Rangers in Space: Chapter Fourteen
Chris was in the Astrometrix lab, where a large holographic display of the galaxy twirled in the center of the room. He stood behind a control podium and used a series of functions to outline the Megaship's course.
"DECA," he said to the ship's computer. "Increase power to long range sensors. Focus in on sector J3-12"
The holographic map zeroed in on a sector of space known as the Cross Roads. The sector of space was the intersection of two main trading routes. One extended from Eltar down to the Samarian Planet. The other route went from the core out to the rim.
The Megaship was scheduled to rendezvous with a Fargusian cargo hauler at the Cross Roads. They apparently had important information they were willing to exchange with the rangers.
Chris was plotting a direct course to the Cross Roads and keeping an eye out for any activity in the especially dangerous area.
The Megaship's long range sensors, with the help of various long-range probes, were picking up various vessels coming and going from the Cross Roads. He couldn't determine their warp signatures, but noticed from their formation that they were AnnaZanti, a race the rangers had run into during a brief encounter involving a lot of plasma cannons and torpedoes.
"DECA, change sensor feeds," Chris said. "See where those AnnaZanti are headed."
The holo-map showed a distorted path followed by the AnnaZanti formation. The ships seemed to be headed towards the end of the route, but then did something strange. Not only strange, but impossible. They continued past the route's end and further into the core.
Chris wrinkled his brow with concern. "DECA...zero in on the core. Is it just me, or did that AnnaZanti formation just head into...well, nothing."
"Affirmative," DECA said. "The AnnaZanti did not follow any known hyperspace lane."
"Could there be a hidden system or planet?" Chris asked.
"It is possible," DECA said.
"Huh," Chris said quietly. "What are they up to..."
Astronema's Dark Fortress spun through the darkness of space. Half the fortress was a monstrosity of iron and steel, while the other half was made of a neon-green grid.
She stood at her forward viewport, where she saw a pair of bright shining stars in the distance. The larger star was actually sucking gas from the smaller star around its orbit.
Three figures kneeled behind Astronema. They were AnnaZanti. The center AnnaZanti was of the planet's dominant species. He was humanoid, only covered in thick leathery scales. Each scale was dull brown and tan. He had four eyes, each deep gold. He was dressed in an uncountable number of black colored cloth strips.
His two companions were of their world's lesser species. They were smooth-skinned and amphibious, pale green in color. Their eyes were glossy black.
"Tell me," Astronema said while keeping her back to the AnnaZanti. "What is the status of the Star Crusher?"
"Nearing completion. However..." the lead AnnaZanti said, "we need more slaves."
Astronema turned and narrowed her eyes at the three beings. "Your people just picked up an entire shipment of slaves from the Samarian Planet."
"But for a weapon of this magnitude..." the AnnaZanti said.
Astronema slammed the end of her staff against the back of the being's neck. She smiled as the AnnaZanti crumbled to the ground. "You will be getting nothing more from me, I'm afraid. You, on the other hand, better giveme results."
The six rangers and Cy sat around the briefing table in the Megaship's Situation Room. A small holographic image of the galactic core was being displayed over the center of the table. Chris had just finished explaining to them about the strange course set by the AnnaZanti.
"It could be nothing," Justin said. "Just a planet not in the charts."
Tommy shook his head. "They're hiding something. And whatever it is, it isn't good."
"So what do we do about it?" Kat asked.
"There's not much we can do," Zhane said. "Even if they are hiding something, we don't know what."
"We'll have to find out," Tommy said. "Ask around while we're at the Cross Roads."
Ashley looked to Cy. "Is there anything else you know about the AnnaZanti?"
Cy shook his head. "No. The dominant species is reptilian. They rule over a group of amphibians."
Zhane nodded. "Not a lot is known about them...and what's known isn't good."
Tommy punched a few controls on his data pad. "Let's run through a few more tests of our defensive systems...the Cross Roads are going to be bad enough without a bunch of AnnaZanti running around."
The rangers left the situation room to attend to their individual tasks.
A small island covered with grassland floated across the southern ocean of Cross Road One, the main trading planet in the sector. A small scientific outpost was on the island. The outpost had only one occupant.
A female amphibian AnnaZanti sat at a control console in the dimly-lit lab. The webbed fingers of her right hand danced across the controls in front of her, while she cradled a small infant in her left arm.
The holographic monitor in front of her displayed a wedge-shaped craft of some sort. The image twirled above her desk at various intervals and angles.
Her large dark eyes looked sad as she reviewed the holographic diagrams. Sad and lost.
The Megaship speared into real-space near Cross Road One.
The six rangers and Cy were on the bridge, manning their stations. Zhane was assigned a science console at the side of the bridge.
"We're coming up on Cross Road One," Chris said.
"On screen," Tommy said.
The planet blinked onto the viewer, a shining dot in the distance.
"Magnify," Tommy said.
The planet was a mess of blue, green, brown, and gray splotches. The space around the world was filled with various ships and stations.
"Looks crowded," Justin said.
"Take us in slow," Tommy said to Cy. "How's our holo-disguise holding up, Ashley?"
Ashley looked over her console. "It's stable."
"Incoming transmission from traffic control," Kat said.
"On screen," Tommy said.
A virtual image tailored to match human facial features appeared on the viewer. "Proceed along course vector 37-895-Thi-Omicron-99."
The viewscreen blinked off, and the Megaship proceeded towards the planet.
