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Old April 25th, 2017, 09:16 AM   #41
y3k
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Thank you! One of my big reasons for writing this was that I wanted to try and build a coherent, workable universe out of all the lego pieces the PRU had given me over the years. I'm really glad you're enjoying it.

Buckle up though, because I've only got one more stand-alone in store, and then it's off to the road to the finale. We're at the final seven.
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Old May 10th, 2017, 07:39 AM   #42
y3k
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The star was one no one ever noticed. It was your standard red dwarf; a ‘trash’ star left off of most star charts because it was unremarkable, had no interesting worlds of note, and was well off the major trade lanes. Long range sensors had picked up three small gas giant worlds, a dozen or so small ice moons divided up between them, and an average asteroid belt near the star itself. No one had bothered investigating further, because simply put, there were a million others like it. A million other stars closer to the trade lanes, or with more valuable worlds, or, or, or…

No one ever bothered checking this system out by chance because frankly, no one cared enough to. Which was too bad really, because if someone had explored this system, they would have found something genuinely remarkable about it.

This star was older than the calculated age of the universe.

Another remarkable thing about it was one of the larger asteroids that rested within the belt. It didn’t look like the others; at its size, it should have been a dwarf planet, gravity should have pulled it into a spherical shape, but it wasn’t. No, it was flat, yet...symmetrical.

And in the shape of a turtle.

---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Season 3

3.08: The Zord Builders


---

It was a strange thing, suddenly finding yourself an admiral, or a general. Not technically, Sid supposed, as he didn’t actually have a military rank, but the effect was the same—he was now in de facto charge of the entire Peacekeeper organization.

...Or what was left of it at least; a little under two dozen teams of hastily recruited newbies. Funny that; technically the organization was larger than ever, but was way less capable than it had been before the war. A few had noped out; he’d been told about at least three teams who had decided not to stick around, and another two who were still on the fence. He wasn’t going to stop them; truth be told, he didn’t blame them after all that had happened, and he had bigger issues to deal with anyway. Poor kids had probably signed up to be heroes—and suddenly it turns out it was all a lie. If Sid was an untrained newbie, he probably would have dropped out too.

Sid made his way down the ‘central’ pathway of the makeshift camp the teams had established on the jungle moon’s surface, the twin midday suns making the air a hot, humid mess. It wasn’t *really* a camp mind you, it was just the area of flat land where they’d decided to park their ships. Still, it sufficed for the moment. It was actually a fair bit bigger and busier than it had been the other day, but that had been expected, considering everything.

...And that was the other part of it. Since part of the joint Machine-Triforian fleet had arrived to help evacuate the Peacekeeper teams and his meetings with General Quickspur and King Ihara, Sid had been coming to terms more and more with the fact that he’d essentially elected himself as some sort of war hero...general...thing. He didn’t dare stop to think about it, because the stress would probably kill him.

Not that he had any time to stop and think about anything mind you; since sending out his declaration of intent to the universe, the Defender Megaship’s comm systems had been ringing nonstop. Captain Yorhor and B’rnix had of course re-affirmed their commitment, but he had also been getting messages from many of the surviving former Confederate militaries. The Karovian and Aquitian forces most definitely, but also a number of Horathean cells, a message from Elder Sesh and the Xybrian elder council, and even a few brief communiques from Delarn’s team back in the Tenga colonies. And that wasn’t even counting the odd inquiries from beyond Confederate space.

For the first time, it felt like they had a real chance at building some sort of makeshift alliance. Maybe they could actually win this.

...Well, first they had to figure out where Alpha’s base was, but still!

“Boy howdy, that was one heck of a message you sent them Antipode varmints!” Quickspur cackled as Sid neared his landed gearship. Groups of cogs and rangers moved in and about, transferring supplies from one ship to another as they prepared to move out, “Though, ain’t ya concerned about reprisal? Alpha will be huntin’ you kids down”.

Sid turned to him, looking away from the data pad he’d been reading—a message from his father he’d been debating on how to respond to; “A little bit. That’s why I want everyone off this moon as soon as possible. We need to consolidate as soon as possible, and keep out of sight until then. But I needed everyone to know what was going on at once—we weren’t getting anywhere with the other method”.

“I getya, don’t worry” the general replied as they arrived at the Gearship ramp, “We’re almost done loadin’ the wagons anyway. Another two hours and we should be good to get underway”.

“Good” Sid replied, “The sooner the better”. He really didn’t want to be around when the Antipodes or SPD or whoever decided to come sniffing around, now that everyone knew they were at where Lambda base had existed not long ago.

“Sid!”

Sid’s attention was diverted to Tesas running up to him. He had to admit; he and Sitras were becoming a real help. They’d been assisting Sid on managing the sudden deluge of emails and messages...though Sid had been wondering how the aquitian was handling the heat so well as the younger ranger rushed over to him. Then again, humidity had to be at like, a hundred percent, hence Sid’s copious sweat. Tesas might actually have been loving this kind of weather.

Damn aquitians.

“What’s up?” Sid asked him, even as a data pad was thrust into his hands. He began scrolling, “...What’s this?”

“Another message from that Admiral Drake dude. I guess he really wants to speak with you”.

Sid let out a deflating sigh. He guessed he HAD been avoiding dad, even if he told himself he’d just been stumped on how to respond. Well, he was. But still. Sid handed the pad back to the aquitian as he dejectedly began to head for the Defender Megaship, “...I’ll be in my quarters if anyone needs me”.

He and his dad had talked a little bit after the whole Machine Empire Diplomatic Incident, when Capricorn had almost killed the old man. But things had come up, and their relationship was still strained after all those years, so the messages had dried up. And then...well, Sid had spent three months in an SPD prison and left to die. So yeah, this was going to be awkward.

Hooray.

---

“So you’ve been busy” the bearded, middle-aged visage of Admiral Drake remarked dryly on Sid’s screen.

Sid offered an awkward, sheepish smile, “...Hey, dad”.

The admiral continued, just as dry as before, “You know, most kids bring home news about their college grades, or who their new girlfriend is. You uncover conspiracies and topple governments”.

Sid shrugged, the smile growing wider despite himself, “...Let’s be fair, this isn’t the worst thing you’ve caught me doing”.

A rattled, weary sigh—the kind of one that could only be made by a man who was old, wizened, and had Seen Things. “So, what happens now?” Not judgment, not yet. Information gathering.

Sid shifted in his seat, “...Now?”

“Yes Sid, now. Your plan”.

“...I need your fleet” Sid relied, as simply as possible, “I’m building an armada of sorts”.

“And where do you need my fleet to go?”

“That’s...we’re still figuring that out” Sid said reluctantly. Here it came—judgment. Damnit; this is why they didn’t talk.

The admiral rubbed the bridge of his nose in irritation, “Damnit, Sid. You transmitted your intentions to your enemy but you’re not ready to move on him?!”

“I didn’t have a choice!” Sid bit back, his tone rising, “My options are kind of limited here, and in case you didn’t check those files I sent out, time’s kind of against us”.

His father gave him The Stare, “No, you did what you always did; you jumped out ass-first without considering the bigger pict--”

Sid rose in his chair, angry as shit, “No, the ‘bigger picture’ is that we’ll all be dead if I wait to build our forces only after I have a location! They could move, they could do whatever. And I can’t build a fleet if the Bad Guys keep having everybody kill each other!” he sat back down, forcing himself to calm down, “You might not like my methods, but right now I need you to *trust* me”.

“You’ve made yourself a target you know” his father said, his tone flat.

“I know”.

Admiral Drake looked away, rubbing his nose again, “...I just...I need you to be safe, Sid. I want you to be safe”.

Sid glanced down, his eyes closed as he realized this was about as close as his father was going to get to pouring his heart out. “...We both know that’s impossible”.

“I know”.

Silence reigned for a moment before his father spoke again, this time quieter, “...Where do you need my forces?”

“Where are you right now?” Sid asked as their gaze met again.

Another sigh as his father shifted in his seat, “...Scattered. What’s left of our fleets have reduced themselves to hit and run attacks. We can’t take the main Alliance fleet in a straight-up brawl, so we’re simply hitting their supply lines, keeping them off balance and taking the pressure off the Terran colonies that are still holding their siege”.

“Keep doing what you’re doing then” Sid replied, “I don’t want all our forces in one place for any length of time. Not...not after last time. I just need you to be ready. I want you to coordinate with Quickspur and Ihara”.

“So you *do* think” his father said, the faintest hints of a grin forming.

Sid smiled back, “Only on Tuesdays”.

“...When you call, we’ll be there” the admiral said at last.

“Thank you” Sid replied, in earnest.

The link shut down. There were no goodbyes, no ‘I love you’s. Maybe...maybe someday there would be, but they weren’t quite there yet.

Assuming of course, there were going to be ‘somedays’. Sid groaned as facepalmed; he didn’t even have any idea of the time frame they were working with here. The antipodes were going to activate the xenoformer in the next twenty minutes for all he knew.

Damnit all.

---

Another Megaship took off, rising into the sky. Most of the others had already left, splitting up into small groups. Each wing of the joint Machine-Triforian fleet would be complimented with one or two Peacekeeper Megaships.

What strange bedfellows.

“We ready to go?”

Sid turned from watching Team Nineteen fly off from his position just off the Defender Megaship’s ramp. Xolin came up to him. He nodded, “Yeah. Everybody’s away. Time to get the hell out of here”.

The two made their way to the bridge where the Trok and Nikki already were. The decision had been made to let Tesas as Sitras go off with General Quickspur for now—the old machine had taken a bit of a liking to them, and frankly as helpful as they’d been, the smaller the group Sid had to keep together right now, the better. They’d likely be getting into some deep shit in the near future, and there wouldn’t be any room for error. The two had protested of course, but in the end they understood. As he took the captain’s seat, the last Machine gearship lifted off into the sky.


“Ready on your orders” Trok said.

Sid nodded, “Take us out”.

The Defender Megaship lit up, lifting itself off the ground with a mighty roar. It hovered there for but a moment, letting the grass and other plants rustle in the artifical wind before the vessel took off, speed climbing exponentially as it veered off into space. As they left the atmosphere, the team caught sight of numerous gearships, triforian pyramid battleships, and megaships as they all began to warp out in groups.

“And so it begins” Nikki muttered to herself.

Xolin eyed her for a second, her expression unreadable, before turning to Sid, “So what now?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? They had a million things to do and not nearly enough time to do them in. So many potential allies to recruit, and they still had to somehow locate the Antipode base. They could scan for concentrations of Morphin Grid power of course, but the problem there was that it was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack; the Antipodes could be anywhere in the known universe, and there were a multitude of other possible sources of Morphin energy concentration, as Trok had explained.

Thankfully however, Trok had an answer here too, “Actually, I’m picking up a distress signal”.

All heads turned to Trok. Sid frowned, “...I’m sorry Trok, but I’m not sure we have the time to deal with sidequests right now”. Harsh, but true. Sid wished they could help, but at any given time there were a million things happening in just a few light-years’ radius. They could stop to help, but if they kept stopping to help when time was of the essence, then everyone would pay for it.

Trok shook his head, “No, this is...weird. The SOS was beamed directly to us, using one of the signals we gave out in your message”.

Okay. Now THAT was interesting, “...What’s the distress call say?” Sid asked.

Trok shrugged, “It doesn’t. It’s just an automated beacon. Whoever sent it out couldn’t get a full message out”.

“...Or didn’t want to” Nikki finished, “This sounds like a trap”.

“Antipodes” Xolin agreed.

Trok turned back to his console, “Good point. Ignoring”.

“No, wait”.

Everyone turned back to Sid. Nikki gave him an odd look, “...You can’t be serious” she said flatly.

In return, Sid gave a wry expression, “We could get their base’s location from them directly”.

Nikki wasn’t buying it, “By triggering their trap? Sid, they’ll kill us”.

“We’ll have to face them eventually anyway. This way at least, we’d be outflanking them. We know they know, but they don’t know we know. We’ll catch them flatfooted”.

“And if they won’t give up the location?” Xolin asked.

“Then we’ve at least eliminated a few more antipodes” Sid said, “There’s not that many left. The more we take out, the more desperate Alpha becomes”.

Silence reigned as the rangers contemplated this turn of events.

“...I say we do it” Trok said firmly, “Even if it’s not them, we can still gain an ally”.

Xolin nodded, “Agreed”.

Nikki gave the rest of them irritated looks and a sigh of exasperation, “Alright, sure, why not. Let’s go get ourselves killed”.

“Where’s the signal coming from?” Sid asked Trok.

The horathean pressed a few holographic buttons on his console, “...A small red dwarf star, just on the other side of this galaxy. Real close by”.

“What’s the name?” Nikki asked.

A few more taps. Trok’s brow furrowed in a mix of confusion and...irritation? “It...doesn’t have one”.

“What do you mean it doesn’t have one?” Sid asked in disbelief, “It’s gotta have at least a serial number, or a provisional code”.

Trok shrugged, giving up on his search, “I’m telling you, this thing doesn’t show up on any star charts, or in any registry lists or...anything. As far as the database is concerned, it doesn’t exist”.

Xolin and Nikki glanced at each other. Xolin frowned, “That...doesn’t make any sense”.

Nikki folded her arms, leaning back in contemplation, “I guess...by sheer probability, there had to be a star out there somewhere that had been overlooked. Still, that’s...really weird”.

Sid agreed, “*Really* weird. Alright, take us out. To where no one’s gone before” he frowned, considering, “...Literally, in our case”.

The Megaship turned on its axis as it left the moon’s orbit, setting its course. Its engines roared to life. A moment later, it jumped to Hyperrush speeds, vanishing from the system.

---

“Alpha”.

Alpha turned from his station. He was in his office, and had been coordinating the repair efforts on the station in the aftermath of Sel’s escape attempt. It had been difficult; most of the SPD personnel they’d enlisted had become less than willing to perform their duties ever since Sid had blown everything out in the open. Most simply refused to work, and there were more than a few rumors that open mutiny was on the table—the only reason they hadn’t was likely the fact that no one knew who else could be trusted, and so the necessary organization hadn’t manifested yet. Yet, Alpha knew this confusion wouldn’t last. In the end, he’d been forced to restrict most of the base personnel to their rooms, leaving only a skeleton crew of those he was pretty sure he could still trust, as well as a number of Krybots Epsilon and Beta had ordered in from the Troobian Empire a few weeks earlier. Yet even this he knew was a temporary solution.

The leader of the Antipodes turned as Beta walked into his personal workspace, a sterile utilitarian white room with numerous computer systems everywhere. “What have you got for me?”

“Bad news, I’m afraid” she said matter-of-factly as she moved over to him. With a few taps she switched one of his holo-monitors over to security footage of Sel’s old room, “You’ll want to see this”.

So Alpha watched. He watched as the Man with the Briefcase appeared in Sel’s room and talked to her. He watched as he tried to turn her loose on their cause. He watched as he left her the means to free herself—the power disruptor they’d found attached to the console on her door. His fists clenched at the reveal of this sudden betrayal.

“Where is he?” Alpha growled.

“At the moment? I don’t know”.

The recording looped. Alpha’s anger grew, “...Find him. Bring him to me. I don’t suffer traitors well”.

“...As you command” Beta replied, turning to leave.

“While you’re out” Alpha said, stopping her even as his eyes remained locked on the recording, “Do we have enough Krybots to hold the station?”

“...We have enough for a skeleton crew, I think”.

“Activate them all. Then procure more. Our employees have expended their use”.

She nodded, “I still have a few aliases I can use to procure more. What should we do with the SPD personnel?”

Alpha’s reply was resolute, “Terminate them”.

Beta paused, concerned, “...All of them? A few are still loyal”.

“They have, for whatever reason, chosen to willingly betray their own universe for short-term gain. I have no use for soldiers with no conviction or honor or trust”.

A beat of silence, “...As you command” Beta repeated as she turned once more and headed for the exit.

“...Oh, and Beta” Alpha added, again stopping her at the door. She paused, but did not turn around, “I haven’t forgotten you left Zeta to die”.

Her hand on the doorway clenched, “...He covered my retreat. If he hadn’t, the rangers would have fried us both”.

Alpha’s reply was cold and even, even as the recording looped again, “...Do not fail me again”.

“...Yes sir” Beta subdued reply sounded, before the blue antipode finally left the room. Alpha stared daggers at the image of the Man with the Briefcase.

---

It was a system older than time, untouched for an age.

The Megaship warped in, arriving near the outermost of the three small gas giants, near one of its icy moons. The star’s red light cascaded eerily off the would-have-been light green coloring of the gas giant.

“...Anything?” Sid asked from the captain’s chair.

Xolin shook her head as she studied the system’s layout on a holographic display, “...I’m reading three small gas giants, all well outside the life-zone of the star. There’s an asteroid belt further in, but other than that...”

“...Spectrographic analysis is picking up something weird” Trok said, “...By all rights, this star should be over eighteen billion years old”.

Sid turned to him, “...The universe is only fourteen billion”.

“That’s why I said it’s weird”.

Xolin groaned, “No please, no more eldritch horror. I had enough of that on Eltar”.

“Hang on” Trok said, interrupting her, “Beacon’s coming from the asteroid belt...and I’m getting some odd readings”.

“...Odd how?” Sid asked.

“...A massive influx of Morphin energy” Trok said, his own voice in disbelief as his gaze shifted to the star on the viewscreen. Everyone jumped up at that.

“...It couldn’t be” Xolin said breathlessly.

Nikki shook her head, “No, it couldn’t. Why would the Antipodes lead us to their own base? That doesn’t make sense”.

Sid made note of their arguments, then turned his full attention on the viewscreen, his decision made, “Alright, no use getting our hopes up. Xolin, take us in. Carefully”.

The Megaship made a B-line for the asteroid belt. The star, which had seemed little more than a speck from the gas giant, now dominated the sky like an angry god, its harsh light filling everything.

“...Energy readings are spiking directly ahead” Trok reported. As the Megaship rounded an asteroid, the rangers spied their target dead ahead—a huge asteroid almost the size of a planet, but clearly not spherical in shape.

“...What the hell is that?” Xolin exclaimed, rising out of her seat to get a better look.

Sid squinted, trying to get a good look at it even with the hellish light of the star behind it. As it came into view as the Megaship took up a position over it, he saw it was in a very familiar shape.

A turtle.

Sid’s eyes bulged, “...That’s impossible”.

Nikki, too, had gotten out of her seat, and was now leaning against the bar behind Sid’s chair, her expression a mixture of confusion and wonder, “...Is that…?”

“...I think it’s an animarium” Sid replied, confirming Nikki’s question.

Trok’s hands moved over his console like lightning, “...It’s at least two and a half thousand kilometers in length. Spirits. Detecting...” he paused, as if trying to come to grips with his own report, “...I’m detecting lifesigns. Lots of lifesigns”.

“...The hell is an animarium doing out here?” Nikki asked in wonder, “Better question, how the hell is there another animarium?”

“...That’s a *very* good question” Sid said, “...Xolin, move us to--” The ship shook. “What the hell was that?!” Sid demanded. The ship shook again. Lights and console stations flickered.

“Reading massive power drain!” Trok reported, “We’re being pulled in!”

“Get us out of here!” Sid ordered, “Full reverse!”

Xolin tried, “...I can’t! Engines are down!”

Trok’s reply was a little too frantic for Sid’s taste, “All ship functions are shutting down!”

Some of the consoles sparked. Lights began to fail. On the viewscreen, the turtle began to get a whole lot bigger.

“...Oh boy” Sid breathed, before taking control again, “Everyone buckle in! This is going to get rough! Xolin, can you guide us in!?”

“I...I think so!” Xolin said, a little panicky, “Hang on!”

The Megaship nosedived towards the turtle, heading for the night side of the flat structure. Like the much smaller animarium back on Earth, the edges were ringed with mountains, which contained forests and seas and deserts within. Space soon gave way to cloudy atmosphere, and the ship’s heat shield armor began to be tested as the Megaship became a fiery comet across the night sky. Xolin pulled up as much as she possibly could, but it wasn’t enough. The Megaship clipped one of the interior mountains, nearly knocking everyone out of their seat as the ship closed in on the forest below.

Everyone gripped their seat tight, closing their eyes tight as impact became imminent.

This was going to suck.

The landing *did* knock everyone out of their seat, as the ship rolled right through the forest, tearing trees and hills apart until it finally came to a complete, and merciful, stop.

“...Ow” Trok groaned, pulling himself up pitifully.

“Damage report!” Sid managed, gripping the base of his seat as he tried to untangle himself from the underside of a console.

“Power’s down, emergency power’s still functioning” Trok said, noting the red lights that had replaced the normal lightning, “...Barely. I think we got out pretty okay with the crash...we’re pretty banged up, but we didn’t loose anything”.

“What happened?” asked Xolin, before bumping her head on a console, “Ow!”

Trok shrugged, even as he tried to activate a few of the now off-lined systems, “Not a clue. Power just...died”.

“We need it back, Trok” Sid said.

Trok nodded and headed for the door, “You’ll get it. I’m going down to engineering”.

“Nikki, you go with him” Sid said, “Xol, you’re with me. We need to do some scouting”.

“...Can we even morph like this?” Xolin asked him as they all headed for the door, making sure not to bump into each other in the darkened corridor, “We might have to switch to life-force mode”. She hated life force mode...using her own life energy to power anything seemed…wrong somehow. Like she was stealing from her own health.

“Hmm” Trok mused, “I wonder” he activated his morpher as they walked down the hall, instantly transforming into the green ranger, “Hah! I was right!”

“...About what?” Sid asked as the horathean demorphed.

Trok grinned like a kid in a candy shop, “This whole...planet or whatever, it’s absolutely *swimming* in Morphin Energy”.

“Then why is the ship out of power?” Xolin asked.

Trok’s brow furrowed, his smile vanishing a bit, “...That’s what I intend to find out. But you guys shouldn’t have any problems”.

“Good” Sid said, as he and Xolin morphed, “Good luck. We’ll be back shortly”. They took a left in the hallway; Trok and Nikki took a right.

“We’ll be here!” Trok replied jovially as the two groups split.

---

The first thing Xolin stepped into upon exiting the ship was thick, water-sucking mud.

“...Ah” she said, disgusted as she pulled her boot out, “...It’s going to be one of those planets”.

“Not actually a planet” Sid corrected her, making a short leap to more solid ground—a collection of rocks just ahead. The ship had crashed in a ravine in the forest, the thick foliage obscuring all but the barest hints of the cloud cover above them. Their suits had switched on headlights so they could see.

“Not the point!” she lobbed back, before following him. The two began to climb up the rockface leading out of the ravine, and promptly stopped when they reached the crest.

“...Woah” Xolin breathed.

“You got that right” Sid replied, equally impressed.

Ahead of them, the ground sloped down into more jungle which went on for miles. In the distance, snow-capped mountains rose high up, flanked by a large lake. The jungle itself was...well, alien. Even in the dark, they could tell the vegetation was darker than usual, likely a byproduct of existing near a red dwarf star. It was purple, almost black...except for the parts that glowed brilliantly with many bio-luminescent colors. Some looked like ‘regular’ trees, some like willows, others like giant fungal growths; mushrooms. Most interesting though, was that directly ahead existed some sort of ancient complex; angular buildings that almost reminded Sid of some pictures of ancient ruins back on Earth. ‘Ankgor Wat’ he thought it had been called, though this city was much bigger and taller. In the sky, in the distance, they could make out something metallic yet organic in shape, and very large, flying across the horizon.

“...I’ve missed this” Sid said, chuckling.

“...Missed what?” Xolin asked.

Sid motioned out to the forest, “Just...this. Ending up ass-up somewhere alien and running with it. Just another random adventure, and not fighting a losing war for our very survival”.

“...We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” she asked.

He nudged her arm playfully before swinging around and beginning his slide down the other side and towards the alien ruins, “We’re not done yet. Come on!” With a small smile, Xolin quickly joined him.

---

“So what’s an ‘animarium’?” Xolin asked as they continued their trek through the jungle undergrowth.

“Hm?” Sid replied, “Oh. The Animarium was a magical floating island back on Earth. It was the home of an entire ecosystem of zords. Crazy stuff. Used to be home to an ancient civilization”.

“What happened to it?” she asked.

He shrugged, “Dunno. Probably destroyed during the Fall. No one’s been dumb enough to try and land on Earth since the quarantine”.

“You ever go? Before everything went down, I mean”.

“Nah. My dad went a couple times though; for work. I was just a kid when SPD pulled out and put the quarantine up. It just felt sort of like a far-away thing, you know? I mean sure, Mirinoi sort of became the de-facto capital of the colonies, but pretty soon we were at war with the Alliance over it anyway, so Earth itself just kind of...I dunno, seemed distant”. He’d read up on it of course; it was pretty much the central reason what eventually became the Confederacy had risen up against the Alliance—SPD’s increasing tyrannical rule which culminated in them simply abandoning Earth when she’d needed them most. But SPD had deemed a rogue AI too dangerous for their tastes, so they’d decided to cut and run. Now Earth was a cornucopia of horrors; heavily defended city-state citadels, roving bands of hostile machines, Super-Orgs, irradiated wastelands...

“You don’t feel anything towards it?” Xolin asked, a bit puzzled by this behavior. Most Triforians always felt a strong connection to their homeworld, regardless of whether or not they grew up there.

Sid shrugged again, “Like I said, I’ve never been. I mean I guess, yeah, it does suck we lost so much of our heritage, but I think we get along pretty okay. Humans have been migrating from one place to another from day one. Home is wherever we make it. And right now, we got a bunch more worlds”.

The two were chatting so much they hadn’t even really even noticed that they’d entered a clearing near the ruins. Or that said clearing was filled with SPD shuttles. Or a downed SPD battleship. Or lots of SPD troops and personnel.

They DID notice when a few dozen guns got pointed at them though.

“...Oh” Sid managed, “Hey...guys. What’s up?”

A few of the guns clicked.

Sid cleared his throat, “Oh! Were these *your* alien ruins? Sorry, we must have taken a wrong turn back at the ravine. We meant to go to the OTHER alien ruins. We’ll just be going”.

The two rangers turned to leave, but more guns loaded themselves, forcing them to stop.

“Halt!” a voice called out, “Stand down!” The guards looked at each other in confusion, until a new person pushed his way through the crowd, an Ichthyite dressed in a tattered SPD admiral uniform. Reluctantly, the troops put their rifles down, and the admiral stepped forward to the two rangers, motioning to show them he meant no harm.

“My apologies for the rough introductions” he said, “I am Admiral Lacanth, of the SPD Fifth Fleet”. The tusk-faced and quad-eyed alien offered a handshake, which the rangers did not take.

“You’ll forgive us if we don’t” Sid replied coldly. Still, he analyzed the situation quickly, “You told your men to stand down instead of gunning us down. That means you probably want something. What?”

“Ah, yes” the admiral said hesitantly, retracting his arm, “You are Sid Drake, of Peacekeeper team twelve, yes?”

“...Yes?” Sid replied, curiosity beginning to overpower his hatred.

“So you got our distress beacon then” the admiral stated, relieved.

“Xolin cocked her head at the oddity of the situation, “...Wait, *you* sent the beacon?! Why would SPD want to contact us?”

The admiral sighed, before motioning that they follow him, “...Perhaps we should speak in my office”.

The two rangers remained stationary. Sid folded his arms, “Yeah, see, trust is a hard thing to come by these days. Especially from people like you”.

Admiral Lacanth seemed to flinch a bit, “...I suppose I deserved that. Still, I assure you there is no trap here. We are currently marooned here, and I need your help. Please”.

The two rangers glanced at each other, neither one really excited about the situation, but both of them growing increasingly curious despite themselves. Sid shrugged, “...Lead the way, I guess”.

---

The SPD ship was just as dead as the Megaship; the halls were lit only by the dim emergency power, and the two rangers and admiral had to keep evading techs and crewmen running past in different directions.

Yet not everything was like it had been on the Megaship; Sid had noted on both the outside and now on the inside that there were signs of damage that hadn’t been from the crash.

It was battle damage.

“...So” Sid said far too casually, “You guys get hit by that power drain too?”

“Yes” the admiral said, “Unfortunately”.

“Why were you even here?” Sid asked, “We couldn’t even find this star on any charts”.

“Neither could we” the admiral replied, “But we were...forced here, attempting to escape our pursuers”.

Ah, so he’d been right. Good to know, “Who’d you piss off this time? Troobians? Eltar?” Sid asked, with more than a little venom.

The admiral’s pace slowed a bit; he paused as he considered his words, “...The Ninth Fleet” he said, reluctantly.

“...Come again?” Xolin asked, now lost.

Admiral Lacanth sighed as he approached the door to his office. Opening it, he ushered them in before entering himself, “You upset a lot of things when you released that data” he said, moving around them and taking a seat.

Sid’s eyes widened as he realized what the admiral was getting at. So that’s what his dad had meant by ‘toppling governments’, “...You’re heading for civil war”.

Lacanth laughed bitterly, “If only it were that simple” he sighed, “Multiple worlds have already seceded from the Alliance. Others are taking up different sides. Fleets are being split down the middle. Multiple factions are taking form. It’s becoming less of a civil war and more of a complete balkanization”.

Sid took a seat slowly, “...Wait, are you serious?” He hadn’t really given any of this any thought but...yeah, now that he thought about it? This information getting out to the Alliance wouldn’t just cut it off from the Antipodes, it would probably destroy it. Imagine everyone finding out that their government had either willingly or unwillingly collaborated with an enemy who wanted to destroy the universe. Worse, imagine it was discovered that all the wars they were fighting were orchestrated by an unseen conspiracy.

It would tear any country apart, especially one so diverse and already factionalized as the Alliance.

The admiral nodded, “Current projections state that the United Alliance and SPD will cease to exist within the year”.

Woah. Now that was a bombshell. That meant that none of this, any of it, had meant anything. The Alliance and the Confederacy had basically beaten each other into extinction. Sid regarded the admiral; even with his alien visage, Sid could tell he was tired, weary. This was a man who had been fighting wars for a long time, and had just watched his entire world unravel in the last two days. A bit of the preconceived hatred Sid had felt towards the man evaporated—replaced by a bit of sadness. So many people were going to die as the Alliance proceeded to tear itself apart.

“...For what it’s worth, I’m sorry” Sid said, and he meant it, “The information, I had to--”

“You had to do it” the admiral said, cutting him off, “And I thank you for it. Whatever else, you freed us. I would prefer the terrible truth to a deadly lie any day. Besides, I had long been coming to the conclusion something was wrong for a long time”.

“What tipped you off?” Sid asked, with a bit of sarcasm...a bit more than he’d intended, “The constant wars on multiple fronts?”

To his surprise, the admiral chuckled at that, “...You know, when we met last, I had no idea you would end up being our salvation”.

“...We’ve met?” Xolin asked. The two rangers looked to each other; he wasn’t ringing any bells for either of them.

“Do you recall Tronus VI about a week ago? I was the commander of the vessel you drove off. This same vessel, in fact”.

Xolin’s voice hardened, “...We lost a good friend on Tronus VI”.

The admiral nodded sadly, “And I lost a lot of good men. That silver ranger, the karovian. He did not care how many burned, he only cared about his mission—their mission. We were just ants, or tools to be used”.

So the admiral had been burned by Isdilian as well. Sid knew that feeling well, “...Yeah, Izzy’s never been much of a people person” he said, earnestly.

“...Izzy?” the admiral chuckled a bit, “He doesn’t seem like an ‘Izzy’ to me”.

Sid smiled sadly, “No. I guess he doesn’t”.

“So why did you call us here?” Xolin asked, hoping to get to the heart of the matter.

The admiral got up, pacing slowly around the edge of his tattered office. A few books were on the floor; knocked off the bookcase. Some of his models had shattered when they crashed, “Most of what’s left of my fleet is scattered and beyond their range to help us at the moment. I don’t trust any other SPD fleet at the moment, not with the chaos going on back home. I was already on my way to meet with you but...”

“So you want us to rescue you” Sid said, jumping to the conclusion.

The admiral’s hand rubbed across the bookcase absently, “Yes. And then I want to join you”.

“Join us?” Sid asked.

Lacanth nodded, still turned away from them, “Those...antipodes. They destroyed my home. Killed my men. And for what?” His voice was ragged, barely holding together but still doing so with military discipline. He turned to face the two rangers, rage in his four eyes, “For years I believed in, I *lived* the ideals of the Alliance, and they perverted them into something that had to be destroyed...I want to make things right”.

The rangers eyed each other once more. Xolin nodded—despite everything they’d felt, despite all the hatred they’d built up...these people had been hurt just as bad. They had just as much right to demand vengeance, and frankly they could always use more ships. They’d already recruited pirates, rebels, and the Machine Empire—what was one more fleet of former enemies? Sid looked at the admiral, a small smile in his voice, “...Welcome aboard, admiral”.

The admiral nodded back with gratitude, “Thank you”.

---

“You wanted to see me?”

The Man with the Briefcase stepped into the room, adjusting his glasses as he found all four of the Antipodes clustered around each other, obviously having been in the middle of a conversation.

The room was more of a chamber, really. The door opened to a wide walkway, one of several on various levels facing different directions. All around them were windows, facing out into space, and offering a stunning view of the black hole. But most interesting was the central pillar, stretching down from above and reaching down to the base, filling out the center of the room. It was a technological machine, and it was glowing with power. The glass exterior showcased the mass of swirling Morphin Grid energy that it contained—the sum total the Antipodes had so far collected.

How quaint.

“Come in” Alpha said, unassuming, “Beta has discovered something very interesting”.

“Oh? And what would that be?” the Man with the Briefcase asked as he closed the distance.

Holoscreens appeared all around them, each replaying the events where the Man had given Sel the power disruptor. For a split second the Man seemed taken aback, but quickly calmed himself, smiling. “Ah. So you figured it out. Oh well”.

“‘Oh well’?” Alpha growled, “Is that all you have to say for yourself?”

The Man shrugged lazily, “What else would you have me say? Nuts? Rats? Drats? Curses? Phooy?” he chuckled, “Fiddlesticks?”

“...Why?” Epsilon asked, trying to find reason here. Trying to understand why they’d been betrayed. It didn’t make any sense, “You’ve done so much for us. Why do this now?!”

Another laugh. The Man took off his glasses and put them in his shirt pocket, “Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a colony of ants. These ants lived near a farm house. One day, they accidentally extended their colony into the farmer’s pantry. There, they found a bounty of food and resources. For a short time, they co-existed with the farmer, and assumed he’d left the food there for them. They thanked the farmer, and lived side by side, in peace”.

The man snorted with laughter, “...For about two days at any rate. Then the exterminator the farmer had made an appointment with showed up, and the entire colony was...well, exterminated. A pity”.

“You think this is funny?!” Alpha roared. He rushed up to the Man, staring him down at point blank range, “You think this is some sort of game?!”

“Oh I assure you, it most certainly is a game” the Man replied, “Hasn’t it always been? You move one pawn here, they move another pawn there. You kill their rook, they kill your knight. Except in truth, your game has been nothing more than a sideshow”.

Alpha seethed with rage, “...You’ll die for this”. He’d heard enough; he backed away and called to his team, “Kill him. Kill him now!”

The Antipodes pulled out their blasters and opened fire on the Man. Yet...every single shot missed, somehow, despite being at almost point-blank range.

“...Impossible” Epsilon gasped in shock. She glanced down at her blaster, then back at the Man. For his part, he jovially looked down at where he would have been shot, slapped his arms at his sides expectantly, then smiled back at them.

“The ants think themselves the masters” the Man said, laughing, “You are nothing more than an invasive pest. Do not worry though; I will not be the one who poisons you. You still have one more role to play in the grand scheme”.

“...What grand scheme?” Beta demanded to know, “What are you planning?!”

The Man turned to her, “You could not even conceive of what has been put into motion, of what can no longer be stopped. Nor will you live to see it. Good day”.

Alpha switched his blaster into sword mode and impaled the Man...only to find the Man was no longer there...or maybe he never truly had been. Alpha swung wildly, in denial of what was happening, “NO!” he shouted, but all he was met with was the dying echo of the Man’s laughter.

---

The SPD base camp was rife with activity. The ship and shuttles were downed, but that didn’t stop the constant hustle and bustle of the crew, who were moving supplies from one cache to another, delivering things where they needed to go. Now that Sid wasn’t busy keeping an eye on a multitude of guns being pointed at him, or the surprise of this being here at all, he could stop to admire the efficiency of SPD. Because whatever else they were, SPD *was* very efficient.

“So do you have any clue why our ships’ power got drained?” Xolin asked the admiral as they made their way to a cliff face sitting behind the warship.

“...Or why they immediately crash landed here” Sid added, “Almost like they were drawn in”.

“...I kind of thought that was gravity or whatever” Xolin replied.

Sid frowned, “...Gravity doesn’t work that fast. We were tractored in”.

Admiral Lacanth was silent for a moment as they trudged up the side of the hill, but soon pointed to the alien ruins that dominated the skyline to the west, “...We wondered the same thing when we crashed. Then we met...her”.

“Her?” Sid asked, looking back. The group made it to the top of the cliff face, giving them a better view of the ruins without the ship blocking them.

The admiral replied, “She’s some sort of...guardian for this place, we think. An AI or spirit or...something, we’re not sure. We couldn’t get too many answers out of here. Maybe you could do better”.

The red ranger pondered this, “Morphin Grid voodoo? Ancient alien temples? Ghosts? Ehh….”

“Still miss days like this?” Xolin asked.

Sid didn’t give her a response, instead opting for another question, “...Any trouble with the local wildlife?”

“You mean the zords?” Lacanth asked with a hint of mirth, “Not too much. My men had to drive off a large...bat...thing last night, but other than that they’ve left us alone”.

Hmm. Sid opened his communicator, “...Sid to Nikki and Trok, how’s it going?”

“Badly” was Trok’s response, “As far as we can tell, nothing’s wrong. The generator’s fine, the engines are fine, all the collections are fine...everything’s...fine, minus the crash damage. The ship should easily fly. There’s no reason for this”.

“I’ve run multiple software diagnostics too” Nikki added, “I got zip. It’s like the ship just decided not to work anymore”.

“Did you try turning it off and on again?” Sid asked.

Nikki’s irritation could be heard through the communicator, “Sid, I *will* murder you”.

Sid gave a short laugh; for a split second they were just two cadets again. His serious side soon took hold though, “Give it up, guys. I think you’ve done all you can from that end, and we need you here”.

“...You think you know what’s wrong?” Trok asked.

Sid glanced over at the alien temples, “...I have a slight feeling”.

---

“So….SPD, huh?”

Sid glanced at Trok as the green and black rangers approached the group. The green ranger in particular looked fairly uneasy about the fact that they were now standing just outside of an SPD makeshift base. Sid knew the feeling; he kept having to watch his back. The admiral had kept a pair of guards with him—it did nothing to ease Sid.

Still, “Let’s be honest, it’s still not as weird as being friends with a general of the Machine Empire”.

“The Machine Empire didn’t try to snuff out all life in the universe” Trok replied. The others were all a little taken aback by this hatred; it was *very* un-Trok. Even Nikki, always the first to start judging, seemed a little off-centered by this.

“...We were duped” Admiral Lacanth replied evenly, “As were many peoples. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry”.

Trok looked over the admiral. He was haggard, worn out. Trok could see a man who had been forced into impossible situations in his life and was now wearing those weights everywhere he went. Part of Trok knew he wasn’t responsible, knew this wasn’t the way to go. That part won out...mostly.

Still, any time Trok saw SPD, all he’d ever really see was Anthren. Or Sel. Or everything on Triforia. The green ranger did not reply to the admiral, instead staring at him for a moment as if unable to decide how to proceed, before deferring to the red ranger.

“Look” Sid said, “I know tensions are a little high right now. How about we just go deal with Ghost Lady and get the hell out of here?”

The admiral nodded, taking the lead into the city complex, “Follow me”.

“...Do you even have any idea how to deal with ‘ghost lady’?” Xolin asked Sid.

“Not a clue” the red ranger admitted.

The city was beautiful, and ancient. Sid still felt very ‘Angkor Wat’ and yet...not. Indian, maybe? Mmph. Trying to define ruins older than the Earth had even existed to terran cultures was an experiment in madness, so he stopped.

In any case, the main road was huge, at least as wide as an interstate, yet seemingly not built for vehicle traffic. It was almost like a forum, or where a market would have been. Roads branched off in every direction, sheltered by the large and ornate buildings that surrounded them. The quasi-skyscapers were broken up by numerous artificial ponds and parks. But directly ahead was the crown jewel: a massive temple complex that dominated the center of the city.

“...Any idea who these people were?” Xolin asked quietly in reverence as they walked towards the temple complex.

“...Sel probably would have known” Trok said with a small grin, “She spent way too much time researching stuff on the net”.

“Somehow I doubt she would” Sid said, taking in the sights, “...Star is apparently older than the universe, remember. Wherever we are, we’re in some deep shit”.

“Morphin Masters?” asked Nikki.

Sid looked back at her, “...Were even they that old?” She shrugged in response.

The rest of the trip was silent. The rangers, the admiral, and the SPD guards entered the complex. Inside were more parks and ponds, as well as numerous smaller buildings. The one at the center was their destination; inside was what Sid could only describe as an auditorium, terraced downwards from the outside in.

“...So...” he drawled, “...What now?”

None of them had to wait long; almost immediately everything began to turn on. Holograms with no discernible source (likely some kind of magic) filled the room. Sid was corrected—this was no mere auditorium. As they stared out at the infinite universe itself, they found themselves standing inside an observatory. It didn’t just cover the local cluster of galaxies, or even the local supercluster—this went far beyond the known universe. Far beyond the Virgo Supercluster, far beyond the great voids. It went far beyond the limits of the observable universe. It was creation in all its infinite glory. It was infinity. It was everything.

All somehow located inside this room.

...Huh, so that’s what vertigo felt like.

“Welcome, travelers” a female voice said. The group turned, seeing the ghost of a robed woman, her face partially obscured by the thin veil she covered herself with.

“...I have several questions” Sid said.

She nodded, barely, “As expected”.

Xolin started, “...Who are you?”

“I am unimportant” the woman said, “You would not know my name, my identity, or even my race. Such knowledge has since become lost to meaning. I am but an echo, a memory”.

“...Do you control this place?” Sid asked, hoping to get a better answer.

The woman turned to him, “...I am its guardian, and custodian”.

“What is this place?” asked Nikki, “There was another like it on Earth...much smaller though. Any relation?”

“...We seeded many worlds, many places with our gardens. We tended them, nourished them. But where there were many, there are now few”.

“This star. It’s...older than the universe” Sid said, “...How is that possible?”

“It is not” said the woman, “It is only older than your kalpa”.

“...Our whatnow?” Sid asked, confused.

The woman seemed to search for a better word, “Your...iteration”.

“...Iteration of what?” Trok asked.

The woman’s response was singular, “Time”.

Oooh boy. They’d only been at this a minute or two and Sid was already feeling a headache coming on, “...So...you’re saying this place is...older than time? Like, literally?”

She almost seemed to smile, “You see one thread and think it is the fabric. You see one line and believe it to be totality. Such thinking is to be simple”.

“That’s...not an answer” Xolin said, her own mind starting to melt. She felt like she knew less than when she stepped in here.

“You do not understand”.

“No, we don’t” Sid said, “Are you a Morphin Master?”

“The Masters were finite, linear. They followed. They were the first”.

“They followed...but were the first” Sid repeated, trying and failing to follow.

The admiral spoke up, “You see what I mean, then. She’s...difficult”.

“You are base” the woman replied, “Subgradient. Broken from the whole”.

“...I do love being insulted” Sid said flatly. They were getting nowhere with this, “Okay, forget all that. How do we get out of here? How do we leave your...er, garden?”

“You must not” said the woman, “This place must be hidden. You cannot leave”.

“That’s...not going to work” Sid replied, “We seriously need to get out of here”.

The woman remained unmoved, immobile almost, “That is impossible. This place must be protected”.

Trok spoke up, “If we don’t leave, the entire universe will be destroyed. Trust us, we *need* to go. We won’t tell anyone, we promise”.

“That is impossible” the woman said, “You will not leave. Any attempt will be discouraged”.

“You just expect us to remain here to die?” Nikki asked.

From the side, Xolin attempted to touch the woman. For her efforts, she was launched backwards, taking Trok with her as they tumbled into the steps. Everyone else suddenly shifted into a fight position, on alert as they waited for the ghost to make another move.

Yet the woman remained stationary, “...The garden supports life. You may live out your days here, as many have. As many will”.

Sid glanced over at where Trok and Xolin were pulling themselves back up, then he again eyed the woman. Frustration bubbled, “...Why must this place be protected?”

“It is a safeguard, if the project fails. Insurance for the next kalpa”.

“What project?” Now he was getting irritated.

“You would not understand”.

Of course. Why not? “So there’s nothing you’re really willing or able to help us with is there?” Sid asked, sighing in irritation, “Fine, whatever. What happens if we try to leave?”

The woman stared directly at him, and he felt danger. This woman was just looking at him, and yet all Sid suddenly felt was his flight or fight instinct kick into overdrive. He felt as if under imminent threat. She spoke, “You will not”.

“Oh...well. Glad we cleared that up” he said, taking a step back. They all waited for her to respond again, but instead she simply vanished, taking the entire holographic universe with her, leaving the group in the empty auditorium.

“...She was nice” Trok said blandly, dusting himself off.

Xolin had a bit less of a nuanced reaction, “...okay, what the *hell* was that?”

Admiral Lacanth shrugged, “A hologram? A ghost? We haven’t been able to figure it out. Scans come up negative; no magic, no obvious power source”.

Sid turned to Nikki, “Did either of you pick up anything?”

She shook her head, “Nothing as far as my scanners go. Then again, with all the ambient morphin energy, you could probably manifest magical spells at will, without having to channel mana at all”.

Trok continued to scan with his morpher, “...I’m picking up *something* beneath us. It seems to be where a lot of the energy is coalescing. Maybe a power source. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to get to it though”.

“...That woman” Nikki said, thinking as she looked at Xolin, “...You barely even touched her and she just tossed you aside without even moving”.

“It was just this...wave, I guess, of energy” Xolin replied, “A *lot* of energy”.

Nikki shook her head, her scans still picking up nothing, “...I don’t think she was a hologram, more like a...”

“...A god” Sid finished. When everyone gave him an odd look he explained, “The Animarium on Earth had one too, if I recall. No idea where he came from; he was likely far older than the Animarium civilization”.

“...You’ve never struck me as a historian” Xolin said, her arms folded as she leaned against a pillar.

Sid shrugged, “Ranger history was a required class in the academy” he coughed awkwardly, “...Besides, I had a bit of a thing for the Wildzords as a kid”.

“She said there were many, but now there were few” Nikki pondered, “...And there are a lot of zord lineages whose histories we can’t trace reliably. They just...show up in the record one day”.

“The Galactabeasts” Sid said, following her train of thought. When she nodded, he added, “...There are some odd similarities there. Whole zord species that blur the line between robot and animal. They were seeded”.

“By who?” Trok asked, “The Morphin Masters?”

No, that wasn’t right. Nikki shook her head, “...She said she was older. I think we’re dealing with some serious deep time shit. Maybe the predecessors to the Masters. Before the war between Good and Evil”.

“...Before the dawn of time” Sid mused, “Eugh, my head hurts”.

“Before time? But the universe existed?” Trok asked, “Except this star is older than the universe because time? How does that make any sense? How can you have anything ‘before’ time?!”

“...A prior kalpa” Xolin said, “...Another ‘iteration’. Another cycle of some sort?”

Nikki skimmed through her database’s galactic history files, “...The War between Good and Evil started only a few billion years ago. After that we’ve got Morphin Masters and other ancient civilizations. Before that we’ve got nothing. The universe is empty; no ruins, no myths, nothing. How did that war start? Where did it come from? What existed before Good and Evil were concepts?”

Admiral Lacanth spoke up, “...My people have a creation myth. In the beginning there was nothing, and everything. The universe existed without form or purpose. Ideas were transient, unbound. But eventually the earliest urges, the personifications of what would become our gods, went to war over how they wanted to be. What resulted was the ordered yet entropic universe we reside in”.

Xolin rubbed her chin, “...The war of the gods. It’s something you’ll find in a lot of creation myths. Order from chaos, life from the primordial”.

“Maybe it really *was* a war of ideas. Before it was fluid and nonlinear, afterward civilization could form” said Nikki, puzzling this out.

Trok blinked, trying to get a hold of this in his brain, “Wait, wait. Hold on. If we look through a telescope, we can study the progression of the universe. We can see the background radiation of the big bang, we can see the earliest galaxies form, we can see how it all unfolded. Are you telling me the universe just...I don’t know, retconned this or something?”

“…‘You see the thread and think it’s the fabric’” Nikki whispered, repeating the woman’s words.

“...Nikki?” Sid asked worriedly.

She looked up at him, “...I don’t think it was a retcon. Not like that, anyway. It’s more like...that’s how we perceive it. It’s all our minds can do to understand what happened. I think it did happen just like that...except more? Or less? Maybe?”

Xolin sighed, “Well, my mind’s mush”.

Sid decided to get everyone back on track, “Look, this is fascinating and mind numbing, but we still need to find a way out of here. Trok, if we shut down that energy node, do you think it’ll free our ships?”

“...I wouldn’t have a clue” said Trok, “Your guess is as good as mine”.

“How would we even get to it?” Nikki asked Sid, “You want me to get a shovel?”

“Our ship won’t fly anyway—too damaged. We’ll need to launch from our remaining shuttles and fighters” the admiral said.

Sid nodded, “Then I suggest you head back and do that; I want you to be ready the second the field comes down. Trok, Nikki, you’re with me. We’re going to find an entrance or make one”.

“Um...” Xolin muttered, feeling a little left out.

Sid looked over at her, “I need you to get back to the Megaship. Once the power drain stops, I expect our host will have some things to say about it. Those shuttles are going to need to be protected”.

“...Do I have to?” she reluctantly asked, part of her perfectly fine with letting the shuttles fend for themselves. After a brief Look from Sid, she relented, “Yeah, yeah, I got you”. The two groups split up, the admiral and Xolin heading for the exit to the compound, and the other three rangers rushing out into the inner courtyard.

“Are teleporters working?” Sid asked as they looked around fruitlessly.

“Not with the ship on emergency power” Trok replied, “But they had to have had some way to get down there. A passageway, or their own teleport network, or a spell...”

“Not if we’re talking about gods we’re not” Nikki said. The black ranger walked up to the edge of the artificial pond and knelt down. Mechanical fish swam through the shallow pool, and around them in the gardens they could see numerous other small...well, zords they supposed. Some looked like peacocks, others larger and much like elephants. Somewhere, in the distance, something called out for a mate.

“...Spirits” Trok said breathlessly, letting the atmosphere catch up with him for once, “...I could stay here forever and just study this place”.

Nikki placed her hand against the ground, as if that would help her sensors. She was having a hard time; she’d been trying to scan the area and determine how the lower levels of the complex were organized to see if she couldn’t find a physical entrance, but the level of ambient morphin energy was making it difficult. It was like everything was fuzzy, unformed.

“Trok” she said, “...Link in to my sensors. I’m going to need you to help triangulate with me”.

The green ranger nodded, doing so with his morpher.

“I’ll stay here, give you a base coordinate” the black ranger said, “You need to move around. Check one of the buildings—I’d assume if there WAS an entrance, it would be here, in the inner courtyard”.

“You got it” Trok said. He and Sid headed off, towards one of the other buildings. They checked one after another, finding not much of interest. One was obviously a small temple with an altar, another was simply empty.

“Nothing yet” Trok said, “...Wait”. He stepped inside, cautiously.

“Of course it was the empty one” Sid quipped, “Where else would it be?”

The sensors weren’t picking up much but...no, there, directly under the floor. There didn’t seem to be any way to get past though. As the green ranger stepped forward, his foot depressed one of the stones. It lit up.

“Oh!” Trok exclaimed with a bit of surprise, “A puzzle, of course!”

Sid glanced down at the flowing design of the stones, curving about in various ways like a mosaic, “...You’ve got to be kidding me” he groaned, “A friggin’ puzzle?”

Trok pressed another stone. It also lit up. A third stone however, returned everything to the start. “Hmm, there’s a pattern, just gotta figure out what it is”.

“Trok, love you like a brother, but we don’t have the time” Sid said, “Izzy was right about one thing”.

The green ranger’s head cocked in confusion, “What would that be?”

The red ranger didn’t reply with words. Instead, he summoned the battlizer. The armor formed around him, latching into place. Trok stepped back as Sid’s weapons charged and a powerful beam of crimson energy punched right through the floor. Powering down the armor, the battlizer vanished as the two rangers looked down at the new, dark, and seemingly bottomless hole in the floor.

“...You first” Trok said.

---

It was a fairly deep drop; Sid estimated about three stories as his feet finally hit the ground. His visor’s headlights illuminated the dark chamber, but all he saw was more stone floor and—oh. OH. Oh...wow.

The large hallway Sid was in was dark, but that wasn’t true further down the tunnel. Even from here, he could see a swirling vortex of energy suspended in midair, at least a story in size. “Trok!” he said, calling up, “I found it! Come on down!”

The green ranger dropped down next to Sid, inhaling as he saw the storm of light. The two approached, basking in the warm glow.

“...It’s Morphin energy alright” Trok said, using his suit’s scanners as well as he could; they were pretty much useless at this range thanks to all the ambient power. Beneath the maelstrom was a platform that kept it suspended, filled in with numerous magic runes. Or...Trok assumed they were runes; magic wasn’t his strong point. He suddenly kind of wished they’d brought Sitras along for this.

“Any idea how to stop this?” Sid asked.

“Uh...” Trok scratched the back of his neck, stress and uncertainty eating at him, “...Maybe? Best I can gather, the runes are how everything works--but I couldn’t tell you which does what, I’m not a mage”.

“Erasing them is out of the question?”

“I mean, you could try. But you’re just as likely to shut it down as you are to overload it and kill us and everything else”.

“...This is a conduit, isn’t it?” Sid asked, memorized by the dancing patterns of light.

Trok nodded, watching the dance as well, “...Something like it, at least. Maybe where the idea came from? It’s more...natural, I think. A conduit is a lot like a tear in space. This is...organic, almost”.

The two pondered their situation, their attention turning to the magical glyphs and symbols that lined the complex platform—runes that had held no place in any known language, living or extinct. But their attention was soon diverted again—footsteps sounded behind them. The two rangers turned about. Ahead of them now, coming in from out of the dark in all directions, and blocking their escape, were a multitude of person-sized zords. Alien cats and peacocks and songbirds and elephants.

Sid cursed, “...This can’t be good”.

Every single animal’s eyes glowed red.

“Definitely not good!” Sid added. As he said that, the zords transformed, shifting into battle mode—some of them flying drones, others tripodal turrets. The elephants became bipedal three times as tall as the rangers. “Trok, kill the runes!”

“But we could kill *us*!” the green ranger protested, “And who knows how many light-years?!”

“Are you sure you can’t decipher the runes?” Sid asked again.

The bots began to power up weapons as Trok replied, “Positive. This isn’t like the time loop situation; we *can’t* do this by trial and error”.

The red ranger cursed again, glancing between the runes, Trok, and the bots. He came to an inescapable conclusion.

“...Do you trust me?” he asked, his voice almost serene.

Initially the green ranger was confused by the seeming change in topic, “Wha—yes. Yes I do” he said firmly, “I’ll hold them off. Battlizer!” The armor formed around Trok’s suit. He grasped his hammer, and dove into the fray, his weapon smashing into the nearest tripod as they opened fire.

Sid hopped onto the platform, looking down at the symbols with frantic confusion. He knew as much about magecraft as Trok—aka nothing—and this was full on primordial magic, beyond their ability to understand. He knew this when he’d volunteered, but Sid had decided on one thing at least: whatever happened, he wasn’t going to leave Trok with the burden.

Or the guilt.

As Trok summoned a bubble shield to protect him from another barrage, then returned fire by switching his hammer to mace mode and making a wide arc of attack, Sid made his decision.

“Eenie meenie miney...please don’t kill us” he muttered under his breath, praying to any god that was listening. Charging his axe up with burning flame, he brought it down on the platform and *pushed*. Fire cascaded out, burning away the runes.

For a second nothing happened. Then the world began to shake. The pillars holding the chamber up began to crumble, the ceiling began to cave in.

“TROK!” Sid shouted.

“SID!” the battlized ranger replied, launching into the air with his wings. The green ranger swung around, evading laser fire as he grabbed Sid—just as the conduit began to destabilize. The sphere of energy became distorted, the flowing patterns erratic. It began to expand—slowly at first but soon picking up speed and burning away anything that came in contact. Trok shot for the exit.

“GO GO GO!” Sid shouted as the energy closed in on them.

“I’M GOING! I’M GOING!” Trok shot back, just as they broke free of the surface. They swung around again, back towards Nikki’s last known location. They soon caught sight of her, already garbed up in her Phantom Mode armor and beating back a squadron of minizords.

“NIKKI, MOVE!” Sid shouted as they closed the distance. The black ranger threw a tripod to the ground and stepped on its face, before looking to where she’d heard Sid—and a strange rumbling noise. She saw Sid and Trok alright—as well as the ground collapsing behind them.

“...Oh SHIT!” she shouted in sudden terror, already moving. Activating her jetpack, she leaped into the air, catching the others as they flew by, “What did you do?!”

“Hopefully I wrote our ticket out of here!” Sid said, as the temple complex collapsed into the earth behind them, ferocious, angry morphin energy licking up from the expanding sinkhole. All around them, things seemed...off. Tremors, flocks of zord birds escaping the forest. Sid caught sight of one or two distant mountains beginning to smoke.

They had to get back to the Megaship *now*.

“...And if you didn’t?” she asked back.

Sid and Trok glanced at each other before Sid replied, “...Then we’re probably all about to die horribly. Er...Nice armor, by the way” he added. He’d never seen this mode before.

“Uh...thanks” she replied, “Same to you guys”.

---

Xolin hated waiting. Any time she had to wait, she was always trapped having to wonder how else she could have been helping.

She hated being useless.

Another grunted sigh escaped her lips as she leaned back in the Megazord cockpit’s central seat like a frustrated teenager, her limbs splayed out aimlessly. But just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore and was about to contact Sid to see what the holdup was, the power came back on. Every console, every display, every light. One second she’d been only kept company by the emergency lights and the next it was like they’d never been powerless.

“Oh, well. That works then” she said to herself, gripping the controls as she checked sensors. Just as expected, the first of the SPD shuttles were starting to lift off and...oh. Uh oh.

Those were a *lot* of red dots.

---

The first SPD shuttle was away; lifting off into the air and towards the cloud cover. A second one began to lift off as well, when a screeching noise could be heard. Out of the sky came a giant four-winged bat zord, talons and teeth bared as it opened with a sonic beam attack. Personnel screamed and ran as the attack hit home, tearing up dirt and material. The bat’s attention turned to the escaping shuttle, and it prepared for a second attack.

...An attack that was cut off by the Defender Megazord’s foot in its mouth. As the Megazord landed in an attack position, the bat fluttered back, rebounding from the hit. Xolin pushed the controls forward, the Megazord’s sword in its hand as it struck at the beast. The bat attempted off a few more sonic attacks which were easily deflected by the Megazord’s sword, before the latter came in swinging. Charged up, the blade cut through the bat easily.

Down below, the personnel cheered as a third shuttle began to load up. The blue ranger took a second to congratulate herself and bask in the praise—but the sensors were quick to remind her that shit was about to go down.

Twin alien lion-wolf analogues came rushing at the Megazord, firing lasers as they closed in. Xolin quickly brought up the zord’s shield, blocking the lasers as they hit. The lion-wolves jumped into the air and flew past, allowing Xolin to slice one in half as the other landed and wheeled around, firing another salvo.

Xolin’s attention was quickly diverted though, as to the Megazord’s side a fat, slow moving lizard-like alien zord crawled up onto a ridge. Its mouth opened up and a powerful beam fired at the Megazord. Sparks flew as it made impact, the Megazord stumbling back—giving the remaining lion-wolf a chance to attack, its claws cutting into the Megazord’s hull as it charged past.

The blue ranger kept the zord as steady as possible, but had only rebounded just in time to see the zord equivalent of those giant horathean sand worms launching out of the ground and coming down on her in an arc.

“Oh s--”

The Megazord barely managed to dodge, only to find itself now entangled in...what WAS this? Electrical energy shot out, striking the Megazord as it became more and more wrapped up in the tentacles of a giant floating jellyfish zord. Explosions began to rip across its hull. Sparks erupted from the consoles in the cockpit, and it was all Xolin could do to keep her grip on the controls. No matter what though, the more she struggled, the more it seemed the zord got further entangled. Systems began to short out.

“ABOMINATIONS!” a female voice, though quickly distorting, boomed, “FOOLISH SENTIENTS!”

