Authors note: Big thanks to RatchetRuler for his help with the chapter name!
Drake studied Ratchets star map carefully.
"I can't find it"
"Ah" The Zenithi chuckled ruefully. "I apologize. I am more used to teleportation as a method of transport. These maps are strange to me"
"That's OK, I can find Terachnos with my eyes closed. You leave this to me" Ratchet carefully adjusted Aphelions course.
"Its about a half hour flight"
Drake settled back down in his seat. He had to admit, this was a heck of a way to travel. Having spent his whole life teleporting from planet to planet, he had never flown among the stars, and was making the most of this unique experience.
"I say, this is quite a pleasant way to travel" he said, shuffling his wings as he got comfortable.
Ratchets sharp eyes spotted an odd, golden gleam.
"Hey, what's that?"
He hadn't noticed before, but a leather thong looped its way around Drakes neck and shoulder, disappearing under his wing.
Drake swept his wing aside, revealing a gold disc attached to the rope. In the centre was another one of those black and white circle symbols. Was it Ratchets imagination, or was the dark half bigger than the light half?
"This is the symbol of my authority, the Brr-tanya. In your language, that would roughly translate as "Balance watcher" With this, I can keep track of the Balances progress. As you can see, the dark side is rather larger than the light side. Its rather worrying in fact. I've never seen it shift so-"
Both Ratchet and Drake winced as a depressingly familiar sound filled the cabin.
Jasmine answered her wrist phone.
"Welcome to Bobs mortuary. You stab 'em, we slab 'em!"
"Grow up, Cain!"
"Oh! Hi, General!"
General Cross snarled.
"Where the hell were you? We called you three times today and you didn't answer! What's going on?"
Jasmine looked sideways at Drake, who shook his head.
"Stuff came up, General, you know how it is"
"Don't do it again! Give us your status report, Cain"
"Three so far, General! We're on our way to Terachnos to find out where the fourth is"
The General looked nonplussed.
"Wha- thr- alrea- Well, crap, I owe Lieutenant Stryker ten bolts. I didn't think you'd actually make it that far"
She gave a wry grin.
"Nice to know you believe in me, General"
"Never mind that. Any more trouble from the one who tried to attack you?"
Another glance. This time Drake nodded.
"Her name is Kaos. She's some kind of bandit leader, near as we can tell. Crazier then a Cragmite. And, um…"
"She's a Lombax, General"
Much to Jasmines surprise, the General took it quite well, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"I guess Tachyon wasn't as thorough as he thought he was. Try and avoid her if you can. Good luck. Oh, one more thing, Fenris wanted me to give you a message while he was out on patrol. I'm scanning it through now"
Jasmine looked at her wrist communicator and sighed.
"Tell him to take a running jump. Cain out"
She switched off the screen, muttering to herself.
"What was the message?" asked ratchet.
""If you want a real man, my arms are always open" Ugh, I'd rather lick ice-toads…"
"Yeah, that was pretty bad"
"He thinks I like him! What's to like? He's a petty, small minded bully, with the reasoning capability of a brain dead Ishkhan! He's a survivalist too…"
Drake spoke up from his position next to Jasmine in the back seat.
"What's a Survivalist?"
She rolled her eyes and snorted.
"Its this idea that's been floating around lately. Its not very popular cuz most Lombaxes instinctively understand how dumb it is, but the basic premise is, survival of the fittest. If you're weak or sick, survivalists reckon you should just curl up and die"
"That's ridiculous!" exploded Clank.
"Exactly. No one pays much attention to them, so they just pick on the weaker ones when they can. There's this one guy on the Exodus project who can barely move without falling over, and the poor guy gets it in the neck from Fenris with depressing regularity. This guy can run mental rings around him, but he's still 'useless' according to Fenris"
Drake shook his head.
"You get people like that sometimes. But we need to focus on finding those crystals. If we can return the Lombaxes, we can shift the Balance in our favour and weaken Kaos. In her current state of strength, there is no other way we can defeat her"
"We aren't far from Terachnos now"
Drake looked out the window. Stars and nebulae streamed past, glowing with a bright light. He sighed. To think he'd spent his whole life missing out on this…
"Hey, control to Drake, come in, Drake"
Jasmines voice cut through his reverie.
