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    Default Chapter 33

    Author's Note: This chapter runs pretty much at the exact same time as Morph Thirty-Two, and fills in some of the gaps left by that chapter. Enjoy!

    Morph Thirty-Three: Dragon's Rage

    "0! 0, the energy's building up!"

    Ranger Gold looked around. The battle was dying down. The Dark Gems were withdrawing, which meant that the pent-up rage inside him had nothing to do anymore. He just stood there in the middle of the battlefield until the panicked voice on his arm prompted him to react.

    "0! 0, can you hear me?" the Pikachu shouted. Its voice seemed so distant. Shouldn't its voice be in his ear? "0! Lift the morpher up to you!" That's right, he didn't have ears anymore. He could still hear, but something else was responsible for that now.

    He lifted the morpher up to see Pi's panicked expression superimposed on the screen. "0, we're starting to build up too much energy! You need to get away from here!"

    "What?" he asked vaguely. He still wasn't sure what was going on.

    "There's a massive energy being generated from your body. If it detonates, it'll destroy everything around here! You have to run somewhere far away!"

    "Energy? I'm still not understanding."

    "You're trapped in morph!" Why was Pi yelling so loudly? "The energy you usually expend while fighting isn't going away! It's just building up! You're going to explode!"

    "Explode? That's not good, is it?"

    "No it's not good! What's wrong with you?"

    "Not sure." Everything felt weird. He was all alone, but someone was running up to him.

    "Sweetie!" It was May, he distinctly remembered her voice. She ran up to him and grabbed him. "0, are you okay? Talk to me!" He looked down and stared at her. She looked so pretty.

    "0, we have to leave now!"

    "Leave?" asked May. "Why? Where are you going?"

    0 nodded. "I'm—not sure exactly. I'll be back soon. Pi, let's go." May tried to hold on, but he was too quick. He simply vanished with a crack of lightning.

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    He wasn't sure how long he kept running, only that when he resurfaced it was nighttime. He looked up and saw a few stars through the city lights around him. "Where am I?" he asked and looked around. He was on top of a building, with no idea how he'd gotten there.

    "0?" asked the Pikachu in his morpher. He lifted the device up to his face and Pi's face flashed into the screen. "Thank goodness. Are you feeling any better?"

    "Not really. I feel really funny, Pi." He sat down on a nearby edge and let his legs dangle with the wind. "It's like my whole body's been turned inside out." He looked himself over, he was still in the armor. "I want to take this off. Can you do that?"

    Pi's face looked nervous, and it didn't respond for a moment. "I'm sorry, 0. You can't. There was a lot of rage in your last transformation. It trapped you in morph."

    "Oh." 0 was trying to remember. In his mind's eye, he saw a girl fall in battle, injured by a monster. He remembered a red haze flow over him, and a scream that silenced everything around it. He remembered the hate, the anger. "I guess May's going to be mad at me," he said. "I let Sarah get hurt."

    "You didn't let anyone get hurt," said the Pikachu. "You got caught in an impossible situation and made a choice to protect everyone."

    0 shrugged. "I suppose," he said, then he remembered something. "Didn't you say I was going to explode or something? Isn't that why I started running?"

    "Yes," said Pi. "I noticed it right after you transformed. Your body is producing a lot more energy than it usually does due to the transformation. It's boosting your power and everything, but there's a lot of energy that wasn't being used and it was getting to a critical point because of your emotions. You were about to explode and kill everyone."

    "Am I still going to explode?"

    "No," said Pi. "The energy's gone down from the critical point, but it could happen again. That's why I suggested we get out of there."

    "Shouldn't we tell the others what's going on?"

    "I've been trying. The com-link that was in your helmet is gone."

    "Gone?"

    "Yeah," said Pi. "Guess it got converted into infrared data with the rest of your physical self under the armor. The signal in our morpher's dead too, so we're on our own for now."

    "Why is the signal gone?"

    "Who knows? There's only been one other ranger stuck in morph and that guy's dead. We're in uncharted territory as far as the Ranger System is concerned. If we wait, maybe they'll contact us. The morpher should still be able to pick up messages from Ranger Downs."

    But there was nothing. 0 sat on the ledge for a while, watching the night sky slowly turning to dawn. People started walking around on the streets, but no one noticed him above them. "Hey, Pi?"

    "Yeah?"

    "If I explode, will I die?"

    The Pikachu thought for a moment. "I don't think so. All that's happening is a buildup of energy. Once it reaches the critical point it'll just get released, but you shouldn't explode."

    "Why not?"

    "This really isn't my strong suit but I'll try to explain," said Pi. "Basically the energy's being collected from the infrared data your body turned into and it's being stored in the armor. But because the armor's used to receiving power from your physical body, the infrared data is supercharging the armor. The armor will detonate, but you'll reform into a new armor with better containment that can handle the infrared code better than the armor you're wearing now. Same thing that happened with the old Golden Ranger."

    "Huh. Well, should we try and trigger the explosion so I can go back home? I don't want them to worry about me."

    "If we do it now, it could level several city blocks."

    An idea popped into 0's head. "What if we used it against the Dark Gems? Would it hurt them?"

    "That's a great idea. If we can figure out a way to generate the explosion right next to them, it'll cripple them. This thing has a huge blast radius. We could concentrate it on one of the Dark Gems and vaporize it!"

    "That could work if we found out where they were," said 0. "We can't trace them if we can't go back to Ranger Downs."

    "They'll slip up soon. Don't worry, we'll figure this out."

    "I hope so," said 0. He looked around and stood up. "I'm starting to feel better."

    "Good. Now, why don't we figure out a plan of action? We can't stay on this rooftop until the Dark Gems show up again. We need a plan."

    "Plan?" 0 looked down, he noticed that there were a few men in masks walking down the street. "That doesn't look good, does it?"

    "Probably not," Pi agreed.

    There were about five of them, all wearing matching ski masks, though they all varied in color. 0 noticed the man in the red mask seemed to be the leader, since he was walking in front and was concealing the largest handgun. The other four followed the leader into a small convenient store at the end of the street, just before an intersection.

    "I should get down there," said 0. He looked around. "Uh, how should I do that?"

    "Maybe you're not back at a hundred percent," said Pi. "I can try diverting enough energy to your legs' armor so you won't break them when you jump down."

    0 looked down the ledge of the building. "That's a long way down," he said to the morpher. "We'd better be careful, Pi."

    Pi chuckled. "I've done this a few times. I think we'll be good." 0 nodded and decided to trust the mouse. "I've finished the calibrations. We can jump. Once we're down there, start running for the convenience store. I'll start up the Synchronization Drive."

    "Sounds good. Let's go!" 0 crouched down and jumped right off the building, soaring across the street to the other side. "Yahoo!" he shouted. He then landed, but failed to balance himself properly and crashed face-first into the ground.

    "0!" shouted the Pikachu. "Are you alright?"

    0 picked himself up. "Yeah," he said, and stared at his arms. Nothing was broken, not even his back or legs. "I guess so. Nothing hurts."

    "Of course it wouldn't," Pi realized. "There's nothing left to break. Get up, people will see you!" It was true that there actually weren't too many people out right at dawn, but a little stealth never hurt anyone. 0 jumped up and dashed into the convenience store.

    It was quite a sight. An entire gang of thieves wearing multicolored masks pointing all their guns at the one little old man who happened to be manning the store. The manager, a portly man who was barely tall enough to see over 0's chest had his hands behind his head while the blue thief busied himself with emptying the cash register. While they held the manager at bay, the other thieves seemed to be doing their best to wreck the store and eat all the sweets they wanted. Then 0 entered, a giant man wearing gleaming armor that covered him up completely.

    In next to no time, 0 found himself on the business end of five different handguns, none of which belonged to people who looked happy to see him.

    "Uh…freeze?" said 0, uncertain of the protocol for the situation.

    The entire gang started laughing at him. The red thief even got close to him and pointed at his chest with the gun. "You a fool, you know that?" inquired the thief. "Coming in here messing up our business. And what's that thing you're wearing? Ain't you too old for Halloween?" Then he pointed at the insignia. "And a Pikachu? That's really the best you could come up with?"

    "But I like Pikachu," said 0. "It's my partner."

    "Funny, fool. Too bad you're so stupid." Then he pulled the trigger and emptied his whole gun into 0's chest.

    0 was thrown back by the force of the eight bullets, he hadn't braced himself properly. He crumpled against a nearby display for a soda and fell to the floor, immobilized. The gang leader laughed and returned his attention to the manager. The blue thief resumed his quest to liberate all the manager's money from the cash register.

    "Ow!"

    The hang leader froze, and then slowly turned around. Getting back on his feet was a very much alive Ranger Gold. "That hurt!" 0 shouted. The red thief traced 0's body with his eyes. He saw eight bullets stuck in the armor of 0's chest. "That really hurt!" 0 started feeling angry again.

    "How're you still—" The red thief didn't finish asking his question, because the Gold Ranger vanished then suddenly reappeared close enough to deliver a roundhouse kick that sent the youth flying into the wall.

    0 watched the boy fall to the ground. Electricity shot out of his body and shorted out the power system in the store. The entire room plummeted into darkness, which the other four thieves took as a signal to start shooting everything.

    0 ran over and grabbed the manager. The two of them ducked behind the counter, where the metal plating the man had installed kept them safe from the barrage of bullets. "You okay?" he asked the manager.

    The manager looked himself over and nodded. "I think so, sir. Are you one of those rangers from the news?"

    0 nodded, but remembered the manager couldn't see. "I am. Want me to take care of the others?"

    "I would very much appreciate it."

    0 crouched. "If you have a cell phone, call the police. Everything electrical in here's broken, unfortunately. Wish I could've had you trigger a silent alarm." 0 jumped up just as he noticed the manager pulling out an old, outdated cell phone.

    "Go!"

    The Synchronization Drive kicked in for real and everything slowed down. The thieves noticed him and tried to shoot at the lightning he was generating, but he was too quick. In between dodging and swatting away their bullets, 0 found time to punch all of their lights out. First blue, then green, then grey, then purple. It was almost embarrassing how quickly he disarmed then obliterated them. 0 barely had time to enjoy himself before all five thieves were sprawled all over the store. In a moment of personal pride, 0 noticed he'd managed to avoid breaking any of the displays.

    0 stopped the Synchronization Drive and stood calmly in the middle of the store. He then tilted his head towards the manager. "On the phone?" he asked.

    "I am. Hello, police? I'd like to report a robbery."

    0 nodded and started for the door, but stopped when something caught his attention at the newsstand. "Hey, Pi. You see that?"

    A pause. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me. No. No way that works."

    0 shrugged. "We need a place to hide out, right? Why not in plain sight?" He looked at the manager. "Mind if I borrow one of these papers? I promise I'll bring it back."

    The manager waved him away. "Take it. It's a reward."

    0 waved. "Thank you," he said and scooped up the paper. A split-second later, he vanished.

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    Two hours later, 0 was sitting comfortably in a chair in the middle of a hotel.

    "This is ridiculous," said Pi. "I can't believe this worked."

    It had been a simple matter to locate the Crown Royal Hotel on the south side of Goldenrod. It was a huge building, and considering 0 had memorized much of Goldenrod's important landmarks he wound up there in next to no time. All that had been necessary was ensuring he hadn't been seen arriving and the rest would take care of itself.

    Fortunately, there was a lot more to stare at.

    0 had heard of these things called conventions before, but never understood them to the extent that he did now. There had been no problem with getting in unnoticed. His armor scarcely qualified in the top hundred most interesting costumes being paraded around. Across the hall he saw what had to be the most intricate costume of a Jigglypuff he'd ever seen in his life. He watched a man go around the corner wearing what appeared to be period clothing from the sixteenth century with a traditional katana. Every now and then he'd wave it and an Axew would spin out from the weapon just like a Poke Ball. He still wasn't quite sure what the theme of the convention was, only that they seemed to be celebrating Pokemon.

    "Well, it sounds like you're back to your old self," said Pi with a notable air of relief. "You were starting to freak me out."

    "Sorry about that," said 0. "I really can't describe it. It was like being drunk, only not as fun. The whole thing felt like an out of body experience."

    "I guess that makes sense. But we still need to figure out a way to get in touch with Ranger Downs. I've been tinkering with the morpher, and it's no dice. It took all I had to make sure it was able to receive a signal from headquarters. And of course we don't have a com-link, which would be easiest."

    "Why'd the com-link get lost? It's not even part of my body."

    "I'm going to guess everything inorganic just got lost in translation. So your clothes, your com-link, even that fake shoulder of yours. It's like it rebooted your body. I bet if you could change back your scars would all be gone."

    "Well, we can't worry about that. What we need to be worrying about are our friends. Without us, odds are good they won't stand much of a chance if the Dark Gems come back."

    "We can't get close to them, you know that," said Pi.

    "I don't understand that. I've been in control of myself all this time around these people and I was pretty calm until they decided to hurt Sarah. I'm calm now, so I should go back."

    "0, do you really think that you'll be able to stay calm? Think about it. Picture Sarah, broken and hurt, lying on a bed, all because you couldn't do anything to help her when she needed you."

    0 did just that. He thought of his little girl covered in casts, surrounded by the others. None of them would judge him, after all it wasn't his fault that he wasn't strong enough to protect her. He was just the only person that could have done anything about it. He started to growl and felt the anger boiling inside him…

    "0! Calm down!"

    "Huh?" Without realizing it, he noticed that his body was starting to overproduce electricity again. Several of the people in costume were staring at him. He calmed his mind and the electricity subsided.

    "Dude, that was so cool!" shouted some guy dressed up as a Butterfree. "How'd you do that?"

    "Yeah!" said a girl dressed up as Ponyta. "Did you put wiring in your costume?"

    0 nodded. "Uh, yeah. Took a lot of effort to install."

    "You should so enter the costume contest!"

    "Maybe," said 0. "Excuse me, please." He removed himself as quickly as possible from the circle that was starting to form around him. "Man, that was close. We okay, Pi?"

    "We're fine," said the Pikachu. "For now. But the energy surplus was heading in the direction of the critical point. You see what I mean about avoiding potentially upsetting places?"

    "Okay, you win. We stay away for now. But we still need to let them know I'm alright. I've been gone for over twenty-four hours. What if they think I've abandoned them?"

    "I'm sure nobody thinks that,' said Pi. "They probably just think you need some time to yourself. Either way, we'll get this situation sorted out before they start panicking."

    "Well, we should make a plan. We can't sit around all day staring at our thumbs."

    "Present company excluded, I'm sure." Pi thought for a moment. "If we're going to do anything, we should figure out where the Dark Gems are hiding."

    "Right, but we don't know where they are."

    "That is a problem, but not a major one. We should get to a computer and do some digging."

    "Where?" 0 gestured at himself. "I'm not exactly wearing something we can just walk around in."

    "What if we went to Brock's hotel? He's probably already checked out and the staff won't have gotten to his room yet. We could probably just swing by his place, break in, and use the computer there."

    "You sure there's a computer there?"

    "It's a hotel where humans vacation," said Pi. "How could a hotel be without something humans need to live?"

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    Brock's hotel wasn't hard to find either. 0 and Pi worked out the location to the Crown Royal Hotel and scaled the walls with static electricity until they reached the roof. From there, it was a simple matter. 0 had studied Brock's movements and figured out exactly which hotel he was staying at and where it was. The Gold Ranger then crouched and leapt across the street to the next building, then repeated the process until they arrived.

    "Which room was Brock staying in?" Pi asked.

    "It was one of the higher floors. 3310 was the number."

    "Okay. Well, let's get to the roof and go from there. Try not to get spotted by the guests. I'm guessing they're paying good money to not see men scaling their walls."

    0 nodded. "Can do." He jumped again and found himself grabbing onto the ledge of the twentieth floor. The static charge in his gloves held, so he continued climbing up the walls. They passed a few people in their rooms, but no one really noticed them. It was midday and the majority of the denizens still inside the hotel were sleeping in beds that, to 0, looked exceedingly comfortable.

    He reached the thirty-third floor. "Okay. Which one is ten?" 0 found it incredibly uncomfortable to scrunch his body upwards to see Pi on the morpher's display.

    "Two to the left," said Pi.

    "Thanks." 0 started moving again, this time slinking left instead of up, and finally came to the correct balcony. "Uh, Pi. I don't think this is it."

    "What do you mean? That's 3310."

    "Well, it's not empty. There's a guy tied to the bed wearing a Blastoise mask."

    "What? Hang on." A few moments later, Pi said, "It's one more to the left. I miscalculated."

    "I'll bet you did." 0 kept moving until he came to the actual correct balcony. "Here we go. Completely devoid of people wearing Pokemon masks."

    "Glad to hear it," said Pi. "Get onto the balcony and get in."

    0 gripped the ledge and heaved himself up to the balcony. He got back up on his feet and approached the glass door. Sure enough, there wasn't anyone inside. Though the bed hadn't been made, everything else looked about the same. 0 tried the door and, surprisingly, it opened without needing to be broken into. "That's odd. Unlocked."

    "Well, of course it is," said Pi. "There probably aren't too many people like us who can slink up here and break in through that door. Plus, think of the lawsuits the hotel would get if someone got trapped out there without the balcony door key."

    "Fair point," said 0. "But what about that?" 0 looked to the bed. There were a number of articles of clothing, as though someone had been packing and forgot about them. "And the suitcase there." A still-open suitcase was on the other side of the room.

    "Maybe we got here in the middle of Brock's packing."

    "Why would he leave the room in the middle of packing?" asked 0.

    "He could be in the bathroom. Go check."

    Though 0 really did not want to peek in on Brock in the shower, he complied and went over to the bathroom door. It was slightly ajar so he gently pushed it open, careful to avoid it creaking and alerting anyone to his presence. 0 then spotted a body, but it didn't belong to Brock.

    "Pi, you see that?" he asked.

    He heard the Pikachu gulp. "Yep. That's a dead body."

    0 opened the door all the way and walked in. There was a girl's body in the shower, only it didn't look like a woman anymore. She looked like a Mummy. "Pi, remember that Conner case a while back? The pictures?"

    "Yeah. This looks just like that."

    0 surveyed the body and noticed two Poke Balls attached to her belt. "Those could tell us who she was. We could get her trainer number." He grabbed them and carried them over to the sink. "Do you think Brock did this?"

    "No," said Pi. "Look around. There's blood on the floor. Mummified remains wouldn't do that." The Pikachu was right, there was a small trail of blood on the floor. It was too far away from the body. "Somebody was injured here. I'm guessing it wasn't the girl. It had to be—"

    "Brock," 0 said suddenly. He walked back out into the main room. "He must have been packing and the Dark Gems got to him. They used the girl as a distraction then jumped him." He groaned. "Great. First my family gets hit, and then they go after my friends."

    "There's nothing we can do about it now. All we can do is try to find them."

    "How? Hold up. We've got Pokemon in balls in there. Maybe they can help."

    "Do you think they saw anything?" asked Pi.

    "It's worth a shot. Best lead we have right now. Nobody ever remembers Poke Balls." He walked back into the bathroom and clicked the two buttons. Two Pokemon materialized, one Darmanitan and one Elgyem. Both immediately assumed a battle stance, confused as to their surroundings.

    "Darmani," grunted one. It looked at 0. "Tan! Tan!"

    Elgyem looked at the body. "Gyem gyem!" it shrieked and pointed at the girl.

    The Darmanitan's voice faltered. "M-Mani," it mumbled. Its head sank low, and 0 could hear the soft sobs it tried so hard to conceal. The tears appeared, then suddenly evaporated due how close they were to its flaming eyebrows.

    Elgyem held the Darmanitan and buried its head in its red shoulder. "El, gyem el!" it wailed. The two drew close, and even forgot 0 was in the room.

    0 looked at them. "Pi, what do I do?" he asked.

    "Console them! It isn't like their pet rock died. They just realized they lost their trainer while they were trapped in their Poke Balls. They were probably secured to her belt when she died."

    "Right, right," he said. He reached down and gently touched the Darmanitan's shoulder. "Mani, Man," he said reassuringly.

    The Darmanitan flashed him an expression of pure hate. "Darmanitan!" it shouted and shoved him away. "Manitan darmani!" It pawed at the ground and, despite the fact that Elgyem was trying to hold it back, charged and knocked 0 into the bedroom.

    "Gyem!" it shouted, but Darmanitan wasn't listening. All it cared about was bashing 0's head in. It raised its arms and swung, but 0 blocked and tried to hold it off. Darmanitan responded by spitting out a Flamethrower. It quickly became apparent this wasn't going to be a fight 0 was going to be able to win by keeping his distance.

    "Pi, activate the Synchronization Drive," said 0. "I'm going to need both Agility and Volt Tackle."

    "You can't," said Pi. "It isn't thinking. It's just lashing out because we're all that's here."

    "That's exactly why we need to. If it gets passed us and gets out of here, it'll just keep lashing out. We can't exactly let it run wild until it calms down."

    "I know, but…" Pi hesitated. "If I was in their situation, I'm not sure I'd be acting any differently."

    "Look," said 0, while he desperately tried to stay out of the reach of a Seismic Toss, "I'm not saying I'm in the right here. I'm saying we need to get it under control if we want to help it. Now punch up Agility!"

    "Online!" shouted Pi. 0 immediately felt everything start to slow down, just as it always did. The Darmanitan moved, but it was far, far too slow to even touch him. 0 dodged around its mighty arms and delivered a kick directly to its midsection. The beast lurched from the sheer force that 0 was producing, but it wouldn't be enough to completely knock it down.

    "Pi," said 0, "Volt Tackle."

    0 did his best to hold back the scream that fought to escape as lightning burst from his skin and fried the Darmanitan's body. Darmanitan bellowed like a wounded beast and fell to the carpeted ground. 0 found himself breathing heavily, despite the fact that he shouldn't have had any lungs anymore. But the moment he became aware of this fact, he found his breathing abruptly cut off and simply stood up.

    "Elgyem!" shouted Darmanitan's partner, who rushed to its side and tried to help it up. It turned to 0 and glared. "Gyem, gyem elgyem."

    "Gyem," 0 apologized. "Elgyem elgyem gyem el. Elgyem."

    The Pokemon nodded. "Elgyem." There were still tears in its eyes, but the Pokemon understood 0's words. It would help.

    "Manitan, darmanitan," said the Darmanitan, rising up onto its knuckles. It bowed its head in apology and stood silent. 0 could see it fighting back tears.

    "I knew they would help," said 0. "Pi, can you get me a picture of Brock on the morpher's display? They might be able to help us track down Brock."

    "Yes, one moment." A little bit later, Brock's face flashed onto the screen.

    0 showed Darmanitan and Elgyem the picture. "Manitan maintain. Elgyem elgy," he said.

    The Darmanitan squinted up its eyes to get a closer look. "Ma," it said with a nod. It continued, relaying the entire story of how Brock had come to the gym and rescued the Miltank from Darmanitan's accidental overuse of energy. They told 0 of how Brock had saved Milty and helped their trainer escape from the hordes of paparazzi that would not have taken kindly to a woman who had accidentally created a severe injury to one of the biggest mascots of Goldenrod City.

    Then, Darmanitan paused, as if the thought of continuing would be too much to bear. Elgyem patted its back and spoke of the last time they saw their trainer alive. They had been in a hotel room, not as nice as the one they found themselves in now. Their trainer had praised them for their performance that day, for how strong they had gotten since leaving Unova to challenge the Kanto and Johto Pokemon Leagues. Then she had put them into their Poke Balls for the night, and that was the last time they had seen her, or hugged her, or heard her voice.

    When they finished, both Pokemon were in tears once more. 0 comforted them until they were ready to continue.

    "We need to call the police," said Pi. "They need to know there's another body in here."

    0 shook his head. "Not yet. If we call this in now, they'll think Brock did it. We have to prove he's innocent. If we can find and eliminate the Dark Gems, we can prove they're the ones who've been doing these murders."

    "We still don't know why or how."

    "Then we have to find out. There has to be a reason for it. Sappho didn't do it, so it must be something specific Dia and Top are doing." He turned to the two Pokemon. "Darmani mani darmanitan maintain."

    The Darmanitan shook its head. Its nose wouldn't be quite powerful enough to track Brock's scent over a very long distance, but the Elgyem nodded its head. "Elgy, elgy." It could track Brock's aura. It could sense where they went.

    0 nodded. "Elgyem elgy?"

    Darmanitan stomped its knuckles. "Manitan darma," it growled. 0 could see the glint of hate in its eyes. It begged for the chance to avenge its trainer.

    0 nodded and placed his hand over where his heart should have been. "Ma," he said.

    The Darmanitan grinned savagely. The two Pokemon got to work. 0 retrieved their Poke Balls from the bathroom. Before they left, Darmanitan and Elgyem went in there and sat with their trainer one last time in a moment of silence. Then they left, their hearts heavy, and never looked back.

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    Darmanitan recalled itself into its Poke Ball. It did not want to return, but there was no way it would have been able to travel with 0 and Elgyem. After it disappeared in a brilliant flash of red light, 0 secured the Poke Ball to one of the empty slots on his belt. He wouldn't be able to use it with the Auxiliary Pokemon System, but there wasn't anywhere else to put it. He attached Elgyem's empty Poke Ball to another slot as well, and then surveyed his surroundings.

    He wasn't on the top floor of the hotel, but he was very close. He'd stopped at a vantage point that would allow him to reach the nearby buildings and still remain unseen. The simple fact was that, despite how welcoming those at the convention had been, his appearance was highly likely to create a panic if he and Elgyem started walking through the streets.

    "Elgyem el?" 0 asked. Elgyem scanned for Brock's aura for a few seconds before pointing directly to 0's left. After thanking the Elgyem and making sure it was securely fastened to his back with the blankets they'd taken from Brock's hotel room, 0 had Pi prep the armor's energy for the first jump.

    "Careful, 0," said Pi. "Jumping isn't a very well-understood art and this is a long one."

    "I'll be fine." Truth be told, it was quite a distance. For whatever reason, Goldenrod had built a gigantic plaza in between his present location and the position of the nearest building. Nevertheless, he took a few steps back and crouched low. "Go!"

    The world slowed down again, but he was still running forward at breakneck speed. Elgyem held on for dear life as he reached the end of the ledge and jumped straight forward, whizzing through the air like a bird. He barely cleared the jump, but instead of tucking into a roll he just kept running. He came to a stop at the next ledge.

    "How was that, Pi?" asked 0.

    "Pretty good. Since you don't technically have legs anymore I channeled all the available energy into keeping the armor stabilized. Allowed you to go much faster and jump farther."

    "Fantastic. Keep it coming." He turned to Elgyem. "Make sure you keep pointing me in the right direction. If we offshoot, it could take a bit of effort to get back on track."

    Elgyem nodded and pointed its arm over 0's shoulder. "Gyem," it said with certainty.

    "Good enough for me," he said. He started running, following the Elgyem's orders, and kept moving until the Synchronization Drive finally gave out and he came to a screeching halt somewhere. He looked around the rooftops. There were numerous, interchangeable buildings surrounding him. It looked like an office district, but 0 wasn't sure.

    "Elgy elgyem?" he asked. They'd been running for quite a while and, somehow, he felt tired.

    "Gyem gyem," said the Elgyem. It loosened itself from the makeshift straps that bound it to his back and lightly levitated to the ground. 0 followed it to the ledge.

    "Goldenrod Pokemon Rescue Society?" 0 asked, staring at the small sign at the front of the building. "Why would they hide out there?"

    "Last place I'd look for them," said Pi.

    "Fair enough." 0 turned to Elgyem. "Gyem. Elgyem elgy, em?"

    It nodded and glowed briefly. Its Poke Ball detached from 0's belt and floated over. "Elgyem. Elgyem," it said in a hard voice. The Poke Ball activated and it vanished. The Poke Ball dropped to the ground, where 0 walked over and reattached it to his belt.

    "Don't worry," he said. "We'll make sure you get your revenge." He lifted his morpher up to talk to Pi. "So, what do you think the best plan is?"

    "Might want to try heat vision to see where everything is in there," suggested the Pikachu. "After that, we can probably settle in to wait for night. We'll probably stand a better chance at retrieving Brock during the night. Fewer people around." Pi was right, 0 looked down into the street and distinctly noticed several people wandering around. "We need to get Brock, but we can't needlessly risk lives."

    0 nodded, but he was feeling anxious. "I know, but Brock's one of my oldest friends. He was the first gym leader I ever battled. He's—"

    "I know, 0. He was the first for me too, remember?"

    0 decided to sit down and get out of the sun. He took a spot next to a ventilator and rested his back against it. "I'm feeling pretty calm. I wonder if I can demorph now."

    "You know you can't," said Pi.

    "Yeah, I do. I'm just wondering, is all." He looked at his morpher. "How can I feel tired if I don't really have a body anymore? How can I feel relaxed if there's nothing to relax?"

    "It might be that some parts of what were your body are still being simulated, just like how the environment inside a Poke Ball simulates a world a Pokemon can interact with. The armor might need to recharge, and what your body has become interprets that as being tired because that's the closest analogy for it."

    "Huh." 0's helmet clanked against the ventilator. "You know, you're a lot smarter than most Pikachu, aren't you Pi?"

    There was a chuckle. "Maybe you're just a lot less smart than most humans, 0."

    0 looked over his body. "Considering the fact that some of the choices I've made got me stuck like this, I'd be inclined to think that's definitely a possibility."

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    It became apparent some time after midnight that something was wrong.

    It was a gradual change. Four hours earlier, 0 noticed that his body was feeling heavier. He had attributed it to impatience and nothing more, and the thought was quickly forgotten. But it kept getting worse, until finally he found he couldn't move.

    "Pi," he rasped. He hadn't spoken for hours either, his voice had already changed. "Pi, something's wrong."

    He could barely hear the mouse. His arm seemed so far away all he heard was a faint whisper. "I don't know. We were fine a few hours ago. But all your systems are dropping. We're running on fumes."

    He thought for a moment. "Oh no," he whispered. "Serum. I haven't taken it. I…I completely forgot about it." How long had it been since he'd had his last dose? "It's been forty-eight hours. I need to take it, Pi."

    "Do you, though? You don't have a body for the serum to work with. Why would you still need it?"

    0 tried to shrug, but his shoulders barely twitched. "M-Maybe the program my body turned into is mimicking my addiction," he said. "I-I think I still need it, Pi. We need to get back to Ranger Downs. We need to get that serum."

    "I don't know if we can. I can't communicate with Ranger Downs. I don't think we can activate the teleporter."

    "You have to try!" 0 bellowed. "Please, Pi. If I die here, they're all going to die! There's no one to take my powers, there's no one to save them without me. I'm not letting my wife and daughter die because of my mistake!"

    "You can barely move," said Pi. Its voice sounded…broken. "You can barely walk. How are you going to pick up that serum and get out before they reach you?"

    "Oh I'll get up, if that's what you want," he muttered.

    Pain. Blinding, sheering pain shot through him as he tried to find the strength to stand. He stopped briefly, gasping for breath with lungs that no longer existed, and then tried again. More pain, but there was a mixture of rage behind the agony that allowed him to sit up straight. The anger helped, so he let it fuel him until he stood on his feet. All of his limbs were rigid, but he managed to lift his arm up to speak to Pi.

    "Are you ready?" he hissed. "I'm…not sure how long this is going to last."

    "I—I don't know, 0," it said. "I've got a connection to the teleporter, but it's feeble. We aren't going to be there long. I can give you thirty seconds, then you'll be transported back. No trace, no nothing. And we won't be able to connect again. You have one shot. Are you sure you want to risk it on this?"

    0 nodded. "I'll get the serum, I'll detonate the overcharge, and I'll go home myself. Let's do it." If he had a throat he would have gulped. "But I can't do any of those things if I'm dead from withdrawal symptoms."

    "I've established the link. Standby."

    There was more pain, even more crippling than before. Somehow the infrared code that was his body was not properly attuned to the teleportation process. He felt himself get scrambled, scattered, than reassembled in an instant. He lurched forward the moment he felt whole and smashed into a computer, knocking over something in front of him.

    He barely registered what he'd done. All he heard was Pi's voice in the air, screaming at him to hurry. He dragged himself through the room, he could barely remember what he was doing. "Serum," he grunted. "Serum." He reached the counter, but fell over and his head bashed against the floor.

    "0, get up! The alarm's been triggered and you've got maybe ten seconds left! Move!"

    He did, groaning all the way. He kept crashing, but he eventually grabbed as many vials as he could before the pain ripped through him again. Everything went black.

    "0! 0!" Dimly, 0 was aware Pi was trying to wake him again, but for some reason he couldn't see. Everything was blurry, despite the fact that his vision shouldn't have been impaired. He tried to get up, but it was like his body wasn't there. He could see the vials. There were ten, maybe twelve of them scattered in front of him, but he couldn't reach them.

    "I need…I have to…" Nothing. The pain returned and he shrieked again. He wished he could clutch himself, escape from the agony, but he just laid strewn across the rooftop, inches away from relief. Inches away from the one thing that could save him.

    "No," he mumbled. He could barely muster anything else.

    Then, suddenly, he heard a chuckle. "Yes," said the voice. Even though his body was wracked with pain, and he could barely comprehend the world around him, the voice broke through his mind and froze his pain.

    There was no way. It was impossible.

    He felt something turn him around, shove his back against the roof, and then something pressed down on his throat. It felt like an arm.

    "Are you really going to die here, 1076? Is my successor really that weak?"

    0 couldn't hear Pi anymore. It took the entirety of his consciousness to comprehend what was happening.

    Against all odds, the Golden Ranger was standing over him. It was dark, sure, but there was no mistaking that voice. He recognized the voice, the feel of his hand, and the cold stare of the man's visor.

    "N-No," whispered 0. "I watched you die."

    0 was certain the old man had a grin underneath the visor. "Oh, little boy," he hissed. "Do nightmares ever truly die?"

    0 screamed as his mind slowly began the process of ripping itself to shreds.

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    The Golden Ranger was laughing.

    0's eyesight gradually returned, but the light was faint in the cave. There was soft blue lining the curved walls and a familiar aroma penetrated his nose. He could smell…

    "Wait." He looked down. He was himself, down to the last detail! Arms, legs, face, hair, everything! He pulled the strands of black hair on his head and stretched his arms. They wheezed, as though they'd been somewhere and gotten lazy, but they were there alright. It took him a moment, but he realized that his shoulder was back too. It was his, in the flesh and blood. It was as though he was greeting an old friend again. He took off his shirt, just to get a better look at it.

    Then he noticed something else. His scars, the ones he'd earned defending Serena, were still etched onto his body. "Why are these here and my mechanical shoulder isn't?" he wondered. "For that matter, where am I?"

    "Because," said the Golden Ranger, rising from a stone he was sitting on by the other side of the cave, "those were deemed necessary. There was a vote. The scars were kept because of what they symbolize. The shoulder was considered more of a lesson in humility than a symbol."

    0 grunted. "Alright, but you still haven't explained where I am. Or what any of that meant."

    The Golden Ranger waved his arm. "Those questions are not important right now," he said. "You will figure it out. In the meantime, boy, why not try and answer some questions yourself. For instance, have you considered why you are where you are? Does it not seem familiar to you?"

    "Come to think of it…" Yes, 0 had definitely been here before. That was why the smell was so familiar. "Why would I have been in a blue cave?"

    "Think. Do you remember where you were before you were brought here?"

    0 tried, but all that he could remember was pain. "I was hurting. A lot. I was trying to reach something…" He trailed off and gave the Golden Ranger a grimace. "You. You showed up and stopped me. Grabbed my throat. Brought me here."

    "Close on several points, but a miss with the last. I suppose even a few years of being in my boots have not been enough to wean the stupid out of you. You are here, in short, because your body is shutting down. This is a near-death experience. Can you think of why that would be familiar to you?"

    0 thought for a moment. "I think so. Mewtwo. I remember it tried to kill me. I ran out into a field and I woke up here. But you weren't there, something else was…"

    "But you came back. Why was that?"

    "I—I'm not sure," he said. "Wait, how do you know that? The only reason I do is because Mewtwo let me remember, and I never told anyone at PKM about it." He backed away from the Golden Ranger. "What are you?"

    The Golden Ranger shrugged. "It really depends on the day, really. Right now I exist as a figment of your imagination. You are the reason I am here. Your dying body produced me to comfort you."

    "Why would it pick you? Why not my wife or my friends?"

    "You should be asking yourself that. I am not responsible for the choices your mind makes," he said. "Perhaps there is something you wish to know from me, or what your mind has constructed from your memories of me. You were never very fond of me in life. I cannot imagine any other explanation."

    0 thought. There really was only one thing he could think of to ask him. "Why couldn't you ever morph back? I'm trapped, but every now and then I feel like there are bits and pieces of me that are still there. Is there a way for me to bring my body back?" He looked at himself, then around in the cave. "Is this where my body's trapped?"

    The Golden Ranger sighed. "Boy," he said, "did you ever wonder why that morpher works the way it does? Why I gave you the Auxiliary Pokemon System, the Synchronization Drive, everything? Why I kept none of it for myself? I am sure the thought has crossed your mind."

    "Pi and I thought it was because you couldn't use either of them. That you couldn't generate the emotional stress necessary to trigger the equipment."

    "Interesting theory, but no," he said. "The real reason is much simpler than that, boy." The Golden Ranger pointed at his chest, where his heart would have been. "There was nothing here. You mentioned that you can sometimes feel bits and pieces of yourself inside your trapped body. I never could. There was nothing for the system to respond to. That was why the morpher could not work for me in the way it does for you." The Golden Ranger than laughed. "And, because I knew the Dark Gems were coming and my…modifications would be needed, it was necessary you take the morpher.

    "Now, whether you truly are trapped is another question entirely. I told you I was trapped because there was nothing for me to go back to." He paused, then looked at 0. "I ask you, is there anything for you to go back to? Is there anything that has so much meaning to you that you can will your own body back into existence?"

    "I…yes, of course," he said. "My wife, my daughter, my friends. I can't stay in the armor forever. I can't not hold May or Sarah. I couldn't live a normal life with them if I stay like this." He looked at his hands and clenched them into fists. "I have to go back. For my family. For my friends."

    "So go back. What is stopping you?"

    "I don't know. I guess I'm worried."

    "About what?"

    "I'm worried I might not be strong enough to protect them. Being trapped in morph seems to give me a lot of power, maybe enough to take them out. I'm just worried it might not be enough."

    The Golden Ranger nodded. "Would it put you at ease to know the systems I designed into your morpher are powerful enough to conquer your foes?"

    "I don't think it would."

    "Good, because that was a lie. The ranger system is only as powerful as the user. And it is not as simple as believing in yourself, or trusting fate, or whatever hokum it is people think of when they consider inner strength. The system does have limits. For instance, your Cario Form is more powerful than Rio Form. Why?"

    "Uh, because Lucario is a fully evolved Pokemon and a Riolu isn't."

    "Good. Maybe you do have a spark of intelligence. But your Lucario is still weaker than others of its species, correct?"

    "Well, it's still relatively young."

    The Golden Ranger pointed at 0. "Same with you. Compared to me, anyway. You are still young, yet you are trying to obtain power beyond what you should have. Did you consider this might be the problem? Did you consider that might be the reason you perceive yourself to have insufficient power? Trying to run before you can walk, 1076?"

    "Hadn't thought about it like that," said 0. "But I can't just wait to get the power while my friends are in trouble."

    "I agree. In that case, you should do what comes naturally in these situations."

    "Which is?"

    The Golden Ranger smacked him across the head. "You should rely on your team. If you are not strong enough, so be it. But is your team strong enough to face this threat? And are you not part of that team? If so, then there is no need for you to run so abruptly."

    That did seem to make sense. "I know I should have known that," he muttered.

    "The world does not always revolve around you, boy," said the Golden Ranger. "Though I admit sometimes it is possible to forget how the forces of gravity work. It is something we take for granted."

    0 looked at him. "You know, you're a lot nicer than I remember you being when you were alive," he said.

    "That is because this is not me. This is just your reconstruction of me, with a few tweaks here and there." He chuckled. "Believe me, were the actual me to greet you in the afterlife, you would not recognize me." He looked at his wrist, consulting his morpher like a watch. "Well, I am afraid that is all the time we have. You should be ready by now. Once you detonate, your armor will reform into something that can stabilize the excess. I would suggest not being around your loved ones when you detonate.

    "Goodbye, boy," he said. "Let us try not to meet again for a while, eh?"

    0's head started to hurt, and then everything went black again.

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    "0, please wake up!"

    0 just remembered a blinding wave of pain that rippled through his body like a tsunami. There would be a few moments where the pain would subside, and he believed the worst was over, before the pain returned en masse and he groaned again. He rolled over and noticed the moon was high in the sky.

    "Ugh," he grumbled and scrunched himself up into a seated position. "This really, really hurts."

    "Oh thank goodness," whispered the mouse. "0, you can never, ever do that to me again."

    "Do what? I was only out for a minute."

    "You were out for a day!" it shouted. "I sat on your arm and shouted and shouted, but nothing worked. It was like you were dead." 0 detected an undercurrent in its tone. "I was so…so worried."

    It was crying, he realized. "Pi, I'm sorry," he said. His head sunk low, his chin touching his chest. "I didn't know. It seemed like it was only a little while. I was out of it, in a big way." It wasn't helping, the Pikachu was still crying.

    "You know, it's not just May or Sarah that'll miss you," it said. "She's your wife and Sarah's you daughter, and I understand that. Serena's your partner and I understand that, and you're so close to Max and 415. But you knew me first, 0. We met twenty years ago and you don't seem to understand that they're not the only people that worry about you. I do too."

    0 caressed the morpher. "I know, Pi," he said. "You're not my Pokemon, you never were. You're my brother. I've never forgotten that. I wouldn't be who I am without you too." He paused. "I love you like my own flesh and blood, buddy."

    Pi stopped crying, just for a moment, and offered a slight chuckle. "Poor choice of words at the moment," it said. He and it shared a laugh.

    "I guess we know one thing for sure," he said, and looked at the still-filled vials of serum. "Guess I kicked the habit. Who knew losing your body could be so good for your long-term health?"

    "At least you can quit now," said Pi in agreement.

    "Well, you were here. Did I miss anything while I was gone?" 0 asked. He stood up and stretched his arms.

    "Actually, yes," it said. We received a transmission from Serena and the others. They're making their move on the Dark Gems tonight."

    "What happened?" 0 listened as the mouse filled him in on the transmission, and when the mouse was finished he nodded his head. "That sounds like bad news. We'd better help them."

    "I agree," it said.

    "Wait." 0 looked up at the sky, the moon was still there. "What time is it now?"

    "It is twelve-ten. Because of you, we're late."

    "Oh. Well, we'd better get over there, huh?"

    "I'd say that'd be for the best."

    "Alright. Well, we'd better make an entrance," said 0. He immediately had Pi begin preparations for the jump to the volunteer building.

    "Wait. 0?"

    "Yes, Pi?" he asked.

    "Get angry. We're going to need that detonation to go home, remember?"

    0 nodded. "I think I have plenty to be angry about. Should be therapeutic."

    He braced himself, and then jumped.

    There was some form of discomfort, he noticed, as he landed. He felt something shoot up his legs and drive him to his knees. It didn't make him shout, it didn't make him question anything. It was just pain. Pain to be converted to annoyance. Annoyance to be converted to anger. As he rose, his body began overcharging, and by the time he resumed movement again he saw quite a little bit of lightning jumping out of his armor.

    He found them just as Serena started walking across the length of a gymnasium. His attention immediately focused itself on the fact that May was on the other side, held by the Dark Gems.

    "No way," said Pi. "May? Why are they risking her?"

    0 shook his head. "It's not May. Look at the way she's standing. It's 415. Whoa!" Ame was doing something, ordering Top and Dia around. "Guess they figured that out."

    "We've gotta do something!" shouted Pi. "Let's go!"

    "Right," he said. He concentrated the electricity into one of his fingers and pointed it through the window at the skipping Dia. "Bang!" The window shattered and a giant stream of lightning blasted out of his fingertip, shattered the glass, and ripped straight through Dia.

    "Good entrance," said Pi, while 0 climbed into the window frame. "The electricity's already been replenished."

    "Fantastic," he said. "We're going to need all we can."

    "Up there!" shouted Ame. 0 snapped out of his conversation with Pi and looked down. Ame was pointing directly at him.

    "Well, no point in standing on ceremony," he said and jumped straight down. This time the landing didn't hurt, but it did cause him to start breathing heavily. It must be the electricity, he thought. No one had dared to move since he dropped, so 0 stood up and surveyed his surroundings.

    "Finally showed up, huh?" said Serena in an exasperated tone.

    0 shrugged. "Always did like a dramatic entrance," he said. "Move two centimeters to the side." Serena and 415 jerked themselves just enough to obey him and, in a flash, 0 emerged right in front of Top and drove him into the wall. Top, in his surprise, released the two and they regrouped away from Top.

    "0, we need to talk," said Serena. "With what's been going on—"

    "There's no time right now," said 0. "You two need to get out of here."

    "No," said Serena. "You listen. You abandoned everyone. You need to come back and explain what's—"

    "Silver!" he shouted. He was beginning to feel annoyed. "I swear to you and everyone it wasn't my intention to abandon everyone. My morpher's communicator malfunctioned and I lost my com-link when I was trapped. I was in no position to contact you until you managed to signal me. I promise you and May I'll be back, but I need to take care of something first. Now transport out of here! That's a direct order!"

    Serena grumbled. "Fine. But you'd better get back soon. Your wife misses you and so does your team. And we're going to want a real explanation!"

    "Understood, Silver. 415, signal May for the transport. Tell her I'm sorry, but I can't be near you all right now. I'll be back once I fix something."

    415 nodded. "Ranger Downs, transport both me and Ranger Silver. Ranger Gold is remaining." A moment passed. "He appears stable, but requires additional time. We will fill you in once we return." The two of them flashed, then vanished.

    0 turned towards Ame. "Now then, where were we?"

    Ame faced him with a sneer on her face. "I believe we were at the part where you are torn limb from limb, Ranger Gold," she said. "I am unaccustomed to being so inconvenienced. Top, handle him."

    Top transformed instantly, he didn't seem to have to stand for the formalities of wrapping his chains, then tore after 0. He waited for it to attack, let it hit him, allowed it to drive him to the ground and pummel him.

    It only made him angrier.

    Top allowed him a brief reprise, just enough for 0 to stagger to his feet. The lightning was getting more and more erratic. "Come on," he grunted. He was hurting everywhere, but Top's attacks hadn't gotten through. It was the continual discharge of lightning that was doing it. It ripped apart the pieces of him underneath the armor he could still feel, disintegrated them, then reformed them only to be shredded again. "Come on, you lumbering idiot. Come on!"

