|With a Golden Crown
Author: SilvorMoon PM
AU hinging around the episode King For a Day. When Gasket's plans for Tommy go awry, he turns his attention to Jason, leading to a drastic reshuffling of everyone's lives.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure - Jason L. S. - Chapters: 5 - Words: 56,798 - Reviews: 24 - Favs: 15 - Follows: 10 - Published: 11-08-02 - id: 1055233
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: As if I even needed to say this again. *Sigh.* Here we go... The Power Rangers, the Machine Empire and all related monsters, the Power Chamber, and just about everything under the sun related to the Power Rangers belongs to Saban.
Author's Note: This story (at least in this phase of the proceedings) is heavily based on "King For A Day," but it is by nowhere close to an exact copy. I've tweaked the plot quite a bit, as you will see, and the results are going to be rather dramatic, I hope. All misquotes and other mixups are purposeful... and also because I don't know exactly remember everything everyone said and did.
Jason's dark eyes, nearly as black as his T-shirt, scanned the cloudless blue sky. There was nothing to see, and yet he was nervous, so he kept glancing around, searching for whatever it was that was causing the itchy feeling on the back of his neck. In the background, there were quiet sounds of people laughing as they enjoyed a sunny afternoon on the beach, the soft sound of footsteps, his and Kat's, hitting the hard-packed sand of the beach, and the distant hum of a motor as Tommy skimmed the surface of the lake on his borrowed waverunner, sometimes cheering and whooping as it leaped and gyrated across the water.
"You okay, Jason?" asked Kat's voice, cutting into his thoughts.
"Hmm?" he said, distracted. "Oh. Yeah. Sure. Fine. What were you saying?"
"I asked if you wanted to go get a snack," Kat replied. "Is something bothering you? You looked so distant."
"Oh, I was just thinking about something," answered Jason vaguely. "A snack sounds good, I guess. Tommy's going to be fooling around with that thing for hours, if I know him."
The pair waved at Tommy and signaled their destination before they turned their steps in the direction of Ernie's Beach club. Jason continued to appear distracted, saying nothing, but Kat chose not to bother him. He would talk when the time was right. They picked a comfortably secluded table, where they were greeted by a smiling waitress named Emily.
"Hi, Jason! Hi, Kat! What'll it be?" she asked cheerfully.
They perused the menu for a moment before ordering sodas and deciding to share a basket of French fries. Emily jotted down the order and hurried away with a smile and a wave to her friends, and Jason watched her go with a dreamy look. Kat resisted the temptation to giggle; for the first time today, something had his undivided attention.
"Pretty, isn't she?" Kat teased.
"Yeah..." Jason agreed, still staring. Then he cleared his throat in embarrassment, quickly turning back to face Kat.
"Hey, nothing wrong with admiring her," said Kat, still teasing gently. "I think she likes you too, you know."
"Ah, no way," said Jason, but he grinned and blushed a little nonetheless. Then he sighed, staring off into space again.
"Something really is bothering you," Kat insisted. "Do you mind telling me what's wrong? I know we haven't known each other very long, but we're still Rangers. We can trust each other."
"I know, Kat. It's not that I don't trust you. It's just that it's... kinda stupid. I shouldn't even be worrying about it, but... it won't get off my mind."
"You'll feel better if you talk about it," Kat assured him.
"Well, okay, then," Jason replied. "I had the weirdest dream last night, and it has me spooked. I dreamed I was the Green Ranger... not like Adam, but The Green Ranger. Tommy told you about that, I guess?"
"He told me the whole story, yes."
"Well, okay. In my dream, I'm the Green Ranger, the one trying to destroy Angel Grove and all my friends, especially Tommy. I keep dreaming bad things happening to Tommy - not just me hurting him, but lots of other things, too. I can't really explain it; you know how dreams are, where everything's fuzzy and confused. It wasn't exactly an image, just a feeling that something awful was being done. I've got this weird feeling that something bad is going to happen, to him or me or both, and I can't shake it."
"Nightmares are like that, sometimes," Kat replied. "They can be pretty real. I know after I left Rita's service, I had nightmares about it for weeks."
"Not like this," Jason muttered. "It's like it really did happen, sort of. I mean, it was so real, I feel like I was totally there."
"It was just a bad dream," Kat assured him. "It'll go away eventually."
"Yeah, I guess," said Jason, "but... I wonder how Tommy's doing?"
"Jason, don't worry!" said Kat, laughing. "He's perfectly safe! We barely left him fifteen minutes ago!"
"Well, I want to check on him anyway," Jason replied. "I've just got this gut feeling..." He got to his feet and hurried off without finishing his sentence. Kat watched him go with worry in her blue eyes.
*Oh, well,* she thought. *Nothing is really wrong, no matter what he thinks. He'll be back soon, and feeling silly, too. He'll settle down once he realizes there's nothing to worry about.*
Gasket, self-proclaimed ruler of the Machine Empire, chuckled coldly to himself as he watched the Red Ranger enjoying himself on the surface of the lake. How lovely that danger could be so close to the Rangers' leader and none of them would know until it was already over and done with. So much for the protectors of the universe! A few well-laid plans, and then it would be all over for...
"What are you going to do to him, huh?" piped an annoying little voice behind him.
Gasket turned to stare at his younger brother, wishing he had some of the facial expressions these humans did so that he could give his sibling something a bit more squelching than a cold glare.
"That," he said, "is none of your business."
"You're just saying that 'cause you don't know," Sprocket taunted. "I'll bet you don't even have a plan."
"You be quiet. I do have a plan, and a brilliant one, I might add," answered Gasket smugly. "Furthermore, it is one that does not involve you, so I suggest you go away before you get into trouble."
"I suggest you both leave before you both get in a lot of trouble!" shouted a voice.
Two metal heads snapped around to see Jason standing nearby, looking angry.
"Well, Gold Ranger, so we meet again," said Gasket coldly. "You have very bad timing. It's not polite to interrupt people when they're doing something. I may have to teach you a lesson."
"Don't count on it, Gasket," Jason answered. "I don't know what you're plotting, but if you think you can mess with my bro when I'm around, you've got another think coming!"
"Well, then, I suppose I'll have to make sure you aren't around anymore," Gasket replied. "Cogs, seize this meddler!"
Jason jumped as he suddenly found himself surrounded by silvery robots. His dismay only lasted for a split-second, however. After all, protection was only three little words away.
"Gold Ranger Power!"
Now it was the Cogs' turn to jump; they may not have been the most brilliant minds in the universe, but in his sleek black suit and gold armor, Jason looked highly competent and extremely deadly. He struck an impressive pose, letting the sun flash off his armor in a way that nearly dazzled the eye, and brandished his Golden Power Staff threateningly.
"Anyone feel like tangling with me now?" he asked. "Hope you all have accident insurance, because you'll be spending some time in the repair shop after I'm done with you!"
Out of the corner of his eye, he could still see Tommy cutting across the lake water on the waverunner, distant but still visible.
*Move fast, bro!* Jason pleaded silently. *I can't hold these guys up forever!*
"Save the speeches, Ranger! Let's see if you can fight!" Gasket replied. "Don't just stand there, Cogs! Attack!"
The Cogs moved swiftly to obey their master, and Jason found himself too occupied with his own well-being to have more than a passing thought for Tommy's safety. Hopefully, as long as Gasket was occupied with watching him battle the robotic foot soldiers, he wouldn't have time to worry about the Red Ranger, either. Jason could easily finish off all the Cogs with a swift Gold Rush, but if fighting them would keep his best friend safe, he would endure a few bruises gained in dodging and ducking the metallic monsters.
"Hey, Gold Ranger!" came Sprocket's voice over the melee. "Don't look behind you!"
Naturally, Jason didn't obey the young prince. When someone tells you not to look at something, you look. The Gold Ranger stopped moving long enough to look around and see what was behind him. What he found was Gasket, who immediately clamped his hands around the Ranger's throat in an iron grip - literally. He struggled to free himself, but the Cogs moved in and attached themselves to his arms and legs like leeches, making it impossible to move more than a finger. The grip around his throat was tightening, blocking off his supply of air, and spots danced before his eyes as he felt consciousness slipping away. He tried desperately to draw in a breath, but the strength that held him was too great, and he... couldn't move... couldn't... breathe...
The Gold Ranger dropped in a rather pathetic heap at Gasket's feet, and the Machine Prince stepped away from his prone form with distaste. It would be a while before Jason came to, and in the meantime, he had a plan to put in action. His glowing eyes scanned the surface of the lake.
"Where did that blasted Red Ranger run off to?" he asked.
"Sorry, big brother," answered Sprocket sweetly. "While you were fighting with the Gold Ranger, the Red one got away."
Gasket did his level best to keep any of his namesake devices from blowing out in sheer frustration.
"Well, why," he ground out, "didn't you tell me?"
"You looked like you were having fun," Sprocket giggled.
"Sprocket, if I didn't know what Mother would do to me if I disassembled you..." Gasket growled. He trailed off thoughtfully as his gaze fell on the fallen Gold Ranger. "Well, no matter, really. I still have one Ranger. He will do just as well as his friend. Hmm, yes, as a matter of fact, he might work even better!"
He strode over to where the Gold Ranger still lay in an undignified heap and scooped him up.
"Come along, Jason. You and I have preparations to make. I shall make you a king with a golden crown. You'll enjoy that, won't you?" he taunted. "Thank you, baby brother, for providing this improvement upon my plan. You've been most helpful."
