Welcome to Chronopolis
"Another planet?" I repeated. "We're actually gonna go outside," and I pointed to the hatch, "onto another planet?"
"You bet," the Pink Ranger replied, then turned to her team-mates. "It's mid-morning local time, and the city of Chronopolis is in the valley over that line of hills there," and she pointed towards the left wing. "It's a bit of a hike, but I figured coming down here might buy us some time in the long run."
"You don't want them to know we're here?" I asked.
"No," the Red Ranger replied. "We want them to think we're visiting. General Skull and Automica are going to track us here eventually, if they're not already on their way. Keeping our base of operations hidden is a good idea for the time being. Every second they spend looking for us is a second we're gonna need."
I glanced around, confused. "But you're not gonna sneak into the city?"
"Even if we draw a crowd," the male White Ranger began, "the best way to get answers quickly? Knock on the front door."
"Yeah," agreed the Orange Ranger. "At the moment, we've only got one card to play. We might as well play it."
"If you say so," I said.
The rear hatch opened and the ramp extended to meet the ground. I let the other Rangers go first and then stopped at the end of the ramp. We'd come down in a mountain clearing. There was thick green forest all around. It wasn't that different to the trees back home, although I could see hints of silver and purple leaves through the canopy. The Pink Ranger had managed to land the zord by the shore of a pristine mountain lake, with the zord's right wing extending out over the water. I glanced to the grass underneath the ramp, about to step off when I froze.
For the first time in my life, I was about to leave a footprint on somewhere other than planet Earth. I looked around to see the Rangers watching me curiously. I nodded and stepped down onto the grass.
"Wow," I breathed.
The girl White Ranger clapped. "You're a natural," she said.
I laughed. "I guess so."
"Let's hide our tracks," said the Red Ranger. The Pink Ranger raised a small handheld device, aimed it at the zord and pressed a button. The air around the Phoenix rippled, and a second later, the zord disappeared from view. I could still see the outline of the metal beast, but for all intents and purposes, the zord was now invisible.
"It takes a lot of power," the Pink Ranger explained, as the ramp pulled back and the hatch closed. "But I like to leave her hidden."
"And our next move is the city?" I asked.
"If we need to find out everything we can about the Skethani virus," the Yellow Ranger began, "that's the best place to start."
"Yeah," nodded the Orange Ranger. "The virus was created here a century ago. There has to be something they can tell us."
"Tim has about fifty hours left," the elder Blue Ranger said. "That's certainly enough time to gain some valuable insight. We need to make the most of it."
"Let's move," said the Red Ranger.
A wide trail through the forest led away from the clearing and towards a line of low hills in the distance. Keeping together, the thirteen of us followed it away from the zord. As we walked, I couldn't help but gaze around at the trees and animals we were passing, marvelling at all the alien life I could see. At one point, I spotted a brown lizard-like creature with six legs sunning itself on a rock. A few minutes later, we passed a shallow mountain stream with a family of small animals I can only describe as frogs the wrong way around. In the trees themselves were beautiful bird-like creatures I'd never seen before and would probably never see again. The smaller ones had long back legs and bright yellow feathers, while the larger birds seemed to fly on four wings with long curling tails. I shut my eyes to listen to their calls, but quickly reopened them for fear of missing something that I might never see again.
After a while, I noticed there were less Rangers than when we started. Glancing around, I saw that the Orange, White, Aqua and Purple Rangers had disappeared from view.
I turned to the Red Ranger. "We're missing four of your friends," I said. "Where did they go?"
"When we reach the city," the Red Ranger began, "I want you to hang back and follow the eight of us from a distance," and he indicated the remaining Rangers. "The other four will track you through the crowd unmorphed. I don't want anybody on this planet knowing you're with us."
"Should I have stayed back with the zord?" I asked.
"No," the Red Ranger replied. "We're not letting you out of our sight, not with Automica and General Skull somewhere out there. You'll have a Ranger on all sides at all times. You just won't be able to see them. Do you trust us?"
I nodded shakily. "I don't have a choice, do I?"
"I'll take that as a yes," he replied, but I'm sure he was smiling beneath his visor.
We soon reached the top of the ridge, and the forest opened out before us into a hilltop clearing. With a clear view of the alien landscape, I came to a stop.
"Whoa," I said softly.
