New Year's Eve
Brendan stood by the door watching as I fell asleep. Waiting for a few minutes to make sure, he quietly shut the door and made his way outside into the clearing. The sky was filled with unfamiliar stars and constellations. He took a minute to take in the sight of the two moons hanging low on the horizon, before stepping over to join his team-mates. The Rangers were all sitting on collapsible seats from inside the Phoenix, around a small pile of kindling they'd gathered from the underbrush. With the mountain cliffs overlooking the lake and the thick forest on all sides, the group was protected from view and safe for the time being.
"Is he asleep?" asked Scott.
Brendan nodded. "He was gone before his head hit the pillow," the Aqua Ranger replied. "I'd be surprised if we hear from him for the next twelve hours."
Teresa reached for her blade blaster and pointed it at the pile of kindling. Once the fire was lit, everyone stood up and reached for their morphers.
In twelve flashes of light, the Rangers demorphed. Everyone suddenly slumped forward. Jason stretched out his arms and felt his joints cracking in protest, while Sarah let out a gulping yawn.
"Man," Tommy breathed. "I don't think I've ever had my helmet on that long before."
"I'm just glad we can finally use our names again," Scott said, with a sigh of relief. "The number of times the last couple of days I've almost said somebody's real name, and had to stop and check before I did."
"You're not wrong," agreed Kim. "I know we did that training exercise a few years ago, but I don't think of you guys as your Ranger colours! I've had to, like, reorganise my entire way of thinking the last couple of days."
"Maybe we should use our dinosaur names in the future?" Teresa asked. "Or would that be more awkward?"
"Speaking for those of us aren't as palaeontologically-savvy," Ian began, "I still can't pronounce half of them," and everyone laughed.
Once everyone had settled in, Billy handed out all the files the Lord Chancellor had given them, while Trini passed around the extra information on the planet Dhalia they'd printed out from the Phoenix's databanks. Everybody took a stack of papers and began quietly reading. But as the fire crackled, Brendan gazed around his circle of friends and giggled.
Ian turned to him. "What's so funny?" the Grey Ranger asked.
"Nothing," Brendan said. "It's just, we're on one of the most technologically-advanced planets in the galaxy, and we're doing this by campfire."
Everyone saw the ridiculousness of the situation and started laughing. Kimberly piled the documents she'd been reading on the ground and rubbed her eyes. "My eyes are going blurry," she said. "Do we have any food?"
"Here," Teresa said, and passed Kim a small bundle. "While you guys were waiting for the Lord Chancellor, I picked up some Dhalian delicacies from one of the bakeries in the plaza. I had a couple before. They're like pretzels, but they're sweet and kind of chewy."
"I think I will definitely try a couple of those," Trini said, and reached for the bag.
"I don't know about anybody else," Jason began, "but I would arm-wrestle Automica herself for one of Ernie's cheeseburgers, right now. Swear to goodness, I would."
"Oh, before I forget," Teresa continued, offering Sarah a handful of silver coins. "For your collection. I didn't think you had any from Dhalia."
"No, they're great," Sarah said, running her gaze over the coins. "Thanks."
"Gee it'd be funny if Tim stumbled outside right now," Peter said.
"Yeah, that's the word for it," said Tommy, then smiled.
"It's okay," said Brendan. "I hit the internal motion sensor before I came out here. If he wakes up and moves around the cabin, we'll know about it."
Teresa turned to Scott. "Actually, Tim picked up that we're brother and sister back on Olympus," she said. Scott nodded and she grinned. "He also thought that Jason and Pete were dating."
Peter shook his head, while Jason laughed and glanced to his best friend. "And not for the first time," the Red Ranger grinned.
"You laugh, but we've gotta work on the impression we're leaving," Pete said.
Jason waved his hand. "We'll make it a new year's resolution," he said. "It's probably about the right time."
"Hang on," Zac said, and raised his watch. "Guys, it's like eleven fifty-nine on New Year's Eve back home, going by this."
Trini smiled. "I guess we should..."
Zac held up his hand. "Wait," he said, and everyone waited until his hand fell, and he gazed around the clearing. "Happy New Year, guys."
"Happy New Year," said Jason.
Peter turned to the Red Ranger beside him. "You too," he said.
