Rangers in Space: Chapter Twenty-two

Psycho Rangers: The Ring

 

The royal flagship Mul’doolan cruised through space with a gentle glide. The vessel was seemingly unaware of the chaos tearing through the galaxy. So were its passengers.

 

The spine of the ship was an ornate hall fit for royalty. A wide and narrow table stretched across the corridor. Various beings from the Tyrol local group of worlds sat around the table. They were all royalty, the high class, oblivious to the suffering their people endured.

 

A carpet of purples and reds covered the floor. Bronze columns connected the floor to the ceiling. Wide viewports that extended four decks up cast a golden hue from a nearby sun, providing the only source of illumination.

 

A balcony looked out upon the corridor from above. A young human stepped onto the balcony, his face betraying his nervousness. He straightened the collar of his military cadet uniform and moved off towards a nearby staircase. The sweeping staircase led down towards the galley below.

 

The cadet, Tarrant, slowly descended the staircase. A bearded man stepped forward, a smile on his face and hand extended, to greet Tarrant.

 

“Welcome, my boy,” he said. “I am Taibon Yo with the Committee. I am pleased you could join us.”

 

The Committee was an elite citizens group of businessmen in the local group of worlds. They were wealthy, and on some planets, more powerful and influential than their rulers. Tarrant’s father was one of the dozens of Committee members gathered around the table.

 

Tarrant stammered nervously. “I-it’s an honor sir.”

 

Taibon Yo placed his hand on Tarrant’s back and led the young man towards the table. Tarrant was a recent enrollee at the Infintionata Academy near Fray’loth.

 

Tarrant joined Taibon at the table along with the other esteemed guests. Taibon eyed the cadet with a look of amusement. “Try to relax, youngling. After a while, this sort of gathering will be second nature for you.”

 

The ship suddenly shook, and the viewport started to crack. Alarms blared throughout the vessel as guards armed their weapons.

 

Tarrant looked around in panic. What in the five suns is going on?

 

***

 

Jikku’s craft moved through the traffic lanes near Kowlune. The planet was a transit point between Aquitar and Triforia. Ships of various shapes and sizes docked with the artificial ring of metal and steel that surrounded the red planet.

 

The world’s surface was inhabited by Druibids, tall, slender beasts with razor-sharp fur. The fur shifted color from red to black, seemingly at random. Few colonies dotted the planet’s landscape. Each was sealed off with a transparent dome for protection against the world’s harsh atmosphere. The dry air was rich with poisons and sand particles so sharp that they tore through flesh and bone.

 

The Ring was operated by the Committee.

 

Jikku fell into line behind various vessels and ships from throughout the quadrant. His ship was spear-like with antenna stubs bristling across the hull. Each stub contained different, interchangeable packets such as weapons, sensors, and tractor beams.

 

His comm signal toned, and a monotone voice came through his speakers. “State your destination, purpose, and registry number.”

 

Jikku loaded one of his pirated programs before answering. “Rim-ward bound. Destination is Od’eon. I need fuel and supplies. Registry number 4-301-B219-9045BRDY.”

 

It was of course, a lie. The Committee was loyal to Sauron, although few knew it, even few within the Committee itself. The organization had to be uprooted. He was the person tasked with the job.

 

The Ring was run mostly by races from surrounding worlds and systems: The Thorns, creatures whose bulky, jagged bodies were made of bark, the Triel’ves, slender humanoids with sharp features and glossy white eyes, and humans.

 

To Jikku’s personal delight, a group of Onijuu served on the ring while staying hidden from authorities.

 

The automated coordinator answered. “You are clear to dock at portal N136-8.”

 

Jikku steered his ship towards the appropriate docking ring while making sure his blaster was fully charged.

 

***

 

Tommy watched through the Megaship’s forward viewport as the Velocifighters approached.

 

“Bring the photon pulse cannons online,” Tommy said. “Full spread. Target the lead squad. Get us as far away from that Fortress as possible.”

 

The ship rocked again from another platform blast.

 

“Ash,” Tommy said again. “The hack.”

 

“Almost there…” she said. “Got it!”

 

“Good,” Tommy said. “Aim the defense platform at the Dark Fortress. Do not destroy it, just keep it off our backs.”

 

Ashley and Kat sent signals to the defense platforms and aimed the weapon turrets at the Dark Fortress. The turrets opened fire with blasts that exploded against the Dark Fortress’s hull.

 

“Cy,” Tommy said. “Get us down to the surface. We don’t have much time…”

 

***

 

The royal cruiser lurched from another impact, and Tarrant fell face first onto the deck. The cadet slowly pulled himself to his feet, looking up towards the wide viewport. He noticed a trio of creatures latched onto the hull. They were called Diggers, elven pirates that few ever laid eyes on. Even fewer understood the Diggers’ motive.