He flashed out of sight, then, followed by the attendant Cogs, radiating smug self- assurance. Sprocket followed behind, seething.
Finster was sneaking. A few cautious steps, a pause, a quick glance around, then a few more paces, keeping his ears pricked for any sounds that might indicate that someone was coming. He had practiced this routine so often that it was starting to become second nature to him. He must have been good at it, too, because it was a certainty that he would be killed instantly if anyone caught him, and he was still alive so far. Sneaking here on the moon was both more and less dangerous than sneaking in the palaces of his rulers - less because there were fewer people here to catch him, but more because they were all so close together, and so dangerous. Out of all of them, he was the only one completely incapable of defending himself...
Unless, of course, he had the Apieron.
With his stomach knotted in tension, he tiptoed around to the back of what was charitably called a "mobile base" and fished through the pockets of his apron for a screwdriver. With trembling hands, he cautiously removed a panel from the side of the RV, revealing a secret storage space. He had put it there himself while he had been adding the other modifications to their vehicle, and it was designed to perfectly and secretly hold his one treasure and deepest fear: the white crystal, the Apieron.
With the panel open, Finster all but threw down the screwdriver as he snatched at the contents of his hidden stash. It was a box, only about the size of a pencil case, but made of dark, polished wood and carved with strange symbols. There was evidence of a lock, but it was broken now. With a kind of nervous eagerness, the monster opened the box and peered inside.
Yes, there it was, the glittering pale jewel, still resting safely in its nest of green velvet. It was a centimeter-thick flat stone, beveled on the edges and slightly elongated on two parallel sides, the whole of it being not much larger than the palm of his paw. Even in the dim light on the moon, the pale gem glittered in soft pearlescent colors. Looking at it made Finster forget all about being cautious. Terrifying as it was, the crystal held a strange fascination for him, drawing him to it with a strange allure that was as frightening as it was undeniable. Shivering with fear and lost in wonderment, he stared down at his stolen treasure. He wasn't ready to touch it yet. For now, he just wanted to sit and look at it, and remember...
Finster had first come upon the Apieron by accident. It was during the hustle and bustle of the evacuation of Zedd's palace on the arrival of the Machine Empire, and everyone had been too concerned with the immediate threat to their survival to even consider the fact that something else of consequence might happen - so, of course, it did. Orders had been issued that everyone was to grab everything of value that they could carry so that none of it would be left for the machines to find later. Since Finster was known to be both fairly intelligent and unswervingly loyal to his master and mistress, he was given the job of searching the most secret and private of the basement rooms where the most powerful of the evil king and queen's tools and enchantments were kept. Even in such dangerous circumstances, the lowly scientist was somewhat flattered to be trusted with so much, and he had set about his task with determination.
It was obvious that not everything could be carried - even if they had a week to clean out these basements, there would still be boxes of odds and ends left over. He would have to search through the crates and select only the most important items. Unfortunately, the boxes were jumbled everywhere, most of them covered with cobwebs and dust from centuries of disuse. Finster sneezed and wrinkled his nose; it smelled unpleasantly moldy down there. That was yet another good reason to hurry. He upturned a box of magic candles, objects that were relatively easy to replace, pouring them all on the floor, and used the empty container to begin collecting objects and implements of greater value, digging through the crates and cartons that were strewn about or stacked in piles and columns that threatened to topple over at any moment. Some of the piles were stacked higher than Finster was tall, and he wondered how he would ever get to the boxes without causing an avalanche. Perhaps, if he was careful, he might be able to slide one out of the middle...
Crash! The top-heavy heap of crates fell over, splintering as the rotten wood hit the stone floor, pinning him beneath a mound of strange objects and broken wood. A blow to the back of his head made sparks dance before his eyes, and he shook his himself to clear his vision and began feeling around on the floor for his spectacles. Once they were firmly back in place, he took stock of his situation.
Directly in front of him was a box, lying open on its side, with the broken remains of a lock lying nearby. Its contents lay on the floor like an evening star against a dark sky, a single bright gem, glinting even in the shadows. Finster stared at it with a bit of unease. Perhaps it was the strange symbols carved in the lid of the box, symbols that even he could not read. Perhaps it was the way the stone reflected colors that weren't there to be reflected. Perhaps it was just because he had never heard of or seen this crystal before, though he was privy to all but the most secret of his rulers' knowledge and plans. Whatever it was, he knew instantly that this stone was more than just a shiny rock. It was a source of Power, something strange and strong. That didn't feel right to him at all. If Zedd and Rita had something like this, why weren't they using it? Whatever it was, he had a notion that leaving it down here to be lost forever would be a bad idea. He pulled himself out from the wreckage of the crates and bent to pick it up so he could return it to its box. His paw closed around the stone.
The stone spoke to him.
*Channeler,* it said.
"What?" said Finster, not sure he'd just heard what he thought he'd heard.
*Channeler,* the stone repeated. The voice was neither male nor female, more as if a musical instrument was speaking than a person. It was very faint and distant, but clearly audible. *It has been a long time since I have had a Channeler. I have been lonely... but you are so far away...*
"I'm no Channeler!" Finster protested. He was getting worried now. Channelers were powerful people who communicated with spirits and other cosmic forces, and if this thing was what he thought it was, he wanted no part of it.
*Channeler,* the stone insisted. *You could not talk to me if that was not what you are. You are my Channeler.*
"You've made a mistake," said Finster flatly. "I don't belong to you. I work for Lord Zedd and Rita."
*I cannot make mistakes. I am Truth. I am Wisdom. I am Innocence. I am one of the Apieron, and it is impossible for me to say anything that is not true.*
"Apieron..." Finster repeated thoughtfully. He had heard of such things somewhere, but the memory was vague. "The Unlimited... How is it you are speaking to me?"
*I am a part of you. We are one. Where there is goodness and truth in you, there am I.*
"Impossible," said Finster, but not quite as strongly as he meant to say it. "I'm one of the bad guys. You can't be part of me."
*Not impossible. True,* the Aeperion insisted. *My strength is drained after so many years alone. My power wanes. I cannot stay any longer, but I will return if you need me. I will protect you, Channeler. If ever you need me, touch the stone.*
"Wait a minute!" Finster protested.
The voice grew fainter. It was nearly gone. *You are not strong enough to speak to me for long, but I will come back if you just touch the stone...*
That was all. The voice was gone. Finster stared at the white stone uncertainly for a moment, trying to sort out his options and decide what to do. Almost against his will, he picked up the box, hid the stone inside, closed it as best he could, and thrust it into a deep pocket in his apron. Then he threw himself back into his job, working at a pace that was almost frenzied so he wouldn't have time to think about what had just happened.
From that point on, the stone was never out of his possession for long. During the time he lived in Master Vile's palace, he always had the gem tucked in a pocket somewhere, or, when he grew too afraid of having it found in his possession, he would hide it somewhere, only to retrieve it again as the fear of discovery and the pain of separation became too great. Half of him wanted to be rid of the stone, or hand it over to someone who knew more than him about how to deal with creatures and items of power. He was only a scientist without a lot of strength of will, used to doing what he was told. He felt guilty about his theft of the jewel, and he was frankly terrified by the idea of the power the stone held, not to mention some of the things it was telling him. Despite of that, he kept it. As much as he hated to admit it, Apieron had been right. Somehow, the white crystal had become a part of him, and he couldn't quite bear the thought of giving it up.
For one thing, Apieron listened to him. Even though it sometimes seemed like all he ever did was argue and disagree with it, it always treated him with respect, patiently answered his questions, and never scolded or insulted him. It was so amazing it was almost dizzying. All Finster had ever really wanted, deep down inside, was to be appreciated. If he got that appreciation from a talking rock, who was he to argue? One thing was absolutely certain: Apieron cared about his well-being in a way no one else did. After years of solitude, it was easy to become addicted to that.
So here it was, the Aeperion, just sitting there patiently waiting. He reached out and laid a paw on it, watching its soft gleam intensify to a gentle glow. His conversations with the stone seemed to have given it power of some sort; once, it had only been able to sustain conversations for a minute or two, but now it was able to stay with him for hours before its strength ran out. He was almost afraid to ask why.
*Channeler,* it greeted, as always. It sounded happy to see him. *You have been gone all day.*
"I couldn't get away until now," Finster replied. "There's always someone watching me. What would happen if they found out about you?"
*You are afraid, because I am good and they are evil,* said the Aeperion. *You think they would accuse you of treachery, and destroy you. Do not fear, Channeler. I have told you before, my power will protect you. As long as you have me, you are perfectly safe. They cannot harm you.*
"No, but they can drive me away," Finster replied. "What would I do then? No home, all alone..."
*Never alone,* said Apieron soothingly. *I am here. Always.*
"I know, but... it's not the same," said Finster, lost for explanations.
*True. It is easy for me to forget. It is so hard for you to realize where your friends are. I could show you, but you refuse to see. I wish you would listen to me. I could make things so much easier for you.*
"Show me what?" asked Finster.
*Everyone,* the Aeperion answered. *You do have certain privileges as a Channeler. I can show you the world as I see it, and let you see the great web of life, but you refuse to look. It would be easier on you if you could get beyond your fears and let me help you.*
"I don't want your help, thank you," said Finster primly. "I was doing just fine before you came along and started playing these mind games with me."
*Were you?* asked Apieron with a hint of amusement.