The valley was green and lush, with a wide river snaking through the middle and forested mountains on all sides. Following the river, I could see houses and farms built along the river banks, with paddocks and fields crisscrossing the landscape. But in the centre of the valley was a large city, protected by a fortified stone wall. If I squinted my eyes, I could make out crowded city streets and tree-lined parks between towering buildings. The style of architecture didn't remind me of anything except for old photos of London or Paris, but as the buildings got closer to the city centre, they became taller and more imposing, before finally growing into glittering towers of steel and glass. The city's skyline was dominated by sloping rooves and arched steeples, but everywhere I looked were the round faces of gigantic clocks. In the streets, I could see glimpses of odd-looking vehicles alongside horse-drawn carriages, while floating ships that sparkled in the sun docked with ledges high above the streets.
"It's beautiful," I said, as the group kept walking.
"That's Chronopolis," said the Yellow Ranger. "The fabled city of time."
"Chronopolis," I repeated. "That explains all the clocks. I just wish Alex or my family could see this."
The Pink Ranger heard the tone in my voice and rested a hand on my shoulder. "Your friends and family will be okay," she said. "We have friends in high places taking care of them. Tell us more about the city, Blue."
The elder Blue Ranger nodded. "Chronopolis was founded by settlers from Victorian England about five hundred years ago," he said. But he noticed my expression and quickly added, "I know the timeline doesn't quite match up to Earth. The original settlers travelled through space and time before founding the city. In any event, that should eliminate any language or translation problems, which will work to our advantage."
"I guess that makes sense," I said. "But if I think about it too much, it's gonna hurt my head."
"The city founders believed that time was a sacred concept, one of the fundamentally unchanging forces of the Universe," the Blue Ranger continued. "As a quantum physicist, I take some issue with that, but I understand their intent. Everything from the orbit of the planet's moons to the changing of the seasons was observed with an awed reverence. Politically, the city is an independent nation state, self-governed and fully self-contained."
"So they'll be friendly?" I asked.
"Put it this way," said the Red Ranger, "we haven't done anything to really annoy them."
"Yet," added the male White Ranger.
"The day is young," teased the Pink Ranger.
"So it's like ancient history meets 'Back to the Future'?" I asked.
The Grey Ranger stepped up beside me. "What do you mean?"
"Look at it," I said, pointing to the city. "It's farms and spaceships side-by-side. That's just weird."
"Not really," the Grey Ranger replied. "Think about it. People always need to eat, no matter where they live. Farms mean food, milk, fresh greens and dairy products. You know, things like that."
"I guess you're right," I said.
"It's two things we've found are universal to the human experience," the elder Blue Ranger added. "Agriculture and commerce. Chronopolis grew by way of mysticism and super-science working in tandem. You have the comforts of rural tradition alongside starships of the future."
By now we were halfway down the hill, and the forest was starting to thin.
"Sounds like a cool place," I said, then smiled. "Says the kid from a coastal fishing village in New South Wales. How the hell did I wind up here?"
The Grey Ranger laughed. "I know what you mean," he said.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I grew up in a small town too. I always wanted to explore the world and see everything I could. But if you'd asked me four years ago where I'd be today, I don't think this would've been my answer."
"I bet not," I replied.
"I'm always glad to go home and see my family and my dog," he continued, "but there's something about all this," and he waved his hands around the forest, "getting to explore the galaxy, I mean, I can't imagine anything better. And sure, we can't go five steps without tripping over something trying to kill us, but that's just part of the deal."
"That sounds promising," I said. "What about Chronopolis? Do you think they'll help us?"
"I hope so," the Grey Ranger replied. "We've seen some pretty terrible things all over the galaxy, but I still think people are basically good. Zordon calls it diplomacy, but I like to believe in people. I'd much rather see them at their best than judge them at their worst."
"I bet that's hard sometimes," I said. "You guys must see people on the worst days of their lives. Case in point," and I tapped my chest.
"That's true," he replied, and he paused before continuing. "But even with all that, even counting all the tragedies and all the monsters, honestly? I wouldn't trade this life and these friends for anything in the world. On a mission once, someone said something to us, that when things are at their worst, the Rangers are at their best. I really liked that."
I smiled. "I like that too."
We soon reached the valley floor. The path we were following eventually left the forest and curved around to join a wide paved road. The actual city wasn't too far away, and I could hear the sounds of civilisation over the noises of the woods. Peering through the trees, I could see glimpses of the city's many clock towers rising over the city walls. In front of the group, the Red Ranger raised his hand and brought us to a stop.