 

“All hands,” a voice said over the speakers. “We are being boarded. Security teams to-”

 

Static.

 

Tarrant’s father ran to his son’s side and lifted him by the collar. “We’re going. To the escape pods.”

 

“But,” Tarrant protested, “they’re boarding the ship! We have to stay and fight…”

 

“Come,” his father said, dragging Tarrant along as other members of the Committee ran for their lives.

 

Meanwhile, Digger soldiers charged through the ship’s decks. They were moving towards the cruiser’s docking bay. Guards armed with slick-black armor and weapons opened fire at the pirates, but the soldiers were quickly overwhelmed.

 

Taibon ducked within his dimly-lit quarters and activated a communications monitor. “The Diggers have found us. I need out.”

 

A voice answered over the comm unit. “Digger pirates…you mean the Stirji’mn?! How did that cursed band learn of your shipment?”

 

The shipment was nearly 50 crates of ryl, an illegal drug sold on the black market. Ryl took its users onto an entirely different plane of perception. Ryl users saw sound. They heard smell. They felt sight. It was a precious drug typically sold to the corrupt and bored members of the ruling class.

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Taibon said after calming himself. “We have to-”

 

Static filled the comm monitor. He was cut off.

 

Explosives ripped open his door. One of the pirates, an orange skin, moved into the room and aimed a blaster at Taibon’s head. “You have two choices. Come with me alive, or stay here dead.”

 

Taibon glared at his assailant. “You are a dead man. You were a dead man the second you stepped foot upon this ship. The Committee does not take kindly to-”

 

The pirate blasted his victim in the leg. Yo keeled over with pain.

 

“You seem to have forgotten that I have the gun, and you don’t,” the pirate said. He blasted his victim’s other leg. “There’s another reminder. Do you want a third?”

 

Taibon started laughing, a hideous sound that took the pirate off guard. The old man sprouted fangs and claws as he pounced forward. He bit against the pirate’s neck and tore out his throat.

 

Outside in the corridors, Tarrant hurried towards the escape pod alongside his father. He was still protesting. “But father…we can’t abandon everyone. We should stay here and fight.”

 

“Trust me,” Tarrant’s father said, a look of shame on his face. “These people are not worth fighting for.”

 

“But father…” Tarrant started to protest.

 

An explosion ripped the corridor in half. Ferocious beasts, each of the four-eyed creatures resembling a lion, stepped forward. Their fur was rippled and black. The lions snapped their claws into position and pounced towards Tarrant and his father.

 

***

 

Psycho Red watched through his holo cube as the Astro Megaship landed. The fact that the Rangers were setting foot on the barren world below offended him…he just wasn’t sure why.

 

The Dark Fortress shook from another blast, but Psycho Red ignored the attacks. Let the defense platforms tear Astronema’s vessel to shreds. Let every Quantron and Craterite die in a ball of fire. Even his teammates, destroy them as well.

 

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Except him. Astro Red.

 

Psycho Red didn’t understand why the world below brought him so much rage. The barren world served as a reminder…he just wasn’t sure to what. Did the planet remind him of the emptiness of his soul? An emptiness that would only be filled with the Red Ranger’s death? Or was there something more?

 

Psycho Red rolled his hands into fists, his nails digging into palms. How dare Astro Red come here! Surely, it was a plot of some sort. Astro Red was trying to throw him off guard, knowing the emotions the world would stir. The Red Ranger knew that Psycho Red, a rival in every way, could only be beaten if led into confusion.

 

Yes. That was it. Red Ranger was mocking him.

 

To hell with Astronema. To hell with the Psychos. He was going to the surface. And he wasn’t coming back without Red Ranger’s head.

 

***

 

The six rangers entered the jail pit while Cy stayed back on the Megaship. The pit was like a hollowed-out sphere with stone walk ways and levels wrapped around the edges. Jail cells lined the walls, and chains hung from the ceiling like vines.

 

What the rangers found most noticeable was that the jail was empty. Not a single guard or inmate was in sight.

 

“Uh, Zhane,” Justin started to say.

 

“I know,” Zhane said. “I don’t get it. There should be prisoners here.”

 

Chris reviewed his portable scanner. “There were up until a few hours ago…something happened. I’m still picking up some life signs though. Two humanoids and eight…non humanoids. I’m not sure what they are.”

 

“Let’s split into pairs,” Tommy said. “There should be a guard post of some kind. We’ll download what data we can and get out.”

 

The rangers split up.

 

Tommy and Ashley started moving up a slope towards the prison’s second level. A low-pitched rumbling purr come from the shadows.

 

Tommy and Ashley looked towards each other, silently acknowledging the noise. They kept moving, but slowly reached down towards their blasters.

