Brother for Hire
        Typical Boring Disclaimer: Blah, blah, blah, the Power Rangers and co. belong to Saban and not to me, blah, blah, blah.

        Brother for Hire
        by: SilvorMoon

        The greatest mystery in Astronema's life was something she could hold in the palm of her hand. She kept it close to her wherever she went, wearing it almost constantly, even as she slept. Let her colleagues fuss over gold and diamonds if they felt like it. Her locket was only a plain and simple thing, more of a puzzle than a reminder, but it was the most valuable thing she had, and she refused to be parted from it.

        *I wonder what he was like?* she mused, staring into the face that looked back at her from within the locket. It was hard to feel too much sadness over a brother she couldn't quite remember, but there was still a faint memory, a collection of vague feelings, that continually aroused her curiosity. *I think we must have cared about each other. The feelings I get when I think about him... they aren't bad feelings. I can't remember my parents at all, but I remember something about him. Almost remember. Someday, I'm going to find out.*

        "Is something troubling you, Princess?" asked a concerned voice.

        "Oh, it's nothing, Ecliptor," she answered, closing her locket with a sigh. "I was just thinking."

        "You're thinking about your brother again. Is that it?"

        "Yes. I know it's pointless, but I can't help it. I've never been able to get it out of my mind. I keep wondering where he might be, what he's doing, if I'll ever see him again."

        "Don't delude yourself," said Ecliptor, gently but firmly. "You know your brother isn't alive anymore."

        "How can I be sure?" Astronema asked. "He could have escaped when the Rangers attacked. You can't know for sure."

        Ecliptor considered saying something, but then stopped himself. What could he say? That he had been at that apocryphal battle and had personally seen the destruction of her family? He'd told her for years that he'd never met her until the night when he found her out on his doorstep as a small child. He couldn't very well go changing his story now.

        "That is true," he admitted grudgingly. "There could be the chance that he is alive... but you mustn't let it worry you. If he lives, he lives, and if he does not, there is nothing you can do to change it. Right now, you need to keep your mind on the business of Ranger-fighting. You'll do your brother no good if you fail to live up to Dark Specter's standards."

        Astronema nodded. *I guess he's right. If I make Dark Specter angry, it will be the end of me. Then I would never see my brother again - or anyone else, for that matter.*

        "I know what you mean," she said aloud. "It's just something I think about sometimes. Don't worry, we will find a way to take care of these Power Rangers. I'm not letting you or Dark Specter down."

        "I am quite certain of that, my princess," Ecliptor agreed.

        As he left her, however, he reflected that he was not so certain. The subject of her lost sibling had been cropping up more and more often these days. He could only hope that it might be some kind of phase she was going through, some kind of teenager thing. He'd heard things about human teenagers, and most of them convinced him that he should be thankful that Astronema behaved as well as she did. Still, inquiring too closely into her brother's past could lead to some awkward situations.

        *She almost caught me there,* he thought. *If she asks too many more questions, she may very well figure out the truth. She's clever. I raised her that way, so I shouldn't be surprised that it's come to this. I should have thought more about what I was doing, lying to her like that. Now I'm trapped. What am I going to do if she finds out that her brother is her worst enemy?*

        ~*~

        The thief gave an inaudible chuckle as the Quantrons passed by him. March, march, march, just like a row of toy soldiers to be broken in Astronema's war games or put away in boxes as she wished. They were just as empty-headed as toys, too. They couldn't see the thief, even though he was standing in relatively plain view, because the dolts never turned their heads as they walked. If any of Astronema's enemies felt like breaking in here, they would have no problems.

        As soon as the Quantrons were out of sight, the thief slipped out of the shadow he'd taken refuge in and began to meander down the hall, occasionally pausing to peer in doorways. The princess had a pretty nice setup, he decided. He wouldn't mind having one like it someday, or perhaps even living in this one. What might it take to steal a ship like this? More planning than he had put into this endeavor, he decided, but it might be a project for the near future. In the meantime, he continued his inspection of the rooms he passed, getting a feel for the layout and keeping his eyes peeled for hiding places and treasures. He wasn't expecting to find much of the latter, not on this expedition. The princess probably kept it holed up in her own quarters, if anywhere, and he wondered if it might be worth the effort of sneaking a peek to see. He had never seen the princess of evil before, but he had heard that she was very beautiful and he wouldn't have minded finding out for sure. He was just entertaining the possibility of kidnaping and ransom when a movement caught his attention... too late.

        "And just what do you think you're doing here?" asked an icy voice. "I don't believe anyone sent for you. Thieves and spies are not welcome here."

        The thief didn't answer, other than leveling his captor a cold glare - at the moment, he had a hand clamped around his neck, making speech a bit difficult.

        Ecliptor stared back at the thief, considering whether or not he should kill him now or let Astronema handle him herself. The way she had been acting lately, it was a little hard to say what her preference would be. It might be best to do it all himself and save her any more worries.

        "Well?" he inquired. "Nothing to say for yourself?"

        In reply, the thief made a very fast movement, flipping a dagger out of his sleeve and driving it at Ecliptor. The monster calmly and efficiently brought up one arm and blocked it, letting the dull blade slide harmlessly off his crystalline skin.

        "That was a very unwise move," Ecliptor said. "Brave, perhaps, but not wise."

        The thief gave a noncommital shrug. "It's worked before. Guess my luck's run out, eh?"

        "You aren't afraid?"

        "Makes no difference. You're going to kill me anyway."

        "Hmm," Ecliptor mused. He stared very hard at the thief. It was a young man, humanoid, with straight blonde hair, sea-green eyes, and surprisingly innocent features. There was something almost familiar about him...

        "Step into the light," he said abruptly.

        "What?"

        "Just what I said. Step into the light. I want to get a good look at you."

        "Let go of my neck first and you've got a deal."

        Ecliptor loosened his grip, and the man took a few steps backwards, edging into a shaft of illumination and bringing him into full view. The monster gazed at him in faint amazement - his resemblance to the Red Ranger was unmistakable.

        "I'm beginning to believe in fates," Ecliptor muttered. "He's got the right attitude, I think... what are your fighting skills like?"

        "I'm still alive. You've got to be able to defend yourself in my business."

        Ecliptor lashed out at the rogue with his sword, and the young man ducked and sprang away, rebounding off a wall and charging at Ecliptor again. Ecliptor held out a hand and blocked him before he could do any damage, but he looked pleased nevertheless.

        "Like a cat," he said in approval. "How well can you keep a secret?"

        "Like a suspicious dead man, if the price is right."

        "How does half the universe sound?"

        The thief blinked. "Sounds like I'm dealing with a crazy man. What gives?"

        "The princess has been distracted, as of late, over the fate of her long-lost brother. It is very important to me that she not find him, and chances are good that she won't if she never goes looking for him... and your resemblance to him is uncanny," said Ecliptor. "If you can manage to steal one small item for me, she'll never doubt that you are her brother, and that will make you the Prince of Evil."

        The thief smiled. "Can't do much better than that, can I? I accept. Gavin Undersky is now at your disposal."

        "Very well, Gavin. All that remains now is for you to steal some identification," Ecliptor replied.

        "Piece of cake," said Gavin. "What do you want me to steal?"

        "A locket," Ecliptor answered, "belonging to the Red Ranger."

        ~*~

        There was only one person on the Dark Fortress who was not in the least bit surprised by the disturbance that arose the next morning. It started with a siren, alerting everyone to the fact that there was an intruder on the loose. Then there was a rattle and a crash as he fought his way through a row of Quantrons, wielding a sword admirable skill, and the robots dropped to the floor like broken toys. Elgar, taking it into his head to be brave for once, rushed the stranger with a loud battle cry, only to find himself pitched against the nearest wall. By that point, there was no one left in Astronema's throne room but the intruder, Ecliptor, and the princess herself. Ecliptor prepared to act his part in this little charade, and went to intercept Gavin.