"If you guys are supposed to be super secret, how are you going to come into the city with us? We need your directions"
"Um…" Drake hadn't thought that far ahead.
"I'll have to think of something…"
Axiom city. Estimated time until reality failure: 6 days.
The heroes wound their way through the crowded city. After some thought, Drake had finally worked out a solution to his problem, and now a sleek, reptilian muzzle poked out of a back pack slung over Jasmines shoulder, whispering directions.
Ratchet found himself relaxing. In a crowded city, any of Kaos's bandits would have a tough time finding them. Axiom city was something of a melting pot, dozens of other races mingling with the Terachnoids. The two Lombaxes blended in perfectly. From his spot on Ratchets back, Clank scanned the crowd carefully. He was ever alert to the possibility of attack. There was no telling what Kaos was capable of…
"Here we are!" said Drake. "Axiom city library! The largest collection of books in the universe! They are bound to have what we are looking for in here. I say, Jasmine, do you mind slowing down? I'm starting to feel distinctly seasick…"
"Gotta hand it to ya, Drake, you really came through on this one! Come on, it closes in half an hour-"
He yelped as he was roughly grabbed, and pulled into an alley. A strong hand clamped over his mouth.
Jasmine released her grip in his muzzle and pointed.
"What was…oh no…"
He laid his ears flat. There was no mistaking that tall slim figure.
Kaos herself strode through the crowds, followed by a retinue of Blargs, Miles at her right hand side. The crowds parted like a wave, sub-consciously sensing the evil inside her. Her red cape was wrapped tight around her, hood pulled over her head. Her face was impassive, but her black eyes gleamed with dark knowledge and evil glee.
"Hide! She can sense you if you're close enough!"
They ran down the alley, jumping over bins and ducking under clotheslines. Ratchet was shivering, feeling the cold evil pouring off Kaos like smoke, even at this distance.
'Quick, up there!"
Jasmine pointed out a ladder heading up the side of a building. They scrambled up it, taking shelter behind a generator. Below them, they could hear the faint voice of Kaos.
"Spread out. I'm fairly certain they are somewhere in this vicinity. Miles, you come with me. They may have gone to the Hall of Knowledge"
Her voice faded. From their vantage point, they could see the Blargs disperse into the crowd, searching. Drake slipped out of Jasmines back pack, shaking his ruffled feathers back into position.
"Well this is a fine turn up for the books!" he huffed. "How in the nether hells did she track us down?"
Ratchet shrugged. He tried to hide it, but his trembling hands betrayed the terror still pulsing through his body. Just the sight of Kaos triggered a primal fight or flight response in him. Everything about her was wrong…
Clank spoke up.
"We are going to have to find some way of getting to the library before it shuts. Otherwise this trip will have been for nothing"
"Small problem" said Jasmine. She pointed down.
In the alley way they had just climbed out of, three Blarg were patrolling, peeking into bins and shining torches in dark corners.
"We are so screwed" whispered Ratchet.
Drake shook his head.
"Not necessarily. Zenithi are built for stealth and spying. I can get in and out of the library undetected, and locate the information we need. You stay here. I shouldn't be that long"
"Be careful" said Ratchet, eyeing the Blarg below with trepidation.
He nodded and disappeared, leaving nothing but a dying ripple of air.
The overhead lights of the library glowed off cool marble floors and polished bookcases. The air smelled of old paper and musty books, with the faintest hint of ink. The atmosphere was still and quiet, with nothing to disturb it.
Except the ripple of air down in the stacks. Drake spread his wings, flying up onto a desk, soft feathers making no noise. A computer screen glowed, illuminating the gloomy stacks. He carefully tapped on the keys, wings half spread to maintain balance. Lines flashed up on the screen, showing a title and shelf number. He nodded to himself and slipped out of the room, claws clicking softly on marble. Despite their desperate situation, he felt quite cheerful. It was good to be back in the game again, out on the field instead of cooped up in the temple. It had been years since he'd been on a mission. Funny how it all came back…He slipped from shadow to shadow, unseen and unheard. The trick was not to be totally silent, as people often focused of patches of moving silence just as much as patches of moving noise. The real stealth lay in gliding with an easy confidence, just another part of the background noises.
