The elder Blue Ranger rested a hand on my shoulder. "You'll have to wait outside," he said. "The only way this will succeed is if our bluff is completely authentic. We need your fear and surprise to be as real as possible. When we call for you, take off the bracelet and run inside. Hopefully we'll have something waiting for you."
I nodded. "I can do that," I said.
The Pink Ranger stepped into the lab. "Guys, you better come outside!" she said. "We're out of time!" The Rangers and I followed her down the corridor and out onto the desert plain, where the rest of the Rangers were waiting for us in front of the abandoned complex. The sky was dark, and my first thought was that the sun must set really quickly on this planet. But with mounting horror, I remembered Automica's attack at the museum, and I realised that, like then, something was blocking out the sun.
Not really wanting to, I shielded my eyes and looked at the sky alongside the Rangers.
Almost immediately, all thirteen of us wished that we hadn't.
The sky was black with a massive fleet of spaceships of all sizes. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands, all descending towards the abandoned lab. I could see hundreds of skullships, with their macabre faces grinning triumphantly, alongside swarms of house-sized wasps and other cybernetic insects we hadn't even seen back on Dhalia. Mixed amongst the skullships and insects were round silver ships with the high priestess's insignia all over them. Every single spaceship falling towards us was bristling with weaponry.
I stepped back in shock. I didn't realise for a few seconds, but after a while, I felt the ground shaking beneath my feet. Gazing around, I could see ground troops as well, a thousand soldiers closing in on the lab in a wide circle. There were dozens of enormous praying mantises, and they were joined by cybernetic spiders the size of houses, crawling towards us and leaving clouds of dust in their wake. All around them were smaller insects the size of cars, with glowing green bodies that skittered along on silver legs. Even as we watched, flashes of light heralded soldiers teleporting down from the ships above. In one flash, I saw Automica and her ten bishops arrive with countless hundreds of robots behind her. Seconds later, the ground broke apart as nameless things that had died on far away worlds clawed out of their graves to join General Skull's ranks. As far away as we were, I could see that while most of them were human, some were definitely not.
The lab was surrounded. There was no escape, no path left through the armies. Even the sky meant death, as the hundreds of ships fell closer towards us. In all my life, I'd never felt as tiny as I did, right that second, like a speck of sand on the bottom of my shoes.
The twelve Rangers and I were hopelessly, utterly trapped.
"Wow," murmured the younger Blue Ranger, his voice sounding small. "There's a lot of them."
"I guess they stopped fighting each other," said the Orange Ranger.
"We've handled this many before though, right?" asked the female White Ranger.
The Black Ranger turned to her. "When?"
"Yeah, piece of cake," said the Aqua Ranger, with no humour left in his voice. "You guys take the twenty thousand on the left. I'll take the twenty thousand on the right."
"I can't believe there's so many," said the Grey Ranger. "Why haven't they just blasted us from orbit?"
"They need the virus to finish charging," replied the Yellow Ranger. "Tim's the only reason we're still alive."
"It looks like the priestess brought the entire divine order with her," the Pink Ranger added.
A loud voice boomed out of the largest skullship. It was a voice with authority, but it was as hollow of emotion as an empty tomb. I recognised it instantly as General Skull.
"Rangers!" the zombie soldier called. "Finally, there is no escaping me! Here you will die, overwhelmed on this barren rock, alone and far from home. And then your broken corpses will join me and we will ravage whatever is left of the Universe."
"Just try it buddy," murmured the Black Ranger.
But Skull didn't hear him. "High priestess Automica, the Insectoid and I would like to ask that you surrender immediately and hand over the boy who carries the virus," he continued, "but we know that would be a waste of time. Honestly? We'd rather you put up a fight. But make no mistake Rangers. This time, this time, there is no escape."
"He's right," said the male White Ranger, glancing around to his team-mates. "There's nowhere left to run."
The Red Ranger nodded. "We're out of time and options," he said. "We make our final stand here. Defend Tim at all costs. If they trigger the Skethani virus, then it's over for this and every other world. Blue, tell me you've got a plan?"
"Affirmative," the elder Blue Ranger replied. He then added quietly, "if fortune favours us, it may even succeed."
"That's good enough for me," the Red Ranger said. "What do you need?"
"Time," the younger Blue Ranger said. "Ten minutes at most."
