Rangers in Space: Chapter Fifteen

Unlikely Attractions

 

Darkonda paced back and forth within a dark cave. The cave’s planet had no name. The system itself was given a numeral designation only. It was the perfect meeting place for the vile creature.

 

Beams of energy flashed before the villain and faded to reveal a humanoid woman. Her eyes were solid white, and her long hair was fiery red.

 

“What took you so long?” Darkonda asked.

 

The woman bowed mockingly. “I did not mean to keep the almighty and powerful Darkonda waiting.”

 

Darkonda tensed at the joke. “Have I ever found you amusing, Telsa?”

 

“I suppose not,” Telsa said as she lifted her head. “Now…why have you brought me here?”

 

“It’s quite simple,” Darkonda said. “Every being with at least half a brain cell knows this galaxy will belong to Sauron soon. I plan to be at his side when that happens.”

 

“What about Astronema?” Telsa asked. “He’s taken quite a fancy to her. Rumor has it that if he had a body…well…you get the point.”

 

“She’s a child,” Darkonda said, a villainous smile spreading across his face. “Besides, that’s where you come in.”

 

Telsa arced an eyebrow at the creature. “You must be joking.”

 

“Not at all,” Darkonda said. “I’ve been doing research, and-”

 

“Doing research, or torturing people until they do research for you?” she asked.

 

Darkonda waved his hand dismissively. “It’s the same thing, really. Now…Astronema, it seems, draws all her power from the magick. Killing her is as simple as striping that power.”

 

Telsa laughed and shook her head. “You always have been insane.”

 

“That’s besides the point,” Darkonda said. “I have a plan, my white-eyed vixen, and you’re going to help me…”

 

Darkonda extended his hand and fired jagged energy lashes that whipped across Telsa and slammed her against the cave wall.

 

***

 

The Astro Megaship was in orbit around Aquitar. A fleet was amassing in orbit around the watery world in preparation for a massive assault against Sauron.

 

The rangers had left the Megaship for the world’s capital city, called Gungan. The city was an intricate layering of bridges, walkways and buildings, all surrounded by a massive energy dome. The dome separated the city from the Nebian Sea just outside.

 

Tommy and his rangers had met with the Aquition ranger team, one of whom they had already met during their time as Zeo Rangers. Tommy had expected to run into Billy on the water world, but the Kirin Ranger was nowhere to be found. No one, it seemed, was sure where Billy was.

 

The rangers weren’t in the city long before it came under attack. Namor, a prince who lived in the dark waters, had been fighting the Aquitions for years.

 

Namor’s forces infiltrated the city. The grunts were creatures that resembled fish/lizard hybrids. Their scales formed blades across their forearms and heads.

 

The Earth and Aquition rangers joined together and readied their morphers as the creatures advanced.

 

“Alright guys…” Tommy said. “It’s morphin time!”

 

“Install, Astro Ranger!” the team shouted as they keyed in their transformation code and morphed into their Ranger forms.

 

“Astro Red!”

 

“Astro Black!”

 

“Astro Blue!”

 

“Astro Yellow!”

 

“Astro Pink!”

 

“Digital Task Force…Astro Rangers!”

 

The Aquitions readied their morphers. Each brace was engraved with the symbol of a mythological water-dwelling beast. “Aqua Beast, rebirth!” they shouted while slapping their braces’ activation panels.

 

“Sea-Dragon Ranger!” the red-armored Ranger shouted.

 

“Griffandor Ranger!” the black-armored Ranger shouted.

 

“Pegasaur Ranger!” the blue-armored Ranger shouted.

 

“Mermaid Ranger!” the white-armored Ranger shouted.

 

“Water-Bird Ranger!” the pink-armored Ranger shouted.

 

Namor’s soldiers leapt forward to attack the Ranger teams. Each reptile secreted dripping poison from its fangs and fins.

 

Astro Red leapt forward with a flying sidekick, smashing his heel against a soldier’s chest and cracking the grunt’s ribs and bone. Another soldier charged towards Astro Red when the Ranger landed. The villain spun through the air while holding its fins out to strike.

 

“Back off, fish face,” Astro Red said, slamming a reverse sidekick against the creature while it was still in midair. The grunt’s body was whipped backwards and fell to the ground.

 

Another trio of soldiers moved in to attack Astro Red, and their mouths were wide open to bite down on the Ranger.

 

Sea-Dragon Ranger leapt forward to Astro Red’s aid.

 

The Red Aquition Ranger extended his hands like claws and slammed down on both sides of a grunt’s neck. He followed by drawing his slender blade and turning to his right, running the sword through a creature from its right shoulder to the left side of its hip. Sea-Dragon Ranger pulled the sword free and swung hard to his left, decapitating the third creature’s head with a single strike.

 

Griffandor Ranger leapt forward, slamming his knee upside a soldier’s head. Astro Black moved in besides the black Aquition Ranger, twirling his staff and bashing in a nearby soldier’s head.

 

Pegasaur Ranger descended from the air and double kicked a pair of soldiers before twisting and landing. Astro Blue dove over a soldier’s blow and somersaulted across the ground. He rose and flipped a grunt over his shoulder.

 

Astro Pink and Water-Bird Ranger stood back to back, each extending their fire arm and sending energy blasts ripping through a group of the water-dwelling soldiers.

 

Mermaid Ranger slammed a palm-heel strike upside a soldier’s head and spun forward, slamming a knifehand blow across the soldier’s face. Nearby, Astro Yellow launched a flurry of kicks, bashing her way through a group of four soldiers.

 

Astro Red ran his Drill Saber through the final soldier.

 

“That’s the last of them,” Astro Red said as he tossed the soldier’s unmoving body to the ground.

 

The ten rangers powered down their armor. The Earth rangers were taken slightly aback, still not used to the humid air of the Aquition city.

 

Cestro walked over to Tommy, and the Aquition’s hands were laced calmly in front of his chest. Like all members of his species, he appeared humanoid except for the gills behind his pointed ears. 

 

“I am sorry you became involved in our personal affairs,” Cestro said, his voice think with vibrato. “Namor has become more ruthless since Sauron’s appearance.”

 

“It’s not a problem, Cestro,” Tommy said, placing a hand on the ranger’s shoulders.

 

Kat nodded in agreement. “It’s the least we can do.”

 

“Thank you my friends,” Cestro said as he started walking forward. “Now let us return to the business at hand.”

 

They started walking through the underwater city as civilians passed them by, each dressed in intricate garb.

 

“We are only waiting on Trey’s battle group to complete the fleet,” Cestro reported. “Then we will be ready to deploy.”

 

“We should be going with you,” Justin said with his arms crossed. “You could use some Megazord power.”

 

Cestro nodded. “Our forces will suffice. And you will be needed to keep Astronema off of our backs.”

 

Cy and Zhane walked over to the group while standing a safe distance away from one another. Just because they could work together didn’t mean they liked each other.

 

“We’re done with the modifications,” Cy reported.

 

Updated tactical charts and schematics, and new weapon systems, had been added to the Astro Megaship and Delta Mega. The new weapons included a pair of photonic pulse cannons. The cannons were mounted on the bottom of the Astro Megaship, on what would be the Megazord’s forearms.

 

“Good,” Tommy said. “We should get going…”

 

“Where are we off to first?” Zhane asked.

