Five:

The Dark Lady sat in judgement on her throne, glaring imperiously at the three beings kneeling at the foot of the dais, their arms restrained with arcane shackles. These were but the latest of her would-be conquerors. Her jewel-like eyes narrowed as she focused on the creature standing flanked by his humanoid shipmates. Though a prisoner, the bulbous eyes simmered with defiance, and the leathery flesh about his snout pulled back in a fang-baring sneer. The Ullah was doubly restrained, as his two sets of limbs were completely interchangeable, though the lower were longer and stronger. He could walk with his arms as well as his legs, and he could hold a gun with his feet as well as he could with his hands. This was Captain Quigax, Conqueror of Worlds, Terror of the Spaceways, pirate scum.

"Go home, insignificant worm," the sorceress hissed at last. She rose, clutching her ornate staff with its barbed headpiece. Her obsidian robes swirled about her like a thing alive. "I am feeling merciful today. Take your lives and whatís left of your ship, but the rest of your plunder is mine to recompense me for the inconvenience your pitiful assault caused me."

With a nonchalant wave of her hand, the flaxen-haired enchantress dismissed the energy manacles. Then, she turned to leave to be about the business of repairing the damage to her lunar citadel, her captives all but forgotten.

The two mates bowed and made ready to take their lives and be gone, but their captain was beside himself. The insult that he should be treated so cavalierly by a mere human --and a woman no less!-- was not to be born. With a berserker howl, Quigax launched himself up the dais at the retreating figure.

The Dark Lady whirled, lowering her staff. The maneuver surprised the marauder, and he could not alter his trajectory in time. He impaled himself on the spear-tipped rod.

Dispassionately, the enchantress watched the body slide off the shaft of her staff and tumble down the stairs. Her frigid gaze turned towards her remaining prisoners, who were terrified that they would share their captainís fate.

"Begone! And take the carcass with you," she intoned ominously. "Be sure to let your new master know that the Earth and the dark powers are mine to do with as I please."

This time, her malevolent stare remained on the pirates until they were gone from her sight.

Even after her Ďguestsí had departed, the sorceress stared after them. Then, she descended from her throne, dispelling the bloody mess almost absently as she passed. She crossed the room to stand on the balcony and looked upon the blue bauble floating in the void beyond.

The Earth is mine to do with as I please.

Yet she did nothing with it, save defend it from those who would conquer it. And she had no idea why.

There were many things she did not know why she did them or why certain things were important to her. Like turning on Quigax... the move had been instinctive, but where or when she acquired battle-honed reflexes, she could not say.

She tried to think back sometimes but only encountered pain and confusion. The earliest memory she possessed was of a man in white, reaching out to her as he was carried away by a woman in pink. She could not see their faces. She did not know their names, but the images haunted her dreams and left her with a feeling of terrible emptiness.

The next vague recollections were of energy searing her and voices confusing her, of a great weight pressing down on her. Then, stillness, darkness and cold. Her clearest memory was of waking up and finding herself pinioned between great stone slabs. Everything around her was shaking, and the sounds of explosions filled the air. Pulling herself out of the rubble, she headed for the great gaping window of the balcony; the sight that greeted her still-bleary eyes was that of a fleet of ships raining destruction upon the barren world around her and upon the blue jewel of a world before her.

"My palace!" cried a shrill voice inside her head.

"The Earth!" echoed a softer but equally insistent voice.

"Do something!" they both chorused, and she did, lashing out blindly with the considerable power roiling within her. In those moments as the invading armada was decimated, the sorceress the galaxy would come to know as the Dark Lady was born.

With the passage of time, she had ascertained that she had been buried during an attack on her fortress and had fallen into a deep sleep. What she had yet to determine was how, during her long rest, she had absorbed the great quantities of arcane energy she commanded. The recent battle had disturbed her tomb, and she had awakened, suffused with power and her mind awash in chaos.

Word of her abilities --and neophyte status as an enchantress-- quickly spread, and soon came those who thought to easily claim her magics for themselves. There was little time to make sense of the confusion raging in her head. The voices told her thereíd be time for understanding later --provided she survived that long.

