For the last time in this story: Alex, Jen, Wes, Eric, Lucas, Katie, Trip, Kimberly, Alice, Rocky and Aisha aren't mine. They are borrowed without permission from BVE. No harm, no foul, no money made. N-Tek, Berto Martinez and anyone connected to N-Tek that I've mentioned aren't mine either. They belong to Mattel, Sony and a bundle of animation companies and have been borrowed without permission. No harm, no foul, no money made. What little that's left (which would basically be the bad guys) belongs to me and while you're welcome to borrow, asking me first would be nice.
See the end credits section for my thank yous this time.
Please offer feedback, it tells me how I've done!
Max Force -- Moving Forward At Last
There was a long, leaden silence. Alex could see tears in Jen's eyes -- he could also see her valiantly fighting not to actually cry. Wes leant down and hugged her. What actually out and out surprised him was who broke the silence.
Eric murmured quietly, "You've still got hope."
"I think that light just went out."
Eric offered her a faint smile, clearly recognising the words. "It's still here -- still leading the way. Just look around this room. No-one's running. We're all still here. And more importantly, they aren't your family and they can't hurt you any more."
Silence descended again. Moments passed, then Wes murmured, "OK?"
Jen sniffed, then nodded. "OK."
Alex opened his mouth to say something and caught Rocky's look. "Maybe now would be a good time for your input," Alex said instead.
"Kim?" Rocky prompted, when nothing happened.
Alex watched as Kimberly started. Her attention had been fixed to Eric. Curious and curiouser, Alex decided.
"Sorry." Kimberly swallowed. "First thing I did when I met Jen," she began, "was ask if I knew her from somewhere because she looked very familiar but...for a whole bunch of reasons, my memories of my school days aren't great. So I called Rocky who had maybe the one book that could solve this."
"Huh?" The exclamation came from just about everyone present in the room.
"Kim, you wanna make any less sense, hon?" Aisha asked, smiling faintly.
Kimberly shrugged, a little shame-faced. "You want to explain this -- be my guest, 'Sha."
This time, Alex noted, Aisha did smile, widely. "OK. I'm guessing since you guys mostly seem to have come from the future or are rangers...or are both, we're pretty safe telling you this. Kim was the first, original, pink Power Ranger when all that craziness started in Angel Grove."
That was comfortably the last revelation Alex had expected, but any surprise he felt was blatantly beaten by the utterly stunned look on Eric's face.
"Rocko and I were recruited as the second red and yellow rangers about eighteen months later," Aisha continued, apparently oblivious to the electrifying effect she'd had on the room. "Then about six months later, Kim left to go to Florida, and two months after that, right at the end of our junior year of High School, this creep called Master Vile showed up."
"He made the newspapers in Silverhills," Wes commented.
"Well he did worse than that," said Rocky, taking up the explanation. "He turned back time. Literally. And this is where it gets crazy. Everyone went back ten years -- and I mean everyone. The only people who actually knew about it were the six of us rangers and the bad guys. To a lesser extent, Kim and the original red, black and yellow rangers also knew something had happened but, not what or how. The only place that was insulated against the effects was our base...which was where I'd managed to leave my junior yearbook. So my yearbook shows how things were before Master Vile showed up."
"And things changed during that time?" said Alex; although he had a feeling he knew where this was going.
"Big time," Aisha agreed. "For starters, when time finally got fixed, I was in Africa and in my place was Tanya Sloan -- and as far as everyone else was concerned, Aisha Campbell had never lived in Angel Grove."
And now Alex was sure of where this was heading -- and why Rocky had been so adamant that Aisha be present. "And if someone had been pulled out of the time stream altogether at that point...?"
"Then when time reverted, it would have been as if they'd never existed," Rocky answered, nodding.
"Rocky brought the unaltered yearbook over," Kimberly put in, "and I went through every picture in there with him."
"And you found me?" Jen asked.
For answer, Kimberly produced the yearbook and crossed the room to stand beside Jen's seat. Eric started to scoot out of the way but Kimberly stopped him with a quick shake of the head and a brief smile.
"What I found was the one other person who'd disappeared," she corrected, opening the yearbook. "Her name was Chrissy Lithgow. She was a freshman at Angel Grove High School -- the reason I knew her," Kimberly explained, "was because she'd been on the gymnastics team."
Kimberly held the open book out to Jen, who gasped. Alex didn't need to be able to see the picture to know what it showed.