 

“The Darkknell sector,” Tommy said. “There’s a group of data smugglers hiding out there. They might have information on Zordon.”

 

The rangers said their goodbyes to the Aquitions and launched back into space.

 

***

 

Astronema’s Dark Fortress twirled through the vacuum of space.

 

Astronema sat in her ready room, a field of stars visible from the viewport behind her. Her holographic screen was active, scrolling through information on the rangers and other resistance movements.

 

She found herself slowly running her fingers along the golden locket she wore around her neck. The locket symbolized a part of her life long forgotten.

 

Her ready room doors slid open and Eclipter walked in. The android had served as her lead general and guardian for as long as she could remember. The creature of wires and circuitry was the only constant in her otherwise chaotic life.

 

“Astronema,” the android said. “I have received a message from…Darkonda.”

 

Astronema took notice of the way Eclipter said Darkonda’s name. The hate in his low, metallic voice was evident.

 

“And?” she asked.

 

“He believes a group of information smugglers in the Darkknell sector have information about Zordon’s whereabouts,” Eclipter said. “Information they’re willing to sell.”

 

Astronema tilted her head. “What do you believe, Eclipter?”

 

“That Darkonda is a snake,” Eclipter said. “He is not to be trusted.”

 

“Of course not,” Astronema said. “But he has proved useful, despite his failures.”

 

Astronema rose from her desk and stood upright while gripping her staff. “Set a course for Darkknell. I’ll be speaking to Sauron…”

 

Astronema left the ready room, leaving Eclipter at the fortress control station. The android rolled his hands into fists, silently curing the creature known as Darkonda.

 

***

 

Darkknell Prime was home to quite possibly the tallest trees in the galaxy. They stretched higher than the tallest city skyscraper and formed a complex network of road-width branches more extensive than a large city.

 

Darkonda walked next to Telsa across one of the branches. The sun’s rays didn’t reach the level of foliage they treaded through, which suited Darkonda just fine. He hated the light.

 

The villain noticed snake-like creatures rooted in the trees. The creatures were glowing with faint green light.

 

“Excellent…” Darkonda said as he looked over the snake creatures. “Just as I suspected…”

 

The villain started to laugh and run his hands along the snakes.

 

Telsa shook her head. “This is why I risked my life to bring you here? To pet a snake?”

 

“These are no ordinary snakes, my dear Telsa,” Darkonda said. “These snakes repel The Power.”

 

“What in the name of DaiSatan are you talking about?” she said.

 

“It’s simple,” Darkonda said. “A breed of creatures here instinctively uses the magick to hunt its prey. These snakes project a bubble that pushes The Power back. It’s a defense mechanism. During the days when Zordon was a Ranger, the shed skin of these creatures would harden into black stone. The Onyx Stones were used as a weapon against the Rangers.”

 

“What are you saying, Darkonda?” Telsa asked.

 

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” Darkonda snapped. “We will lure Astronema into these woods. These snakes will render her powerless. Then we will kill her and I will become Sauron’s general.”

 

***

 

Astronema kneeled within her holographic simulation chamber. An illusion shimmered to life and displayed the war-torn landscape of Eltar. The skies were scorched as thunder and lightning exploded across crimson clouds.

 

The landscape below her started accelerating forward towards a tall obsidian castle, piercing into the sky like a spear. The fiery eye of Sauron was on top of the Castle, its gaze cutting through Astronema’s mind.

 

“My lord,” Astronema said. “I have learned of a large fleet gathering on-”

 

Sauron answered with a psionic message, making the chamber rumble like a rushing tidal wave or earthquake. The message was of disappointment. Anger. Frustration. Astronema had failed too many times. Allowed rebel movements to get out of hand. The galaxy should have belonged to Sauron months ago.

 

She had been trained better.

 

Should have known better.

 

Should have been powerful enough.

 

But she wasn’t.

 

She had failed.

 

She was a disappointment.

 

Utter.

 

Complete.

 

Failure.

 

The rumbling intensified as Astronema lowered her head, a tear streaming down her cheek. Her hand instinctively grasped for her locket.

 

***

 

Justin and Kat were leaning against the corridor outside the Megaship’s launch bay/mess hall. Chris walked towards them on his way to the synthatron.

 

“I wouldn’t go back there, pal,” Justin said.

 

Chris raised an eyebrow. “How come?”

 

“Tommy and Ashley,” Kat said. 

 

Justin nodded. “Yep. They’re getting into it…again.”

 

Chris sighed and shook his head. “What started it this time?”

 

Justin shrugged. “Tommy said something about the synthatron running slow…and Ashley interpreted that as him calling her a big fat slob who’s too incompetent to maintain the food processing systems.”

 

“Ah,” Chris said.

 

“Yep,” Justin said. “Common mistake.”

 

“I wish those two would just get together,” Chris said.

 

“And soon,” Justin said. “I’m starving.”

 

***

 

I’m overreacting?” Tommy said defensively. “I am overreacting?”

 

“That’s what I just said,” Ashley said, her arms crossed in front of her. “You catch on quick, Oliver.”

 

“Look,” Tommy said, losing patience. “All I was saying was that the synthatron seemed a little sluggish. That was it. I wasn’t even looking at you when I said it.”

 

“It wasn’t what you said, it was how you said it,” Ashley said.

 

Tommy rolled his eyes. “That is so cliché.”

 

“Meh,” Ashley said as she turned and started to walk away.

 

“Meh?” Tommy said as he followed her. “What kind of come back is ‘meh?’”

 

***

 

The Astro Megaship continued its flight towards the Darkknell sector.

 

Ashley was suspended from the ceiling of engineering, tinkering with a few overhanging wires and conduits. Nothing was wrong with them, she just needed a constructive way to vent. Fixing things was a way for her to cope, since she often couldn’t fix the real problems she faced in life.

 

The engineering bay doors opened and Zhane walked through.

 

Zhane looked up to Ashley. “How’s the view from up there?”

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be more witty?” Ashley said, keeping her eyes fixed on her work.

 

Zhane smiled and shrugged. “I heard you were in a bad mood. I didn’t want to risk awakening the beast.”

 

“Who’d you hear that from?” Ashley asked.

 

“Ashley,” Zhane said, “there are only seven of us on this ship. Word does tend to get around.”

 

“Do me a favor,” Ashley said. “Make yourself useful…bring me a plasma torch.”

 

“Ay-yi, sir,” Zhane said jokingly.

 

“Don’t push it,” Ashley said.

 

***

 

Kat was in the communications room, a small area with a desk and multiple holographic displays. She was sorting through the day’s comm traffic while searching for any mention of Zordon.

 

She rubbed the back of her neck. It was sore from the countless hours of sorting through messages, most of which were barely worth noticing.

 

A chime sounded at the door as Kat looked up from her monitor. “Come in.”

 

The door slid open and Cy walked in with a data pad in hand. He flashed her a smile, as uncomfortable around her as ever.

 

“I brought another transmission log,” he said, setting the data pad on her desk. “Nothing interesting…unless you care about relay station worker 11A’s back problem.”

 

Kat smiled, still rubbing her neck. “Thank you, Cy.”

 

“Did you hurt yourself?” Cy asked.

 

She shook her head. “No, it’s just sore…I think it’s the stress.”

 

Cy took a deep breath. “I could probably help you with that…if you wanted…”

 

“How?” Kat asked.

 

“Meet me in my quarters after your shift,” he said.

