Scared blue eyes stared out at her from behind a ruined wall. Covered in ash grey and char streaks and huddled behind a bulkhead that no longer offered much protection, it was the eyes that caught her attention. The only bright thing about him. A flicker of light in a hallway choked with dust and smoke, the smallest hint of motion that somehow interrupted her concentration, and--as was becoming all too common these days--she hesitated.
He wasn't supposed to be here. She had ordered Ecliptor to locate a ship without prisoners, preferably one without even a slave crew, one that was on its way to the surface instead of heading out with live cargo. She didn't need more deaths on her conscience for a cause that wasn't even the monarchy's own--for what amounted to little more than a whim. She had done this herself, sent this ship spiraling to its doom for no one's purpose but her own.
There was no turning back, and she hadn't become who she was by questioning her actions. She needed to find a working monitor. But she couldn't turn away from those blue eyes. What would Ashley say, if she found out that she had sacrificed a child for the good of the galaxies?
"Come here," she said imperiously.
Wide eyes stared back at her from the dubious safety of his hiding place. A crash from somewhere up ahead, a fresh inhalation of smoke so strong that she tried not to breathe. It was entirely possible that this ship would disintegrate before it ever hit the ground. They could already be in the atmosphere and she wouldn't know it. She hadn't planned to die on this excursion.
"It's not safe here," she told the child, trying to moderate her tone a little. Any idiot could see that. But sometimes children responded better to cajoling than threats... so she'd heard from the slavers' reports.
"You have to come with me," she added, "so we can get away from this ship."
The eyes just looked at her, and she wondered if there might be something wrong with him. She didn't have time for this. "Don't move," she told him, striding forward to lift him out of his hiding place.
He didn't have anything she could identify as a weapon and he seemed intact, so she clutched him to her chest and headed determinedly toward auxiliary tactical. Thin, strong arms gripped her neck. She almost dropped him right then, but his threat assessment was minimal and really, what could hurt her?
The destruction of this ship could hurt her. The first tactical monitor was operational, though it responded negatively to her command, "Show me the ground." She grimaced, then enunciated clearly, "VEM scanners display terrain surrounding projected crash site."
A stable image of the landscape appeared instantly, and she ignored the monitor's prompt for further information. "We're going," she told the child in her arms. "I hope you're not allergic to magic."
Violet light swirled around them, making the thick air glow even as a blanket of welcome silence settled over the screech of overstressed bulkheads and the inescapable alarms. She was moving even before the curtain parted, walking out of the magical haze into the untainted air of a terrestrial environment. The thundering boom that followed on her heels told her she hadn't left any time to spare. The ground shuddered beneath her feet a moment later.
She kept walking, the slave boy held firmly to her even as he lifted his head. He seemed no less intrigued by their new surroundings than she was, but they didn't have time to stop and survey them. The crash of their ship could not have gone unnoticed. Air patrols should already be swarming into the area, and she needed to get close enough to see her destination before they could teleport the rest of the way.
It was pretty, though. She tried not to look, but she couldn't help seeing what was right in front of her. The hills rolled away in every direction, and the nearest town was a tranquil picture in the midst of this unmarred landscape. What could only be civilian air traffic flickered overhead. There was no steady drone of velocifighters, no echoing clang of mining equipment, no smog above or even on the horizon.
It was disturbingly idyllic. Almost as though she had walked into a fantasy. It made her skin prickle with anticipation, waiting for reality to intrude, waiting for the harsh realization that she had been discovered and placed into some kind of mindwarp or worse. It was always a possibility. It wasn't something she could allow to paralyze her.
The hum of fighter engines in tight formation coincided with her first glimpse of their target. She didn't want to teleport from here. She'd prefer to be a lot closer, get not only a better look but some sense of the security. She didn't want to end up in the middle of an intruder defense that shot first and asked questions later.
Unfortunately, what she wanted was not her first priority. She would not allow herself to be taken by local law enforcement, no matter how ineffective it could prove to be against her. She would not leave without at least attempting to carry out a plan that seemed less and less sane the further it progressed. Therefore she would teleport, at a distance and into a highly uncertain reception, before the fighters could catch up with her location.
She tightened her grip around the slave boy and let the magic swirl around them again. The silver sparkle just visible through the hills became a looming edifice at close range. As the violet light dimmed and vanished, she found herself doing it again.
Hesitating. Should she walk right up? Were there, even now, weapons trained on her that would fire at the slightest motion? Would there be live response to her presence at all? There were roles played by good and evil all over the universe: evil attacked, good defended. How much of that generalization could she apply to specific circumstances and still expect to walk away alive?
A violet sphere appeared in front of her, danced forward, paused. Continued unmolested. She followed, every sense as alert as it could be considering the situation.
She made it three steps. Four, if she counted the half step that halted the moment she saw the light. Multiple lights. Three glowing balls careened across the grassy expanse, encircled her, hovered a moment. Then each discharged a shower of sparks that faded into a uniformed enemy she would recognize anywhere.
Yellow, black, and... purple? She had seen a lot of Rangers. Pink, turqoise, even orange. But never a purple one. Purple wasn't even a color--humans were the only ones who could see it. She allowed a single moment of derision while her mind automatically processed weapons, formation, likely weaknesses.