"Okay," he said, and turned to face me. "This is where you'll need to wait. Give us a couple of minutes then run down and act like you're part of the crowd."
"Are you sure there'll be a crowd?" I asked. "It's gonna seem pretty obvious who I am if I'm in a parade consisting of one."
The Pink Ranger laughed. "Trust us, we know how to draw a crowd," she said.
"We won't be able to acknowledge you," the Red Ranger continued, "and try not to keep too close. But we'll be keeping an eye on you the whole time, and there'll be Rangers in the crowd alongside you."
I nodded. "Okay."
Standing in the shadows of the forest, I watched as the Rangers went on ahead, reaching the well-worn road and heading for the city walls. A horse and carriage trundled past after a few minutes, and the farmer's eyes grew wide as he passed. He immediately pulled over and climbed down in shock. As the Rangers passed the farm houses along the road, people ran back into their homes, shouting in surprise. More and more people were soon flocking to the side of the road to watch the Rangers pass. The Pink Ranger had been right. They really did know how to draw a crowd. For a while, everyone stayed back, but one-by-one, people began drawing closer and closer, waving and shouting. First came the children, then the teenagers who weren't easily impressed by anything, then the adults and finally entire families. The Yellow Ranger leaned down to give a quick hug to a young girl who squealed with delight, while the Red and White Rangers shook hands with the men and women they passed. Back home, it would've been like rock stars walking down the street and getting mobbed by their fans.
Just how renowned were the Rangers to get this kind of reception in a city they'd never visited before, on a world that wasn't even their own? It was amazing, but the more I thought about it, it was kind of scary, too.
If the Rangers couldn't save me and the virus went nuclear, would I end up being this famous?
Or, I suppose, infamous?
As the crowd swelled, I took the opportunity to run down after them. The Rangers were almost halfway to Chronopolis, and I had to jog quite a distance before I caught up to them. I was worried that my clothes might give me away, since they didn't match anything worn by the farmers, but the closer the procession got to the city, the more colourful it became. By this point, nobody was paying much attention to the crowd, anyway. Even as I chased after them, the crowd around the Rangers continued to swell with people wanting to hug the Rangers or shake their hands as they passed. A line of tall trees grew on either side of the road as it left the farm houses and approached Chronopolis, and I finally caught up to the Rangers as the crowd of hundreds emerged from the avenue of trees. I joined the surge of people, unnoticed by any of them, when I felt a tap on the shoulder and heard a boy's voice in my ear.
"Good job. We're here to protect you," he said.
I looked at the people all around me, but couldn't identify the person who'd spoken. To my left was a family of farmers, while on the right were two girls. One of them had dark curly hair, while the other had short blonde hair tied in a ponytail. The blonde didn't seem to notice me, keeping her attention fixed on the Rangers, while the dark-haired girl saw me, smiled politely then turned back to the procession. I shrugged and continued scanning the crowd. It was almost frustrating. I knew they were there. I could feel their gazes. But where were they?
The procession reached the city wall and several well-armed guards with swords at their backs and pistols on their belts came out to greet us.
"Rangers of Earth, it's an honour to have you in our city," the senior guard said.
"We're here to see Chronopolis's Lord Chancellor," the Red Ranger began, his voice barely audible over the shouts and cries from the crowd. "We need to ask for his help."
"Keep following this road," the guard replied, pointing behind him. "It'll take you to the centre of Chronopolis."
"Thank you," nodded the Yellow Ranger. The guards stepped back, and the parade made its way through the bottleneck of the gate into the city proper.
A grassy field lay inside the city wall, with cows grazing beside horse stables and inns for weary travellers. Following the guard's directions, we soon reached the city itself, and as the procession made its way through the streets, the crowd swelled exponentially. In the streets themselves, sleek silver vehicles that moved with a curious humming noise stopped to let the Rangers pass, while horse and cart drivers swerved to give them more space. We passed grassy parks and dark little alleys, with towering buildings overhanging the cobbled streets. Above our heads were futuristic antenna arrays, while any building that seemed more important than the others had a clock face set high above the road. All around, I could see faces in windows and people on rooftops staring down at the Rangers. The city was amazing, and I had to keep reminding myself to stop and take it all in. Everything was clean and neat, and I laughed when I spotted what the Rangers later confirmed was a row of vending machines wedged between two tall buildings.
Some things were universal.
