"Hey! Keep your hands where I can see 'em mister!"
Ratchet scowled, but grudgingly obeyed. The four heroes knelt on the floor of a transport vehicle, hands on heads. Armed Blargs surrounded them, rifles trained on their hearts. Jasmine shifted uncomfortably. The carrier smelled to much like Ishkhan for her liking. A nasty suspicion flared. Maybe the Ishkhan hadn't been on Kreeli comet by accident…
Clank gently nudged Ratchet with his foot.
"Ratchet? Do you notice something strange about our captors"
Ratchet looked. Now he thought about it, some of the Blargs were acting rather funny. Around half were acting as expected, shoving, laughing nastily and leering at Jasmine. (But only leering. A Blarg with wandering hands had come down with a nasty case of pain, and the others were keeping a careful distance from her) But others…
Ratchet was reminded of the ancient automatons he had seen in museums. Their movements were stiff, their eyes stared blankly ahead. They looked like zombies. Almost…hypnotized. His Lombax curiosity was poking at him. He had to find out what was going on. He leaned towards one of the strange guards.
"Hey buddy, you OK?"
No response. He tried again.
"I said, are you-"
"Hey!" The leader ran forwards.
"Prisoners, no talking! I thought I made that clear!"
Clank ran their current flight path through his memory banks. If his calculations were correct…
He nudged Ratchet.
Ratchet didn't bother asking if he was sure. Clank was never wrong. Sargasso… He wondered why. The only thing of note on Sargasso was the Geletonium plant. He looked over at Qwark, trying to formulate a plan. If it came to it, Qwark's muscle was their only weapon. The others had been confiscated and were tossed in a heap at the other end of the carrier. Ratchet bit back a groan of frustration. His wrench was barely twenty paces away, but one wrong move on his part and they'd fill his with so much lead they'd be able to sharpen his nose and use him for a pencil.
Jasmine shuffled closer.
"Where do you think they're taking us?" she whispered.
"Clank says Sargasso"
"Don't know, but judging by the position of the stars, we're nearly there"
Qwark leaned in.
"Once this ship stops, we rush 'em, right?"
The others looked at him in surprise.
"We're outnumbered right now. We need to wait for the right moment before we-"
The carrier slammed to a halt, sending them tumbling in a heap. Within seconds their guards latched onto them, hauling them upright.
"OK scuzbags! Move it!"
Jasmine struggled within her captors grip. He was one of the strange ones, face slack and eyes locked in a thousand yard stare, but his grip was like steel. She might as well have struggled against a mountain.
The carrier door opened, flooding the interior with harsh light. Despite their dire situation, Ratchet still chuckled at the expression on Jasmines face as she smelled the air of the swampy planet for the first time.
"What do you think of Sargasso, Jasmine?" He said, grinning.
"Smells like someone did a really big- alright already! I'm moving, quit pushing me!"
They were hustled roughly down a gangplank, the afternoon sunlight searing their eyes after the cool darkness of the carrier. Ratchet rubbed the star bursts out of his vision, looked up and gulped.
A building loomed over him. A vision of black stone and gargoyles, it did not bode well. A steady aura of cold evil seemed to flow off it. His danger instincts tingled. This was not going to be good.The Blarg leader halted. Unlike the tall, bulky Miles, this one was small, skinny and rat-like, with a delight in little, cowardly evils.
"Tie their hands. I don't want 'em doin' anything…clever"
Rough rope was wound tightly around their hands, nearly cutting off the circulation. The leader shoved them forwards.
"Get moving, you lot! The boss wants ta see ya"
They stepped forwards, pushed and pulled roughly. Judging by the outward appearance of the building, Ratchet was expecting gloomy stone corridors and grim chandeliers, and was surprised to find himself in shiny, modern surroundings. A huge room practically dwarfed them, lined with computer screens and terminals. Corridors branched off in all directions. They were led down the central one, which sloped steadily downward. It was warmer than the cool room they had just left, almost unpleasantly humid. It was darker too. As they went along the lights overhead got dimmer. Jasmine shivered. The deeper they went, the greater the feeling of apprehension growing in her chest. She looked around. Qwark was practically vibrating with terror, Ratchet was twitchy and watchful, even Clank looked nervous. All her instincts were warning her, There's something terrible up ahead. Be ready.