He stopped in front of a shelf, reading the label.
He nodded to himself, and began scanning the spines for the book he was after.
Hmm, lets see. Common rocks in your garden. No. Rock-collecting, the boring hobby: A beginners guide. No. Baking with bauxite: a cookery book for silicon life forms. No. Rare and unique crystals of Polaris. Ah-ha!
Drake grinned in triumph. The grin slid off his face, however, when he noticed a major problem. The book was six inches thick. He thought a rude word, regretting, not for the first time, the delicate Zenithi frame. He took a grip with his fangs, careful not to damage it. A desperate tug, and the book hit the ground with a resonating boom. Drake froze, eyes shifting in their sockets as he strained to hear if he'd been spotted. He had been lucky. With a sigh of relief he readied himself for a teleport… and froze as a horribly familiar voice echoed in the library.
"Excuse me, my good sir. I was wondering if you could help me?"
Drake bit back a whimper. Kaos! Thinking quickly, he dragged the heavy book under the shelf, concealing himself in the shadows as well. He could have disappeared, but her appearance here confused him. What did she have to gain in a library?
Unaware of his reptilian eavesdropper, the librarian scuttled over.
"Sorry, madam, we are closing" he said rudely. Drake winced. Bad move…
Not a muscle moved in her face. The hapless Terachnoid swallowed, suddenly struck with a desire to leave, but pinned by those ebony orbs. Finally, after what seemed like an ages, Kaos spoke.
"You, my friend, are a very lucky fellow. Most who talk to me like that die. The few who live, wish they did not. However, I can assure you, the only reason I am leaving you alive is you are the only one who knows their way around this library. Continue to refuse, and you will not be so lucky. Now, I shall ask again. Can you help me?"
Suddenly free to move, the librarian nodded desperately.
"Of course, madam! What book are you looking for?"
"Rare and unique crystals of Polaris"
Drake suppressed a gasp, and pulled back further into the shadows. He could see them coming closer, the trembling terachnoid barely able to walk straight out of terror. They came to a halt right in front of him. Drake felt ill, as the intensity of her evil radiated off him. She was so close. He could reach out and touch her…
"I'm sorry madam, it doesn't seem to be here"
"Hmmm?" she said, head cocked as if listening. Drake could see she had sensed something, and was mentally scanning the building. But Zenithi had evolved good mental defences because of this, and he relaxed slightly, knowing she could not find him.
"I said, we don't have the book, madam"
She gave up her search.
"Shall we check in the stacks, perhaps? I do hope it's there. For your sake"
She disappeared in the maze of shelves. Drake breathed again. That had been far too close. Odd, how had she known which book to go for…?
A mystery that would have to wait. He clenched the book tightly in his teeth, and disappeared.
"She's gotta have some sort of bug on us"
The three heroes were brainstorming, trying to figure out Kaos's uncanny ability to know where they were.
Clank shook his head.
"A good theory, Ratchet, but I am equipped with the latest in bug-finding data. You spent a whole week installing it, remember? I would have detected even the most sophisticated ones. Drake said she is telepathic. Perhaps that is how she is finding us"
Ratchet shook his head.
"We were light years away from her when Drake said Terachnos. No telepath is that powerful, not even the Brainoids from Cerebulon"
Jasmine hugged her knees to her chest, barely listening to the others. A nasty thought was forming. One she didn't want to think, didn't want to know…
"Maybe a spy?" said Ratchet.
"But who? The Zenithi have spent millennia fighting her, and Jasmine would surely not sabotage her own mission!"
Ratchet was about to respond, but stopped when he noticed Jasmine. Under her black fur, she was pale. Her eyes were blank with horror, staring dully at nothing, shudders racking her body.
"Oh god…" she moaned.
"Jasmine? What's wrong?" asked a concerned Ratchet.
She turned her face to him, and he winced. It was the face of someone in their own private hell.
"There's a mole in the Guard…"
Tears were streaking down her face.
"Its the only thing that fits! Only the Praetorian Guard know where I'm going, no one else! Kaos must have some method of communicating with them. That's how she's finding us! But, it's impossible!"
She lowered her head, fists clenched.
