Down for the Count
Disclaimer: I don't own a thing, I'm just borrowing.
Note: Consider this AU. Just an idea I had. I know re-telling the events in 'C2D' has been done to death, but I have this thing about beating dead horses… umm…not literally, of course.
A/N: Thanks for the reviews, everybody. Sorry for the delay on this one. Real life and all…
Chapter 12: We Three
Misery loves company.
A smirk curled Astronema's lips as she recalled the words once spoken to her by Cassie Chan. At the time, the Karovan didn't quite grasp their meaning, but now the phrase made a perverse kind of sense to her... albeit she was not exactly the one who was miserable.
She moved with careful steps, circling them, slowly, like a lioness stalking her prey. The three figures stood in a row, eyes staring straight ahead, not even the slightest twitch of movement in their limbs. Astronema finally came to a stop in front of them, studying her prisoners with a critical eye, searching for any signs of resistance.
"Blue," she called out in a commanding voice. "Come to me."
Two precise steps brought T.J. to within inches of Astronema's face. His back was ramrod straight, muscles tense and defined, battle ready. The Karovan ran a gloved hand down the length of his left arm, feeling the tightly coiled power beneath his dark skin.
"What is your primary function?"
The Queen of Evil arched a brow in response. There was no emotion in those two simple words, merely cold, hard fact. She resisted the urge to smile.
"Who do you kill?"
"Who are my enemies?"
This time she did smile. It was an evil, chilling expression.
"Blue, return to your place."
When the young man reclaimed his spot beside his equally rigid teammates, Astronema glanced over her shoulder at the creature fidgeting, nervously, behind her.
"Must I always address them in this manner?" she questioned irritably.
Ghallet's clawed hands shook as he bowed to his Queen. "I... I'm afraid so, Your Highness. For some reason, they will not answer to their names, and their verbal interface is rudimentary, at best. I have embedded a set of protocols for them to follow, but they can only carry out tasks that are put forth in the simplest of terms. Although the implants I've used are similar to yours, they appear to be suppressing a larger portion of their higher brain functions."
Astronema frowned. "Why is that?"
"The physiology of the Terrans is far more primitive than your own. Of course, there may be another factor contributing to the trouble I've encountered..." It was clear that Ghallet was hesitant to continue, and Astronema fixed him with an impatient glare.
"They are Power Rangers."
The creature's statement drew Astronema's full attention and she spun on her heel and approached him. Ghallet was frozen to the spot, gazing up at her, trying to hide his terror. When the villainess leaned down to stare into his face, the Thesuisian couldn't stop himself from recoiling like a frightened animal.
"I am aware of that, you idiot," she hissed. "Are you telling me that their connection to the Morphin Grid is somehow making them more resistant to the implants?"
"It-it is a p-possibility, My Queen," he sputtered. "There are forces within the Grid that are unknown to anyone, save for perhaps Zordon, himself."
The mention of her nemesis elicited a low growl from the Karovan and she quickly straightened up and marched back to where her young captives still stood, dutifully awaiting orders from their new master. Astronema peered into Cassie's blank face, trying to find some hint of awareness.
There was none.
"They will obey my commands to the letter. Correct?"
"Yes, Your Highness. Your voice is the only thing that will trigger their bodies' physiological responses."
Despite their limited vocabulary, Astronema was definitely pleased. Coercing a single ranger to do her bidding had been enjoyable to say the least, but now she had half of the Space Rangers under her complete control, forced to bend to her will.
It was simply exquisite.
"My Psycho Rangers were most definitely a poor substitute," she mused aloud.
"There is still one more thing, My Queen," Ghallet spoke up, feeling just slightly emboldened by her backhanded praise. He stepped forward, timidly, lifting an arm and splaying the talons of his right claw.
Astronema stared at the morpher he held, a strange feeling of trepidation rising within her. Despite the protection of her dark magic, she still felt the surge of power as Ghallet rested the item in her gloved hand. The sensation was familiar to her, muted though it was.
"Black," was all Ghallet said as he bowed, reverently, before his new ruler.
Breathing deeply, Astronema allowed the Grid's formidable might to hold sway over her. It was only a residual effect, she knew, left over from a time long ago, when the call to serve was still her destiny. But, this particular lineage was not meant for her. Black was not her legacy.
She approached Carlos and grasped his arm. The young man remained completely passive as she strapped the morpher to his wrist. For a fraction of a second, Astronema was certain there had been something in his eyes – recognition, perhaps, or helpless fury. She continued to gaze at him, curiously, wondering if he was able to understand exactly what was happening to him. Her own implant did not control her body as it did his; rather it reconfigured her synaptic responses, subduing her emotions and personality, bringing her baser, darker self to the fore.
A part of her hated it, despised it. Dark Specter had wanted to bring her back into the fold, and Darkonda, that filthy, sadistic piece of scum, had been all too eager to prove his loyalty and belie the rumors of betrayal and treachery that his detractors whispered in their master's ear.
