After conferring with their team-mates, I watched as the Grey and Aqua Rangers dashed off into the forest, following the path back to Chronopolis. A few minutes later, I saw two bright flashes of light. Guessing what they were, I asked the other Rangers why the two needed to demorph ("If everything is still going as planned, they'll have to sneak back into the city as regular kids," the Yellow Ranger explained). Meanwhile, the six Rangers who'd stayed behind quickly packed up the camp, stowing everything inside the Phoenix and pouring water over the campfire.
All of a sudden, the sound of explosions rocked the countryside, shattering the stillness of the early morning. I looked around worriedly but couldn't see any immediate danger. Following the other Rangers, I climbed onto the roof of the Phoenix for a better view.
Down in the valley, a battle was being fought outside the city walls of Chronopolis, beside the farms we'd all walked past yesterday. I squinted my eyes as three flying craft descended from the clouds. We were a fair distance away, but in the light from the city, they didn't look like anything other than giant insects. Before long, they were joined by an enormous praying mantis.
"That's not good," murmured the Pink Ranger.
As we watched silently, all four vehicles were soon destroyed in bursts of flame. After one final explosion, the valley fell silent. Climbing off the zord, we made our way back to the ground.
"Finish packing," the Red Ranger called. "We have to be ready to go as soon as they get back."
It felt like we'd been waiting forever but may have only been a few minutes when the junior team of Rangers returned to camp. I hung back by the Phoenix as the senior team ran down to greet them. Above us, the sun had just started to peek above the horizon, but it was still dark and quiet thanks to the clouds.
"You guys okay?" the Red Ranger asked. "We saw the fight."
"We're good," the Orange Ranger replied. "Made it back in one piece."
"So it's definitely the Insectoid?" asked the Pink Ranger.
"Unfortunately, yeah," replied the Aqua Ranger. "And he brought a few friends this time."
"Grey and Aqua told us about Rita and Zedd on the way back," said the younger Blue Ranger.
The girl White Ranger nodded. "I have given up trying to make sense of those two," she said. "I really have."
"Wait a second," I began, and they all turned to me as if they'd once again forgotten I was there. "Who's this Insectoid guy?"
"A cybernetic insect creature," the younger Blue Ranger explained. "He hates all humans and wants insects to take over the galaxy."
"He said to us in the city that he thinks he can use the virus to do it," said the Purple Ranger.
"But you guys fought him and destroyed his army, right?" I asked. "I mean, that's what all those explosions were."
"Yeah," the Orange Ranger said. "But from the sounds of it, he's got more coming."
"What?" I said, and staggered back as if struck by an invisible assailant. "You're telling me there's now a third galaxy-level supervillain who wants to kill me? Because of this thing in me?!" and I thumped my chest for effect.
"Look, it's gonna be okay," said the Black Ranger.
"No it's not!" I shot back. "I don't know what your definition of okay is, but this is the exact opposite of that!"
"You're gonna be all right," said the Grey Ranger.
"That is so easy for you to say!" I shouted. "You said we'd be safe here and we're not! I've got three armies coming to kill me! Why not four? Why not a dozen? Hell, why not a hundred?"
"Keep your voice down," the Purple Ranger said. "They're coming for us..."
"They're coming for me!" I replied. "What the hell do we do now? I just, I can't, I, I can't..." and my voice trailed off as I gazed around the group. It was like they'd been stunned into silence. "This is too much to deal with," I murmured. "I have to get out of here," and with no clue where I was going, I turned and ran around the side of the Phoenix.
"Tim!" the Red Ranger shouted. "Come back!"
Brendan glanced to his team-mates. "That went well," he said.
"It's not safe here," said Teresa. "The Insectoid will be back any second."
Just then, a light rain began to fall, and the Rangers looked up and around.
"Teresa's right," said Ian. "Even with the clouds, we're not gonna stay hidden for long."
"I'll go get him," said Peter, then turned to Scott and the box of files. "Tell them everything we found," he continued. "I'll go find Tim," and he jogged after me.
"Will you be right?" asked Jason.
"Yeah, I got this," Peter said. "I think."