Hidden strengths. The teammates she couldn't see. The intruder defense systems that had yet to manifest. Air support. She had to assume these Rangers were in immediate contact with the fighters she had temporarily evaded. And of course, whatever was inside that structure behind them.
"What are you doing here?" The Yellow Ranger asked the question, and she recognized the voice immediately. No "who are you" from her. She reminded herself sternly that this Ashley was not the same person who had traded captivity for propaganda... and that could work either for or against her.
The boy shifted in her arms, but she didn't dare set him down yet. It was entirely possible that he had tipped the balance in her favor, at least for the moment. Rangers didn't shoot children. But what could she tell them that would keep that favor on her side?
"I need your help," she said, trying to gauge their reactions. Rangers gave away a surprising amount for armored soldiers with visored helmets. The Yellow and Purple Rangers looked at each other, while the Black Ranger folded his arms. He, at least, was unimpressed.
"You'll forgive us if we don't take your word for it," the Black Ranger said dryly. "You from the dimension that's been flooding our system with velocifighters?"
"Yes." And if anything happened to Ecliptor in her absence, she might never make it back. He was the only one she trusted to monitor the ID generator for incoming as well as outgoing codes. "I used the velocifighter portal to come here. You're the only way I can get a message to Ashley without it being hacked a hundred times over."
"Ashley?" the Yellow Ranger repeated. She and the Purple Ranger exchanged glances again. "What do you want with Ashley?"
If this was a mindwarp, she would lose everything right now. Her consciousness noted this idly while the unthinking part of her brain followed through with the original plan. "I want to know how far the Free Systems could get if they went on the offensive right now. If they pushed toward the Border, and the Border pushed back."
"Nowhere." It was her own voice, and her eyes widened as her attention shifted to... the Purple Ranger?
"They'd get nowhere," her voice repeated. "The Border is already pushing in your dimension. It's crushing everything in its path, and the Free Systems are holding as best they can. You must know they can't go anywhere."
"Not the monarchy," she corrected... herself. "I mean the Border. Friendly forces on the Border. What if allies of the Free Systems cleared the Border and re-aligned themselves with Eltare?"
Her voice was flat when the Purple Ranger replied. "There are no friendly forces on the Border."
"There could be." She was talking to herself. There was no question about it, and she didn't know what to think. Would she be easier or harder to convince than the average Ranger? "If I make it back there."
There was silence for a moment, the surrounding chitter of wildlife drowned out by the approaching whine of fighters. A pair zipped by overhead, yawed sharp to port, and aborted their flyby as one--both coming around for another pass. They had seen her.
The Yellow Ranger put a hand to her ear, and a moment later she spoke so they could all hear. "Gold One, this is Gold Leader. Two survivors. Others possible?"
She didn't answer, uncertain whether the question had been directed at her and equally uncertain of the answer. Her expectation was no. But then, she hadn't expected to find the boy either.
"Negative, Gold One. Identities unconfirmed. They're in our custody for now."
Another pause, and she wondered what the word "custody" implied on a world so lightly touched by war. The Yellow Ranger continued, "Will advise. Thanks, Cara."
The fighters shot by overhead, turning in a more leisurely arc this time as they appeared to angle back the way they'd come. There was a wordless moment. Then, at no signal she could discern, the three Rangers crossed their wrists in front of them and flung their arms out to the side.
"Power down," they declared in unison.
She stared. It was something she had only heard of, a fact of Ranger life she knew had to exist but had never been witness to. Voluntary demorphing. Their uniforms sparkled to nothingness as quickly as they could appear, and three ordinary adults stood in their place. Three... almost ordinary adults.
She knew them. At least, she knew another Yellow Ranger who called herself "Ashley." And she had met the others, met herself, once before. It was still a shock to see her own face... to see her own face, period, but even more so when it was accompanied by what she now realized was a Ranger uniform. So they had come from Eltare's experimental transit after all. There was the possibility that this plan could actually work.
"How about this," Ashley was saying, watching her watch her double with an open if not friendly expression. "If you promise not to shoot us, we'll promise not to shoot you. Your friend either," she added, with a careful glance at the boy in her arms.
It was with some relief that she let him slide to the ground. He didn't show any inclination to sidle away from her, which was contrary to what little she had heard of children, but it was a good thing in light of the fact that she had no idea what he would do if he could. She put her hands on his shoulders, just in case he changed his mind, and she told Ashley firmly, "It's a deal."
Ashley glanced over at the man who had appeared in place of the Black Ranger. He had his hands behind his back, and there was a weapon in them--she didn't have to see it to know. It was in the way he was standing. He met Ashley's stare, saying nothing, clearly reserving the right to break the promise she had made for him.
Ashley looked away first. "What do you want from us?" she asked bluntly. Her eyes flickered to the slave boy before she glanced up again, a small frown on her face. "And why do you want to contact my counterpart?"
"I want to record a message here, with you watching, that you'll send through whatever channels you have available, to Ranger Ashley of the Free Systems in my own dimension." What was the easy part. How was more problematic. "I also want a ship that can return me to where I came from. And I want a future for this boy that doesn't involve slavery."
