Katherine Hillard was asleep when Tommy arrived, so he pulled up a seat beside the recovery bed and waited. He didn't have to wait long. As though sensing his arrival, Katherine opened her eyes and looked at him blearily. "Hullo, Tommy," she smiled.
"Hi, Kat," he smiled in reply. "How do you feel?"
"Mostly just numb and achy," she yawned. "They tell me I'll be another few days recovering."
"I'm just glad everything went okay." Tommy paused, then shook his head. "You had us all pretty worried, you know."
"It was just an appendectomy," she assured him. "People have them all the time."
"Yeah, maybe, but what people don't do all the time is not tell anyone they're in pain and let it get to the point it did. The doctor told me that if you'd come in just a couple of days later it might've been really serious."
"I honestly didn't think it was anything to worry about," she replied. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to make you all worry, but...."
"Hey, it's okay," Tommy relented. "I guess it all turned out okay this time. But next time you've got any kind of real pain like this, you need to tell someone, okay?"
"I promise, Doctor Oliver," she smiled, absently reaching to pat his hand.
He barely had time to take her hand in reply before his signal watch beeped out the familiar alert. He reluctantly pulled his hand back and activated the communicator. "Zordon, this is Tommy. What's up?"
Zordon's voice sounded from the tiny speaker. "Tommy, you are needed at the Power Chamber immediately."
"Is there trouble?" Kat asked, struggling to sit up. She immediately winced in pain.
"Whoa, Kat, don't strain," Tommy warned, reaching to restrain her.
At the same time, Zordon added "Katherine, your recovery cannot be risked. I believe this emergency may be handled by the remaining Rangers."
Obviously frustrated by her condition, but unable to do anything about it, Katherine settled back onto the bed. "Be careful," she whispered.
Tommy bent to give her a kiss on the forehead. "We will. You just concentrate on getting better, okay?"
"I promise, Doctor Oliver," she repeated, but this time the smile was strained.
After taking a quick look around to make certain no one was watching, Tommy re-activated his wrist communicator and teleported out of the room.
Adam Park, Tanya Sloan and Rocky DeSantos were enjoying a post- baseball weekend workout when it started.
When Tanya had first joined the Power Rangers, shortly after the recovery of the Zeo Crystal, she had immediately decided to take up martial arts, to better her chances in the seemingly endless battles with the forces of the Machine Empire. While gaining the powers of the yellow Zeo shard had increased her strength and durability dramatically, this did her very little at first except ensure that she would be able to withstand a few extra blows before falling.
Adam had immediately volunteered to be her teacher, and she had proved an incredibly adept student, working her way up to first-degree black belt in less than a year with the Rangers. But even with all that talent, regular workouts were always needed to keep them sharp.
The Saturday afternoon workouts by the lake had become a semi- regular tradition for Tanya, Adam and Rocky, following on the heels of weekend baseball practice. After getting changed into more suitable workout gear, the three would meet at the lake and take turns sparring. Nothing too serious: just sharpening their reflexes for the inevitable next battle with King Mondo's cogs.
When they had first started working together, they had taken turns with one-on-one matches, but as Tanya's skills had increased, she had easily become a match for either of the two boys, so they started doing two-on-one matches, each taking a turn at being the odd one out. This not only gave them each a chance to work on facing multiple opponents, but also increased their ability to work as teams of two.
It was during one of these matches, with Rocky as the center of attack, that the alarm sounded. At first, only Rocky had heard it, so he stopped fighting right away and went for his signal watch. Unfortunately, this had left him open for a joint attack by Adam and Tanya, who immediately tripped him up and pinned him.
"Whoa, lay off!" Rocky grunted, throwing them off. "We've got an alert!" He activated his communicator. "Zordon, this is Rocky. Adam and Tanya are with me."
"Rangers! You are needed in the Power Chamber at once!"
"What's going on, Zordon?" Adam asked, activating his own communicator.
"I will explain when you arrive. Teleport to the Power Chamber as soon as possible."
"But King Mondo's been so quiet lately!" Tanya frowned, gathering up her gear.
"I knew it was too good to last," Rocky sighed. "C'mon, let's jet outta here."
Billy Mitchell was enjoying a rare afternoon off in his new apartment when it started. Between classes at Angel Grove University, work down at the University labs, and the extensive time he'd been spending behind the scenes with the Power Rangers, there hadn't been much time for relaxation. Admittedly, most of his time of late had been spent at the Power Chamber, working on new and improved methods for his friends to go out and fight the good fight that he was no longer capable of.
Intellectually, he knew that his work was important, else he would have given up a long time ago. Rationally, he knew that if not for his scientific and engineering skills, the Power Rangers might have met defeat a long time ago. Even if he could no longer don the armor and helmet, they needed him. Billy knew more of zord technology than any of them, possibly including even Alpha. Billy knew a distressing amount about weapons systems and forces of destruction. Billy knew his friends' abilities well enough to ensure that each zord and each weapon were suited to their individual styles and capabilities.
None of which changed the fact that Billy hated the feeling of utter powerlessness every time he had to watch Tommy, Kat, Adam, Tanya and Rocky go into battle without him. Not too long ago, he'd been there. He'd done more than just work from the safety of the Power Chamber; he'd been on the front lines, fighting putties, tengas and monsters, piloting Triceratops, Unicorn or Wolf zords against the endless stream of lame- brained but no less dangerous monsters sent by Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd.
Afternoons like this one were his time off to try to forget about all of that. In a rare moment of utter laziness, he was sitting back in his favorite chair watching an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" he'd taped the night before. He had always loved cheesy old science fiction movies, if for no other reason than to laugh at the so-called "advances" of science presented by a previous generation of moviemakers. At times, it had occurred to him that his life as a Power Ranger would probably have looked equally cheesy on the screen, but reality was reality.
The host human and robots had just launched into about the fourteenth reprise of "The Forklift Song" to accompany the "thrilling" movie music when his watch beeped.
Billy went for his remote first and shut off the television before he answered. For some reason, he didn't want Zordon to hear what he was doing with his time off. "Billy here."
"Your presence is required at the Power Chamber. King Mondo's forces are up to something."
By the time Billy teleported in, four of the Rangers were already there. For a moment, he wondered where Katherine was, but then he remembered that she was in the hospital, and felt like an idiot for not having remembered this right away. He had just grown so used to seeing everyone there that having one of them missing was jarring.
"All here," Tommy nodded to Billy. He then turned to address Zordon's concerned face, hovering in its column of blue-grey light. "What's the emergency, Zordon?"
"Rangers, I fear that King Mondo may be ready to unleash an all-new threat upon the Earth," Zordon informed them. "Observe."
With that, the new and improved "viewing globe" set into the wall lit up to show a desert scene, where an odd, obviously alien structure was being tended by King Mondo himself, as well as a bent-over shape wearing hooded robes.
"What is that thing?" Rocky asked.
"It looks kind of like a coffin," Adam frowned. In general shape, it did indeed resemble a casket, but was made of a weird red crystal substance with veins of black spreading through it in a spiderweb pattern.
"More importantly, who's that?" Tanya asked, indicating the robed figure.
As though in reply, the figure stepped back away from the coffin, followed by Mondo. Once they were a safe distance away, the unknown foe raised a gnarled wooden staff in an equally gnarled green-skinned hand and began to chant in a language none of the Rangers had ever heard. It was then that they got a look at the face beneath the hood: the green-skinned, wrinkled, red-eyed, nightmarish visage of a witch, straight out of halloween.
"Holy crow," Billy whispered. At first, he thought it was Rita, and wondered what had happened to change their old enemy so. Then, as they watched, the witch raised her staff higher, and arcs of green-colored lightning blazed forth, striking the coffin and causing it to glow from within.
"I don't care who it is," Tommy growled. "I don't like what she's doing out there with Mondo."
"I agree," Zordon added. "Rangers, you must confront this new menace and discover Mondo's intentions. With Katherine incapacitated, you will be at less than full strength, and without the first Zeo Zord, you will be unable to call upon the Zeo MegaZord."
"Let's just make sure it doesn't come to that, then," Adam nodded. Once again, Billy realized, they were going into battle without him. Not only that, but they were short one, and he was literally powerless to fill in. He wanted to say that he'd be happy to pilot Kat's zord in her place, just in case the MegaZord was needed, but he couldn't do that without the powers of the Zeo crystal.
Tommy looked over at Billy, and the expression he gave indicated that he knew exactly what Billy was feeling, but there was no time to deal with that frustration now. Instead, he turned to the other three. "It's morphin' time!"
From a respectable distance, Billy watched as his four friends went through their transformation and teleported out. He then sighed and looked around for Alpha. "We'd better disengage Rocky's zord from the tow-chains," he told the robot. "No sense in dragging Kat's zord into battle if they can't use it. It'd just be a target."
"Good thinking, Billy," Alpha replied, turning to one of the nearby computer terminals and typing away clumsily at the huge keys. "Zeo Zord III is disengaged."
Billy turned his attention back to the monitor screen. "Well, I guess all we can do now is wait."
The four Power Rangers appeared less than a hundred yards from the coffin, which was glowing even more brightly now as the barrage of energy from the witch's staff continued. "Hold it right there, Mondo!" Tommy shouted.
The Machine King looked over to see them there. "Ah!" he laughed. "Didn't I tell you, old witch? Here the Power Brats come, just as I predicted!"
The old hag cackled with glee. "And these mere children have given you all this trouble? They will be no match for my robeast!"
"These 'mere children' are gonna give you a lot of the same trouble if you don't clear outta here!" Tommy growled. He "felt" Adam, Rocky and Tanya fan out to either side of him, at the ready.
"But wait, there are only four of you!" Mondo observed, sounding disappointed. "And we were hoping to rid ourselves of all five! What a shame."
Before Tommy could come up with any sort of rebuttal to this, the barrage of energy ceased, and Mondo and the old witch teleported out, leaving only the coffin, which by now was glowing white-hot.
"I don't like the looks of this," Tanya said, summing up all of their thoughts.
Slowly, the coffin's lid opened, and something sat up inside. Tommy couldn't tell what it was at first, as it was surrounded by a nimbus of energy.
Then it started to grow.
All of the Power Rangers had seen this sort of thing countless times. There would be a monster unleashed, the Rangers would fight it, then it would invariably grow, forcing them to fight it with the zords. But this particular beast was something none of them had ever seen.
Rita and Zedd had sent monsters created by their master craftsman, carved out of clay and animated by magic. Mondo and company simply built robots, giving them a semblance of life and personality to go with their destructive force. Some of these creatures had been very ugly. Some had been almost laughable. But almost all of them seemed to have had at least a twist of sick humor to them, making them ultimately less terrifying than they should have been.
But there was nothing at all amusing about the creature now growing before them. It was hideous, and terrifyingly so. It didn't have the shoddy workmanship quality of one of Rita's beasties, nor the metallic simplicity of one of Mondo's overgrown gadgets. This was a monster in every sense of the word. In shape, it was only vaguely humanoid, hunched over almost double, with an enormous head and a gaping maw filled with slime-dripping fangs. Where arms should have been were dozens of barbed tentacles, and it had a single bloodshot eye, pulsing from within with vile energy.
"Get back!" Tommy shouted to the others, realizing that at the rate this thing was growing, it would knock them over or crush them at any second. The four Rangers quickly fell back, literally turning tail and sprinting away from this monstrosity.
"Billy, what is that thing?!" Adam shouted into his communicator.
"Hold on, I'm scanning it!" Billy replied through each of the comm units. "I... I've never seen anything like it!"
"Is it alive?" Tommy asked, incredulously.
"It doesn't appear to be," Billy informed them. "It looks like it might have been, before, but whatever the witch did...." He broke off for a moment, then continued. "It's a mix of organic and technological material, but it doesn't seem to be an actual lifeform."
"Then let's take it!" Rocky shouted.
"Right!" Tommy nodded. "We need Zeo Zord power, now!"
On Tommy's command, the secret hangar in which the Zeo Zords were kept opened its gates, and out came the zords. First came Adam's Taurus the Bull, pulling Tanya's enormous gun-zord behind it, with Rocky's Sphinx zord running beside them. From its perch above them, Tommy's bird-shaped Phoenix zord jetted through the gates and up into the sky. Only Katherine's gun-zord remained behind, the tow-chains hanging uselessly before it.
"Let's do it, guys!" Tommy called to the others. With a fierce battle cry, he leaped skyward, and streaked toward the Phoenix. His teammates did the same, transporting themselves to their own zords.
"Zeo Zord II, ready!" Tanya reported.
"Zeo Zord III, rarin' to go!" Rocky added.
"Zeo Zord IV, here to kick some butt!" Adam checked in.
"Zeo Zord V, flyin' high!" Tommy finished, to complete the cycle. He took a look around the cockpit to see that all systems were running smoothly, then checked his main display. The creature had grown to immense proportions. Even the Zeo MegaZord would be dwarfed by the thing, he realized. All they could really do at this point was pick away at it and hope to find a weak spot. "Rocky, Adam, keep it busy down there! Set me up for a strafing run!"
"You got it!" Adam replied. "Rocky, let's hit its legs from behind!"
As Tommy went into a screeching power-dive, he watched as the Bull and Sphinx, tiny by comparison to the beast, managed nonetheless to knock its legs out from under it by darting behind it and hitting it in the back of each "knee" with a leaping head-butt. The monster came crashing down to the rocky desert, knocking both of the comparatively small zords momentarily off their feet.
"Hold that pose, creep!" Tommy snarled, pulling out of his dive and firing all weapons. He was rewarded by a series of explosions on the creature's tough hide, but before he could fully pull out, it raised one "arm" with lightning speed and slammed the Phoenix with a dozen hard-edged tentacles.
Structurally, the Phoenix was the least stable of the Zeo Zords, simply because it was the only one meant to fly on a regular basis, and thus couldn't be as tough as the ground-based Bull or Sphinx, never mind the heavily-armored gunnery zords. Nonetheless, it was a tough old bird.
But when those tentacles hit him, Tommy was literally thrown off course, spinning helplessly in a descending spiral as explosions rocked his console. All controls had gone out, and in another couple of seconds, he'd crash.
"Tommy, bail out!" Billy's voice came over the comm unit. Tommy did just that, teleporting out in a streak of red energy and re-forming on a nearby hilltop. From there, he watched as the Phoenix went down hard, sending up a huge divot of desert turf as it plowed to a stop.
Looking back to the battle, he saw that the Sphinx had grabbed hold of two tentacles with its mouth, but the monster simply shook the zord violently until it went crashing into the distance, carrying a severed tentacle in its jaws. A well-aimed kick knocked the Bull out of its path, then it turned its attention to Tanya's gun-zord. The I and II zords, designed for firepower and not mobility, typically stood still and fired: she had no hope of evading the monster.
As it turned out, she also had no intention of doing so. "Eat this, ugly!" her voice sounded over the communicator, and then she fired all of the zord's potent weapons, pointblank.