Following me around the zord, the Orange Ranger soon found me under the Phoenix's outstretched wing, protected from the rain and walking in circles near the edge of the lake. I looked up as the Orange Ranger approached, but didn't say anything and kept pacing. The Orange Ranger watched me for a long time before finally glancing over his shoulder to the zord.
"We're gonna be leaving soon," he said.
"Good for you," I replied angrily.
"Tim, it's okay if you're upset."
I spun towards him and fixed him with a glare. It might've been my imagination, but I'm sure he shrank back. "This insect guy?" I began. "Is he scary? As bad as the other two?"
The Orange Ranger hesitated for a few seconds before replying. "Yeah," he admitted. "Maybe even worse."
I heard the honesty in his voice and it did nothing to calm me down. "So I have three armies coming for me?" I asked. "The Insectoid, General Skull and princess Automica..."
"Priestess," he corrected absent-mindedly.
He knew in a second that he'd said the wrong thing, but as he stepped back, I followed after him. Before I knew what I was doing, I slammed my hands into his shoulders. It was like hitting a brick wall. He barely flinched, while it almost felt like I'd broken my wrists.
"No!" I shouted. "You do not get to correct me!" I angrily wiped at the tears streaming down my face. "I'm going to die, here or on some other world, a million miles away from home! I'm never gonna see my family, my friends, or my hometown ever again, and the best you can offer is 'priestess'?!"
"Look, I get it," the Orange Ranger replied. "But c'mon. You shouldn't give up hope. We're doing everything we can to..."
"Did you?" I shot back. "At the museum, did you? If this stupid thing was so friggin' dangerous, why the hell was it ever there in the first place? But you guys decided to just walk into the museum one morning and pick it up? Did you stop in the damn gift shop?"
"We are watched, everywhere we go," the Orange Ranger said hotly. "If we'd just stormed the museum with guns blazing, it would've attracted the wrong kind of attention. The virus, if it even was the virus, I mean, at that point we weren't sure, but the virus is dangerous. We couldn't risk anybody getting hurt."
"Great plan!" I shouted. "Brilliant plan! It's in me now! You gambled my life on this and you lost!" I turned and pointed to one of the cliffs, overlooking the lake and glowing with the distant rays of the morning sun. "The only reason I haven't already climbed that and jumped is because you said me dying would make the virus even more dangerous."
The Orange Ranger looked away and I kicked a stone into the lake. With nothing else to say, I sat down on a log near the water's edge as the rain started to come down heavier than before. After a long time, the Orange Ranger sat down beside me, and he said the two words I never expected him to say.
"I'm sorry," he whispered
I barely heard him over the rain. "You're... what?"
"I'm sorry," he repeated. "You're right. You're absolutely right. We went into the museum thinking that we'd be able to deal with whatever happened and that nobody would get caught in the crossfire. We took a gamble and we lost. We screwed this one up badly."
I sighed, and felt all the fight rush out of me like a balloon deflating. "No kidding," I said. "Now I'm the guy caught between three armies, with the most dangerous weapon in the galaxy stuck inside me that's gonna kill me anyway even if nobody else does." I paused, and took a couple of deep breaths. "I'm sorry for yelling before."
"It's okay. How are your hands?"
He leaned in close. "We meant what we told you back at the museum," he said. "We can fix this. We're the Power Rangers. We can do anything."
I met his gaze. "Can you promise me that I'll live?" I asked bluntly. "Can you promise me that nobody ever dies and this'll all turn out okay? Can you honestly look me in the eyes and tell me that?"
He looked away and sighed sadly. I watched as his shoulders slumped forward, heavy with painful memories. For the first time in two days, it felt like I was looking at the boy underneath, rather than the superhero. "No," he said eventually. "No I can't."
"I heard Hephaestus back on Olympus," I continued, "telling you that getting this out of me is impossible. The high priestess said the same thing at the museum, and the Lord Chancellor just about admitted it yesterday. You're asking me to trust you to do something that everyone says can't be done. I'm sorry, man, but I don't think I've got that left in me, not now."