Images briefly flickered across his mind, scenes from centuries of serving the forces of evil and getting twenty beatings and scoldings for every casually dropped word of praise. He remembered those long years trapped in a dumpster as punishment for his loyal service, being shoved into a back room and ignored for months when his queen had fallen out of favor, and never being noticed at all unless someone had a use for him. For a moment, anger flashed in his eyes for the first time in ages as he got a glimpse of how unfair his treatment had been. All he had ever wanted was to be appreciated for his art, and they hadn't even been able to manage that much for him! He had devoted his life to the service of his king and queen, and they didn't care about him at all.
*You see?* said the Apieron, with a hint of smugness. *What is here that deserves your loyalty?*
"You... you might be right," he said hesitantly. "But Zedd and Rita are the only people in the universe who have ever shown me even a little recognition. Where would I go if I were to leave them?"
*To their enemies,* the stone answered. *To those whose mission it is to save those your master and mistress have oppressed. They will have pity on you, and they will help you.*
"You mean... to the Power Rangers?" he asked incredulously.
"Because they'll destroy me the minute they see me!"
*They will not. Their code of honor forbids them from attacking something that is doing no harm. Nothing will happen to you. Have no fear. Let me be your guide, and I will make sure you are safe.*
"Oh," said Finster. He wasn't sure what else to say.
*Do not worry,* the Apieron soothed. *Do you not think that it would be better to at least try to find a life among those who understand the nature of trust and friendship? Or do you want to spend the rest of your days alone and unloved?*
Finster was aware the Apieron was manipulating him. He didn't care, though, because he also knew it was right.
"When you put it that way," he replied, "tell me what to do."
When Jason came to, he found himself chained up in a prison cell and lying on a cold stone floor. It was dark there, lit only by a few lamps placed high on the walls, too weak to do much good. That didn't matter, though, since there wasn't a whole lot to see in his cell, just brown stone walls, the damp floor, and a strong iron gate blocking his path to freedom. He tugged weakly at his bonds before giving it up as futile. He was too tired, too weak and disoriented to struggle much.
*My head hurts... Where am I? How did I get here?* he wondered woozily, trying to sit up. He managed it with some help from the wall, and then looked himself over to make sure he was still in one piece. Bemusedly, he inspected arms, legs, clothing. Why did something feel wrong here?
*Who am I? I don't remember who I am!* he realized. *I... I think I'm Jason. I'm the Red Ranger, aren't I? But... no! The Power Rangers are those people on TV, the ones that fight monsters. They're not real... are they? I can't remember, I'm so confused, my head hurts...*
He looked himself over again, this time more carefully. He was certainly dressed all in red - red jeans, red shirt - and there was some kind of machine on his wrist.
"A communicator," he said aloud, as he realized what it was. "Of course! I am the Red Ranger! How could I forget?" He almost laughed in relief. "If this thing is working, I can get out of here and find the others. I've got to get to the Command Center, before whoever captured me comes looking for me. I don't know who it is, and I don't want to find out!"
So saying, he pressed the little buttons that would send him to safety, and he felt the reassuring tingling sensation of his mortal frame becoming a solid streak of red light, shooting him out of the dank dungeon and away to freedom.
He reappeared in the desert, a short distance away from the site of the Command Center. Jason looked around, puzzled. How had he gotten here? Had something gone wrong with the teleportation device, somehow? Well, no matter. He was close enough to the Command Center to walk the rest of the way. It ought to be just right over that hill, if he remembered correctly. He set off at a brisk walk, grinning with relief as he crested the hill...
The smile died on his face, turning into an expression of pure horror. In the place where the clean, white form of the Command Center should have been, there was now only a charred, blackened pit, full of mangled machinery and broken stone. Jason ran forward to get a closer look, unable to believe what he was seeing. The Command Center had always been safety, shelter, a place no evil should have been able to enter. It couldn't be gone. It just couldn't. But it was. Jason stared at it all in utter disbelief. The major question in his mind was, where were his friends now?
Then little things began to catch his eye. A glint of gold led him to a necklace lying unattended in the dirt. He had seen Kimberly wearing it a hundred times before. That charred thing over there, it used to be a sneaker - Zack had been showing off his new dancing shoes just that morning. Here were Billy's glasses, cracked and bent. Jason turned away, nearly ran away, not wanting to see any more evidence of what he was growing slowly more certain had happened. Then he tripped over something and fell headlong. It was a mangled mess of metal and plastic that had once been a cheerful little robot. Jason hissed in pain as he fell, and got up with one hand bleeding. There was glass on the ground, all that was left of Zordon's tube...
*They're gone,* he thought numbly. *They're all gone.*
It was too much to believe, and he couldn't accept it. He ran away from the site in panic, shouting his friend's names over and over again, as if they were somewhere up ahead and he might catch up with them if he could just run fast enough. Finally, he could run no further, and he sat down on a rock, panting for breath, and he cried his heart out.
After what felt like an eternity, he pulled himself together again, trembling but functional. He couldn't stay here; whatever got his friends would come for him, too. Weak from his run and from shock, his head aching from tears, he pressed his fingers to the buttons on his communicator, sending himself away. As his world slipped into darkness, he realized too late that the machines powering teleporation were destroyed. He had just teleported himself to oblivion... He couldn't even scream in panic, so he passed out instead.
When Jason came to, he found himself chained up in a prison cell and lying on a cold stone floor...
Very close, yet very far away, Gasket toyed with some knobs on a machine, cheerfully watching Jason writhe in the grip of his mind control machine.
"Are you enjoying your nap, Jason?" he asked in mock-friendliness. "Are these nightmares disturbing you? Don't worry... this is the kindest treatment you'll be getting for a while."
With that, he turned another knob and flipped a switch, and Jason began to scream with new intensity.
"Gone? What do you mean, gone? You don't really mean gone, do you?"
Tommy and Kat were by the side of the lake, staying well out of earshot from anyone else. There was no telling what could happen if someone overheard this conversation.
"I don't know," said Kat miserably. "He said he was going looking for you, and he never came back."
"Looking for me? But he knew where I was!" Tommy protested.
"He said he had some kind of premonition," said Kat. "He kept having these dreams that something bad was going to happen to you, and he was trying to stop it from happening. I didn't believe him - I thought it was just a weird dream - but he was so sure. I should have gone with him, Tommy. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Kat. You couldn't have known," answered Tommy distractedly. "What we've got to concentrate on right now is figuring out where he is and what happened to him. Have you tried calling him with the communicator yet?"
"Several times, now," Kat replied. "All I get is static. As far as I can tell, his frequency is completely dead."
"We'll call the others, then," Tommy replied, "and we'll go to the Power Chamber, and Zordon and Alpha and Billy will find him, and we'll go rescue him."
Kat nodded; it wouldn't be that simple, of course, but Tommy didn't need to hear that right now. Poor Tommy. It seemed like something unpleasant was always happening to him more than any of the other Rangers, and he needed encouragement now. They could worry about hard truths later. If only there was more she could do to help him...
"You okay, Kat?" asked Tommy, drawn briefly out of his malaise by her signs of distress.
She managed a weak smile. "I'll be fine. What about you?"
"I'll be fine," Tommy replied. "Especially once we've got Jason back safe. Come on."
In two streaks of light, Tommy and Katherine teleported to the Power Chamber.
Gasket surveyed his handiwork with satisfaction. Jason, after being wracked for hours with nightmares and hallucinations, each more horrible than the last, had at last been broken. He had finally accepted oblivion, having his mind wiped out and made clear and empty, rather than experience anything else. He was resting comfortably now, finally at peace, sleeping deeply and dreamlessly. The robot prince would have smiled if his metal mouth would have permitted it. There were less painful ways of erasing someone's mind, but those were hardly any fun.
"Gasket? Are you busy?" chirped a sweet voice.
"Ah, my darling wife," answered Gasket. "Things are going splendidly! Have you made the arrangements like I asked?"
"Everything is going according to plan, beloved," she replied. "I destroyed his communicator myself. His Ranger friends will never find him now."
"Not until I want them to, anyway," Gasket said. "By then, there won't be anything they can do to stop us. They will be destroyed by their own teammate, and then the universe will be ours for the taking!"
"Oh, Gasket, you are so clever!" Archerina gushed, draping herself adoringly around his neck. "You'll make a wonderful Emperor."
"I know, dear. It's only a matter of time, now. And please don't cling to me like that; not while I'm busy. Plenty of time for that later. Right now, we must make sure everything is in readiness for when our play-king here wakes up. If he were to come around at the wrong moment, there would be no universal domination for us."
"But later, when we're all finished?" persisted Archerina hopefully.
"Don't worry, my dear! As soon as this is all over, I promise I will devote whole weeks to no one but you," Gasket assured her.
"I can hardly wait," she answered, pressing a hand to her fluttering oil pump in anticipation.
"Not much longer," Gasket replied. "Cogs! Unbind our guest and take him to his place at the arena. We have a show to put on, and he will be our star player."
Tommy resisted the urge to pace the floor in nervousness. He only managed by the barest margin, partly because the other Rangers were at least pretending to be unworried, and partly because Kat was resting a hand comfortingly on his arm, holding him in check. Even so, it was hard to play the part of the calm team leader when Jason was who-knew-where.
"Are you having any luck finding him?" he asked, even though he knew Billy and Alpha would tell him the moment they found a clue.
"Ay-yi-yi! We're trying, Tommy, but so far, we haven't found a thing!" said Alpha. "But don't worry, we'll keep trying."
