If you're interested in 'Number 13', check out "Fairer Than Death", which is a companion piece to this.NUMBER 37
If you're interested in 'Number 26', then hang on for
"Out Of the Dark", which will be a companion piece to this.
If you're interested in 'Number 31', then hang on for
"The End Of Summer", which will be a companion piece to this.
Continuity: pretty much before Zeo but then again not really at all... you'll see
God. This is harder than I thought it would be. And in different ways. If it wasn't so damned important, I might've quit by now.
Who'm I kidding, anyway? There's nobody here but me. Nobody to believe that.
No might about it. If I could have, I would have.
I never expected it to be this hard.
I couldn't do nothing.
Of course, I couldn't do much of anything, not where it counted. There wasn't anything to fight, nothing to get my hands on and take care of. I've always been more or less useless in the Command Center. Sure, I can get myself, and others, in and out, run communications, turn on the viewing globe... fake it with the rest of the stuff because I'm always the one telling people what to do while they do it. Trini. Adam. Billy...
Damn.But I'm not much good at the technical end of it. Never have been. It's not my job. But there wasn't much call for my job, was there? No tengas, no monsters, no power-crazed warlords or even run-of-the-mill mad scientists. Just this... thing, this glowing, swirling rip in the fabric of the universe.
Just this end to Life-as-we-know-it.
And nothing for me to do about it.
Of course, nobody else knew what to do, either. Zordon was giving us that 'I am not familiar with' line and if Alpha had ay-yi-yi'd one more time I was gonna put my hands on him. And Adam was blanking, major league.
Fact was, we desperately needed Billy.
And that was the one thing
damn it all to hellthat we didn't have. Couldn't get.
Tactics are my strong suit. Always have been. I stared at that hole in the air and thought, as fast as I could. Not about what it was, or where it came from, or how to get rid of it. I wasn't answering any of those questions, not in this lifetime. Not in this life. Not in this...
"It's a hole, right?" I said, interrupting Adam and Zordon.
"Of course it's a hole!" Adam snapped. "Haven't you been paying any attention?"
I didn't mind him snapping. He had a right to snap; he was having a bad day. We all were. "What I mean," I said, "is if all the universes you're talking about, all the alternate realities, lie next to each other, then does this hole, you know, go through?"
Adam closed his eyes, his face looking suddenly even more strained. "Oh, great," he muttered. "How many other universes are going to go up when we do?"
Oops. Hadn't thought of that. Couldn't take time to think of that. Pushed it aside to ask, "So it does?"
"It does," Zordon affirmed. "Why do you ask?"
"Because if it does, could one of us go through? To another reality, I mean? And get back?"
Adam opened his dark eyes, now alight with curiosity. "I could probably rig a homer onto a communicator," he said, a little cautiously. "Of course, there are no guarantees anybody would be alive after going through to use it... Why?"
"Yes, why?" echoed Zordon.
"To get help."
"Help?" That was Tommy. Sounded as frustrated as me. Probably was.
"What kind of help?" Rocky asked.
"Is that a good idea?" An honest question from Adam, directed at Zordon.
But I answered, not Adam but the other two, and Aisha's silent question as well. "Billy," I said. I heard Kat gasp, but kept talking. "I go throughthere, and I find us a Billy. And he... fixes it."
Sure, it seemed so simple. It wasn't, of course, but my end was. Come up with the notion, let somebody else figure out how to make it work. I was used to that, after all. We need some way to slow him down. We need to get through that shield. We need a distraction. And they always came throughsedatives and knockout gasses and delivery systems, new weapons and targeted weak points and knocking out power systems... whatever. So Adam and Zordon patched together some kind of homing beacon, lifeline or something, to tie into my communicator, and Zordon produced a Transdimensional Travel Device (that's not what he called it, which was something like "vortinizer"; but it's the kind of thing Billy would have called it, because he thought it was funny...). And then Zordon told me I have three weeks, my time.
"My time?" I asked, and he tells me something about molecular clock resetsor was that on Star Trek?I don't know what, exactly. What it boils down to is, yes, we still only have about nineteen hours, but every time I move from one dimension to another, I'll reset back to now. I don't understand it, but I don't have to. I just have to know that after I move from one timeline to another, I can stay for twelve hour increments. And I get three weeks of my time, meaning if I stay twelve hours, I get forty two worlds.
Forty two... the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything, right? The answer to everything... God, I hope so.Main thing Zordon told me was, and he made me swear it on my powers and position and everything else he could think of, I can't even talk to any Billy who's a Ranger. I can't take a Ranger away from his own reality. Bad Things will happen.
"I'm going," I objected.
