Disclaimer: Characters aren't mine (borrowed from BVE without permission but no money made so no harm no foul). Plot and details on Time Force procedures are mine, you're welcome to borrow, but please ask me first.
Timing: Concurrent with the last chapter of Identity
This is book two in the Identiverse series. You don't need to have read Identity to get the gist of what's going on here (I will try to make this as stand alone as I can) but at the end of the day, this is a sequel and it will help you to have read Identity (or at the very least, seen PRTF in full!).
With thanks to Ekat for beta'ing, Gamine for listening, Selma for the plotting sessions (even if they weren't necessarily for my stuff, they still helped!), Ecolea and Leathie for being there and Chris for supplying me with the 'in' to how to finish of Identity...
Please offer feedback -- it tells me how I'm doing.
Max Force -- Returning Heroes
Jen didn't think she had ever felt quite as miserable in her whole life.
The time ship was coming into land in the year 3000 and she knew she ought to have been happy. She'd been successful in her mission and she was coming... But she couldn't finish that thought and call the year 3000 home, because it wasn't. Home, so they said, was where your heart was and that, Jen knew, was some thousand years in the past.
"It'll be OK," Trip finally said as the time ship touched down.
Jen started. That had been the first thing anyone had said to her since they had left. "What?"
Trip smiled softly. "You know what I mean. Trust me."
Jen knew then that Trip's Xybrian heritage was coming to the fore, but it was hard to trust his words. Particularly as the control room door opened at that moment and in walked the one man she least wanted to see.
Still wearing those damn shades.
Still looking ice cool.
Still looking exactly like Wes without an ounce of Wes' personality.
"Welcome back, Rangers," he began. "Captain Logan's waiting to speak to you. Kendall, Regis, Walker -- you're up first."
Jen felt her spirits sink even lower. Disciplinary hearings. It was standard Time Force procedure to split the squad from the squad leader if there was even the slightest suspicion that the squad leader had gone rogue. And what could be more rogue than defying orders and stealing a time ship, never mind whatever else I've done since then.
A glance at Lucas, the official second in command of the squad, told her that he knew just as well as she did what Alex's order meant. What worried Jen was that Lucas appeared to be debating what he should do. She shook her head minutely. Her fate might be sealed, but that was no reason for Lucas to jeopardise his career. Katie caught the gesture and gently tapped Lucas on the shoulder. He sighed.
Reluctantly, Lucas led Katie and Trip from the time ship.
Jen watched them leave, then turned to Alex, waiting for him to say something. Nothing seemed forthcoming. Finally, she broke the silence,
"Well if you're going to clap me in irons, get on with it."
Puzzlement was etched across Alex's face. "Why would I do that?"
"You've come to take me to a disciplinary hearing, haven't you?" Jen queried.
"Of course not!" Alex exclaimed. "Why on earth...oh!" And to Jen's complete astonishment, Alex blushed. "You thought that... I'm sorry." He shook his head, presumably to reorder his thoughts. "No, you're not up on charges. I'm sorry -- I should have said. I didn't think," he finished contritely.
Jen stared. This was the Alex she had known before Ransik's attack. But was this the real Alex? Or was the rule obsessed, rigid jerk the real one? That question finally removed any lingering guilt for falling in love with Wes. I never really loved Alex because I never really knew Alex, she realised.
"Can we start this conversation over?" Alex asked after several moments more of silence.
Jen shrugged slightly. "Sure."
"I'm not asking for a second chance...I know I don't deserve that. I'd just..." Alex trailed off and looked down, presumably to avoid her gaze. "Just like to know that we can be friends?"
Jen could only open and close her mouth in shock. Of all the things she might have been expecting from Alex, this was about the last on her list, and the half-hopeful half-hopeless expression on his face didn't help because it just drove home the similarity between him and Wes. Suddenly, every feeling, every emotion that she thought she'd had under control threatened to overwhelm her. I will not cry in front of Alex.