        "What do you think you're doing here?" he demanded gruffly. "Get out, before I'm forced to hurt you!"

        "Let me go! Get your hands off me!" Gavin demanded, putting up a convincing struggle. "I've waited to many years to be stopped by the likes of you."

        "Explain yourself first," Ecliptor said.

        "My name is Gavin Undersky," he replied, "and I've come for my sister."

        There was a stifled gasp from Astronema, and her hand went to her locket.

        "What are you talking about?" asked Ecliptor.

        "Astronema. My sister," Gavin said. "Ten years, I've been searching for her. I've risked my life to find her."

        "Impossible," Ecliptor stated. "Astronema's brother is dead."

        "That's not true!" Gavin replied. He was doing a good job with his acting, Ecliptor had to admit. The boy had learned his lines well, and he was reciting them with all the fervor that would come of reality. "The Rangers captured me, but they decided not to kill me. They sent me to a slave trader in the Mirtos galaxy, and I was sold as a laborer. They taught me how to fight, there, intending to use me as a soldier, but they underestimated my skills. I escaped them two years ago, and I've been searching for you ever since."

        "Let him go," Astronema ordered. "I want to hear more of this."

        Ecliptor obediently released his hold on Gavin, and the young man stepped forward to meet the princess.

        "My dear sister," he said, "at last we meet again."

        "You say you are my brother," said Astronema in the careful voice that meant she was trying to hide her emotions, "but that doesn't mean anything. Anyone could come in here and say that. Show me proof that you are who you say you are."

        "I'm sorry you don't trust me," said Gavin. "Maybe you'll believe your eyes. Look what I have!"

        From beneath his shirt, he withdrew a locket on a golden chain and held it up for Astronema's view. Her eyes widened. Gavin undid the clasp and handed it over for her inspection. She took it with a hand that trembled ever-so-slightly, as the other gripped her own locket. There was no denying that they were a perfect match for each other. She looked from the pictures the jewelry held to Gavin's face.

        "It is you," she said quietly. "It really is." She dropped in a faint, and Ecliptor rushed to catch her before she could hit the floor. Gavin watched with faint interest.

        "Well," he said. "I think that went rather well, don't you?"

        ~*~

        Ecliptor left his princess resting peacefully in her room, feeling more at ease than he had in the past few days. Perhaps she would be happier, now that she didn't have to worry about her missing sibling anymore. She was safer, now, too. This would thwart the Red Ranger's stubborn searching - even if the idea ever crossed his mind that his worst enemy might be his lost sister, as unlikely as it sounded, he would have to dismiss it when he was confronted with Gavin. It didn't hurt that this new addition to the crew was a skillful fighter. He would be useful for eliminating both Andros and the rest of those multicolored pests. He could almost get to like the idea of her having an older brother, someone to provide a proper evil role model for her. There were times, he had to admit, when he worried about her straying. She could be cold as ice and cruel as blades when she wanted to be, but there had always been a strange quality of childlike innocence about her that would surface from time to time. He had hoped she would grow out of it eventually, but it was proving very difficult to dispel...

        As he left her room, he found Gavin wandering the hallways, taking in every detail with his sharp eyes. He had changed into the uniform he had been provided with, one made to resemble Astronema's war gear. Naturally, alterations had been made to the design to make it suitable for a prince rather than a princess. The basic black leather was still there, but the armor was heavier and more complete, covering not only his chest and shoulders, but most of his arms and legs as well. A sword was at his waist, decorated in a style that matched Astronema's boomerang blade. A black headband held his long blonde hair out of his face.

        "Like my new look?" he asked, sounding pleased with himself. "I always thought blue was more my color, but I guess black will do in a pinch. Must look properly sinister, I suppose."

        "Stop your mindless babbling," said Ecliptor. "You aren't taking this seriously."

        "You are absolutely no fun at all," Gavin complained.

        "We are not here to have fun, we are here to take over the universe," Ecliptor reminded him.

        "Boy, you're touchy," said Gavin. "I hope the other people on this ship are more interesting than you, or I'm going to get really bored of this. At least Astronema lived up to her reputation - she's quite a dish. Too bad she's my sister."

        Ecliptor gave him a death look. "Get this through your head right now: if you try anything with her, I will personally put you through pain you never imagined... if she doesn't do it herself."

        "Sheesh! Cool it! It's not like she's my real sister or anything," said Gavin casually. "What are you so upset about? Trying to keep her for yourself?"

        "I am a created creature, not a biological one. If you are accusing me of what I think you are accusing me of, then it is outside of my capabilities or interests. However," Ecliptor added, "I do understand that there are certain things that humans do not do with their siblings, and that ranks rather high on the list. If you try it, you will ruin your disguise and you will be of no more use. Keep that in mind."

        "Yes, sir, general, sir," said Gavin airily. "Whatever you say."

        "I meant that," Ecliptor growled.

        "I know you meant it. Don't blow a gasket. I'll find somewhere else to amuse myself," Gavin replied.

        "You had better," said Ecliptor. "Now that that's settled... how do you feel about fighting the Power Rangers?"

        "Fighting them? What for?" asked Gavin.

        Ecliptor stared in surprise. "What do you mean, what for? We are trying to overthrow the forces of Good and claim the universe for Dark Specter! How are we going to do that without fighting them?"

        "I know that," said Gavin, as if he were talking to an idiot. "What I meant was, why do we have to fight them? If you wanted me to get rid of them, you should have told me to kill them while I was in their ship. They were sound asleep. They never would have stood a chance."

        "There is no honor in that," Ecliptor said sternly. "When we destroy them, it will be on the field of battle."

        "Who needs honor?" asked Gavin disdainfully. "I say it would be easier just to kill them and be done with it."

        "That's exactly why we are not going to do it," said Ecliptor. "The man who kills his enemies as they sleep is a coward and a weakling, who can't face his enemies any other way. No one would have any respect for someone who had to resort to such tactics."

        "If you say so," Gavin agreed. "So, we fight these Rangers and blow them to bits. No problem."

        "It's not that easy. You'll find that out soon enough."

        "You know what? You're getting pretty tiresome," said Gavin. "I think I'm going to go elsewhere for a while. Send one of those Quan-things to find me when the fun starts, okay? I'm outta here."

        With that, Gavin gave a mocking salute and marched away. Ecliptor watched him with a feeling of unease. Perhaps this hadn't been such a good idea after all...

        ~*~

        Andros was late for breakfast. Ashley noticed this, and was puzzled by it, keeping her gaze pointed in the direction of the kitchen doors as the morning conversations of her friends buzzed around her. She ate her own meal slowly, but without really tasting it, absently chasing her scrambled eggs around her plate with her fork.

        "Something on your mind, Ash?" asked Cassie.

        "Hmm? Oh, nothing. What makes you say that?"

        "Well," said Carlos, "it might be because you just poured syrup all over your hash browns."

        Ashley looked down at her plate and made a face at the sticky, inedible potatoes. "Oops. Yuck."

        "Come on, Ashley," said TJ, "tell us what's on your mind."

        "Oh, it's nothing. I was just wondering when Andros would get here. He's usually the first one here, and I thought maybe something weird might have happened," she admitted. She stared at the potatoes again. "I suppose I could still eat these. Knowing what synthetron food tastes like, this might be an improvement."

        "You might be right about Andros," Zhane admitted. "Think maybe we could check on him?"

        "Wouldn't hurt," TJ agreed. "I was done eating, anyway. I'll go have a look."