Ecliptor had been his first victim. In trying to protect Astronema, he'd aided the Rangers escape from Yotoba, something that Darkonda was eager to punish him for. But, Ecliptor was a being whose origins revolved around technology. The implants were invasive, but they were also familiar to his anatomy. His body not only accepted them, but incorporated them, and over time, that ability to adapt enabled him to somewhat negate their effects.
But, his charge was only human. So, tragically, utterly human.
After her capture, Darkonda had tortured her, violated her. He did horrible, unspeakable things to her body, while simultaneously tearing through her psyche. He stripped her down until there was almost nothing left, except anger, rage, and ugly, bitter hatred. Then, when he was certain there was nothing else he could do, save for killing her outright, he simply flipped a switch…
And Karone, or rather, Astronema, was forever frozen in that moment, filled with an unquenchable fury, and an all–consuming ambition to bathe the universe in blood.
Fortunately, with Ecliptor's help, she'd survived. After spending countless hours studying the devices that now seemingly ruled them both, he'd managed to make adjustments to Astronema's implant, shutting down the volatile emotions that threatened to engulf her. She could still feel, but now, her murderous impulses were balanced by a cruel, calculating temperament. She became more tactician than tyrant, an analytical mind driven by an all-consuming darkness. It was the consummation of everything Dark Specter had desired for her, though, admittedly, he did not expect Astronema's ultimate corruption to be the benchmark that would herald his downfall.
As time passed, the Alliance' pursuit of the Space Rangers became Astronema's number one priority, and the invasive device in her brain, secondary. Truthfully, once she'd finally descended into her own ice-cold cocoon, thoroughly detached from the young woman she used to be, it didn't really matter anymore. The pain was often intense, but it kept her sharp, and it served as a reminder of the ruthlessness she needed to aspire to in order to destroy her master and seize his vast empire for her own.
And now, she'd finally done just that... and so much more.
"Black." Even as the word fell from Astronema's lips, the length of Carlos' body tightened in anticipation. "Morph."
Ghallet had never witnessed any of the Terrans' transformations before, though he would never dare confess such a thing. If Astronema ever found out that he hadn't gotten around to testing the implants on a fully-morphed Ranger, she would kill him for sure.
Still, he had to admit, the process was quite fascinating. He watched with a mixture of fear and curiosity as, upon Astronema's command, the young man known as Carlos lifted his arm and pressed several buttons on the morpher's small keypad. There was no sound, no battle cry, only a blinding flash of brilliant light, and when it faded, the Black Space Ranger stood in his place.
The helmeted figure remained at attention, as if waiting for his leader's call to action. Ghallet released a shaky breath, infinitely relieved that his work had apparently paid off. He stood a bit straighter, feeling a profound sense of accomplishment. Surely his Queen couldn't deny his value to the Alliance now.
When Astronema turned to him, the demure Thesiusian was beaming like a proud father… until he saw the glint of cruelty in her otherwise cold, empty gaze.
"Black," the Queen of Evil intoned rather blandly, "...kill it."
With the simplest gesture from her outstretched hand, the Ranger turned and quickly located his target. Sheer terror plastered itself across Ghallet's small, repugnant face and he put his claws up in an empty, fruitless attempt to somehow protect himself.
"No… no, please! Your Highness… I-I don't understand! I did as you commanded–"
Like the scythe of Death itself, the shimmering blade sliced through the air at an insane speed, cleanly separating Ghallet's head from his shoulders, his life ending faster than the echoes of his final, futile pleas for mercy.
As the creature's dark, viscous blood began to pool at his feet, the Black Ranger straightened up from his position of attack, bringing his Lunar Lance around the front of his body in a sweeping arc where it suddenly disappeared from view. Having done his master's bidding, the armored fighter once again stood at the ready, never uttering a single, solitary sound.
"Are you sure that was wise, My Queen?"
If those words had come from anyone else, Astronema would have struck them down on the spot. Instead, she merely turned at the sound of his voice, barely sparing a glance toward Ghallet's gruesome remains as Ecliptor emerged from the shadows, silent as a ghost. He'd been there all along, of course. He was always there, watching over her.
"The knowledge he possessed was dangerous to me." She gave him a slightly menacing look, though she doubted such a thing had any effect on him. "Dark Specter may have been too stupid to recognize when his subordinates posed a threat. I, however, am not."
When Ecliptor bowed his head to her, Astronema shifted her attention back to the Black Ranger. She smiled, grimly, unable to hide the pleasure she felt at having been able to order him to commit such a brutal act. She was only sorry that Zordon hadn't been there to witness it. Of course, there would be other opportunities. Of that, she would make certain.
"Black, power down."
At Astronema's command, another flash of light burst forth, and Carlos Olivera reappeared, as still and unmoving as a statue. She stepped forward and removed the morpher from his wrist. She then held the small device between her fingertips, gazing down at it, thoughtfully.
