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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
Dcaasi98
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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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