        Getting up from the table, he headed for the megalift and rode down to the level where the sleeping quarters were located. Heading for his leader's room, he heard sounds of scuffling and muttering. Growing concerned, he covered the rest of the distance at a worried jog and skidded to a halt at the door. It was open, and he had to duck as a book suddenly flew through it and narrowly missed his head. Inside, the room appeared to have been turned inside out, and Andros was frantically digging through his belongings.

        "Hey, man, watch where you're throwing those things," said TJ. "What are you doing, anyway?"

        "I can't find my locket," Andros answered, not looking up from his search. "It's got to be around here somewhere - I put it on right after I took my shower last night, so it's got to be here."

        "If that's the case, it'll be here after breakfast," TJ pointed out.

        "But this is important," said Andros.

        "It will wait," said TJ. "You'll be able to work better after you've eaten something. Besides, Ashley's worried about you. You don't want to worry Ashley, do you?"

        Andros managed a weak smile at his friend's joke. "No, I guess not. But you know what I mean, don't you?"

        "Sure," said TJ. "We all know how important your sister is to you. And don't worry - one of these days we'll find her, and then you can throw that locket of yours out the window, because you'll have the real thing." He gave his friend a reassuring smile, and Andros smiled back, a little more enthusiastically than before.

        "Thanks, Teej," he said. "But I guess you're right about breakfast. I am sort of hungry."

        "Cool. You get something to eat, and then I'll help you look for your locket. How's that?"

        "Great," Andros said. "I appreciate it."

        "Rangers," said DECA's voice, "a disturbance has been detected in Angel Grove forest."

        "So much for breakfast," Andros muttered. "I hate fighting on an empty stomach."

        "Well, let's finish this in a hurry," TJ replied. "Come on!"

        They rushed to the jump tubes in time to see their teammates dropping out of sight. They leaped onto the platform, not even bothering to use the stairs, and slid down their own glowing portals. In an instant, all six Rangers were fully morphed and shooting toward Earth on their Galaxy Gliders. They reached the forest and dropped lightly to the leaf-strewn ground.

        "Well, here's the forest," said Zhane, "but I don't see any disturbances."

        "Me neither," said Carlos, "but my scanner is definitely picking up something."

        "Let me check," Andros said, taking out a scanner of his own.

        "No need, Ranger," purred a voice. "We're right here."

        The Rangers spun in place and found themselves staring at Astronema, flanked by several Quantrons. It looked ordinary enough, but there was an expression on the evil princess's face, something proud and almost gloating, that hinted that maybe there was more to this situation that met the eye. The Rangers immediately tensed, expecting the worst.

        "What do you want, Astronema?" asked Andros.

        "No need to look so defensive, Rangers," she answered sweetly. "I just wanted to introduce you to someone."

        As the Rangers watched in confusion, she waved a hand gracefully at the trees behind her, and someone else stepped into view. It was a young man, heavily armored and carrying a sword, and the expression on his face was one of laughing malice.

        "Who are you?" Andros demanded of him, unimpressed.

        The newcomer smirked. "You really want to know, Ranger? I'll tell you. You might find it amusing. You see, my name is Gavin. I'm Astronema's brother."

        "Brother?" Carlos repeated. "Since when does she have a brother?"

        "None of your business, Black Ranger," Astronema snapped. "What you need to be worrying about now is how to keep him from destroying you!"

        "Think again, Astronema," said Cassie. "You haven't destroyed us yet, and you never will, brother or no brother!"

        "That's where you're wrong," Astronema replied. "Are you ready, brother?"

        Gavin flourished his sword. "I'm more than ready. Let's show these candy-colored kids who's running this universe! Quantrons, attack!"

        The Rangers immediately found themselves surrounded by silver and black droids - not a particularly dangerous situation in and of itself, but it left them open for Astronema and Gavin's attacks. The newly-arrived warrior proved himself to be a formidable opponent, slashing any Ranger who came near with his sword, and Astronema struck out with her Wrath Staff, pausing occasionally to send her boomerang flying across the battlefield to mow down everything in its way, then catching it almost unthinkingly as it returned to her.

        *I don't like this guy, I really don't like this guy,* Andros thought as he crossed blades with Gavin. *I don't like the look in his eyes. I don't like the way he moves. I don't know why, but I get the feeling he's more evil than Astronema ever was, and I don't like it at all.*

        "Having fun, Ranger?" Gavin laughed. "I know I am! You're a more worthy opponent than I expected from a man in red tights."

        Andros shrugged the comment off; he was experienced enough not to be baited like that anymore. "You're not so bad yourself. Not quite good enough, though!"

        With a powerful spinning kick, he sent his adversary's sword soaring through the air, landing several feet away in a clump of bushes. Gavin yelped and shook his bruised hand.

        "Now let's finish this," Andros said. "It's been nice knowing you!"

        He raised his Spiral Saber and advanced on the now nervous-looking villain. Suddenly, a Quantron leaped at him from the side, throwing him to the ground. Gavin turned and ran into the woods to retrieve his blade.

        Struggling through thick, thorny underbrush, he reached the clump of bushes and began searching around for his missing weapon and thinking what a fool he must look for being beaten so easily. Compounding his annoyance, he soon realized that his sword wasn't in the bushes, after all, but resting in a clearing some ten feet away. This was strange, he though. He was sure he had seen the sword land right here, rustling the branches of the shrubs, but there it was, well out of their range. Puzzled, he disentangled himself from the shrubbery and went to get his blade. However, as he bent down to touch it, a foot came down out of seemingly nowhere and held it in place. Gavin glanced up to give the interfering so-and-so a good telling-off.

        "And just who do you think you are?" he asked.

        "I could ask the same of you," the stranger replied. "I haven't seen you before. What are you doing fighting the Power Rangers? You don't look like one of Astronema's lackeys."

        "For your information, buster, I'm Astronema's brother," Gavin replied. He tugged his sword, but the stranger's foot stayed planted.

        "And you're a liar," he replied. "I happen to know who her brother is, and you aren't him."

        "Just how do you know that?" Gavin asked.

        "I know a lot of things... interesting things," said the stranger. "If you want to know more, meet me back here later. I have a feeling we can be of use to each other."

        "Perhaps so," answered Gavin guardedly. "Have you a name?

        The strange creature gave him a toothy grin. "You can call me Darkonda... Prince Gavin."

        With that, he gave Gavin a mocking bow and vanished in a swirl of orange lights. Gavin shrugged and picked up his sword.

        "Darkonda," he muttered. "Well, I'll be."

        ~*~

        "That," said Carlos, dropping ungracefully into his seat at the table, "was not fun."

        "You mean, less fun than usual," said TJ, sitting down beside him. "That was just a little too close. I feel like I've been hit by a truck."

        "A Mack truck," Cassie agreed. "And we weren't even up against monsters today."

        "Well, I guess Astronema didn't get made Princess of Evil for nothing," said Zhane. "She put up a good fight... her and her brother."

        There had been no decisive victory in that last battle. The Quantrons had been reduced to scrap metal, and the Prince and Princess had left shouting curses and dire threats, but the Rangers knew that if their enemies had found anything else to throw at them, they might not have withstood it. All of them were tired and aching, and the Pink and Blue Rangers were sporting bandages after coming too close to Gavin's sword. Morale was low.

        "What I want to know is, where did he come from?" asked Ashley. "She didn't have a brother yesterday... did she?"

        "Not that I know of," Andros replied. "Of course, Astronema's a pretty shady character. I don't think anyone knows a whole lot about where she came from, except maybe Ecliptor..."

