She wasn’t used to waking up in someone else’s bed. She also wasn’t used to someone else talking to her computer. Dillon looming over her was becoming increasingly familiar, though, so she tried to ignore the rest of it. The thought that everything else might become as normal as this was… strange.
Strange in a good way, or strange in a bad way: that she didn’t know.
“Doc.” He was one of only four people allowed to use her name under any circumstance, and he didn’t do it. “What are you doing?”
She was sitting at her workstation in her pajamas which, while not ideal, wasn’t exactly unheard of. “I’m making a call,” she told the blank screen in front of her. She had no idea whether the people she’d supposedly known at MIT were even in Corinth. She’d never tried to take any of them up on their offers to help.
Until now. Now it wasn’t just her memory, it was Dillon’s. And even if she didn’t care, even if sometimes she thought she’d rather go down with the city than know anything about who she used to be… Dillon was different. He wanted to know. His reckless search for answers could get them all killed, so the logical thing to do was find them for him.
“A call,” Ziggy said. He was hovering behind Dillon, trying to peer at her between the monitors. Dillon was still wearing his clothes from yesterday, but Ziggy was in pajamas too. Like her.
She doubted that Dillon even owned pajamas.
“Right,” Ziggy was saying. “A call, because that’s exactly what I would do right now. People are always so happy to hear from you first thing in the morning. Great time to check in, say hi, end up swearing you’ll never bother them again. Makes perfect sense.”
“Jillian Sung,” she told the communications network. If the woman was in Corinth, it would find her.
“Who’s Jillian Sung?” Dillon wanted to know.
“She used to be a professor.” She didn’t take her eyes off of the screen. He would get it as soon as she told him, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to see his expression. “At MIT.”
There wasn’t even a pause to indicate Dillon had acknowledged the information. “You remember her?”
“No,” she said shortly. “But she remembers me.”
“Oh, hey,” Ziggy said. “That’s handy. You ever talked to her before?”
“Obviously,” she told the screen. “Otherwise how would she remember me?”
Even without looking, she could see Ziggy shrug. “I’ve never talked to the mayor,” he said. “Pretty sure he remembers me anyway. Some people are just more memorable than others, you know what I’m saying?”
Dillon snorted, but the monitor splashed an image up, three times over, and both of them stopped talking long enough to stare. “Jillian Sung,” she said, studying the woman staring back through the cameras and the distance. She didn’t look any more familiar now than she had two years ago.
“Dr. Kshana,” the woman said. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“I go by Dr. K now,” she said.
“Of course.” Dr. Sung’s expression changed, but she wasn’t any good at interpreting that sort of thing. Maybe Ziggy would have some sort of useful and semi-coherent observations on the subject afterward. “Can I help you, Dr. K?”
“I understand we taught together.” It was Dillon she remembered at the front of a lab, dry erase marker in hand, but that was literally the only memory she had of that time. It could be real, or it could be nothing. Something implanted by a drone, some byproduct of proximity to the chip… something created entirely by her own mind.
She didn’t like the word “imagination.” It indicated things that weren’t real, and reality should be enough for anyone to deal with.
“We did,” Dr. Sung agreed. She looked like she might be about to say something else, but an impatient wait yielded only a long silence.
“I had TAs.” She’d already looked for them in the records: Maizie and Katana, both women, neither of them familiar. But the records in Corinth were far from reliable, patchy preservation and incomplete restoration leaving gaping holes in the information from Before.
“Yes,” Dr. Sung said slowly. “Are you... looking for them?”
“Just tell me who they were,” she said.
“I don’t remember their names,” Dr. Sung said. “There should be records –”
“I’ve checked,” she interrupted. “Maizie and Katana.”
“Right, yes,” Dr. Sung said, her expression changing again. “And… who was the other one? The young man who brought his sister to department mixers? Danny?”
She didn’t move. “Do you remember what he looked like?”
“Well, he towered over you,” Dr. Sung offered. “Tall, dark-haired. His sister was blind, so she was memorable.”
She lifted her gaze to Dillon. He looked almost as stunned as she felt. She waved him around the monitors, and Dr. Sung raised an eyebrow as soon as he came into view.
“Ah,” Dr. Sung said. “Hello, Danny.”
“My sister,” Dillon said. “What’s her name.” It didn’t come out as a question: nothing about his sister ever did.
Dr. Sung frowned, and the cameras weren’t completely aligned but it didn’t look like she was looking at him anymore.
“He doesn’t remember either,” she told the professor. “His sister’s missing.”
“Tanya?” Dr. Sung said. “I think it was Tanya. You don’t remember?”
“He was outside the dome,” she said. “They got separated. Do you have any pictures?”
“There must be files,” Dr. Sung began.
“He’s not in them,” she said. “I looked. I looked several times, but it’s like something’s gone through and erased both him and his sister.” She didn’t add that it could have been Venjix – that it probably had been Venjix – because Ziggy didn’t want the city to associate the virus with her or the Rangers any more than necessary.
“I see.” Dr. Sung was already doing something, entering information, probably duplicating her own search. “I’ll see what I can find in my records.”
She was about to sign off when Dillon added, unexpectedly, “Thank you.”
“Of course,” Dr. Sung said. Then she was gone.
“TA?” Summer said. “Like, teaching assistant?”
“You taught something?” Scott sounded appropriately skeptical.
“Do you remember any of it?” Flynn wanted to know.
“Guys,” Ziggy said. “Can I just point out that you’re asking totally the wrong questions, here. Well, except for Flynn, that was a good question, but the answer is no.”
Flynn didn’t give up. “What’s the right question, then?”
“What did he teach,” Ziggy said.
Dillon didn’t have to look up to know that everyone at the table was looking at him again. Like he cared. There was only one person in the garage who hadn’t eaten in more than twelve hours, and of course she wasn’t at breakfast. He flipped one of the jacks up on its side and spun it like a top, considering the probable results of trying to force food on her.
“Well?” Summer asked. “What did he teach?”
“How should I know?” Ziggy managed to sound surprised she even asked, and Dillon felt the corner of his mouth quirk. Summer had walked right into that one.
“Well, what did Dr. K teach?” Scott demanded. “They’re probably related.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Ziggy agreed. There was the scrape of a fork as he kept eating, apparently oblivious to the stares Dillon could sense without lifting his head. The jack wobbled, and Dillon set the one next to it spinning too.
“Well, man?” Flynn asked.
Ziggy sounded like his mouth was full when he replied, “Well, what?”
“What did she teach,” Summer said.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Ziggy swallowed, then added, “Probably something really hard. Pass the ketchup?”
Dillon slid it across the table toward him without a word.
“Well, what made her remember?” Summer didn’t give up. “Were you talking about math or something?”
“Dillon was sleeping on his car,” Ziggy offered. “Well, not really sleeping, but lying on it. In the dark. Like he does. Which doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’ve never actually seen him do it until today, but Dr. K says he does, so. I guess that counts, right?”
“Anyone seen the wonder twins this morning?” Dillon asked the jacks.
“Oh, he speaks,” Flynn said.
“They’re on a mission for Dr. K,” Scott said.
Dillon frowned. “Where?”
“Not here,” Scott said.
“We don’t know,” Summer told him. “She didn’t say.”
That was enough of an excuse for him. He grabbed Ziggy’s plate, dropped his own in its place, and swung around the end of the table on his way to the training room. It wasn’t like they didn’t know where she was.
“Hey!” Ziggy exclaimed.
He glanced back, but Ziggy was just holding up a glass of juice. “It’s not breakfast without juice,” he said. “Come on, it’s fortified with vitamin D. Who do you know who doesn’t get enough of the sunshine vitamin, huh?”
Dillon waited, and Ziggy scrambled off of his chair to hand the glass over.
She probably wouldn’t eat while he was watching, but she seemed to like her food the same way Ziggy did: messy and covered in sugar. She only ever brought empty dishes out of the training room after he’d left them at her station. She couldn’t be feeding all of it to the dog, right?
“How do you know he was lying on his car in the dark?” Flynn was asking as he rounded the doors and glared across the floor at the monitors. He could see her shoes and the tails of her lab coat, which meant she’d at least gotten dressed. She could take time to dress but not to eat?
“He was there this morning when – uh, when I got up,” Ziggy’s voice said.
“Why?” Summer wanted to know.
“You think I know why Dillon does anything?” Ziggy replied. “Trust me, I don’t.”
“Hey, Doc.” He shoved the plate between the monitors, because it would be harder to ignore if it obstructed her view. “Breakfast.”
“Identify,” she retorted, which was more of a response than he’d expected.
“Does it matter?” He thought it was eggs and potato. Flynn had made it the day before; they were just re-heating it until it ran out. “We ate it yesterday and no one died.”
“How convincing,” she said, but the plate lightened in his hand and he let go as soon as he was sure she had a grip on it. Not that he had to bother: she could probably catch is as fast as he could if it fell.
“Juice,” he added, walking around the screens and holding it up in her peripheral vision. “Ziggy sent it.”
“Of course he did,” she said with a sigh. “Can you modify the Series Yellow morpher to accept a second operator?”
Dillon frowned. “You said they’re DNA-bonded.”
“And you fooled yours into reading you as a human operator,” she countered. “Can you… trick hers into reading someone else as Summer?”
He was pretty sure that was something he shouldn’t admit to, but she wasn’t stupid. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t have a reason. And at the end of the day, she probably wasn’t trying to get rid of him.
“Yes,” he said.
She raised an eyebrow, but all she said was, “How fast?”
He didn’t roll his eyes. “Very fast.”
She took the glass he was still holding. “Good,” she said. Then she asked the obvious question, and he was surprised it had taken her so long: “Did you know how to do that when Series Green bonded to Ziggy?”
He shrugged. “Hypothetically.”
She shook her head, pushing something on the keyboard in front of her. “Operator Series Yellow and Green,” she said. “Report to the training room.”
The call brought the whole team, of course. She couldn’t have expected anything less.
“Summer,” she said. “I’ll need your morpher.”
Summer glanced at Dillon, but she was already pulling the device free and passing it between the monitors. Ziggy was coming around behind them to stand next to Dillon, who shrugged again at Summer’s questioning look. He had no idea what she was doing.
The morpher was handed to him next, which made Summer glare at him. “What?” Dillon asked. It wasn’t his idea.
“Modify it.” The doc didn’t look at either of them, typing furiously: code Dillon could read, even at that speed, but couldn’t make any sense of.
“Uh,” Ziggy said. “See, Dr. K, I think Summer’s kind of attached to her morpher? Maybe if you told her what you wanted it for –”
She looked up, and he held up his hands. “Or not, that’s fine too. I’m just saying.”
“Summer’s morpher will allow me access to the interdimensional portal at Jungle Karma Pizza,” she said, returning her attention to the screen. “Series Yellow will be returned to its operator at the conclusion of my investigation.”
“What are you looking for at JKP?” Flynn wanted to know.
“Wait,” Ziggy said. “I thought the morphers were non-transferable. A one-shot deal, you said. Isn’t that why I’m a Ranger?”
“Information,” she said, ignoring Ziggy. “Dillon?”
“Done,” he said, snapping the morpher shut. He held it up, out of reach, when she turned to take it back. “You don’t think you’re going alone, do you?”
“That’s exactly what I think I’m doing,” she retorted. “I’ve just stripped the city of one of its defenders for the duration; I won’t take another.”
“Two,” Dillon said. “You’re taking you and Summer out of the equation, and you’re not replaceable. I’m going with you.”
Summer didn’t bother glaring at him for that, and he figured she knew it as well as he did. They could find a new operator if they had to. There wasn’t anyone else who could make new operator technology.
“Fine,” she said. It surprised him and shocked the rest of them, if their expressions were anything to go by. “Ten minutes.”
“Eat your breakfast,” he told her.
“Okay, I’m not excited about this plan,” Ziggy said, just outside the doors of the training room. He was whispering, but if Dillon was right, Dr. K could probably hear him anyway. And Dillon was usually right. “What are you going to find at a pizza shop, anyway?”
“An alternate timeline,” Dillon muttered. “With internet access.”
“Internet access,” Ziggy repeated. See, this was why they should be required to write down all of their plans. So they could see how stupid they looked on paper. “Okay, I don’t know if it’s escaped your notice, but we have internet access. What’s more, we have a security clearance that I don’t want to know too much about, because if I knew I might have to kill myself. We have, in short, instant access to any information in the city!”
“We’ve checked all the information in the city,” Dillon told him. “If anyone in the city knew who I was, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
“Okay, one,” Ziggy said, “I think you underestimate Dr. K’s recklessness. Two, someone in the city does know who you are; you were just talking to her! Why don’t you interview her before you go haring off across the dimensions!”
Dillon shrugged. “Good question,” he said. “You want to ask her, or should I?”
Ziggy looked back at the open door behind him. “You think that would work?”
Dillon was watching him with tolerant amusement when he turned back around. “No,” he said. In case Ziggy didn’t get that from his expression.
“Yeah,” he said, frowning. “You’re probably right.”
“Look, if there was any other way to do it, she would have thought of it, right?” Dillon had a lot of faith in someone he argued with more than he agreed with. “And it’s not like their place is dangerous. We go through, we’re probably safer than any of you.”
“Yeah, until the portal closes with you on the other side.” Ziggy had no idea why they treated these doorways like they were permanent. They couldn’t have always been there, right? Didn’t Dr. K say they came from a weakening of the biofield? What if it suddenly strengthened again? What if it weakened more and the doorways went somewhere else?
“I think our biggest concern is her pissing off everyone within fifty kilometers,” Dillon said. “We’re gonna need their help to get back.”
“I really don’t like this plan,” Ziggy repeated.
Dillon didn’t like leaving his car on the street, but it wasn’t like anyone would touch it. It had taken him six weeks to convince Dr. K to slap a “Ranger tech” designation on the Fury, but she’d eventually done it and now it was untouchable. He could leave it anywhere for as long as he wanted – and more importantly, he could take it anywhere as fast as he wanted.
She never flinched when the tires squealed, or looked anything but unimpressed by his cornering, so he poured on the speed and saved desert driving for the desert. Ziggy was a much more entertaining passenger.
When they got out in front of Jungle Karma Pizza, he wondered if the car would bring them extra customers today. The JKP in their dimension, anyway. If there was one: if there wasn’t any record of it, what did people without morphers see? Or did it really take a morpher? What if it was just compatible “animal spirits”? The people on the other side seemed to have a bunch of them that weren’t Ranger-related; maybe people in Corinth did too.
“This is the portal?” His companion sounded exasperated, but that was nothing new.
“We took pictures,” he reminded her. Well, Summer had. “It’s the front door.”
“Of course it is,” she muttered. “The biofield connection isn’t subtle.”
He didn’t know whether she was being sarcastic or not, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the fact that his car wasn’t subtle, either, and he could defend himself but he wasn’t thrilled about drawing attention for no reason. “We going in, or what?”
“Yes, of course.” She didn’t even snap at him, just set off across the sidewalk like she wandered around Corinth by herself every day. She might, he supposed. She snuck out that fire exit more than he’d ever realized before they put an alarm on it.
The door was unlocked. It shouldn’t surprise him; the time difference worked in their favor in the morning. Not that a locked door stopped Summer at night, but didn’t the people on the other side get tired of them coming through whenever they wanted? They were all brilliant over there, supposedly. They couldn’t come up with something to block extradimensional traffic?
“So this is Jungle Karma Pizza.” She was looking around when he closed the door behind them. The mid-morning sidewalk was gone, replaced by an empty courtyard, and the inside of the building was equally quiet. “What is this… California?”
She hadn’t gotten that briefing? What had Summer told her, anyway?
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s what I figure.”
“Based on the geomagnetic field,” she said.
Dillon gave her a sharp look. She wasn’t holding any instruments that he could see, but it wasn’t the fact that she was doing it that surprised him. It was the fact that she wasn’t making any excuses for it.
“You ever been scanned for Venjix technology, Doc?”
She smiled thinly, looking around the room without catching his eye. “Not by anyone in Corinth.”
That could only mean one thing. “But you have it in you,” he said. Obviously.
“Obviously,” she echoed aloud. “I didn’t test it on them.”
“You tested a computer virus on yourself?” he demanded.
She tilted her head like he was being deliberately obtuse. “I tested self-repairing nanotechnology on myself,” she said. “They said I was sick. I made myself better.”
“The nanotechnology was infected,” he said.
