Vela Sector. Big Bills refuelling station. 0500 hours. 3 and a half days to reality collapse.
Drake flattened his body low to the ground. A foot away from him, a fat beetle trundled peacefully along, oblivious to the fanged death lurking in the bushes. Teleportation took a lot of energy, and Drake was using this fuel stop as a chance to slip away from the others and do some refuelling of his own. The dwarf planet the truck stop was situated on was tiny, barely big enough for an atmosphere, let alone a truck stop, and insect life was thin on the ground, but Drake was patient. Already a number of insects had been snapped up by his careful hunting technique, and this one looked no different.
He crept forward, mouth watering, and leapt…
A moment later he was scrambling to his feet, the beetle wriggling between his fangs. By the looks of it, this one would be particularly juicy…
His head swung around like a compass point, the lucky insect falling from his slack jaw and scurrying off.
Drake desperately tried to triangulate the direction of Ratchet's cry. He cursed himself for not staying close to the truck stop. He had no idea where it was.The screaming had stopped, and that was more worrying than the screaming had been in the first place… Finally his sharp hearing picked up the thud of falling masonry.He concentrated, flicking a tiny psychic switch in his mind. For a microsecond, he was between, then he reappeared at the truck stop with barely a break in his thoughts. Whatever had happened, it was big. The truck stop had been devastated, the employees long gone. Aphelion was upside down and complaining at the top of her voice processors. He scrambled over the debris, searching desperately. He finally located Ratchet slumped against a wall, clutching his head and groaning, and Jasmine tangled up in a thorn bush. He grabbed hold of her tail in his teeth and concentrated again. A second later she was staggering upright a foot away from the bush, brushing thorns out of her ears and wincing.
"Jasmine, what happened here?"
"Ishkhan. Came right outta nowhere. Man, I ache all over. Ratchet, you OK?"
He got to his feet shakily.
"Fine, I think. It just knocked me around a -where's Clank?"
The others looked around. Sure enough, there was a distinct lack of robot.
"He-he was right here, wasn't he? Did any of you guys see him?"
There was a general shaking of heads. Jasmine pulled her wrench out from a tree, where it had stuck.
"Lets spread out and look for him. He's only got little legs, he can't have got far."
Half an hour later, however, they were forced to admit defeat. Clank seemed to have disappeared off the face of the planet. Jasmine looked down at the scrapes the Ishkhan's claws had gouged in the dirt, a nasty suspicion starting to form. She hoped, for Clank's sake, she was wrong…
She looked over at Ratchet, who was lifting up a piece of rubble for the fifth time. She didn't want to tell him, not until she was certain.
"Drake." she whispered. The Zenithi appeared at her elbow.
"Can you sniff around and see if you can detect Clank here? All I can smell is Ishkhan."
Drake lowered his head to the scratches for a moment. Then-
"Oh dear. That's him all right."
Jasmine blinked back tears.
"The poor little guy…How am I gonna tell Ratchet? This is gonna kill him!"
"What's going to kill me?"
They turned. Ratchet was standing behind them, fear and worry etched on his face.
Jasmine sighed, ears held low. She gently placed a hand on Ratchets shoulder.
"Ratchet, the Ishkhan took him. I'm so sorry."
"His scents mixed in with the Ishkhan's. There's…there's nothing we can do now. It's too late."
"No…NO! You're wrong! We will find him! We will!" Tears were beginning to streak down his face.
"Ratchet, be reasonable. Ishkhans don't take prisoners." she said, wiping her eyes. "He's gone."
"Actually…you may be wrong." said Drake.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, think about it. Clank is a robot, hardly very edible, so why would the Ishkhan ignore two vulnerable Lombaxes and go after him? Furthermore, we know Kaos is a powerful telepath. The lower something's I.Q, the easier it is to control. Jasmine, how smart are Ishkhans?"
"Somewhere between tree bark and yeast."
"There you are, then. The Ishkhan was clearly under her orders. Clank is not dead. He is kidnapped."
Ratchet tightened his grip on his wrench.
"What are we waiting for, then?" he said, face grim.
It took some time to get Aphelion upright and steady, but they eventually managed it. She hovered a foot above the concrete, complaining bitterly.