 

***

 

The Dark Fortress entered into orbit around Darkknell Prime. Astronema sent a wing of Velocifighters to escort a shuttle up from the surface.

 

The shuttle docked within the fortress, and Astronema was on deck to meet the passengers.

 

Telsa descended the ramp along with a pair of body guards. She stopped in front of Astronema and declined her head.

 

“Princess,” Telsa said. “To what do I owe this honor?”

 

Astronema tilted her head, staring forward at Telsa with eyes like daggers. “You tell me…”

 

Telsa kept her head hung low. “I am afraid I don’t know what you are talking about, princess.”

 

Astronema lifted her hand, signaling her Quantrons to move forward. “Then you won’t mind if I inspect your base. Personally.”

 

Telsa had to stop herself from smiling. “Of course not, princess.”

 

***

 

Kat and Cy sat on the floor of the Kerovian’s quarters on board the Megaship. They were sitting face-to-face in meditative postures, with a candle in between them.

 

Kat smiled with amusement at Cy. “You do this every day?”

 

“Yes,” Cy said, his face turning slightly red. “My mother taught me.”

 

Kat nodded. “You miss her…don’t you?”

 

“Yes,” Cy said softly. “She lived…a difficult life…”

 

“How so?” Kat asked.

 

Cy took in a deep breath. “My family was in the lowest caste. We have no name.”

 

“What do you mean?” Kat asked.

 

“Each Kerovian’s name is two part, meant to say together. What you would call a first name and last name. Zhane, Zay-ne. Andros, An-dros. My family has no last name.”

 

“How come?” Kat asked.

 

“It’s a long story,” Cy said.

 

“Tell me…” she said, reaching forward and taking hold of his hand.

 

Cy nodded, keeping his head low as he told his tale. “It started with my brother…he died in the Kyrana Wars along with the rest of his battle group. He was framed and dubbed a traitor.

 

“A few surviving members of his squadron thought my father was working with the enemy as well. They raided our home. They beat my father to the edge of death and made us watch. Then they put a torch to the place.

 

“I managed to drag my mother and father to safety. We had to live in hiding until the war was over. After that, we stayed in poverty. The rogue soldiers that attacked us were eventually brought to justice. Even so…”

 

Cy shook his head. “I enrolled in the militia as soon as I was old enough. I was hoping to get our name back. A place in our world. Then Sauron came…”

 

“They’d be proud of you,” Kat said. “Of what you’ve done here.”

 

“I’d like to think so,” Cy said.

 

Kat winced as her hand went up to her neck. “This is getting ridiculous.”

 

“Let me try something…” Cy said as he stood and moved behind Kat. He slowly went down to his knees and placed his hands on her shoulders.

 

He slowly started to rub her neck and shoulder. “This might hurt a little at first…”

 

“No,” she said quietly. “It’s good…”

 

She reached up and touched his hand as it rubbed over her neck. She turned her head, and their eyes met. They lingered, losing themselves in each others’ eyes for a moment. He leaned in and slowly pressed his lips against her.

 

“No,” she said sharply, pulling away. Kat shook her head and stood. “We can’t do this…”

 

“I’m…I’m sorry,” Cy said as he stood to. “I thought…”

 

“I’d better go,” Kat said quietly before turning and leaving.

 

***

 

The Megaship speared into realspace around Darkknell Prime. The planet itself separated the Megaship from the Dark Fortress, so the two vessels did not detect one another.

 

The rangers gathered in the bridge and took their stations.

 

“Kat, hail the surface,” Tommy said.

 

Kat manipulated a few controls. “Channel open.”

 

“This is the Sol Starship Macross,” Tommy said, identifying the ship by its latest alias. “Please respond…”

 

The comm was silent.

 

***

 

Astronema’s personal shuttle carried her over the surface of Darkknell Prime. She stood at the forward viewport with Telsa at one side and Eclipter at the other. A group of Quantrons stood behind them.

 

“How much longer?” Astronema asked.

 

“Right here,” Telsa said as she slapped a hidden arm brace and teleported out in a blue of motion. A large explosion ignited in front of the shuttle as blinding light filled the viewport.

 

***

 

The Astro Megaship’s viewscreen blinked on, and an image of a frightening humanoid appeared. His face was mostly bone, with large bone-like plates extending from the top of his head. His eyes were solid black. He flashed what looked like a smile.

 

“We have been expecting you,” the creature said in a contrasting pleasing tone. “We have information you will find useful, rangers. Please follow the proceeding landing path. I look forward to meeting you.”

 

The viewscreen blinked off.

 

“Yeah, it’s a trap,” Justin said.

 

“We don’t know that for sure yet,” Chris said.

 

Tommy nodded. “Chris is right. We can’t start getting scared away every time we get suspicious.”

 

“Hey guys…” Zhane said from his side station. “I picked up something just over the surface. It looked like a large explosion.”

 

“Explosion?” Tommy asked. “What kind?”

 

“I’m not sure,” Zhane said. “Something in the atmosphere is blocking our scans.”

 

Cy looked to Tommy. “We should check it out.”

 

Tommy sighed and nodded. “Zhane, go check out the explosion. Try to stay out of sight.”

 

***

 

Telsa stood before her true leader and held her arms stiffly at her side. Her bone-faced boss was pacing back in forth in front of her. His name was Xon.

 

“Would you mind telling me, Telsa, what the Astro Rangers and Astronema are doing here? And what more…how we let Astronema’s shuttle come under attack and be destroyed?! Do you have any idea what Sauron will do to us now? We will pay for his loss a thousand times over if she is harmed or dead. You have doomed us.”

 

“But,” Telsa said. “We are in a position to hand the rangers over to-”

 

“That would not be playing both sides of the fence, now would it, Telsa. You have betrayed me,” Xon said.

 

Xon reached for his wrist-cuff communicator, but before he could summon his guards, a blur of orange and red slammed into him, knocking him backward. It was Darkonda.

 

The villain materialized, laughing as he crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Now, now…don’t go and do something you’ll regret.”

 

***

 

Astronema used her staff to rise back to her feet. The metal part of her uniform was damaged and slid off as soon as she moved. She looked up to see six soldiers standing around her. Each soldier wore camouflaged combat armor and helmets. They were armed with baton-type weapons.

 

She narrowed her brow and extended her staff towards the lead soldier while calling upon all her anger to strike him down.

 

Nothing happened.

 

She was cut of from the Magick. The Power was gone.

 

One of the soldiers lunged forward and swung his baton towards her head. She lifted her staff horizontally over her head, blocking the blow. She swung the staff, slamming its left end across the soldier’s head and bashing his skull.

 

Astronema followed by spinning forward and slamming a reverse sidekick against another soldier’s ribs. She turned to her right and slammed a knifehand blow against a soldier’s throat, crushing his wind pipe.

 

The other three soldiers pulled out small blasters and aimed at Astronema, triggering a volley of fiery pulse blasts. Astronema whirled her staff to block the blasts. Energy bolts sparked against her weapon and sent her flying off the tree branch and stumbling towards the depths of the forest below.

 

***

 

The five rangers walked across a wide branch while leaving Cy behind on the Megaship. They rendezvoused with Telsa and her guard escort.

 

“Welcome, rangers,” Telsa said while inclining her head. “Xon apologizes for not being able to greet you himself. He is a very busy person.”