Zac couldn't stop himself from giggling. "Yeah, you two. It's stuff like that."
"Should we all hold hands and sing 'auld lang syne' or something?" Kim asked.
"How about we just hope for the best?" Teresa said. "A good year, where the day gets saved and nobody gets hurt? Is that something we could wish for?"
"Sounds like a good idea to me," Tommy said.
"It'd be a nice change," Scott murmured.
"At least we get to ring in the New Year together," Sarah said, "even if we're a million miles away from home."
"Hear hear," Zac added.
Jason glanced to the Black Ranger sitting opposite. "It's good to see you smiling again," he said.
"Yeah," said Brendan. "I haven't heard you talk this much in weeks."
"Look, I guess I'm still kind of bummed about the break-up," Zac replied. "And it's fine. These things are meant to be hard," but his voice trailed off. "Maybe it's just me, and I know we've all been busy lately, but it feels like we haven't done this in ages. You know, all twelve of us together, on the run and far from home. I know you guys have spent the last couple of days convincing Tim that we can help him. But you convinced me too. I know things are bad and scary, but it's us. When are things not scary? And if anyone in the world, hell, if anyone in the entire freaking galaxy can pull off something crazy and ridiculous, then it's us."
"Well put," said Ian.
"So let's start the year by saving Tim," Billy said. "I think that would set the best possible precedent," and he nodded to the files spread out around the group. "The answer has to be here. We just haven't located it yet."
"You got it," said Kim. As the mood turned earnest again, everybody returned to the files. But as the night wore on and the campfire burned down, one-by-one, each of the Rangers sat back in resignation, dropping the stack of papers at their feet and massaging their aching eyes.
"This is nothing," said Tommy, angrily throwing the files aside. "A giant pile of nothing."
"Worse than that," added Sarah glumly. "We lost how much time to this?"
"Damn it," Jason swore. Standing up, he kicked a stone in frustration and watched it skitter away into the shadows. "Damn it! It's taken us a day and a half and we're right back to square one!"
"We're running out of time we don't have," Brendan said. "And this is nothing more than what Zordon and Alpha found for us originally. I don't know about anyone else, but mine was just stories and reports from the local media, plus a whole heap of numbers and not much else."
There was a general murmur of agreement around the campfire. "I thought for sure we'd find something," said Teresa.
"You're not wrong," Scott said. He sat back, suddenly thoughtful. "Isn't it weird, though, that we asked for every bit of information they had on the virus, and they gave us nothing?"
Ian leaned forward. "You think there's something else going on?"
"Or were they actively hiding something from us?" Sarah asked. "Tim said as we were leaving this afternoon that he didn't trust the Lord Chancellor, that it seemed like he was trying to get rid of us in a hurry. Maybe he was?"
Jason sat down. "I told you," he said. "Smarter than he thinks."
Peter turned to Scott. "So what are we missing?"
"Well, everything," Scott said. "Like, okay, who ended up with the bio on the scientist who created the virus?"
There was a pause as everybody shuffled their papers, and then Trini raised her hand. "Got it," she said, and she began reading. "Doctor Francesca Lorenzo was Chronopolis's leading expert on experimental technology. After programming the virus, she stole it for reasons unclear and hid it on a faraway world. After that, she went into hiding, was branded a traitor and never returned home." Trini shrugged. "That's it."
"Yeah," agreed Peter. "That's about what I've got, too."
"Same here," added Zac.
"But that's what I mean," Scott said. "That doesn't tell us anything. This scientist built one of the most dangerous weapons in creation and then disappeared with it, and that's it? That's all the information they ever bothered to compile? Nothing about her background, her family, her political leanings, or maybe connections to any subversive groups? Not even a photo? I mean, doesn't that seem strange to anybody else?"
"They could've black-listed her after they branded her a traitor," Tommy said.
Scott shook his head. "But even so..."
"I see Scott's point," said Billy, taking off his glasses to polish them. "It's highly improbable the Skethani virus came into being by accident, not given everything we've learned about its destructive capabilities. It would've taken a tremendous amount of time and resources."
"Not to mention money," Scott said. "Did she pay for all this with loose change she found behind the couch? In everything we've looked at tonight, and everything Zordon left for us, were there any references to money, or to any financial records at all?" He paused, letting his words sink in. "There are big gaps here, and we need to fill them in if we stand of chance of saving Tim."
