Reaching the front of the building, I came to a stop to catch my breath, and glanced down to the bracelet Hephaestus had given me back on Olympus. What we were about to do was impossible. Everyone had spent the last three days telling me that. I had no idea whether this was going to work, and there was every chance it wouldn't. But the Power Rangers said that it might, and that was enough for me. Hesitating a second longer, I unclasped the bracelet, threw it to the ground and made my way inside.
As I stepped into the building, a wave of nausea swept over me. For a second, I was so dizzy I could barely stand, and I hung onto the wall until it passed. Then I started to hear it, a voice in the back of my head whispering horrible things but growing louder.
This was it. There was no turning back.
The Skethani virus was waking up.
Stumbling into the lab, I scanned the room. Both Blue Rangers were standing beside the open containment unit. Next to them was a console of blinking lights they must've rewired and switched on, while a few metres in front of the giant sphere, an odd-looking silver disc about the size of a manhole cover lay on the floor. Seeing me, the two Rangers glanced to each other wordlessly, and then the younger Blue Ranger marched towards me.
"So guys," I began hopefully. "What's the plan?"
The younger Blue Ranger ignored me, grabbing my arm and dragging me across the room. His grip was soft at first but quickly grew painfully tight. I winced but he only increased the pressure, until it felt like my bone was about to shatter.
"Um," I said hesitantly, trying to break free. "That's, um, that's really hurting. Like, a lot."
He still didn't reply. By now, we'd reached the metal disc on the ground, and he forced me onto it. "If you move, I'll break your legs," he said coldly, then finally released my arm and stepped back.
I glanced between them, confused. It didn't feel like they were bluffing anymore. "So what's this thing?" I asked, and kicked at the disc.
"Don't do that," snapped the younger Blue Ranger.
Across the lab, the elder of the two Rangers spoke up. "It's a teleport pad," he replied. "There's three more of them throughout the building. We're sorry Timothy. We're really sorry, but we've run the calculations a dozen times. There is no way possible to remove the Skethani virus from you without triggering it. And if we do that, it'll kill billions. We can't take the chance. There's too much at stake."
I felt a surge of white-hot anger roar through my veins. I'm certain it wasn't mine.
Most of it, at least.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"We cannot save you," the elder Blue Ranger continued, and I heard his voice breaking under his helmet. "But we can stop you. Like I said, you're standing on a teleporter. Once we activate it, you'll be trapped in an endless teleport loop between the four terminals. Your molecules will be in a permanent state of flux, so the virus will never be able to finish charging." The Blue Ranger broke off, looking away. "And once we have your molecules contained, we can disassemble them, one-by-one, and scatter them across the galaxy. The Skethani virus is too great a threat. We don't have a choice."
The voice in my head was screaming. It was angry, and so was I.
But I was really scared.
"So what you said before was...?" I began, and stepped off the disc. But the younger Blue Ranger shoved me back.
"We are sorry Timothy," the elder Blue Ranger repeated. "But we're out of options. You won't survive the process, no. But if it's any consolation, we're fairly certain the procedure will be painless."
I saw red, literally, as my vision turned blood-red. My heart was pounding in my chest. With every beat, it felt like it was gonna burst free of my ribs. "No, guys, you can't!" I shouted. "You said you could save me!"
"Stand back," called the elder Blue Ranger to his team-mate. "I'm activating the teleporter."
"No!" I screamed, when my voice took on an unearthly howl, a screech of twisting metal. My head began throbbing with the worst migraine in the galaxy and my heartbeat drowned out the noise of the war outside. Suddenly I was a passenger in my own body as I threw my arms wide and a swarm of angry nanotech particles exploded from my mouth, swarming across the lab as fingers of lightning crackled around us.
"It's working!" the younger Blue Ranger shouted. "It's working!"
The last pieces of the sentient swarm shot out of me, and the younger Blue Ranger wrapped his arms around me and threw me to the ground as the lightning storm intensified. Above us, the angry cloud of particles swarmed around the lab in confusion. Seeing the containment sphere, the cloud shot down through the door. Once the last of it was inside the orb, the elder Blue Ranger slammed his fist against the console. With a puff of smoke, the door swung shut, trapping the virus inside. The lightning storm ended, and the lab fell silent.
The younger Blue Ranger helped me to my feet and glanced to his senior counterpart. "You got it all?" he asked. "Scan him, quick!"
The elder Blue Ranger held up a small device and aimed it at me. For a few seconds, nobody moved. Then he lowered the device. "Not one single atom of the Skethani virus is left inside him," the elder Blue Ranger said, and I could hear the smile of relief under his helmet. "There's no energy signal whatsoever. Were it not for his elevated heartbeat, I don't think the scanner would detect him at all."