Tommy and Cy walked through the main port city's streets while dressed in their cloaks. Their Fargusian contact was to meet them soon at a nearby bar. The other rangers were scattered about, trying to find information on recent AnnaZanti activity.
The streets were covered with dust and gravel as hover cars sped by overhead, kicking sand up into the air. The buildings resembled giant, multi-level tents. Each tent was made of sturdy, leather-type material.
"You know," Tommy said quietly. "We really need classier meeting places."
"You think this is bad," Cy said, "Remind me to have us swing by the Hell Circles in Hsub W-7."
Tommy smiled beneath his cloak. "I'd hate to tell ya, but I've been to Hell itself. And I still don't like this place."
Chris and Ashley walked through a docking bay as various merchants and beings unloaded their cargo. They were both dressed in their cloaks for disguise.
The rangers spotted a dock worker and walked over to the man. He was dressed in brown fatigues and appeared human, except for the third eye in the center of his forehead and columns of short horns running along his head.
"Excuse me," Ashley said while walking over to the man. "We need your help..."
"Blah," the man said. "Lots o' people need my help. Go elsewhere."
Chris held out a handful of credits, and the man snatched them in an eye blink.
"What? Be quick," he said to them.
"We're looking for a group of AnnaZanti," Ashley said. "They passed through here recently."
"Lady," the man said. "Lots o' people pass through here. Can't keep track of one species from 'nother."
A freighter at the other end of the docking bay exploded before the rangers could finish their conversation. A group of pilots screamed as they ran away from several attackers. Each attack was dressed in dark brown leather combat armor.
Chris and Ashley ducked for cover.
"At least they're not shooting at us this time," Chris said.
Ashley grinned as she ditched her cloak and pulled out a blaster. "Not yet at least."
"So much for keeping a low profile," Chris said as he took off his cloak and readied his sidearm. "How do we even know who the good guys are?"
"Probably the ones screaming," Ashley said.
"This is such a bad idea," Chris said.
"Never stopped us before," Ashley said. "Now what are we waiting for?"
Justin and Kat were riding in a hover cab above the city. Justin leaned slightly over the edge to get a bird's eye view of the land below.
"Doesn't look so bad from up here, Kat," he said.
She looked over and smiled at him. "It depends on what you look at."
"Hey," Justin said teasingly. "I'm supposed to make the jokes, remember?"
A hover transport ahead of the rangers exploded violently in the sky. The rangers' speeder dove to avoid the blast, but the shockwave knocked their vehicle out of control. They started spinning towards the ground far below.
Cy and Tommy's Fargusian contact sat back in his booth. He smiled while taking a puff of smoke from a blue metal pipe. He was a muscular creature with gray fur covering his entire body, most of which was exposed. He slid a small disk over to the two rangers.
"The AnnaZanti are building a weapon for Sauron's forces," the Fargusian said. His name was Chandlafey. "It's called the Star Crusher."
"The Star Crusher?" Tommy asked.
Chandlafey nodded. "A rather large craft...equipped with warheads strong enough to destroy stars, thereby obliterating entire systems."
Cy wrinkled his brow. "That's impossible."
"Not anymore," Chandlafey said.
"Where are they building it?" Tommy asked.
"The core," Chandlafey said.
Cy looked to Tommy. "That convoy Chris spotted."
"There's more," Chandlafey said. "The weapon's design work...is being done right here."
Chris and Ashley dove behind a speeder as plasma blasts streaked towards them. The leather armored soldiers were spreading throughout the docking bay, opening fire at anything that moved.
"There's nowhere to move," Chris said as a trio of shots exploded against the speeder above them. "They've closed everyone in."
"We'll split up," Ashley said, "move towards the main exit from two sides."
More plasma blasts exploded against their speeder.
"After you," Chris said.
The two rangers split up. Chris ran between two cargo haulers and tried to not be distracted by the screams. He took cover behind a small freighter's landing gear and lifted his weapon. The blaster was set to stun.
Chris looked around the landing gear and aimed forward, triggering a pair of blasts that took down a guard near the bay's exit. A group of soldiers aimed towards the landing gear and fired a salvo of pulse blasts. Chris rolled for cover behind a stack of boxes. He rose to his knees and looked over the box while firing a round of blasts.
A blur of motion suddenly slammed into Chris and tackled him across the ground. It was a short creature with dark-blue skin, white hair, a beak-like nose, and long snapping tail.
"Stay down and quiet," the creature said.
The creature stepped off Chris and turned towards the boxes. He pulled out a small spherical object and threw it. The device exploded in midair, creating a shockwave that knocked Chris into unconsciousness, along with almost everyone else in the bay area.
Chris slowly returned to consciousness. He looked to his left to see a viewport, and outside was an ocean of pale-green waters. He was in a small cabin space with a door in front of him. The ranger rubbed his sore head and rose to his feet before reaching forward and opening the door.
The navy-blue skinned creature was on the other end of the door, sitting in a pilot's seat. The ocean was visible through a wide transparent viewport.
"My apologies," the creature said without turning. "The detonator wasn't meant for you...I just didn't realize how thin-skulled your species is."
Chris narrowed his brow. "Who are you?"
"Have a seat, my boy," the creature said while patting his hand down on the copilot's chair. Chris did so. "My name is Rah, a Cochi."
"A what?" Chris asked again.