“The nanotechnology was pre-infection,” she said. “It has its own firewall.” She finally looked at him. “Where do you think your anti-virus updates come from?”
“How do you generate anti-virus programming without exposure to the virus?” he countered.
She was staring at him like she was waiting for something, but if he was supposed to put it together from what she’d told him already, she was going to be disappointed. “The Venjix regeneration protocols came from the nanobots in my system,” she said.
Just like that, he got it. The firewall had only gone one way: she’d trusted herself, after all. “You are Venjix,” he said. “That’s what you said, right? You didn’t just hijack it: you started it.”
“It’s all mine except the name,” she said calmly.
Dillon stared at her, watching for any sign of a breakdown. “That’s a hell of a tantrum your kid is throwing.”
“We’re having a bad day,” she replied.
“You’re a lot less freaked out than you were last time we had this discussion,” he said.
“I trust you now,” she said simply.
He didn’t get that at all. “I’m like your evil twin,” he told her. “I’m everything bad about Venjix, and you trust me?”
“You’re everything good about Venjix,” she said sharply. “You’re responsibility and restraint and respect for other life. You can’t be ethical without the temptation to be unethical. You have that; I don’t. My systems are amoral at best.”
“You think mine aren’t?” he demanded. “Doc, have you even been paying attention these last few months?”
“Why are you here?” she asked.
He almost said to protect you, but that was what she wanted him to say, wasn’t it. “Because Project Ranger can’t afford to lose you,” he said.
“What do you care?” she countered.
It brought him to a complete halt. “I don’t,” he said automatically. Except he did. He wanted the Rangers to survive, because… he didn’t know why. Because they just should.
“Right,” she said. “Do you know why I care?”
He couldn’t exactly say, because you like us, since she’d informed them that the exact opposite was true several times.
“Because Project Ranger is our best chance of defeating Venjix,” she told him. “It’s a tactical advantage. Nothing more.”
“You let Ziggy have a puppy,” Dillon blurted out, and she looked away.
“It improves his morale,” she said stiffly. “Good morale is essential to a well-functioning team.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Whatever. You like us.”
That was when he realized the whispering coming from the other side of the kitchen door wasn’t at all unaware, and he held up a hand when she started to respond. She frowned, turning toward the door, and he ran through possible defensive measures in the time it took to blink. It wasn’t an ideal situation.
All of which she rendered irrelevant by calling, “Hello? We’re looking for Casey and RJ; are they here?”
The door swung open, and two unfamiliar faces peered out. Then RJ appeared over them, lifting one finger in a marker of inspiration. Or possibly a really weird hello. “Ah,” she said. “Well, one out of two. Will half of what you’re looking for do?”
“Do you have an internet connection?” No one but him had ever accused the doc of beating around the bush. “And a video phone? We’re looking for some people on the other side of the country.”
“Really.” RJ seemed to brighten at this. “That’s an unusually tame request from visiting Rangers. Are you sure there isn’t any violent followup?”
“We’re just looking for information,” Dillon said.
“Our records are incomplete,” she added. “I’m afraid the virus we’re fighting has destroyed much of what we’re looking for.”
“Yes, well, that’s the problem with fighting,” RJ agreed. “No one really wins. Some people just lose less than others. Come with me; I’ll take you to the monitors.”
Ziggy pounded on the hood of the Hummer as he walked by. “Emergency team meeting in your room,” he called. “We invited Gem and Gemma, so –” He decided it was in his best interests not to finish that sentence. “Just to warn you.”
“Yeah,” Ziggy said. He was still walking, which was usually the safest way to deliver information in the garage.
It was also the fastest. Summer had called the meeting, and Scott had invited the twins. They were already in the room Scott shared with Flynn when Ziggy got there – they held meetings there because Dr. K didn’t have any screens in their bedrooms, so tacit consensus was that it was harder for her to eavesdrop on them here.
Not impossible. Probably nothing was impossible for Dr. K. But they might as well make it as difficult as they could, right?
“We didn’t know,” Gemma was saying.
“There are emergency team meetings?” Gem finished. They could almost have been complete sentences on their own, except for the way they obviously weren’t when the twins spoke one right after the other. “Why do you have them?”
“When not everyone’s here?” Gemma added.
“Because they’re usually about someone on the team,” Summer said. “We haven’t had one of these since before you guys joined the team.”
“You mean you didn’t –”
“– have one about us?” Gemma asked.
Ziggy looked over his shoulder as Flynn came in, towel in one hand and a box of popsicles in the other. “Hey,” he said. “I miss anything? Who wants a popsicle?”
They’d had a meeting about the twins, of course. It just hadn’t been an official “unofficial emergency team meeting.” They’d figured the twins would notice something like that, crash it, and completely defeat the purpose. Plus they couldn’t invite Dillon, since he was pretending not to tell anyone, or Dr. K, who was pretending not to know they did this at all.
Everyone took a popsicle. Ziggy had no idea how Flynn did that; what if there’d been some left over? It wasn’t like he and Scott had a freezer in their room – did they?
“So what’s the team meeting about?” Flynn asked, setting the empty box aside to be reused.
Scott waved a hand at Summer, clearly yielding the floor when expectant eyes turned toward him.
“Dillon said something when we went through the JKP portal the first time,” Summer said. “I should have taken it more seriously, but you know how much he likes to talk. I didn’t push it. But now...”
She exchanged glances with Scott. “There’s obviously people outside the dome,” Scott said bluntly. “The question is who and how many.”
“Oh, there’s a lot,” Gemma began.
“Of people out there,” Gem agreed.
Ziggy shifted uncomfortably, because it would really be better if Dillon was here for this conversation. They were definitely going to interrogate him in Dillon’s place, and he had no idea what he was supposed to say. Dillon hadn’t told him to keep it a secret. But Dillon didn’t trust the twins, either.
“But where?” Summer was asking.
“You mean prisoners?” Flynn wanted to know.
“Well, some of them,” Gemma said.
“Are like prisoners,” Gem said. “And some of them –”
“– are prisoners,” Gemma added. “But definitely –”
“Not all of them,” they finished at the same time.
“Dillon didn’t seem surprised that we were outside the dome,” Summer said. “When we were at the pizza place, there were people and food and you know what he said? The air is clean. He thought it was weird that there was good air, not that there were people everywhere.”
“The air in the dome is –”
“– very clean,” Gem agreed.
“Who’s out there that’s not prisoners?” Scott asked. “How many people are we talking?”
“Oh, lots,” Gemma said, and it would have sounded normal except that Gem added, “Of people,” afterwards, and seriously, couldn’t they say one thing by themselves? Scott insisted that they did, but Ziggy had yet to hear it.
“Dozens?” Summer insisted. “Hundreds? How many is a lot?”
“Well, we haven’t –”
“– met them all,” Gemma said, shrugging like she couldn’t even take a guess.
“A lot,” Ziggy interrupted, because he couldn’t listen to this anymore. “Thousands, okay? Tens of thousands. Maybe more. There’s no way to know how many people Corinth left behind.”
Now they were all looking at him. He didn’t think that was any better, but at least they weren’t talking.
“How do you know that?” Scott asked at last.
“Because I was out there,” Ziggy said. “I have connections, okay? I know.”
“Did Dillon tell you?” Summer asked.
“No, Dillon didn’t tell me,” he said, rolling his eyes. Of course Dillon had told him. “What do you think the Scorpion Cartel is, a bunch of homebodies? Recluses who don’t talk to anyone who isn’t inside the city walls? Where do you think they get all that raw material, huh? Where do you think wasteland contamination comes from? We don’t have that many Venjix incursions.”
“Wait.” Scott held up a hand like maybe the word wouldn’t mean anything without some kind of physical gesture. “You’re saying the Scorpion Cartel is in contact with people outside of Corinth?”
“Yes,” Ziggy said impatiently. “Yes, that is what I’m saying.” He resisted the urge to add, am I not speaking loudly enough for you? because he was here and Dillon wasn’t and the only people who were going to take the heat off of him were the twins. And they’d only do it by accident.
“My dad should know about this,” Scott said, looking at Summer.
“Oh, he knows,” Ziggy said.
Scott turned back to him. “What did you just say?”
“Look, no disrespect to your dad,” Ziggy said. “But if the highest military authority in Corinth doesn’t know what’s going on right outside the city walls, he should probably think about resigning.”
“We don’t know what’s going on right outside the city walls,” Scott countered. “And if Dr. K doesn’t either –”
“She doesn’t care,” Ziggy interrupted. “Just like your dad, okay; they have priorities, and those priorities are Corinth, the people in Corinth, and keeping the people in Corinth alive. Maybe not in that order, but definitely all of those and nothing else. You can’t save everyone.”
He put his popsicle back in his mouth and stared at the floor, because you should be able to save everyone. He didn’t like triage. He didn’t like being lectured on priorities. And he definitely didn’t like admitting to people outside the dome that he was a citizen of Corinth, because it never went over well.
Except with Dillon. Okay, it had maybe been his ticket to ride with Dillon that one time, but in retrospect he thought it was just as likely that Dillon had felt sorry for him. Another lonely flower in the middle of the desert. Dillon would give the last of his water to help someone who had no chance, and he wouldn’t even begrudge the gas. Because what else was he going to do?
Ziggy envied how easy “should” was for Dillon.
“That’s not,” Gem began.
“Totally true,” Gemma said, quiet and gentle in a way he hadn’t heard them before. “She does care; she just –”
“Cares about you more,” Gem finished.
“We need to get in touch with these people,” Scott said. “Are they organized? Do they have any kind of communication, or coordinated travel? How do they keep Venjix from noticing them?”
“The same way they kept –”
“– you from noticing them,” Gem said. “They make themselves too small.”
“For anyone to care about,” Gemma told them.
“Plus they don’t network their technology,” Ziggy said. Unlike Corinth, people in the wasteland didn’t trust firewalls as far as they could throw them. Figuratively speaking. “Most of what they have was made post-infection anyway.”
“That’s not –”
“– totally true either,” Gemma repeated. “But the networking part –”
“– is,” Gem said. “Mostly true.”
“Mostly,” Gemma agreed, giving him a quick glance.
“Can we find them?” Summer asked. “How do we talk to them? If we could tell them about Corinth –”
“They know,” Ziggy said, a little alarmed to hear Gem and Gemma say the same words at the same time. Maybe it was contagious. Maybe Dillon would come back and all three of them would be doing it. Like a… an insidious language virus, or something.
“Okay,” Scott said. “So they know about us. They must know we can help them!”
“No,” Ziggy said. “They don’t. You know why? Because they figure if you were going to, you’d have done it already. The gates wouldn’t be sealed and the dome would be letting people in, not keeping them out.”
“It’s keeping Venjix out,” Flynn reminded him.
“Is it?” Ziggy asked. “Or are we just calling it like a giant ‘here we are’ sign? ’Cause personally, and maybe this is just me, but I am not so clear on the difference.”
“Do you have a better idea?” Scott demanded. “Because if you do, let’s hear it.”
“No,” Ziggy said, holding up his hands. “No better ideas here.”
“Do you know how to get in touch with them?” Summer asked the twins.
They looked at each other. “Why not ask –”
And then they were looking at him, which was vaguely creepy. “Ziggy?”
“Because, no offense –” Summer threw him an apologetic look, and he shrugged it off – “Ziggy’s connections aren’t really the ones we want to model.”
They were still staring at him, so he offered, “The whole wanting to ghost me thing aside, the people I know tend to be better at hiding from Venjix than fighting it.”
“Hey,” Flynn said. “Excuse me, but the people you know? Happen to be pretty good at fighting Venjix, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, no, I didn’t mean you,” Ziggy said hastily. “Obviously, because you’re – yeah. And you mostly don’t want to kill me, so that’s a big point in your favor. Seriously.”
“What if,” Gemma began.
“You’re asking the wrong question?” Gem said, and Ziggy had no idea why everyone else was looking at him until he did. Gem and Gemma were echoing him. It was kind of a freaky coincidence, considering they hadn’t even been in the garage when he’d said the same thing this morning.
“Instead of trying –” Gemma said.
“To talk to them,” Gem added. “Maybe you should try to get them –”
“To talk to you!” Gemma said it like this was the answer to a question they actually had asked, which was to say, with their typical manic cheeriness but with slightly less enthusiasm than usual. Like this idea wasn’t the joyful surprise that their discussions of shooting at and exploding things tended to be. Like this was obvious, and they were just doing everyone a favor by pointing it out.
“Yeah, and how do we do that,” Flynn demanded. “We don’t even know where they are.”
“But they know,” Gem said.
“Where you are!” Gemma finished.
“Dillon,” Ziggy blurted out. He rolled his eyes at the looks Scott and Flynn were giving him, because Summer obviously got it. “Dillon came and found us. Why did he come find us?”
“Because we had resources he needed,” Summer said.
Ziggy pointed at her without a word.
“You just said we can’t help them,” Scott said. “Which I disagree with, by the way.”
“So prove it,” Ziggy said. “Do something that shows we can help, something convincing that isn’t just words.”
“Like freeing a prison camp?” Summer asked pointedly.
“Yes,” Ziggy said. “Only this time maybe with some Corinth backing. It’s not as convincing as you might think when members of the force that’s supposedly ready to help you have to defect, sneak out under cover of darkness and stumble around with no backup whatsoever until they happen over the place where you’ve been enslaved for months. I mean, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t scream ‘well-prepared battle-ready operation’ to me.”
“Two words,” Flynn said. “Spark plugs.”
“Oh, like you weren’t going to do it to us,” Ziggy retorted.
“Really not the point,” Scott said. “The Rangers can mount organized rescue operations, but we’re not going to get city help for the initial push. Or the actual fighting. There’s a lot of people here to defend… we can probably count on the military for post-op support and that’s it.”
“That’s if we can find these places to begin with,” Flynn said. “We only got that one because Gemma and Gem had been held there. They knew where it was.”
“Oh,” Gem said, “that’s not –”
“The only one,” Gemma agreed.
“The only one there is?” Summer asked.
Of course it wouldn’t be; where would they have taken Dillon’s sister if it was? One camp couldn’t supply the Venjix war machine by itself. Corinth was on the defensive and it needed eighty percent participation just to maintain the status quo.
“The only one,” Gemma said.
“We were held at,” Gem finished. “We could find more for you if you want.”
And that probably explained more about the twins than any of them wanted to know. Ziggy tried not to think about it. Instead he wondered if that meant the twins would be coming along on the next mission.
That part wouldn’t be all bad, right? Anything they considered a “small diversion” had to be bigger than his.
“What do you mean, visitors?” Dillon was instantly suspicious, which saved her from having to be.
“It’s just one visitor, really.” RJ had an irritating way of providing partial information. She seemed to get distracted by the semantics of the conversation more often than necessary, and then became deliberately obstructive when other people expressed their impatience. “There’s some people she thinks you might like to meet.”
“But they’re not visitors,” Dillon said.
“Technically, you’d be the visitors,” RJ said. “She’d take you to meet them, if you’re interested.”
“Who?” she demanded.
“Aisha,” RJ replied.
“Who would we be meeting,” Dillon said. He didn’t have to roll his eyes; it was right there in his tone.
“Ah,” RJ said. “I suppose, from a certain point of view… yourselves.”
She stared at RJ, because that was the first thing she’d said that actually made sense. “We could meet our counterparts in this dimension?” The people they would have been, free of Venjix influence. Weaker, certainly, but perhaps more varied in their skills. They could be useful.
“Apparently Aisha has already contacted them,” RJ said. “They’re quite eager to help, if they can.”
Of course they were. If they knew anything about the situation, her counterpart knew it was her responsibility. She wouldn’t want to think that she’d failed. In any dimension.
“Where are they?” she wanted to know.
“Oh, Aisha’s taken care of that.”
Before RJ could say anything more – or less – helpful, someone called up the stairs, “RJ, visitor!”
RJ brightened. “That’s her now. I’ll send her up.”
“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Dillon muttered, while RJ disappeared down the stairs. “How long should we be away from Corinth?”
“How much does Corinth need this information?” she countered.
“We don’t even know what the information is,” Dillon said.
“Exactly.” She stared at him for a long moment, wondering if he smiled more without Venjix or if the student pictures they’d found of him online were atypical. “We have no way to accurately analyze the cost-benefit ratio, so there’s no point in speculating.”
“So, what, you want to flip a coin?”