"You're right," Peter said, and stood up. "There's no way around it. We need to get back into the city." He held up a map of Chronopolis that Zordon had printed out for them the day before. "There's an archive warehouse behind the main chancellery building. It's probably worth a look. It's the middle of the night so we can get in there easily enough. Teresa, Sarah and Scott can come with me. The rest of you should stay here and protect Tim."
"I don't like us splitting up," said Jason softly.
"Seriously, guys," Zac said. "It's that kind of stuff."
"But Scott's right," Teresa said. "We need to look at the city's historical records. They're hiding something, and it might be something critical."
"One problem," said Trini. "The Lord Chancellor knows we're here and he knows what we're looking for. If Chronopolis has any kind of mystical protections, your Power Coins will give you away from kilometres out."
"So we leave them here," said Peter.
"No," said Tommy flatly.
"Automica and General Skull are looking for Tim," Peter replied. "They're not looking for us. You guys are in a lot more danger than we'll be."
"I know it's risky, but I think it's a good idea," said Scott, and reached for his morpher. "We've already got two armies coming for us. We don't have time to risk fighting our way through a third. From here on in, stealth is our best bet. If you need us, just come and get us in the Phoenix."
Jason nodded. "Just be careful," he said. Without another word, Peter handed Jason his morpher, while Scott stepped around the campfire to leave his coin with Billy. Sarah gave hers to Ian, while Teresa handed her morpher to Trini.
"Good luck," said Ian.
"We'll be back in a few hours," Peter said. "Keep Tim safe," and the four Rangers disappeared into the forest.
Keeping to the shadows, the four teens crept through the woods and eventually reached the outskirts of Chronopolis, its streets and towers quiet in the late hour. But as the four Rangers gazed along the city walls, they saw that there were far more city guards on watch than had been there in the morning.
"That's a lot of guards," Sarah murmured, and cracked her knuckles.
"We can't risk a fight," Peter whispered. "We need to make it past them without being seen."
"That shouldn't be too hard," Teresa said. "They're expecting twelve Power Rangers to show up with all guns blazing. They're not expecting us."
"Let's hope not," Scott added.
Moving as silently as possible, the four teens crept past the farms outside the city and soon reached the fortified wall. Glancing along the barrier, they were disappointed to see the one drainage grate that led under the wall was heavily guarded, but a hundred metres further along, a large tree stood growing beside the barrier. Scaling the tree's limbs, the four Rangers held their breaths as a guard paced beneath them, before lowering themselves onto the wall and climbing down on the inside. Following the main road, they were soon making their way through the darkened city streets. Up ahead lay the central plaza, with the chancellery looming out of the shadows. Peter pointed to a tall steeple just to the right of the plaza.
"There it is," he said. "The city archives building."
"Let's hope all the guards are at the wall tonight," Teresa whispered.
Luckily, they found the building unguarded aside from a single dozing sentry. Once they'd used Alpha's nanotech skeleton key to get inside, they walked through a deserted foyer and down a spiral staircase into the enormous archives room. Sarah let out a low whistle as they played their flashlights around the space. The rows of archives stretched on for kilometres, extending far back under the sleeping city above their heads.
"Easy then," Sarah said brightly, and turned to Scott. "What's the plan?"
"I want to find records of what the city's leaders were doing a hundred years ago," Scott replied. "I'm playing a hunch, but I bet there was a reason the Lord Chancellor was stone-walling us."
"Good idea," said Teresa. "I want to follow the money and check back through the city's taxes and finances."
"What about us, fearless leader?" Sarah asked.
"Something Billy said made me think," Peter replied. "Dr Lorenzo couldn't have created the virus in her garage, could she? Let's go back a hundred years and look for universities, scientific installations and military research facilities. There's gotta be some clue to the origins of the Skethani virus. There has to be."
The four teens got to work. Following the labels on the storage boxes, the Rangers made their way down the darkened aisles. Scott was first to find the records from a century ago, while two aisles away, Teresa smiled as she found the taxation records and budget reports from the city's treasury. They'd been kept in meticulous order, like tax records the galaxy over. Meanwhile, Peter and Sarah sat down on the floor and began scanning maps of the city, soon moving onto old records of government employees. Making various piles of paper on the carpet around them, they'd been sorting through the files for hours when the sound of footsteps reached them. They looked up to see Teresa and Scott hurrying towards them.