 

The creature hidden in the shadows roared and pounced forward. It was a tiger-like creature covered with dirt-silver plates of bone armor. Tommy and Ashley dove to opposite sides as the creature passed between them. They turned and aimed their blasters, firing plasma pulses that splashed harmlessly across the beast’s bone armor.

 

“We really should have saw that coming,” Tommy said as he rose to his knees. The tiger pounced forward towards Tommy with its jaws open and forward claws extended.

 

Tommy grabbed hold of the beast’s nose and jaw while falling onto his back. He placed his feet on the tiger’s chest and rolled backwards, pushing off, and kicking the tiger through the air.

 

Tommy heard more blasters discharge. He rolled to his feet and looked up to see seven more of the tigers pouncing to attack the other rangers. Kat had fallen backward on the other side of the jail pit, a tiger stalked towards her, and Justin was too distracted by a second tiger to help.

 

Tommy leapt forward across the pit, grabbed a chain, and swung over to the other side while slamming a kick against the tiger’s side. The tiger that had attacked Kat went slamming back against the pit walls.

 

On a higher level in the pit, Zhane picked up a broken piece of iron and used it to parry a tiger’s claw thrusts and jaw snaps. “Isn’t it usually morphing time right about now?”

 

The creature sprang forward towards Zhane with a powerful push from its hind legs. Before the tiger completed its attack, a slender figure dropped onto its back and wrapped her legs around its neck. The young woman twisted her hips, snapping the beast’s neck.

 

She flipped backwards off the corpse and landed on her feet. She was dressed in rags, and her red hair was covered with dirt. Her violet eyes glowed with deep fury. A column of small, thin spikes ran down the sides of her head.

 

She pulled a small orb from her rags and held it above her head. The orb flashed a light, invisible to the humans, but blinding to the tigers. They scurried back into the darkness.

 

She tucked the orb away and moved backward, keeping all the rangers in her line of sight. “A ship?” she asked firmly. “Do you have a ship?”

 

“Who are you?” Zhane asked.

 

“There’s no time!” she spat. “Do you have any idea who just jumped in system? Astronema! We have to get off this rock or we’re all dead.”

 

Tommy stepped forward. “We have a job to do first. Where’s the guard tower?”

 

“Ship!”

 

“Guard tower,” Tommy said. “Unless you plan to hitchhike with Eclipter and the Quantrons.”

 

She narrowed her eyes at the ranger. “The guards panicked when they learned Astronema was coming. They fled into tunnels towards their space port, and they detonated the command tower. They left those tiger beasts to kill the rest of us.” A predatory smile spread across her face. “There used to be 12 of them.”

 

A weak voice came from one of the jail’s higher cells. “She’s telling the truth…”

 

It was Nolan. His body, weak and limping, collapsed against the rock.

 

Chris’s portable scanner suddenly beeped. “We have a problem. A gene beast and Quantrons just entered the main tunnel. They’ve cut off our escape route.”

 

The female prisoner looked to him. “There are other tunnels. This prison used to be a mining colony.”

 

Justin snorted. “Not a very secure jail.”

 

She glared at him. “The tunnel entrances are sealed, but can be opened by blasters. Even if any of us had managed to escape, where would we have gone? To fry on the surface?”

 

“We’ll discuss this later,” Tommy said. “Right now let’s-”

 

An explosion blasted open one of the tunnel entries. A group of Quantrons burst through. The rangers aimed their blasters and fired at the soldiers, each trying to shoulder through the narrow opening.

 

“Justin, Kat,” Tommy said between blasts. “Go grab the guy who passed out. Inmate lady, these other tunnels, feel free to lead the way.”

 

“My name is Shara,” she said.

 

“Great,” Tommy said as he tossed her a spare blaster. “Make yourself useful, Shara.”

 

She led the rangers to the top of the pit, each of them firing countless blaster bolts that sparked against the Quantrons below. More and more of the soldiers seemed to flood into the prison.

 

Justin shook his head with disgust as he kept firing. “Did she send her whole army or what?”

 

They moved into an entry portal.

 

“Ashley,” Tommy said as he tossed her his blaster. “See what you can do about closing this door.”

 

She set her and Tommy’s blasters on overload and wedged them on either side of the stone corridor. The rangers ran down the tunnel as the blasters exploded, causing a small cave in that sealed off the passage.

 

***

 

Jikku boarded the Ring of Kowlune while wearing a disguise. A bandana wrapped around his head and eyes, so only his mouth and chin were visible. A dark robe flowed across his body.

 

He moved through a dimly-lit corridor packed shoulder-to-shoulder with species from dozens of different worlds. This particular corridor was reserved for less-than-privileged members of society. Some of the beings likely lived in the Ring, stewing in their own filth.

