The Skethani Virus
The murky haze began to lift as I slowly returned to my senses. Fuzzy shapes swam in front of my eyes, and the first thing I noticed was that I still had this odd metallic taste in my mouth. It wasn't blood, though, but something I couldn't identify. Blinking, I sat up, and the world took shape around me.
I was sitting on the lawn outside the museum. All around me were charred and burnt patches of grass, lingering evidence of the battles that had just taken place. But I was surrounded on all sides by human shapes. As they came into focus, I realised that all twelve Power Rangers were standing guard around me. I couldn't see any of the evil robots, but none of the Rangers looked relaxed. Indeed, they were all warily scanning the horizon.
"Hey guys," called the girl White Ranger. "Guys, check it out! He's waking up!"
The heroes all turned to me, and the elder of the two Blue Rangers offered me a hand. I gratefully accepted it and stood up. I was woozy for a few seconds and wobbled on my feet as a wave of nausea washed over me, but it passed soon enough.
"Thanks," I said, and massaged my head. "Ow. What the hell was that?"
"Timothy Sanderson, I believe your name is," said the elder Blue Ranger, then noted my puzzled expression. "We took the liberty of checking your wallet while you were unconscious. How do you feel?"
"I've definitely felt better," I murmured, then looked around. "Wait, are those things gone? Are we okay here?"
"Automica and her bishops have all gone," replied the Yellow Ranger. "Don't worry. We're safe."
"At least for now," added the Purple Ranger, in a tone I didn't like one bit.
"Automica?" I repeated. "That was her, the crazy robot lady, wasn't it? Who was she? And why was she a 'she' if she's a robot? What the hell is going on?"
The elder of the two Blue Rangers nodded. "We owe you a lot of explanations," the young man said. When he continued, it was with a slow, measured voice that I soon realised was for my benefit. The more he spoke, the gladder I was for it. "Some time ago on a distant alien world, a series of robots were manufactured and programmed with a far more complex artificial intelligence than usual. Surprisingly, one of the first things they began doing was asking existential questions about the nature of their existence, about the very purpose of their being. Without any prompting, they developed their own system of belief, if you will, devoted to the worship of the perfect machinery of cogs and gears."
I didn't reply for a long time, letting what he was saying sink in. "But that's crazy," I said eventually. "You're talking about a religion for robots. That's mad!"
The Blue Ranger tilted his head. "For want of a better phrase, that's more or less accurate," he said. "But unfortunately, in what seems to be a disturbingly common trend, an individual pursuing their own agenda within the larger group twisted the organisation's ideals into something they were never intended to be. We recently learned that Automica, the high priestess who led the attack on the museum today, was leading a breakaway sect..."
"The divine order of the Perfect System," interrupted the Black Ranger, standing a few metres behind everybody else.
"Yeah, I got that part," I said irritably. "Go on."
"They believe that organic, biological life is a blasphemous imperfection that deserves to be wiped out," the elder Blue Ranger continued. He glanced around, seemingly hesitant to continue. "Which brings us to today and the Skethani virus."
"The what now?" I asked, then my memory caught up with me. "The, the priestess, she said that to me when she, when she..." but I gazed down in horror at my hands. "Oh God it's in me! What is it? What is it?! It's in me!"
The girl White Ranger pushed past her team-mates to grab my arms and hold me in place. "Hey!" she shouted, forcing me to focus on her visor. When the sunlight hit her helmet, for half a second I could see her eyes. "It's okay! Look at me. Listen to me. You're going to be okay. Yes, something bad happened..."
"Something really bad, actually," the Aqua Ranger interrupted.
The White Ranger shot him a look. "Thank you Br..." she began, but caught herself just in time. "Aqua," she corrected, then turned back to me. "But we can fix this, okay?"
I looked from the White Ranger to her eleven team-mates. I could see them watching me carefully. But after taking a couple of deep breaths, I felt my heart-rate returning to normal. "Okay," I nodded, and the White Ranger stepped back. "But you're not telling me everything. This virus, what is it? What's it gonna do to me?"