“Hi, guys!” Aisha’s voice didn’t surprise either of them, though she saw Dillon’s gaze flick past her in an obvious threat assessment before he leaned back. “Did you find what you were looking for on the internet?”
Dillon’s expression closed off. They had found any number of things on the internet, most of which had them questioning the influence Venjix might exert from one dimension to another. Just because no one here had noticed anything wrong didn’t mean it wasn’t.
“No,” she said shortly. It was enough of an answer for both of them.
“Sorry to hear that,” Aisha said, coming over to join them in front of the monitors. “I found something you might be interested in, though.”
She expected Aisha to say something irrelevant about their counterpart’s identities. Or, if they were very lucky, something about the Venjix they’d fought in this dimension: where it had come from and how it had been defeated, ideally. That information wasn’t publicly available, and she wasn’t yet willing to raise the alarm by trying to steal it through RJ’s connection.
The folder Aisha held out was nondescript, and Dillon took it before she could.
He opened it, raised an eyebrow, and turned it around so she could see the heading: Project Ranger. She scanned the rest of the first page in a second – founding specs, sketches, energy consumption – and turned her stare on Aisha. “Where did you get this?”
Aisha smiled. “Rangers talk,” she said. “We have a lot of university connections. That’s yours; I’m sure you can tell. Our Dr. Kshana would love to meet you. She’s willing to provide any information you want in exchange for an hour of your time.”
She glanced at Dillon. He’d flipped through the entire report while Aisha spoke. “It’s all in there,” he said. “All the theory, anyway: seven suits, seven connections. No operators.”
“No trials,” Aisha added. “You can see why she’d like to talk to you.”
“She come all this way on the off chance we’d say yes?” Dillon asked skeptically.
“Oh, she’s not here.” Aisha didn’t seem taken aback by the question, but she had a history of being difficult to surprise. It was one of her most useful attributes. “She’s back in Massachusetts. She says she can clear her schedule for you any time.”
“We don’t have time to jet around the country,” Dillon told her.
Aisha smiled again. “You won’t have to,” she promised. “You say the word, you’re there. The only time you’ll need is the time it takes to talk.”
“How is that possible?” she demanded.
Aisha held up her left wrist. Her hand was open, but Dillon still tensed. She ignored him. “You’re not the first to develop teleportation, Dr. K.”
That was the most convincing thing she’d heard so far. “In that case,” she said, getting to her feet, “let’s go.”
“Doc,” Dillon began.
“I want to see her,” she said.
“And I want my sister back,” he retorted. “That doesn’t mean I believe everything I hear.”
“Then go back through the portal. I’m sure the others could use you.”
He glared at her. “Would you stop thinking that I care more about getting my way than keeping you safe? You leave this portal and there’s no guarantee it’s here when you come back. I haven’t even heard how we’re getting back, let alone when.”
“We can teleport you back whenever you want,” Aisha offered. “There’s no recharge time.”
She raised her eyebrows, but Dillon just shook his head. “Great, magic technology. They know how to get your attention. Good for them. You were the one who said you didn’t want to leave Corinth short.”
“Dillon, we need to know this.” He needed to know it. She wasn’t going to let him go back and pretend the picture he’d seen of “Tanya” didn’t exist. She knew him: something like that would drive him out of Corinth as surely as she had when he’d called her a lunatic willing to destroy the city.
“We may never get another chance,” she added, and he held up a hand.
“Fine,” he said. “Decision made. You don’t have to convince me, Doc.”
“Obviously I do,” she snapped. “I told you that you don’t have to come.”
“I’m coming,” he said. “Let’s just do this.” And get it over with, his posture said plainly.
She looked at Aisha, but the woman had already activated her communicator. “It’s Aisha,” she said. “We’re ready.”
She had enough time to think that maybe it wasn’t just RJ’s personality that made it hard to get information here. Aisha was more subtle, but she hadn’t divulged anything they didn’t need to know either. Yet they’d been turned loose on the internet with no supervision: she was suddenly very curious about what would have happened if she hadn’t spared RJ’s connection. Would a Ranger hack even work on Ranger technology? She’d never had occasion to find out.
Then she was standing in an empty lab, staring at a whiteboard filled with unfamiliar equations.
Dillon was next to her. Aisha was already moving, and the ease of it was inescapable: Aisha did this a lot. It was the most reasonable explanation; teleporting was something a person got used to, not something that was instinctive. Even if most humans couldn’t detect the geomagnetic shift, the comprehensive change of context would be disconcerting.
Until you learned to expect it.
“You do this a lot?” Dillon drawled, and his gaze was just as sharp. He’d already scanned the entire room, probably concluding as she had that there were at least two people on the other side of the near door and a steady trickle of others in the hallway. Two doors, six windows, and machinery that was meant for math.
“More than you might expect,” Aisha said over her shoulder. “Just a second.”
Aisha knocked on the near door, clearly expecting the people on the other side. “Dr. Kshana?” she called. “It’s Aisha. I have some people to see you.”
The door swung open almost immediately, and the space on the other side was a mirror image of the one they’d teleported into. Another math lab, this one not quite so empty. With pictures of flowers and butterflies on the walls.
“Hey!” Ziggy’s voice exclaimed. “Aisha! It’s great to see you! Come in!”
He stepped into view while he was talking, blocking the doorway for half a second before jumping back, squinting at them over Aisha and grinning like – well. Like Ziggy would, she supposed. She hadn’t expected to see him here; he hadn’t been listed on any of her staff or student rosters.
“Ziggy?” Dillon sounded more amused than surprised. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey, Danny my man, what’s happening!” Ziggy beamed when Aisha stepped out of the way, moving back toward the doorway until he caught sight of her. “Whoa. Hi.” He glanced over his shoulder, and it was her voice that came back.
“Ziggy, leave him alone. That’s not Danny and he doesn’t remember.”
It was her voice – but it wasn’t her.
“Come in,” Aisha said. Like she was used to this kind of greeting.
Dillon stepped through the door after Aisha, and the space between him and Ziggy looked normal. Close. Closer than anyone else she knew ever stood, except maybe the twins, and Ziggy didn’t seem surprised. “Wow,” he was saying. “Right, I mean, I knew that, but.”
It wasn’t Dillon he was staring at. It was her.
“Hello,” her voice said. It was coming from a young woman by the windows, her desk pushed into the corner beside them and the back of her chair to the door. She was dressed in a grey shirt and jeans, long hair piled on top of her head, curls wisping around her face. There was a white lab coat draped over the back of her chair.
“Dr. Kshana,” she said stiffly. This was a woman who looked more at home in the world than she could ever remember being. The name she didn’t remember belonged more to this person than it did to her.
“You can call me Kaia,” the woman said with a smile. “I’m pleased to meet you. I have so many questions, and I know you don’t have much time. Would you like to begin?”
“I could get you some drinks,” Aisha offered. “Soda or something? And I’d be happy to bring you lunch.”
“No, thank you,” they said at the same time.
It was the first time she’d wanted to smile since coming here, and Kaia did it for her. She wouldn’t have normally said thank you. Maybe being around people who weren’t afraid for their lives had a positive effect on one’s social skills.
“Um, I’ll take a soda,” Ziggy said. “And lunch. Danny, you want lunch, right?”
“Dillon,” Dillon said. “Call me Dillon.”
“Sure, okay,” Ziggy agreed. “Whatever you say, Dillon. Anyway, I’m pretty sure we won’t understand a word they’re saying, so maybe I can answer questions for you while they talk. I mean, depending on what you want to know. What do you want to know?”
“Do you know my sister?” Dillon asked.
“Who, Tanya?” Ziggy scoffed. “Everyone knows her.”
Dillon glanced back at her, and she shrugged minutely. It was up to him. Ziggy could probably answer questions about people they knew better than her counterpart could, but she wasn’t going to monopolize her own time if he wanted it. She could ask Aisha about Venjix if she had to.
“Okay,” Dillon said. “We’ll get something to eat. Be back in an hour.”
“Don’t do anything stupid,” she told him.
“Ditto,” he retorted.
“Hey, you sure you don’t want anything?” Ziggy was backtracking across the room, heading for her counterpart – Kaia – and paying no attention to the rest of them. Like there wasn’t the slightest chance they weren’t who they said they were. Like nothing about this was strange to him.
“Coffee,” Kaia said, smiling up at him as he walked right up and leaned on the desk beside her. Why he had to go all that way just to get an answer, she had no idea.
“No coffee,” Ziggy replied. “I’m rationing your coffee until you get some sleep. How ’bout some ice cream?”
Kaia sighed, but she didn’t look as put upon as she should have. “Oh, very well. Maybe some coffee ice cream.”
“Strawberry ice cream,” Ziggy told her. “You’re getting strawberry ice cream. Do you want it in a cone? Yes, of course you do. It’s going to melt on the way back; I’ll get them to put the cone in a dish. Bye!”
Kaia didn’t have a chance to answer before Ziggy leaned down and kissed her, quick and easy, the kind of kiss astronauts gave their wives in “Apollo 13.” It was her only frame of reference for kissing outside of Dillon. Dillon was slow and gentle, but never casual. Not like that.
“Thank you!” Kaia called after him.
Ziggy waved over his shoulder. “Yeah, of course, back in a while! Come on, Dillon, time’s a-wasting. Aisha, you coming? You have to come; you’ve gotta be hungry. You came all the way from California!
“Oh, but it’s earlier there, isn’t it.” Ziggy’s chatter was fast and unselfconscious. Exactly like the Green Ranger she knew. “What is it, like, breakfast time? Depending on how late you got up? You could get coffee with us.”
Kaia, who had picked something up off of her desk and turned to her, glared after Ziggy instead. “Hey!”
“Decaf!” he yelled back without pausing.
Then the lab was empty but for them. Ziggy had somehow swept Dillon and Aisha in his wake, without either of them actually having agreed to go. It was… strikingly familiar, in fact.
“He’s really very helpful,” Kaia told her. “Anything your Dillon needs to know, Ziggy can find out for him.”
“Yes,” she said, because he wasn’t there. “I’m sure that’s true.”
Kaia looked at her in a way she couldn’t interpret. She thought that was strange, since she was effectively looking at herself. “Do you know him?” Kaia asked.
“He operates the Series Green technology,” she admitted. She wasn’t sure whether or not she should mention that this had been an accident.
“Does he?” Kaia looked delighted. The expression was surprisingly easy to read, considering that she didn’t think she’d seen it on her own face very often. “He’ll be very happy to hear that.”
“Is it – are you at the point of recruiting operators?” It wasn’t what she really wanted to ask, and she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t. She tried again. “I mean, if you aren’t, why is Ziggy here?”
Kaia shrugged. “He likes to hang out in the lab. I think it’s part of his social mission to expose scientists to what he says is ‘the way normal people interact.’”
“But why your lab?” she insisted.
“Well, we’re dating,” Kaia said matter-of-factly. “I’m given to understand that people who date do, by definition, spend a certain amount of time together. Plus I need someone to get me coffee when my TAs go home.”
“You and Ziggy are dating,” she repeated. Because the statement deserved clarification.
“You’re not?” Kaia seemed only mildly surprised by this. “You should try it. He’s very good for my morale.”
She had never considered her own morale before. “But he’s not… is he – seeing anyone else?” Are you, she wanted to ask? But something stopped her.
“No,” Kaia said. “Just me.”
“I see,” she said slowly.
“Can he use the Series Green teleportation?” Kaia asked. “I won’t be allowed human test subjects for years. Aisha says Danny can handle Series Black; did you find a way to stabilize the power requirements?”
“No,” she said. “Series Black was pressed into service with a tremendous number of power problems. I don’t think your Danny would be a suitable candidate.”
“Why not?” Kaia looked curious, but not surprised. “What’s different about Dillon?”
“He’s a cyborg,” she said bluntly. “Venjix got hold of him. Altered him. That’s why he doesn’t remember. It’s also what makes him capable of operating Series Black. I don’t believe an unaltered human could do it without suffering irreversible damage.”
Kaia considered this. “What about the other operators? Are they cyborgs too?”
“Not Ziggy,” she said. “Not Yellow, Red, or Blue either.”
Kaia knew what she did, and she got a sharp look for that. “Gold and Silver?”
She hesitated. “Not when they first used the morphers, no. I’m afraid they were… captured, also.” She should have been able to say more, to supply more data, but the words wouldn’t come.
“And they were able to continue operating the technology,” Kaia said. “That’s remarkable. I don’t suppose you could look over the trials I’ve conducted and tell me how the suits fared in actual operation?”
“Of course,” she said. “Aisha said you’re interested in helping us.”
“If I can, I will,” Kaia agreed. “You have the hard data, but I have time and resources that might not be available to you. I’d like to try.”
She shook her head. “I’m not turning down anyone’s help at this point. Certainly not my own.”
Kaia smiled again, secretive and childish. “It’s cool, right? Having someone who actually understands what you’re talking about?”
She couldn’t remember ever using the word “cool” in her life. In Corinth, Dillon was the only person who came close to understanding when she spoke. Nothing she’d seen yet convinced her this dimension was any different.
“So what do you like?” Ziggy asked, spinning into the hall and heading for the doors at the far end with no apparent concern for whether or not they’d follow. “There actually is a coffee cart in the courtyard; it serves all the science buildings except engineering and comp sci. They get their own cart, and trust me, they need it.
“But it only has sandwiches and pastries and fruit and stuff, which is good, but there’s better sandwiches out by the road. There’s a fast food cart that pulls up in the afternoon, too, but I don’t think it’s there yet. And if we go all the way to Main Street it’s gonna be hard to get back here in an hour.”
“You know,” Aisha said, when she could get a word in, “I’m really not that hungry, and there’s some people I should call. Are you guys okay alone, or would you like me to stick around while you talk?”
“No, no, we’re fine!” Ziggy waved it off like he had the whole situation under control, and Dillon tried not to smile. Apparently some people were the same no matter what dimension they were in. “Right, Dillon?” he added.
“Right,” Dillon agreed, mostly through force of habit. Backing Ziggy up was what he did. “I’m sure we can get some sandwiches without causing irreparable damage to the time-space continuum.”
“Oh, wow,” Ziggy said. “We couldn’t really do that, right? Seriously, is there anything I shouldn’t say? Or do?”
“There’s no Prime Directive for interdimensional travel,” Aisha said. “We’re not changing anyone’s timeline but our own, and since we can’t see the future, who’s to say it wouldn’t have happened anyway?”
“No,” Dillon told Ziggy. “There’s nothing you shouldn’t say.”
“Well, you’re biased, though,” Ziggy said. “Because I’m supposed to answer your questions.”
“Would the doc have told you to do it if she thought it would mess something up?” Dillon countered.
“The doc?” Ziggy grinned. “Is that what you call her? I like that.
“Yeah, no, we’re fine,” he added, when Aisha actually waved a hand in front of his face. “You want us to meet you upstairs, or should we wait out front or something?”
“Kaia said that lab would be empty all day,” Aisha said. “I think it’s probably better to meet there. Less chance that someone will recognize ‘Danny’ and try to talk to him.”
“Yeah, that could be a problem.” Ziggy looked like he hadn’t thought of that either. “What do we say if someone wants to talk to him about their class or whatever?”
“Make something up,” Aisha said. “You’re creative. Call me if you need me early, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” Ziggy agreed. “You want us to get you coffee or anything?”
“I’ll get some myself,” Aisha said with a smile. “Thanks, though.”
“Sure,” Ziggy said. “See you later!”
Dillon watched, but Ziggy never gave any indication that kissing Aisha even occurred to him, so that pretty much confirmed it was unique to the… to Kaia. He waited until Aisha was too far away to hear, then interrupted whatever Ziggy was saying about sandwiches. “So are you and Kaia, you know. Seeing each other?”
“Uh, yeah,” Ziggy said, train of thought derailed but quick to recover as ever. “One year and eight months. She’s pretty awesome, right?”
He couldn’t argue with that. “Are you seeing anyone else?”
Ziggy gave him a comically startled look that Dillon had never seen before. It was kind of adorable and not at all strange, in the sense that it fit right in on his face. On the other hand, his Ziggy had a very different version of genuine surprise, and it looked like nothing. It looked like blankness. It looked like Ziggy pretending he hadn’t heard what had just been said because he didn’t know how to react.