"Then that's what we'll give you," and the Red Ranger turned to his team-mates. "Orange, Purple and Pink?" he began. "Take to the skies with me. We need to bring those ships down. Grey and White, summon the Iguanodon and Tigerzord. Take out the bugs. Blue and Blue, you're in the lab. Whatever you're gonna do, do it fast. Yellow, Black, White and Aqua? The ground troops are all yours. Don't let 'em near the lab. We need to buy our Blue Rangers every second we can."
"Right!" everybody replied.
I watched in disbelief as the two Blue Rangers sprinted back to the lab. The Red Ranger had spoken as if he was making a shopping list. But there were ten people facing down an army, a force that could conquer a planet or topple an empire, all coming with a single, unstoppable objective.
To kill me.
The line of Rangers shared one final look of acknowledgement before they started forward, walking slowly at first but increasing their speed with every step.
I shook my head. "No," I said. "How can you beat this?"
"Have some faith," said the Purple Ranger.
"But no!" I shouted. "Get out of here! There's no stopping this." I stopped to catch my breath. "After everything that's happened, this is impossible. You can't beat them! There's too many!"
As her team-mates charged forward to greet their enemies, the Purple Ranger looked back over her shoulder and said two words, even as the sky was falling.
"Watch us," she said.
Leading the charge, the Orange, Purple and Grey Rangers raised their arms to the sky. "We need dinozord power, now!"
Beside them, the Red Ranger soon followed. "Red Dragon thunder zord power!"
He was joined a second later by the White Ranger. "White Tigerzord, power up!"
Across the infinite gulf of space, the faithful metal beasts heard the calls of their masters. The sky shook. Lightning exploded around the battlefield. With a mighty roar, the zords arrived, leaping over our heads and onto the desert plain. Out in front was the orange Stegozord, with the Red Dragon flying close above. Seeing the fleet of zords appear, the ships facing us turned to fire, launching a broadside of laser fire and missiles straight for them. The entire plain erupted in sparks and smoke, but in a flash of light, the Red Dragon and Stegozord transformed into their warrior modes and lifted into the sky. The Red and Orange Rangers reached for their wrists and shot up towards their zords, spiralling around the beasts and materialising in their cockpits a second later.
With that, the two zords roared into the sky towards the armada of hovering skullships and insects. The Stegozord held its fists out in front and smashed straight through a ship as it rose, flying through a second and then a third, leaving them as fiery ruin that crashed back to the ground. As the zord reached the upper atmosphere, a gigantic skullship unleashed a massive barrage towards it, but the Stegozord flew straight towards the ship, aiming a powerful punch for the skull adorning the vessel's front and instantly shattering it. A fleet of Automica's ships closed in, but in a flash, the Stegozord was holding its tail-mace weapon, and it destroyed the silver ships with a single wide swing. But more and more ships were converging on the zord, and the Stegozord spun around with the eyes of the Stegosaurus on its chestplate glowing yellow. The zord held its arms wide and a volley of fireballs exploded from the dinosaur's mouth, scorching through the air and wiping out a dozen enemy ships.
Hundreds of feet below, the Red Dragon came under heavy fire from a swarm of hovering insects. Holding its staff out, it spun the weapon around in its hand, catching and blocking the incoming barrage. Protected from harm, the Red Dragon flew straight towards the giant insects and tore through them with its staff, smashing them out of the air one-by-one before shooting straight up to take out a dozen more. Without slowing down, the zord spun around with a kick that shattered one of Automica's ships, before slicing the staff towards a fleet of skullships nearby. An arc of red energy exploded from the weapon, slamming into the ships and shattering them in midair. Even as the fiery wreckage fell out of the sky, the Red Dragon shot up again, smashing through ship after ship without slowing down.
Back on the ground, the Pink Ranger raced towards the Phoenix, and the Pink Ranger's thunder zord lifted into the air to join the Purple Ranger in her Rhamphorynchus as they shot up to join the orange Stegozord and Red Dragon. A legion of skullships opened fire on the Rhamphorynchus, but the zord was too fast, outrunning the barrage and then doubling back to unleash a broadside of rockets, shredding the attacking ships in midair. Swinging back around, the Purple Ranger dipped the zord low under enemy fire then banked sharply, catching a fleet of Automica's ships by surprise and using those precious few seconds to blow them out of the sky. Banking left to avoid a shower of falling wreckage, the Purple Ranger caught sight of a squadron of skullships sweeping around towards her. Dodging incoming fire, the Rhamphorynchus shot towards the ships, unleashing every weapon in its arsenal and tearing the skullships apart.