 

He ignored the behaviors around him, as anyone who frequented the Ring would. An Eltarian lift-skirt moaned while on her knees, performing the service she was being paid for; a group of six possum-like Bishishi piled in a dark corner while eating a piece of raw meat; Two barely-clothed Triforian boys were intertwined while sharing puffs from a burning ijuna planet; and a squid-faced beggar moved from side to side, trying to find a way to hitchhike across the galaxy.

 

Jikku finally spotted what he needed – three guards at the far end of the passage way. They were dressed in light suits of body armor and armed with small blaster rifles, each tipped with a thick blade. Jikku watched the guards for a few minutes before making his move.

 

Jikku walked towards the guards. The lead soldier fingered his trigger as he watched Jikku approach. “Whatever you’re thinking, slime,” the guard said. “Don’t.”

 

Jikku kept his distance and held both his hands forward, a sign of non-violence. “Excuse me kind sir, do you have a moment to talk about The Lord?”

 

The lead guard wrinkled his brow and slightly raised his blaster. “What the hell are you talking about? Back away…”

 

“I mean no trouble,” Jikku said as he backed away. “Only to spread the message…”

 

Jikku turned and took a step away.

 

The lead guard rolled his eyes and laughed, cracking a joke with his fellow soldiers. He reached into his pocket to pull out a smoke stick. Jikku struck.

 

He dashed back with a flying sidekick that slammed against the lead guard’s chest. While still in midair, he snapped his leg around with a hook kick that slammed against the second guard. He landed, grabbed the second guard’s blaster, and thrust the weapon through the third guard’s chest.

 

Jikku grabbed the radio transceiver from the lead guard’s armor and moved back into the shadows of the Ring.

 

***

 

Tarrant was pushed back by his dad. The father slapped a switch on the wall just as the two lions landed on him with claws and teeth tearing away. It was the last thing Tarrant saw before the switch commanded an emergency bulkhead to close, separating him from his father.

 

“No!” Tarrant shouted as he banged his fists against the metal walls. “No! Father, no!”

 

The floor beneath him opened like an iris and sucked him into an escape pod. The pod shot into space.

 

***

 

Astronema kneeled in the Dark Fortress’s holographic communications chamber. She had received a telepathic summons from Sauron demanding that she speak with him. He sounded weaker than during their last encounter. Her plan to drain his energy seemed to be working.

 

The chamber activated, creating a view of Eltar’s ruined landscape. The hologram zoomed forward, bringing Astronema to the eye of Sauron. He spoke telepathic, so only the rumbling roar of his power could be heard.

 

“Yes, my liege……………………I will find them, my search is almost finished………………I believe this penal world holds the answers to who is stealing your energy,” she had to consciously stop herself from smiling at the irony. “It will be done………”

 

The holographic chamber deactivated. A wicked smile crossed Astronema’s face. “It will be done…”

 

***

 

The planet steamed while dawn approached, as the six rangers popped a hatch and rose to the surface. An intense wave of heat immediately brought sweat to their bodies.

 

“We don’t have much time,” Shara said as she entered the dry heat. “It’s almost dawn.”

 

Kat tried to establish a comm line with Cy, but she couldn’t reach him. “I can’t get through to the ship. There’s interference coming from somewhere.”

 

Shara suddenly screamed, but out of anger, not fear. The rangers immediately snapped into fighting stances as they saw Psycho Red hold a black blade to the girl’s throat.

 

“Let her go, Psycho,” Tommy said.

 

“I’m surprised, Tommy,” Psycho Red said, “even with all your experience, you still haven’t learned that saying ‘let her go’ is about as useless as fighting Quantrons with a squirt gun.”

 

“Do it!” Tommy shouted.

 

“I will make you a deal,” Psycho Red said. “A simple one. Stay here and fight me. To the death. No retreating. Winner gets to leave alive.”

 

“As long as you let her go first,” Tommy said.

 

“Very well,” Psycho Red said as he tossed her aside.

 

She muttered under her breath as she rose to her feet. “We’re all about to fry as soon as the sun comes up anyway, worthless Rangers…”

 

The six rangers readied their braces.

 

“Install, Astro Ranger!” they shouted as they morphed into their Ranger forms.

 

“Keitizer! Install!” Zhane shouted as he morphed into his silver armor.

 

Psycho Red glared at the incoming Rangers as they charged forward. He held his sword high. Primitive excitement coursed through his veins while the targets approached. He could already see their red blood on his black blade.

 

Psycho Red dashed forward. Astro Black and the Astro Rod were his first target. He parried and slashed with a single arc, sparking explosions across the Black Ranger’s chest. A simple sidekick to the faceplate knocked back Astro Blue. The girls moved in next – how long it had been since his sword had tasted female warrior blood – and Psycho Red slashed them across their chests with an ‘x’ pattern.