 

“It’s not a problem,” Tommy said. “We realize we’re dropping in unexpected…but we have a request. For information.”

 

“But of course,” Telsa said. “Nearly the entire galaxy is aware of your quest to find Zordon. Come with me…”

 

She started walking back towards the main compound. Tommy and the rangers reluctantly followed.

 

***

 

Astronema’s eyes slowly opened as the world around her blurred back into focus. She was sitting against a tree in the darkness with a brown blanket wrapped around her. A young man was several feet in front of her while lighting a small fire. He wore black slacks and a silver shirt.

 

It was Zhane, but she didn’t recognize him. Nor did he recognize her.

 

Zhane looked to Astronema and smiled. “Glad to see you’re awake…”

 

Astronema opened her mouth to answer, but words escaped her. She was still in a daze.

 

“Here…” Zhane said as he walked towards her with a small sponge-type object in his hand. “Drink this…”

 

She reached out and took the sponge. It was dripping wet with a thick liquid.

 

“Careful,” Zhane said. “It’s a little messy.”

 

Astronema slowly bit into the sponge, and fumbled as some of the liquid dripped onto her chin and chest.

 

Zhane smiled at the sight, softly laughing. Astronema smiled back and giggled herself, almost like a child.

 

As if catching herself off guard, Astronema suddenly lowered the sponge as her face grew stern. “Who are you…? Why are you doing this…?”

 

“My ship was around orbit and we detected an explosion,” Zhane said. “They sent me to investigate…I found you not too far from here.”

 

Zhane didn’t tell her about his own crash, which happened after something in the woods rendered his powers useless. The Kerovian stood and pulled out his portable scanner.

 

“The nearest camp is this way…” Zhane said as he nodded towards the distance. “It’s going to be quite a hike…we’ll start when you’re rested.”

 

Astronema glared at Zhane. “I don’t need rest.”

 

The Princess tried to stand, but her arms were to weak to pull herself up.

 

“Not very convincing,” Zhane said with a lopsided grin on his face.

 

Astronema rolled her hands into fists, continuing to glare at Zhane. “I am not amused…”

 

***

 

Telsa led the five rangers through a corridor of small branches and vines.

 

“Our entire compound is grown,” Telsa explained as they continued to walk. “It’s a fascinating process. Perhaps I can arrange for our botanical engineer to give you a brief presentation.”

 

“That’s okay,” Tommy said. “We don’t want to impose any more than we have.”

 

“It’s not a problem,” she said as they continued down the corridor.

 

They passed closer towards a ‘T’ in the corridor. That was when it happened.

 

Tommy felt as if someone suddenly tossed a clamp down on his very spirit. He felt blind, as if The Power itself had suddenly left him. A wave of vertigo struck him and he started to stumble forward.

 

Telsa triggered a device on her wrist, and dozens of security soldiers with stun sticks flooded the corridors.

 

“It’s a trap!” Justin shouted while jump kicking a soldier in the face.

 

Ashley reverse axe kicked a soldier to the ground, breaking his collar bone upon impact.

 

Chris used his left arm to outer block a soldier’s blow and leaned in with a right hook that shattered a soldier’s jaw.

 

Kat slammed an outer crescent kick across a soldier’s temple and knifehand struck a second soldier down.

 

Tommy recovered and turned to his right, slamming a hook kick across a soldier’s chest. He turned to his left and snapped out a backfist blow that smashed in a soldier’s face.

 

The rangers fought hard, but they were overwhelmed by the soldiers. Each stun stick strike wore the rangers down more until they fell to the ground, unable to fight back.

 

***

 

Astronema and Zhane walked through the dark passageways of twisted wood and bark. Zhane was taking the lead as the princess followed.

 

“You know,” Zhane said to her, “you never told me your name…or what you were doing out here…”

 

“You’re right,” Astronema said. “I didn’t.”

 

Zhane looked back at her and smiled. “My name’s Zhane by the way…”

 

Astronema narrowed her eyes and looked away from him, wondering why her face felt flush.

 

“You know,” Zhane said as he continued forward, “a little conversation would make this hike of ours a lot more pleasant.”

 

“Only if by ‘pleasant’ you mean ‘annoying,’” Astronema said. They walked for a few more moments before she spoke again. “Have you considered what we’ll do when we reach this encampment?”

 

“Contact my ship,” Zhane said. “I assume you’ll want to do the same.”

 

“Perhaps,” Astronema said.

 

Zhane pulled out his scanner and did another sensor sweep of the surrounding area. He was picking up strange life signs closing in on their location. The creatures appeared to be traveling in a group of some kind, like a swarm or a herd.

 

Zhane stopped walking and looked back to Astronema. “I don’t suppose you know anything about the wildlife here?”

 

Astronema arced an eyebrow. “I do not…why?”

 

“Because we’re about to have company,” he said.

 

Astronema stepped closer to him. “I don’t suppose you could be more specific.”

 

“No, actually,” Zhane said.

 

A loud buzzing noise cut through the air as the leaves and branches started to shake. The buzzing intensified along with the shaking.

 

***

 

Tommy’s eyes slowly opened, and he found himself staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. He groaned as he sat up, his entire body aching and weak. He still couldn’t feel The Power. Not even the smallest flicker of flame was in his soul. He hated the feeling. He flipped open his morpher, and not a single key command he pressed worked.

 

Tommy sat up on the cold, concrete ground and rubbed the back of his sore head. He was in a small empty storage room. The room’s only features were a vent above and a small metal door. Tommy walked over to the door, but it was locked and wouldn’t budge.

 

“This is insane,” Tommy muttered as he shook his head.

 

***

 

Tommy had no way of knowing that his team was split up in various supply bunkers across the encampment. The smugglers didn’t have prison brigs, so had to make due with keeping the rangers in the large, empty supply closets.

 

Telsa paced back and forth across a pair of supply closets that sat side by side. One held Tommy, and the other entrapped Ashley. The two bunkers were in the open among branches and trees.

 

Darkonda appeared besides Telsa with a streak of yellow and orange light. “Hello my dear.”

 

She crossed her arms in front of her chest and shook her head. “I don’t understand the point of setting up this trap if we’re not going to kill the Rangers…”

 

“Soon,” Darkonda said. “Apparently Astronema was too much for your little toy soldiers to handle. I need her dead before I hand the Rangers over to Sauron on a silver platter.”

 

Telsa shook her head. She wasn’t in the mood to push the issue, but she knew keeping the Rangers alive was a mistake. The longer they lived, the longer they’d have to engineer an escape.

 

“Now,” Darkonda said, “I’m off to find our little lost princess. Do try to stay out of trouble until I get back.

 

***

 

Eclipter lifted himself to the ground while using his sword to stay balanced. The android was heavily damaged from the ship’s explosion, but he was still functioning.

 

“Astronema…” he said softly, quickly scanning the area and finding no sign of the princess. “What has happened to you?”

 

The android was charged with protecting Astronema at all cost. He couldn’t accept that he had failed. She had to be alive. He had to find her. Then he would bring the attackers to their knees and punish them severely for their actions. No one betrayed Astronema and lived. No one.

 

***

 

The grating on the ceiling of Tommy’s storage room started to shake. The ranger looked up and snapped into a fighting stance as the grate fell to the ground. Much to his surprise, Ashley dropped down to the floor.

 

“Ashley?” Tommy asked in disbelief.