The monster reeled back with a roar of anger and pain, and actually fell down again under the barrage, causing the ground to tremble under Tommy's feet.
"Tommy!" came Billy's voice again. "I've prepped the Red BattleZord! I'm sending it out to you now!"
"Thanks, man!" Tommy replied, looking back desperately at where the Phoenix had crashed. Until the BattleZord got here, he didn't like their chances. Even with the BattleZord, he didn't like them any more. And even if Katherine were to get up off her deathbed and bring out her own zord, with the Phoenix knocked out, there would be no MegaZord.
Before he could get too far with this line of thought, the BattleZord came spinning into view above. Tommy again leaped skyward, teleporting himself to the cockpit of the great human-shaped zord.
"Red BattleZord, ready!" he transmitted to the others. "Are you guys okay?"
"A little shook up, but I'm on my way back!" Adam transmitted.
"Ditto for me," Rocky added. "Let's trash this critter!"
"I had a little scare there," Tanya managed, her voice somewhat strained. "My weapons seemed to have an effect on it, though. If you guys can hold it in position, I'll nail it again."
"Leave that to us, Tanya!" Tommy transmitted in reply. "INCOMING!" With a fierce cry, he dashed into battle and leaped upon the creature's back. The BattleZord was less than half the beast's height, yet he was able to get a firm grip around its neck with both of the zord's arms.
Unfortunately, this left him completely at the monster's mercy as it tried to shake him off. Tentacle after tentacle lashed across the back of the zord, causing warning lights to flare up all across Tommy's cockpit controls. "I'm not gonna be able to hold him long! Rocky, Adam, set him up!"
"We're on it!" Adam replied. "Rocky, let's get his feet!"
"I'm with you! Hold on, Tommy!"
Tommy held on for dear life as the Bull and Sphinx moved in to pin the monster's feet. Another few seconds and he'd be in serious trouble. "Tanya, take the shot!"
"Here goes!" Tanya shouted. "FIRING!"
While the other three held the beast in place, Tanya sent a devastating barrage of lasers and missiles at the monster. It let out another roar as it staggered back, dragging the three zords with it as Tanya's assault continued.
The next voice they heard was Billy's, coming from the Power Chamber. "Guys, get clear of that thing! It's about to blow!"
"You heard him!" Tommy relayed. "Disengage!" Tommy, Adam and Rocky let go of the stumbling creature and ran for it. Adam quickly grabbed hold of the tow cables to Tanya's zord and got her out of the way as well. Not a moment too soon, either, as the monster went up with a mighty explosion that knocked every one of them to the ground.
It took a few moments for Tommy to realize that he was all right. Once he did, he got his zord back under control, and brought it to its feet. "Check in with me, guys. You all okay?"
"If I could get the ringing out of my ears, I'd be fine," Adam groaned.
"Did we get him?" Rocky asked, weakly.
"You bet we did," Tanya replied, triumphantly.
"Billy, anything you can tell us from your end?" Tommy asked.
"Looks like you got it," Billy affirmed. "My scans show nothing but wreckage. I'll teleport the Phoenix back for repairs. Rocky, could you bring in that tentacle you bit off when you come back?"
"Yeah, sure," Rocky snorted. "What for?"
"I want to analyze it, to see what we're up against from this witch."
Back at the Power Chamber, the Rangers watched a video replay of the battle, starting with the creature's emergence from its coffin. "I've never seen anything that ugly in my life," Tanya frowned.
"The witch called it a 'robeast,'" Tommy said, turning to Zordon. "Is that anything you've ever heard of?"
"I am afraid this is as new to me as it is to you, Rangers," Zordon told them. "The robeast appears to have been a living creature transformed by magic and technology into an unliving monster, existing only to wreak destruction and terror."
"That's obscene!" Adam gasped, horrified. "Who would do something like that?"
"If my analysis of the spell is correct," Zordon went on, "the creature was transformed willingly. The magic used by this witch is not unlike that wielded by Rita Repulsa, and is far more effective on willing subjects."
"Willing to undergo that to serve the Machine Empire," Billy sighed, shaking his head. "What kind of people are we dealing with?"
"I think it is safe to assume that King Mondo has allied himself with an alien force. The origin of this witch, and the creature which became the robeast, are unknown."
Rocky shook his head repeatedly as Zordon said this. "Hey, but that thing wasn't really that tough. Think about it. Sure, it took down the Phoenix, but Tanya's firepower alone was enough to destroy it: the rest of us were just annoying it. Even Mondo's weakest monsters couldn't be taken out by one zord."
"That was because you hit it right out of the starting gate," Billy explained, indicating another display, which showed a graph of power output versus time elapsed. "When it first came out of the coffin and grew, it was relatively weak, but it was gaining power rapidly. If you hadn't attacked it right away, it would have been a lot tougher, and Tanya's guns might not have been enough. Trust me, this robeast thing wasn't a pushover."
"Will there be more of them?" Tanya asked.
"Undoubtedly," Zordon replied. "I believe this first robeast was meant as a test. We must be ready in the event that another such creature attacks the Earth."
"At least this explains what Mondo's been up to lately," Adam frowned.
"I just hope Kat's better soon," Rocky observed. "If this one was just a test, I'd hate to go after another with just four Rangers."
There was an uncomfortable silence, during which Billy tried very hard not to look at anyone. "Alpha, we'd better do some serious scans of Mondo's orbiting sites," he said at length. "We should see if there are any more of these robeast things in the works."
"Ay yi yi," the diminutive robot fretted, wandering from console to console. "That will take time, Billy."
"We might not have much of that left," Billy sighed. "I'll get to work on fixing up the Phoenix, in case Mondo's in the mood for another test."
"Very good, Billy," Zordon agreed. "In the meantime, the rest of you must be on alert in case another threat arises."
"Hey, aren't we always?" Rocky grinned.
"You need any help with anything here, Billy?" Tommy asked, looking a mix of curious and concerned.
"I think Alpha and I can handle things here," Billy assured him. "You guys get some rest."
"Okay, if you're sure," Tommy nodded. He then looked around at the others. "I'm going back to the hospital, to tell Kat that everything turned out okay. You guys wanna come?"
"Count me in," Tanya nodded.
"Me too," Rocky added. "How about you, Adam?"
"I'll meet you there in a few minutes," Adam nodded.
"All right, man," Tommy replied. "Give a yell if you need us, Zordon." That said, the three stepped back and teleported out.
By this time, Billy was already engrossed in setting up a few scans, and was about to head up to the hangar to check on the Phoenix when Adam pulled him aside. "Billy, can I talk to you for a second?"
"Well... I really need to get to work on the Phoenix, but...."
Not accepting this hesitance for a moment, Adam patted Billy on the shoulder and led him out of the Power Chamber. "The self-repair systems should take care of the Phoenix soon enough. Why don't you come with us to visit Katherine? I'm sure she'd be happy to see you."
Billy shook his head slowly. "I'll... go and see her later, once things are looking better here."
"This is not a good time to be avoiding her, you know."
"I'm not avoiding her!" Billy insisted.
Again, Adam gave Billy a look that said "I don't believe a word of it."
"Okay, maybe a little," Billy relented. "But not for the reason you think. She and I have actually had a couple of pretty... meaningful talks lately. But I don't want to do anything to get in the way with her and Tommy."
"Assuming there's anything happening with them, that is," Adam mused.
"Look, the Power Rangers have enough to deal with saving the world every week. We don't need a half-baked love triangle getting in the way of the team."
Adam arched his eyebrows at the use of the word "love."
"But really, that doesn't have a lot to do with why I'm... avoiding her."
"Okay, then why?"
"Because," Billy explained, "I've really been at my wits' end lately. On the one hand, I hope Kat gets better really soon. She... well... she means...." He broke off, unable to finish the thought.
"She's your good friend, and your teammate," Adam said for him.
"Right," Billy nodded, grateful for the save. "She always says that she hates to see other people in pain. Well, she's not the only one. Never mind the fact that we might have an emergency cropping up as early as tomorrow, and I think today was a good example of why we need all five Rangers active. No offense, but you guys got lucky against that robeast thing."
"Oh, I agree," Adam nodded.
"But on the other hand," Billy went on, "if she's not fit to fight, we need someone else to fill in for her, and right now, I'd be the logical choice."
"Makes sense. So what's the problem?"
"The problem," Billy sighed, "is that I really want to get back into it. I hate watching from in here while you guys are out risking your lives. I want to be out there with you again. And right now, I'd even be happy to put on that pink costume if it meant contributing something out there in the field."
Adam patted him on the shoulder. "I know that. I think we all know that. You've been keeping a pretty good lid on it, but it's still kind of obvious how frustrated you are."
Billy turned away from his friend, and walked a couple of steps off, crossing his arms over his chest. "But that shouldn't be at Katherine's expense. I feel like a real jerk, thinking about how much I want to get back to being a Ranger instead of thinking of how much I want her to get better. And I think if I saw her right now, I'd just feel so... guilty, for being that selfish. I'd hate to think that deep down, I'd want to be a Ranger again more than I'd want to see her back on her feet."
"I think you're being too hard on yourself, buddy," Adam told him. "We're only human, right? Don't think this whole thing to death, and don't get so down on yourself. Remember what I told you about how I had that crush on Kimberly for all that time, and then when she left Tommy, I felt like a real jerk for ever having secretly wanted that to happen?"
"That wasn't your fault."
"And this isn't yours. There's no doubt in my mind that your priorities are in the right place. You just need to believe that for yourself."
After a while, Adam crossed over to Billy and gave him a half-grin. "I want you to promise me, though, that you'll visit her once you've taken care of the Phoenix. That way the rest of us won't be around, and maybe you can have another one of those productive talks. I think Alpha can handle the scans you wanted."
"If it doesn't take too long here, I promise I'll go see her," Billy relented at length.
"That's what I wanted to hear, man," Adam nodded. "Don't work too hard now."
"I'll try not to," Billy nodded, giving Adam the thumbs-up as his friend teleported out.
Even though he'd probably never fly the Phoenix, being that the presence of the red Zeo shard's powers were required to operate the craft, he knew what it was capable of, and he could always imagine it. More advanced than any of the other flying zords pterodactyl, firebird, red dragon, crane, or falcon and yet the robeast had grounded it with one blow. The structural damage, by now, was mostly repaired, and at this point Billy was just trying to speed up a few of the internal system repairs. He had the uncomfortable feeling that the Phoenix might be needed again very soon.
One of these days, he wanted a chance to fly one of these beauties. This was a different yearning than his normal Ranger withdrawals, as he didn't really relish the idea of flying a zord in battle. His previous zords had all been land-based and structurally sound, meant to dish out and receive plenty of damage. Apart from MegaZord transformations, he hadn't put in a lot of time airborne, and he just thought it'd be great fun to take the Phoenix, or any of the other winged zords, and just see those theoretical capabilities in action in the sky.
"Man, there's just no satisfying me today," he muttered to himself. Time to steer away from this line of thought. Sure, life as a non-Powered Ranger had been less satisfying than he'd hoped, but today he was just obsessing on that a little too much.
His meter reported that the Phoenix had completed the initial series of internal repairs, and was skyworthy again, though just barely. Further automatic repairs would take care of the rest. Satisfied with this, Billy extracted himself from the crawlspace on the underside of the bird and lowered himself to the hangar floor. A quick look around revealed the other four zords in good condition, and the Red BattleZord back in its launching cannon in good working order. Not a bad afternoon's work.
He checked his watch. The others had left three hours ago. There was probably still time to go and visit Katherine, as Adam had suggested. He still wasn't sure whether or not this would be the best of ideas, though.
And then the lights went out.
Billy froze, the sudden darkness coming as a shock. From the sound of motors shutting down all around him, the lights weren't the only things to have lost power. In seconds, he was standing alone in pitch blackness and near-complete silence.
It took him a few moments to remember that he still had his flashlight, at which time he turned it on and shined it around the hangar. Everything, including emergency lighting, had shut down. He activated his communicator. "Alpha, what's going on?" he transmitted.
There was no reply.
"Alpha! Zordon! Come in!"
Again, there was no answer. Billy scanned the room with his flashlight, looking for the ladder that led to the main hangar floor. With communications down as well, he'd have to make his own way down to the Power Chamber to see what was going on.
Before he descended, however, he again opened up the maintenance hatch on the underside of the Phoenix and checked inside. Self-repair processes were still underway, but a scan with the meter revealed that they were being performed out of the ship's own internal power source, and not the power-feed from the hangar. Billy breathed a sigh of relief. If this turned out to be an attack, at least the zords were still on their own power.
Leaving the Phoenix to its own work, he scurried down the ladder and across the hangar floor. Only then did he realize the elevator would be out of order, and he'd have to take a service tunnel all the way down to the Power Chamber. A nice, dark, cramped service tunnel with about a six million rung ladder.
"Here's where all that time at the gym should pay off," he sighed, opening the hatch to said service tunnel and clambering inside.
When Billy finally arrived at the Power Chamber, he found that here, at least, there was still emergency power. The computer terminals were running, and there were some lights still lit, but that was about all.
But there was one light that was missing: the comforting blue-grey glow from Zordon's stasis chamber. "Zordon!" Billy shouted, dashing across the room to check on his leader's status. A quick scan of the stasis chamber monitor showed that Zordon was still alive, and the stasis had not been broken. So he was safe, just not present. Something had trapped him in stasis, keeping him from manifesting his image.
It was then that Billy remembered Alpha. He took a look around the room to see the robot standing, or rather slouching, at one of the terminals. He hurried over to check on Zordon's assistant, and found, to his disquiet, that Alpha had been completely shut down.
Billy opened an access port on Alpha's back and plugged in his meter. A quick diagnostic revealed that Alpha was undamaged, and his processing unit still had power. Here again, though, there was something blocking any transmissions from the electronic brain to the body. Alpha was literally trapped in his own digital mind. When Billy ran a few more scans to try to determine what was causing this, he found that the blockage was due to some form of energy that had never before been encountered by this level of technology. There was nothing Billy could do to remove it.
He closed the access port, taking a measured breath to steady himself. It was then that he noticed the screen in front of Alpha. He gently picked the robot up and moved him aside so that he could get in to take a better look.
As requested, Alpha had been scanning King Mondo's orbiting fortresses for any signs of unusual activity. What the scan had discovered, however, made Billy's heart leap into his throat.
There were great forces at work in orbit around the Earth. Mondo had brought his main fortress away from the Earth, to orbit at a considerably greater distance, and his web of smaller satellites had been spread out to form a complete ring around the planet.
Each of the satellites was abuzz with activity. Hundreds upon hundreds of quadrafighters were in the final stages of construction, with hordes of pilot-cogs finishing the preparations. Along with the quadrafighters were similar one-person fighters, of a design considerably more menacing and claw-like than the functional quadrafighters. The pilots of these new ships also appeared to be robots, but the expressionless faces of the cogs had been replaced by fanged demon-heads, and the hands were tipped with sharp metal talons.
