Battle at the Museum
"Here we are," Dad said, as we unbuckled our seatbelts and climbed out of the car. "The National Museum of Australia. It's all yours Sally."
Beside me, my sister Sally grinned with excitement. With fair hair and blue eyes, Sally took after Dad. She was a couple of years younger than me and had always been interested in museums and art galleries, while I'd preferred the cool logic of science and numbers.
"I'm so excited!" Sally gushed. "I wanna check out the exhibit about the indigenous Australians, and then the early pioneering displays, oh, and there's an entire gallery about Australian painters and sculptors, and I saw in a brochure that there's a new exhibit about a dig from the Gibson Desert!"
"So exciting," I murmured, as we made our way through the carpark towards the front entrance. On the lawn around the building was a strange collection of mismatched statues and sculptures. None of them looked like anything besides oddly-carved pieces of stone, and I mourned for the state of public art.
Beside me, Mum frowned. "C'mon Tim," she said. "It was your choice yesterday, which means it's Sally's pick today. Besides, we've never been here before. It might be interesting!"
We were on holiday here, far away from home. It was a stupid family tradition that I'd never been able to avoid. Every year, we'd spend Christmas at home, then spend New Year's Day in some part of the world we'd never visited before. Last year it was Lord Howe Island, the year before, Auckland, and the year before that, Perth. My parents had apparently met all those years ago while on mutual family holidays, although I'd never thought to ask any more than that.
Mum reached for my hand, but I irritably jerked it away. "I just don't see why I couldn't have spent the day in the air-conditioned hotel room watching pay-per-view," I said.
"Think of all the culture you're getting," Dad said loudly, with a tiny smile.
I muttered something under my breath, content to silently mock the sculptures on the lawn around us, while Sally rolled her eyes. We reached the front of the building soon enough, and after our parents paid for the tickets, the four of us made our way inside. The building was gigantic, the interior wide and airy with a high ceiling. Immediately before us, a dinosaur skeleton towered over us, while galleries filled with exhibits stretched away on all sides. To our right sat a little gift shop, already full of children buying toys and games, while a signpost hanging from the ceiling pointed to bathrooms and the museum cafe outside by the gardens.
Dad turned to Sally. "Where to first?" he asked. His enthusiasm actually sounded real. God help me. I don't know how he did it.
"How about we go and see the..." Sally began, but I cut her off.
"Can I just leave you guys to do your own thing?" I asked. "Sal's gonna have a lot more fun without me, and I can just wander around by myself for a while." I glanced to my watch. "It's nine thirty now. I'll meet you guys in the cafe at one o'clock or so? Can we just do that?"
Dad nodded. "I don't see anything wrong with that," he said. "Do you Linda?"
Mum looked around nervously. "The museum is such a big place," she said. "What if he gets lost?"
I was standing right there. "I'll be fine!" I fumed. "It's only a museum. I'm not gonna stumble through a door and wind up halfway across the Universe, am I?"
"Linda, we may as well," Dad said, then turned to me. "Just stay out of trouble. One o'clock, the cafe."
"I'll be there," I said. Without another glance in their direction, I turned and walked away.
Left to my own devices, I spent the morning wandering aimlessly through the museum's various galleries with my thumbs hooked into my pockets, listening to my footsteps on the tiles. I looked idly at paintings, watching video exhibits and inspected fossils and dusty war memorabilia. The museum wasn't too busy and many of the galleries were practically empty, although I couldn't help but notice a lot of teenagers around. There seemed to be a lot of people my age wandering through the galleries, far more than I would've expected. They were all polite and friendly enough, waving hello and smiling as we crossed paths. I guess the National Museum of Australia was a happening kind of place that day.
Close to midday, when I'd explored most of the building, I made my way down a long corridor of priceless works of art and turned to find a gallery I hadn't seen before. I glanced to the sign by the entryway and remembered one of the things Sally had said in the carpark. Around me was the museum's latest exhibit, the archaeological dig from the Gibson Desert. I quickly read the story on the signboard. Apparently a mining crew had been testing for new sites when they'd found a treasure trove of ancient artefacts from the original tribes who'd lived in the area. The mining team had contacted the museum, and because of the private companies involved, the artefacts had been quickly shipped to Canberra.
I stepped past the sign into the gallery. Large windows offered a wide view of the lawn beside the museum, including half a dozen of those ridiculous statues. All around me were glass cases with the recovered artefacts inside. There was the usual collection of weapons and tools, but in the far corner, I noticed a shiny silver orb about the size of a soccer ball. It seemed so out-of-place that I was automatically drawn to it. The curve of the sphere was rough and pitted, and I felt the hairs on my arm standing on end when I passed. According to the plaque beside the case, even the museum staff had no idea what the orb was or what it did. The only thing they could say with any certainty was that the orb was an impossibility, something that shouldn't have existed in that time and place, but did.
