|Foreword||One and Two||Three, Four, Five||Interlude I and Six|
|Interlude II, Seven and Eight||Nine, Interlude III, and Ten||Eleven and Twelve||Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen|
Jason’s heart welled up within him as he saw the Zords racing toward him. He was filled with emotions that conflicted and yet were much the same--while there was the sense of having done this so many times before, there was also the excitement of doing it for the first time.
He glanced over at Zack, who nodded. “Here we go,” the Black Ranger said, giving his leader the “thumbs-up”. And then there was no time for talk as the Power Rangers leaped into their mighty automatons and ran their systems checks:
“Zack here--ready to rock!”
“Trini here--primed and pumped!”
“Billy--all systems fully operational!”
“Let’s kick some snake-tail!” Kim declared.
Jason grinned and shook his head. “Okay, Rangers, power up your crystals and let’s roll!” Energy crackled around the Zords as the Rangers slid their crystals into place, supercharging their vehicles with the awesome power of the Morphing Grid.
“Okay, let’s hit Serpentera the way we’d originally planned--all directions at once,” Jason ordered. “First thing is to give Scorpina some breathing room.” Kim waggled her pterodactyl’s wings to signal her okay as she screamed heavenward toward Serpentera. The snake-like Zord easily evaded the enemy attacks as it bobbed and weaved through the air. While Kim kept the monster’s attention focused on her, Trini and Billy maneuvered their Zords directly between Serpentera and Scorpina. Whenever Serpentera attempted to return its attention to its fallen foe, the Rangers opened fire, driving the monster back and allowing Kim time to resume her harassment runs.
Scorpina groaned feebly as she struggled to recover from the effects of the attack. Then she suddenly began to shrink inside, her hideous features fading away as the beautiful armored woman appeared once more. Tommy and Adam raced to her side and helped the battered warrior to her feet. She stared dazedly at Adam for the longest time as they struggled to get away from the battle in progress. “Aren’t you the Black Ranger?” she questioned him as they guided her back to Rita’s small haven.
“We gave Zack and Jason the morphers,” he informed her.
“Oh.” Winston came over with a purloined first-aid kit and began tending to her injuries. Scorpina grabbed Winston’s arm with an iron grip. “Where is my beloved?” she demanded imperiously.
“Out there,” the black Ghostbuster replied, pointing at the battle zone.
“I must ...must help...” she muttered, struggling to rise to her feet, but Winston and Adam pushed her gently back to the ground. Before she could fight them further, Rita came over and tenderly placed a hand upon her daughter’s forehead. Scorpina sighed and fell asleep.
“Thanks,” Winston said to Rita. “I wasn’t looking forward to rasslin’ with her, not after the way she fought out there.” He studied the witch’s face intently; Rita’s brow was furrowed in concentration, and her free hand was balled tightly into a fist. “Are you okay?” he asked, worried.
“I’ll be all right,” she assured him. “Tend to my daughter; I will tend to the battle.”
* * * * *
“Crosswire to B ...connection there ...and here...” Egon yelped as electricity spat from the wiring he’d been manipulating. The Ghostbuster lost his balance and fell backwards, smacking the tiled floor with a loud splat. But he smiled as he looked up and saw that the viewing globe was slowly flickering into life.
Janine was standing beside Alpha’s remains, still gripping her thrower tightly. “Egon, I’m seeing something!”
“I told you I could get it to work.” The scientist rose to his feet and clapped his hands twice, then leaned forward to peer into the hazy picture within the flickering sphere. “They got the Zords. Good. I’d better check the Grid power levels and make sure there aren’t any wild fluctuations.”
Janine winced as she saw fire spew from Serpentera toward the saber-toothed tiger, which leaped nimbly out of the way. “Do you think they can destroy that thing, Egon?”
“I don’t know, Janine.” Egon pushed his glasses up from the edge of his nose and made a few manual corrections to the Grid controls. “But they’ve got a great deal of experience between them. If they can’t defeat Zedd, I’m not sure I know who can.”
Janine shivered and leaned closer, squinting as the picture shimmered...
* * * * *
Jason stormed forward in his Tyrannosaurus, wishing that he were in the Red Dragon instead of this older model. For one thing, it had superior firepower and flight capability; for another ...well, the Dragon was just cooler than this Zord.
“How are we doing, Zack?” he called to his comrade, who was hammering Serpentera at every opportunity with his Mastodon Zord. Blast after blast exploded from its twin tusks, shrieking through the air and pummeling the enemy’s armored hide again and again. Trini, Billy and Kim were keeping up their own steady barrages from their vantage points, but so far all they seemed to be doing was annoying the hell out of Zedd and Zordon.
“We’re holding our own, but sooner or later they’re going to hit back!” the Black Ranger replied.
“Maybe it’s time to switch over?”
“Works for me.” Jason gave the signal, and the five Zords retreated back to his position. From there they activated the Megazord sequence, and within moments the individual machines merged into one mighty mechanical warrior. The Rangers regrouped within the central control area and hurried to their positions.
“Let’s get the Power Sword,” Jason declared, and despite the situation, he smiled beneath his mask, partly because he knew without looking that Zack was grinning too. Megazord’s gleaming weapon descended from the heavens and slipped easily into the giant robot’s right hand. Energy crackled across its metallic body, and thunder boomed.
“All systems fully operational,” Billy reported.
“We’ve got full power,” Kim added. “So, like, let’s skin this sucker for old times’ sake, huh, Jason?”
“You got it, Kim!” Megazord leaped forward, blade flashing in a vicious downward arc. It smashed hard into Serpentera, leaving a gaping wound in the dark Zord. Severed energy cables hissed and spat at the air. Serpentera shrieked with agony and whirled around to attack its foe, but Megazord had already shifted position and struck again further down the snake Zord’s body. Wounded, the monster struggled to ascend out of its attacker’s reach as it had against Scorpina, but Megazord managed to swipe at the back end of the construct, and this time the sword cleaved completely through the creature, sending a section of its tail tumbling to the ground.
“Morphinominal!” Kim shrieked.
“Don’t get cocky,” Jason warned, casting a wary glance at the view screens. “It’s got the air advantage right now. Keep alert, everyone...”
Fire poured down upon Megazord from above. Trini screamed as her station panels sparked and flickered. Jason felt his own controls grow hot under his gloved hands, but he kept his grip and maneuvered Megazord out of the line of fire. But the relief was short lived, because Serpentera screamed and spat another volley of fire down upon its tormentor.
“Damn,” Zack muttered as he struggled with his controls. “What I wouldn’t give for a Zord that had a squirt gun.”
“Jason, Serpentera’s closing in for another shot, thirty degrees north,” Billy warned. The Red Ranger smiled grimly and waited until the last possible moment, then whirled the Zord around and plunged the Power Sword deep into Serpentera’s mouth. Electricity roared through both Zords for an instant, maybe two, then Megazord tumbled lifelessly onto its back, and Serpentera flopped from the sky onto the ground, its crimson eyes dull and unseeing.
“All systems are down!” Zack cried. “Energy overload! I think that one sent feedback into the Grid!” He looked down at his gloves, which seemed to flash out of existence for a moment or two, then returned to full solidity.
“Get this thing up and running!” Jason yelled. He tried to run diagnostics, but everything ...everything! ...was dead. But at least Serpentera was down...
“Oh, shit,” Kim whispered. Jason turned to see her pointing at something outside. When he looked in the direction she was aiming toward, he saw it as well.
Serpentera’s eyes were glowing.
* * * * *
“Rita, you’ve got to do something!” Tommy pleaded. “They’re going to get killed, and all you’re doing is standing here watching!” The witch woman said nothing, merely stared at the fallen warriors impassively, one hand clenched tightly into a fist, the other wrapped securely around her wand.
“Ease up, kid,” Peter Venkman advised. “She’s done quite a bit, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah,” Winston agreed. “I know it’s rough, not being able to join in the action, but you have to face facts--there’s nothing you can do.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Rita abruptly commented. She turned toward Tommy and opened her hand to reveal the Green Ranger’s Power Coin. “It’s time, Green Ranger,” she said softly. “Time for you to rejoin the battle.”
Tommy slowly took the glowing coin in his hand, unsure of whether to believe this turn of events or not. “I ...how did you get it?” he asked, turning it over and over with his fingers.