"Actually, we do have at least one lead," Billy answered, before Tommy had a chance to lose his cool. "We've detected a signature energy pattern by the side of the lake; the computer decoded it to read as Jason being teleported away with Gasket, Sprocket, and some Cogs. We know, at least, that he was alive when they took him."
"Billy, have you been able to get a lock on Jason's communicator?" asked Zordon.
"That was one of the first things we tried," Billy answered promptly. "There's no response. It's not like he's not answering, though. It's more like the communicator's been destroyed, or as if he's somewhere our instruments can't reach."
"How are we going to track him if his communicator's missing?" asked Adam. Everyone knew that tracing the signal of a Ranger's communicator was the quickest and surest way of finding a missing comrade.
"Well, we can try doing a trace on the Golden Powers themselves," Billy replied, "or we can try searching for his unique molecular pattern. Either one of those will take some time. The computers are searching for his power code as we speak."
"Aren't there any other options?" asked Tommy anxiously. He was in no mood to stand around for hours while the computers went through their laborious computations.
Billy shook his head. "We're doing everything we can. Maybe you guys ought to leave for a while. We're not going to have much for you to do until we can figure out where Jason is and what's been done to him."
"I don't like this," Tommy muttered. "I was right there! I was actually close enough to see what was happening, and I totally missed it! I was too busy having fun to pay attention to anything else. Gasket was looking for me, I'm sure of it! He came for me, and Jason saved me. Now he's taking whatever punishment Gasket had in store for me. He might even be dying in my place, and all I can do is stand here!"
"Easy, Tommy," Tanya soothed. "Getting all upset isn't going to help Jason one bit. You're going to need to be thinking clearly so you can help us figure out what to do when we do find Jason."
"I'll tell you what we're going to do," answered Tommy vehemently. "We're going to beat Gasket's head in and use his rusty rear end for a hubcap!"
"Tommy," said Billy gently, "what was Jason's worst fault?"
Tommy sighed, abruptly deflating. "I know, I know, losing his temper and rushing into things. But I can't stand feeling so helpless!"
"Sorry, Tommy. I promise, everything we can do, we will do," Billy assured him. "Just... try to relax, okay?"
"I'll try," Tommy replied, "but it isn't going to be easy."
"It'll be okay," Kat reassured him. "Really. I may not know Jason very well, but from what I understand, he's good at taking care of himself. He'll come through this just fine."
"Yeah, I know. Thanks, Kat. I don't know what I'd do without you," said Tommy tiredly. "I think I will leave now. Maybe I won't feel so restless if I'm not cooped up in here watching you guys work."
"We will alert you the minute we find anything," Alpha said.
The Rangers nodded and reluctantly left the Power Chamber, leaving Billy and Alpha hard at work. Zordon watched them, saying nothing. For the sake of his Rangers, he would always put on a calm face, but the truth was, Jason seemed to have slipped to some place where even his mysterious powers could not reach, and that did not bode well...
Tommy reappeared by the side of the lake. He had seen the readouts on the computers, so he knew exactly where he wanted to be: a place that was a short walk from the Beach Club, and yet far enough away from the more crowded areas of the lakeside that no one would see or hear a disturbance. It was also well fortified with trees and shrubs, making it difficult for anything at all to be seen clearly, even if someone happened to be nearby.
*Trust Gasket to take the coward's way,* Tommy thought angrily. *It was me he was after. Why did he have to take Jason? He just got back; I wasn't ready to lose him again...*
Well, he wasn't going to lose his friend, not while he still had powers to use and strength in his muscles. Computers were fine and good, but an old-fashioned visual examination still had its uses. There had to be some trace, some clue that would point to what had happened here, perhaps even to where Jason had been taken. Tommy began to prowl around the grounds. There were prints in the grass, he discovered - creatures made out of metal were heavy enough to leave marks even when the ground was fairly hard, and things never got too dry this close to a lake. Tommy even thought he could pick out where the two princes had been standing and where the main part of the battle had been fought. However, other than that, there didn't appear to be much else to see, just some footprints in the grass. Tommy sat down under a tree, radiating frustration. It was horrible to lose something, to know it was out there somewhere and not know where to find it, but it was even worse when that something was someone, someone you cared about. If only he had some way of getting to wherever he was, Tommy was sure he could find a way to save his best teammate.
Even as Tommy was thinking that, the answer to his wish was being provided. Gasket stood over a computer, one of his precious machines, watching over the Red Ranger and enjoying his enemy's unhappiness.
"Well, Ranger," he said, "you want to see your friend again, do you? I think I could arrange that..."
With a brief moment to ponder his options, he pressed a few buttons and flipped a switch or two, entering a series of complicated commands with thoughtless ease - to a Prince of the Machine Empire, even an outcast prince, computer programming came as easily as thinking. When he had an image on the screen that he liked, he pressed the ENTER key and sat back to watch the results.
Tommy was slowly drawn out of his thoughts by... something. He wasn't even sure what it was, at first, just something changing very slightly about his surroundings. Then his ears picked up the sound of a faint hum, and he looked around for its source. He noticed that the breeze was picking up now, and it felt strangely hot and dry, not like what one would expect to blow off of a lake. Leaves were snatched from the trees to whirl around like agitated butterflies. Then, in the center of it all, a figure appeared. It was a man in black and gold armor. It wasn't a solid picture, just an image, flickering and translucent.
"Jason!" Tommy exclaimed. "Jason, is that you?"
"Tommy..." the apparition whispered. The voice could be recognized as Jason's, but it was distant and echoing, and it sounded strained, as if he were in pain. "Help me..."
"Where are you?" asked Tommy, jumping to his feet. "Tell me what happened!"
"Tommy, I... can't hear you... Everything is so faint..."
Tommy took a hesitant step closer, then another. This might be a trap, but it looked and sounded so real. Nothing happened to him, however, and he took a few more paces.
"You have to hurry," said Jason. "I... don't have much time... can't... keep this up..."
"What can I do?" asked Tommy. He took another step forward, caution forgotten. He'd never heard his friend sound so weak and agonized.
"You can wait in prison until Gasket's ready for you," the apparition replied, and Tommy was swept up, screaming, in a wind of light.
By the time the announcement came, Finster was already a very nervous monster. Well, who wouldn't be? He had been hiding as best he could (next to impossible in the small area he and his cohorts occupied), with a stolen magical crystal hidden in his pocket, trying to scrounge up enough parts to build a transporter. He wasn't quite sure what he would come up with, but the Apieron insisted he was going to need it, and who was he to argue? Teleportation mechanisms weren't the easiest things in the universe to build, and his working knowledge of the kind of quantum mechanics involved was getting a bit rusty. Not only that, but he didn't have any kind of really sophisticated tools on hand, and as for parts... he'd been forced to surreptitiously swipe a few from the RV itself just to have enough to work with. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least, but after talking to the Apieron on a regular basis, he had become a master of surreptitiousness.
*Perhaps, if this doesn't pan out, I could become a thief,* he thought with strange detachment. *Nobody ever notices me, anyway. I might as well get something out of it.*
*Guard yourself,* Apieron warned. *Something is about to happen!*
Finster quickly stashed the newly-completed transporter under his bunk and replaced it with some other harmless gadgetry, just in case. Then, suddenly, something odd occurred to him. Apieron was talking to him, yet the stone was still secreted away in his pocket. How in the universe...?
"Finster! Where are you? Come look at this!"
Finster winced; there was no mistaking that strident voice. It looked like it was time to go act his part, and hope no one would realize that he was up to something. Well, the probably wouldn't, since Finster was never up to something, but still, just the thought of lying to those he had served so loyally for so long made him nervous.
"Well, they never did anything for me. Turnabout is fair play," he told himself sternly. He called out the window, "Coming, my queen!"
He hurried outside, where the so-called king and queen and their similarly qualified soldiers were gathered around their two-bit television. Finster didn't like the box, and never paid any attention to it, even in the rare instances when a discernable picture came through. Now, though, the little screen was intercepting a message of importance. Occupying the proverbial spotlight was Prince Gasket, obviously enjoying the attention he was sure he was receiving. He wasn't far off the mark, for all eyes seemed to be riveted on him. Finster adjusted his spectacles and tried to get a little closer to the screen.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Gasket grandly, "I welcome you, one and all, to this special event! In just a very few moments, you will witness with your own eyes the destruction of the Power Rangers's noble leader at the hands of his own dear teammate, the Gold Ranger! Rangers, I know you're listening to this. Don't even think about trying to save your friends. No one gets in or out of my dimension without my permission, not even you. You'll have a chance to try your luck after your friend Tommy has been reduced to a pile of red dust. As for the rest of you, get your popcorn ready, gather the kiddies close to the screen, and get ready for the fight of the century!"
"Now, there's a plan with some style!" Rita enthused. "Why didn't you ever come up with an idea like that, Zeddie?"
"Oh, hush up," answered her loving husband grumpily. "As if we really have the resources to pull something like that off."
"Why should we worry?" asked Goldar. "As long as the Rangers are destroyed, who cares how it's done?"
"The Rangers... destroyed?" muttered Finster thoughtfully. "But that can't be! He can't do that!" If the Rangers were destroyed, where would that leave him? Stuck here for who-knew- how-long. He was amazed to realize how much that upset him. Just when had he set his heart on changing sides, anyway?
"What do you mean, he can't do that?" asked Rita, scowling at him suspiciously.
