(Authors note: Special thanks to PipoTachyon for helping me work out the name of the species I invented. You rock!)
Miles quaked with terror. Kaos stalked her chamber like a caged wolf, hissing with fury. The unfortunate Jarv had already met a terrible end, and Miles knew that only a miracle would save him from being next.
"T-they disappeared, Ma'am" he stammered.
"How in the name of Solana could they possibly have disappeared? They had the best part of half my army and the Ishkhan after them! How did they still manage to escape?"
"I d-don't know, Ma'am. I-its like they v-vanished into thin air"
There was a little flicker of hope.
"Maybe they sank in a bog" he said.
"This part of Sargasso has no bogs, you imbecile! No, they're out there somewhere. And I will find them"
"What about Qwark, Ma'am?"
She waved a hand dismissively.
"He's a bone headed moron with no spine to speak of. He is of no consequence. But the others…now they are a different story. Find them, Miles. Bring them to me in chains or bring me their heads, I don't care. Just find them. Prove to me that you are not just a worthless bungler who I am wasting my time on. One more failure on your part and I shall not be so merciful. Now get out of my sight"
He bolted gratefully. Kaos leaned against a pillar, drumming her fingers on it thoughtfully. On the opposite wall a computer screen showed a picture of the two Lombaxes, taken on Pyreem, just before their capture. She glared moodily at the flickering image.
"Now then" she said softly. "Just what am I going to do with you?…"
Ratchet slowly drifted into conciousness, dimly aware of sunlight on his face and a grassy, not unpleasant smell. He could faintly hear voices, but he didn't care. His head felt like it was stuffed with warm, pink cotton wool. A nuclear bomb could go off, for all he cared.
"Have they woken up yet? Its been three hours"
"Dead to the world"
"Hmm. Aeon must have miscalculated the dosage. Give them a nudge"
He was vaguely aware of something poking him. There was a pause.
"We don't have time for this! We need to wake them up!"
"There is one other option, but I don't think you'll like it"
"Will it kill them?"
"Then I'm all for it. Proceed"
He heard something moving towards him. Then…
Packed with nerve endings, a Lombaxes ears are its most sensitive point. In fact, if given the choice between a blow to the ear and a kick to the nads, most Lombaxes would take the nads option any day. And now something had just sunk razor sharp teeth deep into the tender spot where the ear joined the head.
Ratchet shot upright, swiping at the thing dangling from his ear. Something hit the ground with a thud and skittered away. Behind him, there was a snort from Jasmine.
"Gwfzt-guh? 'M awake, 'm awake!" She sat up.
"Wass goin' on?"
Ratchet looked around wildly. He was in what appeared to be a huge tree house, cunningly woven together out of living branches. In the centre of the floor, leaves burned in a small brazier, evidently the source of the pleasant smell that wafted through the tree house.Him and Jasmine were lying on piles of soft, dry moss. It was a warm, cosy place, but Ratchets attention was more focused on the rooms other occupants.
Three of the little reptile birds that had kidnapped them were watching the two Lombaxes intently. One of them stepped forward. It was bright canary yellow, and its smaller size and finer features marked it as a female. Unlike most animals Ratchet had seen, this one wore jewellery. A fine silver chain had been woven in an intricate mesh between its horns, looking for all the world like a spider had woven a metallic web. It looked up at them with those eerily intelligent eyes, then, much to their amazement, bowed, wings spread wide.
Jasmine gasped. There was no mistaking it. Not only was this tiny, bird winged reptile speaking to them, it was speaking to them in a very cultured, educated manner.
"I trust you slept well?" Its voice was soft and sweet.
"Um…y-yeah, fine" said Ratchet, still foggy with sleep.
One of the other lizard birds moved closer. This one was a male, larger than the others. Its body was painted with swirling abstract patterns. Sunlight shone on terracotta red scales and feathers as it bowed its head in Ratchets direction.
"I apologise for biting you, my good sir. It was the only way we could wake you" Its voice was a deep baritone, but still with those educated tones.
There was a clatter from outside the door, and two creatures scuttled in, one harnessed to a miniature cart. They looked like leggy weasels, with enormous black eyes and sturdy, prehensile tails. The one attached to the cart unhitched itself and began unloading bowls of food. The other poured steaming glasses of tea and nudged then towards the befuddled Lombaxes.
The yellow female nodded towards the cups.
"Please drink. Its not poison, you know"
Ratchet tried his cautiously. It had a sweet, slightly floral taste, and drove the clouds of exhaustion from his brain almost instantaneously. A bowl of something golden and crunchy was pushed in front of him, and he dug in gratefully. He hadn't realised how hungry he was.