She smiled. “It’s mine by right, my dear. Remember? When you no longer needed it, it returned to me. And, as I gave it to you once before, I do so again, fully charged with my power and ready to be used ...one final time.” The last words seemed to tire her out; she leaned a bit more heavily on her wand, and a slight sadness drifted across her features.
She gazed out at the battlefield; Serpentera was slowly hovering, an inch or so off the ground. “Go,” she quietly ordered.
Tommy gazed at her for a moment or two, then carefully removed his old power coin from the morpher and replaced it with the one Rita had given him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and cried, “DRAGONZORD!”
* * * * *
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Kim chanted under her breath, her hands flying over her inactive control panels. The other Rangers were similarly engaged, with equal results. She smashed her fist against the dials in impotent frustration. “SHIT!”
“Chill, Kim,” Jason ordered, trying to divide his attention evenly between his control panel and the looming threat of Serpentera. “Billy, give me a status report...”
“Auto-repairs are operational,” the Blue Ranger replied as he worked. “I’d estimate another five minutes or so before we’ve reached minimal operational levels.
“Uh-uh,” Zack retorted, glancing out the main viewer. “We ain’t got five minutes. We ain’t got one.”
“If we leave Megazord, we’re dead meat,” Jason said, biting his lip and glad that the others couldn’t see him doing it. “If we stay, we’re dead meat. Anyone got a third suggestion?”
And suddenly, a long-unheard series of musical notes thundered through the sky. A moment later, and the sequence was repeated.
“No,” Kim and Jason whispered simultaneously as both they and the other Rangers peered out the shattered viewer for the source of the music.
He stood on the wreckage of a nearby building, his emerald uniform gleaming in the sunlight, holding his dagger to his mouth and playing that stirring series of notes once more.
“All right!” Jason yelled. “It’s Tommy!”
* * * * *
Sweat trickled down Egon’s brow as he struggled to keep the Morphing Grid online. His fingers manipulated the controls like a pianist performing the “Minute Waltz”; soft, vague mumbling slipped from his lips as he strove to maintain the link to the Power Rangers. He knew all too well what would happen should he fail.
Janine kept glancing between Egon and the viewing globe. “Egon, that snake-thing is getting back up!” she cried.
“That’s what I get for getting cocky,” the scientist muttered as he caught a sudden plunge in power levels and made the necessary corrections. “Come on, Billy, come on.... get your end back online!”
“Hey, Egon?” Janine had spotted something odd on the viewer.
“I’m rather busy right now, Janine...”
“I know, but ...didn’t someone say that there wasn’t a Green Ranger any longer?”
“That’s right. Tommy was the Green Ranger until he lost his powers.”
“Well, it looks like he found ‘em...”
* * * * *
From the depths of the ocean rose the Dragonzord, shrieking its delight at being awakened after so long a sleep. Water streamed down its shining exterior as the Zord strode purposefully toward the source of its summoning. It stormed ahead with single-minded determination, all but ignoring the devastation around it. Its master called, and as always, it obeyed.
“All right!” Tommy whooped upon spotting the Zord. “Okay, big fella, let’s give Serpentera some major-league indigestion!” He blew a new sequence upon the Dragon Dagger, and Dragonzord replied with a terrifying bellow and a volley of missiles aimed directly at its foe. Direct hit after direct hit smashed into the already-damaged Zord, sending it tumbling back to the ground, where it hit with a mighty crash.
Tommy leaped atop his Zord and slipped into its control room. “Okay, big guy, time for round two!” Dragonzord stomped ahead until it was beside the fallen opponent, then whirled around and activated its tail drill. The air reverberated with a piercing whine as the drill point dug deeper and deeper into Serpentera’s body, sending sparks and flames shooting in every direction.
“Awright, Tommy!” Jason cheered from within Megazord.
“Grid fluctuations have stabilized--we’re back online,” Billy reported.
“Okay, Rangers,” Jason ordered. “Let’s get back into this fight!” The others cheered their approval and set to work. Moments later, Megazord was back on its feet; it knelt down and pulled the Power Sword out of Serpentera with a mighty tug, then stood and resumed pounding on the writhing, screaming Zord with the weapon.
“Not exactly pretty, but it works,” Peter Venkman remarked from where he and the other observers stood.
“Man, they make one heckuva team,” Rocky sighed. Adam nodded glumly.
“Hey, you guys didn’t do too badly yourselves,” Winston reminded them. “It wasn’t your fault that Zordon zapped your Zords.” He grinned at the teenagers. “Try saying that three times fast.”
“Yeah, but...” Rocky shook his head. “We were only brought in to slow the team down. Rita was right.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” the witch interrupted. “Given time, I’m sure Zordon would have found an excuse to get rid of you, too. You were getting quite good with his Zords, you know.”
“Hey!” Adam suddenly yelped. He pointed to the battlefield. “Something’s happening with Serpentera!” As they watched, a sudden explosion drove the attacking Zords backwards, and to everyone’s horror, the evil construct suddenly soared into the air, heavily damaged but looking every bit as dangerous as before.
“Oh no,” Rita murmured, shaking her head. “No, no, no.”
“What is it?” Rocky demanded. “What’s wrong?”
“What I feared would happen, has,” Rita whispered. “Zedd and Zordon have merged with Serpentera. Every bit of their life forces, all of their essence, now resides in that Zord. It’s become more powerful than ever!”
* * * * *
“YOW!” Megazord reeled backward under a sudden onslaught of fire from Serpentera. The Rangers were blinded from the intensity of the blast, and the air inside their control room grew painfully hot, as did their controls. The Power Sword slipped from the Zord’s grasp; out of control, Megazord tumbled wildly about, limbs flailing in every direction, until it tripped and fell backwards into the bay. A gigantic cloud of steam whooshed into the air around the point of impact.
“Everyone okay?” Jason asked, checking his readings. Miraculously, the blast hadn’t done all that much damage--they’d gotten clear just in time.
“Kim’s stunned,” Zack reported, kneeling beside the unmoving Pink Ranger. “I think she hit her head on the back wall.”
“I’m all right,” Trini called out; she stood beside Billy, running damage diagnostics. “We’re still online--a little toasted, but operational.”
“Man, what happened?” Zack demanded. “We had him on the ropes!”
“I don’t know,” Jason declared angrily. “But we’ve gotta get back into the fight. We can’t leave Tommy alone against that thing!”
* * * * *
Dragonzord sent another round of missiles toward Serpentera, but this time the dark construct destroyed them long before they reached their target. Realizing that the worst possible place to be was directly in front of the monster, Tommy guided his Zord around behind his opponent and dug its fingers into a gaping hole near the tail end. To his surprise, an explosion of energy roared through Dragonzord, knocking all the systems offline and sending it crashing to the ground, helpless.
“Uh-oh,” Tommy muttered, rapidly checking his controls for any sign of life and finding none. From the corner of his eye he could see Serpentera slowly coming around for a frontal assault. “Jase, I could use a return favor about now, if it’s not a problem...”
With a mighty rumbling, Megazord returned to the battle at that moment. It stretched out its hand and summoned the Power Sword, which rose from the ground and flew once more into its master’s grip. Serpentera paused in its attack run, unsure of which foe to tackle first, the helpless one or the one still standing, and the Rangers took full advantage of the hesitation, flinging the Sword straight at the Zord’s head.
It bounced off harmlessly with a loud clang.
Undaunted, Megazord again summoned the sword; Serpentera screamed and whirled around to attack, leaving the stunned Dragonzord for later. The Power Rangers stared at the approaching monster and looked to the Red Ranger for a plan of action.
Jason swallowed and tried to think of something--anything--to save their necks.
* * * * *
Ray Stantz turned toward Winston and Peter. “Give me your packs.” They quickly complied. Next he hurried up to Adam and Aisha. “Give me those teleport bracelets,” he ordered; the teenagers took one look at his intense features and surrendered the devices immediately. The Ghostbuster accepted them with a curt nod, then trotted over to where the proton packs were sitting. He carefully wrapped each bracelet around a thrower, then punched in a set of coordinates.
Then he set each pack on “overload”, waited thirty seconds, and activated the bracelets. The packs winked out of sight, to appear instants later on Serpentera’s back.
* * * * *
The explosion was blinding, even with the protection of their helmets. The Rangers winced and turned away from the blast, bracing themselves for the worst ...yet nothing, not even the slightest breeze, struck Megazord. Nearby, Rita smiled grimly to herself and made sure the shield she’d surrounded Serpentera with was holding strong.