    Top obliged and sent him flying into the nearby wall. 0 growled and extracted himself from the ranger-shaped hole in the wall before running back to Top. He was starting to feel lighter.

    "0, we're getting close!" shouted Pi from his wrist. 0 howled savagely and launched himself onto Top.

    0 couldn't really remember the next few minutes very well. It was a blur of punches and grappling. One moment he and Top had their arms locked, straining to bring the other to their knees, and the next he delivered a punch that sent Top toppling to the ground. He then delivered a bone-shattering elbow-smash to Top's neck that temporarily slowed down the beast.

    "That's what I'm talking about," he growled. "This power…it's awfully useful." He turned to Ame and Dia. "Who wants to be next?"

    "I will I will!" shouted Dia and she rammed him hard in the stomach. "That's what you get for hurting my Daddy! Nobody hurts my Daddy!"

    0 growled. "Hurt your Daddy? Like you hurt my Sarah? Like you hurt my May?" He grabbed the little girl by the neck and started squeezing. He saw Top try to get up, but he used his overwhelming power to hold the beast down under his boot. "I'm so sorry, Dia. I didn't mean to, just like I'm sure you didn't mean to hurt my family."

    She wrapped her arms around his hand, trying to break free. There was entirely too much power in his grip. "It's—It's just business," she croaked. "Business!"

    0 howled with laugher. "Oh, if I had a buck for every time I heard that one." Without his knowledge, he began shocking her and Top with a surge of electricity.

    Ame realized what was happening. "Dia, Top, get out of there this instant," she shouted. "He is going to—"

    It was too late. The electricity kept building and building, until eventually there was nothing but a wide burst of golden light.

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    When the light died down, 0 was standing in the moonlight.

    The roof was gone, essentially everything around him was gone. His own armor was gone, all he could see was a brilliant golden light where his body should have been. Eventually, the armor started reforming. It all looked the same, but it felt incredibly different. When the light died out completely, and it was only 0 standing in the rubble, he heard a voice in his head.

    "0?" It was Pi.

    0 tapped his head. "Yeah, buddy?" he asked.

    "E-Everything's stable. Our systems are back to normal levels. No signs of the overcharge like before. We-We can go back."

    "That's good. Hey, how can I hear you in my head?"

    "I don't know. That's a good question."

    0 shrugged. "We'll figure that out later," he said. "For now, we'd better make sure the Dark Gems really are toast before we head home."

    "Really, Ranger Gold." 0 froze in place. Ame simply materialized in front of him. "The sheer volume of the blast, while admirable, is no more effective against me than the nip of a baby. True, it may take Dia a moment to recover, but my other friend was shielded from the blast in much the same way you were."

    "What?" he asked.

    She sighed. "Look around you, Ranger Gold. The explosion only detonated your surrounding area. Most of the area has been damaged, but the explosion only moved upwards from your position." Then, she offered him the slightest of smirks. "Where was Top when the blast went off?"

    0 was about to respond, but an arm reached up from the rubble and grabbed his leg. 0 felt himself jerked upside down as Top emerged and stared at his upside-down body. The Gold Ranger swung with his fists, but Top elongated his arms to keep 0 at bay.

    "Pi! Pi, I need something here!" he shouted. He tried to reach out for the Synchronization Drive, but there was no response.

    "We're tapped out, 0!" it replied. "The explosion didn't just eat up the excess energy, it ate up the reserves too! We can't use anything without an auxiliary Pokemon."

    "Just great," he muttered and reached for his belt. Before he could get anywhere, Top twisted his other arm and it slunk around his body, binding him in place and without the means to reach the Poke Balls. "Just great."

    "Do you see, Ranger Gold?" asked Ame as she stepped forward. "There is no hope. No chance of success. Just lucky breaks you scraped together until we eventually outran you." She turned to Top. "Kill him. Kill him and make sure he does not return. Then we finish the contract."

    Top tightened his muscles. 0 was aware of his body slowly being crushed. He screamed, but that didn't stop anything.

    "Now, Ranger Gold, you meet your maker," said Ame. "Do send my regards."

    It was at that precise moment that Ame stopped standing directly next to Top, and began a very speedy journey in the direction of a nearby wall. 0 barely even had time to register what was happening when he felt Top's grip loosen on him, then abandon him altogether. 0 fell to the ground and lost consciousness for an instant.

    An instant later, he was rushed back to life by the sound of a roar. A deafening, violent, angry roar, the likes of which he'd only ever heard from one beast in the world. One furious monster, who for so long had never listened to him, to the point where he'd himself been on the receiving end of that roar. A monster that had come around and become one of his closest allies, one of his closest friends, one of his strongest Pokemon.

    Top was literally lifted off his feet, and then hurled in the same direction as Ame. He crashed into her and buried her under some more rubble. It was only then that 0 got a good look at his rescuer in the moonlight.

    It was gigantic, ten feet tall, fifteen counting the tail. There was a fire coming from the tip of that tail that burned brightly in the night. Its orange scales glistened, its muscles bulged. Its fangs gnashed at the air, flames spitting out from both ends of its mouth. It looked down at him with its fierce, terrible blue eyes staring into 0's very soul.

    "Z," he breathed. "You…You came for me. You came to save me."

    The Charizard grinned. It lifted its head and filled the night air with its voice once more.

    In between all of this, Ame and Top had managed to get themselves untangled. Dia was still nowhere to be found, but Ame had a look on her face that suggested she was extremely angry about something.

    "That Pokemon makes no difference," she said. "You will both die, here and now. My contract ends today."

    "I don't think so," said 0, then turned to Z. "I take it you saw us on the news, right?" It roared and nodded its head. "You've seen what my system does. I'm betting you have something for me."

    It nodded, and produced a Poke Ball it had been holding onto. 0 took it.

    "Return," he said, and clicked the button. Z stared at the Dark Gems and roared at them as it disappeared in a flash of light. Before they could do anything, 0 set the new Poke Ball into his morpher. "Scan it."

    "Auxiliary Pokemon System activated- Chariard Form registered." There it was again, the mysterious AI voice. 0 watched in fascination as the regular Poke Ball holding Z suddenly turned deep orange.

    His mind shifted, turning away from the calm, if irritated, leader of his team and into a sheer wave of confidence. There was no chance he could lose, absolutely no chance at all. The mere suggestion of it was laughable. He didn't even bother watching as the armor shifted, morphed into position for the new form. There was no point. He was already going to win.

    He pointed a finger at Ame and Top. "You," he said, "are going to regret you ever learned I existed."

    "Dragon Burners- installed," said the voice.

    "Z," said 0, "you ready to rock it?"

    A rough, old voice answered him with a spattering laugh. "Born ready, boss."

    "Then let's show them how we do things back home."

    0 crouched, tensed his muscles, and charged with a roar.

    Author's Note: Of the encounters in this particular chapter, the two I like most are 0's encounter with Elgyem and Darmanitan and the meeting in the cave with the Golden Ranger. The encounter with the Pokémon is significant because, for the most part, we don't really get much of that side of the relationship between Pokémon and humans, since the story is usually told through the eyes of people. However, I wondered what would happen to Pokémon whose trainers died. Do they stay in their balls? Are they inherited? Elgyem and Darmanitan represent Pokémon who lose their trainers and the process they go through.

    In addition, the meeting in the cave between 0 and the Golden Ranger signifies an important plot point that will be explored later. 0 brings up an interesting question when he asks why he would manifest someone he hates in the cave and, while the apparition does not know the answer, this relationship hasn't been completely explored yet. Stay tuned!

  2. #47
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    Default Chapter 34

    Morph Thirty-Four: Love's Remorse: The Sins I Bear

    Chariard Form was, for lack of a better word, utterly cool.

    Words alone could not do it justice, the sheer spectacle of it needed to be seen to be truly experienced. The bottom half of 0's visor had changed, just like in his other two forms, only this time it was dark orange instead of blue or black, but that was easily the least significant thing about it.

    The most significant thing about it, thought 0, was the fact that Chariard Form came with awesome new wings.

    Huge, huge wings stretched from his back, each one ten feet long. 0 couldn't believe them when he saw them. He was sure they wouldn't have been able to get him in the air. But, then again, Z's wings had always seemed too small for it and the giant Charizard had always managed to haul itself into the air and best supersonic speeds without so much as a shrug. They were bright orange and latched to his back through the vein-like structures that appeared every time he used the Auxiliary Pokemon System.

    Oh, and he had a tail. Was it mentioned that he had one? A giant, unfolding tail to stabilize his movements and keep him balanced. A tail with a giant ball of fire at the end of it. That should have been mentioned, because he did indeed have such a tail and loved every moment of it.

    "Get some!" he shouted as he tore through the gymnasium in his effortless quest to reach Top. Top responded by attempting to smash four arms directly through 0's body. 0 retorted in kind by folding his new wings over his body and turning himself into a battering ram. Top suddenly found himself entirely unable to dislodge Ranger Gold, mostly because in next to no time 0 curled his tail around one of Top's legs and forced him to the ground.

    "I guess you could say you…toppled over, Top!" said 0 with a gleeful vengeance. Top, as per usual, said nothing back, but did manage to get in a solid punch that got 0 off of him and afforded the Dark Topaz Ranger enough time to recover his footing.

    "Enough with the taunting, boss" Z whispered in his mind. "We are here to win, not prance about like cowards."

    "You're right," said 0, and he stepped up his game. Two steps forward, one side-step passed Top's grasp, and he jammed his fist into the general vicinity of Top's kidney. There was no real way to tell if the attack was effective, but Top halted his assault long enough for 0 to use his now-superior strength to get behind Top and grab the Dark Gem's neck in a chokehold.

    "He will attack from the left," said Z. "Dodge."

    0 obeyed and Top's first left arm whizzed around right where his head would have been. Top was forced to the ground.

    "Enough, Top!" shouted Ame. "Finish him!"

    "Yeah, finish him, Daddy!" shouted Dia. "I want my next meal!"

    Top seemed to think it over, before he simply regained his footing, hauling 0 up in the process. It was as though the Dark Topaz Ranger wasn't even aware of the fact that a human being was holding onto his neck for dear life. His arm slunk around and grabbed 0 by the tail.

    "This doesn't seem promising," 0 managed to get out, before he felt his grip on Top's neck loosen, then come apart altogether as Top began swinging him around like a sack of bricks.

    "Tuck into a ball," said Z. "The wings will protect you from the impact."

    0 did as he was told, but it was much more complicated than just one impact. 0 lost track of the amount of times Top smashed him into the rubble on the ground, or how many times he was battered against the walls. All he had a clear memory of was being tossed out of the gymnasium and clear across the street, landing on the very rooftop he had almost died on just a short time ago.

    "I've got some serious déjà vu," he muttered as he climbed back onto his feet.

    "He's behind you," said Z. "Forward."

    0 ran forward as best he could. Top dropped down like a bomb and landed right where 0 had been standing. 0 turned around.

    "Hey," he shouted suddenly. "Can you talk?"

    "What are you doing?" asked Z. "You're opening your defenses!"

    "I know, give me a second." 0 stepped forward. Top made no move to oppose him, and waited until 0 was standing a few feet away from him. "A couple of days ago, when you crashed the field day, you talked to me." Top made no motion he understood. "You looked directly at me, creeped me out, made me realize who you were. Why did you do that? Why would you care whether the civilians at my event lived or died? You gave me plenty of time to get the place cleared so there would be as few casualties as possible. Why would a Dark Gem Ranger care if a few people got away from the fighting?"

    Top still didn't do anything. It was both infuriating and insulting. 0 stomped one boot and snorted. "Were you afraid of what Dia would do to those people? Why would you care? I saw the body in Brock's hotel. I know it's you and Dia doing it. Why would you care if a few kids and their parents got gobbled up by your monster daughter? It's not like kids matter to people like you!"

    Top didn't even telegraph the attack that ensued. 0 barely got his wings wrapped around him in time to avoid Top's punch, then retreated to a safer distance.

    "Tell you what, Top," 0 shouted. "Say I beat you, right here and now. Will you tell me why? Will you tell me how you can sit back and watch that little she-demon murder innocent people while you sit around and coddle her?" 0 lifted his arms and wings. "You man enough to make that bet? A simple nod will suffice!"

    It was a tiny, tiny gesture, 0 almost didn't recognize it for what it was. The Dark Topaz Ranger tilted his head forward slightly to offer the barest of nods, and then returned to his attack stance.

    "Alright," said 0. "Let's dance, partner."

    Top charged forward, bearing all four of his arms to grab onto anything, anything at all, so long as it belonged to 0 and could be ripped apart. 0 responded by lowering his wings over the top of his head and shielded himself from the blows, using the opening to deliver a series of vicious punches directly to Top's Dark Gem. The monster back away and grabbed his chest for a moment, then ran back for another round.

    "Z, I need to know our move options," said 0.

    "The system indicates we are loaded with Inferno and Dragon Claw. Which would be more effective right now?"

    "What do you suggest?"

    He heard Z chuckle. "If we hit him with the Inferno, it may soften up that big rock in his chest. He seemed to dislike that earlier."

    "Agreed. I'll get some breathing space. You fire it up."

    "Get ready, boss," it warned.

    0 jumped out of the way and opened his wings. He was…he was flying! He flew straight up, leaving Top stranded helpless on the rooftop. "Z, I think we've got plenty of space between us. Inferno!"

    Immediately, 0 felt pain. His armor should have protected him from it, but he was still able to keep himself focused. The fire started charging in the palms of his hands, causing the armor around his gauntlets to be set ablaze. Orange balls of fire leapt out and began swirling together, forming a gigantic typhoon of flames until, at last, it was ready to be unleashed.

    0 almost couldn't stand the heat. He briefly wondered how Top would fare. "Synchronization Drive- Inferno!" he roared, and the fire burst forth in a massive, swirling column of heat and flames towards the Dark Topaz Ranger.

    Top only had to look at the tower of fire once to realize what he was, and 0's distance from him allowed Top to smoothly dodge the attack. Because 0 could not move the blast or affect its blasting radius in any way, he was forced to watch the searing heat incinerate the rooftop, turning the concrete and steel into molten lava.

    Top casually glanced back up at 0. Two of his arms retracted and, in their stead, two billowing wings emerged from his shoulders.

    "Way to be unoriginal," 0 snorted. He started moving away at the same time Top's wings began beating up and down, up and down, until finally he lifted off and began slowly making his way towards 0. "I need another plan."

    "We're faster than he is," said Z. "Outrun him, then grab him. Even he must dislike falls from this height."

    "Fair point," he said. He straightened out his wings and tucked into a dive. He swooped down and battered Top in the chest, altering the Dark Gem's trajectory and sending him into the nearest building. Top recovered briskly and began tailing in him midair.

    "Great, now he thinks he can catch us." 0 doubled back and slammed into him again. Nothing changed, it was as though he was striking a particularly mobile brick wall. It was the same as always, nothing he did seemed to affect the Dark Topaz Ranger. "How do you defeat an impenetrable force?" he asked aloud.

    Z answered. "You respond with an equally impenetrable force. If you and he are of equal strength, there must be a way around it. There is always a factor which decides who breaks the tie. You need to decide whether you are that man or if you intend to scurry off in defeat."

    0 nodded. "I know. I just wish there was a way to be sure."

    "In situations like this, there never is," said Z. "That was what gave me the strength to battle Water-types and prevail. It was not just my strength, but my belief in you. It allowed me to conquer water, when all evidence pointed to the contrary. It was what allowed me to grow strong and powerful, into one of the mightiest of my kind. I believed in you." It paused, and snorted into his mind. "Now I ask you: believe in me. Believe in our power, our might, and together not a single thing can stand in our way! It never did when we were young, and it never shall as long as we stand together and refuse to be defeated by the likes of this lackey and his cheap tricks! Believe in yourself! Believe in me! Believe in the bond that we share, the bond which saved me from the rain when I was but a child and brought me here to fight for yourself and your family!"

    It took a deep breath. "Believe!" it shouted. "Believe in victory and nothing shall dare oppose you!"

    0 stopped in midair. He allowed Top to catch up, to grab him, to try to bring him down. He just opened his mind to the Charizard's voice, and the answer appeared.

    As he felt Top's arms close around him, he made certain that Top had not grabbed hold of his wings or tail. He allowed Top to point downwards, aiming to destroy him in a high-speed impact on the streets below. He made certain the Synchronization Drive was charging again.

    "Now, boss?" asked Z, anxious.

    0 shook his head. He could see the street approaching. "Not yet," he said. "Believe in me."

    Z snorted. "Amusing."

    0 opened his wings. The metallic constructs burst forth, titanic shapes that gradually ensnared Top in their embrace. Top scarcely realized what was happening, and by the time he did it was too late. He was already covered by 0's grasp. It was only then that Top truly realized what 0's plan was. It wasn't until it was too late to stop anything that Top noticed 0's palms were resting on top of his Dark Topaz.

    "Z!" screamed 0. "Synchronization Drive- Inferno!"

    The first time 0 had tried the move was nothing compared to this burst. The heat surrounded him, enveloped him, transformed him into a raging inferno of fire. The flames burst out from his fingertips and smashed directly into the Dark Topaz. If Top could have screamed, there was no doubt in 0's mind that he would have in that instant. The flames tore through both of them, though only 0 had the presence of mind to do anything. Top's grip loosened, and 0 positioned himself so he was on top of Top when they landed in the streets, the impact squarely targeting and damaging the Dark Topaz inside his chest.

    To be fair, 0 himself was not uninjured by falling into the streets. It took a moment or two for him to get moving. He found one finger, then another, then worked his way up until he could pull himself from the huge crater Top's body had created in the street. Car alarms from both sides of the street were screaming in his head as he pulled his body from the wreckage. It was damaged, but not to an extent that it could not repair itself.

    Still, 0 did not wait for victory to be declared. He went right back into the crater and wrenched out the Dark Topaz Ranger. The monster was unresponsive and allowed himself to be pulled free. 0 flung him onto the lip of the crater, exposing a Dark Topaz that was emitting an unusual amount of steam.

    "He is injured," said Z. "Finish him honorably."

    0 nodded and extended the fingers of his right hand. "Synchronization Drive- Dragon Claw!" he snarled. His hand erupted with a fierce blue light that surrounded the fingers in claw-like auras. 0 pinpointed the Dark Topaz and struck.

    Briefly, before the claws sank in, 0 swore he saw Top raise his hands in a sign of protest.

    But it was too late. The Dragon Claw buried itself in Top's chest, sending deep, rippling cracks through the Dark Topaz. 0 heard something akin to a sonic boom when he stabbed through the gem, but recalled from his previous experience with Sappho to stop where he stood and hold his arm in place.

    So, towering over the broken, battered form of the Dark Topaz Ranger, 0 dug his arm deeper and hissed, "Talk. I deserve to know."

    There was a sudden jerk, before the visor and helmet of the evil ranger simply melted away, and the face of a man emerged. In reflection, 0 couldn't believe how much he did look like Brock. True, he didn't have Brock's fox-like eyes or the grin that normally adorned Brock's face, but the skin tone and the spikes of hair on his head were very similar. Instead, Top had bright eyes that sparkled like his namesake stone, and those eyes looked upon 0 with the greatest ease 0 had ever seen in a man.

    "So," he said, in a voice that croaked out of his lips like he'd forgotten how to use it, "my contract is done."

    0 was not swayed by the man finally deciding to speak. "Talk," he said. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

    The man coughed. "What does that matter, little boy?" he asked. "Will the knowledge ease your conscience? Give you certainty that you did the right thing? You think answers are for such a purpose?"

    "You talk really fancy for a mute," said 0.

    The man rolled his eyes. "Do I? Did it cross your mind that I simply had nothing I would like to say? It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool in these games. You, on the other hand, always open your mouth and remove all doubt in the process. What is it you want me to say? That I am sorry? That I regret my actions? Such a confession will not bring you comfort when you sit at night, alone and unable to sleep. I am dying, boy, so tell me what you want before I remove your arm myself and finish my existence."

    0 growled. "I want to know why you murdered those girls and hurt my friend. I want to know if you even considered their families, their loved ones, that you sacrificed to further your own agenda!" He twisted his arm, and Top groaned. "I want to know what could drive a man like you into being the monster you've been."

    Top offered him a smile. "But I did it for a reason that would frighten you, Ranger Gold. I did it for love."

    "Love?"

    "The greatest emotion there is. What if I were to tell you that I was once a man, a doctor, whose only crime was that he had a daughter. A man whose wife passed away, leaving a little girl to be loved and cared for. And then, Ranger Gold, what if I told you that at the cusp of adulthood, that girl was stricken with an illness. A cancer for which there was no cure known to man or Pokemon. A cancer that robbed her from him at the age of seventeen." Top narrowed his eyes and glared at 0. "Imagine you were that man. What would you have done, were an offer presented to bring your daughter back to life? What sort of man, what sort of father, would refuse a chance to be reunited with their daughter? What sort of monster would leave their daughter rotting away in a hospital bed, all the while knowing a chance to see her, to hold her, to love her, existed just beyond the door. What would you have done?"

    Before 0 could answer, Top continued. "There are choices we make, Ranger Gold. Choices we must live with, no matter how terrible. Choices like the loss of your soul. Choices like the return of a daughter who wants nothing more than to be alive again. Choices like helping that daughter feast so she may have the life she had once more. Choices that bind you to the plots of mad men. Choices you make for love. Not because they are right, not because you won't regret them, but choices you have to make, because either way you will never be able to live with yourself if you walk away from them."

    He glared at 0 and lifted his head. "Do I regret my choices? You may as well as me if I regret my daughter. I regret what we became. I regret who she is. I regret who I am. But when she looks at me and begs to be fed, who am I to refuse? Who can refuse their own flesh, born then ripped from their bosom, if they return with loving arms? Could you be stronger than I, Ranger Gold, and let go of the child who called you 'Daddy'? The girl whom you changed diapers for, whom you promised to protect no matter what?" His voice raised, almost to a frothing pitch. "Could you be stronger than a man whose only crime was that he wanted to hold his daughter in his arms again?"

    He started shouting, but was silenced abruptly. Not by 0, he had not removed his arm to shatter the gem, but from Dia, who had snuck up nearby and cradled her father's head.

    "Daddy," she whispered.

    He was breathing in short, raspy breaths. "I-I'm sorry, Dia. I won't be able to protect you anymore."

    "Daddy," she whispered. "I'm hungry."

    His eyes widened. "I'm dying," he panted. "Please, please hold me before I fade away."

    Dia shook her head. "No need, Daddy." 0 suddenly recognized that her voice had changed. It was no longer the giddy, homicidal girl he knew. She sounded like a predator, who had finally found the perfect prey to round off an evening of supper. "You'll be with me. You'll always be with me. Always protecting. Always watching. Always." She wrapped her chains around herself and quickly transformed. 0 watched shadowy chains begin to extend from her arms and around Top's body.

    "Baby girl," he gasped. "You can't I-I love you. I did all this for you. I did everything so we could be together again."

    "And we will," she said. "Together forever."

    Top's eyes hardened, 0 thought he saw a tear in the monster's eye, before he looked back to the Gold Ranger. "Stop her," he said. His voice was so faint, it was almost a whimper. "Don't make my mistakes. Don't cling to your past, fight for your futu—"

    If there was more, 0 did not hear it. The Dark Topaz Ranger's body simply disappeared. There was no dust, no anything that normally accompanied a Dark Gem's disintegration. One moment he was there, the next 0 found his hand striking through nothing but air. The man was gone, and now all that remained was Dia.

    Dia stared at 0 and giggled. "Silly Daddy," she said. "Always telling stories about me as a baby. It's so embarrassing!" She clicked her claws together. "I'm so close, you know. I'm so close to being alive again." Then she patted her belly. "But I'm sooooooooo stuffed! There's no way I could eat another bite tonight!"

    Not good, thought 0 to himself. Not good at all.

    "Tell you what," she said. "I'll come back tomorrow night and eat everyone then! Of course, I really just want Sarah. I get Sarah, I'll probably get all full and definitely get my life back. You know I could smell it off her first time I met. So full of life." She sniffed 0 and groaned in disgust. "You, on the other hand? No life. None. So nasty. Like eating spinach. I hate spinach, but Daddy always made me eat it."

    "You think for one second I'm letting you touch my daughter, then Sappho wasn't the only Dark Gem who was insane," said 0. "I'll rip you apart just like I did him."

    She bent over and delicately pointed at her cheek. "Why?" she asked sweetly. "You wouldn't hurt little old me, would you? I'm a perfect angel. I just want to be a regular human is all. Why can't you let me just do what I want? I just wanna eat Sarah! I don't understand why this is so complicated!" She began stamping her feet, exactly like a spoiled brat.

    "You step in my home," said 0, "I'll send you to your own personal family reunion downstairs."

    "Maybe." She blew a raspberry at 0. "Maybe not! I'll see you grownups tomorrow! You'd better be ready, I hate when people hold back!" She then started somersaulting down the street, albeit very badly. Eventually, however, she simply disappeared around a corner 0 and Z were left standing in the crater that had just held the Dark Topaz Ranger.

    "I'm going to switch back to Pi," said 0. After the Charizard confirmed, 0 removed the new dark-orange ball from his morpher and attached it to his belt. He felt his mind loosen up immediately then Pi returned to his mind.

    "Well, that was interesting," said Pi. "Have some fun, I take it?"

    "Yeah, bagged the big guy," he said. "Not sure what happened though, the guy got eaten by the little girl."

    "That's really weird," said Pi.

    "Super weird," agreed 0, "which is why we need to get home. Dia ate Top, and now I'm guessing she's cranked up on topaz juice. We need to get back there to defend the group."

    "Good. My scans continue to indicate normal functions," said Pi. "We won't be detonating again. Return home to Ranger Downs."

    0 checked the night's sky. "Well, I'm willing to bet we can't do a teleportation jump, so I guess you'd better hit up Agility."

    "Already fired up, 0."

    "Much obliged, Pi."

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    The road home seemed much longer than usual.

    0 cut off the Synchronization Drive about half a mile away from Ranger Downs, wanting a quiet walk to himself before he met with everyone again. He looked up at the moon and sensed a light breeze fluttering around his armor, then began the slow march home.

    "Do you think they'll be mad at me?" he asked Pi.

    "I don't know why. You couldn't really explain the situation without giving away the plan," said the Pikachu. "May and the others are reasonable people. I'm sure they'll understand that you didn't want to detonate around them."

    "I sure hope they see it that way," 0 said. He could see the house in the distance. There was no doubt in his mind they could already see him. The long-range sensors for Ranger Downs were incredibly sensitive, only the most covert of individuals could hope to bypass them, and extended in a two mile radius around the house. He was walking unarmed and uninterested in being covert. He wanted to be seen.

    When he reached the front porch, he was still the only one there. Nobody had come outside to greet him, nothing. "Hmmm…what's the protocol for this, Pi?" he asked.

    "Well, you could try knocking," it suggested.

    "Oh yeah. Not sure why that went over my head." He raised his hand and rapped sharply on the door. He then backed away. A moment later, it creaked open and 0 found himself looking into the eyes of his wife.

    There was a moment of silence between the two of them. "H-Hey," said May.

    He waved. "Hi," he said. "I—I think I have a lot of explaining to do, huh?"

    She nodded. "We just saw the explosion. They had an emergency bulletin. Sirens, everything. What happened over there?"

    "It's a really long story," he said. "Mind if I come in? I need to fill everyone in about what's happened."

    May held up a hand. "Wait," she said. "Is it safe? I mean, are you safe?"

    "What do you mean?"

    She looked at him. "You know what I mean. I just saw you blow up an entire building by yourself, and now here you are standing in front of the door like your usual self. Is it going to happen again? Is that why you left again?"

    He sighed. "May, I didn't have a choice. I promise you I'm going to tell you everything and that I'm not going to explode. Please let me inside before the neighbors see me—" He paused and looked himself over "—like this."

    May consented and opened the door wide enough for him to come inside. 0 stepped in and shut the door behind him. There was another moment of silence, before he asked awkwardly, "Where should I start?"

    May folded her arms. "At the beginning. Why did you leave and why didn't you try to get in touch with us?"

    0 crossed his arms. "I left because there was a problem. When I got stuck in morph the energy that I normally produce to run the armor went into overdrive. I got angry and frustrated, and the suit picked up on that and increased the energy output even more. Pi suggested we get out before I blew everyone up. Later, when we had time to think about it, we realized it would be a better idea to detonate near the Dark Gems, so we started looking for them. We couldn't come back because we thought it would trigger the detonation."

    "Okay, why would we trigger the detonation?" she asked.

    0 shrugged. "I felt ashamed. I couldn't protect Sarah and I got stuck. I was angry at myself, I hated myself. I was just trying to stay away from those feelings. Pi and I tried to contact you."

    "You did?"

    He nodded. "Yeah." He sat down in a nearby chair and sank his head. "We went to Brock's hotel room. We figured we could both check on him and use an internet connection to contact you. But—" He stopped, as the body of the girl flashed through his head "—there was this girl there. She looked like the girl from the Conner case. We found her Pokemon." He retrieved the two Poke Balls from his belt. "After we talked to these guys, we just sort of lost track of everything. It's just—I had never had that kind of experience. I'd never met a Pokemon whose trainer had died. Pi and I, we wanted to help them." He looked up. "I'm sorry, May. My mind still isn't back a hundred percent. Still working out the kinks."

    May said nothing for a while and absorbed the information. Finally, she said, "When you exploded, did you know you'd walk away from it or did you think you were going to die?"

    "Huh? No, we knew we'd survive. It was a question of getting rid of the extra energy. Now that it's gone, I won't be exploding again. May," he said, and stood up, "did you think I was trying to kill myself because I got trapped? Is that what this is?"

    May gave a slight nod of her head. "I don't know what you're going through, 0. I just didn't know. You left us. After you promised us you wouldn't. I just—I wish I had known why you left. You know, you aren't alone anymore. You don't need to shoulder these things yourself." She held out her arms. "Could you please hug me? I think I'm entitled to a hug."

    0 approached her gingerly. "Are you still mad at me? I can't really tell."

    She let him hug her, and breathed deeply. "I'll get over it," she said. "I'm not mad now, but I'm not happy either. You should have explained what was happening to me. I know you couldn't have, and I'm not asking you to understand what's going on in my head right now, but right now I'm just glad you're home safe." She looked up at him. "If it makes you feel better, you still feel the same when I hug you."

    0 chuckled. "It does improve my mood," he said. "How's about we go downstairs? I—Is Brock alright?"

    May shook her head. "He's not. He really isn't. He…maybe you should come see for yourself. The Dark Gems, they did things to him. 415 says he'll be a cripple for life."

    0 groaned. "Geez, Brock…" He rubbed his visor. "This is all my fault. If I hadn't—"

    May shushed him. "This isn't your fault. You didn't mean for Brock to be here. You didn't mean for anyone to kidnap him. We're all going to take care of him now. So don't worry. We're a team, right?"

    0 remembered the strange vision of the Golden Ranger, and nodded. "The best team," he said, and followed her downstairs.

    Inside Ranger Downs, Brock was indeed not doing well. He was awake and on quite a bit of painkillers, judging from the IV drip bag latched to his bed. His limbs were withered pieces of flesh that dangled uselessly off the bed. His eyes were constantly moving, but they weren't looking at anything.

    "Who's there?" he asked the room. "May? May, are you back?"

    "Yes, I'm here Brock," she said. "I had to go let 0 in. You remember me telling you about 0, right?"

    May crossed over and placed her hand on Brock's shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "The guy, Ranger Gold. Is he here?"

    "I'm here, Brock," said 0. "I'm sorry you got mixed up in this."

    "Eh, you know, it's all good. I'm sure I'd be furious, but it's really hard to be mad when you're on an IV drip filled with morphine." He grinned. "Do you know how nice morphine is? Because it's fantastic. I can't begin to describe how happy it makes me."

    "How's he been?"

    May shrugged. "Stable. We managed to get everything working again. But he's stuck on the bed until 415 can figure out what to do with him."

    "The other lady said I'm gonna be some kind of cyborg," said Brock. "It sounds pretty cool. Won't have to work out again."

    "Actually, I think the physical therapy's going to be really rough," said May. "You need rest, buddy. Why don't you take another nap?"

    "But I just took a nap," said Brock. "I kinda want to be up. I think I need to be up. Not sure why, though." He shifted his head so he was looking in the direction he heard 0's voice coming from. "So you're May's new husband? Do I just call you Ranger Gold, or what?"

    "You don't recognize my voice?" he asked.

    Brock shook his head. "Might be some ear damage too, but I'm afraid I can't place it. Have we met?"

    0 chuckled. "Well, I guess you deserve to know," he said. Then, to Pi, he conveyed instructions to have the suit's voice control altered to his regular voice. He took a deep breath.

    "Brock," he said, in a voice free from the armor's synthesizer or his years of inflecting an Orre accent. "You're telling me you can't recognize the voice of a little kid you used to know that came all the way from Pallet Town?"

    Brock's eyes widened. "You—You're—"

    0 chuckled. "Used to be, yeah. Now I'm just 0, and that's the way it stays."

    "Okay, fair enough. May here filled me in on what was happening, but I'll admit that I'm kinda hazy on the details."

    "I wouldn't mind hearing those details myself," said Serena from the stairs. Behind her, Max and 415 nodded in agreement. "Hey, big guy. Finish your vision quest or something?"

    "Or something," said 0. "My body's as stable as it's going to be, so it's safe for me to be back. I'll need 415 to run diagnostics on me, but so far so good."

    415 nodded. "That can be arranged, but before you do so we should debrief you. The explosion on the news did not have sufficient data."

    0 nodded. "As best as I can then, I managed to take down one of them. We can scratch the Dark Topaz Ranger off our list. I used the Auxiliary Pokemon System with Z and we managed to—"

    "Z?" asked May. "It flew all the way over here?"

    0 nodded and produced Z's orange Poke Ball. "Yep. I flew, May. It was amazing. But we managed to get the best of him and broke his Dark Gem. Then Dia ate him."

    "She ate him?" asked Max. "But why? Isn't he her father?"

    "He was," said 0. "He spoke to me."

    "He could talk?" asked Serena.

    "Yeah." 0 lowered his head. "Very honorable in the end. He told me why he became a Dark Gem Ranger. He did it because they promised to bring his daughter back to life. Instead he got a sadistic child who ate him. Now she's got all his power plus her own, and she's coming after Sarah."

    "Sarah? Why?" asked May.

    "Dia's dead. Or, at least, she's in some kind of in-between state where she needs life energy from others to come back to life. That's what she did to those girls, to Brock, and to her own father. She said she's full now, so it gives us time to prepare for her counterattack, but she says once she eats Sarah she'll be fully charged. She'll come back to life, and there's no telling what that means."

    "Interesting," said 415. "It shows a pattern, does it not?"

    "A pattern?" asked 0.

    "Yes. All of the Dark Gems have had a pattern that suggests the organization targets certain types of individuals, those who have lost pieces of their souls. For example, the Dark Sapphire Ranger was characterized with a lack of sanity. That is a fact we cannot deny. The Dark Topaz Ranger revealed he lost his daughter, and the Dark Diamond Ranger lost her life." She turned to Max. "And you, you lost your Pokemon. When you lost it, did you feel as though a part of your soul was lost in the process?"

    Max blinked. "I…I just remember there being a lot of pain and hate. I can't remember that first time I transformed, but I remember the pain." He nodded. "It could have been a piece of my soul."

    "Then that explains the actions of both Dia and Top. Dia fed in other to regain her life and, as a result, her piece of soul. Top was compelled to help, as her regaining her life would return his daughter and, again, his soul. This may explain Ame's fervor for following her contract. If she does not, she will not regain her soul."

    "It doesn't matter why they're doing these things," said Serena. "They need to be stopped."

    "It does matter," said 415. "Our understanding of our enemy's plans are limited at best. We only understand their interest in May Birch and Serena Brine. We do not, however, understand the motivations of the underlings they dispatch to enact this plan. This information grants us a higher level of understanding of our enemy."

    "Regardless," said 0, "the fact remains we need to get ready. Dia's coming, and I'm willing to bet she's not going to be as fun-loving as she was around her Dad. Max, 415, I want you outside, ready for an initial wave. Silver, you're support with me in case they breach the outer walls. May, you'll get Sarah and hide here with Brock. Keep him monitored, but you're Watchtower for this little show. Everyone understand?"

    "Yes, sir!" his army shouted. Immediately afterwards, they noticed that someone was snoring. They turned as one and noticed that Brock had succumbed to the morphine-induced rest.

    "Now, I think I'll be spending some much-deserved time with my wife and daughter," said 0. "Everyone, get ready."

    The group dispersed.

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    Max wasn't entirely sure why he was being partnered with 415. It wasn't the first time it had happened, yet Max couldn't help but feel a certain reluctance to work with her. But when 0 asked him to do something, he did it, which was why he was sitting outside the house with 415. The two of them were watching the rising sun on a small bench.

    "How have you been feeling?" asked 415 abruptly.

    "W-What?" he asked.

    "Your condition," said 415. "I would rather not go into battle aware that my assigned partner was of a quality too inferior to handle the situation."

    "I'm fine, thanks," he muttered. "As fine as a guy can be when one of his best friends has been crippled permanently."

    "Actually, my query was in reference to your Dark Emerald."

    Max tightened his grip on the gemstone. "Why are you interested in that? Aren't you the grandmaster of hating Dark Gems?"

    "My views are unchanged. However, it is my understanding that something was done to you recently by the Dark Diamond Ranger. The reports from the battle suggest she tried to force you to evolve from Chained Form to Sealed Form."

    "Uh, yeah. That did happen, but I haven't noticed anything different. She stuck her weird shadow chains in me and tried to trigger it, but I got out of there in time. Other than that, I've been fine."

    "You are lying," said 415. "Your posture indicates something is troubling you about my questions. Out with it."

    "Why do you care?" asked Max. "There's no point in talking to you about it. You just belittle me and insult my very existence because I don't wear one of your fancy 'safe' morphers."

    415 was silent for a moment. "Dark Gem, you are my partner. You are responsible for my safety in the unlikely event of my failure. You are obligated to share with me any reservations you have regarding your current status."

    "There's no point in explaining it to you," he repeated. "You aren't going to understand what I'm going through. Nobody here does."

    "Are you considering defecting?"

    "What? No!" Max stared at her with a confused expression. "How could you think I'd do something like that?"

    "It is the nature of this business to question everything," explained 415. "When a parameter cannot be controlled, it is necessary to understand as much as possible about the subject if one is to make an informed decision. Basic logic, Dark Gem. Even you should be aware of such simple philosophies."

    "It's just…" Max started, but then he stopped. "It's just that I'm scared of evolving. I'm scared that I won't be me. You know, when I was traveling with 0, he told me this story about his Bulbasaur. It was this powerhouse of a Pokemon, I'd only ever seen it a few times. Anyway, one day Bulbasaur realizes it's going to evolve into an Ivysaur. Everybody's happy for it, except for Bulbasaur. It wants to be itself, not an Ivysaur. And to this day, it's still a Bulbasaur. Never made the change. It missed out on the firepower of being a Venusaur, but it was always itself. I'm feeling the same way, and so is the Dark Emerald."

    "You are both worried you will no longer be yourselves?"

    "Exactly." Max lifted his chain and let the Dark Emerald glitter in the light from the porch. "We have a good thing right now. It's changed me, but I think I've changed it too. It wants to help me. It's not just an angry hunk of stone like the other Dark Gems. I'm worried that if we get more powerful, its urges will return and I'll be lost. And it's worried of losing its connection with me. It's still fueled by Gallade's soul." Max lowered his head, the pain from that loss still cut through him. "It's still fueled by my friend."

    "Would you evolve to save us?" asked 415.

    "Huh?"

    "I am speculating about the circumstances that you would evolve in. For instance, 0 recently sacrificed himself and became trapped in morph to save his daughter. Would you do something similar? If there was no option, would you evolve to save us?"

    "I don't know. You're asking me to choose between hypothetically losing my friends and hypothetically losing myself. It's not something I can answer right away."

    415 nodded. "It is a difficult decision."

    "Since when are you nice to me, anyway?" ask Max. "I asked before, but you seem to be a bit more concerned than just a person covering for themselves. You sound legitimately concerned about me."

    415 scoffed. "My opinion of you has not changed. You are a monster, but at least you are an honorable one. Should you evolve in battle and, should you turn from the honorable path you have so desperately clung to, I will make you this promise. I will kill you myself rather than let you lose yourself to the Dark Gems. I can offer you that comfort, at least."

    That almost made Max smile. "That may in fact be the nicest thing you've ever said to me," he muttered. "Now that I think about it, that's a little depressing."

    "I suppose so," she agreed. "Then again, your behavior rarely invites compliments."

    "That's rich, coming from you," he said.

    "What do you mean?"

    Max looked her up and down. "This whole thing, this demeanor of yours is meant to keep people away, right? You said so the other night, but you seemed really defensive about it. What I still don't understand is why you keep people at bay. We're as close to family as you're ever going to get, and we're not asking for you to take off the mask or tell us your name. All we really want is to know that those feelings of family aren't one-sided, that you care about us in your own way too."

    415 took a deep breath. "They are not feelings, insofar as you can understand them, Dark Gem. My behavior is based on the life I have lived, which dictates solitary survival." She looked at him, and her eyes blinked twice. "Until the Golden Ranger appeared in my life, there was no one. I mean that not in a stereotypical way, but in a realistic one. There are no memories of family or friends in here." At this, she pointed directly at her skull. "There are no memories of my life before PKM. I was taken in as a youngling and raised by the Golden Ranger and Bakaguru Niwa, as the other option would have been to abandon me once more."

    "Well, that explains the weird love-thing you've got for the guy," said Max.

    "There was no love. There was only closeness. The Golden Ranger was my father in every way but biologically. He trained me to seal myself away. He taught me to behave this way. He is responsible for everything I am, from my personality to the diction of my voice." She turned to Max. "You ask me if I love your family. I do not. You are an assignment to me, even if we have disbanded relations with PKM itself. But there is a sense of unity. That is really all I can do. We are all damaged in our own special way. I suppose unity is the closest that I can come to love."

    "Do you think we could ever really be partners?"

    "All things are possible. For instance, it is possible that a gigantic asteroid will strike the world, destroying civilization as we know it. And, as the planet begins to tear asunder and scatter into pieces, as the last remnants of the atmosphere fade and die, it is conceivable that I could turn towards you and view you as a partner in the instants preceding both our deaths."

    Max smirked. "What that a joke? Did you really just make a joke?"

    "Possibly. My humor inflection was not developed as a child." She lifted her hand to her ear, nodded, and said, "Understood. Will engage."

    Max sat up straight. "What is it?"

    415 pointed down the road. "The Dark Diamond Ranger will be here shortly. We are to act as a first response unit and draw her away from the inhabited homes. After that, we are to engage until such time as 0 can guarantee May and Sarah Birch's safety. He will then enter combat. Serena Brine will act as a measure of security against Rangerling invasion of Ranger Downs."

    Max nodded and got to his feet. His chain immediately began slinking over his arms in preparation for his transformation. "You sure we can do this?"

    "Again, all things are possible. In theory, anyway."

    "That's another joke. This is getting weird." Max growled and pressed the Dark Emerald into his flesh. "Dark Gem Ignite!"

    Instantly, Max Birch disappeared. In his stead, the Dark Emerald Ranger emerged to howl at the dawning sun. His mind softened as it joined with the Dark Emerald, merging to form the single mentality they both shared. It was angry, very angry at the Dark Diamond Ranger. Inside, it was just as afraid as Max Birch had been of the power it would shortly receive. It knew its time was close, it had known for a while now, but the little girl had accelerated its development far faster than anything it had ever seen. It could happen tonight if…

    No, they thought. It would not happen tonight. If it did, and they lost their friends, how could they live with themselves for the eternity it would take to grieve for their mistakes? They shook their head and moved into attack position. It would not happen. It would not.

    Next to him, he saw Ranger Black materialize where 415 had been standing moments ago with the Magnet Mace in her hands. "Wait," she said. "Not yet."

    Max grumbled, but relaxed his attack stance as they waited. And wait they did. What seemed like a little dot on the horizon took forever to get to their front steps, and when it did Max recoiled almost instantly.

    Eating the Dark Topaz Ranger had warped Dia. She slumped towards them, ten feet tall but as if she did not yet know how to control her body. Pieces of her were bloated with muscle, which others seemed like portions of a little girl's body stapled on. She had one powerful left leg supporting her entire frame, the other was a tall skinny pole that dragged alongside her. She supported herself through a combination of her good leg and one of her right arms. One arm was resting on the ground acting as a third leg, while the other was raised for balance. There was a crude, bone-like wing jutting out of her left shoulder, and her entire body looked hunched as she stumbled ever closer.

    "Sarah," she hissed, in an unnaturally deep, booming slur. "Sarah, come out and play! I'm sooooooo hungry, Sarah. Don't let me be hungry Sarah." She slowed to a stop in front of the porch and turned her attention to 415 and Max.

    "Dark Diamond Ranger," said 415. "Do not attempt to proceed further. You will not be allowed on the premises."

    The Dark Diamond Ranger made no sign that she even heard 415's warning. She turned herself on Max. "Eme!" she shouted. "Don't fight with me! Come play with me! Look how much I've learned! Look what a big girl I am! I ate my meals just like Daddy wanted, and now look how big I am!" She lifted her arms and cheered. "I'm bigger than everybody! I'm stronger than everybody! Whee!" She then erupted in a fit of giggles and almost collapsed.

    "Stand down," 415 repeated. "We will not warn you again."

    Dia nodded. "Okay, I'm just going to eat you first! Appetizers are important!" She drew herself up and started stumbling up the stairs.

    "Lade!" Max shouted and launched himself at Dia. The monster crumbled and almost seemed to fall apart as the Dark Emerald Ranger tackled her and threw her to the ground. He dove off almost immediately and got out of the range of its hulking fists, and it took Dia a considerable amount of time to regain her balance.

    "No, no, no!" she shouted. "I play with you! You don't play with me!"

    When she finished rearing back into attack position, she turned her attentions to the smaller 415 and reached out with one of her right arms. It instantly uncoiled, as if it was collapsing in on itself, into a long-range tentacle that tore through the porch and tried to wrap around her. 415, to her credit, did not simply wait to be attacked and leapt away from the tentacle before it could ensnare her.

    "Fine," said 415, and turned to Max. "Engage without mercy."

    415 ran forward and immediately took out the monster's weak right leg with a well-placed swing of the Magnet Mace. Whatever was beneath her skin shattered and folded into itself. Max took out the arm she was using as support to bring her right back to the ground. The two of them worked together to keep her on the ground and slowly began the process of battering through the Dark Diamond that looked as though it was stapled haphazardly to her chest.