 

Psycho Red snapped back with a hook kick that slammed across Astro Silver’s head before the Ranger could strike with his Silver Blazer sword.

 

Astro Red moved in with a series of strikes from his Drill Saber. Psycho Red parried each blow while the opponents circled around each other.

 

Psycho Red swung horizontally towards Astro Red’s chest. Astro Red blocked the blow and twisted his sword to hold the Psycho’s blade down. The two opponents backfisted each other, their fists sparking against armor upon impact. They each took a step back from the blows.

 

Astro Red pulled his Astro Sniper and fired blue energy darts that Psycho Red rolled out of the way from. The villain rose back to his feet as Astro Red fired again. The Psycho twirled his black saber to deflect the blasts, and sent one of the energy darts exploding against Astro Red’s armor.

 

Psycho Red allowed himself a brief laugh. He loved hitting the Rangers with their own weapons. It was his most amusing trick.

 

Astro Red rolled across the ground as explosions sparked around him. He rose to his knees and pounced forward, leaping through the air while spearing his Drill Saber towards Psycho Red’s chest. Psycho Red sidestepped and trapped the saber beneath his left arm. He used his free hand to swing his blade towards Astro Red’s neck. Astro Red used the small blade on his Astro Sniper to block the blow.

 

Psycho Red leaned forward while kicking the feet out from underneath the Ranger. Astro Red fell to his back.

 

Psycho Red swung his saber down towards Astro Red’s head. Astro Red parried the blow, but Psycho Red swung back and knocked the Drill Saber away. Astro Red started to aim his sniper forward, but Psycho Red used his foot to pin the Ranger’s wrist to the ground.

 

Astro Red used his free hand to smash the side of Psycho Red’s knee. The villain stepped back as Astro Red rolled back into a crouched position and pounced forward with a sidekick against the chest.

 

Before the fight could continue, a gust of artificial wind blew the two combatants backward.

 

Psycho Red shouted with anger. He had been so close! Who had dared to stop him! He looked up to see Psycho Black.

 

“Psycho Red,” Psycho Black spat while rolling his hands into fists. “I will kill you for this…going out alone? Attacking alone? What if you had killed them all? We fight as ONE! Red on Red! Black on Black! It’s not complicated, you fool!”

 

Psycho Red tightened his grip on his blade, his body trembling with anger. “You have just robbed me of my kill…you are unforgiven!”

 

Psycho Red charged forward towards Psycho Black. Nearby, Astro Pink stayed by Nolan’s side. He was still unconscious, but Psycho Red’s voice stirred something within his memory. Nolan remembered more from the psychic imprint he received in the underground jail. Once again, he lived the memory through the inmate’s eyes. Once again, he was Zero…

 

My mission was complete. I stood in front of a Tripia, a man of little consequence who was probably too stupid to realize what was happening in the galaxy…not that any of it really mattered in the grand scheme of things. He was looking over a data pad, his yellow eyes darting back and forth across the screen.

 

“Very good…yes…very good…” he said to himself. He looked to one of his assistants, still not acknowledging my presence. “Wipe the unit’s memory and reprogram it for its next assignment.”

 

Did he just call me a unit? Wipe my memory? Rage boiled in my veins. Without memory, I would forget about my victory. Without victory, there was no life. Victory was life. He was going to kill me!

 

I snapped forward, swinging my crescent-shaped blades in an ‘x’ pattern and decapitating the Tripia in front of me. One of the technicians screamed, quite an annoying sound, so I hacked out her throat with single swipe from my weapon.

 

Another scientist in the room tried to sound an alarm, but my blade soon taught him how hard it was to do such a thing without a hand.

 

***

 

I stole a shuttle pod and escaped, but I was not free. What was I to do? My mission was complete. So now what? What was I to do?

 

My ship’s sensors picked up a signal from a nearby cruise ship. A cold smile spread across my face. I would make my own targets. My own missions. My own kills.

 

***

 

I sat cross-legged on the cruise ship’s banquet table. I took a bite out of a fried animal that had been prepared for the crew, which was dead. Every one of them.

 

The meat tasted dry and burnt. It wasn’t raw, that was the problem. I wanted red meat. Wet meat.

 

I flipped off the table and landed on the deck before starting back towards my shuttle pod. “Wet meat.” It wasn’t much of an objective for someone who had helped overthrow an entire planet, but it was a start.

 

***

 

I ran through the corridors of a small outpost on the galactic rim. The inhabitants were humanoids, meaning they could have come from a handful of different worlds. But it didn’t matter. They were targets. And they fell just as easily as all my other targets.

 

Gods! It was getting so mundane. Snap, thrust, parry kill, skin, parry, kill. I need a challenge, I thought as I ran another human through with my blade. I was tired of slaughtering, not because it was senseless, but because it was boring.