"Wait! I'll tell you what he means!" Zedd answered suddenly. "Don't you see? If he destroys the Power Rangers, the Earth will belong to him! We won't be left with anything! The Machines will rule the galaxy, and we will have nothing!"
"Oh," said Rita, somewhat dazed. "Oh. I guess you're right. So, what are we going to do about it?"
There was a pause. Everyone looked at each other expectantly, waiting for a brilliant plan to come forth. When no plans appeared to be forthcoming, Finster cleared his throat.
"If I might make a humble suggestion?" he asked.
"Go ahead. Out with it," Zedd growled.
That was hardly encouraging, but Finster went ahead and spoke anyway. If worst came to worst, the Aperion had given its supposedly irrevocable word that it would protect its Channeler from all dangers. Let it deal with what it had offered.
"It occurs to me, and I may be wrong," Finster began, "that the most effective way to make sure Prince Gasket loses is to make sure that the Power Rangers win. If the Rangers win this battle..."
"Then they'll destroy those bothersome Machines, and then Earth will be fair game for us!" Zedd finished. "Who knows? Perhaps the Rangers and the Machines will even destroy each other! Then there would be nobody left to stand in our way! That's a brilliant idea, manipulating those Power Rangers to our advantage. I'm glad I thought of it."
"Oh, yes, a most inspired idea, your majesty!" Finster enthused with perfect sincerity. Inside, he was repressing a growl. Why did he never get any credit for anything! He wondered what this arrogant lord would do when he was gone.
"Just one question," asked Rito innocently. "Just how exactly are we supposed to make sure they win?"
"Well, you heard him!" Zedd replied, turning back to Finster. "How are we going to make sure they win?"
*Well, there you have your answer,* rang the Apieron's voice in Finster's mind. *You wanted to know what they would do without you, and there you have it!* The voice sounded like it was laughing, and its laughter was what kept Finster from losing his mask of servility to a glower of frustration.
"If... if you will give me a few moments of time," Finster began, doing his best to think of something plausible to say, "I might be able to arrange something of use. Right now, the Red Ranger will be battling his friend alone. Since he will refuse to hurt the Gold Ranger, he will be destroyed. However, if the rest of the Rangers were to suddenly appear - say, due to someone teleporting them into the arena..." He trailed off, waiting resignedly for one of his rulers to claim the idea as his own.
"The Rangers will be able to reduce that wretched robot into scrap metal! Perfect!" Zedd replied. "Finster, I order you to get to work on building a teleportation device! We'll give that metal meddler a run for his money!"
"Yes, my lord, right away," Finster replied dutifully. He scurried into the RV and shut the door behind him.
*You did wonderfully, Channeler,* the Apieron said warmly. *Who would have guessed you possessed such courage?*
"I just want to get this over with," said Finster. "What are we going to do now?"
*We are going to bide our time,* answered the Apieron. *Then, when the time is right, we will make our move.*
Tommy rose slowly into consciousness. The first thing he became aware of was that there was golden light shining on his eyelids. The second thing he realized was that he was lying down. Well. He must have overslept, somehow. Did his alarm clock not go off? No matter, really. It would probably not go unremarked if he was late for school, but it wouldn't be the first time, and probably not the last time, either. He stirred a little and decided he ought to be waking up and finding out what was going on...
He opened his eyes. He was in an unfamiliar room made of yellowish stone, lying on a lumpy cot that stood beneath the room's only window. Warm light spilled through it like liquid gold - a pretty sight, but that was nearly all the window was good for. It was set high in the wall, too narrow for him to crawl through, and barred. Further inspection revealed a second cot, a dresser of some sort with a few oddments strewn across it, and a tapestry of some sort hanging on the wall. Tommy recognized the design instantly as the double gear insignia of the Royal House of Gadgetry. There was a wide doorway that admitted more fresh air and light, but it was blocked by a gate of thick steel bars, too solid to bend or break and set so close together that not even the smallest human child could have squeezed through, much less a healthy teenager. There was another doorway that led of into a second, darker set of rooms. It was not barred.
However, there was a very large lizard standing in the doorway.
"What in the...?" began Tommy in shock, sitting bolt upright.
"Do not be alarmed," the creature answered, stepping forward into the light. It's voice was deep and rough, but not unkind. "I mean you no harm. We are in this together, you and I."
Tommy gave the strange beast a curious look. It was not a lizard, after all, but a man with reptilian features. From the waist down, he was pure lizard, complete with a tail, but upwards from there, he was roughly human. Parts of his chest, his entire left arm and shoulder, and most of his head and neck were scaled, and his left hand was tipped with claws, but despite all that, he did not seem in any way threatening. Dangerous, perhaps, but not threatening.
"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," Tommy replied. "I've just never seen anything quite like you before."
"My people are a secretive race. We are seen by few," the creature replied. "I am Tridor, of the planet Horath, or what's left of it. Gasket conquered some years ago, and most of those who were not killed are enslaved or in hiding somewhere. I am... both more and less fortunate than some."
"My name's Tommy Oliver," the Red Ranger replied. "What do you mean, more and less fortunate?"
"This is not the worst place we could be," Tridor said. "At least here, you will be fed what is nutritious to you, doctored if you are sick, kept out of rain and cold, and allowed to go outside on occasion for practice - under heavily armed guard, of course."
"But what for?" Tommy persisted.
"For the entertainment of the Prince," answered Tridor. "It is his pleasure to keep the greatest warriors of the planets he conquers in captivity. When he wishes to be entertained, he brings them out of their cells and has them battle each other, often until the death. Until then, you are safe. You must be a very great warrior on your world, if you have been brought here."
"Yeah, I know a thing or two about fighting," said Tommy, not sure whether or not it would be right to reveal his status as a Ranger to this odd creature. "But Gasket hasn't conquered our world yet, and he's not going to, not if my friends and I have anything to say about it!"
"Ah," said Tridor, smiling enigmatically. "You are a Power Ranger, then, from Earth. I had thought as much."
"You know about us?" asked Tommy, surprised.
"Everyone here does," Tridor replied. "The prince has been ranting about you all for days. He has captured one of your number, I have heard. He is even now in the Grand Arena. I am fairly certain there is to be a battle of some sort today, and I wouldn't doubt that your friend will be part of it."
"Well, I'm not staying here and letting that tinhead prince mess with Jason," said Tommy. He reached for his communicator, which, he was pleased to note, was still on his wrist and quite intact. He pressed the button, ready to teleport out. There were a few feeble red sparks, but nothing more. Tommy frowned in consternation.
"Not working?" asked Tridor. "I'm not surprised. Gasket has erected a very powerful energy shield over this entire complex; no one can get in or out, not unless he permits it."
"If that's true," said Tommy, "why are you smiling?"
"Because, I know how to fix the problem, if you are willing to help me," Tridor replied. "I have been waiting for a long time for an accomplice to help me with my plan, and I have a feeling that you could be just who I've been waiting for. There is a control room not far from here, which contains the machinery that powers the energy shield. I know where it is, and I could destroy it, if someone were to buy me a little time."
"If I can do anything to help, I will," Tommy replied. "What's your plan?"
"I have been in this cell for a long time. I know how Gasket operates things. He is a machine; he does the same thing over and over, mechanically. If all things run according to schedule, he will be sending for me soon, to do battle with his newly-captured Ranger. I will create a diversion so that you can escape and break the shield."
"No," said Tommy. "Gasket will want me. I'm sure of it. That's just his style - to put me and my best friend in an arena and try to make us kill each other."
"Yes, that does sound like him, now that you mention it," Tridor admitted. "That being the case, he would override his patterns. So, what do you suggest?"
"Reverse the plan," said Tommy simply. "You know where the computers are and what to do when you find them. I'll keep the machines busy long enough for you to do your work. Then we can all be free."
"You are a very brave man, Tommy Oliver, and worthy to be called a Ranger," answered Tridor. "Very well, we shall do as you say." A smile crossed his face, making his dark eyes glitter. "I do not believe His Majesty is going to have a happy afternoon."
There really were times when Gasket wished his face was equipped for smiling, and as he surveyed the crowds of howling monsters that filled his stadium's bleachers, he could hardly suppress a chuckle.
"This is going to be marvelous," he said to himself. "Never in recorded history has such a battle been recorded! I shall go down in the annals of time for this!"
He was distracted from his self-congratulations by the sound of a low moan. He turned around in time to see the Gold Ranger - his Gold Ranger now, he reminded himself smugly - beginning to stir and shake his head dazedly.
"Wh...where am I?" he asked. "What's going on? What happened to me?"
"Oh, your majesty! At last, you are awake!" cried Gasket. "We have been so worried about you, sire! How are you feeling?"
"Okay, I guess," said Jason woozily. More clearly, he added, "Who are you? Why are you calling me 'your majesty' like that? I'm not royalty... am I? I don't remember who I am..."
"It pains me deeply that your majesty is feeling unwell," answered Gasket, doing his level best to sound sympathetic. "Perhaps I can jog your memory. You are King Jason, ruler of the great and mighty Machine Empire. I am your trusted advisor, Gasket. Don't you remember me?"
"Maybe... I don't know. My head feels strange," Jason replied. "You do look kind of familiar. Why can't I remember anything?"