"But you will return," he pointed out. "And once the rift is sealed, it may prove impossible to return anyone to their own timeline, at least with the equipment we have."
Okay, Billy could fix that, too. Or
don't go thereso I figured. But, like I said, I don't understand it. And, for that matter, I'm not sure Zordon was telling the whole truth there. It probably had more to do with the rules of how Rangers are supposed to do things than the laws of physics. I mean, I think he knew Billy would come to save the universe. Multiverse. Whatever. And he wouldn't worry about getting back, even if it caused problems. A lot of problems in both realities. Billy wouldn't let a little thing like that stop him.
hadn't let damn dying stop himSo, maybe Zordon was exaggerating the problems that could come from a Ranger out of place, too much power here and too little there, and maybe he wasn't. Maybe Aisha would lose hers, or the new Billy would, or maybe they'd sort of cancel each other out in a big boom. I could see any of it. And I had to admit it wouldn't any of it be good. Especially a big boom.
So, I promised. No even talking to Billys that are Rangers. I didn't think it would be a problem. The others were a bit skeptical about that, but Zordon at least could remember how Billy was upgrading stuff in the Command Center almost from day one. It wouldn't matter that he'd never seen it before. We were talking about Billy.
And we were down to about fifteen hours.
And I couldn't stand around and do nothing.
So, I went.
So, sure. It won't be a problem. Except...This is, what? Thirty Six? No. Thirty Seven. And I have found exactly one reality where Billy isn't a Ranger. Or wasn't. Where he's still alive, I mean. I could take it if he'd been a Ranger in thirty-five of them. But that's not the way it is. God, the universe(s) seem(s) to really have it for him. If he's not a Ranger, he's dead. Sometimes
It is a problem, damn it. Not the not talking to Billys who are Rangers part. That's easy... okay, not. I didn't think how much it would hurt to see him alive again. How hard it would be. If I had had the time to think, well, I'd have let Zordon win that argument, let Kat or Aisha or Tommy come, stayed home and gone slowly crazy from doing nothing. It would have felt better than this.
God. Anything would feel better than this.
It's not the not talking to Billys who are Rangers. It's the talking to Billys who aren't.
Actually, it's the finding Billys who aren't.
damn you. Why did you do it?he's dead even if he was a Ranger. Like home. And half a dozen others. So far the score is: Billy 12, Universe 24.
Whatand there's no other word for itsucks, is: Nobody else is even losing.
I've gotten into a rhythm now. I know how to do it. I get there and head for the library. Yeah, I've spent more time there the past eighteen days than... well, no, be honest. I never avoided the library, not really. Didn't spend extra time there, but I know my way around. I am a 3.2, after all, even on my own. But I never spent much time in the newspaper microfilm, that's for sure.
It usually doesn't take me very long to figure out if Billy's a Ranger. I can tell by the pictures if one of them's him or not. It's weird; I wouldn't have thought so before this, but I can. Maybe it's because I'm used to what he lookslookedlike in uniform, but I can tell just by the way he stands. If I can see film on the news, which happens a lot, I can tell right away. Like I said, it's been ten times for finding out he still is. Another six for finding out he used to be.
Then comes the fun part, what I'm doing now: looking through the archives for any references to
I can't believe how much this hurtshim being dead.
First time I didn't find him as a RangerReality Number Three, that wasI got excited. I should have known it wouldn't be that easy. I learned, though. I went by his house, found it, and got the key down from behind the porch lamp. (Some things never change.)
Did I say I was using that phase-shift device Billy had salvaged two years ago? When Goldar had used it, there'd been that weird, annoying flickering so that you just knew something, someone, was there. After Billy got done with it, it worked right: while it was turned on, nobody would know I was there. Zordon had cautioned me to use it before I approached Billy, sort of an advance scouting deal. It was a good idea, especially since I didn't want to cause "me" any problems.
But it wasn't "me" with the problems, it was me. I'd gone to Billy's room, which I knew as well as my own almost. But Billy's room wasn't. It was a classic spare room for a man who never had visitors. And no matter what door I looked in, I didn't see any sign of Billy. At all. No science projects. No awards. Certainly no lab. No pictures, evenwell, just the one Mr. Cranston had always had in the living room (so I knew I was in the right house, which, despite the key, I had started to have my doubts about), the one of Billy's mom and him when he was like three or four.
That was the first time I went to the archives in the library and started looking. That was the first time I found out that this reality's Billy died in the car crash along with his mom. I guess he was sitting on the other side of the car this time around.
At that point, it was Billy 1, Universe 2. He never got ahead.