About a minute or two later, the smoke cleared to reveal Serpentera lying stunned on the ground, battered and wounded. But a faint glimmer in the eyes proved that the monster was not yet finished, and even now it made attempt after feeble attempt to rise again and attack its enemies. Jason saw the movements and made his decision.
“All right, Rangers,” he barked. “We’ve got a few minutes to regroup; let’s use ‘em. I’ve got a plan.”
“Let’s hear it,” Zack said.
“Just a second.” Jason made a few adjustments to his control panel and pressed one particular button, then turned around to face his friends. Kim was still slumped over in her chair, oblivious to the drama going on around her. “You listening, Tommy?”
“You got it, partner.”
“Good. Okay, I’ve just summoned Titanus. What we’re going to do is merge everything together and form the Ultramegazord. Next, you’re all going to morph back to normal, give me your coins, and get out of here. That’ll give the Zord as much power as possible from the Grid. Then I’ll use Ultramegazord to blow Zordon, Zedd, and Serpentera to the four winds.”
“Jason, this is Egon,” came a voice from a nearby speaker. “I can probably channel the full power of the Grid to you, but I’m not sure how long the connection will hold up. When you do this, you’ll have to act quickly. In addition, someone will need to retrieve Janine and myself from the Command Center; I’m not sure it will withstand the sudden energy drain.”
“I can come get you, Uncle Egon,” Billy assured him.
“Just a second,” Trini called out. “We have a problem.” The Rangers circled around her console. “The automatic targeting systems are down,” she explained, pointing at a particular set of readings. “We can’t set the Ultramegazord to attack, then leave before it starts. Someone has to operate the weapons manually.” She looked up at the others, each of whom was glancing warily about at the others.
Jason shrugged. “No problem. I’ll stick behind.”
“Man, I can’t let you do that,” Zack retorted. “I’ll stay with you...”
“No,” the Red Ranger said softly but firmly. “You all are going. No sense in risking all our necks. I’m leader; I’ll stay.”
“Jason...” Trini began, but Jason cut her off. “We don’t have time to debate this,” he said brusquely. “We’ve got to do it now. Tommy, let’s start the merge sequence.”
“You got it, Jase.” The Rangers watched as Dragonzord came apart before their eyes; its head, shoulders, and limbs stretched out to encircle Megazord, while its remaining pieces came together with the just-arriving Titanus.
“Okay, guys, let’s have the coins.” Jason held out his hand.
Outside, Serpentera feebly lifted its head, then dropped to the ground again with a thud.
Billy surrendered his coin first. “I’m going back to the command center and retrieve Uncle Egon,” he declared, and with a burst of blue light he was gone. Jason placed the Triceratops coin in its slot on the central console and watched the power levels slide upwards.
Serpentera made a second effort, its eyes glowing blood red. Smoke poured from its mouth as it shuddered to keep from collapsing. This time it managed to keep its head up, and with a low rumble the Zord began to work on the rest of its ravaged body.
Zack retrieved Kim’s coin just as she was coming to. “Wh-what’s going on?” she demanded fuzzily, cradling her head in her hands as her uniform faded away.
“We’re bailing,” Zack informed her. He flipped Jason the pterodactyl coin; the Red Ranger snatched it neatly and placed it into the second slot. By the time he’d turned around, the Black Ranger had removed his mastodon power coin and tossed it into the air. “Think fast,” Zack grinned as his friend’s hand shot out to grab the coin.
“Where’s Tommy?” asked Kim, slowly rising to her feet. She stumbled slightly, but Trini was there to lend an arm for support. “God, my head feels like road kill during rush hour...” Zack reached over and took Kim in his arms, pulling her close as he reached for his teleport bracelet. “Time to go, Kim. Tommy will be along in a minute.” He looked up and stared at Jason, then grinned. “Do us all a favor, Jase. Don’t stick around and be a hero, okay? Get close as you can, fire, and bug out.”
The Red Ranger nodded. “You got it.” Zack and Kim vanished in pink and black blurs.
Serpentera rose six inches from the ground, shuddering violently, but holding steady.
Jason turned to find the Yellow Ranger regarding him intently, her arms folded over her chest. “Okay, Trini,” he said as calmly as he could. “Your turn.”
Trini removed her helmet; her eyes, dark and intense, bore into his. “This is suicide, Jason.”
“I’ll be okay, Trini. Promise. Give me your coin.” He glanced out the window and saw Serpentera slowly rising from the ground. “We don’t have much time.”
“I’m not going to let you throw your life away.” If Trini was aware of the impending attack, she didn’t let on. “I know, Jason. I know what’s wrong with you.”
“Nothing is wrong with me, Trini, except you won’t give me the blasted coin!”
Trini shook her head. “Jason, it isn’t worth killing yourself over!”
“I am NOT trying to kill myself!” Jason yelled. “But if you don’t hand over the damned coin, we’re going to both be toast! We’ll talk about this later, but right now, I’m telling you to hand it over and get the hell out of here!”
Serpentera was two feet from the ground; liquid fire dribbled from its mouth.
The Rangers regarded each other silently for a moment or two, then slowly, reluctantly, Trini looked down and plucked her saber-tooth tiger coin from the morpher. Her bright yellow uniform faded away as she handed the coin to her leader and friend. Then, just as he was starting to turn away, she took three steps and hugged him tightly.
“Don’t let this kill you, Jason,” she said softly. “We need you. They need you.”
“I know,” Jason murmured. “I know.”
Trini wiped a tear from her eye, then pressed her teleporter and vanished. Jason popped her coin into its position, then removed his own and slapped it home. The console power levels surged into the red zone. He stared outside and regarded the hovering Serpentera for a long time, then reached for the main controls. “Well, here goes nothing...”
“Not so fast, partner.” Jason whirled around to find the Green Ranger standing there.
“Tommy,” Jason nodded, his mouth dry. Outside, Serpentera rose another foot into the air and slowly turned to face the Ultramegazord. Its eyes grew brighter as it undulated slowly, painfully toward its foe.
Tommy leaned against the doorway. “Don’t you think it’s time you left, partner?”
“Someone’s got to stay to run this thing,” Jason replied. “I’m the logical choice.”
Serpentera was thirty feet away, seven feet in the air. It spat a stream of fire toward the Zord conglomerate, but it fell far short of its target. The reptilian Zord roared pathetically and inched itself forward.
The Green Ranger shook his helmeted head. “You aren’t morphed, Jase. When this thing cuts loose, it’ll blow sky-high. You’ll be killed. Set the controls on automatic, and let’s go.”
“Can’t,” Jason said firmly. “The Megazord’s auto-target systems are out. I have to stay and manually operate the controls.” He stared at Tommy’s bright green uniform for a long time, then swallowed. “Why don’t you give me your coin? We need every ounce of power from the Grid, you know. Kim’s looking for you.”
“My coin won’t do any good,” Tommy replied. “I’m not powered through the grid. That makes me a better choice to handle this than you.”
Jason balled his fists. “You’ve got Kim to think of!” he yelled. “She needs you, man! I...” He looked away, embarrassed and furious with himself at what was almost said.
Tommy placed a gloved hand on his friend’s shoulder and was surprised to feel Jason flinch violently. “You’re my best friend, Jase. More than a friend. From day one. You freed me from Rita’s spell, let me join you guys. We’ve fought together, worked together ...we’re partners, man. I’m not letting you throw your life away like this.”
“Just...go...man...” Jason said, choking on the words. And suddenly he saw stars flashing brightly in front of a black background, and then he saw nothing at all.
Tommy caught his friend as he collapsed from the sucker punch, then activated Jason’s teleport bracelet and stepped back as the Ranger vanished. “Sorry, man,” the Green Ranger said to the empty air. “But I’ve got the best chance of surviving this.”
He glanced up to find Serpentera no more than ten feet away, at eye level. “I hope,” he gulped as he activated the controls.
* * * * *
Klaxons wailed and the Command Center shuddered as Egon poured all available energy into the Ultramegazord. “Egon, we’ve got to get out of here!” Janine wailed over the chaotic symphony.
“I know!” The scientist made a few adjustments to the controls, then stumbled backwards as a tremor rocked the floor. At that moment, Billy appeared, and he wasted no time in drawing Janine and his uncle to him. Seconds later, all three had teleported away, leaving the command center abandoned save for Alpha-5's motionless body, which was crushed minutes later as rubble tumbled down from the ceiling.