Survive, she did. Now, centuries later, the Dark Lady was a woman to be feared and a force to be reckoned with. Those foolish enough to challenge her were destroyed and their wealth or powers were added to her own resources.

But for what purpose? She didnít know....

"Why did you have to kill him?" came the inevitable, plaintive query from the voice she had dubbed ĎThe Wimp.í

"I didnít think you had it in you," was ĎThe Witchísí shrill counterattack.

The two voices were her constant --and only-- companions. How they had become a part of her, she did not know. They knew things about her but werenít always able to impart them. It was as if they were incomplete, too. The one thing the sorceress did know, the two despised each other, and constantly traded barbs.

"Enough!" the woman shrieked aloud, clapping her hands over her ears as if to shut them out. "Would that I could be rid of you," she seethed. The pair did nothing but add to the chaos in her brain. Sometimes, she could hardly think for all their racket.

"Whatís the Dark Lady made of? Kitty-Katís body, and olí Ritaís magic. Without the two of us, you wouldnít exist."

"Without me the two of you would be dead." The mage had figured out that much!

"She does have a point."

"Without us, youíd have no friends," the Witch countered.

The words struck a chord deep within the Dark Lady; it was a feeling she had learned to recognize as an indicator that something had once been of great importance. She had to confess, though, that for all their squabbling, the Witch and the Wimp were the only companions she had in her desolate citadel.

"You used to have lots of friends," the grating voice reminded her. The sorceress was suddenly all attention. Whenever the pair whispered of the past, she tried to hold on to what they said, but often, the impressions were as ephemeral as smoke, slipping elusively through her fingers.

The Wimp had once theorized that the reason she couldnít hold on to the memories was because she really didnít want to remember. But she did! More and more of late, the blank slate of her mind disturbed her, and the vague dreams of pink and white people were maddening. She had to know what it all meant!

"As nauseating as it is to admit, you never wanted power. All you ever wanted was to be with your friends and to live happily ever after with your precious Tommy."

"Tommy?" the mistress of the lunar fortress queried, frowning. The name seemed familiar somehow, and conjured up something... a memory just beyond her reach.

"Tommy. You know: tall, dark, handsome. Long, thick hair and sexy eyes... wore a lot of green, white, and red. Quite a hunk of a man."

The sorceress felt her pulse quicken as an unexpected image surged forth from the depths of her fragmented recollections, and a tide of warmth rushed through her as she experienced the emotions which accompanied it. She had never felt anything like it before --or had she?

"What are you up to?" the softer of the two voices demanded.

"Shut up! Donít you want her to remember?" the Witch hissed.

"Yes, shut up!" the Dark Lady echoed eagerly. She wanted to remember. She wanted to fix that face firmly inside her mind. "Tommy...."

"Yeah... too bad pretty lilí Kimmie had to steal him away."

"Kimmie?"

"Short, cute, gorgeous figure, wore a lot of pink, and so perky it was enough to make you puke. And always had everything you wanted."

The vision of the woman in pink dragging away the man in white returned.

"Itís all Kimmieís fault that youíre so lonely and miserable and completely psycho now."

"Donít listen to her!" the Wimp railed with unusual vehemence. "Kimberly was one of your best friends, and she didnít steal Tommy from you. You and Tommy tried; it just wasnít meant to be. You let him go a long time ago."

"Oh really? If you were so over Tommy, why were you falling all over yourself to cozy up to his descendant Tyler?"

"I wasnít cozying up to him; I was trying to keep you from killing him...."

"Both of you, be quiet!" the Dark Lady shouted, and momentarily, her disembodied companions fell silent. "So what if I once cared for this Tommy person? Heís been dead for centuries."

Laughter, harsh and mocking, suddenly erupted in her head.

"Pathetic twit! Donít you know you can still have him if you want him? You have the power to go back in time. You can change the past. You never wanted to be the Dark Lady. You never wanted to be a mistress of evil, even the wimp here canít argue with that! All you need to do is fix it so that you end up with Tommy, and poof! No more Dark Lady, and you have your happily ever after."