Three times he died in the car crashes. Those were fairly bearable after the others started showing up. In Number Nine, he was murdered. Beaten to death by his uncle after both his parents died in the crash. Even that wasn't the worst. Sixteen was probably the worstthat was the one where he was tortured to death when he was eleven. I threw up after reading the newspaper article. Or maybe it was Thirty. Or Twelve... yeah. Twelve. That was the one where he killed himself at ten. A ten year old, killing himself: the police had had a hard time with that one... I wondered how my dad would have dealt with it...
I didn't have to wonder how I would have.
So, the grim totals so far:
Like I said, Billy 12, Universe 24...Died in Car Crash: 3
Dropped out of sight (probably dead): 4
Accidental deaths (at least one probably a murder): 3
"Accidents" meaning Died as a Ranger: 6
Living, a Ranger: 10
Living, not a Ranger: 1
Living, used to be a Ranger: 2
I never expected it to be this hard. I never would have believed it could be this bad.I could recite all the details of how he died, each and every time. Well, not the Ranger deaths, of course; the Blue Ranger doesn't get "accidentally killed" in a monster attack because he "happens" to be walking through the park at the wrong time. But I know how that goes, when you have to cover it somehow. It's the others I mean. The child molester. The abusive uncle. The abusive foster family. The overdose on his dad's depression medication. The drunk driverthe one that got him when he was thirteen, I mean, not the one that got his mom. The junior high kids that did so much damage one Friday night that he died over the weekend.
And let's not forget Number Thirty. Good old Number Thirty. Why the score is Billy 12, Universe 24 even though if you add up the "livings" it's 13...
Yeah. Good old Number Thirty. Real close to Number Nine, the one where his uncle beat him to death. In Thirty, he just beat him into brain-damage. I think I've changed my mind; Thirty is worse than Twelve. At least in Twelve, he still knew who the hell he was...
Reading the newspapers got so depressing that I started doing something Zordon told me not to dowell, warned me against doing. I didn't actually talk to the Billys who were, or used to be, Rangers. But I started looking them up, just to get some good news while I waited to move on to the next two-chances-in-three-of-being-really-depressing reality.
Not that that was always real good news, either.
Oh, a lot of times it was. Or at least, it was like... what did Abe Simpson say? "You remind me of a poem I've never read, a song that may never have been written, a place that might not exist"? Something like that. And usually that was what it was like, like watching memories I didn't remember. Billy and the others, usually others I knew versions of, doing normal stuff. Depending on when I found them, it might be school or Ernie's or hanging out in the park... there was that one surreal time he was on a date with a long-legged redhead I'd never seen before who pretty much looked like it wasn't his mind she was interested in, but usually if he'd made it to being a Ranger, he had a two-to-one shot of being still alive and like I remembered him.
Two to one, though, means sometimes the news wasn't all good.
I looked into this Billy's lab window. This Jason was there, sitting on the table. Billy, wearing a light brown shirtbut still with a communicator on his wrist even though I could tell from the news footage he wasn't the Blue Ranger anymorewas working on something, I didn't know what. I doubted this Jason did, either. It didn't matter; I knew why he was there. He was watching Billy work.
He liked that; he'd come over once, twice a week and do it. It didn't matter what Billy was doing, Jason just liked to watch him do it, watch the awkwardness vanish and the grace that was Billy's version of a well-known kata take over, watch the hands moving so surely and the whatever-it-was take shape. He even liked listening to Billy explain, when asked, repeating and ratchetting down one step at a time until he reached a level Jason could understand. He coulddid, when time was of the essencestart at Jason's level, God knows he knew it well enough by now, but it was part of the, well, the dance, the game, the relationship, that Billy start much higher than that. And it was one of the delights, for both of them, when Jason got it sooner than expected. But Jason loved to hear the words even when he didn't know what they meant, loved Billy's brilliance, was in a weird way he didn't understand even proud of it, loved to see it demonstrated, the same way he loved watching Trini do kung fu routines or Kim do gymnastics. He'd have missed it if he lost it; I hoped for this Jason's sake he never did.
I eased the window open just a hair, enough to hear them. They couldn't see me, well, not unless this Billy had made something to counteract the PSD. But he'd looked right at me
I miss youjust a minute ago and not noticed me. They would notice if a window was suddenly open, though, so I was careful about that. I just wanted to hear him. Them.
"It's not your fault," this Jason was saying, an odd lack of inflection in his voice making it sound not terribly sincere. This Billy just glanced up, not particularly concerned by that. Before I could start wondering, Jason added, "How many times can you actually say that before what you want to say is, Okay, it is your fault, all of it; why don't you go jump off a building yourself and see if that makes it better?"
"One less time than you have said it?" Billy guessed.
