"Guys," came the Pink Ranger's voice. "We're here! Check it out!"
Everyone dashed into the cockpit, or at least, we tried to before jamming into each other in the corridor outside. The Pink Ranger glanced over her shoulder. "Hang on," she said, and hit a switch on the console.
The viewscreens flashed to life, and we looked over to one side as the planet Nerimos appeared before us with several small moons visible around it. I gazed down over the planet with surprise. Unlike Dhalia or photos I'd seen of Earth, there was little atmosphere and seemingly few clouds over the planet. Nerimos's surface was mostly unhealthy-looking shades of yellow and brown, while the darker patches I assumed were oceans were a sickly green colour.
"It doesn't look healthy," I said.
Beside me, the Black Ranger shook his head. "It's not," he said. "Most of Nerimos is barren desert. It was one of the first planets we ever visited."
"The good news at least," added the Yellow Ranger, "is that it's mostly deserted."
"That definitely counts in our favour," said the younger Blue Ranger.
"So where is this place?" asked the Purple Ranger.
"I'm just punching in the coordinates you found on Chronopolis," the Pink Ranger called. "Hang on, I've got it. We'll be there soon. Strap yourselves in."
We sat down and the zord began its descent. Without much of an atmosphere, the view as we approached was a lot less spectacular, and I watched as the sky slowly grew brighter and brighter as the stars faded away.
The male White Ranger turned to the elder Blue Ranger beside him. "You're sure about this?" the White Ranger asked.
"I'm aware we don't have much time," the Blue Ranger began. "But there were no answers on Dhalia. The virus was created on this planet in a laboratory somewhere below. The original team of scientists must've contained it somehow while working on it or testing it. The equipment to transform it to its inert state has to be here. If I can just see it, I can get it working again. I'm sure of it."
"And that's the plan?" I asked.
The Blue Ranger turned to me. "At the moment it's the only idea I have," he replied. "But it's imperative we locate that scientific installation."
"You mean that one?" asked the Orange Ranger, pointing out the window.
We all turned to look. Far below but rapidly growing closer was a wide, sandy plain that stretched for kilometres, ending at the base of a range of tall cliffs. There was nothing but sand and rock as far as the eye could see, no signs of life, water or vegetation. But in the distance over near one of the cliffs was a small cluster of buildings. As we approached, I could see that some of the smaller buildings had crumbled to rubble, but the largest building in the centre of the complex was still standing. The building was wide and low-set, and the remains of what had once been a wide array of antennas and radar dishes sat on the roof. The building was unremarkable, but from a distance, it still looked solid. As we got closer, I could see a familiar clockwork design on the walls and roof.
"There's the symbol of Chronopolis," I said, pointing to the complex.
A few minutes later, the Phoenix touched down on the desert plain. We stood up as the ramp lowered to the ground, and the Pink Ranger stepped into the cabin.
"Let's go," she said.
We stepped out into the desert. The heat immediately washed over me, suffocating me like a blanket. Even the air felt sickly here, and the light was greasy and dirty. As we headed for the complex, I noticed the Rangers automatically forming a circle around me, but I couldn't imagine what they were protecting me from. The plain was unsettlingly empty. There was no noise but our footsteps. There was no wind, no animal calls or birds, and no sounds of life or civilisation. It was just empty.
"What happened here?" I asked. "Has it always been like this?"
Walking beside me, the Purple Ranger shook her head. "A long time ago," she began, "Nerimos was the centre of a galaxy-spanning empire. The capital was this huge city on a continent in the planet's southern hemisphere. One day, a whole heap of bad guys allied together to attack Nerimos all at once, and the empire fell apart."
"Wow," I said.
"Various forces drained the broken empire of everything it had left," she continued, "and left the planet as an empty husk. See?" and she pointed to one of the cliffs in the distance. Shielding my eyes from the glare, I could just make out the crumbling remains of what had once been a towering fortress. It might've looked impressive a thousand years ago, but now it was little more than broken stone.
"It's such a tragedy," the Purple Ranger said. "This place was probably amazing, once upon a time, and it's all been lost forever."
"I get it," I said. "This is why you guys do what you do, right? So this doesn't happen to Earth?"