A pair of double doors loomed out of the darkness. The Blarg flung them open with a flourish.
"Your guests have arrived, milady!" he said, with a mocking sneer.
That sweet, poisonous voice oozed out of the black.
"Thank you, Jarv. Bring them in"
They were ushered inside. The four heroes stood in the centre of a large, opulent room. Red velvet lined the walls, giving the darkness a crimson edge, and sickly sweet incense smoke drifted from braziers set in the walls. The lights were positioned so that most of the room was in darkness, with a little pool of light near the door. It occurred to Jasmine that the lights were in a very cunning arrangement. Anyone who stood in the circle of light was fully visible, but would be unable to see the rooms occupant.
The voice spoke again.
"So, this is the famous Ratchet and Clank I've heard so much about" There was a tinkle of jewellery as an unseen head turned from hero to hero.
"And Captain Qwark! Well well well, this is a surprise. Rather a step down from president, hmmm? And…ah, what have we here? Another Lombax! Wearing the armour of the Praetorian Guard, if I'm any judge. An elite force in their time, but sadly in decline, if your armours anything to go by"
Jasmine looked down, ears drooping in shame. The armour of the Praetorian Guard was Trillium alloy over a fine, adamantium mesh, normally impenetrable, but the Lombax dimension lacked these alloys, and years of rough treatment and harsh elements had left their armour tattered and worn. Jasmine had done the best she could with polish and whatever crappy steel could be hacked from the frozen rocks, but her armour still looked half broken at the best of times.
There was a derisive snort.
"So these are my opponents? Two short Lombaxes, a tiny robot and a muscle bound oaf? Hah! Any victories on your part must have been sheer luck"
Ratchet squinted into the darkness. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he could dimly make out a tall figure reclining on a large pillow.
"Big talk from someone who won't even show herself!" he said. "Why don't you at least step into the light so we can see you?"
There was a hiss of indrawn breath, so faint he almost missed it.
"I…prefer the dark"
Qwark spoke up for the first time since they had arrived.
"Oh yeah? I bet you're just to scared to show your face!" He ignored Ratchets frantic nudges.
"We've got you running scared, lady! You're just a chicken! Brawk brawk brawk!"
Ratchet sighed. Too late, they were dead…
There was dead silence. Jasmine braced herself for a shriek of rage and a hail of bullets from the guards. Then…
"Ha ha ha ha ha!"
That high, sweet, wrong laughter rang around the room.
"You do have spunk! Perhaps I was wrong. Your victories must have more than luck on their side"
There was a thoughtful pause.
"It's only fair you should see the one who will kill you"
There was a rustle as their unseen opponent began moving towards them. Sudden terror spasmed in Ratchets chest. He changed his mind. Suddenly he would have given everything he owned not to see her. The dim shape stepped into the light…and Ratchet gasped.
A Lombax stood in front of him, pure white fur glowing in the light.
She was beautiful,tall and sleek (and therefore an object of instant hatred to the short, scruffy Jasmine), but it was a cold beauty, the beauty of a marble statue. Waist long, dead straight hair rippled like a waterfall with each graceful, sinuous movement. Her tail tuft was unusually large and luxurious, and seemed to have a life of its own, twitching and writhing like a snake. Jewellery was placed in every conceivable position. Her ears nearly drooped under the weight of all the gold earrings and delicate chains. Rings and bracelets decorated her hands, an anklet looped around her left ankle, even her tail had a gold chain looped over it.
She wore, in Jasmines disapproving opinion, nowhere near enough clothing, with a black corset and skirt cut at an angle her sole concession towards modesty. A blood red cape swirled around her shoulders. The effect was very impressive, and left them with no doubt she was in charge. She raised her head, light glinting on a red gem set in a black velvet choker around her neck, and Ratchets mouth went dry with horror. He felt Jasmine rear back and Qwark go stiff, as sick realization struck. When he had first seen her, he had thought she wore a pair of sunglasses to keep out the light, and even Clank winced in revulsion as comprehension dawned.
She wasn't wearing sunglasses.
Her eyes were black. Not black of iris, but black from edge to edge. For Ratchet, looking into those cold, flat eyes was like gazing into the abyss of hell. There was no mercy, no compassion. Just hate, and evil, and a cold, cold heart.
