Far away from Olympus on a desert peak behind fortified stone walls, Alpha stepped back from his console and turned his gaze up to Zordon, who was watching over the Command Centre from inside his plasma tube.
"Aye-yi-yi Zordon!" Alpha began. "The computers have scanned almost every inch of Earth's surface, and they still can't find any trace of the Rangers! After they left the museum, the Rangers disappeared from our scanners completely."
Zordon frowned. "That is indeed troubling Alpha," he said. "I can guess why they didn't bring that poor boy back to the Command Centre, but if the Skethani virus has been awakened, we must re-establish communication." The interdimensional sage paused, deep in thought. "We know there were no off-world teleportation trails recently, so they must still be on Earth. I doubt they were captured, certainly not all twelve of them. There's simply no way they would've given up or abandoned the boy to his fate. And I would know if something dreadful had happened. We can rule that possibility out right now."
"They must be somewhere!" Alpha exclaimed. "Zordon, what if we retrace their steps?"
"A wise course of action," Zordon nodded. "Where did the computers lose them?"
"Just as they were approaching the Mediterranean Sea," Alpha replied.
Zordon paused. "Alpha," he began eventually, "there's only two or three places in Europe they could be where we wouldn't be able to find them. Knowing the Rangers as well as we do, we can assume they would've gone for help, but somewhere the boy would've been protected. And somewhere nobody would be in any danger." Zordon's voice trailed off, and he blinked. "Of course. Of course! Excellent work Rangers," and he allowed himself a proud smile. "Alpha, I know where the Rangers are. Set the computers to scan the atmosphere above the Greek isles. If anything enters Earth's orbit, we need to be the first to know about it."
"At once Zordon!"
"I need to figure out how to get a message to Olympus that can't be traced back here," he continued. "Oh, and Alpha? I want you in the zord holding bay as soon as possible. If I'm right, the Rangers are going to need our help."
My protection detail, currently consisting of half a dozen superheroes and an actual god, stuck close by as we walked through the quiet stone streets of Olympus. We soon reached the centre of the island and saw Zeus, Hera and the other six Rangers standing on the grass in a garden beside the temple. As we reunited, one of Hera's servants came forward to offer me a jug of sparkling water. I gratefully accepted a cup and took a sip. It was the coolest, freshest water I'd ever had, and I'll never forget the taste. It was strange, but not unpleasant. After I'd gulped it down, I was sure I wouldn't need anything to drink for days.
Thanking Hera for her hospitality, I quietly stepped away from the group as the gods and heroes continued discussing strategy. Keeping them in-sight, but staying far enough away so I wouldn't overhear them, I made my way over to the other end of the garden, where I found a shadowy tree and sat down on the grass, leaning back against the trunk. I watched as the Rangers shared information, passing on what had happened at Hephaestus's workshop. From their body language, the Rangers who'd remained here hadn't come up with any new ideas. I saw several of them gesturing around in frustration, which meant that, for the moment at least, we had nowhere else to go.
But while I was watching the Rangers, I couldn't stop thinking about them. According to the best guesses of the press, the Rangers were a bunch of high school students like me. But that didn't fit somehow. They seemed so much older than that, like this was all just part of the day for them. Looking at their featureless visors, I studied the silver mouthplates set with stern expressions, and I wondered what they looked like under their helmets. What colour were their eyes? What colour was their hair? Were they handsome and attractive like Eros and Hera, or were their faces scarred and battle-damaged like Hephaestus? If I ever met them unmorphed, would I even be able to tell they were superheroes?
The Red Ranger seemed to lead the group, and although I could see how the rest of the team looked to him for guidance, he kept deferring to the Orange and the two Blue Rangers. It seemed like the Aqua Ranger kept trying to diffuse the situation, while the Pink and Grey Rangers never stopped gazing around in wonder at the city behind us. The softly-spoken Yellow Ranger looked like she was the team's liaison to the gods, while I watched as the younger of the two Blue Rangers stood between the girl White Ranger and the gods, with his arms raised protectively. Leaning in close to her helmet, he had a quiet word and stepped away.
My face fell. No, it couldn't be that simple, could it?