She hadn't planned to say that. Her intentions were very clear in her mind, having been repeated, rehearsed, re-examined from every angle she could think of. But the boy was a variable, an unexpected event that was rewriting her script. He was, as far as she was concerned, a weakness that would have been better ignored--but something in her couldn't do it.
It was clear that the Rangers had similar sentiments. "Slavery?" her own voice repeated in a dangerous tone that was all too familiar. "Where did he come from?"
"Where are his parents?" Ashley asked, failing to hide the solicitous glances she directed at the boy when she thought no one was looking. Ashley, it seemed, changed very little from one dimension to another.
"What kind of message?" Their male teammate was the only one focusing on the important part of her mission, so she directed her answer to him.
"The kind of message that would get me a knife in the back if I recorded it on the Dark Fortress," she informed him. "If I was lucky. Treason is a way of life in the monarchy, and our punishments have become very creative."
"So why are you here?" the woman-who-was-not-her wanted to know. "Why risk everything you've built for the chance that your enemy won't kill you as creatively as your allies?"
Ashley gave her teammate a quick look, but she didn't say anything.
She was pretty sure her double already knew the answer, and that the question itself was a kind of test. It wasn't one she appreciated. But she didn't doubt it was one she had to pass, so she forced down her pride and looked herself in the eye. "Because I'm tired of fighting for people who don't care," she said simply. She did her best not to waver when she added, "Ashley cared."
The woman who looked like her nodded once, as though she hadn't found the fastest way to get herself replaced, reprogrammed, or killed, and stated it aloud for anyone to hear. "We'll help you get a message to her," she said matter-of-factly.
"Andros is going to love this," the man muttered under his breath.
The women ignored him. "Why don't you both come inside," Ashley suggested, her manner thawing by the second. She hadn't been that cold to start with.
And so it was that she found herself inside the massive structure she had given only passing consideration to from the outside: threat assessment, high; offensive capability, unknown. There was nothing about the interior that matched her expectations--nothing at all, other than its size. Far from the bastion of security and defense that logic told her it had to be, the building appeared to serve as little more than living space and possibly training center for a very small number of residents.
She tried not to be too interested. There were a lot of things she didn't need to know. She had already composed her message, and she recorded it under Ashley's supervision--and yes, she knew she was being supervised. She was surprised and maybe a little alarmed that she wasn't being guarded. What did they know that their Black Ranger bodyguard had felt comfortable putting his weapon away?
She had tried to leave immediately. They couldn't contact JT, not now, although someone just like him had answered their hail to Eltare. She had watched in fascination but stayed out of sight, certain her presence would only compromise an already improbable plan. Afterward, though, she had realized what was happening: she was starting to wonder. Wondering led to curiosity, and curiosity would mean that she cared. Crazy unlikely attempted plan or not, she needed to go back where she had come from.
She didn't leave. She hadn't been able to admit to herself how much she missed Ashley until she was confronted by her counterpart, and some wistful part of her pointed out that she might never experience this odd unconditional acceptance again. And so, against her better judgement, she allowed her departure to be delayed for a few minutes while the Rangers had some sort of refreshment.
It was a surreal feeling, to be seated in an overstuffed chair with a little boy huddled next to her, surrounded by Rangers and doing nothing more aggressive than sipping tea. Tea. When was the last time she'd had tea? The boy clutched an empty cup to his chest, having slurped the contents in seconds and now refusing to give up the vessel that had held the juice.
What was she going to do with him? Of course it hadn't occurred to her at the time, but now... she couldn't take him back with her. He would never survive. She could protect him for a little while, but not from everything and not for long. Sooner or later he would wind up dead. Or worse--back where he had started.
"Where did he come from?" Ashley asked gently. She looked up in surprise, half of her alarmed at having been so transparent and the other half suspicious of what her own Ashley had told her. "I don't know you, myself..." Then how could she read her so well?
They had obviously known each other for some time, in this dimension, if her counterpart had been willing to risk herself to save an Ashley she'd never met. And the Black Ranger, Ty... he had been there too. Her counterpart had lied when she said he wasn't a Ranger. She hadn't done a poor job of concealing her own identity, either.
Had that been choice, or necessity? She couldn't help wondering whether the Astronema of this dimension knew more of her past than she did. More than just what Ashley had told her... more than what she remembered, which was nothing. How could they trust her if she didn't? All she knew was what she had lived on the Dark Fortress.
Almost all she knew, she thought with an odd twinge as she looked down at the boy again. "He was on the ship." Where he shouldn't have been, a part of her mind added. Another part countered, Where he should still be.
"The ship that crashed?" Ashley prompted. "The one you were on?"
She didn't like being questioned. "It wasn't supposed to be a slave ship," she snapped. "He must have been left behind."
"It was good of you to rescue him," her counterpart said neutrally. She had introduced herself as "Kerone," but it was almost impossible to think of her that way.