Look at the mess that thing made! I'm more scratch than paint!
Ratchet gave her a friendly pat.
"Don't worry, Aphelion. When all this is over, I'll give you a full re-modelling. Paint job, wax, the works."
Thank you, Ratchet. We'd better get going, then!
They climbed in, Jasmine taking the precaution of unsheathing her blades. They were heading right into the lions den. They couldn't afford for anything to go wrong…
"Ratchet, wait" Drake fluttered onto the dashboard and placed a warning claw over the throttle.
"This feels like a trap. For all we know, we could be heading into certain death!"
Ratchet carefully pushed him aside, and started Aphelion.
"The point of a trap is that's its a surprise. If we know its coming, we have the advantage. Besides, there's no way I'm leaving Clank…"
Who was having a very uncomfortable trip. The attack had happened so fast his data processors had missed quite a bit of it. He could remember sharp teeth closing around him, a bumpy and terrifying trip, and a flash of light as the Ishkhan had been teleported to Sargasso. Now, Clank was imprisoned in an energy cage, a mesh of plasma threatening to short circuit him every time he touched it. He looked up at the Lombax carrying him, a gun metal grey male with one eye.
"My good sir, I have done you no harm. Your fight is not with me. Please let me go."
The Lombaxes one good eye flicked towards him, giving him a cold glare. He was travelling down the steel lined corridors of Kaos's strong hold. Eventually, he reached a door, waving his card at the scanner. As he went through, Clank noted the sign above the door.
Clank frowned at his captor. Polite conversation had failed, perhaps threats would work?
"I must warn you, sir. I am quite skilled in martial arts. If you do not let me go, you will live to regret it."
The Lombax chuckled.
"I'm shakin' in my boots."
He opened a door, stepping into a darkened laboratory. Clank could see a row of cages at one end. The Lombax opened the energy cage, grabbed hold of Clank, and practically threw him inside, locking the cage door behind him.
"I have a friend coming after me. He will make you regret this!"
The Lombax chuckled.
"Little fella, that's entirely the point."
He left. Clank began pacing the cage, calculating his odds. However he worked the numbers, however, it didn't look good. The lock was unpickable, he didn't have the entrance code for the door and security looked like it had been tightened. His chances of escape were lower than 7.635%. He was stuck here, trapped and alone…
OK, maybe not alone.
"Who is there? Show yourself!"
"It's OK, mister. I'm in a cage too."
The voice was female, and young. Very young. There was a rustling from the cage next to him, as something drew closer to the bars. In the soft green glow from his eyes, he saw what it was, and nearly switched off from shock.
It was a Cragmite, barely five years old. It, or she, now that Clank looked closer, wore a torn pink tee-shirt and a worried expression.
"Are you OK? That mean guy threw you awful hard."
"I am fine, thank you. What is your name?"
"Zoe. I know who you are. You're Clank. I saw you on the news. Are you a hero? Daddy says you and that kitty you were with are heroes."
"Yes. Me and Ratchet are indeed heroes."
Her yellow eyes lit up.
"Are you going to rescue me and my friend?"
"Well, I am afraid I cannot do much right now, but Ratchet will find us, and-what do you mean, friend?"
Zoe pointed at the cage next to her. Clank could see a suggestion of scared blue eyes in the shadows. From their size, they weren't much older than Zoe.
"Her names Shona. She's been here longer than me. I think they do 'speriments on her."
"What kind of experiments?"
"I don't know. Bad ones, I think. She won't talk about them. They don't do 'speriments on me, I'm just here so my daddy behaves."
She started to cry.
"I miss my daddy…"
Clank was at a loss. He didn't have much experience with young children. He racked his memory banks, trying to find something helpful.
"There, there." he said, hoping desperately, hoping that would help. It didn't. There was a soft voice from the other occupied cage, so quiet he nearly missed it.
"It's a big universe, Zoe. I'm sure your daddy is looking for you. Maybe he just doesn't know where to look."
Zoe wiped her eyes, giving a wan smile.
"Thank you, Shona. 'Sides, when Clanks friend gets here, we'll be free!"
There was silence from the cage. It was obvious to Clank that Shona didn't believe a word Zoe was saying. He had to keep their spirits up.