Across the garden, the younger Blue Ranger made his way over to a small pavilion and sat down on the stone bench.
"Hey Scott, wait up," called Eros.
Scott nodded a greeting as Eros approached. "Sorry, I just needed some space to clear my head," he replied. "It's been a big day. Thanks again for everything, particularly your help with Tim. We'd be in a lot of trouble without you."
"It's what friends are for," Eros said, and he sat down beside the young hero. Then, with all the tact of a god, Eros smiled. "Have you told them yet?"
Scott turned, startled, then sighed. "How did you know?"
Eros flapped his wings. "Dude, it's me."
"I should've figured," Scott said. "I know I should. I just hate feeling like I'm supposed to. It's complicated, that's all." He looked away. "That sounds stupid, right?"
"Not at all," Eros replied. "For all the thousands of years I've spent watching you mortals, there's one thing I've seen you all get very good at. And that's making simple things complicated. If you ever need to talk, you know I'm here, right?"
"I know," Scott said. "Thanks."
Eros hesitated a second longer, then put one of his arms around Scott's shoulders and pulled the Blue Ranger close for a hug.
Wondering what they were talking about, I heard footsteps behind me and looked up to see the girl White Ranger sit down beside me.
"I know this is probably a silly question," she began, "but how are you?"
"I've had better days," I said. "But I'm trying really hard not to burst into tears. You know, again," and I indicated the palace behind us. "Although this is definitely a day for the books."
"This isn't exactly a normal day for us either," she admitted.
"Really?" I asked. "Then why do all this? You guys just cut a deal with an entire pantheon of gods, like it's something that happens to you every day. Isn't this way above the call of duty?"
"The call of duty is helping people, above all else," she replied. "Like my mother once told me, it's what we're here to do."
"But you can't save everybody," I said.
"Maybe not, but the day we believe that is the day we'll stop trying," she said. "You're right though, it's not always easy. Even with all these years of being a Ranger under my belt, it's still hard to read people sometimes." But it felt like she'd revealed too much of herself, and before I could reply, she changed the subject. "Can I tell you something?"
"You know the hardest part about being a Ranger in those first few months?" she began. "It wasn't the monsters or the aliens we had to fight. That part was easy. It was the feeling that even with all these skills suddenly in my head, and all this responsibility on my shoulders, that I was gonna make a mistake. Do something wrong in front of the senior team. At that point, they'd been doing this a lot longer than me. I worried about that for a long time."
"So what changed?" I asked.
"I did," she replied. "After a while, I realised that maybe I was meant to have this coin. I think sometimes you have to trust that the Universe knows what it's doing, even if it doesn't seem like it." She gestured to the huddle of gods nearby. "They move in mysterious ways, after all."
I laughed, then my face fell. "Back at the museum, you said you guys could fix this," I began, and pointed at my chest. "Do you really think you can?"
"Absolutely I do," the White Ranger replied, and I could hear the honesty in her voice. "Do you?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "But I want to." I glanced over to where the Red and Orange Rangers were standing beside each other. "Can I ask you something? The Red and Orange Rangers, are they dating? It's just a vibe I get. Like, it's okay if they are. My best friend back home leans that way, I think, although he's never told me."
The White Ranger paused for a second and then doubled over laughing. "I'm sorry," she said, fighting for breath. "No, they're not dating. Although they do tend to leave that impression, yes."
"Then let me try again," I said, and pointed to the younger Blue Ranger over with Eros. "The Blue Ranger is your older brother, right?"
The White Ranger stopped giggling and replied before she could stop herself. "How did you know?" she asked.
"When he was talking to you before," I began. "The way he was standing was exactly how I used to act around my little sister." But at the thought of my family, somewhere far below with no clue where I was, I felt tears forming in my eyes. "Damn it."
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just thinking about my family. I might never see them again, and all I can think of is all the horrible, stupid things I did and said to them. Is that how they're gonna remember me? As this awful person who hurt them?"
"Of course not," the White Ranger replied. "Look at the Olympians. Family might not be perfect, but it is what it is."