 

“Murderer!” I heard a voice call from behind me. I turned to face the person. It was Nolan, a Talion Justice. He summoned his tsincaat and aimed the weapon at my head. “You’ll pay for the people you’ve killed here today!”

 

He appeared to be a semi-worthy opponent. I charged forward, spinning my blades, and swung a blade towards his head. He used his slender saber to block the blow and push back while kicking me in the gut. He spun forward, his cloak twirling around him while he spinning sidekicked me in the chest.

 

Finally! I already hated him, and I loved it. I swung both my blades in a combination of strikes that should have cut Nolan into four pieces at least. But the agile fighter leapt over me, kicking me in the back of the neck. Pain shot down my spun.

 

Nolan kicked out against the side of my knee, snapping my leg. I fell to the ground as he slammed the hilt of his sword against my temple. Blackness consumed me as I fell to the ground.

 

***

 

Psycho Red hopped forward and swung his blade down towards Psycho Black’s head. Psycho Black used his forearm to parry the blow and swung a punch towards Psycho Red’s gut, but Psycho Red sidestepped away from the blow and slammed a roundkick against Black’s side.

 

Psycho Red lunged forward and slammed a punch against Psycho Black’s faceplate.

 

The Rangers regrouped, watching as the two Psychos beat against each other. Suddenly, a blinding light rose over the horizon. It was the sun.

 

“We’re out of time,” Shara said as she started to sprint away.

 

“Damn,” Astro Red said under his breath. The Rangers started running towards the planet’s dark side as he activated his communicator. “Cyber Sliders!”

 

A blanket of fire formed in the distance as the sun’s blazing light spread across the surface. The fire tumbled forward towards the Rangers and Psychos.

 

The two Psycho Rangers teleported away with a distorted energy wave seconds before fire consumed the ground behind them.

 

The Cyber Sliders flew into formation. The Rangers leapt forward with Nolan and Shara. They leaned forward, accelerating as the flame approached them. Shara screamed, the heat burning her skin.

 

“Cy!” Astro Red shouted over his helmet’s communicator. Get the Megaship over here and open the bay doors! Get in front of us, but keep moving!”

 

The Rangers poured on the speed as the Megaship came into view in the distance. They leaned forward as far as they could, essential becoming bullets as they blasted into the bay doors and went skidding along the deck plating. The bay doors shut just as flames scarred the hull plating, and the Megaship blasted back into space.

 

But their troubles weren’t over. Astronema’s Dark Fortress was blocking their escape vector.

 

***

 

The Stirji’mn loaded and escape pod onto their deck. The occupant was single human, and the Diggers were hoping he had answers for them. Answers about the Committee and its corrupt leadership.

 

Stirji’mn crew members were mostly Digree’elves, or Diggers as they were commonly called. A few humans, ram-headed Peroytians, and a seven-foot ogre-type being with leathery segmented flesh called a Torgk rounded out the crew.

 

The Diggers gathered around the escape pod as it hissed open. Tarrant pounced out immediately and lunged towards the nearest orange-skinned pirate. The lead Digger sidestepped and slammed the butt of his weapon against the back of Tarrant’s head. Tarrant collapsed to the ground.

 

“It’s just a kid,” the lead Digger said. He placed his foot on the kid’s back to keep him from getting up. “Listen up. My name’s Gidyin. You’re on my ship. My ship. My rules. Since you’re young, we’ll go easy on you, unless you give us a reason not to.”

 

“You gutter-kin killed my father!” he shouted while being pinned down.

 

Gidyin looked to his first mate, the red-eyed, yellow-skinned Torgk. Torgk’s segments rippled, the equivalent of a shrug. “A spawn of the Taibon?”

 

Gidyin looked back down towards the boy. “We killed the Taibon, kid, that’s about it. We burnt the Ryl, emptied the cargo bays, and left.”

 

“Liar,” Tarrant spat. “Those lions. I saw them…I saw them kill my father.”

 

Gidyin narrowed his brow. “Youngling…we have no lions.”

 

***

 

Jikku was still in the bowels of the Ring. He had one more thing to do before moving on. He needed access to crawl space, but he was too big to squeeze through.

 

He moved to a dark corner where a wretched drug addict prostituted her young boy, no older than 12 standard years. The boy’s smooth, walnut-colored skin was barely covered with an open vest, exposing his nipples, and a piece of cloth tied around his waist to cover his front. His buttocks was showing.

 

The site made Jikku sick to his stomach.

 

“How much for the boy,” Jikku asked.

 

“300 credits for an hour,” the woman said. “There’s an empty supply closet above the stairwell.”

 

Jikku grabbed the boy by the arm and moved into the supply closet. The doors slid shut, and the boy pounced forward with a spinning sidekick that crashed against Jikku’s back. It was a ruse Jikku should of saw through immediately. The boy and his mother apparently mugged customers, as opposed to providing services.