Jason sighed. "Just about." He shook his head. "I thought she was all right. I had other things to worry about"
Billy put down what he was working on and pushed lightly on the edge of the workbench; this Billy still had casters on his chair, he must have finally mastered the art of not rolling into the other benches. He turned to face Jason, touching him lightly on the knee in reassurance. "I'm certain you noticed all that was evident," he said, "and did all that was within your not inconsiderable abilities. You had a lot on your mind."
"Yeah. You; Tommy feeling guilty as hell, and getting in trouble for lying to his parents; and Rocky of course; and Adam..." his voice trailed off. "But I really thought she was okay. I think she was, until you came back."
Billy leaned back in his chair. "You think what, that she was in denial about the severity of the accident?"
"Not in denial, exactly," said Jason. "More like, not accepting... okay, denial. But I wish you'd talk to her, Bill."
Billy shook his head, not in refusal but in resignation. "It's very difficult to talk to someone who won't stay in the same room as you."
"And that's not good for the team," Jason pointed out, sounding very frustrated. "Let alone what it's got to be doing to her." He scrubbed his hands through his short hair, clenched them at the back of his neck, and then shouted "Damn!" and suddenly slammed his fists down on the table beside his legs, very hard. Equipment and tools skittered across the black surface; Billy reached out quickly to catch something delicate-looking that went over the edge. He didn't say anything as he replaced it, just held Jason's face with his warm green gaze and waited.
"Sorry," Jason said after a minute. "It just gets to me, you know?"
"I do," Billy nodded. "You may not do guilt as well as Tommy"
"Who does?" Jason managed a laugh. I wondered what was wrong, envied this Jason that he still had Billy to talk it over with.
"but," Billy continued, "you do permit your perceived failings to prey on your mind."
"Perceived?" Jason raised his eyebrows.
"You're not a trained psychologist," the blond boy pointed out. "You're a high school senior"
"With delusions of grandeur?"
"They're not delusions," Billy said quietly. "You're the Red Ranger, you're the leader, and you're responsible. Not, perhaps, as responsible as you think, but enough so. And generally you don't miss things. But what was that list you recited earlier? You had your hands full. And Trini's, pardon the expression, inscrutable."
"Ow," Jason winced theatrically. "You know what I don't get? Why does she feel like this in the first place? Rocky I could understand, but he seems okay with it."
"I had this conversation with him already," Billy said, glancing away for a minute. "He did feel somewhat guilty; after all, it was the nefarious Black Ranger Revenger was after, not the innocent and entirely lovable Blue" he broke off, ducking Jason's mock punch. "But Rocky's simple. You know what I mean, linear. Clear. His perceptions are unclouded by doubts. All he needed to know was that I don't blame him. He never really blamed himself; he never saw how he could have acted differently. His trip to San Francisco was simply unfortunate."
"Yeah," Jason nodded. "I sometimes envy him that clarity. And Tommy's just, well, Tommy. You know him: Guilt 'R' Us." He grinned suddenly. "Remember when we coded the colors?"
This Billy nodded. I did, too; my Billy and I had done that in our reality, late one night when his dad was out of town and we were coming down off the adrenaline of a particularly nasty fight. Blue had been Brilliancethat's what had gotten us started, me saying 'Blue must be for Brilliant'and Red, he'd countered, was Royalty, and I'd thrown a pillow at him and then accepted, graciously. And then we'd done the others, laughing so much my mom had threatened to put Billy in the spare room if we didn't shut up and go to sleep 'and I mean now, young men'... Green had been Guilt, it had been the second easiest color to do.
Billy was answering. "Yes. Generic Guilt is our specialty... if it happens, he can make it into his fault. So, in a sense, this is no different than any other experience for him. But Trini..." He looked away from Jason again. Now he got to wait for his Billy to get his thoughts together, part of what they'd been doing since they were ten. Again, I envied it to him. After a minute, Billy looked back at him and said, "Trini was wearing my shirt, remember?"
Jason looked at him. All I had was his profile, but he looked blank. Then, "Oh."
"Yes," Billy nodded. "Revenger wanted the Black Ranger. He had us, out of uniform, you in" he spread his hands, indicating Jason's red sleeveless shirt. "Tommy was wearing something green and Kim, if memory serves, and it usually does, was wearing everything pink. But I gave Trini my shirt just before he showed up, so she was wearing a blue, well, dress on her. And I was left with"
"That old black teeshirt," Jason said softly. "God, Billy, I'd forgotten all about that. Why he thought you..."
Billy shrugged. "It doesn't matter. Neither of us knew what was going on. I can't even claim I did it on purpose, well, except to keep her from freezing to death." Not that that meant anything, I knew; Billy would have still given her his shirt even knowing what would happen. Whatever had happened.