Five new alien zords—some sort of rainbow bird, a turtleish creature with a long tail with a club and robotic fungal structures on its back, a two-legged antelope...thing, a crab-like spider creature, and what could only be described as the lovechild between a scientifically inaccurate dinosaur, a bear, and a Galaxy Of Terror boss NPC came onto the scene, each of them transforming and combining into their own megazord. The new opponent waved its double-bladed sword weapon as it spoke, “YOU. YOU WERE OFFERED SANCTUARY! WHAT YOU HAVE DONE”.

“Oh boy” Xolin muttered, wondering just what Sid had done to get the ship working again.

“SACRIFICE MUST BE PAID!”

The enemy megazord closed in, preparing to strike a final blow. Xolin tried her best to get the Defender free, but it was no use. Then right then at the last second—almost predictably—a heavy metallic fist knocked the enemy megazord’s head aside. It stumbled back, getting a clearer look at the new challenger—the Sentinel Megazord, armed with Nikki’s black Guardianzord—Shadow Mode.

“Hang on, Xol, we’ll get you out of there!” Sid’s voice said, just before the Sentinel’s twin violet energy blades cut the Defender free.

“Hng—thanks!” Xolin grunted as the Defender staggered on its own feet again. The two megazords turned to face their opponent, the bio-luminescent jungle making for a stunning backdrop to the fight.

“INSIGNIFICANT” it boomed before charging in. The other animal zords began to move in too.

Xolin aimed her zord at the worm, “FINAL STRIKE!” The Defender Megazord launched into the air, its sword pointed forward and charged up as the Megazord spun like a tornado, flying right into the beast’s maw and ripping its way out from the back side. As the worm crumbled, the other megazord turned its attention on the lion-wolf, quickly dispatching it with its energy blades.

The lizard prepared to fire on the Sentinel, but the Defender blocked the attack with its shield upon landing again, allowing the Sentinel to defend against the incoming enemy megazord. The two locked weapons, and for a second it looked like they were evenly matched. But all too soon, the enemy zord began to overpower the Sentinel, knocking away its weapons before landing a number of good blows. As the Defender tumbled back, the Defender took up position.

“AZURE SNIPER!” Xolin shouted, having combined the Defender with her own blue Guardianzord. Twin rifles opened fire, both on the lizard zord, destroying it, as well as on the enemy megazord. Xolin then turned her full attention on the megazord, launching into the air and opening fire with both rifles. The enemy seemed unfazed however, and quickly returned fire, knocking the Defender out of the air with a few hits. Its sword extended into an energy whip, lashing out on Defender until it crashed into a nearby hillside.

“PHANTOM BLADE!” Nikki called out. From its purple energy talons, the Sentinel shot out a veritable blizzard of smaller violet energy blades at the enemy zord. Then she followed up with another attack, “COSMIC BLITZ!” Every gunport on the megazord opened, unleashing a torrent of firepower.

“PHANTOM STRIKE!”

The Sentinel crouched before launching into an assault, blinking out of existence just long enough to close in on the enemy zord and—uh oh.

The enemy megazord caught the Sentinel while it was invisible and struck it down. The megazord fell back, landing on the ground in a heap. The Defender was about to attack again, but suddenly the ground trembled, shaking. One of the closer mountains erupted into a volcano, and not too far away a fissure in the ground could be seen developing. Above, the cloud cover was evaporating, and the rim of the red dwarf star could be seen rising on the horizon, basking the formerly dark jungle with harsh light.

“...I’m detecting a massive increase in energy output across the entire continent!” Trok said urgently, “I think by disrupting the power source, we’ve sent everything into a feedback loop!”

“English, Trok!” Sid called back.

“We need to get out of here because this whole place is going to blow!”

As if to punctuate his words, another volcano erupted. Tremors began to vibrate the earth itself.

“Admiral” Sid said, calling the Lacanth, “I need a situation report!”

“We’ve got about half our shuttles away”
he replied, “We need you to hold on a few more minutes!”

“Alright, you heard the man!” Sid said, “We gotta keep the angry robot god busy for a bit longer!”

The angry god came down on the Defender, slashing it. The Defender held the enemy sword at bay with its hands for a bit, before it was forced to give way. The enemy zord grabbed its smoking, damaged opponent and tossed it towards the Sentinel, crashing into it. Then twin beams of energy lanced out from the god’s eyes, striking both megazords and causing them to fall to the ground as explosions ripped up all around them. The cockpits sparked and shuttered.

“...Hull integrity on the Defender’s down to forty percent” Xolin stated, “Reading multiple system damage. She’s crushing us”.

“Shit’s not much better here” Nikki concurred, “I think it’s Hail Mary time”.

The two megazords pulled themselves to their feet, their hulls smoking and scarred from the beating they’d been given. Around them, the lava began to spill out of the numerous fissurs now pockmarking the animarium surface. Whole sections began to give way.

“Defender Battlezord!” Nikki called out. Immediately, the two Guardianzords detached from their respective megazords, vanishing in a flash of light and returning to their miniaturized cases back on the Defender Megaship. The Sentinel pulled itself apart, becoming armor that formed around the Defender Megazord. Inside the cockpit, the rangers reunited as the Battlezord configuration achieved completion.

The god megazord unleashed more eyebeams as the Battlezord rolled forward, the attacks deflecting harmlessly as the Battlezord’s fists rammed into the enemy megazord. It blocked with its double-edged sword, knocking the fists away before cutting into the Battlezord’s chest. It staggered away.

“Imperial Defense!” the rangers shouted, activating the configuration’s finisher. Its twin swords combined and came down in a single motion—only to be blocked by the enemy megazord, who tossed it away casually. It unleashed a series of powerful blasts, striking the Battlezord directly. The cockpit shuttered.

“...She’s beating everything we throw at her!” Trok grunted with frustration and a hint of panic, “Nothing we have is good enough!”

Sid held onto his chair, “Of course it’s not—she’s a god...or reasonable facsimile. We can’t kill her, not really. And it’ll take a hell of a lot more than we have to put her down”.

“So what do we do then?” Xolin asked, even as the god megazord closed in for another attack.

Sid gripped the controls, “We hold on until the shuttles are away!”

The two titans met, the god megazord grabbing hold of the Battlezord with its claws and letting an immense amount of power surge into the latter’s systems. Explosions ripped across its hull, systems struggled to keep from shorting out completely. Electricity snaked across the hull.

“Hull integrity is redlining!” Nikki shouted, “We’re doing down!”

And just like that, the attack stopped. Several bursts of laser projectile impacted the god megazord’s backside, followed by a second salvo as a number of SPD fighters veered in for the rescue. It screamed in pain as it staggered back, freeing the worn-out Battlezord.

“Banshee squadron, here to assist!” the commander said over the comm as the group of fighters swarmed their opponent, opening fire where they could, but mostly trying to keep out of range.

“Thanks for the save!” Sid replied, then noticed something—the enemy megazord was standing precipitously close to one of the fissures that was gushing out lava. “Guys, you see that?”

“I see it!” Nikki nodded.

Xolin agreed, “One good push could send her over!”

“Charging up weapons. I can give you one shot!” Trok said.

“Right!” Sid readied the backup finisher, “Artillery Strike!”

The Battlezord’s gunports opened, unleashing a torrent of destruction. The kinetic impact was enough to send the god megazord stumbling—right over the cliff and into the chasm below. It shouted in rage as it fell beneath the smoke and ash.

“WE DID IT!” Trok shouted jubilantly.

“Not for long” Sid replied, sobering him, “We’ve bought ourselves a few minutes, then I expect she’ll be back and angrier than ever. Admiral, are you ready?”

“Last shuttle is away. Get the hell out of there!”

Xolin wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment, “Don’t have to tell us twice”.

Clanking its legs together, the Battlezord ignited its boot jets and lifted off, just as the island of stability it was one was consumed by the lava eruption. All around them, the animarium was dying, collapsing in on itself, with the angry red dwarf star impassively watching. As the Battlezord rose, it pulled apart, returning to Megaship form as the Sentinel Megazord vanished, teleporting back to the ship in miniature form. Freeing itself of the animarium’s gravitational pull, the Defender Megaship did not wait as the turtle finally self-destructed before warping away at hyper-rush nine.

---

“Do you need an escort?” Sid asked, now unmorphed and speaking from his captain’s seat on the bridge.

Admiral Lacanth shook his head on the viewscreen, “No, we’ve managed to make contact with the Valiant and her escort, one of my wings. We’ll be rendezvousing with them in a few hours. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you further; I’m sure you have many places to be”.

“I wanted to thank you for that save back there” Sid told him, “Your ships were away; you could have just let us die”.

“It is I who should be thanking you, Sid Drake” the alien replied, “Because of you, my men are safe. And because of you, we will have a chance to see tomorrow”.

Sid nodded thoughtfully, before typing into the console on his armrest, “I’m sending your our personal transmission code and IFF designation so that we can coordinate with you when the time comes. We’re taking a big gamble, trusting you”.

“I know. But do not worry, Sid Drake. When you call, we will come. I honor my debts. I am sending my codes to you as well”.

Sid nodded, “Safe travels, admiral”.

“And to you”.

The communication closed, allowing everything to sink in for the four rangers scattered about the bridge.

“...We’re going to have to do a lot of patch jobs” Nikki said finally as she took stock of the ship’s damage report, “We’re pretty banged up”.

“Ideas for a safe port?” Sid asked her.

“There’s an independent trading station about eight hundred light-years from here” she replied, “Pirate haven mostly, but mostly clans we’re already aligned with”.

Sid gave her a sign of approval, “Do it”.

As the Megaship’s new course was set, Trok finally let something that had been weighing on him since they’d escaped the animarium out, “...That place. The ‘animarium’. It was unique, special. We could have learned so much from it”.

The weight of what they’d done settled on everyone. They’d destroyed something impossibly old, something which didn’t have many surviving relatives, if any.

“...We had to” Nikki said, trying to remain cold and stern, but regret in her voice as well, “...It was them or us”.

“And we chose us” Xolin added, stewing in her own guilt.

And Sid? Sid remained silent. Today he felt a little less ‘superhero’ and a little more ‘antipode’. And he didn’t like it, not one bit.

---

To Be Continued...
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Old May 27th, 2017, 06:44 PM   #43
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The end for the United Alliance, when it came, was swift and brutal. Within hours of the Antipodes’ plans being released to the public, whole worlds were talking about secession, and lines were being drawn between the fleets. Within a few days, numerous successor factions were making their bid for dominance against their rivals. Technically a central government still existed, though largely depopulated by numerous defections and suicides, but it was largely powerless and ineffective against the rising tide of rebellion. It was likely they’d vote themselves out of existence.

Numerous worlds were now independent, while others had remained with the numerous Alliance successor factions, either voluntarily or through conquest. These successors had names like ‘Federation’ or ‘New Alliance’, but often looked more like imperialist warlord fiefdoms than anything else. Even who controlled what fleets were fluid; numerous SPD fleets had remained uncommitted to choosing sides and were either running rogue or were still somewhat taking orders from the gutted central government, trying to maintain a semblance of order as civilization collapsed.

It was a strange thing, watching a society suffer an existential crisis. The Alliance had long since been held together by two pillars: the first was that the member worlds were stronger together against potential hostile threats—that pillar was now ground to dust as it had become apparent the government, on some level, had sold them out to said hostile threats. All of the wars, all of the bloodshed...all of it only so everyone could die later. The other pillar was the hard military force and power that the Alliance wielded which kept everyone in line—but the first Confederate war had proven their will wasn’t absolute, and their actions had only served to make people angry.

As Machiavelli had once said, if you can’t have both, it’s better to be feared than loved, but you should always avoid being hated. Hatred had now won over fear.

So what did this mean for the former Confederacy? It meant the most bizarre and miraculous thing, really. SPD, all its fleets and armies and ranger units; they just...left. They packed up their bags and took off, to deal with more pressing matters back home. In a matter of days the occupation was over, as if it had never happened, leaving the burning wreck of what had once been the Confederation to fend for itself. Never the most put-together government, now that any central authority having been destroyed, there was only chaos. Some worlds that had held out under siege found themselves in a decent position, but those who had been subjugated now scrambled to assemble any sort of provisional government. Never mind the damage to the infrastructure from the war, occupation, and rebel insurgencies.

The Alliance and the Confederacy had gone to war, and in the end they had dealt the others’ death blow.

---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Season 3

3.09: The Choices We Make

---

The Karovian colony of Itasas II was one of those who had fallen to the SPD advance. After the destruction of the Confederate Fleet they’d held on for a few weeks, but against such heavy pressure they’d never really stood a chance, and all too soon SPD forces broke through their siege. A mostly water world, it had actually been one of the numerous exile colonies created when the Karovians had temporarily fled their home colony of KO-35 near the end of the twentieth century. It had remained populated however, and soon the colony began to expand. Prior to the war, it had boasted a population of over a billion, with numerous glittering karovian cities scattered across its scattered island chains.

Today, many of those cities were in ruin; the rest were falling apart from lack of resources and the resultant power vacuum from SPD’s withdrawal. They’d been attempting to rebuild, and in the past week had made some significant progress...but today the city of Kais was under attack.

The silver ranger made his way through the war-torn upper-level streets of the city’s downtown, civilians fleeing for their lives in front of him as his small krybot army laid waste to everything around them. A pyramid building, already half-destroyed, was shot up by the robots. Several decorative pillars in a courtyard were obliterated. A karovian himself, Isdilian never really ‘got’ karovian asthetics. Odd tetris buildings? Useless columns? Pyramids? So much space wasting.

Oh well, it didn’t matter. They’d all soon be a forgotten memory soon enough. He just had to draw out—ah, there they were.

Four rangers—red, blue, green, and black, rushed up through the escaping crowd, making sure to avoid the smoking rubble littering the road; the downed hover-cars and debris. They came to a stop a few yards away from Isdilian and his troops.

“...I thought sixth rangers were supposed to *start out* evil and then switch sides?” Trok asked him, the disgust obvious in his voice.

Sid cracked his knuckles, “I guess Izzy here didn’t get the memo on ranger etiquette”.

“You came” Isdilian said, half a statement of fact, half in relief, “I was hoping it’d be you who showed up”.

Xolin glanced around at all the destruction, “...You did all this just to get our attention?!” she gasped.

“How many people did you kill!?” Nikki demanded to know.

The silver ranger took stock of the chaos, his robot soldiers waiting on his command. So much more practical than the SPD troops he’d commanded before. “Does it matter?” he asked, “Their fate is sealed one way or another”.

“If you’re trying to piss us off, it’s working” the red ranger stated, “We’ve dismantled your boss’s plans one by one. We’re going to stop you, him, and whoever else you’ve got in your little club”.

Xolin added, “Stand down and we won’t kill you. It’s a damn better deal than you’ve given anyone else here”.

But the silver ranger was undeterred, “I’ve come with a proposition for you”.

“Oh? And what would that be?” Nikki asked.

“We worked well together” Isdilian said, “I miss those days. Join me; you can come with me, you can see Sel. We can all be together again; Alpha has assured me he has a place for all of you”.

Sid squinted in disbelief, “...Are you insane? You kill our friend, kidnap another, lay waste to entire city blocks, and you think we’ll just join you?!”

“We’re not going to let you kill the entire universe just for kicks” Nikki added, “And where would we go anyway? How would that benefit us?”

Isdilian grunted with annoyance, “You sound just like her. You’re not killing a universe—you’re saving one!”

Xolin shifted uncomfortably, looking at the silver ranger like he’d grown a second head “...The hell are you talking about?”

“Enough talk” Sid interrupted, “Take him down. Lethal force is fine with me”.

“Hiyah!” the four rangers shouted before charging in. With another irritated grunt, Isdilian ordered his troops in, and the battle began. The blue ranger flung herself into a squad of krybots, tearing them apart with lightning-quick jabs. The green ranger took his hammer and slammed it into the broken asphalt, letting a shockwave of green energy radiate out into another group. Three more came up beside him, only to be taken down by a decloaking black ranger from behind.

The red ranger knocked aside a krybot that was in his way with a roundhouse, but it wasn’t his target. There, ahead of him stood Isdilian. Taking a second krybot and throwing it to the ground, Sid turned to the silver ranger.

“Don’t do it” Isdilian said, “Listen to me; don’t be an idiot”.

Sid summoned his ax, “It’s a little late to be worrying about my well-being”.

Reluctantly, Isdilian pulled the sword from his shield as Sid ran towards him, the latter issuing a war cry as they met. White and red energy met and exploded where they collided, their weapons clashing against the other.

“You’re throwing away your chance to survive!” Isdilian continued to plead, “Think of your team! Do you really want them to--”

Sid cut him off, anger flashing in his voice, “NO! Don’t you EVER! You have NO right! You lost that right the day you sold us out to the lowest bidder!”

Isdilian replied by pushing Sid away before slashing him twice. As the red ranger rolled back, the blue ranger flew in from the side, coming with with her lance like a spear. Weapons collided, then legs and arms as the two swung at each other, Isdilian blocking many of her attacks with his shield. “I did it for all our benefit! For all their benefit! My purpose, Sel’s purpose, was to save the universe, and that’s what we’re going to do!”

“Save it?” Xolin asked in a mixture of bewilderment and contempt, “You’re trying to reformat it! You’ll kill countless trillions of people!”

“I’ll SAVE countless trillions!” Isdilian corrected her.

“...What?” she asked, genuinely certain he was absolutely mad. Her moment of confusion cost her though, when he rammed his boot into her gut and sent her flying. He raised his sword into the air, allowing it to collect electrical energy before pointing it at Xolin’s prone form.

SLAM! Trok’s hammer came in from behind. He was absolutely livid, “You betray us, kill innocent people, try to kill us...and you say you’re trying to help!? If you want to help, GIVE SEL BACK!”

Isdilian spun around to meet Trok, but his blade was intercepted by Sid’s ax.

“...You’re making a mistake!” the silver ranger pleaded, “I’m trying to save you! When the Shift happens---”

“When the Shift happens, everyone we’ve ever known will be dead” Sid said, matter-of-factly, “And we’ll be just as trapped in our suits as the Antipodes are now. Right? How is that saving us? Why would you ever think we’d be okay with that?”

“It’s over, Isdilian” Nikki said, knocking down the last krybot. The silver ranger glanced around; sure enough, he was now alone on the ruined street. And his bid had failed.

“...It wasn’t supposed to be this way” he said, frustrated.

“Surrender; NOW” Sid demanded, “This is your last chance”.

“No. It’s not” replied the silver ranger, “This isn’t over”.

And just like that, Isdilian teleported away, leaving the rangers behind in a devastated downtown.

---

The rangers piled onto the Megaship’s bridge a few minutes later, each of them a flurry of pent-up emotions. The planet below hovered on the lower left of the viewscreen as they pondered.

“...I’m really getting sick of these indecisive fights” Trok muttered as he moved over to one of the wall consoles and began to attempt to track Isdilian’s movements, “Is a clear victory too much to ask for?”

“...Izzy seemed weaker than usual” Sid observed, “Like way weaker”.

Nikki agreed, “If I had to guess, I’d say the Antipodes were already busy draining him regularly for their big machine. We probably caught him just after a session”.

Xolin took a seat at navigation, her expression one of perplexment at what had just happened, “...Was it just me, or did he seem seriously unhinged? Like, more than normal?”

“Yeah. What was that about killing this universe to save it?” Trok asked, “I think he’s gone off the deep end”.

Nikki, having already taken a seat turned from her console to the others, “...Actually, if I had to guess, he probably means the Antipodes’ home universe?”

Sid froze. Uh oh.

Trok and Xolin gave Nikki a look of bewilderment, “...What are you talking about?” Xolin asked.

Uh Oh.

Nikki gave them an equal expression of confusion. Weren’t they all on the same page? “...Sid didn’t tell you?”

A dangerous look flashed on Xolin’s face as she glanced at Sid for a split second before returning to Nikki, “...Tell us what?”

...Oh, well. This was going to be fun.

“The reason the Antipodes are trying to convert our universe” Nikki said, “...Their universe is dying. Rather quickly, if Iota’s logs are right. Some kind of vacuum metastability crisis, and this was the most compatible universe they could find on short notice”.

Comprehension dawned for Xolin, “So if they don’t succeed here...”

Nikki finished her train of thought for her, “...Everyone in their home universe dies. Probably horribly”.

Xolin turned to Sid, who was currently bracing himself for the coming storm, “...Why didn’t you tell us?” Confusion, exasperation. An undercurrent of anger and indignation that was quickly rising to the forefront.

“You didn’t need to know” Sid replied, even though he knew this was not the answer they wanted to hear.

The triforian’s eye twitched as she stood up. NOW she was angry, “Didn’t need to know? The hell is that supposed to mean?!” She’d always heard that shit from her father, and from Iota, but to hear it from Sid was chilling.

“I didn’t need us distracted!” Sid threw back at her, trying to find a way to defend himself, “Does knowing we’re going to kill countless people really help? Are you really better off knowing now?!”

“I don’t think it’s your call to make!” Xolin argued as she approached Sid, “And yeah, I’d like to know what I’m up against so I can make my own trinity-damned choices instead of finding out ten years later that OH HEY OOPS I LET A BUNCH OF PEOPLE DIE. GOOD WORK TEAM!”

“And if you decided not to help?!” Sid demanded to know.

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t” she replied, almost hesitatingly, “I haven’t said anything yet. I’m still in shock and more than a little angry!”

“And that’s why I didn’t tell you!” Sid said, “Because right now we can’t afford distractions. Yeah, people are going to die, but we need to make sure it won’t be our people”.

Xolin’s face contorted into one of contempt, “So you just decided for us what we’re going to do. That’s nice. Thanks, Sid. It makes me feel *so* much better” she prepared to storm out.

“Don’t do this, Xol” Sid warned, moving to stop her.

She sneered as she brushed past him, “Yeah, whatever, Iota”. Sid visibly flinched. She caught that, and actually felt a little bad that she’d felt good about it.

“...I’m not Iota” he growled with distaste, composing himself. Iota had only ever done anything to serve himself; he manipulated them and used them as tools. Sid...he’d only done this to protect them.

“Bullshit” she replied, “You kept knowledge from us so you could make the choice for us. That is *exactly* what he would have done!”

“I won’t do it”.

Xolin froze at Trok’s quiet but determined voice. The other three rangers looked at him, as he was staring at the floor in distress, still seated in his chair.

“...Trok?” Xolin asked, the anger in her voice gone.

He reaffirmed his position, stronger than before, “...I won’t do it”.

“...We have to” Nikki said, “We don’t have a--”

Trok shot up and wheeled on her, “That’s a lie! We *always* have a choice! And I refuse to kill an entire universe! I won’t!”

“...It’s not that easy” Sid replied sadly, not even daring to keep his eyes on the horathean, “We don’t know how to save their universe; we don’t even know if we *can* save it. It’s literally them or us”.

Trok let out a bitter laugh, “So that’s it then? We just become monsters ourselves? We just become the antipodes? I signed on to *HELP* people, not be the biggest monster in history!”

Nikki shook her head, “We’re not invading their universe, it’s not the same--”

“It IS the same thing!” Trok shouted, becoming more unhinged by the second, “Don’t start with me about semantics! We’re taking away their only chance of salvation and leaving them to die! That’s genocide, plain and simple!”

“...If we don’t, they kill *us*” Nikki said, remaining firm. She’d committed to this months ago.

The horathean gave her a look that was a mixture of rage and despair, “...And it’s all about us, isn’t it?” He didn’t wait for a reply; Trok rushed out of the room before anyone could do anything.

“Trok!” Sid called after him, but Xolin kept him from following.

“...How long did you know?” she asked him in a low voice.

Sid didn’t even meet her gaze as he quietly responded, “...When I was in prison, after we separated”.

She gave him a glare of absolute disgust. “All this time? Gods damn you, Sid. We trusted you”. Xolin stormed out, leaving only two rangers behind.

“...Why?” was all Nikki could ask him. A question of bewilderment, of absolute loss-of-words, hiding the guilt that she’d just set this all in motion just now.

Because he wanted to protect them. Because he didn’t want to see them hurt. Because he didn’t want them to leave. Because he’d been afraid, and the longer it had gone on, the easier it had become—and the harder it would have been to break. Sid looked up at her with a forlorn look, “...Because it’s my job” he said, not even believing it himself. He walked out of the room as well.

Nikki slumped down into a chair, mentally trying to digest what had just happened.

“...Well, shit”.

---

Isdilian stepped off his personal transport and onto the Antipode base’s hanger bay. He was alone; his entire contingent of krybots had been destroyed by the rangers. Not that it mattered as they could always acquire more. Still, it felt...empty. Of course, that was probably amplified by the fact that the bay was devoid of activity. When SPD had worked here, this place had always been staffed. But now that they’d been replaced by krybots, none of the usual traffic happened anymore; no longer did anyone need logistics shipped in or did any personnel come and go. Only six living beings ever came aboard this place, and none of them needed much. So, when cargo wasn’t being hauled in, the krybots were elsewhere, or offline

“They’re not dead”.

Alpha stood there expectantly with his arms folded. He wasn’t amused.

“...You said if I could convert them to our cause, there wouldn’t be any need for killing” the silver ranger responded.

“...And have you managed to convert them?” the red antipode demanded to know, even though he already knew.

Isdilian became hesitant, “Not...yet, but I’m sure that I can---”

“You had your chance, Isdilian. They have rejected your offer. It’s time to neutralize them”.

“I just need a little more time and I know that---”

Alpha wasn’t budging an inch. The exact opposite really, as he walked up to Isdilian and stared him down, “Time is no longer a luxury we can afford, Omega-Theta”. Ooh, his project code name. Isdilian knew he was in trouble, “In case you haven’t noticed, your friends are building an army against us—fairly quickly I might add. In addition to that, your other won’t last much longer. Our options for victory are slipping, fast. If you can’t do the job, then I’ll assign someone who can”.

….Wait, his other? Isdilian’s usually unflappable demeanor fell as panic surfaced, “...Sel? What’s wrong? What do you mean won’t last long?”

“...She was foolish. Her attempt at sabotage damaged her, fatally. She’s still alive for now, but she’s...degrading. We only have a short window of opportunity left” Alpha said, impassive.

His sister. His own sister, dying. “...Is there nothing we can do?”

“I’m afraid not” Alpha replied, “We’re harvesting as much power from her while we can”.

Isdilian almost asked to see her. But he knew she’d never accept his visit, not unless he brought the others with him. Not unless he could convince them.

“...Can you do your job?” Alpha asked the karovian who was currently in a state of shock. Isdilian’s mind reeled at the implications. Sel was dying.

“...I...”

“Can you do your job?”

Taking a moment to compose himself, Isdilian nodded firmly, “...Yes. Yes I can”.

Alpha nodded in return “Then I expect a report on your victory upon your next return. Your ship will be restocked and resupplied, and then I expect you out in the field, understood?”

“Yes, sir”.

With one last nod, Alpha turned and left as a number of krybots came in with supplies. Isdilian let them go about their work as he contemplated all of this. He loved his sister. He cared for her, even if he wasn’t always the best at showing it, even if she didn’t appreciate it. To have her dying with no way to fix this...it was almost more than he could bare. Was this all for nothing? He dropped to his knees and issued a guttural scream as the tears came, the krybots paying him no mind as they worked.

He had to deal with the others. Time was no longer an asset. Failure was no longer an option. He WOULD get them to side with him, or else he’d make that choice for them. By any means necessary.

---

It was hard, focusing. Sel was kind of absent-minded to begin with, and this damned pain only made it worse. Which pain? The constant surge of power being forcibly drained from her, or her body slowly disintegrating? It didn’t really matter, it just hurt. She’d considered giving up several times, having ALMOST achieved her goal, only to have it ripped away again. After all, wasn’t it all futile? She was dying, soon there would be nothing left of her. Her eyes remained closed; she was too tired to open them anyway. So she sat there, in her dark little pod, awaiting death.

At some point she’d drifted off despite everything, because at some point she no longer felt like she was pinned to a pod chair, having her physical form ebb away. Sel opened her eyes, finding herself once again where she’d wanted to be: the room with the doors.

“...Figures” she muttered to herself as she got to her feet, her body in this state completely intact, “I can’t do it when I try, but when I fall asleep...” she trailed off as she approached one of the doors. Sel pulled, with the usual effect of...no effect.

“...This can’t be what you want” Sel said. She wasn’t exactly sure who she was talking to really, she was just...frustrated, “They’re going to kill everyone; everything. You can’t be okay with this”. God, maybe? Gods? Those spirits Trok sometimes referenced? The Grid itself?

...Did the Grid even have a consciousness?

“...What does it take to open you?” she asked the door, then looked about at all the other open doors, “I’m being used as a sieve for Morphin energy. I am housing the power of the universe. What does it take!?” She pounded the door in a fit of anger. It was short lived though; the rage she felt had been quenched by hopelessness.

It didn’t matter. Nothing she did mattered; she’d been stopped at every turn. All she was was a tool.

“...Fine” she said as she sat down, “If you don’t care what happens, why should I?” The xybrian bunched up her knees to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, becoming as small as possible. “...All I ever wanted was to go home. To have a chance to be me, to find out who I am. I didn’t know that’s what I wanted until just before it was ripped away. And now I’ll never get that chance. I’ll never get to see them again...and they’ll all die anyway. And you don’t care”.

A beat.

“...I give up”.

A light appeared behind her. Cautiously, refusing to hope, but still turning, she looked in its direction, finding that a door on the opposite side of the room had unlocked and now hung loosely. Beyond it, she saw light. The former yellow ranger stood up, cautiously walking to the door. Extending her arm, she felt the warm light of the Grid dance over her fingertips. Pulling her hand back, she took a deep steady breath, and walked through.

---

Upon storming out of the bridge, Trok had eventually made his way to the cargobay that he had converted into his quasi-workshop when Tesas had been onboard. His head was swimming; a few hours ago they had been the unquestioned good guys and now...now he didn’t now what to think. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It wasn’t supposed to work like this.

The horathean had set himself at his desk, and was supposedly trying to get his newest device working (surrounded by all the failed prototypes that had never gone anywhere—the Battle Yacht was still dominating the room), but he couldn’t even begin to focus on any of this. Spirits, what were they doing!?

There was no way out of this either. Either they died, or the Antipodes died. In either scenario, they were all monsters. Trok suddenly regretted ever joining this team. If he’d just stayed away, he could have just gone on with his life for however long that would have been, without having to worry about this.

He set the device down and put his head in his hands, his brain about to burst from the endless cycles of logic and emotion running through his mind.

“If it’s any consolation, I don’t like it either”.

Nikki’s voice. Trok didn’t even bother to turn around, “Go away”.

She almost did. The two of them had never really gotten along; too far apart on the practicality vs idealism spectrum, but they had gotten to at least leave the other be. Yet something inside her pushed Nikki to continue, “You can’t just run away from this, Trok”.

“Did you even look for another option before you decided to commit genocide?” he asked acidly.

Ouch. “...And what option would that be?” she bit back, a bit more forcefully than she’d intended, but she WAS on the defensive here. “Do you have some secret weapon to save the day?”

He hesitated slightly, “Not yet but--”

“Do you have any idea how to stop the death of a universe? Do you know how to reverse a false vacuum event in an antimatter universe?”

“Not...exactly--”

“I have all of Iota’s files, all of his schemes and plans and everything the Antipodes tried. I ran the calculations myself. There is no other way. Believe me, I wish to god there was, but there’s not”.

The horathean let out an empty, almost hysterical laugh, “...That’s easy for you to say. You don’t like it? You wrote the book on it! Masked Rider Apollo, back when we met, then the Tenga refugees. You’re the poster child for shoot first, ask questions later!”

Ouch. He wasn’t wrong mind you, but it it still hurt to have it summed up so bluntly. “...I was right about Apollo” she said, then a bit less certainly added, “And you were right about the Tengas. That’s how it goes, right? We can’t always be right?” She hated this; it was like running everything through her mind when she’d first found out after the Megaship had been captured, desperately combing the files for any hope, anything at all, and finding none.

But Trok couldn’t hear her. He was already moving on to the next step; “And just last week, we killed an entire Animarium world for our own benefit! Billions of years of history, an entire zord ecosystem just...gone. How does that make us any better than the Antipodes?!” he finally jumped out of his chair, turning to her. Tears were starting to form in his eyes, “I didn’t want to be a monster!”

Nikki rubbed her arm absentmindedly, “...It’s the Trolley dilemma” she said sadly, looking away.

“...What?” he asked.

“You’re on a train that can’t stop. Ahead of you is a fork in the road. If you continue on the path you’re on, people die. If you switch tracks you can save them—at the cost of other people. The dilemma is all about ethics. Is it worse to let people die, or to actively intervene and kill others yourself?”

He glared at her, “You call out for them to get off the track”.

“They can’t hear you”.

Trok was getting increasingly irate, “Then you get out there and stop the train yourself!”

“And then you die and everybody else does as well” Nikki countered.

“Then...then...” Trok fumbled for words, for an idea, but none came. Even though he KNEW if he just...thought a moment longer…

“You can’t stop it Trok” Nikki added, “There is no third option, there is no last-minute win. You have to choose”.

“That--that’s not fair!” the horathean belted out.

She regarded him with a cool mixture of pity and remorse. How many times had she said that about life? That, sometimes no matter how hard you tried, you still came up short. “...No. No it’s not”.

The horathean gave her a hopeless look as the facts came crashing down around him, “...I can’t do this” he said, shaking his head, “I just...I can’t--”

“Yes. You can” she replied. He paused, giving her a chance to continue, “I know you can because...you’re me. Or her. Whoever. When I was your age”.

“...I find that hard to believe” he replied, though she saw the faintest glimmer of mirth in his eyes—the idea of ‘naive little girl Nikki’ tickled him.

Despite herself, she gave a small laugh herself, “It’s true. She was your stereotypical pink ranger; the heart of the team. I was always there to make sure everyone was okay and working together. I believed in SPD, in being a hero, in doing what was right. I thought that if you just tried enough, if you were steadfast enough, you could always persevere. I guess that’s why you pissed me off so much when I first met you; I couldn’t stand being reminded of that”.

“...What happened?” Trok asked, but quickly regretted his admittedly stupid question when he saw her expression flicker with sadness, “...Sorry”.

“...What were you working on?” she asked him, changing the subject as she pointed to the device he’d left on the desk. Trok sat back down in his seat and grabbed the object as Nikki leaned over the side of his chair to get a better look.

Trok fondled the object, “...It’s another project of mine. The Peacekeeper zord arsenal is fairly modular, so I was trying to go up another step since we can’t use the Guardian Megazord without the Lights”.

“...An Ultrazord?”

Trok nodded, “Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get it to work yet. Not enough of a power source, and honestly there’s only so far I can push even a modular design. The zords simply weren’t built for a super configuration”.

“So it’s a no-go?” she asked, a bit sadly. He nodded with a sigh as she looked out at all his other projects, “...Are these all no-gos?”

“Just don’t have the resources I need” Trok said in defense.

She placed a hand on his shoulder, “...You ever thought about just focusing on one? You know, quality over quantity?”

Trok managed a small laugh despite it all, “...I don’t think my mind works that way”

Her hand left his shoulder, “...I know. But Trok? The world doesn’t work THAT way. If you’re too concerned about getting everything done, sooner or later you get nothing done”.

“Yeah, I guess” he said dejectedly, “...This isn’t about projects, is it?” he asked, looking back at her as he cradled the device.

“...I’m just saying. Sometimes…sometimes you just can’t save everyone. Sometimes you just have to choose and hope for the best. It doesn’t make you a monster...god, I hope not, it just means that….I guess, we’re not gods. We’re just people, doing the best we can with a shitty situation”. When Trok didn’t respond, she added, “...What about Sel? Would you just leave her to die? What about Xolin? Sid?”

Trok gave her a horrified expression, as if she’d dare consider he’d ever do that. “...That’s---”

“Not fair, I know” she said, quietly. The silence lingered on as neither could find anything else to say. Finally, Nikki gave in, exiting the room just as quickly as she had entered. Trok sat there for a bit, looking down at the device in his hands as despair closed in around him.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

---

Three days. It had been three days since she’d blown up at Sid, and since then the Megaship had been a much colder place. Xolin hadn’t been out of her room that much except to visit the food synthesizer and the simudeck, but she had noticed group activity was down even without her around. She and Sid weren’t on speaking terms obviously, and the two hadn’t seen much more than an accidental run-in at the synthatron yesterday. Trok was either in his room or hiding in his makeshift workshop downstairs doing trinity knew what. Nikki was...well, Nikki.

She was just so frustrated, and angry. Angry that Sid had hid such an important fact from her. Frustrated that she *was* so angry with him. Worried about the whole thing. Sick to her stomach over the obvious Sophie’s Choice style dilemma that she’d just been saddled with.

Worried about how Trok was handling this.

She’d tried meditating, hadn’t worked—too worked up. She’d tried blowing off some steam in the Simudeck—too preoccupied to enjoy it. She’d tried watching TV—just got bored. So now here she lay on her bed, perpendicular to it and staring at the ceiling in quiet contempt of the universe.

“Everyone to the bridge, now!”

She groaned at Sid’s voice blaring over the comm; didn’t he know she was very busy hating all of creation as intensely as she could?

In truth she’d been dreading this—the inevitable moment they’d all be called together again for another mission. The last thing she wanted to deal with right now was...well, everyone really while she figured this all out, but especially Sid and his...Sid-ness. She really was angry at him. After all this time; all they’d been through, and his first reaction was to start lying to them? She knew full well she had a poor sense of self worth, and this didn’t help!

---

Xolin noticed as she stepped onto the bridge that she was the last to do so—Sid was standing ahead on the captain’s chair on alert, Nikki was near him, and Trok was leaning on one of the consoles just behind the captain’s seat. “What does our glorious god-king want now?” she grumbled...Then she saw what they were looking at on the viewscreen.

Sid glanced back at her, then back at the screen as he ignored her jab, “Alright, we’re all here. The hell’s this about, Izzy?”

The karovian, speaking from some sort of warehouse, sneered as he counted stock of all four rangers, “Good. Very good. Now, listen up. I’m sure by now Trok and Nikki have traced my signal to Korac II. It’s a nice little world, very rural, very scenic. It’s a very popular place for science teams; lots of variables that created some very unique flora and fauna”.

“The point, Izzy?” Sid stressed, having no time for games.

Isdilian growled at the sound of his unwelcome nickname, “My point is this” he moved away from the camera, revealing a group of scientists from various Confederate worlds being held on the floor bound and at gunpoint by a fairly large contingent of krybots. The scientists looked, for obvious reasons, distressed and worried. Isdilian turned back to the camera, “I have these scientists with me. I am going to kill them, one by one, every six hours until you show up and face me”.

Trok gasped. Nikki and Xolin switched between expressions of shock and anger. Sid gritted his teeth, “Are you insane?”

“They’re going to die when the Antipodes complete their project anyway, what difference does it make if it’s a few weeks early?” Isdilian asked, “I’m not the bad guy here, Sid. I want you to come home”.

“...Come home?” Xolin asked him with disdain, “How many times do we have to tell you we’re not interested in helping the Antipodes destroy everything?”

Isdilian glared at her with quiet fury, “...Six hours” he said, gritting his teeth at having decided not to get goaded into an argument, “Be here. Surrender. If you don’t, people start dying and it’s on your hands. And don’t bother trying to teleport them up; I’ve had the entire complex put under a dampening field”. He cut the link, the viewscreen returning to that of a starfield image.

For a split second the rangers stood there, dumbstruck, before they burst into a flurry of activity, their earlier arguments and hangups forgotten. Sid turned to Trok, “How soon can we get to the Korac system?”

“Five and a half hours at maximum hyperrush”.

“Xol?” Sid asked, turning to the triforian as he took a seat.

Xolin was already plotting a course before he’d even asked her, “Done”.

“Looks like you’re going to get your rematch after all, Trok” Sid said with determination, gripping his armrests. He didn’t see Trok’s look of worry and disgust. “Punch it”.

The Megaship wheeled about, turning towards its destination as its engines primed. A moment later, it was gone.

–-

The second it arrived in orbit over the orange and blue planet, four pulses of light shot out of the Megaship’s launchbay towards the surface—one red, one blue, one green, and one a dark violet verging on black. As the lights hit the planet’s atmosphere, the energy evaporated, leaving four rangers and their skycycles rocketing towards the science station compound below.

Korac II was very...reddish-orange. The plant-life here was distinctly alien; a hodgepodge of tall, stick-like deep-red ferns and orangeish, bulbous plantlife whose leaves would inflate into sacks. The science outpost sat on the dividing line between two biomes; between the cliffs of the inland, and the marshy maze of the river delta. It was comprised of several prefabricated buildings with a dirt road between them; nothing fancy, but serviceable for a small operation.

...Also two automated defense turrets, because of course why not. The rangers easily evaded the civilian-level defenses, Sid and Xolin blowing them both apart with their skycycle’s weapons as they swooped in. They didn’t bother to park their vehicles; the rangers jumped right off near the entrance to the main structure and allowed the cycles to return to the ship.

In front of the door, as the rangers discovered, stood Isdilian and a squad of his krybots.

“Twenty-six minutes to spare” the red ranger said, “We beat your stupid time-limit, now let the scientists go!”

“I didn’t say I’d let them go. I said I wouldn’t kill them” the silver ranger replied, “Now I suggest you surrender. Demorph, throw down your morphers, and don’t resist”.

“We’ve got a better idea” Xolin said, “How about we don’t, kick your ass, and save the scientists ourselves?”

Isdilian growled, “Why can’t you ever just do what’s good for you? I’m *trying* to save you!”

“We’ll take that under advisement” Sid replied. With that the four rangers threw themselves into the fray.

---

She was pretty sure she was lost.

It wasn’t a particularly fun place to be lost, either. Sel found herself wandering through what she could only describe as a haunted forest—dead, twisted trees that were so overgrown they blotted out the sky, marshy, wet dirt where you couldn’t move two steps without stepping into another puddle, and wild, overgrown undergrowth.

Hooray.

And, right on cue, she thought she heard something rustling in the grass. Assuming a fighting stance, she gave a frantic sweep of the area for the origin of the sound. Nothing. Just the wind?

Hah, no. She’d seen enough of Sid and Trok’s movies to know that it was *never* just the wind.

...A growl. Behind her!

She spun back around, where she’d been before. Nothing. Another rustle of the undergrowth came from her right. Then another sound, at her eight o’clock. She had a bad feeling—there was more than one.

Well, crap.

The first attack came from her left. A wolf-like monster...thing came at her, much of its flesh having rotted off. She almost didn’t catch it in time, being focused on another spot. The xybrian barely spun out of the way, landing on the ground on her side. She scrambled back up, just in time to avoid the monster’s next attack---oh good, and here came its partner. The other wolf attacked and Sel gave it a nice, solid kick to its mouth. Quickly grabbing a fallen branch, she swung at the first attacking wolf—unaware that its companion was rebounding. Its weight crashed into her from the side, sending her flying into a tree. Her body crashed into its trunk and she crumbled to the ground in a heap, as third wolf emerged. They began to converge on her.

At first she struggled to get up; she had to. If she didn’t, they were going to kill her, and she still had to...had...to…

What did she have to do?

She’d come here, to the dreamlands, to find a way back to her friends, to warn them. But she didn’t even know where they were. She didn’t know how to reach them; she’d only ever been here once before, and that had been under extraordinary circumstances, and then she’d had someone to guide her.

Sel literally had no idea what she was doing.

Futile. It was all futile. She didn’t even get here under her own power; she’d given up and then...she’d found her way here. Nothing she did mattered.

...Why *not* let the wolves do her in?

Wait, what?!

No, no, there was sound reasoning here. Certainly, this was only her astral form (of a sort), but it WAS the representative to her connection to the Morphing Grid. If she died here, she didn’t know if her body back in the real world would perish as well, but she was pretty sure her connection to the grid would probably be compromised. And without her, well...so much for converting the entire universe, huh?

She could end it, right here and now. End the Antipodes’ ambitions in one simple move. It would be her last act, but it would in the end be the only act she could possibly make.

She could die.

And what of the others? Of Sid, and Xolin, and Trok? She’d give anything to see them again. But...it was not meant to be. It would be best if she stopped fooling herself otherwise.

And so Sel stopped struggling. She stopped trying to get up. Instead she laid back down and deliberately closed her eyes, awaiting the end. She hoped the end of her sad story would allow the others to live.

There was the sounds of a scuffle—and she was pretty sure she hadn’t been eaten yet. Sel opened her eyes, and to her surprise found an elderly man in a ceremonial robe fighting the wolves off with his staff. He had pretty good moves for an older person; slamming aside one wolf with the stick before spinning around and blocking another wolf’s jaw before forcing it away and then delivering a blow to the head. The last wolf came at him—wait, did he have green hair? The last wolf went down just as easily as the first two. The trio whimpered and scampered into the forest as the man turned to Sel.

Wait. She knew him!

“...Elder Sesh” she breathed, now in a sitting position.

The man who had unofficially taken her under his wing way back when she had first visited Xybria when this had first begun offered his hand, “As a friendly warning, shadow wolves were an intelligent species. Playing dead is not a viable strategy”.

None of this made any sense, “...How are you here?” Sel asked as she grabbed his hand and rose to her feet.

“I am exactly where I need to be” the man responded cryptically. He waved off in the direction Sel had been walking before this happened, “Shall we go? I believe we have much to talk about”.

“Uh...lead the way. I guess” Sel replied, following in step behind the older man.

---

Despite the apparent haphazard and gung-ho actions of the rangers, they really did have a plan. After all, for all they knew, Isdilian had taken the last few days to charge back up; they didn’t even know if they could beat him conventionally right now. So while to the untrained eye it looked like they were just trying to force their way through the krybot swarm, in truth they were maneuvering Isdilian right where they wanted him.

Trok and Nikki focused on the krybots, tossing them about easily. Sid and Xolin, as the team’s best fighters, took on Isdilian directly. Red and blue met silver, launching at him and grabbing him by the arms as they pulled him away from the entrance. The silver ranger landed in the complex’s central dirt road, turning about to face his two foes.

“Any words of wisdom before we kick your ass?” Sid asked him.

“Your confidence is always quite annoying” Isdilian grunted before striking at them. Sid leaped overhead, evading the strike as Xolin met his limbs with her own, the two parrying the other’s attacks. From behind Sid came in with a kick, the silver ranger blocked, catching Sid by the leg and tossing him aside. He dodged Xolin’s next attack, before charging up his hand like an energy blade and cut into her with a wide slice. The blue ranger fell back.

Red struck again, coming down as blue rolled away with an arm chop. Isdilian blocked, then returned the favor with two strikes from his blade arm. Sid fell and the two rangers regrouped.

“When the hell did he get blade attacks?!” Sid gasped.

“Yeah, you don’t like it when things are hidden from you, huh?” Xolin shot back.

“Can we not do this now?” he snapped at her.

The two didn’t have many more time to spare as Isdilian launched himself at them, both arms now charged up and ready to strike.

---

Trok and Nikki had drawn their sidearms and were now in the process of disposing of the krybots, switching their weapons between sword and gun mode at will. Most of the krybots didn’t stand much of a chance against two veteran rangers and they fell easy.

...The resident bluehead commander however, was another story. Its wrist blaster caught the two rangers off-guard while they were fighting, and while Nikki barely managed to evade, Trok was hit dead-on. The black ranger swung in, firing with her blaster before switching to sword mode and attacking at close range. The bluehead draw its own sword and the two clashed—briefly, as Nikki was still a far better fighter than an above-average grunt soldier robot. It also didn’t help that Trok had entrapped it within the confines of his hammer-mace, binding it within chains. Charging up her sword, Nikki brought it down, cutting through her foe like butter.

The two ranger survayed the remains of the battlefield. Krybot husks littered the ground and lay draped over railings and other low-laying objects of the outpost, each of them sparking and sputtering. Trok gave Nikki a nod towards the main building. She nodded back, and together the two moved inside. They knew they had to hurry; the longer Sid and Xolin had to keep Isdilian occupied with just the two of them, the worse things would be. They had to rescue the science team as quickly as possible.

Only a few of Isdilian’s krybots had remained inside, just to keep the scientists under guard. With just a few quick movements, the black and green rangers had disposed of them as well.

The interior of the building was pretty much like the exterior; pre-fabricated. While not a military operation, everything was still very same-y. White chairs, white tables, very basic and modular furniture all around. It was evidently the central work station for the group, as the room (and the one beyond it) was full of computer consoles and sensor equipment—though a number of them had been knocked over or smashed. The scientists, about seven of them—two humans, an aquitian, three edenoites, and a rock golem person—sat in the middle of the floor, bound together.

The despondent scientists stirred at the arrival of the two rangers—first with confusion over what was happening as the scuffle with the krybots broke out, then with joy as they realized the new arrivals were likely friendly.

“Oh, thank god you’ve come” one of the humans, a female, said as Trok quickly cut through their bindings. Nikki remained at the door, on alert just in case. “They were going to kill us”.

“Don’t worry, you’re going to be alright” said Trok as he freed them. It was second nature, helping people. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he shouldn’t be here, that this wasn’t right. By being here, he was implicitly endorsing the genocide of an entire other universe. Yet...he couldn’t let these people die too.

Focus on the immediate was what he told himself. Do good now.

“Where’s the silver ranger?” the aquitian, a male, asked worriedly.

Nikki replied as she glanced out a window, “Don’t worry, the rest of our team is keeping him busy. As soon as we’re out of here, we’re going to lead you outside the teleporter jamming zone and get you to our ship. Then we’re going to deal with your captor”.

“Done” said Trok, cutting the last scientist loose, “Come on, we gotta go”.

---

Well, Izzy had certainly powered up again since the last time they’d met. Sid again evaded Isdilian’s attack, rolling away from his foe as he took up a fighting stance upon recovery. They’d successfully led Isdilian away from the base and into a thicket of those weird alien treets, but those twin energy blades on his arms were not to be trifled with—if the black marks on Sid’s suit were anything to go by, anyway.

Still, something felt...off.

Xolin blocked Izzy’s attacks with her lance, before jamming her boot in his midsection while using said lance as a launching-point. She spun about, landing a second boot in his face. The silver ranger stepped back and she pressed her attack—only to be cut down again by the arm blades.

Sid caught her, “I’m starting to hate those things” she grunted.

“Does any of this feel off to you?” Sid asked her.

They hadn’t made up; Xolin was still pissed in several different ways and Sid was still doubling down, but in combat at least none of that mattered at all. They still trusted each other enough to do their job.

She nodded as they watched Isdilian circle them, waiting for his next opening, “...A bit. He hasn’t used his sword and shield at all”.

“Or his Morphing Grid powers. And I’m not sure when his suit was upgraded for energy blades”.

The two contemplated the situation. Sid wanted to try something, “I’ve got an idea, if you’re willing”.

“‘If I’m willing?’ she asked with bemusement.

“We can argue as much as we want later, but I need you to trust me on this” he told her. He wasn’t Iota, he refused to be Iota. He was better than Iota.

She fought down the desire to throw out another snippy one-liner at him; this was important. She could tell in his voice. Xolin nodded, “Do it”.

The two rangers rushed the other. Sid’s ax met Isdilian’s energy blades, energy crackling as each tried to push the other back.

“NOW!” Sid commanded.

The blue ranger leaped over the red ranger, using him for a springboard before he fell back, allowing her to strike with her feet. She flipped back from her hit, allowing Sid to grasp her boots, pushing her forward for a second attack. Her powered-up lance struck Isdilian dead-on, and as he sparked and burned, his suit vanished—though notably not with the standard demorph effect.

...Nor was it Isdilian underneath, but a battered and bruised krybot orangehead. Both rangers gasped as they realized they’d been played.

“A holographic illusion” Sid said with a sinking feeling, “...He lured us here”.

Xolin was on the same page as him, “Trok and Nikki...We have to get back to the others, *now*!”

“Right with you there!” Sid declared, powering up his ax. The red ranger jumped into the air, coming down like a tornado as he cut through the damaged robot and broke it in two. The two rangers didn’t even wait for the krybot’s remains to explode as they raced back to the science outpost, hoping that they weren’t too late.

---

Trok didn’t even see the hit coming as he turned around, leading everyone towards the exit of the building. But suddenly the green ranger’s chest exploded; Nikki shouted a warning, but it was already too late. The scientists screamed at the sudden violence. Trok tried to fight back, but suddenly found himself being flipped over onto his back. Nikki tensed as she saw his attacker.

A cloaking device. Isdilian had kept one of her damned cloaking devices when he betrayed them. The silver ranger had materialized and thrown Trok across the room with his sword. The black ranger attempted to counter with her sidearm blade, but Isdilian countered it easily and struck her directly. With her dispatched, Isdilian placed his foot over Trok’s chest and pointed his sword at the horathean’s chest, an effective threat to keep him from moving. Nikki attempted to intervene, but stopped when Isdilian threatened to stab Trok right here and now. The black ranger clenched her fists, still in a half-crouch.

“Do I have your attention?” he asked her.

“...How?” she asked. She’d seen him go off with Sid and Xolin.

He shrugged, “Decoys. Now, throw down your morpher or I kill him”.

“Really?” she asked him, “Your big plan to get us to join you is to kill us?”

Frustrated anger flooded through Isdilian, “My orders are to neutralize you. I am trying my best, but I cannot leave here without you, one way or another” he jabbed the end of the sword closer to Trok’s body, “Now surrender!”

“You really want to try that on me?” she asked him, “Remember I’m the team pragmatist”.

The silver ranger called her bluff, “And yet, you haven’t budged an inch. Throw down your morpher. No more delays”.

For a second Nikki debated going through with attacking, but in the end she knew Isdilian was right—she couldn’t go through with it; she’d never forgive herself if it cost Trok his life. Not after knowing the others for so long—and something in his voice told her he was desperate enough to do it. Silently cursing herself for her own inadequacies, she prepared to demorph.

But Isdilian had made a mistake. He’d focused too much of his attention on Nikki, not imagining that Trok wouldn’t risk attacking himself. If the situation had been reversed of course, Trok wouldn’t have dared move, but if Trok was only risking himself? Well, that was different.

With one quick movement, the green ranger drew his sidearm blaster and fired a steady stream of laserfire at the silver ranger. Isdilian’s suit sparked as he stepped back in a mixture of shock and pain, allowing Trok to scramble to his feet as Nikki rushed over to him to help him up. Taking the opportunity, the two of them quickly herded the frightened scientists out of the building, giving them a wider room to maneuver. Isdilian quickly followed.

Isdilian roared at them, enraged that they’d beaten his scheme—AGAIN. “Why?! Why can’t you ever just do as I say!? Why do you have to fight me every single step!? I was your leader! I was your commander! I have Sel! I’m your only hope at salvation! Why fight me?!”

“Because you’re wrong” Sid’s voice called out. Isdilian cocked his head to see the other two rangers running towards their little group. Great, just great. Isdilian’s entire plan had just gone up in smoke; a platoon of krybots, gone. His hostages, gone. The element of surprise, gone. And he had nothing to show for it but being outflanked.

Sel was dying. There was nothing he could do. Nothing except fight.

“...But I’m *not*” he tried to reason, “If you stop the Antipodes, you sentence an entire universe to die”.

“And if we help you, we kill this one” Sid replied, “Everything we’ve ever known, everyone we’ve ever loved. Why on earth would you ever think we would do that?” It was exactly what Sel had told him when they’d fought, exactly what she’d predicted.

“What happened to their universe is a tragedy beyond comprehension” Nikki chimed in, “But we can’t let the people here suffer in their stead”.

“We’re not gods” Sid added, “And we’re not going to let you pull off this twisted Sin Eater scheme”. Trok didn’t say anything, but at the same time he didn’t object. Xolin remained impassive.

Isdilian watched them form up around him. Frustration, anger, rage. Loss, despair.

Fine. They would fight.

Channeling his emotions, Isdilian tapped into the Morphing Grid, summoning as much power as he could. Normally power would flood back into him gradually, but if needed to he could force it—though he’d been warned the consequences would be dire. Was that what was happening to Sel? It didn’t matter; he would show his former teammates power. Morphing energy surged through his body, an aura building around him as he utilized his newfound strength. The wind picked up, energy rippled through the air. Isdilian pulled his sword from his shield.

“If you won’t come with me peacefully, then I will make you come with me in pieces!”

“EVERYBODY GET DOWN!” Sid shouted as everyone bolted. A cascading wave of power rushed out in all directions, knocking everyone back as the silver ranger launched himself at his foes. They went down in rapid succession; Sid first, parrying the first blow before being overwhelmed by the next two. Then Trok, then Xolin, then Nikki. Sid rebounded, but it was clear they were outmatched.

“Hey, Izzy!” Nikki mocked as she got back up. Her taunt caught the silver ranger’s attention, “Phantom Mode”. Form-fitting armor materialized around Nikki’s suit; black in color with violet energy lines cutting across. She assumed a stance.

“Let’s go”.

---

The atmosphere had changed dramatically with just a few steps. No longer were they lost within the haunted forest, instead Sel found herself on a grassy hill, bathed in warm sunlight. It was very odd seeing a friendly face after all this time. She’d only actually met Sesh once, but they’d kept in contact during her stay on the Megaship.

“...Where are we?” she asked, staring out at distant mountains.

“Another place, another time” the elder xybrian said, “Its name is likely forgotten to time. Its star may no longer even exist”.

“...But you know it?” she asked him.

The old man chuckled, “I know many places. Not by name, not by what they were originally, but by what I found their memory as here”.

She was still perplexed by his appearance here, “...How did you know about this? About the dreamlands?”

“Is that what you call it?” Sesh asked with bemusement, “I am old, Sel. When I was younger I served as an acolyte to our people, and I traveled, and I meditated, and I learned things. I sometimes come here to relax, or to learn”.

“Learn what?”

Sesh contemplated his answer for a moment, “...Our people are telepathic. Some might confuse this for clairvoyance, but we simply have a knack for predicting what people might do from the knowledge they unconsciously share with us. Together, we form a sort of hivemind, a telepathic link where every xybrian is part of a greater whole. In this way, we aren’t really separate, but part of a greater whole. Likewise, here in the afterimages, the forgotten memories of what was, it’s clear the entire universe is this way. We are all one thing, shattered though we might be” he regarded her, “Even if we seem like those we love are out of reach, in a way they never left”.

All she could think about was Sid, Xolin, Trok. How long it had been. How many months.

“...I wouldn’t know” she said glumly, “I was never able to connect with the hivemind”.

Sesh nodded sadly, then sat down in the grass, “That is correct. But you were a much different person then, and I’ve heard your telepathic abilities have manifested since then”.

“Pfft. Barely” she groaned, plopping down beside him, “...They kind of came and went at random. Then...stuff happened”. Her grid powers had overtaken her, and nothing else had really mattered.

“It’s like a muscle you don’t use. If you’ve never really been around our people, or trained it in any way, then it falls by the wayside. Besides, you’re not an average xybrian, are you?”

“...No” she admitted, “How much do you know?”

“Only what your team managed to leak. I’m not a scientist”.

“...My team?” Sel asked in surprise, “They’re still fighting then!” Hope surged.

“Indeed!” the old man replied in affirmation, “They’ve been looking for you, doing everything they can to disrupt the Antipodes’ plans. Word is they’re building an armada”.

Holy shit. The only news bits she’d ever gotten had been filtered through Alpha and Isdilian’s conversations with her—she’d never imagined the others were turning the tables. Leaking enemy schemes? Building armadas? Yet her face dropped when she realized that while they were looking for her, they would not find her in time.

“...Why the long face?” Sesh asked her, “I would think this was happy news”.

She began idly playing with the blades of grass at her side. Anything to distract her, “I...” How to explain this? “...Bad things have happened, Elder. The Antipodes, their plans...there’s not much of me left. I won’t be around much longer”.

“You seem fine to me now”.

True, but this wasn’t the real her, “...Yeah but this is my...astral form, or whatever. Dream form. It’s not real”.

“Seems real enough to me” the old man said, “Who’s to say what’s real? Is reality the place we came from, or is it here, and our reality is but a facet of a much deeper plane?”

Waitwhat? “Um...” Sel actually wasn’t sure how to respond to that particular detour.

“We xybrians believe that when one of us dies, the memories we’ve imparted are spread across our telepathic link. In essence, we don’t die, not truly. As long as our collective memory remembers, we persist. Our physical form is just a shell, a vessel we inhabit for a short time”.

A nice sentiment, but it didn’t help Sel at all, not least of all because as had been pointed out, she wasn’t your typical xybrian. “...I don’t want to die” she admitted, her voice tiny and scared as the enormity of their discussion fell on her. It had been one thing when she’d been dealing with it or ignoring it on her own terms, but now that she was openly having this discussion...even Sesh’s option didn’t leave her with much comfort even if she WAS part of the hivemind. “I don’t...I don’t want to just be memories, or an afterthought. I don’t want to die. I want to go home. I didn’t want any of this”. Tears began to form as she ran her fingers through her hair, putting her head down in her knees.


