good read on her. “If we rush in, we’ll likely trigger the trap”.

    Trok glanced at the camera feed, then at the door, and then back again, conflicted and agitated, “But we can’t just leave them! We have to go down there!” Just sitting here would be the worst mistake of all; they’d be giving up. They were rangers, they were *supposed* to take risks and come out winning. The plan was simple; all he’d have to do was rush in there. Even if they triggered the trap, with two to one odds, they had a good chance of freeing the others before being captured themselves…and that was even assuming they *would* be, since the element of surprise was no longer on the shapeshifter’s side.

    If he could just get to Sid and Xolin, it didn’t matter if he was caught, they’d be able to save the day. Everyone would be safe. They could do this! He *had* to do this!

    “You care about them”.

    Trok froze, surprised by this sudden turn of events, “I…yeah. Yeah, I do” he repeated, a bit more assured.

    “Why?”

    “I…is there something wrong with that?” Trok countered, confused.

    She shook her head, still watching the camera feed, “No. I just…what is that like?”

    Trok blinked, “…What is what like? Caring about someone?”

    “Yes”.

    “I…” the green ranger paused to consider his words. He stepped back over to the console with the camera feed, watching the unmoving rangers sitting in engineering. He clenched his fist, “…It’s like you…like them, I guess. You don’t want to see them hurt. And they care about *me*. They’re my friends. I can’t really explain it better than that but I just…I look up to them. Xolin’s always been there for me, like family when I didn’t have any. Just…someone to talk to and joke with and just…I dunno” he sighed, “And while Sid hasn’t been with us long, he’s just so laid back and cool. And I know he cares too…that’s why he came back”.

    Trok’s fists balled up again, “And I keep trying to be like them, and I keep failing. I keep messing it up”. He looked away, “Like when you got hurt earlier, because I wasn’t there”.

    “…You care about me” she stated, her quiet voice betraying her surprise.

    “Yeah, why not?” Trok shrugged.

    The xybrian glanced at the camera feed, “…Why?”

    Trok almost laughed, bewildered. It was like trying to explain friendship to a person who’d…who’d never encountered it. Huh. Suddenly, a lot of the pieces of the puzzle began to fold into place for him. “Because you’re on our team. You’re one of us; shouldn’t that be enough?”

    “Is it really that easy?” she asked, unsure. Wasn’t there supposed to be more too it? It just seemed so…average. She certainly didn’t feel any different. Did she care about him? Or them? How could she tell?

    Trok chuckled. When she gave him a confused but disapproving glare, he put up his hands in defense and explained, “Sorry. It’s just that…I thought you just didn’t like me. But…that’s not it at all, is it?”

    She turned away, her left hand rubbing her right arm in a small fit of self-consciousness. “…I’m not…good with people. I don’t have many memories and I just…they didn’t concern me, I thought. But the more time I spend on this ship, the more frustrated I become. Because I see everyone on this ship talking and laughing and…you have something I don’t but…I don’t know how to get it”. Her voice somehow got even quieter as she talked, her tone becoming sadder and sadder.

    The green ranger extended a hand to yellow. Under his helmet a big grin emerged, though even just by his tone of voice she could tell, “I’m Trok. Would you like to be my friend?”

    She looked at his hand, surprised and unsure of what to do. This was just…this was sudden. How should she process this? Hesitantly she brought out her own hand...and before she knew it, Trok had grasped hers in a firm handshake.

    “I’m…Sel” she said, a tiny bit more assured as a small smile crossed her lips, “And I accept. If you’ll have me”.

    “Always” Trok grinned back, “It’s nice to meet you, Sel”. Green looked at the camera feed again; nothing much had changed, “…Ready to go save the rest of our friends?”

    Sel looked away again, “I still think rushing in there is a mistake” she said, though her voice was a little more resolute and direct.

    “But…what else can we do?” Trok countered again, “We can’t just leave them, and I don’t think we can take the monster with just the two of us”. He and Sel were just the backup; they needed the team aces.

    “…If we go in there without a plan, we’ll likely be captured” Sel replied calmly, “We would be triggering a trap because we were rash and foolish”.

    Trok blinked. “…I need to keep my head in the game” he muttered, recalling Xolin’s words to him.

    “Pardon?”

    Something clicked right there for Trok. It was one of those moments where everything just crystalized perfectly for him. “…I think maybe Sid and Xolin might have been trying to tell me something, but I was too busy worrying” he said sheepishly. He’d been too concerned in the moment, worrying about the immediate threat instead of *thinking* or trusting himself. But Sel was right; a raid would be a mistake, he’d just get captured—just like Sid and Xolin. They’d slipped up, made a mistake. They were fallible.

    …Well of course Xolin was fallible, he knew that. But just…huh. It was like everything sort of just clicked for him. Maybe it was time to try to solve things like Trok would solve things. Maybe…maybe put some faith in himself?

    “…We need to distract the monster somehow” Trok said, after thinking for a moment. Another grin soon broke across his face with a burst of inspiration, “…and I think I know how”.

    ---

    “I hate when this happens”.

    Xolin snorted, her back to Sid’s back as they sat, chained together, with Iota a few feet away on his own, “Did you get captured a lot when you were in D-Squad?”

    Sid shrugged, “Couple times. It sucked”. He didn’t elaborate, and Xolin didn’t really feel up to metaphorically poking him with a stick this time.

    “So what’s the plan?” she asked, giving another token struggle against her bonds.

    Sid gave another curiosity glance of his surroundings, in case something had eluded him. There was nothing. “Trok and Sel are still free. As long as we have them, we don’t need to worry”.

    “Great, the guilt-ridden one and the humanoid nightstand. I feel better already” Xolin quipped.

    “You know, you should really have better faith in your sidekick” Sid shot back casually.

    Xolin sighed, her body relaxing, “Normally? I would, but right now he’s a little messed in the head”.

    Sid glared at Iota, who said nothing. He struggled with his chains some more, “…Have you tried loosening our binds?”

    He heard an exasperated sigh, “No, Sid. I’ve just been sitting here twiddling my thumbs”.

    Sid grunted, too busy with a renewed attempt to free himself to take Xolin’s bait. He didn’t know where the monster had decided to hide in, but it could have literally been anything; they’d woken up here seemingly alone. And that of course meant that this whole thing was a trap to lure the others in. That was…bad.

    If Sid had been about to say something in response to Xolin, no one would ever find out, as the green ranger suddenly made his entrance at that moment, the door to engineering not even fully open before he rolled in, gun at the ready. Seeing the coast was clear, he quickly closed the distance between him and the others.

    “Trok! So glad you could make it” Sid grinned, “How about free—behind you!” he suddenly shouted, his eyes widening in surprise. Trok spun around just in time to get punched into the far wall by the monster, which had transformed out of a maintenance box that had been left just outside. Damn, rookie mistake. The flabby form of the monster charged at the green ranger, who rolled under before striking back at its backside.

    At the moment the monster shifted, or tried to anyway. It gave itself another go, attempting to will it into a copy of Trok, or another ranger. Nothing happened. While it didn’t have a face, the monster seemed…concerned. Trok just grinned as the yellow ranger stepped through the door, a small pylon in her hand. He then eyed the monster. “Yeah, sorry. Sel over there just activated one of the dampening field devices. You know, the one we used on you down on the planet? You can’t transform anymore”.

    The monster frantically looked for an escape route, but Sel closed the door behind her, quickly locking down the door pad, having left the pylon on the floor just outside.

    “Free the others” Trok said to Sel, brandishing his hammer. She nodded and went; the monster tried to intervene, but Trok slammed his weapon into its side, knocking it back. Green charged in with a battle roar, leaving Sel free to grab her sidearm and cut through the chains.

    “Nice plan!” Sid congratulated her as he and Xolin stood back up, letting the chains fall to the floor a they rubbed their wrists.

    “It was Trok’s idea” she noted. Sid and Xolin both nodded approvingly.

    “Told you” Sid said. Xolin playfully smacked his chest.

    “Shall we?”

    “Let’s kick its butt” Sid said. He and Xolin quickly transformed, racing off to fight the monster—which by now had gotten the upper hand in the fight against Trok, leaving Sel behind to free Iota. She wouldn’t be much good in a short-ranged melee fight onboard the ship, after all.

    “Good work” Iota said, getting back to his feet as Sel helped him up. He eyed the ongoing battle, “Now, you should help your friends”.

    “Friends” Sel repeated quietly. Yes, friends. That could be a thing; Trok had just opened that possibility for her. With a quick motion, she summoned her blade bow, and the rushed into the fray.

    ---

    Even without its ability to shift and change, the shapeshifter still retained its super strength—Trok knew that now. He was having a hard time keeping the monster at bay, both because of the force of its blows, and because any attack he made was buffered by the monster’s flabby hide. In this case, having a blunt weapon like a hammer was doing him no favors. So instead, by now he was down to just blocking and dodging attacks as much as he could, until two other rangers jumped in. A red axe and a blue lance struck at the monster’s backside, causing it to twist around to face its new adversaries—giving Trok the chance he needed to regroup.

    The shapeshifter knew its plan was toast. The element of surprise was lost; its hostages had been freed and united against it…and its powers had been stripped from it. It would seem then, that there was only one alternative. The creature warily kept track of the three rangers encircling it as it quickly mentally sent a distress call to Capricorn’s ship, also making note of the yellow ranger’s location…and that of the airlock.

    “Out of options, huh?” Sid chuckled, “Looks like you messed up”.

    Not all of its abilities had been nullified though. To the shock of the team, the shapeshifter suddenly multiplied—two, then four, then eight separate versions of itself formed by splitting off from one another. Trok gasped; this was the trick it had shown off down at the planet.

    Sid was quick to react however, “Don’t freak out, it’s just an illusion. Only one of the monsters are real!” he said. The question however, was…which one?

    The monster took quick advantage of the momentary confusion, charging out at the rangers in all directions. They weren’t hard to defeat; being illusions meant they were little better than practice holograms—one or two hits and they were gone. But that was all the shapeshifter had needed to gain the advantage. One of the clones had made it to the control panel for the airlock, unbeknownst to the rangers in the midst of the confusion. The first thing the team noticed was the odd grinding noise, before sudden gale-force winds suddenly swept through the room as the ship began to depressurize.

    “What the—” Sid gasped, just before taking out another clone with his axe. He noted the clone at the door controls. “He’s trying to escape! The clones are a distraction!” he barked, charging at the figment at the airlock. One quick swipe and it was gone from reality. Still not the real one…damn. So then, where was—

    Sid heard Sel’s yelp, but turned around only in time to see two of the shapeshifters pushing the yellow ranger towards the airlock, simply by overpowering her with their super strength—likely one of them was the real monster.

    “SEL!” he yelled, cutting away one of the creatures—another clone. But it was too late; the ongoing decompression, combined with the force from Sid’s attack was enough to allow the monster to push both Sel and itself out the airlock. It was only Sid’s quick thinking that allowed him to grab her hand at the very last possible second, his other gripping the door edge in a desperate attempt to stay rooted inside the ship. The rest of his body soon followed, using himself as an anchor behind the door as Sel flailed about outside. He had almost gotten her back in too, when the shapeshifter grabbed hold of her foot as it sailed past.

    And for a moment, Sel felt complete unadulterated panic. Not, ‘worry’, not ‘fear’, not anything mundane. No; she saw the void. She saw the infinite blackness outside the ship that she was about to tumble effortlessly into without hope or salvation, lost forever in the absolute void—a lone speck against the planet the ship was still orbiting, its reflective light casting down at her, mirroring her utter insignificance. It was so large, so incomprehensible…and she had almost been lost to it forever. And even now, she dangled by a thread; by a single grip that was slowly starting to weaken, even as she clapped her other hand against Sid’s. Primal terror flooded through her.

    NO.

    “HOLD ON!” Sid shouted, as the two held on for dear life, even as the shapeshifter began pulling itself up her leg.

    “NO!” she screamed with a sudden burst of pure emotion and desperation, “DON’T LET GO!”

    “SEL!” Trok shouted, as he and Xolin finished off the last clones. They rushed over to Sid; helping to anchor his body with their own, and carefully grabbing Sel’s hand. Together, they began to overpower the monster, even as it had crawled up to her knees, and began to slowly drag the yellow ranger back inside.

    Another pair of hands joined them. Iota. “PULL!” he shouted, heaving with all his might.

    A laser blast from the monster almost caused the end of all of it, as it forced Xolin and Trok to recoil from the spray of sparks. With just Sid and Iota still holding on, they almost lost their grip on Sel.

    “NO!” she cried, as her fingers began to slip. This was it. She was going to die, cold and alone out in the empty void of space. Just as she had started to connect with everyone here, it was being ripped away from her. Why did the monsters want her so much?! Oh god, she was slipping. This was it. No! No! NONONONONONON----

    Sel erupted.

    Literally.

    She screamed, howling in abject terror, and electrical energy burst forth from every inch of her body. It snaked across at first, for a split second, before filling the void with white absolute light. In a fit of both surprise and pain, both Sid and the monster let go, the monster tumbling out into space—not that anyone could see it with the miniature nova that had just gone off. Realizing he was just about gone himself, Iota pulled the yellow ranger, and with one mighty swing, propelled her back onto the ship, her form landing several feet behind him as the remaining energy covering her now-unconscious body snaked away, fading into the ether. Panting heavily, but seeing his chance, Sid slammed the airlock door shut with the controls, finally ending the decompression.

    “What…what the *hell* was that?” the red ranger gasped as he balanced himself on his knees, his entire body shaking in the aftermath of the power surge that had almost consumed him. He looked at Iota, expecting an answer to…anything, really. Though it looked like Iota was even worse off; the armored figure had collapsed onto the ground, and was now in the process of flipping himself over onto his back.

    “Unknown” Iota gasped back, “But…you should…get her to…medbay…”

    The entire ship shook, knocking the rangers back down.

    “What was…what was *that*?!” Trok worried as he pulled himself back up, still freaked out about Sel’s little display of power.

    “Twenty credits says it’s the guy we just spaced, except forty stories larger” Sid replied. Another shake seemed to confirm his suspicions. He thought, “…Xolin, you and Trok take the megazord fight. I need to get Iota and Sel to the medbay”. He struggled to stand, but using the door as leverage managed to get to his feet once again.

    “You can barely stand yourself, Sid. Don’t be silly” the blue ranger retorted, helping to stabilize him, just before the next shudder hit.

    “Exactly why I shouldn’t be piloting the zord right now” Sid replied, “Besides, someone’s gotta activate the rest of the dampening devices in case there’s more marshmallows on the ship. Go, I got this”. Quickly he did a rough calculation of how many would be needed and where—they’d need to have them all set up and then sweep the ship room by room with a detailed internal scan. Eugh, like getting rid of fleas in the carpet. He’d be paranoid for months. Yay.

    Another shake. Xolin rolled her eyes, but deferred. Who was she to complain about running the zord fight? “Don’t have too much fun!” she said, before grabbing Trok’s shoulder, who had been keeping an eye on Sel, “Come on. She’ll be fine, and we got a job to do”.

    Trok nodded gingerly, and followed Xolin out of the room.

    “Yeah” Sid muttered, glancing over at Sel’s inert form. Fun. Wee.

    ---

    Capricorn sighed, watching the monster’s giant form assault on the Defender Megaship on his viewscreen. Another plan, foiled. Another scheme, ruined. He really thought he’d had something there. But in the end, the shapeshifter just hadn’t been clever enough to use its numerous advantages.

    A pity.

    The goat creature idly checked the next option on his list. Hrn. Not promising.

    Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

    ---

    By the time the blue and green rangers had reached the megazord cockpit, the shapeshifter had already fully latched onto the vessel, and the situation was dire.

    ‘Dire’ as in the ship was about to crash. The monster had knocked it out of its orbit around the swamp world, and the two entities were now tumbling about towards the planet. Already they were beginning to give off heat as their bodies encountered the atmospheric friction as they began their re-entry. The ship’s internal gravity was having a hard time keeping up, and it took all of Trok and Xolin’s efforts just to stay upright long enough to drop into their seats.

    The white monster slowly encompassed the zord, as if it was a giant amoeba.

    “…It can shapeshift again!?” Xolin asked as she pulled herself into her chair. The dampening device was still on, so the monster should have still been stuck in its base physical form.

    Trok grimaced, “It’s probably large enough now that the device isn’t strong enough”. Shoot. He knew he should have had Sel bring along more of them; but they’d worried that she wouldn’t have been able to activate them all in time—not to mention she could only carry so many, and they were delicate equipment. And who even knew how many would have been needed to trap a giant-sized monster.

    “Peachy” Xolin muttered, “Defender Megazord, online!” she pulled a holographic control on her panel. Immediately, the ship flipped on itself, unfolding into a humanoid robot, even as the shapeshifter continued to latch on. Another few moves of her controls, and Xolin got the megazord to flip around in mid-air. Might as well use the inertia against the creature.

    That did it. The monster’s grip was loosened, even as the friction from the air continued to get worse. A swinging kick, and the monster was sent tumbling below. Quick on the uptake, Xolin summoned the megazord’s sword and shield, before activating the zord’s boot thrusters and shooting off towards the surface, using the shield to guard them from re-entry.

    “Hang on!” she shouted, as they passed through the cloud layer. With a powerful THUMP, the monster impacted the surface, splaying out in all directions as it skidded across the ground for a few miles, before finally landing on the side of a mountain and reforming itself. It didn’t have long however; as it touched down, the megazord used its momentum to charge across the terrain at hypersonic speeds, before swinging around and landing a flying kick at the shapeshifter in a single fluid motion. The monster broke right through the mountain, landing in a heap a fair distance away.

    The megazord itself flipped around in midair after colliding with the shapeshifter, landing backwards before skidding to a halt, having crouched over and used its shield as an impromptu breaking system. The rangers wasted no time in continuing the offensive, charging back at the monster with the zord’s saber, cutting and slashing through the creature’s malleable hide. It blocked a punch with its shield, then proceeded to bash it against the creature’s face (or lack thereof), before following up with another sword strike.

    “It’s not trying to mimic us” Xolin observed, even as she continued to lay into the monster, her hands flying over the controls.

    Trok mulled it over in his head, “The dampening device might still be affecting it to an extent. It seems to be able to mold itself, but finer use of its powers, like impersonating, is still out”.

    “Well, that’s good news for us!” Xolin said gleefully, as the Megazord’s sword made another slash through the creature. As if to reward her tempting of fate, the monster responded with a low swing of its fist, flying at her far faster than she had anticipated by use of its shapeshifting abilities. The super-strong arm slammed into the megazord’s chest, sparks exploding at the point of impact. A second swing completely knocked the megazord off-balance, and it stumbled back, reeling from the hit; the battle had turned against it. The creature grabbed ahold of it, binding its arms to its side and squeezing with all its power. Sparks and smoke began to appear as the zord’s hull began to buckle under the pressure.

    The cockpit shook and shuddered, the control consoles sputtering and sparking.

    “We gotta break free!” Trok panicked, “Hull integrity is dropping fast! We can’t keep this up!”

    Xolin’s mind raced.

    …Ah!

    “Then how about we try out that zord of yours?” she asked. Trok looked at her, his demeanor brightening dramatically. She nodded wordlessly, before summoning the green Guardian zord.

    A flash of green light burst through the megazord’s chest, ripping through the monster--it stumbled back in agony as its chest exploded. The green light evaporated, replaced by a large tank-like spaceship, green, silver, and black in color. It was extremely bulky, built like a tanker with two large quasi-cylinder structures dominating the hull, connected together and bridged over the top by the rest of the ship. A pair of medium-sized wings stuck out the top and back, and the rear consisted of giant thrusters.

    “Defender megazord, Colossus Mode!” Trok shouted with glee. The Guardian zord split apart, its form becoming armor for the megazord. Thick plated and segmented armor formed over the zord’s legs, arms, and chest. A new almost-samurai-like helmet folded over the head, while the back found itself protected by a large backpack-like chunk of armor with the thrusters. The megazord’s fists were overlaid by two large hammer-like devices which connected directly to the armor on the arms.

    “Oh yeah!” Trok grinned, “This is gonna be sweet”.

    By now the monster had rebounded, and ran at the megazord in fury—but the rangers were ready. A blow from one fist knocked the monster aside. A second one knocked it the other way. A third one just outright knocked it on its back. Unfortunately though, while powerful, this form was slow—too slow to guard against the monster extending its legs into new grabbling limbs that bound themselves to the megazord’s arms.

    “I am *really* getting tired of this guy” Xolin grumbled, struggling to keep the megazord stable and upright as the monster pulled.

    Trok scanned the zord’s data files, “…I got an idea!” Gripping his controls, the megazord’s back and boot thrusters ignited, pulling the zord back up into the air, and bringing the monster with it, dangling below.

    “What are you doing?” Xolin asked.

    “Trust me!” was all Trok said, now focused on his objective completely. Xolin hesitated, but then a small smile formed under her helmet, and she nodded.

    The megazord flew up, higher and faster, before suddenly halting, allowing the monster to fly past, being flung away by the inertia—breaking its hold on the megazord.

    “Comet Impact!” Trok commanded. The megazord’s hammer fists unhooked from their arms, shooting off at the monster, still connected to the zord by two heavy chains. The two hammers slammed into the creature, again and again and again, faster and faster—the shapeshifter just couldn’t cope. As the megazord rose above the monster, a combined mighty swing from both maces sent the monster plummeting once more into the ground below.

    “This is for Sel” Trok muttered, as the megazord’s fists retracted back onto its arms. It flipped around, its thrusters igniting once more as it plummeted into the monster. Its entire form crackled with energy, but the hammer fists themselves exploded with green power, just before they crushed the monster into the ground. A single massive explosion later, and the megazord stood triumphant.

    ---

    Sid sat in a chair situated at the end of her bed, watching the young xybrian’s slow rhythmic breathing. She hadn’t woken, and it didn’t look like she would anytime soon—she’d lapsed into some sort of coma…evidently a self-defense mechanism of some kind among xybrians in case of psychic assault or other mental trauma…which just made the whole thing even more weird and unexplainable.

    She just slept there so…serene. So young. She couldn’t have been any older than Trok, and even though he really hadn’t gotten to know her—she had been pretty good at hiding herself away—he knew she was more than just an office fixture. She was a person; he’d seen it on Onyx when he’d seen her uncertainty, and when he’d praised her. He’d seen it again today, when she’d fearlessly jumped in to save them…and then begged in terror when the monster had threatened to vent her out into space. He idly wondered what could have made her so…distant, even without her memories.

    “Is she going to be okay?” Trok asked, he and Xolin having entered the room while Sid had been deep in contemplation. His train of thought gone, he glanced at Trok, “She’s…in a coma of sorts. We’ll find out when we get to Xybria”.

    Xolin noticed Trok’s shoulders slump, and put her hand on his left one, “Hey, no. Don’t even start; you’re in no way responsible for this one, alright? None of us saw this coming”.

    Trok shook his head numbly, “It’s not that, I just…hope she’ll be alright”.

    “She said it was your plan to outflank the monster. Fake it out” Sid spoke up, a small smile on his face, “Good job, dude. We’ll make a strategist out of you yet”.

    “I…thanks” Trok blushed a bit. Praise…heh, it always felt good to do something right. But they’d had a point, of course. Less panic, more thinking. And above all, try have a bit more faith in himself. Trok was an okay guy to trust.

    “Any idea what that was though?” Xolin asked, waving at Sel.

    Sid shrugged, “Got me. Hopefully the doctors on Xybria can tell us”.

    “Don’t xybrians have like…mind powers or whatever?” asked Trok, “Maybe that was part of it”.

    Sid shook his head, his attention back on the girl in the bed in front of him, “Nah. They’re telepathic, with some of them bordering on precognition. Nothing physical”. He grimaced, wracking his brain for the one missing piece to the puzzle. And almost against his own wishes, his mind looked back at Iota.

    Why *had* he recruited her? Why *was* everyone after her? Iota had denied knowing about any of this, but when was he trustworthy *at all*?

    Hrn.

    Sid didn’t clue anyone else to his suspicions yet. Once he had something more than baseless speculation, then maybe. But no, not right now.

    “Has Sel even ever shown signs of mental powers?” asked Xolin.

    “Not that I know of” Sid replied, “But then again, I doubt she’s had any training, or maybe her powers just haven’t blossomed—she’s fairly young. Or…” he grunted, desperately throwing ideas out and hoping something would stick, “…or maybe whatever cost her her memories also cost her her powers. I dunno”.

    “Or just gave her crazy electrical abilities” Trok added.

    “Possibly” Sid said, his hands steepled together in thought. Possibly.

    ---

    “This is…unfortunate” the male figure said, his holographic form, though obscured, could be easily identified as ‘annoyed’. “She awoke too early. The pieces are not in place; you’ve still got that pirate on your tail. If the Others find her—”

    “Then the result will be catastrophic, I know” Iota sighed, sitting in his chair in his office. He, like Sid unknowingly in the medbay, had his fingers steepled together as he took stock of his options. “…I do not believe it was a full awakening, but I do believe we need to act quickly. I can pass this off as just an unusual xybrian psychic flowering amongst the rest of the team, but we’re going to have to step up our operations elsewhere”.

    The male grumbled, the female sighed. “Agreed” she said, also upset about the situation, but managing to remain more reserved, “When do you want Isdilian?”

    “His training isn’t complete; give him another couple of months. We already have him, so we don’t *need* to deploy him just yet” Iota said, “But still. Get him ready. If we don’t rid ourselves of our pursuer soon and lose their trail, I presume their employers will consider solving the situation themselves. And if that happens…I’ll need all the firepower I can get”.

    “Agreed” the female said, “We leave it in your hands. Keep her safe”.

    “Always” Iota replied, as the two figures vanished from view. He sighed. This was annoying. This was *very* annoying.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  7. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.06: SHADOWED MEMORIES

    What was his game? His endgoal? There was a plan here, but Sid was only seeing a small part of it. Taking stock, this was what Sid knew: He’d been courted by an enigmatic armored figure working for (ostensibly) a government-funded clandestine ranger organization. But why go so far to get Sid to comply? There had to be others willing to work for them. Exhibit B: their first mission together had been to rescue a xybrian girl and then press her into their service. A girl with no memories, little personality to speak of, and who could—apparently—serve as a portable generator. Sid had done some quick math; the power output Sel had demonstrated had been easily enough to power the megaship for several hours. By all rights her body should have been evaporated.

    So what the hell?

    And that didn’t even get into the whole ‘some random pirate dude had a Captain Ahab obsession with them’ deal, or how Iota always seemed…distracted. As if Capricorn was just a diversion. Whatever was going on, Sel was at the center of it all, and Iota had assembled them in particular for…well, he didn’t know. And that’s what worried him most.

    “Are…you going to move?” asked Xolin, shaking Sid out of his thoughts.

    “Hmm?”

    “It’s…your move” she said.

    Sid blinked, taking note of the chessboard in front of them. Oh, right. Erugh…this had been a bad idea from the start. Even if he hadn’t been super preoccupied by…things, she’d still be whooping his butt. He looked down at the layout of the pieces; she’d soon corner his king, and frankly he didn’t much care at this point. “Eh…I fold. Good game”.

    It had been one of those things they had started doing to pass the time during the long wait between missions; kind of like how he’d started getting in on Trok’s simudeck gaming, or sparring with Xolin. One day he and she had just sort of discovered the other one could play and well…as it turned out, Xolin was actually *really good*. He’d never admit it publically, but she might very well be better at strategy than even himself—if she’d apply herself, that is, not to be so bullheaded.

    She huffed, slightly indignant, “Already? Way to cheat me out of my victory”. Case in point.

    Sid’s eyebrow arched, his voice puzzled, “You won, isn’t that sort of the definition of a victory?”

    “…I wanted to crush you” she shrugged, slightly sheepishly.

    A short uncomfortable silence was broken by Sid’s reply, “…You’re a little bloodthirsty, aren’t you?” She shrugged again, a wry little smile forming on her lips.

    Sid suddenly found himself bumped aside from his seat at the table, his oppressor a rather excitable horathean. “Hey!”

    “If he’s done, I’ll finish the round for ya!” Trok said happily. He picked up a rook, knocked over a pawn, and landed it on the back of the board. “King me!”

    Sid facepalmed.

    “There’s…there’s no king me in chess, Trok” Xolin replied, somewhat baffled.

    Trok leaned back, “…What about that stuff about promotions?”

    Xolin blinked, even more baffled now. It was like the more he talked, the less she understood, “How…do you even…nevermind” she shook her head, then pointed at the rook, “That’s not a pawn, you can’t promote anything to king—and the king sucks anyway, and I’m pretty sure that if we *had* been playing checkers, that would have been an illegal move”.

    Sid got out of the seat and cautiously backed away, “…I’m getting out of here before he decides to bring in solitaire or something”.

    “Hey!” came Trok’s offended reply.

    Sid grinned, exiting the workbay while still keeping his eyes on Trok, “Got any threes?”

    “Oh come on!” Trok grunted, exasperated. Sid cackled as he left the room. Xolin just put her head on the table, faintly whimpering in existential agony.

    ---

    She lay there, silent, only her soft breathing giving any indication she was still alive. Sel had been sent into some sort of coma…the best they could figure was that her…attack, for lack of a better term, had triggered a xybrian self-defense mechanism, designed to protect one’s mind from psychic assaults by simply shutting it down. On xybria, a world with a psychic-themed ecosystem where everything was mentally interconnected he could see the advantage—but here…well, a quick search for ‘exploding xybrians’ on the net hadn’t come up with anything.

    Because of course it wouldn’t.

    Sid quietly sighed, lost in thought as he watched her still form from the medbay doors.

    “Credit for your thoughts?”

    “Hm?” for the second time today, Sid found his train of thought broken by Xolin who had been standing behind him. “…What happened to the chess game?” he asked, a bit confused.

    She slid over to the doorway, next to Sid, “You know Trok. His attention span is…yeah” she chuckled to herself, though her smile vanished as she caught sight of Sel, “…Especially right now”.

    “…Yeah” Sid noted her gaze, then decided to answer her question with his own, “...What do you think of our boss?”

    Xolin looked at him, a bit taken aback by the question, “Iota? He’s…okay, I guess. Gets the job done. Why?”

    “How much do you trust him?” Sid hadn’t taken his eyes off Sel, though he had leaned up against the doorway with his arms folded. He was taking a risk; he knew that. But somehow, he felt like Xolin just might ‘get it’, so to speak.

    She paused, considering her words—seemingly resolving an internal conflict she might have not even known she’d had until then. Xolin cautiously walked past Sid, into the room until she came over to Sel’s bed, gently clasping her hands on the rails. Sid gingerly followed her in. “…He keeps a lot of things from us” she said finally, watching Sel’s faint breathing, “At first I thought it was just being cautious, or just the side-effect of working for a secretive organization. But…there’s something about him”.

    In truth, she had at one point trusted the man—or maybe she had just been desperate. He’d come along just as she’d been considering going back home to beg with her tail between her legs—completely destitute and out of her depth. Iota had come along at just the right time and just…given her room and board. And a job; something where her skills would be of value. And for a while, it all worked out great. But then…

    “Manipulative?” Sid offered.

    “…That’s why you came back, isn’t it?” she asked faintly. Flashes of memory of her own confrontation with the figure during the Triforian colony incident came back to her, “…He got inside your head”.

    “…Kinda, yeah” Sid grumbled, “So what does that tell you?”

    Another silence. She spoke, “…You know, it’s quite a coincidence that we went through all that trouble to rescue a random xybrian girl from a pirate crew…and then a couple weeks later she starts vomiting lightning powers”.

    Sid smirked, “So you don’t believe his shit about not knowing anything about this either, huh?”

    “I don’t do coincidences” Xolin muttered matter-of-factly.

    “So the question becomes, ‘what’s Iota’s endgame?’” Sid said.

    It was Xolin’s turn to chuckle darkly, “Who said anything about him? It could easily be a wider conspiracy within the Peacekeepers. Or the organization itself”.

    “That’s assuming there is. We haven’t seen anyone aside from Coros. Who’s to say this isn’t all just one madman’s private obsession?” asked Sid.

    Xolin turned around, leaning on the bed rails as she continued to grip them. She looked up at the ceiling as if it held the missing answers, “I dunno. I’ve seen a few more than Coros…and there’s a whole lot of money being poured into this. And *someone’s* keeping the media off our tail”.

    Fair point, that. It had pretty much been the one reason Sid hadn’t just upped and taken Iota down a few pegs to begin with—even if Iota *was* the one in charge, at the very least he had some powerful allies somewhere; allies that would probably be bad to get angry.

    “So what do we do?” she asked him.

    Sid shrugged; they really didn’t have anything to go off of right now. “Nothing. For now, anyway. We’ll be at Xybria soon, and then…well, hopefully they can revive Sel. And then…I’ll let you know if I think of something”.

    A wry smile crossed her face, “So Glorious Leader doesn’t have all the answers after all. I am shocked”.

    Sid gave her an unamused expression, a counter to her very pleased-with-herself one, but said nothing in response—even after she stuck her tongue out at him.

    ---

    She ran.

    She didn’t know why she was running, but she ran anyway. To not run would be disastrous—why she did not know, or particularly care, but it was truth regardless. Doors…there were doors everywhere, on all sides of her. None would open for her.

    That *was* a bit of a question. Why were they all locked? She knew she had left important things within them—what she couldn’t tell you, but it was truth regardless. If she could get them back, she could stop running. Stop hiding.

    Except…doors were a mystery. An unknown. She didn’t like unknowns, even though her life was nothing but that. Mysteries could hurt, could harm. What if she didn’t like what she had found? What if she’d locked the doors for a reason?

    So instead Sel ran, hoping to reach the end of the infinite hallway she found herself trapped within. Hoping for freedom, hoping for escape. Not that she’d ever known freedom. Freedom was scary anyway; full of unknowns. Full of uncertainty. She couldn’t. But if she didn’t run, she’d be caught, trapped. Stuck.

    What to do, what to do.

    Who was she? What did she want? Why couldn’t she figure it out? Why didn’t anything make sense!? Why was she so lost?!

    Where was she?!

    ---

    Xybria; a world of mystery and enigma. Not because of anything obvious or malicious of course—like say, Eltar. Eltar was cloaked in mystery, but that was because it was so advanced and yet its people were so closed off and xenophobic that no one was ever allowed to enter their space. But the Xybrians, while always welcoming and outgoing to outsiders were just…quiet. One of the advantages to being psychic meant that their entire populace existed within a low-level hivemind. There were no lies, no secrets…just communal bliss. Not as many things needed to be said when you already knew how they felt.

    Which of course was why it was so hard for xybrians to integrate into other societies. Even setting aside the impact the lack of a hivemind from their new neighbors would do for them, it was just difficult for them to comprehend the concepts of ‘lying’ or ‘personal space’. While they were a naturally trusting and friendly people, their relationship with the other member worlds of the Confederacy could often be described as ‘jaded’, like a child who had been given false promises one too many times. So xybrians rarely left their own worlds, and thus were a fairly rare and mysterious breed—despite being full members of the Confederacy.

    Ah, well.

    Sid took stock of the vibrant green and blue world sitting dead-center on the bridge viewscreen; two of its three moons visible in the distance, and a moderately-sized ring system encircling the planet at a seventy-five degree angle.

    “So, what’s the plan?” asked Trok. He and Xolin stood a few feet away from Sid, towards the back of the bridge, whereas Sid had elected a somewhat closer position to Iota’s captain’s seat.

    Iota pressed a few controls, “I am contacting the Council of Elders, the governmental authority of the xybrian people. A few of them are…associates of ours, and will make sure Sel gets the best treatment possible…discreetly”.

    Sid’s eyebrow arched at that; interesting. So there *were* other players on the board. That was bad news actually; it was looking more and more like Xolin was right, and that whatever was happening, it was an organizational level thing. Great. Fantastic.

    Wonderful.

    Right on cue, the viewscreen changed to that of an old, long-bearded xybrian male; though his hair remained a vibrant green. Sid wondered if they just dyed their hair, or if xybrians just didn’t go grey…then realized to himself that he’d never actually seen an elder xybrian before. Huh. He wore an old but elaborate set of robes, and carried with him a staff—definitely setting the tone for Xybria’s ‘mystical’ slant towards things.

    “Elder Sesh” Iota greeted the older figure with a slight nod.

    The man smiled, “Ah, Iota. Good to see you. I got your message of course…” he glanced down, perusing through the computer terminal, “Though I must say, this is most unusual”.

    “I apologize for the…unorthodox situation” Iota replied diplomatically, “But the situation is urgent. One of my operatives was injured in the last mission and has…well, I believe your term for it is a ‘Mind Sleep’?”

    Sesh nodded sagely, “Yes, yes…you mentioned that in the report. We will do our best to heal our wayward child. I have provided landing instructions to your computer; you will be posing as personal couriers to myself, as not to draw suspicion. I’ve also enlisted a few of our own medical professionals” he paused, “…oh, and I *would* require the services of the rest of your team. We have a bit of a…situation here in the capital”.

    The three rangers glanced at each other. Iota didn’t miss a beat however, “What kind of ‘situation’?”

    “I will explain when you land” Sesh replied, “It will be easier in person”.

    “Understood, see you shortly. Iota out” the armored figure ended the transmission, then imputed the coordinates Sesh had given him. Immediately the Megaship broke orbit and began to descend. Iota turned to the others, “We’ll be landing shortly. Meet me at the cargo hold entrance in ten minutes”.

    Sid shrugged at the others, and together the three of them just sort of shuffled out of the room, though Trok took one last look at the rapidly approaching planet on the viewscreen before he finally left. What would Xybria be like?

    ---

    Trok was not disappointed. In fact, the very first thing that came out of his mouth after stepping off the ship was a stunned “Woah…”

    The group stood on a personal landing pad aside a large white crystalline tower in the center of what looked to be a deep artificial crater. The sides of the crater swept up away from the central tower, terraced by many levels of city streets and buildings, all of them crystalline or some sort of white ivory material, or a combination of the two. At the bottom, ringing the tower lay an artificial moat or lake, which numerous bridges crossed overhead, connecting the tower to the rest of the city. The lake was apparently fueled by numerous rivers and waterfalls that poured into the canyon, crisscrossing the city as they winded their way down to the base. Above and beyond lay a vibrant green jungle that reached up into the distant mountains, before giving way to white snow-capped peaks. The jungle also seemed to creep into the city, integrating itself almost organically with the crystalline layout—green breaking up the otherwise monotonous white. Even the weather was beautiful; sunny and warm without being super-hot, and just a twinge of humidity.

    Sid whistled as he looked around, “…Dang. I’m taking my next shore leave here”.

    The group’s attention quickly shifted to that of the small assortment of xybrians heading towards them. In the lead was the old man they had spoken to (or Iota had spoken to at the very least) on the ship. Flanking him were two younger members of their species, one male and the other female. Both whore simple robes, more functional than that of the elder. They bowed.

    “Peacekeeper team twelve, welcome to Xybria!”

    “…Twelve?” Xolin muttered to herself, “We only get twelve?” They were a six at least, in her opinion.

    Sid returned the bow, “Sid Drake, red ranger” he said, then motioned to his team, “Xolin, blue ranger, and Trok, green ranger”.

    Elder Sesh nodded, “These are trusted experts of mine” he motioned at the girl standing to his left, “Seer Aia” then to the male on his right, “and Seer Yish. They will be assisting me in waking your friend from her mind sleep. Er…” he looked around, “Where would she be?”

    “She’s still onboard the ship” Iota said, “Will you need help transporting her?”


    Sesh nodded at his assistants, who glanced at each other wordlessly before departing—a bit unsettling for the rangers, as they felt (rightfully so) that they’d missed a conversation, but they *had* been warned this was going to be a thing. The elder looked back at Iota, “Er, no need. My assistants will gather the equipment they need and will transport her shortly. For now…er…” he grimaced, glancing back at the tower, “…perhaps we can find somewhere safe to talk?”

    ---

    And pushed right back inside the war room, just like that. Xolin wondered why they’d even bothered to leave the ship in the first place. Bleh, whatever.

    With Iota’s permission, Elder Sesh placed a small crystal into one of the consoles of the central table; almost immediately a holographic representation of the capital city appeared in the center of the table. While not nearly as stunning as the real thing, Xolin noted that it was actually much larger than what they had seen; beyond the crater existed several ‘branches’ leading out from the center—suburbs reaching both into the jungle, as well as out and down the outer terraced cliffs leading out into the ocean, ending in large naval docks.

    Impressive, all things considered.

    Several red dots appeared, seemingly at random across the cityscape, as Sesh began, “In the last thirty-six hours, we’ve had numerous Mind Sleep incidents occur, without rhyme or reason. The few who have woken from their…coma, is what you call it?” he pondered for half a second, “Anyway, those who have awoken have described the attack as one against their memories, by what they have described as a snake-like monster”.

    “Memories how?” asked Iota.

    Sesh considered his words, “…The best we can guess, is that the monster feeds on traumatic experiences. It locks the victim in their own worst memories and fears, distorting them for its own ends”.

    Xolin involuntarily shivered at the thought; and going by Sid and Trok’s reactions, they weren’t any more eager to face something like that. In fact, she could probably guess what Sid would see. Hell, she had a *very* good idea what’s *she’d* see. Eugh.

    “No indication of a pattern?” asked Sid.

    Sesh shook his head, “I am afraid not. The attacks, as best we can determine, are completely random. If there *is* a link, we haven’t found it yet. And…” he sighed, resigned, “That may *be* the point. Attacking one of us is like attacking all of us. If enough are psychically assaulted, it may begin to affect our mindlink. The basis of our society; our emotional connections with one another could be badly undermined”.

    “That’d be bad” Sid quipped, though still obviously serious.

    “Indeed” replied Sesh. A beep from a wrist device on his arm alerted him to business elsewhere, “Ah, it would seem the patient is ready for transport. Shall we?” he asked Iota.

    Iota nodded, then turned to the rangers as the two readied to leave, “You have your mission, rangers. Good luck”.

    After the doors slid shut behind Sesh and Iota, the room settled into a brief awkward silence.

    “…So not looking forward to dealing with a memory monster. Things crawling around inside *my* mind? Eugh” Xolin shuddered.

    “What’s an Elder, anyway?” asked Trok, hoping to change the subject, even if just for a little while, “Like, who was that guy?”

    “Council of Elders” Sid said matter-of-factly, his feet up on the table, “Government doesn’t mean quite the same thing when your entire population is a psychic hivemind. But they *do* respect the wisdom and experience of old people, so the elders lead—though they do have some sort of democratic election…thing. Don’t ask me how it works. But yeah, hence: Council of Elders”.

    “So…what’s the plan?” asked Xolin, just ready to have this whole thing done and over with, “Do we start combing the city for clues? Do some research?”

    Sid’s face shifted to a darker, more serious tone. He seemed to consider his next words carefully, “…I don’t think we need to”.

    Both Trok and Xolin looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Pardon?” Xolin asked, not quite grasping that Sid had basically just told them not to do their jobs.

    Sid’s gaze never left the holographic display. “…Curious, isn’t it? We get here just as a psychic-type monster is attacking…a day after we fought a mimic-type monster”.

    “You’re saying it was planted here for us” Xolin said, understanding.

    Sid nodded, “Remember what you said about coincidences? And that’s on top of the fact that the vampire monster on Triforia was almost certainly designed to track you down. And we know Capricorn was behind Trill on KO-35”.

    “…Capricorn’s been following us all along?” Trok asked, obviously a little unnerved by this news.

    That wasn’t right though. It was a good theory, but things didn’t add up. Xolin spoke, “Problem, though. Sesh said the attacks here started thirty-six hours ago—about when Sel had her…incident” she amended her words, “And we bee-lined it right here as quick as we could; there’s no way he could have beat us here. So either Capricorn knows what Sel is and set this all up in advance…” she trailed off, but Sid nodded reluctantly.

    “…Or someone else has been waiting for us” he sighed, brushing his hand through his hair in a fit of low-level anxiety, “Not something I really wanted to consider”.

    “It makes sense though. Why would a pirate be the one running the show? It’d make sense someone would hire him out” Xolin said. Though, damn, even she wished she hadn’t come up with this. It was bad enough they were having issues with Iota and the Peacekeepers organization…but they didn’t even know how deep they were in on the opposing side. There was a conflict brewing here, and they didn’t know any of the players. Uncertainty sucked.

    “And with how many times Capricorn’s come up empty, they’ve decided to play a different card…” Sid grumbled.

    “So what do we do?” asked Trok worriedly.

    “…We get the monster’s attention” Sid replied, after a brief moment of thought, “We don’t have to go find it. It’ll come for us. We just have to let it know where to look”.

    That’s what worried Xolin most.

    ---

    As it turned out, the hallway wasn’t endless. Not technically, anyway.

    Sel now found herself deep within a large complex; the walls ringing around her in a circle, doors at every angle. The walls ran high up multiple floors, which ran around them as balconies, flanking yet more doors—until the walls themselves slanted and converged on a massive dome structure, light filtering in from an unknown source, casting odd shadows across the floor.

    As usual, none of the doors would open for her, no matter how hard she pulled. She’d attempted to kick one of the doors in, which had only served to leave a lasting pain on her foot.

    She could no longer run; there were no more exits.

    “Where am I!?” she called out, to anyone who could possibly hear. How had she gotten here? This wasn’t…she tried her best to think about what her last memory had been before this.

    There had been…there had been a ship. There was a flash, in her mind. She recoiled in pain as faces appeared to her, briefly. They were…familiar, somehow. A man, human. A woman, triforian. And the boy…the horathean. People she knew.

    That’s right. Them.

    She spun around as she heard a noise. One of the doors had…unlocked. Hesitantly she crossed the floor over to the gateway, and after taking a deep breath, grasped the handle, and opened it.

    ---

    The group was silent as the two seers rolled Sel’s bed over into the center of the room, before lifting her and setting her on the central altar. It was a circular room, encased in the same crystalline structure much of the rest of the city was built out of. The rest of the room was an ivory-like stone, constructed in a very elegant, but simple manner. Bowls of alien spices burned at even spaces throughout the edges of the room, as well as around the central altar.

    “We call this the chamber of awakening; there are many like it within this facility and throughout the city” Sesh remarked idly, “They are places of peace and healing, and where we go to clear our minds and mend bridges”.

    “How long will this take?” asked Iota. The two seers continued to prepare Sel, before moving the bed they had brought her in on away, out of the room.

    “Depends” Sesh bristled, slightly offput by Iota’s bluntness, “Some are easy. Some are hard. It depends on what put them into their sleep, their own emotional strength and willpower…and whether or not they wish to return”. The elder sat down cross-legged next to Sel’s body. Soon after, the two seers joined him, forming an equal triangle between them around the body. “I shall be the one who will lead our wayward daughter back to the light. These two shall assist me, guiding my spirit and keeping it from drifting” he paused, thinking, “…Obviously we shall not be capable of interaction once we have begun our descent. You may wish to get comfortable”.

    Iota sighed, reluctantly sitting down at the edge of the room as the door closed. The three xybrians closed their eyes, breathed deep, and descended…

    ---

    The part she hated most was the waiting. It was bad enough that they were going to be facing a creature that could root through her mind and twist it to its own demented enjoyment…but here she was *waiting* for it to strike. Uuuuuuugh. She silently rung her hands for the umpteenth time. Why couldn’t the monster just arrive and get it over with already?

    Currently the three had chosen a major plaza area along the terraced wall of the canyon. It was beautiful like the rest of the city; a great view, and even the plaza itself was like a tourist destination…except without all the tourists. Xolin was beginning to realize why too; the place was so…quiet. No one was talking, they just sort of glanced at each other as they walked by, unseen interactions happening all around them. It was like an entire society made of nothing but body language. It was starting to creep her out.

    So of *course* that meant that Trok found it fascinating. Sigh.

    “I just don’t get why you wouldn’t like it” he asked, observing someone paying for a basket of items from one of the plaza vendors—absolutely no verbal communication occurring between the two. “I mean, you’re the one all about spirituality and stuff, why wouldn’t this appeal to you?”

    Xolin watched the buyer leave, just as silent as everyone else, then was caught off guard by two girls suddenly bursting into laughter a few feet away, “…You mean besides the paranoia fuel? My mind is my own, I don’t need other people where I don’t want them”.

    “Sides, she’s probably got enough voices in her head” Sid quipped absentmindedly. He was still fiddling with his morpher, tuning its signature so they could attract the monster without actually having to morph in public…yet, anyway. A small rock hit the back of his head, “Ow!” he shouted, rubbing the spot where it had hit as he looked back at Xolin.

    “Oops. Slipped” she deadpanned, before being drawn to another spontaneous laughing couple. Eugh. Paranoia fuel. She focused on Sid to keep her distracted, “How’s it going, anyway?”

    Sid sighed, putting the morpher down, “Honestly, I haven’t a clue. We won’t even know if it’s working until the monster shows up—and in a city of this size that could be—” his sentence was cut off by a sudden scream. And then another. And another. A couple native xybrians collapsed in the street, writihing in mental agony as the rest began to flee in terror.

    “Right now” Trok finished for Sid warily, getting up from his seat. Xolin joined him and Sid, scanning the plaza for the monster—not hard, considering it had very quickly and effectively vacated the area of all civilians…minus the unlucky victims now comatose on the ground. Trok looked over the monster incrediously.

    “…A snake and…” he took stock of the monster’s attire and staff-like weapon—almost middle-eastern terran, “…A genie?” he asked, a bit confused by the bizarre mashup.

    Sid shrugged, “Eh. It happens”, he slipped his morpher back on his wrist, “Ready?”

    “Ready!”

    In a flash of red, blue, and green lights, the three rangers charged at the monster, sidearms in hand. Xolin immediately split into three, all of her forms opening with a triangulating laser barrage as she allowed Trok and Sid to get in close with their sabers.

    The monster never stood a chance.

    It attempted to defend itself with its staff, but quickly found itself overwhelmed by the three…no, five rangers arrayed against it. Its staff was lost, knocked somewhere a few feet away by Xolin’s laser fire. The red and green rangers cut into its hide, sparks flowing as it collapsed onto the ground in a heap. The three rangers—Xolin having reunited—surrounded it, their weapons pointed at its throat.

    “Alright, start talking” Sid said, “Who hired you? And don’t play dumb, we know you’re on a payroll”.

    The genie sputtered, his hands up in a pleading defensive motion, “I don’t know!”

    “Bad answer” Xolin said, loading her gun for the next round.

    The snake panicked, “I’m telling the truthhh! I was hired by an intermediary…er…a huuuman man. Middle aged. Had a briefcassssse. Paid exxxxtremely well…”

    “…A briefcase?” Xolin asked, glancing at Sid. That was weird. Who used briefcases anymore? All files were digital, you didn’t *need* to carry important documents with you. Sure, you could use it to carry other things but…wouldn’t you just be better off with something more equipped for the task? Trok and Sid seemed a bit amused and perplexed by this too…unfortunately for them, because it seemed the snake was waiting for it.

    It all happened so fast she wasn’t quite sure what was happening before it was too late. One second, the snake had been on the ground. The next, his staff flew back into his hands, and with a single powered up swing had knocked the rangers back, each of them landing on their backs as the monster stood up, slamming its staff into the ground as his neck folds unfurled into a cobra-like head.

    “The name’ssss Nagaaaa, pleassssed to make your acquaintanccce, rangerssss. Though I would have told you wwwhat you wishhhed to know without beating me sensssslessss” it…actually seemed a little hurt about that? Huh. “It’ssss nothing persssonal, it’ssss jusssst businessss…”

    Charging up his staff, the genie sent a rainbow wave of energy from his staff at the recovering rangers. Their suits sparked as they struggled to stay upright. Sid cried out, before collapsing, same with Trok.

    “Wha—” Xolin called out, but as she felt icey foreign tendrils beginning to seep into her mind, she knew all too well what was happening.

    “…Ah…dang…” was all she managed to croak out before the darkness took her as well, her body hitting the ground with an audible ‘thud’.

    ---

    It wasn’t anything she hadn’t already known; she knew that now. Sid, Xolin, Trok, Iota. She knew them. She didn’t really *understand* them, but she knew them.

    There was nothing in that room for her.

    Sel sighed in resignation, closing the door with reluctance as she returned to the main door chamber. Except…now there was a man, a xybrian like her, standing in the center.

    “…Hello?” she asked. The figure, an older man with robes and a staff, turned to her, a kind smile on his lips. She didn’t know him but…he felt safe.

    “You must be Sel” he said, beginning to cross over to her with a casual stroll, “I am Elder Sesh, a member of the Council of Elders. Iota sent me. Do you know where you are?”

    The Council of Elders. Sel had done some research into her people out of curiosity, and knew *of* them. And if he knew Iota, well…fair enough. And he seemed trustworthy enough. She shook her head hesitantly, “No, I…I think I’m lost” she mumbled, her left hand sliding down her right arm.

    Sesh chuckled lightly, “I have a feeling you mean that in more ways than one. To put it plainly, you are asleep. This is…a mindscape of sorts. A prison you put yourself in to safeguard yourself against a threat” he took a second to take in the innumerable doors, “…So young, and yet you have seen and done much. I am envious”.

    “I’m sorry?” Sel asked, confused. She didn’t really *remember* doing much…

    “The doors represent your memories and experiences” Sesh clarified, his arms thrust out, gesturing, “The sum total of your life. Yours is a virtual library”.

    “…None of them will open” Sel said, now even more despondent. The answers wouldn’t come to her. They were right there, and wouldn’t show themselves. Why? “…Except for that one” she pointed at the door she had just exited.

    “Locked memories may be the mind’s way of protecting yourself from traumatic experiences” Sesh reasoned, strolling back over to the center of the room, and beckoning Sel to follow him into the central soft beam of light.

    She followed, “…All of them?” she asked, looking up in horror at the doors.

    Sesh chuckled, “Unlikely. More likely, it is simply a byproduct of a past trauma getting in the way, unintentionally locking the rest away. I would like to try something, if that is all right with you?”

    “…What are you going to do?” asked Sel hesitantly.

    Sesh flashed her another kind, old smile as he sat down on the ground, inviting her to do the same, which she did just opposite of him, “I would like to try and connect you to the xybrian hivemind. Nothing too overwhelming, but opening your mind is often the first step to healing. Do you wish to try?”

    She glanced once more at the doors, then nodded. Sesh carefully placed his fingers on Sel’s temples, and both closed their eyes. He whispered, “Breath deep and let go. Do not fight, let it come to you”.

    The two stayed like that for a few moments, before Sesh grimaced, letting go.

    “…I don’t feel any different” Sel said.

    “Do you not feel the warmth of our light?” asked Sesh, “Just let it come to you. Relax. Let it flow”. Another moment passed, and they had gotten no closer. Sel glanced at one of the doors, almost expectantly, but nothing happened. Sesh stroked his beard, “You are not connecting with the mindlink. Curious”.

    “What does that mean?”

    “…I’m not entirely sure” Sesh admitted, “It could be many things. You may be subconsciously keeping yourself locked down, or perhaps your psychic abilities were somehow injured. Either way, we will have to guide you a different way”.

    She nodded reluctantly, wishing to be out. She didn’t want to be stuck here forever, after all. But inwardly, she was concerned; why couldn’t she do what all xybrians did? Was she broken? Defective? It was like this room did nothing but remind her of how powerless she was. How useless. She wanted out. She wanted to run. “So what do I do?”

    Sesh stood up, and began walking towards one of the doors, “Do you want out?”

    “Of course?” she replied, still sitting cross-legged in the center of the chamber.

    “Why?”

    Sel moved to answer, but found herself unable to formulate a real reply. She hated this place, and she couldn’t put her finger on why. “I don’t know” she said quietly, “I just do”.

    “What do you like to do?” Sesh pressed, still standing away from her, his arms behind his back as he inspected the chosen door with a very passive indifference, as if it was only something to give his body to do while was preoccupied with other things.

    “I don’t…know” she said again, more lost than before. She hated these questions. Trok had asked her, Xolin had asked her, Sid…Sid had kept a respectful distance, actually. Every time they asked her, it made her feel…off. Less. They did things she didn’t, and couldn’t. Who was she to decide what she liked when she didn’t even remember? Or…maybe she didn’t care? Or…eugh, it made her head hurt.

    “Come now, everyone enjoys doing something. You really have no hobbies?”

    “I…train with Xolin and Sid. My teammates” she said hesitantly.

    “Training is not a hobby. Sparring, perhaps, but training is what you do for your job” Sesh paused, “…Why *are* you a ranger?”

    She didn’t know.

    “Why do you stick around your team?”

    She didn’t know.

    What do you want?

    She didn’t know.

    Who are you?

    “I DON’T KNOW!” she roared back out of pure unadulterated frustration, then pulled her hand through her hair, “…I don’t know…”

    ---

    She wanted to run, but there was no place to go; she was already trapped in her room, awaiting her parents’ condemnations. She’d done somewhat less than excellent on her last test at the academy, and from their arguing downstairs, she could tell they *weren’t* happy. It wasn’t like she had failed, but her parents only ever wanted her near or at the top of the class, and this was the third test this semester in any class where this had happened. They were out of patience. And damnit, she’d really tried this time.

    But they were never happy with her. She was always disappointing them somehow; either by her interests, or by just not being good enough or…damnit. She couldn’t make out *all* of the conversation through the muffling of the walls, but she could tell the subject had moved on to her ‘other’ hobbies. Going out with friends, or her activities at the temple. They’d let her help out at the temple as a way to indulge her whims with the intent that she’d get it all out of her system and then focus on what *they* wanted. Obviously, according to them, that had backfired.

    No. They couldn’t take that away from her. She wouldn’t let them! Life was stressful enough as it was, with all her attention being on her parents’ near unobtainable standards in school. She just…she needed outlets. She felt like she was suffocating.

    Xolin could hear her father coming up the stairs for her. She backed away from the door, her heart pounding as he neared ever closer, knowing the unwinnable argument that was coming, as it always did. Fight or flight.

    Fight or flight.

    ---

    He had tried to run. They’d caught him, of course, just before he’d managed to book passage offworld. SPD was good like that, even rebel!SPD. Sid found himself being dragged through the main hall of the prison by the security guards. His father stood behind him at the doorway; as he’d passed by he’d seen the look of utter disappointment. His son was a failure in every possible way; he’d even tried to run away to avoid the responsibility for the blood on his hands.

    “You left me to die”.

    He heard Nikki’s voice, and glanced at the cell he was being dragged past; there was Nikki alright, but…not. Her face was distorted, grey, lifeless. She was dead, just like all the others. She glared back at him, “Why?!”

    “You left us to die!” came Matt’s voice, his corpse taking up the next cell, on the other side of the hallway.

    “Traitor!”

    “Coward!”

    “Murderer!”

    His friends, his team…all baying for his blood. And how could he blame them. Why couldn’t he just die? Instead they just threw him in a cell, left to rot with only his own thoughts and nightmares.

    He wanted to die.

    ---

    He ran. He never stopped, not even for a second. Banishment was a boon; he was free of the responsibility that came with being the heir to the clan throne. His brother could handle it now, as he always did. He just wanted to play, to explore.

    …Did it matter that his brother was probably responsible for his whole situation? Or that he’d been the one to banish Trok? He’d set him up, hadn’t he? For the murder? Trok was naive, not stupid. His brother had always wanted the spot, even though Trok had always been the favored one by their parents. His brother was just always so…mean. He was only ever nice when he wanted something, and then he’d always find a way to stab you in the back.

    Whatever, he was free. He never had to deal with his brother again.

    But what about the people he’d left behind? What about the clan? What if his brother did something bad? It wasn’t like Trok could do anything about it though; he was banished, and he was just a kid. It was going to have to be somebody else’s responsibility.

    So Trok ran.

    So why did he always feel so guilty?

    ---

    “You don’t even know what kind of hobbies you would like? Favorite foods? Music? Anything?” Sesh asked, genuinely concerned, “You must have something you enjoy”.

    “I don’t know” she repeated, “All of my memories are locked away”.

    He smirked, “Ah, but I’m not asking for your memories, am I? I’m talking about right now. What you do to pass the time on your ship. What drives you? What do you live for?”

    Sel looked at him incredulously, herself still planted on the floor, “How can I tell you without my memories?”

    “Why do you need them to tell me?”

    She thought, looking down, “…Because I don’t know what I enjoyed”.

    “But that was then. What do you enjoy now?”

    “I…I don’t”.

    “Why?”

    “…Because I’m afraid” she whispered at last.

    “Of what?”

    She closed her eyes, exhaling, “Of being wrong”. There it was, at the heart of it all. She hadn’t even really realized it until she had spoken it, but now all the confusion and frustration, all of it made sense.

    Sesh chuckled, “How could you possibly be wrong about what you like or don’t like?”

    “What if what I liked before isn’t what I like now?”

    The elder crossed back over to her, smiling comfortingly as he sat back down, “Then it means your tastes have changed, nothing more. Everyone changes; whether it is slowly over the course of a decade, or immediately in a case such as yourself. You are not the person you were before you came here. Nor are you the person who will hopefully leave this place. Nor are you the person you were before you lost your memories. You have already changed; evolved; grown. And that is quite alright. What matters is that we choose for ourselves, instead of waiting on what may or may not be”.

    Sel sat in silent contemplation, digesting the man’s words.

    “You say that you’re afraid of mis-stepping, but what would happen if you waited your whole life for your memories to return…and they never did? You’d have wasted your entire life, and never lived it”.

    “…I guess” she whispered, her head still down, her gaze at an undisclosed spot on the ground to her left.

    Sesh decided to change tracks, “Do you like your team?”

    “…I’m sorry?” she asked, taken off-guard by the sudden switch in conversation.

    “It’s a simple question, really. Do you like your team? I only had a brief moment to talk with them, but they seemed nice enough”.

    “They’re…” she struggled with her words, “…I don’t understand them”.

    “How so?”

    They’re just…always doing things. Things I don’t do. It’s like…” realization dawned on her, “…like there’s a wall. They exist on one side, and me on the other”.

    “Have they not tried to break through that wall?”