        *Someday,* he reflected, *I am going to find Ecliptor and pin him against the wall and make him tell me all these things he knows that I don't - why it is he hates me so much, and what he had to do with destroying my world, and what he knows about my sister. I'm almost sure he knows something, after that prank he played on KO-35. And then there was that time when we were fighting over the scanner - I'm sure he was trying to tell me something...*

        Well, everything would be straightened out, somehow. In the meantime, Andros reminded himself, he needed to keep his mind on the current problem, and that was the issue of how to deal with Gavin. Just having Astronema around was bad enough, but having a male copy was double trouble, or more. So strange to see him fighting alongside Astronema; in their matching armor, they looked almost identical, right down to the lockets they wore... the lockets, he realized with a shock, that looked just like the one he had lost.

        ~*~

        Moving quietly and cautiously, Gavin wandered through the forest. He wasn't looking for anything in particular, or even looking at anything. He knew how these things worked. If you wanted to find a fellow villain, you did it by letting him find you. It was not long before his patience was rewarded.

        "So, you've arrived," said Darkonda, stepping casually out from behind a tree. "Well met, Gavin Undersky."

        "Well met," Gavin replied. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Darkonda."

        "Oh, really? I was wondering if you were even going to show up," Darkonda replied. "You certainly took your time getting here."

        "Had to get away from Ecliptor first," Gavin replied. "Fuss, fuss, fuss. He's taking this thing very seriously - a bit too seriously if you ask me."

        "You've sized up the situation very well," said Darkonda. "Ecliptor takes almost everything too seriously."

        "That's what I figured. I take you to be different, though," answered Gavin. "Haven't I seen you around the galaxy before? I'm sure I've heard your name somewhere."

        "Perhaps, perhaps. It would depend on what you've heard."

        "I hear you're a bounty hunter by trade. Last I heard was you taking a job for some fella to retrieve the holy something-or-other of whozit, taking the pay for it, and then stabbing the client and running off with the loot and all his pocket change... if that was you."

        "You have a good memory," Darkonda replied. "One of my better jobs, really."

        "I'm impressed. You've got style," said Gavin. "So, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

        "About several things. We can start with you, and what you are doing pretending to be someone you aren't."

        Gavin shrugged. "I was hired. I'm sure one of your profession would understand that."

        "Ah," said Darkonda. "And has the situation surrounding why you were hired been made clear?"

        "More or less," Gavin replied. "From what I was told, Astronema is the sister of the Red Ranger, and Clippy doesn't want his precious princess to find out, so he hired me to impersonate her long lost brother and keep her happy."

        "I thought it would be something like that," Darkonda growled. "Blast! He's getting clever all of a sudden. He's going to spoil my plans for Astronema if this keeps up."

        "And just why, may I ask, do you have designs on the princess?" asked Gavin.

        "I have reasons... which I don't choose to disclose right now," Darkonda replied. "Let's just say I have an interest in her fate, and I intend to make sure things happen in my favor."

        "I figured it was something like that," said Gavin. "Though I think my employer takes a lot more interest in her than either of us. Am I the only one who thinks it's unhealthy for a general to be that emotionally attached to his leader?"

        Darkonda snorted derisively. "Ecliptor's always been a few blades shy of a sharp edge. I'd welcome a way to be rid of him if I found it."

        "You'd better not off him until I get my dues for this job," Gavin warned. "I've been promised considerable compensation for playing this game, and I'm going to make sure I get it."

        "Oh? And what might that be?"

        "He said he's going to speak to Astronema and Dark Specter and have me named a prince, co-ruler with the princess," said Gavin.

        "He'll never pay up," said Darkonda.

        "How do you know? From what I've heard, Ecliptor's a man - or monster, rather - of his word. He follows the old codes about honor and keeping promises and all that nonsense. What makes you think he'd break his code now?"

        "Because there is something he values even above his own honor," Darkonda answered. "You are here for the sake of the princess, and he'll do anything for her. He'd sacrifice life and reputation for Astronema. He'd promise anything for her benefit."

        "So," said Gavin softly, "he thinks he can play me for a fool? That's interesting."

        "What are you going to do about it?" asked Darkonda.

        "I haven't decided, yet. Does Astronema have the power to turn control over to her brother if she felt like it?"

        "Possibly..."

        "Then I'll collect my payment with or without Ecliptor," said Gavin. "We know, after all, that clients aren't necessary to complete a mission."

        "Quite so," Darkonda agreed. "We understand each other well."

        "I'm not sure I do," Gavin replied. "I still don't know what it is you have to do with Ecliptor... or Princess Astronema, for that matter."

        "I want to see her put in her place," Darkonda replied. "She does not deserve to be ruling over monsters! She's only a human child, Dark Specter's pet. I want her out of the picture."

        "And I can guess who you want to fill in the blank," said Gavin dryly.

        "And why not? I could do anything better than she can... and don't even think of trying to stop me," he added warningly.

        "Don't look at me! I don't care what anyone wants to do, as long as I'm comfortably set up somewhere," Gavin replied. "I'm no leader and I know it. I just like the idea of living in comfort. This is comfortable, so I'm staying as long as I can."

        "Indeed," Darkonda replied. "Perhaps we can make a deal, then. It may be that we can help each other."

        "I help you overthrow the system, you help me get what I want? Is that how it works?"

        "Depends entirely on what you want."

        "A quiet spot to settle down, a reasonable allowance of spending money, maybe a few servants... and the princess would be an unexpected bonus."

        "Oh, really?" Darkonda leered. "Perhaps I could arrange that for you... if you're willing to do a few things for me."

        Gavin nodded and grinned. "Naturally. I think you're the kind of employer who could come up with tasks to my liking."

        "Very well, then," chuckled Darkonda. "Here's what I have in mind..."

        ~*~

        Ashley found Andros pacing the floor. His room was still a disaster area, but he was paying it no notice, walking over things and stepping on them as if they weren't there, back and forth, back and forth.

        "What's wrong, Andros?" she asked him. "You aren't still worrying over your locket, are you?"

        "No, I know where my locket is," Andros replied.

        "Really? Where?"

        "Gavin has it."

        "What?" Ashley cried. "Where would he get it?"

        "I don't know. Stole it, probably, while I was sleeping," Andros replied. "And I know just why he needed it, too."

        "Okay, all right, I'll believe that," said Ashley, staring at her friend as if he'd gone out of his mind. "Why?"

        "So he could convince Astronema that he's her brother."

        "Umm... I'm lost," said Ashley. "I thought the lockets were for you and Karone."

        "Exactly!" said Andros triumphantly. "It all makes perfect sense!"

        "No it doesn't," Ashley replied.

        "Yes it does. Listen. Gavin took my locket. I know, because I saw him wearing it in the battle today. The only reason he could have wanted it was because he needed it to convince Astronema that he's her brother. That's true, too, because I saw her wearing one exactly like it. Remember how angry she got when Cassie broke it on Calderon? You know it's important to her. And if she's got the other copy of my locket, then there's only one thing it can mean."

        "Are you saying that...?"

        "Yes." Andros paused in his pacing to look Ashley in the eye. "Astronema... is Karone."

        "But that's impossible!" Ashley protested.

        "It's not impossible. It's the only thing that makes sense," Andros replied. "It's been staring me in the face all along, and I never realized it. Maybe it isn't entirely logical, but I believe it. There's only one thing that worries me now..."

        "What's that?"

        "What am I going to do about it?"

        ~*~

        Gavin returned to the Dark Fortress in a much better mood than he'd been in when he left it. He could have lived with playing the part of a prince and keeping Astronema happy for Ecliptor, but it wasn't interesting, and it wasn't challenging. There wasn't much real incentive, either, not compared to what Darkonda had in mind. Darkonda - now there was a master planner! He wouldn't settle for anything less than the best, and he knew exactly how to go about getting it. They had talked for a few hours, working out the details of their master plan... a plan that involved the end of Astronema's reign and the Dark Specter's.