Jen swallowed. "I need time, Alex." The words were husky with unshed tears. She swallowed again. "It's too soon."
Alex bowed his head. "I'm sorry." The whole set to his shoulders was identical to the way Wes looked when she'd just finished chewing him out over something.
I. will. not. cry.
There was a long, agonising moment of silence, then Alex looked up again. For once, Jen was glad he was wearing the shades -- at least it meant she didn't have to see the pain in them, and she knew he was hurting, she just couldn't quite bring herself to feel regret.
"Rob's probably finished with the others," he said softly. "Are you ready?"
"As ready as I think I'm going to be."
Alex nodded once and led her out of the time ship and into labyrinthine Time Force headquarters. "You'll be pleased to hear," he said in a conversational tone of voice that gave nothing away, "that they sentenced Ransik yesterday. Nadira follows today -- your reports about her will be taken into consideration. I don't think it will get her off altogether, but I do think she'll avoid cryo-prison." Alex gave a huff of laugher. "Which will please Trip."
"What?" Jen blinked. "Why?"
She got the impression that beside her, Alex was rolling his eyes, but even if she'd looked, she wouldn't have seen the gesture, thanks to the shades. "You mean you didn't notice?"
Jen was tempted to say 'would I be asking if I had', but refrained. "No."
"I would suggest," Alex replied, "that our Xybrian friend has something of an interest in Nadira."
Jen frowned. Trip? Interested in Nadira? And yet, there was something about that idea that made sense. "I guess."
"You realise he's volunteered as her parole officer?"
When did Trip do that? Why didn't I notice?
"It was while we were moving the prison facility back to the year 3000," Alex explained.
"Oh." There was not much else to say.
Conversation ground to a halt and the rest of the journey to Captain Logan's office passed by accompanied only by the sound of their feet on the hallway floor.
"Well, here we are," said Alex presently, as he halted at Logan's office.
Suddenly, Jen was conscious of being out of uniform, but it was too late to think of details like that. Alex had already entered the access code and the door was already sliding open. Trying to muster an air of self-confidence, she stepped forward, into Logan's office.
She half expected Alex to follow, but the door slid shut before he could.
Jen swallowed and gathered herself. "Officer Scotts reporting as ordered, sir."
Logan smiled. "At ease, Jen," he replied. "And please, take a seat." Jen sat down on the seat in front of Logan's desk. "We have a few things to talk about."
"The first thing is for me to tell you that you are officially reinstated as an officer." Jen blinked. She had forgotten that Logan had suspended her -- and the rest of her squad -- for losing Ransik. Logan smiled faintly. "Admittedly, I actually reinstated you the moment Alex woke up and told me he'd ordered you to go after Ransik -- but now that you're back, it's official."
"Thank you sir."
"Secondly, I have to ask you to turn your morpher in."
"Sir?" Jen frowned.
"It's not what you think, Jen. With Ransik -- who is unquestionably the strongest mutant in this century or any other -- under lock and key now, there isn't actually a need for Time Force rangers. It will still be your morpher and if, heaven forbid, circumstances arose where rangers were required you and your squad would be called up." Logan paused, then added, "The bigwigs have deemed them to come into the same category as chrono-blasters, I don't agree with them, but they make the rules."
"Sir." Jen nodded. What you mean is they don't trust us, she thought as she undid the morpher strap and handed the device to Logan, who placed it in a secure case.
Jen nodded and watched as a member of the Time Force weapons department appeared and claimed the case. Once they were alone, Logan continued,
"Thirdly, as a result of your work in the year 2001, I am pleased to tell you that you have been promoted to Captain."
Jen blinked, stunned. "Sir?"
Logan smiled. "I know that's quite a hike in rank, but it's a promotion on merit. You've been self-sufficient for four months in a century you were unfamiliar with; that alone is better than many serving officers would have managed. Further more, you achieved your mission objective without more than some faint timeline disruption."