"I promise you, children, Ratchet will be here. All we have to do is wait…"
Ratchet checked the star map for what felt like the hundredth time, ignoring Aphelions peeved grumble. They were halfway to Sargasso, closing the gap steadily. Not long now…
Drake and Jasmine exchanged glances. This was not the Ratchet they knew. They'd never seen him this intense and focused before. It was almost scary. Jasmine leaned over out of the back seat.
"You OK, pal?"
"Not really, no. It's just…Clanks more a brother to me than a friend. Last time we were separated it took me two years to find him. I don't think I can go through that again. I-hold on, what's happening here?"
He began fighting the controls, which had locked themselves firmly into place.
"Aphelion, status report!"
We are caught in a tractor beam, Ratchet. I'm afraid I don't see any way out.
Jasmine looked out of the window. The ship was surrounded by an eerie green glow, being relentlessly pulled towards a looming black warship.
"Drake, can you teleport us out of here?" she said.
"I'm afraid not. My limit is one person carried over a short distance. Anything more than that and we run the risk of not reappearing at all. As you no doubt have guessed, that's fatal."
"Get out of here, then." said Ratchet, still wrestling with the steering column. "Save yourself, we'll be fine!"
Drake shook his head.
"Sorry, my friends. I would not be able to look myself in the eye if I ran out on my duty. If necessary, I will fight to my last breath!"
Jasmine gave him a cheerful pat on the back.
"Noble sentiments, Drake, but you have the muscle tone of a damp paper bag. I don't think You'll do that much to the enemy."
He scowled at her.
"Uh, guys? Can we focus on the situation at hand please?"
The beam had pulled them towards the ship. It towered overhead, reflected starlight sending silver highlights over its surface. The loading bay doors opened and closed behind them, plunging Aphelion into darkness, There was a bump as they landed, a hiss as air pressure was restored, then a harsh voice called out.
"You are on the property of Emperor Markus the third! Leave your ship and raise your hands in the air! Do this, and you may not be harmed."
"May?" said Jasmine, as they carefully stepped out of Aphelion.Behind them, Drake quickly slipped out of Aphelion, trusting to his small size and natural speed that he would not be noticed. Overhead lights began to flicker on, and they saw for the first time what was surrounding them. They looked like crosses between reptiles and huge insects, huge bodies carried on six insectile legs. Jasmine had seen pictures of these before. In history books.
"Cragmites…" she breathed. They were well and truly hosed…
The biggest one, with a Sergeants stripes on its shoulder, stepped forward.
"You will come with us." he growled, in a tone of voice that indicated refusal would be fatal. Prodded by a number of weapons, the two Lombaxes began to move, only to have the Sergeant hold up a claw.
"Hang on, what was that?"
One of the other Cragmites reached under Aphelion and pulled out a struggling Drake. When he had seen the Cragmites he had revised his initial plan. Fighting them would have been as effective as throwing cotton balls at a black hole, so he had decided to stay low and try and work out an escape plan for them. Now that plan went out the window. To teleport now would really blow it. The Cragmites looked twitchy, and there was a possibility they might kill the others out of sheer nerves if he tried to escape.
"Is this yours?" said the Sergeant menacingly.
Ratchet thought faster than he had in a long time.
"Uh…y-yeah! He's my…pet."
Drakes head shot up. He remembered himself just in time to turn his disbelieving cry into an "Awk?"
The Sergeant frowned.
"Really? Never seen one of these before."
"Oh, you wouldn't have. He's a…Veldin…dune…bird." Ratchet replied, inventing desperately. Fortunately for him, the Sergeant was none too bright.
"OK then. Private Kartak, give him back his pet and lets take them to the Emperor."
Drake was thrust roughly into Ratchet's arms and they set off. Ratchet could feel Drake quivering with indignation.
"Look, I'm sorry," he whispered. "It was the first thing I could think of."
"Pet…" Drake muttered. "Honestly…" He lapsed into angry silence. Jasmine gave Ratchet a surreptitious nudge.
"You mind explaining why a race we banished aeons ago is now frog marching us to our almost certain demise?" she whispered.
"Tachyon brought them back." he replied. "After I defeated him they went back to Reepor. I must have knocked the fight out of them when I stopped Tachyon, because no-ones heard form them since. Up till now."