        *The bigger they are, the harder they fall,* he thought with a chuckle.*Dealing with Dark Specter's going to send shockwaves throughout the universe, I think!*

        As wrapped up in his thoughts as he was, he wasn't paying any particular attention to his surroundings. Still, he'd always prided himself on his observance and general wariness, so it proved slightly irksome when someone came up behind him and tapped his shoulder. He spun around to face off with whoever was trying to sneak up on him.

        "Gavin?" said Astronema hesitantly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."

        "It's - quite all right," he said, slipping hurriedly into polite-mode and hoping she wouldn't catch the slight hesitation. "I was thinking about today's fight. It should have gone better. I'm sorry for failing you."

        "Don't worry about it," Astronema replied. "You haven't had a chance to learn about them yet. We'll get them next time."

        "Of course," said Gavin. That was one thing he agreed with her on - he would have to take out the Power Rangers, sooner or later. And Zordon; mustn't forget him. So many annoying details...

        "Well, never mind that," said Astronema. "That wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about, anyway."

        "Oh?" he asked casually. *I know what's coming now, I do believe. Questions about family history, some nice mushy moments of brother-sister bonding. How nauseating.*

        "There's... so much about my past I don't remember," she answered hesitantly. "Everything before I came to be here is just... blank. I've been wondering, all these years, about what my life used to be. Where did I live? What were my parents like? Are they... are they still...?"

        "They're gone, I'm afraid," answered Gavin. *Bother, I don't feel like doing this. I could quit this whole job right now, if I wanted to, and it wouldn't spoil a thing. I don't want a sister, anyway.*

        "That's too bad." Astronema hung her head sadly. After a pause, she looked up again. "But at least we have each other, now. That's something."

        "So it is," Gavin chuckled. "More for me than for you, though."

        "What do you mean?" asked Astronema, looking puzzled.

        Gavin laughed again. It was not a pretty sounds. Suddenly, there was a long knife in his hand, and he shoved the princess up against the wall and pressed the blade to her throat. She felt cold metal touch her neck, and she gasped in sudden fear, but it was only the flat of the blade that touched her. Still, all it would take was a twist...

        "Listen, little lady. You mean nothing to me, nothing at all, save for the uses I can put you to. If you don't prove tractable, you may not live out the day. You could die right now if I didn't have plans in mind for you."

        She was not comprehending any of this; it was utterly unexpected, impossible, and she couldn't grasp it. There was no way it could be happening. "What... what's going on? What are you talking about?"

        "Domination," he said, with the most evil smile she had ever seen. "Of the universe... and of you."

        Before she could say anything to him, her words were cut off by his lips sealing himself to hers. The blade turned uncomfortably as he shifted position, pressing closer to her. She didn't know what was more painful, the knife or the kiss. For a moment, she was petrified by blind fear and revulsion. Then she snapped.

        Gavin gasped and backed abruptly away, propelled by a very forceful fist rammed with frantic strength into his gut, and the knife dropped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Astronema took one last look at him, his face contorted with pain and the shock of having the wind knocked out of him, eyes wide and mouth open and gasping.

        *Monster,* she thought vaguely. Her mind wasn't working anymore, but that was all right, because her feet knew what was best for her, and they took her at a blind run down the halls of her ship, fleeing in animal terror.

        Gavin watched her, struggling to get his lungs working again. He took a shuddery, unsteady breath, and then another, more certain one. He smiled. She could run if she wanted to, or even put up a fight if she chose, but it wouldn't help her. She hadn't seen anything yet. With that thought in mind, Gavin vanished, leaving only the echoes of his faint, cruel chuckles.

        ~*~

        Lurking in his quarters, Ecliptor was startled to hear someone pounding frantically at his door. He leaped up to open it, disregarding his chair, which fell over with a clatter, and went to open it. Astronema rushed in as if his stark, disordered room were the last safe place in the universe and slammed the door shut so loud that there were noticeable echoes. Before Ecliptor could react, Astronema fell into his arms like a lost child and began to cry her heart out. He was dumbfounded. She had never so much as shed a tear since she was very young, and she had never behaved like this! Awkwardly, he put an arm around her and stroked her hair, as if she were six years old again and needing to be comforted after a nightmare. One thing was very certain in his mind: he was going to find out what was causing this outburst, and then he would find whoever or whatever it was and rip it to bloody shreds.

        Finally, after what seemed like a miserable eternity, she got herself under control, more or less, sniffling and hiccuping but coherent. She wiped ineffectually at her eyes, trying to brush away her tears with her slick leather gloves and doing little more than smearing her makeup. She looked a mess, with mascara and rouge running down her cheeks and her eyes red and puffy. She was still trembling with nervous energy, but she wasn't going to snap again.

        "Are you all right now?" asked Ecliptor.

        "No," she said. "I... don't think I will be... for a while. Gavin... he tried to kill me. He tried to... he kissed me! He - he was after me..."

        "That traitor," snarled Ecliptor. "I never should have trusted him! That miserable, viperous..." He ran out of adjectives and sighed, letting his shoulders slump dejectedly. "Never mind. I deserve the blame as much as anyone."

        Astronema was barely listening. "I can't believe it. My brother, my own brother... Wait a minute. What do you mean, you deserve the blame? You didn't have anything to do with it."

        "Actually, I did," said Ecliptor unhappily. "If it hadn't been for me, it wouldn't have happened. And he did it because he's not your brother. Nothing like it... Astronema, do you trust me?"

        "Of course!" she answered automatically. "You're the only one I do trust."

        "You shouldn't," said Ecliptor. "I'm not worthy of your trust. I've been lying to you, Princess. About everything... and I'm sorry. Please, forgive me, princess. I am so sorry..."

        "Ecliptor... Ecliptor, please, don't cry..."

        He was crying, silently, letting a single silver tear roll down his face.

        "I'm sorry. I'm not going to lie to you anymore," he said slowly. "I think it's time you knew the truth. Gavin is not your brother. I hired him myself and told him to act as your brother, so you would never find the real one. If I had known this was going to happen..."

        "But he had the locket!" Astronema protested. "How would he get it if he wasn't my real brother?"

        "He stole it, and I told him where to find it," Ecliptor answered.

        "You knew who my brother was all along?" she asked. "But... why didn't you tell me to begin with? Who is he? Where can I find him?"

        "Close at hand," said Ecliptor. "The reason why I never told you... you were fighting for the wrong side. Your home was not destroyed by the Power Rangers, but by Dark Specter and his armies, and your brother is the Red Ranger."

        "Andros?" she repeated. Too many things were happening today; it was impossible to be any more surprised.

        Ecliptor nodded. "And your name - your true name - is Karone. I am sorry for hiding your past from you. I only wanted what was best for you - I was trying to protect you. I don't deserve your forgiveness, but..."

        "Don't say it," said Astronema. "Of course I forgive you. Maybe... maybe you lied about some things, and it's going to take me a long time to understand it all, but you never lied to me when you told me you loved me."

        Ecliptor would have smiled, if his face would allow it. Instead, he took a deep sigh of relief. "Thank you... from the bottom of my heart. You should not stay here any longer, though. Gavin is dangerous, and I don't think he's going to take no for an answer. You'll be safer with your real brother."

        Astronema looked uncomfortable. "I don't know if I'm ready to face him yet. What if he doesn't believe me? He could turn on me and destroy me!"

        "He won't need to," said a new voice. "I think we could take care of that problem all by ourselves."