"A Cochi," Rah said. "My people were involved in the little spat I just saved you from."
"My friend Ashley," Chris said. "Where is she?"
"Hm," Rah said while tilting back his head. "I didn't realize you had a companion with you. I will check on her..."
Rah's hands started to move across his control panel.
"Where are you taking me?" Chris asked.
"First thing's first," Rah said. "My people are involved in a little dispute on this world. A dispute that eventually led to the display you just witnessed."
"What kind of dispute?" Chris asked.
"Ha," Rah said with a smile. "Amusingly enough, it started 1,000 years ago. One of my people accidentally ran over one of the bureaucrat's favorite wolf-birds with a speeder."
"Seriously?" Chris asked.
"Yes, my boy, yes," Rah said. "Although our differences have become more serious over the centuries, which is why you are here."
Rah activated a small holographic picture on his console. The picture was of an island fortress.
"The planet's board of directors has seen fit to harbor a AnnaZanti scientist," Rah explained. "This scientist is tasked with designing systems for a new weapon. A weapon for Sauron's forces. It's called the Star Crusher."
Chris shook his head while staring at the fortress layout. "I don't like the sound of that."
"You shouldn't," Rah said. "Our submersible is en route to the island fortress. There you can stop the AnnaZanti scientist with your ranger power."
"Where's the rest of my team?" Chris asked. "And who is...we need to back up a little here. How do you know all this? How do I even know you're one of the good guys?"
"Ha," Rah said. "You humans are nothing like I imagined. Nothing."
The submersible continued on towards the island fortress.
Tommy and Cy were in a submersible of their own, supplied by Chandlafey and his people. The craft was shooting through the waters towards the island fortress as the two rangers manned the controls.
They had tried to get a communications signal through to the other rangers, but with no success.
Cy's console started to blink as the submersible weaved in and out of a coral reef grove. "Something's alive down here..."
Tommy looked over his own control panel. "Something like a goldfish or something like a metal-eating mutant shark?"
"I'm not sure," Cy said.
Their craft suddenly started to shudder as a serge of water knocked them off course. Tommy and Cy had to hold tightly onto their controls to keep from being thrown around the cabin.
Tommy looked through the viewport on his right and opened his eyes wide at what he saw. It was a giant eel, big enough to swallow an entire Megazord.
"Cy..." Tommy said.
"I see it," Cy said as he rolled the ship and dove it downward.
The eel snapped its tail and followed, its jaws full of giant razor teeth.
Tommy pointed towards the corner of the viewport. A complex maze of coral and rock were nearby. "We can try to lose him over there..."
The eel's long, wire-like tongue snapped out before Cy could evade the creature. The tongue wrapped around their ship and squeezed tightly, nearly crushing the vessel. The tongue snapped back, dragging the sub craft into the eel's mouth.
Kat's eyes slowly opened as she felt the touch of a cold compress against her head. She was lying in an alley between the tent buildings. Her clothes were dirty and tattered. Justin was leaning over her, tending to her wounds. He seemed in just as bad of shape.
"What..." she said weakly as she sat up. "What happened?"
"Some kind of explosion," Justin said. "Our new friends cleared us from the wreckage."
"New friends?" Kat asked as she looked to her right.
Three beings were standing near a wall, conversing in a tongue that the rangers' translators couldn't recognize.
Justin nodded and looked over at them. The three beings turned and started walking over to Justin and Kat. They were short creatures with dark-blue skin, white hair, beak-like noses, and long snapping tails.
Justin stood to address them. "Not to sound ungrateful or anything...but who are you guys?"
"We are Rah," one of them said. "We have information for you."
Tommy and Cy were knocked around the cabin as their submersible thrashed inside the eel's mouth.
"This is crazy," Tommy said while adjusting structural integrity controls. "Doesn't this thing have weapons?"
"No..." Cy said. "But the shields are pretty strong..."
The two rangers were nearly knocked out of their seats by another jolt.
"I don't like what you're suggesting," Tommy said.
"I would hope not," Cy said. "Go for it anyway?"
"Of course," Tommy said. "Full reverse."
The island fortress sat on the middle of secluded grassland. The halls inside the fortress were barely lit and very damp. Chris and Rah walked through the halls while keeping their senses alert for trouble.
They turned a corner and headed towards a wide two-door entryway.
Rah looked towards Chris. "Your teammates are on their way."
Chris stopped and looked at Rah, tilting his head. "How do you know that?"
Rah shrugged. "I know these things."
They heard a weeping noise come from around a corner, hidden in the shadows. They approached slowly and entered a small room lined with computer panels. An amphibian AnnaZanti was leaning over one of the consoles. She had a small crying infant in her arms.
The AnnaZanti heard their footfalls and snapped around in alarm. A look of fear flashed before her glossy black eyes. She protectively cradled the infant in her arms.
"Get out!" she hissed. "Leave us to die in peace!"
The submersible barreled through the intestinal tract of the eel as acids and digestive fluid ate away at the hull. Inner muscles contracted, damaging the hull.
Tommy and Cy were shaking in the twirling cabin.
"How much farther?!" Tommy shouted over the blaring alarms inside the submersible.
"We're almost to the end of the tract!" Cy screamed back.
"Die in peace?" Chris said. "What are you talking about? Are you the one designing the weapon?"
"Who are you?" she asked, cowering back in her chair.