"Have no fear, your majesty. I will explain everything," said Gasket. "To do that, I must remind you first of our mission, and that of the entire Empire. We are warriors, dedicated to protecting the universe from being overwhelmed by the forces of utter darkness and chaos. Chief among these forces are the Power Rangers, a group of teenagers from a horrid planet called Earth. These Power Rangers have been your mortal enemies for years. They have even gone so far as to mock you by disguising themselves in a mimicry of your royal armor and playing on your title of Gold Ranger. They represent all that is foul and base in our fair universe, and you yourself have gone into battle with them time and time again, leading your troops to many glorious victories. However, I regret to say that, some days past, you were overcome by them through stealth and trickery and beaten unfairly. By the time we were able to rescue you, you had already been sorely wounded. We have been tending you for days, sire, but it is only just now that you have returned to us."
"Yes. I do remember something like that," said Jason thoughtfully. Memories flittered across his mind, memories of himself doing battle with... something. It was all very unclear. "Tell me more, Gasket. I think it's coming back to me."
"I will do better than tell you, sire," answered Gasket, inwardly rejoicing. The Ranger was swallowing the bait! "Allow me to show you for yourself the atrocities wrought by the Rangers."
With that, he pointed his sword up at the air above the small stage where Jason's throne rested, and a bolt of energy crackled along its blade. The energy shot upwards and solidified into a circle of light that began to play images across its surface. Jason stared at it, riveted, as he watched scenes of people in bright armor wielding the fiercest weapons he could imagine, not just blazing lasers and gleaming blades, but gigantic machines of destruction, large enough to crush buildings with ease. As he watched the images of chaos roll by, he felt his old nemesis, Anger, rising up to meet him, and his breathing constricted as he attempted to get his rage under control.
"I've seen enough," he said. "Show me no more, Gasket. I would have to be a fool not to believe you after seeing that. Where are these Rangers now? I'm going to make them pay for what they've done, to the universe and to me!"
Here was another moment when a smile would have been useful. By all the dark powers, this Ranger was a natural villain! Pretending to serve him might almost be fun!
"Calm yourself, sire," said Gasket soothingly, letting the circle of light disintegrate and fade. "It is too early for you to be exerting yourself in a full-scale battle. We would not have you hurting yourself again so soon after your recovery."
"I feel fine," Jason replied, and he meant it. The picture show had emboldened him; he felt ready to take on anything, with or without his memories.
"I am pleased to hear you say so, your majesty," said Gasket. "If that is the case, I have news you will find pleasing. When you fell in battle, the grief of your people was so great that we simply could not leave the injury unavenged. I myself led a counterstrike against the Rangers, and your brave soldiers and I were fortunate enough to capture their leader. He is imprisoned in one of your containment areas as we speak. If you like, I can have him brought here to the arena for you to receive punishment for his misdeeds in the classic style - that is, a fight until he surrenders or is defeated."
"Good job, Gasket. That's exactly the kind of punishment these villains deserve," Jason answered. "Bring him here. I'll fight him myself."
"Excellent, your majesty! You're sounding more like your old self already," Gasket enthused. "Cogs! Front and center!"
A small platoon of the shiny robots stepped forward and stood at attention, awaiting commands.
"Shock troops," Jason muttered, looking at them with vague recognition.
"Quite so," agreed Gasket. "They are your personal servants - they will do anything you ask of them."
"Good," said Jason. "All right, you! Go get the Ranger and bring him to the arena, and make it fast!"
The Cogs saluted in perfect synchronicity and marched off. Jason sat back in his throne and looked out at all of those gathered, feeling ever more comfortable with his role as king. All doubt was leaving his mind as to the truth about Gasket's statements. He truly was the King of the Machine Empire, sworn enemy of the Power Rangers.
Working in the Power Chamber, Billy was suddenly distracted by the wailing of a siren. He looked up in shock, and Alpha looked back at him in a similar state of alarm.
"Great. Just great," Billy muttered. "I wonder what else has decided to go wrong today?"
"I'm checking on it right now," Alpha replied, turning to the computers.
"I'll call the Rangers together, then," answered Billy.
Within moments, four Rangers arrived in the Power Chamber. Billy watched them teleport in with some concern. Only four?
"Hey, guys. What's up?" asked Adam.
"Where's Tommy?" Kat added.
"Good question. Where is Tommy?" Billy replied. "I thought he'd be with you."
"No, he went off on his own after we left here last time," said Kat. "Don't tell me he's disappeared, too!"
"Ay-yi-yi! This is not good!" cried Alpha. "According to the computer, Tommy's not on Earth anymore!"
"Aw, man!" muttered Adam. "We're like the ten little Indians! Who's going next?"
"You don't think he did something crazy trying to find Jason, do you?" asked Billy.
There was a thoughtful pause.
"He did," the Rangers all agreed.
"Well, we do have some good news," Alpha replied. "I've been able to get a lock on his communicator's signal. If you'll give me some time, I just might be able to trace him."
"Great!" said Adam. "If he's with Jason, that means we might be able to bring him back, too!"
"We can hope, anyway," Billy replied.
The Rangers all gathered hopefully around the computers, watching to see what results they would bring.
Tridor rested calmly on his bed, leaning against the wall as if there was absolutely no danger in the air at all. There was nothing strange about that, though. He had been getting more than a little bored with his prisoner's life, and even the infrequent summons to the arena had been growing dull. A warrior by nature, he preferred a life of action to even the most luxurious life of peace. Living in a cramped cell hadn't agreed with him one bit. After going over several plans with his newfound friend Tommy, he felt confident that good things were about to happen, and he was feeling better than he had in years.
Keys rattled, warning Tridor of the approach of Cogs just in time for him to wipe the satisfied smile off his face. His claws tensed a little in expectation of a battle. This was going to be fun!
"You, prisoner!" barked one of the Cogs, a glossy silver one that seemed to be marginally better-constructed than the others. "Where is the Red Ranger? The king has ordered he be brought to the arena!"
*King? That's different. Since when did Gasket start calling himself a king?* Tridor wondered. He felt a brief flicker of unease, but it didn't show on his face. *I wouldn't have thought Gasket would have the nerve to call himself a king, not while his father still lives. Something must be going on that I haven't heard about yet.*
"If you're looking for the Ranger, he's in there," Tridor replied, gesturing toward the darkened rooms. "I'd be careful, though. He's got a nasty temper."
The robot made a sound that might have been construed as a snort coming from something organic, and it marched through the doorway into the shadows. The Cogs accompanying it stood at the doorway, effectively blocking it. Tridor just sat very still, watching and listening and trying not to smile.
There was a sudden crash coming from the dark room, like the sound of something metal being pitched against the wall, and there were muffled exclamations. The other Cogs looked at each other in surprise before hurrying into the back room. There were more crashes and scuffles. Tridor allowed himself to smile broadly as he got up and walked quietly out of the room.
Minutes later, a somewhat subdued Tommy, overwhelmed by trying to battle multiple enemies in a dark, cramped place, was dragged out of the cell in evident defeat. As he was being hustled along, wrists bound in chains, he saw a flicker of movement in the periphery of his vision. Shining out of the darkness of an alleyway were a pair of glinting dark eyes. One of them closed in a wink, and there was a white flash of a feral grin before Tridor vanished into obscurity. Tommy smiled faintly in return. It was just a matter of time, now.
"Almost got it," Billy whispered to himself. Even so, the other Rangers heard him. It was so completely still in the Power Chamber, they could hear each other breathing. "Just a few more seconds... hurry up, computer!"
Almost as if in reply, the computer buzzed and hummed, it's lights blinking an alert that its work was finished. Eagerly, Billy pressed a few buttons, drawing up a visual. The Rangers all stared at it in dismay.
"Oh, rats," Rocky muttered.
"You said it," Tanya agreed.
The Rangers were watching a rather gloomy scene. The image they saw was of a rather bruised and beaten-looking Tommy being dragged through the streets of some strange alien city. He was bound in thick chains and being shoved along by Cogs, urging him to go faster, but it appeared that he could barely lift his feet.
"Oh, no, what have they done to him?" asked Kat, quietly horrified.
"Nothing good," Billy replied. "At least we know he's okay for now, and we can start tracking where he might be."
"Any sign of Jason?" asked Adam, pushing a little nearer to the screen, as if he might be able to see the missing Gold Ranger if he looked more closely.
"So, far, nothing," Billy replied. He was going to say more, but Alpha cut him off.
"Billy, look at this," said the little droid. "I think I may have found something."
He printed out a sheet of computer readouts, which he handed over for his friend's perusal. Billy quickly scanned the paper.
"That's odd," he murmured. "I don't think I like it."
"What is it? What does it say?" asked Rocky, peering at the paper. It all looked like garbled nonsense to him.
"The computer's got a lock on Jason, but there's something... different about him," answered Billy slowly. "I don't like to say it, but when we find Jason, there's a chance he might not be the same Jason we know, and I can't make out what's been done to him, much less how to undo it."
"First things first," Adam said. "We'll rescue Jason, and then we'll worry about whatever Gasket might have done to him."
"Right," Kat agreed. "Rescuing him and Tommy should be our first priorities. Can we teleport them out?"
"We can try," Alpha answered, giving his approximation of a shrug. He and Billy crouched over the computers again, busily pressing buttons. The computer gave a screech and a blip that sounded offended, and Billy sighed and shook his head.
"No good. Gasket's got some kind of energy shield around the whole city. We might be able to punch through it, but I don't know how well it would work."
"We have to try," said Rocky. "Give it a whirl. We have faith in you, Billy."
"All right, then," Billy replied. "Here goes nothing."
Jason was on his feet, pacing back and forth as he awaited the Red Ranger's arrival.