There was something compelling about what the Witch had to say; however, her counterpart interrupted.

"Donít listen to her," the normally more soft-spoken presence implored impassionedly. "She has never cared about your happiness; she only cares about herself. If changing the past was as simple as she says, then why didnít she do it to defeat the Power Rangers?"

"She has a point, Witch," the sorceress murmured.

"Zeddy and I changed the past lots of times."

"And it never did you any good, did it?"

"I know your capabilities better than you do, Screw-Loose; you could do it, if you really wanted to, but if you donít want to take my word for it, you can always go look up those hooded yahoos in the time temple.

"Thatís it! Seek out the Overlords of the Timestream," the sharp-spoken voice purred seductively. "That is, if you think Tommyís worth it. But then again, you did endure almost three hundred years of captivity for him."

"Go away! Both of you!" the Dark Lady snapped, massaging her temples. She had had enough. Her head always hurt something fierce whenever she had an extended conversation with the voices.

The thought of altering the past was very tempting --and not just to be rid of the nagging voices in her head! She was wary of just blindly following the suggestions; however even if she did seek out the timelords, it would be for reasons of her own: they would be able to help her reclaim her past.

* * *

"No more!" the Dark Lady cried out, sitting up in her sumptuous bed, her trembling body drenched in sweat. It was another nightmare. She hated them. She despised the emptiness, loneliness, and helplessness they stirred within her. But most of all, she hated the smiling face of the woman who called her friend and yet robbed her of everything she had ever held dear.

The sorceress abandoned her bed; there would be no more sleeping this night. Instead, she cloaked herself in glamour she had adopted (a blue-haired seductress in skin-tight black) and headed down the hallways of the palatial stronghold of her host, Nortimra, renegade timelord.

The android servants who were about paid her no heed. They had become used to the sultry guest who strode through their masterís home as if she ruled there. The Dark Lady took herself to the balcony that overlooked the waterfall that emptied into the lake. She liked to come here to think. The furiously churning liquid mirrored the state of her thoughts.

Fueled by her fading dreams, her mind drifted back to what had brought her to the opposite side of the galaxy from her lunar home. Ironically enough, it had been a series of dreams... imprecise snippets that hinted but never divulged, which teased but never satisfied. There was more of memory than fantasy about the images --visions of the man she now knew to be Tommy and of a woman who wore her face but wasnít quite her. The tantalizing glimpses fairly drove her mad with wanting to know more.

And throughout it all, the Witch and the Wimp had been strangely silent.

Her first step had been to consult the grimoires in Xerethís library. There had been an uncanny sense of homecoming when she had crossed the studyís threshold, but she had not set foot in that room since awakening. Be that as it may, she had found plenty of spells for traveling through time as well as for altering events, but every tome recommended the intervention of a timelord for best results.

Finding one of the overlords was not an easy task. The general populace of the galaxy discounted their existence, and those who did believe otherwise, feared the timelords more than they feared her. In the end, she had managed to extract enough clues from hapless informants to locate their temple in the heart of the galaxy.

However, her less-than-subtle approach had alerted the time masters to her interest, and they did not take kindly to it. When she demanded an audience, she was refused, and neither flattery nor bribery could get her anywhere.

Where persuasion failed, she tried coercion, but the lords of the timestream simply shrugged off her arcane assaults. She however, refused to be denied. She had no idea from whence the inspiration came, but she assumed the form of an innocuous cat and slipped inside the impenetrable walls by riding on the trailing tail of an acolyteís robe.

Unfortunately, her charade was swiftly discovered, and she was forced to retreat, but not before learning a valuable piece of information.

The sorceress smiled tightly as she recalled meeting the expatriate timelord. Still garbed in the crimson robes and concealing black trappings of his former vocation, Nortimra was lost in his cups in the most wretched bar in the outer rim when she found him. For his excesses and inappropriate use of his office, the timelord had been stripped of his abilities to manipulate the timestream --but not his knowledge.