“And yet when I found you, you were ready to end it”.

Her head shot back up, “...How did you...”

“I’m old, Sel, and I’m not a fool”. As she rested her head again, he continued, “Why?”

She slumped over on her side, still curled up in a ball, “...Nothing matters. I tried to fight. I gave everything I had. It wasn’t enough. Everything I try to do, it just...it doesn’t matter. And I thought that, if the end is coming, then at least maybe...I could face it on my own terms, if nothing else”.

“The second hardest lesson in life is that you can fail. You can do everything right, and still come up short”.

She nodded numbly, “...Yeah”.

“The hardest is that you have to get up again”.

She squeezed into an even tighter ball, “What’s the point?”

The elder xybrian regarded the girl for a moment. Like this, she seemed even younger than she already was; just a frightened child. “...When I was young, I wanted to be a lawyer. My father had been a lawyer, and his father had been too. It was expected, and more than that, I wanted it. My entire schooling had centered around it. So you can imagine my disappointment when I failed my exams”.

“...What did you do?”

“I tried again, and again, and again”.

“...Did you pass?”

The man laughed, “Hah, no. If I had, I wouldn’t be here, with you now. But that’s the thing about life, you never know what’s going to happen next. You could fail at one thing, only to have something completely different happen. I failed my exams, and somehow ended up as a member of xybria’s Elder Council”.

She couldn’t help but be infected a bit by his enthusiasm. Yet, that quickly faltered when she realized his story didn’t really apply to here, “...But I don’t have other options. I’m going to die”.

“Are you dead now?”

“Well, no but--”

“Then you are still alive. Yet you would throw your life away”.

She sat up, looking him right in the eye. Fear was evident, but also now irritation as she found him talking in circles, “But what’s the point?”

He gave a half-smile, “The point, my dear child, is that your friends are looking for you. And while you think you’re being selfless, trying to save them by removing yourself from the picture, in truth do you think they’d be happy you were gone?”

“But I’m going to die *anyway*” she stressed, annoyed.

“It’s a strange sort of comfort, knowing what’s going to happen, isn’t it?” he asked her, “It’s not a good end, in fact it’s terrifying. But it’s reassuring to know that there’s no surprises. So you resign yourself, to reassure yourself. Because the alternative would be to try again, and that’s even scarier, isn’t it?”

“...What?”

“Hope can be the scariest thing of all” Sesh clarified, “If you give yourself hope and then fail anyway, it’s all the more devastating. But if you give up on hope and let fate have its way, then you feel you can lessen that blow”.

“...Is that so bad?” she asked him, “Hope only works when you’ve got a chance. Why should I set myself up on purpose?”

“You are here now” he said, with that even tone of voice that was quickly driving her up the wall, as if he wasn’t even listening to her, and instead responding with the same five options like he was a doll and she’d pulled his string, “That is enough of a chance”.

Sel shot to her feet, frustration at his lack of consideration towards her fueling her anger, “No, it’s *not*! Why won’t you listen to me?! I’m DYING. My body is literally giving out and there’s nothing I can do! I’m strapped in a pod, being used as a battery so some assholes can kill the universe, and I can’t do anything about it!” the existing tears began to run as she finally broke, “I can’t! I can’t do it! I came in here to find my friends and I can’t even do that right! Nothing works, I can’t...”

Elder Sesh stood up as she sobbed. “It’s not fair...” she said, before he embraced her in a hug, “It’s not fair...”

“No. No it’s not” he said with complete sincerity as she cried into his shoulder, “Yet I believe you can rise to the occasion” he pulled her away gently, locking eyes with her, “You say you have no chance, that nothing you can do can prevent what is to come. Yet I know for a fact that you are a conscious representation of the Morphing Grid, with all that entails. I know for a fact that your friends are some of the most resourceful and intelligent people I have ever met. And most of all, I know that you are a brave young woman, a hero who has risked her life for others more times than either of us can count, and who despite everything life has thrown at her, will get up again and again, because that is who she is. I believe you will find a way, even if you don’t”.

Sel wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to that; she simply stared at him in awe for a moment, until she felt a presence. Looking back towards the haunted forest that hadn’t been there a moment ago, she saw a very familiar girl a fair few years younger than her. Andromeda said nothing, but smiled and beckoned Sel to follow her.

“I believe your friend means to guide you” Sesh told Sel as he let her go. He had a wry half-smile on his face, “You should probably follow her”.

Sel switched between Sesh and Andromeda, her mind still processing all of this. “I...” Hope, huh? Despite her best attempts to squash it, Sel felt it trickling into her soul again. Sesh hadn’t been wrong—all things considered, she WAS a part of the Grid, and her friends DID know what they were doing. She might not have been fully confident in herself, but if everyone else did, well…

She wiped her tears, giving Sesh a worn-out but still the best determined face (and a little sheepish) she could give him, “...Thank you”. She still had a lot of questions about how and why, but that wasn’t important right now.

He nodded with a smile, “Thank me by ensuring that there’s a tomorrow”.

She couldn’t help but laugh at that, nodding in affirmation and offering one last quick hug. Then, turning towards Andromeda, she headed towards the phantom form of her one-time friend. The girl vanished as Sel got close, but somehow she knew Andromeda hadn’t abandoned her. Sel looked back at Elder Sesh one more time, then descended into the shadow of the forest. She raised her fist to her field of vision and squeezed it as if she was promising herself. With a flash of yellow energy, she transformed into the yellow ranger.

---

Isdilian was a whirlwind of destruction, striking through each ranger as if they weren’t even there. Even Nikki, powered up, was having a hard time trying to be anything more than a practice dummy. He was angry and hurt, frustrated that all his plans had gone to waste. He’d tried everything; he’d tried diplomacy, he’d tried forcing them, he’d tried commanding them. Nothing worked! Why wouldn’t they see?! Why wouldn’t they see he was trying to save them!?

And yet Sel’s words rung in his head, the same words Sid and Nikki had said to him: why would they join him when their loved ones would die? So selfish of them; Isdilian couldn’t save *everyone*!

“I gave you chance after chance!” he yelled, his powers strong enough to begin picking up dust as he struck each of them in turn, “I’m trying to save your lives and all you give me in response is this!” his blade cut into Trok’s suit as he turned to block Xolin’s next assault. “This would have been so much easier if I’d stuck to Alpha’s directives and done my job, but then you made me care about you!” Blue and silver clashed, blue on the defensive as her lance held silver’s sword at bay, “Alpha wanted me to kill you! I convinced him to give you a chance, and you’re throwing it away!”

Knocking Xolin’s lance away, he slashed across her body as Sid and Nikki swung in from the sides.

“I did this all for you!” he cried out, knocking Sid aside as he focused on Nikki and her energy wristblades, “Everything! Everything I did, I did for you! Why can’t you understand that?!”

Nikki dodged with her jetpack, but it wasn’t enough. She tumbled to the ground, but before he could get another hit in, Sid’s ax met with Isdilian’s sword.

“...For us?” Sid exclaimed, “You killed Anthren! You kidnapped Sel to be a living battery against her will!” he pulled Isdilian’s sword back away from Nikki, “You don’t get to say you did this for us! You think you love us, but you don’t”.

“That’s not true!” Isdilian crowed as he struck Sid down, “Despite everything, I do! Despite all the crap you’ve made me do, I *do*!”

“...Made you do?!” Xolin spat out, having returned to the fight. The two clashed, “No one ‘made’ you do anything! You did this yourself! None of this was needed! You’re the one who betrayed us, you’re the one who killed Anthren, you’re the one who planned to kill innocent people just to draw us out!”

Sid joined in, forcing Isdilian to fight both at once, “You don’t get to be the victim!” Sid added, his ax blocked by Isdilian’s shield. He struck again, “You don’t get to be the victim after you carved a bloody swath through a karovian city!”

Frustration continued to bubble over for Isdilian. Too much...too much! “...Sacrifices...sacrifices must be made for the greater good!” with a powerful burst of energy, both rangers were knocked back.

“Who’s good?!” Nikki demanded to know as she flew in, actually managing to get a decent hit in, “Our good? Or Alpha’s?!”

“Both!” Isdilian countered, “It can be both!”

“No it can’t!” she yelled back, even as he knocked her back. She ducked, dodged, then went on a counter-offensive only to be struck again.

“It can!”

“No, it can’t” Trok said. Every ranger paused mid-attack as the green ranger stood there, looking down at his boots. This battle had been raging, and Trok had been busy discussing this with himself, discussing what Nikki had said to him with himself. He wasn’t happy; this was a betrayal of what he believed in. It was a dirtying of his hands, a blemishing of his soul.

But it *was* necessary.

Trok looked up directly at Isdilian, having steeled himself and having made his choice, “You can’t have it both ways. Sometimes you just have to make your choice, or you lose everything”. He activated his morpher, “Battlizer”.

The armor appeared and wrapped itself around the green ranger. As the transformation finished, Trok assumed a pose, “And you DID make your choice. I think you’re just regretting it”.
The silver ranger regarded the powered up green ranger, “...The only thing I regret is letting you worm your way in to my feelings” he growled before charging at Trok, “Alpha created me! Gave me purpose!” Isdilian’s aura grew stronger as he summoned even more power, deflecting Trok’s artillery barrage as he closed in. He and Trok met in battle, “I was given a mission to save their universe, and I WILL carry it out!” The two struggled, until Trok was blasted backwards by a beam of pure morphing energy. Isdilian readied another attack, to which Trok evaded by igniting his boots and flying out its path. Isdilian attempted to follow, swinging his beam of light around in pursuit. The science base never stood a chance.

Seeing a chance, Sid bullrushed Isdilian, landing right in his abdomen. The silver ranger grabbed red and, after struggling for a moment, threw him aside before delivering a powered-up kick that sent Sid flying. Nikki and Xolin closed in from either side, but Isdilian extended his sword into a laser whip of blinding white power, striking both of them before going after Trok who was now on an intercept course.

“Ignorant children!” Isdilian screamed, lashing out at all of them. Trok narrowly evaded, crashing into the dirt as Isdilian created an electrical storm overhead, “I gave you reprieve after reprieve! I gave you chance after chance, and you squander it like spoiled children!” The electrical strikes came down both from above and from his own weapons, hitting each ranger. Sparks flew, explosions erupted, and the rangers collapsed onto the ground, their suits smoking and charred.

“You...” Sid struggled to move, “You never cared about us. You think you do, but you only care about your ideal of us, the concept that you can ‘have’ and put in your little box. You don’t care about the Antipodes’ universe, you’ve never even been there. You only care about the mission. You only care about yourself. You call us spoiled and selfish, but look in the mirror! You’ve done all this, and for what? So daddy will love you?”

Isdilian’s outward rage seemed to be replaced by calm—the kind of calm that masks inner rage. The silver ranger deliberately made his way over to the fallen red ranger, putting his sword back in the shield. He picked Sid up by the neck.

“...So, what now?” Sid asked him with contempt, “You...you going to kill me? Do you ‘love’ me that much? How many more do you have to kill?”

Everything in Isdilian’s mind was a mess of confusion. Everything the rangers had said, everything Sel had said, everything he’d held to be true. None of it made sense.

“...Put him down, Izzy” Xolin said weakly, having managed to get up with Nikki’s help, the latter supporting the former, “It doesn’t have to end like this”. Izzy. The name Sid had originally chosen in light mocking, then as a term of endearment, even if Isdilian had never really liked it. Then...then it had become a term of hatred when everything had gone south.

“Please” Trok added, his armor scarred, “Just...put him down”.

Time stood still as the silver ranger considered his options. And for a moment, it looked like he was going to give in. Fate however, made the choice for him. Isdilian’s suit crackled with ambient energy as Isdilian began to scream in pain. He dropped both Sid and his weapon as he stumbled backwards, and then dropped to his knees. No one dared touch him, taken off-guard by the sudden reversal. Isdilian doubled over, his ranger suit fading in and out as the Morphing Grid overload took its toll on his body. The other four backed away as the power intensified.

And then, his back arched and contorted in abject agony, Isdilian looked to the sky, the orifices of his mouth glowing with eerie power as he channeled that power into the sky with a thunderous boom, the clouds that had been growing only further cascading from the influx of energy. A shockwave emanated out in all directions, blowing dirt everywhere before the storm finally faded.

Isdilian, again the silver ranger, his breath shallow and his body shaky didn’t resist as Trok dared to help him up.

“...You used too much grid energy, didn’t you?” he asked Isdilian.

The silver ranger looked at his hand—one of his fingers was just...gone. His breath catching, he looked down and saw that his body was...no. NO! It was evaporating! He was evaporating! Parts of him were gone. His body was literally burning up.

Just like Sel.

In a fit of utter fear, he pushed Trok away, stumbling but ultimately managing to keep his balance. He wanted...he didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted Sel to be safe, but that was impossible. He wanted the rangers to...what? What did he want? He didn’t want to die, that was for sure, but he was dying, his mission unfulfilled. He was a failure. He’d failed Alpha, he’d failed his people.

“NO!” he screamed in despair as particles evaporated into the air.

“What...what’s happening to him?!” Sid asked as he stood up.

“...His body. It’s burning up” Trok said, in a bit of shock, horrified at what he was watching, “He’s used too much grid energy, his body wasn’t built for that!”

“Is...is that what’s going to happen to Sel?” Xolin asked, equally horrified.

Sel. They were worried about Sel. If they were worried about Sel, they should have come with him. This was their fault! All their fault! Rage consumed Isdilian, “You don’t get to talk about her!” he exclaimed, charging up again, “This is your fault! ALL YOUR FAULT!” If he was going to die, then he’d take everyone else with him.

Summoning as much power as he could, he unleashed another flurry of attacks, and in their current state the rangers couldn’t do much to even slow him down as he kicked their asses. He was a humanoid maelstrom, cutting into them so quickly and so effortlessly they might have not even been there. Sid went down first, followed by Nikki who’s Phantom Mode finally shut down from the sheer amount of damage that it had suffered.

Trok attempted to open fire with the battlizer, but Isdilian closed to gap too quickly and struck him down. Xolin attacked from the side with her lance, but he tore it from her grasp before striking her with it—repeatedly. He then turned back to Trok. The green ranger struck first, but as he was already exhausted, Isdilian quickly gained the upper hand.

“Don’t do this!” Trok exclaimed, just before another blow deactivated the battlizer. Isdilian grabbed him and struck him repeatedly with his powered up fist, both to the head and the gut. He released the green ranger, and then unleashed a burst of electrical energy on his hapless foe. Trok tumbled backwards, finally demorphing in a heap on the ground.

Isdilian staggered towards him, the blinding pain nearly overwhelming even as he forced more energy into him. “No...no more...” He WOULD carry out Alpha’s orders. He WOULD succeed at his purpose. He drew his sidearm sword. He aimed. Lighting flashed. Thunder roiled.

He swung down at Trok.

He stopped. Isdilian’s eyes went wide in shock as the sound of impact hit his back side. Pain rippled through the point of impact...and out the front. Looking down, he saw the chest of his suit sparking and shorting out as the blade of Xolin’s sidearm clearly stuck out of it. The blue ranger herself seemed just as shocked and appalled at the sudden turn of events, and pulled her blade out as if that would somehow undo what had just happened.

Isdilian managed to turn around to get a good look at his subduer. Xolin was in shock, not quite processing everything and about a step away from having a meltdown. The silver ranger suit sparked and spurted more and more, until it finally just gave out and Isdilian demorphed. From there he quickly collapsed, Xolin managing to catch him after throwing her sword aside and also demorphing. She landed on her knees, trying to understand what she’d done.

“Trinity...” she whispered in horror, “I...I didn’t mean...” Trok, clutching his chest in pain, pulled himself up to a semi-seating position via a group of rocks he’d landed next to. Sid and Nikki rushed over, demorphing in the process.

Isdilian, his body beginning to evaporate faster now, managed to lock his gaze at his killer. He breathed only shallow breaths, and couldn’t maintain focus for long, “It...it wasn’t supposed to...be this...way...”

He was gone.

His body disintegrated in her arms, flaking away into the aether as his form returned to the Morphing Grid. The four surviving rangers just stayed there, unmoving as each tried to process what had just happened.

It began to rain.

---

The main command center of the Antipodes was silent as the feed to the battle went dead. Isdilian was gone. One of their two primary conduits was dead. And with him went the plan. A scheme years in the making, up in smoke.

“...Idiot” Delta managed to whisper as the implications set in.

Alpha was silent. He stared aimlessly at the central pillar of the room that contained the energy collected thus far.

Beta tried to rationalize this, grasping at straws as she went, “...It’s...it’s fine. We’ve still got that other conduit relic from Eltar. We can--”

“The Eltar relic was supposed to replace the girl” Epsilon reminded her, her voice dead as all hope had been extinguished, “She won’t last much longer”.

“Then it’s over” Beta said, in a half question, “Everything we did...it was all for nothing?”

Epsilon didn’t have an answer for her. Alpha, however, finally spoke; “...If we used the girl and the relic now, what would our chances of success be?”

“I...” Epsilon was supposed to crunch numbers *now*?! She was barely holding it together as she was. Still though, “I don’t...ballpark figure, maybe? Forty percent, on a good day. But I’d need a few days to jury-rig a new setup. And...if it fails, the results could be disastrous”.

“How?” asked Beta.

Epsilon was blunt in her assessment, “As in, that black hole outside could get much bigger. Infinitely bigger”.

“If we lose, then we lose” Alpha said, his voice distant and unreadable. He didn’t even bother looking at them as they argued, instead sitting at his desk and watching the Morphing Grid energy dance in the column, “But if we win...this is all we have. Epsilon, do what you have to. All of our resources are at your disposal”.

“I...yes, sir” she replied. Epsilon walked out to tend to her shattered emotions, leaving just three.

“...What about us?” Beta asked Alpha.

Finally Alpha turned to the blue and green Antipodes, “Kill them”.

The two of them bowed slightly, “...Yes, sir” Beta said before they took their leave. Alpha turned back to the energy column, and then to a small picture frame on his desk of a young schoolgirl; a daughter he was now certain he would never see again. All because of them. All because they couldn’t just lay down and die.

Rage consumed him.

---

Everything was wrong. Trok’s hands were dirty; he couldn’t find a way to feel clean again. He knew there was no way out; the only alternative was that THIS universe died, and by not acting, he was indirectly endorsing that fate. He was a butcher either way.

Yet that didn’t matter right now. He stood outside of Xolin’s room, despondent. She hadn’t come out since they’d been back, and hadn’t said anything since the battle at all—she’d come here directly and shut her door. And at the end of it all, it had been his fault; if he’d not been in the way, Xolin wouldn’t have felt the need to defend him. She wouldn’t have had to kill Isdilian.

“...Xol?” he asked pleadingly, “Can...can we talk? Please?”

Silence.

He placed his hand on the door, leaning against it gently. She wouldn’t even talk to him. “...It’s not fair” he whispered to himself, before turning around and sliding to the ground and huddling against the door, “If...if you want to talk, I’m here”.

More silence. It was deafening; more than anything, Trok just wanted to talk to someone; anyone. He was ready to explode. But no one wanted to talk, because of the horror.

Isdilian was dead; at their hand. Sel was probably dying horribly. The team, this family, had been broken...violated by its own members. And it would never be quite whole ever again.

Everything was wrong.

---

Nikki scoured Iota’s old database for the thousanth time for everything, anything that could help them end this nightmare. But like always, she found nothing—everything they’d tried, everything they’d imagined had come up short. Converting this universe had been the Antipodes’ final gambit.

She did this for two reasons: one, because she was spurred on by her confrontation with Trok, and two because it kept her from thinking about...well, everything else. She couldn’t think about that. Not now.

Everything was wrong.

---

The workbay was silent, save for Sid’s breathing and the hum of the holographic map of the universe he’d activated that filled a good chunk of the room as of present. He’d been checking the same status update for over an hour. Ostensibly he was narrowing down the search parameters for where the Antipode base could possibly be; he’d sent numerous scouts out from numerous factions in an effort to track down the location. But even with all the files they’d stolen from Zeta’s base, even knowing that the Antipode base would light up like a Christmas tree even from a distance because of the sheer amount of power it would have to store...space was still huge. Hundreds of galaxies. Hundreds of trillions of stars. There was no way to cover it all.

The latest update stated that an Aquitian scoutship hadn’t found anything in the Vika Galaxy. Another dead end. So many dead ends.

She’d called him Iota.

Sid shook the thought from his mind. There had to be something they were missing something…

He’d manipulated them, just like Iota. He’d taken their agency from them.

No. NO! Not now. Sid focused, despite how tired he was. ESPECIALLY because of how tired he was. Because if he fell asleep now, he knew he’d have The Dream.

Fire and smoke and ash and ruin and oh god their bodies STOP IT.

She’d killed Isdilian. They’d killed Isdilian. Isdilian, one of their own, was dead. Nothing would bring him back, and no matter how much Sid tried to distract himself that fact was inescapable. A fundamental law of rangerdom had been breached; they’d murdered one of their own. Killed him. Watched his body decay into nothing. Regardless of anything, this was a sin that could not be undone. It didn’t matter how necessary or right it had been, they were still wrong.

Fire and smoke and ash and ruin and bodies and alarms and fire and smoke and ash and this all could have been avoided if he hadn’t been such an idiot. It was just like before, and again people had paid for it. Xolin...god, poor Xolin. And Trok. And Nikki, for a second time. And Sel, wherever she was, if she was even still alive. It had been his job to protect them and what had he done?!

THIS WAS HIS FAULT.

Rage overtook Sid as he bolted from his seat, grabbing the portable holo-generator and throwing it, the map vanishing as the device smashed against the wall. Then he turned and swept everything off the next table. That not being enough, he roared as he grabbed the table and tossed it into the first.

His strength spent, his rage converted into tears as he let one last pitiful kick to the tables go, before sliding to the ground and clutched his head in his hands. He was a monster. Sid Drake was a monster, and he never should have come aboard this ship. He never should have let this happen. He’d KNOWN this would have been the result, that he would have messed up somehow, and here they were, broken and shattered.

Sid Drake was a monster. And so Sid Drake wept.

Everything was wrong.

---

To Be Continued…
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Old June 16th, 2017, 04:15 PM   #44
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She dreamed of stars. As she looked up into the night sky growing up, seeing only inky blackness had been the norm. It had been accepted, as it had for trillions of years. The void had become a normal fact of life since the earliest era of the universe, back when creation was young enough that stars could form. Now all that remained were the leftovers; red dwarfs that hadn’t grown cold yet. Black holes, white dwarfs, neutron stars...stuff too dim to be seen from a distance. It was the end of the universe, though it was a slow end that would still outlive their entire civilization, for hundreds of hundreds of more trillions of years.

Still, it was dying.

She dreamed of stars though, from the stories. The myths and bedtime stories she’d been told as a child, of when the worlds were young, of when the night sky was an endless show of lights. Of when the universe had more stars, more galaxies than grains of sand on a beach. Back when life and energy were overflowing. Back before they had to ration what little energy remained.

She dreamed of stars. And now, today, she might be able to help make that a reality once more. She’d been handpicked to help work on a project that would bring back the stars, by reversing entropy itself. Matter and energy could not be destroyed of course; only transferred. All that they required to reset things was to rewrite the rules on entropy.

Could you imagine it? She’d only graduated from the academy last week, about to start her new job—and here she’d been handpicked for The Project. Her! Fresh graduate! Could you believe it.

Her new fellow coworkers seemed friendly enough, too. Spirits were high; they were close to a breakthrough and everyone knew it. And the project lead seemed to think that with her onboard, they’d crack this in no time. Maybe, someday soon, the universe would be renewed.

And so the woman who would one day become Epsilon dreamed of stars.


---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Season 3

3.10: Family


---

The yellow ranger raced through the forest, dashing from one dirt patch to the next, her bladed bow weapon in her grip. As she flew into a clearing, she turned about at a ninety degree angle and fired a laser arrow right into the wolf-beast that had been keeping pace with her just as it turned to intercept. She then swung around, bringing her weapon down and across diagonally into the wolf that was in the process of pouncing into her from behind. A third wolf almost struck; she attempted to block but wasn’t fast enough--

Andromeda’s ghostly form intercepted for a split second, confusing the wolf-beast and giving Sel precious seconds to counter-attack. Sel knew it wasn’t Andromeda—not really. Andromeda was gone. But this was the ‘dreamlands’, where afterimages remained--impressions long since forgotten by all but the Morphing Grid. And she knew she carried part of Andromeda with her at all times; the Lights, after all, were Andromeda’s power, her gift to Sel and the others.

More wolf-beasts were coming, Sel could hear them. Alone again, she ran, away from the forest as the pack broke through the tree line. Ahead was a rickety wooden bridge linking this floating island to the rest of the endless maze of floating rocks, all hovering above a churning maelstrom of clouds.

She almost got caught once; Andromeda intercepted again and Sel finished the beast off. Another one struck from the side, coming down on her after leaping into the air—Sel met its fangs with her blade, before shooting it square in the mouth and tossing its carcass off into the void. The yellow ranger charged across the bridge.

There was no way she could take this entire pack like this.

Fortunately, she had an idea. Sel came to a stop on the other end of the chasm, and even as the wolves closed in, she aimed her bow and fired, blowing the bridge apart. The wood planks collapsed as the ropes snapped. A dozen wolf-beasts fell into the storm below, leaving the rest of their pack stranded on the other side, away from Sel. She took a moment to catch her breath and congratulate herself on her own quick think---

A sudden sharp pain overtook Sel, and she clutched at her chest as she dropped to her knees, her vision blacking out for a moment as a splitting headache suddenly gripped her. Doubled over on the ground, she tried to catch her breath as the pain slowly subsided, and she knew.

...Isdilian was gone.

Her opposite, her twin. The presence that had always been there, even long before she’d known it HAD been there, was gone. There was a hole in the Morphing Grid. Honestly, she wasn’t sure how she *should* feel, considering. On one hand, he...was gone, dead. Likely destroyed by the others or maybe he just overdid it like she had and simply hadn’t survived.

...On the other hand, screw him. All that talk of sibling bonding and all he had ever really seen her as was an instrument, like the rest of the Antipodes. He’d kidnapped her, sent her to the Antipodes. If anyone deserved to die, it was him. If anything, she was more surprised (and worried) that she found she *didn’t* care about his death all that much.

Yet, she knew that with him dead, and the Antipodes ambitions unfulfilled, this changed things. Likely they would be stepping up their plans, panicking at the sudden loss of one of their main tool. If she was their last hope, then she might be in serious trouble.

Knowingly or not, the others had probably set off the endgame.

“...I have to find them” she whispered to herself. Andromeda offered her hand, which Sel used to pull herself up, even though once she was standing again, she was once again alone. The yellow ranger looked up at the other bridges and floating islands, raising further into the sky.

“…I will find them” she reaffirmed, before racing forward to the next bridge.

---

The Megaship was quiet. It had been quiet ever since...well… The workbay was still a mess; Sid hadn’t bothered to clean up after his meltdown. Instead he just sat at the computer, working...or rather, trying to work on building his alliance. He was doing anything, everything, to try and cope.

It wasn’t working too well.

A blip on sensors caught his attention. Sid redirected ship sensor controls to his terminal here in the workbay, curious and mildly concerned. Sure enough, sensors were detecting a small craft at their six o’clock, in direct pursuit. They were keeping an average distance, a few light-years back with no intent of closing the distance or veering off.

...They were being followed.

A more detailed scan concluded that it was an SPD shuttle, and while Sid initially wondered if it was that admiral they’d saved, he knew that if that was the case they would have been hailed by now...and further, the ship was unregistered—it had never officially entered service. SPD itself was collapsing, and Sid doubted they’d be out this far just to hunt down Peacekeeper Team Twelve. Sid’s face curled into a frown as the answer he didn’t want was staring him right in the face.

The Antipodes were coming for them. It wasn’t entirely unexpected of course; Izzy’s death probably would have complicated things significantly, so it was obvious the Antipodes would try to deal with the threat directly. They hadn’t attacked or tried to board yet, and instead kept a respectful distance—Sid surmised they were waiting for them to land somewhere. Sid reached for the ship-wide comm.

...He paused. Everyone was still reeling from this whole mess; a mess Sid had helped put them in—they were in no shape to fight. And how many Antipodes were after them? One? Two? All four of them? And how many krybots or carded monsters did they carry onboard?

Sid Drake had once thrown his team of rangers into the grinder and they’d paid the ultimate price. Every night for years he’d revisited that fact, and now no matter what he was making everything worse all over again. And still, they didn’t even know where the Antipodes were based at or how long they had left, and they were no closer to finding out.

No. Not again. He wouldn’t let them die again.

But they couldn’t just keep flying forever; eventually they’d have to stop. And Sid couldn’t take them alone.

...At least, not head on. An idea came to him.

Sid wasn’t Iota. Iota was smart and could scheme as well as Sid if not better, certainly, but Iota never would have stuck his neck out for them. Iota had seen them as little more than tools. Sid saw them as far more than that. And Sid *would* stick his neck out. If nothing else, Sid could protect them.

His decision made, Sid got up and headed to Trok’s workshop, checking the internal sensors first to make sure the horathean was actually in his quarters sleeping. He had a job to do.

---

Everything had gone wrong. At first, it had seemingly gone right; they’d collapsed entropy further, creating a deeper, truer vacuum. In response, the energy within had ignited—a proof of concept! They could reverse the slow heat death of the universe!

And then everything had gone wrong.

They’d barely escaped the system in time before the chain reaction went critical and their defenses were overwhelmed...and just like that, the dim red dwarf system, one of the last in the galaxy they’d been stationed in, was obliterated, its constituent particles of matter and energy disassembled by the collapse of the physical laws of the universe within the quickly expanding sphere of lower entropy—a new order was rearranging itself within. For all intents and purposes, they’d created an shockwave of infinite destructive power that was propagating at light speed. They’d chosen this galaxy due to its isolation and low population—thank the gods—and while it was expendable, unless they figured this out everything else would die too. Already the closest galaxies were preparing to evacuate their worlds.

The team had pulled together, though. The girl who would be known as Epsilon had met another woman on the team; the one who would one day be known as Beta. The older woman, though often irritable and driven, had gotten a soft spot for the younger, and had taken her under her wing. Then there was the one who would be known as Iota—the best friend of the team leader and closest confidant, as well as the lead idea man. Epsilon looked up to him. The three of them—Beta, Epsilon, and Iota, had gotten the go-ahead from the team leader to try their hand at one of their ideas for fixing this.

There were other projects of course; Sigma, Zeta, and Theta were doing their own thing, while the team leader, Gamma, and Delta had taken to another hypothesis. Personally, she never got why Delta was here—he was a nice enough guy, fun to be around, but not much of a scientist and more of a jock. She’d suspected, considering how well he got along with the leader, that they’d been close friends and that the latter had simply invited the former on in a bit of nepotism. Not that she’d ever voice that opinion of course; she was honored to be here and wanted to prove herself.

Her own team was headed by Iota, who’d come up with what Epsilon thought was a brilliant plan: pocket universes. They’d simply whisk the expanding bubble of entropy away by folding it out of this universe into its own dimension. Early tests were positive—they just needed enough power to pull this off.


---

Entapur. An odd name for a little out-of-the-way world that orbited two K-class orange stars in a tight orbit. It wasn’t a pleasant planet by any stretch of the imagination; being so close to the binary stars it was effected by both the gravitational pull and the heat, ensuring it would be a volcanic world. It had once hosted a large human mining operation from Earth, but when it turned out the world was too volatile for continued use as mineral veins would continually move, the corporation had packed its bags, leaving the planet’s natural forces to slowly dismantle the various bases they’d built across the planet.

It had also been right in the path of the Defender Megaship, making it a perfect choice for Sid Drake as he departed the ship in Isdilian’s old APC craft—the Megaship having flown through the outer edges of the system as it continued on its path. Not that the Antipodes would know; he’d installed one of Nikki’s cloaking devices onto the ship—he knew it wouldn’t last long under the pressure of having to hide an entire starship, but it’d last long enough to give the Antipodes the slip.

...Especially considering that Sid had ALSO fudged his ship’s sensor readings so as to appear to BE the Megaship, apparently making a sudden B-line for a volcanic world in an otherwise empty system because well would you look at that, sudden engine leak. Guess we gotta pull over and check it out. It wouldn’t fool anyone with a detailed scan or at close range of course, but as bait it was perfect.

Sid’s ship made a landfall on one of a launchpad of one of the larger surviving complexes, though it was clear even it was starting to succumb to natural forces. He’d have rather had this showdown elsewhere, but this had been the only system close enough to avoid suspicion that had a planet. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, he supposed.

The complex rested on the side of a basaltic mountain range, tucked in and above a small valley that looked out towards a semi-molten plane and a front-row seat to the twin suns that dominated the sky. From the mountain end of the valley, a molten ‘water’fall cascaded out just behind the base. The structure itself was built into the mountains, with numerous towers and spires that jutted out and were connected by numerous pathways.

Stepping out onto the landing pad, the red ranger found himself surrounded by sparks from the falls. That...wasn’t good; it meant the station’s shields were starting to fail.

...Well, if they ALL died horribly in hot lava, he supposed it was still a win.

Sid didn’t have a lot of time; the Antipodes would be arriving within a few minutes and he still had a lot to set up. He’d spent the trip here studying the layout of the base, figuring out where to best place everything. Opening up his morpher’s holomap and, connecting it to the APC vehicle, he began programming drop-off locations. Supplies he’d filled the vessel’s hold with to the brim began teleporting out to their assigned locations. The Antipodes would have the advantage of strength, power, and numbers, which meant that Sid wouldn’t be able to take them head-on. He’d have to try for something...trickier.

Once the vessel was empty, Sid ordered it to launch and veer off. It would hide on one of the base’s undersides with another cloaking device activated. Detecting an incoming ship in orbit, Sid made haste, vacating the landing pad and hurrying further into the doomed complex.

Deep down, he knew this was wrong. Second thoughts riddled him. More than once he’d almost opened a channel back to the Megaship only to back down. Why was he doing this?

---

You can only stay cooped up in your room for so long before you start to go a little stir crazy, no matter how much you don’t want to have to deal with shit outside. And Nikki was discovering that, despite her computer-ness and inherent access to all information everywhere...that this rule still applied to her.

But the ship was empty, as she found as she wandered the halls. Not that she expected a bustle of activity, considering that only three other people currently lived on the ship and after what had happened...well…

Still, this ship wasn’t THAT big. The workbay was empty, yet...trashed. Someone had had a meltdown. The simudeck was empty, ditto for the bridge, and Nikki wasn’t about to go knock on someone’s door because she just...needed to be out, not have a personal conversation with someone.

...Screw it. She’d get some more work done as she watched the stars fly by in the lounge. Nikki had been trying to narrow down possible Antipode base locations in conjunction with Sid and the various scouts they had on the job, but it was tedious and likely fruitless. Yet it was all they could do.

Nikki let the door to the lounge slide open, light spilling into the dark room. ...Why did they never turn the lights on in here? She didn’t think she’d EVER had the lights in in here. This room’s purpose had never really been fulfilled and so had really become the ‘moping room’, for whenever someone was sad.

Flick. She turned the lights on.

“AUGH!” Xolin’s addled shout rang out from one of the chairs, “OFF! Turn it off!”

Nikki sighed flatly and did as she was told, “...Sorry, didn’t realize you were in here”.

Xolin gave her a mildly irate yet unfocused glance, before taking another drink from the bottle of something she’d procured from the bar cabinet, “...Issalright. What are you even doing here anyway? It’s like...three...four...forty-three AM”.

Nikki shrugged as she moved further into the room. She couldn’t help but smile at Xolin’s drunk misspeak, “Turns out robots do not, in fact, dream of electric sheep”.

“...I’m going to assume that’s a reference to something”.

An inebriated Xolin struggled to pull herself to her feet, nearly falling back over twice before unsteadily balancing herself, swaying slightly, “So what, you come here to mope too?” she asked, slurring her voice.

“...How much have you had?” Nikki asked, sidestepping Xolin’s own question as the latter took another drink.

Xolin removed the bottle from her lips and looked down at it despondently, her voice cracking slightly. “...Not enough”.

“...I disagree” Nikki said with sadness, reaching for the bottle. She tried to pull it out of Xolin’s hands, but the triforian pulled back.

“What are you doing? It’s mine!”

“Just give me the bottle!”

“No!”

“Please!”

With another yank, Nikki won as Xolin seemingly just gave up. The latter rubbed her face, “...How much do I have to drink before it stops replaying in my mind?”

Nikki’s expression fell. Right now, part of her wished she *could* get wasted, “...That only works if you black out. And only until you wake up again”.

Xolin gave a dry, bitter chuckle at that, “...He was one of us, and I killed him”.

“He didn’t give us a choice, Xol”.

“Yeah, that’s becoming a theme, huh?” she slurred as she pointed a wobbling accusing finger at Nikki, “We blow up an ani...anima...the zord...place...thing...we kill our teammates, we kill a universe because...why not!” She threw up her hands as she spun around towards an imaginary crowd, “Goooo Rangers! Go good guys! Kill all the things!”

Nikki caught Xolin as the latter tumbled back, “...Would you rather we get killed ourselves?”

Xolin’s response was subdued as she stood back up, “...I’d just rather not find new things to hate about myself when I look in the mirror every morning”. A thick silence settled over the room for a moment, before Xolin added, “...You know, I figured that by the time I got to this age, I’d have figured it allll out. That at least some of my shit would be fixed, but it’s not. I just get more shit added to it. Shit sucks”. She moved to take another drink, but remembered she no longer had the bottle. A look of disgust flashed across her face.

Nikki actually let loose a small laugh, “...Life would be so much easier if it was like TV, huh? Easily wrapped up character arcs, ten minute epiphanies that change everything, not having to carry around baggage your entire life...”

“...How do you deal with it?” Xolin asked her, slumping down in another chair.

The hologram shrugged, “...Day by day, I guess. Some days I deal with it better than others. But it doesn’t end”.

“...No, it doesn’t” Xolin said, “Thanks”.

“For what?”

“...For being here”

Nikki couldn’t help but smile at that. “...You know, the others are here whenever you need anything. We’re all pretty alike, more than we’d like to admit”.

“...Yeah, I know” Xolin muttered, looking away, “...You know, when I ran away from home, all I thought about was fighting. I thought if I fought hard enough, believed hard enough, I’d make it through”.

“I’d say you made it pretty far” Nikki replied, sitting down next to her.

Xolin snorted with derision, “...I think I’m tired of fighting. Tired of...” she waved to their surroundings, “...This. The death, the destruction, the doing the bad thing because it’s right...”

“What would you do?”

“Psh, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it because it scares the crap out of me. I’m not really good at much else. I dunno, maybe I’ll retire”.

Nikki gave her an odd look, “...Retire?”

“Yeah, retire!” Xolin said, a faint grin forming on her lips, “Someplace warm, sandy, without stupid people...”

Nikki’s bemusement grew, “...You’d go crazy inside a day”.

Both laughed at that, “...Yeah, you’re probably right” Xolin replied, then sobered a bit, “...I want more than this. I deserve more than this”.

Nikki gave her an odd look. A very different Xolin than the one she’d come to know over the last few weeks was forming in front of her. “So what are you going to do for it?”

Before Nikki even knew what was happening, Xolin had snatched the bottle from her hands. She gave a slightly mischievous yet determined grin, “Fight for it”.

---

He couldn’t sleep.

Trok had tried, of course. He was pretty sure he’d actually managed it for an hour or so, but then woke up feeling even worse than before. All the stress of everything was getting to him. Deciding there was nothing for it, he’d finally given up on the idea and had headed down to the loading bay he’d repurposed into his private gallery of half-finished projects. He wanted to try another go at the Ultrazord concept; maybe he’d get lucky and have a flash of inspiration--that kind of thing sometimes happened to the sleep deprived, right?

Trok opened the door, and immediately noticed that something was off. For one, half of his projects were missing. His mind spun into overdrive as he tried to come up for explanations for the sudden disappearance of his rejects. Antipode shenanigans? Quantum probability? Machines coming alive and killing everyone? Misplacing them in his sleep?

“...This can’t be good”.

---

“...He saved me once, you know”.

Nikki turned to Xolin, both of them still seated on the couch in the center of the lounge, with a front-row seat to the windows that consisted of the far wall.

Xolin continued, “Izzy, I mean. I was...we were split into our three individual aspects and couldn’t recombine because of a monster’s spell. All he had to do was push a button, but still, he did it. He could have let someone else do it while he wailed on the monster, but he did it. He said...he said that he also knew what it was like to hate himself” she paused, “...And then I killed him”.

Izzy. Isdilian. He was a person everyone on the team had always had mixed feelings about. When he’d first come aboard, the core four had hated him and he did everything he could to make sure it stayed that way. Even when Nikki had shown up, he was an outsider, though she quickly outpaced him in that regard. But as she stayed on the sidelines, she’d watched him slowly but inevitably get reigned into the group dynamic. By the end, he’d basically become one of them.

Nikki curled up into a ball on the couch, “...It must have been hard for him, knowing he was going to betray you the entire time.

Xolin snorted, “Izzy never knew what he wanted. He had every opportunity to turn back, but instead he wanted a fantasy world where he made his father figures proud AND got us to go along with it and somehow we’d all be one big happy family in his new world. He used to berate us for acting like kids, but I think deep down, that was him”.

“Father figures, huh?”

Xolin regarded Nikki then turned away, “Life is full of disappointments”.

The conversation halted there, as the door slid open with a sense of urgency, with Trok stumbling in, “GUYS! Big trouble! Sid’snotontheshipandhalfofmystuffisgoneandI’mprettysurebadthingsareabouttoh appen!”

“Woah, slow down” Nikki cautioned as Trok caught his breath, “What was that about Sid?”

Forcing himself to calm (though still visibly agitated), Trok tried again, “I went into my work room to tinker because I couldn’t sleep, and like, half of my projects are missing. I thought for a second we’d been robbed somehow, or there was some sort of quantum probability event, so I contacted Sid, except I couldn’t because he wasn’t on the ship”

“Sid’s not on the ship?!” Xolin and Nikki both exclaimed as they shot up from their seats, to which Trok nodded in frantic confirmation. Her brow furrowing, Nikki searched the ship’s internal sensors herself—just as Trok had said, their leader wasn’t onboard. Odd...there hadn’t been any alerts that he was leaving, no logs of launches, even though...Isdilian’s ship was missing. They’d brought it onboard along with the rest of his arsenal after his death, but now it was missing?

“...This is bad” she muttered, “Izzy’s APC is gone too”.

“He left without telling us” Xolin surmised, her voice an odd mixture of concern, worry, and disappointment, “...Idiot. Where did he go?”

Trok was already on it, bringing up his morpher’s holoscreen, “We can trace his warp trail. I’ll need to get to the bridge for a better reading”.

Xolin nodded, “Let’s go”.

“Woah, wait up” Nikki said, stopping Xolin, “You were wasted like, five minutes ago”.

Xolin shrugged, “I’m Triforian. I metabolize three times as fast”.

Nikki blinked, “...How does that even begin to make sense?”

“Guys, come on!” Trok called, already halfway down the hallway and clearly panicked. The two girls dropped their conversation and quickly followed.

---

It didn’t work.

Their attempt to section off the false vacuum event into its own personal pocket dimension had failed. Their math had been right, their work had been flawless...but the destruction wave had moved much faster than anticipated. It had started at merely light speed...and then had sped up considerably, because as it expanded, it somehow tapped into the underlying expansion of space-time itself which at great distances moved faster than light itself—it was now growing exponentially. They simply hadn’t been able to match it.

The other projects had fallen through as well; everyone was panicking. Tempers were running high. More attempts to stop the wave were underway, but they would fail as well.

...Then came the first sacrifice. As galaxies were swallowed up, fleets of ships escaped; exoduses of whole people. But in a universe already close to entropy, energy was hard to find, even harder for whole races on the run. There simply wasn’t enough to go around. Wars broke out, people slaughtered each other, left each other to die.

The team who would one day became the Antipodes were no exception. They agonized over it of course. They deliberated over it, argued over it. Tempers flared, terrible things were said. Declarations that this was not what they were about were stated. But in the end, it was inevitable. They needed the power, they needed the supplies. One ship, one fleet was ultimately an acceptable sacrifice in order to save the universe.

None of them slept well though.

Then came the second sacrifice. And the third. And the fourth. It became a running tally. It became normalcy. The heroic spirit of their endeavor vanished in their numbness, as their hearts became colder—a necessity to deal with the horror.

Each of them drew inwards. Beta became bitter, their friendship shriveling a bit. Delta became stoic. Alpha threw himself into his work.

Hope died.


---

Landing on the launchpad of the mining base, Beta and Delta stepped out of their shuttle, looking out at the battlefield the rangers had chosen for them.

“...Someone likes dramatics, I see” the blue antipode noted, “...But no sign of the Megaship”.

“...Reading only one life-sign” Delta grumbled, “Human”.

Beta actually laughed at that, “I should have known. Of course the red one would sacrifice himself as a decoy while the others got away. I figured trailing them would make them crack, but I didn’t expect this”.

“...Should we go?” Delta asked her, “We could still pick up the real warp trail”.

Beta shook her head, “No, this actually works out to our advantage. Picking them off one by one is far more palpable than facing the whole team. And taking out the leader first? Icing on the cake”. The decision made, she pulled out a deck of SPD cards and tossed them out across the ground in a heap. Channeling some blue energy into them, the cards melted away as the army of monsters trapped within grew to form.

“...Congratulations; you’ve just won your freedom. However, I think you’d all be interested in knowing that somewhere on this base is a red ranger. Kill him, and you will be rewarded generously”.

The monsters were not averse to this arrangement.

---

The monster army spread out throughout the complex fairly rapidly in a disorganized mob-like fashion.

Just as planned.

The golden robot-themed monster and the humanoid zebra creature wandered into one of the base’s ancillary control towers; a small room with a central control pillar with various consoles ringing the outer wall. Well...correction, it HAD been an ancillary control tower until about six seconds ago when Sid had activated the five detonator charges he’d littered about the room. Now it was a shower of debris falling into the lava lake below.

As the red ranger walked away from the severed bridge, a beer bottle monster rushed onto the scene to see what the ruckus was all about.

“I found him!” the monster declared before charging at the red ranger in an attack. But the red ranger flickered on contact as the monster’s arm swung right through him. Sid then vanished, having been just a hologram. “What?!”

That was when the monster was met by a battlizer’s main gun at point blank range on his backside.

Three minutes later, another ancillary tower went boom.

A minute and a half after that, Sid collapsed a bridge between one of the cargo bays and the main northwest complex, taking three monsters with it.

Needless to say, Beta was not amused. She’d anticipated Sid would play games, but the sheer amount of damage he was doing was almost silly. The hunt had only been going on a few minutes, and they’d already lost over half a dozen monsters.

“...He’s really beginning to test my patience” she growled. This had been the boy who had outwitted her the last time they’d met, upsetting the Antipodes’ plans and killing off Zeta right when she’d thought they had been on the cusp of victory. And now here he was doing it again; they had all the advantages and yet he was tearing them apart like nothing.

“Allow me” Delta grunted, moving to enter the complex from the landing pad they’d stayed at.

Beta stopped him however, “No. If you go in there, you’ll only get yourself killed. We need a plan first”.

The large warrior looked down at her, “Like what?”

The wheels in her head were turning, “We need to use his own strategy against him. We need to trap him into a single section where he can’t escape”. She brought up a holomap of the base. Sid had already taken out a few sections and connecting bridges, and if she could take out a few more… “...We need to guide him here” she said, pointing to one of the secondary hubs just off the main structure, “Then we blow the bridges”.

---

“Found him!” a pterodactyl monster with a scratchy voice declared as he double-checked his scanners, leading his two companions, a lizard monster and a typewriter monster around the corner and into the empty domicile wing of the base. Arriving in what had once been the common room, the monsters looked around confused.

“...I don’t get it. I got his energy signature right here!” the pterodactyl exclaimed.

That’s when a machine that had been sitting in the corner supposedly gathering dust came to life. It was actually Trok’s half-finished transtek monstrosity, and Sid had just set it on autopilot from a distance, its guns heating up and the detonators attached to it counting down. The doors to the wing slammed shut, leaving the three monsters to their grisly fate.

Two hallways over, a hapless vocabulary-themed monster was being devoured by a swarm of Trok’s spider-bots.

Another bridge blew, taking with it another handful of monsters after they’d been ‘guided’ there by a group of hostile aerial drones.

The less said about the poor performance of Trok’s half-finished Android with Kung-Fu Grip, the better.

Having just unloaded his battlizer’s weaponry on a half-dead monster in the hallway, Sid un-summoned the armor and sprinted towards the nearest exit of the secondary hub he found himself in. It was the last exist standing; his plan was to blow the bridge after making it to the other side, and then cutting the last supports holding his habitat in place. He was almost upon the bridge...and that was when the bridge went boom. Sid ground to a halt at the edge.

This was bad.

The scuffling of feet behind him alerted Sid to the fact that he was now hemmed in. The red ranger turned about, taking stock of the menagerie of mismatched rubber creatures that now half encircled him.

“...Is this all for me?” he asked coyly, “I’m touched”.

“You were a fool to come here by yourself” Beta said, pushing herself to the forefront of the small army.

Sid smirked, “About a dozen and a half of your buddies would say otherwise”. In truth, he knew this was bad; there was no conceivable way he could win this fight straight up. So as always Sid fell back on his second plan of attack: keep them talking and make them mad enough to make a mistake.

True to form, he was getting under Beta’s skin, “Yes, that was very impressive; but it ends now. You’re outnumbered and outgunned”.

“Let me guess” Sid said, “Surrender now, etc etc?”

To that, Beta actually gave a laugh, “No, not exactly”. She motioned to the group to prepare to attack.

“They better aim good” Sid told her as he shifted to a fighting position, “The last time you cornered me with enemy forces, I got better”.

She grunted, “Yes, you have had an annoying habit of coming back for more. Kill him”.

That brief moment of quiet certainty. That was all Sid needed. As the disorganized mob charged in, Sid activated the last of his cloaking devices he’d ‘borrowed’ from Nikki, vanishing under the tsunami of rubber flesh before reappearing several feet away from the chaotic pile. He gave Beta and Delta a cocky salute before rushing off down the hallway that ringed the perimeter of the hub.

Flustered, Beta looked at him, then at the monsters who were still trying to fight a non-existent red ranger they had assumed they’d tackled, “...Y-you idiots! AFTER HIM!” she shouted, pointing in Sid’s direction.

Sid couldn’t help but smile as he raced down the hallway—already he could hear several of the monsters following in pursuit. Up ahead was one of the severed bridges.

He had an idea.

Typing in a few commands into his morpher, he rounded the corner towards the next exit and avoided a few laser blasts directed at his person.

“You guys wanna see a hat trick?” Sid called back to them, before issuing one last command to his morpher.

As Sid neared the severed bridge, the hallway behind him exploded with fire as Trok’s Battle Yacht crashed through the ceiling, catching the entire monster hoard off-guard. Approximately one second later, the entire hallway was vaporized by the explosives Sid had stashed on board going off. The fireball almost consumed him, but Sid used his running start to dive off the bridge—which in hindsight as he fell through open air towards the lava pit below he decided was not the best idea—barely grappling and flipping himself over a loose bar of metal before flinging himself to the lowest level—a maintenance catwalk on the very bottom of the base, not too far above the lava. The red ranger tumbled onto the catwalk and rolling to a stop. He was pretty badly bruised—his entire body ached as he forced himself to stand and hobble off to the nearest section of the base; an ancillary maintenance hut.

Up above, Beta and Delta stood, watching with contempt.

“Now what?” Delta asked, eying Sid even through the smoke and fire.

Beta didn’t answer him directly, instead speaking into her wrist communicator with barely controlled fury, “Beta to all surviving forces. Red ranger’s heading for maintenance bay fourteen. It leads to an auxiliary launch bay. Take him out”. She closed the link and then turned away, heading for the elevator to get to a lower level.

---

The bridge of the Megaship was a blur of activity. Trok hadn’t wasted any time backtracking Sid’s path while Nikki had started reviewing the ship’s sensor logs. Xolin had waited as patiently as she could in the captain’s seat, wondering what the hell had happened. She gripped the armrests tightly, fidgeting subconsciously as she waited for the other two to figure it out.

She wasn’t very good at waiting.

“...Entapur” Trok muttered finally, “He went to Entapur”.

“Where’s that?” Xolin asked him.

He turned from his console, “The sole planet in the Uldar-19 system. Small, volcanic, orbits two stars. Has a bunch of old abandoned terran mining stations”.

Volcanic? That didn’t make any sense, that he would go to such an inhospitable place, “...Why?” Xolin asked.

“...Because we were being followed” Nikki surmised, before throwing her console’s holodisplay onto the main viewscreen. On it, everyone could see the ship’s sensor records. Including…

“...An SPD shuttle?” Trok asked, confused.

Xolin’s gaze narrowed, “...Antipodes”.

Nikki nodded somberly, “They were probably waiting for us to stop somewhere and nab us then. Or maybe psyche us out a bit first to make it easier. Sid used one of my devices to temporarily cloak our ship, then used a sensor dampener to make it look like Isdilian’s APC was our ship. …And took a lot of weapons with him”.

Trok’s brow furrowed in further confusion and concern, “This doesn’t make any sense though. Why would he leave us? Wouldn’t we stand a better chance together? And he didn’t even tell us!”

Xolin sighed in irritation, rubbing the bridge of her nose, “I’m getting real tired of Sid assuming he’s god’s gift to whatever and leaving us out of the loop. He was like that back when we first met and then I thought he grew out of it, but all of the sudden...” she trailed off, shaking her head in distaste.

Nikki digested this information, slowly and silently coming to a conclusion as she thought back to their short exchange after she’d spilled the beans on the Antipodes’ objectives a few days ago, “...I don’t think he does it because he thinks he’s god’s gift” she said finally, “...I think he does it because he cares about you”.

“He’s got a weird way of showing it” Xolin muttered grumpily. She was incredibly frustrated, between this and the whole hiding information thing...damnit, what if he got himself in real trouble? They were supposed to be a team, not Sid and Friends.

Nikki closed her eyes, repressing some awful memories, “...If anything happened to you, I don’t think Sid would survive. I think in some way, he’s trying to atone for his sins”. All those times she threw The Incident in his face. All the times she was awful because she was angry and bitter and wanted him to hurt because of how much she hurt.

And somewhere, she still felt that way. She still wanted him to suffer. But the truth was...she had been right there with him. They’d all made that choice. And she wasn’t even the original Nikki. Did she even have the right to be mad for something that happened to her? Did she have a right to her feelings?

Still, she’d pushed him and now felt a bit guilty for it.

A flood of memories rushed through Trok as he connected the dots. Back when they’d first met, when Sid had wanted nothing to do with them or any of this. That time Sid had stupidly messed things up while trying to help when they’d visited his clan on Horath and then had angsted for days afterwards. That time he’d rescued them on Triforia, bringing an entire fleet with him and towering before the SPD commander like an angry god. Whenever he was reluctant to talk about his past. That time he’d told Trok just *why* he hadn’t wanted to join the team.

That time after he’d left them—and then came back.

“...It doesn’t matter what happens to him” Trok said, his voice barely above a whisper, “As long as we’re safe”.

Xolin’s eyes widened as she locked her gaze with Trok’s. Understanding flowed into her: she’d misjudged him. “...I’m an idiot” she managed, then steeled her voice, “How soon can we be there?”

Trok checked his console’s readout, “...We passed the system about half an hour ago. I can get us there in half that if we go at maximum hyperrush”.

“Do it” she nodded at him.

He nodded back and turned back to the computer. The Megaship made an about-face at FTL speeds and shot back towards its new destination.

“I hope he can hold on long enough” Nikki frowned.

“He will” Xolin said without an inch of question, not peeling her eyes from the viewscreen as she gripped the armrests of the captain’s seat even tighter, “And then we’re going to kick his ass”.

No one else was going to die.

---

Sid limped a bit into the launch bay. A large chamber, it was actually built into the side of the mountain and housed several ground vehicles for when the mining team had needed to traverse the surrounding area. Ugh, he hurt. Note to self: don’t do that ever again.

It also contained three monsters, dead ahead. One was an office supply monster, another was a humanoid pig that had eaten too much. The third was some sort of japanese ghost with lanterns.

“Well well well” the office supply monster chuckled, “Looks like we caught us a ranger!”

“The bounty for you is pretty high!” the pig stated, “You know how much barbecue I could eat with that?” As they spoke, other monsters began trickling in: a firefly sumo wrestler, twin beetle monsters, an elephant in battle armor, a number-themed creature, and a representation of the constellation Sagittarius, among others.

Despite his tiredness and injuries, Sid put on his best show, “Really, you think it’s going to be that easy? Your buddies thought that, and I just blew over two dozen of them up. How lucky do you think you’re going to be?”

The hoard, despite increasing in size, became visibly more skiddish. Sid grinned, “...Yeah, you’re a little nervous, huh? Don’t know what else I’ve got up my sleeve. Maybe between you and me I’ve turned this section of the hallway into a minefield. Maybe I’m not really here, but just a hologram, and the real me’s waiting for you to make a mistake. Or maybe--”

“Or maybe you’re just out of toys” Beta growled as she and Delta moved into the room from an elevator shaft to the side, “I know desperation when I see it”.

...Wait. Was this…? Ah, it was. Sid’s attention flickered to Beta with confidence, “Then by all means. Be the first to try”.

Her patience at an end, Beta drew her sword, “ATTACK!”

The army charged, but Sid was ready. He only had one more card to play at the moment, but he intended it to be a good one. Activating it, the ground between him and the nearest monster exploded, sending the wolf-beast flying back into a clock-themed monster. Out of the hole popped another of Trok’s unfinished devices, which Sid had strapped a battery pack to: a would-be replacement and/or addition to the Defender Cannon—a laser minigun. Sid threw the weapon’s pack over his shoulder and opened fire, mowing through the opposition.

It didn’t last long though, as Beta slipped in from the side. Sid tried to counter, but she was too close and kicked the weapon from his hand. Sid dodged her next strike, only to be slammed into the side by Delta’s heavy fists. The red ranger went down, rolling back into a crowd of irate monsters. They pulled him up, striking him repeatedly until he managed to kick a few of them away and then pull himself free. Knowing he only had a second’s worth of reprieve, he drew his sidearm sword and his battle ax, going on the offensive even though he knew at this point he was likely doomed.

But by god he’d take as many with him as he could.

---

The journey was endless. As far as Sel was concerned she’d been here only momentarily and yet forever.

Then again, time was a bit fluid here. Or non-existent.

Still, this felt endless. She’d long since left the floating islands and had crossed frozen tundras, deep jungles, empty cityscapes, and even places she had no name for. Now she found herself in the barren expanse of a sandy desert, losing hope again.

How was she she supposed to find three other people in a near-infinite cosmos?

Sel popped down in the sand, exhausted as she let the hot breeze wash over her. The sky above was dominated by a large gas giant and two smaller moons—inwardly she wondered if this place still existed in the ‘real’ world.

And there was Andromeda, waiting for her in the distance, as usual.

“...What?” Sel asked her with irritation, even though she knew she wouldn’t respond, “What am I supposed to do? You’ve been leading for spirits know how long, am I any closer to finding the others now than I was when I started?”

Andromeda simply gave her a warm smile.

Ugh. She wasn’t going to be any help. But that’s because Sel knew it wasn’t really Andromeda; it was just an after-image, a memory. A projection of what really remained of her friend—the power that now resided within Sel and her friends.

...Wait a second.

“...That IS what you’ve been trying to tell me, isn’t it?” she asked the ghost as realization dawned. Andromeda gave her a mischievous grin, then turned to walk away, vanishing into the air. Sel tapped deep into her connection with not just the grid, but her own soul, finding the part of the Lights that resided within her.

Then she searched for the others.

Landscapes flashed before her senses. Lunar craters, red swamps, towers that reached the suns. She let herself fly, drawing close to her missing counterparts.

Yes, that was it.

She felt Sid—SAW Sid. Her relief and giddiness was squashed however as she saw him as he was...fighting. Struggling.

Losing.

He shouted in pain as his weapons fell from his hands, the swarm of enemies surrounding him. Beta and Delta were there.

Where were the others? Sel felt for them—above! In orbit! Why weren’t they helping?! She shifted to them—they were arguing, panicking. They couldn’t find him; an entire planet and they had no idea where to look. She had to get their attention somehow. She had to help him! Yet as much as she wanted, she was stuck on this side of reality, unable to reach Sid.

Or could she?

Sel pushed forward, her astral form igniting as she roared against the barrier of reality. She would not be stopped here, not this close and NOT NOW. Not when the others needed her!