Closer to the ground, more and more cybernetic insects were falling away from the dogfight to focus on the Rangers still on the ground. A dozen glimmering metal wasps lined up their weaponry for the lab when the Phoenix zord roared overhead, igniting the air with a wave of fire and reducing the wasps to charred wreckage. Banking right, the Phoenix destroyed a low-flying skullship then dived low under an oncoming barrage that wiped out the cybernetic insects in pursuit. Levelling out, the Pink Ranger found her zord facing a line of skullships, but instead of changing course, she pushed the Phoenix towards them. As the zord closed in, orange and red flames enveloped the beast, and it exploded through the wall of enemy ships to leave them as burning ruin before curving back around to continue the fight.
On the ground, the desert plain had erupted with the sounds of war. Explosions and the impacts from crashing spaceships shook the battlefield, and the smoke from all the wreckage blotted out the sky. As I watched, three giant silver robots rose above the plain. Each one was fifteen storeys tall with glowing red eyes, a menacing metal scowl and Automica's symbol on their chests. The ground shook as they thundered towards the lab. I stepped back in terror when a giant shadow fell over me, and the gleaming silver Iguanodon leaped over the complex and charged towards the robots. The Grey Ranger inside the zord spun the beast around and slammed its tail into one of the robots, taking it to the ground before a high kick flattened the second. As its comrades crashed back and were lost in the rain of destroyed spaceships, the third robot powered towards the zord. The Grey Ranger pushed the Iguanodon forward, blocking a wide swing, striking the robot's arm away and slamming the robot off its feet with a powerful blow to the head. With a triumphant roar, the Iguanodon charged after its adversaries.
As the Iguanodon continued trading blows with its three gigantic opponents, the army of mantises and spiders converged on the lab, when the White Tigerzord charged through the crowd, scattering the smaller robots like toys and crushing them underfoot with every titanic step. A dozen spiders swarmed towards the zord, but the Tigerzord sliced its golden blade straight for them, carving through the insects and instantly destroying them. Hanging back, another crowd of spiders aimed low to bring the zord down. Steering the zord to safety, the White Ranger switched to firebolts and returned fire, forcing the spiders to retreat. A mantis and a spider approached from either side, and the Tigerzord aimed low, shattering the spider with a punch before kicking the mantis away. Now wary of their opponent, the remaining insects kept their distance and fired a barrage of missiles. The front of the Tigerzord went up in sparks and smoke, but the White Ranger pushed the zord through the onslaught, blasting fireballs from the zord's chest and tearing the insects apart.
I was frozen to the spot as war erupted around me. I was terrified. I couldn't hear myself think over the noise of the battle, but I couldn't move. Watching the Rangers work was mesmerising, and I couldn't leave if I wanted to.
Nearby, a figure emerged from the burning wreckage of one of Automica's crashed ships, light from the debris glinting off the robot's metal body. As the robot approached, I gasped, when the Yellow Ranger leaped past me, slamming her boots into the robot's chest and sending it flying. She dropped to the ground and quickly found her footing as more adversaries closed in. She jumped high, launching another robot back with a kick, before blocking an attack from the right and slamming the robot off its feet with a palm strike. Spinning to the side, she blocked a punch from a zombie on her left then struck the creature back with a blow to the shoulder. Another zombie lurched towards her, but without slowing down, she dropped low to catch a kick and then spun the creature off its feet. Three more undead soldiers closed in, but with her hands and feet like lightning given solid form, she struck one away with a right jab, slammed the second off its feet with a blow to the head and launched the third away with a low kick. But before she had time to recover, a dozen more zombies had already surrounded her.
A few metres away, the Black Ranger held his ground as a swarm of the Insectoid's drones approached, their cybernetic parts glowing under their bulbous eyes. Hesitating a second longer, as one, the drones attacked. With his arms and legs a blur of motion, the Black Ranger caught a punch and spun the attacker off his feet, throwing the insect at another and sending them both to the ground. Spinning around, he blocked a high swing and launched his adversary back with a right hook, sending another crashing with a low kick. Finding his footing, he dropped low to avoid an attack then kicked high, slamming his boot into the drone's head. He dropped to the ground as another swarm of insects closed in. He blocked a slice for his head and batted the drone away, but he wasn't fast enough to avoid a second drone who raked its talons across his chest. The Black Ranger was thrown backwards in a blaze of fire and sparks, but he recovered just as the drone attacked again. Catching the creature's arm, he launched the drone into the air with a powerful uppercut, before flattening another with a blow to the head.