The words on all the shop fronts looked like a very stylised type of English, but if I studied it carefully I could read most of it. The city around us was grinding to a halt as the Rangers passed with their still-growing legion of fans, but nobody seemed to mind too much. Eventually I noticed sailboats over the top of the surrounding buildings, and realised I could hear sounds of the river nearby.
After making our way through the city for more than an hour, we finally reached the centre of Chronopolis. It was a wide plaza in front of an enormous stone building, with a gigantic clock set in the tallest tower. On the stones beneath our feet was an enormous twelve-pointed circular design. By now, the plaza was full of people who'd come to see the source of the commotion. Word had spread quickly around the city, and the Rangers reached the steps to the enormous building just as a short man wearing a gold vest stepped outside. The man was almost as round as he was tall, and he seemed quite nervous, tottering down the stairs at an alarming pace to greet the Rangers halfway. It was a cool day, but even at a distance, I could see he was sweating profusely, and he dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief as a swarm of assistants and secretaries scurried after him.
I might not have had any superpowers, but I knew enough to recognise an important government official when I saw one.
Hmm. All that time in Canberra had actually come in handy. I made a mental note to thank my parents for the trip, now more than ever.
"Power Rangers of Earth!" the man exclaimed dramatically. I was more sure than ever he was the Lord Chancellor the Rangers had referred to earlier. "Power Rangers of Earth, let me have the privilege of welcoming you to our fine city. It's wonderful to see you!"
"Thank you," said the Red Ranger. All around, the noise from the crowd was dying down, as people strained their ears to hear what was happening.
"What brings you to Chronopolis, if I may ask?" the Lord Chancellor asked.
"We wish we were visiting under better circumstances," the Yellow Ranger began. "But we're here because of the Skethani virus."
Almost instantly, all sound died away as if someone had switched off a radio. If I'd had the presence of mind to drop a pin, it would've been heard from one side of the city to the other. The Lord Chancellor's joyful expression vanished at once, replaced by a look of terrified disbelief.
"The virus?" he asked in a whisper. I watched as he loosened his collar.
"Unfortunately the virus was found and awakened on our homeworld," the Red Ranger said. "We've travelled halfway across the galaxy to try and stop it."
"Of course, of course," the man replied. But as he did, he gazed around the crowd. I shrank back, but luckily, a tall teenage boy was standing in front of me. "Is the virus somewhere nearby?"
"Trust me," the Red Ranger said, and gestured to the Rangers standing around him. "The host is somewhere very safe right now. That's all you need to worry about."
I grinned when I realised he wasn't technically lying. It was some skill. I was starting to wonder who the better politician on the steps really was.
"But yes," the Red Ranger continued, turning back to meet the Lord Chancellor's gaze. "The virus is active, and we're running out of time to stop it. Every piece of information we have leads to this city, where the virus was created one hundred years ago. We know a lot of time has passed and we hate to be a burden, but we're here to request any information you have on the virus. Anything at all, no matter how trivial or nonessential it might seem, would be tremendously useful."
The crowd of people turned to the Lord Chancellor. I suddenly realised what the Red Ranger was doing. He knew the reception the Rangers would get when they reached Chronopolis. In fact, he was counting on it. And now he was getting hundreds of people on his side without them realising it. He was playing an entire city, and backing the Lord Chancellor into a corner where he had to do what the Rangers asked.
The Orange Ranger had been right. The Rangers had nothing to offer but themselves, and they were still going to get exactly what they wanted. I knew I'd just watched masters at work. As the Lord Chancellor's face fell, even he knew it, too.
The Lord Chancellor turned to his advisors, and I couldn't hear their conversation. After a few minutes, he stepped forward. "Of course!" he shouted, and the crowd broke into applause. "If we could be of any assistance at all to the Rangers of Earth, we would be most happy. If you could give us some time to retrieve everything we have from the archives?"
"Of course," the elder Blue Ranger said. "We understand Chronopolis's archives are some of the most exhaustive on the planet."
I watched the Lord Chancellor's smile fade, just enough to know he was now actively trying to look happy. In any event, he quickly whispered instructions to his swarm of assistants, and they dashed off. I took the time to wander around the plaza, looking at all the buildings and seeing people eating in outdoor cafes. Most of the food seemed odd, but I almost bought a couple of things before realising I'd left my wallet back in the Phoenix. Besides, the Australian notes I had were going to be pretty useless.