It was then that Billy made the connection. Mondo and the witch. The average Machine Empire monster and the robeast. The cogs and the demon-robots. The quadrafighters and the sharp-edged claw fighters.
King Mondo had indeed made a horrifying new alliance, and the combined forces were preparing an all-out assault on the planet Earth.
Billy tore himself away from the scanner and went for the main console, praying that it still had sufficient power to put out the call. He keyed in the command to send an alert to Tommy.
A few seconds later, to Billy's relief, Tommy's voice came in over the communicator. "Zordon, what's up?"
"Tommy, this is Billy! Are the others with you?"
"Yeah, we're all down at the youth center. Well, except Kat, of course. What's up, man?"
"I need you guys to teleport here, pronto. We've got some serious trouble coming!"
"We're on our way!" Tommy replied.
Billy went back over to the main scanning console and punched in a few more requests, both to make estimates of the enemy forces and to monitor any transmissions they might be sending to one another. Before he could get very far with this, though, Tommy's voice sounded again from the communications console. "Billy, we can't teleport! What's going on?"
"Great," Billy growled. He should have known this wouldn't be working either. "Okay, stand by, guys," he transmitted, heading back to the main controls. "It'll take me a few minutes to restore power for teleportation. Just sit tight until then."
Fifteen minutes later, with Tommy, Adam, Rocky and Tanya pacing the too-quiet Power Chamber behind him, Billy stood away from the main console and took a deep breath. "This doesn't look good, guys."
"What did you find, man?" Tommy asked, hurrying up to the console to take a look at the results.
Billy looked from his leader to the other three. Every face was a mask of anxiety and concern, and he wished he had better news to give them. "You want the bad news first?"
"Just so long as there's some good news to go with it," Rocky joked, but his attempt at humor rang hollow.
"Okay. Gather around the holo-projector, and I'll show you what I've come up with."
The five formed a ring around a circular tabletop with a set of controls set into the edge. Billy manned the controls, and punched up a display. "I've got power restored to pretty much everything here in the Power Chamber," he narrated as he typed. "The zords, on the other hand, are still running on their own power sources. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since these are meant to run weeks on end without needing a recharge. That shouldn't be an issue for a while, except maybe with the Phoenix: it's using a lot of its current power in self-repairs."
"How soon are we going to need the zords?" Tanya asked.
"Pretty soon," Billy sighed. He finished his typing, and a three- dimensional hologram of the Earth appeared above the table. Circling the Earth was an image of Mondo's orbiting fortress, the expanse of his empire reaching halfway around the world. "This was the state a few days ago. Mondo's forces were held together pretty tightly around the central castle, and he kept the castle itself in a synchronous orbit right over Angel Grove, so that he could specifically keep an eye on the town and send his cogs and his monsters after the Power Rangers. He obviously thought of the Rangers as his only real obstacle in taking over the planet, so he devoted all of his energy to going after you directly."
"After us," Tommy reminded him, reaching over to give Billy a pat on the shoulder. "Not that it's much comfort this time, but you're still one of us."
"Thanks," Billy smiled, thinly. "Well, anyway, here's what's happened since then."
He typed some more, and as the Rangers watched, the cluster of platforms and cogwheels surrounding Mondo's castle spread out to encircle the planet, and the entire empire fortress, bases and all retreated further away from the surface while maintaining their perfect ring shape.
"They're surrounding us," Adam whispered.
"That's right," Billy nodded. "They've shifted their orbit to run parallel with the equator, and they're no longer keeping it synchronous. It's like they don't really care about Angel Grove in particular anymore compared to the whole planet. Furthermore, there's a shield around Mondo's main fortress, and an initial scan shows that it's the same kind of impenetrable energy field that's keeping Zordon and Alpha trapped. I have no idea how to get through it."
"Okay, but why are they doing it?" Adam pressed.
Billy activated the main viewing wall, and brought up picture after picture of the enemy forces at work. "I think it's safe to say that the Machine Empire has made an alliance with a similarly equipped alien force. That robeast we saw earlier today was just the beginning. They have their own army of robot soldiers, similar to Mondo's cogs, and ships similar to the quadrafighters. Every single one of Mondo's orbiting platforms is literally stacked with soldiers and ships, ready to descend on the Earth. I haven't seen any more caskets like that last one, so that probably means no robeasts for now, but it's anyone's guess what's going on behind that shield."
"How many?" Tommy asked, quietly.
Billy took a deep breath. "I've run some of their communications through the translators. There are... thousands of them. Tens of thousands, even. They'll come down from the orbiting sites and attack the Earth from all sides."
Tanya looked like she was about to be sick. "Is there any good news?" she whispered.
"Not much," Billy admitted. "But from the sound of their communications, there's a fixed number of robot ships they can safely send out at a time. They won't be flying in the whole army in one shot. They're expecting heavy casualties in the first few rounds on account of you guys, but they'll just keep sending new ones to replace the ones you destroy, and eventually overwhelm you." He crossed his arms. "They're placing the entire Earth under siege, and they're starting their attack in about seven hours."
"But even if they can't send all of 'em at once, how can we hold them off on all sides?" Rocky frowned, shaking his head. "I mean, there's only five of us! We can't cover the whole planet!"
"Actually, Rocky, maybe we can," Billy replied, indicating the holographic globe. "I've been trying to come up with some kind of plan since before I got the teleporters working. It may just be our only shot."
"Had a feeling you'd be thinking of something," Tommy smiled. "What's the idea?"
"Well, it depends largely on the Zeo I and II zords," Billy explained. "They work just as well at long distances as short-range. They were designed for the possibility of planetary defense as well as toe-to-toe fighting. They can literally take out an enemy at a range of hundreds of miles. Mondo's well out of their reach right now, but his ships will have to come into that range to attack."
He typed in a few changes to the map, and brought up a pair of icons. "We'd probably want to set them up in relatively uninhabited areas, at high altitudes. That way there'd be less chance of causing any direct panic. If we put one of the zords, say, here, in the Ahaggar Mountains of northern Africa, and the other here, in the Bismarck Range in New Guinea, they'd be able to take out anyone who tried to come in through these areas." From each of the zord positions he projected a broad cone of light corresponding to the color crystal of the pilot, signifying the operating range of the guns. "That takes out a lot of the attack range. It covers pretty much all of Eurasia, Africa and Australia, and leaves them an attack corridor that would change as the planet rotates in relation to their bases."
"That's a pretty big corridor," Adam noted, bending forward to check the display. "They'd have more than the width of the Earth to fly through safely."
"True," Billy nodded. "And that's why we'd need the other three zords patrolling the entry corridor, protecting the landmasses that aren't in the range of the gun-zords. The Phoenix is faster and more maneuverable than the quadrafighters, so it could take them out from the air. The Bull and Sphinx have limited weapon range compared to the I and II zords, but you can cover more ground, and get to where the attackers are, whereas the I and II have to stay still. With sufficient warning on their attack patterns, you could be there to meet them when they made their entry into the atmosphere. Just for broad reference, you could have Adam covering North America, Rocky covering South America, and Tommy covering just about everywhere else."
With that, he brought icons for the III, IV and V zords into the display, each surrounded by a colored sphere indicating their weapon ranges, moving across the land and through the sky at top speed.
"There's also the possibility of setting up another weapon here, at the Power Chamber itself," Billy went on, pointing to the western end of North America. "It wouldn't have anywhere near the range of the I and II zords, but it could help you guys out. The main drawback to that would be that it would pretty much give away our position. We've been able to cover up teleportation and the occasional tractor beam, but a weapon of that magnitude would draw a lot of attention to itself."
Tommy crossed his arms. "I think keeping our secret is a little less important than saving the world."
"Definitely," Adam nodded. "If they find out where our base is, maybe we could just move it."
"That's what I was thinking, too," Billy agreed.
Tommy leaned in and studied the hologram carefully. "We can do it," he nodded, looking almost surprised at this revelation. "It'll be tougher than anything we've ever done, but we can do it."
"What if they move in ground forces?" Tanya asked. "They might try to teleport in more cogs, or more of those robeasts."
"According to the transmissions I've heard, they're abandoning that tactic for now," Billy replied. "Whoever this is who's hooked up with Mondo, they seem to have changed his whole method of thinking. He's going to go for a straight assault with ships, and all of his cogs are either standing by as pilots or building more ships. Plus, that shield they have up may keep us out, but I'm willing to bet they can't teleport out of it, either."
"The next question is how long can we keep up this level of defense?" Rocky sighed. "This doesn't look too easy."
"We don't have much of a choice, do we?" Tommy answered before Billy could. "This is what the Power Rangers are here for. If it's the only way, then we'll just have to keep it up long enough."
"I hate to be the one to screw up a perfectly good plan," Adam frowned, "but there's one big problem with this whole idea."
"What's that?" Tanya asked him.
In reply, he reached toward the hologram of the Earth and indicated the position of the Zeo I zord. "We're still short one Ranger."
Billy took yet another deep breath and let it out slowly. "I've been thinking about that," he said, deliberately. "With Katherine still in the hospital, we'll need someone else to pilot her zord. At this short notice, there's no one else to do that except me. I'll need to ask Katherine to temporarily transfer me her powers and her zeonizer." He looked over at Adam, who stared back at him with an unreadable expression.
"That's a good idea," Tommy nodded. "I wish it didn't have to be that way, but if they're going to be attacking in a few hours...."
"Billy Mitchell, the Pink Ranger," Rocky mused. "Doesn't really sound right, but hey...."
There was a sudden rush of sound and light at the far end of the Power Chamber. As one, the five Rangers looked over to see an aura of pink energy coalesce into a human form. It was Katherine, still dressed in her hospital gown.
"Who says it does have to be that way?" she smiled, weakly. "You've already got a Pink Ranger."
"Kat, what are you doing?" Tommy cried, hurrying to her side to steady her before Billy could even think to move. He helped her slowly cross the room to the holo-projector.
She tapped her wrist communicator. "I've been listening in," she explained. "I heard all about what's coming, and I'm ready if you need me."
"You look like you can barely stand up!" Billy protested.
"Then it's a good thing my zord came equipped with a chair," she nodded. "Hold on a moment, I'm freezing in here with this gown. It's morphin' time!"
With a flash of energy, Katherine morphed into her Pink Ranger costume, then removed her helmet. She shrugged off Tommy's support with a smile. "There, you see? I feel much better now."
"Katherine, you shouldn't strain like this," Billy winced. "You just got off the operating table yesterday. I mean, patented Amazing Recuperative Abilities and all, that's kind of soon."
"I know," she replied, looking Billy in the eye. "Thank you for worrying about me, but I think I'll be fine. From the sound of your plan, I'd just be sitting in one place taking potshots at enemy ships from a few hundred miles away. I think I could handle that in my condition."
"It's not as easy as that," Billy insisted. "You know that. It's a constant physical exertion to pilot a zord, even just in gunnery."
"I know," she repeated, patiently, giving Billy a small smile. "Look, this isn't all bravado. I know the risk, but I accepted the power, and the responsibility that came with it. Being a little under the weather isn't any excuse."
"A little under!"
"Billy, she's right," Adam interrupted, coming around the table to put one hand on Billy's shoulder. "Look, we all know you'd do anything for any one of us, and if any of us couldn't perform for whatever reason, we know you'd be there to back us up. We've always known that, and we appreciate it. But right now, we don't need you out there fighting. We need you right here, in the Power Chamber, trying to come up with some way to get through that shield, or to get Zordon and Alpha back, or to find some other way to end this so we don't have to fight twenty-four hours a day for the next however long."
"I wouldn't be any good to any of you here," Katherine continued, indicating the Power Chamber. "Billy, there's so much that you can do that's just... beyond me. I wouldn't have any chance of helping you without Alpha and Zordon."
"And besides," Tanya added, "if you're out there, who's going to set up that cannon here at the Power Chamber?"
Tommy nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess that's true." He gave Billy another pat on the shoulder. "We're a lot better off with you here, bro. Especially without Zordon and Alpha to help us."
Billy took a centering breath, trying to quell the rising sense of disappointment and the accompanying guilt. They were right, of course. If he went into the field, all they could hope for was a stalemate before they all dropped dead from exhaustion. Here, he could make a real difference in the possibility of a true victory. None of which changed the fact that deep down, in spite of all denial, he'd begun looking forward to getting out there in the thick of it again. "You're right," he nodded, opening his eyes and looking at Katherine. "You're right. I'm sorry."
She gave him a half-smile, then to his surprise stepped forward and gave him a one-armed hug. She winced as she did, but quickly covered it up with a smile. "Sorry for what? Worrying about me?"
"So are we gonna stand around here, or are we gonna get out there and get ready?" Rocky asked the group.
Tommy nodded and high-fived him, then motioned for Adam, Rocky and Tanya to join him a few feet off. Once they were a suitable distance, Tommy called out the familiar battle cry. "It's morphin' time!"
While they went through the morphing process, Billy leaned close to Katherine. "Please be careful out there."
"I will be," she nodded, smiling impishly. "After all, we're not finished talking yet, are we?"
"No, I guess we're not. You mind if I hold you to that?"
"Not at all," she laughed. "I'd be disappointed if you didn't."
Within the next few hours, the plan was put into motion. The Power Chamber still lacked sufficient energy to teleport the Rangers and their zords all the way to their respective sites, but Billy was able to get them part of the way there, after which the Sphinx and Bull did their duty and pulled the gun-zords into place.
For Adam and Tanya, that meant getting to the western edge of Africa, after which the Bull pulled the II zord through grassland, desert and waste until they reached the Ahaggar Mountains. Once there, they scaled their way to the top of the highest peak in scanning range (which turned out to be Mount Tahat) and anchored the II zord in place to await the attack.
For Rocky and Katherine, this meant a jaunt all the way across the Pacific to Papua New Guinea, where they scaled all fifteen thousand feet of Mount Wilhelm to place Zeo Zord I.
"Talk about the top of the world," Katherine gasped, taking in the views that came in over her screens. "I'll bet on a clear day you can see all the way to Cape York!"
"Hey, listen, Kat?" Rocky transmitted back. "I don't wanna second- guess you, but are you sure you're gonna be up for this?"
"Of course. It's doing me a world of good just being here, knowing I'm going to be personally defending my home country, and a lot of other countries besides."
"Okay, if you're sure," he replied. "I didn't want to say anything in front of the other guys, but you know we're all worried about you. This ain't no ski trip this is the real thing."
"You're welcome, I guess. Well, I guess I'd better head over to the shoreline and wait for Billy to teleport me back out of here. I'll see you soon."
The Sphinx then turned tail and ran straight down the side of the mountain at full-tilt. Katherine took a moment to watch him go, then turned her scanner sweep in a full three-sixty to check out everything she could from this once-in-a-lifetime vantage. She'd seen the Earth from close up, and from the high altitudes of space, but this middle ground, as it were, really gave her a scope of the world's beauty, and what she was fighting for.
As she finished her sightseeing, another transmission came in, this time from Billy. "Base to Zeo Zord I. Come in."