"Man," the Black Ranger groaned. "Bugs."
Back towards the lab, a horde of zombies surrounded the Aqua Ranger. With enemies on all sides, he didn't waste energy on jokes, launching one opponent back with a spinning kick before dropping low, sweeping a zombie's legs out from under him and catching a third on the upswing. An undead beast with more mouths than it should've had bellowed and charged towards him, but he reached for his blade-blaster and fired, slamming the monster back in an explosion of sparks. Three of the smaller cybernetic insects skittered out of the dust cloud towards him, and he shifted his sidearm to blade-mode as they attacked. He carved the blade through the first insect's head before launching the weapon straight for the second, the creature's head disappearing in a cloud of smoke. The third creature roared towards him, but the Aqua Ranger swung a powerful punch for the creature's jaw, shattering its head. With a flash, he summoned the blade-blaster back to his grip, and he held his ground as more of the insects appeared around him.
Behind me, I turned to see the girl White Ranger fighting her way through a crowd of opponents and leaving a trail of broken zombies and shattered robots in her wake. Striking away a robotic adversary, she leaped over a wide swing from a sword-wielding zombie. Before the zombie could swing again, she grabbed the blade, wrenched it out of his hand and sliced him in half with it. A legion of robots nearby lined up and fired, and she took to the air, dodging their blasts and throwing the sword. The weapon carved through one of the robots and forced the others to take cover. But before they could retaliate, she'd already closed the distance between them, disabling them with a rapid flurry of sharp blows before grabbing their guns and firing at a wall of zombies a few metres away. Even as the zombies fell, a swarm of drones took their place. The White Ranger leaped towards them, taking down several with a spinning jump kick. As she dropped to the ground, she blocked a vertical slash from one of the drones, striking it away with a blow to the chest before grabbing the outstretched arm of another and throwing the creature into a third, downing them both in a tangle of limbs.
"Are we winning?" shouted the Black Ranger.
"I don't know!" replied the Aqua Ranger, trading blows with either a zombie or a mutant insect. It would've been hard to tell under normal circumstances. "Just keep punching things!"
"Look!" called the girl White Ranger, and pointed to the sky.
Everyone looked up and gasped. The sky was empty apart from a handful of ships being pursued by the Phoenix and Rhamphorynchus, and the fiery remains of the destroyed armada that was still falling out of the sky. The Rangers before me regrouped in front of the lab, and I watched as the Red Dragon thunder zord and orange Stegozord flew back towards the ground. In a flash of red and orange, their respective Rangers teleported down to join their friends, hitting the ground running. Side-by-side, they held out their arms and summoned their Power Swords with a thought. Charging into the crowd, the Orange Ranger slashed his sword through one of the zombies before spinning around and destroying a pair of robots. Immediately behind him, the Red Ranger sliced his blade through a horde of zombies, defeating enemies with every step. Blocking an attack, he slammed his fist into his opponent's face, shattering the zombie's head. As more adversaries closed in around them, the Red and Orange Rangers fell back-to-back.
"Hold the line!" the Red Ranger shouted. "Nothing gets past us!"
"Right!" everyone replied.
Just then I heard a voice over the war. "Tim!"
I turned to see the younger Blue Ranger standing by the entrance to the lab.
"Now?" I asked.
"It's now or never!" he shouted back.
I waited for a path to clear between the combatants on all sides before forcing my legs to run.
But as I made a frantic dash towards the lab, a shadow fell over the battlefield. I looked up to see a smoking skullship crashing down towards us. I looked around for somewhere to run but it was too late, and the ship smashed into the ground, ripping itself apart. The force of the impact threw everybody to the dirt and sent a huge dust cloud billowing out. I crashed to the ground coughing, and raised my hand to protect my face as debris rained down around me. Regaining my senses, I looked around to find nothing but smoke and dust. There were no recognisable landmarks, no Rangers, and no lab. The frenzied sounds of battle still echoed out of the smoke cloud. I glanced around frantically, but I had no idea where I was, or where anything else was either. The cloud was clearing around me, but by the time I figured out where I was, it'd be too late.