Jasmine was a little less keen.
"Hang on a freakin' second. First you kidnap us, then all of a sudden you're offering us breakfast? What the hell do you want? Who are you?"
"I can assure you, we mean no harm. The kidnap was a necessary evil. We had to get you off Sargasso as fast as possible. Kaos had released the Ishkhan. You would have been torn to shreds. As for what we want, you shall find out after you have eaten. I imagine you must be starving"
Jasmine looked at the bowl in front of her suspiciously.
"What is it?"
"Honey roasted crickets" said the little lizard cheerfully. "My personal favourite"
"You didn't answer my other question" Jasmine said, to a background of frantic coughing from Ratchet.
"Who are you?"
"All in good time. We-is your friend all right? He's gone rather a funny colour"
"Culture shock, probably. Now are you gonna tell us just what the @$*! is going' on?!"
"Later. Finish your meal first. Then you shall receive answers" She nodded to the others, and the three creatures disappeared with a soft whoosh of inrushing air. Jasmine looked over at Ratchet, who was giving a piece of fruit a suspicious examination.
"What was all that about?"
"Dunno. Do you reckon we should trust 'em?"
"They did kidnap us. But on the other hand, they haven't tried to kill us. We'll see where this is heading, but keep an eye on them as well. For all we know, they're in league with Kaos"
They finished breakfast in silence, each lost in though. Practically the moment they'd finished, the air in the room wavered, and the three creatures appeared. The yellow female beckoned with her wing.
"Please follow me. I shall explain on the way"
They stepped outside onto a balcony. Even in her annoyed state of mind, Jasmine had to admit, the view was amazing. The tree house had been built on one of the taller trees, giving a perfect view of vast expanses of forest, filling the horizon. In the distance, a flock of birds wheeled, and she swore she heard distant song.
"We are the Zenithi" said their guide, as she led them down a log bridge.
"You would not have heard of us, and I dearly wish that happy state of affairs could continue, but fate forces our hand.The planet you are on is called Elysium, right on the edge of the Polaris galaxy. It has taken us centuries to ensure it does not exist on any star map. Our work depends on secrecy"
"What work?" said Ratchet.
"Let us reach the ground first" she said, as they reached a door set in a tree trunk. She struck a hollow log with her tail, causing a resonating boom.
"By the way, I believe I forgot to introduce myself. I am Evia, head of the espionage unit"
The door slid open, revealing a featureless, windowless room. With some trepidation, the Lombaxes followed her inside. The door closed behind them, casting the room in darkness. There was a moments pause, then they felt the room begin to move downwards. Ratchet was genuinely impressed.
"You guys have elevators?"
The Zenithi smiled, yellow eyes sparkling.
"One does not need opposable thumbs to be intelligent, Ratchet"
The door opened, and they stepped out into cool green darkness. Enormous trees soared overhead, blocking out most light, and casting dappled shade on the forest floor. Soft green moss grew underfoot and draped itself over anything standing. Where there was no moss, there were huge stands of ferns. Jasmine looked up. There were more of those woven tree houses up in the trees, linked by log bridges. She could see more of the weasel like creatures peering down at them.
"What are those?" she said, pointing.
Evia glanced up.
"They are the Feloisa. For aeons they have gathered food, grown our crops and built our dwellings"
"So they're like servants"
"Oh good heavens, no! They would get very annoyed if you were to suggest that. No, they are far more than mere servants. Everything would fall apart without them and they know it. Servants, indeed…"
Shaking her head, she led them down a path. The song Jasmine had heard grew louder. It was…strange. There were no words, yet she could understand the message behind it easily. There was peace, laughter, joy. But beneath it, an undercurrent of tension, of nervousness. They pushed through a dense growth of tall ferns, and the two Lombaxes staggered back as light blinded them. They stood on the edge of a clearing. Soft moss carpeted the ground, scattered trees cast spots of shade, and bright flowers cast a gentle scent onto the breeze. A stream wound its way through the sun-lit glade, babbling as it flowed over smooth, shiny stones. Dust motes flashed in the sun light, giving the air a golden tint. It was beautiful, but by no means peaceful. The clearing was packed. Dozens of Zenithi filled the glade, bustling about on mysterious errands, working with the Feloisa on terraced gardens, or fishing in the stream.There were tiny ones, barely a foot tall, veritable giants who towered at three feet, and all sizes in between. No two were the same colour, and light glittered off multi-hued scales and delicate, hand made jewellery. An almost party like atmosphere prevailed.
