Unsure of what was actually going on, Eric knew a cue when he heard one. Before Frax could register Alice's command, Eric broke the bonds around his wrists and grabbed Frax in a sleeper-hold headlock.
"Say good night, Frax."
Frax fought the hold but Eric clung on, steadily applying pressure until the lack of blood and oxygen flowing to Frax's brain had the desired effect and the man passed out.
"Is he dead?" Alice asked as Eric released the hold and Frax slumped forwards, insensate.
"No -- he'll wake up in about half an hour, with one hell of a headache. Speaking of which...?" Eric looked meaningfully at Alice. "What the hell was that little stunt in the grain depot about?"
Alice shook her head as she holstered the blaster. "I'll explain everything but we've gotta go." She crouched at his feet and released his ankles. "This place is wired to go."
Eric's eyes widened. "Go?"
"Lex's idea. Ask her. But later!"
Eric rolled to his feet, but for all her hurry he noted that Alice hesitated long and hard before offering him some help. He lifted an eyebrow at that, but made no comment. He realised, for the first time, that they were both standing in some sort of lab.
"Frax's work room," Alice explained, handing back the Quantum Morpher.
The door burst open and John, Lexia and Rick sprinted in.
"Time to go, Ali," Lexia stated, giving Eric a disconcertingly nervous glance.
"Where to?" asked Rick.
"SGHQ?" Eric suggested, then nearly kicked himself at the nervous looks he received from all sides.
Alice bit her lip. "Are the rest of the 'rents there?"
Eric glanced at his watch, noting it was coming up to half past ten. "They should be."
Alice chewed her lip again.
"Really -- we have to go!" said Lexia.
"Yeah," she said, decisively. "SGHQ." Alice instructed.
But no-one moved.
"Screw this!" Lexia exclaimed. "Rick, grab Frax. John, grab your dad. We need to get out of here now!" So saying, she grabbed Alice.
Definitely Jen's daughter!Eric found himself thinking as he felt John take hold of his arm. Then everything faded out of sight.
"I'm sorry to hit you with more bad news," Alicia Roberts was visibly apologetic, "but there it is."
Wes felt sickened. "What the hell reason did that evil woman have for creating this..." But he trailed off, not having words to describe it.
Jackie Bennett offered a shrug. "Sometimes scientists get so caught up in their work they don't think about the consequences of what they're doing, just the thrill of the pure research."
"That's certainly true," Zaskin agreed. "But even so..."
"Even so, the bitch has quite a track record," said Jen bitterly. "So, what now?"
Lucas opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment the conference room door opened and Miller entered.
"Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but I thought you should know there's been some kind of explosion on the industrial complex to the north of the city."
"We figured leaving his lab intact wasn't a great idea," said a new voice.
Everyone froze at the voice. To Wes' ears it was both familiar and unfamiliar, as though the last time he'd heard it, the voice's owner had been considerably younger. Slowly he looked round, aware of Jen and Kimberly both doing the same. But even when he did, he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
"Dad, say something!" Rick finally begged.
"Mommy?" Lexia took a nervous half-step forwards, then threw caution to the wind and flung herself at Jen, sobbing incoherently.
Jen had no hesitation in wrapping her arms around Lexia, hugging her. "It's OK -- you're home now."
This was real. They were really standing there. This wasn't a dream. Wes found himself standing up and moving towards Rick, but as he got there, he didn't know quite how to react to his suddenly six foot plus, twenty-year-old son. Rick settled the matter by wrapping his arms around Wes in a crushing hug.
"Oh!" The sudden arrival of the four 'kids' and Eric was too much for Kimberly as she fainted.
"Kim!" Eric dived forwards and caught her just as she toppled from her chair.
Zaskin coughed a little, clearly embarrassed. "How 'bout I... Paul...um..."
Wes was vaguely aware of Zaskin and Miller both leaving, taking the holoscreen with them, but his attention was mainly centred on Lexia, who had now flung herself at him in another tearful hug.