    "Watch the tentacle!" 415 shouted as she looped around the monster's body.

    Max grunted and twisted left, but it wasn't fast enough to avoid it. He felt the monster wrap herself around him and start tightening her grip. His arms became useless, his legs feebly kicked at the air.

    Only then did he realize what it was she was trying to do. She lifted him up and targeted 415. Then she started hammering at the ground with his head.

    The Dark Emerald softened his mind, taking over so he wouldn't feel the agony that threatened to rip through his body. His neck was crushed instantly into tiny little pieces inside his armor, but that was nothing compared to Dia's intended target.

    415 was hammered into the ground, battered and bruised. She dodged the first few strikes, but there were too many, too many. Eventually Dia struck 415's leg and offset her balance. 415 fell and was then battered by the body of the Dark Emerald Ranger.

    Dia giggled. "Now we're playing!" it cried. "Isn't this fun? Aren't you having a great time at my tea party? Whee!"

    The Dark Emerald woke Max just enough to let him know what was happening, what Dia was making him do to 415. They conversed. The Dark Emerald could not let Max wake up, not entirely, as the pain would be too terrible. Max understood that, and agreed. What then, could be done?

    There was one option, one that neither one of them cared to consider. But Max could not muster the strength to escape, and the Dark Emerald was not powerful enough as it was now. They were still in Chained Form, fighting a monster that had not only started out in Shattered Form, it had taken in another Dark Gem into its being.

    The point at which they finally arrived at a consensus came when 415 stopped moving. The Dark Diamond Ranger paused from the onslaught, if only to gleefully look at her handiwork.

    "That'll teach you," she murmured. "Teach all of you to think you can stop a growing girl like me. Now for my first appetizer."

    "Laaaaaaaaaaade!"

    An unearthly shriek emerged from within Max, driving a violent emerald aura out of his body. His muscles strained, and all of a sudden he found himself strong enough to move Dia's gigantic fingers. He pushed them away, just enough for him to escape. He jumped down and positioned himself between Dia and 415 crumpled body. He lashed out with one of his chains, almost as an afterthought, threw Dia off-balance, and decked her to the ground.

    When Max was certain that Dia would have to take a bit of time to recompose herself, Max moved swiftly to 415's side and lifted her into his arms. She was injured, that much was clear, but the extent of the damage was difficult to determine. Several of her ribs were broken, along with both her right arm and leg. He could hear her heartbeat. It was still there, but there was a distinct dimness to its pitch.

    We need to help her, though Max. The Dark Emerald agreed, but there was no way to help her in their current state.

    Dia was getting up. His aura was growing more and more potent, crystallizing into a force field that Dia battered against, but found herself unable to break through.

    "Let me in!" she shrieked. "I'm famished!"

    Max noticed movement in 415. She lifted her head and secured her grip on his shoulder with her one good arm. "Dark Gem," she grunted. "We must fall back. Retreat is our only option. Ranger Gold should be able to handle things from here on out."

    But instead of agreeing, Max growled and shook his head. The change was already beginning. The force field was gaining power, enough for even Dia to back away with concern.

    "Are you evolving, little Eme?" she cooed. "That's so cute! You think you can stop me with a little pinch of firepower?"

    Max roared his response. He felt the chains around his arms tighten and tighten, threatening to snap his arms off. But they didn't. Instead, they simply melted into his skin and scarred the flesh beneath. He screamed in pain, but fought through the urge to pass out. He held 415 close against him, hoping to shield her from the sheer energy he was generating.

    Friend, thought Max, is this happening?

    It is, it whispered back.

    There was so much he wanted to ask it about what was waiting for them on the other side. But it had no answers he could understand, so eventually they said the six words they knew they should say.

    See you on the other side.

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    His body was of emerald fire again.

    When the light died down, and the screaming stopped, Max realized his mind was his own again. He stopped moving, he stopped breathing, he stopped for just an instant as the force field came down and he found himself exposed to Dia once more.

    His body hadn't changed much. It was larger, maybe a few inches or so, with quite a bit of extra muscle along the arms, legs, and chest. His chains weren't corporeal anymore, they were black marks that crossed his arms and his shoulders, creating intricate designs along his gauntlets. Everything else though, the helmet design that so looked like Gallade, the emerald and black colors, the rough armor, all that was still there, yet at the same time felt so incredibly different.

    He realized he was still holding 415, and that she was still injured. I need to get her help, he thought. Her breathing was getting faint.

    As if in response, the shadowy chains on his body began to slink down his fingers and, remarkably, jumped off his armor and bit through 415's forearm. She hissed, but then fell silent. Max was silent for a moment himself, until he was suddenly overwhelmed by what he discovered.

    His energy was sapping away, he felt himself becoming woozy. His own raw healing power was being fed into 415. He could feel her bones sew up and heal underneath her armor, her bruises disappear, her strength return.

    Of course, he thought. I can absorb and control my Pokemon as if they were my own body. It makes sense this version of me can take pieces of itself into others and help them in the same way. He waited until it seemed the shadow chains were done, at which point they withdrew from 415's body and back into his arms.

    415 was still unconscious, so Max gently lowered her to the ground. He touched her brow, then returned to his attack formation. Other than the sudden display of his new power, most of the armor remains the same. He could still move, he could still think. It was just the silence in his head. He couldn't hear the Dark Emerald anymore. It wasn't whispering advice to him. He could still feel it, but it was so busy powering his body he couldn't speak to it anymore.

    He pushed his loneliness from his mind, and faced Dia head on.

    "So," she mused. "Ready to feed me yet?"

    Max took a deep breath. "Not a chance," he said, in his own voice. "This fight's just getting started."

    He pawed at the earth, stamped his feet, and charged forward.

    Author's Note: Dia's really freaky, huh?

  3. #48
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    Default Chapter 35

    Morph Thirty-Five: Obsession's Wrath: I Will Live Again!

    "They're in trouble," said 0.

    He, May, and Serena had their attention trained on the monitor displaying the battle between Max and Dia. 0 had had the camera monitoring the situation focused on the fact that Max appeared to be transforming. There was some feedback on the screen, some static, but what was happening was clear.

    "He's evolving," said Serena. "What's he evolving into?"

    "He explained it to me once," said 0. "I think he's been in Chained Form since he got his powers. He would be evolving into Sealed Form. There's no telling what that means. There's no telling if he'll even be the same person."

    "That doesn't sound right," said May. "Max will still be Max, even if he's evolved."

    "Well, that may be," said 0. "But remember what happened when Sappho evolved. He was a weakling, but his powers got enough of a boost to give us a run for our money. The power overload may be too much for Max to handle on his own." He started moving. "I'm heading up there to help. He might need the whole tamer/Pokemon relationship thing to keep himself calm."

    "I'm coming too," said Serena.

    0 shook his head. "We need at least one person behind to make sure Ranger Downs stays secure. Brock won't be able to do much to help us, and May and Sarah aren't much in the fighting department."

    "Hey!" said Sarah.

    0 chuckled softly. "Sorry, baby girl. Be a brave little girl, but don't go fighting. You're still recovering from last time." He turned to May. "You remember the drill for the failsafe, right?"

    She nodded. "Seal all entrances into Ranger Downs. Get Sarah into the safe space. Coordinate from the watchtower monitor."

    "And that's why I love you," he said. "Silver, you stay put."

    She blew him a raspberry and transformed. "Not interested. I've been sitting out of too many fights lately. I'm feeling frisky."

    0 groaned. "Fine. You stay in the house, though. You can set up a preliminary defense system in the house. It'll buy May a little time to teleport herself, Sarah, and Brock if things go really south."

    "Sounds like a plan. Let's get rolling."

    Rangers Gold and Silver leapt up the stairs and the door sealed itself behind them. 0 and Serena headed through the kitchen and towards the front door. It was in the atrium they found themselves suddenly stopped by an invading force of Rangerlings. Ame stood in the middle with a grim look on her face.

    "Ranger Gold," she said softly. "I see you persist."

    "That's the general plan," he replied. "Mind getting out of our way?"

    Ame shook her head. "There is no force that will allow me to comply with that request. My Rangerlings will have you, then Ranger Silver, and then they will have your wife, daughter, and friend. Dia will devour your friends outside. Then my contract will finally conclude."

    "There's a little problem with that," said Serena.

    Ame raised her brow. "Oh? What might that be?"

    Serena patted Ranger Gold on the back. "My buddy here. See, he don't take kindly to you folks, and he did totally destroy your beastie Top. Methinks he won't be held back for long by a few dozen Rangerlings."

    Ame smirked. "True, I suppose. Ranger Gold has been allowed to grow at an unchecked rate over the course of our little war. However, there is such a thing as quantity when quality remains stagnant. Let us see how you do against two hundred Rangerlings. I assure you they're merely waiting for you to tire out before they overrun you like a horde of Durant." She looked 0 right in the face. "Tell me something, Ranger Gold. How long do you think you will last before my sheer numbers overwhelm you? How long do you think Eme will last out there before he is eaten? How long until Ranger Black falls? How many of us do you think you can destroy before you can even find out?"

    0 crouched. "Every last one of you. Silver?"

    Serena nodded. "Go. I'm pretty sure I can handle just a few hundred of these. I've been hitting the gym."

    "Good. I'll deal with the preliminary wave. Think you might need Rescue Mode for this."

    "No promises, but I'll make sure your family's safe."

    "Stay safe. You're part of the family too."

    Serena blushed underneath her visor. "Don't make me regret this," she grumbled.

    0 chuckled. "Right."

    Ame cleared her throat. Both 0 and Serena looked at her. "If you are quite done," she murmured, "shall we conclude this?"

    0 nodded. "Ready…go!"

    0 exploded in a bright flash of light. Instantly, ten Rangerlings surrounding him vanished in rapid bursts of dust. Serena could barely track him as he rocketed around the room with his Bolt Blade. But he was gone before she knew it and the door he'd used was smashed on its hinges, leaving her to face off against one hundred and seventy Rangerlings.

    "Guess that just leaves you and me, Dewgong," she said.

    "I suppose so, little Serena," it replied. "What should we do?"

    Serena shrugged. "Can we even use Rescue Mode?"

    "My records indicate that there was a Rescue Mode created when we were Ranger White, but I can't say for certain whether or not it still works."

    "Might as well try it. Fire up the Frost Fans and Rescue Mode."

    "Very well, then."

    Serena's entire body started to glow with a faint blue light. Her armor seemed to fold in on itself, transforming into a brighter, crystal-like material that was giving off a tremendous amount of cold. The surrounding temperature dropped and the air near her became visible and wispy. She twitched her fingers to ensure the Frost Fans were still there, it had been so long since she'd used them, and she brought them up to her attack stance.

    "Rescue Mode, activated," said Dewgong.

    "Thank you," said Serena. She didn't quite feel like anything had changed, but decided she would trust Dewgong's word that everything was operational. She noticed the Rangerlings growing impatient. One was too impatient and punched her right in the chest before she could even react. She expected pain and grunted, but there was nothing.

    Instead of injuring her, the Rangerling began emitting some sort of violent, agonized shriek. That's when Serena looked down, and realized that its hand was stuck to her chest, and that the hand was turning into ice. "I'm…freezing it alive?" Serena wondered aloud. She lifted her arm and brought a Frost Fan down on its hand, which shattered instantly. The Rangerling whimpered and fell straight to the floor.

    "Is my entire body ice?" she wondered. She tried touching her shoulder, but she didn't freeze to herself. Then she took a step forward and realized that the floor beneath her feet had frozen completely solid. She could have given it a little tap and broken right through.

    "So everything freezes but me?" she asked herself, and then grinned. "Oh, this is going to be plenty useful."

    She ran up to the nearest Rangerling and punched it directly in the gemstone in its chest. Its chest froze instantly, and when Serena drew her fist back the chest simply broke apart and the little monster collapsed into a pile of black dust.

    She punched her fists together, and turned to the rest of the party. "Next," she said with a smirk. "Come on. You should know I'm not a one boy show."

    Ame turned to her forces. "Everyone, attack. She cannot touch all of you. Overwhelm her, pin her down, and be about our business."

    The Rangerlings obeyed and charged forward. Serena ducked out of the way of the first wave but wasn't so lucky with the second. They slammed into her and she heard them shriek the instant they touched her. She got through quickly, using the Frost Fans to keep a majority of them at bay and away from her body and smashing through the ones who had been unlucky enough to get too close.

    "Left, little Serena!" shouted Dewgong.

    Serena flipped and twisted her body left, just barely avoiding two Rangerlings attempting to jump and cover her with their bodies. She tagged both of them on the back and their entire shoulders, back, and neck froze instantly. She smashed them apart with her fans.

    "Thanks for the assist," she said. "Now what?"

    Dewgong thought for a moment. "I can apply power to your boots to make everything they touch turn to ice. Are you still good at skating, little Serena?"

    Serena smirked. "I don't even want to think about how long ago that was. Better fire it up."

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    In reflection, Max didn't remember doing much thinking while transformed. Usually, his mind would sort of doze off and a gentle haze would settle in. He would be part of the action, but distant from it as well. It was often like directing a movie. He could suggest changes and revisions to the motion of his body, but it was always as though someone else was controlling those specific motions for him. The Dark Emerald had always been there to help, always whispering suggestions to keep him, them, alive. Always…

    Until now. For the first time, Max found himself fighting alone with a quiet mind and one hundred percent control over his body. It was frustrating. He would tell the arm to move, and it would move a little too quickly. His control over his transformed body was unrefined, and he paid the price for it by continuously missing Dia. Each blow moved entirely too quickly, and each blow swung wildly to a location Max assumed Dia would be at, but would never arrive at fast enough to connect.

    "It's too quiet," he muttered with his own voice. That in itself was strange, Max was so used to thinking the words to say, and then having them flow out in Gallade's growl, that hearing his own voice was an experience in of itself. "Too quiet." He was so used to hearing the Dark Emerald whispering to him, pushing him on, looking out for him, that being on his own was a little nerve-wracking, even with his newfound strength.

    "Little Eme," she hissed, "what's wrong with you? Why won't you play right? I wanna play right."

    Max didn't respond. He was far too busy avoiding the tentacle growing out of her back. He missed his chains. He was so used to relying on them to help him in combat. Now he just had his flimsy arms that couldn't extend or anything.

    "Wait," he said to himself. "The chains."

    He extended the shadowy chains and bit into Dia's skin. Dia grunted briefly, and then started laughing. Max instantly understood why, he felt his strength start fading away into Dia's body. He tore himself away immediately, his breath ragged, and paused to regain his strength.

    "Do you want to lose the game, Eme?" she asked. "You should know you can't take, only give. What a silly mistake to make. That's like losing your queen to a pawn in chess!"

    Max recovered quickly, but the fight was getting more and more dangerous. His Dark Gem had radically shifted his battle style, his entire body felt different. Dia, meanwhile, seemed perfectly comfortable in her new body and was more than happy to try to take Max's head off. Max wasn't sure if that could kill him, but he wasn't exactly eager to find out.

    "Finding it hard to move that new body?" asked Dia. "Don't worry. I'll gobble it up soon enough."

    Max dodged, drawing Dia away from 415's body. She now stood a good two hundred feet away from his fight, just where he wanted her. He couldn't have the distraction of having to fight Dia for 415. It was a fight he knew would take a toll on whatever new powers he'd achieved.

    "If I can't attack with these new powers and I'm too unused to moving my own body, then what good is this thing?" he wondered. He just barely avoided getting wrapped up by Dia's tentacle before he noticed a shadow descending from the sky. "What the—"

    What it was, Max immediately found out, was 0 tucking his wings into a dive in Chariard Form. He heard the roar not two seconds later, a mighty blast of volume and wrath that even made Max's heart skip a beat. Max did what anyone else would have done, and made the decision to clear the blast radius as 0 rocketed down to earth.

    "Synchronization Drive: Inferno!" 0 roared. Everything surrounding him turned red as he body slammed Dia and seared her body in a flash of fire and heat.

    Max could smell Dia cooking when 0 stood up and positioned himself away from her reforming, mangled body. "You look different," he said, taking in the subtle changes in Max's ranger form.

    He nodded. "So do you. I take it Z came back?"

    "It's as if I was being pummeled by Entei," said 0, and then turned to look at Dia. "Having some trouble?"

    Max grunted. "It's not so much trouble as it is getting used to everything. I don't have my chains anymore. I can't hear the Dark Emerald anymore. It's all really confusing."

    0 nodded. "My advice is to worry about it later, right now we need to figure out a way to put her down." The two of them agreed, and then turned to face the smoky monster.

    Dia was not happy, not happy at all. She screamed murder as she stood up. Steam was pouring out from all over her body and one of her three arms had been reduced to a melted husk. "You don't get to play with me like that!" she shrieked. "Nobody gets to play with me like that!" She stamped her good leg and charged forward like a wounded beast. "Nobody!"

    "Max, split up!" Both 0 and Max jumped in opposing directions and circled around, dealing blows to the monster's sides. Dia roared, but couldn't reach them. Both rangers kept up the pace, striking and striking every chance they got.

    The only problem was they weren't damaging Dia at all. Every time they would get in a blow she would bellow, but it was more out of annoyance because she couldn't reach them. If she tried to focus on one, all they had to do was have that ranger withdraw and the other would take over until she switched her focus, and the cycle repeated over and over again.

    "We're not doing anything!" shouted Max.

    "Great," 0 grunted. "Why is it every time I get a power up, these fools come right back with something stronger?" He ducked underneath the tentacle and regrouped next to Max. "We need a new plan."

    "Wait," said Max. "I—I think I might have one."

    "What?"

    "My new powers," he said. "They don't exactly do much for me, but I was able to heal 415 when she was injured and most of her got repaired. And when I tried to absorb Dia's power, she just sucked up my own strength. What if I gave my strength to you? Together we're pretty tough, but if we put our combined power into the one body, it might be enough to take her down."

    0 didn't have much time to think about it. It wouldn't take long before Dia, even in her warped mental state, understood what was going on. "Will it affect me? I mean, will the effect be the same as it was with you?"

    Max shrugged. "I barely know if it's going to work now! We don't have another option and she's not going to be distracted forever."

    "Then do it," said 0. "Z, get ready."

    Max concentrated, and the shadowy chains slipped off his wrists and fingers to bind themselves into 0. They dug into the armor and touched the infrared particles that made up 0's body. 0 grunted, and then relaxed as an overwhelming burst of energy flooded into him. Max felt his energy slip away, touching the particles that made up 0's body, when he made an interesting discovery.

    It wasn't anything too noticeable, he barely saw it. Just a flash, an instant, of flesh and blood inside 0's body. Then it was gone, and there was nothing to be seen but infrared.

    "0, what was that?" asked Max.

    0 barely heard him. "W-What?"

    "Your body, it's still—" Max felt his head lighten, he couldn't think. 0 had drained too much energy from him. He felt his knees grow weak. In response, his shadow chains instantly retracted from 0 and back into Max's arms. Max then felt his armor fade away and he found himself sinking to the ground.

    "Max!" 0 shouted. He caught Max just before he collapsed. "Max! Speak to me!"

    Max's voice was faint. "…Fine," he mumbled. "Your body though. It's…" Then his eyes rolled back and he fell unconscious.

    "What about my body?" 0 shouted.

    "Focus your attention," said Z. 0 looked up. "The monster has made progress towards your base of operations. Our power output suggests it will be impossible for it to ignore us."

    Z was right. He felt a surge of energy supplementing his already-supercharged Chariard Form. There was a faint green aura around him, 0 figured it was the Dark Emerald energy from Max. Strangely, it wasn't conflicting with the Ailed Morpher. The two energy sources seemed to be flowing well together.

    "Right," he said. 0 casually walked up to Dia and punched her right in the face with a Dragon Claw. She stopped dead in her tracks and was thrown back by the force of the blow. 0 watched her fall all over herself and positioned himself in between the Dark Diamond Ranger and Ranger Downs.

    "Stop playing so rough!" she screamed. "I'm getting hungry!"

    She started hobbling forward, trying as hard as she could to run. 0 just prepared a defensive stance to target the giant gemstone in the center of her chest. "You're not eating anyone, Dia!" he shouted. "I'm sending you to join your father!"

    "Don't talk about Daddy!" Suddenly, and 0 hadn't been expecting it, Dia's entire body shifted and flattened out into a huge wave that crashed into him. 0 couldn't target anything, he could barely cover himself in Z's wings fast enough before he was swallowed up. Everything went black and he found himself being constricted.

    "Now I eat you!" she cackled. "Grind your bones to make my bread!"

    "Suggestions?" asked 0 calmly. She wasn't quite strong enough to pierce through his wing cover.

    "Inferno could melt you along with the beast," it noted. "Dragon Claw will not succeed in piercing its hold on you."

    "Okay. What could we do?"

    "We are supercharged, regardless of whether I am the Pokemon aiding you, yes? Is there no one else we might make use of?"

    0 thought. "Of course. Prepare to switch out." He would not have a lot of time between Pokemon, and Dia might sense what he was doing. He removed Tork's Poke Ball from its holster and positioned it as close as he could to his morpher. "Now!"

    Z's ball ejected and the wings vanished. He set Z's ball safely on his belt and literally shoved Tork's Poke Ball inside the morpher. Instantly, his mind shifted from the energetic rage that Z gave him and towards a tranquil peace as Oal Form set in. 0 felt Tork's mind touch him and greet him, it'd been so long since they'd worked together. 0 felt the extra armor clamp down on his body and Dia increase the pressure. But that was fine, he thought. He and Tork were more than capable of taking things from here.

    As if in response, Tork instantly generated the blue force field that was Protect. This time, however, 0 noticed a faint piece of green amidst the blue, the effects of the Dark Emerald. Then, Tork and 0 calmly started to expand the force field further and further out until it was a huge bubble.

    "No!" shouted Dia. She contracted, trying to force them down, but to no avail. "No no no no no no no no!"

    She exploded rather suddenly, and bits of diamond scattered around 0 as he looked up into the beautiful sky.

    Tork was concerned, but 0 calmed it down. After all, they had yet to shatter her diamond. Surely she would reform and reform until that was taken care of. They watched as the little flecks of gemstone did indeed begin squirming around in an effort to join themselves together again.

    0 turned his attention to Max and 415. They appeared safe and were regaining consciousness. Good, they thought. One less thing to worry about. 415 recovered first and, seeing what was going on, immediately moved to drag Max further away from the conflict. 0 and Tork made a mental note to thank them later.

    Dia was almost completely reformed, but the giant hulk was gone. Instead, they saw a tiny little girl in a costume that seemed entirely too evil for her to be wearing. Dia perked up her head.

    "You won't kill little old me, will you?" she asked sweetly. "I'm just a little girl."

    0 and Tork knew better than to trust her. This was her last gambit and they wouldn't be following it. 0 moved forward to end the battle, but suddenly stopped. An image flashed inside his mind, a single photo of Sarah in almost the exact same pose. In that moment, in that crucial instant of decision, 0 froze.

    That instant was all she needed. Dia rushed forward and drove him to his knees. He let her. She bent his body backwards and grabbed him by the neck. He let her. She positioned her claws so that they would rip apart his morpher in their next strike. He let her do that, too.

    "Goodbye to you," she whispered. "Guess you can't do anything right, huh?"

    She moved, but never finished. Her claw ended up just millimeters away from 0's morpher. 0, for a brief instance, believed himself dead, until Tork assured him that he was quite alive. He turned his head and saw what had saved him.

    Serena's hand had gone straight through the Dark Diamond Ranger, freezing the Dark Diamond and shattering it instantly. That was all it had taken. Just a quick flick of Serena's wrist and Dia was done.

    Dia started giggling. She tilted her head back and cackled at the sky. "You'll never defeat us," she hissed. "You'll never win. We'll just keep coming and coming until there's nothing left for you to live for. We'll take May, we'll take Sarah, and in the end you'll be just like my Daddy. Daddy couldn't protect me from dying. He couldn't save me." Her helmet vanished, and 0 looked into her cold, terrifying eyes one last time. "You won't save them either. Either they'll die, or you will, Goldilocks."

    And then she crumbled into dust and 0 fell back onto the ground.

    Oal Form instantly disengaged. Tork's Poke Ball went rolling on the grass, and 0 grabbed it before it got too far. "W-What's happening?" he asked, still a bit disoriented from Tork's influence. All he could think of was the little girl.

    Serena shut down her Rescue Mode and helped him up. "Gave you an assist. You looked like you could use it."

    "No, that's fair. I can't be the one to kill them all," he said. He adjusted himself. "What about the Rangerlings? Did you deal with all of them?"

    She nodded. "Yeah, this Rescue Mode thing is awesome. Can't believe I never tried it before. I might just be even stronger than you."

    0 chuckled. "I can still burn you to a crisp. Keep that in mind, ice queen." 415 and Max were approaching, Max having regained consciousness. "How are you feeling?"

    "Normal," said 415. "There was minimal damage thanks to the Dark Gem's new ability."

    "I'm okay too," said Max. "Guess my healing powers got a boost with the rest of my status." He dropped his smile for a moment. "It's still a bit quiet in my head."

    "You'll probably just have to readjust how you talk with it," said 0. "You can still feel it in there, right?"

    He nodded. "It's definitely there."

    0 clasped him on the back. "Well, how's about we go inside then? I think we've earned a very nice vacation."

    The others could not have agreed more.

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    There was a lot to do, and a very short amount of time in which it could be accomplished.

    There was, unfortunately, nothing that could be done involving the damage done to Brock's arms and legs. Despite the fact that he had managed to heal 415's broken bones and bruises, Max could not generate entirely new tissues and revitalize the muscles underneath Brock's skin. He would remain a cripple, until such time as prosthetics could be developed to supplement for his ruined body.

    However, all was not lost. Though Max couldn't repair everything, he was able to return some of Brock's body to life. The vital organs that had been damaged during his torture, and his eyesight, were returned to perfect working order. When Brock opened his eyes for the first time and actually saw his rescuers, tears of gratitude trickled down his face.

    "I…I can see," he mumbled. "And the pain, it's gone!"

    "The limbs will have to be replaced," said 415. "I will have the computer begin the process of constructing blueprints for the new prosthetics. They will be metal, but odds favor you walking again."

    "Oh, that's alright," he said, then turned sharply towards Serena. "Just the gift of sight is all I need to make my day."

    Serena smirked. "Your friend is a flatterer, 0. You should warn him about me."

    "We usually have things to keep him under control," said 0. "By the way, Brock?"

    "Yeah?"

    "We managed to get back into your hotel room and swipe your stuff, seeing as you'll be staying here from now on. We made it look like a robbery gone bad. Jenny's already listed you as a missing person." He pulled out two Poke Balls and released Swampert and Chansey. Both Pokemon immediately rushed towards their trainer with a flurry of concern.

    "Hey, hey, easy!" said Brock. "I'm alright, I'll be okay."

    "Chansey!" shouted Chansey and instantly pushed 415 out of the way so it could begin taking care of him. Swampert similarly moved to assist the Chansey in any way.

    "Well, it would appear we now have a full medical team," said 415. "Good. This means everyone can stop coming to me for diagnostics."

    "Brock," said 0, ignoring 415. "Swampert and Chansey weren't the only Pokemon we found in your room."

    Brock inched his way around his bed to look at 0. "They weren't?"

    0 shook his head and produced another two Poke Balls. "There was also a girl in the hotel room. One of Dia's victims. Do you remember her?"

    There was a flash of recognition across Brock's face. "I—Yes," he said. "Before Ame got me, there was a girl in the bathroom. I met her during the day. Christie, right?"

    0 shrugged. "I didn't check identification. She had two Pokemon on her. I decided to confiscate them since they were Unova Pokemon. It could take years for them to track down the next of kin for these Pokemon, and it'll only take us a few weeks. They allowed me to bring them here with me to work with us until they can be returned to their trainer's family." He opened both Poke Balls. Darmanitan and Elgyem emerged in two flashes of light.

    "Oh, you guys." Brock attempted to sit up, but Chansey violently forced him down. "You were Christie's Pokemon. You guys got caught up in this too, huh?"

    "Darmanitan," said the Darmanitan with a soft nod of its head.

    "Elgyem, ele elgyem," said Elgyem with a determined look on its face.

    "What?" asked Serena.

    "They won't be going anywhere," 0 translated. "Darmanitan and Elgyem have decided to join our team until they avenge their trainer's murder. I've decided they'll operate in Ranger Downs with Brock's Pokemon."

    Elgyem nodded, and immediately rose off the ground to take a position at the primary computer terminal. Darmanitan joined it. "Elgyem, ele," it said with a nod.

    "Manitan," said Darmanitan.

    "Looks like things are getting a bit crowded in here," said May. "We're going to have to build all new sleeping quarters for the Pokemon."

    0 grinned. "Not to mention this guy." In addition to Tork and Lu, Z popped out of its Poke Ball to reintroduce itself.

    "Woof," said Serena. "You really couldn't have brought that one out sooner? If you'd mentioned you had a super powerful Pokemon like that I would have made you get back in the helicopter and fetch a whole batch of them for your Auxiliary Pokemon System."

    "Actually, that might not be a bad idea," said Max. "Think you and May could take a trip down to Pallet and grab some more Pokemon?"

    "A trip to Pallet?" 0 asked. "I haven't been there in a few years. Besides…" He gestured at himself. "I'm not exactly suitable for travel as I am right now."

    "We could crate him," Serena suggested. "We'll tell them May has a huge pile of clothes in a giant suitcase. It's not like he has a back to ruin anymore." Everyone gave Serena a dirty look. "Too soon to joke about the morph-trapping thing?" she asked.

    "Very soon," said May. "We still don't know he's trapped. We could rig something up to help him." She turned to 0 and smiled. "Don't worry. You'll have your body back soon enough."

    0 scratched his helmet, and then immediately wondered why he was doing that. "I don't know, sweetie. It was implied that the change was sort of permanent. But I'm up for trying anything."

    "Well," said Max. "There was the thing that I saw."

    "That's right," said 0. "You were trying to tell me something about my body, then you passed out."

    "Didn't pass out, just lost a lot of juice," muttered Max. "Anyway, I noticed flesh and blood in there somewhere. It was just a little flash, and it seemed to move from place to place, but there are bits and pieces of your original body scattered inside your suit. At least, I think so."

    "Impossible," said 415. "His body cannot be inside the armor. It has already stabilized into a form specifically designed for the infrared code inside. His body cannot be physical and infrared at the same time. It would be unprecedented."

    "For humans, sure."

    Everyone turned over to Brock's bed. He had just managed to fight Chansey off long enough to get a word in. "You guys haven't really explained what's going on to me, but I take it he's stuck in the suit, right?"

    0 nodded. "Essentially."

    "Does the suit run on technology similar to a Poke Ball?"

    "The Ailed Morphers were designed to mimic a Poke Ball's functionality," said 415. "Only, instead of the Pokemon, the Ranger Mode comes out of the morpher."

    "That's a weird name for a morpher," said Brock, "but if it's anything like a Poke Ball, I might be able to help answer why he's got a body and he's infrared at the same time."

    "How?" asked everyone, almost at the same time.

    "It's a glitch in the Poke Ball's programming. Used to see them all the time in the old days before the technology was perfected, but sometimes Pokemon wouldn't be completely converted while inside the Poke Ball. So bits of meat were swirling around in the infrared. Doesn't hurt the Pokemon, but it does make them more prone to being able to get out of their Poke Ball on their own. You run into the glitch every now and then, but if you weren't looking for it you wouldn't notice it." Then Brock sagged, as if the exercise of speaking had completely drained his newfound energy reserves. "Might explain why 0's breathing when he clearly wouldn't have any lungs as an infrared being." Then Brock rested his head against his pillow and the faint sound of snoring filled the room.

    "Is he right?" 0 asked 415.

    She shrugged. "I was unaware of such a study, it must be obscure. To his credit, Pokemon doctors do have a higher working knowledge of Poke Balls than the layman, as their patients frequently arrive in the Poke Balls. It would explain why some Pokemon have the ability to liberate themselves from Poke Balls at will. If pieces of their real body still exist inside the ball, they might be viewed as foreign material by the Poke Ball if they will themselves to be released and the entire Pokemon could be expelled whenever they pleased."

    "We have had a few Pokemon like that. Ott and Misty's old Psyduck could do that." 0 rubbed his chin. "In any case, for them it was just something they could do. What if it's one of those things you either can do or you can't?"

    May touched his arm. "Hey. We'll figure it out, okay? No need to take everything all at once. Here, why don't we go see our daughter? I'm pretty sure she'll want to know everything's safe and that her dad's back."

    0 nodded and took her hand. "Sounds like a really, really great idea May." May led Ranger Gold out of the headquarters and towards Sarah's bedroom.

    Serena grinned and folded her arms. "My, my, do I love a man in uniform," she lamented. "Ah well. Max, 415, think you can handle everything here? I'm going to go out on patrol."

    "Patrol?" asked Max. "We just took down two Dark Gem Rangers. You really think they'll be back so quickly?"

    Serena shrugged. "I have no idea. I'm sure Jenny would want to know why we leveled a good chunk of Goldenrod City last night, though. Plus, I'm second in command. Should do something to earn my keep, besides taking down giant girl monsters." She turned to Elgyem. "Think you can run this bad boy?"

    Elgyem nodded. "Gyem," it said as a faint glow surrounded its body. Computer keys instantly began typing by themselves and the teleporter fired itself up. Serena stepped onto the platform.

    "Do you already know where I'm going?" she asked it before transforming.

    It nodded.

    "Psychic types always come in handy," she said, then vanished.

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    "Little Ame," whispered one voice. "Where are our other guests?"

    "Yes," said another voice. "We specifically invited four other guests. Where are they? Our caterer will absolutely lose his head if we have to cancel another party."

    Ame was standing in a small, surprisingly furnished cave. The lights were dim, but then again they always were. Ame bowed low then closed a door behind her. The cavern floor, while still a natural, slippery rock, had on it an old moldy carpet that she treaded on to take her seat next to the others. Like them, she too sat in an exceedingly tall leatherback chair which had a back that extended up to the ceiling.

    "Apologies," she said. "The PKM Rangers have grown powerful in their exile from their employer. Dia and Top have fulfilled their contracts. We were unable to procure Serena Brine and May Birch."

    "And how many Rangerlings lost?" asked the first voice.

    ""Three hundred total," she said. "Should we not dispatch them to detain more allies of Ranger Gold? There are several in Kanto and Unova that would prove adequate temptation."

    One of the voices blew a raspberry. "There is no point in that, little Ame," he murmured. "We have only two thousand Rangerlings left. We cannot waste them on foolish schemes which have proven to fail in the past. No, no, his friends are not the problem here."

    "The problem," said the other, "is you, little Ame."

    "Me?" she asked. "My performance has been exemplary. I have carried out three of your last campaigns."

    "Campaigns that have ended in failure!" One of them emerged from the shadows, Axi, and he ground his teeth. "Look, Ame, we like you. I like you, he likes you. We all like you. We're just wondering if maybe, just maybe, we could get on with the business of the rangers! We've been dealing with them for two years!"

    "Enough already with the rangers!" agreed Bix. "Do we look like villains from a Saturday morning cartoon show? Do we look like we should be outwitted by My Little Ponytas every week for the amusement and entertainment of little girls and hairy men? No! We're real big time bad guys! And we keep losing to a guy with a Pikachu on his chest."

    "How do you think that makes us feel?" asked Axi. "We have plans! Big, fancy, elegant plans! Classy plans! All we want to do is break things, and you're not helping us do that, Ame! You're just sneaking around while everything falls to pieces!"

    "Maybe you don't want us to win," suggested Bix. "Maybe you don't want to be released from your contract."

    "Incorrect," said Ame. "It is in my best interests that your endeavors succeed. The simple fact of the matter is that our staff continues to be outclassed regardless of our preparations."

    "What staff?" spat Axi. "It's empty here in the cave. Bix and I have just each other for warmth! You're the only one that's left to do something!"

    "You suggest I engage in combat?" she asked. "I was to understand that I was to never do so, under any circumstances. I almost violated my contract by rendering Dr. Harrison unconscious."

    "Times have changed. We will authorize it," said Axi. "Won't we, Bix?"

    Bix nodded. "Oh yes, there really is no other option, little Ame. Either you will bring us May Birch and little Serena, or we will crush you to death with our bare hands. Won't we, Axi?"

    "Oh yes. No question. It's far too late in the game for you to run away like a little girl," said Axi.

    "If you are suggesting that I run up to the PKM Rangers on my own, in their present and potential conditions, I will be slaughtered. There is no way to combat them with a sole Dark Gem anymore."

    "Well duh!" shouted Axi. "Obviously you'd be slaughtered. We wouldn't want that, would we Bix?"

    Bix shook his head. "Not at all," he agreed. "Then we'd have to get up and do something about it. We don't want that, do we Axi?"

    "Not one bit. We're so comfortable down here." Axi reached into his pocket and fished out something shiny, something that sparkled in the faint light of the cavern. "Here you go! Hopefully this will solve all the problems in the world!"

    He tossed it to Ame and she inspected it. "Another Dark Gem? If I may ask, to whom am I to bestow this Dark Ruby? We hardly have any worthy Rangerlings. The last time that happened we created Sap, and I recall the mess that Sap was."

    Axi shrugged. "Give it to whoever you like! We don't care, do we Bix?"

    "No we don't! But you should. It's your pretty little tasty head on the chopping block, not ours. So go, be off with you. We have opera tickets."

    "Silly Bix," said Axi. "We're going to the ballet tonight. I'm so sorry, little Ame. He just gets so messed up sometimes in the head. I think it's all the fish he eats."

    "That'll do, little Ame," said Bix. "Don't make us regret all the time we put into you."

    Ame required no further instruction. She rose and left the cavern, shutting the door behind her. She crossed through the cave and found herself outside, staring at the moon.

    She could feel the pulsations of the Dark Gem beneath her clothes, and gently lifted it from a pocket in her coat. The Dark Ruby told her where to go, and a small smile slid across her face. "Of course," she murmured. There was perhaps no one better to fill the position. "And away we go."

    Ame always did find the Orre desert beautiful at night. The moon was high, and the stars were out, a familiar sight in the desert but one she always missed when she had to go to cities with their bright lights and noise. She followed the moon east from the cave, heading towards a remote location on the outside of Pyrite Town. It would not be viewable to those with normal eyes, but luckily for Ame there would be no problems.

    She passed through the force field without any issue. The field did not even register her presence; she simply slipped through the atoms that composed it with a teeny bit of intangibility. Bullets immediately began to whiz around her, two hundred of them actually phased through her before she got to the complex. She tore through the soldiers guarding the front as quickly as one might rip through construction paper. She killed none, that was not part of her contract, but she did leave many of them regretting every decision in their lives that had led up to meeting her.

    The facility had not changed since her last visit. She walked through the familiar corridors until she came to the room she wanted, the room she knew he would be in.

    Him, whispered the Dark Ruby. Only him.

    She simply walked through the door, not bothering to even give the man the chance to open it for her. When she walked in, she found him sitting behind his desk, ever calm in the face of danger.

    "Why, don't I know you?" he asked her. "What brings you all the way to my neck of the woods?"

    "A proposition," she replied, and pulled the Dark Ruby from her pocket, "and a chance for revenge."

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    "So, why don't you just go back to your regular name?"

    Brock and 0 sat in the peace of Ranger Downs, finally alone after a very long couple of days. 0 had found a seat, and had joined Brock by his bedside.

    "It's a difficult situation," said 0. "When I went into PKM full time, they didn't want me recognized, so they sent me to this camp designed to reinvent me. I mean, I can barely talk the way I used to anymore, I've got this weird Orre twang I can't get rid of if I tried. I walk different, I move differently. You didn't recognize me when you met me."

    "I didn't?"

    "There was a dinner in Saffron I think we met at. Barely registered me."

    "Huh. Well, I didn't recognize you this time because of the whole…you know…spandex thing."

    0 laughed. "I used to call them spandexes, until I actually got in one. This one's closer to Kevlar."

    "Fancy," said Brock. "So, I guess I just sort of sit here until they figure out what to do with my arms and legs, right?"

    0 shrugged. "They replaced my shoulder a while back. Completely cut everything out. I never even missed it. Odds are good they'll just hack off your arms and legs and put in some first rate cybernetics."

    "Somehow I don't think I'm as excited about my limbs getting cut off," said Brock. "I've kind of grown attached to them, if you see what I mean."

    "Don't worry. With Chansey here, I'm sure the operation will be a breeze. It knows Sing, right?"

    "Yeah, it knows Sing. Trainers almost always prefer that to anesthesia when Pokemon need surgery."

    "Well then you'll be fine. I had to have my operation without any, so consider yourself lucky."

    Brock chuckled, then looked 0 over. "I have to say, when we were traveling together this wasn't exactly how I pictured everything turning out."

    0 looked himself over. "I suppose not," he agreed.

    "I mean, I figured I'd get to at least third base with a woman before I died. Now…" He looked himself over and shook his head. "Couldn't even make the move if I tried. Life sucks sometimes."

    0 laughed. They heard footsteps coming from the staircase.

    "That can be arranged, big boy," said Serena, the first to come down. "You think you're man enough to handle me?"

    Brock looked her over. "Well, I already got you on one date. Might as well try for the jackpot."

    Serena turned to 0. "Remind him I'm bad news."

    0 turned to Brock. "Brock, she's bad news. I've seen her run many a man ragged in just one afternoon."

    Brock just grinned sheepishly. "Never hurts to dream."

    "Now that's the spirit," said Serena, just as May wandered downstairs.

    "Oh, hey May," said Brock. "I'm feeling much better."

    "That's good to hear," said May, though she seemed distracted for some reason. "Uh, 0, could I see you for just a second please?"

    Serena appeared concerned about something. "May, are you sure? I mean, really sure?"

    "Sure about what?" asked 0.

    May nodded. "I'm absolutely sure, thank you Serena." She faced 0. "Come on. We need to have a talk."

    "Somebody's in trouble," said Brock with a chuckle. He nudged in 0's direction with his shoulder. "Go on. I'm sure Serena can keep me company for a few minutes."

    0 nodded and rose. Serena took his place and he followed May up the stairs. 0 wasn't sure what was going on. His wife didn't seem mad at him. On the contrary, she seemed nervous about something. She passed the porch too and led him upstairs. They kept moving until 0 found himself in his daughter's room.

    Sarah still looked pretty bad, but Max had been to heal her and most of the bruising was gone, along with her broken bones. There were a few shiners along her face, and her bones still ached if she moved too quickly, but Sarah was on the mend. Her face lit up when she saw her parents, and 0 could tell it was taking every bit of restraint in her little body not to jump out and hug them.

    He patted her on the head. "You being a good girl, Sarah?" he asked.

    She nodded. "Dad's brave little girl," she replied.

    "No kidding brave little girl," he said. "Not too many adults can get through what you got through without wetting themselves."

    "Ewwwww, Dad!" squealed Sarah and she pulled the covers over her face to hide her embarrassment.

    "Now, now," said May. "Out from under there, baby girl. We're having a family meeting."

    Sarah poked her head out. "Then where's Uncle Max, Uncle Brock, Aunt Serry, and 415?"

    May shook her head. "Not the whole family. Just you, me, and your dad."

    "Oh, okay." Sarah instantly sat up.

    May paused for a moment, as if trying to figure out the right words to use. Finally, she said, "I wanted to tell the both of you together. I wasn't sure if I was going to, but now that Dad's gone and got himself trapped, there's really no danger in letting him know."

    "Letting me know what?" asked 0. "Are you alright?"

    She nodded and smiled. "I'm fine, sweetie. 415, Serena, and I weren't sure how you were going to handle the news. We decided to keep it a secret because you were in a pretty fragile emotional state. Now that you seem better, you can know."

    She took his hand in hers. "What's going on, May?" asked 0.

    "Yeah!" shouted Sarah. "What's going on, Mom?"

    She blushed. "Sarah's going to have a little brother or sister," she explained. She patted her stomach. "I'm not too far along, but we're sure. I'm pregnant."

    Sarah, after a few seconds to work out what exactly the news meant, was the first to respond. "You're going to have a baby, Mom? A baby!" She jumped up and down on the bed and started hollering. "I'm gonna be a big sister! I'm gonna be a big sister! Yay!" She kept jumping until the euphoria died down and the pain from her ribs kicked in, at which point she still kept cheering from a seated position on the bed.

    0 had not moved. His hand was still being held by May. "Are you alright?" May asked. "Is this…you know, okay?"

    He slowly turned. "Okay? This is…the best news I've ever heard in my life! This is better than when I got Pikachu, better than we got married, almost as good as when Sarah was born. This is…" He paused, and placed his hand where his heart would have been. "I don't exactly have words to describe what I'm feeling right now. It's just…my heart is beating so fast. It's going a mile a minute!" He grabbed her hand and placed it against his chest. "Can you feel it? It's there."

    She nodded in surprise. "I can feel it," she said.

    "I mean, I just feel like exploding. I can't—" Suddenly, 0 groaned and bent over onto the floor. He twitched and moaned as his body started glowing.

    "0!" shouted May. "0, what's wrong?"

    "Dad?" Sarah shouted. "Dad!"

    But 0 couldn't hear them. He was too busy dealing with some odd sort of pain. He was aware it was there, and the pieces that made up his body were being ripped apart, but it was almost as though he was outside himself while it happened. "I feel really funny, guys!" he muttered. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the pain stopped and he found himself able to stand up again. "Sorry about that, I guess there was still some residual—"

    May abruptly cut him off by screaming very loudly and cupping her mouth with her hands. Sarah joined suit, and 0 wasn't sure why.

    "Hey!" he barked, and scratched at the hair on his head. "What're you screaming at me for? I'm the one who—" Then 0 stopped talking, because he realized he had just scratched the hair on the top of his head. Hesitant, as if he were certain it had just been a trick, he raised his hand and felt the top of his head again.

    Coarse, black locks met his fingertips. Suddenly, 0 realized he had fingertips again. He moved passed May and Sarah and towards a dresser mirror in Sarah's room. There, sure enough, was his old face and his old body looking back at him. He turned to his family.

    "Do you see it too?" he asked them. Slowly, in unison, May and Sarah nodded their heads. "Then I'm not hallucinating?" Once more in unison, May and Sarah shook their heads. "Then, I'm back?"

    "Dad!" shouted Sarah, and all but tackled him to the floor. May followed suit, covering his face with kisses.

    "Hey, this is great!" he shouted. "Now the kid won't just have pictures of me. He'll be able to see the real genuine article."