* * * * *
Jason stirred with a low groan and slowly rolled over onto his back; his eyes opened to find sky and the worried expressions of several Rangers staring back down at him. “Jase?” Zack said, puzzlement in his voice. “What happened?”
Memories came flooding back. “Tommy,” he replied fuzzily, stumbling to his feet and looking around frantically. His gaze finally fixed upon the Ultramegazord, which was standing firmly in front of Serpentera. The Zords regarded each other for the longest time, as though each was sizing the other up. “Tommy!” Jason repeated, reaching down toward his wrist communicator. But his sharp jabs at the teleport button met with no success.
“The Command Center’s destroyed,” Billy explained. “The relay we used is no longer functional.” He glanced over at Egon and Janine, who were standing beside their fellow Ghostbusters, watching the showdown in progress.
“No.” This came from Kim; she gripped Jason’s arm so tightly she cut off the blood flow. “Jason, no. Don’t tell me he’s in that thing!” She looked over her shoulder toward the Ultramegazord. “Jason, he’ll die if you don’t do something!”
“I...” he began, but suddenly Serpentera bellowed a mighty challenge and stormed forward in one final, all-out attack. The Ultramegazord commenced firing, every weapon blazing and every shot focused on its foe. Serpentera screamed as strike after strike mortally wounded it, but still it roared forward toward its target for one final blow.
“Oh man,” Jason whispered, his eyes focused on the terrible sight and knowing what would happen. “Tommy ...man, get out of there while you still can...”
“His teleport won’t work either!” Trini cried.
Kimberly whirled around toward Rita, a desperate plea on her lips, but the words fell dead in her mouth as she watched Rita struggle to cast one final spell, one that would snatch her Green Ranger from the doom to come...
Rita cried out. She sank to her knees, exhausted beyond measure. The spell she had been casting dissipated.
Serpentera screamed as it closed in on the Ultramegazord, which was still firing with all guns. With one final shriek of triumph, the dark Zord smashed into the mighty construct.
The resulting explosion was too bright to see, too loud to hear. The Rangers and Ghostbusters fell to the ground, eyes tightly shut and hands over their ears as wave upon wave of destruction radiated through the air, through the ground.
And moments later ...a terrible stillness fell upon the area, as thick and suffocating as the dust and smoke that drifted limply on the weary breeze.
The Rangers and Ghostbusters scrambled to their feet and looked around at the devastation around them. The warehouse district, once littered with old, abandoned buildings, had been utterly leveled. Acrid smoke fluttered through the air. Grime clung to their skin and clothing. And not too far away lay the wreckage of Serpentera and the Ultramegazord; where two mighty constructs had battled now lay a massive junkyard, a mountain of jagged and melted metal.
The Ghostbusters surveyed their surroundings. “Wow,” Winston breathed. “Reminds me of Lebanon.”
Peter shook his head tiredly. “If this was a victory, I don’t wanna think about what losing would have been like.” He offered a hand to Janine, who took it gratefully as she slowly rose to her feet. Egon was trying to clean his glasses, but all he succeeded in doing was smearing the dirt around with his grimy clothing.
Scorpina had regained consciousness and was helping Rita up. “Careful,” she warned her mother. “You’re still too weak...”
“Tommy,” the witch croaked. “My Green Ranger, my beautiful Green Ranger...” Kim and Jason whirled around, staring first at Rita, then at each other. And then they were running like the wind toward the debris, the other Rangers right behind them.
“Egon...” Janine said slowly; the Ghostbuster wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. “Egon, there’s no way...”
“I know,” he said softly. “I know.”
“Help me,” Rita ordered her daughter. “I must be there when...” Her voice broke, and a heavy sob wracked her body.
“Mother, you’re exhausted...”
Rita suddenly regained her composure; only her eyes betrayed her heart. “Take me to them,” she commanded. Scorpina sighed and wrapped a supporting ...or comforting ...arm around her mother, walking slowly enough that the witch could keep up with her warrior child. Glancing at one another, the Ghostbusters followed a moment later.
* * * * *
“What a mess,” Rocky muttered under his breath. The Rangers had broken up into search parties; he and Adam were checking where they supposed the Ultramegazord’s legs had fallen. “This is impossible, man,” he continued softly to Adam. “There’s no way he could have...”
“Hey, he was morphed,” Adam reminded him. “And Rita was doing something right before everything went boom. Maybe she was able to shield him, or she managed to teleport out in time. This is Tommy we’re talking about, Rock. Tommy’s got more lives than a cat.”
“Hope so...” Rocky muttered, resuming his search with renewed vigor. “But I dunno about all this.”
“Rocky!” Kim’s voice rang sharp as shattered glass through the air. He glanced up guiltily at her. “Shut the hell up and keep looking!” she demanded briskly before resuming her own search in the center of the destruction. Jason, who was working with her, gave Rocky a look that was equal parts sympathy and anger, then got back to work himself.
“C’mon, man,” Adam nudged his partner. “Let’s keep going.”
Aisha had insisted on helping out despite her injured arm; while she wasn’t good for much more than poking around the remains with her feet, at least she was helping, and no one had the heart to keep her away. Nearby, Billy and Zack probed around the spot where Serpentera had collided with the other Zord. Something glittery caught Zack’s eye, and he knelt down to investigate. “Hey!” he called.
Aisha and Billy hurried over. “What is it?” the young woman asked.
“Not sure,” Zack admitted. “But I think...” His face fell slightly as he picked up the small, fused objects. “I think they’re the Power Coins.” He held them out for inspection.
Billy nodded glumly. “I’m afraid your assertion is most probably correct.”
Aisha looked away, unwilling to let anyone else see the tears that had suddenly welled in her eyes. She knew ...as the others surely had to ...that if the coins had sustained so much damage in the impact, the odds of finding Tommy alive were worse than slim ...most likely non-existent.
She looked up to find Zack staring at her. “Don’t give up,” he said quietly. “Power Rangers don’t ever give up.”
Egon and Janine came over; the scientist was scanning the remains with his PKE meter. “Looking for discrete traces,” he answered their unspoken questions. Waving the meter over the coins, he pointed at the blank screen. “Your coins, which were powered by the Morphing Grid, are completely devoid of that particular energy frequency. Tommy’s powers came from Rita, though, so if his own coin retains any residual energy, this will enable me to determine his location.”
“Had any luck?” Zack asked hopefully; Egon shook his head, then resumed his trek around the wreckage.
Trini carefully poked and pushed and pulled back the huge, jagged shards that had once composed the Dragonzord ...she thought. It was hard to be certain. The strange thing about the whole situation was that the metal should have still been very hot to the touch, but it was cold ...cold as the grave. She shivered and forced the morbid thoughts out of her mind.
Suddenly Jason cried out; Kimberly turned around and scrambled to his side, her face frozen in a mask of fear. The other Rangers paused in their labors and watched as she raced over to where Jason knelt. They saw Kim reach Jason, waited as she bent down beside him. They saw the look of terrible recognition fill her features, saw her hands cover her face, heard her sobbed denials as she fell into Jason’s arms.
They looked away for a moment, then stumbled through the wreckage to join their friends.
* * * * *
It took half an hour to remove the debris that covered his body. His uniform was in tatters, scorched here and there with ugly black patches. Streaks of dried blood were etched on his exposed skin. He was sprawled out in a position that would have been impossible for a living person to duplicate. Winston, the Ghostbuster with the most medical experience, knelt beside the fallen Ranger and felt for a pulse. Moments later he looked up at Egon and shook his head tiredly.
“No,” Kim whimpered, her eyes wide with shock and disbelief. “No...”
Jason tried to offer a consoling shoulder to cry upon. “Kim,” he started, his voice broken, but without warning she whirled around and smacked his arm away. “THIS IS YOUR FAULT!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO STAY! YOU LET HIM DIE, JASON! ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? HUH? HE’S DEAD AND YOU’RE NOT! DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU! damn you ...” She exploded into a new round of sobs; Trini gently moved alongside her friend and held her close.
Jason glanced guiltily over at Zack, who shook his head firmly and reached out to grip his partner’s shoulder tightly.