A voice echoed out of the cloud.
"Tim! Where are you?"
It was one of the Rangers, and it wasn't far away. I turned in the direction of the sound to see a shadowy figure emerging from the cloud. I took a hopeful step towards them, but then froze in shock.
Whatever the creature emerging from the cloud had once been, it certainly wasn't human. The zombie before me was seven feet tall and wearing a black jacket with General Skull's insignia. The creature was more bone than flesh, with sickly-green eyes over a grinning mouth. Dragging behind him was an enormous cannon like I'd never seen before, easily twice as large as me. Gazing down over me, the zombie chuckled to himself.
"The carrier," the monster bellowed. "All this for you? Hardly seems worth it. But Skull will reward me greatly if I bring you to him."
"Get away from him!" came a voice, and the Orange Ranger leaped down between us. With surprising speed, the zombie raised his cannon and fired. The Orange Ranger threw me away as the full force of the blast smashed into him. There was an explosion of orange light as the Orange Ranger was lifted off his feet and slammed into the ground thirty feet away. Climbing to my feet, I looked around, expecting to see him charging to the rescue. But then I caught sight of his body, half-hidden by a newly-formed crater. And all I could see...
... were legs.
The force of the blast had demorphed him.
Facing me across the clearing, the zombie soldier rested his weapon against his shoulder. "Well," he remarked casually. "Works on starships. Never thought it'd work on a Ranger." Ignoring me, he advanced on his fallen opponent.
I glanced from the Ranger to the zombie and back again. And before I realised what I was doing, I raced over towards the fallen hero.
Sometimes the best part of you wakes up, like that, and you didn't even know it was there.
I reached his side and grabbed his shoulders, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. "C'mon dude, wake up!" I shouted. But seeing him up close, I froze.
He was a kid. He was just a kid. He was maybe sixteen, the same age as me. He had a head of tangled dark hair. His clothes were torn, his face and arms streaked with dirt and blood. And he was skinny, way too skinny to be a superhero. But he was just a kid, which meant they all were.
He coughed as I shook him but he didn't open his eyes. "Wake up! C'mon!" I said again. But he didn't stir. Darkness fell, and I looked up to see the zombie standing over us. Shaking with an uncertain mix of rage and terror, I stepped between the Orange Ranger's body and the towering monster.
"Don't touch him!" I shouted. "Don't you dare!"
"Get out of my way," the zombie sneered. "I'm not asking."
"Why? What do you want from him? I'm the one with the virus!"
"I know," the zombie replied, fixing his gaze on me. I shrank back. "I can smell it on you. You reek of it! You have minutes, and then the virus will finally consume you. There's nothing I can do to accelerate that. On the other hand," and he looked down over his fallen prey, "if I mounted the head of a Ranger from Earth on my ship, I'd be the most feared warrior in the galaxy. Even Skull would bow before me."
I shook my head. "You'll have to get past me!"
The zombie laughed. "Please child," he said, and struck me aside with the barrel of his gun. I crashed to the ground and rolled to a stop. "I'll deal with you later."
Without warning, there was a wild shout and a flash of orange so bright it hurt my eyes.
I looked up to see the Orange Ranger falling towards the zombie with his arm outstretched. His Power Sword appeared in his hand, and he slashed it through the giant cannon, instantly destroying the weapon. The zombie staggered back, and the Ranger ran his hand over the length of the blade, charging the sword with power.
"Deal with this," the Orange Ranger said, and he slashed his sword straight for the zombie. Power exploded from the blade's arc, scorching across the clearing and slamming into the monster, tearing the creature apart. With the beast destroyed, the Orange Ranger offered me his hand and helped me to my feet.
"You okay?" he asked.
It took me a few seconds to find my voice. "Are you?"
"I've had better days," he admitted, then caught himself. "Lab's over there," and he pointed through the dissipating smoke cloud. I could just make out the outline of the building. "I think they want you. How much time will you need?"
"Then we'll keep them off you as long as we can," he replied, and nodded to the lab. "Go!"
"Okay," I replied, and I sprinted away from him. "Oh, but thanks!" I stopped and turned back, but he'd already disappeared into the battle.