"The Skethani virus is part magic, part super-science," explained the Yellow Ranger. "The orb you saw in the museum was the virus's inert form. What we assume Automica did was activate the virus with some kind of electric charge."
"What does 'Skethani' even mean?" I asked.
"It's a word from a long-extinct alien language meaning ultimate death," explained the younger Blue Ranger. I noticed that his costume was a lighter shade of blue than his older team-mate. "Imagine a total void, infinite nothing."
The elder Blue Ranger nodded. "Yes, a state of being before the Universe even existed," he added. "That's the approximate definition of 'Skethani', as best as we could translate it."
"So it's something pretty scary," I said. "What does it actually do?"
The Rangers looked around to each other, suddenly nervous. "In laymen's terms," began the elder Blue Ranger, "the virus is a possibly-sentient biomechanical plague. Made up of nanotech components, its programmed goal is the total eradication of all organic, biological lifeforms. There's no stopping it and there's no reprogramming it. And with every piece of organic matter it disassembles, it then uses those molecules to replicate. If left unchecked, the virus could cause a catastrophic disaster on a galactic scale."
I felt my heart skip a beat. "And that thing is inside me?" I whispered, terrified the slightest noise might set it off.
"According to legend," the Orange Ranger explained, "the virus was created a century ago by a scientist from the planet Dhalia. Nobody's really sure what happened, but once the virus was finished, the scientist smuggled it off-world and eventually hid it here on Earth. The current theory is that she always planned to return for it and then sell it to the highest bidder, but she never did. Like Bi... Blue said, you can imagine why that would've been a nightmare scenario. At any rate, the museum found it accidentally, and they put it on display without knowing what it was."
"We came here to get it, but Automica beat us to it," the Pink Ranger finished.
"So you cornered her and she infected me with the virus to get away?" I asked.
The elder Blue Ranger nodded. "Affirmative," he replied, and I noticed he was holding a small phone-sized device. The device beeped, and he raised it to his helmet. "Guys, the energy readings here are astronomical," he said. "They'll be sensing this on the moon."
"Energy readings?" I repeated. "Why does this keep sounding worse? C'mon, tell me the truth. What's going to happen to me? I deserve to know."
"Unfortunately, Automica had another reason to infect you with the virus," the Yellow Ranger replied. "The virus is feeding on your bioelectrical energy. You probably won't even notice, although you may feel increasingly fatigued."
"If your life energy is, say, dramatically cut off by an external force," began the elder Blue Ranger.
"Like if the robots had killed me?" I asked.
He nodded. "With its hibernation interrupted, the virus would break free, untamed and incomplete," he continued. "It would be impossible to control, and would ravage any nearby areas with a hyper-destructive storm."
I glanced down to my body. "So what you're telling me is that I'm a walking weapon of mass destruction?"
"Essentially," replied the younger Blue Ranger. "Which is why we need to get the virus out of you sometime in the next three days."
My brow fell. "Three days?" I repeated. "Why the time limit?"
The longer they took to reply, the worse I knew it would be. "According to its folklore," the elder Blue Ranger said finally, "once the virus has charged, it will burst free, consuming you in the process. You, uh, you may not..."
"Am I gonna die?" I asked. My voice broke. The world started spinning around me. "Am I gonna die?" My legs gave out, and I collapsed to the grass. "Oh God, I'm gonna die..."
"He's going into shock," said the Yellow Ranger. "Tim! Stay with us!"
I didn't hear a word she said. I started hyperventilating, and everything went blurry. I felt tears streaming down my face, and I wiped them away with the back of my hand. All I could think about were my parents, my sister and my best friend. I thought of their faces, the jokes we'd told, all the things we'd seen and done. I thought about Dad and the way he liked his morning coffee. I thought about how Mum always went to the same supermarket checkout operator even though she said he was never very friendly. I remembered how Sally had been so excited at the thought of coming to the museum. I thought about my best friend Alex, and the last day of school when I'd thrown a water balloon at my teacher and accidently hit the vice-principal (who nobody liked anyway). I thought about my favourite songs and movies, and they flashed past me in a blur. And I thought about all these things knowing I'd never see or hear them ever again.