"Hullo, Billy," she smiled. "I wish you could be here with me to see this. It's all so beautiful from up here."
"I know. Maybe... maybe once this is all over, we could... go back there, and take another look."
Katherine's smile widened. "Billy, are you asking me out?"
"Well... if you want to call it that. I don't imagine you get a lot of people asking you if you'd like to go the top of a three-mile-high mountain with them if you can manage to save the world between now and then."
"When we save the world," Katherine corrected him, "I would be glad to." There was a pause, and Katherine fancied that she was making him blush. "And we could go anywhere you'd like."
Billy let out a long sigh. "I hate to spoil the moment, but we do have some work to do here in preparation. I just finished running Tanya through her setup, so now it's your turn."
"How soon before the attack?" she asked.
"Less than two hours. I've already made my broadcast to the governments of the world. Now it's up to them to warn the world of what's coming, and what we'll be doing to stop it."
"Tell me, when you woke up this morning, did you think you'd be spending your evening warning the governments of the world about an alien invasion?"
"Well, you know me. I always like to prepare for the worst. But seriously, this is one of the few really global situations that we've had to deal with. We're going to be counting on the support of a lot of people and a lot of governments who'd just as soon be fighting one another. We didn't ask anyone's permission to put you and Tanya where you are, and the rest of the guys are going to be covering ground and airspace over dozens of different political borders."
"So what did you say in your broadcast?" she asked.
There was a small pause. "Tell you what. I'll play it back for you while we get you set up into gunnery mode. Send me a feed from your internal sensors, and I'll watch from here."
"All right," she nodded. "This is going to be somewhat new to me, I'm afraid."
"It's new to all of us. But at least the zords were designed for this sort of emergency."
"All right," she repeated. "Switching to gunnery mode... now." She opened a panel on her main cockpit console and turned a pink lever. Immediately, her pilot's chair shifted back slightly, and began to rise. A hatch opened in the ceiling of the cockpit, and she was raised up into the top section of the Zord: the turret of the main cannon.
"To the governments and the peoples of the planet Earth," came Billy's voice, distorted slightly to prevent identification. "This is a message from the Power Rangers."
With a series of mechanical noises and clicking of latches, her pilot's chair was locked into place in the center of the turret. A dual shoulder harness came around from the back of the chair and gently but firmly locked into place around her, still allowing her arms free range of movement.
"As you know, we have been fighting off the forces of the Machine Empire for many months, and as yet, we have been successful in our efforts. However, we must now meet a challenge unlike anything we, or the Earth, have ever faced. The Machine Empire has joined forces with an unknown alien race, more than doubling its own ranks. They are preparing an assault of immense proportions over the entire planet Earth."
Armrests came up to either side of her, and sliding panels pulled back as a pair of joysticks came up at the front ends, where she could grip one in each hand without raising her arms from the rests. She took hold of both sticks, trying to get a feel for the controls.
"To combat this global menace, we will be setting up earth-to-space weaponry at three strategic locations: atop Mount Tahat in Algeria, Mount Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea, and in the deserts of the southwestern United States. It is our hope that these weapons will repel the majority of invading ships before they reach the Earth's atmosphere. Furthermore, we have two armed ground vehicles and one aerial assault craft to fight off any ships which do make it past the earth-to-space weapons."
A multi-screened console seemingly unfolded in front of her, the largest of the displays being a scanner-view of the direction she was facing (and thus, the direction the main cannon was facing), with crosshairs showing the precise target location. A smaller monitor showed her vital signs, while another showed environmental conditions both inside and outside the zord. Still another showed power levels and internal system conditions. Several others were blank.
"As yet, it is impossible to determine to what degree this assault will affect the Earth, as specific targets have not yet been determined. Be advised, however, that satellite communications and any sort of air travel may be placed at risk by the invading spacecraft. We advise that you use your best judgment in these matters."
One of the monitors displayed the results of a seemingly endless series of self-diagnostics, all of which came up green. Katherine took this as a good sign. In spite of the fact that her zord had never performed this particular function, everything seemed to be working smoothly.
"Regular updates will be given on the status of the assault. I cannot stress enough that this is a very real threat, as your own military systems will soon report. We, the Power Rangers, will be combatting the invasion as best we are able, but your cooperation is of utmost importance. We need your support, not as individual nations, but as a single world. The Earth is being placed under siege, with no one nation singled out, and it is our duty as the human race to make a stand, and fight off the forces of the Machine Empire together, until our home world is safe. Message ends."
The diagnostic tests ended, and the status screen lit up with the message "ZEO I CANNON READY."
"Everything looks good from this end," said Billy, and this time it was his normal voice. "From the looks of these readouts, the high altitude and low temperature won't interfere in any way with the zord's operations, and the internal conditions will be kept at comfortable levels."
"I liked the speech," Katherine transmitted back. "Informative and inspirational all at the same time."
"Thanks," Billy replied, "but I don't think it's going down in any history books. Aside from which, it was in a whole slew of different languages once the computers got done with it; hard to quote, you know?"
"I only hope they believe you," Katherine sighed. "Before long, they won't need to take my word for it. Are your monitors functioning?"
"Yes, they are."
"Good. Then you'll want to test the controls. On your right armrest, in front of the joystick, there should be a series of buttons. Do you see them?"
"Those control the dome-view. Press the one furthest to the left: I think you'll like it."
Katherine tabbed the button. Gradually, the view around her shimmered, and then, quite suddenly, the turret dome seemingly vanished, and she was left floating there in midair with her pilot's chair and monitor screens, and the view from the top of Mount Wilhelm stretching out to all sides around her. She tried to find words to describe the scene to Billy, but could not.
"That's the external view," Billy explained. "The inside dome is basically a hemispherical viewscreen, and it's showing you what's directly outside. It's a good way of seeing what's out there without exposing yourself to the environment. Unfortunately, this won't help you fight the quadrafighters, so you'll want to press the second button."
"Right," she whispered, fumbling at the controls. Once she found the right one and pressed it, the view immediately went black, then was overlaid by a spherical grid pattern. "What's this, then?"
"Main scanners. Your largest screen should now have a magnified view of the direction you're facing, with crosshairs for the cannon's target."
"Check," she nodded.
"Okay. I'm going to upload a few things to you. Right now, you should be seeing two rings appear on the lower part of the dome, the top one pink and the bottom one red."
Katherine looked around, and as she watched, the rings appeared, encircling her. "Got them."
"Good. The lower ring is the horizon, and the upper ring is the lower end of your safe firing range. If you try to fire at any target lower than the pink line, you're putting the area around you at risk, and if you try to fire lower than the red line, you'll hit something on the Earth's surface."
"And that would be bad," she finished. "All right, I follow you so far."
"Okay. The next thing you'll be seeing is a series of blue specks. See them yet?"
"They're coming through now. What are they?"
"Satellite locations. You'll want to avoid hitting these. I don't think our quadrafighter pals will be so courteous, but the less we damage with friendly fire, the better. Enemy ships will show up as red blips, and anything friendly will show up as green. Pretty much the only green blip you'll ever see will be the Phoenix, out at the fringes of your firing range."
"So I'll be firing at hundreds of incoming ships while trying to avoid hitting all of these satellites?" Katherine replied. "Sure. Not a problem."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Kat."
"So I'm having an off day."
"Okay, let's test the motion controls. You're going to want to switch over to turret controls only, so you don't inadvertently move the lower treads and go tumbling down the side of the mountain."
"A good suggestion," she commented. Scanning the main bank of controls, she found the appropriate switch, and flipped it to the "TURRET ONLY" option.
"Great. Now, check out your range of motion with the joysticks. Your gunnery station should be able to pivot left and right through a full three hundred sixty degrees, and upward to a full ninety degrees. Try it out."
Katherine did so, pulling back on both sticks. She immediately began tilting straight upward, the magnified view on the main screen scrolling through the grid-pattern as she did. She took it up the full ninety degrees, so that she was now literally lying on her back in the chair. "So now the gun's pointed straight up?"
"That's right. Bring it down a little and try rotating it. Get a feel."
"It's very smooth," she noted, maneuvering to face the cannon due north, then south, then further up from the horizon. "So when I get a red blip, what should I do?"
"We'll test that right now," Billy replied. "I'm going to put a fake blip on the dome-screen. See how fast you can get it onto your main forward viewer."
As he said this, a red blip appeared somewhere off past her left shoulder. One of the smaller screens immediately lit up with the message "ENEMY IN RANGE!" Katherine swivelled the sights around and up, and zeroed in on the blip. As she did, though, it moved out of her view. "Hey, it's moving!"
"Well, the quadrafighters are moving targets. Try to get it back on your screen, then press the thumb button on the left joystick."
She pivoted in the direction the blip had gone, and soon had it back at the edge of view. She pressed the thumb button, and the word "TRACKING" appeared in flashing pink letters at the top of the screen.
"The computer will automatically move the cannon to lock in once you've got an enemy ship on the main screen. Once you've got it between the crosshairs, fire away with the right-hand trigger. But don't do that now, of course: it's just a simulation."
"Right," she nodded. As promised, the computerized tracking brought the blip right into the crosshairs, and automatically moved the cannon to follow it. One of her auxiliary screens gave a display of the enemy being tracked: in this case a quadrafighter, at a range of two hundred eighty miles. "It's kind of like a video game."
"Sort of, except you don't want to fire until you've got a lock. We don't know how long your power cells are going to have to last. The process is basically going to be get one onto your screen, get a lock, fire, then do it again."
"I think I can handle that."
"That's good to know," Billy sighed. "Your powers should enhance your reflexes suitably to handle the multiple targets. I just wish I knew how long it would be."
"Whatever it takes," Katherine replied, again pivoting upwards. She felt a brief pain in her midsection as she shifted position, but she ignored it. "How much longer until it starts?"
"About ninety minutes. They're prepping ships on every single one of the bases. It looks like we really are going to be hit from all sides."
"Have you finished the cannon above the Power Chamber?"
"Then why are you still talking to me?" she smiled. There was a long silence.
"I just wish we had more time," Billy said, very quietly. "There are some things I was... hoping to tell you, but now we've got this whole saving the world thing to get through."
"And I promise you that after we win this little war, we'll have plenty of time to talk about all those things and more. So thank you for helping me get set up here, and now it's your turn to do the same back there."
"You're welcome. Just...."
"I'll be careful," she assured him. "After all, I only have to deal with a few hundred incoming ships at a time. You're the one who has to deal with the politics of it all."
"Good point. Okay, I'll get that cannon running. I'm going to keep a communicator on at all times, so if you need anything from me, just call."
"I will. Zeo Zord I out."
Katherine sat for a while in silence, then reached for the controls and switched back to the external view. She'd have plenty of time for scanners and red blips when the invasion began. Until then, she wanted to enjoy the view as long as she could.
As soon as he was steady on his feet, he threw on his robe and left the spartan living quarters, hurrying barefoot down a short hall to the Power Chamber itself. The computers were still at work, as they had been constantly since the attack had begun last Saturday night. He scanned the readouts, and nodded with satisfaction. Everything seemed to be going according to schedule.
The initial assault of the Machine Empire had lasted twenty-one hours and thirty-five minutes, during which time the Rangers had quite handily stopped more than four thousand invading ships: about an even split of quadrafighters and claw-fighters. Most of them had been shot down by Kat and Tanya before even getting close to the atmosphere, and the rest had been taken care of at shorter range by the remaining zords, as well as Billy's automatic cannon based on the mountaintop above the Power Chamber. Some had made it through to briefly attack the surface, but had met quick defeat at the business ends of the three mobile zords.
After the assault, things had, at first, looked good. Perhaps the Machine Empire was reconsidering their decision to invade after all. But Billy had discovered differently upon scanning the orbiting bases: they were merely regrouping their forces and preparing a second wave with mechanical precision. Four hours and fifteen minutes after the initial volley ended, the invasion began anew, stretching the endurance of the Rangers beyond any previous limits. This time, more ships made it to the surface, more cities and landscapes were damaged by alien fire, and a worldwide state of emergency had been declared.
But then, after another twenty-one hours and thirty-five minutes, the assault again stopped. From following the patterns of attack, Billy suspected that this was going to be pretty regular, and he so much as ordered the Rangers to catch some sleep right there in their zords while he kept watch alone at the Power Chamber.
And then, four hours and fifteen minutes later, it started for the third time. Billy put out a wakeup call, and the slightly rested Rangers got right back to work for the next twenty-one hours and thirty-five minutes of attack.
With this pattern established, a routine began to follow through. At the end of each assault, the Rangers in the field would take a much- needed rest, utilizing the very small living spaces built into the zords. The Bull and Sphinx would simply find an out-of-the-way place to power down for the night, and the Phoenix would rendezvous with one of the two, as Tommy had no such sleeping space in his much smaller craft. They had at first considered the idea of teleporting back to the Power Chamber to rest, but none of them, on reflection, liked the idea of leaving the Zords out unattended, and they simply didn't have the power available to keep teleporting the zords back and forth.
Billy had taken these breaks as an opportunity to rest as well, but always left the scanners going with instructions to blast out a wake-up alarm in the event of a surprise attack, and always set his alarm clock to awaken him an hour before the next scheduled attack in order to get some preparatory work done.
This "morning" was one such time. After checking on the status of the attackers (still preparing the next volley), he went and checked on Zordon and Alpha, to see that there had been no change: both were functional, but not present. He then checked the readouts of the five Rangers' vital signs, paying particular attention to Katherine's. This didn't look very encouraging, but there wasn't a lot he could do about it right at the moment. The four attack days had emphasized just how much Katherine was needed out there; they couldn't afford to take her out of combat, even for her own good. Not to mention that they'd never be able to convince her to leave.
Most of the time Billy worked was spent mindful of the fact that if he could find some other way to stop the attacks, they could get Katherine out of there and give her the chance to recover: something she was not getting on four hours' rest at a time with twenty-plus hours of strenuous activity in between. But nothing had helped. Four days, and he still didn't have Zordon back, nor Alpha, nor had he figured out what was going on behind that shield around the main citadel of the Machine Empire.
He had a pretty good idea, though. These cannon-fodder tactics were just to wear them down, to make sure they didn't have a chance for the real attack: something that was no doubt being developed even now behind that curtain of energy.
There was no time to dwell on that, though. Keeping himself busy to avoid thinking about it, Billy checked on the controls to the mountaintop cannon. Over the course of the attack, they had first nicknamed it the Zeo Zord VI, but since it was not nearly as effective as a real zord Billy had instead referred to it as the Zeo Zord Zero, and now it was simply known as the Zero Zord. All in good humor, of course, as the Zero Zord had made life a lot easier for Adam, Rocky and Tommy.
The Zero Zord was looking fine, having re-energized its laser batteries since the last wave, and the automatic tracking was still scanning the skies for an enemy that was no longer there. Good. That was something that Billy had managed to do right, anyway.
When everything was running to his satisfaction, he went back to the living quarters to take a quick shower and get dressed. That done, there was one last bit of business to take care of.