"For the Guard, honour is everything. You spend four years of basic training getting that hammered into you, it's practically the backbone of our code. We live by it, I live by it. If its broken…"
She buried her head in her hands.
"..I don't know what to believe in any more"
Clank patted her shoulder gently.
"Do not worry about them, Jasmine. Focus on the mission. After the Lombaxes have returned, you can find whoever it is, but we have bigger things to worry about"
She gave a shuddering sigh, and wiped away her tears.
"You're right, Clank. I'll get this mission out of the way, then I will find them"
Her amethyst eyes went flinty.
"And I will make them pay"
And all hell broke loose.
Miles paced up and down in front of the Library. The search at the hall of knowledge had been fruitless, and now, for reasons best known only to herself, she had dragged him here. Normally, Miles didn't think much of females, and certainly wouldn't dream of working for one, but Kaos was different. In her, he sensed a kindred spirit, one who enjoyed causing death and pain as much as he did.
That, and she terrified the crap out of him.
A quiver of fear ran through him as he saw her gliding sedately down the library steps. Something red and sticky covered her arms to the elbow, leaving crimson droplets on the stairs as she descended.
"The book I was after wasn't there. There was no one who knew anything about the subject either, only the librarian"
She noticed Miles gaze and followed it, looking at the blood on her hands as if noticing it for the first time. She hid her hands in her cloak.
"He was unhelpful"
Miles swallowed and set off after her as she stepped out onto the streets of Axiom city.
"Ya know, ma'am, if we're going to stay on the down low, ya gotta stop killin' people"
"Who is in charge here?" she said calmly.
"You, ma'am" he said, tensing for an outburst.
"Therefore, I make the decisions here, Miles. Remember that for next time"
He gulped and nodded.
She walked on in silence, a thoughtful expression on her face.
"Perhaps I am approaching this from the wrong direction" she said, after some deliberation.
"We have tried to kill them on numerous occasions, and every time we have failed. It is time, Miles, to think outside the square"
"I don't follow"
"Of course you don't. Allow me to explain in terms you may understand. I will try and avoid polysyllabic words if possible"
Miles frowned slightly. He suspected that was a dig at him.
"I think that the reason they survive, despite being outnumbered and out gunned, is that they possess something your scraggly bunch lack"
"Motivation. They really have something to fight for. They have drive, belief, hope. The solution, therefore, is obvious"
"Of course, my dim-witted helper. We don't shoot them in the head, we shoot them in the faith. We destroy their will to go on. If we pull it off successfully, we should be able to continue virtually unimpeded. Do you understand?"
"Good man. Yes? Can I help you?"
This was directed at one of the Blarg bandits, who had appeared at her elbow and was hovering with the pained expression of someone who does not wish to intrude but has to, well, intrude.
"Um, there's been a development, ma'am…"
It took all of Drakes will not to collapse. He had reappeared on the roof they had taken shelter on, expecting a friendly greeting.
They were gone. There were distinctive signs of a struggle, and tell-tale smears of blood. He sniffed them. Lombax.
The story was there, written out for all to see. They had hidden here, waiting, and something terrible had happened. He groaned and shook his head, fighting back tears. They should never have left Elysium, should have planned more. Now they were…he stiffened. Were…
He ran forward, snout pressed to the roof. It was faint, but it was there. A distinctive scent trail. Hope flared in his scaly breast. They were out there somewhere!
Drake stashed the thick book in the shadows and took off, following the trail. It leapt from roof to sheds to ground, winding down alleys. He could smell the Lombaxes pain, blood and terror, the faint metallic hint of Clank, and the sour smell and exhilaration of the Blarg. The smell of gun smoke threaded through it, a sharp note in the nasal discord. He smiled. A new hatched chick could follow this trail.
It stopped with a suddenness that made him trip. A few seconds frantic snuffling revealed a man hole cover. So, they were sheltering in the sewers, then. The heavy manhole lid would have presented a problem to anyone else, but few places are closed to a teleporter.
He appeared in the sewer tunnel landing up to his neck in foul water. He scrabbled out, cursing softly to himself. Finding the scent trail would be next to impossible now. He had to rely on sight and sound. Phosphorescent algae gave off a faint glow. To anyone else, it would have been no-where near enough light, but Zenithi have night-vision to rival cats, and for him, it lit up the tunnels like day.