PUSH.

---

Sid’s weapons flew from his hands as he received multiple blows to his body. Monsters came to him left and right; the Sagittarius monster and a cloud monster fired their weapons at him. The armored elephant struck him with its staff. Delta’s massive fist collided with his midsection, before Beta followed up with three quick strikes from her sword. The twin beetles placed their staffs together and fired a powerful blast of electrical energy at the red ranger, sending him to the ground just outside the launch bay on the volcanic rock itself, prone and surrounded by his enemies. His suit was charred and blackened in places, ravaged from the battle.

This was it; his gambit had failed. All his smarts, his preparation, his will—all of it had been for naught. The best he could hope for was that the others had gotten away and would survive long enough to rebound.

And that was when a brilliant, bright light filled the area. It had no source and no focus—it was omnipresent. And it grew brighter and louder.

“AH!” Sid shouted in reflex as he was forced to close his eyes. The monsters reeled in pain as well as the light overtook them.

---

“Where is he?!” Xolin demanded to know.

Trok tried a few more controls, then slammed his hands on the console in frustration, “I don’t know! The planet has over two dozen mining complexes, and that’s even assuming he didn’t decide to fight on open ground! I detect morphing energy, but the radiation from the stars are keeping me from getting a lock”.

“...Planets are big” Nikki said worriedly, “It’d take hours to find him sector by sector”.

“He doesn’t HAVE hours!” Xolin shot back, “We need to be down there NO--”

Trok cut her off, “...Woah”.

“What’s up?” Nikki asked him.

Trok motioned to the holoscreen, “Readings just went off. Like, off the dang charts. I’m reading...I’m reading an insane amount of morphing grid energy”.

“Can you track it?!” Xolin asked him.

Trok typed in a few commands, “...Yes! I’ve got it. I don’t know what he’s doing down there that’s causing that kind of energy release, but we’ve got him”.

“Then let’s go!” Xolin ordered. Nikki was already halfway off the bridge, with Xolin following. Trok however stopped her.

“...Xol, I know this is a bad time and all but...are you okay?” he asked her.

She looked at him quizzically, “Okay from what?” she asked as they resumed moving.

“...Everything” he said, “You went to your room after...after the last fight and didn’t come out. And everything with Sid and I know it’s been rough for a while and...I just want to make sure you’re alright”. The words spilled out, not a breath between them. It was clear he’d been trying to find a good time to ask this since they’d met in the lounge and just had a chance.

She stopped, looking back at him with an odd yet warm expression, putting her hand on his shoulder. She’d been torn—and while she’d certainly weathered killing a teammate better than he ever could, and while her conversation with Nikki had certainly helped, right now the only thing keeping her together was the mission itself.

Yet no matter what happened, Trok was always looking after her, making sure she was okay. And he was like that with the others as well. Because Trok understood, sometimes better than any of them. He understood what they were really fighting for. No matter how much she and the others got sucked into their own issues and inadequacies, all Trok was ever concerned about was how to keep everyone together.

Xolin brought Trok into a sudden tight hug, “Thank you” she said, before pulling apart.

“...Xol?” he asked, unsure.

She resumed moving down the hall—quickly now, “Nothing’s okay right now. Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow, huh?”

He got what she was saying as he followed, a smile growing, “...We’ll make sure it is”.

She couldn’t help but return the grin, “That’s why we keep you around”.

---

Time had been running out. Every option they tried, every project they helmed, every simulation they ran, all ended in failure.

The camaraderie they’d once shared was all but gone...and yet stronger than ever because they were all they had anymore. They were dead inside, their birth names sloughing off as bit by bit, they began naming themselves by their project code names instead.

It had been Theta who had first suggested the option of colonizing another universe. If they couldn’t fix this one, perhaps they could simply move to another one. Hope flared for the first time in ages. It was certainly feasible; they’d been trying to create pocket universes since their attempt to stop the void had begun.

But as it turned out, it was much harder to find a new universe than they had anticipated. Far too often they were met by nothing. When they DID contact other universe, they were found to be too hostile. The rules of physics didn’t apply the same way—too few or too many fundamental forces. Or maybe matter and antimatter had wiped each other out. Or maybe it was simply too alien to even comprehend—laws of reality utterly askew to what they could even envision.

Universe after universe they looked, finding nothing. As they searched, people died as the universe collapsed around them. Civilizations ended.

...And then they found one that, while not perfect, was suitable. Their universe had been made of negatively charged matter—this universe was positively charged. Matter vs Antimatter. Most everything else fit—the fundamental forces, the laws of thermodynamics, it all worked. It’s just if they tried to colonize it, they’d never be able to exist within it.

Thankfully, this universe had a fifth fundamental force: some sort of underlying energy dimension that they eventually realized was named the ‘Morphing Grid’. Sigma, Iota, and a few of the others had done the calculations: if the grid’s power was channeled correctly, they could convert this universe into something liveable. It was a resource intensive project with a lot of risk, but it was doable.

Unfortunately, this universe was already crawling with life. In order to convert this universe, the existing life would have to die. It was either them...or them. There was no other option; there was no guarantee that they’d find another match within the little amount of time they had left—nor was there any guarantee that that universe wouldn’t have life as well.

So many sacrifices had already been made. So many lines had already been crossed. Yet still the team was split on what was the right course of action—to save their universe and damn this one, or let it stand and doom them all. Salvation was at hand...what was one more sacrifice in order to ensure it?


---

Sid blinked, squinting as the light faded and his vision slowly returned. Before he could do anything though, a very large foot pressed down on his back—a magma rock monster had him pinned to the ground.

“As far as hail marys go, that one was rather disappointing” Beta told him, “What was that? Some sort of flash grenade?”

“...Something like that” Sid replied. In truth, he hadn’t an idea what had just happened, but she didn’t need to know that, did she? As far as she knew, he still had more tricks up his sleeve. He didn’t and was likely screwed, but might as well make her guess.

The blue antipode keeled down in front of Sid, “Now what, red ranger? Pinned to the ground, defenseless, battered and broken. No more tricks? No more clever ploys? Because I’ll be honest, I would love to see you try to get out of this one”.

Sid gave a token struggle to get up but quickly surrendered; his body protested every movement. “...So just how many grasshoppers did you pull the wings off of as a kid?” he snarked at her.

“Defiant to the end” she replied, “It wasn’t a very smart idea coming here alone; you know that. But...I think I understand why you did it”.

“Oh?” Sid asked her, “You sure do love monologueing, so sure, why don’t you tell me?”

If her face had been visible, Sid was sure he would have seen the most malicious grin possible, “...You like to put on the role of the confident ace, don’t you? You fool everyone. The red ranger’s the leader. The red ranger knows what to do. You’ve always got the plan. And sometimes, you even fool yourself” she stood back up, gesturing around to the crowd of monster, “But being an insufferable jackass only gets you so far. Sometimes, Sid, you have to stop running and confront the truth”.

“...This more of your first year psyche student bullshit?”

Beta turned back to him, “You’re a fraud. Oh sure, you’re clever, but only enough to give your friends rope to hang themselves”.

Ouch.

She continued, “You got your first team killed. Then your ex-girlfriend comes back as some holographic abomination—boy, you ever wonder what it must be like for her? She can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t *feel*...” Beta trailed off for a second, as if ruing her own life, trapped in her suit, “...She’s not even really human anymore, just some ramshackle cybernetic ghost. She must *hate* you”. Beta giggled at that last part as the fight left Sid’s body.

“Most people would have given up there, but you come back with a whole NEW team!” Beta exclaimed in amused exasperation, “And how has that gone for you? We have one of them” she keeled back down, coming in close, “The girl’s ours, and there’s nothing you can do about it. She’s dying, you know. The power’s too much for her. But I’m sure she’ll be wishing for it before the end; she suffers every moment of every day” she gripped Sid’s chin, pulling his face up to look at her, “I want you to know that. I want you to know her existence right now is torture. And it’s because of you; because you failed her”.

She let go of Sid, “And then you had the *gall* to kill one of your own. Do you have any idea how much that pissed us off? And before you get too happy about that, know that I intend to make your friends suffer for how much you’ve made US suffer. After I’m done with you, they’ll be next, and I will *not* be merciful”.

Calming herself, Beta returned to the topic at hand, “So, one ranger in the hands of the enemy. Another dead by the hands of one of your own—I wonder how she’s dealing with having blood on her hands...so really, it’s no wonder you’re here, by yourself. It’s perfectly understandable. You’re poison; you hurt those you’re near. You make them suffer. And in the end, you lead them to their death”.

Sid tried his best to resist the flashbacks that were coming fast and hard. No. NO—stay here, in the present. Don’t...don’t remember smoke or flames alarms were blaring—NO.

Beta stood back up. “You came here alone because deep down, you knew; they’re better off without you. You know that you don’t deserve them”.

And deep down...Sid knew she was right. He hated it of course; these were the simple mind games she liked to play on everyone...but that didn’t mean that a broken clock wasn’t right twice a day. He’d spent so much time trying to make up for his sins, so much time trying to do it over...and for a while he’d even fooled himself into thinking he had been starting to move past it. But he could never; he was tainted, broken. He hadn’t even succeeded here; he was going to die, and Beta and Delta would track down the others and kill them, to say nothing of Sel.

Right then and there, Sid finally surrendered.

“That’s not true!”

Beta cocked her head. Wait, that hadn’t been Sid. That had been a girl’s--

Several laser blasts cut into her and the monsters. The mob fell back as three skycycles roared overhead in formation, flying past as they dropped their cargo. Three rangers—blue, green, and black, now stood in a circle around the fallen red ranger, defending their leader.

Beta rebounded, “...And so the sheep arrive” she sneered, “It’s just like you to come to the defense of someone who’s failed you time and time again”.

“No one’s failed anyone” Xolin declared, her gaze focused solely on her blue counterpart, anger and hate building inside her. “When are you going to learn that no matter how much you try to break us with words, we just get back up again to spite you?”

The antipode cackled, “Look around; look where he’s led you. Look at how much you’ve lost. Look at how many mistakes he’s made. Look at how many sins he carries with him. You should be demanding your pound of flesh”.

“...She’s right” Sid said as Trok and Nikki helped him up, “You shouldn’t be here”. Part of him was glad; exuberant even that they’d come for him—that they cared enough to. But another, louder part part of him was screaming about how this was a mistake on their part.

Trok spoke, “...I left home because I didn’t fight for my parents’ legacy, instead letting their murderer, my brother, to take control. Then I almost didn’t come back to stand trial, even though not doing so meant that innocent people would die in my place. I was a coward. And I’ve made so many mistakes since; I trusted people I shouldn’t, I hurt my friends when I was frustrated, I tried to rewrite time to suit my needs, not thinking of others when I should have”.

“I push people away, hurt them. I wallow in self-pity when others’ need me. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life; I can’t even count them. If Iota hadn’t found me, I’d have ended up dead in a ditch somewhere” Xolin said, turning to Sid, “But you were always there, making sure we were okay. And you messed up...but you messed up because you care. Which is more than I can say for anyone in my life growing up. I shouldn’t have called you Iota, and I’m sorry”.

“I got myself killed” Nikki said, “And then I denied my guilt by blaming another so that I could be angry”. She also turned to Sid, “...You might have led us, but we were all guilty. We all went along with it. We all pushed for it. If you hadn’t, I would have. And...I’m sorry”.

This was overwhelming; Sid wasn’t sure what to say. There were so many things, so many emotions, “...You guys...” he managed to croak out, “...You shouldn’t...”

“We’re here, got as far as we did, because we did it together. Because you led us” Trok said firmly, “Because we’re more than just friends. We’re family”.

Xolin took notice of Sid’s mental freeze, “...Look, we can have our big emotional sitdown after this is done. We need you now. Are you here?”

They were here. They’d come to save him. They wanted him to lead. It meant everything to him. Sid forced himself to push all his emotions aside for the moment; all the questions, all the unresolved tension and issues.

Right now they had a war to win.

The red ranger nodded at blue with a renewed sense of willpower, “...Yeah”. She nodded back, and together the rangers turned outwards towards the monster mob.

“...Such a touching moment” Beta sneered, “But it’s time to die now” she motioned to the monsters, “Kill them all”.

Before the monsters could attack though, something...well, something happened. Light shone forth from the rangers as a warm, familiar power filled them.

“...What’s...what’s going on?” Xolin asked, looking down at her suit as a golden aura enveloped them.

Sid knew what it felt like though, as bizarre and as unlikely as it sounded, “...It’s the Lights of Andromeda” he whispered in disbelief. Then his mind flashed back—the light from before! That must have been…

“...It’s Sel!” Trok said with a wide smile, “I don’t know how, but she’s here! It’s the only way!”

“The power surge we detected from orbit” Nikki said, agreeing, “Sel must have a better grasp over the Grid than we thought!”

Warmth filled Sid’s soul. They’d all come to help—even Sel. They were all here, together. How could he disappoint now? Tightening his fist in confirmation, he called to the others, “Alright, let’s do this! Lights of Andromeda!”

“Phantom Mode!” Nikki commanded, not to be left out of the power-up sequence.

“ACTIVATE!” the team shouted.

The five rangers exploded onto the scene, armor forming around their suits as the aura faded, an explosion ripping through the ground behind them.

“...Impossible” Beta whispered in disbelief, before rage consumed her, “Kill them! Kill them NOW!”

“Break and attack!” Sid ordered as he ignited his jetpack, “Go go go!”

The rangers split off, flying into the enemy forces.

Sid flew into the twin beetle monsters, blocking their staffs with his energy wrist blades, before elongating them into energy whips and pulling them out of the monsters’ grips. The clock monster tried to strike from the rear, but as Sid turned the yellow ranger deflected the clock’s attacks.

Or...Sid was SURE he’d seen the yellow ranger. So had the clock monster evidently; as it was looking extremely confused. Sid grinned; she really was fighting alongside them, somehow. He kicked the clock monster aside, letting his boot deliver a burst of crimson power into the monster. The stag beetle monster attacked, which Sid deflected, but almost didn’t see the horned beetle’s attack—only for it to also be deflected by the yellow ranger.

Sid spun as he leaped up, his energy blades cutting into the monsters like angry propellers. As he came back down, he landed multiple hits with his boots before swinging around and stabbing both beetles in the chest. As they fell over and exploded, the clock monster charged in again, wielding twin swords that looked like clock arms.

But Sid wasn’t done; he came in with a flurry of attacks, and before it even realized what was happening, the clock monster was gone.

The magma monster opened fire as Xolin rushed in, the blue ranger deflecting each energy blast as she rapidly closed the distance. The last attack outright missed; the blue ranger had jumped into the air, landing twin kicks on the larger monster as she flipped behind it, landing a second set of kicks before bouncing off a metal beam, launching forward again and striking with her energy blades. As the magma monster staggered backwards, Xolin prepared to keep attack.

...Except that she suddenly found herself bound with her arms pinned at her sides. A black circle some sort had her trapped. Looking to her side, she saw a number-themed monster cackling.

“The hero’s been trapped by my zer—WHA--” the monster sparked, having been hit from three laser shots from the yellow ranger’s blade-bow. The zero holding Xolin vanished, giving her a chance to turn the tide. The monster shot out several more numbers—all of which were evaded by the rapidly multiplying blue ranger. The three Xolins struck fast and hard, and the monster didn’t stand a chance.

The magma monster had rebounded and charged, firing blasts that the yellow ranger deflected, giving Xolin a chance to attack three on one. They flew into the air, coming down with their energy blades and cutting through the enemy creature. It toppled over, exploding.

Trok spun in a circle, his energy blades extended and sweeping in a full arc as he took out multiple monsters. The ghost monster flew in in his blind spot and attempted to gut him with her talons, only to be blocked by the yellow ranger. The green ranger’s fist soon met with the monster’s face for her trouble. The monster floated back in pain, allowing Trok to press forward, cutting repeatedly before landing his foot on her chest, and upon charging his boot up, obliterated her with its green energy discharge.

The pig monster struck at Nikki, only to find she wasn’t there anymore.

“...Wha?!” it managed to snort out, before being struck in the backside. Nikki cut through the monster’s rear, destroying it in just a couple of moves as the office supply monster came in from the side. The black ranger blocked its first attack—its weapon of choice a giant pen, but almost feel victim to its second weapon—the dreaded stapler gun. Thankfully, the yellow ranger intercepted, allowing Nikki to knock the weapons from the monster’s hands. She gripped the monster, throwing both of them into the air with her jets, before tossing the monster back and down. As the creature landed in a heap, she came back down, striking at sonic speeds and leaving a small crater where the monster had been.

Sid struck at Beta, the two trading blows as rapid-paced equals, each narrowly evading the other’s strikes in equal turn. Delta attempted to but in, but Sid merely evaded the larger green warrior.

“...How?” Beta demanded to know as they fought, “How are you so strong now?! You were beaten! Defeated!”

Xolin intercepted Delta, her foot flying into his face before she twisted around and delivered a second powered up kick.

“You don’t get it!” Sid declared as they locked weapons, “We fight because we have something worth fighting for. We fight because we’re a family, and we’d do anything for each other!” Understanding dawned, “...You’ve forgotten that, haven’t you? You don’t even remember what you’re fighting for. All you have is the mission”.

She roared, “Don’t you dare try to psychoanalyze *me*!” with a second wind she broke Sid’s hold and almost struck at him directly, only to be deflected by the yellow ranger. “YOU!” she seethed with rage, “HOW?!”

She had no time to ponder this though, as Nikki and Trok flew into her, knocking her back.

Delta roared and charged. Xolin and Trok leaped into the air, weapons in hand as their lance and hammer struck into Delta’s form. Nikki came next, throwing her daggers at the antipodes. Upon landing, the four rangers gripped their arms together into a platform. Sid jumped on, then leaped off, ax in hand. He came down, his weapon charged up with flaming energy as he struck the antipodes.

Beta rolled back in a heap, Delta staggering backwards in her direction, their armor smoking and charred. By the time they realized what was going on however, it was already over.

Sid, Trok, and Xolin had combined theirs and Sel’s weapons into the Defender Cannon. Next to them, Nikki had loaded up Isdilian’s Sentinel Cannon.

“DEFENDER CANNON!” Sid declared.

“SENTINEL CANNON!” Nikki followed up.

“Ready!” Xolin reported.

“Aim!” Trok added.

“FIRE!” Sid, Trok, and Xolin ordered as a powerful beam of ranger energy burst forth.

“FIRE!” Nikki followed suit. The twin beams rolled around one another, combining into a singular wave of destruction that washed over the two unfortunate Antipodes. Their suits sparked, their armor ruptured as explosions rocked the area around them.

“Lights of Andromeda!” Sid declared as the red, blue, green, and yellow rangers rushed forward together, “POWER UP MODE!”

The four rangers united into a singular fireball that ripped through their two enemies, reappearing on the other side. As they turned back around, they saw the two Antipodes stagger and limp as their suits finally began to give out.

“Not...not this...way...” Beta declared, pulling out a small object, “Scroll...of empowerment...”

The two Antipodes toppled over, exploding. But before the fireball even dissipated, the two had reformed and grown forty stories. The rangers pulled back at the sudden development.

“Guardian Megazord!” Sid ordered.

“Defender Megazord!” Xolin followed up.

“Sentinel Megazord!” Nikki added.

All seven zords flew in, transforming and combining as the rangers leaped into their respective cockpits. The Defender Megaship, piloted by Xolin and Trok, rolled on its axis, transforming into megazord mode—ditto for Isdilian’s old megazord, now piloted by Nikki. Lastly, the five Guardian axillary zords swooped in, unfolding and forming together to form the Guardian Megazord—something that hadn’t been seen in months due to their former inability to use the Lights of Andromeda. Sid landed in its cockpit.

The three megazords landed, making defensive poses as they stood opposite the two revitalized antipodes.

“Three on two!” Sid taunted, “Boy I bet you guys wished you’d stayed home today”.

“Take the small fry” Beta told Delta, “The red ranger is mine”.

Delta nodded in acknowledgment, and the two teams met in battle. The Defender and Sentinel Megazords took on Delta, while Beta rushed into the Guardian Megazord and its staff. While powerful, the Guardian simply wasn’t up to the task of blocking Beta’s lightning-fast reflexes, and it quickly found itself outmatched and dying of a thousand cuts.

The other megazords found themselves with the opposite problem; while the Defender Megazord was reasonably fast, the simple fact was that Delta was so tough and large that it simply didn’t matter. The Defender struck repeatedly while the Guardian blasted at range, but it simply didn’t matter. Delta struck at both, knocking them back and to the ground with his powerful fists.

“Final Strike!” Xolin and Trok ordered, as the Defender Megazord swooped in, sword ready as it initiated its finisher. The zord spun on its axis, coming in like a tornado with its sword pointed out front, attempting to gut Delta right through his midsection. Delta however, merely grabbed the Defender as it closed in, before tossing it aside. It crashed into the half-molten hillside.

“Cosmic Blitz!” Nikki declared, the Sentinel unloading its own finisher as every gunport opened fire. Delta was struck dead on, but mostly seemed annoyed more than anything. Powering up his fists, Delta pummeled into the Sentinel, sending it falling to the ground.

Nikki gripped the controls tightly as her zord crashed, “...This isn’t good: his power level’s way above ours!”

“Then let’s change that!” Xolin replied from the Defender, “Defender Battlezord!”

The two megazords transformed and combined, forming a larger, more powerful creation. The Battlezord rolled forward on its treads, unfazed by the barrage Delta unleashed upon it. It slammed its fists into Delta, who knocked them aside before pummeling this new zord just as easily as he had its individual parts.

“Imperial Defense!”

The Battlezord’s finisher came down, twin powered-up swords combined into one, but Delta blocked with his gauntlet, knocking it aside and punching again.

“Zenith Phalanx!” Sid ordered as the Guardian Megazord powered up its own finisher. The head of the megazord’s staff came to life, twirling rapidly as power gathered. The megazord spun the staff around in a circle, collecting energy. When it made it to the peak, the megazord slashed down diagonally, then opposite. Then it thrust forward, impaling b--

Oh wait no it didn’t.

Beta’s swords snapped the staff in half, breaking the finisher in mid-function. Powering up her blades, she struck at the megazord, hitting it again and again and again, endlessly as the zord shuttered under the assault. Sid gripped the controls tightly as the megazord hit the ground, soon joined by the Battlezord.

“Delta, now!” Beta commanded. Together the two antipodes powered their blades and fists with blue and green energy respectively, before bringing them together and unleashing a torrent of destruction on the downed zords. Explosions ripped across their hulls, sparks burst forth, and fire roared around them.

The cockpits shook as sparks flew everywhere, consoles shorting out as the zords’ systems were overwhelemed.

“It’s too much!” Trok cried out, “The zords can’t take much more of this!”

“If anyone’s got a last minute plan to save us, now would be the time!” Nikki added.

Sid grunted in frustration as his zord was overwhelmed by the continual attack. All this power, and it wasn’t enough. They had the Lights back, and it wasn’t enough. They couldn’t be defeated here; not when they were so close, they couldn’t—wait.

The lights! That was it!

“I got one!” Sid said, gritting his teeth, “Trok, you still have that ultrazord project you were working on?”

“It doesn’t work!” Trok shot back, “The zords aren’t compatible. We’d need to put the zords into dock and refit them!”

But Sid was undeterred, “The Guardianzords weren’t meant to combine either, remember? The only reason we can form this megazord is because we believed in each other!” A beat, “...Also ludicrous amounts of Morphing Grid power, but my point stands! We have the Lights, and I trust Sel can pull this off. You guys in?”

“...We don’t have a chance” Xolin told Trok, eying the worried green ranger.

Trok took a deep breath, choosing as always to believe in the rest of the team, “Alright. Everyone stand by. Initiating...Defender Ultrazord!” He pulled the program out of his belt and inserted it into the computer, “Activate!”

As he did that, a barrier of golden light surrounded the two zords, protecting them from Beta and Delta’s barrage.

“...What?!” Beta exclaimed in confusion and frustration as they broke off their attack. The Lights of Andromeda worked overtime, filling the zords down to their core. As they powered back up, the twin titans stood once more—then broke apart into their individual zords.

The Sentinelzord, now in tank mode, unfolded into a base, its excess guns splitting off. Each of the Guardianzords then unfolded and combined with the Sentinel, forming a chariot of sorts as the cannons reattached. Finally, the Defender Megazord slid into the driver’s seat, its shield attached to its arm. The Guardian Megazord’s staff front appeared in front of the megazord, pointed forward like another gun front and center.

Light surrounded the zords, forming brilliant golden armor across both the chariot and the central megazord. Chest armor, arm gauntlets, and even a new helmet appeared. In its hand, a golden bow formed from thin air. The rangers arrived in the megazord cockpit.

“Defender Ultrazord, online!”

The Ultrazord roared to life, rolling forward in its chariot.

“...HOW!?” Beta demanded to know, “How do you keep evolving?! How do you keep getting more powerful!?”

“We already told you” Xolin replied.

“Time’s up, Beta” Sid added, “Get ready for a world of hurt!”

The Megazord launched out of its chariot, flying into the air as the chariot shot forward like a bullet, powering up and flying into the antipodes. As they reeled from the attack, the Defender Megazord aimed downwards with its bow, flipping about and opening fire with several golden energy arrows. It landed back in its chariot, spinning about as the arrows impacted their targets. Explosions rocked the antipodes.

“Game’s over!” Sid declared.

“FINAL BARRAGE!”

The Ultrazord’s bow charged with power, preparing for a singular, final shot. Every gun, every cannon, every weapon primed. The Guardian staff spun with power, energy collecting at its head. Tension built.

And release.

The tsunami of firepower that resulted ripped through the air. In a last-second move, Beta threw Delta in front of her, allowing him to take the full brunt of the attack. An explosion erupted where the two antipodes had been, and when it disappointed, only fire and smoke remained.

Cheers went out across the zord cockpit—they’d WON! Against all odds, two antipodes were down for the count.

Only two remained.

---

Theta’s revelation had been the final straw. In order to convert this universe, they would need ‘conduits’ from which to channel the universe’s Morphing Grid energy. And the options to create such devices were few.

Another sacrifice was needed.

An infusion of lifeforce energy, if provided correctly, could create the desired conduit—a stable unit from which to draw and transfer energy.

Theta and Sigma had volunteered. They had gone.

But it was too much; it had been one thing to take resources where they’d needed it even if it meant others wouldn’t survive. They’d even all gone along with colonizing another universe. But cannibalizing their own? Iota and Gamma couldn’t abide by that. So, there was civil war between the Antipodes. In the chaos, one of the conduits were stolen. Iota hid the girl away when she was still freshly born, preferring to find a different way, a better way to save his universe. He still hadn’t given up on the idea of pocket universes.

The other, the boy, remained with the Antipodes for a time. Then Zeta had left with him—outwardly siding with Iota and Gamma, but inwardly a mole—a traitor placed there by Alpha. When the time was right, the trap would be sprung, and all of Iota’s efforts would be in vain.

Once, there had been nine of them. Now there were four, and all were cold and distant, their friendships and camaraderie replaced by the need for The Mission. And so Epsilon continued her work.

Once, she had dreamed of stars. Now that she lived under them, she found them unbearable, a constant reminder of how wrong everything had become.


---

“You failed”.

Those were the words Beta was met with when she staggered into the Antipode lab, her armor nearly ruined. She gripped her side in pain, leaning against the wall as Alpha judged her.

“...I’m sorry” she said, “They...they were too much. And...the girl. Sel. She was with them”.

“Impossible” he said plainly, motioning to the pod the former yellow ranger was in that was in the center of the room, “She is here. Has been this entire time”.

Beta didn’t understand; couldn’t understand. She shook her head, “But...but she was there. I saw her!”

Alpha looked upon her with disdain, “I would prefer my soldiers take responsibility for their own failures, instead of making up excuses”.

“...I have it”.

Alpha and Beta turned their attention to Epsilon, currently at work at one of the computer consoles. Alpha spoke, “You have something for us?”

She nodded, “I know how to stabilize the subject’s degradation. At least for the moment”.

“And that would be?”

Epsilon wavered, knowing what kind of pandora’s box she’d be opening, “...A second infusion of lifeforce energy would, in theory, halt the degradation by reinforcing the subject’s core”.

“You mean another sacrifice”.

A pause.

“...Yes” Epsilon said, knowing what was coming next.

Alpha nodded towards Beta, and a moment later she found herself held down by a team of orangehead krybots. Too feeble and injured to put up a fight, she had no choice but to surrender, “...What?!” she exclaimed in a mixture of betrayal and panic, “You can’t!”

Alpha glared at her, “What did I say would happen the next time you left a comrade to die?”

Her heart sank—there was no way out of this. “No, please!” she exclaimed as she was dragged off, “Don’t do this! I just need more power! I can kill them! I can kill them all! PLEASE---”

“Do not fret” Alpha told her, “You are providing a vital service to our cause. You get to be a hero, a central protagonist in the narrative, a relative rarity”.

Beta’s increasingly frantic pleas went unfulfilled as she was locked within a backup pod. Alpha gave Epsilon a nod. For a moment, Epsilon remembered the early days, back when they’d all been comrades and friends—when Beta had shown her the ropes as the new girl. When they’d been the best of friends.

And then Epsilon did as she was told.

“I shall leave you to your work” Alpha told her. Epsilon nodded, and resumed her project.

The base had become so quiet.

---

Searching the wreckage of the zord fight had yielded little. The rangers, now demorphed, had been hoping for something, anything that could give them a lead on the location of the Antipodes’ base.

But nothing.

“...I’m sorry” Sid apologized out of the blue as they searched. He sat down on a discarded fragment of Delta’s armor, “For...well, I guess a lot of things”.

“That’s it?” Xolin eyed him, “‘A lot of things’?”

He actually gave the barest glimmer of a smile at that, “...I hid things from you. I shouldn’t have. I left without telling you, I also shouldn’t have. And I just...all I ever wanted to do was protect you. So you wouldn’t end up like...like...”

The rest was left unsaid. It didn’t need to be said.

“We’re your team” Trok said warmly, “We fight *with* you, not for you. We don’t want to be protected, we want to fight at your side. We keep each other safe, because we’re a team. We’re family”.

“And there’s nothing you can do to stop us. We’re responsible for our own choices, not you” Xolin said with a smirk, “But you’re forgiven, provided you never do it ever again”.

Sid managed a chuckle, “Understood. Thank you”.

“I meant what I said” Nikki said, “Before, I mean. We were all at fault”.

“...I was the leader. It was my call” Sid replied, “If I’d put my foot down, or been more careful, or--”

“We’d have gone anyway” Nikki said, “Or don’t you remember that I was pushing for the mission as much as you?”

“...I see your faces every night” Sid said, his voice a hushed whisper as he looked down at the ground, “I hear the alarms, smell the smoke...I keep reliving it and I don’t know how to stop. If I’d just done something different, anything different...”

Nikki shook her head, “There was nothing you could have done. You think I don’t have the same thoughts? I will never stop replaying it in my mind, but there was no way we could have known, and nothing that would have stopped us from doing what we did. There’s nothing to be done”.

“...I’m sorry” he said.

She sat down next to him, “...In that case? I’ll do something I should have done a long time ago. I forgive you”.

Sid looked at her as if she’d told him she had six stomachs. Forgive? “You...”

“Forgive you” she repeated. “I’ve decided...I’m tired of holding on to baggage from a former life. I can’t figure out if I’m supposed to be Nikki, or Nikki 2.0, or someone else entirely...and I won’t be able to as long as I keep holding onto everything like a husk of a person. So...I forgive you. As long as you can forgive me”.

Sid wiped away a tear, “I never blamed you”.

She gave a small, dry chuckle, “And that’s why you’re the leader”.

“Thank you” he replied. She said nothing; there wasn’t much left TO say.

“...I can’t feel it anymore” Trok muttered, “The Lights, they’re gone”.

Sid nodded, “Yeah. Wherever Sel is, she’s not with us anymore”.

The horathean sighed, “All that work, and for nothing. We still don’t know where she is or what they’re doing to her”.

“If what Beta told me was true...it’s not pretty” Sid replied darkly.

“We’re out of time” Xolin said, “The Antipodes could bring about their endgame at any time, especially now that we just halved their numbers. We need an upset”.

Sid frowned; she was right. But they had *nothing*. But they couldn’t fail now, not when they’d come so far...Sel had been WITH them. They were so close…

“...Why was Sel here?” Sid asked, “Did she come just to fight with us? Or was there an ulterior reason?”

...An idea sparked in Nikki’s mind at that thought. Quickly, she began scanning local Morphing Grid energy for something, anything out of the ordinary.

...Ah hah.

“...She DID leave us a clue”.

The other rangers all turned to Nikki in surprise, “What?!”

Nikki took a few seconds to decode her findings, “I’ve found an irregular pulse in the local grid. An echo of sorts, like ripples...except Morse code. She left us a message”.

“What’s it say?!” Trok asked, his eyes wide as he leaned over against a chunk of metal. Everyone waited expectantly with baited breath.

The message was simple, “…‘Erebus’”.

“...What’s that supposed to mean?” Trok asked.

Sid’s brow furrowed, “...Erebus? Wasn’t that something in Greek mythology?”

“Didn’t sleep through that class?” Nikki asked him in good humor. Her seriousness returned, “And yeah. Erebus was an area of the underworld”.

“Which...doesn’t exactly help us much” Sid groaned.

“...is there a star system named Erebus?” Xolin asked offhandedly.

The group looked at each other, realization settling in. Nikki quickly scanned her database.

...Bingo.

“There’s a black hole system in the Argolis Galaxy, a small spiral near the edge of the Canes I galactic cluster”.

...Holy shit.

They had a lead. They had a *lead*. Holy shit. They had what they were looking for. They had...they had the means to end this.

“...We have a lead” Sid breathed in disbelief. Silence passed over them, the only sounds being that of the nearby volcanic pits bubbling and the hot breeze that filtered through.

“We...we have to scout this out first, of course” Nikki said, composing herself, “But...yeah”.

“We can rescue Sel” Trok said.

“We can end this” Xolin added.

Sid nodded firmly, clenching his fist, “Contact our forces. It’s time we assemble the fleet”. He gave a determined grin, “It’s time to defeat the Antipodes, once and for all”.

---

To be continued...
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Old July 16th, 2017, 08:35 AM   #45
y3k
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Once upon a time there were nine who wanted to save their universe. Nine who fought and tried so hard, but ultimately succumbed to their own failings. They stared at the abyss and became monsters—in their desperation they inflicted their sin on another universe entirely and then turned on each other like starving wolves.

Once upon a time, there were six broken souls who found themselves in the employ of one of the nine, unaware they were puppets for larger game—a family argument that had gotten out of control, and that they were to be the sin-eaters—the poor wretches who would ultimately pay for the crimes of their predecessors. Slowly but surely the storm that enveloped them forced them closer together and they grew to depend on one another, grew into a makeshift family. They laughed, they cried, they struggled. They learned that they could be more than they were.

And then one of their own turned on them—yet another sin inflicted upon them in an already long list. They would reenact what had come before. Sin begat sin. Like the nine, they would fight each other and stare into the abyss as they realized the impossible choice between them—no matter what, a universe would end.

But this is merely a story, a narrative. The difference between stories and reality is context. In reality events happen, cause and effect push forces forward—but there’s no theme, no rhyme or reason. The narrative only comes into effect when people find sympathy for one player over another. In one story the hero and the villain exist. In another version of the same story, the roles are reversed. One should never take their status as protagonist for granted.

Nor should they one’s success, because life is everyone else’s story as well.

Two universes are colliding. Events have been set into motion that cannot be undone.

This is how this story ends.


---

Power Rangers Peacekeeepers

Series Finale

3.11: The Trolley Dilemma, part one of four: One Day More


---

Sid Drake’s Personal Log:

It’s happening. If you’d asked me three years ago—scratch that, six months ago—that I’d be leading a friggin’ armada of ships from every corner of the local supercluster to save the universe, I’d have laughed my ass off and asked you how much you’d had.

...HOPING to lead. Hoping. Shouldn’t get ahead of myself. I’ve got a few signed on—a few pirate clans, the triforians, one of the machine empire’s fleets, Lacanth’s rebel SPD forces, whatever former Confederate assets Coros can bring to the table, my dad’s fleet, etc etc. But it’s not anywhere close to where we want to be, especially considering what long-range scouts are picking up.

Oh, yeah. Turns out Sel’s tip off was legit. There’s definitely *something* in orbit of Erebus and it’s putting off one hell of spike in morphin’ energy. That and there’s a pretty big fleet guarding it. We’re still waiting on closer scans for confirmation but...yeah, you know, it figures. Of COURSE the bad guys build their super secret death station of armageddon in orbit around something ominous like a black hole. That’s like the volcano lair of the twenty-third century, right?

We’ve been working around the clock since we got back to the ship. Trok’s been performing last minute maintenance on the ship and our gear while Xolin and I have been sending out messages and communiques nonstop. And that’s when we’re not running drills in the simudeck. As for Nikki...well, she’s been busy with her own stuff. Searching Iota’s files for anything we can use.

Right now we’re in orbit around Rythar, a small world in the Yoguda system—it’s a small out of the way planet in neutral territory, which should make it a bit more appealing to all the delegates that are starting to arrive. Apparently it used to be an ocean planet, but the star’s just started to leave the main sequence and so all that’s left is just a planet-wide desert made of salt. It’s weird and alien and I’ve been to some really alien places.

God I hope this goes well. If it doesn’t, well...Nikki tells me the readings near Erebus are exponentially rising in intensity. If this doesn’t, I don’t think any of us will have to worry about it for much longer.

I guess that’s a cold comfort.

---

Another flash of light indicated the arrival of yet another ship in orbit. From his vantage point in the Megaship’s lounge Sid could barely make out the outline of an aquitian warship—sleek and organic, composed of silver, cyan, and aqua-marine. A fish in space.

It was the sixteenth ship that had appeared in the last hour. Butterflies fluttered in Sid’s stomach; he wasn’t normally one for nervousness, but this whole thing was a little beyond even his paygrade, and right now he really had nothing to do except wait.

God, he wished he could just get this over with. They were so close, *so* close, and yet everything was so fragile right now. Everything they’d worked for could fall apart at any time.

“...Aquitian?” Xolin ventured, squinting at the new ship as it moved towards the others already in orbit—from their vantage point they could sight the triforian flagship (a massive golden battle pyramid), a machine gearship, and a grey and blocky SPD battleship. Odd, he hadn’t noticed Xolin come in—must have been too wrapped up in his own thoughts.

“Probably Coros” Sid said in affirmation, both of them watching the starfield, “A karovian warship came in not too long ago; they’re beyond the planet horizon right now though”.

“How many you think are going to show up?” Xolin asked him.

Sid sighed in worry, “...Honestly? I don’t know. I’d like to think we’ve created some good will in the universe, and between that and the fact we blew the antipodes’ plans wide open, you would think it would raise at least a few heads...”

“...But...” Xolin continued for him.

Another sigh, “...But, the antipodes have done a pretty good job of wrecking anyone and everyone. The Confederacy’s gone, the Alliance is in the middle of dissolving, and everyone else is busy rattling sabers at each other. It would be hard enough to drag major military powers into this on a good day, but now…” he trailed off.

“You would think the threat of imminent death would rally people” Xolin grumbled.

“It’s always someone else’s problem” Sid replied with more than a hint of cynicism, “I just don’t know if we’ve got the clout to assemble a big enough fleet for this”.

Xolin rubbed her arm in distress, “What happens if we don’t?”

Sid kept his gaze on the ships, “...Then we take what allies we do have and give it our best shot. We’re doomed one way or another, might as well throw a hail mary”.

Xolin didn’t respond, clearly digesting the odds here. Just then, another ship warped in—alabaster and gold, with a gently curved yet aerodynamic shape.

An Eltarian battleship.

“...Man, that’s not a common sight” Sid mused, surprised.

“Maybe we have more allies than we think” Xolin added, “Think Lasandra’s on that?”

A grin spread across Sid’s face, “...Without a doubt”.

---

The shorthand definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. She’d been over Iota’s database multiple times and she knew she wouldn’t find anything new and yet...she couldn’t do anything except look again, in case she’d missed something.

She wasn’t missing anything.

There was no magic option here. No last minute save, no deus ex machina. You know, despite that Nikki was literally an AI.

All there was were hard, cruel numbers. Sacrifices would have to be made. Iota had spent years working on other options, other avenues of success, only to find none. His plans were a mixture of half-tested and half-inconclusive attempts.

Well, that wasn’t *entirely* true. Some of his projects had worked on a small scale it was just taking them to a macro-universe level were...iffy.

Nikki knew she was going to have to make some hard choices. And yet, she knew she’d probably already made them.

---

Rythar was a weird planet.

No, seriously weird. We’re talking ‘bizarre wind-blasted salt sculptures and arches’ weird. We’re talking ‘vast empty salt flats as far as the eye can see’ weird. It was like the closest one could be to a physical representation of limbo. Or a Dali painting.

This world had been chosen mostly by necessity. With so many factions and powers attending this ad-hock conference, they’d needed somewhere out of the way in neutral territory. Not only that, they’d needed someplace off the beaten path, where prying eyes couldn’t easily intercept them, somewhere where no one would ever think to look. And this planet, out in the wilds of one of the lone minor irregular galaxies on the edge of the supercluster fit the bill perfectly. It also had the added advantage of being difficult to scan from a distance; something about the high salt content interacting with the star’s steady decent into red giant-dom.

The Defender Megaship roared through the twilight blue skies of late evening, shooting towards its destination—an abandoned complex that had been here for millenia. Once upon a time it had been a trading station along a vast silk road-like trade route through the outer rim. Now it lay as a deralict, the civilizations that had utilized it no longer even political entities. Over the centuries it had occasionally been re-purposed as other things such as a listening post, a pirate hideout, a salt mining station, among others—each new inhabitant having had added to it, giving rise to its current haphazard jungle gym appearance. Now though, it was vacant, far too away for anyone to care much about it. The Megaship dropped to a stop over the main landing pad before descending onto the pad.

The station itself sat at the base of a mesa—the entrance to a vast canyon maze that extended for miles behind it. Ahead of it though, was flat empty wasteland. Shimmering white ground met with the blue sky at the horizon, forming a perfect flat line.

As the Megaship’s exit ramp extended, four people stepped out into the open air, each taking a moment to study their surroundings.

“...Last stop for gas, I take it” Sid quipped at the empty landscape.

Xolin looked at him quizzically, “...Didn’t we just reload the mega-accelerator’s cores?”

Sid briefly considered explaining the joke to her, then decided against it, “Ah, old Earth joke. Nevermind”.

Trok frowned, “I don’t get it”.

Nikki just rolled her eyes as she walked past them, “Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t funny anyway”.

“Thanks for the support, Waldorf” Sid replied cynically as they headed for the station entrance.

She teased back, “Keep throwing out obscure Earth references, I’m sure it’ll confuse and frighten our non-human friends”.

Xolin’s expression flattened in vague irritation, “...Actually, I think I just stopped caring”.

The door slid open, revealing inside to be just as ramshackle as the outside. It was also in a vague state of disrepair, with numerous wires and pipes sticking out, and control panels having been moved ‘temporarily’. The front room they found themselves in was small, but at the same time it was obvious it had once been an auxiliary cargo bay.

What an inspiring place to built an all-flags navy to save the universe.

“Boy howdy! If it ain’t the gang of the hour!” General Quickspur’s familiar drawl sounded as he approached them, “I trust y’all had a pleasant and unexciting trip here”.

Sid shrugged, “We’ve had worse. How you been?”

The group began moving further into the compound as Quickspur replied, “Folks’ve been trickling in at a steady pace. You kids’ve been makin’ waves”.

“You made it!”

The rangers turned just in time after entering the ‘main’ room of the first building (a work lounge of some sort with the far wall and half the ceiling being a window) to see Sitras and Tesas bounding over to them. A round of hugs were administered.

“We heard what happened!” Sitras said as she let go of Xolin, “You took down two of the Antipodes!”

“AND Isdilian!” Tesas added with vicious glee.

Trok’s face became pained as he looked away. Sid and Xolin’s expressions faltered.

“...Yeah, we did” Sid confirmed, “Izzy’s no longer a threat”.

Tesas gave him a good look, then nodded “...Good”. Again, mixed expressions filled the group. Izzy’s death was at this point only a couple of days old, and was still an extremely emotional issue. While Tesas and Sitras celebrated the end of the one who had murdered Anthren in cold blood, the others still mourned the loss of someone who had once been part of their family.

Xolin especially, considering.

“Well, well, well” said another familiar voice. Lasandra, arch-mage of Eltar, stepped forward with her staff, “Iota always did have a knack for finding the most dangerous things in the universe and letting them loose”.

Sid couldn’t help but grin at that, “Good to see you again too, Lasandra”.

The elder woman smirked, “Couldn’t keep out of trouble, could you? Just had to overturn the natural order”.

Sid shrugged, “Well you know, we were just thinking it was getting a bit stale, so we figured, why not knock over a few governments?”

The eltarian’s smile faltered into something more serious, “When achieving one’s goal, one should always be wary of unintended consequences. There’s a civil war on, Sid. By your actions”.

Sid knew of course she was talking about the fallout from his spilling of the Antipodes’ plans and the resultant dissolution of the Alliance and SPD. His eyes narrowed as he leaned in, “...We didn’t exactly have a choice. We needed to get the information out, and the second that became public, the Alliance was probably doomed anyway. We just traded one war for another”.

She gave him a stern glare, “Perhaps, perhaps not. All you know is the mess you have now. Careless, rash behavior is dangerous”. The elder eltaran stepped away gracefully, her glare parting from Sid’s as Trok broke from the reunion with Sitras and Tesas. Sid’s fist clenched in a bit of anger and frustration at the unfairness of it.

“...Everything alright?” he asked Sid.

Sid stared a bit longer as Lasandra struck up a conversation with an Edonite representative at the far end of the room, then turned to Trok, “...It’s nothing”.

Trok frowned, unconvinced, but let the matter drop.

“Ah, you’ve arrived. Good”. A familiar tusk-faced alien in an SPD admiral’s outfit approached the group, “Admiral Drake is waiting for you” he told Sid.

Sid glanced at the others. They gave him a nod of acknowledgment, and Sid broke from them, following Admiral Lacanth to his father.

“I’d like to thank you for being part of this” Sid told the admiral, “Considering everything, I wouldn’t blame you if you’d ran off and never appeared again”.

Admiral Lacanth looked back to Sid as they neared the door, “I am a patriot, Sid Drake. To what anymore, I am not entirely sure, but I have always done my best to follow the virtues the Alliance sought out to emulate. You saved my men, and I don’t forget actions like that”.

“So there’s no self-interest at play here?” Sid said with a wry smile.

The walrus-alien chuckled, “I didn’t say that”. He opened the door, gesturing Sid into a side room. As he stepped inside, Sid saw what he assumed had once been an office had been turned into a makeshift war room, complete with a holographic table map in the center. Star charts blinked by as Quickspur and what looked to Sid like a pirate-themed monster studied them. His father approached.

“What’s up?” Sid asked him.

His father handed him a datapad, “New intel. Our scouts have performed another, closer sweep. Figured you’d be interested in the results”

Sid took the pad and scrolled down, looking over the data. It was, in a word, alarming: at least three thousand warships were parked around a several-kilometer tall station—scans indicated they ranged from Troobian to SPD to various unaligned and pirate factions; likely the first and third were mercenaries, while the SPD fleet had to have been left over ships they’d held onto when SPD collapsed. Three thousand ships; that was not a small number, and right now Sid’s group didn’t even come close to matching that.

Worse however, was the increase in energy output from the station. “...The power coming off the station’s even higher than we thought” he said, worried.

His father nodded gravely, “We knew it was building at an exponential rate, but we still miscalculated”.

“How long?” Sid asked.

Lacanth spoke up, “At current projections? Less than seventy-two hours”.

Three days. Sid glanced back down at the pad. How could they assemble a fleet in three days, “...We don’t have time”. His words came from his mouth empty and hollow. Panic began to bubble up.

“Our fleets will be here within the day” his father told him, “We should still be able to strike within an acceptable timeframe”.

Sid looked at his father, tossing the pad on the table, “That only gives us a little over seven hundred ships. We can’t take them with just that”.

“Not if we’re going to be fighting a delaying action we’re not” the pirate monster said, “Arr. We pirates weren’t meant to play defensive battles. We’re like a glass cannon, we are”.

“If we’re gonna beat these varmints, we’re gonna need more onboard” said Quickspur.

Sid and his father glanced at each other, then back at the table, “Then we need to get on this. We ready?”

“A few of the delegates haven’t arrived yet” Lacanth warned, “But considering, I don’t think we can wait for them anymore”.

Clenching his fists on the table, Sid pushed himself away in resolution.

“Let’s do this”.

---

“...Are you okay?”

Nikki broke from her thousand-yard stare out the window at the sound of Xolin behind her. She turned, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just...thinking”. A few feet away, Trok, Tesas, and Sitras were having a blast with the latter two telling the former what they’d been up to while stationed on the joint Triforian-Machine fleet. Mostly stupid stuff.

Xolin didn’t buy Nikki’s answer. She folded her arms in concern, “About what?”

“Just...studying Iota’s files” she replied. For a moment, she thought about telling Xolin about the choice she was pretty sure she was making, but ultimately decided against it. Not now, at least—she kind of wanted to have this conversation with Sid first.

“Again?” Xolin pressured, “Still think you’ll find something?”

Nikki frowned, then shook her head in tired defeat , “Yeah, probably not”. Before Xolin could drag her back to the conversation though, she noticed Nikki suddenly form a smile on her lips, then nodded behind the triforian, “Looks like you have company though”.

Confused, Xolin turned about to see King Ihara of Triforia standing behind her, hands behind his back and a guard on either side of him, “Hello, Xolin”.

Taken off-guard by her king’s sudden appearance, Xolin couldn’t help but backtrack into a bit of formality, “Oh, your majesty!”

“Back to titles, are we?” he asked her with annoyed amusement.

Xolin blushed slightly; formality was definitely not a trait she was fond of, so this was a tad embarrassing. “Er...sorry. Caught me off-guard”.

Nikki gave a small laugh, then returned her gaze to the window as she again began mulling things over.

“...What can I do for you?” Xolin asked her king, regaining her footing.

The king silently dismissed his pair of armored guards. Without a word they backed off, retreating to a corner of the room as Ihara focused on Xolin, “Walk with me?”

Xolin acquiesced and the two stepped outside into the salty desert.

“...We really should have picked a better planet” Xolin mused idly as they were hit by the desert wind, “This place sucks”.

Ihara glanced over the empty horizon, then back at the impressive bluffs and arches behind them, “...Have you ever been to the Kydan Badlands?” he asked Xolin.

“On Triforia?” she asked, then hesitated, “...No, sorry. I haven’t actually been on the homeworld that much. I was a colony kid, remember?”

“Hmm” the king mused, “Kydan was once a sea in ancient times, before it dried up. Left a landscape much like this one. Most people avoid it, find it desolate”.

“You don’t?”

The king smirked, leaning over the railing on the launch platform as they stopped walking, “I’ve taken a trip or two to the region. There’s something...austere about it. Pure. It’s simplistic in its majesty, yet doesn’t hold back. Out here, in this expanse, you begin to understand just how little you are to the grand clockwork of the universe. Out here, alone, you are in limbo, with only your thoughts to distract you”.

“Huh. I didn’t think about it like that” Xolin admitted, “Still not my thing, but...”

“It’s the kind of thing that is underestimated” the king added, “Most people shun it because it’s only aesthetically pleasing with the right mindset, and yet there are virtues here that many will miss because they dismiss it”.

Wait. ...Was he talking about more than just the desert?

“...Ihara?” she asked him anxiously. She really didn’t want to have to deal with personal conversations right now. She had enough to deal with. Please, please, please please…

The king changed tracks, “...Tell me, where do you see yourself in the future? After all of this is done, of course”.

Goddamnit.

“...Excuse me?” Xolin asked him, both out of shock and confusion, and also as a way to buy time while she mulled this over.

“Your plans for the future” the king repeated, “Surely you don’t mean to do this for the rest of your life”.

It was true, she *didn’t* want to be doing this forever. She *didn’t* want to fight forever. And yet, that was all she was good at. Once upon a time she had been ‘content’ with that, but as of late…

“I...haven’t thought much about it” she lied. Better than saying ‘well I gave it some thought, but shit if I have a clue’. “Not many other places for me to be”.

“You mean like how there aren’t many uses for this planet?” he asked with a grin.

Damnit.

“...Combat is all I know” she said finally with a hint of bitterness, “Fighting. I’m not smart, I’m not really talented. I know how to break stuff in seven different ways” she sighed, “But I’m tired of it”.

“Then do something else”.

She gave him an odd look, “...What, wash windows?”

“Work for me” the king said, standing back up, “During your time on Triforia, you became one of my best agents in the field. And not just in combat. You sell yourself short; you knew your way around tactics and strategy, you demonstrated a competence with technical issues, and despite your claims to the contrary, you are quite intelligent—and moreso, clever. I gave you a free reign with your assignments because I knew you didn’t need careful direction. That makes you valuable”.

Xolin was flustered by the sudden influx of compliments, and wasn’t entirely sure how to take them. “I...I don’t mean...what would I even do?”

Ihara shrugged, “What do you want to do?”

She blinked, her mind frozen as the gravity of the situation descended on her, “I...don’t know”.

“I want you as an attache” the king said, finally getting to the point, “A diplomatic agent. Someone who can get things done both abroad and at home. An adviser I can bounce ideas off of. You’ve got a sharp tongue, a strong wit, and enough brains behind those fists to wield them. And” he smiled, “A heart”.

“I...” Xolin was floundering, “I’m not...I can’t be a diplomat! I don’t have training! I don’t have any experience!” This was all so sudden and in her face and she couldn’t think and she was panicking.

“We’ll train you” the king replied flippantly, “I am king, after all. I can make anything happen”.

“I...but I can’t...”

“I’m hearing a lot of ‘I can’t’s, but not a lot of ‘I want’s” the king said, “You make so many excuses for why you can’t do something”.

Xolin broke eye contact in shame, looking down and away, hunched over just slightly.

Somehow though, the king understood. He began to turn back to the door, “Think on it. Give it time to settle in your mind and get back to me” he stopped as he reached the door, “However, keep in mind this IS a personal request from the king” he said with a grin, “That’s not something that happens often”.

He left her, dumbstruck and in a swirl of emotions. Slowly, she slid down the side of the railing, plopping down on the floor, looking at nothing in particular as she contemplated her fate in life.

---

Trok was marveling at the constant influx of guests. He’d always wanted to go places and see new things, but why bother when you could have them all come to you instead?! Every corner of the local supercluster of galaxies was represented in some way or another and it was this vibrant cosmopolitan mix that could only ever be seen on this scale on a handful of trade worlds. Definitely not like Horath, and *definitely* not like his home-tribe. The underground cities had been a bit more of a mix, but again, nothing like this.

For a moment, Trok could even just get lost in this and almost forget that they were about to fly themselves into an apocalyptic war for the fate of the universe.

“...Trok, wasn’t it?” an old man’s voice asked from behind. Trok turned from his position being hunched over one of the old pieces of furniture that had been left behind here to see who had addressed him. It took a moment to recognize the older xybrian who stood in full robes and a staff before him, but before long a small smile crept over Trok’s features as he remembered.

“Oh, you were there on Xybria! Elder...um...” The name eluded him; Trok blushed.

“Elder Sesh” the man bowed slightly in introduction with a slight mirthful expression, “It is good to see you are well, even if we met only briefly. Sel told me much about you in our correspondence”.

Trok’s expression fell at the sound of Sel’s name, “...I’m sorry” he said, “She’s...not exactly with us right now”.

An expression of understanding crossed the old man’s face, “I know”.

“Right, of course you know” Trok babbled a little, “I mean, obviously you read through the info dump we leaked, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. That’s...that’s obvious”.

“I want you to know something, and I want you to tell the others on your team” Sesh said, stopping Trok’s word vomit. The horathian stopped and looked at him, curious. Sesh continued as he leaned closer, “She wants you to know; she’s still fighting. And she’s waiting”.

Trok’s eyes went wide, “...You talked with her!? How? When? Is she alright?!” he asked with exclaim.

Sesh mentioned for the horathean to calm himself, “We met in a dream, you could say. We only had a short time before she had to be somewhere else. She is not alright. She’s holding on for now, but the Antipodes’ process is taking its toll”.

“...She’s dying” Trok said plainly, connecting the dots. It was finally happening; her body was disintegrating as it burned up from the constant transfer of energy. Organic beings simply were not built to be conduits.

Sesh nodded sadly, “She will hold the line as long as she can, but she needs you”.

Trok looked out the window at the salty expanse, then back at Sesh, “...Thank you for telling us” he said earnestly, “And if you see her again, tell her we’re coming”. They *were* coming. They were going to save her. They were going to keep her from dying. And then, when they’d won they were all going to go home together.

This was what Trok told himself to keep from screaming.

“I believe” the old man said as he nodded towards the continued influx of new people, “That you will be able to tell her yourself”.

---

More delegates were filing in; the briefing was just about at hand. The area in orbit had apparently filled up with fleets from multiple factions—in hindsight it was actually kind of amazing no one had started shooting at one another.

New arrivals, Sid noted, had included most of the former confederate species—including the Karovians, the Tenga, the Horatheans, and the Edonites among others. Much to his surprise, another SPD splinter faction had sent a representative as well, and then there were numerous pirate clans under a semi-united banner (Nikki and B’rnix’s doing, of course). Most surprising though, was the group of three Senturions from the Intergalactic Police Force currently walking by into the war room of the base—one red, two blue.

“Huh” he remarked, “The League actually sent representatives”. They’d mostly stayed out of everyone’s affairs until now, and hadn’t so far responded to Sid’s invitations. Until now, at least.

“Unveil a threat big enough, and everyone will come running to see what all the trouble is about” his father replied. His expression darkened upon seeing a goat monster and a lizard monster making their way inside as well, however. “...You seriously invited the Imperium?”

Sid grimaced, perfectly understanding his father’s distress, “We needed troops. And like you said, this a threat to everyone”.

“You really think we can trust them?” he asked his son.

Sid shrugged, “Trust that they don’t want to die any more than we do”.

Admiral Drake gave Sid a concerned look, “...I sincerely hope you’re right about this”.

Sid sighed, nodding in agreement, “So do I”. If he was wrong, this could go south, and fast.

“It’s just about time” Nikki said, coming up to them, “Just about everyone’s here who’s going to be”.

“Ah! Nikki” Admiral Drake said, suddenly incredibly awkward considering the last time they’d ‘met’ he was burying an empty coffin, “You look...good. Healthy”.

She blinked, “...Admiral, I’m literally a projection of hard light”.

Ah, yes, that had been a stupid thing to say, “Yes, well, it’s...a healthy glow” he coughed and then turned to his son, “Are...you two still...”

Sid sighed, now entirely ready to drop dead forever, “...No, dad. We’re not, but thanks for asking”.

Another cough. The admiral was pretty sure now was the time to bow out, while he still had dignity, “...Right, well. I have...things to do. Admiral things. Goodbye”.

Sid stared in amusement at his father’s retreating figure, shaking his head, “You always were singularly good at making my father incredibly uncomfortable”.

She had a bemused expression, “Yeah, but now I can just do it by just...standing here. Doing nothing”.

“You’re like a hat trick”.

She smiled wanly, “...I’m pretty good with simulated fireworks too”. Both of them shared in a laugh.

Almost like old times.

“...You ready to do this?” she asked him.

Panic suddenly set in for Sid as he realized what was about to happen. He was a person who had fought countless battles against monsters, saved whole planets, fought a *war*, and had undone a universe-wide conspiracy. He was the leader of Peacekeeper Team Twelve...and yet, addressing the delegates and leaders of dozens of factions at once, in person, and briefing them on his battle strategy...this was above even him.

“...No, not really” he breathed worriedly.

She grasped his shoulder, “Come on, Sid. You’ve got this. How many times have your plans been what won us the day?”

“...And how many times have I screwed up?” he asked her earnestly, “If this doesn’t work…”

“If it doesn’t work, then we’ll go down fighting. Together. But it *will* work”. Nikki was resolute.

“How do you know?” he asked her.

She let go, “Because I believe in you. We all do. Because we’ve gotten this far already. Because I’ve seen the four of you work together, and it’s something special”.

Sid looked at her, then at the room that was beckoning. Steeling himself with a deep breath, Sid met Nikki’s gaze one last time. She gave him an emphatic nod, and then the two of them entered the makeshift war room.

She’d tell him later.