"My name's Chris," he said, then pointed back towards Rah. "This is-"
"I know what itis," the AnnaZanti woman said. "It is a Rah. Why have you come."
"The Star Crusher," Chris said. "It has to stop."
"Don't you think I know that, dry skin?" she said. "Don't you think I realize the terror it will cause? But it doesn't matter now, does it? My part in the weapon is done. I am dead, as is my child. Astronema is coming."
"She's already here," a voice said from the shadows.
Chris turned and snapped into a fighting stance, fists held tight as the stranger stood in the darkness. "Show yourself."
The man held up his hands in a non-threatening manner and stepped forward. It was Zhane. "Hay. Calm down. It's just me."
Chris breathed a sigh of relief and lowered his arms. "Zhane. You scared the crap out of me."
Zhane shrugged. "I have that effect on people."
"Out!" the AnnaZanti shouted.
They heard a loud clanging noise come from the nearby hall, and Chris knew it was trouble. He looked to Rah. "Will you keep an eye on her?"
Rah nodded. "Yes. Go forward. Be brave."
Chris and Zhane entered the hallway. The Kerovian looked to the Terran. "Interesting friend you picked up."
They turned and corner and saw one of Astronema's gene beats stalking forward. The monster looked like a cicada insect, with glowing red eyes and a needle-like nose.
The submersible landed on the island shore. More like crashed, to be precise. The vessel was torn and beaten after its journey through the eel, and Tommy and Cy were banged up pretty bad.
They walked forward onto the grassland and noticed a small shuttle with its boarding lamp lowered. Ashley was leaning against the ramp, much to their surprise.
"Ashley?" Tommy said.
She smiled at them. "Took you boys long enough."
Tommy smiled. "We had a...minor setback."
"That's one way of putting it," Cy said.
"How did you get that shuttle?" Tommy asked.
"These short blue-skinned guys called the Rah," Ashley said.
Cy opened his eyes wide with shock. "Rah? Here?"
"Yeah," Ashley said. "What's the big deal."
Cy shook his head. "They're almost impossible to come by. And unique. Their whole species is one mind, divided among thousands of bodies."
"What did they tell you?" Tommy asked.
"About the weapon, which is why I'm assuming you're here," Ashley said.
Tommy nodded. "Right. So…what are we waiting for?"
"That's my line, Oliver," Ashley said jokingly as she followed him towards the fortress.
Rah directed Justin and Kat to the island as well, and they rendezvoused with Tommy, Ashley, and Cy at the western half of the island. The rangers left Cy behind at the shuttle and started moving towards the fortress itself.
An alarm suddenly started blaring from the fortress, cutting through the skies and making the rangers collapse while covering their ears.
"Morph!" Tommy shouted as the four rangers activated their braces, keying in their transformation codes and activating their armor with pulses of light.
"Something's wrong," Astro Blue said as the alarms continued to blare.
"Let's go," Astro Red said as the Rangers started to sprint forward to find out.
The Rangers approached the fortress and noticed several large antenna mounted on the building, which was broadcasting the signal noise.
Explosions tore across the ground in front of them before they reached the compound. Sparks slashed across their armor, and the impact knocked them backwards.
The Rangers slowly rose to their knees as Darkonda stepped forward. The villain's sword was casually slung over his shoulder.
"Do try to keep your distance, Rangers," Darkonda said before laughing, a cackling noise almost as painful as the blaring alarms.
"Forgive me if I don't take your advice," Astro Red said as he armed his Astro Sniper and ran towards the compound to take out the base's satellites.
Astro Red slammed into an invisible force field as strands of electricity lashed against his armor and exploded in a series of violent flashes and sparks.
"Tommy!" Astro Blue shouted as he ran forward.
Astro Blue grabbed onto Astro Red's shoulders and pulled. The two went toppling to the ground, falling away from the barrier.
Darkonda laughed. "Please...do that again."
The gene beast snarled at the two rangers.
"The designer is no longer needed," the insectoid creature growled. "She must die."
"Why?" Chris asked, snapping into a fighting stance alongside Zhane.
"She has outlived her usefulness," the creature said.
The gene beast extended his hand, and a group of Craterites charged forward. The villains filled the hall and rushed towards the rangers.
"We've got to get her out of here," Chris said as he and Zhane ducked back into the room.
Rah perked his head up as the rangers rushed inside. "What is it?"
"Trouble," Chris said.
Chris and Zhane brought the AnnaZanti to her feet despite her protests and the crying child. The group fled back down the hall and retreated into the shadows.
Chris tried again unsuccessfully to open a comm line with the others. He was hidden behind a stairwell along with Zhane, Rah and the AnnaZanti.
"No luck," Chris said as he flipped his Digitizer shut.
The infant started to cry, its voice echoing down the halls.
"She must be quiet," Rah said, leaning over the baby while standing next to its mother.
The 'it' was literal too. AnnaZanti infants had no gender until they reached their equivalent of puberty.
Zhane leaned over the infant and gently started to shush it. "Shhh...keep it down, little guy."
Zhane pulled out a small flashing pin and waved it across the infant's face. The baby was intrigued by the light and followed it with her large glossy eyes. Its crying turned to soft gurgles before it became silent.
"Nice work," Chris said. "I have no idea how you did it...but nice work."
Zhane smiled and shrugged. "Thanks."
"So what are we going to do?" Chris asked. "We can't just hide here with them forever."