She met her own gaze, certain she could see doubt lurking there. She wouldn't be fooled by a seemingly altruistic gesture. Her counterpart might wear a different uniform, but she had already proven that she knew Astronema all too well. "I shouldn't have done it," she told herself. "He won't have a chance in the monarchy. He would have been better off in the crash."
"No, he wouldn't." Ashley's reaction was immediate, predictable, and obviously restrained. The Yellow Ranger would rather jump to her feet in protest, exclaiming about life and justice and hope. It almost made her smile, seeing the reaction written so clearly in Ashley's expression. She restrained herself only for the sake of their company, the uncertainty that they all felt about who they were dealing with and what kind of response they might accidentally provoke.
"He's alive," Ashley added firmly. "He has the same chance as any of us, now."
"You're deluded if you think he has the same chance as a free person," she said flatly. "This isn't the Free Systems, Ashley. KO-35 is deep in the heart of the monarchy, with a thriving slave trade and a loss rate of sixty-five percent.
"He'd be worse off on the Dark Fortress," she continued, when Ashley seemed about to interrupt. "He's a child, and being associated with me will only make him more vulnerable. I control the Dark Fortress crew, but I don't control its traffic. And there are very few beings who wouldn't steal him in a second for having any connection to me."
No one said anything for a moment, and she felt a flash of disgust that they were so easy to intimidate. Did they know nothing of evil here, on this idyllic planet in the middle of unoccupied territory? Her eyes locked with an identical pair, a hazel stare that was full of anger and reproach. Her counterpart knew. Why the Purple Ranger couldn't be bothered to educate her teammates was beyond her.
Her tone echoing that same anger, fueled by a fierce envy to which she would never have admitted, she declared, "At least if he had crashed, he would have crashed here. He would have been allowed to simply die."
"We wouldn't have let him die!" Ashley exclaimed. Her restraint couldn't hold up in the face of what she must consider blatant "injustice." She was upset and no longer making any effort to hide it. "Why can't you just leave him here! Why does he have to go back at all?"
She stared at Ashley, assessing the others' reactions without moving. They were focused completely on her--not on Ashley's preposterous suggestion. Was she, then, supposed to treat it seriously?
"You would take him?" she asked carefully. Her fingers clenched, prepared to strike back at the first sign of derision.
"Of course we would!" Ashley didn't even consult her teammates. "Kerone, you must know what this planet is like--can you imagine anyone on KO-35 ever turning an orphaned child away? Let us place him with someone that will take care of him!"
The raw emotion was wearing her down. Not just from Ashley, but from all of them. The way they didn't control their expressions, the way they went from hostile to amused to trusting and back again without a single display of power to reinforce their distance. It grated on her nerves, making her feel wrung out from looking over her shoulder. This was not the sort of interaction she was used to.
"I wish you could place me," she blurted out. She was appalled by the words before she even finished speaking.
Again, Ashley went from vehement to welcoming in the blink of an eye. She didn't so much as hesitate. "You could stay here too, you know."
She saw her own counterpart exchange glances with the other Ranger. They, at least, knew how unlikely that was, and their wariness was more familiar than anything else. It helped her find her footing again. "I came here for a reason," she told Ashley sternly. "I can't stay."
Ashley just nodded, but something in her expression was... wistful?
She was imagining things, of course, oversensitive to concern now that she'd been exposed to it so abruptly. But she couldn't help adding, "Thank you." It was something they said in the Free Systems, she knew. "For him--" She glanced at the boy. "And for myself," she said more softly.
"Will you leave him with us?" Ashley repeated, her tone just as gentle as before.
She didn't know why she even paused. Taking him with her was no good option. "I will," she said aloud. "He will be better off."
She didn't realize that her counterpart was staring at her until she spoke. "You're not evil anymore, are you." The woman was matter-of-fact, as though she had already known and hadn't really needed it confirmed.
"No," she admitted, very quietly. It was a personal failing in many ways. "Not evil enough."
"But good enough," Ashley said with certainty. "You were always good, Kerone. That's not a bad thing."
Not for her, perhaps.
"Whether it is or not," she said with a sigh, "it is unquestionably a dangerous thing. I've risked more than my own life by coming here today. And if the Rangers of the Free Systems even consider my proposal, many more lives will be at stake."
She frowned then, looking from one to the other with something akin to suspicion. "It's a difficult thing, this caring."
Ashley smiled at that, apparently failing to take her seriously. "Yes it is," she agreed, too easily. "But that's what makes all this worth it."
Worth it. What was "worth it," exactly? Hours later, Kerone found herself still pondering those words. It was something she had said to TJ, once, that the meaning in life could be found in the caring. But the caring for what? What made the things that she cared about any more important than the things other people cared about?
She could hear someone coming even before Zhane's shadow flickered across the doorway. He tapped on the frame lightly, probably just to catch her attention but the boy in her arms jerked at the sound, hands clenching on her shirt as his eyes flew open. She remembered that paranoia all too well--she still felt it herself, sometimes. She hoped his fear would ease faster than hers had, overwhelmed by the hazy memory of youth.
"Sorry," Zhane offered, belated comprehension filling his voice as she did her best to calm the frightened child. "DECA told me where you were."