Half an hour and a pot of Gina's famous Java later, everyone was more ready to give and receive the explanations.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Eric asked, as Kimberly retook her seat.
She offered him a smile. "I'm fine."
"I thought fainting was the pregnant woman's prerogative," Jen joked.
Lexia's jaw dropped open. Rick stared.
"You're pregnant?" exclaimed Alice.
"I'm not going to be the youngest?" Lexia finally managed.
"I'm getting another sister?" Rick groaned, although that tailed off into a squeak of pain as Lexia whapped him on the shoulder.
"Yes, yes and it's a little early to tell," Wes replied.
"So that's why you're not the Pink Ranger," John observed.
Jen nodded. "Morphing while pregnant, bad idea."
"Why? What happens?" asked Alice.
There was an electric pause.
"You're not..." Kimberly began, looking horrified.
"You don't think..." Eric was similarly aghast.
Alice rolled her eyes. "Anyone want to tell me when I'd have had the chance?" There was no answer to that. "I'm just asking for future reference."
"How about," Jen suggested, "you ask me later -- don't wanna make the guys turn green."
"TMI," Rick murmured.
Jen spread her hands in a 'there you go' gesture. Alice snickered.
"So," said Eric, "does anyone feel like they could explain this morning? Alice?"
Alice shifted a little nervously in her seat. "Improvisation?"
"If punching my lights out is your idea of improvisation, we need to seriously work on your skills," Eric retorted.
Alice sighed. "It's kinda complicated...see...I had to square visiting Uncle Rocky with Frax, so I had a skeleton plan in mind when I went to see him. I could have fleshed it out two ways, depending on what Uncle Rocky had to say." Eric nodded slowly. "When I heard what Uncle Rocky was saying...I believed him...which pretty much told me how the plan was gonna go...but I still needed something to tell Frax..."
"It's generally polite to report in when you've been out setting up the enemy," Frax stated as his face appeared.
Mentally crossing her fingers, Alice smiled. "I'm sorry -- I did look in your lab, but you weren't there."
Frax smiled back. "Ah -- pardon me. How did it go?"
"Like a dream," Alice answered. "DeSantos bought it hook, line and sinker. He's gone to tell Myers. By nine o'clock tomorrow morning, you'll have him."
"Excellent!" Frax rubbed his hands together. Frax walked away, calling over his shoulder, "You should get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day."
Once Frax was out of earshot, Alice sighed and sagged back against Rick.
"You did it perfectly," he murmured.
Eric whistled. "Deviousness, thy name is Alice Megan Cunningham Myers."
Alice blushed. "You're not...um...upset that I lied?"
"Alice, honey," said Kimberly, "it's not like you had a hell of a lot of choice."
A slightly awkward silence fell at that.
"So...when can we get rid of the garbage?" Alice asked eventually. "I just want to get back to normal and forget this ever happened."
Eric hesitated a moment. He could hear something unsaid in her words and he realised, consciously at least, that at no time so far this morning had she actually called him 'dad'. He shivered. "Do I want to know what you've got floating in your head about me right now?"
Alice shook her head, the expression on her face begging him not to force the issue. Wisely, Eric backed off.
"So what does happen next?" asked Rick.
There was a polite cough from the doorway. Eric craned his neck and saw Zaskin, holding a small device. "I believe," said the scientist, "this might help."
"What is it?" enquired Wes.
"It's a crude version of a thirty-first century memory recovery device."
"You've built future tech, in an hour, in your lab?" said Jen, dubious.
Zaskin grinned puckishly. "Hardly. It's a modified white noise generator."
"Which is going to do what, exactly?" asked Alice.
"It emits a constant pulse of sound," Zaskin replied. "Normally, that would be multi-frequency. Dr Bennett and Dr Roberts have had me set it up so that it only emits sound at a frequency just above human hearing range..."
"To break down the Mimozin and Remhinderazine left behind by the memory adaptation, releasing the trapped or adapted memories," Jen finished.
Zaskin looked startled. "Ye-es."