    She shook her head, “…No, they have”. Flashes of memory; Sid helping her on Onyx. Xolin training her in the simudeck after KO-35. Trok offering his hand of friendship during the fight with the shapeshifter.

    “…Have you reciprocated?”

    Sel was silent, her slightly embarrassed but frustrated expression being all that Sesh needed.

    “…Perhaps you should try then?”

    “You make it sound so easy”

    Sesh chuckled again, “Indeed, it’s harder than it sounds. I imagine especially so for one who does not have the mindlink to fall back on. I am not so well-versed in these matters, but I do know one thing: each of them are just like you”.

    Sel blinked, looking up at the elder in confusion. He smiled and elaborated, “Each of your team members are people just like you. They have their own hopes and fears, their own personalities and needs, and have just as much of an issue connecting to others. The fact that they try regardless says much about their character”.

    Sel thought about that for a moment.

    “Do you want to get to know them better?”

    Did she? She only had a couple months of memories to her, but in that time no one else had given her the time of day, but those three…Trok especially, but all of them had tried to open themselves up to her. More flashes of memory; Trok on KO-35, Sid in Coros’s office on Arkilla, Xolin making sure she’d be close enough to intercept her during the first fight with the shapeshifter, even if it meant splitting apart. Trok trusting her enough to let her in on his plan to save the others from the same monster. All of them grabbing her hand as she was almost thrust out into space…

    Space…

    Light.

    Sel doubled over, the impact of the memory physically giving her a headache.

    “Are you alright?” asked Sesh. She didn’t reply, instead more flashes came to her; but not ones she recognized. A lab, maybe? Pain. Light. Screaming. Her screaming. She was screaming. Sesh grasped her arms in support, as she saw more; flashes of…Sid? A prison? Xolin maybe, in an argument with someone, but younger maybe…Trok? Out in the desert, no…they were all screaming.

    Everyone was screaming.

    “MAKE IT STOP!” she shouted, “TOO MUCH!”

    “Sel…!” Sesh warned, but the situation was out of his control as her body began to glow. He watched, transfixed, having never seen this before in all his days. The soft glow began to emanate throughout the entire chamber, but it didn’t seem to harm him. After taking a moment to let the shock wear off, he hesitantly put his hand on the shoulder of the young xybrian girl crouched over in pain, “Are you alright?”

    “They’re in pain” she managed to whisper.

    “Who are?”

    “The others. The team. They’re in pain”.

    Sesh nodded grimly, knowing it meant that the rangers had likely engaged the memory monster…and were suffering as a consequence. But even so, he marveled at Sel; she hadn’t even been able to make the connection to the xybrian mindlink, and yet here she was reaching out to aliens. She was not an average person. “Do you wish to save them?” he asked, as he gently grasped her shoulders and got her to stand up. She nodded.

    “Why?” he asked.

    Why did she want to? She just recalled her memories of them; there were few, but they were still hers and hers alone. Maybe…maybe there could be more? Maybe there was more than this.

    Maybe she wanted to live.

    “I think I like them” she said quietly, “I think they care about me”.

    Sesh grinned, “So, you do like something”. Sel nodded hesitantly, a faint embarrassed smile on her face, hidden behind the mess of green hair.

    “They need help” she mumbled.

    “Then you should probably go to them”.

    Click. The two turned to one of the doors which had just unlocked, even as the glow began to shine brighter; with small sparkles of light rising up from the floor like fireflies. Sesh let go of Sel as she began to pull herself over to the newly unlocked door.

    “Sel” he called back. She stopped as her hands had reached the doorknob, and turned back to him expectantly. “Memories are renewable. Don’t worry too much about the old ones; if they’re important, they’ll come back. If not…well, you’re still young, so make the most of it. Create new memories…with them”.

    She nodded, a small smile on her face, before pulling the door open—with some effort, he observed—and vanishing into the shadows. A moment later and the glow overtook everything, and the mindscape evaporated.

    ---

    Their minds were delicious. Such delectable angst and regret and horror and sorrow, and they were all his for the taking. Naga licked his lips hungrily, his staff still aimed at the rangers, the sickening rainbow ray still flooding through them. Their inert forms were balled up on the ground, reflective of their current mental status. The snake-genie laughed as he devoured their memories like a hungry beast. The red one, tormented by failure and loss. The blue one, a vibrant prism of childhood issues. And of course the green one, filled to the brim with ignored guilt. Each, a very different, but very different flavor, aged to perfection.

    Delicious.

    “I do enjoyyyyy myyy work…” he hissed, slowly approaching his helpless prey. He was so taken with his prizes in fact, that he never noticed the flash of yellow, or the blade bow swinging down on his staff until it was much too late.

    Naga cried out in shock as his staff shattered in two, the top half clattering on the ground in a fit of sparks, powerless. The rainbow light quickly dissipated, leaving the other rangers clean of his influence.

    “What the?!”

    A follow-up strike from Sel’s blade bow sent Naga stumbling back, as he tossed aside the remains of his staff, “You! Do you know how much work went into that staff!” he hissed in anger. That weapon had been his pride and joy; something he had sculpted himself and slowly upgraded over the years. To think…to have it shattered like that so easily…impossible! Unforgivable! He pulled twin curved swords out from his backside and pointed one at the yellow ranger, who had thus far said nothing, instead her only response being to shift into another battle stance—one taught to her by Xolin. Naga glared at her, “It doesn’t matter. The staff may have amplified my abilities, but I’ll still feast on your mind!”

    His eyes shimmered, before a rainbow beam of light burst forth from a crystal on his forehead, aimed directly at the yellow ranger. She stumbled back a bit upon impact, but aside from her suit withstanding a few sparks, he soon found she was being unaffected.

    “…What?!” Naga screeched again, “How is this possible? No one can resist my mental assaults!” he stepped back in concern as he let the beam fade away. She wasn’t reacting to her memories, but how? Everyone had memories, everyone, even if they were just locked away or forgotten! But he couldn’t…there wasn’t anything *in* there that he could find. Was he even getting in? Of course he was getting in, he *had* to be; what force could possibly resist his powers? But it was almost as if her mind was almost a blank, with only a few months’ worth, and none of them were even worthy to snack on!

    With a mighty unintelligible roar, Sel charged, catching Naga off-guard. She got a few good hits in, before he returned the favor with his swords, knocking her back and trying the beam again. Still nothing happened.

    “What are you!?” the monster shrieked in astonishment. But Sel didn’t respond; she didn’t need to. Most other heroes would have quipped back, or gotten into some sort of debate with Naga. Not Sel—it was hard enough for her to articulate her thoughts on the spot as it was; throw combat into the mix and she was stone cold silent. Not that it really mattered much to her anyway, since she didn’t see much purpose in it. She was here to kill her opponent and save her…friends?

    …Yes, friends. That sounded good. Why waste words in such an event?

    And really, that was probably what terrified Naga most of all; here was some ranger girl completely resistant to his powers—something that had never happened in all his days—and instead of reasoning with him like any normal person, was instead silently throwing herself at him again and again like some kind of crazed berserker, her only sounds being battle-fueled screams of rage. What the *hell* was going on?

    ---

    “So what *is* she, exactly?”

    “Hrm?” Iota hummed, turning back towards Sesh, after having watched Sel practically run out the door. The old man stood there, arms folded behind his back, with a strangely quizzical look on his face.

    Sesh elaborated, “She’s not xybrian. At least, not baseline. She doesn’t have a basic connection to the mindlink, yet I’ve rarely ever seen anyone with such a powerful general emphatic skill…even if she can’t control it. And with how young she is, and with what I witnessed in there…I gather she’s got a lot of memories that aren’t hers. And I mean a *lot* of memories”. He’d hid that from Sel of course; no need to further traumatize the poor girl. But it was almost impossible that she’d have so many…*many* memories despite probably being in her late teens. In fact, it was almost inconceivable anyone could have had that many. And that they were so well-locked away just further reinforced the idea. Yes, it was technically lying. Yes, it was technically deceit. But Sesh had been around long enough and had enough experience to both understand the concept and understand why it was sometimes useful, even if he detested it as any xybrian would.

    “I’m afraid that’s classified” Iota said plainly, “Beyond your clearance, anyway”.

    Sesh snorted as he approached the armored man, “You know, the Alliance used to tell us the same thing, back before the war. SPD became so secretive and power-mad near the end; it was one of the reasons we finally turned against them”.

    “And you’re afraid we’re going to become just like them” Iota finished for him. Sesh nodded.

    “I had reservations when we started this project up. An undercover ranger operation within Confederate space? It was too close to everything we had fought against. In the end, I was convinced otherwise. Now however, I’m beginning to wonder if my initial assumptions were correct” his eyes narrowed, “Too many secrets”.

    Iota looked down, seemingly in a bit of light contemplation, “…I can’t tell you the details, but a storm *is* coming, Elder Sesh. I apologize for the subterfuge, but it *is* necessary”.

    Sesh snorted again as he turned away. Being an elder meant he had fairly powerful psychic abilities, but against Iota, even the most skilled telepath couldn’t even hope to break through whatever the man had in place to keep his secrets secret…and he had tried. “There’s always a storm coming, Iota. I’ve been around long enough to know that. Machine Empire invasions, evil demon-worshipping cults, rogue S-class monsters from the Virgo supercluster…there’s always something right around the corner. That doesn’t mean we have to lie to each other about it. I’m pretty sure that was a lesson we learned when Earth burned”.

    Iota nodded grimly at the memory of the event that had sparked the revolution against SPD and the Alliance. “…I need to get back to my ship” he said, “I believe the monster’s first life will be finished soon, and I have my duties”.

    Sesh smiled, his back still turned to Iota, “Indeed, we all have our parts to play. Good luck, Iota. And be careful when playing with fire”.

    Iota nodded wordlessly, and left the chamber.

    ---

    Sid’s mind was all fuzzy and…awkward, like that unsettling feeling you get when you wake up a bit after a nightmare. He remembered the whole thing of course, shuddering at the thought. This was why he hated psychic monsters…though he idly wondered if there was anything anyone might *like* about them.

    Eugh.

    The red ranger managed to pull himself up into a half-sitting position, his body still shaky and jittery after what Naga had just pulled on him. Around him were blue and green, also just coming back into consciousness.

    …Wait. Why *were* they conscious? By all rights, the monster should have still been—his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a clash of blades and a cry by Sel. He looked up and over, seeing the yellow ranger get knocked back by the snake monster, rolling back through some arched pillars in front of and around a tiny fountain garden enclosed by a number of small shops around it. She landed, blocked another strike with her bow, and was forced to once again roll away, managing to keep barely one step ahead of the monster. The shock of Sel’s appearance had long since worn off and now he was easily on the offensive—Sel just didn’t have the skillset necessary to take the monster head-on by herself.

    Still, Sid noted as she managed an upswing behind the monster’s blades into his arms, she was doing better than expected. Way better.

    “…Where’d *she* learn to fight?” asked Trok, pulling himself up to his feet with the assistance of the ledge next to him.

    “I didn’t teach her that” Sid replied, shaking off the last of his grogginess.

    “I say we help her out” said Xolin, her voice growling with anger as she also got to her feet, summoning her lance in her hands, “I feel like dishing out some payback”.

    “I hear that” Sid said, agreeing wholeheartedly as his axe formed in his grip, “I hate nightmares”.

    Sel got off a short-ranged shot with her bow after using it to block Naga’s twin swords. His chest smoked as he backed off, but a lucky hit from one of his swords loosed her grasp of her weapon, knocking it several feet away. Both weapons came down on the yellow ranger for a follow-up strike and all Sel could do was mentally brace herself…

    The impact never came. Instead, Sid’s and Xolin’s weapons had taken the blows for her, stopping them within a couple inches of her helmet. Clearly unprepared for the save, Naga was pushed back by the two rangers, who then followed up with a single synchronized blow to his midsection, swinging around into each other and directly at him, their weapons fully charged—Sid’s with a crimson flame, and Xolin’s with an icy-blue mist. Naga tumbled to the ground, rolling back, and stumbled on his attempt to get back on his feet in the middle of the plaza.

    Bad mistake.

    Trok came in from the rear, bringing his charged-up hammer down on Naga’s body, sending the monster’s form crashing into the pavement and creating a nice shallow crater where he lay. The rangers regrouped as Naga finally stumbled back to his feet.

    “You…you…DARE…” he managed to spurt out, his body smoking and sparking, his mind seething with impotent rage, “It doesssssn’t matter if I can’t have her minnnnd!” he hissed, pointing one of his swords at the four heroes, “The ressssst of you can and will sufferrrr!” He crossed his swords directly below the crystal on his forehead. Sel knew immediately that he was about to try his luck on the rangers again, and it seemed the others had figured that out as well—each of them almost instinctively stepping back.

    Sel knew what she had to do. Quickly acting, the yellow ranger aimed her blade bow at the monster’s forehead, and hoping beyond hope that she was a good enough shot, fired.

    Just as the crystal began to glow, it shattered into a thousand tiny shards, all of them landing at his feet. His forehead sparked as he reeled in pain, hissing and screeching incoherently. Sid grinned darkly; this was their chance.

    “…You are one sick freak” Sid muttered, brandishing his axe, “How about we end this?” he asked the others. They nodded in agreement.

    “Defender Cannon!” they shouted, bringing their weapons together into a single formation. The cannon primed, charging up its banks and readying the final attack.

    “Aim!” Sid commanded, as the team swung it around at the monster.

    “FIRE!” they all shouted, as the weapon unleashed multiple beams of multicolored light at Naga, vaporizing him where he stood.

    “Good riddance to bad taste” Xolin muttered, while Trok just settled for a sigh of relief, giving Sel a thumbs up in appreciation.

    Sid wasn’t done though, “Okay, problem”.

    “What’s that?” asked Trok.

    Sid motioned to the city all around them, and in particular its crater-like terraced shape “This city is a bowl; it ain’t built for a zord fight. One misstep and we could end up taking out a whole swath of buildings. That would be bad”.

    Trok grimaced, seeing the situation, “We need to get it out of the city then”.

    Sid glanced back at the burning ash pile that had at one point been their foe. They were running out of time, “…Anyone got any ideas?”

    Xolin rubbed the chin of her helmet thoughtfully, “…I think I’ve got one…”

    ---

    As expected, within moments Naga had returned to life, now forty stories taller than before. What Naga hadn’t counted on however, was a spaceship about his size coming down on him in a wide swoop, nearly grazing the tops of the buildings as it came back up at him at an extremely high velocity.

    “This was a bad plan!” Sid panicked, reflexively gripping the sides of his control panel as he hoped to god they missed the buildings that were flying by.

    Trok, too, was gripping hold for dear life. “I told you!”

    “HOLD ON!” Xolin pushed her controls forward, and the Megaship gut-punched Naga straight into the air, carrying him away from the city and towards the jungle. “MEGAZORD, ONLINE!” she roared, as the ship transformed and kicked the snake monster towards the nearest mountain. He skidded along the jungle floor for a few miles, landing in a heap as the Megazord dropped to the ground, its fists ready to rumble.

    Round two.

    Naga stumbled to his feet, swords in hand. To Sid’s relief (and everyone else’s), his crystal and staff had not rejuvenated with him. Because man, to hell with nightmare powers. That stuff was messed up. Sid shook off the shades of the memories and charged in, the Megazord dodging the swords and delivering a roundhouse kick right to the monster’s face, following it up with a direct punch, and then a second one from the other arm as the robot kept wheeling. It braced for another round of strikes and then—

    The monster was gone, evaporating in a pillar of smoke.

    “Wha--!?” Sid gasped, even as the zord spun around, and was rewarded for its vigilance with a sword to the face.

    “Enough!” Naga said, cutting into the Megazord’s chest, “I’ve had it with you rangerssssss! Diiiiiie!”

    The Megazord attempted a counter attack, but once again the snake-genie had poofed himself out of existence. Naga cut down the Megazord’s backside, before vanishing again just as it turned around with another swing from its fist. Again. And again. Each time, the Megazord sparked and sputtered, stumbling back as smoke began to stream off its hull.

    Naga laughed, now standing several steps away. His eyes glowed silver as electrical energy danced out, impacting the zord’s hull. The rangers’ cockpit shook as the Megazord reeled from the latest assault.

    Xolin slammed her fist on her console in frustration, “He’s too fast!” Sid grimaced; it was true. At this rate they weren’t going to get anywhere. The home team needed an upset.

    “I think I can help with that” Iota said over the com channel, “Activating the yellow Guardian zord”.

    A flash of yellow, and a new yellow, black, and silver spaceship had appeared out of the Megazord. It was a heavier build, like Trok’s, but with lots of guns.

    *Lots* of guns.

    “Defender Megazord, Assault Mode!”

    A barrage of firepower was unleashed on the unprepared Naga, giving the Megazord a moment to equip the ship on itself as armor. The Megazord’s new formation was boxy and slow, but it didn’t need to move, its entire surface brisling with guns. In the cockpit, a multitude of new targeting solutions dominated their consoles.

    “Well, *this* is different” Xolin noted with a bit of awe in her voice, “…Wow. I’m reading overlapping firing arcs in every direction. This thing’s a *battleship*”.

    Naga poofed again, behind the Megazord. Unfortunately for him, it was no longer a good tactic, as he found out when several gun platforms swiveled around and opened fire. Another poof later, and Naga once again found himself at the receiving end of a barrage.

    Sid turned to Sel, “This one’s all yours” he said, smiling. She looked at him for a moment, then nodded slowly, smiling under her helmet as well. She gripped the controls.

    “Advent Barrage” Sel said. Not shouted, not yelled, just…said. Determinedly, yet quietly. A statement of fact.

    The Megazord turned to face Naga, every gun within its firing arc turning towards the monster. Naga seemed to realize he was done for, as he stepped back and braced himself in a fit of dawning panic. Every weapon primed, every turret charged.

    Every gun fired.

    The torrent of hellfire slammed into Naga. He sparked and smoked, before toppling over and exploding in the usual fireball. In the cockpit, whereas normally small celebrations would be going off, today there was just a measure of silent decompression; a deep breath exhaling now that the trouble was over. For Sid, Trok, and Xolin’s position, each just took solace that the battle was over and tried their best to ignore the memories of the all-too-real nightmares. As for Sel, well, now that the battle was over, the awkwardness of…well, *everything* had returned full force, moreso now that everyone else seemed withdrawn and out of it. How could one breach those walls?

    It had not been a good day.

    ---

    “…Sid?”

    “…Hrm?” he hummed, snapping out of his thoughts.

    “It’s your move” Xolin said, motioning to the board. They had chosen some sort of Mercurian game, though Sid was fairly certain that they had stolen the idea from Chinese Checkers. How, he hadn’t a clue, considering it was supposedly hundreds of years old; ancient astronauts maybe. Why Mercurian? Well, as Xolin had explained, why not try something different?

    Sid glanced over the board for a split second, before moving one of his red pieces further into the center of the board. In response, Trok quickly knocked it out of play with one of his green tokens.

    “Bad move” he grinned, as Xolin began pondering her turn.

    “Sorry, just…” Sid sighed and leaned back.

    Xolin frowned, “I thought we weren’t doing the whole ‘morosely reflecting on our experiences’ thing today. That’s why we’re playing…whatever it was called”. She had tried to pronounce it and had failed every time, so now she just avoided it with a flair of annoyance.

    Sid shook his head slightly, “No, sorry, not that…”

    “Still thinking about Sel?” she asked, taking another guess.

    He grimaced, “…A man with a briefcase…”

    Xolin’s brow furrowed, her mouth resting on her cupped hands in thought, “…So we know someone probably hired Capricorn” she sighed, “…And it’s likely the same person who hired Naga”.

    Sid idly picked up one of the red tokens that had already been taken off the board, “Which is exactly what we were afraid of. But Sel, Iota, the Peacekeepers…what’s the connection?”

    Xolin sighed again, shaking her head in resignation. There were too many unknowns here; too many questions and not enough facts for them to even begin to tell what was really going on. She wordlessly moved one of her blue tokens over two of Trok’s.

    “…Aw” Trok complained dejectedly as two of his tokens left the board. Xolin smirked; the cries of the vanquished were sweet indeed.

    ---

    She’d come down here with a plan, a thought out concept of what she’d do. She’d walk in, and just…join in whatever it was they were doing. She’d been so determined.

    So why was she frozen just outside the doors to the work bay?

    Sel sighed, leaning against the wall, closing her eyes in frustrated pain. Why was she so bad at this?

    What did she want? She wanted…she wanted to not be alone.

    So why was it so hard?

    She heard Sid laugh through the door. She wanted to laugh. Steeling herself, she exhaled and opened the door. Immediately, the other three rangers turned to see who was there—and for a few agonizingly awkward moments, the four of them just sort of stared at each other, not sure what to do with this or where to go with it.

    Hrn.

    This was awkward.

    For Sel, this had been a terrible mistake. She’d messed up somehow, screwed up a social norm she wasn’t familiar with, committed some social faux pas—

    “Um…” she managed to utter.

    Sid’s face turned into a soft smile, “…Feel like joining us?” he asked, motioning to the board game.

    Sel let go of the breath she didn’t even know she had been holding in, a smile bursting forth on her face. She nodded, and Trok’s face lit up as well. Xolin just shrugged, only mildly amused by the whole thing. It was about friggin’ time, as far as she was concerned--the girl had issues, and for a while she hadn’t even been fully convinced she wasn’t just an automaton or something.

    Sel cautiously stepped up to the table, gingerly sitting down—making sure it was okay with Trok first as she landed next to him.

    “So!” Sid exclaimed, clapping his hands, “New game!”

    Immediately the three cleared the board, with Sid handing Sel a container of small, yellow tokens, before explaining the rules to her, “Okay, so, objective of the game is simple; take everybody out. All tokens can make one move in any direction per turn, unless you’re taking out multiple tokens, something called a chain move…”

    As Sid continued to explain, Sel sighed with contentment. She began placing her tokens on her corner of the board, and she knew she’d made the right choice. Hard, difficult, but worth it. And before the night was out, new memories had started flooding in.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  8. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.07: DIVIDE AND CONQUER

    Xolin was not a creature of patience. She knew that, and she’d even admit it if pressed. It was a fault, she knew, but holy crap it was like the universe *wanted* to test how far it could push her before she snapped. Case in point: her current mission.

    No, sorry. ‘Mission’, because it was clearly really just babysitting.

    She’d been ‘volunteered’ by Iota to deliver a package to Telleros, a Karovian colony. What was inside the package, she didn’t know and Iota wasn’t keen on telling her; annoying issue number one because if she didn’t know, how would she even know if it was worth her time in the first place? And then he’d ‘advised’ her to take Sel along, so the mostly-untrained yellow ranger could get some ‘real world experience’.

    Aaaand to top it all off, Iota had taken the Megaship and the two boys and gone to fight some sort of unicorn monster with drills for hands on Eltheris IV—she’d gotten the whole excited scoop from Trok via comm transmission shortly after landing here. Evidently, she’d missed quite the fight, and she was pretty ticked off about that.

    Instead, however, she was stuck here. Playing babysitter for the xybrian walking just behind her. Despite the fact that she’d been somewhat opening up over the past few weeks, the girl had barely said five words to Xolin since they’d left the megaship, and by this point in their relationship, Xolin had pretty much settled on ‘not giving a shit’. Whereas Trok or Sid would initiate conversation with her, Xolin had better things to do than worry about some quiet teenager’s lack of hobbies or…whatever. To Xolin, the relationships worth fighting for were the ones that fought back. Sel was just a big pile of blah.

    So yeah, babysitting.

    It wasn’t like Telleros was a *bad* world, it was just sort of…dime-a-dozen. The city they were in was your standard mid-sized Karovian city, complete with parks, geometric buildings and monuments, and pre-planned city design. It was pretty. It was spacious.

    It was boring. KO-35 and some of the other core worlds at least had mega cities with towering skyscrapers you could get lost in. But she’d always found the Karovian sense of aesthetics to be…ocd? Generic?

    Bland. That’s the word. Bland.

    Kind of like Sel over there.

    Uuuuuuugh.

    At least if it had been Sid or Trok, she could have enjoyed some banter or something. Sel was just as boring as watching paint dry; sort of like a silent shadow that just kind of…lingered there.

    The two rangers made their way back to their skycycles, currently parked on the street corner. Just a few more hours, and she’d be back home, and could go kick the crap out of something on the simudeck. It just wasn’t the same with a simulation, but it would suffice.

    She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t take notice of the figures moving towards them. Sel noticed however; there were at least eight of them, all civilians wearing various business casual suits, all having begun following them from different directions.

    “…Xolin” she noted. Xolin glanced back at her, quickly summing up the situation—more were coming towards them from where she had been walking as well. Immediately she shifted into a battle position, though she hesitated—fighting civilians? This didn’t jive.

    “…Is there a problem?” she asked warily, making sure to keep as many of them within her sights as she could at any one time. Now surrounded, she allowed herself one split second of surprise as the civilians melted away, replaced by Orange-headed Krybots as they stepped up their pace, now rushing the two girls. Xolin’s foot found itself in the chest of the nearest one, before she blocked another’s attack with her arm and swung around, her shoe slamming into its face. A dodge and a counterattack later, and she was completely swarmed by the enemy squadron.

    Shit, this wasn’t good. She’d never actually gotten a chance to fight Troobian tech, but at the very least she’d read up on their capabilities. Orange-heads were the elite vanguard of Krybot forces—encountering a squadron comprised of nothing but them was bad news…and extremely alarming as it meant whoever was after them really meant business. Xolin privately mused on the fact that Capricorn must have really gone out of his way for this one if it meant he had had to go all the way out to buy up Troobian hardware.

    Freeing herself from the grip of one of the robots, and creating some room for herself, Xolin pressed her morpher…and nothing happened. Her eyes shot to her morpher in panic as she tried again, still with no response. Her powers weren’t working. Ranger dampening fields existed of course—had for centuries, but they were a relative rarity. Since the morphin’ grid was well…*everything*, and trying to suppress that would have Bad Consequences for anyone who’d be willing to try, attempts to negate ranger tech usually came in the form of breaking the link to one’s power source. The downside to that of course, was that the power source would differ from team to team. One team might use ancient amulets hundreds of thousands of years old that tapped into the grid directly, another team might use their own lifeforce. And still another team might harness some artifact within their morphers.

    In Xolin’s case, their powers came from the Megaship—a weakness they’d pointed out from time to time, as it meant one only had to break their transfer of energy from orbit to neutralize them, but the assumption had been that it just wasn’t worth it because, again, anti-ranger tech had to account for so many variables that most just considered it not worth it. Though, Trok *had* thrown the idea of giving them a secondary ‘life force’ mode around before. Boy, she really wished she had held him to that right about now.

    Xolin knew what she had to do; the mission had never changed. The would-be blue ranger swung around, blocking the Krybot’s path to Sel and making sure her teammate had an escape path, “Powers are down!” she shouted, doing her best to keep the hoard at bay, but anyone watching would know she’d be quickly overpowered in a matter of seconds, “Run to a safe place and get help! GO!”

    “But what about you?” Sel asked, concerned.

    Xolin elbowed a Krybot in the head, smashing into the pavement with her foot when it dropped down, but only getting several more hits from the others for her troubles, “Do as I say!”

    Sel stepped back, hesitating. Xolin was about to lose, she couldn’t…

    “NOW!” Xolin cried, just before she was finally mowed down. Sel finally broke rank, running towards the nearest building—unfortunately, another few Krybot stragglers were incoming, and Sel wasn’t fast or agile enough to avoid them. She was caught by one, and not being great at melee combat—especially without her powers—meant that she was helpless as others swarmed in.

    “NO!” Xolin roared, splitting into three. While Spirit remained crushed under the weight of her enemies, Mind and Courage raced to the rescue, knocking aside two of the Krybots assaulting Sel. She’d wanted to avoid having to rely on her triforian powers here since she didn’t have any backup—these powers were built for out-maneuvering an opponent, not dealing with a hoard. Her three forms were much weaker than her singular entity.

    “RUN!” Xolin of Courage screamed at Sel as she fought one of the Krybots.

    The xybrian struggled against two of her enemy; “I can’t!”

    Xolin of Mind snapped in frustrated rage, “Useless! Because of course I’m stuck with the useless pile of—” she grunted as she was hit in the stomach, then delivered a counter-attack, flinging her foe around into another, “Can’t even defend yourself, only the Trinity knows why Iota wanted you so bad…”

    Sel stopped struggling, at first shocked by the outburst, and then saddened. Useless. That’s what she was to Xolin. Could she blame her? Not really. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt though. The last few weeks, ever since she’d woken up on Xybria…Sel had tried. She really had. And for a while, she had thought she was getting better in the training sessions, and with warming up to the others. She wanted to be…well, *real*. She wanted to be like them, with them, not separate.

    But standing here, now, it was clear she wasn’t, and couldn’t be. Xolin didn’t accept her. Why should she?

    Why was Sel even here?

    On some level, Xolin knew she’d messed up as the fight went out of Sel, but on the surface in the mist of her rage, she was just further pissed that the girl would give up—it was just further proof of just how utterly useless their fourth member was. They were going to *lose*, and there was nothing she could do about it—and it was almost certainly Sel’s fault. This never would have happened with Sid or Trok. “Oh, what!?” she exclaimed bitterly, “Do I have to hold your hand or something!?” Again, deep down she *probably* knew she was in the wrong, but on the surface in her haze of anger, she’d already justified it to herself.

    If Sel was going to reply, Xolin never witnessed it. Sel was struck in the back of the neck by some sort of electrical device that immediately knocked her out. Xolin’s eyes widened as she—they—knew what was coming. Xolin of Mind, pinned under numerous Krybots, was next—and with her, the remaining two Xolins immediately succumbed as well, before melting away and reuniting with their sister.

    ---

    “What do you mean kidnapped?!” were the first words out of Trok’s mouth. Under normal circumstances, Sid would have snorted at Trok’s questioning of the obvious. It meant they’d been captured, obviously. But under the circumstances, he’d let it slide. He was just as concerned, after all.

    They both sat in the workbay, Sid having been giving Trok a primer on some of the craziest worlds he’d been to, when Iota had come down to them with the news.

    Iota elaborated “As in, we found their skycycles parked with no one around. The office reported getting the package, so we know they made it, and shortly afterwards we have numerous witnesses reporting seeing Krybots in the area”.

    “…Troobians?” Trok asked confused, “What do they have to do with this?”

    Sid shook his head, his arms folded as he leaned back in his chair, “Probably nothing. Capricorn probably just bought some stuff off the nearest arms dealer”.

    Even without a visible face, Iota seemed to fall into a bit of reluctance to explain this next part, “…It wasn’t Capricorn”.

    “…I’m sorry?” asked Sid, pulling himself forward.

    Iota sighed, pulling out a small holographic generator and placing it on the table. A map of galaxies appeared, before zooming in on a blinking light in one of the spiral formations, “…Both Sel and Xolin have been implanted with nano-tracking devices”.

    Sid grunted as he leaned back and crossed his arms again, “...Should I be right to assume that’s true for Trok and I too?” he asked, annoyed, but not really shocked at this point. Iota made a noncommittal noise that pretty much signified ‘yes’. Trok seemed a bit more concerned at that, but Sid just replied with a sarcastic “Hmm”.

    “You understand why, of course” Iota replied, “Anyway, we’ve traced them to this sector in the Itassitar Galaxy”.

    “…That’s Alliance space” Sid said with concern, once again leaning forward so he could get a better look at the map.

    Iota nodded, “And near the location of a hidden SPD base we stumbled on a few months back. We don’t know what its purposes is, but we do know it’s off the official records”.

    “…The hell does SPD want with us?” Sid asked, a bit taken for a loop at the turn of events. As if they didn’t have enough issues with just Capricorn and whoever hired him—and privately, he wondered why SPD was buying off Troobian hardware. Unless SPD had been the ones hiring Capricorn and Naga in the first place…but considering the sheer level of destruction during the Arkilla mission, that didn’t seem likely; and besides, why would Capricorn flee Alliance space towards Onyx if he was hired by SPD? So yeah, that little theory didn’t pan out.

    Iota shrugged, “That, I’m hoping will be answered by your rescue mission”.

    “When do we go?” asked Trok, now anxious to save Sel and Xolin.

    “We’ll be arriving in a few hours” Iota replied, “So be ready. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about the interior layout of the base, or defensive capabilities, so you’ll be flying blind”.

    “Mmm, peachy” Sid sighed as he watched the blinking light on the map, “…Because assaulting hidden bases without a plan is always a surefire method for success”.

    ---

    She awoke disoriented. It was kind of like how when you hadn’t gotten enough sleep, and so if you were awoken you were super groggy and not completely sure of anything around you. She remembered…something. What had she been doing?

    The first thing she noticed was that her arms were restrained somehow…and her legs too. She was strapped to some sort of…bed? No, a board? Some kind of flat surface.

    Xolin’s eyes fluttered open, taking in her surroundings. It was dim and cramped, and very spartan. Four simple offwhite walls surrounded her, flanked by an old scuffed up tile floor and an office ceiling. The only lights came from small florescent lamps spaced along the walls.

    Right; she’d been fighting and…crap. She struggled, suddenly realizing what had happened. She’d been captured. No use though; her bonds were metal. Briefly she considered splitting, but decided against it. It was best if she waited to see what her situation was before revealing her trump card.

    “Ah, you’re awake. Good” said a voice. She looked over, seeing a man in a black jumpsuit standing by the door, arms folded behind his back.

    “…And you would be?” she asked crossly, giving her bonds another tug.

    He took his weight off the wall, crossing the small room over to where she was, and pulled a helmet-like device hanging from the ceiling down over her head, before strapping her into it, “I am the one who will be asking the questions” he replied, “Answer truthfully, and you will not be harmed. Lie, and…well…” he waved a small remote in his hands as he stepped away. Xolin grimaced.

    “Question one: are you Xolin, of House Avaris?”

    “No”.

    A powerful shock flooded Xolin’s body. She squealed in pain, breathing heavily as it passed. Damn, that had *hurt*. What had they even done? Was it like…some sort of electrical or magical charge, or had they tapped in to her nervous system somehow, or…

    “And now you know what will happen when you lie” the man replied, matter-of-factly, “We will not tolerate insubordination”.

    “Who are you?!” she demanded to know, her voice rising in anger. Another shock; she cried out.

    “As I said, *we* will be asking the questions, not you” the man stated.

    Xolin panted, “Go to hell!”

    Another shock. The man shook his head slightly, “Question two: Who commands you?”

    “Why…would I tell you?” Xolin gritted, just before another shock to her system caused her to shout out in pain again. She panted, but was resolute; she wouldn’t be coerced by *anyone*, especially not with these tactics. She was nothing if not absolutely obstinate.

    “Who commands you?”

    “Santa Clause”

    Zap.

    “Who commands you?”

    “Zordon of Eltar”

    Zap.

    The man sighed, “…We can do this all day, if you’d like. But eventually your body *will* give out” he nodded at Xolin’s body, already exhausted and covered in sweat just from those few zaps.

    “That…would suck” she breathed out, expecting another shock. To her surprise, none came, so she took a moment to compose herself, slowing her breathing a bit.

    The man paced across the room, “Let’s try a different track. Question three: what was your involvement with the Arkilla incident?”

    “Incident?” Xolin asked. She had a pretty good idea what he was going on about, but well, best to play dumb for now.

    The man sighed, “Several weeks ago the Arkilla spaceport was savagely assaulted by a band of pirates and three unidentified rangers”.

    Xolin shrugged noncommittally, “I’ve never been to Arkilla”.

    Zap. Xolin grunted in pain.

    “Lies will not be tolerated, Ms. Xolin. You *will* give us the answers we want” the man said, his back to Xolin with his hands clasped behind him. He snapped his fingers and the door was opened by two black armor clad figures. The man nodded at them, “Take her to her cell, we’ll begin again shortly”.

    Xolin of course did her best to struggle as they undid her bonds, but their grip was absolute as they took her away, her body still wracked from her torture. She struggled all the way down the hall, almost getting away once, before a third armored grunt grabbed her. They dumped her unceremoniously onto the floor in a dimly lit cell, closing the door behind them as she forced herself back up, throwing herself at her exit. The door wouldn’t budge, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to try, despite her body being extremely fatigued.

    Even as she did, thoughts were going through her head. This wasn’t Capricorn’s doing, she was sure of that now. Perhaps it was another group employed by the mysterious man with a briefcase? And then there was the fact that he man who had interrogated her seemed to be particularly interested in the whole incident on Arkilla. Could it be possible this was some sort of black ops SPD group? If so, why bother with Troobian hardware? A cover?

    Hrn.

    Her legs finally gave out as she slumped down into a sitting position, her head dizzy and her breathing a bit labored. Whatever that torture machine was, it had done a number on her. She was fairly convinced he’d been telling the truth when he’d said that continued use of the machine would kill her. She took a moment to calm her body, briefly meditating, which seemed to give her back at least a portion of her strength. At the very least, she was less dizzy now.

    That’s when she heard a noise, at the other end of the cell. Opening an eye, she caught sight of Sel sitting in the far corner, huddled up in a ball. Well, at least she wasn’t dead.

    Yet.

    “…So how much have you told them?” Xolin asked hoarsely, her tone bitter. She hadn’t really thought about Sel while being interrogated; but a sinking feeling filled her as she realized that the girl most likely wouldn’t have responded well to torture—likely she’d already spilled everything to them, and Xolin would be pissed if all her pain had been for nothing.

    “I haven’t told them anything” the girl replied quietly. Xolin frowned; that didn’t seem likely.

    “…Not even after they interrogated you?”

    She shook her head, “They haven’t done anything to me. I woke up in here”.

    Xolin sputtered. “Wha—“. Of course. Of *course*. Sel was so friggin’ special, why would they dare harm her when they had a cow to slaughter like Xolin? Eugh, typical reality; life was out to get her. She sneered at Sel, now extremely annoyed, “…They haven’t done *anything* to you?”

    She shook her head again. Damnit all.

    “That’s great. That’s just…that’s great” Xolin spat out. She wasn’t even sure what she had wanted to hear out of this; did she really *want* Sel to suffer? But she was just so…irritated at her own misfortune, it just didn’t seem right.

    “You’re angry with me” Sel said, quietly.

    Xolin glared at her, “I told you to run. Why didn’t you?”

    “I did”.

    “Not until it was too late” Xolin clarified, “You hesitated, and it cost both of us. You could have gotten help”.

    Sel looked down, ashamed, “I’m sorry”.

    “Why didn’t you run?” Xolin needled her again.

    Sel thought for a moment, “…I didn’t…” she sighed, “…I didn’t want to abandon you”.

    Xolin’s eyes perked up in surprise as she hadn’t expected that answer. But the immediate good feeling she got from it was quickly twisted into guilt, only further fueling her indignation. She glared at her teammate, then looked away in self-righteous contempt, “Useless”.

    Nothing further was said between them.

    ---

    One could be forgiven for thinking Sid was slacking off. To all outside observers, it would have seemed he was taking a nap on the couch in the observation lounge. The lights were off, and the windows were filled with the streaks of passing stars. But Sid was not slacking off, not by a long shot. He’d been in this position for almost an hour, going over battle plans and strategies, trying to come up with the best plan for success with what little he knew about the whole situation.

    He knew they’d need to get in and out quickly; a covert SPD base would likely be swarming with defenses, and the Megaship, while powerful, wasn’t built to take on enemy fleets by itself—you’d need something much larger, like a battleship. But the fact that they were still able to track Sel and Xolin’s positions was good—they’d be able to lock down on where they were in the base.

    Which was *very* good, because until they arrived, he wouldn’t even know what the base was going to look like, much less its internal layout—which of course made planning an actual rescue mission almost impossible. Which in turn of course meant that most likely, they wouldn’t be *able* to just get in and get out—they’d have to find some way to delay the inevitable while they searched the labyrinth. And so here Sid was, trying to brainstorm ways to keep the Megaship from getting blown up upon arrival.

    Wait.

    What if they gave them more than one target to shoot at? Sid mused; they had four other zords to call on. If they set them on autopilot, or linked them into Iota’s command…hrm. This could work.

    He opened his eyes when he sensed another presence. Sure enough, there was Trok, leaning over the side of the couch, looking down at him.

    “Problems?” Sid asked, reading the young man’s troubled face.

    Trok shrugged half-heartedly, “I dunno. I just…I’m bored and I want to be there already” he grumbled, “…I hate waiting”.

    Sid smiled. He’d been on the ship long enough that sometimes he’d forget just how new Trok was at this, “I always hated the waiting too. Can’t do anything except worry about how everything might go wrong”.

    “How do you deal with it?” asked Trok, “Like, I can’t *do* anything else; it’s all just…white noise. And I just can’t take it”.

    Sid shrugged, “It just gets easier eventually. You become a bit desensitized to it”.

    “But what about *now*?” Trok groaned, slumping against the couch. Sid almost laughed, the image of this physically imposing alien whining like a bored fifteen year-old. Trok wasn’t fully grown of course; he was still smaller than your average horathean, and his green scales weren’t quite so spikey as they’d be in a few short years, but Sid still had to remind himself that he *was* still a teenager.

    “You care about them” Sid replied earnestly, “That’s natural. For now? Go ahead and train in the simudeck; at the very least it’ll keep your body occupied until we get there”.

    Trok thought about that for a moment, then nodded as he stood up, “That might work; thanks. You gonna join me?”

    Sid shook his head, “Nah, I got my own methods”.

    “Such as napping?”

    A small, wry smirk appeared on Sid’s face as he closed his eyes again, “Such as ‘planning’, smart guy. Go get your ass kicked by holograms for a while”.

    Trok huffed good-naturedly, before leaving Sid alone to his thoughts.

    ---

    “Who do you work for?”

    Zap.

    “Why did you attack Arkilla?”

    Zap.

    “Who are your team members?”

    Zap.

    Hanging by the chains on her wrists, Xolin’s breath was sporadic and haggard, her hair a complete and utter mess that obscured most of her face. She said nothing as the attacks kept coming; originally she had snarked back each answer, but by now she simply didn’t have the strength to be clever anymore, so she had settled instead for simply being silent, broken only by the whimpers whenever the pain coursed through her body.

    “You *will* answer my questions” the man said calmly, yet firmly, as he paced across the small room. If he was growing in any way agitated or impatient, he didn’t show any sign of it—denying Xolin even that small comfort.

    “Make me” Xolin managed to croak out. She felt extremely ill. In fact—oh, yeah, there it went. All over the floor.

    Great. So much for dignity.

    The man sighed, snapping his fingers—obviously they’d have to try again later. Once again, the two guards entered the room, and once again they uncuffed her, before dragging her back to her cell and tossing her inside. She landed face-first, and this time didn’t bother to move, instead simply slumping to the ground; to hell with anything. Her body attempted to dry heave, but there was simply no strength left.

    Maybe she should give up, she thought, then was immediately revolted at herself for that. Not only did Xolin not give up, she didn’t ever betray her allies. But gods…she wanted to die—and she had a sneaking suspicion that might not be far off at this point. This had been the third session; she didn’t know how many more her body would be able to take before it just gave up. Tears shimmered in her eyes as she took a deep, stabilizing breath. The dizziness was almost unbearable and her muscles ached with a dull thud.

    She could do this. She could…shit. The others didn’t even know where they were. She’d try to break out herself, but at this point her body was so weak and pitiful she didn’t know if she could even stand up, let alone walk or fight. She didn’t have her morpher, she was on a station she didn’t know the layout of, and her only support was…her.

    She was going to die.

    “You’re hurting”

    Speak of the devil. Xolin managed to look up at Sel, who was crouched over the triforian with an expression of concern etched on her face.

    Xolin grunted, “No shit”.

    “Give me up”

    Xolin nearly choked, “…Excuse me?”

    But Sel’s face was earnest, “They’re after me, right? Just…tell them what they want, and they’ll let you go”.

    Xolin’s face contorted from surprise to anger, “You want me to betray *everyone*?!”

    Sel’s eyes widened in horror, “No, no! I mean…I didn’t…”

    Xolin closed her eyes again. “They aren’t after you—for once. They want information, about all of us. If I tell them, then that puts everyone else in danger—and I’m not a traitor”.

    “I’m sorry” Sel replied, flustered, “That…didn’t come out right”.

    “No, it didn’t”.

    Sel winced at Xolin’s bite. Why was communication so difficult? She just couldn’t…do it right. She couldn’t do a lot of things right. “What I meant was…” she sighed, “…I wish I could take your place”.

    “What?” Xolin asked, surprised.

    “You’re hurting” Sel explained, “I can feel it. In here” she pointed at herself. She’d been feeling it since they’d arrived; and it had only been getting worse. Xolin wouldn’t last much longer like this, “And I hate it. I hate seeing it, I hate feeling it. I don’t like what it’s doing to you. And…and I…” she trailed off.

    Xolin’s many emotions finally settled on ‘compassion’—an oddity for her. Her expression softened, “…And you feel helpless”.

    Sel nodded numbly, averting her eyes in shame. She looked down at the ground, “…I’m sorry for being useless”.

    Now it was Xolin’s turn to wince. Sel was so young; she could see that clearly just as the girl was sitting over her. Trok was that young too, wasn’t he? That sensitivity, that naivety…she’d probably messed him up real bad back when they’d first met—the Trinity only knew why they’d bonded so well. She remembered when she and Trok had first been teamed together; she’d been with Iota a couple of weeks, and hated the idea of having someone so…underwhelming accompany her into battle. She’d always have to watch his back, and during training she’d give him hell.

    But for all his dorkiness, Trok never gave up. He was a wall, an immovable object, and his optimism was infectious. And slowly but surely, he began watching her back too. And then Sid…

    Man, she was bad with people. And here was a kid, just like Trok…though less of a wall, more of a doormat. Less optimistic, but just as empathetic, even if she wasn’t good at displaying it.

    How could Xolin just lay on the floor when someone needed saving? How could she be so useless?

    With a loud groan, Xolin managed to pull herself into a sitting position, though she had to pause because her head was spinning too badly. Then she gripped the door to the cell.

    “What are you doing?!” Sel asked, now very concerned as Xolin began the long, arduous task of pulling herself to her feet--*without* emptying what was left of her stomach.

    “What does it…does it look like?” she asked, a pained expression on her face, even as her legs shuddered under their own weight, “One of the cardinal rules of being a ranger; we *never* give up. I’m going…going to break us out and get the hell out of here”.

    “But you can barely stand!” Sel exclaimed, alarmed.

    Xolin’s free hand gripped her abdomen in pain, “I’m Xolin of Triforia. I’m friggin’ incredible, and I don’t *ever* quit. It doesn’t matter how I feel, I’m going to complete my mission”. Her voice was low, almost a whisper, and extremely hoarse, but Sel couldn’t deny the core resolute defiance within. Xolin thought for a moment, glancing back at the cell door she was holding onto for dear life, her breath slow and haggard. “I…I have an idea”.

    ---

    “Who do you think’s gonna win?”

    “Hrm?” Ulthar grunted, having just been woken up from a half-doze. The older tangarian guard usually used this time to catch up on lost sleep; it wasn’t like they were really necessary anyway—the security doors were more than enough to keep everything locked up. And if those weren’t, man, this place had so many security systems and SPD guards it wasn’t even funny. So no, Ulthar had absolutely no qualms about using ‘company time’ to take care of himself.

    “The game” the felonian elaborated crossly as she put her reading material down, “Were you sleeping again?” She probably intended to look cross, but to Ulthar, the cat people always amused him; to him their ‘annoyed’ expression just looked adorable. At any rate, he ignored her protest, instead aiming at her first question, “Gotta support the home team” he grinned, “Tangarian Hotshots all the way. You?”

    “Ichthyite Leviathans” she replied, with not just a little smug satisfaction out of the reaction she knew it’d get out of her partner. Before he could properly respond however, a pounding came at the door. A young woman’s voice called out to them, muffled by the thick armor between them.

    “HELP! I NEED HELP IN HERE!”

    The two guards looked at each other and sighed. Ulthar replied, still sitting down in his chair, “Yeah? What’s up?”

    “My roommate’s passed out…she’s not breathing! I need help!”

    The two guards snickered. Ulthar called back, “Finally gave in to the torture, huh? Yeah, those devices are a real pain”.

    “I think she’s dying! Don’t you still need her?!”

    “Command probably *would* prefer she remain alive as long as possible” the felonian said to her partner. Ulthar sighed again, getting to his feet before he slid open the small window in the middle of the door, peering in to see the triforian laying on the ground in a heap. In front of him stood the xybrian, panicking.

    “Please, she’s my friend!”

    “I know how this works” Ulthar said dryly, “I open up, check on her, then you conk me on the head from behind and lock us inside while you run. That about right?”

    “But…” Sel seemed confused, “There’s only two of us in here. And I’m right here”.

    Ulthar mused it over, then nodded, “Eh, alright. Stand back, prisoner. I want your back against the far wall and your hands up where I can see them. Understand?”

    Sel nodded and did as she was told. Ulthar nodded to his partner, who got up and drew her gun. At the count of a silent three, Ulthar pressed the unlock code into the keypad, and opened the door. The two guards moved inside, keeping their focus on Sel. Ulthar knelt down to check on Xolin while the other kept her gun trained on Sel’s chest.

    “Make one false move, and I take you down, understand?” she asked. Sel nodded in fear, her breath shaky. She dared not to look at the two forms rising behind the two guards, both of them silent and otherwise unnoticed by the occupants of the room. Neither guard noticed Ulthar’s gun being drawn out of his holster, and Ulthar was extremely shocked when his fellow guard was pistol-whipped in the back of the head, her unconscious form dropping to the floor.

    “What the—”

    Xolin of soul made sure the gun was set to stun—she wasn’t a barbarian—and let Ulthar take a nice, long nap. The three Xolins reformed into Xolin of soul, and she nearly collapsed; had it not been for Sel grabbing her, she would have hit the floor herself. The two looked at each other, both a little surprised that Sel had put Xolin’s arm around her.

    “…Grab the other gun” Xolin said, hoping to diffuse the awkward situation, “You’ll need it”.

    Sel did as she was told, then began helping Xolin out of the cell. Xolin grinned wanly as they exited, “Now…shut the door” she said, before dropping into Ulthar’s chair.

    Again, Sel did as she was told, but to this she also smiled, remembering the conversation she had had with him. “…What now?” she asked her teammate. Xolin looked down the hall; no guards or alarms yet. Obviously no one had looked at a camera monitor…yet. She leaned back, resting as best she could, “…We need to find wherever they’re holding our morphers. Then we need to find where the docking bay is, and somehow steal a ship”.

    Truth be told, they *could* have just had Iota manufacture new morphers in case of emergency; since they drew their power from the ship, it was really a simple matter to create a new set and deactivate the old ones via remote. But having loose evidence lying around was probably a bad thing—and they kinda needed those morphers *now*. At the very least, Xolin could use the morphin’ energy to sustain herself until they got off the station.

    “Right” Sel said, hesitant, “…And how do we do that?”

    “Computer monitor” Xolin pointed matter-of-factly at a panel on the wall a few feet down the hall, “Get to it”.

    Sel nodded, and got to work.

    ---

    Sid checked over his skycycle for what he was sure was the fiftieth time. He knew he was just being paranoid, but there was always that nagging pull in the back of his mind. You know the one.

    “This is a risky plan”.

    Sid turned to Iota, who had been standing at the door while the two rangers had been doing their final checks and preparations. Sid shrugged, “It’s the best I’ve got. Unless you’ve got a better idea”.

    He shook his head, “I brought you on for this very reason. Wouldn’t be appropriate to not allow you to work. Besides, risk isn’t always a bad thing”.

    “Speaking from experience?” Sid asked, a bit acidly. The comment went over Trok’s head, but Iota’s slight nod definitely indicated he’d gotten it.

    He changed the topic slightly, “We’ll be arriving in a few minutes. I’ve set the ship AI to work with the other auxillary zords upon dropping out of hyperrush. And of course, set them to disengage and return to the Megaship if they start to take heavy damage”.

    Sid nodded. A smart move; he didn’t want to risk any more on the mission than he absolutely had to.

    “I still think you should consider taking the base out”.

    Sid glared at the man…thing. “I’m not a butcher, I don’t *do* ‘sanitizing’. Besides, I doubt we have the firepower to take out everything. Best to get in and out with minimal casualties, instead of laying waste to everything and someone escapes to bring back word”.

    “And if they trace the operation back to us?”

    Sid sighed. That was always a possibility; and frankly, the more missions they went on, the more likely it was to happen. But then, they had already gone to great lengths to capture two of their team, so it was also clear that they already had a good idea about the situation. The worst was already upon them—though for some reason, they hadn’t bothered to let the rest of the universe know who they were.

    So perhaps the group targeting them wasn’t SPD proper, but some sort of black ops group, like an SPD equivalent to them? Thinking about *that* was absolutely terrifying, even if it almost certainly existed. At any rate, there was something here Sid wasn’t seeing, but then that seemed to be the status quo around this place. Sigh.

    He replied, “If it’s really SPD, then it could start a war”. The fact was sobering, but absolutely true. If they were somehow linked back to the Confederacy, then the Alliance wouldn’t hesitate to start the next great war—they’d been licking their wounds since losing the entire Local Cluster of galaxies; if they could claim a just war in order to extract vengeance, they’d be on that like crazy. But… “That said, since they went out of our way to take two of our people, I’m going to assume the cat’s already out of the bag. Otherwise, well…I’m hoping they’ll just chock it up to some renegade group and we can go lie low somewhere for a while after this”.

    Iota said nothing that might indicate approval or disagreement, instead he simply said, “Good luck”.

    Yeah. Luck. Sid grimaced as the armored figure left the room, before glancing back at Trok, who met his eyes with his own knowingly, before both returned to their duties.

    “You nervous?” Sid asked him.

    Trok paused, considering. He exhaled, “…You know, I just realized. On every mission up till now, Xolin’s been with me, even if she wasn’t physically next to me. She’d…always just be there, before the mission, preparing with me. Or over the communicator. Or right there fighting next to me”. He fidgeted with his hands, clearly distressed at the situation.

    Sid placed his hand on the kid’s shoulder comfortingly, “And she’ll be with us here too. We’ll get her back. Both of them”.

    Trok nodded with just a hint of hesitation, “…Yeah. This time, I’ll watch *her* back”.

    Iota’s voice came on over the comm, “Dropping out of hyperrush in fifteen seconds. Be ready to launch”.

    Sid nodded at his teammate, before morphing into the red ranger and mounting his skycycle. Trok did likewise, and a scant few seconds later they could feel the Megaship slowing to slower-than-light speeds. And a split second after that, the doors to the launch bay opened to the void of space.

    ---

    Informally, they called his lonely position ‘the crow’s nest’. There was some technical name for it, of course, like ‘astro-spacial lookout specialist’ or…something. Whatever, it wasn’t like anyone ever used the technical term, or like he cared. Basically, he was security’s ace in the hole; the guy who kept an eye on everything and made sure it all ran smoothly. It was quiet, it was out of the way, and it was how he liked it. Working for SPD’s black ops arm had its perks—especially when you weren’t the one working on the front lines, but instead in some backwater research station where nothing ever happened.

    So you could imagine his surprise when he console started beeping, alerting him to incoming hyperrush vibrations—unscheduled hyperrush vibrations. Hrn. He made ready to alert the base commander of the situation, when more alerts went off—unauthorized computer access down in the prison wing. He quickly scanned his eyes across the various camera feeds of the area, sighting the two perpetrators.

    …Wait, weren’t they the two terrorists they’d apprehended? He’d not known why they were so important to the brass, why they’d gone out of their way; deep into Confederate space to grab them, and why they hadn’t just executed them, but who was he to argue policy? But now they were out of their cages and making a play for escape. Immediately he sounded the alarms, sending a quick message to the commander. But before he could even finish the text, the console beeped again. He’d forgotten about the unscheduled warp signatures, and now he’d paid the price with an unregistered ship entering the immediate region.

    …And immediately four more vessels of similar size appeared around it on the sensor grid. They hadn’t warped in, they’d just…appeared. The ships were small, but…were those morphin’ energy readings they were giving off?

    …Uh oh. Those weren’t just ships. Those were zords. They had a small fleet of zords flying straight for them. *Shit*.

    As he panicked, he idly heard the sound of a laser pistol sending a guard to the ground, as on the camera feed the two prisoners began to storm their way through the base. Another beep alerted him to plumbing issues in the men’s bathroom on deck three.

    …See, most people said Mondays were terrible. No, Mondays just dragged a bit and were generally monotonous. But Thursdays? Thursdays friggin’ *sucked*.

    ---

    Twin skycycles, one red and the other green, soared out of the hanger bay of the Megaship, quickly veering off towards the station as the fleet moved into position against the defending forces—two large SPD ships of the line, each well over a kilometer in length. Their design was basic and utilitarian; blocky and boring with their color being a mixture of greys and black. In contrast, the forces opposing them were much smaller; each well under a hundred meters and sporting a verifiable rainbow of colors. The Defender Megaship, in black and gold, led the charge—followed by the four Guardian zords, in red, blue, green, and yellow.

    “SPD to unidentified vessels, you are within restricted astro-space. Stand down and prepare to be boarded. Failure to comply will result in immediate termination”.

    “Looks like we angered the hive” Sid mused, as he and Trok headed straight for the station. It, like the ships, was blocky and grey, essentially being a half-pyramid floating in space, with the area under the base curving down into a point.

    “I’ve got a lock on their position” Trok said, “Deck four”.

    “Then let’s go commit a jail break” Sid replied, as the two veered off.

    Above and behind them, the lightshow had begun. The zords were faster and more maneuverable, but the warships still had an advantage in sheer firepower. And since the zords couldn’t shoot to kill, they were essentially handicapped.

    Oh well, guess they just had to do this fast.

    The small fleet of zords whipped around the larger behemoths, avoiding the strafing beam fire and laser turrets as they closed in, returning fire on the enemy weapon systems.

    …And that was when the station’s hanger bay doors opened, and a swarm of enemy fighters began pouring out.

    “Oh” Sid muttered, feeling really stupid for not having considered this, “*Crap*”.

    ---

    They were making better time than she had thought they would. While Xolin still had to be supported by Sel’s weight, they’d already managed to make it half-way to their destination. It was, as best Xolin could figure, some sort of security locker room—predictable. She just wished the alarms would cut out already; it wasn’t like everyone in the base didn’t already know they’d broken loose by this point, anyway.

    Boom. Xolin knocked another errant guard down with another shot from her pistol as he had turned the corner. If Sel was the legs, Xolin had become her arms, running and gunning all the way to freedom. Though as they ran, Xolin began to realize she was feeling…well, better. Not even close to one hundred percent, but far better than she would figure she’d have to; she could almost *feel* energy seeping into her. She stole a glance at the woman supporting her body as they turned another corner. She couldn’t…could she?”

    “Hey, Sel?”

    “Yeah?” she asked back.

    Xolin struggled to format her question, knowing just how weird it was, “…I don’t suppose xybrians have any sort of healing powers, do they?”

    Sel blinked, almost stopping in confusion. “Um…not that I know of”. Her expression became a little more downcast—she was useless once again.

    “Oh” was all Xolin replied with, “Good to know”. Awkward. So very awkward.

    Boom. There went another guard. They set them up, she knocked them down. Boom, another one. Boom. Boom. Boom.

    “We should be almost there” Sel said matter-of-factly. Xolin was a bit surprised that she’d been able to memorize the layout of the base so well, but then the girl seemed to have her talents after all. Y’know, like how Xolin was *definitely* starting to feel better.

    Then the base shook.

    “Attention all hands. Five hostile megaships detected in our astrospace. Prepare to repel borders. Attention all hands…”

    The two girls looked at each other, stopping for a moment before Xolin paused to take out two more guards—one in front and one that had appeared behind. “Looks like the cavalry came” Xolin grinned, “Wanna bet they’re our ride?”

    Sel nodded hesitantly, a small smile forming on her face.

    Xolin smiled back, “Come on. Let’s get our gear and get out of here”.

    ---

    The sky was ablaze. For Trok it was almost overwhelming; all the fire and chaos around him. Sid veered away from an enemy fighter’s firing path, before unloading his own pepper fire on the opposing vessel. Its engines burst into flames as it spun out of control, ramming itself into its nearest ally.

    So much for no casualties. But then, that had always been more of an operational guideline than a hard-fast rule. One had to defend themselves, after all—Sid had been very clear on that before they had left.

    Above, the Megaship swung around into Megazord mode, its feet slamming down into the side of one of the warships as it pulled out its sword and charged at one of the weapon turrets. The turret was slashed in half, and the Megazord followed it up with a hit to another turret a few paces beyond as it kept running, before transforming back into ship mode and evading the return fire from other turrets.

    “Found a landing spot!” Sid said, just before another fighter was taken out of commission, “Follow me!”

    The two skycycles closed in on the space station, landing on its side and quickly attaching themselves to the hull. With a brief thought, the rangers activated the gravity boot systems in their suits—a helpful design feature in cases like this.

    Trok pulled a…well, a torch of sorts out from the back of his sky cycle, specially designed for cutting through hull plating. Ideally, when breaching a hull you’d have a dedicated assault pod, but the Megaship wasn’t equipped for, y’know, heavy war assault stuff, so they’d had to settle on something less impressive. Trok had cobbled it together about a month ago, just one of his personal projects that had actually bore fruit—though he’d never imagined they’d actually find a use for it.

    “Mind you, I have no clue where we’re going to end up once I punch through” the green ranger said.

    Sid shot at another fighter with his sidearm as it passed by, discouraging it from trying another strafing run. “As long as we’re close to the girls, it doesn’t matter”.

    “They’re on the move, you know” Trok replied. He’d been watching their signatures, and just shortly ago they’d begun to move.

    Sid kept firing, “Then we should probably make this quick. Give them an escape route and all that. Do your thing, I’ll play defense”.

    “Sid!” Trok called. The red ranger turned, and was greeted with Trok’s sidearm weapon landing itself in his hand. Sid nodded briefly, before turning back and unleashing double the fire he’d been capable of a second ago. Just then, the blue guardian zord brushed past just overhead, causing the fighter swarm of disperse and regroup, before engaging the larger craft.