Damn you. You always did that. You always jumped in the way. Always. Blue is for bull-headedness.
"So, will you talk to her?" Jason asked. "Tell her that?"
"Of course I will," Billy said. "Assuming you can keep her in the room."
"Oh, I'll keep her in the room," this reality's Red Ranger said grimly.
Billy smiled at him wryly. "Where is she?"
"At her house. You want a ride?"
"Eight blocks? I don't think so... unless you've got your dad's car?"
They both grinned like that was a joke between them. I didn't know it, and there was no reason I should know it, even if the only difference in this reality was the obvious one, and it wasn't, there was their Revenger and our rip-in-the-fabric-of-space-and-time, and their Kim and Trini still around and no Aisha or Kat... but even so, I felt a stab of jealousy that I didn't know the joke. But that feeling faded almost immediately, as Jason reached over and cut off the workbench light and Billy pushed away from it and I realized he was in a wheelchair.
I leaned up against the side of the Cranstons' house and watched them head for the Kwans', this Billy maneuvering his chair neatly out of the house and down the street, and this Jason matching his stride to it as easily as if he'd been doing it for years... I'm not sure how long I stayed there, but I hadn't turned off the TTD and so I moved on. Number Fourteen was easier. He was just dead there. I didn't have to look at him.
Of course, Number Thirteen had this much going for it: that Jason still had that Billy, regardless.
I mean, crippled or not, he still had Billy. To talk to, to be with. Clearly they were still doing all right; heck, Jason was taking mock punches at him. Using him as a sounding board. Being with him.
All things considered, hard as it was to look at, that was one of the better ones.
I'd have taken it in a heartbeat. If I'd had it, I wouldn't have been out here... what was that word? stravaging across realities looking for him. Like I should be doing here, instead of moping around.
But so far, there's not much helpful in the microfiche. In fact, so far all I've managed to find is the car crashjust his mother, again. Then, four months later, his father dying in a hit and run. Human-interest angle, son seeing both parents killed by drunk drivers, too tragic, let's get tough, etc., etc. And after that, zip. Nada. No school notes, no "Angel Grove's William Cranston (12) beat out high school seniors from around the country to take second prize in Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair...". On the other hand, nothing in the crime or obits, either.
You take what you can get, sometimes.
I finished up with the newspapers. Nothing. Either way. Looking at my watch, I saw I had eight hours or so until I jumped or the countdown started for real on the other side, in my own time... Eight hours to find Billy, if he was around in this reality. I was pretty sure Tommy and Kim were in the Rangers, not positive but pretty sure. I didn't recognize me, but I'd been gone in several realitiesout of the country or something in some, and just not around in others. Maybe dead, but I didn't go looking for that news.
But there were Rangers here, and Zedd, and Billy wasn't one of them. Never had been. But wasn't dead, either, so far as I could tell. Now, maybe this time around his uncle wasn't a monster, or maybe his uncle was dead and he was with a foster family that cared. Maybe they'd moved out of Angel Grove and he was fine and happy in some science magnet school in LA, or even in college already. Eventually I was going to start hitting the worlds where his family had never even come to AG... maybe not inside my forty-two, but sooner or later. Some of the worlds hadn't had people there who "should" have been there. A couple where Zack's parents had moved. One at least where Trini's parents hadn't, but were still in San Francisco. Several where Tommy's family wasn't in town... and one where Kim's mom and dad hadn't divorced but had moved to New York. So sooner or later there wasn't going to be a Billy here.
I hoped I could find him anyway, in that situation, but the time constraints would be a problem. But that accident report meant he'd been here nine years ago. I had to hope he still was.
At least the last one had been one with him there, alive and wearing Blue
and breaking my heart, watching that me going out with that Emily, like an idiot, taking for granted something that had always been there and always would as far as that fool me knewand I'd gotten some sleep. Because I had a feeling I wasn't going to get much this time.
I left the library and stood indecisively on the sidewalk in front. I didn't have the first clue where to start looking for him. Finally I decided to head over to AGHSby the clock in the library it was early enough in the afternoon school would still be in. Maybe I'd see him, or hear something about him.
I saw him. When the school let out, he came tearing across the campus like the most important thing in the world was getting gone before somebody stopped him. God only knows how I recognized him, though. Maybe I was so attuned to him by now, this whole search
missing him down to my bonesthat I just did. Because he didn't really look a thing like Billy. In spite of being Billy.
I remember having an argumenta discussionwith Billy once, about cloning. He was trying to point out that to duplicate somebody, really, you'd have get all Boys from Brazil, you'd have to somehow duplicate every single thing that had ever happened to them, and somebody named Heisenberg said that was impossible... I remember the discussion degenerated into something about German names. I didn't know it would ever matter... But clearly, what Billy had called "nature vs. nurture" was real. I mean, he was Billy, right down to his genes. But he wasn't.