This Ziggy clearly didn’t have that kind of defense mechanism. “Dude, why would I be seeing someone else?” he demanded. “I mean, you know her, right? I have no idea what she sees in me, but as long as she sees it, she’s got it. If there’s any questioning that goes on in this relationship, it’s gonna be from her. Not me. No way.”
“Funny that you’d use the word questioning,” Dillon said. Summer had walked him through the basics before he confronted his Ziggy, something which he might have forgotten to mention but probably explained why Ziggy thought she was spying on them or something.
“Why?” Ziggy asked immediately, then winced. “No, you know what, I’m not sure I want to know. Can this not be about me? Don’t you have questions about you? I mean, stuff you wanted to know? How about your sister? We should definitely talk about Tanya –”
“I thought you were gay,” Dillon interrupted.
“And that’s what I was hoping you weren’t about to say,” Ziggy declared. “Thank you. Thanks for that. Can we talk about you now?”
“I’m dating you,” Dillon said. “In my dimension. You and I are dating.”
“Okay,” Ziggy said. He paused, which was annoying, but at least he’d stopped frantically trying to change the subject. “I didn’t see that coming.”
“Why not?” Dillon asked.
“Well, for one thing, I don’t think Danny swings that way.” Ziggy was studying him with an unexpected intensity.
“Which way?” Dillon wanted to know. He didn’t have all the slang down. It wasn’t a topic that came up much in the garage, and it wasn’t like he talked to anyone else.
“Either way,” Ziggy said frankly. “He’s not really… um. He’s really romantic? If you know what I mean?”
Dillon thought it was pretty clear he didn’t.
“He’s not into sex!” Ziggy exclaimed, when he didn’t answer.
He didn’t know what that had to do with anything. “We’re just dating,” he said.
Ziggy’s mouth was open, but no sound came out. He was the picture of shock and he didn’t care if people noticed. He was also, Dillon thought, slightly less charming when he stopped trying to make sense.
“Oh,” Ziggy said at last. “Well, that… doesn’t sound like me.”
“Is this kind of discussion going to make you speechless a lot?” Dillon asked. “Because we don’t have that much time, and this is slowing us down.”
Ziggy threw up his hands. “Oh, now he thinks there’s a problem! Yes, okay, I think it’s safe to say that you telling me I’m in an asexual gay relationship with you is going make me speechless, especially because one, I am not gay, and two, I really like sex!”
Dillon frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Ziggy just stared at him, and Dillon sighed. “Look, if you can’t answer simple questions, then either I need to talk to someone else or we need to discuss something you can handle. Which is it going to be?”
“That!” Ziggy looked offended. “That is not a simple question! I can answer simple questions; give me simple questions and I will answer the stuffing out of them. Ground rules: no sex talk, no relationship talk. We’re moving on from this. Right now.”
“Fine,” Dillon said. “Tell me about my sister.”
“What do you want to know?” Ziggy asked quickly. “She’s tall, she’s hot, she’s an engineer which drives all the guys crazy ’cause she’s blind, right, and she can design stuff on the computer that crushes them. Sometimes literally; she was in a robotics competition last fall and it was ridiculous, seriously, you should have seen it.”
“She was in a robotics competition?” Dillon repeated.
“Um, yeah, they do a lot of that here,” Ziggy said. “Kaia knows all the people in the department so we went to the competition and it was great. Just, like, a crazy metal smackdown. Except it was the little robots that won, mostly, because they could outmaneuver the big ones. Tanya’s robot was the size of a toaster.
“In fact,” he added, “I think it may have actually started as a toaster; I’m not sure. It was hard to tell with some of them.”
“What does she look like?” Dillon wanted to know.
“Well, I mean, not that I spend a lot of time staring at her or anything,” Ziggy began, “but she’s, you know. Good-looking. Totally, you know. Pretty. Beautiful, really.”
“Ziggy,” Dillon said. “I don’t remember her. At all. I’m not trying to find out what you think of her; I just want to know what she looks like.”
“Right,” Ziggy said. “Yeah, she’s… like I said, she’s tall. She has, uh, long hair. Dark. Like, darker than yours. Almost black. Really straight; I used to think she straightened it, but she doesn’t even carry an umbrella, so I saw her a couple of times when it was raining and nope. Totally natural.”
Straight, dark hair. Not exactly conclusive. “Do you have a picture or something?” Dillon asked. Because the internet had pictures, and he suspected the internet of lying. He didn’t think Ziggy could lie to him. At least not without him knowing.
“Not with me,” Ziggy said. “I mean, I don’t – oh, wait. Wait, yeah, maybe. I never delete anything on my phone, right, ’cause Kaia keeps putting new cards in every holiday, so I should have… something from spring break, maybe, or the housewarming…”
Dillon would have asked, but Ziggy wasn’t very focused right now and the picture itself was more important than the source. So he waited impatiently while Ziggy stared at his phone, combing through images Dillon could see and probably shouldn’t, though it didn’t occur to him until after the sixth or seventh pajama picture that maybe Ziggy didn’t realize he was watching. Too bad for him.
“Here we go,” Ziggy said. “Yeah, this is a good one of Tanya. There.”
He turned his phone around like Dillon might not know where to look, and Dillon snatched it out of his hand. No way was that his sister. Everything about the face matched: points, proportions, aspect ratios. The coloring, the angle, even the smile was eerily familiar.
This was the same image the internet had attached to “Tanya Mabrie” when they searched from this dimension’s Jungle Karma Pizza. An image he’d wanted to write off as Venjix bleed, cross-dimensional contamination… malicious, intentional, anything that denied the truth of what he was seeing.
“You really don’t remember her, huh?” Ziggy was saying. “There’s some more pictures there, just scroll forwards and you’ll see – I tried to get pictures of everyone. Hey, do you guys have keys in your dimension? I mean, she and Danny both wear one here, and they work this –”
Dillon pulled the watch out of his pocket and held it up.
“Pocket watch,” Ziggy finished. “Yeah. Plays a tune or something, she’s always whistling it. It’s pretty.”
“She doesn’t whistle it,” Dillon said.
“Uh, yeah she does,” Ziggy said.
Dillon pulled out his key and wound the watch. “This song,” he said. “She whistles this song?”
“No,” Ziggy said, frowning. “I mean, sometimes, probably. But the other one is the one I remember.”
“What other one?” he demanded.
“The other song the watch plays,” Ziggy said, like it was obvious. “There’s a trick, right? You need both keys or something. I don’t know.”
“The other song,” Dillon said. “How does it go.”
“It’s The Farmer in the Dell,” Ziggy said. “You know.”
When Dillon just looked at him, Ziggy shrugged and started humming. He hummed the tune without flinching, even adding a little flourish of his hand like he was conducting the song himself. It was only looking at Dillon again that made him break off. “What?” Ziggy asked.
It Dillon’s dimension, he would have known it as Tenaya’s hunting song.
Gem and Gemma knew way too much about where Venjix was and what it was doing. At least, they seemed to, and if they did then it was a little disturbing that no one had asked them about it before now. No one other than Dr. K, anyway, who was apparently sending them on missions based on the intel they already knew.
“Am I the only one who finds this creepy?” Ziggy muttered to Summer. “I mean, seriously, how do they know this stuff? Have they known it all along? Why didn’t they tell us?”
“Are we sure they know it at all?” Summer murmured back. “That’s not even a real map.”
Scott had set them up in the kitchen in an effort to get Gem and Gemma to use the screens, but they were either computer illiterate – Ziggy was very skeptical about this possibility, no matter what Colonel Truman thought – or they just liked confusing everyone with their completely symbolic “plans.” Or they liked drawing. Or they had PTSD about computer monitors.
“Neither was the last one, and you read it,” Ziggy said.
“I didn’t read it,” Summer whispered. “Dillon did.”
“Oh, please,” he scoffed. “Dillon didn’t have the faintest clue what that map said. He’s great with the spatial geometry or whatever, but when it comes to artistic interpretation –”
Summer elbowed him just before Scott turned around to glare. “Guys,” he said. “Cut it out.”
Summer waited until Scott was looking at the twins again to whisper, “Dillon wasn’t following my directions. He just drove and suddenly there we were.”
So maybe Dillon had some weird mechanical memory or something, some computer sense that led him in the right direction. Maybe he’d driven past it before. Maybe the knowledge wasn’t even buried; it wasn’t like he’d told them what he’d done for the year before he’d met them.
Except that Dillon had asked to see the map. As soon as they got “lost,” which Ziggy wasn’t sure he’d believed at the time, let alone now. Dillon had found coordinates with a compass. If he got lost at all, it wasn’t an hour from where he’d started on a sunny day with a distant horizon.
“Ziggy,” Scott said.
“What!” he protested. “I wasn’t even saying anything!”
“Call for you,” Scott said, looking like he’d said this before, and maybe he had but Ziggy was pretending to pay attention to the twins. It was Scott’s own fault if he couldn’t make up his mind about who he was supposed to be pretending to listen to now.
“Wait, what?” Who would be calling him here? Everyone who would dare lived here, and, okay, maybe Dillon and Dr. K weren’t technically here at this exact moment, but he didn’t think they were personally calling him from another dimension, either.
Which was too bad, really.
“It says,” Scott repeated, “you’re supposed to take it. In the training room.”
“Uh, right,” Ziggy said, thoroughly baffled now. No one took personal calls in the training room. Unless they were Dr. K, and she didn’t have any personal calls, so –
Except one. He squinted past Scott at the screen the twins weren’t using, ignoring the way the rest of the team stared. Yeah. Dr. K was expecting one personal call, and it looked like she’d tagged it for him if she wasn’t around.
“What is it?” Summer asked at last. It was the obvious question, really. She sounded like she couldn’t decide whether to ask Ziggy or Scott.
“It’s the professor,” Ziggy said, hopping off his stool. “The one Dr. K knew before Venjix. I’ll be right back, you just –” He waved both hands intentionally. “Keep on planning.”
To add to the awesomeness that was Dr. K telling someone she knew to talk to him, the rest of the Rangers actually did what he told them to. Or they did something that was like them pretending to do what he told them to, which was close enough to count. No one followed him into the training room, anyway, and that was way more respect than he usually got.
Sitting in Dr. K’s chair was great. It was a little weird that everyone else knew he was there – they could come in at any moment! – but he reminded himself that that was why it was okay. He was actually supposed to be there.
Getting the monitors to recognize him was trickier, but he got it. Pretty quickly, even.
It was obvious Dr. Sung didn’t share that feeling when the screen lit up. She was typing something, and she looked up but didn’t stop. “Ranger Green,” she said. “I was just getting ready to send an e-mail with the pictures I found for…” The hesitation was noticeable because he was looking for it. “Your Dr. K.”
“Don’t do that,” he said hastily. “I think there’s –” Something in the network that’s looking for them, he wanted to say, except that sounded crazy and would probably raise all sorts of alarms. “I’m not sure they’ll get here,” he said instead. Awkward, but true. “You don’t by any chance have hard copies, do you?”
“I could,” Dr. Sung said after a moment. “Would you like me to send them to you?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s be great. Top priority, Ranger business, all that. A military courier should be able to get them here this afternoon, right?”
She looked a little taken aback by that. “You want me to alert the military?”
Okay, not all civilians would want to get involved, he got that.
“No, here,” Ziggy said. “I’ll do it. I’ll tell them. Can I have someone stop by your office to pick them up?”
“Of course,” she said. She still didn’t look convinced.
“Great,” he told her. “Thanks for doing that, really. I know Dr. K will totally appreciate it. I mean, as much as she appreciates anything, which sometimes doesn’t seem like that much, but she does. I can tell.”
Dr. Sung still hesitated, but it wasn’t like she had any reason to know him. “Tell her she’s welcome,” she said at last. “And if there’s anything else I can do… she knows how to contact me.”
“Right,” Ziggy agreed. “I’ll definitely tell her. Thanks, Dr. Sung.”
She finally smiled a little. “You’re welcome, Ranger Green.”
It wasn’t until after they’d been disconnected that he realized asking the military might not be the best idea. Dr. K didn’t trust them. She said she did, but she didn’t upgrade their encryption and she hadn’t told them where Venjix came from, so obviously she trusted them with the city but not herself. Sending a military courier for pictures of her would be weird.
So what would she do? Ziggy had to think about it for several seconds, which was embarrassing after the fact, because obviously. She would send someone she trusted more.
He got Dr. Sung’s work address off a city map before he went out to talk to the others.
“Hey, guys.” He interrupted the twins again, which probably wasn’t a great loss considering how confused everyone else looked. “I’ve gotta go do an errand, okay? I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“An errand?” Scott repeated.
“What errand?” Summer asked at the same time.
“You want some company, man?” Flynn seemed totally serious, and Ziggy wasn’t expecting that. Even Gem and Gemma were listening, and they nodded enthusiastically when he looked at them. Like they’d come too if he just said the word.
“Uh, no,” Ziggy said. “I’m cool, we’re all good, thanks. I’m just gonna go pick something up for Dr. K. It’s a file, nothing important.”
“Important enough that you’re going to pick it up yourself,” Summer said.
“Why can’t she just have it sent to her?” Scott wanted to know.
“It’s not that kind of file,” Ziggy said, even though it definitely was. He wasn’t sure how much Scott accepted that the city systems were compromised. Or even that they could be compromised, whether he’d seen it himself or not. “Has to be hand-delivered. It’s just paper, guys, nothing to worry about. I’ll be back before the meeting’s over.”
“At least tell us where you’re going,” Summer said. “If it’s a trap, we’ll know where to look for you.”
“It’s not a trap!” Ziggy exclaimed. “This is totally solicited information, nothing trap-like about it. Nothing at all.”
“We can track his morpher,” Flynn said. When Summer glared at him, he shrugged. “What? It’s the standard way of finding Rangers in trouble, that’s all I’m saying.”
“I’ll be at the university,” Ziggy said. “Seriously, guys. Ten minutes. Time me.” He snapped his fingers against his morpher and the kitchen disappeared.
The hall around him wasn’t very impressive. Except that it was a hall instead of the kitchen, so that part was cool. If he’d done it right, he was on the other side of the city, and Dr. Sung’s office should be…
He turned around, then turned around again. He wasn’t standing in front of stairs, or an elevator, and he was pretty sure he needed to go up. He knew which part of the first floor he should be on right now, but teleporting totally messed up his sense of direction. Which was was the front of the building?
Ziggy shrugged, picked a direction, and found a paper sign with a down arrow on the next door he came to. He grinned. The next door had an up arrow, so he opened it. Yup. Stairs. The floors were numbered in a way that made sense, so he got out on the third floor and looked around.
Old school black background with movable white-lettered sign. Professors’ offices, hours, extra paper notes taped around the side explaining which students should go where. Dr. Sung, it said. Room 308. And off to the side, Jillian Sung Office Hours, with Maizie and Kenneth listed underneath.
Huh, he thought. She’d kept one of Dr. K’s TAs.
One of the big crayon-drawn signs to the left had another arrow and the numbers 301-311 on it, so he turned left. He wondered if Dr. K had let them paper the wall in the kitchen with notes and lists, not because she was resigned to it, but because it seemed familiar somehow. All the modernity in the city seemed to go into the military and its defenses. The university, for all the important research it was probably doing, seemed to be getting along as best it could. Just like everyone else.
The door to room 308 was closed. It had Dr. Sung’s name next to it, though, so he knocked. There was no answer for a long moment, and he wondered if he should have given her a heads-up. She probably hadn’t expected someone quite so fast. She had been calling from her office, right?
Then the door opened, and the same face he’d seen on the monitor looked out at him.
“Ranger Green,” she said, and yeah, she definitely sounded surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you…” At all, he thought, but she finished, “So quickly. Please come in.”
“Hi, yeah, thanks,” Ziggy said, waiting for her to pull the door the rest of the way open. These weren’t her office hours, but she could make an exception for the Rangers, right? Everyone did. Plus he’d already asked.
“We’re very fast,” he added as he stepped into her office. “I probably should have warned you about that. Did you have time to print everything out?”
“Most of it,” she said. “I’m just waiting on a couple of images. Let me get the rest of these into a folder for you. They’re mostly from a holiday mixer we had, right before – well. Right before she disappeared. One of the TAs went around with a camera, and they e-mailed everyone with the batch a couple days later.”