"What's taking those Cogs so long?" he demanded. "I want to hurry this thing up!"
"I apologize, sire," said Gasket, allowing some mild annoyance to show in his voice. "They are not always the most swift-witted of soldiers. If they don't get here soon, I'll go looking for them myself." He was feeling a bit irked at the tardiness of his foot soldiers; they were holding up the progress of his beautiful plan. Just as he was considering how best to punish the troops when they finally arrived, he became aware that someone was tapping him on the shoulder.
"What is it?" he snapped, whirling to see who was disturbing. Archerina jumped backwards in surprise.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she said. "Did I come at a bad time?"
"Not at all, my pet," he replied, reining in his temper. "We are just awaiting the arrival of the Red Ranger. He is late, and his majesty is getting impatient."
"Who is this?" asked Jason. "I know her from somewhere, don't I?"
"Ah, yes. Allow me to reintroduce you to my lovely wife, Archerina," Gasket answered. "So, what is it you wanted to say, my dear?"
"Our scanners have indicated a fluctuation in your protective shield. The Rangers are trying to break through," Archerina replied. "They'll have it down in a few minutes. Hadn't you better go try to stop them?"
"I suppose I should," Gasket replied. "Bother. These Rangers have the most wretched timing. I was hoping to personally oversee the Red Ranger's defeat. Will you excuse me, sire? There are matters I must attend to."
"You are dismissed," Jason replied.
Gasket bowed, a bit surprised. This Ranger had a better grip on the concept of royalty than he had expected. "Thank you, sire. I will return when I may." He turned and marched away, fuming a little. It seemed that even the most perfect plan wouldn't go off with out a hitch.
However, his mood improved as he reached the main control room and began to inspect the readings on his instruments. There was no mistake; the Rangers were definitely trying to punch through his defenses - as literally as it could be done where computers are involved. He chuckled.
"Foolish Rangers," he said. "Do you think you can try something like that without being caught at it? Really, I expected you to try something a little more subtle and clever. This is almost pathetic... but I suppose this is all we can expect with their leader in my possession. Well, Rangers, I think it's time I gave you... oh, what is your phrase for it? A taste of your own medicine."
Back in the Power Chamber, Billy was monitoring his progress. Gasket's shields were definitely weakening. It was costing a lot of power to keep up an assault like this, but it looked as if his efforts were going to pay off.
"We're going to make it!" said Kat excitedly. "Come on, just a little more!"
"How much more have we got to give?" Adam wondered, watching the Power Chamber's lights flicker.
"I don't know, but we don't really need much more," Billy replied. "All it will take is-"
There was a sudden crackling noise, and Billy jumped out of the way just in time to avoid a rather nasty injury, as the computer abruptly exploded. Alpha yelped as his lights flashed in alarm, and more than one Ranger yelled in surprise. A white trail of smoke issued from the dead machine, and it shot off a few forlorn sparks.
"What happened?" asked Rocky, staring at the wrecked machine in dismay.
"I can't really say for certain," Billy replied, "but I'd assume Gasket detected our attempts at penetrating his shielding device and reverted our power stream back along its original channel, causing our system to overload."
"'Scuse me, Billy, but I don't speck techno-lingo," said Tanya.
"We just poked ourselves in the eye," Rocky translated. The other Rangers looked at him in mild amazement.
"He's right, you know," said Billy. "Gasket took the energy we were shooting at him and threw it back at us - hard. This computer's fried, and it's probably going to take days to fix."
"So much for a rescue attempt," said Kat glumly. "How are we ever going to get ourselves out of this now?"
No one had an answer.
To an outside observer, it would appear that Tommy was nearly on his last legs. He stumbled and fell over and over again on his journey to the stadium, falling headlong in the dust and not moving until the Cogs roughly jerked him to his feet. Even then, he dragged his feet, moving as if he was completely exhausted, all but letting his captors carry him along. Sometimes he would stop walking entirely and struggle wildly at his bonds until the Cogs subdued him and forced him to start walking again. Never in his life had he put on such a grand performance. He moved slowly, yes, but not because he was weak. He felt ready to take on the whole Machine Empire, but he had to keep up the appearance of a beaten man because every second was a moment that brought Tridor closer to the control rooms and the means to freedom. All he had to do was stall.
Tommy was so busy with his play-acting that he hardly noticed that they were nearing the stadium. He did notice, however, when he was abruptly shoved into the dirt, and he got up spitting sand from his mouth to have a look around. One of the Cogs removed his shackles, and then they all vanished, leaving Tommy standing in the middle of a coliseum with a bunch of monsters looking down on him. For a moment, he felt a sinking sensation, wondering if he could really handle whatever was in store for him until Tridor did his work. Then he looked up, and he knew he was doomed.
"Welcome, Ranger," said Jason coldly. He was sitting serenely in his throne, holding his Power Staff like a royal scepter, flanked by a small batch of silver Cogs who stood rigidly at attention. Archerina stood there also, and the two seemed perfectly at ease with each other. There was something about that calmness that gave Tommy chills.
"Jason," he said softly. "What happened?"
"Are you surprised?" Jason replied. "Did you really think you could get me that easily? Well, think again! I'm tougher than that. You and your friends don't have what it takes to destroy me!"
"Destroy you? Jase, what are you talking about?" asked Tommy in amazement. "I never tried to..." The words froze in his throat when he realized that what he was saying wasn't completely true. His Green Ranger days were gone, but not forgotten, and there was no denying that while he was under Rita's power, he really had tried to destroy Jason.
*He's got to be under some sort of spell...* thought Tommy distractedly.
"Do you hear that?" asked Jason. "At least he can be ashamed when he's lying. Surrender now, and I'll have pity on you!"
"Surrender? Jason, what's the matter with you?" Tommy replied. "I'm not your enemy! We're teammates! We always have been, don't you remember?"
"I don't remember," answered Jason. "You and your warriors took my memory from me, and you will be punished for it if you do not surrender. I can tell you have strength and courage, and I would rather spare you if I could. I won't let it be said that the King of the Machine Empire has no pity!"
"King!" cried Tommy in shock. "You're no king!"
"Quiet! I am the king, and I'll prove it, too!" Jason shouted back. "I've had enough of your talk! Surrender, or be destroyed!"
"I won't surrender," Tommy replied.
"Fine. We will fight, then, and may the best man win!"
So saying, Jason sprang from his throne, a panther in gold armor, and landed in the arena across from Jason. Tommy shook his head at the wrongness of it all; this was not going to be pretty. He took a deep sigh and assumed his morphing stance.
"Zeo Ranger V, Red!"
That was all the cue Jason needed. He sprang at his friend, and the crowd went wild.
Finster had to admit, the Apieron had its uses. For once in his life, he was center stage, and everyone was watching to see what he was doing, waiting for him to pull a miracle out of his sleeve and fully expecting him to do it. It was so ironic that they should be suddenly looking up to him like this at the moment of his betrayal. With his confidence building, he gathered his machinery on a table so that all could see, humming a little as he made the final adjustments. The spirit of the white crystal was refraining from speaking to him, but he could sense its happiness that everything was going so well.
"There!" he said, snapping the last part into place. "That ought to do it. Not as good as I could have done, if I'd had the proper materials on hand but-"
"Enough talk!" snapped Zedd. "Get on with it! Let's see some action!"
"Yeah," Rito chimed in, hoping to curry some favor with his master by being agreeable. "What's all this junk do, anyway?"
"This junk, as you call it, is actually a combination visual tracker and teleportation device," Finster answered primly. "I'm going to use it to track down the Rangers and send them to Gasket's arena."
*And it had better work,* he added silently.
*Trust me,* the Apieron replied. *I am more powerful than Gasket's shielding spells; the Rangers will be safe.*
"Well, don't just stand there!" said Rita. "Get to work, already!"
"Yes, my queen. Right away," Finster agreed mildly, and he flipped a switch, setting the little machine in motion. It fizzed and popped a little, like water dropped on a stove, but it seemed to be working. The tiny screen showed a snowy image, just barely discernable as four teens, each dressed in his or her own trademark color. They seemed to be outside, sitting in a secluded area of the park. Their voices, somewhat obscured by static, came through.
"I just hate waiting like this," Kat was saying. "Tommy looked so awful! He needs our help, and we can't get to him!"
"And we don't even know where Jason is," Rocky added. "Anything could be happening to him! How long are we going to have to wait?"
"The way Billy was talking, maybe days!" Adam replied. "I hope we won't be too late..."
"This is so unfair!" cried Tanya. "I'd give anything to be where they are right now!"
"And your wish will be granted," answered Fisnter softly. He pressed a button, and the teenagers suddenly disappeared. In the same instant, the machine exploded, and everyone jumped back from it, coughing and choking as it spewed black smoke. Finster, closest to the blast, actually fell over. He shook himself to clear his head.
*Well?* he wondered. *How did I do?*
*Perfect,* the Apieron answered, with a hint of a smile. *Just perfect.*
Tommy gasped and staggered backwards, propelled by yet another blow from his friend... or was he an enemy now? He had been fighting for several minutes now, doing all he could to defend himself wile trying to get Jason under some sort of control, but the Gold Ranger was giving no quarter in this fight. Tommy was almost forced to fight back, despite his resolve not to hurt his friend. There just had to be a way of getting Jason to snap out of whatever mind lock he was in, but how?
Suddenly, there were four small explosions of light, as the rest of the Power Rangers team seemed to burst into being in front of their leader, momentarily stunning Jason.