Jen smiled wryly. "Been there, done that, gotten the migraine from it."
"Migraine doesn't sound good," said Lexia.
"But this works?" asked John.
Zaskin nodded. "Should do, yes."
"Worked on me," Jen contributed, "and I was memory adapted when I was six."
Eric watched as John, Rick, Lexia and Alice exchanged looks.
"Let's get this over with," said Alice.
"It might be best if only the four targets are in the room," Zaskin suggested.
"You think we're going to let them out of our sight again?" asked Wes.
"We've just got them back," added Kimberly.
Zaskin looked nonplussed. "But..."
"Dad," said Rick, "we're not going anywhere."
"Promise," added Alice. "I just want this stuff out of my mind."
"Me too," said John.
"Me three," contributed Lexia.
"Besides," Eric put in, "there's someone in the holding cells downstairs that we'd like to have a word with."
Wes lifted his eyebrows. "Oh?"
Eric watched as the realisation swept across the faces of Jen, Wes and Kimberly.
"Let me at that bastard," Jen muttered.
Frax looked up at the sound of footsteps. He didn't know where his plan had gone wrong -- but gone wrong it most assuredly had. Betrayed by the brats. That blonde haired vixen had duped him.
"Well, well, well. Dr Ferricks."
The voice was hard and sarcastic. Eric Myers. Frax looked up and saw that with Myers was his accursed wife -- if her ties to her daughter had just been a little less he could have finessed things without having to completely erase the woman from their minds.
"He looks too comfortable," muttered someone.
Frax's eyes widened as both Wesley and Jennifer Collins came into view as well. "Come to gloat?"
"Hardly," Myers retorted. "Who set you up for this?"
Frax sneered. "I'm not saying anything."
"Oh, you'll talk," said Myers.
"Or what? You'll kill me? You wouldn't dare."
Myers smiled. "Wouldn't I?"
In spite of himself, Frax shuddered. "You're honourable," he protested.
"Only up to a point," Collins hissed. "And you're beyond that. You're scum."
"Personally," said Myers' wife in an almost conversational tone, "I'd like to string him up by the balls."
Frax blanched. "You wouldn't."
"You kidnapped our children. Used illegal technology on them. Tortured them..."
"I didn't torture them!"
"What the hell would you call aging them by ten years and filling their heads with bullshit memories?" snapped Collins.
"That's torture in anyone's language," Myers' wife spat.
"Y'know," Myers drawled, "I had a run in a few years back with a guy who had a thing for physical torture. I picked up all kinds of nasty little tricks from him, and if you don't start talking, I'm gonna try those tricks out on you. Of course, I can't guarantee to get them right first time. It's a little different being the one giving out the abuse...might end up breaking a few more bones than strictly necessary..."
"All right!" Frax yelped. "I'll talk."
"Knew you'd see it my way." Frax just glared at him. "Now. Who set you up for this?"
"He calls himself The Master," Frax answered. "I..." But his words suddenly dried up. His throat seemed to be constricting. Breathing became impossible. His sight blurred. The edges of his consciousness greyed and darkened.
"Shit!" The distant curse from Myers was followed by the faint sounds of the cell door opening but Frax knew with sharp clarity that nothing they could do would help him.
Alice wasn't sure how the memory recovery was going to work. Whether the false memories would just fade out of existence or if they would remain in some modified form. The truth, though, proved to be much more uncomfortable. As the process began, the false memories seemed to swell and intensify until they were in harsh Technicolor.
She wanted to look away. Wanted to close her eyes to the images. Wanted to do anything but relieve this ersatz life, but the process wouldn't let her. In the ten-minute duration of the recovery, every single fake memory forced itself to the forefront of her consciousness. Every last, hateful image. Every last, counterfeit action.
And then it was like a bubble bursting. Between one heartbeat and the next, the memories were gone. Not just faded, not modified, gone, leaving behind an unpleasant headache and a nasty aftertaste. In their place were much realer recollections. Her parents. Plural. Together. Cyclobots. Lots of them. In a parking lot...
