The Conceptually Cruel Sponge
“Is it just me-” Blake yelled over the din of panicked citizens and minor explosions going off around them. “-or is this thing faster than last time?!”
“Maybe Lothor went for an upgrade!” Dustin’s offer sounded mildly strained, even after being processed through the speakers and voice filter, which just went to show how truly hectic things were becoming.
“Quality and quantity,” Blake spat, risking a quick glance behind them to confirm that yes, their Doompot was still hot on their tail. “Not the most ideal circumstances.”
And that was an understatement if ever there was one.
Blake’s original plan had been to utilize their greater agility to hide away somewhere so Dustin could retrieve the Quantum Defender, but to this point every trick, maneuver, and desperate press for speed had been steadfastly ignored by the monster behind them. The navy ranger had taken to stubbornly clinging to his frustration in order to ignore the slow feeling of dread creeping in the back of his mind, the implications of the monster’s improvements drawing dangerously close to Lothor’s ruthless and utter competence. The bastard was an opportunist, they all knew that, and if he had noticed- and Blake had to face the fact that a grand reunion of veteran Power Rangers was probably something worth noticing - then Lothor would have probably spared no expense to make himself as powerful as he could while the chance was still available. It was the smart thing to do.
It was also the very thing Blake had been dreading since the moment they discovered the other rangers those two hours ago, and only the fact that he and Hunter had conditioned themselves for extreme adaptability kept Blake from falling apart right there.
Dramatic, sure, but there was just a chance…just, the smallest possibility, that the team had not been entirely forthcoming about what had happened in the original Doompot’s…well, pot.
To be honest, there wasn’t much to remember. It had been more like a deep sleep than anything else; one moment Blake had been spitting curses, heart pounding as he saw Tori getting sucked away into nowhere and the next second he was free, landing awkwardly as the others fell to the ground around him, Dustin off in the distance, already tucking away a weapon Blake would later come to know as the Quantum Defender.
It wasn’t until later, when the dreams came in, that Blake realized that something was wrong.
They came in flashes. Darkness, that muddled fog of sleep, of a brain not fully cooperating, just simple things, and then he’d feel it. Through the haze, through the invisible weight that pressed unceasingly against his body, keeping him trapped yet somehow comforted, Blake could feel his power slowly trickling away. It wasn’t much, at first. Could have been mistaken for simple loss of feeling, his fingers falling asleep because they had held still for so long, but there was no denying the blatant disconnection with his powers, the lightening he could not feel, his morpher-
They were not pleasant dreams...or flashbacks, whatever. Blake had assumed they were a result of stress. Guilt, perhaps, a contributing factor. But then he realized he was not the only one waking up suddenly with startled fits in the middle of the night.
Hunter had tried to deny it; claimed it was a one time deal, that it was natural, that bad dreams happened, but Blake knew better. Knew after a brief consultation with Cyber Cam that Hunter’s dreams had been just as regular as his and what was worse, Cam had been encountering the same sleeping troubles.
It was a quiet meeting, scheduled when Dustin was definitely at the track, practicing tricks. It hadn’t taken much for all of them to crack; a few suspicious looks, some guilt, and the resolute bags beneath their eyes being enough of a give away to confirm what none of them had wanted to talk about. To put it in perspective, to bring them comfort by labeling boundaries, Cam had been with one to summarize it all.
Turned out, Doompot hadn’t been intended to lock them away and he wasn’t just…energy resistant. He absorbed it all, like a sponge, Cam had explained, and then, when they were weak and tired and he had a better lock on each individual’s energy signatures he would assimilate them, into his pot, until he could drain them of all of their energy.
That was the main reason Dustin had managed to escape. The team had been in a more industrial part of town, not very many trees or earth to do battle with, so the yellow ranger had resorted to using his Lion Hammer the most. The rest of them had used actual energy attacks; Shane with his Hawk Blaster, Tori with the Sonic Fin and the rest of them with actual elemental attacks (Cam going so far as to use pure energy, using his samurai sword in gold mode). They had practically been feeding this guy exactly what he needed to win.
And if it wasn’t for Dustin, he would have.
The Quantum Defender had worked because Doompot hadn’t been prepared to absorb that kind of energy. Because of that, the only option then was for it to act as a freakin’ weapon was supposed to and shoot the guy, blowing him to high hell and freeing the rest of the team from captivity.
It had taken a few days for them to get back to full power. Dustin had been too ecstatic by their return to notice it but it was, if they wanted to be honest, the bare truth.