He wasn't at all.
He was scruffy, for one thing. No, worse than scruffy. Unkempt. Billy never was that, even when he was in that whole overalls phase. He didn't look like he got clean clothes very often, or new ones for that matter. The old jeans he was wearing were pretty worn, and too short, and the shirt was giving at the shoulder seams... the plain canvas sneakers were torn, too. Frankly, he looked homeless...
The thought barely had time to cross my mind before I realized he was heading for Angel Grove's downtown section. I followed him, trying not to get too close, but it wasn't easy. He could scamper when he put his mind to it. Mine could, too, but he'd never had to, not since elementary school. And it had been that long since he'd had that hunted look, too, like he expected to get beaten up. I hated seeing that, seeing him look, I don't know, unappreciated. Unwanted. Fortunately, he didn't quite blend in with the downtown crowd, especially since he was carrying schoolbooks
some things do stay the same, I guessso I was able to keep him in sight. It helped that he stopped hauling ass once he got away from the school grounds; I didn't know if there was someone in particular he was avoiding or if he figured he'd attract less attention downtown if he moved slower. Whichever, he slowed down and even glanced in a store window now and then.
I'd had eighteen days to think about what I was going to say. I'd started out thinking I'd just walk up to him and tell him the truth. I mean, he was Billy, he'd probably not only believe it but understand it. But the longer I looked the more I started thinking. Because the more I realized that I'd be asking him to leave everything, and maybe forever. And then I began thinking that maybe he'd jump at the chance to do exactly that, if I ever found a him that had managed to survive.
Now, I didn't know. Didn't know if he'd even listen to me. He had that look Tommy had worn for a little while, the I-don't-trust-anybody look.
And I didn't even know if I wanted to try. Didn't know if I wanted to see those green eyes looking at me and not knowing me. Not trusting me. My Billy had trusted me up to the day he died...
And not just mine. There were four others who'd gone to their deaths while some version of me was around. At least one who'd gotten crippled while 'I' was in charge. But that one still loved, trusted, his Jason. I'd seen it.
Wanted it back in my life. Even though it was my fault I'd lost it. My fault he'd died instead of me.
And I knew it would hurt when this Billy looked at me with a stranger's eyes.
But I wasn't at all sure I had any choices in the matter. After all, this was thirty-seven out of forty-two. And that left five. With bad odds of finding another candidate.
So, this looked like it might be it. I mean, those totals... this was the second time in thirty-seven realities he was both alive and not a Ranger, or ex-Ranger. And it was the first time he was both of them and still functional. I mean, Number Thirty... The ex-Ranger realities were kind of mixed. In Thirteen he was still even, or apparently so, working with the Rangers. In Twenty-Six... Oh, man. Twenty-Six had been hard.
And weird. Really weird.
The news showed some other Blue Ranger, but the old photos showed Billy. I knew it. So then it was a matter of coming forward through the files until the Blue Ranger changed.
Of course, there wasn't any real reason for me to do it. This reality's Billy was off limits. But I had eleven or so hours to kill and I wasn't ready to find somewhere to sleep yet, and anyway, I wanted to know what had happened.
So when I had the date rangethree days in October, same as most of them even though it wasn't the same thing. I wondered briefly what his horoscope had said, something like Libra: extreme danger looms! Stay at home all week!.. Of course I don't think the ones in the paper ever say bad things like that. And Billy wouldn't have paid any attention if it had. But it was weird, all the sameanyway, once I had the dates, I started reading the accident reports and so on. Wasn't too hard to find: it must have been one hell of a fight. It was reported as an automobile accident caused by a bridge being torn out by a monster. Four local teenagers were injured in the wreck, an odd collection for me: Kim, Aisha, Tommy, and Billy. Kim and Tommy were treated and released. Aisha was being held overnight. Billy... critical condition. Coma. Prognosis bad.
I started scanning obits. Didn't find one. Long story short, I eventually got lucky snooping around the hospital and found a record of his transfer, five months ago, to Embarcadero Convalescent Home. In San Francisco.
I teleported up and phase-shifted once I got there and found his room. I got in just before the door opened and an attendant announced, in tones that sounded pretty much like he'd been told to do it but didn't see the point, "Visitors for you, Billy."