Unimpressed, I gave the orb a final glance before walking away. But as I did, an absurd thought crossed my mind, as if a ghost had suddenly appeared in a corner of the room and I'd looked over a second too late to catch it.
For half a second, it felt like the orb was watching me back.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the sphere was still sitting there motionless. I shook my head to clear my thoughts, when I heard footsteps and looked back to the entryway.
A young man had just stepped into the gallery. He had dark wavy hair and looked to be about twenty or so. He had a strong frame and was powerfully-built, like a rugby player or a fighter. My first thought was that he was definitely not someone I would've wanted to cross. But as he noticed me there in the gallery, he nodded a greeting and offered a smile. It was then I noticed the kindness in his face that I'd missed from my first glance.
He seemed a lot more interested in all the artefacts. I watched as he scanned the room, then began to methodically work his way through the collection, taking his time to carefully read the sign beside every piece.
I stepped towards him. "Now there's someone who takes his museums seriously," I said.
The young man looked up as I approached, as if he'd forgotten there was someone else in the room. Seeing me, he laughed and stood back. "It's part of the job," he said, then lowered his voice. "Honestly? You wouldn't believe how much time I spend in museums. It's crazy."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," I said.
He waved his hand. "Don't worry, I needed a break," he replied. "My eyes were going fuzzy," and he pointed to the plaque beside a collection of ancient hunting knives. "I must've looked at that sign three times, and I don't think I read a single word."
I extended my hand. "I'm Tim, by the way."
He shook my hand. "Nice to meet you," he said. "I'm Jason. Jason Scott."
"So what do you do," I began, nodding to the exhibit, "if this is all part of the job?"
"I'm a college student," Jason replied easily. "I study on a campus up north. I'm guessing you're still in high school?"
"Yeah," I replied. "Starting grade twelve in February. I know the hard stuff's waiting at the end of the year. I'm definitely not looking forward to it."
"It gets harder before it gets easier, I'll give you that," Jason said. "Any idea what you want to do after you finish?"
"I've always been interested in the sciences," I replied. "I like the idea of going into medicine. The world will never have too many doctors, after all. But I need a really good year at school. The only other thing I really enjoy is writing, but I'm not that good. And there's a hell of a lot less job security."
"Yeah, my best friend is brilliant with words," he replied. "I've always been jealous of you guys. I was never much of an English student. But honestly? If you're a decent writer, you're halfway there for college anyway."
"I'm trying not to think about it," I said. "It gets overwhelming."
"You don't have to be scared of it," Jason said. "College is actually a lot of fun."
"I'll take your word for it," I replied.
"I know it seems pretty scary, and when I was younger, I used to think that too," he said. For a second, I could see a faraway look in his eyes. "But give the world a chance. It might just surprise you. I know it sure as hell keeps surprising me."
"It's hard to see that sometimes," I said. "Most of the time, life seems like it's little more than heart-break, parking tickets and tax returns. You know, this desperate scramble to hurry up and be what everyone expects you to be. I don't know. There's no room for magic anymore."
Jason laughed. "You are way too cynical to be a high school student," he said.
"Sorry," I replied. "I've been through a bad couple of months. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong, either," and I pointed to the exhibits around us. "There's an artefact in the back corner they reckon is an archaeological impossibility. Sure, it could be magical, but you know what? It could also be just a rock. Like, I don't know, take the Power Rangers for example," and I noticed his eyes grow wide for a second. "I read last year that on one of their adventures, the Rangers met an actual Greek god? Eros or something? I saw it in a newspaper, and I'm telling you now. Don't believe it. It's rubbish."
"So you don't believe in the impossible?" Jason asked.
"What's the point?" I replied. "It doesn't matter either way, does it?"
Jason nodded. "That's fair," he said. "So what was this archaeological impossibility that's probably just a rock?"
I pointed to the pitted orb in the back corner of the gallery. "It's over there," I replied. "I'm not sure what it is, but neither are they."
He saw what I was talking about, and just like that, he became a different person. His expression changed from friendly to coolly-determined in an instant. When he spoke next, all traces of warmth were gone from his voice. "Thanks for pointing that out to me," he said quickly. He didn't sound hostile, but it suddenly felt like I was the furthest thing from his mind. "Listen, if you're ever up north, look me up. University of the Sunshine Coast. We can hang out. It was good to meet you Tim," and he met my gaze. For half a second, that kindness was back in his face. "See you around. Stay safe," and without another drastic change in his demeanour, he brushed past me.