Doompot had done way more damage than merely shaking their confidence. He had given Lothor’s next few monsters more bite than they should have; leaving all of them drained and tired enough to accidentally set off a mild catastrophe in Silver Hills.
They had delivered Lothor the perfect opportunity to gain power and Blake…
Was goddamn pissed.
Lothor didn’t get to trick the navy ranger into doing his dirty work for him anymore; that was a bitter vow he and Hunter had made long ago which they’d never compromise. Which they never wanted to be compromised. Lothor was the scum, and now veteran teams, teams who had to be very powerful, where going to get caught up in his play for ultimate power.
And it was their damn fault.
Blake could only hope that Shane and Tori would show up soon with zord reinforcements. If these things got big, Blake wanted to be prepared. It would also be kind’ve nice to have some other people to help clean up this slight mess they made, be a strong voice of reason in the never ending storm of pure crazy, and Blake would take what he could get.
Because odds were, Tori was not going to be pleased about just a few of the happenings he had allowed to occurred.
Neither would Shane.
…On second thought, maybe it would be better if they just handled this on their own. You know, to build character.
“Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts…” Hunter was chanting - more like painfully exhaling - because hell, why not. He already recognized the grandiose amount of dumb shit they had accomplished the past couple of days, what was a little more. It wasn’t like not conserving his breath was actually hurting him…at least, not in a mental sense. It helped to have something to hold his focus on and his steady mantra, while costly to exert, kept his attention away from other things; like the way his ribs throbbed with every step he took, the air heaving out his throat as his feet jarred against the ground, how much closer he felt to collapsing than fighting. Stress, stress and…no, just more stress, and pain, were not helping him, but he needed to keep moving. Had to get out of view of the Bio Labs cameras before he could suit up and join the fight.
On the bright side, morphing would at least take the edge off his pain. Adrenaline would do the rest and it wouldn’t be until later, when the battle was over, that the blond would get around to the actual business of passing out. It would be very satisfying, he was sure, because that meant he wouldn’t be conscious and there was so much of Hunter, just, the entirety of his being, that didn’t feel like being aware of his circumstances anymore. There was no way for him to properly describe this want. And if he valued his sanity, he probably shouldn’t try.
The ‘Happy thoughts’ chanting was steadily replaced with the internal echoes of “Left, right, left, right” when Hunter’s energy began to dip and breath could no longer be wasted on raising his disposition. Keeping one foot in front of the other was the new priority now and he was so close, so close to getting a block away.
It had been a stupidly tedious exercise, locating an unused route for him to vacate Bio Labs. Most of the exits were swarming with people, Silver Guardians and regular workers alike, all getting equipped or mobile and all of them serious, eyes sharp for anything out of order. Hunter being an out-of-breath, obviously injured, semi-limping guy would have had his sorry ass sent right back to medical if caught under any of their eyes, so he had waited, patiently; sneaking into a less-used part of the building, free of Guardians, to finally locate a way out.
It must have been for office workers, or something, and they either had the day off or made a mass decision to play hooky, because it was deserted. It was clean, indicating routine basic maintenance, and well lit, so it obviously wasn’t just a part of the building they had closed down because it was no longer sufficiently shiny or…whatever qualities Bio Labs was looking for in its offices.
Ultimately it was irrelevant, so Hunter didn’t bother dwelling on it. The way was clear, he had found a way out, and now he just had to make it through a mostly abandoned parking lot, across the street, and duck into some hidden alleyway so that he could get out there and find his brother and Dustin.
It figured that he hadn’t even made it out of the parking lot before he saw a ranger get blasted off his feet off in the distance, rolling to a stop, smack in the middle of the street Hunter needed to be on the other side of, with that pain in the ass Doompot hovering above him, looking for all the world that he was victorious.
Were Hunter any less tired, he would gladly waste a moment processing his guilt, aggravation, and mild horror at the rejuvenation of what was decidedly one of his least-favorite foes.
But he kind’ve had shit to do, so he pushed the insistent questions of why and how aside and got down to business, because that was his job.
Screw it, Hunter thought as he ducked in between two large, non-Silver Guardian issue SUVs. I didn’t see any cameras pointed this way.
He had just been trying to play it safe, but if Doompot wanted to go for round two, Hunter was ready for him.
Ready, willing, and refusing to back down from a fight.
Regardless of what common sense dictated.
Wes tried to ignore how easily the monster, one of frustratingly many, had hurled Justin across the road, tossing the Blue Turbo ranger like he was nothing. It was an admirable notion, but one that was ultimately ignored as he and Trip tried to lay down some cover fire, give the other teen enough time to get back to his feet.