A Cragmite nudged him with its gun and he fell silent, heart pounding in his chest. This did not look good.
The squad led them to a door, The Sergeant tapped a key pad and stood back as the door hissed open.
"Greetings, Emperor!" He announced. "My squad have captured these prisoners and bring them to you to await your decision on their fate!"
They were pushed through. It was obviously a war room, a huge map of the Polaris galaxy spread out on a table, with tiny model ships scattered across it. A loud sigh issued from behind an enormous pile of books. The voice that spoke was slow and deep, with a tone that indicated he really was tired of saying this.
"Sergeant Argus, while I commend your enthusiasm, I must nonetheless remind you yet again that your orders were to ask passers-by for information, not arrest them. We wish to maintain a low profile here, remember?"
The Emperor stepped out from behind the books, and, not for the first time that day, Ratchet was reminded that Tachyon had really been a runty little specimen. While he had been short and stubby, this one was tall, thin and lanky, with a pair of spectacles balanced on his nose. Unlike Tachyon, he wasn't decked out in medals and finery, instead wearing a simple black shirt. His crown was different too, a plain gold coronet encircling his brow. He put down his pen and compass, waving a hand at the squad.
"Stand easy, or whatever it is you fellows do. They are no threat. Let them go."
The Sergeant blinked.
"But, your majesty, they're Lombaxes!"
"Gosh, really? I thought they were Kerchu." he said sarcastically. "Need I remind you on who's head the crown sits? Please leave us."
Reluctantly, the squad left the room. Emperor Markus approached them, then, much to Ratchets shock, held out a hand.
"You are Ratchet, am I correct? One half of Ratchet and Clank? The galaxy owes you a huge debt for ending Tachyon's reign."
The bemused Lombax shook the pro-offered hand, still slightly unsure of what was going on. Drake took the opportunity to slip out of Ratchets grip, shooting him a filthy look as he did so. The 'pet' incident still stung.
Emperor Markus turned to Jasmine, giving her a low bow.
"You, I am afraid, I don't know, but the armour is somewhat familiar. I've seen it in museums. Praetorian Guard, by any chance?"
She nodded, then suddenly blurted out:
"Why aren't you killing us?"
"You're a Cragmite, we're Lombaxes. The two races don't exactly get along."
"The past is long gone, madam. Some of us believe it is time to move on from what we once were. I do apologize for your capture. My soldiers can be a little keen at times. Especially now, in the light of certain events." He sighed.
"Why? What happened?" asked Ratchet.
"About a week ago, Reepor was attacked. A fleet of bandits came from nowhere, striking without mercy. A lucky few managed to flee to the warships and escape. The rest are no doubt imprisoned. Including my daughter." He was silent for a moment, then continued.
"Later that day I was sent a message from someone calling herself Kaos. Any revenge attacks or attempts to save my planet, and they will kill her. I can't take that risk. Ever since then, we've been moving around Polaris, staying low and trying to find someone who might know where my little Zoe is. But so far, nothing."
He looked so woebegone that even Jasmine, who was practically crapping herself at the thought of being surrounded by Cragmites, felt a little sorry for him. Her and Ratchet exchanged glances and nodded.
"We know where she is, your majesty." said Ratchet
"Sargasso. As it happens, we were heading there anyway. Kaos took Clank as well. I don't plan on letting her get away with this."
Emperor Markus beamed.
"Fantastic! I assume you'll need help?"
"She has a lot of allies. Some back-up might be useful."
"Then you may consider the entire Cragmite army at your service."
Jasmine cut in.
"That won't be necessary. Too many and we'd just get spotted. A small force of well trained soldiers is all we'll need."
He gave a little sigh of relief.
"That's a weight off my chest, I can tell you. It was the sense of helplessness that was the worst part."
For the first time he noticed Drake, who was attempting to hide behind Ratchet's legs.
"And who's this little fellow?"
"He's my pet. His names…" Ratchet decided to have a little fun. He grinned. "His names Bingo."
There was a muffled snigger from Jasmine.
"Does he do tricks?" asked Markus.