Zhane smiled, a glimmer of mischief in his eye. "I don't intend on staying here and hiding."
"You can't be serious," Chris said quietly. "We can't just go attack the gene beast either. We need to find a way out of here and get to the others. We'll need their help."
"They're already here," Rah said from behind the two rangers. They turned to face the blue-skinned creature, and he continued. "They're already here. Outside the compound."
"What?" Chris asked. "How do you know?"
"Because I do," Rah said. "They are battling Darkonda, and are not faring well."
"See," Zhane said. "You're thinking of this wrong. We have to go help them."
Zhane and Chris charged down a dark hall. Craterites armed with jagged soldiers ran to confront and kill the rangers. They clashed against each other.
Zhane ducked underneath a saber swipe and rose, jump kicking another Craterite in the face.
Chris charged forward while spinning past a soldier. He ducked underneath a villain's saber and rose while slamming a hook punch across a soldier's head.
Outside the fortress compound, the Rangers slowly rose to their feet. The blaring sirens were making it difficult for them to focus, and Darkonda was taking full advantage of their distraction.
He dashed forward, slashing his sword across Astro Blue's chest. Darkonda spun towards Astro Yellow and ran his blade down against her armor with a diagonal strike. He brought his sword back up in a diagonal blow that slashed across Astro Pink.
Astro Red moved in with a round kick, but Darkonda blocked the blow and slashed his blade across the Ranger's armor.
Chris and Zhane fought their way through the Craterites. The two rangers were moving down a dark winding corridor on their way towards the base's main control room. From there they could disable the alarms on the outside of the compound.
Zhane slammed a knife-hand chop against the back of a Craterite's neck, and he slammed an outer crescent kick across the soldier's head.
Chris moved forward, slamming an uppercut blow against a Craterite's gut, and elbowing the soldier in the back.
"This place is crawling with these things," Chris said, swinging his backfist across another soldier.
"We're almost there," Zhane said, slamming a jump kick in a Craterite's face.
The two continued plowing through the soldiers, kicking and punching through the Craterites. They reached a door at the end of the hall. The door led into the fortress's main control center.
Chris and Zhane entered the room and walked among the rows of computers, searching for controls to the satellites mounted outside. They split up and moved across opposite ends of the room.
Explosions suddenly sparked around the rangers and they were thrown to the ground. The gene beast walked inside, its eyes glowing with blood-red light. Chris and Zhane ducked for cover behind a control desk.
The gene beast slowly crept into the room, amused that the rangers were hiding from him.
"Just give up," the gene beast said. "Your friends will soon be killed, helpless before Darkonda. You will die by my hands."
Zhane looked to Chris. "We've got to get him outside..."
Chris nodded, a grin spreading across his face. "How thick do you think that viewport he's standing in front of is?"
Zhane smiled. "That's the spirit."
The two rangers sprang out from behind the desk and charged towards the gene beast, taking the monster by surprise. They snapped out with jump kicks that slammed against the monster and sent it crashing through the viewport.
The monster slammed against the invisible force field surrounding the compound. Electric energy exploded against the creature on contact, overloading the system and powering the shield down.
Chris and Zhane ran to the edge of the viewport and looked down at the fallen monster while readying their morphers.
"Keitizer!" Zhane shouted while flipping his morpher open. "Install!"
"Install!" Chris shouted. "Astro Ranger!"
Energy shimmered around them as their armor activated and they morphed into their Ranger forms.
The two Rangers leapt down towards the gene beast, descending while slamming their fists against the monster. The gene beast was forced back by the combined force of their blows.
With the force field disrupted, the nearby satellites overloaded. The loud screeching sirens went quiet.
Nearby, Darkonda perked his head, knowing something was wrong. "What's going on?" the villain shrieked.
The four Rangers stood as the ringing in their ears slowly died down.
"That is such a relief," Astro Blue said.
"You're telling me," Astro Red agreed.
The gene beast suddenly went tumbling out of control through the air. The creature slammed to the ground in front of Darkonda and rolled out of control.
"What..." Darkonda growled before kicking the gene beast in the gut. "Get up!"
The four Rangers looked towards the complex and saw Astro Silver and Astro Black running towards them.
"Chris! Zhane!" Astro Yellow shouted.
The two Rangers regrouped with their teammates as the gene beast rose to its feet and stood next to Darkonda. The two villains glared at the Rangers.
"So," Darkonda said mockingly. "All six of you together now? Am I supposed to be impressed?"
"You will be," Astro Silver said as he and the other Rangers snapped into fighting stances.
"Unlikely," Darkonda said. He turned to the gene beast. "Kill them."
Darkonda teleported out in a puff of flame. The monster turned to face the Rangers and leaned forward, firing a stream of neon-green shaded sonic energy rings.
"Astro Capture!" Astro Pink shouted. Her weapon was best equipped to handle the sonic attack.
The Pink Ranger fired rings of pink energy that collided with the monster's beam and pushed backward. Her blasts exploded against the creature, causing a shower of sparks to rip across the monster's body.
Astro Black moved in next, twirling his black staff. The Black Ranger used the staff as a pole vault and arced forward, scissor kicking the villain across the head. The blow knocked the gene beast off his feet and sent him flying backwards.
Astro Silver charged his arm mounted cannon, the Silver Blazer.
"Blazer Impact!" he shouted while charging towards the creature and spraying rapid-fire golden energy darts. The energy darts exploded against the gene beast as Astro Silver continued his advance.