    Trok took the torch and extended its legs, letting them attach to the hull, before turning the device on and letting it drill a hole into the armor of the station—all the while trying his best not to think about the fact that any second he could be vaporized by an incoming fightercraft.

    He failed in his second objective.

    ---

    Xolin was *definitely* feeling better. She was now supporting her own weight, for one. Sel had seemed skeptical when Xolin told her to put her down—and even Xolin had half thought she was crazed, but here she was, keeping pace with Sel as they neared their destination.

    One lone guard stood in their way in front of the door…which of course was unfortunate for him, as he soon discovered when his head was slammed into said door and he immediately lost all awareness of everything.

    “This lock requires a handprint signature” Sel said, noting the device on the door. In response, Xolin simply pulled the glove off the downed guard’s right hand, and then stuck it onto the lock. Immediately it opened. She then let the body drop to the ground, giving Sel a look that explained she was quite pleased with herself, before further opening the vault and entering the room. Sel looked down at the body, then stepped over it before following Xolin.

    “A question” Sel stated, as Xolin scanned the small room with her gun, just to make sure the coast was clear.

    “Hm?”

    Sel hesitated. How to ask this without…well, messing it up? “You…hrn”.

    Xolin glanced back at her, seeing the indecision on her face, “Oh, just ask. I hate it when people beat around the bush”.

    Sel grimaced, “…You said they weren’t after me. So why wasn’t I being interrogated?”

    Xolin paused. That *was* a good question, and one she’d idly wondered herself. SPD’s goals, in what limited context she’d gotten, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. If they knew who they were, then how didn’t they know who commanded them? And if they were looking for information, why *not* go after Sel, who was easily viewable as the more break-able of the two?

    Whatever. They could sort it out later, when they were safe back home.

    “I don’t know” she said, “These people haven’t really given me a lot to work with”. Secrets. Always more secrets hiding from her. She was starting to hate her job; she liked things to be straightforward and blunt. But her job had only served to reinforce how little she knew about anything. All this damned sneaking around…

    Xolin eyed the two morphers sitting in the center table of the room, which was some kind of small armory. Aside from their morphers, numerous other artifacts and weapons could be found hanging from the wall, or in cases, all along the edge of the small room. Consolation prizes from other prisoners, perhaps? Or science projects of some kind? Maybe both?

    Meh.

    Xolin took the butt of her pistol and smashed the clear case containing their morphers. More alarms sounded of course, but you could barely hear them over the symphony of existing ones. It didn’t matter now anyway; because for the first time since coming here, Xolin finally felt safe again. She pressed the button on her morpher.

    …And nothing. Damn.

    “They’ve still got a dampening device running somewhere” she hissed, before slamming her fists down on the table. “Damnit!”

    “Hang on” Sel cautioned. She was already at a console in the corner of the room, operating away.

    “…What are you doing?” Xolin asked.

    Sel said nothing, instead just continuing to work. Xolin tried to be patient, but her annoyance grew and grew as Sel just continued to work. Then, just before Xolin was about to speak up again—far more cross this time, a console in the far corner of the room opened, revealing a small device inside.

    “I thought the dampening field might still be employed, so I tracked it down when I was at the map console earlier, and got the codes before they started locking everything down”.

    “…They didn’t have any sort of protection on it before lockdown?” asked Xolin, *very* surprised.

    “They did, just not as much”.

    “You can hack?!”

    Sel rubbed her arm self-conciously, “I…maybe? I don’t know. Things just sort of...appear”.

    Xolin blinked. What kind of…she had some sort of computer interfacing powers too? What was *with* this girl? “…What *are* you?” she asked in disbelief.

    Sel looked down, and Xolin knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Really, she’d probably known it was a bad move from the get-go, but she couldn’t help herself.

    She put up her hands in protest, “…Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant like…you’ve got abilities. Powers. I’m just kind of…in awe, I guess”.

    “I thought I was useless” Sel muttered.

    Xolin’s expression became downcast, “…I was wrong. I’m sorry. I was frustrated and…well, I’m not exactly a people person. But you’re not useless. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have made it this far”.

    Neither looked at the other, the entire situation becoming incredibly tense and awkward. Thankfully, that was when more guards finally made it to the entrance of the room. The two rangers finally made brief eye contact; they’d have to deal with this later.

    “Put your weapons down and your hands where we can see them” the lead guard ordered, his own weapon aimed directly at them. In one fluid motion, Xolin’s gun-wielding arm swung around, opening a volley of shots at the anti-ranger device. It exploded in a shower of sparks, and at that very same moment Xolin’s other hand had clasped itself around her morpher, her finger desperately pressing the button over and over.

    In a flash of blue light, Xolin had been replaced by the blue peacekeeper ranger. Swinging back around in a three sixty degree motion, she pulled her own sidearm out of its holster and with both guns opened fire on the guards. A flash of yellow, and her accomplice rammed herself into the opposing force.

    “What the—” the lead guard had little time to contemplate his sudden reversal in fortune as Xolin’s foot found itself planted firmly in his cheek, a split second before his body hit the floor. The guards hadn’t stood a chance. It felt good to be ranger’d up again; Xolin had felt rather vulnerable here without super-powered armor to break things with. Good thing that was over.

    “How far away is the launch bay?” she asked the yellow ranger.

    Sel mused, for just a second, “…That way. Two decks down, four sections over”.

    Xolin grimaced, but braced herself, “Long trip, huh? Fine, lead the way. And don’t stop; if anyone gets in your way, take ‘em down, fast and hard”.

    Sel nodded wordlessly, and the two rangers were off once again.

    ---

    This was taking longer than he would have liked. SPD built their bases to last; that was for sure, but Trok was beginning to sweat under his helmet as he slowly but carefully continued to burn a hole through the station’s armor. Idly, he paused to check the status of the girls on his morpher’s holographic display.

    …Uh oh.

    “Uh, Sid?” he asked, concern rising in his voice, “We got a problem”.

    “That’s not what I like to hear!” replied the red ranger, as he hit the engine on another fightercraft.

    Trok glanced down at his display, just to make sure he was correct in what he was seeing, “Um…well, good news, the girls morphed; I’m detecting morphin’ energies. Bad news, they’re on the move again”.

    “Towards where!?”

    “Um…I dunno, I don’t have detailed schematics of the base!”

    Sid cursed under his breath. So predictably, that was when a large ship dropped out of hyperrush. A *very* large ship, at least three kilometers in length, and very much SPD in design—a battleship. Almost upon arrival, its bay doors opened and fighters began pouring out, even as its weapons charged up and opened fire on the opposing force.

    “…Shit!”

    Iota’s voice sounded from their morphers, “We can’t keep this up. ETA?”

    Sid glanced at Trok and the torch, then at the battle above, before looking at his own holographic display. He was going to have to take an educated guess. A risk. Yay.

    “…Give me five minutes” he said, before terminating the communication link. He called back to the green ranger, “Trok, pack that sucker up and let’s go! We’re heading for the fighter bay”.

    “But it’s over halfway done!” Trok protested.

    Sid shook his head, “No time! Come on!”

    Trok’s shoulders sagged as he grumbled, turning the device off before retracting the tripod stands. Sid kept the incoming fighters busy as best he could—thankfully most were still occupied with the zords…though he could tell from here that the team was taking a beating. In fact—yep. A sudden burst of red light indicated that his own Guardian zord had been recalled to the Megaship; too much damage. The others were likely to follow soon. He just hoped he was right about Xolin and Sel’s intended destination.

    ---

    The two rangers were a storm. Together they were simply too much for the poor guards who had only been prepped to deal with experiments and unruly prisoners, not a friggin’ assault team. And considering the fact that the base was actual under attack, this meant that what forces they did encounter were mostly frazzled and confused.

    In other words, things were awesome.

    The doors from the hallway to the hanger bay blew apart.

    “Hey kids!” Xolin yelled cheerfully at the various guards and technicians working on the remaining few craft that hadn’t been scrambled for the space battle outside, “’Sup?”

    Immediately the guards moved to intercept, as the two rangers countered. Xolin charged in, lance in hand, as she dodged laser bullets and swung in, taking out two of the guards in rapid succession, before leaping up and coming down on a third. The pure chaos she was creating was perfect for Sel, who opened fire with her blade bow, picking off unsuspecting guards who were otherwise preoccupied with the berserker blue ranger.

    As Xolin flipped back towards Sel, she drew her sidearm as she motioned her other weapon at the yellow ranger, then at the opposing, disorganized force, “Single shot. Do it”.

    Sel glanced at the lance, then nodded as she knew what Xolin was getting at. She gripped the weapon, sliding it into her bow’s firing slot, aimed as the two weapons powered up, and fired. The lance, currently a blue-colored laser shot, cut right into the SPD group, the resulting explosion causing them to be flung about and away, many of them collapsing uselessly on the ground.

    But as Xolin’s weapon flung itself back to her hands, she realized something was off—more guards were pouring in, both from elsewhere in the hangerbay, and from behind them, from the hallway. Very soon the two rangers found themselves heavily outnumbered. Xolin joked to herself that they’d finally gotten the attention of every remaining guard in the base…though, that was probably true.

    Joking aside, she knew they were in trouble. The guards from the hallway had taken the time to arm up—larger guns, heavier armor, more resembling an elite, black-clad form of SPD’s E-squad grunt soldiers than the simple security guards they’d been facing.

    “Surrender or die” was the simple command given by the lead soldier.

    Xolin’s voice turned serious as the two rangers moved up, back to back against each other, “…Sel. I’ll carve a path for you. Get to a ship and *run*”.

    Sel looked around at the situation. It was bad; no disagreements there. But she could probably do it; the guards on her end, who had assembled from the fighter bay, were just regular guards. They were the weak links in the force that had encircled them. But she couldn’t. No, she *wouldn’t*.

    “No”.

    Xolin turned her head, incensed, “…Uh, that wasn’t a suggestion. Get your ass to a ship and get out of here. That’s an order”. She couldn’t *believe* they were about to have a repeat of what had happened on Telleros. After everything that happened…of all the bullshit…augh!

    But Sel wasn’t budging. It wasn’t hesitation or uncertainty, not like last time. No, this was determination. This was certainty. “I’m not leaving you behind. I won’t betray my team either”.

    Xolin blinked in surprise, recalling their conversation earlier, in the prison cell. Trok would have done the same thing too. A small smile crossed her face as she turned back to the encircling hoard. She understood.

    “…Watch my back, huh?”

    Sel allowed herself a small satisfied smile as well as she brandished her weapon, waiting to fire.

    “Put your weapons down!” the lead soldier commanded again, more angrily this time, “This is your final warning!”

    Xolin cocked her head, “…Make me”.

    The shooting began immediately, but Xolin was ready. She’d split into three forms, her middle one keeping the laser fire from getting through to her and Sel by deflecting it with her lance. The other two flanked the unprepared soldiers as she slammed right into them, sidearms in sword mode at the ready. Sel and the remaining Xolin swung around, blue deflecting and yellow firing with her bow at the enemy forces while they dealt with the melee Xolin fighters.

    Unfortunately, the element of surprise provided by Xolin’s trick didn’t last, and since the three Xolins were weaker than the real thing…well, it didn’t take long for her two meleeing forms to get knocked back in a daze by the firepower aimed at them, reverting back into the remaining Xolin. Soon after, Sel was shot in the chest, the yellow ranger sparking before being knocked into a bunch of crates.

    “Sel!” Xolin cried out, just before going down herself. The blue ranger tumbled, having been shot in the back multiple times now that she was completely surrounded and alone. She struggled to pull herself back up, but although she was feeling way better than earlier, her body still hadn’t recovered from the interrogation, and she’d only managed to get into a pull-up by the time the SPD soldiers encircled her with their guns. Behind them, she could see them doing the same to Sel.

    Damnit.

    “Power down and hand your morpher over” the lead soldier commanded her, “Failure to comply will result in your immediate termination”.

    So. This was how it ended. She wasn’t going back to the cell to await more interrogation; she knew that much. And she knew at this point that Sel wouldn’t go for it either. Pity, she really wished Sel would have listened to her—though she wasn’t complaining.

    …Well okay, maybe she’d complain a *little*. She was about to die, after all. She gripped her weapon tighter, getting ready to spring into action.

    The rushing sound of an engine and the gasps from the guards alerted her to a change in fortune. Looking up, she wasn’t quite sure how to process what she saw. She had been about to *die*. No help was coming, no salvation was henceforth. Yet, there Sid was, riding his skycycle, hovering in the fighter bay over the arrayed enemy.

    “I have a proposal” Sid said, “You let them go, and I don’t set this room on fire”. As if to punctuate his point, Trok rode up right behind him on his own skycycle. “…Do I make myself clear?”

    The lead soldier replied, aiming his gun at the red ranger, “…You’re bluffing. Hit us, and you’ll risk hitting them as well” he motioned at Xolin.

    Sid said nothing, instead rising up above Trok so he could get a better shot, while priming his weapons. A single shot fired out, hitting the floor between a number of guards. Their bodies were sent flying in multiple directions. Taking advantage of the momentary chaos, Xolin drew her sidearm blade, sweep-kicking the nearest soldier before wheeling back to her feet. She grasped both of her weapons tightly in her hands as she swung around, cutting into the opposition. Several sounds of laser blasts firing clued her in to the fact that Sel had followed her lead. Within a few seconds, the confused guards surrounding them were down, and few in general remained standing at all.

    “…Shall we…elaborate?” Sid asked. The lead soldier grunted in frustration as he looked around, realizing he was outmatched and outflanked; Xolin and Sel had pointed their weapons at him, and both Sid and Trok hovered above and in front, cannons primed. He shook his head; to continue would be suicide, for both him and his men.

    “…Everyone…pull out” he said reluctantly. The guards and soldiers, most of them having just been tossed around like ragdolls, awkwardly piled out, carrying with them the bodies of those who were dazed or unconscious. The lead was the last to go, glaring at the team of rangers before backing away into the hallway himself. Sid and Trok landed their cycles.

    “You girls need a lift?” Sid asked good-naturedly.

    Xolin chuckled, “You’re late”.

    Sid scoffed, “Late? We got here *literally* as fast as the universe would physically allow us”.

    “Er…” Trok interjected, “The Hyperrush 10 engine is actually technically in beta trials, and the Megaship can only go hyperrush nine”.

    Sid glanced over at him, “Hey, Trok?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Shut up”.

    The group all laughed, Sel included. Xolin moved over to Trok, hugging the green ranger tightly before hopping on his cycle behind him, “Holy crap, you have no idea how good it is to see you guys”.

    “Bad day?” Trok asked.

    Xolin snorted, “Let’s just go home, huh?”

    “I like that plan” Sid replied, then motioned to Sel, “Come on, princess. Let’s do what she says”.

    Sel nodded, hopping on Sid’s craft…just as she heard a slow clapping noise. The others heard it too. All four looked over at the hallway door. Standing there was a human male, mid-thirties, with a business suit and…a briefcase. Xolin’s eyes widened.

    “…The man with the briefcase” she said. Trok looked at her in astonishment, then at the man. Holy crap.

    “Well done” the man said, pushing his glasses up towards his face, “Truly, a spectacular performance by everyone involved. This round goes to you. Normally I’d have just left, but I wanted a good at the heroes themselves”.

    Sid gripped the handles of his cycle as he gritted his teeth. By all accounts he was just a normal man, if somewhat anachronistic, but something about him weirded him out. Something was…off. Maybe it was simply the fact that he was just…out of place, but Sid was definitely a tad unsettled. “Who are you, and what do you want with us?”

    The man looked at Sel, who recoiled a bit, then back at Sid, “I think we all know what I want. As for who I am…consider me a messenger of sorts. Beyond that, well, spoilers aren’t really my thing”.

    “…It’s you” Sel whispered, slightly frantic, “The one from Onyx”.

    “Ah, you remember me! I’m pleased” the man said, with fake polite enthusiasm.

    “You’re not getting her” Xolin said firmly, “So just keep walking”.

    The man smirked, “Today I’m not. But someday…well, I’m a patient person. Again, congratulations. We’ll meet again soon”. He turned to leave, but stopped, “Oh, I almost forgot” he said, an unsettling smile brushing across his face, “Sel. The Knowing Eye Sleeps”. With that, the man turned and left, briefcase in hand. Sid noticed Sel was now shivering.

    “…Are you okay?” he asked, concerned.

    She nodded, getting ahold of herself as best she could. She’d just experienced…flashes. Of what, she couldn’t say, but it almost felt like…that day, in the mindscape. She didn’t know what the ‘Waking Eye’ was, but… “He’s…wrong, somehow. I can’t explain it, but he feels wrong” she whispered. Sid and Xolin shared a brief glance, before Sid again turned to where the man had been.

    It had been a very weird, and incredibly stressful day.

    “Iota to ranger team. Guardian zords are all incapacitated and have been returned to the ship. You’d better be ready to get back onboard, because we have run out of time”.

    “Roger that” Sid replied, “We got what we came for and are ready to get the hell out of here”.

    “Approaching fighter bay in fifteen seconds. Get ready”.

    Sid nodded to the others as his skycycle rose up into the air once more, “Let’s go home”.

    The two skycycles made a turnabout towards the hanger doors, zooming through the protective force field that kept the station from depressurizing, just as the black and gold vessel they called home soared past, allowing them to quickly dock within its side. Seconds later, the Defender Megaship, under heavy fire but still intact, jumped to hyperrush speeds, escaping to fight another day.

    ---

    “This sucks”

    “Ah, it’s not so bad” Sid said to Trok. The four rangers currently stood within engineering; the entire room was a wreck, just like the rest of the ship. It had survived intact, sure, but it had still taken a heavy pounding, and numerous systems were damaged or inoperative, and debris littered the ship’s interior. “Some new carpet, a paint job, we’ll be good to go”.

    “It’ll be ages before we can get back to a friendly port” Xolin sighed, “With SPD on our tail, we can’t go back to Confederate space without them knowing”.

    “It’ll be sooner than you think” Sid replied, a bit more serious this time, “I can’t imagine SPD will tail us for too long. Mr. Briefcase will probably move on to someone else, just like last time. A few days I’d say, and then we’re in the clear”.

    She grimaced as she checked out one of the power converter boxes on the wall to make sure it was intact, “…Yeah, can we talk about him for a minute? Because he gave me the creeps”.

    “He felt wrong” Sel said, quiet.

    Xolin looked over at her as the xybrian stopped what she had been doing—evidently moving some debris out of the way so they could get closer to some of the engineering consoles. “Yeah, you mentioned that. How do you mean?”

    “I…” she shrugged helplessly, “I don’t know. He just…does. Like he’s not supposed to be. Or maybe he always was”.

    Xolin narrowed her eyes, “…Yeah, that’s not unsettling”.

    Trok put his hand on Sel’s shoulder, “You’re safe now though, right? Here, with us, I mean”.

    “Count on it” Xolin replied, checking the wires inside the converter now, before shutting the box, satisfied, “No one messes with this team and gets away with it”. Sel broke into a smile.

    “That still leaves his goals open” Sid interjected, “Beyond his interest in Sel, we haven’t a clue what’s going on”.

    Xolin thought for a moment, “…It doesn’t matter. He’s the bad guy, we’re the good guys. If his goals are important, we’ll find out what they are when it’s time”.

    “You sound fairly confident”.

    She shrugged as she took a look at the room as a whole, “…Call it faith. I’m gonna go see how bad the situation is in the medbay, if that’s okay with everyone”.

    Sid nodded, “We should probably split up and do some heavy damage reporting anyway. I’ll go take stock of the workbay. God forbid the synthatron got hit”.

    “Mmm. Might actually have to go cook for once” Xolin mused as she exited the room.

    “…With what?!” Sid asked, following her, stepping over some debris as he did so. He noted that some of the lights here were out and would need to be checked later. “Megaships don’t exactly come with kitchens!”

    “…We still got that plasma torch!” Trok called to them.

    Sid turned back, “That’s not even funny!”

    ---

    Medbay was a mess, like the rest of the ship. Not like, super-destroyed, but enough chaos littered the room that it was going to take some serious cleaning up before she was able to really even figure out the damage report. Xolin sighed, bending over to pick up one of the shelving units—the ship must have really been rattled hard for the inertia to overcome the internal dampeners.

    “Hey”

    Xolin turned her head back towards the door. Standing there was Sel, looking just a little awkward. Oh boy. Xolin steeled herself for what she knew was coming next.

    “We never finished talking…did we?” Sel asked, quietly.

    Xolin chuckled darkly to herself as she sat down on the medical bed, “No. No, I guess we didn’t”. An uneasy silence settled down on the two of them. Finally, Xolin spoke, “I meant what I said. The second time, I mean” she amended quickly, “I never would have made it off that station without your help. So…thanks”.

    Sel shook her head, “I never would have made it off by myself either, so…then maybe we’re both useless”.

    Xolin, to Sel’s surprise, laughed. “No, no. That just…that just means we’re teammates. We’re useful to each other, and I…I forget that sometimes. Usually, actually. Bad habit” she looked Sel dead in the eyes, the mirth gone, “You’re not useless, and neither am I”.

    Sel looked away, unsure of what to do in this situation, her hand grazing her other arm in self-consciousness. Xolin smiled, “…You wanna help me get this room up and running again?”

    The xybrian looked back at her, and after a moment a second smile formed as she entered the room to help Xolin pull up a second shelving unit.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  9. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.08: BROKEN KARMA

    His room was…full, Sel decided. Full looked seemed like the right word to use. His room was full. The small dwelling was filled to the brim with…well, many things. There was the ‘trophy case’, as Trok had explained it, where he’d take something from every world and/or mission if he could, and place them all on his shelf. Right now the collection was a rather unimpressive mass of rocks, assorted junk, and the occasional souvenir from the local gift shop; apparently the only things Trok could get his hands on while on-mission—especially since monsters tended to not leave much behind when they blew up.

    Then there was the stuff he’d brought from home. Assorted Horathean cultural stuff; robes and blankets, ancestral tokens, and just assorted stuff she had no idea.

    And finally, the bulk of the…stuff: his extensive collection of inventions. All the stuff he’d been working on since coming aboard. Some of it were old devices he’d found places and tried to fix them up or improve them, while others were ones he’d built from scratch with spare parts. She recognized a couple of them; one sitting on the shelf was one of the dampening pylons they’d used on the shapeshifter a couple months back.

    “So, what do you think?” the aforementioned horathean asked his friend.

    Sel tilted her head, unsure, “It’s…nice”. Maybe this had been a bad idea. She’d asked him about what kinds of hobbies people were into in her ongoing quest to figure herself out, and his eyes had just lit up—maybe she should have taken the sign when she’d seen it.

    Trok hopped inside, over a small junk pile of metal and wires on the floor, over to where his bed was. Sel didn’t follow, instead staying near the door, eying the mess around her. It was a little overwhelming. “So…you work on these kinds of things a lot, huh?” she asked idly.

    Trok didn’t notice her hesitation, instead digging back behind his bed for something, “Yep! Like, a lot of them don’t...exactly…work per say, but its good experience” he paused, “I think. Oh, here we go!” He pulled a device about the size of his head out from the back of the room.

    “…What is it?” Sel asked as Trok made his way back over, dodging things on the floor as he did, “…Is all this safe?”

    Trok followed the gaze of her eyes, noting the mess on his floor. He shrugged sheepishly, “Eh…maybe a little. I’m usually good at avoiding it in the middle of the night”.

    “’Usually’?” asked Sel.

    Trok shrugged again, then his smile returned as he held up his chosen piece of hardware. It looked…retro maybe? Like it should be powered by vacuum tubes and be used as a prop in old black and white serial productions. She gazed quizzically at it, as well as his excited, goofy smile. “Meet the Toasterizer six thousand!”

    “The what”.

    “It makes toast!” Trok’s grin was unbaiting.

    Sel blinked, “…We have a synathron”.

    “Yep!”

    “It makes any kind of food you can program into it”.

    “Yep!”

    “Toasters exist”.

    Trok rose his finger in knowing protest, “Yes, however! Most toasters are analog. This beauty is all-digital! It’s got a Virtual Intelligence system that makes sure the bread is crisp and browned evenly, not leaving anything to chance!”

    Sel’s eye contact shifted between Trok and his device, not sure if she’d lost her mind, or if Trok had. “Um…”

    “Here, I’ll show you!” Trok said, fiddling with the controls. He pulled a piece of bread out from a compartment in the side of the device—evidently something he’d created from the synthatron. Throwing it into the toaster’s main slot, he pulled the lever down, and let it go.

    That quickly turned out to be a mistake, as the bread promptly burst into an open flame, the machine sparking and sputtering. Trok dropped it on the ground in a fit of shock and surprise.

    “AH!” both of them shouted, equally shocked as black smoke began to billow out of the ruined contraption.

    “Uh…” Trok began panicking a bit, “Quick, the fire extinguisher!”

    Sel looked around frantically at the maddening collection, “Which one’s that?!”

    Trok shook his head, “Not mine, the one on the wall!”

    Oh, right. *Duh*. Sel grabbed the extinguisher from outside the door. She wielded awkwardly in her hands, “Now what?!”

    Trok’s hands scratched along his reptilian scalp in terror as the fire began to spread to the carpet, “Use it! Use it!”

    “HOW!?” she yelled.

    “…YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO USE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER?!” Trok shouted back, their voices by now a crescendo of absolute terror and panic. She shook her head numbly, as Trok moved over towards here, “LIKE THIS!” he grabbed the extinguisher, but the two fumbled, pulling in different directions. Sel tripped over one of Trok’s devices on the floor, and the two came tumbling down on one another. And a split second later, the entire room was filled with foam—the extinguisher having ruptured and exploded everywhere after being pierced on the way down. Fragments of foam floated lazily down to the floor around them as they lay in a stunned heap, the fire in front of them having been completely smothered.

    A second later, and the room’s sprinkler system came on. The two rangers turned to the other, and for a moment said nothing in stunned silence. Then they began to laugh, small at first, before it grew into an unstoppable symphony of noise. They almost didn’t hear the beeping on Trok’s desktop.

    “…You have a message” Sel said, finally getting her giggles under control—it had felt good. Strange, but good. Really good. The two untangled each other and got up, wiping off the foam as best they could; they’d need a good shower and fresh clothes. Trok limped over to his computer and started it up from its idle mode.

    “Why?” she asked him, sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position.

    “…Why what?” he asked.

    She shrugged, “Your…hobby. Synthatrons already exist. I guess I just…I don’t get why you build things that have little practical use”.

    He grinned at her sheepishly, “Some of my things have practical use! As for the rest…I dunno, I just like to tinker. It doesn’t matter if it works out or not, as long as you enjoy yourself while you do it”

    “Hmmm” she mused. How strange, doing things without any practical benefit. Strange yet…curious. Tinkering. Maybe she *should* try it.

    Trok meanwhile pulled up his email and began reading. His face quickly paled, the smile completely wiped from it.

    ---

    “Wait, you want us to go where?”

    Trok groaned. This was *not* a conversation he wanted to ever have. Yet, here he was. It was all just so surreal and weird; he almost didn’t even think it was happening. He grimaced at Sid’s question as the entire team, Iota included, sat around the central table in the briefing room.

    “Horath” Trok repeated. The word felt weird coming off his tongue, just like that. Horath, his home. The place he never in a million years ever thought he would be able to come back to—or want to.

    “Why?” asked Xolin quizzically. She didn’t know his full story, but she still knew that he and his homeworld weren’t on speaking terms.

    Trok fidgeted with his fingers in a nervous fit as he pondered his next move. “…Because…this morning I got a message”. He took a deep sigh, bringing up his personal email account on the computer interface in front of him. Soon, a holographic display of the message flashed across everyone else’s interfaces. They began reading, their expressions shifting as they did. Trok braced himself; the cat was out of the bag, and now all he could do was wait for the oncoming storm.

    Sid muttered as he skimmed the contents of the letter, his voice getting louder and more confused as he continued, “…request your presence…charged with murder…trial will convene?!” he looked up at Trok, then down at the letter, then back up again. Similar looks of shock emanated from Xolin and even Sel as well. Trok felt tiny.

    Sid was having particular trouble wrapping this around his little mortal mind. He kept shifting his view between the words ‘charged with murder’ and the normally happy-go-lucky teen in front of him. Finally, he managed to croak out a single word, “…What?”

    “…Khan Resh?” Xolin sputtered as she continued to reread the message, “You…you assassinated a clan leader?!”

    Trok looked away, “He…was my dad”.

    Xolin glared at him incredulously as the bombshells kept on dropping. Was it April Fools, and no one told her? “You…you’re royalty?”

    “Not exactly. It’s not like that” Trok muttered, “It was—is—just a small clan”.

    Sid had his head in the palms of his hands. He was done. He was just…so done, with everything. Ever.

    Xolin did her best to process this deluge of confusing and overwhelming information. “…Okay. Let’s uh…” she slid back in her chair, a bit dazed, “Let’s…take this from the top. *Why* did you kill your dad?”

    Trok scratched at his leg absentmindedly, “…I didn’t kill him. I mean, legally I did, but…”

    “As…opposed to…?” Sid asked, waiting for an explanation.

    Trok exhaled, slumping back, “Clan law on Horath maintains that the accused are guilty until proven innocent. Guilt *must* be assigned, or else karma is out of balance. Even if I didn’t do it, until it’s proven otherwise, I must carry the burden”.

    “Okay, okay” Sid sat up, “Let’s…how about you start at the beginning, before I go absolutely batshit crazy?”

    “Hrn…” Trok withdrew, “I don’t…I don’t like talking about this”. A hand grasped his own; Xolin gave him a rare, but warm smile.

    “…Trok, we want to help, but we need to know what’s going on”.

    Trok sighed, nodding reluctantly. Xolin let go of his hand as he settled into his chair, trying to figure out where to start. “I…was the son of Khan Resh, of the Clan Tesei. Nothing big, just a few hundred people. Horath is…it’s a desert. Like, mostly sand and rock, with just a few oases. So, most of us are traveling nomads, because the climate—”.

    “Trok, you’re stalling” Xolin muttered.

    He sighed again, “Okay, so…my parents died. I got blamed, and that’s why I’m not there anymore”.

    Sid’s fingers brushed through his hair, “…Why?”

    “I killed them” Trok shrugged.

    Xolin shook her head, “You said you didn’t”.

    “Legally, I did”.

    “No, that’s…” Sid felt a bit like screaming, “No. Either you did or you didn’t, there’s no ‘technicality’ here. How did they die, exactly?”

    “…I don’t know the details” Trok said at last. “Poison of some sort. But Horathean culture is…karma must be maintained. Someone has to take the fall, or else it’s all out of balance. I got pegged, and…well…”

    “Who pegged you?” asked Sid.

    “My older brother, Shu. He’s…not the nicest person”.

    Xolin and Sid glanced at each other. Sid grimaced, phrasing this as carefully as possible, “Is…it possible…that your brother was responsible?”

    Trok shrugged, “I’m not allowed to say. Karma dictates it was me”.

    “But it wasn’t” Sel spoke up, soft, “I don’t understand”.

    Xolin smiled sadly, “It’s a cultural thing, I think. One of those things we just have to take as it is” she sighed, pondering, “Okay, so, I assume he exiled you. Why bring you back home?”

    Trok shook his head, “He didn’t actually have the ability to exile me. Not alone. I was never formally charged, we just…both decided I should flee and hope for the best while he took over. To charge and convict me as a member of the Khan’s family, they’d need to assemble the Council”.

    “…Council?” asked Sid. Sigh, politics.

    “The Council of Khans” Trok clarified, “It’s not all Clans, just those of us in the Shian Wastes. Sort of a formal alliance of sorts”.

    “And they finally tracked you down” Xolin surmised. Trok nodded wordlessly.

    “Okay…” Sid said, thinking this over, “So…at the risk of sounding uncaring…what’s the problem? They’ve requested your presence, so what? You’re still out of their reach”.

    Trok’s hands, cupped together on the table, squeezed together again.

    “…Trok?” asked Xolin, concerned.

    Trok sighed again, “…Karma must be maintained. If I cannot be brought to justice, someone else must carry the blame. And since I’m the son of the Khan, and I killed the Khan, my karma is worth far more than just one commoner”.

    The others swallowed, digesting the situation. Sid managed to speak first, for everyone else as they realized the situation, “…Shit”.

    Trok nodded, “Yeah. The rule of Karma is absolute. If it is not obeyed, then the balance is upset. If the balance is upset…” he trailed off hopelessly.

    “How many?” asked Sid.

    Trok swallowed, “…A dozen, maybe? Maybe more” Sid’s eyes squinted shut.

    “That’s messed up” Xolin whispered.

    Trok glared at her out of the corner of his eye, “That’s my culture”.

    Xolin cringed, “Sorry”.

    Eying Trok, Sid exhaled, “Okay, so…what can we expect will happen if we *do* go?”

    “What do you think?” Trok asked, “I’ll be found guilty and executed”.

    The five of them sat quietly for a moment, weighing their options. Finally, Sid spoke up, “…We have to go”. Everyone looked up at him, with varying degrees of concern, shock, or horror.

    “But…they’ll kill me” Trok whispered.

    “If we don’t, they’ll kill innocent people” Xolin sighed, understanding Sid’s decision, now that she’d gotten over her initial shock.

    Sid’s expression was steeled, he definitely had issues with his own decision. But when he looked at Trok, he put on his best smile, “Dude, we’ll figure it out. We’ll find some loophole, or find out who really did it, or…something”.

    “We will?” asked Xolin, unsure of this.

    “We will” Sid replied, turning to Xolin with a determined expression. Xolin nodded hesitantly, knowing better than to get in the way when Sid got like this. He was going to do it, so by the trinity, he was going to do it.

    “One problem” Iota spoke, for the first time since this meeting had begun, “We’re still on a no-fly list within Confederate space. If SPD tracks us—”.

    Sid waved him off, “SPD picked Xolin and Sel up within Confederate territory; they already know we operate there. And even if they didn’t, it’s been almost a week and a half; I think they let us go when we left their territory. And if you’re worried about the ship, we patched her up best we could. At this point, we’d need actual shipyard maintenance to ding out the remaining damage”.

    Iota stared at him, “…Very well. But if it looks as though Trok is to be convicted, I reserve the right to pull us out”.

    “Over a dozen innocents will die” Sid said, plainly, even as he knew the implications of his statement; even as he knew how horrible that was—he was basically offering up Trok as a sacrificial lamb. He hated himself for it.

    “So which track will you allow the trolley to take?” asked Iota. Sid was a bit taken aback, but Sid nothing as he looked away, sufficiently chastised. Xolin eyed the two of them, unsure of the meaning of that exchange, but let it go.

    “I’ll…be in my room” Trok muttered, getting out of his seat. The others watched him go, the depression in the air palatable. Iota got up next, leaving just the three rangers. Sid lay his forehead in his palm.

    “I’m a monster” he whispered, his voice strained.

    Xolin slumped, “…Wanting to save twelve people doesn’t make you a monster”. She meant that earnestly; even if she was appalled at the whole situation, she couldn’t fault Sid for at least seeing how messed up this whole thing was.

    Sid said nothing, instead getting up and leaving himself. Xolin grimaced as he left. Today really sucked.

    ---

    Studying had never been Sid’s forte. Even in the academy, he’d always been smart enough that he was able to mostly just breeze through class. So like, when faced with actual studying, he’d just blank out, freeze up. He hated it. It’s like his mind would just…shut down. He’d get tired and drowsy and preoccupied and he just…hated it. And there were too many pavlovian memories of the few times he DID have to study as a kid, and he just hated the feeling of starting at a computer screen with a deadline ahead of him.

    Blech. Why had he decided to do this? His fingers rushed through his hair in aggravation. He knew *nothing* about horathean tribal law. He’d come up with a bunch of fun stuff though; stuff he *didn’t* know. The kind of stuff you could impress people with at parties. Did you know post-industrial horathan civilization was limited to the giant underground caverns—the few areas where water existed in plentiful amounts? They existed as a loose alliance of citystates, supplying and aiding the surface tribal clans, who in turn fed them and supplied them with things that could only be gathered on the surface. Very…H.G. Wells, but with more cooperation instead of cannibalism.

    Fun!

    Also completely useless. Sigh.

    A chime sounded at his door. His eyebrow arched in surprise, “…Come in”.

    The door opened, revealing Xolin. She gracefully entered the room, before sitting down on Sid’s bed behind him, a laptop device in her hands. “How’s your search been going?”

    “Bad” he muttered, spinning his chair around, “…Didn’t know you were going over it too” he added in surprise at the appearance of her laptop.

    She glared, “Why wouldn’t I? He’s my teammate too. Or are you still under the delusion that you have to do everything alone?”

    Sid sighed, he’d probably deserved that, “No, no. That’s…forget it. How’s it going on your end?”

    She shook her head, depressed, “Nothing” she looked down at her holoscreen as she typed through her windows, “It doesn’t help that every clan and alliance has their own variations of creeds and codes and…” she sighed, “I can’t make heads or tails of this. I’m not a lawyer”.

    “Invoke the rite of the Ser’kai”.

    Both rangers turned to Sid’s door, where now Sel was standing, her own holo-laptop in her hands.

    “Come again?” Sid asked, the confusion clear on both their faces.

    Sel walked into the room, sitting down next to Xolin, showing her what was on her screen, “It’s an old tradition, rarely invoked anymore, but still viable. In it, the accused is allowed out into the wastes to find a Telk, a kind of monster. If they manage to slay it, then it means the spirits deem the accused worthy and the guilt is lifted. If not, then karma is achieved”.

    “Spirits?” asked Sid.

    “Horathan religions are mostly grouped around ancestor worship, as well as animistic belief structure. Everything is a spirit; every tree and rock. The spirits are…everything, everyone. They make up the universe, and karma is the balance that keeps…well, everything in balance”.

    “…How?” Sid asked, in wonder.

    “How what?” asked Sel.

    “How do you do that?”

    She shrugged, a little bit embarrassed, “I don’t know. I just…do”. It had actually come as a surprise to her that other people weren’t good at this—as Trok had shown her back on that Triforian colony.

    “You are just full of surprises, huh?” Xolin chuckled as she read through Sel’s find—she noticed like, a thousand tabs behind her current link all organized meticulously; the girl was a mastermind at this. Xolin was impressed, and yeah, it looked like this could work.

    “You’re amazing” Sid breathed. She’d done it. This was it. They could save Trok. They could save Trok! It was like a weight had just lifted off his shoulders. “Thank you”.

    “…I wanted to help” she said.

    “We can do this” Sid said, having sat down next to them so he could go over the find himself. They had an out. “…We can *do* this”.

    ---

    How to describe Horath? It was sandy. And rocky. And sunny. Basically, take one’s imagination of the Sahara desert on Earth and put it on an alien planet, and you would have a decent understanding of what the rangers saw when they disembarked from the Megaship. It was nothing but desolate sand and rock and cloudless sky as far as the eye could see—though there were some distant mountains to the southwest…though, again, they were assuredly made of rock and sand.

    The sole exception to this was the region directly ahead of them, a small canyon valley carved out of the endless dunes; an oasis with a central pool of water and covered with green tropical plant life. Ringed around about half of the small lake and partly obscured by the green, was a complex of majestic-but-angled ancient stone buildings; ruins of some sort, though they still seemed to be in use. Beyond that, above the cliffs and in the passes leading into the valley, lay many, many, many camps. *many* camps. Tents of varying sizes, fire pits, designated grazelands for the various alien creatures that were kept as they fed on the sparse grass outside of the immediate oasis zone…it was like a mobile city.

    “…I thought you said your clan only had a few hundred people” Xolin gasped, as she watched the throngs of people going about their business.

    Trok groaned, “…Enng. The entire alliance must be here. The other Khans must have forced my brother’s hand”.

    “Doesn’t matter” Sid replied, “As long as we stick to the plan, we’re golden”.

    “I hope we know what we’re doing” Trok muttered.

    “…You and me both kid” Sid said, but so quietly that no one could hear him as they all began walking down into the makeshift town.

    ---

    The central acropolis was…spikey, on closer inspection. The angles were hard and even, but the spires that came out of them were tall and narrow, and this perception was only helped along by the fact that the natives had decorated the ruins with tusks and bones, jutting out like teeth along the edges of the buildings.

    “Halt!”

    The four rangers stopped just short of two very large horathean guards just before they entered the ‘main highway’ of the complex. The two guards had lowered their axes in a cross formation, further cementing that the four needed to stay where they were.

    “We’re here for the trial” Sid eyed them, “Let us pass”.

    “They know who you are” said another voice, just as deep, but more friendly than the two guards. Trok knew who it was immediately; he gasped as he saw his brother approaching them. The man was older, larger, and physically intimidating. Even Sid gave a step back when he embraced his younger brother in a tight grip. “It is good to see you, little brother”.

    “You too” Trok managed to squeak out.

    The older brother, Shu, let Trok go from his iron grip, allowing him to breathe again, “I am truly sorry for the situation. The other Khans wouldn’t allow the matter to just…drop” the man eyed the camps up above with a glare—he seemed genuinely annoyed at the fact, “Seems their messengers finally found you”.

    “I’m sure you tried your best” Trok replied. Certainly, he was sure of that at least.

    Shu sighed, “I hate to do this, but you know tradition, yes?”

    Trok’s eyes widened for moment, before realization set in as the two guards approached him. He nodded in defeat. Shu smiled sadly, “Take him to the holding cells until it is time to begin the trial. But please be gentle”.

    “Wait, what?” Xolin asked, stepping in, “I thought he’d stay with us”.

    Shu turned to her, his hands open, “I am sorry, but karma demands that the accused be quarantined to prevent…escape. No one is above the law of karma; not the lowest commoner, and not the khan himself. You will have a chance to see him when the trial begins”.

    “But—”

    “It’s fine, Xolin” Trok said as his arms were grabbed by the guards. He gave Xolin the best confident smile he could muster, though it probably wasn’t very convincing, “You’ve got your plan, right?”

    Xolin nodded, returning the smile, “Be safe”.

    “I’ll be in a jail cell” he joked, “I don’t think I’ll be in any danger. Er…unless they convict me” he added, his humor abruptly drying up. The four gave concerned looks as one of their own was dragged off.

    “When does the trial start?” Sid asked Shu.

    Shu smiled, “You are fortunate. Or…” his smile faded a bit, “Unfortunate, I suppose. We customarily begin our trials at middle noon, when the twin suns are between the sky’s zenith, so that all of creation may view and judge. You arrived prior to middle noon; it shall be in a few short hours, so we will not have to wait another day”.

    Sid cast a quick look upwards. …Huh, a binary system. He hadn’t even noticed the double shadows. Guess that explained the planet-wide desert…and it probably also meant the planet had *fantastic* tectonic issues, especially since without surface oceans, the plates themselves were likely locked up. Hrn. Lovely. He looked over at Xolin, who shrugged, then at Sel, who was silently watching where Trok had been dragged off to.

    “We pick the best vacation spots” Sid said dryly.

    “I assure you, we will treat you with the upmost hospitality during your stay” the Khan said, midreading Sid’s comment, “Will you require temporary lodgings, to er… ‘freshen up’?” City folk liked that, right? That was a thing they did?

    Xolin shook her head, “Nah, we’ll only be here until this whole…thing is dealt with. Then we’re out. And we got our ship parked just north of here, so…”

    Shu nodded, “Very good. We shall convene in two hours. The guards here will direct you to the temple of judgment”. He bowed slightly, to which Xolin hesitantly returned, before he turned to leave, heading towards where Trok had been led off too. Two more guards arrived as he left, to protect the entrance to the ruins.

    “We are terrible people” Xolin sighed, a little nauseous.

    Sid nodded in full agreement. If Trok survived this, then Sid was going to get extremely wasted in his quarters tonight. If not…well, same deal, really.

    ---

    The interior of the temple was just as imposing and angled as the exterior had been, though somehow even more decorated with bones and other animal artifacts. Many had either had ornamental designs carved into them, or had outright been carved into new forms—abstract renditions of spirits maybe. The central chamber was lead into by a slightly confusing winding maze of corridors. In the center was a fire pit, ringed by terraced steps with stone seats built into them. The room was lit by the glow of torches ringing the room. Around the fire pit in a horseshoe formation lay the seats of the Khans, as well as that of the accused, facing the horseshoe assembly. Already the Khans, eight total, as well as Trok, had assembled and were waiting for the court to settle in. Light from above, from a hole in the center of the pyramidal ceiling, cast a sunbeam down to the middle of the court room.

    “For all your wedding needs” Sid muttered under his breath as the three rangers and Iota were lead into the chamber, quickly finding seats that had been reserved for them in the centermost ring.

    Sel spoke, keeping her voice low so the surrounding horatheans didn’t hear her, “Horathean justice is simple. Witnesses are called, the defense responds, the Khans discuss the case, and then they vote on the verdict. In Trok’s case, it’s likely the witnesses were called long ago and this is all just a formality”.

    “Thankfully, it’s all just a formality for us too” Sid whispered back.

    “Children of the Sun!” Shu called, rising from his seat, “Faithful Clans! Honorable Warriors! Welcome. Today we host one of our most solemn rites, the rite of judgment! Our long lost brethren, my blood, has returned to set things right and be tried for the crime that was committed here a year ago” he looked down at Trok, “Do you have an advocate? Someone to speak for you? If you have none, one will of course be provided”.

    “I am” Xolin said, standing up and exiting her row. She began walking down the steps to where Trok was. Gasps and mumblings went up from the crowd.

    “A human? An advocate! Preposterous!” one of the Khans, an elder woman, said.

    “Triforian” Xolin corrected her, her ire drawn to the elderly lady.

    “Our apologies” Shu chuckled, “Please forgive us. Aliens are…hard to differentiate”.

    “Regardless” the woman said, before Xolin could counter, “It’s not acceptable. Offworlders cannot represent one of our own. You do not know the ways of the Cycle”.

    “I know enough” Xolin stepped down further, right up to Trok’s seat, putting her hand on his table, “And I won’t back down. I *will* represent Trok, and you can’t stop me”.

    The Khans backed up in their seats, the rumblings in the crowd grew louder. Xolin gave the Khans her very best ‘I dare you’ face. In truth, she was on some level very aware that she was probably messing this up on a colossal level. But on another, more surface level, she didn’t care. Xolin had turned full into ‘determinator’ mode, wherein she’d spite anything and everything to get her way. She was *not* turning her friend’s safety over to some pre-appointed attorney, and she *sure* as hell wasn’t going to be just dismissed by some old people. Screw that. No one told Xolin she couldn’t do something.

    Shu laughed with mirth, “Very good. I like you; very well”.

    “You can’t be serious!” one of the other Khans, a middle-aged man, said.

    “I am” Shu replied matter-of-factly, “Anyone who cares that much deserves their chance. And there are no actual sacred laws forbidding offworlders from this duty”. Though he grinned with delight, the rangers secretly wondered if it was genuine magnanimous behavior, or that he knew it made no difference either way—so why not allow the incompetent foreigner ruin things for her client for them?

    “Offworlders didn’t exist when the rules were written” the woman replied grumpily.

    Shu shrugged, “Eh. The matter, in the end, is the same. Shall we proceed?”

    With a nod from the other Khans, Shu sat back down, “The council calls its first witness”.

    The trial went about as well as any of the rangers expected; everything had pretty much all been decided long before they had ever even landed on the planet. They called in various members of the old Khan’s council and servants, and had them tell their stories—Sid surmised they’d all been bought off long ago by Shu. Xolin of course tried her best, but even if she hadn’t been at a severe disadvantage with regards to her (lack of) knowledge of horathan clan law, Sid surmised that everything was just a kangaroo court; all flash, no substance.

    He began formulating contingencies even before the witnesses had all been called.

    At the end of it all, the consensus among the witnesses had been unanimous; they’d seen Trok poison his parents, or otherwise had enough evidence to convict him. Had he not been in the kitchen, talking with the cook an hour prior? Did he not leave evidence of chemical residue on the rugs that had lined the floor of his personal tent? And most damning, had he not run?

    Xolin’s eyes narrowed at the last one, and he noticed Trok seemed genuinely shocked; his brother had told him to run. Sure, they were all going under the assumption that Shu had done it and then pinned it on Trok, but they’d also been under the assumption that Shu genuinely didn’t want to see his brother executed. But then, Xolin reasoned to herself, why not plan for the worst case scenario anyway? Two birds with one stone after all, and it looked like Shu’s worst case scenario had come true after all, so…yeah.

    “It would seem that the evidence is conclusive” Shu stated. He turned to Xolin, “Is there anything the defense would like to put forward before the Council of Khans votes and decides Trok’s fate?”

    Inwardly, Xolin steeled herself as she bunched her hands up into tight little fists; this was it. The moment of truth. If this didn’t work, things were going to go downhill *fast*.

    “My client would like to invike the rite of Ser’kai”.

    Immediately, the entire chamber was in an uproar. Oh boy. There was shouting, and yelling, and…Shu slammed a book that had been on the table down, “SILENCE!” The entire room settled down as Shu spoke to Xolin. He chuckled, “I am afraid the rite of Ser’kai is an…old, outdated practice, one that hasn’t been used in many generations”.

    “But it’s still legal, isn’t it?” asked Xolin. She wasn’t going to let this chance go, “You haven’t banned it”.

    The Khans looked at each other. Shu replied, “…We cannot alter or change the Law of Karma, it would be like telling the suns to turn off. We simply choose not to exercise that right”.

    “But it can still be done. And if you deny us, isn’t that the same as banning the rite?” Xolin countered, a small wry grin appearing as she became pleased with her own quick thinking.

    Shu grunted, his smile straining. It was clear he didn’t want this, but had been backed into a corner—even the other Khans were starting to come around. “I…suppose” he said, the other Khans nodding when he glanced at them for approval. He cleared his throat, “Very well! The accused has invoked the rite of Ser’kai! As Overseer in this court, I challenge the accused, and his Advocate to venture out into the wastes, and not return until you bring with you three teeth from the maw of the mighty Kalroth!”

    Trok’s face paled as the crowd cheered. Even Xolin’s face faltered; ‘mighty’ was never a good word to use in this situation. She glanced down at her teammate, noting his fear-stricken face, rather than one of relief—this had been the easy part. Uh oh.

    This was gonna suck so hard.

    ---

    This had been a terrible idea, Trok mused as the two of them marched up the sandy dune, lost in the endless expanse of sandy desert. The suns beat down on them, and even though both Xolin and Trok’s species had evolved to thrive on desert planets, being cast to the wastes was still taking its toll. Privately, he noted that the water supply they’d brought with them, at this rate, would only last them a day or two. But then, the Megaship’s survival packs weren’t meant for long-term colonization; when you had sensors and ranger powers, you didn’t have to worry much about not being found. Both rangers carried a pack with them, essentially being large backpacks strapped to their backs. They carried the essentials; water, food, sleeping materials, etc.

    But no, seriously, this had been a *terrible* idea. Here they were, lost in the wastes, looking for a friggin’ monster that would just as soon have them for lunch. Yay.

    “What *is* a Kalroth, anyway?” Xolin asked warily. It was the first conversation they’d had since leaving the encampment at least an hour before.

    Trok grimaced. How to explain this? “…A monster, basically. Rare, but dangerous. Deadly. The kind of thing we tell kids stories of to frighten them”.

    “I was thinking maybe, physical description” Xolin replied, “Or combat capabilities, or clues on how to find it. Y’know, useful stuff that might get us out of this hellhole sooner”.

    “It’s big” Trok said, “Legend has it that they’ll devour the world when the cycle ends”.

    Xolin’s eyebrows furrowed, “…’Cycle ends’? Wait, you mean these things factor into your apocalypse?”

    “Pretty much”.

    “Crap”.

    “Aside from that, well…they don’t call them the earthshakers for nothing”.

    Xolin grimaced, “…This was a terrible idea, wasn’t it?”

    Trok glanced around at the empty desert as they stood at the top of the dune they’d been struggling to make their way up. He sighed; this was probably his best chance to convince her. “…I think we’re far enough out now that no one would notice. We should call the Megaship to come pick us up”.

    He found the triforian eying him skeptically when he turned back around, “…And when the others just pack up and leave without having waited for us to return, what then? Your clan won’t give us up for dead unless we wait the full two weeks. And we don’t have that kind of time; our supplies’ll be gone within a couple days at most”.

    Trok sighed, his eyes downcast, “…I should have never told you guys about the summons” he mumbled.

    Xolin’s expression turned from skepticism to one of acidity, “So what, you’d rather have just let a dozen civilians die for you?”

    He closed his eyes, frustrated, “No, that’s not…” Augh, this situation was impossible. He was just a kid, why did he have to have this kind of guilt? “They’re not dying for me. I can’t help it. I left so I don’t have to take part in it; I don’t agree with it”.

    “But you’ll do nothing to stop them”.

    “What can I do?” Trok asked emphatically, “They’ll just kill me!”

    Xolin’s expression changed to one Trok couldn’t quite identify; regret maybe? Sorrow? “So you’d rather run and hide then fight and face your responsibilities then”. She shook her head sadly, then turned and began walking again.

    Trok’s jaw opened in shock at what had just happened. He tossed back at her angrily, “It’s not my fault! And you did the same thing, didn’t you? You ran away from home! Don’t deny it; I see it every time we have to do something involving your people!” He didn’t actually know the details of why she’d left home, all he knew was that it had ended badly. But he still figured it was close enough.

    The triforian in question wheeled back around angrily at Trok, “I left so I could be free, even if it meant that I’d lose everything I’d ever known. That took courage. You ran away so you could avoid your responsibilities. There is a *world* of difference between you and me!”

    “So what, you’re angry I didn’t just lie down and die?” Trok bit back.

    She shook her head sadly, her face full of disgust, “No. I’m just disappointed that after everything, you’re still just a child. Being a hero doesn’t mean only taking the easy jobs. And if you don’t like the options, then you fight to make a new one, like we are now”.

    “And if I lose?”

    “Then at least you go out with the satisfaction of knowing you tried” she replied, turning back around and once again resuming her walk.

    But Trok wasn’t done quiet yet, “So everything you and Sid said, about moving on from your mistakes? That was a lie?”


    “Moving on from your mistakes doesn’t mean you keep making the same ones, or don’t try to make things right, Trok” she replied bitterly, as he began following her. “I thought by now you’d understand that”.

    This time Trok didn’t reply; he really didn’t have a counter, and he was pretty sure if he kept going, the hole he was making would only get deeper. It wasn’t like he didn’t feel bad; he’d been guilted about this from day one, but just….augh, this whole situation was messed up. It wasn’t fair.

    ---

    This had been a terrible idea. Oh well, too late to back out now, he was committed. Tracking down one of the witnesses—the cook—had been easy. With a few brief, but well-placed threats, the man had spilled everything he knew. He confirmed what Sid (and everyone else) had assumed; Shu had poisoned their parents in order to take the throne. Yay, dynastic politics. So now he sat crouched behind Shu’s tent, his appearance masked by the dimming light as the twin suns set behind the horizon. He’d gotten some good tips from the cook; all he had to do was wait for Shu to leave for dinner, and he could ransack the place for clues.

    What clues? Sid didn’t know; that was the problem with mobile settlements like this, especially since the crime had happened like, a year ago and Shu had been using all this stuff since. But still, he’d hoped that *somewhere* in the room was a good piece of evidence that would damn Shu and end this charade.

    It was time. Sid could see Shu’s shadow getting up from within the tent, and enlarging and fading as he exited. The mirinoite didn’t even try to sneak around the front; he knew there’d probably be a guard or two there…and even if there wasn’t, he didn’t want to risk being seen by anyone. So instead he lifted up the back of the tent, slipping under the wall of hide and fur into the residence. It was fairly opulent, considering it was ‘just a tent’, consisting of multiple sections filled to the brim with loot and gold and furs and…shiny things. Rungs lined the ground, covering the sand and dirt. Now inside, Sid shot up, quickly looking around for where to start, and soon noticed a trunk sitting in the corner—unlocked.

    Bingo.

    He opened the case, rooting through Shu’s personal belongings. Assorted clothes, trinkets, some sort of religious (he assumed anyway) artifact, a couple weapons…eaugh, this was useless. If there had been any trace of the poison, Shu would have gotten rid of it a long time ago.

    “So, it seems I have a rat problem after all”.

    Sid froze at Shu’s voice. Crap. Slowly he turned around, a sheepish grin on his face as he looked up at the large horathean man. “Uh…hello!” Sid waved with a big smile as enthusiastically as he could muster—even though he knew he was very, very screwed, “Fancy meeting you here!”

    Shu shook his head in dismay, “You know, when my chef told me you’d be coming around, I thought you would be slightly more competent—and *not* fall for the old trick of me simply leaving the tent for a moment”.

    Sid’s face faltered. Crap.

    Shu snapped his fingers as two well-armored soldiers entered the tent behind him, “Guards, take our guest to…more accommodating lodgings, will you?”

    Well, this was bad. For one split second, Sid thought about morphing and kicking ass—before realizing that he really shouldn’t be blowing his cover…or, y’know, making things even worse for Trok. What was the price for the crime for assaulting a Khan, after all? His hands were tied—figuratively, but he also kind of knew very soon it would be literally as well.

    “…Well, poop” Sid breathed, annoyed, as the guards grabbed him.

    ---

    It was beautiful, really. It was ironic, of a sort—you could almost never get this kind of view of the stars when you were actually in space. Not unless, like, the local star was being blocked by something like a planet, or if you just decided to drop out of hyperrush in the middle of nowhere and take a nice spacewalk outside. People don’t realize that; that unless the situation is exactly right, actually being in space means you don’t actually get to see much of it. There are exceptions, of course—like how KO-35 is just a few light-years away from some spectacular backlighting from the local nebula.

    But this…gods. She never even got a night sky like this back home on Triforia; she grew up in the city, in the high residential districts. She’d never really been allowed to go camping out in the boonies…her family was too good for that. A pity, because right now, she had a front-row seat to half of the Tellesar Galaxy; a small spiral on the outskirts of the Local Group. Certainly nothing on par with the Milky Way or the Andromeda, but still stunning in its own right.

    Xolin lay back against the bedroll she’d unfolded not too long ago, allowing the calm, temperate night air of the desert waft past her.

    “You’re lucky, you know that?” she said to Trok.

    “How’s that?” came the boy’s response. His voice was still a bit subdued; they hadn’t really spoken much for the past few hours since their argument…not unless it was necessary decision-making anyway. But Xolin wasn’t interested in that right now; sure, she was disappointed in him, but while she could hold grudges with the best of them, her anger was a flash in the pan. She’d moved on for the moment.

    “This” she said, in a little bit of quiet awe, “Just…all this”. She was quiet for a moment. When Trok didn’t reply, she asked, “…What was it like? Growing up a nomad, I mean?”

    Trok mused, “…It was…active, I guess. We’d plop down for a few weeks or months near an oasis until the seasons changed and told us it was time to move again. Seasons on worlds with more than one sun are…odd. They always vary. We’d follow the wild herds, they always knew where the water sources were, and we’d get some game from them, while tending our own flocks. We’d trade with the undercities for stuff we’d need…y’know”.

    “Undercities?”

    “Oh, yeah!” Trok’s voice perked up a bit, “They’re pretty neat. See, Horath’s got these huge caves where most of our fresh water is. That’s where the undercities are; scattered all over the world. They’re the ones that build the ships and stuff you see everywhere else in the galaxy. They mostly leave us be, though they’ve kind of eased off on tribal tradition stuff as they advanced”.

    “Ever been to one?” Xolin asked, genuinely curious, trying to imagine in her mind what underground cities were like.

    Trok nodded, “I went to Arakis when I first left home; it’s how I got offworld. Big place…big cave. It’s just under the surface too, so there’s these holes in the rock where light pours in. And it’s got waterfalls everywhere, and a sea, and it’s just…beautiful”.

    “I’d like to see it someday”.

    “Maybe when we’re done here” Trok half-joked.

    “Were you happy here?”

    “…Yeah, I was” Trok said after a moment of consideration, “Though I always did want to see the universe. But here it was…you knew everybody, you know? We were one big family. We had to be, to survive. But it’s like…I was still different. I was the Khan’s son. Sure, Shu was destined to be the next Khan, but responsibilities were still pretty tough. I always had to act the part, and I just…I didn’t…” he sighed grumpily, “I didn’t feel like I was up to the task. Being responsible for other people? That’s scary. I’m not good at that”.

    “You’re responsible for us” Xolin countered, still staring up at the sky, the only thing she could see, “We’re all responsible for each other”.

    “Yeah but…that’s just you guys. Not hundreds of people. Not the sum total of my entire people” Trok replied.

    Xolin gave a single, soft chuckle, “…I guess on some level I can understand. I left home because my parents wanted be to be someone I wasn’t. So I get how that can be overwhelming, but…” she trailed off, struggling to find her words, “…You just let your brother roll all over you”.

    There was a brief silence.

    “…I *am* sorry about that” Trok muttered back, almost soundlessly, “I never wanted this to happen”.

    Xolin sat up, looking down at where he should have been if she could see him, “Something I’ve learned, I think…there’s a difference between guilt, and regret. You can apologize all you want, but if you don’t try to make things right, then your words aren’t really worth much to anyone”. She was trying a different tact; she knew enough that berating the poor kid wouldn’t help, but the conversation earlier had been heat of the moment. But despite Xolin’s rough persona, she really did care for the kid like a younger sibling. She just wanted to push him in the right direction. And sometimes, that meant a hard life lesson or two.

    “I’m tired” Trok said, “Can we sleep now?”

    Xolin sighed inwardly as Trok brushed her off. More disappointment; “…Yeah. We’ll need to be up early anyway. Good night, Trok”.

    “Night”.

    ---

    Shu shook his head, “What *am* I going to do with you?”

    Sid sat kneeling, his arms hanging above him, chained to the ceiling in the bottom-most regions of the ancient city. The room was much like the rest of the complex as far as he had seen, though much less decorated.