"What you're saying," said Katie, "is that Jen's really from Angel Grove?"
Rocky nodded. "I remember Chrissy -- and man, it was scary meeting Jen on Sunday afternoon. It took just about every ounce of concentration I had not to call you Chrissy," he added.
"You have nothing to be sorry about, girl," Aisha cut in. "This is not your fault -- remember? You wanna pin this on someone, blame Biocon; better still, blame Master Vile. I chose to stay on in Africa, at least for a while -- you didn't get any kinda choice."
"So...I have a family?" Jen asked, the note of hope in her voice obvious to everyone in the room.
Kimberly hugged her tightly as Rocky shook his head.
"Chrissy Lithgow doesn't exist in this time stream," Alex explained softly.
"The Lithgows never had a daughter," put in Aisha.
"So who the hell does that make me?"
Again it was Eric who was the first to speak after a lengthy silence.
"You're Jen. It doesn't matter who you were, or who you might have been, or who Biocon wanted you to be. You're you."
This time Alex caught the look of surprise on Kimberly's face although it was very quickly replaced by a more thoughtful expression -- almost as though she'd misjudged him over something.
"Is it just that simple?" Jen whispered.
"If you want it to be," Eric answered.
"But Jen is a Scotts...Biocon's niece." Jen shuddered. "I'm not using that name ever again."
"Then..." Wes hesitated, looking more nervous than he might had he been told to do a parachute jump without the 'chute. "Will you change it to Collins?"
"But -- I..." Jen looked bewildered. Her gaze came to rest on Alex. "I can't...can I?"
Alex swallowed, hard. "Jen -- you can. You're supposed to be a part of this time. Destiny Force doesn't apply to you -- so where you want to stay after this is up to you." The words were sincere but they still hurt -- even though Alex knew he'd lost her a long time ago.
"I can stay here?" Jen asked, again the note of hope painfully clear. Alex nodded, relieved that this time that hope wouldn't be crushed. "With no repercussions?"
Aisha grinned. "Girl, you're meant to be here. And are you telling me you really wanna leave?"
Alex found himself smiling in spite of himself as Jen suddenly flung her arms around Wes' neck. She mumbled something that he couldn't quite hear -- although he could guess what it was from Wes' expression.
"Just let us know when the wedding is," said Katie. "You can count on us to be there."
"We will do," Wes agreed.
The room gradually settled down again. Kimberly retook her seat -- although from the looks she was now casting in Eric's direction, Alex judged that she was regretting her original choice of seat.
"What about this Alpha shit?" Jen asked.
"With Biocon dead," Alex answered, "and unquestionably, and emphatically dead, I might add -- his body is now under several tons of rock thanks to a small and 'accidental' landslip -- and Merle Askot locked up awaiting trial I'm the only person with any idea of how the commands work, which," he added with a sigh, " was not my idea."
"Rob Logan did a memory extract from Askot while I was under sedation for a blaster wound and in lieu of a better idea, they dumped the information into my head -- on the grounds that once I was fit enough, I'd be leading a team here."
"But is there a way to get rid of it -- from my head, I mean?" Jen asked quietly. "I don't like the idea of being turned into a walking zombie again."
"I don't blame you," Alex replied. "Askot wasn't saying when I last checked. I can tell you, though, there is a delete command that I can give -- with a voice changer geared to mimic Biocon's voice..."
"Which is how you were able to get control of Jen in the mine," Eric put in.
Alex nodded. "What I don't know is what that delete command does. For all I know, it will delete everything in your memory. Or it might just be something that deletes the programming." He shrugged helplessly. "Askot isn't saying -- and we can't extract any more from her, she's gone to some trouble to actively forget this data."
"I need to think about that."
"Of course." Alex nodded.
The next five weeks passed by in a whirl of activity.
Lucas and Eric quietly completed the surveillance mission. While Eric completed the full placement at Del Oro Bay College, it very quickly became apparent to both that whatever the source of the anomalous readings was, it was not due to mutant activity. After two weeks, Lucas was also reasonably sure that it wasn't due to time lost objects either.
"Short of doing a spot of B and E one night,"he had explained, "I can't be one hundred percent sure, but having met Berto Martinez and done a little investigation into the guy... There's a serious brain trust at N-Tek. And whatever else they are or aren't doing there, the advanced technology is being kept very tightly secured. If it's ahead of its time, I don't think it's going to get into the public domain."