They were also the source of the beautiful, wordless song that wound its way around everything. Occasionally, one of the Zenithi would stop, throw back its head, and add its own unique notes to the song. No two sounds were alike. There were metallic warblings, sweet, violin like notes, pan-pipe notes, harp notes and other, more other worldly songs. Mixed together, it should have been a discord, but strangely, it seemed to work. They didn't just sing, either. They chattered with each other constantly, but they didn't seem to have decided on one single language. Ratchet found it vaguely disconcerting to hear one Zenithi ask a question in flawless Blargian, only to get a response in Fongoid.
He became aware that the noise and movement was dying down as their presence was detected of everything present. The Lombaxes quickly found themselves the focus of the undivided attention of everything present. The stares were not angry or mistrustful. Simply…watchful.
A cry broke the silence.
He shot off, ignoring Evia's shouts from behind him. He mentally berated himself, both for forgetting Clank and for trusting those scaly little turn coats.
Two trees had fallen onto each other at some stage, forming a natural archway that had been draped with a curtain of moss. He swept it aside, dreading the sight of…
"Ratchet, get these things off me!"
He laughed, mostly out of sheer relief. The little robot was nearly hidden under a layer of baby Zenithi, tiny bundles of fluff, eyes and feet. They were industriously tugging him in all directions, twittering with joy. One was even trying to pull off Clanks antennae. It was the funniest sight Ratchet had ever seen. They spotted him, and unceremoniously dumped Clank in favour of the new, furry toy, scaling the Lombax like tiny mountain climbers.
"Adorable aren't they?"
Evia had caught up with them, Jasmine trailing in her wake.
"Naturally, our sleeping powder did not work on Clank, but after we had explained the situation, and after he stopped hitting us, he was quite understanding, and quite keen to learn more about us"
Clank brushed off dust, scowling.
"I would have appreciated a warning about them" He nodded in the direction of Ratchet, who was trying to remove his new "friends" as gently as possible, a difficult task when they're using your tail as a swing.
"It was more amusing that way" she chuckled.
She whistled softly, and the Zenithi chicks jumped of Ratchet, scattering in all directions like living nuclear particles.
"We are not far from your destination, and the answers you seek"
Evia ushered them down a path that led back into the woods. Behind them, the Zenithi's song started again, but different this time. A note of warning wound its way through it. Its meaning was clear: Warning. Strangers.
The forest closed over them, shrouding them in green shadows. The path zig-zagged down a boulder strewn hill, hard to see under the the thick growth of ferns. A waterfall tumbled down a cliff face, sending rainbows scattering as light hit the water. A soft mist shrouded the forest, giving it an other worldly feel. To Jasmine, it was both the most beautiful and the most haunting place she had ever seen. She could feel eyes on her. This was not the mild curiosity of the Zenithi, however. The fur on the back of her neck lifted as she felt the sheer animosity of the watchers gaze boring into her. Their guide obviously felt it too. She stopped.
"They are here under our invitation. They are no threat"
The atmosphere changed, becoming more relaxed. But not too relaxed. Ratchet caught a flash of white out of the corner of his eye, and turned just in time to see a white bird disappearing into the tree tops. There was a suggestion of glaring yellow eyes and a black crow like beak. Then it was gone.
"Yakunzu birds" said Evia. "Be careful around them.They are powerful telepaths, fully capable of obliterating your mind, leaving you a drooling vegetable. They are also extremely devoted to our cause, and will attack anyone they see as a threat"
"Your cause being…?" said Ratchet.
She simply turned and walked on. They moved in near silence, the only sound the chirps of insects and birdsong from the bushes. Periodically, their guide would stop and sing a few high, sweet notes, only moving on when she received a reply. It was too organised to just be birdsong…
"Hey Jaz, I think I figured it out" Ratchet said quietly. "Those aren't just songs, those are messages!"
"Hmmm" said Clank "Music as a language. Fascinating…"
"Lets just hope the message isn't 'Dinners ready' "
"Why did you have to say that?" moaned Ratchet.
A pair of pillars loomed out of the foliage. Vines grew between them like a curtain, and they were splashed with what Ratchet sincerely hoped was red paint…
"Don't worry" said Evia, as though reading his mind "It is a dye made from crushed insects. It just warns the little ones that anything beyond here is restricted access"
She disappeared through the vine curtain. Exchanging nervous glances, they stepped through the curtain, hands on weapons. For a few moments, vines obscured their vision, then…
Ratchet barely had time to register the cry, before something huge slammed into him, pinning him to the forest floor. He was helpless, arms held firmly against his sides. He heard Jasmine growl and unsheathe her blades, and fervently hoped she could handle whatever was crushing him.
