Chapter 1: Pilot Light

by juniperphoenix

A dozen warning bells were demanding Billy's attention. Only one concerned him, though: life support. The starship was losing oxygen at an alarming rate. For what seemed like the hundredth time, he tried to send a distress call. "Mayday! Mayday! This is Billy calling the Power Chamber. Please come in!"

The communicator responded with static.

"Too much interference," Billy muttered. "Nothing on this ship is working."

At least the enemy ships were withdrawing. Billy watched through the viewscreen as the squadron of Quadrafighters that had been attacking him ceased fire and headed back to the Moon.

"They probably figure I'm done for," he said to himself. And they're probably right. At the rate this ship is leaking oxygen, I haven't got much time.

Suddenly, Billy caught a glimpse of Earth on the viewscreen… his home, so close yet so far away. He thought of his family and friends there below him, and was suddenly afraid.

Will I ever see them again? he wondered. Staring at the planet below, he suddenly felt like crying, or hiding, or running as far away as he could. Instinctively, he reached inside himself, searching for the quiet place he needed to quell his fears.

There was something there.

"That's impossible!" he breathed, for he recognized it instantly. After nearly three years of relying on its constant presence, he would know it anywhere.

It was the Power.

How can that be? he wondered. My Power Coin was destroyed, and I don't even have a Zeo Crystal. How can I still have the Power?

Nonetheless, it was there, a tiny blue flame burning in the depths of his soul. Blue… even though that cherished color now belonged to someone else. It glowed steadily, burning within him like the pilot light of a stove.

If the pilot light is allowed to go out, the stove is done for, Billy reflected. It was an apt analogy, but not one that he found comforting.

The blue flame, though, seemed unafraid, and Billy drew his strength from it. It never wavered, never flickered, never dimmed. It was just as he had remembered it. Not too long ago, all it had taken was a word and a coin to fan that tiny flame into an inferno, filling him with the energy of the Blue Ranger. Those times were past… but the Power was still there.

"I can't give up," said Billy with sudden resolve. "I've got to do whatever it takes. I have to keep that Power alive."

He began a systematic check of the ship, considering his options. The remaining oxygen would only last for about an hour, and the ship was losing more all the time. There was no way to repair the leak.

"Maybe there's still time to land," he said to himself. One look at the damage readouts put an end to that idea. Even if the propulsion systems had been working, the ship's shielding was too badly damaged to survive reentry.

"Isn't there anything I can use?" Billy exclaimed in frustration as he searched the rear of the ship. Then, he found it: an oblong escape pod, just large enough for one person. Billy checked it over eagerly. It had obviously been built with reentry in mind: the pod was streamlined and had plenty of heat shielding. What it didn't have was life support.

"Why would anyone construct an escape pod without life support?" he demanded angrily of no one in particular. "What would be the point?"

Water, he realized. The Aquitians didn't need oxygen, they needed water. The pod was probably designed to automatically fill with water before launching, enabling an Aquitian to survive for an extended period without additional life support. It was, Billy thought, an extremely practical system. Unfortunately, as a human, it wouldn't do him much good.

Billy sat down on the deck, sighing heavily. He was out of options. The dying starship had little to offer, and he was just too tired and scared to come up with any more ideas.

If only I had gotten a message through, he thought sadly. I wonder if the others even know I'm up here. He pictured his friends on the Earth below: Tommy, Adam, Katherine, Rocky, Tanya… and those who were no longer in Angel Grove: Aisha, Kimberly, Zack, Jason, and Trini. He wondered where they were at that moment, and what they were doing. He thought about everything they'd been through together… not just as Rangers, but as friends. Every little, insignificant moment stood out in his mind. He saw himself working in his lab with Adam… practicing martial arts with Tommy and Jason… reading science magazines with Trini…

Suddenly, he recalled one of the articles they had once read. It had been about cryogenics and people who had their bodies frozen for later revival. Billy didn't believe that the dead could actually be brought back to life, but the process had intrigued him at the time.