He could hear voices up ahead.
"Goddammit, we lost 'em! They could be anywhere in these sewers"
"Stick together. I don't wanna get lost down 'ere. It ain't worth it for a couple 'a mangy space rats"
The voices rounded a corner, revealing themselves to be a trio of Blargs. Two were normal. discussing in great detail what they would do to their quarry once they had caught them. The third was clearly hypnotised, stumbling along in the others wake like a zombie. One of the other Blarg nodded in his direction.
"He's really startin' ta creep me out, ya know? What do ya think is wrong wid 'im?"
"Search me, man. Seems like there's more a' those weird ones every day. I think Kaos is doin' somethin' to 'em. That lady creeps me out"
"Careful, man! Those ain't thoughts ya want her to know you're thinkin', dude. I've heard rumours…"
"Get real! Everyone knows Lombaxes ain't telepathic!"
"Does she know that?"
They disappeared down the tunnel, voices fading into distant echoes. Drake stepped out of the shadows and frowned. So, she'd worked out hypnotism, had she? Bad sign. Usually that skill showed up later on. It meant the Balance was tipping faster than expected. They would have to pick up the pace. Just as soon as he could find them…
He was about to continue his search, only to yelp in surprise as something touched him from behind. Acting on impulse, he turned, lunged and-
"Drake, would you kindly remove your teeth from my wrist?"
Drake let go.
"Dude, I was just tapping you on the shoulder! There was no need to b like that!"
"I apologize. You startled me. Are you alright? You had me worried"
"We've been better"
Sure enough, as they moved out of the shadows, Drake could see they had been through the mill. Ratchet was nursing a badly torn ear, one of Jasmines eyes was swollen shut and Clank was covered in dents.
"What happened to you?"
Jasmine winced as she tried to sit somewhere that wouldn't aggravate her bruises.
"They jumped us. I had no idea Blargs could be so stealthy! We barely got out with our lives"
"Did you get what you were looking for?" asked Clank.
"Yes. I left it back there to go look for you. There is rather a disturbing development, though"
"Kaos was in the library as well. Asking for the same book"
Clank looked worried.
"We need to move quick" said Ratchet.
"There's no telling where Kaos is now, and the Blarg could be anywhere in this city. We're just lucky the ones they sent down here were a few stars short of a galaxy, otherwise we'd be hosed"
Drake flicked a glob of something oozy from his talon.
"Lets focus on getting out of here first before we make any plans. I don't know how much more of this smell I can take!"
They set off back down the sewer. In the distance, they could hear the faint voices of the Blarg hunting for them. By the sound of it, reinforcements had been called in. Silence was the order of the day. Up ahead they could distantly see a ladder leading up to the manhole. They were almost home free…until Drake heard a muffled noise behind him. He turned. Jasmine has frozen on the spot, eyes wide with fear and nose twitching as she struggled to hold back the sneeze welling up inside her. Ratchet and Drake exchanged panicky glances. The sewers were full of Blargs. One loud noise would be the death of them.
Acting with the speed of thought, Ratchet clamped a hand over her muzzle. There was a tense moment, then she relaxed. Ratchet sighed with relief and drew his hand away.
The sneeze echoed down the tunnels, amplified in the cramped space. There was a moments dead silence. Then…
"They're down here! Don't let 'em get away!"
"Run for it!" Drake cried, struggling to fly with water-logged wings. Jasmine scooped him up in mid-run, sheltering him with her body as the Blarg forerunners fired off a few rounds. The few hundred metres to the ladder seemed to stretch for infinity as the Blargs closed in, whooping and shouting in triumph.
They finally reached the ladder, scrambling up it with the speed of terror. Ratchet was the last out, wincing as a bullet clipped his tail. It was dark outside, peopling the alley with shadows. Not all of the shadows were empty. Ratchet threw his wrench in a comet strike, stunning a Blarg who had been taking careful aim. There was the thudding of booted feet as Blarg poured down both ends of the alley, cutting off all escape. Ratchet took out his combustor pistol and tossed it to Jasmine.
"There's no way out! We're gonna have to fight them!"