Alex and Katie tied off the last remaining loose ends as far as the Biocon affair was concerned in the twenty-first century -- Biocon's gang -- before they, Trip and Lucas returned to the thirtieth century to tie off the remaining loose ends there. Jen wasn't sure how they'd finessed the former and she knew that the latter would, ultimately, require her to make some form of formal statement when the court cases against Merle Askot and Nidia Nechev were brought.
That was one thing she put off thinking about.
There were other things that required her attention. She and Wes had spent a couple of days in Silverhills, talking to Wes' father about the wedding. It finally took Wes threatening to drive to Las Vegas before his father would actually listen about the size of wedding.
"I don't want this big production number,"Wes had insisted. "This isn't a social event, dad. Besides -- there's no-one in 'society' I'd actually want at my wedding."
"But Wesley -- son..."Then Mr Collins had turned his attention to his prospective daughter-in-law. "Don't you want a big day?"
Jen smiled faintly, recalling his expression when she'd told him that all that mattered to her was who she was marrying. Then, and only then, had they been able to explain to Wes' father exactly why this was so important. Once he understood that, he'd been much more amenable -- although he was still insisting that there would be some form of proper ceremony, but it would be strictly friends and close family only. Jen could live with that -- so could Wes.
Then, of course, there was Eric and Kimberly. Kimberly had finished her recuperation from Dirk's attack at Vista Del Oro and Jen had found herself spending a lot of time in the other woman's company. There was such an instant connection that, for a day or so, Jen wondered if that was because of Chrissy. Kimberly set her mind to rest on that,
"Sure, I knew Chrissy,"she had explained, "but that doesn't mean I actually liked her. When Rocko said it was scary, he meant it -- Chrissy was a bitch."
Jen snickered softly. There were plenty of people who'd described Jen Scotts as a bitch, too.
In due course, the subject of Eric had come up.
"He's avoiding me,"Kimberly had admitted. "I think I've made a huge mistake."
And slowly, Kimberly had explained what had gone on between her and Eric. Jen winced at that memory.
"You've known him longer...is he going to leave and not come back?"Kimberly had finished, but it was a question Jen had no answer to.
When she had talked to Eric he had said he had reasons to return, but that had been before he had spoken to Kimberly. Jen wondered now how many of those reasons to return related to Kimberly and Alice, and decided -- based on Eric's behaviour over the past five weeks -- that the answer was probably most of them. Kimberly and Alice had returned to Silverhills the week before -- since Kimberly had to return to work and Alice had to return to school -- but had left Jen wondering if there was any way she could help them.
"Penny for them?" Wes suggested, drawing Jen back to the here and now.
Jen offered a faint smile. "Just thinking about Eric and Kim." Wes smiled back. "There ought to be some way to help them."
"You mean short of actually locking them in a room together and not letting them out until they admit their feelings for each other?"
Jen giggled. "Short of that," she agreed. "Although I guess that would solve the problem."
Wes grinned. "It certainly would -- but..." His grin faded. "How can two people make such a mess of a relationship?"
Jen smirked self-depreciatively. "And I suppose we didn't?"
Wes smiled wryly. "Good point."
"I guess..." Jen looked at Wes. "I guess the only way we can help them is preventing Eric from leaving."
Wes grimaced. "That could be harder than we think."
Wes shook his head. But before he could elaborate, the sound of the SUV pulling up outside Vista Del Oro brought the discussion to a halt. A few moments later and Eric walked in having completed his final day at Del Oro Bay College.
"So...?" Wes asked.
"So," Eric replied. "So what?"
Wes chuckled. "Did you enjoy this?"
The glare that answered the question was enough to send Jen into uncontrollable laughter. Eric tried to look offended, but Jen could see the corners of his mouth turning up in amusement.
"I guess it wasn't so bad," Eric finally admitted, sitting down in the armchair opposite the couch, where Wes and Jen were sitting. "Might be nice to do it for real someday. And if you ever tell anyone I said that I will deny it," he added.
"You're secret's safe," Jen managed, trying to stop laughing.
"So," Eric began as Jen's chuckles finally subsided, "what now?"
"I guess we head back to Silverhills and find out what this century has in store for me," Jen answered.
Eric shook his head. "Not what I mean, and you know that."
"You mean about that delete command," said Jen softly. Eric nodded. Wes squeezed her hand gently. "I don't know," she answered.
There was a moment's hesitation, then Eric said, "Do you want my advice?"
