Disclaimer: Buena Vista Entertainment owns the rights to Power Rangers Lost Galaxy. This story involves characters and concepts from PRLG.
His brother was going to kill him. After all the trouble he'd gone to, the strings he'd pulled to get Leo on the colonist list in the first place, now here was stupid fate coming along to mess things up. Like it hadn't been weird enough, thinking that he might never see Earth again. Now, with a growing sense of dread, he realized he might never leave.
All he'd wanted was a going away party. It wasn't so much to ask, in the scheme of things. Mike had wanted him on Terra Venture the night before, so he could be taken care of before the rush of last-minute launch preparation, but he'd insisted on one more bash before he voluntarily boarded a ship full of geeky scientists and strait-laced military types.
"Look," he told the gate guard for what felt like the dozenth time, "I was at a party, and someone must have lifted my papers. But I know my name's on the list, so if you could just have someone check--"
"No ticket," the guard growled back at him, "no admittance."
"I just came from the ticketing agent," Leo reminded him. "She told me to see you."
"Stop holding up the line," the guard snapped.
All of the gates outside the shuttle runway were guarded by a pair soldiers, each taking tickets and checking paperwork as the final colonists jockeyed for a better view in their disorderly lines. Everyone here was nervous and rushed and the guards were showing the strain. Still, he wasn't just some guy off the street: whether he'd been legitimately selected or not, he was on the list. And he should be on one of those shuttles.
"Can't you call someone and have them confirm my space?" he wanted to know. "My name is Leo Corbett; I'm Mike Corbett's brother, and I'm a registered colonist on Terra Venture."
The guard was giving him a disgusted look. "I don't care who you say you are, kid. I care who your papers say you are. I can't let anyone past this point without proper identification. You knowing the name of someone on the colony register doesn't cut it."
"But I just told you--" Leo protested.
"Hey." The second guard had stepped in front of the gate, holding back his side of the line while he frowned at them. "What's the problem here?"
"No ticket," the first guard declared ominously.
"I lost my--" Leo began.
"Ticket first," the second guard interrupted. "Get your ticket and come back."
"But I'm supposed to be on the nine-twenty shuttle!"
"Look, kid." The second guard shot an irritated look at a woman who had the temerity to tug on his arm, and it was enough to make her fall back a little. "We're in a hurry here. We're boarding people on a first come, first served basis. The nine-twenty shuttle's already full, so go get in the ticket line, get your ticket, and come back. You'll make the last shuttle up at ten-thirty."
"I've already been through the ticket line," Leo insisted. "I told you, my passport was stolen and they sent me to you!"
"No one gets through without ID," the guard said, looking suddenly more suspicious and twice as menacing. "Find that passport or you're not going anywhere."
He was shoved aside by the first guard, who pointedly turned toward the next person in line. On the other side of the gate, the whine of ground-bound engines died off and there was an eerie silence out on the field. The guards kept talking, shuffling, checking, and two women handed over their carry-on bags for final inspection. The little boy with them refused to part with a monkey-shaped backpack.
Then the roar of pre-ignition swept across the crowd, rumbling in to make normal communication almost impossible, but the guards paid no attention. One of the women pried the boy's backpack away and handed it over. The rest of the crowd was still pushing and yelling to each other, trying to be heard, trying to see, utterly muted as the rockets lit and the ground shook and the nine o'clock shuttle burned a trail into the sky above their heads.
By the time Leo looked away, the small family behind him had been allowed through the gate. The boy was clutching his monkey pack again, and the two women were fussing with his arms and the straps as they tried to get it back over his shoulders. One on either side of him, they finally took his hands and headed off, none of them letting go of each other as they made their way toward the nine-forty terminal and a one-way trip to the colony ship Terra Venture.
Leo turned around, deciding that the best approach would be to find somebody who had a phone. Preferably somebody wearing a TV uniform, but failing that, some kind of security would probably do. His brother was the second highest-ranking military officer on that ship, and if Leo couldn't get himself on board, then Mike would just have to do it for him. Again.
It didn't take him long to realize that there were no uniformed Terra Venture citizens to be found. They were probably all up on the ship already. Okay, so scratch that plan. There was plenty of security around, but he'd already had firsthand experience with how unhelpful they could be if he picked the wrong one.
He was trying to look inconspicuous, weighing potential candidates from an out-of-the-way place behind a corner somewhere, when he heard a woman's raised voice and a man urgently shushing her. He didn't know why it caught his attention, but it seemed off, and security probably had too much to do to bother reporting abuse today. So he drifted back, listening for the source of the noise and figuring just his presence might be enough to head off actual harm.
"I won't be quiet," the woman's voice snapped as he came strolling around the side of the building. "And I'm not giving you my ticket! You think I don't know what gate guards look like? Shame on you! You leave an old woman in peace!"
Crap. Leo hastily reassessed the situation. Two big guys and a little old lady, all of them apparently after the manilla envelope the lady had pressed up against her chest. What they thought they could do with her papers, he had no idea, but then, he'd never been part of those underground "identity on the fly" operations either.
"Grandma, there you are," he said smoothly, giving them a token wary glance as he sidled up to her. "We're all waiting for you at the gate. Mom's about to send the guards out looking for you. You ready to go?"
"Oh, yes." She pulled her folder a little tighter against her body, putting her head down to take a few steps forward. "Yes, I'm quite ready. I don't know what happened; I must have taken a wrong turn on my way out of the bathroom and now I'm all turned around."
The guys were glaring at him, cold stares that said he wasn't that impressive. And there were two of them. One sign of weakness and they'd probably take him on. But confidence had gotten him out of a lot more fights than fists had, so he just patted the old woman's shoulder and smiled down at her as he added, "Dad's been retracing your steps. We'll pass him on the way back and we can let him know we found you."
"Oh, yes, that will be wonderful," the woman murmured. "Thank you, dear. You're very kind."
"Look, there's a guard now," Leo said. Just in case the guys behind them still had any ideas. "Excuse me? Security! Security, can we get a little help here?"
They made it out of the alley and back into full view of nearby security without further incident. His calls for security had indeed caught the attention of a guard out front--not that he'd been able to see anyone from where he was, but they were met anyway as they stepped around the corner. "There's a couple of guys back there," he said, gesturing over his shoulder.
"Young men pretending to be gate guards," the woman beside him piped up. "They tried to take my ticket and all of my papers! This young man came along and they backed off; I shudder to think what might have happened if he hadn't stopped to help."
Apparently, the guards on duty outside the shuttleport were very trusting of little old ladies. The one that had met them at the front of the building waved for two more to head down the alley and investigate, while he asked solicitously, "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Well, I am now," she said with a sniff. "But I'm supposed to be on a shuttle up to Terra Venture in half an hour, and I seem to have lost my way to the gate."
The guard didn't look at all skeptical about this, despite the fact that she was obviously several decades older than the average colonist. "Right this way, ma'am. There are signs that will lead you back past the ticketing agency and up to one of the gates."
"I'll walk with you," Leo offered. "I know the way."
"Oh, thank you," the woman said, patting his arm. "That will be lovely. Tell me, are you on your way to the new world also?"
"Uh..." He glanced over his shoulder at the guard, but the man was heading down the alley after his buddies. "Well, I'm supposed to be."
"Oh?" Her tone was suddenly sharp and curious. "And what do you mean by that?"
Leo looked down at her, with her purse over one shoulder and manilla envelope in the crook of her elbow now. Something about her inspired honesty, and he admitted, "Well, I'm not supposed to be. I wasn't selected. But my brother's a GSA officer, and he got me put on the colonist list as a dependent. Then just this morning I lost my passport. There's no way they'll let me on a shuttle now."
The woman clucked disapprovingly. "All this paperwork, and sometimes I think they forget there are people attached to it. What's your name, dear?"
"Leo Corbett," he told her.
She frowned a little at that. "Leo Corbett... now why does that sound familiar?"