---

The room was darkened to allow for a more luminous holomap. The delegates had been seated around; Nikki noticed a few others she hadn’t seen earlier; a few insecta kings and queens and their attendant stingwingers were in the back row—so some of the Hives had shown up after all. A Troobian delegate—an electronics monster with an orangehead krybot as a bodyguard. A trio of Grey aliens, funny chrome suits and all. One or two varox groups. A hydro-contaminator(!). Really, just about every major group had at least one representative faction present here.

It was quite the motley crew; many of these powers, like the former Confederate worlds, were rebel groups or provisional governments that hadn’t yet had time to settle after SPD withdrew. Others, like the various SPD fleets in attendance, were parts of various post-Alliance schism factions. And that was to say nothing of the various Hives and Pirate clans. The Antipodes had done a serious number on this corner of the universe.

...Oh, speaking of motley crews.

“Arr, if it isn’t my favorite hacker! We’ve been lookin’ for you!” Yorhor said, plopping down next to her. B’rnix took the other seat.

“You’re looking much better than the last time I saw you” B’rnix said, “What’s your secret? New haircut? Lose weight?”

She blinked in bemusement, never sure if he was kidding or not, “...B’rnix, I’m made of photons. I can’t lose weight”.

“Psh, well not with that attitude you’re not!” the varox chastised her before leaning in with a hushed voice, “You know, I know this bookala, thin as a twig, who says she eats nothing but carrots and liarian cabbage. See, the cabbage has magical properties and--”

“B’rnix” Nikki warned, “Really. I’m fine”.

The varox shrugged and leaned back, “I’m just saying, it sounds like an easy way to shed some pounds”.

“I’m literally comprised of free-flying light particles!” she exclaimed, “My mobile emitter weighs maybe a quarter of a pound at most!”

“Ah, but it could be an eighth of a pound in just six weeks!”

She resisted the urge to scream.

---

“Welcome!” Admiral Drake called to the room from his position in front of the holomap, “Apologies for the cramped conditions. We all know why we’re here”. The admiral brought up several holo-images; profiles of the Antipodes, as well as a timeline of recent events, “The imminent threat caused by the so-called ‘Antipodes’”.

“...I made the slides myself” Trok whispered from his seat, grinning at the stingwinger sitting next to him. It seemed to regard him for a moment, then went back to cleaning itself. Trok coughed awkwardly and resumed watching the briefing.

The admiral continued, “We’ve traced their base of operations to Erebus—a black hole in the Argolis galaxy. Since then we’ve been maintaining constant sensor sweeps of the area, the results of which have already been forwarded to your databases”. A number of delegates accessed the data as the admiral continued, “As you can see, energy output from the Antipodes’ base has been growing exponentially for the last thirty-six hours. At current growth rates, we expect them to initiate a singularity event in less than seventy-two, once their energy output matches that of the rest of the universe. At that point, we anticipate the paradox will allow them to begin xenoforming our universe”.

Admiral Lacanth stepped up, allowing the delegates to digest this, then pressed the point home, “That means we have less than three days to put an end to this, or we all die. I realize that is not a lot of time; this is why we all must work together. Most of us are not allies; many of us have either been on opposite sides of war recently or are right this moment. Nevertheless, I implore you—we must put our differences aside for the moment to deal with this very real existential threat”.

Murmurs went up among the delegates. Convinced their attention had been gripped, Admiral Drake grabbed the reigns again, “We do have a battle plan ready. To facilitate that, here is my son, Sid Drake, red ranger and leader of Peacekeeper Team Twelve—the very team responsible for bringing us all here today. Sid?” the admiral gave the younger Drake the floor, standing aside as Sid stepped up in front of the map.

This was it. Sid exhaled, mentally prepping himself. It had all come down to this.

Clearing his throat, Sid began as he brought up several new screens on the holo-map; detailed maps of the Erebus system, its location, and its composition. Then there was another zoom in of the base itself, and the fleet surrounding it.

“This is what we’ve dubbed ‘Erebus Base’, the home station of the Antipodes. Our scans have indicated it is several kilometers in height, orbiting several AU from its parent black hole, and is heavily armed and armored, on par with a Karovian or Machine command base. In addition, it’s surrounded by at least three thousand warships, ranging from leftover SPD ships as well as Troobian and pirate fleets—likely crewed by krybots, mercenaries, or some mixture of the above”.

A few gasps went up at the size of the number of ships—and a few glares went out towards the Troobian delegation.

“I’m not here to point fingers” Sid said, trying to grab hold of the situation before it spiraled out, “I just want you all to be aware of what we’d be going up against”. He typed in a few commands as new graphics appeared on the map; a simulation was unfolding as Sid’s fleet moved into the system.

“The plan is simple; the fleet moves in and challenges the Antipode defense fleet. Our fleets will break into segments and attack different parts of their line to disrupt them and keep them off balance. Due to the size discrepancy between our forces, I advise hit-and-run strikes rather than knife-fighting. The goal is to pull them back from the base and break their line into pieces. From there we will envelope them and keep them contained and isolated”.

More murmurs is discontent began to surface. Sid ignored them, “While this is happening, our ground contingents will make for the base itself, landing here” two icons appeared on the base’s schematics, “and here. These are what we assume to be the base’s primary hanger bays. From there, our forces will begin taking vital parts of the station, including the bridge, the power station, and various tactical choke points. With luck, we should be able to shut the whole thing down”.

A beat.

The Karovian representative was the first to speak up, “...You’re talking about tactical seizure”.

“Correct” Sid replied.

“...How can you just assume that?” the karovian, a middle aged woman, asked, “The only thing you know about this station is its location and general exterior layout. We have no idea what’s inside, how it’s organized, or what we need to take and hold”.

Sid had anticipated this question, “Once we’ve landed and secured the hanger bays, my team will hack in and obtain blueprints of the station. Failing that, we’ll initiate a detailed local scan and work from there. I know it’s sort of haphazard, but we simply do not have time to scout out before and tip our hand”.

“Why not simply blow up the station?” asked a fernovian, one of the members of the SPD 9th fleet delegation, “Why bother with landing troops at all? We have a smaller fleet and we do not know the terrain—we cannot afford to protract the engagement”.

At this, Nikki stood up and spoke, “The problem with that is the energy output of the station. They’re using Morphing Grid conduits to channel this universe’s own underlying energy against it. If we blow it up without shutting it down first, the results could be catastrophic”.

“Such as?” asked King Ihara.

“Best case scenario if something goes wrong?” Nikki asked, “Local space-time collapses; ceases to exist, kind of like a miniature Big Crunch. We could easily get sucked up into that. Worst case? A false vacuum metastability incident...and then everyone dies. Ever. We need to go in and take it apart manually”.

The snake monster from the Vile Imperium delegation slithered, “...You exxxpect ussss to believe that? Our own sssspecialissstsss have assured that the chancessss of ssssomething like that to be lesssss than ten perccccent”.

The fernovian added, “Our specialists have assured the same thing, as long as we strike before they reach their peak. Which is why it’s paramount we do this as quickly as we can”.

Crap. Things were starting to fray.

Sid jumped back in, “Assuming our forces are enough to blow the station up in time, do you really want to gamble with ten percent? That’s still a one in ten chance we screw everything up for everyone”.

“You’re so quick to jump on the risks” the fernovian said, “But the truth is, there’s something on the station you want, isn’t there? That is, someone”.

Crap.

“The girl” the red senturion stated, “The xybrian conduit. You want to risk all our lives for one person”.

“That’s not true” Sid relied, trying his best to keep his cool, “This is the best course of action with the lowest risk!”

“Lowest risk, hah!” a horathean said cynically, “You want us to fight a holding defense in an offensive battle where we’re already the smaller party. You want us to actually attempt to double-envelope a superior force! This is strategic suicide; the casualties would be immense!”

The murmurs were becoming grumbling. No one had walked out yet because everyone knew this was an imminent existential threat, but it was clear Sid was beginning to lose the room. From where they were sitting, Trok and Xolin shifted uncomfortably in their seats as the crowd began to turn. Nikki looked helplessly on. Sid grimaced; in truth, the ten percent argument was all he had. Morally, ethically...he couldn’t deny their arguments. He couldn’t defend his plan to save one person over thousands.

“If you want to save your friend, you should do so yourself!” the edonite representative howled, “Do not use us as a blunt instrument! We shall attack, and you are free to infiltrate and risk death as we tear the station apart!”

Murmurs of approval.

The goat-monster stood up, “A perfect idea! We have a useable fleet; we just need a suitable commander! One who isn’t suffering from such a...” he grinned cruelly as he stared Sid down, “...Conflict of interest”.

Sid wanted nothing more than to morph, right here and right now and bring his full fury to bare on the smug goat-beast. His father had been right; he never should have invited the Imperium. He was about to lose his only chance at saving Sel…and there was nothing he could do about it. Worse...on some level, he knew the goat was right.

Goat monsters. Why was it always goat monsters?

---

“How are we?”

Epsilon jumped slightly at her work station, not having been expecting anyone else. The station was so quiet now with just two people and a bunch of robots. Well, three technically, but the conduit didn’t really have much to say these days. She turned; Alpha stood there, expecting a report.

“We’re at sixty percent” she said.

His tone was impatient, “That low? What’s the holdup?”

Epsilon wheeled back around to her station and opened up a few holoscreens of data with an irritable sigh, “A couple things, actually. For one, I’m trying to do this right. Rush it, and our already delicate probably-doomed-to-fail bid is just going collapse out from under us”.

“And the other reason?” he asked, still just as impatient.

Epsilon paused, looking over at the prototype pod she’d left Sel in. It was the prototype because after the xybrian’s little romp a few weeks earlier, this was all they had left. “...She’s fighting us”.

Alpha glanced in Sel’s direction; not that he could see her inside the pod, “...Fighting?”

The orange antipode shrugged, “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but she’s somehow slowing down our progress. She can’t stop the flow completely, but she’s definitely doing a number on our progress”.

Alpha grumbled, “...Even now she vexes us” he turned back to his subordinate, “We need this as fast as possible, Epsilon. Our scouts have confirmed the rangers’s scouts have locked onto our position. It won’t be long before they come for us”.

Epsilon skipped a breath; well, that was damning news. “I...I’ll do what I can” she said, not sure there *was* anything else she could do.

“See that you do” Alpha replied, before briskly walking out, already storming to his next location. Epsilon took one last look at the pod, then returned to her duties.

---

The ordeal with Beta and Delta had worn her out and broken her concentration, so Sel had retreated from the battlefield. And now, with the sudden ongoing surge of grid energy through her into the Antipode base, she was unable to do much at all except maybe stem the tide. So here she was, in abject pain, her body dissolving as it burned up as she tried to make herself less of a conduit and more of a dam—which was likely only speeding up her issue.

She had to hold on. She’d given the others the location they needed to get here. Now she just had to hold on until they did—she was literally the only thing standing between this universe and total armageddon.

But she was stretched to her limits, and she didn’t know how much longer she had.

---

The conference was now in an uproar. The goat’s words had spurred on the last crack needed in the dam to cause the roiling emotions and politicking to burst through. Sid was now no more than a passive player as the drama unfolded.

“It is obvious clear leadership is required” said the red senturion, “With the Alliance and the Confederacy fallen, the Intergalactic League of Worlds nominates itself to take direction of the situation”.

“Filthy upstarts!” the goat exclaimed as he stood up, “The role of leader is Master Vile’s alone! He is the true sovereign of the universe, the true lord and master! You should bow to him!”

Quickspur scoffed under his breath, “...True sovereign my boot. I’m sure my king would have a few things to say about that!”

“Sit down, child” Lasandra grumbled at the goat monster, “No one here will ever be willing to follow your master” she turned to the delegation, “Stewardship of the universe falls to the eldest, as it always has. We Eltarians helped bring you up, brought the light of civilization after the Morphin’ Masters vanished. We shall again lead here, as we always have”.

Incredulity broke out among the other delegates, “Stewardship?” Yorhor laughed, “Arr, what fool thing is that?”

Admiral Lacanth jumped in, “If you were our stewards, then where has Eltar been the last several thousand years?”

“Evil empires gobbling up innocent worlds, massive civil wars with no end in sight. And you sit on your hands in your ivory towers and do nothing” said a tenga familiar to the rangers—it was Delarn, the red ranger who had been escorting refugees!

“...Who are we to get involved in your petty feuds?” Lasandra bit back, “Who would you be if we solved every problem for you?”

“I think we’ve heard enough of Eltarian elitism for one day” said the Karovian delegate sneered.

The other rangers had removed themselves from their seats and had rallied around the silent Sid in front.

“...What are you doing?!” Nikki demanded to know, “This is falling apart!”

Sid glanced ahead, then back at her, “What am I supposed to do? They’re right; I can’t ask them to sacrifice themselves just for one person they don’t know. That’s not how this works”.

“...But, Sel!” Trok tried to counter. He looked at the others, each in turn, helplessly. Nikki stared at Sid, then back at the arguing crowd, unable to come up with a counter herself. What was one person for an entire universe?

That wasn’t good enough for Xolin. Her fists clenched in fury at the squabbling mass. Of all the ungrateful…

“ENOUGH!” she roared at the top of her lungs as she took the center stage, “HEY! I SAID *ENOUGH*!”

The arguing ceased. One by one, they turned their attention on the font of rage in front of them. Right now she wasn’t worried about the future, or Ihara’s offer, or her own self-inadequacies. Right now she was simply Xolin, and she was *angry*.

“This is how it is, huh?” she said, her voice back at a normal volume, but not anywhere near calm, “How many times? How many times have we bailed your sorry asses out and asked for nothing in return? How many times did *she* save your sorry asses, and asked for nothing in return? All Sel ever wanted to be was a person, but all any of you ever saw her as was a weapon” she glared at Coros, “And now that she’s no longer of any use, she doesn’t matter. How dare you”.

“One girl is not worth thousands of our men and women” the karovian stated plainly, “It is simply not acceptable. What about their their lives? Their families? Do they not deserve it just as much?”

“You came here of your own volition” Sid said, backing Xolin up, “Your crews knew what they were signing up for when they entered your service!”

“So they should die needlessly?!” the edonite demanded to know.

“We never asked for a single trinity-damned thing” Xolin said angrily, “We did our job, we went *beyond* our job! We could have laid down and died after the fleet was destroyed, but we didn’t! And after everything, after *everything*, this is all we get? We should have so many favors to cash in, but you can’t even give us one simple thing?” She stared out at the assembled crowd, shaking her head in disbelief, tears threatening to form at the betrayal. Even after everything, they were just tools.

There was no help to be had here.

“You know what?” Sid said calmly, putting a hand on her shoulder. She turned to him, “Forget it. We’ll do it ourselves, like we always have”. Xolin took comfort in Sid’s confident expression, then gave one last withering glance at the crowd before the four rangers began to leave. Trok was the last; giving the crowd a look of utter disappointment before following behind. None of them had any illusions about what they were doing, and none of them really cared.

But before they got more than six steps, Admiral Lacanth stood up and spoke.

“You found my men and I trapped on a planetoid filled with hostile zords. You could have left; as we were enemy combatants it would have been well within your rights. You could have destroyed the energy dampener keeping us there and took off as everything self-destructed. But you didn’t; you fought alongside us as we evacuated to the last man. You didn’t take off, despite fighting an animarium god until we had gotten every single person off that god forsaken rock. We owe you a debt” he turned, making sure the delegation was paying attention, “I can’t speak for anyone else, but among my people at least, honor still counts for something. Whatever else happens, we will follow you”.

General Quickspur was next to stand up, “When y’all first came to town, we’d been hacked and dun’ turned into puppets for that no-good Capricorn fellow to be used against you. You’d been well in your right to take us out right then and there, but you didn’t. You kept us at bay until you could reverse the process. I won’t forget that, and neither will the Machine Empire. We stand with you lot”.

King Ihara stood, “You came to Triforia in our hour of greatest need. You fought with us, fought for us. You protected my daughter; trained her into the capable young woman she is becoming” he nodded towards Quickspur, “You kickstarted an alliance between unlikely parties. You have done many things others would have considered impossible. Triforia stands with you”.

Delarn stood, “Hundreds of tenga live because of your actions. The Colonies stand with you!”

“Mirinoi stands!” Admiral Drake proclaimed, from behind the rangers, his hands clasped behind his back. That was it; the tipping point.

“Aquitar stands!” Coros declared, standing up.

More people began to get up, more rapidly now.

“The Pirate Consortium stands!” Yorhor declared, “All fourteen clans!”

“Xybria stands!” Elder Sesh stated.

“Edenoi stands!”

“Horath stands!”

“The Xylith Hive stands!” one of the insecta lords declared.

“As does the Ikiyi Hive!”

The lead Gray alien stood, vocalizing its support in clicks.

Reluctant, the Karovian delegate stood anyway as they knew they’d lost this debate, “KO-35 and its colonies stand!”

A few minor powers—a couple of minor Pirhanatron tribes, a few Varox warbands, Liaria, Bookala, one of the Space Ninja Academies, they all stood. Some of the former Alliance worlds who had formally declared independence recently stood as well.

Not everyone did though. Numerous minor powers; hives, clans, other minor states, remained seated. The Troobian Empire didn’t budge either, nor did the Intergalactic League of Worlds. The Vile Imperium delegation straight up left in disgust. But regardless, the tide had turned; more and more stood to declare their allegiance to the four young men and women standing around the holo-map, awestruck at the sudden up-swell of approval. It was almost unreal; after so long of working alone or off-the-radar, with little to no support…

When they’d first been recruited, they had been the Confederacy’s deniable asset. As far as anyone was concerned, they didn’t exist. There was no recognition for their work, no pat on the back. And then the war had happened and they’d been revealed to everyone, but instead of adulation they’d been met with scorn and distrust—the member worlds of the Confederacy still distrusted superheroes, even as they were fighting and dying for them.

And then when everything had fallen apart, for the past few weeks and months, the rangers had been effectively on their own, trapped in eternally hostile territory and in hiding. And yet, here, now, they had what they hadn’t even known they’d needed. Respect; encouragement, acknowledgment.

A fleet. They had a fleet. They had a fleet, and they were going to use it.

Lasandra, at last, stood—even if reluctantly—in support of the rangers. Eltar stood. She gave Sid a worried and dissatisfied stare however. He returned with one of his own—this one defiant and resolute.

---

“A little under two thousand ships”.

They’d returned to the Megaship after the meeting had concluded. Now they waited in the ship’s war room for the fleets to assemble. Sid turned his head to Nikki, who had spoken. She added, “That’s how many have been pledged and will be arriving within the next day”.

“...That’s more than we’d initially hoped” Xolin said.

Sid frowned, “It’s still two to three odds. Not encouraging for an offensive operation”.

“You think we can do it?” Nikki asked him.

“You’re the computer” he replied, “You tell me”.

“And you’re the field commander” she replied wryly, “I can only calculate risk and percentages. I can’t give you numbers for luck and sharp decision making skills”.

Xolin sat up in her seat, eying the other two cautiously, “...I’m not sure I like that you two have gotten so friendly suddenly”.

“...Problem?” Sid asked with a laugh, “Didn’t know you were the hall monitor on friendships”.

“It’s creepy. Stop it” Xolin ordered.

“Yes mam” Sid said with a fake salute.

The conversation ended there, as Trok entered the room with what looked to be a rifle, “Behold my newest invention!” he declared enthusiastically as he placed the object on the table.

“...It better fire laser sharks, or I riot” Sid joked.

“...This is a bit less grandiose than some of the other projects” Nikki told him as Sid picked up the gun and looked it over. Xolin and Nikki grouped around him to get a better view.

Trok gave a goofy grin, “Only to the untrained eye!” he said, “It actually took a lot of under-the-hood work on our morpher systems”.

“...This thing?” Xolin asked incredulously, “What was so difficult about it?”

Trok plopped down in a chair and put his feet up, his hands behind his head as he basked in his own technological superiority, “Building new hardware and plugging it into our power set is one thing, but this? This is part of our base coding that I had to reconstruct”.

As if on cue, Sid split the rifle in two—quickly realizing that the two parts were actually their sidearm blasters, “...Oh”.

“Yep, I added a new secondary sidearm to our suits!” Trok beamed, “Took some real work too. And, obviously, they combine into an assault rifle. I figured we’d need something heavier than our dinky little blasters when assaulting the enemy base. Oh, also!” he gestured Sid to hand over the guns. He did so, and Trok switched both weapons to sword mode before connecting them at their base, creating a makeshift lance, “Not the most practical, but I had a bit of extra time”.

Trok handed the weapon back and Sid looked it over in approval, “More than you think. And we’ll need every advantage we can get”.

“You added this to all our suits?” Xolin asked as she took the weapon and began reassembling it into rifle mode.

Trok nodded enthusiastically, “All five suits are ready to go”.

Five. The three rangers glanced at Trok as he produced a new yellow morpher and placed it on the table. His expression sobered, “...The old one’s likely gone, so I cut its connection to the ship’s power core and built a replacement from the blueprints. I figured...she’ll want it when we find her”.

The four rangers didn’t take their eyes off the device.

Sid was the first to speak, “...I’m sure she will”.

---

“How did you do it?”

Sel perked up at Epsilon’s voice over the comm in her pod, “...Do what?” she asked, her voice strained and weakened as she was kept upright only by the braces that had her locked in.

Epsilon’s voice replied, sounding somewhat distraught and irritated—definitely someone who had been working for far too long with far too little rest, “Before she was...reassigned” a pause as she tried to come up with a euphemism for the murder of her old friend, “Beta said you had been there, fighting her and Delta with the other rangers. So I did some digging, watched the footage”.

Ah. So that’s what this was about.

“Ghostly after-images on tape. Movements in the fight that don’t make sense, as if someone parried or blocked. And intense Morphing Grid radiation over the whole area. So how did you do it?”

Sel managed a small laugh, enjoying the discomfort she was giving the orange antipode, “It sucks when things get out of your control, don’t they?”

Epsilon bit back, “Don’t you dare mock me! Tell me or I swear to whatever god you believe in, I will make you suffer”.

...Suffer? Sel actually belted out a snort at that; she was literally disintegrating slowly and agonizingly as the entire Morphing Grid was funneled through her. What more could anyone do to her? “...You want to know how?” she labored to say with heavy, pained breaths, “...You built me to be a god. Did you really think I wouldn’t be able to do whatever the hell I wanted?”

“Wrong answer”.

Even more pain flooded through Sel’s body; the amount of energy being siphoned was increasing.

“...Not concerned with me falling apart before it’s all done anymore?” Sel asked.

Epsilon replied with an even tone, laced with contempt, “You’re falling apart regardless, and we’re out of time. What I need now is power, not stamina. I can’t imagine anyone astral projecting themselves or whatever out of that now, even you, with that amount of pain. And I can’t have you resisting and holding back power anymore like you have been. It’s lose-lose”.

Wait, what? “...Time?” Sel asked as the gears in her head started turning, “What’s changed?” No one replied, and even through the pain Sel genuinely smiled, “...They’re coming, aren’t they? That’s what’s happening. You’re scared”. Her message had gotten through.

The lack of response was all the answer she needed. And despite the fact that was what was left of her body was jolting and seizuring in abject pain, she gritted her teeth and held on.

–-

The sky was full of ships. Another three flying saucer-like vessels had warped in, quickly joining their companions within the rapidly-growing All Flags Navy, as they’d come to call it. Sid watched from the Megaship’s lounge as his armada assembled itself; Triforian battle-pyramids, utilitarian Terran warships, fish-like Aquitian cutters, the rust-colored Machine gearships...it was a sight he wasn’t accustomed to seeing.

“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?”

Nikki walked up behind the couch he was sitting on; he hadn’t even heard her come in. “Yeah” Sid said, “It’s crazy this is happening” he let loose a slightly hysterical chuckle, “...I’m doing everything I can to keep from losing it”.

“...You and me both”. She wrapped her legs over the couch, plopping down beside him. Sid could tell from her expression in a heartbeat she wasn’t here to just idly chat; she had something on her mind.

“Okay, what’s up?” he asked, sitting up.

She exhaled; not something she had to do mind you since she was made of light and didn’t breath, but it was a natural human reaction she had subconsciously held on to, “...I wanted to talk to you, actually. About something important”.

Sid remained silent as he waited for her to continue, “...I’ve been going through Iota’s files. Again” she punctuated with slight embarrassment.

“...Was the eightieth time the charm?” Sid mused in good humor.

Nikki glared at time, “...It was only twenty-four. And no. Not...exactly. I guess what I needed was to stop looking for new options and work with the ones I already had”.

Okay, now Sid was curious; and a little worried, “...What options?”

Another sigh, “Okay so...you read the files, right? The ones you leaked?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Right, so you know about Iota’s attempt, back when when he was still with the Antipodes, to try and contain the false vacuum event in their own universe by shunting it out into a pocket universe”.

Sid shrugged, “Yeah, didn’t work. By the time they were ready and could pull it off, the shockwave had already gotten too big”.

“Right. Iota spent so much time trying to fix it, trying to find other options. He was *convinced* that pocket universes were the answer. But Alpha and the others shut him down so they could focus on trans-dimensional colonization”.

“...What are you getting at?” Sid asked her.

This was it; “If we can’t beat the Trolley Dilemma outright, what if...what if we lessened it?” she looked at Sid, “What if we shunted wide swaths of what’s left of their universe into pocket dimensions? We couldn’t save everyone or even most of everyone; there’s just not enough time or resources. But we could save pockets, and...and that’s better than nothing”.

Huh. That...wasn’t entirely a bad idea...though, they’d need infrastructure to pull this off. It was kind of academic. Sid mulled it over thoughtfully, but he still had reservations, “...I mean...it could work but, I don’t know. This whole thing started because they wanted to avoid the heat death of their universe, and now you want to trap them in pockets with even less resources?”

“...It’s not a permanent solution, no” Nikki admitted hesitantly; she’d thought a lot about the pros and cons, “But it’ll give them a few generations at least to work out a better solution. It’s more time than they would have had. I can take the time to find a suitable universe they can colonize”.

“...You?” Sid asked, referring to her slip of the tongue.

She looked down, “...I was made for a reason, Sid. Iota wanted me to be his solution. I’m data; I can move between universes unhindered by physical laws”.

Sid frowned, “So in the end we’re all just his puppets anyway”.

She shook her head, “No, not like that. I just...this is the right thing to do. You know it is. It doesn’t matter what he wanted; I’d do this anyway”. A pause, then a continue, “...And yeah, it sucks the old bastard got what he wanted all along. But...I don’t think spite is a good enough reason to withhold help. Not anymore, anyway”. She smirked mirthlessly, “I think Trok might have rubbed off on me”.

“...Or you simply found a bit of your old self again” Sid said, “The Nikki I knew would have said the same thing”. When her expression became downcast, he retreated, “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that”.

“No, I know. I just...” she bit her lip, thinking her words over, “...I don’t know who I am. I don’t know if I’m Nikki, or the station AI, or some mix in between. But...I do know who I want to be, and that’s someone who can look herself in the mirror”.

Another group of ships arrived outside the window; a pair of Karovian cruisers—heavy like the utilitarian Terran fleet, but more aerodynamic—warped in, approaching their designated position.

“You’re not coming back” Sid said, not looking at her, instead keeping his attention on the fleet, “Are you?”

“The project would take years. Centuries, maybe” she confirmed, “And there’s no telling that I’d be able to come back anyway” she paused, trying to read his face, “...You’re angry”.

Sid looked down, shaking his head, “No. Just...” his mind was swimming at the sudden revelation. He was trying to understand it, “...Concerned, I guess. Are you sure that’s what you want? To be trapped in an alien universe forever? Because Iota wanted it?”

A painful silence was broken by Nikki’s response, her voice sounding as if on the edge of tears, “...I’m not her, Sid. I can never be her. Things can never go back to the way you remember. And all of this...everything, all of it, all it does is remind me of that. I need to go away, I need to figure myself out, and I can’t do it if I’m surrounded by her memories”.

Sid finally laid his gaze on her, “...Do it” he said at last. She was right; things could never go back to the way they were, no matter how much they fooled themselves. No matter how much he’d fooled himself.

She looked back down at the ground, “...Thank you. I’m sorry”.

“You have nothing to be sorry about” Sid replied, both of them again watching the window as an Eltarian warship warped in. He blinked away tears, “...Are you going to tell the others?”

“I should” Nikki reluctantly agreed, “I just...haven’t found a good time”.

“You should” Sid pressed her, “They wouldn’t forgive you if you leave them hanging”.

“I know, thanks dad” Nikki complained in good humor. The two shared a look, and then a laugh—even if it was simply to keep from crying.

“...You spent too much time with Matt” Sid said.

She scoffed, “Me? Who was the one that helped Matt set up that prank with the pigs and the crisco?”

Sid laughed, “Oh man, my dad was pissed, but it was so worth it. Hey, remember that time we covered Akire in feathers and turned him into a parade float?”

Nikki snorted at the comedic memory of the rock golem standing there waving, “...He was such a good sport about that. Then again, he was a really good sport about just about anything. Sarah wasn’t amused though”.

“Sarah was always too military for her own good” Sid said, “Probably why Matt was always trying to make her laugh”.

The two talked, reminiscing about old times for really the first time since she’d come back. At some point, the alcohol store had been broken into and toasts by mildly inebriated people (well, one was inebriated. The other simply turned off one of her processors to simulate the effects) were being made. Things could never be how they had been, but for now at least, maybe they could be celebrated.

Even if this was goodbye.

After a short while, Trok and Xolin entered the room.

“You guys started the party without us?!” Xolin exclaimed in mild irritation, before claiming a drink herself.

Trok came in with what looked like a bunch of board games, “Hey guys, I brought---aaaand everyone’s already drunk. Okay”. Sighing, he dropped the games off on the table and took a seat in an empty chair. Outside, a bronze Triforian battle pyramid warped in with its attendant cruisers. “...So this is it then” he said, a bit in awe.

“...This is it” Sid agreed.

Three Tenga ships warped in. Sid gave Nikki a nudge. She groaned, but relented.

“Look, you guys. I have something I need to tell you”.

Xolin and Trok looked at her expectantly, “Look I...” she faltered, “After this is done, I’m going to be gone a while” she paused, “...A *long* while”.

“Like, ‘possibly forever’ long” Sid added.

“...What?” Xolin asked, confused, “Why?” She’d become unexpectedly close to Nikki over the last few weeks; she hadn’t been prepared to suddenly say goodbye.

“The other universe, where the Antipodes came from” Nikki said, “They’re in trouble, and Iota gave me the means to help them. He left me with his work, and I think...I think I can help them”.

“Then we should all go!” Trok said in earnest, “We’ll save both universes!”

Nikki shook her head, but with a grin, “It doesn’t work like that. It’s an antimatter universe, remember? I can’t ask you to trap yourself forever in a hostile environment like that. Besides, I need...I just need to work out a lot of issues. Alone” she glanced at Xolin knowingly, “It’s nothing personal”.

Saddened, Xolin nodded, “I get it. It’s sad to see you go though”.

“You’re sure we’ll never see you again?” Trok asked, worried.

Nikki shrugged helplessly, “I mean...”

Sid stepped in, “She can’t say for sure, Trok. But it’s a definite possibility”.

Hit with this news, Trok could do little but reach over and give Nikki a hug. She chuckled and returned it, even if strictly speaking, she couldn’t feel it.

“I know we got off on the wrong foot” she told the horathean as they let go, “But you’re a damn fine ranger. I’m sure you’ll do the Peacekeepers proud after this is over”.

At that, it was Trok’s turn to get hesitant, “Actually...I was thinking about taking...a break, maybe”.

“...Oh?” Xolin asked. This was the first she’d heard of this.

Trok fidgeted with his hands, “I uh...”

“It’s okay dude” Sid said calmly, “We’re not judging”.

Trok rambled a bit, “...It’s just, after everything that’s happened, I’m tired. I signed up to see places, to have adventures and help people. And, I mean, I wouldn’t trade this for anything but...there’s so much going on. So much suffering due to the wars and...the horror. And I just...I want to help people. I want to try to undo a little bit of the damage we’ve helped create. And I want to do it without having to worry about world-ending conspiracies and being manipulated like a pawn and watching my friends suffer and die”.

“...I hear that” Sid grumbled quietly, taking a drink.

“...You’re okay with this?” Trok asked him, “I don’t want to break the team up, but with me and Nikki both leaving...”

Sid gave him a laugh, “You have to do you, Trok. Besides, I don’t think there’s going to be much of a team when this is over anyway” he looked Xolin directly in the eyes, “Isn’t that right?”

Xolin’s expression shifted from surprise to flattened, “...He told you”.

Sid shrugged, taking another drink, “Of course he told me. I’m your commanding officer. He didn’t want to accidentally pull the rug out from under me. So” he asked her, “You going to take up his offer?”

Xolin frowned, looking away, “I...haven’t decided”.

“What offer” Trok asked curiously.

Sid eagerly pointed his bottle at the slightly blushing triforian, “Miss ‘I’m useless’ got handpicked by her king as an adviser or diplomat or whatever”.

“...That’s awesome!” Trok exclaimed, giving her a hug from behind, “Congratulations!”

“I haven’t even accepted yet!” she exclaimed, pulling away from Trok’s tight grip. It was clear she was very embarrassed about this, even as she would have denied it if asked.

“But you totally should” Sid told her knowingly, “I’ll say this for Ihara; he knows what he wants”.

“I dont--” she fumbled, “It’s a big change. I still haven’t processed it”.

“You going to disappoint your king?” Sid asked her innocently.

“...No!” she exclaimed, “That’s not fair!”

“Life’s not fair, princess” Sid teased her with a smile.

“You’re an asshole”.

“Duly noted” Sid replied, “You should still accept though”.

“...What about you?” Xolin asked, deflecting the conversation, “Are you going to be okay, leading the Peacekeepers all alone?”

Sid’s smile faded as he took a drink, “...Peacekeepers won’t be a thing, I don’t think”.

“...Wait, why not?” Trok asked. So many revelations!

“It’s pretty obvious” Nikki said, “All we’ve got is a handful of barely trained teams who are only following us because the universe needs immediate saving. Once that’s done...” she trailed off.

Sid nodded, “Whatever the Peacekeepers were, it’s gone now. There’s no infrastructure; the bases and hierarchy are gone. We lost most of our teams. There’s no budget, we don’t answer to any governmental authority since the Confederacy collapsed….”

“And to be honest?” Nikki added, “The Peacekeepers were, ultimately, just a front for a personal blood feud. I’m not sure there’s any salvaging that”.

“So what *are* you going to do?” Xolin asked soberly.

Sid shrugged, masking his own doubt with a smile, “Haven’t given it much thought. Maybe I’ll take a vacation. I’ve earned that” he lied. In truth, he was a little sorrowful. Here everyone else was ready to move on with the next stage of their lives, and here he was still stuck. Still just Sid Drake, professional drifter. He’d probably just go back to floating from merc job to merc job. It made him feel so small.

“So this is really it, then” Trok reiterated, “After this...the Peacekeepers are done”. Everyone let that fact sink in. After all they’d fought for, after all they’d seen and done...it was all coming to an end, one way or another.

“Let’s make sure we go out with a bang then” Sid said, regaining his cheerfulness.

---

Trok noted Xolin’s snoring form as she was curled up in her seat. They’d all kind of just unofficially agreed to stay here in the lounge tonight, as no one had ever gone to their room once it got late. It had just felt...right. Instead they’d just waited here, having long since turned off the lights and endlessly talking and watching the fleet assemble—which was actually rather impressive at this point; the orbit around the planet was now filled with hundreds upon hundreds of ships from every corner of the galactic supercluster—the entire explored universe.

Nikki had turned herself off as well; shutting down into oblivion for a few hours while her systems ran deep diagnostic checks before the big battle.

Sid however, had moved close to the window, having moved a small seat to watch the unfolding display. Trok got up from his seat and settled next to him. Sid looked over at his new companion, “...I didn’t wake you did I?”

Trok shook his head, “Nah, couldn’t sleep”.

Sid chuckled with agreement. Silence reigned for a moment.

“...Are you sure you’re okay? With all of us leaving, I mean?” Trok asked finally, “I feel like we’re kind of abandoning you”.

Sid gave him a sympathetic smile, “Nothing lasts forever, does it? Eventually we all have to move on to the next part of our lives, wherever that leads”.

“...Sid?” Trok asked him, uncertainly.

“It’s fine, Trok. You have to do you. We’ll all be separated, but we’ll always be family, regardless of what happens”.

Another moment of silence while Trok digested this. Then he said, “...Thank you. For not leaving us, I mean. Back on KO-35”.

Sid knew what he was talking about; back when this whole thing started, and Sid had been just about to board his next flight out while the others fought that monster. It had ultimately been Iota who had essentially emotionally blackmailed him into staying. Sid had hated him for that, hated him for making him care. And yet...now Sid couldn’t imagine his life if he HAD stepped on that transport.

“...Thank you for being there” Sid replied.

“Do you ever regret it?” Trok asked.

Sid grinned as an SPD battleship appeared, “Not a chance. I’d do it again in a heartbeat”. Regardless of all they’d suffered, of everything that had happened...Sid had no regrets about his choices at all. The answer placated Trok, and the two fell silent as they watched the ships.

---

Sid awoke to a sudden beeping noise that nearly made him jump out of his seat. Checking the time, he found it was still fairly early in the morning. Not ungodly, but it wasn’t like they’d slept in. Which was a good thing—Sid still had a lot of last-minute things he’d like to get done before they got underway. The beeping however, was a sudden incoming message. Not wanting to wake the others, he ducked out of the lounge before activating it on his morpher.

It was his father, “Sid, something’s come up”. Sid’s holoscreen suddenly blew up and was filled with incoming data. Still a bit drowsy, it took him a moment to catch on to what was happening, “Our scouts have picked up new energy readings from Erebus”.

“...Okay?” Sid mumbled, still not quite grasping the situation, “What about it?”

“Sid, they’ve spiked”.

THAT woke Sid up. He scrolled through the data, his heartbeat quickening; “…They stepped up their timetable”.

“You see the problem. We have to leave *now* if we’re going to have any chance of taking them down. We’ve gone from sixty hours to less than twenty-four”.

Frantically, Sid checked his fleet status, “...We weren’t supposed to depart until later today! Twenty percent of the fleet is still unaccounted for!”

“Taken care of. Most of them will be able to rendezvous with us en-route. The rest, well...we’ll have to do this without them. We’ve run out of time”.

“Shit” Sid cursed, “Fine. I’ll rally the troops”.

“We leave in thirty. Admiral Drake out”.

Sid’s eyebrow rose as the connection closed, “...Huh, that’s funny. I thought I was leading this thing”. He shrugged to himself, slightly irritated at his father impulsively giving orders because that was what he did, but decided he didn’t have time for this shit. Sprinting back into the room, he began to wake everyone up.

“Everyone up up up!” he shouted, beaning Xolin’s head with a pillow. Trok pulled himself up off the floor, stretching his back painfully before rubbing his eyes. Nikki flickered back into the world of the...well, living? Did that phrase apply to her?

“Oh, gods. What’s wrong with you?” Xolin muttered in irritation as she got up before yawning.

“No time!” Sid told them, “Erebus’s energy levels spiked, the Antipodes moved up the timetable”. Everyone’s eyes went wide at the news, immediately waking up, “Fleet leaves in thirty. Grab a donut or whatever from the synthatron and meet me on the bridge in half that”. Before anyone could respond, Sid had already vacated from the premises.

Nikki blinked; now *that* had been some Sarah shit. The three of them looked at each other with knowing glances before Nikki followed Sid. Trok and Xolin looked out at the assembled fleet outside, then back at each other. Without a word, Trok embraced Xolin in a tight hug—one she reciprocated. They broke away far too quickly, and Xolin grasped his shoulder reassuringly as she began to head for the door.

“...Come on, let’s go save the universe”.

---

The bridge was abuzz with activity. Tesas and Sitras had relocated at Sid’s request—they’d be flying the ship after the team jumped over to the Antipode base, and they couldn’t have been happier to be back on the Megaship. At the moment Tesas was at tactical, while Sitras sat with Nikki at the sensor station, the latter giving the former a brief rundown of the ship. Xolin was piloting, while Trok had sequestered himself down in engineering for last second checks. Sid, of course, manned the captain’s seat.

Outside, the fleet had assembled all around the Defender Megaship. Brilliant bronze and golden Triforian battle pyramids dominated in formation, flanked by the sleek silver and aquamarine colored Aquitian ships—carrying themselves much like schools of fish. Rust colored and disk-shaped Machine gearships rolled up beside them, their quadrafighters making last passes before returning to their motherships.

A wing of hodge-podge Varox fighters flew themselves around the fleet of ramshackle pirate ships—a flotilla of many different ship designs, including more than a few Frankenstein creations where parts of one ship had been welded to another. The fighters continued onwards, skimming past the Peacekeeper Megaship contingent, as well as a few Megaships from the SPD fleet. Said fleet waited overhead; silver and gray and utilitarian, but also sleek and rounded, and each class themed on a different animal. Beside it the Terran fleet had rolled up—just as utilitarian, but far more blocky. Whereas the SPD ships were meant to invoke speed and tech, the Terran ships were meant to invoke power.

The delta-like Karovian ships, just as utilitarian as the last two but with a Karovian flare, moved into position, flanked by a number of Scorpion Stinger-class vessels from the Hives, as well as the Hive motherships—these were not common pirate bands after all, but full-fledged royal powers. The motherships were almost like floating wasp nests, but made of metal and with a distinct front and end. A few Pirhanatron ships, shaped like brown submersibles, took up position with them.

The Varox fighters spun around, buzzing the blocky and scaley-green Horathean warships, long and cluttered with guns. In contrast, the Xybrian ships were silver and elegant, almost etherial. To Sid, it reminded him of your stereotypical Tolkien elven architecture, except y’know, in space. Other ships were present—the red and orange Tenga ships, aerodynamic to the extent that they looked like predatory birds. The brown and greyish Edeonite ships—basic in design. The flying saucers of the Grays. Numerous minor powers and factions.

And then, of course, there were the Eltarians. Beautiful alabaster white and silver ships with gold trim. Ethereal yet majestic. Detailed, yet functional and powerful. For Eltar, aesthetic was just as important as practicality—you had to demoralize your opponent and make them realize how wrong they were to oppose you in the first place. The Eltarian capital ships were some of the largest in the fleet, matched only by some the largest Terran, Karovian, and SPD carrier vessels, and the largest of the Triforian pyramids.

Back on the bridge, Sid took a moment to watch everyone else at their job, before Nikki’s reports started coming in.

“...I’m getting ready signals” she said, “Triforians are green, Machines are green, Eltar, Mirinoi, Karovian...everyone’s green and ready to jump”.

Sid nodded, then opened a channel to engineering, “Trok, we ready?”

“All systems are green. Ready and waiting!” the horathean replied.

Sid closed the channel, took one last look around, then nodded at Nikki and gave the order, “Tell all ships. We’re moving”.

One by one, the ships of the All Flags Navy powered up their engines, shining bright in the night sky. And then, they all began to jump to Hyperrush. All of them. And as they went, so did the Defender Megaship.

The rubicon had been crossed; there was no going back.

---

Alpha waited in the central core of his station, as power collected in the central nexus. He stood on the platform overlooking more platforms, as well as the windowed base below, giving a perfect view of the black hole’s accretion disk. Long range scans had confirmed—the rangers’ fleet was on the move.

It was time.

“Alpha to all forces” he ordered, “Launch”.

---

To be continued...
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Old July 19th, 2017, 06:58 AM   #46
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y3k! Hope all is well with you. Just wanted to let you know how impressed I am with your work here. I started reading this a few days ago during my lunch breaks and it has been really entertaining. Thanks!
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Old July 21st, 2017, 12:17 PM   #47
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Isaac! Good to see you're not dead. I'm glad you're enjoying this, lemme know what you think when you finish.
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Old July 29th, 2017, 03:01 PM   #48
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The Defender Megaship shot through space at hyperrush speeds, surrounded and tailed by almost two thousand other vessels from every corner of the local galactic supercluster. Machine, Triforian, Aquitian, Karovian, Human, Alliance, Insectoid, Eltarian, among dozens of others. The All Flags Navy, while perhaps not the largest fleet in history, was certainly the most diverse. Never before had so many come together—even while numerous members were still at war with each other—with one objective.

Sid sat in the captain’s seat, watching the distance marker their destination count down. Not too much longer. He’d barely moved in the past hour, and not much before that. It had been a long trip too; it was a good thing they’d built up the fleet so close to Erebus, but at the same time it had still taken them the better part of a day to get here.

There was a little over an hour left on the clock.

“Almost there” Trok muttered, partially to himself, but also to the others, “Another five minutes”.

Nikki looked at Sid, “...Speech?”

“No” Sid grunted.

“Comeooon”

“No”.

“It’ll boost morale!”

Sid gave her a withering glare, “...Aren’t you supposed to be the brooding practical one?”

“I *am* being practical!” she said with a smile.

“Oh just give a gods damned speech” Xolin said with a hint of exasperation.

“Speech” Trok chanted while grinning, “Speech! Speech! Speech!” He motioned to Tesas and Sitras, who quickly joined in with glee. Nikki just basked in the sudden chaos.

“ALRIGHT” Sid surrendered, “I’ll give a goddamn speech”. Standing up, he nodded to Nikki who opened a channel to the fleet. Ugh, here went nothing.

“Attention” Sid began, “This is Sid Drake, Peacekeeper team twelve. Your commander. In a few minutes, we will be dropping out of hyperrush and right on top of the Antipodes’ primary base of operation. At that moment, you will become the spearhead of this universe—the sole line of defense between everyone we’ve left behind and universal armageddon”.

Aboard his flagship, King Ihara sat on his golden triforian throne in the lavishly decorated room that was the pyramid’s bridge, taking a data pad from one of his subordinates as Sid’s speech continued.

“There is an hour left on our clock; one hour until everything we’ve ever known, everyone we’ve ever loved, goes up in smoke. In one hour our lives, our civilizations, our species’ become nothing more than a forgotten footnote for someone else. An unfortunate afterthought in someone else’s play”.

On the Eltarian flagship, Lasandra carried herself down the immense alabaster hall, staff in hand as she inspected her battle mages for the fight to come.

“We’re here to make sure that doesn’t happen. Many of your governments are engaged in hostilities with each other. Right now, that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. All our rivalries, all our politics, none of that exists at the moment”.

Admiral Lacanth stood in front of his flagship’s forward windows, stoically looking out at the rapidly moving starfield with his hands behind his back.

“What does matter is that this is our home”.

Coros stepped aboard his ship’s bridge; organic yet streamlined in feel, and filled with a mixture of vibrant blues, greens, and purples. Numerous holodisplays rippled like water.

“And we’re going to show these assholes why it’s not nice to dig up someone else’s back yard without permission”.

Numerous stingwingers boarded the cocoon-like drop pods as they readied themselves for launch.

“Or at the very least, give them enough of a bloody nose so that even if we fail, they won’t ever forget us. They won’t ever forget what they did”.

A group of tenga were aboard one of their ships, outfitting themselves with armor as one performed a small protection ceremony for one of their ancestor spirits.

Onboard the Terran flagship, Admiral Drake simply gave a small smile of approval as he heard his son’s voice.

“Today we strike as one. One fleet, one voice, one universe. We’re going to make one hell of a racket, and we’re hell as not going to go down quietly. You all have your orders. Sid out”.

“...Not bad” Nikki mused. Sid just gave her an annoyed look.

“Approaching coordinates” Trok reported, “Preparing to drop out of FTL!”

Sid watched his own control panel on his chair in agreement, “...Coordinate with the fleet. Exit hyperrush on my mark”.

Time seemed to stand still—a space between breaths, between seconds on a clock. Usually transient, but here crystallized, static.

“MARK!”

---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Series Finale

3.12 The Trolley Dilemma part two of four: The Fields of Megiddo


---

It started with a single ship-the Defender Megaship. Then a moment later a second, a Terran cruiser, showed up. Then two Horathean warships. Then an SPD carrier and a Triforian battle pyramid. An Eltarian battleship, two Tenga cruisers, and three Karovian battlecruisers. Then six more ships. Then another eight. Then sixteen. Then eighty-five. Then over a hundred. Hundreds of ships poured into the Antipode station’s gravity well. The sky was full of stars, and every single one was a warship armed to the teeth.

From his position in central command, Alpha now watched a thousand enemy warships barreling down on his position.

From *his* position on the megaship, Sid rose to his feet as the station –and the black hole-- came into view.

“...That’s one hell of a view” Tesas said, his voice barely above a whisper. The angry churning of the accretion disk was in unsettling opposition to the eerie calm that was the black disk itself. This place was alien; unholy. Sitras nodded dumbly in response.

“Open a channel” Sid ordered, undeterred. When he was on, Sid spoke, “This is Sid Drake, Peacekeeper team twelve, yada yada, whatever. You know who I am, Alpha, and you know why we’re here. It’s over. Stand down your forces, prepare to be boarded. Shut down your project and turn over Sel. Failure to comply will be met with due force”.

Sid cut the link as Xolin gave him an incredulous look, “...You know there’s no way he’s going to agree to that”.

“I know. Still, at least I can say I tried” Sid replied.

“Weapons charging!” Trok reported, “Enemy fleet is moving into position!”

“Aaaand there’s our answer” Sid said, returning to his seat, “Hold here. Let them come to us”.

The enemy fleet however, did not move far, only enough to get into a new optimal position in front of the base. They were a haphazard collection; a mixture of SPD, Troobian, and mercenary ships. The Troobian vessels were black and grey; skeletal and organic in design. The mercenary ships were a hodgepodge of odds and ends, while the SPD vessels had been hastily refitted with Troobian tech, with black skeletal bits added to much of their hulls. It was a fitting contrast to the vibrant colors of the All Flags Navy. Of course, the All Flags Navy was also only a third the size of the defending fleet—three to one odds. Which was strange for Alpha, as the incoming warp signature had indicated a somewhat larger force.

“...Why aren’t they moving?” Xolin asked anxiously, “What are they planning?”

“...They aren’t planning anything” Nikki said in a burst of realization. She and Sid shared a knowing glance.

“They’re waiting” Sid agreed, “Why attack? Time is on their side”.

“Then how do we get to them?” Trok asked, “If we just fly in they’ll slaughter us. Those base defenses aren’t pretty”.

Sid thought for a moment; this was definitely a predicament. He studied the scans Trok had sent him; indeed, the base had a lot of short-range defenses that would help to tear their fleet apart if they got bogged down in a knife fight.

...What if they didn’t go for a knife fight? Ah, now Sid had an idea. A grim smile formed, “...Well, if they don’t want to come to us, two can play at that game”. When Nikki gave him a quizzical stare, he asked her, “What’s the range on our big guns?”

She calculated, realization dawning, “We’ve got a few dozen capships that can hit the station at this range. Anything smaller will just disperse, and at this range projectile weapons can just be shot down with point defenses”.

Trok turned around in shock and protest, “I thought we wanted to take the station, not destroy it!”

“They don’t know that” Sid told him. He nodded to Nikki, who relayed the orders to the fleet.

A few of the capital ships moved into position—a few of the largest gearships, a couple of the biggest pyramids, and the Eltarian command carrier. The orders given, they powered their main weapons up, the cannons charging and collecting energy before they cut loose and unleashed a volley of bright death on the offending station. Its energy shields held, but they had clearly been weakened somewhat by the sudden assault. Still though, no ships moved.

“...What does it take?” Sid muttered in annoyance.

“Alpha’s probably calling our bluff” Nikki said, “He’s still got Sel, after all”.

“Damn” Sid cursed, “Prepare a second volley. I’m not done bluffing yet”.

As they did however, the largest of the Troobian ships began to power up weapons.

“...Oh hell” Sid said, as the two sides exchanged a volley. The megaship shook; it hadn’t been hit directly, but one of the pyramids and the Eltarian carrier had been stuck. They weren’t out, but it was clear they wouldn’t be able to sit here for long.

“New tactic!” Sid ordered, “Start pinpointing the merc ships and take them out”.

“Why just the mercs?” Trok asked.

Nikki was already sending the orders, “Easy. The Troobian and SPD ships are likely crewed by krybots—I’m not reading any life signs. But the merc ships are real people, and I doubt all of them have formal military training”.

“Exactly” Sid grinned, “They’ll break eventually, and when they do, the rest of the fleet will follow or risk breaking formation”.

“...If we don’t first, you mean” Xolin said worriedly. Sid shared her concerns, but didn’t respond.

“Fire!”

The cannons roared to life again, unleashing multicolored beams of energy on their foes. The targeted ships, a few of the merc ships in front, didn’t stand a chance against the fleet’s biggest weapons. Two light cruisers evaporated immediately. A heavy cruiser survived a first hit, only to be bisected by a second one. Thee more ships were hit dead on. The All Flags didn’t strike all in the same place; Sid and the admirals had ensured they’d struck a number of ships across the line to maximize the psychological effect.

The Antipode fleet let loose another volley. Two smaller ships were eviscerated and a Machine gearship was moderately damaged.

“...Come on...” Sid grunted, gripping his armrests tight as his fleet fired again. More damage, but no luck.

Another return volley; more casualties on their side. Casualties they could ill-afford.

Sid was about to call for a withdrawal when at the fourth volley, they finally struck gold. A number of mercenary ships finally broke formation, some of them simply turning tail, the rest grouping up for a charge at the All Flags Navy. The rest of the Antipode fleet was clearly caught off-guard; they hadn’t been prepared for the sudden opening of their lines. At first they didn’t do anything, frozen by the lack of orders. When they finally did come in and filter down the chain of command, the krybot-helmed fleet finally haphazardly began to follow the mercenaries; the strategy of wait it out had failed, now they were going to go all in.

It didn’t matter for Alpha of course; while he would have preferred to have the fleet hang back, ultimately Sid’s fleet was much smaller and, honestly, what did Alpha care how much of a meat grinder it became? If Sid wanted a knife fight, then why not give him a knife fight.

Unfortunately for Alpha, Sid reaaaally wanted a knife fight. The human grinned with smug satisfaction. Hook, line, and sinker. The enemy fleet raced towards them; as soon as they’d passed the station’s weapons range Sid gave the order.

“Sid to all ships, pick your targets as assigned and move in. Break to attack!”

The All Flags Navy was on the move; slow at first but quickly picking up speed as the two sides raced towards each other. Weapon fire began to be exchanged; beam cannons at first, followed by shorter-range pulse weaponry and projectile weapons. Fighterbays were emptied on both sides, and wings of fightercraft began to swarm ahead of their fleets, being the first to meet one another in battle.

“Enemy battle line is stretching out” Nikki observed; indeed, the Antipode fleet’s main line had begun to turn into a three dimensional crescent, bordering on a concave half-sphere, “They’re trying to flank us”.

“Good” Sid said, “Sid to Anvil Fleet. Hammer Fleet is engaging! You are green! I repeat, Anvil Fleet is green!”

The sky lit up behind, below, and above the Antipode fleet as another thousand ships appeared on sensors—the other half of the All Flags Navy. They’d grouped themselves into ten smaller contingents, each focused on a different part of the enemy rear guard. Fire was exchanged almost immediately as they began to push and pull against the enemy line.

Meanwhile, the central fleet had arranged itself into an arrow, plunging itself right into the heart of the enemy maw. Despite all the exchange of firepower and the dueling fightercraft around them, the last few seconds before the two sides met had an eerie silence.

And then they collided.

Madness overtook the world. Chaos reigned. The half-sphere collapsed around the Hammer Fleet, despite the Anvil Fleet crashing in from the rear. Strategy quickly unraveled into an ugly free-for-all as the two sides found themselves sandwiched by the other. It was a meat grinder.

The Defender Megaship weaved in and out, evading fighter craft and stray shots as it passed by numerous ships, opening fire on any targets of opportunity it found. A beam cannon nearly sliced it in two, but it narrowly dodged. To the left and above, a Troobian capital ship was ripped apart by sustained fire from a Karovian battleship to its side, two Aquitian cutters from behind, and a Terran heavy cruiser from above. Below, a Triforian pyramid’s fighter screen pulverized a wing of enemy SPD strike craft.

The Megaship soon found itself under attack from behind; the bridge shook as two mercenary fighter craft opened fire on the rangers’ ship, both on hot pursuit.

“Shields holding at ninety-four percent” Trok reported.

“We need to lose them!” Sid demanded as the ship shook again. Sparks spurted from one of the consoles. At the helm, Sitras intended to do just that.

The ship weaved and turned, flying into the gap between two Terran and Troobian battleships, each multiple kilometers in length. They’d moved up alongside each other and were in the process of broadsiding the other into oblivion. The Megaship flew into this mess—a suicide maneuver, but one that paid off; neither fighter was able to keep up with the triforian’s flying. One evaporated when hit by a barrage of firepower meant for the Troobian ship. The other barely evaded another incoming barrage, only to be struck in its engine by the Megaship’s own megalasers. The ship’s path faltered, and it ended up colliding into the much larger Terran warship. Free, the Megaship banked upwards—hard—and flew back into the greater battle.

Up ahead, an enemy SPD warship opened fire with its main guns on one of the Triforian pyramids. The latter began to buckle, already damaged in the impact spot, and it didn’t look like it was going to hold. The former never got a chance to finish its job however, as before it was even done with the current barrage, twin cyan beams of light lanced out from underneath, cutting right through the hull. As it began to crumble from the assault, its assaulter, an Aquitian carrier that much resembled some sort of brightly colored squid pushed on, climbing up from below and nearing the dying warship until it exploded in a flash of light.

A trio of flying saucers swung by, peppering a Troobian warship with lasers. A Machine gearship and a mercenary band of six smaller warships got into a duel, their fighter screens screaming around them.

And as all of this happened, a new entity had entered the field of battle; the Troobian mothership, larger than all the other vessels and which had been in the rear of the fleet, finally made its way into the battle. At sixteen kilometers from front to back, it was easily the largest ship on the field. Not even the mighty Eltarian carriers could match it for size. Hundreds of thousands of fighters evacuated from its fighterbays as it opened fire with all guns.

From the bridge, the rangers watched as it eviscerated an Insecta hive ship with ease.

“That’s...going to be a problem” Trok frowned. Another ship went up in smoke as the behemoth vessel inched inward.

“...We’re going to have to take care of that before we break from the fleet and assault the station” Sid said, “Otherwise they’re just going to get razed. Thoughts?”

“…What about what we did with Delta?” Xolin asked, recalling their mission to the Peacekeeper base. Sid glanced back at her, then down as if deep in thought. Then, his decision made, Sid opened up a holomap in front of him that detailed the current layout of the battlespace. Icons of the different ship signature flashed.

“...All ranger forces, converge on our position” Sid ordered, “Assault wings two and six, standby. We’re going to take that monster of a mothership out” he turned to Trok, “Can you get me a sensor readout on that thing? Structural weaknesses?”

Trok brought up a readout of the mothership, “...Jeeze this thing’s huge. I’m seeing at least three different power cores, so blowing those out in one hit is out. Uh...the neck of the ship is reinforced, but if we can overcome that and severe the ship’s front from its body...” Indeed, the ship was elongated, with a distinct ‘head’ separated from the much wider back end of the ship.

“Then it’ll be dead in the water” Sid finished for him, “Got it. Upload the coordinates. Sid to all zords, on our six. Attack wings; keep our path clear!”

Dozens of megaships and megazords flew into the Defender Megaship’s wake. Some were the remaining Peacekeeper teams, others were SPD squads. And still others had been a handful of independent ranger teams who had signed on for this fight. On their flanks, two wings of light cruisers and strike craft moved to intercept. As the mothership opened fire to take care of this sudden assault, so did they. Point defense weapons worked overtime, even under the range of where they were theoretically practical. Once it became too much, the defense wings simply turned their attention onto first blasting through the shields before disarming the offending mothership by taking out its weapons one by one.

All the while, the fleet of zords picked up speed.

“Trok, I need targets!” Sid ordered.

Trok nodded, “Got ‘em! Sending now!”

Sid’s map zoomed in to the mothership and a number of potential structural weakpoints appeared on its neck. He spoke to the fleet, “Targets are up, pick your poison!”

Even as rapid-fire laser pulses fired around them, the zords broke to attack. A megazord composed of karovian aquatic animals readied its twin arm cannons, opening up a volley on one of the structure points. Another megazord, made up of construction vehicles, blocked an incoming missile volley, saving the first megazord.

Three megaships opened fire in formation, before veering away when they came close, unfolding into megazord mode and coming back down hard with their swords. A few ‘feet’ away, a megazord composed of native edenoite insect zords pulled out a drill and began breaking through the hull. Elsewhere, a megazord with a dragon theme unfurled its wings and began lobbing fireballs.

Everywhere, megazords descended on the behemoth like a swarm of bees. Unfortunately, the mothership had bees of its own. Quite soon, its own fighter squadrons began flooding into the area, attacking the megazords. The space megazords simply returned to ship formation and began a furious dogfight. The ‘traditional’ megazords however, were left at a disadvantage. This meant of course that everyone was more concerned about survival instead of taking the mothership out.