Jen blinked again. "Sir?"
"Temporal are still double checking their findings, but the only changes to the timeline appear to be a book of bad poetry and a line of children's toys -- and they're not sure about the children's toys."
Jen stared. But Alex said... She frowned. Why would Alex lie? Aloud, all she said was, "Oh."
Logan smiled again. "Your promotion, by the way, is mirrored by similar promotions for you squad -- Lucas Kendall and Katie Walker are both promoted to Lieutenant while Trip Regis is promoted to Squad Leader." Jen nodded. All four of them had jumped two ranks -- it was almost unprecedented within Time Force. Then again, the whole situation was unprecedented so why should this be any different? "Also, so as you know, Wesley Collins is promoted to Squad Man in absentia -- he isn't an official member of Time Force, but it was felt by the bigwigs that some sort of public acknowledgement was required."
Jen nodded, absurdly pleased -- and proud -- that there would be some record of Wes' actions. "What about Eric Myers?"
It was Logan's turn to look surprised. "I was actually going to ask you that."
"Well, since he wasn't actually a part of -- adopted part of -- your squad it was very difficult for me to make an assessment of him. You worked with him for virtually the whole time you were in the year 2001."
Sort of, Jen commented silently. There was part of her that recalled the arrogance and pig-headedness with which she, and the rest of her squad, had been treated, but she knew for sure now that hadn't been the 'real' Eric. She didn't know what, exactly, had gone on the night the clock tower had been destroyed but she got the feeling Wes had finally and completely lost his temper with Eric. Either way, it had certainly made a big impact on Eric -- the man she met in hospital after Ransik had been captured was definitely not the same guy. And, even when he was being a pain in the neck, he was helping -- in his own way.
"Squad man in absentia." Logan looked startled. "He did as much to help bring Ransik to justice as Wes did -- he just did it his own way."
Still looking surprised; Logan nodded and made a note of her recommendation on one of the datapads on his desk. "Fourth thing," he continued as he set the datapad back down, "is more for your own interest than anything." Jen waited as Logan picked up a different datapad. "For service above and beyond the call of duty, Captain Alexander Collins is hereby promoted to the rank of Major and is posted to head the newly created Covert Operations Department." Logan replaced the datapad as he finished reading. "The Shadow Force Megazord falls under his jurisdiction."
Jen nodded. "I...guessed as much from some of the things he said to us when he came to 2001."
Logan didn't look surprised. "He said he thought you might have done. Related to that, Alex has asked me to ask you," Jen felt her stomach tighten, "if you'll consider a transfer to Covert Operations."
"I...need to think about that one, sir."
Logan nodded. "Of course. You don't need to decide straight away -- all four of you have four weeks of leave starting from this afternoon. The rest of your squad, as was, have also been offered the transfer -- it's felt that with your experience in 2001, you're obvious candidates for the Covert Ops department."
"Have they accepted?" Jen asked.
"They've also requested time to think about it -- which is understandable." Logan consulted with another datapad. "The final thing is to let you know that at eleven hundred hours -- a little over an hour away -- there will be an official presentation ceremony and, I'm afraid, a press conference."
"Press conference?" Jen echoed, suddenly feeling nervous.
Logan looked a little sheepish. "Not my idea. It's..."
"The bigwigs?" Jen suggested wryly.
Logan nodded. "Afraid so -- you and your squad, along with Alex, have become somewhat famous thanks to your escapades, and the people want to know 'how you captured Ransik'."
And you thought the media were bad in your time, Wes, Jen thought with a groan. "Sir."
"I'll let you go, get cleaned up and get back into uniform for the presentation," Logan finished, smiling faintly.
Jen nodded. She was almost waiting for him to tell her 'dismissed' when she realised that they were now the same rank. That's going to take a lot of getting used to. Logan's smile turned a fraction more amused as he clearly guessed her train of thought. Slightly sheepishly, she stood up.