 

“Stupid and a pervert,” the kid said as he went to kick Jikku upside the head. Jikku grabbed the boy’s ankle and flipped him off his feet.

 

“It’s not what you think,” Jikku explained. “I need something stolen, but I’m too big to fit through the air ducts.”

 

The boy flipped back to his feet. “Robbing you is so much more easy than crawling through air ducts, pervert.”

 

Jikku lunged forward with one hand and lifted the boy up by the neck. “I can pay you much more than I have on my person, and take you off of this hell hole.”

 

“So you can have your way with me, you sick zfahc?” the boy asked.

 

Jikku sighed and shook his head as the boy continued to struggle. “I’d hate to do this to you, boy.”

 

Jikku ripped off the boy’s waist cloth, dropped the kid, and tied his hands behind his back. He ripped off the vest, and used that to tie up his ankles.

 

“Now listen,” Jikku said. “I can pay you 2,000 credits up front, and transfer another 4,000 after you do the job. After that, I can drop you off on a civilized planet and get you some real food and shelter.”

 

“Go zfahc a boar,” the boy spat.

 

“Fine,” Jikku said. “I’ll find some other lift-skirt brat. I don’t have time for this.”

 

He started away from the room.

 

“Wait!” the boy called, not wanted to be left naked and tied up alone. “7,000.”

 

“Done,” Jikku said. “Now here’s the plan…”

 

***

 

Jikku gave the boy a robe and sent him into the duct system. The child, Zehk, had spent his whole life as a thief and mugger. He knew the duct systems on the Ring like the back of his hand. He crawled through the vent system and approached his target: one of the outer cargo bays. It was not guarded.

 

Zehk flipped down from the vent and landed in a crouched position on the deck. He moved over to one of the larger containers and pulled several small, yellow packets. He wasn’t sure what the packets were for. He just knew that Jikku was willing to pay a lot for them.

 

He wrapped the packets into his robe and moved off.

 

***

 

“Deploy armor,” Tommy said as the Dark Fortress grew larger in the Megaship viewport.

 

DECA’s voice sounded over the comm system. “Ablative armor is offline.”

 

“Polarize the hull plating,” Tommy said. He activated his Battleizer. “Delta Mega, Install.”

 

The Delta Mega speared into real-space and formed into position ahead of the Megaship. The sleek black craft opened fire with a rapid volley of yellow energy darts that exploded against the Dark Fortress’s weapon platforms and turrets.

 

The Megaship blasted past the Dark Fortress and shot into hyperspace.

 

***

 

“Eclipter,” Astronema said as her general stepped forward behind her. “Is the tracking device safely on the Megaship’s hull?”

 

“It is, my princess,” Eclipter said.

 

A cold smile spread across her face. “Good.”

 

***

 

The truth struck Tarrant silent; a truth he couldn’t doubt because of the overwhelming evidence. Evidence pointing to the Committee. To evil.

 

He was given temporary quarters on the pirate vessel. He sat upright in bed, unable to catch a moment’s rest. The doors slid open, and Gidyin walked inside the small room.

 

Tarrant wrinkled his brow at the Digger. The boy still felt anger towards the pirates for their attacks.

 

“Feeling any better yet, kid?” Gidyin asked.

 

Tarrant huffed. “Sympathy? From a Digger? Please, spare me,” he said in a mocking tone. “Everything I had is gone because of you. I don‘t care if the creatures that killed my father were bred from the Taibon. I don‘t care how corrupt the Committee is…if you hadn‘t attacked our ship, my father would still be alive, and my life would still be in tact.”

 

“But to what end?” Gidyin asked as he leaned against the wall. “The Committee is a cancer, Tarrant. They devour everything within their grasp. Even your father knew this.”

 

He narrowed his eyes at the pirate. “Don’t you dare speak of him.”

 

“Why?” Gidyin said. “He knew the truth. In fact, it turns out your father was occasionally an informant for us.”

 

“How do you know this?” Tarrant asked.

 

“Come with me,” Gidyin said as he opened the door. “I’ll show you. And teach you more about the Committee. We have time to kill before we arrive at our destination: The Ring at Kowlune.”

 

***

 

Zehk dropped back down into the room he’d left Jikku. The young thief pulled out the packets and handed them to the mercenary.

 

“What are these things anyway?” Zehk asked. You freaky, freak.

 

“Plans,” Jikku answered as he inserted one of the packets into his data pad. “The Ring has one of the most complex trash compacting systems ever built. I plan to navigate it.”

 

“That’s dumb as dung,” Zehk said.

 

“No,” Jiiku said. “Not with these plans. Now…I’ll return within a cycle. Wait here.”