Evia burst onto the scene, shaking her sleek head desperately.
"They're with us! Let him go!"
The crushing weight was lifted, and he felt strong hands haul him upright.
"Sorry man. Can't be too careful when it comes to strangers, ya know?"
Ratchet brushed himself off.
"That's OK, no harm done-"
He froze, as his inner filing system flashed a card. No wonder that voice sounded familiar!
The former gladiator grinned.
"In the flesh! Not expecting to see you here, though. Not with the kind of folk the Zenithi usually take on.."
"You two know each other?" said a confused Jasmine.
"He tried to kill me a few years back. Its a long story, I'll tell ya later. But what he's doing here I haven't the foggiest…"
He shot a meaningful glance at Evia.
"Ace here is part of what is jokingly referred to as the "waifs and strays" policy" she explained.
"its rather new, but seems to be working well. You see, the code of the Zenithi is forgiveness. If you have made a terrible mistake, and you truly, deeply regret it, we will take you in. We give you a home, a job, a purpose. But most of all, we grant you redemption"
"Yeah" said Ace "After I got outta Zordoom, no-one wanted anything to do with me. Not after dreadzone… But then these little guys showed up, and look at me now! I'm in charge of security over the whole area" He grinned. This was a far different Ace from the bitter gladiator he had fought in dreadzone. He was happier, more content. Ratchet loosened his grip on his wrench. He was fairly certain Ace was no longer a threat.
Jasmine looked around. At first, she had thought she was in a grove of huge trees, until she noticed the windows. The huge trunks had been hollowed out, creating barely visible cottages. A fountain gurgled in the middle of a grassy square, and a paved road wound up a hill, where a huge temple dominated the landscape. She barely managed to suppress a shiver. The chill of age radiated from the moss covered stones. Forest bordered it, threatened to bury it. And their guide was walking right towards it. She braced herself and fell in with the others. Ace followed along behind pointing out his latest plans for security, beaming with pride.
"…and those are my newest idea. Thorn bushes! Simple but efficient. Just plant a few hedges and I promise you, there is nothing gonna be able to get past 'em!"
Ratchet listened with half an ear, trying to take in his surroundings. The inhabitants of the little village were peeking out of door ways, watching closely. They were a mixed bag of races, and some Ratchet recognised as wanted criminals. They were giving him the same watchful look as the Zenithi. He felt no danger, but still kept a hand close to his weapons. Best to be careful…
They reached an archway, and Evia halted.
"Clank" she said "You were created by the Zoni, weren't you?"
"Affirmative. But how do you know?"
She avoided the question.
"As such, you are sensitive to the flows of time, correct?"
"Yes, why do you ask?"
"Eons ago, we aided the Zoni with the construction of the Great Clock. In return, Orvus halted the flow of time in this area. Once you enter the temple grounds, you enter an area of pure changelessness. An island of stability in the raging ocean of time. Here, you will not age. You will feel neither hunger, or thirst, nor weariness. However, the act of moving from time to timelessness can be somewhat disorientating, especially for those who are bound so close to it. Do not say you were not warned"
"The Zoni never mentioned you helping with the Clock" said Clank.
"Orvus understood the underground nature of our work, and kept our secret hidden"
"Why did you need to stop time?" asked Jasmine.
"Our lifespan is far longer than yours. It is measured in millennia, rather than decades. I myself am around 3000, barely a girl by our standards. But even so we are not immortal. Here in the temple, we can perform our duties untouched by the cold hand of death, accomplishing far more than we would have otherwise"
She stepped through the arch, swaying slightly as she did so. The two Lombaxes exchanged glances.
"Yeah right! In ya go,buddy"
Ace hung back.
"I'll stay here if its all the same to you, Evia. This place makes me feel weird"
Ratchet took a deep breath, and stepped through. The little Zenithi had been right. He staggered and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He had never noticed time passing until he felt its flow halt, and now the sheer stillness overwhelmed him. The air had a strange prickle to the air, like the feeling you got before thunderstorms. All sounds from outside the temple grounds were muffled, as though coming from far away.
Jasmine took it at a run, bursting through the archway and nearly falling as she felt the effects of time stopping.
Clank regarded the entranceway cautiously. He could feel the strangeness in his circuitry, even before he approached. Evia gave him an encouraging nod and a fang filled smile.
He stepped forward…
And re-booted flat on his back.
Ratchet gently helped him up, giving his friend a worried look.