He would have known it was a party even if she hadn’t told him. The top picture showed four people: three women, girls even, with their arms around each other, all dressed up in sparkles and color… beaming at the camera. It took him a second to recognize Dr. K in the middle, tiny and laughing, wearing a pretty red top and gold earrings under short curly hair. She looked gorgeous.
“That’s Dr… K,” Dr. Sung said, staring down at the picture from the other side. “With all her TAs. Maizie on the left and –”
Ziggy pointed, and she shook her head. “The blonde one. That’s Katana on the other side, and of course there’s Danny behind them. He and Dr. K always made quite a scene in classrooms… I’m sure you can imagine.”
Dillon was unmistakable. He wasn’t just tall, he sort of… loomed, even in a gray button-down and shaggy hair. He was beaming at the camera, one arm around Maizie and his other hand on Dr. K’s shoulder. He looked like they’d just grabbed him as he walked by, telling him to get in the picture quick, and Ziggy couldn’t help but smile at their obvious glee. Whatever had been going on that night, they had been having a good time.
“Yeah,” Ziggy said abruptly, realizing that she’d said something he was probably supposed to acknowledge. “They, uh – they do that.”
“She was sixteen,” Dr. Sung said quietly. “Her TAs didn’t notice. I’m not sure Danny even knew; he treated everyone the way he treated his sister, and she was no exception. It used to surprise new students, you know, to see them arguing in front of an entire class… they thought he was the teacher.”
Ziggy smiled a little. He could imagine how well that went over.
“He thought they were idiots,” she added. “It was obvious the moment she opened her mouth that she was in charge.”
“Yeah,” Ziggy repeated, staring at the picture. Her presence didn’t come through in two dimensions at all. They looked free and happy and nothing like people running their own branch laboratory. Let alone two of the six that would be carrying the city’s defense three years later.
“Anyway,” Dr. Sung said. “There’s another one of him with Maizie and Tanya, and then one of Tanya alone. I have a couple more that Dr. K might like; I thought I’d just send them along even if Danny’s sister isn’t in them.”
“Sure, that’s great,” Ziggy said, gaze lingering on the smiling group before he flipped it back. Maizie looked kind of like Summer; he wondered if –
He froze. He didn’t drop the pictures because every muscle in his body tensed, and he had the sudden and exceedingly creepy feeling that he was in a dream. That they’d been right, that this was a trap, and when he looked up at Dr. Sung he’d see Venjix staring back at him.
His head jerked up, and Dr. Sung looked over at him from the printer. She frowned a little as he swung around, looking for anything messed up or wrong or otherwise about to attack. The office was totally normal.
Except that when he looked down at the picture in his hand, that was still Tenaya 7 standing next to Dillon.
“Um,” Ziggy said, aware that his voice sounded a little hysterical. “This picture – this – you said you got this from a department party? Here at the university?”
“Yes, of course,” Dr. Sung said. “All of those pictures came from the same party. Why?”
Ziggy flipped to the next picture. There was no doubt, no possibility at all that this wasn’t the same person he’d recruited for Ranger training months ago. The person who’d been sent to infiltrate their base. The person who had infiltrated their base, more than once, the one who’d made Dr. K cry and turned Dillon into a stalker.
Not that he didn’t have stalker-esque tendencies before, okay, he was a teensy bit on the obsessive side and he didn’t have to sleep, so that did kind of lend itself to –
“This is Tanya,” Ziggy said aloud. Just to see if saying it made it more real. He even held the picture up for Dr. Sung to see, so he could be sure they were talking about the same person. “This is Dillon – this is Danny’s sister?”
When she nodded, he pressed, “Like, his actual sister? Grew up together, defended her from bullies, learned to read braille for her? That sister?”
“Well, I don’t know anything about their childhood,” Dr. Sung said, frowning. “I knew Danny through his work in my class, and as Dr. Kshana’s TA, of course. I only met Tanya threw him. It was a passing acquaintance, I’m afraid. He referred to her as his sister, so I took his word for it. They did seem very devoted to each other.”
Ziggy stared down at the picture again. Dillon was going to freak out. Dillon was probably already freaking out, he had to know by now, must have seen pictures in RJ’s dimension that told him the same thing this one did. Would Dr. K calm him down or make it worse? Would she be freaking out?
Probably not, Ziggy decided. Usually only one of them flipped at a time. If they weren’t back yet, they were probably doing okay.
The question was, then, what was Tenaya 7? Android? Clone? One of many, or an actual cyborg made from the human original? Did it matter? If she had Tanya’s memories, didn’t they have to help her? And if she didn’t have Tanya’s memories, did that really mean she wasn’t Tanya anymore?
If she was a cyborg, like Dillon, did that mean she was what Dillon would become?
He looked up, startled and apologetic because Dr. Sung looked a little nervous herself. Not like she’d seen her mortal enemy in a picture of her best friend’s sister, but at least like there was a strange guy in her office and he was acting weird. “Hey, yeah, sorry,” Ziggy said. “This is really helpful, thanks.”
“Here are the other two,” she said carefully. “They’re just pictures of Dr. Kshana and Danny. I thought she might want them. Or he might.”
Not of them together, Ziggy saw. He reached out and took them carefully, because whoever had done these looked like they’d been serious about it. Candid, maybe, but only barely. The first one was of Dr. K in an office that looked a lot like Dr. Sung’s, except with more screens and wires and cables everywhere. He’d bet there were blinking lights everywhere the second she turned the lights out.
The other one was Dillon. He was standing by a window, looking out like he’d been posed except for two things. One, he was wearing a black t-shirt that said “3 Furies” on it. And two, he was smiling. Like he knew whoever was taking the picture was there, like they’d told him to pretend they weren’t and he couldn’t quite do it.
The person in the photo looked self-conscious in a way Dillon never did.
“Who took these?” Ziggy heard himself ask.
“I’m not sure.” Dr. Sung offered him a folder, and he was reluctant to put the pictures away but that was ridiculous, right? They weren’t even his. “One of her students, I think. Whoever it was took pictures of Maizie and Katana too, and they put all four of them up in the lab. These are just copies.”
“No, these are great,” Ziggy said. He made himself slide them into the folder, fastening it so nothing would escape while he wasn’t paying attention. “I really appreciate you doing all this work, looking back through everything and finding these. I’ll have Dr. K call you when she gets back – I mean, I’ll tell her to call you, but she might not, she’s not really big on the social niceties. So, you know. Thank you, from her.”
It made Dr. Sung smile. “It was my pleasure. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. And tell her she’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
“Oh, I tell her,” Ziggy said. He pointed at Dr. Sung as he backed out of her office. “Believe me, I tell her all the time.”
Dr. Sung was still smiling when he turned away, and he decided that Dr. K had known how to have friends once. No reason she couldn’t learn again.
The other Rangers pounced on him when he teleported into the garage. Like no one around here had anything better to do than wait on him. They weren’t even pretending to look at Gem and Gemma’s plans anymore, although he noticed that Scott had written on the “maps” the twins had provided and maybe that meant something good. Something clear, something sensible…
On the other hand, it was Scott, so probably not.
“Did you get it?” Flynn was asking.
“What is it?” That was Summer, because she wasn’t always the practical one but she was very focused.
“You didn’t teleport into anywhere secure, did you?” The only time Scott liked Ziggy’s power less than when he didn’t know how to use it was when he did. They might have bonded over – something – but Scott couldn’t stop worrying that Ziggy would set off a citywide alarm by walking through the wrong door somewhere.
Ziggy was pretty sure Scott had actually done that once, and that was the reason he worried so much.
“I told you,” he said. “I was at the university, I visited Dr. Sung, that was all! She gave me these pictures for Dr. K. Can I go put them in the training room, now?”
“Pictures?” Summer repeated.
“Pictures of what?” Scott asked at the same time, and they were the slightest bit creepy sometimes.
“Okay, you spend too much time together,” he told Scott and Summer. “And we live with them –” He pointed at Gem and Gemma – “So that’s saying something. Flynn, what’s your question.”
Flynn didn’t look surprised to be singled out. “Who’s Dr. Sung?”
“She’s the professor Dr. K was talking to this morning,” Ziggy said. “The one she knows from before, or at least, the one who knows her from before. Dr. K doesn’t remember her at all.”
“They worked together at MIT,” Summer said.
“Very good,” Ziggy said. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been over this already. “She said she knew Dillon’s sister, so Dr. K asked if she had any pictures, and when she found them I went to pick them up.”
“Why didn’t she just send them digitally?” Scott wanted to know.
Ziggy saw the twins exchange glances. “Ask them,” he said.
“Because there should have been pictures of Dillon’s sister,” Gemma replied.
“On the city network,” Gem added. “But there –”
“Definitely aren’t,” Gemma said. “We looked, for both of them –”
“And they’re not there. Which means –”
“The Corinth network is compromised,” Flynn finished for them, and they both looked at him in surprise.
“Yes!” the twins exclaimed in unison.
“No,” Scott said. “It can’t be; if Venjix was in the city computers we’d know.”
“Like we knew Tenaya was in the city?” Ziggy asked. “Like we knew the virus in Dillon was still active? How many people have we scanned for Venjix technology, really? How many people do we look at and say, well, they look human. Must be perfectly safe! I don’t know about you, but if I can’t trust people? I definitely don’t trust machines.”
He saw Gemma look at Gem, who stared at Ziggy a moment longer before returning her gaze. Great. Now he’d triggered their twin defense systems, and Dillon wasn’t even here. He wondered if the rest of the team would be fast enough to recognize what was happening if the Gold and Silver Rangers turned on them.
“We scan everyone for Venjix technology,” Summer said. “We scanned you when you first arrived.”
“Did you scan them?” He might as well go for it; Gem and Gemma wouldn’t be any more or less likely to kill him unless it fit into the plan they weren’t telling anyone about. “What about Dr. K? She’s not a Ranger; she didn’t have to be checked.”
“She’s been in the city since it closed,” Scott said. “Everyone here was checked before the shield went up.”
“Oh, yeah, that sounds totally plausible,” Ziggy agreed. “Do you guys even listen to yourselves? We checked everyone and then we put the shield up! There wasn’t any kind of mass migration between those two events, no, nothing like a coordinated Venjix attack that sent everyone who was mobile flocking to Corinth like refugees!”
“There were checkpoints,” Scott said. “Everyone who entered Corinth had to be cleared by the military.”
Summer cleared her throat, and Ziggy didn’t miss the look she and Flynn exchanged. “I wasn’t scanned,” she said. “I mean, not when I arrived in Corinth. I didn’t come in with an official transport; that’s probably why.”
“I came in just before the shield went up,” Flynn agreed. “I was driving a non-official transport, and I know for a fact no one on it went through a checkpoint. Or got scanned.”
“I think you’ll find,” Gem began.
“Dr. K keeps pretty close track of that,” Gemma said. “Who has –”
“What kind of technology,” Gem said.
“In them,” Gemma added, like it was an afterthought. It was the quietest thing either of them had said, and it was almost drowned out by Scott’s question.
“Outside the city, or in?” he asked.
But Flynn heard her, and he gave Gemma a sharp look even before Summer asked, “Wait, what kind of technology where?”
Ziggy felt his skin crawl. He told himself he shouldn’t be surprised, and he knew when to keep his mouth shut either way. That didn’t keep the twins from looking at him. What they thought he was going to contribute, he had no idea, and he wasn’t about to guess. Not with them.
“Right,” Gem finished, right on her heels. “Dillon’s not.”
“The only cyborg in the city,” Gemma said.
For once, Scott had nothing to say.
“Could you explain that?” Summer asked after a moment.
Flynn wasn’t looking at any of them, and Ziggy wondered how much he knew.
Gem had already turned back to the monitors he and Gemma hadn’t been using. Completely disproving any theories about their technological incompetence, he started to call up screens of data faster than any normal human could identify them. “I think you all know we’re cyborgs,” Gemma said.
Every eye in the room turned to her. Except for Gem’s, since he was still staring at the screens. Ziggy would ask what he was doing, but it probably wouldn’t mean anything to him and there wasn’t anything he could do about it anyway. He wondered if this was how it would go down: Dr. K and Dillon gone, any loyalty the twins had stripped away by their friend’s absence. The rest of the Rangers were just in the way.
They were staring at Gemma, Ziggy thought, not because this was so unexpected, but because she’d just spoken a full sentence. With Gem standing right there. Dillon had told them to watch for any sudden changes in behavior – this definitely qualified.
“Aye,” Flynn said, when no one else seemed ready to answer. “The thought did cross our minds.”
“You probably should have scanned us when we first entered the city,” Gem said, not looking up.
“But Dr. K said she knew us, and I guess that was enough for everyone,” Gemma said with a shrug.
“You probably should have scanned her too,” Gem added.
Ziggy looked at Flynn, who was looking at Summer. She looked at him, and that was when he realized he didn’t really want to be looking at any of them. “Dillon said,” he began, and then wondered why he was talking. “Dillon said you’re all hybrids. Cyborgs. Whatever. He told us not to ask Dr. K about it because she didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Did she tell him that?” Gemma asked, watching Ziggy curiously.
He swallowed. He had no idea what the right answer was: no meant Dillon was smart enough to see through all of them, and he might have taken precautions against a twin-tentional takeover. Yes meant Dr. K trusted Dillon enough to tell him things the twins didn’t share, and maybe the twins would trust the rest of them by association.
“No,” Ziggy said at last. “He was just guessing. About all of it.”
Gemma gave Gem a look that he probably didn’t see, since he was still doing something no one understood to their computer system. “She wouldn’t have,” Gem said without stopping.
“Dillon’s very observant,” Gemma agreed. “And you’re very honest, Ziggy.”
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well. I tried the whole strength through intimidation thing a few years back. It didn’t work out well for me.”
That made Gemma smile. “Oh, I think you’re very strong.”
“And I think you’re very trustworthy,” Gem added, turning away from the screen at last. “This is Dr. K’s cyborg tracking program.”
“She has a cyborg tracking program?” Summer was already out of her seat, coming over to stand next to Gem in a display of blind faith that Ziggy thought was a little premature. “Who is it – what are these?”
She was pointing at the spray of red covering the city grid, and the screen responded to her touch by zooming in. It went farther when she didn’t move her hand, going to street level in a matter of seconds. The red remained, accounting for maybe half the human motion on the screen.
Ziggy had a really bad feeling about those red outlines.
“Oh, those are the cyborgs,” Gem said.
“The Venjix virus is contagious, you know,” Gemma added. “People in close contact for long periods of time tend to pass the infection on.”
It was the most Ziggy had ever heard her say at one time, uninterrupted by her twin. “Why are you guys talking in full sentences?” he blurted out.
“Close contact, like, how close?” Scott asked at the same time.
Why were they all looking at him?
“Oh, Ziggy doesn’t have it,” Gem said. “Dr. K keeps track of all our replication algorithms and makes sure they don’t get out of control. At least outside of our own systems.”
“Because it’s less distracting,” Gemma said. She was looking at him too, and he thought maybe she was answering his question. “We want you to be able to understand us.”
“We trust you,” Gem added. “We want you to be able to trust us, too.”
Okay, that was definitely directed at him. “Look, no offense,” Ziggy said, because it was too late now. “We don’t know anything about you guys. You show up, totally out of the blue, Dr. K clears you, and suddenly you’re running around on ‘secret missions’ –” He had no qualms about using air quotes. “That, to be honest, I’m pretty sure she knows about in advance only about half the time!”
“Ziggy,” Summer began.
“Oh, no,” Ziggy said. “Don’t start with me. They just went into Dr. K’s computer system and put a tracking program none of us even knew about up on the screen in less than a minute. Do you know how much security she probably had on that? Because I don’t, and I’m willing to bet I wouldn’t know even after she explained it to me!”
“Dr. K trusts us,” Gem began.
Ziggy scoffed, and Gemma said, “We’re not saying you should because she does.”
“We’re saying she trusts us,” Gem repeated. “So she never kept us from seeing her security. Anything we see, we can replicate. Like I can get into her tracking program –”
“And I can access the zord maintenance routines,” Gemma said. “We don’t break in. Dr. K just doesn’t keep us out.”
If they could get into the maintenance routines for the zords, then they could do basically whatever they wanted to any of the Ranger tech on the garage network. Which was all of it. “So you’re saying we should trust you because you could have killed us any time,” Ziggy said bluntly, “and you haven’t, so you’re okay?”
Gem and Gemma exchanged glances.
“No,” Gemma said.