An hour later, with the crowd diminished but still strong, the Lord Chancellor's assistants dashed back out of the building carrying stacks of files under their arms. The Lord Chancellor stepped back and the Rangers gratefully accepted everything the assistants offered. Once they were done, the secretaries stepped back behind their boss, and the Lord Chancellor waved his arms in the direction of the city gates.
"We wish you the best of luck on your quest," he boomed. "If you need any further assistance..."
"We'll know who to ask," the Red Ranger said. After thanking the Lord Chancellor, the eight Rangers stepped down and headed back for the city entrance. Watching the chancellor's face fall, I frowned. He seemed awfully keen to get rid of them. I don't think I trusted him. Around me, the crowd started moving again as the Rangers left the plaza. I felt a tap on my shoulder and glanced around, but I didn't recognise any of the faces.
It was again slow-going, but the crowd finally reached the city gates. The Rangers stepped out of the city, waving goodbye to their fans. While most people stayed in the city, I slipped into the crowd of farmers as they followed the Rangers back out onto the tree-lined avenue. Keeping my distance, I followed the Rangers for a little while, hanging back as they turned off the road and disappeared into the forest. Wary of anybody watching, I continued further down the road until I came across a second path leading into the woods. I'd only been walking for a minute when I turned a corner to see the Orange, White, Aqua and Purple Rangers waiting for me.
"Well done," the Orange Ranger said, and he gestured to a narrow trail that led in the same direction as the first.
"I didn't see any of you," I said. "I don't think I did. But the Lord Chancellor was helpful. Although, I gotta say..."
"What?" asked the Aqua Ranger.
I turned to him. "I got a feeling he was hiding something," I said. "He seemed pretty happy to see us go."
We reached the trail that led back to the Phoenix, and made good time returning. It was darker now. The sun set over the mountains while we walked, but the two moons made it brighter than nights back home. Before too long, we stepped into the mountain clearing and met up with the other Rangers. As they reunited, I yawned and then laughed to myself. In a little over twenty-four hours, I'd covered two time zones and a whole other planet. Maybe my body clock was so messed up it had finally given up, but I could barely keep my eyes open.
The Pink Ranger hit the button on her silver device. With a flash, the zord's invisibility shield faded away. I stepped over to the Aqua Ranger who was standing nearby.
"Can I go inside and lie down?" I asked. "I'm just wiped."
"Sure," he said. "Follow me." He led me up the ramp and took my hand as we stepped into the zord. He pushed open the door to one of the rooms in the corner. Inside, I saw a row of bunk beds attached to the wall.
"They're actually pretty comfortable," he said.
I smiled. "But am I gonna be safe?" I asked. "We're not travelling anymore and we don't know where any of our bad guys are."
"You'll be fine," the Aqua Ranger replied. "We'll be right outside. Remember, nobody without a Power Coin gets inside a zord, so what's the worry?"
"Nobody except for an army of robots," I pointed out. "Or a horde of zombies."
"Hmm," he replied, and I imagined his expression falling behind his visor. "Good point. I was kinda hoping you'd forgotten about that." I laughed, and he clapped his hand against my shoulder. "See? It's not so bad if you're still laughing."
"So you like telling jokes?" I said.
"The secret to this?" the Aqua Ranger asked, gesturing around the cabin. "You gotta laugh. Bad guys don't expect it. They expect fear and awe and cowering obedience. But if they make their big dramatic speech and you start laughing at them? It throws 'em. They don't know what to do."
"Hell yeah," he replied. "I think it's the best piece of advice I could ever give you. Nothing deflates world conqueror number fifteen hundred faster than telling him how ridiculous he looks in his giant purple hat. Thing is, they usually do look ridiculous. It's a powerful advantage, and sometimes it's the only one you've got. Use whatever you can to throw 'em off their game, even if you have nothing." He lowered his voice. "Besides, we're the Power Rangers. We don't let the bad guys win."
"I guess so."
"So listen," he continued. "I'll make a promise. And I'm a superhero. We don't break our promises. Even if the other Rangers go off to fight some horrible thing with too many teeth and not enough manners, I'll be right outside the door here," and he pointed to the ramp leading outside. "And I won't leave."
I nodded. Stepping into the room, I kicked off my shoes and climbed onto one of the bunks. The Rangers later told me that the mattresses were some kind of futuristic alien technology, but it was one of the most comfortable beds I'd ever had. Resting my head on the pillow, I was fast asleep within minutes.