Of the many and varied talents Billy had acquired in life, he was often times most proud of his cooking. In happier times, such as when he had first moved into his apartment, he had often invited the whole gang over for dinner, just to try something new out on them.
Now, he was putting those skills to good use, using an assortment of portable electric burners and cookware raided from his own kitchen to prepare breakfast for six. It was relaxing work, as it required just enough concentration to keep his mind off the more pressing situations around him.
Once that was finished, he took a look at his watch, and saw that it was time. He crossed back over to the main communications console, put a tape in his boom box (which he'd set up next to the station), and put out the call.
Adam had made camp smack dab in the middle of Greenland, where he knew nobody would come to disturb him or his zord. He'd been joined minutes later by Tommy, who set the Phoenix down right next to Taurus, and the two Rangers had barely exchanged more than a sentence before crashing out, with Adam taking the tiny cot and Tommy making himself more than comfortable on the floor.
All too soon, however, the wakeup call came in on every speaker, echoing through the zord's interior. Billy, ever the science-minded, had recalled that NASA often awakened astronauts in space with appropriate music, and for the past couple of days, he had adopted that custom. Today's musical selection was the Jimi Hendrix version of "All Along the Watchtower." Adam almost smiled in spite of the situation.
Tommy sat up quickly, startled awake by the music. He took a quick look around, but didn't seem to recognize his surroundings.
"Good morning," Adam grunted from his place on the cot.
"Whoa," Tommy whispered, shaking his head a couple of times. "I was having a pretty weird dream."
"Somehow I'm not surprised," Adam replied, getting up from the cot and stretching slowly. "Geez, maybe I'll take the floor next time. I doubt this thing is any more comfortable."
The music faded slightly as Billy began to speak. "Good morning, guys."
"Hey, Billy," Adam called out, knowing one of the internal mikes would pick it up.
"Is it morning already?" Tanya's voice sounded from the speakers. Apparently Billy had them on "conference call" mode again.
"I'm afraid so," Billy reported. "Tommy, Katherine, Rocky, are you up yet?"
"I'm here with Adam," Tommy called. "Still kicking back in Greenland."
"Good skiing weather up there?" Rocky asked. "I'm up in the Andes. We have got to come back here to ski once everything's taken care of."
"I'll be ready for a good long nap once everything's taken care of," Katherine answered him. "How are things back at the base, Billy?"
"Let me get breakfast out to you guys, and I'll give you the full report while you eat."
"Breakfast?" Rocky said, brightly. "Don't have to tell me twice!" With a twin flash, two sets of dishes appeared on the small table in Adam's cubicle. Adam looked it over hungrily: hotcakes, eggs, breakfast sausage, three different kinds of fruit, milk, juice, protein shakes: Billy had gone all-out for them this morning.
"Let me give you a little news update," Billy continued. "Nothing that'll spoil your appetites, I hope."
"Not much chance of that," Adam snorted, grabbing a fork and digging in with gusto.
"First of all, the global state of emergency is being maintained. I'm not sure what effect it's having worldwide, but here in the States, they're essentially considering this a time of war. Air travel has been completely shut down, especially after those incidents the first day."
"Tell me about it," Tommy groaned. During the first wave, he'd personally saved three different passenger planes from certain destruction by incoming fighter craft.
"Along with that, with all the satellite damage that's been caused by our friends, there's been a pretty extensive breakdown in a lot of global communications systems, so there's been a lot of what I guess you could call localization. In one sense, it's a pretty good sign: communities are becoming closer, now that a lot of ties with the outside have been cut, and it's bringing a lot of folks together in the face of the emergency. Morale seems to be pretty high, in spite of some of the losses."
"Well, I guess that's good news," Tanya considered.
"It's something for you guys to be proud of," Billy added. "After all, you're the real reason morale's as high as it is. The people of the world know that someone's really out there trying to protect them."
Adam looked up from his food to give Tommy a half-smile, half-grimace. Sure, they were doing okay now, but for how much longer?
"Oh, and a note for all you baseball fans. You'll be glad to know that even with satellites down, without the possibility of air travel and with everyone worried about air raids, they've decided to continue the baseball playoffs after all. Something about not letting these heathen aliens rob us of our national treasure. Not to mention that it gives people something else to think about. And before you ask, Rocky, I'm sorry, but both the Dodgers and the Padres lost today."
"Aw, man!" Rocky sighed. "How about the Yankees?"
"They beat the Rangers. Um, I mean the Texas Rangers, of course."
"You boys and your sports," Katherine chided.
"Anything new in your research?" Tommy asked. "I would've asked last night, but we were all pretty dead."
"Understandably so. Unfortunately, I can't report anything new, really. I still can't crack that energy barrier that's got hold of Zordon and Alpha. I'm making some analyses of the robeast tentacle you brought in before, to see if I can get any clues from the technological parts of it, but I haven't had a lot of luck yet."
"Maybe not yet," Tommy replied. "We know you can do it, man."
"Thanks," Billy sighed. "I'll keep at it. The Zero Zord is in good shape, though. I've been working on the possibility of getting another one built, and setting it up down in South America, to give Rocky a little bit of ground support."
"Hey, I think Tommy and I'd both appreciate that," Rocky said around a mouthful of food.
"How are we for time?" Tanya asked.
"About fifteen minutes until you need to be at the controls," Billy informed them. "I'll sign off until then. You guys be careful out there, okay?"
"We will," Katherine told him, and this was echoed by the rest of them as well. There was a brief burst of static, then silence from the speakers.
"Ready to take on the world, Adam?" Tommy smiled, reaching across the table to cuff his friend's shoulder.
"Sure. Or even save it. Whichever works, I guess."
About halfway through the day's attack, Billy had the new ground- based laser cannon as finished as it would ever be. There wasn't a lot of time for testing, but he was pretty sure it would survive the environment he was going to be subjecting it to: the frozen Andes Mountains, where Rocky had made camp the "night" before. Once he teleported out there and got it set up, it would just be a matter of getting it linked up to another tracking system in the Power Chamber and letting it go.
He stepped away from the gadget to take a look at it. More than anything, it resembled a big telescope on a motorized tripod unit, but it would do the job. What to call it, though? Zeo Zord Zero Point Five? Zeo Zord Negative One?
His train of thought was brought to a halt by a sudden alert siren. He hurried to the main console and checked it out, then sighed loudly as he recognized it as a proximity alert. Someone had wandered up the mountain again.
In the five days of the siege, as predicted, people had come to notice that someone was firing a powerful laser at fairly regular intervals from somewhere out in the desert, and some had come out to find the source. First a few curious souls, then news crews as the siege intensified, and once it had been hypothesized (correctly) that this was some kind of base for the Power Rangers, the area had been put under a little siege of its own. Every day, hundreds of people came out to see the place. Some had even set up campgrounds at the base of the mountain, thinking this as one of the safest places to be with the aliens attacking. And every so often, somebody would get brave enough to climb the mountain and gawk at the sheer stone walls that surrounded the Power Chamber. Nobody could get in, of course, but that hadn't stopped them from trying.
Billy went to an unused monitoring console and brought up views from the external cameras. Best to see who it was this time. He hoped it wasn't another news crew.
The security cameras quickly located the intruder, and Billy was somewhat surprised to see that there was only one person. Usually they at least came in pairs. As he zoomed in on the figure, he was able to discern a few details: female, not very tall, obviously making an effort to disguise herself. There was something very familiar about the way she moved, though.
Then, she took a look around, pulled back the hood of the sweatshirt she was wearing, and started scanning the walls, as though looking for the camera through which Billy was watching her.
Billy's eyes bugged out as she looked directly into the camera and waved frantically. What in the world was she doing here?
Not taking any more time to question it, Billy hurried over to the teleporter controls, locked onto her position outside, and activated the teleporter. In a flash, the young woman materialized at the far end of the Power Chamber, and she barely had time to look around in surprise before Billy crossed the distance between them and hugged her.
It was none other than Kimberly Anne Hart, the former Pink Ranger. "Billy!" Kimberly gasped, returning his hug fiercely. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you!"
"Likewise!" Billy smiled, stepping back to look at her. "Kim, what in the world are you doing here?"
"I... came as soon as I could, once this whole mess started. Once I heard about what you guys were doing around the world, I... I just couldn't stay in Florida when you guys were trying to save the world all by yourselves. I... came to help, if there's anything I can do. I would have come sooner, but there's no air travel, and I had to drive, but then they don't even really want people driving long distances right now with the invasion going on, so it took me four days, and then when I got here, the mountain was surrounded by people, and I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to get up here without someone seeing me, and then... What happened to Alpha?!"
Billy looked around to see Alpha standing dormant, right next to Zordon's stasis chamber, where Billy had left him. "He's okay, I think. He just can't power up. And Zordon's stuck in stasis. It's been like that ever since the invasion started."
"But then who's been taking care of...." she began, looking around what to her was a very unfamiliar Power Chamber. Gradually, after taking all of it in, she looked back at Billy. "Oh. All by yourself?"
"You're the first real live person I've seen since I went on a supply run four days ago," Billy shrugged. "And I must say, you're a welcome sight."
"Thanks," she smiled, wearily. "So... can you give me the short version of what's going on?"
"Sure," he nodded. He then proceeded to outline the story so far, going from the robeast appearance to the first signs of the invasion to the loss of Zordon and Alpha to the deployment of the Rangers.
"Too much," she said, shaking her head. "Where are they now?"
"I'll show you," he replied, leading her over to the holographic projector, and the holo-globe of the Earth. "Kat and Tanya... I guess you never met Tanya, right?"
"Not that I remember."
"Well, they're here and here, and they do most of the firing." He then located the icons for the other three zords, one by one. "Adam's up here in the Canadian Rockies, looks like, and Rocky's somewhere in Brazil, moving fast. Looks like Tommy's flying over the south Pacific right now. I've got several of the tracking computers here constantly sending them data on the positions of the incoming fighters, and where they need to get to next to take them out. It's been a pretty exhaustive effort, but plenty more for them than for me. There hasn't been a lot of time for sleep."
"Well, I kind of know about that," Kimberly sighed, running both hands through her obviously unwashed hair. "I didn't get much sleep on the drive out here, that's for sure. I feel so... gross right now."
"Gross or not, it's good to have you back. If you want, I could put you on the comlink and you could say hello to everyone."
Kimberly grimaced. "Actually... if they're that busy, I, um, wouldn't mind waiting until later to say hi. I'm, um, kind'a scared about how Tommy would react to me right now."
"I'm sure he'd be...." Billy began, but then he remembered. "Oh, yeah... Well, I think he'd be okay, considering all that's going on."
"I don't know...." she sighed, crossing her arms across her chest and looking back at the globe.
After a while, Billy made a concerted effort to brighten. "Hey, I'll tell you what. I was just finishing up a project, so while I'm getting that done with, why don't you go ahead and get cleaned up? The living quarters don't have all the amenities, but we've got plenty of hot water."
"That," she nodded, "is the best idea I've heard in weeks. You're on. But... oh, geez, all my stuff's out in my car."
"That's okay. Where did you park?"
"Pretty far away. I didn't want any of the happy campers outside to see me."
"Well, I'll scan the area for it, and I'll teleport in your stuff."
"Oh, you're a lifesaver," she sighed again, leaning forward to give him another quick hug. "I'm so glad there was someone here."
"Always glad to be someone," Billy joked.
She gave him one of her patented quirky smiles. "And yes, I'm happy it was you. So... where are these quarters?"
"Straight down that hall, first door on your right." As Kimberly retreated to the quarters, looking back several times to smile as she did, Billy went back to the external scanners and started seeking out Kim's car. After a couple of minutes, he heard the water running in the shower.
He paused only a moment, shook his head and smiled, then kept looking. Twenty seconds later, he found the vehicle, scanned it for contents, and found a large travel bag, which he locked onto and teleported into the Chamber. The bag was pink, as could be expected, and a quick glance revealed that it contained probably several changes of clothes. That would do.
Billy brought the bag around to the living quarters, then gingerly stepped in. The water was still running, so he was safe. "Kim?" he called. "I got your bag out of the car. I'll just leave it here, okay?"
"Okay!" she called over the sound of the water. "Thanks, Billy!"
"Anytime!" he called back, then got out of the room with all haste. After spending four nights in those tiny quarters, suddenly he felt like he was intruding. It was more an amusing confusion than anything else, though. It was certainly the first time he could remember having a girl over at what was basically his place, and most definitely the first time one had used his shower.
In spite of all the overhanging tensions of the past few days, Billy really had to laugh at himself. His one-time crush on Kimberly had faded a long time ago otherwise he'd be a lot more nervous than humored but that didn't make the situation any less weird.
Rather than think about it, then, he got back to work on the Zero Point Five Zord, or whatever it would eventually be called. After checking it over one last time, he went over to the teleporter controls and sent it on its merry way to the Andes. Now came the hard part: calibrating it and linking it to the tracking systems so that it would fire properly. That would take a little time to accomplish.
While he was working on it, Kimberly eventually emerged from the living quarters dressed in something pink (no surprise) and drying her hair with a towel. "Boy, do I ever feel better."
"Good to hear," Billy smiled, though he didn't look up from his screen. He had to be sure the cannon's X-Y coordinate tracking was in line with the Power Chamber's, otherwise it would misfire and not hit a single target. It took some precision tuning, difficult enough in person and doubly so from thousands of miles away.
Kimberly, apparently realizing he was involved, took the time to make a quiet circuit around the room, checking out the viewscreens and scanners one by one. "Billy," she said suddenly, a note of concern in her voice. "Why is Katherine running a temperature?"
He glanced over, to see that Kim had found the vital sign monitors. "She has been for a while, now. I set the computer to put out a warning if it gets too high. Where is it now?"
"A hundred point seven," Kim reported, grimacing. "Is she sick?"
"Sick doesn't do it justice," Billy sighed. "She... had a really bad case of appendicitis just before the invasion, and she had the thing removed the day before the attacks started. None of which stopped her from taking her zord out and fighting them off for the last five days straight. I don't think she's even been able to eat anything more than protein shakes and water the whole time."
"Well, then what is she doing out there?" Kimberly frowned. "She'll never get better if she doesn't rest!"
"Trust me, I know that," Billy replied, trying not to let too much of his frustration show in his voice. "I was against her going in the first place, but there really wasn't any choice. There wasn't anyone else who could take her place out there except me, and I was needed here. We just didn't have anyone else."
Kimberly arched one eyebrow at him. "Didn't have anyone else?" she repeated.
"Nobody we could get to in time," he nodded.
She crossed her arms again. "Well, you've got someone else now. Katherine took over for me last year the least I could do is take over for her now, if she needs me to."
Billy blinked a few times, at first not getting what she was driving at. Then, suddenly, it made so much sense that he was amazed it hadn't been the first thing he'd thought of when he first saw her. "Kimberly, I think that's the best idea I've heard in weeks! When the Machine Empire shuts down next, we could teleport her back here, do a power- switch, then get you out there! That is, if we can drag her away from the battle."