The Defender Megaship shuttered from the barrage of attacks as Sitras tried to evade. Tesas backed her up with laserfire, but there were so many fighters.

“...Wish we could form the ultrazord” Trok said worriedly as another hit caused one of the panels to blow. Unfortunately, they still needed the Lights for that. And to access the Lights, they needed Sel. One of the megaships exploded, vaporized by a beam cannon.

Sid’s mind raced for a solution. There had to be an out somewhere. Another strike hit the ship.

“...Trok, you loaded up Izzy’s APC, right?” Sid asked him.

“Yeah, why?”

Xolin’s expression flattened as she suddenly knew where this was going, “...You wouldn’t”.

“You’ve got a better idea?” Sid asked her. When she just shrugged in response, he turned to Nikki, “Can we blow one of the points with the APC?”

“...I think?” she said, uncertainly, “Theoretically? But we’d still need to take care of the other two”.

His course set, Sid checked the enemy ship on his sensors; there was an open hole near the central vulnerable point. Excellent. He turned back to Trok, “Get that APC airborn on autopilot. I need it wedged in on the coordinates I’m sending”.

“Uh...okay” Trok frowned, but did as he was told. Sid meanwhile opened a channel to the zord fleet, “But we were going to use that to break into the base. What are we going to do now?”

“One problem at a time, Trok” Sid said, “Sid to all forces, prepare for finisher strikes at the coordinates provided” he resent the coordinates for the other two points on the neck, directing each zord to one or the other, “Prepare to attack on my mark!” He looked back at Trok, who gave him a thumbs up. Sid looked back at the viewscreen at the mammoth of a ship.

“Light it up”.

And just like that, Isdilian’s APC performed its final duty, having wedged itself inside the hull breach. The explosives stored onboard, as well as its own core meltdown, created a powerful explosion that ripped through one of the structural integrity points.

“MARK!”

The other zords moved in, evading the enemy fighters as best they could as they came in, finishers at the ready. Those with a projectile finisher had been relegated to one integrity point, while those with sword finishers had been sent to the other. Together both halves of the fleet ripped into the other two points, breaking them into pieces.

“Reading severe hull damage!” Trok reported, “It’s still hanging on though”.

“Sitras, give it a push, would you?” Sid asked her.

The two cadet rangers shared a smile before they activated the ship’s megazord mode. The megaship wheeled around on its axis into robot form before summoning its saber.

“FINAL STRIKE!”

The Defender Megazord spun like a drill, sword forward, into the mothership’s neck as it charged up, ripping clear through to the other side. Severed from its body, the head of the mothership sparked as it drifted away aimlessly. Now bridge-less, the body continued on without direction—its weapons silent as they would need to be aimed manually, and who the hell would be able to organize that while the ship was suffering fatal wounds. And all the while, other allied ships began disarming it and taking it apart piece by piece. The battle wasn’t won—not even close right now, but now they had a chance.

The fighters however, were furious. They came baring down by the hundreds on the ranger fleet.

“All zords, break and evade!” Sid ordered as the Defender Megazord summoned and combined with the Sentinel to form the Battlezord. Charging its guns, it unloaded them on the incoming swarm. Normally it wouldn’t be enough for an entire fleet of fighters, but that’s when the two strike wings flew in to the rescue, corralling the fighters into a narrow pass as they flew by, and giving the Battlezord a clear shot. The remaining fighters quietly turned tail, knowing this fight was lost. They were to shore up defenses elsewhere on the battlefield.

The rangers took a moment to catch their breath, even as war raged around them.

“And you thought we’d never find a use for that thing” Xolin mused sarcastically.

“If I remember, you were right there with me” Sid teased back before turning his attention back to the Antipode base, “...We need to prep the Skycycles”.

Trok already knew what to do, “I’ll meet you guys down there” he said, getting up and leaving the bridge in a hurry.

Sid was already opening channels, “Sid to Sword Fleet. We’re moving in on Target Alpha. Follow us in”. Switching channels, he opened one to his father. A holo image of the admiral stood before him, in front of the map, “We’re going in. It’s your show now. Should probably initiate phase two though, if you want to keep casualties down”.

“Understood” the admiral said, “...And good luck”.

“You too” Sid said, knowing this could very well be the last time the two of them spoke. Weird that; he wasn’t entirely sure how to process that. Things were still rough between them but...it wasn’t like Sid wanted the guy dead.

One problem at a time. “Take us in” Sid told Sitras.

“On it!”

The Defender Megaship, flanked by the other ranger zords as well as a fairly good number of dropships, troop carriers, and escort cruisers and fighters for protection, broke off from the battle and shot towards the Antipode base.

“Nikki, give me landing spots!” Sid ordered as the base got bigger and bigger on the viewscreen.

Nikki looked over the outward scans of the vaguely cylinder space station, quickly finding her targets, “I’m seeing four launch bays on each side of the base. All are protected by force fields to prevent unauthorized entry”.

“Can we shut it down?”

“An impact of sufficient velocity might overload it and shut it down” she told him, “Maybe”.

“Bet you wish you hadn’t killed the APC yet, huh?” Xolin smirked.

Sid frowned, “We really need to start carrying tactical nukes onboard” an idea came to him, “...Sitras, turn us around”.

Nikki blinked in confusion, “...Wait, what are you doing?”

“Probably something really stupid” Sid admitted, “Get me a scan of the mothership debris. Is there anything of large but not so large we can’t tow it?”

A few icons appeared on the map, “Got a few choices”.

Sid picked one and as the Megaship flew past it grabbed one of the fragments that was about the same size as itself with its tractor beam, before spinning back around and towards the Sword Fleet.

“How much inertia are we going to need?” Sid asked Nikki.

“Uh...a lot more” she replied, “Like, faster than light”.

The room dropped so silent you could hear a pin drop. Sid sighed, shaking his head, “Stupid idea it is. Sitras, get ready to take us to hyperrush one”.

“...Within visual range?!” the triforian princess exclaimed. She and Tesas both looked back at him like he’d lost his mind.

“I have faith in you” Sid told her, “Go to hyperrush one, loose the tractor beam, and drop back into STL. I’ve seen your pilot abilities. You can do this”.

The two cadets looked at him, then at each other with uncertainty.

“I’ll stay here and help coordinate things” Nikki said, defusing the situation, “You guys need to get to the skycycles; I’m detecting physical shutters that’ll activate in case of explosive decompression. You’ll need to get in there fast. I’ll meet up with you guys station-side after you’ve created a beach head”.

Sid nodded at her as he and Xolin got up and headed to the launch bay, “Good luck!”

Nikki waved good-bye and then integrated herself into the ship’s systems, giving Sitras the edge she needed.

---

The red, blue, and green rangers loaded themselves onto their skycycles in the ship’s launch bay.

“You know this is probably the craziest thing we’ve ever done” Trok said with a mixture of anxiety and adrenalin as the doors opened to the madness that was the black hole’s accretion disk.

Sid nodded, “Yep. Let’s fly!”

The three skycycles launched from the Megaship. “Sid to Megaship! You have a go!”

---

Onboard the bridge, Sitras tensed.

“...Flat as a pancake coming right up” she muttered in distress.

Tesas however, wasn’t having any of it, “Oh come on. This is going to be *awesome*!”

“Not if we die!”

“...I mean, I won’t say *no* to fiery self-immolation” the aquitian mused.

“Tesas!” Sitras admonished.

Tesas rolled his eyes, “It’s fine, trust me! Just don’t mess up”.

She huffed, “Yeah, thanks for the encouragement, asshole”.

“Kids, please” Nikki said, “Just wait for the signal”.

“Sid to Megaship! You have a go!”

Sitras took a deep breath, pressed the button and…

From the rangers’ perspective, one moment the Megaship was igniting its hyperrush engines, then it blinked out and back into existence directly in front of the base, veering off just before impact as the entrance to the launch bay exploded violently.

“PULL UP!” Tesas roared, “PULL UP!”

“I’M PULLING!” Sitras yelled back at him as the Megaship veered upwards along the hull of the Antipode base, evading weaponry as best it could as it skidded against the metal.

“YEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAH!” Tesas rejoiced.

---

“GO GO GO GO!” Sid demanded, the three skycycles firing off towards the explosion like a series of bullets. As expected, the physical barriers began to slide shut from one end of the opening to the other—rapidly, as if they’d been let loose by a spring.

“Of course they have secondary defenses” Sid muttered under his breath, “Of COURSE they do!”

“We’re not going to make it!” Trok exclaimed.

“BULLSHIT WE AREN’T!” Xolin roared, pushing her skycycle to maximum speed as her fighting instinct took over. Sid followed suit, followed by Trok. She was NOT going to let this opportunity pass them by. The rest of Sword Fleet followed in, but were not fast enough. Only the three skycycles made it in—and only barely at that.

Sid leaped off his craft as it shot into the hanger. The skycycle crashed into the ground, skidding across the platform until it hit a stop. The red ranger meanwhile flipped into action, drawing his two swords as his boot came down hard on the nearest krybot. As soon as he’d landed, he spun around and cut two more robots down, even as more rushed up over to where he was, on some kind of low-level catwalk leading to some controls.

The chamber was vast; numerous SPD and Troobian fightercraft were housed in the hanger, many damaged from the explosion they’d just unleashed on the hanger bay doors. Debris lay scattered around from the force of the attack, including many downed krybots. Not that that mattered much, as the room was still filled to the brim with enemy troops.

All advancing toward him.

Trok combined his sidearms into rifle mode, mowing down the krybots closest him. Xolin combined hers into lance mode, spinning around like a dervish before throwing her weapon like a spear, somehow managing to impale three krybots against one of the fighters.

Trok blinked in surprise, “...I don’t think I designed it for...that”.

“Life finds a way!” Xolin yelled back, wishing she had another blaster before summoning her lance, “I need like, another eight of those!”

“I’ll take it under advisement” replied the green ranger as he continued to mow down enemies. No matter how many he shot though, more kept coming. They were limitless.

“Trok!” Sid called, cutting down another krybot, “Control panel! Get this sucker open! We can’t fight these guys alone forever!”

Trok was already on it, leaping over two krybots Sid was fighting before mowing down another as he ran over to the control panel, “Got it!” Unfortunately for him, it was quite impossible to concentrate as he was still being shot at. Trok ducked behind the console as he returned fire, “I need cover fire!”

Retrieving her sidearms, Xolin wheeled her twin lances around before splitting herself into three. Two went after Trok, the other backed Sid up.

Trok placed his gun down as he fiddled with the controls, frowning as he did so.

“...Any time now, Trok!” one of the Xolins called as they split their lances into blasters and opened fire.

“Hey, this is hard!” Trok complained.

“How hard is ‘open the door’?!”

“Do I *look* like I speak Troobian!?” Trok yelled back, “I’ve never worked with these interfaces before!”

Sid called back to them, “Hey! Less talking, more working!” He paused when he got an incoming transmission from Nikki.

“Hey, you guys okay? We’re waiting for you to bring down the wall!”

“Working on it!” Sid exclaimed, cutting down another krybot, “Trok, just pick a button!”

“Uh…” the green ranger sweated a bit, then just randomly pressed something, “Sure, okay”

...And that’s when dozens of defense turrets dropped from the ceiling and began to prime themselves.

“Wrong button WRONG BUTTON!” one of the Xolins exclaimed in terror.

“THANKS MOM, I KNOW” Trok replied in panic as he randomly began punching buttons left and right. The guns charged as the sprinkler system activated, the lights brightened and dimmed, and music began playing.

...Was that country?

“TROK!” Sid called.

“IF YOU THINK YOU CAN RANDOMLY PUSH BUTTONS BETTER THAN ME, BE MY GU--” Trok stopped pressing buttons when suddenly every single defense turret exploded. He looked on, dumbstruck, “...Why would they...I mean, problem solved!”

“Great. Now how about that door?!” Sid replied. He and the Xolins had moved in close around Trok, now being swarmed by an entire army of krybots. The doors to the interior of the base opened, and even more began to pour in, along with blueheads, orangeheads, assault mechs, you name it.

“Oh good” Sid muttered, “Wave two. Can’t wait for the boss”.

“The more we kill in here, the less we have to worry about inside” Xolin reassured him.

Sid didn’t buy it, “That’s horseshit and you know it!”

“I got it!” Trok said, “...I think!” He pressed the button and lo and behold, the door retracted as the decompression of the chamber resumed. A number of krybots lost their footing and were sucked out, but the decompression didn’t last long as a tertiary defense activated; a low-scale forcefield to keep the air in. Meanwhile, craft were landing. Numerous APCs, troop transports, and assault pods from dozens of worlds began filing into the launch bay. And very quickly, things got crazy.

One of the pirate boarding pods crashed into a fighter. A second landed next to it, opening up as a number of pirhanatrons, tengas, and assorted monsters stepped out, Yorhor leading them.

“Arr, ye scurvy naves! Prepare to feel the wrath of the master of the seven galaxies!” Hook and cutlass in hand, Yorhor launched into the fray, cutting down numerous krybots.

Nearby, General Quickspur and his elite guard had arrived in formation, the battle droid-class cogs aiming and firing with their laser rifles. Any krybots that got too close were cut down with their swords. Quickspur soon found himself putting down a number of krybots personally.

“Yee haw! It’s like a showdown at high noon! Aim and fire, boys!”

King Ihara had taken the field as well; he’d gathered most of the former Confederate forces under his own command. The Gold Ranger led a mixture of triforian, human, edonite, aquitian, horathean, and xybrian marines in their battle. There were others as well; Delarn was fighting with the tengas and his own ranger team the Sky Guardians, a number of SPD marine teams had just landed, and at least six hive clusters had dropped with numerous stingwingers flooding out, lead by one of the princes—a humanoid heir to the throne of this particular hive who had not yet undergone a metamorphosis in a cocoon.

Heroes were about as well; the remaining Peacekeeper teams, as well as a handful of SPD squads were engaging the enemy. And that wasn’t counting the handful of independent teams from across the universe, nor the non-ranger heroes getting in on the action: at least three masked riders, a duo of heavily armored siblings in red and blue dubbed the ‘Storm Defenders’, and a mysterious mystical armored figure known only as the ‘Galactic Sentinel’. One team of rangers, based on xybrian jungle animals, swung down on cable ‘vines’, grabbing krybots as they flew by. Another, based on various ancient aquitian civilizations, unleashed a group attack on an orangehead.

“Quite the party you’re throwing!” Nikki joked as she rejoined the other rangers, watching their backs as they formed a circle, the swarms of krybots now pressing in from every side.

“Well you know me” Sid said with a grin, “It’s not a party unless everybody’s on the floor by the end”.

“Let’s speed that along, huh?” Xolin asked, now rejoined and gripping her lance in preparation for her next attack.

“So what’s the plan?” Trok asked.

Sid looked back at his team, then at the chaos that surrounded them. “Easy. Hit them ‘till they die. BREAK AND ATTACK!”

The team split apart, each diving into the fray, hacking and blasting away at the enemy. As they did, more chaos unfolded; the Eltarian troopship arrived, landing gracefully as the fight raged on. The sides of the craft opened up, allowing teams of battlemages to stop off, Lasandra at the helm. The older woman took point as her forces assembled into a phalanx of staffs, the mages wearing a mixture of robes and armor.

“AIM!” she commanded, “FIRE!” A torrent of magic launched from the staffs and flew into the enemy lines. The krybots were hit with everything from elemental spells to curses as the battlemages moved forward. Unfortunately, battlemages were sort of like glass cannons; they were ranged fighters and couldn’t do so well in a melee. And so when they were hit in the side with not just standard krybots but also orangeheads and the larger mech units, they soon faltered. Lasandra moved to intercept, launching a number of spells and attacking head on. Numerous krybots fell, but the war mech crashed into her forces, batting them away like flies. It was advanced enough to have several magical wards to protect it, meaning that Lasandra found it nigh impossible to bring it down.

“OLLIE OLLIE OXEN FREE!”

A blur crashed into the side of the mech. It teetered, the force of the impact sending it crashing to the ground. The object that had hit it, person-sized in appearance, landed next to Lasandra as she saw it was a varox.

“...Who are you supposed to be?” she asked with a hint of incredulousness as she and her forces regrouped.

“I’m a dang cavalry!” B’rnix said, pointing to himself proudly with his thumb. Before he could get any further in his speech though, the mech began to get back up. B’rnix and Lasandra both resumed fighting stances.

“I mean, I guess you guys were supposed to be the cavalry” B’rnix rambled, “So I guess I’m like the cavalry’s cavalry. Is that a thing? Is that a thing that exists? I mean, I guess I could be like…‘I’m the chariots!’ You ever seen a scythed chariot? Those things are impres--”

“Sorry, B’rnix was it?” Lasandra asked, cutting him off.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah” the eltarian said flatly as the mech barreled down on them, “Shut up and fight”. She summoned a spell that bound the mech’s arms to the ground with strong magical chains.

“You got it!” B’rnix replied, rushing into the fray. Lasandra just rolled her eyes in aggravation.

Overhead, Delarn’s ranger team flew past on their suit gliders, peppering the battlefield below with laserfire. They passed by Yorhor and Quickspur, now back-to-back, pistols at the ready as the enemy moved in.

“Arrr, it be a good day to die!” the pirate lord crowed as he unloaded his guns.

“...Die?” Quickspur asked in disagreement, “Hell with that! I say we take these darn tootin’ varments out to pasture!” The general also opened fire.

“GOLD RUSH!”

The gold ranger charged through as a force of energy, zipping back and forth into groups of krybots with incredible power.

Sid’s swords were pressed up against an orangehead’s own twin swords as it pushed him back. Sid finally loosed his grip on the enemy weapons, striking the monster down easily before taking another two swipes to remove three more krybots from the field.

Trok’s hammer mace ripped through the enemy lines before wrapping itself around a war mech’s leg. The green ranger pulled, destabilizing it as Xolin rushed up its arm and struck at its head with her rifle directly. Nikki meanwhile was all over the place; striking random krybots and then cloaking again before anyone could get a read on her position.

It was a hard battle—a long battle, but ultimately the conclusion was never in doubt. Despite the initial surge of krybot forces, they were simply no match for the assorted makeshift armies of the All Flags Navy. Eventually, even the war mechs were subdued and the battle fell silent.

“...Did we get them?” one of the masked riders asked.

Sid frowned; this had been too easy, “I doubt it. The lack of reinforcements tells me they want to draw us in”.

“So what do we do?” Xolin asked.

“Easy. We spring the trap” Sid said, before calling to everyone, “Alright! I want this hanger secured as our forward base of operation. Assault teams, reload and replenish. Nikki?”

“Already on it!” the black ranger said as she and Trok were hunched over a nearby control panel.

“Got it” Trok said as they hacked into the database. Pretty soon everyone had been sent schematics of he entire base.

Sid looked it over with his morpher’s holoprojector quickly, easily sighting the central power core and what looked to be a lab area with extremely high levels of morphing energy.

Bingo.

He quickly highlighted points of interest, sending them to everyone else’s maps. He’d planned this attack out before arriving, but without a detailed map of the inside he’d had to speak mostly in generalized terms. Now things were more concrete, “These are our objectives. Confederate and Hive forces will take the various chokepoint nodes along our path” he highlighted a number of nodes, “Machine and SPD forces will expand outward from the sides, preventing enemy flanking as we move in. As you do so, you’ll be prioritizing auxiliary generators, hanger bays, and anything else you deem as an objective of interest. Your main goal will be to harry and slow down enemy forces, as well as do anything to slow Alpha’s goals. Sabotage is the word of the day. Pirate and mercenary forces will remain here to hold down the beach head and ensure our ability to withdraw. Ranger teams and other heroes will be dispatched to different areas of the front as needed. Questions?”

“And what about the central nexus?” asked one of the rangers.

“My team and I will be taking a small contingent of troops and splitting up. One group will hit the central core, the other a nearby lab area where we believe they are pumping in energy from the morphing grid” Sid said, “We good? Alright. Everyone stock up and be ready to move out in three. We have roughly forty-five minutes until the universe ends”.

---

Epsilon’s visage appeared on a holoscreen as Alpha continued to work tirelessly in the central chamber. The pillar of energy contained within the cylinder pulsed with power; now nearly twice the equal to the entire rest of this universe. Certainly that was a technicality; a paradox brought upon by quantum physics, but it was what Alpha needed. All around him platforms sat unattended above a large chasm of a room that lead to windows below showcasing Erebus’s accretion disk.

“They’ve breached our defenses. Our forces have gone dark on Docking Bay B” Epsilon told him.

So, this was it. It was time, “It no longer matters” he said, continuing to work, “They’ve kept them occupied long enough”.

“...I still need more time. They’ll be coming shortly”.

Alpha thought for a moment. Hmm. “...Did you ever get a chance to finish altering Iota’s old device?”

“Theoretically” she said, “It’s still untested. But it should work”.

“Then they come to their doom” Alpha replied, not even bothering to look up as he typed away, “The end comes, as it always does”.

A pregnant silence formed briefly before Epsilon broke it, “...I don’t believe we’ll have a chance to speak again after this”.

That actually did get Alpha to stop and look over. He regarded her, the last member of his team. It was getting rather empty in here, “...Perhaps not, no”.

“Then I guess...it’s been an honor, sir”.

“Do your duty, and I shall do mine” Alpha replied, returning to his work, “Good luck”.

She lingered for a moment longer, but realizing she wasn’t going to get anything more out of him finally closed the link. For a moment she wondered what Beta would do if she were here. Or Delta. More than that, she wondered when she’d stopped caring.

Once, she had dreamed of stars.

---

The hallway was filled with light and blood. Soldiers took cover as the krybots advanced, each uncaring about their existence as they opened fire, the All Flags Navy forces returning in kind.

“FORWARD!” Sid ordered, moving to the next cover spot and opening fire again, “FORWARD!”

As they took a four-way, Sid waved down each hallway, “Machine troops to the left, SPD take the right. Everyone else ON ME!” More krybots came down the hallway and the shooting continued.

As the battle raged, Nikki checked the status of the various squads. So far they’d only managed to take about fourteen percent of the station, but that was fine. They weren’t *trying* to take the whole station, only vital areas and a clear path to the central nexus. And on that, they were doing just fine. Aside from their forward push, several other pushes had been successful as well, and at the moment most teams were busy consolidating the front line and eliminating pockets of resistance.

The laserfire fell silent; they’d won this section of the base. Peacekeeper Team Twelve stood at another three-way intersection; one of the options leading to a staircase and a turbolift that had been sabotaged.

“...Central core is that way” Nikki told Sid, pointing down the hall.

“...And the labs are that way” Trok noted towards the staircase. The team let the facts settle—it was time to split up.

“Then let’s do this” Sid said, rallying his team, “Let’s get Sel, stop crazy-face, and go home and have a goddamn victory party”.

“Look, if...if we don’t make it out...” Trok said, realizing the seriousness of the situation, “I just wanted to say it’s been an honor. I know it’s cheesy and everything and overplayed but...I can’t overstate how important you have all been to me”. He put his hand out.

Xolin put hers over his, “...None of us are dying. I’m making that an order. If you die, I’m going to kill you myself”.

Nikki hesitated; this wasn’t, strictly speaking, her team. She’d been thrown in by Iota to fulfill a purpose, and then she’d sort of haphazardly replaced another teammate of theirs; their real fourth ranger.

Sid put his hand over Trok and Xolin’s, “This is us. This is what we do. We’re going to win; never doubt that. We’re going to win and go home, and in an hour from now we will be *free*. Keep that in your mind. Less than an hour”. He nodded to Nikki, as did the others. Hesitantly, she relented and put her hand on top.

“I know I’ve sort of the replacement ranger, but thank you. I’ll never forget any of you”.

“You were never the replacement” Xolin told her warmly, “You were always just one of the team. Don’t ever think you weren’t”.

“Sixth ranger isn’t yellow ranger” Trok said grinning, “Two entirely different roles”.

“...Thank you” Nikki said with earnestness.

They pulled their hands back; though slightly reluctantly. Trok hugged Xolin tightly and she returned it. Sid nodded at Nikki; it was very likely this would be the last time they would see each other. She returned with a brief hug of her own.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for” Sid told her.

“Take care of yourself” she told him, then turned to Xolin, “All of you”.

“You first” Xolin said with a grin. She and Sid’s eyes met as she let Trok go. She nodded at him emphatically and he returned in kind—it was time to end this. A moment later, the two groups split.

“Squad A with Nikki, Squad B with me!” Sid declared as he and Xolin headed down the hall. The troops followed their teams; the other squad followed Trok and Nikki down the stairwell.

“Sid!” Nikki called back; everyone stopped as Sid turned back to her, “...Learn to live”.

Sid’s expression quickly shifted between surprise, sorrow (briefly), touched, and finally that cocky half-grin, “There’s a chance of it”. The two teams finally broke, heading for their objectives. This time, no one turned to look back.

---

She was *still* slowing the process! They should have been done by now, but still that infuriating girl slowed them. And now the enemy was at the gates. Infuriated, Epsilon stormed over to Sel’s pod, activating a digital window so she could peer in. The sight was not a pretty one; the girl was evaporating before her eyes. Her legs were mostly gone; her arms holding on in strands. An eye was gone; evaporated in the aether. It wasn’t gruesome by any means; she was simply there and then...not there. In fact, by this point she was likely little more than an afterimage. If the Morphing Grid wasn’t sustaining her by churning through her, she would likely simply cease to be.

How ironic that the thing killing her was also the only thing keeping her alive at the moment.

“...Problems?” Sel croaked out, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Why do you persist?” Epsilon demanded to know, “Your body is failing; the more you struggle, the more you try to hold the process back, the quicker it happens. You are killing yourself. Just let the energy flow”.

Sel knew this of course. She didn’t have any illusions about her survival. In the end, Sesh had been wrong--there hadn’t been any hope. She was going to die, regardless of what she wanted. But she would be defiant to the end; they deserved nothing less.

“They’re here, aren’t they?” she replied hoarsely, “I can feel them”.

“You selfish, ignorant child” Epsilon growled.

“I’m...selfish?” the girl asked, not even lifting her head as she spoke, the remnants of her arms still bound to their locks, “All I wanted was a life. You denied me even that”.

“I’m not going to debate with you” Epsilon stated with distaste, “You are a tool, nothing more. You will perform as you were designed”.

Sel managed to lift her head, “Wrong. I will do everything I can to spite you”.

---

Shave and a haircut. That was the tune of the knock given to the door to Alpha’s inner sanctum. When no one answered, the doors were blown open as the red and blue rangers stormed in with a squad of soldiers. They found themselves on a platform above a tall chasm, Erebus spinning silently beyond the windows. Ahead of them, at the end of the platform in the center of the room sat a maelstrom of energy, contained only by the transparent cylinder that dominated the middle of the chamber from the top to the bottom. At the front where the platform met it were several control consoles.

“...Anyone home?” Sid asked jovially as the troops piled in, “I brought cookies!”

Xolin approached the central pillar, covering her eyes as she basked in its impressive glow. The heat radiated even from here; she couldn’t even look directly at it it was so bright, even with the shading of the exterior material, “Wow. That’s...a lot of power”.

“Should be. It’s the collective power of our entire universe twice over” Trok said over their comm link.

“...How is that even possible?” Xolin asked with awe as she took a moment to look around at the rest of the place.

Trok was happy to explain, “You ever heard of Schrodinger’s Cat? It’s a paradox; as long as you’re not directly observing it, that energy can be anywhere—in fact it might as well be everywhere”.

“So this is some real scienc-y shit is what I’m getting” Sid said as he moved over to the controls, looking them over, “How do we stop it?” he paused, “...Y’know, without killing the universe”.

“You don’t”.

The group turned, seeing Alpha standing between them and the doorway.

“...We’re going to have to call you back” Sid told Trok as he and Xolin took up fighting positions.

---

The labs were vacant of people. Just...ambient noises and strange experiments. Trok and Nikki made their way through the mausoleum of science.

“...I hope they’ll be okay” Trok muttered worriedly.

“They’re the two best fighters on the team” Nikki told him, “They’ll be fine as long as we do our job”.

The small contingent of soldiers filed into the room behind them, taking position. Trok meanwhile had taken sight of a large pod structure in the center of the chamber—Morphing energy pulsing around it on his helmet’s scanners. Cautiously he walked over to it, inspecting it with curiosity.

Man, that energy was off the charts. Trok’s heart skipped a beat as he hoped against hope, “...It couldn’t be”.

“I think it is” Nikki said. She however also spied another center of energy at the far end of the room—a smaller pod, about half a person in size atop a pillar, “...So that’s whatever they replaced Izzy with” she commented, walking over to a control panel next to it to see if she could figure out what it was.

Trok didn’t care though. He was busy working on the big pod. Quickly the green ranger scaled around the object, quickly looking over each control panel in sequence, frustrated he wasn’t getting any answers. “Come on, come ON...AUGH! Would it kill them to have some easy user interfaces?!”

“Calm down” Nikki told him.

“I can’t calm down!” Trok exclaimed, still looking over the machine, “Sel’s in here! We have to get her out! She could be dying in there! Everything depends--”

Nikki had crossed the room, grabbing him by the arm and staring him directly in the helmet, “Hey. Take a deep breath. We’re going to get her out, but first we need to Calm. Down”.

Trok did as he was told and exhaled, “...Sorry. I just, it’s been months, and...”

“I know. It’ll be okay. Okay?”

Trok nodded, “Okay”. He made another attempt on the nearest console, forcing himself to calm. It was an Alliance OS at least; if it had been like the Troobian interface in the hanger bay he would have screamed.

“...I think I found it” he breathed. He tensed; this was what he’d waited for for months and now...and now… Closing his eyes, he pressed the button.

Well, it didn’t work *exactly*. The pod didn’t open; instead a virtual window formed on the front, allowing him a clear view in.

There she was.

No.

There was part of her. The rest was...oh man.

“...Sel?” Trok asked, his heart breaking at the poor mangled sight he saw in front of him. Gone was the yellow ranger he’d fought alongside. Instead he found a pale, gaunt ghost of a figure, much of her body having already vanished into the aether.

Weakly, she looked up, disbelieving the voice she heard. When Sel saw Trok standing there, just outside the pod, a look of surprise and disbelief melted into joy, “...You came”.

“Of course we came” Trok said, pressing his hand against the pod, “We’re...we’re going to get you out, okay? Just hold on”.

She was so tired, “...It’s not that simple, Trok. I—behind you!”

Trok didn’t turn in time; Epsilon slashed into his back with her sword. The green ranger fell down as Nikki leaped into the fray, coming down with a series of kicks on her opponent. Drawing her daggers, she parried the antipode’s counterattack as the All Flags troops moved in, opening fire as soon as they had a clear shot.

“Ipsa Azzun!” Epsilon chanted as she broke free of Nikki. The laserfire paused as soon as it came within six inches of her, hovering there for a second before she finished her spell, “ABALAST!” The lasers flew back, hitting all six soldiers in the face and leaving all of them dead on the ground.

“Now then, with the Help out of the way” Epsilon stated as Trok paired up next to the black ranger “Allow me to escort you out of my lab”.

---

The squad of soldiers hadn’t lasted long. Sid wondered why he’d bothered letting them tag along at all. Any hope of reinforcements had died when Alpha had sealed the door shut behind him with a reinforced barrier that had slid shut. Now the three remaining warriors—the red and blue rangers and Alpha himself—did battle above an angry event horizon. The rangers’ attacks were deflected easily as Alpha prepared his own. Charging Morphing energy in his fists, he tossed them at the rangers like glowing tennis balls. Explosions rang out as the two enemies dodged.

“...Grid energy?!” Sid exclaimed in surprise, reading the influx of data from his helmet. He drew his axe, “You infused yourself with power from the Morphing Grid?! You know what that will do to you! Your body can’t support that!” This was bad; depending on how much he’d infused himself with, Alpha may have very well outclassed the two rangers. An Antipode on a normal day with just two rangers was a dicey proposition; but one with Isdilian’s power levels? That was the stuff of tactical nightmares.

Alpha beat back Xolin’s latest offensive as he turned his attention on Sid. The two clashed, “I will survive long enough to end your incessant mewling!” the crimson warrior declared, their two weapons pressing against each other. Alpha pushed Sid away and struck.

“You’re insane! It’ll kill you!” Xolin warned, coming in from behind with her lance. She and Sid struck in tandem, temporarily forcing Alpha on the defensive until he created an aura of power around him.

“Oh, but I am sane!” a whirlwind of energy built, “I am the sanest I’ve ever been”. The energy threw the rangers back. They rolled away into a defensive position, “You don’t get it. You don’t get it because you’re weak. Because you’re soft. Because in the end, you don’t have what it takes”. The aura pooled into his hands, and an electrical storm threw itself out at the rangers, landing solid blows. Their suits sparked and exploded as they again fell back. More lightning blasts came down on them, snaking across their forms as they writhed in agony.

“You think you can win because you feel you’re fated to win” Alpha growled at them, continuing his energy surge, “You think you’re owed this. You don’t believe you have to pay, or sacrifice to achieve victory. How fairy tale of you. Weak, unworthy children”.

This was very bad. Sid could tell from his helmet’s readout that their suits were close to overloading. If they did, then it was all over. They needed an upset.

“XOL! GO LONG!” he called.

Xolin knew what he was going for. Before Alpha even understood what was going on, a second blue ranger struck the red warrior from behind with a knee to his neck. Alpha stumbled forward, allowing a third blue ranger to hit from the side. The first blue ranger rushed forward, picking herself off the floor even as everything was still dizzy.

“Keep him...keep him off center!” Sid slurred, stumbling to his feet. Everything felt hazy and dry. Had purple always tasted like that? “BATTLIZER!”

Red and silver armor formed and wrapped itself around Sid. Wings unfolded as he opened the gun ports. If they were going to win here, they had to hit him fast and hard, “Xol, now!”

The three blue rangers flew out of the way as Sid’s guns charged. The red ranger unleashed a torrent of destruction. Alpha braced himself with his arms and the antipode was thrust back, his boots skidding across the surface. Sid marched forward as he didn’t let up, continuing the barrage unabated.

It wasn’t enough.

Alpha charged through the laserfire, launching himself into Sid. The two red figures flew into the control panel, Sid pinned between an enraged Alpha and the entire power of the universe twice over—honestly, not the best situation. He couldn’t aim his guns, he could barely move as Alpha began to choke the life from him.

“BATTLIZER!”

The armor on Sid’s body vanished, reappearing on a reunified Xolin in silver and blue as she rushed to help her teammate. Alpha turned just in time to see her sword come down, which he grabbed with his bare hand and stopped in mid-swing. Gripping tighter, the blade cracked, then shattered. Before Xolin could respond, power surged through Alpha’s hands as he clapped them together in a wide arc. Power ripped through the battlizer as Xolin was sent flying back into the wall. As she slumped to the floor the mangled remains of the battlizer vanished, shutting down.

“All these toys and they don’t help you at all” Alpha growled, turning back to a rebounding Sid. He grabbed the red ranger by the neck again and began bashing him into the ground again and again, sparks flying on each hit, “Pitiful! Absolutely pitiful!” He tossed Sid aside, “Your world is ending, and this is the best you can manage. A rag-tag fleet. A handful of societal rejects. And a collection of children’s toys” he laughed as Sid struggled to pull himself back up.

“We’ve...gotten this...far” Sid declared as he stood up, drawing his two sidearm blasters, “Everything you’ve thrown at us we’ve taken out. Capricorn. Beta. Delta. Zeta. SPD. You’re running out of minions”.

“Minions are designed to be expendable” Alpha said as he casually strolled forward, “They soak up the enemy and wear them down. You don’t understand that because you still think victory is achievable without sacrifice”. Sid lunged forward, blasting as he closed in before switching to sword mode. Alpha casually knocked the blades aside as he struck at Sid. The red ranger barely held his ground as he took blow after blow. Alpha continued, “You think that because you’ve suffered, because you somehow stumbled here like a petulant child, that you are owed victory. That somehow, you are the hero of this story. The protagonist, and that no matter what, it will get better because fate has decreed it!”

Sid was finally knocked back, crumpling into a heap. Xolin however, was back on the attack. Aiming her rifle, she opened fire from the side, “What the hell are you even babbling about!? How crazy are you?!”

“You come to storm the castle. Slay the dragon” Alpha said, deflecting her shots, undeterred by her comments, “Save the day like the heroes you pretend to be”. In the blink of an eye he was upon Xolin, knocking her gun aside as he delivered a solid gut punched with his charged up fist. She gasped, the wind knocked out of her as he added, “I will dispel you of this foolish notion”. Pulling her arm towards him, he threw her backwards with a spin kick.

“Heroes are a fairytale; propaganda. An illusion used to keep children from crying at the unfairness of it all. They don’t exist”.

“...You...talk a lot” Xolin gasped, pulling herself into a fighting stance. She was down to her bare fists; her weapons had been scattered or shattered. Her suit was sporting battle damage. And she herself was just a little haggard form all the abuse her body had been taking, “But that’s all it is. Talk. Justification for your bullshit. You had no right to do what you’re doing. No right for all the lives you’ve spent, the worlds you’ve ruined”.

Alpha flashed with anger, “No right? I have EVERY right! When faced with extinction, *every* option is preferable! You know nothing of what I have seen, nothing of what we’ve suffered through! You cannot know”.

“She’s right” Sid said, pulling himself up, “It’s just justification. Yeah man, it sucks your universe is dying. If you’d asked, we could have helped. But trying to wipe us out? You’re quick to jump on us for stopping you from saving your people, but we have every right to save ours”.

Alpha glanced between the two of them. Two insignificant ants. Two children, unable to understand the truth. Unable to see beyond their own self-indulgent tropes. He was done with them.

“Such good little heroes” he growled as he absorbed more energy. The two rangers braced themselves as he spoke, “Bringing your fleets, your armies. Your champions and allies. Your convictions and beliefs. But you have not brought them victory, only doom”. He lashed out; an energy storm erupted that crashed into the rangers. Energy whips attacked, striking the rangers. He flew in with a flurry of attacks, not giving them a second to prepare as lightning bolts came down. Sid went down first; despite his somewhat higher stamina, Xolin was faster and more skilled. Soon enough however, she too fell. The two rangers landed in a heap, their suits smoking from the barrage of attacks.

Alpha regarded them, “I will make sure that when the dust settles, when everything is said and done, that your corpses will be nothing more than a regrettable footnote in our history. And at last, my daughter will have a home again”.

---

“SALAS ITZA AMMUNTUN!”

Fireballs launched out from nowhere as Trok and Nikki evaded them. The two rangers landed apart, forcing Epsilon to split her attention. Nikki attacked first, vanishing from view as she rushed in. Epsilon struck where she thought she was, but no dice. Nikki hit from the side, then vanished again. Epsilon counterattacked, then got hit again. Nikki vanished a third time, but by now the antipode had had enough.

“ISLADESH!”

A wave of energy rushed out in a wide arc, catching Nikki as she attempted for hit number three. Before Epsilon could press her attack though, she found her body being imprisoned by Trok’s hammer-mace. The green ranger pulled, green energy surging out into the antipode. She sparked and yelped before the green ranger thrust her up into the air.

He never got to land the hit home.

“ULIDAR ITASSIDON!”

Trok’s weapon unraveled. She grabbed the head of the hammer and forced it to retract into Trok’s hilt, pulling the poor ranger with it. Then, in midair, she threw him against the wall before landing.

“Phantom Mode!” in a flash, form-fitting armor had settled into being over Nikki’s suit. The black ranger went on the attack, extending her new energy wrist blades and striking at the orange antipode. Epsilon blocked with her own sword.

“So what’s behind pod number two?” Nikki asked, referring to the smaller of the two objects, “Izzy’s dead, so you had to have found a replacement somehow”.

Epsilon scoffed at the hologram’s denseness, “Isn’t it obvious? Think back now; I know it’s difficult but try to connect the dots a bit. Where else did you see a conduit?”

Oh...shit.

“...Eltar” Nikki said, her eyes widening in shock. It WAS obvious, why hadn’t she thought of that?

“That’s right” Epsilon said with a slight laugh, “The relic. Wasn’t perfect by any means, but you work with what you have”. She broke her hold against Nikki and then cast a new spell, “ARADON IKSAI!”

Smoke erupted all around them, obscuring Nikki’s vision sensors. She looked around frantically, trying to gauge where her enemy was. Then she got hit. And then hit again. And again. Nikki wasn’t fond of having her own strategy used against her, so she cloaked and rolled out of the way of the cloud. It dissipated soon after, but as Nikki’s cloak ended she found she was now surrounded by at least twelve Epsilons.

Uh oh.

Nikki tried her best to identify the real one, but at a quick glance she couldn’t get a lock. Too late; Epsilon came by again and again, striking at Nikki. She did her best to defend, but whereas they could all hurt her, her attempts to block or attack would simply pass through. Her suit suffered serious abuse before the black ranger was thrown into a control panel, her chest smoking.

“What’s wrong?” all of the Epsilons mocked as the black ranger rose to a defensive crouch, “All that science built into your system and you can’t figure out a simple illusion spell?”

“Simple my ass” Nikki grunted, frustrated that her systems were still coming with nothing. Whatever Epsilon was doing, it was some pretty high-grade stuff.

“A flatterer” Epsilon cooed, then snapped her fingers, “But you’re still going to die”. The group of Epsilons began chanting, “ISHTA ANISH USIPSA!” Each of them started charging up an electrical storm spell. Static electricity began to emanate from the surrounding area and Nikki tensed—getting ready to dodge.

She didn’t have to though, as when the full force of the electrical tsunami came in, Trok intercepted with his hammer. The green ranger let his weapon collect the brunt of the attack like a lightning rod, then just when it was at max capacity he flung the energy back out. The resulting blast absolutely devastated the room. Equipment lay scattered and broken and there were a number of small fires that had broken out; it looked like a storm had rushed through. In fact, it seemed that the only thing that still held together were the two pods.

“Cute” Epsilon grunted, plainly furious at the destruction of her lab, “But that trick won’t save you a second time”.

Sel watched with increasing worry as Epsilon gained the upper hand in the fight. She had to do something; she couldn’t just sit here and let them lose when they were so close, especially when she could detect which Epsilon was the real one; the others seemed...empty somehow. Hollow. But how could she help? She couldn’t create an avatar through the dreamlands anymore; the pain surging through her body was keeping her preoccupied and grounded.

...Maybe she didn’t need to go that far.

Closing her eyes and concentrating as much as she could, she pushed out to Trok. It took a bit of doing; the pain was enormous and she could barely focus. But soon enough, the green ranger...felt something, for lack of a better term.

“...Huh?” Trok gasped, feeling almost light-headed. Like an out-of-body experience that wasn’t quite out-of-body.

Trok! It’s me.

“...Sel?” the green ranger glanced at the pod where his friend still hung inside, seemingly unconscious.

Yeah, I’m sort of telepathically linked to you. I think. Talk about it later. Right now we need to focus on Epsilon’s shadow clones.

This whole thing came as kind of a shock to Trok; as far as he knew, Sel’s native xybrian abilities had never blossomed; what they had thought were it was really just her---Grid abilities, yeah I know. Same deal here; I don’t have xybrian abilities because I’m not a real xybrian. I need you to focus, Trok. Please.

Right. Focus. Trok returned to the matter at hand, and just in time, as Epsilon’s horde rushed at him.

Left!

Trok dodged the first blow.

Right!

Another dodge.

Block!

To Trok’s mild surprise, his sidearm blade actually managed to block the next sword attack. Realizing this was the real Epsilon, he drew his other sidearm and fired at his opponent’s abdomen. Sparks flew as Epsilon staggered back in pain. She was not given any chance to regroup as Nikki launched herself over Trok, violet wristblades at the ready as she came down, cutting through the antipode. Epsilon flew into the wall, her phantoms vanishing.

She staggered to her feet, shocked at the sudden turn of events, “...How? How did you...” she glanced at Sel’s pod, the answer coming to her, “...Wretched girl. I’ve had enough of your interference”. The antipode slammed her fist on the nearest control panel. 94 percent. Hrm. She supposed that was close enough. The options were clear; continue this losing battle as the plan continued on course with the risk of losing it all because the rangers had freed Sel...or go all in, take what was left in one fell swoop. The risk here of course was that the girl really would completely evaporate before they were done. But then, that was a risk anyway even with the first option.

They were close enough; hell with it.

“ATAN ISHLA AKZU!” Epsilon chanted, blowing the two rangers back while she worked on the control panel, “Game’s over, children” she seethed.

Sel felt it just before the pain struck. She looked up in abject terror, “NO!” she got out just before the screaming started.

“Wha—AUGH!” Trok began screaming in pain as well, dropping to his knees in agony as he felt Everything being ripped away.

“Trok, what--” Nikki started, but stopped when she heard Sel’s screaming too. The pod was glowing; she couldn’t see anything inside of it and holy shit the power readouts in that thing were off the scale.

Sel felt herself evaporating. Time seemed to stand still in the agonizing seconds and yet go all too fast at the same time. She burned to a crisp as the full weight of the Morphing Grid moved through her, expending what little life force she had left. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to die. Please. Not like this. Not like-

The power dimmed, the pod fell silent and empty. Trok was whimpering on the ground, “...She’s gone” he choked out, “She’s...she’s gone”.

Nikki looked between him and the pod, realizing what had just happened. What they’d just lost.

“You...” she growled at Epsilon, rage quickly building as Trok simply lay there, “How dare you...”

“How dare I?” Epsilon threw back at her, “All you had to do was lay down and die. How hard was that? This was supposed to be easy. You think I like committing mass murder? You think I got into this for the jolly’s? I got into this to be a goddamn scientist” her voice began to become more frantic, “I wanted to *help* people! But life sucks. And I will not be responsible for the death of my entire universe!”

“You won’t have to worry about that you little monster” Nikki said in anger as she strode forward, “Because I’m going to end your suffering right here”.

Epsilon forced herself to calm, “...No” she said, “You won’t”. Pressing another button, Nikki stopped in mid-stride, suddenly wracked with pain. Not like, physical pain like before she was an AI, or the weird sort of hollow pain she’d felt since. No, this was a deeper pain, a metaphysical pain. Her suit surged with Morphing energy, sparking and glowing as she staggered, shouting in sudden pain. She fell back, and immediately realized her powers were gone.

So were Trok’s.

“...What?” Nikki asked as panic began to set in. She activated her morpher; nothing. Not even a hint of power.

“I control your universe’s Morphing Grid now” Epsilon said with not just a hint of pride, “And I just shut off the power switch for everyone. Ever”.

Panic became despondence. They’d *lost*. Nikki looked herself over again in disbelief, then back at Epsilon.

“It doesn’t matter anyway” Epsilon said, “In a few minutes the two Grid energies we have stored will synch up with your universe’s residual power. The resulting paradox is all we need to start over. But you won’t be here to see it”.

“What?” Nikki asked at the sound of the sudden threat.

“You remember Iota’s project, right? Pocket universes?” Epsilon asked, activating something else with her console, “Well I made one. Have fun”.

Before Nikki could respond, she felt herself being ripped away. The universe pulled away from her vision, becoming dimmer as if she’d stood up too quickly. Then the floor under her gave way and she fell.

---

The sudden surge in power was all Sid had to see to know something had gone terribly wrong. He opened a channel, “Trok, the nexus just lit up like a Christmas tree, what’s going on” no response, “Trok? Nikki?”

Alpha cut through Xolin’s attack, sending her flying back into Sid. Just as he stumbled back and helped her up though, their suits exploded. Power surged and they shouted in pain as their powers left them.

“...What?!” Sid exclaimed in panic, now a mere mortal again.

Xolin tried to activate her morpher to no avail. She kept trying, not understanding why it wasn’t working, “What’s going on!?”

“Simple” Alpha said with a laugh, “Epsilon has finished her work. Your Morphing Grid is now ours, and she’s cut off your power”.

Sid’s eyes widened. As terrible as that was, he realized what else that implied, “...Sel”. Xolin shot a look at him, fear and sorrow filling her.

“Dead, most likely” Alpha agreed, “But I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re about to join her. If I know Epsilon, she’s most likely triggered the trap she laid”.

“What trap?” Sid demanded to know.

“Without your powers, you’re much more...malleable” Alpha said, “You can be moved much more easily. The Grid was an added anchor to this reality. Without it, well...”

“Sid!” Xolin shouted in terror as she felt herself blink out of existence. Sid looked at where she’d just been in shock, but his attention was soon taken by his own fading existence. Alpha didn’t need to elaborate, as Sid’s vision was ripped away as he was pulled in a direction that wasn’t height, width, or depth. Reality fell away, and so did he.

---

It was a dark place. The ground was muddy and putrid—not exactly the best thing Sid wanted to have to pull himself up from. Ew. Stagnant water surrounded him in what looked to be some sort of bog. Dead, twisted tree husks rose up into the sky and in the distance he saw sharp, jagged cliffs and mountains—some of them floating in midair. The sky was dark, covered in thick stormy clouds. The only real light was by the weird fungal growths that filled the forest undergrowth.

It was cold too. And wet.

Sid looked around for any kind of sign or clue as to where he was at, but there wasn’t. This place, wherever it was, he’d never been to.

“...Xolin?” he called out, “Xolin!” louder that time, but there was no sign of her. He was alone. He was powerless and alone.

Again.

---

To be Continued...
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Old August 5th, 2017, 12:16 PM   #49
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The sky was ablaze with fire.

Thousands of ships rained death upon one another in a sphere of activity around the antipode station. The battle had spread out since the ground troops had boarded the base—as per Sid’s strategy. Phase one had been to meet the enemy in battle and surround them, thus throwing them off-guard. But the smaller All Flags Navy wouldn’t be enough to beat the larger antipode forces that way. And so as soon as Sid had left the orchestration of the fight to his father, phase two had been implemented. The battle had spread out; a wide open affair that forced the already injured lines of the antipode forces to unfurl and hunt down their opponents. The All Flags Navy no longer had to defeat the enemy fleet, they only had to wait. Time was now on *their* side.

But it was still a bloodbath. In one part of the battle, a troobian battleship came down on a machine gearship below, pounding on it with its beam cannons. The machine ship ruptured and was pulled apart with a gigantic explosion as three wings of Triforian obelisk fighters swooped in and up at the offending ship, opening fire as they closed in. Moderate damage was done to the hull—especially when two of the fighters were shot down and collided with the hull.

Elsewhere, twin aquitian ships, in formation, were ripped to shreds, colliding with the nearest antipode-SPD ship. Wings of pirate strike craft flew into a swarm of Troobian cruisers; carnage ensued.

This was the endgame. This was the bloodletting that the Antipodes had spent years preparing for. These were their own personal fields of Megiddo, the battle at the end of the world. Only one side would triumph and secure a future, and it would not be without cost.

Within this vast sphere of chaos, one little ship found itself tailed by three enemy fightercraft, even as it passed over an SPD frigate.

Sitras gripped the controls tightly as the ship shuttered from the assault. “Tesas!” she angrily told her gunner.

“I’m working on it!” the aquitian grumbled back as the Megaship’s guns opened fire, “If you’d keep the ship more steady it’d be easier”.

“If I kept the ship steady they’d have an easier target!”

One of the ships tailing them exploded after being hit by Tesas’s barrage. “Got one!”

“I’m going to try to shake the other two!” Sitras said. Before Tesas could object, the Megaship made a hard turn, divebombing towards a Triforian battle pyramid as it and a Hive mothership faced down a Troobian assault carrier. The three traded blows as the Megaship neared, veering off at the last second and tracing the pyramid’s outline. One of the fighters didn’t make it; exploding on the pyramid’s hull. The other was shot down by a friendly Triforian fighter, giving the Megaship the clear.

“YEAH!” Sitras exclaimed in triumph.

“What happened to ‘dignified princess’?” Tesas teased.

She was about to sound a retort, when instead suddenly everything on the ship shut down, leaving them in utter darkness. It was only for a split second before auxillary power kicked in, but they were already in full panic mode.

“...What just happened?!” Sitras asked as she desperately checked her systems.

Tesas was already doing a full system diagnostic, “Main power’s offline. I don’t know why. I’m trying to reactivate it, but it’s not responding”. The aquitian stood up and headed towards the door, “I’m going to engineering to see if I can’t restart the Mega Accelerator manually”.

“We can’t fight like this” Sitras told him, “I’m going to dock us with the triforian ship”.

---

“Report!” Admiral Drake demanded to know as the consoles of his ship flickered back to life after the sudden power drain, “Status update!”

“A number of generators just went down” one of his subordinates, male, said, currently sitting in front of one of the many consoles that lines the bridge of his flagship, “...None of them are responding. Engineering’s reporting total failure for generators two, four, and nine”.

“...Two, four, and nine?” Admiral Drake repeated in distress, “Those are the Mega Accelerators...”

“Sir, I’m getting reports from the whole fleet. We’re seeing multiple systems shutdown from every device with a link to the Morphing Grid” another officer, male, stated.

“...Impossible” Admiral Drake gasped, bringing up his own readout of the fleet on a holoscreen. It was just as had been said; numerous ships were having issues. The entire Eltarian contingent was basically dead in the water. “This can’t be possible”.

Another officer, female, also spoke, “Getting reports that enemy ships are also suffering. Still no clue what’s causing it”.

The enemy was afflicted too; thank god for small miracles. Still, this was bad. This was extremely bad. It was like the entire Morphing Grid had simply ceased to exist. An entire pillar of existence was gone. It would be like if gravity or magnetism suddenly stopped working. As bad as things were now in this fight, what could the long-term ramifications be?

Admiral Drake turned his gaze to the Antipode Station, “...What have you done?” he asked in quiet terror.

That was when Admiral Lacanth’s image appeared on another screen from his own flagship, “Admiral, we have problems”.

Problems indeed.

---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Series Finale

3.13: The Trolley Dilemma part three of four: Out of Many, One


---

The status on the front lines could best be summed up as ‘panic’. Without warning or reason, every hero with access to the Morphing Grid had been suddenly and seemingly irrevocably stripped of their protections. Once the vanguard of the assault, the former rangers, riders, and other assorted heroes were now little more than rank and file soldiers—and some civilian teams weren’t even that well armed and had become civilians that needed protection. The effect wasn’t limited to just them either, as basic magic seemed to have been severely weakened. Mages were now almost useless, to say nothing of their enchantments.

Now on the defensive, the remaining All Flags infantry ceased expanding through the Antipode base; instead in some places they’d begun to fall back to more defensible territory. The advance had ceased.

This was bad enough, but even worse was that the snake’s head had been removed from the body. No one could contact Sid or any of Peacekeeper Team Twelve. No one knew what had transpired in the innermost sanctum of the base, nor could anyone find out, as the entrances had all been sealed shut with not just heavy metal barriers, but also numerous force fields and magical enchantments. It would take forever to break through.

And they didn’t have forever. Not that that didn’t stop some from trying; a few dedicated squads of soldiers and mages (even without their spells, they had technical knowhow) began working their way through the defenses. The alternative, after all, was death.

Relaying this information back to the fleet didn’t help much either, as they apparently had their own problems to deal with. Whatever had stripped the ground forces of any ranger powers had also partially crippled the All-Flags Navy and left them vulnerable. What had seemed like imminent victory was now quickly slipping away into total defeat.

And yet, as madness and desperation gripped everyone, one question lingered on everyone’s mind.

Where was Peacekeeper Team Twelve?

---

It was dark, and cold. Trok found himself wandering around aimlessly in an otherworldly canyon. Dead, twisted trees lined the cliffsides, reaching up to the stormy sky that never quite let loose. The soil was muddy and putrid; the (former) green ranger had nearly vomited his lunch all over the ground upon arrival, and even now he was still struggling to get used to it. Only the ambient light of the magma pits that littered the area gave any sort of illumination beyond ‘full moon’.

It was the perfect place to die.

And why not? They’d lost. The Morphing Grid had been wiped out; Trok didn’t even want to think about the ramifications of that. He’d lost his friends and been trapped here in this hellish pocket dimension without any way out. There was no way to save home anymore.

He’d felt Sel’s death throes as she’d been ripped from his mind. He’d *felt* her die. It was like part of him had just been torn off, like he’d lost a limb, for forgotten half his life. He numbly stumbled through the canyon, still dazed to the whole affair. The lingering pain was almost overwhelming. Everything felt...hollow.

Why was he even still walking? How could he even bare to walk? What was the point? What was he walking TO? Maybe he should just jump in one of the lava ponds.

No, no. Don’t do that. Don’t give up. Sel was...gone, but the others were just unaccounted for. Focus on that. He had to find them...somehow. Then together maybe, they could figure something out. Time travel, or something.

They’d done it before.

...Sort of.

“NIKKI?” he called out, “SID? XOLIN!” Nothing. He checked the sensors on his morpher, but it was dead as a doornail. To be expected. Despair flickered within him again.

That was when he heard the growl. Trok turned, catching sight of a beast of sorts—matted fur, but still reptilian in design. It was twice his height and four times as long, with razor sharp teeth and claws. A shell covered its backside, filled to the brim with orange and red crystals that jutted out and looked just as sharp as the teeth. Two nasty tails with spikes extended from its rear. And it was looking directly at Trok. In hunger.

“...Uh oh” Trok managed to utter, taken aback by the sudden turn in development. The creature snorted angrily. “Uh...”

It charged.

The horathean ran, faster than he’d ever ran before. He attempted to evade, using his smaller size to round by rock formations and get through narrow passes, but as it turned out the creature’s mighty crystal horns were more than enough to simply smash through any barrier Trok tried to put between them.

“CRUDCRUDCRUDCRUD!”

Up ahead was a cave. OH THANK THE SPIRITS.

Trok dived head-first into the cave mouth, sliding through into the interior. The beast rammed into the rock wall, but only managed to disorient itself. Dust and pebbles rained down as Trok looked back, scuttling backwards further into the cave. The monster tried again, but still no success. It then tried digging its way in and seemed to be doing okay at first...until it wasn’t. It huffed, not wanting to give up, but not finding a solution. Finally, it wandered off a bit, looking for another way in. Trok could still hear it outside though, sniffing around.

“Oh jeeze” he gasped, standing up and dusting himself off before taking a look at the prison he’d thrown himself into. It was fairly good sized; a ‘waterfall’ of molten material flowed down from an opening further up, dumping into a stream that eventually pooled into a pond not too far away from where he was. The rock here was like the rest of the realm he’d seen; dark and grayish. And jagged, couldn’t forget jagged. There were numerous cliffs and ledges, but no clear exit.

Crap.

He glanced down at his dead morpher in frustration, “If only I had a sensor map, at least. Or...something” he grumbled to himself. He was so caught up in finding an exit he didn’t notice the other person sneak up on him.

“Hey Trok!”

He jumped; he wasn’t prepared for another pe—wait. That voice. It couldn’t be.

Trok dared to look up at the nearest ledge, where the voice had come from. A very familiar person beamed down at him with a wide smile. Trok looked on, dumbstruck.

Sel was alive.

---

The island floated above the ground several stories. Xolin found herself with a majestic view of...well, whatever this hellhole was. Numerous other rocks found themselves stationary over the jagged mountains, cast in the dark shadows of the sunless, stormy sky. Her own island was a few dozen feet wide, fractured in multiple places and possibly in the process of a slow disintegration. The soil was slimy and muddy and a bit of a chore to walk on.

A mere few seconds ago she’d been facing off against Alpha. Everything, all they’d accomplished, ripped away in a matter of seconds.

And Sel was dead.

Her morpher was lifeless; useless even for just tracking the others down. She was alone in this deserted hellhole as her own universe faced extinction. And she could do nothing.

This was a fate worse than death.

In a sudden flash of rage, she kicked a rock off the side of the cliff, yelling in futile anger at the unfairness of it all. Sinking to her knees, she instinctually shivered slightly as an unpleasant humid and cold breeze filtered through.

“Bullshit” she whispered. Then louder, echoing out into the hellish landscape, “BULL. SHIT!”

“I don’t believe I raised you to be so unbecoming”.

Another shiver went down Xolin’s spin, her stomach turning over. It wasn’t because of the weather this time though. That voice. She’d never wanted to hear that voice again. How he was even hear, she couldn’t---

“You should look at me when I talk to you. Stand up”.

The authoritative tone was unmistakable. Slowly and methodically, Xolin stood up, reluctantly turning around to the source of the voice.

“Hello, Xolin” said her father.

---

Sid had decided that swamps were his least favorite type of terrain. The boggy forest was tiring to navigate; the trees blotted out what little light there was, forcing him to navigate via the strange bio luminescent fungal growths. The soil was absolutely soaked with foul-smelling liquid, slowing his process to...where WAS he going anyway?

Wait, one of the lights were moving. Sid squinted, looking in the distance. The small ball of light fluttered about, as if to catch his attention, then descended further into the swamp.

“...You have got to be kidding” Sid grumbled, following the light as best he could. This was what he was reduced to; following a will’o the wisp in an otherdimensional swamp on the vague hope it would lead him to something useful.