The Orange Ranger nodded. "Can I tell you what you do have?" he asked. "You have good people on your side. You have smart, strong people in your corner. Maybe it doesn't feel like it, and I know you're facing something scary and overwhelming, but I promise we are on your side. Having good people in your corner is one of the best things you can ever hope to have. Now I know my friends, and I know they are gonna figure this out. All I'm asking is that, for the next day, you trust that we can do the impossible. Just for another day. You are not alone in this, okay? That is something I can promise."
I looked out over the lake. "I think I can do that," I said.
"Good," he replied, and offered me his hand. "Because we need to go." He helped me to my feet and we walked around to the other side of the zord. The Rangers had packed up camp while we'd been talking, and everybody was waiting outside for me. The rain was coming down in driving sheets now, and I shivered under the weight of their gazes.
"Everything okay?" the girl White Ranger asked.
"Yeah, um, thanks," I said. "I bet you've never seen someone have a nervous breakdown on another planet before."
"It's okay," said the Purple Ranger kindly. "Worse things happen at sea, and all."
"Thermonuclear war," offered the younger Blue Ranger. "Planetary-level extinction events. Swarms of homicidal flower blossoms."
"Demonic possession," added the male White Ranger. "That's a bad one."
"Never mind a supervillain impersonating your date to the school dance," said the Black Ranger.
I tilted my head. "That actually happens?" I asked.
The elder Blue Ranger nodded sadly. "More often than you'd think," he replied.
With that, the Rangers climbed back into the Phoenix. The girl White Ranger took my hand and led me up the ramp. Once everyone was safely inside, the Pink Ranger stepped into the cockpit, closed the hatches and began switching the zord's systems on. I sat down in one of the chairs and buckled myself in when an alarm sounded, blaring through the inside of the robot. The viewscreen windows flashed to life.
"What is it?" the Red Ranger asked.
"Guys, we've been found," the Pink Ranger called. "They're here!"
As the outside view came into focus, my heart sank. Emerging from the rainstorm were half a dozen giant wasps, flying over the mountain with their wings buzzing behind them. Immediately below them, the ground was shaking, and we watched as three enormous praying mantises sliced through the trees, reaching the clearing and coming to a stop.
"Other side!" shouted the Black Ranger.
We turned to look. Stepping out of the forest on the other side of the zord was the high priestess Automica, with her ten remaining bishops beside her. But behind them was easily a hundred more robots, all with eyes flashing red. As Automica reached the clearing, she caught sight of the army of giant cybernetic insects, and the robots behind her came to a stop.
"They tracked us here from Earth," I murmured. "We've gotta get out of here."
I was about to continue when another alarm sounded, blaring even more urgently. As one, everyone in the cabin unclasped our seat buckles and tried to crowd into the cockpit where there was only room for about four people. The Pink Ranger pointed to the monitor on her right.
"You can't see them," she said, nodding to the clouds above us, "but there's a fleet of skullships approaching from deep space. They're descending towards us right now." She glanced around the group. "They've found us. They've all found us. What do we do now?"
I glanced out the windows to the robots on one side, the cybernetic insects on the other, and the menacing shapes of black skullships approaching through the clouds. So far, the standoff continued, with nobody wanting to be the first to make a move. I couldn't imagine how long that'd last, but it certainly wouldn't be for much longer.
"Don't you have any firepower on this thing?" I asked.
The Black Ranger nodded. "Plenty, but not enough for three armies," he said.
"Besides," the Yellow Ranger added. "We're wasting time we don't have. We can't risk a battle."
The younger Blue Ranger pushed past his team-mates towards the Pink Ranger. "I've got an idea," he said, reaching for the radio. "Can you put me on speaker? I need you to patch me through to everyone."
The Pink Ranger hit a switch beside the microphone, and the light beside it flashed green. "It's all yours," she said.
The younger Blue Ranger nodded. Taking a second to catch his breath, he raised the microphone to his helmet. "Good morning!" he said loudly, and we could hear his voice broadcasting outside the Phoenix, echoing over the noise of the rain. "To our dear friends the Insectoid, General Skull, and the high priestess Automica, we welcome you to Dhalia! But let's not waste time," and he glanced around the group before continuing. "We know why you're here, and you all know what we have onboard. You all want to use the Skethani virus for your own ends. But, and this is the part I don't understand, you must have realised there's only one virus, and you know as well as we do that once it's finished charging, it'll only obey a single master."