She glanced around the storage closet automatically. "He's scared of big spaces," she said, by way of explanation. She stroked his dirty hair carefully, watching him stare wide-eyed up at Zhane. "I think he feels more comfortable in here."
"Well," Zhane remarked, apparently addressing the boy. "You and I won't get along well at all."
She smiled a little. "When did you get back?"
"Just now." He was leaning on the doorframe, watching the child who clung to her. The boy was still staring back at him, and she wondered that he hadn't had the tendency to meet someone's gaze beaten out of him yet. How young did they start with slave children?
"DECA told us who was here earlier," Zhane was saying. He was looking at her now, she realized. "How are you doing?"
She glanced down at they boy again. "Distracted," she said truthfully. She didn't mean to shrug off his concern. She had spent more time thinking about the child that her double had brought with her than she had about Astronema herself.
"Yeah?" Zhane let the answer stand, which seemed to be his habit lately. At least with members of the team. Shifting his weight against the doorframe, he asked, "How did you end up on baby-sitting duty?"
"I volunteered." It was true, but the moment the words were out she reconsidered. "And I was the only one free. You and Andros were gone, Ashley's at the Center, and Ty's doing his flyby.
"It's good, though," she added as an afterthought. "Since I'm the only one he couldn't infect."
Zhane gave her a sharp look. "Infect? Infect with what?"
"DECA didn't tell you?" She didn't know why she asked; it was obvious that the AI hadn't. "He was carrying some kind of tactilely transmitted virus. He was immune to it, but DECA thought he'd be contagious until whatever she dosed his juice with worked its way through his system."
"How contagious?" Zhane hadn't moved, and his tone was more curious than anything else. Funny that he didn't seem to fear disease any more than she did.
"No physical contact for the first three hours," she said, staring down at the boy. "We figure he was probably in quarantine when Astronema found him. He should be safe enough to touch now, but whatever he was carrying was lethal to Eltarans and most of their subgroups. Including humans."
Zhane didn't answer for a moment, and finally she raised her eyes to meet his. He was frowning. "You don't think maybe that's why she brought him," he said at last, returning her gaze with a searching look of his own.
She shook her head. "We thought of that," she said quietly. "There's no way to know for sure, but nothing about the way she acted with him was consistent with his use as a weapon. She didn't encourage him to come to us. She didn't seem to want to leave him with us." Emotional reaction, she knew. That sort of thing could be feigned easily enough.
More practically, she added, "Besides, if she was going to deliberately infect a population, why start in such a remote location? Her cover story was dangerous in and of itself. She would have been better off dropping him in some city on Eltare and running."
"Not if the antidote was as easy as DECA drugging his juice," Zhane pointed out. "She might have known she couldn't start a plague, so she settled for attacking the Rangers of the most distant Border world in the hopes that it would start a chain reaction: the Rangers, the planet, the system, the Border."
"Her cover story being a bonus?" she suggested. "Assuming it actually gets back to JT, and he decides to do something about it? Any offensive launched by the Free Systems drains their resources until it's crushed by someone they were counting on as an ally?" She had been through it all in her mind before, and it was an ugly scenario. "It's possible."
Zhane was studying her. "But you don't think it's likely."
"No." And what did she base that on? Astronema's emotional reaction? Her sympathy for a person she could have been, had the circumstances been different? Ashley, at least, was perfectly willing to take Astronema's apparent defection at face value, but Kerone ought to know better. She knew the forces of evil and the way they worked in a way that Ashley did not.
"For one thing," she said slowly, "Astronema wouldn't bother attacking our dimension on her own. That kind of order would have to come from Dark Spectre. Dark Spectre wants me if he wants any of us, and she really seemed surprised to see me here."
Emotional reaction again. She had been spending too much time around Saryn if she was starting to trust her feelings about people after such a brief exposure. On the other hand, Astronema could simply have attacked her, kidnapped her by threatening the others, or tried any number of devious plans to neutralize Dark Spectre's former, alternate princess of evil. And she hadn't.
"If she's trying to get to the Free Systems and JT through us," she continued, "meaning that the virus was the bonus instead of the other way around? There's every reason for her to try to gain our trust, not to abuse it at the first opportunity. She wouldn't dare compromise the message she's trying to send."
Zhane gave her a half-smile that, for just a moment, looked exactly like Andros'. "Should have known you'd put more thought into it than I had. I can't say I'm not relieved."
She wasn't sure whether she should be grateful or disappointed that he found no fault with her reasoning. Grateful, because she had learned to depend on him to back her up when her thoughts went too fast for the others to follow. And disappointed at the same time, because it meant that if there was a problem after all, something she had overlooked, then it was still up to her to find it.
"So is he all right?" Zhane asked, nodding at the boy. "Some of those host-borne things aren't exactly benign."
"No," she agreed quietly, turning her attention back to the child in question. However he had arrived here, he was an innocent player in what was by any view a cruel game. "But this time it wasn't the virus' fault."
She knew Zhane didn't understand, but she was sorry to be the one to tell him. Easing her hand under the boy's elbow, she turned his arm a little to one side. Just enough that Zhane could see the harsh red needle pricks running up and down the vein underneath.