She smiled, a warm, happy smile that didn't reach those night coloured orbs.
"You fear me, I see. As you should, for you gaze upon the face of Kaos!"
Ratchet raised an eyebrow.
"An appropriate name, I feel. Everywhere I go it seems to follow me around" She giggled.
"Like Jasindu?" said Jasmine, struggling angrily against her bonds. "Those Kerchu did nothing to you, you didn't have to attack them!"
Kaos turned to face Jasmine, a smug smile on her lips.
"You are exactly right, miss. I didn't have to attack Jasindu. I wanted to"
Ratchet was stunned. He had never met anyone like this. Even people like Dr Nefarious and Drek had reasons for the things they did, even if they were bloody awful ones, but this one…
"You're a monster!" he growled.
"Guilty as charged, Ratchet" She gave a wicked grin as a thought struck her.
"Jarv, untie them and give them their weapons"
The Blarg nearly dropped his gun in shock.
Kaos snarled, dropping the smiling, happy mask.
"I gave you an order, Jarv! Obey me or you feed my pet tonight!"
She went from fierce to calm with the speed of a striking snake, smiling sweetly at the bound heroes.
"I think I should at least give them a sporting chance"
The ropes were removed. Ratchet rubbed the blood back into his wrists, already eyeing up possible escape routes. There weren't many.
Their weapons landed with a thud at their feet. Jasmine scooped up her wrench and ducked into a fighting stance in one easy movement, keeping her blades sheathed for now. In seconds, Kaos was the centre of a circle of weapons. Ratchet gripped his wrench and trained his constructo-pistol at her chest.
"Alright, Kaos, its over. Give up now, and I'll go easy on you!"
She shook her head, still smiling.
"I think not. You see, I still haven't brought my weapon into play"
Jasmine gave a short, sharp laugh.
" What weapon? You're not even armed!"
And with that, she turned and looked Ratchet square in the eyes. For ratchet, there was a burst of dark in his vision, and he staggered backwards, arm over his eyes.
A sharp nasty headache formed, then disappeared with no trace. He blinked, then grinned.
"That all you-?"
He froze. The last time he had heard that voice, it had been at the great clock, bidding him a final farewell. It was a voice that haunted his dreams, a voice whose memory still filled him with guilt, even to this day. He turned.
The elder Lombax stood in front of him, looking exactly the same as he had the day he died. Ratchet ran towards him.
"Alister! How did you-?"
"Why did you let me die, Ratchet?"
He skidded to a halt.
The old Lombaxes eyes were filled with pain and sadness.
"How could you? You were like a son to me, why did you forsake me?"
"No! No, it wasn't like that! I tried to stop you!"
Another Lombax stepped out of the gloom. He was slightly taller than ratchet, and familiar. Ratchet saw him every day. In his mirror.
Kaden shook his head.
"I'm so disappointed in you, son"
"dad, no! I tried, I swear!"
Ratchet slumped to his knees, covering his ears in a vain attempt to block out the taunting voices. It didn't work. They swirled in his head, blurring together in one buzz of cruel words.
"-ashamed to call you son-"
"-why, Ratchet? I looked out for you-"
"-call yourself a hero?-"
Clank shook the Lombaxes shoulders. Cold terror was flowing through his circuits. He had never seen his friend like this.
"Ratchet, snap out of-" he looked up into empty black eyes and felt a momentary confusion in his sister board.
His head whipped around.
Orvus floated in the middle of the room, his normally cheerful face suffused with anger.
"You call this care-taking? I leave you in charge of the Clock and you go gallivanting across the universe!"
"No buts, Clank! There is no excuse for this! You are a failure!"
Clank sat down, head cradled in his hands.
"A failure…" he mumbled.
Jasmine hissed in distress. Somehow, Kaos had taken two of them out without touching them. She didn't know what Kaos had done, but by the looks on their faces it wasn't pleasant. Clank was staring at the floor, despondent, and Ratchet…she had to look away. She turned to Kaos, blades drawn…and and met those icy black eyes. A sharp pain bloomed behind her eyes, but she ignored it, charging recklessly towards Kaos.