"Well, if you can't convince her, I will," Kim snorted.
He felt a flood of relief as this idea set in. Now Katherine, at least, would be okay. They wouldn't be any closer to winning the war, really, but just knowing that she'd have a proper chance to recover would make Billy feel a lot better about their chances. "Let me finish up this calibration, then we can give her a call and see if she's up for it."
"Okay," Kimberly nodded.
After a long pause, in which Billy continued laboriously lining the remote cannon up, Kimberly spoke again. "How... how is Tommy nowadays?"
"He's been okay, more or less. Still teaching karate, still winning tournaments, all that good stuff."
"Is he... seeing anyone?"
Billy paused, looked up at her for a moment, then went back to his screen. "Sort of."
"I've been trying not to pay too much attention."
"Is it... anyone I know?"
Kimberly paused. "Well, who?"
Billy took a breath, then made an effort to speak in a measured voice. "He and Katherine have been sort of seeing each other."
"Oh," Kimberly said in a small voice.
After a long while, she went on. "That kinda makes sense. I thought it might happen, but I wasn't sure. Are they serious?"
"Kimberly, could we please not talk about this right now?" Billy sighed.
"Oh, sorry," she frowned, shaking her head. "I'm an idiot. You need to concentrate on that calibration thing."
"It's not so much that," he said, looking up and again meeting her eyes. "Let's just say that I'm not really enthused about whatever feelings Katherine and Tommy might have for each other, and I really don't want to think about it right now."
She gave him a puzzled look. "I don't get...." Then, the light dawned, and her mouth made an O shape. "Oh! You mean you... Oh! I didn't know."
"I'm sorry, I hope I didn't bite your head off too hard," Billy apologized.
"No, it's okay. Now I really feel dumb. I really didn't know."
"That's okay. There's no real way you could have known." With that, he went back to his work.
"Does she?" Kim asked.
"Does she what?"
"Does she know that you... like her?"
"If she does, it's not because I've ever had the guts to tell her," Billy sighed. "I almost did a few times, but once it gets to the actual telling, it never comes out. It feels like I'd be... moving in on the two of them, even if I don't know that there's anything there."
There was a beep from his console, and as he looked down at the screen, he saw the message "CALIBRATED: READY TO ACCEPT PROGRAM" written at the bottom.
"Looks like that's finally done," he nodded, then looked back over at Kimberly and stopped short.
She had crossed her arms tightly over herself, and was looking down, her damp hair falling over her face. It was such an unusual sight coming from her that Billy got up from his console and crossed over to where she was standing. "Kim?" he asked, reaching to put one hand on her shoulder.
"Is he happy?" she asked, simply.
"I...." Billy started, then broke off. "I don't know, really. He's still kind of a private person when it comes to that sort of thing."
She made an effort to smile, but it was a very sad smile. "I hope he is. I never wanted to hurt him. You know that, right?"
"Of course. We all know that."
After a pause, Billy patted her shoulder. "The gun's finished calibrating. We should probably give the gang a call and let them in on the plan. Are you up for that?"
"Sure," she nodded.
The two of them went to the communications console, and Billy typed a few commands to put out a call to the five zords. "Base to Power Rangers. Come in, Rangers."
A babble of five voices reported in more or less at the same time. "Green Ranger here."
"This is Yellow Ranger; I read you."
"Red Ranger here, Billy. I copy."
"Pink Ranger, checking in."
"Blue Ranger here."
"I'll keep this short, since I know you're in the thick of it," Billy transmitted, "but we have an old friend here at the Power Chamber who wants to say hello."
He looked over at Kimberly, who bit her lower lip for a moment before she spoke. "Hi, guys. Guess who?"
As expected, Tommy recognized her first. "Kim?! Is that you?!"
"Hi, Tommy. Yeah, it's me."
"Kim!" Katherine gasped. "Oh, Kim, it's so good to hear from you!"
"How's it going, Kimberly?" Rocky and Adam said in almost perfect unison, making Kim laugh.
"Hey, Kimberly," came Tanya's voice. "We haven't met, but everyone's told me great things about you. I'm Tanya."
"Nice to meet you, Tanya."
"But what are you doing here?" Tommy asked, making an obvious effort not to sound too surprised. "Shouldn't you be in Florida?"
"There are some things that are more important than gymnastics," Kimberly sighed. "I came back to help... Any way I can."
"That's actually why we called," Billy continued. "Katherine, I've been monitoring your vital signs from here. Have you been keeping an eye on the readouts?"
"I switched them off," Katherine replied.
Billy stifled a frustrated sigh. "Now, I know you're all dog-tired out there, but Kat, you above all really need a chance to have some rest and recovery. It would probably be a good idea for you to transfer your Zeo powers to Kimberly for the time being, so that you can finish getting over that operation."
"Kat, that sounds like a good idea," Tommy agreed.
There was a long silence from Zord I, so Billy transmitted again. "Katherine, did you copy that?"
"Yes," she sighed. "You're right, of course. I just... didn't want to be a liability."
"Listen, Kat?" Kimberly said, then. "Billy tells me you went out there to fight one day after an operation. Talk about beyond the call of duty, sheez! I don't think you've been a liability to anybody."
"I'll second that," Tanya added.
"Need me to third it?" Adam quipped.
"Thanks, you guys," Katherine replied. "Okay. I know I can trust you with the power, Kim; after all, you trusted me with it."
"Kat, will you be okay until the day's assault ends?" Billy asked. "It'd probably be better to make the switch then."
"I'll be fine," Katherine assured him. "Just let me know when...." All of a sudden, multiple alarms went off in the Power Chamber, and several screens began to flash warnings.
"Billy, what's going on?" Kimberly asked, looking at him with wide eyes.
"I'm not sure," he said back, quickly trying to pull some kind of status readout up on the main terminal.
"Hey, Billy, something's happening out here!" Rocky called in. "The fighters I've been tracking are changing course!"
"Same thing's happening to the ones I've been chasing!" Tommy added.
Billy brought a tracking map to the main viewer, studied it for a moment, then shook his head. "This isn't right," he said to Kimberly, then raised his voice to transmit to the others. "I show the incoming fighters breaking off their attack. Kat, Tanya, can you confirm?"
"Confirmed!" Kat reported. "It looks like they're retreating!"
"I got the same," Tanya shouted. "Maybe we got 'em on the run!"
"Billy, look," Kimberly said to him, pointing at the screen. "They're all heading in the same direction!"
"You're right," he nodded. "Holy crow, they're scrambling more fighters! What the heck is going...?"
Then, he got an answer, as the tactical-scan image of one of Mondo's orbiting platforms glowed white for a moment, then disappeared. Along with the countless red blips of enemy fighters, a new blip appeared, yellow in color, meaning it did not register to the computer as friend or foe.
But whatever it was, it was carving a path of destruction through the incoming fighters, and taking on another of the satellite bases as dozens of enemies swarmed around it.
"What is that?" Kimberly whispered.
"I don't know...." Billy replied, trying to bring up a direct scan of the battle site, to see what this was. He couldn't get a clear image, though: the mass destruction made it impossible to get a lock on the location. "Guys," he transmitted. "Something's up there in orbit attacking Mondo's bases. Whatever it is, they've broken off all of the fighters to go after it."
"Who is it?" Tommy asked.
"I wish I knew," Billy replied. "Whatever it is, it's outnumbered a few hundred to one. Guys, you'd better hold position until we figure out what's going on."
"You got it," Adam answered.
Another of Mondo's cog-platforms flashed and disappeared from the map. Whatever it was, it was fighting hard, and it was working its way straight for the main citadel.
Before it could get there, though, still more fighters joined the hundreds already in pursuit and swarmed over the hapless yellow blip. Red marker after red marker glowed and vanished as the unknown force continued to fight them off, but eventually, it turned and fled from the scene, on a direct course for the Earth's surface.
"Where's it going?" Kimberly asked.
"I don't..." Billy began, but then he got a look at the projected course of the unknown blip. "It looks like it's coming toward us!"
"Maybe it's a friend."
"I don't know that either, but one thing's certain. It's out of control!"
The yellow blip sped through the Earth's atmosphere, and for a while, held to a course that would bring it to the Rangers' base. But then, it began to spiral uncontrollably, picking up speed.
"Adam, Tommy, you're going to see a yellow blip coming in!" Billy shouted. "Don't shoot at it, whatever you do!"
"I've got it on screen now!" Tommy replied. "It's coming down awfully fast!"
Tommy barely finished saying this before the blip impacted with the surface. Billy scanned for the point of impact, and saw that it was in somewhere in the deserts of the Imperial Valley, not too far to the south of them, and well away from any cities. Hopefully no one had been in its way when it had come down.
A glance at the screen revealed that the ships which had been in pursuit of the unknown blip were still chasing it down, making a beeline for southern California, not bothering to pepper the globe with attacks like before. "Adam, Rocky, Tommy, we've got a whole bunch of incoming, all heading toward where that thing crashed. I need all three of you to get into that area and hold 'em off."
"On our way!" Tommy replied.
"Kim," Billy went on, turning to his companion, "I want you to keep your eyes glued to this monitor. I'm going to keep a comline open, and I want you to tell me if anything changes in this attack pattern, okay?"
"Where are you going?!" she cried.
"Out to where that thing crashed."
"But we don't even know who it is!"
"No, we don't. But whatever it was, it did a number on Mondo, and I think it'd be a good idea for us to find it before Mondo's ships do."
She frowned, but nodded. "Okay. Be careful."
"I will," he smiled. He then activated his wrist-unit, set the coordinates, and teleported out.
Billy literally hit the ground running, barely taking a moment to orient himself before dashing toward the crash site. Whatever this unknown yellow blip had been, it had apparently come down at a pretty shallow angle, skipped off the top of a lone mountain, then carved out a huge gouge in the desert terrain. A big chunk had been taken out of the mountain, and the ejecta from the impact trench blanketed the area for miles.
But none of this was of great interest to Billy, who sprinted as fast as he could across the sandy ground toward the very end of the huge furrow. Clouds of smoke and steam rose up from the crash, obscuring the scene, and as Billy got closer, he had to slow down and bend almost double to fight the smoke.
"Have you found it yet?" Kimberly asked, her voice coming from his wrist communicator.
"Nothing yet!" he shouted. "There's too much smoke! I'm... whoa!" He pulled up short just before he pitched over the edge of the trench. With all the smoke and steam, he'd barely seen it in time. Kneeling down at the edge, he saw that the gouge was deeper than he'd thought, and the soft sand was already collapsing down around the edges. Further down the edges, he saw something shiny, and with a start, realized that it was a thin layer of glass. The heat of the impact had literally melted the sand into glass. "I'm at the edge of the crater," he reported. "I can't see what's down there, though... too much smoke."
Then, quite suddenly, the wind shifted, and began blowing the smoke away. Billy for the first time got a clear look at what was down there, and it nearly made him lose his balance and tumble in.
At the bottom of the shaft was an enormous vehicle, already half- buried by the sand. It was easily hundreds of feet long, and most of it was made of some sort of dark blue metal, except for four legs, shining like chrome. At the front of the ship, half stuck into the wall of the shaft, was a huge head with open, sharp-toothed jaws.
At first glance, Billy thought it was his old ninja Wolf zord, but this ship was much, much larger, and there was something lithe and feline about the design.
"Blue Lion," Billy whispered, then checked himself. The words had just come to him, but nonetheless, he had no doubt that this was its name.
"Billy, I didn't hear that!" Kimberly transmitted. "Say again?"
"Hang on, Kim, I'm going down to check it out!" he called back. Not at all caring about how ill-advised this move was, he lowered himself over the edge of the shaft and started working his way down through the shifting sands.
When he was about halfway down, he heard another voice from his communicator. "Billy, this is Tommy! Get out of there, man! There are too many of 'em coming in! I don't think we can hold 'em all off!" His voice was accompanied by a screech and a sonic boom as the Phoenix passed overhead. Billy then heard the distant sounds of weapons fire and an explosion.
"I'm coming as fast as I can, guys!" Rocky called out. "I'm nearly in range!"
Billy held up his descent to transmit back. "Kim, there's a huge ship down here! I need you to teleport it to the hangar!"
"I-I..." she stammered. "Ooooh, yuck. Billy, I don't recognize any of these controls! They're all different than before!"
He grimaced, partly from the heat and partly from frustration at the situation. "Okay, I'll be right back!" he replied. He then covered up his wrist unit and looked down at the Blue Lion.
"Don't worry!" he called. "We'll get you out of here!" He didn't really know why he was saying it, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
The ground suddenly shook with a series of explosions. One of the quadrafighters had apparently gotten through. Wasting no more time, Billy reset his controls and teleported himself out.
Once the lion was tucked away in the hangar, safe from the scanners of the Machine Empire, the incoming fighters broke off their attack and returned to orbit in order to regroup. At first, it seemed that they were going to retreat, but then, to the collective horror of Billy, Kimberly and the Rangers, they again launched themselves at the Earth, this time in far greater numbers than during any of the previous assaults.
As the Rangers buckled down against this new onslaught, Billy gathered up his meters, tools, a headset communicator and a breathing mask (just in case) and headed up to the hangar to check out the lion, leaving Kimberly to watch the monitors in the Power Chamber. The lion was obviously a powerful weapon, and if they could get it off the ground again, it might just give the Rangers the advantage they needed to swing the balance of this war in their favor. Also, considering the number of ships the enemy had thrown against the lion, they were obviously not happy about its presence. Maybe this was an enemy of the Machine Empire's new ally, and Billy liked to think that any enemy of the ally of their enemy would be an ally... or something like that.
When he arrived in the hangar, though, he had to stop a moment and just look up. And up. And up.
Blue Lion was enormous. Even with the legs folded and the body of the ship resting on the hangar floor, it was something like a hundred feet tall, and about six times that nose to tail, making the normally cavernous hangar seem somewhat close. He realized then that part of the difficulty in teleporting it in had simply been making it fit.
But even with its great size and enormous presence, it was obvious the ship was in a bad way. Blast marks from hundreds of lasers riddled its hull, and dozens of electrical explosions sent showers of sparks down to the hangar floor. The ship apparently still had power, but erratically so. The lion's huge yellow eyes alternated between glowing brightly and fading out with each of the electrical shorts.
Kimberly, still maintaining a constant comlink with him from the Power Chamber, gave him a low whistle. "I just checked out the view from the hangar," she said. "It looks a lot like the Wolf Zord, doesn't it?"
"I was thinking the same thing," Billy replied. "It's a whole lot bigger, though. The Wolf Zord could maneuver on city streets; this thing would knock down buildings."
"Do you think it's a zord?"
"I don't know. I'll need to get a look inside to be sure." After walking up and down the length of the ship, Billy shook his head. "I can't find any way in, though."
"Maybe you're supposed to teleport in," Kimberly suggested.
"Maybe, but I don't like teleporting blind." An idea struck, and he went to get one of the cherry-picker ladders he used while working on the other zords. "I think I've got a way in."