The reports weren’t good, not from any of the teams. Henchman- no, Kelzaks, that’s what Adam had called them – were swarming everything. Like most minions they weren’t very powerful on their own, but in mass they were producing some pretty unpleasant damage and were really doing a number on all of the rangers’ stamina. As was intended.
The monster they were fighting now was a breed of its own, not quite like any Wes had previously faced. It had all the qualities of a General - extra speed, strength, and endurance - but was obviously not in that paygrade. An enhanced monster, that’s what it was, waiting in the wings for a full on invasion, and if Wes had to take his best guess at it, he would say that this was Lothor’s commentary on an old ranger reunion. Smart. And also probably why Tommy had only called in the red rangers for the Serpentera mission. Suddenly his choice was looking less like color favoritism and more a legitimate exercise of caution.
There were still a few rangers that would happily argue that point but still, the fact remained; there was some reason for the selection.
“Angela, I need a status update.” Wes ran into the monster’s line of vision and hit it with another barrage from his Chrono Blaster, distracting it so Trip could pull Justin back to regroup. “Do we have any idea of exactly how many of these things there are?”
The voice on the other end of the line sounded stressed but somehow held together, coolly delivering information in a clear and concise way.
“I’ve got four confirmed battles going on with ranger teams. Including yours, the Lost Galaxy team is near the city’s outskirts, Andros and his team near the clock tower, and Lightspeed Rescue is working downtown. Guardian foot patrols are taking care of the Kelzaks, and there’s the possibility of another-”
She cut off with an aggravated sound, which was all that Wes could pay attention to before he was ducking and weaving again, pulling off some ridiculous acrobatics to get out of the monster’s reach.
“Two more,” Angela murmured, typing furiously as she attempted to locate rangers that could be spared to deal with them. “I’m trying to figure out who’s closest, but it looks like there’s no end to these things.”
“Any luck finding a weakness?” Wes asked, hopeful, but still trying to be realistic. He doubted much had changed since he had asked just a few minutes ago.
“Nothing,” Angela replied, her tone enough to describe just how frustrated all of them felt by that fact. “It seems like they’re immune to just about all of your attacks.”
“It feels like he’s taunting us.”
It was, blatantly, but the longer the fight drew on the more Wes couldn’t help but feel this was just some kind of trap. But what the monster was waiting for, what it was trying to accomplish, Wes didn’t know.
“I’ll keep running the numbers here,” Angela promised, determination overriding her previous agitation. “I’ll let you know the moment we figure something out Wes; just keep up the good fight.”
“Will do,” Wes replied. And then, before he could lose his nerve, and the opportunity, he asked, “Have you heard anything from Lucas yet?”
The blond had already tried contacting the blue ranger over the private Time Force line, but either the other man was busy, or he wasn’t feeling particularly fond of Wes.
Or worse things were happening.
Being the genius that she was, Angela saw through the question easily and there was a smile in her voice when she answered. “Eric and the others are still unaccounted for. Probably got too caught up in fighting to bother checking in.”
“But when they do…” Wes prompted, deciding to go for broke anyway, since they were going to be so transparent about this. He was too worried to feel embarrassed by it and besides, Eric was one of his teammates, it was reasonable for him to be worried.
Yes…teammates. Wes was just being a good teammate.
“I’ll let you know.” And there was a kindness in her tone that probably couldn’t be afforded right now, but she spared it for him anyway, and Wes was grateful. That was one less thing he had to worry about.
“Thank you,” Wes said, not even attempting to hide his overwhelming gratitude. “It’s just with all this-”
“I’m gonna have to cut you off Wes.” Angela sounded distracted and slightly apologetic in one, but she must have just caught onto something important, because she didn’t feel bad for cutting him off either way. “I’m getting an incoming transmission.”
“Okay, will you update me-”
The line was dead before he could finish his sentence, but Wes was smart enough not to worry. She would get back to him if it was important and besides, he wasn’t the only one on the battlefield that needed information. Being up-to-date was a comfort, and there were other teams out there that needed Angela’s help.
It was probably for the best, as at that exact moment the monster had gotten tired of Wes’ fancy footwork and decided to shake things up with a minor explosion, catapulting the red ranger down the street with some ungraceful and very, very painful tumbles. He rolled to a stop just in time for Trip and Justin to haul him out of the way, latching onto his arms with a well-aimed grapple and charging across the road, away from further explosions.
“This thing is kicking our butts,” Justin grumbled, favoring his right side a little too much for Wes’ liking. “I’m not even sure with a full team we could do any real damage.”