 

“Tommy?” she said. “Great…I thought I was escaping.”

 

“No such luck,” Tommy said. “How far back does that vent go? Maybe we can use it to climb out.”

 

Ashley rolled her eyes. “That was the idea…but the vent only connects these two rooms.”

 

“Have you tried fixing your morpher?” Tommy asked.

 

“Yes,” Ashley said defensively. “Of course I did…what do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Knitting?”

 

Tommy held up his hands defensively. “Calm down, Ash…this isn’t the time.”

 

“It never is,” Ashley said as she moved towards the door. “Now…why can’t you just blast out of here with one of your magick fire balls?”

 

“I tried,” Tommy said, “but whatever’s blocking our morphers is blocking my powers.”

 

“I was wondering why you couldn’t fight back there,” Ashley said as she started to run her fingers across the door. “This door is different…”

 

“Meaning?” Tommy asked.

 

“Meaning I think I can get us out…” Ashley said.

 

***

 

The buzzing intensified as Astronema’s eyes darted back and forth across the foliage.

 

“What’s going on?” she asked, a hint of fear in her voice. She felt vulnerable without her powers. She felt weak.

 

Dozens of five-foot long insectoid creatures burst from the trees and swarmed towards Zhane and Astronema. Each creature had skinny, wrangled bodies covered with thick brown and green skin. They had compound eyes surrounding gaping jaws filled with fangs.

 

“Get down!” Zhane shouted, throwing himself in front of Astronema while spin kicking a creature from the air. He continued the spin while backfisting another bug across its leathery head.

 

Astronema reached forward, grabbed one of the creature’s by the arms, and front kicked the insect upside the head. The creatures continued to buzz around her, biting and clawing as she struggled to keep them at bay.

 

“There’s too many of them,” Astronema said.

 

Zhane suddenly tackled against Astronema and rushed towards the edge of the branch road. “Hang on!”

 

“What are you doing?” she shouted as Zhane pushed them both over the edge.

 

***

 

One of Telsa’s scouting parties moved across a corridor of wide branches while trying to find a trace of Astronema. The group had three large hover sleds and five smaller speeders. They were so focused on locating the princess that they didn’t notice a pair of red android eyes following them.

 

Eclipter stood upright within the shadows and fired twin optic beams of crimson energy that ripped open the center hover sled. The sled exploded in a burst of flame, causing a shockwave that tipped over the other two sleds.

 

The make-shift soldiers scurried about with their rifles, searching for signs of their attackers.

 

Eclipter slowly stepped forward from the shadows and started walking towards his opponents. The soldiers turned and opened fire at the android, spraying high-speed destructive blasts that bounced harmlessly off of his armor.

 

The android extended his hand and fired jagged blasts of neon-green energy that ripped the soldiers apart. The five small speeders charged towards Eclipter. The android extended his hand, and the lead speeder slammed against his palm and exploded on impact.

 

Eclipter slowly swung his blade through a horizontal arc, decapitating the second rider as he zoomed by.

 

***

 

Two guards loyal to Telsa patrolled the main hall of their central compound. They fingered their weapons nervously while on the lookout for any men that were not part of Telsa’s camp. They found one.

 

“Traitors,” a voice said from behind them. They turned to see Xon, his body bruised and battered, but holding a gun in each hand. Xon triggered a volley of shots that mowed down the soldiers.

 

***

 

With the twist of a wire, Ashley opened the door.

 

“Nice work,” Tommy said as he stepped outside.

 

“Thanks,” Ashley said. “Doors are less complicated than synthatrons.”

 

Tommy sighed. “Would you let it-”

 

Blaster bolts suddenly blazed through the air towards the two rangers as they dove for cover.

 

***

 

Astronema stood, opening her eyes to see Zhane inches from her face. She started to jerk up in alarm, but Zhane grabbed her to keep her from moving while placing his index finger on her lips.

 

“Shhh...” he said quietly. “They’re still above us…”

 

Zhane and Astronema were lying side by side within a small indent along a tree branch. Layers of leaves were inches above them, providing a barrier as the insect swarm flew by, on the hunt for any prey it could find.

 

Astronema narrowed her eyes. “You pushed me over that edge.”

 

“To save you,” Zhane said with a smile. “No need to thank me…”

 

Astronema looked away, her face turning slightly blush. “I do not like hiding in a hole.”

 

“I can tell,” Zhane said, the two of them still whispering. “Where did you learn to fight like that, anyway? It wasn’t bad.”

 

“My guardian,” Astronema said. “He taught me everything.”

 

“Guardian?” Zhane asked. “Is that like a parent?”

 

Astronema narrowed her eyes. “My parents and people were murdered in cold blood.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Zhane said. “I lost my family too…my parents…my older brother…my baby sister…she’d just been born…”

 

Astronema’s face grew pale. “You know nothing of my pain. I do not need your sympathy.”

 

“Is that why you’re so angry?” Zhane asked. Astronema was silent, her face a mix of sorrow and anger. “Look…I’m just trying to-” 

 

“Stop,” Astronema said firmly, “or I will feed you to the insects above.”

 

“I won’t stop,” Zhane said, “all I’ve done is try to help you.”

 

“Help I never asked for,” Astronema said.

 

“But help you have,” Zhane said. “That’s the funny thing about war…it makes friends of the strangest of people.”

 

“I am not your friend,” Astronema said, her voice weakening.

 

Zhane smiled again. “You are now…at least until we get to the settlement. Then you can go back to hating and beating up on me.”

 

“I haven’t beaten up on you…yet,” Astronema said, a grin escaping across her face. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She wasn’t sure what the burning inside of her was anymore. The only thing she was sure of was that she’d never felt more confused in her entire life.

 

***

 

Tommy and Ashley hid within a small branch extending from one of the main branch-roads. The branch was equal in size to a tree on Earth and full of dense leaves.

 

“I think they’re gone,” Tommy said. “We should stay here for a while though. Just to be safe.”

 

“Since when has ‘safety first’ been your motto?” Ashley asked.

 

“That’s it,” Tommy said with frustration as he climbed down to the branch next to her, “what’s been your problem these past couple of months?”

 

My problem?” Ashley said. “My problem? I’m not the one with the problems. Do you even remember…argh…” She shook her head and looked the other way. “Never mind, Oliver.”

 

“No,” Tommy said, “we’re working this out right now. Do I even remember what?”

 

“This,” Ashley said as she grabbed the back of his head and pulled him in close, kissing him full on the mouth.

 

***

 

Xon made his way around the holding bay where the rangers were being held, intent on freeing them. With most of his camp gone and Astronema missing, he would need all the allies he could get. The bunkers holding Tommy and Ashley were empty, so he moved to a rear bunker.

 

After shooting down the guard duo like a sniper, Xon moved in and blasted open the door. Chris was inside the room and nearly pounced forward to attack.

 

“Wait,” Xon said, lifting his hands in a universal non-threatening manner. “I’m here to free you, you fool. The ones that captured you nearly killed me as well.”

 

“Why should I believe you?” Chris said, keeping his guard up.

 

Xon grunted. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll help me either way.”

 

“And why’s that?” Chris asked.

 

“Simple,” Xon said. “When you leave here, the ones shooting at you will be the same people shooting at me.”