"Have you ever heard of sticking your head in the lion's mouth?" he asked, wheeling the ladder right up to the open jaws of the lion.
"Ewww," Kimberly shivered. "Do you think that's a good plan?"
"It's the best one I can come up with. Before I go in, though, I need a favor."
"Don't wander too far from the teleporters. If I run into any trouble, I'm going to need you to get me out of here. I left the controls locked in on my communicator, so all you need to do is hit the command key."
"Okay. Be careful."
"I always am." He paused to make certain that his tool bag was secure, then hoisted himself up the ladder to the open mouth. Before stepping into the maw, though, he scanned the interior. There seemed to be a breathable atmosphere, and the temperature was within tolerance. Once satisfied with this, he stepped from the ladder to the metallic surface of the jaw, then hopped down a few feet into the mouth itself.
There were no lights working up here, so he took out his flashlight and scanned the interior of the mouth. The first thing he noticed was the staggering amount of weaponry, including missile mounts, laser turrets, and what appeared to be enormous flamethrowers.
"Pretty good arsenal so far," he reported. "It looks like this thing can breathe fire and spit missiles."
"Any way in?" Kimberly asked.
He continued shining the flashlight around, and then, at the very back of the mouth, he saw the tunnel. It was hexagonal, and about fifteen feet across by ten feet high. "Looks like I'm going to have to walk right down its throat," he said.
"Oh, great," Kimberly sighed.
"It seems okay so far, though," he went on, crossing toward the tunnel. "Hey, this is interesting. There's a ladder stuck into the wall here, leading up to the passage. Looks like this was intended for humanoids, or at least someone else who can climb ladders." He tucked the flashlight away for a moment to do just that, climbing up and swinging into the tunnel. Once there, he took the light out and shined it down. "Well, this is pretty interesting," he nodded. "There's a double rail along the floor of the tunnel. It looks a lot like a railroad track."
Taking a breath to steady himself, Billy started down the lion's throat, flashlight in one hand and scanner in the other, narrating his findings to Kimberly as he went. The tunnel was mostly smooth, except for a few places where what looked like maintenance hatches had blown open, exposing tangles of burned-out wiring and twisted metal. After an estimated hundred yards, probably about half the length of the lion, he came to the end of the road, with three large doors rising before him: one directly in front of him, and one to either side.
"So do we try door number one, door number two, or door number three?" Billy mused.
"Any writing on the doors?"
"Some, but I don't know the language. Hold on...." As he studied the glyphs on the door to his left, he noticed something familiar. It was a symbol he'd seen many times in chemistry books: a large sphere, representing an oxygen atom, linked to two smaller spheres, representing hydrogen atoms. "Water," he said.
"What?" Kimberly asked.
Billy raised his scanner and tried to use it to penetrate the door. "There's a symbol of a water molecule here." The scanner beeped out a readout, and he nodded. "Looks like there's a huge amount of water stored behind door number one." He turned the scanner around to the other side. "And door number three. Looks like door number two has air, though. I wonder if this came from Aquitar?"
"I don't know, but I'd try number two."
It took a few minutes of effort to get the door open. It was apparently supposed to operate automatically, and Billy had to find a service panel and work out which of the controls was a manual override. Once it was unlocked, he was able to open it by slowly turning a crank mechanism. "I really think this ship was built for humanoids," he told Kimberly. "Everything here seems designed for hands and feet."
"I wonder where it came from?" Kimberly wondered aloud. Once the door was open to the point that he could step through, he did so. The tunnel continued a ways beyond, but dead-ended in the midst of several more large doors: three to the left, three to the right, and the largest one straight ahead. The choice of which door was made for him, as only this largest door was open, with the rail tracks disappearing into the space beyond.
As Billy stepped through, he saw that the passage opened into what could only be a miniature hangar. There was light here, apparently on some sort of emergency power, and it dimly outlined the shapes of seven tiny one-man ships, each one less than half the size of a cessna airplane, and each one armed to the teeth, utilizing the small space well. Power feedlines were still attached to each of the fighters, but they appeared as dormant as the rest of the lion.
Billy peeked into the open cockpit of the nearest fighter. It was definitely designed for humanoids, with controls appropriate to hands and feet, and the pilot's chair perfectly sized for the average human being.
"You're being awfully quiet down there," Kimberly said, nervously. "Have you found something?"
He took a deep breath before replying. "Yeah, I did. Kim, I don't think this is a zord at all. I think it's a battle station."
Katherine gritted her teeth in pain and frustration as she blasted another incoming quadrafighter out of the sky. One down, dozens more to go, and that was only counting the ones in her firing range. There were simply too many of them, and their attack patterns were more unpredictable than ever.
The past five days had not been easy by any stretch. She'd been in fairly constant pain with every move of the pilot's chair as she'd tracked down the enemy ships one by one. Still, she'd persevered, knowing that there was no alternative, and that everything she held dear would be in jeopardy if even one of those red blips got to Earth before she could shoot it down.
But finding out now that Kimberly was there, waiting in the wings, it seemed that the pain she'd forced aside for days was hitting her all at once. Now that she knew that there was an end in sight to her exertions, her body was reminding her of just how much she'd put it through in an already weakened condition. All she could think about now was when that moment would come that she'd be able to rest, and she hated it. All of her resolve was draining away, and it was all she could do to move on, find the next target and fire.
Because even though there was an end in sight, with the changing attack patterns came no guarantee that the Machine Empire would end the day's assault at the scheduled time. Katherine honestly had no idea how long she'd have to hold up until she could pass the torch to Kim, and that made the wait all the more excruciating.
Her will, hardened to iron by the past days, told her that she could not allow herself to fail. Her body, however, told her that soon she would have no choice but to succumb to exhaustion.
The question, then, was which of the two would win out.
From the aircraft hangar, Billy found his way into a series of corridors, again sized and shaped for humanoids, and continued his tour of Blue Lion's interior. Not far from the hangar he found empty barracks, single-occupant quarters probably belonging to officers, meeting rooms, a sick bay, and a small mess hall. Still no signs of life, though, and by all appearances, this area had been without occupants for some time.
Continuing from there, he next found his way into what could only be Operations and Engineering, and he was again in his element. This was one of the few areas of the lion still holding power, and as Billy accessed the Operations computers, he was able to scan through endless status screens, schematic designs and technical data far beyond his ability to understand at this first glance.
All the while that he worked, he continued narrating things to Kimberly. "The complexity of this ship's incredible," he told her. "If I'm reading these schematics right, whoever built it wanted to be as close to a living thing as they could make it."
"How do you mean?" Kim asked.
"Well, the mechanics look like they were strongly based on biological systems. As near as I can tell, it's got digestive, circulatory and immune systems all separate from the habitable areas, and with those working together, it can repair almost any damage to itself. It has the capability to take in raw material, like wreckage from ships that it destroys, then process it, separate it into its component elements, and use it to build more weapons, to fuel secondary systems in order to take the burden off the central power source, or even to repair breaks in the hull or the mechanics. The six closed doors that I passed led into the processing units. Only right now the ship's not in 'feeding' mode, so the hangar was open instead."
"How about the water tanks?"
"It looks like it can use those for either a high-velocity water blast or a low-powered output, depending on what you needed. You could crush a ship with the one, or put out a fire with the other. The whole ship seems designed to work around water as well as open air or space."
"Can you tell where it came from yet?"
"No, not at this point, though it had to be someplace where humanoids lived. And yet there's all this space, but nobody on board."
"Somebody had to be flying it!"
"Yeah, I know, but I'm still getting no life signs." There was a pause, as Kimberly realized what this meant. "Oh. Hmm."
"I haven't been to the cockpit yet. It's up in the lion's head."
"Do you... really want to see that?"
"I'll have to, sooner or later. I want to spend a little bit of time here first, though."
Billy flipped through a few status screens, shaking his head at how many readouts came up in the red. "Because apart from isolated pockets of emergency power, the ship's dead. I think it was already pretty banged up when it went against Mondo, and between their weapons and the crash, they finished the poor thing off. None of the automatic repair systems are on-line, and unless I can get those working, the emergency power will run out, and there'll be pretty much nothing left to do except use it for scrap."
"Well, can you fix it?"
"I can try," Billy nodded, tracing his finger along the schematic on the Ops screen. He'd need to crawl around in the guts again to get anything done, but that was how he liked it. "I think I can handle the technology. A lot of it's pretty familiar."
"So is it a zord, then?"
Billy popped open an access panel, shined his flashlight inside, then poked his head and shoulders up into the crawlspace. This would be a good place to start, anyway. "I wouldn't say that, exactly. Comparing this to zord technology would be like saying it's a dialect of the same language. Or actually, it'd be more accurate to say they were based on the same language, but evolved differently. They're about as similar as French and Italian: enough to make the other look familiar, but not completely so."
"Weird. I wish we could ask Zordon if he could tell us anything about this. Maybe he knew the people who built it."
"That's not a bad thought," Billy replied, hoisting himself along the narrow service tunnel. He took his multimeter from his toolbag and started checking points, to see which were still conducting power. "Unfortunately, Zordon's a little bit indisposed right now. But I can tell you one thing."
"And that would be?"
"According to the schematics, this whole ship has transforming capability, like any one of the zords. But it doesn't transform into anything specifically by itself. I'd bet my next tuition payment that this ship's a piece of a larger puzzle: something like a MegaZord."
"You mean there might be more of these lions?"
"There might be, yes."
Rocky was in pursuit of an entire wing of the alien claw-fighters when he suddenly ran out of continent.
He'd been barreling ahead at top speed, trying to keep to uninhabited land, alternating between his lifeform-scanners and his heads-up view of the enemy ships, harrying the retreating fighters with laser blasts, and above all, not really keeping an eye on the road. As a result, he came dizzyingly close to pitching off a steep cliff face on the east coast of Brazil and plunging straight into the Atlantic.
The fighters, of course, kept on flying, unhindered by the change in terrain. Rocky cursed up an appropriately blue streak within the confines of his cockpit, then activated communications. "Tommy, a wing of five is heading out across the Atlantic. I couldn't get 'em in time. I nearly did my best impression of a lemming trying to chase 'em down!"
"I've got 'em on scan, Rocko, but I'm a little busy right now!" Tommy called in. "I'll get over there soon as I can!"
"Rocky, keep firing at them!" Tanya told him. "Fire low, and chase them to a higher altitude!"
"I'll try," Rocky growled. Taking a solid perch on the edge of the cliff, he switched to full weapons control, giving him access to every one of the zord's laser cannons. He didn't have much hope of hitting them at this range, even with full attention paid to weapons, but he was able to lay down a hail of blue laserfire that had the intended effect of chasing the fighters to a higher altitude.
"That's it, Rocky, get 'em as high as you can!" Tanya urged him.
"I'm not gonna be able to hit 'em from here!" he replied. "Pretty soon they'll be out of the atmosphere and out of my range!"
"Yeah, but not out of mine!" Tanya shouted. "Watch this! Come on, you little...."
The ships were well out of visual range by this time, so Rocky had no way of actually seeing as they crossed into Tanya's firing zone, at which point they were expertly picked off all the way from northern Africa. But he did see them disappear from his scan. "Nice shooting!" he cheered.
"Keep sending 'em my way, guys!" she transmitted, and Rocky could tell that she was smiling. "I've got plenty more where that came from!"
Adam's voice joined in at this point. "Tanya, you're a brick, you know that?"
"I hope you mean that as a compliment, Kermit!" she laughed.
"Hey, would I ever insult a lady with a big gun?" Adam replied, rhetorically.
Rocky's main screen suddenly flashed out an alert. More of them were coming in, further south along the continent. If he hurried, he could get down there in time to stop and pick them off from a seated position. Taking a deep breath, he again kicked the Sphinx into gear and got moving.
After some effort, Billy noted with intense satisfaction that Blue Lion's internal repair systems were beginning to kick in. It had taken a lot out of him, but he had finally gotten a pulse. "That should do it," he nodded to himself.
He extracted himself from the innerworkings underneath the Engineering chamber and checked on the status monitors. As he had hoped, the effect was snowballing. Once he'd put things back into motion, the repair systems had started to work, first and foremost on themselves. As more of these were made operational, they in turn started to repair more of the self-repair systems, and so on. Pretty soon they'd be able to go to work on the rest of the lion, using stored resources to effect the repairs.
"It looks like it's working," he reported to Kimberly. "Geez, I've never given CPR to a nine hundred ton machine before."
"Do you have any idea how long it'll take to fix itself all the way?" Kim asked him.
"I haven't the slightest," Billy admitted, peering more closely at the main cross-schematics of the lion's structure, watching as the hundreds of red warning lights began to disappear, one by one, very slowly but surely. "I'll bet I could speed things along, though, if I spent more time, but I want to go up and check the cockpit."
"Do you really want to go up there?" Kimberly asked, obviously not happy with the idea.
"I don't think there should be any danger. Like I said, I haven't picked up a single life sign in all the time I've been in here. Whoever was flying it either bailed out or... didn't survive the crash."
Kimberly let out a long, nervous sigh. "Just be careful."
"Don't worry," he assured her. "I feel pretty safe here." After taking a few moments more to study the schematics, he headed out. There was a corridor along the lion's spine that would lead him straight into the pilot's section, and then into the cockpit.
It was slow going at first, as this part of the ship had taken some bad hits, and he had to navigate around the wreckage with only his flashlight to guide the way.
About halfway down, though, there was a whirring sound, and then the passage flooded with light as the internal lighting systems were restored. Several of the light-panels immediately sputtered and shorted out, but the rest held power. Billy took this as a good sign: perhaps the majority of the ship was back on power now.
He found the pilot's personal quarters, mess, and what might have been a chart room up around the lion's shoulders, but again, there was no sign that anyone had been here in some time. Billy shook his head. There had to be at least a pilot!
A set of stairs led him to the pressurized door to the cockpit. Here, he paused, and all of Kimberly's apprehensions suddenly began eating at him. He took his breathing mask from his bag and slipped it on, just in case, then touched a lit panel next to the door.
It slid open with a hiss, and Billy stepped through. And was amazed.
Even with everything else on the ship in a questionable state, the cockpit was lit up from every corner by gauges, displays and viewscreens. The bridge was a two-level structure, with the lower level being a wide, horseshoe-shaped passageway lined with terminals and stations. Billy studied each one as he passed, and noted their individual functions. The first seemed to be Navigation, then Communications, then Weapons, then Operations (similar to what he'd seen before, but streamlined), and finally what could only be called a science officer's station, with more scanners and sensors at its disposal than Billy could identify.
It was then that Billy found his eyes drawn upward, to the center of the horseshoe-shaped crew stations. Here, surrounded by more instrumentation and controls than Billy had ever seen, yet in a position to monitor all that went on in the bridge below, was the pilot's chair.
It was empty.