"You OK, buddy?"
Clank did not respond. It was taking all his strength just to think in a straight line. He swayed as his sister board glitched again, clinging to Jasmines leg in an attempt to stay upright. She steadied him.
"Easy there, little guy. You'll be fine"
Clank shook his head as his circuits settled into some semblance of order.
"I…am fine. Do not worry"
"Good. Come this way"
She led them across a paved courtyard, the temple looming over them. Two huge statues stood on either side of the enormous doorway. On the left hand side, a stone Zenithi gazed down benevolently, winds half spread as if in welcome. On the right, a Feloisa stood, front paws placed in such a way that they seemed to support its side of the door. Carved over the lintel, a Yakunzu bird spread its wings, talons outstretched and beak open in a silent scream. It looked like it was about to fly out of the stone itself.
Ratchet could think of only one word to describe the temple: boding. It was the kind of temple you just knew would have dank stone corridors, huge spiders, and traps galore. If circumstances were different, he wouldn't have set foot in that temple for a million bolts. But he knew he had no choice, not in the face of that steady yellow gaze. He braced himself, and followed Evia inside.
There was a distinct lack of spiders and darkness. What there was, was light. Sunlight streamed in through skylights on the roof. It shone off the honey coloured tiles covering the walls and floor, gilding everything it touched, and illuminating a huge. circular room. In the centre, a pool of still water reflected the ceiling, plants growing around the edges and trailing in the water. It would have had a sacred feel to it, like a cathedral, if it hadn't bee for the noise.
Zenithi filled the room, running on errands, dragging strange pieces of machinery or just talking. The babble of multiple languages filled the air, as well as the eerie Zenithi music. Feloisa scurried between them, clenching messages in their jaws.
Unlike the Zenithi back in the forest clearing, there was a definite sense of purpose. Everybody here knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going…
Evia slipped through the crowd like a fish through water. As the others followed, the Zenithi paid them no attention beyond the occasional glance, simply moving out of their way, and flowing back after they were gone. The general assumption seemed to be that if you had made it to the temple, you were meant to be there.
A small door was almost hidden behind a potted plant, and their guide ducked through it. It opened to a long corridor, tiled walls intricately painted. They showed scenes from history from the Zenithis point of view. It was not the one they'd learned in school…
The little yellow Zenithi was practically running now, flitting past other doors, leaving dust spiralling in her wake. Finally she stopped, allowing the panting Lombaxes to catch up. The corridor had opened out to a small room, lined with strange devices that looked like intricate scales. In the centre of the room was a larger version, in a state of repair, parts scattered all over the place.
Evia bowed low.
"May I present the Guardian of the Balance, protector of reality, master of the temple, my lord, Drake!"
There was a pause, then a sleek green head popped out of the bowels of the device.
"Sorry, is that me?"
"Oh well done, sir. Very impressive" she said sarcastically. "You really knocked them dead"
Drake disentangled himself from the machinery. He was slim, and for a Zenithi, of medium size. His feathers and scales glittered a bright, iridescent emerald green, currently streaked with dust from whatever mysterious repairs he had been doing. For what was basically a winged lizard, he had a very open, honest face.
"Sorry, I got rather distracted. The Higgs-Boson mechanism came loose again. Its a real devil to fix" he said, in a pleasant, light tenor.
"I mean, there's such a thing as professionalism, sir" it was clear they had had this conversation many times before.
He grinned sheepishly, exposing a mouthful of sharp teeth. For the first time, he noticed his guests.
"You found them! Fantastic! It is a great honour to meet the one and only Ratchet and Clank! And the…and the…and the Jasmine Cain"
"I trust you have been treated well?"
"Yeah" said Jasmine "Except for the small matter of you guys kidnapping us! That's twice we've been captured in twenty four hours! If we get kidnapped a third time, do we get a free tee shirt?"
"Ah, the Lombax sense of humour. Its been a duller universe since your kind left"
"Good to hear. But right now, I wanna know what the heck is going on" said Ratchet.
"Of course. I-" A siren interrupted him.
"Break-time. Excellent. We shall have the temple to ourselves. Evia, your job is done. You may leave us"
She nodded and disappeared, leaving nothing except a small yellow feather spiralling gently to the ground.
Drake led them back into the large room.
"Take a seat" he said, gesturing with his wing towards some low benches set around the pool. They sat.
"Now, look into the pool"
They leaned forward, looking into the water.
Tiles on the ceiling formed a pattern that was reflected in the still pool. Two teardrop shapes curved into each other, forming a circle. One tear drop was black, with a dot of white in its centre. The other, vice versa. A draught stirred the pool, and the image rippled gently.