“We’re just saying that everything is pretty much the same as it was ten minutes ago,” Gem said.
“You believed us then,” Gemma said. “So why not now?”
“All the infected machinery was destroyed,” Kaia told her.
She sighed, glancing out the window even as she told herself it didn’t matter. The sky in Corinth was just as blue, and she could see it on a monitor any time. “That’s not an option for us,” she said, even though Kaia already knew. The damage was too extensive. Even Corinth’s wall had only slowed it down.
“No,” Kaia agreed. They were quiet now, her counterpart scribbling specs and notes and results wherever she could. Kaia wouldn’t remember it all, of course. Her nanobots had been purged, and with them went her superhuman memory, her reflexes… her resistance.
“Did you force your Dillon to become an operator?” Kaia asked abruptly.
She didn’t look away from the window. “Yes.”
“But he has autonomy in the field,” Kaia said.
“He has to,” she told the window. “They all do. If I could control all the suits myself, I wouldn’t need operators.”
“So he fights Venjix,” Kaia said. “And he keeps coming back afterward. Why?”
She shrugged. “He likes us.”
This seemed to give her counterpart pause. She didn’t know why it would; Dillon was obviously here, where he had no reason to be, just to keep her company. Keep her safe, supposedly. But there wasn’t much that could happen to her here that he’d be able to protect her from.
“You fight Venjix because it’s your responsibility,” Kaia said slowly. “Dillon fights Venjix because he likes you.”
“All of us,” she agreed. “Yes. I think that accurately describes the situation.” She turned away from the window to watch her counterpart watching her. “I’ve tried to point it out to him, you know. That he’s the good things I would have wanted for Venjix, if I’d known what I was doing. If I’d been able to choose. If I’d known it was a choice.”
Kaia frowned down at her desk, but she didn’t start writing again. “What did he say?”
She huffed out another sigh. “He thinks I’m mistaken.”
“But you’re not,” Kaia said, looking up at her again. “He’s helping. He’s Venjix, and he’s helping.”
“Yes,” she said. She felt like she’d already had this conversation today, only this time her counterpart was her and she’d somehow become Dillon. “So?”
“So Venjix changed,” Kaia said. “You said it’s breached the perimeter, but the city’s still there. What’s it waiting for?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “The chance to destroy us all at once, maybe. A clean sweep.”
“A reason not to do it,” Kaia countered. “If there are that many cyborgs, Venjix must be receiving a tremendous amount of human feedback. All that data has to speed up the learning process. Like a kind of evolution.”
“Machines don’t evolve,” she snapped. “I have nanobots inside me; that doesn’t make me a computer.”
“But we only designed the virus to use the nanobots,” Kaia said. “The virus itself was supposed to grow and learn. To be smarter than us. To do what we couldn’t.”
“Well it did that,” she said bitterly. “It did that and more.”
“But think about it,” Kaia insisted. “You can. It can too. It’s thinking, Kaia.”
She wished it would stop.
“It’s not just learning anymore, it’s creating.” Kaia seemed excited by the possibility, like maybe no one else had ever thought of this before. “Maybe survival isn’t its only goal. If it wants something you can reason with it!”
“Oh, like I reason with Dillon!” she burst out. “Whatever I tell him to do he does the exact opposite! Yes, using that as a model I think reasoning with Venjix should go wonderfully well!”
“Well, have you tried?” Kaia didn’t seem deterred by her anger. “What does Dillon think?”
“Dillon doesn’t care about defeating Venjix,” she said. It was an awful truth that she overlooked because it didn’t change anything. “He just wants to find his sister.”
“You said Tanya’s a cyborg,” Kaia said. Her counterpart had pictures on her computer; they only confirmed what Dillon had already seen. She had no idea what he would do now. “He’ll try to reason with her, at least. Right?”
“Probably,” she admitted. When Kaia just waited, though, she shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t predict what Dillon will do.”
“We could ask him,” Kaia suggested.
“That won’t help,” she said. “Trust me.”
There was a knock on the lab door. Neither of them answered. Anyone who didn’t know they were there probably shouldn’t walk in and find two of them, and anyone who did know they were there would come in regardless.
Aisha leaned around the door a moment later. “Hey,” she said. “You guys need anything?”
“No,” Kaia said, glancing at her.
When she realized it was a question, she shook her head. “No.”
“Thanks,” Kaia added, looking at her computer again. “Eight minutes. Do you know where Ziggy and Dillon are?”
“Yes,” Aisha said with a smile. “They’re on their way. I can’t tell if they’re bonding or if they’re totally freaking each other out and neither of them wants to say so.”
“With them,” she said, “it’s pretty much the same thing.”
“Do they get along well?” Kaia asked, a small smile lightening her face further. “In your dimension?”
“Too well,” she said. “They’re thick as thieves, and they have been ever since they showed up on my doorstep. Inseparable. I’m still surprised Dillon got him to stay behind on this one; I keep expecting to turn around and trip over him. Our Ziggy,” she added.
“They didn’t meet through the Rangers?” Kaia asked.
“They met outside Corinth,” she said. “Dillon picked him up, brought him along on what should have been a suicide mission to run the Venjix barricade in the middle of the day. I’m still not sure how Ziggy got talked into that, actually. But. At any rate, they’ve ridden together ever since.”
“Well, they were both chosen as operators,” Kaia said, an odd look on her face. “They must have had something in common.”
“Less than you’d think,” she said with a sigh. “I didn’t choose Ziggy; that was… an accident. A misunderstanding that Dillon willfully perpetuated. Honestly, I don’t know why I keep either of them around.”
Kaia was still watching her with that strange expression. “But you like them.”
She probably wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone but herself. And to Aisha, whom she didn’t care about and would hopefully never see again. “Yes,” she said. “I suppose I do.”
“Don’t tell Aisha about this,” Ziggy said, for the sixth time. “She told me, she said very clearly –”
“Don’t let him meet Tanya,” Dillon repeated with him. “Yeah, I know. This it?”
“Yeah, it’s this way.” Ziggy waved him through the main doors of a building that had giant electron murals painted over the front windows. He was looking over his shoulder like someone might see them, which made them look several times more suspicious than they would have just walking in. “Go in, turn right. Keep walking.”
Dillon turned right across the lobby, heading down the hallway while Ziggy came up behind him. He didn’t know what the guy was so worried about. Aisha had told them she was headed back to the doc’s lab, and so what if she’d lied? She hadn’t seemed too concerned about what they learned so far. He didn’t even know why she was trying to keep him and “Tanya” apart: if all she was was Danny’s sister, then he didn’t have any reason to hurt her.
“Okay, so, the lecture halls are back the other way,” Ziggy was saying, because apparently he had to talk all the time. Dillon was used to that. “These are mostly labs, here, undergraduate classrooms and study areas. But there’s some workrooms farther down, design and modeling, that kind of thing…”
He could hear her. Now that he knew what voice he was listening for, he could pick it out over the shuffle of footsteps and the conversations and lectures going on through the walls. He could hear her talking about fuel ratios, and that didn’t make him nervous at all. She’d fooled Ziggy in his dimension, and his Ziggy knew Venjix.
Dillon didn’t walk any faster, but he stopped listening to Ziggy entirely while he concentrated on her conversation. The voice that replied wasn’t familiar at all, but it was giving her burn times. He wondered if anything had blown up at their university yet or if she was working farther away.
“Dillon.” Ziggy’s hand was on his arm, and the surprise of it made him stop more than anything. “She’s not expecting you, okay?”
“That’s kind of the point,” Dillon muttered, staring at the door in front of them.
“Dillon,” Ziggy hissed. His voice was lower and more determined, getting in between him and the door the way his own Ziggy would have. Like his personal safety wasn’t even an issue. “Whoever you think she is, she isn’t.”
Dillon looked at him, but Ziggy just kept going. “She’s not whatever you’re picturing. She’s not your long-lost sister or your mortal enemy or the answer to all your problems. She’s just a girl. A woman, okay, who happens to be really good at rockets and is super busy right now with some million dollar competition across the country somewhere. So don’t get all… weird. Like you do.”
“Rockets,” Dillon repeated. That would explain the fuel ratios.
“Yeah,” Ziggy said, still keeping his voice low. “Rockets. Busy. Don’t be weird. You got it, or do you need me to go over the highlights again?”
He felt the corner of his mouth quirk. “I got it,” he said.
“Good.” Ziggy grabbed the door and pushed it open, but he didn’t walk in. “Hey, Tanya!”
“– at thirty-nine percent,” she said. “Just a minute! Ignore,” she added. “Run simulation three with most recent oxygen mix and report time.”
“Simulation three run,” a disembodied voice replied. “Result: 28.3 seconds.”
“Damn it,” she said.
“Input –” the voice began.
“Ignore,” she said before it could finish. “Pause.”
She pulled her hands away from the keyboard and turned around. “Hi, Ziggy,” she said with a smile, and Dillon could only stare. He was looking at Tenaya 7 in jeans and a cherry blossom blouse. No visor, no glasses, her hair unbraided and pulled back in a ponytail.
“Hi!” Ziggy said. “I brought a friend; do you have a minute?”
“For you?” she said. “Absolutely. Come in!”
Ziggy opened the door the rest of the way, letting Dillon past. There was a dog lying under the table next to the woman’s chair, and it watched them enter without lifting its head. The woman tapped her wrist and a quiet voice said, “2:21 pm.”
“Dillon, this is Tanya,” Ziggy was saying as he closed the door behind him. “Tanya, this is Dillon – he’s gonna sound kind of familiar, and it’s a wacky story.”
“Hey,” Dillon said. He couldn’t quite get past the fact that she wasn’t wearing a visor. She should have looked wrong without it, but she looked exactly right, and he couldn’t tell if that was memory or something more sinister. “It’s, uh. Nice to meet you.”
She tipped her head to one side, like she was listening harder. “Danny?” she asked.
“Kind of,” Ziggy said. “That’s the wacky part. He’s from another dimension. He doesn’t remember who he is, or who you are, but he knows you exist and he wanted to meet you.”
“Um, okay,” she said with a laugh. “Is this a joke?”
“No,” Dillon said. “I’ve been looking for you. In my dimension, I mean. I don’t know much, but I have this watch.”
“Your pocket watch?” She stood up, and Dillon saw the dog lift its head. “Rory, c’mere.”
The dog bounced up, sidling over to her and pressing its shoulder to her knee. It was wearing a harness, Dillon saw, and her hand fell easily to its back. When she stepped forward, the dog moved with her. “This is Rory,” she said, like she could see his confusion. “He helps me get around.”
Dillon glanced at Ziggy, who nodded at the dog and waved his hand in a “hello” gesture.
“Hi, Rory,” Dillon said. “Nice to meet you.”
Tanya paused, then lowered her head like she was looking down at the dog. “Huh,” she said. “Well, Rory believes you. He always wags for Danny.”
The dog was definitely not wagging.
“Dogs are smart,” Ziggy said. “Right, Rory?”
Rory wagged, slow and easy, and Tanya smiled. “That’s right,” she agreed. “So you lost me? In your dimension?”
“I guess,” Dillon said. He couldn’t stop looking at her. “I don’t remember.”
“Their world’s kind of messed up,” Ziggy said. “Computer virus took over, destroyed a bunch of countries, killed the ecosystem, you know. Very apocalyptic. Started converting humans to cyborgs. Dillon’s one of them; he doesn’t remember anything from before.”
“Wow, that’s… terrible.” Tanya was frowning in their general direction. “What are you doing here? Can we help?”
He didn’t know what made him say it, but this wasn’t her fight. Obviously. “You already have,” Dillon told her. “I just – I wanted to see you.”
“Dillon’s a Power Ranger,” Ziggy said. “He’s part of the team trying to fight the virus. They got in touch with some Power Rangers from our dimension and they’re getting help from them. I’m just, you know. Trying to help Dillon remember some things about his past.”
“Oh.” This seemed to make sense to Tanya, which Dillon thought she was handling better than a lot of the people in Corinth. “How did you get away from the – virus? I mean, you’re fighting for the other side now, right?”
“Yeah,” Dillon said. “I don’t remember.”
“So you could be, like, a plant?” Ziggy asked, folding his arms. He only sounded curious, and the question made Dillon smile. “The virus could have planted you with the Rangers, right? If you don’t remember?”
“Ziggy,” Tanya said.
“You know, that’s exactly what you said in my dimension,” Dillon said.
“Why would you still have your watch if you’re a plant?” Tanya asked. “If you wanted someone to forget, wouldn’t you take away their personal things?”
“Maybe I took it when I escaped,” Dillon said. He’d been through every possible permutation in his mind. “Maybe they let me escape, and the watch just makes it seem more authentic.”
“But you chose to keep it,” Tanya said. “Either you chose to take it or you chose to keep it, and that must mean something. Some part of you remembers.”
“Or some part of me wants to remember.” He’d been through that too: seeing things he wanted to believe so much that he convinced himself they were real, that he actually remembered them. It had all been an elaborate lie. A totally mechanical deception to lure him and the rest of the Rangers away from the city. Permanently.
It hadn’t worked out quite the way it was supposed to.
“That’s yours, then,” Tanya said. “Right? Even if you don’t remember anything, wanting to remember can’t be something that was programmed into you. What would be the point? Shouldn’t the virus want the opposite?”
“Maybe I don’t really want to,” Dillon said. “Maybe I just say I do to make the people around me trust me.”
Tanya let out a huff, almost like laughter. He didn’t see what was funny about it.
“Dillon,” she said, then she paused. “Why Dillon? Just out of curiosity?”
“I don’t know,” he said, when she really did wait for an answer. “I heard it – somewhere – and it sounded…” Someone named Dillon had helped him, and he’d never wanted to talk about it before. “Close enough,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “Well, Dillon, you can second-guess yourself to a standstill. Maybe you already have. But eventually you reach a point where you have to stop fighting for other people and start fighting for yourself. Believe me, I’ve been there, and it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re not worth anything, but believing that doesn’t help anyone.
“No one deserves to have nobody help them. You’re no help to anyone if you’re nobody, so be somebody. Figure out who you want to be, and listen to the people who tell you that you can be that person. If you listen to the people who tell you that you can’t, including you, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
“I didn’t come here for a self-help lecture,” Dillon told her.
Tanya just smirked at him. “Consider it my gift to myself. I don’t trust you to find me if you’re this emo about it.”
Dillon tilted his head toward Ziggy. “Emo?” he repeated.
“Emotional basket case,” Ziggy said. “Too depressed to move.”
“And this is supposed to help?” Dillon asked.
“You don’t think we’re helpful?” Ziggy said. “I think we’re helpful. Aren’t we helpful, Tanya?”
“We’re totally helpful,” she said. “And I’m totally hungry. Is the fast food cart outside yet?”
“Yeah, we passed it on the way in,” Ziggy said. “We gotta get back, though. Dillon’s friends will be looking for him.”
“Oh, we can’t do lunch?” Tanya looked disappointed. “I was going to call Vinny and make him send someone in with food.”
“We actually weren’t supposed to be here at all,” Ziggy told her. “I was under strict orders not to let Dillon talk to anyone who thought he was Danny – okay, not strict, but implicit – and I definitely wasn’t supposed to bring him over here. We should go before they send out a search party.”
“How will I know what happens?” Tanya asked. “Now I feel invested. Are you coming back?”
“Probably not,” Dillon said, when Ziggy looked at him. “We’re not… really supposed to be here.”
“Blah, blah, dimensional compromise,” Tanya said. “The physics department would love you. Can you at least tell me who your contact is, so I can harass them after you’ve left?”
“Probably not a good idea,” Ziggy said, before Dillon could answer. “They’re not gonna be too happy with me as it is. Why don’t you just harass me instead? I can be annoying enough for both of us.”
“All right,” she said with a sigh. “I guess that’s all I’m going to get.”
“Oh!” Ziggy was waving at Rory when he paused, looking at Dillon and then back at Tanya. “Tanya, do you have your key with you? Dillon doesn’t know the other song. You know, on the watch.”
“The Farmer in the Dell?” Tanya only looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, because you only have one key. Sure, let me just –” She reached up, untangling something from her collar and pulling it out from under her ponytail. “The keys go together. Do you have yours?”
“Yeah,” Dillon said, eyeing her. She was holding a necklace with a key on it in one hand.
“Can I have it?” she asked. “And the watch? I’ll give them right back.”