At the far end of the horseshoe, next to the Science station where Billy now stood, was a steep metal staircase leading up to the pilot's station. Slowly, without really thinking about his movements, Billy started up the steps, and in moments, stood at the edge of what was obviously the nerve center of the entire ship.
The controls, he saw, were in fact fairly simple, consisting largely of a pair of handles within reach of the armrests, and a pair of foot pedals set into the floor. There were a few dozen of the obligatory switches, knobs and buttons probably intended to control the myriad viewscreens and monitors, but only the four apparent control devices.
Carefully avoiding the actual chair, Billy studied the instrumentation. There was a staggering amount of it, but after examining it for a while, he got a feel for the layout. It seemed that this station controlled movement, as could be expected, but also had the capacity to run any or all of the systems of the bridge below. While the bridge had obviously been designed for multiple crew members, each taking care of one of the ship's vital functions, the pilot could conceivably run all systems from here, if necessary.
Which meant, basically, that this enormous vehicle could be controlled by a single person.
Billy looked at the pilot's chair for a long while. Like everything else on the ship, it was perfectly suited for a two-armed, two-legged, human-sized occupant, just waiting for one to sit down.
He did so.
For Tommy, this day had been a roller-coaster ride beyond any he had experienced, and there was plenty more to it than just the non-stop high- speed pursuits through the upper atmosphere. Billy's second ground- zordling had done wonders to take out some of the air traffic over South America, but the Machine Empire's forces were more than compensating for this with sheer numbers.
He recalled that before the initial assault, Billy had remarked that the Empire could only safely control so many ships at once, so the first days' attacks had been pretty regular, holding to that number. Now, though, they were well beyond the apparent safe control range, and as a result, the normally predictable actions of the incoming fighters had become erratic, probably leaving full control up to the feeble minds of the robot pilots.
But today, there was a lot more than the fight at hand. Kimberly was back, and soon, she'd be piloting Katherine's zord. Tommy wasn't sure what to think of that. Obviously, he'd have to handle it just the same as he was now: as efficiently as possible, treating Kim strictly as a much-needed comrade in arms and not an ex-girlfriend. As leader of the Power Rangers, he'd often had to shut out concern for his individual friends, keeping the greater good of the team and the goal in mind, and sometimes that had almost been too much to handle. Now, he was going to have to let his personal feelings for Kim take the back seat while they got on with saving the world.
So he would have to go from worrying about Katherine and her lingering... illness, for lack of a better term, to worrying about Kimberly getting hurt before the two of them had a chance to talk and maybe sort out some of these unresolved feelings.
Having long expended his supply of rockets, he bore down on two incoming fighters and tore them apart with his lasers at close range. Then, registering more incoming over the southwestern Pacific, he pulled the Phoenix around in a tight arc and sped off in that direction.
"Kat, you've got incoming from the east!" he transmitted, chasing these new enemies as they zoomed toward Katherine's territory. He'd been doing a lot of this over the days: shepherding the incoming ships into the range of ground-based attacks, and blowing away as many as he could along the way. As he closed in on the zigzagging quartet of fighters, he waited for the inevitable pink beams of energy to shoot them down.
Except those beams didn't come, nor did Katherine answer his transmission. "Kat!" he called again. "Kat, do you read?"
"I'm here," she said in a small, strained voice. "Tommy, they're coming too fast...."
Hearing the obvious pain and stress in her voice, Tommy said no more, and simply opened up the throttle to engage the enemy ships. They were getting awfully close to the surface, and if he didn't get them soon, they'd be over inhabited land, where shooting them down would pose a danger to people below.
Coming in at nearly full speed, he primed his lasers and spat a barrage of red destruction at the robot forces. He managed to take out a couple, which went down and smashed into the ocean, disintegrating on impact, but the other two were about to reach the eastern shores of Australia.
It was then that the shots from Katherine's zord finally came, nailing the other two and sending them down before they could reach land. Tommy pulled out and sped back to intercept the next enemy, already coming in somewhere over Alaska, out of Adam's current reach.
"Katherine, how are you holding up?" Tommy asked.
"I'll be all right!" she all but snarled. "Let's just get these tin cans out of here!"
"Kat, just forget about anything to the far west of you for now," Tanya added at this point. "I can cover where our ranges cross. You just concentrate on the rest."
"All right," Katherine replied, all of the anger and force suddenly draining from her voice. "Thanks, Tanya."
"Hey, I'm a brick, remember?" Tanya assured her. The Phoenix sped north, and Tommy tried not to worry. He'd just have to do like Tanya was doing, and take up a little of the slack for Katherine until they could get Kimberly there in her place. But of course, being Tommy, he worried anyway.
When Billy's senses were again his own, the first thing he heard was a voice frantically calling his name over his headset. "Billy! If you don't answer me in about two seconds, I'm teleporting you out of there!"
"Wait," he croaked, surprised at just how distant his voice had become. He sat up, forcing himself back to reality, then pulled off his breathing mask and cleared his throat to speak. "Kim, it's okay. I'm all right."
"What happened?" she asked, still frantic. "I kept calling, but you wouldn't answer!"
"I'm all right, really. I was just... out of it for a second. Kimberly, this is incredible!"
"What? What's incredible?"
"I was... mentally interfacing with the lion," he explained. "It's amazing! It's a more intense connection than any of the zords ever were!"
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he nodded, taking his hands from the control levers and rubbing his face. "I've actually been working on this sort of technology for a while now, mostly with the Red BattleZord, but what this lion's got blows away anything I've done so far. I, ah, found out a lot of other things, too."
"Okay, like what?"
"Well, I'm going to have to amend what I said before, about this not being a zord. It's not a zord like we know it, for certain, but it operates with a lot of the same principles. The main power source is a crystalline structure, not unlike a Zeo sub-crystal, and the energy signature's not unlike the old power coins. But with the Zeo Crystal or the coins, the power was always split between the vehicle and the pilot, or the Ranger, so that it was shared between the two. Our powers and our zords' powers were always connected that way."
"I remember," she replied. "So what about the lion?"
"There's no split of the power. It's all contained in the vehicle, with none going to the pilot. So in one sense, the pilot's weaker, because he or she can't draw on the lion's power, but in another sense, the pilot doesn't necessarily have to be matched with the ship, the way that only the Red Ranger can fly the Phoenix, for instance. Anyone with a strong enough mind to handle the neural interface could fly the lion, and once joined that way, the two together become just as powerful as a Ranger/zord combination."
"Wow," Kimberly whispered. "So... could you fly it?"
"I think any one of us could," Billy replied, dodging the direct question. "The mental discipline of being a Power Ranger makes us perfectly suited for this sort of thing. The pilots of the lions must have been through training a lot like ours."
Kimberly hesitated for a moment. "Wait, you said lions, plural. Are there more of them?"
Billy took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. "There were. As near as I could tell from what I saw during the interface, there were five lions, just like there were five zords."
"What happened to the other four?"
"I... think they were destroyed. The flight logs mention a huge battle way across the galaxy, against the forces that have now joined up with King Mondo. The lions lost the battle, lost the war, and were left for dead. But I guess the Blue Lion still had some self-repair systems working, and after drifting through space for a long time, it got to the point that she was strong enough to chase down the ones who'd killed the others. We saw what happened after that." He looked up at the instrument panel, and saw something there that he hadn't noticed before.
"She?" Kimberly asked.
"What?" Billy asked, leaning forward to inspect the panel more closely.
"Oh, never mind. So the lion came all the way here looking for revenge. That I can understand. What I want to know is who was flying it."
The item which had caught Billy's attention was a multi-colored disc, about three inches in diameter and half an inch thick, set into a recessed space. It appeared to be some sort of insignia. He reached for the disc, and gently slid it to one side along the inset groove. "Actually," he said, carefully, "I think it might have been flying itself."
The disc pulled free, and now Billy saw what it was: a key. A rod of gold extended from one side of the disc, and as he pulled the key free, it shifted in his hands, the disc stretching into an oval to conceal the rod. Now it merely resembled some sort of military crest, or insignia.
At the same time, most of the bridge powered down. Billy looked down at the now silent stations from his high vantage, wondering if he had made a mistake. He hurried down the stairs to check the ship's status at the Operations station, where only one monitor remained active.
Here, to his relief, he saw that automatic repair systems were still functioning. In fact, with the cockpit powered down, it appeared the lion had more energy to devote to the repair processes.
He studied the key/insignia in his hand for a moment, then slipped it into his shirt pocket. Only then did it occur to him to wonder why Kimberly was being so quiet all of a sudden.
A few seconds later he got his answer, as her panicked voice again came over the headset. In the background, he could hear an alert siren going off. "Oh, God... Billy, you'd better get down here!"
"What's going on?" he asked.
"It's Kat! Her vital signs are going through the roof! Her fever's up to a hundred three, and her heart rate's spiking!"
Billy felt his guts turn to ice. He'd been so taken with these new discoveries that he'd almost completely forgotten about Katherine. Wasting no time, he activated his wrist unit and teleported down the Power Chamber.
As soon as he appeared, he joined Kimberly at the vital-sign monitors. In addition to the fever and the racing, erratic pulse, Katherine's EEG monitor was registering brainwave patterns so intense that the graph resembled a solid mass of white rather than a tracing.
"What do we do?" Kimberly asked, her eyes wide.
"We'll have to make the switch now," Billy replied. "There's no time to wait for a break in the attack: she can't stay out there any longer."
"But I... I don't know how to...."
"I know, Kim, I'm sorry. I'd hoped there'd be time to run you through the controls, but we're just going to have to teach you on the fly. Tanya can help you."
The two hurried to the main console, where Billy punched up communications, and started trying to get a teleportation lock on Katherine's current position. "Base to Zeo Zord I! Kat, can you hear me?"
"Billy, there's...." Kat gasped, but her voice turned into a sputtering cough.
"Kat, we're getting you out of there! Stand by! Base to Power Rangers! We've got a medical emergency we've got to teleport Kat out of there! Tommy, try to cover the area until we can get Kimberly to the zord!"
"You got it!" Tommy replied, and Billy could hear the grim mix of concern and determination in his leader's voice.
"Hurry," Kimberly whispered, as Billy punched in the teleportation codes.
"Position locked... teleporting," he reported. He then hurried to the far side of the Chamber, where Katherine was already beginning to materialize in a column of pink energy.
The moment she appeared, Katherine stripped off her helmet and flung it aside. Billy and Kimberly helped steady her to either side as she bent nearly double coughing. To his horror, Billy saw blood on her lips: she was bleeding internally.
"I'm sorry," she managed between wracking coughs. "I... I tried."
"We know, we know," Billy assured her. "You're safe now. We can let those recuperative abilities start doing their work."
"Hullo, Kim," Katherine went on, managing a smile for her friend. She then demorphed, going from costume to the hospital gown she'd been wearing days before. Billy realized she probably hadn't stopped using the power since the invasion had begun.
Katherine fumbled with her wrist unit, then passed it to Kim, who wordlessly put it on. "The recall button should take you right back to the zord," Kat whispered. She then took off her zeonizer wristbands, one by one, and passed them to the former Pink Ranger.
"Oh, God, Kat, you just get better, okay?" Kimberly whispered, strapping on the zeonizers. As she did, there was a flash of energy as the Zeo power transferred from Katherine to Kimberly.
"I promise, I'll...." Kat began, but then, quite suddenly, her eyes rolled back, and she collapsed in a boneless faint. Billy was barely able to catch her before she reached the floor.
"Oh, no, KAT!" Kimberly cried, dropping to her knees beside her fallen friend. She quickly began scrabbling at the straps of the zeonizers. "Come on, take it back, Kat, take it back!"
"Kimberly, DON'T!" Billy shouted, grabbing her wrists. "There's no time for that now! You need to morph and get out of here!"
"But she needs her power! She might die without it!"
"And if you don't get out there and fight, millions of people might die! You're the Pink Ranger again, and you've got a job to do! Now get out there and do it! I'll take care of Katherine!"
Kimberly turned furious eyes on him, and she shook her head angrily, but she could not find a word of protest. Slowly and deliberately, she stood. "Show me what to do," she growled.
"Bring your wrists together like this," he said, demonstrating with his own arms. "You have to bring the two sections of the crystal together to activate the power."
She did so, wordlessly. No battle cry, no declaration of her power: she simply morphed, and the pink Zeo armor appeared around her. She then activated the recall button, as Katherine had instructed, and teleported out.
Billy switched his headset to external communications as he checked Katherine's condition. "Rangers, this is Billy. Kimberly's moving into position now!"
"I'm here," Kimberly replied. "I'm getting set up now. Um, Tanya, I'm gonna need your help."
"You got it," Tanya told her. "First check your main screen...." As Tanya quickly started running Kimberly through the firing procedures, Tommy's voice added itself in. "Billy, how's Kat?"
"Not good," Billy replied. Her pulse was thready and her breathing was ragged and impaired. Blood was beginning to soak through one side of the hospital gown. Billy folded that part back to see that the surgical incision from her appendectomy was a mess. It looked as though she'd repeatedly pulled out the stitches in her exertions, healed slightly over with each rest, then re-pulled them as the fight began again. He didn't even want to think about how her internal condition would likely be, but it was obvious that this was not something that would simply be taken care of by normal Ranger resilience.
"Guys, I'm signing off until further notice," he transmitted. "I'll call back as soon as I've got news." Without waiting for a reply, he ripped off his headset and skittered it across the floor.
Very slowly and carefully, he gathered Katherine in his arms and lifted her from the floor. What she really needed was to go back to the hospital, but how to explain her disappearance and days-long absence?
Then, quite suddenly, Billy's panic eased, and he knew, without a doubt, what he needed to do.
Still holding Katherine securely, he carried her over to the main console, clumsily punched in a set of coordinates, and teleported the two of them out of the Power Chamber and into the interior of the Blue Lion.
Moving quickly and purposefully, he carried her down the crew corridors to the sick bay, one of the few areas which was still holding full power. The doors slid open automatically for him, and he brought her through, setting her on one of the medical cots.
Once again, he found that he was acting almost without thinking, as he had been while exploring the cockpit. Somehow, he knew what he needed to do, and now was not the time to question how it was that he knew. Now was the time to simply do it.
"Sterilize," he called out to no one. Immediately, the air in the room seemed to grow charged with electricity, but it just as quickly faded.
That done, he went into a cabinet and brought out what appeared to be a medical scanner. He ran it over Katherine's injury, and studied the readouts. As he'd feared, there was internal damage as well, and she was bleeding heavily. He'd have to re-close the opened incisions from her original surgery.
"Tools," he called.
A long drawer extended from the wall next to the medical cot, containing any number of sterilized surgical tools, as well as a mask, gloves and a frock. Billy put the latter three on, then picked up what he immediately knew to be a local anaesthetic and a laser scalpel.
Only then did he pause for a moment. He was no surgeon. Gifted scientist, maybe. Expert in biology, sure. Some paramedic training, yes. But he'd never done anything like this before, certainly not with the life of a loved one hanging in the balance.
Then, he stopped thinking and got to work. He knew what he needed to do.