        Ecliptor turned, his red eyes blazing. Gavin stood in the doorway, smirking.

        "Hello again," he said with poisonous good cheer. "Sorry to break up this touching little scene, but I've come to tender my resignation. I've found employment more to my tastes."

        "You get out of here," Ecliptor snarled. "Now. And if I ever see you again, your life is over."

        "I don't think so," said Gavin casually. "Get him!"

        "What?" Ecliptor was momentarily confused - just long enough for someone to appear behind him and catch him in an iron grip. He heard a familiar voice laughing in his ear.

        "We meet again, old friend," said Darkonda.

        "Let him go!" Astronema commanded. She turned on Darkonda, attempting to attack him, but he kept Ecliptor in front of him as a shield.

        "I don't think so," Gavin laughed. "You're coming with us!"

        Astronema felt something sting the back of her neck, and she pressed her hand to the point of pain, feeling something hard and cold - a dart. She brushed it free, but it was too late. Sparks were already dancing before her eyes, and her head spun. She tried to remain on her feet, watching Ecliptor struggle to free himself and come to her aid, but it was no use. With a final gasp of frustration, she dropped to the floor.

        "Good night, princess," said Gavin. "All right, we have what we came for. Let's move."

        "I'm with you. So long, Ecliptor. Next time we meet, you'll be bowing before me!"

        "Never!" shouted Ecliptor. He ripped himself free, not noticing that Darkonda was no longer trying to hold him back. Before he could do anything more, Gavin, Darkonda, and Astronema vanished, leaving him kneeling on the floor in defeat.

        "Too late," he muttered. Then he shook his head. "No, it is not too late! It won't end here. They'll expect me to come looking for her, though... but they won't expect me to bring help. I think it's time the Red Ranger and I had a talk."

        ~*~

        "Okay," said TJ, trying to keep his voice level, "let's run through this one more time and see if I'm understanding you. You're telling me that Gavin stole your locket so that he could convince Astronema that he's her brother, and that means Astronema is really Karone? Is that what you're trying to say?"

        "Yes," said Andros firmly. "What else could it mean?"

        "That maybe you've been bashed over the head one too many times," Zhane answered. "When was the last time you had your head examined?"

        "That's not funny," said Andros. "I'm really sure of this. It all just adds up."

        "How can you be so sure?" asked Carlos. "This could be some kind of trick - or it's just your mind playing tricks on you. You're getting desperate and grabbing at straws."

        "I know I don't have any real proof," Andros replied, "but I trust my intuitions. I have to at least try to find out the truth."

        "I guess it won't do any good to tell you it'll be dangerous," said Cassie without much confidence.

        Andros shook his head. "I'm beyond worrying about danger. Besides, I've already risked my life looking for the truth more times than I can even remember. One more won't make much difference."

        "Unless it's the time you don't manage to come back," Ashley pointed out.

        The other Rangers all stared at their leader with expressions that clearly stated that they agreed with Ashley, and Andros looked back with his best stubborn gaze. It looked as if the argument could have gone on for quite some time if DECA hadn't found the opportunity to interrupt.

        "We are receiving a transmission from the Dark Fortress," she announced. "Do you want to accept it?"

        "Open communication channels," Andros answered at once.

        "I don't think I want to see this," muttered Carlos. "This is not going to be good. I should have stayed in bed." He turned around and began walking out of the bridge, but TJ caught his arm and dragged him back.

        "Oh, no you don't," he said. "We're all in this together."

        The viewing screen was activated, showing Ecliptor's unreadable visage.

        "Red Ranger," he said brusquely, "we need to talk."

        "Yes, we do," Andros agreed. "Does this have something to do with my sister, by any chance?"

        Ecliptor managed to look startled, despite his lack of facial expressions - he literally jumped, if only slightly.

        *He's nervous,* thought Andros, evaluating the monster's stance and posture, *and it's not just about talking to me, either. Something really must be wrong, to have shaken him.*

        "So," Ecliptor said at length, "you finally figured it out? I suppose it's just as well."

        "You mean Astronema really is Andros's sister?" Carlos blurted, surprised.

        "Yes... and she is in danger," answered Ecliptor. "Darkonda and Gavin have taken her away, and I... don't think I can save her alone." His voice was very quiet, and he was not looking directly at the screen. "I need your help."

        There was quiet on the bridge. The pain in Ecliptor's voice was very clear, and no one was quite feeling up to claiming that he might be lying.

        "All right, then," said Andros. "Let's not waste any time. Do you feel like coming aboard?"

        Ecliptor shrugged. "I would be grateful... if you think you can trust me."

        Andros started to say something, but he felt the weight of his friends's eyes resting heavily on him and decided even a leader couldn't call the shots all the time. He turned to face them.

        "Well?" he said. "What will it be?"

        The Rangers looked at each other. TJ took the incentive and spoke.

        "Astronema's our enemy," he said slowly. "If something happens to her, that's going to be a blow for the villains. That being the case..." Andros tensed, waiting for the verdict. "...I think that if there's any chance of bringing her to our side, I say we go for it."

        Andros almost laughed with relief. "Thanks, TJ." He turned back to Ecliptor. "You're coming aboard. Prepare to teleport."

        "Fine. Let's not waste any more time," he replied. "I don't like to think what might be happening to her..."

        ~*~

        Astronema slowly slid back into consciousness and began to take stock of her situation. She had a splitting headache, and her stomach felt faintly queasy from the after-effects of the sleeping-drug. She seemed to be half-sitting, propped carelessly in a corner, as if she were only a sack of potatoes, hardly worth worrying over. Her shoulders ached, and trying to move her arms to relieve some of the strain revealed the fact that her hands were bound tightly behind her back, so that she could barely even bend them. Further experimentation showed that her legs weren't in any better shape. There were voices coming from somewhere in front of her - some distance away, judging by the echoes, though it was hard to tell for sure. She opened her eyes to try to see what was going on, but was met with darkness that was almost total, with only a faint, irregular crack of light to show that there was any escape from this place. The voices were coming from that direction. She lay still again, trying to be perfectly quiet, both to ensure that they wouldn't know she was awake and to facilitate her hearing of them.

        "...sleeping like a Cryothian swamp-pig after a good meal," Gavin was saying. "She's more fragile than I thought. I don't think she'll be coming around any time soon."

        "She doesn't matter," Darkonda replied. "Worry about her later. She's completely at our mercy, and we have bigger fish to fry."

        "Are you sure we can convince him to come?" asked Gavin. "Why is the most important monster in the universe going to listen to a pair of small-time kidnappers?"

        "Maybe you are a small time kidnapper," Darkonda answered haughtily, "but I have been playing this game all my life. I know how to get Dark Specter to come. Just leave it to me."

        "Well, as long as you know what you're doing," Gavin replied.

        "I know exactly what I'm doing," boasted Darkonda. "There is no problem that can't be solved with a suitable application of high explosives. This is all we need to be rid of Dark Specter once and for all. Once he's gone, Astronema will be in charge, and she will abdicate in favor of us."

        *That's what he thinks!* thought Astronema fiercely. *Knowing what I know now, I'd rather abdicate to a Power Ranger! Ecliptor warned me I couldn't trust Darkonda. After everything I believed that wasn't true, why did I have to not listen the one time he was right?*

        She gave a silent sigh; no matter what she would have preferred, she knew she didn't have a lot of real options. She could concede to their demands and leave the two of them in charge of every force in the UAE - not a pretty picture, no matter which side you were on - or she could try to resist, in which case they would probably kill her. Even if she lived, she didn't think she would like the situation she was left in. She remembered Gavin's touch and shuddered.