    "Are you sure that would be an improvement?" 0 looked up, 415 was standing in the doorway with a strange expression stapled to her face. It wasn't surprise, no, it was something else.

    "Are you trying to look baffled, 415?" he asked, focusing on the task of figuring out her expression. Then, as if there was some sort of switch, he felt the strange pain again and noticed he was back into his own Ranger Gold uniform.

    415 coughed. "The expression I was going for was incredulity," she replied. "It appears you have managed to manipulate the glitch Brock Harrison spoke of."

    0 looked himself over again. He was back to the uniform. "Not for long, though. Guess I really am stuck like this."

    415 shook her head. "Hope springs eternal, Ranger Gold. Perhaps there are other ways of extending the glitch. Should we run some tests?"

    0 nodded. "Absolutely. I haven't had a nap in five years, and I can't wait to try them out with my brand new body."

    "Then right this way. And bring the three of them with you. They might prove useful."

    "The three of them?" It took a moment for 0 to remember. "Oh yeah." He turned to his wife and daughter and offered them his arms. "Shall the four of us go downstairs and see about this glitch of mine?"

    May rubbed her belly and nodded. "Love to, dear."

    Sarah practically tackled her father's arm. "We're having a baby! We're having a baby!"

    0 laughed. "Yes we are, baby girl. Yes we are."

    Then they went down the stairs.

    Author's Note: With this arc concluded, I thought it would be fun to talk about my weird little theories about the Pokémon universe. Specifically, the technology. The PKM Rangers have morphers specifically designed to mimic the Poke Ball technology that flourishes in this particular universe, and because of that I wanted to be as detailed as possible about what Poke Balls did and how they work. Now, I suppose one could simply accept the fact that Poke Balls work and leave it at that, but I've always wondered what makes them tick, so I decided to include the technical specs (at least in my head) of how Poke Balls worked as a way to explain the morphers used in the series.

    Next chapter will be a bit of a filler chapter, then things are going to heat up again!

  4. #49
    Scholarly Gentleman
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    Default Chapter 36

    Morph Thirty-Six: Brand New Day

    "Your name escapes me, young lady," said the man, offering Ame a seat across from his desk. She took it, still cradling the Dark Ruby in her hands.

    "I am called Ame, Alexander Charon," she replied. "As I said, my employers wish to discuss some business with you. Business that concerns your PKM Rangers."

    Charon laughed. "I'm afraid you're misinformed, Ms. Ame. You see, PKM no longer has rangers. Too volatile, I think was the word. Much better just to have loyal soldiers, though I will admit my own business has been lacking somewhat without the brand name the rangers gave me."

    "Our business has similarly lacked progress due to your rangers," said Ame. "This business, which must be completed as soon as possible, requires the absolute destruction of the PKM Rangers. I believe we could be of mutual benefit to one another."

    Charon raised an eyebrow. "Really?" he asked. "And what mutual benefit might that be?"

    "Perhaps an anecdote would best explain our situation, Alexander Charon," said Ame.

    Charon raised his hand. "By all means, Ms. Ame."

    "Thank you. Alexander Charon, have you ever wondered why this country of Orre has no naturally occurring Pokemon? Why there are no native Pokemon, despite our distance from other countries such as Hoenn or Kanto? Surely there should be some native species, but there are not. Have you ever wondered why that was?"

    "I assumed it was because Orre is a barren wasteland," said Charon. "Humans colonized it centuries ago, but there wasn't anything living here before we arrived."

    Ame shook her head. "That is the popular theory, but no. Pokemon existed, perhaps more powerful than any others due to the harsh terrain they lived in. Yet there are none alive today. Humans must import Pokemon, and even the wild Pokemon are non-native Pokemon that have only just begun to thrive in the environment. Tell me, Alexander Charon, do you find it odd that Orre's entire population of native Pokemon would suddenly, inexplicably vanish without a trace?"

    "In truth, no," said Charon. "I don't care much for them myself. Always crawling around where humans should be. It's one of the reasons so few PKM Agents have Pokemon."

    Ame tilted her head. "Well, the reality is that the Pokemon disappeared for a specific reason. Do you recall the myth of the Pyrite Trickster?"

    Charon chuckled. "Ah, yes. I'm familiar. Something about a man who appeared and promised the people a great power, but one that cost them all their Pokemon. What of it?"

    "That man was Nicholas Brine," said Ame. "You may recall him as an ancestor of one of the three founding families of PKM, as well as an ancestor to one of the rangers. Nicholas was a native of Orre at the time of its settlement, when there was much strife within the region. Forces from the north threatened to seize Orre unless something was done. Nicholas found a way through old tomes that spoke of the Dark Gems. He decided to forge three gems of monumental power, strong enough to turn the tide of war. But, in doing this, Orre paid a price."

    "The price being?" asked Charon.

    "The price was the life of each and every Pokemon within the boundaries of the Orre region. Millions of lives, scores of species lost in an instant. And through that sacrifice, three Dark Gems were born, the likes of which have never been seen on this planet. Two of them contained the minds and souls of the Pokemon that were sacrificed, but this gem I offer you contains the bodily power of those Pokemon. It is the least powerful of the three, but it is substantially stronger than mine."

    "How interesting," said Charon, as he eyed the gem. "But whatever happened to this Nicholas fellow?"

    "He was ostracized. His family exiled him for his actions and he died alone, researching how to harness the power of the Dark Gems. He died holding his three Dark Gems, as he could never activate them himself. He died holding the bodies, minds, and souls of every Pokemon in Orre. Now I offer you the opportunity to extract revenge with me against your PKM Rangers."

    Charon considered it, then shook his head. "I am afraid, Ms. Ame, that such actions would not result in revenge against the rangers. The simple truth is that they continue to outsmart you and to defeat you. Did you ever consider why that is?"

    "They are underestimated by our operatives."

    "No. You have no power over them. Threaten them, fine. Hurt them, good, but where is the fun in it? Where is the joy you should feel every time they feel pain and suffering? They need to be tortured, Ms. Ame, not defeated." He reached into his desk and pulled out the charred remains of some small machine. "This will bring them torture. We will combine your technology with mine, Ms. Ame, then I will regain my morphers and give them to people more deserving of their powers."

    "Can a Dark Gem be combined with a PKM morpher?" asked Ame.

    "Oh, dear lady," said Charon, as he widened his grin. "All things are possible if you're willing to jam things in hard enough. Besides, it is absolutely necessary that we bring this morpher back up to code. The rangers won't know what hit them when they get a look of me in this little suit."

    "What is it?"

    Charon caressed the surface. "A prototype, from before we used ranger spirits. More specifically, this is the Master Ranger morpher, owned and operated by the late Bakaguru Niwa, also known as the mentor of our little batch of renegades."

    "Bakaguru Niwa," said Ame. "I am afraid I am unfamiliar with most of his records."

    Charon waved his hand. "It doesn't matter. He's an insect in the grand scheme of things. His story was that he died uselessly before his friends could come and save him." Charon held out his hand, and Ame deposited the Dark Ruby into his palm. Charon gripped the Master Morpher in his other hand. "And now I'm going to destroy what remains of his legacy so his name never haunts my door again!"

    The room suddenly filled with laughter, and Charon and Ame immediately began work on their little project.

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    It took some time before 0 was ready for an international flight.

    Regardless of the fact that the transformation shouldn't have taken more than a button press to activate after the first success, the simple fact of the matter was that it was weeks before he could bring his entire body over voluntarily. Sometimes a piece would get left behind, such as his head, so he would end up with a regular body and a helmet firmly clamped on.

    Today marked the second week of consecutive successes. As long as he was calm and had little to distract him from maintaining the shape of his body, he was fully able to reconstruct his physical shape from the infrared particles inside his suit.

    "Dad!" shouted Sarah when she saw him reemerge from the Gold Ranger shell, and proceeded to show her glee by tackling him. He grabbed her and positioned her sturdily in his arms.

    "Hey," he said. "Not missing anything, am I?"

    "The trials continue to be successful," said 415. "You now appear to have a maximum time of two hours before you will be forcibly reverted back to the infrared body."

    "I have the timer on me," said May. "It'll go off when we have ten minutes on the clock, so he can find somewhere discreet to change back, recharge, and come back out for another two hours."

    "Very good. Remember, the slightest undue stress will also cause him to forcibly revert back, so ensure he remains calm throughout the flight."

    "You sure we can't just teleport him?" asked Serena. "This whole thing would be a cinch if we could just warp them all to Pallet Town."

    415 shook her head. "Impossible. The limited range scarcely allows us to reach Goldenrod. Were we to try a trip to Kanto, chances would be good they would die."

    "Why's that?" asked 0.

    "The teleporter transfers the atoms that constitute the body from one location to another. Actual teleporters that are used for transferring Pokemon and equipment are actually part of a relay system that make shorter jumps over a longer distance to ensure safety. Because we want no one gaining unauthorized access to our teleporter, it operates at a different frequency and cannot connect to that system. Such is the price for security. Were we to attempt a jump to Kanto, the atoms that form up your bodies would break down and scatter due to the increased distance."

    "Gotcha. We go with the plane," said 0.

    "You guys had better get a move on," said Serena. "You lollygag here any longer and you'll miss your flight."

    "Now, you're sure you can handle city defenses on your own?" asked 0.

    "Yes, Dad," said Serena. "I'm absolutely sure. Jenny's been made aware our heavy hitter's going to be out of town, but I'm pretty sure I can keep the city under control for a few days. Plus, I've got Max and 415 here as backup, not to mention our new Pokemon support system." Serena grinned at Darmanitan and Elgyem, both of whom were busy recalibrating the computer system. "And Brock will have plenty of company."

    "At some point we're going to have a conversation about me getting some fresh air!" shouted Brock from his bed. "I haven't seen the outside of this hospital bed in weeks." Chansey glared at him, and he shrank back into the bed sheets.

    "Your prosthetics are being completed on schedule," said 415. "We should be ready to begin amputation and application within a fortnight."

    "Oh yeah…amputation. Great." Brock relaxed himself on the bed and tried to think about something else.

    "Take care of yourself," said 0. "We'll be back in a flash."

    "Have a safe trip," he said.

    0 stepped onto the teleporter with May and Sarah. Each one was holding a piece of luggage, enough for a week-long trip. 0 turned to Elgyem. "Ready to test out the civilian teleport system?" he asked.

    "Gyem em," it said eagerly.

    0 bent down to adjust Sarah's coat. "You have your receiver, little girl?"

    She nodded and produced a small transmitter the size and shape of a Poke Ball. "Yes, Dad," she said, in a tone that made it seem as though 0 had already asked her the question ten times already.

    "Me too," said May with a smile and produced a transmitter of her own.

    0 grinned. "Well let's get to it. Elgyem, transport us somewhere discreet."

    Elgyem nodded and fired up the machine. There was a bit of discomfort, almost queasiness, then suddenly 0 found himself staring at a concrete wall.

    They were just outside the airport, out of the line of sight of the security cameras and the security agents on duty. 0 looked around, both his wife and daughter had made the trip safely.

    "Everyone alright?" he asked.

    May nodded. "A little nauseous, but I think that's morning sickness."

    "I'm fine too!" said Sarah.

    "Excellent." 0 had been worried about May, but nothing had happened. She looked safe and healthy, and the little bulge on her stomach looked safe too. "We could have just taken a cab. You are three months pregnant."

    "Nonsense," she said and touched her belly. "We're perfectly fine. Come on, we have to go check in." May reached out and took Sarah by the hand. "Come on, little girl. Dad can grab the bags." She stuck her tongue at him and led Sarah inside the airport.

    "Hey, wait up!" he shouted as he slung her carryon over his shoulder and gripped the other two bags. "Geez, excuse me for being concerned."

    Pi was laughing in his head. "Way to go, Superdad."

    "I see nothing wrong with wanting my wife and unborn child safe," said 0.

    "True, but you could tune it down a little. Remember, too much stress, no more human body."

    "Thanks, I'll keep it in mind." He caught up with May and Sarah just as they had gotten in line at the ticket counter.

    "Everything alright?" asked May with a sweet smile.

    "Very much so," he said, then turned to Sarah. "So, you remember how to behave on an airplane?"

    Sarah nodded. "No messing around with my seat, no bothering other people, no screaming."

    0 nodded. "That's my brave little girl. I'm sure they'll have a movie or something for you to watch." Sarah seemed to be quite content to hear that, and began busying herself by looking around. "What're you doing?"

    "Looking for suspicious people," she said seriously. After a few moments she turned around satisfied. "No Dark Gems, but I'll keep my eyes open, Dad."

    He smiled. "Sounds good, kiddo."

    "Do you ever wonder if we shouldn't have taught Sarah all these anti-terrorism techniques?" asked May as an afterthought.

    "To be fair, I'm sure they'll come in handy when she starts dating."

    "Oh, that's coming up soon," said May. "She'll probably be dating in ten years." She lowered herself to adjust Sarah's jacket. "Are there any cute boys that have caught your eye, little girl?"

    "And what are their addresses?" asked 0 as he cracked his knuckles.

    Sarah made a disgusted face. "Ew, Mom. Boys are gross. They keep picking their noses around me. And they smell bad."

    "That's my girl," said 0.

    "Sweetie, you know she's going to start dating someday."

    "Absolutely," said 0. "When she's thirty."

    They approached the ticket counter and the subject suddenly became moot. May produced their tickets and the inspector checked their two suitcases. 0 kept the backpack as they stepped towards the scanners.

    "Uh," said 0. "I think we forgot something."

    May turned to him. "What?"

    "How do I get my morpher passed security?" he asked. "It doesn't exactly come off."

    "That is a good question," said May. "Just tell them it's broken and you can't get it off. It looks enough like a watch that they won't be bothered with it."

    0 nodded. "Good idea."

    May's plan worked. When it came time for 0 to get through the scanner, it beeped once and they asked him to remove the morpher. 0 used May's explanation, so they just patted him down and sent him on his way.

    "There's something funny about watching male security guards pat you down," said May.

    "Didn't think you'd be into that," said 0.

    She shrugged. "Just nice to see my man being worked over in a way that doesn't end up with him as a pulp."

    "What're you guys talking about?" chirped Sarah.

    "Nothing!" they both shouted.

    They reached the gate terminal just as boarding commenced. "Well, this is all moving very smoothly," said 0.

    "Now you've jinxed it," said May. "We're never leaving the airport."

    May was quite incorrect. The family jumped right to the front, considering they had first class tickets, and were seated in next to no time. 0 positioned the backpack in the storage unit above their seats while May began the entertaining process of getting Sarah's seatbelt on her.

    "Baby girl, you need to sit still," said May.

    "But look! Look!" she said, pointing to her window. "I get a view! I'll be able to see the clouds!"

    "True, but you need the seatbelt on," said May. "If you're not wearing the seatbelt, they won't take off and you won't be able to see the clouds." This instantly changed Sarah's mind about the seatbelt. She sat still at once and allowed her mother to fasten her in. May secured her own seatbelt just as 0 sat down.

    A stewardess was heading in his direction and he signaled her down. "Could I please get a hamburger and a cola?" he asked.

    She nodded. "I'll be sure to get that to you once we take off, sir," she replied. "Would you like anything on it?"

    "Cheese, beef, and ketchup please."

    "Can do." She headed off and 0 turned to May, who had an odd look on her face.

    "What?" he asked.

    "You're going to eat airplane food?" she asked.

    Sarah made a face. "Yuck! That's why we bought the jerky, Dad."

    He chuckled. "To be fair, I haven't had a meal in five years. I'm sure it'll taste just fine."

    A voice began speaking on the intercom. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. If you would please secure your luggage, fasten your seatbelts, and recall any Pokemon you might be carrying with you, we will begin takeoff procedures."

    0 waited while the airplane attendant demonstrated the proper methods of securing seatbelts, attaching air masks to children, and other things he was sure he would have no need for. In the event of an emergency, he fully to rip out an emergency door and fly his family to safety in Chariard Form. But he paid attention, insofar as he didn't fall asleep in boredom, and eventually the plane shifted itself towards the runway and took off.

    Maybe thirty minutes into the flight, the stewardess returned with the gourmet burger and a crisp, chilled cola. She set it before 0 with a smile.

    "Will that be all, sir?" she asked.

    He nodded. "Thank you. I'll let you know if I want more later." She bowed her head and departed.

    0 grabbed the two sides of the burger and lifted it to his face. It smelt delicious. He could smell the juicy, warm beef, cooked medium well if he wasn't mistaken, and the sweet scent of ketchup that had been drizzled onto the bottom bun. Soft, melted cheese adorned the top of the burger, and he very delicately took a bite into the sandwich.

    "How's your first meal?" asked May.

    He turned towards her with a smile. "This may be the most delicious thing I've ever eaten. I may have to have five of these."

    "I've never heard someone so enthusiastic about airplane food," said May.

    "To be fair, we are in first class," 0 pointed out. "I'm pretty sure I won't be as excited when they show up with the soggy sandwiches." He then returned his attention to the cheeseburger with the gusto and fortitude of a Snorlax approaching starvation.

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    "Your diagnosis is complete."

    Max demorphed. The process had become a much more fluid, graceful art, primarily because of how his mind remained during his transformation. Previously, his transformations included the light cloud that would merge his consciousness with that of the Dark Emerald, but now the only difference he noticed was an increase in sheer power.

    "I'm still not used to being alone in my head," said Max.

    "The diagnostic explains that. Here." 415 brought up a brain scan the equipment had taken of Max while morphed. "See these centers here?"

    "Yeah," said Max.

    "Those represent active consciousness or, rather, your functioning consciousness during the transformation. Unlike a normal human, your unconscious mind does not appear to exist. There are no unconscious decisions being made by you. All activity in the brain is focused towards your conscious self."

    "Alright. But don't I need some unconscious reactions?"

    "I was getting to that. There is unconscious activity stimulating pieces of your brain, but it is not originating from you. Instead, an outside source has supplemented your unconscious material, allowing your entire mental capacity to focus on conscious decisions. I believe this is where the consciousness of the Dark Emerald is being stored. It still exists, but your unconscious mind is not interacting with your conscious mind and thus you do not recognize the Dark Emerald is still in there."

    "Huh." Max looked at the brain scan and smiled. "Well, good. I'm glad it's still in there, even if I can't hear it."

    "In reality, it should have been foreseen. Previously, your mind was supplemented to the subconscious while the Dark Emerald utilize your conscious mind. It is logical that the inverse might occur upon evolution. Perhaps the relationship will change again upon your final evolution."

    "I hope not," said Max. "Every other Dark Gem we've come across in Shattered Form has been a total nut job. That's why I was so worried when I first thought I might be evolving. Now that everything's normal, I just want to stay that way for as long as humanly possible."

    "Well, remember my offer still stands to kill you once you become a liability," she said.

    "Duly noted," said Max. "I'll try not to become a liability."

    "It would be unadvisable."

    Someone coughed, and both Max and 415 straightened up as Serena wandered in Ranger Downs. "Heyo, everyone. How'd the tests turn out?"

    "Tests indicate the Dark Emerald is operating within parameters," said 415. "I will continue his weekly monitoring until we are certain he is completely stable."

    "Love it," said Serena. "Max, why don't you head out on patrol tonight? I'm beat, and we can't very well keep you stuck inside here forever."

    "We should continue testing to ensure—"

    "I'm making an executive decision," said Serena. "Besides, when 0's not around I'm in charge, right? Well, I say he goes out and gets his feet wet again. It's better for him to adjust to the changes in some actual patrol duty instead of sitting around in a lab."

    Max nodded. "I can do that. I'll go ahead and head out with one of the motorcycles."

    Serena waved her hand. "We can probably fit you on the teleporter. Why don't we give that a shot?"

    Again, 415 interrupted. "We do not know the effect the teleporter may have on his physiology. I request time to continue my research before we place the Dark Gem under duress."

    "Overruled," said Serena. "Elgyem, beam our Dark Emerald Ranger into Goldenrod."

    Elgyem nodded and began charging up the system.

    "Uh, you sure about this?" asked Max. "I have no problems waiting for that research data to come in before using this."

    "We were able to teleport two civilians with no Ailed Morphers today," said Serena. "I think the system can handle a little Dark Gem. Just take a receiver for good luck." She tossed him the Poke Ball-shaped apparatus and gave Elgyem the signal. Max vanished instantly.

    "Gyem, elgyem," it announced, confirming the success.

    "You should have waited for my confirmation," said 415. "It could have endangered our Dark Gem specimen."

    "Yeah, about that," said Serena, as she approached 415. "Is there any particular reason your attitude towards Max has changed in the last couple of weeks?"

    "My attitude towards him has remained the same since the moment I met him," replied 415.

    "So you've always been in love with him? All that verbal abuse was a fancy cover for your affections?"

    415 did not verbally respond, nor did her mask reveal any sort of blush that might give away her true feelings, but even Serena noticed when 415's throat tightened for just a millisecond before it faded away. Had she not been looking for it, Serena would have never have spotted it.

    "What are you staring at?" asked 415.

    "You twitched your neck. You're afraid," said Serena.

    "Absurd. I have long since trained out emotional responses, particularly emotional responses that have no purpose," said 415.

    "Then why are you being so friendly with Max? You were practically concerned with his well-being right there. Why do you think I was so adamant about it?"

    "I…" 415 took a breath. "I am obligated. He rescued me and evolved to save my life. Under ordinary circumstances, it would be ignored, but the Dark Gem and I talked prior to his evolution."

    "Ooh? About what?" Serena pulled up a chair and invited 415 to join her.

    415 sat down. "The Dark Gem expressed his fear of evolution. He had noticed how the Dark Sapphire Ranger changed upon evolution and naturally concluded that evolution destabilizes the mind linked to the Dark Gem further. Though we have had few problems after acquiring the Dark Emerald Ranger from the Dark Gems, it is also unknown whether the Dark Emerald will affect him as other Dark Gems have affected users. He did not wish to change. He was adamant about this belief. He should not have evolved during the battle with the Dark Diamond Ranger. He should have remained in Chained Form."

    "Instead he evolved," said Serena. "So you're wondering why he evolved when you don't think he wanted to?"

    415 nodded. "There is no explanation. Why would a person deliberately act against their own self-interest? The Dark Gem risked his life and sanity on the hunch that he would obtain enough power to hold the Dark Diamond Ranger at bay. Ranger Gold and yourself were on standby. Why did he then evolve?"

    Serena rolled her eyes. "Geez, you're even more clueless than the men around here. Have you considered the possibility that he might be in love with you, and love makes people do stupid things?" Under her breath, she muttered, "Like fall in love with you."

    415 nodded. "I considered that possibility. I informed him in no uncertain terms that I am simply not built with such capacities."

    "You sound like a robot," said Serena. "Look, you loved the old Golden Ranger, right?"

    "Not in such a fashion, but yes."

    "Why was that?"

    "The Golden Ranger rescued me as a child."

    "Go on."

    "I was a child in a military zone," she replied. "I was recovered by the Golden Ranger sometime between my second and third birthday. I was his daughter. There are no records of my family prior to my recovery by PKM, only that the Golden Ranger rescued me from the likelihood of becoming a child soldier, or worse, as I grew up."

    "Okay, so he rescued you. You ever think that might be what's going on here?"

    "What?"

    Serena sighed. "Do I have to spell out every single bit of romantic advice in this family? Look, you loved the Golden Ranger because he rescued you as a child, right?"

    "Correct."

    "Well, isn't it possible that because it's been over two years since he died you're just transferring those feelings towards someone else? Someone you don't view as a father? Someone who, by sheer coincidence, also just happened to rescue you and cause this shift in personality I've been noticing over the past few weeks? Do I really need to keep connecting the dots, or do you get it yet?"

    415 considered the evidence. "What you say is not without merit," she agreed. "True, he did save me and, true, so did the Golden Ranger. It is natural the emotions would correlate. Yet, if this emotional attachment is taking place, there has been no rapid increase in emotion. Upon reflection, my attitude towards the Dark Gem remains unchanged."

    "There could be an answer for that," said Serena. "You might just have always been in love with him and subconsciously hidden it."

    "Impossible."

    "Is it? You've spent all the time Max has been with us belittling him because he's a Dark Gem Ranger instead of one of us. You try to kill him over and over again, you insulted him, you did everything to make him feel unwelcome. Couldn't that have just been a mask? Goodness knows May and I thought so."

    "You did?"

    Serena nodded. "Yeah. Classic move, really, pushing away a guy you really like. Can't tell you how many times I've done it. Just makes the guy want you more. We figured that's what you were doing, because we seriously wondered why you would torment the guy like that."

    "Because he is a Dark Gem, and thus an inferior range—"

    "That needs to stop," said Serena. "You're really not fooling anyone, so there's no point in putting him down anymore. You like him. He probably likes you. Get over yourself and do him."

    415 hesitated. "'Do' him?"

    Serena rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to have to draw you a diagram or something, am I? I just finished explaining your attraction to him, I really don't want to explain what to do with those feelings."

    415 shook her head. "There will be no need. However, I disagree with your final diagnosis."

    "That's not my problem. You want to ignore your feelings, fine. But, and I can say this from experience, you want him bad, girl. You want him real bad. I'd even say he's probably the first person you've ever wanted and that's why all of this is confusing to you."

    415 had nothing to say to that. She sat in her chair for a while and considered everything. Serena watched as the blank slate that was her mask began to shift. Her brows arched as she thought, her eyes stared directly into a small space on the floor, and her hands slowly began clenching into tightened fists. When she looked up, Serena saw an expression she had never seen all across 415's face.

    She was confused.

    "I…I do not understand," she said. "Everything you said makes perfect logical sense. But I do not understand how to utilize these emotions that are surfacing. What are they? How do I handle them? I…was not trained for this."

    "Nobody really is. Don't worry too much about it. You'll get the hang of using them. Or you'll kill Max. But I'm betting you'll get the hang of it. Max is hard to kill."

    "He is," said 415 warmly. "I have tried on numerous occasions."

    "There you go, speaking fondly of him. Next thing you know you'll be ready to have his little Dark Gem babies. Or at least actually say his name."

    "Perhaps May Birch would be more suitable to assist me in this self-analysis," said 415. "After all, she is the only one of us with a husband."

    "No way," said Serena. "Us single girls have to stick together."

    "I am unfamiliar with that vernacular," said 415.

    "Well, it's good to know you're not changing that much," said Serena. "Now let's talk strategy before Max gets back!"

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    Obtaining a cab at the airport proved to be much more difficult than originally believed.

    After the brief layover in the Kanto International Airport, 0, May, and Sarah boarded a small, rickety plane that 0 scarcely fit in for a short two hour flight that was a far cry from the first class service they'd enjoyed on the flight from Johto. When they got out at the Pallet Town Regional Airport, all of the cabs seemed to have mysteriously vanished. 0 spent ten minutes waiting outside in the rain before May found out the reason for the delay.

    "There's a strike," she said and held up a newspaper she had purchased at the concession stand. "All the public transport is out. The only people working are the airlines."

    "Great," said 0. "Guess we'll rent a car, then. I think I have a driver's license I haven't used." He consulted his pockets and came up with one of his fake identities. "I think this ought to handle it."

    May looked at the same. "Sherman Marsh? Where do you pick these names?"

    "I just picked random names out of a hat," he explained. "Much harder to trace names picked based on chance. You stick out like a sore thumb if you deliberately pick inconspicuous names."

    "Like Walter Jones?"

    "Sort of, yeah. Jones or Smith always makes you seem suspicious." He turned to Sarah. "Come on, kiddo! Dad's driving!"

    Sarah had been in the magazine kiosk looking around for some kid's magazine. She immediately dropped what she was doing and ran back to her parents. "What's Dad's name this time?" she asked.

    "Sherman Marsh," said May.

    Sarah made a face. "That's a dumb name, Dad."

    "That's the idea. Cool names can get you in trouble."

    Compared to the time 0 spent waiting for a cab, it took considerably less time to rent a car. He let Sarah pick the car, as they all seemed to look the same to him, and she settled on a giant caravan with a DVD player for the backseats. 0 just smiled and signed the paperwork, and soon he and his family rolled off the rental lot in the giant vehicle.

    "This thing is huge," he muttered. "The turning radius is all wrong." He instantly wished he could have fit his entire family onto the 0 Cycle.

    "It's awesome!" exclaimed Sarah. "I can watch all my shows!" She immediately dug through her backpack and retrieved some DVDs. "Play this please." She handed the first DVD to May, who showed 0 the title: My Little Ponyta.

    "Guess she's mostly normal," said 0. "Though I don't know why Brock likes it."

    "Oh hush," said May. "I think it's adorable that she and Brock watch it together every week." She popped the DVD in and it started playing behind them. 0 focused his attention on the road as they approached the Pallet Town city limits.

    "They've really modernized this place since I was a kid," said 0. "I remember that road over there used to be dirt. There used to be a fishing hole over there."

    "There hasn't been that much changed," said May. "Pallet's one of the few towns to keep their local landmarks."

    "I suppose so, but it's just weird seeing all these changes." They were getting close to the laboratory. "We're almost there."

    "Are we going to get to see all of Dad's Pokemon?" asked Sarah.

    0 nodded. "Most of them. A couple of them are still training around the world, like Z was. I can still call them, I used Z all the times for PKM missions, but most of them will be at this lab. When I got back from Unova I had all my Pokemon at Juniper's lab brought back here with me."

    "How long has it been since you've seen them?"

    "A long time. I still pay a fee for Oak to board them, but I haven't visited Pallet for years. I'm too easily recognized in my hometown." He parked the car in the small lot in front of the building. "They should be in. I contacted them via e-mail to let them know someone would be stopping by to check the place out for Pokemon storage."

    He stepped out of the car. "Coming?" he asked with a smile and shut the door.

    He would be lying if he said he was not nervous as he approached the door to the Pokemon Laboratory. He remembered how, two decades ago, he had walked through those doors with Samuel Oak and received the greatest friend he had ever known. He remembered being shocked, repeatedly, over the early course of their meeting. He remembered the parade of people that had gathered to wish him luck on his journey. He remembered wearing rubber gloves on his way out of town.

    He opened the door again, and found one of his oldest friends waiting on the other side.

    He didn't recognize 0, not at first. He approached 0 casually, loosely wearing his white lab coat as he always did, and shook his hand. It wasn't until 0 said, "Gary," that it dawned upon Gary Oak who exactly was standing before him.

    "You…" he whispered. "I haven't—we haven't. When did you come back to life?"

    0 smiled. "It's good to see you too," he said. "You're right, I haven't been around much lately. I trust my Pokemon are alright?"

    Gary nodded. "Yeah, yeah." He looked around 0. "May? May, is that you?"

    May nodded and approached Gary to give him a light hug. "In the flesh."

    Gary then looked down at little Sarah. "And this must be little Sandra—no, Sarah, right? Geez, I haven't seen her in person since she was a baby. She's so big."

    "Of course I'm big," said Sarah. "I'm seven."

    Gary chuckled. "How about that? Come see me in three years, I'll give you a Pokemon to make up for the weakling my grandfather gave your dad. Speaking of, where is Pikachu?"

    0 paused. "They wouldn't let it on the plane. Some sort of new rule about putting Pokemon into Poke Balls before takeoff, even Pokemon that won't be a bother. It just didn't want to go back in, so it's grounded back home."

    "Of course, I remember that. I'm thinking about writing a paper about Pokemon claustrophobia discussing possible treatments so adverse Pokemon can at least temporarily handle the Poke Ball without triggering some sort of panic attack."

    "Gary," said 0. "I don't mean to interrupt your train of thought, but we're not really here for a social call."

    Gary nodded. "What can I do for you? Got a new Pokemon to drop off?"

    0 shook his head. "I'm actually here to pick up some Pokemon. I have two slots free."

    "Sure. Want to take a walk, see everyone?"

    "Sounds good. I don't think Sarah has seen too many of my Pokemon."

    "Woo! Let's go!" shouted Sarah, who immediately tore out of the lab and in the direction of the Pokemon fields. May followed her daughter outside, leaving Gary and 0 standing in the laboratory's atrium.

    "Where's Tracey?" asked 0.

    "At a conference in Sinnoh," explained Gary. "Had we known you were coming, he might have stayed just to see you."

    "Sorry about that," said 0. "There were a couple of reasons for that. I can't get into too much detail."

    "Haven't seen you on the news, either. I think you were last reported in Orre living as a recluse."

    "I'm in a different field now," said 0. "Private security."

    "Huh. Glad to see you got your family back. The paparazzi were reporting on that for months. I think I even got interviewed for it. It was weird. I was doing some doctoral work and a giant camera crew broke into my lab. Had to redo the whole experiment."

    "You know," said 0, "you still talk too much."

    "And you're still a blockhead, but we live with what we've got. Come on, let's see your Pokemon."

    The two men strolled down to the fields. Instantly, 0 felt like he was ten years old again, visiting his old friends before the start of a brand new adventure. He remembered the time he came home and his Taurus herd broke loose of their fence, and the time he and his friends had spent rebuilding that fence. He remembered checking in on them every week when he was away. He remembered so much, in fact, that he almost didn't notice when one of his very first Pokemon strode out in front of him.

    The Bulbasaur was enormous, almost as big as a Venusaur. It lumbered over in 0's direction with a look of confusion on its face, as though it could place 0 but couldn't quite remember where from. 0 smiled, and purposely spoke in his natural voice as he had with Gary.

    "You look a lot bigger than you did when we first met in that forest, Bulbs," said 0.

    Its eyes widened. "B-Bulba?" it asked.

    0 nodded. "Saur," he replied.

    0 wasn't able to say much more. Bulbs jumped up and tackled him to the ground, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Bulbs buried its head into its trainer's chest, sobbing hysterically, almost like Tork would. 0 laughed and patted Bulbs on the head.

    "This one missed you a lot," said Gary. "It was really peeved when you had me ship over Tork."

    "That right?" asked 0. He turned to the Pokemon and grinned. "Saur, bulbasaur." Bulbs immediately recomposed itself, just in time for Sarah to pounce on it with a Heracross.

    "Cross!" it said with glee as it began to sap nectar. It turned to 0 and made a happy noise.

    "What's it saying, Dad?" asked Sarah.

    "It's thanking me for distracting Bulbs. Ever since Bulbs got this big, Cross has had a hard time sapping nectar from it. Cross, hera."

    Bulbs groaned, grabbed Cross with two vines, and tossed it into an adjacent tree. It readjusted itself and looked embarrassed.

    "Well, which ones were you looking to take with you?" asked Gary.

    "Well, actually I'm looking for Serp and Noct," said 0. "Do you know where they might be?"

    Bulbs nodded and started heading off on a path east. "Bulba bulbasaur," it said. The others accepted its invitation to follow it along the path towards a forest section. Sarah merrily strolled around and played with Cross, while 0 and Gary caught up.

    "So how's it been the last couple of years?" asked 0.

    Gary shrugged. "It's been alright. Ever since Gramps passed, though, I've been giving more and more thought about whether I'm doing right by him. I'm getting better at running everything, and Tracey's been a big help with the transition, but it's still hard to get up sometimes and work in the same labs I used to work in with him."

    "I think I went on a week-long bender when I heard about it," said 0. "It was after May and I separated, and I didn't get the chance to come back for the funeral. Pi and I just sat around and drank our way through a liquor store." He gripped Gary on the shoulder and smile. "Cheer up, though. Professor Oak would be proud if he could see us today."

    "Who's Professor Oak?" asked Sarah.

    "He…" 0 chuckled. "He was the professor in Pallet before Gary here. Great guy, he gave Pokemon out to most of the new trainers in Kanto. You got to pick a Bulbasaur, a Charmander, or a Squirtle."

    "But I thought you started out with Pi, Dad."

    0 nodded. "I did. I woke up late and Pi was the last Pokemon there. I seem to recall Gary got the Squirtle just before I got there."

    "I remember that," said Gary. "You were still wearing your pajamas."

    "And you had a sports car and a trail of cheerleaders. How did you get a license at ten?"

    Gary grinned and shrugged. "Having a famous grandfather has its perks. We were both dumb when we were kids."

    "Dad was dumb?" asked Sarah.

    "The dumbest," Gary immediately quipped. "But he's not so bad now."

    "Gee, thanks," said 0. "Are we there yet?"

    "It's your Pokemon, why don't you ask it?" Gary looked around for a moment. "We are near Gramps, though."

    0 paused. "Mind if we visit?" he asked.

    Gary shrugged. "Sure. It's quiet enough. Why not let Bulbs know that's where we'll meet it with Serp and Noct."

    "Good idea," said 0. "Bulba bulba bulb?"

    It nodded and took off running. Gary showed them the way to a small grove in the middle of the forest, a small, quaint meadow shaded by the trees. Sitting in the middle was a small stone grave with a beautiful garden cultivated around it.

    "The Grass Pokemon did a good job," said 0.

    Gary nodded. "I was surveying in the forest a few years back and it was just here. It's actually gotten bigger over the years."

    The piece of black marble was simple and unadorned. There was no bust of Oak's head looking out at them, no intricate shape or pattern carved on the surface. Instead, a small inscription was on the top, so small that they had to walk down a small path between the garden to read it.

    SAMUEL OAK

    PROFESSOR, MENTOR, FRIEND

    "I'VE SENT MANY ON THEIR FIRST STEPS INTO THE WORLD

    I'M SURE THEY'LL KEEP ON WALKING JUST FINE."


    "Modest," said 0. Suddenly, his heart felt quite heavy. "Even dead, he still knows how to give a pep talk."

    Gary nodded. "He said that at a conference just before he died. I told him not to go, because at that point he was getting around in the wheelchair, but he insisted on one last lecture to the community. He talked about how what we do only matters if it can keep going after us. Nobody liked the lecture, nobody wanted to think about the fact that he was almost gone. He ended with those words. He looked at me and said, 'There's my grandson, Gary. He's following in my footsteps on his own. He gives out Kanto's starters to new trainers, just as I did when I gave him his first Pokemon'." Gary paused, taking a few deep breaths before continuing. "He didn't want anyone to be sad when he left, because the future would be fine without him."

    Sarah looked at the grave, and then at her father. "He was a good guy, huh Dad?"

    0 nodded. "Sure was. One of the best I ever knew."

    "Saur." 0 turned around upon hearing Bulbs' voice. It stood just a little ways away from them, flanked by a long green snake and a small golden owl.

    Serp just cooed, twisting its head around to make sure it was seeing properly. There was no need for Noct to do so, it merely tilted its head to one side and widened its eyes with glee. After it was certain, Serp decided to greet its trainer with an overjoyed cry that was entirely out of character for it. It slid forward and curled up around 0, lightly squeezing him in a greeting.

    "Dad, careful!" shouted Sarah.

    0 chuckled. "No need to worry, Sarah, that's just Serp's way of saying hello." He turned to Serp and cooed something. Serp immediately released 0 and slid up next to Sarah, who flinched briefly but then calmed down enough to touch Serp's coat.

    "It's so smooth!" she said with glee.

    Noct, seeing that Serp had released 0, flapped its wings and fluttered over to land on 0's shoulder. It gently gripped 0's collar with its talons and chirped a hearty greeting. 0 helped Noct preen its feathers.

    "Bulbasaur," said Bulbs with a low head.

    Noct flew to the ground as 0 bent down to pat Bulbs on the head again. "Bulba, bulbasaur saur bulba. Bulba bulba, bulbasaur. Saur?"

    His words did seem to cheer Bulbs up, though it was still sad to know it wasn't going with its trainer. It took the pat on its head with grace and resumed wearing its usual grin.

    Gary took two Poke Balls out of his coat pocket. "Here you go. These were just registered to you, they'll work with all your Pokemon."

    0 took them and recalled both Serp and Noct. "And that makes six. Thank you, Gary. For everything."

    Gary nodded. "Just don't be a stranger. Come around more often. Go see your mother. She still stops by once in a while to see your Pokemon."

    "We'll see," said 0. "I still have a lot to—wait. Sarah, where's your mother?"

    "Huh?" asked Sarah. "Oh. Oh, she tried to catch up with me but I gave her the slip with Cross. Not sure where she is."

    "Oh. Well, we should probably find her before we head out. Gary, you think you can keep a secret? Kind of on a schedule here, and we took a big detour."

    "What kind of secret?"

    "Well," 0 hesitated, unsure of what might happen if he told Gary what was going on. "Well, I live near Goldenrod. You watch the news recently about Goldenrod?"

    "Something about superheroes. Didn't really pay attention to it, I was knee deep in Pidgey migration patterns. Why?"

    0 raised his arm and checked his morpher. He had maybe a minute left, maybe less. "Might as well use this and test out the new gear that'll come with it." He pressed the button and instantly reverted back to his Ranger Gold form.

    "Whoa!" Gary backed up as the glowing died down. "Whoa, that's new. That's really, really new. What is that?"

    "Ranger technology," 0 explained. "We sort of inherited it. Hang on." He reached for one of the now-five Poke Balls that were clipped to his belt, one that was solid gold. He inserted it into the Ailed Morpher.

    "Auxiliary Pokemon System activated- Towl Form registered," said the voice. "Tracker Lenses- installed."

    His mind changed again, this time he felt himself reminiscent of Lu. He felt cheeky and mischievous, but there was a sharpness to it, a blade of cunning that was amplifying his intelligence. The armor did not appear along his body. Instead, his helmet warped in shape, changing from a circular oval and adding bits and pieces of what appeared to be armor based on a Noctowl's face. Metallic brows adorned the sides of his head. The top of his helmet was higher and rounder. Golden veins connecting the additional armor to his body ran down his neck.

    And he could see! The visor had been amplified to such an extent that he could see each individual blade of grass and every leaf on every tree. He could see for miles in any direction, there appeared to be mirrors in the visor that allowed him to look behind himself without having to turn. He had no blind spot.

    "Still can't see her," said 0. "Switch to something else to track her."

    His visual spectrum instantly changed. He could see in heat vision again, something he thought had been removed from the system during the upgrade to the Ailed Morpher. He could see through the trees and through the streams and eventually his ability to perfectly capture the detail of his surroundings led him to her. He pointed to a position south of their location.

    "She's looking for us there. Let's go," he said, as he led the way through the forest with a dumbfounded Gary and a playful Sarah in tow.

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    When Max returned home, it was to what appeared to be an empty house. The kitchen was empty, and no dinner was on the table, so Max set about the task of making himself a sandwich. He piled on the meats and cheeses in an effort to satisfy the hunger he'd cultivated during his time out on patrol. He set the massive sandwich on a plate then made his way through the home looking for everyone.

    "Was there some sort of emergency?" he wondered. "No, I'd have been called. I've got the com-link now and they can actually talk to me."

    Where were they, then? They weren't in any of their bedrooms or anywhere else on the second floor, and the ground floor was just as empty as ever when he returned. He shrugged, about halfway through his sandwich, and decided perhaps the best approach would be to try Ranger Downs. He headed through the secret entrance and down the staircase.

    Brock was still there, Max could hear that the television was on again. Brock was relaxing in his bed with Chansey and Swampert, so thoroughly engrossed with his program that he hardly noticed Max descending into Ranger Downs.

    "Hey, Brock," said Max, before taking yet another bite out of his sandwich. Brock had Chansey pause the program and smiled.

    "How was patrol?" he asked.

    Max shrugged. "Fine. Dark Emerald's still quiet, so no Dark Gems in town."

    "That's good."

    "What're you up to?"

    Brock stared at the television. "Trying desperately to distract myself from my surgeries. 415 said they'd be happening soon because Elgyem is apparently really good at designing prosthetics."

    "You nervous?"

    "A little. I've had my limbs for a while. Even if they are like this, it's a little hard to say goodbye to them. I've had them all my life."

    "To be fair, you are getting nicer limbs to make up for that," said Max. "You'll never have to work out your biceps again."

    Brock laughed. "Good idea. Think about the positives. Like permanent biceps."

    Max finished his sandwich. "Well, I think I'll head to bed. Long day and all that. You know where the girls are?"

    Brock shook his head. "I think they went out. Serena said they were going to go do some shopping."

    "Alright. Get some rest, watch less TV."

    As Max left, he heard Brock shout, "I'll shut off the TV when I can reach it!" As he ascended the stairs, he heard Brock chuckle to himself before the television turned back on.

    When he returned to his room, Max changed from his casual clothes and into his sleeping gear, a plain green undershirt and dark sweatpants. He yawned and positioned his glasses by his bedside table. "You know, seeing as I'm a superhero and all, maybe it's time I made the switch to contacts. Be a pain if I broke my glasses before a fight." He briefly wondered if the Dark Emerald would simply heal his vision if that happened, then decided maybe he shouldn't rely on the Dark Emerald for everything. He shut off the light and got under his covers.

    Max was unable to sleep, though. He immediately realized he wasn't alone in his own bed. It took every bit of his self-control to contain the Dark Emerald's shadow chains and remain untransformed. He slowly tilted his head to his left, unsure how he could have missed the fact that there was a woman in his bed. Not just any woman, either. 415 was lying there, deliberately staring at him.

    "Hello," said Max cautiously. "Can I help you with anything?"

    415 continued to stare at him, leading Max to suspect the very worst possibility: she was there to smash his Dark Gem and kill him for real. Why she had chosen this particular battleground was a little unclear. Maybe she had wanted a sneak attack, but then why would she have just sat there waiting for him to notice her? None of this was making sense.

    "Dark Gem," she said at last. Max noticed something different in her tone. Usually, whenever 415 spoke, it was a mechanical speak that seemed to have been composed hours in advance. This time was different. She seemed hesitant, there was a crack in her voice. It almost sounded like a completely different person. "Dark Gem, we need to talk."

    Max nodded, but made no other sudden movements. "Okay. What'd you want to talk about that could have happened when both of us were not in the same bed?"

    "We need to talk about us," she said, but offered no further explanation.

    "Mind clarifying that for me?" he asked. "As I recall, there is no 'us'. You were very clear about that, even if I wasn't hitting on you."

    "It would appear that I have erred," she answered. "Serena Brine and I had a conversation. The topic was you."

    "A conversation about what?"

    "A topic of which I still understand very little. Serena Brine accused me of being infatuated with you. She presented numerous arguments I had not considered. At the end, I was forced to conclude she was correct. There has been a gradual shift in my attitude towards you."

    "Well, yeah." Come to think of it, Max had noticed her seeming to get friendlier over the past couple of weeks, ever since he had evolved. "I just figured you were just studying me to make sure I wouldn't go berserk."

    "My investigation has concluded. It is my opinion that there will be no issue on that front. I had intended to report several days ago but…I confess something stopped me from doing so."

    "What? You've had me running tests today. What were those for?"

    "Busy work. Stop interrupting me." She moved very, very quickly, as if she was entirely unsure of how to go about her movements and just wanted them over with, until she was several inches away from Max's face.

    "I—" Max took a deep breath. "I'm really not sure what's going on here."