Whoa. That was weird.
He must really take his museums seriously.
I shrugged and looked at my watch. It was close to twelve thirty, which meant it was almost time to meet my family at the cafe. Putting the young man's odd behaviour at the back of my mind, I headed for the gallery entrance. But as I crossed the room, I saw the grounds outside suddenly plunge into darkness, as if something enormous had moved between the city and the midday sun. But that was impossible. I looked to the window curiously, wondering what on Earth was happening outside, when I heard the sound of footsteps on the tiled floor. It sounded like a lot of people were rapidly approaching the exhibit.
And it was that exact second when all hell broke loose.
The wall facing me was ripped away from the building and thrown aside, as if a vengeful giant had suddenly broken the building in half. Plaster and debris rained down over me as the remaining wall toppled inwards, destroying the exhibit and burying the relics in a pile of tangled rubble. Frozen in disbelief, I could only watch as the roof high above me began caving in, the girders crashing to the floor and destroying anything they landed on. I screamed and dived towards the only wall still standing, desperate for cover as the entire gallery collapsed around me. A flying shard of glass sliced into my arm, while a piece of the wall struck my face and filled my mouth with blood.
I spat out a mouthful of red onto the floor and gazed around in breathless terror, my heart hammering against my ribs.
What the hell had just happened?
Through the missing corner of the building, I could see the grass beside the museum and the carpark in the distance. Everywhere I looked, people were running and screaming in a blind panic. Outside, the odd sculptures on the lawn that had looked so silly before were now sinister shapes looming out of the smoke cloud. Shadow fell, blocking out the light, and I glanced up through the destroyed ceiling.
"Oh my God," I breathed.
Hovering over the museum was a giant silver spaceship. It couldn't have been anything else. Larger than the entire museum, the ship was perfectly round and covered in shiny chrome, with a smooth exterior and dark triangular windows. The lower levels of the ship seemed to be rotating, gaps in the sides of the hull reminding me of gears and cogs turning in a system. The whole thing looked like it was straight out of a movie, except it had a lot more guns than I would've expected.
I suddenly remembered the dark-haired young man I'd been talking to not two minutes ago. Gripped by the overwhelming urge to get the hell out of there, I glanced frantically around the room. Even with the thick cloud of smoke, I couldn't see him. He must've escaped through the giant hole in the wall.
I climbed to my feet, coughing from all the dust, and was about to follow him to safety when a figure appeared in the cloud, taking slow, deliberate steps into the ruined building. My first thought was that whoever it was had the shape of a woman, but as the smoke cleared, I realised the person in front of me wasn't even a person! She had a silvery metal body, with shiny chrome from her boots to her fingertips. Covering her exterior shell was stylised body-armour. Her face was almost human but for her glowing red eyes and a malevolent scowl. Strands of braided metal hair fell from her head, while on her chest was an odd symbol, a diamond with a cog inside. I could see the symbol repeated on her gauntlets and boots, and wondered what it meant.
I froze, holding my breath. Whoever this robot-woman was, she didn't look friendly. But as she swept her gaze around the wreckage, she didn't seem to notice me at all.
"Where is it?" she said aloud, her voice a menacing robotic drone as she scanned the debris. "All our readings showed it was here. Where is the...?" but her voice trailed off as she turned to my corner of the room.
My heart skipped a beat as I realised she was staring straight at me.
"You," she said, and marched towards me. I backed away but ran into the wall. "Organic filth," she continued, her voice dripping with contempt. "You must know. Where is it? Where have you hidden it? Where is it?"
"I don't know!" I shouted. "I don't know what you're looking for! If you tell me I can help you look! I don't know what it is!"
She ignored me. "Where is it?" she demanded again, and then stopped. "Where is my orb?"
The sky lit up, and I looked up as twelve streaks of light shot down out of the clouds towards the museum. The robot-woman quickly retreated, and a second later, all twelve Power Rangers materialised before me, landing between me and my attacker. As one, the line of heroes raised their fists defensively and stepped forward. I couldn't believe it. They were right in front of me, so close I could've reached out and touched them. But I quickly thought better of it.
The Orange Ranger glanced over his shoulder. "Get out of here!" he called. "Get to safety!"
I pointed to the wall and tried to explain that there was literally nowhere I could go, but my voice caught in my throat and the best I could manage was a terrified squeak. Besides, I had the feeling that the safest place in the city right now was three feet behind them.
"Rangers!" hissed the robot. "How dare you interfere with my holy mission?"