Astro Silver switched his weapon to blade mode and energized the saber. He hopped forward and ran the blade downward diagonally through the monster with a powerful energy slash.
The monster fell backward, explosions ripping across his body.
Astro Silver extended his arms as Astro Black leapt forward onto the Silver Ranger's shoulders. Astro Black immediately pushed off Astro Silver's shoulders and leapt towards the creature.
"Rod breaker!" he shouted, the tip of his staff energizing and slashing across the monster's chest.
The monster fell back, its energy overloading and exploding as the two Rangers stood and snapped into victory poses.
Zhane's armor powered down in a shimmer of golden energy.
Astro Black wrinkled his brow beneath his faceplate. "You always power down so fast...why?"
A giant beam of neon green energy suddenly cut down from the sky before Zhane could answer. The beam reassembled the destroyed monster and increased its mass to giant size.
"Alright guys," Astro Red said. "Let's finish this insect...Astro Megazord, online!"
The Astro Megazord assembled and shot down from the skies. The Rangers used their Cyber Sliders to enter the Megazord's cockpit as the robo landed.
"Astro Megazord...Galaxy Mega!" the Rangers shouted from within their cockpit.
The gene beast leapt forward, its giant body arcing through the air. The monster slammed a double kick against the Megazord's chest, knocking the robo backward. The gene beast followed by firing off twin energy strands that wrapped around the zord. The strands hardened into wires and started to electrocute the Megazord.
Explosions tore across the Megazord's armor as the wires tightened.
Astro Yellow rocked in her seat from another impact. "I can't even pick those wires up on our sensors!"
"Well they're clearly there," Astro Blue said as another explosion rocked the Megazord.
Astro Red armed his Battleizer. "I'm calling in some backup...Delta Mega, Install!"
The Delta Megaship shot down from the skies and throttled towards the giant gene beast. The ship opened fire with its pulse cannons, sending energy blasts exploding against the creature.
The monster fell backwards and lost its concentration, causing the energy wires to go limp and disappear. Astro Megazord stood its ground as the Delta Mega throttled closer to the battle field.
"Astro DeltaMegazord, online!" Astro Red commanded as he activated the 'one' key on his Battleizer.
The Delta formed a suit of armor that wrapped around the Megazord. The combined robo landed back on the grassy surface and assumed a fighting stance in front of the insect creature.
"Delta Knuckle, engage!" the Rangers shouted.
The Megazord's fists energized, shot off, and blasted through the monster as its energy overloaded and exploded.
The rangers restored the light to the fortress and gathered in the main control room. Ashley hacked into the system's core with Zhane's help, and they started downloading what little information remained on the weapon. Kat was sitting with the AnnaZanti and infant while trying to calm them and find out their story.
Tommy, Justin, Cy, and Chris sat with Rah. The creature was explaining his rather unique perspective on things.
"I thought your race was called the Cochi?" Chris asked.
Rah shook his head. "I am Cochi. A rarity. One of five who can think independently I am...shunned."
"So what about this weapon," Tommy said, getting back on track. "How are you involved? What do you know?"
"My involvement is not so different from ours," Rah said. "My people are part of a complex network of spies, informants, and infiltrators, all dedicated to the downfall of Sauron."
"Why haven't we run into you before?" Chris asked.
Rah grinned. "Who's to say you haven't? We prefer working out of sight when possible and leaving the frontal confrontations to you rangers, Prince Trey's resistance, the Rigellians, and the Confederation. Our contacts are spread thin, but we make do."
"What do you know about where the weapon's being built?" Tommy asked. "We have the coordinates, but not much more."
"It's in the Maw," Rah said. "A dangerous area of space dotted with plasma storms and gravitational anomalies. Besides these hazards, a full contingent of AnnaZanti warships is guarding the weapon."
"Guys!" Ashley called from a computer terminal. "I found a scheduled launch time for the weapon."
"And?" Justin asked.
"Let's just say we better get going," Ashley said as she started towards the door.
The rangers gave the AnnaZanti woman and infant a secure room on the Megaship, not wanting to leave them behind. They blasted into hyperspace while manning their bridge stations. The Cochi Rah was with them on the bridge, standing behind Tommy and Cy.
The Megaship speared back into realspace along the edge of the Maw. A fiery and gaseous plasma storm was spread out in front of them.
"Report," Tommy said.
Chris shook his head while looking over the sensors. "It's too wide to go around. I could get us past the anomalies, but the plasma storm is too unstable."
Justin looked to Tommy. "We can boost the power to our hull plating. Give us extra protection."
Ashley looked back to them. "We'd be better off diverting power to maneuvering thrusters, if we're planning on going through."
Tommy took a deep breath and nodded. "Let's do it...we don't have time to be anymore creative."
Ashley nodded and started running through a series of controls. "Transferring power to maneuvering thrusters."
"Polarize the hull plating," Tommy commanded. "Deploy armor."
Cy looked to Justin. "Bring our weapons online."
Justin nodded and started powering up the Megalasers.
"Alright," Tommy said. "Take us in."
A stream of plasma shot across the Megaship's bow. The ship rolled and climbed to avoid the fiery stream of gas, but the plasma scorched part of the hull.
The rangers struggled to stay upright as the bridge shook from another impact. Cy took the ship through a tight loop, arcing to port, and scissoring back to starboard.