“Well we have to do something,” Trip insisted, peppering the area around the monster’s feet with a few blasts of his own, buying them time. “We can’t just sit back and let it destroy the city.”
“It isn’t after the city; it’s after you guys.”
The fact that Wes hadn’t even heard anyone wander up behind him was enough to give himself whiplash as he jerked his head to the side; Trip and Justin mimicking him with similarly ungraceful jolts. For the most part, the ranger behind them didn’t seem all that phased by their startled reactions, or if he was the response was completely contained to his face, undistinguishable beneath his helmet.
Justin was the first one to recover, shifting his quick turn into two strides forward, lurching into the new ranger’s - of the Ninja Storm team - personal space.
“Finally,” the blue ranger snarled. “Do you know how long I’ve been trying to-?”
The new guy was faster than he looked, much faster, which might explain the heightened speed of Mr. Mean-and-Destructive over in the distance, and whatever the rest of Justin’s statement was got cut off as the crimson ranger barreled into him, going from still to full speed in a nanosecond, knocking both of them off to the side.
Of course, Wes only glimpsed about the first fraction of the movement before Trip was doing the same to him, because despite being the youngest on the Time Force team, Trip was very sharp and constantly aware and had kept one eye on the monster after taking in the new ranger. A smart move. One that helped keep Wes’ body intact as the monster landed with a ground shaking thwack, leaving a sizable dent in the concrete where they had previously been standing.
“We’ll have to save the introductions for later,” the new guy said, one arm around Justin’s shoulders, steadying him without question. “We kind’ve have other things to deal with.”
“What the hell is going on?” Justin spat, moving deftly out of reach as the crimson ranger prompted him to, all of them weaving around the new monster, keeping it engaged without actually attacking. “And what do you mean it wants us?”
If there was a way to shrug while easily dodging, the crimson ranger managed it. “You, your energy; you know, stuff like that.”
“Is that why it’s so powerful?” Trip asked, barely jumping out of the way as one of the monster’s arms came whirling in his direction. “Is that what happened to your teammates?”
“Sort of, and no,” the crimson ranger replied. “That’s a different story; this guy-”
“Incoming call to all ranger teams,” Angela’s voice rang loud and confident in his ear. “Kai and Zhane have made contact with the Samurai ranger. They’re getting updated on the situation as we speak.”
“…aaand, you guys are no longer listening to me, are you?” the crimson ranger asked, already knowing the answer, and Trip made what could have been a sympathetic wave in his direction.
“Sorry,” the green ranger replied. “We just got a call in from HQ. One of your teammates, the…sam-something-”
“Samurai,” the crimson ranger supplied, biting out the name with barely concealed aggravation.
Trip, being the king of missing social cues, didn’t pick up on it. “That’s the one!” he cheered.
“Is there something wrong with your teammate?” Justin asked, not hindered Trip’s obliviousness.
The crimson ranger shrugged and dodged out of the way, going in close so he could start herding the monster towards a more open area, for better maneuverability. “Just that he’s partially responsible for this whole mess.”
It was at this point Wes realized that everything he had picked up from the newest ranger had been from his external sensors, not the internal radios. The crimson fighter’s comm. link was down, which explained why no one had been able to contact the Ninja Storm team.
Must be a result of the blocked morphers.
“Are there more of these things?!” the crimson ranger yelled, completing yet another flip with less grace than before, almost stumbling as he landed.
Damn, looked like he was injured too.
“Six in counting, scattered throughout the city!” Wes replied, yanking Trip out of the way just as one of the monster’s arms got a little too close for comfort.
He did not imagine any of the frustration in the new ranger’s voice when he responded, spitting out a bitter curse as he dodged a minor explosion. “Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that’s not good,” Justin summarized, sarcasm mixed with his pent up aggravation to form a biting cocktail.
The crimson ranger must have understood where he was coming from, because he didn’t rise to the bait, keeping his focus on the mission instead. “That would be a horrific understatement. Just one of those things kicked our ass; if there’re six, even more powerful than before-”
“We get it; things are bad,” Wes interrupted, trying to cut him off before the doom and gloom prophecies could begin to unfold. With two injured rangers and dwindling energy, they needed what little they had, optimism included, to push through this battle. “You’ve fought this thing before?”
“Kind’ve,” the crimson ranger replied, sounding harried.
This answer didn’t sit well with Justin. “What do you mean-?”
“Do you know how to beat it?” Wes asked, cutting the Turbo Ranger off with more important questions. Time was beginning to be of the essence here; they didn’t really have time to dally on semantics.