"My brother Mike is Terra Venture's First Officer," he said. "You've probably seen his name on all the news specials and things."
"Oh, of course! Mike Corbett, that's right." She beamed up at him. "Well, he should be able to waive the passport requirement for you, shouldn't he? If there's one thing the new world will need, it's more young men like you."
He had to smile at that. "That's very nice of you to say, Ms...?"
"Gracie Tyler," she said, shifting her folder to her other arm and holding out her hand. "My granddaughter is a GSA officer. And if you think I'm on the colonist register as anything other than her dependent, then you give the selection process too much credit."
His smile widened, and he decided that he liked her. "Anyone who wouldn't choose you, Ms. Tyler, obviously doesn't know what a real colony needs."
"Oh?" she said, eyeing him sideways as they walked slowly toward the lines at the nearest gate. "And what would that be?"
"Attitude," he told her.
She chuckled at that, and yes. He really liked her. "Well, I would have said a multi-generational community that brings a sense of identity and permanence to all of its members," she declared. "But it just so happens that I like your description better."
"Safe travel on your voyage, Ms. Tyler," he said, slowing as they reached the end of the line. "Whatever you bring to the colony, I'm sure it's something they can't do without."
"I'll see you on board, dear." She gave him another reassuring smile. "You just get that brother of yours on the phone and explain to him what happened. He'll have you on the next shuttle in no time at all."
He was starting to worry that that was easier said than done, with Mike on duty and no officers around to get a priority message through, but he wasn't going to say so aloud. "I'll do that," he promised her instead. "You hold onto that paperwork."
"Oh, I will," she declared, patting the envelope. "Thank you so much for your help. I've never been more grateful to a faux grandson in all my life."
He grinned. He couldn't help it. "Always happy to impersonate family in the name of justice," he said, waving a little as he backed away. And maybe he shouldn't have said that so loudly, especially if one of the guards already thought he was pretending to be Mike Corbett's brother in order to sneak on board the ship--
Hey. Could he do that? Sneak on board the ship? Or at least, pretend to? If they caught him trying to stow away, they'd have to take him seriously. Yeah, they'd probably drag him off and hold him somewhere for a few hours, but they'd have to find out who he was at some point. They couldn't detain or even release someone caught inside the gate without determining their identity. And the first thing they'd do to try to prove his "story" wrong would be to contact Mike.
Leo wasn't good with forms and regulations. But he knew what it took to fool people who weren't paying attention, and no one gave him a second glance when he strode confidently into the cargo transfer facility. He'd pulled off his red dress shirt and hidden it in his bag, grabbing three more bags as he entered, two slung over his shoulders and the largest one hefted with both hands as he crossed the floor. His jeans and black t-shirt were almost invisible underneath all the luggage, and no one would be able to see the ID he wasn't wearing.
He walked right onto one of the luggage trucks, dropped the largest bag and started shifting things that had already been loaded from front to back. The guy on the ground turned around, saw him, and began tossing stuff up to him without so much as a "hey." Leo smiled a little, careful to keep his own bag in sight as he stacked the rest.
He was given an unexpected gift when the truck was filled and the guy who'd been throwing stuff to him walked around the side and disappeared. He didn't know whether the guy expected him to jump off or ride with, but a moment later, the truck rumbled to life and started to roll out onto the tarmac. Leo braced himself against the back and listened to the roar of what had to be the nine-twenty shuttle departing. He'd missed it. But he wasn't going to miss the next one.
Like he'd told Gracie Tyler, sometimes all it took was a little attitude.
He had his bag over his shoulder when the truck pulled up beside a giant white space jet that he'd never seen from so close before. He leapt off the back and scrambled up the unmoving conveyor belt into the cargo hold, yanking a giant duffel out from behind carefully stacked luggage and cramming himself into the space that was left. He tried to hold his breath, listening for yelling to indicate that someone had seen him, or maybe just the sound of the conveyor as they got ready to unload the truck. When he heard nothing he tried to pull the duffel back toward him to hide himself further.
It was a ridiculous plan. In his defense, though, he'd never expected to work. Didn't the driver wonder where he'd gone? Hadn't anyone else seen him sneaking into the side of the shuttle? Why didn't the guy who came up the conveyor once it was turned on glance around the cargo area before he started throwing more stuff in?
Leo expected to be discovered at any time. He'd only wanted to get far enough that they couldn't just throw him out on the street once they'd caught him. So he was surprised when he heard a resounding bang that shook the entire compartment, and suddenly the light was completely gone. He twitched the bag he was hiding under aside, enough that he should have been able to see something... but there was nothing.
Pitch blackness. They'd closed the door. He heard the engines start to whine a moment later.
Crap. He shoved the duffel bag off of him and straightened up as much as he could. He wouldn't have been able to stand up even if the compartment was empty, and as it was he was lucky he had room to move. He put his hands above his head blindly, feeling along the ceiling, and when he found some kind of handle he pulled without hesitation. The engines meant that ignition wasn't far off, and if this compartment wasn't pressurized, he was going to die.
A panel fell down when he rattled the handle, twisting it almost by accident, and the first cracks of light came through from above. Just a tiny glint around the edges of another, higher square, and he reached up into the space the hinged panel had left. This time there was no handle, but when he pushed up, the ceiling moved. He put one foot on the duffel and shoved upward until it gave way entirely.
Two-way cargo access. Sweet. Except that now he was head and shoulders into the passenger compartment, and everyone in the last three rows was staring at him. He put on his best worker face, ignoring them all as he put his hands on the floor of the cabin and lifted himself out. No problem. Nothing to see here.
He laid down in the aisle like he did it every day and reached for the edge of the hanging panel. He fumbled it a little in the dark, but no one was perfect. He grabbed it and slammed it back into place, hoping it stuck, and by some miracle it did. He sat up, pushed the floor back into place, and glanced around at the other passengers as though he'd just noticed them.
"Running a little behind with the luggage," he remarked as he stood up, his one bag still over his shoulder. "I offered to help load."
"Are you going to fly our shuttle?" a little girl wanted to know.
Leo grinned at her. Kids were so cute. "Someone's already doing that," he pointed out. "I'm just a passenger, like you. I was a little late for this flight, but they said they had one seat left?"
"But we're not flying yet," the girl said, frowning at him.
"No," he agreed, going down on one knee again so that he wasn't towering over her. He didn't lean against her seat, just in case it freaked her parents out, but the fact that he was talking to a kid seemed to reassure some of the people further forward. "We will be soon, though. The pilot's already up front, getting the shuttle ready for takeoff."
"Oh." She studied him a moment longer. "Why did you come out of the floor?"
"Did you bring a suitcase with you?" he asked, smiling at her again.
"Yeah." She nodded vigorously. "I have a Power Rangers suitcase. But I had to leave it at the terminal."
"A lot of people brought suitcases," Leo agreed. "There were so many that it was taking too long to load them, and since I thought I wasn't going to make this flight I offered to help put them all on the shuttle. When I got done, they said they had one more seat, but they didn't want to stop and open the front doors for me. So I came in through the cargo door."
"That was a door?" the little girl squeaked. She looked highly skeptical. "I thought you came through the floor!"
He leaned down to knock on the floor. "It's like a trapdoor," he explained. "So that when they're cleaning the plane, or fixing it, they don't have to go all the way to the front and out and around just to get from one part of the plane to the other."
He had no idea what it was for, but she was staring at him with wide eyes. "What's the other part of the plane?"
"It's a storage compartment," he told her, wondering if he would make it all the way through pre-ignition sitting on the floor. He sure wasn't going to get through liftoff that way. "It's like the trunk of your car. That's where you put all the stuff you don't want to carry in your lap. Like your suitcase."
"Excuse me--" Someone was hurrying down the aisle toward him, and he sighed. She was wearing a uniform. "Sir!" she called. "Excuse me, sir!"