Until a hiss stopped her in her tracks. It was a noise all too common in the Lombax dimension. Jasmine looked around wildly. She was smack dab in the middle of an Ishkhan pup nest. They crawled like bloated, misshapen worms, all eyes, teeth and claws. Her wrench slipped from bloodless fingers, striking the floor with a clang.
As one, the pups swung their heads towards her, setting up the spine-chilling chittering all Lombaxes dreaded. She backed up.
"N-no, please, stay back! Get away! Get away!"
Qwark looked around wildly. Any hope of back-up was either staring at nothing or or lashing out wildly at thin air. He risked a glance in Kaos's direction. She was giving her handiwork a satisfied look. Qwark may have been stupid, but he wasn't slow. He had seen the looks Kaos had given them, had seen their reactions. She started turning towards him, and he covered his eyes.
"Come now, Copernicus. Don't you know its rude not to look someone in the eye?"
He thought faster than he had in a long time. Only one option presented itself…
"I'm sorry about this" he said, and caught ratchet a solid kick on the backside.
Ratchet hit the floor hard, driving the wind from his body and the visions from his head. He staggered to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. He looked around, put two and two together and sprang into action, sending Clank tumbling with a wrench swing and giving Jasmine a vicious pinch to the ear. She yowled in pain, slumping to her knees as the dark touch of Kaos left her. For a moment, she was still, then she glared up at Kaos, pointed an avenging finger and, in tones that combined statement, threat and ultimatum growled,
Ratchet grabbed at her shoulder, pulling her back. He had assessed their odds, and they were not good. The Blarg raiders were priming their weapons, and Kaos had a face like thunder, fangs bared as she snarled in rage.
"No, Jasmine! It's too dangerous!"
In one swift movement, he tugged a flash grenade out of his belt, primed it, tossed it, and covered his eyes, dragging Jasmine down to the floor and protecting her eyes as well. There was a thud as Qwark hit the deck, then the world went white. The Blargs reacted as expected, dropping their guns and swearing as the pure white light seared their retinas. But Kaos…Kaos screamed like the damned, rearing backwards in agony. The scream went on and on, high and terrible, more rage then pain.
Acting on unspoken agreement, the four heroes ran for it. They burst out into the corridor. Behind them they could hear the terrible voice of Kaos, raised in fury.
"Get them! Kill them as slowly as you can!"
There was a thunder of boots, and a whirring in the walls as the security bots activated. Ratchet locked Clank into his harness.
"We should split up. We stand stand more of a chance of getting out of here if her forces are split trying to find us. When you get out, meet me by the north path"
The others nodded and took off, Qwark taking the main passage way, and Jasmine ducking down the first one on the right. Ratchet took the second one on the left. A security bot appeared in front of him, shattering into fragments of metal as Ratchets wrench obliterated it. He could hear Blargs coming up behind him, and groped in his weapons manifestor, preying it was still there. Success! He tugged out his Sonic Disruptor, the Xenophyte blinking as it awoke from its cryo-torpor. He checked the charges, nodding in satisfaction when he saw he had plenty.
Ratchet whirled around to face back down the way he had come. He began charging the Sonic Disruptor, the Xenophytes cheeks bulging as the deadly mating call built up. The Blargs rounded the corner and-
The shock wave knocked them flying like ten-pins, thudding into walls and ricocheting off each other. With one practised move he turned and wiped out the onrushing security bots with a series of smaller blasts. In moments, it was over. He looked around, checking for danger. The Blargs were unconscious and the security bots a write-off. He holstered his Sonic Disruptor and hover-booted down the corridor. More security bots blocked his path, but his wrench dealt with them easily. He could hear shouting in the distance, followed by a scream. He couldn't help but grin. That sounded like Jasmine. She didn't stand around and scream helplessly in an emergency. She made others do that.
He reached a door. A quick test of the handle revealed it was locked.
The little robot nodded, hopping down and bringing up his geo-laser. A few moments work and the door had a neat little hole in it, just big enough for a skinny Lombax. He wriggled through, ducking into a fighting stance the moment they were out. They were evidently in some kind of maintenance area. There were bins and a tangle of piping. And a noticeable lack of enemies. He lowered his wrench.
He took off north, dead leaves scattering in his wake as the north path appeared on the horizon. Ratchets keen ears picked up the clatter of Jasmines hover wings. He vaulted over a bush and landed on the packed earth of the path just as Jasmine landed neatly beside him.