"How much longer?" Tommy shouted over the ship's alert sirens.
"I don't know," Chris answered as the ship rocked again.
"That last plasma stream took out our sensors," Ashley said.
A plasma stream ignited in front of the ship's forward viewscreen, nearly blinding the rangers.
Astronema's Dark Fortress twirled in the center of the Maw. The princess stood at her command post, watching through a viewscreen as the rangers' ship wove through a nearby plasma storm.
She turned towards Eclipter, who was standing at her side. "Send in the Velocifighters. Now."
"Velocifighters, coming in!" Justin shouted as the ship continued to shake around him.
"You have to be kidding," Tommy said. "On screen."
The viewscreen shifted to a view of several wings of Velocifighters. A stream of plasma shot through the storm, vaporizing half the fighter craft. The other half continued forward towards the Megaship.
Cy turned towards Tommy and Justin. "It's not a good idea to open fire in the plasma storm. We'll have to try and lose them."
Tommy nodded. "Do it."
The Megaship climbed and banked as the Velocifighters moved in. The fighter craft opened fire with pulse cannons that ignited nearby plasma. The resulting explosions wiped out another trio of craft, causing a shockwave to slam against the Megaship.
Cy twisted the Astro Megaship through a loop and returned course for the other side of the plasma storm. The Velocifighters fell into formation behind the vessel and started to close in.
"I have an idea," Tommy said. "Aim for the nearest plasma stream. Full Megalaser spread."
"Uh, Tommy," Ashley said. "That's not one of your better plans."
"It will work," Tommy said. "We just have to make sure we're moving fast enough when we trigger the explosion."
"Megalasers locked on," Justin said.
"Fire on my mark, then open our throttle to full," Tommy said. "Now!"
The rear Megalasers opened fire with a full spread, spraying cyan-tinted energy blasts towards a nearby plasma stream. The blasts exploded amidst the stream, igniting the plasma and creating a giant fiery shockwave.
The Megaship blasted forward as the shockwave consumed the remaining Velocifighters. The explosion rocked the Megaship and scorched the hull, but the rangers managed to escape the plasma storm.
The Megaship cleared the storm's perimeter and speared back into open space.
"Damage report," Tommy asked once the ship was in the clear.
"Long range sensors are offline," Ashley reported. "Port thrusters are damaged."
"Armor's down to 61 percent," Justin said.
"The AnnaZanti fleet just spotted us," Chris said.
"On screen," Tommy said.
The view screen showed a view of a red star, casting a crimson hue on the dozen or so AnnaZanti ships. They were protecting a space station that seemed to be a web of different metal and steel structures. The giant wedge-shaped Star Crusher was within the web of stations.
"Let's get to the Megashuttle," Tommy said while looking to Zhane. "Zhane, take my Battleizer. You can pilot the Delta Mega."
The five rangers manned their stations in the Megashuttle, leaving Cy on the bridge and Zhane in the Delta Mega.
"Alright guys," Tommy said. "Let's take care of business...Astro Megazord, online!"
The Megaship began to reshape, taking on the form of a giant robo as the Megashuttle shifted and formed the head.
"Thrusters," Tommy commanded.
Galaxy Mega's back thrusters ignited as the robo blasted forward towards the AnnaZanti formation. The Megazord armed its circular shield and held it forward while charging to attack.
"We're almost in firing range," Justin reported.
"Zhane," Tommy commanded, "take the point. Hit and run tactics. Draw their fire while we move in and take them out. Justin, target their left flank."
The Delta Mega throttled forward at full speed. Zhane triggered the pulse cannons, raining a volley of yellow energy darts that exploded around the fleet. Delta Mega scissored to port as the enemy warships opened fire with green particle beam cannons.
Delta Mega weaved to avoid the particle blasts as Galaxy Mega zoomed forward to attack.
AnnaZanti ships fired spears of green energy towards the Astro Megazord. Galaxy Mega used its shield to block the barrage of energy bolts.
"Shield strength is holding," Ashley said.
"Open fire," Tommy commanded.
"Arming head vulcans," Justin said.
Twin head-mounted cannons on the Astro Megazord opened fire, spraying rapid-volley energy bursts that exploded against the nearest ships. The AnnaZanti shifted formation to counter attack, continuing to fire their particle beam cannons.
A few of the enemy blasts slipped past Galaxy Mega's shield and exploded against the Megazord's armor.
The Astro Megaship drew closer to the fleet of warships, which were increasing their fire.
"Beam cannon," Tommy commanded. "Aim for the cruiser bearing 317 mark 4."
Galaxy Mega armed its beam cannon and fired a blinding beam of yellow energy. The energy blast ripped across the side of a giant warship, tearing the vessel apart as its engines overloaded and exploded.
The Galaxy Mega fired its back-mounted afterburners and streaked through the explosion, using the fiery debris as cover to move closer to the fleet.
Galaxy Mega blasted clear from the fiery wreckage and turned to the left, aiming its beam cannon and firing a wide arc. The energy beam ripped open several ships, causing explosions to tear across the vessels.
"Download, Astro Megazord Saber!" Tommy shouted as he activated the robo's sword. "Move us in closer."
Astro Megazord maneuvered through a volley of particle beam blasts while moving straight towards a giant warship. At the last second, Astro Megazord flipped over the ship and dropped down towards the dorsal hull.
"Energize saber!" Tommy shouted.