This was it. They were going to have to stop the shuttle to make him disembark, which would take forever, and the little girl would stare at him the whole time. He would have to explain about the colony register, and the passport, and how his brother could clear all of this up. Again. And then he would have to be escorted, probably by security, back across the tarmac to the terminal, into some kind of waiting area while they tried to prove that he was lying.
"Sir, you can't be in the aisle," the uniformed woman was saying. "All passengers have to be strapped in before the rockets fire--"
"Oh, yeah, sorry," he said quickly. He got to his feet, glancing around, wondering how long it would take them to realize there weren't any empty seats.
"This must be your seat," a woman's voice said. "Right here."
He turned around, and sure enough, the last seat up against the bulkhead on the left was empty, blocked by one of the women who'd been standing in line behind him at the gate. He froze, staring at her, wondering if she'd recognize him in his t-shirt. She was unfastening her harness now, but she must have gotten a good look at him when he climbed into the compartment?
"Do you want that window seat?" he blurted out when she looked like she was just going to move over. It was too late for being inconspicuous, but if he had the slightest chance of actually getting into orbit, he didn't want to miss the view on the way.
She looked up, shaking her head once as she stepped into the aisle instead and made room for him to squeeze past. "It's all yours," she said. He saw her partner and the little boy with the monkey pack in the row in front of her.
He slid into the designated seat, bag in his lap as he fumbled for his own harness, and that uniform was still hovering. "Sir, you'll need to stow your bag under the seat," she informed him, and finally it clicked. She wasn't security. She was a flight attendant.
"Right," he said, shoving his bag down and kicking it awkwardly backward. "That okay?"
"Your harness," she reminded him. Even as she said it, he felt the cabin beginning to vibrate and the sound of pre-ignition was much louder from inside the shuttle. He yanked the harness out and around, and the woman next to him pointed out the clips when he couldn't quite figure it out.
He felt clumsy and obvious but when he looked up the flight attendant was gone and the woman beside him gave him a small smile. "I'm glad you got your passport problems sorted out," she told him sincerely.
Okay. Yeah. She recognized him, all right. "Uh, thanks," he said. He tried to smile back, but he thought she might be about to sound the alarm at any second. He'd climbed out of the luggage compartment.
"It must have been a nightmare," she added. "To get this far and then think you might not make it? Because of something silly like that?"
"I was kind of worried," he admitted, still wary. Maybe she was trying to fake him out. "But I get why they need identification. You don't want people sneaking onto a colony ship, after all. That'd be a disaster."
"The selection process is pretty strict," she agreed. "Not everyone can handle leaving everything behind, or being confined to a ship for so long. To say nothing of what it will take to establish a colony once we reach the new world."
He nodded, like he'd been thinking exactly the same thing.
"Still," she continued, "you'd think that once someone was on the list, the GSA would cut them a little slack. We've obviously proven ourselves by now. And when you come right down to it, it's not like we'll ever need passports again."
Leo blinked. "Wow... We'll never need passports again." He paused a moment to let it sink in. "I never thought of it that way before."
"Wild, isn't it? The adventure of a lifetime, they say." After the briefest hesitation, she turned a little in her seat and held out her hand. "Celeste Turner. Nice to meet you."
He freed his hand and took hers, awkward with the harness but they managed to shake. "Leo Corbett," he told her. "Nice to meet you too."
Then the rockets lit and he was instantly twice as heavy, completely deaf, and reeling from the fact that he'd actually made it. Once ignited, the rockets couldn't be shut down manually, and none of the shuttles were going to be making a return trip to Earth. This was the last time the spacefaring vehicles would lift off from the planet below, and they would ride with the colony all the way to the new world: tiny lifeboats in case something went horribly wrong.
For better or worse, he was on his way to Terra Venture.
The pressure and the noise lasted several more minutes before abruptly cutting out. The ensuing silence was unreal, and even the slowly returning conversation sounded muffled. He had his face pressed up against the window until exclamations from the front of the cabin caught his attention and he realized that there were people up there who weren't in their seats. Or standing in the aisle.
They were floating above it. Only belatedly did he realize that he too was weightless, and even then he couldn't quite believe it. The harness held him down, and he had attributed the sudden feeling of lightness to relief from the intensity of liftoff. He literally wouldn't have known they were in orbit if he hadn't been staring out the window.
"Mommy, can I be weightless too?" the little boy in front of them was asking. "I want to fly!"
"It's not our turn yet," his mom told him. "See the lights above our seats? When they go out, we can take our harnesses off."
Like seatbelt lights on a plane. He'd obviously missed the shuttle orientation while he was hiding in the luggage compartment, but so far just sitting in his seat seemed to be working out all right. He could stare down at planet Earth for a long time. How long was the flight, anyway?
Not long, it turned out. Everyone got a turn to try maneuvering around the cabin without gravity, but two rows went at a time and the turns were only a few minutes apiece. Several people gave up their turns so that kids could go twice, and Leo knew it was the nice thing to do but he couldn't make himself do it.
The kids weren't the only ones who wanted to fly.
When the light over his seat went out, he struggled out of his harness and he noticed that neither Celeste nor her partner gave up their turns either. Of course, maybe they had an excuse, since it was their son who was bouncing off of the ceiling and the seats and occasionally other passengers' heads. Leo grinned, tried to be more careful himself, and was only partially successful. But he did figure out how to do a somersault in their limited amount of time and space.
When they were directed back to their seats, he was briefly introduced to the rest of Celeste's family as they all tried to squeeze into the right places without gravity to orient themselves. Celeste's partner wasn't her partner at all, but her sister, Cathy. The boy was Bobby, and Leo guessed he was Cathy's but it was hard to tell. He promised to teach Bobby how to do a somersault "next time," and they were all friends.
Leo was feeling pretty good about his situation by the time the pilot came on the speakers to announce their final approach to Terra Venture. He was on a shuttle bound for a space colony that his older brother practically ran, and he might not have his passport but he was on the list, dammit. He'd even befriended some kids, and a couple of women who might give him some cover if anyone at the arrival gate was suspicious. By the time they figured out what he'd done, he'd be home free.
He dragged his bag out from under his seat while they were waiting to disembark. Terra Venture was probably amazing from the outside, but he'd been on the wrong side of the shuttle to see it and once they were inside the view was surprisingly boring. He could see people milling around some distance away, and a big cluster of nearby buildings that blocked out anything else there might be to see. So he pulled on his long-sleeved dress shirt again, figuring it would stand out at least a little less among the mostly well-dressed passengers, and he waited.
"Just like being on a plane," Celeste remarked at one point.
"In space," he said with a grin. He told himself he wasn't impressed--he wasn't even excited--but the idea was so crazy that he couldn't deny it was cool. "A plane in space."
Celeste grinned back at him. "Yeah," was all she said, but in that moment they understood each other perfectly.
When it was finally their turn to file down the aisle, Leo had no idea what to expect as he stepped out of the hatch and started down the stairs toward the... ground? There was ground. Just as it had looked from the window: ground, and buildings, and when he looked up there was a sky above him. What kind of spaceship had a sky?
He lost track of Celeste immediately, and it actually took him a couple of minutes to figure out that she and her sister had probably gone to retrieve their luggage. Right. Luggage. That was what most people seemed to be doing, and he thought maybe he should pretend to be looking too, until he realized that those people he'd seen from the window must have arrived on the shuttle before theirs.
He headed in their direction purposefully, well aware that the more he looked like he knew what he was doing, the less likely anyone was to question him. There was some kind of orientation kiosk near where they were standing, and everyone seemed to be passing by it on their way out. People also seemed to be drifting back in, though, and when they left again they didn't bother with the kiosk.
He had just stepped in for a minute, then, looking for someone. Oh, right, there they were... The big guy and the old man with him, they looked just crazy enough to be confused by him instead of weirded out. Yeah, he'd been looking for them all along. They'd been outside the whole time. Too bad he'd missed them before.
"Hey," he said, striding up to them and clapping the old man on the shoulder. Gently. Just in case. "So, Terra Venture, huh? How are you guys doing?"