"Oh yeah, heaps! Watch this: Bingo, play dead! OW! Bad Bingo! Bad Bingo!"
Drake removed his teeth from Ratchets ankle and slunk off, hissing under his breath.
"Not very well trained, it appears. Come, we need to work out our plan of attack. We only have one shot at this, we must be careful."
Sargasso. 0730 hours.
A bead of sweat slowly trickled down the back of Steel's neck. He didn't dare brush it off, however. Kaos was focusing her empty black eyes on him, and he had a feeling sudden moves were not his friend. She seemed short-tempered and annoyed lately. It would be wise not to make it worse.
"You have placed him somewhere well guarded?"
"I locked him in one of the cages in the lab. Doctor Kayla tells me they're escape proof"
"Excellent. We can't use him as bait if he's disappearing over the horizon. That will be all, I was just checking. Send in the head of Genetics please."
He left, with a nagging feeling he had just escaped with his life. Kaos settled back in her chair, massaging the bridge of her nose. The Balance had shifted away from her, leaving her with a nagging, prickly headache. Those wretched heroes must have had a stroke of luck. She thought. I will need to do something about that…
There was a sharp knock on the door.
A tall, female Blarg strode into the room, white lab coat swishing. Kaos smiled.
"Kayla, good to see you! Your research continues well?"
"Yes, ma'am. What did you want to see me about?"
"It's about subject 38-b. How far away is completion?"
Kayla checked her clip board.
"The subject showed a very favourable reaction to the last test. When we combine that with the DNA modulators and the enhancement sequence we ran last week, we can safely say the procedure is ready."
"Really? Wonderful! When can we begin Phase two?"
"I just have to build the equipment. A day, perhaps."
"Begin at once. I'm sure you don't need reminding this is top priority."
"One more thing. How is the little Cragmite?"
"Still healthy, Ma'am."
"Good. She's useless to us dead.Zoe is the only thing stopping her father from bombing this place to cinders if he ever found us. Thank you, Kayla. You are dismissed."
Only when she was alone did Kaos allow herself the luxury of a small chuckle. She could already feel the Balance starting to swing her way, as her soldiers continued their assaults on various planets, grinding out an endless stream of pain and misery. This latest plan would only improve matters…
Cragmite war ship. 0800 hours.
Drake padded down the florescent lit corridors, darting from shadow to shadow like a ghost. He was still peeved at being referred to as a pet, but the need for information was more important. He sniffed around, seeking an elusive scent trail. There was usually one or two around ships like these, on extended fact finding missions. They were information goldmines.
He opened his mouth and let out a soft cry. With a shimmer of warped air, a Zenithi appeared in the shadows next to him.
"I need a status report on these Cragmites. The Emperor seems alright, but I want to be certain they won't kill Ratchet and Jasmine on first sight. They are Lombaxes, after all."
"I shouldn't think you have that much to worry about, sir. From what I heard, Reepor was absolutely devastated by the attack. Many lives were lost. I think they would gladly aid them if there was a chance for revenge, Lombaxes or no. I-eep!"
He disappeared. A second later, Drake found out why, as a strong hand grabbed him and hauled him up.
A medium sized female Cragmite was glaring at him, holding him firmly.
"I saw you talking, you little sneak! You're spying on us! I knew those Lombaxes couldn't be trusted! Who's your friend?"
"Um, Polly want a cracker! Polly want a cracker! Who's a pretty boy?" he gabbled.
Jasmine cast a critical eye over the eight Cragmites lined up in front of her, an even mix of males and females of different sizes.
"My best." Emperor Markus was saying. "Each one with years of experience in the field of battle."
"They do look pretty tough. Wouldn't want to mess with 'em!"
It should not be possible to preen while standing still, but somehow, they managed it.
"Right." said Emperor Markus. "As of now you may consider Ratchet and Jasmine in charge. Obey their orders with speed and competence. Understood?"
"Good. Now, we begin the assault at-"
The war room doors flew open as a Cragmite barged in, Drake dangling from a clawed hand.
"This lizards a spy! They lied to us!"
The Lombaxes tensed for a fight as Emperor Markus rounded on them.
"Is this true?" he demanded.