"Coming here always makes me feel small," the Purple Ranger said. "But not in a bad way, I don't think. Sometimes I think of my parents or my brother or my friends, and I just want to show them places like Nerimos or Dhalia and say, 'Look at this! Look at everything we have to lose!' But then I think, they probably wouldn't get it. And Zordon wouldn't like us dragging people halfway across the galaxy."
"I suppose Dhalia and Nerimos are two sides of the same coin," I said. "All possible futures."
"Exactly," the Purple Ranger replied, and I could hear her smiling under her helmet. "Exactly! Do we head into space, or down into the dirt?" and she kicked at a stone. "Everything depends on what we do as people. But I think that's why I like coming here."
"Yeah. It's a reminder of what's at stake," she said. "And it makes me realise that when you lose some things, you can't get them back."
"Do you ever think the job will be over one day?" I asked. "That maybe there'll be a time when the world doesn't need you anymore?"
"I used to," she admitted. "But I haven't for a long time. It's not cynical, it's just, there's always a nutjob in the crowd somewhere. Always. If there wasn't, then people wouldn't be people. I sometimes wonder what the angels think of all the things people find to do with that free will we have. I understand Te... White and Grey's outlook, I really do. But from all the years doing this, people aren't always at their best."
"And by people, that also includes robot extremists, zombies and insect cyborgs?" I asked.
She laughed. "Yeah, them too," she replied. "But you see what I mean, right? The Rangers will always have to exist, for better or for worse. It's not a bad thing. Part of the reason I love doing this is so I don't have to sit back and be helpless. I can actually stand up and do something. Or, at the very least, hit something. And if some days that's all you can do? At least it's something."
I didn't reply, and we walked on in silence. The compound of buildings grew larger and larger, and finally, we reached the remains of what had once been a tall fence that ringed the complex. Stepping over a smooth surface the Yellow Ranger explained was probably a landing pad, we soon approached the front of the main building. Keeping me outside while they checked the building was abandoned, the Rangers confirmed what we expected, that the base hadn't seen life for decades.
I was glad when they finally let me get out of the sun and step into the shadowy interior. Everything was covered in dust and sand, the evidence of violent sandstorms over the last century. Making our way through the base, we stepped into the centre of the building. It was wide and airy under a high ceiling, with broken windows all around. Nothing had power. Beside us, angled control panels stood damaged and idle. But as I picked my way through the rubble, I looked up to see a giant transparent sphere in the centre of the room. It was covered in red sand but it seemed solid.
As we hung back, the two Blue Rangers inspected the device.
"Do you think this is it?" asked the younger Blue Ranger quietly.
His senior counterpart nodded. "I'm sure of it," he said. "This is where the Skethani virus was made."
"So the next question," the Red Ranger began. "Can you unmake it?"
Gazing around the room with a newfound appreciation for where we were, the elder Blue Ranger shook his head. "I'm not sure. But we should be able to contain it," and he gestured back to the sphere. "It still seems structurally sound."
"That thing must be like a hundred years old," said the Aqua Ranger.
"It was originally designed to contain a sentient biomechanical apocalyptic plague," the Blue Ranger replied, and I could hear the smile under his helmet. "It was built to be durable. With the lack of humidity inherent in the desert, it may even still be functional. I'll need power to get it working, but there are batteries onboard the Phoenix."
The Yellow Ranger stepped forward. "At the very least, we can rig something up," she said.
"I'll need possibly an hour to connect all the equipment," the elder Blue Ranger said.
"Whoa, hang on a minute," called the girl White Ranger. We all turned to see her wiping the dust off a crate she'd found under one of the benches. "I found a toolbox under this console. This looks like a hammer, at least, I think it's a hammer. I guess this could be a screwdriver."
The elder Blue Ranger turned back to us. "Make that half an hour," he said confidently.
Despite the situation, I laughed.
"But still," the male White Ranger began, "the odds of this working must be close to impossible."
The Purple Ranger glanced from her team-mates to me and then back again. "Guys, Tim has less than a few hours," she said. "Damn the odds. Make it work."