I could hear the Rangers talking and could vaguely feel their attention, but I didn't register a single word. In a daze, I looked up to the Purple Ranger who was standing nearby.
"In three days, I'm going to die," I whispered.
"No you're not," she said, and yanked me to my feet.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Because we can change the world in a minute," she replied. "Just think of all the things we can do in three days."
"Yeah, okay," I said, without a shred of confidence. "Whatever."
The Pink Ranger glanced around to her team-mates. "So what's the plan?" she asked. "Bi... Blue said it himself. Tim has a target on his back. What do we do now?"
"I want to find my family," I said softly, and tugged at the arm of the Grey Ranger standing beside me. "Please, let me see my mother and my father."
The Grey Ranger turned to me sadly then looked back to his team-mates. "We have to get Tim some place safe," he said.
"Automica may have retreated, but it's a safe bet she's not far away," the Yellow Ranger said. "We can count on her coming back for Tim, sooner rather than later."
"Tri... Yellow's right," the Aqua Ranger agreed. "And if this thing is as powerful as everyone says, then Automica's not gonna be the only one who tries. We're gonna have bad guys falling out of the sky. We have to get out of here."
I was already overwhelmed, and I was fighting to keep up. "Well that's really not good," I mumbled. "We should definitely get out of here then."
The Rangers turned to me as if they'd forgotten I was there. "It's okay," the girl White Ranger said, resting a hand on my arm. "We can take you to our Command Centre. You'll be protected there. Not many people know where it is, and we can keep you safe until we figure out how to get the virus out of you."
"I guess," I said, "but how do we get there?"
"We can teleport," she said, doing her best to sound reassuring. "You'll be fine."
"It's settled then," the Black Ranger said. "C'mon, let's go," and he reached for his wrist.
The elder Blue Ranger grabbed his arm. "Wait, no, stop!" he shouted. "If the Skethani virus is even halfway as self-aware as its folklore suggests, once it sees where we've taken it..."
The Rangers realised what he was saying even if I didn't, and they lowered their heads in defeat.
"Damn it," swore the Red Ranger. "That'd make Tim the perfect Trojan horse. We can't risk it, not even with all our resources there. But where can we go? We need somewhere safe, but somewhere we can get help..."
"And somewhere we're not likely to put anyone in harm's way," finished the Orange Ranger.
"That rules out Briarwood or Dragon Island," said the Purple Ranger.
"We can risk a jump to another dimension, can't we?" asked the male White Ranger. "Surely Tim would be safe in Gargoyle Castle."
"We'd still need to travel through the Command Centre to get there," the elder Blue Ranger replied.
"Plus, we don't know that Automica can't track us across dimensions," the younger Blue Ranger added. "It's not a bad idea To... White, but we can't put Culdee and Tobias in that kind of danger."
"And we might even pick up more bad guys when we get there," said the Aqua Ranger.
"Then where can we go?" asked the Pink Ranger, and pointed skyward. "Guys, we're wasting time Tim doesn't have."
The Grey Ranger stepped forward. "This might be a really bad idea," he began, "but what about Olympus?" and he began counting on his fingers. "Eros still owes us that favour. It's hard to get to. People would never think to look for us there. And you can't say we wouldn't be well protected. I know it's risky, but if nothing else, it buys us time to figure out our next move."
The Orange Ranger gazed around the group. "That's actually a really good idea," he said. "The gods aren't gonna be happy, but I mean," and he shrugged. "We're out of options."
"It's definitely worth a shot," agreed the girl White Ranger.
I blinked. "Hang on a second," I said. "Olympus? As in, Mount Olympus? Zeus and Hercules and warrior princesses and all that stuff?"
"Sorry to dump all this on you so quickly," the Pink Ranger began, "but that's the superhero thing. You gotta move fast."