“Ohhhhh...” The Rangers and Ghostbusters turned to find Rita slowly approaching. The witch was leaning heavily on both her wand and her daughter; Scorpina appeared to be as calm and composed as ever, but the mask slipped slightly upon sight of the Green Ranger’s body. Rita shut her eyes tightly and shook her head, looking older than ever. The others silently cleared a path for her as she made her way to the fallen warrior.
Kneeling, she reached out a trembling hand and unfastened the helmet, pulling it away to reveal Tommy’s handsome features. His eyes were closed, his expression relaxed and at peace; it was somehow disconcerting, given the violent way he’d died. “Oh, my beautiful Green Ranger,” she moaned quietly. “My lovely Ranger ...once again, I was unable to save you when it mattered most.” Tears slipped down her cheeks, falling through the air and raining down upon Tommy’s face.
Billy quietly moved over to Scorpina and wrapped an arm around her waist; she buried her face in his shoulder and trembled. Kimberly slowly pulled away from Trini and joined Rita beside Tommy’s body. Her fingers danced across his fine black hair, still pulled back and knotted behind his head.
“You could have saved him,” she quietly accused Rita, not able to look the other woman in the eye. Her gaze remained focused on her lover.
“I tried,” the witch sighed tiredly. “Oh, Kimberly, I tried. But I had nothing left ...I gave him what protection I could. It was all I could do ...and not nearly enough.”
“I know,” Kim started to say, but her voice cracked, and once more the tears started falling. Rita reached out to embrace the heartbroken girl, holding her tightly and ignoring her own tears. Aisha found herself embracing Rocky and Adam tightly, lost in her own grief but finding some comfort with her old friends. Zack remained beside Jason, who simply stood there stone still, staring at his fallen friend and saying nothing ...until Kim suddenly turned around and held out her hand to him. “Jase,” she gasped through her tears. “Jase, I’m sorry.”
Then he was beside her, hugging her for dear life and squeezing his eyes so tightly shut that no tears could break free.
Nearby, Egon was standing with the other Ghostbusters, his PKE meter at his side. He’d forgotten to switch it off, and now its sudden squawk shattered the silence. Blushing at the resulting pointed glares coming his way, he muttered an apology and lifted it up to switch it off. Out of habit, though, he gave the readings a quick glance before shutting it down.
Egon blanched slightly.
Janine frowned and drew closer to him. “What was it, Egon?” she whispered.
“Nothing,” he said, but his voice was filled with uncertainty. “Nothing I want to get into just now.”
The redhead quickly reached her own conclusions. “It’s Tommy, isn’t it?” she said softly. “He’s still here.”
Egon closed his eyes. “It’s a definite possibility. Sudden, violent death ...possible unresolved situations in his life ...it certainly meets the qualifications for a spirit manifestation. But it’s a weak manifestation. He probably won’t stay too much longer. He’ll soon leave for his next destination.”
The Ghostbuster had spoken so softly, he’d thought only Janine could hear him, but Rita’s head snapped around in his direction. “What did you say?” she demanded, the steel and fire back in her voice.
“Uhhh ...nothing,” Egon stammered.
“What did you say?” Rita repeated imperiously, her features growing taut with anger.
“Rita, this isn’t a good time,” Egon pleaded, but when he noticed Rita’s right hand glowing, he decided that discretion was the better part of valor. “I ...may have detected ...a ...spirit ...in the vicinity. That’s all.”
Kim looked up. “It’s Tommy, isn’t it?” She stared into the sky. “Tommy, dammit, get your butt back in here this instant!”
“It doesn’t work that way, my dear,” Rita replied, a smile growing upon her lips. “Not normally, anyway.”
Scorpina stared at her mother, incredulous. “Mother ...no. I know what you’re thinking ...you can’t. You don’t have enough power. It could kill you!”
“Hush, dear. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Do you remember what happened the last time? Do you want to do to Tommy what you did to Zordon?”
“That was different, daughter,” Rita said in dismissal. “I was younger, less controlled. And pregnant with you. Things have changed.” She turned to smile at Kim, whose face was dawning with realization ...and the faintest glimmer of hope.
“Can you?” she whispered. “Can you?”
Rita sighed. “I don’t know, my dear. It won’t be easy, and I cannot do it alone. But I must try ...for you, for Jason, and most of all, for my Green Ranger.” She slowly rose to her feet, leaning heavily on her wand and grunting from the effort. “Rangers. Circle around Tommy, all of you. Hurry. We don’t have much time.” Mystified, the teenagers nonetheless complied. “Good, good,” Rita murmured, then she saw Scorpina drawing near and stiffened. “No, daughter. I forbid it.”
“No.” Rita shook her head firmly. “This spell will be taxing enough on those in the circle. I will not endanger the life of the little one inside you any more than I already have.” Scorpina opened her mouth to protest, but Rita’s hard gaze shut her up. Reluctantly, she withdrew, joining the Ghostbusters a short distance away.
“Very well.” She surveyed the circle of Rangers, then shook her head. “No, no. Kimberly, Jason--you stand on either side of me, here and here--” she pointed to the area between herself and Tommy’s body.
“All right,” Kim said uncertainly. “But why?”
“You two are the focal points. You are both bound to Tommy’s soul--it’s why he tarries here. Through you, we can draw his spirit back into his body and rejoin them. Your love for him will provide focus for the spell as well, boosting its power to heal the body and help him live again. But we must hurry.” She saw Jason blush furiously and look away, embarrassed. “This is no time for lies, Red Ranger. If you love him, you will accept your feelings and help me. The slightest doubt, the slightest denial, could render the spell useless.”
Jason swallowed and slowly turned to meet Rita’s stare. “All right,” he whispered.
“Then we begin...” The Rangers joined hands and were surprised to feel an icy tingle shoot through them. Rita closed her eyes and began to chant in an eerie, inhuman voice, the syllables reverberating through the air. Rocky and Trini, who stood on either side of the witch, shuddered violently and stiffened, their eyes growing wide and vacant. Their free hands slowly stretched forth in obedience to Rita’s unspoken command until they touched her shoulders; her wand, gripped tightly in her hands, flared into brilliant, blinding light.
Rita’s chant grew stronger, her voice husky, almost sexual as the power built up in her. A halo of power flared around the circle of Rangers, growing brighter by the moment. From where she stood, Scorpina watched fearfully, her lips moving in a soundless prayer to any deities who might be listening.
“What’s she doing?” Janine asked softly, her eyes transfixed on the ritual.
“She has bound their life forces together,” Scorpina whispered. “As the energies flow through them, they feed upon each other, growing stronger. When there is a sufficient amount, Mother will release some of the power through Kimberly and Jason, into Tommy...”
Peter shivered. “And what if she doesn’t hit the right amount?”
“Then they will all die.” Scorpina wrapped her arms around herself; Peter took his uniform off and wrapped it around her shoulders, grateful that he hadn’t taken the time to undress before getting into his gear. She accepted the gift with a grateful glance and smile.
“Didn’t she say she’d tried this before, with Zordon?” Janine asked worriedly. “And failed?”
“In a fashion. She was able to multiply the power of her life force ...and mine, of course ...but it was only enough to heal the body, not bind the spirit back into the flesh. And the backlash drove her mad.” Tears clouded the warrior-woman’s vision. “This time she has sufficient power, but she is older and rusty with inexperience. I don’t know if she can do it...”
The halo had grown so bright that the Rangers were lost from view. Inside, Rita shuddered as the energy rippled through her, caressing her essence like a lover. But she remained focused, continued her chant as she slowly extended her wand before her toward Kimberly and Jason. The two Rangers were kneeling, touching Tommy’s still body with one hand while reaching for the wand with the other. The instant contact was made, the power surged forward to envelop their bodies, then flooded the body of the Green Ranger.
In that moment, the Rangers became one, each of them knowing the fears, the hopes and the dreams of the others. In that brief time, there was no shame, no guilt, only acceptance ...and love. Rita harnessed that love and focused it tightly. She stretched out with her soul and saw Tommy’s spirit standing nearby, confused and uncertain. Smiling, she beckoned him forward, reaching out with the love of his friends and providing him with a line to cling to; slowly, surely, his soul took hold of the line and grasped it tightly, allowing Rita to draw him closer, ever closer, to her and his friends.
Rita drew his soul to hers and kissed him tenderly, then gently focused the power line down toward his body. Tommy hesitated for a moment, unsure. Suddenly two new souls came forward, arms outstretched, and he eagerly lunged forward to embrace them. Rita smiled, nodding to herself as she watched them gently place his spirit back into his body.