"I hope so," I sniffled. "I just want to see them again and tell them all the stuff I never thought to say."
The White Ranger sat back thoughtfully and then stood up. "Don't go anywhere," she said. Leaving me by the tree, she jogged back over to her team-mates. Approaching the group, she lowered her voice. "Hey guys," she said.
"Hi Teresa," Peter said, and the Orange Ranger nodded to where I was sitting under the tree. "How's he holding up?"
"Not great, but that's to be expected," Teresa replied. "Not with the ticking clock hanging over him."
Jason shook his head. "I was talking to him in the museum before Automica attacked," he said. "He's a good kid. He's smart, too. Smarter than he thinks he is."
"Well he just mentioned something we haven't even thought about," Teresa said. "He's got two parents and a sister back at the museum waiting for him. They still don't know what's happened to him."
"I've considered that, but we can't tell them," Jason replied. "As cruel as it is, they need to stay out of the loop. Automica knows that Tim's with us. If we contact Tim's family, we're putting them in danger. Automica would probably try to kidnap them and force Tim out of hiding. We can't risk it."
"I know that not contacting Tim's family is keeping them safe," Teresa said. "But has anybody told them that? In a couple of hours, everyone at the museum will have been accounted for, everyone except for Tim. His family are gonna be desperately trying to find out what happened to him. Assuming that Automica knows Tim's with us, then even a quick glance at the local media is gonna tell her exactly who his family are."
"And that'll put them right in harm's way," Trini realised.
"Damn it," Tommy swore. "We gotta do something."
"But from here?" asked Sarah. "How?"
"I don't know," Jason said. "And I hate that. This whole day, all we've done so far is bounce between options that we don't have. We need to..."
"Rangers!" came a shout, and everybody turned to see Hephaestus hurrying down the street towards us. I stepped over to join the group of heroes and gods. But as Hephaestus reached us, my heart leaped. He was carrying something in his hand.
"Were you able to come up with anything?" asked the Pink Ranger.
"It took longer than I anticipated," Hephaestus began, "but I was able to forge something that may help. Here," and he held out his hand. In his palm was a small golden bracelet. I could tell just by looking at it that it was the perfect size for my wrist, even though he hadn't measured me. There was writing on the bracelet I couldn't read alongside odd, curling symbols.
"It's beautiful," I breathed, and held out my arm. "Will it help?"
"It should," the god replied, and he fastened the bracelet around my wrist. "The metal I used has mystical properties. Combined with the charms inscribed onto the band, the bracelet will keep the virus deaf and blind. It won't stop the virus from charging, unfortunately, but it will no longer be able to see out of Tim's eyes, or hear out of Tim's ears." He stepped back. "Some of my finest work in decades," he beamed proudly.
"This is brilliant," said the Red Ranger. "This could end up being critical."
"Thank you," the younger Blue White Ranger added. "We appreciate it more than you know."
"I was glad to be of assistance," the god replied. "But I caution you against being too generous with your praise. While I was forging the bracelet, I consulted with my priests and oracles. The mechanics of the virus are not of this world. We could find no information on any plane of existence beyond what you already know. It seems there is simply no way to remove the Skethani virus without triggering the virus or killing the host. I've helped you as much as I can, Rangers, but I'm sorry. There's just no way to save the boy's life."
"That's what everybody keeps telling us," replied the Purple Ranger grimly.
"Doesn't mean we're not gonna try," said the Orange Ranger.
Hephaestus smiled. "It's what I like best about you mortals," he replied. "In any event, I wish you the best of fortune. I think the clues to this puzzle lie off-world."
"I'm beginning to suspect that myself," said the elder Blue Ranger.
Without warning, the air a few metres away began to shimmer. As we all fell silent, a jagged tear appeared in midair, as if torn in half by a pair of invisible hands. An arrow shot through the tear and buried itself in the grass before us with a soft 'thunk'. Seconds later, the rift faded away, gone as mysteriously as it appeared.
"What the hell was that?" I asked, breaking the silence.
"That was a dimensional rift," the younger Blue Ranger replied. "I'd recognise one of those anywhere. It was small and concentrated, and..."