Tommy, Kim, and a slender red-headed kid came in. They looked different, of course, well this Tommy and this Kim anyway. Kim was wearing pink, at least, with a lot of silver jewelry, but her hair was cut about jawlength and lighter than usual. And Tommy was wearing green, but not sweats: a faded olive teeshirt about a size too small and what looked like those old all olive-colored fatigues the army used to wear; his hair was short and he and the red-head, who was wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt, both had a single gold hoop earring. Tommy and Kim still had that 'we're an item' look, though I was willing to bet Kim hated the way their colors clashed. My reality's Kim would have. Of course, she'd have hated still being with him...
"Hey, bro," Tommy said. "How you doing today?"
"Hi, Billy," Kim's voice was a heckuva lot happier than her face.
"Hey, man..." the redheaded kid said, and then faded back a little and barely spoke for the rest of the time they were in the room. His name, Denys Something, came up in the course of the visit; he'd replaced Billy on the team, and I don't think they'd known each other before. Tommy and Kim kept up a cheerful conversation, touching on a lot of topics but none deeply. There was a lot of "you know Ernie?" or someone, followed by a pretty funny story, and Tommy told a, I had the feeling, pretty cleaned-up version of a fight the Rangers had had a few days earlier with some monster of Zedd's whose name meant nothing to me at all.
And, of course, nothing they said got any reaction at all from the guy lying in the bed.
It was hard to watch them, and I hadn't been coming up here for five months.
Trini and Aisha came in next. Aisha was wearing black, a long skirt and flowing blouse, and her hair was in a short natural. I almost didn't recognize Trini: she was wearing yellow, but... a tight sleeveless vest, topaz-colored and belted and fingertip length over dead black leggings and laced black ankle boots, allowed for full appreciation of the gold and ebony dragon tattoo coiling around her left arm and shoulder. A black armlet dangled amber beads around her right biceps, and more amber hung around her neck. Her hair was waist-long in a braid that started from a gold band at the crown of her head... Trini had always been interested in kung fu but this Trini looked like she had stepped out of a Hong Kong movie. I couldn't believe her father hadn't died of apoplexy from just looking at her.
Also, unless I was losing my mind (always a possibility and, lately, pretty easy to believe), she and Aisha also had that 'item' look to them.
Trini leaned over the bed and kissed Billy gently on the cheek. "Still gone?" she asked softly. "You must be getting Frequent Flyer miles or something. I'm sure Tommy told you about all the excitement earlier this week, but I'll bet he didn't tell you that Steven Hawking published a paper that has all the astrophysicists in the world running around in circles. I don't really understand it, but I've put in at the library for a copy. I'll read it to you next time I come."
"Denys came in with Tommy and Kim," Aisha added. "He probably didn't say much. He's so shy anyway, and he's quiet a lot. You may not have noticed him. The rules say two at a time, but Kim convinced the nurse that the three of them could behave themselves. If only she knew, Kim and 'that Oliver boy' alone together are still Mrs. Hart's worst nightmare. And you're not much of a chaperone at the moment, you'll have to admit."
"Ai," Trini said reprovingly.
"Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you knew he's doing a pretty good job filling in for you in the fighting."
"Doesn't mean we don't want you back," Trini clarified. "Only means we aren't going shorthanded. In the fighting," she added.
"Also, I thought I'd tell you, in case they didn't, why he came in with them: Gene's not here, he couldn't make it," Aisha said quietly. "But he'll try to come tomorrow, he said. He's pretty upset, but we told him you'd understand if he missed a day. So you'd better."
"Stuff comes up; you know how it is," Trini nodded.
They stayed a few more minutes, doing a better job of pretending Billy was hearing them than Tommy and, especially, Kim had, but eventually they, too, had to leave. It was a long drive back to Angel Grove. It was probably going to be a depressing one, too.
I didn't leave yet. I had no place to go, after all. And I had things on my mind. Like, who was Gene? I thought that the new Blue Ranger, Denys, looked vaguely familiar to me, like I'd seen him around school, but I didn't even recognize the name 'Gene'. And he had to be the Red Ranger. The leader. Oh, well; I gave up worrying about it. I'd probably never know, and this wasn't the first reality where total strangers were walking around in my life. So to speak, since I hadn't seen "me" here.
"I" could be dead. For some odd reason, that idea didn't bother me much. Probably because I was here thinking it. I could tell I was getting tired. What the hell, I thought, and leaned back in the corner of the room and let myself fall asleep.
The door opened, quietly, but it woke me. Early morning light was coming in the window, enough for me to see who it was. I jumped to my feet, reaching for the PSD so I could defend Billy. How did Skull get here? Who let him in? WhyBut then I took a second look at him and recognized the same look of pain that had been on the Rangers' faces the evening before. He stood in the doorway, just staring, for a long moment, and then sighed deeply and ran his hand over the lower part of his face before coming into the room and letting the door swing quietly shut behind him.