There was a tremendous, silent explosion of white light emanating from the circle. When the Ghostbusters’ vision had returned, they hurried with Scorpina to where the Rangers lay, flat on their backs and utterly dazzled. At the summit of the ring Rita sat, panting heavily and clutching her wand like an anchor.
“Mother?” Scorpina cried, rushing to her side.
Rita smiled, a smile so bright and wondrous that it was almost too much to bear. “Hoo-eee,” she breathed. “Can I cook, or can I cook?”
“Kids?” Janine asked, kneeling down beside Rocky and Aisha. “You guys okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Rocky nodded absently, grinning broadly. “I feel great!”
“Yeah,” Aisha agreed happily. She looked at Rocky and Adam, then lunged forward to embrace them tightly, her arm forgotten momentarily. “I love you guys, you know that?”
The other Rangers were stirring from their reveries, ending up in similar embraces. Only Kim and Jason remained still, their chests rising and falling, but their gazes vacant and expressions blank. Winston gave them a quick once over. “They’re alive,” he said, shaking his head, “but it’s like they’re not really here.”
“It’ll pass,” Rita assured him. She pressed a hand against Scorpina’s belly and smiled. “A daughter, and with the power, no less. Very nice, Lami, very nice. Then again, he is a Spengler. Comes with the territory, I suppose.”
“Mother,” Scorpina whispered, her eyes locked on Tommy’s body. “Did it work?”
As if in reply, Kimberly and Jason slowly stirred, turning to face Tommy.
Tommy’s fingers twitched.
His chest rose, then fell, then rose again.
His eyes slowly flickered open.
He rolled over to face his two best friends, who were smiling and crying all at once.
And then he opened his mouth:
“Did we win?”
“Dr. Venkman, I don’t know what you’re so upset about.” Janine shut the faucet off and briskly walked over to the coffee maker, pouring the water into the machine and setting the container in place. “I thought it was very nice of Rita to open up that space/time portal so we didn’t have to buy extra plane tickets home. And think of all the money we saved, not having to ship Egon’s equipment back!”
“Janine,” Peter said to his receptionist, who had returned to her desk and was now filing her nails. “I do appreciate what Rita did for us. I am grateful beyond measure that she zapped you, Egon and his toys back here. But in case it’s escaped your notice, we’re now out four packs. Do you have any idea how much it costs to replace those things?”
“Hmmm.” Janine pretended to ponder the question, then whipped out an envelope from her purse. “About this much?” She waited for Peter to rip the envelope open and study the contents, then smiled as the expected gasp of astonishment whooshed out of her boss. “Thought so,” she nodded, examining her left hand critically.
“Where ...where did Rita get that much money?” Peter wheezed, his hands trembling.
“Oh, that’s the funny thing. After the big battle, most of Angel Grove was in really bad shape, so she borrowed some money from Scorpina--nice thing about being a demi-goddess, you can really clean up on long-term investments, y’know?--and picked up some primo real estate for a song. Then she sold it to some of the fast-food joints, department stores ...I think she even nailed a Wal-mart for the town. She’s really good at financial wizardry, let me tell you!”
“I bet,” Peter nodded.
“Oh, and she also bought the two return trip tickets from us. Said she could use them, and knew you’d appreciate the money. Classy lady.” Janine started sorting the mail, which had been piling up quite a bit in her absence. “I’d keep an eye out for her in the Wall Street Journal, if I were you.”
Peter snorted. “Oh yeah. ‘Rita Repulsa, the Witch of Wall Street’. Has a real zing to it.”
“Actually, she’s going by the name Machiko Soga these days.” Janine handed Peter his mail, then got up to place the others’ letters and magazines in their baskets. “She liked the name Scorpina had been using so much, and since she was technically Piniko’s mother...”
“That reminds me. How did Billy’s parents react to the big news?” Peter poured himself a cup of coffee and returned to the desk, where Janine was now calling up the accounts receivable program on her computer.
“Oh, not too bad, after the initial shock was over. I mean, really and truly, what could they say? Billy’s obviously in love with her, she’s really very sweet and charming when she wants to be, and she’s got money out the wazoo, so that’s not a problem ...Billy agreed not to get married until after graduation next year, then they’re going to live in Boston while he attends M.I.T. They’ve already offered him a full scholarship, you know.” Janine was clearly proud of her hopefully future nephew-in-law. “So I gave Scorpina Mr. Corey’s phone number--you know, the guy from the Banzai Institute who lives up there? He owns a couple of rehabbed brownstones around Cambridge, and I’m sure he’d be happy to sell one to them.”
“Happily ever after, huh?”
“That’s the only way any story should end,” Janine said firmly. Peter glanced up at the sound of the front door opening; a lovely young woman with dark skin and sleek ebony hair had just come in, and was walking toward the desk. Something about her set off his internal alarms, though, and after a quick second inspection he realized why--cop. The bulge under her jacket was barely noticeable ...unless you were used to working with the police.
Janine turned her attention to the visitor, smiling warmly. “Can I help you?”
Peter wasn’t surprised when she pulled a badge out of her jacket. “Elisa Maza, Detective, NYPD. I was wondering if Dr. Stantz was available?”
“I’m pretty sure he is,” Janine said. “May I ask what this is about?”
Maza looked hesitant. “Well ...I’ve got some ...friends ...who saw some messages he left on a computer network ...and they asked me to talk to him...”
“Sure. No problem. I’ll buzz him.” Janine reached over for the intercom; Peter, meanwhile, favored the detective with his most charming smile. “Good luck talking to Ray,” he cautioned teasingly. “He tends to get obsessed with things from time to time, and right now, unless you’re going to tell him about gargoyles flying around New York City at night, you won’t get much out of him.”
“Heh. Gargoyles. Imagine that,” Maza said, looking a bit sick to her stomach.
* * * * *
“Now, this will be the dojo’s main function room, and we’ll have locker rooms here and here.” Machiko Soga, also known as Bandora, also known as Rita Repulsa, pointed at several boxes on the blueprints she had spread out across the table. Tommy stood beside her, trying to take everything in, but to be honest, he was still overwhelmed by everything she had said so far.
They’d commandeered a table at the Youth Center, oblivious to all the activity going on around them. Angel Grove had recovered remarkably well to the devastation brought by the terrible battle. Buildings and houses were flying up from the ground, and the new businesses were booming. It was as if a wave of good fortune had swept through the town.
“Your office will be here. Complete facilities, of course. And we’ll put a few other offices here for a receptionist and a bookkeeper--you might encourage Kim to take that up. I think she’d be quite good at it.” Rita flashed him a bright smile and patted him maternally on the shoulder. “What do you think?”
Dazed, Tommy shook his head. “Rita, I don’t know what to think. I mean ...a dojo of my own ...that’s a heckuva lot of responsibility!”
“Well, keep in mind it’s not yours yet, technically. I’ll own it and run it, setting aside a bit of your salary each month to go toward buying me out, and a little for investing. But it will eventually be yours.”
Tommy smiled and looked deliciously bashful. “Rita, I just don’t understand why you’re doing all this for me, that’s all.”
She reached up and stroked his cheek tenderly. “Because you’re my Green Ranger. That’s why.”
He shrugged ruefully. “Not any more, I’m afraid.”
“You will always be my Green Ranger, Tommy. Always.” She smiled again and pulled a second sheet of blueprints out from under the first. “Now then. This is the second floor. Your living quarters. All the amenities you’ll need, for yourself, your wife ...and your children.” She glanced up and winked at him, and was rewarded with a deep blush.
“Oh, that won’t be for a while,” he retorted.
“That’s what they all say, my dear.” Rita and Tommy looked up across the room, where Adam and Rocky were instructing a group of lovely young women in self-defense. Or that was the idea. Mostly the class consisted of the girls giggling and ogling the teachers, and the teachers doing their level best to be thrown and pinned to the mat by their students. A good time was being had by all.
“I hope I can find some better teachers than them,” he said with a grin.
“You hire them, you’ll have no shortage of students, believe me,” Rita replied. “So, where’s Kimberly?”
“She said something about having to pick some stuff up for her new job,” Tommy replied. “And she had to meet someone at the airport. I don’t know--she never tells me anything.”
Tommy frowned. “I don’t know. I keep trying to talk to him, but . . .” He shook his head. “Rita, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was trying to avoid me.”