He paused, letting his words sink in. He caught my eye and I flashed him a thumbs up. None of our opponents had attacked yet, or given any indication that they would. Whatever he was doing, it was working.
"I'm sure you all think you can go through us to get to the virus, otherwise you wouldn't be here," the Blue Ranger continued. "But let me ask you something. Are you willing to bet you can get past the other two? What if they've already allied against you?" He paused, and I could hear him smiling beneath his helmet. "What if they get here first?"
Silence fell, and the Blue Ranger replaced the microphone on the zord's console.
"Did it work?" I asked.
The sky lit up, the shadows of the forest vanishing in the glare. The Pink Ranger pointed to the clouds. "Look!" she shouted.
An orbital bombardment whistled down from the skullship immediately over us, aimed for the army of robots on one side and the cybernetic insects on the other. Flames and sparks erupted around us as the giant insects fired on the hovering skullship, before turning and attacking Automica for good measure. The entire mountain shook with the back-and-forth as the three armies continued firing at one another.
"Brilliant," said the Red Ranger, clapping the younger Blue Ranger on the back.
"That won't give us much time," warned the Black Ranger, as a second skullship appeared above us and began firing at Automica's forces.
"But it'll buy us enough," said the Grey Ranger. "Let's go!"
The Pink Ranger grabbed the controls. "Hold on," she said, and we crashed to the floor as the Phoenix lifted off. Blasts continued to whistle down around us as the zord aimed for the sky. A second later, we shot up into the clouds, the Pink Ranger deftly piloting us around the incoming blasts from the fleet of skullships high above the mountain. Before long, the atmosphere had fallen away. As we picked ourselves up, we looked out to see the stars hidden behind hundreds of hovering skullships.
"Nerimos?" asked the Pink Ranger.
"Nerimos!" shouted the Orange Ranger.
The stars blurred past us as the zord shot into space, leaving the planet Dhalia far behind it. Once we reached the safety of deep space, everyone gathered in the cabin to talk strategy. The Orange, Blue, White and Purple Rangers continued to share everything they'd discovered in the Chronopolis archives, before showing us the records they'd smuggled out of the city. The older Blue and Yellow Rangers seemed particularly interested in the information their team-mates had collected on the abandoned base that seemed to be our next destination.
"At least we know why the Lord Chancellor lied to us," said the Red Ranger.
"He probably had a good reason," ventured the girl White Ranger.
"But he should've been honest with us from the start," said the Black Ranger.
The Grey Ranger turned to his team-mates. "Did you guys steal all this?" he asked.
"We needed it more than they did," replied the Orange Ranger. "And we can take it back to them provided we live through the next twenty-four hours." He winced when he realised what he'd said, and he turned to me. "Sorry," he said.
"Super helpful," said the Purple Ranger.
I sagged back against one of the seats. "I've got less than a day," I said. "And we're gonna lose half of that just getting there. Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"Affirmative," replied the elder Blue Ranger. "I've reverse-engineered far more complicated technology than a simple nanotech virus, although to be fair, not on such a limited time frame. But if I can just see where the virus was created, it'll be our biggest clue how to destroy it."
"We'll get there with time to spare," the Red Ranger said, resting a gloved hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry."
I stepped around and into the Phoenix's cockpit where I was alone but for the Pink Ranger. I realised that, with all the travelling I'd done so far, I'd still never been inside the zord's cockpit, and I marvelled at the array of blinking lights, switches and buttons on all sides.
The Pink Ranger turned to see me standing there in awe. "Seriously?" she began. "It's mostly just for the stereo." I laughed as she hit the 'autopilot' button and swivelled around to face me. "It'll be a short trip," she explained, reading my mind from my face. "Nerimos isn't that far from Dhalia, at least, not in terms of the general distance between planets. We're following a trade route, so it should be an easy journey."
"We won't run into anybody?" I asked.
She shook her head. "All deep space vessels have to log their trips ahead of time," she said. "We don't have to, obviously, but we can access that system easily enough. For instance, in a few hours, we'll pass by a tourist and trade ship running between the two planets. Because of the sheer size of space, we'll miss it by the length of a dozen solar systems, but we can avoid them either way."