To his horror, the old man screamed and the big guy looked like he was about to cry. "I can't believe it!" the man wailed. "Terra Venture! Terra Venture! Here we are, here we are, and we have forgotten a member of our team!"
Leo took his hand off of the man's shoulder hastily, shooting a covert look around the shuttleport. People were looking at them, but not staring, and though he could see security guards stationed back by the kiosk they seemed to be more occupied with questions than curiosity. "Uh, did you forget something back on Earth?" he asked, trying to keep his voice down.
"Something!" The big guy took him by the shoulders and shook him, which, okay, now he was the one being weirded out. He hadn't picked the ones who were just crazy enough. He'd picked the ones who were just crazy. Period.
"Someone!" the guy declared. "We forgot someone! He missed his shuttle and we can't go back for him and now we'll never see him again!"
"Well," Leo said, hoping he sounded reasonable instead of vaguely afraid. "The last shuttle wasn't scheduled to lift off until ten-thirty. Maybe he's already on board."
"No!" the old guy shouted. "He can not be on the ten-thirty shuttle, and I will tell you why: because he wasn't on the nine-twenty shuttle!"
That didn't make a lot of sense to Leo, but he was willing to smile and nod if it got him past the crazy people. "I see," he said carefully.
"If he wasn't on the nine-twenty shuttle then he must have overslept." The big guy sounded mournful. "And when Skull oversleeps, he doesn't wake up. There's no way he'll make the last shuttle."
"Well," Leo said. Then a mischievous impulse struck, and he leaned in conspiratorially. "You know what I heard," he whispered.
They were exactly the right audience, because both of them shuffled in and closed a tight huddle around him. "I heard," he said softly, "that there's a stowaway on one of the shuttles. They might have to delay liftoff until they find him."
Maybe not exactly the right audience, because the old guy promptly lifted his head and yelled, "A stowaway? On one of the shuttles? How can this be!"
Leo pulled away fast, clearing his throat and deliberately not glancing over his shoulder. This was so not a good time to look guilty. "Well, like I said," he mumbled, "it's just something I heard."
"Stop the shuttles!" the big guy shouted, waving his hands over his head. "Stop the shuttles! Stowaway! There's a stowaway on the shuttle!"
"See you later," Leo said quickly. He didn't know where he was going, but "away" seemed like a good direction. And "fast" seemed like a good speed.
He wasn't sure exactly when the shuttleport became a plaza, but he found himself in a oddly mall-like area and he hopped an escalator for the sheer fun of it. He turned around at the top, hoping to get a better idea of where he was, and he caught site of guards moving out across the plaza from the direction of the shuttleport. Nothing to do with me, he reminded himself--except who had told those guys about the "stowaway"?
Yeah, security was definitely going to be talking to him. And that couldn't end well. He'd be better off to avoid them as long as possible. He found, now that he was actually here, that getting caught didn't sound so appealing anymore. He turned around, ready to get away from the exposed landing, and ran smack into a guard. Two guards. The one he'd bumped had dropped whatever she was carrying all over the floor.
He was screwed.
"Hey," he said, mustering his most charming smile as he bent down to help her with her things. "Look, I'm really sorry about that. Let me--"
"No, it's okay," she assured him, not sounding at all belligerent. "I wasn't looking where I was going and these training exercises always get me flustered. Kai says they're supposed to make you nervous, but I think they do it on purpose to keep scientists out of their war games. What do you think?"
Leo just looked at her, offering the things he'd picked up as they got to their feet again. He had no idea what she was talking about. It didn't sound like anything to do with him, though. That was probably good.
"He doesn't think anything, Kendrix." Her fellow guard sounded impatient. "He's a civilian. A civilian who should really watch where he's going," he added, this last only nominally directed at her as he frowned at Leo.
"Civilians think," the female soldier protested. "I'm a civilian. And it's not his fault, anyway, I bumped into him."
"We're going to be late," her friend said brusquely. "Let's go."
"Hey!" The call came from the direction of the escalator, and when Leo glanced over his shoulder automatically he saw another group of guards on their way up. Unlike these two, the new group definitely had their eye on him, and he tensed.
The second solider was leaning over the railing, so Leo flashed the first another smile. "Have to go," he told her, already backing away. "Maybe I'll see you around."
"Yeah," she agreed, smiling back at him. "That'd be great."
He wished he'd stopped to get her name, but her friend was turning away from the escalator with a dark look on his face and helmets were starting to appear above the railing as the rest of the guards marched up the escalator. It was stay and be questioned or turn and run. Leo ran.
He managed to disappear into a moving group of people, and he almost dashed right past the guard hauling equipment along the landing before the reality of it registered. They weren't guards. They were soldiers. That woman's friend had said "civilian" like it was a dirty word, and these guys weren't just wearing uniforms--they were wearing body armor.
Anonymous body armor. The soldier he'd just passed paused to get a drink, and Leo lifted an entire uniform from his pile of equipment, snagging a helmet before he ducked into the bathroom beside the water fountain. The uniform almost fit, and the armor covered what didn't. He had room for his clothes in his bag. What he didn't have was a place to leave his bag.
Even with it, though, he felt almost invisible stepping out of the bathroom a few minutes later. He was nobody in this getup. He was anybody. And whoever they were looking for in connection to the "stowaway" rumor, he'd bet it wasn't anyone wearing body armor.
The good news was that soldiers had locker rooms where he found a place to stow his bag. The bad news was that soldiers had commanders, one of whom happened to be walking by as he left the locker room and informed him that he was headed in the wrong direction. While it was possible that this was true, Leo kind of doubted that the commander would know one way or the other.
Still, he turned around and fell in with the passing soldiers. He wondered how long it would be before someone asked his name. He wondered what he would say when they did. Could he get in trouble for impersonating soldier? Probably not, right? It was just a uniform, after all.
Finally he leaned over and asked one of them, "Where are we going?"
"Red zone," the woman said briefly. "Chen's team."
She probably thought that was an answer, Leo decided. He didn't start to get alarmed until he saw military heliships and realized that he was about to leave the ship he'd just spent a lot of energy getting to. "Seriously," he asked the woman again. "What's the red zone?"
She didn't give him a second glance. "Glorified target practice. Loser gets the night shift for the first two months."
Again, he told himself. It was like an answer, except that it told him absolutely nothing. He got on the ship anyway. Why not? It wasn't like they'd be sending their soldiers off five hours before launch without expecting them back. And whatever the "red zone" was, anything that had the word "practice" in it probably couldn't be too deadly.
He'd settled himself in the back between the wall and the soldier who'd pretended to answer his questions. It wasn't until he lifted his head that he realized the soldier he'd bumped into--and her friend--were piling in and taking seats across from him. They were murmuring to each other, neither of them looking at him, and in the minutes before takeoff he managed to gather that she didn't usually participate in whatever kind of drill they were heading for.
He also gathered that her friend liked her better than pretty much anyone else in the back of the ship. The friend went so far as to reassure her--twice--while he cut off other soldiers repeatedly and told one of them to suck it up when she complained that they had better things to do than shoot at fake mines on launch day. He added that she was welcome to turn in her gun and let the mines shoot at her instead if she preferred. As alarming as the discussion was, Leo had to smother a laugh at his attitude.
"All right," the commanding soldier type said at last. "Although I hesitate to put weapons in your hands when you're doing so well with verbal sarcasm, maybe it will distract you long enough for me to escape to the cockpit. Mister Chen?"
The friend was already on his feet, and he started handing out big mean-looking guns a moment later. Leo recognized the name suddenly, putting it together with his other soldier's non-answer: "Chen's team." Okay. So there was more than one commanding soldier type. That was good to know.
"Remember," the first commanding type was saying. "This will be a full battle ready exercise. Live mines. Live munitions. So for god's sake, try not to shoot each other while you're out there."
All of a sudden, Leo was looking at the guns in a much different light. Live munitions? Did that mean what he thought it meant? He could kill someone with that thing. If he could figure out how to fire it. If he didn't kill himself trying.