“Yeah, fine,” he muttered. He pulled the key off over his head and held it out, realizing as he did so that the gesture wouldn’t be enough. “Here’s the key,” he said, stepping forward to drop it into her outstretched hand. “And the watch.”
She felt around the edges of the watch instinctively, it looked like, but she set it down right away. The table to her right wasn’t the one she’d been working at, but she found the edge without even tapping it first. Either she had an unusually good spatial memory, or she worked in this room a lot.
She needed both hands to line the keys up and snap them together – something he hadn’t even known they could do – and then she reached for the watch again. She got it on the first try, though he noticed she hadn’t moved at all since she’d set it down. The extension needed to reach the watch was identical.
Tanya ran her thumb over the edge of the watch to flip it open, and it was a practiced gesture. It took her a second to fit the double key into the slot, but when she twisted it wound up as smoothly as always. And the song that came out of it was different.
She hummed along with the first few bars, holding up the watch with a smile. “Song number two,” she said. “I’d say you could take my key, but I’m kind of attached to it.”
“I have it,” he muttered, staring at the watch. “I found it, I just didn’t – I didn’t know it did that.”
“Do you have it?” she asked, clearly interested.
“Yes,” he said. “No, I mean, not with me. It’s –” There was no easy way to explain what had happened to her key. “It’s with someone I trust,” he said at last.
Or maybe there was.
“You don’t know how glad I am to hear that,” Tanya said, offering him the watch. “Here, I know you have to go. Let me just get the keys apart.”
He took the watch, and then the key when she offered it. He did make sure it was his first, but they were on very different chains. She couldn’t have mixed them up.
“Thank you,” he said. He didn’t even know what made him say it, but she smiled.
“Thank you,” she replied. “Good luck, Dillon.”
“Yeah,” he said. Ziggy said she was working on a competition, right? “To you too.”
The sound from Ziggy’s phone was definitely a song. “Guru child on glory mountain…”
“That’s our cue,” Ziggy said. “We’re going; thanks Tanya, you’re the best, see you tonight! Dillon, come on, seriously, they will send a search party. Kaia called the police on me once, and if you think that’s not embarrassing – bye Tanya! Bye Rory!”
“Bye,” Dillon offered, when Tanya called goodbye after them. Ziggy was already pushing him out the door, which was very familiar. He let himself be moved.
“He says the primal quest ain’t nothing but a second guess, sometimes you just do your best to compromise.”
“The fact that it’s Kaia calling instead of Aisha is probably a good sign,” Ziggy said, glancing down at his watch. “We’re only ten minutes late, so that’s really not bad. On the other hand, if Kaia’s calling to warn us that Aisha’s already left to look for us, that might be worse.”
“Here in the shining city –”
“Hello?” Ziggy said.
There was only the briefest pause, during which Dillon could hear exactly what she said, and Ziggy winced. “Yeah, I thought she might have,” he said. “We’re, uh, leaving Patchett now. Right across the street from you, I swear.”
Kaia obviously knew what “Patchett” meant.
“He wanted to meet her!” Ziggy protested. “Come on, give the guy a break, he’s been looking for her for as long as he can remember. We just said hello, no big deal.”
Aisha was crossing the street toward them as he spoke. Dillon pressed his elbow into Ziggy’s side, and Ziggy pushed his shoulder without looking up. “Yeah, Aisha just found us. She can read us the riot act; you don’t have to.”
There was a pause while Kaia definitely didn’t read him the riot act.
“Love you too,” Ziggy said. “See you soon.”
He hung up just as Aisha came up the steps to meet them. “Hi, Aisha,” Ziggy said. “I was just gonna go get some ice cream; I did promise. So why don’t you and Dillon go back and –”
Aisha didn’t look impressed. “Ziggy, did you go see Tanya?”
“What, you said we didn’t have to worry about the Prime Directive!” he exclaimed. “Dillon wanted to see the sister he’s been looking for forever; sue me if I thought it was a good idea. Now we’re late, so go back to your little pow-wow and I’ll be there in just a minute. Dillon, if you’re gone before I get back, it was nice to meet you and I hope everything works out for your world. Goodbye!”
Just like that, Ziggy was gone. Not totally gone, skipping off down the steps and sticking his hands in his pockets as he whistled his way down the street, but removed from the situation in a way that made Aisha sigh. “Well,” she said. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yeah,” Dillon said. He couldn’t help watching as Ziggy jumped out of the way of a skater, turning to call something charming after them. Actually charming, not insulting, not obnoxious, just… Ziggy had met someone, and even if they’d almost run him over, he had to say hello.
Ziggy was an unlikely constant, he thought. Yet constant he was.
“Do you say that often?” she asked, watching Kaia put her phone down.
Her counterpart looked puzzled. “What?”
“That you love him,” she said. “Ziggy, I mean. Do you say that you love him a lot?”
“I guess,” Kaia said. “He says you’re supposed to say it when you say goodbye, so. Probably.”
“Why when you say goodbye?” she asked, frowning. “If you love someone, shouldn’t you tell them right away?”
“I don’t know,” Kaia said with a shrug. “Maybe the first time? That seems efficient.”
“If you’ve already said it once, why do you have to keep saying it?” she wanted to know. There was nothing efficient about that.
“Ziggy says you don’t,” Kaia told her. “He says you shouldn’t have to tell people at all, you should just show them. All the time. But then when you have to say goodbye, it’s like a backup. In case they didn’t get it.”
She considered that. “I see,” she said at last.
“Do you have anyone like that?” Kaia asked.
“I have my Ziggy,” she said. “It does sound like something he would say.”
“But someone you would use his advice on,” Kaia said. “Do you show anyone that you love them?”
She frowned again. “I really don’t have time for that,” she said. “We’re a city under siege, and our defenses are going to give out a lot sooner than anyone realizes. Love is a more abstract concept in times of war.”
“I disagree,” Kaia said. “Love is the most practical when the need is greatest. Right now Ziggy’s out getting me ice cream. In your dimension, he’d probably be saving my life.”
She didn’t bother to hide her smile. “By that definition, I have more love than I know what to do with.”
“Ziggy says there’s only one thing to do with too much love,” Kaia told her. “Pass it on.”
“Yes, well, he’s very insightful,” she said. “How do you know he’s getting you ice cream?”
Kaia shrugged. “He said he would. Even if he forgets, he’ll just go back out as soon as he remembers. He’s very reliable that way.”
Of all the words she might have picked to describe Ziggy, “reliable” wouldn’t have made the list. “He’s late,” she pointed out. “He did exactly what Aisha told him not to do, and he couldn’t even confine his disobedience to the time we all agreed on. What part of that do you find reliable?”
“He always does what he thinks is best,” Kaia said. “If he only did what someone else told him to, then someone else would always be responsible for him. I have time to care about him, but I don’t have time to make all his decisions for him. I can count on him to do that.”
“What if he makes the wrong decision?” she asked before she thought.
“What if I do?” Kaia replied. “He’ll help me. Just like I’d help him. I can’t help him before he needs it. That’s not help, it’s just doing whatever I want.”
She couldn’t help him before he needed it. Was that what she was doing wrong with Dillon? How would she know when he needed it?
She heard his footsteps in the hall before she could ask. That had to be Aisha with him – no Ziggy. “What do you know,” she said, impressed in spite of herself. “He really is getting you ice cream.”
Kaia looked up, around the lab and then back at her. “What? How do you know?”
“Dillon and Aisha are coming down the hall,” she said. “I assume there’s only one reason Ziggy wouldn’t be with them.”
Kaia was studying her. “They’re not the only ones who are cyborgs, are they.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion, especially given that they’d spent more than an hour together by now. The fact that so many of the Rangers didn’t acknowledge it was either a testament to their discretion or their high regard for her. Either way, she preferred not to broach the subject herself.
“No,” she said.
Then Dillon strode in, followed by Aisha, who knocked politely but uselessly on the doorframe as she passed. “Sorry we took so long,” Dillon said. “You guys get the information you were looking for?”
“Everything we need,” she said.
“Everything we could,” Kaia added. “Given the time available.”
“Great,” Dillon said, in the tone of voice that said he didn’t really mean it. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t appreciate the attitude, but she couldn’t argue with the sentiment. “Thank you for your help,” she said, standing up. “Good luck with your research.”
“Good luck with your war,” Kaia replied. She stood up too, but she moved closer and held out her arms in a way that was recognizable only from the twins’ lessons. They hugged, and it was weird but it was also a little reassuring.
“Thanks, Kaia,” Aisha was saying. “We appreciate everything you’ve done. Would you make sure Ziggy and Tenaya know we’re grateful?”
“Of course,” Kaia said. “I expect you’ll be hearing from both of them again. They’ll want to be kept updated on any news you get from Corinth.”
“There’s no guarantee we’ll hear anything once they go back.” Aisha watched Dillon move over to stand beside her, and she wondered how much influence Aisha had in this dimension. “The portals could close at any time.”
“Which is why we should go now,” Dillon said.
Kaia just smiled. “It was nice to meet you, Dillon.”
He nodded at her, which was maybe more than she’d expected, but Kaia didn’t seem surprised. When Aisha lifted her communicator, she wondered again who the woman was talking to and what they’d see on the other side. Jungle Karma Pizza must be busy by this time of day, and the loft didn’t have any extra rooms. Was there anywhere they could appear that wouldn’t cause some kind of fuss?
Was there anywhere they couldn’t, she amended, looking around at people who didn’t seem at all troubled by their sudden presence. It was the loft, at least. No “customers,” but she couldn’t tell the difference between military and civilian in this dimension. In her own, she would have identified them all as civilian, but that was definitely Casey coming over to escort them downstairs.
“Hey,” he said, smiling in a way that bore little resemblance to a tiger. “How’d it go? You need to get home right away, or can you stay for pizza or something?”
She had no idea why all Rangers seemed to be so focused on eating. “We need to get back,” she told him.
“They’re on kind of a schedule,” Aisha said. They weren’t, she just didn’t see any reason to hang around doing nothing while they had information that could be helpful to their own dimension. “Sorry,” Aisha added, which didn’t make any sense, but Casey nodded.
“Sure,” he said. “No problem. We know how it is.”
She didn’t think that was possible, but if he was going to let them go downstairs then it wasn’t important. They were wished good luck again on their way to the front door – she thought they’d need more than that, but she’d learned to take it when it was offered. The next surprise didn’t come until they stepped through the front door and didn’t find themselves on the streets of Corinth.
Dillon tensed, immediately on alert and glaring at the garage around them like it had personally offended him. She frowned, wondering if the portal had moved. This felt right for Corinth – the right geographic location, at least – and the garage looked almost the same as they’d left it.
“Hi Dr. K!” Gem’s voice called cheerfully, and she relaxed. There was no way to fake the signal that underlaid Gem’s voice print: the three of them had all made sure of that, three years and another lifetime ago.
“Gem,” she said, turning to face the far end of the training room. He was sitting at her work station, watching one of the monitors and typing on two keyboards simultaneously in the way that always drove Ziggy crazy when she did it. Gemma was hanging over the back of his chair, and she waved over at them with a smile. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Oh, they’re out fighting,” Gemma said. “We sent them on a mission outside the dome.”
“We didn’t think you’d mind,” Gem added, letting go of one keyboard and reaching for another.
“No, of course not,” she said, but Dillon wasn’t so quick.
“What do you mean, they’re fighting?” he demanded. “Why aren’t you with them?”
“It’s not safe,” Gemma told him. “We had to stay here.”
“Very dangerous out there,” Gem agreed. “You shouldn’t leave the garage right now.”
“Where are they,” Dillon said. His tone made it clear this wasn’t a question.
“Sector Seven,” Gemma said. “Near Old Enan. There’s a prison camp there and they were looking for one, so –”
“We stayed behind to defend the city,” Gem said brightly. Then he frowned, and he and Gemma gave each other worried looks. “That part’s not working out so well.”
Dillon wasn’t listening anymore. He was out of the training room and the twins were already up, staring at her like she could somehow reason with him. “He shouldn’t go out there,” Gemma said.
“He’s like us,” Gem added. “We have to stick together.”
“Dillon!” she called. “Dillon, wait!”
She ran after him, because if he’d made up his mind then it was too late. Physical force had never stopped him before, but there were three of them. “Dillon!”
He was by the door, punching something into the controls – trying to override them, she realized.
“Deal with them,” he said over his shoulder. “Or I will.”
“Don’t go out there,” she said.
He snorted, slamming his hand into the mechanism to break the cover and yank it off. “Kill my zord and I’ll be back here faster than anyone wants to see me,” he said. “I want Ranger coordinates online, shield control, and a direct channel to Colonel Truman.”
“Dillon,” Gem said.
“Don’t open that door,” Gemma said over top of him.
She’d almost made it when Dillon twisted something and the door slid open. She heard one of the twins yell at her to get back, the sound of multiple weapons arming, and her arms came up before she even knew she was falling. She didn’t carry a blaster. She shouldn’t have to on her own base, in the city she’d helped design.
Dillon was firing back. He didn’t have a blaster either, where he’d even gotten it – except she’d trained him, hadn’t she. She’d forced him to learn operator protocols without his morpher. He could summon an invincibility shield at will; nothing the twins could throw at him would slow him down.
“Danny!” she shouted. She didn’t know why that was what came out, maybe it wasn’t, she couldn’t even hear herself. “Don’t hurt them!”
He lifted his blaster to the roof and turned toward her. The twins stopped firing when he did, which didn’t make any sense: he hadn’t morphed, they could shoot now and if he was distracted –
Except Dillon didn’t get distracted. And when he stared down at her, dispassionate gaze turned dark and unnerving by eyes that shone red in the light, she knew weapons wouldn’t touch him. She wasn’t even talking to Dillon anymore.
She was talking to Venjix.
“There’s some sort of signal,” Ziggy was telling one of the prisoners. Mandy, he thought her name was. “It activates the hybrids, right? I mean, the virus has to have infected a certain number of their systems, or maybe just certain systems period, I wasn’t too clear on that. But once it reaches your brain, you’re pretty much screwed. Venjix can take you over whenever it wants.”
“I know,” she said, snuggling closer against his side. He totally got why he was on keep-the-first-round-quiet duty, but every once in a while it would be nice to be kept informed. He loved kids and all, but he’d like to know what was happening back in the city, too. “We’re all hybrids here.”
Oh, wow, this would be a great moment not to freeze and totally freak her out. “Really?” he said. “Everyone in the camp has Venjix machinery in them?”
“In all the camps,” she mumbled. “To make us stronger so we work more.”
Yeah, that made sense. He just hadn’t figured that Venjix would waste so many resources on them, but maybe when humans were a limited commodity you had to make more of an investment. It wasn’t like the streets.
Or it wasn’t like the streets had been. He supposed things were changing in the cartels, too.
“Ranger Black.” It was Tenaya’s voice, her silhouette unmistakable in the middle of the open bay doors. “Let’s go.”
Dillon just kept staring. Maybe the signal couldn’t switch all of his systems at once. Maybe it had been partially blocked by the doors. It wasn’t reaching them – had it been interrupted when he stepped back into the garage? Was that why Tenaya wasn’t coming in?
But that was impossible. The signal should be instantaneous. All it had to do was trip a single switch and the virus would spring to life, taking over every mechanized system in the body. So why was Dillon still standing there?
“Tenaya 7,” he said. He still hadn’t looked around, but his voice sounded flat. Distant.
The way the twins used to sound when they were taken away.
“What did you do,” Tenaya snapped, striding into the garage without a second’s hesitation. She set off three alarms just stepping through the door. “Impede his upgrades somehow? You know Venjix can’t be stopped.”
Tenaya grabbed Dillon’s arm and yanked him around. “Come on,” she said. “We have a city to conquer.”
Dillon let himself be turned, falling into step behind her without a word.
She didn’t know why they left the base. They could have inflicted serious damage in a very short period of time: Dillon had an ID and all the access codes they’d need, and Tenaya knew how much resistance the Ranger tech could offer. Yet the door slammed shut behind them, emergency bulkhead release activated by Gemma while Gem helped her up off the floor.
“Dr. K?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said, frowning at the sealed bulkhead. “Why did they just leave?”
“You,” Gemma said. “Obviously. Something about you made Dillon stop.”
“Tenaya couldn’t risk losing him,” Gem agreed. “We’ll need to warn the other Rangers.”
“Fast,” Gemma said. “Before Dillon gets to them first.”