The Red Ranger nodded. "Blue, Blue and Yellow, get this going," he said. "Pink and White, I need you two to help ferry any equipment we need out of the Phoenix. Everyone else, I want you outside on guard duty." He lowered his voice. "They all know how much time we have, and they're not gonna fall for the same trick twice. They'll be here soon, and we need to be ready."
The clang of her metal boot steps followed Automica as she made her way through the flagship of General Skull's fleet. The interior of the ship was constructed of mismatched metal pieces, all covered by something that didn't seem either dead or alive. It was hard to tell the difference, and Automica felt unsettled either way. All around her, Skull's crew shuffled around mindlessly, going about their work in total silence. Unsurprisingly, the entire ship was as quiet as a crypt.
Reaching the end of a shadowy corridor, Automica climbed a flight of steps and found herself on the ship's bridge. Glancing around to establish the meeting wasn't an ambush, she soon saw that General Skull and the Insectoid were standing by a circular console in the centre of the room.
"Thank you for keeping us waiting," General Skull said acidly as Automica approached. "Welcome to my ship, priestess."
The priestess gazed disdainfully at Skull's bony visage. "Twice you are an affront to the Perfect System, Skull," she said. "Once before you were dead, and now in your steadfast refusal to remain that way. What was the reason for this summons? This ceasefire, however temporary, tries my patience."
"Careful priesteszzz," buzzed the Insectoid. "That emotion in your voice soundszzz oddly human."
Automica spun to face him. "Blasphemy! I will end you for that!"
"The hive welcomes you to try."
Skull slammed his fists into the console. "Would you both just shut up?" he growled, the flames in his eye sockets burning with annoyance. "We were played, all three of us! The Rangers were counting on our different agendas to help them escape with the virus, and that's exactly what happened!"
"A regrettable turn of events," Automica said. "So what do you propose? Obviously our goals remain mutually exclusive."
"But they don't have to be," Skull replied. "Why don't we learn a lesson from those fools and work together, keeping our truce in place temporarily until the Rangers have been dealt with? We won't be able to go around them. We may as well go through them."
"With an emphasiszzz on temporary," the Insectoid said archly.
"Of course," Skull replied. "Just until the Rangers are defeated and no longer protecting the virus. Once they are out of our way, it's every man for himself!"
"I find your terminology offensive," Automica said.
"Aszzz do I," the Insectoid added. "But your plan is szzzound. The hive believeszzz it is our best option for succeszzz."
"I agree," Automica said. "So what is our next move? The Rangers have fled far from Dhalia by now."
"We have already tracked them," Skull said. "Our long-range scanners had no trouble following the host of the virus. His current whereabouts place him on..."
"Nerimoszzz," buzzed the Insectoid. "Our scanners have tracked him there aszzz well."
"So it's settled then?" Skull asked, glancing to his co-conspirators as they nodded in agreement. "We set a course immediately for Nerimos," and the black fire in his eyes burned triumphantly. "Let us bring death right to them."
With the rest of the Rangers keeping guard in a circle around the base, and the Pink and White Rangers carrying supplies back and forth, I watched as the Yellow and two Blue Rangers explored and tested various pieces of equipment around the ruined lab. It was interesting to see how these three took the lead while the other Rangers stepped back and ceded control. It made for an effortless shift of power amongst a team of people who clearly trusted each other instinctively, and it gave me more hope the longer I watched them.
Glancing around the lab as the Rangers worked separately, I looked over to the younger Blue Ranger. He was lying on the ground nearby and trying to make sense of the underside of a console. Wondering if he was making any progress, I made my way across the lab towards him.
"Can I help or something?" I asked.
He crawled out from under the console and looked up to me. "I don't think so, but thanks for asking," he said.
"I'm sorry to be a nuisance, I just feel useless sitting here," I said. "You guys all seem to know what you're doing."
The younger Blue Ranger giggled beneath his helmet and stood up. "Can I tell you something that might really shock you?" he asked.
I let his words sink in for a few seconds and then cracked up laughing, falling back against the wall until I regained control of my breathing. Across the lab, the elder Blue and Yellow Rangers stopped to look at me.
"What?" asked the younger Blue Ranger. "What's so funny?"