    "I admit confusion as well. I am unaware of how this is…done. The technicalities are known to me, but theories are not much use in the practical world."

    "Wait, hang on. Whoa!" 415 had moved the covers, and in that instant he had realized she wasn't wearing anything either. 415 usually wore full-body clothing. Turtlenecks, pants, long sleeve shirts, anything to disguise her body. He had never seen anything other than her hands before. "Wait. Wait. Nope, hang on. Hang on."

    "Does this not please you?" she asked. There was an unusual tone in her voice he had never heard before. "Is this body not attractive?"

    "I can't believe I'm having this conversation," Max muttered. "No, that's not it, 415. I'm just not that sort of guy. I like to do the whole romance thing."

    "Illogical. My evidence suggests that men do not require such arbitrary prerequisites. They are much more willing to engage in carnal activities without them."

    "Well, in the case on one night stands, yes," said Max. "But not with someone that I see every day. That's just not going to happen. If you want to date, we can date, but I'm not just going to give it up because you're in my bed and you're—"

    415 once again got really close to his face, close enough that she could have bitten off his nose if she were so inclined. "Dark Gem" she said. "This is an ultimatum. I am taking what I want from you in an effort to determine the extent of my emotional response towards you. You may either comply willingly, or I can force your hand. There will be no difference from me."

    Max gulped. "I take it that means there's no negotiating about this?"

    "There will be none. I will assess the accuracy of Serena Brine's hypothesis with or without your consent."

    "Well, I guess that settles the issue."

    Max leaned over and, in the same manner that one might take with tasting a jalapeño, gently kissed 415 on the lips.

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    After they had found May, 0 piled them back into the van for the trip to the hotel. But, after thanking Gary and driving off, he began to reconsider that plan and his mind led him to drive in the opposite direction of the city, towards one of the smaller suburban districts of Pallet Town.

    "Uh, honey, where are we going?" asked May. She looked out the window. "I'm not sure the hotel is on this side of the town."

    "It isn't," said 0. "We'll head there later. I want to make a quick stop first."

    May wasn't sure where they were going until they made the next turn. Her eyes widened and she looked towards Sarah, who was in the back still enamored with the television. "Are you sure about this?" asked May. "I don't even think Sarah remembers who she is."

    "It's not about Sarah," said 0. "It's about me. We managed to get your parents into the wind and keep them out of trouble. We never got to do the same for mine. I haven't heard anything around these parts, but I'm willing to bet that if we keep picking off their numbers the Dark Gems are going to get desperate. They might come after her. She deserves to be warned so she can get out before anything comes after her."

    He pulled up to the driveway, the same driveway he hadn't seen for years. He had run up it so often, first when it was his home and then after returning from some foreign land, but she would always be at the other end by the door, waiting for him with a fresh meal and open ears to hear all about his adventures. He unblocked his seatbelt and stepped from the car.

    "Keep her here," said 0. "I'll let you know when you can come in."

    He approached the door and rapped thrice. It all seemed entirely too familiar, only now he was able to actually reach the top of the door. It creaked open, just like it used to when he was a child, and soon 0 found himself face to face with a small, petite woman with brown hair.

    "Why hello there," she said with a smile. "I was beginning to worry you'd forgotten how to call me."

    0 chuckled. "Sorry we were so late, Mom. Do you have enough dinner for three?"

    His mother looked passed him, to the car where she saw Sarah and May waiting, and her smile widened. "Looks like I missed out on some stuff. Don't worry. I'm sure my Mimey can whip up a few extra places at the dinner table. Come on in."

    Nodding vigorously, 0 grabbed his family from the car, and came home.

    Author's Note: This chapter serves as a set-up to the breakneck pace of the next few chapters we'll be getting to next week. Perhaps the main message to take from it is that it explains why this series never had 0 return to Kanto to visit his mother and his friends. I decided to set the series in Petalburg and later Goldenrod because those settings made sense in the long run. It made sense that May would return home to Petalburg after the disaster in Saffron and it made sense that the family would choose to hide in a city they had no ties to. But, perhaps more importantly, 0 could never really go home at the beginning of the story. We've talked a lot about 0's identity through his actions in this text, but I feel we've established clearly how different he is from the man he once was, and how he's slowly becoming that man again. That's why he could only now return to Pallet and see everyone. Perhaps I'm reading too deep into my own motivations for writing the story, but a large part of my decision to keep working on this series came from my need to explore who 0 is and, to an extent, various areas of the Pokémon world I wanted to examine more closely, such as the Poke Ball technology, or the relationships between trainers and Pokémon from the Pokémon's perspective.

  5. #50
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    Default Chapter 37

    Morph Thirty-Seven: The Master's Revenge

    "The baby appears to be perfectly healthy."

    415 waved the small wand over May's stomach, adjusting the image on the monitor to her liking, until the static-filled image cleared up and a video feed of a small little baby appeared. It seemed to be active, occasionally shifting its limbs around as if trying to get comfortable. "The child is currently three months away," said 415. "We will have to make arrangements to take you to the hospital for delivery. I do not have the necessary equipment to deliver the baby here and, even if I did, my technical skills as a health practitioner end well before the maternity ward."

    0 nodded. "Alright. Which hospital would you recommend?"

    415 shrugged. "I have not yet finished my consultation in that field. I am still examining floor plans from hospital blueprints around Goldenrod to assess the safest location for the child's birth."

    "Good. When it comes we'll just use the teleporter, same as the trip to the airport. No problems at all." 0 kissed May's forehead. "Anything else we should be aware of?"

    "No. The baby looks very healthy, despite some of the trauma suffered by the mother. All signs point to the baby having zero defects when it is born."

    "Wonderful," said May.

    "So," said Sarah, peeking up from the side of the table, "am I gonna have a little sister or brother? Can you tell yet? I wanna know."

    "Sarah, we agreed that would be a surprise," said May. "Do you really want to spoil the surprise?"

    "Yes," said Sarah bluntly. "I wanna know if my little sister and I are going to have awesome tea parties and ride Pokemon together, or if I'm going to have a stinky little brother that farts all the time."

    "To be fair, Sarah," said 0, "I seem to distinctly recall you farting on me all the time when you were a baby."

    Sarah turned bright red. "Gross, Dad! Don't just tell people that!"

    May laughed. "I remember this one very vividly. We were sitting at a café and you somehow wriggled your way out of your diaper, and when I went to put it back on you peed all over the seat."

    "Ugh! Stop embarrassing me!" Sarah flung her arms into the air and ran out of the room before May or 0 had the chance to tell another story from her infancy.

    "If we could return to the analysis," said 415, after 0 and May had stopped their snickering, "are you certain that you do not wish to know the sex of the baby? At six months, it is quite simple."

    May looked to 0. "Well? Do you want to?"

    He nodded. "I know we said no, but I don't think I can wait another three months. We can keep it a secret from Sarah, though, since she doesn't seem to want a little brother."

    "Very well," said 415. She maneuvered the wand once more, positioning it so that they could ascertain the gender of the baby.

    "Is that—" said 0.

    "Are we—" said May.

    415 nodded. "It would appear so. You are having a boy."

    0 pumped his fist. "Yes!" he shouted. He proceeded to jump up and down several times before he remembered he was the only one celebrating like that and calmed down. "Uh, I mean great. Good to hear."

    May eyed him coyly. "I take it you wouldn't have reacted so positively if it was another girl?" she asked.

    "Of course not! It's just…you know…I was really hoping for a boy this time. That way we have both."

    "I'm only teasing," said May. "It's wonderful news. Just think, in three months we'll have ourselves a healthy baby boy. Ooh, we need to think up names."

    "Should've asked Mom while we were in Kanto," said 0. "Our family usually recycles names."

    "I recall. Sarah's name came from your side, didn't it?"

    0 nodded. "Yeah, one of my great-grandmothers, I think. Mom suggested that one too." 0 consulted the morpher on his watch. "Hang on, I have to morph back." He pressed the button and reverted back to his ranger form.

    "How long are the time outs now?" asked 415.

    "They're still two hours," said 0. "Every time I try to stretch it passed that point I end up stuck longer. But if I morph back before the limit, it only takes me five minutes to recharge so I can reassume my regular body."

    "Interesting," said 415. "Does it correlate to your current project?"

    "No. The five-in-one combo's still got some kinks," said 0. "Pi and I can't seem to make much of a crack in it. That part's annoying."

    "You'll get there," said May.

    "I know I will. It's just that we went to Kanto for the sole reason of getting enough Pokemon to attempt the new form and it just hasn't been clicking in all these months. So far we've only worked out the core process for it."

    "Which is?"

    "The idea is to split the work. If we can pull it off, I'm channeling six different Pokemon, each one regulating a specific function. That makes the form possible, but we don't have the raw power to pull it off yet. Maybe if I went and hooked myself up directly into a power plant."

    "That would likely be unfeasible in combat."

    "Exactly. Hence why it's just a theory. But at least I get to keep my human body around longer. And I can eat and sleep now."

    "Well," said 415, "my diagnosis is complete. Do either of you have further questions for me?"

    "Can you pinpoint when the baby'll be due?" asked May.

    "Yes," said 415. "You have three months, five days, assuming all goes according to plan. We can adjust for anything, but uninterrupted the baby should be ready for birth around that time."

    "Wow," said May. "We really will need that name sooner rather than later."

    "We'll start making a list," said 0.

    "If that concludes your appointment," said 415, "I have another one scheduled. The Dark Gem and I are reviewing his progress once more. Your presence would distract from my research."

    "Of course. Come, my lady." 0 gallantly assisted May off the examining table. "Be seeing you. 415, do you have patrol duty tonight?"

    415 shook her head. "The Dark Gem is assigned."

    "Good to know." He left, and briefly exchanged greetings with Max as the younger man entered the room.

    "You are late," said 415. "Explain yourself."

    "Sorry about that," said Max. "I had to spend an extra five minutes explaining to Sarah that the world isn't going to end if she winds up with a baby brother."

    "Regardless, we must do tests."

    "Yeah, sure. Tests. By the way, have you picked out the movie for tomorrow night?"

    "Silence your voice," said 415 in a hushed, quick tone. "Do you want everyone to know?"

    "I honestly don't think they'd care," said Max. "Anyway, the movie?"

    415 shook her head. "I have not decided. The choices are all arbitrary."

    "How is it arbitrary? It's a movie, just pick one."

    "How am I supposed to choose? I do not watch movies, Dark Gem. I review research. You gave me a selection of six available movies that are opening this weekend. How am I supposed to know which one would be the least waste of time? Do I judge by length, or the plot synopsis, or the reviews made by biased journalists? There is no frame of reference."

    "Well, why don't we just pick a comedy?"

    "Comedy is subjective. There is nothing I find humorous."

    "What about an action movie?"

    415 glared at him. "After the life we lead? How is any sort of film supposed to compare with the combat we have experienced?"

    "Geez, I don't know. Why not pick one at random?"

    "And leave it to chance? There are no variables to be considered. What if we pick the wrong movie?"

    "Then we'll make fun of the movie. Isn't the point that we're supposed to go on a date, not where the date is?"

    "It is not. A first date location may set the tone for the entire relationship. It may establish a hierarchy or inside joke of some kind. Failure to select the correct venue for such an event could result in this entire experiment collapsing."

    "It isn't an experiment. It's just a movie. We'll be fine if the movie isn't great, most of them aren't."

    "Then why bother having movies?"

    Max shrugged. "Because people like being around other people. I used to really like movies because I could get together with a bunch of friends and just spend some time hanging out in front of the screen sharing an experience, no matter if the experience was entertaining or boring. We would just make fun of the movie if it sucked and have a great time anyway."

    "That is not logical."

    "Most people aren't. I'm not. You're not."

    "I am exceedingly logical."

    "No, you're still struggling to work out your emotions for the first time. That's not something a logical human does as an adult. You still haven't called me by my name."

    "You do not call me by a name."

    "You don't have one. That's not a fair comparison. And your name isn't important. I know who you are. I don't need to know your name for that."

    415 grew uncomfortable and shifted herself. "This discussion is getting us nowhere. Shall we concede a draw? I will make sure we have a venue tomorrow night."

    Max smiled. "Sounds good. Now how about we do some tests?"

    At the mention of tests, 415 instantly relaxed and prepared the nodes she used to monitor Max's status while under the influence of the Dark Emerald. The nodes attached by sticking to veins and nerves just underneath the skin, an experience Max never really enjoyed. He usually transformed the moment the computer was ready and assumed the mantle of the Dark Emerald Ranger.

    "Are you stable?" asked 415.

    He nodded. "I am," he said. He still wasn't used to speaking in his own voice. "Releasing the Pokemon." His armor parted just enough for him to unhook the two Poke Balls attached to his clothes underneath. Mightyena and Grovyle emerged in bright flashes of light. "Ready?"

    415 nodded. "Proceed."

    "Alright. Let's do it, guys." Mightyena and Grovyle stood at his side as his dark shadowy chains slunk across their bodies, reabsorbed into Max's own body. He immediately sensed their minds, somewhere far away but close enough that he could hear their suggestions.

    "Picking up the spikes in your consciousness," said 415. "Still stable."

    Max concentrated on Grovyle, focusing on its strong, powerful legs. Instantly, he felt himself grow and looked down to see his legs elongating into the natural shape and build of a Grovyle's legs. He bent them, they felt quite sturdy. He jumped, he leapt quite high. "How we doing?" he asked.

    "Vital signs are still stable," said 415. "I would advise adapting no more than fifty percent of your form to incorporate the Pokemon. Any further and you may lose your mind to the Pokemon instincts that will be generated the more attributes you take on."

    "Should we test that?" asked Max.

    "It is advisable to be certain. Approach no further than forty-nine percent."

    Max concentrated again. This time he kept the legs, but his right hand sprouted a green version of his Mightyena's face. At the same time, his left arm took on the shape and appearance of his Grovyle's bladed elbows and dexterous fingers. In the dead center of his shoulders his skin erupted into Grovyle's face, peering out into the space behind him.

    "Still stable?" asked 415.

    Max had to focus. "Yeah," he said. "You're right. This thing is going to be hard if I keep adding stuff. Hang on." He concentrated, and the Grovyle face at the base of the back of his neck disappeared. "Ah, much better. Okay, it's still all me here."

    "Good. Were you discomforted by your additional transformations?"

    Max shook his head. "Didn't know you cared so much. Uh, no. I can kind of sense it's happening, but I can't feel anything of it. It was sort of like seeing yourself being operated on while under anesthesia."

    "Of course I care about you. You are my prize experiment."

    "Whom you are in a relationship with."

    "That has nothing to do with this. You may demorph. I have the information I require."

    Max nodded. "Thank you." He immediately released the Dark Emerald. Max, Grovyle, and Mightyena reappeared in a series of bright flashes of green light. "I can't tell you how great it is to get these out of me."

    "Why? You heal the moment they are removed."

    "Well, while they're stuck inside me, they itch like no tomorrow." He scratched each and every single healing hole in his body until they were all gone. "Can we seriously not figure out a better way to do this? Preferably with me not ending up as a human pincushion."

    415 shook her head. "I am afraid not. Other methods are simply not as useful in gathering data. You will have to continue to use the needles while we monitor your growth."

    "Was there any change from last week?"

    415 nodded. "Some. The energy spikes increased, indicating your strength is still growing. Your base strength level is presently the same as Ranger Gold when not using the Auxiliary Pokemon System. With Grovyle and Mightyena attached, your power reaches a threshold halfway between Ranger Gold's standard form and Cario Form. There is no indication the incline is decreasing, either. Eventually, chances are good you will be the strongest ranger in our arsenal."

    "Huh," said Max. "That sounds pretty cool. And I'm not even fully evolved."

    "There is no way of measuring your potential strength in Shattered Form, but based on the jump in strength from Chained to Sealed Form, your Shattered Form may be on par with Ranger Gold's Chariard Form." 415 inputted the data into the computer. "However, it is unadvisable you attempt your final evolution. There is no way to predict how you will react to the biological change."

    "I know. I don't have any intention of evolving. I think I'm just right for how I work in the team and I don't want to change that any time soon."

    "Good. I would not want you to evolve unnecessarily."

    Max grinned and got close to her. "That sounds awfully like concern again," he said. "Sure you're being impartial in this analysis?"

    "I am still quite capable of cleaving your head from your shoulders. We are in public. Refrain from such trivialities." 415 offered him a brief smirk, just a tiny incline of her lips, before she resumed her stoic facial expressions and drew away.

    "Yes, ma'am." Max turned to his Pokemon. "You guys don't care about 415 and me dating, do you?"

    Mightyena perked its ears and looked towards 415. Then it shrugged and decided to scratch itself behind the ear. Grovyle suddenly found itself incredibly interested in flicking off a piece of dead leaf from its arm.

    Max stuck out his tongue. "Return," he said, and held up their Poke Balls. They vanished and he reattached them to his belt. "Bunch of sourpusses."

    "Come," said 415. "It is my understanding that Brock Harrison will be undergoing his physical therapy upstairs. I should observe how the prosthetics are operating."

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    Brock was clearly not accustomed to life as a cyborg yet.

    He missed his arms and legs dreadfully. Since the operations to remove the withered remains of his arms and legs and prepare the ports for the mechanical replacements, he found himself wishing that he could still feel flesh and blood when he closed his hand into a fist. The limbs had been connected to his nervous system, so he could still feel in a way, but it was more of a distant, calculated sense of feeling, the sort one gets while analyzing data never truly experienced.

    Still, Elgyem and Chansey had made the limbs so well that they were virtually indistinguishable from his old arms and legs. They had his exact skin tone, the exact same length (with a little bit of additional muscle, to Brock's delight), they were perfect replicas. He could move his arms and change a channel on the television by himself. He could lift himself up and wheel himself over to the bathroom to do his own business without Elgyem levitating him. He had adapted to his new arms perfectly.

    He was, however, still having trouble with the legs. Having spent months in the hospital bed waiting for the transplant, his balance was terribly off. Every time he tried to lift himself to stand he fell over, leaving him to crawl back to his wheelchair. He could wiggle the artificial toes and flex the artificial muscles, but something was off when he tried using the legs for their intended purpose.

    "Maybe we connected something wrong," said Serena, as she looked him over.

    Brock shook his head. "No, that can't be right," he said. "You guys did a great job on me. The arms work fine. It's gotta be something wrong with my head. Some kinda mental block."

    "Maybe you need some motivation," said Serena. "Do you think that could help?"

    Brock shrugged. "No idea. What'd you have in mind?"

    "Well…" Serena giggled. "Okay, I've got it. Now, bear with me on this. What if, if you can try and take a few steps, we can go out to dinner again? Would that be enough motivation?"

    Brock turned bright red. "Uh, I don't know about that."

    Serena frowned. "Why not?" she asked, and gestured at herself. "Aren't I pretty enough for Brock Harrison, cyborg, to take to dinner?"

    "Well, sure, but—" Brock paused, as if unsure how to phrase his thoughts. "Aren't you ten years younger than me?"

    Serena huffed. "Why I never! A gentleman does not ask a lady her age!"

    "I'm sorry, it's just that—" Brock stopped, he noticed that she was starting to laugh. "Oh, I get it. Ha ha."

    Serena broke out into a full-body laugh. "I'm sorry, Brock! I'm just busting your balls. Geez, you really can't take a joke when it's coming from a beautiful woman, huh?"

    Brock shook his head. "I really can't. Comes with the territory of being a hopeless romantic."

    "Tell you what. We'll make a deal. You try to take a few steps, we'll watch that Bronyta thing you like together. But if you don't, Sarah gets to watch it first and spoil everything for you."

    Brock's face fell. "That's not funny, Serena! She'll tell me everything before the credits are done."

    Serena shrugged and sat down on a table on the other side of the room. "Guess you'll just have to get up and stop Sarah."

    Brock groaned and immediately tried to adjust his legs so he could stand. They wobbled warily into place so that he could actually shift himself out of his chair. He immediately lost his balance and grabbed an adjacent counter to stabilize himself. "N-No fair," he muttered. "Why couldn't we have done this on some carpeting? Tile's slippery."

    "I'm hearing a lot of complaining and not a lot of walking," said Serena. "Guess someone's getting spoilers."

    "No!" Brock grunted again and hoisted himself up to the top of the counter. He was standing, albeit shakily, but standing nonetheless. "Okay, and now we balance." He shifted himself so he was still grabbing onto the counter with one hand. "Now we balance, now we balance, now we balance."

    "Come on," said Serena. "I'm getting bored over here."

    "I'm on it, I'm on it," said Brock. "Let me just…" He ordered his left foot to take a step forward. There was a brief delay as his mental command transfer from his nervous system to the electronic supplements, and then the foot shifted into place and set itself firmly down on the tile floor. "Okay, that's one step."

    "More please," said Serena. "Just that one isn't going to cut it here."

    "Alright, alright," he muttered. He tried taking another step with his right foot, taking advantage of the quick delay between thought and action to adjust himself as he moved. The other foot came down as well and he felt stable. "There. Two steps. That's a lot considering I've been stuck in that chair for a while."

    Serena shook her head. "Uh-uh," she murmured. She pointed to the hand that was still balancing him on the counter. "Let's see you walk on your own. You do a good job, we might go get you a cane."

    "But that wasn't part of the deal," said Brock.

    She shrugged. "I'm allowed to change the deal if it suits me. There's no sense in complaining about it. I'm the one with the power to wheel you out of the room when the show's on."

    Brock grunted again and suddenly released his grip on the counter. He instantly swayed, but was able to hold his balance with a tremendous amount of focus. He took another step forward and almost fell, but at the last minute used the weight of his new arms to steady himself and maintain his balance.

    "One," he said, and offered a big grin.

    "Try another one," said Serena.

    He did just that, finding that his prosthetics were automatically adjusting to his motions. On his attempt for a third step he fell, sprawling himself on the floor, which resulted in Serena bursting into laughter.

    Brock hoisted himself up off the ground and back into his chair. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. Can I watch my show now?"

    Serena nodded. "Let's go," she said and allowed him to wheel his way into the living room, where Sarah was already waiting impatiently as close to the television as she was allowed to be.

    "Uncle Brock, Aunt Serry, hurry up!" she shouted. "It's gonna start!"

    "We've got ten minutes, Sarah," said Brock. "Believe me, I'm just as excited as you. But take a deep breath."

    "Brock Harrison," said a voice behind him. Brock turned and noticed Max and 415 standing in the atrium of the living room. "We must evaluate you."

    Brock rolled his eyes. "Can it wait? I just want to watch the show."

    "I am afraid it cannot," said 415. "My time is extremely valuable. Your evaluation time is scheduled to take place now. Please comply."

    Brock sighed. "Fine, make it quick. We already did my testing."

    415's eyebrow perked up. "You did? How?"

    "Serena had me walk from one side of the room to the other."

    "Did you succeed?"

    "Sort of. I got the balance, but I fell over after the third step."

    "That's pretty good," said Max. He and Brock then promptly exchanged high fives. "Considering you haven't been able to make a single step, that's really good."

    Brock grinned. "Thanks. Truth be told, she made me do it or I wouldn't have been able to watch my show."

    "Guys!" said Sarah. "Stop talking, it's about to start!"

    "Leave it to Serena," said Max. "She just gets guys."

    Serena smiled broadly and ruffled up Brock's hair. "Sure do. Especially big lugs like this one. You should have heard him complaining about not getting spoiled on today's episode."

    "Uh, let's not go down that road," said Brock. "I'd rather that were private."

    "Nothing's private in this family," said Max. "Lay it on us."

    At this point Sarah, having had quite enough of the grownups speaking while she waited for her show, stood up and marched over to where they were all sitting. "Look," she said, in a sudden severity that none of them had ever heard before. "My Little Ponyta is starting in thirty seconds. It is my favorite show and I want to watch it in peace and quiet!" The adults, far too terrified of this little girl, said nothing in response. Satisfied, Sarah nodded her head and returned to her position as physically adjacent to the television as she was allowed.

    "Remind you of anyone?" asked Max.

    Brock nodded. "Getting more and more like her mother every day."

    "Imbeciles," said 415, and left them to their show.

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    Later in the afternoon, 0 and May took Sarah out for a walk with their Pokemon. Sarah, having already discerned that there was little that Z would not do when asked nicely by an adorable little girl, was riding the gigantic, orange dragon around the path. Z, trying its best to ignore the pain of being grabbed by its long, tube-shaped horns, stomped and snarled at the behest of the little girl. May found it to quite possibly be the cutest thing she had ever seen. 0 found it terrifying that his daughter could already subjugate one of his most powerful Pokemon in this fashion.

    "You know," said May, as she watched Blaziken and Lu spar up ahead, "she's going to be eight in a few months. We might want to start looking into getting her enrolled in a Pokemon accreditation school to get her license to register as a Pokemon trainer."

    "I don't know," he said. "I'm not sure I feel comfortable with Sarah starting the journey right now."

    "Why? We both left at ten."

    "Oh, I know. It's got nothing to do with that. It's just that I'm worried about what'll happen to her if I'm not around to protect her. I mean, we've got so many enemies out there, who knows if they would try to come after her? I just think we should hold off on her getting ready to leave until we're sure the coast is clear."

    "Do you think this'll still be going on in two years?"

    0 shrugged. "It's already been going on for more than two. There's no way to tell when they'll run out of rangers. I'd just feel more comfortable waiting until the threat's over."

    "Still, she doesn't have that many friends," said May. "And she barely knows anyone her own age that didn't try to eat her. I just want to make sure she gets to interact with kids her own age. That's part of school too. She doesn't have to leave home just because she has the license."

    "I suppose that's true. I guess I'm just being overprotective."

    She lightly punched him. "Not overprotective. Sweet. Our parents probably went through the same thing." She looked to where Sarah had convinced Z that it would be a good idea to have a small flight in the air above. "It's just hard letting them go."

    "Preaching to the choir here," said 0. "I just got back into her life. I definitely don't want her going off so soon. Maybe I should go on the journey with her…"

    "You'll do no such thing," said May. "She'll be a big girl. Let her live her own life."

    0 smirked. "Fine. But one of my Pokemon is going with her to supervise. Fair's fair."

    "Alright. One Pokemon, so she doesn't just use that one in battles. Your Pokemon are very strong."

    "Yeah they are," said 0 with a chuckle.

    Z tucked its wings into a dive and gently cascaded down towards a soft landing. Sarah squealed with joy and pulled on its horns even harder, causing Z to grunt with discomfort. Then she leaned in and lightly kissed its neck, and Z's skin changed from bright orange to a deep shade of red. 0 chuckled. The Pokemon had not changed an iota in all the years since they had traveled together. He saw so much of himself in Z, both of them seasoned warriors capable of going through anything to defend the ones they loved. When he had transformed with Z, it had almost been like being supplemented by himself, unlike when Lu's playful nature or Tork's emotional side emerged, both of which were able to completely transform his personality.

    "She's going to be quite the little heartbreaker in a few years," said May with a smirk. "You know, back when the paparazzi were always on our tails they'd always do nice little photo ops of Sarah. I think that was the one thing about them I liked."

    "Hrmmm…" grumbled 0. "She's not allowed near boys until she's an adult. She should be focused on Pokemon, not boys."

    May giggled. "That's ridiculous. There's no way she'll not be meeting boys on her trips. I mean, I traveled with you and Brock. Oh, and Drew for a while."

    "My opinion is not swayed," said 0. "My little girl, my rules."

    "Our rules, dear," said May.

    "Oh. Yeah, that's what I meant."

    Sarah had Z head back in the direction of her parents, touching down lightly at their feet. "Hey, Mom, when do you think the school is gonna open back up?" she asked. "I miss the games and everything."

    "I don't know, little girl," said May. "When a bunch of bad guys show up and just start attacking in front of everyone at a school, parents aren't really interested in having them come back. Maybe in a little while, when everything calms down."

    "But if we wait too long, I won't be able to get my trainer's license," said Sarah.

    0 grinned. "Don't worry, you're a natural. The other kids won't know what hit them when you get in the ring."

    "You think so?" asked Sarah.

    "Definitely. Now let Z have a break. Why not go play with someone else?" A look of relief flooded Z's bright eyes, while the other Pokemon all suddenly took on expressions of extreme concern. Tork retreated into its shell in response.

    "Mmmm…alright," she said and hopped off Z's back. She immediately decided that she would play tag with Lu and Blaziken, who took off across the front lawn in gratitude for Sarah's decision not to ride them as she did Z.

    And for a little while, 0 and May held hands while they watched their daughter play. They looked to May's protruding stomach, and they shared a smile.

    "She's not going to be too happy about having a brother," said 0.

    "She'll adapt. She always does."

    "Ranger Gold, May Birch?"

    0 immediately touched his hand to his com-link. "Here, 415," he said.

    "We have guests. Recall your Pokemon and your daughter. We will join you presently. Out."

    0 nodded, and then turned to May. "Looks like we have company," he said.

    May turned to Sarah. "Little girl, come back! It's going to be a bad day!"

    Sarah immediately stopped what she was doing and led the Pokemon back to her parents. 0 and May recalled everyone just as Max, 415, and Serena emerged from the house. Sarah found herself instantly surrounded by a circle of adults. She put her hands in her pockets and looked down on the ground.

    "Who is it?" asked 0. "Another pair of Dark Gems?"

    Serena shrugged. "Another pair of something. They're making a beeline for our location. One of them looked very familiar."

    "Ame?"

    Serena nodded. "Ame. Looks like she's finally making her move."

    "Well, there's four of us and two of them, and Ame's never been much of a fighter. Let's give them something to remember."

    Ame was indeed approaching, flanked by another, somewhat taller individual. An individual that was immediately recognized by all of them. The two approached the gathering of rangers and the man standing next to Ame offered them the biggest smirk they had ever seen.

    "Alexander Charon," said 0.

    Charon nodded. "Good day, everyone. I trust you're all doing well?" He then took out and placed upon his nose a pair of sunglasses, in spite of the fact that it was approaching dusk. "Me? I've been just peachy. Peachy, I tell you! Life's been great in PKM without my big shiny meal tickets wandering around being cool superheroes."

    0 readied the trigger on his morpher. "You know why we left, Charon. We made the choice to leave because you were trying to split our family apart. You were going to gut Max to see what made the Dark Gems tick, you were going to abandon Silver, and you wanted us to be your slaves. We weren't just going to—"

    Suddenly, Charon's eyes bulged out of his head. "I own you!" he screeched. "The technology was funded by my family, it was our turn to run the organization, you were my soldiers! Soldiers follow orders! You should have just shut up and done what you were told!"

    "We're not soldiers," said Serena. "We're rangers."

    "Because there's a difference!" Charon spat. "All you're arguing is a question of semantics!"

    "Why are you here, Charon?" asked 0. "We're all kinda wondering why you're on a date with a Dark Gem that doesn't really do much fighting."

    "Ah yes, that. Yes, why am I here?" Charon paused, as if waiting for someone else to complete his thought, then resumed the conversation. "I'm here to take back what's mine. I figure a few brand new rangers, ones that won't be so annoying, would be perfect for my brand new PKM."

    "Well, that's just not going to happen," said 0.

    Charon smiled. "Oh, but I'm afraid it is. You see, I have this." Up until now, none of the rangers had noticed, but Charon's right hand had been kept behind his back. He withdrew it, and it took all their power not to recoil with disgust.

    They knew exactly what it was, even if Charon had made modifications to its design. The Master Morpher. Bakaguru's morpher. Its orange and white surface proved a sharp contrast against the black clothing Charon was wearing, and he lovingly caressed a new, small hole in the center of the morpher.

    "You're sick," hissed Serena, who took a step forward but was held back by 0. "We have to do something. He can't just run around wearing that."

    "It is an abomination," agreed 415. "We must remove it from his person." There was a quiver in her voice, a distinct distain that permeated the air.

    "It's not an abomination, it's my toy," said Charon. "And it's not my only one, is it Ame?" He turned to the woman next to him, who so far has resigned to keeping quiet, who looked up at the rangers with a grim expression etched into her face.

    She nodded. "Rangers, there is no other alternative. I have been authorized to use lethal force to fulfill my contract. In addition, Alexander Charon has been contracted by my employers to perform the single, solitary task of bringing about your demise. He has been given a Dark Gem which has been incorporated into PKM Ranger technology."

    0 was stunned. "Incorporated? You can mix those two together?"

    Charon smiled and produced a bright ruby. In a flash, he set the stone into the morpher, which acknowledge the foreign material and incorporated it into its design, transforming from a white and orange surface to a deep red and orange hybrid. "Just did, baby. Ame, you want to get in on this?"

    Ame responded by producing a stone of her own, a dark purple gem that looked almost like an onyx. "Prepare yourselves," said Ame. The chain wrapped up one leg, across her waist, then down the other leg again. Charon's, on the other hand, produced no chain as he raised the morpher to press the trigger.

    The transformation was not unlike the sequence that 0, Serena, and 415 went through when they transformed. A bright light in the shape of a Poke Ball just surrounded Charon and, when it opened, there he stood looking exactly as Bakaguru had when he had transformed, the only differences being where there had once been white there was now red and the giant, gleaming ruby in the center of his chest. Charon marveled at himself, looking this way and that to inspect the suit himself, before he appeared content and faced the others.

    "Yes," he said. "I think this will work perfectly, don't you?"

    0 clenched his hands into fists. He instantly demorphed back into his ranger form. "Burn him to the ground," he growled. "Burn him and leave nothing but ashes!"

    "Dark Gem Ignite!" shouted Max. He, along with the others, followed suit and morphed into their ranger forms.

    Ame waited until they were all done to transform. "Dark Gem, Ignite," she whispered as her body surrounded itself with a fierce, radiant purple.

    "Beautiful," whispered Charon, when the light faded away. "Even more beautiful than I could have dreamed."

    "Dark Amethyst Ranger," she said simply. Her body, from her arms to her helmet, was shaped in the distinct image of a Haunter's face and claws.

    "She's already in Sealed Form," said 0. "Be on your toes."

    "Ruby Master Ranger!" shouted Charon to himself. "Attack!"

    Charon was on them before they could even get May and Sarah inside Ranger Downs. He tore towards them, disregarding the laws of physics, decency, and common sense, to punch 0 square in the face and send him flying. Max immediately took over and grappled with Charon for about five seconds, long enough for Sarah and May to start making a break for the house, but also long enough for Charon to topple Max's balance and shove him into the ground.

    "415!" shouted 0 as he returned to the field. "Retreat with Sarah and May. Silver, activate Rescue Mode! Max, get your Pokemon out!" He himself inserted a distinctly green Poke Ball into his morpher. "Auxiliary Pokemon System: Perior Form!"

    0's legs immediately started to change, growing vein-like vines from his boots to his waist. 0 wasted no time. "Synchronization Drive: Vine Whip!" The vines instantly started to multiply and grow, lashing out from behind 0's back like tentacles to distract Charon from the others. He flipped through the air and landed gracefully in front of Charon, covering the ground with vines.

    "Boyo," said Serp, "the other is trying to pass us."

    0 flicked his head over to check on Ame. She was indeed trying to get passed his squad, but Serena was holding her off with her Rescue Mode. Ame just kept backing up, avoiding the fight at all costs.

    "No matter," he said. He was always surprised by how elegant he sounded when he used Serp. "We shall deal with this one, then conclude our business." He turned to Charon, who had only just noticed that his legs were covered in a thicket of vines. "Now then, how shall I dispatch you?"

    Charon grunted. He twisted and turned, but was unable to escape the ever-increasing number of vines surrounding his body. The sheer mass forming from 0 even allowed Max the opportunity to retreat to a safer position. "You're nothing but a coward," Charon spat. "Don't make me do this the hard way."

    "You're an impetuous one, aren't you?" asked 0, before marveling at the fact that he had no idea what the word impetuous meant. He assumed Serp knew what it meant and continued with his plan. "Synchronization Drive: Leaf Tornado!"

    Somehow, the wind suddenly and sharply focused its attentions onto Charon. It kicked up and increased as dozens and dozens of leaves simply appeared around 0's body. They glowed faintly as they targeted Charon with their sharp, jagged edges. 0 shifted his head just so and the leaves attack, firing at Charon like a thousand little battering rams. Each time they struck Charon lurched back just a bit, but was trapped due to the vines and forced to endure as the next attacked, and the next, and the next, until finally all the leaves had fluttered to the ground.

    With Charon still standing, looking no more worse for wear than if he had just had to endure the onslaught of a light breeze.

    "Are you done?" he asked, glancing about himself. "Good. I wasn't sure, and you were taking forever, but I really didn't want to interrupt your big moment." He then patted the growing amount of vines around his waist and legs. "Get out of my way."

    And then the strangest thing happened. The vines simply fell away. No withering, no vanishing, the vines simply loosened their grip and fell off, allowing Charon to step out and dust himself off. He double-checked himself again, and then turned towards 0.

    "But…how?" asked 0. He had never seen anything like it.

    Charon shrugged. "I just moved them out of the way." He tapped his helmet. "Force of will and all that nonsense. Now…" He ran up and punched 0 right in the gut.

    Pain, pain that should not have been there in his infrared form, shot through his body and forced him to the ground. No one had hit him that hard. Sappho had not hit him that hard. Top had not hit him that hard. It was another new level of power.

    "Max," he grunted. "Lend me the power of the Dark Emerald."

    He hauled himself to his feet as Max approached. Charon had already moved on to assist Ame in dealing with Serena. May and Sarah were inside with 415, probably working to seal themselves into Ranger Downs with Brock. Max nodded and extended the shadow chains, flooding 0 with insurmountable energy once more.

    "Our capacities are full," said Serp. "Have him release us and let us be off."

    "Yes." Max's chains withdrew from him and he turned to Max. "Make your way to the base. Leave the rest to me."

    "Aye, aye, boss," said Max. "Don't get yourself kill."

    "That is the plan," said 0. He watched Max bound away then turned towards the fight. "Serp, begin powering up the Synchronization Drive. I have a plan."

    "Oh?" asked the snake, who complied with his suggestion. "Have you forgotten the success of our last maneuver? What do you propose?"

    "I recall Silver being capable of smashing through the Dark Topaz with the merest touch," he murmured. "Perhaps it would be a wise decision to repeat the process."

    He could practically see Serp chuckling. "Very well, let us see."

    0 rejoined the fight, separating Ame and Charon from his team. "Everyone, gather round!" he shouted. They instantly positioned themselves around him. "Silver, make ready your Rescue Mode for a direct attack upon the ruby. Max, concentrate on Ame. 415, with me."

    Serena darted behind them as 0 and 415 charged forward into a headlong collision with Charon. Charon just stared at them and let them tackle him to the ground before he burst forth in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

    "Is that really the best you've got?" he asked. Then he shoved them and both 0 and 415 went flying into the air. "A fluff of dust is more lethal to me!"

    0 and 415 recovered just in time to see Serena punch Charon directly in the chest, only instead of the Dark Ruby crumpling and cracking into nothingness to take Charon to the death he so dearly deserved, Charon stood unharmed. He had grabbed her wrist with minimal difficulty, only touching the pieces of her armor that remained untransformed into the powerful ice plates so she could move about. He took her by her dainty hand and gave a slight bow of his head.

    "May I lead?" he asked, and then threw her into the others. She barely managed to disengage her Rescue Mode before 0 grabbed her and set her back on the ground.

    "Retreat," muttered 0.

    "What?" asked Serena. "We can totally take them."

    0 shook his head. "Not right now. We must retreat and plan for a second encounter. We cannot win at this moment." He disengaged Perior Form and reverted back to his standard gear. "We've got to teleport out of here, get Sarah, May, and Brock out of harm's way, before we can do anything. They'll just keep battering us down like this unless we fight on our terms."

    He tapped his helmet, where a small com-link had been attached to the left side. "Watchtower, beam everyone back. We need to regroup."

    "We can take them—"

    "No you can't!" Charon abruptly cut off Max's retort by smashing the Dark Emerald Ranger in the face. Max slammed into the ground, but instantly rolled away and recovered.

    "Watchtower, teleport us now!" 0 shouted. He suddenly felt himself fading away, and then found himself standing in the middle of Ranger Downs with the others.

    "We could have taken them!" shouted Max.

    "This isn't up for discussion, Max," said 0. "We don't know what capacities merging the PKM Ranger System with a Dark Gem produced. He could be strong enough to kill us even if we were ten times our size."

    "We still could have tried," said Max. "Since when are you such a fan of playing it safe?"

    0 stepped close to Max, to the point where they barely stood a foot apart. "I'm trying to keep everyone alive," he said. "We had three civilians that can't fight inside Ranger Downs that the Dark Gems want. If they had gotten through our line, who's going to protect them? Do you think I'm going to be of any help if they tear through my containment suit and scatter my data so it can't ever be recovered? Do you think my wife, daughter, and unborn child are going to be better off if Uncle Max gets his Dark Emerald crushed because he was afraid to run away? Do you think any of us are going to just be fine if we lose anybody? We already lost Bakaguru, we're not losing anyone else."

    Max said nothing for a moment, and lowered his head. "I still think we gave up too soon," he said. "We had options."

    0 shook his head. "No. We have options now."

    "Alright," said May, stepping in between them, "so what's the plan?"

    "Scatter," said 0. "We set the teleporter at random and bide our time. If I can synch all my Pokemon into another form, we might have a better shot with that kind of power."

    "Hello, hello!" shouted a voice from behind the failsafe door. "I want to come inside!"

    "We have to go," said 0. "Everybody stay demorphed, they can probably track us through the energy our ranger suits produce." He turned to Elgyem. "Whoever winds up with you will use your telepathy to communicate. Understand?" Elgyem nodded its head. "Then fire up the teleporter. Set the range to Goldenrod City so we can stay within telepathic range."

    Charon was knocking on the door, which sounded a lot like a battering ram scraping against the metal. "Come on out, boyos! Time to take your medicine!"

    Max stepped onto the teleporter first. "You'd better be right," he said. He helped Brock up to his feet and, with the aid of a cane, Brock made his way to the teleporter. Everyone else followed suit, and before long all eight humans were ready for transport.

    "See you all soon," said 0. He clenched his wife and daughter's hands.

    The machine whirled to life and the humans, and all of their Pokemon, vanished into thin air.

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    Charon took another five minutes, but he eventually made his way through the failsafe door and into the room. He snarled and broke at least three computers before Ame joined him.

    "They got away," he complained. "Do something!"

    Ame moved towards the machines. "There is nothing to be done. You just destroyed the equipment that would have allowed me to track them."

    "No, no, no!" he shouted. "Fix it!"

    Ame shook her head and demorphed. "It would be an unproductive use of my time," she said. "Better to find Eme and have him lead us to them."

    Charon demorphed in order to spit on the ground. "Fine! Go get him for me! I'll track down their morphing signals. As long as they're morphed, I can find them."

    "I would not bank on such a plan. Odds favor them keeping their morphers inactive for the time being." Ame crossed the room and returned to the door. "Remain here. I will contact you when you are needed."

    Charon shook his head. "Oh, no. I've spent too much time sitting behind a desk and not enough time torturing those insubordinate fools. I'm coming with—" He stopped approaching her when she raised her hand.

    "Remember, Alexander Charon," said Ame, "you may have a Dark Gem born from the pain and suffering of an entire nation of bodies. I have a Dark Gem that can rip your heart out and feed it to you. It will not kill you, but it will take some time for you to rejoin me."

    Charon did not sweat, but he made no move to follow her as she vanished from the base.

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    …Twenty-Five Years Ago…


    He watched as the computer decided his fate.

    There were literally hundreds of possibilities as to where his aptitude test would place him. The computation was supposed to take five minutes, but he had been standing in front of the monitor for at least ten at this point. He was hungry too, he had not eaten since breakfast and they had made him skip lunch to take the test. He sighed and lost himself in a fantasy of the beef stew awaiting him in the cafeteria.

    It took an additional two minutes, but eventually the machine reached its decision and started printing out his assignment. He took it with trembling hands and looked it over:

    CANDIDATE NAME: NIWA, BAKAGURU

    PKM AGENT NUMBER: 12334

    CADET NIWA IS ASSIGNED TO THE SCIENCE DIVISION, RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT SECTION, SUBSECTION 003.

    He could scarcely believe it. He turned the short message over to make sure it was not a hoax, but there was nothing on the other side of the paper. He reread it, then read it once more to be certain. It was unheard of, so far as Bakaguru knew, for a cadet to be assigned to Research and Development, particularly Subsection 003, which had the reputation of only selecting agents after years of training in other divisions.

    "Why would they want me?" he wondered aloud. The design he had submitted was…strange, to say the least. He decided he would question it no more and simply accept his good luck, so he stood up and began making his way to the cafeteria. His mouth salivated as he approached, catching a whiff of the delicious stew he so enjoyed.

    The cafeteria was incredibly crowded. All the new recruits were challenging the senior agents for breathing room in the lines, and as a result Bakaguru was forced to wait in a seemingly-endless line for his lunch rations. He found the slow crawl of the line almost unbearable, and almost devoured his bowl the instant the chef placed it in his hands. He reflected that such an action would not endear him to the female agents and took a seat at a table in the back as far away from the din of noise as he was able.

    He unwrapped his spoon and dove right into the stew, but before he could complete his first, blissful bite he was approached by two other cadets.

    He chewed then swallowed. "Can I help you two?" he asked. He had noticed the two of them in line, but had thought nothing of them at the time. One was very tall, with a shock of dusty black hair and fierce dark eyes. The other was a little shorter, though both were taller than Bakaguru, with brown hair and, oddly enough, natural red eyes.

    The man with the dusty hair nodded. "You Bakaguru Niwa?" he asked.

    Bakaguru nodded. "I am. Why do you ask?"

    The man grinned then turned to the other. "Told you it was him. Saw him in one of the preliminary classes. Real smart cookie."

    The two men put their portions of stew on the table and sat down with Bakaguru. "Nice to meet you," said the red-eyed man. "My name's Arthur. Arthur Logan. My associate is named Terrance."

    "Terry," said Terry, lightly punching Arthur on the arm.

    "Yes, Terry. Excuse me." He took a tentative sip of the stew and smiled. "This is excellent, by the way. We're your new coworkers."

    Bakaguru's eyes widened. "You two were assigned to Research and Development too?" he asked.

    Terry nodded. "Subsection 003."

    "Pardon me if I say this, but the two of you don't exactly look like the smartest bulbs in the box," said Bakaguru. "I'm still surprised that I got in. Why would they want the two of you?"

    Arthur shrugged. "In my case, it's nepotism. I come from one of the three founding families that started PKM, so I received my pick of assignments. I have no idea why Terry is here."

    "It's because I'm a tactician," said Terry. "Before I got in, I used to be an awesome Pokemon brawler. I even won a championship once. I'm not the brightest bulb, but I'm a pretty tough one."