The Astro Megazord Saber charged with blinding energy and started to cut along the top of the warship like a hot knife through butter. The warship exploded, and the Rangers moved forward towards their next target.
Justin triggered the head vulcans again. The rapid-fire blasts tore open a nearby vessel and pounded through another ship's bridge.
The Galaxy Mega and Delta Mega moved closer to the network of stations just in time to see the wedge-shaped weapon launch and throttle through space.
"Beam cannon!" Tommy shouted. "Now!"
The Astro Megazord opened fire with a stream of energy as the weapon started its run towards hyperspace. Delta Mega opened fire with pulse blasts.
The pulse blasts exploded against the weapon's hull. The beam cannon grazed the top of the weapon as it twisted and started along its exit vector.
"Switch back to ship mode," Tommy said. "We can't let that thing get away."
"They're about ready to jump into hyperspace!" Chris shouted.
"Ashley," Tommy said.
She nodded. "I have a tracking signal."
The wedge-shaped weapon leapt into hyperspace with a burst of light.
"Pursuit course," Tommy ordered. "Maximum hyper rush."
The Megaship blasted into hyperspace and started to follow the weapon, both ships jetting faster than the speed of light.
The Megaship streamed past the blue lines of hyperspace as the weapon continued to increase speed.
"We need more speed," Justin said.
Ashley shook her head. "Our engines are at max."
Tommy looked down to Justin. "Can the Megalasers work in hyperspace?"
Justin shook his head. "We can't make so much as a spark."
"I have an idea," Ashley said. "But it's risky."
"All the good plans are," Tommy said. "What is it?"
"If we boost power to our main deflector," Ashley said, "we can extend our warp shell and collide it with the weapon's warp field."
Kat looked over to her friend. "That sounds pretty dangerous."
"It is," Ashley said.
An indicator on Chris's station started to blink. "The Star Crusher is gaining speed. We're losing it."
"Ashley," Tommy said as he tightened his grip on the controls. "Do what you have to."
Ashley nodded and started with the modifications.
Astronema stood on the bridge of the Dark Fortress, watching as the rangers chased after the Star Crusher.
"Alter the weapon's course," she said. "Target and destroy the nearest populated system."
Ashley made the final modification. "The deflector's ready."
"Alright," Tommy said, "get ready to-"
"Wait," Chris said. "The weapon...it's dropping out of hyperspace."
"Stay on it," Tommy said. "Get ready to open fire when we drop back into real-space."
The weapon speared back into the darkness of space and started a run towards a giant sun in the distance. The Megaship followed, on the heels of the Star Crusher. Delta Mega wasn't far behind.
"Justin," Tommy said, "take that weapon out."
"On it," Justin said as he triggered the Megalasers.
Pulses of blue energy blasts exploded against the weapon, but the Star Crusher continued on its course. A maw at the bottom of the weapon opened and started to glow with pale green light.
"Our weapons have no effect," Justin said.
"The Star Crusher is powering its main launcher," Chris reported.
Kat looked down to Tommy. "There's a populated planet in this system. Three billion people."
Ashley manipulated her controls. "I'm boosting power to the lasers, but it's not enough. Star Crusher's armor is too strong."
"We have to do something," Kat said.
"Guys," Zhane said over the comm. "I'll ram him. The explosion should be enough to destroy the Star Crusher."
Ashley shook her head. "All you'll do is get yourself killed."
"The maw," Tommy said as he zeroed in sensors to the enemy weapon's launch bay. "That's where we strike...Astro Megazord, online!"
The Galaxy Mega activated and ignited its back boosters, jetting around towards the weapon's maw.
"Astro Megazord Saber!" Tommy commanded as the Megazord's weapon activated.
The Star Crusher's gaping maw drew closer to the rangers' viewport.
"Energize saber!" Tommy shouted.
The saber started to glow with golden energy as it plunged into the Star Crusher's belly. Galaxy Mega's sword pierced the ship and its main torpedo, causing a massive explosion of jade-colored fire.
The broken and battered Galaxy Mega drifted through space as small sparks danced across its hull. The ablative armor was completely destroyed. Not an inch of the Megazord was left undamaged. Hull breaches had torn across the Megazord on most levels.
A sleek saucer-shaped vessel lowered besides the Galaxy Mega. The ship's edges were smooth and almost organic. The vessel's cockpit was a pair of bubble-shaped, glossy spheres. The strange vessel extended a boarding tube that latched onto the Megazord.
Chris's eyes slowly opened. He found himself lying on a soft slab and staring up at a ceiling that looked organic. He sat up and met the eyes of an Aquition. The Aquitar native seemed human, except for the gills on his neck, behind his pointed ears.
Chris rubbed his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear the last traces of grogginess. "What happened?"
"You destroyed the weapon," the Aquition said, his voice rich with vibrato. "But at great cost to your own vessel. We are en route to Aquitar to assist you with repairs."
"Is everyone else okay?" Chris asked.
The Aquition nodded. "Only...the AnnaZanti female and her infant did not survive."
Chris sighed and hung his head down low. Not only did he feel sorry for the mother and child...but now he'd never find out her story. Never know how she was recruited to make the weapon, and why Astronema wanted her dead.
Chris looked back up. "How long until we reach Aquitar?"
"Under an hour," the Aquition said. "Then we prepare...for the biggest offensive in this war."
To be continued…Chapter 16