This was the sort of thing that would seem a lot funnier later.
"This will be the last exercise before launch," the commanding type continued. "Shift rotations are on the line. Whichever team pre-detonates the most mines wins--unless you manage to injure one of your teammates, in which case you automatically lose. Loser's team takes the graveyard watch for the next sixty days."
A gun was thrust into Leo's face, and he very carefully did not look up. His helmet would only shield his face so far, and the soldiers he'd met at the escalator had every reason to recognize him. He took the weapon carefully, clumsy with its weight and the effort not to touch anything that might accidentally set it off.
He was so screwed.
The commanding type was gone when he dared to look around again, and chatter filled the back of the ship in his absence. Even Leo's non-answering soldier buddy was playing the "our team's gonna kick butt" game, and Chen wasn't shy about backing her up. Somehow Leo managed to make it through the rest of the trip without calling attention to himself, which Mike would never believe when he heard about it, but he did know how to keep his mouth shut when he was surrounded by live guns.
It got harder to lay low when he stepped out on the surface of the moon--the moon!--and his brother followed the commanding type out of the front of the ship. Mike had been riding up in the cockpit with the pilots. Leo kept his head down, trying to hide his grin, because this day just got better and better. He was on the moon. In a GSA training exercise. With his brother.
"Radio check," Mike said tersely. "All units. Check."
Leo tried not to start at the echo of Mike's voice in his ear as his helmet radio came alive. He hadn't even known the helmets had radios. He wondered what other weird technology he was wearing without realizing it.
Mike gave the commanding type a nod. "You're good to go, sir."
"All teams," the man said, tapping the outside of his helmet before he spoke. "This is Commander Stanton. Final training deployment to the red zone, live arsenal. Don't shoot at anything that moves, don't get to close too the mines, and do make sure your team wins if you plan to spend the next two months sleeping at night. Good luck."
He tapped his helmet again before nodding to Mike, Leo noticed. Mike lifted one arm, huge gun braced casually against his elbow like a coat he'd slung over his arm. His other hand went to his helmet, and he announced, "All teams, Corbett. Outgoing radio frequencies to team only. Exercise begins on my mark. Three... two... one... mark."
"Team two, move out!" Chen's voice came from somewhere to his right and directly into his ear at the same time. Leo figured that meant him, so he scrambled after everyone else who had been on the ship with him. He looked back just long enough to see that Mike wasn't following, was in fact striding off toward one of the other heliships while his commanding soldier type headed in the opposite direction.
Supervising, Leo decided. Must be nice.
"Tyler, Taibbi, Kulhawik," came over his radio, and he thought it was some sort of code until Chen's voice added, "west. Pepin, White, east. McFarlan, Clancy, Smith, north. The rest of you with me."
It was like trying to run through sand, and Leo was getting over his awe of the moon very quickly. He couldn't look up and see Earth, the sun was piercing along the horizon, and the dust was kicking up everywhere. Why anyone trained here, for anything, was beyond him.
There was an explosion from somewhere off to his right, and someone yelled, "One!" in his ear, followed almost immediately by a second explosion from a different direction. A new voice shouted, "Two!" and Leo wondered if there was any way to turn down the volume on his helmet radio.
"Morgan!" Chen's voice was right in front of him, overlapping on the radio with calls of "three" and "four." "You want to shoot? Ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, sweep the whole side. Take a partner. Tenisetti, we'll take the other side of the dial."
"Come on!" It was a woman's voice, and it didn't come over the radio. Leo looked to his left and found the soldier he'd run into at the top of the escalator waving for him to join her. Their eyes met, and she broke into a grin. "Hi there! I guess you're my partner now!"
"I guess so!" he shouted back, and somehow it seemed natural to shout with the radio still counting in his ear and explosions banging through the thin air all around them. "Where are we going?"
"Left!" she said. "You heard Kai; we get the southeast all to ourselves!"
She was actually backpedaling in the shifting dust that covered the surface of the moon in all directions, managing to jog backwards faster than he could keep up even at his walking pace. So he picked it up a little, about to ask her name when she turned to run ahead of him, then threw up her hand and came to a staggering halt. "The first one's mine!"
She hefted that big gun against her shoulder, braced herself, and fired... a blast of light? He stared in surprise for half a second before the light hit the ground some distance away and blew up. A giant fireball and raining dust--he threw up his arm instinctively, but his "partner" just let her gun fall with a delighted laugh. He saw her hand go to her helmet, heard her voice yell, "Fifteen!" in his ear, and then she tapped her radio again before turning back to him.
"My aim is getting better!" she exclaimed. "You should have seen me the first time--I missed eleven targets in a row until Kai made me take my glasses off!"
"What the hell did you just shoot?" Leo demanded, lowering his arm warily. There hadn't even been anything there. And since when did light explode?
"Our fifteenth mine!" she said exultantly. "Come on! The next one's yours! Hey--over there!"
He shook his head, already falling behind while she raced ahead of him. "You take it," he called after her. "I can't shoot."
She might have laughed. "If I can shoot," she shouted, turning around to jog backwards again, "anyone can shoot. Don't be shy!"
"No," Leo said dryly, trudging through the dust toward her. "You don't understand." She finally started to slow down when she realized he wasn't going to run anymore, and he thumped the gun braced awkwardly across his chest with his free hand."I don't know how to shoot. You don't want me messing with this thing."
She was staring at him, stopping briefly where she was to wait for him to catch up. "You're not a soldier either?" she guessed.
"Not exactly," he admitted. "You?"
"I'm with the science division," she told him, turning to fall in beside him as they continued across the flats at a much slower pace. "Kai Chen is a friend of mine; he agreed to get me into the civilian training program in exchange for division tutoring."
"So you, what, kind of switched roles?" Leo gave her a sideways glance, but she was nodding.
"Yeah--hang on." She stepped away from him and swung her gun up against her shoulder again, setting her feet this time before she let loose another blast of light. Just that casually, her weird energy weapon lit up another mine.
This time he was at least prepared for the explosion, and he let out an admiring whistle as she tapped her radio and shouted, "Twenty-three!" Then, radio off again, she turned to him as though nothing had happened and added, "I'm Kendrix Morgan. I run the horticulture department on Terra Venture."
He couldn't help laughing at the apparent contradiction. "When you're not blowing up mines for fun and games, you mean? Don't they miss you when you go out on these training exercises?"
"Hey, this is serious!" She sounded indignant, and he wondered if maybe he'd offended her. Then she added, "This is valuable insight into how the military solves its problems! How do they decide the schedule? They fight for it! How do they choose a menu in the mess? They fight! Who picks the movie on team night? Fight!"
Leo just looked at her, waiting for her to say something that made sense.
"I'm not saying it doesn't work for them," she added. Kendrix. Belatedly, his mind realized that he had heard her name before after all: her soldier friend... Kai? Chen? He'd used it when they'd all met at the top of the escalators. It sounded so exotic that Leo hadn't registered it as a name.
"And they like it," Kendrix was saying. "Even I like these training drills, although I don't see why they have to use live mines. I'd be just as happy shooting plastic targets or something."
"Speaking of--" A blinking red light, half-buried in the dust and way too close for comfort, caught Leo's eye. "You want to handle that?"
"Oh!" Her gun came up again, and she added, "We almost walked right past this one!"
He was close enough to see the recoil knock her shoulder back, but for the first time, she missed her target. "Crap," she muttered, and for a long moment, Leo didn't even register what she'd said. She fired again, and this time he was sure she'd hit the thing--but no explosion.
"Maybe we'd better back off," Leo suggested, eyeing the little blinking light.
"Must be something wrong with it," Kendrix said, lowering her gun. Then, to his horror, she walked right up to it and knelt down beside it. "Huh."
"Hey!" The voice didn't come over his radio, and it sounded farther away than it should have in the moon's atmosphere. The guy yelling at them was actually right over there, running toward them in green coveralls and waving his hands wildly.