"Thank you sir."
"Good to have you back in one piece," Logan replied.
Three hours, one presentation and a press conference that made the Spanish Inquisition seem like idle questioning, and Jen found herself standing in her apartment for the first time in quite literally a thousand years.
Looking around the boxy little apartment, she could see the signs of four months' absence. Although there was no physical dust, the air felt stale and too warm; the small fern that had been decorating her desk was very, very dead; the bowl of fruit that had been on the breakfast bar was similarly dead; she didn't even want to think about what the coffee maker would look like.
Guess that's what happens when you over sleep, she mused. She should have known then, that something was going to go wrong with the prisoner transfer. She never overslept, yet the day before going to transport Ransik from jailhouse containment to the cryo-prison, she had overslept by half an hour and normal 'morning' tasks, like putting the fruit into stasis and cleaning the coffee machine had been left. She'd intended to do them when her shift finished.
Longest shift of my life.
The intercom buzzed. Jen frowned for a second, until she looked at the entry phone imager: A junior Time Force cadet was holding her bags from the time ship.
"Captain Logan sent me with these, ma'am," he explained when he arrived at her apartment door.
"Thank you," Jen answered.
"You're welcome," the cadet replied, smiling a little shyly. He set the bags down just inside the door and hurriedly departed.
Jen shook her head, smiling faintly. She remembered being that nervous around senior officers, although Alex had cured her of that. Alex. She winced. She had no idea what she was going to do -- about him, or the offer of a transfer into his department. But there was four weeks to think about that. Now was a chance to kick back and get used to being back in the year 3000.
Guess I'd better unpack.
Jen carried the bags through into her bedroom and started to sort through their contents. The clothing went into the laundry hamper, Guess I know what I'll be doing tomorrow..., while the odds and ends of makeup were piled up in preparation for taking them into her bathroom. As she tipped up the duffelbag that she'd acquired during the four months in the past to make sure she'd got everything out, something small dropped out and landed on the bed with a barely audible thump.
Jen frowned and picked it up.
It was a ring.
A narrow band of silver with beautiful, antique looking silver etching either side of a mounted gem of a pinkish-purple hue. Amethyst, she guessed. But what's it doing in my bag?
Turning to the other bag -- the babydoll knapsack purse that Katie had found for her when she and Wes had gone undercover at the Super Strong Gym -- she went to repeat what she'd done with the duffel, only to find a crisp, white envelope in the top with her name on it, written in a neat, elegant hand.
Curiously, Jen opened it and took out a letter.
This is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to write in my life. I've wanted to tell you how I feel about you for a very, very long time -- and with you going back to your time tomorrow I probably won't get the chance now... I know the sensible thing would be to try and forget this but...you know me. I don't do the sensible.
Jen sat down on the bed, her heart leaping then dipping as though it was on a roller coaster. Wes... She turned back to the letter...his letter.
So here it is. I love you. I love you with everything I am and everything I ever will be.
Who'd have thought it? I certainly wouldn't have done.
I don't know how you truly feel about me, but I'm willing to risk making a fool out of myself by telling you this -- after all, you're reading this now in the year 3000; I can't see you laugh and you can't stick me through a brick wall for daring to fall for you.
Jen slowly shook her head. I wouldn't have laughed -- or put you through a brick wall. She looked back at the letter, realising the page was now shaking.
But some how, I don't think either of those would be your reaction.
By now, you've probably found my gift: The ring. It doesn't mean what you think -- I'm not proposing to you across the centuries. (I'm dumb, but I'm not that dumb.) It's a gift of friendship and love -- it belonged to my mother. I know she'd have liked you and I can't think of someone who I would rather give it to.
Good luck in your life.
All my love,
PS Don't be too hard on Alex -- I'm sure he had his reasons.
The letter dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers as Jen slowly curled in on herself. He really did love me...
TO BE CONTINUED...