"-Yes and no. I apologize for deceiving you, your majesty, but my race have always preferred secrecy where ever possible. We reveal ourselves only in emergencies. I must humbly request you respect this, and keep our existence quiet. Everything else they told you is true, but I am no pet, and never was. I must say, however, you have very sharp soldiers. I didn't even hear this one coming! Now if she would be so kind as to put me down? My scales feel like they're loosening."
Emperor Markus blinked, then nodded.
"You heard him. Release him. Furthermore, no one in this room will reveal his existence."
The Cragmite obligingly let go. Drake ruffled his feathers back into position.
"Don't mention it, Bingo-"
"Drake, your majesty." he said, shuddering. He glared at Ratchet, who gave a sheepish smile. "Bingo was my…undercover name. Anyway, I understand you plan an assault on Kaos's stronghold? May I see your plans? No need to look surprised, I've done this before."
Wordlessly, the Emperor handed over the plans. Drake scanned them for a second.
"You've obviously never planned a battle before. This would have gotten you all killed. My scouts inform me that that area is heavily guarded. A wiser plan would be to move in from the south side. No one would expect you to go through there, the swamps are pretty unpleasant."
"Yeah, that makes more sense." said Ratchet, peering at the map. "It's a loading area as well, there should be less guards."
"Capital." Markus rolled up the map. "Soldiers, go and tend to your weapons. We must leave nothing to chance. Remember, no one is to know about Drake."
The Cragmites trooped out. Emperor Markus looked over at Ratchet and Jasmine, who were quietly discussing tactics.
"I will leave you to do what-have-you. I need some time to think."
He left the war room, spindly legs skittering on the polished floor. He was barely aware of where he was going, mind clouded with worry for his daughter. He didn't notice the warm rush of wind, until Drake was trotting along next to him.
"Good day, my liege."
"Where did you-Ah. I thought only Cragmites could teleport."
"Our two races are unique. No one else shares this skill. Its a useful one to have.I wish to apologize yet again for lying to you. To remain hidden is second nature for Zenithi. It is a habit hard to break"
"That's quite alright."
"One other thing, and I do hope this is not presumptuous of me, but…you don't really seem like the Emperor type. I thought Tachyon was the last member of the ruling family. Where did you come from? I hope I'm not sounding nosy. It's just that my race has always been curious to a fault."
"Nothing wrong with that. My subjects could learn from you. And you are correct. I am definitely not royalty. You see, after Tachyon brought the Cragmites back, he needed an advisor. He could find big and strong any day. What he wanted was someone who could hold a pen without crushing it. I had always been a bookish sort, so he chose me. I would have refused. The man was borderline insane! But he told me on no uncertain terms my family would suffer if I didn't comply. I had a wife and newly hatched Cragpole. I had no choice. He told me to find a good place to attack to show off the Cragmites strength. To protect my family, I made a decision that will haunt me for the rest of my days. I chose Meridian city. I hoped that as the capital of free Polaris, it would be well defended. When I heard that Ratchet and Clank had stopped the attack, it was all I could do not to celebrate. After that, all I had to do was keep Tachyon convinced I was supporting him long enough for him to be defeated."
Staring into the misty depths of time, he missed the fleeting guilty look flashing across Drakes face.
"After that happy day, however, the Cragmites were in turmoil. You see, the average Cragmite isn't all that bad. The worst you can say is they can be a little stern. The problem is they tend to obey any orders so long as the mouth issuing them is wearing a crown. And for some time, there was a run of bad kings with delusions of grandeur and visions of conquest. Now they were leaderless and terrified. I just…gave them what they needed. I thought they would depose me as soon as a better candidate came along, but I didn't count on them actually liking me. Turns out not being in a state of constant war makes quite a pleasant change. I've been keeping us quiet to give the rest of the galaxy time to get used to us being back. After that, I plan to extend the hand of friendship and see where that takes us." His face grew dark. "If Kaos doesn't destroy everything I worked so hard to gain."
There was a message over the intercom in the harsh Cragmite language.
"<We are entering Sargasso airspace. All units stand by for cloaking.>"
The ever present hum of the ships engines took on a more urgent tone as the cloaking shields were activated. Emperor Markus nodded at Drake.
"It is time. Good luck. You will need it."
Drake nodded, and disappeared.