"Does that image look familiar to you?" he asked.
"It does, actually" said Jasmine, blinking in surprise.
"And so it should. Every intelligent culture in the universe has independently come up with a symbol like this, because every culture have some basic understanding of the Balance. The subtle, shifting dance between chaos and order. It is the background of reality. And it is everywhere. It flows in every living thing, keeps time and space together, dances in the heart of stars. We are its servants. Everything we do here in this temple, is for the service of the Balance. We maintain it, preserve it. And so, in a round about way, preserve reality. But everything that exists has enemies. You know of the big bang?"
Ratchet shot to his feet.
"OK, I've just about had enough! Quit screwing around and tell us straight or-"
"Sit down, Ratchet" Drake said sharply. Ratchet sat. Those words had school teacher harmonics to them. Disobeying was unthinkable.
"More was created in the Big Bang than the stars. A creature was born. A creature of rage, of spite, of pure unending malice. The Kaos entity. It desires only one thing: destruction. The complete annihilation of everything that is, was or shall be. The entity is little more than a disembodied mind, powerful as a supernova, yet at the same time, weak as a kitten. It can cross dimensions in the blink of an eye, yet can barely make it across a room. To fully utilise its power, it needs a body. The process of acquiring one is tiring for it, and requires around a century of gathering its strength. But once it has readied itself, it selects a champion, and binds itself to it in the womb, creating the Kaos incarnation. There are two signs that identify the Kaos Incarnation. White fur, scales or skin and-"
"Pure black eyes" said Clank, light dawning.
Drake nodded approvingly.
"Well done. The Incarnation acts as a conduit for the Kaos entities power, focusing it through a living being. That is how Kaos was able to use your worst nightmares against you. Normally Lombaxes are as telepathic as a housebrick, but the entity has given her many…gifts, that she will not hesitate to use. That is not her only danger, however. All the Incarnation has to do is exist, and the walls of reality will tremble. She will do everything in her power to move the Balance off centre"
"Like the attack on Jasindu" said Jasmine "Kaos must have been trying to shift the Balance in her favour!"
"Exactly!" said Drake triumphantly. "The further the Balance shifts out of alignment, the weaker the space-time continuum becomes. That is why the Great Clock glitched so catastrophically, Clank. It was designed to function at peak performance when the Balance is stable. Throw out the Balance, and you throw out reality. The Clock simply could not cope with the shift, so it malfunctioned. Unless Kaos is stopped, it will do so again. And Kaos must be stopped, for this goes far beyond the Clock. If the Balance leans too far, the consequences will be dire. Follow me, I must show you something"
He trotted off, taking a different door. As they walked down another corridor, he explained.
"You see, we Zenithi have spent aeons doing this. As a result, we have evolved the ability to think in terms of up to thirty dimensions. The Balance is a complex science. However, most races can only think in terms of four. Height, width, depth and time. I'm not saying you're stupid, you just aren't evolved to comprehend it. A visual metaphor is the best way to understand. The Feloisa were up all night preparing this for you"
They stepped into a dark room. Drake bit down on a cord and tugged. There was the creak of a pulley and the scrape of flint on steel, showering sparks on a torch, which burst into flames.
The flickering light illuminated row after row of…
Every inch of the floor was covered in dominoes, arranged in an odd, ferny, swirly pattern. Drake carefully picked one up in his talons.
"Each one of these is a universe. This one…" He pointed to a domino at the start. "Is ours. And this one-" he pointed to another domino further out "-is the Lombax dimension. Watch what happens when the Balance reaches the point of no return"
He replaced the domino, then gently blew on it. It trembled, rocked back and forth, then fell.
"As reality collapses inwards, so too does the universe" he said, over the click and rattle of falling dominoes.
"However, all universes and realities are connected, so they fall as well, dragging others with them, and so on. A chain reaction, wiping out millions of universes in microseconds. Look, there go the Lombaxes"
Jasmine winced, cold fear prickling her heart. This was not what she had expected in this mission…
"It will continue, relentless, unstoppable, until there is nothing. No heat, no cold, no light, no dark, just-"
The last domino fell with a tiny click that echoed loudly in the hush.
"-nothing. Endless nothing. This is the ultimate goal of the Kaos entity, and one we are honour bound to prevent. We have done this duty for millions of years."
"Why not just destroy the entity itself?" said Jasmine "Why do through all that trouble every century?"