"You got something?" Peter asked.
"You bet we do," Scott said, as he and Teresa sat down beside them. Scott dropped a bundle of files at their feet. "Check it out. A hundred years ago, the city of Chronopolis was engaged in a bitter war with a rival city over an important trade route. That city isn't even there anymore, so three guesses who won."
"That makes sense," Peter said. "There's no market for powerful new weapons during peace time, is there?"
"So why didn't the Lord Chancellor just tell us that?" Sarah asked.
"Here's why," Teresa replied, holding up another file. "This is what the city was making from its taxes at the time. On this other page, here are the annual budgets and where that money was going. But look at it! The two figures are completely different. There's a huge chunk of money missing from the city's budget. They were channelling that cash somewhere, and given the Lord Chancellor at the time signed off on it, it was something he didn't want his people to know about."
Peter sat back as realisation dawned. "They were paying for it," he said. "The city actually commissioned their best scientist to build a weapon because of a war they were fighting. That's why the Lord Chancellor was so quick to get rid of us. He didn't want us to uncover the secret."
"Yeah, that Chronopolis itself was responsible for the Skethani virus," Sarah said. "They rewrote their own history to forget about it."
"Well that's the 'why'," Teresa said. "How did you go with the 'where'?"
"Not so good," Sarah replied, and pointed to the stacks of papers spread out around them. "There were at least a dozen places a hundred years ago where they could've made the virus, even a couple of off-world ones. The city was pretty damn prosperous back in the day. But I haven't found anything that links any of them to Doctor Lorenzo or the Skethani virus."
"Wait a second," Peter said suddenly, looking to his cousin. "They were creating a dangerous weapon, but the chancellery didn't want the people of the city to know about it. There's no way they would've worked on it here in Chronopolis."
"I see what you mean," Sarah said. "So they would've gone as far away from the city as they could," and she reached for a box of records nearby. "Okay, I've got three off-world bases. A trading outpost on the planet Techthon, a scientific installation on the planet Nerimos, and a..."
"Nerimos?" Teresa repeated, and began flipping through the pages she'd brought over. "Wait, hang on, that rings a bell..."
"I thought there wasn't any record of the missing money?" Peter asked.
"There wasn't," Teresa replied, pulling a sheet free. "But look at this! About the same time as the war, the city hired a commercial freighter, the Zenith Carriership or something, to ferry a hell of a lot of scientific equipment to the installation on Nerimos. Like any government bureaucracy, they kept their receipts." She gazed around the group. "Guys, this is it. This has to be the place."
"Is the base still there though?" asked Sarah. "What happened to it?"
Teresa scanned the documents she was holding. "Well there's no receipt for any kind of return trip," she replied. "And there's no mention of funding for the base in any of the budget reports that came afterwards. The base must've been abandoned, and they left all their equipment there on Nerimos."
"If we can get to the base where the virus was actually made," Scott said, "I'm betting we can find a clue how to unmake it."
"Next stop, planet Nerimos," said Teresa.
"Grab everything," Peter said. "We can bring it back later."
But as the Rangers began gathering up all the information they'd found, Sarah reached for a dusty box of records from the scientific base on Nerimos. Flicking back through them, her face fell as she found a worn, tattered report hidden behind one of the folders. "Guys, listen to this," she said. "I hadn't got to this crate yet, but this transmission was intercepted before it reached a target here in the city. Going by the date, it's the last transmission Chronopolis ever received from Nerimos," and she took a breath before reading it out loud. "I have created something I cannot destroy. What have we done? Our only hope is to take the virus to another world and bury it so deep it shall never be found. I pray to every god on every world that it stays hidden, or else it would mean the end of everything. I will miss the streets of my city and the smiles of my people, but I do this for them." Sarah fell silent, and gazed around the group. "She wasn't stealing the virus. She was trying to protect everybody!"
"And they called her a traitor for it," frowned Teresa. "Seriously not cool."
The four stood up. Peter emptied the contents of a box onto the floor so they could carry everything they'd found.
"Forget stealth," Peter said tersely. "We need to get this back to the others, like right now!"