Might as well hope some lady would offer him a sword and a kingdom.

The light was getting further ahead. Sid called out, “Hey, wait!” even as he was embarrassed for doing so. The light didn’t stop however, and rounded the trees. By the time Sid got there, it was gone. Damn.

“Well, there goes that” Sid said, grumbling. Now what?

“Let’s be honest, dude. It was probably going to lead you to something that was going to eat your face anyway”.

No way. That was impossible. That *voice*. Sid peeled himself away from where he’d lost track of the light, only to find himself with three other people. Three other very familiar people. Two humans, a male and female, and a rock golem.

“Matt” Sid managed to croak out at the male.

Matt put on one of his wide, cocky grins, “Hey Sid. Long time, no see”.

---

All at once she felt her physical form burn away. Her mind was ablaze as her remaining nerves ceased to be—painfully. And then, darkness. She fell; and then...expanded? Suddenly her consciousness, freed from its mortal shell, began to swell in all directions. She felt things she’d never encountered, saw things she’d never witnessed. It was like the dreamlands, but all at once, in all directions, and she was living it, feeling it. Her consciousness expanded to all corners of everything. She began to lose herself, pulling apart too far to retain her identity, who she was. Agony rippled through as her mind was overloaded with sensations and information and knowledge, as she came to touch every corner of creation. She burned up.

And then darkness overtook her.

When she awoke, Sel found herself with a splitting migraine and lying on the floor of a very familiar place. She grunted in pain as she sat up, cradling her head in her hand.

Her whole hands.

She was whole.

Well, sort of. The fact that she was in that rotunda with the nearly infinite number of doors told her that she wasn’t on the physical plane. Another throb from her headache and she redoubled her efforts to press her hand on her head.

“...I’m so tired of spirit quests” she sighed in irritation, now sitting upright, “Ow”. It was starting to feel like her life was on endless cycle; dream quest, horrible torture, rinse and repeat. If she never saw this place again, she would be perfectly fine. Sel looked around, “So what is it this time?” she asked the universe, “Andromeda? Elder Sesh? My brother?”

“Not quite” came the familiar and very unwelcome voice. Sel shot to her feet, even as her head protested and did her best to get into a defensive pose. There in front of one of the doors stood the Man with the Briefcase, adjusting his glasses. “Hello, Sel. We have much to discuss, and far less time”.

---

The ruins didn’t meet with anything on Nikki’s database. Whoever had lived here on this pocket plane, it wasn’t anyone modern civilization knew about. She wondered how long this dimension had been in existence; a thousand years? Ten thousand? A million? It seemed quite large, which meant that it could survive far longer than say, something that was only the size of a room. The so-called ‘Dark Dimension’ that had been so important in early human ranger history had completely evaporated into nothing by the mid-twenty-first century, having long ceased to have been nourished by its caretakers. But that place had only been about the size of a soundstage.

This looked like a world, if not larger. Not that Nikki could really tell, considering most of her systems were inoperable. In fact, it was amazing she had power at all. The Morphing Grid was gone; most of her morpher’s functions were gone with it. All she had now were what could be activated on her backup battery—i.e., her main computer systems and holo-generator. She hated being reduced in capabilities—she’d kind of forgotten how limited base organics were in terms of sensory output. Nikki had really come to rely on her map sensors.

Dang.

Lightning from the ever-present clouds struck one of the ruin’s spires, diverting her attention. She’d arrived here not too far from the edge of this complex and had moved inward since. They where white—or had been, once, before the mud and fungi had gotten to it. Graceful but stern arches and pathways dominated the complex, though by now much had been eroded away, leaving eerie silent half-built structures. It was almost like a maze, but still well-ordered enough that she was able to find her way to the center with not too much in the way of trouble.

The central courtyard was dominated in the center by what looked like some sort of fancy well. All around it were arches and spires that reached up into the sky. Each spire also contained a small alcove at about shoulder level, each with a softly glowing cyan crystal and a detailed relief above it—twelve in all. Another lightning strike came down, hitting another spire. Nikki jumped back, instinctively.

So this is where she was going to be trapped forever, huh?

“I should have just cut my losses and stayed dead” she half-joked to herself. In part it was to remind herself that she was still here, she still had a voice. It was also to keep absolute despair from flooding through her; she was stuck here, with no way out. She’d never see anyone ever again and when her battery finally ran out…

Well, best not to think about that.

She sighed as she looked over the ruins, “Figures one of Iota’s toys would do me in. It’s friggin’ poetry”.

“Not entirely” Iota said, standing in one of the archways as thunder sounded, “But it definitely rhymes”.

---

Admiral Drake’s bridge shook slightly as his flagship took another hit. His attention however was drawn to the series of holo-windows he was quickly becoming surrounded by, each carrying the visage of a different fleet commander. Represented were Admiral Lacanth of the SPD forces, General Phonobot of the Machine Empire, Coros of Aquitar, Mage Antreii of Eltar, Elder Sesh of Xybria, and half a dozen other heads of fleet. The mood was that of panic.

“We should pull back” Prince Krish of the Hive forces stated, “Our position is compromised”.

“And leave our forces on the station behind?” Antreii stated, “Preposterous!”

“We couldn’t escape even if we wanted to” said Coros, “With the Grid gone, FTL travel is impossible. We can’t leave the system”.

“Leaving is suicide anyway” Lacanth said, “Where would we run to when the universe gets reformatted?”

Admiral Drake looked at the assembled war leaders, “The fact remains however, the current plan of attack is no longer effective. The Eltarian forces are crippled, and the rest of our fleet has taken heavy setbacks. The enemy has suffered too, but the fact remains”.

“Options?” Lacanth asked.

“Regroup” Admiral Drake replied, “Close ranks. The wide field of battle worked when we were buying time, but now we need to protect our weakest members; hold the line as long as we can. Most heavily effected ships in the center, least in front”.

“We’ll be sitting ducks” said Coros.

“We don’t have much of a choice” Antreii replied, “...If this is to be our armageddon, then so be it. We die for the universe”.

“Has there been any word from Peacekeeper Team Twelve?” General Phonobot, a female robot in Victorian fashion, asked.

Admiral Drake shook his head, “No word. The rest of our ground forces are pinned and on the defensive. We’ve played our last card. Everything now rests on those kids”.

“And if they’ve failed?” Prince Krish asked.

Silence fell, only the dull sounds of the firefight outside echoing until Admiral Drake spoke again, “...Then may we find peace in our deities”.

---

Alpha idly watched the enemy forces slowly being pushed back on his holo-screens. Good, good. Some areas were stubbornly resisting, while others were slowly withdrawing to their beachhead.

It no longer mattered; they weren’t anywhere close to the nexus anymore, and so nothing they did was of consequence anymore.

The timer ticked down. Soon the nexus would synch up. The universe only permitted paradoxes as long as it didn’t directly observe them; quantum physics was full of them. But when you forced the universe to understand its own folly; when you somehow managed to observe Schrodinger’s Cat, reality would not be able to stand. At this moment the nexus contained the entire power of the universe twice over, thanks to being charged up by two conduits—Sel and the Eltarian artifact (and before that, by Isdilian). Soon, once the energy was aligned properly and in synch with itself, the universe would understand its error.

And in that moment of fluidity, Alpha would be able to rewrite creation, and convert this universe into a habitable one.

Not much time now.

Not much time at all.

---

The only thing Trok could utter was one simple word.

“...How?”

It’s...complicated” Sel said, kneeling and extending a hand to Trok. The horathean grabbed it and she hauled him up onto her ledge.

“I felt you die” Trok blurted out, “You were...ripped from my mind. You were *gone*”.

“Like I said, complicated. I’m not entirely sure what happened myself. One moment I was...” she hesitated, “Look, it’s not important right now. We need to get out of here”.

“We need to find the others” Trok said as they began to climb up further ledges. Sel led as he followed her, “Once we’re all together, I’m sure we’ll be able to come up with a plan”. He was mostly running on autopilot; in truth Trok was still reeling at the sudden reversals. Sel was back! It was a miracle! She was back and….and they could DO this!

“I’m going to get you out first, then find the others” Sel replied as they scurried into one of the cave’s branching hallways, away from the main chamber, “It’ll be quicker that way”.

Oh. Um. Okay. That was...different, “You don’t need my help? I mean, I’m not offended or anything, but wouldn’t it be faster if we worked together?”

“I’m just hedging my bets” Sel replied, “Look, we don’t have a lot of time, I don’t know if the xenoformer will affect this pocket dimension or not. If we wait to get everyone all at once, we could risk losing everyone. But if I get you guys out one at a time, at worst some of us will still get out”.

Trok paused. When she noticed he wasn’t following, she looked back, “...What?”

Trok frowned, “That’s...kind of cold” he said.

She looked away, embarrassed, “I’m...just being pragmatic. I’m sorry. It’s the kind of choices we’ve had to make. Hopefully I can get everyone”.

Trok nodded in understanding. They resumed walking, now on an incline when he asked, “So where are you dropping me off at?”

“A place called Kinsara Gorge. It’s beautiful; you’ll love it” Sel said as they arrived at a hole in the ceiling that led to the outside.

Wait, what? Trok frowned again, in confusion, “...Wait, you’re not taking us back to the battle? Then what’s the plan?”

Sel jumped up, grabbing hold of the ledge before pulling herself up. Scrambling up topside, she then reached down and grabbed Trok’s hand, pulling the larger horathean up. She was stronger than he remembered. Probably Morphing Grid abilities. Isdilian had been stronger too.

“The plan--” Sel grunted as she pulled Trok up, “--is to get all of us to safety”.

Both of them stood up as Trok pressed her, “No, I mean, how do we stop the Antipodes?”

“Trok...” Sel started, distraught, “...It’s not that easy. I wish it was. I really wish it was”.

“...What are you saying? Aren’t we going to save the universe?” Trok asked, becoming somewhat frantic, “That’s the plan, right? That’s what we’re going to do”.

“The Antipodes have the Morphing Grid, Trok” Sel stated, “They have all the cards. In a few minutes, it’s not going to matter what we want to do. If we want to live, we have to escape”.

“...Escape where?” Trok asked. They were just going to give up? Let so many innocents die? This wasn’t right. None of this was right. He was trying to grasp the logic here and it just wasn’t happening.

Sel hesitated, “I...when I was being absorbed. I was...I found another universe. One that follows the physical laws of our own. We can escape there, all of us. The whole team”.

Trok blinked in disbelief. This wasn’t the Sel he knew. What had happened to her? What had the Antipodes done to her? “...You want us to invade another universe?!” he exclaimed in distress, “Just like they did?!”

“What?! No, of course not” Sel said, correcting him, “We’re nothing like them. We’re not going to terraform the universe. Like I said, we can exist just fine. We’re just going to...hide out, I guess. Blend in”.

“And you just want to abandon our home” Trok accused, now a little more angry than surprised and distressed, “Leave countless people to die”.

“And what would you have us do?!” Sel bit back, “Wander back in just to die? We don’t have any powers anymore, Trok. And they’re about to reset the universe any minute. We don’t have *time*. We can’t save everyone”. Sel turned, and with a wave of her hand as they stood on the top of the rockface, a portal appeared; a shimmering oval of blue energy. “I’ve still got a little bit of residual energy. Enough to do this, at least for now”.

“...You’re not how I remember” Trok said sadly, “The Sel I knew wouldn’t have been so cold about this”.

“The Sel you knew was a puppet” Sel said, a twinge of anger in her voice, “And you’re not quite how I remember either”.

“…What?” Trok asked, honestly confused...and self conscious, “What do you mean?”

“Trok, you ran away from home to avoid judgement. If it hadn’t been for Xolin and Sid, you would have let people in your clan suffer for the crimes you brother charged you with”.

Trok looked like he’d been hit with a brick, “I...that was then. I’m not the same person. What I tried to do was wrong, I realize that now”.

“So what about when you tried to rewrite time in order to save me?” Sel pressed, indignation in her voice, “Was that just a ‘lapse in judgement’?”

“...How did you even know about that?!” Trok asked, now firmly on the defensive and not having really any cards to play at all.

“I was the *Morphing Grid*, Trok!” Sel replied as if he was dense, “I FELT that! At least I’m honest. You talk a big game and then decide to be a hypocrite!”

Thunder boomed in the distance.

“...I’m sorry” Sel said, brushing her hand through her hair with regret, “I didn’t mean it like...”

“...You think I’m a hypocrite?” Trok asked, hurt.

“I...” Sel chose her words carefully, “I think you want the best. But I think you also know, deep down, that sometimes the best isn’t possible, even if you don’t want to admit that. So we have to settle for the next best option”.

“Like giving up” Trok said. No judgment in his voice, but weary resignation.

She nodded, “Look, Trok. Let’s be honest. Was there even anything in that universe to go back to? You can’t go home; your brother banished you. The Confederacy only ever saw us as tools. The Peacekeepers are gone. Iota’s gone. What would we even do? We don’t owe them a damn thing, Trok. Let’s just...go. Cut our losses and go. Find somewhere nice and just...settle down, huh?”

Settling down. No more fighting. They could just leave right now. Trok looked at the portal longingly. All he had to do was step through.

“Please Trok” Sel said, “Every minute we spend arguing here is one less minute I have to find the others. Please”.

The portal beckoned, and Trok began to move towards it, if very reluctantly.

---

It was like she was twelve years old all over again. He towered over her, a reminder that no matter how far she ran, no matter how much she pretended otherwise, in the end she was just a little girl pretending.

Her father sighed in disappointment. It was *that* sigh. The one that let her know she was in trouble, “A sad state of affairs, isn’t it?”

“...How are you here?” Xolin asked him, honestly confused. Her normal fire was gone though, as if extinguished by his sudden presence. Amazing how one person could revert years of development simply by being. How you could be an entirely different person, against your will, just because of someone’s presence.

“That’s all you have to say to me?” her father asked in disappointment, “After all this time? After everything that’s happened?”

“I--” Xolin stuttered, “It’s just---”

“Have we had our fill of fun?” he asked, “Gallivanting across the cosmos? Ending up face-first in the dirt in two-bit fighting rings. Wasting meager winnings getting drunk. Fighting other people’s wars for them. Have we gotten it all out of our system?”

“This isn’t a phase, if that’s what you’re asking” Xolin said, summoning her courage.

“Yes, of course it’s not. Just like throwing yourself into temple service wasn’t”.

“That’s not...” Xolin trailed off—hadn’t she run away in part BECAUSE he’d redirected her life away from the temple and towards marriage? Funny how that works. “That’s not fair!” she said, a bit more petulant than she’d wanted.

Her father began to pace around her, circling, “I thought that if I let you leave, you’d work this aggression out on your own. That, eventually, you’d realize what was really important. But my patience wears thin. You’ve wasted enough time in idle flights of fancy”.

“It’s not an idle flight” Xolin said, anger and frustration bubbling up, “This is important! I’m trying to save the universe! The longer we stand here, the closer we get to armageddon!”

Her father wasn’t having any of it though, “Don’t take that tone with me. I didn’t raise my daughter to be so disrespectful to her elders”. She looked away, chastened. He continued, “The fact of the matter is, you’ve failed in your bid, haven’t you? Your powers are gone, and you’re trapped here. If I hadn’t come to rescue you, you’d have spent the rest of your days in this hellhole”.

“I have to find the others” Xolin said, “We’ll think of something--”

“They’re gone, Xolin. They left”.

“...What?” Xolin asked, not quite sure she’d heard him correctly.

“Your team, right? The other three? They left. They’re have the matter well in hand; in fact last I heard, they were just about wrapped up. There wasn’t time, and you would have just slowed them down”.

Her mind was swimming. They...they wouldn’t have abandoned her. “That’s a lie!” she declared in a sudden fit of rage.

Her father matched her, “You dare impugn my honor and sanctity!? When have I *ever* lied to you?”

“I--” she faltered, her rage evaporating; he was right. Whatever else, her father had always been as pious as possible. He was a true believer. The others...they’d...left her.

He calmed himself, “You failed in your bid. Accept that. Own it and move on, like any self-respecting member of our House would. You will return with me to our home. There, you will represent our House and bring it honor, instead of being the petulant child you’ve been all this time”. He tapped a device on his wrist and a portal formed behind them.

“...By ‘represent’, you mean ‘marry some rich kid’, right?” Xolin muttered in distaste, looking away.

“Did you have something better to do?” her father admonished, “Would you rather stay here forever?”

Her friends had abandoned her. They probably hadn’t thought of it that way; Sid had probably just thought it expedient. As soon as the job was done they’d come back for her. But that was where it hurt; she wasn’t vital. She wasn’t needed.

As she’d always feared, she was just a liability. And now here she stood, with the man she hated most in the universe, forcing her back home. Back to a place where she didn’t fit. A square peg in a round hole.

She was a failure in all things. She always had been.

“I don’t want to go” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She was all but broken.

Her father put his hand on her shoulder, his tone becoming gentler, “It’s for the best. Come home, Xolin. Your mother misses you. Life isn’t so terrible. Learn to accept what you can and can’t do”.

The portal beckoned.

---

Sid was surrounded by ghosts.

“...How?” was all he managed to blurt out.

Matt chuckled, walking up to Sid as he slapped his hand on Sid’s shoulder, “Really, dude? We live in a universe full of magic spells, alien wizards, and pocket universes, and you can’t deal with a couple ghosts?”

Certainly, ghosts were a real verifiable subject. But still, their relative rarity made them something of an improbability in daily life; certainly, if your friend broke a world record in something it would make you think considering how rare that was. It was a similar thing here; conversing with the dead was not a normal thing.

“...All of you?” Sid asked, looking back at Sarah and Akire. Sarah gave a wave, the rock golem just nodded impassively.

“We’ve been looking for you for a while. You’re hard to track down” Sarah said, currently sitting on a rock about her height, her legs dangling.

Sid was still a little dumbstruck, “It’s...good to see you again” he said, finally. It was true; it was almost like old times all over again. If only Nikki was here too.

“I would hope so!” Matt said with that big grin of his, “After all, you got us killed”.

Sid froze.

“Not that it really seems like you spent much time on that” Sarah said dryly, “Moved on with your life and everything”.

Sid’s throat went dry, “I didn’t...I spent years mourning you...”

“Well I’m sure we all appreciate it” Sarah grunted in mild irritation.

Seeing the conversation veer off, Matt decided to steer it back on course, “Oh come on, Sarah. We didn’t come out here all this way just to lay blame. Though, I’ll say” he laughed a little as he circled around Sid, “SOMEBODY hasn’t learned the definition of insanity yet”.

“...What?” was all Sid was able to ask. His mind was swimming. This sudden turn of events, this unsettling situation. All the guilt and blame. The memories—No. Not now.

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” Matt laughed, “We died and you just picked up a new team. How long until they kick the bucket? Maybe they already have”.

“It’s statistics” said Akire with his deep, gravely voice, not moving from his spot.

“Right, thanks rock-man” Matt joked, then wheeled back on Sid, “Simple probability. I’m sure Nikki could give you a demonstration since you got her turned into a computer”.

“What Matt’s trying to say” Sarah butted in, rolling her eyes at the whole thing, “Is that if you flip a coin, it has a fifty percent chance of coming up heads, and a fifty percent chance of coming up tales. If you come up heads and flip it again, it now has a higher chance of coming up tails. Eventually, the more you flip it, the chances of you hitting tails becomes higher and higher until eventually, well...”

“You keep heading into fights and you keep thinking you can win” Matt said, a bit more soberly than before, “And maybe for that battle, you can. But really you’re just gambling every time. And eventually, you’ll gamble wrong”.

“You can’t always win” Sarah said, “We’re proof of that. What happens when you lose again?”

A portal opened behind Sarah.

“You were the team strategist” Matt told Sid, “You can’t tell me you don’t know how to know when to fold”.

Sid turned to the portal. It beckoned.

---

“...You” Sel breathed, staring down the Man with the Briefcase.

The man gave her a slight smile as he nodded, briskly walking into the door-filled room, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” He caught sight of her defensive posture and chuckled slightly, “Still don’t trust me? If I remember correctly, I helped you last we met. Got you a way out of that cell they were keeping you in”.

“Not that it worked exactly” Sel bit back, “And you’ve helped the Antipodes before, too”.

He shrugged, “I can’t help that you squandered your chances. But whatever else you might think, I’m on your side here, Sel. I want what you want”.

She wasn’t giving him an inch, “And what would that be?”

He smiled, a sight that was just a little unnerving, “Freedom, of course”.

“...Freedom?” she repeated, distrustful. Something about him had always set her on edge. Even back during her first meeting, something about him had felt...wrong. Incorrect. The Morphing Grid didn’t integrate with him like it did with most other living things.

“Indeed!” the man said, “At this moment, you are in a bit of a predicament. Your physical body is gone, removed from existence. By all accounts, you should be dead”.

“But I’m not” she said, following him as he paced around her.

“Not entirely, anyway. Not traditionally. For you are also the Grid, and right now the entirety of the Grid is focused in a singular moment, in a singular way. Are you familiar with the Big Bang?”

“...Like, the beginning of the universe?” she asked, not sure where this sudden jump in conversation was going.

The man nodded, stopping. He adjusted his glasses again, “In the beginning, there was a singular point of zero dimensions. There was a singular moment of zero time. In the beginning there was nothing, except the seed. But then, there was everything”.

“What are you getting at?”

“Right now we are...between moments, I guess you could say. We are in the infinite time between time. That singular moment when choices are made. Your choice, to be specific”.

“What choice?” She was getting tired of him beating around the bush, “Just get to the point already”.

A door to their right opened, white light cascading out. Bright enough that it flooded into the room, but strangely not blinding. Sel tried to see what was beyond, but no dice.

“Right now, you are in a unique position. Normally upon the expiration of your physical form, you would have been reabsorbed by the Morphing Grid itself” the man said.

Sel’s eyes widened in shock; that must have been what she’d felt before coming here—her consciousness expanding into nothingness. “...I was...” what was the correct word? “...evaporating”.

The man nodded, “Correct. But right now the Antipodes have the entirety of the power of creation within their grasp. The universe’s lifeblood, the energy that keeps it going. All of it is bottled up. And all of it is you”.

“...Me?”

“At this moment, Sel, *you* are the Morphing Grid”

Sel contemplated this information; everything seemingly checked out with what she’d known and suspected. Still, she would never not be suspicious of this man. She motioned towards the open door, “So what’s through there?”

“Salvation”.

She gave him a flat stare, “Could you be more specific?”

He sighed; evidently a little peeved he couldn’t be dramatic. It was likely the most human she’d ever seen him. “Right now you are between moments. You are the singularity of creation. The Antipodes believe they can win, but all you have to do is walk through that door. Embrace what you are; free the Grid. Save your universe”.

“Save everyone?” she asked, “Just by walking through that door?”

“Just by walking through that door” the man confirmed, “The Morphing Grid is all things. It cannot be contained by anyone despite what Alpha and his brood may think. All you need to do is will it, and it will happen”.

That...seemed entirely too easy, “What’s the catch?” she asked, “What happens to me?”

“What should have happened” the man said, “You return to the Grid”.

Sel’s expression saddened immensely; she’d kind of assumed, but the fact that the only way out of this was by dying was still...well, awful. Any lingering hope was now crushed. “So no matter what, I still die” she said, despondent.

“The alternative is that you die when the Antipodes rewrite your reality” the man countered, “At least this way, you win, and your friends get to live”.

“...And what do you get out of it?” she asked him, turning to him.

The man, to her surprise, chuckled, “You have grown up, haven’t you? The girl I met would have cowered and silently kept her head down”.

“You’re avoiding the question”.

“Child, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy” the man said with an enigmatic smile, “Wheels within wheels, cycles within cycles. But do not fret; the only thing I am concerned about is the well-being of our universe”.

Yeah, that didn’t sound ominous at all. But in the end, she found little she could do except take him at his word. As if to bring this point home, he spoke when she lingered, “You can stand here as long as you want, but eventually you’ll have to make your choice. The only real choice you *can* make”.

The door beckoned, as much as Sel wished it didn’t.

---

Nikki eyed Iota suspiciously, “...I thought you deleted yourself from my subroutines”.

Iota shrugged, shameless when caught, “I lied. I needed you to think I was gone”. The silver armored warrior looked around at the ruins they found themselves in. Another spire was struck by lightning before he spoke again, “A sad end, wouldn’t you say? As far as puppets go, you ended up quite the disappointment. Now everyone dies, I guess”.

Nikki ignored him, more focused on the crystals that powered the spires. She wondered what their purpose was, but was already guessing that they were acting as attractors for the lightning. What if she could harness that somehow? The lightning strikes were regular, and in a circular pattern, so there WAS a method to the madness here.

Testing her hypothesis, she pulled a crystal out of one of its sockets—the one that was about to get hit next. When nothing happened, she nodded, a grin forming despite herself.

“...What are you doing?” Iota asked, taken aback that she was evidently ignoring him.

“Testing something” she said, absentmindedly, “Hold that thought”. Taking the crystal, she placed it at the base of the next spire. A moment later the spire was struck by lightning—twice as long as before.

Ah hah.

“...Are you still trying to get out of here?” Iota admonished, “It’s over. You failed. Give up”.

Nikki began collecting crystals, careful not to get struck, “You just want me to give up on your grand scenario? Just like that?”

“Ah, a loyal puppet to the very end” Iota said mirthlessly, “With little will to call your own, just as I programmed you”.

“Hardly” Nikki said, doing some quick mental calculations to figure out the exact kind of message she wanted to send, “Yeah I mean, it sucks Iota always got what he wanted, but in the end it doesn’t matter. I’m doing this because I can and it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s what he wanted me to do”.

“Yes, just as I programmed you to--”

Nikki cut him off, “You can stop with the performance, it’s really getting tiresome. Epsilon”.

Iota seemed taken aback, “...How did you...”

Nikki turned to ‘him’ after placing two crystals down, “You idiot. I have self-diagnostic programs. I can tell from a simple scan you aren’t transmitting from me. Nice try though, you had me for a couple of seconds”.

“...I didn’t want to have to kill you” ‘Iota’ sighed, his form rippling away to reveal Epsilon’s orange armor, “All you had to do was just lay down and give up. All you had to do was surrender!”

“Yeah, you’re such a saint” Nikki said with not a small amount of sarcasm as she placed another crystal at another spire.

Epsilon drew her sword, “Fine. Have it your way”. She lunged at the unmorphed Nikki, her blade charging as she came in swinging.

---

Trok stepped forward tentatively, towards the looming portal.

Then he stopped.

“...What’s wrong?” Sel asked, “We’re running out of time”.

The portal beckoned. Sel was pushing him on. It was the only way to survive.

“This is wrong”.

“What are you talking about?! Trok, we don’t have time!” Sel exclaimed.

He didn’t turn to her, instead staying faced to the portal, “...You were right. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. Sometimes I act without thinking. Remember that time with that masked rider? Apollo, I think?”

“What are you--”

Trok kept going, “When I tried to rewrite time, all I was focused on was saving you. I didn’t think about the consequences. I didn’t think about all the other people I might hurt. It was wrong. I was wrong. And this is wrong too”.

Sel was becoming increasingly irate, “Get though the portal, Trok! We can talk about this *later*!”

“No, we can’t”. Trok turned to her, “Because later an entire universe of people will be gone”.

“They’re dead already, Trok! You can’t save them!”

“Then I’d rather die knowing I did everything I could” Trok said. Just then, a lightning strike came down in the distance. It had been striking semi-regularly during their whole conversation, but it suddenly shifted, the two of them watching as it became...

...S-O-S? Wait, was that Morse Code? Trok’s expression become resolute as he knew where he had to go.

“I won’t abandon people who need me” Trok told Sel, “No matter the risks”.

Sel stepped between Trok and his path to the lightning storm, “You’re not leaving”.

“Are you going to stop me?” Trok asked, seriousness dripping into his voice as he dropped all pretense of the charade, “You know, I thought for a moment I could pretend you were real. That you weren’t dead. But I guess I’ve never been good at lying”. Putting his feelings aside, he took a defensive position, “I have to find my friends. Please move”.

Sel’s face contorted into hateful anger, “No”. And just like that, she transformed. Now before Trok stood an imposing figure—his older brother. The one who had...killed their parents, had sold him out for the throne of their clan. Trok stepped back, a sudden case of intimidation hitting him like a sack of bricks. “You really think you, of all people, can change anything!? We’ve already won! You’re nothing but an overeager child! What can you possibly do?”

But Trok found himself, and stood his ground, “I might not be much on my own, but you forget. I have my friends, some of the most amazing people ever, and I trust in them and believe in them. And I know, for some reason, they believe in me. And I won’t let them down”.

“Cute” his brother said, stepping forward menacingly, “But your words are hollow”.

“Hardly! I believe in them. They believe in me. And if they believe in me, then there must be something to it!”.

Trok’s brother roared in anger, his fist coming down. Trok was faster though, and as his own fist met his brother’s form, the other horathean shattered, his fragments vanishing as they fell away, leaving Trok alone. Taking a moment to comprehend what he’d just done, even if it was only an illusion, he glanced back at the portal.

“I won’t be a coward” he said, mostly to himself. He wasn’t quite the kid he’d been when he’d left Horath anymore.

He ran for the lightning strikes.

---

Xolin stood before the portal. Everything that had happened, all she’d done...it was just a diversion, an interlude. A dream she’d had. Soon she’d be back home, as if none of this had ever happened.

Her friends had left her. That was the most soul-crushing thing about this. She knew her friends; they wouldn’t do this.



They wouldn’t do this.

“No” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

“...Excuse me?” her father said.

“I said no” Xolin repeated, getting stronger, “I’m not going”.

“I am your father and you will do as I say!” he said, becoming irate, “Now go through that portal!”

“No!” Xolin threw back at him, “I’m not going with you. I’m going to find my friends”.

Her father looked down at her with disgust, “I told you, they already--”

“Bullshit” Xolin said, “They wouldn’t leave without me”.

“And why would that be?” her father asked, the contempt in his voice clear, “What could you possibly contribute that would make you so valuable?”

What indeed? At the end of the day, Xolin simply wasn’t that essential; she fought good, but what did she have beyond that? She didn’t have the tactical awareness or charisma like Sid, or the smarts like Trok or Nikki...she was quite an unlikable angry person.

And yet, everyone else had always told her otherwise.

“...I don’t know” she said at last, but her father’s smug grin didn’t last, “But they believe in me. I know they do. They’ve always needed me. And because I believe in them, I trust that they see something in me even if I don’t. And that gives me the strength to keep going”.

“So you use them to bolster your own self-confidence?” her father sneered, “Parasites, all of you”.

“Yeah, something wrong with that?” Xolin asked, her confidence rebounding. She was now on the offensive as bit by bit this seemed less like her real father, “We’re a team. A family, more of one than you ever were. We support each other, keep each other sane. Something you wouldn’t understand”.

Something happened with the lightning storm in the distance; it began to shift and contort into a pattern...Morse Code?

...Oh!

“...They left me, huh?” she asked coyly, looking off in the distance in the direction of the message.

“Don’t you dare turn your back on me!” her father roared, “Everything you are is because of me! Your fighting skills, your faith, your moral compass!”

He was right; and it was something that ate at her a bit. But right now, that wasn’t important. Heck, this wasn’t even her real father; it was clear at this point that this was some sort of illusion. *Almost* right, yet not, as if someone had built it with a lot of information but no first-hand experience. No, right now what was important was that she had to save her friends.

“Want some advice?” Xolin asked, “My dad was more stern, less rage”.

“DON’T YOU DARE!” her father shouted at her, but Xolin was already moving, taking a vine down the side of the floating mountain, sliding down into the valley below.

---

Sid studied each of his friends. It was a good illusion; he’d been fooled for a few moments and they’d even gotten some good digs in—Sid was doing his best to ignore them. But the way they talked, the way they’d forced the conversation...this was not the most well-handled attempt at manipulation.

“Funny thing about probability” he told them, “It differs depending on the variables. Yeah sure, if you take every fight we’ve had and flip those coins, shit doesn’t look good. But if you look at it one battle at a time, the odds are so much better”.

“So you’d just ignore the bigger picture? Lead them to their doom?” Sarah asked him with a hint of maliciousness.

“Hardly” Sid told her, his expression hardening, “I’m sorry what happened to you guys. I’ll always be sorry, and some days are harder than others. It’s a scar that will follow me forever. But I’m tired of living in your shadow. I’m tired of running in place forever”.

“You think you have that right?!” Sarah bellowed.

“I don’t know” Sid replied in earnest, “But I do know you don’t have the right to ask. Nor do you have the right to pretend to be people I lost who were dear to me and words in their mouth”.

The three illusions of his friends seemed taken aback. Sid continued, righteous anger boiling within him, “You come here telling me all about probability and numbers, but you want some real math? We’ve killed each of you in turn and haven’t lost a man. And I *know* from experience that you’re the least powerful antipode in terms of offensive output. What chance do you really think you have?”

“You really think you can win with them?” Matt asked, “You really think you won’t suffer casualties?”

“Maybe?” Sid said, “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right; maybe we won’t make it out of this. Maybe only some of us will. But what I do know is that I believe in them; they are some of the most capable people I’ve ever met and I will lay down my own life for them. If it’s possible to win this, they can. And they believe in me, even when I can’t. Especially when I can’t”.

As he spoke, the lightning storm in the distance shifted and roiled into a singular pattern—an SOS signal.

Sid smiled, despite himself, “Case in point”.

His old team said nothing as he gave them one last look, then raced off into the swamp, towards the lightning strikes. The figments glanced at each other, then faded away.

---

Epsilon swung at Nikki as the latter dodged, occasionally parrying with a metal shard she’d found laying around. She wasn’t anywhere close to Epsilon’s power level unmorphed, so she avoided trying to control the fight, instead trying to simply wear the Antipode out while she waited for the others.

“You think it was wise?” Epsilon growled, “Putting all your hopes on the rest of your team? What if they abandon you? What if they fail you?”

“I think you talk too much” Nikki replied, landing a solid punch on Epsilon’s helmet. The latter was actually fazed slightly by it, “Also yeah, I believe in them. Heads up”.

Her words had barely left her lips when Sid crashed into Epsilon from the side, throwing her to the ground before he flipped out of the way, landing half-crouched and looking somewhat unhappy, “I’d like you to remember what happened to the last girl who messed with my head” he turned to Nikki, “Nice work with the SOS signal”.

Nikki shrugged with false modesty, “I got lucky”.

“...All you had to do was lay down” Epsilon growled as she stood up. Bad move, as soon enough Trok and Xolin came flying in, emptying their lungs with a roar as they came down with a double kick. Epsilon landed in the dirt as the four rangers reassembled. “Gang’s all here, huh?” Epsilon grunted, getting back up.

“Give it up, Epsilon” Sid ordered, “Game’s over”.

“Is it?” the orange antipode asked, “From where I’m standing, you’re beaten. No army, no powers, no Morphing Grid. No weapons, no plans. Trapped here, in this pocket dimension”.

“Hardly” Sid replied, “The fact that you’re still here trying to mess with us tells me we’re not actually stuck here, because otherwise you wouldn’t be bothering”.

“So how’s this for a plan?” Xolin asked, cracking her knuckles, “We kick your ass until you give us what we want”.

Epsilon demeanor shifted as she began to laugh, “You? Beat me? You’re forgetting the part were you have no powers. What can three mortals and an AI do against me?”

Sid shrugged, then got into a fighting stance. The others followed suit, “I dunno. Let’s find out”.

Epsilon powered up her sword before flinging energy bolts out from the end of it at the former rangers. They charged forward, evading the shots as they rushed in.

---

Destiny beckoned Sel. With one act of sacrifice, she would undo all the plans of those who had invaded this universe, of all those who had used her as a puppet for their ambitions. With one act of sacrifice, she would forgo any of her own desires.

Her entire life had been one of first not knowing what she wanted, and then fighting for the right to have it. And now, despite literally having the power of all of creation, she found she had none at all. She had no choice, no agency. She would sacrifice herself to save the universe...all at the behest of the man who had been shadowing her from the beginning.

Gingerly, she stepped forward towards the door, hating every moment yet dragging it out as long as she could. All this power, yet nothing could save her.

All this power.

She stopped just short of the door.

“...What’s wrong?” the man asked, apprehensive at her sudden pause.

She turned to him, “...You said that all I had to do was will it, and it would happen, right?”

“...Yes?” the man replied, not comfortable where this was going.

“So I could do anything” Sel surmised, subconsciously rubbing her wrist as she flexed her other hand, “Even...go back”.

“You can never go back” the man said, “You are the Grid now”.

“I could if I left” Sel replied, “Create a mortal form. That’s possible, isn’t it?”

The man frowned, stepping towards her, one hand in his pocket, “That would be most unwise. It is dangerous, irrational, and even if you managed to accomplish that, you would be abdicating your role. You would leave the fate of the universe in the hands of the Antipodes. Is that what you want? Would your temporary freedom be worth the destruction of all you know?”

Sel’s gaze shifted between the door and the Man with the Briefcase, torn between her choices. Her hand clenched into a fist, her decision made.

“But it won’t be. My team will stop them”.

“No, they can’t” the man said, “As we speak, they’re losing. The only choice you have is to sacrifice yourself. Be who you were born to be—step through that door”.

As the man approached, Sel made one last backward glance at the glowing entryway, then turned her attention back on the Man with the Briefcase, “...No”.

“Excuse me?” the man asked, not entirely certain on what he’d heard.

Sel stood her ground, “I said no. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to kill myself for you”.

“Your entire universe--”

“Will be *fine*” Sel countered, “We’ll handle it. We always have”.

“You’ll risk universal armageddon on a group of children!?” the man exclaimed.

“Those ‘children’ came with a fleet and an army” Sel said, stepping away from the door, “They came here, to the Antipodes’ home base, made it to where I was being kept. They’ve beaten everything the Antipodes could throw at them. They’ve gone up against so many impossible odds and come out the other side”.

“...You believe in them that much” the man said, wonder in his voice.

Sel gave a determined smile, “I do”.

Another door, several doors down, opened. Light funneled out into the rotunda.

“That’s my ride” Sel said with a smile before heading for the door.

But the Man with the Briefcase wasn’t having it; he jumped between Sel and the door; “No! I won’t allow you to throw everything away on a hunch!”

She glared at him, “It’s not your choice to make”.

The man towered over her menacingly, “You have no idea what forces you are toying with! No idea the forces at play!” he became more enraged, more desperate. For a brief second, Sel swore she could see...*more* of him, beyond what should be, “SELFISH CHILD! I WON’T ALLOW YOU TO RUIN WHAT I HAVE CREATED! I WON’T ALLOW YOU TO WITHOLD THE DAWN!”

The sudden rage and...other things...caused Sel to back away, but his words only served to further her resolve. Power surged through her; the Grid itself rippling within her. Her eyes began to glow, “I’m not your puppet, I make my own choices, and I reject *you*!”

“...No. NO!” the man stated, as power began to flow out. The room filled with light as the fires of creation stirred, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” He reached for her in desperation, but it was too late. Creation itself turned against him, and he was burned away.

---

Trok and Sid found themselves flying backwards after Epsilon had tossed them away. Xolin came in with a series of rapid-fast jabs, but in her current unmorphed stated she could do little to injure the antipode. Epsilon swung her sword wildly, forcing the triforian to dodge out of the way, just as Nikki struck from the side.

“Insolent vermin!” Epsilon exclaimed as she worked hard to keep her four opponents at bay, “Why. Won’t. You. Die?!”

Sid was already flanking her while Trok came in like a hammer, rushing at her side with his body. Epsilon stumbled, allowing Sid to get a good hit in, followed by Xolin.

“ENOUGH!” Epsilon roared, throwing her sword into the earth. The resulting shockwave knocked the former rangers back, landing them in scattered heaps as she pulled her sword back out. “Look at you. Battered and beaten. Yet you delude yourself into thinking you can win just because you assume the others can pick up your slack”. As she spoke, the team charged in again; Sid leading and the others flanking.

Epsilon continued as she blocked and deflected each of them in turn, “You’re parasites, leeching off one another in order to ignore your own inadequacies. It’s pathetic!”

“And that’s what infuriates you, isn’t it?” Sid said with a smile as the two of them squared off, Sid dodging her strikes while Nikki came in from the side.

“Because we lean on each other” Nikki said, striking and withdrawing, “Because we make each other stronger!”

“This isn’t strength!” Epsilon roared, swinging wildly at the withdrawing Nikki, just before she was struck in the back by Trok, “This is like mewling children, grasping for breath! A swarm of ants, desperately clawing for survival!” She knocked Trok down and prepared to finish him off.

“Someone’s bitter” Xolin said with a grin, delivering a kick to Epsilon’s head. The antipode grabbed her leg, tossing her into Nikki. The two tumbled back and she turned her attention as Trok rebounded.

“It’s called teamwork!” Trok exclaimed, lobbing a not-small rock at Epsilon before he brought his foot in, “Alone yeah, we’ve got all got issues you can exploit. But together we can protect each other, reinforce where we’re weak!”

Trok was knocked aside as Sid came in, “You of all people should get that” Sid said, “It’s basic strategy!”

Epsilon was forced back a step, blocking Sid’s advance. As he backed off, Nikki swung in, “You’ve forgotten that, haven’t you? Your team used to be like that, long ago. But you all forgot. You withdrew into yourselves, isolating each other when you could have helped one another through the dark times!”

Epsilon became enraged, “Shut up. SHUT UP!” she attacked Nikki, but Xolin hit from the rear.

“Or maybe you DO remember, and deep down you realize what you lost. You know why your teammates were taken out one by one! You know why you can’t beat us!”

“ENOUGH!” Epsilon roared again, powering up her sword. Swinging in a wide arc, she blew the rangers back, “I have had enough of your incessant mewling! I will kill you Here. And. NOW!” Raising her sword to the sky, the blade began to absorb the lightning strikes that were coming down. “You want strength?! I’ll show you real strength! I’ll show you my resolve, the one thing that has kept me going all these years! It was not the others that kept me alive, it was not your pitiful co-dependance! It was me! My will! My resolve! MY POWER!” She prepared to swing down at the prone team on the ground. The former rangers braced themselves.

And just like that, the clouds above parted, golden light flooding down as a being began to descend. Energy crackled around her, dancing through her green hair. Her eyes were on fire, burning and glowing. The former rangers and Epsilon looked up at her, awestruck at the sudden display.

“...How…” Epsilon stuttered.

Sel spoke with the voice of legion, “You want power!? I’ll give you all the power you’ve always wanted!”

Dawning horror began to reach into Epsilon’s mind, “….No” she said, backing away instinctively, “No!”

“Have it!” Sel bellowed, the energy around her quickening, “HAVE ALL OF IT! HAVE EVERYTHING YOU’VE BEEN TRYING TO USE ME FOR FOR YEARS! IT’S ALL *YOURS*!”

The Morphing Grid erupted, leaving Sel as it cascaded like a torrent of water right into Epsilon. The pain was unfathomable as she was burned away where she stood, screaming as she was ripped from the world.

The storm subsided, and when the dust cleared Epsilon was gone, no trace remaining. Emptied of power, Sel fainted and collapsed, her lithe form barely caught by the rest of her team. Around them, Epsilon’s pocket dimension rippled away, vanishing and leaving behind only her labs.

“...Is...is she...” Trok hesitated, looking down at her inert form.

“She’s breathing” Sid confirmed. A wave of relief emanated out through the group.

“Breathing...and awake” the xybrian mumbled, forcing herself to open her eyes. She was *exhausted*, it felt like every part of her body was rubber, and even just keeping awake was difficult. It was getting easier though.

“Welcome back, Sel” said Sid, smiling warmly as the group cradled her. Their missing teammember was back

It quickly became a heartfelt group hug, “I thought you were dead” Trok whispered, tears beginning to form in his eyes, “I felt you...”

“Thought I was too” Sel said, her voice raspy as the hug broke, “I think I might have been. But then I...became the Morphing Grid, I guess. For lack of a better term”. She wasn’t entirely sure how to explain it. How could you?

“What, like some sort of god?” Xolin asked quizzically.

“Maybe?” Sel replied with a shrug. She forced herself into a sitting position, despite protests from the others, “I dunno. But I had a choice. And I chose to come back here” she flexed her hand, studying it intently. It was her arm. HER arm. Not a Grid construct, not an illusion. It was HER arm, her mortal, xybrian arm.

She was a xybrian.

“As a mortal”.

“No more Morphing Power?” Trok asked, “Then what was all that just now?”

“That was all I could carry back with me” Sel replied with just a hint of sadness despite herself, “It’s gone now”.

“I’m just glad you’re alright” Trok said with earnestness, “You looked terrible before”.

“Same here” Sid said warmly. Xolin nodded in agreement as Sid added, “Also I think a thank you is in order for saving our asses back there”.

Sel laughed a bit, even as it seemed to hurt a little, “You’re going to thank *me*? You came for me. You have no idea how much that means” tears began to form, despite her best efforts to hold them back. Her voice cracked, “It’s so good to see you”.

This summoned another round of group hugs.

“You ever doubted?” Sid joked.

Sel’s smile widened, “Not for a second”.

As the group broke again, Trok reached into his pocket, “Oh, yeah!” he said, pulling out the yellow morpher and handing it to Sel, “This is yours”.

The xybrian took it, strapping it onto her wrist greedily, “Thank you. All of you”.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to fight?” Xolin asked, a little bit worried about how exhausted Sel seemed.

Sel nodded, “Yeah, I’m feeling better. Just give me another moment”. The team simply basked in the fact that they were finally all together again. As for Sel, well, this was everything she had ever wanted. Just this.

Nikki had already withdrawn from the group as she began to scout out the lab for anything useful, “I hate to break this up, but we only have a few minutes at best before Alpha kills us all. We need to get moving”.

“He still has the Morphing Grid on lockdown” Sid grimaced as he thought, “We’ll need to find a way around that if we want a chance at beating him”.

Xolin snapped her fingers, a sudden epiphany coming to her, “Our morphers have an option to switch the connection from the Megaship to our lifeforce directly, right? Why not switch to that?”

“I’d...advise against that” Sel said, still getting her bearings, “The Grid is the source of all life. Without it, we have days of our existing lifeforce left, at best. Attempting to funnel what little remains into our morphers would be...inadvisable”.

“How long, exactly?” Sid asked her.

Despite more protests, Sel began to force herself to her feet—she really was rebounding quickly, “Seconds. A minute or two at most”.

“Okay, so suicide run’s out as an option” Sid mused, “What about the energy you already released back into the wild?”

Sel shook her head, “If we had it, sure. But that energy is ambient now; scattering back to the four corners of the universe. It’s so thinly spread out it might as well not even be there; not enough for a morph, let alone five”.

“Then we need a direct connection to it” Trok said, “Another conduit”.

“I think we’ve got something like that” Nikki said. Everyone turned to see what she holding: the Eltarian conduit.

---

The hallways were full of fire and thunder.

The All-Flags forces had retreated and were now nearing the launch bay they’d arrived at on nearly all fronts. Without the power of the Morphing Grid, their offensive capability had been halved, with grunt soldiers now the best they could offer against the seemingly endless onslaught of krybots.

Suddenly, Sid’s voice rang out through the battered forces.

“Attention all forces: This is Sid Drake, Peacekeeper Team Twelve. Sorry for the lapse in communication. Target Epsilon is down, we’re currently en-route for Target Alpha. All forces are ordered to immediately begin evacuation procedures back to your ships. Without the Grid, there’s little more than you can do”.

Outside the station, the All-Flags Navy had folded itself into a bubble, minimizing its surface ratio and maximizing its firing ability as the enemy fleet surrounded it and attempted to batter it into submission from all sides.

On the bridge of Admiral Drake’s flagship, he heard Sid’s order go out.

“On the off-chance this thing goes south and the base goes boom, I advise all ships to jump as soon as the Morphing Grid is back online. Don’t worry, we’ll handle it from here. We got this. Sid Drake out”.

Admiral Drake frowned, “...What fool plan does that boy have?” The bridge shook as his ship took a direct hit. The admiral turned his attention from his son to his orders—the ground forces would soon need to be picked up. Thus, the fleet would need to be in a better position to do that. Admiral Drake opened a channel to all allied forces.

“This is Admiral Drake. In order to give our escaping ground forces a chance to return to our ships, we’re going to make one last push. Maintain bubble formation; all ships, ahead full!”

Together as one, the All-Flags Navy began to move forward, staying in formation as they forced themselves through the strained enemy lines.

---

The metallic barrier to Alpha’s inner nexus went down with a series of explosives planted along its width. The magical spells reinforcing it were virtually useless with the fall of the Morphing Grid, meaning that once the team had burned their way through the physical doors there was nothing stopping them.

“Eighty-ninth floor” Sid joked as the five of them stepped inside, “kitchen appliances, outdoor grills, evil megalomaniacal supervillains!”

Alpha didn’t even bother to turn from his post at the control console, patiently awaiting the end of all things, “I take it Epsilon is gone, then?” he said wearily.

“Dead as a doornail” Sid affirmed, “You’re all alone now”.

“A pity. She was always the most reliable” Alpha grunted.

Nikki spoke next, “Give it up. It’s over”.

To this, Alpha actually let out a chuckle, “Over? From where I’m standing, I have all the time in the world. And you? Well, I’ll admit that you have spunk. But you have no hope in stopping me”.

“That’s too bad” Xolin told him, “The others all dismissed us too. Now they’re dead. Every single one”.

Alpha finally turned around to greet his assembled foes. All five of them, even the conduit. She was alive.

How?

“...Impossible” he gasped. Frustration began to bubble up. Everything he’d thrown at them and they were still here. Even the conduit who by all rights should have been gone was standing here, in front of him, with no sign of damage. Her body was even whole again, as if nothing had ever happened!

“Apparently not as much as you think” Sel replied sternly.

“Last warning” Sid said, “Give up. Now”.

Alpha finally became angry, “Who the hell do you think you are to presume to order me?”

“Who are we?” Sid asked the others as they pulled out their morphers, “Let’s show him. Transform!”

Together and as one unit, the rangers activated their morphers, their suits forming around each of them. Red, blue, green, yellow, and black. The five rangers assumed fighting formations as they replaced their civilian counterparts. The golden armor of the Lights of Andromeda surrounded the four core rangers, while Nikki’s suit received her black and violet Phantom Mode armor. Each wielded their signature weapon.

“Sid Drake!” the red ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Red!”

“Xolin, House Sais!” the blue ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Blue!”

“Trok, Clan Tesei!” the green ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Green!”

“Sel of Xybria!” the yellow ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Yellow!”

“Nikki Manuel!” the black ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Black!”

“Who are we?” Sid asked Alpha, “We’re the--”

The five rangers roared as they got into formation, pillars of their chosen colors erupting behind them, before those pillars vanished in the wake of a giant explosion.

“POWER RANGERS!”

“...Impossible” Alpha gasped, completely at a loss, “How!? I stripped your universe of its Morphing energy! You should be cowering, waiting for the end of your pathetic lives! HOW?!” How did they keep coming BACK?!

In response, Sid tossed the Eltarian conduit at Alpha’s feet. As the antipode digested this fact, Sid stepped forward, pointing his ax at him, “It’s OVER, Alpha! You’ve got no one left to fight for you”.

Alpha kicked the conduit off the side of the platform in a fit of rage, before summoning his own twin swords, “I don’t need anyone” he growled, “I’ll kill you all myself!” With a roar, he charged.

The rangers issued a battle cry as well, and rushed forward, deflecting Alpha’s laser blasts as they came at him with their weapons. A moment later, the two sides met, and did battle.

---

To be Concluded…
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Old August 9th, 2017, 09:09 AM   #50
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“Who are we?” Sid asked the others as they pulled out their morphers, “Let’s show him. Transform!”

Together and as one unit, the rangers activated their morphers, their suits forming around each of them. Red, blue, green, yellow, and black. The five rangers assumed fighting formations as they replaced their civilian counterparts. The golden armor of the Lights of Andromeda surrounded the four core rangers, while Nikki’s suit received her black and violet Phantom Mode armor. Each wielded their signature weapon.

“Sid Drake!” the red ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Red!”

“Xolin, House Sais!” the blue ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Blue!”

“Trok, Clan Tesei!” the green ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Green!”

“Sel of Xybria!” the yellow ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Yellow!”

“Nikki Manuel!” the black ranger shouted, “Peacekeeper Black!”

“Who are we?” Sid asked Alpha, “We’re the--”

The five rangers roared as they got into formation, pillars of their chosen colors erupting behind them, before those pillars vanished in the wake of a giant explosion.

“POWER RANGERS!”

“...Impossible” Alpha gasped, completely at a loss, “How!? I stripped your universe of its Morphing energy! You should be cowering, waiting for the end of your pathetic lives! HOW?!” How did they keep coming BACK?!

In response, Sid tossed the Eltarian conduit at Alpha’s feet. As the antipode digested this fact, Sid stepped forward, pointing his ax at him, “It’s OVER, Alpha! You’ve got no one left to fight for you”.

Alpha kicked the conduit off the side of the platform in a fit of rage, before summoning his own twin swords, “I don’t need anyone” he growled, “I’ll kill you all myself!” With a roar, he charged.

The rangers issued a battle cry as well, and rushed forward, deflecting Alpha’s laser blasts as they came at him with their weapons. A moment later, the two sides met, and did battle.

---

Power Rangers Peacekeepers

Series Finale

3.14: The Trolley Dilemma, part four of four: Delenda Est


---

Sid was first into the fray. The red ranger leaped into the air, as did Alpha, their weapons smashing into each other at full speed. As Alpha landed, Sid crumpled to a heap behind him, his suit sparking as the antipode rushed forward, slashing through the green and blue rangers easily. As they tumbled back, Alpha found himself on the defensive, deflecting laser shots from the yellow ranger’s bow-blade. As he did this, the black ranger cloaked, flanking him before striking with a series of quick jabs from her energy wrist blades. Alpha, despite being taken by surprise, quickly countered her, taking the black ranger out with a few short attacks.

Seeing him turn his attention on her, Sel began firing more rapidly, even has he closed in, deflecting each shot. When he was almost upon her, she extended her bow’s blades, engaging in a short exchange before he tossed her aside with a solid hit.

Sid came in from the back, his ax swinging down and delivering perhaps the first clean hit against Alpha. The red antipode wheeled around, blocking Sid’s next attack.

“Is this all you can muster?” Alpha sneered, “After all your boasting and insistence at not dying, I would have thought you would have put on a better show”.

“Give it a moment” Sid replied, breaking his hold against Alpha. Trok and Xolin came in from behind and the sides, and the three rangers struck together, pinning Alpha between their weapons. For a moment it looked like they had the advantage, but all too soon Alpha powered up, pulling himself back to his full height as he spun around, a cyclone of energy spinning out and hitting each of the rangers in turn.

POW.

Alpha dropped one of his swords, his arm suddenly flung back from a sudden shot. There stood Sel, her bow aimed and priming for another shot. Growling as he stepped over Trok, Alpha summoned his weapon back to him, charging the yellow ranger. She pulled her bow back, allowing it to collect energy from the Lights for a singular powerful attack.

He was almost on top of her. She fired.

He deflected—though he was forced to stop in his tracks, blocking the super-powerful blast with his twin swords before pulling it aside.

It was all Nikki needed.

The black ranger leaped over the yellow ranger, using her as a springboard as she came down on the prone antipode with her energy blades. It was close; she almost made it past his defenses, but in the end he overpowered her, forcing Nikki to carry the inertia of his hit by sliding by him, rolling back as she grabbed her daggers.

“SEL!” she shouted, now on the other side of Alpha. Her daggers flew through the air, missing the antipode and heading towards Sel. The yellow ranger intercepted the weapons, loading them into her bow. By now Alpha realized what was happening and had turned his attention from black to yellow.

Too late.

The powered up daggers shot at Alpha, impacting him directly. The red antipode staggered back from the blows, giving Sel a chance to close the gap between them, uppercutting Alpha with her bow. Attempting a second strike met with failure however, as Alpha grabbed her weapon by the blade and threw her into Nikki. The two rangers tumbled back.

Having a second to catch his breath, Alpha thrust his sword into the air, charging it with power before swinging it towards the incoming green and blue rangers. Trok was thrown back by a blast of energy. Xolin narrowly dodged, though hesitated when she saw Trok fly back. It almost cost her; a second lightning bolt nearly roasted her. The blue ranger, having had enough, split into three, evading Alpha’s attacks as she closed in.

Sid watched Alpha attempt to swat away the trinity of Xolins as they swarmed him with grim amusement. Still, things weren’t looking too good; there were minutes left on the clock, and they were barely scratching him, much less dismantling his machine. The Lights at least had seemingly evened the battlefield for them, but unfortunately they didn’t really have anything that could tip the scales further; zords were out, and the battlizer had already been reduced to scrap.

Sel opened fire with another barrage as Trok wrapped his hammer mace around Alpha. The antipode yanked the chain, throwing Trok towards him. The green ranger was batted aside as Xolin’s three forms rushed in again, followed by Nikki.

Screw it; they had him occupied. Sid broke from the fight, heading for the control console that lay before the nexus. Sid ignored the unfathomable levels of power emanating from the central pillar, instead focusing on the controls. Something had to undo this, and in a way that wouldn’t end with like, six different apocalyptic scenarios all at once.

Three maybe?

Sid would settle for just three apocalypses right now.

Alpha crushed a reunited Xolin into the ground as he caught sight of Sid’s actions.

“NO!” he roared, blasting past Trok and Sel, unconcerned about them as he prepared to strike Sid down. The red ranger barely avoided the sword strikes, spinning around to face his foe. He flipped back, avoiding another assault.

Trok steadied him as he nearly crashed into the green ranger and Sel, “Boy I wish you hadn’t gotten the battlizer killed already!” Trok grunted.

“Preaching to the choir!” Sid replied with a hint of panic, just before the three rangers broke rank from Alpha’s new attack.

Alpha lunged at Sid, “Relying on toys you’ve already used up is a poor strategy”.

Sid blocked Alpha’s attack—though just barely, “I don’t think I asked for your tactical advice” Sid grunted. The rocket boosters on armor of his boots activated, and the red ranger launched, pushing Alpha back., “TROK, NOW!”

Trok’s hammer began to glow green as he powered it up. The green ranger swung back as Alpha neared him, then swung forward.

Alpha flew forward.

Xolin’s lance loaded into Sel’s bow, the latter fired the lance like a harpoon into the airborn Alpha, a mixture of blue and yellow energy swirling around it as it impacted him. Alpha dropped to the ground.

“Lights of Andromeda, fireball mode!” the four core rangers shouted, racing together towards their downed foe. Their forms vanished, replaced by a gigantic cascading wave of power that rammed into Alpha as he was standing back up. It pushed him back, threatening to consume him.

...Then it stopped; Alpha was successfully holding it at bay with his weapons, planting his feet on the floor. Then he pushed his swords forward, and broke the rangers’ assault. The four power rangers were thrown back, landing in a heap on the ground.

From behind Alpha, Nikki was already lining up her own finisher. Alpha however used the power he’d collected from the last attack to wheel around and cut her down. He panted, “You...you don’t understand when you’re beaten. When you’re outmatched. You don’t know when to lay down and die with dignity!” He stepped forward, winded. As Sid staggered to his feet, Alpha added, “I told you before, child. Heroes don’t exist”.

“Allow me to disagree” the battered red ranger panted as his team, began to pull themselves back up as well.

“And what do you think makes you a hero, boy?” Alpha asked him, “Hm? Your ‘tenacity’? ‘Stubbornness’? Your ability to not know when to fold? Those aren’t heroic traits, those are traits of stupidity, the kind that gets you removed from your gene pool”.

“Cute” Sid grunted at the insult.

Alpha continued, “You think that because of your stupidity, that because you’re fighting against the odds, that that makes you in the right. That it makes you ‘heroic’. It doesn’t matter if you have the blood of trillions on your hands; you’re the ‘good guys’ because the narrative is convenient”.

“Says the jerk who came to *our* universe where we were minding our own business!” Trok exclaimed.

“Yeah, sounds like projection to me” Nikki concurred with a grin.

Xolin rose to her feet, her hand clutching her other arm, “You’re always trying to make us look as bad as you, but we’re not the ones who invaded another universe. We’re not the ones who started senseless wars to keep everyone occupied while we ruined their universe”.

“You can pretend it’s gray on gray all you want, but at the end of the day you’re just a monster, no matter your intentions” Sel added, her tone one of disgust and absolute hatred.

“You could have always found another way” Sid told Alpha, “But you chose not to, and we refuse to be the scapegoats for your mistake”.

Alpha turned, looking at each ranger in turn as they surrounded him.

“Enough talk”.

Raising both swords and crossing them, Alpha began to summon even more power from the nexus; Morphing energy pooled out like a lightning bolt into his weapons, channeling down into his body. He nearly stumbled, grunting from the sudden harsh influx of power. The rangers backed off, knowing that getting close to that would be bad news.