I grinned. "I am standing in an abandoned scientific lab on an alien world," I began, "built a century ago by people from a clockwork city on a different alien world, where the Power Rangers are trying to yank a virus that's a tiny bit alive out of me before it goes nuclear in two hours and kills everyone in the galaxy." I shook my head. "I just thought, we are so far beyond the point of me being surprised, right now."
The younger Blue Ranger laughed. "That's fair," he said. "No, I just wanted to be honest with you, since you're trusting us with your life and all. We might look like we know what we're doing, but truthfully?" He gestured around the lab. "So much of this is totally over our heads. Every time we have to morph, we have no idea how we're going to end up saving the day. But I'll tell you a big secret."
"We are brilliant at making it up as we go," he said. "I got a puzzle one year for Christmas when I was a kid. I must've worked on that thing for days. I didn't care about any of my other presents. All I wanted to do was solve that damn puzzle. Thing is? I did, eventually. And I think a lot of this is the same thing. Every riddle has a solution. Every mystery can be solved. Even if there are a million things that don't work, there has to be one that does. It's just a matter of finding it."
"And you really think you can pull this thing out of me?" I asked.
"Absolutely," he said. "Do you?"
"I'm starting to."
"Good," he said. "Don't lose faith. It's important. Everyone in the Universe gets scared every now and then. Even us."
"Even world-ending nanotech plagues?" I joked. Then I froze, realising what I'd said.
The answer was so simple!
"That's it!" I shouted.
The younger Blue Ranger turned to me. "What?" he asked. "What's the matter?"
I tried to find the words, but couldn't do anything except jump up and down on the spot. Looking across the lab, I pointed to the senior Blue and Yellow Rangers. "Blue! Yellow!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. "I've got it! I've figured it out! It's so easy!"
The two Rangers ran over to where the younger Blue Ranger and I were standing.
"What's wrong?" asked the Yellow Ranger.
The elder Blue Ranger tapped the side of his helmet. "I recognise a eureka-moment when I see one," he said.
"I figured it out," I said. I had to remind myself to talk slowly or else I'd run out of oxygen. "Everyone has spent the last few days telling me that the Skethani virus is a little bit alive, right? You can't pull it out of me and you can't kill me or else it'll burst free anyway. But," and I took a breath before continuing, "what if you made it want to leave, all by itself?"
"That could work," the Yellow Ranger began. "But how would we do that?"
I glanced to the younger Blue Ranger. "By scaring it," I said. "By scaring it to death. It was created here in the lab, right? All I have to do is take off Hephaestus's bracelet, and then you bluff the virus into thinking you've beaten it. With luck..."
"It'll break free by itself, and we can point it into the containment sphere," the younger Blue Ranger finished. "A familiar place it's been before. Tim, that's..."
"Brilliant," said the elder Blue Ranger.
"So this'll work?" I asked. Now that I was no longer a lost cause, I felt my spirits rising. "This could actually work?"
"I wish with all my heart we could tell you yes," the younger Blue Ranger replied, regaining control of himself.
"This is still going to be a huge risk," the Yellow Ranger said. "We can't guarantee it."
"But this thing in me?" I asked. "I just realised that I'm not infected by it. I'm containing it. When this blasts out of me, it's gonna kill a lot of people, right?"
"Quite probably," replied the elder Blue Ranger.
I gestured to the desert outside. "This planet," I began, "I know you said it was mostly deserted, but there are people here, right?"
The elder Blue Ranger nodded. "Affirmative," he said. "There is a large settlement about thirty kilometres to the south, relative to our current position."
"Well isn't the point of this, the point of all this, to turn every Heaven on every world upside down just for the sake of one boy?" I asked. The Rangers nodded, and I continued. "Then for the sake of all those boys and all those girls, we need to do this. We've got to at least try."
"Okay," the younger Blue Ranger said. "What have we got to lose?"
"It's just," I began. "I don't want to do this alone."
The Yellow Ranger laughed, and with the same gloved fists I'd watched shatter stone, she gently took my hand. "Haven't you figured it out yet?" she asked. "You're never alone. Not with us you're not."
"Then let's do this," I said.