 

“No way,” Zehk said. “I’m coming with you. You think I’m just some dumb urchin? I’m not going to let you ditch me. Part of our deal is you take me off the Ring.”

 

Jiiku sighed. Maybe the boy could be useful. Besides, he didn’t have time to argue. “Very well. Just don’t slow me down.”

 

Zehk snorted. “Or what?”

 

“I’ll sell you to someone who likes bondage and young meat.”

 

Zehk shut up and followed.

 

***

 

The Megaship cut through the blue-light tunnels of hyperspace. In the meantime, Tommy and Justin watched over Nolan in the ship’s sick bay. The stranger was still unconscious.

Nolan was still dreaming, reliving moments of a life that weren’t really his…

 

I awoke in the bowls of a penitentiary. It was an unsettling experience, not because of the dirt-and-grime-covered inmates that hollered at me, the guards that threw things at me, or my bindings…it was unsettling because they took my weapons! My blades were gone!

 

I glared up at one of the guards. As the latest newcomer, I was chained at the center of the pit while the inmates gathered around to taunt me. The guards walked on paths that wove around the pit’s edge up above.

 

“My weapons,” I said to the guard. “Return them.”

 

Laughter burst through the pit. They actually laughed.

 

“You think this is amusing? Very well…”

 

I whipped one of my chains out and wrapped it around the neck of an inmate. I snapped the inmate off his feet and towards me as I slammed the back of my fist across his head, crushing his skull.

 

The other prisoners screamed with rage, and some charged towards me. I snapped my left chain hard against an inmate’s throat to crush his windpipe. I snapped the neck of a prisoner who got too close. The fools kept charging me, and I kept taking them down.

 

Gates screeched open and loud growling came from the shadows. The prisoners ran in fear, slamming themselves back into their jail cells. I was intrigued. What could have scared these fools so?

 

Tiger-like creatures covered with dirt-silver plates of bone armor pounced from the shadows. One of the prisoners was toppled to the ground and torn to shreds in a matter of seconds. A second beast eyed me and pounced forward.

 

I merely stepped aside, letting the creature jump past me. It landed on the pit ground and skid to a halt before turning to face me. Its eyes were deep silver and red. It snarled, confused by my presence.

 

The tiger felt a sort of kinship with me, and I it. It was a startling experience. I felt more connected to this tiger than I did with anything, except my blades. The tiger and I stared each other down as the other creatures started to circle around us.

 

Nolan abruptly sat up on the medical bed, his forehead in a sweat and his eyes opened wide with shock.

 

“It’s okay,” Tommy said. “You’re off the penal colony. You were unconscious when we found you.”

 

Nolan nodded as he swung his legs off the bed and sat on its edge. “Where am I now? And who are you?”

 

“We’re Rangers,” Tommy said. “You’re on board our ship.”

 

“Who are you,” Justin asked with a hint of suspicion in his voice. “You don’t look like an inmate. Were you just visiting?”

 

“In a sense,” Nolan answered. “I am Nolan. A Talion Justice.”

 

“Talion?” Justin asked.

 

“The Talion, the few of us remaining, are protectors of justice,“ Nolan nodded. “We are not so different. Although I heard tales of you Earth Rangers and thought them only rumor.”

 

Nolan had succeeded in sparking Justin’s curiosity. “What kind of tales?” the ranger asked.

 

“The Rigel campaign, your fight against the spores on Titan, escaping the Night Sisters, running afoul of Scorpius and the Kilrathi…there are many tales, and the details depend on who tells them,” Nolan said.

 

“So why were you on the penal colony?” Tommy asked.

 

Nolan told the rangers about the captives. How he went to the penal colony to investigate, but was trapped there. His most disturbing account was of his memories from Zero.

 

“Something about this man is important,” Nolan said. “I just don’t know what…”

 

Tommy nodded. “And he was captured by Astronema?” Tommy asked.

 

Nolan nodded.

 

Justin looked to Tommy. “The kidnapping was around the time those Psycho Rangers popped up. It could just be a coincidence…”

 

“No, I agree,” Tommy said. “It does make sense.”

 

“But there’s more,” Nolan explained. “The psionic imprint I picked up…I have access to his memories after his leaving the penal colony. That his how strong the imprint left behind was. I assume it was a kind of tracking device left for certain telepaths, but I am uncertain.”

 

“See what else you can find out,” Tommy said as he activated his communicator. “Kat, get Nolan set up in a room. I’ll have Justin escort him to meet you on C Deck.”

 

“Thank you,” Nolan said as he placed a hand on Tommy’s shoulder, a common gesture of gratitude that made Tommy a bit uncomfortable.

 

“It’s not a problem,” Tommy said.

 

DECA’s voice came through the comm speakers. “We are approaching the Ring.”

 

“Good,” Tommy answered. “Take us in.”

 

To be continued...Chapter 23