"You mean it's out of me?" I asked, my voice barely a whisper.
"You're all clear," the elder Blue Ranger said. "The plan worked."
"So that was all just part of the bluff?" I asked.
The younger Blue Ranger nodded. "A little bit, yeah," he said. "I didn't hurt your arm, did I?"
"A little bit," I said with a smile.
"I'm sorry," he replied. "I wanted to make it as genuine as possible."
"It's okay," I said. "I'm pretty sure you just saved my life, so I forgive you. For the record? You guys are a damn side better at bluffing than I am."
Predatory growls filled the room, and we turned to the containment sphere. Inside, the virus was testing the trap, but I could feel its eyes on us. For a brief second the swarm made a face, something horned and demonic screaming in rage. It was a face I hoped I'd never see again.
"Could you really have done all that though?" I asked. "The virus that even the gods were afraid of, could you actually have killed it like that?"
The elder Blue Ranger considered this for a second. "Possibly," he said.
The younger Blue Ranger picked up the disc lying on the floor. "Not with this, though," he said. "This is just a trash-can lid. We found it in the corner," and he threw it over his shoulder.
"Wait a second," I said, glancing to the entrance. "Do you hear that?"
"Hear what?" the elder Blue Ranger asked.
"Nothing," I replied. "It's quiet."
The younger Blue Ranger nodded. "He's right. Let's go," he said, and the three of us ran outside.
The first thing I noticed apart from the quiet was the sky. It was blue. The smoke and dust thrown up by the battle was dissipating, leaving a clear sky with no skullships or cybernetic insects in sight. At ground level, on every side of us lay burning wreckage in a wide arc around the lab. Everywhere I looked, there was nothing but the tangled ruins of destroyed starships, the fiery pieces of broken robots and cybernetic insects, and the remains of General Skull's army. Even Automica's three giant robots had been ripped apart, and pieces of them were scattered across the battlefield from one side of the plain to the other.
But climbing over the wreckage and making their way towards the lab were the rest of the Rangers. None of them had made it through the battle unscathed. A few of them were nursing injuries. Their suits were damaged and torn. Their helmets were dented and cracked. The Black Ranger was holding his left arm awkwardly, while the Orange Ranger was limping badly, until the Red Ranger noticed and offered him a shoulder to lean on. But as the twelve heroes reunited around me, I realised something.
The Aqua Ranger whistled. "Did we really just do all that?" he asked softly.
"I guess so," the Black Ranger laughed.
The female White Ranger turned to her brother. "How's Tim?" she asked.
The younger Blue Ranger stepped forward. "Fine," he said. "A clean bill of health."
"And the virus?" asked the Red Ranger.
"Safely contained," replied the elder Blue Ranger. "For how long, I couldn't tell you. But for the moment, we're safe."
"That's what you think!" came a voice.
We turned to see a line of figures approaching from across the wreckage-strewn battlefield. Leading them was a figure I recognised instantly from pictures the Rangers had shown me onboard the Phoenix. It was the Insectoid, ahead of Automica's army of bishops that had attacked the museum three days ago.
Three days, three planets and a lifetime ago.
"Not these clowns again," murmured the Purple Ranger. But I saw the change. Despite the injuries, bruises and all the damage they'd taken, the Rangers were instantly standing taller, forgetting their wounds and forming a line between their enemies and me.
I smiled to myself. They were still protecting me, even after everything they'd been through already.
"It's over Insectoid," said the Red Ranger. "We trashed your army and destroyed your swarms. You couldn't beat us back on Dhalia and you sure as hell won't beat us now. How do you think this is going to end?"
"But you are exhausted," buzzed the cybernetic insect. His voice made my ears hurt. "Like all humankind, you are vulnerable. Each of Automica'szzz bishopszzz was calculated to be a match for you. Today, Rangerszzz, today on thiszzz empty rock, you will meet your doom!"
"You first," said the Orange Ranger.
The remaining Rangers raised their arms and summoned their Power Weapons with a thought. As one, the twelve Rangers broke into a run, charging towards their enemies.
"Rangers," shouted the Red Ranger, "bring 'em down!"
As I watched, the ten bishops scattered, seeking out their opposing Rangers and opening fire. The desert plain once again exploded with the sounds of frenzied combat. As her opponent fired a barrage at her, the Purple Ranger charged over the sandy ground towards it, raising her Power Mace and striking away the blasts as she ran. Within seconds, she'd closed the distance between herself and her adversary. The robot aimed the cannon on its right arm but the Purple Ranger struck it away, before smashing aside its left arm and caving in the robot's chest shell with a powerful swing. The robot staggered back sparking, and the Purple Ranger chased after it, bringing it down with one blow and shattering its head to pieces with a second.