"We know why you're here Automica," said the Red Ranger, addressing the psychotic robot. "We know what you're looking for."
"And we won't let you have it," finished the male White Ranger.
"As if you have a choice," the robot shot back. "That orb is my divine right, to fulfill the righteous orders of the Perfect System and cleanse the galaxy of the blasphemy that is organic life!"
I had no idea what any of that meant, but I saw the Rangers glance worriedly back and forth, and I knew it couldn't be good.
"Listen to reason," said the Yellow Ranger. "You're blindly parroting your faith like a zealot! With no care for the people you're going to hurt! People who pose you no threat and who've caused you no harm!"
"Exactly," added the younger of the two Blue Rangers. "Why? Why are you doing this? Do you even know?"
"Enough!" screamed Automica. "You are organic! Diseased and flawed! You will be the first to fall against me!"
The Black Ranger summoned his Power Axe. "Go ahead and try," he growled.
Automica laughed shrilly. "I knew you would attempt to stop me," she began, "but the divine truth of the Perfect System will not be denied! Bishops!"
Automica snapped her fingers, and in a dozen flashes of light, twelve more robots beamed down from the hovering ship. They were seven feet tall, and their silver bodies bristled with weaponry. They had glowing eyes, and their heads were adorned with crowns that looked like spinning gears. The same strange diamond symbol covered their bodies, but as I glanced between them, I saw that each robot's eyes were shining a different colour than the rest. The Rangers stepped back fearfully, and I knew they'd realised why.
"All of you," Automica instructed, "keep the Rangers busy. I will find the orb!"
"Automica, wait!" began the girl White Ranger, but it was too late. With a gesture from their leader, the twelve robots identified their opposite numbers and charged towards them.
The destroyed gallery erupted with the sounds of frenzied combat on all sides. The screech of steel, the whistle of laser fire and the noise of explosions immediately filled the air. On my left, one of the robot bishops leaped towards the Purple Ranger and tackled her outside, while the Grey Ranger somersaulted to safety as his opponent thundered towards him. A few metres away, the Aqua Ranger sprang forward with a high kick and launched his enemy out onto the grass, while the Black Ranger behind him carved his axe straight towards his robotic adversary. On the other side of the room, the Pink Ranger summoned her Power Bow and began firing as the elder Blue Ranger traded blows with his opponent using his three-pronged lance.
I dropped to the ground and pulled my knees close. Protecting my face, I covered my ears and tried to make myself as small as possible while desperate battles were waged all around me. Despite the chaos, I could hear myself screaming with every explosion. But there was nowhere to run, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked, the Rangers were trading blows with Automica's ruthless bishops. If I made a move in any direction, I was dead.
After a minute I heard an explosion much closer than the rest, and I looked up to see the Red Ranger disappear in a cloud of sparks. Satisfied, the bishop turned back to its master Automica, and I realised she was standing a metre away from me.
"Look at it," she said, nodding towards me. "So fragile and pathetic. How can we be permitted to let it live? Bishop one. Kill it. By order of the Perfect System."
My breath caught in my throat as the robot stepped towards me. I tried to scream, tried to crawl to safety or beg for my life or anything, but my body wasn't listening to my brain.
"Don't you dare!" came a wild shout. I looked up to see the Red Ranger falling towards us. As he landed, he slammed his fist into the bishop's chestplate, caving in the robot's shell and forcing it backwards. The Red Ranger stepped between us, massaging his fist and turning to me. "Tim!" he shouted. "Run!"
How did he know my name?
But I had no time to think as the robot regained its balance and turned to face us. Laser cannons unfolded from its arms and what was left of its shattered body. Taking half a second to aim, it fired.
The Red Ranger stepped in front of the robot and the barrage slammed into him. His body shook from the force of the blast but he didn't fall. Instead, the Red Ranger stepped forward, grabbing one of the robot's outstretched arms and crumpling it between his fingers. The robot fired its chest cannons again, and I lost sight of the Red Ranger as the whole area erupted in sparks and fire. But an almighty blow sounded, and I watched the bishop stagger back. The Red Ranger followed, landing blow after blow and destroying more and more of his opponent with every punch, yet still the robot kept firing. Finally, closing the distance between them, the Red Ranger smashed his fist into the bishop's head. As the red light in the robot's eyes flickered, the Ranger summoned his Power Sword in a flash of light, taking the bishop's head off with one swing and slicing its body in half with a second.
The bishop fell to the ground in pieces as the Red Ranger collapsed to his knees, panting and leaning on his sword. His body was still smoking, and I could see the charred, burned parts of his suit.