The Dark Lady had grabbed his attention by dropping a sack of fire rubies on the table before him and ordering another round. However, when his eyes met hers, she found herself revising her estimate of the man and her plan to indulge his vices. Steel gray eyes met jewel blue, and she knew at once he was no mere sot to be toyed with. This was a dangerous and cunning individual --a worthy opponent.

"What do you want?" he demanded.

"Knowledge. What do you want in exchange?"

"Power."

Thus began a chessmatch to see who could gain the most while surrendering the least. A challenging game, to be sure, but it was beginning to lose its charm. She grew impatient, especially once she could apply her craftily won knowledge. The first thing she had done was found her past. She knew the events of her life now, but only from a distance. There was no connection... until the dreams had begun again. Now, she knew the taste of yearning, of frustrated desires, of loss, of misery....

"Oh, Lord, heís married!"

"Youíre not Kimmie; I doubt he ever really cared for you...."

"After all, she still thinks Iím to blame for her predicament when itís all Kimmieís fault...."

For a moment, she thought she felt something more from her friends --a welcome. Then, everything went cold and dark. It seemed as if someone had shoved her away from Tommy... her friends... the light....

The Pink Ranger was taking Tommy away... abandoning here.... "No! Donít leave me! Kim... please... donít take Tommy away...."

"Toldja... all Kimmieís fault...."

"If it werenít for Kimmie...."

I wouldnít have been put through this nightmare.

The Dark Ladyís fingers tightened on the balustrade until her knuckles were white. Her luminous eyes narrowed. She didnít have all the pieces in place, but she knew enough... enough to know that the Witch was right.

And living with the exiled timelord had taught her something else. She didnít want to return to the isolation of the moon and the company of the two maddening voices in her head. She wanted the life she should have had but for that doe-eyed bitch in pink.

And I will have it!

Her dark musings were suddenly interrupted as a resounding explosion shook the remote fortress.

"What the...?" she gasped as a second blast nearly knocked her off her high-heeled boots. Looking skyward, she observed a ship raining down a lethal barrage of laser fire. Then, a hatch opened in the belly of the vessel, releasing figures garbed in spiked, silver armor.

The sorceress was not amused. Whoever was responsible for the assault would rue the day they crossed her path. She was by no means finished with the timelord; no one was going to take him --or cause him to flee-- before she was done with him.

The Dark Lady returned to the fortress proper in search of her sparring partner. She moved with deceptive calm as windows burst inwards in her wake. She seemed unconcerned that the ceiling was falling down around her. Descending the ornate staircase, she continued her search for Nortimra. A ruined column crashed towards her, and she brushed it aside with a wave of her hand. However, as the dust settled, she spied the flicker of a retreating crimson robe.

"Not so fast, milord," she hissed as she followed. Her host led her on a merry chase through a maze of hidden staircases and concealed corridors to the very bowels of the citadel. By the time she caught up with him, the enchantress found herself in a grotto, at the rim of a liquid silver pond.

"A time pool," she murmured.

Nortimra spun at the sound of her soft exclamation.

"It appears you were holding out on me, milord," she claimed wryly. He had taught her to scry the past and probe the probabilities in the timestream by using a small dish of the shimmery substance, which provided her with only a partial picture and very distorted images.

The shrewd gray eyes flashed at her.

"What is going on, milord?" she demanded, giving him her most frigid, most imperiously withering glare... not that it ever had any noticeable effect on him.

"Perhaps I should be asking the same of you, milady," the hooded being retorted in his gravely voice. He had always addressed her as Ďmilady;í thus she had taken to calling him Ďmilord.í

"Thereís still too much I donít know for me to be bringing your castle down around your ears."

He nodded, conceding the point.

"Who --or what-- are those things?" By his act of fleeing, Nortimra had revealed the depths of his fear of the invaders. The timelord had always had great faith in his defenses; to abandon them now meant this was a foe he knew he could not stand against.

"Mercytes."

She regarded him blankly; the name held no meaning for her, and her companion laughed.