A short distance away, the Grey Ranger was racing amongst pieces of debris for cover as he and his robotic opponent traded fire. Waiting for a break, he leaped out from behind a destroyed skullship with his Power Blasters held high. The bishop returned fire but the Grey Ranger was too fast, diving to safety as the wreckage erupted behind him. Rolling to his feet as the bishop continued firing, he dodged to the left before jumping to the right, closing in with every step. Forcing the bishop to duck with a wide shot, he took to the air, somersaulting over the robot and firing twin blasts into its head, touching down a second later as the robot was blasted apart behind him.
Avoiding the incoming laser fire, the Blue Ranger raised his three-pronged Power Lance and leaped into the air, dropping down in front of his adversary. As he landed, twin electrified blades unfolded from the bishop's arms, and he raised his lance to block a lunge from the right before batting away the second blade and forcing the robot back with a wide slice. While the bishop regained its footing, the Blue Ranger analysed the robot's body. He knew these kinds of robots were often designed with biological humans in mind, with processing chips in the head and a power core in the torso. By now the bishop had recovered, but a second was all the Blue Ranger needed, sidestepping the robot's attack and carving his bladed lance across the bishop's chest, exposing the wiring and gears underneath.
"Hmm," said the Blue Ranger, "this looks important," and he reached into the robot's body, wrapped his fingers around the first wiring he could see, and ripped it out.
Behind him, the Pink Ranger aimed her Power Bow at her opposing bishop and sent a glowing arrow whistling towards it. But the bishop was lighter and faster than the rest, and it stepped around the arrow and returned fire. The Pink Ranger leaped to safety, racing along the body of a destroyed praying mantis and firing arrow after arrow at her opponent. But the robot nimbly avoided every attack. Changing tactics, the Pink Ranger took to the air and shot a barrage of arrows at a nearby piece of debris, the blast throwing the bishop away. As the smoke cloud cleared, the bishop gazed around to get its bearings when it found itself staring at the Pink Ranger, standing a metre away with a dozen glowing arrows aimed for its head.
"Dodge this," the Pink Ranger said, and fired.
Across the plain, the Aqua Ranger had battled his robotic opponent into the wreckage of one of Automica's starships, keeping the bishop's weapons at bay with his twin Power Sai. As they reached the ship's bridge, the Aqua Ranger caught one of the blades and struck it away, before stepping around a low jab and slashing both sai for the robot's torso. The bishop blocked the weapons in a shower of sparks and retaliated with a wide horizontal slice. But the Aqua Ranger leaped to safety, bouncing off a control panel and kicking the bishop back into a wall. Before the robot could recover, the Aqua Ranger launched his two sai and pinned his enemy's arms to the hull. With the bishop trapped, he grinned beneath his helmet and took to the air, slamming his boot into the robot's face and sending its head flying.
Outside, the Yellow Ranger leaped towards her opponent with a jump kick, but the bishop stepped around the move and followed after her when she landed. As twin blades extended from the robot's wrists, the Yellow Ranger raised her Power Daggers and ran her gaze over the bishop's body.
"Ankles, knees, wrists, body," she said softly, and nodded to herself. "Got it."
The robot charged towards her, swinging its blades in a wide arc. But the Yellow Ranger dropped low, dodging the move and shattering the robot's right ankle with a dagger as it passed. The bishop awkwardly spun to face her when she dived forward, destroying the robot's left ankle with one dagger before disabling the its left knee with the other. Trapped on the spot, the robot could only slash its blades ineffectively, but the Yellow Ranger aimed for its wrists and shattered both blades. Spinning around, the Yellow Ranger launched the weapons for the robot's chest and head, the daggers taking the robot to the ground in sparking ruin.
Over by the empty lab, the Black Ranger had spun the barrel of his Power Axe around and aimed it for his opponent, when he realised his bishop was shaped differently to the others. He soon saw he'd guessed right, when the bishop's chest unfolded into a huge cannon that immediately began firing. He leaped to safety as massive fireballs slammed into the ground behind him, rolling to his feet behind a large boulder. With an almighty kick, he sent the boulder flying towards the bishop. The robot quickly fired, and the boulder exploded in a cloud of dust and smoke. But the Black Ranger charged through the dust cloud, rapidly closing the distance between them. The bishop launched a barrage of fireballs, but the Black Ranger struck them away with the flat of his blade before carving his axe in a powerful arc that sliced the bishop's body in two.