"Kendrix," Leo warned her, and she finally looked up. To his relief, the mine's red light was now off. So, probably not about to blow up. He hoped.
"Those things are live!" the guy was yelling to them. "You can't detonate them point-blank!"
"We couldn't detonate this one at all," Kendrix shouted back. "I shot it twice! It wouldn't go off!"
"Yeah, because you were right on top of it!" The guy in coveralls caught up to them, leaning down to brace his hands against his knees as he panted for breath. "Look, they're rigged not to blow unless you're at a safe distance. But you can't just walk up and poke at them!"
"Why not?" Kendrix sounded as curious as though she were asking something perfectly reasonable, instead of why can't I walk up to a live mine and poke it?
"Because it's an explosive device!" The guy straightened, staring at her exactly the way Leo wanted to. "I'm monitoring the safeties by remote control, but if something had gone wrong that thing could have blown up in your face! Don't they teach you guys stuff like that in combat school?"
Leo grinned. Not a soldier, then. Maybe a GSA tech? Techs were notoriously sarcastic, and this guy did it with style. Style and confidence. Enough to match Kendrix Morgan, the head of the horticulture department, while she was holding an energy rifle.
"Morgan," Chen's voice came over his radio. "Chen. Check in."
"Chen, Morgan," Kendrix answered breathlessly. "We're fine. Just a little trouble with one of the mines."
"What?" Chen's sharp response was unmistakably alarmed. "I'm on my way."
"No," Kendrix protested. "We're fine, really."
"Chen, Corbett," Mike's voice interrupted on the radio. "As you were. I'll check out Morgan's position."
Kendrix tapped her helmet, sighed loudly, then tapped it again. "Corbett, Morgan," she said. "Acknowledged."
Putting her hand to the side of her helmet again, she rolled her eyes at Leo. "Great. Now the GSA's second-in-command will pull the scientist trainee for the rest of the exercise."
"Which he should," the tech declared, arms folded. "If no one bothered to tell you what's considered a safe distance when you're going around shooting up live mines!"
"Yeah, okay," Leo interrupted. "We get it, okay? We'll be more careful next time."
"You're lucky there is a next time!" the tech informed him.
Leo exchanged glances with Kendrix.
"We're going to lose," she predicted gloomily.
More than that, he was about to be busted by his big brother. He figured it was time. He was tired of this soldier business anyway. Maybe he could wait out the rest of the exercise on one the ships.
"Damon!" Mike's voice called. Leo didn't hear it over his helmet radio, but the tech guy yanked a thing off his belt and he realized suddenly that Mike's voice was coming from that, too. "Everything okay here?"
The tech guy lifted the device even as he turned to face the direction Mike was coming from, replying to the radio instead of shouting back. "Two of your guys tried to blow a mine they were right on top of, but otherwise, yeah. Safeties kicked in, no problem."
Mike must have clicked his radio off, because when he yelled his voice came only through the air. "Kendrix, what does 'battle ready' mean to you?"
"It means really loud target practice!" she shouted to him. "Sir!"
The tech guy snorted, obviously unimpressed, but Mike was shaking his head and it was hard to tell if maybe he wanted to smile. "Live, Kendrix," he said as he approached. "This stuff is live. You can't treat it like--"
He was squinting at Leo, and Leo knew the exact moment Mike saw him through the soldier getup because he stopped right where he was and stared. He didn't say anything. He didn't finish his sentence, he didn't start a new one, he just frowned, like he might be having some sort of hallucination that he didn't want anyone else to know about.
Leo lifted his hand and waved a little. "Hey," he said. He figured someone had to.
"Leo?" Mike demanded. "What--? What are you doing here?"
Leo shrugged, glancing at Kendrix, who looked puzzled. "So far, not getting blown up?"
"What are you doing here!" Mike exclaimed, yanking his helmet off. "Leo! I've got the ten-thirty shuttle sitting on Earth, waiting for you to show up! Where the hell have you been! And what are you doing here?!
"Kai!" he shouted, not even pausing. "Turn around! We're fine here!"
Leo looked over his shoulder to see Chen skidding to a halt as he was called out. His gaze slid across all of them, but he must have decided Mike wasn't serious because he kept coming. Mike swore under his breath but he didn't try to stop the other soldier again.
Instead, he turned back to Leo and continued, "You missed your shuttle. I grounded the last flight until I could find you. How did you get off Earth?"
Leo tried for innocence. "I was on the nine-forty shuttle," he said. "Sat next to someone named Celeste Turner. She seemed nice," he added.
Chen caught up to them, put a hand on Kendrix's shoulder, and exchanged glances with Damon after she nodded. Then he turned his frown on Mike, who was giving Leo a look of pure frustration. "You weren't on the passenger list. You didn't go through security on Earth, and you didn't check in when you arrived on Terra Venture. And now, here you are, on the moon--"
"Oh, yeah," Leo said quickly, because letting his brother build up steam was never a good idea. "I can explain that."
"Your explanation had better involve authority figures and serious extenuating circumstances," Mike growled, "because otherwise you could go to jail for that uniform you're wearing. Not to mention the rifle."
"Hey," Leo protested, nodding at Chen, "he gave me the rifle!"
"You were wearing a uniform!" Chen exclaimed. "How was I supposed to know you were the stowaway we were looking for!"
"Stowaway?" Mike repeated, but luckily he was drowned out by Kendrix.
"You didn't say his name," she said, turning on Chen. "He's the only one you didn't assign by name because you didn't know it! You couldn't admit that Kai Chen might not know one of his own soldiers!"
"He isn't one of my soldiers," Chen said testily. Folding his arms, he glared at Leo. "Who are you, anyway?"
Leo gave him the same wave he'd given Mike. "Leo Corbett," he said. "Thanks for the gun."
"My little brother," Mike said grimly. "Who just stowed away on a GSA shuttle, boarded Terra Venture illegally, stole a military uniform, and snuck into the middle of a battle ready training exercise. I don't know how I'm going to keep them from deporting him."
"He's breaking five regulations just standing there," Chen said, eyeing him with an expression that said he didn't believe Leo was related in any way to Mike Corbett. "Are you sure you want to?"
"Well, we don't have jails on Terra Venture," Mike muttered.
"Hey," Leo protested.
That wasn't him, but when he turned around there was no one there--and then there was, a grey shape resolving out of the swirling vortex that was eating up the air. A shape that tumbled to the ground, leaping up into a person almost immediately, running. Mike reached out and caught her.
She wrenched away and Leo grabbed for her instinctively, trying to hold on to what his brother wanted. Three giant mutant bugs thudded to the ground where she had just been, coalescing out of the grey nothingness and apparently just as disoriented. The woman he was holding onto shook: terrified. Chased. By the bad guys, he wondered, or the good guys?
Mike didn't hesitate, bringing his weapon up and getting it knocked away just as fast as one of the giant bugs bowled into him. Leo shouted over the weird droning sound they made, pushing the woman back and taking a swing at the thing that had attacked his brother. It was like punching armor. The only comfort he had was that the big bug mutants would probably feel exactly the same thing if they tried to hit him.
Two blasts of light took out the nearest bugs, almost at the same time. A third leveled the last horribly overgrown wasp, sending it crumbling to the ground next to its buddies. Leo wondered if the energy rifles Chen and Kendrix were wielding had a "stun" setting.
"Thank you," said a quiet voice from behind him. "I must go back."
"Like hell," Mike's voice replied. "What are those things?"
"Agents of evil sent to destroy Mirinoi and all her people." The words were delivered with disconcerting certainty, and she added, "If they get the Quasar Sabers, Scorpius will rule my world and bring doom to our entire planet."
He managed to tear his gaze away from the bugs so that he could see who was talking. She was younger than he'd thought at first, draped in some kind of grey-ish brown weave that vaguely resembled a skirt and shawl. Or maybe it was a shirt. He couldn't really tell. It was funny, but what really caught his eye was her bare feet in the moondust. They were as grey as her clothing now.