His jaw dropped. "What--" He didn't finish, just gave her an outraged look that conveyed the question better than words.
"DECA says he has a natural immunity," she said softly. "I think they must have been using him to make a vaccine."
"For the entire crew?" Zhane demanded. "Is that why he was quarantined? They didn't bother to cure him because they needed his antibodies to vaccinate themselves?"
"I doubt they were vaccinating the crew," she said with a sigh. "They could sell it anywhere they went, as long as there was an outbreak, and make some money on the side."
She didn't say it, but Zhane heard the words anyway. "And they could use him to make sure there was an outbreak," he said grimly. "What kind of people would do something like that?"
"The kind of people who transport slaves," she reminded him. "The kind that keep a child in isolation because it would be a waste of profit to vaccinate their own crew. I'm sure his wasn't the first blood to be sacrificed on that ship."
Like the words she hadn't said, he heard the bitterness she tried to hide. His voice softened as he answered, "Maybe the first blood to be saved, though."
She looked up in surprise. "Did you--" DECA had told him, she remembered. He had mentioned Astronema's "cover story." Was he, then, commenting on her plan, or just being poetic? "Do you think it'll work?"
He understood without her having to explain. "Yes," he said simply.
She looked at him more closely, mindful of the boy in her arms. "What do you mean, yes? Just yes?"
He grinned at her. "You asked what I thought and I told you. Yes, I think it will work."
"Astronema's plan?" she repeated. "To rebel against Dark Spectre and support the Free Systems?"
"Do you think it will work?" he countered.
"I think it's crazy," she informed him. "She doesn't have any kind of army beyond what's on the Dark Fortress, and if she wanted to do good with it she'd take it to the Free Systems right now. What's the point in trying to stretch their resources all the way out to the Border based on the improbable hope that she can incite some kind of controlled mutiny?"
"Is that a no?" Zhane inquired, amusement on his face and in his voice.
"That's the safest thing to do!" she exclaimed. "It increases the strength of the Free Systems in direct proportion to the loss of monarchy forces! The Dark Fortress survives and the Free Systems lose nothing--what's bad about that?"
"What's good about it?" Zhane prodded. "In comparison to the liberation of millions of people, the end of the Kerovan slave trade, and the doubling of space controlled by the Free Systems?"
"The possibility of those things," she corrected. "The possibility and the reality are completely different things. The certainty of the Dark Fortress' contribution if she joins the Free Systems now has to be worth more than the tiny chance they have of forging some sort of rebel alliance with the Border."
"Hey," Zhane said gently. He smiled to show he was teasing, but she could see genuine curiosity in his eyes. "Since when do you vote for playing it safe?"
She opened her mouth, but when he put it like that she had no immediate reply. Finally she just shook her head, frowning at the shelving on the opposite wall. "Maybe I've seen Rangers make miracles happen a few too many times," she murmured. "I can't help thinking... I guess I feel like it has to end sometime."
Zhane didn't move. "Because it did for you?"
She was startled into looking at him. "What?"
"I think," he said carefully, "sometimes, I think that you believe in events, in circumstances, more than you believe in people. Not that that's a bad thing. It's just--"
He hesitated, then continued, "Remember, once, when you were talking about how unlikely it was that we met the way we did? You thought it was coincidence, random chance that things turned out like this... and maybe it was. But I like to think that we made it this way."
"We did," she allowed, frowning again. "We chose to be where we are now. But we made that choice... we made it based on things that had happened. The circumstances that we found ourselves in."
"And I think we would have made the same choices no matter what the circumstances," Zhane told her. "Maybe we would have made them differently, but we still would have made them. Look at Astronema, choosing to defect in her dimension just like you did in ours.
"Actually," he said with a rueful shrug, "look at all the Rangers in the Free Systems. Look at the way their choices mirror ours--or ours have mirrored theirs. Our circumstances are different, but we're still the same people. And in the end we make the same choices."
It didn't really matter whether she believed that or not. "That doesn't mean things turn out the same way," she pointed out. "Even if we want the same things, we don't necessarily get them. Or at least," she added when he seemed about to interrupt, "we don't get them in the same way."
"No," he said slowly. "Not the same way. But... Astrea, bad things don't happen just because good things happen. I mean, they're not caused by good things. Good things are sometimes hard and bad things can be easy, that part balances, but there's no... punishment, for being happy."
She didn't answer. Was that what she thought? That good things inevitably soured? That lucky streaks invited misfortune? "I don't know," she murmured. "Sometimes it seems like a lot of the good things that happened to me went bad, somehow."
"Or maybe a lot of the bad things turned good," Zhane insisted. "I think it's all in how you look at it. Nothing stays the same, but that doesn't mean that good things don't last. It just means they change. That's true of good and bad. Losing one thing just means that something else takes its place... I think it's just what we choose that makes the change good or bad."
Without altering his tone in the slightest, he had tipped his chin down and cast a significant glance at her armful. She followed his gaze automatically, smiling a little at the boy's closed eyes and slowly relaxing fingers. Would Astronema's effort turn out to be a good change, then? Could it? Despite what had to be the conflicting motives and desires of everyone involved?