"To protect them from me?" I asked. "From this horrible thing inside me?"
The Pink Ranger laughed softly. "To protect you from them," she said. "That virus is only getting more and more powerful. It makes you an easy target on any interstellar radar, put it like that."
"Wait a second," I began. "Back at the museum," and I had to pause. Was that only two days ago? It felt like forever. "Back then, you didn't take me to your Command Centre because the Red Ranger said you couldn't risk it. But you weren't talking about the risk to your base, were you? You meant the risk to me."
"Once the virus infected you, we didn't really know what it might do," she said. "If it saw you were inside our base, it might've decided to consume you faster than it otherwise would've. We couldn't take the chance."
"So that was to keep me safe," I said. "I'm getting that's a big part of what you guys do."
"Can I tell you something?" the Pink Ranger asked.
"I had the option of leaving, a couple of years ago," she began. "One of the reasons I stayed, I think, was that I realised something. If you take all the monsters out of the equation, if you take out all the demons and mutants and aliens and things from beyond space and time, you still have a world where horrible things are happening every minute of every day, to good people who don't deserve them." She paused, and when she continued, I heard her voice break behind her visor. "Someone has to care. There just, there has to be someone who gives a damn. Because otherwise, nobody does. And to guarantee that, you know, I am more than happy to rest the weight of the world on my shoulders."
She leaned back and decided to change the subject. "Want to know something cool?" she asked.
I smiled. "Always."
She gestured to the stars outside. "Nobody on Earth has ever seen those stars from here," she said. "There is not one single astronomer on Earth who wouldn't commit a laundry list of serious crimes for the chance to be sitting where you're sitting, right now. I always think of that and it makes me laugh."
I gazed out the window at the stars we were passing. "You should charge for trips," I joked.
"We actually did think about that," she said. "Donate the money to charity, maybe. But as you can imagine, we tend to attract trouble. We didn't want to risk it."
"You know the one thing I regret about all this?" I asked.
"When we were leaving Earth, I didn't get the chance to turn around and look at the planet," I said. "We were in such a hurry to get away from General Skull and Automica that I missed it. Almost every astronaut who's ever left Earth and looked back has said that it was a life-changing experience, and I can't believe I missed it."
The Pink Ranger was quiet for a minute, and then she leaned forward and rested her hands on my knees. "Then that's a damn good reason to get you home, isn't it?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said softly. "It is."
Thanking the Pink Ranger for her kind words, I stepped back into the cabin. The Rangers were still going over all the information we'd gotten from Chronopolis. Suddenly tired, I had something to eat and settled down in one of the seats at the back of the cabin. I'd only slept about six hours ago, but I figured the virus was taking a lot more out of me than before. I tried to stay awake as long as I could, but after a few minutes, I felt everything getting blurry, and I was soon fast asleep.
Unlike the trip from Earth to Dhalia, the nightmares this time struck me with all the force of Zeus's thunderbolts. No matter what happened, I couldn't wake up or escape. I was running, hunted by a monstrous predator that needed neither food nor rest. I watched the stars go out, and I saw the world consumed by fire and hate and death, until I was standing on a rocky lifeless plain. Everywhere I looked were skulls and bones, baking in the heat of a burning red sun. Suddenly the sun was extinguished by an omnipresent shadow, and I was swallowed up by a cold, empty darkness, vanishing into a void of infinite black. With a terrified scream, I woke up, leaping out of my seat, gasping for air. As I regained my senses and my heartbeat returned to normal, I realised the entire team of Rangers were standing around me.
"Are you okay?" asked the Red Ranger. "We were worried."
"Bad dreams," I murmured. I held up my hand and it was still shaking. "Whatever this thing is inside me, it's not happy. I could feel it. It's getting angrier."
The girl White Ranger jogged over to one of the food lockers and returned with a glass of water which I gratefully gulped down.
The Yellow Ranger glanced to her team-mates. "The Skethani virus must be growing stronger," she said.
"Yeah," said the Orange Ranger, turning to me. "I don't want to freak you out or anything, but for a second there, when you woke up? Your eyes were glowing."
"Not to state the obvious, but this had better work," said the Black Ranger. "Because we are running out of time."