    Well…not *technically* decorated. The random horathean bones and skeletons chained up all over definitely gave this dungeon some atmosphere—helped along by the humble lightning from the torches lining the walls. There were also numerous cage cells lining the wall to his left; he hadn’t been placed in one yet, but he figured once this meeting was done, he’d be getting real friendly with one.

    Assuming Shu didn’t just kill him, that was. Boy, he really kinda wished he’d told Sel or Iota what he was up to, even though Iota almost certainly would have vetoed it. Sigh. What a terrible idea this had been. Well…almost, anyway. Before being chained up, he’d managed to set his morpher to ‘record’ mode. Hopefully he could get something good out of the elder brother.

    “You could let me go” Sid said, slightly sarcastically, but good-naturedly, “Let bygones be bygones”.

    Shu chuckled, “I am afraid I cannot. You see, you trespassed upon my home, threatened by servants. The law of karma demands you must pay a penance”

    Sid grimaced as he glanced at a particularly unhappy skeleton in the corner, “…Lemme guess. Torture?”

    “Oh, no. No. At least, not yet” Shu folded his arms behind him as he began to pace through the room, inspecting each of the hanging chains idly as he spoke, “No, first comes the trial. Your guilt must be ascertained before we may act upon it. To do otherwise would be to upset the balance by taking karma in our own hands”.

    “You guys do that that stuff seriously, huh?”

    Shu turned, “Of course. The law of karma binds us as a people, creates the foundation for our culture. All of our laws and society revolve around it. To ignore it…well, there *are* wild tribes to the far north that do, and they are savages who prey on each other for the most petty of reasons”.

    “Unlike you civilized folk” Sid said, with not a small hint of snark.

    Shu saw through his sarcasm, but nodded with a small smile anyway, “Exactly” he walked back over to Sid, “Karma is absolute, but measured. If we recognize karma incorrectly, then we set a bad precedent. The proper legal channels must be observed”.

    “So what ‘legal channel’ would ‘killing your dad and then setting your brother up as a scapegoat’ be on then?”

    Shu smirked, “You have been talking with my brother, haven’t you?”

    “I live with him” Sid deadpanned.

    Shu was silent for a moment, having turned back around again. “It *is* sad that my brother cannot accept his own actions, though if I were in his shoes, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to either. Our parents were—”

    “Cut the crap” Sid interjected, “We both know Trok doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. What really happened?”

    Shu eyed Sid. The mirinoite glared back, “Look, you’re just going to have me executed in the morning or whatever anyway, so you might as well tell me *why* you did what I already know you did. Not like anyone would believe the offworlder convict anyway”.

    Shu thought that over. It was reasonable. He sighed, “…Trok never wanted to be here. Not really. He was never the leader type. So when everything went down, I told him to run, and he did so. I *had* hoped that the council would never find him, or that if they did, he wouldn’t return”.

    “So they’d just kill off a dozen random people instead” Sid quipped.

    Shu shrugged, “I had hoped they would simply drop the matter after a period of time. But if not…pin it on a number of the lowest class, or a local troublemaker or two. A group no one would miss. Trok would have been wise not to return”.

    “Gee, you’re such a benevolent leader” Sid said.

    The horathean glared at the man, “…I do what must be done for the good of the clan. Trok is my blood, I had to try and protect him for as long as I could”.

    Sid’s eybrow rose at the warped logic; oh, yeah, this guy was family member of the year alright, “But that didn’t extend to your parents?”

    More silence. Shu’s fingers wrapped around one of the bars to one of the cages as he slowly made his way around the room, “…My father was…hrn” he hesitated, “…not the right man for the job. He was soft, complacent when it came to policy with the other clans. He let the council walk all over him”. Shu sighed, letting a weight he’d been carrying slump off him. “I don’t enjoy what had to be done, but the future of our people was at stake”.

    “Lemme guess; daddy never listened to your advice, right? So one night you just up and decided to commit regicide, because eh, why not?”. Sid’s voice at this point was dripping with sarcasm and a bit of venom.

    Shu glared at him, “I don’t expect you to understand the burdens of leadership”.

    Sid didn’t even blink though, “I may not know what it’s like to be Khan, but I do know what it’s like to have done something you regret; that you wish you could take back every day of your life, but can’t. I know what it’s like to have done something so terrible; it defines the core of who you are for the rest of your life”. When Shu said nothing, Sid continued, “Your brother is about to die for your actions. You have a chance to change that”.

    “And leave this clan leaderless?” Shu scoffed, “I think not”. He grumbled, “I grow tired of this conversation. Rest well, Sid of Mirinoi, for tomorrow shall be your trial”. Shu turned and left, leaving Sid alone to dangle from his chains.

    However, Sid gave out one last parting shot as Shu passed through the door, “Nice to know the law of Karma turns a blind eye to people who set their siblings up for murder”. Shu didn’t respond, instead simply slamming the dungeon door behind him. “Well…that went…better than I’d feared, worse than I’d hoped” Sid sighed. Still…while it hadn’t been a *confession* per say, it’d been enough that Sid could probably cast some doubt on the whole case. Y’know, if he was still alive when Trok’s case resumed.

    His arms were cramping something fierce. This had been a *terrible* idea.

    ---

    The first thing Xolin’s waking consciousness was aware of was that incessant rumbling. At first she had been confused, thinking it part of her dream in which…hrn, actually, she couldn’t remember. It had been *something* though. Then she felt annoyance for having been woken up. Then more confusion when she realized she was sleeping outside, surrounded by sand and rock, instead of in her own bed.

    …Oh, right. She remembered now.

    What *was* that rumbling?! The grains of sand on the surface had begun to shudder as it got more intense. Trok was already up, a panic-stricken look on his face. “It’s here!”

    “The Kalroth?!” Xolin asked with urgency. Trok nodded.

    “The Earth-shaker. It’s *here*”.

    The two looked around for any sign of the creature, but the shaking seemed to come from every direction at once. Man, this was *not* how Xolin had wanted the day to begin. She was still groggy from being coaxed from her sleep, but did her best to get her head in the game. It was still early; but late enough that they probably would have gotten up soon anyway—the two suns were trailing each other near the horizon, casting a soft golden glow across the desert wastes.

    Xolin saw it first, right under the suns. A very large beast, charging right at them. It was at least the size of a bus, maybe larger, with six legs and thick fur. Horns adorned its head like antlers, and its mouth was a giant minefield of razor-sharp teeth. It bellowed and roared as it closed in, giving the two rangers scant few seconds to morph and prepare.

    “It’s…not *so* bad” Xolin gritted. It was true, kinda. Like, it was pretty imposing, but for something named ‘ground shaker’, she *had* expected something a little bigger. Not that she was complaining. “Come on!” she shouted to Trok as she summoned her lance to her hand.

    “Wait, that’s not—augh” Trok followed after her. It *wasn’t*, but they still had to deal with it before it gored them to death.

    The blue ranger used her lance like a pole vault, springing herself over ontop of the creature, landing on its backside as it issued another bellow of rage. “TROK, GET OUT OF THE WAY!” she screeched, as the monster charged right at green. Trok narrowly dodged, rolling to the side as the monstrous creature kept going. Xolin struck her weapon down at the back of the creature’s neck, but found to her dismay that it was well-protected by bone. Worse, she was finding she was having trouble staying upright, as the creature had taken an *intense* dislike to her very being, and was doing its best to shake her off. Despite her best efforts, she was sliding off. This was bad. Badbadbadbad---

    Trok sent the mace portion of his hammer flying at the creature, wrapping it around its hind legs. The sudden power of inertia sent Xolin flying forward, tumbling in the sand until she came to a stop. She grunted in pain as she started to get back up. Another roar from the creature though, and both Trok and his weapon were flung in the other direction. The monster now charged at Xolin, who had lost her weapon somewhere in the sand several feet away.

    Crap.

    She braced herself as best she could, but still wasn’t ready for the pain as the monster’s horns rammed into her, sending her soaring through the air until she impacted the side of a sand dune a little ways off. She tumbled to the base in a heap.

    “I hate this planet” she mumbled, stumbling to her feet. By now the monster was dealing with its hind legs, trying its best to loosen them from the green ranger’s mace. Poor Trok was being flung about like a rag doll as he desperately tried to cling on. Xolin shook her head at the morbidly comedic display. Pulling out her sidearm, she aimed at the creature’s eyes and fired. It was enough to further enrage the creature, and turned its attention back on the blue ranger. Trok finally wisely gave up his hold on his weapon as the monster charged.

    This was a bad idea.

    Xolin unfolded her blaster into a sword.

    This was a *terrible* idea.

    She assumed a defensive stance, her weapon charged with energy.

    Sigh.

    As the monster closed in, she turned to the side, letting it pass by her as she swung her sword in, cutting the beast from its mouth to its rear. A second later as it gave one last howl, it exploded in a blaze of glory.

    Hell yeah.

    “Well…that…sucked” She sighed, dusting herself off after putting her sidearm away. She walked over and helped Trok up, “Come on, let’s go see if we can’t find any teeth from that thing’s corpse”.

    “I was trying to tell you” Trok said, standing in place as Xolin started walking back towards the monster, “That wasn’t the Kalroth”.

    Xolin stopped, turning back around as she cocked her head, “But…that’s silly” she chuckled, nervously, “You…said it was the earth-shaker”.

    The desert rumbled. Xolin gulped in terrible, terrible realization.

    Trok chuckled back, also nervously, “No…that was a Desert Cow. It was probably running from the Kalroth”.

    Xolin looked back at the remains of the creature, then back at Trok, “…That thing was a *cow*?!” she asked incuriously.

    “Bull, actually”.

    “But…” Xolin’s mind was having trouble processing this. They had won! This whole thing was supposed to be over! “But then what’s a Kal—”

    The sand behind Xolin erupted; a massive worm-like monstrosity tunneling out, rising ten, twenty stories into the air. Its roar was like nothing Xolin had ever heard, and its appearance was terrifying. Its mouth was like that of a lampray, with many, *many* rows of teeth and no visible eyes. Four giant scythe mandibles protruded along the outside of its cavernous maw, and its hide consisted of thick armored plating.

    “*That’s* a Kalroth” Trok explained weakly.

    Xolin looked up at it, dumbfounded. “Well…shit”.

    The worm looked down at its prey for a moment, before issuing another horrific bellow, and descending upon them like a biblical judgment. The two rangers barely got out of the way as it tunneled back into the sand.

    Xolin watched as its body moved snake-like from one hole in the ground to the next, the ground rumbling all around them, as a third hole erupted from the sands. “…I hate this planet and EVERYTHING ON IT!”

    Her complaints were replied to only by another roar from the Kalroth.

    ---

    He didn’t get much sleep that night; having the choice of either standing or hanging by your wrists while kneeling didn’t do much for one’s comfortability. Still, Sid must have dozed off at some point, because the first thing he noticed upon opening his eyes was a very irate Iota standing in front of him. He had his arms folded, and his posture just exuded ‘pissed off’.

    Oh, this was a *fun* way to wake up.

    “You’re an idiot” Iota said in a deadpan, summing up the entire situation succinctly.

    Sid actually chuckled a bit at that as he stood up, “Yeah, good morning to you too”.

    “No, really” the armored figure repeated, “You’re an idiot”.

    “Yeah, I kinda already knew that” Sid replied with a sad grin, “So what’s the plan?”

    Iota sighed, exasperated at the entire situation. They’d have been much better off never coming here, but *nooo*, they had to play hero, and no everyone had gone off half-cocked. Trok and Xolin were lost somewhere out in the wasteland looking for a giant monster, and Sid had gone and gotten himself arrested for breaking and entering. Because of course he had. At this point, he was just waiting for Sel to tell him she’d decided to join the circus. “The plan is for you to stay there and delay as best you can. Hopefully Trok and Xolin will get back soon. *Hopefully*”.

    “And if not?” Sid asked, though he had a sinking suspicion he knew what was up.

    “If not, then I am assuming direct control of this situation. We’ll break you out, pick up the others, and get the hell out of here, because this *entire situation* is ridiculous”. He sighed again, facepalming, “…Did you at least get what you were looking for?”

    Sid shugged, “…Kinda? Like, he didn’t give me a full confession, but I *think* it’s enough to get people suspicious”.

    “You think”. Iota’s deadpan hadn’t budged an inch.

    “Yep!” Sid replied with false cheeriness.

    Iota shook his head half-heartedly as he turned to leave. As he opened the door, he stopped and looked back at Sid for a moment, as if he was about to say something…but instead decided against it, shaking his head again as he closed the door behind him, the guard outside the doorway standing back to let him pass, before shutting the door again.

    Yep. This was a *terrible* way to wake up.

    ---

    The worm tunneled into the sands again, as the two rangers—in a fit of dazed panic—tried desperately to figure out where its head was going to appear next. “…Left” Xolin said suddenly. “LEFT!” The two rangers dodged out of the way just as the maw burst from the earth, jutting into the sky before turning back on the rangers again.

    “Your planet SUCKS” Xolin exclaimed as she rolled into a crouched fighting position, ready for the next wave, “On *my* planet we don’t have APOCALYPTIC DEATH WORMS!”

    “Kalroth!” Trok corrected her.

    “WHATEVER!” she raged back, “And we *certainly* don’t have to—”

    She cut off as she had to dodge again, the Kalroth slamming into the ground where she had just been. She continued, “…*Never* had to fight them just to prove our innocence! This is *insane*!”

    The two looked around frantically for the worm’s next appearance. Trok bit back, “Not my idea, remember!? The rite of Ser’kai hasn’t been used in hundreds of years!”

    “How it even burrowing through the sand?! It should be too dense!”

    Trok felt a rumble to his right, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask it?!”

    The Kalroth burst forth, its roar a terrible cornucopia of fear-inducing sounds. It turned down on the rangers again, hitting the surface of the desert, but instead of tunneling, this time it slithered right at them.

    “Oh SHI—” Xolin grabbed Trok and rolled out of the way, just as the worm cruised by, its scythes slicing through the air. They tumbled a few feet…just as the worm turned again. This was bad; at this rate they’d be eaten alive…or worse. Trok gulped. They couldn’t call on the zords; the clans would definitely notice if the Megaship just up and left. They were on their own.

    He *knew* this had been a bad idea. Xolin’s words towards him had been echoing inside his head, the guilt gnawing at him…but what was he supposed to do? This was a *bad idea*. They were both going to die, what was the point? Yeah, it *sucked* that the clan was going to kill people but…spirits, he felt like a terrible person. He’d tried to justify it for so long, but Xolin had managed to hit him where it hurt, and now he just didn’t…what was he supposed to do?!

    Xolin tried to deflect one of the Kalroth’s scythes with her sidearm blade, but the sheer force of the worm’s impact—even a glancing blow as it rolled past—was enough to knock Xolin back down, her sword being flung somewhere several feet away.

    Xolin knew it was over; she’d made a mistake coming here. Somehow, she always knew she’d go down fighting in the end…she just never assumed it would involve giant worms. The blue ranger turned to Trok with the precious few seconds she had left, “I’m sorry. RUN”. No panic, no fear. Just a simple plea.

    “Wha—” Trok had no time to comprehend her comment before she flung him down from the dune they had positioned themselves about half-way down. He rolled down, coming to a halt…just in time to see Xolin, weaponless, dodge a scythe…and vanish within the creature’s maw.

    No.

    Nononononono.

    She couldn’t be. She couldn’t have. Trok stood there, dumbstruck; Xolin had just…died for him. She’d sacrificed herself, right there. Right in front of him. She’d told him to run.

    Why wasn’t he running? He couldn’t feel anything. He didn’t move at all. He *couldn’t* move. It wasn’t right. There hadn’t been any screams, no cries for help, no buildup. She’d just…she was gone. Just like that.

    No.

    “Xolin…” he managed to whisper.

    The Kalroth’s roar jarred him back to reality; the worm’s ugly form rising above him as it looked down on his puny form. It was still hungry…and Trok was next. She’d told him to run. He should have run. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. A glint in the corner of his eye pulled Trok’s attention to a metallic object, half-buried in the sand.

    …Was that…? It was. Xolin’s lance; lost during the earlier fight with the cow.

    The worm lunged. Trok flew out of the way, rolling into the sand as he grabbed the weapon. It was much lighter than his hammer, but it would do. It *had* to do. As the monster charged towards him again, he planted his feet into the ground, Xolin’s weapon charging up with green energy. The resulting clash pushed Trok back several feet, his boots gliding across the sand thanks to the Kalroth’s inertia. A single counterattack later, and the worm’s scythe shattered, the monster reeling back and uttering a cry of tormented agony. It aimed again, ready to come down harder and extract animalistic vengeance.

    Trok had never been much for praying to the spirits. Not that he ever had anything against it, but for him it was just one of those things you do because everyone else in society does, and you just don’t think much of it. But right now? Right here? Trok prayed to his ancestors. He prayed *real* hard as the worm came down on him; as he aimed his lance like a makeshift javelin, his morphin’ energies surging through the weapon like a beacon. The green ranger let it fly.

    The result was devastating for the monster. It ripped through the side of its maw, lodging itself on the underside of the armored hide on the back of the creature’s head. It roared and howled and screeched as it writhed about in agony. Then, once again, it came down on Trok.

    This was a bad idea. He knew that.

    But Trok was ready. He drew his sidearm and switched it to sword mode, just as the creature dived in on him, burrowing into the ground. Seconds later, it burrowed back out in a different spot, and stopped. It seemed to…choke, and sputter. For a brief second, it seemed like a growth was forming on the side of its ‘neck’, but it quickly broke, revealing a single blade as it swept around, slicing the Kalroth’s head clean off. The decapitated maw dropped to the ground, soon followed by the lifeless body—and two rangers covered in muck tumbled out of its guts into the sand.

    “That…sucked” Xolin wheezed. The two were completely disoriented, stumbling about as they tried to get up, their suits absolutely soaking in worm juices. Xolin shuddered, not even wanting to think what she was covered in. “Dear gods, I feel disgusting”.

    Hard to argue with that, as far as Trok was concerned. Blech. But first things first. “We uh…we should go harvest those teeth”. He finally managed to pull himself up to his feet, before giving Xolin a hand as well.

    “…Thanks, by the way” she said gratefully as she pulled herself up with Trok’s hand, “I really thought that was the end”. Her appreciation quickly changed to annoyance though, “…Didn’t I tell you to run?”

    “I couldn’t leave you behind” he said.

    “Hmm…” Xolin mused mysteriously.

    “…What?” Trok asked, confused. …And a little concerned.

    She shook her head in mild amusement, “Nothing. Let’s go get some teeth, huh?” Xolin headed towards the creature’s maw, Trok following behind her.

    “…No, seriously, what?”

    Xolin made her way over to the giant mouth, leaning down to take a better look at the teeth as she replied, “You came back for me. You could have run, could have tried to escape and live to fight another day. You didn’t. You chose to fight, and possibly die”. She wiggled one of the teeth; it was in there tight…she’d need something to cut it out.

    Noticing her train of thought, Trok handed her the lance, which she gladly took and began using its end to cut around the large tooth, into the gum. He scoffed, “Of course I did. You’re…you. We always watch each other’s back”.

    She chuckled softly, “That’s what being a hero means, Trok. It’s not about being awesome or having people look up to you. It’s not about the pride or the fame. It’s not even about the adventure”. She struggled on a particularly tough part of the gum; the tooth was in there *really* deep. Finally though, she broke through, and managed to pry the large, white razor out of its base, “It’s about simply doing the right thing. It’s about taking responsibility, even if its responsibility you don’t think was fair to be placed on you”.

    “…You’re talking about my clan” Trok said, in realization.

    Xolin pulled the tooth up and stood uptight, the object coming up to about her shoulder. She shrugged good-naturedly, “Am I?”

    Trok smirked, then nodded, “Yeah. You are”.

    A moment of clarity passed between them. Xolin patted the tooth, “Well, in that case, how about we take this sucker back and save the day? Like heroes”.

    “…Like heroes” Trok smiled back.

    ---

    “Anything else you wish to say in your defense?”

    Sid’s eyes moved across the trial chamber. He’d run out of stalling tricks; he’d questioned every witness as far as he could, made enough counters and interjections that the council looked about ready to skin him (most of those interjections likely hadn’t even been legal, strictly speaking, but whatevs), and he’d gotten into a verbal sparring match with…what was it, the maid? She had been another ‘witness’ who hadn’t actually been there and had just been bought off (surprise, surprise), but easy enough to provoke because her story had been more off than the others. He’d given them hell, but he’d just about run out of time. Not that he was worried for himself at all mind you; Iota had made that very clear. But he *was* worried about whoever would be earning his place for him. He’d directly intervened, now someone was almost certainly going to pay his price. That was how the Law of Karma worked, right?

    Only one card was left in his deck. It was his best card, but one he was reluctant to use; the best weapon, the most *powerful* weapon on the field of battle was the one that had yet to be deployed. But the counterpoint to that was, of course, that if the weapon was never deployed, it would be the most useless. That was always the Catch-22 in combat.

    Well, he had nothing left, and nothing to lose.

    “I do, in fact!” Sid piped up, in his usual cheeriness. He stood up, unstrapping his morpher and placing it on the table. “This device is a recorder”. Predictably, Sid saw Shu’s face falter—he drank it in, a small smirk forming on the human’s face as he watched his foe temporarily lose his composure. “Last night, Shu and I had a lovely talk. One I think you all should very much hear”.

    A press of the button, and Sid let the conversation go, remaining standing during the whole affair. A smug expression plastered itself on his face as Shu shifted uncomfortably; the expressions on the other Khans moving between many different emotional states; some of them eyeing Shu while he wasn’t looking.

    The recording finished, leaving the room hushed, whispers floating about around them.

    “…I…” Shu stuttered, then cleared his throat, “…You are a tenacious little man, I will give you that. But your recording proves nothing. I admitted to no such crime, nor did I do it”.

    Sid’s grin became predatory, “You might not have admitted to it but your words there are still pretty damning. Enough to cast suspicion. What now?”

    “This is irrelevant” the old lady Khan grumbled, “We are here to surmise your guilt in trespassing on Khan Shu’s private property, *not* Shu’s guilt or innocence in a completely unrelated case that has already been decided”.

    “Here, here” said a middle-aged male Khan, approvingly.

    Damn. So much for that last card. Sid’s face fell.

    “Any more…enlightening tricks you’d like to present?” Shu asked smugly, his confidence restoring itself bit by bit. Sid shook his head reluctantly. He’d failed. Damn. Behind him, he could see Iota getting up. This was going to get ugly.

    “I do!” said another voice behind him; a familiar one. Turning around, Sid saw Xolin standing there in the doorway, a man-sized incisor standing next to her. Woah. Behind her, Trok made his appearance. Taking the tooth, he dragged it down the stairs with him, passing by the rows of seats as he made his way down to the center of the room. He threw the tooth into the middle of the chamber floor, letting it fall in front of the council.

    “One Kalroth tooth, as ordered” he exclaimed, a bit out of breath. Xolin walked down, standing next to him with a defiant glare in her eyes.

    “This exonerates Trok, yes?”

    The council looked down at the tooth. “Er…yes, I believe so, but—”

    Xolin waved the old woman off flippantly, “Good, then we’re out of here. Come on guys”.

    “Wait!” one of the other Khans, a younger man, cried out, “You can’t leave! Your companion here has been accused of trespassing!” he pointed at Sid, “Justice must be achieved!”

    Trok looked at Sid, then at the council, then at the civilians lining the room. Damn. How the hell…this was completely unfair. They’d *WON*! Trok was exonerated! And yet here they were right back where they’d started. He wasn’t going to let Sid go off and face a desert monster, and he couldn’t let all this have been for naught. He *wouldn’t*. He’d dragged his friends into this; he was going to get them out of it.

    This was unfair.

    “No”.

    “…Er…I’m sorry?” the man asked, confused as he recoiled slightly in his seat. Trok turned to him, determination washing over him.

    “I said no”.

    “This defiance can’t be tolerated in court, little brother” Shu explained, “Please sit back down”.

    “No” Trok repeated, “As Khan-son, I absolve him”.

    “You…can’t do that” Shu replied, not entirely sure if his brother was completely working right or not.

    “Why not? I am Khanhood, am I not?”

    “The Law of Karma exists above us all” the old man Khan said, “We are simply its caretakers”.

    “Then saddle me with it instead” Trok replied. Xolin looked at him, surprise evident on her face.

    Shu scoffed, “You would take his punishment for him? Even after going through all that trouble to clear your name before?”

    Trok glanced back at Sid, then back at Shu, a smile on his face, “…Yes. I would”.

    Shu sighed, “Very well. I hereby—”

    “No” Xolin cut in, stepping in front of Trok, “This madness has gone on long enough”.

    “…Excuse me?” asked one of the other Khans, very irate that this whole thing was devolving fast.

    Xolin glared at them, her disgust easily visible for all to see, “This rule is ridiculous. Forcing others to face our sins for us? How is that karma?!”

    The old woman spoke, “Girl, stand aside. This is between horatheans, not offworlders”.

    “Fine!” Trok shot back, clearly fed up with this just as much as, if not more than, Xolin herself. He pointed at Shu, “He murdered our mother and father and then pinned it on me. No, I don’t have proof. Yes, I should have spoken out when it happened. And yes, I should have fought. But regardless, I’m here now, and I’m fighting for my friends and my people”.

    Gasps went up as Shu sat up straight, “…What are you saying?”

    “He’s saying he’s corroborating with my evidence” Sid said, patting the morpher on his table. “You really want to make a fight of this?”

    “Who killed who in an unrelated case has *NOTHING* to do with this case!” the old man spoke again.

    “The hell it doesn’t!” Xolin bit back, “This whole thing has just been an abuse of rules from the start!”

    “You can’t seriously tell me none of you see the problems here!” Trok explained emphatically, “If I hadn’t showed, you’d have killed a dozen people in my place. A dozen INNOCENT people!”

    Shu leaned forward, cupping his hands together, “Then what would your solution be?”

    Trok glanced around at the court chamber; at his friends, at his leaders, at his people. At that moment, he knew what to do as a spark of inspiration filled him. He couldn’t fight an age-old tradition in a few minutes, but maybe…maybe… He turned back to the council, a determined expression on his face, “…Exile us. The entire group. Five banishments would be an equal trade, right?”

    Sid and Xolin’s eyes widened; Sid’s in shock and guilt. Xolin however, soon found a sad smile crossing her lips; Trok was growing up. Her hand patted his shoulder in support and pride. He blushed slightly.

    The Khans leaned inward, discussing for a few seconds in hushed whispers. When they turned back to Trok, the old woman nodded, “Very well, this is acceptable to the law of Karma. Let it be known that from this day, you and your comrades are exiled from this land. Go in peace, Trok”. The Khans bowed respectfully, and Trok reciprocated.

    “…You sure you’re okay with this?” Xolin asked Trok uncertainly.

    He smiled at her, a bit sadly as the spectators began to shuffle out, “It’s okay. I still got my home on the ship. It’s like you said, right? Being a hero has its downsides”.

    Iota, Sid, and Sel made their way down to the center area where Trok and Xolin were. “…I am so sorry” Sid said as he came up to Trok. Holy shit he’d messed up bad. He’d only tried to help out Trok, but in the end had only made things worse, “This is all my fault”.

    Trok shook his head, putting on a bitter smile, “Nah, I was already pretty much in exile anyway. At least this time I don’t have the guilt hanging around me”. He forced himself to brighten up a bit, “And I got you guys. And a cool spaceship that lets me go anywhere. So like...let’s go home”. Trok turned and headed up the steps, out of the room. Sel followed, and Iota trailed off behind them. Besides, it wasn’t like he was banned from his whole homeworld; just…well, just his clan’s territory. It sucked sure, but on the upside, he’d never be called on to do anything Khan-related, so…mixed blessings? Maybe?

    Hrn.

    “…I’m an idiot” Sid groaned, after the others had left. He wanted to just crawl up somewhere and die.

    “Yeah…you kinda are” Xolin sighed, her hands on her hips as she wore a disappointed expression, “What possessed you to do…*any* of this?”

    Sid stood back up, grabbing his morpher off the desk, “I don’t know. I just thought if I could get some dirt on the guy, uncover who really killed Trok’s folks…” he trailed off.

    Xolin closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, “After everything, you still don’t trust us” she said softly, enough to cut Sid deep.

    “I just thought I could get you guys out of the desert faster. Who even knew if you’d run into a Kalroth”.

    She looked at him with a pained expression, “…You’re an idiot who cares, at least. You tried, even if you fouled it up *big time*” Xolin countered as she tried to brighten up, “Besides, this place *sucks*. We probably would have gotten thrown out eventually anyway. Shu had a bone to pick with us”.

    Sid sighed.

    She nudged him, “Come on, you heard the kid. Let’s go home”

    “You’re awfully upbeat” he said quizzically as they walked up the stairs and out of the building. He was already trying to figure out what he was going to say to Trok; ‘I’m sorry’ didn’t really cut it in this case. Good lord he’d messed up.

    She grinned, “He’s just growing up a bit, that’s all” she said, waving in off where Trok had left, “I *can* be happy about that”.

    A faint smile appeared on Sid’s mouth as well. Yeah, that was definitely true. “…Also, no offense, you *really* smell”.

    “…Don’t even start” she sighed, her smile vanishing as she remembered just how filthy she felt; even after having demorphed. She needed a shower so bad. Blech; Kalroth guts.

    So together the group trailed off back to the ship, two by two. Trok took one last glimpse of his old homeland, one final image burned in his mind. A mix of emotions he couldn’t even quite quantify flooded inside of him. He wasn’t as sad as he figured he’d be—shock maybe? Or…no, he wasn’t *that* disappointed; he hadn’t really considered this home for over a year now. His parents were long gone, and he’d never really been close to his brother, or wanted to be in any sort of government position. Relief, maybe? That this was all over and that burden of guilt was finally gone? Was finality an emotional state? Because that might be it. Melancholy, definitely. Hrm. Trok turned and entered the ship.

    The clanspeople watched from a distance as rest of the group boarded their ship, and then as it lifted off, and vanished into the sky, never to return.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  10. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.09: SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

    Xolin, by nature, was not what you would call a ‘happy’ person. She’d never really felt satisfaction with her life, and anyone who knew her would probably describe her as ‘perpetually disgruntled’—and she’d probably be hard-pressed to prove them wrong. But through that, there were still days she could count as ‘good days’, when things went a little bit less awful than usual.

    Today was decidedly not one of those days.

    “IT’S READY! IT’S READY!” she could hear Trok shouting with glee from down the hall, his voice growing louder as he bounded closer to her room. How she’d gotten herself roped into this, she had no clue. It had just sort of been ‘decided’ by the team one day that they’d do this, and Iota had approved, seeing it as a good team-building exercise.

    Trok pounded on her door. “IT’S READY!” Trinity help her.

    “I heard you the first sixteen times!” she shouted back as she leapt off her bed and crossed over to her door. It slid open, and Trok’s hyper-enthusiastic face greeted her on the other side. Sigh. It was going to be one of *those* days.

    “…Do I have to?” she groaned.

    Trok nodded, his enthusiasm not dropping at all, “Come on, Xolin! You’ll love it, really”.

    “Video games are a waste of my time” she deadpanned, her eyes narrow.

    Trok’s face scrunched up in a pout, “Are not! Video games are awesome, now *come on*! The others are waiting!” He grabbed her by the arm, dragging her out of her room. Xolin reluctantly let him pull her along, taking one last sidelong look at her room—her precious ‘me’ space.

    Sigh.

    ---

    You don’t really realize how much you depend on society until you’re forced to do without—even for a crew of rangers who hopped from one world to another. A few weeks hiding out in the expanse beyond the borders of the Confederacy had taught Sid how much everyone had come to rely on a decent net connection. Trok had been all excited about ‘Kingdoms of Targarth IV’ coming out, but with their situation they’d had to wait until they got back. And god help everyone when Trok was forced to wait for something.

    Well, the download was finally done, so hurrah! Eight zettabytes of RPG goodness. Sid found it a little amusing that Trok would be so into a human game of all things, but he just chalked it up to the growing multiculturalism within the Confederacy.

    Hrm…Trok. Sid grimaced; he and Trok still hadn’t really talked since…well, since Sid had gotten him banished from horath. So far the two had been keeping the other at arm’s length, making sure not to step on the other one’s toes…but so far that had only served to make things even more awkward. But what could Sid say? What could he do? Sid was probably lucky Trok hadn’t just invoked some sort of honor-based ritualistic duel. He didn’t know if his people had that, but y’know, it would figure.

    Ugh. That was just going to make this game awkward as all hell.

    Already he could hear Trok and Xolin’s scurried footsteps as they came down the hall towards him and Sel, currently waiting in front of the simudeck.

    “Let’s get this show on the road!” Trok shouted eagerly down the hallway as they approached, Trok keeping a tight grip on Xolin’s wrist. The triforian looked as if she was decidedly *not* having the time of her life.

    “I don’t understand why I have to do this” she grumbled, “I have better things to do than play games”.

    Sid looked at her incredulously, his arms folded, “…Xolin, you play more in the simudeck than anyone aside from Trok”.

    “Training and meditation simulations” she corrected him, “not *playing*”.

    “Well, this is like a training simulator” Sid replied, then added, “…with achievement lists”.

    “Ugh” she grunted.

    “Are we ready?!” Trok asked giddily as he brushed past them. He typed in a few commands on the control console on the wall next to the door, and a moment later the doors to the simudeck slid open, revealing a small forest clearing.

    “ONWARD, FELLOW KNIGHTS!” Trok shouted exuberantly, pumping his fist into the air as he led the group into the wood—Xolin sighing all the while.

    ---

    Sending the rangers off to their team-building exercise had a side boon for Iota; blessed silence. He had the entire ship to himself, effectively, now that the last of the engineers had disembarked and the Megaship had undocked from the orbital station in orbit around KO-35. The battle at the SPD station a few weeks back had done some serious damage to the ship; while they’d done well enough limping along in the void away from the major routes for a while, they really had needed to dock and refurbish the vessel.

    It had also come with some fancy software upgrades, which was why Iota was now touring the ship, making sure there weren’t any bugs or issues that needed to be ironed out. Again, a good thing the others were in the simudeck, because this ship wasn’t actually going anywhere until everything was sorted out. From engineering, he idly checked various scans; they’d finally been able to perform a deep scan to root out any residual trace of the shapeshifter creature from…months ago now, actually. The ship had been scanned and cleansed, and now they could *finally* turn off those dampening pylons Trok had built.

    A beeping noise drew Iota out of his thoughts. Curious (and slightly concerned), the armored figure drew himself over to the offending console, quickly going over the readings. It was detecting a massive power surge of unknown origin hitting the simudeck systems.

    …Uh oh.

    ---

    The group had wandered into town. Well, the first town, at any rate. Sid found it quaint; it was your average tiny medieval European village nestled into a mountain valley, with little cottages lining the narrow and winding paths. Mountains rose up on all sides, passing above the evergreen treeline with their white fog-covered glaciers. And as far as he could tell, a stream ran itself through the town as well—if the mill just over a street was any indication.

    Quaint! Also quite vanilla. But then, Sid figured that for Trok, this would be exotic and fantastical. Funny how that worked.

    The game itself had been fairly vanilla in general thus far. Classes, levels, skills…it was a very generic RPG. Sid hadn’t ever played this series—he’d not had too much time for this kind of stuff since leaving home after all. Being a fugitive-slash-drifter left little time for this kind of fun…but if the other installments were like this, then he’d have probably passed on it had he had the opportunity.

    So far their adventure had consisted of the group very messily choosing their roles, though once they had finally figured out what to do, things had settled down fairly predictably; Sel had gone for the ranged build, Sid had taken up a sword, and Trok was the tank. Etc, etc. The only weird one out was that Xolin had picked ‘mage’, without any sort of input from the rest. When pressured on why, she’d just deflected it, or told them some nonsense about how it was probably more intellectually challenging.

    Heh.

    “I don’t understand” Sel said as they walked. She took note of the various NPC’s and buildings, “…Our job is to fight monsters, right?”

    “…Yeah?” Trok asked back expectantly.

    She cocked her head, “…And we are spending our free time playing a game where we fight monsters”.

    Sid could hear Xolin’s quiet chuckling as Trok replied, “Yeah but…that’s different. That’s real life. This is…well, this is fantasy”.

    “But we’re doing the *exact same thing*, just with more restrictions” Sel responded, not so much against all this, but genuinely confused by the whole affair.

    “Well, that’s…” Trok trailed off, trying to come up with a good explanation.

    Sid laughed and interceded on Trok’s behalf, “Because out there is life and death, Sel. In here is just a game. We can test our skills and compete against one another just in fun instead of having to worry about civilians and whatnot. Plus, the ‘restrictions’ are just there to add to our enjoyment by making the fighting styles very different”.

    “Exactly!” Trok replied, thankful for the support.

    Sid continued, “And besides, there’s the setting too. Not every day you get to explore a medieval countryside, after all” he grimaced “…Even if it *is* horribly generic”.

    There’s an old adage: be careful what you wish for. Because at that moment the entire game world glitched; strange colors and corrupted databits growing and forming across their field of view. An awful noise caused them to cover their ears as…well, *everything* just sort of collapsed on itself, before reassembling in a haphazard glitched state.

    “…Oh, *that’s* not good” Sid frowned as he took a good look at the chaotic, upended mess around him.

    Trok spun around, mouth open, “What…”

    “Game glitched” Sid surmised, “Badly”. He waved his hand through the nearest bush, his hand just passing through it harmlessly. “Computer. End simulation”.

    No response. That was…that was bad.

    “…Computer?” Trok asked timidly. No response.

    Sid spoke into his morpher, “Sid to Iota”. All he got for his trouble was static. *Very* bad.

    “…What now?” asked Xolin, now on full battle alert mode. She already had her hands on her morpher, completely ready to go.

    Sid moved over to one of the former cottages, inspecting it idly, “We’ve got a rogue program situation on our hands”.

    When it seemed no further information was incoming from him, Xolin replied expectantly with a shrug, “…This happen often to you?”

    “Eh, once or twice” Sid returned the shrug as he turned back to them, “Simudeck errors are…well, notorious. Why do you think they’ve installed so many safeguards into the OS? Or why they outright banned the creation and selling of Sherlock Holmes games?”

    Xolin blinked, “Wait, what does Sherlock Holmes have to do with this?”

    He waved her off with a laugh, “Long story, nevermind. Anyway, we should be fine; looks like the game just had a fatal error. All we gotta do is sit tight until Iota realizes something’s up. Hopefully the Megaship’s systems registered a power surge or something”.

    Trok sighed as he dropped to the ground in a crosslegged fashion, dejected, “So much for team exercises”.

    “I’m sure Iota will allow us to reschedule” Sel said. She turned to Sid, “What should we do for now?”

    “Marinate in fear” a bleating voice cackled, as each ranger turned to see its origin. All four of their expressions turned to one of shock and horror, as there standing before them was a goat monster clad in Greek hoplite armor. Capricorn laughed again, “Hello, rangers. You’re a real pain to track down”.

    Trok shot back up to his feet as all four rangers assumed battle stances. Capricorn waved them off, “Don’t bother. This isn’t my real form; I’m just a holographic messenger”.

    “What do you want?” Sid growled, not letting his guard down one bit.

    The goat seemed to smirk, “Isn’t that obvious, rangers? I want to play a game with you. I’m sure you’ll figure out the rules soon enough”.

    “Wha—” Sid and the others glanced down, finding that the ground they had been standing on had been replaced by four separate trap doors. Each opened in turn. In an almost cartoonic fashion, the team remained hovering for just a split moment. “Sonuva—” Sid managed to blurt out in a deadpan, just before all four fell down screaming, each into a separate, isolated void.

    ---

    He’d tried to power down the game system manually by diverting power from the simudeck, but for some reason the controls weren’t responding to him. Iota groaned; not even an hour out of spacedock, and already there were problems. The figure crossed the ship, from engineering to the bridge; he was going to have to try a full system diagnostic from there; and if that didn’t work, turn the ship back around. Sigh.

    As he approached the bridge, the doors slammed shut in front of him. Hrn. That….wasn’t a good sign. He pressed the manual button, but nothing happened. He pressed it again; still nothing. Sighing, he headed around to the other entrance to the bridge…and the doors closed shut again.

    Hrn.

    He was going to need a lever.

    ---

    The first thing Sid realized was that he *hurt*. That told him two things; the first was that the safeties were off, which told him the second thing: he was in trouble. The leader of the peacekeeper rangers opened his eyes, finding himself laying down in some sort of red-tinted cave. Getting up and looking over the ledge he had been stationed on, he looked down at his new location—running rivers of magma crisscrossed the open chasm.

    Ah, the lava level. Huzzah.

    Issuing a silent prayer of hope, Sid pressed the button on his morpher. Immediately the glitched remains of his armor shattered away, replaced by his red ranger outfit. Well, thank god Capricorn hadn’t cut him off from his powers.

    …Right, Capricorn. So what was his deal? Sid had been taken a bit off guard; they hadn’t heard from the poor bastard in *weeks*, they had really started to wonder if they hadn’t managed to lose him. Guess not. But still, what was the game here? Well, Sid reasoned, the fact that he was a program within the game, and was somehow interfering with the simudeck’s controls probably meant that Capricorn had infected the ship with a virus—likely part of the game or one of the other software upgrades.

    Clever bastard.

    So, endgoal. Since he was a virus, that probably meant that Capricorn wanted control of the ship. It’d make sense; he’d have a nice new home base after they torched his last one, and he’d finally get his claws on Sel. But Sid currently had no way to warn Iota, and could only hope he was already on top of things.

    “Trap us in a game to keep us from purging you from the system” Sid mused annoyingly, “Clever”. So, the obvious solution was to somehow meet up with the others and…well, hopefully taking out Capricorn’s avatar in the game world would be enough to trigger the victory flags in the system. It was a longshot, but…well, Sid didn’t have many other options available to him.

    …Maybe Trok could hack the system? Hrn, Trok. Well, Sid guessed they couldn’t just ignore each other *forever*, but he still didn’t relish this at all. Sighing, the red ranger began to make his way down the pathway into the pit, keeping an open eye for lava monsters…and his friends.

    ---

    She found herself in a long, empty hallway full of doors. It was sort of like something out of a fever dream, Xolin admitted, and she was just a *little* unnerved…never mind that her friends were nowhere to be found.

    Still, Xolin would never be cowed by anything so insignificant. Shifting into her blue ranger form, she opened the closest door to her and entered. Inside was a large room, with…moving walls, shifting back and forth. The floor had many odd designs and letters on it, so large that she couldn’t make out the words. This was *definitely* weird.

    Wait.

    She ran to the end of the largest word. “P”.

    “I”. “N”. “B”. “A”. “L”. “L”.

    …Wait.

    She felt a rumbling sound. Her eyes widened in realization as she looked up, seeing a giant metal orb twice as tall as she was, thundering right for her. “Oh f—”

    ---

    This was decidedly *not* how he had envisioned spending today. He’d wanted to introduce the others to gaming; y’know, let them in on some of his hobbies that didn’t involve making weird inventions that may or may not work. People might not be completely into that, he *got* that. But man, games were fun, and he was pretty sure at the very least Sid seemed familiar with it. He had been hoping to use that to draw Xolin and Sel into it, because the spirits knew Xolin needed to unclench once in awhile.

    But no, here was Capricorn ruining his day yet again. Sigh.

    Trok trudged his way through the murky twilight-lit swamp, having morphed into his green ranger powers a few minutes ago. In his hands he gripped his hammer tightly, awaiting the inevitable swarm of bad guys. He hadn’t encountered any yet, but he was *sure* they were out there. Capricorn wouldn’t have trapped them all in here for his ‘game’ if he hadn’t intended to mess with them.

    The sound of something mushing through the water, and the rustle of branches got Trok’s attention. The green ranger eyed the misty forest around him, the only other sounds being his heavy breathing.

    He heard it. The groan, coming from behind. The green ranger spun around, his weapon smacking right into the skull of some sort of pale, feral man-beast; a hunched over mangy figure of skin and bone that had been coming right at him.

    Oh spirits. *Horror*. Trok spun back around in a daze, knocking out the next would-be attacker, and the next. He then broke into a sprint as more of the creatures closed in from behind, growling with inhuman noises.

    THIS WAS A VERY BAD DAY.

    ---

    She rounded the tight corner, her vehicle *almost* sliding off the track due to the inertia. But almost expertly, she managed to avoid that particular grisly fate, and kept on roaring down the pathway of the racetrack, her hovercraft traveling at blinding speeds. Sel dodged a group of mines on the track, which the craft behind her was not so fortunate at—it exploded and vanished from the game.

    She was in third place. Not bad, but she needed to do better to advance; she didn’t know where the others had gone, but she was fairly certain that ‘winning’ put her closer to finding them.

    Another craft rode up beside her and began to ram into her side. She returned the favor, causing it to spin out of control and crash off to the side of the track. Sel giggled as she sped up.

    She was actually *enjoying* this!

    ---

    Okay. So, that had been a bad idea. Xolin took a moment to catch her breath, having slammed the pinball door shut behind her. She glanced around at the other doors down the hallway, silently determining which to open. Eeny, meeny, miny…

    Moe.

    Steeling herself with a deep breath, she pulled the door open. Inside lay a graveyard with overgrown tombstones flanked by a dead, creepy-looking tree. From one of its branches hung a body, a noose around its neck, shifting silently in the moon-lit night.

    “…No” Xolin said simply, closing the door and picking a different one.

    ---

    With a mighty heave, Iota forced the bridge door open, having wedged a crowbar in between the two sides of the door and pulling, before simply forcing his way in manually. What he found inside was…well, it wasn’t good. Nothing was responding; hell, most of the controls were just outright dead. And at some point the ship had jumped to hyperrush before dropping back out in the middle of nowhere. Something was *very* wrong, and at this point Iota was contemplating sabotage.

    Having a thought, Iota ran over to the diagnostic console. Thank god, the virus hadn’t locked this system out yet. A few seconds later, and his suspicions were confirmed; *something* had infected the ship, and was growing, shutting down and rerouting control of all systems, one by one. He was going to have to act fast if he was going to save the ship and his team.

    “Tisk tisk tisk” said a familiar voice, as Iota rushed from console to console. Iota looked up, seeing a foot-tall hologram of Capricorn on one of the ships emitter displays, “Looks like oooone got away from my traaap”.

    “So” Iota deadpanned, “You were behind this”.

    The goat bleated in satisfaction, “A stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. Why fight you when I can just cripple you? The shapeshifter, while clever, was too ham-fisted. I needed something more…fool-proof”.

    “A virus” Iota surmised.

    Capricorn nodded, clearly pleased with himself, “Now if you’ll just sit tight, I’ve sent a beacon to my real self. I should be arriving shortly to take command of my new ship”.

    “You know I won’t let you do that”.

    Capricorn chuckled, “And you know I won’t leave you alive long enough to stop me”. He snapped his virtual fingers, and two turrets descended from the ceiling—part of the Megaship’s self-defense systems. The armored figure dodged out of the way, hiding behind one of the consoles as the guns opened fire.

    “I’ve already gained control of most of the ship” Capricorn said, “There’s nothing you can do to stop me, so why don’t you just lie down and die?”

    Iota grunted, irritated. Drawing his blaster, he aimed and blew open the grate to the vent tubes that spanned the ship. Then, in a single graceful movement, flung himself inside, barely missing the enemy laser fire from the turrets.

    “Hiding in the vents won’t help you!” Capricorn called after him, “I’ll soon have total sensor awareness over your vessel, And once my real form arrives, I will hunt you down like the worm you are!” He bleated in triumph.

    Iota holstered his weapon as he began to crawl. “I have not yet begun to fight…” He had to get to the computer core. If he did, he could hopefully lock the virus out. And failing that, simply flush the system. He spoke into his communicator. “Iota to Sid”. When there was no response, he tried Xolin, and then Trok and Sel.

    Damn. Communications were already down. It made sense, considering the virus’s plan, but it meant he’d need to find some other way to communicate with them.

    ---

    Trok panted, stopping next to a tree to catch his breath. He was *pretty* sure he’d lost the swamp…zombie…things, but he wasn’t really sure he wanted to take that chance. And who knew how many other spawn points there were. He needed out of this swamp. He needed…

    A shift in light caused him to look to opposite of where he had come from. There, in front of him, was the end of the swamp. Not like, a gradual shift in terrain, but like, a *literal* end. The textures and meshes just…came to a halt, replaced by new ones. To his left, a blistering hot sandy desert, of which he could faintly see pyramids in the distance. On his right, a blizzard-filled glacier valley with spikes of ice jutting up into the sky.

    “…They aren’t even trying with the level design, are they?” he grunted, trying to determine which direction was *less* awful. He almost considering going back the way he came, before a screech from one of the swamp zombies in the distance reminded him that that was probably a bad idea. He sighed.

    “…Desert it is”.

    ---

    Sid was *fairly* certain he’d come this way before. Sighing, he started to double-back, but soon found he’d *not* come this way before. Or…no, he didn’t know. It was almost like everything was shifting, changing. He’d entered this dungeon with the hope that it would lead him out of the lava pits, but so far it had only gotten him more lost. He was actually pretty sure that the maze he found himself in wasn’t even obeying the laws of three-dimensional geometry—and considering this was a simulation that was entirely possible.

    He didn’t even want to think about that.

    The dungeon itself was…odd, not at all like the lava caves. It was like the color had been sucked right out aside from himself, and everything was now being cast in nothing but shades of white and grey. It was open; many hallways and courtyards with colorless trees, and patios, and stairs…it felt like he’d almost seen this before, somewhere. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. It was annoying too, because it felt like it was just on the tip of his tongue.

    Deep in thought, he almost didn’t realize as he came out onto another patio…and saw it all. In one horrible dawning moment of realization, he understood. In front of him, and below, and to the sides, and above…stairs, and entryways, and hallways. They were all converging at odd, impossible angles, in ways where gravity could not comply.

    He knew *exactly* where he was. He’d seen this landscape before.

    It was an M.C. Escher painting.

    “…Oh goddamnit” he muttered dejectedly. He’d *never* make it out of here.

    Just then, he heard a revving sound, like an engine. He didn’t know where it was coming from, it sounded like it was bouncing off from every direction at once. But then he saw it; twin lights emanating from an archway otherwise shrouded in darkness up above his plane. The lights grew brighter as the revving noise grew louder, and Sid barely managed to duck out of the way as the yellow ranger, driving a hovercraft, flew out, landing on his balcony and skidding across the ground in a three-hundred and sixty degree motion before coming to a complete halt by virtue of crashing into the nearest wall.

    “…Sel?!” Sid gasped as he got out from his crouch, “What the—”

    “Stay down!” she ordered, drawing her bow. Out of the archway she had just entered from, two personal planes flew out right at them, lasers primed and ready. But Sel was ready, letting loose with one and then a second laser arrow. The two projectiles cut right through her opponents’ hulls, and they split apart and exploded in midair.

    “What in…” Sid finished uncrouching, and moved over to her as she awkwardly pulled herself out of her vehicle, “How did…”

    She shrugged, “I don’t know. I was in some kind of race, they got angry that I won, and I just sort of…escaped”.

    Sid blinked, “…You won?”

    She pulled out a large golden trophy from behind her seat in the vehicle, “First place”. She smiled, blushing a bit, “…It was fun”.

    “…Is there anything you’re *not* good at?” Sid asked in bemusement. She only blushed harder. “Ah, I’m only kidding” he added.

    “…So what’s the plan?” she asked, getting ahold of herself.

    Sid shrugged, looking around at the anarchic mess around them, “My plan, currently, involves wandering around aimlessly until I find everybody. Seems to be working, so far”.

    “By pure chance” Sel countered skeptically.

    The red ranger shrugged again, “You got a better idea?”

    Sel thought for a moment, gazing around at their surroundings. Continuing to just wander would get them little further; it had only been by sheer luck that the two of them had stumbled on each other. At this rate, they were only playing into Capricorn’s hands.

    “…We need to find a way to get in contact with the others” she said.

    Sid grasped his morpher, “I’ve been trying, but no dice there. Capricorn must have infected the communication systems before he sprung his trap”.

    “But he hasn’t been able to sever our connection to the morphing grid” Sel countered, “Which means he doesn’t control all of the ship yet”.

    Sid thought about this. That much was true; the very fact that their ranger powers were still active meant that at the very least, Capricorn hadn’t completely succeeded yet—though it was worth mentioning that the grid connection was the most heavily encrypted part of the ship’s systems. So…hopefully Iota could make a fight of it, but that still meant they were stuck in here, wandering about aimlessly. He shook his head, “That doesn’t really help us get out of here, though. We’re not in any position to access the ship’s systems”.

    She mused, “…Is there some way we can use the morphing grid connection to…” she paused, hesitating on how she wanted to explain this, “…I don’t know. Reroute the communication systems somehow? I mean, our morphers connect to the ship’s systems, right?”

    Hmm. He couldn’t reroute communications from this end, but…hmm. “No, I can’t do anything about the communication signals from this end. But…I think I can do one better”.

    “Hmm?” the yellow ranger asked.

    Yes. Yes, the whole idea was coming together now. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? “The morphin’ grid is the underlying energy force of the universe; the basic underpinning of…well, everything. It doesn’t work like a radio signal where you might send out a signal and I can receive it, but might not be able to respond if I don’t have the equipment. But, if one has a connection to the grid, it can be used as a two-way link. My powers impact the grid, just as the grid impacts my powers”.

    Sel’s eyes widened as she understood, “You can send a vibration as a signal”.

    Sid nodded happily, “Yep! Now, let me show you something called ‘Morse Code’”.

    ---

    Iota slid out of the grate and into the computer core. It was a small chamber; not really designed for moving about except for very rare maintenance issues. He had to crouch due to the low ceiling, and his movement was blocked off by various cables and hardware devices. In the center of it all rested a holographic display console, arranged so that one could access it from any direction. Inside the console ring stood a large metallic pillar full of lights and displays.

    The core.

    He made his way over, hating that he had to crouch; why didn’t engineers build these with better environment specifications? Eugh. Dropping to his knees at the nearest part of the console ring to him, he began a cursory scan of the damage—it was as he had feared; Capricorn was growing exponentially throughout the entire ship, and had already locked out most vital core systems.

    That was going to make this difficult. But this is why he had contingencies.

    Sighing, he took out a small storage device from his belt and slid it into the computer system, before getting to work on the display. The device he’d just inserted would have just rewritten some of the core systems back to his accessibility, but he had to move fast, before Capricorn noticed. Thankfully, his device would also hopefully keep Capricorn busy with phantom attacks elsewhere in the mainframe. He’d be too distracted, assuming that Iota was attacking him in other key systems.

    It was definitely odd that Capricorn had managed to procure a true AI program though. Viral AI were considered extremely risky and taboo, especially after Earth, and so were extremely rare—especially considering how resource-intensive they were to build. Iota grimaced; Capricorn must have been getting desperate if he was going to his employers directly for assistance.

    A soft beep got Iota’s attention. Though, that hadn’t come from the computer, that had come from…no, wait, it was a series of beeps. His suit was detecting small variations in the local morphin’ grid, and it sounded like Morse code.

    Interesting!

    Iota listened for a moment, quickly mentally deciphering the message from Sid. This was why he had bothered so much to get Sid onboard; this was absolutely brilliant. He replied as he continued his work, also in code, “Iota here, I read you. Capricorn’s virus has infected most of the system core. I am building a backdoor to purge him from. What is your status? Over”.

    Sid’s reply was prompt, “Stuck in simudeck. The goat’s split us up and is messing with us”.

    …Wait. “…Is he in there with you?”

    “He’s got an avatar in here, yeah. Why?”

    Iota grinned, “That’s the virus’s AI head. I’ll try to give you some control over the simudeck’s systems, but taking him out there will decapitate the entire virus, making it easier for me to reassert control”.

    ---

    Sid eyed his morpher skeptically as he translated Iota’s orders.

    “Problem?” asked Sel, currently sitting on the railing on the edge of the pathway they had stopped at, still stuck in the MC Escher chamber.

    Sid shrugged as he looked back at her, “We uh…have to kill the hologram to escape the game. Capricorn, I mean”.

    “…We have to win the game?”

    Sid chuckled mirthlessly at the absurdity, “This is my life”.

    Sel glanced around, “So…we need to find the others then”.

    Sid nodded, even has he continued to fiddle with his morpher, frustrated, “It’s what I’ve been trying to do, but no one else has picked up”.

    “They might be preoccupied”.

    Sid didn’t quite relish that thought. It was…ominous.

    ---

    “DID YOU KNOW: Your stats can be accessed from the tools menu!”


    “DID YOU KNOW: Most boss fights have a breather room prior, where you can save and reload!”

    “DID YOU KNOW: Skill points are awarded when you level up! Remember to check your stats whenever you reach a new level!”

    Xolin was in hell. By all rights, the door she had picked had looked nice; it was night-time forest, with a definite magical bent to it, what with the glowing mushrooms and sparkles of light wafting down from above. A hell of a lot better than any of the other doors…or so she had thought. But upon stumbling upon a small clearing, she’d accidently run afoul of…whatever these things were. Pixies, of some sort? They fluttered around her, offering up the same tips and hints over and over, never shutting up, each of them talking over one another with their high-pitched whining and SWEET TRINITY SHE WAS GOING TO KILL SOMEONE.

    “HYIAH!” she sliced her lance through the air, missing her target as it floated to the side. She tried again and again, “I don’t need a tutorial! Go! Scram!” Finally, her weapon made contact with a pixie…only to have it slide right through harmlessly. The pixies couldn’t be harmed. “AUGH!” Xolin roared, now trying harder than ever to get them to leave as she swung her weapon about wildly. “You’re worse than mosquitoes!”

    “DID YOU KNOW: your stamina is linked to your activity! Don’t wildly attack, or you may find yourself out of breath!”

    “Stop mocking me!” she wheezed, giving another half-hearted cut, before dropping to her knees. She hated everything. *EVERYTHING*.

    “DID YOU KNOW: FATAL ERROR”.

    Oh. That couldn’t be good.

    “FATAL ERROR”. “FATAL ERROR”. “FATAL ERROR”. “FATAL ERROR”. Each of the pixies had turned from a soft white to a harsh red, and the entire swarm fled from Xolin’s position. *Definitely* not good. A thump shook the earth, followed by another. And another. A shadow fell over the clearing. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself, the blue ranger turned around…

    …And found herself standing face to face with what could only be described as a steampunk tyrannosaurus robot. It roared.

    Xolin sighed.

    ---

    “Still nothing” Sid grumbled. He’d shifted his signal from a generic all-points SOS to a more distinct signal tied to Xolin’s powerset, but there was still no indication she had heard it.

    “Try Trok, maybe?” Sel asked.

    Sid’s shoulders sagged a bit.

    “…What’s wrong?” asked the yellow ranger, noting his change in domineer.

    For a moment the red ranger tried to come up with an explanation, but simply sputtered until he sighed helplessly, letting go of his morpher as he turned back toward Sel.

    “What?” she asked again. He sat down next to her, looking up and back at the maze around them.

    “It’s…just awkward right now, between us” he said, struggling with the words. “After what happened on Horath”.

    “You think he’s angry at you?”

    Sid laughed bitterly, “He has every right to be. He *should* be. But he’s probably not, because he’s an idiot”.

    “That’s not nice” she said quietly.

    Sid grimaced at her, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. The kid’s just…he’s too nice for his own good sometimes. I got him banned from his homeworld for life. His *home*. His *birthright*. I messed up, and it cost him everything. If he had any sense, he’d want to stab me in my sleep. God knows I’d want to”.

    “Have you talked to him at all?” Sel asked, genuinely confused and to be quite honest, a little out of her element. She was barely keeping up with everyone now emotionally as it was. But here she was trying to console the one member of the team she had thought had everything completely under control. This was the man who’d saved her and told her everything was going to be okay.

    But who was she not to return the favor, ability or not?

    “How can I even look him in the eyes?” asked Sid, “I’m supposed to be the mentor, the leader. Yet every time I end up with this job, I mess it up for everybody”.

    Sel didn’t quite know what to say to that. He hadn’t messed up before this, as far as she could tell, so instead she decided to power through, “You rescued me. You trained us into a team and kept us alive. I’m not good at…thinking about what others think” she said a bit sadly, “But I do know that you’ve done everything as best you could, and you at least deserve to be heard out. And I know Trok is not an angry or vengeful person” he expression brightened a little, “I’m sure you can figure things out”.

    Sid smiled wanly, “You two have been getting close, huh?”

    She blushed a bit. “He’s…approachable”. He was; moreso than the other two. While she’d been warming up to Xolin, the other girl was still very…severe, and temperamental. Sid was still to her the unapproachable mentor, the big brother she’d never had…or thought she’d never had. Whatever. But Trok was almost more like an equal; just some other friendly kid that had gotten caught up in all this; just enough ahead of her to offer a bit of advice now and again, but otherwise in the same boat as her. And he was just so…open.

    Sid chuckled slightly, “Yeah, he certainly is”. He drew a deep breath, before resuming his signaling—this time looking for Trok. He wasn’t too keen on what was going to go down, but he knew he couldn’t keep ignoring it.

    ---

    Trok had never really been one for westerns. He always more preferred either some form of fantasy or sci-fi. Both of those were pretty universal, regardless of change in window dressing depending on culture. But westerns, well, that was mostly a human thing. Certainly, most races had had their ‘colonial’ periods, but they were different enough that the stories from each really didn’t resonate with others. Besides, westerns reminded Trok a bit too much of home. Or Onyx, really. He still wasn’t sure how that all fit together.


    He shouldn’t have picked the desert level.

    Currently he found himself hiding behind a flipped over table in the back of the local saloon, sidearm in hand as the local gang continued to open fire on the building, smashing windows and punching holes in things. They had to run out of ammo sometime…right? Also, while Trok wasn’t super-knowledgeable about the human ‘wild west’ era, he was pretty certain the enemy gang wouldn’t have actually consisted of two clowns, a robot, and Santa Clause. Because that’s what he was facing. At least they were all wearing cowboy hats.

    He ducked again as another barrage of gunfire cascaded over his head. He wasn’t going to win like this. He needed an upset.

    …Wait. Was that a beeping sound? It sounded almost like…Morse! As far as he could tell, it was coming from his morpher. Giddy, he listened to the message as best as he could over the gunfire. His Morse was a little rusty, but after a few tries, he was pretty sure he had the basics down. Sid was a genius, as usual. Using the grid itself to transmit information? Fantastic. He wished he’d thought of it, but that’s why Sid was the leader.

    Even if he didn’t particularly trust the rest of the team. Sigh.

    Trok quickly typed out his own message, simply telling Sid where he’d been pinned down at. A short wait later, and Sid’s reply began telling Trok to keep typing back. Sid had an idea. Having an idea of what Sid’s plan entailed, Trok set his grid SOS to auto-mode, allowing him to focus on the threat at hand. All he had to do was hold on for just a little bit more. The gunfire had stopped; he could hear the gangsters approaching. Tensing, Trok prepared to leap out. With one swift motion, he swung out over the table, landing his feet squarely in Santa’s chest. The old man staggered back, knocking into one of the clowns.

    Spinning back around, Trok’s gun opened fire on the other clown and the robot. The clown went down fast, but the robot managed to dodge, returning fire with his own wrist gun. The green ranger ducked behind a wooden beam, before coming around the other side, knocking a chair into the air with his foot, and kicking it towards the robot. Distracted, the machine was taken by Trok’s sudden charge into his midsection, which threw them both into the wall. In the blink of an eye, his gun switched to sword mode, and he decapitated the robot.

    Click.

    Crap, he’d forgotten the other two. Trok turned around, finding two guns pointed at his unguarded side. A weapon fired, but it wasn’t theirs, to his surprise. Two laser blasts came from outside the saloon knocked the remaining clown aside, before it dissolved into polygons. Santa returned fire, but that only gave the red ranger the chance he needed to dive through the firing line from the side, slamming into the Christmas mascot with his knee, before spinning around and landing a kick with his other leg. Staggering, Santa was unable to defend against Sel’s next attack, as she raced past Sid’s recovering form, taking her blade-bow and cutting down on the opposing NPC. Santa shattered into polygons, leaving just the three rangers.

    “Tracking me by my morphin’ grid signature. Clever!” Trok said gleefully as he bounded over to Sid.

    “Her idea, actually” Sid said, a bit brusque as he nodded toward Sel.

    “Oh!” Trok said, both surprised (and impressed) at Sel, but also a little offput by Sid. “Er, cool!”

    “…Thanks” Sel blushed a bit.

    Sid glanced around, “Come on, we gotta find Xolin and get out of here”.

    “So…what’s the plan?” asked Trok, running up beside him as Sid began to walk out of the saloon.

    Sid didn’t even bother making eye contact. Er, well, helmet contact, “We kill the goat, we win the game. We win the game, we save the Megaship. Come on”.

    “…Right” Trok mumbled, a bit dejected as Sid plowed ahead.

    ---


    At first Xolin had decided to fight the robot dinosaur. She soon however had decided it was more prudent to run--mostly after she discovered that the tyrannosaurus in question had a rocket launcher that could unfold from its backside and could fire laser beams from its eyes.

    So she ran.

    The tyrannosaurus also ran.

    She ran harder.

    ---

    This was becoming awkward; Sid and Trok hadn’t said much at all to each other since Trok’s rescue. Normally Sel wouldn’t have minded the quiet, but even she could feel the tension between the two. They walked across some ancient platform, straddled high above the center of a misty jungle canyon, each of them noticeably distant from each other. Sid was in front, with Sel holding up the rear, as usual.

    “Iota to rangers. Come in rangers”.

    Sid brightened up as he heard Iota’s voice over their comm signals. This was good news! “Sid here. I see you’ve been busy!”

    “Indeed” came the response, “I’ve managed to hack into and isolate the comm system, as well as secure our access to the grid; Capricorn won’t be able to sever your connection to your powers”.

    Sid nodded, “That’s good news. So what’s up?”

    “You will be pleased to know I’ve also managed to track down the virus’s central intelligence’s location within your gamescape. I’m forwarding the information to your morphers as we speak”.

    “Awesome! Any word on Xolin?” Sid asked.

    “No, unfortunately. She’s not responded. I’ll keep trying though, and send her to your locations. I’ll also be attempting to reroute the game systems to your control”.

    Sid nodded, “Understood. Sid out”.

    Sure enough, information began downloading itself into his morpher, giving him the ability to track Capricorn. He grinned in satisfaction as it began pointing them straight ahead, to where a snowy mountain had just appeared in the distance. A mountain with a palace of ice near the peak.

    “So that’s it, huh?” Trok asked.

    Sid nodded, “…Looks like it. Let’s go pay the goat a visit”.

    ---

    Iota’s hands raced over the control console, just barely keeping one step ahead of Capricorn. It had almost become a game in of itself; a desperate race to see who could control as much as possible while still containing the other as much as possible. Right now Iota had communications, weapons, internal sensors, and, amusingly, the synthatron. Capricorn currently had the engines, the simudeck, and—oh, huh. Iota glanced up when he heard the fans all shut down and the lights revert to emergency mode. Life support had just gone down; how delightful. Thankfully, since everyone was morphed, Capricorn’s little ploy was pretty much mitigated.

    Still. He couldn’t afford to waste time. He needed to crack Capricorn’s hold over the simudeck if the rangers were going to have any hope of winning.

    ---

    The ice palace grew ever larger. They’d long left the rainforest, instead now trudging their way up the steep, deadly slopes of the mountainside, even as cold snow rained down on them. And it was real cold too—er, well, technically simulated because y’know, it was a simudeck, but with the safeties off it was essentially real. Which was why the entire group was very thankful once they reached the cave entrance at the base of the fortress.

    “So this is it, then?” Sel asked. She eyed the other two rangers, hoping for a reaction. A witty wisecrack, a jab…something. To her (expected) disappointment though, all she got was a nod and grunt of acknowledgement from Sid. She grumbled. Something bubbled inside of her.

    “That’s enough!” she exclaimed from behind them. She regretted her decision even before the words had finished leaving her lips, and moreso as the red and green rangers turned back to look at her. This…what the hell had she been thinking? But well…she was too far in to back up now. Now far more self-conscious, she began stumbling over her words a bit—but pressed on determined nonetheless. “You—you’re…just…stop!”

    “Stop what?” Trok asked, confused.

    “Not…*talking* to each other!” Sel managed to force out, her heart starting to race from the sudden stress. Why was this so difficult? “You’re just…ignoring each other!”

    Sid sighed reluctantly, “This…really isn’t the time, Sel. We gotta win the game first”.

    Sel put her foot down, “No, this—this is the *perfect* time. How can we fight together if…if you’re not *talking* together. I mean talking with…I mean…” Damnit, her words weren’t working again.

    Sid’s shoulders sagged; he wasn’t getting out of this. He dared a glance at Trok, who did likewise. Oh boy. What could he even say? He looked away, at the snow on the ground, “I messed up. I…I took away your home, and have nothing to show for it. I thought I was helping; that I’d be able to get you out of that situation, and instead I just made it worse. I can’t even apologize, because nothing I can say or do will ever absolve me of that. You are completely within your rights to hate my guts”.

    Trok shook his head sadly, “I don’t hate you. I could never hate you. I’m just…” he frowned, “I’m sad. Disappointed, I guess. You didn’t trust us”. That stung Sid even harder, as Trok continued, “You didn’t trust me, and you didn’t trust Xolin. We had a plan, we all had a plan, and we had agreed on it. And then you just…decided to go off and do your own thing. You didn’t wait to see if we could do it, and you didn’t think *I* could do it…did you?”

    Silence. Sid suffered flashbacks to his SPD team.

    “I’m sorry. I’m just…it’s not that I didn’t think you could do it, I just…I wanted to keep you out of danger if I could. Just in case”. What a bunch of shit; he’d tried to avoid what had happened with his old team, and instead caused them to suffer all the same. What a wonderful leader he was.

    “Like I said” Trok smiled bitterly, “You don’t trust us”.

    “I’m sorry about your home. I know there’s nothing I can—”

    Trok cut him off, more direct now. He’d never imagined he’d be going head to head against Sid, but here he was--angry, “It’s not about my homeworld, Sid. I left there a long time ago. You think I wanted to be Khan? I didn’t. I wanted to explore, to see what was out there. I was already in self-exile, because I knew if I returned they’d have killed me. It’s no different now. My brother was…not a good person, and once my folks died, there just wasn’t much keeping me there. It’s not *about* my home. My home is on the ship. With you, and Xolin, and Sel. Or I thought it was”.

    Sid was an idiot. How could he have been such a complete and utter moron? He mentally kicked himself as hard as he could, “No, you were right. It is your home. And once this is over…I’ll leave. And you’ll never have to deal with me again”.

    “I don’t *want* you to leave!” Trok exclaimed. It was like talking to a brick wall!

    “Then what?!” Sid’s voice rose a bit, frustrated.

    “I want you to *TRUST* us!” Trok bit back. “You’re always telling me I should believe in myself more, but when it comes down to it, you just go and do whatever anyway!”

    “I was trying to help” Sid lobbed back.

    Trok shook his head, “I know you were. But so why is it that when Xolin was in charge, she’d always let me jump in right beside her?”

    Sid’s head bowed in defeat. “…So what can I do to make it up?”

    Trok shrugged as he began to head further into the cave, “…I don’t know”.

    Sel frowned. Maybe this had been a bad idea after all. She’d just wanted them to make up; she’d thought they’d patch it all up really quickly with no hurt feelings, but instead all she’d done was make it worse. Leave it to her to be the useless load, right? She mentally cursed herself as she followed them, the awkward silence now even harsher than before.

    ---

    All things considered, this had been a rather brilliant scheme. He had to give the rangers credit; he’d been forced to rely on craftier and craftier plans as his campaign had gone on. It had really forced him to think more and challenge himself.

    It was almost a shame that this would come to an end shortly. Certainly, Iota was still fighting back gallantly, but as long as Capricorn was still using the simudeck as a safehouse, it was only a matter of time before the entire ship was his. Well, the real Capricorn, that is. The AI knew his time would come to an end soon, but that was fine. He was only a fragment of the real pirate lord, and had done his job admirably.

    The doors to his ice palace blew apart, momentarily surprising the goat. Then as three multicolored figures raced into the room, he grinned evilly. So, they were more resourceful than he had thought. This would be fun!


    “Rangers!” Capricorn bleated from his icy balcony down to the lobby below, “Welcome to my humble abode! Take your morphers off; stay awhile”


    “We’ll pass” Sid replied, “How about you come down here and give us the grand tour?”

    The goat laughed, “Not how I do things, rangers. I have my servants for that!”

    The rumbling of footsteps forced the rangers into a circle, knowing exactly what was coming. They were not disappointed as humanoid ice soldiers began charging into the room from all directions.


    “Mook battle” Trok said, readying himself for the onslaught. It had apparently been decided by all of them that the conversation earlier didn’t matter right now—which was a good thing, all things considered. Trok didn’t particularly have a death wish.

    Sid nodded, “Protect your flanks. BREAK!” He launched his fist at the nearest soldier, just as it was about to come down on him. It shattered upon his impact, and the red ranger followed up with a spin kick on the next-nearest warrior. The other two branched out as well; Trok thrusting his feet into his chosen prey, and Sel pulling out her blade bow and launching ranged attacks from behind the other two. The three fought hard, plowing through the enemy force, but they just kept coming; no matter how many they took down, there were just as many waiting in the wings.

    Pulling out his axe, Sid shoved its blade down into the shoulders of his next victim. Crimson flame burst forth as he charged up his attack.

    Flame. That was it!

    “Everyone, get down!” Sid ordered.

    “Wha!?” Trok asked, confused.

    “NOW!”

    Trok and Sel ducked, as Sid charged up his weapon, more brightly than he had ever before, so brightly it was blinding to look at. Then, with all his might, he swung it around in a wide arc, a blade of pure fire reaching out across the battlefield in a quick circular motion. Within seconds the entire chamber had been cleared of enemy troops, with no more spawning. Sid looked up at Capricorn, his self-satisfied grin visible even with the helmet. Capricorn scowled.

    “…Dude…” Trok whispered, a little bit in awe.

    “Cute” the goat grumbled, “Now try round two”. He snapped his fingers, and the entire room began to shake.


    “Uh oh…” Trok muttered, having a sinking feeling he knew what was coming next. A second later, the wall behind Capricorn burst apart, and a giant blue-scaled reptilian creature with wings saundered through into the main room. Its wings unfurled as it cleared the wall, and gave a mighty roar, flame bursting forth from its jaws.


    “Boss fight”. Sid steeled himself, his axe at the ready.

    “…And then there was that time we fought a dragon” Trok sighed. Capricorn laughed, as he began to make his way towards the hole the dragon had entered from.

    “Good luck, rangers!”

    “Options!?” asked Sel, stepping back in hesitation, even as she kept her bow trained on the dragon. The creature roared and sent another pillar of flame, this time down on Trok and Sid. They rolled away, just in time as the heat burned away the icy floor.

    Sid gritted his teeth as he landed in a crouch. It was almost ironic; this would be the perfect time to call for the Megazord, but they couldn’t because they were already *in* the Megazord, in a simulation being powered by the Megazord. Sigh. He eyed Sel, “Okay, plan. Sel, you keep it distracted with ranged attacks. The rest of us will—”

    Sid never finished his sentence, instead being distracted by a second wall, to the left of the creature, also ripping apart as another large monster crashed into the room. It was heavy and mechanical, with visible gears and smokestacks, in the vague form of…a tyrannosaurus? It roared and charged into the dragon, closing its mighty jaws on the creature, as its foe returned the favor.

    “YEE-HAW!” Xolin cheered, riding on top of her chosen steed. She pressed a button while straddling the tyrannosaurus’s backside, allowing the rocket launchers to open and unload themselves on the offending dragon. It roared in pain, returning fire with its flame breath, which Xolin barely dodged.

    “…This is the best boss fight *ever*” Trok said, with not a small hint of glee.

    Xolin uttered a battle cry as the t-rex charged forward with all its power, overloading its systems as it forced the dragon back. She leapt off her doomed steed, landing next to the other rangers as it exploded in a flash of light and sound and fury, taking the dragon with it. Both entities went up in a furious mushroom cloud, before it slowly died and vanished.

    “…Holy shit” Sid managed to utter.

    Xolin extended her arms out, as if to gesture her innate greatness, “Ta-daa!”

    “That was *AWESOME*!” Trok clapped.

    Xolin chuckled, “I figured you’d like that”.

    “How’d you find us?” asked Sid, “We’ve been trying to get ahold of you for a while. I was starting to think something had happened”.

    “I was…busy” she shrugged, eying the burning wreckage, “Iota got me up to speed. So, where’s our dashing host?”

    Sid nodded towards the gaping hole in the far wall, “He’s—” For the second time in that very room, Sid was cut off, as from the ashes of the battle the dragon magically reformed itself, pixelating back into existence with a mighty roar and a blast of fire to the sky.

    “…What” Xolin said, flatly.

    “Second phase” Trok said as he readied himself again, “It’s probably got new tricks”.

    “So we have to beat it all over again?!” the blue ranger exclaimed.

    Sid grimaced as he thought through the implications, “Capricorn’s probably got him on some sort of infinite spawn. Y’know, keep us busy until he finishes taking over the ship. Why bother with him fighting us directly, after all? It’d just endanger him”.

    “So how do we get through?” Sel asked, “It’ll just follow us if we try to bypass it”.

    A flash of inspiration seized Trok, “…I’ll do it”.

    “Do what?” asked Sid, “No offense but…I don’t think any of us should take on Capricorn alone”.

    “No I mean, I’ll take on the dragon, keep it occupied”.

    “That…could work” Xolin mumbled, after some hesitation.


    “Alone? That’s crazy!” Sid replied. Just then, the dragon attacked, apparently having gotten tired of being ignored. It issued a funnel of fire at the offending rangers, who dodged out of the way. Sel returned fire with her bow while the others continued to discuss.

    “Dude, have you checked my simudeck scores?” Trok asked in a frustrated tone. He unhooked the end of his hammer, swinging the mace up to the dragon’s neck as it turned toward Sel. The weapon wrapped around its neck, and Trok pulled, “I know how the game works! I know how to keep it distracted! I can do this!” The dragon screeched, flapping its wings in defiance as it tried to pull away, but Trok wouldn’t let go.

    “That’s suicide” Sid shouted back, “The dragon’s immortal. You’re going to get yourself killed!”

    “Not if you hurry!” Trok shot back, “Why won’t you trust me!?”

    “I do trust you!”

    “No you don’t!”

    “I *do*!” Sid glared at him.


    “Then why don’t you let me!”

    “Because—”

    “Because WHY?!” Trok roared, angry and frustrated.

    Sid roared back, “Because my last team *DIED*”.

    “…What” Trok said flatly, his concentration wavering. It was all the dragon needed to swing upward, launching Trok into the air. The green ranger yelped as he was tossed around.

    “TROK!” Sid shouted, charging at the dragon. Trok meanwhile, used his momentum against the dragon, flying down on its back. He landed right behind its head, grabbing hold with all his might.

    “I’ve *GOT THIS*!” Trok shouted, holding on for dear life, “DO YOUR THING!” Sid froze, not entirely sure what to do. Trok was giving him the window he needed, but…

    “Sid!” Xolin said, stopping behind the red ranger, her voice firm, “We don’t go, then we all die when the ship goes boom or whatever it is the goat’s got planned”.

    “But—”

    Xolin pressed through, “We fight with you, not for you. You lead us because we trust you to know your shit. Beyond that, well, we’re not here to be your damsels in distress”. She looked up at Trok, still giving the dragon a hell of a time, “If you don’t go after Capricorn, then I will. But then, you wouldn’t be leading your team, would you?”

    Sid looked back at the blue ranger, his shoulders sagging a bit, “Xolin…”

    “We’re a *team*. We share the risk together. Got that?”

    Sid gave Trok’s fighting form one last look as his fists tightened. Right. The quicker they did this, the quicker everyone could go home. “…Xolin, Sel, on me. Let’s end this”.

    Under her helmet, Xolin smiled as the three of them raced off through the hole in the wall after Capricorn.

    “Good luck!” Trok shouted down at them. He let go from the dragon’s head, wrapping around and down with his mace. With all his inertia, he swung up, his feet charging with green energy as he slammed into the dragon’s chest. The dragon stumbled back, crashing into the wall as the green ranger dropped to the ground, retracting his mace back into its hammer mode. As it regained its stability, the dragon roared again. Trok grinned, hammer in hand. “Come get some!”

    Not one to disappoint, the dragon lunged forth. Trok dodged to the side, readying his sidearm as he found his footing. He opened fire, running in a wide arc around the side of the beast, as it turned its neck to follow him. The blast of fire from its mouth was easy enough to avoid as it made an even geometric path across the far wall—definitely a script.

    “That’s right. Show me your special moves” Trok grinned through his determined expression. This was so much more his speed; enemies with pre-established patterns and attacks. They were like a puzzle, and all you had to do was figure out what that puzzle was. Real-world enemies were so much tougher, since they didn’t adhere to AI scripts or patterns. You could never determine where a Kalroth was going to burst out of the sand first. But the dragon here? This was a game.

    A game with lethal consequences at the moment, sure. But still a game.

    The dragon flapped its wings, nearly sending Trok tumbling to the ground as it took off into the air inside the large ice cavern. It swooped around, its wings smashing into the icicles covering the ceiling, sending large ice chunks falling down towards Trok. The green ranger’s eyes widened in surprise for a moment, but quickly dodged out of the way of each incoming batch. The second he got a clear shot though---boom. He extended his hammer again, once again wrapping it around the dragon’s neck before charging it up and pulling as hard as he could. The dragon plummeted to the ground against its will, causing a powerful THUD as it hit and dented the ice on the ground, leaving a nice little shattered crater in its wake. It roared again as it pulled itself back onto its feet, giving Trok enough time to wisely detract his hammer again.

    So that was the pattern. Trok grinned. This was going to be easy.

    ---

    The red, blue, and yellow rangers raced down the icy hallway, weapons ready.

    “Iota to rangers. I’ve been able to isolate most of Capricorn’s administrator processes, including his immortality and teleportation settings. He won’t be able to load you to other levels anymore, and if you take his health bar down to zero, you’ll take him down”.

    “Can’t imagine that’s a sentence you ever thought you’d say” Sid grinned under his helmet as they ran.

    “Indeed. Good luck, Iota out”.

    The rangers turned another corner; and there was Capricorn, waiting.

    “Sacrificed one of your own, hmm?” the goat laughed, “It still won’t save you!” Pulling out his swords, Capricorn struck them into the ice. Cracks in the ground began to form, as arctic blasts reached out, creating a minefield for the rangers as they continued to charge in, barely evading the blasts.

    “Xolin, Sel!” Sid ordered, noting their position as they ran.

    Xolin picked up on Sid’s idea, “Right! Sel, rocket maneuver! Like we practiced!”

    Sel nodded, picking up her speed as Xolin decreased hers. The yellow ranger lept up into the air, over Xolin’s shoulders, and forward. The blue ranger, caught Sel by her boots, and thrust her forward, sending the yellow ranger flying up into the air and down on Capricorn. She managed to get off three shots on him, all of which were deflected by his swords, as she came down with her bow, their weapons clashing.

    “I see they’ve been training you!” Capricorn mused, “It wasn’t so long ago you were just a hostage!”

    Sel’s glare turned into a warm smile as her anger was replaced by affection for her team, “…Yeah. They have”. The glare returned, fueled by determination as she let go of her hold against her foe. As she lept away, Capricorn frowned as he realized his error. The other two rangers were on top of him, and he was undefended. They cut into him, as Sel opened fire on his suddenly prone form. Capricorn drew back, sparking.

    …Wait, he was sparking. He wasn’t immortal! He checked his status; sure enough, his health had gone down—by quite a chunk too, by the look of it. What had that damned Iota done?!

    “What’s wrong?” Xolin taunted, “Feeling a little mortal?”

    “You…” Capricorn seethed as his entire plan was coming apart at the seams. Not again. NOT *AGAIN*! He charged up his swords and threw himself at Xolin, “I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED BY THE LIKES OF YOU!”

    “Sorry, not today” Sid said, as his axe flared up. His weapon swung down, sparks exploding against Capricorn’s unprotected side. “You couldn’t beat us on Onyx, you sure as hell couldn’t beat us now! Finish it, guys!”


    “Sel!” Xolin tossed her lance at the yellow ranger, who grabbed it and immediately loaded it up into her bow. She aimed, focusing all her distaste of the creature who had captured her months ago into one single strike.

    She fired.

    The powered up lance cut through Capricorn’s digital form. He staggered, sparked, and shattered into a billion vanishing fragments as he screamed in rage. A second later, the entire room glitched and shuddered, before finally collapsing around them, replaced by the bare white walls of the simudeck.

    “…We did it” Xolin gasped. Then a second later pumped her fist into the air in celebration, “YEAH! WE DID IT! HA-HA!”

    “A few more rounds and you’ll start to sound like me” Trok teased, letting his hammer’s head drop to the ground so he could lean on it.

    “Iota to rangers: good job. I’ve just finished purging the last of Capricorn’s virus from the system. We’re returning to drydock for a full sweep. Simudeck should be clear, though”.

    Sid replied, “Understood. Sid out”.

    Sid caught sight of the green ranger, his shoulders sagging in release. Xolin was about to retort, but as she saw the two of them trade glances, she instead opted to stand back and let the boys have their moment.

    “I told you I could do it” Trok said quietly, his domineer changing rapidly as he demorphed.

    Sid nodded brusquely, also demorphing, “Yeah. You did”. The other two also powered down, but said nothing.

    “Explains a lot, you know” Trok muttered, “Your other team, I mean. I figured something bad must have happened. It’s why you didn’t want to join up in the first place, right?”

    “It’s a…long story” Sid replied, “I messed up, and they paid the price”.

    “Just like now, right?” Trok said, putting the dots together in his head.

    Sid chuckled darkly, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t”.

    Trok laughed. When Sid cocked his head in confusion, he clarified, “You think too much”.

    “Excuse me?”

    “What I think he means is, maybe stop double-thinking everything all the time” Xolin countered, walking back over to them. She put her hand on Sid’s shoulder, “Like I said, we’re your partners, not your children. Shit could happen, yeah, but we’ll deal with it together, as a team”.

    Sid softened, chuckling as he shook his head, “I know, you’re right. I’m sorry, it’s just…hard”. Flashbacks, to his team. He always saw their faces, their…dead expressions. “…I can’t help but remember”.

    Xolin smiled sadly, “…Yeah” she perked up, “So, who’s up for another round?”

    “I thought you didn’t like games” Trok noted slyly.

    She shrugged, seemingly aloof, but with a bit of a sly undertone herself, “I suppose I could tolerate them”.

    “…You *like* playing!” Trok pointed with an evil smile, “Admit it!”

    “Not a chance!” she countered, spinning around so that her back was facing Trok, her hands folded.

    “You do! You do!” he laughed in satisfaction. The tension in Sid’s body evaporated as he watched the two of them go at it.

    “What should we play?” asked Sel, opening up the menu from the main holographic console.

    Sid and Trok glanced at each other again, a flurry of unspoken emotions passing between them. Sid’s regret, Trok’s continued frustration and questions, all the unsaid things. They were going to have a lot to talk about. Later, though. They were going to have a lot to talk about later.

    “Are we really doing this?” Sid asked good-naturedly, “We just *escaped* from the simudeck”.

    “You got something better to do?” Xolin retorted. Sid said nothing, only grinning as the group crowded around Sel, seeing what the ship had to offer.

    They’d talk later. For now? Now they were going to go kick some holographic ass.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  11. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.10: HAUNTED WHISPERS

    They’d finally found a decent purpose for the observation lounge, at least as far as Trok was concerned. Normally the room didn’t get much use; ostensibly it was a reception area, used for diplomatic events back when the vessel had been under SPD employ. But diplomacy wasn’t exactly the main gig for a clandestine black ops organization, and so it had mostly just sat empty. They mostly just ate in the workbay, and relaxed either there or in the simudeck. The most this place ever saw any activity was when someone just needed to ‘get away from it all’, needing a place to clear their head in the dead of night.

    But, as Trok had decided, this was *much* better. See, the ship’s higher-level functions had needed to be shut down after the last mission. They’d crossed through the dense ionized nebula of a proto-system disk in pursuit of a pirate vessel they’d been tasked to apprehend. The ionization had done a number on the ship’s computer, and so they’d needed to do an extensive sweep and reboot of the core. Which was funny, because the whole Capricorn virus incident had only been like, a week earlier.

    As it turned out though, no power meant the rangers had had to come up with a new way of keeping themselves occupied in the dark. And so here they all sat in the observation lounge, having brought in blankets and having stolen all of the room’s cushions for a fort, and they were now telling ghost stories.

    …Er, well, *trying* to tell ghost stories. Trok had gone for the generic attempt, though he of course thought it had been very good. Ghost ships were a solid standby, he had thought, but apparently he’d been stuck with a tough room. Sel, predictably, hadn’t had anything and simply passed.

    Xolin meanwhile, well…

    “And then when the acolyte turned to look at his other two aspects, he gasped—there was only one other of himself in the room. Only two aspects. Only two”.

    The other three rangers listened, mostly with expressions that ranged from ‘bored to tears’ in Trok’s case to ‘mild perplexion in Sel’s. Xolin kept up her spooky charade, allowing it to linger with the flickering light of the simulated fire they surrounded, hoping to catch them in the feeling. No such luck. Damn. She awkwardly let go of the narration. “…Oh come on, that was scary!” she said, grumpiness beginning to fill her voice.

    Trok snorted, “Yeah, I’m quaking in my boots. And you called *my* story lame!”

    “It’s *esoteric* horror!” she protested, “Having only two aspects would be an abomination!”

    “I’m sure you had to be there” Sid shrugged, a wry grin on his face.

    She glared at him. “Unwashed plebs. Wouldn’t know a good horror story if it came up and bit you”.

    He rolled his eyes, leaning back in his seat, “Xolin, there aren’t any other species who have multiple aspects like yours. It simply doesn’t translate. I’m sure it’s um…’terrifying’ back home, but for us? No context at all”.

    Xolin put her hands up in defeat as she slumped back into her seat, “You know what? Fine, whatever. I dare you to do one better”.

    Sid leaned forward, his smile becoming downright predatory. “I’ll make you eat those words”.

    Xolin folded her arms, “Oh, this should be good” she muttered sarcastically. And so Sid took a deep breath, and began his tale…

    ---

    For once, everything was going along smoothly. No viruses, no electrical storms, no hostile ships attacking them…Iota could focus on the computer sweep in peace. Even the rangers were quiet; holed up somewhere telling each other silly ghost stories or whatever.

    Iota slid his hand across the computer console as he idly checked the readings from one to the next. Only another few hours and this would be all over and they’d be able to resume their course—the pirates had unfortunately gotten away, but they’d managed to gain a few leads in their chase. If anything, waiting this out only helped them, as it would cause their prey to calm down and risk visiting one of their leads—and then they were done for.

    Only a matter of time.

    The entire bridge was dark, save the soft glow of the scant few consoles currently active. He liked it; it was…calming. Quiet.

    That quiet was shattered by a beeping noise coming from the emergency communications system, one of the few programs to still be active. Y’know, just in case. Curious, Iota moved over to the beeping signal, and began to play it. Perhaps it was command, informing them of a change in mission. Or perhaps, less welcoming, it was an ultimatum from some ship that had caught them with their proverbial pants down.

    It turned out to be neither, however. Iota listened with curiosity.

    “…Anyone listening on this frequency, this is the independent cargo ship Horizon. We need immediate assistance, please respond! I repeat, to anyone listening on this frequency…”

    Iota responded back, “Horizon, this is the independent transport Janus” he said, rattling off one of his ship’s many aliases when such occasions came up, “What is your situation?”

    The cargo ship didn’t respond, instead repeating the same message over and over. “Hello? Horizon, please come in. What is your status?” Still nothing, and Iota knew that meant they’d have to go in personally. He rung up the sensor systems, quickly pinpointing the origin of the SOS, before transferring it to the rangers’ sky cycles and shutting the sensors back down. It wasn’t too far out; the signal had originated near a gas giant within the nearest system, less than a light-year away. The rangers could check it out while the ship was still being run through its paces.

    Now however, he had to go figure out where the rangers were.

    ---

    The hallway was a mess; Iota was thankful for his suit’s night vision, otherwise traversing the corridor leading to the observation lounge would have been a death trap. Chairs from inside the room had been stacked outside like a barrier, with random things also from inside being used as a makeshift minefield outside said barrier.

    “This…does not bode well” the figured sighed as he moved aside some of the chairs so he could reach the door. Bracing himself, he opened the doorway and stepped inside…and was met with a large fort built from the room’s many sofas toppled onto one another. Inside, presumably, were the rangers.

    He sighed again, “…What are you doing?” he asked disdainfully.

    “Nothing” Trok replied, a little too quickly, “We’re not doing anything. We’re uh…”

    “Hiding in a pile of furniture” Iota finished for them, clearly unamused.

    Xolin called out from her own position behind the bar, “I’m not hiding! I’m just…” she hesitated, her head poking up over the counter. She cleared her throat, “So how long until we’re up and running again?”

    “A few hours” Iota said, not taking his eyes off Sid’s fort, “But I have a mission for you now. We’ve received an SOS signal from a nearby planet. The relevant information has been uploaded to your skycycles”.

    “Mission, huh?” Trok muttered from within the fort, “Sounds good! Sounds good. We were um…getting…bored in here”.

    Iota eyed Sid, sitting quite comfortably—and smugly—where the others had been earlier, “And what would your take on this be?”

    He shrugged, a self-satisfied expression crossing his face, “…Couldn’t say. Guess they didn’t like my story telling”.

    Iota stared at him a moment longer, then shook his head in abject disgust as he walked out, “Get to your stations, all of you”.

    ---

    Four skycycles shot through the void of space, approaching a rather large orange-hued world. It was a gas giant, with vibrant bands of texture running across its surface; chaotic maelstroms that had been churning endlessly since long before the development of civilization.

    Sid was not particularly happy about it. “Because of course. The one time the Megaship is out of commission is the one time we have to dive into a class II gas giant”.

    “What’s wrong? Afraid?” Xolin taunted as the four craft dipped into lower orbit, preparing for their final descent into the thick, soupy atmosphere below.

    Sid didn’t rise to her obviously revenge-fueled bait, “Travel within gas giants is ‘ill-advised’ for a reason. If we’re not careful, the winds and storms could tear us apart. And that’s not even getting into the problems with the planet’s radiation belts. We’re damned lucky we’ve got ranger powers”.

    “We’ll be fine” Xolin retorted, “Our skycycles can guide us through the wind belts, and the ship doesn’t look to be *that* far down in the clouds. This’ll be a quick in-and-out job”.

    “Hmm” Sid mused, unconvinced. He tapped the communications menu on his vehicle, “Calling the cargo ship Horizon, this is the Janus rescue party, please come in”. When no reply was forthcoming, Sid tried again, “Cargo ship Horizon, do you read?”


    “Iota couldn’t get them to respond either” Trok said, “Comms must be down”.

    “But they managed to keep a distress signal going?” Xolin asked incredulously.

    Sid grumbled, “I don’t like this”.

    “Trap?” Xolin asked.

    Sid nodded, “Trap”.

    “But we’re going in anyway” Xolin added in deadpan, completely aware of where this was headed.

    The red ranger glanced over at blue, “Can’t be helped. If it’s *not* a trap, we can’t just let innocent people die. We just gotta be on our guard and ready to bail at the first sign something’s up”.

    “So…” Trok asked, “Taking bets on if it’s Capricorn, or that creepy guy with the briefcase?”

    “I hope it’s not Capricorn again” Sel muttered.

    “I’m gonna go with ‘briefcase” said Xolin, “We just torched one of Capricorn’s plans; I doubt he’d have rebounded so quickly”.

    Sid thought it over, “…New guy, employed by briefcase dude. Like Naga was”.

    “That’s comforting” Xolin grimaced.

    “So no votes for Zombie Naga?” Trok joked.

    Sid ignored him, “I’m a ray of friggin’ sunshine” he chuckled back at Xolin, then grew serious as he checked his onboard readings, “We’re within descent arc radius of our target. Prepare to dive”. And just like that, the four flying motorbikes slide beneath the orange gassy waves.

    ---

    The upper layers of the atmosphere were as Sid pretty much expected; alternating layers of turbulence separated by levels of lesser activity. They’d mostly been diving in stages; quickly descending as safely as they could through the trouble layers, and then coasting along the quiet barriers before diving again.

    Luckily for the group, at the moment the ship in question was within one of the quiet zones…though for how much longer was a good question, as Sid noted that engines and antigrave generators seemed to be down, and the vessel was indeed slipping lower into the abyss. That made rescue paramount: if they didn’t hurry, the ship would sink low enough that the pressure from the atmosphere would crush it –and them—like ants. Not fun.

    Though he did have to say, not that he was a physics wiz or anything, but the ship was falling more slowly than he’d have thought—more of a crawl than a free-fall. Curious.

    He motioned to the others, taking the lead towards the vessel’s forward loading bay. It was a typical terran vessel, and an old one by the looks of it, pre-dating the fall of Earth. It was what one would expect a human vessel to look like; blocky and utilitarian, with the various cargo bays segmented apart and able to detach from the upper ‘spine’ of the ship.

    “How do we get in?” Trok asked.

    “We could try knocking, maybe” Xolin joked.

    “Janus to Horizon. Come in Horizon” Sid tried again, still trying to get in contact with the vessel. Yet still, nothing. Sigh. He grumbled in frustration; he really didn’t *want* to shoot the loading bay door down, but he wasn’t really seeing any other options. “…Alright. Everyone form up, we’re going to—oh, huh”. Sid’s command was abruptly cut off by the ship’s door opening on its own, without any indication of…well, anything. “…Yeah, that’s not suspicious”.

    “We still going in?” Trok asked.

    Sid nodded, “Be on your guard”. With that, he pushed his cycle forward, into the loading bay. The others quickly, if reluctantly, followed suit…

    ---

    “This place is giving me the creeps”

    It was hard to disagree with Trok; everything felt…off. The door to the loading bay had closed after the rangers had entered the ship, leaving the rangers in an otherwise unpopulated chamber. The lights were all off, forcing the team to use their headlights situated in a thin strip just atop their visors. The room itself was a mess, with boxes and supplies tossed about haphazardly like a tornado had hit the place.

    “Air’s breathable” Xolin said, checking her stats on her visor, “So life support must be working still…if barely”.

    Sid sighed, “No welcoming committee. I was hoping whoever let us in would be here to greet us”.

    “So, plan?” Xolin asked.

    “We head for the bridge, see what we can figure out” Sid replied, absentmindedly having pulled out his blaster and checking it out, “And stick together. I don’t want us being picked off one by one if it *is* a trap”.

    “Do we even know where the bridge is?” she asked skeptically, “With all major systems possibly offline, we’ll be stumbling around in the dark”.

    Sid nodded, “Oh yeah. This is a Charon class freighter; one of the older models, I assume. I know my way around. Come on”. He waved to them with his gun, beckoning them to follow him. They did so…though again, reluctantly.

    This place was *creepy*. Trok couldn’t help but think back to his own ghost story…

    ---

    The bridge wasn’t much better. It was dark, cramped, and littered with bodies in the seats. Old bodies too; they had been completely dessicated. They were now little more than clothed skeletons. The room itself was small; consisting of just two seats in a would-be cockpit, with a captain’s seat just behind it, and two running parallel behind.

    “Well” Sid cleared his throat, “…This is pleasant”. He sighed, pushing one of the rear skeletons from his seat to the floor, taking the chair for his own. Xolin folded her arms in a bit of annoyed contempt, to which Sid shrugged back at her, as if to ask ‘what?’ The group fanned out, with Sid checking out the dead controls at his chosen station. “Let’s see if we can’t get anything operational and find out what happened here”.

    Sel made her way over to the captain’s chair, taking a close look at the dead corpse laying there, before backing away, grossed out. “…How long have these people been here? This doesn’t look like a ship that just put out an SOS”.

    Sid frowned, turning around in his chair towards Sel and the others, “…Yeah, I’ve been wondering that myself. These guys have been here for *years* at least. Thoughts?”

    “Delayed response?” Xolin shrugged, not entirely believing her theory herself.

    “Hmm” Sid mumbled, returning to his task, unsettled. This was wrong. It didn’t even feel like a trap anymore. Just…why all this? If it was a trap, it should have been sprung by now.

    Xolin glared at Trok. The younger ranger was currently instinctively jumping at every odd noise the old derelict made, and being in such a shape as it was—itself being a miracle it was holding together at all, especially within the wild confines of the gas giant it had been trapped within for god knows how long.

    “Will you just *chill out*?” she snapped at him, “You’re driving me up the wall!”

    Trok made a hesitant sigh, trying to calm himself, “Sorry. Sorry, I just…”

    Sid snickered, a wry grin forming on his mouth, “...Are you still freaked out about the ghost stories?”

    “…Maybe, just a little” Trok said, fidgeting with his fingers, “More mine though. You gotta admit, this place *is* just like a ghost ship”.

    As if to punctuate his point, a loud creaking noise emanated through the cramped bridge, making everyone jump slightly. Sid laughed, “…Ah, we’re fine. It was just a silly sci-fi bedtime story”.

    Xolin gave their leader a deadpan stare, “Sci-fi?”

    “…What?”

    “Sid. We live on a spaceship. It transforms into a giant robot and we use it to fight crime”.

    “…And? I'm not saying that ghosts don't exist, I'm just saying that Giant Robots don't automatically mean that every ship is infested with vengeance-filled geists” Sid shrugged, attempting to return to…whatever it was he was doing. Mostly blankly staring at the old controls because he had lost his train of thought…and *man* were they old. No holographic interfaces at all; everything was touch-screen.

    “…Wouldn't ghosts be more gothic horror than sci-fi anyway?” asked Trok, a bit confused.

    Sid looked at the green ranger incredulously, “…Do you even know what ‘gothic’ *means*?”

    “Sweet Trinity” Xolin muttered, exasperated with the entire conversation.

    Then the lights and controls and…everything came on, and everyone just about leapt out of their skin.

    “What the—Sel!?” Sid exclaimed while trying to catch his breath, looking over at the yellow ranger. She was currently at one of the other control stations, evidently fiddling with some of the computer systems. Sid’s heart felt like it was going a thousand miles a minute, and the same was true for Xolin and Trok.

    Sel smiled sheepishly, “Sorry. But it’s not like anyone *else* was doing anything—so I just rerouted the ship’s power core to the auxiliary generators”.

    Sid clasped his hands together, full of fake and melodramatic parental support, “Our little girl’s finally learning to snark. I’m so proud—ow!” he rubbed his upper arm where Xolin had just punched him, giving him a ‘not serious but kinda’ annoyed glare as she headed over to one of the other stations. He just shook his head with a chuckle, returning—once more—to his task. “So…logs…”

    Moving through the old computer system was…annoying. He knew how it worked, roughly anyway; he’d had enough training back in SPD ‘just in case’. But he hadn’t encountered anything this old in years. Still, soon enough he found what he wanted. He began scrolling.

    “Wow, 2133. This ship has been here for…over a century” came Trok’s voice, from the opposite terminal, “At least, that’s the last date for anything on this ship. Who knows how long the main generator kept running before shutting down. They might have been out here years before that”.

    “So what killed them?” asked Xolin, “and how the hell did they manage an SOS just now?”

    “Good questions” Sid muttered, still scrolling, “A lot of these logs are…corrupted, I think. Either that or they were just speaking gibberish”.

    “Gibberish how?” asked Xolin.

    Sid beckoned for her and the blue ranger walked over to red. Sid pointed at his screen, and Xolin began to read. “…What the”.

    “This isn’t any kind of corruption I’ve ever seen” Trok said, having found logs himself, “It’s more like…like you said, gibberish”.

    Sid nodded, “And the more I scan back to the older stuff, the more legit the logs get” he squinted as he leaned in, “They were stranded here for quite awhile. And they just kind of…went crazy, I guess. Like, this is legit straight up crazy talk”.

    “Yeah, there’s stuff in here about the crew turning against one another, and hallucinations, and…wow, they really went off the deep end, huh?” Trok said. “Stuff about…They keep referring to nouns that aren’t nouns. And they just keep chanting them. And like, what’s this about ‘The Great Darkness’?”

    “Oh, that sounds promising” Sid sarcastically quipped.

    “I don’t like this” Xolin said, “What caused the crazy? And *why* did the SOS just go off?”

    “Checking” Sid scanned back through the newer logs, to ship functions. What he saw, or rather didn’t see, caused his stomach to drop through the floor, “…There’s no SOS signal”.

    “What”.

    “There *was*, back when the ship first got trapped” Sid clarified, “But the signal’s been dead for over a century; went down with the rest of the ship”.

    “We need to get out of here” Xolin said, backing up as fight or flight began to flare up. Things were too weird; too unsettling. Damn ghost stories.

    Sid nodded, agreeing as he stood up cautiously, now genuinely spooked, “…Yeah. Yeah we do”.

    “Detecting another lifeform onboard the ship, headed for the bridge” Sel reported from one of the front stations.

    “Capricorn” Sid grunted; so it really had been a trap all along. Damn. He was about to order everyone back to the ship, but then an idea crossed his mind, “…Wait. He knows we’re here. And we know he knows we’re here. But unless I’m mistaken, he *doesn’t* know we know he knows we’re here”.

    Xolin’s palm slid across her helmet, “Okay, yeah. I’m gonna need you to explain that in less mind-hurting terms”.

    Sid spun around in his seat to face her, “Easy. He’s got us in an ambush. What if we turn the tables?”

    The other three rangers all looked at Sid expectedly. Under his helmet, Sid grinned. This was going to be *fun*.

    ---

    The plan was simple; Trok and Sel would remain in the bridge on standby. Meanwhile Sid and Xolin would flank Capricorn’s location via the tube system. Once behind them, they’d trail him until he attempted to ambush the other two—at which point they would cut him off. Classic hammer and anvil. And just to make sure they’d flank him properly, Sid and Xolin had taken opposing tubes on each side of the hallway.

    This wasn’t sitting well with Trok. He and Sel were currently hidden behind the bridge doorway, on opposite sides. “We shouldn’t have split up” he muttered.

    “Why not?” asked Sel, risking another peek around the corner. Still no Capricorn.

    “Because that’s how we get picked off one by one in a horror story” the green ranger replied in a deadpan.

    Sel peeked again; still no Capricorn. “…You really think this place is haunted?” she asked, a hint of concern in her voice, though she was trying to sound neutral. But still…there was something off about this ship; she could feel it, even if she couldn’t figure out why.

    More than that though, she’d been feeling weird for a day or two now. It was like there was some kind of buzzing in her ears, but no one else had heard it, and it felt like…like something was *building*. She couldn’t explain it. She’d had Iota run a few tests, but nothing. He’d chocked it up to stress.

    Oddly, that just stressed her out more.

    Trok shrugged, “I don’t know. Hopefully not, but like, no need to give the ghosts more ammo if they *are* here!”

    And that’s when the lights shut off again, along with all the computer systems. It took all of Trok’s effort not to piss himself.

    “Wow, we are *so* going to die!” Trok wheezed in terror. Sel just frowned, turning on her suit’s night vision. This was bad.

    “I’m going to check the auxiliary power” she said as she headed back to the control panel, “See what happened”.

    ---

    The power shut down just as Sid was about to reach his chosen grate. “That can’t be good” he muttered, switching on his night vision; the headlights would be too much of a giveaway to Capricorn. He pulled the grate aside, sliding back into the hallway, and checked his sensors.

    No sign of Capricorn. No sign of anyone, actually. How…

    “That’s…bad” he said, then spoke into his communicator, “Sid to Xolin, please respond”.

    No answer.

    “Sid to Xolin!” he tried again. When she still didn’t respond, he tried someone else, “Sid to Trok! Sel? Is anyone on this frequency?”

    Nothing. Just…dead silence. He chuckled nervously, “Okay, really. If this is getting me back for the ghost story, you got me. Not that I’m not pissed you chose to do this while in the middle of an operation. Guys?”

    Still nothing. *Now* he was getting worried. It was time to head back to the bridge. If he encountered Capricorn on the way, well; maybe he’d have information he could beat out of him.

    ---

    There was nothing wrong with the connection, as far as she could tell; granted she wasn’t anywhere near an expert in their field. And the fact that the computer was down meant her diagnosing of the situation was limited.

    Sigh.

    “Hey, Trok?” Sel asked, turning back to where Trok was presumably still guarding the door. He’d be able to figure this out, no sweat. Well, except that he wasn’t there anymore. “…Trok?”

    She got up from under the control console, looking around. “Trok? Where are you?”

    “Indisposed of, I’m afraid” came the bleating voice of her nightmares. She gasped wordlessly, spinning back to the front of the ship. There plainly, even in her night vision, she could see her arch-enemy. The one who had captured her. The one who had stolen her away and intimidated her; who’d almost sold her to who knows where. The one she feared most of all.

    …Or rather, second most of all.

    “Capricorn” she whispered as her heart skipped a beat, wondering how he’d managed to make it around her to the front of the ship without her knowing.

    “Hello, Sel” he bleated evilly.

    ---

    Xolin rounded the corner. She KNEW she’d seen someone come down this way. But now…nothing, just empty hallway. Well, not *empty*; there were tossed supplies and boxes everywhere; debris littering the ground. And of course the occasional skeleton corpse, their jaws open. Two she had seen strangling each other. Another had been scratching at the bulkhead, next to words painted on: “SAVE ME”. It was almost as charming as the dried blood on the wall a few doors back that shouted ‘ABANDON HOPE’.

    Yeah, it was a fun place.

    “Xolin to Sid” she spoke into her communicator. “Xolin to Sid, come in”.

    No response. “Great”. She moved towards the nearest door, nearing one of the segmented cargo chambers, her gun practically glued to her fingers. Steeling herself with a breath, she pulled the door open with a grunt. Stepping inside, she scanned the room with her night vision—it seemed like just a normal cargo room. Er, well…except that her visor wasn’t reading anything below the railing. The room, as it should have been, consisted of her on a platform, overlooking the rest of the chamber, which was sitting in a depression. But the depression wasn’t there—the ladder only led to an inky blackness. It was already enough to put her on edge as she stepped closer to get a better scan.

    Wait. What was that noise?

    …Was that…wailing?

    Sweet Trinity, it was like the cries of the damned.

    And that was when hands began to rise from the void, stretching out unrealistically, their bloodied and mangled forms wildly reaching for something to grab. She stepped back in horror as some of the hands began grabbing at the platform. This was…oh gods. This couldn’t be…her parents had been right, all this time. She turned and ran for the door, but found it to be locked shut when she pulled.

    She felt the hands grabbing her.

    “NO!” she cried, as more grabbed her, pulling her back. She held on to the door as long as she could, but they were too strong. “NO NO NO NO NO!” she was drug forcedly along the floor, towards the edge of the platform. She grabbed the railing for dear life, again grasping at it as long as she could as her body was sucked down into the blackness. She screamed in horror the whole way, even as her vision went dark. Even as the wailing got indescribably loud. Even as she was covered by the hands dragging her right into hell.

    ---

    Trok bounded down the hallway in sheer unadulterated terror. It was after him. He hadn’t seen it, not really, but he knew it was there, in the darkness. Even his night vision wasn’t enough to save him; he could only see in one direction at the time. It was too bad about Sel; dying at its hands. They shouldn’t have split up. Had he known, had he been next to her and helped her to run, instead of being cut down while he had still been waiting for Capricorn. Now he was alone; without friends or allies. How could he hope to survive?

    Oh god, where was it. Oh god, it could have been *anywhere*. He fired wildly behind him, hoping to at least get a glancing shot off.

    He didn’t land a hit even once.

    ---

    Sid made his way down the hallway, keeping his gun at the ready. This wasn’t right; the hallway to the bridge was a straight-down affair. And by all rights, he should have been there by now. But here he was, twisting and turning around in what he could only describe as a maze. And his attempt to backtrack had only made things *worse*. It was like the walls were shifting on him.

    Damn. What kind of madman built a ship like this?

    Wait…what was that on the floor? Another body? He’d seen a few scattering the floor, but…this one…still had flesh. Wait. He knew this body.

    Xolin. No. No, it couldn’t…

    But there was Trok, also lifeless. And Sel. Oh god, all of them. He shouldn’t have split from them. He shouldn’t have…oh god. Oh god, what had he done. It had happened again. He’d failed them. His team was dead again. He looked around; no sign of their killer. He checked his morpher’s sensors. The lifesign was gone.

    No. His only lead, gone.

    No. Nononononono.

    Sid dropped to his knees. And as his mind snapped for a second time, he issued a bloodcurdling howl.

    ---

    “What do you want?” Sel hissed, instinctively backing away. Something felt…off. Worse than usual. Capricorn grinned, but it wasn’t his normal grin. She couldn’t explain *how*, but…something radiated off Capricorn like pure malevolence. Sure, he was an evil pirate lord, but he’d *just* been an evil pirate lord. But now…something was worse.

    “What do you think I want?” the goat bleated with maniacal glee, “After all this time, I have you right where I want you. The others won’t save you this time; he’s seen to that”. He nodded to behind Sel, and he hesitantly turned around to see what he was motioning at.

    “I told you I’d come for you, Sel” the man with the briefcase said. She instinctively stepped away from him as well.

    “No” she whispered in defiance, shifting to a defense pose.

    “You have no choice” the man said, stepping forward. Her friends were gone; disposed of. Her enemies surrounded her, ready to take her away, elsewhere. Both felt so wrong, so evil…very different from before. The man had always felt…wrong, but this was a different kind. This was…everything was wrong; not how it was supposed to be.

    Sel lunged, striking out at the man. She wasn’t great by any means in melee combat, but the man’s response was still impossible; he just evaded with impossible reflexes. And then he did it again. And again. Without even moving, it was like he wasn’t even there. How… She struck again, and again. But he would not be hit. She breathed, becoming slightly worn out from her attempts, but kept striking to no avail.

    “Give it up, Sel. You cannot defeat us” the man said. Why wasn’t he attacking back? Sel panted, warily watching both of her foes. Perhaps it was time to take a different tack.

    “…Why do you want me so bad?” she asked the man, “Where would you have me go?”

    “Oh, you’ll find out soon enough” Capricorn bleated. The two step forward again, towards Sel, but this time she didn’t budge, instead initiating a detailed scan of both opponents. Nothing came up for the man; not *too* surprising, she figured he was a bit different anyway; but Capricorn, again nothing came up. There were no life signs on her sensors, and nothing coming up on the scanners about him—as if he wasn’t there at all.

    Curious.

    And the more she felt his evil, the more she realized it wasn’t actually *there*. In fact, it was as if the evil was everywhere, and he…it felt like he *wasn’t*, if that made any sense. She shrugged off the buzzing feeling.

    “Who are you?” she demanded to know.

    “Excuse me?” asked ‘Capricorn’.

    She turned to him, “If you were really Capricorn, your bio-readings would match the files we have on record. You don’t have anything. In fact, the computer is convinced I’m trying to scan the wall. So who are you, really?”

    The two glanced at each other, seemingly annoyed. The man turned to Sel, “Enough questions. You will come with us now”.

    Sel’s eyes narrowed; she decided to test her suspicions. As her fists balled up, she began walking forward. “No, I don’t think I will” she said, passing through the two as if they weren’t even there.

    Success. The two foes vanished, evaporating like smoke. She allowed herself a satisfied smile, though now she found herself worried; something was here. Something malevolent, that wanted something from them. Hallucinations didn’t just happen like that, and she *did* feel a presence, here. On this ship.

    “Trok?” she called out, “Where are you?!”

    No response. She spoke into her morpher, “Trok? Xolin? Sid, come in”. Still nothing. She pondered; if she was suffering from these illusions, then…oh dear. And as a xybrian, she at least had natural mental resistance against psychic attacks; probably one of the big reasons she’d been able to push through it, even if she wasn’t really trained or had ever really even used her powers. If the others were being attacked too, then they were in trouble.

    She had to track them down; *now*. Using her morpher to scan for lifeforms, she headed off towards the nearest one, just down the hall.

    ---

    Sid sat there, broken. He should never have gotten involved, never have let Iota manipulate him into becoming the team’s leader. Here they all were; dead. Dead, just like the rest. They lay sprawled across the floor, lifeless and bleeding. Just like…back then. Oh god.

    “I never should have taken the job” he heard himself say. No…not him, but his voice. He looked up, and his eyes widened with a gasp as he saw himself. Or rather, the red ranger, as he approached himself.

    “Who—” Sid began to ask, baffled, but was quickly cut off by the other.

    “They just got in my way; slowed me down. So really, it was a mercy”.

    “What…what did you say?!” Sid gasped, anger growing in his pit.

    The other Sid chuckled, “Only what you really feel, deep down. Now I can finally get back to doing what I do best, on my own”.

    Sid staggered to his feet, enraged. “Don’t you dare…”

    The Other continued to chuckle, “What’s wrong? Angry? Or just afraid of your true feelings?”

    Sid roared in rage, charging at his doppelganger with all his might.

    ---

    “SID, STOP!” Sel cried out as she narrowly dodged his first attack, but to no avail. More hallucinations; she’d been right. And Sid was in no way prepared to deal with a heavy psychic attack like what was going on. Even now, she felt its presence trying to seep into her mind. And unfortunately for her, Sid was a *much* better melee fighter than her, even while crazed and insane. She flipped away, narrowly dodging his (fairly clumsy) assault, backing her feet in the wall before launching forward.

    Time for some quick thinking.

    She flew over Sid, her bow materializing in her hands as she flipped over. She managed in three shots, each hitting not Sid himself (she didn’t want to harm him) but rather the floor around him, causing explosions that did a good job of both distracting him and knocking him around a bit. Landing behind him, she was unprepared for his sudden counter-assault, a spinning kick aimed at her. She was barely able to knock it away with her bow, before being hit by the other foot. She staggered back, before once again leaping back to give herself more room, opening another volley as Sid charged, himself cutting through each one with his axe.

    Sel had a brief half-second of dawning shock as she realized just how screwed she was, just before Sid slammed into her, his charged up weapon cutting through her suit with a shower of sparks. She fell to the ground, rolling away—only barely able to get to her knees so she could block his next strike with her bow.

    This was bad. She needed an upset. *Now*.

    ---

    She felt her form being torn apart; ripped asunder by the clawing hands. Not physically, but mentally. Emotionally. She felt her three forms being forcedly separated; the core of her being on the cusp of annihilation as she was rended apart. This was hell; the extinction of her concept, the refusal of her reincarnation.

    Xolin screamed. She screamed as long and as hard as she could; until her voice began to give out. But it made no difference. She was in hell; and now she would suffer for her sins.

    ---

    He was alone; abandoned. The others were gone, having been taken by It. He was going to die here; he knew that now. He was going to die alone and frightened, far away from home. Balled up in the corner, gun aiming in the darkness, Trok waited for the end.

    ---

    A sharp pain shot through Sel’s mind as she struggled against Sid’s axe. She could *feel* them; all of them. Xolin’s screams, Trok’s sobs…and of course Sid’s rage. She definitely felt Sid’s rage, especially as another swing from the axe threw her bow aside. And that damned buzzing; it distracted her. She reached for her side arm, but it was too late; Sid’s follow-up kick, and then another strike from his weapon sent her flying into the wall. He then thrust his weapon into her stomach, knocking the wind right out of her. One more swing, and she’d be done.

    “Sid, please! Stop; it’s me, Sel! You’re hallucinating!”

    Sel grabbed his axe by the top of the handle, and with her other hand pulled out her blaster, opening fire on the red ranger directly. He yelped, stumbling back. She hated having to hit him directly, but times were desperate. Gripping his axe, she tossed it aside, deciding to charge right at him with a kick. He hit the far wall hard, but grabbed his own gun and prepared to fire.

    “I’LL KILL YOU!” he roared.

    She had to get out of here.

    Quickly knocking his weapon aside, she aimed her own at the floor and issued three shots, creating a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke—one in which she was free to vanish in, opting to quickly slide into the nearest vent. She had to get away. Had to get away. Had to get away… She was no match for Sid; she had to get away and try another way.

    Entering a larger room in the vent system—probably a maintenance hub—she panted, curling up into a ball as she attempted to recover from the ordeal. She could still hear the others in her head, screaming…and she couldn’t do anything to help them. For all everyone had told her she was a welcome part of the team; for all the training they had given her, she was still the load; the one that needed saving. She was useless, and now that was going to cost everyone everything. Tears formed in her eyes.

    What could she do? She’d tried to snap Sid out of it, but had only gotten a few bruises to show for it, and she doubted she’d fare much better against the other two, if the illusions really were that strong.

    “Sel to Iota, please respond” she spoke into her morpher, though she knew the chances of him replying were slim to none. Even if the ship was up and running again, the gas giant probably did a good job of jamming her small personal-based transmission. And if the planet didn’t, who knew what kind of powers the Presence had. “Please, Iota…come in”.

    Nothing. And none of the others would last much longer; she could feel their minds beginning to fray. She put her head in her hands. What an abject failure she turned out to be.

    …Wait. The comms had been out just a few days before too, when they were stuck in that game. Sid had used that morphin’ grid trick to send that…what had he called it? ‘Morris’ code? Yeah, that thing. If she could just remember what Sid imputed…no luck. Maybe random blinks would work? At the very least she could get his attention.

    Maybe.

    So she sent the signal, as base as it was. She had no way of knowing if it would even make it to Iota, much less if he would even notice. Figures she couldn’t even get a distress signal right.

    ---

    Final checks were done; lights were coming back on everywhere. Iota issued a small sigh of relief; after how many times they’d had to reboot the system as of late, it was nice that this time at least, there had been no complications. But not all business had been accounted for yet; it was time to check in with the team. He moved over to the communications console on the bridge.

    “Iota to team, what’s your status?”

    Nothing. Hrn. That’s when he noticed it; the slight blinking variation in the morphin’ grid, flashing on his console. It was almost like Sid’s Morse Code, except without the code part—but it was far too random to be any actual sort of message. Yet the source was still coming from the location of the SOS. Switching over to the science console, Iota decided it was time to check on a few things with that. He wasn’t disappointed; something *weird* was going on over there; energy readings were off the scale.

    Time to investigate.

    ---

    Sel kicked out the grate blocking her exit from the vent, and pulled herself through the hole. Xolin was somewhere around here; she could feel it. Like, really *feel* it. Waves of terror and anguish were rolling off like the tide. Normally Sel didn’t feel too much from other people (though her senses had been growing slowly since her rescue a few months back), but this…this was impressive. If it wasn’t horrible, that was.

    Moving into the cargo hold, she quickly caught sight of the blue ranger whimpering, sprawled out on the ground, her sobs occasionally punctuated by more screaming fits. Oh god. Sel recoiled as another screaming fit started, her body distorting slightly as her three forms struggled to remain united.

    “PLEASE STOP!” Xolin shouted in desperation. Sel looked around in a slight panic for something, *anything* that could help. What could she do? What could she say?

    “Xolin, please snap out of it!” she said, finally and hesitatingly crossing to the blue ranger’s struggling side, “This is just an illusion! A hallucination! You’ve got to listen to me!”

    No dice. Xolin just screamed louder, trapped in her own private hell. Tears welled up again in Sel’s eyes; what was she supposed to *do*?! Xolin was dying right in front of her, and she was completely helpless to do *anything* to stop it.

    “Please” she whispered to her, “Stop screaming. Please wake up. I can’t do this without you”.

    Xolin kept screaming. And that’s when the door slid open, and Sel found the red ranger standing there, axe at the ready.

    “There you are” he said, his voice full of bitterness and hate, “Thought you could run from me!? You killed them!” his voice cracked, “You killed them all! And now I’ll KILL YOU!” For a moment Sel thought he was still after her; but soon the truth dawned on her as he closed in, and it was far worse—he was after Xolin.

    “SID, NO!” she shouted, rushing to cut him off. All she got for her troubles however, was his axe swinging down on her body. Her shoulder caught the weapon, sparks exploding as she cried out in pain, her arms gripping the tool as she bent down to her knees, fighting all the way. “No…”

    “You’re alone” said the man with the briefcase, standing beside her. He adjusted his glasses as he continued, “Useless. You’re going to die here, alone and afraid. Going to die, and no one will ever know, or care”.

    “No, you won’t die” Capricorn said, on her other side, “We’ll find you. Don’t you worry”.

    Sel gasped in pain, trying her best to shut the voices out, but her concentration was flagging as the blade cut into her. Sid pulled his weapon up, before knocking her aside and preparing for his strike on Xolin.

    “NO!” Sel screamed, pushing herself back up to her feet. She barreled into Sid’s side with all her force, knocking him off the entrance ledge and into a broken crate down below. She tumbled to the floor, just in time to hear Sid’s rage-fueled roar. As she scrambled to get back up, she felt another cut from the axe into her back, and then her side. She screamed in pain, dropping back down.

    “And stay down while I finish this” Sid grunted, hobbling back over to the ladder that would take him up to Xolin.

    “No…no…” Sel struggled to get up, to move at all, whimpering as she did. Everything hurt, but Xolin….Xolin was going to die. Already her screams were beginning to subside. She had…had to stop… Somehow, she forced herself back up to her knees. Then, somehow, to her feet. Then, somehow, she managed to move forward, pulling herself up the latter. And there he was, waiting, axe in hand, about to strike.

    “NO!” she shouted, as he swung down on Xolin’s prone form.

    In one clear instant, Sel lunged, once again forming a barrier. And as she crossed his path in mid-flight, his fully-charged axe cut through her midsection, sparks going everywhere as her suit sputtered and smoked, the flame from his weapon coursing through her body. She crashed on the floor, a few feet away, moaning in pain. Had to…she had to…

    But Sel was done. Her body was done. She tried to get back up of course, but she couldn’t. More sparks emanated from her costume as she tried to move. Xolin was going to die. NO. NONONONONON----

    Unbeknownst to Sel, her eyes under her helmet flashed with a brilliant aura, as her outstretched hand encompassed Sid with a blazing light brighter than the sun…

    ---

    The Megaship hovered over the gas giant, just over where the SOS had originated from. From here, Iota could tell the energy levels were off the charts, with readings the computer couldn’t even decipher. That was a bad sign. A *very* bad sign.

    So, options. Attempting to contact the team had proven futile; so the easy way was out…as usual. He could go down there…and risk getting *himself* caught up in whatever was going on. If only there was some way to neutralize the energy interference that was clouding the other ship, even if only for a short time.

    Wait.

    Morphin’ grid ‘communication’ still worked, which meant that whatever was going on here didn’t impact the underlying morphin’ grid energies of the universe. Which meant that supposedly…what if he…hrn. It was extremely dangerous, flooding that much morphin’ energy into the ranger’s suits, but at this point, Iota didn’t see much of a choice. The results could be catastrophic; up to and including the entire ship self-destructing. But again, no choice. Working quickly, Iota shot over to the power console and got to work, shutting off the system limiter and most of the other safeguards. Then, he began increasing energy output; slowly, but steadily.

    “Iota to team” he called to them, “Please respond. Iota to team…”

    ---

    Trok blinked. Was it just him or…his mind felt clearer. Better. He was still jittery, but it was sort of like waking up from a bad nightmare; within a few seconds his mind had deduced that nothing was actually out to get him. Probably, anyway.

    Wait, but then…what happened to the others?

    Still shaky and a little freaked out, the green ranger stood up, feeling remarkably lighter than usual. And faster; he almost threw himself into a wall just by standing up. Brighter too; his suit was almost…glowing. Woah, weird.

    “…Guys?” he called out.

    “Iota to team, please respond”.

    “Iota? Uh…Trok here” the green ranger responded, just a *little* confused on what was going on.

    ---

    “Nnnng…”

    “Iota to team, please respond”.

    Xolin’s breaths were shaky and ragged, her skin flushed with sweat. She’d just been pulled out of hell, and now just…gods, what had happened. Sitting up, she found both Sid and Sel lifeless and scattered around her. Also, she was um…shimmering.

    “What…”

    She tried to get up, but every muscle in her body hurt. Probably from…whatever had just happened. It wasn’t real; couldn’t have been real. …Right? It had sure *felt* real, but…not. So why were they all down?

    She shuddered, her emotions threatening to catch up to her. She attempted some ad-hock meditation to try and stabilize herself, while Trok replied to Iota over the comm.

    “…Xolin here” she said, her voice ragged. “I uh…I have Sid and Sel here. They’re both out cold”.

    “Understood” came Iota’s response, “Both of you, get them to the entry point. We need to get you out of there as quickly as possible; I’m bypassing your morphers’ safeties and flooding your bodies with morphin’ energy; the consequences may be extremely dangerous if allowed to go on for too long. The sooner you can get out, the better”.

    Xolin glanced over at her fallen friends, a frown appearing on her face. This would be difficult.

    “What *exactly* is going on?” Trok asked, over the comm.

    Iota’s response came just after, “Something on the ship is interfering with comms; something that’s exhibiting excessive power levels. This is the only way I could find the communicate with you”.

    “Well, whatever you did, it stopped the nightmares” Xolin muttered.

    “Nightmares?”

    “Long story” she replied, “I’ll explain once we make it back. Xolin out”. She sighed, looking over the other two as Trok walked in, then looked up at him.

    “I uh…” he stammered, “It’s…been a long day”.

    “Yeah” she nodded, holding herself together by sheer will and a helping of shock, “Yeah, it has”. The other two were beginning to stir now. Trok rushed over to Sel, taking care to avoid the damaged sections of her suit as he helped her up. Xolin meanwhile grabbed Sid’s hand, allowing him to stand.

    “Oh god” Sid said, the memories flooding back, “What…”

    “Nightmares, right?” Xolin asked. Sid nodded. “Yeah, it’s like that”.

    “I thought you were all…” Sid trailed off when he caught sight of Sel’s condition, “What happened to…oh god” his eyes widened as he put two and two together. “…I thought I was fighting…I thought I was fighting myself” his voice became more subdued.

    Sel looked at him, her arm slumped over Trok’s shoulders, “…I’m sorry” she said dejectedly, “I wasn’t good enough”.

    “We uh…we need to deal with this all later” Xolin managed, knowing that succumbing to all this at the moment would send them all spiraling the drain—when what really they needed was to get out of here before something really *bad* happened, “Right now we need to get back to the ship. Come on”. She motioned to them as she staggered out of the darkened room, the other three following in a haphazard formation. Today had been a very bad day.

    ---

    The sight Iota caught was not a good one. After re-engaging the power safety controls for their powers, he’d arrived at the Megaship’s launch bay just as the rangers were disembarking from their skycycles, taking their helmets off as they did so. Their expressions and body language were…well, they weren’t good. Each seemed distraught; preoccupied, distant. It was a sign of utter defeat from each of them, and Iota wasn’t even sure why. Normally he’d have been able to follow their progress, but this time he’d been almost completely in the dark.

    Er, literally.

    “Report” he said, “What happened down there?”

    The four rangers seemed to warily regard each other through side glances, each dejected. Finally, Sid spoke, his voice subdued, “We uh…there was no one there. The ship’s been adrift for well over a century”.

    “And the SOS?” Iota asked, a little annoyed that he was having to pull the information from Sid bit by bit.

    Sid shrugged, “All systems were down. We have no idea how it transmitted. We uh…our suits have the recordings”.

    “We think the people onboard went crazy. Killed each other, maybe” Xolin added, her voice equally drained and despondent, “Whatever did it to them, it…came after us too, I think”.

    “…How?”

    “Hallucinations” Sid replied, “It…wasn’t good”.

    The abject expressions and postures of everyone convinced Iota to hold off on more questioning. He could allow them a few hours to regroup and clear their heads; it wasn’t like this mission had been vitally important. And it was a wash, anyway. “Very well. All of you; get some rest. We’ll have a debriefing in twelve hours”.

    “My advice?” Xolin said as she and the others began to pile out of the room, past Iota, “Destroy the ship. Whatever lives there is evil. We shouldn’t risk it drawing anyone else in”. And that’s, predictably, when the ship came under fire; the entire deck shuddering under the impact.

    “What was that?!” Trok exclaimed.

    Iota was already on it, checking stats from his wrist computer. To his surprise, the other ship, the freighter, had escaped the confines of its prison within the gas giant, and was now on an intercept course with the Megaship; it had already opened fire with its primary cannons. But…freighters couldn’t stand a chance against Megaships. Another hit shook the ship.

    “Well, that’s curious. Looks like your haunted ship came to us” he said, tapping his controls to get a better view on the holographic screen. Another shake. Noting that none of them were in any shape to pilot, he sighed. “I’ll deal with it. It’s just a freighter. The rest of you, get some rest before you keel over”.

    Iota rushed to the bridge, leaving behind the shattered team, who seemingly made no objections. He’d deal with them later.

    Sigh. This was *not* part of the scenario.

    ---

    Another shake greeted Iota when he entered the bridge, taking his seat in the captain’s chair. Pressing a few buttons, he redirected all controls to his console, and began returning fire with the main cannons. Within a few shots though, something began to happen. The opposing ship began to…well, the best way he could describe it was ‘radiate energy’; a dark aura seemed to surround it as its form began to shift and distort. Iota’s eyes narrowed as he watched the transformation, as the hull began to buckle and bend, breaking apart into some sort of vaguely humanoid beast.

    …Probably a good time to shift to Megazord mode. The Megaship quickly transformed; and not soon enough, as even as the final components were shifting into place, the beast charged in full-bore, grappling with the giant robot as they tumbled in low orbit. Iota struggled to keep hold of the ship’s controls as the inertia pulled him along, even with the ship’s dampeners. A knee to the crotch sent the monster spinning back.

    How annoying.

    The Megazord summoned its sword, then propelled forward with its boot thrusters with the intent of ramming its blade right into the monster’s chest. Instead, several long, black, aura tentacles unfolded from the monster, striking back at the Megazord. It was knocked back, sparks emanating from the points of impact, even as the tentacles faded again, replaced by more. As mere auras, they didn’t even look real, almost like they were just ruined sections of a photograph; black empty regions superimposed on reality. Or maybe reality was superimposed on it; some sort of vacant window into the underlying darkness that creation hid. And the areas of the opposing ship that weren’t connected anymore were the same; simply black abysses where hull and metal should have been. Its head was a chaotic mess of shrapnel and smokey aura black, the metal arranged almost like a maw of mismatched teeth.

    It was unnatural, even Iota recognized that. Another tentacle lunged forth, which the Megazord barely parried with its sword. A second tentacle shot out, ramming itself into the Megazord’s midsection. Almost immediately, the area of impact began to darken and spread, and alarms went off all over the bridge; the monster was beginning to infect the ship, corrupting the hull somehow.

    This was bad.

    A third tentacle shot out, disarming the Megazord by knocking its sword out of its hand. Then came a fourth tentacle, aimed directly at its chestplate. Iota was so concerned about its attack he was completely unprepared when it suddenly exploded.

    “What the—”

    The next thing he saw was the Red Guardianzord flying by, opening another load on the tentacle that was corrupting the Megazord’s side. It also evaporated under the assault, as the Guardianzord turned its attention on the main opponent.

    ---

    “Sid to Iota. We got this”.

    “Are you certain?”

    Sitting next to Sid in the Megazord cockpit, Xolin nodded, her teeth gritted, “Yeah. Time for payback”.

    “Understood. Relinquishing controls to you. Good luck”.

    “Yeah, right” Sid spat out, his voice rough. “Warrior Mode!”

    The Red Guardianzord folded over the Megazord, forming armor and its signature twin-axe blades over its fists. The two axes detached, their chain whips launching themselves at the offending monster. They cut through the tentacles, causing the monster to scream in pain. There was no witty banter here; no wry quip. Normally they’d make comments about how utterly messed up this creature looked, how…wrong he was. But not today. Today they only had a job to do, and then they’d scurry back to their rooms so they could finally lick their wounds.

    “Xolin?” Sid asked.

    “Got it!” she replied, summoning her own zord, “Lightning Mode!” The red Guardianzord detached from the Megazord, soon replaced by the blue one. The Megazord grabbed its new guns and lit its boot thrusters charging in on the monster. Two more tentacles lashed out, but with the blue zord, the Megazord was quick enough to avoid as it opened fire, causing the beast to stagger. Both blasters converted to blade mode as the Megazord closed in, shoving both of them into the enemy ship hull, before landing its feet on it. Then, igniting the boosters again, pulled away, ripping the swords out and pushing the monster away with its thrusters as it flipped about back into a fighting position, its swords having converted back into blades. The two guns ripped through the enemy hull, sparks exploding all over.

    “Alright, time to wrap this shit up” Sid muttered. Then his eyes widened as the black void filled in to where the blasts had hit; it was regenerating. Energy collected in front of it, as it seemed to prepare to fire back. Then suddenly, more explosions as it staggered back. The green and yellow Guardianzords flew past, back and around the monster, as Sid and Xolin suddenly found Trok and Sel in their seats next to them.

    “Glad you could join us” Sid said, attempting some level of light-heartedness. No one else took the bait though, with Trok just nodding brusquely. Sel for her part kept her focus on her console. Sid slumped back down, focusing once again on the fight.

    “The monster’s regenerating” Xolin frowned, “No matter what we throw at it, it won’t die”.

    “The monster might be, but look” he pointed at the remains of the ship that the monster was using as its skeleton and armor. Notably, he pointed at the damage marks from the battle, “The ship itself is mortal”.

    “The thrusters!” Trok realized, noting that the monster was maintaining its altitude via the ships’ engines, which were located on its feet, “We take those out, and it’ll fall back into the clouds”.

    Sid nodded, “Do it”.

    Xolin locked on to her controls, “Azure Sniper!” The Megazord combined its two pistols into a single larger weapon and aimed at the monster’s feet, even as it flew in towards them. One shot fired off, breaking apart the left foot. A second shot soon fired, just before the monster grabbed them, smashing the right. It was too late though, as the beast grappled with the Megazord, beginning to corrupt its shoulders as its claws dug in, the two titans spiraling around in low orbit. The rangers struggled, the inertia once again overpowering the internal dampeners.

    “We need to break free!” Sid shouted, “Trok, Sel, counterattack!”

    Immediately, the green and yellow Guardianzords swung back around alongside red, each opening up a volley on the monster’s backside and arms. For a moment its shoulders evaporated, causing it to lose its grip on the Megazord as the arms disincorporated temporarily, the debris from the ship itself scattering to the cosmos.

    “Sel!” Sid commanded.

    The yellow ranger nodded, “Assault Mode. Advent Barrage”. The blue Guardianzord disengaged from the Megazord, replaced by yellow’s. The guns covering its hull primed, aimed, and opened fire on the monster, the kinetic force pushing it further and further away. And without engines to support it, it was powerless as it began to hit friction from the upper atmosphere; just before it was lost beneath the clouds. It was over. Well, at least, the battle was over. But the atmosphere inside the cockpit was awkward and distant. Sid glanced over his team. There was so much wrong here.

    ---

    His room was quiet; had been since he’d arrived. He’d tried tinkering with his many would-be inventions, but any drive he had was just…gone, so now his chosen toy just sat on his bed next to him as he laid down, staring at the ceiling.

    He’d left his friends to suffer. He’d abandoned his position, ran and hid because of a simple hallucination, while he left his friends to die. Everything Xolin had tried to teach him, everything he’d tried to live up to…it was all for naught. He wasn’t a hero; he was a child. And the truth was, he only had confidence when in the simudeck, or when surrounded by others.

    What an utter coward. It wasn’t even about what the others thought about him—he knew well enough at this point they didn’t think this way. No, this was all about him. And he knew he was a disappointment. He fought back tears.

    ---

    She shivered, alone in her room. The memories of her hallucination haunted her; the pain she felt, deeper than any normal, physical pain. She felt the pain in the core of her being; in her soul. She had felt violation as her aspects were unwillingly ripped from her piece by piece.

    Most triforians reincarnated, after being released back to the source; their aspects being remade and combined with other reincarnating aspects. But some souls were deemed beyond salvaging—those souls were sent to…well, the word didn’t exactly translate into English, but ‘Urthal’, sort of a triforian hell. There, degraded souls would be torn apart into nothing; torment was the order of the day there. Eternal torment. Hell.

    It was something that had always nagged at the edge of Xolin’s mind; the idea she was wrong. Her parents; hell, her whole clan was convinced her soul was destined for Urthal. What if they were right? What if she was *wrong*? What if her entire worldview, her whole concept of being was false? How could she ever really know before it happened?

    She curled up in a ball, wishing the world away.

    ---

    She was a fraud; a mistake. They said she was a useful part of the team; but all she ever managed to do was mess things up. Whether it was forcing Sid and Trok to yell at each other in a misguided attempt to help repair their friendship, or simply not being good enough to save them from the hallucinations…god, she was useless.

    The holographic quantron took her clouded mind to its advantage and knocked the bow out of her hands as it closed in, her shots having missed or been deflected by its own weapon. A second quantron hit her in the side, knocking her down as the group swarmed her. The yellow ranger’s fist hit the dirt in a fit of anger as she flung herself back up. She had to become better. Another scuffle though, and she was soon back in the dirt.

    Elder Sesh had told her to make new memories, a new life; but she was failing, and she couldn’t figure out how *not* to fail. Why was she so bad at this? The image of Sid almost killing Xolin kept replaying in her head. Xolin’s screams, Sid’s cries. All the horror. Capricorn and the man with the briefcase mocking her. All the fears. Make it stop.

    She was grabbed by the quantron and was pulled up. Her hands glimmered as tears began to trickle down behind her helmet. In a scream of rage and frustration, light shot out into the quantron. It seemed to glitch, just before the entire simudeck scenario collapsed on itself, the computer’s systems shorting out and shutting down. Sel fell to the floor in an exhausted heap; the energy attack having cost her most of her strength, though the ever-present buzzing at least had momentarily faded. She gasped, exhausted.

    What *was* she? Why…how did she do these…things?

    Why did it feel like the universe was out to get her? She slammed her fist on the ground again, forcing herself to stand, even as her shaky legs protested.

    “Computer” the yellow ranger seethed, determined as she steadied her breath, “Restart last save point”.

    ---

    Sid scrolled through the local net hub, searching sites and forums for answers on the holographic terminal. Search terms had included ‘ghost ships’, ‘nightmare monsters’, ‘alien hallucinogens’, among many others. None had given him any sort of trail to follow; just unrelated urban myths and conspiracy theories.

    Sigh.

    But, the fruitless search was keeping him from his real thoughts, and that was what counted.

    He’d almost killed Xolin. And Sel. All because he’d been hallucinating about…about them. His old team. Between this and the whole thing with Trok…god, he had no business leading this team. None at all. He had way too much baggage.

    God, what had he done. Er, almost done. If Sel hadn’t stopped him…god.

    He didn’t want to think about it.

    “Can’t sleep?”

    Sid turned to see Iota standing in the doorway to the computer lab he was in. It was a small room, only a few computers; not much use for a lab when every room had a terminal system, but SPD engineering was always good at a bit of redundancy. And right now, Sid needed to not be in his room, just to clear his head.

    Sid nodded, “Trying to figure out what attacked us”.

    “Anything?” Iota’s voice seemed genuinely curious.

    He shook his head, “Not a clue. There’s *nothing* here, except maybe a conspiracy theory or two”. Sid sighed, then looked back at his commander, “Any ideas?”

    Iota said nothing at first, instead opting to sit down, studying Sid’s various holo-windows, “There are many wonders in the universe, in my experience. Our civilization is a thin veneer, a surface of order that we use to forget that there is depth. And in that depth, there are many, *many* places for things to hide”.

    “…What are you saying?” Sid asked, slightly creeped out.

    Iota continued, idly skimming through one of the browser windows, “I do not know exactly what you faced, but I do know that there are things in this universe much older than you or I. Much older than our civilizations. They slumber, deep in the cracks below our notice. They swim in the void, far beyond our knowledge”.

    Sid gulped, a chill going down in spine as his prior worries were forgotten, “…So what, like…Lokar? Dark Specter?”

    Iota seemed to regard him for a moment, before returning to the browser, “Older”.

    “What *exactly* are we talking about here?”

    “Just be glad that it seems our friend wasn’t able to leave orbit. We were likely little more than a source of food for it. Our civilization is little more than anthills they step over”.

    “Yeah, that’s not awful at all” Sid replied, his voice quiet and subdued as he rubbed his arms in contemplation.

    Iota shrugged, “The universe is almost fourteen billion years old. The modern age of civilization only goes back a few dozen millennia. Even the Morphin’ Masters, at the ‘dawn of time’, only existed a few million years ago. The universe is filled with mysteries and unknowns, with wonders and horrors hidden from us. But I wouldn’t worry too much about it; we’ve been around this long without anything stepping on us”.

    “Maybe” Sid said, staring unfocused at his holoscreen, “…Maybe not”.

    Iota stood up, turning to leave, “Get some sleep. You need it. Everything will be clearer tomorrow”.

    Sid didn’t watch as he left, instead remaining focused on his screen, it’s glow casting a soft light on an otherwise dark room. Thoughts filtered through his unfocused mind, both from his own demons, and those Iota had left with him, “…Maybe not”.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  12. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.11 Advent

    To the unaware, one could be forgiven for thinking this planet was lifeless. All around Capricorn, the wind howled, sweeping over the empty expanse of ice and snow. The white frontier extended in all directions, all over the planet. It was an ice world in the purist form of the term; a giant snowball the size of Mars well outside its system’s habitable zone. But that’s what made it so lucrative for the colonists. An ice world this big was filled to the *brim* with geothermal activity, and under this thick sheet of ice existed a temperate world ocean, hidden away in the shadows. See, this was an aquitian world, even though the only thing that could even hint at the massive metropolis laying just a kilometer beneath the surface was the faint red light he could see atop one of the mountains in the distance—one of several entrance stations scattered about the area.

    This was exactly where Capricorn wanted to be; away from prying eyes while still being in the middle of the action. Chuckling to himself, he pulled four small devices out of his belt and tossed them out into the snow in front of him. Immediately, they began to grow and transform—as if they were unfolding from nothing, assuming full-sized humanoid shapes—though it was clear they weren’t human at all, instead some sort of…android or something, each possessing a full bodied black suit of armor.

    Capricorn then pulled out a small data pad, imputing some last minute information and instructions into his new toys. This plan *had* to work; it *had* to. He’d waited too many efforts at this point, and his…er, well ‘handler’ had stopped communicating with him, probably deeming him useless after too many losses—which was probably a bad thing, considering his employers. His life may or may not have been in danger.

    But more than that, his reputation was in the shitter. He’d lost his entire fortune and infrastructure to those damned rangers, and now any goodwill he’d gained, any standing he’d achieved within the criminal underworld had long since been swept away. He was a laughing stock, and he couldn’t abide by that. Only one thing would fix that.

    The rangers had to die; his honor depended on it. He’d managed to track their position; why they were here on this world he hadn’t a clue, but it didn’t matter. They’d be dead soon, and he’d be back on the path to reclaiming his lost glory.

    “Go” he said to his troops, “You have your orders”.

    The androids made no indication of affirmation to his orders, but instantly did as he said, warming up their boots as they began to burn a hole through the ice. Capricorn watched them descend, a grim smile on his face. All his remaining cards were on this one.

    Soon.

    ---

    She was never really any good at this. Xolin liked *punching* through her problems to victory, not talking. In fact, the more she ignored everything deep down, the easier it was to keep going. But this…she had no way to fight through this.

    Sigh.

    Iota had ‘encouraged’ them after their mission to the ghost ship, coming here to Thessalia, an aquitian colony, and pretty much directing them to the Tethya Institute, in the capital city. Eugh, aquitians. Everything about them; their weird bio-crystal technology, their enigmatic and aloof culture, their longevity, it all just creeped her out a bit. Nothing against them personally, but Xolin found them…unapproachable. Eerie, maybe.

    Sigh.

    Deep down, she knew she needed this. The nightmares had been fairly steady since…well, since the incident. But that didn’t mean she *wanted* this.

    Sigh.

    “Just try to relax” the female aquitian in the chair across from her said, “The more to struggle, the harder it will be for the crystal to get a lock on your emotions. Let the water flow over you”.

    Xolin half-laid half-sat in a pool of aquitian water—apparently stuff with healing properties, though so far she hadn’t felt anything. A number of small crystalline structures sat suspended just over her head, for…something about centering one’s mind, she couldn’t recall. She felt silly about this whole setup; why couldn’t this be like *most* psychology settings where she’d get a sofa and be surrounded by bookcases?

    Sigh.

    “I understand you’ve been having trouble sleeping since the incident”.

    Xolin nodded. She exhaled, “I’ve been having…nightmares”.

    “About what, exactly?”

    Man, this was *not* going to be a fun conversation, “You uh…read the reports, right? About the mission I mean. About what we all…what I saw”.

    The aquitian nodded, “Your trip to…triforian hell?”

    “Urthal” Xolin corrected her, “It’s uh, well…it’s not so much a place as it is the end of triforian reincarnation, where the trash goes when it can’t be used anymore. It…well, yeah…” she trailed off, not entirely sure how to proceed from here.

    “You fear going to hell?”

    “Yeah. I guess I do” she sighed, “I thought I was fine when my family excommunicated me, but…it eats away at me. Sometimes I think I should just go back; beg for forgiveness”.

    “Would that would fix things?”

    She shrugged, “What if *they’re* wrong? Most mainstream triforian religions say what we do with our bodies is defilement”. She chuckled darkly, “And who even knows if any of them are right. Most species don’t have multiple physical aspects of being”.

    “So who do you think is right?”

    Xolin shrugged helplessly, “I don’t know. How *can* I know? I feel like no matter what choice I make, it’ll end in the same way. One day, I’ll be dead, and I’ll be gone. Everything I was; even my soul, will be gone”.

    “So then, would inevitability be a good word to use to describe this?”

    She thought for a moment, then nodded numbly as she stared at the crystal hanging above her, “…I don’t want to die”.

    “That’s a very normal sentiment”.

    Xolin snorted derisively.

    “It’s true. Fear of death is a very normal thing. Few people really look forward to passing away”.

    “So what am I supposed to do then?” Xolin asked her, a note of desperation in her voice, “I hate feeling this way”.

    ---

    The window out was eerie, yet still oddly comforting. The entire city rested on the underside of the icecap, terraced against its many ‘peaks’ and valleys. As such, the organic aquitian pods were far more symmetrical than usual, pre-planned like building blocks as they lay atop one another. It was a big city too; the pods stretched out in all directions, far beyond the pitiful sight distance available underwater. The pods lit up the otherwise pitch-black ocean, giving it an oddly comforting dark blue hue. Tubes crisscrossed various areas of the city—methods for mass transit between city sections. And of course with the lightning outside, animals had been attracted; numerous native alien aquatic lifeforms. Right now Sid could see a school of something that looked like giant versions of Earth’s prehistoric ammonites.

    Behind him in the waiting room, the vid-screen had a news program on. It was something about how tensions were on the rise—yet again—between the Alliance and the Confederacy. It was business as usual; the civil war still left scars between the two powers. His attention shifted somewhat though, when ‘uncertain reports’ of incidents on Arkilla and ‘various SPD bases’ were brought up as points of grievances against the Confederacy—which of course was denied by the latter. Uh oh.

    So, y’know, that was great. He could add ‘multiple intergalactic incidents’ to his list of failures. He hung there, at that window, despondent as he waited his turn with the shrink. Xolin’s reflection behind his in the window told him that the first session was over, at least.

    “How’d it go?”

    She shrugged, listless with a can of soda in her hand, “We talked. Found out I’m a coward”.

    Sid’s eyebrow rose as he turned to face her, “...er, what?”

    “Nevermind” she said, shaking her head as she leaned up against the window, “I just want out of here. Aquitian cities give me the creeps. And I don’t much like being stuck underwater in the first place”.

    “But being out in the void of space on a regular basis is fine, right?” Sid deadpanned, a wry smile on his lips.

    She scowled at him, “There’s a difference between out in space, and being crushed like an ant beneath the weight of the planet”. There was also the fact that aquitian worlds didn’t jive too well with triforian physiology, so this whole planet sort of put her on edge. It wasn’t *dangerous*, unless you were already weakened, but it played havoc with her three aspects; she could feel them *not quite* fitting together right. It was a weird and unsettling feeling and just sort of helped to put her on edge.

    “Sure, sure” Sid replied, his sarcasm leaking through. But before Xolin could retort, Sid asked, “So, who’s up next?”

    She took a sip from her drink as they both leaned up against the window, watching the mostly empty common room they were in, “Trok, I think. I passed him on the way out. When’s your turn?”

    “I think I’m going last” Sid replied, his eyes suddenly becoming downcast.

    She looked away, sorry she had asked, “It wasn’t your fault, you know. It had all of us”. He’d almost attacked her, almost killed her. She’d been out of her mind at the time as well, but…if it hadn’t been for Sel…

    He didn’t look at her, instead standing straight up as he prepared to leave, “It was always my fault”. Just as he began to walk away though, both of their morphers beeped.

    “Iota to rangers. There’s a…situation in the Aolii Sector of the city. Who’s capable?”

    The two rangers glanced at each other before Sid answered, “Uh, we think Trok just went in for his session. I dunno where Sel is right now. What’s up?”

    “We’ve had reports of some sort of incursion by armored figures. The police have the area sectioned off, but we’ve gotten the green light from the higher ups. They won’t interfere. I’ll contact Sel and have her meet you there”.

    “Understood” Sid said, “Sid out”. He nodded to Xolin, and the two raced off, to save the day once again.

    ---

    Aolii was much like the rest of the city; a miniature pocket settlement in its own right, walled and domed off, and linked to the other sections via various tunnels and connecting points. Inside the dome lay numerous large buildings; arranged how you would expect a city to be laid out. The buildings themselves were of the aquitian variety of course; large bio-crystaline pods of various shapes and sizes, growing almost organically, except when necessary, like some sort of bizarre topiary set.

    Up ahead, the three rangers found their targets—four black armored figures who were busy breaking shit left and right. The police hadn’t been an issue, they they’d been *very* confused as to why their superiors were allowing civilians into a combat zone and not allowing them to follow. But well, weirder things had happened.

    As they approached, the rangers made sure to morph, and instead of civilians, it was the red, blue, and yellow rangers that closed in on the presumed enemy. Several shots went out from Sel’s bow, striking the ground next to the four figures. They stopped what they were doing (at the time, two were punching through the wall of a building, while the other two had been unloading laser blasts from their wrists at indiscriminate targets) and turned towards the rangers.

    Sid sauntered up towards them, “Sweet, got your attention. Look, could you guys just go back and tell Capricorn or whoever, we *really* just don’t feel up to playing this game today?” The androids seemed to regard each other wordlessly for a moment, before turning their gauntlets on Sid. His eyes widened just before he barely flipped out of the way, landing next to the other two rangers.

    “Guess not” he sighed, taking a fighting pose. The other two did likewise. But then, to their surprise, three of the four robots matched up against them, seemingly regarding *them* now before…well, that was interesting. The three arrayed against them changed, colored neon lights lining across their suits, each a color matching the opposing ranger. Sid’s eyes widened as he realized the situation, “Ah, shit”.

    “What?” asked Xolin, “What is it?”

    “We’ve got a Psycho Ranger situation. Everyone, defe—” his orders were cut off as the red android charged in, knocking him clear through another building. The two girl rangers stood surprised and confused at the situation for a split second, just before their own doppelgangers rushed them, forcing them to defend themselves.

    Xolin found herself dealing with an opponent just as evasive and maneuverable as herself, it quickly dodging her attacks and counterattacking with furious speed. The two grappled, the android flipping over Xolin’s head and landing behind her, before tossing her over and back. Xolin rebounded, kicking off a wall as she lunged back at her opponent—just in time to feel the android’s fist in her face. She rolled across the ground, bringing out her lance. Fury coursed through her veins.

    “Okay, you want some of this, you—huh?” she paused upon discovering that her opponent now held a lance much like her own. Her face bunched up in momentary confusion, just long enough for the android to attack again. Xolin barely parried, continuously on the defensive as her doppelganger kept hitting.

    “ENOUGH!” Xolin shouted, swinging low and finally forcing the android to give her some space. She charged up the end of her lance with cool blue energy as it cooled the surrounding air. Xolin then thrust forward, sending her lance toward the enemy. Unfortunately, the android had rebounded and knocked it aside before thrusting her own back, striking Xolin dead-square in the chest. Sparks exploded as the blue ranger was knocked back to the ground.

    Sel, meanwhile, was faring just as poorly. She couldn’t get close; she’d been hit from the side while watching Sid fight, and the next thing she’d known her doppelganger was opening fire on her with her own bow. The yellow ranger had been forced to jump side, rolling beside a pile of debris, just before it was blown up, causing her to keep running in circles around the battlefield as her opponent kept shooting. Finally, the shots hit their mark, and Sel was sent flying into a wall. As she pulled herself up, the yellow android came down on her, swinging her bow down blade first. Sel barely managed to block with her own, still crouched in the ground, but didn’t anticipate the kick to her chest. She rolled away, blocking again as she got up, and then backed away, evading its continuing strikes.

    Bad move.

    Sel was now in the android’s point blank range, and suffered the consequences as the laser attacks hit her dead-on.

    Sid found himself being flung through a wall, crashing inside an empty…what was this? Some sort of office? The weird crystalline-organic setup made it hard to figure this kind of shit out. Whatever, this didn’t matter right now.

    What DID matter was the fact his doppelganger was getting back up after they had both tumbled to the floor. Sid scrambled back to his feet, launching into a flurry of attacks, even as he knew it wouldn’t work. This was bad; the others had no experience with mirror rangers. They had to regroup; they had to pull back and reassess, maybe even a tactical retreat. He thrust himself up, leaping up on top of his opponent and over, kicking him in the back as he came down, before swinging around and landing another blow before it could recover, sending it into a desk…thing.

    That was key; keep it off balance.

    “Sel! Xolin!” he called, running out of the hole in the wall, “We gotta regr—OOF” the wind was knocked out of him as his doppelganger charged into him from behind. Rookie mistake on his part. The two rolled across the ground, the android landing on top of him.

    SHIT.

    ---

    Trok took a deep breath, relaxing as best he could in the water. “It’s just…I always wanted to be a hero. Even back when I was back on Horath, I grew up with myths of our old heroes, and we’d get stories from merchants about the power rangers and riders, and all the other superheroes out in space, and I just…I always wanted to be more than just some guy trying to figure out which oasis was a bit more hospitable this season”.

    “Seems you did fairly well, considering” the aquitian said reassuringly.

    Trok chuckled bitterly, “I’m a fraud. I didn’t understand; I thought it was all fun and games: I get the glory, I get the girl, I get the awesome adventure. But I watch Xolin and Sid, and even Sel and I just…” his hands clenched as he watched them, “They don’t do things for glory. They throw themselves into deadly situations time and time again, and get nothing for it. We can’t even reveal ourselves to the public. They only do it because it’s the right thing to do”.

    “And you don’t?”

    Trok sighed glumly, “I’m a coward. When it comes to actual sacrifice, I just turn and run away. I was fine leaving people to die on Horath. And now I run and hide just because I was afraid of ghosts. My friends were suffering, and I hid away because they weren’t protecting me”.

    “Everyone on that ship suffered from hallucinations; you can’t blame yourself for that. Everything we’ve got on the entity suggests that it could easily overpower minds”.

    “Yeah…” Trok muttered, looking away, clearly not convinced at all.

    “Iota to Trok. I hate to interrupt, but we have a psycho ranger situation on our hands. I need you to assist the others in regrouping and retreating”.

    Trok glanced at the morpher on the counter beside him, then at the therapist. She nodded encouragingly, and he reluctantly but determinedly took his morpher, sitting up out of the water and being careful to miss the crystals hanging above. He sighed again, hoping to any spirit that might be listening that he could help this time.

    ---

    Sid struggled in vain against his android, barely keeping its fists off his face. He couldn’t grab his gun, or summon his axe…and he was getting tired--his android wasn’t.

    A blur of green threw itself into the side of Sid’s opponent, knocking it off the red ranger, and causing both figures to tumble away. Sid pulled himself up, grinning as he saw Trok taking on the red android. The green ranger’s hammer slammed into its abdomen, sending it flying into the far wall.

    “Trok!” Sid laughed, “Way to go! Keep him distracted, I’ll get the others and we can—” his words died in his throat as the last android charged in, green glowing lines forming over its hull as its fist made contact with Trok. The two duked it out as red rebounded, coming back after Sid.

    Shit. So much for *that* plan!

    Trok and his doppelganger launched their hammers at one another, transforming them into mace mode and swinging down on each other. The two weapons interlocked, and Trok soon found himself in a tug-of-war with his enemy—one he quickly lost as he found himself being flung through the air toward the green android…who had just retracted his hammer.

    Oh boy.

    Almost comedically, Trok’s body was knocked aside like a baseball to a bat, being thrown through the air and through a wall. Sid winced in pain as he watched the green ranger go, he himself busy locking swords with his own mirror. To his right, Xolin and Sel were having similar luck; the blue ranger was trapped in a deadly dance, both figures twirling their lances about like whirlwinds. The two yellows, meanwhile, were running and gunning, with Sel getting the worst of it. Sid grimaced; they needed to withdraw *now*.

    “Sid to team!” he called out, speaking into his morpher as he kept the android’s sword occupied, “Everyone regroup! We need a tactical retreat, NOW!” Bad move; the opposing sword cut into him, forcing him back.

    Immediately after that, Sel was shot over to Sid’s position, her suit smoking as she rolled over to him. Xolin soon followed, also stumbling to him. Then as they prepared a new defensive perimeter, Trok staggered over to them, limping from an injury he had sustained in the crash.

    “That’s…one way to do it, I guess” Sid muttered, cocking his head slightly.

    Xolin’s reply was a bit crankier as the four enemy androids moved in, “Right, okay. We’re all here, so *what’s the plan*?”

    “Defender Cannon time” Sid replied, brandishing his sword.

    “Won’t that just cause them to fire back?” she asked, a bit indignant.

    He glanced at her knowingly, “I’ve got a plan. Trust me”.

    She nodded reluctantly, and immediately the cannon came together as the four weapons slid into place. The weapon aimed at the enemy group, each ranger grabbing a different part as their morphin’ energies charged it up.

    Sid’s eyes narrowed, “Defender Cannon…ready and—”

    “FIRE!” the team shouted together, as a beam of multicolored light blasted forth. As expected however, the four androids banded together, combining their own weapons into a makeshift cannon and returning the favor. The two beams collided, light filling the sector as the energies intertwined and flowed out. The more the rangers pushed their own energy supply though, the more they knew they couldn’t keep this up—their own bodies were tiring fast.

    “Now!” Sid shouted, “Roll out of the way and hit them with your sidearms while they’re busy!”

    The other rangers turned to him, just briefly as first confusion, then dawning realization swept over them. That was *brilliant*. All three of the other rangers did as they were told, letting go of the Cannon as they pulled their blasters out. As they did, their colors vanished from the beam, leaving just Sid’s vibrant red—not enough to stand against four enemy hues. Sid knew this of course, but kept pushing as hard as he could; delaying the oncoming advance for as long as possible while the others got into position.

    Three smaller flurry of lights shot out from the blasters of the other rangers, cutting into all four androids. Their attack vanished, giving Sid’s Cannon its chance to plow through to them. They were blasted back, and Sid then turned the Cannon to the ground, carving a shallow trench between him and their foes—and creating a thick dirt cloud to obscure them.

    “NOW!” Sid shouted as he lowered his weapon and turned to run, “RUN!” The other rangers quickly followed his cue, not stopping until they were well out of sight from their lesser halves.

    ---

    Sid slumped against the chair, taking a moment to catch his breath now that they’d pulled back to the Megaship. Currently the four sat around the circular table in the briefing room, going over footage from the battle. Iota had so far declined to join them; when asked by Xolin on the way in, he’d muttered something about being busy in a meeting over the comm channel.

    Typical Iota.

    “Ohkay, so that didn’t work. New plan time” Sid said, putting his legs up.

    When no new plan seemed forthcoming, Xolin shook her head at him, “…Okay? Any ideas?”

    “As a matter of fact, I do!” Sid replied gleefully, putting his finger up in a gesture of confidence. Xolin’s face deadpanned when she realized he’d just been waiting for them to bait him. “SPD has numerous regulations on Psycho Ranger scenarios. For the robot subtype, the answer is simple; we confuse them”.

    “Confuse?” Trok asked, looking for clarification.

    Sid put his feet down, sitting forward as he typed up a few commands on the table’s computer. Hologram representations of the four androids and the rangers appeared in the center, each matched up against their colored counterparts, “They’ve been programmed with our moves and abilities, but from what I’ve seen, they don’t seem to be too good at free will. They aren’t *true* AI. That means all we need to do is…” he typed up a few more commands, and the rangers’ positions on the board changed, “…Change colors”.

    “Huh…that’s…actually not a half bad plan” Xolin blinked, a bit taken aback the solution was so simple.

    “It’s an old tried and true operation” Sid replied, turning off the holograms as he got up, “So who’s ready to go for round two before our friends try to lure us out again the hard way?”

    “I can’t” Sel muttered, “I uh…have…”

    “Ah, right, it’s your turn, isn’t it?” Sid said, knowingly. She nodded in response, and he smiled, “It’s fine, we can handle this one. If I’m right, yours won’t fight us until you arrive, like how Trok’s stayed back last time. We can take ours out, and then yours will be easy pickings”.

    “…Yeah. Right” she said, mustering a smile as the turned, “Good luck”. Her face fell as she exited the room, unbeknownst to the others. Useless. She was useless.

    “So, we ready?” Sid asked the other two. They nodded as they got up, and he responded in kind, “Then let’s do this”.

    ---

    “No matter how hard I try, I can’t catch up”.

    “How do you mean ‘catch up’?” the aquitian asked Sel.

    The xybrian lay still in the pool, eyes closed as she worked to center herself, “I…no matter how hard I train, or how much effort I work, I am always the weakest. I can’t hold my own in a fight, and I can’t do much to support the team. They’re constantly saving me”.

    “But your team seems to care for you”.

    “I don’t want them to care for me. I want to help support them” Sel countered, her voice subdued and low. It was clear her self-confidence was nil.

    The therapist took a different track, “Your experience on the ghost ship…”

    “I couldn’t stop him” Sel muttered. Water collected at the edges of her eyes, “I tried. I was the only one who could snap out of it, and I still couldn’t do anything. It was up to me and I failed”.

    “If my reports are accurate, there’s not much anyone could have done. And they say you might have actually done some good—you knocked him out with your…” the therapist hesitated, “…powers?”

    “I don’t know what they are” Sel sighed. She opened her eyes and moved her fingers in front of her face. The faintest glimmer of light danced between them, “It just…happens. And it’s started to happen more frequently. I can feel it; building. This morning I woke up and my hair was full of static”. She quietly chuckled in bitter amusement at that last bit.

    “Have you had any tests taken?”

    “Results have been inconclusive” she sighed again, laying back down and closing her eyes. “Iota says it’s nothing to be too concerned about; it’s just an unusual outgrowth of my psychic abilities. Some sorta…mutation. The Elders said I was fine too. But it’s just…it’s one more unanswered question. One more liability”.

    “Do you feel any different?”

    Sel clenched her hand, “Maybe? I don’t know. But I keep feeling…a buzzing feeling. And it’s getting louder”.

    “Like a sound?”

    She shook her head, “No, like, a vibration maybe? A non-auditory vibration, I mean? No, that’s not...” she trailed off, unsure.

    The therapist decided to switch topics, still trying to get a full picture of Sel, “Let’s talk about your friends for a minute. How are they?”

    Sel paused, thinking. That was an interesting question. “I…” she hesitated, then nodded to herself, “I like them. They rescued me, they brought me into their lives and they’ve treated me like a family I don’t remember. Way better than I really deserve, I think. But…” she trailed off.

    “Yes?”

    Sel hesitated, not sure how to put this into words, “…When I’ve seen Xolin and Trok’s rooms, I see who they are. In Xolin’s room I see her spiritual side from home and her workout and training stuff. In Trok’s room I see his hobbies and game collection”.

    “And Sid?”

    She frowned, “I’ve only been to his room once, when he was looking for a book he was going to lend me. There’s almost nothing in there. He doesn’t have anything. He plays games with Trok, but only casually. I couldn’t tell you anything about him as a person. It’s like…” she paused again, as if realizing something, “…It’s like he doesn’t exist. Like he doesn’t really…live, I guess.

    She opened her eyes, looking up at the crystal above her head, a sad, but contemplative expression on her face.

    “Like me”.

    ---

    The connecting tube between the two city sectors was large; easily wide enough for the mass transit system that ferried inhabitants back and forth; and then some, as Sid discovered as they ran alongside the *very* wide pedestrian pathway that lined both sides of the many tracks that crossed back and forth. The tube itself was open; one could see out into the ocean that surrounded the city, and the underside of the ice above them. Even as three rangers ran toward their enemy, Sid stole a glance at a large whale-like creature as it gently glided along, issuing a low song as it passed.

    Then, his attention was back on the mission.

    “Up ahead!” Xolin shouted, pointing at the four black figures. They seemed to have noticed the rangers, stopping their almost casual stroll toward the next sector and turning back around. Three of them lit up—red, blue, and green. As expected, the would-be yellow bot stayed behind as they approached the incoming rangers.

    Excellent. Just as planned. Inwardly, Sid grinned. “Stick to the plan!” Sid ordered, “Remember your targets!”

    Sid launched himself at the blue android, his kick to its head knocking it off balance. This was…not the correct program. This was wrong. The red ranger didn’t wait for the android to respond, instead following up with a volley of punches as he attacked the prone body of his opponent. The targets he’d chosen for each of the rangers had been calculated; Xolin was fast and agile, and thus would be able to easily outflank Trok’s doppelganger. Trok, whose skills were more heavy-set and defensive, would pare off against his own android, who wouldn’t be up to the task of taking on a tank. And as for himself, the all-around warrior of the team, Sid might not have been quite as *fast* as the blue android, but he could definitely strike harder.

    As he proceeded to smash through his foe’s defenses, he caught a glimpse of the other two fights going on—things were well in hand there too. He’d been right, the androids weren’t true AI (otherwise, why would the fourth one sit out just because its counterpart was missing), and so free will was winning the day when it had the opportunity to seize an advantage.

    Excellent.

    That’s when it happened. Just as Sid’s leg reached up for another attack, the blue lines on his adversary switched to red.

    Wait what.

    The android grabbed him by the leg, anticipating his movement, and then swung him around like a toy, causing the red ranger to crash into the track. It then leapt up, and down on top of him.

    The other androids had reverted too; Xolin suddenly found her foe much faster and agile then before, now easily evading her attacks. Trok’s hammer met with another hammer, instead of the axe he had intended to smash apart.

    This was bad.

    “Sid, the plan’s not working!” Xolin cried out, just as her body was shot back by a kick balanced by the android’s lance, sending her tumbling into the side of the track. As her opponent neared her as she tried to scramble to her feet, she momentarily thought about using her powers; splitting apart to get the drop on the android. They were only mimicking their powers and moves, right? They couldn’t replicate her triforian biology.

    Then she remembered about what it might cost her. Y’know, long term. No, not worth it.

    Sid rolled out of the way, barely avoiding his doppelganger’s fist as it came down on him. What had happened? The plan was toast, and he had to come up with a solution fast, or everyone was going to die. He shook aside the flashes in his mind. Not *now*. But there wasn’t a solution. The red android charged up its dual axes, flattened them together, and then swung them in Sid’s direction. The red ranger dodged out of the way, and the crimson energy cascaded into the side of the tube wall, causing a rather impressive explosion.

    That was worse.

    As the smoke cleared, Sid noticed cracks winding their way up the…well, it wasn’t *glass*, but whatever clear material was separating them from the untold gallons of water all around them. And the cracks were getting bigger.

    Oh, this was the worst.

    Xolin saw the cracks too, as she parried her opponent’s lance with her own. Her heart skipped a beat. Oh trinity, this was bad. Subconsciously, she flashed back to her fears. She didn’t want to die. She *definitely* didn’t want the planet to collapse around her.

    Trok also noticed, even as he had the android’s hammer up in a chokehold up against his throat. He tried his best to escape, but the hold was too solid.

    “Sid to Iota!” the red ranger commanded into his morpher with a panicked tone, even as he evaded his android’s attacks, “Transport tube six! We need IMMEDIATE pickup! This whole place is about to come down on us!”

    “Understood. Megaship enroute”.

    Water began to pour in from the cracks, and Sid could see the tube being sealed off via section doors at each end. That was that dealt with at least, though really it just made him feel a bit more claustrophobic as the water began pouring in more freely. Sid watched frantically for any sign of the Megaship.

    Come on, come on…

    Then, he saw it. It came around the side of one of the icecaps’s underside mountain, flanking the terraced city pods as it raced in against time.

    “NOW!” Sid shouted, drawing his blaster and firing on Trok’s android, freeing the green ranger even as he kept his blade matched with his own opponent. Trok kicked the green android back, just as the tube finally gave way and the flood swept in.

    “OH shi—” Xolin and the blue android let go as the water slammed into them. Momentary panic coursed through her veins as her body was thrown into the side of the quickly-filling tube. But then she felt something wrapping around her waist—Trok’s hammer! And just in time, as even with the chaos of the water, she could tell the entire tube was self-destructing under the water pressure now that its integrity had been compromised.

    The Megaship came right in under the crumbling bridge; Sid grabbed Trok and leapt off as the whole place came apart and imploded, diving down into an open hatch on the top of the ship. As soon as they were inside, Trok issued one final mighty heave, drawing Xolin inside just before the hatch closed and the ice-cold water drained away. The three rangers slumped to the floor of the small auxiliary hatch they found themselves in, privately reflecting on their near-death experience and their collective failure.

    ---

    “The truth is…I shouldn’t even *be* leader. I think I’ve messed up enough times now for that to be absolutely clear to anyone”.

    The therapist smiled mildly at Sid, “In that case, who do you think should be?”

    Sid shrugged, “I dunno, really. Trok’s too young and inexperienced. Sel lacks self-confidence and is still preoccupied with her sense of self. I think Xolin’ll make a really good leader someday, but right now she’s way too emotional and bull-headed. She needs to mellow out, deal with some of her own demons”. He chuckled sadly, “I still don’t know why Iota worked so hard to recruit me. There has to have been other, better people for the job out there. My team deserves someone who can treat them right”.

    “You care for them”.

    He pondered, “…Yeah, I do. Way more than I thought I would” he smiled, but it quickly vanished, “But caring just isn’t enough”.

    “What more do you need?”

    Sid thought for a moment, then moved his arms slightly as he tried to come up with an answer, “I…”. Strategy, maybe? Tactics? What WAS he missing?

    “Allow me to ask a different question” the therapist said, upon realizing Sid was at a loss, “You’ve talked a lot about stepping down as leader, but not a lot about leaving the team. Can I assume you would? Or would you stay?”

    “Is there a problem with staying?” Sid asked.

    She frowned slightly, “Won’t there be a problem if there are effectively two leaders? You may not wish to lead, but in the heat of battle, team dynamics are hard to change, for all parties. What if you think the decision is a bad one? In the middle of a firefight, are you really just going to go along with it?”

    “…What are you saying?” Sid asked, uncomfortable with where this was going now. “Are you saying I should just give up? What if I’m not there and something happens?”

    “Do you not have faith in them?”

    Faith. Of course he did; what kind of stupid question was that? But Sid had also had faith in his old team. He always had faith, but he also knew that there were often circumstances beyond their control. And if he was there, he could help, somehow. “…I could lose them” he said quietly, “It doesn’t matter if I have faith; none of us are infallible”.

    A brief uncomfortable silence settled. The therapist spoke, gently yet directly, “Or perhaps it’s an obsession”.

    “I’m sorry?” Sid asked.

    The therapist clarified, “You’re torn. Part of you wants it to stop; you want to leave but you can’t bare to leave the obsession alone”.

    “You’re calling my friendships an obsession?” he asked, annoyed.

    “No, I’m calling your overprotectiveness an obsession” she replied.

    Sid almost bit back, but thoughts crossed his mind: his messup on Horath had been because he’d been overprotective. And the mild freakout during the simudeck mission. He was at a bit of a loss for words; was she right? Was his presence just making things worse?

    ---

    Trok and Xolin brooded, stuck back in the briefing room with Sel. The xybrian sat on the opposite side of the table from them, lost in her own problems.

    “So, Sid’s plan didn’t work” Trok frowned, his face supported by his fists with his elbows on the table. He watched the holographic screens in the center of the table listlessly.

    Xolin gave a shrug, then leaned forward as she supported her forehead with her hand, “They just…switched on us. Somehow”.

    “The programming hopped from android to android” Trok murmured, as if his response was more for himself than anyone else; “The software was capable of switching modes”.

    “Is there any way to negate that? Freeze their programming, somehow?” Xolin asked him. She wasn’t a tech expert, so she was just throwing out whatever came to mind.

    But Trok recognized a feasible idea when he saw one, “Uh…hmm” he thought, “…Might take me a bit, but I think maybe, yes. I’ll need any scans the ship and our suits made of the androids while we fought them. Like, grid wavelength patterns, power regulation, chromagraphic--”

    “Just do it, please” Xolin grumbled, cutting him off before he could dip *too* far into the Big Words. He stuck his tongue out at her, causing her to roll her eyes, before he began to get to work on the computer, directing all necessary files to his workstation. He began studying them, when he felt a presence sit down next to him. He turned; Sel had broken out of her own introspections and was now viewing her screen. She noticed he was looking at her offered an awkward smile.

    “I uh…can I help?” she asked, hesitant. It was an awful thing; needing to be needed. Needing to be useful. She’d so far managed not to be so in combat. But maybe if she helped elsewhere, and just kept helping? Maybe she’d do something right eventually.

    Trok returned the smile eagerly, and began transferring some of his files over to her workstation, “I need to be able to lock down their software protocols, essentially matching their powers so we can hack in…”

    As the two of them began lobbing technobabble at each other, Xolin just sort of sighed to herself, instead opting out of this one. She leaned back and closed her eyes, leaving the kids to their work. She must have dozed off for a few minutes though, because it seemed like just as she closed her eyes, Trok was waking her up.

    “It’s done!” His tone was triumphant, though with a hint of caution to it, “I think. Can’t really test it until we try it” his jubilant face fell a bit towards ‘uncertain’ at his own words. He typed up a few things on his workstation, downloading the final product to everyone’s morphers, “Sid’s plan should still work. We just need to get in close and the program will activate automatically. It’ll act a bit like the dampening field we used on the shapeshifter”.

    Xolin frowned. She didn’t like the sound of ‘I think’. “How likely is it to work?”

    Trok shrugged, “I haven’t a clue. Fifty-fifty, maybe? It’s all up to if the specifications are what I assume they are. If they’re more advanced then they let on, then we might be in trouble”.

    “I just don’t know if we’ll have a chance to pull out a third time if things get hairy” she replied, wary about the whole thing.

    Trok nodded, “Yeah…” he mused, “…We should wait for Sid”.

    No sooner had he said that however, then the alert system started going off. Xolin’s eyebrow arched as she toggled the alert, letting it show up on the table’s central holographic display. The androids were at it again; only now they’d circumnavigated the police perimeter. On the screen they could see the four machines entering the city’s central government sector, even as the populace ran the other way screaming as the four left a trail of destruction in their wake.

    “…I guess it was too much to ask that the robots could have drowned” Trok grumbled.

    “…Sid can catch up with us” Xolin frowned as she watched the footage, “The plan should still work with just three of us. Come on”.

    Trok reluctantly followed her out of the room, with Sel bringing up the rear. He managed one last glance at the chaos on the holo-screen as left; he *really* hoped this was going to work.

    ---

    The central city sector was…well, *big*. Also, it was upside-down. Well, relatively speaking anyway; the central government…well, ‘spire’ stretched from the ceiling downward, with numerous organic pods sticking out of it at various intervals. It pointed down, from the icecap towards the arctic abyss below. Around it were supported platforms for smaller buildings, interconnected by various bridges and streets. All around them, people were screaming and fleeing for their lives

    “Uh…should we really be out here, right now?” Trok asked, “I thought we were supposed to be doing the whole ‘low key’ thing”.

    Xolin cursed. Trok was right; they weren’t supposed to be seen. Not that they’d really done a good job at that, considering the number of incidents they’d caused, but they’d never been *this* blatant. But…people were in trouble. And there was no way the police could get everyone out of here in time; not in a pod that was so vast. She didn’t even see police forces yet. It was quite clear that they’d completely circumnavigated the blockade.

    A moderate explosion a few platforms down alerted the rangers to the position of their targets. Sigh, it couldn’t be helped.

    “Xolin to Iota. Targets are in the central governmental pod. Civilians are everywhere; blockade is breached. It’s a madhouse down here. Orders?”

    A few eternal seconds ticked by, as another explosion went off. Her whole body tensed…and then the reply came.

    “Engage targets. I’ll deal with the fallout”.

    Xolin nodded to Trok, who returned the gesture, just as a third bomb went off.

    “Well, at least they’re not hard to track down” Xolin muttered. For a brief second she hesitated; she knew once she committed, that was it. There was no promise they’d be able to escape. And what if…she noted the existence of the same transparent material in the upside-down dome protecting the sector as had been in the tube. Her mind raced back to the water crushing down on her. Her fists tightened.

    She didn’t want to die. Really, she didn’t.

    Steeling herself, the blue ranger summoned her lance and jumped off, down and over to the source of the chaos. She felt the other two following in step with her, as they raced across the next platform, and off again.

    “Take your targets!” she shouted, “Fast and hard!”

    She prayed as hard as she could that Trok’s program was going to work. As usual, only three of the four androids activated towards them—green, blue, and yellow. She took yellow, Trok took blue, and Sel took green. Her lance charged up, freezing the air it came in contact with as she spun it into yellow’s form—she was already much too close for its long ranged attacks. Yellow slid back upon impact, its chest sparking a bit from the attack. It readied its bow blade, thrusting it down on Xolin as she rebounded, and the two weapons met. She parried, pulling the blades down as she leapt up and slammed her foot into the android’s head, following up with her body flipping around, and her lance cutting through its chest again as she landed on her feet a foot away from her starting place.

    No sign yet of the android programs switching colors. That was good, very good. She was hesitantly optimistic. This could work; as it was, yellow couldn’t keep up with her movements—the sharp shooter was simply no match for her rapid close-ranged attacks. It hopped back, opening fire on Xolin, but the berserker blue ranger simply charged forward, deflecting the laser arrows by spinning her lance around rapidly, before cutting in again. She sliced by, before turning back behind her opponent and issuing a charged up frozen swing. The yellow android doubled over.

    Trok’s fight was going similarly. It didn’t matter how fast the blue android was; as soon as it got within range of Trok to use its attacks, he’d swing his hammer in, crushing it aside with ease. Powering his weapon up with green energy, he swung down—hard. Seismic forces ripped through the floor, the shockwave sending his opponent flying into a railing a few feet away. The green ranger went on the offensive, rushing forward and issuing another swing. The android was flung right off the platform, landing in a heap on the nearest one below—near some sort of small office building…er, pod. It scrambled to get back up as Trok leapt down to finish the job.

    Sel was actually holding her own! Green was a tough one up close, but like Trok was almost entirely a short-ranged fighter—and relatively slow. This was good news for the long-range operator of the team. It was still deflecting as many of her attacks as it could with its hammer, but it wasn’t fast enough, and she was quick enough to keep out of its range. Sooner or later, she’d bring it down with a thousand cuts.

    …Okay, maybe two thousand. The point was; she was making progress.

    …And that’s when the red android slammed into her from the side. She cried out in both pain and surprise as she tumbled, then got hit by multiple strikes from the axe.

    “SEL!” Xolin shouted, instinctively moving to defend her, but quickly realized her mistake as she parried yellow’s assault just in the nick of time. “What the hell?!” she demanded to know, “Why is red online?!”

    Trok plunged another blow into blue, “The AI programming must be adapting! It can’t use its switching trick, so it’s trying something different!”

    Xolin cursed under her breath; even from here she could see Sel wasn’t doing well two-on-one. Figured; it’d be right their luck to break the enemy program to make it *harder*. “Sel, hang on!” she yelled at the yellow ranger, as the xybrian cried out from another blow. Her bow slid across the ground, well out of Sel’s reach.

    Sel tried to try and summon her powers; the light that sometimes danced from her fingertips. She wasn’t quite sure what gave her the idea to try that, but if it had both saved her from the shapeshifter, and saved Xolin from Sid on the ghost ship, maybe, just maybe… She wasn’t sure what it would do to *her* if she kept using it, considering the toll it took on her body each time. And unfortunately, right now she was far too busy keeping just ahead of both enemy androids; she couldn’t focus enough to try, even as she got more and more frustrated, and as the faintest glimmers danced across her—unbeknownst to her. She could almost hear the buzzing, though. It was distracting, and helped to keep her from focusing.

    Again Xolin debating splitting herself into her three aspects, but even as she locked weapons with the yellow android, she hesitated against it.

    But...

    Xolin winced as Sel let out another shout. But she couldn’t leave her fight with the yellow android. The two weapons rubbed against each other as Xolin struggled furiously with herself…

    ---

    “It’s true. Fear of death is a very normal thing. Few people really look forward to passing away”.

    “So what am I supposed to do then?” Xolin asked the therapist, a note of desperation in her voice, “I hate feeling this way”.

    The therapist smiled sadly. She put the data pad she had been using aside as she leaned forward, “My species is effectively immortal. Thanks to the eternal falls, and technologies we’ve derived from it that allow us to purify any water, we don’t age. Our elders are thousands of years old, and while I guess that means I can’t *quite* relate to your situation, mine does come with some psychological baggage of its own”.

    Xolin eyed her curiously, as if to beckon her to continue. She did so, “We become so accustomed to life sometimes, that we take it for granted. We come to fear anything that might take that away; it’s why Aquitar has never fielded a very large military force, despite the fact that we easily could otherwise. We become fearful; we close ourselves off. We get stuck in our ways. It’s even worse sometimes, for those who *want* to die because they’ve felt they’ve lived long enough; they’ve still grown up in a society that fears it, and it sticks with them, like indoctrination. So they stick around in a half-dead state, simultaneously tired of their lives, and fearful of ending it”.

    “How do you guys deal with that?” Xolin asked, genuinely curious. She’d never really thought about how a long-lived species might think differently, but it made sense.

    “There are meditation techniques, though I’m sure you already partake in several of them. Some go on pilgrimages; soul-searching journeys away from aquitian society to discover themselves and face their fears. Sometimes they go out into the wilderness; sometimes they go to various sacred sites; sometimes they go to other nations. In fact, there are entire aquitian religious orders dedicated to that. But one of the things many tend to realize is that they’re wrong. That you’re wrong”.

    “I…what?” Xolin cocked her head at the therapist, a bit taken aback by the sudden shift in conversation.

    The therapist smiled wryly, “This universe is vast, and everyone in it has a different opinion. The odds that you’re right about everything in your life is…well, it’s absurd. Same for me. Same for everyone. But we still stand by our convictions; not because we know them to be true, but because we take that risk, that leap of faith”.

    “But what if I *am* wrong?” she whispered quietly, glancing down at herself, unfocused.

    The therapist shrugged, “Then at least it was a decision you made for yourself, because of your own convictions. And no one can fault you for that. We all exist but for a moment; but what’s important is what we do here, and now. Not what might happen tomorrow”.


    ---

    Xolin gripped her weapon tightly, and with a mighty heave and a roar, pushed the yellow android back, before throwing a wide swing with her lance at it. She turned to Sel, who was currently being knocked into the building’s wall by an axe. “Hold on, Sel!” She couldn’t let Sel die; she *wouldn’t* let Sel die. She had a power; and she was going to use it to everything she could to save everyone else.

    At the very least, her actions would have an impact.

    Even as her three forms split, and two went after Sel’s oppressors, she knew she couldn’t hold on too long; her facets would be working at one-third strength; the most she could do now was keep everyone off-balance long enough for either Trok to take his target out and shift the tide of battle, or wait for Sid.

    Fun choices. Xolin of Courage rolled out of the way of the yellow android’s laser bolts, drawing her pistol in her free hand as she did so, before opening fire. The battle quickly descended into a game of ranged cat-and-mouse, with Xolin still being too fast for the yellow android to get a direct hit on—most of the time, anyway.

    The other two aspects, Mind and Spirit, raced off towards Sel, each taking one of her opponents. Mind took on green, her lance piercing its exposed chest as she then used it as a jumping platform, leaping over its head and cutting down the backside in mid-flip. Spirit ducked red’s axe, delivering a punch to its midsection, before following up with a sweeping kick.

    “You okay?” she asked Sel. The yellow ranger nodded numbly as she got up, despondent that once again she’d proved unable to hold her own, to carry her weight, as the two Xolins took both of her opponents.

    “…Yeah…” she muttered, her voice barely above a whisper.

    ---

    “Iota to Sid; the others have engaged the androids. Trok’s managed to prevent them from shifting programs, but they’ve run into some…unexpected resistance. They need you”.

    Sid eyed his morpher. The others needed his help. But…

    The therapist sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose idly as she checked her notes, “Sid, I’ll be blunt. Your psych profile has displayed multiple symptoms of PTSD, not limited to bouts of irritability, sleeplessness, obsession, and most importantly your ever-present flashbacks to the death of your former team. By your own admission, you’ve spent the last several years ‘floating’ on the edge of society without any sort of goal or purpose. And most recently you got sucked into a vibrant hallucinatory situation that played on those issues”.

    “So I shouldn’t go?” Sid asked her.

    “Throwing yourself into combat situations that could trigger a possible condition would probably be a bad thing, yes” she deadpanned. “You shouldn’t be a ranger; and if you continue, you could do serious damage to your psychological health”.

    Sid glanced at his morpher again, then back at his therapist. For a second, he almost considered it. He almost considered giving up, like he’d tried to on Arkilla. Like he’d done for years. But what if his team HAD needed help? The one time they did, and he wouldn’t be there. What if they still died?

    The alternative, then, was much worse to him than some sleepless nights.

    Sid pulled himself out of the shallow pool, making sure to avoid the crystal as he sat up and grabbed his morpher off the table beside him. “I’m sorry. They need me”.

    The therapist shook her head, “You’re making a mistake. You’re just shoving it all back down and ignoring it for the sake of your obsess—”

    Sid cut her off, turning around with a determined look on his face, “No, for the sake of my friends. Yeah, I’m probably pretty messed up and I might be overbearing, but they still need me”.

    The therapist watched him step out of the pool, drops of water still falling on the floor, still very disapproving of his decision, but also there was a hint of…admiration, maybe? “You’ll go, even knowing you could destroy yourself?” she asked skeptically.

    He shrugged, strapping the morpher to his wrist, “Every time I go out there, I could die. Often times I nearly do. This is really no different to me. But if there’s a chance I can save them, then the risk is worth it”. He stared out the window behind the therapist, at the deep blue ocean and the other pods in the murky distance, “…And it’s not just them. There’s some crazy evil robot rangers out there, and unless somebody stops them, they could hurt a lot of people. And it might even be because we came here—there’s some bad people after us, and we have a responsibility to keep them from hurting others”.

    “You can’t ignore the problem forever” she said, “Eventually you won’t be able to run anymore, and you *will* be forced to deal with it”.

    “Then that’ll be then. But this is now, and they need me” Sid replied. His mind was made up, and she could tell from his expression. No further convincing could be done.

    A small smile of admiration crossed the therapist’s face as she and Sid locked eyes, “You know, when I was a child the power rangers were heroes. We used to look up to them, like paragons of virtue. They kept us safe from the very real and literal monsters that threatened us”. Her nostalgic expression became a bit more downcast, “Then I think somewhere along the line we started to take them for granted; we turned them into our own monsters so we could use them to police us and fight wars. We made armies and organizations and regulations and business contracts, and then wondered where it all went wrong”. The last part was spat out particularly bitterly.

    Sid turned away, unable to keep eye contact; for what reasons even Sid wasn’t completely sure about—he hadn’t been expecting the *therapist* to lay her soul out. But she continued when he said nothing, “I guess what I’m saying is…as your therapist, I can’t condone what you’re going to do and I think you’re a fool for doing it…but all the same, as a person I *can* admire it. Good luck, Sid”.

    Sid made one last side glance toward her as he moved to leave the room, “I’ll do my best” he said, genuinely, before exiting through the door. He’d figure out his inner demons later, even if he *was* just playing along with them.

    Right now he had a city to save.

    ---

    Green’s hammer rammed into Xolin of Mind’s side, and she found herself being flung over a railing, landing with a tumble next to the office building. As she limped to her feet, she knew she was in trouble; even with her ‘free will’ advantage, she only had a third of the strength and power of her full form. She simply wasn’t up to par in this state. The blue ranger’s aspect backed up as the green android moved in.

    They needed a fourth ranger.

    “Heeeeey, batter batter!” came the call of a familiar voice; Mind looked up in expectation, and was not disappointed as a blur of red connected with the android’s head. Sid landed on the android’s arm, using it as a staging point to deliver a spin kick before leaping off. It stumbled back, allowing Sid time to summon his axe *and* his sidearm saber and cut into the hammer’s hilt, breaking the object in two.

    “You’re not swinging!” Sid grinned, before bringing his two weapons in to meet with the android’s body. As the android wheeled away, Sid turned to Xolin of Mind. “You okay?”

    “I can’t tell if you have the best timing, or the absolute worst” Xolin of Mind muttered, though her gratitude could be felt even through her biting sarcasm. She rubbed her arm, finding it a little sore from the battle.

    Sid shrugged flippantly, “Well, you’re not dead, so I’m gonna go with ‘best’”.

    Xolin just shook her head, stifling a laugh as she headed past him, “Hang on a second, gotta take care of something real quick”.

    That was fine by Sid; his attention was currently being drawn to the fact that green was rebounding—but several shots from Sel’s bow caused the red android to topple into it. So much for that threat. Turning his attention back to Xolin, he saw the three of them leaping up and straight-up rider-kicking the yellow android, before she recombined into herself.

    “Hey, Xolin, toss her over here!” Sid called over to her. The blue ranger nodded, and as yellow staggered back to its feet, she sent it flying with her own into the quickly-growing dogpile between Sid and Sel---joined seconds later by the blue android that plummeted out of the sky. Trok had evidently used his hammer-mace to swing his opponent back up to where the others were. Another split moment later, and the mace swung up again; the hammer head latching onto one of the railings before Trok retracted the hammer, turning his weapon into a makeshift grappling hook. The green ranger landed with an almost graceful aura—y’know, except for the mild stumbling at the end.

    Sid eyed him incredulously, “…What are you, Batman?” Trok gave off a very self-satisfied noise as he scratched the back of his neck. Xolin made her way over to the group, taking a moment to stab her lance into the writhing pile of metal and plastic and whatever else next to them—with not a little bit of prejudice.

    “I hate copies. Never as good as the original”.

    “And thank god for that” Sid said, gratitude in his tone, “Shall we finish this?”

    ---

    No. No, no, no no.

    Not this time.

    Capricorn pulled out a small remote. There was no anger, no rage. There was no petulant temper tantrums, no anguish. He was far past that; this had been his last gamble. The very last of his savings had been funneled into this, and now it was all for naught.

    He had nothing left. Sel was lost to him; and with her, his honor and his empire. There was no recourse left, except for scorched earth. It was time for everything to burn, and to hell with the consequences.

    He pressed the button.

    ---

    Sid brandished his axe, “Alright, you all know the drill. Defender Can—” his words died in his throat when he caught sight of…something. He blinked; not entirely sure he understood what was going on. At first he thought it was just a trick of the light, or that he’d gotten something in his eye. But…no. Everything was getting fuzzy, or…melted. The bodies were all folding into each other, their colors and forms all blending and swirling each other like a messed up Dali painting.

    What the hell?

    “Uh…” Trok cocked his head, “Is anyone else seeing the crazy melting thing?”

    As the remnants of the androids dissolved into goo, the undefined mass began to grow, and spread. And as it began to fill around and pooled around the railings and odd alien sea-weed bushes and ornamental statues and whatever else, they began sinking into it, dissolving upon contact.

    “Oh…that can’t be good” Sid stepped back, and the others followed suit. The goo then began inflating into a bubble, expanding out in all directions slowly but relentlessly.

    “Uh…” Sid grimaced, “Trok, I need readings, now”.

    Trok scanned the bubble, at first finding himself perplexed by the data coming in. This didn’t make…oh. Oh dear. “Uh…” his tone was anxious; unnerved. Sid knew that couldn’t be a good sign. “I’m…guys, this is…this is nothing but nanobots”.

    All heads turned to Trok. Sid’s reply was a flat “What?”

    Trok kept scanning, the readouts appearing on his helmet’s screen. This was…this was bad. “And it’s growing. They’re replicating. They’ll consume this entire dome within a matter of minutes. If it keeps going, the entire planet will be nothing but a nanoswarm within a day or two”.

    “A nanobomb” Sid hissed, putting two and two together, “Looks like Capricorn or whoever finally got tired of dealing with us”.

    “How do we take it out?” Xolin asked worriedly as they kept stepping back. Soon they’d be out of room on this platform. “There’s hundreds of millions of people on this planet. We can’t evacuate them all!”

    Trok nodded towards the crowd that had established itself at a safe distance around the dome’s central governmental building, “Yeah, not to mention the more immediate victims”.

    Sid glanced over at where Trok was motioning towards. Civilians; great. Well, this whole job had gone right to hell, hadn’t it? Iota was going to burn them alive when they got back.

    If they got back, anyway.

    “Can you hack them somehow?” Sid asked Trok, “Keep them from replicating?”

    Trok shook his head, “I’d need to get back to the ship and work on a virus or something. I…I dunno how long it could take”. More than a hint of panic could be heard in his voice.

    “We don’t have that kind of time. This’ll be everywhere in just a few minutes” Xolin countered. She drew her blaster, issuing a pair of shots at the blob. The lasers cut right through, but the holes soon evaporated as the blob kept growing.

    “You killed some…I think” Trok said, “But not enough. They’re just repurposing the dead material for new units. We’d never be able to kill them quick enough. We need to kill all of them at once”.

    “EMP blast?” Sid asked.

    Trok shook his head again, “The outer shell is shielding the inner regions; we’d never get very far”.

    Sid gritted his teeth. This was bad, and they were rapidly running out of room to stand. The small office pod on their platform was in the process of being devoured now, quickening the growth of the goo. They needed an idea; anything.

    Sel watched them arguing and debating, herself standing just off to the side, as always. She watched the goo rise and bubble over as it continued to grow and consume…and she was silent as the others worked the save the day. She had nothing to contribute; again. The faintest glimmer of light danced across her fingers.

    Maybe not.

    She’d felt something growing inside her since her visit to Xybria; a presence perhaps, or…no, that wasn’t the right word. And whatever it was, it had escalated over the past couple of days, since her freakout on the ghost ship, when she’d hit Sid with her, well, ‘powers’.

    …No. It wasn’t so much *inside* her, it was more like…around her. The presence was, well…*everything*. It was like she was almost feeling more of everything around her. Its energy, its underpinnings.

    Maybe she *did* have something to contribute.

    “I have an idea” she said in a soft voice. It was enough to stop the argument dead in its tracks as everyone turned their attention to her. She cautiously approached the goo.

    “Woah, Sel, what are you doing?!”

    “Don’t get too close!”

    She paid no heed to their warnings however; they were out of ideas and time, as she could tell by their increasingly frantic arguments—and she had the power to end this…probably, anyway. So she knelt down, near the encroaching goo. She could feel the power growing from it; but she couldn’t explain it. It was almost like she could peel the fabric of reality away, see its underlying truth. Energy swirled about her, even as she was unaware. She focused, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes. She reached her hand out, summoning all her strength…

    “SEL!”

    “NO!”

    Everything exploded into light.

    ---

    Iota looked up from his desk. He *felt* that. He grinned inwardly.

    It was time.

    ---

    A massive, swirling vortex of beautiful, holy light filled the city sector. But not a single shadow was cast, not a single area remained dark. It was as if its source came from every direction at once, its pure unrelenting power pushing the rangers back, to the very edge of the platform, as Sel’s form lifted up into the air, above the goo—and into it. The mass seemed to writhe momentarily, churning and boiling as it seemingly tried to escape, in futility, from the force inside, and outside, and all around it. Then it seemed to almost lift up, becoming fuzzy, as if the nanites were being…separated. They were! It was ceasing to be goo, and quickly becoming a cloud.

    And then, just like that, the nanites *evaporated*, as if they were debris pushed aside by the solar wind. All that remained was the storm; the ever-raging tempest of light and power, and at the center of it all, beyond the blinding heat that the others couldn’t even look at anymore, was Sel.

    For Sel, everything happened so fast. She’d invoked her powers, and now everything was completely out of control. She screamed, feeling her entire essence on fire. It wasn’t just her body, her soul *burned*. Everything that she was felt like it was being consumed by the ever-present light.

    “SEL!” It was Trok’s voice.

    “I CAN’T STOP IT!” she screamed in panicked horror, “IT WON’T STOP!”

    “You have to calm down!” Xolin called back. She had no idea if meditation would work, but she had to get Sel to try *something*, and she had no other ideas. “You have to focus yourself! Like in our training sessions! Breath in, breath out!”

    Sel’s only response was to issue an agonizing scream.

    Sid tried pushing forward towards her, but the sheer amount of power she was emanating meant he couldn’t even get close before his powers began sparking and glitching. He’d be dead long before he could even touch her. He crumpled under the weight of the storm, dropping to his knees.

    Trok scanned the storm, desperately looking for any way through. What he found didn’t make sense *at all*. He’d been expecting Sel to have somehow been causing the event; like she’d be the source of the energy. But…she wasn’t. The source of the storm was *everywhere*, and it was…woah. It was Morphin’ Grid energy. All of it. It was like the underpinnings of reality were boiling, agitated beyond all comprehension. It was as if someone had shattered a grid conduit, like a morpher, but it was *everywhere at once*.

    “…What are you?” Trok gasped to himself, staring in awe and wonder as the storm continued to intensify. Another gargled scream from Sel brought him back to reality.

    Wait, morphin’ energy. Then the solution was simple! He quickly scanned the storm’s frequency, and…there! “Sid, Xolin, I have an idea!”

    “I hope it’s a better one than the last one we had!” Sid grunted, noting the storm.

    Trok nodded, “I do! The storm is made entirely of Morphin’ Grid energy! All we need to do is resonate with it! I’m sending you my scans; attune your frequencies to it and guide me in!”

    “…Morphin’ energy?! But how?” Xolin asked, even as she did as she was told. But her question would go unanswered for now.

    “Done and done” Sid said, doing the same, “We’ll triangulate from here. Good luck. Bring her back”.

    Trok nodded back at the red ranger, completely understanding. Sid was *letting* him go. Sid was trusting him. He wouldn’t let Sid—or Sel—down. With a deep breath, Trok moved forward, still struggling and bracing against the force of the storm, even with him resonating with it—but at least now he could push forward at all. His suit sparked and sputtered, and he maintained careful vigilance over his power levels. But he had to do this; she was counting on them, all of them.

    Sid and Xolin struggled to keep pace with the storm, electricity swimming over their suits as they pushed their powers to the limits, and both knew if their morphers blew, they’d likely be swept away into oblivion. But neither one wavered, neither one stumbled in fear of losing the other half of their team.

    “SEL!” Trok called out, reaching the yellow ranger’s location. He stretched his arm out, reaching for her arm. He had to; he had to make contact with her to resonate herself with the rest of them. If he could do that, they might be able to cut the storm off from the source. “GRAB MY HAND!”

    Sel broke from her agony just long enough to notice him. Trok, her friend. Her teammate. And she could…feel the others, in him, resonating with him. They were here for her. She reached out.

    The storm vanished, just like that. A single pillar of light in the center lingered for just a moment longer, before it too faded away into nothingness. At the center of it all; at the center of the crater caused both by the nanites and the storm, knelt the green ranger, holding the limp form of yellow in his arms.

    “SEL!” Xolin cried out, racing towards them now that she was free, “TROK!” Sid followed behind, quickly hurrying over to the two downed rangers. They dropped to their knees beside her.

    “…I’m sorry” Sel whispered, clearly exhausted.

    “’Sorry’?” Sid shook his head, laughing in disbelief at the girl, “You just saved the entire planet. You have absolutely *nothing* to be sorry about”.

    “How did you…what did you *do*?” Xolin gasped, in an almost stupefied tone. She couldn’t believe what had just happened.

    Sel shook her head, “I…I don’t know. But the buzzing’s gone. I don’t feel it anymore”. She looked at her hand; there wasn’t any trace of the dancing light. Not right now anyway; she felt *something* in the back of her consciousness, but it was so far distant now she could almost forget about it.

    “Can you stand?” Sid asked her gently. She nodded hesitantly, as the three of them helped her up, “Come on; let’s get you back to the ship”. Sid made one last glance back at the crowd down around the central building. Even from here, he could make out expressions and body language. Some were happy or grateful, others were still in shock. But many were disapproving, or in fear. Not that that was unusual to Sid; since the war, rangers had been seen as a symbol of SPD oppression, after all. Rangers were a tool of the enemy. That was why the Peacekeeper Organization was supposed to be covert and under wraps—ranger teams had been illegal within the Confederacy since the end of the war. Well, the cat was out of the bag now.

    Oh man, this was going to be a *fun* debriefing.

    ---

    He was alone, abandoned on the surface of this godforsaken ice planet. Capricorn was spent; he had nothing left. Even revenge was beyond him now, all because of that one damned little girl, who was apparently some kind of god or whatever. He’d never stood a chance to begin with.

    So he sat there, alone, battered on all sides by the endless snow and ice and wind.

    He screamed in impotent rage.

    ---

    Sid’s brow furrowed, frustrated by his lack of progress. He laid back in his seat as yet another test ran negative. Not that he was even sure what he was looking for, mind you, but that just made this whole thing even weirder and more frustrating.

    “You sure you don’t feel it anymore…whatever it was?” Xolin asked Sel, sitting across from her. Sel rested sitting up on the central bed in the medbay, a fair number of wires stuck into her as test after test had been ran; all of them inconclusive.

    She shook her head, “Everything’s…clearer, I guess. Before I reached out, I felt a buzzing or…something, like the world was full of static, or maybe I could just…feel the universe…” she trailed off, trying to remember the feeling as she focused on her flexing hand, but like a fleeting dream, it slipped through her grip.

    Sid frowned; that sounded ominous, “Why didn’t you tell us you were having issues?”

    The xybrian shrugged, hesitant, “I just…it didn’t seem important”.

    Sid snorted in bemusement, “Next time something is out of the ordinary, tell us. It could be important. And that includes the normal bad stuff too; like the flu. Or kidney stones”.

    “…Kidney stones?” Xolin asked incredulously, her eyebrow raised. Sid shrugged noncommittally as he continued his scans of Sel on the computer next to them.

    He shook his head, “I got nothin’. Like, I’m not a med student by *any* means, and I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but I got nothing”. With a large sigh, he slapped his hands down on the edges of the computer.

    “Iota said there was never anything there either” Sel said, more than a hint of concern in her voice, “We ran several tests. Nothing”.

    Sid grimaced, looking at her and then back at the computer screen. “Yeah, well…not that I don’t trust Iota, but…” he muttered to himself, intently studying the Nothing on the screen. Xolin eyed him knowingly, but Sel’s reaction was a bit perplexed, if curious.

    Trok however, apparently hadn’t caught the remark. Instead, from another computer on the other side of the room, he spoke up, “I’m not sure medical tests are where we should be looking first anyway”.

    Xolin’s ears perked up as she turned around towards him, “How do you mean?”

    Trok pulled out one of the computer’s holographic displays, before walking over to the rest of the group and sitting down next to them. He enlarged the window, giving them a better view; it was footage taken from the storm. He asked, “What do you guys know about the Morphin’ Grid?”

    Xolin shrugged, “Source of all ranger powers?”

    Sid’s answer was a little more direct. He wasn’t a physicist either, but the academy had done a good job of rounding out his education (it was no surprise that SPD curriculum would consider the Grid an important topic to cover). “Off the top of my head? Fifth fundamental force of the universe, alongside gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak forces. Unlike the others though, it seems to exist in a ‘background state’, a grid of energy that covers everything at all times, instead of simply a force that appears when conditions are met”.

    Trok lit up a bit, “Right! It’s also the pre-requisite for all life as we know it”.

    Xolin frowned, “But, can’t we shut off the grid? Like, morpher dampening tech and stuff”.

    “You’re only shutting off a direct connection” Trok explained, “Not the grid itself, hence why you need a frequency, or why severing one connection won’t do anything for another set of powers. Like, we could turn off the Megaship’s gravity systems, but gravity as a force still exists everywhere in the universe”. He paused, pondering his words, “Okay, that’s not a *perfect* analogy, but…”

    Sid waved him off, “Right, so what’s the point?”

    “Right, so” Trok pulled himself back on track, “During the storm, I did some scans, and found some very interesting things. For one, the storm was entirely comprised of Morphin’ energy; all of it”.

    Sid and Xolin looked at Sel surprisingly, then all three looked back at Trok. Xolin spoke first, “What are you saying? That Sel is some sort of…grid connection?”

    Trok shook his head, “No, you’re not getting it. Look at these readings” he pointed at the holo-screen, “She wasn’t emanating Grid energy; there’s no extra power anywhere; by all rights the storm shouldn’t have even existed”.

    “There’s no storm nexus” Xolin breathed, realization dawning.

    “Exactly” Trok nodded, “All that energy was pre-existent; background. But something got it all riled up. It’s like the Grid itself was *boiling*. It would be like if, I dunno, all the atoms in a given region randomly decided to start up nuclear fusion. Or if gravitational wells just vanished”.

    Sid took the holo-screen, looking over the readings himself. He didn’t understand most of the numbers, that was Trok’s specialty, but he understood most of the implications. “…Someone who can manipulate the grid at its very base, and not just draw power from a connection?” everyone looked at Sel, who simply watched the video on the screen with distress. Sid looked back at the screen himself, “My god. With this kind of power…”

    “If something like this were employed large-scale, make no mistake” Trok’s voice became grave, which was very unsettling considering his normally upbeat and irreverent personality, “This would be a doomsday weapon. And I’m not just talking in the ‘burn everyone on a planet alive’ sense. I mean in the ‘you could destabilize the grid and collapse space-time if the attack is strong enough’ sense. This could be *very* bad”. He paused, again considering, then sheepishly turned to Sel, his hands up defensively, “Not that you’re a doomsday weapon”.

    “Classy” Xolin deadpanned, rolling her eyes.

    But Sid wasn’t distracted, “So then, I think we know why everyone’s been after Sel”. She was quite possibly the most important person in the universe.

    “…I’m a weapon” Sel whispered, dumbstruck. All this time, she’d been trying to build an identity, a life. But…dear ancestors. She was a weapon.

    “No” Xolin glared at her determinedly, “You have a gift. And all gifts are a two-edged sword. It’s all in how you use those gifts. Do you understand me? You’re not a weapon”.

    “We’ll help you try and help you keep your powers under control” Sid said to her, “I promise. I’m not sure *how*, but…well, we’ll work on it. Take things as they come, one at a time. That sound good?”

    Sel nodded, still a bit wordless.

    Sid nodded back, a reassuring smile forming on his face, “Good”.

    ---

    “…Tensions are once again on the rise between the United Alliance and the Confederacy of Worlds, as recent events have strained the already cool relations between the two historic enemies. New footage from Thessalia’s capital city suggests that the Confederacy may have begun employing ranger teams—a move so far unconfirmed by government authorities, but already decried by many Confederate citizens as ‘betraying’ all those who fought and died in the war for independence from the Alliance”.

    “But more interesting, is that these mysterious rangers are using old SPD suit designs, and are allegedly responsible for several hit-and-run attacks on SPD property according to Alliance officials. The Confederacy has denied these claims, but issued counter-accusations that the Alliance and SPD has conducted similar operations against their own holdings. Already, there have been unconfirmed reports of mobilization on both sides”.

    “Numerous other regional powers have issued statements cautioning against the use of violence when peace can still be achieved diplomatically. Certainly, the economic effects on the intergalactic community from two of the larger alliances could be ‘severe’. Nations that have offered their assistance in helping to mediate this dispute include the League of Worlds, the Rian’th Republic, and most surprisingly, the Neo-Machine Empire…”


    ---

    “This is intolerable! Unconscionable!”

    Iota put his hand up at the undefined male hologram pacing in front of his desk, “Please, this can all be—”

    “NO!” the hologram howled, “Do you know what you’ve done!? You’ve just revealed our entire organization to the universe! The government will *have our heads*. And that’s not even getting into the fact that you’ve just jumpstarted the next war, or the utter shitstorm that’s going to ensue now that the enemy knows that Omega One is active!”

    “Zeta, please” the female hologram cautioned, “Cool heads must prevail”.

    “If we hadn’t intervened, the entire planet would have been devoured within hours” Iota said calmly, “And at any rate, the situation is actually to our gain”.

    “How do you figure?” the female asked, sternly.

    Iota grinned under his helmet, “Simple. The war was always coming; considering the…odd moves made by the Alliance of late, I have no doubt the enemy has their tendrils in them and—”

    “You have no conclusive evidence of that!” Zeta shrieked, but Iota put his hand up again and continued.

    “I have enough to convince me. I have no doubt that the rising tensions are part of the enemy’s smokescreen to hid their efforts; we can use it as well. Make no mistake, what happened today was not my plan, but what’s done is done. What we can do now is use it to our advantage. Sel has activated, fully this time, that much is true. But all we have to do now is sit and wait for them to come. We have all the time in the world; they do not. And it is best to wait in the light, where we can see them coming”.

    “So your plan is to sit there, like bait?!”

    The female spoke up, “Simple strategy, Zeta. Never allow your enemy to dictate the field of battle. They have to come to *us* if they want Sel”. She sighed, “My inbox is already flooding from the fallout from this little…’incident’. The government wants answers. They may cut us off, defund us”.

    “Unlikely” Iota leaned back in his seat, “Despite what they might say, most of the Senate’s been secretly hoping for Round Two for years, and the continual covert probing by SPD has only intensified their bloodlust. They feign outrage to play the part, but make no mistake, they are benefiting from this just as much. And at any rate, they need us, now more than ever if war *does* happen”.

    “We only have fifteen ranger teams, only thirteen of which are duty-ready and active. We can’t fight this war for them” Zeta countered.

    Iota replied, “We don’t have to. The militaries of the various member worlds will fight this war. Our ranger teams are built for specialist operations, and that is what we will continue to perform as. And, if we do get the green light to go public, we can ramp up our recruiting substantially as well”.

    “All just as planned, hmm?” Zeta asked cynically.

    Iota shrugged, “Never let a good opportunity go to waste” he turned to the female, “Are we done, Gamma?”

    Gamma sighed, “For now, yes. I have a lot of immediate damage control to see to. Shall we reconvene in…four hours’ time? We need to lay out a detailed groundwork for the next few weeks and months”.

    “Agreed” the other two said.

    She seemed to nod, “Good. Oh, and one last thing, Iota?”

    “Hmm?”

    “Last time we asked, you said the team wasn’t ready. That was several weeks ago”.

    Iota nodded, “I believe the time is right. I will prepare to receive him”.

    “Excellent. His training has exceeded all expectations; I think you will be very pleased”.

    Iota nodded, “Understood. Four hours, then”. With that, the two holograms blinked out of existence. Iota’s grin resurfaced as he pondered. Yes, all just as planned.

    ---

    “One new message”

    Curious, the black and blue armored figure opened the call. It was audio only; but then her boss had always had a flare for the dramatic. “Yes?”

    The voice on the other end came through, “It’s time. Begin phase two”.

    She exhaled in satisfaction. Finally. “Understood. What should we do about the goat?”

    “Capricorn?” the voice seemed to consider, “He failed in his primary objective, but he did a good job of keeping everyone distracted. That said, I feel his his employment to us is ended. If he interferes again, terminate him”.

    “Understood”

    “May forgiveness be found” the voice said.

    “May forgiveness be found” she repeated, like a well-worn mantra. One that had kept her sane for a long time. The connection was cut, leaving her alone once again. Well, then, time for phase two.

    She had a lot of work to do.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2015
  13. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.12: Secrets and Lies, part 1

    Iota hated politics, even if they were like second nature to him. Sure, he could make anyone do what he wanted, between manipulation, blackmail, and even legitimate diplomacy; but really he’d rather everyone leave him alone and let him do his job. It was almost like the universe didn’t want to be saved.

    He’d known this was coming though, long before he’d even flipped the proverbial switch to reveal his team to the universe. Zeta had been right; this WAS a trap he was springing. They were all fairly certain the enemy had their hands in SPD, even if they didn’t have direct evidence (yet). It would explain their recent erratic movements and easily-caught ‘covert’ incursions into Confederate space—including the mission that had gotten Xolin and Sel captured several weeks prior. But if Iota knew anything, it was that you should always pick the battlefield. Sure, they could have tried to remain undercover; they could try to put off the war as long as possible. But then they’d be on the defensive, fighting a battle they hadn’t chosen. And eventually, the enemy would win and the war would start anyway. This way they weren’t going to lose resources delaying the inevitable. And anyway, if the enemy could use the war as a smokescreen for their efforts, so could Iota. If anything, they’d only given Iota more ammo for his campaign.

    Not that Zeta would ever see it that way, but whatever. His concerns had been noted and ignored.

    “Welcome” came Gamma’s familiar voice. The black armor-clad warrior stood opposite him as he walked through the doors to the bottom floor of the Confederate Senate Hall on KO-35; one of the central buildings of the capital city of New Karovia. The vacant chambers’ normal occupants were missing—the government was currently out of session. Not that it mattered much; everyone knew the Senate was a toothless country club for old career politicians who wanted an easy election into a safe job. They didn’t actually *do* much; mostly argue about trade regulations and then propose bills that they hoped their homeworlds would ratify. The Confederacy was almost hilariously decentralized as everyone was terrified of it becoming like a repeat of the Alliance—hence why there was no SPD counterpart or even a unified military service. In fact, in its current state, few even believed it was going to last very long.

    Well, it’d still last long enough for Iota’s purposes. So it was yet another good bit of luck on Iota’s part that war was coming; what better way to unify desperate parties than conflict?

    But today, the actual real leaders of the Confederacy stood inside the massive chambers. They were on the ground flood, where senators and ambassadors would make their speeches and direct debates. All around them stood the empty coliseum; ringed seats in full multiple circles, divided by pathways down at even intervals. The chambers were of classical karovian geometric style—triangles, shapely polygons, and other angles were the order of the day, filled with a dizzying display of color. The room was filled with crystalline glass; multicolored like stained mosaics. Some fragments just dangled from the domed ceiling, while others made up the chairs and windows. Everything had a very sharp and crisp feel.

    Surrounding Iota now were the movers and shakers of the Confederacy. He saw representatives from almost every member state; among them and aside from Gamma he spotted King Ihara of Triforia, Elder Sesh and two of his acolytes from Xybria, and Chancellor Celpha of Aquitar—the head of the Confederate Senate. But almost *everyone*, except for, notably, the Edenites and the Free Tenga Colonies. The would-be representative for the former, King Paleagon, was busy elsewhere, and no one had thought to get the latter involved. The tenga colonies mostly kept to themselves, despite being part of the Confederacy.

    But whatever.

    “Shall we begin?” Celpha said. Not really a question, more of a statement. Despite not looking much over thirty, she was clearly *old*. It was how she carried herself; this was someone who had seen much, and cared for little anymore beyond her objectives. The group moved further into the center of the room, spreading out a bit as this informal meeting got underway.

    Celpha spoke again, “We stand at a crossroads. Certain events have transpired that force us to adjust our course. Certain events were out of our control, while others…” she gave a sidelong glance at Iota, “…Were done deliberately without the consent of the Peacekeeper Organization or the Confederacy of Worlds”.

    “Yes, let’s talk about that, shall we?” said one of the two karovian senators. He glared at Iota as he continued, “Let’s start with how you just exposed our entire operation to *everyone*! Do you have any idea what kind of chaos you’ve unleashed? The populace is *terrified*!”

    “It was necessary” Iota threw back calmly, “What were we going to do when the war came? Just unveil our ready-made super-secret organization to the public? They’d never trust you again. And make no mistake, we *would* have been uncovered as the war escalated. We all know there would have been no other good counter to SPD. At least this way we can say we allied with an existing but independent faction. It’s good business”.

    “”Not your decision to make!” the senator crowed, “And now we’ve got a terrified populace, and a hostile power next door ready to make war!”

    “They were already about to make war. Or at least provoke us into it” Sesh said, his robes gliding effortlessly across the floor as he paced towards the two, “Six separate incidents in the past two months. Seven if we include the kidnapping of two of Iota’s charges. The storm was coming regardless. What matters is how we handle it”.

    “Besides” Iota cut in again, “What would you have had my team do? If they hadn’t acted, the entire planet would have been lost, and we’d have been faced with a nigh-unstoppable nanoswarm with morphing grid abilities”. A lie of course, but a necessary one; Iota had of course issued the order to dive in long before the androids had erupted into nanobots—and Sel had been responsible for the morphing storm. And Iota had to protect Sel’s abilities for as long as possible.

    “Indeed” Celpha said, ending the debate, “Which is why placing blame is not important here, and why we’re not doing it. Iota’s consequences will be dealt with in due time. For now…” she pulled out a small datapad, activating a giant interactive holographic display that filled the entire room. On it could be seen galaxies, floating amongst the secret cabal. Numerous lights and dots and displays appeared, letting them know of fleet locations, economic statuses, and everything else that went on within the Confederacy’s borders.

    Celpha cleared her throat, “My fellow leaders; it is time to plan our next move. Gamma, may I assume the next Peacekeeper operation has begun?”

    Gamma nodded, “Iota’s team is en-route as we speak”.

    Celpha nodded, “Excellent. Shall we begin?”

    Iota watched as the Triangulum galaxy silently floated past him. He hoped the rangers were finding an easier task than him…

    ---

    The red ranger’s axed cleaved through two drones like they weren’t even there, their broken frames exploding as he rushed past, not even caring to stop. Alarms blared everywhere, but he ignored them.

    “Okay, I’m at the power junction, what now?!” came Xolin’s slightly panicked voice over the comm. Another drone went down before he checked the map on his morpher.

    “Left” he said, speaking into his communicator, “Then straight. You’ll arrive at the tram station. Take the one that heads south, and I’ll meet up with you”.

    “…Where?”

    Sid grinned to himself, “Don’t worry, I got a plan”. He grinned wider when he could almost imagine her sigh of resignation at that statement. No time for that though; another drone flew in, firing lasers as he dropped down and rolled past its firing arc, before cutting it in half too on the rebound. Damnit; this was supposed to have been an easy plan too. He and Xolin were supposed to have infiltrated…well, this place. Ostensibly a mining base on the volcanic planet of Ralkesh II, SPD had assumed command of the facility about a month ago, launching a minor news incident when the Alliance company in charge, Diggers United Inc, had protested. The fact that the protest had been revoked very soon after was…unsettling, moreso even than the initial takeover, so it had been Iota’s theory that this place would finally give them the information they’d been wondering about ever since the abduction incident several weeks prior.

    The base was utilitarian; the area Sid was running through were some of the back-room maintenance tunnels, with vents and pipes and engineering stations every which way. *What* it was maintaining, Sid didn’t much know. Or care. The only thing he DID care about was the fact that Xolin was currently powerless.

    Yeah, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. He absently tapped the blue morpher strapped to the side of his belt as he ran. It was a two-person job. They’d needed someone to actually do the infiltrating and do it by blending in and without getting caught; Xolin had volunteered, and so she had assumed the position of a facility engineer. Sid was the backup, the getaway driver. He’d been waiting down here, watching her position on the map and guiding her, and when the time came he was supposed to have made sure she’d have a ride at the docking bay.

    But, well, one thing had led to another, and SOMEONE had caught wind that they weren’t legit. He wasn’t even sure how it had happened, but the second they’d gotten far enough in…well, Sid wasn’t about to start screaming that they’d known all along, but it was pretty obviously the case.

    “Where are you?! Where should I stop?!”

    “Keep going, I’ll be right there” Sid reassured her, just before he stopped dead in the middle of the empty hallway. This was the place. Taking one last glance at his map, he pulled out his blaster, charged it up, and opened fire. The scattered blast blew a hole in the wall, revealing what Sid had expected to see; open sky. The world was hellfire; an inky black sky filled with soot and smoke, with the world’s only source of light being the massive vats of churning magma down below, which stretched out, blocked off only by the occasional island—and the cliff behind him that the entire facility rested on the side of. Just a few stories below him ran the track, but where was—ah, there she was. He could see the tram rounding the corner towards him.

    And none too soon, as more drones were incoming behind him. Come on, come on…

    Sid jumped, leaping off the side of the destroyed hallway and plummeting through the open sky as he flew himself at his target. Sure, diving off at a seventy-five degree angle at a tiny moving target while surrounded by a sea of lava from a high altitude.

    Easy, right?

    Ducking and rolling at the last moment, Sid’s body crashed right through the glass as he landed in a heap on the ground. “Ow…”

    “Holy shit!” Xolin shouted, turning from the controls in instinctual panic. She let her fingers go from the gun on her hip—something she’d picked up on her way here. “How did you—”

    Sid pulled himself up, dusting himself off almost comically before tossing Xolin her morpher, “I got you a present”.

    “Just what’ve always wanted” she said deadpan, strapping it to her wrist before transforming into the blue ranger, “You never realize just how naked you feel without your super-powered magic armor until you’ve got a dozen soldiers firing at you”.

    “Triforian fetish I don’t know about?” Nothing mean, just their average teasing.

    “Not that I know of” she said, not rising to the bait. She returned to the controls, “Where are we headed?”

    “Well, forward would be nice”.

    She rolled her eyes, “Really. And here I was thinking of going left. On a tracked vehicle”.

    The cage they were in shuddered. The two glanced back, only to find to their horror another tram gaining on them, with multiple soldiers firing out the windows at them. Sid turned and began returning the favor with his pistol.

    “Oh COME ON!” Xolin shouted with exasperation, as another volley impacted. Wait, they weren’t firing on *them*, they were firing on the…uh oh. “Sid, they’re trying to take us off the track!”

    Sid felt it too, as the car began to sway back and forth, its connection to the track above now far more tenuous than it had been a second ago. Quickly he brought up his map, “auxiliary processing bay 2, NOW!” he shouted, rushing back over to her.

    “What?!” she exclaimed, even as her mind made the connection by glancing down at the facility they were about to pass over—so while she had started with a genuine question, she ended with disbelief. He wanted them to do *what*?! Another volley was followed up by a sickening crack above them as the car shuddered. Sid could almost feel his stomach flying up into his throat just before the altitude began to decrease.

    “This is the worst idea you’ve ever had!” Xolin shouted.

    Sid agreed wholeheartedly, hating what he was about to do, “Yeah, probably!” With a single instinctual heave, he threw himself at Xolin’s body, knocking the blue ranger out and through the window and down into one of the open…er, exhaust ports in the roof of the complex they were driving right over. He could hear her screams all the way down, even as he leapt out himself.

    Man, he was going to pay for this later, he was certain of that.

    Well, he’d pay for it if he survived that long, anyway. Deciding now was probably a good time to leave, Sid thrust himself out of the doomed tram car, and divebombed towards the facility below, into the closest exhaust port, witnessing the car explode in the nearby lava just as he passed into the darkness.

    He hoped Trok and Sel were having more fun than Xolin and him…

    ---

    Thwack.

    A swing from Trok’s club sent his ball flying over the green, until it was almost out of sight—aaand there it went into the water. He frowned.

    “I don’t get it”.

    He turned to Sel, standing next to him, “Me either. I mean like, wouldn’t it have made sense to send us all? Like, what if Xolin or Sid got caught? It would have helped had we had another backup. Or someone else fishing for information”. He’d been really disappointed when they’d been passed over for this one. The two of them had settled on wasting time in the simudeck while they waited for the others to return, though their interest was quickly waning. What was there to do when there wasn’t anything good to play? I mean sure, there was that huge list, but none of it sounded good. They’d been skimming from game to game endlessly, with no real purpose or drive. Bleh.

    “No, I mean the game” she replied, carefully inspecting her own club, “I don’t get it. What’s the point?”

    “You’re bored?” he asked.

    She nodded, still not taking her eyes off the tool, “Very much so”.

    He sighed, “Yeah, this wasn’t nearly as fun as I thought it was going to be. The way Sid talked about it, there was supposed to be like, windmills and obstacle courses and shit. Not…whatever this is” he waved at the open field they were standing in.

    “Wanna try a different game?” he asked. She nodded, and Trok opened up his in-game menu. Different game it was.

    ---

    Back on her own again. Sigh. At least she was morphed this time. Xolin made a mental note to kill Sid after she found him, because holy shit. Thankfully her powers had protected her from the fall, but what kind of asshole tossed people out of tram cars?!

    Well, obviously someone who knew the entire car was about to come down and if they’d waited too long she’d have fallen into lava. But still.

    The area she found herself in was strange; giant clear cases held vats of magma which were being transferred in and out via numerous pipes. How did they even keep the heat from destroying everything without any obvious dampening fields? Magic spell, maybe? Enchanted material? Hmm. At any rate, this seemed to be where the material was ‘cleaned out’, with the heat being funneled up to power the machines elsewhere, while the vats split the molten material up into stuff that could be mined, and regular rock that would be deposited back outside. Two birds, one stone.

    Trinity, this place was hot, even while being protected by her powers. She spoke to her morpher, “Sid, where are you? I ended it up in some sort of lava museum, and all the exhibits suck”.

    Sid’s amusement could be heard in his voice, “Same, but it looks like we ended up in different chambers. We’ll meet up in the exit chamber and head for the nearest launch bay. Use your map”.

    Oh, right. The map, duh. She tapped her controls, bringing up a small holographic display of her surroundings. Easy enough. The layout of the base was large and complicated, but at least she saw the direction Sid was wanting her to take. She grimaced as she headed in that direction.

    “I don’t suppose you had time to find anything”.

    She shook her head, even though Sid couldn’t see it. “I didn’t have time. I hadn’t even gotten to install the virus Iota gave us to hack through”.

    “Odd they found us so fast”.

    She couldn’t really disagree with that, “So what do you think? Mole?”

    “Might have been something we tripped coming in. But, yeah. The fact they tracked you down so quickly tells me they were waiting for us”.

    Her frown intensified. That was not a fun thought. “What if we’re still being herded?” she asked, not entirely comfortable with likening themselves to cattle.

    “Bad news for us, then. The quicker we get out of here, the better”.

    No arguments there. Xolin turned and made her way through the large exit at the end of the lava chamber, entering into some sort of large, empty hallway; it was at least two floors high, and even the width was a little big. Pathway for trucks, perhaps? Man, if someone ambushed her here, she’d be completely open. So, the blue ranger raced through the hall, exiting as quickly as she could. And that’s when she saw a sight that took her breath away.

    She stood on a wide open ledge (again, large enough for vehicles, and it twisted around back, to where she couldn’t see at the moment), over the interior of a large cavern. It had been heavily built up by the facility, but there was no mistake that at least originally, it had been of natural formation. But that wasn’t what had caught her attention.

    It was the military.

    The room was absolutely flooded with SPD tanks, and APC’s, and fightercraft, and exosuits, and minizords, and…woah.

    “Sid…you gotta see this” she said, any residual lightheartedness in her voice completely erased, replaced now by awe and a bit of terror.

    ---

    “The problem with this plan is twofold: the first, obviously, is the lack of support from the people of the Confederacy. They’ll never go for it” said the representative from Mirinoi; Iota recognized him as Admiral Drake; one of the top-level officers in its military…and former SPD commander, way back when. When this initiative had been proposed, Drake had been one of them to almost physically jump at the opportunity.

    “And the other?” Iota asked.

    He turned to Iota, “The other is our state of readiness. We have fifteen teams, with only thirteen ready for operations. That’s not even close enough to match up against SPD’s numbers. Not only that, but the organization is severely underfunded due to its off-the-books nature, and, in my opinion, is still struggling to establish itself”.

    Iota’s voice remained even, calculated, “As stated, the war would quickly allow us to jump up recruitment”.

    “Besides, the Peacekeepers were never built to go toe-to-toe with SPD’s militarization. We’re built for more…finesse” said Gamma, not bothering to elaborate.

    But Drake wasn’t done yet, “Again, you’re assuming that the people will just go along with it. They won’t”.

    King Ihara of Triforia spoke up, “You would be surprised what people will go along with when their safety is in jeopardy”.

    One of the karovian senators scoffed, “Yes, we all know about the Gold Ranger’s illegal escapades for the past few years, and how your people adore you for it”.

    “I’m afraid you must be mistaken” Ihara said blandly, “I have not been in service since I personally signed the Confederate treaty at the end of the war. But the legend of the Gold Ranger *is* a powerful one for my people. It is no surprise that it keeps alive even today, with no-one donning the suit”.

    “Hmm” the senator mused unconvincingly. He pressed his glasses closer towards his face as he responded, “At any rate, folk traditions don’t hold as much sway with my world. The karovian people have a distinct distaste for super-powered warriors, and I know they are not the only ones” he nodded at both Chancellor Celpha and Admiral Drake.

    “The fact that, as Admiral Drake has pointed out, the Peacekeeper Organization is not so heavily militarized, may work to our advantage in that case. Our men and women are a hodge-podge ad-hock alliance of affiliates; a group of people who simply want to defend their homeworlds from invasion. Contrast this to SPD’s war machine…” Sesh trailed off, letting the others finish the thought for him.

    Their fears were legitimate of course, Iota knew that. The fact that the Confederacy’s entire existence owed itself to the fact that the Alliance had been heavy-handed with its use of SPD –a ranger organization—as both a police and a military organization to oppress the local worlds was a fact that lived with every citizen daily.

    SPD; the savior of the universe. It had originally approached the worlds of the local group of galaxies after both the Troobian sack of Sirius and the Dark Specter War of 1998. Both sides had been utterly devastated by their respective conflicts, and in the Local Group’s case, they were shattered and terrified. Up till then, at least in living memory, the most they’d had to deal with was the local Evil Space Alien warlord sending out random monsters that the local ranger team would defeat. But Dark Specter had changed everything; he’d united all the local warlords and even some of the more distant threats, like the Machine Empire and the Vile Imperium. For the first time in thousands of years, worlds like Triforia, and Aquitar, and KO-35, and Earth all understood how very vulnerable they had been, and still were. Eltar, long the near-mythical bastion of light, had fallen within a matter of hours. Most other worlds had taken even less time. And SPD needed more worlds, more manpower, to protect itself as well.

    So, the alliance had seemed like a good thing. And for a time, it was. The war-torn worlds of the Local Group were rebuilt, crime plummeted, war was unheard of, and a golden age settled on the region. But the Alliance got more expansionistic, and aggressive, deciding that the best defense was a good offense. They all but crushed the Troobian Empire in a series of devastating wars, and then proceeded to get bogged down in an endless struggle in the Pirate Consortium. And that wasn’t even getting into the fact that they were also annexing other unaligned minor powers ‘for their own good’.

    And of course, as that happened, things got worse at home. The Local Group found itself paying more and more money and souls into the coffers of the war machine; wars they didn’t want. And when the local governments spoke out, restrictions came down. Rebellions and revolts simmered, but it wasn’t until the Earth Incident that everything went to hell.

    SPD and the United Nations had always had a rough relationship, but as the countries of Earth began to lose their independence near the end, they struck back. Numerous UN black ops programs were enacted to try and stem the tide; to try and liberate their homeworld. The result of the covert move-and-countermove shadow war that ensued was nothing less than apocalyptic; some sort of runaway viral AI intended to be used against SPD took control of Earth’s systems and within a few months the UN had gotten what it wanted; SPD had retreated with its tail between its legs, in fear of being overrun by the AI.

    But of course, like any Monkey’s Paw, it was only a technical wish come true; civilization was all but extinguished in the war, much of it through nuclear carpet bombing as the AI turned on its one-time masters. The few surviving enclaves found themselves at the mercy of not just the AI, but also a resurgence of orgs and numerous other slumbering beasts. Earth was quarantined, with Mirinoi left to pick up the pieces of its shattered colonial empire.

    Earth became a rallying cry; SPD had failed to stay and protect Earth—instead of holding the line and fighting, they’d packed up and left, and thus broken the terms of their agreement. So in the eyes of the other Local Group worlds, they were no longer welcome. And so the Civil War began, and the Confederacy was born. In the aftermath, rangers had long ceased to be seen as heroes, as beacons of light. They were a sign of the oppressors, and so even the branches of SPD that had sided with the Confederacy were willingly disbanded.

    And so here they were; a barely functioning confederation of planets afraid of each other and of the only thing that could save them, so much so that even though the government *had* to use them to survive, they would hide that fact from the populace. How droll.

    But still, Iota had cards to play. He could make this all work. “And it’s not as if it’s a complete lie anyway; there are numerous other unaffiliated teams operating covertly within Confederate space at this moment” he said.

    As if to punctuate his point, numerous points appeared in the various holographic galaxies circling around them, each accompanied by a dossier. Among them, SKY GUARDIANS accompanied a world on the edge of the Tenga Colonies. TITAN DEFENDERS lit up the bio of a Horathean team operating out of one of the colony worlds. OMEGA SQUAD was listed near the human world of New Montana. And there were almost a dozen more. And that wasn’t even counting the non-ranger units; several masked riders lit up, like APOLLO, PHOENIX, and BERSERKER, amongst others. And then there were others; the STORM DEFENDERS referred to a duo of heavily armored siblings in red and blue. GALACTIC SENTINEL was an android. COSMIC KNIGHT was…well, they weren’t sure how to classify him; yet another in a long line of mysterious armored mystical beings. And then there was that Varox ex-bounty hunter hanging around Liaria…

    “It also gives us a good chance to ally ourselves with the unaligned teams” Celpha said, glancing at the nearest team to her; ROGUE LEGION—an unknown quantity at the fringes of the Confederacy, “If we can bring them into the fold, we can both keep tabs on them *and* bolster our ranks”.

    “My, how quickly we become that which we hate” Sesh muttered dryly.

    Celpha side-eyed him with a glare, “Keeping tabs on independent paramilitary groups is hardly the same as being an oppressive dictatorship”.

    “So you say” Sesh replied skeptically.

    “Regardless” Gamma said, realizing this was going nowhere, “Our best option right now is to blend into that structure. The narrative will be that the Confederate government has begun ‘assembling’ teams as a last-ditch effort, and the populace will believe us. It should be enough to keep them from completely going crazy”.

    The various players looked at each other. Celpha frowned, walking over to the Confederate-Alliance border, “…How long can we expect to have?”

    “That’s what my team is currently attempting to uncover” Iota replied.

    ---

    The sight that greeted Sid was unbelievable. So many tanks and fighters and…everything. Holy crap. Now they knew why SPD had commandeered this mining facility on the edge of Alliance space; this was an ad-hoc staging facility. And if they’d taken this one, then how many others were there?

    The Alliance was going to war, and the Confederacy was its target.

    “My god” he whispered, before noticing Xolin heading down the path towards him.

    “So what’s the plan?” she asked, “Grab a fighter and bail?”

    Sid shook his head as he watched numerous technicians and soldiers wandering about down below. Both he and Xolin had crouched behind the pathway’s barrier, to keep from being spotted. He nodded towards the ‘end’ of the chamber, with giant blast doors “I doubt we’d be able to smash our way through the wall before we got blown out of the sky by all the tanks and shit”.

    She grimaced, “Point. So what, sneak past somehow, head for one of the loading bays?”

    “Almost” Sid said, “…Do you still have the hacking virus?”

    “Yeah, why?”

    The red ranger glanced around at the armory around them, “…We need to get what files we can. This just became way more than ‘hey, this situation is weird, go check it out’. We NEED that data”.

    Xolin checked her map. There WAS a database room not too far away within this area of the complex but, well… “We’ll need to find a way down there without getting caught”.

    Yes, that *was* the problem. Hrn. Sid checked his own map. “Hmm” he mused, before his face lit up with an idea, “You still got one of those flashbangs Trok made?”

    A smile crossed her own face as she realized where he was looking; at the far end of the complex. “Just need one huh?” she asked as she pulled a small black device from her belt.

    ---

    The room was silent, almost deafening in of itself. It only served to further drive him *insane*.

    Trok sighed, laying down on one of the couches in the observation lounge, his feet propped up on the other end of the sofa with his hands behind his head as he looked up at the ceiling. They’d long since given up the simudeck; they’d skimmed from game to game, but nothing had ‘felt’ right, and they were just so restless. He looked over at Sel—she had a blank expression on her face as she sat at the foot of the next couch over, staring off through the room’s windows that covered the entire far wall. The Megaship hovered over KO-35, and somewhere on the blue orb below Iota was off on some important meeting.

    “What are you thinking about?” he asked. He wasn’t entirely sure why he was asking truth be told, and even as the words came out of his mouth he felt a little embarrassed. But there had been something in her vacant look, just…for a brief moment she had seemed…empty?

    Sel blinked as if exiting a trance, looking over at him, “I…nothing” she looked down at the floor a bit somberly, “It was nothing”.

    He didn’t buy that, but whatever, “So…what do you want to do?”

    She frowned, but finally shrugged wordlessly before returning to her vigil.

    Trok may have been young and naive, but he *did* know when to take a hint. Usually. Sensing she wished to be alone, or at least not around him for awhile, he sat up as he prepared to leave, “Right, sorry. I didn’t mean to keep following you. I’ll let you have some space”.

    “No, wait” she said suddenly, her eyes widening as he began to head towards the door. He stopped, surprised—just as surprised as herself, actually. She hesitated, “I don’t…you don’t have to leave. It’s not that, I just…” she shrugged helplessly, “I don’t know. It’s hard to say”.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “Everything” she said promptly, surprising even herself.

    Trok stared at her, dazed. He wasn’t sure how to deal with that. He wasn’t sure he was *equipped* to handle that. This was out of his league, he didn’t…

    No.

    He clenched his fist, shrugging away his doubts. He wasn’t a coward. Not this time. He didn’t know if he could help Sel, but he had to at least *try*. Sel dug her hand through her green hair in frustration as he sat down next to her, cautiously. “What do you mean?” he asked, softly.

    She seemed to regret this, but pressed on regardless. “I don’t…it’s not…” she struggled with her words, “…I don’t know” she said, finally putting resting her head on her knees in surrender and mumbled, “Words don’t work. I can’t make them work. Everything gets jumbled and just makes everything even worse”.

    “So you can’t explain how you feel?” he asked. She nodded numbly, and he sat back and thought. A moment of silence passed between them as he digested her words, “…You know, sometimes when I get frustrated, I work on my gadgets. I can’t explain it but like…it helps me clear my mind so I can organize my thoughts. Like, I put my own emotions into my work, and it just…helps”.

    She stared over at him for a moment, regarding him skeptically, “You’re asking me to work on your stuff?”

    He shook his head, “No, no. I mean…you’ve been looking for hobbies, right?” an idea formed together in his head as he said that, and his face lit up. “That’s it! It’s so obvious!”

    “What is?” she asked him quizzically. But her question was met with him jumping to his feet and pulling her arm along with him. She yelped in surprised as she was dragged to her feet.

    “It’s so obvious! Come on, I think I’ve got a solution!” he said, with that intense brand of optimism that only Trok could deliver. She almost believed him. Sel followed along, but it wasn’t like she had much of a choice anyway, considering the lizard man had her hand tight in his grip.

    Sigh.

    ---

    She stood before a large hastily put-together canvas in the workbay. Well, ‘canvas’; in reality Trok had just replicated a huge sheet of paper and put it up over the wall, and then brought her a whole shitload of paints and tools, which were now sitting beside her. She skeptically pulled out a brush, fingering it as she studied its design.

    “Just…take a brush and go” Trok said, sitting on a stool a few feet away. She glanced at him, then back at the brush.

    “What should I paint?” she asked.

    He shrugged, “Whatever you want”. She frowned, annoyed that she was being given so much free reign but no direction. Kinda like life. Sigh.

    Well, here went nothing. She dipped her brush into the black ink, and began drawing—seemingly a person…maybe or some sort of animal, but it was so…eugh. Within a few strokes she got fed up and in a fit of frustration scribbled it out. “It’s not working”.

    “Don’t draw what you think you should” Trok said, “Paint what you WANT to paint. I can’t work on my stuff if I don’t have an inspiration”.

    “But I don’t *KNOW* what I want to paint!” she said, her voice rising in anger. “I don’t even know if I want to paint!”

    “Then let the canvas know that!” Trok threw back at her, “Use your emotions! Forget thinking, just...do!”

    Something clicked, because Sel tossed the brush aside, and instead dipped her hand into the orange ink. She pulled it out, and regarded it for a moment, letting the liquid run down her fingers, taking note of the odd and not-entirely-pleasant sensation, before she finally decided on her move.

    Splat.

    ---

    The explosion went off beautifully, in Xolin’s opinion. The charge had transformed itself into a small handheld drone, flying off and attaching itself to the underside of a tank undergoing maintenance on the other end of the chamber without anyone noticing, and a scant few seconds later the entire thing went up like a roman candle.

    They’d, for the moment at least, demorphed so as to not attract attention from the brightly colored outfits. As quietly as they could, the two leapt down from their perch while everyone else was running around and shouting and panicking and doing whatever. Sid motioned the direction he was taking them, and Xolin followed, slipping around the corner and behind a row of VTOLs.

    Finally, she saw it up ahead as they turned again, into a small hallway just off the main chamber. A few rooms down, and they saw it—a computer lab, currently only occupied by two people; a scientist who wasn’t as concerned about what was going on outside as he was about his current project, and a guard waiting on the back wall. His reaction times were quick, Xolin would give him that much, but they weren’t quick enough. By the time he had aimed his gun, she’d already split into multiple aspects and bull-rushed him. In his confusion, he only managed to get off a shot after she’d knocked his weapon away. And he only ever got off that single shot, because the next hit knocked him out cold.

    The scientist, shocked by the sudden event, scrambled out of his seat and turned to leave—and walked right into Sid’s fist. He also crumpled to the ground, silent.

    Xolin tossed Sid the USB with the virus as she headed back to the door, “You hack word documents, I hack limbs”.

    He chuckled and shook his head as he headed over to one of the several computer terminals in the room, “Fair enough”. Plugging the device into its slot, he began his work. They both knew they had to be fast; while the distraction had worked to give them time to slip in, it was a double edge sword, because they’d soon determine it wasn’t just an engine malfunction, and when the guard here didn’t report in, well…

    Bad news for them.

    …Aaand unfortunately, this was going to take a few minutes, because the network here had better defenses than they’d thought. The virus was still working, but it was going to need a bit more time to burrow through and then file through to find what they were looking for.

    Bless modern technology.

    Unfortunately, that meant he had time to think. And he HAD been thinking about things, for the past few days, ever since his talk with the aquitian therapist. And really, though he’d told himself he’d just been mulling it over, in reality he’d just been procrastinating. Sid leaned back in his seat, “So…there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about”.