"Because it cannot be killed. It is too powerful. The incarnations are flesh and blood, and can be destroyed, but the entity always remains. And Kaos…" Drake paused, and Jasmine swore she saw a flash of pain across his face.
"With each incarnation, the entity grows more cunning, and more powerful as it learns from each incarnation. The Balance leans more than I have ever seen in my life, and it is not helped by the fact that the loss of the Lombaxes tipped it further, increasing her strength. This is where you come in. We need your help for this. Kaos has more power than we have ever seen in an incarnation. You yourself have already felt it. Please, will you help us?"
There was a snort from Ratchet.
"You have gotta be kidding me! You expect me to swallow that garbage? I don't care how nasty that lady is, I'm not gonna help you murder her in the name of a fairy story! You guys are with me, right?"
The others avoided his eye.
"It does explain a lot…" said Clank, looking down at the floor.
"Un-freakin'-believable" snarled Ratchet.
Drake tugged on a rope. A Zenithi appeared.
"You rang, sir?"
"Please give Jasmine and Clank the guided tour of our temple. I am sure they will find it very informative. In the meantime, ratchet, you and I must have a talk…"
The Zenithi nodded, and guided the others out of the room, talking as it went.
"The temple has a long and proud history of…"
Drake waited until the voices had faded, before turning to Ratchet.
"Where we are going is underground, so it is not accessible by the usual means. Please take hold of my wing.
Grudgingly, Ratchet complied. Drake concentrated…and Ratchet found himself in a tunnel. He blinked. There had been the faintest suggestion of warm, rushing wind on his face, but otherwise nothing to indicate movement.
The tunnel was dark. Often Ratchet had to feel his way forwards with his hands, following the click of Drakes talons. The Zenithi was silent, and Ratchet was beginning to wonder if he had offended him with his outburst. He might have been a nut, but he was a genuinely likeable nut…
There was a light up ahead, the warm orange glow of torches. And…there was power. The air in the cave crackled with it. It sparked along his fur and cast the tip of his wrench in glowing blue light as the power earthed itself in the metal.
The tunnel opened out into a cave, lit with dozens of torches. A few Zenithi were working, with the big white Yakunzu birds keeping watch. Unlike the neat tiles and carved blocks of the temple, the walls were just rough stone, water running down the walls in rivulets. What seemed to be a huge well occupied most of the cavern, standing at about waist height. It was the source of the power. As ratchet approached, the sheer intensity made his teeth buzz. He looked into it, expecting to see his own reflection. What he saw…
His eyes widened. It was the same black and white circle reflected in the temple pool, but it wasn't water. It looked like liquid plasma, with odd ripples passing through it. Just looking at it hurt his eyes. Before he had to look away, he noticed the black half was larger than the light half. Drake spread his wings, fluttering up onto the lip of the well. Under his talons, a line of crystals glowed softly. They were a soft greenish yellow. As Ratchet watched, the yellow colour became a bit stronger.
"What you are looking at is the heart of our operation. Pure reality.We were not going to show you, but you needed a little extra convincing. With any luck, this should convince you we are right. Its taken us years to get you to this spot, we can't-oops!"
But it was too late. It took a few seconds for Ratchet to put two and two together, but when he did…
Drake was hauled up and slammed against the cave wall.
"You used me!"
There were cries of distress from the other Zenithi. Drake wriggled in Ratchets grip, spread-eagled on the wall.
"It was…necessary" he gasped "The fate…of the universe..depended on it…"
"I'm no-ones puppet!"
He looked. The Yakunzu birds surrounded him, glaring with eagle like eyes. They had the tense look of predators waiting to pounce.
"One word…from me, and they will…destroy your mind…leave you an empty husk. Put me down…gently"
Ratchet carefully lowered him. Drake smoothed his ruffled wing feathers, and addressed the Yakunzu birds.
One cocked its head, looking Drake square in the eyes. The Zenithi swayed.
"Not so loud, please. I know what I am doing. Leave us"
Glaring at Ratchet, they swooped out through a narrow hole on the ceiling. One hovered momentarily. A voice slid across Ratchets mind.
"Final warning, Lombax…"
It left. Drake resumed his perch on the well.
"It is true we have had considerable influence on your life's path. We adjusted the flight codes on Clanks ship so it would land on Veldin, removed the worst obstacles from your path, watched over you. But it was not meddling for meddlings sake. Your role in the universe had been foretold for centuries, and we had to make sure you reached it. And now, I shall show you what we fight. Remove your gloves and place your hands in the well. It is only safe for bare skin"
Ratchet gave the well a doubtful look. The power looked enough to fry him…
"Don't worry, I'll be doing it with you"
Ratchet took off his gloves and stepped up to the well. Lowering his hands to the surface produced a large spark, which stung like a bee. He jerked his hands back.