"Have they found my brother's ship?"
"No," Ecliptor answered. "But, it is only a matter of time before he and the Silver Ranger return to Earth."
"True," the Karovan agreed, "and I am very much looking forward to that."
She abandoned her study of Eltar's amazing technology to cast a somewhat vengeful look at her new soldiers. There was still no explanation as to how the prisoners managed to escape the cryo-tubes and commandeer their ship, although Astronema had her suspicions. And considering the implications, she had no intention of sharing her thoughts on the subject with anyone.
Still, even the probable interference of her alter ego would do the two rangers little good. It was true that they were both formidable warriors, but, ultimately, despite their enhanced capabilities, they were only human. They cared too much, just as she once did. It was a weakness that the Queen of Evil had every intention of exploiting.
The low rumble of Ecliptor's voice broke through her moment of introspection.
"We still have the rebels to contend with," he reminded her.
"I don't believe that will be a problem for very much longer."
"Unless the Yellow Ranger is now buried under the remains of Angel Grove's Youth Center."
Once again, Astronema's gaze was drawn to the morpher still clutched in her hand. "Ashley's fine."
There was a weighted pause and she finally looked up to see that Ecliptor had moved closer to her. Though his armored mask prevented anyone from reading his expressions, Astronema knew him well enough to notice the marked stiffness in his overall demeanor. He was concerned about her, and had been since he'd found her unconscious on the bridge several hours earlier.
"How can you be so sure?" he asked slowly.
It was obvious by his tone that her remark had disturbed him and she cursed, inwardly, for having spoken without thinking. Hiding things from Ecliptor wasn't easy. He had an intuitive sense far beyond that of most creatures. At certain times, such as in battle, it was an invaluable skill, but it also made subterfuge a most difficult endeavor.
"Rangers are hard to kill," she said curtly, as if that should be explanation enough.
Turning to regard the three silent figures standing nearby, Ecliptor seemed to be considering her words. Then, in a surprising move, he suddenly brandished his sword and approached them, menacingly.
... don't let him!...
Astronema's eyes flashed, dangerously, and she took a possessive step toward her immobile prisoners while simultaneously producing her own weapon of choice.
"No one touches them," she warned.
There was another long, uncomfortable silence as one-time mentor and student regarded each other, both sensing that something had changed between them in the last few days, and it was more than Astronema's sudden rise to power.
"Astronema." Ecliptor's tone was deep, yet soft, sounding more like a worrisome father than the commander of an army. "Something is wrong."
Her blue eyes narrowed in anger. "My powers were overtaxed. That is all it was."
"We need to be certain."
The door to the lab suddenly swung open with a loud clang, and both turned to the source of the intrusion.
"Oh, sorry to interrupt, Your Royal Majesty." Elgar sauntered in, only to stop cold upon seeing Ghallet's dead body on the floor. "Whoa! Talk about losing your head!"
"What do you want!" Ecliptor growled.
Divatox' nephew took a step back and put his hands up. "Hey, take it easy there, Big E. I just wanted to let Her Most Highness know that we've spotted the Yellow Ranger."
Astronema's gaze sharpened. "She's at the rendezvous point?"
"Yup," Elgar grinned, oblivious to the fact that his Queen had already turned away from him to give her second-in command some instructions to follow. "My old stomping grounds. You know I mean that literally, right? I'm sure you've heard the stories about how I-"
A black and green blur suddenly shoved him back, roughly, against a console, and Elgar turned to protest, but Ecliptor was already through the door and gone from sight.
"Stay with them!" Astronema commanded as she disappeared in a bright flash of violet light.
When he was certain they were both gone, Elgar straightened up and tugged on his vest, indignantly. "Sheesh! All that fuss over one little ranger." He glanced over at the three teens still standing at attention. They were like statues, only an occasional blink of their eyes giving an indication that they were even alive. It was so strange to see them like that.
Strange… but nice.
"Well, looks like I've got a captive audience..."
With a devilish grin, he walked over to them, callously stepping on Ghallet's corpse as he went. Countless battles against the young Terrans made him cautious, though, and he paused for a moment, waving his hands in front of their faces just to be sure.
Getting no response from the teens, he suddenly cackled, ""How ya doin', Rangers? Not too good, I bet." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the body of the small creature lying just behind him. "'Course, you're way better off than that guy!"
Casting a quick look around, Elgar grabbed a chair and pulled it over, eagerly seating himself in front of the trio. He threw a leg over one chair arm and swung it, casually, taking a moment to contemplate his razor sharp claws.
"I think I need a manicure…" he mumbled to himself, eyes losing focus for a moment before sitting up and shaking his head to clear the cobwebs that so often threatened to derail his limited train of thought. "So, whaddaya say we take a little stroll down memory lane, huh? Like, remember the time I blew your Command Center into a million pieces?"
Outwardly, the three rangers showed no response to his words…
To be continued...