"Well, they won't be getting anything now," Mike said, and maybe that answered the question about the guns. "What's your name?"
She was already shaking her head. "My name is Maya, but Mirinoi is not safe. These few are only three of thousands. I must return to ensure that the sabers don't fall into the wrong hands."
"Unless we read that wrong?" Chen put in. "Those things were trying to kill you. No weapon is worth your life."
"No," she agreed unexpectedly. "The sabers are far more valuable than my life alone. I will give it and more to defend them."
"No!" Kendrix exclaimed. "You don't have to do that--look, we have weapons. We'll come with you."
"We will?" Chen said, in a tone of voice that said we won't.
"Thank you," Maya said, shaking her head again, "but I'm afraid there is nothing that ordinary warriors can do. I go back only because someone must."
"Wait," Mike said. "Where's your planet?"
She gave him a look full of sadness and amusement. "You might as well ask me where yours is. My planet is back the way I came; that is all I can tell you." And she was moving forward, avoiding the giant bugs without seeming to watch where she stepped, passing first one of them and then another and no one was stopping her.
Seeing her figure dim against the inexplicable swirl of grey, it finally occurred to Leo to ask, "Hey, where's the tech guy?"
"Wait!" Kendrix said, paying no attention to the rest of them. "Maya, wait up!"
Then she was running, slipping past Chen, evading Leo, and Maya turned on the threshold of the vortex. Kendrix put a hand on her shoulder, breathless with the force of her decision. "I'm going with you," she said. And they were gone.
"Kendrix!" Chen charged past Leo, too late, stopping between two of the giant bug bodies and yelling again, "Kendrix!"
"Kai," Mike said firmly. "Get back to the ship. Take Leo. I want everyone else off the moon by the time I come back."
"What are you--"
"Mike," Leo began.
"I'll bring them back." Mike's gaze settled on Leo's briefly. "No one gets left behind."
Leo closed his mouth. Chen protested, but Mike ordered him out and that was that. His brother turned and walked into the swirling vortex without a backward glance.
Leo looked at Chen. Kai, he reminded himself. Mike called him Kai.
Kai looked back. "Stay here," he said at last. "Go back to the landing site and tell Commander Stanton to recall all teams, then wait for Mike's signal."
"Tell them yourself," Leo interrupted. "You've got a radio."
"I'm already disobeying a direct order," Kai said, his mouth twisting a little. "I'd rather not risk adding another one to the list. Wait until I'm gone, then use the radio if you want. But get back to that landing site."
Kai didn't wait for an answer, striding into the vortex like not hearing the argument meant it didn't exist. He was swallowed up immediately. Now only the vortex remained, swirling grey and flashes of ghostly threatening color.
Stay here, they told him.
Leo snorted. "Screw that," he told the vortex.
Picking his way around the fallen bugs, he stepped right into the grey and the moonscape vanished. In its place was jungle and noise and a heat that hit him full in the face. Then something harder stung his exposed skin, making his ears ring as it knocked him to the ground.
His shoulder slammed into something that felt like stone, the instinctive roll the only thing that saved him from breaking his wrist as he fell, and he was staring up at a canopy that buzzed with screams and weapons' fire. Mirinoi, he thought, dazed. That woman--girl--had actually run into the vortex on another planet. And she'd run out on their moon.
She'd wanted to protect something, he remembered. He rolled over, taking cover between the rocks that had been his landing surface after all. He'd known it. Too many scuffles on the street not to recognize the feel of concrete under his bones. He shoulder would probably bruise spectacularly.
If he didn't die first. He stared at the jungle scene without understanding for a long moment, but the soldiers' energy rifles weren't the only light beams flying out there. Angry red streaks of light burned back and people were running, shouting, falling. People dressed like Maya. People her age, old and young falling together, children.
This wasn't a battle. This was a rout. The only significant resistance came from the GSA soldiers, and only two of their rifles were still firing. Mike's had gone silent, and Leo only knew it was his because he could see Kai and even Kendrix, unlikely as it seemed, trying to hold giant mutant bugs with energy weapons off of Damon.
The tech guy was okay, as far as Leo could see, and he thought he knew which one was Maya. Her hair swirled all around her as she went hand-to-hand with a bug bigger than she was. He didn't know how she could see, much less fight, but she wasn't on the ground yet and he still couldn't pick out Mike in the chaos.
It finally occurred to him to use his radio. He had no idea how the thing worked, but there weren't any obvious buttons to push and all anyone else had done was tap. Clapping his hand against the side of his helmet, he yelled, "Mike!"
There was no answer.
Then, after a long moment, he heard Kai's voice in his ear. "Leo, get out of here! We don't need anyone else to rescue!"
So he'd used the radio right, at least. "Where's Mike!" he shouted.
"Showing off," came the curt and cryptic reply.
Until Leo saw a flash of something that wasn't weapons' fire, and if no one was going to tell him anything then he needed to be closer than this to whatever was going on. He pushed himself to his feet and ran, gun banging uselessly against his chest because what was he going to do with it? Guess? Draw attention to himself? Not what he needed at all.
As long as he wasn't actively resisting, the giant bugs were swarming the soldiers' position and seemed to be firing on the rest of the population mostly as an afterthought. Just as deadly, but slightly less focused. He couldn't really believe any scenario that involved his brother with a gun would end with Leo getting killed. Even if Mike didn't seem to be using it anymore--
Because he had a sword. Leo tripped over one of Maya's people, banging into a tree and narrowly avoiding the bug that had been chasing the kid he'd just knocked over. Mike was swinging a sword like he had more training with it than target practice with a rifle. The kid was crying. Leo kicked the bug in the nearest joint, his boot making a horrifying crunch just before the thing staggered and went down.
"You okay?" he asked, pushing the kid behind the tree as he tried to figure out what was going on out there. The remaining energy rifles had stopped firing. He saw another flash from the stones Mike was defending--really? stones?--and then another, and Kendrix had traded her rifle for a sword and Kai was right behind her.
The Quasar Sabers. It was the only thing that made sense. The weapons Maya thought were worth her life, whose loss could doom her planet--religious nonsense, or actual tactical advantage? Mike seemed to think it was the latter, for whatever reason. And he had his soldiers following him.
"I can't find my parents," said a small voice. It came from behind him, and it was almost drowned out by the whine of bugs and a sound like thunder from the direction of the stone and swords.
Leo glanced over his shoulder at the little girl huddling at the base of the tree he'd slammed into. He'd already forgotten she was there. He'd thought she had run, had been snatched, he didn't know. He'd thought anything but that he had suddenly become responsible for a small child in the middle of this mess.
"We'll find them," he told her, because that was what she wanted to hear. She was all alone and her home had been turned into a battleground and what did she know about what was going on? Probably not much more than he did.
There was a tremendous crash, a ringing in the air, and the ground began to shake. He lurched toward the little girl, off-balance but he was wearing armor and if things started falling he had more protection than she did. She shrieked, mouth open but muted by the cracking sound from overhead, and he grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way.
Nothing fell other than both of them when the ground heaved violently, and this time it was Kendrix's voice in his helmet radio, demanding to know where he was. He didn't have time to answer. He threw his rifle to the ground and got his hands under the little girl's arms, sweeping her up with him as he stumbled toward the last place he had seen Mike--
And stopped, almost falling again as he tried to change direction with an unexpected weight pressed against his chest armor. The soldiers were running toward him, Damon and Maya with them, five swords unwieldy in their grip and a crackling stillness chasing fast behind them. Everything was turning grey and hard in their wake.
"Get back!" Mike shouted. "Go!"
"Put her down!" Kai yelled, reaching Leo first and shoving at his screaming burden. Trying to knock her loose.
"Like hell!" Leo shouted, but she was slipping from his arms. He kept a desperate grip on one of her hands, trying to pull her with him, and Kai--
Had her other hand, yanking her along with them. "Up!" he shouted, and Leo reacted instinctively, pulling up on the girl's hand as Kai swung her over a fallen tree limb and they managed to stumble on. "Back through the vortex!"