 

***

 

Eclipter walked across a branch-road as his sensors zeroed in on a nearby settlement. The settlement’s residents were natives to the planet, but possessed enough technology for off-world communications. The android knew it would be a likely destination for Astronema, so he headed off towards the settlement as fast as possible.

 

He took note of the odd snake-like creatures that lived on the trees. They seemed to have an odd effect on the air, so Eclipter’s data processors started to plot quick and efficient ways of killing them.

 

***

 

Tommy and Ashley slowly pulled away from each other as their kiss ended. She kept her hands on his shoulder, and his hands lingered on her waist. They looked into each others’ eyes, forgetting where they were and the danger around them.

 

“Ashley,” Tommy softly said, “I…you mean a lot to me. I can’t…if something were to happen to you, or me…”

 

“Stop,” Ashley said, leaning in closer. “You’re not pulling that stuff with me, Oliver. I’m scared too. Tommy…I know you’ve had a lot of pain in your past…but don’t let that pain keep you from something great in the present.”

 

Tommy smiled, brushing a strand of hair from Ashley’s face. “Something beautiful.”

 

Ashley smiled and rolled her eyes. “You can be such a sap sometimes.”

 

Tommy laughed. “Are you complaining?”

 

She smiled. “Yes…but come here…”

 

They kissed again, falling into each others’ embrace, until…

 

“Wait,” Tommy said. “Maybe we should rescue our friends and get off this rock first.”

 

“Good idea,” Ashley said, smiling teasingly. “But it’s not a rock.”

 

Tommy smiled and narrowed his eyes. “It’s an expression.”

 

“Well,” Ashley said. “What are we waiting for?”

 

***

 

Xon freed Kat and Justin as well, and the quartet made their way through the foliage and towards the native settlement.

 

“I don’t get it,” Justin said. “Your base is just back that way…why don’t use the comm equipment there?”

 

“Because,” Xon said, “I believe Darkonda is still there…and I don’t even think you three would want to face him without your Ranger powers.”

 

“Good point,” Justin said.

 

“How much farther until we reach the settlement?” Kat asked.

 

“Not much-”

 

A massive growling sound suddenly split through the air. Xon and the rangers turned to see a large creature hanging from a tree branch above, glaring with hungry eyes at the four travelers. The creature had the lower body of a giant spider and the upper body of a four-armed ape. Its head was shaped like a bull.

 

Xon glared at the beast. “An Atokthon…”

 

Xon aimed his firearm forward and triggered several blasts that ripped through the creature’s midsection. The Atokthon extended his four arms and shot darts from his palms. Xon and the rangers dove for cover to avoid the darts, just as the Atokthon pounced forward to attack.

 

***

 

Zhane and Astronema moved through a dark network of hanging vines. They were getting closer to the settlement and farther away from the insect creatures. They walked in silence for the most part, until Astronema spoke up with a question.

 

“Your family…” she asked quietly. “What did they do?”

 

“My mother was a doctor,” he said. “She saved one or two planets from extinction in her time. My father was a scientist. He helped found the raiKaine Colonies in the Beetiar Sector.”

 

Astronema nodded, and the pair continued in silence for a moment longer.

 

“What about your guardian?” Zhane asked, breaking the silence.

 

“He’s…” Astronema started to say, hesitating while she searched for the right word. “He’s a soldier.”

 

“In what army?” Zhane asked.

 

“Mine,” Astronema said.

 

Zhane laughed as they continued walking. “Glad to see you’re picking up a sense of humor.”

 

***

 

The Atokthon opened its gaping jaw, emitting a loud roar with hissing and rattling undertones.

 

“I swear,” Justin said, positioning himself in between Kat and the creature. “I will never take morphing for granted again.”

 

Xon tossed one of his blaster pistols to Chris. “Take his left, I’ll fire on the right. Try to-”

 

One of the Atokthon’s clawed hands slammed down against the branch to where Xon was standing, seconds before the strange humanoid dove for cover. Xon rolled to his knees while aiming his blaster and firing several shots that scorched across the creature’s leathery hide.

 

Chris opened fire, sending blaster bolts exploding through the creature’s abdomen. The Atokthon turned and spat a volley of poisonous darts in retaliation. Chris dove away from the darts while snapping off a few more shots with his blaster.

 

One of the darts ricocheted off of a small branch and cut Kat across the leg. She gasped a scream and collapsed as Justin kneeled down next to her.

 

“Kat!” he said with concern, as Katharine nursed the cut, poison starting to seep through her body.

 

The Atokthon hissed and charged towards them. Justin quickly looked to his right, noticing a small branch protruding nearby. Justin reached out, snapped the branch, and charged forward towards the Atokthon. The Atokthon spat a volley of darts, but Justin managed to bat each one aside.

 

The Atokthon started to claw at the ranger with its four sharp paws. Justin tried batting the hands away, but knew he would be ripped to shreds if the creature continued to push forward.

 

Justin looked down to the lower side of the creature’s abdomen and noticed a throbbing that rippled the leathery flesh with each beat. The Atokthon lunged forward, its jaws opened to take a bite out of the ranger. Justin rolled forward underneath the creature and plunged his stick into the monster’s belly, piercing the heart.

 

The monster let out a final breath of pain before it fell backwards and died, blood oozing from the wound. Justin quickly tossed the stick aside and ran over to Kat’s side. Xon and Chris joined them.

 

“The darts…” Xon said. “They’re toxic. We need to act quickly.”

 

“What do we do?” Justin pleaded.

 

“Gather gwendeen root. It will slow the poison until we get to the settlement,” Xon said. “They’ll have healers there.”

 

“What root?” Chris asked.

 

“Gwendeen root,” Xon said, pointing off towards a network of branches close by. “They attach themselves through bark. The red-leafed weeds.”

 

Chris scurried to pull the roots free as Justin stayed by Kat’s side, squeezing her hand to give her comfort.

 

***

 

Zhane and Astronema stepped onto the wooden plank that marked the camp’s entrance. Various wooden structures and buildings carved from massive tree trunks lined the settlement. Ahead of them was a wide walkway with wooden arcs curving by overhead.

 

“Here we are.” Zhane sighed with relief.

 

Astronema straightened her back, assuming an intimidating posture as she started to march forward. “We must find a transceiver.”

 

Astronema moved towards a large tree trunk with several ports carved into it. Each port had a circular entrance cut out from light-colored bark. She entered the portal as Zhane followed. Inside was an eatery area, with the planet’s natives spread across the floor, dining and playing various games.

 

Astronema glared at the nearest native, who appeared to be in charge. He was five-foot tall with light tan hair over most of his body. His people were called ehFroks. “You. You will bring me your comm equipment. Now.”

 

“Whoa,” Zhane said while placing a hand on Astronema’s shoulder and stepping forward. He flashed the native a grin. “You’ll have to forgive her. The hike has her a little grumpy.”

 

Astronema arced an eyebrow at Zhane, but the native started to chuckle before she could protest.

 

“Our planet is not kind to off-worlders,” the ehFrok said, giving Astronema a look of amusement. “Her displeasure comes at no surprise. I will fetch you a comm device…”

 

Zhane turned to Astronema and flashed her a grin. “See…they seem nice enough. No need to rough them up.”

 

Astronema narrowed her eyes. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand…you’re one of them.

 

Zhane’s confusion knitted his brow. “What are you talking about?”

 

“You wouldn’t understand,” Astronema said. “I come from the core. Where everything exists in harmony. In balance. Those that live outside the core seek to disrupt that balance.”