He actually didn't look a whole lot like the Skull from my reality. He was still real lean and angular, and his black hair was cut sort of punkish, but his attitude was different. Skull is what my mom's friend that raises Dobermans calls a fear-biter, aggressive and dangerous because he's afraid. This guy was confident, coordinated, calm even though he was upset. Also, he was dressed very differently and that was putting it mildly. No leather, no chains, nothing the punk look, just ordinary blue jeans and Reeboks, and a dark red polo shirtand yes, that should have clued me in, but it didn't. He sat down on the edge of the bed rather than in the chair, and it wasn't until he reached out and put his hand on Billy's arm and I saw the communicator strapped to his wrist that I remembered that Skull's name was Eugene...
"Hey, Bill," he said softly. "I don't know how long I can stayshouldn't be here this early in the morning and they'll probably kick me out if they catch me, but I hated not getting up here with the others yesterday. And I know they explained about Tuesdayyou'd think Zedd never had a friend in the hospital or something."
He looked out the window. "Gonna be a nice day," he observed. He got up and opened the blinds. "Sunny but not too hot..." Then he turned around and looked at Billy with complete and utter desolation in his eyes. "I can't do this any more," he said abruptly. But instead of heading for the door, he walked back to the bed and knelt on the floor beside it, taking one of Billy's hands carefully in his own.
This Skullno. I couldn't wrap my mind around the notion that this was Skull, that Skull could ever be a Ranger. Any Ranger, let alone Red. This Genesighed. "Oh, man. Bill, this is just no good." He tightened his hold on Billy's wrist. "I know they say to be cheerful, but, Inanna, Bill, you have to know a lot of that's crap. I hope you do. Sure, we're doing okay without you, if by 'okay' you mean we haven't fallen completely apart, even without Zordon around to help out. If by 'okay' you mean we're still functioning, or that Zedd hasn't beaten us yet, or that we found Denys to take the Blue, at least till you get back. But 'okay' doesn't mean we don't miss you, Bill, because we do. We miss you like fire. We don't drive all the way out here to see you just because we like the scenery on the way or something. We come because we pray that this time, this time you'll be back. You'll be better. We need that, Bill. We need you. You're our rock, Bill, you always have been, you're our still, calm center and now the center's not holding. Not to make you feel guilty or anything, Bill, but fighters are a dime a dozen and geniuses are one in a hundred million. We need you in the Command Center. Especially now, we need you. Without Zordon, without Alphanobody else can make Tommy's plans work. We got used to you, you spoiled us, and now we're out in the cold. Inanna knows, I'm trying to deal with the tech, but you know it's not my strong suit, not at all, and the others, they look at me like maybe you left some spare smarts in the bedroom and I can just pick 'em up."
He took a deep breath while I tried to make sense of that last bit. "And your dad? Don't get the wrong idea, Bill, he's okay, too, but... he's like us. He's okay. He's not good. He drifts around the house like you told me he did after your mom died, and I can't reach him half the time. He's scared; he misses you like crazy, and he's scared out of his mind that he's going to lose you. Has already lost you. I try, Inanna knows I try, because I love him, you know I do, and he's pretty fond of me, but I'm not what he needs right now. Who he needs. I know that sometimes he looks at me and wishes I was here instead of you. And then he hates himself for thinking like that, but I don't. I agree with him. I'd a hundred times rather it was me in that bed. Not just because you're a better Ranger, though you are, or would be better for your dad, though you would be. Because I love you, damnit, Bill, and I can't stand to see you like this and there be nothing I can do about it. You're like a brother to me, you know that," he said, and the tears were running down his face and his grip on Billy's wrist was white-knuckle tight. "You have been since you dragged me home with you eight years ago and asked your dad couldn't I stay for a while. Bill, please... where you are, maybe you like itnobody's trying to kill you there, that's gotta be a plus for it, and you're not hurting anymore, and maybe you just want to stay there for a while. But, Bill, please. It's been so long now. We need you to come back to us. We all need you." He dropped his head. "I need you to come back to me. I need you to talk to, to, to be with. I can't do this without you..." That was so low I almost didn't hear it.
Of course, that could have been because my head was spinning so hard I was almost getting dizzy.
Gene sighed heavily and wiped his face with his free hand. "Oh, man," he said, "I just screwed up again, didn't I? Good thing none of your nurses came in and heard that. You didn't need to hear it, that's for sure."
Neither one of us expected what came next. "You needed ... to say it."
"Bill?" Gene raised his head and stared. "Oh, Inanna, Bill?"
"You don't have to shout, Gene. Not any more..."
And of course, that's when my twelve hours were up...
|part one||part two|
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