"And there's an arrow sticking out of my lawn," growled Hera, her eyes flashing.
"Who could've done that?" Hephaestus asked.
The Red Ranger reached for the arrow. Wary of Hera's gaze, he carefully pried it loose. "It couldn't have been aimed for us," he said.
"Yeah," agreed the Black Ranger. "None of our enemies would be firing arrows at us."
"It would've taken a tremendous amount of power to open such a doorway here to the centre of Olympus," Zeus rumbled.
"Wait, look," said the Pink Ranger, pointing to the arrow. "There's a note tied to the shaft!" She took the arrow from the Red Ranger and untied the note. "Hey, it's from Zordon," she said. "Bad news guys, listen to this. 'Rangers, your cover is blown'," and we glanced around fearfully. "There's more," the Pink Ranger continued. "It says, 'We've just detected a fleet of star craft emerging from deep space and heading straight for Olympus. You need to evacuate immediately. Our scans identified them as skullships'." She let the note fall from her hands. "That is so not good."
"Wait, fill me in," I said. "What's a skullship? What does that mean? Is that the priestess Automica?"
"No," replied the Purple Ranger. "It's somebody a whole lot worse."
"It means General Skull is coming for the Skethani virus," explained the girl White Ranger. "General Skull is an undead soldier from a war nobody even remembers who didn't let his own death stop him from fighting. We don't know whether he uses magic or some kind of super-science, but he commands a legion of undead soldiers. We've dealt with him before. He thinks of himself as the personification of death."
"We know Death," bristled Hera indignantly. "This pathetic aberration is nothing more than a pale insult."
"So you're telling me that not only do I have a psychotic robot after me," I began, "but I'm also being hunted by an army of zombies from outer space?"
"Essentially," replied the Orange Ranger.
"This is officially, like, the worst day ever," I said.
"Would Skull be working with Automica?" asked the Yellow Ranger.
"I doubt it," replied the male White Ranger. "Let's be honest. Neither of them plays well with others."
"Guys," said Eros suddenly, and pointed to the sky. "They're here! I can see the advance ship. It's just passing the moon!"
We all turned to look. If I squinted my eyes, I could just make out a tiny black dot in front of the moon that was hanging low in the sky.
"Eros, send them a message," said Hephaestus.
Eros pulled an arrow from his quiver and loaded it into his bow in one smooth motion. Taking barely a second to aim, he released the string. The arrow shot away into the sky, moving impossibly-fast and instantly vanishing from sight.
"Oh c'mon," I said, and pointed to the moon. "That's almost four hundred thousand kilometres away! There's no way you could..." But even as I spoke, the little black dot in the sky disappeared in a flash, soon replaced by a tiny puff of smoke. My jaw dropped. Speechless, I turned back to Eros.
He tapped his bow. "It never misses," he grinned, then flapped his wings. "Besides, archery's kinda my thing."
"Show-off," muttered the Pink Ranger.
"Amateur," Eros shot back, then turned to the Red and Orange Rangers. "I'm feeling particularly chatty today. Would you like me to send them more messages?"
The Red Ranger shook his head. "As fun as that would be, no," he replied. "Remember when you told us you can make yourself mortal and walk amongst people undetected?" Eros lowered his bow and nodded. "We need you to get a message to Tim's family, telling them that Tim's with us and they need to lie low. Otherwise..."
"They'll be making targets of themselves," Eros said. "Got it. They'll still be at the museum, right?" I nodded. "They'll be safe," and he met my gaze. "I promise." With that, Eros vanished in a flash of light.
Once he was gone, Hera wheeled to face us, displeasure etched across her stern expression. "Well done Rangers," she snapped. "You brought this right to our doorstep. However can we thank you? Hephaestus, go ready your machines. I daresay we will need them."
"At once," Hephaestus said, and dashed away.
"We're sorry," said the Orange Ranger. "We didn't mean to cause you any trouble. And since our cover's blown, I think our next move..."
"... is to get the hell out of here," finished the Aqua Ranger.
"You said it," agreed the Pink Ranger, and raised her arm to the sky. "We need Phoenix thunder zord power, now!"