"What's going on? How did we get here?" Rocky wondered.
"And why are we morphed?" asked Adam.
"Man, am I ever glad to see you guys!" said Tommy gratefully. "We've got a bit of a problem."
"Problem?" Tanya repeated. "What kind of problem?"
"So, you're ganging up on me, huh?" Jason asked. "Well, I can handle all five of you impostors if I have to!"
"That kind," Tommy said. "Jason is, well... they've done something to him, and now he thinks he's the king of the Machine Empire."
"He thinks what?" asked Rocky in alarm.
"Out of the way!" Kat shouted suddenly, and the Rangers dodged and tumbled at Jason sent a Gold Rush attack into their midst.
"This is not good," Adam muttered. "This is really not good. Does anybody else think it might be better if we fell back and regrouped."
"That would be good," said Tommy. "Unfortunately, we can't get out of here until Gasket's shield is broken."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that," Adam replied. "I guess that means we're stuck, huh?"
"Not quite," Tommy replied.
"What do you mean?" Kat asked.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he said.
At that moment, Gasket was making his way back to the arena in something of a hurry. He was entirely irked, not only by the fact that he had missed the beginning of the battle, but also because, impossible as it seemed, someone had gotten through his shields, and he had a nasty suspicion of who it was. Those Rangers appeared to be a bit more persistent and ingenious than he'd given them credit for. He had absolutely no idea how they'd been able to circumvent his protection system, but he had a notion it must have been impressive. He would have given a lot to know how it had been done. It would have surprised him to discover that they had no clue how it happened themselves.
Meanwhile, Tridor was making steady, invisible progress through the streets of Gasket's compound. He didn't like it much out there. His people were jungle people, used to treecover and plantlife, and being out in the open like this bothered him. He was uncomfortably aware of how much his green scales had to stand out against his gold-toned background, and he wished fervently that he had a few shrubs or something to hide behind. Still, he did have some skills to help him here: an instinctive ability for hiding and blending with the shadows, and a natural skill for climbing the walls. All he'd need was a split-second of warning, and he could take himself to a rooftop or other safe perch if trouble were to come near.
Suddenly, a noise caught his attention. There was a flurry of dust, and then Tridor was no longer visible, having ducked into an alleyway in an eye-blink movement. Crouching in what was barely a hiding place, nothing more than a dark spot where he might be overlooked if no one made an effort to find him, he watched and listened to see what was happening. Anything moving here was likely to be an enemy, and might best be avoided. Moments later, Gasket came around a corner, muttering to himself in an angry monotone. Tridor felt his claws twitch instinctively with the wish to rip the prince open like a tin can and see what kind of metal heart might lie inside. The tip of his tail twitched nervously, like a cat's, and he tried to still it. He didn't know how sharp the machine prince's senses were - as far as he knew, any little sound or movement might catch his attention. It would be very enjoyable to rip him to shreds, and all his fighting impulses were screaming at him to pounce while the target was in sight, but he suppressed them. Vengeance could come later. Right now, his objective was to go to the control room and destroy the shield. Anything else had to be ignored. He waited tensely until Gasket had marched out of sight. Then he glided back out of his hiding place and continued on his way.
The end of five minutes brought good news and bad news. The good news was that he was standing within sight of the control room. The bad news was that it was barred and locked, and the keys were held by one of half a dozen Cogs that pranced menacingly about, glaring this way and that in an effort to intimidate trespassers. Tridor gave a cold reptilian smile as he stepped into view.
"Good afternoon," he said pleasantly. "Lovely day for a battle, wouldn't you say?"
The Cogs turned as one to glare at the intruder who was standing there smiling at them so smugly. If they'd had the brains to be insulted, they would have been infuriated. As it was, they realized only that he was supposed to be inside a cell, not outside grinning at them, and that could not be permitted. They charged at him in a wild rush.
Tridor faced them calmly, never once looking in the least bit worried. As the first two Cogs rushed up to meet him, he whirled in place and lashed out at them with his thick tail, sending them flying away in two different directions. The third arrived just as he had completed his spin, and it met up with his sharp claws instead. It went down with four parallel gouges ripped down its front. The fourth was dispatched with a powerful kick that sent it flying against a wall and shattering into several pieces. The next one was dealt a punishing blow from his human fist, beating it to the ground, where he crushed it with a stomp of one foot. The entire battle took less than a half-minute. Tridor looked at the last Cog, which was almost managing to look afraid.
"Well," he said softly, "are you going to give me those keys, now, or are you going to make me take them from you?"
The Cog hesitated for a moment, and Tridor took a step forwards. It threw down the keys and ran for its life.
"Well, that was easy," Tridor said with a shrug. He picked up the keys the robot had so obligingly left for him and unlocked the door, letting it swing slowly open. Then he stepped inside with a feeling of exultation. This was just where he had been dreaming he would be - alone in a room with all the precious computer equipment that governed the life of his worst enemy. His smile was feral. This was going to be fun!
"Where to begin? Where to begin?" he muttered, looking around. Computers all looked the same to him, but only one of them was the one that operated the shields. Furthermore, he had no clue what would actually be required to shut them down. He shrugged. "Oh, well. When in doubt, rip 'em out!"
So saying, he put his impressive claws to work wreaking havoc on Gasket's machinery, grinning savagely the whole time.
In the arena, the Rangers were still struggling valiantly with their deluded teammate, doing everything they could to avoid being pounded into the ground by him. Given the fact that he felt far more inclined to injure them than they were to damage him, they had their hands full with dodging his attacks, and getting him under any kind of control appeared impossible.
"How much longer do you think we can keep this up?" asked Adam.
"I don't know," Rocky replied, "but I'm beginning to wonder if maybe surrendering wouldn't be such a bad idea!"
"Hang in there, guys!" Tommy replied. "I've got a friend working on getting us all out of here! Just give him a little more time!"
"We might not have a little more-" Tanya began.
There was a sudden earthshaking explosion, and the air around them seemed to crackle for an instant as the shield became briefly visible before dissolving. A burst of black smoke bloomed up from somewhere in the distance, marking a sooty smudge across the strange honey-colored sky.
"That's our ticket out!" Tommy explained. "Now we can grab Jason and get out of here!"
"I'm not going anywhere with you!" said Jason.
"I think that would really be a bad idea," said Adam. "Can you imagine what he'd do to the Power Chamber?"
"I'm not leaving without him!" Tommy insisted.
"Tommy, be reasonable," Kat pleaded. "He's beyond our reach. We're going to have to retreat and come up with a new plan."
"No," said Tommy sternly. "You go if you want. I'm not leaving Jason behind."
"You can't stay here! You'll be boiled in motor oil or something!" Rocky cried.
Tommy shook his head. "No, Jason won't kill me. I won't believe that. Here." The Red Ranger suddenly demorphed. Jason, surprised, gave him a suspicious look.
"What are you up to?" asked the Gold Ranger.
"I'm not up to anything. I'm just done with fighting," Tommy replied. He turned to his friends and removed his morpher. "Here. Give this to Billy. Tell him to take my place while I'm gone. You all take care of yourselves, and I'll get back when I can, but Jason needs me now. I'm his best friend, and he's mine. Maybe I can get through to him, and save him like he saved me."
"We'll miss you, Tommy. Be careful," Kat replied.
"I'll miss you, too," said Tommy. He could have meant the whole team, but his eyes were riveted on Kat's the whole time. "Get going, now, before someone decides to stop you."
The Rangers nodded and teleported to safety. Tommy turned back to face his friend- turned-enemy.
"Where are they going?" Jason asked.
"Away," Tommy replied. "But not me. I'm surrendering to you. Do what you will."
"Glad you've come to your senses," said Jason. "Gasket!"
"Yes, sire?" inquired the robot eagerly.
"Take this man away. Have him locked up somewhere, but don't hurt him. See that he's taken care of until I'm ready to deal with him."
"Yes, sire. As you command," Gasket replied. He teleported himself from his place next to Jason's throne into the arena. Pulling a pair of handcuffs out of thin air, he shackled the now ex-Red Ranger and led him away, back to the prisons. Tommy never took his eyes of Jason the whole time. The Gold Ranger didn't know why, but there was something in that pleading expression that gave him chills. Well, he would interrogate the Ranger himself, and then he would learn some answers.
In another part of the complex, Tridor walked out of the ruins of the computer room. He was dirty, scorched, and scuffed, and feeling quite pleased with himself. Finally, after all these long years of waiting, he was free to return to his home! Then, perhaps, he would be able to find others like himself, warriors who were brave enough to face Prince Gasket and fight him off of their planet and out of the universe forever! It was an idea of immense appeal. First, though, there was something he had to check on. Pressing his fingers and claws to his temples, he closed his eyes, psychically scanning the compound for the presence of the Red Ranger. By this time, he should have teleported himself home, but something always could have gone wrong...
Yes, something had gone wrong! He could see clearly, just for an instant, that Gasket was leading Tommy in the direction of the maximum security cells, places that would be far more difficult to escape than the one he had left earlier. Tridor opened his glittering black eyes, and they flashed with determination. Tommy was a brave man, and an intelligent one, and he had helped Tridor when no one else would. Tridor owed him his freedom, perhaps even his life - who knew how much longer it would have been before he lost a battle in Gasket's accursed arena? You just didn't leave a friend like Tommy to rot in jail.
"This will not do," said Tridor softly. "This will not do at all..."