Just then Ernie walked up to them, a huge shake and a cup of tea on a tray. “I thought you might like something,” he said, smiling.
“Thanks, Ernie,” Tommy said as he slurped down a huge gulp. Then he frowned; there was something odd going on between Rita and the chubby owner of the youth center.
“My favorite blend of tea,” Rita said, a small smile curving her lips. “I’m flattered you remember, innkeeper.”
He nodded in acknowledgement. “It’s been some time, my lady. But I never forget a customer.”
“Uhhh ...you guys know each other?” Tommy asked pointedly.
“Oh yes,” Rita nodded, the grin broadening. “From a long time back. Ten thousand years back, give or take a century.”
“I’m flattered you remember me, Bandora,” Ernie replied.
“Ernesto here came to Japan and opened the most wonderful establishment--the people flocked in droves to his place, in hopes of somehow getting in and being blessed with his matchless hospitality.” Rita sipped her tea and savored the taste. “I’m pleased to see that some things never change, my friend.”
Tommy was really trying hard not to gape, but he was losing the battle. “Are you telling me that Ernie’s immortal?”
Ernie winced. “I hate that word. I really do.”
“It takes a long time before someone earns the right to be called immortal, my dear,” Rita explained. “Ernie’s been around for quite some time, yes. But all that means is that he hasn’t found anything that’s killed him yet.” She glanced slyly at her old friend. “I’m surprised Dr. Spengler didn’t flush you out, Ernesto.”
“Oh, he almost did,” Ernie replied, wiping some imaginary sweat from his brow. “Thought I was going to wet my pants when that meter of his went off in my direction. Fortunately you and Jason distracted him and got him off my scent.”
“Right. So, uh, Ernie,” Tommy cut in, anxious to change the topic of conversation. “You worried about that new McDonalds opening up down the street?”
“Nah, not really,” Ernie replied with a shrug. “I’ve been here a long time--kids like coming here, to eat, to work out, to watch one another--” There was a long ring of laughter; they looked over to find Adam securely held down by three lovely young women who clearly had no intention of letting him up for awhile. “It’s a neat place for kids to come to,” Ernie added. “I’ll be okay.”
Just then Bulk and Skull came stumbling into the juice bar. They were wearing ill-fitting McDonalds uniforms, right down to the paper hats, and their faces were buried in their orientation manuals as they struggled to perfect their litany: “Can I take your order?” “For here or to go?” “Can I Super-Size that?” “You want fries with that?”
“And besides,” Ernie concluded with a shrug. “I have higher hiring standards.”
* * * * *
To her credit, Angela listened to every word Zack had to say without interrupting. When he’d finally finished, she stretched out along the blanket they’d laid out and stared up into the warm, sunny afternoon sky. “So that’s your story,” she said.
“Yup,” he nodded. “And I’m stickin’ to it. Every word.”
She looked at him carefully, studying his features. “You were the Black Ranger.”
He nodded again. “One of them, anyway. Kind of appropriate, I always thought,” he added with a grin.
“You know,” Angela noted, “if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were telling the truth.” She reached over and grabbed a chicken breast from the bucket they’d brought along and took a bite. “Yuck,” she said, making a face. “Your mother’s stuff is much better.”
“Uhh, that is mom’s chicken,” Zack pointed out. “We had an empty bucket left over.”
“She let you eat food she hadn’t prepared?” Angela sounded utterly incredulous.
“Hey, it was her bowling night, and Dad didn’t feel like cooking.” Zack shrugged and smiled hopefully. “So ...what do you think?”
Angela waited a while before answering. “Well, it explains a lot of things, such as your sudden absences and lame excuses,” she said slowly. “But ...what are you going to do now?”
Zack stared out across the field; kids were playing frisbee, rollerblading along the paths, jogging, flying kites ...normal things, things he’d done himself before that fateful day he’d been brought into the Command Center. “I don’t know,” he finally replied. “Still gotta graduate, of course. Probably go to college, decide what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
“That could be pretty difficult,” Angela pointed out. “When you’ve gone out and saved the world a few times a week, it kind of makes a 9-to-5 job pretty mundane in comparison.”
Zack chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it does.” He turned suddenly so that he could look into her dark, beautiful eyes. “But I’ll tell you one thing I’d like.”
She smiled and drew just a bit closer. “What’s that?”
“Well ...I’d really like for you to come along and help me find the answers to those questions.”
“Funny.” Angela kissed him softly on the lips. “I was hoping you’d say that...”
* * * * *
Somehow, Trini wasn’t surprised to find Aisha waiting for her on the front steps. The dark-skinned girl was busy squeezing her ever-present rubber ball in her left hand; with her right hand she waved and grinned cheerfully as Trini’s mother parked the car, then waited until she was alone with her fellow ex-Ranger before speaking. “So, how’d it go?”
Trini shrugged. “I don’t know. Okay, I guess. The doctor recommended a psychologist, and did her best to keep my mother from freaking out.” She smiled ruefully. “She found it hard to believe that her ‘perfect little girl’ might be screwed up in the head.”
“You aren’t screwed up,” Aisha declared firmly. “You have a problem, that’s all. No shame in that. And you’re getting help for it. No shame in admitting you need help.”
“Maybe. I just sometimes...” Trini sighed. “Sometimes I wish that things were still like they were. It was so much simpler, so much easier, than now. ”
“Can’t go back, girl. Only forward.” Aisha paused in her ball-squeezing long enough to give the sphere a hard bounce on the front walk; she snatched the ball on its return with her left hand, wincing a bit as her fingers tightened around it.
“How are you doing?” Trini asked.
“Oh, better,” Aisha conceded cheerfully. “You would not believe the two docs from the Banzai Institute who checked me out. Midnight and New Jersey themselves.” She sighed wistfully. “I hope I never completely recover, just so I can have those two give me complete physicals. Mmm-mmm!”
Trini smiled and shook her head. “You’re impossible.”
“I try.” Aisha rose to her feet. “Now, what do you say we head over to Ernie’s and see what’s going on? If we act pitiful and pained enough, we ought to be able to con Adam and Rocky into paying for a couple of fruit shakes.”
Trini frowned. “I’ve got money, Aisha.”
“That’s not the point, girl!” Aisha shook her head in mock despondency, then her face brightened. “Okay, how about this--I con Adam and Rocky, and you can con Ritchie ...I think he’s working there today.”
“I ...think that’s a bit more acceptable,” Trini said slowly, a smile of her own finally breaking free.
* * * * *
Jason checked his luggage in at the ticket counter, then started toward the boarding gate. But something made him pause in front of the window that looked out over Angel Grove; he stood there for a few minutes, staring at his hometown as if he could somehow burn the image into his memory. It bordered on the miraculous, how quickly the city had recovered from that awful attack. If only he could recover as quickly from everything that had led up to that day...
He sighed and turned away, clutching his tote bag with one hand and striding purposefully toward the gate. He passed through the security screen with no problems--strange how that hadn’t been there last time--and started mentally counting off the gate numbers as he passed them. His pace picked up with every step, as if it could somehow get him away from Angel Grove any faster. He found Gate Eighteen and gave the waiting area a quick glance--good, none of them were around. He was going to get out of here without any fuss at all.
Jason’s heart sank at the sound of that voice, the voice he knew all too well. Turning around, he found Kimberly standing along the opposite wall, tapping her foot expectantly. She was dressed in a professional-looking pink jacket, matching skirt, and white blouse. A bright pink briefcase was sitting beside her. Her arms were folded over her chest, and she had that look on her face, the one he’d seen aimed at Tommy so many times when he’d said or done something he shouldn’t have, or worse, not said or done something he should have. It was a look calculated to send the recipient down on his knees begging for mercy. And it was aimed straight at him.
“Nice try,” Kim said.
“Uhh, hi.” Jason realized it had been foolish to hope for a quick, quiet getaway; he should have known that Kim would have either found out or anticipated him. “So ...what are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” She picked up her briefcase and walked over to where he stood. “What are you doing here?”
Jason smiled weakly. “I guess you didn’t hear. Ms. Melnitz called her cousin--she’s a nurse at the Banzai Institute--and she got me an interview. They’ve offered me a summer internship as a martial arts instructor.”
“No. I hadn’t heard. That’s very nice.” You could all but taste the anger seething just under her voice. “Pity you didn’t bother to tell any of us about it. We could have given you a really neat party to send you off.”