    She cocked her eyebrow at him, “…Is this really the best time for a Talk?” she asked, even as she once again gave the empty hallway outside a quick glance-over.

    “Yeah, because otherwise I’ll just lose my nerve and put it off. Besides, we got a few minutes”.

    Now she *was* curious, “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s up?”

    He sighed, steadying himself, “Remember when we first met and how you wanted to be leader?”

    “…Yeah?” she asked warily, not entirely liking where this was headed.

    His brow furrowed as he looked back at the computer, “What if…what if I were to hand the reigns back over to you?”

    “Woah, wait. Where did *this* come from?” Xolin asked. She’d sort of seen it coming by the direction the conversation had been taking, but she didn’t get *why* it had been taken.

    He frowned, “I just…I don’t think I’ve done the best job as of late. I don’t think I’m capable of it in my current state, and…you know what? I think you’re up to the task”.

    She snorted in derision, “Sweet trinity. Are you *still* being whiney over the shit that went down on Horath?”

    “It’s not just Horath, I just feel like—” Sid was *about* to say that it felt like he had been in a never-ending rut since then, but Xolin cut him off with a wave of her hand before folding her arms.

    “You know what I don’t get about you? You’re all about pushing us to be better, and then you turn around and throw yourself right down the same hole. You want Trok to stop being such a whiney bitch, and then you do exactly that. You call me out on closing everyone off, and then you do EXACTLY THAT”. She laughed derisively, “when I first met you, I hated your guts. You were some hotshot asshole who thought he knew everything—and more annoyingly, you did” her expression softened for a moment, then switched to exasperation, “I*hated* you. But you know what? While I was wallowing in self-pity, you were out there leading us to victory. But now here you are, being a sad sack of shit. So you made one mistake; whoop-de-do. They happen; you’ve said so yourself”.

    When Sid didn’t immediately responded, she continued, a bit softer than before, “Truth of the matter is, you’re way better at running a team than I ever was. I like the direct route; I like to break stuff and then go home. If I was still running things, we’d probably all be dead, or worse”. When Sid showed a bit of surprise at her comment, she waved him off again, “I might be bullheaded, but I’m a bit more self-reflected than you give me credit for”.

    Sid glanced back at the holo-screen again, “The psych on Thessalia told me I probably have some form of PTSD” he said finally, his voice subdued. Xolin’s expression shifted to surprise, and then some sort of knowing, but kept quiet as he continued, “Leading may not be in my best interests”.

    She grimaced, “Sid…” she shook her head, chuckling softly, “You’re an idiot. If you’ve got PTSD, then being in a leadership position or not won’t help. You should have just left the team. But you haven’t, so I think you’ve probably already made your choice, huh?”

    He didn’t look at her, but she continued just the same, “…That’s what you saw on the ship, isn’t it?” she asked, softly and knowingly as she looked away, “Your old team, I mean. The nightmare showed you your old team”.

    Sid’s eyes narrowed, “No. It showed me you guys”.

    A brief silence settled over them, “I died” she said emotionlessly. The two glanced at each other, “I mean, in my nightmare. I died, and I…well, putting it simply, I went to hell. My aspects were torn apart and never reincarnated. I died screaming, helpless, and afraid”.

    More silence. Xolin slid to the floor, propping herself up inside the doorway arch, “I don’t want to die. I’m *terrified* that my faith, all my practices and beliefs, are wrong. And that…*thing* ripped that out of my psyche and tortured me with it”.

    “…Why are you telling me this?” Sid asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

    “Because you’re my friend, I think. Trinity knows that I’m closer to you guys than my own family or anyone else back home. You’re all I have. And you told me once I don’t have to be alone. But you don’t have to be alone either, Sid. You keep those barriers up, that mask you wear that makes you seem like the cockiest badass this side of Andromeda. But in reality, you’re just as broken as the rest of us”. She smiled bitterly at that last part.

    More silence.

    “You spend so much time helping others; you never stop to help yourself, Sid. Let us”.

    More silence. Finally, Sid spoke, his voice just more than a whisper, “…Thank you”.

    Her smile got a bit wider, “One thing I’ve learned, I think, is that leadership isn’t some magical perch. You’re still just one of us. We’re supposed to lean on each other”.

    “So I’m not stepping down then?” he asked, a faint grin on his lips.

    She gave a bemused look, “You’re not *allowed* to step down. Now, glorious leader” she said as she stood back up, “How much time do I have left to keep guarding your pathetic ass?”

    “We’re at seventy-three percent” he said, checking the screen, “Not too much longer”.

    ---

    An alert came up to his desk. He was an imposing figure; wide, about seven feet tall, and covered in thick black and green armor. He toggled the incoming message.

    “Sir, we’ve just detected an incursion into our database servers from computer lab B-6. It’s using the same algorithms as you expected it would. Should we move in?”

    He chuckled, “No, just keep the perimeter clear; evacuate all personnel. I want to test these…intruders myself”.

    “Understood, sir. It’ll be done. Good luck”.

    The message cut out as the figure stood up, chuckling to himself, “Luck has nothing to do with it…”

    ---

    “Eighty-five percent” Sid quoted vacantly.

    “Eugh” Xolin brushed her hair out of her eyes, “Is it just me, or is it getting slower?” she paused, considering, “…And…is it just me, or shouldn’t have we had visitors by now?” she glanced down the hallway again, concerned that there was *no one* down either direction.

    Sid grew concerned, “…Yeah, we should have”. He frowned, “I don’t like this”.

    As if on cue, the wall behind Xolin exploded. She almost instinctively flipped away, transforming back into the blue ranger in a heartbeat as she got a good look at what used to be the wall. Sid leaped out of his seat as well, also transforming as the dust and debris settled, revealing a large black and green armored figure.

    “So, you’re the maggots crawling around under my rock” the figure said humorously. He eyed the computer, and aiming his wrist gun at it, caused it to explode into a million pieces—well, so much for THAT mission. “Now then, bring me some fun. I’ve been waiting for my chance to test out Iota’s delivery boys”.

    “Iota?” Sid gasped, surprised, then resumed his fighting stance, “So what, you work for Capricorn? Another one of his for-hire mercs?”

    “…Me? Work for Capricorn?” The creature’s laughter quickly increased; a bellowing discord of noise, as if he found something about that ludicrously hilarious.

    Xolin made a step back as Sid did, both taken aback by the sudden twist, “Oh, that can *not* be a good sign”.

    The imposing armored figure regained control over himself, “I’m afraid you children have gotten entirely in over your heads. And now, you’re going to die. Horribly”.

    He charged.

    ---

    Iota stepped back as the debate continued, taking a moment to gather in the map that floated around them in at once within his field of vision. The image of the in-fighting between the various species of the Confederacy, within their region of space was almost symbolic, like one of those old political cartoons from back in the day.

    But the debate was just about over; most everything had been decided now, and any malcontents would side with them once the war hit. And war WAS inevitable now. And by the time Iota got back, he expected his rangers to have the proof he would need to keep the Confederacy from being seen as the aggressor in the conflict by the intergalactic community. Because above all else, they needed to keep the other powers out of the fight—they were too much of a wild card.

    For now, at least.

    “So, are we agreed?” Gamma asked tiredly. They’d been debating for hours, and she was tired.

    Celpha nodded, “I believe a final vote is in order. Elder Sesh, if you would?”

    The xybrian elder also nodded, stepping into the center as he willed a small holographic display to appear before him. “Our plan is as follows: We believe war to be inevitable now, and are planning accordingly. The Alliance has been probing the Confederacy for some time, and has been using our own counter-offensives as a pretext for war. In light of current events, one week after hostilities have been engaged, we will publically assemble the Peacekeeper Organization, a group dedicated to safeguarding our worlds, formed from ‘associated teams’ that to the public will be unrelated, but in reality have been trained by the pre-existing Peacekeeper Organization. We shall also begin keeping tabs on and courting unaligned teams and heroes. We shall also commence mobilization of our individual member states in preparation for the coming conflict, and will begin operations to unify them more closely under a joint war command structure. We shall also begin courting other nearby powers, as well as unaffiliated worlds within Confederate space, such as Liaria”.

    “Yay or nay?” Celpha asked to the group.

    Inwardly, Iota smiled as the vote went his way, as it always did eventually, one way or another.

    ---

    The wall was a mess. Well, the canvas anyway. Color had been splattered everywhere, smeared across, slapped on, punched. Something had unlocked within Sel, something she wasn’t even aware of.

    And she wasn’t done yet.

    Sel was in full rage mode, having tapped in to something *primal* during her experiment with the colors. Trok had sense enough to step back and let her go at it; to get in the way would do nothing but court disaster. She shouted angrily as she slammed down another glob of dark crimson goo onto the paper, even as her hair virtually sparked with static.

    “And no one gets it, you know?! No one! You just keep telling me, ‘Sel, don’t worry about it” splat, “or ‘Sel, it’s not your fault’!” splat, “They don’t get it! They don’t get that I don’t want to be utterly useless! I *hate* being the one everyone’s after!” splat, “I hate being the one that needs protecting! I hate that no matter how much I work, I can’t catch up! I hate that I don’t remember who I am! I hate that I can’t even seem to figure out who I *should* be, or even anything so simple as hobbies, or likes, or dislikes! I hate that I can’t explain this to anyone! I hate that I’m so utterly inept that I can’t just *explain* this to people!”

    Each hit of the paint splattered against the canvas with all the power and rage of one lost little girl. Sparks flowed from her hands into the ink, causing it to further spread, and even change color. Her eyes widened in shock, but then her anger doubled, “And I hate these powers! I hate being a bomb that could go off at any time! I hate being so goddamned important and yet so goddamned USELESS!” she slammed her fist into the wall, holding that position for a moment, before relenting and dropping to her knees, looking despondently at her multicolored hands. She was absolutely covered in paint from head to toe, but it didn’t matter.

    “I just want to be normal. I just want to be me, but I don’t even know what that is” she said, far more subdued now. “…I hate being worthless” her voice had dropped to a low, broken whisper. She’d just poured her soul out; all the things she normally couldn’t say because words were clunky and unreliable, because thoughts were so conflicted and confusing, now lay bare.

    Hesitantly, Trok crept closer. He honestly hadn’t expected this kind of outburst, and was now more than a little overwhelmed. And here there was this broken person sitting next to him crying, dealing with things he didn’t even know. What should he even do?

    He knelt down a couple feet away, sitting down at the base of one of the work tables. “…I don’t think you’re worthless”.

    She issued a short but embittered chuckle as she turned away from him.

    Something clicked.

    “…Have I ever told you about how I got hired?” he asked. She shook her head slightly, her green hair obscuring her face. He smiled wanly, and explained, “Iota and Xolin found me just after I left Horath, on a space station in the Idara Sector. I’d been an idiot and some assholes had gotten me swindled into some sort of crazy gambling scheme, and when I lost, I didn’t have the money to pay them. I didn’t know my way around stuff, and I was just a gullible idiot. Xolin had been getting a drink at the bar, heard the noise, investigated, and kicked their asses” he laughed to himself a bit, but Sel didn’t take the bait.

    So he continued, “…Anyway. I was *terrible* at my job. I was rash, naïve, and kind of an idiot. I still am, I think, but I’d also like to think I know a little bit more now. But I was *always* messing up things for Xolin, always screwing up her plans, getting in her way…” he chuckled again, to himself, “…Asking stupid questions…”

    He looked at her, “Look, my point is, you’re not worthless. We all start somewhere, and it’s hard. And like, if I was you? I couldn’t do it”.

    She looked at him, confused.

    He shook his head in a bit of wonder, “Not having memories? Having to start from scratch while everyone’s after you? I’d be a broken, sobbing mess. And yet you do all these awesome things; you’re way better at researching stuff than me. And I’ve seen you pilot in those simudeck racing games; you’re *amazing*. And like…” he looked up at the canvas; filled with haphazard color, but still gorgeous and full of life. “I couldn’t do that either. Push my emotions onto a piece of paper? That’s…” he shook his head in just a bit of awe, “You’re *amazing*, and you don’t even see it. And that’s the crazy part. You can’t even see it”.

    Silence.

    “…And like, you’ve gotten way better in combat than you were when we first met. And you’re a natural when it comes to ranged fighting. I think, soon? No one’s going to be able to touch you”.

    “…You really think so?” she asked faintly, turning away from him again, as she regarded her ‘painting’. She didn’t see anything special about it.

    He edged closer to her, “Look, I can’t speak for Iota? But I know I don’t just care about you because of your powers, or because the bad guys want you, and I know Sid and Xolin are the same way, even if they are a bit aloof. Trust me on that. They care. I care. You’re our friend. I like having you around. No one else cares when I blather on about my inventions or hobbies. And no one else plays co-op in the simudeck with me as much as you do these days”.

    Tears welled up in Sel’s eyes, and without thinking she grabbed onto him, gripping him into a tight embrace.

    He’d been taken aback slightly, but soon settled into the hug himself. “I mean it. You’re my friend, and that already means you’re not worthless”. A beat, “…Sorry, that was really corny”. She issued a small snort, but said nothing. They stayed like that for a few minutes, allowing Sel time to get it all out of her system. Trok was being pinpricked by static, but he ignored it, and at any rate it subsided as her emotions calmed down.

    “Thank you”.

    “It’s fine” Trok said, still a bit overwhelmed by all this, but now feeling a bit more in control now that he was *fairly* certain Sel wasn’t going to atomize him with another grid storm. Also, he was feeling more than a little proud of himself, considering. This had turned out way better than he’d thought a minute or two ago.

    “No” she whispered back as they pulled away, “I mean it. Thank you. For everything”. She looked up at her creation. Her wild, insane, chaotic creation. Taking a deep breath to stabilize herself once and for all, she noticed her hug had accidently transferred numerous paint stains to Trok. She blinked, embarrassed, “…Shit, I’m so sorry”.

    “It’s fine” he smiled back, “Mostly”. He innocently pulled out one of the larger brushes out of the blue paint, and before Sel knew what was happening her face had a wide blue streak going down the front of it. Her face pouted up in first shock, then child-like petulance. How dare he! But he only responded with a wide shit-eating grin.

    His efforts were rewarded seconds later with a face full of orange paint from a spray can. He spit out the foul-tasting chemical and glared at his friend-turned-opponent. He dipped the brush again.

    This meant war.

    A second later, Sel’s high-pitched squeal could be heard as she ran down the hall, firing her spray can as Trok barreled in from behind her, brush in hand. Both were giggling like goddamn children.

    It felt right.

    ---

    Sid’s body was thrust through the wall, back out into the main staging chamber as he rolled across the concrete ground, banging up against one of the VTOLs.

    “SID!” Xolin shouted, but quickly turned her attention back to the green and black behemoth that now had his fist above her, poise to strike down. With lightning-fast reflexes, Xolin backflipped away, landing just a few feet from Sid. “Sid, you okay?!”

    “Yeah…just gimmie a second…” he groaned painfully as he struggled to pull himself up, “Just…rearranging my organs, no big…”

    No time. The armored figure stepped out of the hole in the wall, and Xolin summoned her lance. She’d have to keep him busy while Sid pulled his body back together. With a roar, she charged, intentionally dodging his fist as she used his arm like a staging point, slamming her foot down on his helmet. He seemed to chuckle, just before his other arm sent her flying.

    Sid’s charged-up axe came down the figure’s backside, but he seemed to barely feel it. The behemoth turned around and regarded Sid for a moment, “…Was that it?”

    “Oh shi—” was all Sid got out just before he had to dodge out of the way of another strike. But it wasn’t enough, as the figure’s wrist cannons opened fire, hitting him directly and sending his body once again flinging into a VTOL.

    “Is this all Iota’s children can muster?” the figure crowed with amusement, “How sad! I shall relieve him of his failure”. He grabbed Sid by his head and picked him up, beginning to squeeze the red ranger’s helmet. With the kind of force applied, it wouldn’t be long before the power suit gave way.

    Xolin charged in frantically, alongside Xolin and Xolin. “Let him go!” The figure felt a strike against his backside, but before he could even turn, the second Xolin had leapt up behind him and struck her lance into the back of his neck. He shouted in pain as sparks flew, giving the third Xolin time to round him and bring her weapon down on his wrist, freeing Sid. The red ranger dropped to the ground as she knelt close to him.

    “You okay?”

    He nodded brusquely. “…We need a new plan” he muttered as the figure dispatched the other two Xolins, “He’s way too strong head on”. His eyes narrowed as the first Xolin dodged the figure’s next attack and responded with a flurry of strikes, before outstaying her welcome and being blasted away, “…Wait. How many of those charges do you still have?”

    The two glanced at each other as the new plan passed between them wordlessly.

    The figure meanwhile, took down the second Xolin, and the two unmoving bodies evaporated back into the third Xolin. The two rangers pulled themselves back up—Sid a little woozy from almost having his skull cracked, and Xolin from feeling the injuries of her other two selves in agonizing clarity.

    “Go” Sid ordered, charging the figure. He jumped up, opening fire with his pistol in one hand, before coming down with his axe. As he did so, Xolin flanked the fight, placing a charge on the figure’s arm, and then his backside. Sid rolled under the figure’s counterattack, as Xolin flipped over the figure’s top, placing one on his head, then rolled by and placed one on the other arm. She then aimed for the legs, as Sid evaded the figure’s arms and made another futile strike.

    “SID!” she shouted in confirmation, flipping away.

    “RIGHT!”

    The two broke from combat, each issuing a charged up strike from their weapons to keep their opponent off his game, before they finally turned and ran, leaping over the nearest VTOL and jumping from one to the next. As the figure recovered, he almost charged after them, but then noticed the beeping…and the numerous devices attached to him.

    “What the—”

    “NOW!” Sid ordered, as they jumped behind the last VTOL. Xolin pressed the button, and the entire area where the figure was exploded into fire, creating a frightening blast wave that sent the VTOLs hurdling outward—as well as the rangers. They tumbled and rolled across the ground, barely avoiding the wreckage of an aircraft that passed right over them before they came to a halt. The two looked up at the devastation they’d wrought.

    “Yeah!” Xolin pumped her fist in the air at the smoke and flames.

    But Sid wasn’t quite as celebratory, “…Wait for it”.

    “Hm?” she asked, glancing at him, but then kept her attention on the blastzone, just as Sid was. Then they saw it. Well, heard it at first. The thumps; it reminded Sid of the first monster they’d fought together, the tank one. What was it called? Tankor? Tankenstine?

    Eh, not important right now. The armored figure stepped out of the smoke, his armor smoking and charred, and cracked his neck as he approached them, “That…hurt”.

    Xolin’s jaw dropped, “Are you *serious*?!” she looked at Sid, “And how did YOU know?”

    Sid groaned as they got up, resuming battle poses, “…Experience”.

    “So now what? Any other plans?” she asked a tad frantically, as they both stepped back.

    “Not at the moment, no” Sid replied blandly, also worried. Boy, they were kinda screwed.

    The figure chuckled, “I have one. Stand still”. His wrist cannon charged up, and before the rangers could dodge again, their bodies lit up in complete and total agony, as electrical pulses flooded into their forms. They howled out in pain as electrical streams coursed over their suits, as sparks exploded everywhere, smoke rising from the points where the grid had locally overloaded with power. After several terrible seconds, the armored figure’s weapon finally powered down, allowing the two rangers to collapse to the ground, their suits still sparking and smoking. Both tried to get back up, but their bodies wouldn’t obey their commands; their nerves were completely fried. And so it was less like ‘scramble to their feet’ and more like ‘flailed about on the ground’.

    The figure stepped forward, now laughing as he aimed his gun again at Sid’s head, now at point-blank range. “A pity you weren’t a challenge”.

    Three well-placed brilliant white laser blasts knocked the figure back. Noticing that the attack hadn’t come from either of them, and that the figure’s attention was now on something behind them, the two rangers pulled themselves up enough to take a look.

    Xolin’s reaction was one of quickly shifting states of confusion, whereas while Sid initially was unsure of what he saw, soon realized the implications and his face dropped.

    “Oh goddamnit”.

    There, standing behind them, stood a new ranger in the same design as their own suits, shining brilliantly with silver on top of the black, and the would-be silver trim on their suits replaced with vibrant gold. In his hands rested a large cannon device, with the gun barrel hiding underneath a large shield-like piece draped over the top.

    “You” the figure rumbled. The blasters on his wrists retracted, replaced by two large maces that appeared in each of his hands. “It doesn’t matter if Iota sent two, three, or his entire pathetic team. You’re all going to burn”.

    The silver ranger said nothing, instead rushing forward, past the two downed rangers. He let off several more shots as he approached his opponent, but each were deflected by the maces. Just before reaching the figure however, the ranger shifted around his weapon, pulling the handle of the gun up and out, transforming it into a sword as the rest of the cannon shifted into a shield form. The figure brought his first mace down, crashing into the ranger’s shield, as the silver warrior charged up his sword with brilliant white light, and thrust, like the knights of old.

    “You have *got* to be kidding me” Sid deadpanned, having pulled himself up, but leaning against a chunk of wreckage of what had once been part of a VTOL. Xolin was supporting her weight on her lance.

    “What exactly is going on?” she asked, a bit confused.

    “Sixth ranger” Sid said with a measure of disgust, “They tend to show up well after the rest of the team has been established, mess up the team dynamic, and sort of just generally overshadow everyone because they’re just too awesome for their own good. At least we got one who wasn’t under an evil spell” he paused thoughtfully, “…I think”.

    Xolin squinted, her brow furrowing as she watched the two duke it out, “Um…wouldn’t he be the fifth ranger though?”

    “…What?” Sid asked, taking his attention off the fight.

    “There’s only four of us. Why would he be the sixth?”

    Sid gave her a somewhat incredulous look, even though she couldn’t see it under his helmet. “Wha? No, it’s just a term. Most teams have five members to start with, so it normally makes sense”.

    “But a lot of teams start with three, don’t they?” she lobbed back.

    A slash of sparks off the silver ranger’s suit from a hit by the figure pulled both Sid and Xolin back to reality. “Look, that’s not…this isn’t the time, okay?” Sid replied, once again focused on the fight in front of them. Silver had rebounded, and was now leaping over the armored figure with his cannon, taking potshots as he flipped overhead. He landed a kick on the figure’s backside using it as a staging point for a second flip before landing a few feet away. He switched his weapon back to melee mode, dodged an attack, and struck again with his sword.

    “Should uh…should we help?” Xolin asked.

    The shield once again broke the advantage of one of the maces. The other got wrapped around the ranger’s sword, and he pulled. As the figure stumbled forward, the silver ranger jumped up, his foot charging with white energy, slamming into his opponent’s head as he once again flipped back, ripping his sword out of the chains of the mace, and cutting them apart as he did so.

    “I’m…not sure” Sid replied, honestly a little uncertain about what to do here.

    The figure roared; lunging forward as his wrist gun reappeared. But the silver ranger pressed a button on his wrist morpher, and the figure froze as he heard a noise—a crashing noise, and then a noise like a vehicle. The figure turned around, only to see a tank-like machine having broken through one of the walls of the chamber, which was now crashing its way through rows of docile drones, crushing them under its treads. It wasn’t *quite* a tank, Sid surmised, more like an APC with a number of large guns. It was white and black in color, with a large gun turret on top, flanked by smaller secondary weapons. Large treads protected the wheels within, and it was by all rights just as much a weapon of war as any of the other tanks in the room—if not a bit smaller and more segmented in its armor design.

    The APC opened fire on the figure with its main cannon, knocking him back as the silver ranger leapt over him once again, missing the APC as it swung around at the last second, slamming into the figure from the side, and crushing him within the remains of a VTOL. The side of the APC opened up just as the silver ranger landed.

    “What are you doing?!” he called to Sid and Xolin, an incredulous tone in his voice, “Stop standing there and get in the vehicle! We need to go!”

    “We didn’t get the information we came for!” Xolin replied as they hurried over to him.

    “Already gotten” the ranger pulled out a small chip to show them, before putting back inside his morpher and turning to head back to the APC.

    “…But how?” Xolin asked as they came aboard, “Our storage device got incinerated!”

    The ranger shrugged as he strapped himself into the driver’s seat, “Iota figured you guys were too incompetent to pull this off, so he sent me. Now strap yourselves in, it’s going to get bumpy”.

    “…Incompetent!?” both red and blue shouted at him in a mixture of shock and anger. The door behind them shut, and a second later both rangers were thrown to the ground by the moving vehicle.

    “What part of ‘strap yourselves in’ don’t you understand!?” the silver ranger shot at them as he pulled the APC back and around, heading out towards the hole it had punched in the wall. The two rangers pulled themselves up and into the seats lining each side of the APC’s back section, but they weren’t happy about it. Who the hell *was* this guy?

    The tank almost *flew* out of the facility, coasting on air for a brief few seconds before it hit the solid rock beneath it and began its getaway. Behind it, three defense drones had been activated and were now in pursuit, opening fire as the tank weaved its way around lava pools and rivers. The interior shook as the tank soared over a cliff, a lava river below, and landed on the other bank before continuing its journey.

    The silver ranger tapped the vehicle’s controls, summoning the auto-turret AI. Immediately, the APC’s main guns swiveled around and opened fire on the drones, taking the lead one out almost instantly. Then two small rocket batteries unfolded from the vehicle’s armor, and in the resulting barrage, the other two drones went up in smoke.

    But the red and blue rangers weren’t concerned about that. Xolin quietly seethed with anger; being shown up was bad enough, but to be called ‘incompetent’? By some asshole who’d just shown up out of nowhere? Oh, this guy had just made an enemy, and she would make sure he knew it very well. She gritted her teeth, pissed she wasn’t able to show him up right here, right now. The worst feeling was being told off, and not having a chance to prove them wrong and rub their noses in it. Damn wounded pride.

    Sid meanwhile, was a bit more settled with his anger, but calculated all the same. Sure, he was *really* annoyed by this new guy, but something else unsettled him. Why had he shown up? HOW had he shown up? As far as he had known, there was only four rangers on their team, yet this guy was working for Iota? And had already performed his mission while they were fighting?

    Sid smelled bullshit. He didn’t like bullshit.

    Finally clear of the facility and now with a suitable amount of space for a makeshift runway in front of it, triangular wings folded out of the APC’s sides as it sped up, before it lifted off the ground, its treads folding down and becoming anti-grav generators. The APC-turned-shuttlecraft veered off, flying up towards the sky even as nearby turrets fired at (and missed) the vehicle. Before long however, it was well beyond the range of the turrets, and well beyond the sight of anyone still on the ground.

    ---

    The entire way back had been silent. The new ranger wasn’t much for talking, and the other two had mostly spent the ride stewing in their own emotions, though occasionally giving knowing nods to each other. Upon landing in the Megaship’s loading bay two, Sid and Xolin, already demorphed, stepped out—and were then brushed aside by the silver ranger, who demorphed in the process. The two scorned rangers saw a human male—early twenties by the looks of things, though whether he was Terran, Karovian, or some other type of human was uncertain. He said nothing to them, instead heading straight down the hall.

    “…H-Hey, where are you going?” Xolin sputtered out.

    “Iota” he replied tersely, clearly not one for games or casual interaction, “Don’t bother coming. I only need to drop the files off”.

    “‘Don’t bother’?!” Xolin’s face contorted in rage, “Just who do you think you are?!” But before she could go after him, Sid’s hand placed itself on her shoulder. She caught sight of his expectant but sympathetic expression and forced herself to calm down, taking a deep breath even as the new guy vanished around the corner. It would do no good to get irrationally angry right at this minute.

    The two headed off in his direction, passing the work bay as they did so and—woah. Both stopped in their tracks, instead wandering inside their normal hangout, astounded to find it full of, well, *art*. There was the big one of course, covering much of one of the walls that was filled with random paint splatters and handprints and just random actions. But then there were smaller ones; most of them just abstract expressionist, but some of the fresher ones were more controlled; obviously done with brushes and tools instead of by hand.

    “What the hell?” Sid asked, perplexed.

    “Oh, you’re back!” Trok spoke up, peeking his head over the paint materials behind the workbench, “We’re back here”.

    Sid and Xolin maneuvered their way around the makeshift art gallery, back behind the supplies where Trok and Sel were both on the floor working, and absolutely covered in paint from head to toe.

    “Uh…you guys have been busy, I see” Xolin said, *very* surprised.

    Sel stopped what she was doing, now extremely self-conscious and blushing. But Trok caught it and reassured her; “Hey, no, it’s fine” he said quietly, then looked back up at the others. “We uh…had a breakthrough”.

    “Breakthrough?” Sid asked, even more confused now.

    Trok shrugged, “It’s a long story. But basically, as it turns out? Sel’s way better at art than she is at talking. So uh, well, here we are”.

    “…You did this?” Xolin knelt down beside them. Sel hesitantly nodded. Xolin turned to Trok, “This was your idea?”

    He shrugged again, a little hesitant now as it was clear Xolin was pissed off about *something*, he just wasn’t sure what. Maybe he’d messed up somehow? “She uh…she needed to get some things out. Important things”.

    Xolin’s expression softened, then embraced Trok in an unexpected and tight hug. He struggled for a moment, protesting, “Hey, what—?!”

    “Don’t ever stop being amazing, huh?” she said with a bit of pride, before letting him go.

    Now it was Trok’s turn to blush as he scratched the back of his head with embarrassment, “Uh, heh. Yeah. It was no problem”.

    “Are you okay?” Xolin asked Sel.

    She nodded with a faint smile, returning to her work on the paper laying on the floor in front of her. “Yes”.

    Unbeknownst to the rest of them, Sid had stepped back, and gave them one last smile before leaving the room, his expression souring as he made his way towards Iota’s office. It was time for a reckoning.

    ---

    “Good work” Iota said, taking the chip from his subordinate, “I assume everything we need is on there?”

    The human nodded as Iota moved back behind his desk in his office, sitting down as he slipped the small electronic device into his computer. His subordinate sat down in another chair nearby, “I checked it myself. There’s more than enough in there to incriminate the Alliance when the war comes. Numerous illegal incursions into Confederate space, abductions, the destruction of several deep-space probes, the list goes on. When the Alliance finally declares war, we’ll be able to appear as the underdog”.

    “Excellent” Iota said, beginning to scan through the files himself. He stopped though, when a chime rang at the door. “…It would seem we have company” he said to the ranger, then spoke to the door, “Come in”.

    The doors slid open, revealing Sid. He waved, a wide but fake smile on his face, “Hey!”

    “Did you need something?” Iota asked neutrally.

    Sid pointed at him casually, “…Yes, actually. There’s something that’s been bugging me for a while now” Sid slumped down in one of the other chairs, “And I’m not sure what I think about it”.

    “And that would be?”

    Sid settled into his seat, resting his leg over the other as he cupped his hands together in his lap, “You know, it’s interesting. We were off on a covert mission, but it felt like they knew we were coming even before we landed. Like they *waited* for us to get into position before they moved to take us out. Curious, wouldn’t you say”.

    “Or maybe your incompetence tipped them off” the other ranger said.

    Sid eyed his new rival with absolute distain, “Right. And Chuckles here” he pointed at the other human, “Just *happened* to be on the same mission as us while we kept the bad guys busy”.

    “What are you implying?” Iota asked, his voice even, controlled.

    Sid jumped out of his seat, any lingering sign of calmness gone as his face filled itself with absolute rage. He leaned in on Iota’s desk—who to his credit didn’t even budge. “You set us up!” he shouted in anger, “Why!?”

    Iota’s voice remained just as calm as ever, “Because I needed a distraction to get the data I required. You provided it with aplomb. Is there anything else?”

    “…Everything?” Sid asked, shocked by the utter uncaring attitude of his commander. Iota’s tone was as if they were discussing the weather, or had Sid just handed him a grocery list. “You *LIED* to us! You threw us into mortal danger so we could play decoy for you” Sid’s expression softened just slightly towards sorrow as he saw Iota’s stance hadn’t changed at all, “…And you don’t even *care*, do you?!”

    “You were never in any true danger” Iota replied. He motioned to the other ranger, “Isdilian’s secondary objective was always to get you out”.

    “S-secondary?!” Sid’s rage was rising by the second, he almost could *see* he was so utterly pissed off, “You call our safety secondary?!”

    “In terms of the mission goals, yes. You go into danger every day, with no promises on your return. How is this any different?”

    Sid snapped, throwing himself over the desk, grabbing Iota by the neck, and pulling him up and pushing him against the window with all his might, his armor issuing an audible ‘thud’ against the transparent material. “How DARE you!” he screamed, “They trusted you! We aren’t pawns for your personal amusement!”

    The whine of a laser pistol brought Sid back to reality. Behind him, Isdilian had stood up and had his sidearm pointed at Sid’s backside. Iota issued a single chuckle, “You are incorrect. You *are* my pawn, Sid. You have always been my pawn, as is your team. Now…I suggest you let me go, least it’s decided you’re no longer useful to the scenario”.

    With absolute reluctance and disgust, Sid let go of Iota’s would-be windpipe, allowing the figure to recompose himself. “I suggest you return to your quarters, Sid” Iota said, taking a seat once more, even as Isdilian kept his gun trained on Sid, “Least you make a costly error”.

    Sid’s fists bunched up in abject fury, but ultimately decided that having his brains blown out would not be the best option right now. With extreme reluctance, he turned, forcing himself out of the room despite his best wishes. He said nothing as he left the room.

    This meant war.

    God*damnit*. Sid had *known* Iota was a snake from day one, and he still let him bite him. He should have been working against him all this time, but after the first few weeks, Sid had sort of just backslid, becoming comfortable, and now he was paying the price. They were *all* paying the price. Well, now he was going to end this. Permanently. The way he should have months ago.

    Sid quickly backtracked to the workbay. He burst through the doors like a madman, startling the other three who were still huddled around the in-progress artwork.

    “…Sid?” Xolin asked, very concerned by the expression of maddening rage on Sid’s face, “What happened? What’s wrong?”

    Sid regarded the trio. Only Xolin so far knew of (and shared) his problems with Iota, and for a brief second he hesitated. But hesitation had only gotten him in this mess.

    “We need to talk” he said with the upmost urgency, “Now”.

    ---

    To be continued…
     
  14. y3k

    y3k Magnificent Bastard

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    1.13: Secrets and Lies, part 2

    She took a sip from her cup.

    “It’s useless, you know”.

    Sid looked back at Xolin, leaning against her skycycle. She watched Sid has he casually but cautiously explored the exterior of the tank that now took up a large part of the launch bay. “Hm?” he asked, pausing his informal inspection to turn his attention back to her.

    “The tank, I mean” she clarified, “Why do we need a tank when we have a spaceship that can ‘rain fire down from the skies’?”

    Sid snorted, resuming his inspection as he rounded a corner, “It’s not even a real tank. It’s an APC; Armored Personnel Carrier. Fine and dandy for resupplying armies, but there’s what, five of us now? We got sky cycles”. It was true. And who cared if it had a shuttle mode? Certainly not Sid.

    “It’s redundant” she replied, her voice laced with just a twinge of disgust.

    Sid nodded, “It got one good use for its debut, and now it’ll sit here for the next year gaining dust”. That’s what the new ranger would get for being an upstaging jerk.

    “It doesn’t even look nice” she added flatly, taking another sip. She wasn’t just saying that because the new ranger was a complete prick. No siree.

    “No, it really doesn’t” Sid replied with not just a hint of smugness, rounding the entire war vehicle as he headed back around to the side where Xolin could see him.

    “Your opinions are noted and ignored” came another voice. The two looked over at the door, seeing their new teammate walking down into the room. He seemed to sneer at Xolin, before heading over to the APC. “Get away from my vehicle. I need to do some maintenance checks” he said, waving off Sid with an annoyed expression, “Make sure nothing got damaged when I rescued you from the mess you threw yourselves into”. He pulled out a small datapad and began scanning the tank’s systems.

    “We did *not* throw ourselves in there” Xolin’s expression shifted from general annoyance to that of genuine anger as she pulled herself off her skycycle, “You and your master used us as meat shields!”

    Isdilian shrugged, not bothering to turn and look at her, “He’s your ‘master’ too. And the next time we need meat shields, I’ll be sure to rescue you with the APC if the mission allows it” he let a slight smirk leak through as he worked, “Now go…I don’t know, play in the simudeck or whatever. I’ve got work to do”.

    Rage flashed in Xolin’s eyes, but before she could imbed his head in the tank’s hull, Sid grabbed her by the shoulder, locking eyes with her before shaking his head silently. Reluctantly she relented, and the two gave the new arrival one last look of hatred before quietly leaving the room.

    “I can’t *stand* that guy” Xolin whispered to Sid as they left the room. If her fists were any more clenched, her fingernails would have been cutting through her flesh.

    Sid nodded eagerly in complete agreement, “Three days. Three friggin’ days, and he’s already managed to piss everyone off who’s name doesn’t start with the letter ‘I’. Trok tried *making friends* with the dude, and all he got out of it was grief”.

    “It’s like he thinks he owns the place” Xolin replied, folding her arms over her chest, “And Iota just lets him”.

    Sid’s expression got even more acid at the mention of Iota, if that were at all possible, “Iota’s taken us for granted”. The two paused their aimless stroll down the hallway, each glancing at the other as they contemplated his words. They’d discussed this before; back when Isdilian had first come aboard. They needed to do something, but what?

    “…Sid, what *are* we going to do?” Xolin asked him suddenly, now contemplative, “Because it’s not just the new guy. It’s everything. We got used, *hard*, and they won’t tell us why”.

    “Not to mention everything with Sel, or the war, or…anything. And we haven’t been able to break through the defenses in his database” Sid muttered, agreeing. They’d attempted multiple hacks into the Megaship’s database, hoping to catch *something*, but Iota had apparently been ready for them. He put his hands in his pockets, grimacing in thought. A mild wry smile crossed his face momentarily, “We could just mutiny” he said, half-joking.

    The two said nothing for a moment, instead pausing in the hallway as a mixture of emotions flowed between them.

    Maybe it hadn’t been that much of a joke to begin with.

    “…Are you serious?” she asked warily.

    “I…I’m not…sure?” he admitted reluctantly. “Hacking attempts are one thing; we’ve been masking our tries and he hasn’t said anything. But taking him down? Do we even know how big the Peacekeeper organization is?”

    She sighed, “…Something big’s going down, and we’re not safe on this ship anymore. I…they might be an enemy, Sid” he voice was more subdued now; distant. She rubbed her upper arm with her other hand, not entirely sure *what* to think anymore. “I mean, what do they need with someone like Sel? A doomsday weapon?”

    Sid frowned, shutting his eyes in thought. Yeah, that was true. It could also be that they were doing just what they’d assumed they had been doing all along—keeping her from ‘the enemy’, but considering the situation? Blatantly triggering SPD’s reactions on the last mission with war looming so close?

    What if the Peacekeepers wanted to wipe out the Alliance, and only needed a pretext? What if they’d just given them that pretext?

    ---

    Another quantron went down, the laser arrow piercing its chest with a single well-placed shot. It dissolved into holographic pixels, leaving the yellow ranger with just a hint of a satisfied smile under her determined expression. A second one also bit the dust, just a second before it swung down with its weapon.

    That was a little close, but she *was* getting better.

    “Computer, end program”.

    For a second, Sel was confused as the simulation vanished around her. She turned to the door as Isdilian walked in, her face shifting into a pout as she realized what had happened. *This* guy had just turned off *her* program! “Hey, what are you doing?” she protested, as he walked past her, morphing instantly into the silver ranger.

    “It’s fifteen hundred hours; your reserved session is over. Now it’s mine” came his curt reply. She sputtered, taking a brief glance at the clock. He was *technically* correct but…what the hell!?

    “You may leave now” he said, before opening up the holographic controls to the room. Sel stood there dumbfounded for a moment, her fists clenching before she turned and walked out—but not before stopping and setting the difficulty level of Isdilian’s chosen simulation. With one last glare at his backside, she stormed out, both angry and a tad embarrassed at being tossed out so unceremoniously, even if he HAD been technically correct.

    It didn’t matter though. Isdilian quickly recognized the difficulty settings and fixed them before activating the training simulation.

    ---

    Trok turned the corner, heading for Iota’s office. As he approached one of the hallway doors and it slid open however, he nearly ran into Isdilian who had been exiting from the other side.

    “Oh, sorry” Trok said bashfully, scratching the back of his head. Isdilian said nothing though, instead simply sighing angrily and glaring at Trok before brushing past him, nudging against his shoulder. Trok frowned as the other ranger walked past, “…Yeah, hi to you too”. He watched him for a moment, then turned and headed down to Iota’s door, pressing the button to signal his arrival.

    “Come in” came the reply, just before the door slid open. Trok stepped inside. “Yes?” asked Iota, currently preoccupied with something on the floating holographic screens that filled his desk in front of him.

    “Hey” he waved awkwardly, fiddling with the small datapad in his hand.

    “…Did you need something?” Iota asked expectantly and impatiently, now finally looking up from his work.

    “Er…” Trok mumbled, “Well, it’s those scans I took of Sel. You know, after her last major…er…‘explosion’, I guess” he hesitantly took a seat and began scrolling through the datapad, both to recall things and just to have something to do while he talked. “It’s just, I’m a little worried. These readings don’t make sense, and if they’re legit, then…well, are we sure we’re doing enough?”.

    “Enough of what?”

    “I…I don’t know. Protecting her?” Trok asked, “I mean, that’s what that whole mission was about, right? Keeping her safe from Capricorn? But what if she gets worse? She’s had at least two major events now, and they seem to get getting more intense. I just…I don’t get it” he sighed, finally just letting it all out, “Like, up till now I’ve been fine being in the dark. We save the day from bad guys, the politicians do their thing. Fine, whatever. But…I need to know. With the war the news says is happening soon, and Sel, and that new guy, and the covert missions and just…everything. What’s going on?” He asked that last bit in exasperation, utterly at a loss at the situation.

    Iota regarded the boy for a moment, finally sighing with a hint of exasperation, “Strategic operations are classified”.

    “Yeah, but—”

    Iota cut him off, “No buts. You are not authorized to know our long-term operations for a war that may or may not come. Isdilian is here because I requested him—he was always intended to be part of the team once his other assignments were finished elsewhere”.

    “…And Sel?” Trok asked warily.

    “I’ve already had central headquarters run through our data. There’s nothing wrong with her; she’s just an extraordinarily powerful xybrian”.

    Trok’s face bunched up in confusion. This…this wasn’t right, “But…that doesn’t make sense. What about the morphin’ grid energy? And the—”

    Iota cut him off again, “The data was a false flag. Easy mistake for a novice such as yourself to make, but to the trained professional scientists back at HQ, not so much”.

    Trok seemed crestfallen, and not in any way satisfied with the answer. But Iota was done with this, “Is that all? I have work to attend to”.

    “I…yes, sir” Trok said, hesitating at first, but then resigning himself as he stood up and made his way to the door. Iota said nothing as the door slid shut behind him, leaving him separated from his commander once again, out in the hallway. His fists clenched. This was wrong. This was *all* wrong.

    Sid was right. He hadn’t wanted to believe, but Sid and Xolin had been completely right. This had been Trok’s attempt to see if he couldn’t reason with Iota, but now it seemed as though the young horathean had no other recourse but to realize this had all gotten stupidly out of hand. He remembered the conversation from the other day…

    ---

    “What’s going on?” Trok asked. They’d just been hurried from the work-bay-converted-art-gallery down the hall into Sid’s room by him and Xolin, and now the two of them were busy checking the room while Trok and Sel just sort of stood there, dumbfounded.

    “Clear. …I think” Xolin said, finishing her sweep of the room with her morpher. Who really knew if that could be trusted though, considering it was one of Iota’s tools too.

    “Same” Sid sighed as he came back around from the other side of his bed.

    “No, seriously” Trok interjected again, “What’s going on? You guys are starting to scare me”.

    Xolin turned to Sid, “Yeah, you’re worrying be a bit. What’s the deal?” she asked. Certainly, she had a vague idea what this was about—Sid for whatever reason, was finally getting everyone in on the situation with Iota. But what exactly had happened to set this off?

    With a grimace, Sid glanced around the room suspiciously. He couldn’t ever be completely certain they were alone, but…whatever. He took a deep breath, and locked eyes with Xolin, “Iota set us up”.

    “…What?” Xolin asked, momentarily not processing what had just been relayed to her.

    “Didn’t you wonder why the new ranger just happened to be there to rescue us?”

    Trok blinked, “Wait, there’s a new ranger?”

    But Xolin ignored him, keeping her attention on Sid as realization dawned on her, “…We were the decoys”.

    “Bingo” Sid replied.

    “Wait, decoys for what?” Trok asked.

    Xolins’s face twisted in anger as she turned away, her hand brushing through her hair, “He used us” she said flatly, more for her own benefit than anyone else’s. “He used us just like always”.

    “Used you?” Trok asked, becoming increasingly annoyed no one was answering him.

    “Yep” Sid replied to Xolin, with forced mirth, “We were meatshields”.

    “Meatshields?!” Trok exclaimed.

    “ENOUGH!”

    Everyone stopped and turned to Sel, who immediately flushed with embarrassment at her outburst. She pressed on; might as well since she was so deep in anyway, “Stop…talking *at* each other! What is going *on*?” she asked, with distinct emphasis.

    The other three rangers looked at each other, then back at her. Trok grinned, “Seriously! What’s this all about? New rangers? Decoys?! Make sense already!”

    Sid and Xolin locked eyes again, but Xolin motioned to him expectantly as if to say ‘after you’, to which Sid glared at her for throwing him under the bus.

    “Okay, so…” Sid plopped down on the end of his bed, as Xolin took the computer chair, leaning forward on the backpiece. Trok slid down to the floor, leaning against the door as Sel landed next to him. Sid exhaled, organizing his thoughts. “So…the mission Xolin and I were on was to get sensitive information linking numerous incidents in Confederate space to SPD actions, such as when they abducted Xolin and Sel. Well…turns out they were waiting for us” he shrugged.

    “How’d you escape?” asked Trok.

    Sid’s expression became a little harder, “We got saved by the new ranger—and yes here’s here on the ship, I’ll get to him in a second” he said, putting his hand up to block Trok’s imminent questioning before continuing, “Anyway. He was there on the same mission, and completed it when we couldn’t. Then he just happened to know where we were and got us out”.

    Trok’s eyes narrowed in thought, “So…you were decoys…for him?”

    “Yeeep” Sid deadpanned, obviously not pleased with this, “And he and I just had a nice little conversation in his office. Confirmed everything, then called us his pawns. We’re useful to him until we’re not”.

    “But…why would Iota do that?” asked Trok, dumbfounded. He’d always seen Iota as a fairly reasonable guy, if a little stern and aloof.

    Now Xolin spoke up, also very unhappy, “It wouldn’t be the first time. Iota’s strong-arm psychoanalyzed me to get what he wants before. And I know he’s done the same to Sid”.

    Sid nodded reluctantly, not entirely wishing to get into this now, but knowing he probably needed to, “Yeah, when I first joined. There’s a reason I came back on KO-35. He hit me where I lived. Made me watch you guys lose against Trill, and then twisted my own words against me”.

    “So…you really didn’t want to come?” Trok asked, the wind deflating out of him. He looked a little crushed. Sid smiled sadly.

    “At the time? No. I didn’t want anything that would remind me of my old team. Now? Yeah, you’d better believe it”. At that, Trok’s expression brightened again.

    “Right, as heartwarming as that is, that’s not the issue” Xolin said, pulling everyone back on track, “We need to figure out what we’re doing about this”.

    Sid nodded, returning to the matter at hand, now addressing everyone, “Iota’s got a plan. I don’t know if it’s the Peacekeepers’ plan, or even how much of an organization we really even work for, but there’s something here that stinks, and it can’t just be me that smells it”.

    Xolin nodded in turn, “Sid and I have been comparing notes, and it’s obvious Iota recuited each of us for a reason, as in he sought each of us out and twisted us until we agreed. Then there’s the fact that despite being covert operatives, it’s becoming clear our mission is anything *but*. And considering Arkilla and this last mission, we’re not just preparing for a war with the Alliance, we’re helping it along”.

    “And then there’s everything with Sel” Sid said, pointing at the quiet xybrian, “Trok, you said yourself that her powers defy all known science and magic and pose a problem both to her and everyone else. Yet the only thing we’ve gotten back from Iota is that he’s ‘looking into it’, or ‘it’s not important’”.

    Trok shrugged, “I mean, he *did* say he sent it in to HQ to have it analyzed. If command says it’s no big deal then…” he trailed off, not exactly sure if he bought it either.

    “‘Looking into it’ is code for ‘piss off’” Xolin replied, her face resting on the chair’s back, “If she wasn’t a big deal, then Iota wouldn’t have had us go to such great lengths to get here—*long* before any of the four of us knew she had powers. And we certainly wouldn’t have been chased all over the Local Group by a crazed goat monster looking to sell her off to his employers. And *they* certainly wouldn’t have sent more agents after us when he failed”.

    That…was true, Trok couldn’t deny that.

    “So then…” he asked, “What do we do?”


    ---

    Iota grumbled to himself as Trok left the room. The rangers were getting more restless. This had decidedly *not* been part of the plan. The armored figure’s mind was busy turning over ideas and half-formed contingencies, trying to construct new solutions for the unforeseen events. He wasn’t worried, no. After all, no plan survived first contact with the enemy. It was *impossible* to plan for every single possible event that could happen, you’d need a near-infinite number of plots and schemes. No, the mark of the true strategist was the ability to adapt, to have a number of contingencies that could be quickly altered to the evolving battlefield.

    It was good he’d gotten Isdilian onboard.

    His holographic display chirped an alert at him. Curious, he checked it—another failed attempt to hack through his system. The first time it had happened a few days ago he’d gotten worried, but he’d quickly traced it to Sid. Pitiful boy, trying to get involved in things well beyond him. Oh well, no harm, no foul, he had supposed. As long as Sid didn’t manage to actually hack in, Iota was more than happy to let him futilely crash against his firewall until he lost his motivation. There was something to be said for venting, after all.

    And since then, Sid had kept it up, every few hours. And soon after, Xolin had joined him. And then Trok, who’d actually gotten further than either of them, but still no dice. Here, he expected it to be Trok again, considering the discussion they’d just gotten into. But, to Iota’s surprise, this attempt was coming from Sel’s quarters.

    And she was hacking through. His eyes widened as he watched her breaking through numerous defenses of his. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised; even though she didn’t have full *conscious* control over her powers, there was still something to be said for the sheer underlying power of the morphin’ grid. The system’s defenses weren’t so much being hacked through but simply being overwritten by the power of the grid.

    Well, he still had one contingency in that case. With a stroke of his controls, he shut off the power to Sel’s quarters, immediately ending her assault on his database, and allowing the programs to reboot and reload. Her room’s power would return, but not for a few minutes. He allowed himself a brief self-loving smirk, but knew that this was getting serious. All four rangers were in on some kind of conspiracy. So far it had been limited to forlorn attempts on the Megaship’s systems—probably to gain information, but how long would it be before they realized they had to do something more to get anywhere? He couldn’t allow everything to fall apart now; not when it was all finally coming together.

    He pulled up a communication window to Isdilian.

    “Yes?” came the curt reply. Blunt, as always.

    Iota replied, “Isdilian, I realize you just left, but could you please return to my office? Something’s come up, and I believe I’m going to need your assistance”.

    “Understood”. The link cut out. Iota leaned back in his chair, contemplating. This was going to get ugly, but he really had no choice if the others were going to force his hand.

    ---

    The door to the war room slid open, allowing Sid to waltz in. Annoying; he’d *just* started up a new round of minesweeper, and now here they were about to go on another mission. He plopped down next to Trok at the round table, waiting for Sel to enter, who sat down next to Xolin.

    Noting that everyone was here, Iota passed around the table, behind Isdilian’s spot, as he activated the holographic display in the table’s center, “Now that we’re all here…we’ve gotten reports of a monster attack on the world of Tarkalis, a minor fuel production location. Tarkalis orbits the gas giant Noda, and we use the moon as a staging ground”. The display showed both the blue giant and a number of smaller moons—Tarkalis was highlighted and then zoomed in on.

    Iota continued, “Confederate forces were able to chase it away from facility upsilon, but we’re sending you in to deal the deathblow, so it can’t continue to threaten our operations in the region”.

    “What kind of monster?” asked Trok.

    The moon vanished, replaced by a spikey cyborg-ified humanoid porcupine…thing with faintly purple skin. Its arms and legs were clothed in armor, and its left eye was covered by cybernetic enhancements. “Calls himself Porcuborg. Telemetry suggests he’s an average class C monster, no special attributes aside from his poison stingers. With your ranger suits, you should be fine. Any other questions?”

    “Is this an SPD ploy?” Xolin asked, “Or Capricorn?”

    Iota shook his head, “Unknown. Hopefully your engagement will shed some light on the subject. Any other questions?”

    The others shook their heads, and Iota shut off the holograms, “In that case, battlestations. Be at the launch bay in thirty minutes”.

    At that, the four original rangers glanced at each other. Trok and Sid sighed, pulling out their wallets and handing Xolin five credits each. She took them quite happily with a wide shit-eating grin on her face.

    Iota blinked, confused, “…Did I miss something?”

    Sid shrugged blandly, “Trok and I guessed wrong. I went with ‘escort mission’, Trok over here said ‘scouting’”.

    “I said ‘monster attack’, so I won the bet” Xolin added, counting her small collection of money as if she was filthy rich.

    “You…bet money. On your mission” Iota said, slowly as if trying to comprehend.

    “Yep!” Xolin giggled, putting the money away.

    Iota sighed, rubbing the forehead of his helmet, then looked at Sel and Isdilian, “At least you two have more sense”.

    Sel coughed slightly, and then with a face flushed with embarrassment, handed Xolin another five credits. “…distress call” she muttered under her breath.

    “…You have got to be joking” Iota sighed again, shaking his head. “Whatever. Be ready in thirty”. With that, he turned and left.

    Isdilian stood up, scoffing as he followed Iota, “Amateurs”.

    The other four glared at their new teammate as he vanished behind the door, but Xolin’s grin soon returned as she put Sel’s money away. Who could be angry when they’d just made fifteen credits on the spot? “Pleasure doing business with you guys”. The fact that their glares only redirected themselves to her person just made her grin wider.

    ---

    The red ranger found himself being thrust back across the wet ground, his boots splashing against the puddles forming through the mud as the monster pushed him back, its claws locked in combat with his axe. The two weapons broke contact, allowing Sid to sweep back in. Green and blue came in from the sides, grabbing the monster’s arms in an attempt to keep it from counterattacking as Sid’s axe came in, striking against its chest. Sparks shot off from the point of impact, just before the creature rebounded and threw the other two off of it. Using it to their advantage however, they spun around and back in, landing twin kicks on the monster’s front. It stumbled backward, right into Sel’s firing range. Several laser arrows found their mark, exploding into the monster’s side as it tumbled to the ground.

    It screeched with a high-pitched whine, “Pitiful rangers, your end is nigh!”

    “…Seriously, do the bad guys have a quote book or something?” Trok asked, a little incredulous. He got no reply as the battle continued to unfold.

    The planet itself was unusual; the environment they found themselves in was a muddy landscape littered with fungi. And not like, little stuff either, but huge towering mushroom towers, some of them tightly grouped together. And each were different too—some opened up to wide red and white speckled heads, while others were more aerodynamic and bioluminescent. Some had an inverted cup-like design, segmented so that each cup would grow out of the last like some alien cactus. And on the ground, large tracks were covered by aquamarine-like mossy lichen.

    “We’ve got it on the ropes!” Sid shouted, rushing back in with his weapon in hand, “Take it—”

    He didn’t get to finish his command; instead the porcupine’s back quills shot off in all directions like a shrapnel grenade. Flying spears struck each of the rangers, causing their suits to spark and smoke as each were thrown back to the ground, giving the monster time to stand back up, surrounded by downed rangers.

    “Okay, that was…that was bad” Sid groaned, forcing himself back up to his knees. From his position, he could see the porcupine going after Trok. It had just about reached him, when several small blue lasers struck its backside—Xolin came rushing in with her sidearm gun, flowing under its arms as it counterattacked, before launching into a flurry of physical attacks. But the porcupine was stronger and grabbed her by the shoulders, at which point she used it them as a launching point to strike back with a double kick, landing on her feet a few steps away.

    By now Trok and Sid were on their feet and closed in, but the monster spun about, striking each one in turn with its metal claws before cackling. “I am in command now! Prepare for your end, power *losers*!”

    “No, seriously. That’s not even clever” Trok groaned again as he pulled himself up, “And Umbreonella on Lashal said the same thing. *And* the toaster monster on Teraka”.

    Sel raced across the outskirts of the battlefield, keeping her bow primed and firing each time she got a new opening, “Toastocalypse”.

    “Pardon?” Xolin asked, dodging another swipe before launching a return sweep kick.

    “His name” another shot from the bow. Her voice was subdued as usual, but there was a slight twinge of deadpan, “It was Toastocalypse”.

    Sid’s weapon glanced harmlessly off the monster’s backside quills, “Not exactly important right now, Sel!” he dodged another attack, flipping back to avoid the claws before he caught sight of Isdilian just…*standing* there, checking something on his morpher. Uselessly. God Damn It.

    “Hey Chuckles, are we interrupting your facebookscapelistthing or whatever?” Sid called up sarcastically to the silver ranger, “Because if you just wanna stand there while the rest of us fight the ugly porcupine monster, hey, that’s just fine with m—” Sid had taken his attention off the porcupine, and paid the price when its backside threw itself into him. The result wasn’t pretty, and Sid’s smoking form collapsed in a heap several feet away.

    Isdilian sighed, putting his morpher down, “I *had* thought even the four of you might be able to deal with something this low-class, but I suppose not. Very well; stand aside”. In an instant, his shield formed in front of him, and he quickly transformed it into its blaster mode, opening fire on the porcupine. He had no regard for the safety for the green and blue rangers who were currently engaged with the creature, and they were forced to dodge out of the way or be hit.

    “Hey, watch it!” Xolin shouted at him.

    Isdilian said nothing however, instead shifting his weapon into its shield configuration again as he got closer, and pulled out his sword before charging the beast. The sword filled with white energy as he came in close, striking the beast dead-on. Sparks exploded, and the blade slashed clean through the enemy’s hide, his form stumbling back, reeling in pain and unable to mount a resistance as Isdilian flipped overhead and came down the monster’s backside. The beast stumbled forward now, and the silver ranger followed it up with a horizontal cut that sent out a wave of white energy into the monster. It sparked, smoked, and crumpled into the dirt as it fell over.

    Finale time.

    Isdilian sheathed his blade and once again shifted his weapon to blaster mode.

    “Sentinel Cannon!” he shouted, charging his blaster up with energy. A stream of silver cascading light burst forth, firing a beam of holy energy right into the monster’s struggling form, and a second later it exploded in a blaze of glory. Isdilian shifted his gun’s position into a non-firing stance as he watched the blaze for a moment.

    And like clockwork, the remains of the porcupine began to shift and twist, growing together and larger in size until the original monster once again stood before them—only this time forty stories tall.

    “Hahaha! Foolish rangers, now I’ll crush you like bugs!”

    “No, *seriously*” Trok deadpanned, he and the others having regrouped, “It’s like he’s hitting every cliché in the book”.

    Sid ignored him once again, instead speaking into his morpher, “Iota, we got a big one. Send the giant robots”.

    “Don’t bother” Isdilian called to him. He pulled a small device off his belt—the others quickly recognized it as a…toy tank? “I got this”.

    Trok’s eyes widened in realization just before it all happened. It was just like their Guardianzords! And yep, sure enough Isdilian pressed a few buttons on his morpher’s holo-display before tossing the small war machine to the winds. It glowed with white power as it fell away, growing larger and larger.

    “Sentinelzord, online!” With that, Isdilian jumped up into the new vehicle. It was a tank, obviously—and a real one, unlike the APC onboard the ship. It was silver and black in color, streamlined in shape with numerous guns attached—though obviously the largest belonged to the multiple cannons sitting on top of a small arm just off to the left of the cockpit on top.

    “Oh, good” Sid deadpanned, “He brought his own megazord. Because of course he did”.

    “How do you know it’s a megazord?” asked Trok.

    “Lucky guess” Sid replied, still in a deadpan, “Wait for it”.

    On cue, the tank opened with a barrage of firepower on the offending porcupine. It staggered slightly, but pressed forward, braving the onslaught so it could get in close and strike. Realizing this wasn’t working, Isdilian activated the engines. The tank thrust forward at full speed, ramming the monster head-on, impacting it in the abdomen. The monster grabbed it and wrestled with it, giving the silver ranger an easy shot as he again opened fire with all guns. The resulting explosion sent the porcupine flying backwards, over the nearby forest of mushrooms.

    “Sentinelzord, Megazord mode!” the silver ranger commanded.

    “Told you” Sid deadpanned to Trok, who simply shrugged and watched as the tank began to shift and change. The treads folded out into legs as the entire thing stood up so that the underbelly was the chest. The main guns flipped around to become shoulder cannons, and the arms unfolded from the top down, revealing large claws for hands and a square-like head underneath where they had been. The silver and black megazord struck up a pose, before the two titans closed in on the other, locking fists in combat. The pair traded blows, each punching the other, sometimes blocking as they prepared their next offensive.

    Finally Isdilian got tired of this, “Sentinel Megazord, fire!”

    The resulting barrage from the shoulder cannons knocked the porcupine back again, but he quickly rebounded for the next round.

    He wouldn’t get that chance.

    “Sentinel Megazord, Warrior Mode!”

    “Wait, what” Sid asked flatly.

    A familiar red zord flew in from out of the sky, circling around the megazord once before unfolding into battle armor. It was a slightly different configuration than it would have been for the Defender Megazord, but it still worked.

    “What” Sid asked flatly, again, unable to fully grasp what was now happening.

    “He…he can use our zords?!” Xolin gasped, her mouth dropping. This felt *wrong*, like some kind of fundamental violation of personal space laws.

    The megazord’s feet treads activated, allowing it to slide p