 

Zhane shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

 

“The evil outside the core,” Astronema said, her voice cold. “It’s palpable. Everywhere. No one is to be trusted in this place.”

 

Zhane wasn’t sure what to say. “Not everyone is bad…” he managed after a moment.

 

Astronema said nothing, her eyes darting back and forth across the room with suspicion. “I disagree.”

 

Zhane sighed. “Here…I’ll show you…”

 

He took her by the hand and led her over to a table with an opening cut above, giving a clear view to the sky. Part of her wanted to resist. Wanted to snap his wrist. But she felt compelled to follow. Zhane pulled out a chair for her and helped her into the seat.

 

“Just relax,” Zhane said, noticing Astronema looked rather uncomfortable. Zhane took a seat across from her and lifted a glass of water from the table, after scanning it. “Have a drink with me.”

 

Astronema hesitated before reaching forward and taking a cup.

 

***

 

Xon, Kat, Justin, and Chris entered the settlement as natives gave them puzzled glances. Justin was carrying Kat in his arms. She was pale and breaking out into a cold sweat.

 

“They know me here,” Xon said as he led the rangers towards a small hut that was just off the main path. “Even if they didn’t…they tend to be quite hospitable to strangers.”

 

They entered a hut covered with straw mats.

 

“Set her down,” Xon said as he walked over to one of three natives inside the hut. “An Atokthon. The dart grazed her.”

 

“We will do what we do,” the ehFrok said as he walked towards Kat. “Please wait outside.”

 

“No way,” Justin said, tightening his grasp on Kat’s hand. “I’m staying right here.”

 

Chris placed a hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Justin…”

 

“Very well,” the native said. “But just him…”

 

Xon and Chris left the hut so the natives could tend to Kat’s wounds. Justin stayed by her side.

 

***

 

The pod’s walls suddenly exploded inward with a burst of yellow-and-orange tinted light, tossing Zhane and Astronema onto the flattened-branch roadway outside. They went tumbling across the road before skidding to a halt. They looked up to see Darkonda walking towards them, his head tilted back while cackling a mocking laugh.

 

“Well, well, well…” Darkonda said. “Isn’t this an interesting sight…”

 

Zhane stood, positioning himself between Astronema and Darkonda. “Run,” he told her. “This guy is bad-”

 

“Darkonda,” Astronema cursed, narrowing her eyes at the villain.

 

The villain laughed. “Hello my dear Astronema. Not exactly feeling yourself today, are you?”

 

Zhane immediately took a step away from her. “Astronema?!”

 

Darkonda laughed even harder, amazed at the sight. “What’s the matter Silver Ranger? You didn’t recognize Sauron’s most prized pet?”

 

It was Astronema’s turn to be surprised. She took a step back from Zhane and cast a cold stare at him. A stare that betrayed a hint of pain and heartbreak. “Astro Silver…”

 

“This is too perfect!” Darkonda shouted as he leaned forward, and the spikes on his head fired waves of red-and-orange tinted energy blasts at Astronema and Zhane.

 

Zhane pushed Astronema away from the blasts as explosions sparked around them. To say Astronema was surprised by his actions was an understatement.

 

Darkonda brought his sword to full length and stalked towards Astronema and Zhane, cackling all the way. Twin bursts of neon green energy suddenly sparked against the villain’s chest, knocking him backward. The sparks cleared as Darkonda saw his attacker. It was Eclipter.

 

“Eclipter!” Astronema shouted with relief as she ran towards her protector.

 

“It is alright, princess,” Eclipter said as he pointed his sword at Darkonda. A group of Quantrons materialized besides the android warrior.

 

Zhane shook his head. “I need a drink…”

 

Darkonda laughed mockingly at the site of Quantrons. “I brought my own army this time, Eclipter!”

 

The villain snapped his fingers, signaling hidden groups of Telsa’s speeders and soldiers to advance. They formed battle positions around Darkonda. “They’re not exactly my style…but they’ll do, just this once.”

 

***

 

Xon walked over to Chris, who was standing outside the hut. “My supporters are on there way. We will rally here and free your comrades.”

 

“I still don’t understand why you’re helping us,” Chris said, “but thank you.”

 

Xon reluctantly nodded.

 

***

 

Kat slowly stirred herself awake, giving Justin’s hand a squeeze.

 

He looked down at her and smiled. “Hi…”

 

“Hi,” she said, smiling back at him.

 

“You’re looking better,” Justin said.

 

“I wish I felt the same,” she said.

 

“You’ll be fine in a minute or two,” Justin said, “at least that’s what the teddy-bear people said.”

 

She smiled at his joke, her gaze meeting his. “Thank you, Justin…for staying with me.”

 

“Thank you,” Justin said quietly, “for staying with me…if anything were to happen to you…”

 

Justin bent down and kissed her hand. “I like you Katherine…quite a bit.”

 

“Is that so?” she asked teasingly.

 

Justin smiled and blushed as he looked down at her. “Come here…”

 

He bent down, and their lips touched.

 

***

 

Eclipter activated a newly installed panel on his right forearm. The panel emitted a high-pitched buzz that lasted for a few seconds before rising above hearing range.

 

Darkonda laughed. “That was productive…” the villain extended his hand, signaling the speeders to move forward.

 

Eclipter extended his sword, and the Quantrons rushed into battle alongside a group of Craterites that had recently arrived. The groups of soldiers slammed against each other violently. Speeders exploded from Quantrons’ blades, and soldiers were sliced in half by Craterites.

 

Astronema suddenly felt a well of energy burst open inside of her, and that was when she realized what Eclipter’s device had done. The android had eliminated whatever was blocking her power. She snapped her fingers, summoning her staff with a burst of purple energy as an evil grin spread across her face. “Excellent…”

 

***

 

Tommy and Ashley hustled through the woods, closing in on the settlement.

 

“Sounds like fighting up ahead,” Ashley said.

 

“Surprised?” Tommy asked, taking the lead.

 

“Not at all,” she answered. “Just wishing we could morph…or at least find a couple blasters.”

 

The two rangers made their way into a clearing and got a clear view of the settlement several meters down a slope before them. Quantrons were ripping apart soldiers loyal to Telsa. Eclipter and Darkonda were clashing swords in a heated battle. Astronema was summoning storms of purple energy that she hurled at her enemies. Xon’s men had joined the fray as well, battling Quantrons and Telsa’s soldiers. In the midst of the battle was Zhane.

 

Tommy suddenly felt a well of energy open inside of him. A lopsided grin spread across his face as he flipped open his morpher. “Whatever was interfering with our powers…it’s gone now.”

 

“Good,” Ashley said as she flipped open her own morpher. “Something tells me we’ll need them.”

 

“Install, Astro Ranger!” they shouted and input the code 3-3-5-enter. Energy shimmered around them as they morphed into their Ranger forms.

 

Astro Red activated his helmet communicator. “Guys, can you read me?”

 

Chris’s voice came through. “Tommy? How…”

 

“I don’t know,” Astro Red said. “Whatever was blocking our powers is gone. You guys better suit up and meet us at the native settlement. There’s trouble.”

 

“Tommy, we’re already here,” Chris said. “Justin’s with Kat. She was injured, but should be okay in a while.”

 

“All right,” Astro Red said as he and Astro Yellow started jumping down towards the battle. “Morph and come at the Quantrons from their left flank. Ashley and I will come in from behind.”