Thinking of the article reminded him of something else, a TV show he had seen recently about "medical miracles." The featured "miracle" had been a child who was revived after several hours in a near-freezing lake. The extreme cold had slowed down his metabolic functions, Billy recalled, and allowed him to survive without oxygen.

The memories gave Billy a glimmer of an idea. If he could put himself into some kind of suspended animation… freeze himself… the lack of life support wouldn't be a problem. He could use the ship's escape pod without having to worry about warmth or oxygen. Unfortunately, though, there was nothing on board that even came close to cryogenic fluid. Nothing except…

"Coolant!" he realized suddenly. The starship's engines required a great deal of coolant fluid to keep from overheating. If he rerouted the coolant's flow into the escape pod, he could freeze himself in a matter of seconds. It would be perfect… as long as it didn't kill him in the process.

Billy inspected the escape pod and began to formulate a plan. He couldn't allow the coolant fluid to come in contact with his skin… but the walls of the pod had a layer of empty space, presumably a reserve storage area for additional water. If he filled that space with engine coolant, the pod's inner chamber would be supercooled by mere proximity.

He paused, considering. What would it be like? His scientist's mind knew exactly what would happen if the plan worked: the supercooled environment inside the pod would lower his body temperature to nearly freezing. It would stop his heart and lungs, putting every bodily function on hold and plunging him into the depths of a frozen sleep. That much he knew.

What he didn't know was what it would actually feel like. As he stood there, lost in thought, he could almost hear his own heartbeat. He listened to its steady cadence, wondering what would happen to him when it fell silent. The very idea was terrifying.

"I've got to do whatever it takes," he reminded himself, letting the sound of his voice push the fear away. "Whatever it takes to stay alive. Whatever it takes to keep the blue flame burning."

He set to work.

A half hour later, it was all ready. He had tied in a portion of the ship's control panel with his communicator, creating a remote switch that he would take into the escape pod with him. When activated, the remote would trigger a preprogrammed sequence that would transfer the ship's coolant reserves to the escape pod and then launch it. The lack of coolant would cause the starship to overheat and explode, but hopefully, that wouldn't happen until the pod was safely away.

Hopefully. It all boiled down to hope, didn't it? There was nothing to be gained by waiting. With every second, more of the ship's precious oxygen leaked away. He had to go before it was too late. Billy took a long look at the escape pod. It was the best he could do… but would it be good enough? It had to be. He took a deep breath to reassure himself and stepped inside the coffinlike — wonderful time to think of that — pod. It slid shut over him, seals locking tightly.

It was silent inside the pod… utterly silent. Billy took his communicator in hand, ready to trigger the launch sequence. Then he paused.

Through the window, he saw Earth again. It hung silently in space, glowing blue like the Power burning within him. Everything he cared about was there, waiting for him. Billy stared at the blue of the Earth, then looked deep within himself for the blue flame, still glowing bravely.

"May the Power protect me," he whispered. He pressed the button.

With a rushing sound, white vapor gushed around him, obscuring the Earth in icy clouds. It was cold, colder than anything he had ever known, so cold that it burned. He took a sharp breath and felt the cold searing his lungs, paralyzing them.

I can't breathe! Oh god, I can't breathe! Let me out! Stop! A voiceless scream filled his mind, unable to reach his frozen lips. His lungs felt as if they were about to explode.

He closed his eyes tightly as the freezing clouds grew thicker around him, engulfing him in an icy shroud. He could feel every agonized beat of his heart, coming slower and slower as it was clutched by an icy fist. Thump… thump… thump… He prayed he wouldn't hear it when it stopped.

His head spun from lack of oxygen… or maybe it was the cold. He was so cold… He felt strangely disconnected, as if he was part of the vapor around him. Swirling… floating away… He couldn't think, couldn't focus. The icy fingers were wrapped around his brain, and his mind was shutting down.

No! Please…

The cold was a part of him now. It flowed through him, inexorably, slowing everything down like a great glacier covering him over, filling him up.

Deep inside, the blue flame burned, defiant to the last, determined to survive. It was the last thing he saw as the cold won him over. Then all that remained was blackness… and one desperate hope, burning brightly in the void of space.

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