"You must have come from a more desolate corner of the galaxy than this one not to have heard of the Mercytes. They are robot assassins, the deadliest killers known to sentient beings. They are virtually unstoppable. They are unaffected by most weaponry, but if one is so lucky to actually take one down.... Like a hydra, destroy one and two more take its place. And, if you possess the mastermold, you have an unlimited supply of tireless warriors loyal only to their programming --which can only be changed through the mastermold, not the individual soldiers. The question is, milady, who is their intended target: you or me? My advice is that we both make sure we are not found."

"And what of our bargain?"

"You wonít get to use what youíve already learned if the Mercytes get hold of you."

As if on cue, they could hear the sounds of destruction looming closer. Stalactites had shaken loose from the cavern ceiling, splashing into the mirror-bright pool.

"How do I know if the changes I have made in the past will have the effect I want? How do I make them permanent?"

"For a woman with your power, your thinking is very narrow in scope," Nortimra snorted derisively.

"That is my affair."

"And why should I tell you anything further?"

"Because I am the one with the power to get us out of here."

She knew she had made him an offer he couldnít refuse.

"The further in the past the change is made, the longer it takes for its effects to be felt in the present."

The Dark Lady barely kept from reaching out and throttling the timelord. That was naught but common sense. This was no time to be playing games. The assassins were drawing closer.

"As for the alterations being permanent.... The only thing of permanence is the timestream itself. Its course is already set; our present is someone elseís past. You can divert the flow of time, creating tributaries, but those offshoots will always rejoin the main body at some point. The bigger the divergence, the longer it takes to right itself. However....

Nortimra never got to finish his sentence. The Mercytes at last broke through the walls of the grotto, but when the armor-plated slayers stormed the cave, a tiny mouse with crimson fur and gray eyes dashed between their feet and disappeared into the winding passages. A white furred cat with sapphire blue eyes was in hot pursuit.

* * *

It was no longer a question of Ďifí or Ďhowí; now it came down to Ďwhen.í

The Dark Lady paced her private study, contemplating her plan --which was to change the past and reclaim her lost life. To do that, she needed to insure that she never fell under Rita Repulsaís transformation spell, and to do that, her former self had to wind up with Tommy Oliver. True, she would no longer be the Dark Lady, but she cared little for her powers now. She did, however, care a great deal about a young man with warm brown eyes and long flowing hair.

"Live happily ever after with your precious Tommy, and none of this will ever have happened," the Witch purred. "No being turned into my kitty-prisoner, no sucking up Zeddís powers... no getting bonked on the head when the castle nearly collapsed...."

"No having you in my head," the sorceress groused at the interruption.

"Nortimra was right; you do think too small. You have the power to level planets and destroy galaxies, and all you want is to shut up two disembodied voices."

"Be quiet! By the way, I havenít heard from the Wimp in a while. Whatís with her?"

"Oh," the Witch began knowingly, "catís got her tongue."

The Dark Lady just snorted.

"So, how you going to do it?"

"All the naturally occurring time holes were either sealed by the last generation of Power Brats or are being closely monitored by the timelord," the mage began. "I managed to save enough of Nortimraís scrying pool to be able to create my own portal."

"Thatís not what I meant. How are you going to get Tommy away from Kimmie?"

"By being in the right place at the right time."

Her thought was to be in Angel Grove the night that Tommy finally wised up and let Kimmie go. Instead of him winding up dating that nobody Karen, she would be there for him. However, there was a bit of a glitch. As she scouted out the timescape, she discovered that important things had happened to her in London while Tommy was telling Kim off. She didnít want to spoil the good things that had happened to her.

What if she and Tommy hadnít broken up when she left for England? However, their relationship had cooled off considerably by that point anyway. Ever since he saw that pink pipsqueak during that business with Divatox.... If he just hadnít seen her again... hadnít been reminded... because things had been going all right up to that point.

"Thatís it!" she exclaimed. If Kimberly never returned to Angel Grove, she and Tommy would never get back together! All she had to do was come up with a plan to keep Kimmie away!

Laughter filled the sorceressí head, but it wasnít the shrill, mocking tones of the Witch.

"Oh, so youíre still around, Wimp," the Dark Lady sneered.

"Stop calling me that. After all, Iím the woman you want to be again."

"You donít need to be so insulting," the enchantress muttered. "Whatís so funny?"