    "Charmed," said Bakaguru. "So, why are you guys in PKM anyway? Well, I guess Arthur's here because of family."

    "Ain't that the truth," said Arthur. "I really just want to write, but we take our lots in life. Figured at least Research and Development would be the best way for me to do some creative work while I'm here."

    "I'm here because of family too," said Terry. "I wasn't pulling enough in from the Pokemon tournaments, so I figured I'd try a career change for the wife and kid."

    "Won't they miss you while you do your training?" asked Bakaguru.

    Terry shook his head. "I was on the road a lot as a trainer. I worked out a deal where my time here is about the same. Took a little hit in pay, but I've gotta see my little squirt."

    "What about you, Bakaguru?" asked Arthur. "What brings you here?"

    "I was drafted. After I finished my graduate work at university, I received an offer to join in the form of the company dangling enough money in front of me to pay for the design of all my blueprints."

    "That's pretty neat," said Arthur, as the three of them began eating. "What were you designing?"

    Bakaguru reddened slightly. "In truth it's a bit embarrassing. I had an idea for soldiers to use advanced armor, sort of like medieval samurai, in battle. I designed a system similar to Poke Balls to store the armor when it's not in use and bring it out with a push of a button."

    Terry's eyes lit up. "Awesome," he said. "We would be total superheroes."

    "It does sound rather fantastic," said Arthur.

    "If you think about it, it really isn't," said Bakaguru. "We already have the technology to make the suits and the technology to store them. Poke Ball technology could be converted to work with a number of things. We could store weapons and vehicles, really anything we wanted. It isn't inconceivable that we could store and summon a regular suit of armor."

    "Is there a way for us to make these suits different colors?" asked Terry. "I really see myself in red."

    "Please," said Arthur, as he pointed at his eyes. "If anyone deserves to be the red one, it's me."

    "We can see. Everything's hypothetical at this point. Who knows if they'll even let us make the technology? They might put us to work testing their new artillery or some sort of helicopter or tank."

    "True, or they could put us on your awesome suit of armor plan," said Terry. "Now I'm really excited I got stuck in this science group. I thought for sure I was just going to be handing test tubes to nerds because science wasn't really my strong suit in school."

    "Well, if the plan does get underway we will require a test pilot," said Bakaguru. "But we need to get approval before we can even consider positions."

    But Terry ignored him. As they continued to eat, slurping up pieces of stew, they discussed how the technology would theoretically work, how the armor would materialize over someone's body without users having to physically strap themselves in, and what would be the best tools to put into the armor.

    "Personally, I'm all for putting machine guns on the shoulders," said Terry. "Can we do that?"

    Bakaguru shrugged. "I'm not sure, to be honest. I do know that if we continue to get more complicated with the design, the harder the armor would be to store. As the variables increase, the likelihood the armor will materialize in the wrong place increases."

    "What's that mean?" asked Terry.

    "Means that if you stick too much onto it, odds are good it could show up again up your keester," said Arthur. "Plus, the more we put onto it the more memory the storage device needs to keep it in stasis. Same reason we need bigger Poke Balls for bigger Pokemon."

    "Exactly," said Bakaguru. "This would need to be compact, possibly not much larger than the human that would go inside the armor. And even then, odds are good that the storage device would be huge compared to a Poke Ball, possibly the size of a twenty-pound backpack. If we kept increasing the capacity, we could end up with gigantic packs that would be unfeasible for agents to carry into combat situations."

    "Eh, I guess we could just carry guns around with us normally," said Terry. "Unless we make other storage units that could hold those. How much room would we need to store a regular gun?"

    "Maybe the size of a Poke Ball. Those could be carried around in separate containers." Bakaguru smiled. "That's not a bad idea. I hadn't considered that."

    "See, you're already pulling your weight around here," said Arthur.

    Terry flashed him a grin. "So, how do we go about getting these things started? I'm eager to be getting my superhero suit on."

    "Well, first we would have to finalize the schematics necessary to convert the armor to the storage device and have it successfully reemerge onto the user's body. Then we need to finalize the design for the armor itself."

    "You don't have a design for the armor?" asked Arthur.

    "Only insofar as its general appearance," said Bakaguru. "I'm not much of an artistic type. I essentially saw it as armor plating over a regular infantry suit."

    "No, no, no," said Arthur. "There are a whole slew of factors to consider. What about Kevlar? It's new, but the research shows that it could become a viable replacement for metal in the coming years."

    "I'm open to new ideas, trust me," said Bakaguru. "My primary skill was just figuring out how to store non-Pokemon components."

    Terry pointed at his bowl, which was quite empty at this point. "How's about we continue this discussion over some more food? I need at least three of these before I'm satisfied."

    Arthur and Bakaguru nodded in agreement and followed Terry over to the line. They continued to talk, ignoring most of the shenanigans going on amongst the newer recruits around them, and scheme about a proposal to set in front of the Council.

    "You can really do that?" asked Bakaguru.

    Arthur smiled. "Naturally. I can call in my father and get him to force the Council to hear the proposal. Unfortunately, it isn't our turn to lead the organization, the Brines have it for the next few years, so there's no guarantee that it'll work. With my backing, though, we definitely have a better shot than if it were just you two on your own."

    "Whoever said that nepotism was useless and for hacks never met you," said Bakaguru. "It will take some time, but we should be ready to submit a proposal within the next year. It could lead to a new arms race. Think of it. Soldiers with the strength of tanks combined with the mobility and dexterity of any agent."

    "And we'd be the ones that make it happen," said Terry. "Man, it'd be cool. I'm sure we'd get some kinda promotion."

    "Maybe," said Bakaguru, "but I think our focus should probably be on the safety of the agents in the field, not promotions. Remember, we're just starting out here, even if we do have a huge head start over the others."

    Terry nodded. "Fair enough," he said, and put his hand on the table. "So, we a team?"

    Arthur placed his hand on Terry's. "Agreed."

    Bakaguru smiled despite himself, and also put his hand on theirs. "Agreed," he said. They then lifted their hands in a traditional sign of friendship.

    Author's Note: This next arc that we're starting is very intense, mostly because it continues answering questions about the history of the ranger technology and how Bakaguru wound up with it. This arc will also set up and give building blocks towards the finale of the series, so you're going to want to pay attention to certain key scenes in these chapters. The next few chapters will all have flashbacks, as I really wanted to do an origin chapter but it never fit anywhere, so I tied it through this whole arc.

  6. #51
    Scholarly Gentleman
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    Default Chapter 38

    Morph Thirty-Eight: Scattered

    "Sarah! Sarah!"

    0 and May ran through the streets, shouting and shouting their daughter's name. It was too dark, it was raining, and they could barely see the noses in front of their faces. Still they searched until, finally, May tired and they were forced to stop.

    "Go on," she murmured, as she forced herself to sit on a nearby bench. "I can't…I'm too tired. Come back for me later."

    0 shook his head. "We're not separating. I might not be able to find you again. And what if they managed to track us? They could get to you before I get back."

    "0, I don't care if they find me!" shouted May. "Our daughter could be scared and alone in a city with millions of people. She doesn't have a cell phone, she doesn't have a way to let us know she's safe, she could be all alone waiting for us. I'll find somewhere to hide, I have cash, but we're going to find our daughter. Is that clear?"

    0 just nodded his head. "Understood. But I'm still not leaving you. Remember, we don't just have Sarah to look out for anymore. We have to keep him safe too."

    May rubbed her belly. "I am all the protection this one needs, 0. You go find our daughter."

    0 gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. "This wouldn't have happened if I could synchronize everything. Pi and I've worked everything out, except for that actual transformation."

    "Would it be powerful enough to fight Charon?"

    0 looked away. "I'm not exactly sure. There's no base to compare the theory with. I have no idea how they managed to synch a Dark Gem to the Ranger System. Especially…" He paused. "Oh no. That's why."

    "What's why?"

    "It's because of the morpher. Bakaguru's morpher was really, really old technology. Didn't have the ranger spirit, didn't have the weapons, didn't have anything. But it was still on par, relatively speaking, with our morphers. If it wasn't Bakaguru using it, it could have gone toe to toe with everyone. And it was empty. It had the potential to use a Pokemon, but Bakaguru never bothered to install one. Charon just overrode the controls and tricked it into accepting a foreign material."

    "So it has the best of both worlds. An ultra-strong Dark Gem and Bakaguru's upgrades."

    "Plus whatever else Charon did to it so it would take the new power source," said 0, and he turned to her. "We have to figure out a way to synch my five Pokemon. If the fight today was any indication, it's going to be our best bet to put him to bed."

    "We can sort that out later," said May. "For now, you need to go find our daughter. You're what she needs right now."

    "What she needs is both of us," said 0.

    "We're not having this debate all over again," said May. "Go! Use the Agility and do a wide-sweep, or something. Anything."

    "I can't use Agility. If I do, they'll lock onto the energy I give off."

    May growled at him. "Then do something else! You've got all those contraptions, there has to be something we can do."

    0 instinctively tapped his head. "Pi?" he asked.

    "What do you need?" asked the mouse.

    "Is there any way we can track down Sarah without sending off a signal Charon can pick up?"

    "That's a really good question. Technically, he'll be able to tell the moment you have to demorph. That shouldn't be possible, should it?"

    0 shrugged. "I don't know. I thought Bakaguru disconnected the morphers so they couldn't be tracked by anyone."

    "Maybe," said May, "maybe Charon can track the energy you give off. He might not be able to track the morpher itself, but he could probably pick up a reading when you demorph."

    "She's probably right, 0," said Pi. "We have to figure out a way to mask our energy. We're starting to run out of time."

    "We could get underground, get some steel around me."

    0? May?

    0 paused. "Hang on. Did you hear something?"

    May nodded. "I think it sounded like Serena."

    0 agreed, and then tapped his head. "Silver, that you?" he asked.

    Of course it's me. You know anyone else with an Elgyem to communicate with telepathically?

    "Fair point. Status update."

    I have Darmanitan and Elgyem with me. Brock's here too. And Sarah, so you can stop looking for her. Both parents instantly breathed sighs of relief. We're not sure where we are. I can't send Brock or Sarah out to go buy a map. We're hiding out in an alley right now.

    "Make for the nearest motel," said 0. "Try to avoid the Internet. Odds are good your morpher's signal will be spotted the moment you try to hack in with Dewgong. Find a map that way. Keep our daughter safe."

    "Any news on Max and 415?" asked May.

    Couldn't tell. You two were the first we contacted. We had to keep moving until we found a discreet spot to try the telepathy. You would think there would be more abandoned alleyways.

    0 nodded. "Okay, Silver. Continue transmitting on the telepathy and we'll see if we can't figure out where everyone went. Maintain radio silence on the morphers and try to find a more secure spot to hide until we can figure out our next move."

    Roger, boss. Over and out.

    His head suddenly felt silent again, and he looked down at May, who nodded her head. "Me too," she said as she tapped her skull. "At least Sarah's safe."

    He sat down next to her. "For now," he said. "Until the next crisis. Until they find her again."

    "She's got her Aunt Serry looking out for her. Look, the fact that they're bringing out these big guns is both a good and bad thing."

    "How so?" asked 0.

    "Think about it. What does it say that they had to bring in Charon, or that Ame has to fight now? They're both heavy hitters. They shouldn't have to fight. Ame hasn't touched us in the entire time she's been following us. They don't even have any Rangerlings with them. What's changed?"

    "We took down Top and Dia, and a whole bunch of those Rangerlings. Maybe they're running out of options. They're using the big stuff because it's all they have left."

    "Exactly. At this point they would have sent all the weak stuff out already. They're scared, so they're using as much power as they can to take us out."

    0 thought about that. "Then that means that there's something else out there. Ame works for someone. It couldn't have been Charon, she must have brought him in to mess with our heads. There's someone else out there pulling these strings and making us dance."

    May took his hand. "We'll get through it. They're not getting the Dark Gold, they aren't getting Serena, they aren't getting me. Now explain the plan to me."

    0 squeezed her fingers. "In theory, Pi and I realized that the Auxiliary Ranger System has a backup…something, that lets…hang on." He pulled out his communicator and opened the speaker. "Pi, can you hear us?"

    "Yes," said the mouse.

    "Please explain how the Synch Battlizer is supposed to work."

    The mouse chuckled. "Basically, he already explained it," it said. "Usually, when 0 uses the ASP, he uses one Pokemon at a time over the suit I generate. The theory is that we can put all five Pokemon into one suit. There's some code available in the Ailed Morpher to make the Battlizer, but we can't figure out a way to supercharge the morpher. In theory, we'd need enough energy to power the whole city for a week, and we're pretty sure we can't just hook him up to a power plant and let him soak all that up."

    "Pretty sure I'd explode," said 0.

    "So we need to find some other way of getting him energy. We thought about using the Dark Emerald, but even what we got from Max doesn't give him enough juice."

    "What's left to sort out in the code?" asked 0.

    "Eh, it's complicated. Short answer is that the code seems to only focus on rotating the Pokemon. So we could, in theory, link the Pokemon wirelessly to the morpher and make it so we could switch the Pokemon without having to take out and reinsert Poke Balls. But putting all five together still doesn't work."

    Pi was about to say more, but May's alarm started sounding. "Come on," she said. "We need to get you somewhere to demorph."

    "Let's head for the subway," said 0. "Might have a better chance of masking the signal there."

    "And they won't come after us, because there won't be a way of telling where we're going next."

    0 smiled. "Now that's why I love you. You always were smarter than me. Well, except in battling. Now there I'm—"

    "Dear, we're wasting time."

    "Right, right."

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    Serena released her hold on Elgyem and turned to Sarah. "Just spoke with your parents. They were awfully worried about you, but they're doing okay. Told us to lay low, alright?"

    Sarah nodded, though she still found herself staying close to Brock's wheelchair. "Okay, Aunt Serry," she said, keeping her hands firmly in her pockets.

    Brock looked up as Elgyem recalled itself into its Poke Ball. "So, what's the plan, fearless leader?" he asked.

    "We find a hotel, probably something middle class. They'll look at the cheaper motels and we can't afford anything fancy with the emergency pack I have with me. Then we get in touch with Max and 415. Then we sit tight until 0 can figure out how to counteract Charon's little tantrum." Serena got behind Brock and started pushing his chair. "After that, I don't know. This might not be a problem we can solve."

    "Why not?" asked Brock.

    Serena sighed. "You didn't know him, but Bakaguru was probably one of the most important people in my life growing up. He's the reason I'm Ranger Silver now, and he was a mentor to us all. He built the technology that made up the ranger system, from the ground up. In a lot of ways, he's responsible for our family."

    "And he protected me," said Sarah. "If he hadn't become the Master Ranger, I wouldn't be here either."

    "No you wouldn't," said Serena. "He loved each and every one of us, even if he never said it. He showed he loved us and that he loved you, maybe not as much as your parents but definitely as much as the rest of us. The point is, though, that Bakaguru had access to some major firepower, all of which he built into the Master Morpher. Charon's got everything we do, plus who knows what else. We'll figure it out, probably, but those are the odds we're stacked up against."

    "We can do it," said Sarah. She smiled, but the expression was fleeting and she lowered her head again. They continued walking down the street, trying hard not to draw attention to themselves. Brock's wheelchair could not be helped, but most people seemed to directly ignore it as they passed. They kept moving, until at last they came upon a hotel that Serena deemed acceptable.

    "What do you think?" asked Serena.

    The hotel itself was nothing special, but was definitely square in the middle in terms of quality. There was not pool, but the building itself looked renovated. They had the distinct sensation that rooms were not rented for an hour at a time and families were welcome.

    "It'll do. Definitely looks like a place a family would hunker down for a night in," said Brock. They headed inside where they located the front desk.

    "Welcome to the Palace Goldenrod," said the receptionist. "Will you be checking in today?"

    Serena nodded. "We'll be staying the night. How much?"

    "Let me see…our family suit is one hundred sixty for one night without a reservation," said the receptionist. "Is that alright?"

    Serena nodded. "Sure. My husband can't be counted on to tie his shoes." She turned to Brock and gave him a stern look. "This is your fault. You were the one in charge of the reservations."

    "But I—"

    Serena shushed him and turned to the receptionist. "That'll be fine." She opened her bag and located a purse containing cash. She paid the receptionist and received a key card to a room. "Thank you very much."

    The receptionist bowed. "And thank you for choosing the Palace Goldenrod."

    Serena and Sarah wheeled Brock out of the atrium and towards a room on the east side of the building. They found the room, number 326, and Serena quickly got everyone inside. When she clicked the door shut, she let out a sigh of relief.

    "Think we're in the clear?" asked Brock, as he positioned himself between the room's two beds.

    "Boy, I hope so," she said. "I really, really do."

    "Can we try talking to Uncle Max now?" asked Sarah.

    Serena nodded and took out Elgyem's Poke Ball. "I'll step into the bathroom and check in on him. Sit tight, kiddo."

    The moment Serena stepped into the bathroom, though, Sarah climbed on top of her bed and started sobbing. Brock wheeled himself over, gently rubbing her back.

    "It's okay, little Sarah," he whispered. "Everything's going to be alright, you'll see."

    "No it won't!" she shouted. "Nothing's going to be okay, and I can't do anything about it."

    Brock smiled. "Hey, hey. You're almost eight years old. You're not supposed to be protecting anyone. That's our job."

    She glared at him. How had her eyes gotten so red? "I could do it. I could save everybody. But I can't. It won't work. It never works."

    "What won't work?" asked Brock.

    Sarah looked around, as if to ensure they were not being spied on, then pulled something out of her pocket. "This thing." Brock was not sure what it was, it looked almost like one of the morphers that 0 and Serena wore, except that it was blue. "Dad and Aunt Serry and 415 have them. Before he died, he—Bakaguru…he gave this one to me. He told me it was really strong. He told me to keep it really safe. But it's broken. It won't work. Every time my dad gets in trouble I try to put it on but it won't ever work! It's just…it's just broken." She started crying again. "Why can't I ever help Mom and Dad?"

    Brock held up his arms, and she jumped into his chair for a hug. "Listen," he said. "Trust me, I understand how you feel." He grinned, and gestured at his body. "Look at me. I'm stuck in this chair. You don't think it kills me that I can't help your dad out? Back in the day, I would have gladly given up both my arms and legs for him. But, since I've already done that, I've got to make the best with what I've got. I've gotta hide, same as you. But it's not because I'm no good, or I'm not help. You know how you and I really help your dad, Sarah?"

    She sniffled. "How?" she asked.

    "Because of who we are. We're people your dad loves. Nothing ever changes that. From what I've seen of that morpher he has, it's based on the bond between a Pokemon and his trainer. Well, a hero's strength is based on the people they love. Who they'll fight for. Who they'll win for. That all matters. We matter. We might not be able to turn into superheroes, but we always matter."

    "You sure?" she asked. She was holding him so tightly, he could feel her tears on the collar of his shirt.

    "I promise, little girl," he said. "Never think you don't matter. Your dad's the strongest guy I know, and we're the reasons he fights. We must be pretty good reasons, right?"

    She giggled. "I guess you're right."

    "Of course I am. I'm a doctor. Now, why don't you go try and get some sleep? Sleep deprivation never solved anything."

    Sarah took a few deep breaths, then sat up in Brock's lap. "Okay, Uncle Brock. I'll try." She got off his lap and curled up in the bed sheets. Within minutes, Brock heard her softly snoring.

    "That was really sweet." Brock jumped slightly, but realized that it was just Serena. He turned his chair and moved away so as to not disrupt Sarah's rest.

    "I used to be her babysitter," Brock explained. "Comes with the uncle territory."

    Serena smiled. "Well, I'm glad you're here. I'm not sure I'd know how to help her. Kids aren't exactly my forte."

    "Glad to help how I can," said Brock. "Any word for Max?"

    She nodded. "He's with 415, both safe and out of sight for now. Looks like everyone's with somebody and in the clear. I think we can relax a little. Maybe get some rest."

    "If you want to get some sleep, go ahead," said Brock. "I can stand watch."

    Serena smirked. "Sure about that, big boy?"

    Brock winced, but managed to make it to his feet. "Yes I am, as a matter of fact," he said, before grabbing his cane for extra stability. "Get some rest. I'm wide awake anyway."

    She smirked. "Sure you won't be joining me? It's awfully lonely in this big bed."

    "I think I'll take my chances with the chair," he replied with a smirk in return. Serena jumped into the bed and started napping away, leaving Brock to watch the window for signs of activity. He practiced on his balance, finding that he could indeed walk from the window to the minibar to procure some peanuts when he grew hungry.

    It was perhaps because he was so focused on the outside that he did not notice it. Neither did Serena nor Sarah, for that matter, as both were asleep. But somehow, impossibly, there was a faint blue light blinking on and off in the room, directly underneath Sarah's sheets.

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    "This is uncomfortable," said 415.

    Max shrugged. "Serena said we should lay low until we hear otherwise. May as well go."

    415 hesitated. "Still, I am uneasy. Alexander Charon and the other Dark Gem are free agents. They destroyed our base. We should be doing something about that, not waiting in line for some trivial film."

    The line was surprisingly crowded for a 'trivial film'. They had managed to get there early, but others had not been so lucky. The end of the line was now approaching the other side of the street, with scores of people apparently clamoring to see some kind of film. Max could not help but notice that the line seemed to be disproportionately female, with a few guys in the crowd that looked not one bit happy to be seeing the movie.

    "I wonder what this is all for," he said. "What's coming out this week that's got everyone so excited?"

    A girl that looked at least ten years younger than Max, with some sort of shirt displaying a message that Max really did not understand, jumped at the chance to relay this information to him. "You don't know?" she screamed, as though Max had just committed sacrilege. "It's the premiere of Sonata Under the Moonlight! Don't you know anything?"

    415 leaned forward. "What is this…Sonata Under the Moonlight?" she asked.

    "Oh, it's so great!" she said, at a breakneck speed that jumbled the words together into one when Max heard her. "It's all about this girl named Miriam who gets spirited away by this mysterious billionaire she meets named Bertram Alphonse! And at first he doesn't like her, but then he saves her life and he's always buying her stuff! It's so amaaaaaaaazing!"

    415 tilted her head. "I am confused. Is it a farce?"

    The girl tilted her own head. "No, stupid. It's going to be the most romantic movie ever made."

    Max instantly saw 415 clench her left hand into a fist. "How is it a romance? The woman seems as if she is feebly waiting for the male to do something, creating an unhealthy relationship constantly based on him purchasing her goods. How is it romantic?" she asked.

    The girl blew a raspberry. "You just don't get the inner meanings behind it. You must be one of the idiots that are here to see something useless."

    "You really don't want to say things like that," said Max, and then he turned to 415. "Please ignore her. She doesn't know what she's saying."

    "Oh I know what I'm saying," said the girl. "You think you know something about love because you two are on some stupid date? Please. I know more about love and I'm here by myself."

    415 was very quiet, so as few people as possible would hear her. "If you do not stop talking this instant, I will permanently ensure that you are incapable of speaking for the rest of your existence," she said.

    "W-What?" The girl had obviously picked up on 415's calm, yet intensely threatening tone.

    "Do you know how incredibly simple it is for me to stuff my hand down your throat, seize hold of your tongue, then forcibly extract it without anesthesia?" She lifted her hand to demonstrate. "As you see, my hands are small, comparatively speaking, small enough for your throat anyway. Then, the instant I am done, I will take great satisfaction in depositing your appendage in the nearest waste receptacle. And it will spare me no more thought than the purchase of a small bag of those potato chips that my partner appreciates."

    The girl's expression gradually changed, first from a bemused denial to inevitable, terrifying panic as 415 described in explicit detail the exact angles which were the most ideal for removing a tongue. She started to tremble, then to cry, then finally she ran out of the line and into the street, intent on getting as far away from 415 was she was physically able.

    Max sighed. "You really shouldn't have done that," he said.

    "Why not? She was ruining the date, was she not?"

    "Well, she was annoying, sure, but I'm not sure she really needed to be threatened. We could have ignored her."

    415 simply stared at him. "It is my intention for this evening to be a success. If we cannot do anything regarding Alexander Charon and Ame, we will succeed here. I will succeed here."

    Max smiled, and took her hand gently. "Relax. We can't do anything, so let's just have a nice night out, okay? You don't have to try so hard."

    "That is a simplistic viewpoint." She removed her hand. "This entire experience is new to me. I do not have the necessary training. I am in a scenario I was not prepared for."

    "We'll be fine. It's just a movie. Look, the line's moving." He gestured forward, and indeed the line was moving at a snail's pace towards the front. "C'mon. Let's go get some good seats."

    "Are we seriously contemplating seeing this Sonata nonsense?" asked 415.

    Max shrugged. "We could do worse than see a cheesy movie. And if it sucks, we'll just poke fun at it all night. You can criticize to your heart's content around hundreds of people that love this stuff."

    415 seemed to relax. "Well, I suppose that would be entertaining."

    They followed the line, eventually securing some tickets for a theater on the far side of the building. They followed the herd of fan girls and took two seats to the back of the room so as not to sit next to too many of them. There was entirely too much squealing in the auditorium, leaving Max quite content with the fact that he had mostly missed out on popular culture since he'd gotten the Dark Emerald.

    He tried to drown out the noise, but 415 seemed fascinated by her surroundings. She was on the edge of her seat training her eyes on almost anyone that even considered moving.

    "You scouting the place out?" he asked. "There's no point, the Dark Emerald's quiet."

    She shook her head. "No. I was observing the audience. They appear to be quite animated, yet are they not aware that their city is frequently attacked by the Dark Gems. Should they not be on alert?"

    Max shrugged. "Doesn't 0 tell Jenny to keep most of it out of the press? I think they just think weird stuff just happens sometimes."

    "Does that not concern them? Do they not wish to investigate?"

    Max shook his head. "You know people better than most. Didn't you used to dress up as a fat nerd?"

    "It was a cover."

    "Well, what happened when you went out in the cover disguise?"

    "People would avoid me, often ignore me completely."

    "Exactly. People hate weird. They avoid it. They like things to be copasetic. Take a look at the people here. They're all ignoring us because we're not part of their subgroup. These seats might as well not even be there for all they notice."

    415 considered the information. "I suppose your point has merit. However, if there are no desires for change, then how are there investigators? How are there police? How can people who search for contrarians exist?"

    Max shrugged. "How am I supposed to know? Maybe that's a little subgroup too. Can't we just accept that everybody's weird?"

    415 rested her head against the back of her chair. "I just prefer when things are easily categorized. Much simpler to handle."

    "Eh, you're still taking your baby steps. The real world is still a scary place for you."

    She turned to him with a droll expression. "Do not make me snap your neck in the middle of all these witnesses. I do not wish to deal with the fallout of explaining to an audience of belligerent children why you are technically immortal."

    "Have I mentioned how attractive you are when you threaten?" asked Max. 415 hesitated, and Max smirked. "Admit it, you're having fun. You get to see humans in their natural habitat with me, Max Birch." He put his legs up on the seat in front of him. "Doesn't get much better than this."

    She abruptly smacked his legs and forced them to the floor. "Do not do that. It is considered impolite."

    Max just grinned as the lights in the theater dimmed, indicating that the film would soon begin. Almost immediately, screams of delight rained down through the auditorium as the first preview began screening.

    "Why are they making all that noise?" whispered 415. "I thought the darkness suggested that we are to be silent."

    "They're just excited. They might have been waiting for this movie for years."

    The first preview for some type of action movie played, and both Max and 415 found it uninteresting due to its unrealistic representation of the action sequences. Both had experienced combat a thousand times more interesting than half the obviously computerized explosions that filled the screen.

    The second trailer was not much better. It was a romantic comedy of some sorts revolving around a man driving across the country to reunite with his girlfriend. 415 could not understand the premise of a long-distance relationship. Max did not understand why the man simply did not just fly to the location.

    Eventually the movie started.

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    "Found them."

    Charon, for some reason known only to Charon, was perched on the ledge of the building instead of standing next to the stairwell like a normal person. Ame glanced around and waited for him to explain his discovery.

    When he did not, Ame simply asked, "Where are they?"

    Charon pointed somewhere in the distance. "Over there. There's a morpher signal… Ooh, that's interesting!"

    "What is it?" asked Ame.

    "I didn't know they had that one. Thought it got lost in the fire. Huh, learn something new every day." He sat up and jumped off the ledge. "The Ranger Blue morpher is ringing. Not sure why, but they probably have that one too. Better go pick it up, it probably isn't active."

    "Why would they have an inactive morpher?" asked Ame.

    "And how am I supposed to know that?" he retorted. "Do I have some sort of magic psychic ability that lets me see into the inner workings of the human mind? Do you have any idea how easy this would be if I could do that? Geez, get your head in the game. Come on, we've gotta go get them."

    "I cannot. I have another appointment."

    "What other appointment?"

    She stared at him. "We have discussed this. Your assignment is to handle the PKM Rangers. Mine is to handle Eme. Do you not believe yourself capable of combating those meager rangers? Is your technology not adequate?"

    Charon shrugged. "Thought Dark Gems worked in pairs."

    Ame glared at him. "Some do, Alexander Charon. It is because they are weak and will not survive alone. I assure you that I have never needed a second body to drag along with me."

    "Sheesh, fine. I'll deal with them on my own. Not like I can't."

    "Splendid. Happy hunting, Alexander Charon." Then she vanished into thin air, leaving the monster alone with his thoughts.

    "Not like I can't," he repeated. He could hear something faint in his head, the sound of something screaming in the distance. He looked at his morpher and the Dark Ruby set in the center of it. "You trying to tell me something?" he asked. It screamed at him again.

    "Blood…flesh?" he asked. Then he nodded. "Oh, I can do that, little buddy." He briefly considered jumping down from the rooftop into the street, then thought better of the idea and took the fire escape instead. It did not matter either way, as the signal was not moving in the slightest.

    Still…it was confusing. "Why would they leave something like that on?" he wondered aloud, confusing a pair of men waiting at the nearby bus stop. "I mean, it could be a trap. Or it could just be someone being stupid. No, if it were a trap it would have been turned off. Besides, how can they trap me? I have their mentor's morpher."

    The bus came and he got on with the men. He took a seat behind them. "Maybe they're trying to turn it on," he said. His voice was growing increasingly more frantic. "Maybe it's their last shot to get me and they're trying to turn it on with someone and it's not working. And now they're panicking and everyone's going crazy trying to get it on before I get there."

    The men exchanged glances. Charon noticed and leaned forward. "Got a question, buddies?" he asked. He took perhaps too long in staring at them and they awkwardly looked away.

    "No," said one. "Just looking out for our stop."

    "Oh? Oh that's too bad," said Charon. He pressed the Dark Ruby and felt his fancy new armor form all around him. "I'd love to tell you, but I'm afraid I'm going to be far too busy to tell such a complicated story."

    They screamed, as did everyone else. Charon tried not to take it personally and conked their skulls together. They fell to the floor in a heap, so Charon climbed over their chair in the direction of the driver, whose eyes widened in the rearview mirror as he saw Charon advance.

    "P-Please," he whispered, "don't."

    Charon clapped him on the back. "Don't what, my means of transport? I can't kill you! It would take way too long to get where I'm going by walking! No, just follow my directions and everyone leaves a happy chappy! Understand?"

    The bus driver nodded and followed Charon's instructions, very calmly making it to an insignificant hotel on the other side of town. Charon, cool as a cucumber, thanked the driver merrily for all his hard work, then disembarked the bus and watched it tear through the traffic in an effort to put as much distance between itself and Charon as possible. Charon waved before turning his attention onto the hotel. He could tell exactly where they were, so he casually walked along the perimeter of the establishment until he came to the spot of the building where the signal was the strongest.

    "Time to make some noise," he murmured, and he smashed through the dark windows and entered the room.

    The response was not as quick as he would have hoped. He distinctly heard someone fall down, and noticed a giant man with dark skin sprawled on the floor reaching for a cane. On the bed nearest to him was 0's brat, the little girl holding something flashy in her hands. On the other side of the room, the tiny woman with the silver hair was already reaching for her morpher.

    "Ah," he said. "You weren't getting ready for me." He looked towards the little girl, who was already in the process of hiding her precious toy. "You were just stupid and trusted a little girl with one of the most powerful pieces of technology ever invented." He held out his hand. "Give it here, little pup, and I promise this will all be over in the blink of an eye."

    "What's he talking about?" asked Serena.

    Sarah buried her head in her hands. "It's the morpher Bakaguru gave to me. He told me to keep it safe! I turned it on by mistake and didn't know! I thought we were safe!"

    Charon wagged his finger. "Never safe, love. Never safe from me. Now give it here."

    "Don't you dare, Sarah!" shouted Brock from the floor. "Your dad wouldn't do it, no matter what. Don't let him have anything!"

    "That's enough out of you," he said. He stomped down hard on Brock's left leg, but nothing happened. No snapping of bone, no ripping of muscle. Just a slight ping and then a mild twinge vibrated up Charon's own leg. "Hmmmm…how strange. Metal?"

    "Best there is," said Brock. He lifted his leg and delivered a kick that slammed into Charon's crotch and launched him out of the shattered window. He scampered to his feet. "Didn't know I could do that. Adrenaline?"

    "And hydraulics," said Serena with a smirk. She transformed immediately. "You and Sarah need to get that morpher out of here. Rescue Mode ought to be enough to stall him." She switched to said mode immediately, and the temperature began plummeting.

    Sarah shook her head. "No! Uncle Brock, we're not going without Aunt Serry!"

    "I'm with the kid, we can't just—"

    "This isn't up for discussion!" She released Darmanitan and Elgyem from their Poke Balls. "I'll contact 0 with Elgyem and use Darmanitan as backup for now, but that morpher is important and so are the two of you! Neither of you are any good to me here nor am I not good to you if you stay here much longer! Now go!"

    "But Aunt Serry—" Sarah was interrupted by Brock grabbing her and hauling her over his shoulders. "Aunt Serry!"

    Brock glared at Serena. "Better make it back," he said. "This doesn't count as a date."

    She gave him a thumb's up. "I've had worse dates," she replied, then turned towards the window. Charon was climbing back through. "Go!"

    Brock tried to put Sarah's screaming out of his head as he stumbled out of the room, hoping that the adrenaline coursing through his system would be enough to keep his balance and momentum working for him.

    "Please!" Sarah screamed. "Please go back for her!"

    "We can't help her!" shouted Brock. "We'd just be in the way!"

    "If I could morph, I could help! If I could morph, I could be more than just someone that always needs saving!"

    Brock reached a corridor and ducked through it. When he felt he had enough distance between himself and the fight he lowered Sarah. "Listen," he said. "That doesn't change anything. You don't have a Pokemon registered to you to make that morpher work."

    She looked at him through her tears. "If not me, then who?" she asked. "Who, Uncle Brock!? I don't want Charon to kill Aunt Serry too! Someone needs to save her for once!"

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    "I understood exactly none of that."

    Max and 415 were walking now, moving through the crowds of people and towards the emergency packs they had hidden in a small factory a few blocks south from the theater. Everyone around them was jabbering loudly, inhibiting any real conversation not punctuated with a torrent of squeals.

    "I was really with it until the guy just started obsessing over that girl," said Max. "Don't think the movie made enough effort to establish her as a human being."

    "Indeed," said 415. "She reminded me of a mobile hunk of wood."

    "That's an insult to most Sudowoodo," said Max.

    415's face flickered briefly into a smile. "Amusing, Dark Gem."

    They reached the factory and quickly climbed over the security perimeter, taking care to avoid the cameras positioned along the walls. It took a little bit of maneuvering, but the two of them were inside the factory in two minutes.

    They took three steps forward into the atrium before Max stopped and growled. "What?" asked 415. "Is your Dark Gem reacting to something?"

    He nodded and pulled out his pulsating gem. "Somebody's in there. Either Ame or Charon, I'm not sure which."

    "Proceed forward. Can you pinpoint their location?"

    Max closed his eyes and arched his brows. After a moment, he pointed forward, directly into the manufacturing center of the factory. "In there. Where we stashed our gear."

    "Splendid. Prepare for battle. If they are waiting, perhaps we can distract them with conversation to better formulate our plan."

    Max led 415 into the room, where there was indeed a person waiting for them. Ame stood, almost casually, in the center of the room, cradling her Dark Gem in her fingers. She dangled it this way and that on the length of her chain. When she saw them, her purple eyes lit up and she offered them a slight smile.

    "Ranger Black," she said, "and Eme. So good to see you again. I was hoping to run into you."

    "Pleasure's all ours," said Max. "Don't suppose we could all leave peacefully?"

    Ame rolled her eyes. "Our encounters serve as evidence that we will not, little Eme," she said. "But, for once, this time our conflict stands to profit me. You see, this is my final mission. When we are done here, my contract will be completed. There will be nothing more for me to do."

    "Really? And what might your contract entail, Dark Gem?" asked 415. Her fingers were casually grazing her morpher's trigger.

    Ame spotted this, and wagged a finger at 415. "Now now, we do not need to resort to such unpleasantness so quickly," she said. "We can have the conversation you seem intent on having. I presume it is so you might discern a way to defeat me? Are you not intelligent enough to come at me as you are?"

    "Do not bother with such tactics," said 415. "They may work on the brute, but I do not have an ego to bruise."

    "Very well, Ranger Black. My story is for little Eme anyway." She turned and narrowed her gaze on Max, who involuntarily found his chain wrapping along the length of his arm. "Now, little Eme, shall I tell you how you came to be?"

    Max tilted his head, confused. "What're you talking about?" he asked. "My birth? Uh, my mom and dad loved each other, and one thing led to another, and—"

    Ame held up her arm. "Please. Your parents' copulation is the least of my interests. I refer to the day you became Eme, and Max Birch ceased to be. Do you recall your second birth? Do you recall who is responsible for it?"

    Max's eyes flashed green. "Sappho," he said. "He's the one who killed Gallade. He made the sacrifice that activated my Dark Gem." He was starting to get angry.

    Ame smirked. "Close, but not quite. Sap was always such a weak little demon. He was incapable of even the simplest of assignments. He needed guiding and nurturing to complete anything. Would it shock you, little Eme, if I told you that I told him to kill your Gallade? That I made the decision to forge you into a Dark Gem Ranger?"

    "Dark Gem, she lies," said 415. "Do not let her provoke you into conflict."

    Max bared his teeth. "You weren't there," he said confidently. "Sappho was there, not you. There's no way you could have directed him the way you're saying you did. You're trying to throw me off my game."

    Ame smiled. "Before Sap killed your Pokemon, you met someone. A woman named Verity, yes? Does that name ring a bell?"

    Max froze. The name did ring a bell, but…no. "It's impossible. There's no way."

    "What is she talking about?" asked 415.

    "Before the attack at Petal, I met a girl. But she didn't look anything like you!" Max turned to Ame and his eyes flashed. "That doesn't have anything to do with this!"

    "Oh, but it does." Ame smiled, and suddenly her hair curled and her nose softened. It was such a subtle change, but it was her. "I was Verity. I marked you for Sap. I chose you to wield the Dark Emerald. I made you Eme. I killed your Pokemon."

    "Remain calm!" warned 415. "She is attempting to provoke you into conflict. We must radio Ranger Gold and the others for backup."

    Ame shook her head. "No, Ranger Black, you will not. I am here for him and no one else. I am here to fight the master of the Dark Emerald and fulfill my contract. That is the only thing that is going to happen today."

    415 turned to Max, whose face was lowered. She could see the tints of green aura around him. "Dark Gem," she said, "do not—"

    "Quiet," he growled. "Please, quiet." He then lifted his head and looked at Ame. "Then answer me this: why me? There were hundreds of people at that spa. Maybe a thousand. You didn't have to take me. You didn't have to take Gallade. You had your pick of people who would be easier to control. There must be a reason."

    Ame nodded. "Very astute, Eme. You were chosen for my own reasons. Perhaps if you succeed in defeating me, you may learn those reasons."

    "No." Max shook his head. "You explain it to me right now, or we're done here."

    Ame tilted her head. "And what suggests that I will comply with such a request?"

    Max grinned. "Because you found us," he explained. "You were waiting for us, you let your Dark Gem signal you were here. You had any chances to kill us, but you decided to wait. You want a duel, not an ambush. So spill, or we're getting out of here. I'm tired of this. I'm tired of you guys trying to get me. I'm tired of you hurting my friends. So what is it, Ame? What is it that makes you tick?"

    "You really want to know?" she asked.

    "I'm not going to fight you until I do," he said.

    "Fine, Eme. You are correct. I do want a duel. I require a duel with the master of the Dark Emerald because of my own Dark Gem." She dangled her little purple stone between her fingers. "My Dark Amethyst can activate briefly, even without needing to transform, but it can only obtain its full power when alongside the Dark Emerald. They are two halves to the same coin. The Dark Emerald received the raw power, while the Dark Amethyst received the raw potential. Without your light, I cannot truly fight. Without my light, you will never achieve your true potential."

    "So you fight me, and then what?"

    Ame smirked. "One of us absorbs the other. The survivor will gain dominion over light and darkness. One of us receives a power strong enough to rival my employers."

    "And what's in it for you if you get this power?" asked Max. "You keep saying your contract ends tonight. What good is infinite power if you plan on retiring?"

    "I will survive oblivion. I will endure with my employers beyond the oblivion that they plan to bring to this world."

    "Their plan is to destroy the world?"

    Ame's chain began wrapping around her legs and waist. "You think so small, Eme. I hope you plan to bring more than that to our duel." She gently pressed the stone into her flesh. "Dark Gem, Ignite." The light in the air dimmed as it rushed into her and transformed her into Sealed Form.

    "Fine." Max wrapped his chains up and squeezed the Dark Emerald. "Dark Gem Ignite!"

    When Max's own light dimmed down, he noticed 415 preparing to transform. "Wait," he said. "This is my fight. I can handle this."

    She brushed him away. "Please, Dark Gem. This woman aims to consume you. Do you think I intend to stand by and let that happen? Besides…" He saw that little smile on her face before she licked her lips. "She said she wishes to duel the master of the Dark Emerald. That person is me." She pressed down the trigger on her morpher and her ranger armor clamped down onto her body.

    Ame tilted her head. "Very well. The both of you then." And she charged.

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    ….Twenty-Five Years Ago…


    With a sharp outburst, Arthur pounded his fists on an adjacent table. "They've rejected the funding! Again!" He was absolutely livid, and had been pacing around the room for at least five minutes. This declaration was, in fact, the third time he had shouted it across the small dormitory he shared with Bakaguru and Terry. Terry was in the nearby bunk bed, trying desperately to sleep after his day of physical training. Bakaguru found himself having to constantly turn away from his computer to discuss the matter.

    "Did they at least give a reason for the refusal?" he asked. "Maybe it's something wrong with the way we're presenting the idea. It is relatively radical."

    Arthur stared at him. "You can't be serious. You of all people should know what this could do to the entire organization. We would be revolutionaries. Heroes who created armor to keep our soldiers safe."

    "Did they give a reason?"

    Arthur shrugged. "Father said it had something to do with the budget that would be required to even field-test the designs. Basically the Council didn't understand most of the lingo you used when you wrote the proposal for the container. I told you that you should have let me handle that."

    "You have no understanding of the quantum physics required to draft the proposal," Bakaguru pointed out.

    Arthur shrugged. "So? That's half of the problem right there. The Council didn't understand it in the terms you presented. You need to be less formal and more understanding when talking to the Council. They didn't get to where they are by having doctorates in nuclear physics or quantum biology or experimental toasters. They got to where they are because they fund this operation. They aren't exactly the dream team in the noodle department."

    "Do you guys mind?" asked Terry. Both of them turned to look at the now very-irritated Terry who sat up in his bunk and yawned. "I've got emergency response training at four in the morning tomorrow, and I'd appreciate some shuteye. Somebody's gotta learn to protect you smartypants scientists while you do all your inventing."

    "Explain it to him," said Arthur.

    "What?" asked Bakaguru. "He understands the theory."

    Arthur shook his head. "You misunderstand. If you write it in terms Terry can understand, the Council will understand it too. You didn't have to dumb it down for Terry, right?"

    "It required some different examples, but the basic message was unchanged," said Bakaguru.

    "Then rewrite the draft and have him look at it. If he doesn't get what you're saying, it's too smart and you need to go back to the drawing board. If he gets it, it's ready to be presented to the Council next time they meet."

    "That could work," said Bakaguru. "What do you think, Terry?"

    Terry shrugged, and then returned to his resting position. "I'm a fan of anything that gets you all good and quiet so I can sleep." He immediately shut his eyes and started snoring.

    "Does he always have to do that?" asked Bakaguru. "I'm thinking of investing in a set of noise-cancelling headphones."

    "You try rolling that lummox on his side," said Arthur. "But he does have a point. We should turn in for the night. Leave the rewrite for tomorrow. We might as well take our time. We've got six months before we can resubmit."

    Bakaguru glanced at the screen wearily. He was indeed quite sleepy, and he had been working on the computer for almost the entire day. "Perhaps some rest is in order," he agreed, and yawned deeply. "You're right, Arthur. We have plenty of time to plan our next submission."

    Arthur grinned. "Glad to hear it. I'll catch you guys later."

    Bakaguru grinned. "The perks of being a Logan know no bounds. Can you at least arrange some noise proof curtains around Terry's bed?"

    "Sorry, no can do." Arthur saluted and then headed out, back to his own lavish room that was not partially occupied by a snoring Terry.

    Bakaguru shut the door behind Arthur and stretched his arms. He headed to his own bed, beside the light switch, and shut it off as he climbed into his bed sheets.

    "Hey, Bakaguru?" asked Terry, having suddenly woken.

    Bakaguru shut his eyes. "Yes?"

    "Had a question I wanted to float your way," said Terry.

    "Uh-huh," said Bakaguru.

    "If the armor gets built, what happens afterwards?"

    Bakaguru turned his head to face where Terry was lying across the room. "What do you mean? If the armor gets built then we get promoted. We get to have safer agents. Less casualties. Less families with soldiers who died in the line of duty."

    "Yeah, but what happens to the other side?"

    "Other side?"

    "Think about it," said Terry. "We build the armor, that's awesome. But even if we're supposed to hate the other side, what's stopping them from trying to replicate the technology? We kick their butts the first time, then they come back with better, more powerful armor. Then we have a new giant war with super soldiers trying to outdo each other. How's it any different from our guns, or our Pokemon, if it just leads to everyone having super soldiers?"

    Bakaguru thought for a moment. "I hadn't considered that," he admitted. "If we receive the grant, we start building. We start building, we make the armor. We make the armor, we test the armor. We test the armor, our enemies see the armor. You're right, there's nothing to stop them from infiltrating us and stealing the design."