"Whose choices are the most important?" she asked quietly. "What if one person chooses one thing and someone else chooses something different--something that conflicts with the first person's choice?" The perfect example sprang to mind, but she wouldn't say it: what about you and Ashley?
"I don't know," he said with a shrug. "All I know is that we won't get what we want until we take responsibility for our choices. I think maybe Astronema's doing that. I just hope that what she wants is what she says she wants."
She looked up in surprise. "Now you're not sure?" she prompted, searching his expression.
He smiled. "I never said I was sure. I just told you what I think."
He wasn't sure? He had almost convinced her. If that was true, then maybe she was more certain of what he thought than he was. And she didn't think she was the only one. "Andros would start a war based on what you think," she said abruptly.
He actually rolled his eyes at that. "Andros would start a war over a lot of things," he said dryly. "That doesn't mean they're worth it."
"No--Zhane, I'm serious." She contemplated the idea, intrigued by what he had called "mirroring." "What if you got Andros to help convince JT that Astronema's plan is worth considering? You could end up supporting Astronema in their dimension just the way you supported me here."
Zhane was frowning at her. "What do I have to do with any of this?" he wanted to know. "It's none of my business. I don't know what they're going through and I'm not about to tell them what to do."
Impatient, she shook her head. "No, I wasn't saying you would. I was just--thinking out loud. It's strange, isn't it? It's funny how things work out."
"I would have said, it's funny how we end up in the same places no matter how things work out," Zhane responded, his tone lighter now. "But either way, I don't have anything to do with that dimension. I believe in the good in everyone, Astrea, but I don't force anyone else to believe with me. That's their choice."
"I know," she said quickly. Maybe too quickly. Did he think she was accusing him of something? "You believed in me... I don't know if I ever thanked you for that."
"You did." He was smiling now, and she relaxed incrementally. "I thought that was nice of you."
The boy in her arms twitched when she moved, and she tried to resettle herself without disturbing him. It wasn't possible. He was sitting on the floor next to her and had started out leaning against her side, snuggled under her arm. By now he was sprawled across her lap, supported by both her arms and squirming uncomfortably when she shifted. She sighed without meaning to. They'd been in here a long time.
"You want some help getting him cleaned up?" Zhane offered, nodding at the boy. "DECA could probably make him something else to wear. Or do you want to just let him sleep?"
"He's been sleeping," she said with a sigh. "But we tried to get him to change his clothes before." She looked over at the small clothes folded on top of one of the shelves and saw Zhane follow her gaze. "He won't do it. And he won't wash up at all--he started shrieking the second he saw water."
They had all been taken aback by the boy's reaction, but Zhane didn't so much as blink. "Well," he told the child amiably, "it looks we have something in common after all. I'm not a big fan of water myself... but it does have its uses."
The boy didn't move, apparently sleeping right through their conversation. Zhane caught her eye again. "Did you try a sponge bath?"
"We didn't dare," she admitted. "Not after the way he screamed at the water in the sink. Maybe he's calm enough now, though..." She eyed him dubiously. "If he didn't have to see the water beforehand?"
Zhane shrugged. "It's worth a try. I'll go get a towel." He straightened up, but he didn't move while she tried to rouse the sleeping boy. Unspoken was the understanding that if she wanted Zhane's help it would have to be somewhere other than the cramped storage closet.
The boy didn't startle this time, just pushed against her side and struggled to sit up before he'd even opened his eyes. He braced himself against her as he looked around, gaze going to her when she asked gently, "Can you get up for a little while? You can sleep somewhere more comfortable, if you'd like."
She couldn't tell if he understood what she was saying, but he allowed her to tug him to his feet when she stood. Probably used to being dragged around, she thought sadly. She hated to be just another in a long line of people telling him what to do. On the other hand, he couldn't take care of himself, and if they couldn't communicate with him they couldn't reason with him either.
Zhane stepped aside as they made their way out into the brighter light of the hangar. The boy clutched her hand nervously, but he stuck close to her while she led him toward the living area. Zhane walked slowly along on the boy's other side--maybe reassuring, maybe intimidating. She really couldn't tell from the boy's reaction.
The kitchen alcove was too easy to observe from the living area, so they settled in the library that buffered Kristet's workspace. Their media liaison had long since commandeered the monitor underneath the stairs for her own use, and finally Ashley had taken her shopping so she could have a more practical setup. A chair, for instance, and a place to put her myriad cameras when she wasn't using them. A holographic bulletin board with all of their schedules on it. A desk. Several of Ty's plants.
Andros was leaning over her shoulder now. He interrupted her more than any of the rest of them combined, though his interference seemed to be waning lately. Kristet had actually had to call him to look at something the day before. The fact that he had left her alone long enough for her to finish something without his input was something of a first. Apparently, though, it wasn't going to be something that occurred with immediate frequency.
Zhane was returning from the kitchen by the time Andros turned around, the Red Ranger's gaze going from her to Zhane and back to her again. Or more accurately, she thought, to her and the boy with her. "How's he doing?"
"Dirty," Zhane put in, dropping several towels casually on the floor near the bookshelves. She noticed that he was careful to move into the boy's line of sight before he spoke, apparently having learned his lesson from the knock on the door.