Jen thought for several moments. She had a feeling she knew what Eric's advice would be. Wes gave her hand another squeeze. "OK."
Eric leaned forward until his elbows were resting on his knees. "If I was where you are...I think I'd take the risk."
"But what if it leaves me like a vegetable?" Jen asked. "I can't understand why they'd have put in a delete function otherwise."
Eric smiled grimly. "If I was Biocon," he answered, "I would want some way of restoring 'defaults'. I don't mean wiping out experiences, but some way of getting rid of the false memories so that you could be 'reprogrammed'." He sat back. "That would be what I would have done in his position."
Jen shivered at the conviction in Eric's voice. "You couldn't be like Biocon."
"Couldn't I?" Eric smiled faintly. "That's beside the point."
"Wes?" Jen turned to him. "What would you do?"
Wes looked thoughtful. "I don't know," he admitted. "Whatever you choose, I'm with you."
"Same her," Eric agreed quietly. "Whatever you choose."
There was a lengthy silence in the room. I have to face this, she reminded herself. And that means facing it all.
"I have to call Alex and go for it, don't I?" she finally said.
"You don't have to if you don't want to," Wes answered.
"But if I ever want to put it behind me..."
"You have a potential way out," Eric commented softly, an unmistakeable note of wistfulness to his voice. "It won't fix things completely, but it will probably give you back yourself."
"You're certain about that?"
Eric gave a lopsided smile. "Not exactly. Like I said, if I was Biocon, that would be what I'd have done."
Jen nodded slowly. "Wes..."
"If you're all right with it," Wes answered, "then so am I. Go -- call Alex up. Let's get this done."
Alex wasn't entirely surprised to receive the holo-message from Jen about the Alpha Delete command. Nor was he really surprised by the speed. Knowing Jen it was probably something that had never been far from her thoughts since he'd mentioned it.
I just hope this works right.
He tugged at the twenty-first century sweater that someone had found for him for this trip. He felt deeply uncomfortable out of uniform but, When in Rome... Making sure the briefcase that contained the voice changer securely tucked under his arm, he made his way slowly up the drive of Vista Del Oro.
Someone had obviously been watching for his arrival as the front door swung open as he reached the porch.
"Good trip?" Wes enquired politely.
Polite. Not friendly.Alex ignored the voice in the back of his mind and offered Wes a tired smile. "About as good as could be expected."
"We're in the living room -- do you want a cup of coffee?" Wes continued, allowing Alex into the house.
"No -- thank you." Alex sighed. "Best to get this over with."
Alex headed into the living room as Wes shut the front door behind him. Jen was curled up on the same armchair she'd been sitting in for the explanations five weeks earlier. Eric was crouching beside her, saying something -- although what, Alex couldn't catch as the conversation ceased as he entered the room.
"I'll get out of the way," Eric stated, moving to stand up.
"You don't have to," Alex responded.
Eric got to his feet, shooting Alex a glare. "I'll..."
"Eric -- stay. Please?" Jen asked quietly.
Alex couldn't see Eric's face, but he got the impression the other man was counting to ten. Slowly. "All right -- for you."
"So," said Wes as Eric took up a seat on the floor beside Jen's chair, "what happens now?"
Alex nervously perched on the edge of the couch, setting the briefcase down on his lap, while Wes came and balanced against the arm of Jen's chair.
"Now..." Alex sighed. "I have a voice changer programmed with Biocon's voice characteristics." He patted the case. "I have to give three commands. The first brings the Alpha Project programming online again, the second is just going to be a test to make sure it's worked OK -- I'll get you to wave your hand or nod, the third is the delete command."
"That's it?" said Jen.
"That's it," Alex agreed. "Are you sure you want me to do this?"
Alex watched as both Wes and Eric offered Jen quiet support, Wes by taking hold of her hand and squeezing, Eric by giving her a smile and a nod. "Yes."
"OK." Alex opened the briefcase and took out the voice changer. "Ready?" Jen nodded. Alex fitted the voice changer and turned it on. "Last chance," he offered, this time in Biocon's voice. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. Just...get this over with."
Alex nodded once. "Alpha project online." Alex watched as Jen froze in position, noting the anxiety visible on Wes' face. "Alpha: Nod your head once." She nodded. Praying with all his might that this was going to work out, Alex stated the third command, "Alpha: Delete."