"Maya!" He heard Mike's voice, and he tried to turn, but all he could see was some green and more soldier gear out of the corner of his eye. The girl took all his attention, trying to keep her on her feet between him and Kai.
The ground shuddered again, bucking beneath him and then gone. He was flying, falling, and these trees hated him because the one that stopped him batted him out of the air like he was nothing. He couldn't breathe but impossibly Kai was there, looming over him, girl held with one arm against his shoulder as he held out his hand, grabbing Leo's armor when it wasn't taken and bodily hauling him to his feet.
Damon was in front of them, Kendrix even with Kai--screaming--and the crevasse that was grinding open behind them had left Mike and Maya on the far side. Mike shoved the native girl hard enough to fling her against the crumbling rock on the near edge and Kendrix plunged her sword into the ground, one hand around the hilt as she threw herself forward to grab Maya's hand. Kai shouted for Mike, unsteady on the verge of the ever-widening gap as the ground shook under his feet.
"Get them back!" Mike yelled, even as Kendrix managed to haul Maya out of the rift and pull her back from the edge. Mike lifted his sword in one hand. "Kai! Get them back!" And he flung the weapon, end over end, across the growing gulf between them even as the grey stillness crept up on him from behind.
Leo reached out, though no logic or leap of faith could connect them now, and the hilt of Mike's sword stung his hand. He barely noticed it as his brother, unbalanced by the throw, lost his footing on the far side and tumbled into the darkness. He could hear himself screaming, he couldn't stop, and the band around his chest that prevented him from catching his breath was hard and unyielding.
"Henderson!" he heard Kai shouting. "Help me!" And he realized it was Kai's grip on his armor that kept him from breathing, that kept him from running, throwing himself back toward the cliff and the greyness and the place where Mike had disappeared.
Then Damon was yanking on the arm that held Mike's sword and Leo jerked back reflexively, aware that it was something he had to hang onto for Mike. Damon and Kai were shoving him back anyway, forcing him away, and now Kendrix and Maya were disappearing just ahead of them. The vortex swallowed him whole.
There was dust beneath his hands, chewing at knuckles that held onto the sword even as he was thrown to the ground. The roaring in his ears drowned out everything else and electricity shot through him, filling him with a terrifying strength that braced his arms and soothed his scrapes and he knew. He knew what had just happened. He knew what he would see when he looked down at himself, and it was wrong, it was all wrong, this wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Impossible lightning illuminated the surface of the moon. Shot out of the vortex, touched each of them, outlined their faults and their flaws in sharp relief, and sealed them over. Sealed them in. The cracks in each of them, bridged by power, rendered immaterial in a single strike. A brief popping sound heralded the end of the light, and he knew without having to look that the vortex had just vanished.
He was alone. Mike was gone. And he was wearing Mike's morpher on his wrist.
He pushed himself up onto his knees, sitting back on his heels as he stared, unseeing, at the ground. He was wearing a Ranger uniform. It was the sword that had done it, the Quasar Saber, channeling the Power to put a transmorpher on his wrist and fill his head with knowledge he had never imagined, let alone learned for himself. A saber that had never been meant for him, with a power he never should have had.
A power he didn't want.
To his right, Kai braced his saber against the ground and stood. The little girl Leo had rescued was still pressed against his shoulder, still held in the crook of his elbow like she weighed nothing at all. He didn't need to lean on the saber to rise. Because the Blue Ranger was strength.
Kendrix and Maya were just ahead of them, shoulder to shoulder and the first to meet the soldiers pouring out of a landed heliship that hadn't been there when they left. The Pink and Yellow Rangers were speed and loyalty. The knowledge was right there in his head. Without needing to think about it, he knew that reason was to his left. Intelligence. Cause and effect: the Green Ranger.
The Red Ranger's opposite. Mike was intuition, emotion, and empathy. The big picture. A leader in every sense of the word. He was the one who should be here now, wearing the Ranger uniform that had replaced Leo's stolen soldier gear.
Kai was dealing with the soldiers, but only two phrases penetrated Leo's awareness: Mike Corbett, and MIA. Then Kendrix was there, helping him up, leading him toward the heliship, and he went dully, without protest. What else was he supposed to do?
Kai stopped him at the hatch, and he didn't protest that either. Most of the soldiers were already back on board. He hadn't seen it happen. One of them was standing just inside the hatch, helping Damon board, directing him toward a seat and then turning back for the girl Kai lifted up onto the deck.
"Asylum," he told the soldier inside the hatch. "She and Maya are from Mirinoi."
Kendrix was frowning at him, and Leo could feel her hand still on his arm, impatient while Kai dealt with trivial things like political rights of passage and safe haven. He didn't know why Kai had made them wait. He didn't really care, either. If he was left behind on the moon, in the red zone, it would only be appropriate.
The soldier put her hands on the girl's shoulders while Maya climbed awkwardly into the heliship. Then she helped Maya usher her gently across the deck, toward an empty seat beside Damon. Still Kai waited, not climbing up, not allowing Leo or Kendrix to pass until the soldier turned back to them and waved them on board.
"Asylum," Kai repeated, and now his hand was on Leo's other arm--holding him back. "For him too. On all territories under the jurisdiction of Terra Venture."
The soldier inside the ship was looking at him like he was crazy. "He's a soldier," she said. "He's the Red Ranger," she added, like questioning this was most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard.
"He's Mike Corbett's brother," Kai told her. "I want asylum for Leo before he boards this ship."
The soldier shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said, clearly baffled by his request. "We won't hand him over to the authorities."
Only then did Leo understand what Kai had just done. Kendrix, too, seemed to realize what it would mean, her grip on his arm loosening as they were finally allowed to climb into the back of the heliship and take their places with the others.
He rode between the two of them all the way back to Terra Venture. He didn't know what they talked about. He wasn't sure they did talk. He didn't remember any conversation afterward, but it seemed unlikely that a ship full of soldiers had been silent for the entire journey.
When the heliship landed, it was Kendrix who helped him up again, shepherding him toward the hatch and out into the hangar. Mike's commanding soldier type met them outside, and Leo had to look away. He shouldn't even be here. His eye caught on a video terminal, cheerfully flashing pictures of their fellow colonists, and he headed toward it without really thinking.
"Leo," Kai's voice called after him.
He didn't answer, and he heard Kendrix saying, "Just let him go."
He stood in front of the terminal for a long moment, wondering what he was looking at. He didn't recognize any of these people. Finally the terminal flipped to an image of a young man in a GSA uniform and the information scrolling down the side of the screen disappeared.
"Hello, Leo," the image said, smiling out at him. "How can I help you?"
Leo just stared at it. How did it know who he was? Did it know who he was? He might be hallucinating. Maybe he was dreaming this entire day, and he would wake up on the floor of his friend's house, passport papers still securely in his bag.
"I can direct you anywhere on Terra Venture," the guy on the screen was telling him. "I can help you find anyone or anything you're looking for. If you have any questions--"
"Show me Mike Corbett," Leo interrupted.
The image paused, and he wondered if he was talking to a real person or just some automated computer system. Then the guy's picture shrunk to one side of the screen while a map appeared on the other. There were three markers on it: one said "you are here," and the other two had some kind of drop-down explanation beside them.
"If you're looking for your brother," the guy on the screen said, "you might want to try his room in the GSA dormitories, or his duty station in the control tower. Would you like directions to either of these places?"
The terminal might have weirded him out, if he'd cared enough to find it weird. He let it tell him how to find Mike's room, and then he walked away. The image on the screen called after him to have a nice day.
"Leo!" Kai's voice again. He didn't stop, but all Kai said was, "Lose the uniform before you go out on the streets!"
Lose the uniform. It was barely a conscious thought, but the red sparkled into nothing and he felt body armor imprisoning him again. Back in soldier gear, he was anybody once more. Not worth a second look.
Nobody at all.