"Scared," Kerone added. "He still hasn't said anything, but he did manage to fall asleep for a while." She paused, then amended, "Until Zhane heartlessly decided that he needed to be clean more than he needs rest."
"Hey, I was only thinking of you," Zhane informed her. His wink made her smile, and she rested her hand against the boy's head as Zhane transferred his gaze to him again. "So, what do you say? Want to let me wipe some of that dirt off?"
Zhane's voice didn't soften perceptibly when he was talking to the boy. Zhane talked to him as though he was talking to her, seemingly untroubled when he got no reply. But he reached for the boy's arm slowly, careful to touch first and hold on second. Turning one grubby arm over, he watched the boy's face as he rubbed the towel down the outside of his arm. The boy just stared back at him, not flinching even when Zhane shifted the towel and took a gentle swipe down the inside of his thoroughly bruised arm.
She didn't dare say anything, but she glanced over at Andros. He was watching just as intently as she was. Even Kristet had turned away from the monitor, anguish written across her expressive face as she caught her first glimpse of Astronema's rescued slave child. Zhane just continued wiping away layers of grime with a damp towel, careful of the boy's arms but perfectly calm.
Kerone wondered, privately, whether he would be so confident if he had seen the fit the boy had thrown the first time they tried to get him to wash. Of course, she had been the only one who could touch him then, but short of holding him down and dousing him with water, the situation had seemed impossible. Yet here was Zhane, picking up a clean towel and cheerfully telling the boy to smile.
"We'll just wash your face off a little," he was telling the boy. "And maybe get some of that stuff out of your hair, okay? You sure you don't want to try some clean clothes?"
The boy clamped his arms across his chest when Zhane gave his shirt a tug. Otherwise though, he allowed the improvised "bath," even up to the ruffling of his hair with another damp towel. When Zhane ran out of clean towels and exposed skin, he sat back on his heels and studied the boy for a minute.
"Hey," he said with a grin. "What do you know? There was a kid under there!"
"And he's not grey," Andros added. "That should make him easier to identify."
"Do you think DECA will be flattered by the idea that a little dirt could fool her scanners?" Kristet murmured, the words barely audible from where Kerone was.
"Well, she didn't find anything," Andros replied, in a normal tone of voice.
It was practically a challenge, and DECA didn't bother to ignore it. Her hologram shimmered into existence beside the stairs. "The lack of imaging and historic correlation with Kerovan records is more likely due to his extradimensional origin," she informed them all. "Not to any failing on the part of my data processing ability."
The boy's head turned quickly the moment she spoke, and Kerone rubbed his shoulder soothingly. "You mean you haven't been able to find a counterpart for him here?"
"It is not so surprising," DECA replied. "There is no reason to think that each individual has a counterpart in every accessible dimension. In fact, current studies suggest that the frequent reports of such instances are based on the attraction of the counterparts themselves, rather than the prevalence of corresponding counterparts throughout the dimensions. Since he was brought through the dimensional portal by someone else, the probability of him encountering a counterpart here is greatly reduced."
There was a pause, during which Zhane pivoted on his heel to stare at the holographic representation of the Megaship's computer system. "Was that," he inquired very politely, "supposed to be a 'no'?"
DECA's gaze appeared to consider him in return. "I have not been able to locate a counterpart, or indeed, any individuals with genetic or social connections to this boy." She paused herself, just long enough to emphasize her last word. "No."
"So he's on his own," Kerone murmured.
"He's not the only one," Andros reminded her. "There are plenty of people who'll be willing to help him."
Zhane glanced over at him, and she didn't miss the look that passed between the two of them. Both orphans, in their own way. Both with a family now that was as solid as any they might have had if they had grown up with their biological parents...
And her? She, too, had been taken in. By someone who cared for her even when he shouldn't, who made sure that she got what she needed to survive when no one else would. And somehow, that memory made her speak up now.
"Not yet," she said, lifting her head. "I think he should stay with us for a few days, first."
"Me too," Zhane agreed. His response was as immediate as it was unexpected. "We know what he's been through... or at least, we can imagine it. He jumps at everything. He screams at the sight of water. Who know what else he'll react to? I think someone needs to know what kind of shape he's in before he goes anywhere."
Andros didn't look convinced. "Zhane... none of us are child psychologists. What can we do for him that someone who deals with this kind of thing every day can't?"
"No one deals with this every day." Kristet's interjection was heartfelt and not at all hesitant. "Believe me when I say that the system is geared toward average variation, not the extremes. One person who really cares can do just as much as a whole panel of counselors."
"It's not like we're going to raise him," Zhane pointed out, though his eyes flicked to Kristet in brief acknowledgement of her point. She was the only one who had grown up in the institutions they were talking about, and Kerone knew that Andros had listened to her whether he seemed to or not. "It's only for a few days."
"Besides," Zhane added. "We never had counselors growing up. Neither did Astrea. We all turned out okay... right?"
The innocent tone of his voice didn't deter the wry look that Andros sent his way. Zhane would win, of course. But not by pointing to the three of them as an example.