        *I really hope someone comes to rescue me,* she thought desperately. *Too bad there are no heroes to protect the villains from each other...*

        "As long as you know what you're doing," said Gavin. "You want me to help you set this thing up?"

        "I wouldn't trust you with a string of firecrackers, much less something like this," Darkonda replied. "I'll set it up myself. You keep an eye on Astronema, in case she wakes up."

        "What's she going to do if she wakes up?" asked Gavin, but the scuffing of boots on the gravely floor indicated that he was heading in her direction.

        Suddenly, the dark room was flooded with searing gold light, and Astronema gasped and blinked in surprise. Gavin gave her a startled look that settled into a look of smug amusement.

        "Well, well. The little lady's awake after all," he said. "Have you been eavesdropping on us? How much of our conversation did you hear?"

        "Enough."

        "Enough. Sure. That's a good answer, that is," Gavin replied. "Enough for what, hmm?"

        "Enough to know what you two are up to," answered Astronema. "You aren't going to get away with it, you know."

        "Really? How do you figure that? You've got no one protecting you now, you know. We can do whatever we want and no one is going to stop us. That being the case, I think you should just resign yourself to the inevitable and be cooperative. You might even enjoy yourself..." His eyes traced the outline of her body appreciatively.

        "You keep your hands off me!" she cried in near-panic.

        "I'd like to see you make me," he replied. "Listen, sweetheart, we're going to get this straight right now. I own you. You will cooperate, or various unpleasant things are going to happen. Now, be a good girl and behave, and things will be much more comfortable for you."

        "I'd rather lick a slug," she answered defiantly.

        "Oh, you want to do this the hard way, hmm? That's fine. You and I both know that there are ways of making you do what I want. It's only a matter of time," Gavin replied. "Lucky for you, I have more important things to worry about at the moment. You just stay where you are, and I'll get back to you after we blow your boss to smithereens. I might even let you watch."

        "I'll pass, thanks," said Astronema. "And don't be too sure about destroying Dark Specter. He's stood up to people more powerful than the two of you."

        Gavin just laughed. "Maybe yes, maybe no. Darkonda's the one who want to rule the universe. No matter how this turns out, I've already got what I want."

        He chuckled again and stalked off, radiating smugness. Astronema sighed.

        *This has definitely not been one of the better days of my life.*

        ~*~

        From her station at the controls of the Megaship, Ashley was observing Andros and Ecliptor. They were hanging around at the front of the bridge, staring out the window at the steady stream of stars, trying not to show how acutely uncomfortable they were. It looked very strange to have a fully qualified monster on board, and everyone was trying very hard to pretend it was commonplace... a bit too hard, Ashley mused, watching how everyone seemed to navigate around him without actually looking at him. The only one who wasn't giving him the invisible treatment was Andros. Though they weren't speaking or even looking at each other, there was something in the way they stood that suggested support rather than avoidance.

        *I guess they can get along with each other, now that they've found something in common,* she thought. *Funny how they fought each other so long over the same thing that's pulling them together now...*

        Andros stared, not really concerned as to where. He was still trying to sort out everything that had happened today - almost too much for his sensitive psyche. It was hard to accept that the princess whose life he had come close to claiming on a number of occasions was actually his beloved sister that he had been searching for all these years. It rattled him badly to think that he could have destroyed her and never known. It was almost as bad knowing that he could have done the same to the creature who was standing next to him, silencing him forever and keeping him from ever finally telling the truth...

        "Why did you decide to tell me, anyway?" he asked aloud. "And why wait until now?"

        "Because there is nothing in the universe that frightens me except the possibility of losing her. She is the only one I have ever cared about," answered Ecliptor softly. "I was lonely before she came - I never realized how much until I found her. You can't understand what that kind of loneliness is like."

        "Can't I?" asked Andros, just as quietly. "I lost my entire world, once. First my sister, and then Zhane, and all the people from my planet, all my family and friends... after that battle, I thought I must have been the most lonely person in the universe."

        "I see. I'm sorry."

        "You don't have to apologize. Things are getting better. At least I've got my friends here with me, now... and don't worry, we'll get Karone back, too."

        "We will, and we will teach those kidnappers a lesson," said Ecliptor. Andros was very glad that for once, the anger in that voice wasn't directed at him.

        "I agree. We have a score to settle."

        As the two of them continued talking, Ashley beckoned to the other Rangers and indicated for them to look, which they did.

        "What do you think?" she said.

        TJ managed a grin. "Looks like two old friends to me."

        "And a good thing, too," Zhane replied. "Ecliptor does not make a good enemy."

        "Heads up, guys," said Cassie suddenly. "I've got a lock on Astronema... or Karone, or whoever she is."

        Two heads snapped around in unison.

        "Where?" said Andros and Ecliptor together.

        "On the planet Namreh. I'm working on getting the exact coordinates," Cassie replied.

        "Setting a course for Namreh," said DECA, before anyone could even issue the order.

        Andros nodded. "Thanks, DECA. Carlos, set the engines to maximum hyper-rush velocity. Ashley, set up the stealth shields - we don't want them to know we're coming if we can help it. We're going in, and we're not coming back without my sister."

        ~*~

        Gavin watched with mild amusement as Darkonda shoveled dirt. He had spent the last hour or so digging a number of shallow holes and trenches, covering a roughly circular area with one large indentation in the center, and had then filled these small voids with lengths of cable and other small devices, the whole of it being connected to one large and complex explosive device. Darkonda hadn't mentioned where he had happened to come across such a thing, but he had taken a while to brag about its power and how much he'd had to pay to get it. It was a time bomb, of sorts, so that they could trigger it and then escape safely before it went off. The time factor would also serve as a reassurance to the Dark Specter, should he actually choose to come. Gavin still didn't quite believe that the Monarch of Darkness himself would choose to come to the princess's rescue... but then again, he might, and it paid to be prepared. Gavin had to admit that the ransom note had been cleverly written, containing just the right amount of information to make the evil monarch curious and just the right insulting tone, with a veiled but clear insinuation that the Dark Specter was too pompous and cowardly to answer the note personally, to make him angry enough to come see for himself what was going on. The amount of preparation that was going into this whole operation was testimony to Darkonda's skill in this business, and Gavin was suitably impressed.

        Astronema was also impressed - and a little afraid. She had been hoping that the two of them would somehow spoil the job, and that she might yet get out of this mess, but she was rapidly losing faith in that idea. It was looking very much like her two captors were ready, willing, and able to carry out their plans, and that left her in a less than pleasant situation. She was now completely sorry for every time she had ever left any prisoner bound like this, and had already sworn to every power that was that she would never do it again if she could only be freed and get out alive. It was infuriating, especially when the means of ridding herself of her enemies, or at least foiling their plans, was right in front of her.

        Sitting five feet away, resting against the wall opposite from her, was a box. It was a very large metal box, with a liberal allowance of dials and switches, quite clearly a control panel for something. She had already deduced that the box was related to the bomb that Darkonda had rigged for the purpose of destroying Dark Specter, and she was guessing that the little clock dials were time settings, currently set to a half-hour countdown.

        *If only I could reach it,* she thought. *If I could detonate that thing right now, they'd both go up in smoke. I'm sorry I ever did anything to get on the Power Rangers's bad side. I'd give anything to have one of them on my side right now... Andros, my brother, we may never have a chance to be what we should have been...*

        Meanwhile, unnoticed by anyone, there was a gathering of colored shapes moving through the shrubbery - red, blue, pink, yellow, silver, and two blacks, one tinged with green. They moved stealthily, keeping to the shadows and talking in whispers.

        "There they are," said Ecliptor in his lowest growl, peering through the foliage.

        "Where?" asked Ashley. "I don't see anything, with all these leaves in the way."