The arriving Blarg cut her off, and the fight began in earnest. A few seconds in, Ratchet learned something that had driven countless drill sergeants into a state of incoherent fury:
When it came to firearms, Jasmine would be unable to hit the broad side of a barn, even if she was standing inside it. In fact, on a battle field, the safest place to be would probably be in front of her. The bullets went in all directions except the one she wanted them to go, serving no purpose other than to worry the attackers. She gave up in disgust, tossing the gun aside and reaching for her wrench. Behind her, Ratchet was in trouble, firing his shock pistol with one hand and slashing with his wrench at the seemingly endless Blarg with the other. Firmly locked in his harness, Clank did his best to deflect blows aimed at Ratchets back, thankful Ratchet had installed an electro-shock defence system. Drake added another layer to the chaos, slipping between the Blargs legs and inflicting vicious bites anywhere he could reach. They would collapse howling, and invariably take others out with them.
Drake could see it was a lost cause, however. The Lombaxes were flagging badly, worn down by sheer numbers. He had to act quickly. If there was only one of them, he could have simply teleported them out of harms way, but no Zenithi could carry all of them. Only one other option presented itself. He just had to hope there were other Zenithi in the area…
He threw back his head, emitting a series of shrieks, pitched so low nothing without a Zenithi's uncanny hearing could detect them. He hoped he wasn't too late. Jasmine was down, clutching her bleeding face. Despite her obvious concussion, she still found strength to growl defiance at their attackers. Ratchet stood over her, ammo spent, trying to hold them back by wrench alone.
Drake had almost given up hope, when a quiet call reached his ears. It took years to memorise the intricate call codes of the Zenithi, and he recognised this one as We hear and understand. What actions does the situation warrant?
He responded, a low, plaintive whistle. There was an answering chirrup, then silence. Drake knew he had only seconds.
"Ratchet, Jasmine, hold your breath!"
He put everything he had into that order, years of command experience coming to his aid. The prospect of disobeyal was unthinkable.
A second later, tiny fragile parcels arced down from the roof tops, sending up clouds of fine yellow powder spiralling up around the befuddled Blargs. They dropped like stones.
"There will be others along in a minute! Get to the ship!"
Drake hared down the alley. The tranquillizer had no effect on Zenithi, so he ran through the swirling dust like it wasn't there, the two Lombaxes stumbling along in his wake.
Jasmines lungs burned, screaming for oxygen. The yellow dust burned her eyes, stung in open wounds. There seemed no end to it, until they finally burst out into the streets, gasping for breath. Ratchet leapt into a fighting stance. The streets were deserted, the only movement he could see was was avian shapes slipping away, moonlight glinting off scales. The Zenithi were always watching…
"Good thing those friends of yours were here, huh?" he said, wincing as a too quick movement sent pain lancing across his ribs.
"As their leader, it is their duty to protect me" said Drake, as they limped away down the empty street.
"My death would have dire consequences for us if my daughter cannot be found in time"
Clank blinked in surprise.
"You have a daughter?"
"It is the rule of the Zenithi that the Guardians oldest child takes on the role at the moment of death. They must be given the Brr-tanya as soon as possible. The Balance cannot be left without a Guardian. Right now, Mia is on a mission somewhere in in the Cerulian sector, so the others are understandably jumpy about my being here"
"Why not just stay in the temple?" asked Jasmine.
"It is my duty" Drake said simply.
"Oh, one moment. I nearly forgot-"
He disappeared, returning a moment later lugging a thick book behind him.
"Our job here is done. I would recommend returning to Elysium and working out our plan of attack. We can also get you some nano-tech"
"With you on that one" said Ratchet wearily. Everything ached…
Jasmines ears perked up as sounds filtered through the cities soft background hum.
"We'd better beat the feet. Troubles on the way, by the sound of it"
Ratchet shuddered as he felt the dark presence of Kaos draw nearer.
A few moments later, Kaos watched Aphelion streak off into space, an inscrutable smile on her face.
Miles held up a walky talky.
"You want me to send out the fleet, Ma'am?"
Kaos rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
"No, let them have this little victory. Its not important, not in the great scheme of things, anyway. Next time, however…"
She laughed softly.
"I shall make them beg for death. I promise you that"
Miles looked at her cold smile and shuddered.
He didn't doubt her.
Not one word.