Alpha dropped to his knee, his arms falling to his sides as he simply couldn’t take anymore. Energy crackled around him, his entire body now supercharged by the captive grid. He forced himself to stand, and prepared for his attack.

Sid’s eyes widened in panic, “EVERYONE, *MOVE*!”

They weren’t fast enough. Alpha’s attack came down on each of them, his super-charged blades leaving his hands as he guided them, cutting through each ranger in turn. Explosions erupted, sparks flew. The rangers were thrown back as Alpha brought his two swords back together, and brought them down on the prone Sid.

The red ranger countered just in time; with his ax having landed a few feet behind him, Sid was forced to rely on his armor’s energy wrist blades. He extended them, red energy meeting Alpha’s brilliant-white weapons. Sid struggled to hold his ground, and his body even began to form a crater into the platform they were fighting on as his body was pushed further and further down. He grunted in pain, his blades threatening to break.

“Yes, you feel that, don’t you?” Alpha asked him as he stepped closer, keeping a constant pressure on Sid, “The whole weight of the universe, crashing down upon you. You know the only reason you haven’t been cut in half is because I’ve allowed you a moment of reprieve, yes? If I pressed even a bit harder...” he trailed off, and willed his swords to move down.

Sid shouted in pain as his energy blades began to overload. His powers were about to give. Alpha laughed as he savored this victory.

“Hey, Alpha!” Trok shouted from behind. Alpha diverted his attention, then saw what all the commotion was about: the green ranger had loaded his hammer into the yellow ranger’s bow.

“Eat it” Sel grunted before firing. Filled with yellow and green energy, the hammer’s impact was enough to break Alpha’s grasp on Sid, his weapons falling away as the antipode stumbled back. Sid gasped as Xolin and Nikki helped him up.

“We need a plan” Nikki told Sid urgently, “His power levels are off the damn charts. We can’t take him conventionally”.

Sid and Xolin shared a knowing glance, “Then we don’t” Sid said, “Alpha’s already got a fatal flaw. We just have to keep him occupied until his body gives out from the sheer amount of power he’s ingested”.

Nikki frowned with worry, “You think we can do it before everything goes up shit creek?”

“Any idea how long we have?” Sid asked her.

Nikki glanced back at the nexus, getting as many sensor readings as she could while Trok and Sel kept Alpha busy, “...Not that I’m an expert or anything but...four minutes, maybe?”

Sid digested this fact, “...Good luck to all of us” he said with uncharacteristic finality, before rushing back into the fight. Nikki and Xolin glanced at each other, and with a shrug, summoned their weapons again and followed suit.

Sid used his rocket boots to lift himself over Alpha, delivering a series of energy blasts from his wrist armor while he was above, distracting the antipode from Sel and Trok as the red ranger landed in front of him, again drawing his energy blades. The two clashed briefly before Sid backed off, evading a strike.

All of this was to give Nikki time. She’d summoned Isdilian’s old sword and shield, combining them into the Sentinel Cannon, and was now aiming at her opponent. Xolin rushed past Alpha’s side, delivering a cheap hit to his abdomen with her lance.

There.

Nikki fired the instant she had a clean shot. The powerful wave of energy actually made Alpha stumble forward. The antipode spun around to face her, but before he could Sel let loose another highly-charged shot from her bow, hitting Alpha from the side. This gave Nikki the chance she needed to re-charge her own weapon.

It was not to be; enraged, Alpha struck his swords into the platform, allowing cascading waves of power to rush forth, forcing the yellow and black rangers to abandon their positions.

Trok and Xolin came in from the other side, using Sid as a launching point as they came down, firing blasts of green and blue energy from their wrist gauntlets. The two summoned energy blades as they landed, each flanking Alpha from different directions as he was forced to fend both of them off.

There; Nikki had another shot. She fired again, hitting Alpha right in the side and allowing blue and green to get lucky hits in.

Sid lunged; parrying Alpha’s attack before jumping back and using his rocket boosters to fire energy blasts at the antipode as Trok and Xolin came back to the fore. Hammer and lance in hand, they pushed him back several feet before he countered and landed twin solid punches that threw them to the ground, sparks erupting from their suits.

Sel fired again; again from behind.

Enough. ENOUGH!

“ENOUGH!” Alpha roared. He summoned his power, lifting his feet off the ground as he began to hover, preparing to end it all with a single solid attack. The air rippled, reality quickened. It almost seemed to dim everything else except the nexus itself.

He then suddenly dropped back to the ground; his body beginning to shake and convulse as electrical bolts raced across his armor. Sparks and miniature explosions ripped across his body as he screamed in pain. His body was beginning to burn itself out. Alpha dropped to one knee, his armor smoking.

“What’s wrong?” Sid grinned as his team reassembled, “Something you ate?” That was what they’d been waiting for; Alpha had been unable to keep hold of the power he’d amassed, and now his body was paying for it.

Alpha stuttered, “You...can’t...I won’t...let you...” Somehow, through sheer force of will, the red antipode stood back up, channeling what power he still had into his next attack. As the rangers charged, he sent several bolts of energy out, each of them missing the power rangers.

No longer afraid to get up close and personal, the rangers surrounded Alpha; Nikki and Trok flipping over him as Sel, Xolin, and Sid attacked from the front. The five heroes attacked in tandem, keeping Alpha barely able to fend them off all at once.

He got a lucky shot in on Sid; knocking the red ranger back. This then gave him the opportunity to flip Xolin and Sel, but they literally rolled with it, landing safely behind him as Trok and Nikki pressed the attack from the rear. Sid delivered a super-powered kick from his side, throwing Alpha right into the waiting arms of green and black, who in turn delivered super-powered punches. Alpha flew back, rolling to a stop.

He’d barely gotten back to his feet when the rangers closed in on him again. Each came at him in turn, wearing him down further and further even as he fended them off consecutively.

“...How?” he asked in shock as he fought, feeling the tide slowly and irrevocably turning against him, “How is this possible? How can you do this?!”

Sid kept him occupied as Xolin came down over Sid’s head with another kick. Sel and Nikki opened fire as Trok came in for another series of jabs. He knocked aside Trok, then grabbed Sid and Xolin and thrust them back. Nikki decloaked from the side, coming down with a kick to his head, before landing gracefully. He’d just turned to her when Sid and Trok struck from behind.

“This is impossible!” Alpha cried, firing a beam of energy that Sel dodged as she came in with a flip, delivering another solid kick. He was just too slow, too singular. He couldn’t be everywhere at once. And just kept countering him, keeping him occupied. Alpha fought as hard as he could, with every inch of strength, skill, and power he possessed.

But the end was no longer truly in doubt.

Another volley from Sel dashed any hope of counterattack. By the time Alpha rebounded, she and Trok were leaping off of Sid and Xolin, coming down on him with their bow and hammer, both charged and ready. The green and yellow rangers struck, and upon landing allowed Sid and Xolin to jump off of their shoulders, ax and lance charged up and ready. The next series of weapons landed home, striking Alpha.

All four rangers, now together, locked their arms together as a platform, giving Nikki a boost as she launched from them, flipping up into the air. She summoned her daggers and flung them at Alpha, before following up with a beam blast from her armor gauntlets. Alpha staggered back, his armor black and charred from the constant barrage, his form smoking from the assault.

Nikki came down, and the two fought. She got in a few good hits, including a solid uppercut, but he still had superior strength, grabbing her arms.

“I will *break* you!” he growled at her.

“Hardly” she replied, “You’re beaten. Oh, and say cheese”.

“Wha--” was all Alpha managed to get out, before she used him as a brace to kick him back. As Alpha stepped backwards, he noticed what she’d meant. To his side, the other four rangers had assembled their weapons together.

“Defender Cannon!” Sid shouted, “Ready and--”

“FIRE!” all four rangers commanded. Their energy intertwined and pooled, spinning around into a singular beam of white light. Alpha tried to dodge, but he was too slow, too injured. The beam cut right through him—and behind him. Part of the attack went behind him, striking the nexus directly.

The result was indescribable; there was the sound of material breaking and then…everlasting light, even though it was only momentary. As vision returned, the rangers found themselves with quite a sight; the Nexus was gone, and it was like they were swimming in golden water; rippling effect coming off the walls. Bits of Morphing energy fluttered down, like dandilion seeds.

“...N...No...” Alpha wheezed, on the floor and obviously in a catostrophic amount of pain. He grasped helplessly at the energy particles that hovered about, in full knowledge that his plan was done. With barely a minute and a half to spare.

So close.

He’d been so close.

“I’m...sorry...” he muttered, presumably for his daughter.

“...We did it!” Trok said, marveling at the visual result, “We did it!” He and Xolin shared a tight but brief hug.

The others had just begun to celebrate as well at the fact that simply blowing it up hadn’t ended in unfathomable destruction, when suddenly the entire base shook violently, the lights flickering. The Morphing Grid energy began to dissipate, returning to the rest of the universe.

“...What was that?!” Xolin demanded to know, panicked.

Nikki raced over to the control console and began to work through it as another quake threatened to knock Sel and Sid over the side of the platform. Trok headed over to help Nikki.

“...Remember how in order to do this, Alpha had to absorb the power of the universe twice-over in some sort of paradox?” Nikki asked, though she didn’t wait for an answer, “Well bad news; this nexus only held one universe of power. There’s a secondary nexus above this one, and it’s still on the countdown sequence, which I can’t abort!” Nikki reported, even as her hands raced across the controls, trying to find *something* she could do.

“This whole place is destabilizing” Trok added, looking over the console. The others regrouped around the two of them, “The process depended on the two nexuses working in tandem. With one gone, the other’s about to blow! The universe can’t handle the fact that there’s an entire nexus of its own power inside itself!”

“This is what happens when you mess with paradoxes” Sid frowned, “How bad are we talking?”

Nikki opened a new window, “...How does a radius of several hundred thousand light-years sound?”

Another quake shook the room, this one more violent than the last two.

“...We need to leave” Sid said as he turned to exist, “Come on!”

Three of the rangers followed him. They stopped, realizing one had stayed behind. Another quake.

“...Nikki” Sid said as the black ranger stood there, head down. That was right; in all the chaos he’d kind of forgotten where this was all going.

“Sid...” she replied, turning to him, “You know I have to”. Part of her didn’t want to. Part of her was absolutely terrified of the thought of leaving everything she’d known behind, possibly forever.

He nodded regretfully, “I know”.

To Nikki’s surprise, it wasn’t Sid who crossed the gap between them first. She found herself suddenly in a tight grip of a hug from Trok. She returned it as the others approached, ignoring the next quake as well as they could.

“You’re coming back someday” Trok muttered as they broke their hold on each other, “Understand? I’m not letting you say no”. He wasn’t entirely serious of course, he knew the chances of her return were iffy at best, but he couldn’t help it.

Under her helmet, Nikki smiled sadly, “Yes sir” she said, mocking but in good humor. Then she turned to Xolin. They didn’t need words as they also gave each other a hug. They’d already said what they’d needed to. An odd friendship had developed over the past few weeks, to be sure, but neither had regretted it one bit.

“Thank you” Sel said as Xolin and Nikki broke contact, “For...everything, really”.

“I’m sorry you and I didn’t get time to know each other before” Nikki told her, “It was a rough time for me”.

“Maybe next time” Sel told her, as hopeful as she could muster. Nikki nodded in response, even though both of them knew the chances.

Finally, Nikki turned to Sid. One more hug followed, and then another seperation. Another quake.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for” Sid told her.

“Likewise” she replied. When they lingered, she added, “...Goodbye, Sid. Be happy”.

Xolin, Trok, and Sel were already beginning to head out. Sid turned, but not before replying, “You first”.

Nikki couldn’t help but giggle at that. She watched them go, watched them not even look back. Watched them vanish from sight, just as another quake began to rip the base apart.

She had work to do.

The black ranger turned back around to the console, trying to find the way out. She knew there was one; Iota had been very clear they’d established a subspace link with their home universe in order to keep up on news.

“What...what are you...doing?” Alpha wheezed; he knew he didn’t have much time left. He’d been mortally wounded, and even if he hadn’t been, the seals on his armor were failing...it was only a matter of time before the antimatter of his body met the matter of this universe. Yet he couldn’t help but be curious as to the black ranger’s actions.

“Iota left me his data. I can’t save your universe, but I *can* save some of your people” Nikki replied, knowing this wasn’t good news, but still stressing what she *was* offering to the dying man.

His response was bewilderment, “...Why?”

She stopped, regarding him. He was broken, physically and psychologically. He’d been broken for a long time. He couldn’t even contemplate why she’d help him. Nikki glanced between him and the countdown, which was nearing its final seconds.

“Because we’re the good guys” she replied. She meant it, too. A second later she’d removed her data storage from her morpher and inserted it into the computer. Her program transferred over, and her physical form evaporated, her morpher falling to the floor with a harmless clank. Alpha stared at it for a moment, mystified, but then he began to laugh. It was a hearty laugh, one made by a person who’d just finally gotten a really funny joke after years and years of not being in on it.

The countdown hit zero.

Two seconds later, the quakes worsened, and the entire chamber was consumed by an expanding fireball as the station began to implode.

---

The activity in the hanger bay of the Antipode Base was that of controlled chaos. Numerous ships were taking off to escape back to the fleet, while other forces were holding off the encroaching krybot army as best they could. It was a losing fight though, and they only hoped they’d be able to hold until as many ships as possible had left. Gunfire rained back and forth between the front lines.

And then something amazing happened; a subtle wave of energy, like a breeze, rushed through, and everything that had deactivated when the Morphing Grid had vanished began to work again. Almost immediately the tide turned; the defending forces were again on the attack, keeping the krybots at bay as the remaining troop ships took off.

The wave expanded outwards like a bubble in all directions; barely visible and ethereal, but golden in sheen. It blew past the fleets, and the various mega-accelerators and other generators powered by the grid came online once more.

The wave continued, faster and faster, in all directions. It expanded into every galaxy, every cluster. On Eltar, the mages had begun to panic due to the sudden failure of numerous protective wards they’d placed over ancient dumpsters they’d imprisoned evil forces in over the eons. On Aquitar, the Eternal Falls began to flow again. KO-35’s cities lit up once more, their power grids coming back online. Triforia, Edenoi, Mirinoi, Horath...the bubble expanded. What had once been Alliance space, Troobian space, the League, the Imperium, the Wildlands...all of it restored.

And further out, the wave went. Beyond known space. Into the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, and beyond, faster and faster.

Life would continue. Stars would continue to be born. The danger had passed.

---

The four power rangers ran down the hall, away from the central nexus.

The base was already rupturing; explosions were ripping out walls, hallways were beginning to disintegrate. Knowing there was no way they’d make it on foot, Sid summoned the skycycles as they came to a giant hole in the ground.

The quakes got worse. Trok’s countdown reached zero.

An eerie yellow light filled the hallway behind them. As they looked back, they saw the all-consuming fireball headed their way. Sid yelled at the others, ordering them onto the skycycles as the vehicles arrived. Each grabbed their cycle, with Sel taking Nikki’s as they veered off in the only direction they could go: down. The fireball followed them as they weaved in and out between the beams and debris of the base that was rapidly falling apart around them.

Outside, the base was visibly starting to implode, its structure collapsing inward as it was consumed by its own destruction. As the apocalyptic storm built within its hull, the battle came to its conclusion as the krybot forces commanding the troobian and Antipode-owned SPD vessels shut down, no longer receiving a signal from their home base. The mercenary forces the Antipodes had hired were doing exactly what the All-Flags Navy was doing; leaving. One by one, two by two, the ships that had been pounding each other into submission began to warp out, leaving the doomed station behind.

Inside, the rangers were only barely ahead of the fireball; unable to find an escape, they had no choice but to continue weaving in and out through the destruction, through half-destroyed hallways and open abysses.

Ahead though, they saw stars. They saw an exit!

And then just as they neared it, the base collapsed around them; the hole vanished. Explosions ripped through where the base collided with itself. The rangers barely evaded crashing in, but without a way out, they were---

The end of a gigantic sword shoved its way through the hull above them, nearly impaling them. Then it pulled back, taking the hull with it. The rangers looked up at the starry sky to their savior.

The Defender Megazord. It flung the chunk of metal it was holding with its sword away, then extended its hand to the sky cycles. As they docked with the zord, it flipped around on its axis, transforming back into megaship mode, blasting away at top sublight speeds from the remains of the Antipode Base.

All around them, the remaining stragglers of the fleet were warping away. Two seconds later, the Defender Megaship did the same.

Two seconds after that, the base imploded...and then reality exploded, instantly taking the black hole with it.

---

The rangers raced onto the bridge, taking their helmets off as they hurried to their designated stations.

“I have never been so glad to see you assholes” Sid told Tesas and Sitras as he took the captain’s seat.

Before anyone could reply, the ship shook.

“Report!” Sid ordered.

Trok brought up a holoscreen at his station, “...We’ve got an incoming quantum wake!”

“English, Trok!” Sid demanded as she ship began to shake even worse.

In response, Trok flipped the viewscreen to the rear camera. A wave of...something was headed for the Megaship, even at FTL speeds. At first it looked like the fireball, but then as it got closer, the white and red made way for the blackest of nights. The void of all voids.

“Can we go any faster?!” Xolin asked, panic rising.

Sitras shook her head in terror, “We’re already going at maximum hyperrush!”

“We’re not going to make it!” Trok exclaimed. He looked around, thinking it might be the last time he saw any of them. Sel met his gaze, then put her arm on his shoulder in reassurance, even if she didn’t know if they were going to make it either.

At least they were all together.

“Yes” Sid growled as he took count of the number of light-years they’d traveled, “We ARE. HANG ON!”

The wake closed in on the ship. The ship shook, vibrating at dangerous levels. Lights flickered, consoles sparked. The engines pushed themselves to their absolute limits. The wake vitually touched up against the rear of the vessel, scorching the ship with incomprehensible energies. It even seemed to almost push the ship further ahead, like a tidal wave would push an ocean-going vessel. The rangers grabbed hold of their seats as reality came undone, and everything went white.

---

Xolin’s Personal Log:

Eight hundred thousand light-years. That’s the diameter of space that’s just...gone. I’m not a math person, so don’t ask me to explain how or why; I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

Eight hundred thousand. That’s the entire Argolis galaxy, plus everything orbiting it and then some. We lost an entire galaxy. And I thought that, you know, there’d be a hole or something. But apparently that’s not how space-time works. There’s just...nothing. If, for instance, you want to go from the Ithar Galaxy to the Ophan I Galaxy, there’s simply eight hundred thousand fewer light-years between them.

I can’t get over that.

I asked Trok, but hell if I could get an answer I could wrap my head around.

If there’s a silver lining to this, the Argolis galaxy was sparsely inhabited; I guess that was sort of the point though, the Antipodes wanted someplace out of the way and private. Only a handful of worlds had colonies, so a few million people at most are...well, Gone, I guess. And that sounds awful, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if a heavily populated galaxy like Andromeda or the Milky Way had gotten it, where hundreds of billions of people live.

It’s been...weird. Since escaping, I mean. We had to put into port; the ship got pretty banged up by the wake and we kind of just barely limped in. But we made it.

We’re alive.

Most of us, anyway.

But it feels like the universe is almost just holding its breath right now. What do we do? Where do we go? Everything’s in chaos, there’s just not a lot of coherent movement right now. So, for the moment at least, we’re staying here. Waiting.

I hate waiting. I just helped save the universe and now nothing’s happening and I just need to know what’s going to happen next or I’m going to actually lose my mind.

Sigh.

I’m going to let some steam off in the simudeck.


---

Trok found her sitting in her room. She’d left the door open, which had to have been a conscious decision considering doors on the Megaship closed automatically.

“...Sel?” Trok asked. She’d been staring off into space, currently sitting on the side of her bed. “Are you okay?”

She blinked, seemingly coming back to the present, “...Oh, sorry. I was just...” she trailed off.

“Thinking? Trok offered, stepping inside.

“Sort of”.

“You uh...left your door open” Trok said, sitting down at the end of the bed. He was so glad to have her back and yet...now he felt this weird uneasy divide between them. He’d wanted everything back for so long and yet...maybe that wasn’t possible anymore.

Her response was muted, distant. Almost more like how she’d been when they’d first met, “I don’t like closed doors”.

Trok wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so he didn’t. He just kind of sat awkwardly, wondering if he should go. That train of thought ended when she spoke again.

“I’ve just been...I came here, thinking I could just...I don’t know” she admitted, giving up trying to explain herself, “It’s my room, but it doesn’t feel comfortable. It feels distant. Alien”.

“We...we left it just how you left it” Trok said, not understanding. When she didn’t respond, he asked again, “...Are you okay?”

This had been the first peace and quiet she’d gotten since...well, since she’d revolted against the Antipodes and been trapped in that pod. The first time she’d just been able to sit down and think.

And she was rapidly beginning to realize that was a very, very bad move.

“I...don’t know” she admitted, finally. “I just...have a lot to process, I think”.

Trok frowned in sympathy, “Look, I was going to invite you to the simudeck with me, Xolin, and Tesas and Sitras. We were going to blow off some steam while we’re stuck here at this outpost. But if you’d rather---”

“No” she interrupted softly, still keeping her gaze on the far wall, “Go on and have fun with Xolin and the others. I just...need to be alone right now. Okay?”

Trok nodded, accepting her choice even if he was still very concerned, “Yeah, okay” he said, getting off the bed and heading for the door, “...Hey, Sel?”

“Hm?” she asked, finally making eye contact.

“I’m just glad you’re back” Trok said in earnest.

She nodded, “Me too”. She said nothing else, returning to her thoughts. Trok lingered for a moment longer in concern, but finally forced himself to leave.

This wasn’t right.

---

He had, like, a million messages to deal with. So much paperwork.

Yet, instead of Iota’s office or the bridge or his own quarters, he found himself here. In her room. Nikki’s room. He’d come ostensibly to clean it out, get it over with, but the truth was...she hadn’t really done anything with it. It was just about as pristine as it had been when she’d moved in.

Somehow, her room was even more impersonal than Sid’s was. She’d been even more of a ghost than he’d been, and he hadn’t even thought that possible. Even he still had a few things he carried with him...moreso since moving onboard. But this room was desolate.

His heart ached. He hoped she was going to find what she was looking for, he really did. He knew what it felt like to live like an empty shell, consumed by one’s past, and he didn’t wish that on anyone.

Nor did he want to keep experiencing it himself. He didn’t know what the future held, but he knew he couldn’t go back to aimlessly wandering. He couldn’t go back to not existing.

Silently, Sid left the room. He hadn’t cleaned it; he hadn’t needed to. It was already ready for the next occupant.

He had work to do.

---

“I’m worried” Trok said, just before banking the turn with his go-kart. They’d chosen the Kingdom of Atlantis level; a series of tubes beneath the ocean with tight corners.

Xolin grimaced, somewhat ahead of Trok and already dealing with the next major obstacle on the track; a slippery area where a bunch of eels had been dropped. She got caught up in it a bit, but remained firmly ahead of Trok, “She’s probably been through a lot. Who knows what the Antipodes did to her”.

“Trapped in that pod, having your power sucked out” Trok muttered with distaste, “Barbaric”. He picked up a new weapon; a pack of guided missiles. The kart ahead of him, Tesas’s, exploded in a blaze of glory, Trok couldn’t help but grin as he heard the aquitian curse. Loudly.

Xolin thought for a second, “Maybe Nikki can--” she stopped when she suddenly realized what she was saying, “Huh...you know, I didn’t realize how much we’d sort of started to rely on her”.

“I miss her already” Trok muttered.

Xolin braved another turn, “You miss everybody” she teased.

Trok followed her, “Well, everyone’s important!”

Xolin couldn’t help but smile at that. “Yeah, I guess they are...” Her train of thought was broken when her kart was suddenly struck from the rear, her speed drastically decreasing as the missile did its work. Trok zipped ahead.

“HEY!” she shouted as her kart picked up speed again.

“EAT DIRT!” Trok laughed as he drove off. He still wasn’t in the lead mind you; Sitras was still somewhere way ahead of everyone. But any chance to irritate Xolin in a game was time well spent.

“Oh, he is *so* dead” Xolin cursed as she sped off after him.

–-

It had been three days since the Battle of Erebus. Nearly three days since they’d limped into port. Not that Sid could really tell one day from the next. He’d taken a few naps here and there, but there had been so much work to do. Between keeping tabs on the ship repairs (they were at an out of the way independent trader station and while nothing had happened yet he didn’t entirely trust them) and finalizing the dissolution of what remained the Peacekeepers, as well as dealing with all the fallout from the battle...sleep had sort of taken a backseat.

Besides, he was still sort of worked up after the whole thing.

Still, it was starting to wear on him. Sid entered the workbay, getting himself a fresh cup of coffee from the synthatron. They really needed synthatrons installed in more rooms, crew dynamics be damned.

He hadn’t noticed her when he’d walked in, but when he turned around to leave, he jumped, “AH!” There was Sel, sitting in one of the chairs. Silently. In the dark. “...Sorry” Sid said, “Didn’t see you. Scared me a bit”.

“Sorry” she replied, “I was just...” she trailed off, not sure how to finish that statement.

“...Not sleeping?” Sid said wryly as he took a sip of his drink, fully aware of the hypocrisy, “It’s three AM”.

“I needed to be out of my room” she muttered listlessly, “It was...I just had to be out”. She couldn’t explain it further. She’d just needed to go somewhere else. She’d been in the lounge for a while too, before she’d needed to leave that place too. This room was starting to become a bit stifling. Maybe she’d go back to wandering the empty halls again.

Sid frowned. He’d been told about this from Trok and Xolin, but he’d sort of put off dealing with it, due in part to how busy he was and in part because he wasn’t really sure how to deal with this. Now he just sort of felt guilt over having not done anything, “...Sleep in here, then?” he offered, “I can see the bags under your eyes even in the dark. Have you slept at all since getting back?”

“I...” she hesitated, “Sleep is a bad idea”. This conversation was becoming uncomfortable. She got up, “Sorry for startling you. I’ll find somewhere else to---”

“It doesn’t stop, does it?” Sid asked her sadly, with full understanding.

That did it. She wasn’t even sure what about it had did it, but it did it. “...No” she admitted, her voice cracking as the tears began. Sid drew her into a hug as she began to let it out. No words were exchanged for quite a while. No words were necessary.

---

Trok’s Personal Log:

It’s weird, coming back. On the surface, everything almost feels like it did back then. And yet...it doesn’t at all. Everything’s different. Everything’s going to be different.

Sel’s not doing well. I’m doing what I can to help, but this is way beyond me. I know mega-accelerators and particle beams. Psychology wasn’t ever really my thing.

Xolin was right; we’re really kind of missing Nikki right now. She knew how to keep people stable. How to stem damage.

It’s weird. Everything’s weird. Technically the Peacekeepers are gone, technically we’re not really on duty anymore; mission’s over. But at the moment we’re all still hanging around the ship like nothing’s ever changed, even though in a few weeks at most we’re all going to be leaving. It’s weird to think about.

Part of me doesn’t want to leave. Scratch that, most of me doesn’t want to. But I know I need to. So much has happened, and I just...I can’t. I need time to process. We’ve been fighting nonstop, and I haven’t had time to consider everything. I got in this to have adventures, see new places, and there’s that old saying, right? Be careful what you wish for?

I don’t want to end up like Sid...or Sel.

The wars left so much destruction. We’re at least partially responsible for that. I think I’d like to spend some time fixing things instead of breaking them.


---

Three Weeks Later

And so they found themselves back on KO-35.

Sid stepped out of the changing room decked out in a full suit and tie, and looking fairly unhappy about it. As he entered the main room, he saw he’d been beaten by both girls, both of them wearing formal robes of their respective homeworlds.

“...Where’s Trok?” Sid asked.

“Here” the Horathean replied, stepping out of his own changing room looking less like someone about to go to a memorial ceremony and more like...well, Conan the Barbarian if he had a few more clothes on. Leather and fur armor and golden trinkets were the rule of the day here.

“...Seriously?” Sid asked him.

Trok immediately felt self-conscious, “It’s...traditional dress for a khan’s son. Even in exile”.

Sid sighed with regret as he glanced between Trok and the classy robes Xolin and Sel were wearing, and then the monkey suit he had on, “...I should have gone Native Mirinoite” he said flatly.

Xolin gave him a puzzled look, “...What?”

“Nothing, come on” Sid said, waving them to follow.

“Do we have to do this?” Xolin asked in distress as they left the main area of the changing rooms and headed down the hall, “You know this is just going to be one giant guilt trip, They are doing it just to pin all the blame on us because we led them into war”. No, she wasn’t bitter at all about how the pre-battle conference had gone. No siree.

“It’s the right thing to do. We DID have a hand in every casualty that happened simply because we asked them to follow us” Sid replied.

“If we hadn’t, then everyone would be dead” Xolin grumbled back.

“It’s still our responsibility” Sid relied, “Besides, everyone’s in sort of a fragile state right now. It’ll be good to have the people responsible for leading them to victory hanging around. It’ll be a bit of a unifying factor”.

“Better than everyone being at war” Trok added.

Xolin frowned, “Oh yeah, I’m sure they’ll just load heaps of praises on us” she said flatly.

Sid gave her a wry look as they walked, “Has anyone told you you’re a real downer?”

She shot him a very similar look, “Fine. Don’t come crying to me when they crucify you”.

“Actually, I think the Eltarians are more a fan of whatever the magical equivalent of drawn and quartering is” Sid joked back.

“Oh, even better”.

“Can we stop talking about this?” Trok asked.

“Please” Sel added, obviously still very sleep deprived. She hadn’t said much today, but right now all the others could do was stick around her, keep her occupied.

They arrived at the door, each ranger somewhat anxious about what lay beyond it. Taking a deep breath, Sid followed through, “Come on guys, it’s just one night of fake smiles. We’ve literally handled worse”.

---

When KO-35 had offered to host this ceremony, it had been an easy choice to use the old Senate Hall of the Confederation. For one, it was a large building no longer in use. For two, the fall of the Confederation was almost a symbol for the destruction the Antipodes had caused. So was the fall of the Alliance, but at the same time considering the current fate of the Alliance and the ongoing wars, it wasn’t really a good place to host this.

The hall was filled with people hailing from every corner of the known universe, mostly those who had fought in the battle and-or loved ones, but also their political backers—diplomats and politicians. This was a chance to forge ties, build alliances in this new, weird post-antipode world where much of the old order had been overturned.

The four rangers wandered in, a bit overly cautious as they took stock of the chamber. It was long, consisting of two parallel seating areas high above the central valley. At the far end was the consul’s podium, where leaders would dictate to the rest of the chamber. And there in the center, above the central hall, was the speaker’s podium, connected to below via stairs and to the seating areas via catwalks.

“So now what?” Trok asked.

“Now...we mingle” Sid said, putting on a smile and walking forward.

Xolin sagged, “Ugh. Got enough of this back home” she grumbled, before sighing and switching to ‘mingle’ mode.

“You made it!” a very familiar voice said. B’rnix came wandering up in a slightly tipsy walk, carrying a glass of...something, “Well, most of you!”

The group shared a series of looks, frowns crossing from one to another. Sid spoke, “...It was her choice”.

“A pity” the varox slurred, “A toast then! To the finest companion on my wacky misadventures!” he wobbled, a little woozy.

“...How many have you had?” Xolin asked him, suspicious.

He laughed, “Not as many as I’m going to”. B’rnix wandered off, off to make nice with the next group.

Trok blinked with surprise, “...I didn’t think they were serving alcohol here”.

“They’re not” Sid replied flatly.

The memorial ceremony went along as well as could be expected. As the room filled, the actual ceremony began, remembering the thousands who had been lost in the assault. Remembering the millions who had been caught in the quantum wake.

Remembering the millions who had been lost in all the wars up to this point.

It was incredibly uncomfortable for the four rangers at parts. How much of it was their fault? Even ignoring the fact that thousands had died in the battle, they’d fought the battle with the idea that it was to keep the base from self-destructing...and then the quantum wake had happened anyway. Several hundred light-years just...gone. Millions of people just gone.

Was that their fault? In the end there hadn’t been any way they could have prevented it...but how responsible were they?

Sid was keenly aware of some of the looks they were getting, ranging from curiosity to surprise to...well, he’d caught sight of a distinct glare Lasandra had given him when they’d gotten to the Eltarian portion. Thanks to the temporary loss of the Morphing Grid, the Eltarian forces had lost more than most of the other parties due to their near-total dependance on it.

Sid didn’t meet her gaze for long.

Speeches happened. The rangers didn’t really pay attention to them that much; most of them were empty platitudes and calls for unity. You know, vanilla stuff.

And then the rangers had been asked to take the stand. They’d never been asked to write a speech. Xolin gave Sid a dirty look; here it was, the chance to string them up as scapegoats. Sid frowned in response; she was probably right.

Trok was the first to stand. They’d brought this all on, they had a responsibility to see this through...and he wasn’t a coward. Sel was next to join him as they walked towards the speaker’s podium. Sid nudged Xolin, then followed suit. With a sigh, Xolin did likewise.

With purpose but with reluctance, the four rangers assembled in the central podium, surrounded by the audience gathered. Ahead, in the consul’s stage, sat the assembled heads of state of the various powers they’d assembled—or at the very least, in some cases their representatives.

“Four million people that existed a month ago do not exist today” Lasandra stated sternly from the consul’s stage, “An entire galaxy is missing. A scar exists in spacetime that will always remind us of what happened there”.

The rangers kept their heads down as the blows continued to come.

“You led the force that fought the Antipodes. You’re the team that took the reigns and decided history regardless of what anyone else felt or thought, and assumed all of the consequences therein. You will always share in the blame in the result. There are people who did not come home from that battle; there are whole colonies who simply vanished without a trace”.

“But” said King Ihara, standing up next to her, “It is just as important to count the living as it is to count the dead. And just as it is on you that people are gone...” he smiled, “It is also on you that we are all here. That many more people had homes to come back to”.

The rangers dared to look up.

Ihara nodded, “And we will never forget that. While we were bickering amongst each other, fighting pointless wars and being manipulated, you worked to save us, without support and without recognition. If it had not been for you, none of us, not a single person in the entire universe, would be here to mourn the dead. Not a single person would have remained to stand here now. We would have been nothing more than a footnote in someone else’s history. We owe you our lives. And because of that, we celebrate *you*”.

Ihara began to clap, and soon enough the other representatives stood and began to clap as well. And then...and then the rest of the room began to do the same. A standing ovation spread through the senate chamber like wildfire, and the rangers couldn’t believe it. Each stood, mouth agape as the impossible washed over them. Eltarians, triforians, humans, aquitians, machines, horatheans, and over two dozen other species joined in. Trok couldn’t help but be a little giddy despite everything; it was what he’d always wanted and could never get because of the nature of what the Peacekeepers had been.

Recognition.

He grabbed Sel and Xolin into a tight hug from the sides, using them as leverage as he jumped for joy. Sid just marveled at it all. He glanced at Lasandra, who despite her earlier glare gave him a begrudging look of respect. His father, too, gave a look of approval as he clapped.

Realization sunk in. Despite everything...they were heroes.

–-

Sometime later, the reception had set in. People were talking, enjoying themselves, reminiscing.

Trok and Sel found themselves at one of the many food bars, eying the snacks. They happened on a large plate of aquitian calamari. Trok eyed Sel, “...Bet you I can eat the whole thing”.

*That* got her attention. The edges of her lips curled up as she gave him a conspiratorial look in response, “You’re on”.

As Trok began the absolute debauchery, Xolin rolled her eyes and looked away, turning her attention to the conversation between Sid and his father. Anything was better than watching the children embarrass them all.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?” the admiral asked Sid, before taking a sip of his drink.

Sid shook his head, “Not really. I’ve been sort of busy dealing with, y’know, the end of the world and all. Why?”

His father seemed to contemplate his answer, trying to decide where to start with this, “...The Peacekeepers taught the Confederacy an important lesson. We shunned rangers and riders and got burned in response. If you hadn’t been there...” he trailed off, but then shifted gears back to the original topic, “Anyway. A few of the former Confederate member worlds have been talking”.

“...Getting the band back together?” Sid asked.

His father shook his head, “No, nothing quite so overt, none of the worlds are ready to hand themselves over to yet another alliance or organization. However, a number of them are interested in a new ranger organization. Not clandestine like the Peacekeepers, but out in the open, and properly funded”.

Sid gave his father an odd look, “...Really? We just got our shit wrecked by SPD, again, and we’re already ready for a principle building block of the police state?”

“The problem as it’s seen is that the rangers never should have been an arm of any particular government. It never should have been a combined military and police organization. However, that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth pursuing. As the Antipodes demonstrated, there will always be threats that normal military forces aren’t equipped for fighting”.

Okay, this was getting interesting. Sid’s interest piqued a bit as he took a bite out of his sandwich, “Where are you going with this?”

“We’re looking at building an international task force organization, free of any particular state. Each member world would contribute funds and resources. And as it would be independent but overseen by each state, it wouldn’t be used as an offensive force”.

“And it wouldn’t be a military operation?” Sid asked him.

The admiral shook his head, “It would be a civilian organization, though it would be observed by various military and political voices”.

“...You really think that would work?” Sid asked him skeptically.

His father shrugged, “Honestly? I don’t know. But I do know we need something like it. If it turns out to be a bad idea down the road, then we’ll just have to deal with it then”.

Sid frowned; he didn’t want to turn this opportunity down, especially when he and his father were just starting to work well together, but… “...Actually, I was thinking of stepping down as a ranger. I don’t regret what I’ve done at all but...it’s someone else’s turn. I can’t keep doing this, it...” unwelcome memories briefly flashed through his mind, “…No. I’m sorry”. He couldn’t; the aquitian therapist had been right. He couldn’t keep fighting day in and day out. Not with his issues. One battle at a time would be fine but...again, like Epsilon had said back in the pocket dimension; he couldn’t win forever. Eventually it would all come crashing down again.

And besides, he didn’t want to be stuck here forever, not when everyone else was moving on.

His father caught his pained expression and understood, “...Actually, I wasn’t intending you to continue fighting on the front lines”.

Sid’s expression shifted to one of confusion.

His father gave a small but satisfied smile, “I’m looking for the best of the best commanders. Those who will teach and guide their teams”.

Admiral Drake’s son’s eyes widened in surprise and shock, “Wait, you...want me to...”

“Help lead the new Peacekeepers, yes. And yes, that’s the name currently being tossed about, in remembrance of your team’s achievements”.

...Oh. Well, dang. Sid wasn’t entirely sure how to take this. His father continued, “You would be responsible for commanding multiple teams in your sector. This includes missions, training, and all the logistics junk for your sector. You would be teaching, training, and then deploying. In addition, you would be offering assistance to independent civilian teams who reached out for support”.

Sid was taken aback; his father didn’t just approve of his actions, he wanted him to up hi game further. But this was so much more than Sid was used to, he didn’t…

“I’ve seen your mission reports, watched you and your team in action” his father said upon seeing Sid’s torn expression, “You’re a natural tactician, better than myself even. You know how to inspire loyalty and zeal. You know how to outsmart your opponent. And you’re not half-bad at logistics. You can do this, I believe that now”. He extended his hand as if reaching out for a handshake.

“Take the jooooob” Trok whispered not-so-quietly into Sid’s ear from behind. Irritated, Sid waved him off like a fly, but his father almost broke into laughter.

“I’d take the kid’s advice”.

Sid glanced at the encouraging Trok, both thumbs up and a fistful of calamari sticking out of his mouth, then back at his father.

Oh, what the hell.

Gripping his dad’s hand tightly, Sid accepted, not completely sold but deciding to jump in on a leap of faith anyway, “Alright. I’m game”. His father nodded in appreciation.

“Welcome aboard, Commander Drake”.

...Man, that felt unexpectedly good.

---

Xolin had turned her attention elsewhere now, preferring to simply watch the goings on of the crowds of people around her. She became so immersed in it in fact, she didn’t even notice the king walk up next to her. He began to sample the food, “So, have you considered my offer?”

Xolin nearly jumped, but composed herself quickly, “I...” had she? She looked over at where Sid was shaking his father’s hand—evidently he was going off in that direction. Trok was leaving. Nikki was gone.

And where was Xolin? She didn’t want to be drifting forever. She didn’t want to simply be a piece of loose debris cast off from her home. She wanted more, even if she was terrified because she didn’t think she could handle it. Long ago she probably would have said she could, but that had been borne out of arrogance and stupidity.

But as she had stated to Epsilon, the others did trust and believe in her, and she trusted in what they thought.

So maybe she could.

“...Yes” she told her king, finally, “I’m interested”.

Ihara smiled, “Good. Welcome aboard, Xolin”.

---

Sel watched the event unfold, suddenly feeling alone as the others all got wrapped up in their own conversations. While she’d been imprisoned, they’d all been moving on with their lives.

Where would she go?

She quietly left the floor, heading up into the senate seating area above, which was now sparsely populated as most everyone had moved down to either the central valley or out into one of the ancillary rooms. There she sat, watching everyone scurry about, back and forth.

She’d always felt different, alone. But now that feeling had been magnified, like she was just some passive observer.

“Sometimes I too like to disconnect, to watch”.

Sel turned, seeing Elder Sesh sitting next to her, looking over the railing. He continued, “As much as I love our people’s mental connection and wouldn’t trade it for anything, sometimes I really do prefer to watch from afar. You get a point of view you otherwise miss, one that is important for dealing with non-xybrians” he turned to face her, “Hello again, Sel”.

“Hi” she replied, “It’s...good to see you. For real, this time”.

“And it is good to see you have returned in one piece” Sesh replied, “Though perhaps...not entirely, am I right?”

She blushed, embarrassed a bit, “...Sid told you?” she ventured as she looked away from him.

“He did indeed” said the old man, “Though I can tell even from here you are not doing well”.

Was it that obvious? “I...it’s been hard. Things happened and I can’t...it won’t...”

“I want you to do something for me” Sesh told her softly, “I want you to come with me”.

She blinked in surprise, “Come with...you?”

He nodded, “Back home. To Xybria. We can help”.

“...Can you make it stop?” she asked in a quiet voice.

He shook his head sadly, “Trauma is like any experience. It stays with us forever, becomes part of who we are. It cannot be removed, not without removing part of your own development and a part of who you are. However, with time and effort, we *can* learn to live with it, to work around it. We can help you, Sel. We xybrians have the link, the hivemind we all experience. Our thoughts, our emotions”.

“But we established long ago I don’t have that” Sel mumbled, depressed, “I can’t connect with other xybrians. I haven’t even had so much as a hint of precognition”. She’d read up on her people’s culture and society of course. Xybrians didn’t have *true* precognition, at least not in the traditional sense, despite what it looked like to outsiders. Rather, xybrians had the power to read minds, and could ‘predict’ by subconsciously guessing when they read another person’s intentions or goals. In young, untrained xybrians this could result in sudden prophetic episodes. In older, more experienced members of her species, this could lead to long-lived plans—hence Xybria’s relative stability and peaceful nature.

“But that was before, when you were a child of the Morphing Grid. How about now? You came back as a full-blooded xybrian, didn’t you?” Sesh asked.

Sel nodded, that IS what she’d willed when she’d left the grid.

Sesh spoke again, “And considering your experience with the dreamlands, I would imagine your skills would already be formidable. I want you to try something. Just...sit there, quietly. Let it all fall away”.

Sel assumed the meditation position Xolin had taught her. It was hard to focus; so many other things were happening around them, and she started to become frustrated and was about to give up. Except—a cool evening summer breeze. After-dusk. A temple, with calm lanterns lighting it. A tree, rustling through the breeze.

Wait, what? That wasn’t her memory. It had only been there for a second, and then was gone. She’d only gotten the barest taste, now all that was left was a vague after-image. A memory of that memory.

“That was...” she breathed, not sure how to describe that.

Sesh smiled in the way that old man did when he’s made his point, “We can help you, Sel. Come home. Be among your people. Learn what it means to be xybrian. You won’t be trapped, you’ll be free to come and go as you please”.

“What would I do there?” Sel asked him, “Where would I go?”

Sesh leaned forward, “You would be able to do whatever you wanted. A proper education, perhaps. You would have time to figure out where you would like to be, what you would like to be”.

Time. Freedom. Choice. Words that had once seemed so alien and unreachable for her, and now she had all of them. She fought back the swirl of emotions that threatened to burst out, “...Thank you” she whispered.

“No thanks are necessary” Sesh replied, “You are one of us. And we owe you our lives. I would be remiss to allow you to suffer alone”. He stood up, “If you will excuse me, I must prepare our passage. Enjoy the rest of your night. Be with your friends”.

As Sesh left, Sel looked back down at the crowd. Almost immediately she caught sight of Sid, looking directly at her. He gave her a smile and a knowing nod, and she smiled and mouthed a ‘thank you’ in response. As he faded back into the crowd, she put her arms around her knees, forming herself into a ball.

And maybe she didn’t feel quite so alone.

---

The woman wore a practical business suit as she typed away a report on her computer. Her phone rang, but she did not care to answer it. A few moments later, a knock sounded on her door. She didn’t even look up as she responded, “Come in”.

The middle aged man in a business suit and carrying a briefcase walked in, taking a seat in one of the chairs on the other side of the woman’s desk.

“...So you failed” she said. Not a question, an affirmation. A statement of fact.

The man smiled, “One never gets everything they plan for. However, I have learned to settle for *almost* everything’”. He opened his briefcase, pulling out the ancient Eltarian trinket that had helped to bring the universe to the brink of extinction, that had once been the personal conduit of an ancient unfathomable nightmare of a being before he’d been purged of it by the rangers. The man placed it on the woman’s desk. She stopped typing, taking time to look over at the conduit.

The man explained, “The Antipodes and the rangers both played their parts perfectly. While the girl refused my choice, in the end they still managed to set the xenoformer off incorrectly. Because of that, the fabric of spacetime itself has been punched through. It’s an open, gaping wound. With a diameter of several hundred light-years, that sphere of missing space as become the single largest rift in the history of this kalpa”.

The woman digested this fact, seemingly impressed before simply going back to her work, “Seems you did quite well then”.

“Indeed” the man replied with a smile, “To think, millions of years have been spent on this scheme, and now finally the pieces are almost in place. We just have to wait a bit longer for The Dawn”.

---

Sel’s Personal Log:

Home. It’s a word that’s weird for me. I mean, a lot of words are weird for me, considering. But home is...I’ve moved a lot. My earliest memories are of living with Coros on Arkilla. Then I spent a long time on the Megaship and I felt for the first time like that was home...but then I was kidnapped and spent a lot of time elsewhere. And now that I’m back and it...doesn’t feel the same. So much has changed.

And everyone’s leaving. I think they feel the same way, even if they haven’t said it.

Xybria’s my homeworld, even though I was only there once and for a short time, and spent most of it either unconscious or in a giant robot. I wasn’t born on Xybria, or any of its colonies. I was ‘born’ in a tube, formed from the Morphing Grid itself. I was a tool, a weapon.

A puppet.

For so long everyone told me where to go and what to do, even as I fought and resisted. And yet now that I’ve won, and all I see is a blank canvas, and I’m terrified.

...I should start painting again. Maybe I could get some of my emotions out. Like the nightmares, being trapped, and the pain.

Sometimes I feel like my skin is on fire, even though I know it’s not. I hate closed doors. I hate enclosed spaces. I’m afraid…

I’m afraid that this is all a dream and when I wake up I’ll be back in that damned pod with no one to talk to and slowly wasting away and...no. Can’t think about that. Won’t think about that.

Refuse to think about that.

I’m going home. I’m going to get better. And then I’m going to live my life the way I want to, because I refuse to let them win. Not after everything.


---

The ship was silent and empty. Trok had been moving from one room to the next, taking a moment to get one long good look at each one in turn, even has he had to navigate a bit more carefully since he was loaded to the brim with bags that contained everything he owned.

He passed the workbay, idly remembering all the times they hung out there. All the project he had made. He passed the simudeck. Remember when he got everyone stuck in there by accident because of Capricorn’s virus? He passed by each of their quarters; his, Sid’s, Xolin’s, Sel’s, Nikki’s...even Isdilian’s. He passed by the medbay, and the observation lounge, and the bridge, each one bringing up different memories.

He approached main engineering, seeing the spot on the floor where the others had been tied up by that shapeshifter creature, when Sel had first demonstrated her Morphing Grid powers. Remember that time they’d looped time? Or when they’d boarded that ghost ship? Or the time Xolin had been split in three and couldn’t recombine.

So many memories.

“Trok, what are you doing?!” Xolin reprimanded him from down the hall, “Sel’s about to leave! Come on!”

Oh, right! “Sorry, coming!” Trok called back, waddling down the hall with his cargo.

---

Trok met the others outside, in the main hanger bay that the Megaship had been stationed on during their time on KO-35. They were currently high in orbit on one of the Karovian super-stations that handled the bulk of traffic around this nexus of trade. All around them, numerous other ships were parked, and hundreds of people were moving to and fro across the hanger bay.

Three of the team were packed and ready to go, carrying bags and luggage with them. Of the four, only Sid remained casual. Sel watched the xybrian ship she was going to be taking with hesitation and a bit of worry.

“It’ll be okay” Xolin reassured her, “We’ll all be only a single call away if you need us”.

“I know. I just...” Sel fumbled for the words, “It’s new. And different. And I don’t do well with that”.

Sid offered her a smile, “You can do this. You’re stronger than you think. You stuck it to the Antipodes for months. You can do this”.

“And we’ll be right there every week!” Trok said happily, putting his arm around her into a half-hug. She stumbled as she was thrown a bit, “Heck yeah, group simudeck sessions! Group calls, online gaming, you name it!”

Sel couldn’t help but giggle at that, “...Yeah. Thanks” she said to the group as she pulled out of Trok’s grasp, “You promise?”

“Always” Sid replied.

Out in the crowd, Elder Sesh waved, beckoning Sel to follow. She turned to the others, “...It’s time”.

The others drew her into a tight hug, but even before they’d broken it Trok was already beginning to panic, “Wait! Wait!”

“What?” Xolin asked.

Trok pulled out his morpher, “Group photo, before it’s too late!” The group posed, allowing Trok’s morpher to scan them all. With the picture completed, they broke from each other, “I’ll send you guys copies, don’t worry”.

Sel got one more series of hugs, then reluctantly but with purpose began to walk towards Sesh. She turned one last time to wave, then vanished with Sesh into the crowd, towards the xybrian ship.

“...I should get going too” Trok said, his mood turning a bit more gloomy.

“Where exactly are you headed, anyway?” Sid asked him.

Trok pointed to an SPD shuttle at the far end of the hanger, “Some of the Alliance worlds that broke off and declared independence are under Admiral Lacanth’s protection. I’m sort-of-not-really enlisting with him. He wants to start a rebuilding project now that the wars over there are calming down a bit; try to help those worlds recover a bit. I’m going to help him since I’m good with designing stuff”.

Xolin gave him a hug, “Be careful” she said.

“Yes mom” Trok said with a hint of sarcasm. She rolled her eyes with contempt. As they separated, Trok explained further, “I want to try and undo some of the damage that’s been caused because of the Antipodes and...well, and because of us”.

“And we couldn’t be prouder” Xolin replied.

“We hope you find what you’re looking for too” Sid told him.

Trok regarded the two of them for a moment, the two older rangers who had kept him on track this whole time. Xolin, the older sister he’d never had who had pushed him onward, and who had trained him from day one. Sid, the older super-cool mentor who he’d originally had a bit of a hero crush on, only to eventually find him to be a fellow partner in crime. Tears threatened to spill out.

“Thank you” Trok managed, before they drew in for yet another embrace.

“Now boarding: SPD Shuttle A-Fifteen” came the voice over the comm.

“...That’s my ride” Trok said, stepping away from the other two rangers.

“Knock ‘em dead!” Sid called as Trok backed away further. They watched him turn, nearly run into another guy, and then begin to sprint even with all the bags he was carrying.

“...Think he’ll be okay?” Xolin asked Sid, a hint of worry in her voice.

“He’ll be fine” Sid reassured her, “He was trained by the best”.

She smiled, despite herself, “...Flatterer” her expression flattened; morose, “I guess I still just think of him as that little kid I met back when this all started. I kind of forget how much he’s grown”.

The two watched Trok vanish into the crowd, leaving just two rangers behind.

“So” Xolin said, changing topics as she spun her heel towards Sid, her arms folded, “Commander, huh?”

Sid chuckled nervously, “...Yeah. I mean, it’s still all preliminary so far, everyone still has to hammer stuff out and sign treaties and stuff, but...yeah. It looks like Peacekeepers 2.0 is happening” he glanced up at the Megaship, “I’m taking her to Mirinoi for reassignment. Likely one of the new teams we train will take command of her”.

“...Hopefully they’ll treat her well” Xolin mused, a bit sadly at the fate of what had become their home, “...Do you think this is a good idea?” she asked Sid suddenly, “I mean, another ranger organization? How do we keep things from happening all over again?”

Sid grimaced; he’d been dealing with that train of thought since he’d accepted the offer from his dad, “...I don’t know. Not sure we can”.

She looked at him, a bit hopelessly, “Then what’s the point? We try to protect people, we become an oppressive dictatorship or a clandestine grudge match, we fail the people, but then they realize they can’t live without us and start the cycle all over again. Where does it stop?”

“...You can’t win every time” Sid muttered to himself, remembering.

“...Come again?” Xolin asked, confused.

Sid explained, “Flip a coin and it has a fifty-fifty chance of coming up heads or tails. Flip it again, and whatever you didn’t get last time has a higher chance of coming up. Keep flipping it and eventually the side you didn’t get the first time will inevitably show up. Basic probability”.

She looked at him with a bit of worry. He continued, “But...if you take it one coin flip at a time, each one still has a fifty-fifty chance. Each one still has a shot at giving you the outcome you want, regardless of the other flips”.

“So, what, don’t worry about the other flips?” Xolin asked him.

Sid shrugged, “We can’t predict what will happen in the future. We can’t stop people from being people. All we can do is what we can do, and trust that the next generation will build on what we’ve done instead of making the same mistakes. Maybe this is the other coin flip—the one that comes up the way we want it”.

“...Is that faith I hear?” she asked him coyly.

He smirked, “Gotta believe in something. Otherwise I wouldn’t keep doing this”.

Xolin was about to respond, but her morpher beeped; her signal that her flight was ready, “...And that’s my ride” she stated. The two rangers stared at each other for a moment, letting time freeze for as long as they could make it. Another hug followed.

“Good luck, Minister Xolin” Sid cackled with good humor.

She pushed him away, “Call me that again, I dare you”.

He called her bluff, “Sorry, Royal Vizier”.

She slapped him playfully as he was too slow to move out of her range, “Dumbass”.

“You’re going to miss it” he warned her.

“...Yeah, I am” she admitted, then began to back off, “Don’t get yourself killed, huh? If I find you went on another suicide mission or some nonsense, I’ll raise your ghost myself”.

“You don’t even know any magic!”

“I’ll learn” Xolin replied with a smirk, “Didn’t you hear? I’m getting *all* the education”.

Sid’s smile became earnest, “…Good luck”.

“Same to you” Xolin said likewise, then turned and left. Sid watched her wander off, giving a wave the one time she looked back to give him one. Then she vanished, into the crowd, just like the others.

And then there was one. Sid looked up at his ship, towering over him. Already it seemed far emptier, far more desolate. He entered he ship, setting it to auto-pilot from his morpher. It began its lift-off sequence.

Sid Drake’s Personal Log:

It’s funny, you know? When I came aboard, all I wanted was to be literally anywhere else. I had to be blackmailed and manipulated into sticking around. Iota always played his cards well.

And yet...now? It hurts to leave. It hurts to have them gone. Somehow, in the span of just a couple years, this place became home; a real home, not just a place I was staying at until my business was done.

I regained my person-ness here.


Sid made his way past main engineering, and the work bay, and the medbay. Each room he passed offered new feelings, new memories. Happy memories, sad ones, terrifying ones. They’d laughed here, cried, bled. They’d become a team, a family—bound by friendship if not blood. Each memory was vivid, like ghosts in the corner of his mind.

And if he stopped for just a moment, he could almost fool himself into thinking it was just like it had always had been; that everyone else was still onboard, and they were simply elsewhere on the ship. Any second now, Trok would come running up in a panic over some new experiment he’d been running having gone amok. Or Xolin and Nikki would come down the hallway, arguing about something. Or he’d turn the corner, and Sel would be in the workbay, reading a book.

But the ship was empty.

We all came here as broken people, miserable souls who had slipped through the cracks. People who only barely made it through each day at a time with little to look forward too.

Sel looked out her window as the xybrian ship took off, watching as the starfield replaced the hangerbay. Turning, she gave the shuttle she was in another look-over from the seat she was in.

Somehow...yes. This was a good thing.

We came out of it far different. That’s not to say we’re ‘whole’ now, or unbroken. That’s not how it works. You can’t just ‘wish away’ scars. They stay with you.

But you can learn to deal with them, to not focus on them. You can learn to lean on each other—to support one another, because that makes you stronger. We came away from our experience as stronger people; better people. My mom once had a saying I think was passed down from her people, that you can’t truly enjoy the warmth of the fire unless you’ve experienced the cold.

Xolin watched as the Megaship took off without her, feeling an odd sense of loss. She stood there for a moment, before turning back to Ihara’s personal transport, and continued her walk.

Yeah, we still have our issues, they’ll always be there. They didn’t just magically vanish; because it’s not a book or a video game; there isn’t a clear beginning, middle, or end for your ‘story’. Your development doesn’t get tied up in a nice bow after twenty-two minutes. Life is messy. Our issues will always come back and we’ll always have bad days.

But we’ll have good days, too.


Trok found the SPD shuttle and got in line. Sighting Admiral Lacanth, the two nodded wordlessly at each other.

Because that’s life, right? There is no ‘happy ending’, there can’t be. If there ever was one, it’d be invalidated by the fact that after your happy ending day, there was yet another day after that. And another. And another. The only way your story ends is if you die.

You can’t be focused on the happy ending, because then you miss everything else for something that never really comes. And that’s a shame, because life is all about the experience.


Sid entered the bridge of the Megaship, the room just as empty as the rest of the ship. Silently, the man dropped into the captain’s seat, melancholic over everything.

So we’re imperfect. We’ve got a ton of issues and downsides. But it doesn’t matter. We might not be quite at the level of loving ourselves yet—but we do love each other.

...And maybe that’s good enough for now.


Sid watched the viewscreen idly as the ship left the hanger bay.

“SURPRISE!”

“AH!” Sid screamed, dropping out of his seat and sprawling onto the floor in a sudden would-be heart attack. He looked up at his would-be murderers.

“HI!” Sitras said with an asshole grin. Tesas waved with her.

“...What the hell are you two still doing on the ship?” Sid asked in bewilderment as he shot up to his feet.

The two shared a glance, then back at Sid, “...Admiral Drake didn’t tell you?” Sitras asked, “You’re transporting us to Mirinoi. We’re enlisting with the new Peacekeepers”.

“We’re going to be your students!” Tesas said wryly, “All over again”.

Sid snorted at the obnoxiousness of it all, then waved them off as he sat back down in his chair, “Fine, fine. Take your stations already, assholes”.

The two cadet rangers quickly dropped into their seats at navigation and tactical. As the ship left the no-fly zone around the space station, Sid gave the order, “Sitras, set a course for Mirinoi”.

“Course set!”

Sid savored the moment.

Maybe this would all turn out okay after all.

“Punch it”.

The Megaship adjusted its course as its engines roared to life, light blasting from its rear as the mega-accelerator powered up. A second later, the Defender Megaship was gone from the system, shooting towards its next destination.

---

The End

---
---

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Okay, so, I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell that Briefcase Man cliffhanger is all about, considering this series is over and is marked ‘complete’. In short, yes, Peacekeepers is done. It’s over.

HOWEVER.

I’ve always had post-series stuff planned, because I’ve been working with these characters for well over a decade, and I’m loath to say goodbye forever. In particular, the stuff about The Dawn and Briefcase Man were always supposed to lead into the post-series ‘movie’, and I’ve also always wanted to release a detailed factbook for all the stuff I lore-built (and some of which never even made it in to the series). When will it happen? In truth, I don’t know. It *will* happen someday, I assure you, but it won’t be anytime soon.

Truth is, I need a break. A looooong break. There are a lot of original fiction ideas I’d like to try my hand with now that my ever-present project is over. I have a lot of original worlds that need building, and I’m really aiming to publish real stuff down the road maybe hopefully someday if I’m lucky maybe…?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this insane project of mine (which now just barely exceeds the word count length of ‘War and Peace’ if I’m right), which took me two and a half years to write, after spending another eleven years or so building it up. If you really did enjoy Peacekeepers, I highly encourage you to leave a review! Let me know what you thought.
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