    "Unless we don't give it to everyone," said Terry. "If we give it to just a few people, and make the design so no one can have it without us, we make sure the armor stays in the right hands."

    "A failsafe," said Bakaguru. "How could we do it?"

    Terry grunted. "Maybe a DNA synch? Maybe voice control? Ooh, we could have it so the device stays permanently attached to the user's body, and it'll deactivate once someone tries to remove it."

    "We can't do the last one. The device is a backpack. People won't be too pleased about being permanently attached to a backpack."

    "Eh, when it's portable we can use that failsafe. I think a DNA sample would be fine for ours."

    "It would require an onboard computer system. That will increase the size of the backpack."

    "Think a few extra pounds would be worth the extra security," said Terry. He turned around. "Going to bed. Night." Then he was asleep again.

    Bakaguru spent a very long time trying to get to sleep, as a mixture of feelings prevented him from settling in for the night. He was annoyed at their failure, irritated by the Council's stupidity, and bewildered by Terry's concerns. And, when he did fall asleep, he did not dream so much as wake up in another world.

    He found himself in a war, which confused him as he had never been to war before. True, he had seen many war films and undergone basic training, but they had been nothing like this. The noise was too loud. The lights from the explosions were entirely too bright and seared his eyes. He buried his face in his arms and waited for the noise to die down.

    When it did, he looked up and saw perfection.

    A man stood in front of him, a man covered in armor, armor exactly as Bakaguru had envisioned it, right down to the helmet, the glove design, the armor plating, everything. He was covered in glittering, beautiful gold and black. The man looked down on him, and almost seemed to smile beneath the visor.

    "What is this?" asked Bakaguru. "This doesn't feel like a dream."

    "You are my creator?" asked the figure, with a seemingly amused chuckle. "I would have thought you taller."

    "If I were taller, I wouldn't have had to become an inventor," quipped Bakaguru.

    There was a smidgen of a chuckle underneath his visor. "You speak well," he said. "You will do quite nicely."

    "What is this?" asked Bakaguru. "I'm sorry, but this doesn't feel very much like a dream."

    The figure tilted his head. "You may be right, Bakaguru Niwa. I certainly seem more than dream, do I not?" He shifted his body to admire it. "The simple truth is that there is no way to tell. Dreams and premonitions are tricky things to differentiate."

    Bakaguru nodded. "Then what are you?"

    "I? I am your creation, born of your mind, your blood, your toil. I am the armor you sought to create."

    "You speak well for a hunk of metal," said Bakaguru.

    The armor shrugged. "A reflection of yourself. I am what you are."

    "Are you saying I should build one of these for myself?"

    "That hardly concerns a figment of your imagination like me."

    The two of them stood there momentarily, while bombs dropped all around the battlefield. Bakaguru looked to the left and saw soldiers, PKM's soldiers, advancing up the cliff toward a tower covered in machine guns. He watched them ripped to shreds, without a single man or woman left standing. Yet he stayed perfectly safe, in a little bubble with the armor. The bullets simply disappeared the instant they approached him.

    "Why can't they hurt me?" asked Bakaguru.

    "You? The engineer? What would you be doing on the front lines like this? No, you would be safe in a bunker, creating weapons out of scrap with your team. There would be no need for you in a place like this."

    "But those people…I know they're just pieces of my dream, but I—you could have saved them." Bakaguru clenched his hands into fists. "I have your designs. You could have saved all of them."

    "But I let them die. Why am I not being used?"

    Bakaguru thought. "Because of what Terry said. Because he's right. Escalating the conflict will only result in more bloodshed. It's a short-term solution that will create a long-term problem. The system would be too powerful Mankind is not ready for it."

    "But those people will die without it. What to do, Bakaguru Niwa? What to do?"

    "If I release the system, everything escalates and people die. If I don't, agents that risk their lives will find themselves in even more danger." Bakaguru rubbed his eyes. "Is there no end to this riddle? How do we control a weapon once it is released? How does anyone?"

    The armor shrugged. "A million dollar question, to be sure."

    "Wait." Bakaguru's eyes gleamed. "What if it was controlled by us? What if it required authorization by me specifically? Or the person in charge? Someone who would use it for the right reasons? And any attempt to hack it would destroy the system. It would provide a failsafe that would keep the technology in my hands alone, to choose the few that would wield it."

    "Maybe it would work. Maybe not." The armor chuckled. "I suppose there is no way to know for sure. Safety only goes so far. Eventually you have to trust people with their own future."

    "Bakaguru! Bakaguru, wake up!"

    Bakaguru's vision of the gleaming armor faded into an image of Terry's concerned expression. He blinked thrice, then groaned. "Terry, what is it?" he asked, rubbing his brow. "I was in the middle of—"

    "No time! We gotta go!" He literally hauled Bakaguru out of the bed and straightened him out.

    "Hang on! What's going on?"

    "Orders! Just got them sent in over the speakers! We're being deployed. Grab your gear, Arthur already said he'd meet us out at the launch pads."

    Now incredibly irritated, there was nothing to be done but prepare a small bag of supplies and follow Terry down the corridors with the rest of the cadets. Terry managed to find Arthur hanging by one of the helicopters and made sure to procure positions for all three of them. They boarded the machine and strapped themselves in to brace for takeoff.

    "This doesn't make sense!" shouted Arthur. "What are we doing here? We're Research and Development!"

    Bakaguru shrugged. "Maybe they need weapon developers wherever we're going." He turned to Terry. "They didn't happen to mention where we were headed, did they?"

    Terry shook his head. "Just that it was a full-scale deployment. Everybody's going."

    "Well then, odds are good we've been asked to quell some sort of war," said Bakaguru. "Just perfect. All of the material and funds we need are back here on base. How are we supposed to build anything wherever we're going?"

    Arthur shrugged. "We're just going to have to salvage. There's nothing to be done about it. My father couldn't even pull the strings to get me out of here, we're hardly going to get air drops with our research equipment."

    Bakaguru groaned. "Why aren't we being told where we're going? We're going to find out once we land. What's the point of keeping it from us?"

    Terry shrugged. "Who knows why they do anything? We just need to stay calm and keep our heads down. Only way we're going to wrangle enough material to build the suits."

    Bakaguru watched the helicopter take off. He rarely flew, it had always been an uncomfortable experience he had avoided at all costs, mostly through driving or by taking trains. The unpleasant feeling of being lifted into the air, with nothing to support him, returned, and he fought back the urge to vomit.

    "Hey." Bakaguru looked up as Terry reached into his satchel to retrieve a box of pills. "Motion sickness, huh? Here you go." He produced a small blue pill and handed it to Bakaguru. "Go on. Takes a while to kick in, but it'll help make the trip easier."

    Bakaguru accepted the pill and swallowed it. He didn't feel better, but just the fact that he knew he had medicine working its way into his body allowed him to sit up straight, even if he couldn't quite look at everything around him.

    "Thank you," he said.

    Terry grinned. "Don't mention it. Now how's about we figure out a way to build those contraptions of yours?"

    Arthur agreed. "Complaining won't solve our problems. We'd better figure out a real way to enact your plan, Bakaguru. If we're really heading into a war zone, the others are going to be in real danger." He put his hand out. "No matter what, we will give them the armor to protect our people. We will save them."

    Terry grinned and put his hand on top of Arthur's. "I'm in. How about you, big boy?"

    Bakaguru grinned. "I would think my answer obvious." He put his hand in with them. "We're in it together, until the end."

    Author's Note: Don't know if you could tell, but I really think Fifty Shades of Grey is stupid. And demeaning.

  7. #52
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    Default Chapter 39

    Morph Thirty-Nine: True Blue to the Rescue

    "Poor, poor Eme," whispered Ame. "Having trouble?"

    Max charged yet again, raising his transformed left hand. Mightyena's jaws snapped at thin air yet again, as Ame danced through her tangible form once more. She phased out her chest and stomach so Ma's hand would pass through her, then lifted her own fist to knock him on the ground. 415 got behind her and grabbed Ame's arms, but she simply phased again and sent 415 sprawling.

    Max jumped back up to his feet. "Not a chance," he grunted. "415, you alright?"

    "I am unaffected," she replied and rose from the floor. "We require strategy."

    "There is no strategy that will help you," said Ame. "I am a perfect soul. You cannot harm a perfect soul."

    "You're no saint," grumbled Max. He threw another punch, that Ame simply dodged, but then he threw another, and another, trying to reach any piece of her that was tangible. "You've killed. You've maimed. You've done terrible things. What gives you the right to think you're perfect like—"

    "You?" she asked, and phased through him to get behind him. "You are not so special. You kill. You maim. The question is only who you believe deserves to be killed. I have never touched any of your friends personally."

    "That's a big stretch!" He grunted, and ignored the fact that Ame had dug her boot into his kidney. He spun around and grabbed for her. He caught one piece of her and swung her across the room. "You just stood there and let it happen! Nothing you say is going to make me feel sorry for you! Boo hoo, I'm a bad guy! You had a choice! I had one!"

    Ame simply floated back down to the ground, using her intangible form to drift through the air. "You think that is due to your resolve? Your courage?" She shook her head. "You retain your freedom because of me, little Eme. If I had not had a hand in your creation, you would be standing by my side massacring this woman you care for. This weak and feeble human that would die by your side."

    Mightyena's jaws snapped and it licked its teeth. "Liar. You think I would hurt my family?" asked Max. "Not a chance in the world."

    Ame tilted her head. "Your definition of family is hardly original," she replied. She ran towards him and he watched her hand pass through his armor before he could move. "Where is Max Birch? Is he here?" He could feel, but at the same time not feel, his hand tightening around his heart. "If I materialize here, will he die? Or should I take his mind? Would that do the trick? Or…" Her visor hovered in front of the gleaming Dark Emerald on his chest. "Is this all that Max Birch is? Where does he end, and you begin, little Eme?"

    "Dark Gem, brace for impact!" Max looked up, only to see 415 swing her Magnet Mace in a wide arc over her head and hurl the weapon directly towards Ame. The Dark Amethyst Ranger phased just before it touched her and it caught Max full in the chest, sending him flying into the wall. Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the Magnet Mace faintly glowed and tore through the air, right back into the waiting grasp of its owner.

    Max coughed under his helmet and climbed to his feet. "Much obliged," he muttered.

    "As I suspected," said 415. "Dark Gem, she only has minimal control over her phasing! The remainder is an unconscious impulse that she cannot stop. She has to phase the moment her body perceives a threat, whether she wants to or not."

    "…Perceptive," said Ame in a low voice. "I see your operation does have some intelligence behind it. No matter, the information does not aid you in any way."

    "Incorrect," said 415. "There must be a finite amount of energy inside your Dark Amethyst." She turned to Max. "Focus your attacks on keeping her phased for longer periods of time. If the plan works, her energy will be drained to the point where she will be unable to continue and we will have an opening."

    Max nodded and rushed forward. He kept his distance, constantly swiping at Ame to keep her phased. 415 had been right. Ame struggled, trying to move away, which was made even more difficult by the fact that 415 joined Max in keeping her phased, not giving her a moment's respite.

    "Is it working?" Max shouted. He released Grovyle to absorb its body and morph his arm into a replica of its face. He fired Bullet Seed at the Dark Amethyst Ranger.

    "Her movements are growing more erratic," announced 415. "We may be able to—"

    Ame materialized herself just long enough to smash Max's neck into pulp. Max dropped to the ground and began gurgling while he waited for his neck to regenerate. He twitched, and 415 halted her assault for just a brief moment.

    A brief moment that Ame needed. She bent over Max and pressed her boot against Max's neck. "I doubt he will move if I continue to break his neck," she said. "Do not move, or his head will come off."

    415 froze. "Remove yourself from him," she ordered.

    Ame tilted her head. "No, I think not, Ranger Black. Why not let me kill him? Is he not just a filthy Dark Gem like I? I thought your little group sought an end to our kind."

    "I…" 415 looked down on Max, feeble Max who was trying so hard to breathe with his shattered windpipe. "He is not your kind," she decided. "He is not your kind. He is mine. He is my Dark Gem and you will relinquish him to me!"

    Max faintly heard a soft humming flow through the air. His neck was strong enough to shift just enough to the left so he could see a giant cloud of steam escaping from her neck, arms, and leggings. Her armor was folding back, revealing soft blue glowing plates of energy between the black sections of her suit.

    "What is that?" asked Ame.

    The transformation concluded and 415 observed herself. She lifted her hand to see the faint glow on her fingers, then she turned and looked back at Ame. "Rescue Mode," she replied. "It appears you have triggered enough motivation for me to activate it."

    "You required motivation?"

    "Most do not. They require a bond between ranger spirit and ranger. However, my ranger system was modified by Bakaguru Niwa before his death to function only in the event certain conditions were met with my life support monitoring equipment."

    "What conditions?"

    "If I may be clichéd, I believe he designed my system to activate upon a realization of 'love'," she explained. "It does not matter at any rate. What matters is its function and that it is active."

    "What can it possibly do to stop me?"

    The lights glowed just a little bit brighter. "A demonstration would be more useful than a description," she replied. Ame was forced to phase out of corporeality when a metal pipe fell from the ceiling right through her body. Then the pipe shot back up, floating in midair through her body, keeping her phased. Ame was forced to run away from it, allowing Max time to finally recover.

    415 approached him and offered a hand. "Must I do this all on my own, Dark Gem?" she asked, with a hint of sarcasm in the tone of her voice.

    Max took her arm and hoisted himself back onto his feet. "Does this mean you're in love with me?" he asked.

    "Please do not make me behead you," she retorted. "Concentrate on the task at hand."

    "So what is this new thing? Something with magnets?"

    "Correct," she replied. "It appears the plates can generate electromagnetic fields, granting me the ability to control metal. Now come, it appears the battle will shortly turn in our favor."

    "Is that what you think is going to happen?" asked Ame. "You think a simple upgrade is enough to save you? Let me be clear: you pathetic weaklings have tried and tried so hard to stop us, and you keep thinking that upgrading your powers is the key to defeating me? When your Ranger Gold stopped Top, did his newfound powers save him from Dia? Your powers do not make you capable of defeating us." She clicked her claws together. "We are stronger than you. We are faster than you. And I am done pretending you have any chance of leaving here alive."

    She ran towards them and, before they could stop her, she phased both of her hands inside their bodies. Ame's left hand pierced the Dark Emerald, freezing Max in his tracks, and Ame's left hand phased through and surrounded 415's still-beating heart.

    "If I return to corporeality, do you know what will happen?" she asked. "Your molecules will move to accommodate mine. The Dark Emerald will explode. Your heart will burst. And this will be over."

    Max grinned underneath his visor. "But you're not corporeal," he said. He fell backwards, just fast enough to dodge the hand. 415 followed suit, just barely avoiding the loss of her heart.

    "We're at a stalemate, Ame," said Max. "You can try that trick again, but we're not just going to stand around waiting for you to explode our chests. And you're just going to keep phasing. The difference is that we can keep moving, but you're going to run out of steam."

    "Interesting hypothesis," she retorted. "Care to put it to the test?"

    415 twirled her weapon into attack position. "Gladly," she murmured.

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    They were out of time.

    Brock knew that the fire was going to catch up to them. He could still hear the fighting going on upstairs, so he knew that Serena was still holding off that monster Charon. He knew that the ranger systems had a life support system built into their suits, so the fire would not harm her. But it was going to harm him, and it would eventually harm Sarah, who was currently holding on to him as tightly as he could manage.

    Brock lowered himself until he was on eye level with the little girl. "Come on, Sarah," he said. "We need to get out of here."

    Sarah shook her head. "Not until Aunt Serry is safe!" she shouted.

    Brock looked anxiously at the door. He had locked them in the bathroom and done what he could to lock it, but the smoke was starting to creep in underneath the little space near the floor. "We don't have that option. We need to wait for your dad. He can help her. We can't."

    "We can," Sarah insisted and pulled out the blue morpher. "If we can turn this on, we can go and help her. Bakaguru promised that it was strong enough."

    "Bakaguru promised it was strong enough to fight someone he hadn't met before?" asked Brock.

    "You know what I mean! He said it was the strongest, even stronger than Dad's."

    "From what I hear, that's sort of hard to do," said Brock.

    "Dad has a lot of gadgets," Sarah explained. "But Bakaguru said that this one was as strong as Dad on his own, stronger even! We just need a Pokemon to turn it on!"

    "Well, it's not going to be you," said Brock. "You don't have a Pokemon registered to you, you're not old enough. Why does it need a Pokemon?"

    Sarah shrugged. "Everybody just uses Pokemon. It makes a suit based off the 'ranger spirit' or something. Is that why I can't turn it on? It blinks when I touch it."

    Brock took the morpher from her. "Look," he said, "we can't rely on this. Even if you got this to work, even if you transformed, what could you do? You're a little girl, Sarah. You're not a superhero. You've handled more than most your age, I'll give you that, but you're still a kid. You're almost nine. You can't do an adult's job. I want to save Serena as much as you do, but you're not going to be the one to do it!"

    Sarah just stared at him, as though she were scheming away at something. "Fine," she said, finally. "You do the adult's job."

    "Beg pardon, Sarah?" asked Brock.

    She jerked the morpher away from him and attached it to his wrist. "Fine. If I can't use it, then you do it. Someone has to go save Aunt Serry, we can't count on my dad to save everybody. Turn into a ranger and go upstairs and save her."

    "Sarah, I can't just—"

    "Lock sequence, initiated." Some strange voice issued from the morpher and he felt it clamp down hard on his wrist. Brock grabbed it and tried to dislodge it, but all he succeeded in accomplishing was scuffing up his hand.

    Sarah smirked. "It's already attached itself. PKM Morphers stick to their rangers. Now you have to go save Aunt Serry!"

    Brock glared at her. "I can barely walk here! You think I can be a superhero?"

    She nodded. "I think you can be my hero. And Aunt Serry's. If you want to be."

    Brock looked around. "But…but I'm a doctor. I save lives, I heal Pokemon. I don't have it in me to fight anymore. I'm not even young enough to…to do anything. All I ever did was take up space, resources."

    He looked at his hands, the hands that had healed so many of the sick, who had saved so many so close to death. And then he looked up at the little girl in front of him who suddenly did not seem so little anymore. He looked up into her dark, powerful eyes, eyes that burned deep into his soul. Eyes he had seen on her father so long ago. Eyes that had led him to follow his dreams, discover his calling, and meet so many friends along the way.

    What was one more trip? How could he say no after all 0 had done for him, all 0 had sacrificed to keep him safe? And how could he refuse one little girl asking him to save someone with his healing hands?

    He curled up those healing hands into fists and saw her reach down and hold them tightly. Her hands looked so small compared to his. He looked into her eyes, which now felt so much bigger than his own. "Please," she begged him, "Please save Aunt Serry. Please keep her safe until my daddy comes."

    He smiled. "I would follow your father to Hell and back," he said. "Just don't expect too much out of me, okay? I can do a diversion, but I can't promise a miracle."

    Sarah smiled. "You'll need a Pokemon. A strong one, too."

    "I've got just the one." Brock opened up Swampert's Poke Ball, which exploded in a dazzling array of light and summoned the blue and orange swamp monster into the bathroom.

    "Pert!" it shouted, noticing all the smoke. It sniffed at the air and issued another grunt of concern, smelling the fire outside the door.

    "I know," said Brock. He held up the morpher, and Swampert eyed it warily. "We have to use this. Sarah wants to let us use it and save Serena. But it, I think it's permanent. You won't be able to come back, I don't think. Neither will I, come to think of it. But we've got to do it. Can you help?"

    Swampert stamped its feet on the ground and issued a confident bellow that shook the adjacent stalls.

    Brock turned to Sarah. "I think that means yes," he said.

    "Then capture it with the morpher. Point its front side and press the button in the center."

    Brock raised the morpher and pressed the button, expecting Swampert to disappear in a flash of light, just like when he used its Poke Ball. Instead, nothing happened. Swampert remained visible and the morpher started beeping.

    "Unauthorized access detected. Please return the Ailed Morpher to its registered operator."

    "What is it talking about?" asked Sarah. "It can't come off someone once it's attached. Work, you!" Sarah almost reached over and slapped the morpher, but Brock withdrew his arm just in time.

    "Authorization accepted. Identifying Birch, Sarah as registered operator. Please capture a Pokemon for conversion."

    Brock held out his hand. "I think you might have to do the capturing for me," said Brock. "Why can't I use it?"

    Sarah shrugged. "Wait, Bakaguru. Maybe he made it to protect me, so he made it so I could use it. That must be why he told me to keep it safe!" She reached over to press the button. The capture worked and Swampert vanished in a stream of light and data. The morpher locked briefly while it generated Brock's suit out of Swampert's data. When it unlocked, its color transformed from a bright azure to a dark blue with orange stripes.

    "Ranger Spirit operational, system ready for activation."

    Brock looked to Sarah, who still had her hand on the trigger button. "You ready to save the world?" he asked with a nervous grin.

    She returned his grin and chuckled. "Let's save them, Uncle Brock," she said.

    He put his finger on hers. "On the count of three, then."

    "One," she said.

    He replied, "two."

    "Three."

    The transformation was not instantaneous, that was the first thing he noticed. A vast amount of blue light poured out of the little morpher and summoned what looked like the bulk of a new armor system, only it was so much larger than anything he had seen the others wear, save for the wings 0 sometimes had from time to time. It clamped down on him hard, fastening across his neck, chest, and head. He vaguely felt pieces strap themselves to his crotch and back, but nothing was emerging to cover his legs.

    That was when his pants and shirt simply vanished and he was left with the metallic facsimiles of his arms and legs. Then they changed color, turning mostly blue but with splashes of orange everywhere. And they expanded, growing to accommodate his new girth. When the transformation was over, and the light finally faded away, Brock felt more like a tank than he ever had in his life.

    He took a step forward to observe himself in the mirror. He noticed he looked similar to 415 and Serena, except where there had been black for Serena and blue for 415 in areas such as the visor and emblem, Brock had orange. Also, unlike them, he had grown. He must have been at least eight feet tall, possibly taller, though he could not be sure. He had definitely gained at least two feet in height. He had an orange visor shaped like an upside down triangle. He had the face of an orange Swampert pressed to the front of his breastplate. He had an orange belt, and orange stripes along his arms and legs. He looked down and wiggled his now-massive toes, and could only think of one thing to describe himself.

    "Cool," he said with a grin under his new helmet. He noticed that the helmet was already beginning to smell like him, and that if this was going to becoming a recurring element of his life that he needed to invest in some new shampoo. And breath mints.

    He turned to Sarah, noticing something strange. "How can I move so easily right now?" he wondered.

    Sarah shrugged. "Doesn't matter! We have to go help Aunt Serry!"

    "Right!" shouted Brock. "But first I'm dropping you off outside. Need to keep you safe too."

    Sarah nodded, and watched with glee as Brock battered down the bathroom door with a simple tap before they made their escape.

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    After a few minutes of uncertainty as to where the front door was located, Brock just decided it would be smarter to make his own. He accomplished this by pointing himself in the direction of the wall that seemed the closest way out, and ran right through it. The cement just fell away like it was construction paper and, in next to no time, he found himself safely outside with Sarah in tow.

    "Sarah?" shouted someone to his immediate left. He turned and, to his astonishment, discovered 0 and May standing in front of him with a look of immense confusion. May was in 0's arms, 0 was transformed, and there were sparks of electricity zapping all around his uniform, suggesting that they had just used Agility to arrive on the scene.

    "Mom! Dad!" Sarah shouted, and bounded towards them. 0 set May on the ground and she grabbed her daughter in a tight embrace.

    "Are you okay?" asked May. "Hurt?"

    "Uh…Sarah? What is that?" asked 0, as he pointed directly at Brock's gigantic armor.

    Brock looked down at 0. "I'm a that?" asked Brock incredulously. "Your daughter's the reason I'm wearing this suit right now."

    "Brock?"

    "In the flesh…er, armor, er, yes," he replied.

    "How? When did we have a blue morpher?"

    Brock looked to Sarah, who explained. "Bakaguru gave it to me, but I couldn't get it to work. Aunt Serry's up there and she's in trouble, so I wanted to help. I gave the morpher to Brock."

    "Guys," said Brock, "if we could save the catching up for later, we need to go find Serena. She's upstairs and she's all alone with Charon."

    0 nodded. "Pi, scan for her." A few seconds later, 0 nodded and ran into the building. "Come on, Brock! We might as well see if that retro suit you have is any good!"

    Brock lumbered back into the building and started running. He found that he was moving slowly, but was able to build up a nice momentum.

    "They're through this wall!" shouted 0, gesturing to a room with a torn-off door. "Ram it!"

    Brock nodded. He picked up speed and smashed through another wall, plowed directly into Charon, and body slammed him out another wall and onto the ground outside. Brock then turned to Serena, who looked battered but not beaten.

    "Hubba hubba," she muttered. "Right in the nick of time, blue boy."

    "It's actually Brock," said 0.

    "They sure grow them big in Kanto, don't they?" she asked. Brock immediately felt uncomfortable and turned away.

    "No time for flirting!" shouted 0. "Here he comes! Brock, download your weapon for backup!"

    "Weapon?" Charon leapt into the room just as Brock asked his question.

    "Three against one is soooooooo unfair!" he screeched. He decided to handle the situation by delivering a punch that smashed 0 against one of the few remaining walls in the room.

    "0 means your primary weapon," explained Serena. "All rangers have at least one. Have your Pokemon download it for you so use." She then joined in the fray, diverting Charon's attention with a punch that froze half of Charon's back.

    "Primary weapon," muttered Brock. "What does that mean?"

    "I think I can answer that," said a voice that sounded exactly like his Swampert.

    "That you, Swampert?"

    "Indeed it is. And here is your weapon."

    Brock's arms started glowing, and he felt something in his fingers that he could grip. Twin giant cannons appeared, colored blue and orange, and affixed themselves to his gauntlets. Brock stared at them for a moment, unsure of exactly what they were.

    "What are these?"

    "Hydro Pumps," Swampert explained. "Press the trigger attached to your hands and they will fire pressurized water at any target."

    "You gave me super soakers?" asked Brock incredulously. "What about a sword? Or something equally cool?"

    "Sorry, this was what showed up," and Swampert, and then it fell silent again.

    Brock shrugged and pointed his left Hydro Pump at Charon, who was busy dividing his attention between 0 and Serena. "Might as well try them," he muttered, and then squeezed the trigger.

    Water erupted out of his arm at a speed which slammed Brock right into the adjacent wall, forcing him to steady himself to compensate for the recoil. Swampert had not done the weapon justice. Water blasted out and tore straight through the room to batter Charon senselessly against the ground. Brock grunted, as the force required to keep his arm stable grew too difficult, and he shut off the water.

    Charon, dripping wet, climbed to his feet in utter confusion. "What is this thing?" asked Charon. "Ranger Blue was never this powerful."

    "I'd guess Bakaguru updated it," said Serena. "And it borrowed Brock's prosthetics in order to generate a giant exosuit. Brock's made it a tank."

    Charon started roaring. "I am not losing to an idiot, a harlot, and a rookie!" He rushed up and tried to punch Brock, but Brock just turned both pumps on again and sent Charon flying through a hole in the wall.

    "Ever notice that he seems to do a lot of flying through open spaces?" asked 0.

    "Yep, I think we can take him," said Serena. "Just need a strategy."

    "I've got one." 0 turned to Brock. "Now, what we need is some teamwork. When he comes back, soak him again, then get ready for some fireworks. Serena, ice him once I've weakened him."

    "How is that going to happen?" asked Brock.

    "No time! Now!"

    When Charon ran back into the room this time, he was ready. Brock head steadied himself and prepared for the recoil, unleashing both pumps of water as quickly as he was able. Charon dodged, but his evasion was temporary, as all Brock had to do was twitch his arms to make sure that Charon smashed into a wall covered with water. The blast was so powerful that, for a moment, Brock feared he had given the man whiplash, and Charon took too long recovering from the blasts.

    0 stepped in and grabbed Charon by the neck. Lightning shot out from his body, short-circuiting what was left of the electrical grid in the hotel. "Now," he muttered, "let's see you dodge this. Synchronization Drive: Volt Tackle!"

    0 screamed, but Charon shrieked with agony as his soaked body was shot with enough electricity to power several small cities. Brock winced as the man convulsed into spasms. 0 held the charge for as long as he was absolutely able, and then released the last of his electricity. Charon collapsed, apparently unable to withstand the internal assault as well as he had the other beatings he had taken.

    0 turned to Serena. "Finish him," he said. Serena nodded and began selectively freezing Charon, making it impossible for him to move. The water dampened his body, making it even easier to generate the ice that would keep him still. Finally, Serena froze over the Dark Ruby, just as Charon was about ready to come around.

    "What's going on?" he murmured. "What are you doing?"

    "What does it look like?" asked 0. He snapped his fingers, and a small sword materialized in his hand. "I haven't used this in a while, might as well try it out to make sure no one takes Bakaguru's stuff for their own stupid causes again."

    "You can't kill me," Charon whispered. "I have the Dark Ruby. I have their bodies."

    "Doesn't matter what you have," said 0. "What matters is that we won."

    "Haven't…won…anything," Charon growled. "Bakaguru never wins. Neither will his children." He looked up and glared at the three of them. "I am not dying like this! I am not losing to some idiots who think they can defy me because of the whims of a dead old man!"

    0 laughed. "Guess again," he said. Then he stabbed Charon right through the Dark Ruby.

    "I am not dying like this!"

    Brock shuddered underneath his armor. 0's blade failed to pierce the Dark Ruby, it failed to pierce anything. The tip hanged just in front of the Dark Ruby, so close to its surface, but a violent force came streaming out of the evil thing and knocked 0 to the ground. 0 recovered, but the ice that had bound Charon was beginning to crack, everything about him looked like it was on fire. Brock thought he might explode.

    "What's happening?" shouted 0. "What's happening?"

    "I don't know!" shouted Serena. "I thought Dark Gems only had three forms! It looks like an evolution, but that's impossible!"

    "You fools and your little hopes and dreams," whispered Charon, in an unearthly tone that shook Brock to the core. "You think you can come in here and kill me? The man who gave you everything? The man who made you who you are today? The man that combined the science and technology of that imbecile Niwa and the almighty powers of the Dark Gems? Did you really think anything about this was going to be easy?"

    His claws clicked together, and the light just vanished. Charon looked unchanged, but there was something about him, something so menacing, that it made Brock sick to his stomach. It was like some sort of ooze that filled the air, making it difficult to breathe, to think…

    "Interesting," murmured Charon. "Oh, very interesting." He turned to the rangers. "I'm afraid your murder will have to be postponed. I need to see exactly what this new evolution is. But you don't mind that, do you? You'll wait for me, won't you?"

    "What happened to you?" 0 grunted, struggling to his feet.

    "Isn't it obvious? I evolved, far beyond anything your feeble minds could comprehend."

    "You can't evolve. You were already in Shattered Form. There's no way you could have done it."

    Charon walked over and caressed 0's cheek, with 0 powerless to stop him. "How strange then, because I could have sworn I just did. Oh well, guess I'd better get to the fun and whatnot. See you around, rangers." And then he was gone, just like the light. He vanished without a trace, leaving just the three rangers in the room alone.

    0 instantly stood up, now that the miasma had vanished. "What was that?" he asked, short of breath.

    Brock shrugged. "No idea, but we've gotta go find him. If he tries to attack someone now—"

    0 shook his head. "We need to rally the team. We need Max and 415. The four of us can handle anything. We can handle this new evolution."

    "Five," Serena corrected, and walked over to Brock. "Don't forget we've got a fancy new giant piledriving machine over here."

    Brock rubbed the back of his helmet. "I really didn't do much," he pointed out. "I just hit him with a super soaker."

    0 shook his head. "You did good for your first day. Let's hope Sarah was right and this stays a good idea." He turned to Serena. "We need to get in touch with Max and 415. Where are they?"

    Serena opened up Elgyem's Poke Ball. "I'll find out," she said, and placed her hands on the Pokemon. Brock and 0 waited for a minute, noticing that Serena's body language was turning rigid. Serena shut off communication and recalled the Pokemon.

    "What is it?" asked 0.

    "We have to go. Ame has them cornered and they're in trouble."

    0 nodded. "Let's collect May and Sarah and roll out."

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    "We near the end," whispered Ame, shifting her attention from one ranger to the other.

    Max was ragged. The gleam in his Dark Emerald was beginning to fade. His armor had ceased to glow, and his regenerations were taking longer and longer. 415 was not much better off, though she stubbornly refused to even hint at weakness. Still, Max could see that the fire was beginning to die out. She was taking a second longer to respond here, or fumbled there. It was not much, but it was far from the perfection she ordinarily practiced in the field.

    "The time draws near, Eme, for you to embrace our fold through my flesh," she murmured. "There will be no more pain, no more sorrow. No more trials, no more fear. Just bliss and satisfaction. If you surrender now, I will even spare your love. She may walk away as she pleases until the end comes for us all. I offer you this because I am bored. I am bored with your struggle to survive. I wish to be complete."

    "Then you're gonna have to work for it," growled Max.

    415 nodded. "I will not be deprived of him. Ergo, you will not succeed."

    "But a few mistakes on your behalf separate me from my goal," Ame replied. "Eventually, all fall before my feet. Why do you think I never needed to fight before this day? There would have been no point, no challenge, and all of you would have vanished from my sight long ago."

    "If that's true, then why didn't you just do it?" asked Max. "We could have been finished a long time ago."

    Ame shrugged. "It…amused me to watch your antics. Besides, I do not decide when I may act. My contract does. And, at this moment, my contract states that one of us must be absorbed, Eme. So, which of us will it be?"

    Max's body flashed jade. "I'm not going anywhere."

    Ame lifted her hand, and invited him forward with a wag of her finger. "Come prove it."

    Max roared and charged forward. There was no strategy, only instinct. He ripped through her and tore at the air she was always forced to become when someone, anyone, touched her. He kept her moving, leaving her no time to phase back and no time to materialized inside of him. He was a machine, a horrible machine struggling to keep his life.

    In those moments, Max became the Dark Emerald Ranger. He could feel the tug, the sensation, of having the Dark Gem whisper to him again. Their final evolution would be assured, it whispered, if only they could stop Ame. Then, they would have all the power they would even need to protect 415. They could keep her safe, forever.

    Max was uncertain. He did not want to evolve. There was always danger in evolving…in changing…into something new. They had made it through the first time, but he had never seen a sane Dark Gem in their Shattered Form. He might have fought off their influence when his gem was young, but that did not make him an exception to anything.

    Ame noticed his uncertainty and attacked. She materialized just long enough to send him into a world of pain, getting behind him and striking at his kidneys. Max fell to the ground and found he could not move. She had hit something else, some nerve that was making it impossible for him to even turn over.

    "Foolish child," she said. "You let the gem sway you. You forgot that I cannot be defeated with a few karate chops and kicking. It is always so with the young. Now to shatter your gem and feast on your remnants."

    "You will not touch him!" screamed 415. The metal in the ceiling tore itself from its hinges and started attacking Ame, forcing her to retreat.

    "Your sentiments will bring you nothing but sorrow when I consume him, young one," said Ame.

    "Stop."

    Ame and Max froze, turning their attentions to Ranger Gold and those who surrounded him. Standing near him were Serena and May, naturally, with Sarah secured in his arms, but behind them was a giant behemoth in blue armor. A Ranger Blue. 0 stood completely defenseless, but with every molecule of his being emanating a feeling that he had no qualms whatsoever about destroying absolutely everything in front of him.

    "Ranger Gold," murmured Ame. "This is a duel between myself and the master of the Dark Emerald. Do not interfere."

    0 shook his head. "This isn't a duel, it's an exercise in futility. Max and 415 are just going to keep battering away at you until there's nothing left of them. Then you can take what you want, isn't that right?" He turned to Max. "She's never going to run out of steam. There's no way for you to win this through brute force. She's just not built like that."

    "Then what am I supposed to do?" asked Max.

    "Nothing. But I can do something." He set his daughter on the ground and reached for a brown Poke Ball on his belt. He casually inserted it into his morpher and shifted into Towl Form. His helmet shifted from its normal oval shape into one that looked closer to that of a Noctowl's face.

    Then he turned his face towards Ame, and chuckled. "Time to shake up this party," he muttered. "Synchronization Drive: Foresight."

    A surge of red energy poured out from 0's visor and draped itself all over Ame. When the light faded away, 0 folded his arms and chuckled. "Max, I think you'll find she won't be so hard to hit now. I've disabled those fancy ghost tricks of hers."

    "You…did what?" Ame lifted her hand and tried to sink it through her chest, but discovered that she was completely solid. "I am tangible?"

    "Game over," said Max, turning towards her. "Without your fancy trick, there's no way you stand a chance against me."

    She shifted her gaze to him. "It would appear so, would it not?" Then, she nodded in satisfaction and said, "I can finally forfeit."

    Max blinked. "W-What?" he asked.

    She demorphed, and her armor melted away into her Dark Amethyst. "I have waited so long, little Eme, for this day." She stepped towards him and Max flinched, but did not dare step away. She raised her hand and cupped the side of his helmet. "I have waited so long for this to be over." She was smiling.

    "What're you talking about?" he asked.

    "I can finally fly away," she whispered. "Your friends can set me free."

    "What is she talking about?" asked 415.

    Ame turned to her. "And you, little girl, are the one to do it." She tilted her head. Suddenly, Ame started to change. Wrinkles grew out of the corners of her eyes, her purple hair gained strands of grey. She had always looked so young when they had seen her. Now, she looked like she was in her fifties.

    "An effect of the Dark Amethyst," she explained. "It froze me in my prime all those years ago. Now, I am myself and, now, you can be told the truth."

    0 and the rest approached her. "Aren't you trying to kill us?" he asked her.

    Ame shook her head. "No, little ranger," she replied. "Not all of us are evil, not at first. Sap, yes. Dia truly was a monster, and I am certain Charon will find his way down that path, but not I. Not Top, either, now that I remember. I have resisted the longest. I am bound by my contract, but I am not evil."

    Max demorphed. "Then why put us through all of this? Why make me the Dark Emerald Ranger? Why did you let Dia torture Brock? Why have you tried to kill us so many times? What's the point of any of it, if not to kill us?"

    She began to cry, and rubbed the tears away. "Tears of joy, little Eme. I did all of this to prepare you. To prepare all of you, for what is coming. I had to make it convincing, otherwise I would have been lost and unable to aid you.

    "When I began, I was young, foolish. I had a husband. I had a daughter. I had Pokemon. We were poor, and we had little, but we were happy. And then something took it all away. One day, when I was somewhere else, something came and destroyed my home. It set fire to my world, and burnt it all away. When I returned, there was nothing left. Nothing. All I had was my Haunter and my life. But not my heart and not my soul. Can you imagine what that does, to know that you could have done something, and to always wonder what it could have been?"

    Ame smiled, and then turned away. "It eats at you. It consumes you, until you want nothing more than to hurt and hurt until there is nothing left. And they offered me that chance. They would let me hurt. They would make me powerful, so that I could do something about my pain. They gave me my Dark Amethyst. I signed their contract. My Haunter was sealed in here, just as your Gallade is sealed in there." Ame pointed to the small jade stone and the chain that stilled wrapped around Max's hand. "Only then did they tell me the truth. Only then did they tell me that the monster that took my daughter and my husband was one of them. A mistake, to be sure, but one of them."

    "A Dark Gem ate your family?" asked 415.

    "They thought I would not realize. Fools. I have conspired against them ever since, in order to make certain their plan would not succeed."

    "What is their plan?" asked 0.

    "Oblivion," said Ame. "They intend to rip apart this universe and damn us all to nothingness."

    "But why? What's the point of any of it?"

    Ame shrugged. "Question not the madman, only the circumstances that led them there. It does not matter, for I know of a way to stop them. It is the seven of you."

    "The seven of us?" asked Max.

    Ame nodded. "It is a rhyme, composed by the madman Nicholas Brine. It was he who brought the Dark Gems into this world, it is from his lips we may yet stop oblivion."

    "My…grandfather?" asked Serena.

    "Your ancestor," corrected Ame. "The name is hereditary. He crafted the Dark Gems in Orre, sacrificing every Pokemon within its borders to succeed. He wrote, towards the end of his life, how the Dark Gems may be defeated. He wrote:

    When shadows fall, evil reigns,

    And the Dark Gems arise

    The shards of good will join behind

    The Man of Golden Eyes.

    When all is lost, hope is gone,

    And the world seems naught by gloom

    The Heroes Seven stand together

    Amidst the coming doom.

    Together now, they make their stand

    In the Sun's shining hue

    For only His Chosen One

    Can make the world anew
    ."


    When she finished, she paused to look at each of them before settling again on Max. "When the war comes, little Eme, it will all fall on you." Then she turned to 415. "And when this prophesy comes to pass, you are the one who will keep his heart pure. Do you understand?"

    Max nodded. "I think I do."

    "You must. Otherwise—" Ame halted, drawing breath very quickly, then she clutched her stomach. "They found me. They know that I have betrayed them." She looked up. "This is goodbye, little Eme. I will die tonight."

    "But—"

    "Silence! There is…no time for sentiments, not that you have any for the likes of me. Now listen: beware the Rangerlings. They will descend…like the plague from on high. You must not…" She groaned and fell to the ground. Max and the others rushed around her. "Must not…"

    She looked up and saw that her Dark Amethyst was starting to crack. "No time. Shatter my Dark Amethyst and absorb its power. It is the only way to evolve you to your Shattered Form."

    Max hesitated. "But I don't—"

    "What you want is irrelevant, Eme!" she shouted. "If you do not absorb my Dark Amethyst, you will perish in battle and they will never be able to be stopped! Do it!"

    "I can," said 415. She drew back her Magnet Mace and aimed for Ame's outstretched hand and the weakening gemstone. "If we succeed, he will live?"

    Ame nodded weakly. "It is the only way for any of you to live."

    415 took a deep breath, then smashed the stone into dust. Ame cried out in pain, clutching at her now-shattered hand, then realized she was disappearing. Her fingers were slowly turning to dust, and she turned to the others.

    "You are nearing the end, Rangers Seven," she whispered. "Beware the Rangerlings. Beware the Dark Gold. All they require are a familial sacrifice. Should they obtain the Dark Gold, all will be lost for this world."

    Max grinned. "It won't happen. We promise."

    Ame smiled weakly. She was barely there. "I apologize for making you who you are, who many of you are. I-It was the only way to stop them." She turned and looked up at the ceiling. "At last, my love. I come at last."

    She tried to breath, but her lungs were gone. Suddenly she simply vanished, leaving behind a trail of purple dust. The room fell silent.

    Then, quite unexpectedly, something incredible happened. The dust that had once been Ame began moving, scattering itself about the floor, forming a circle around Max.

    "Uh, guys? Might want to stand back," said Max. The others agreed and retreated to a safe distance. The dust started circling him, lifting off the ground, becoming a small purple tornado despite there being an absolute absence of wind in the building.

    The Dark Emerald flashed, and Max stretched out his hand. In an instant, the purple tornado gleamed and dove into the gemstone, as if absorbed by a vortex. The light died down almost immediately after that, and then Max Birch stood surrounded by air, holding up his Dark Emerald against nothing.

    No one moved for a while. "How do you feel?" asked 415 hesitantly.

    Max looked himself over, and then shrugged. "Not much different. Still me in here."

    415 lightly smacked him in the head. "Good. Keep yourself…normal," she said. She faced him, so none of the others would see the slightest sliver of a smile on her lips.

    Brock and Serena demorphed, while 0 morphed to his human body. "What's the plan, boss man?" asked Serena, as she helped the now-unbalanced Brock stay on his feet.

    "We handle this prophesy business later," said 0. "We can't think about stuff like that while we've got Charon on the loose. We find him first. We smash his gem. We make him regret he could ever warp Bakaguru's Master Morpher like that."

    Serena's fingers clenched into fists. "Sounds good. How do we do that?"

    0 turned to Brock. "With him, I think we've got a shot."

    Brock blinked. "M-Me? How am I supposed to do anything?"

    0 smiled. "We couldn't try it before, but now that we have five rangers, I bet we could pull it off no sweat. See, Pi and I have been working on a new trick for our Synchronization Drive. A way to pull off a new form that'll definitely rattle that blowhard. We just don't have the power for it on our own. But with three extra rangers, plus Max as a conduit, I think we stand a chance."

    "Stand a chance at what?" asked 415.

    "Stand a chance at some good, old-fashioned revenge, 415," he replied. "We just need to find Charon. Once we do, we just need enough time to pull off the greatest trick we've ever tried."

    Max grinned. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's end this."

    /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\ /¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯\

    …Twenty-Five Years Ago…


    "Tonight's the night."

    Bakaguru grumbled and put on his backpack, which weighed approximately forty-five pounds but seemed to be dragging him down by about eighty. He tried his best to ignore his discomfort and clipped on the belt that would securely fasten him into the system. He checked a small monitor positioned on his right arm and nodded with satisfaction.

    "The system is in range for the test," he confirmed.

    Arthur and Terry had their own backpacks on, though they seemed to be handling the weight with more ease than Bakaguru could. Terry strapped his own system in and checked his status monitor. "Mine's ready to go!" he declared.

    "As is mine," said Arthur. "We should move out, someone's liable to happen on us if we stay too long."

    Bakaguru nodded. The hanger had served them well, and they had been wise to make use of it during the development process, but the longer they stayed the more they risked having the material confiscated. "Do we have everything we need?" he asked. After all, they would not be coming back.

    Terry nodded. "I moved out everything we would still need. Put the rest in a nice little pile next to the explosives. Nobody's gonna be able to figure out what we did here, so there shouldn't be any risk of these gadgets getting made up by anyone else."

    "Good work, Terry," said Arthur. "Now, let's get out of here and try these suits for ourselves."

    Bakaguru grabbed the trigger on their way out. It would have been quite ridiculous to suppose the hanger would explode without taking it. When they got outside and into the familiar face of the garbage dump they'd hidden the hanger in, they started running as fast as they were able east of the trash heap. When they felt they were at a safe enough distance, Arthur and Terry stopped and turned to Bakaguru.

    "You're sure, right?" asked Arthur. He glanced at his backpack. "You're sure these are going to work?"

    Bakaguru nodded. "I am. Considering we were making them out of trash, in secret, on our own time, without any help from PKM, I am certain that all three will work perfectly."

    "Then the honor is yours, my friend," said Arthur.

    Bakaguru pressed the trigger, and they watched as a bright flare erupted in the distance, right underneath the setting sun. It was scarcely noticeable, and considering they were in the middle of a war zone it was hardly unexpected. Nobody would care that a trash heap was gone in the morning.