        "My eyesight is better than yours - I was built to see well from a distance. Darkonda is doing something in the middle of a clearing, and Gavin is off to one side watching."

        "I see them," Andros said, "but I don't see Karone. She must be in that cave back there."

        "I'll go look," Ecliptor volunteered.

        "Not without me, you don't," Andros replied.

        "No. They both know who you are. If they don't see you with the other Rangers, they'll know something is wrong. It will be safer if you and your comrades distract them while I rescue... Karone." There was a faint smile in his voice as he added, "Teach Darkonda a lesson for me."

        Andros smiled back behind his mask. "An honor. Come on, guys. It's show time."

        The Rangers moved steadily toward the clearing, while Ecliptor detached himself from the group and, dark and silent as a cloud-shadow, slipped off in the direction of the cave.

        Unaware of the approaching danger, Darkonda scooped the last shovelful of dirt into place and patted it down with a satisfied chuckle.

        "Perfect," he said. "A perfectly innocent clearing. Dark Specter will never know what hit him."

        "I give credit where credit is due; you are the master," said Gavin.

        "Of course I am!" Darkonda replied. "You've got to get up pretty early in the morning to put one past me. I know every trick in the book - I wrote the book!"

        "Um," said Gavin, as a flit of motion caught his attention. "Do you know any tricks for getting rid of Power Rangers?"

        "Huh? Why would...?" Darkonda trailed off as he turned around. Six armored warriors looked impassively back at him.

        "We meet again," said Andros coldly. "Hand over my sister right now, or you both are going to be in serious trouble."

        "Oh, really?" answered Darkonda with his usual grating laugh. "I don't think so, Rangers. Remember, I know how to deal with you. I'm not easy to finish off."

        "Enough talk, then," said TJ, drawing his Astro Axe. "Let's see what you two are really made of!"

        "Fine," said Darkonda replied. He drew the blade at his side and held it up, letting it shimmer and elongate to a full-sized sword. Gavin drew his own weapon, and he and his partner charged the Rangers.

        Astronema, confused by the sounds of an ensuing battle, twisted around, trying vainly to get a glimpse of what was going on outside. She thought she could make out the shapes of the warriors as they fought, but she was too far away and getting to limited a look to see what was really going on. Suddenly, her entire view of the combat was blocked out by a dark shape standing in the tunnel. She blinked, trying to readjust her eyes to see who or what it was.

        "Ecliptor!" she exclaimed.

        "Shh!" he hissed back. "Do you want someone to hear you?"

        "Sorry," she answered, more quietly. "Oh, am I ever glad to see you again!"

        "Are you all right?" asked Ecliptor, dodging the sentimentality.

        "I'm fine. They... hadn't had time to do anything yet."

        "Good. If they had, they would have regretted it. Can you turn around? I'm going to cut the ropes."

        There was a brief struggle as Astronema tried to twist around backwards with her hands still tied, and managed with Ecliptor's help. The keen edge of his sword made short work of her bonds, and soon she was free and rubbing her sore wrists and ankles.

        "That's a relief," she said.

        "We need to hurry and get out of here," said Ecliptor. "I'm not certain how those Rangers are going to fare against the creatures who captured you." He spat the word out, as if it were an obscenity.

        "The Rangers? They're here?" asked Astronema, with an odd mix of apprehension and eagerness.

        Ecliptor nodded. "I thought I might need some help, and your brother wanted a stab at your kidnappers."

        Astronema smiled. "I'm glad you brought him. Thank you."

        "Thank me later. We need to go."

        "Not yet. I want a stab at these people, too, you know."

        "Really? What have you got in mind?"

        In reply, Astronema gave her mentor her best evil princess smile.

        "One thing I've learned from Darkonda," she said. "There is no problem that can't be solved by a suitable application of high explosives." She nodded in the direction of the machine. Ecliptor studied it a moment.

        "Hmm," he said thoughtfully. "I think I like it."

        Outside, the battle continued. The team was divided, three Rangers to a villain, but Darkonda and Gavin were holding their own. Andros was keeping his word to Ecliptor, crossing swords furiously with Darkonda. It was about time the bounty hunter got his payment for stealing Karone.

        *I've lost her once. I'm not losing her again.*

        There was a sudden crackle of electricity - purple electricity that leapt across the battlefield, striking at Darkonda and Gavin and narrowly missing a few of the Rangers. All eyes turned toward the mouth of the cave, where Astronema stood with her staff held at attack position.

        "Hey, watch where you're aiming that thing, would you?" Carlos complained.

        She blushed. "Oops. Missed."

        "Karone! You're all right!" cried Andros.

        "Yes, I'm fine, but we've got to get out of here," she called back, running to join her brother. "We just set off a bomb!"

        "You did what?" Ashley repeated.

        "No time!" Ecliptor said. "Move it out, now!"

        Andros shrugged. "You heard them. Let's get moving."

        As the Rangers and their new allies fled the battlefield, Gavin looked to Darkonda in puzzlement.

        "Shouldn't we be running, too?" he asked.

        Darkonda just laughed. "Don't be ridiculous! The bomb was set on a timer. It won't go off for another half-hour!"

        Somewhere just beyond the scene of the fight, everyone had paused in their running, and the Rangers had taken a moment to demorph. They all looked back in the direction they had come from to admire a large and sudden bloom of fire and smoke. The earth trembled from the force of the explosion. Ecliptor nodded in satisfaction.

        "Five minutes," he said. "And that takes care of that."

        "Wasn't that a little extreme?" asked Ashley.

        Astronema - or Karone - shuddered a little. "They deserved it. You have no idea..."

        "Well, I'm glad it's all over," Andros replied, "and I'm really glad to have you back again. I mean, I know this is going to be strange... you are going to stay with us, aren't you?"

        "I think I just might," she replied with a shy smile, "if you all don't really mind. I know you'll be a good brother to me... better than some people I could mention. I never want anything like this to happen again - not to me or anyone else. If you'll have me, I'd be honored to help you all."

        "Consider yourself officially welcomed!" said Zhane, grinning. She smiled back and blushed a little, and the other Rangers exchanged meaningful grins and winks.

        "And... what about me?" asked Ecliptor. "Am I also welcomed?"

        "Do you want to be?" asked Andros.

        "My loyalties always lie with my adopted daughter, no matter which side she may be on," he answered. "Besides, I've seen enough evil today to last me the rest of my life. I'll cast my lot with warriors who fight with honor."

        Andros smiled at him. "In that case, I think we'd be happy to have you come along... right, guys?"

        TJ nodded. "The more the merrier, right? We need all the allies we can get!"

        There was a chorus of agreement, and Karone hugged her mentor joyfully.

        "I'm glad you're coming. I'd miss you if you weren't there," she said.

        "You know I'd do anything for you," he replied. "I want to make up for what happened today."

        "Don't worry. It all came out all right in the end," she said.

        "Hey, Andros," said TJ, "you realize you aren't going to get your locket back now, right? It's been blown sky-high."

        "That's okay," Andros replied. "I've got the real thing now, remember? And you've got to admit, that was a lot more fun than throwing it in a lake."

        The other Rangers laughed, and Karone smiled.

        "The real thing," she repeated, "and that's something that you can't buy, hire, or imitate. I'm glad we found each other, Andros."

        "Same here," he replied.

        "You know what would make me glad?" Zhane piped up. "If we could all go back to the ship and get some lunch! I'm starved!"

        "Good idea," Cassie agreed. She gave Ecliptor a speculative look. "What do monsters eat, anyway?"

        "We'll figure something out," TJ replied. "Last one back to the ship does the cooking!"

        Laughing, they teleported away, feeling that, for a little while, anyway, the universe was in perfect order.