Alice felt her mouth dry up in embarrassment and shame. This was her fault. That stupid tantrum she'd thrown on Friday night. Telling Eric he was like Dirk. If she hadn't done that... If Eric had been home, like any other Saturday, there would have been no way Frax could have abducted her. This whole mess would never have happened. None of this...
Eric started to open the cell door the second he realised Frax was genuinely choking, but even as he opened the door, he realised he wasn't going to be able to do anything. Frax's face had turned purple and worse, it seemed to be...melting?
Eric could only watch in shock as Frax literally melted into a pile of clothing and pinkish goo.
"Ew," Kimberly murmured. "That is so gross."
"Replicant," Jen identified.
"Which means what?" asked Wes.
"It means that this wasn't really Dr Ferricks. It was some kind of programmed clone." Jen grimaced.
"Which means?" Eric asked.
Jen shook her head. "Nothing good, that's for sure."
Taylor waited nervously. As soon as Ben arrived, the doctors were willing to discharge her, but not until he arrived.
And what if, in his thinking the previous night, he'd decided he wanted nothing more to do with her? What if she'd completely ruined things? What if...
"Hey -- sorry I'm late."
Taylor jumped, so lost in her panic that she hadn't heard Ben arrive.
He looked mildly hurt at her reaction. "Ready to go?"
"Ben -- I'm sorry."
Ben waved it off. "It's OK."
"It's not OK. This whole situation's a mess...and I know I've gotten things wrong. Just..."
"Just what?" Ben asked quietly. "I'm here, I'm ready to listen...to talk. There isn't any more I can do until you talk to me...and stop jumping to conclusions."
Taylor winced. "I'm..."
Ben shook his head. "Uh-uh. Don't say it unless you really mean it."
"So what do we do now?" Wes asked as they made their way slowly back to the conference room.
"Need to speak to Lucas," Eric answered. "Find out what the status of those morphers is -- and what's going to happen to the kids now."
"The aging's permanent," said Jen quietly. "That was what Lucas was telling us when you arrived."
Wes noted that Eric didn't look entirely surprised. "In that case, one of us needs to get onto the official stuff -- their legal status."
"I'll do that -- Dad's probably got contacts we can use," Wes offered.
"Then there's school and clothes and..." Eric stopped in the middle of the hallway. "I can't believe I'm just rationally doing this!"
"This is nuts," Kimberly agreed. "And it doesn't have to all be done at once. I for one just want to have a couple of days, at home, with the kids. No panics, no stresses -- just...time to...be a normal family."
"Or as normal as we can get," Jen contributed.
Eric sighed, shoulders sagging. "You're right." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Going home sounds good."
"So what're we going to do?" Alice asked.
She, John, Rick and Lexia had congregated in the Myers family living room a couple of days after Frax's demise. They would learn their official fate in half an hour or so, when Lucas would be contacting them, but Alice wanted to know what the others wanted to do -- if they were given the option.
"How do you mean, Ali?" Rick asked. "The 'rents will probably tell us what's gonna happen."
Alice shook her head. "I don't think they will. Not over this."
"Have they told you something already?" asked Lexia.
Again, Alice shook her head. "No -- just a feeling I've got. I think they know what this Lucas guy's gonna say, though."
"And I don't think it's good news -- as far as they're concerned," John contributed. "Mom and dad have been looking like dying ducks in a thunderstorm -- at least they have when they think we haven't been paying attention."
"Same with ours," agreed Rick. "So what do you mean, Ali?"
"Well..." Alice chewed her lip. "Do you guys want to have this aging thing reversed?"
"I thought you said that Frax said it was irreversible," said Lexia.
Alice shrugged. "He did -- but considering how much he lied about other stuff, there's always a chance he might have lied about that too."
"Y'know," Rick mused, "it was a heck of a shock at first...but...I'm sorta getting to like it. I don't think I want it reversing."
"Same here," said John. "Even if I am gonna get sick of hearing how much I look like dad." He grimaced.