"Youíll never get Kimberly to stay away from Angel Grove. Her home is there. Her friends are there. The man she loves is there."

"Perhaps. However, sheíd do just about anything to save Tommyís life, wouldnít she?"

"What do you mean?"

"Simple. We let her know that if she returns to Tommy, if she even sets foot in Angel Grove again, heís a dead man."

"Youíd never harm Tommy!"

"True, I need him, but Kimmie doesnít know that. She wonít know what hit her."

"Sheíll go to Jason or one of the others...."

"Then I threaten her by saying that if she goes to anyone --family, friends, the authorities-- Tommy dies," the woman huffed in mounting frustration. She didnít need some pathetic twit picking apart her plan!

"That wonít...."

The voiceís admonition was lost in a reverberating explosion.

"Donít these fools ever learn!" the Dark Lady grumbled. Wrapping her cloak about her, she transported herself to the throne room, and found herself facing a cadre of Mercytes pouring through a hole in the outer wall.

"Get out of my palace!" she shrieked, leveling her staff at the nearest technological terror.

"Target has been located; proceed as directed...."

The Dark Lady blasted the lethal robot with her magics. The force of the energy impacting against it pushed it back, but it was otherwise unscathed.

"Uh oh!"

"Shut up, Witch," the sorceress snarled as she attempted another arcane volley. The blast sent the machines flying in all directions but did them no damage.

"Well, Witch? These are your powers," she demanded as she dodged a bolt from one of the arm-mounted guns.

"Donít look at me; Iíve never even seen this variety of killer droid before."

"Youíre useless," the Dark Lady sneered as she fended off a would-be captor with sharp jabs from her staff. The butt of the shaft struck a box-like construct in the center of the chestplate, sending up a shower of sparks. Her assailant was momentarily dazed.

"Back off!" she hissed at another advancing foe. This time, her rod slammed into its neck. The barbed tip pierced the casing, and the unit staggered back, collapsing.

"Now weíre getting somewhere!"

"Go for the jugular."

"Donít distract me!"

The Dark Lady dashed across the debris-littered floor in search of more maneuvering room. Finding cover was extremely difficult; the spine-armored assassins were all over the place. She dove and rolled behind her throne, avoiding a deadly shot. A moment later, her seat was reduced to rubble.

"I will not be defeated in my own home!" she fumed, trying to assess her options. Mercytes stood guard at every exit from the hall. She could use a teleportation spell, but she had the suspicion that regardless of where she hid in the castle, theyíd find her.

"Duck, twit!" the Witch screamed in her head, and in spite of her ringing ears, the beleaguered mage hit the deck and made a fortuitous discovery. The beam that was meant for her struck the automaton creeping up behind her. The robot exploded like an ill-made putty. She quickly snatched up the fallen droidís weapon. Whirling, she fired on the nearest Merycte. It fell under her assault.

With long-forgotten marksmanship, the Dark Lady cut a fiery swath across the chamber, leaving smoking, ruined body in her wake. As they fell, the metallic bodies dematerialized. At long last, the killers began to retreat through the holes they had made in an attempt to regroup. Once the bulk of the assault team was clear, the sorceress cast her spell, erecting a force field around the castle.

Let them try to get through that.... "Ow!"

One of the robots she had taken out wasnít down for the count. Its shot clipped her arm. Furious, she blasted it again. This time, it stayed down, but before it could vanish like the others, she encased it in a containment spell.

"Youíre not going anywhere, you bucket of bolts; I want to know where you came from."

* * *

"A Mercyte! You want me to work on a Mercyte!" the spider-like creature gasped with undisguised glee. The Skíaa were known for their affinity with computers, and Vítor was reputed to be one of the best.

"Thatís right, you long-legged hacker," the Dark Lady confirmed, "and if you can tell me who sent it after me, I might even let you live long enough to brag about it."

However, the multi-limbed tech was unfazed by her threats. The being was positively orgasmic over the possibilities. With a snarl, the sorceress left the Skíaa to its work.

* * *

"Damnation!"

The expletive was followed by an ornate basin flying across the study, spilling its silvery contents everywhere.