“It’s no big deal,” Jason rushed out. “I mean, I’ll be back in the fall...”
Kim shook her head sadly. “No, you won’t.”
“Of course I will...”
She puffed a strand of hair off her face in exasperation. “No. You’ll find some excuse to stay out there. Like, I’m sure you can finish your senior year there, and then they’ll offer you the post full-time while you go to college, and then you’ll become one of those King Kong Cavaliers or whatever they’re called...” Hurt filled her eyes. “This really sucks, Jason. I thought we were friends.”
“Kim, we are friends...”
She jabbed a finger into his chest. “Friends don’t pull crappy stunts like this, Jason. They don’t sneak off and leave everyone wondering what they did to make someone act like that. Don’t you care how this is going to hurt all of us ...how it’s going to hurt Tommy?” He cringed involuntarily at the sound of Tommy’s name, and Kim pounced on it like a ravenous tigress. “For God’s sake, Jason, why don’t you just come out and admit it?”
“Admit what?” he snapped.
“That you’re in love with Tommy!” Kim’s hand shot to her mouth the instant the words tumbled out, and she looked around quickly to see if anyone had heard. Fortunately the area was pretty much deserted ...but from the agonized expression on Jason’s face, one too many people had heard her. “Jase ...I’m sorry.”
“No,” he whispered. He looked away frantically. “No.”
“Jase...” Kim let her briefcase fall to the floor and wrapped her arms around her trembling friend. “Jase, it’s okay. Really. I understand.” She tried to smile. “Like, I ought to, y’know?” He was still shaking his head furiously, as if it could take the words away. “Jason, I’m sorry ...please, talk to me?”
“How...” The words were choked. “How did you know?”
Kim looked around, spotted some empty chairs, and guided Jason to them. “I ...think I’ve always known, to be honest. I mean, you guys were, like, this!” She wrapped two fingers around each other. “And when he left after he lost his powers, you were so ...so lost without him around ...I just kind of thought that, like, maybe he meant as much to you as he did ...he does ...to me.”
Jason’s head sank down into his chest. Kim wrapped her arms around him, pressing her head against his. “And when we were in that weird thing with Rita,” she continued softly, so that only he could hear, “I ...I don’t know, it was like I, well, touched your soul or something, and then ...I knew.”
“I don’t know what I feel, Kim,” Jason sobbed into his chest. “I don’t like this, I don’t want to feel this way...”
“It’s okay,” she told him, kissing his hair and stroking it maternally. “There’s nothing wrong with loving someone, Jason. I mean, like, so what if you love a guy? It’s no big deal...”
“It is to me,” he groaned. “It’s ...wrong....”
“Like, that’s bull. Love can’t be wrong, Jason. Geez, where did you come off with that? Parochial school or something?” Despite his turbulent emotions, Jason actually chuckled at that. Kim took it as encouragement and went on: “Jase, why don’t you stay a few more days and talk to Tommy--really talk to him? Tell him how you feel?”
His head shot up; he stared at her, red-eyed and horrified. “I can’t tell him that!”
“Why not?” she demanded. “What do you think he’ll do, punch you out?”
“Maybe,” he conceded with a rueful snort. “Or laugh at me.”
“You might be surprised, Jason. Tommy really thinks a lot of you, and he’s not nearly as dense as everyone thinks. But Jase ...you’ve got to face up to this and resolve it. Otherwise it’s going to sit inside you and eat at your guts, and you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life.”
He looked at her for a long time. “Considering we’re talking about your boyfriend, you’re taking this awfully well.”
She grinned and shrugged. “Hey, like it’s not hard for me to understand how you feel, y’know? Besides, like I said, he might surprise you and invite you over some night and...” She waggled her eyebrows suggestively. “Sleazy threezies, y’know?”
She grinned naughtily. “Hey, I sure wouldn’t mind...” Jason shook his head, but he was smiling again, and that was her goal ...well, partly. One had to do a little seed-planting every so often...”Jase, please stay another day or two. I know damned well you don’t have to be there for another week.” At his questioning look, she smiled. “Rita. Biggest blabbermouth around.”
Jason took a deep breath, let it out, took another, let it out. “I can’t,” he finally said softly. “I ...Kim, I need some time away. I have to get my head together about everything, including this. I can’t think things through here, not with him here. I’m sorry.”
“He’s going to be really hurt that you left like this, without saying good-bye.”
“I know, but I don’t think I can look him in the eye and lie like I did to you.”
“No kidding,” she snorted. “You never could fib, you know.” She sighed and gave him one last hug, then rose briskly to her feet. “Well, I guess I’ll have to let you go,” she said with forced cheerfulness. “I’ve got to get started on my new job.”
“Oh?” She proudly turned her briefcase around so Jason could see the lettering. “Oh, Kim,” he chuckled, shaking his head in dismay. “Mary Kay cosmetics?”
“Why not?” she demanded. “I’ll have you know they think I can be a star salesperson. And I will be.” She grinned and leaned closer to him. “I’m gonna win me one of those pink Caddies, wait and see.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he conceded, smiling. Then he gasped as she leaped into his arms and hugged him for dear life. “Come back soon,” she pleaded softly as she kissed him on the cheek. “Please.”
“I will,” he promised, surprised at how he truly meant it.
“You’d better,” she warned, waggling a finger at him. “Tommy’s already decided you’re going to be Best Man.” She hugged him one last time. “Take care, Jason. I mean it. Call if you want to talk. I love you. We love you.” And there was no doubt who she meant by “we”.
“I will, Kim.” She hugged him one last time, then picked up her case and walked off, pausing only at the security gate to turn and wave. Jason watched her vanish through the door, then sighed, flopped down into the nearest chair, and waited for his flight to be called.
* * * * *
To his surprise, he managed to get a window seat, the one that was positioned next to the right wing emergency exit. He had no way of knowing that this was Dr. Spengler’s preferred position, the better, so he claimed, “to make sure nothing might be chewing on anything important during the flight”. He watched the ground crews scurry about below and tried not to think about his family, his friends, Kim or Tommy, or the fact that he might never see any of them ever again.
“You’ll come back eventually.” Jason whirled around to find Rita sitting beside him, placidly playing a game of Solitaire on her laptop. She was dressed in an impeccable yet strangely sexy power blue suit, her silver hair professionally trimmed into a striking style. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember hearing her sit down. But there she was, smiling enigmatically to herself.
As she moved her trackball smoothly about the screen, her eyes riveted on the game, she spoke again: “You’ll return. You have to. You are bound to them, just as they are bound to you. And,” she added as she moved the final card into position, “you will never truly be happy unless you are with them.”
“A lot of people go through life not being happy,” Jason replied, his eyes returning to the window. The ground crew had scattered, and the plane was starting to move toward the runway.
“You are not ‘a lot of people’,” Rita retorted, glaring at the stewardess who had just asked her to shut her laptop off during the flight. “You are a very special young man, Ranger or not. You have a special destiny, and trust me, it lies with Kimberly and Tommy. No matter how hard you fight it, sooner or later your destiny will return you to Angel Grove ...and them.”
“You sound pretty sure of it.”
Rita smiled. “I’m a witch. We know karma when we see it.”
“Maybe,” Jason finally conceded. “But for now, I just want to go somewhere and get things straight. Is that asking so much?” The plane was speeding up, slowly ascending into the air. For a brief moment Jason was the Red Ranger once more, the master of the Red Dragonzord, flying headlong into danger and loving every minute of it. Then the memory faded, and he was back in the plane, talking to a ten thousand year old woman who was entirely too smug for her own good.
“You’ll see,” she said enigmatically. “I have.” Rita smiled one more time, then pulled a manila folder out of her briefcase and started to read.
“So...what are you looking at?” he asked casually.
“Oh, a few prospectuses,” she said without looking up. “I’m looking for a few good opportunities.”
“Found anything worth investing in?”
Rita nodded. “The nine of you, for openers.”
Chuckling, Jason turned to look out the window; Angel Grove was growing smaller and further away with every second, and he suddenly felt very vulnerable. His old life was closed and put away, and his future beckoned, dark, mysterious and exciting. But that was several hours and another coast away.
Sighing one final time, he pulled down the window blind, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
|Foreword||One and Two||Three, Four, Five||Interlude I and Six|
|Interlude II, Seven and Eight||Nine, Interlude III, and Ten||Eleven and Twelve||Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen|