Power Ranger Mania The Fanfic Shoppe The Yost  

 

Disclaimer: Even after all this time no one has seen fit to give me rights to the Power Rangers— sad, but true. Yet here we are, the long-delayed conculsion to the 'Sun Goes Down' series which it really would help if you had read before attempting this one. It is dedicated to Dagmar and Mele in particular for their patience and assistance and just being good friends. Good friends who know when I need thwapping to get on with it and when I genuinely can't write for whatever reason and don't need to guilt trip on it. Thankyou to all those who have waited so patiently for this last installment, and I hope it was worth it! Enjoy!

The Sun Goes Down
by Peregrine

"So this is how it ends: the dark is all
There is no ending to this final night,
There is no answer to the silent call,
Beyond the darkness, never glimpse of light."
—Dark Ending; Mercedes Lackey

Hurrying footsteps. The sounds echoed down the corridor, of someone desperately trying to walk faster than they effectively could but not having the space to run. Every now and then the urgency produced an increase in pace, but he had already run most of the way already and was also trying to think of a way to impart the news he had, without destroying what little hope they had left.

"Even I'd want to shoot the messenger on this one," the Black Frog Ninjetti murmured aloud as he rounded a junction. Adam half-broke into a run as he finally reached the new Power Chamber, dark eyes searching instinctively for a figure dressed in blue... and rather disconcertingly finding several where he was used to finding one.

"Billy?" Adam called out, hurrying over, tension in his every movement.

From out of the crowd of Blue Ninjetti gathered around various consoles, one pushed back a chair.

"Adam? The Phaedos fleet arrived yet?" Billy asked, still typing with one hand, giving a slight frown at the information on his screens. That wasn't so good... hmm. Perhaps if he moved the variables around a little, gave them a tweak, they might feel right. At the moment he was getting some strange information back from the Power Chamber's consoles.

"Yes... well they were still landing at Moonbase when I had to return here," Adam began but was interrupted by Billy hastening on to what he thought was the conclusion.

"Great... we'll get them settled in and then have a quick orientation session." The Blue Wolf Ninjetti nodded to himself, satisfied with that course of events.

Adam took a deep breath. "There won't be time for that," he said and was aware of the sound around him fading out as people paused to listen. At one time that would have made him unbearably nervous but now it was what he had to say, not just saying it that was giving him a problem.

"What?" Billy recognised the tone in his voice. "What's wrong, Adam?"

"The Ninjetti first in have reported seeing the advance force of the Nid-hi... at..." Adam swallowed to wet a mouth suddenly dry with an immediate pounding fear so he could get this urgent message out. "At ... only a few hours outside our solar system."

A deathly hush descended, paralysing everyone in the Power Chamber as Billy's pale face looked up at him, mutely begging him to tell him this wasn't true.

"I'm... sorry," Adam said helplessly, knowing that this was really bad news, as they all did. He couldn't change the truth, however terrible it was, and found himself instinctively apologising for events out of his control as if somehow that would make it better. He was close enough to see his friend's hand shake before he pushed himself up, rapidly accessing data that confirmed this information.

"How the hell did they manage that?" Justin blurted out with more than a hint of panic in his voice. "Last estimate gave us over a day before they were even close enough to think about!"

"I made an error," Billy said in a tightly controlled voice. That had to be it, he had been the one mapping that data, so it was his responsibility. He must have missed something somewhere, only he was sure he had double-checked his conclusions and methodology over and over.

"I must have underestimated their fleet capabilities. I made an assumption they were travelling at their optimum speed when they thought Phaedos was the target." The Blue Wolf Ninjetti paused for a moment, trying to hide the cycles of self-recrimination that would haunt him now from surfacing on his expression. Whatever the outcome, he would always remember this failure at the very start. He needed TIME... he needed time to prepare and now he'd lost that margin he had clawed back from the enemy in one moment of foolish stupidity.

He nodded to Trini over at the other side of the console bank who opened a communications channel, her voice ringing out with a quiet authority in response to the inaudible communication between them.

"All Master Ninjetti report to the Power Chamber immediately. I repeat, immediately. Ninjetti personnel to prepare for Zord offensive in one earth hour. Zord offensive protocols now in place!"

"But..." Justin looked horrified, still finding it difficult to accept they had been so misled and immediately seeing their vulnerabilities with his keen mind, prioritising one of them to the top. "The Allies' fleet is nowhere near here yet... it's on the way from Triforia!"

By now most people in the room had already worked that out and Adam remained watching Billy's face, seeing that momentary fleeting panic and despair cross his expression before he erased all but a faint anxiety as he turned to face everyone pouring into the Power Chamber from every entrance.

Jason and Tommy practically ran in, stopping swiftly as they saw the expressions of those already there, halted by the nearly tangible tension that permeated the room in an oppressive atmosphere. By the time they were all assembled everyone KNEW there was something wrong, they just didn't know exactly what, and that in turn made them even more nervous and jumpy. Billy's close friends knew him well enough to recognise the signals; the brushing back of the hair, the slight frown despite the measured breathing that practically screamed that there was major trouble pending.

"I need to buy back time," Billy muttered and then looked up. "Guys, we have a serious problem. The Darkness Visible and the Nid-hi will be in striking distance of Earth itself in less than six hours. Ideally we need to stop them before they even get that far, and we need that time to set up our Ninjetti fleet."

The Ninjetti leaders looked at each other, unsure of where to start. All their battle plans of the past few days had been turned on their heads in one fell stroke and even their worst-case scenario had not envisaged being without some support.

"Should we ask the Council of the Wise about this?" Rocky frowned, his mind aghast at the scale of this problem as Justin called up more direct information. The various downloads from the Zords that had just sped from Phaedos showed a variety of images of the vast space armada bearing down inexorably on their solar system, and its frighteningly close proximity to their point in space.

Billy looked up at the images on the screen and fell silent for a moment. Cestro glanced at him sympathetically as the Blue Wolf Ninjetti made a hard decision, hearing the heavy sigh where others did not.

"No. Because they would not condone what I am about to ask us all to do." Billy looked around, appealing to them with his eyes for co-operation. When they realised what one of his contingency plans was, they might balk at the idea. "Jason, Zack, Trini and any of you others with diplomatic skills—I need you now. Justin, pull up the WolfTech Plan, password Unilateral Disarmament."

The young Blue Dolphin Ninjetti's eyes widened as he dutifully pulled up the hypothetical strategy that Billy required. A map of the world flashed up in their expanded viewing globe, complete with red marker dots clustered in various places.

Jason frowned. He recognised that pattern... or at least he thought he did. From his days at the Peace Conference meetings, surely they had had some similar maps up, but he was trying to remember what for exactly. "Billy... what are you planning here?" he asked cautiously, looking at his longtime friend as if searching for signs of some coherent plan.

The sandy-haired Ranger looked round and gave a slight half-smile, which was more an expression of his appreciation of irony than an attempt to be comforting. "You remember talking to me about the Peace Conference? How it made you just want to get all the leaders together and tell them disarmament was going to happen whether they liked it or not and to stop acting like kids who were clinging to toys just because someone was trying to take them away?"

Jason blushed a little. "Er... yeah..." he shifted uncomfortably as he noticed his parents grinning in the background. Zack and Trini were also suppressing amusement. That was Jason all over.

Billy tapped a rapid series of commands and the teleporter started a major power accumulation.

"You may get your wish if this strategy is implemented. Cestro, you mind targeting and locking all these individuals and transporting them to our conference room?" Flash screens of famous faces appeared, Presidents, Leaders, Prime ministers. Billy looked at them a moment, people he had seen as wielders of the political powers of the world and now ... he was going to personally upset them a great deal.

"For a good Cause," his wolf spirit soothed.

"It would have to be," Billy replied mentally and took a deep breath before saying as nonchalantly as possible, "Jase ... you get to explain to them that we are appropriating their nuclear weapons."

Now that caused a stir in the Chamber around them. It would be hard to believe that there wouldn't be some form of reaction to such a radical proposal, though the form it came in was not necessarily what anyone expected.

"Wait, wait..." Rocky's mother stepped forward. "You can't just go around taking nuclear weapons!" She paused, looking around at the others. "Can you?"

"Er..." Hank Cranston gazed at Billy steadily. "I believe he can. The WolfTech nanochip, right?"

Billy nodded, grateful for his father's perception.

"Yes, but... isn't that stealing? I mean, we're not talking shoplifting here!" Rocky's mother protested, the enormity of this was getting to her. This was something they all had a grounding in, that her generation had grown up with—the inherent horror of nuclear weapons. How delicate a matter it would be to disarm; how terrifying what a destabilisation of power could do, and here was a young man, barely old enough to be in college, dictating this impossible thing!

"Mama, we're not dealing with something minor here either," Rocky intervened hastily.

"I am perfectly aware of that. Otherwise he would be grounded so fast his feet wouldn't touch the ground!" Lillian DeSantos paused, realising how ridiculous that sounded. "Only... I haven't yet decided what sort of punishment appropriating the thermonuclear capability of a planet involves. The nearest precedent is Rocky breaking Aunt Louisa's Vase."

For some reason the Ninjetti could not keep a straight face at that and the tension broke up into helpless chortles at the utter insanity of this situation. Here they were, discussing radically changing their world in such a dramatic fashion, and all it was from the perspective of the coming battle was... a delaying tactic.

Jason, Trini and Zack had had more lectures than they cared to remember on the implications of such a thing and under the cover of the hysteria-tinged laughter, the Red Lion Ninjetti spoke in a low voice to his friend. "Are you SURE we have to do this?"

Billy looked at him, leaning on the console, head turned sideways as if weighed down by an unbearable pressure. He felt old suddenly, weary beyond hope or belief.

"If I could think of another way... I would," he admitted by way of a response. "We will just have to hope there is someone left with the maturity to see this as an opportunity, should we make it. Jase... I really need you to try and ... communicate to these leaders what is happening. The odds are more that they will actually make Earth strikes now. I hoped to keep them away and not even have them aware of danger... but I think we are beyond that point."

"Lock is ready, Billy," Cestro informed him quietly, interrupting the private conference.

Billy nodded, looking to Jason as if to search for condemnation in his face and apparently found none.

"Teleport... and then begin the co-ordinate lock based on the military nano-chips that have been supplied by WolfTech. Every country in the world upgraded their missiles to compete with each other on that one," he sighed. "You best go, guys... there's a room full of confused world leaders who'd probably like to do more than ground me for a while."

Jason nodded and along with Trini, Zack, Delphine, Sisthaa and J'shaar strode off to the conference room, wondering as he walked how it was that Billy was making these decisions and not the Mentors. Maybe his longtime friend had a good reason—maybe he really did give credit to Phantom's claim that there was a traitor among the Council of the Wise. Suiting up in full Ninjetti guise so he would be recognisable as a Power Ranger along with the others, he took a deep breath and stepped through the open door to the conference room into chaos.

~*~

The atmosphere on the vast space fleet of the Darkness Visible was electric with excitement. Normally staid Nid-hi who usually comported themselves with dignity were behaving as badly as those who hadn't even shed their first horns. Finally the Purpose of their existence came down to here and now. They were the Chosen; they were coming out of the Outer Darkness to wage a Holy War. They were the ones of their race chosen to be alive here and now in the final confrontation and their minds were filled with the presentiment of destiny, coloured with myth and legend of their ancestors. It was an intoxicating thing to have such a meaningful focus to your life as a battle between Good and Evil, especially when you were so obviously in the right. That surety flowed through the veins of the entire race—bred in, trained in from an early age and reaching its flower in this moment.

Ilana the Silver Nid-hi was contemplating in a balancing meditation before she was to join her Deity in the accomplishment of the grand destiny of Order. Not a time for doubt.

"Jihad," she said, tasting the unfamiliar word in her mouth. The Darkness Visible had spoken the word and explained its power. Holy War. A war fought by the righteous to cleanse corruption from existence. They of course were the righteous, which by definition made the despised Ninjetti the force of corruption. And yet... and yet ... the worm of doubt was wriggling in the fertile depths of her mind.

A memory of waking, and he was there. The one whom she had tortured, he was there and there was no hatred in his eyes, only a questioning and fear of her. He could have slain her, weakened as she was after the joining with her Spider Spirit to channel that Power to the designs of the One. But he hadn't, had he? For a moment, it had seemed... seemed that he wanted to talk. Where had been the Evil? The Chaos that was meant to mark them with its taint?

She shuddered. Deception. Illusion. The One had said they twisted thoughts to encourage chaos in the mind of the righteous. Certainly there was confusion in her thoughts after she had been in contact with him. Even now her usual incomparable focus was destroyed by those gentle eyes. She could not head into battle until her thoughts were clean and sharp, focussed like a knife willing to strike without hesitation.

And yet... Order was Reason and he had seemed reasonable. He had seemed to hold in him the qualities of a Nid-hi.

No! Blasphemy!

Deep inside the suspicion that their mortal enemies might not necessarily be evil rocked the foundations of her mind and she retreated in fear from her own thoughts. No... this indecision was THEIR work. The One had Chosen the Nid-hi from their dying world when they had been little more than a child race. He had sheltered them, fed them, was their future and had promised them the fulfilment of their greatest need when they succeeded. A Home... a Home. For a space- born race they had been taught that they suffered the Darkness because they were destined to rule the Light in the name of Order. And so it had seemed as they conquered world after world, the order trained into their very selves making them adept at the power of Order, of the spirit of which the Ninjetti wielded a perverted corruption. That in itself showed that the realms of Spirit, that the universe itself supported their quest. And when the One retrieved the Orb of Order from the despised Ninjetti, then they would be elevated to their rightful destiny! Yes!

Amethyst highlights glinting in her liquid eyes, Ilana rose, her mind locked and purposeful. She would not abandon the purpose to which she had dedicated her life because of the look in the eyes of a creature of Chaos.

"No. The Jihad will come, and the righteous will win," she thought as she turned and walked to the command bridge of the fleet, committed now to her chosen path.

~*~

"Mr President, you are missing the point." Jason's voice cut through the tirade of bluster and indignity, projecting perfectly from his Ninjetti Spirit Warrior-armoured helmet. "Yes, there is an alien attack. No, it's NOT us... This is the attack we face." He showed the transmitted images up on one of the conference walls of the approaching invading Armada.

"Do you have ANY idea of the ramifications of what you are proposing?" The President of the United States blustered, trying to claw back a semblance of control and dignity.

"If you can indeed do what you claim you are going to do." One of the Middle Eastern Leaders said sourly, obviously sceptical.

"We are well aware of what this will mean," Trini said calmly. "And we have the capability to do this. We do not have the time or energy for wasteful posturing." There was a smooth criticism in her phrase. Jason had not been the only one to be annoyed by politics and bureaucracy at the Peace Conference.

"Absolutely unconscionable!" the Prime Minister of India said, clenching her hands more in fear than anything else. They had not long become a nuclear nation and now it was going to be stripped away!

"I suspect that you do not appreciate the gravity of this attack," Delphine soothed from behind her Ninjetti garb. The alien appearance of the Aquitians might be too much for them to deal with at this point in time

"I suspect, Miss, that you do not appreciate the impact of your actions on our countries!" she retorted. The murmur of agreement became a babble of confused and outraged sentiment, the world's leaders ironically perfectly in accord over the one thing they had never been able to agree upon before.

Jason lost his temper. In a deliberate, controlled and overall diplomatic fashion. His gauntleted fist slammed on the table, cutting through the chaos and noise.

"Quiet!" he bellowed in the tone that had made his Ranger teams jump to attention for so many years. It seemed to work.

"You all fail to grasp the point of this meeting. This is not a meeting to REQUEST whether we can do this; it is a meeting to ADVISE you what we are doing! " Jason said forcefully, his tone uncompromising. "We are taking your nuclear capability in a desperate attempt to save the Earth. Frankly, if there is anything left of your nations after this conflict, then you can lodge a complaint against us." His voice carried an unmistakable sarcastic edge that berated these adults for being petty in the face of overwhelming danger.

"Think about it as an opportunity," Zack interjected smoothly. "Under what other circumstances would you have the possibility of starting on an equal footing, and not dealing down the barrel of a gun? And, guys...." the familiarity slipped out as Zack's particular skill in diplomacy came into play, that of drawing everyone into a 'circle of friends' whether it existed or not before his intervention, "You've got to work together. We've been caught on the hop, we are outnumbered and outgunned, and we are going to need all the help we can get. This will mean from the Earth itself. I'd like to be confident enough to say the fight will never make it here... but man, those Nid-hi are tough." There was the impression of a smile in his voice, though his helmet masked his expression. "But then so are we!"

"It would be recommended that you put your military forces on alert," Trini interjected smoothly, providing the calming, familiar restrained diplomacy they were more familiar with and using it to settle them down a little, "... and take whatever provisions you, as leaders of your respective countries, deem necessary to protect your nations' people."

Assaulted from all sides, the various leaders were almost stunned into silence. Jason looked at them all and sighed inwardly. Well, they could not afford more time arguing a foregone conclusion.

"I thank you for you co-operation," Jason announced, aware of the irony. "We must get ready for the forthcoming conflict. You will be returned to where you were taken from and I hope you will take heed of our warnings. Good luck." He finished abruptly and signalled Cestro who teleported them away mid-protest.

Jason sat down slowly, un-helmeting himself and sighed in an exhalation of frustration and anxiety. "Well, that went well," he said wryly.

"Man, I'm not going to even consider how many acts of high treason you managed there," Zack joked, waggling a reproving finger at the Red Lion Ninjetti. "I can't think of anyone who has managed to upset quite so many important people all at once."

"Zack... don't tease him." Trini placed a gentle hand on Jason's muscular shoulder, recognising that subtle tension of unease and distress that showed in his posture. "You did well. They will listen— and frankly, they have no choice."

"Yeah... and that's what makes it stink, you know?" Jason replied fatalistically. He stared at the inexorably moving images on the view screen as they hypnotised him with their sheer numbers and threatening form. "If they'd given them up of their own accord, then they really would be gone. This way they'll all be sneaking around, trying to build them back up and get the jump on the others..."

"If they survive," J'shaar pointed out helpfully, which just made the Red Lion Ninjetti wince.

"Yeah... I guess." Jason looked up again and then sighed. "Human nature... what a marvellous thing. Fight to live, and then if they win, start planning how to die." He was definitely getting a case of the pre-battle blues. He touched a hand to his spirit crystal and thought at Billy.

"Billy? You might as well go ahead... they aren't happy, but... frankly, I told them they would have to live with it."

"Thanks, Jase," Billy responded, catching a little of the flavour of the emotion-tinged thoughts.

"It will be all right, Jase," he sent quietly with as much reassurance as he could muster. "it's the right thing to do."

He hoped.

~*~

In amongst the frantic preparation Billy found time for a drink and sat staring once more at the transcript of the Prophecy they had heard on Triforia. Behind him part of his more underhanded battle surprises downloaded instructions secretly to the fleet, surprises he had not mentioned to anyone, mindful of the Phantom Ranger's adamant assertion of a traitor in their midst. What a horrible sour thing it was to suspect one of your own! The Wolf part of him recoiled from the thought. Pack was Pack, and it was against every spirit instinct he was imbued with to distrust the Pack. That made it more difficult, but his human spirit knew all to well what those who fancied themselves 'higher' than animals could and would do to further their own ends; including betrayal. Even this exercise of studying the Triforian Prophecy was an effort to somehow unravel the binding threads of their apparent doom. Since they had learnt that the Prophecies had been an explicit attempt by the first Master Ninjetti Bar'ak to pass on information, Billy had become more convinced that there were answers there ... or at the very least the questions that needed to be asked.

"The Sun goes Down... Beware the Darkness Visible." Well, that made more sense now. After their brief encounter, he could see why the entity had been named the Darkness Visible, as that is what it had done and had been its powerful weapon. Made their fears, negative emotions visible to them in its amorphous form and then gave them a reality of their own as it turned it loose. Was that a limited ability? Possibly ... but they had hurt it... with Ninjetti power. If it could be hurt it could be beaten, he had to keep telling himself that.

"In that Darkness no Light exists, but it is swallowed by Darkness. Yea, even that of the Shahin Tara Zed," he read aloud. His wolf-spirit rumbled within him at the stirring of denial that came when he contemplated the thought that his friend had a death and defeat written throughout the ages, echoed by wielders of the Power from across the Galaxy.

"That has to be about Skye," he said, maintaining a level tone. "And the fact that even if he wins or loses, he will not survive." Even to himself the statement sounded brittle with anger.

"It is his destiny to face the darkness." The wolfspirit spoke up.

"Don't you start. All the mentors can say is how it's his destiny to die and they are so accepting of it that they don't even attempt to question to see if it could be another way," Billy replied acerbically. "There has to be a way to save him!"

"You named him Phoenix."

The wolfspirit reminded him of the subtle hope he had invested in his choice, knowing even then that Skye had believed he would not live, even before the Council of the Wise shared their utter certainty of the artist's role. To them he was a tool, a weapon. When he made his final decision on Phaedos to become the Ninjettis' weapon, it was as if that final transformation had rendered him with as much soul as a sword or an arrow in the mentors' eyes. Trini had said that it was something to do with the fact he could not choose any more, that even the smallest particle of life had choice inherent in its being. Skye, as of the moment they were joined, did not. He lived because according to the Great Power, Billy's Will dictated it, not because he had a choice and for Billy that was a responsibility that he was not sure he could bear.

"I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I hadn't tried everything I could, not just for him, but for everyone," Billy said wearily. In a peculiar way he felt responsible for this conflict, even though logically he knew he was being swept along on a tide of events. "And there is always more I can do or could have done." The very air around him seemed heavy at that moment as he read on, trying to wish the responsibilities away.

"The threat is more than that which threatens the Light alone - All is threatened in the Fall of Darkness." Billy shivered as if a shadow had passed across him as he had described. "See now, that almost blatantly says 'do not assume you know what is going to happen'. Hmmm, obviously we are the Light, colours are a property of light after all, so if it is not just us that is threatened, then how much does ALL actually mean? Everything?" He shook his head at the ambiguousness of the phrase, skipping a little in his haste to find clues.

"Beware the Shadows in the Darkness. They will strike from within the Light, they will strike from within the Night, in ways unlooked for, for their Mind is not as it seems." That brought an unwelcome conclusion. "Phantom is right, we do have a traitor... but who? One reason why the Ferian X shipment was a secret even from them, and the nuclear strike." Billy groaned. So complicated!

So much had come to rest on him because of this suspicion, because he did not know if he could trust anyone. He HATED that. He had been through that stage in his life and wanted no more of it, gnawing away at him, constantly on guard. "Is he right that it is a mentor? Or one of the Ninjetti?"

"Examining what they hope to gain may give an answer," his wolfspirit said quietly, offering counsel, not answers.

"They have all the information... save Dulcea's, and that is meant to point to the specific location of the Orb of Order... aside from the fact it is as cryptic as Zordon on a bad day having a Dimitria moment. Hmmm, maybe there is still reason for the Darkness Visible to want to have a traitor on the inside." Great, just what we need ... watching our own backs when going off to face overwhelming odds. The Blue Wolf Ninjetti sighed and skipped over the transcript a little more.

"Spirit Warrior of the Wolf, seek your destiny within the lonely choice and decision upon which all else rests..." Billy practically snarled at the paper, allowing himself a moment of anger. "Why me?"

"Is there anyone else you would trust with this?" the wolfspirit said softly.

Billy opened his mouth to speak and then hesitated. "That is an evil thing to say," he replied eventually, desperately WANTING to say no, finding himself unable to do so.

"But nevertheless true," the wolfspirit answered.

"Well, whether I am the best choice or not, it's too late to bring in a substitute, I guess." Billy straightened his shoulders with a deep breath as he agonised over the most crucial part of the Prophecy.

"Know that in the ambiguity of Prophecy and Destiny lies salvation, for Words cannot be unsaid. Know that the Words of Prophecy have Power, but their final Power is in how they are read, not in the Word itself." He read it aloud again, as he had done over and over since he had heard the words spoken by the Aspect of Vision on Triforia. Even at the time he had felt some deeply personal meaning and message buried in those words. Ambiguity of words ... of course there were ways in which the phrases could be interpreted, but it was basically saying there had been a major error of assumption. What was the point of a Prophecy if no one could understand the damn thing until it was to late?

Billy chewed on the pen lid until the realisation hit him. Only one person was meant to understand the Prophecy, and with traitors in their midst then the crypticness was justified. But who was to say he was the one who was meant to interpret it all?

On the other hand... could he assume that he was NOT the one? He had too little time to pursue all options, and come what may, he HAD to see Trini before they went to War.

The download link bleeped, confirming its task was complete, signalling his time of contemplation was at an end. With a frown he stood up and remote-accessed WolfZord as the dip in the lights showed that the threatened disarmament had taken place.

"A farewell to arms," he said imagining the havoc he had instigated. "Pup, Cub—initiate a computer search in WolfZord across all known language databases for key words in the Prophecy." It would be a few hours before he started getting results, but there was nothing else he could think of doing.

"Initiated," came Pup's slightly deeper version of his own voice. It was strange that the little droids should have developed such a sense of individuality, but it appeared that each Zeebeedee had its own quirks. "WolfZord battle-ready."

"Thank you," Billy said automatically. "I'll be there soon. I just have to ... check on things first."

Like his decision to leave Justin alone with a nuclear arsenal.

~*~

If Billy was to worry about anything, it was the way that Justin had taken to appropriating the thermonuclear warheads with the glee of a six-year-old unwrapping Christmas presents.

"Wow... who would have though so many countries had them?" he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up with excitement. "And so many, too!"

Mrs DeSantos gave him a quelling look. "I'm sure it's not healthy for a young man like yourself to be collecting... nuclear missiles," she said disapprovingly. Hank Cranston chuckled behind her.

The formidable woman turned. "Stop encouraging him! it's your son giving him a bad role model."

"And your son, too," Hank pointed out.

"Rocky never got involved with all this... science!" she denied, fighting her corner more to distract people from their nerves and tension than from any real belief in what she was saying.

Justin chortled next to her and earned himself another Look. "Enough of the playing with the nuclear arsenal, young man. If they have to be moved, then move them promptly and properly." She sniffed and Rocky, who had just stepped in, groaned and rolled his eyes and tried to back out of the door, a move thwarted by Kim and Tommy coming in behind him.

"Rockwell!" Lillian summoned him imperiously from where she was trying to watch over Justin. "Where have you been?"

"Er," Rocky swallowed, "With Kat, Mama, getting ready for battle." He had the grace to flush a little red as he said this.

Behind him he had the sniggering version of "Love is a battlefield" whistled nonchalantly by Tommy, accompanied by Kim's giggles before he coloured up completely. "Quit it, guys!" he hissed.

"Especially as I am sure that they have been as conscientious about preparing for battle as you have," Sam Trueheart said with a knowing smile, causing Tommy to swallow his teasing mid-whistle.

Oblivious to the banter going on, Billy strode in, looking at a piece of paper, apologising automatically as he bumped into those loitering in the doorway.

"Sorry... sorry... " he mumbled and looked up at the screens. "Justin, how are we doing?" he asked, blind to anything except the problem in front of him.

"Got most of 'em," Justin replied enthusiastically. "Where would you like them?"

"Here..." Billy tapped his makeshift astronomical map littered with very cursory notations. It was all he had had time to do, but he was counting on Justin's agile mind to fill in the gaps. "The moons will make a good staging ground. The critical step will be luring them close enough."

"I think we can handle that," Tommy said, more confidently now he could see what the shape of the plan was going to be in principle. "No problems, Billy."

"Good ... good. Look Justin, can you handle this?" the Blue Wolf Ninjetti asked, worried, fiddling with his sandy blond hair awkwardly. "I... I have to see Trini before this all starts." He just hoped no one would ask why as he was already feeling guilty about the time he was taking out of preparation to indulge a selfish need.

Fortunately no one had the tactlessness to question him on his motives as it was obvious that all participants in the battle to come had found some time to be with those they loved, even if it were stolen moments plucked from the stress and strain of the past few days.

They would not begrudge Billy that right for all their need of his expertise. To deny him what might be a last time face to face with the one he loved because he was seemingly indispensable would have been criminal. They were all aware of that constant terrifying possibility; though they laughed and joked around it, it flickered often beneath the surface of their thoughts, an ever present will o'the wisp of speculation luring them into dark dangerous realms of consideration.

"It's no problem, Billy," Justin said confidently and generously. "I've got it covered, they'll all be set up in time." Even if he had to bust a gut to do it, he would get it done without bothering the other Ninjetti. He felt he owed him that much for the trust that the older blue ranger had placed in him.

"Thanks, Justin," Billy said, not aware how much relief showed in his voice at that response. It concerned Tommy at least, who was somewhat sensitive to the possibility of Billy being overstrained after what had happened. "If anyone needs me, I'll be at Trini's, okay?" he said as he hastily turned to leave.

"Got it, yeah," Kim called back, trying to sound very relaxed and nonchalant as she watched their friend leave.

"And if the Darkness Visible turns up itself in the middle of the Power Chamber asking for a cup of sugar, it will have to wait until that young man is done." Lillian DeSantos voiced the thoughts of the entire room in the moment of silence that followed his departure in a soft voice—a sentiment that everyone present echoed one way or another.

~*~

Trini had independently reached a similar decision to Billy's, but before she tracked him down she had made one short stop. She went to see Skye who had retreated into his own room, isolating himself for some reason as if by doing so he was sparing them some future pain even it they didn't know the truth of what the Council of the Wise had revealed to Billy. She had watched how he had casually, effortlessly visited all of his friends as if bidding them a farewell they would not hear until it was too late. Only she, Billy and the mentors knew why he was doing this and part of her railed at the injustice of a hope bought at the cost of someone's life. That was why it hurt to see him find a way to touch each one of them one last time and know what it meant to him, yet be unable to speak to tell the others to treasure that last moment. There was so much more certainty involved with him and that made it almost cruel to see the last farewell turned to laughter and deflected in self-defence to a lighter subject.

She paused a moment, vowing not to draw away if it came to that, composing herself for their final meeting. A pang shot through her for all her control and she knew it would not have gone unnoticed by the sensitive Star Ninjetti.

"Come in, Trini," Skye told her mentally as her hand raised to knock on the door.

She walked in silently, seeing him sitting cross-legged on the bed, reading a well-thumbed volume. One she recognised from their journey together in space as a familiar volume of poetry.

"Kim's present to you?" she asked by way of breaking the silence and to compose herself after that momentary slip outside.

The white-haired artist nodded, the star crystal embedded in his forehead glinting as he did so under the strands of hair pulled over it.

"Yes." He smiled at her, knowing a little of why she had come from her emotions radiating despite her efforts at control and small talk. So close to her, her emotions felt practically tangible in their complexity and need.

."Skye, I ..." Trini paused, finding it difficult to translate that mass of emotion into words. It defied description. There were some things words glorified, and others that they demeaned... and this was a time that she felt the latter applied. Sometimes words were not enough, though they were all she had. "I don't know what to say," she admitted finally.

"it's alright, Trini," Skye replied softly, putting the book down with a marker in it as if intending to come back and finish what he was reading. "I can feel what you want to say. Guilt should not be a part of it."

Trini sat beside him, trying to fight that desperate feeling of fear and loss. Guilt, guilt was most definitely a part because of what she would say to him now.

"I don't want to lose you!" she said with a barely restrained intensity and then amended it to a more truthful version.

"Either of you." She looked at him, damning herself for the command she knew he would see there. Once before he took a promise, a command from words said in desperation and she hoped so much that he read the order that was between the lines of what she said aloud. A selfish, desperate order, but...

He saw. He felt the need in her for a life to return to her and the faint wistful smile he gave her in response hurt her more than any righteous rebuff of her implicit command. "I love him too, Trini," he answered in a soft voice.

"Send him back to me, Skye," Trini begged, dark eyes bright with tears as she hated herself for having to choose between them and being willing to ask one to sacrifice for the other. "Promise?"

Skye felt an indefinable sensation within him, a tingle of the Star Crystal in his forehead. "I will do all within my power to protect him... that I promise."

Trini nodded, swallowing painfully as they both stood and she embraced the artist, conveying her affection, compassion, regret, in that touch.

Skye held her tightly and mentally whispered "I love you..." to her, but received nothing but silence and a gentle touch as she pulled away and departed, cursing herself for not being able to lie even now, when she knew he was likely to die. Maybe it was better he hated her for that choice and cared for Billy. Maybe it was easier to believe he hated her than believe he would do this out of love for her...

The door closed again, sealing a bittersweet parting with a soft gentle whisper of noise.

Skye stood a moment alone in the silence of his room once more, the lingering sensation of her touch and scent providing him with a little comfort in his isolation. That was probably the last time he would see her. Ever. This was how unrequited love was repaid, with sacrifice

His eyes lighted on the transcript of the Prophecy he had studied and his mouth twisted in a bitter smile.

"The choice of a divided heart," he murmured and then violently ripped up the transcript of the prophecy and threw it towards the bin before sitting with his head in his hands, tormented by hurt. Hidden anguish burned inside as he succumbed to unheroic thoughts and feelings of wanting to live and destiny be damned, whilst also knowing at the heart of it, a dark, pitiless heart, he had no choice any more. No choices any more. Having a destiny was a cruel slavery, but even true slaves were not expected to rejoice in their slavery and could weep for what they had lost unlike him.

Weapons, after all, did not shed tears.

~*~

"Why did we have to give the Darkness Visible OUR ultimate weapon?" Rita grumbled for the umpteenth time to Lord Zedd who was pacing up and down in front of Master Vile impatiently.

"You were the one who wanted to get revenge on the Earth," Lord Zedd growled, his staff crackling with energy reflecting his anticipation. "That put us in the hidden fleet... besides, were you going to tell Dark Spectre and the Darkness Visible no?" he added acerbically.

"A little late to object after your 'yes, oh great and powerful Darkness Visible, it would be an honour to be in the other fleet. Your wish is my command'," the witch mimicked spitefully.

Master Vile frowned at them, his deformed visage even more unsightly than usual with disapproval. "You fail to see the advantage, as usual," he remonstrated with the bickering pair. Children... both of them!

"There is an advantage in giving away our most powerful weapon that we have ever created? Something, which we plundered worlds for?" Lord Zedd snapped sarcastically. "Pardon me if I fail to see it leaping out at me."

"That's because you are an idiot," Master Vile replied succinctly. "Firstly, the entirety of the Ninjetti defence is focused on what they believe to be the whole attack force of the Nid-hi. They do not even suspect there is another space fleet lurking half phased. By the time the phase gems burn out under the strain we will be within striking distance of Earth and the Ninjetti unable to stop us."

Rita sulked. "Well, yes, I knew that." She said peevishly in her harsh voice. "Still doesn't seem like much. I'd like to know how that Silver Nid-hi found out how the phase gems worked and the Council of the Wise's little mining operation. I always thought that was only known by the Phantom Ranger. Still ... I still think we've got the raw end of the deal."

"It isn't when you read between the lines," Master Vile said, happily toying with a crackle of energy in his hand, flicking it from finger to finger. "The Darkness Visible is after an object of immense power... and we get to try and find it first. Did you never wonder WHY such a miserable backwater planet was defended so heavily? We who are rulers of major portions of the galaxy always were defeated over a world which we should have been able to tame in less than a standard day? Why Zordon of Eltar, First among the Council of the Wise, was posted there as Guardian? Because there was something worth his guardianship. Something connected to the legends of the Darkness Visible... hmm?"

Rita's mouth dropped open. She was quick enough to make the connection—and mythical artefacts were her speciality, especially powerful artefacts. "The Orb of Order..." she said in a hushed tone. "The Orb is on Earth? And I did not sense it?" If it truly were as powerful as the legends of the Ninjetti described, those that had survived in scattered fragments, then surely she would have noticed it. But the legends said that Ba'rak had concealed it where none would find it, and it was presumed lost.

"Maybe you did in your own way... maybe we all did. What took us there in the beginning?" Lord Zedd mused. "But it would be shielded, hidden. it's not meant to be found, ever... not just hidden for safe-keeping."

"I could find it... I'm sure," Rita said confidently. "Just someone make sure Divatox and Scorpina stay out of this."

"I've got them ready to wreak random chaos on the planet's surface." Master Vile laughed to himself. "We will get this Power ourselves ... and then let's see who is in charge!"

~*~

Ilana knelt before the Darkness Visible who coalesced in his glorious golden Nid-hi form on the bridge of their command vessel.

"They plot against you, my Lord," she murmured. "I sense their traitorous feelings focused towards you. Those who have sworn to your cause and call themselves Allies."

The Darkness Visible, indulging in an aura of subtle golden energy, smiled. "I am aware of this, my Silver Chosen. I would be foolish indeed to assume they followed the cause of Order rather than their own ends. As they intend to use me, so shall they discover I have used them." He dismissed her concerns casually. With the ability that he had to perceive the shape of the darkness within minds it was all too apparent what their intentions were in the long run. "Now it is time for action. Despatch our drone fleet. I wish to test the mettle of our opponents without undue waste of life and maximum damage as they have had little time to prepare since they received some ... faulty data." He chuckled to himself in a light melodic sound.

Ilana bowed her head and stood to make his commands a reality, as was her Duty.

"Study well their reactions, Ilana." The Darkness Visible said to her, his eyes of liquid gold finding her own amethyst gaze. "For I would not wish to lose my Chosen to such creatures of Chaos."

She stared into those compelling eyes for a long moment before he broke their gaze and she stumbled, her heart beating faster than it had ever done in any battle as she went to do his bidding. She would fulfil the desires of her deity not because he commanded her, but because she loved him. Those eyes would haunt her through her dreams and with a bittersweet realisation she discovered there would be none of her own kind, no 'ordinary' Nid-hi that would ever come close to that connection. Until now, she had thought her adoration all one-sided, but that had been concern in his voice, had it not?

Enlivened now with a hope that threatened to set her own heart afire, Ilana strode away purposefully to win this war for her beloved.

Behind her as she departed, the Darkness Visible chuckled. "Nothing more dangerous than a woman in love," he murmured aloud and watched the scintilla of tiny fighters swarm out from the fleet towards the dim distant yellow sun.

~*~

"How many of the others have done this, do you think?" Billy murmured as he lay with Trini in his arms. Finally. It seemed it had been a long time since they had been together, though in reality it had been a short period made long by being packed full of intense experiences. Trini had decided to make that the model for their stolen time together. The proximity of fear and battle served to heighten that need into a rather intense union, which all too soon had to dissolve as duty called again. But just a few minutes more... a few minutes just talking wouldn't hurt.

"That's a little bit of a personal question," Trini replied, the sound of a smile colouring her voice. "All of them, I should think ... Zack and Aisha have been disappearing at regular intervals. From the smile on Tanya's face I'd say that dark frog Adam has been up to his old tricks... and most of the others have not even been sneaky about it. Following each other around, hand in hand... not even saying much, but..." The Golden Tiger Ninjetti swallowed as she curled in close. "Just... being together."

"Except Skye," Billy murmured as he held her gently.

"He has been to them all, Billy," Trini said. "To say ... goodbye, I think."

The Blue Wolf Ninjetti closed his eyes a moment. "I won't let him die, Trini... not unless there is no other option."

"But I would... I would let him die for what I see is a good cause." Trini's thoughts accused her as she lay silent a moment. Maybe that was the point; maybe that was a part of what she had to do, to choose between them. But if Billy ever knew...

"What's wrong, Trini-love?" Billy asked, concerned at the flicker of pain across her beautiful face.

"I don't want to lose anyone," she said in a low voice, not adding the instinctive 'especially not you'. Billy did not need any more pressure; he was already under too much though he tried to hide it. If it were not for the support of his friends that fragile façade of competent calm would collapse under the strain. What he needed was rest, but there was no time for that now. Tommy, Jason, all of the Master Ninjetti bore the signs of barely hidden exhaustion riding on the edge, knowing that this was the end one way or another.

Billy paused, wanting to reassure her with a lie, but he KNEW the odds did not favour their survival. Even if they won, a statistic as chilling and distant as the heart of a long-dead star in itself, the odds of everyone making it were literally astronomical.

He settled on an ambiguous phrase. "We will do our best to protect each other," he murmured, knowing from the look in Trini's eyes that she could hear the unsaid meaning as if he had spoken mind to mind.

"Live in hope," his wolf spirit replied. "And live in strength of spirit."

"Scarcely a comfort, my friend," Billy answered as he stroked Trini's fine silky hair.

"It is the only comfort we can ever have ... and more powerful than you can imagine, because hope dares the impossible to be real," the wolfspirit mindspoke.

Billy sighed mentally. "There is a time and place for animal-spirit wisdom, you know."

There was an impression of mild amusement. "Yes, every time and every place. It is time to battle." He was warned as the presence faded.

With an internal groan and a last stolen kiss, Billy heard the communicators summon every Ninjetti to prepare for imminent action and paused only to look at Trini so intensely that it seemed he was trying to memorise her face forever. He gave a faint smile and touched her cheek.

"Love you," he managed in an act that took more bravery than facing the conflict to come.

And Trini this time could answer, the truth of her heart freeing her own matching declaration of love, where before a lie would not release them even to comfort a close friend. "Love you, Billy," she murmured and then, in perfect accord without saying any further words to each other, they got up, dressed and prepared to go to war.

~*~

"Now?" Justin asked again, his finger hovering over the trigger button, practically twitching with the need to press.

"Caution is advised," Cestro warned. "They must be fully within range of the missiles. They have primitive tracking mechanisms only."

"Wait..." Tommy watched the main viewing screen carefully, frowning a little as he assessed the swarming ships dancing in intricate patterns from the massive Nid-hi mother ships. There was something a little odd here, like noticing music was just a tiny little bit out of tune; it tweaked at his attention.

"God, look at the sheer amount of them!" Kat exclaimed, her blue eyes wide with shock. She was not the only one to be affected in that way, practically the entire Ninjetti force were confronting a similar reaction.

Adam found himself wanting to back away from that sight. They did not fight on this scale. They were used to being outnumbered to a certain extent, but not like this! This was not a war, this was a last stand! They were fooling themselves to think otherwise. The fear uncoiled from the pit of his stomach as he watched the horror unravel in the distant void above.

"You know... any moment I expect to see the camera change angle and a DeathStar hove into view," Rocky commented in the rather grim silence that had descended.

"Rocky, that's not funny!" Kim said tersely, not in the mood for humour. Even her usually flippant responses were momentarily stripped from her thoughts. She was suddenly very aware that Tommy would be up there soon, playing decoy, and all her instincts clamoured for her to keep him safe.

"I was being serious," the Red Ape Ninjetti replied in a rather subdued tone.

"Now?" Justin asked again with more force, growing fear making his finger itch with the need to blast those things out of space.

"Wait a moment." Tommy's frown deepened. "The formations are TOO precise."

Delphine nodded, studying the data. "Even the best-drilled teams have a degree of variation in an attack formation. Those strike me as attack drones."

"To soften us up, no doubt." Jason observed from where he stood with Dulcea, who nodded.

"Strategically it is wise. Means you can see how organised the enemy is and how they react, weaknesses in their line," Rocky added as an afterthought, causing a few people to fix him with looks of astonishment. "What? You said I was meant to be in charge of communications and strategy ... so I'm communicating and... er, strateg-ing."

"it's a good point." Billy watched the exchange, a hint of a smile hovering around his lips. "Tommy, you think you can get an appropriately 'disorganised' group up there to mop up what the missiles fail to catch?"

Tommy grinned. "I think we can make a convincing case of 'look how weak we are'. I'll just remember my first attempt to control the WhiteTiger Zord. See you out there, guys!" and he touched his communicator and teleported to the prepped and ready White FalconZord.

"Optimum enemy range," Cestro pointed out, nodding at the screen. The drones were passing through the predicted course on a direct route to Earth traversing the channel within launching range of where they had positioned the nuclear missiles.

"Now?!" Justin asked a third and final time.

"Now," they chorused and he stabbed at the button. Immediately targeting information flashed up on various screens, running through the computer and Justin rode and adjusted that information with the ease and confidence of someone who has played one too many computer games.

Silent novae of light blossomed in space, short-lived deadly missile seeds, exploding into atomic fruition in a frenzy of energy, blotting out the enemy craft as if they had never been. Shockwaves could be seen rippling through the drone fleet, ripping formations apart as they watched in breathless silence. Destruction should not be this quiet, it called for roaring, crashing, huge sounds to mark its passing, but there was nothing save the mute explosions of light in the depths of space.

Billy sighed to himself, even the filter-protected images burning bright in his mind. "That's it, we're committed now. Good luck, everyone," he said aloud, turning away from the viewscreen, whilst most of their parents stood agape and mesmerised by the images before them.

It seemed all the more real when they used weapons they could understand the capabilities of, even if they were not cutting-edge technology in this new war. It was the adults who were the most pale and shaken, silently seeking reassurance in each other's expressions as their children continued to work.

"Rocky, you take position in lunar orbit and then activate your full Master Power of communication," Billy reminded as he touched his Spirit crystal to invoke his Spirit Warrior armour. He looked around for Skye. He could feel him here somewhere, the moment the blue diamond Phoenix Glyph appeared on his armour it reached for his friend, imposing that bond. But once again, he was loitering out of sight, his emotions tightly drawn in and stretched tight over a wounded centre. It made him wonder if that was how Skye had first sensed him when they first met. When they were in the WolfZord together they would talk, he promised himself that.

"HomeGuard with me." Jason called out to those who were providing an inner ring of defence for Earth itself, breaking Billy's brief reverie.

"Billy ..." Hank called out, stepping forward as they reached to teleport. The Blue Wolf Ninjetti paused, looking up into his father's eyes and wordlessly joined the proud embrace. Neither one said anything, for fear that somehow words would call forth disaster or tempt fate. They did not need to say anything, everything was in that single moment and as Billy reluctantly pulled away, he realised that other parents had followed his father's example. He just hoped that none of those hugs would be of farewell, daring the impossible to be real. The only one actually ready to leave when he stepped back was Skye, hair a white splash against the dark greys he had chosen to wear, marking him out amongst the dazzling rainbow array of Ninjetti Spirit Warriors. He was ready possibly only because he had no one to bid him farewell, Billy considered, studying him in the light of contrast. Never before had that lack been so poignant, and for that final moment Billy realised that though he had lost his mother, he still had a family in his father, something that he appreciated now like at no other time. Still, this was not time to drift into thoughts however deep and personal; they had to focus on the task ahead.

There was a brief pause as the visages of the Mentors appeared on the screens around them and he heard the traditional benediction over the buzz of his own busy thoughts.

"May the Power protect you!"

And his wolf spirit added silently, in an unusually sombre tone, "And may you protect the Power."

With that rather ringing in his mind, Billy took a deep breath and nodded to Skye. In streaks of blue and white crackles of light, the pair of them teleported to WolfZord and the final Battle.

~*~

Rocky deftly manoeuvred Red ApeZord into position as on either side of him uncountable Ninjetti Zords streamed out from their adapted lunar base.

"God." Rocky watched them a moment as he manoeuvred into his prearranged orbit. He closed his eyes an instant, smiling at the fact that it was Kat's face that leapt to mind as his focus for calm. He wanted to be out there, fighting, defending her. That was a primal instinct, and had no place in this sort of conflict. They could not afford to play the Warrior, not all of them out for personal glory, or fighting only for themselves. He had done research on this since he had been nominated as the logistics and strategic liaison and he realised the truth in what Billy and Jason had said. Time and time again superior communication and co-ordination had tipped the tide of battle. So... what did he want? He wanted everyone to be able to communicate with the other Ninjetti, he wanted focus points and he needed to be able to see and know what was happening with them at all times. Think of the need and then command the Master Power, the Mentors had said; the rest would take care of itself. He really hoped that was the case, or his Master Power would be no use to anyone.

"Here we go. Master Ninjetti Power Ansur!" Rocky called out aloud and touched the gleaming red glyph on his armour. A shock of Power in his mind sent him metaphorically spinning as contact, like a linking web, spread through the Ninjetti force, bringing speech without effort, and more than speech, mind-presence. All at once! No! He clutched his head and immediately tried to distance himself from it, shrinking away.

"Think of what you do when all the little ones are fighting at home, tune them out ... tune it out so it is still happening, but you are not specifically listening unless you choose to," his apespirit advised him.

"Bloody hell." Rocky panted, sweat on his brow as he got things back under control. He could feel and see the arena of space where the conflict was going to take place, his limits defined by the extent of the farthest-flung Ninjetti. Now he had achieved his link it was like hovering above a massive map and seeing the tiny fighters move.

"Communications up, Radio RedApe Ninjetti on the air!" he announced across the mental link and heard with clarity the response echoing back to him, and to each other as if he actually WAS a satellite and a totally secure communications point at that, which in a war was a major advantage.

"Good work!" Tommy broadcast, discovering that by willing who the communication should go to defined its range, from public to private. "We are doing a very convincing ragtag mop-up." Indeed, with a carefully controlled, rough-around-the-edges formation they had played an equivalent of inexpert space invaders against the drone ships. One by one they hadtaken out until the swarming force vanished into glittering space débris. Only to be replaced by more attackers, this time showing an indefinable sense of independent minds piloting them.

"First wave of real fighters just being launched. I need our defenders moved up to Jupiter. Squadron 10 through to 20, hold back in reserve to be called in once we test their mettle. Take care out there, guys." Tommy's voice echoed over the entire fleet and the Ninjetti Zords coiled to strike.

~*~

Ilana watched the readouts on the data being gathered from the token conflict. "Either they are very unprepared, or they are more full of guile than we give them credit for ..." she murmured as she watched the handful of zords scramble around seemingly without coherence or pattern to despatch the drones. The missiles had been a surprise, they would not have penetrated the shields of the main fleet, but against simple drones they were adequate.

Deliberate or not? The data showed most of them had not been designed for space deployment... hmmm...

Getha, a grizzled Nid-hi warrior, his horns lined with numerous shedding-rings that bespoke his age and experience, snorted. "They are creatures of Chaos. One would expect that to be reflected in their battle technique."

"Maybe." Ilana the Silver Nid-hi frowned, remembering the Wolf Ninjetti and the intelligence in his alien eyes. She hesitated to give the order for an all-out assault, but had no other reason than a half-formed feeling.

Getha frowned. "Why do you not give the order?" he questioned impatiently. "The despised Ninjetti are in chaos. Strike now before we lose the advantage!"

"Patience. The hidden fleet is a few hours from position." Ilana raised a hand to placate the warrior.

"In a few hours they will have organised into formations!" Getha gestured to the screen. "I can take them out with my Legion alone!" He did not think it was an idle boast. There were four Legions of the Nid-hi and he had command of what he privately thought of as the most battle- seasoned. "Join me!"

"You know I do not have jurisdiction of your Legion. Lead them if you will. If you are correct I will sing of your Glory to the One myself and you shall be exalted above all others."

"I will hold you to that promise." The grizzled warrior Nid-hi bowed his head to her and strode from the Command Bridge to launch Getha's Legion to glory.

~*~

WolfZord hovered just outside Earth orbit, in the ranks of the HomeGuard.

"Rocky's Master Power seems to be doing the trick," Skye said, looking across at Billy who was chewing on his lip thoughtfully, studying data analysis.

"Mmm yes..." Billy looked across at him, his thoughts and feelings jumbling together now action had begun. Trini was out there in the front line, as one of the most seasoned Zord fighters and already in the line of fire. "Better than I expected."

"Relax. Trini is fine," Skye reassured, divining part of his friend's anxiety.

"I hate not being able to fight with her," Billy admitted, drumming his fingers anxiously. "And I mean that as not actually with her, but by her side."

"Well, I think with the battle experience she has there is no need to be concerned on her behalf," Skye said carefully, trying not to leak emotions that lingered from his last meeting with Trini.

"Yeah, I know she can take care of herself, but ..." Billy paused, feeling something through that bond that he was unable to identify though he gave Skye a piercing look as he continued. "But I think Phantom may have been right."

The data had been altered, the results had shown that once he had started digging—and there were not many with the expertise to tamper with the database without triggering an alert. That was why he had underestimated the Enemy fleet's arrival time, not through miscalculation, though even so he now berated himself for not spotting the devious alterations beforehand.

"A traitor?" Skye sat up, alert now. Phantom's accusations had proved groundless in their researches, though he knew Billy had privately taken some steps... just in case. The odds were stacked enough against them without having to worry about it coming from the inside too, not now!

"The data on the Darkness Visible's arrival time was tampered with," the Blue Wolf Ninjetti said, having located the nearly invisible computer trail. "I did an in-depth analysis on it because I wanted to see how I could have made such an error, only to discover the original data had been tweaked. " Billy flashed up the result for Skye to check. "Plus of course that line in the Prophecy."

"But who?" The Star Phoenix Ninjetti asked, shaking his head slightly, unable to believe it though now he could see clearly the manipulation of crucial information.

"Realistically? Could be any of the mentors, save perhaps Dulcea. The Darkness Visible had them a long time and managed to extract information out of them," Billy said, shying away from his own memories of a similar procedure, knowing full well that if Skye hadn't had got him out they could have done anything to his mind once it was that broken. It haunted him occasionally that maybe his memories were false of that time and perhaps they HAD done something that would cause him to fail in the crucial moments.

"Who knows what else may have been done? They may not even realise it." He sighed. "We NEED to make sure that the Darkness Visible does not get its hands on the Orb of Order—that's what I should be working on."

"So what do we have to go on?" Skye asked attentively, aware that battle was about to commence.

"Only Dulcea's cryptic clue and the Prophecy. "And it shall be hidden in the place where none shall look, but without it none shall see to seek." Billy practically growled under his breath. "This is one time I could really do without cryptic utterances and just a pointer saying 'over here'!"

"So we solve the puzzle," Skye began, trying to inject a note of optimism into his voice.

"Or circumvent it," Billy finished, emphasising his point by jabbing at the keyboard he had linked to the computer system through Wolf Zord.

"If this thing is as powerful a manipulator of reality as Zordon said, then I should be able to devise a means of tracking concentrations of reality. I might as well... whilst we are not in front line action." The last was said a little bitterly even though it had been his idea to preserve the WolfZord and Skye behind the lines. It made sound tactical sense, but it didn't mean he had to like it.

All this flowed through to Skye who busied himself with implementing some of the instructions that Billy was mentally marshalling for action beneath his worry for his friends and relatives. Including worry for him.

He was human enough still despite the Council of the Wise's assertion he was a weapon, to warm to that emotion and to feel a measure of guilt at being a source of stress to his friend.

"I'm fine Billy, you don't have to worry about me." He tried to reassure in a gap in their working.

Billy looked at him. "I may not be as sensitive to emotion as you are, but you know this ... connection allows me to read you deeper than before. Don't pretend it is nothing, Skye."

"It is ... bearable," Skye said, unable to lie at this level of contact. This was more than talking through the spirit crystals, this was having someone as part of you, strangely discomfiting and painful, but also welcome to the lonely isolated heart that gripped the bond as a lifeline.

"I stand by my promise," Billy reassured him. "I will find a way, if I can."

"And if you can't?" Skye's voice was a murmur, clinging like a small child to Billy's mind.

"Then I promise." God, this was hard. "Then I promise you will be used as the mentors say is your destiny." It caused him pain to utter it, but he realised it had to be said for both their peace of mind. If it did happen and he had not felt the forgiveness and ... more in Skye's mind at this moment, he would not be able to live with his own conscience.

"Thankyou" was said by both at the same time, in recognition for what each other was sacrificing so they could go on and play their part in this war. For once Billy held his friend's gaze a long time and in a rare gesture of voluntary contact touched the artist's hand before silently turning back to his work as if this most private exchange had never occurred.

~*~

Tommy paused. "Nid-hi ships," he said aloud to himself as the sleek needlecraft slid through space to reach them. A large number, but he did not fool himself by believing they were the full capability of the Enemy fleet, not with the quantity of carrier battle ships his instruments were reporting. Still, maybe after their lightning raids on the homeworlds of the Council of the Wise, resulting in the mentors' abductions, they believed there would not be significant resistance. He intended to prove that assumption wrong. They had few warriors maybe, but they were fighting for their freedom and homes—and they had enhanced Ninjetti Zords and powers. He was hoping THAT would tip the balance, though he had that beginning of a battle headache, from wearing his neck tensed with anxiety and suspense. It was here and now he realised how much he missed having Kim there with him, and yet at the same time was grateful she was not in their front line, but instead on HomeGuard. But now he had to be fully focussed, now that the enemy was coming within range. A familiar keening thrill rose through him as FalconZord seemed to twitch, eager for battle and the old instincts awoke, stirred by adrenalin as he began to relay orders swiftly to all the squadrons of Ninjetti. Like they had when battling monsters back on Earth, it was a matter of scaling the tactics up; attack and peel off, clearing room for others to engage and then disengage as they did their own form of analysis of the enemy's weaknesses.

"Ninjetti Spirit Warriors... Engage Enemy Ships!" he called out through the link, hearing it reverberate through their own fleet and with a whooping battlecry spun White FalconZord against the Nid-hi legion, followed by a legion of his own.

From Rocky's perspective it looked like someone had smashed two mirrors standing opposite one another and the slivers were mingling at the point where someone had set off a brilliant display of fireworks. Rocky blinked, as he became aware of the battle communications flowing through him, all at once.

"Gold Tiger, check your six... Nid-hi comin' in!"

"Check that, Yellow Bear ... thanks, Aisha!" Trini's voice replied.

"No problem ... whoa!"

"Aisha?!"

Rocky's heart seemed to stop.

"Got a little toasted. Heavy duty fire power in the ships with red markings." Aisha's slightly shaken tone was more telling than her words. "Guessing they are squadron leaders or have some rank."

Rocky duly passed this information along to the rest of the Ninjetti fleet. That made him feel a little more useful than just sitting here as messages bounced through him. Gradually he began to get an idea of what the Master Power could actually do. He could see and feel patterns of attack that those fighting could not perceive from their scale and he urgently shouted a warning to one squadron that had been lured out and were being ambushed. "Green Kithar! Red Maronal! Ambush! Slide left! LEFT!"

A series of explosions sounded in his mind and he thumped the console, as there was a sudden hole in his mind where their presence had been. Their first fatalities as the trapped Ninjetti tried to follow his advice... a fraction too late.

"Dammit!" No time for self-recriminations now, he had to make sure that they lost as few as possible.

"Man, but these guys are fast... and slippery." Tommy twisted FalconZord in a barrel roll, coming out of it to swoop down and scatter a cluster of Nid-hi. Subtly though he made it appear, they were giving ground, not too easily but drawing them back towards where the other squadrons lay in ambush. Rocky continually passed on their relative positions and what it actually looked like to him. Technically he could have called the figure up through the FalconZord, but that objective viewpoint was invaluable.

"Just a little more, Tommy," Rocky sounded in his mind. "Reports in from Tanya that there appears to be a gold-tip craft surrounded by a formation of the red tips. I'd wager a week's supply of Jolt that that is their tactical leader. Shri squadron closing in... and ..." there was a pause in the commentary and Rocky's voice became angry. "They wiped them out... completely. Made it look easy. Whoever these guys are, they are experienced."

"Who've we got over there in the realm of heavy hitters?" Tommy replied, thinking furiously as FalconZord locked wings forward and caused heavy damage to a formation that was threatening their line from its wing missiles.

"Dulcea's closest. She's been leading the Drakin contingent. Boy, those lizards can kick tail," Rocky commented admiringly as information flooded his mind as he reached for it.

"Get her over there ... if anyone can take out their leader, it will be her," Tommy ordered after a moment's consideration.

There was a moment's surprise. "Right... passing it along... er ..." Rocky hesitated, "You not doing it yourself?"

"Not this time, Rocko," Tommy replied, mildly amused. They were all full of surprises in this unique situation. If Dulcea was the best for the job, then though he dearly would have loved to score that type of victory, he had no business trying. There was something to be said for growing a bit older, including a dawning common sense. "Plenty to go around for everyone. Squadrons 10 to 20, engage Enemy!"

The reinforcements streamed out from their ambush points, overwhelming the flank of the Nid-hi Legion as the fresh troops hit them hard, breaking their formations and scattering them in surprise.

"Wooooohoo!" That was Jason observing from the inner line. "Go get them, Tommy!" He resisted the urge to punch at the air. They COULD beat them! They could!

Dulcea was not sharing that confidence. "This Warrior is good," she murmured as she tackled the gold-tipped fighter. The Drakin Ninjetti around her were dancing their own intricate battles of death. A small localised sphere of chaotic movement blossomed around them all as they sought to dominate the other side, weapons blazing.

The First Warrior of Phaedos had eyes only for the gold-tipped craft, moving with it, against it, learning her opponent's moves and techniques, like knife-fighters circling each other in the dust. But their arena was space, their weapons Zords and they sparred, both of them old pros at this dance of death.

"The Owl watches," she murmured to herself. "And then... strikes!" Like the bird of prey that had claimed her as its own, when she struck against the Nid-hi Warrior it was with sure, silence grace.

Even so, Getha nearly surprised her for all her millennia of experience, by striking at her like a snake in the midst of her devastating attack, piercing OwlZord's hull with simulated fangs.

She resisted the instinct to roll them belly up; knowing somehow that would be the trap laid for the unwary. Instead, she acted as if she were going to and at the last moment swung back, exposing the gold-tipped craft to the awaiting fire. The OwlZord rocked as she felt, sensed, the craft explode next to her and she spun a little dazed out of the circle of combat.

It was just as well that the remaining Nid-hi were so filled with chagrin at the defeat of their Legion leader that they did not take advantage of Dulcea's weakness in those unguarded moments. Indeed, without orders to follow their formations seemed to unravel rather rapidly to the ferocious satisfaction of the Drakin Ninjetti.

Dulcea looked at the spinning debris of defeated foe with a curious emotion of regret. She should have been elated, perhaps counting up points and weighing the glory of her actions, but that all seemed empty. She found there was no joy in defeating even their most long-term hereditary enemy, and to her the taste of her victory was bitter. She found she could have respected her enemy, for his courage, daring and skill.

"And an Enemy that you can respect is worthy of being a friend." She murmured to herself in the old Ninjetti saying as the cheers and congratulations through the link were hollow praise indeed.

~*~

Hours this first assault had taken and Tommy felt stiff with stress and tension. The enemy appeared to be disheartened, more cautious since the destruction of their field commander by Dulcea. Which was a good thing on one level, but not on another. The White Falcon Master Ninjetti was well aware they had been lucky to get off so lightly, if you could call it that. 1123 Ninjetti had been lost in this first Battle, and nearly double the number taking severe damage. That was an expensive price to pay for the enemy's mistake. He began now to comprehend the scale of things and deep down it frightened him, but he would not let the fear rule him, not now.

"Pull back," he ordered their fleet. "Let's have some skirmishers harassing their fleet whilst we regroup. Billy, you sure the damaged Zords can be fixed quickly?"

"Affirmative." Billy's voice was crystal clear in his mind, though the young genius sounded like he was busily doing something else as well. "The Zeebeedees will have begun repairs the moment they were damaged. A couple of hours and most will be battleworthy again."

"Good." Tommy breathed a sigh of relief. If the drones were the equivalent of a putty attack, then this encounter had the feeling of their first skirmish with a monster. He didn't even want to think about the other equivalents.

He discovered that Rocky had despatched some Ninjetti from the Moonbase to cover their tactical retreat and Tommy couldn't help but wonder if the Nid-hi and the Darkness Visible were going to follow up with a full attack. He looked at his hands shaking a little with fatigue and hoped not.

"Tommy?" Kim's voice whispered in his mind.

"Kim!" It was amazing how revitalising her voice was, some of that tension headache disappearing immediately.

"Shush... think ... private thoughts." Kim's voice teased. "I just want to check you were alright out there, you've been fighting for a long time."

"Fine," Tommy responded automatically.

"Well, the HomeGuard is feeling pretty useless back here," Kim said lightly, if truthfully. "Not that we want to see action this close to home, but ... I want to be helping you, Tommy."

"I'd love to have you up here." Tommy controlled a sigh. "But if they break our line, then there has to be something there to slow them."

Kim chuckled in a way that sent a warm sensation flowing through him and he found himself smiling as he headed back towards Earth and the Moonbase. "We know... doesn't stop me wanting to be with you, though."

"Thankyou, love," Tommy said, his faint smile growing as he imagined Kim hovering protectively in CraneZord over the skies of Earth.

"You think Rocky can transmit kisses?" Kim asked lightly.

"I'm not sure I want to find out if he has to pass them on." Tommy responded, finding optimism return with his good mood. What a difference a few words made—if they were from the right person even if it was the wrong time and place.

Kim's laughter at that swept away his troubles even as the battle reports came in again, interrupting these precious moments.

~*~

Back in the Power Chamber there were more than one set of parents sitting down, looking slightly shaky at what they had witnessed. Time had seemed like an unending stream of explosions and reports, data that could mean life or death for their children flashing across screens. Around them the Mentors had been co-ordinating and advising, providing their knowledge in swift assessments of the ever-changing situation. As the death toll rose however, the strain became more apparent and more than one parent was looking haggard and drawn with reaction.

"I... I can't believe it." Tommy's mother sat down heavily. "it's not real. Not real."

Her husband sat with her, a comforting arm around her shoulder. "Now Mary, it's going to be fine. Trust me ... Tommy can take care of himself, you saw the way he handled himself up there." His expression and tone were of someone trying to convince themselves as much as someone else.

"But what about the time when he NEARLY got ... blown up by all those... horrible ... black... crafts and ..." Mary Oliver paused, swallowing down the note of hysteria even SHE could hear creeping into her voice. "John, I can't stand the thought of him up there ... I can't!"

"And to think we were disappointed when he didn't want to join the military, hmm?" John soothed his wife gently.

"That ... that is completely different," Mary replied, wisps of dark brown hair escaping the clips she used to tie back her long locks.

Sam and David looked on. "I know how she feels," David said quietly. "I want to be up there helping too... somehow."

"You would not be alone in that desire," Sam Trueheart commented. "That is a wish written on the faces of all who are here."

Very clearly written. Heads were turned, fixed on the monitors as if watching the images would somehow provide a link of safety. Even now with the first wave of the battle fading, there were those who stood and watched diligently. The Taylors and Mr Stewart were clustered in one area with the Kwans, the Harts were not far from the Scotts and Hank Cranston. It was a strange thing, but they clustered in links to each other as their children had done.

"Do you think they can do it?" David asked in a hushed voice.

Sam smiled. "As if I have some knowledge you do not?" He sighed. "If love has any place in war, or strength against destruction, then they have a chance—if only from those that worry on their behalf."

David paused, considering this answer thoughtfully. "You really don't know, do you?" he said eventually.

Sam Trueheart smiled and laughed, a strange sound in the tense atmosphere. "And now, son, you have perceived the truth at the heart of things." An utterance that got the chuckling response it deserved.

~*~

Ilana sighed and reported to the One. "Chosen Getha has perished along with most of his Legion. He underestimated the Enemy and believed he could break the accursed Ninjetti alone." She bowed her head in mute apology for her now dead compatriot's foolishness.

"And has paid the price." The Darkness Visible replied, seemingly unperturbed. "I would not punish you for another's error, my Chosen. Patience is called for. We have spent millennia reaching towards this day; we can wait a few more hours until Dark Spectre's fleet is in position."

"Very wise, my Lord." Ilana agreed in her soft melodic voice.

The Nid-hi shape the Darkness Visible adopted blurred around the edges, particles streaming away as if stirred by a mighty force. She had seen the Darkness Visible do this before, dropping back into a state of energy and thought mingled, however this time she was to be surprised.

To her shock the Darkness Visible shifted forms to... a human form. A human form as if imagined by a god, masculine, but angelically perfect, and gleaming with an aura of power.

"In the meantime, let us try another form of warfare that will further our purpose," a smooth, compelling voice stated.

Ilana stared. This must be the human equivalent of the One's Nid-hi form. She could appreciate its beauty. What did he intend?

"Route power into a wide-band communication array. I believe the inhabitants of Earth should have a choice in whether they side with the Forces of Chaos or with the righteous cause of the Forces of Order." And the perfect human form, born of the deep unconscious images taken from the minds of the humans he had met and touched with his power, stood to address the inhabitants of Earth.

~*~

"Dammit, the Nid-hi are directing a beam at Earth! A communications carrier wave!" Justin cursed, hands flickering over the console in the Power Chamber.

"Can you block it?" Cestro asked, trying to compensate for the alterations himself with little success.

"No ... it's... modulating as it goes." Justin stared in surprise at his readouts. "How can they DO that?"

"It is imperative that you prevent the Darkness Visible from making contact," Zordon's voice boomed. "Who knows what havoc it could wreak?"

"it's adapting itself to all forms of communication devices," Cestro observed again calmly. "It appears we were wise to utilise Rocky's abilities rather than conventional methods."

Even to their communications devices the transmission adapted, for up on the screen the shape of an angel made flesh appeared. A human form that spoke deep inside to archetypes of the real thing, crying out to the human subconscious that it was a creature of Good. For all their efforts they could not stop that signal or the transmission going ahead.

"Citizens of Earth. I am a visitor from far beyond this Galaxy, come in search of the worthy Guardians of a most sacred object of our people, lost in a terrible war many aeons ago." His voice was gentle, understanding and soothing. "Those guardians are you, the people of Earth, a most favoured planet and I ask you with all respect to seek out this simple object..." an image of a faintly glowing sphere appeared. "And return it to us, its rightful owners. Of course we of the Nid-hi would recompense you for your faithful guardianship, with gifts and wonders of the galaxy, technology to heal your sick, to feed your hungry and open your pathways to join us as Allies in the stars."

"My god, but he's convincing," Adam's father murmured as he watched the broadcast. "Devious."

The apparition of the Darkness Visible took on a faintly regretful look. "We would collect the item ourselves, but those who have kept its secret from you all this time, your own leaders and a group of zealous fanatics, wish to keep this object for themselves. They, as we speak, hurl themselves in violence against our peaceful race, slaughtering our advancing ships without mercy."

Images of the drone fleet bombed into obliteration filled the screen and Hank paled as he watched, realising how much like slaughter that appeared when taken out of context.

Then once more the wise, sorrowful expression of the Darkness Visible. "We do not blame them... they have been misled, and they are only young and easily swayed. I believe many of them are barely twenty of your years in age."

"Dear God." Jason's father stared as images of the human Ninjetti flashed up in the transmission, complete with them unmasked, looking innocent and young, as their parents believed in their hearts that they actually were.

"We have no wish to harm them, but we do have the right to defend ourselves, and we cannot leave without this object most sacred to our people, as valuable to us as your own True Cross, your sacred Qua'balah Black Stone, all that you hold as being holy and a part of what makes you a people. Let us exchange gifts at our first meeting, not aggressive blows ... People of Earth, help us, please!"

And the image faded, leaving a breathless silence.

"Oh, but he was GOOD," Kat's father said, shaking his head. "If he were running for office, there would be a landslide and the opposition would vote for him, too."

"But what is he trying to do?" Kim's mother questioned aloud.

"Propaganda, pure and simple," Mr Scott said sourly. "Stinks of it. Turn your own side against you and the enemy is half-defeated. I bet half of you are sitting there, asking yourself private questions despite all our kids have told us ... hmm?"

There were a few sheepish murmurs of agreement.

"it's not that I don't believe them, but ... I know Kim, she sees things in black or white and if she feels it is wrong, then she fights," her father said. "She may not have considered that there is another option. A compromise, maybe."

Hank sighed. "I've been in this longer than any of the rest of you and... they are not wrong. Do you think any of them WANT to be doing this? Risking their lives? Ninjetti DIED out there today, and you all clearly saw it was the Nid-hi that launched both attacks ... propaganda ..." He shook his head. "Is it so bad to see through the eyes of the young, to divide the world into right and wrong? It is fear that makes us seek a way to deal with the devil ... for that's what he is, or as near to it as I ever want to see!"

His forceful words seemed to break the web of words that had been spun around them.

"Nevertheless, there's a planet full of people who don't have our insight, Hank," Anna Hart said aloud.

"Let's not give the kids any reason to doubt that we are behind them. Things are tough enough as it is," Lillian DeSantos said, nodding in agreement with her own point. "And if anyone wants to argue ... I'll put them straight." She glowered.

Adam's mother whispered an aside to her husband. "God help the world." And he managed to contain an irreverent smile as he turned back to his assigned task.


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