A few metres away, the male White Ranger leaped back as his robotic opponent swung low. When the bishop aimed high, the White Ranger blocked the blades with Saba, striking them away and slicing Saba for the robot's head. The bishop retreated out of danger, but while it was off-balance, the White Ranger took to the air with a spinning kick, slamming the robot off its feet. The bishop recovered faster than he expected, and as he turned to face it, he found the robot aiming its two arm cannons straight for him.
The White Ranger stayed kneeling. "It looks like you got me," he said, when Saba's blade sliced through the bishop's head before flying back to the White Ranger's hand. "Pity I wasn't fighting alone. Thanks Saba."
Over by a swarm of destroyed wasps, the girl White Ranger cracked her Power Whip around her as her robotic adversary kept its distance. Neither opponent broke the stand-off even as the battlefield erupted around them. Finally, the bishop broke into a run, charging across the sandy ground and unfolding its electrified arm blades. The White Ranger didn't move, waiting one more second before cracking the whip for the robot's head, shattering its optical sensors. The bishop skidded to a stop, and the White Ranger flicked the whip towards the robot's left arm, smashing its wrist before aiming for its right arm and snapping the blade clean off. Wrapping the whip around the robot's ankles, she spun the bishop into the air. With a final crack of the whip, she sliced its head from its body.
Nearby, the younger of the two Blue Rangers was trading blows with the final bishop using his Power Staff. Blocking one of the robot's blades, the Blue Ranger swung his staff for the bishop's head, but the robot struck the weapon away and aimed low. The Blue Ranger batted away the blow, and keeping the bishop's blades at bay, he swung a punch straight for the robot's chest shell, caving in the bishop's torso. The robot staggered back, and the Ranger's next blow shattered the robot's head. Damaged but still mobile, the bishop lurched towards him swinging wildly, but the Blue Ranger easily stepped around the move and swept the bishop's legs out from under it as it passed. While it was falling, he spun the staff around him and stabbed the end through the robot's chest, pinning it to the dirt as it broke apart in flames.
Across the battlefield, the Red and Orange Rangers raced towards the Insectoid. With an inhuman screech, the cyborg fired a storm of glowing energy stingers towards the heroes. Without slowing down, the Orange Ranger batted away the stingers with the flat of his blade, while the Red Ranger dived over the blasts, rolling to his feet and taking to the air. They reached the Insectoid together and slashed their blades towards him. In a flash of light, the Insectoid summoned a pair of wicked serrated blades, and he struck their swords away before retaliating. The Red Ranger blocked the blade and batted it away while the Orange Ranger ducked under the move. Side-by-side, they sliced their swords for the Insectoid, carving through his chest armour in a shower of sparks. The Insectoid staggered back, dazed, and the Orange Ranger spun around on the spot with a high kick, forcing the cyborg back even further. Before the Insectoid could recover, the Red Ranger took to the air. For half a second he hung suspended, before slamming his boots into the Insectoid's chest with all the force of a runaway freight train. The blow launched the Insectoid off his feet and sent him crashing to the ground forty feet away.
With his cybernetic wings torn and broken, the Insectoid looked around in alarm as all twelve Rangers closed in, the sparking and destroyed remains of Automica's bishops littering the desert behind them. The cyborg swore under his breath and reached for his wrist pad.
"We will meet again, fleshlingszzz!" he buzzed, and hit a blinking button on his wrist pad. In an instant, the Insectoid shot up into the atmosphere as an energy trail and vanished over the horizon a second later.
The Rangers turned to each other. "One down," said the male White Ranger.
"In all of that," began the younger Blue Ranger, "did anyone see what happened to General Skull?"
A loud roar filled the air. Everyone turned to see General Skull's flagship falling out of the sky, the giant grinning skull on a wide arc towards us and gaining speed with every second.
"Let's take him down!" shouted the Black Ranger. "Power Axe!"
"Power Sword!" finished the Red Ranger. Taking to the air, he came down holding the Megablaster.
His team-mates braced themselves against his shoulders, and he aimed the five-cannon weapon straight for the falling skullship and fired. Power exploded from the Megablaster and roared towards the skullship. In the bridge, General Skull had half a second of honest realisation before the blast slammed into his ship and the skullship exploded in a ball of flames. Dropping out of the sky, the fiery wreckage crashed into the dirt with earth-shaking force before slamming into a nearby cliff-face. The Red Ranger nodded to himself and lowered the Megablaster.
"Well that's two," said the Aqua Ranger.
"Hold on guys," called the Yellow Ranger. "We're not done yet!"
We turned to where the Yellow Ranger was pointing, and immediately recognised the shadowy figure approaching us, unbeaten, unscathed and more determined than ever to claim her destiny.
"Automica," I murmured.