    "Well," said Arthur, "shall we try these things out?"

    "Yeah, I'm getting anxious," said Terry.

    "Why?" asked Bakaguru. "You've already worn yours. You know it works."

    "Yeah, but I was thinking that that doesn't mean much unless you've got your whole team with you." Terry gripped the trigger button and grinned broadly. "Let's do it!"

    Arthur smiled and nodded. "Agreed. Bakaguru, you deserve the honor of transforming first," he said.

    "Very well." Bakaguru pressed the trigger and winced as a small spike drilled into his wrist and took a blood sample. He heard the confirmation chime from the machine and felt the armor materialize around him. The backpack instantly lightened as the suit began taking on its share of the load. He felt the visor clamp over his face and he looked through it to his friends.

    "Well?" he asked. "Does it suit me?"

    Arthur offered a thumb's up. "Very much so. I think it's our turn, Terry." He pressed his own button and transformed.

    Terry gave out a small bark of approval and pressed his trigger button. Golden and black armor surrounded him and clamped down just as it had with Bakaguru and Arthur. From a distance, they looked very similar, save for their color schemes. Arthur was covered primarily with red with blue highlights. Bakaguru's, on the other hand, was primarily orange with touches of silver.

    They stared at one another for a moment or so, until Terry broke the silence by commenting, "Well, don't we all look nice?" He instantly froze, noticing that his voice sounded more like a robot than a human. "Wait, why do I sound like that?"

    "Voice synthesizer," explained Bakaguru. "I figured soldiers equipped with the suits would prefer to remain anonymous while conducting military operations in them."

    "Smart idea," said Arthur. "Come on, we should get moving. The enemy has a tendency to bomb everything it can spot after night falls."

    Walking was somehow much easier, Bakaguru noted, as they traversed the landscape. It could have been for several reasons, possibly because the armor was helping him move much faster than normal, or possibly because he was elated. He had succeeded. The machine worked and the armor worked and everything worked just as he had intended it to. He had been right, which meant that PKM had been wrong. He glanced at his armor with every bit of the pride that it deserved to be showered in.

    Then he had to divert his attention from his magnificent armor, because he and the others noticed a small explosion in the distance. Terry stopped, with Arthur and Bakaguru joining him shortly after.

    "What happened?" he asked.

    "Pretty nasty blast over there," Terry said, and he pointed to a clearing in the distance. Bakaguru could faintly see the outlines of three small buildings. "We should go check it out."

    "Might not be a good idea," said Arthur. "We could damage the equipment."

    Terry shrugged. "What good's a suit of armor if you can't use it to save people in burning buildings?" he asked, and then took off running in the direction of the building.

    Arthur turned to Bakaguru. "You know, it's rather hard to argue with his logic," he said.

    "Very well," said Bakaguru, and they followed him towards the small settlement.

    There was not much left when they arrived. Just a few smoldering wreckages where there had once been homes. Terry stood in the center of the houses, staring at the smoke rising in the air.

    He turned to them. "What happened?"

    "I don't know," said Bakaguru. "We should find out. This doesn't look like the fallout from one of our bombs."

    The three of them moved towards the first home, when suddenly Bakaguru noticed something out of the corner of his eye. It was so small and insignificant Bakaguru had to do a double-take before he realized what it was. "Guys," he said, and he pointed towards one of the other homes.

    It was a little girl with a broken face, staring out of one of the windows.

    "What the…" Bakaguru tried to say something, but Terry ignored him and took off running towards the house. "Hang on! We don't know what's in there!"

    "Little girl's in a burning house!" shouted Terry. "All I need to know!"

    "Come on, he'll get himself killed," said Arthur. He and Bakaguru followed through a hole that Terry made in the weakened front door. "Terry!"

    "In here, guys!" he shouted. Bakaguru and Arthur followed Terry's voice into the other room. Terry was crouched over the little girl and picking her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck and stared at Bakaguru and Arthur.

    Her face was practically gone. There was bruising, yes, but that did not even begin to describe what this girl had gone through. There were deep gashes across her cheeks, her lips were gone, and her eyes looked blank and weary, as though she had aged far, far too quickly. She had to have been no more than four years old, but her eyes looked closer to those Bakaguru had seen on veterans decades after their conflicts.

    "What happened to her?" asked Bakaguru.

    Terry shrugged. "Don't care. We gotta get her back to the base pronto. Maybe they can help her. She won't say anything, it's almost like she can't talk."

    "We should find whoever did this and tear them apart," muttered Arthur.

    "Hang on," said Bakaguru. He leaned in close, his visor was almost touching the girl's face. "Can you hear us? Can you tell us what happened to you?"

    The little girl did not speak, but her eyes widened as far as she could make them. She began moving them, staring at something that was just behind Arthur and Bakaguru. Her mouth trembled and she began to shiver.

    "New friends!" shouted something behind them, before something powerful slammed into Bakaguru and Arthur and threw them to the floor. Terry shouted and pushed the little girl behind him before he changed forward.

    Bakaguru froze. It was a monster, a real monster. It was slobbering over the floor and stumbling around on its claws and talons, but it was a monster. Bakaguru shrieked and instinctively moved away from it, but the monster was not paying attention to him. It was entirely focused on Terry, who had decided to introduce himself to the creature by punching it directly in the general area its face was supposed to be.

    "Keep the kid safe!" shouted Terry. He roared and tackled the monster to the ground, striking anything he could get his hands on. But nothing was happening. The monster was laughing. Each hit, each strike, only made it laugh harder and harder, which just made Terry angrier and angrier.

    "Enough!" It smashed Terry in the chin and threw him to the ground. The beast crawled up and stared at them. "What are you three supposed to be? Some sort of superhero?"

    "What're you supposed to be?" asked Terry. "Some sort of idiot?"

    "Funny," it said, and reared its ugly head. Now Bakaguru could see it clearly. Its head was huge, with no disenable eyes or mouth. But its nose was elongated and protruded from a fine point in the center of its face. Its body was a weird blob that seemed to reform and reshape every time Bakaguru blinked.

    "What is that thing?" asked Arthur. He and Bakaguru immediately regrouped behind Terry.

    "Don't know," said Terry. "Looks like one of them monsters you'd see on a kid's cartoon."

    The monster laughed. "May as well be, boys!" it screeched. "I'm the first of many, the very first! And the best too! Might not even need the others!"

    "And what exactly are you the first of?" asked Terry.

    "The Dark Gems!" It reared its head and giggled. "See this?" It held out what looked like a hand covered in slime. A solid, multicolored gem was sticking out of its flesh. "It's the Dark Opal! And it's going to split your little hides in half!"

    "Move!" shouted Terry. Bakaguru, Arthur, and Terry just managed to get out of the way before a giant burst of lightning shot of out the hand and shattered a window behind where they had just been standing.

    "This isn't happening," said Arthur. "There's no way this can happen! How did he do that?"

    "Worry about the how later, focus on the staying alive part now," said Terry. "Bakaguru, cover me." He pulled out a capsule and summoned one of the guns Bakaguru had installed on his backpack. "And keep that kid safe!"

    In the heat of the moment, Bakaguru had completely forgotten about the child. Luckily, Arthur had not and secured her behind him. She still wasn't really moving, and Bakaguru swore he had yet to see her blink. Bakaguru turned and positioned the gun exactly as he had been trained right onto his shoulder, placed the strap around it to lower the recoil, and fired into the beast's hide with a slow but steady stream of bullets.

    The beast hissed and drew back, but not before Terry jumped up and started battering away at its head with his fists. He smashed it again and again, always careful to avoid the bullets from Bakaguru's rifle. But nothing he did seemed to matter. The monster just turned right back around, or snapped its neck back into place, or popped the bullets out of its skin and onto the floor. It only made Terry angrier and angrier. He started hitting harder, and with the reinforced power in the suit, his punches started sending the creature across the room, bashing through walls, or crashing into the ceiling.

    "Why won't you die?" Terry screamed.

    The monster just picked itself back up. "Because I want you to feel powerless," it said, and raised its hand. "Just like your friend over there." Then it pointed its Dark Opal at Bakaguru and fired a pulse of lightning.

    It was the longest moment of Bakaguru's life. He saw the light come for him, saw it blind him, but it never reached him. In the instant it took to travel to him, Terry jumped in front of the beam and it slammed into his chest. The light disappeared and Terry simply fell to the ground. He was not moving. He was not breathing. Bakaguru did not move, not until he felt Arthur's hand on his shoulder, and fell to his knees.

    "Terry!" Arthur screamed. "Get up!" He turned Terry over and checked for a pulse. "He's not breathing! His heartbeat's still there! Bakaguru, come on!" There was such desperation in his voice, such fear, that it froze Bakaguru to the bone. "We have to save him."

    "He'll live," said the monster. Bakaguru and Arthur turned towards it and their hands unconsciously clenched into fists. "I only split people, not bodies. That's for these babies!" The beast's hands reshaped, turning into long, sharp claws that looked like they could rip right through the armor.

    "We have to do something," said Arthur. "What do we do? Bakaguru, what do we do?"

    "I-I." Bakaguru shook his head. "How should I know? I just build things! I'm not supposed to know how to save you too!"

    "You know how the technology works! We need something that will take care of this thing!"

    Bakaguru thought. There had to be something, anything, that would get them out of there alive, but he was not thinking fast enough and the beast attacked. Arthur groaned and dove between them to give Bakaguru extra time. He looked down at Terry, still immobilized by whatever the beast had done to him. "The life support system," he muttered.

    "What?" shouted Arthur, who was entirely too busy trying to avoid being zapped by the beam.

    "The life support system!" shouted Bakaguru. "In the event of emergency, I arranged it so the three systems can be synched up to support one another in the event one fails! But, if I rewire the programming…" Bakaguru reached behind for his backpack and pulled out what looked like a small fiber coil. "Yes, this could work!"

    "What could work?"

    "This!" Bakaguru extended the coil and plugged it directly into a small outlet on Terry's backpack. The transfer took a while, but Terry's armor disappeared and Bakaguru noticed his energy readings increasing. "Now you!" Bakaguru mustered all of his strength and charged into the beast, shoving it away. "Turn around, Arthur!"

    Arthur did not question him and allowed Bakaguru to drain all the energy from his armor. It powered down immediately. "I'll get Terry and the girl out. Do you have enough power to best that creature?"

    Bakaguru checked his readings. "If I don't, I'll have enough to give you a head's start. Now go!" Arthur nodded and started the process of dragging Terry's body out.

    The monster returned, kicking and roaring. "Get back here and die already!"

    Bakaguru looked at his fist. "Oh please let this overclocking work," he muttered, and drew back his arm to batter the monster directly through the last intact wall in the building. "Need to figure out something quickly. Need to think quickly. Come on, Niwa…"

    The beast jumped out of the hole and Bakaguru quickly rolled away to dodge it. It kept coming, forcing Bakaguru into combat. The overclocked suit was working, but Bakaguru kept a careful eye on the energy readings. They were dropping swiftly. "I wish we had given this to Terry. Or Arthur. Or someone else, someone who could actually use it."

    But there is no one else. There is only you.

    That was when he saw the giant, gleaming gemstone rising up to point at him. That was when he heard the laughter that filled his heart with so much fear. And that was when he raised his hand, putting all of the energy he had overclocked himself with into his fingers, and crushed the gemstone before it had a chance to release its energy.

    And then, before his very eyes, the beast seemed to just fade away into dust and wither into nothingness. Bakaguru barely had a chance to blink before it was gone.

    "Terry," he muttered. His armor faded away, exhausted by the overclocking, and Bakaguru ran outside to find his friends. "Terry!"

    Author's Note: Two very important plot points emerge from this chapter: Brock becoming a ranger and the revelation that Ame was good all along. Brock was always planned to be a ranger, and if you look back to the first chapter I'm pretty sure that he's wearing blue as a nice spoiler for people who obsess over little details like I do. He'll be a very different ranger than the others because of how his armor works, which will be revealed later. He's more of a support/medical ranger, which is fine because I've never seen Brock as the kind of character that relishes fights like 0 and the others do. This brings our team of rangers up to seven, if you count Karin and Logan, and five without.

    The other major plot point is that Ame has revealed the endgame for how this story is going to progress into its final stages. Also of note is that we finally have a name for our team, the Rangers Seven, as they've been sort of nameless since going off on their own.

    Oh, and Charon's developments are kind of important. Stay tuned!

  8. #53
    Scholarly Gentleman
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    Default Chapter Forty

    Morph Forty: Bakaguru's Legacy

    They did not have to wait long.

    0 was standing in the middle of the street when it happened. He looked to the left and saw him in a coffee shop. To the untrained eye, Charon probably looked a little unhinged. His bald head was sweating, his pupils were dilated, and his hands almost crushed the paper cup containing his coffee on instinct. 0 held up his com-link.

    "Pi, let them know to converge on my position," he ordered. "Tell them to remember their parts of the plan."

    "Can do," said Pi. "Keep us safe in there."

    0 nodded and stepped inside the shop. It seemed so unusual that he would meet Charon in such an…ordinary place. Flashes of a memory jolted through his mind: him taking May and Sarah to a small shop in Kanto a long time ago, almost like a lifetime ago. Sarah had been so small and precocious that 0 had had to balance his coffee and his daughter in the same hand while May placed her own order. He joined Charon at the counter and turned to the cashier.

    "Mocha, please," he said, and handed her a bill. "And quickly." He turned to Charon and smiled. "Thirsty, Charon?"

    Charon twitched. "None of your business, Golden Boy," he muttered. "Shouldn't you be running for the hills? That's what you guys do, right? Run away at the first sign of trouble?"

    0 looked him over. There were bags under his eyes that belonged on a much older face. "You're in trouble," he said. "Are you deteriorating?"

    The cashier handed him his coffee and 0 offered Charon a seat further away from the crowds. Charon accepted and sipped at his cup. Before Charon could say something snappy, 0 just lifted his hand and took a deep draught of his cup. Charon fell silent and waited.

    "Let's skip all the dumb parts, shall we?" asked 0. "I know you're not going to back down. You want our morphers. And you know we're not going to back down. We're going to keep them. So let's not do that whole thing where we puff ourselves up and make ourselves seem important. I'm getting tired of it, and I want to enjoy this coffee. I didn't get much of a taste for anything other than beer for a few years, and I'll tell you, you never really appreciate variety until you lose it."

    Charon just sipped his coffee.

    "You're getting tired too, I can tell," 0 muttered, looking him over again. "By the looks of it, I say you've got six months. Fewer, if you keep using that technology. You won't live to enjoy yourself, even if you do kill us all."

    "You don't know anything," Charon grumbled. "I'm perfectly fine."

    0 shook his head. "See, that's where you're wrong. You went through some sort of boundary you weren't supposed to go through. You evolved passed Shattered Form with that Master Morpher. It'll eat you away, until there's nothing left."

    "Others have evolved with no problems. Your little pet did it, I will be no different."

    "Max evolved once, from Chained to Sealed Form. Perfectly normal in a Dark Gem's life cycle. You evolved passed Shattered Form. No way of telling how that ends for you. But, judging from all those lines on your face, and your jittering, it's not going to be great."

    "What's the point of this?" asked Charon. "You already know I'm not going to stop. I already know you're not going to stop. We're two opposing forces, just waiting for one to give the slightest leeway."

    "Because I'm offering you a chance," said 0. "I'm trying to be a good leader. Being a good leader means being willing to talk instead of fight. If you give me that morpher and walk away, we won't come after you. You can live, however long you get to, but you can live. Your Dark Ruby is powered through that morpher, so you could take it off and walk away." He finished his drink and set it on the counter. "It's up to you whether or not we throw down. I'm tired. I mean it. I am so tired of all these threats to my family. I just want them to stop, and the only way they stop is if all the Dark Gems go away. And I know that's not going to happen. But I'm going to give you that choice. Your partner already died tonight. Do you want to join her?"

    Charon set his cup on the table. "Ranger Gold, nothing you just said matters to me," he replied, almost cheerfully. "While you were in fact saying it, my mind was drifting to another subject entirely. Most of it was involving your daughter, and the numerous ways I could defile her after I kill you tonight and she spends the next ten years as my slave. So spare me your patronizing shtick. There is no other way for this to end."

    0 sighed and cracked his knuckles. "I did try, you know."

    Then he placed his hand on Charon's shoulder and injected him with enough electricity to paralyze a Wailord. Charon convulsed and hit the ground at about the same time the other denizens of the coffee shop started screaming.

    "Pi, come on down," he ordered, before he turned to Charon. "What you're feeling is about all the electricity that I can safely shock a person with without it being considered a felony. It'll still keep you about as rigid as a board as you convulse around and wait for your inevitable defeat. I just wanted to give you a chance to back out."

    He leaned down and grabbed Charon by the ear, hoisting him up while still delivering another jolt of electricity. "You honestly think I'd let you talk like that about my little girl? You're obviously not a father, Charon, and your dad did a terrible job with you."

    He turned to the other customers and sent out a wave of lightning that briefly short-circuited the power in the building. "I'd leave if I were you," he suggested. "Things are about to get really messy in here."

    Everyone took his advice and ran all. All except for six others. A man with dark skin and fox-like eyes. A tiny woman next to him with silver hair. A man whose eyes could change from brown to green in flashes behind his glasses. A woman with short purple hair and red eyes whose expression never changed. And, behind them all, the most beautiful woman in the world holding the most beautiful girl in the world.

    "My family will have peace tonight," said 0, as he demorphed back into his ranger armor. "Max, let's get things started."

    Max nodded and stepped forward. He grinned and wrapped his chains around his arms and pressed his Dark Emerald against his flesh. "Dark Gem Ignite!" The chains melted into his flesh and he transformed. Max cracked his neck and his shadow chains began slowly winding down off his gauntlets and into his hands.

    0 turned to 415, Brock, and Serena. "You guys ready?"

    Serena nodded. "Sure you can handle this?"

    "Doesn't matter. Do it."

    She saluted. "On it, boss." She, 415, and Brock all transformed. Max's chains, one by one, pierced through their skin, connecting all four of them together.

    "Pi, brace yourself," whispered 0.

    It chuckled in his head. "See you on the other side, partner."

    "Max, do it!"

    Another one of Max's chains snaked up and bit into 0's neck. 0 groaned, then suddenly felt the power surging into him. First, it was Brock. He felt the Swampert's strength, and Brock's pain, that had forged the new Ranger Blue. He felt Serena's loneliness and her Dewgong's fear. He felt the struggle inside 415 between her nature and her heart, and the Luxray roaring for her to keep fighting. He felt all the sacrifices that had brought his team to him. He felt Max's anger, and the Dark Emerald's whispers to his brother-in-law to keep him sane. It would have been enough to break any other man, any other human.

    But not Ranger Gold. As Charon struggled to his feet, 0 began a metamorphosis.

    "Have we reached the threshold?" he asked.

    "We're transforming! We're transforming!" shouted Pi.

    Cario Form emerged first, the Claw Gauntlets settling into place onto his arms and hands. The spikes at the back of his hands extended in a bright blue flash. Next came Chariard Form, with its magnificent orange wings and its fiery tail. Oal Form bulked up his body, with its hardened black armor. Towl Form elongated his helmet, amplifying his sensors. And, finally, he watched as his Perior Form sprouted elegant vines along the leggings and boots covered by the Oal Form armor.

    Then every single piece of his armor turned gold in one sudden, violent flash of blinding light. He heard his friends and family scream, he heard Charon shriek, and, in the distant din of his mind, he heard a soft chuckle he was certain he was imagining. After all, it was impossible that Bakaguru could be there, giggling in his ear.

    "Auxiliary Pokemon System: Synch Battlizer registered. Activating Synchronization Form," said the strange, deep voice from his Ailed Morpher. Then the light died down and 0 found himself glowing in the abandoned coffee shop, the only source of light left now that he had knocked out all the power during his transformation.

    0 lifted his head and looked himself over. "Oh, now this is much more like it," he murmured. His head felt funny, in that it did not feel different at all. He was himself, without any of Lu's scrappiness, Tork's emotions, Z's savage nobility, Noct's cleverness, or Serp's regal bearing. "Pi, can you hear me?"

    There was no answer, though 0 was certain that his best friend was there, somewhere. Ranger Gold cracked his knuckles just as Charon transformed into the Ruby Master Ranger.

    "Ready to die, little boyo?" he asked. His body was radiating the same vile odor it was before, only it didn't seem to bother 0 this time.

    He felt better than fine. He felt fantastic. He turned around and saw his teammates demorphed, with 415 tenderly clutching onto Max's unconscious body.

    She looked at him and glared. "Make it count, Ranger Gold," she said. "I will watch over him. He will wake."

    He nodded, and then turned to Charon. "Do you realize how screwed you are?" 0 asked. "Look around you, Charon. Look who came to back you up. Nobody. Look who came for me. Everyone. My family. My friends. My team." He cracked his neck and started walking towards Charon. "There's not a snowball's chance in hell you're getting out of this."

    And he dealt Charon an uppercut with such force that the Ruby Master Ranger smashed through the ceiling, continued flying, then smashed back through another section of ceiling to clatter to the floor. 0 could hear Charon wheezing as the monster got back onto his feet.

    "Oh, your daughter's going to hate you when I'm done with all of you!" he growled and charged. 0 took the assault head on and the two of them locked arms. Charon tried to flip him over, but 0 held his balance thanks to his tail and the vines rooting him to the ground. The two shared a stalemate for some of the longest seconds of 0's life.

    "Funny," said 0. "Your evolution doesn't seem to be holding up as well as my new armor. Isn't that an interesting development?"

    Then he grimaced and clenched up his fingers. "Synchronization Drive: Protect! Synchronization Drive: Inferno!"

    A sudden burst of blue energy surrounded them, and then suddenly the air around him and Charon froze in a small bubble of impenetrable energy. 0, who knew exactly what was coming, activated his life support system and shut off all contact with the outside world as his hands and forearms began supercharging enough heat to melt through the strongest of metals. The air inside the bubble evaporated into a vortex of heat and fire.

    Charon just stood there, glancing from side to side, wondering how any of this could even be possible, before he and 0 were engulfed by the flames.

    When the fire died down and Protect disappeared, the charred remnants of the Ruby Master Ranger stumbled away from 0 and fell to the floor. He was healing fast, though. His seared armor was already starting to repair itself and reconstruct his entire body.

    0 had to end the fight soon. The energy output was dropping. His visor was indicating that he had perhaps five minutes before he would be forced to completely abandon his ranger form and morph to his human body to recover. There was no chance that Charon would give him time to recover for a second shot at Synchronization Form. He had to end it now.

    He raised his hand. "Synchronization Drive: Psychic!" he ordered. His entire head glowed with soft light as Charon's body rose from the ground to suspend itself in midair. His arms and legs were entirely outstretched; he almost looked like he was about to be crucified. "Synchronization Drive: Leaf Tornado!"

    A thousand million pieces of leaf materialized out of the air with faint golden glows. They jabbed at Charon's weak chinks in his armor, preventing him from regenerating. They shredded his tendons, they tore open his armor to expose the pitiful pale flesh that dwelled inside it.

    "Any last words, you parasite?"

    Charon tilted his head up. "You're all going to die. Just like that fat, pigheaded idiot Niwa. It's only a question of who gets to do it."

    0 shook his head. "Bakaguru was ten times the man you are. A hundred times." Behind him, everyone nodded in agreement.

    "He was a fool and a coward, and his only legacy is that of a pathetic band of failures who couldn't even follow simple orders."

    "His legacy is the Rangers Seven," said 0. "His legacy is that he gave our planet its protectors. Yours will be just that you were another body destroyed by them."

    Ranger Gold raised his hand. His bright, gleaming sword materialized into his grasp and he pointed the blade directly at Charon's Dark Ruby. "Synchronization Drive: Agility!" 0's entire body began to blur, and 0 himself began to laugh. "Synchronization Drive: Inferno! Synchronization Drive: Aura Sphere! Synchronization Drive: Leaf Tornado! And lastly, you evil little worm, Synchronization Drive: Volt Tackle!"

    The leaves appeared again, only this time they attacked from behind Charon, holding him securely with the Psychic to ensure there was no chance of him moving. The three other attacks went straight into the sword, channeling a vortex of fire, lighting, and aura so fierce that the very vibrations it emitted as it tore through the air shattered every single piece of glass within a block radius.

    0 was moving faster than he ever had in his entire life. His wings were folded low to not create wind resistance, his entire body was tucked like a coil to spring out at the last possible moment with all his might.

    Let's see if your will is strong enough to stop me this time.

    He released his sword and it pierced through the Dark Ruby, pierced through Charon, and even launched directly through his body and into the wall across the room. 0 himself opened his wings and came to a stop some feet behind the Ruby Master Ranger, and morphed instantly into his human form. His face was sweaty, he was breathing heavily, and he heard Pi screaming in his head in victory. He turned and grinned at the hole cut directly through Charon's hide.

    "Y-You think you've won?" asked Charon, as his ranger uniform simply melted around him. "There will never be a single moment of peace for you, little Ranger Gold, nor for anyone you've ever loved as long as you live. You think it'll s-stop with the Dark Gems? It'll never stop. If not them, then the next threat, then the next, until you wither and die with all of them. You'll never save any—any—anyone."

    And then the blood spilled out from his lips and coated the fragments of the Dark Ruby still latched to his chest. He crumpled and faded away, just like all the others hand. Only a gleaming hunk of metal, once more white and orange, remained where his hand had been. 0 walked over, bent down, and picked it up.

    "The Master Morpher," he whispered. He felt his family around him, and rose so he could be with them.

    "Over?" asked May.

    He nodded. "Until next time," he replied.

    "We should do something about Bakaguru's morpher," said Serena. She was somehow supporting Brock, despite the fact that she had a few pretty deep cuts herself.

    415 nodded. "We should destroy it. He would have wanted it destroyed."

    0 shrugged. "It's not a decision we have to make tonight. Besides, we're done here. Let's all go home."

    May nodded, and 415 and Max headed out to look for taxis to take them back to Aura Town. Brock found himself a chair that looked sturdy enough to support his weight and Serena joined him, leaving 0, May, and Sarah standing very close to where Charon had just died.

    0 coughed and turned to his daughter. "Sarah," he said suddenly, "you're getting a baby brother."

    And nothing, not all they had been through that day or what Sarah had been through her whole life, compared to her reaction to this news. For it is possible for a man to save his family, save his friends, and unlock an entirely new, powerful way to defend them, but it is utterly impossible to console his daughter when terrible news strikes.

    Sarah stamped on the ground as hard as she could and screamed, "Nooooooooooo!"

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    It was not as hard to clean up Ranger Downs as 0 originally feared it would be.

    Charon had smashed up a good deal of the technology in the hideaway, that was true, but he had not done any damage to the underlying structure. Wires, foundations, circuitry were all undamaged. The walls and floors were still intact. All that apparently would need replacing would be the monitor screens and some computer hard drives. Maybe a new operating table would be required, depending on whether Chansey and Elgyem could fix it up. The teleporter would have to be completely redone, there was nothing 0 could do about that. He had fried the teleporter, not Charon, and the program had been so complete that, had he not had the blueprints to construct a new one, his entire team would have had to walk to battles from then on.

    They were, however, at a complete loss at what to do about the Master Morpher. It was just sitting on what had once been a control panel, with an entire room of adults trying to decide the best course of action.

    "We could preserve it," suggested Serena. "It was Bakaguru's most prized possession. I think he would have wanted us to keep it safe as a…reminder of him."

    415 disagreed. "What we need to do is destroy it. The Master Morpher is entirely too powerful to be left unguarded in a simple shrine. Besides, Bakaguru Niwa was not a fool. He had no thoughts as to what would become of his possessions after he passed on beyond giving us the technology to continue the war. Anything else was to be destroyed. There were no files on his computers when we burned his lab to cinders. There should be nothing left from this, either."

    "It seems wrong to just destroy it," said Serena. "It's…it's his. He deserved better than for us to just scrap his last remnant."

    0 nodded. "I agree. We should keep it, but dismantle its internal components. That way, it can never be activated again. After we're done, we'll destroy the hardware inside it so the tech can't be replicated. We can do whatever we want with the casing."

    "It would be more difficult, but it could be done," said 415.

    "Then do it," said 0. "Bakaguru deserves to be remembered."

    Serena summoned Elgyem, which directed its attention directly onto the Master Morpher. The little device floated up into the air, dancing delicately in nothingness. Pieces began to wobble, shift, and eventually come apart. Strands of wires and gears flooded out from the device, filling the hideaway with junk.

    But 415 glanced up, and noticed something among the wreckage. "Freeze the process," she ordered. Each piece ceased motion as she pointed to a small metal box near the nexus of the morpher. "What is that?"

    0 reached up and grabbed it. It looked like a solid grey cube with a red button. He looked at the others, who all looked at him with confusion.

    "What's this?" he asked.

    "Press it," said Serena. He did, and a soft hum, followed by a very familiar laugh, issued.

    "Hello, all! Surprised to hear my voice again? I'll bet you are. At least, I hope it's you. I highly doubt anyone else would have the skill to find this little tool, so I'm just going to assume it's you simply because it would be far too strenuous to record two messages."

    "It's him…" whispered Serena.

    "In any case, I'm almost certain you all made it out safely. If you didn't…well, I'm sure you found others. Possibly not as grand as our little family, but worthy nonetheless. I trust your judgment. I didn't at first, did you know that? I never wanted anyone to have my technology. It's why I made the morphers so hard to trade off to others, or why I never made more than just a few. But I trust you. It's why I convinced you to run, and why I chose to stay. There is nothing left my generation can give you. All I hope is that Arthur, Terry, and I did our best. We tried to make this a gift, not a weapon. Try to look at your morphers that way."

    415, Serena, and 0 looked at their morphers, remembering exactly how they had come to them. For Serena, it had been an accident. For 415, a lifelong obsession. For 0, a forced responsibility.

    "I have no idea how long ago it was since you last heard me, and I promise I'm not stupid enough to believe that I could still be alive and severed from this morpher. I'm essentially recording my will and testament for whoever happens to find this morpher on my body after I'm gone. Again, I just really hope this is you all, and not some urchin three hundred years in the future that finds my skeleton.

    "There is not much I can tell you to prepare you for what's to come. There isn't, and I apologize for that. Too often do I deliver bad news instead of good. All I can tell you is that it will end. One way or another, it will end, and whether or not that end favors you is up to you now. It is up to Rangers Gold, Silver, Black, and even you, Dark Emerald. You all have the spark, that primal essence to do what's right, that led me to trust you and give up my gift to the world. Even May and Sarah, they may not have strength, but even those you protect have power. I never had anyone to protect before you all. You gave me the strength to let go. You can give each other the strength to succeed.

    "One last piece of advice: this morpher contains a small trigger that will incinerate every component that makes up what this device can do. You will want to duck now."

    Everyone hit the deck really fast just as most of the morpher detonated in tiny, controlled explosions. When the dust cleared, only the husk of the morpher and the small cube remained.

    "In a way, every one of you became my children. So stay safe, stay together, and don't let this all be for nothing. You are my legacy, and I've never felt safer than the last time I saw you."

    The box then erupted in small, bright sparks of fire, leaving nothing behind of the morpher but cinders and the exterior. 0 reached over, and picked it up.

    "Well, you heard the man," he said. "We've got prep work to do. Training. Gotta get Brock up to speed with everything, keep Max from evolving, and put everyone in tip-top shape. After all, not anyone can just save the world. Gotta be us, right?"

    May nodded. "Absolutely right, dear."

    "Can do," said Max with a grin.

    Brock chuckled. "I'll need Sarah to transform, but sure. Count me in."

    "Sounds perfect," purred Serena.

    "We should commence immediately," said 415. "There is no telling when the final wave will be upon us."

    "Then let's go already!" shouted Sarah.

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    "Is it time, big brother?"

    Axi and Bix sat in their cave, just as they always did. Axi perked up his ears at the water dripping somewhere in the distance. Bix just looked at the ceiling. Neither one of them seemed to notice that there was an entire army of Rangerlings surrounding them. All the little monsters stood stoic, simply waiting for orders.

    Axi nodded. "I believe it is, little brother. All our friends are gone. No more Sap, no more Top, no more Dia, no more Ame, no more Rub. Just the two of us left out of all our friends. It's so very sad."

    Bix looked around, acknowledging the monsters around them. "We still have them. We could still play with them all day long."

    Axi shrugged. "But if we do, who would destroy the world? Our other friends? No, they keep taking our rangers away."

    Bix stared thoughtfully for a moment. "But wasn't that the plan, big brother? Didn't we need everyone else to go away before we could come out and play?"

    Axi nodded. "Of course. Why else haven't we played with them before? We can't exactly just run around like everyone else. The main baddies always need an amazing entrance, otherwise the entire plan would fall apart at the end!" Axi turned and giggled at the surrounding Rangerlings. "Oh, my pretty little darlings! You're so close to being done. Wouldn't you like that? Wouldn't you love to be free at last and let everything come tumbling down?"

    The little monsters all chattered up a storm, jumping into a frenzy of ferocious movement that threatened to absorb the entire cavern. They were silenced by a sharp pitched shriek from Axi that sent them scuttling into the holes and tunnels where they dwelled.

    "Oblivion will be ours, little brother!" he screamed. "And then there will be nothing, nothing, to stop us from reshaping this world in our image! In our making!"

    "What a beautiful world it'll be, big brother!" shouted Bix. "All we need are the Rangerlings, little Serena, and the Dark Gold."

    Axi grinned, to the point at which every single little tooth in his mouth was clearly visible. He brushed the silver hair out of his eyes and turned to his brother. "And with a plan like ours, there's never been a surer thing, little brother! Never been a surer thing!"

    The two of them continued to cackle and cackle until the sun began to peek out from the horizon outside. Their plan wouldn't take long, considering how long they had already taken to bring everything about, but the rewards would be entirely too sweet to be imagined.

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    …Twenty-Five Years Ago…


    Bakaguru sat on a bench, waiting.

    The hospital had been very friendly, considering the fact that both he and Terry had had to be brought in from overseas under special circumstances. Originally, it had been only Terry, but Bakaguru had insisted on coming along too. Arthur was still at headquarters, trying to smooth out the details for their new program, but Bakaguru had not been interested in that. He had to come. He had to explain what was going to happen next.

    He heard them approaching long before he saw them. He could hear a child's voice echoing along the quiet, dank hallways. Finally, they appeared. The woman was short but, then again, Terry had been a rather big fellow. The child was tiny, perhaps five years old at the most, and looked exactly like Terry must have looked as a child. The shape of the face was different, the boy definitely resembled his mother in that respect, but the eyes and the hair were both perfect replicas. Especially the eyes. Bakaguru noticed that, even though the boy was easily distracted and kept shifting his attention from one thing to the next, the eyes always looked as though they were penetrating everything, analyzing everything, making the boy seem wise beyond his years.

    The woman peered closely at Bakaguru, as if unsure of how to engage him in conversation. "Excuse me," she said, "are you my husband's friend?"

    Bakaguru sighed and nodded. "Yes," he said. "I worked with Terry. I came with him to talk to you."

    The woman nodded and turned to her son. "Why don't you go play over there for a bit?" she suggested. "Mommy has to have some grownup talk with this nice man."

    The boy smiled and nodded. "Okay, Mommy!" he said and bounded off to where he could not hear them. The woman sat down next to Bakaguru on the bench after he scooted over to give her some room.

    "They told me something happened," she said very suddenly. "They didn't explain what, though. Is that why you're here?"

    Bakaguru nodded. "Yes. I-I'm sorry, ma'am, this is a bit difficult for me. They have trained professionals at PKM to help people with things like this, but I didn't think they would understand. I felt…I felt it had to be me to tell you, and it's going to be hard. In many ways, this is my fault. All of it can be traced back to me."

    The woman nodded. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"

    He did. "It was just an idea of mine. I had this idea to make soldiers safer in the field. We would give them armor to withstand bullets, so as to keep men like your husband safe, so they could come home." Bakaguru coughed and readjusted his glasses. "In retrospect, it was foolish. Oh so foolish. We built the armor. We tested it. And it ended up being completely useless in your husband's case."

    "What happened?" she asked.

    Bakaguru found it hard to look at her. "We came across these houses on the first night we tried out the armor. We went inside and found this little girl and a monster. Terry tried to save the girl, but the monster—"

    "A monster?" asked the woman. "Like, a Pokemon?"

    Bakaguru shook his head. "No, a real monster. Like the stuff of nightmares. This…thing had hurt this girl so badly, so very badly. It made Terry so angry and he attacked it. But it just kept coming back and then…" Bakaguru took a deep breath. "Then it did something to Terry. It shot something at him. Terry went down. We were able to stop the monster, but it was too late. Too late to help him. Too late to do anything."

    "Please," she said. "What happened to my husband?"

    "Terry—he came back shortly after he was brought out of the house. Not a scratch on him. Only it wasn't Terry. Something happened, the beam did something to him. Whatever it was, it changed Terry. It changed who he is, it took away who he was."

    "I don't understand," she replied. "Please, can I see him?"

    Bakaguru shook his head. "No. He has insisted on that point. He was going to have himself listed officially as K.I.A., but I convinced him to at least let me talk to you."

    "That doesn't sound like my husband."

    "That's because it isn't your husband. He isn't Terry. Not anymore. There's no other way to describe it."

    "How can that be? How can you tell me that Terry's alive, but at the same time he's gone? That doesn't make sense!"

    There were tears in her eyes. Bakaguru did not know how to stop them. "The monster said it split people. When it pointed the light at me, Terry stopped it. We thought he had died, but the monster said it didn't split bodies. Terry's been split, but not on any level you or I can ever understand." He lifted his hands to his glasses and discovered he too was crying, and he did not know how to stop.

    "You said…you said there was a girl," she said. "What happened to her?"

    Bakaguru took a deep breath. "He saved her. We were able to get her to the base, she's being taken care of. She will have some reconstructive surgery to repair what we can, but she's the same way as Terry. She's silent. Cold. Won't speak to anyone, except for when she asks for him."

    "Is Terry silent too?"

    "That's difficult to answer. He'll talk to me, but only if he needs to. He mostly listens now."

    "Does he sound like Terry?"

    Bakaguru shook his head. "It's like something got switched off in his head. He used to be so happy, so insightful. Now whenever he speaks, he just sounds like a robot. Won't use contractions, uses words in a way Terry never could. It's made him so much smarter, but at the same time—"

    "It's like he's gone, even when you can see him sitting right next to you." The woman paused, and Bakaguru noticed that her hands were gripping the edge of her seat. "Does he remember me? Does he remember our son?"

    This was going to be the difficult part. "Yes," said Bakaguru. "He remembers who you were to him, but he can't remember how that felt. Whatever piece of Terry that loved you and your son was severed off. He can only remember your marriage as facts, not as feelings or as love. It barely registered to him."

    "Oh no…" The woman chocked, burying her face into her arms. "No, no, this isn't happening. My son needs a father. I need my husband. I—I can't do this without you, Terry." Her voice trailed off, lost between her sobbing.

    Bakaguru could not help himself. His eyes were burning. "This is all my fault," he whispered to himself, wiping away some of the tears on his cheeks.

    "Your fault?"

    "I should never have let him try the suit. I should have kept him away from the house. He shouldn't have taken the hit for me. Any way you look at it, this is my fault. And all my work accomplished was that it ruined your lives. It was supposed to help people. It was supposed to save lives. How could I fail so spectacularly?"

    He felt a hand close in on his, and looked up. She was smiling through her tears. "You didn't do any of this," she said. "Terry did this. He made his choice to protect the world. I made my choice to love him, and to have his child. Without you, he would be dead, right?"

    "Does it matter? So I killed the demon. It changes nothing."

    "It changes everything. He's alive. Maybe he's not the same person, maybe he needs time to heal. Maybe our Terry will come back to us."

    "And if he doesn't? I've ruined his life, your life. How can you say it will be alright?"

    She smiled at him. Bakaguru noticed there were no more tears in her eyes. "Did he save the girl? Did he save you?" she asked.

    "Yes, but he didn't know what he'd be giving up! He didn't know he would end up like this!"

    "He would have done it anyway," she said. "My Terry is…was…always like that. He always tried to help everybody. Did you know that's how we met? He was being silly and tried to get me over a puddle of mud. Ended up getting us both dirty. He was always such a good man. You must be too, otherwise he wouldn't have saved you. Well, he still might have, but he might have figured out a way to throw some whiplash your way." She giggled, it was a slight sound that sounded like a cough. "He always tried to do the right thing. So should you."

    "Yes, but what is the right thing in this situation?"

    "We wait," she decided. "We don't know what the monster was, right?"

    "No. PKM is still doing research to determine exactly what it was."

    "Then we wait. In time, maybe Terry will come back to us. Until then…" Her voice trailed off, and she looked at the little boy at the other end of the hallway. "Until then, he's on a journey. A long journey. Until our Terry can come back to me and my son."

    "But he might never come back. He might never be the same as he was."

    She shrugged. "That's the chance we'll have to take, won't we? Will you keep in touch with me about his condition?"

    Bakaguru nodded, and then looked to the boy. "But, no one else can know. Not now, and not until we can figure out what did this to Terry and how to fix him. Your son won't understand."

    "I know how to protect my son," she said. "You just keep my husband safe. You promise me that."

    He nodded. "I swear on my life. And I swear to do everything in my power to bring him back."

    She seemed satisfied with that, and called her son over. "Come on," she said with a small smile. "We're heading back home."

    The boy tilted his head, confused. "Who were we supposed to see here?" he asked.

    "This man here."

    The boy turned to Bakaguru. "Hi, mister," he said. "Are you sick?"

    Bakaguru chuckled. "Not really. I'm here to see a friend of mine."

    "Are they sick?"

    "Maybe. Maybe not. We'll have to wait and see."

    The boy bobbed his head up and down. "Okay. Mommy, I wanna go home."

    "Okay sweetie," she said, and stood up from the bench. She turned to Bakaguru. "Goodbye."

    Bakaguru grinned. "Until next time. Hopefully there will be something soon."

    "Hopefully," she said. Then she left, and Bakaguru was left alone in the hallway again.

    Bakaguru stood up and headed into an adjacent room with black shades on the window. His hands were still shaking. "Stop," he murmured. "You got through it. What's done is done."

    "How did they take it?" asked another voice.

    Bakaguru looked up. He looked exactly the same, exactly the same. Only nothing about him was Terry anymore. He could see it in the eyes the man had. They were dead, so pale and immobile that he might have looked blind to the untrained eye. His mouth was firm and hard, so unlike the Terry that had always had a grin.

    "As well as you expected. She was braver than I was."

    "Terrance chose wisely when he selected his wife," said Terry. "She will keep strong, no matter how many years she is separated from him."

    Bakaguru took a seat next to the bed. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

    Terry turned to look at him, and Bakaguru had to suppress a shudder when he felt Terry's new eyes on him. "I am unchanged," he replied. "This body is healthy. I am ready to return to the field. Why am I still being cared for here, and not in a PKM facility?"

    "Arthur thought that the change of scenery might help you. He pulled a lot of strings with his father to get you admitted closer to your home."

    "It was an irrelevant gesture. We should return to resume work on the armor technology."

    Bakaguru shook his head. "No, we're going to stay here until you return to normal. This change can't be permanent."

    Terry looked at him, and then briefly at himself. "Terrance is gone, Bakaguru Niwa. I am here. What matters is that someone survived what happened."

    "But you still have his memories," said Bakaguru. "How can you not be him?"

    "Because those memories were formed by someone else," said Terry. He tapped at his skull. "The beam scattered Terrance's psyche. I was what put the pieces back together into a working mind. I have his memories, but all they are to me are a frame of reference to how I was created. I understand Terrance had a wife, and a son, but those people will not understand who I am. I am not her husband. I am not his father. That man is dead."

    "But if you can work that out, why can't you figure out how to feel those emotions?" demanded Bakaguru. "There has to be some way to undo what's been done!"

    "There is not," said Terry. "I have tried. The memories cannot connect with me. There is something blocking it, something that prevents my two selves from merging again."

    "Your two selves?"

    "Or something to that effect," said Terry. "The fact remains that Terrance remains locked in here and I cannot reach him. Ergo, I am not Terrance at all. I must be something else. I am what the demon created in Terrance's image."

    "So what do we do?" asked Bakaguru.

    "I have been wondering that. Do we have any information on the girl? Is she like me?"

    Bakaguru nodded. "She's exhibiting the same symptoms. She must have been hit by the same thing."

    "If we continue to monitor her, we may find out a way to reverse this. However…"

    "However what? There's nothing else to do. We have to repair you. We need to get you back to your family."

    "I understand. But would you not agree that I may be more efficient this way? Terrance was always such a fool. Perhaps I can be more of a use to this world if I remain as I am."

    "Don't be foolish. That would mean trading off any chance of normality on the off-chance you perform better at your duties. You can be Terrance and still be a good agent."

    "Regardless," said Terry, changing the subject, "there still remains one more issue I would like to consider."

    "Which is?"

    "My name. I am no longer Terrance. I require a new identity, at least until it can be decided what to do with me as I am." He thought for a moment. "This mind was constructed from nothing. It came from nowhere. Perhaps I should be 'Nobody'."

    "Ridiculous. That is hardly a name. Perhaps a designation would be better. It would give you hope to return to yourself."

    Terry nodded. "An interesting suggestion. Perhaps '0'. It means the same as nobody."

    Bakaguru considered this. "Very well…0. We'll call you that for now. But you're going back to being Terry one day. Don't forget that."

    "No. And you remember the armor. It is our legacy, Bakaguru Niwa. It is what we will leave behind."

    Bakaguru shook his head. "No. The armor is something I will make. But you're coming home to that boy one day, as Terry. Someday. I promised her."

    0 looked at Bakaguru. "I am afraid that someday may be a long way away," he said.

    "Well, hope springs eternal."

    Author's Note: Well, we've officially arrived at the endgame! From here on out, chapter updates will become slightly more sporadic as I only have two chapters published left to put here. Progress is happening on the next five chapters, and I will be picking up the pace as the semester ends.

    Of particular note in this chapter is that we have confirmation that Terry was 0, and that the previous Golden Ranger had a family he left behind. I really like the scene between Bakaguru and the wife, showing his doubts and his fears about what the technology might do in the future. In a way, this four-part arc was meant to provide closure on the PKM side of things, which had always felt incomplete because of Charon's obsessions, and for Bakaguru, as I wondered why a man would build the ranger technology in the first place and what happened to the first generation of rangers.

    Also, this chapter has the only appearance of the Battlizer. Some people like these types of things so I included it in the story in a rather unique way that ensures it'll be too hard to summon in active combat, because I think it's sort of a deus ex machina in a way.

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