"Any trouble?" he asked.
She rubbed a burn mark on her arm.
"A little. Nothing I couldn't handle. There were a few dicey moments, though"
"Any sign of Qwark?"
Jasmine was about to answer when the roar of a ship cut her off. They watched as one of the bandit ships rose into the air and streaked away.
"There he goes" said Jasmine.
Ratchet shook his head.
"Well, you know what they say, the hero dies once. The coward dies a thousand times"
Jasmine shouldered her wrench.
"That has to be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. Come on"
They set off north, keeping a watchful eye around them. Night fell, carpeting the night sky with a dense snowfall of stars. This part of Sargasso was drier and flatter, the path reassuring solid under their feet. The walked in silence. Then…
"There is something I do not understand"
"The Lombaxes have not existed in this universe for some time, am I correct?"
Jasmine looked thoughtful.
"Lets see…I was born the bay after we arrived so that makes it…twenty five years and six months since Tachyons Betrayal. What about it?"
"It is just…did you notice how young she looked?"
Ratchets ears shot up as realization struck.
"You're right! She'd have to be nineteen at the most!"
"Maybe there's a breeding colony Tachyon missed?" said Jasmine.
Ratchet shook his head.
"Doubt it. Tachyon was pretty thorough. I've only met two Lombaxes in my life. One died and the other went missing ages ago"
Jasmine scratched her ears thoughtfully.
"Everything about this is weird! How Kaos got here, how she always knows where we are, how that Ishkhan got here, nothing makes sense! The more we find out, the more mysteries we get!" snapped Ratchet. His current confused state of mind was not helped by the nagging feeling they were being followed.
"Alright, no need to get snarky! Here's what we do: we complete the mission, then we'll have the full Praetorian Guard on our backs. We get trained for detective skills, so we'll be able to suss Kaos out, no problem-"
They stopped. From his harness on Ratchets back, Clank pointed a warning finger. They followed his gaze. A tall tree grew next to the path, branches overhanging it. At first, Ratchet could see nothing, then something moved in the tree, jumping down to a lower branch. It was a bir- It was a liza- It was something. What ever it was, it seemed undecided as to whether it was reptilian or avian.
The body was definitely a birds, but only the wings had feathers, the rest of it was covered with tiny, iridescent, blue-green scales. The tail was reptilian, long and whippy, but the feet were delicate birds feet, with small, sharp talons. It ducked its head out of a shadow. The head was snake-like, almost dragonish, with yellow, slit-pupiled eyes and a tiny pair of slender horns pointing straight back from its head. It was a very slender, delicate looking creature, but Ratchet maintained the grip on his wrench. As Kaos had just shown, pretty appearances could hide a great danger.
"That creature does not match anything on my Sargasso data banks" said Clank, and the creature blinked, turning on Ratchet the most silently intelligent look in an animal he had ever seen. It wasn't the blank stare of a creature sizing you up on the level of food/threat/thing. Behind that yellow gaze, wheels were turning. It looked them up and down curiously, cocking its head to one side before seemingly making a decision. It adjusted its grip on the branch, seemed to concentrate…and disappeared.
As the group of heroes watched in stunned amazement, the air on the path in front of them wavered for a moment, and the creature popped back into existence. It was small, the top of its head barely clearing Ratchets knee.
"Awwww!" Jasmine scooped it up.
"Its so cute!"
"Jasmine, careful! It could be dangerous!"
"Ratchet, does it look dangerous to you?"
"Well…no" He had to admit, it didn't. It lay quite contentedly in Jasmines arms, looking around with quiet interest. Maybe it was someone's lost pet? His hypothesis was seemingly confirmed when it plunged its head under its wing, pulling out a little leather ball.
"Hey, I think it wants to play fetch-"
Jasmine never finished her sentence. The creature clamped its jaws shut, splitting the ball and sending a cloud of fine, yellow dust right into her face. She blinked, sneezed…and collapsed with a sigh, sinking into the leaf litter on the road.
Ratchet ran forward and knelt down beside her. Her breathing was good, deep and regular, but he couldn't wake her. The creature had scuttled off, making a high, piercing call. Through the rising mists of rage, he heard it reciprocated, and a twig snapped behind him. He swung around, wrench raised…and fell forwards into black.