"What does it take to tear her out of your heart!"

The Dark Lady was at her witsí end. In between assassination attempts and lack-of-progress reports, she was trying to set her plan in motion at last. However, she had not wanted to jump in blindly; the power expenditure was too great to take chances, so she was forecasting the probabilities.

Nortimra had shown her how to conjure alternate realities to examine how the timestream would be changed at a given point. Other dimensions... how could they exist if the timestream was the be-all and end-all of reality? Unfortunately, Nortimra hadnít gotten to that particular lesson.

Stupid twit, she groused at the renegade timelord. The forecasts had not been favorable. Even though she prevented Kimberly from returning home, Tommy never stopped loving her --and vice versa-- no matter whom he wound up with.

"I guess the timestream isnít the only constant in the universe," the Wimp remarked snidely.

"Shut up." She was not in the mood to be trifled with, especially by a voice in her head. Lately, it seemed to be the Wimpís turn to annoy her, with the Witch being unusually silent.

"Give it up. You canít make Tommy stop loving Kim; a part of him will always love her no matter what."

The vexed sorceress was about to fire off a scathing retort, when she was interrupted by a high pitched chittering.

"Mílady, Iíve done it! Iíve cracked the Mercyteís programming!" Vítor claimed excitedly.

"Itís about time," the Dark Lady huffed impatiently. "So, who sent them?"

"The program doesnít specify," the arachnid technician answered.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldnít crush you, bug," the mage snarled blackly. The creature before her seemed blithely unaware of her mounting rage and frustration.

"However, I did discover who had programmed the assassins," the Skíaa continued. "I anticipated that you would want that lead traced.... I havenít had so much fun in years! I outwitted some of the most sophisticated computer systems I have ever encountered...."

"Cut to the chase. Who. Sent. The. Mercytes!"

"Quigax-Nahr of Atredies V."

"Of course, the widow," the Dark Lady sighed. It made perfect sense. According to Ullah custom, a wife was bound to avenge the murder of her husband, and should she fail, the eldest offspring was to carry on, and so through his children and siblings, until the family honor was restored. The only reason the species hadnít wiped itself out was because it was not required to avenge the death of the widow.

"It appears Iíll be paying Quigax-Nahr a little visit --once my plans are set."

"They wonít do you any good," the Wimp insisted. "You canít keep Kimberly away from Angel Grove indefinitely, and even if you could, a part of Tommy will always wonder and hope...."

"Then I will have to make certain that Kimmie never returns --and that Tommy knows there is no way she ever will."

"And how will you do that?"

"Kill her."

A strange quiet settled over the Dark Ladyís mind. Then, she felt a mixture of horror and triumph bubbling with in her.

"Yes," she purred with satisfaction, knowing she had the answer at last. "With Kimmie dead, Tommy will be mine, and Iíll be rid of this curse at last!"

And she knew just how she was going to get rid of the meddlesome Pink Power Pest.

* * *

"Rest well, husband; you are avenged," Quigax-Nahr toasted her late spouseís funeral monument, invoking the ritual ending to her mourning period. There was no way the Mercytes would fail. Now she could be about the business of finding a new consort and wresting control of Quigaxís empire away from her eldest son.

However, her plans disintegrated in a shower of mortar and flying glass.

The Dark Lady strode through the destruction she had wrought. The rest of the household had already fallen to her powers. All that remained was the matriarch.

"You!" the not-so-grieving widow raged, recognizing the enchantress from the reports of her husbandís former crew.

"I can either kill you and wipe the Quigax name down to the last hatchling off the face of the universe, or you can cancel your toysí "programming,"" the sorceress announced without preamble.

"Honor demands your death," Quigax-Nahr replied.

"Which means more to you: honor or profit?"

"What do you mean Ďprofití?"

The Dark Lady grinned; she had read the woman right. "You have inconvenienced me more that even your husband, Quigax-Nahr; I do not just go hunting down everyone who wants me dead. That should be sufficient to appease your honor. As for profit... I have a mind to acquire my own cadre of Mercytes --in addition to the ones formerly under your programming...."