"Best to do it quickly" said Drake. "On three. One. Two. Three"
Ratchet thrust his hands into the swirling substance. For a moment, there was the burn of energy, then-
He was floating. Light surrounded him, blinding him. He looked at his hands. A shining mesh of silver covered them, spreading out over his whole body. He could feel his mind expanding, spreading out. He was not just in the Balance. He was the Balance, one with everything. He felt its tug, its pull…and it was wrong. He could feel the corruption in his centre, reached out to correct it…and talons closed around his wrist.
"No, Ratchet. That is not how it works. You would do more damage. Come back"
He forced his scattered thoughts to return. He was Ratchet again, Drake perched on his arm, also covered in silver filigree.
"It can have that effect on those who are not used to it"
"Where am I?"
"In the Balance. Come, I must show you this"
Ratchet found himself drifting forwards. The Balance went from light to dark as though someone had flipped a switch. It was colder, and sent prickles down his spine.
"You are in the dark half of the Balance" said Drake, as they floated along. All ratchet could see was the glow from the silver threads coating them.
"It is here you shall see what we have to face"
Ratchet was aware of a growing scent. Compared to this, the Ishkhan was roses. It clogged his nostrils and his mind. If rage, and malignancy and endless, endless hate had a smell, it was this smell. He fought against Drakes steady tug, trying to escape it. finally, Drake stopped. There was a…thing hanging in the black. It was a gray, cancerous looking lump, throbbing slowly and sending out tendrils.
"Do you smell that?"
"In actual fact, that is not a scent. This is the effect the Kaos entity has on the Balance, and the anger and loathing is so strong that it threatens to overwhelm your mind, so to protect itself, your mind translates it as a foul scent, otherwise it could destroy you. Do you understand, ratchet? This is not a fantasy or a fairy story, this is real! We give our lives for it! Please, will you help us?"
Drake watched Ratchet nervously. The Lombax was staring at the grey monstrosity, his face unreadable, then…
Drake nodded to himself, and grabbed hold of Ratchets arm.
"Good. Let us return"
Ratchet felt a tug-And came to on his back, lying on cool stone. Every hair on his body stood on end, residual energy crackling over him. He staggered to his feet.
"Are you alright?" asked Drake.
"Yeah, fine. Just a little dizzy"
"That will pass. Come, let us catch up with your friends. They should have finished their tour by now. Oh, by the way, it would be best to keep this little meeting a secret. The fewer who know about, the less likely it will be revealed by accident"
He held up his wing for Ratchet to hold on to. There was that faint rushing feeling again, and Ratchet was standing in the temples main hall.
He looked up. Jasmine and Clank were heading towards them.
"This place is amazing! I've never seen anything like it! Right, Clank?"
He shrugged. Right now he would give half his gigabytes to be out of here. He longed to be part of the flow of time again, to feel it gently pull him from today to tomorrow. He had never realised how important it was to his Zoni made circuits until it was gone. Drake sensed Clanks misery.
"I think it's time we left. Its too easy to lose track of time when you can't feel it passing. I think I've been here around…how long have I been here?" he asked the Zenithi who had been showing the others around the temple.
"Around two years, sir"
Drake was clearly gobsmacked.
"Two years? Really? I could have sworn it was only six months!"
He shook his head.
"I really need to start paying attention. Come, we must depart! Time is of the essence. We estimate we have around a week before the Balance is unsaveable"
The left the temple, heading down a winding path they hadn't noticed before. Clank sighed with relief as they left the temple grounds, feeling the tick of time pull him forward again.
"So, Ratchet" said Jasmine. "Did you change your mind?"
"Yeah. That Drake has one heck of a convincing argument!"
"This is going to make my mission a lot more interesting. And if I fail…" she trailed off, unwilling to vocalise the horrible thoughts sneaking across her mind.
They entered a small clearing. Ships of all descriptions were parked in it haphazardly. And in the centre…
The ship rose up, hovering an inch off the ground.
Hello Ratchet. Did those little creatures bring you here too?
"Yeah!" said Ratchet. "They been treating you OK?"
Oh yes, they've been very polite. Are we heading off now?
Jasmine consulted her orders.
"Um, bit of a problem with that. The rest of the crystals are only listed by name, not location. The Centre for Advanced Lombax Research didn't know where to look. We're stuck!"
"Not to worry, my feline friend. I have just the solution!"