"You okay?" asked the Orange Ranger, immediately by his team-mate's side. I saw him rest a reassuring hand on the Red Ranger's shoulder.
The Red Ranger stood up. "Better now," he said.
Watching them from a few metres away, Automica seethed in frustration. "Bishop seven, you have lost your target!" she shouted. "Find him! Destroy them both!"
With its eyes glowing orange, the seventh bishop charged out of the smoke cloud, swinging its fists straight for the two Rangers. They leaped to safety with a second to spare as the robot's hands slammed into the ground and left a crater on the floor. Finding his footing, the Orange Ranger kicked high, slamming his boot into the bishop's head. The robot staggered back, and before it could recover, the Red Ranger raced forward, carving his blade through the bishop's chest shell. Fighting side-by-side, the two Rangers continued to keep their opponent off-balance, pressing forward with every blow. As the bishop fired its arm cannons, the Orange Ranger summoned his sword in a flash of orange, blocking the barrage and destroying the bishop's arm before ducking low to let the Red Ranger destroy the other arm. As the bishop fell back sparking, the Orange Ranger charged his sword and slashed it straight for the robot, instantly destroying it.
But with the second bishop destroyed and Automica on the far side of the room, there was suddenly a clear path between me and the hole in the wall. I could still hear battles going on outside, but it sounded like they were spread out over the museum grounds. All I wanted to do was get out of there and find my family. Taking deep breaths, I leaped to my feet and bolted.
I made it three steps. My feet weren't moving as fast as I wanted them to, and I tripped over a support beam and crashed to the ground, tearing the skin on my elbows and knees. Dazed and confused, I looked around.
The metallic orb Automica had come for was facing me from under a pile of debris, not half a metre away.
My first thought was, 'run'.
But then I realised the Orange and Red Rangers were standing somewhere behind me with their opponents destroyed. I had no idea what the orb was or why it was so important, but if I could get it to the Rangers, they'd know what to do with it and be able to keep it safe.
I reached out for it, when a pair of silver hands wrenched it out of my grasp.
"Finally," Automica droned, holding the orb up to her metallic face. "Finally the Skethani virus is mine, and I can complete my divine mission!"
I crawled away from her. "The what virus?" I asked.
"Automica!" shouted the Red Ranger. We spun to face the two heroes, standing a few feet away with their swords raised. "Drop it. Now."
"You know what the virus is and what it does," said the Orange Ranger. "And you are not leaving here with it. Do you understand?"
Automica didn't reply for a few seconds, glancing from the orb to me and back again. I could literally hear the gears turning inside her head. "For once Rangers, I completely agree with you," she said.
"Automica," growled the Red Ranger, his voice low and dangerous. "Don't."
Automica laughed as I gazed around for an escape. "Tales of Earth's magnificent champions have spread far and wide across the galaxy," she said, balancing the orb in one hand. "They say the twelve of you can accomplish the impossible. Well Rangers, you know the legends about the Skethani virus as well as I do. Let's find out," and she held the orb up to her face. "Awaken."
"No!" shouted the Orange Ranger, but it was too late.
Flashes of lightning lit up the ruined gallery as fingers of electricity crackled around us. The two heroes leaped towards me, but the orb must've sensed them and blasted them away in a blaze of sparks. I was shouting, but my voice was lost to the maelstrom as an inhuman screech filled the air. I watched helplessly as the orb in Automica's hand disintegrated, rising into the air as a cloud of silvery particles. It hung suspended for half a second, then shot down towards me as if guided by a mind of its own. I raised my arms to protect myself, but the cloud went straight past them. A horrible metallic taste filled my mouth as the cloud streamed into me without stopping. I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe, and I was fighting for oxygen when I felt a burst of pain exploding through every part of me. I started convulsing, my hands shaking in front of me, and then came a splitting pain in the back of my head. As the last of the particles disappeared into me, I blacked out and collapsed to the ground.
"Good luck Rangers," Automica called, then raised her hand. "Bishops? Retreat!"
The Red and Orange Rangers leaped towards her, but Automica teleported away. The Red Ranger stamped his foot in frustration as the Orange Ranger knelt down beside me to check my pulse. Outside the museum, the sounds of combat faded away as the ten remaining bishops vanished from the scene. A few minutes later, the team regrouped inside the destroyed building, but they took one look at my body and assumed the worst.
"What happened?" asked Kim. "Is he okay?"
"Yeah, where's the virus?" Zac asked.
"Automica got to the virus before we did," Jason replied softly. "Before we could stop her, she activated it and infected Tim with it." A round of murmurs went around the group, and Jason nodded. "It's our worst case scenario, guys. He's been infected with the Skethani virus. This is bad."