Alice offered her brother a consolatory smile. "There are worse people to look like."
"How 'bout you, Lex?"
Lexia sighed. "I guess...I don't wanna go back. Not so sure I'm ready to be a grown-up though." A new thought struck her. "Oh God -- they wouldn't send me to high school now, would they?"
Alice pulled a face. "Guess they might."
Lexia groaned. "It sucks being the youngest."
"If they make you go, I'll go with you," John volunteered.
Alice blinked. If she didn't know better... Nah. That was ridiculous. Her brother and Lexia weren't...were they? Dismissing the thought as too weird, she returned her attention to the Triumvirate in time to hear Rick ask,
"What about you, Ali?"
"As nice as it would be to go back to being sixteen...no. I can't go back."
"Guess we're decided, then. If they ask."
"They, presumably, being your long suffering-parents?" teased a voice from the doorway.
Alice looked round to see Wes standing in the doorway. "Is it time?" she asked.
Wes nodded. "Yep -- Lucas is ready."
"We'll be right in," Alice promised.
"OK." Wes returned to the kitchen, where this holoscreen conference would take place.
Alice glanced at Rick, John and Lexia. "Ready?"
"'Bout as good as we're gonna get," Rick replied. "Let's get this over with."
"Lead the way, Ali," prompted John.
Alice got to her feet and did as she was asked, wondering vaguely why she felt as though she was leading the Triumvirate to an execution.
In the kitchen, the holoscreen had been set up at one end of the kitchen table. Pictured on it was a man who looked vaguely familiar to Alice. Dimly she recalled spending an afternoon with him once at around about the same time as her ex-father had been dealt with by Eric. Lucas smiled, clearly trying to put them at ease.
Down one side of the table were the 'rents. Her mother, Wes and Jen were sitting while Eric leaned against the worktop behind them. He had his business expression on, which just confirmed to Alice that this was not going to go the way they would have liked.
Quietly, she and the Triumvirate took up the four seats opposite them. After what she'd noted in the living room moments earlier, she wasn't quite so surprised to see John sit down beside Lexia. Nor was she entirely surprised when Rick took the seat between her and Lexia.
"OK," said Lucas, "as we're all here, I'll get down to business. My name's Lucas Kendall, I'm a Major within Time Force and head of the Covert Operations department. Your parents can fill you in later as to what that actually means." He smiled. "I don't want to bore you!"
Alice smiled faintly. The purely female portion of her brain observed that Lucas was cute when he smiled. The still teenage part of her brain pointed out that as a friend of her parents he was definitely off limits. The rest of her appreciated the brief flash of levity in what was bound to be a serious discussion.
"Courtesy of The Master - the Frax clone's creator, we suspect -- you four are in my jurisdiction, so it's up to me to work out what happens next. The first thing I need to tell you is that, I'm afraid, what's been physically done to you -- the information implants and the artificial aging -- is permanent."
Alice sighed and nodded a little.
"Secondly, the morphers. All things considered, it's been decided that you four will retain the morphers. The Master is still a threat and, considering we're still not sure what his ultimate plan is, assuming he'll go after you again is a no contest bet. On that basis, it's not fair to leave you un-armed. As good as your parents are -- and they are exceptional..."
"We'll slip you the five bucks later," Wes murmured, eliciting a ghost of a grin from Eric and a couple of snickers from Rick and John.
"...they can hardly guard you twenty-four/seven," Lucas finished, ignoring Wes' comment.
"I guess that makes sense," said Alice.
"Once The Master's taken care of," Lucas continued, "we'll review the situation -- but for the time being, that's how things stand." He paused. "Any questions?" Silence. "Anyone not liking this plan?" Alice felt sure one of the 'rents would object, but none of them moved. "OK. I'll be in touch with more details about The Master as and when I have them. Kendall out."
And with that, the holoscreen went blank.
So what now? Alice wondered.
TO BE CONTINUED IN 'NEW RECRUITS'...