"And hey," said the Aqua Ranger, "you've got the twelve of us around you the whole time."
That didn't sound like much help. "Um, okay?"
The Red Ranger turned to his pink-clad team-mate. "Make the shot," he said.
The Pink Ranger nodded. In a flash of pink, she summoned her Power Bow. Taking aim at the clouds, she pulled back the string, and a glowing arrow appeared in the weapon.
"Find Eros," she whispered, and fired.
The arrow shot up into the sky, but froze about thirty feet off the ground as if it'd been caught by an invisible hand. I watched in disbelief as the shape of a young man began to materialise in midair, holding the arrow the Pink Ranger had just fired. He was a teenager about the same age as me, with spiky blond hair, a handsome face and chiselled features. The thing that threw me most was his eyes. They were old, and his gaze didn't match the rest of his face. He was floating above us thanks to the white feathered wings at his back, and he looked down over the heroes and grinned.
"Hey guys!" the youth exclaimed. "What's up? You miss me?"
As the youth touched down in front of us, the arrow he was holding faded away. His wings folded against his back and the Rangers rushed forward to meet him. I recalled enough of Greek myth, at least, what I'd thought was just myth until about twenty seconds ago, to instantly recognise who the Rangers were talking to.
Eros, the god of love.
Eros even had a quiver at his side and an ornate, golden bow strapped around his chest. But for the Rangers, meeting a genuine, honest-to-goodness god seemed like every other day, and they greeted him like an old friend.
What the hell was going on?
"It's good to see you again," said the Red Ranger.
"Thanks for catching the arrow," the Pink Ranger added.
"No problem," Eros grinned. "It's always great to catch up. But ooh, why the serious faces? Is this scary Ranger stuff?"
I stepped forward. "Faces?" I repeated, then realised exactly what those eyes were seeing. "You can see through their helmets, can't you?"
Eros turned to me, then smiled curiously. "Who's the newbie?" he asked.
"He's the reason we need your help," the Orange Ranger explained. "His name's Tim, and he's been infected by the Skethani virus."
At the mention of the word 'Skethani', I saw Eros's eyes go wide. With a look of surprise, he swept his gaze over me as if seeing me for the first time. "Whoa," he said softly. "Kid, you are having a bad day."
"No kidding," I said.
"We've already got one supervillain gunning for us," the male White Ranger said, "and it's only a matter of time before more show up. We need to get Tim somewhere safe. We thought of Olympus and figured we could call in the favour."
"I'm happy to help," Eros replied. "After all, a debt's a debt. And if this poor kid has the Skethani virus inside him, you'll need all the help you can get."
"We're worried about your family though," the Purple Ranger said.
"Yeah, they may not be so keen on this," Eros agreed, "but let me deal with them. Ooh, a Ranger mission! I've been itching to go on another one of these for ages now. Everyone stand together! I've never helped thirteen mortals through before. This could be tricky."
"Will we be okay?" asked the Red Ranger, as he took the god's hand in his right and the Orange Ranger's hand in his left.
"You know what they say," Eros said, and his wings unfolded. "You gotta have a little faith."
The girl White Ranger reached for my arm and wrapped her gloved hand around it. "Whatever happens," she said, "hold on tight. I've got you."
The remaining Rangers all linked hands. I glanced around the group, unable to read them because of their helmets, before turning to the god. He caught me staring and winked. Looking around, I realised that everything was getting brighter, so bright it was starting to hurt my eyes. With that, the ground fell away beneath us. Half a second later, there came a flash and everything – the museum, the wreckage, the carpark and all of Canberra beyond – disappeared. I felt like I was flying through the air but standing still all at once. Clouds whirled around me in a rush of light and fury, and I could hear wild screams of terror that I'm sure were mine.
Ahead of us in the sky but rapidly drawing closer was some kind of shimmering barrier. Before I knew it, we'd punched clean through. Before us was a gigantic island, floating in the sky high above the ground. I got the vague impression of vast temples, towering statues and impossibly-tall trees, and then a few seconds later, we arrived.