For a long, painful, drawn out second, nothing happened. Then to his horror, Jen's eyes rolled back into her head and she fainted. Alex felt rooted to the spot. Seconds stretched into hours. He could feel Eric's angry gaze boring into him. He could feel Wes' angry thoughts directed at him, although the other man's gaze was solely for Jen. At the distance he was, he couldn't even tell if Jen was breathing.
When Wes' heated gaze fell on him, Alex knew that Jen wasn't breathing.
Alex closed his eyes.
He was dead.
He didn't need to see the looks on Wes and Eric's faces to know that the rest of his life span was now measured in milliseconds.
The Alpha Delete command had killed Jen and it would kill him.
And into that electric silence came a loud, harsh gasp.
Alex didn't dare look.
At Jen's voice, Alex had to look. She was sitting up in her seat once more, blinking a little owlishly.
"Do you know who I am?" Wes asked and Alex could hear the fear in his voice.
There was a lengthy pause, then Jen smiled. "You're the guy I love, you're Wes."
Alex sagged in relief.
"Did it work?" Eric wanted to know.
There was another lengthy pause. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "Alex?"
"Want me to give another alpha command?" he asked, still in Biocon's voice. Jen nodded, although the looks on Wes and Eric's faces suggested they weren't keen on the idea. "Alpha Project online."
Jen smiled. "I guess it worked."
Alex busied himself packing away the voice changer.
"No new memories?" Wes asked.
"No," Jen admitted a little sadly. "But maybe that's just as well -- don't know that I want two sets of memories floating in my head. Thanks Alex," she added.
To his surprise, she got up from her seat and offered him a hug. "What for?"
Jen smiled. "For being a friend."
Jen slowly looked around the as yet bare apartment. So different from the apartment she'd lived in back in Central City, yet it already looked and felt more like a home than that one had ever felt. This one was an early wedding present from her future father-in-law, complete with furniture, which Wes and Eric had helped her to arrange that morning.
They had now departed, Eric rightly pointing out that it was about time they got back to running the Silver Guardians. Once she was settled in Silverhills, Jen would join them.
"What else are you going to do?"Eric had asked after she'd initially turned down Wes' suggestion. "I can't see you being happy working in Wal-Mart any more than I was."
Which was perfectly true. Jen sighed. She just couldn't help but feel part of Eric's insistence stemmed from his desire to leave.
The buzzer sounded, breaking her train of thought and she smiled. That would be Kimberly, who had offered to show her around the mall and help her pick out some new clothing and a few oddments for the apartment.
"Hey, Jen," Kimberly called over the entry phone. "Are you ready?"
"I'll be right down."
Grabbing keys and jacket, Jen headed for the door. The future was far from certain and there were a lot of things that still needed work but... Jen smiled. She was home, and this time, she was staying.
TO BE CONTINUED IN HIDE AND SEEK AND FUTURE IMPERFECT...
There are many people who've helped shape this story into what it's become in the last three months, so in no particular order...
You. Yes, you. The person reading this note now. Thank you. Thank you for reading, thank you for reviewing. Without the reviews I've received, certain aspects of this story would never have happened, or would have happened differently. (So if you think I don't read my reviews, you're wrong!)
Gamine who has been, and continues to be, a wonderful human being, an excellent cattle prod and a thoroughly patient nitpicker. She helped me immensely when it came to writing several of the confrontations (even plotting through a conversation that has to have happened, even though I don't make more than a passing reference to it in the story to help me get a proper handle on Kimberly's thought process) and this story would have been greatly harder and far, far poorer without your help. Thank you.
Ecolea, Leathie, Irina and Selma who have been a fabulous cheer squad throughout, and who have all allowed me to work bits and pieces of this story off them at various stages preventing me from sounding too English, too geography-deficient or too clueless when it came to California's highways. Thank you.
Vanessa and Angel who both helped me dramatically in the setting up of the mystery -- conspiracies are easy. Writing the trail of breadcrumbs to lead up to the conspiracy and not blow the big plot twist at the first hurdle is tough. Thank you.
Chris who very graciously double-checked my MMPR references and who provided the version of the Destiny Force I've relied on in the course of this story. Thank you.
Lastly, Ekat who hasn't been able to help out as much on this story as on Identity but who has provided me with countless hours of patient help, particularly when it comes to the various aspects of American life and sundry medical conditions. Thank you -- and this is for you, may the next three months be considerably better than the last!
Three months, nineteen chapters, seventy-five thousand words. Book two in the Identiverse is now complete.