 

***

 

Zhane ducked beneath a Quantron blade’s swing and slammed an uppercut against the soldier. He followed with a reverse sidekick that crashed the Quantron backwards. He looked ahead, seeing Astro Red and Astro Yellow crash through a group of Quantrons in the distance. Good…that means our powers are working again.

 

Zhane flipped open his morpher. “Keitizer…install!”

 

Silver and gold energy flashed around him as he morphed into his Ranger form. He armed his Silver Blazer and slashed left and right through a group of incoming Quantrons. Telsa’s soldiers came at Astro Silver as well, and he smashed them away with a flurry of kicks.

 

***

 

Chris and Xon ran towards the fray. Xon pulled a pair of pulse blasters and started firing against Telsa’s soldiers. Chris activated his morpher and transformed into his armor with a flash of black light.

 

***

 

Eclipter swung his heavy blade down towards Darkonda’s head. Darkonda swung his sword upward to parry the blow and slash Eclipter across the chest. The villain extended his free hand and fired a jagged beam of red-orange energy that exploded against the android’s chest, knocking him backward. Darkonda continued the attack, leaning forward and firing streams of dagger-like energy from the short spikes on his head.

 

Eclipter was knocked back again by the force of Darkonda’s blasts. “Looks like that explosion took more out of you than I thought. Pity it didn’t kill you and your precious little princess.”

 

Eclipter’s blade charged with jade colored energy as he rose to his feet. “I will kill you, Darkonda…”

 

Eclipter charged forward and swung his sword down diagonally towards Darkonda’s neck. Darkonda blocked the blow, and Eclipter twisted his wrist to strike again. Darkonda shifted his weight backward while blocking the next blow. The two villains’ swords clashed, sparking against each other in a deadly dance of metal.

 

“Come now, Eclipter,” Darkonda said as he parried another blow. “Surely you can do better? Of course…you couldn’t even keep Astronema safe. What good are you if you can’t even do the simple task you were built for? You might as well let me jam this sword through that useless, rusted chest of yours.”

 

“You will regret your words, Darkonda,” Eclipter said as he pushed against the villain’s blade.

 

A jagged blast of purple energy suddenly exploded against Darkonda’s back and sent him tumbling forward. The villain rolled to his knees and turned to see Astronema facing him.

 

“Well, well,” Darkonda said as he rose and held his blade in an en guard position. “Glad to see you back on your feet.”

 

Astronema glared at the villain. “I’m sure you are…”

 

The princess extended her staff and fired a massive blazing energy pulse that exploded against Darkonda, sending explosions ripping across his body.

 

***

 

Astro Red swung his Drill Saber through a downward arc that cut through a Quantron. The Ranger front kicked the soldier away and turned to see the villains battle against each other. “This clearly isn’t our fight.”

 

Astro Black slammed the end of his staff across a Quantron’s head. “Tell that to them.”

 

Astro Red round kicked a soldier in the gut and spun around, slashing a Quantron across the chest. “As soon as Kat’s ready, we’re taking off to the Megaship…fall back towards the medical building…”

 

Astro Silver’s counter started to run low as he stood near Astro Black, backing up towards the medical building while fending off a persistent group of soldiers and Quantrons. He looked through the corner of his visor and saw Astronema in the distance, slamming the end of her staff against Darkonda’s chest.

 

Zhane lost track of his timer as his armor flashed off in a blink of golden energy. Three Quantrons leapt down towards him, swinging their blades vertically towards the ranger’s head.

 

“Tomahawk Hurricane!” Astro Blue suddenly shouted, spinning onto the scene as if from nowhere and slashing through the three Quantrons before they could strike down Zhane. He landed and snapped into a fighting stance. “Miss me?”

 

Astro Red slammed the end of his saber against a Craterite’s temple. “Justin, is Kat okay?”

 

Astro Blue nodded while diagonally running his small axe through a Quantron. “She’s fine. We’re ready to go when you are.”

 

Astro Red reverse sidekicked a Quantron away and activated his helmet communicator. “Cyber Sliders!”

 

***

 

Astronema reverse sidekicked Darkonda in the face and used her staff to knock the legs from underneath the villain. She lifted her staff and aimed the tip towards Darkonda’s face to deliver a fatal blow.

 

Before she could strike, Darkonda used his head spikes to blast a wave of energy that knocked Astronema backward. The princess rolled across the ground and rose to her knees, looking up in time to see Darkonda vanish with a blur of orange and yellow energy.

 

She surveyed the battle field, watching the last of Telsa’s soldiers fall before her Quantrons, and the six Rangers streak away towards the horizon on their Cyber Sliders.

 

Eclipter walked over and kneeled in front of Astronema. “Princess…I have failed you.”

 

“Nonsense,” Astronema said. “This battle is won.”

 

Her gaze was fixed on the departing Rangers. One in particular.

 

***

 

The Megaship blasted through hyperspace, leaving the vast forest world after escorting Xon and his men off the surface.

 

Kat was working in her small communications control room as the doors slid open and Justin walked in, a smile on his face as always. “You’re supposed to be resting…”

 

Kat smiled back at him and shrugged. “I wanted to work through this comm log Xon gave to us. I’ll be fine…stop worrying.”

 

“It’s what I do,” Justin said as he leaned against her desk. “Find anything interesting?”

 

“Yes,” Kat said as her eyes brightened. She manipulated a few controls as a sequence of numbers appeared before her screen. “This sequence is encrypted…very complex…but I think it might be something. I think it might be a clue to finding Zordon.”

 

***

 

Tommy lied back in bed as Ashley snuggled up next to him, resting her head on his chest and listening to his heart beat as they talked. He slowly ran his fingers through her hair as they shared with each other. Tommy was taken aback by how little he actually knew about Ashley.

 

“My dad basically raised me on his own,” Ashley said, “at least while he was sober. I finally got fed up with him and moved in with my aunt freshman year.”

 

 “No one should have to go through that…” Tommy said. “I’m sorry.”

 

 She nodded. “It’s okay…”

 

“But it’s not,” Tommy said. “I…I can’t stand the thought of you being unhappy.”

 

Ashley smiled and tilted her head to look into Tommy’s eyes. She leaned up and kissed him before resting her head back on his chest. She breathed a sigh of fatigue and cuddled closer to him. “It’s been a long day…”

 

“It has,” Tommy said as he ran his fingers through her hair again. “It has…”

 

The two slowly drifted off to sleep within each others’ arms.

 

***

 

Astronema stared out the window of her viewport. She knew he was out their somewhere. Zhane. The Silver Ranger. He had tricked her. Tried to seduce her. Or had he?

 

Her whole life, Astronema had believed that the galaxy was corrupt. Full of evil. Greed. Hate. The only way to survive in the galaxy was to erect a barrier of power. A barrier of strength that no one could break through. Or so she thought.

 

Zhane had treated her with kindness. In the settlement, she had seen laughter. Happiness. The images of Zhane’s smile and the natives’ laughter at the settlement were burned into her mind, contradicting everything she knew. Everything she believed and stood for.

 

In the settlement. She had seen laughter. Happiness. Kindness.

 

Astronema tightened her fists, calling on her dark energy to quell the feelings of longing inside her heart. She could not be weakened…no matter how much she already missed Zhane’s smile.

 

To be continued…Chapter 16