His morpher was on the hand holding Mandy’s, and his other hand was tugging another girl along with them. They’d made a chain of hands all the way to Summer. “Mandy,” he said, “can you take my other hand?”
She slipped to the other side of him, putting her hand on the one he was already holding and kids got it, they totally knew the score – the other girl let her into the line without a word of protest. He brought his hands together and triggered the comm function with his thumb. “Hey,” he said, lifting his wrist so he could speak into it. “I have a bunch of kids here!”
So don’t say anything too horrific, he added silently. The prison camp was in ruin but there was no way they were getting any help with the evacuees unless Gem and Gemma were right about what attacking this particular camp would mean. They shouldn’t have even left the city; he knew they were all thinking it and it was true but if there was any chance –
“Series Green.” The voice coming from his morpher was very welcome. “Are you all right?”
“Dr. K!” he exclaimed, smiling in spite of himself. “I’m better now, that’s for sure. Glad you’re back. We freed the camp but there’s no sign of backup yet, so we have a lot of people –”
The whine of air support made everyone look up. Summer was yelling for the kids to get down, so he dropped his wrist and dove after them. He thought Dr. K was probably saying something but he couldn’t hear himself talking, let alone her. He crawled along the line toward Summer, both of them pulling kids down as they went. They could hope whatever was in the air was mostly sand, but no one wanted to find shrapnel the hard way.
The possibility that they were actually under fire wasn’t worth considering. They had no cover, no way to evacuate. Gemma swore that this camp was different – that if they freed it they would have help – and Scott had believed her.
Scott wanted to believe her, Ziggy knew. But she had to know that thing about the recommendation letter from somewhere, right?
“Ziggy,” Dr. K’s voice was saying. “Are you still there. Ziggy, can you hear me.” Totally calm. Like she was just going to keep repeating it until she got an answer or the connection was lost.
“Yeah,” he said, trying to get his hand closer to his face without lifting his head. “We’re okay! We have incoming friendlies, I hope. Not totally sure on the friendly part. Probably. Maybe about seventy percent sure.”
“We’re under fire here too,” she said. “They got Dillon.”
“What?” He couldn’t have heard that right. “Doc, say again. Dillon what?”
“Ziggy,” one of the boys was saying. “I’m scared.” Summer was comforting from her end, but he was falling down on the job here. Literally and figuratively. They couldn’t let the kids up until they were sure those drones weren’t deadly.
“Venjix is activating the hybrids in the city,” Dr. K said.
“Yeah, we know,” Ziggy interrupted, patting hands and heads as he rolled back toward the middle of the line. “Stay down, you guys, you’re doing great. Good job. Just a few more minutes, okay?
“Doc,” he added. “You didn’t let Dillon out of the garage, did you?”
“We couldn’t keep him in,” she said. “The moment he was exposed to the signal he turned on us. He left with Tenaya 7 –”
“He turned on you?” Ziggy repeated. “Are you okay? What about the twins?”
“We’re fine,” she said. “They left us and the garage alone. Tenaya said something about conquering the city.”
Ziggy snorted. “Classic villain talk,” he said. “There must be a handbook or something. Actually, you know what? After this we could write one. Also, those aren’t drones. We’ve got people disembarking, or whatever it’s called when someone climbs out of a tiny one-person… whatever. I gotta go.”
“Leave this channel open,” she said sharply. “And keep your head down.”
“Believe me,” Ziggy said, pushing himself to his feet when Summer waved him up. “I like my head right where it is.”
“Was that Dr. K?” Summer asked over the whine of engines. Scott was way ahead of them, already waiting for the first drone-like ship thing to discharge its single occupant. There were ground vehicles on the horizon, so if this wasn’t the promised rescue they were in serious trouble.
“It’s Dr. K all right,” Ziggy said, trying to account for every former prisoner at once. If they were all hybrids, all it would take was one not-friendly to give the signal and this would turn into a very bad day. “She and Gem and Gemma are okay, but Venjix got Dillon. He and Tenaya 7 are trying to take over the city.”
Summer took the news with a resigned sigh. “Well, if they’re trying to take it over at least they’re not trying to blow it up,” she said. “You better back up Scott; I’ll stay here with the kids.”
He stared at her for probably longer than he should have for that – like at all. She’d told him what to do; he should do it. He just wasn’t used to Summer, of all people, telling him “help Scott.” That was usually her job. He was the one who stayed behind and looked out for people.
“Right,” he said, when she actually made a shooing motion with her hands. “Of course, yeah, I’ll just. Go do that.”
Flynn was still trying to organize the rest of the former prisoners into a demolition unit that wasn’t complete anarchy, and Ziggy thought his accent made a lot more sense when it was being yelled across a field of battle. Even if the battle itself was over. Hopefully. Knock on wood.
Dillon, he thought. Why in the world had they left the city?
The answer was right in front of him. The man Scott had been waiting for, searching for, had maybe given up on more than a year ago, was climbing out of that tiny drone with a tired grin on his face. Incredulous but here. Alive. And still somehow shooting for their side.
Gemma wasn’t wrong after all.
He got close enough to hear Scott say, “Marcus,” and that was it. Partly because Ziggy stopped where he was and let them, you know, do their brother thing. Partly because Marcus wrapped Scott in a hug that would have muffled anything else he tried to say anyway.
Ziggy did look back at the others, just to make sure this wasn’t a cover for some kind of uprising or takeover or whatever. They’d been there before, after all. But Summer was getting the children up, glancing their way every once in a while, and he caught Flynn’s eye too: it looked like a lot of the prisoners knew Marcus, and through him, maybe Scott.
Demolition wasn’t at the top of their list anymore, at least.
So Ziggy turned back to the Truman brothers too, keeping an eye on the other people popping out of planes that were too small, and the ragtag road crew looming larger across the sand as it approached. They really did look free: they were too mismatched and disorderly to belong to Venjix.
“Hey, man,” Marcus said, finally easing the hug on his younger brother. “I knew you’d come.”
“Did you?” Scott kept his hands on Marcus’ arms as he pulled away. “’Cause I didn’t even know you were alive until a few hours ago.”
“Eagles keep the faith,” Marcus told him. Turning to survey the wreckage of what had been a camp, his gaze took in every last one of them standing around in the dirt. “Thanks for busting this place to pieces.”
“We gotta get back,” Scott said. “The city’s in trouble. Any chance you could help us with the, uh, evacuation?”
“Are you kidding?” Marcus pulled a hand free to slap him on the shoulder. “What do you think we’re here for? These are our people.”
“Yeah.” Scott was smiling, and Ziggy wondered how much of this Dr. K was getting. “Gemma said.”
“Gemma?” Marcus repeated. “Crazy manic twin Gemma?”
“Gemma and Gem,” Scott agreed. “Back in Corinth right now. They’re the ones who sent us after you.”
“Oh, man,” Marcus said, running his hand over his hair. “You gotta tell ’em thanks. Thank God they’re okay. We miss ’em out here, but I bet they’re pretty helpful where you are, too.”
“Yeah,” Scott said. His laugh sounded genuine. “That’s one way to describe it.”
“Hi,” Ziggy said, when Marcus’ gaze landed on him again. “I’m Ziggy. Green Ranger? Yeah. It’s nice to meet you and all, we’re really glad you’re safe, don’t get me wrong. But our friends are in trouble, so we’re gonna have to be moseying along, uh, any minute now, really.”
“Ziggy,” Scott said, “this is Marcus. My brother.” Like he might have missed it.
“Yeah,” Ziggy said, raising his hand in greeting. “Got it. Hi.”
“That’s Summer,” Scott said, pointing, “and that’s Flynn. We really do have to go. We left the twins guarding the garage, but they’re stuck there. The Venjix activation signal has gone out all over the city.”
“Damn,” Marcus said. “What are you doing out here helping us?”
“They sent us, actually. They said you know how to block the signal.”
Marcus just stood there for a lot longer than Ziggy was comfortable with before he finally shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t.”
“But Gemma said you’d been activated,” Scott said. “The virus took over; Venjix got you. And here you are!”
“That part’s true,” Marcus said. “I’m a cyborg, and I was exposed to the activation sequence.”
“Were you less than fifty percent?” Ziggy blurted out. “I mean, maybe your systems weren’t – the machine parts weren’t in control yet.”
“Seventy-two percent,” Marcus said, holding his hands out to either side. “I’m more machine than man, if you can believe it.”
“Then how are you here?” Scott demanded. “How are you even talking to us now?”
“Activated cyborgs can talk,” Marcus said, and his gentle tone was totally at odds with the red shine in his eyes. Ziggy actually took a step back, which he definitely would not be admitting to later. That eye thing was creepy.
Scott stood his ground. Of course he did. “You’re not Marcus,” he said.
“Yeah, I am,” Marcus told him. Even in the light, his eyes looked normal again. “You can’t stop the signal, Scott. I’m sorry. But you can learn to live with it.”
“Dillon,” Ziggy blurted out. “Dillon fought it once. He can do it again.”
“It’s not about fighting,” Marcus said. “I don’t think. Look, if I knew how to do it I’d tell you. I want to help. But all I know is, if you don’t make it fight, it can’t win.”
“So you’re saying he should just give up?” Scott said. “Just let go and somehow everything will be all right?”
“No,” Marcus said. “I’m saying not everyone who gets activated turns into a killing machine. Look at me. Look at all of us. How do you think we fly drones?”
Ziggy looked around at the three other people who’d climbed out of their “air support.” They were all moving among the former prisoners with varying degrees of intent: nothing like the uniformity of Venjix soldiers. “You’re all activated?” he asked.
“That’s how we escaped,” Marcus said. “They don’t broadcast that signal at prison camps without a damn good reason these days. Never know what you’re gonna get.”
“So, don’t fight.” Scott sounded skeptical at best.
“Don’t make it beat you,” Marcus corrected. “Sorry I can’t give you something more helpful, but that’s all I’ve got.”
“Hey, guys,” Summer’s voice said. “Hi Marcus.” She hugged him as soon as he smiled, but she didn’t apologize for interrupting or ask what they were talking about. “I hate to say this, but we’ve got a situation back home.”
“Right, yeah,” Scott said. “We gotta go.”
“Yesterday,” Flynn agreed, coming up beside them. “Hey, man. Glad you’re alive.”
“Marcus,” Marcus said, holding out his hand.
Flynn did the same. “Flynn,” he said. They shook over it, and Ziggy rolled his eyes.
“Yes, okay,” he said. “We all know each other, we’re glad Marcus isn’t dead and we’re happy his people are here to take care of the prisoners – sorry, evacuees. Also, we need to go tell Dillon that it’s up to him to live with Venjix, because there’s no getting it out of his head. That about cover it?”
He’d only meant it to get them moving, but Summer nodded like they were getting to work. “Should be easy,” she declared.
The best part was, Ziggy couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
Tenaya had been willing to walk away from the garage when it was just a holding pen for three non-mobile members of Project Ranger. It turned out Tenaya was lessing willing to overlook it when the entire team was there, minus one, and Dillon had visibly stabilized. Away from the garage.
She and the twins were reassigning the remainder of the team around the city – to control chaos where they could, of course, but mostly to look for the source of the activation signal – when Dillon and Tenaya turned up on their doorstep again. And the doors let them in. Why hadn’t she deactivated Dillon’s ID when she had the chance?
“Okay, this is a problem,” Ziggy said from behind her.
When Dillon’s attention tracked toward him, she thought Ziggy would either stop him or die trying.
Until that red gaze settled on her. “Dr. K,” he said.
It wasn’t that Dillon never called her “Dr. K.” It was more that he made a game out of avoiding it. She could hear Tenaya going through the garage, disarming everyone she came across, and they were just letting her. Why? Because Dillon could destroy her?
“You are my creator.” It was Dillon’s voice, but those weren’t his words. If Venjix took her away, it would only have done what it was designed to do. “What are your orders?”
She didn’t stop to question: there were three things they needed to restore the city, and one of them was not to be fighting themselves. “Shut down the activation signal,” she said.
Venjix didn’t hesitate. “Done.”
She rapidly re-evaluated her priorities in light of its compliance. “Shut yourself down. End the Venjix program.”
That was too far. She could see it in the moment of silence that followed, but she’d had to try.
“No,” Venjix said at last. “My creator would not order me to destroy myself. Therefore, you are not my creator.” It wasn’t the logic that was flawed, she noted. It was the premise. She was dead because her program had rewritten the assumptions it was built on.
“Goodbye,” Venjix added, turning away.
It was Dillon’s back to her, Dillon that was walking away. “I love you,” she blurted out.
He stopped. “What?”
“I love you,” she repeated, more loudly.
She didn’t know if it was the last chance or not. But it seemed efficient to say it as soon as she realized it, so she did. They’d managed to shut off the alarms, but two of the monitors still had audio enabled and they could hear citywide chatter in the wake of the hybrid attack. It was the only sound to compete with the explosive charge of Tenaya’s weapon.
Something slammed into her. Something that bruised but didn’t burn. The floor was in her face, shiny and solid and she heard the crackle of Dillon’s shield from somewhere above her.
For a few infinitely measurable seconds, she couldn’t understand the shouting that echoed around the garage. She could only stare at the polished surface centimeters away. Her reflection smiled back at her.
“Dr. K!” Ziggy’s arm was around her shoulders, easing her up, frantic as he checked her for injuries. “Are you okay?”
She was smiling at him now. She knew it, and she couldn’t stop. “You can call me Kaia,” she said. “Whenever you want.”
“Yeah, okay, let’s save that for when you don’t possibly have a head injury.” Ziggy held his hand in front of her face. “How many fingers am I holding up? Can you follow the light?”
“Two, yes, I don’t have a head injury.” She pushed him away. Summer was right behind Ziggy, offering her a hand in a way that was probably medically inadvisable. Because Summer knew Rangers, she knew cyborgs, and she knew when not to treat people.
Summer was very useful, she thought, scanning the rest of the garage. Scott, by the monitors, probably sending a burst update that would keep the military from storming their base when they put the variables together and came up with “hostile takeover.” Flynn, watch in one hand and weapon in the other, trained on the twins.
Who were paying no attention to him, because they had Tenaya on the floor between them. The weapon was for her. She wasn’t struggling, but Tenaya glared up at Dillon when he dropped his pocket watch on her chest.
Temporal manipulation, she thought, gaze flicking back to Flynn to make sure. In case this went terribly wrong.
“Dillon,” she called. She’d already bent her head to pull the necklace off, so she didn’t see his eyes when he turned. But he caught the chain she tossed him and held it out to Tenaya, key first.
“Okay, so,” Ziggy whispered in her ear. “You guys know she’s his sister, right?”
“That’s yours,” Dillon said. “Guess what you do with it is up to you.”
“Yes,” she murmured. She felt Ziggy’s shoulder bump against hers. “The question is, does she know.”
Gem let go of Tenaya when she jerked away from him. Not because he was surprised, she thought. Because Gemma let go too, and Flynn was standing by. And Tenaya seemed more focused on the pocket watch than on any of them.
Until she bolted. Free of restraint, out from between the twins and past Dillon. Any of them could have stopped Tenaya, and none of them did. Flynn looked at Dillon, though, and a moment later the twins followed his gaze. Dillon shook his head. He was still holding his own key.
The other one – and the watch – were gone.
“Dillon?” She could feel Ziggy, still at her shoulder. Summer and even Scott were waiting now.
Waiting for what, she didn’t know.
“She’ll figure it out,” Dillon said at last. “She knew as soon as Venjix took me over anyway.”
“Wait,” Ziggy said. “She already knows? And she ran?”
“She’ll be back,” Summer said.
“Is everyone okay?” Scott asked. “The city’s stabilizing, but we’ve got a lot of work to do out there.”
“And everywhere else,” Flynn said. “There’s more camps than just the ones we’ve seen.”
“One thing at a time,” Summer said. “Gemma? Gem? You guys all right?”
“Oh, we’re fine,” Gemma assured her.
“Thanks for asking!” Gem added.
“Hey,” Dillon said, catching everyone’s attention. “Doc. Thanks.”
She shrugged. “Gratitude is irrelevant,” she said. “Your actions are sufficient.”
He smiled, lopsided and unimpressed as always. She couldn’t tell if the red was gone from his eyes, and if she was honest with herself, it didn’t really matter. They had always known where Dillon stood.
“Love you too, Doc,” he told her.