“I’m not sure.” The frustration was audible over the quiet gasps making their way through the crimson ranger’s voice filter. “I can tell you how we beat it, but-”
“This has something to do with the Quantum Defender, doesn’t it?” Looked like Justin was getting a little tired of waiting for his answers, already putting together the pieces to form a neat little picture. “And energy? None of our attacks seem to be doing anything to it.”
Which was something none of had vocalized up to this point, but each of them had acknowledged it. That was why the street surrounding the monster was more damaged than the actual attacker, because their energy blasts were only good for distracting it, or tripping it up, or shooting at other things to hit it. Direct assaults themselves were just ignored.
Which was why Wes assumed it was just wearing them down.
“It’s like a sponge,” the crimson ranger explained, leaping over a car and aiming a flying kick at the monster’s face, ducking out of range before it could return the favor. “It just absorbs your energy. And then, when it’s got a good lock on you, it absorbs you into that fancy pot on his back to finish the job. Originally-” and he was getting too cocky for Wes’ comfort, taking risks and compensating for the rest of their slower speeds when he shouldn’t be. “-I mean, the first guy we fought, that Doompot was designed specifically for the Ninja Storm Powers. That’s why we had to borrow the Quantum Defender. It wasn’t prepared to deal with that.”
“But now?” Wes prompted, ignoring his mind’s cynical response of ‘Borrowed?’ in favor of focusing on the present, his energy slowly seeping away.
During a second of downtime the crimson ranger turned towards him, weary for just that one moment, before taking off again. “Now it looks like Lothor’s fixed that little problem.”
“So it’s just going to keep absorbing our energy then?” Justin asked; so angry, so visibly frustrated. “And there’s nothing we can do about it?”
“Not until we figure out a new plan.”
“I’ve got to call this in,” Wes murmured, refusing to allow a moment of silence for any doom to settle over them like an uncomfortable cloud, waiting to suck them under. “We’ve got enough rangers here to make at least six teams. Between all of us we’re sure to figure something out.”
Justin stumbled back beside him, knocked back a few feet from the after-effects of the monster’s- of the Doompot’s attacks, and nodded, pure determination echoing through that one small motion.
“Damn right we will.”
“Sounds like a plan then,” the crimson ranger said, and he let loose a string of lightening, bright enough to momentarily blind all of them. “You guys do that,” he started in a voice that Wes was all too familiar with as one that led to bad ideas; he had hung around enough foolhardy rangers to figure that one out. “And I’ll take decoy duty,” the fighter continued, spinning his staff in one hand dangerously, staring down Doompot. “Buy you some time to consult.”
Wes reached out for him, knowing from experience that physical contact helped negate bad plans more than mere words alone. “Don’t you dare-”
“Hey ugly!” The voice was mildly strained when the crimson ranger shouted, strolling out of Wes’ reach with an arrogant swagger as he hefted his staff into his other hand, pointing it at the monster. “You still good at follow the leader?”
“Don’t, crimson; we’ll do this-”
More lightening, falling from the sky in a disorganized stream, surrounding the monster until it knocked it clean off its feet (and how much did that cost him, Wes wondered; how much could he possibly have left to run-) with an irritated snarl.
“That’s it!” the monster crowed, lumbering to its feet slowly, focus entirely on the crimson ranger. “I’ve had it!”
“Well, that makes about two of us.” The taunt was casual, too casual for the circumstances and Wes was gonna kill him, don’t think he wouldn’t, because he would not sit back and just watch this kid- had to be- set himself up for destruction.
The Time Force Ranger turned towards him, Chrono Blaster aimed at the monster in the distance, preparing to remind it that there were others who would be more than happy to fight it, when the crimson ranger continued talking, voice lower, aimed specifically at Wes.
“Just inform the others,” he murmured, voice calm but too out of breath, enough that it carried through his and Wes’ damn helmets and he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t-
But then the kid was gone, bounding off the sides of buildings in a crimson blur, shooting off a few more snide remarks behind him, and the monster disappeared with him, snarling and yelling all the way.
“So,” Justin started, waiting after a moment’s silence as they inspected the damaged, empty street before them. “We’d better go figure something out before that dumbass gets killed.”
“Yeah,” Wes exhaled with a tired sigh, agreeing as Trip chided Justin on his choice of language. “We should probably do that.”
Because if he was doing stupid things…
There was no telling what the others (Leo, Rocky, Joel, Eric) might “accidentally” get themselves into.
Well, sometimes it really sucked to be the leader.
It really, really did.